Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Review: My Occupy 25

I hate making year end lists. I'm a slow listener, for starters. And other than superficial run-ins with the radio, I tend to listen to one thing at a time. Once I get into some music enough to write about it, I don't look up much until the writing's done. 

I reviewed about 22 albums in 2011.  Since my I-Tunes lists about 22 new album releases a month, I've deeply listened to (and this is being wildly generous to myself) at most 1/12th of the music high profile enough for a (let's call it) national conversation about the state of our music.  Since about half of what I've listened to is regional and not likely to be listed in I-Tunes new releases, it's safe to guess I'm listening to less than 1/24 of what we might talk about in a year-end review.  So, while I'm sometimes asked to do those things, I've never seen it as a gauge of what mattered most that year.  It's what mattered most to me, which is, at best, an argument for the importance of some things others might have overlooked or undervalued.

But, then, I do have a desire to sum up the year, in some way that makes sense in terms of how I work.  I started writing about music as an act of rebellion--against the cultural biases of both the academy that surrounded me in grad school and against the rock snobbism that immediately tried to steal away the liberation rock music gave me in the first place.  I wrote in defense of the way the music taught me my feelings mattered.  I wrote hoping that others would fight for their passions, too. 

Not surprisingly, I suppose, my first piece for publication was about how music intersected with racism on my college campus.  Specifically, I wrote an article for Rock & Rap (then Roll) Confidential about the connection between our campus's "Plantation Week" and the lily-white radio format of every FM station in listening distance. Little Steven's "Sun City" record, featuring dozens of black artists I only slightly knew alongside my favorite white (primarily male) artists, put me in our school's protest march alongside our campus's African-American Student Union, got me involved in the fight against South African apartheid and gave me my first article.

As I think about how to sum up 2011, I think about how little things have changed, in some ways.  Yesterday, at the "America I Am" black history exhibit at Union Station, I experienced a vivid but unnecessary reminder, realizing that my wife and I were the only white folks visiting the entire two hours we were there. (I should mention the exhibit was moderately busy, even crowded at points, throughout those same two hours.)  We may have an African-American President, but it still feels like white America doesn't recognize its debt to (dependency on, inextricable relationship with) black America.

I also think about loss... I seemed to know more people than ever before (this increases as we get older, yeah?) who lost loved ones this year. Having lost a best friend in 2010, it was a year of sad anniversaries for me.  And, of course, with the economy continuously in some stage of crisis, it was another year of economic loss and the threat of even more loss. Most painfully for me personally, my friends and I lost our friend Eduardo Loredo (incidentally on my birthday).  Eduardo was a great kid, 16-years-old, who was prepped for a heart transplant two years ago but could never even get on a waiting list because he was too poor and he happened to be living in Kansas rather than his home state of Chihuahua....

But all years bring horrific amounts of pain, and what seemed more unique about 2011 was the level of life affirming rebellion.  The year started with uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that have spread to at least 18 different countries, in the process helping to create the state of Southern Sudan.  In February, protests erupted in Wisconsin, bringing firefighters and farmers alongside students and public employees in defense of collective bargaining rights. In September, Occupy Wall Street would inspire similar protests in hundreds of cities across America (and some count over 80 countries around the world) with the concept "We are the 99%." 

For the first time in my own political experience (and I think it's fair to say American history), the concept of political unity I'd learned from rock and rap records excited the American imagination--challenging our mind-numbing array of subjective class relationships and getting us much closer to talking about the relationship between what Adam Smith (we don't even need to go to Marx) called the "masters" and the "workers."  "I ain't your fortunate son" meets "come together."

Now, as the various conflicting groups brought together by Occupy fight through their differences and try to keep the movement rolling, I don't know how this will all turn out.  In one respect, it doesn't matter.  We've grasped a new sense of politics in America this year, and that idea is too true to die.

So, I figured I'd take my list of records I wrote about this year (and a few I didn't) and turn it into my Occupy 25. First and foremost, these records were my favorites because of the way the music stood out from other music I heard.  Still, it's worth noting that each of these records affirms the fundamental concept of Occupy in some fundamental way--"We are the 99%!"

The 25 Records that Occupied My 2011 (order, roughly chronological) --

El Compa Chuy, Con Estilo--No nonsense set of corridos (by definition on behalf of the 99%) by the Sinaloan cowboy who brought Eduardo Loredo out on stage with him and posted the Kansas City, Kansas boy's story on his Facebook.

Lupe Fiasco, Lasers--"The Words I Never Said" and hit single "The Show Goes On" predated Occupy but serve as a primer on the basis for unity.

Gerardo Ortiz, Morir Y Existo En Vivo--though also from Sinaloan roots, this young Pasadena, California singer brings a hip hop sensibility to the production of his gorgeous, haunted corridos while singing with the voice of a man well beyond his years.

Michael Fracasso, Saint Monday--His "Working Class Hero" is as ominous and precise as the George Reiff bassline that drives it.  Offering up the lines "There's room at the top, they're telling you still/But first you must learn how to smile as you kill" in a kind of musical equivalent to sculptured relief.  The Lennon classic is an apt touchstone for this collection of Beatle-catchy rockers from one of Austin's finest, a record that even finds its way to a break-up duet with Patty Griffin in "Ada, OK."

Me Like Bees, Me Like Bees--The young Joplin band that made my year, drawing on their mutual love of White Stripes and Modest Mouse but, to my ears, doing something more fundamental--fusing the heaviest heartland rock impulses with utterly-contemporary, incendiary funk.

Howard Iceberg & the Titanics, Welcome Aboard! The Kansas City Sessions (7 volumes)--Gorgeous collection, beginning to end, featuring more than 50 regional artists and including "Hotel Alhambra," as beautiful and epic as any song I heard this year--hinting at the death of Western Civilization as we know it while focusing on images of such beauty that it becomes a tribute to the human spirit.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Here We Rest--a country-tinged record that dreams of freedom, at least at one point from the perspective of a returning vet, and draws on Southern Soul and the sounds of New Orleans as essential parts of that dream.

Julie C, Sliding Scale--Seattle rapper serving up Twista-swift rhymes with brilliant, eclectic production--touching on every conceivable front of the war of the rich against the poor and promising to find her way out of “the same old scenarios.” 

Ace Hood, "Hustle Hard"--the hit single from an album I certainly should have picked up, a 2011 "Workingman's Blues" after the jobs are gone and they ain't ever coming back.

Grupo Innovacion, Lo Mas Importante--Booker, Texas-based norteno vets serve up gorgeous, romantic melodies with....saxophone!

Stewart Francke, Heartless World--35 of Detroit's finest musicians (black and white, that matters here), including Mitch Ryder, join this blue-eyed soul singer in a search for redemption.  Even Springsteen shows up to the opening call for unity.

Mr. Marco's V7, Sparkin' Yo Mama--The Arab spring expressed through free jazz with heavy metal hard edges, maniacal and gorgeous.

Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin'--Retro Soul made urgent--at times, Sly and the Family Stone urgent.

Rise Against, Endgame--Opener "Architects" is a punk metal, proactive version of "Imagine."  After 12 songs of such boundlessly energetic rock challenges, the question and answer lyric "Is this the end of yesterday? Lord I hope so" invites not only a laugh but an "amen."

Gilbere Forte, "Born in '87"--Flint, Michigan rapper aiming for (and nearly hitting) the intensity of Eric B & Rakim's "Follow the Leader," promising to live "the life that Martin Luther had dreamed."
Jason Aldean and Ludacris, "Dirt Road Anthem (Remix)"--When you're dream is "hitting easy street on mud tires," you don't have to add "we are the 99%."

The Hearers, In Dreamlife--This 10 member band lives nationwide, but the sound comes together in a basement in Merriam, Kansas they've dubbed Merriam Shoals.  That works...because the punk-psychedelic vision that comes out of that basement is wide enough to take in the history of rock and soul and reach for the heavens at the same time (as it does quite directly on "A Star Can Be Your Home").

The Low Anthem, Smart Flesh--This Rhode Island group spent a fair amount of time occupying with Occupy.  Though its music is rarely overtly political, its focus on an eclectic mix of roots music certainly comes out of deep listening to those who have the least in society, and the band's consistent focus on the beauty of our vision as well as the obstacles in its path reflect the hopeful contradiction that fuels the 99% movement.

Tom Morello (The Nightwatchman), World Wide Rebel Songs--Not surprisingly, Morello gets Zeitgeist Title of the Year Award, and the music here strives valliantly to deliver on that promise, most brilliantly on the title track, "Save the Hammer for the Man" and "Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine."

Sara Swenson & the Pearl Snaps, Never Left My Mind--Exquisite music about (and I mean what Springsteen once called "a diamond hard focus" on) our need for each other, nowhere more beautiful than on the long dark night of "Brother."

The Bottle Rockets,  Not So Loud--The writers of "Welfare Music," "1000 Dollar Car" and "Kerosene," all included in this acoustic collection, long ago established where their hearts lay.  But the introductory tribute to Doug Sahm before a cover of "I Don't Want to Go Home"--"I thought he was a superstar"--is a fine 99% moment (that before the song's meditation on the balance between freedom and responsibility).

Rod Picott, Welding Burns--Heartland rock as beautiful and austere as a west Kansas horizon line, about poetic dreamers who also happen to be welders, yeah, and factory workers and sheet rock hangers and petty criminals. 

Asa, Beautiful Imperfection--This Nigerian rocker's "The Way I Feel" serves as a 2011 rewrite of Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred," and the album argues repeatedly for payment due on a check that reads "liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Ariana Gillis, Forget Me Not--Like Asa actually, who also debuted in 2009, both of this bravest of new songwriters' albums talk frankly about the costs of war and the need for love, and they do it anything but simplistically.  Hard to beat the messy realities of this record's "Dream Street" for illustrating that point, but every gem offers another crucial piece to a very necessary mosaic.

Victor & Penny, Antique Pop--The birth of American pop through a playful, ebullient 21st Century lens.  And what emerge as the central themes?  Love, yeah, and diversity and justice and unity.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Rings on Their Fingers and Tears for Their Crowns: Victor & Penny Tell a Little Tale Called American Pop

It's hard to imagine a record more ambitious and less pretentious than Victor & Penny's Antique Pop.  From the moment Erin McGrane (Penny) kicks things off with her unadorned jaunty ukelele, pretension seems out of the question.  Though the most democratic of stringed instruments is soon joined by Jeff Freling (Victor) with smart, sharp rollicking counterpoints, and though McGrane's voice rings forth precise and beautiful, the song is a musical smile.  The duet soon makes it clear that the joy these two experience playing together is as high as this performance aims, and the record hits the mark.

So where does the ambition come in?  Well, first, it would be a terrible mistake to underestimate the brilliance of the guitar part that dances all around the rhythm section provided by that uke and Jimmy Sutton's vibrant upright bass.  And this is a terrific guitar record from beginning to end.  Freling's two instrumentals more than hold their own with the classic covers that provide most of the album's architecture.  "Victor's Dream" is, at once, delicately playful, yearning and tinged with remorse.  And "Rickshaw Chase," his guitar battle (dance?) with Gonzalo Bergara is no less exciting and only slightly less ominous than their work together on the dazzling sabre dance of a face off on Django Reinhardt favorite, "Limehouse Blues," an eerie run through the opium dens of London's Chinatown ports.

And the Django Reinhardt nods from Freling only hint at the ambition.  After all, this is a wonderful primer of the musics that attempted to reach beyond blackface minstrelsy and burlesque and build that first mainstream American pop audience.  Most of these songs were by songwriters born in the late 19th century who worked vaudeville and helped build Tin Pan Alley from the early days of the record industry and the birth of radio.

Songwriting teams like Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, who wrote the opener "Exactly Like You," were Irish and Polish Americans who made a name for themselves writing for musicians in Harlem's Cotton Club.  Black songwriter Shelton Brooks, who wrote the Sophie Tucker hit featured here, "Some of These Days," made a good part of his living as an imitator of the great African-American blackface minstrel Bert Williams.  Tucker herself was a Ukranian-born immigrant, who also performed in blackface and was known as "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas."  The Jewish songwriting team of Herscher and Klein offer up the whimsical "Dirt-Dishin' Daisy," which also sounds like a natural for the minstrel circuit.  And New Orleans born black songwriter and performer, Sam Theard, also known as Spo-Dee-Odee, gives us the great "You Rascal You."  The Chitlin' Circuit meets the Borscht Belt over and over here, and that idea of the American melting pot that refuses to become homogenous is, to my ears, the central theme of Victor & Penny's Antique Pop.

This is music about love--giddy "Exactly Like You," rekindled "I'll Never Say 'Never Again' Again," and under negotation "Anything You Say."  It's also music about broken-hearted justice "Some of These Days," human decency "Dirt Dishin' Daisy," social injustice "Limehouse Blues," and those ideals we manufacture out of our pasts, "Way Back Home."  More often than on Barclay Martin's wonderful "Slow Dance" (but certainly flaming brightly there), these are songs about the ongoing dialogue between danger and desire.  In short, these are songs about all of the vagaries of the human condition, as consistently substantive as (and often more supple and light on their crazy feets than) any great American music from any era.

And Antique Pop is not quite like anything else.  The mix of Erin McGrane's crystalline, forthright vocal style and Jeff Freling's megaphone-like vocal distortions is every bit as punk rock in its way as the tension between the most rudimentary acoustic instruments pushing at guitar feedback that sometimes sounds on the verge of flash fire. Sure Victor & Penny can play a cabaret or a nightclub and leave young and old music fans with smiles on their faces, but for anyone to think they've even begun to grasp all that this music says and does would be a silly, regrettable mistake.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gonna Dream, Ariana Gillis Ups The Ante

"Dream Street" gives this particular blog its title because it's the first Ariana Gillis song I heard.  Dave Marsh sent me the MP3, and I'm glad I wasn't driving when I heard it.  That insistent tom tom and occasional stroke of guitar behind this clarion call--

I'm gonna dream
I'm gonna dream street....

That might have driven me off the road.  Nothing needs to follow, considering the immediate effect is something like Suicide's (or Springsteen's, take your pick) "Dream Baby Dream"...sung by a hopeful and determined young heart. 

Of course, Ariana Gillis makes sure plenty follows, and those emotions would have surely made me pull over.  "Dream Street" tells the tale of a young singer who yearns to connect with her dead mother and argues with her abusive father (David Gillis, her guitarist and co-conspirator dad gets special credit for being down with this) about the dangers of dreaming "too far."  The song is a meditation on limits and desires.  The singer's resolve to tackle that contradiction as a problem, not as a reason for defeat, is at the heart of the liberating vision that ties Gillis' sophomore album, Forget Me Not, together.

The record opens with "Money, Money," which echoes everyone from the Plastic Ono Band to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in a seething, taunting panorama of deception and violence, a song that describes the world the O'Jays would recognize with a determination to make a break.  "Forget Me Not" celebrates the end of a relationship gone wrong, finding it in the singer's heart to "hope you'll change" [but] "don't change for me."

Like her folk ancestor Woody Guthrie, Gillis seems to prolifically generate art out of her surroundings.  After "Dream Street," two songs (two songs and a narrative prologue to be exact) seem to be born from the 2009 dolphin harvesting expose The Cove. "The Cove" doesn't hide that fact, telling the story of Ric O'Barry, the dolphin trainer at the center of the movie, who regretted ever training dolphins because of the captivity industry he helped create and fights like hell to destroy to this day. Unlike, say, Guthrie's "The Ballad of Tom Joad," which retells The Grapes of Wrath in song form, Gillis's song manages to turn O'Barry's story into a more generalizable anthem for those fighting to correct their own past mistakes.  Amazingly enough, that anthem is one of the most infectious, danceable uptempo singalongs on the record.

"John and the Monster," the song with the prologue, is something else altogether.  It tells the story of a boy who discovers a creature with healing powers, which leads to its captivity.  He ultimately has to sacrifice himself to restore the creature's powers, which not-so-incidentally are bound up in its freedom and happiness.  This song is an exquisite ballad.

Which serves as a reminder I haven't said nearly enough about Gillis's voice.  She can yawp like Dylan one moment and ride a laugh like Ani DiFranco the next.  On "John and the Monster," she manages to deliver something like a Gaelic lilt, which rolls from a whisper to high tide, stilling itself with startling agility.

The delightful range of Gillis's voice is essential to sell "Samuel Starr," a song about a heart attack victim and a deep sea diver who find themselves engaged in conversation six feet under.  What makes such a song work, aside from sheer audacity, is the way Gillis' voice delivers the horrors of death with the plainspokeness of each victim and expresses amazement at the realization of this miraculous second life.  The delight in Starr's voice as he offers his friend a plan to protect his widow from a useless new husband--"We'll get up out of this graveyard and freak the bastard out"--has to be heard to give these words their due.  Starr's new friend, Joe Jasper Cloverwood, suggests a trade off that will make his loved one smile.  It's Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train where everything goes right; Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book with a jaunty rhythm and more hooks than you can count.

 Another crazy catchy folk song, "Cannonball Sam," carries forward the theme of impossible escape well established by "Samuel Starr," hinging on the lilting refrain, "Free!  "Snap Crack" breaks down the very method of musical transcendence while "Back on the Hill" simply delivers it, in the context of a decidedly un-nostalgic rock 'n' roll love song.  There's a liberation in naming the reality, "I never loved you," which closes the song.

The album ends with "Oh the World," a song that starts with the possibility in a cut kite string.  Then comes the memory of a mother's love.  After that, a poverty stricken child on the street who seems to have all the hope the singer struggles for. In the end, she asks we "don't give up on her too soon." Not only does this music guard against any thoughts of giving up, we wake from these dreams hungry for whatever comes next.

Meanwhile, there's her terrific first album, To Make It Make Sense.  If less focused, similar ebullient thrills obviously abound there.  I'm a big fan of "Simon Brooke," the song of a lover lost to war.  I haven't spent near as much time there yet.  I'm looking forward to taking my sweet time with both, and oh the world to follow...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bag of Bones A Knockin'--Rock Talk As Messy As It Is Necessary

In a recent interview I read of Nigerian singer-songwriter (now rocker) Asa, she said that she picked the name Beautiful Imperfection for her new album because it summed up her ethos.  She'd always had this funny bass-heavy alto that didn't fit in well with her church choir or any other choral group.  And her songwriting, as songwriting can rightfully do, over-reaches as a matter of course.  (Give or take what sounds to me like her musical reinterpretation of Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred," the song "The Way I Feel," which is as close to beautiful perfection as anything I've ever heard.)

That said, I think that sense of high-reaching imperfection is one of the things that connects my love of rock and rap's musical impulses to my love of horror fiction.  To attempt a quote without the transcript before me, I believe Stephen King said that key to his attraction to horror was the understanding that the form was "assaultive" in its nature.  My favorite music tends to share that trait.  It may flub a note; it may veer downright foolish, but it gets your attention, and it's usually throwing down some kind of challenge.  At their best, music and horror fight to change our most fundamental perceptions.

No surprise then, my favorite horror novels and movies teeter on the edge of artistic disaster.  Some do more than teeter--they fall.  Yet worthwhile things happen in that process.  As an example, my great friend Erica and I shared two responses to Stephen King's Bag of Bones.  We both loved it and the ending annoyed the hell out of us.

I thought about Erica, who isn't here to see it, watching director Mick Garris's TV version of Bag of Bones on A&E this week.  I think she'd agree with me that some of the book's finest touches--ghostly rearrangements of refrigerator magnets and unseen presences in quiet, reflective moments--are perhaps impossible to pull off in a movie, and they only worked so well here.  Still Garris (The Stand, Riding the Bullet, Desperation) is about as fearless a King tale interpreter as any there's been, and he manages to capture more of that book's wild (and often chilling) surrealism than seems possible.  Grief has rarely been more palpable; the talking dead have rarely rung so vividly true.

But what matters most to me tonight about the movie version of Bag of Bones is the way it doesn't shy away from the racial and sexual violence at the heart of the story.  Anika Noni Rose turns in a tough, beautiful performance as Sara Tidwell, the blues singer whose brutal rape and murder leads to the curse that fuels the story.  In some ways, it's a thankless role, that of a vengeful spirit, but Rose manages to infuse her performance with a good piece of the hard fought dignity at the heart of the blues.

And that's a crucial piece of our pop culture history we better never forget.  The music that gave birth to virtually every form of popular music we listen to today came at the most brutal price imaginable.  Before the jazz era touched on in Bag of Bones, it came from the brutalization (including, of course, sexual brutalization) of generations of black Americans.  During the jazz era and since, black artists have taken very real risks and paid prices akin to Sara Tidwell's in order to make a living and keep up their spirits and the spirits of those they loved in the process.  When people condemn the violence and sexualized behavior in, particularly, black pop music today, they best not forget the centuries of the white power structure abusing, raping and murdering those blacks still at the bottom of the system of today.  The most "offensive" black artists are typically fashioning some of our most vital art as a response, and anyone from David Banner to Nikki Minaj can say as much (and do).

So Stephen King and Mick Garris both deserve credit for grasping at these skeletons in our closets with what is arguably King's most effective ghost story next to The Shining.  For the last five years, as I've worked on my own ghost story (yes, that's my "novel," and I hope one day you'll see it), I've been haunted by Bag of Bones more than any other book because I have a similar reach in mind, yet...  Neither King or Garris quite pull it off.  The reckoning with such evil is too easy, and the solution to this history of racial violence calls for a messier, ongoing dialogue. 

And that's where the wisdom of Asa's beautiful imperfection serves as a reminder.  Perhaps the most important thing these horror meisters are doing is talking about such issues at all.  Most such stories are going to be flawed, but every word and image toward such ends matters, and matters greatly.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

At the Risk of Madness: Mike Dillon and Mark Southerland's Snuff Jazz Find New Ways to Take Us There

"In addition to it being Laura's birthday," NOLA-based but longtime KC vet Mike Dillon called from behind his drum kit, indicating a friend of the band sitting behind him, "it's also Bushwick Bill's birthday!"

Some laughed, some looked puzzled--did I imagine someone looking offended?--but to this listener, it was the perfect seque into perhaps the most raucous piece to close a wonderful evening of that free ranging collective called Snuff Jazz.  Tenor sax player Rich Wheeler and upright bass (well, any kind of bass, but that night...) Jeff Harshbarger may be a bit stealth in their ability to offend.  But a mad scientist of a jazz visionary like Mark Southerland (who I've seen do everything from fashion jam sessions out of deejaying 8 track tapes to playing horns wrapped around a dancer's torso) and Dillon (who goads the other musicians and the crowd with his insistent drum and vibe performances and that manic glint in his eye and that mischievous grin just a hair's breadth from a snarl), those guys certainly have a kinship with the most outrageous member of the Geto Boyz.  Maybe the two Malachy Papers' madmen can most easily be labeled jazz, and Bushwick will always be known as gangsta, but they're all from an ancient musical impulse--the trickster ready to tear down all established institutions, while visioning new kinds of community beyond the disorder.

All of these musicians do it night after night, and that shout out to Bushwick Bill launched just such dirty (as in mud-pie-intersteller) work.  Dillon taunted the other musicians with this charging drum pattern that pulled Southerland and Wheeler into a percolating response.  Harshbarger began to vamp his way down to the bottom of the neck of his instrument, plucking hard, fast and fluid.  He and Dillon seemed to be locked into a battling, percussive exchange until Wheeler and Southerland took the moment back with a melody seemingly shaped out of thin air.

Once that melody was established, Dillon stood with his four-head-per-hand mallets and exquisitely defined the melody on the vibraphone.  He played those vibes with such supple, quick precision that the cascading notes soon took on multi-colored and multi-textured dimensions dancing in front of the rhythmic backdrop.  Southerland brayed a brightly lit call to the left and Wheeler answered.  And then they all began some frenetic tug-of-war merengue.  All four musicians jousted and danced and drove the beat right through those club walls and out into some vast open soundscape.  Having made its many points as one, the band sizzled to a finish.  One more completely unnecessary--but nevertheless appreciated--coda-like number closed the evening.

For some of us, that Snuff Jazz set at the Grunauer somehow did the impossible--brilliantly followed Mavis Staples and her band having delivered a remarkable set at the new Kauffman Center a few blocks north.  Of course, Staples' show had been hampered (at least from my cheap seats) by the fact that Helzberg Hall seemed to be a room perfectly suited for acoustic music and perhaps not even adaptable to amplified instruments and a rock and roll drum kit.  A friend of mine who had been there before said that the sound had been perfect for the symphony, but for Mavis Staples, it was drums (snare, high hat especially) way up top, guitar way out front and Mavis's extraordinary low ranging alto just about the deepest thing in the mix even next to her three back up singers.

Because of the acoustics, the first clear musical highlight of the evening came with Mavis Staples alone on stage with guitarist Rick Holmstrom, singing the painfully beautiful Randy Newman ballad "Losing You."  Later, the Stax-flavored Little Milton number "We're Gonna Make It" and, of course, the Staples' Singers classic "I'll Take You There" offered such hook-laden excitement that I might have imagined I could hear the nuance in Mavis's voice even if she'd tossed her mic away.  (That might not have been a bad idea, actually...I could hear her asides about as clearly as anything else anyway.)

And, don't get me wrong, it was a terrific show from beginning to end.  Staples' band--drummer Stephen Hodges, bassist (usually, he took some lead) Jeff Turmes and Holmstrom--were as engaging on their instrumental numbers as any band imaginably could be, especially considering one of the greatest voices on the planet is sitting a few feet away.  Her back up singers--sister Yvonne, Chavonne Morris and Donny Gerrard also offered eloquent and exciting support, Gerrard particularly good at cutting through the mix.

Mavis makes sure the show is about the band, and she does it with a fiery display of human expression worth watching for its own sake.  She conducts the band, pumping her arms and delivering handclaps that pop like the beat of a drum.  And on "I'll Take You There," she prods and mimics each musician fueling that classic groove, testifying to the role of each part in the creation of the whole before she turns and calls on the audience to respond with happily returned singing and shouting and handclapping.  That night, she said she intended to make us feel good "for the next six months!"  The afterlife of her performance will extend way beyond that.

With that fire kindling in our hearts, some of us headed down to see those musicians at the Grunauer.  Southerland, Wheeler, Harshbarger and Dillon did not disappoint.  In "Sonny's Blues," an exploration of music so vital that I could spend the rest of my life writing essays based on its individual lines (and I probably will), James Baldwin writes: 

"And Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about.  They were not about anything very new.  He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen.  For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.  There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."

Few lights shine nearly so bright as Mavis Staples and her calls to keep pushing down freedom road, but upstairs at the Grunauer, we found our way to another warming light and fresh visions of what could be if we could risk allowing ourselves to hear.

Mike Dillon and, it has been said, Go-Go Jungle perform tonight, December 10th, at the Brick. 10:30....probably not something to miss.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Why Can't We--Asa's Lyrical Questions and Musical Answers

It's a wonderful surprise when something starts off feeling like a guilty pleasure before proving strong medicine against shame.  I had just such an experience with the October release of Nigerian singer songwriter Asa's single "Why Can't We," which I bought off of I-Tunes on one of my Tuesday online shopping whims. 

This ridiculously sunny record--a confectionary blend of pulsing acoustic guitar, bouncing bass and horns, highlighting the question "why can't we be happy"--brought to mind other records that have seemed irritatingly simplistic calls for attitude adjustment.  Still, that kaleidoscopic party of a record kept pulling me back until I bought the frenetically catchy first single off of the new album, "Be My Man," and then the whole album, Beautiful Imperfection.

Even outside of the context of the album, all those repeat listenings made it clear this song was a question, not a presumptuous nod toward a predetermined answer.  The song's main character is the one being counseled by a friend to enjoy herself.  Her natural impulse is to "worry much about things you don't understand."  In the opening verse, she's second guessing a lover's actions based on slim evidence.  By the end of the song, surrounded by a festival of bright sounds, she's asking, "why can't we be smiling/why can't we be lovin'" with what has to be a grin on her face.

On the album's second song, "May Be," it is evident that such moments of joy are hard earned.  The first line is "May be maybe, the sun will rise."  Maybe. 

And the questions never stop.  Over a gentle reggae rhythm, she points out, "There's people dying everywhere" before asking, "Can someone tell me who's to blame?"  On more than one song, she asks if her dreams are "a crime." The album even ends with a song called "Questions," which pulls no punches, often artlessly asking the unanswerable.  Just as often delivering questions that act as a quick punch to the gut.  "How many babies will be born just to die?"

She also asks for help. On "Preacher Man," she seeks redemption, obviously uncertain of the outcome.  On "Dreamer Girl," she asks someone to "tell me that I should keep holding on."  In this context, "Why Can't We (Be Happy)" clearly serves as the opening question for identifying a long list of intertwined personal and political obstacles.

"Why Can't We" serves another purpose as well.  After Asa's eponymous first album, she was known for serious songs like "Jailer," which points out the mutually trapped condition of any metaphorical guard and prisoner, and urgent calls to action like "Fire on the Mountain," which calls out the seductive blindnesses of patriotism and power itself.  Such subject matter has already led at least one BBC music writer to declare her a "twenty first century Bob Marley."

But when people say things like that, what they mean is that she's "serious" and "political" and potentially "important."  What Asa's latest album shows is that she shares something more distinctive with Bob Marley.  After all, since the birth of reggae, there have been many "serious" artists who play with the style, but few have the pop sensibility of a Marley.  Beautiful Imperfection argues Asa just may.

As serious a record as it is, Beautiful Imperfection is also notable for the classic rock grandeur of the swirling confession at the heart of "Preacher Man," the blasting rock guitar bridge on "Bimpe," the Beatley pulsing keyboards on "Dreamer Girl," the lush strings of "Baby Gone" and the infectious, almost Americana refrain of "Broda Ole."  Though three of these songs are in Asa's native Yoruba, all of them are impossibly accessible.

And in that context, "Why Can't We" tackles yet another question--why can't serious music sound anything but serious?  The happy answer to that question is apparent.

Friday, December 02, 2011

"Let's Look This In The Eye," Me Like Bees Sing the "Naked Trees" of Joplin

It's startling really, but kind.  Luke Sheafer's lilting "Hey, we'll inch out all these miles," emerges from the speakers over two light taps of glockenspiel.  A gentle, alternating guitar chord pattern follows, along with two more chime-like taps.  Me Like Bees' new single (all funds going to the hometown habitat for humanity) begins like the hand of an old friend on the shoulder, side by side with the listener at the scene of the devastation.

The bass and drums kick in as the singer recalls where he was when it all happened, out of town, helping a dying friend. The Joplin tornado's destruction is all over the news, and he can't get through on the phone. As if responding to this frustration, Pete Burton's guitar pushes the music to its first crescendo.  The story swings from a personal loss to another order of loss altogether, something near incomprehensible.

Now the music returns to the beginning, but the guitar is biting as "the sky opened its mouth and showed its teeth."  Friends are buried under homes.  And "everyone was screaming..." this wordless refrain.  By the time the refrain is repeated, it's introduced, "everyone sang."  Out of chaos, voices find harmonies.

That doesn't mean it's easy.  The song moves to the post traumatic effects.  "So, now you can't sleep when you hear rain," the singer acknowledges.  Shimmering guitar chords almost soothe, but the band explodes into an agonized bridge.  The singer gnashes and bites.  Band members shout back.  The music is about to run off the rails...

It doesn't though.  The wall of noise falls, revealing that first verse pattern.  Whistles respond to the singer's calls--insist on the melody, push forward with harmony.  The guitar rares forward with a funky percussive riff.  The lyrics still acknowledging that, "your mind keeps bracing for that howl again," the music soldiers on.

The song ends back with that friends' hand on the shoulder.  And in this lilting tenor, he's telling you that, despite the devastation in every direction, there's got to be meaning in the fact that some trees are "greening again." 

The song's over, with a final quick pulse from everyone in the band.

When Me Like Bees first released this single, I immediately felt this song as a delicate, considered rendering of pain.  Grief was the word that came to mind that night; still does.  This is a song by, for and about friends facing the ravages of the Joplin tornado.  It's thoughtful about the dangers dealing with a pathos so deep, and it's equally fearless in facing them down. Loss like this can't be avoided, talked over or around, or minimized.  It also can't be dealt with impatiently.  Though the ending focuses on a small sign that life itself refuses to give up, such hope is offered only as what it is, an observation.  The song's smart enough to end without editorializing further.

I know few things as well as this one--if there's one thing we can count on in life, it's pain.  Friends stand shoulder to shoulder with us through our pain, knowing they can't take it away.  The song's repeated advice, "Hey, let's look this in the eye" seems about as good as it gets.  Music this naked, brave and beautiful makes it something close to bearable.

Me Like Bees single, "Naked Trees," is available at  You can name your price, and the money goes to Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity. 

Postscript:  Me Like Bees' December 3rd Riot Room show delivered almost all new material engaging, thankfully, a decent-sized house and near-full floor.  "Naked Trees" offered a particularly delicate beauty in a set that ended with a bit of destruction no one in the house is likely to forget.  At that show, I also learned what I took to be a wordless refrain actually had meaning central to a metaphor I missed altogether.  To promote the fundraising single, the band distributes postcards with the band's web address as well as lyrics far more clever than suggested above.  I decided to leave my mistakes above intact; they're the honest reactions of a listener. And music is music, first and foremost, an auditory experience.  (In addition, the record deviates in at least one meaningful way from the lyric sheets that I'm glad I caught.)  Still, the lyrics add rich layers to the song, so I thought I'd share the right stuff in the same space.  They read--

Hey, we'll inch out all these miles
All our friends' houses in piles
Either side they're forming aisles
We'll breathe those fallen walls in till we choke
Amongst the naked trees we'll bear the yoke.

I was north helping an old friend park his tired soul
And while a song to help his belle along was due
My town down south cut in with its own tune
But I couldn't make it out, those phones were dead
That didn't stop the whole world from feeling it.

Bared its snout, the sky opened its mouth and showed its teeth
I heard you heard your house get chewed through from underneath
Everyone was screaming
Loup! Le Loup! Le Loup! Le Loup!

And so now you can't sleep when you hear rain
Your mind keeps bracing for that howl again

Hey, let's look this in the eye
Fear causes only divide
Don't feel guilt for troubled skies
For by the hair of our collective chin
Lord know it wasn't we who let it in

De nulle part le Loup souffla et le Loup souffle!
Miracles! Miracles! Wind and grace, wrath and mercy!
Heroes and suitors, villains and looters sifted out in the scrum!
But it's not done
It's still at home on every tongue

I was north heading a southward course when you first called
When I arrived, I found you all despite the wreck
That was all that you all had ever owned
Good Lord, we sang it
Loup! Le Loup! Le Loup! Le Loup!

Hey, let's look this in the eye
Cease this mind-wrapping of why
Don't feel guilt for troubled skies
I know it seems for miles the world's at end
But even in all this are naked trees greening again.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Janelle Monae, The Hearers and A Trip to the Moon

Gestures of love connect the seemingly desparate artistic events in my past day.  The image that stands for all the rest takes place by the bar of Lawrence's Jackpot Saloon last night.  Two men, probably musicians I don't know, running into each other after some time has passed.  I accidentally watch too long and notice that their welcoming hug turns into a brief squeeze and a softness in the eyes.  These street tough--looking dudes love each other.

Less overt but just as palpable an affection filled the Jackpot's air all night.  Such warmth even flowed through and from the swamp-blues-by-way-of-punk Mad Kings and the ironic gutbucket stomps served up by Drakkar Sauna.  Soft eyes all around.  The college kids may have gone home, but those who have returned were back with long chosen families.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the set by the Hearers, a band that can typically only get together for an annual Thanksgiving show at the Brick because they have migrated to every corner of the map.  Last night's show was apparently down two members from the Brick, and it got cut way down as the last of three late sets, still I couldn't tell what I was missing.  What I do know is that watching the Hearers' stage framed by loving, perfectly placed strokes of harmonica and glockenspiel by Jay Kakert and sweet backing vocals and keyboards by Chris Braun spoke to the deep camaraderie of this band, a band that lovingly crafts songs that seem like pure studio magic, into a wonderous, heartfelt live experience.  It was a beautiful set to close a beautiful night.

And that includes all of my night, which started in the early evening with my wife and youngest daughter at the mayor's Christmas tree lighting in Crown Center.  I had to go because Janelle Monae, a young woman I've written about three times in just over the past year (for this blog, for Pitchweekly and for Rock & Rap Confidential), a woman who gives me a lot of hope not just for the vision of Kansas City artists but for the state of contemporary music, had been invited to help mayor Sly James flip the switch on the Christmas Tree.

Accompanied by Nate "Rocket" Wonder of the Wondaland Arts Society she helped create in Atlanta, Georgia, Monae left her bandmate's side and joined the mayor to say a few words in support of the Christmas tree fundraiser for the city's poorest.  She spoke briefly, pointing out that she was from the other Kansas City across the river (not adding that she was from a part of KCK, Quindaro Avenue, that receives precious little attention from the larger city), but instead, adding, "but I'm all about unity, and I carry all of Kansas City with me wherever I go."

Those were important words to inspire youth who look up to her, a young woman who has gone from being virtually unknown to working with P. Diddy and Big Boi in the past few years, and just in the past year (and some change), to touring with everyone from Of Montreal to Bruno Marrs, Katie Perry, Prince and Stevie Wonder.  As her father once explained to me, the wonderous science fiction universe she's created in her lyrics and that incredibly eclectic music that merges Sun Ra to Nat King (and Natalie) Cole to Michael Jackson and OutKast, all of it, in some ways came as a retreat from a city she knew as essentially some hard mean streets.  To know how much thought and perspective went into the honesty of Monae embracing Kansas City as she did last night made it all the more poignant.

And the fact that Monae's three suite releases were inspired by Fritz Lang's 1927 magical celluloid accomplishment (and 99%-er political statement) Metropolis connected directly with the joy I experienced today, again with my wife and youngest daughter, at Martin Scorcese's Hugo.  Taking any of the joy out of experiencing this film by saying too much about the heart of its mystery would be wrong.  But I have to say two things.  I am extraordinarily thankful to see one of our finest filmmakers make thematically and visually smart use of 3D.  More importantly, Scorcese made a brave choice with this film, particularly considering the cynicism of his canon, to focus on light in the darkness, in this case, the very real light of the motion picture's first great visual magician, George Melies.  Hugo is a love letter to Melies, that and much, much more.

Though I feel fairly confident that no one will ever try to write about Janelle Monae, the Hearers and Martin Scorcese all together again [wouldn't it be great if I'm wrong?], what they have in common strikes me, tonight, as something vivid and heartening.  Inherent in their make up, but also particularly vivid in the present tense, these artists all reach for the moon with their work, and that kind of vision is hard to come by (even among many of our finest artists, musicians and otherwise).  After all, when the Hearers sing "the stars can be your home/they're not very far away," Darren Welch's sweet lyric fights its way through Marc Tweed's agonized cries of doubt.  But what emerges from that struggle is a sense the limits of our imaginations are only problems to be solved.  All these artists show hearts and minds together find a way.   

Friday, November 25, 2011

Lean Forward Again: The Bottle Rockets Unplug, Storytell and Fashion Warming Light from Biting Darkness

The title Not So Loud reminds me of when the Bottle Rockets blew out the speaker system Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit hoped to use (they fixed it, he did) in Carbondale, Illinois.  The Bottle Rockets can pretty much define the word loud, and righteously so, which may be part of why I let this acoustic set kick around my floor a couple of months before playing it. Or maybe (more likely) it was just my usual "glued to the ceiling, spinning around" state-of-mind.  On either count, the band gave me what I needed this Black Friday morning, running errands on a cold, gray day, still overstuffed from yesterday and lonesome in that way only the holidays can make us lonesome.

For starters, lead singer, primary songwriter and--as shown here--hot banjo enthusiast, Brian Henneman makes great company.  His introductions are always warm and often very funny, nowhere more so than on the hilarious story about trying to see Dolly Parton amidst a hostile St. Louis crowd, an experience which led to the song, "Perfect Far Away."  The humor takes an edge off hard pathos when he talks about the year Doug Sahm and both of his parents died.

"Not saying Doug Sahm was as influential as my mom and dad, but he was actually more influential musically than my mom and dad were, so it was a heavy year to be sure, for me.  So, we sat around and we waited and we waited and we waited for the Doug Sahm tribute album to come out because they'd made tribute albums to everybody I could possibly think of and people I didn't even know who they were."

When it didn't happen, the band decided to make Songs of Sahm.  Before starting up a beautiful version of "I Don't Want to Go Home," Henneman says, "I was really mad at my musical peers for not doing it.  It was kind of like they should have known better....I always thought he was a superstar.  I had no idea he was obscure anywhere...."  John Horton earns special kudos for the way his lap steel delivers all the yearning that goes beyond words here, just as he does later on "Kit Kat Clock," a song Henneman describes as a "little kid's favorite song about an old guy who's feeling very sad about being an old guy."

"Early in the Morning" and "Kerosene," of course seem made for this treatment, but a rich-textured song like "Gravity Fails" proves remarkably durable and infectious in this setting.  "Turn for the Worse" and the barn burner "Rural Route" (both of which feature that aforementioned banjo and guest guitarist Kip Loui) never sounded better than they do here.  Keith Voegele's upright bass and Mark Ortmann's "shaky things" add just the right traction to make this "Rural Route" both fun and dangerous.

But nothing here could be more poignant than the closer, "Mom & Dad," a song from 2003's Blue Sky, a song about talking to lost parents while mowing their lawn, picking up their mail and petting their cat.  It's a song about those questions we all ask the dead, that dialogue that doesn't stop simply because one speaker's not here anymore to take part in the conversation.  In a way, it's about the leap of faith that goes into writing a song, often as not, a conversation with ghosts. 

And with guys like me....driving around on a holiday morning, needing the sort of magic to be found on a record like Not So Loud.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sara Swenson, the Pearl Snaps and the Soft Touch of Human Ties

It's a kind of irony that Sara Swenson's most famous song, "Time to Go," featured on the season finale of ABC's "Private Practice," is about letting go.  Of course, valuing such an act enough to sing about it comes from thinking about our need for one another, and Swenson's music is about such precious needs.  More often than not, it's about holding on.

Give or take that slippery fish on "Windows and Doors," her new EP, Never Left My Mind, showcases Swenson's voice as a means of connection--reaching out to a lonesome friend across a crowded room ("Never Left My Mind") and holding on "till the morning brings the daylight" ("Brother").  On verses, Swenson's words sound carefully weighed (if you can imagine the ballast that goes into the bouyancy of a Dolores O' Riordan), but when that soaring voice takes flight--with wings I can only describe as a kind of Gaelic lilt--she gathers the listener close against her well above the hard surface of the earth.

She knows "this night's impossible alone," and the musicians surrounding her, the Pearl Snaps, provide true fellowship in the darkness.  Roger Strong's pulsing bass and the driving rhythms and splashes of color from Brandon Graves' drums create the almost invisible foundations necessary for such ethereal work.  They also serve up a whip smart crack on "Windows and Doors" that more than bolsters Swenson's confrontation with an unreliable charmer--turning what could be profound sadness and vulnerability into irreverent strengths.  The guitar work by both Ian Davidson and John Flynn never calls much attention to itself but serves just the right grace notes to complement Swenson's vision.

A perfect example of the way this band works together can be heard on the closing cut, "Always and Everywhere."  Acoustic guitar and mandolin begin a soft conversation behind Swenson's nearly a capella opening pledges.  On the second verse, Sarah Magill's piano works its way in alongside Davidson's steel, and the band's sound builds, turning the song's promises into a kind of manifesto.

Perhaps the most poignant moment here, though, is the quiet, long lonesome night of "Brother."  Piano and electric guitar, drums and cymbal begin drawing beautiful soundscapes across the night sky.  When Swenson sings, "I can't take this dark all on my own," anyone listening can be thankful she doesn't have to.  Thanks to this EP, neither do we.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Wyco Low Riders Save My Blog (Or Is That My Heart?)

It's not all Don Lipovac's fault, but he's the most obvious culprit.  After all, his name was evoked twice Saturday night, by both Johnny Hamil (speaking for Mr. Marco's V7) and Jason Beers (speaking for the Brannock Device).  The King of Polka in Wyandotte County, internationally reknowned accordianist and bandleader Don Lipovac, genuinely inspired these two sons of the Dot, and their dedications were heartfelt.  With some slight irony, in each case, the music that followed might well seem designed to scare off any Don Lipovac fans who may have wandered into the house.

But I don't think it would actually.  It might well scare off most people who think they like cutting edge, avant garde indie rock (a style which seems more rigidly codified than the most traditional folk music) because such folks aren't used to having every presumption they ever owned about music overturned with such frenzied glee.  And glee is the word for that mad delight shining off of Johnny Hamil's face as he percolates feedback off of his nearly horizontal upright bass, and glee is what I sense behind that sly smile when stoic madman Jason Beers lets such things slip, for instance during dueling basses with Hamil on an Iron Maiden cover.  Yes, that sentence makes sense.

These folks are ornery, and ornery means playful, and that's at least one thing they have in common with Mr. Lipovac.  If I remember one thing from a Don Lipovac show, it's that it's the definition of fun.  The other thing both Mr. Marco's V7 and the Brannock Device have in common with the Don Lipovac Band is extraordinary musicianship.  Marco Pascolini is in both bands, and if he's not the finest evil genius on guitar in the Twin Cities (yeah, those of us who claim the Dot can say that), he deserves the chance to fight for his title.  Not taking notes Saturday night, I can't tell you a thing Pascolini did beyond surprise me with sounds I didn't think could possibly fit with everything else going on at the same time but, in fact, seemed to be part of the glue--or the electro magnetic field--that held things together.

I mean, a universe separates Mr. Marco's Arthur C. Clarke drunk on blotter lounge music--which can turn toward some kind of manic Turkish jam whenever it feels like it--from the Gang of Four circa Entertainment meets X doing its Ornette Coleman set vibe of the Brannock Device.  But that universe has folds, you know, and to be at a show with the two together puts a listener in Warp Drive.  All of it makes sense.

It makes sense that--during the Mr. Marco's set--Jason Beers takes the stage playing saw between Kyle Dahlquist and Mike Stover (both playing theramin) for an earnest cover of "Bali Hai."  And it makes sense that 14 bass players take the stage at once, including a woman better known for her fiddle (Betse Ellis) and another known for her voice (Elaine McMilian), and do a cover of "Boris the Spider" with KC's premier rock and roll showman Cody Wyoming. It makes sense that twice as many people as are on stage are watching this nearly all bass player band, the Wyco Low Riders, at 2:00 in the morning.  And it makes sense that one of the city's finest drummers, Kent Burnham, is willing to lend this molar drilling exercise his unabashed, supple and explosive, support.

It makes sense because this collaboration of over two dozen of Kansas City's finest musicians is born out of a great deal of love and mutual respect for the music and each other.  It's also born out of both the desire to have fun and the guts to risk making a fool out of one's self in the process.  It's born out of what it means to realize what it means to Be Here Now, as the good book says, and appreciate those around you.  I can't help but think those are sentiments close to the heart of what makes truly experimental music enduring.  That which challenges us the most, may even make us cringe, also asks us to stay present and in dialogue with the moment (and hopefully those around us).

I don't know.  That's what it told me Saturday night (Sunday morning).  It told me 5 years into my blog I might try writing a blog, not use the thing as simply a warehouse for writing that has no home.  I'm so dissatisfied with the state of music writing anywhere and everywhere right now, I need to vent, I need to experiment, I need to talk back.  Why not use this space, at least for now?  And why not not worry about whether what I'm writing is ready for the world?  I need to Occupy the whirlwind of activity around me in a more aggressive and present way, for my own mental health if nothing else.  For my sense that I can do that, I thank Jason and Johnny and all the shamalama shamen and shawomen who took the stage Saturday night.  Thanks to you, I'm ready to play.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Toni and Clarence, Someplace Tropical

for Omar

From the moment I heard cancer took my great friend Toni Gentry, on the heels of learning my rock and roll hero Clarence Clemons died, I had a mental image of the two, someplace tropical, with umbrellas on their drinks. Not that either one of them was an umbrella-glass type, but both had a sense of occasion. It’s a huge understatement to say they were both known for their sense of style.

At Toni’s Kansas memorial service (her second, the first held in her now-home, Arlington, Virginia), a friend talked about the first time Toni walked into her shop, “wearing thigh-high leather boots.” Many, many things expressed my own memories of Toni at this service—we were colleagues in my school writing center, and her teacher’s reminiscences of her intensity in the school setting, an intensity that made every moment matter, brought back cascading memories. Her sisters’ memories of her going Mama Bear on those who crossed them reminded me of the ways Toni used to look after me, and her friend Eric Melin’s memory of the way she could make your jaw drop by saying exactly what she thought, that was uncomfortably (and hilariously) familiar. But those boots….if she wasn’t wearing those boots the day I first saw her walk in the Writing Center, then she should have been. Like Clarence blowing the door off its hinges in that mythical bar meeting with Bruce, that first image of her crossing the room takes on epic dimensions for me, and if she wasn’t dressed all in suede with thigh high boots, I’ll never know because that’s all I can see right now.

Just as Clarence’s style would have meant much less without the distinct sound and call of that horn, Toni backed her style with unique substance. Its outlines were in every story told at yesterday’s memorial service. It was even in the look and feel of the service, a yard full of friends and family against a rich wooded backdrop—some drinking beer, some holding each other, all laughing between the tears.

We had to laugh, you see, because Toni was one of the world’s great laughers. That’s the way I hear her right now, talking about “boi-oi-oi-yeez” [boys] or whatever subject amused her at that moment, her voice staccatoed by that laugh that was perpetually trying to come out. Sometimes, she just let it go, and, hand to mouth, her whole body rocked with delight. One of Toni’s favorite phrases was “great fun” because she looked for it everywhere she went and generally found it.
This meant she found “great fun” in and for others as well. Unlike many charismatic and creative people I know, Toni’s sense of occasion was always about who she was with. When you were drawn into her orbit, you realized you’d found your own groove. I don't know how else to describe it.

My finest memories of Toni were “great fun,” but they were quiet ones. I once called her on a long afternoon I was reviewing 3 shows back-to-back at Kansas City’s one-time great blues club, the Grand Emporium. I was worried about her. She was going through a divorce but still living in her married home, and I figured she needed a friend. [We were “pals.” I don’t know how else to put it. Buddies, pals, shoulder-to-shoulder-through-the-rough-times friends.]

Anyway, so she tells me she’s making this casserole [for dinner I’m presuming], and I tell her that I guess she wouldn’t be interested in keeping me company at the club. In half an hour, she’s there, and we’re out in the parking lot eating her casserole. I ask her how she’s doing and she says, “I’m ba-ha-had! I’m cooking casseroles and driving around with them in my back seat.”

Then came one of those body rocking laughs, for both of us. There’s a little eternity in that afternoon in that parking lot crying-laughing and trying not to drop that casserole. Most of my memories of her somehow fold into that one.

You know how with some friends you are the driver and with some you are the passenger? I always see myself as the passenger with Toni, but we’re busy going nowhere special in no hurry because the best part’s that time in the car.

So, I heard my story reflected and refracted through the stories of others who spoke during her service and others who I talked to in that celebration I didn’t want to leave. Though I knew almost no one at the service when I arrived (the time and space that defined our relationship being a specific in-between station in her life), I knew of them because she always talked of her loved ones. And they knew of me. And I felt like I was among friends, potentially close friends because we all knew and somewhat understood and definitely benefitted from the integrity of one of the most creative and beautiful people any of us will ever be lucky enough to know.

The theme that came up again and again—regarding her sisters and regarding her two sons, Tariq and Malik, especially—was the way she gave them all permission to be who they were, to be different as they wanted to be and to recognize that difference as something special. This gal from north of Topeka did that for everyone she knew. She certainly did that for me. She taught me a lot about who I could be. A lot of what’s best about who I am, I owe to her.

Aside from worrying about all their loved ones being so sad, Toni and Clarence no doubt have this common mission to talk about in this tropical place where they walk the beach, drinking something extravagant and silly, maybe simply for its na-ai-ame, with their little umbrellas. They both took us closer to free. They both left us trusting we’d carry forward their work.

I promise, Toni, to keep chasing that “great fun” and do everything I can to make the world worthy of your gifts. Pass the word to C. Thanks for getting us started.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Open Hearts, Lost and Found

I wrote this several months ago for a special issue of Rock & Rap Confidential that never saw the light. It's not about Clarence Clemons, directly, but since he's on my mind right now, and since it's actually about all of the soulful music that didn't make it onto Darkness on the Edge of Town, it does stand as an indirect tribute to what Clarence brings to the larger story. If only it were as beautiful as a single note of a single solo.

Yes, listening to the The Promise and flipping through the notebook and supplementary materials available in The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story says a lot about the smart choices Bruce Springsteen made in 1978 to cut some space of his own with those drums and those guitars. Songs like “Outside Looking In” reveal their synthesis of Buddy Holly and the Animals whereas Darkness still sounds like nothing else, not even much of the Americana punk it helped inspire. And the comparisons show the possibilities carved away for the original album’s hard focus. Thematically, the “lost” material shows the universes that lie between, say, “Racing in the Street” and “Candy’s Room” on the first disc, and, on the second, the necessities and dangers involved in proving it all night.

But I came into this with a certain faith that this was more than outtakes for comparison; I believed that this was a 2010 album. That faith was forcefully rewarded the first time I reached the closing scenes—“Breakaway” with the gorgeous “sha la las,” swelling horns and piano lending dignity to one desperate reach and miss after another. And then “The Promise’s” organ and strings and those overdubbed vocals on the “Thunder Road” refrain, capturing just how and why, “every day it just gets harder to live this dream I’m believing in.” That line, like all the rest here, have an added poignancy today, all the promise of “pullin’ outa here to win” ending in questions of just what’s been risked and what’s been lost. The sweetening of these arrangements may well be, as Bruce’s liner notes insist, “what I would’ve done to them at the time and no more,” but he didn’t do it then, and he has done it now, purposefully, to my ears.

Virtually all of this music is opulent in its production in a way that may call to mind 1975’s Born to Run but sounds to me like the man who made 2009’s Working on a Dream. From the first time I heard it, “Someday (We’ll Be Together)” particularly insisted this perspective with its richly layered pop arrangement and female backing vocals. But, in a more particular way, the middle guitar solo, doubled by piano (perhaps glock) and dressed in strings brings to mind the soundtrack-like grandeur of a song like “Outlaw Pete”—Ennio Morricone meets Phil Spector. And I don’t care when those lyrics were written, “I awake from a dream…Tonight, we’re on our own” sounds like Darkness revisited after 30 years of promises kept, sure, but also promises broken.

That song begins with the sound of “your voice…calling through the mist” which is a line echoed in the one largely new lyric on the album, “Save My Love.” That song begins, “Now there’s something coming through the air/That softly reminds me” and later adds, “Over river and highway/Your voice comes clear and true.” Unlike the despairing late night drivers of “State Trooper,” “Open All Night” and “Radio Nowhere,” this character hears something so tenuous it tears him apart even as it gives him hope. He knows he has his own voice, too, and that’s part of an exchange, so while he listens he asks the listener to “dial me in close.”

Perhaps, as much as anything, what I hear is the 61-year-old Springsteen consulting with the 29-year-old rocker in the same way he consulted with Buddy Holly, Elvis and Hank Williams at the time most of these songs were originally written. “Save Your Love” has an unassuming brevity reminiscent of The River B-Side “Be True” (and more than a minor thematic connection), but it defines commitment in much more delicate and sophisticated terms, as a sense of not just integrity but direction and need, well aware of the perils and distances that come between tonight and tomorrow.

The case that Darkness On the Edge of Town speaks today as urgently as it did in 1978 doesn’t need to be made here, but the way “Save My Love” starts up on the song "Darkness’s" hill with that same guy, older and maybe wiser but still waiting to be easily found, resurrects the ideas of Darkness as ongoing work.

Thematically, the closest song to “The Promised Land” on these two new CDs is “Someday (We’ll Be Together)” and unlike the lonely determination of the original album, this deliverance clearly depends upon community. In fact, by revisiting all these love songs and those little things our babies do—magical, fumbling and cruel—Springsteen’s uncovered new layers of questions at the center of a great album. On the single, he pledges, “if we open up our hearts, love won’t forsake us,” but that’s clearly an approach not a formula. The open hearts on these 2 new CDs make mistakes, and they get recklessly used, confused, broken, and discarded. These appropriately-named “Lost Sessions,” then, focus on missing pieces to clarify the complexity of that terrain we still gotta live every day.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

So Right

Me Like Bees and Reasons to Believe

So, every once in a great while, a band comes along with a call so hard and urgent that I find I have to write a response, even when I’m speechless. Me Like Bees has been calling hard a while now... And for a late 70s generation punk fan who finds himself listening to R&B and norteno as much as anything these days, the inspiration comes from a somewhat surprising source--four guys who started playing together in Joplin, Missouri; three high school football players from Kansas City, and the fourth, the drummer, a California kid whose dad used to gig with members of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band.

That last bit may be something that makes some sense. The football does too…in a way. Though indie is the label they’ll be given, the band is not your typical effete alterna-rock band. In fact, the first time I saw them, their blue collar, punch-to-the-gut, sensibility made me wonder how come they weren’t playing straight up metal.

But I suppose that dates me. The first time I checked them out online and found a live video of them doing Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls On Parade” I had a piece of that answer, if not the whole story. During that first show I saw, they had played Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” which lent another piece to the puzzle. Since then, I’ve heard them cover Gnarls Barkley and singer Luke Sheafer freestyle a little Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z.

I should understand as well as anyone. I’m from a town in Oklahoma not far from where this band formed, and if I’d made a band at their age, I would have been doing Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen (who was still obscure around those parts then), Public Image Ltd, and the Clash, with maybe some refrains from Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” thrown in post 1982….same difference. If I've learned anything over the years, creativity takes many forms and draws on many kinds of inspiration, often from directions that are attractive because they have nothing to do with one’s roots. And, first and foremost, a band is a band to break out of whatever box it may be handed.

Anyway, I fell for these guys the first time I saw them because they were both funky and heavy, and they had hooks, and they managed to convey a sense of humor without losing any of their sense of gravity. That was a show at the Coda, and the house was packed that night with people close to the stage who seemed to know every song, and a larger house that, despite not having heard a note before, was as riveted as I was.

That was five shows back (I saw my sixth tonight), and they only grow more fascinating each time out. I’ve seen them play to packed houses and empty houses. Tonight was a relatively empty house, a 7:30 set starting off an evening packed with too many bands at the end of a day of Westport pub crawling that found most people outside at that hour or catching a meal.

It didn’t affect how the band played…well, in any obvious way. Lead singer Luke Sheafer started in with the lilting verses of one of their newer songs, “Joseph Jones,” and bass player Asher Poindexter immediately began angling in on him with a full-bodied dance to match his rhythm. Drummer Tim Cote punched hard as the song built to a crescendo, and guitar player Pete Burton offered one shimmering line after another until something that started off sounding fragile, even diffident, became a powerhouse assault.

Such dynamics are typical of Me Like Bees, but the band defies any simple stylistic description. Poindexter and Burton both play their guitars in very percussive ways, calling to mind funk from James Brown to Gang of Four to whatever contemporary bands they actually nick. Cote keeps a supple rhythm but bangs the drums hard. And singer Luke Sheafer, well, he makes sure no one in the house doubts for one second his conviction or its urgency.

When the band launches into “Lazarus,” Sheafer takes breaks from the verses to mouth wordless refrains at Poindexter who wordlessly shouts back. Poindexter has this sort of body-twisting raindance stomp he employs while working his bass, while Sheafer twists, turns and widens his eyes, then shouts and cries and growls into the mic. Meanwhile, Burton peels off one great riff after another, playing the relatively stoic, mild-mannered role to the side (someone has to anchor this anarchy).

But nothing really anchors this music except for the rhythmic pulse that binds the band together. At times, Burton’s guitar seems to be starting flash fires off to the right and Poindexter’s bass throws gasoline with quick emphatic runs from the left. The entirety of the band’s sound swirls like some cosmic storm, shimmering light and tone colors beyond imagination. And Poindexter has a sly smile, and Sheafer’s beaming wildly, and the whole band looks like they’re aware yet nonchalant about the fact that they’ve, yet again, cut a space that extends from, in this case, the back of the Riot Room to Alpha Centauri.

And that’s enough…. Nevermind the resonance of these lyrics—about being the prey of capitalist sensory overload (“Iconica”) or about being a working stiff who gains nothing in particular for a job well done (“Good Machine”) or about a girlfriend with a “sweet left hook” (“She”) or about finding hope precisely when all is lost (“Doubt”). This is a band that has ample reason to mean it when Sheafer shouts, as he does on the Ep closer, “There’s a Man,” “As long as I have a choice, I’ll be raising my hand up/I’ll be begging to differ.” This is a band with something to say, many things to say.

So, I’ll be sorry when I have to miss next Friday’s Kansas City show at the Coda. But I’ll be playing them on my long drive to Chicago, and thinking about all the things I said here and what I need to say next. Because, though the afterglow I feel right now will be gone, I’ll remember what I’ve learned five times over, as I’ve gone back to one show after another wondering if they are really that good…

The answer is not simply yes. Each time it seems they’ve gotten better, or maybe I’m just better learning how to hear. Either way, I can’t bear to miss what’s next.

To see and hear for yourself--