Saturday, December 22, 2018

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

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

Friday, December 21, 2018

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

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Doe Paoro's Soft Power Tackles the Endlessly Unexpected Everything

Pictured lifted from @theknockturnal
 After a two month hiatus, sitting on half a dozen blogs that I need to publish before the new year. Let me start here. Doe Paoro plays her last tour gig at the Larimer Lounge in Denver tonight. Having been introduced to her by the previous show in Kansas City, I feel the urgent need to get this out there.

It was one of those rare nights when I had to come home and write immediately. This is what came out:

Doe Paoro, 12/18/18, The Riot Room, KC
I greatly appreciate the opening act at tonight's Riot Room Show, Denver's Sarah Slaton (of Edison) with vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Joelle. They did a gem of a set, but the thing that Slaton said that I don't hear often enough was the reminder that mattered. Slaton called out, "Buy their merch (referring to headliner Doe Paoro)! Support touring bands!"
Support touring bands! If we could reconcile "Support Local Music" with "Support Touring Bands" nationwide, we'd be on our way to a level of political unity this country's never yet seen. (Akin in my other line of work to support students first and teachers also--adjunct, full-time, K-12, community college, vo-tech and university.)
They were great, but I came for Doe Paoro (aka Sonia Kreitzer), who I only knew out of curiosity and watching a few videos, most notably "Over," which you should check out (, but you might start with the video for "Cage of Habits" because of its tight focus on this remarkable singer
Picture lifted from @theknockturnal
It's in many ways useless to compare artists to other artists, but sometimes it's useful to suggest a spectrum. If you watch the "Cage of Habits" video, Fiona Apple might come to mind. She didn't, really, during the show. Watching and listening to Doe Paoro live, I felt like I was traveling a spectrum that ranged from Carole King (very present in Paoro's presence and eclecticism) to Rickie Lee Jones back to Eddie Cochran and through Amy Winehouse and Adele to whatever comes next. I found myself thinking about Carole King's supremely talented daughter, Louise Goffin, and burgeoning artists like Charlie Faye and Alysha Brilla, Brilla a young woman who captures the world of music in what seems a simple pop song (the way Paoro does again and again, overtly on the Indian-influenced "Born Whole" Free of past prejudices, there's a brand new territory for all young pop singers.
Paoro owns it. In her first show in Kansas City (she's from Syracuse via LA, and this was her 20th night on a cross-country tour), she didn't say this but approached the set like "you wanna real show, right, not a style or a pose or a fragment of what rock and soul have to offer"? She made her case. Her songs dealt, precisely and eloquently with the vagaries of struggling through and overcoming relationships. Her songs tackled how we live and how we grow.
That's key, because the music went deep. I wish everyone I know experienced the power of this performance. As is true of most touring bands (like local bands) night after night after night, the crowd was not big enough, period. Not big enough to support a local band, not big enough to quite justify the drive to, in this case, KC.
But what all but a couple of dozen of us missed in KC tonight was a powerful band working uncharted territory. The show rocked hard and...I wanna say, graciously, but also kept finding its way back to a meditative hard focus that threw everything else into relief.
L-R, Aeb Byrne, Doe Paoro, Leanne Bowes, Sheldon Reed
 Brief description of this band, a touring band of LA musicians, but such a great fit you hope they're not done working together anytime soon. Sheldon Reed anchored everything with his sharp and splashy drums. Then there were these two tall, formidable women, dressed in black like Paoro but sentries to her vulnerable dancing centerpiece, flanking her, framing her--a dramatic tableau that sends me scrambling through rock history for comparisons. Bassist Leanne Bowes, classically stoic (like almost all the great bassists) made sure the rhythm was not only popping but surprisingly provocative. Then there was keyboard player (and secret weapon) Aeb Byrne, who kept everything multicolored and three-dimensional....before, before, she stepped out and delivered a transcendental (think Traffic or War) flute solo that, well, exploded the boundaries of "Cruelty of Nature."
I just bought the albums at the merch table, so I'm sure I'll have more to say over time, but tonight, I want to say I saw three heroic women and one heroic man transform the local rock stage into something truly liberating, delivering nothing short of grace.
Watch for Doe Paoro, and don't forget the names Sheldon Reed, Leanne Bowes and Aeb Byrne. They're all the future and very, very present. This is the place where we find our way forward, as Paoro sings, we "Walk Through the Fire," and we arrive at musical and social and political horizons inconceivable in music before this moment.
At one point Paoro commented, "I need to get over this 'growth is hard thing' I keep writing about because I should have learned that by now." My thought was, no, not really, because growth is everything, and you never quite learn that. Growth is the endlessly unexpected everything.
As was tonight's set. 
Loose Plans (from Soft Power)         
Cage of Habit (from Soft Power)
Born Whole (from Slow to Love)
Over (from Soft Power)
Cruelty of Nature (from Soft Power)
Silver Springs (Fleetwood Mac) 
Second Door (from Soft Power
Together Apart (from Soft Power)
Walk Through the Fire (from Soft Power)
Fading Into Black (from Soft Power)