Friday, February 23, 2018

Second Folk Alliance 2018 Post: Woody, Letitia, Bri, Annie, Kyshona, Monique, and Wallis--Songs of Our World

"I hate a song that makes you think you're not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you were just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good for nothing. Cause you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim. Too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I'm out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just like you." --Woody Guthrie

I know I've "heard it" before, but I really heard it at this year's Folk Alliance when my friend Sue Martinez got me to the Bear Family Records discussion of the Carnegie Hall and Hollywood Bowl Woody Guthrie tribute concerts. Instead of the old hodgepodge of the two concerts originally released on vinyl in '72, this box set preserves almost the entirety of the two sets, featuring spoken word by Robert Ryan, Peter Fonda and Will Geer. In the first half of this Guthrie prose-poem, hearing Geer's laughter and anger put the emphasis in all the right spots to make it clear--this is not about the songs that contemplate hardship; this is about the idea of a music that makes people feel as small as the world already makes them feel. In the second half, Geer's voice rises like a musical fist, acknowledging the blues that give you the strength and dignity to fight on.

On some level, it's a summation of everything that makes me love music. It's also a summation of the corporate propaganda that fights everything good about music every step of the way. When you're in the business of identity formation, why not keep music a spectator sport?

The trick has always been the way music encourages listeners to get off the sidelines. It's that active thing in music that drew a healthy handful of musicians and cultural workers I'd never met before to the Folk Alliance session hosted by Kansas City's local of Showing Up for Racial Justice. The discussion was a fine workshop--hosted by the KC Black and Brown alliance One Struggle--but, of course a starting point, a starting point that had to face the fact that a healthy handful was not the population that should be at such an event at Folk Alliance--not next year, and not the year after that.

I met three kindred artists at that event--Nashville's Bri Murphy, who was in my group; Baltimore's Letitia Van Sant, who stopped me in the hall to talk about SURJ; and Annie Sumi, who lives in North Bay, Ontario. Because I have a hard time separating politics and music (especially when it comes to those musics that no one seems to think are political), I was curious to see each of these women play and managed to make it to Murphy and Van Sant. Murphy's bold, clear voice--unapologetically political when it wanted to be--left me wanting to hear much more. Similarly, Van Sant's conflicted yearnings promised action and inspired the same. In these women, I heard the songs that--as Woody says--though you may be "knocked for a dozen loops," ask you "to take pride in yourself and your work." One some level, why else get up there with a guitar and bare your soul? The great thing is that, when it works, it works for the audience as well. That's music's superpower.

But visiting those women in their sets opened the door to so much more. I saw Murphy in the Wisconsin room, where I also got to hear Mary Bragg and Kyshona Armstrong. They each offered beautiful songs with the kind of grit and strength that makes the listener feel stronger. Armstrong's powerful affirmation of the brotherhood and sisterhood of the human race, "Same Blood," took thematic center in the set.

A similar surprise came with the visit to the East Coast singer-songwriters around Van Sant. In that room I got to hear the clear-eyed mountain lilt of Caroline Cotter (who does a remarkable version of Guthrie's "My Peace," on her new album Home on the River) and Emily Mure's delicate ferocity. Incidentally, this set was beautifully bolstered by fine guitar I hope was played by David McKindley-Ward (or I owe someone a rewrite and apology).

And all of this beautiful fight music doesn't even touch the range suggested by the polarity between Australia's Monique Clare and Ireland's Wallis Bird. Clare is a remarkable cellist songwriter who I first met having to take a break after two other songwriters (who I wish I knew) drove her to unplayable sadness. Her terrific Aussie singer-songwriter friend Larissa Tandy filled in with a song about a mother's boyfriend that cut to the heart of feelings I only have the strength to confront on rare occasions. After that, Clare went straight to another set and showed more musical muscle than I could imagine, plunging through the sadness toward something necessary and real.

Then came Wallis Bird, in a set with Clare and, later in the conference on a stage of her own. It's hard not to think of the good-natured, go-for-the-throat mania of Ani DiFranco when watching Bird's one-woman show, but she definitely has her own thing going on. Bird's music is as hip hop as it is folk, and if that hip hop doesn't lean gangsta it certainly has a metal edge. She's loud and hard and angry and joyous--ultimately, as empowering as a primal scream. Better than that, Bird's primal therapy makes you want to dance. That whole set is on line here--

And I never saw Annie Sumi, not this time. But we talked, at the very end of everything, we talked. We talked about some of the heaviness of our lives and how it didn't make anything easier, but she was unusually bold and strong in the way she embraced our conversation and embraced life. After all, that daily pain is also exactly why we do what we do.

So I had to go look for her on line. Among many other videos that make me want to watch more, I found this, all about holding you up, not knocking you down. At it's best, that's the heart of the Folk Alliance, a yearly event that reminds me to look deeper, think longer and recognize that little bit of god in everything....even me.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Once Was Blind, But Now? Chris Lee Becker and Company Leave Folk Alliance Shaken

The end of the last Kansas City Folk Alliance, for me, came a little after 11:00 Saturday night at the end of four days of continuous music. To say it served as an exclamation point is to trivialize it.

It was at the start of Chris Lee Becker's set. Becker’s a wonderfully distinctive singer-songwriter who happens to come from my hometown, Bartlesville, Oklahoma. He has this eye for detail and a dark, wry sense of humor which I think of as his trademark. 

Anyway, Folk Alliance private showcases are, at most, about half an hour long. Becker, normally close to a solo act, came out with three extra “singers” (the quotes here because that wasn’t quite their role in this moment)—Beau Roberson, the lead singer-songwriter for Tulsa’s great band Pilgrim; Oklahoma singer-songwriter, Carter Sampson; and Tulsa singer-songwriter Dan Martin. They were backed by a full band.

Sampson squeezed Roberson’s hand before they started. Something was up, but I was too dumb to realize it was actually what they were about to do.

Becker started reading off a list of I was too shell shocked to remember what the questions were until a video emerged later. I remembered the one that made me struggle to reclaim the shocked laugh from my throat. It was "Is the number of humans killed in a shooting directly related to the number of hours we care about it?" Other questions followed, serious questions about how the fuck we deal with all of this mass murder in our society.

"If you kill twenty five people, do you get fifty hours of coverage, do you get seventy-five, do you get a hundred?
Are there bonus hours for dead children?
How many muscles does it take to pull a trigger?
How many muscles does it take to hug our loved ones?
How many muscles does it take to be a human shield?
To wrap our bodies around someone, envelope them, to surround them?"
Will the bullets lodge in our rib cages?
Or will they fly straight through us?

"The second amendment defines no limitations on the arms we have a right to bear,
But we are human,
Warm hearts beat in our chests,
We are empathetic,
We are members of our villages and citizens of our race--
Is that why no one has created the National Pipe Bomb Association?

"A man says 'Don't Tread on Me,' and we rally behind him;
We have fundraisers, we have parades, we chant his name.
A man says, 'Please don't shoot me,' and we are quiet,
And we listen for the inevitable 'bang!'

"Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder while seeking a formula for immortality--
Did they find it?"

Then, the three "singers" began reading the names of schools, shopping centers, movie theaters--most of them familiar--the sites of mass murders starting with Columbine. Each person read a name; the second one repeated it; the third one repeated it once again. Becker and the band played a sort of instrumental interlude behind them. 

The list was interminable. The music kept going, Becker picking his mandolin, an arpeggio in a holding pattern. Tulsa's Jesse Aycock and Jared Tyler on steel and resonator, respectively, making some simmering sound that reverberated through the room riding waves of pain. At some point, around the time my eyes blurred, Sampson fell out, momentarily. The readers occasionally touched each other's arms or held hands. And it kept going. The music kept going and the list kept going. It seemed it would never stop before eventually arriving at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Roberson finished the list declaring, “And many, many, MANY more!” The others repeated what he said.
According to a Facebook post by McAlester, Oklahoma singer-songwriter Levi Parham, the list lasted ten minutes. It felt like the eternity it was.

As it ended, the mandolin was playing a more identifiable melody, not that I could place it. The instrumental accompaniment stopped. Tyler threw his head back and launched into an acapella "Amazing Grace," the melody that had been just under the surface. The whole room started to sing along.

It's hard to overstate what an inversion of "hopes and prayers" that moment presented. "Was blind but now I see" became a message of hope. For me, it felt like a middle American—a rural American even—call for rebirth, and it couldn't have sounded much closer to Martin Luther King's 1968 Southern Christian Leadership Conference speech if that speech, in fact, had somehow been recited. In that speech, so close to his death, King called for America to be born again—born again to realize the hopes and dreams, the vision, that has bound this country together in its moments of greatness.

Now, that's me speaking, of course, but the moment showed something devastating and deep about the power of music. The room was shaken. I went out in the hall, and I heard (I think) Tulsa's Jacob Tovar telling my friend Jeff Freling about it. There was a spooky quiet all around.

I had to leave because my daughter needed to be picked up, but I remember wondering how in hell Becker was going to follow that.

I heard a lot of wonderful music this Folk Alliance, as usual. I heard some great music. But that moment struck such a raw hard chord, I'm not sure I've ever experienced anything quite like it.

(Thank you Mike, for having a better memory than the guy sitting next to you.)

Newly added video here. It took me almost a week, but I revised the above accordingly. Embedded below and linked--

Thursday, January 04, 2018

"Don't Forget How Valuable You Are," Mary J. Blige and Her Fans

For Lauren, one of the strongest women I'll ever imagine much less believe I've known:

This was a tough one for me. I’m coming out of a 16 year relationship and marriage; Mary J. Blige is coming out of the same length marriage, and she's brought a whole album hard-focused on the process. “Thick of It” was the first single because that’s precisely what it’s about.

Sure, sounds helpful, and it is, but it's also every bit as hard. It would be easy if Mary simply got your anger out and cheered you forward. That’s what a lot of critics seem to hear. But what I hear is the push pull of the keys and bass at the center of “Thick of It." This album is about being pushed one way and pulled another because the separation of two human beings cannot be done without unfathomable pain.

Blige does express that pain, and an anger fingering fantasies of revenge, but the brilliance of MJB is that she’s too honest an artist not to turn the questions over in her head. “Love ain’t just black and white,” she announces from the start. Or the thorny undercurrents of the relatively soothing soul of “U & Me (Love Lesson),” a record about how much we don’t know about our most basic motivations.

Despite the two nods to The London Sessions, the spare ballad “Smile” or the raver “Find the Love,” most of this album is firmly anchored in the rich blend of utterly contemporary American hip hop Blige has come to sling like gut bucket blues. And if that doesn’t sound like the highest compliment, you’re not hearing me.

The album starts, over a building but halting piano, with the singer asking how she reached this hellish precipice in her life and answering herself, “I got here with love.” Each time she answers herself, the paradox becomes clearer. Love can be hell, fire and brimstone hell, but this woman knows (and her fans know) everything good came from that same source.

Of course, Blige is making a career statement. Since her first crossover hit, “Real Love,” she’s been about where love takes her. Her empathy has been her guide, and it’s kept her rooted to her audience in a way celebrity divas simply can’t replicate. One might cast Ms. Blige in a VH1 special with that name, but “celebrity” or “diva” just doesn’t quite fit.

Blige carefully maintains that connection to her audience because that is how she sees herself--as one of her fans who's made it to the mainstage. She can write inspirational lyrics, but she respects herself too much to skip the confusion and the pain. At the end of a decade of wrestling with the vagaries of love in marriage, Blige has made her most explicit navigational album to get the hell out—using “love” as the north star and “truth” as the random variable that must be figured into the equation. 

Funny thing, on my Target exclusive, the two extra songs are “The Naked Truth” (which is about the most exposed, romantic yearning on the record) and “Love in the Middle” (which is explaining just how the singer keeps her balance on this love question). In other words, the bonus tracks underscore the need to square the “love” and “truth” that troubles this entire record.

Does it square the circle? Of course not, but it circles the square, and that brings everyone listening into the problem asking the right questions. Title track “Strength of a Woman” does something more, too. It celebrates the singularity of womanhood as well as the many feminine roles ignored by manhood and often under siege to men’s virility. Of course, the main key here is also “love,” all you really need.

She delivers that message without idealism or irony. It’s something sky-is-blue knowable. Love is how she got here, and it’s how we got here. If you wanna keep your eye on the ball, you gotta keep an eye on love.

In reality, easier said than done doesn’t begin to explain the problems that lie ahead, but it’s why people make music. And it’s why we play it, and it’s one way we hang on.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Talking Musical Revolutions

The world’s changing rapidly, and so is this business of writing about music. It’s not what it was when my first musical mentor, James McGraw, introduced this Oklahoma kid to underground music and Rolling Stone, and it’s not what it was when my first music writing mentor, Dave Marsh, started schooling me with record reviews and American Grandstand. It’s not what it was when I first discovered Trouser Press, Maximum Rock & Roll, Guitar Player, Musician, The Source and Vibe. It’s not what it was when my friends and I started our first rock & politics newsletter.

In some of its academic tendencies, it’s certainly become more thoroughly informed, and it’s probably more broadly populist than ever. So there’s an upside. 

But what I don’t see vividly enough is rock and rap writing as a completion of the circuit of the music itself. When I started, I saw it as an art form that played a role in the culture—as breaking was to graffiti was to hip hop. I never got very good at that guitar, but I wanted to make my own kind of answer records with words.

In 2018, of course words are more prevalent than ever, but they don’t seem to be read, enough. This has something to do with why Marsh’s greatest critical output the past ten years has been through his SiriusXM radio show Kick out the Jams. And it’s why my brother, Lee Ballinger, has so inspired me with his Love and War podcast. It’s also why I’m inspired by Daniel Wolff’s continuous community conversations in the wake of Grown-Up Anger.

And it’s why I feel I have to take three paragraphs to even begin to give context to what journalist/poet Gavin Martin’s new album, Talking Musical Revolutions, means to me.

Born out of a series of musical/spoken word events, Martin’s album is cultural criticism as music. It teaches its lessons phrase-by-phrase with each listen, it sweetens those lessons with driving bass and drums, shimmering guitar and keys.

Many of Martin’s songs are poetic essays on musical icons—Wilko Johnson, David Bowie, Rory Gallagher, The Sex Pistols and Marvin Gaye—while others deal with the seedy relationship between DJ and pedophile Jimmy Savile and Margaret Thatcher and a fantasy derived from an environmentally damaged seagull that overturns Irish Protestant delusion. Perhaps my favorite, for all kinds of personal and musical reasons, is album closer, “Time Spills,” the tale of the destruction of a beloved friend. All of it is urgently about why music matters.

The accompaniment is remarkable throughout. This is poetic rock in the tradition of The Last Poets, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll and John Trudell. By that I mean the music doesn’t just add atmosphere, it carries things home.

Often, it works as a sort of juxtaposition. While “The Pistols of Sex” has a wall of guitars that calls to mind the band, the epic tribute to David Bowie, “Talking David Bowie” has a hip hop sensibility and the tale of Marvin Gaye, “Long Hard Road to Be Free (For Marvin)” takes the form of gothic rock, though the guitar is indeed soulful. These mixed sensibilities broaden the tent in ways words in a magazine once promised.

I’ve learned to listen to all of these artists with different ears, Gallagher and Johnson, essentially, for the first time. I’ve gained a deepened sense of the political dimensions of everything at play here, even the most personal aspects of our lives. As much as anything I’ve gained a sense of possibility, and it starts at a dead end.  Here's the opener:

The quasi-Martin character that starts the album with “I Want to Tell You Something” is the danger all around—the drunken old-timer at the bar, telling you what it all meant when it really meant something, reminding you of your inadequacy having never been from a certain place and time. He speaks directly for the 16 year old me in the 55 year old body. 

But Martin shifts point of view to cast doubt on the old punk. He's doesn't want to believe it's all over. He sees the danger (and the delusion) there.  (In an added verse on the lyric sheet, Martin makes it plain.) The past wasn’t everything we think it was any more than the present is everything we think it isn’t. The truth is we gotta roll with where we are, and there’s no time to waste. The world is changing so fast we constantly need to be rethinking our jobs.

Not that we should waste time second guessing every glimpse of the truth. The appeal of "I Want to Tell You Something" is that the character is talking about real salvation. Everything was, in fact, there in the past, but it only means what it could if we reconcile it with today. With Talking Musical Revolutions, Gavin Martin finds a way forward. The clear call to the rest of us is to find ours.