Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Scattered World--Unpublished Reviews 2015--2016

After 30 years, it's harder to find an outlet for much of my writing than ever. Material conditions have created a strange gulf between national and local presses and what they're editorially prone to cover. I'm old school and want to write about what I want to write about, whether it's a struggling local band or a struggling national act or an act that's somehow doing well on the mainstage while inspiring me to get through my ordinary struggles.

Anyway, I believe everything here is previously unpublished, most of it 2016 and a handful extending back into 2015. While I think Victor & Penny's new Electricity may be the duo's finest album, I dearly loved this live set and wanted to be sure and publish this old review here if nowhere else. All of which is to say, I believe I'll be spending more time in 2017 right here on the blog, where I can take em as they come like nowhere else. DA

Raised by WolvesJenny Ritter (Fiddle Head)--This Vancouver songwriter's first album, 2012's Bright Mainland, is a beautiful acoustic tapestry with an unforgettable anthem, "We Must Sing" and even a radio-ready country-rocker, "Resolute." On the new album, "Museum Song" is a banjo and fiddle-accompanied reverie about how "the young and hopeful heart" finds a place in the world, past and present. Ritter focuses on using the high, lonesome delicacy of her soprano to underscore her contradiction to the size and sensibility of the world around her. The song that spawned the title, "Wolf Wife," is a shifting and complex celebration of power where it's not generally perceived.  

Scattered World, Nalani & Sarina (N&S Records) With funky anthems like “We’ll Be Free,” “Love Who You Want” and the rapped “Get Away,” these twin singers and musicians come on Nona-Hendryx-powerful. Such bravado all by itself, with the talent to back it up, makes them something special. But the delicacy of the lost teen ballad “Runaway” and the dreamy textures of “Shadows in the Shade,” reveal a more vulnerable side, and “Scattered Girl” splits the difference, a portrait of confusion that finds its triumph in a hard rocking groove.

Big Car Town, Chris Buhalis ( the title track, Buhalis sings, “Man on the TV wants my vote/If truth was singing, babe, he couldn’t hold a note,” capturing the way this singer consistently braids the personal, the political and the musical into straightforward declarations of truth. The haunting imagery and soulful performances on this album offer new levels of meaning with every listen, but the hook is the fight in the work. You hear a rocker like “Daddy Worked the High Steel,” and you want to blast it from every rooftop—“So forgive me Mr. Banker if I don’t hear you when you’re crying/Daddy worked the highsteel/His daddy worked the line.”

Everybody's Got One, Terry "Buffalo" Ware and Gregg Standridge (Okiemotion) "Big Man (Watching Worlds Collide)" starts things off with an ominous implacable rhythm plunging the  listener into a future shaped by the calloused and powerful. As its title suggests, this duo's album fights hard against such conceit, the very next song, "Don't Believe a Word I Say," embracing the delicacy of every caressed note. There's a wizened down-to-Earth quality in both Standridge's and Ware's lead vocals, which is important to the album's unifying appeal, but what makes it really work is a musical fearlessness that sometimes contradicts that voice. "Hey Rachael" is a musical road trip to Memphis, punching horns celebrating a lost sense of invulnerability, singing "I could always shake my blues when I jammed that pedal down, but that magic I once knew is a mystery to me now." The words read like defeat, but the sound embraces a new reality. Immense acoustic string, echo, reverb and funereal martial drums deliver the final "Sparrow (The Story of Emmett Till)" with every bit of the weight that story deserves. That's the right place to end, and it might just be the album's most haunting moment if it weren't for the delicate two guitar memoir, "Beauty of the Day," about a lover lost to those colliding worlds.

En El Mass Alla, Nosotros ( Cumbia and salsa rhythms anchor and propel this fifty-minute explosion of soulful light and color. Like the New Mexican desert that gave birth to this 9-piece, there’s a stunning mix of traditions at play here, allowing the band to move from near-hip hop percussive builds on “Aqui y Alla,” to the pop rock of “Cada Dia,” to the epic folk grandeur of “Erase Una Vez” and the fiery guitar closer “Las Brasas.” 

Code Red, Monica (RCA) Barely 15 when she stormed the charts in the mid-90s, mid-30s Monica stands as a survivor who has turned out eight impressively solid albums, each with stunning moments. Toward the close this time she sings “I Miss Music,” about the loss of pop radio as she knew it, listing her favorites—not just Aaliyah and Biggie but folks living and dead—including Kurt Cobain, Stevie Wonder and Sting—who would not share the same airwaves today. She follows that with “Anchor,” a fiery promise to remain “right by your side,” her determination the only answer she has to the desperate situation she describes in the title track’s wailing soundscape of scratches and samples—“It’s like we got nowhere to land/It’s like we’re scared to take a chance.”

Emily’s D+Evolution, Esperanza Spalding (Concord) After working with Janelle Monae and Bruno Mars, the extraordinary jazz bassist and vocalist teams up with Tony Visconti for a 21st century version of jazz fusion, endlessly experimental yet reaching for a pop audience. The whole of this exotic tapestry is intoxicating, but the Black Rock drive of “Funk the Fear,” the psychedelic soul of “Change Us” and the shimmering explosiveness of “Unconditional Love” (both original and alternate version) promise to, as she sings, “change the whole story.”

One of the Lonely Ones, Roy Orbison (Universal) Unreleased in 1969 after the death of Orbison’s two oldest sons, this is certainly a grief-stricken record. You can hear it in the way he claims Carousel’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as his own personal challenge or in the eye-to-eye clarity of the declaration, “Don’t try to tell me it’s all right” at the start of “Leaving Makes the Rain Come Down” or the haunted perfection of his cover of Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories.” But what’s remarkable about this record is its range of material. There are elements of doo wop and boardwalk rock in the darkly funny “Laurie,” while, “Child Woman, Woman Child” makes plain the connections between Elvis Presley and Iggy Pop. There’s a giddy fun to the Southwestern rock of “Give Up,” right down to the psychedelic come-on at its bridge. And then, most importantly, there’s the reach—from the long barroom nights on the title track to the Vietnam Vet’s homesickness and homelessness on “The Defector.”

Let the Good Times Roll, J.D. McPherson (Rounder) Broken Arrow, Oklahoma native McPherson credits Buddy Holly with igniting a passion for the kinds of sounds he chases, and that’s evident in the vivid mid-range textures and ecstatic bounce of this record. But there’s also more than a little Jackie Wilson in his voice, another invitation to rediscover rock and roll thrills all but forgotten in the jaded world of today’s music. The best track starts as the most controlled, the Sam Cooke-like “Bridgebuilder,” a prayerful statement of purpose that eventually explodes into massive waves of guitar reverb and drums with enough space in the mix for sparkling chimes and piano.

Wondaland Presents the Eephus, Various Artists (Epic) This Atlanta-based collective surrounding Janelle Monae may not have produced the game-changer the title claims, but they’ve taken five songs and a Kendrick Lamar feature remix and made one helluva play. Deep Cotton’s “Let’s Get Caught” recalls the dangerous sexiness of the Time, while the haunting ballad by female duo St. Beauty, “Going Nowhere,” sounds like it may well have been crafted in that bedroom in Purple Rain. None of which is to say this is a throwback so much as a return to music, at once, synthesizing all that’s coming before and pushing for a pop future that sounds utterly new. Roman Gianarthur’s “iKnow” may be the catchiest thing here, and it sounds like nothing else. Jidenna’s “Classic Man” is a crooner’s boast about being a “young OG” working with an army of women generals, and Monae’s “Yoga” is, conceptually, the calculus version of “Tightrope.” 

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson (Atlantic) Simpson’s first two albums called up comparisons to Waylon Jennings, but working with the Dap Kings’ horns this time around, he draws a bold line between that influence and Van Morrison. Particularly unforgettable is the ending, which moves from “Oh Sarah,” a love song about the limits of one’s dreams to the anti-war Southern rocker “Call to Arms.” Every line’s worth reprinting here, but it’s hard to beat the artless summation, “Turn off the TV/Turn off the news….The bullshit’s got to go.”

Introducing Darlene Love, Darlene Love (Columbia) Produced by Steve Van Zandt (and featuring three of his finest songs, one new) as well as two Elvis Costello songs, two Bruce Springsteen songs, a Joan Jett, a Linda Perry, a Walter Hawkins, a Mann and Weill, a call to change the world by Jimmy Webb, and a remake of “River Deep, Mountain High,” this record is, simply put, epic. Perhaps the moment that makes the point most vividly is a duet with Bill Medley on Costello’s “Still Too Soon to Know.”  Two of the greatest voices in pop music history contemplate the fault lines that cause relationships to teeter, and then linger after they’ve fallen. The results are so emotionally devastating the logical follow is the Webb-penned track, a record that stands shoulder-shoulder with “MacArthur Park” for musical ambition.
 Ride Out, Bob Seger (Hideout) Seger owns a wonderful series of covers here from Steve Earle, Kasey Chambers, Woody Guthrie via Jeff Tweedy and John Hiatt, kicking things off with Hiatt’s “Detroit Made” roaring like the Buick Elektra it celebrates. But the Seger-penned cuts are just as strong, especially bold with the call for straight talk about the environment, “It’s Your World.”

Live at the Living Room Theatre, Victor & Penny and Their Loose Change Orchestra ( Kansas City’s jazz age guitar and ukulele combo wears its novelty like a badge of honor, and, indeed, everything about them is an argument against rock and pop prejudices, starting with the notion that a novelty act can’t be great. Part of that greatness is their love of forgotten, lost and little known songs. Two Scatman Crothers songs make this mix as well as some Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and even John Williams’s Star Wars “Cantina Band.” Two stand-out originals include fellow songwriters Theo Bishop and Benny Chadwick’s haunting “Salt” and Howard Iceberg’s playful “Indiscreet.” Throughout, the live setting emphasizes the improvisation in this jazz age music, nowhere better illustrated than in the head-spinning guitar-clarinet duel at the heart of the Iceberg song.

Freedom, Ariana Gillis ( Prior to this six-song EP, Gillis has released two multi-colored, elaborately textured albums that build a new universe of sound out of familiar folk and pop elements. This demo-of-an-album is comparatively stark, a bright spotlight on Gillis’s voice and acoustic guitar. That said, these six songs are still multi-colored and elaborately textured because those qualities start with Gillis’s Shakira-sized voice. Featuring the most complex arrangement—heartbeat thumps on an acoustic guitar under banjo and fiery guitar, yearning horn, rumbling tom-toms, and high lonesome, wordless vocals—“Jeremy Woodstock” delivers the story of a disembodied heart in passionate magic realism. Throughout, Gillis writes about the most personal risks in the context of a world at war, crying out “guns and soldiers, bullets, patrollers, freedom never felt so wrong” on the opening cut and later taking on the perspective of a soldier, stating matter-of-factly “I’m going off to war/I know I’m never coming home.” But perhaps the strongest blend of form and content here is “White Blush,” as vulnerable a song about the spotlight as anyone ever wrote that somehow manages to never sound weak—in fact, it rings triumphant. 

Cama Incendiada, Mana (Warner) Kicking off the Guadalajara band’s third decade, this ninth studio album has all the vitality of a great debut. A single cut may be wall-of-sound techno one moment, then acoustically delicate before storming into a guitar and drum build. What matters is the way it all works together, the political silencing suggested by the gorgeous ballad with Shakira, “Mi Verdad” echoed later by the explosive Los Tigres del Norte cover “Somos Mas Americanos.”

Leave No Bridge Unburned, Whitehorse (Six Shooter Records) Canadians Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet get called a folk duo, but that hardly describes this third album. The record starts off with an unrequited love song staged in an Ennio Morricone dreamscape before a spooky portrait of small-town yearning, “Tame as the Wild Ones,” goes epic in a whole different way, snare drum against crashes of guitar. “Downtown” brings Hammond organ and a Bo Diddley beat. “Sweet Disaster” offers garage rock Drifters. And those songs are followed by rockabilly, stark minimalism, 21st Century delta blues and more than a hint of Roy Orbison. As much as anything, this album winds up being about rock and roll as a force of nature. As if to drive home the point, the most Dylanesque number, closer “The Walls Have Drunken Ears” sounds like a rumbling train about to jump the next bend.
Drive All Night, Sky Smeed ( This Chanute, Kansas-based singer-songwriter reaches a few miles south to embrace Woody Guthrie, for “Talkin’ Medical Marijuana Blues” (yes, filtered through Dylan) and “This Land,” a dark rocker that rages against the betrayal of Guthrie’s most famous song. Produced by Katrina transplant Mike West, Smeed’s fifth album revolves around such comfort and pain, searching for a way out of the vividly familiar national malaise of isolation and helplessness.

Guitar in Hand, Kasey Rausch (Mudstomp) and The Musical, Mikal Shapiro ( Dave Marsh’s Kansas City area fans have reason to struggle on Sunday mornings when his Kick Out the Jams program airs opposite the local music show River Trade Radio, much of it live performances in the studio hosted by fine KC musicians Rausch and Shapiro. The diversity of what these women have to offer is well represented by each of their recent releases, fourth generation musician Rausch with a set of rocking bluegrass and country as humble as it is moving and Shapiro with a jazz cabaret that swings from punk to honkytonk to gospel.

Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell (Southeastern Records) Isbell hasn’t made a weak record yet, and these eleven songs synthesize most of the best of what’s come before. Musically, Isbell continues with the restraint that has characterized his approach since Here We Rest, but the stream-of-consciousness surprise of the hook-laden “24 Frames” and the fiery “Palmetto Rose” as well as the deceptively light touch of “How to Forget” and the arena-rocking “Hudson Commodore” call to mind his dazzling 400 Unit. Beginning with the confessional “If It Takes a Lifetime” and ending with the heart-on-sleeve tribute to comrades in arms, “To a Band That I Loved,” Isbell’s never shown more cards, and in so doing, made such plain and simple magic.


Electric Church: Atlanta Pop Music Festival, July 4, 1970, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Experience Hendrix) Filmed two months before Hendrix’s death, this document of the Southern rock music festival showcases the artist at the height of his powers. At this moment, the band is actually a cross between Experience and Band of Gypsies, with Mitch Mitchell on drums and Billy Cox on bass, and the set list blends the worlds of each studio album. Playing before the largest audience in his career, his fireworks backed “Star Spangled Banner” sounds both more realized and more irreverent than ever. Notably, it’s just a segue between the still unreleased “Stone Free” and “Straight Ahead.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

To Bring Some Understanding Here Today


The Industrial Revolution--

Inspired hundreds of political revolutions;

Destroyed centuries old family systems and replaced them with semi-autonomous "nuclear" families;

Moved massive numbers of people from the country to the city;

Accelerated slavery before ultimately helping to end it;

Accelerated the wage slavery abuse of men, women and children while inspiring workers' movements to end such abuse;

Reshaped the United States with the Civil War;

Changed the role of the United States on the world stage through both World Wars and the development of the nuclear bomb;

Created the world our world leaders grew up in, the world too many want to "go back to" in some way.


The Technological (AKA electronics, computer) revolution that began in the mid 20th Century--

Through automation and globalization of an increasingly small world, realigned family systems and destroyed urban centers;

Destroyed division of labor giving us more work to do individually in a decentralized work environment;

Destroyed the basis for civil society throughout rural America and heavily industrialized areas like the Rust Belt;

Destroyed the basis of most 20th Century industry, as in the case of the music industry;

Accelerated the pace with which we receive information while turning the news industry into a rival form of entertainment;

Undermined (if not destroyed) traditional notions of privacy and individual rights;

Created a world of high tech warfare with no clearly demarcated front lines;

Split American society so severely that two great camps are in a sort of ideological cold war between different notions of politics based in the Industrial era.....

WE live in a rapidly changing world with minds blinkered by the ideas of an old society. As surely as Industrialism pushed the artistic movements of the 19th century to shift from subjective contemplations of the individual (Romanticism) to a desperate objective need to study the world around us (Realism, Naturalism, even, to some extent, Modernism), we are desperately needing to let go of what we thought we knew and study the world around us with fresh eyes and open ears. As long as we keep defining things in Industrial era concepts of "liberal" and "conservative," we stay dangerously divided, and more and more people will die for stupid, subjective reasons.

Meanwhile, in the past six years, the 388 billionaires who owned more than the bottom half of the world's population have become 62 billionaires, while half of the world's population lives on less than $2.50 a day. In America, job security is a thing of the past, and 48 million people live in poverty, 42 million Americans are food insecure and twice as many Americans living in poverty now live doubled up (returning to pre-industrial family living conditions), and over a half million people live in abject homelessness on any given night.

We don't want to return to a world without our phones, PCs and social media. The human potential is great and obvious. Besides, even if we wanted to, we couldn't. Technological revolution moves forward, and society adapts to it. If we want to avoid the enormity of destruction that came with the Industrial Revolution, including the full-on civil war we can all feel stirring in the darkness right now, we have to talk, to listen, to study and to strategize, not on behalf of our individual clans or ideological "friends" but on behalf of humanity itself.

In our lifetimes, we have had no greater national emergency in each of our hands than the one we have right now. So, cuss and grieve and point and shame all you need to process this new level of horror--reality TV replacing what we all thought was actual reality--and then let's get busy studying the world around us and talking about it's potential. The next four years, the next eight and the fate of future generations depend on it.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

We Gotta Get Outta This Place

I think my father's death has driven home to me the callous nature of most of the political discussions that happen in social media. He was a loyal Democrat, who sometimes voted for a Republican or an Independent if he felt that was the right choice. Jill Stein is the only candidate that comes close to articulating my positions, but that doesn't mean I don't respect those who think today's realities mean one choice or another different from what I may make at the ballot box.
I do think we will only go further Right with every election, as we have every election of my adult life (if you look at the big picture and not the minor tacking maneuvers by one President or another) until we begin to build a political base rooted in the needs of the exponentially growing numbers of people being thrown out of the system.
No one has a step-by-step tactical plan for how to do that. The organization I'm most devoted to said a while back that any serious third party motion was going to emerge first from the right. I think we've seen that in the two parties that have torn away from the traditional Republican party--the Tea Party and the Trump Party. The Bernie Sanders/Jill Stein motions have yet to achieve a similar size or level of influence. More power to the Green Party as we move forward, but in the end, it's an ideological platform, and I think our unity is going to need to be more objective than that in the long run.
That said, I don't think any real challenge to the system will arrive until we recognize that a truly progressive party has to be antagonistic to the interests of Wall Street. That means the party has to be built around the unity of those who are suffering, not the crumbs tossed off by those who benefit from suffering. 

To get there, I'm afraid there are a lot of people who trash each other on Facebook and Twitter who are going to have to set aside their differences and begin to look at their objective common ground. We all need to get much better at listening and studying our environment without jumping and fighting to preserve our individual egos or shove our political clarity down someone else's throats.
Because....Those millions of people that piss us off because they're so wrongheaded? They see things you and I don't see, and we can learn from them. If we all approach this damn thing like we might learn something from each other, then we might be able to build something lasting. divided as I think we've ever been by a transparent and obvious and superficial mainstream media and then further divided by a ridiculously narcissistic social media that thinks shaming is a great building strategy....we are conquered.
Together, we could still change the world, and we need to if we're going to save it. Today's technology makes it easier than ever, but the existing polarized system will only allow us to use its tools for the greater good if we pry them from its cold, dead hands.

But that's only a system. Human beings are capable of building many different kinds of benefit our common humanity. That's what we need to be talking about or we're simply going to face worse fascism every four years until we have no more room to fight, or even breathe.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Father's Hands

I shared some thoughts about my Dad at his memorial service last Saturday, September 24th--

When I think of Dad, I tend to think of his physicality, his big voice, his presence in the room, but mostly I think of his hands. He was an affectionate man, and he taught me to give big hugs and to shake hands like you mean it. And though he wasn’t “handy” like his own father (our family’s great mechanic), I remember him building things—some tangible, like the retaining wall that gave me my first backyard and the only toy chest I ever had. More often, I saw him use his hands to build intangible things—I saw him build organization out of scattered tables of people concerned about community issues, and I saw him build connections by using those hands to express his own feelings about insecurities other people would be afraid to admit.
In my mind, all those hands are builders’ hands, starting with what he built in me. Some of my earliest memories are nightly, violent asthma attacks. Someone would give me medicine and then, most often, Dad would sit with me and steadily rub my back until the coughing and wheezing calmed down, until I calmed down enough to lie back down and go to sleep. On those nights, Dad’s hands were never impatient, and they were never uncertain. Though the violence of my attacks probably scared him at least as much or more than than it scared me, his hand was steady assurance. We’d get through this, that hand said…and we always did.
I’ve been thinking about that hand a lot….in part because of the way it modeled how I wanted to be when Dad was suffering. Of course, Dad decided to be straightforward about death and wouldn’t let me pretend he was going to “get through it,” but I could assure him we would, his loved ones would get through this. I had to be present with him as he’d always been for me.
I’m not going to paint him as perfect. That’s important. Anybody who knew my dad knew he was a mess…..of contradictions. He advertised it. And if he was struggling with his own life as he had, periodically, throughout his life, you knew how it was going. He could get lost in his own thoughts, and sometimes, as a kid, I knew he wasn’t just going to snap out of it without a fight.
We fought, many times. There’s lots of good stories there, he and I yelling on some section road or out front of the KCK hovel where I lived after messing up my first marriage….. But one thing I can say about Dad is that we always fought through things. We always emerged from the fight with a better understanding of each other and, generally, of ourselves.
That’s because Dad was one of the most attentive people I’ve ever known. If he was listening to you, you thought about what you were saying…because he was listening hard. We wrote in the obituary that Dad put in a lot of work to overcome his own insecurities, and then he told everybody about it, offering a testimonial to the fact that a shy, pock-marked kid could find his way to make his own mark on the world. He did that very directly—by taking the job ahead of him seriously and working hard at it.
Not that he wasn’t funny. Dad had a big laugh and a great (if sometimes dense) sense of humor. Charlie Brown spoke profoundly for his sense of self. I being his bookish son, with an actual blue security blanket, got to play Linus to his Charlie from those early days when he read the Peanuts Treasury to me at bedtime. And though he learned how to tease from his own father, they were both benevolent in their approach, and most often Dad’s humor was rooted in his own failings—his inability to grasp what everyone else in the room seemed to understand or his own hurt feelings at some other inadequacy exposed. He loved such extremes as Don Rickles and Wile E. Coyote, whom he watched, respectively, late at night and early in the morning by my side. Even as a kid I got that humor was about empathy, human frailty, and figuring out ways to work through it.
So those back rubbing hands come back to me. Dad had a frail kid who couldn’t breathe right, and his response was to tell me, “You’re just fine, the way you are.” He taught that through his action, and it fit perfectly with the “You are accepted” of his theology. Each time, he kept rubbing my back until I believed him, his hands insisting on the value of love and dedication and service to others. Because he understood vulnerability, he could teach me to be strong.
I could go on and on about the ways Dad talked eye to eye with me about all of his philosophical, theological and political concerns, but I’d never do better than to say those back rubs when I was a child, they taught me how to face down my worst fears. I can never thank Dad enough for many things—his unconditional love, his passion for life and his hard fought solidity and overall sobriety—but that model for looking fear dead in the eye and facing it down with love and determination, that’s as important as all the rest put together.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Fingersnaps, Real Love and No Drama

When the young poets and artists at my Chicago book talk finger-snapped in response to something I had to say about Mary J. Blige's vision, I thought it was some idiosyncratic holdover from the beatnik coffee shop (the bookstore was part coffee shop after all). When I heard everyone doing it at the underground hip hop/poetry slam later that evening, I realized it was bigger than that. When I was speaking to a group of middle school students in Memphis, and they started doing it, I realized I was really out of touch.

Still, each time, it was something more than novel and more than nice. It was beautiful and encouraging. I quickly got, when those fingers snapped, we were hearing each other. When those fingers snapped, Chicago and Memphis resonated off one another.

That was meaningful, because the two visits (each with multiple "events") had been pretty different.

Talking in Chicago, I was thrilled to have a journalist ask me what I learned about Blige's process. That got to the heart of what I'd hoped to achieve from the beginning--to describe this artist as an artist, rather than the way pop culture figures, particularly women, are more often described--as Superwomen, as Horatio Alger stories or as fodder for gossip. Though the one reason I would have liked to have had access to Blige would be to get deeper into that answer, my research and my interviews yielded a number of answers, most notably that Blige is a generous collaborationist, especially as she's grown, humble enough to consistently embrace the scariest challenges as opportunities. Of all the interviews I read or collected, nothing showed that trait more clearly than the story told by the Higgens sisters songwriting team, who described how struck they were by Blige's openness, thoughtfulness and conscientiousness. (Give or take my couple hundred page essay, it's those varied testimonials that make me hope Blige does read the book.)

A theme that stood out in Chicago was just how important it is that Blige found a way to escape the trap of being a tragic blues figure, Blige's focus since about September 11, 2001. And this theme fed directly into one of Chicago's central questions. When the industry itself has become a tragic shadow of itself, what is the fan's responsibility to answer the call of the music, the call for community. Afterward, at a beautiful underground event called TheRAPy 101--part three rap features, part discussion of style and philosophy, part open poetry reading and hip hop jam--it hit me that the whole of the evening was helping me to better understand the title of my book, Real Love, No Drama. All of us in the room were chasing and grasping a real world concept of love, all of us shielded for those few hours from the drama outside (57 shootings that weekend in the city), all of us recharging to go back out into the world.

The students at Memphis's Soulsville Charter School deepened that meaning. I talked to a Stax Music Academy group and then a work-oriented Mployee summer program, over a hundred students total, and they schooled me in all kinds of ways. We watched the "No More Drama" video together (a video that came out before some of them were born), and they told me (alongside great input by their teachers) how that music and that video carried forward both the traditions of hip hop and soul. First, they described those forms of music in non-musical terms--as ways of knowing who you are and ways of living in the world around you. Of course they could also tell me the technical elements--the montage of sounds,  the gospel in the vocals and the overall build of the song--but they told me so much more than all that. They saw the way Blige used the video to highlight the connections between Blacks and whites and Latinos, and they recognized the way that connection extended to the call for an end of war. When we made those connections, that was when the fingers started snapping.

The students were very open about how they connected to the ideas in the song. I have to thank instructor Harry Cash for being every bit the hype man we all needed. He asked the students to raise their hands if they knew drama in their friendships, and in their family lives, and in their school. At each call, the room would explode with hands in the air. (Eddie Floyd couldn't have got more hands in the air.) In the Mployees group, it was heartbreaking when Cash asked the packed room how many of the kids had lost friends to the drama in the streets--virtually every hand went up.

But even more importantly, some soft spoken young men and women went to great pains to define just what drama meant and how it tied all of these struggles (in the world and in their lives) together. They explained that "no more drama" meant not to let your emotions get the best of you, to not just react to what's going on but find a way to reflect on the situation and strategize a way to solve these problems. One young woman in the back of the room told us she heard her own voice in Mary's. She heard the pain she felt; she heard the loss of two dear friends. To this young woman, the call for "no more drama" was "what it means to live as a young Black woman in this world."

That hit me hard because it so clearly echoed something a woman named Alexis Baptist said to me during an interview with Atlanta's WRFG (for a show called Class Chronicles). Some backstory... When I learned Ms. Baptist was going to interview me, I was more than a little starstruck. We didn't know each other, but I'd known who she was since about 1990 when I first saw her in a film called Takeover, about homeless people organizing in different parts of the country. A teenager perhaps a couple of years younger than Blige at the time, Baptist had been one of the most eloquent spokespersons for the cause. The movie made a big impression on me, and I'd been in touch with the movement from that day forward, but I didn't know Ms. Baptist. When Alexis interviewed me and told me how Mary helped her find who she was over the years, I couldn't have been more deeply moved. To hear that hurting middle schooler say much the same thing about where she was right now, it was almost too much.

And plenty enough to remind me the real reasons why I write and why I wrote a book about Mary J. Blige. These testimonials sum up for me what music does best, often without even using words. It's certainly what's it's done for me. Like Woody Guthrie once said, I write to repay "the debt I owe." One of the most satisfying outcomes of both of these visits was that they became talks about how much we need each other.

That's appropriate. Blige arrived as a part of the largest women's movement in pop music history. She was immediately draped with the mantle, "Queen of Hip Hop Soul" and embraced the responsibility for the social movements that gave her that title. It's very unlikely Blige sees class consciousness as the key to the future that I do, but she never lets go of her connection to the working class sensibility of her audience. She trusts that connection, and she nurtures it. She takes pride in who she is, and she takes pride in her audience.

For all of those reasons, all of our conversations about Blige wind up being conversations about ourselves, individually and collectively. Though she generally keeps her music secular, this is one way her Pentecostal roots speak most loudly. The question stays on the table, what is our music calling us to do?

There's a kind of answer in that moment when the fingersnaps began to swell in Memphis. It was in the midst of talking about all of this pain, and I found those fingersnaps telling me to just lay it all out there. In a world where all the news is pain and violence and division, our music calls for us to find a way to love and a way to build unity. As the fingersnaps came, I fumbled for the words, but I know my main call was for all of those students to raise their voices in every way they can--the world needs to hear them more than ever.

The fingersnaps told me they were way ahead of me, and I was right where I needed to be. DA

(Note: Thank you to the Guild Complex's Lisa Wagner for the first two pics, both from TheRAPy 101. I have no pictures from our Stax/Soulsville events, but I couldn't resist including a photo of the beautiful students who lend voice to the program.)