By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Harry Belafonte in recent years has been positively Kanye-esque in his outspokenness.
The 85-year-old singer — a revered icon in American pop music, the King of Calypso, the resonant voice behind the 1956 classic "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" — has tallied headlines for his frank opinions on matters ranging from U.S. foreign policy to race relations.
In 2002, Belafonte likened Secretary of State Colin Powell to a "house slave" for his acquiescence to the invasion of Iraq. He called President Bush "the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world" during a 2006 meeting with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
Last month during an MSNBC interview, he advocated the jailing of Obama's obstructionist Republican opponents: "The only thing left for Barack Obama to do is to work like a Third World dictator and just put all these guys in jail."
No surprise, perhaps, that Belafonte says he considers himself an activist first.
"I'm an activist who became an entertainer," Belafonte told the Sun-Times. "It's usually the other way around."
Belafonte's legacy as an entertainer, though, is not easy to overshadow. "Calypso," the '56 record that launched an American craze for its namesake music, was the first U.S. LP to sell a million copies. His career since has been intertwined with other pillars of music (his 1962 "Midnight Special" album contains the first-ever recording of a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan) and politics (he campaigned for and worked with President Kennedy).
Belafonte also maintained a relationship with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — a friendship that began in 1950 and which Belafonte says transformed his life — and he's spending January traveling the country to speak about it.
His free keynote address at 6 p.m. Jan. 28 at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Dr. on the campus in Evanston, concludes two weeks of events at the university celebrating King's life and legacy. NU recently made Martin Luther King Day an official university holiday; Jan. 21 was its first.
Last week, Belafonte spoke with the Sun-Times about his activism, his music and his fond memories of King.
Q: You're speaking about Dr. King at a number of universities and events this month. How did this tour come about now?
Belafonte: For the last many years, each time Dr. King's birthday comes up or the anniversary of his death, there's always a call by institutions and individuals to speak on the subject. Depending on the state of the union, I go and I speak and make commentary on what he might have observed and said if he'd been around today.
Q: That's a tall order, speculating on the observations of someone who's not around. How do you go about it?
Belafonte: What I find satisfying about the process is the getting into a social discourse on the state of our being universally. When you speak on what Dr. King might have said, it gives you a lot of latitude of putting propositions out of your own voice and opinion. It may carry a response that would be challenging to your point of view, but if you say it in the name of what Dr. King might have said people pause a little longer before giving you a rebuttal because they respect what he said and what he did. It has a little more nuance than if you say something yourself, and under that umbrella you can make a lot of observations about the social condition and bring up a lot of things for discussion.
Q: Where has King's legacy succeeded?
Belafonte: The real beauty and power of what the [Civil Rights] movement achieved — when you look back at the cunning and brutality and smarts and resources poured into trying to roll back the clock and end affirmative action and women's rights and so many things — is that the opposition has miserably failed. Including trying to stop Obama getting re-elected. There's the real tribute to what King achieved. Not from what we've taken but in stopping the opposition from defeating it.
Q: King is such a mythic figure. Tell me something sensory, something human about him.
Belafonte: What endeared him to me was the way in which he wrenched over the decisions he had to make. To watch him unable to sleep, develop all kinds of psychological disorders. He had a tic that plagued him constantly. It wasn't a stutter. It was a nervous disorder that gave him kind of a — he couldn't complete a sentence without a gasp for air. One day he seemed to no longer have that affliction.
Q: What happened?
Belafonte: I hosted the Johnny Carson show in February 1968 for a week. ... Dr. King was a guest, and he showed up late, turned up just as we'd gone on the air. He came on, and I asked him what happened. He said he'd gotten here and told the cab driver to hurry to the studio. He said, 'This guy took me on a Wild West ride.' He's saying this to the audience, 'I had to hang on for dear life, and when he stopped for a light I said, "Young man, I'd rather be considered a Martin Luther King late than the late Martin Luther King. Slow down." I said, 'On that subject, what do you think about death.' He gave an answer that's since been used a thousand times in looking back on his legacy. But I said, 'What happened to the tic?' I didn't say it on the air. He said, 'I made my peace with death.' It was a subliminal display of a tremendous anxiety, not so much about death as it affected him but when he made a decision his first consideration was that there could be violence and someone could lose their life, and I've led people into this conflict and do I have this right? [King was assassinated weeks later, April 4, 1968.]
Q: The last time I heard "Day O" it was a sample in Lil Wayne's "6 Foot, 7 Foot." What's your opinion of your catalog getting sampled?
Belafonte: I love it. I'm not a protectionist. I was talking to [blues legend] Brownie McGhee once about purism in folk music. He said all songs are folk songs. He said, 'Harry, the first song ever sung by a human being was "Ugh."' You know, the Neanderthals around the campfire trying to keep warm, and everything since 'Ugh' has been a distortion of that. Anybody can take my song. They can glady have it, because it was never my song.
Q: Right, your version was based on several that came before.
Belafonte: "Day-O" has a long history. Who knows where it came from. By the time it came to me it was full-blown. I had a happy time singing it.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
2012 is the centenary for two seminal figures in American music: folksinger Woody Guthrie and composer John Cage, both born in 1912.
They had a few things in common, believe it or not. Both were bold pioneers of their respective genres. Both dabbled in Eastern mysticism (well, Guthrie dabbled, Cage dove in). Both fell in love with dancers the second time around (Guthrie married Marjorie Greenblatt from the Martha Stewart company, Cage partnered with Merce Cunningham).
They probably never met, but Guthrie is on record as being deeply affected by some of Cage's groundbreaking, boundary-busting classical music. On July 10, 1947 — the day his wife, Marjorie, gave birth to his son Arlo — Guthrie wrote a fan letter to the Disc Co. of America. He'd been listening to Maro Ajemian's recording of the "prepared piano" solos (in which piano strings are augmented with screws, cards and more) from Cage's "Amores," and Guthrie declared that "this sort of piano music was really a keen fresh breeze ... a welcome thing in the way of a healthy change from the old ways."
Guthrie and Cage strived (and sometimes starved) in the service of that goal — to freshen the stale ways of each particular niche in which they found themselves.
As a result, the other and primary commonality between Guthrie and Cage is their different but deep, deep influences on modern pop and rock music. Guthrie's influence is better cataloged and freely bantered about — anyone who's heard, say, Springsteen open his mouth during the last eight months can attest to that — but Cage's imprint is, well, cagier.
Like Guthrie, Cage's legacy is often appreciated more for his ideals than his actual compositions.
"His theory, which was the strongest, utilitarian, American theory of music, was addressing the purity and the [at the time] European expectation of purity in music. He said there is none," John Cale says.
Before joining deeply influential rock band the Velvet Underground in the late '60s, Cale was a classically trained viola player who conducted the debut of Cage's "Concert for Piano and Orchestra."
"He said if you go to a concert intending to concentrate cleanly on what you hear, you can focus all you want but you're going to hear traffic, people coughing, rustling. So forget about purity," Cale tells the Sun-Times. "What he was really talking about is sound design, such as in theater or filmmaking. You can't ever hear the music just purely; you're going to hear it in context. That's where he brought the concert hall out into the street."
That basic idea found its ultimate expression in Cage's "4'33"." Titled for its duration, the 1952 piece calls for any kind and any number of musicians to sit quietly, not playing anything, for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds.
The idea is that the inevitable sounds of the performance space — a humming air system, a footfall, a sneeze or two, the general cacophony of an allegedly silent room — create the "music." As Cage described of the piece's controversial 1952 premiere, "You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out."
Cage was quite serious about that piece — as well as his "prepared piano" compositions, his looped experiments with audio equipment, even when he'd drink a carton of milk on stage with a microphone at his throat.
But his daring and his derring-do often came with a wink.
"John was a really mischievous guy. I liked his sense of humor," Cale says. "It was such a relief for me. I was clinging to the Dadaists and Fluxus, and they were fun, but then the [German composer Karl] Stockhausen school was so intense and serious. ... I read John's Zen koans and his work with silence, and it was a relief. I liked the playful nature of his ideas. I mean, '4'33"?' — you know, they broadcast it on BBC [in 2004]." He chuckles. "One of the guys told me, 'At the Beeb, they don't allow silence on the broadcast waves. They have a system that if something goes off and there's dead air, it automatically puts in an old political speech or music. So when they did '4'33",' they had to shut that system off."
"4'33"" has even been recorded, including versions by Andrew W.K. and Frank Zappa, and appears on online in numerous versions, including a "dubstep remix."
Museum of Contemporary Art curator Lynne Warren's favorite version is a version by a self-professed death metal drummer, filmed and posted on YouTube. He sits behind a drum kits for only slightly more than a minute, later explaining that he played "a little faster than the original tempo."
"A lot of the myth about Cage is that he gave you permission to do anything, and that's absolutely not true," Museum of Contemporary Art curator Lynne Warren says. "He gave permission to go beyond one's presuppositions, habits of mind, rote ways of doing things. He taught people to listen in certain ways, to get rid of one's ego. It's hard to pin down. It's not like you can say this was the first pop musician to put on a costume and prance around doing glam rock. There's no real linear explanation of his influence."
Warren hopes to illuminate that slippery pedigree by opening up the MCA's library for "MCA DNA: John Cage," an exhibit opening Sept. 1 that seeks to show the interdisciplinary nature of Cage's music and its impact. Listening stations will present his music, but visitors also will be able to see, and in some cases handle, Cage scores and other work.
"People have asked, 'Why are you showing Cage materials, like scores, as art?'?" Warren said. "The answer is that he considered them works of art, and he made works of art himself — prints, drawings, some scores are based on a painting he'd done. You absolutely cannot pigeonhole him, even into one art form."
The MCA exhibit spotlights Cage's recurring relationship with Chicago and the museum itself. Cage lived in Chicago briefly (1941-42) and returned throughout the years for performances and festivals.
Warren says one of the museum's most requested images for reproduction is the city map Cage used to compose "A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity" (1978), a sound collage based on recordings made at 427 Chicago locations, determined by Cage's favorite composing method: chance. (Hear it here.)
Another return to Illinois included Cage's 1969 premiere of "HPSCHD" in an Urbana arena. The composition called for seven harpsichords, 52 tape machines, 59 amplifiers, 59 speakers, 64 slide projectors (using 6,400 slides), eight film projectors (showing 40 films), one 340-foot circular screen and 11 rectangular screens. A New York Times review reported, "Some of those present were supine, their eyes closed, grooving on the multiple stereophony."
Thread that image through your memory of various multimedia art, rock and art-rock performances you've seen. Then the visuals of the Talking Heads and MTV, the sound experiments of Brian Eno and the Flaming Lips, the anything-goes-and-should spirit of concerts by Frank Zappa and Sonic Youth — it all has clear roots.
"MCA DNA: John Cage" runs Sept. 1-March 3 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. (312-280-2660; mcachicago.org).
John Cale performs separately as part of the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 21 at the Riverfront Theater, 650 W. Chicago (brilliantcornersofpopularamusements.com).
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's been a banner year for power pop revivals. We've gotten new discs from Winston-Salem, N.C.'s the dB's (first with the original lineup in 30 years), Hawthorne, Calif.'s Redd Kross (first new material in 15 years) and now Zion, Ill.'s acclaimed Shoes — back with "Ignition," out now [★★★1/2], the first new album since 1994.
"When you go over the years and what we've been through, the delay makes sense. It just looks bad on paper," says founding Shoes member John Murphy with a chuckle. "I just saw No Doubt's together again. They haven't had a record in eight or 10 years. We just get used to the fact that these super-successful bands take forever to deliver a follow-up."
Shoes or any power pop band, really, could never be described as "super-successful." But while the core trio — singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, plus brother John Murphy on bass — has never had a mass following, they always seem to be followed.
When home-recording equipment was more available and affordable in the mid-'70s, Shoes were already there — recording three albums in their living room (the limited-release "Un Dans Versailles," 1975, the shelved "Bazooka," 1976, and the official debut, "Black Vinyl Shoes," later in 1976, which was hailed as "one of the finest home-brewed releases ever" by Trouser Press rock critic Ira Robbins).
When major record labels were flush and throwing money at bands, Shoes were there — getting picked up by Elektra for three albums (starting with "Present Tense" in 1979).
When the money ran dry and bands were being cut loose, many starting their own independent labels — Shoes were there, releasing compilations, live and new albums on their own Black Vinyl label through the '90s.
"Shoes were, quite simply, everywhere in the music industry from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s," says Mary Donnelly, a New York professor and blogger (powerpop.blogspot.com), who's about to publish Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes this fall. "They saw all the trends — the decadence and wild parties, money-is-no-object production and promotion, the crash of the industry in the early '80s, MTV (and the skepticism it engendered), the rise of college rock and indie and alternative, the problems wrought by independent distribution and the rise of digital recording. They were everywhere."
Murphy, ever humble and down-home, chuckles again.
"We've been kind of Forrest Gump-ing through time," he says.
Given how they pop up on the crest of each industry trend, you'd be forgiven for expecting their sound to have changed proportionally as well. Now in their late 50s, Shoes, however, have remained astonishingly consistent in their production of tuneful, harmonized, guitar-driven power-pop. The quality songwriting and, to some extent, the production of "Ignition" could fall anywhere within the band's nearly four-decade career.
"It's about how you absorb these things and how you turn them back out," Murphy says, trying to explain the band's through-line. "If you were to write the same song every year of your life, it would somehow be different each year. You'd attack it differently. It would come out of you differently. But it's still you writing the song."
"They tend to downplay their talents, but they're remarkable, instinctive writers," Donnelly says. "They can't even really explain what they do in a language that makes sense to anyone but themselves. And that hard work and authenticity shines through in everything they do."
Explaining the 18-year gap in new music, Murphy ticks off a litany of business woes that kept the band stymied. The shuttering of their recording studio, Short Order Recorder — a downtown Zion storefront where other revered power poppers, such as Material Issue and fellow Zion natives Local H, cut crucial records — was a "traumatic event," Murphy says. Selling the building took years.
The savior of Shoes, though, would be yet another home studio.
"We were at Gary's house one Sunday night, and we'd been there all night — it's midnight and we're getting ready to leave — and Gary says, 'Come here, I want to show you something,' " Murphy says. "Here it was. He surprised us. He'd moved in 2010 and started building this studio in his basement, buying gear along the way, stockpiling mikes and getting good deals.
"And Jeff happened to have a little song."
The song was "Out of Round," a few melancholy chords Jeff Murphy had cooked up, for which the other two dove into Klebe's basement to add a curious piano riff and some swirling sounds. It's an unusual track in the Shoes canon.
"We got into a groove. We kept going and going," Murphy says.
While much of "Ignition" wound up square within the footsteps of traditional Shoes, "Out of Round" isn't the album's only left-turn track. In our conversation, I had to bring up "Hot Mess," one of two songs credited to all three writers — and one with a surprising, almost AC/DC groove.
"Did you like it?" Murphy asks, nervously. "I ask because we knew it would be a polarizing track, that some people wouldn't dig it. Gary laid those guitars out, and Jeff and I said, 'Mmmm, sounds Stones-y!' He said, 'We could change that,' and I said, 'No, I don't think we should. Let's go down that road.' The thought process as we were building it was: What would Mick and Keith do? Plus, I started coming up with lyrics to make them laugh. I'd come out of the room, and they'd say, 'Did you just say...?!' But we really wanted this to sound like real music, not just a parody or a joke, not sarcastic. We wanted this, like anything we've done, to stand as real music."
Therein lies the struggle of every power pop band in America — striking the difficult balance between being influenced and being a thinly veiled cover band, between being a new voice and an echo.
The influences of Shoes are as obvious as they are alliterative: Beatles, Badfinger, Byrds, Big Star, Raspberries. But a 1979 feature in Trouser Press magazine quoted John Murphy describing the band's genesis as "a reaction to the things we hated. All there was at the time was Bowie, T. Rex and the Deep Purple school."
"We're more glass half-full on that now. That was pretty glass half-empty back then," Murphy says today. "Gary [then in Champaign] and I would write letters back and forth, talking early '70s and how things were about to get worse, saying, 'Ah, what happened to the early Beatles,' and 'Now all these horn bands like Chicago are coming along.' As soon as we found our way, here came disco, which absolutely took over. Now we can look back and see disco as this quaint period of time — aw, the cute little 'shake your booty' lyrics — like looking at 1920s music. But it didn't seem like that then. It was a survival thing for those who liked rock."
Donnelly describes growing up in a household full of brothers constantly playing Beatles records. "And just as I was reaching my music-buying stage, 12 or so, there was Shoes — like and not like at the same time," she says. "They were my first band, my declaration of independence, my own soundtrack. Though I never had the kind of gut-wrenching heartbreak they promised me in junior high school, there was always something about the hard-soft dichotomy, the shifting voices of the three principals that just spoke to me about how beauty and pain and power can travel together."
So here's Shoes in 2012, still shifting voices and songwriting duties — just like kindred, talent-stuffed spirits such as Sloan, Teenage Fanclub, the dB's, etc. — for another finely crafted, homemade, indie-rock record.
They're so behind the times, they're current.
Murphy drops things in conversation like "That YouTube is something else" and "I don't even have an iPod," but it's one of his songs on "Ignition" that updates the time-honored romantic lament to include "rambling emails and bitter tweets" ("I Thought You Knew").
"Power pop always fits," he says. "In today's world, it's more indie or alternative, whatever that word means, but it still has the same direction. It's just that now we're trying to do it more adult — I hate to use that word. Maturity, maybe. People say, 'Oh, you're a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl band.' But not really. It's about relationship songs. That's relevant to any age, any era."
In addition to the new album and the publication of Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, Chicago's lauded Numero Group label is releasing this fall four vinyl Shoes LPs in a series ("One in Versailles," "Black Vinyl Shoes," "Bazooka" and "Pre-Tense Demos: 1978-1979," the demos for the "Present Tense" album). Expect the full Shoes vinyl experience, including lyrics sheets, photos and (yes!) T-shirt iron-ons.
An expanded best-of collection is due this fall, too, but Murphy says no live shows are currently in the works.
Shoes and Zion a matched pair
If you've ever read anything about the band Shoes, it's almost always been "Zion, Ill.'s Shoes."
Given the mythical power of the Chicago exurb's name, it's been attached to the band as a descriptor far more often than is the case with the origins of most other musical acts.
"Zion just has this weird mystery to it," bassist-songwriter Jeff Murphy says. "If you ask people in Chicago, they'll say they know it's dry and that the street names are all biblical."
Mary Donnelly's book on the band, Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, includes a mini-history of the town, founded between Chicago and Milwaukee in 1901 by John Alexander Dowie.
"Zion was founded as a religious haven where spitting and bacon and alcohol and doctors were all illegal," Donnelly says. "But it didn't go to well for Dowie, who had pretty extravagant tastes, and the misfortune to get ill — a real problem if you're a faith healer and say that illness is the sign of Satan.
"By the time Shoes were raised there, it was still kind of weirdly religious, but no longer quite so cult-like. Still, they were raised in a town where bikinis and lottery tickets and beer were all banned by law. It's no wonder they were never a bar band: There were no bars!"
For an aspiring pop band, the association wasn't welcome in the beginning.
"At first, we tried to shake it, like we'd stepped in dog s---," Murphy says. "We thought, 'Are they making fun of us [by citing it all the time]?' Then we gave into it. It's part of our story. It sounds funny, I suppose. Everybody's gotta be from somewhere."
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
This SXSW post is not brought to you by an Austin homeless person
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2012 6:09 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Perhaps you've heard that the zeitgeist at the annual South by Southwest culturefest is now located in the Interactive segment, rather than the conference's original Music portion. Must be true — the first real controversy of SXSW 2012 occurred before many music critics had landed in the Texas capital.
SXSW is now a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 9; the music blares on through March 18.
But it's a crowded event, with celebrities, journalists and industry types jamming the Austin Convention Center and venues throughout downtown. Last year, nearly 20,000 registrants attended the Interactive portion — which wraps up today, just as the Music showcases begin tonight. As you might imagine, mobile bandwidth comes at a premium.
So BBH Labs, the techie division of the marketing agency BBH, tried a little experiment.
They gathered 13 people from a local homeless shelter, gave them mobile 4G Wi-Fi devices and sent them into the throng. Each volunteer wore a T-shirt saying, "I'm [Homeless Person's Name], a 4G Hotspot."
Many have found the campaign insensitive. Wired.com wrote that it "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a "blunt display of unselfconscious gall." In an online op-ed, The Washington Post wondered "Have we lost our humanity?"
The company paid the homeless workers $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York. They also were able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.
When you log on to one of the Homeless Hot Spots sites, customers are introduced to the person providing the connection and are invited to make a donation. A statement on the page reads: "Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations."
Saneel Radia, the BBH Labs director who oversaw the project, told the New York Times the company was not taking advantage of the homeless volunteers.
Other might want to get in on the action, though. My cab driver from the airport said, "Hell, they can load up my cab and I'll drive around with a hundred hotspots, long as I can keep the meter running."
SXSW dials down the digital, cranks up the music
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let the music begin. For days here in the Texas capital, tastemakers from digital ventures and the film industry have been unveiling their wares at the South by Southwest culture conference. Tuesday night, however, the programming shifted back to what built SXSW a quarter century ago: music.
More than 2,000 bands will roll their gear into Austin during the next few days, performing on more than 90 official stages. Last year, more than 16,000 registrants attended the music portion of the festival, including artists, publicists, industry scouts and a lot of media.
Music is a hot topic among digital pioneers, of course, so concert stages were under way earlier in the week. Hip-hop titan Jay-Z performed Monday night for an invitation crowd.
Tuesday night, as the Interactive sessions died down, the music showcases revved up. Last year was the first time music showcases started backing into the Tuesday of SXSW week, and there were more this year.
Chief among them was the return of Philly singer-rapper Santigold, acclaimed upon her 2008 debut and not heard from much since. Now she's out hyping her upcoming sophomore set, "Master of My Make-Believe," due May 1.
This being Austin, there was also a crowded fete for the loveable and quirky Daniel Johnston, a beloved area singer-songwriter.
The music programming starts in earnest today and continues through the weekend, with Bruce Springsteen giving the keynote address midday Thursday and performing later that night with the E Street Band, which launches its next tour this weekend.
Got a SiriusXM radio or a friend who does? The SiriusXMU channel is airing SXSW broadcasts all week, including the Friday night outdoor concert by the Shins.
SXSW: Alabama Shakes deserves the hype
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 5:06 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Buzz bands at the annual South by Southwest music conference have a lot in common with those who win best new artist at the Grammys. You tend to not hear much from them afterward. (Last year, conference attendees and wristband fans clawed over each other to get into showcases by London fuzz-rock band Yuck. Who? Exactly.)
Possibly the buzziest of the buzz bands at this year's SXSW (so far) is Alabama Shakes — but this is a band you're going to hear much more from.
Fresh out of the piney woods just an hour downriver from the legendary soul studios at Muscle Shoals — and with only a couple of EPs to their credit thus far — Alabama Shakes is a fiery quintet of youngsters playing country-soul that both Skynyrd and Otis could love.
The anticipation generated one of the largest crowds ever for a daytime showcase at the Austin Convention Center, with several hundred filling a ballroom for the group's Wednesday afternoon performance. The band just played a sold-out gig last weekend at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
For the most part, the hype is deserved. Lead singer Brittany Howard is a cool storm, one of those young singers exuding confidence beyond her years and presence possibly beyond this earthly realm. She pulls her accent back, often singing through rounded cheeks that add an extra dimension to her growls and wails. Her voice isn't a wide-ranging beast (her high notes are thin), but it's a beast nonetheless, purring like Macy Gray or exploding in very occasional fits of Janis Joplin.
The band supports her with remarkably restrained backing, controlling the dynamics of every song — slowing down when it wants to get fast, and vice versa — like making great love. Each player keeps things tuneful but spare — leaving huge spaces for Howard to snake through, then unleashing rare bursts of carefully timed fury. In that respect, they could use a songwriting mentor; at least half the set features rocking soul numbers that develop the same way, always ending with the band grinding hard while Howard wails something appropriately animalistic and urgent over and over ("Feels good!" or "Yes, he did!!" or "Well, all right!!!"). The band's ninth and final song, the dramatic groove of "You Ain't Alone," followed that template and resulted in their second standing ovation of the set.
SXSW: Little Steven on TV, Broadway, Springsteen tour
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 8:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Little Steven Van Zandt had a good chuckle about an alleged rumor reported this week during South by Southwest.
A writer at Magnet music magazine claimed he'd heard that, for their anticipated Thursday night performance during the annual music festival, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band would be performing a version of the Broadway musical "The Music Man." (The writer later confessed, not surprisingly, "I made it up.")
"You never know, though," Van Zandt said during a chat Wednesday with the Sun-Times, laughing heartily at the idea. "[Springsteen] might have some Broadway up his sleeve."
Van Zandt is in Austin this week for a couple of reasons. In addition to the Thursday night show, he's also promoting something SXSW hardly deals with it all: a TV show.
Following his turn as a gangster in the HBO series "The Sopranos," Van Zandt is again playing a mobster -- this time in a series produced for Norwegian television, "Lilyhammer." The show was recently picked up by Netflix as the streaming service's first original programming.
"I was in Norway producing one of my bands there, the Cocktail Slippers [an all-girl rock band from Oslo]," Van Zandt said, "and these writers came and pitched this to me. I wasn't planning on playing a mobster again, but it's such a great idea. ... The Norwegians have gone crazy for it because they love America and rock and roll. They love the spirit of individualism, which is a bit of a contradiction for them and their community-based government. My character is someone who doesn't follow the rules, and they're very used to following the rules. Someone like me being a little naughty is exotic to them."
After the SXSW show, the E Street Band kicks off its tour this weekend. The band performed last Friday at New York's Apollo Theater, debuting the five-man horn section that replaces late saxophone legend Clarence Clemons on tour.
"We'll be featuring our soul music roots more on this tour," Van Zandt said. "And, you know, this year is a celebration of Woody Guthrie [the centennial of his birth]. Quite a bit of Bruce's music is a tribute to Woody Guthrie. ... It just never ceases to amaze me how Bruce continues to write in a way that is vital and very much of the moment. It always keeps us from even thinking about becoming a nostalgia band, because every tour is a whole new everything."
Springsteen is delivering the SXSW keynote address Thursday at noon. His latest solo album, "Wrecking Ball," was just released, and it debuted at No. 1 this week.
SXSW: John Fullbright comes of age
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 11:48 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let me tell you my quick John Fullbright story before I go on about how mesmerizing and moving his Wednesday evening South by Southwest showcase was.
When I was writing about music in Oklahoma, I covered the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each July in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. Okemah has one motel, which is taken over by the artists and production crews during the festival. Folk singers, in my experience, don't sleep much, and every night after the shows wrapped up in town most of them would drag chairs into the motel parking lot and swap songs till dawn.
Every now and then, wide-eyed young buskers would stroll up and try to measure up. Few did — until, several years ago, a teenaged Johnny Fullbright strode into to the circle with a banjo over his shoulder. Tipping his cap, the Okemah native offered to play a couple of his own songs. Soon, Arlo Guthrie's eyebrows raised and he sat forward in his lawn chair, and we all knew we were hearing something special.
Since then, Fullbright has shared stages with Joe Ely and fellow Okie songwriter Jimmy Webb, among others, and he recorded a live album. "From the Ground Up," though, will be his studio debut, due May 8 (Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers).
Fullbright's SXSW showcase — the first of eight gigs he has here this week — was as perfect as if it were a Jonathan Demme concert film. Taking the stage at St. David's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin, the unassuming young singer stepped to the mike with his guitar and harmonica rack. He appears meek and milquetoast in his flesh-colored collared shirt and flat, parted hair, but — sorta like Kelly Joe Phelps — the square look is deceiving. He started plucking and blowing and wailing a first-person account of God setting up humans for their inevitable fall, and suddenly another crowd knew it was going to hear something special.
Fullbright synthesizes the best songcraft from his home state — Webb, Leon Russell and, by default, Merle Haggard. Just in his 20s, he mournfully considers how "all my life I've tested truth / but truth's not always sound." I'll give him credit for the double entendre in that last line, because the caliber of the rest of his songwriting is so good. He's got a tune called "Forgotten Flower," a thoughtful country lament, that Tom Waits and Randy Newman could fight over.
Possibly unintentionally, Fullbright filled his set on that church chancel with familiar subjects. He opened with "God Above," a searing blues. He sang, "Glory, glory, hallelujah," then played "Satan and St. Paul" and "Jericho."
The last three songs were plunked out on an upright piano, swinging from his own slow ballad "Nowhere to Be Found" to the dancing blues of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The versatility was natural, authentic, untrained. Webb's oft-repeated endorsement predicts "that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music." It may not be hyperbole.
SXSW: Ezra Furman, Sharon Van Etten, Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire, the great R. Stevie Moore
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 9:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Is that a dude in his underwear, just playing?" asked a guy who wandered into The Jr bar just off Sixth Street on Wednesday night. Why, yes, yes it is.
Ezra Furman, the mad Evanstonian who recently relocated to the Bay Area, stepped onto the bare stage for his SXSW 2012 showcase nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic poses, a spitting earnestness so unnerving you pray he doesn't make eye contact.
Hurling a mixture of songs from his new solo album, "The Year of No Returning," and gems from "Mysterious Power" and his Chicago tenure with the Harpoons, the skinny folk-punk wunderkind bared his soul, as well, in songs alternating between naked desperation ("Bloodsucking Whore") and mournful reverie (a cover of Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"). In a new song, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," he summed up his SXSW moment, singing, "I was hideous and handsome."
"I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore," he said from the stage. "Too bad, marketing team."
• • •
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten played a demure set Wednesday night at Stubb's. Getting off to a late start, Van Etten plodded through several songs from her attention-getting 2010 debut, "Epic," and her new follow-up, "Tramp." I still don't quite get the slobbering reverence for her work. No doubt, it's encouraging to hear someone with a voice this lovely treading the well-worn road of dissonant strumming and oblique, soul-bearing poetry blazed by fellow New Jersey-raised Patti Smith. Most of the songs merely wear that path down deeper, though, warbling over organ and cymbal-shy drums until they reach big crescendos that stumble to clumsy halts. They're awfully passionate dirges for someone who seems so chipper and cheery during her brief stage banter.
• • •
Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire and his red-hot New York rap crew continued their SXSW gigs Wednesday night at MI Annex on Sixth Street, and the crowd didn't want them to leave. "eXquire! eXquire!" they chanted, begging for one more freestyle, to no avail. MMeX is a weird, Wu-Tang-like mob of half a dozen rappers, and the group's namesake is a hulking, slurring nutjob with percolating flow. Wednesday night, he was spewing syllables so fast and without stopping that he began to slouch and collapse. At the climactic moment, he shot up as his mates punctuated the verse, shouting, "Breathe!" Huzzah!
• • •
Since the early 1970s, "singer"-songwriter R. Stevie Moore has been producing song after song after song — countless hours of tape — documenting the weird and wonderful corners of his mind. As the Trouser Press record guides have stated for years, "'Unsung hero' only touches on the injustice of obscurity for this wry, heartfelt artist whose limber genius." But he meandered into the SXSW spotlight this week for a few showcases, including a typically bewildering set of songs Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the SXSW trade show.
"Why would anyone come to South by Southwest to see Lionel Richie?" Moore sang in a seemingly off-the-cuff ditty about the preponderance of big-name bookings at this year's festival, which was born in the late '80s as a haven for spotlighting up-and-coming talent. "If I had to choose between Lionel Richie and Sufjan Stevens, it would be a dead heat."
A large fella, in shades and with a wild Santa Claus-white beard and hair fluttering every which way, Moore plunked out his crafty lyrics and bent tunes on acoustic guitar. From his bottomless repository of material, he plucked a remarkable cache of quirky love songs, such as "Traded My Heart for Your Parts" and, uh, "I Wanna Hit You" (which he punctuated with, "Pow! To the moon, Alice!"). Looking at him, a deranged Wilford Brimley gargling his notes and strumming herky-jerky chords, the song "Goodbye Piano" took on new resonance: "You're so out of tune / I assume you're dead."
SXSW keynote: Bruce Springsteen gives musical history lesson, celebrates Woody Guthrie centennial
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 3:22 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music, Bruce Springsteen name-checked his own lengthy list of milestone influences during a funny and enlightening keynote address Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference.
The king of this particular musical Mardi Gras, Springsteen hit town Wednesday night and showed up to jam with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards. In addition to his keynote speech, the Springsteen blitz continues tonight in concert with the E Street Band, a preview of the tour kicking off this weekend. His latest album, "Wrecking Ball," was released last week and debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries.
"No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore," Springsteen said in his opening remarks. He expressed awe at the number of bands booked at SXSW.
"There are so many subgenres and factions," he continued — and then amused the standing-room crowd by listing as many as he could name, dozens of hyphenated musical classifications and creations, from melodic death metal and sadcore to rap-rock and Nintendocore. He ended the list with a slight slump, saying, "And folk music."
"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.
Citing rock critic Lester Bangs' assertion that Elvis Presley was the last thing Americans would agree on, Springsteen said each of the thousands of bands booked during SXSW "has the belief to turn Bangs' prophecy around.
"The one thing that's been consistent over the years is the genesis and the power of creativity. It's all about how you're putting what you do together. The elements you're using don't matter. It's not confined to guitars, tubes, turntables or microchips. There's no right way, no pure way of doing it — there's just doing it."
Springsteen then took the rapt audience on a tour through his own musical upbringing, noting each notable inspiration that molded him — from Presley's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956 through poetic descriptions of the power he felt coming from doo-wop, Roy Obison, Phil Spector, British Invasion bands, the Beatles, country, soul, Stax, Motown and Dylan.
He spent extra time on the Animals. "For me, the Animals were a revelation," he said. "That was the first full-blown class-consciousness I'd ever heard."
He sang and strummed most of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," a song the Animals made famous, and declared, "That's every song I've ever written! That's all of them, I'm not kidding. That's 'Born to Run,' 'Born in the U.S.A.,' even the new ones." He played the riff from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," then the riff from his own "Badlands": "Same f---ing riff, man."
Acknowledging that this is the centennial year of Woody Guthrie's birth, Springsteen concluded with how he's been inspired by the American folk legend to keep his own lyrical focus on the issues of working people. He was also honest about their differences.
"I knew I was never going to be Woody Guthrie. I liked the pink Cadillac too much. I liked the luxuries and comforts of being a star. I'd already gone a long way down a pretty different road," Springsteen said.
In the end, Springsteen tried to bring it back to music's colorful mass, the overwhelming amount of it, the dizzying scope of its styles as evidenced in SXSW itself. The thread fans and artists must needle out of the experience, he said, has always been the same no matter how many subgenres there are.
"Here we are in this town celebrating a sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy," Springsteen said. "We live in a post-authentic world. Authenticity today is just a house of mirrors. It's all about what you're bringing when the lights go down. At the end of the day, it's power and purpose that matters."
• • •
The Woody Guthrie connection bookended Springsteen's keynote.
Immediately before the speech on the same stage, American singer-songwriters Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson strummed Guthrie songs, such as "Oklahoma Hills," "I Ain't Got No Home in This World" and "Deportee." Colombia's Juanes played a couple of his own songs, spirited tunes in Spanish he said were inspired by Guthrie. All three lead the sleepy SXSW crowd in a singalong of "This Land Is Your Land."
A panel session followed the keynote, titled "Woody at 100." Moderated by Bob Santelli, executive director at the Grammy Museum and a Guthrie scholar himself, the panel featured journalist Dave Marsh, scholar Doug Brinkley, songwriters LaFave and Joel Rafael, and two of Guthrie's children: singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie and head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, Nora Guthrie.
Nora discussed the pending move of her father's archives — thousands of original lyrics, poems, notebooks, journals, artwork and more — from its current New York home to a new facility in Tulsa, Okla. She also highlighted a theme from Springsteen's keynote about music's many styles, noting that Woody wrote all kinds of music, including love songs and Jewish music.
Arlo made some important distinctions about his dad's legacy amid all the discussion of it in this centennial year.
"There are a lot of different Woodys," he said. "Even having known him along with my sister, I don't know that anybody has the capacity to have fully understand anyone. ... He really had the ability to distill all of us and put it into a way so that we recognize our own voice coming back to us. He said, 'Let me be known as a man who told you something you already knew.' ... Everybody in this room has a little voice they count on that they recognize as being them. My father recognized that voice in him and reflected it back on you so you recognize something that rings true to you. I don't think we're actually celebrating Woody — we're celebrating us. That's the genius of the man."
For a complete list of the numerous Guthrie centennial events around the country, see woody100.com.
Power pop @ SXSW: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 10:32 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — At the 2010 South by Southwest music conference, critics and fans were eager for a scheduled celebration of the '70s band Big Star. The influential pop-rock band was at the height of a popular resurgence, fueled in part by a stellar box set ("Keep an Eye on the Sky") released the previous year. A panel session was planned, a hotly anticipated concert, too. But on the first day of the festival, bandleader and power-pop icon Alex Chilton died.
The pieces of those plans were reassembled in earnest Thursday night at SXSW 2012. In a star-studded concert — featuring a pantheon of alt-rock greats including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Wilco's Pat Sansone, Tommy Stinson, Peter Case, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, M. Ward and many more, plus Big Star's lone survivor, drummer Jody Stephens — musicians inspired by the band, complete with a 12-piece orchestra, performed the whole of Big Star's "Third," their emotionally tangled and rightly acclaimed album recorded in 1974 and released by 1978.
Stamey — also appearing several times at SXSW this week with the reunited dB's (see below) — has made these "Third" gigs into something of a pet project, performing them a few times ahead of the festival. But Thursday's gig, back in something of an emotional center for the band and its fans, resonated with obvious love from the musicians, especially a smiling Stamey, who never sang but acted as bandleader.
Mixing up the album's various sequences, the show opened with M. Ward on piano meandering through Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy," an outtake from "Third." Players and singers then started cycling behind the microphone. British pub band the Dunwells delivered "Take Care" with Irish balladry and an accordion. The Mayflies' Matt McMichaels lead a steady "Jesus Christ." Auer, who had joined a revived lineup of Big Star, drove slowly through "Black Car," fueled by the string quartet.
Standouts included Stinson, formerly of the Replacements, redeeming himself with a solid version of "Nightime." Watching him in his skinny plaid suit and hipster hat, one could almost forget he now slums in the reconstituted Guns N' Roses. Peter Case, once a svelte New Wave rocker in the Plimsouls, appeared shaggy and bearded and did his best Van Morrison impression through "Stroke It Noel" (Stamey's smile was a thousand watts through that one). Sansone's "You Can't Have Me" was powerful even without the wailing saxophone and the two drum solos from Stephens.
Stephens himself stepped out from behind the kit to sang a couple of songs, including a string-laden "Blue Moon" beautifully arranged with a Pachelbel's Canon sway.
R.E.M.'s Mike Mills originally was scheduled to be on stage for the show, but he canceled due to illness. The former band's guitarist, Buck, appeared instead. He merely lurked in the background for two songs, the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" and "You Can't Have Me."
The show closed with "Thank You Friends," featuring most of the cast back on stage, like a traditional "This Land Is Your Land" folk finale.
The Big Star concert followed a screening of a documentary, still in progress, called "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" from director Drew DeNicola.
• • •
Stamey's a busy boy at SXSW 2012. In addition to corralling that large cast of players for the Big Star tribute, he's got his own showcase on Saturday, plus he and the reunited dB's are scheduled six times here this week.
Wednesday afternoon was their first showcase, on the Dogwood patio on West Sixth Street. Featuring originals Stamey, singer-guitarist Peter Holsapple and drummer Will Rigby, plus acclaimed Southern producer and artist Mitch Easter on bass, this latest revival of the beloved '80s power-pop group is hawking a new album, "Falling Off the Sky," due in June.
They utilized their showcase to show off many of the new tracks — as jangly and tuneful as ever. Holsapple insists the new album is "a great summertime record," and as he sang the new "World to Cry," a wind-blown tree in the courtyard approved by showering the tightly packed audience with new buds.
It's not all sunshine and tanlines. Another new song jangled over a martial rhythm and lyrics of lament and paralysis. Stamey remarked, "On my tombstone, I want, 'He wrote one great riff.'" Then he added, "Plus a lot of depressing songs." He then ripped a scary, dissonant solo from the heart of "Happenstance," which the band balanced with the gentle waves of melody in "Love Is for Lovers."
Their official showcase is tonight.
• • •
Fast forward to the 21st century: Power-pop rocker Brendan Benson was back on stage as a solo act Thursday night. Jack White's partner in the Raconteurs, Benson funnels most of his melodic talents into his solo albums. He has yet to make a bad one, and his next, "What Kind of World," is due in April on his new independent label Readymade.
His Thursday showcase wasn't as flawless as his records. Stringy-haired and a little adrift, Benson charged gamely through some new songs, though one had to be abandoned after the first verse; he tried to restart it, but flubbed something again and moved on into a duo of the Raconteurs' "Hands" and his own "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)" (in which he laments, "Why does it always happen...?").
SXSW: Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 12:05 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Alabama Shakes might be one of the buzziest new bands at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but Fiona Apple is the one of the hottest returning-act tickets. After not having been seen outside of Los Angeles in years, and with her last record of emotionally taut pop-cabaret released in 2005, two lines for her second showcase Thursday night snaked around the block in different directions.
Performing in a Presbyterian church, Apple strode purposefully onto a candlelit stage with a four-piece band and launched into "Fast as You Can." Still a frenetic ball of anxiety, when Apple stands at a microphone without a piano to occupy her hands her nervous energy nearly flings her limbs apart. Thursday night she wore a white shawl over her shoulders, which she immediately took to flipping and waving about like a manic Stevie Nicks. Banging fists against her body, flailing her arms, pounding the piano — one senses that without the music to focus her energy she'd go utterly mad. Then again, she can rein herself and become the perfect picture of Marlene Dietrich smolder, as she did during "Paper Bag."
Apple's voice is not a smooth or delicate instrument. It's guttural and trembling and sounds ravaged by a prior hour of sobbing; midway through her Thursday concert, she made a brief show of spraying some salve into the back of her throat. The songs fit the sound — lyric after lyric of man after man who doesn't understand her (the dolt who won't even kiss her in the right place in the new "Anything We Want") and heaps of self-doubt ("I'm gonna f--- it up" from "Mistake"). "Not that I go to church or anything," Apple said, gazing up at the shadowy altar, "but I'd like to apologize to the building itself for my cursing."
The band supports the crackling tension with herky-jerky soul-jazz phrases, as if Elvis Costello's "Spike" is drowning his sorrows at L.A.'s Largo club (home of the acclaimed residencies curated by Apple producer and compatriot Jon Brion). Prone to lengthy vamps and calliope-like refrains, the music's drunken gentility was often pierced by tinny, edgy solos from her guitarist. Every song was a suspense thriller, and as Woody Allen said, "I hope it lasts."
Briefly, anyway — her SXSW showcases kick off a tiny tour, just a few dates including two sold-out shows Sunday and Monday at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
Apple's new album returns to her penchant for lengthy titles — (inhale) it's "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do" — is scheduled for a June release.
SXSW hip-hop fusion: K. Flay, Idle Warship, Robert Glasper
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 5:51 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Kristine Flaherty grew up in Wilmette. She went to Stanford. She's also a helluva rapper.
With frenetic flow and live-wire, chicken-dance moves, K. Flay barreled through a Friday showcase at Austin's Red Eyed Fly, crumpling labels and defying genres. Backed by an excellent live drummer, Nicholas Suhr, she crafted loops and samples with real finesse, utilizing grinding guitar sounds and squawky electronic noises for melody and music more than mere beats and punctuation. "We're going to go to a fun place in our minds," she said by way of introducing one song. It was less invitation than advisory — she picked up drumsticks and attacked her own percussion pad, and she and Suhr lost themselves momentarily in a rhythmic freakout of ecstatic proportions.
K. Flay's sharpest weapon, though, is her fast-talking tongue. Her words-per-minute reached the red line almost every time. One song began with a slow, easygoing beat (no drummer), as she started rapping along. The beat kept modulating, faster and faster, and for three or four minutes she kept slinging syllables without a single flub or nonsense gibberish. Who knows what she wound up saying? But given the rest of her wisecracking, hard-hearted material -- all that's out thus far is an EP, "Eyes Shut," available free on her web site -- it's worth hearing at any speed.
• • •
Idle Warship — a new collaboration between acclaimed rapper Talib Kweli and Philly soul singer Res — released an album last fall that was mostly great, a fizzy mix of hip-hop, R&B and rock with just the right balance between all three. The group's SXSW showcases were highly anticipated — but, alas, their Friday afternoon show was ho-hum.
Backed by a live quartet, Kweli and Res ping-ponged their vocal duties and spent an inordinate amount of time asking the crowd for cheers instead of earning them. Kweli turned the word "soul" in one song into a falsetto, drawn-out "Soul Train" nod, but the music, which is buoyant and bouncy on record, lurched and lagged live. Even the synth underpinning of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" in the song "Steady," which eventually morphed into the whole band singing the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams," failed to brighten the desperate energy on stage. The term "rap-rock" has certain negative connotations; this isn't really rap-rock, but it's close. A 21st-century Digable Planets, unfortunately, they ain't.
• • •
In one sense, I'd like to thank the sound engineers who had difficulty getting things in gear for the Robert Glasper Experiment showcase late Thursday night at the Elephant Room. Without their delay, some room in the tiny, dank club might not have opened up and I'd have missed the whole show standing on queue. The sound was substandard even when the show got under way, but those who made it in heard enough to justify the hype that brought us there.
Glasper is a hip-hop wunderkind. Glasper is a jazz juggernaut. A pianist, a Texas native, he seems to be knitting a new kind of fusion. A set that opens with Coltrane (sax player Casey Benjamin is pretty wicked, see video below) and nearly winds up with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" might only turn the head of zeitgeist interpreters like Brad Mehldau, but Glasper's quartet followed their open-minded explorations through the jazz tones, hip-hop beats and raucous rock with more ferocity than irony. His latest album, "Black Radio" (Blue Note), does the same thing and features guests like Mos Def and Chicago's Lupe Fiasco.
Occupy SXSW: Tom Morello carries Woody Guthrie torch through protest showcase, street party
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 10:20 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — During his keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest music conference, Bruce Springsteen referred to folksinger Woody Guthrie as "a ghost in the machine." In the centennial year of his birth, Guthrie has certainly haunted SXSW 2012. Springsteen and many others have sung his songs. "Woody at 100," a panel session featuring his children, Nora and Arlo Guthrie, considered his legacy.
Then Friday night, Chicago-area native Tom Morello capped off his showcase in the middle of the street, leading a throng of Occupy Austin demonstrators in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land."
"I am the Nightwatchman and this is a one man revolution!" said Morello (who performs solo under the moniker The Nightwatchman) at the beginning of his SXSW showcase, scheduled inside the Swan Dive bar near Sixth Street and Red River in downtown Austin.
But days earlier, Morello began reorganizing what the festival had programmed for him. His showcase, he declared, would become Occupy SXSW — all 99 percenters welcome. "SXSW has a lot of specialty shows — record companies, vodka companies, promoters and things like that," he told Rolling Stone on Tuesday. "I thought it was important that at a music gathering of that size, to have a place where the rebels, revolutionaries, rockers, rappers and the 99 percent could gather and have a mighty SXSW throw down."
Via social media and online networks, Occupy Austin spread the word and gathered Friday at the state capitol three hours before Morello's midnight showcase. The group of nearly 100 began marching toward the downtown streets already crowded with SXSW registrants and hopeful music fans.
How do you get a mob to move through a mob? By dancing. The benevolent Occupiers rolled a sound system with them, blaring mostly disco and dance tunes but also raising a ruckus with "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine, Morello's former hard rock band. About every block, they'd stop and dance, as well as wave some signs and hand out fliers. At Sixth and Brazos, the assembly inadvertently blocked traffic, which laid on the horns. The honking, however, simply raised more cheers and whoops.
Slowly, the demonstrators made their way down Sixth Street toward Morello's venue. One large banner reading "F--- the Police" was its own crowd control issue, because gawking passers-by insisted the bearers stop -- so they could take their picture with it. Irony of ironies: Midway down the street the group had to detour slightly after being blocked by a drum circle.
Morello started his official showcase about half an hour late, playing a few songs by himself before bringing on his latest band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra — and, later, special guest Wayne Kramer from Detroit punk legend the MC5 — to tear through typically fiery Nightwatchman songs, including "Save the Hammer for the Man" and "Union Town," as well as Rage's "Bulls on Parade." The previous night, Morello had joined Springsteen on stage during his SXSW concert; Friday, Morello played Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," dedicating it to "the only Boss worth listening to."
As his official timeslot ended, Morello told the crowd — primarily SXSW badge-holders inside — to follow him outside. There, the largely uncredentialed Occupy crowd had been watching the showcase on a video projected on the wall. Morello proceeded to start a second showcase in the middle of the street, which he called "the people's venue" — carrying his acoustic guitar, which has "Whatever It Takes" scrawled on it (Guthrie's guitar famously sported the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists") — and leading the crowd in a rollicking sing-along of "This Land."
Lack of a PA didn't stop him — not when you have the "human microphone."
"Mic check!" Morello called, and the crowd began repeating him. In a very Obama-like delivery, he went on: "They can turn off the PA, but they can't shut this party down!"
He told a tale about guitar factory workers in South Korea who were fired because they formed a union. Using the human mic, he taught the crowd the chorus to his "World Wide Rebel Songs" and lead another sing-along.
He then ended the event with yet another Guthrie quip: "Take it easy," he shouted, "but take it!"
Catch Morello when he leads a Woody Guthrie tribute concert May 19 at Chicago's Metro, featuring Holly Near, the Klezmatics, Jon Langford, Bucky Halker and more.
SXSW: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 11:55 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — There's buzz, and there's buzz. When people insist you see a band at South by Southwest, it's usually dicey. When people recommend a band like this — "Aw, Hospitality. They're really good. I'd like to see them again" — that you take a little more seriously.
The buzzy Brooklyn band's Friday night showcase at Frank was definitely worth the recommendations, and then some. Unassuming and sometimes unobtrusive, Hospitality segued from sound check to set without any fanfare or introduction; the snugly packed crowd in the small bar simply enjoyed the revelation that, hey, that beautiful music is the room's centerpiece now.
Hospitality, like its namesake, creeps up like that, anyway.
Creating a sound way bigger than the sum of its basic quartet lineup, this is indie-pop with bright colors, effervescent arrangements and, most importantly, real swing. Underneath the big, fat, chiming guitar chords and singer-guitarist Amber Papini's conversational patter is usually a firm beat, certainly a supple groove thanks to left-handed bassist Brian Betancourt. They could probably go toe-to-toe with most dance-rockers from the first wave (Franz Ferdinand, etc.), but they'd also have a calming effect on them. "The Right Profession," from this year's self-titled debut, certainly moves, and "Friends of Friends" enjoys a groovy dance break, but other songs sometimes noodle, sometimes vamp, sometimes slip into a positively Pink Floyd reverie.
• • •
If Steely Dan worked to sound like the actual future, rather than Donald Fagen's nostalgic 1950s Worlds Fair perspective on it, they might sound something like Brooklyn's Ava Luna. A thrilling, lurching, bewildering, surprising frenzy of genre-splicing, this sextet's Friday night return to SXSW at the Iron Bear club rocked and grooved and glitched.
Driven by rhythms that stutter and fray, Ava Luna's 21st-century rock 'n' soul is humanized by no-nonsense vocals. Becca Kauffman and Felicia Douglass bring seriousness and sass, when called for, but it's singer-guitarist Carlos Hernandez that embodies the band's schizophrenic joy. Playing with an ADD tic justifying lyrics like, "If I could focus," Hernandez sings like a less-somnambulant James Blake — all heady methol and melancholy. It's headbanging dubstep, it's postmodern soul, full of sound and fury, and when some feedback began ebbing and flowing between songs — hey, some of us thought it was just part of the band's space-age sound.
• • •
Chicago's Joe Pug sounds like a native down here in Texas. Biting his lip, chewing his accent, flashing his winsome smile or sometimes wincing with emotion, Pug is the picture of down-home earnestness.
Squeezing in just five songs for the Folk Alliance showcase on Saturday at Threadgill's, Pug played a handful of thoughtful country-folk tunes from his second album, "The Great Despiser," due next month. That's after he broke a guitar string — on the first strum of the first chord in the first song -- which was surprising given how tender and delicate most of the material is, augmented here with only an occasional electric guitarist and a stand-up bassist. But the new album features guests such as the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, so it's gonna roll. To close, Pug was joined by Austin music legend Harvey Thomas Young for his song, previously covered by Pug, "Start Again."
SXSW: Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' celebrated
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 4:54 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius was left out of the Grammys' "in memorium" slide show last month, barely two weeks after the Chicago television pioneer was found dead of an apparent suicide, but he was celebrated Saturday at the annual South by Southwest music conference in the Texas capital.
At an event called "'Soul Train' Tribute to Don Cornelius," NPR's Dan Charnas conducted an amiable onstage chat with Don's son Tony Cornelius about the TV music show's history and legacy.
"If he'd come back here and see the love from those who miss him so much, I wonder, would he decide to stay?" Tony Cornelius asked during the session. "He had so much love to live for. It hurts me that he's not here."
"Soul Train" was one of TV's longest-running syndicated shows, airing for 36 years. Launched at Chicago's WCIU in 1970, the music performance and dance program went national the following year and was crucial in showcasing black soul and R&B artists to a wider audience, including Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.
"Dad talked about that quite often," Cornelius said. "He found a need, and he served it. There was a need to allow not only the music of black Americans but kids an opportunity to express themselves."
Charnas showed numerous video clips -- "Soul Train" performances, dancers, pivotal moments, Afro Sheen commercials (the sponsorship of Chicago-based Johnson Products was important to the show's early survival) -- and Cornelius commented.
"When I watch these clips, what comes to mind that people don't understand is these performances were about relationships. It wasn't, 'I want to do "Soul Train,"' it was friendships that developed over time," Cornelius said.
Many of those relationships began early in Chicago, where Don Cornelius negotiated complete ownership of "Soul Train" at WCIU because "no one believed" in the show, Tony Cornelius said.
Tony Cornelius was around age 12 when "Soul Train" premiered. He worked as a runner, cable mover, lighting operator and more throughout the years, eventually becoming an executive producer. From the start, he recalled, "Soul Train" was a family affair.
"My most vivid memory is my mother writing out cards of all the kids who wanted to dance on the show from high schools around the area," he said.
"The groundswell in Chicago was so exciting that [Don] decided Los Angeles would be the place to take it. That's where the stars were, where the acts were."
He took one thing with him, though: the Scramble Board.
Members of the audience were often selected for the Scramble Board, where they would reorder a jumbled set of letters to spell the name of a prominent black American. Don Cornelius later admitted that the gimmick was always fixed.
"It's funny, but it's true," Tony Cornelius said. "It's something he felt extremely strong about. We were speaking to the world, not just the dancers, and informing anyone who didn't know Stevie Wonder's name or Thurgood Marshall's name how to spell it and who they were."
Cornelius said years later he suggested to his father that they update the Scramble Board to something digital or more contemporary. Don refused, saying he wanted to maintain that set piece — the one piece of the Chicago set that traveled to L.A.
In honor of his father, Cornelius said the family has created the Don Cornelius Foundation to raise awareness, prevention and support for those contemplating suicide and aid for its survivors.
SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2012 12:14 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — This year's South by Southwest features music acts from every continent except Antarctica (those penguins aren't as musical as you've been lead to believe). Here's some of the international flavor I sampled this week:
• • •
The panel session at SXSW 2012 was titled with a question — "Do Music Moguls Know a Secret About K-Pop?" — but the non-insider query is simpler: Do you know what K-pop is?
It's a genre of hyper-produced, often sugary sweet pop music mostly out of South Korea. It's got its own Billboard chart, and in December launched its own festival (K-Pop World, Dec. 7 in Seoul). According to the moderator of this industry panel, it's "a huge thing across Asia and other parts of the world," and it's about to invade the states.
Earlier in the year, I suggested 2012 might have a more worldly sound, including more K-pop. Already in the United States, South Korean idol Kim Hyun-a has attracted media attention, and when K-pop acts tour this country it's not just their music that turns American heads.
"People often are stopping because of how many people show up" to these concerts, said Flowsion Shekar, founder of Koreaboo, a Korean news blog.
David Zedeck, a booking agent at Creative Artists Agency, said he's selling out 1,700 to 2,500-capacity venues with K-pop, even in interior cities like Atlanta, Kansas City and Denver. The group Girls Generation announced via Twitter that they would premiering a new video at a New York Best Buy. "We had 1,500 kids show up on a school day — from a tweet," he marveled. "This is bigger than anyone thinks it is."
Other prominent K-pop acts include Bigbang, JYP, the Wonder Girls and SMTown.
"Even though it comes from Korea, it's not of or for Korea anymore," said Jeff Yang, the Tao Jones columnist for the Wall Street Journal ("It wasn't my idea," he said sheepishly of his column's name). "It's become a world music. There are more people who don't understand Korean listening to K-pop than in Korea."
Yang predicted K-pop could develop in America one of two ways: It could become like Latin music, a cultural identifier for Asian-American communities, or it could establish itself as a platform like hip-hop, inviting collaboration and eventual evolution into something larger.
Some of the latter already is happening. Kanye West previously worked with the trio JYJ (rapping on the single "Ayyy Girl") and has said he plans to do more with the group. Snoop Dogg recently appeared on a track by Girls Generation, and DJ Swizz Beatz says he's hoping to help bring K-pop acts like Bigbang (currently atop the K-pop charts, No. 1 and 2) to America.
• • •
In addition to performing his own and Woody Guthrie's song immediately before Bruce Springsteen's keynote address at SXSW 2012 — one of his first English-language performances — Colombian singer Juanes has been making multiple appearances at the festival all week. He discussed his upcoming May album, "Juanes MTV Unplugged," during a Friday panel session, then performed during the Latin rock showcase later that night.
In an AP interview, he celebrated the cultural smorgasbord that is SXSW: "It's such a great opportunity to interact together and exchange culture. I just feel the world now and the world is absolutely sick, you know, so I just see music and culture and art in general as a great idea to change at least our own environment and just connect people to the music. You can just go and walk around the street and you can see bands from I don't know, wherever, and they can sing in Chinese if you want. You just have the opportunity to connect with somebody else you didn't know, and that's good."
• • •
The sheer volume of music at SXSW makes random discoveries possible, probable and the payoff is often good. Thursday night I stopped for stir-fry at one of Austin's better food trucks downtown near Fifth and Brazos. On the corner a trio of Austrian vagabonds was playing to anyone who'd stop and listen. They're called Bensh, and they don't sound like a sidewalk band. Good-spirited pop with flourishes of electronics and gypsy bounce, Bensh's fluid, well-crafted pop caused me to scribble a seemingly bizarre list of comparisons in my notebook: Luka Bloom, Deathray, Syd Barrett, Animal Collective, the Monochrome Set. Much spunkier live than on record, Bensh still made a great impulse download that was perfectly dreamy in the earbuds during a pedicab ride home.
• • •
A showcase of musicians from Israel, sponsored by the Israeli Consul, ran all day Friday in a downtown park. I caught an acoustic set by Noa Margalit, from the rock band the Car Sitters. Listening to her stoic personal songs, you'd never guess how energetic the Car Sitters usually are. Tel Aviv's Margalit — breathy, barefoot, bar-chording the heck out of her guitar — played things close to the vest, at least sonically. Lyrically, she was raging about politics and quality of life, lamenting (or marveling?) that "it doesn't take much to survive."
Later, J. Viewz, aka Grammy-nominated and Brooklyn-based producer Jonathan Dagan, let loose some throbbing beats with a soulful vocalist and great live drums.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's complicated, but it's all right.
Getting the sprawling musical family that is Poi Dog Pondering together for a reunion weekend is a Herculean task. Frank Orrall, the band's pater familias and grand poobah, says the time is right.
"It's the 25th anniversary of the band," he says. Then he starts worrying me. "It just feels like the time to do it," he adds. "People are having kids, their work or other projects are taking them in different directions, they're going through different things in life. It seemed like an important time to document who we are while everyone is still here. It's getting harder to go out on the road. People have commitments."
This isn't a swan song, is it?
"No, we're still totally vitally strong and present as a band. But we don't move like the gypsies we once were. We just need to sit for a musical portrait while we can."
So Friday and Saturday the band reassembles for two reunions — the band's Austin lineup (1987-1992) on Dec. 2 and various incarnations of its Chicago existence (1993-present) on Dec. 3. The shows will be recorded and filmed for CD and DVD.
Austin-era bassist Bruce Hughes agrees about now being the right time for this reunion.
"Everybody is still extremely active in music," he says. "It's not like it was a little blip in college rock and now we're a bunch of accountants, paunchy and dejected, saying, "Hey we should get the band back together again."
The members from Austin have been rehearsing — they haven't played together in 18 years — and getting nostalgic.
"People are losing weight, growing mullets back out," violinist Susan Voelz says. "I was gonna get a perm."
We spoke with four members from throughout the band's lifespan for this brief oral history of how the band gelled in Austin and eventually transported to and transformed itself in Chicago:
Poi Dog Pondering originally came together in 1986 as a small nucleus of buskers and film enthusiasts in Honolulu, including Orrall, singer-songwriter Abra Moore, guitarist Ted Cho and drummer Sean Coffey.
Frank Orrall (singer): We started meeting in Hawaii and traveling, spending a year going across the mainland in sleeping bags, busking our way from Los Angeles to New York. That was the original gypsy creed of the band. ... The dance thing that came out in our music in Chicago — that was something always in me, even back in Hawaii. I cut my teeth in Hawaii going to these two clubs, one of which was a gay disco that kicked in at one in the morning. But punk and new wave bands played before that and would hang out. So there was this big mixture of new wave and dance music, and even in Austin that started coming back out, especially later. You can hear it in "Get Me On" and "Lackluster," on the same record with some full-on Hawaiian sounds.
Deep in the heart
As the band traveled the mainland, they started to stick — musically and physically — in Austin, Texas. A few local players were attracted to their spirit and sound.
Bruce Hughes (Austin-era bassist): The Austin origin story verges on mythology. I know I saw Frank and Abra and Sean come through and play. The way I remember it: At the time, I was hanging with a bunch of musicians that included Alejandro Escovedo, hanging out on Avenue D [near the Univ. of Texas campus], making barbecue and playing music. Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces had moved to town. He was sick with multiple sclerosis and wanted to get away from L.A.. Alejandro put a band together to help Ronnie play music and got me involved. Susan Voelz, too — I already knew her from a band we were in together with Arthur Brown. The Ronnie Lane band was the Seven Samurai, and one night at the Continental Club this little band opened up for us.
Susan Voelz (violinist): It was a Tuesday at the Continental Club. It was raining. I didn't even dress up. I just wandered over and played the gig. But that was a transformative show. I was playing with good musicians, plus Poi Dog — they were coming through and I happened to see their show, and I remember meeting Frank that night.
Hughes: They had a little wooden marimba and acoustic guitar and a snare with brushes, and accordion and penny whistle — Frank, Abra and Sean. I remember listening to them and seeing all this joy on stage. I thought, "I love these guys! It looks like so much fun!" They had so much spirit and joy and freedom. I ended up meeting Frank through another friend of mine, and we kept in touch.
Voelz: Later, they called and said, "Come play violin!" ... I hadn't intended to join the band. They were very open in the studio, and I liked that. They invited me to play live with them at the Texas Union ballroom. I walk in, and it's already this big Poi Dog show, lots of energy and enthusiasm in the room. I was like, "Oh, that's what this is about." I liked the fire.
Hughes: That fall — I think, 1987 — Frank called and said, "Hey, I'm out in Oakland, and me and Abra want to start putting together demos for a record. Come help me." I caught a ride with Frank's girlfriend, and we spent several days in this cold, warehouse space cooking food and making music, and we had a residency in the [Mission] district. I came home for the holidays and convinced Frank to come down to Austin. Half of Poi Dog was already here, and San Francisco was so expensive. "Just come to Austin," I said.
Orrall: I said, "OK, let's go to Austin and track this record." I meant to stay there a month and I stayed four years. Austin has a nice lifestyle, a strong self-identity. People are proud to be from Austin. In that period, also, there was a real spirit of collaboration, not just among Austin musicians but every kind of art. That movie "Slacker" [Richard Linklater's classic, in which Orrall appears for one brief, hapless segment] is all about that — that thing made by everyone contributing.
Poi Dog Pondering's self-titled debut appeared in 1989 on the independent Texas Hotel label.
Hughes: We finished the record, and we were still busking on campus. We slowly set up shows at clubs and on campus and around, close to the university youth culture. More songs were added, more fans were added, more excitement. Soon there were seven, eight, nine, 10 people on stage. It definitely gelled and found the nutrients it needed.
Voelz: Part of it, I think, is that the camaraderie in the band is real, was from the beginning in Austin. It's ridiculous — we really do like each other. We enjoy each other. I enjoy when Ted or Max hits high notes, or when Dag plays something I've never heard before. It's a hurricane, or an ocean. We want to get into that realm. It's big. I never know where everything's going, but I follow it.
The debut album includes the song "Aloha, Honolulu," written by Hughes, who was not part of the band's Hawaiian beginnings.
Hughes: My family were musical. My grandfather was a Dixieland cornet player from Chicago. I grew up listening to a lot of music from the '30s and '40s, so it wasn't foreign to me, that Hawaiian style of music. Not traditional, of course, but that Hawaiian style — Bing Crosby, etc. I developed a deep love for it, and after I got to know Frank and his friends from Hawaii I wrote that song in L.A. as we were getting ready to go to Hawaii, my first trip. It was my way of saying, "Hey, welcome me."
PDP released two more albums in a contentious relationship with Columbia Records — 1990's "Wishing Like a Mountain, Thinking Like the Sea" and 1992's "Volo Volo."
North to Chicago
Restless spirits all, the band began contemplating a move north. Maybe New York? Maybe Chicago? Only three core members make the move: Orrall, Voelz and multi-instrumentalist Dave Max Crawford.
Orrall: I enjoyed Austin, but I didn't plan on living there. I really had a strong interest in urban music and dance that wasn't in the forefront in Austin, or even happening at all. I wanted to live in a bigger city, either Chicago or New York. I planned to go to New York, but I had a lot of friends in Chicago so I stopped to visit on the way. I ended up staying, and it was the totally right choice.
Voelz: I was tired of the heat and really missed the snow. I grew up in Wisconsin. And I wasn't ready to be done with Poi. It was musically rich for me. Right away, we met really great players and went into this whole other dimension.
Hughes: Family ties — I had a lot of reasons to stay in Austin. ... One of the reasons the band moved there was because we had so many fans there already. The groove thing had already started happening in Poi Dog, and Chicago picked up on it immediately and embraced it like no one else.
PDP began picking up new players to round out the now Chicago-based collective.
Dag Juhlin (Chicago-era guitarist): I had been working the door at Lounge Ax back in the late '80s-early '90s, so I'd seen Poi Dog and the rather respectable hysteria they inspired in town. Long lines, multi-night stands, etc. ... Frank, Dave Max and I were already working together at Milly's Orchid Show to back up noted chanteuse Syd Straw, and they very casually asked me if I wanted to be part of their first Lounge Ax show. I said yes. The shows went on for months, and there was always a rotating cast of players, but I kept on getting invited back. Somewhere along the line, Frank and Dave Max had decided to put together a new Poi Dog made of Chicago players.
Into the groove
In Chicago, in the early-1990s, house music was literally booming. Orrall began steering the band in that direction. PDP's next album, 1995's "Pomegranate," shows the clubby influence on their otherwise earthy sound.
Orrall: I didn't realize how strong the Chicago house community was. I started realizing the impact it had on everything I liked, including the Manchester stuff, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays. They were all inspired by Chicago.
Voelz: I loved what we were doing [in Chicago] from the get-go. Thinking back around "Pomegranate," you can really hear Chicago in that record. Austin is hot, you wear less clothes, it's a smaller city. Chicago was winter and there were mittens and pasta in the studio. "Pomegranate" is super song-based, but I knew Frank was into that whole other dimension of house music, less structure and more groove. I love a good song, but when the songwriting opened around the grooves — it felt more orchestral to me right away. There were more places for strings and orchestration, so we added more strings and horns. It was super fun, and I knew how to write for that. Then came the Sinfonietta and "Carmen."
Orrall: In Chicago, the full-on house stuff became part of Poi Dog Pondering — to the chagrin of some fans and even band members. We went through a shakedown. Some people weren't happy with the incorporation of that. ... It was too jarring a change.
Juhlin: I had resisted the stuff like "U-Li-La-Lu" [from "Wishing Like a Mountain"], but I fell immediately for "Pulling Touch" [from the debut]. It had this insistent, four-on-the-floor kick drum and sidestick that absolutely hypnotized me. Once I started getting further into the catalog, I realized how much heart was in the music. Chicago was a town of punk snobbery, and [Juhlin's band] the Slugs, god bless/help us, were standing in the fringes of that nonsense. I let go of the posturing and was proud to be part of Poi Dog and the type of honest, soul-searching music they were making. I think the "hippie" tag that the band got slapped with is just really dumb, cooler-than-thou shorthand.
Hughes: When I heard Poi Dog getting into real deep house culture there, I was not surprised. I knew Frank was heading there. There's a lot of that stuff going down on "Volo Volo." ... There's a lot of equatorial influence, not necessarily Hawaiian, in Frank's music. It's music from all over the Caribbean, from zouk to some deep Samoan stuff going on. Anything that was exciting and energetic and spiky, African pop, Caribbean pop. The groove was there, even if you couldn't hear it right away.
Juhlin: As far as the groovy stuff goes, well, that was a learning curve for me, as well. I always secretly fancied myself as versatile, and actually loved retro-fitting my sort of power chord style into something more supportive, colorful and textural. I still was/am able to add the grit when appropriate, and Susan Voelz, bless her heart (and eardrums), will tell you that I have yet to truly learn to turn my amp volume down onstage, but playing with Poi Dog forced me to listen and adapt, and to be aware of the sound as a whole. I've had some of the most thrilling musical interactions of my life with my PDP bandmates, and it's almost shocking how routinely and effortlessly they can occur.
The band that eats together
Rehearsals, performances, any occasion with Orrall is one for food, as well. (He sings, he feasts — how many living puns will he spin from his name?) Every conversation with a PDP member mentions grand dining as part of the experience. Today, Orrall hires himself out as Chef Franc (cheffranc.com); he'll come to your house, cook a dinner party and bring his guitar.
Voelz: Frank and food — he has appetite for life. Touring and traveling, our compass of curiosity included food, music, bookstores, record stores, nothing was left out. It was never "Oh, that restaurant is too swanky for us," it was always "No, we're going for it!" Max used to say, "Hold on to your per diems, we're going to dinner with Frankie!"
Hughes: We were traveling carnival auteurs, with a deep familial sense. No matter what we had, we could get together and make a big party, a big supper. ... [Orrall] is a master chef, as fun to cook for as to cook with. It's a lot of fun to sit back and let him take over the kitchen. It's almost exactly the way he approaches music, too.
Orrall: I've always loved the dinner party. I love what happens when a group comes together to drink wine and talk story. It relates to when I was a kid. My family had parties, and Mom would bust out the guitar. People brought instruments, and at the end of the night all these adults are playing Roy Rogers and Carter Family songs. ... In the early days of Poi Dog, as street musicians, we'd make 12 dollars some days. We always had to fiure out how to make that work. So it was always about being creative, buying pasta and frozen peas an making our own meal, and it eventually became this social thing for all of us in the studio. My cooking has always been combined with music, and the other way around.
Pondering the future
Orrall: Would I move again? I'm originally from Hawaii, and I've been trying to make more of an effort to be in Hawaii more. I'm always going to be in Chicago. It's my creative home. But I'm becoming more of a gypsy now, like I used to be.
Orrall is working on his first solo album, likely a set of instrumental, Brazilian-inspired tunes. Voelz has completed a 50-minute orchestrated suite for Thai yoga. She also promises to finish a long-delayed record of Prince covers.
Voelz: I'll never put that out. No, I think I will next year. That's such a lie. I've been saying that for four years. Maybe a show with Robbie Fulks. He's got his Michael Jackson covers record out. OK, that for sure will happen next year.
Hughes has played with numerous others (Cracker, Bob Schneider, Jason Mraz). He is currently finishing his third solo album and leading his own band, Bruce Hughes & the All Nude Army.
Juhlin reunited the Slugs for one show last year. He now leads an inventive local covers band, Expo '76.
Juhlin: I like to say that we're not a cover band, but a band that does covers. It's one of the most fun musical experiences I've ever had in my life. ... Don't count out those Slugs, though. I think we may end up doing a show before too long.
POI DOG PONDERING'S "TALE OF TWO CITIES"
• 9 p.m. Dec. 2 — The Austin Years
• 9 p.m. Dec. 3 — The Chicago Years
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Tickets: $26, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In his 1976 appearance as a celebrity guest on "The Muppet Show," singer-songwriter Paul Williams sang one of his own songs accompanied by a small Muppet choir, a backing band by the name Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (showing remarkable restraint), and the subdued piano of Rowlf the Dog.
The tune was called "Sad Song," but Williams remembers it as one of the happiest moments of his life.
"Oh, it's one of those Hallmark lyrics I wrote, basically a co-dependent anthem, which is pretty much what I spent my life writing. But the way it worked on the show is a perfect example of this intense emotional connectedness we feel with these characters," Williams says.
In the scene — see it and other great Muppet music moments here — the song winds to a close with Williams leaning on Rowlf's piano nonchalantly singing about "the sad song that used to be our song," a sharply sentimental but sweet moment, and as Rowlf plays the final chords, he glances at Williams, as if to say, "Did that help?" Rowlf then closes the piano keys and gently pats the lid.
"I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles," Williams says, laughing heartily at the 35-year-old memory.
Music always has been the beating heart of the Muppets. That "intense emotional connectedness" fans feel to the felt friends created by the late Jim Henson has fueled excitement about the first new Muppet movie in 12 years — "The Muppets," opening Wednesday in theaters — and it comes directly from the power of the franchise's iconic songs, such as Williams' and Kenny Ascher's "Rainbow Connection" and "Movin' Right Along."
For those of us who grew up with the Muppets, the music made an impact beyond celebrity moments on "The Muppet Show," the syndicated TV variety series Henson produced from 1976 to 1981. Those moments included Elton John performing "Crocodile Rock" with the song's namesake and Julie Andrews donning Maria's dress again for "The Lonely Goatherd" on a farm.
"The Muppet Show" celebrated pop songs by reimagining them, adding narratives and creating set pieces in the years just before MTV — always stopping just short of parodying them. Like classic Looney Tunes cartoons, this was a show aimed chiefly at adults; kids could LOL to Muppets dancing around to the Village People's "Macho Man," but adults were ROTFL when Gonzo's disco-dressed chicken gang rumbled with a posse of butch, leather-clad pigs. The show also unearthed folk classics, mid-century lounge music, Tin Pan Alley chestnuts and rhythm & blues.
"We covered everything — every genre and every century," Muppet performer Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Zoot and others) told the SF Weekly in 2007. "We did Charleston numbers, we did the latest stuff in rock 'n' roll, we did the '40s, '30s, classical. I really miss the way we worked with music. Jim was a pretty musical guy."
The new Muppet movie, fortunately, works with music in the same spirit. "The Muppets" soundtrack is not, thankfully, "The Green Album," an unnecessary, marketing-driven collection released in August featuring current indie-rockers (OK Go, Andrew Bird, Weezer, etc.) covering classic Muppet songs. The Muppets are doing their own thing again.
The film's director and music supervisor both come from a musical-comedy project that isn't just a kindred spirit; its title sounds like its own Muppets production number: "Flight of the Conchords."
"The Muppets and 'Flight of the Conchords,' yeah, there are quite a lot of similarities," says Bret McKenzie, half of the Conchords duo and music supervisor for "The Muppets." (The film's director is "Conchords" co-creator and director James Bobin.) "I really didn't have to shift gears, like, at all."
"Flight of the Conchords" was basically an adult "Muppet Show." Few actors are more Muppety than Jermaine Clement, and the songs he and McKenzie wrote for each episode of their acclaimed HBO comedy series (and live concerts) kept things movin' right along in the same adventurous, wondrous and usually optimistic spirit. Henson no doubt would have loved the "Bowie" episode, with Clement dressed up as "1986 David Bowie from the movie 'Labyrinth,' " a puppets-'n'-people fantasy film that Henson directed.
"There's a quality to the production [of 'The Muppets'], a looseness that reflects the looseness of the Muppets themselves, and I think you could say the same about [the Conchords] most times," McKenzie says. "This guy Chris Caswell, who worked on the original Muppets music as a piano player, told me Henson said, 'If it sounds too good, it's not right.' I kept thinking about that a lot. Finding the line between that looseness and a grand musical number — it's a challenge."
Plus, the Muppet universe has a few commandments.
"I quickly had to learn a few things," McKenzie says. "Like, in the Muppets' world, they've always existed. Kermit was never a piece of fabric. I had one lyric with Kermit saying, 'I remember when I was just a piece of felt,' and they said, 'Oh, no, you can't use that.' Another thing is that all these characters have specific vocal ranges. If they go too high or too low, they stop sounding like the character we know. If Miss Piggy goes too high, she sounds like a squeaky mouse.
"Also, all animals can talk — except chickens. They can only cluck. I had this big finale with everyone singing along, and we cut to the chickens, and I said, 'OK, chickens sing.' 'Oh, no, chickens can't sing.' So it's even funnier, because it's, 'OK, cluck,' and they cluck, cluck, cluck."
McKenzie's "Life's a Happy Song" has such a finale — a classic Muppet cluster-cluck that even includes lines sung by Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney and indie rocker Feist. It's one of four new songs McKenzie wrote for "The Muppets" (the others are "Let's Talk About Me," "Man or Muppet" and "Me Party"), and he oversaw the production of other original songs, as well as the film's reprise of favorites like "Rainbow Connection."
The film also includes actor Chris Cooper, who plays villainous oilman Tex Richman, performing — ye gods — a rap song.
"The rap song was a very dangerous idea," McKenzie says. "I arrived and that was already in the script, so I had to make it work. The risk is that it will be a joke from the late '80s. We've all seen people rapping badly. So I gave Chris some rapping lessons — on Skype. If you can imagine, Chris Cooper and I rapping on Skype. It was so bizarre, one of many bizarre moments in this experience. God, it was funny." He laughs.
"He does a stellar rap performance, I must say. We had to make it Muppety, though, you know? We joked about adding, like, some Kanye AutoTune, but it's not about making some contemporary, winking reference. I didn't want this to sound like a Hannah Montana album."
A star is reborn
"Muppety." It's an adjective they all use. Williams says it's a quality he first spotted early in the morning.
"I was a solid fan of everything Henson before he asked me to come over and do 'The Muppet Show,' because living on the road at that time, the best, most intelligent entertainment we could find on television while getting up in the morning and getting ready to go to the next city was 'Sesame Street,' " he says.
The diminutive Williams was once a huge star, lest we forget. By the end of the '70s, he'd written huge hits — Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" (from "A Star Is Born"), the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," even the theme song for "The Love Boat" — and was a fixture on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson (48 times!). By the '80s, he fell off the radar due to deep struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, a story that's told in a new documentary currently making the film-fest rounds, "Paul Williams: Still Alive." Williams also is in his second term as president of ASCAP.
"Everybody wanted to do 'The Muppet Show' because it was so very hip," Williams says. On the set of the show, "I understood the magic of what was happening when I was standing there talking to Jim and Frank [Oz, founding Muppet puppeteer and voice actor], and Frank has Miss Piggy on his arm and Jim has Rowlf and Kermit on his arms, so it was all of us in this conversation. There was this extra level of engagement, a kind of medium, that really made it special. Songs came alive in that."
After his "Muppet Show" appearance, Henson asked Williams to write some songs for another project he was working on, a holiday special that would double as a workshop for some production techniques later perfected for "The Muppet Movie" (1979). The special was "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" for HBO.
Their relationship cemented, Williams went on to co-write the now-classic tunes for the first Muppets film. He remembers a moment in the creative process during that film that summarized the unique nature of creating with Henson.
"I love Gonzo most of all," Williams says. "We're all landlocked birds, you know? There was a great scene where the Muppets break down on the road in the desert, and I said to Jim, 'You know, I'm a child of the '60s' — I'm 21 years sober now, of course, but in those days, there were a variety of chemicals involved, and people were having a lot of spiritual awakenings as a result. I said, 'What if we write about that? Here's Gonzo experiencing that feeling of connectedness.' Jim said, 'That's really nice. What if we also get beyond the metaphoric and allow Gonzo to actually experience flying?' So he wrote that whole fair scene where Gonzo gets the balloons and is taken away just to support the song. It's so Muppets — it's a lofty dream squarely rooted on the ground."
So many songs: 10 great Muppet music moments
As you gear up for Muppet-mania this week ahead of the new movie, "The Muppets" — read about the Muppets music and the Flight of the Conchords connection — here are 10 great musical moments from our felt friends (in no particular order), from the show, the movies and the viral videos.
Get this: The song "Mahna Mahna," written by Piero Umiliani, first appeared in a 1968 Italian film ("Sweden: Heaven and Hell") about Nordic sex, drugs and suicide. Thankfully, it resurfaced a decade later as a perfect set piece for "The Muppet Show," featuring two fluorescent pink cows (?!) and one very groovy beatnik.
'Last Time I Saw Him' with Diana Ross
Performing with Muppets is a transformative experience for some singers. In this clip from the fourth season of "The Muppet Show," Diana Ross appears more natural, relaxed and happy than she ever did with the Supremes, first sitting on the stoop and jamming with a few Muppets, then turning it into a full-on production number with a great arrangement that ambles like a Muppet road reverie. By the end of the tune, Muppet horn players are in a Dixieland breakdown, and Ross puts a period on the number with a hammy vaudeville face.
The Muppets started a comeback a couple of years ago with a series of YouTube videos — more respectful pop song covers — like this Muppety take on Queen's popera.
'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'
Sure, "The Muppet Show" had a laugh track, but some poignant moments found their way in. Sgt. Floyd Pepper, of the Muppet band Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem, occasionally turned in cool, calm readings of pop songs. His performance of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" (a duet with Janice, "fer sure") is smooth, but this take on this George Harrison song is a piece of pre-MTV perfection, setting up a little narrative in the scene — complete with Miss Piggy in silhouette during a very "Eleanor Rigby" kind of moment — and creating a transcendent moment, especially when Floyd caresses his guitar and says, "Oh, baby, don't cry."
How do you celebrate St. Patty's Day in Muppetland? With the three tenors, of course — the Swedish Chef, Beaker and Animal. Assembling three of the Muppets no one can understand to sing such a classic tune is only the start of the hilarity. The rest of it follows when Beaker overcomes his anxiety for a solo, Animal goes off actually looking for Danny, and the turtlenecks.
'Sad Song' with Paul Williams
After singer-songwriter Paul Williams made this appearance on the first season of "The Muppet Show" in 1976, Jim Henson asked him to write more Muppets music. That turned into a collaboration that lasted decades and produced some of the Muppets' most iconic songs, including "Rainbow Connection." Williams said of the scene: "I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles."
Animal vs. Buddy Rich
"The Muppet Show" showcased all kinds of music, including jazz. In this scene, Animal is let off his chain to challenge revered jazz player Buddy Rich to a drum battle. While Animal hollers like a tennis pro during the match, Rich flies over his kit with power and panache. Animal's drums, incidentally, were performed on the show by British jazz drummer Ronnie Verrell.
'In the Navy'
First, this is the second Village People song the Muppets covered (the other, well ...). For this musical number, the navy in question is a horde of marauding Muppet Vikings, and when they chant "We want you as a new recruit!" — they're not kidding. They come ashore and proceed to shanghai villagers into shipboard service. Educational on sooooo many levels.
'Grandma's Feather Bed' with John Denver
John Denver forged a lasting kinship with the Muppets — he made several "Muppet Show" appearances, hosted a Christmas special and the 1982 special "Rocky Mountain Holiday" — which began with this odd performance. Perhaps it was a less jaded era, so creators and audiences didn't see anything creepy about Denver hopping into bed with a bunch of Muppets, having a pillow fight with them, or dressing in drag as Grandma.
The movies are filled with great Muppet songs (one of my favorites is "The Happiness Hotel" from "The Great Muppet Caper"), but the benchmark was always Paul Williams' Oscar-nominated gem from the very first opening credits.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
By Sept. 12, 2001, it was clear the front lines of America's musical response to the previous day's attacks would have a certain native twang.
That afternoon, I was in the safest place an American could be — the middle of nowhere, driving across vacant grasslands toward Denver from a Sept. 11 hike of the Black Mesa in a remote corner of the Oklahoma panhandle — and the airwaves, already saturated in those parts by country music, were thick with over-earnest patriotic songs DJs had dredged-up for the occasion.
Lee Greenwood's God-forsaken "God Bless the U.S.A." was repeated about every 20 minutes. They also dug into chestnuts old and new — Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America" (a celebration of working stiffs released just weeks before), Billy Ray Cyrus' "Some Gave All" (honoring military servicefolk, from the same album as "Achy Breaky Heart"), even Merle Haggard's Vietnam-era "The Fightin' Side of Me" (pity, once again, that "squirrelly guy who claims he just don't believe in fightin'").
Eventually, I'd had my fill. I put in the only angry political music I had in the car: the first album from the Clash.
In the months to come, though, country music led the charge — and had the greatest popular success — with songs addressing the 9/11 murders, ranging from tender contemplation of the tragedies to blatant, boot-clad jingoism.
On the softer end of that spectrum, country gentleman Alan Jackson hit No. 1 just two months after the attacks with a thoughtful, plaintive ballad, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." With the dust barely settled in New York City, Jackson could only muster questions — not so much about the causes of the attacks but about Americans' personal reactions to the crisis. Beyond echoing the common JFK-era query of its title, the song probes for responses both public ("Did you burst out in pride for the red, white and blue / and the heroes who died just doin' what they do?") and private ("Did you call up your mother and tell her you loved her? / Did you dust off that Bible at home?"). Mawkish, maybe, but it served its purpose.
Toby Keith, of course, was more blunt. By summer 2002, after Jackson and much of country music had spent months being courteously somber and reflective, America had reached the anger phase of its grief, which pushed Keith's next album to No. 1 on the strength of his own parenthetical single, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." With imagery that includes the Statue of Liberty not only making a fist but shaking it, Keith — with trademark subtlety — warned evildoers everywhere: "You'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / 'Cause we'll put in a boot in your ass / It's the American way."
I expected that kind of confidence and rage from rock 'n' roll, instead, and boy was I let down.
A month after 9/11, musicians gathered at the Concert for New York City, an event organized by Paul McCartney. The former Beatle himself had watched the Twin Towers attacks from the the tarmac at JFK airport, and debuted his reaction song at the concert. "Freedom," however, is a viscous melody and a pitying lyric — one which never directly addresses the tragedy, waxing generally about the broad virtues of its subject. "We will fight for the right / to live in freedom," McCartney sings.
McCartney played the song everywhere, marketing it as the ultimate 9/11 anthem, but it never caught on. In fact, it was frequently employed at rallies with a less peaceful intent. McCartney told Britain's Telegraph last year: "I think it got hijacked a bit, and [turned into something] a bit militaristic. Mine was in the spirit of 'We Shall Overcome'; you know, 'Fight for your rights' in the civil rights sense; [it] doesn't mean, 'Go out and hit people.' It was a pity: it kind of stopped me doing it, actually."
Neil Young, who 31 years prior had rushed into a studio to record "Ohio," a quick response to the Kent State shootings, did the same in the fall of 2001 and released "Let's Roll" that November. Over a slow, moody jam that inverts the idea of holy war, Young celebrates those who revolted against their captors aboard Flight 93, ultimately bringing it down in Pennsylvania. Passenger Todd Beamer's words became Young's title, as well as a rousing catchphrase for months to come. The catchphrase had a much longer life than Young's song.
Clear Channel Communications, the company that eventually spun off today's Live Nation, didn't help matters by circulating among its 1,200 radio stations a list of 165 "lyrically questionable" songs, suggesting DJs steer clear of them in the weeks after 9/11 in the name of sensitivity. Some might have been understandable — Soundgarden's "Blow Up the Outside World," Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," the GAP Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," Peter, Paul & Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" — but the list also included puzzling choices such as Neil Diamond's "America" and John Lennon's "Imagine."
It was a rock-centric list, which probably helped open the field of musical catharsis to country's well-heeled patriotism. DJs had free rein to draw from an arsenal that already included Faith Hill's "Star-Spangled Banner" from the year before as well as new flag-wavers from LeAnn Rimes ("God Bless America"), Randy Travis ("America Will Always Stand"), Charlie Daniels ("This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag"), Kenny Rogers ("Homeland") and Hank Wiliams Jr. ("America Will Survive," a rewrite of his 1982 single "A Country Boy Can Survive").
And, yes, "God Bless the U.S.A.," Greenwood's curse from 1984, returned to the charts in October 2001, peaking again at No. 16.
FIVE GOOD 9/11 SONGS
I'll leave you with a few antidotes to all that yee-haw saccharine and sentiment. Here are five of my own favorite songs addressing a wide array of perspectives on 9/11:
Bruce Springsteen, "The Rising"
Sung from the point of view of one of the New York City firefighters headed up the stairs of the World Trade Center, Springsteen's anthem, the last-minute title track to his 2002 album, was the worthiest of the popular 9/11 songs if only because of its utter disinterest in retaliation. Instead of an uprising, Bruce goes for a broader, transcendent kind of uplift.
Fleetwood Mac, "Illume"
A couple of years later, this Stevie Nicks song appeared on Fleetwood Mac's heralded comeback album, "Say You Will." It's touching in its candlelit consideration — simply a musing on the national mindset (after she "saw history go down" and was thinking about "how we could make it / what we've been through / all of the trauma"). "I didn't set out to write a Sept. 11th song, it just happened," Nicks said that year. "I also wrote one called 'Get Back on the Plane' and a song called 'The Towers Touched the Sky,' but it was just too depressing." Wise choice, and a lovely meditation.
Ministry, "Lies Lies Lies"
Though I'm doubtful of Al Jourgensen's conspiracy theories, I support his monstrously rocking skepticism on this typically jagged, distorted track from the recently reunited collective. "I'm on a mission to never forget / 3,000 people that I've never met," Jourgensen growls affectionately before warning that the attacks might actually have been planned "not by Al Qaeda, not by bin Ladin / but by a group of tyrants / that should be of great concern to all Americans."
Loudon Wainwright III, "No Sure Way"
This pensive folk song from the typically frank and poignant Wainwright, on his 2005 album "Here Come the Choppers," was written just a few days after 9/11 as Wainwright rode the subway into Manhattan — which traveled underneath ground zero for the first time. "They say heaven's high above us hell's not far below / In that subway tunnel there was no sure way to know," he sings. "When you face something that huge, you think, 'I'm not even going to think of writing a song about this. It's too ridiculous and too maudlin,' " Wainwright told me in March. "I'm sure there are hundreds of songs written about 9/11 now. ... Like the words I used in the song, it felt 'obscene.' "
James, "Hey Ma"
McCartney went for indirect and missed; this British band was a little more direct and much more moving. Opening in the aftermath ("The towers have fallen / so much dust in the air"), grandiose singer Tim Booth swings between indignation — "Please don't preach me forgiveness / You're hardwired for revenge" — and graphic grief — "Hey ma, the boy's in body bags / coming home in pieces." That it's the title track to one of the group's finest albums is a sweet bonus.
Honorable mention — In addition to Neil Young, another moving ballad from the viewpoint of the Flight 93 passengers came from, of all places, a Velvet Revolver track called "Messages." Singer Scott Weiland sounds great on the recording, weaving his brave cell-phone farewells between languid solos from guitarist Slash. Surprisingly effective, and it still holds up well.
By Thomas Conner
© The Washington Post
Rapper and actor Common is usually cool as a cucumber, but in 2006, he got a little nervous. He was working with Black Eyed Peas member and in-demand music producer Will.I.Am on a song for a movie soundtrack, and Will had assembled the tracks using liberal samples from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“So this was serious, you know? Now I’m collaborating with Dr. King,” Common says. “Ain’t no playing around now. Not only do I have to be good, I can’t let down Martin Luther King.”
The fact that Common speaks of King in the present tense is telling of the personal and conversational flow to the rhymes he applied to the song “A Dream” (from the soundtrack to “Freedom Writers”). “In between the . . . hustle and the schemes / I put together pieces of a dream / I still have one,” he coolly and reverently raps before King’s voice returns to the mix.
Lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking hip-hop has always mentioned King this much — and this reverently. Since Common’s posthumous collaboration with King, MCs have been all over MLK. Sometimes it’s 50 Cent just citing his name, but others have equated King’s dream with the election of the nation’s first black president (rapper Jay-Z: “Now that that’s that, let’s talk about the future / We have just seen the dream as predicted by Martin Luther”).
Even Common was at it again a few months ago. At the White House (an invitation that caused apoplexy among certain pundits over the rapper’s controversial song about a cop killer), he performed a song from his album due in November, “The Dreamer, the Believer,” using more of King’s dream speech between verses.
But it wasn’t always like this.
“King was invisible in the early days” of hip-hop, says Michael Hill, a professor at the University of Iowa who researches racial identity and African American literature. “He wasn’t ‘sampled’ widely, even though his speeches were readily available. . . . He just wasn’t making his way into hip-hop songs. But that changed as agitation for a Martin Luther King holiday began in the 1980s.”
Stevie Wonder cited King in his cheery 1981 R&B song “Happy Birthday” (“There ought to be a law against / anyone who takes offense / at a day in your celebration”). The federal holiday for King’s mid-January birthday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and the first holiday was observed in 1986 — but some states hesitated, which prompted Public Enemy’s scathing attack in “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (“The whole state’s racist / Why want a holiday? / [Expletive] it, ’cause I wanna”).
King’s voice was introduced, years before hip-hop, by an iconic DJ, Joe Gibson, known as “Jack the Rapper.” Throughout the late 1980s and the ’90s, though, the most frequent civil rights icon cited by Public Enemy and other rappers was Malcolm X.
“Once they bring out Malcolm X, King goes away again for 15 to 20 years,” Hill says. “That Public Enemy sample [of] Malcolm — ‘Too black, too strong!’ [in ‘Bring the Noise’] — it’s one of the most iconic samples in hip-hop. They patented Malcolm X as the voice that should be associated with this particular hard-edged framework, connecting the music with the notion of militancy.”
• • •
King’s absence makes sense to some. “The philosophy of nonviolent protest or redemptive suffering runs counter to the confrontational tone of so much hip-hop,” says Adam Bradley, co-editor of the groundbreaking Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press). “More than that, the Martin Luther King vision is harder to fit into a slogan than Malcolm’s. For Malcolm, you have ‘by any means necessary,’ catchphrases that capture, albeit imperfectly, his vision. With King, the closest we come is ‘I have a dream.’ It’s not surprising that’s one of the most prominent ways he appears in hip-hop.”
Even Common, for all of his use of King’s iconic speech, agrees. “Malcolm just represents more of the . . . the fire of hip-hop,” he said.
Not that it has to be one or the other. MCs in hip-hop frequently drop both names into the same song, often among a torrent of proper names.
“The main uses for name-dropping in hip-hop are as a simile,” Bradley says. “ ‘I’m like this person.’ Or occasional self-aggrandizement. Lil Wayne has this song [‘Playing With Fire’] where he says, ‘Assassinate me, (expletive) / ’cause I’m doing the same [expletive] that Martin Luther King did.’ That’s arguable,” Bradley says, then chuckles.
How serious are rappers when they link themselves so directly to a potent or polarizing figure?
For someone like Lil Wayne, Bradley says, “King’s name gives him the sound he wants to use. . . . It has little of the reverence,” Bradley says. “It’s delivered with a knowing sense that its audacity may resist the comparison, and through that it will nonetheless achieve the desired effect, which is to cast himself the giant.”
Sometimes the name-dropping, though, is didactic, often from artists who style themselves as socially conscious or political. King’s name is often employed as a means of teaching history to young people. Chuck D once famously referred to hip-hop as “the black CNN,” and even in today’s hyper-informational online culture, some MCs still take that role seriously.
Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, known for recently calling President Obama, on TV, “the biggest terrorist,” believes names are talismans, that dropping them will create ripples in the pond.
“It’s really a triumph anytime some rapper mentions his name,” Fiasco says of King. “The hope is that you say his name and some street dude in a car at a strip club smoking weed, that something triggers in him to go, ‘Now who is that guy and what did he do?’ ” Fiasco adds, “The names still carry weight in my world. Sneaking them in is very important.”
• • •
For Fiasco, there’s little sneaking going on. He opens his non-album track “BMF (Building Minds Faster)” announcing, “I think I’m Malcolm X, Martin Luther / add a King, add a Junior,” then proceeds through a list of figures he wants you to know about — “I’m Tupac, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Marcus Garvey . . . I’m Rev. Run . . . I’m T-Pain” — between his various critiques of social and foreign policy.
“I don’t even really break down who those guys were in the ‘BMF’ freestyle,” Fiasco says. “The names carry their own weight. Keeping them alive is all we need to do. It’s all we can do.”
Common understands this default duty of hip-hop — “Rap music in the hood plays the fatherly role,” he raps in “A Dream” — but when he was writing his rhymes to accompany King’s speech, the experience wasn’t so objective. It was personal.
His first verse describes every kind of darkness — gunshots fire from “sounds of blackness,” he’s followed by “dark clouds” and in his struggle to better himself, he says, “I just want some of your sun.” By the second verse, he’s turned introspective, speaking words as a letter to himself, telling “my story” about “tryna make it from a gangsta to a godlier role.” King’s dream becomes his own, though he initially worries he “ain’t using it for the right thing.”
“A lot of the struggle or fight that Dr. Martin Luther King was talking about was more for unity and about the rights of human beings,” Common says. “The character I took on in that song, you know, he says that fight exists in me. . . . I believe the change begins with you. You hear President Barack Obama speak and say, man, our work is just beginning. Well, our work is my work. We’ve got to take responsibility for the work. In the end, Martin’s dream starts with having a dream yourself — and then working to realize it, wherever and whoever you are.”
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lollapalooza wasn't supposed to last 20 years. It was a miracle it survived 20 dates. The tour was a death knell, a tick on a bucket list, the proverbial last hurrah. That first tour, Lollapalooza 1991 — that was meant to nail a particular coffin shut.
"It was the farewell tour for Jane's Addiction," says Perry Farrell, leader of that storied — and now revived — alt-rock band and inadvertent founder of Lollapalooza. "Marc [Geiger, his agent] called me up to discuss what we wanted to do, how we wanted to send ourselves off. He said we could do whatever we wanted. Well, my background was putting on shows and parties in L.A. I would never play the straight clubs, I was always finding the weird loft or setting up in front of a hot dog stand or taking people into the desert. I was used to putting on parties that had extra things. And Marc said 'whatever you want.' So I said, 'All right, I'll call you back.' I wanted to really think about it."
Geiger, now head of music at William Morris Endeavor and still booking the new stationary Lollapalooza, recalls the idea for a roving festival being sparked in London.
After a Jane's Addiction club show, Farrell lost his voice, thus forcing the band to cancel its appearance the next day at Britain's Reading Festival, an annual multi-band music event dating back to the 1970s.
"I went on to the festival the next day and had an amazing time," Geiger says, "and we go back to the hotel, where the band is sitting around pretty depressed, and said, 'Man, you should have seen this. This is what we should try to do with the breakup tour.' Perry said, 'Absolutely,' and we sat in the lobby sketching out the format and making lists of bands. ... This being Jane's Addiction, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on. One day a while later, Perry called me at 1 a.m. and said, 'I've got the name!' He'd heard it on a Three Stooges episode."
Fried from drug abuse and exhausted from touring, by 1991 Jane's Addiction was ready to call it a day. Farrell and guitarist Dave Navarro were at each other's throats. They finished recording "Ritual de lo Habitual" and were able to agree on one last thing: the tour supporting that album would be their last as a band.
Farrell had no reason to think it would repeat itself.
"I wanted a longer lineup, just because I wanted to have a wilder, bigger party," Farrell says. "If it's a farewell, then let's invite some of our musical friends and peers. Nothing was supposed to come of it, you know. I had no intention of doing it again. I mean, the thing was over and William Morris and Marc and these guys are all really enthusiastic and saying, 'We think we can get the Red Hot Chili Peppers for next year!' — and I went, 'Wait, what? Next year?'"
Farrell's musical Frankenstein (created also with help from Jane's manager Ted Gardner and booking agent Don Muller) would become the undead monster stomping through popular music and the summer concert scene for years to come. Lollapalooza lived, died, and in 2005 was born again as an annual, stationary "destination festival" in Chicago's Grant Park. This weekend the event is sold out, meaning 90,000 fans a day over three days will hear 130 bands on eight stages.
Lollapalooza — one day and one stage — debuted July 18, 1991, at a dusty, shade-less amphitheatre in Phoenix. For the next month and a half, the tour's nine performers visited 21 cities, including Aug. 3 at the World Music Theatre (formerly the Tweeter Center, currently the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre) in nearby Tinley Park.
By the end of Lollapalooza that year, Jane's Addiction would be over — but more popular than ever. The rift in the band, however, was clear from that first show.
"The guys in Jane's Addiction got into a fist fight on stage. It was a hell of a way to debut," recalls Andy Cirzan, vice president of Chicago's Jam Productions. Jam would be producing the inaugural Lollapalooza when it reached the Chicago suburbs, so Cirzan had flown to Phoenix to see how it was going down. "The fight continued off stage. There was some definite roundhousing going on. I don't know if anyone landed a punch, but I specifically saw some punches flying as they left the stage."
"Yeah, well, that's why we were leaving," Farrell admits.
The rest of the Lolla lineup that first year: Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Living Colour, Ice T & Body Count, the Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band, the Violent Femmes and Fishbone. (See where the Lolla class of '91 is now.)
Emergency Broadcast Network, a group of video artists, bewildered fans at some of the shows by projecting soundtracked films between sets (basically the kind of electronica videos now all over YouTube). In San Francisco, an all-black heavy metal band, Othello's Revenge, played 1991's only side stage.
(That same Aug. 3, 1991, weekend in Chicago also offered Bonnie Raitt with Chris Isaak at Poplar Creek, the O'Jays at the Arie Crown Theatre, Kelly Willis at Schubas, Dizzy Gillespie at Ravinia, and the South Shore Jazz Festival featuring the Count Basie Orchestra at the South Shore Cultural Center.)
The idea of a multi-band festival wasn't that unusual in 1991. One that moved around the country was.
"The festival scene had been in Europe for a long time, and lot of this was modeled on that idea. But those were all destination festivals. To take this thing a put it on the road, that was unheard of," Cirzan says. "You're not talking about two or three bands and their equipment. Now you're talking about eight or nine bands, stages, vending, kiosks, and moving it all across America."
The more Farrell thought about what he wanted to do, brainstorming after that initial "whatever you want" phone call, the more he wanted to do.
"I was thinking in terms of what else would happen on the grounds. I really wanted an art gallery," Farrell says. "That's the first extracurricular, front-of-house idea I had, to have a traveling art gallery. From there, I started thinking, well, that covers the ground, but what about the sky? So I wanted hot-air balloons. I kept on going. I didn't get resistance on anything except the hot-air balloons. We managed to do it one year, but a balloon only holds two to four people at a time. It wasn't cost effective."
Even the first Lollapalooza provided plenty of extra, non-musical distraction to fill the long hours in the summer sun. In addition to shops full of trinkets and food vendors, numerous organizations were spreading their gospels. Greenpeace had a heavy presence, and informational kiosks abounded for groups such as Rock the Vote, the League of Women Voters, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the National Abortion Rights Action League, Handgun Control Inc. and the Citizenship Education Fund. The Amok Bookstore sold banned books.
Jeffrey Othello, namesake leader of Othello's Revenge, christened Lollapalooza's first side stage. After working his way through college in concert security for legendary Bay Area promoter Bill Graham, Othello's first band was booked at Graham's 1990 festival, A Gathering of the Tribes. A precursor to Lollapalooza, this two-day event — a mini-tour organized by the Cult's Ian Astbury, with the first day outside San Francisco and the second outside Los Angeles — featured a diverse bill that included Soundgarden, the Indigo Girls, Ice T, Queen Latifah, Iggy Pop, Joan Baez and more.
"Our music got resistance from the booking agency for that festival, but you don't say no to Bill Graham," Othello recalls. "He liked our music, so he built a second stage especially for us on this grassy area at stage left. ... We were a big enough hit that we got the call to try the same thing at Lollapalooza that first year."
Lollapalooza '92 included a full-time side stage on all the dates, as well as the addition of the briefly notorious Jim Rose Circus Sideshow.
Diverse but not everything
The first Lollapalooza lineup and several subsequent ones were diverse, which is not necessarily the same as today's smorgasbord, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. In 1991, the industry still filed many of these bands under "college rock."
"The other reason I wanted so many bands to come with us is I felt there was strength in numbers," Farrell says. "This is before the title 'alternative rock.' There was no name for it. It was just this underground phenomenon now getting a presence on radio and showing good numbers on the live circuit. I figured if I just brought my friends and my record collection out there with me, together it would be very powerful."
The booking philosophy of the first Lollapalooza was considerably looser than subsequent tours.
"It was us in a hotel room with the manager and the band, and everybody could pick one band," Geiger says. "It was the non-scientific, choose-your-kickball-team approach. Dave wanted Siouxsie, because he's a Goth. Perky [Jane's drummer Stephen Perkins] loved Rollins. Perry wanted Ice-T. Eric [Avery, former Jane's bassist] wanted the Butthole Surfers. I wanted Nine Inch Nails and the Pixies. I got one. Living Colour was no one's choice; they were exploding at the time, and we thought they made sense."
"It was all hair metal at that time," Farrell says. "We were fighting against that. We were not pop, and rock had become pop. I don't want to pick on people like Styx and Journey, but you understand they would say they're rock bands. To me, they're pop groups. We didn't want to be that."
Farrell and Gieger also say they wanted those early Lollapaloozas to stay manageable. That '91 show seemed like such a big deal — with nine bands. This weekend's hootenanny in Grant Park showcases 130.
"I have to say, that's what was nice — and, I think, most effective — about those early tours. It wasn't about a million bands. It was a marquee slot, and everyone lobbied to be on it. It was a strategy about breaking your band nationwide," Cirzan says. "Today, it's, what, 150 bands? The average consumer — I mean, how could you even digest more than, say, 20 bands in a day? It doesn't seem that helpful to bands, just the promoters."
"The cool part came later," says Debbie Cohen, an English teacher at Glenbrook South High School. She attended Lollapalooza '91 at the World. "After seeing the bands you'd never heard of and then, after they became huge, you were able to say, 'Wow, I saw that show!' ... It was a whole day of music, and that seemed very cool, but it wasn't so much that it was too much, like today. Plus, at 15 years old, Tinley Park seemed very far away and exotic."
Cohen tagged along with her older brother, who was there "because Jane's Addiction was his favorite band in the whole world." They had tickets on the lawn; she remembers the day being slightly rainy. For Jane's Addiction, they managed to squeeze against the barrier between the lawn and the pavilion, and Cohen was hoisted onto "the shoulders of this 6-foot-4 dreadlocked boy named Todd, so I had the best seat in the house."
Her current students were astonished to learn Lollapalooza had a history.
"They were so excited this year, and I'd never heard of most of the bands. I said, 'You know, I was at the first one.' They looked at me like I was an alien," Cohen says. "I named some of the bands. 'Who's that?!' they said. ... They were totally flabbergasted."
Stephanie Katsaros, a Chicago sustainability consultant now who was 16 at Lollapalooza '91 at the World, got her view by standing on the pavilion armrests, "headbanging and fist-pumping to 'Head Like a Hole' during NIN."
Her experience at the first Lollapalooza was so satisfying and eye-opening, Katsaros says she's been to every one except 2008. The music was great, she says, but the crowd was amazing.
"The scope of the people — it was almost like the high school cafeteria, with punks on one side and preps on the other, had been mixed up," she says. "This mélange of people and ideas. It was the first time I'd seen that kind of movement. ... It started in the parking lot. People had cooler and food and drinks at their cars, just hanging out. It was definitely not a Grateful Dead parking lot scene. I remember black T-shirts and piercings and Mohawks. All these people kind of finding each other. ... We didn't know there was an us!"
Within a few years, the organizers of Lollapalooza began to realize that the scene was as important, if not moreso, than the music. They thought they'd try an experiment — in Chicago.
"They called us up in '95 and said, 'We want you ready to go on sale next week,'" Cirzan says. "I said, 'Well, you've got to tell me who's on the show.' They said, 'Ah, we're not going to announce the artists yet. We just want to see what we've got, and you're the test market.' I'll be damned if we didn't sell out 28,000 tickets with no lineup."
This is now the routine: Lollapalooza passes go on sale, and often sell out, sometimes weeks before a single artist is announced. That this now occurs in Chicago is because of that 1995 venture.
"When I thought about where we would put this as a destination festival, I never forgot that," Farrell says. "Chicago and I have had a love affair for a long time."
That same year, '95, Geiger told the Sun-Times, in response to a question about the festival's scaling back of shows that year: "I think in 2010, people are going to look back and see that we did what we had to in 1995 to ensure that Lollapalooza would still be around. ... It would be nice to be involved with something that lasts that long, given that the trends of the business go so fast."
Just as Lollapalooza came back from the dead, Jane's Addiction also lived, died, lived again and died again, but has reunited once more and is back this week with the first single — perhaps aptly titled "Irresistible Force" — from a new album, "The Great Escape," their first in eight years due in late September.
Oddly, given the perfect timing, Jane's Addiction is not performing at this year's Lollapalooza. As I speak with Perry, he's packing for another gig early this week — in Australia.
"We're going down to do one show at Splendour in the Grass. It's a destination festival!" he says. "We played Lollapalooza there a few years ago. We've got a great lineup this year, they don't need us. Maybe next year. I mean, it looks like this will go on forever, right?"
Clarence Clemons and the rock sax solo
By Thomas Conner
© Obit magazine
In a March episode of NBC’s hit comedy “30 Rock,” writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) panics because she has no “plan B” for her career and thus nothing to fall back on during an unforeseen professional hiatus. She stumbles through dark backstreets as she’s taunted by the voices of “people whose professions are no loner a thing” — such as travel agents, American autoworkers, the CEO of Friendster and a man who “played dynamite saxophone solos in rock and roll songs.”
This wasn’t the first winking obituary for the rock sax solo, but this week’s news might be the last. Sax player Clarence Clemons died Saturday from complications he suffered from a June 12 stroke. He was 69.
Clemons was a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — a pillar, given the way Springsteen leaned on him, both literally (the Boss supports himself on the Big Man in the iconic photograph on the “Born to Run” LP gatefold) and figuratively (utilizing Clemons’ impassioned sax solos to intensify his lyrical themes) — and, for at least one generation, Clemons was the epitome of the hooked horn’s particular power in a musical genre for which it was not designed.
A creation of the Romantic era (invented in 1846 by Belgian clarinetist Adolphe Sax), the saxophone evolved to become a signifier of romance. The bent woodwind never took hold in orchestral music but found solid purchase in military bands, where its portability and honking volume were valued. Marching bands, concert bands, big bands, jazz — its migration was natural and swift. By the 1950s, as rhythm-and-blues evolved into even more guttural rock ’n’ roll, musicians like Louis Jordan and King Curtis finessed this suitably throaty instrument into the robust soul that would define the rest of the century.
With its roots in rock’s genesis — Ike Turner’s 1951 hit “Rocket 88,” possibly the first rock single, was credited to Jackie Brenston, the band’s singer and one of the song’s two sax players — by the 1970s and ’80s the saxophone was often employed to evoke that era’s rose-tinted innocence and authenticity. When a third-generation rocker wanted to trace his New Wave stead to some age-old cred, he plugged in a sax solo — from David Bowie reinventing himself (again) by lamenting “all Papa’s heroes” in “Young Americans” and Billy Joel linking his contemporary tastes to the classics in “It’s Still Rock ’n Roll to Me” to INXS’s horn-y claims on American soul (“What You Need,” etc.) and the popcorn purity of the movie “Eddie and the Cruisers” (with John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band providing “On the Dark Side” and the rest of the Springsteen-parody soundtrack).
Within that cocoon of Eisenhower-level security, the more relaxed sax solo became an emblem of true heart and romance. (How do you imply that insipid bad-boy Rob Lowe has a heart of gold in the movie “St. Elmo’s Fire”? By making his rawest expression of his passion be through an extended sax solo with his bar band.) Among wind instruments, its reedy timbre sounds the most like a human voice, finishing lyrical thoughts by saying things a human just can’t say. But several Foreigners (“Urgent”), Quarterflashes (“Harden My Heart”) and Spandau Ballets (“True”) later, the cliché became a caricature, and Liz Lemon’s fears became inevitable.
But at the heart of that golden — or brassy — age was the hulking sideman who best encapsulated the instrument’s classicism, passion and romance, sometimes in a single sustained note. Clemons played tenor sax with studied passion much more than technical skill. This wasn’t jazz, this was rock. It was all about feeling — and reaction.
“There’s a lot of pride Bruce took in watching the response that Clarence would get from the audience with his solos,” Alto Reed, sax player for Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, told the Chicago Sun-Times this week. “The songs would come to life with the first note of a sax line. He was brilliant. His tone was not your typical, classic horn-section sound. It was growly, gassy. You could feel the energy coming out of his sax. Big Man, big sax, big sound.”
Clemons turned in many memorable sax solos for Springsteen songs — “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” I usually throw in his huffing on “I’m Goin’ Down” — but few argue over which was his greatest accomplishment: “Jungleland.”
The ultimate whisper to a scream, “Jungleland” is an epic from Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough album, “Born to Run.” Springsteen relates the tragic story of the Magic Rat and his star-crossed affair with the “barefoot girl” amid a scene of urban angst and frustration this side of the Jersey state line. It’s “a holy night” filled with people who are “hustling,” “hungry” and “hunted,” and just as the most “desperate” are ready to split (“Just one look / and a whisper / and they’re gone”) the song slams on the brakes, stops chugging forward and — announced by an arresting, almost dissonant long note, like a siren in the band’s rear view — becomes a detour down Clemons’ own backstreets of American imagery and sound.
It’s a song within a song, two-and-a-half minutes within the nearly 10-minute anthem and a necessary non-verbal underscore of the hopeless scene Springsteen has been setting up. Clemons’ sustained warning wails a while longer, defiant against the cascade of cymbals and piano chords behind him, before beginning its eulogy for the Eden that sometime, somehow turned into Jungleland. Twice, three times he returns to the major chord, the hopeful tone, voicing the Rat’s own hubris and bringing the song’s pent-up rage to a rolling boil. In the end, though, Clemons and his narrative collapse whimpering and spent as the piano takes over. Springsteen returns to wrap up the story, and it’s even worse than we expected for the Rat and his girl: “They wind up wounded / not even dead.” But we already knew that. Bruce’s jittery homily left the options open, but Clarence’s rock-steady solo confirmed the despair to come.
“That’s the flip side of rock and roll,” wrote Bob Lefsetz, music industry observer and publisher of the Lefsetz Letter, of the “Jungleland” solo this week. “The exuberance — and then the solitary feeling that you’re Wall-E, alone in a city without heart, without hope.”
Clemons often relayed the story of working on his “Jungleland” composition for 16 straight hours. Today, his results are not only loved, they are liked: There’s a dedicated Facebook page called “Clarence Clemons’ Sax Solo in Jungleland.”
In a surprise twist, Clemons re-emerged this spring and seemed ready to bestow validation on the rock and roll sax solo with the help of an unexpected admirer: None other than Lady Gaga tapped the E Streeter for saxophone parts on three tracks for her third outing, “Born This Way,” one of the most anticipated and talked-about albums of the year. In the video to Gaga’s latest single, “Edge of Glory,” Clemons sits on a building stoop while Gaga dances in the street and on the fire escape. He hardly moves, except to finger the valves of his horn. Gaga has said the song is rooted in her own experiences witnessing her grandfather’s final moments before death; the week the video debuted her young fans were making their own “get well soon” video for Clemons after the stroke.
What was he doing there, with Lady Gaga of all people? He was doing what he always did: Adding gravitas and a much-needed counterweight to an outsized personality and the frenetic music s/he produced. In the “Edge of Glory” video, Clemons is the only other person in the scene — the only figure with whom Lady Gaga deigned to share the spotlight, just like Springsteen. His music and instrument were as key to that role as his size and personality, and let’s hope rock never forgets his lesson.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
Rolling into town for SXSW, so is Jack White's Rolling Record Store
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2011 4:58 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — When I first attended South by Southwest, the annual pop music conference and festival in Austin, Texas (the music industry's spring break), it was 1996, just shy of the event's 10th anniversary — and everyone was already complaining about how big it had gotten. Too many bands, too much press, too much traffic. The film fest had barely started.
This year is the 25th anniversary of SXSW's music showcases, which are now preceded by SXSW Interactive and the SXSW film festival. The whole things stretches on for 10 days, with a lot of entertainment, a lot of media and a ton of traffic — and now most of the complaints about size and impact have shifted to Interactive. But we're all down here because SXSW still has a rep of previewing the films, music and online experiences that we'll be geeking out about for the rest of the year.
It starts the moment you get off the plane, where a brave singer-songwriter strummed her guitar on a makeshift stage at the airport bar next to the baggage claim escalators. For the next four nights, the Texas capital will echo with more than a thousand musicians hoping to turn the heads of writers, talent agents, music supervisors, film directors, label execs and more.
Jack White was first into the fray this afternoon ...
White's in town to unveil his latest venture after his recent confirmation that the White Stripes are no more. White is on a mission to salvage the experience of record buying for a generation of iTunes downloaders. He's put together the Third Man Rolling Record Store — basically a food truck that peddles vinyl LPs, T-shirts and such, plus a sound system. Wednesday afternoon, White worked that system, playing a set in front of the Rolling Record Store, which had set up outside Frank's Diner. He played a handful of songs solo, including a Buddy Holly cover, plus the White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground."
The mobile shop rolled here from Nashville for SXSW. White says he plans to travel the country with it, hitting the summer festivals.
SXSW Wednesday: Colourmusic, Wolf Gang, the Kickback, Admiral Fallow, Pete Wentz's Black Cards
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2011 2:56 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW is basically a musical March madness. Here's one man's brackets at the end of Wednesday night's series of showcases:
BRONCHO: When in doubt, follow Martin Atkins. The famed drummer for Public Image Ltd. and Pigface led a spirited panel Wednesday afternoon advising newbies to the music business, then started his evening at the Oklahoma showcase, seeing BRONCHO. Funny about that name: it's in all caps, for some reason, and it's pronounced so it rhymes with honcho. Tulsa's BRONCHO is the latest project from Ryan Lindsey, who manages to meld his experience in the alt-country band Cheyenne and early indie-rock hopefuls the Starlight Mints into a sweaty mix of loping cowpunk and Stiff Records guitar aggression. Atkins was bobbing his head, anyway.
Colourmusic: Another Okie quartet, Colourmusic, hoisted the freak flags over Austin's Sixth Avenue early, unleashing a squall of early Flaming Lips feedback, general high-pitched shrieking and, surprisingly, some meaty funk grooves. This is some serious evolution for a band that started as a more folk-driven, Britpop act (see their more accessible debut, the cumbersomely titled "F, Monday, Orange, February, Venus, Lunatic, 1 or 13") — and then they met the Lips' Wayne Coyne. Underneath the Brainiac-like furor, though, are some solid, funky rhythms. One fan was moved enough to tear off his shirt, jump on stage and dance ecstatically for all to see.
The Kickback: Guitarist-singer Billy Yost quipped between songs, "If you work in the entertainment industry and would like a hot record to put out, boy would we like to talk to you!" Here's hoping they had their chat. Chicago's the Kickback is a fierce power trio within a quintet — Yost, his brother Danny Yost on drums and bassist Zach Verdoorn. Tighter than a flea's undies, these three plow through every dynamic, from sweetly tuneful to apoplectic fury, buttressed by Billy Yost's apparent natural edginess (his stage banter was taut, nervous, like he was spoiling for a dust-up) and a vein in his neck that bulged whenever things got really good and really loud. It was almost like seeing David Garza at SXSW all those years ago.
Admiral Fallow: Here's the next Scottish band to watch. In the tradition of Belle & Sebastian, but with a more rock edge and a significantly grandiose songwriting perspective, Admiral Fallow is fertile with song styles and instrumentation. Opening their set late with a quiet tune, a lyric buoyed by rhythm guitars just for atmospherics, not melody, this six-piece played pastoral pop for those who've also been turned on to Mumford & Sons or their own countrymen, Frightened Rabbit. I heard the urgency and persistent rhythm of Dogs Die in Hot Cars (a fabulous but, with that silly name, defunct Scottish band), as well as a lyrical landscape of losers and big spaces that reminded me of American Music Club. With their flutes, clarinets and big drums in addition to the guitars, they could be Scotland Music Club, and they should start opening for the National immediately.
Black Cards: A small crowd waited for Pete Wentz to shag it from the mtvU Woodie Awards across downtown and finally debut his new band. He jumped on stage early Thursday morning with a crazy fur hat on and cranked up a fairly dime-a-dozen set of dance-rock. Black Cards is led by Bebe Rexha, a personable newcomer who comes off vixenish without being too affected. She's got a great voice, but Black Cards are still waiting for a full house. The groove-based music is deftly led by Wentz's bass, much the way John Taylor's bass was at the forefront of Duran Duran early on, but in the end it was sub-Garbage, especially when the songs took on a reggae flavor, which suited neither Wentz's nor Rexha's strengths. Clutching his Miller Lite, Wentz mubled some stage patter about how "weird it is when you do something different and people are like, 'That's lame.'" In that sense, yeah, this was weird.
Wandering Sixth Street: In addition to the smorgasbord of music down here, Chicagoans, it's also in the 70s. Strolling the main music row thus makes for easy shopping, with a band neatly framed in the open windows of most clubs. Practically next door to the Colourmusic show was another band with British spelling: Chicago's own Secret Colours, which turned in a set diametrically opposite of Colourmusic's brave frenzy; Secret Colours plays a tender swirl of '60s autumnal folk and '90s shoegaze. Down the way, Ha Ha Tonka smartly showed its Ozark roots in some ripping country-rock, featuring a mandolin player with a harmony voice as high as his instrument and a rhythm section with a driving backbeat. These Missouri boys had the crowd clapping along — and this was the SXChi showcase, sponsored by Chicago's JBTV and Threadless. Around the corner at Latitude, the unofficial British embassy for the duration of SXSW, Lonndon's Wolf Gang drew a crowd. Here's a band that looks like an anachronism — Spandau Ballet's wardrobe, Adam Ant's earring — but sounds timeless, luring a dancing mob on the street with rich melodies and crisp playing. A fellow next to me was lured away from another showcase by the sound. "American music is so muddled," he said. "This is so British — so clean and clear and, I don't know, some kind of tune to take away with you."
SXSW keynote: Bob Geldof pleads for rock's continuing social conscience — 'Say something to me!'
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2011 2:25 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — A fine new biography of Queen by Mark Blake, Is This the Real Life?, was recently published. The first chapter details the band's performance at Live Aid in 1985, as fine a piece of stadium showmanship as you'll ever see. It inspired me to drop the cash on a used set of Live Aid DVDs, the four-disc set that was finally compiled a few years ago. Watching the whole spectacle over a long weekend while the spouse was away, I finally came to terms with the fact that, sure, Dylan was there, but so were Spandau Ballet and the Style Council (themselves the picture-perfect illustration of style trumping substance in the mid-'80s). It happened when Elvis Costello came onto the stage. He had one song. He didn't pick one of his own, he didn't push the hit, he instead sang "All You Need Is Love." Live Aid is peppered with such moments, when the music itself reminds us of why we're here — much moreso and certainly more effectively than the marathon concert's occasional news reels about the African famine — and what we should be talking about.
This is exactly the kind of thing Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof says is lacking in current music — or, if it's there, at least the democratization of the Internet has prevented him from finding it.
Surprising and inspiring, more optimist than doomsayer, Geldof began Thursday's keynote address at SXSW 2011 with a pleasant ramble but focused his remarks on pop music's history of affecting social change, however indirectly, and the future of that crucial power.
"I don't think the American revolution is over," said the activist-musician. He didn't mean 1776. "The music of the American revolution was not fife and drum. It was rock 'n' roll. It is entirely understandable to anyone in the world. That's why Live Aid worked."
Geldof recalled his youth in "cold, damp, gray" Ireland and the personal (which, once he took action by joining a band, inevitably later became social) revolution that occurred when he first heard rock music. His realization, he says, was, "I can use this thing." He saw the music as a tool to change his own circumstances, and then to have a voice in the world.
But it's the nature of that voice that Geldof focused on. What kind of voice, and through what medium will it come? The Internet isn't enough, he said. "We can talk these things through, which is the limitation of the web," he said, salting his impassioned speech in several places with his distaste for blogs and for the ability of anyone to shout their views unmanaged into cyberspace. An increase in the quantity of voices has drowned out those with quality — "Everybody's got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say," Geldof said.
No, blog screeds and even Woody Guthrie-esque didacticism are not going to keep the American cultural revolution alive and growing. For music to have any impact, he said, "it must suggest, not state ... It has to be about society. The revisiting of context is crucial. When rock becomes about the height of the platform boots and the size of one's country manor, it's meaningless." He called rock music a "vivid, livid argument with the constituency," adding, "This thing we call content now is about the conversation society has with itself."
The power of shaping ideas still lies in the music, he said, though finding it and experiencing it has grown more difficult without clear arbiters and filters online. "Where are the Ramones of today, the Sex Pistols?" he asked. "They're out there, but will they be found? That's the point."
To the musicians at SXSW, Geldof pleaded: "Say something to me!" He also encouraged them not to be taken in by the illusion of community offered by the Internet and to realize that "a fan club is more powerful than 6,000 [Facebook] friends." Then he started to get angry, exactly in the way he wanted musicians to be. "I don't hear it! I don't hear that rage! I don't hear the disgust in music" -- and this after a laundry list of injustices, including the Wall Street scandals and the new McCarthyism of Rep. Peter King (whose hypocritical former ties to the IRA brought real color to Geldof's cheeks) -- "and I need to! It doesn't have to be literal. Ideas are shaped in music. That's why music is dangerous, and always has been. Rock 'n' roll is the siren cry of individualism acting together."
Individualism acting together. Nice. Sounds like America to me. And the voice of that collective individualism is still desperately needed throughout the world, Geldof said without even citing the examples of current uprisings through Africa and the Middle East. "We still need you. Still the voice of the American revolution must pound on."
Amusing postscript: In the Q&A that followed, one questioner brought up contemporary outspoken punk bands and focused on Chicago's Rise Against, who Geldof seemed familiar with. But their name is too literal, he complained. "I really don't think pop should be that literal," he said. "I suggest that they ... move to transliterating what they're feeling."
That said, it should be interesting to compare the directness of lyrics on Rise Against's new album, "Endgame" when we finally hear Geldof's new album, "How to Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell," this spring.
SXSW Thursday: The Strokes fill an amphitheater on autopilot, plus Abigail Washburn, Yelawolf and more
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 12:43 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Ringing in the second full night of music at SXSW, as they rang in the 21st century, New York City's venerated Strokes plodded into a set cherry-picked from their retro-hipster catalog. In the early stages of a tour that appears to be dreadfully duty-bound, supporting the band's first new record in five years, "Angles," these once refreshing rock revivalists played a free concert for a capacity crowd at Austin's Auditorium Shores outdoor amphitheater. (Capacity of the outdoor venue is listed at 20,000; by mid-show, the entrances were closed to incoming fans, some of whom then knocked down the fences to get in.)
While the evening was temperate and breezy, the music wasn't quite the same. Opening the show with a wink-wink choice for this "comeback," singer Julian Casablancas slumped onto his microphone and wheezed, "I want to be forgotten / and I don't want to be reminded / You say, 'Please don't make this harder' / No, I won't yet." But it's not easy listening to a band that sounds so talented and proficient — and so bored. The Strokes' Thursday night set clearly thrilled the mob of fans, but it sounded like "Angels" does — labored, merely capable, not completely forced but close. Bob Geldof in his keynote Thursday morning said, "America, you look exhausted." Case in point: Julian & Co., not exactly a festival band (see last summer's Lollapalooza) playing-by-numbers and trying to determine what cultural contrast existed that made them sound genuinely fresh and exciting a decade ago. In the new single, "Under Cover of Darkness," Casablancas sings, "Everybody's singing the same song for 10 years."
I bolted and hit the west side of downtown to explore some unknowns — the founding purpose of SXSW — before closing the night with some other known quantities ...
Curiosity led me into the ACL Live at the Moody Theater, a new venue attached to the W Hotel and reflective of its clean lines and modern personality. It's a great, three-decked theater, and the band on stage was, I'll say it, smokin'. The New Mastersounds is a quartet with a formidable keyboardist, Joe Tatton, dancing up and down the ivories of a Hammond organ and a Fender Rhodes. The rhythm section is pure New Orleans backline, and singer Eddie Roberts calmly played an intense guitar solo at the end of the set — smiling to himself when he was done because he knew he'd nailed it. Hot funk, and you'd never believe where they're from while you're standing there doing the chicken dance like you're at Mardi Gras. They're from freaking Leeds.
Abigail Washburn, a k a Mrs. Bela Fleck, struggled against the room at Antone's, kicking off a strong night sponsored by the Americana Music Association also featuring Emmylou Harris and the Old 97s. Washburn, an Evanston native, is a crafty clawhammer banjo player, and she leads a very adult and understated Americana quintet that includes upright bass and pedal steel. Washburn's voice is cool and salty, and her songs are supple and slow-building, like little Appalachian operettas — not the best fit for a big beer hall. But she easily steered several songs into brief breakdowns that caused couples to dance and Washburn to try out her clogging while crying, "Eeee-yeah!"
The Austin Music Hall was smoky with a fiery hip-hop bill. Trae the Truth, a Houston collective built around Trae (born Frazier Thompson III), had manic mouths and big beats, rapping about "the South Side" and getting a lot of crowd participation with exchanges like this:
Trae: "You ain't sh-- if you ain't ever been..."
Crowd: "...screwed up!"
Brooklyn's Yelawolf hit the stage with several times that energy, jumping from side to side in his grungy plaid shirt and ridiculous pom-pommed stocking cap. He juiced the crowd while spewing redneck raps that change gears suddenly between regular time, double time and triple time. Born Michael Wayne Atha in Alabama, Yelawolf is signed to Eminem's Shady Records; he sounds like a Southern Shady, but with much less to say. Yelawolf just wants to par-tay. After Trae joined him on stage for some more call-and-response with the crowd — the youngest and across-the-board most diverse I've seen here yet — Yelawolf got introspective for the briefest moment, stalking the stage and talking about a girl who left him "for some Abercrombie motherf---er." Then he started singing, soft and fluttery, "Love is not enough" — before shrieking, "F--- that bitch! I just wanna party!"
More SXSW Thursday: S.O.S. for B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 12:43 PM
The first SXSW S.O.S. went out Thursday morning, after Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco — a buzzed favorite on the schedule especially since his controversial "Lasers" album just went No. 1 — canceled his show, as did Cee Lo Green after him, both for undisclosed reasons. They were scheduled headliners at the Atlantic Records showcase at La Zona Rosa, but Atlantic has plenty of hot commodities to choose from right now. The new lineup became: B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae.
B.o.B. impressed me playing the very first set at Lollpalooza last summer in the brutal morning sun, mostly because this 22-year-old from North Carolina is a triple threat: a rapper with flow, a capable singer and a pretty hot guitarist. All three talents we on stage Thursday night, but showing some wear. Two of his biggest singles from last year's "The Adventures of Bobby Ray" are collaborations, and since Rivers Cuomo and Bruno Mars can't follow B.o.B. on tour to sing their melodious parts of "Magic" and "Nothin' on You," respectively, B.o.B. simply plays their tracks and dances while their voices dominate the chorus. He's got a half dozen guys on stage with him; one of them can't fill in for the live concert? When he straps on that guitar, thou, he's hot, as he did to rip through "Don't Let Me Fall" and "Electric."
Wiz Khalifa, whose "Rolling Papers" CD, due March 29, is one of the year's most anticipated, moseyed on stage and filled the interim with a hazy set. Hardly polished, this sub-Snoop Dogg rambled about the stage, looking like a deer in the headlights but raising the temperature of the place with his carefree party raps, mostly along these lines: "If you don't smoke, I don't know why." Surrounded by members of the Taylor Gang, Khalifa ping-pongee back and forth, laughing to himself and transmitting a generally slap-happy vibe, which the crowd picked up on and rolled with. Before closing with his hit "Black and Yellow" (go, Steelers!), he freestyles a tribute to the late Nate Dogg.
Janelle Monae has announced a spring tour with Bruno Mars (May 27 at the Aragon), and just this week announced some dates opening for Katy Perry. But if the public finally latches onto her in a bigger way, she's already prepared to handle her own headline. A tiny thing (the pompadour adds at least half a foot), she proved Thursday night she can command the stage. Backed by a tight eight-piece band, Monae hit the stage in a flowing cape while three dancers in monk robes knelt around her. She quickly went into her thesis, "Dance or Die," moving the crowd with the tight-tight-tight funk (sometimes that rhythm section was even a little overpowering) and prodding their minds with the sci-fi concepts from her fascinating debut album, "The ArchAndroid." Midway through, she cooled things down with a rendition of Judy Garland's "Smile," then brought the show to a close with the hit, "Tightrope," expanded into a Vegas-jazz marathon with about seven endings. Didn't bother those of us who didn't want it to end.
Let's put on a show! Hanson throws together online telethon for Japan earthquake relief at SXSW
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 5:01 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Hanson returned this year to the festival that made them famous — and then they got all Bob Geldof on us.
The three Oklahoma brothers first came to SXSW 17 years ago, strolling the streets as under-age hopefuls, singing for anyone who would listen (and getting kicked out of the Four Seasons lobby for doing so). One guy did, and the rest is "MMMBop" history. Now grown up, married, each with kids, they look around Austin and Zac, 25, sighs and says, "South-by definitely put a mark on us."
This year, the Hanson guys returned to SXSW to play a showcase — only their second time to do so — in support of last year's spot-on pop-soul record, "Shout It Out," their eighth. But then something else happened. Maybe it was the presence of Geldof, but Hanson decided to whip together, in the span of about two days, a telethon to raise money for the recovery efforts in Japan following the massive earthquake there and subsequent nuclear power threats.
"When we got to South by Southwest, we expected to see more of a unified effort," Zac said Friday afternoon from a makeshift base camp in an office building on North Congress Ave. "It was like, all we've got going is four tables at the convention center? That's not great. ... All these important people are here, from IFC to CNN, arts and culture people who should be talking about this, and no one really was. So yesterday we decided to throw this thing together, and started calling everyone we know to participate."
"And everyone we don't know," added Isaac Hanson.
The result, they hope, is a 12-hour live stream from noon to midnight Saturday, viewed at sxsw4japan.com (a different address from sxsw4japan.org, but related), featuring live and pre-recorded performances and messages from a variety of musicians. It was still early when I spoke with them, but on board a day ahead were Widespread Panic, the Boxer Rebellion, Ben Folds and the Courtyard Hounds.
"Even if we raise $12, we just felt something had to be done -- by someone, and if we could step up and be those people, OK," Zac said. "We don't want to be so jaded and say, 'Well, we helped out with Haiti, and that was pretty recent ...' I've heard people say, 'Well, it's Japan, they've got money.' It didn't seem right."
Money raised through this awareness project will be via text messaging and go directly to the Red Cross.
Hanson will oversee the stream and appear several times. When it's over at midnight, they head to Antone's for an all-ages showcase at 12:30 a.m.
"Live Aid was put together in two weeks," Isaac said. "We can do this in two days." He looked at Zac. A beat. "Right?"
SXSW Friday: Cool Kids, Mac Miller, Yuck, Wild Flag, A Lull
By Thomas Conner on March 19, 2011 11:45 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Chicago's Cool Kids, Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks, show the folks gathered for SXSW just how much the music business has changed. Since popping up in 2007, the talented rap duo has yet to record a proper album. Instead, they've built a sturdy career on blog-loved singles, EPs, mixtapes and remarkably solid performances like their stand Friday night at Austin's La Zona Rosa. They're doing well enough that Mikey Rocks can strut the stage in a red Neiman Marcus tank top and rhyme about his "new pair of shoes," his "ATM credits," how he swaggers around "with a little bit of gold and a pager" and, finally, snorts derisively: "You shop at the mall!" Still there's talk of an album being recorded, but who cares? The crowd was singing and shouting and dancing wildly. Chuck and Mikey brim with confidence, pacing the stage while calmly but firmly delivering their lines — not too wacked-out, but none of that rapid-fire stuff — over rocking beats and minimal electronic sounds. But it's not all about the coin. "They say if you ain't got no money take yo broke ass home," Chuck said in "Basement Party," the closer. "I say if you got you two dollars, then come through to my party."
Next up was a rapper to watch: Mac Miller. Backed by a DJ scratching actual vinyl, this 19-year-old white rapper from Pittsburgh stumbled into his SXSW debut in a grubby sweatshirt and backwards cap looking and acting every bit the stoner guy from "Clueless." "Anyone drunk or f---ed up?" Miller asked the crowd, which roared the affirmative. "Man, there's so much sh-- backstage," he chuckled, smacking his cheek in amazement. Whatever his state of mind, Miller warmed into an engaging and occasionally goofy set of quick rhymes (he tends to rap on the same note for long stretches). He's got flow, but his set doesn't. He stopped after every song to stumble around some more and yammer on about partying and generally being a good-natured doofus. ("I love to party," he said, then added his thesis: "You gotta goof around a little bit." Someone in the audience said no, you don't. He responded, "Well, I do.") Expect to see him on college campuses all year long — or, with his feisty "Nikes on My Feet" ("Lace 'em up, lace 'em up, lace 'em up, lace 'em / Blue suede shoes stay crispy like bacon"), on a shoe commercial soon.
Earlier in the week, I saw Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, hosts of public radio's "Sound Opinions" show. The subject of Yuck came up — possibly the buzziest of buzz bands at this year's SXSW — and the two instantly broke into their Siskel & Ebert dynamic, with DeRo claiming Yuck was just retreaded shoegaze rock and Kot disagreeing, saying he hears a lot of Pavement. They're each right, depending on the song. Sometimes, as on "Holing Out," the guitars from Yuck's Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom are wonderfully lush and streamlined (kinda shoegazey). Sometimes, as on "Get Away," the melodies take sharp turns and the bass line gets up and runs around the room (kinda Pavementy). In all, it's a pleasant sound that washes over you without leaving behind much sediment. Yuck, a quartet from London, has played here, there and everywhere this week; Friday's showcase at the Kiss & Fly lounge had a line a block long waiting to get in. It's not really worth all that, but it should make for a harmless summer '90s revival.
Those fans should have been in line for Wild Flag. Amazingly, there was no line for the most exciting revival of the night — from Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney and currently a co-writer and actor on the buzz-worthy IFC sketch comedy show "Portlandia." Her new supergroup — featuring singer-guitarist Mary Timony (ex-Helium), keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders) and Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss — played a rollicking set Friday night, with Brownstein ping-ponging around the stage in a red dress. This is not Sleater-Kinney — it's much more fun. Pop hooks rule, with spirited vocals from the whole band (including a lot of girl-group ooh's and ahh's in the back), and only occasionally (but thankfully) does a darker S-K undertone show up, particularly in Brownstein's guitar breaks, which thrash about in the pop pool making welcome waves. Cole is the band's secret weapon, though, laying down determined organ lines that give Brownstein and Timony a steady something to cling to. A debut disc is due later this year on Merge.
I capped the night next door with Chicago's A Lull, which crammed onto the closet-sized stage at the Bat Bar with four members playing drums. Digging into the most primal corners of rock, A Lull (Nigel Evan Dennis, Todd Miller, Ashwin Deepankar, Aaron Vinceland and Mike Brown) has released recordings that utilize any available sound they think hits hardest, including hitting drums with microphones and beating things against a wall. Friday's showcase was less destructive physically, but pretty pummeling otherwise. With two drummers, a bassist also occasionally hitting drums and a bongo, a guitarist with drums and a xylophone, and a singer lurching over repeating keyboard whims, A Lull was hardly a pause in anything. But the pounding compositions possess shape and texture and bode well for their full-length album, "Confetti," due April 12.
'American Idol's Crystal Bowersox plays lively SXSW showcase with John Popper
By Thomas Conner on March 19, 2011 1:07 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — The way "American Idol" runner-up Crystal Bowersox and Blues Traveler frontman John Popper were getting along on stage at SXSW, you'd think they'd been BFFs for a long time. But they met just 30 minutes before the show.
Bowersox explained that she had contacted Popper online via a mutual friend (see below for geeked-out backstory) and asked the harmonica virtuoso to play during one song at her showcase Friday night in the Victorian Ballroom of Austin's Driskill Hotel. Popper wound up playing the whole set with Bowersox and her country-rock band.
The two played off each other nicely — Bowersox's acoustic strumming and strong, soulful voice balanced by Popper's high-pitched harp solos. Sometimes Popper (in town with his own band, John Popper & the Duskray Troubadours) went a bit too far, egged on by the applause, and threatened to overshadow Bowersox's first SXSW spotlight. As great a player as he is, he's never one for playing few notes or leaving the slightest space between them. But he added to a rich performance, seeming to enliven mandolin player Charlie King, bassist Frankie May and, for "Mason," Bowersox's husband Brian Walker.
Bowersox, who lives in Chicago, sang and played like a veteran, clearly in command of the band. Each player watched her for cues and chords, as she fearlessly played a set that included carefully constructed folk-pop like "Mine All Mine" and revved-up soul-rockers like "On the Run" and "Kiss Ya." All original, too, thank heavens. Her "Idol" experience is well on the way to becoming a footnote in her bio. "You might know me from a certain television show," she said early in the set. "... 'Extreme Makeover.'"
The show turned into as much a comedy set as a musical one, with Bowersox and Popper veering into a bizarre, slap-happy run of poop jokes. It began when Walker joined her on stage for "Mason," their wedding song, wearing a white shirt and jeans. Bowersox wore the same combo, and she quipped, "Even our poop is starting to smell the same." The scatological humor kept on throughout the set. Backstage afterward, Popper said, "I've never met another singer with such soul and fecal humor."
When will Bowersox finally play a full gig in Chicago again? She didn't know. She and Walker live on the North Side. Walker, however, plays April 7 at the Bottom Lounge, and she'll be backing him up.
** How Crystal met John: If you watch "American Idol" closely, you might have heard Bowersox say something odd during a post-performance interview during the finals in May 2010. She said, "Meow is the time." It was a bet, she said, between her and a friend, Steve Lemme, an actor who was in the 2001 comedy "Super Troopers." In that movie, Lemme's character, State Trooper MacIntyre Womack, is wagered by his buddy to say the word "meow" 10 times during a traffic stop. "Meow is the time" counted as one. Lemme also knows Popper. Bowersox made the original connection online via Lemme. When she hit Austin on Friday, she texted Popper and he came right to the venue. It's a small festival, after all.
Kanye West, Jay-Z, John Legend and more party late into the night for SXSW diversion
By Thomas Conner on March 20, 2011 12:28 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — A rare, full "super moon" shone over the Texas capital Saturday night, but only one music star was big enough to eclipse not only that but nearly all of the annual South by Southwest music conference and festival: Kanye West.
Announced via a cryptic online video weeks before SXSW (with the audience enticed via a Twitter/texting RSVP, which the sponsoring company admitted failed terribly, with hundreds turned away) West hogged the spotlight on the festival's final night and set up shop in an unusual venue, a decommissioned downtown power plant. By early Saturday morning, fans were already lined up for the midnight show; at showtime, a mob of ticketless fans mashed the barricades outside, hoping to get in. The venue's capacity is just over 2,000; the event guest list received more than 10,000 requests in its first hour.
From 1 to 4 a.m., West trotted much of the roster of his G.O.O.D. record label across the stage, including Mos Def (who was surprisingly basic and dull), Pusha T (his "Fear of God" mixtape is due Monday) and Kid Cudi (a crowd favorite and a snappy dancer). Most blended in, one after the next, except the arresting Cyhi Da Prince (whose crazy-fast rhymes were paired with the masked Mad Violinist for "Sideways") and the aberrant Mr. Hudson (a bleach-blond white singer who sounds like Midge Ure and covered Alphaville's "Forever Young"). The concert was filmed for an online broadcast scheduled for April 22 — Good Friday.
West himself slipped on stage without pomp and launched a set that swung between brilliant and boring.
Fiery as he is — and certainly was in hot flashes during "Gorgeous" and "Hell of a Life" — the concert benefited most when he added extra theater, such as the cymbal-flipping marching band that joined him (a la "Tusk") during "All of the Lights," John Legend leavening the mood with elegant piano playing (first during "Christian Dior Denim Flow" and "Blame Game," then for his own "Ordinary People") and the big-guns set of the night — Jay-Z showing up for six of the set's 19 songs. When Jay-Z is on stage, Kanye actually looks humbled, standing there with not much to do while Hova roared through "Big Pimpin'." Alas, no announcement of a release date for or even the status of the pair's teased collaboration album, "Watch the Throne."
Ultimately, though, this concert merely crashed the party. Assembled and promoted by an online video service, not the festival itself, West's parade of salesmanship only managed to draw a crowd away from aspiring bands that came to SXSW, one of the few opportunities they have to possibly be heard without the ruckus of Kanye-sized competition.
Kanye & Co.'s set list Sunday morning: "Dark Fantasy," "Gorgeous," "Hell of a Life," "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Christian Dior Denim Flow" (with John Legend), "Blame Game" (with John Legend), "Ordinary People" (John Legend), "Power," "Say You Will," "Runaway," "All of the Lights" (with marching band), "H.A.M." (with Jay-Z), "Monster" (with Jay-Z), "Swagga Like Us"(with Jay-Z, but cut short when Kanye laughed and confessed, "I forgot that thing"), "PSA" (Jay-Z), "So Appalled"(with Jay-Z), "Big Pimpin'" (Jay-Z), "Lost in the World" (with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon), "Good Life" (with the G.O.O.D. crew).
Violence and crowd control problems cause SXSW to consider limiting events
By Thomas Conner on March 21, 2011 1:01 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Injuries and incidents of violence pockmarked this year's SXSW music festival in the Texas capital, causing organizers to consider scaling some things back for 2012.
At a 1 a.m. Saturday show by '80s pop band OMD, a camera boom broke and fell into the crowd. Four people were taken to the hospital with moderate injuries.
SXSW director Roland Swenson called the accident "disheartening" and added, "This is our 25th year, and we've never had anyone permanently injured."
On Friday night, Chicago pop-punk band Screeching Weasel's show in east Austin was cut short when singer Ben Weasel (Ben Foster), after lengthy diatribes between songs and some taunting of the audience, ended up in a brawl after someone threw an ice cube that hit him in the eye.
Crowd control was a problem at several concerts.
Late Saturday night, a throng of fans unable to get inside pressed against an alley fence at the venue where reunited Canadian noise-rock band Death From Above 1979 was playing. Eventually, the fence was pushed down, "inciting a mini riot" according to the venue.
"Some kid came over the top [of the fence], as soon as he came over the top the fence kind of went and everybody started coming in," the bar owner said.
Police on horseback intervened and cleared the alley, allowing the show to continue.
Thursday evening, the Strokes filled the downtown Auditorium Shores amphitheater to its 20,000-person capacity. When the gates were closed to any new concertgoers, several climbed the fence and jumped off the tops of portable toilets to get in. Minor injuries were reported.
Late Saturday night, crowds mobbed an unusual downtown venue, a decommissioned power plant, where Kanye West had scheduled a midnight show.
This concert was not an official SXSW event, and it was free — to anyone who saw a tweeted promotion and RSVP'd via text message to the concert's organizer, the online video service Vevo. The company reports receiving 15,000 texts within the first two minutes after announcing the show. Capacity at the venue was 2,500.
Things soured when several thousand people who had received text messages saying they would be admitted to the show then received a second message apologizing and adding that they did not have a ticket, after all. Vevo issued a public apology, admitting "we missed this up" and saying they were "asked by the Austin Police Department" to limit the size of the crowd. (Kanye himself was uninvited to a fashion show earlier in the week.)
Despite that — and the fact that entry would be granted only to those with a confirmed RSVP or other VIP access — fans began lining up outside the venue early Saturday morning. Crowd control, I can tell you, was poorly planned and managed, with hundreds of hopeful and some angry fans pressing against a barricade demanding entry and shouting at police and security personnel.
MTV reports a spokesperson for SXSW says the festival will reexamine its approach to free events, "which appear to have reached critical mass," plus Austin city officials plan to limit permits next year for free shows.
In the video below from Austin's KXAN, Swenson attributed the restive attitude at some events this year on too many free events, which "attract an element of people who are troublemakers."
Eddie Fisher's other life
By Thomas Conner
© Obit magazine
We can talk about Eddie Fisher’s singing career, if we must. In fact, don’t we have to, at least a little? Fisher’s obituaries move quickly through the two dozen hit songs to get to the scandalous affairs, the drug addiction, the good stuff. Headlines last week included “1950s Singing Star Was Brought Low by Scandalous Love Life,” “The Tabloid Legacy of Eddie Fisher” and “Eddie Fisher: The Man Who Put a Gun to Liz Taylor’s Head.” But if we’re really going to talk about Eddie the Slimeball — which, of course, is what whets our contemporary media appetites — we have to discuss Eddie the Singer.
Fisher was a pioneer of tabloid notoriety; he became best known for entertaining us not with his stiff old traditional songs but with his randy new romantic exploits — a mid-century turning point for the entertainment industry. Today, fame can be achieved in Napoleonic fashion, simply by declaring oneself famous, and contemporary celebrities suffer their falls from grace from lower and lower heights. But Fisher was beloved before he was belittled, earning a level of fame equal to his eventual infamy. He wouldn’t have had so much of the latter without surrendering so much of the former.
The popularity of Fisher’s recording career confounds modern ears. His consistent run of hits from 1952 to 1956 included million-sellers “Any Time” and “Tell Me Why,” plus “(You Gotta Have) Heart,” “Wish You Were Here,” “I Need You Now,” “Oh! My Pa-Pa” and “Cindy, Oh Cindy.” It’s starchy, sentimental stuff. Most Fisher records today sound positively antediluvian, moreso than his contemporaries (Sinatra, Crosby, Como, Bennett). The strings are syrupy, the rhythms plod and they’re presided over by Fisher’s self-described “lyric baritone,” which had more in common with Scarlatti than sock hops. The melodrama of “Oh! My Pa-Pa” is smothering — it’s the kind of record we’d expect to hear in “The Godfather,” played on a Victrola by a momentarily wistful mobster just before he whacks or is whacked.
But the timing was right for the crooners to heave one last gasp. Frank Sinatra lost his record deal in 1952, and Elvis Presley wouldn’t walk through the door at Sun Records until August 1953, so Fisher lead the charge with a parade of post-war pandering. “Tony Bennett, Perry [Como], Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole even Bing Crosby, they all cared about creating a legacy, a catalog of songs that meant something. … I didn’t,” he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, Been There, Done That. “I recorded pretty much whatever they put in front of me.” One of those songs was “I’m Walking Behind You,” which Fisher recorded April 7, 1953. By June, it was a No. 1 hit. Frank Sinatra recorded his version five days before Fisher. Sinatra’s take hit No. 1 in October. The song’s lyric delivers a leering love letter from a groomsman who’s stalking the bride: “If things should go wrong dear / and fate is unkind / look over your shoulder / I’m walking behind.” Fisher — a fresh-faced teen idol even though a twentysomething, and admittedly not caring what the words meant anyway — delivers his reading dispassionately, by rote, like someone singing a foreign language phonetically. Sinatra’s reading is considerably coyer. He’d learned two years earlier how to hop out of one marriage and into another, ditching his first wife for twice-married Ava Gardner. Fisher’s similar lessons, in love as well as fame, were still to come.
By 1955, Fisher was on TV, starring on his own show with a soft drink sponsor, “Coke Time with Eddie Fisher.” (That he was later addicted to cocaine for many years must have made that title quite the joke around the glass-topped coffee table in the Fisher living room.) He had seven Top 20 hits that year, starting with “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him),” an uncredited duet with Debbie Reynolds, she of the sweet and sunny face who’d become a movie star in 1952 with her turn in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Their marriage that same year boosted their visibility in the press and marked the point at which their artistic careers became a sideshow to their more entertaining personal lives. Two winsome smiles, two wholesome careers — Fisher and Reynolds became an idealized celebrity couple, the Brangelina of their day. They starred in a film together (“Bundle of Joy,” 1956), started a family, became known in the movie magazines as “America’s Favorite Couple.” By 1958, Fisher was named Father of the Year by the National Father’s Day Committee (Congress had just made it a holiday in 1956) and was photographed smiling with toddlers Carrie and Todd on his lap. That month, Fisher was singing a six-week engagement at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. Reynolds invited their good friend Elizabeth Taylor to stay with them there; Taylor was still grieving the loss of her husband and Fisher’s friend, Mike Todd. On Father’s Day weekend, no doubt to the eventual dismay of the National Father’s Day Committee, Fisher and Taylor fell in love.
What happened next hijacked Fisher’s public image for the rest of his life. News of the affair hit that fall. On May 12, 1959, Fisher finalized his divorce with Reynolds and, three-and-a-half hours later, married Taylor. His celebrity stock plummeted — but his headline count remained steady. For five years, magazines such as Photoplay, Modern Screen and Confidential splashed the various love triangles across their covers — a smiling Reynolds with the kids in a stroller, headline: “Debbie answers her daughter’s question: Won’t Daddy be with us all the time?”; Fisher and Taylor in formal attire next to a limo, headline: “How Eddie is saving Liz from her honeymoon jinx”; eventually, a photo of Taylor and her new lover, Richard Burton, and my favorite headline: “A Rabbi & Three Ministers Discuss: Love … Lust … and Liz!”
As Fisher’s ignominy increased, his singing career fizzled. “My career had leveled off to simple stardom” is how Fisher described it. The hits stopped coming in 1957, rock and roll had arrived, and Fisher wisely did not try to adapt. His recordings became infrequent and, he said, “Eventually the music simply became a means to the drugs and the women.” But the freak-show factor remained, and his nightclub and occasional Vegas bookings remained somewhat consistent. His new career was that of tabloid sensation — at which he proved to be as successful an entertainer as he was at the microphone. Celebrity rags launched in the ’20s were now going mainstream, and Fisher reliably helped fuel their new genre of inadvertent entertainment. Once Taylor eventually (and inevitably) dumped Fisher, he began a lengthy string of headline-baiting affairs — Marlene Dietrich, Ann-Margret, Judy Garland, Juliet Prowse, Michelle Phillips, Peggy Lipton, Mia Farrow, Angie Dickinson, Kim Novak, Dinah Shore, Stefanie Powers — and married three more times to Connie Stevens, Miss Louisiana Terry Richard and businesswoman Betty Lin.
He wasn’t the first high-profile celeb to indulge in a reckless personal life, but he was one of the first whose tabloid infamy eclipsed any actual artistic achievements he might have started with. “It isn’t the music that people remember most about me, it’s the women,” Fisher admitted. Granted, the music wasn’t that memorable, but without it Fisher’s life story wouldn’t possess the narrative that makes all falls from grace, from the bookstore literature shelves to the supermarket checkout stand, so satisfying, for good or ill.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Much can be made of Janelle Monae's fantastic soul music — its Afrofuturist revival, its wacky narratives, the timing of its critical success during the administration of America's first black president — and something will be made of it right here in this column. But the most important thing to understand about this exciting rising star is this: Don't deconstruct it, just dance.
Any enlightenment to be had will come eventually. Monae works both sides of the truism offered by fellow space cadet George Clinton: "Free your mind and your ass will follow." She's got big ideas behind her words and music, but she doesn't preach. She dances, usually spontaneously.
"I don't choreograph pretty much anything I do," she said last spring in a BET interview. Watch the video for her hit "Tightrope"; she clearly has a relative idea of how she wants to move, but she's also clearly making much of it up as she pivots down that asylum hallway. "So I'm merely creating art right in front of my eyes and the audience's eyes. It's like a spiritual, out-of-body experience. I feel very possessed." She added, in an AP interview: "I want them to allow the music to transform them as much as it's transformed me."
Get them moving, and their minds will follow.
"The ArchAndroid" (pronounced "the ARK android"), Monae's universally acclaimed debut CD, is a highly theatrical statement. When I refer above to her soul music as fantastic, this is not merely a superlative. Drawing from the same wells of other musicians who've used sci-fi and fantasy as African-American allegory, Monae claims a wild backstory to her songs: She is an inmate of the Palace of the Dogs Art Asylum. She has time-traveled here from the year 2719, and her DNA has been used to create an android freedom fighter named Cindi Mayweather, sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from an oppressive group called the Great Divide.
"I believe we're going to be living in a world of androids by 2029," she told the Guardian newspaper, apparently with a straight face. "How will we all get along? Will we treat the android humanely? What type of society will it be when we're integrated? I've felt like the Other at certain points in my life. I felt like it was a universal language that we could all understand."
That capitalized Other — the stranger in a strange land — is a common sci-fi theme and has shown up throughout the legacy of Afrofuturist music, from DJ Spooky's trip-hop back through Dr. Octagon's "Earth People," Digable Planets' "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)," Afrika Bambaataa's scratch-cut classic "Planet Rock," even Herbie Hancock's own android assembly in "Rockit." Before that, Clinton's Paliament/Funkadelic launched the "mothership," and the first contact with black aliens occurred right here in Chicago, where Sun Ra landed with his Arkestra in the mid-'50s and eventually claimed "Space Is the Place."
Gerald Majer, in his Beat-like recollection of Chicago's avant-jazz scene, The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz, attempts to describe the tug-of-war between black American history and sci-fi futurism exploding from Sun Ra's early '60s concerts here, enigmatically concluding: "Space is the place: you move in, you move aside, you dance where it divides."
The divide between sanity and madness is central to Monae's cosmology. Her vision of the future is not optimistic, singing in "Locked Inside": "When I look into the future, I see danger in its eyes / Hearts of hatred rule the land while others left outside / Killing, bleeding Citizen, while music slowly dies / and I get frightened, see, I get frightened." The love of her man, however, will keep her from "going crazy."
"So many people deal with so many obstacles every day that they need to relieve some of that stress," Monae said in a recent Vibe interview. "So 'Tightrope' deals with balance and not getting too high or too low. So I just really focused on creating art, songs that I felt would connect to people."
Her musical journey started when Janelle Robinson left her native Kansas City for New York City to study theater. She wanted to be a Broadway star. When that dream faded a bit, she relocated to Atlanta, where she met like-minded artists, like Chuck Lightning, and formed the Wondaland Arts Society (which releases her music, now distributed through Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy label). Outkast's Big Boi discovered her and began pushing her on his compilations, even slipping her into the Outkast movie "Idlewild." (He guests on "Tightrope"; she appeared on his solo debut this year, too.) The theatrical flair continues — videos are planned for each song on "The ArchAndroid," as well as a graphic novel and, yes, a musical.
So, free your mind — it will come back to you — and trust yourself to just enjoy the groove. Monae's voice is clear and strong. Her music is Motown sharp and James Brown funky. She dances like someone who knows how but doesn't spend a month rehearsing. Last time she was in town, she opened for Erykah Badu and completely upstaged her. (Word so far on this tour is the same is true of her Georgia friends in Of Montreal.) Let the very human beats and belts carry you away, then chat about the big ideas on the way home.
with Janelle Monae
• 7 p.m. Saturday
• Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine
• Tickets, $23, etix.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lady Gaga isn't known for subtlety or subdued performances, and when she headlines the first night of Lollapalooza 2010 next weekend, she'll no doubt deliver an earful and an eyeful.
Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell already has admitted to spending up to $150,000 for the production of this single, two-hour performance. Lady Gaga's current Monster Ball tour features 15 over-the-top costume changes, plus a giant gyrosphere, a flaming piano, a neon car, a series of skits and an enormous squid attacking her onstage.
It's a long way from a clunky synthesizer and a disco-ball bra.
Lady Gaga performed three years ago on a side stage at Lollapalooza, long before she conquered the pop-culture world. She wasn't even blond yet.
It was Aug. 4, 2007, day two of the festival in Chicago's Grant Park. A small crowd of about 500 gathered to watch a brunette Lady Gaga, then 20, take the BMI Stage with her partner, DJ Lady Starlight, in the middle of the afternoon. During a 45-minute set, the Ladies played synth-driven dance-pop, including the songs "Boys Boys Boys," "Dirty Ice Cream" and "Disco Heaven."
Lady Gaga strutted across the small stage, singing, dancing, occasionally jabbing at a synthesizer, which she had set up just low enough so she'd have to lean over — flashing her cleavage — to operate it. She wore a black bikini, the top of which was adorned with chains (which she made herself), with high black stockings and heels. Her one costume change consisted of swapping the black bikini top for a mirrored one that turned her breasts into disco balls.
"I wouldn't say she was terrible," says Jake Malooley, now an editor at Time Out Chicago, who wrote a short review of Lady Gaga's appearance for the magazine's blog. (Critics from the Sun-Times and other local papers did not mention the performance.) "It just didn't seem like a Lollapalooza-worthy performance. She was doing this dance-pop sort of thing where she had a DJ, and she would poke a keyboard every now and then. ... It didn't seem very well put together, more about the spectacle than the music itself — dancing and being silly. She didn't seem to know how to play her synthesizer. She had to stop a song and get the engineer to show her how to program a certain sound."
His review that weekend concluded: "But no one's going to accuse Gaga of being a musician, and I think she's aware of that. 'In my day job, I'm a go-go dancer,' she said jokingly. Well, at least I thought it was a joke until midway through the next song she shimmied over to stage left, wrapped her legs around the scaffolding and began twirling while giving the metal pole a few aggressive pelvic thrusts. Very ladylike, indeed."
The revealing clothes even earned Lady Gaga some hassle by The Man. While later strolling the park offstage, wearing very short shorts, Lady Gaga was cited by a Chicago police officer for indecent exposure.
"I was wearing very short hot pants and a police officer told me to put my ass up against the fence because I was not appropriately attired to be seen by children," she told the New York Post last year. "I told him I was an artist, but he didn't care. Where I come from, they were just normal hot pants, but in Chicago they were indecent."
The outfit got Farrell's attention, though.
"I remember ... she's got dark-brown hair, she's in a bikini and she's wearing thigh-highs, and she's sweating because she was on at around 3 o'clock," he told MTV in June. "Her music was cool, her show was kind of cool."
The Lady in waiting
From that Lollapalooza to this one — from a few hundred bucks for a stage show to $150,000 — Lady Gaga's career trajectory has defined "meteoric rise."
Before she began turning heads in 2007, she was Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, daughter of two technology executives and a student at an Upper West Side private Catholic school, with classmates Paris and Nicky Hilton. (In classic, Bowie-esque coyness, she now refuses to acknowledge her real name. "She's not here anymore," she said of her birth name in an interview a week after Lollapalooza 2007. "She's covered in sequins.") Her stage name was derived, she claims, from the Queen hit in 1984, years before she was born.
She grew up playing piano and began writing songs as a teenager, even sneaking out at night to perform at coffeehouses — more Fiona Apple or Tori Amos than the flashy vixen she is now — but 2007 was the year folks began to take notice.
Performing as Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue, with DJ Lady Starlight (aka Gaga pal and makeup artist Colleen Martin), the duo attracted the attention of producer Rob Fusari, a music-biz svengali who has worked with Destiny's Child and Whitney Houston. He had some advice. "I had read an article about women in rock," Fusari told the New York Post in January, "and how it was getting very difficult for women to break through in the rock genre, how Nelly Furtado had moved into more of a dance thing." The Starlight Revue, he said, wasn't "going in the right direction. It wasn't something kids could relate to." (Earlier this year, Fusari filed a $30.5 million lawsuit against Lady Gaga, claiming she shut him out of proper compensation for crafting her persona and music.)
So Lady Gaga and Lady Starlight began weaving dance beats and Europop into their songs. The gambit worked, sort of. Lady Gaga landed a recording contract with hip-hop label Def Jam. But nothing happened. A debut album was scheduled for May 2007, but the label dropped her after three months.
Enter up-and-coming R&B darling Akon, who took Lady Gaga under his wing and signed her to his own Kon Live imprint at Interscope Records. "I was like, 'Yo, I want to sign that right there. She needs to be under my umbrella,'" Akon told the Huffington Post earlier this year. "She just blossomed into a super megastar, man." And made Akon very rich, he admits. "She's pretty much retired me."
Initially, Lady Gaga worked for Interscope as an in-house songwriter. She crafted songs for the Pussycat Dolls and New Kids on the Block (with whom she toured). Two months ago, a recording made the gossip rounds on the Internet — allegedly of Britney Spears' singing a demo of Lady Gaga's "Telephone," which Spears declined to record for her "Circus" album. Lady Gaga recorded it herself, teamed with Beyonce, and made it a No. 1 hit this spring.
Fame comes quickly
Meanwhile, Lady Gaga was creating her own music and trying it out on any audience she could find. Her first major single, "Just Dance," was released in April 2008. By June, she returned to Chicago, not yet at the arena level; she performed at the finals of the Windy City Gay Idol talent contest at Circuit on North Halsted.
This was also the time when she began experimenting with outlandish stage antics to get a wavering audience's attention. "I remember one show I played where nobody was paying attention to me," she told the New York Post in April 2009. "It was really late, so I took my clothes off. I started playing in my underwear at the piano and I remember everyone was all of a sudden like 'Whoa!' And I said, 'Yeah, you're looking at me now, huh?'"
The natural brunette also bleached her hair blond, allegedly because she was weary of being mistaken for Amy Winehouse.
One of her best friends wrote a piece about Lady Gaga for the May 2010 edition of Esquire. He recalled: "Back in the summer of 2007, there was a night when she popped out of a cake and sang 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President' for my then boss, the owner of Beauty Bar in Manhattan. It was fitting, somehow — the Marilyn reference. I'll quote something she said to me one day around that time as directly as I can: 'No one in the world knows who I am, but they are going to want to know who I am. My first time ever on TV I want to be on a huge show where I play one song. I'm going to come out onstage in my underwear and show the world that here I am and I don't give a f--- what anyone thinks of me."
That same month, Time magazine listed Lady Gaga in its annual run-down of the world's 100 most influential people.
"The Fame," her debut album, finally appeared in the fall of 2008. Over the course of the next year and a half, Lady Gaga would score six consecutive No. 1 singles and sell 8 million records — 35 million singles worldwide.
"Just Dance" was a big hit in the clubs, and it reached No. 1 in January 2009. The next single, "Poker Face," was even bigger, topping charts around the world. "The Fame" earned six Grammy nominations, and won for best electronic/dance album and best dance recording. A pattern was set. The follow-up album wasn't even supposed to be an album. "The Fame Monster" was supposed to be a bonus disc for the debut, but a few extra tracks made it a full-fledged new album last November, just to feed the hungry masses.
The center of attention
Lady Gaga is such a spectacle now, not only is she one of two headliners this Friday (the Strokes are scheduled on the opposite stage at 8:30 p.m.), Farrell says she's the evening's "centerpiece." He just hopes the elaborate theatrics don't overshadow her songs.
"Her presentation is so overwhelming that some may overlook the music," Farrell told MTV Radio two weeks ago. "But the truth is, her music to me is right where music should be. It's on the cutting edge, but it's [also] in the crosshairs of where every musician is aiming these days. She's this hybrid of Yoko Ono, sort of the Plastic Ono Band meets Madonna meets Elton John. She's this beautiful crossing of those things every musician is looking to find. Everyone's looking for that sound, and I think she really hits it.
"The production of her music, the people she's surrounded herself with, the development of her stage show — it's something that, when I think about Lollapalooza, in that gorgeous setting of Grant Park, with the amazing buildings all around us, lit up, I see her and her show as being a centerpiece to the evening."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Question No. 3: What sonic and stylistic elements distinguish the Chicago blues sound?
Question No. 17: What was the first film to use a rock 'n' roll soundtrack?
Essay No. 2: Elvis Presley and the Beatles made successive impacts on American rock 'n' roll. Discuss their historic and musical development. Then declare and defend your choice for which of the two was most significant to rock as a whole.
These are the kinds of questions students across the country (if they're lucky) strained to answer during recent final exams.
Yes, parents, your tuition might be funding a study of psychedelic rock, quizzes about the names of Brill Building songwriters or term papers about Michael Jackson.
The history of pop music is fast becoming an enviable elective course on university campuses across the country. UCLA's music history program offers a wide variety of pop music courses, from a Beatles overview to "History of Electronic Dance Music." Northwestern University offers a basic course called "The Cultural History of Rock Music" (though thus far it's been quarantined in the School of Continuing Studies). We even found one at the associate-degree level deep in the wilds of New Jersey: Raritan Valley Community College's "Rock 'n' Roll History and Culture."
Roll over, Beethoven, indeed.
Rock 'n' roll is, after all, 63 years old (if you go by a debatable birthday in 1947), nearly eligible for retirement. That's an entire lifetime of growth and development, not to mention the genealogy of blues, jazz and folk music that preceded it. It's all ripe for classroom study now — particularly for newly enrolled college students born after Kurt Cobain and wondering why that new MGMT album sounds the way it does.
"Students now, they get to be teens and discover music, usually what's current, and then some of them have this epiphany — 'Wow, there's half a century of stuff before this!'" says Glenn Gass, a music professor who teaches rock history at the Univ. of Indiana. "But catching up with that history is so much easier than it used to be. Some of them have virtually the entire history of pop music right there on their iPod. When I started out, students had to listen to reel-to-reel tapes on a reserve list in the library. If you wanted to hear a Fats Domino collection, good luck; it's out of print. We'd go to hotel ballrooms for conventions and sift through stacks of 45s. CDs changed everything, and video — if you had two minutes of Jerry Lee Lewis playing piano, it was 'Oh my God!' Now people with amazing footage have posted it on YouTube. The technology has made all of that history available to students.
"But, as with any segment of history, it can be a lot to get your head around, you know? These new courses hopefully are helping put it all into some kind of perspective."
Fought the power
Gass teaches his two-semester course, "A History of Rock Music" (as well as "The Music of the Beatles"), in IU's Jacobs School of Music and has since 1982. He's written a textbook of the same title. Even after all these years, he says he still can't get used to the reconciling of generations that's occurred within the realm of rock music.
"In old days, rock tore the generations apart. If your dad liked it, that was the kiss of death," he says. "Now, time and time again, I play some classic rock, and the kids know it, and I ask how they know it. 'Oh, my dad and I listen to Hendrix together.' I can't imagine that in a hundred years. One student in my class told me, 'I'm glad we're finally onto rockabilly. My dad and I drive around listening to that.' That's soooo strange! There's no embarrassment anymore about growing up listening to the same music your parents did. It proves it's timeless. You didn't have to walk the streets of Vienna to appreciate Beethoven. The same is true of the Beatles. Which means it's ripe for study and a little guidance."
On this point, fellow rock academics point to the work of Lawrence Grossberg, a renowned cultural studies scholar who did doctoral research at the University of Illinois. Michael Kramer, who teaches Northwestern's "Cultural History of Rock" class, can speak at length on Grossberg's studies of rock music as communication, on his "high-falutin' language" ("Someone had to take it there," he concedes) used to describe rock 'n' roll and his attempt to determine if its was really the breeding ground of a leftist revolution it often claimed to be. By the end of the 1970s, Kramer says, Grossberg realized that the oppositional force of rock 'n' roll — kids vs. parents, youth vs. establishment — had evaporated. Once rock stopped defining difference, Grossberg moved on.
"And there are older folks who cling to music as opposition and don't want it to be absorbed into the academy," Kramer says. "Rock doesn't have its edge anymore. but that's exactly what's allowing it to slip into academia."
It happened with jazz. Once considered a cheap music and a dangerous influence, jazz preceded rock into the ivy-covered halls of learning and is now commonly studied alongside classical music, often with the same terminology and serious approach. (I took a History of Jazz course when I was in college, even writing a term paper comparing Steely Dan to Duke Ellington.)
Popular music studies have been on the British curriculum since 1980. Carey Fleiner at the Univ. of Delaware points out, in a 2008 paper titled "Teaching Rock and Roll History," that British "students also attend particular schools and conservatories explicitly to focus on rock music and to earn a degree on the subject." In the Midwest, Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University gets close to being a pop music studies conservatory; rock history courses have been taught there since 2001, and the school has enjoyed a decade-long collaborative research relationship with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame across town.
Rock is dead, long live rock
Until about 10 or 15 years ago, rock music studies began in history departments, communication departments, sometimes even English departments. Rock was used in its context to discuss social and political changes. After all, what serious study of the Civil Rights era or the Vietnam War would be complete without looking into how the people expressed themselves in music or rallied around certain folk songs and rock artists?
Today, rock history courses are migrating to music departments. The discussion is less about context and history and more about style, performance and lyrics. Gass, for instance, teaches rock history as a low-level music appreciation course.
"All that history and post-Marx theory applied to rock bores me out of my mind," he says. "I teach music appreciation, not cultural studies."
John Covach teaches rock history at the Univ. of Rochester (N.Y.), in the Eastman School of Music. He received all three of his university degrees from the Univ. of Michigan, studying classical music (while playing nights — secretly — in a progressive rock band). Echoing the experience of all rock history professors I spoke with, Covach said he encountered slight resistance to the suggestion of such a course — until the school saw first-hand how popular it would be.
"I started this course at [the Univ. of North Carolina at] Chapel Hill. They have a very conservative group of musicologists, but they said, OK, give it a try. They cautiously embraced it," Covach says. "Initially they wondered whether students would sign up for it. I told them the big problem would be keeping the numbers manageable. I cap the class at 125, and I always fill up. At North Carolina I had 320 students, and the fire code on the room was 318. If they'd ever all shown up there wouldn't have been enough seats. ... Once a department sees that, they see the course as a cash cow. More students in one of your courses means more resources for the department."
Gass faced challenges in launching a rock history course, too. He was undaunted; one of his first jobs was in a 1977 government program teaching jazz and rock history in Wisconsin prisons. "I had a fellow in the musicology department one day in the Xerox room, and the guy said, 'How can you spend one hour on that garbage?' He wasn't even trying to be insulting; he just couldn't understand why anyone would pursue it, the music was so obviously moronic garbage. That's cool. If it was too easy it would have felt strange. I liked that there were still adults who hated rock at that point. Now you have oboe teachers who also love Led Zeppelin."
But how you approach the subject — and from which discipline — matters, according to NU's Kramer. The most important question, he says, is are you teaching rock history or pop music history?
"I begin my class by asking: Is rock dead?" Kramer says, citing the theme of Kevin Dettmar's book, Is Rock Dead?. He then brings up "The Death of Rock and Roll," a 1956 record by Maddox Brothers and Rose, a country-rockabilly group, that was imitating Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman." "Rock 'n' roll has, from its very beginning, this notion of its own death. Maybe that's because it's the music of young people, and you have to grow up, your youth has to die. ... But there's a tension between rock music and pop music. It's something that's exploded at the EMP Pop Conference lately. Rock has had such an influence on pop music, but there are two totally different classes there, and they could come from any department, really. I would not open a class by asking: Is pop music dead?"
The death of rock may not have been greatly exaggerated — and may be the only reason academics now allow students to conduct the autopsy.
For his part, Gass prefers to get down to basics and just help students make sense of the smorgasbord available to them on iTunes and Amazon. "There are professors out there who treat a popular music conference like going to a physics conference. There is some real high-level inquiry out there. I teach non-majors — sophomores from the frat house. I'm just looking for a way to connect them to [Bob Dylan's] 'Blonde on Blonde.' ... If I can make that light bulb come on, then rock can live a little bit longer."
(Answers to those first questions — No. 3: Rooted in Mississippi Delta blues, with frequent use of slides, bent notes and double-stopped strings, as well as intricate rhythm patterns. No. 17: "The Blackboard Jungle." Essay No. 2: Answers vary. Widely.)
Listen without prejudice: Look past the sex, drugs, the weird TV. George Michael can *sing*
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's the one good thing that I've got.
— George Michael, "Freedom 90"
I don't know about the whole show, ABC's new "Eli Stone" — it looked a wee bit hokey, like "Touched by an Angel" for couples who conceived their kids after episodes of "Ally McBeal" — but the George Michael clips give great YouTube.
Check out his debut in the series premiere. Eli's having sex and becomes ... distracted by ... music. He stops, investigates — and finds George Michael in his living room singing "Faith." George Michael interrupting someone's sex life for a moment of religious clarity! And still they claim that irony is dead.
Throughout this first season of the show, there was George Michael continuing to repurpose his songs as a guardian angel in Eli's dream sequences. The stuffy law firm winds up singing and dancing to "Freedom 90." The firm defends a teenage girl for playing "I Want Your Sex" over the PA during an abstinence-education rally. In the season finale, George Michael brings Eli out of a coma by singing of "a new dawn, a new day" in the standard "Feeling Good." But first Eli asks him, "Are you God?" George Michael smirks and replies, "Well, some men have said so ..."
It's wholesome! It's lurid! It's both!
George Michael — and for the purposes of this article he shall be referred to by his full name, a la his namesake on another of the pop star's rather inadvertent TV touchstones, "Arrested Development" — isn't God. He ain't even saintly, God knows. But as he comes ashore this summer for his first American tour in 15 years (with a stop Wednesday at Chicago's United Center) thank heavens we can finally re-examine the man for what brings him here — and what really matters in our lives as pop music fans.
Because when we're done chuckling about his latest arrest for public sex (Larry Craig was such a copycat) or drugs (as he lit a joint during an interview on Britain's "South Bank Show" in 2006, he explained, "This stuff keeps me sane and happy") or drug-related traffic stops (green means go, red apparently means nap) — entertaining as those are in pop culture's hippodrome of hypocrisy — the scandals have nothing to do with why we still listen to the music.
And we do still listen to the music. Turn on a radio, real or online. He's still in the playlists. He's a favorite quick, universal pop cultural reference in movies as well as TV. ("The Rules of Attraction," for instance — dreadful little adaptation, but the hotel-bed dance scene scored by "Faith" redeemed every penny of admission.)
Perhaps this is a good reminder as we recover from the R. Kelly child pornography trial — look at all those fans still eating up his output (OK, bad choice of words) — and as we brace for another comeback by the self-proclaimed and similarly acquitted King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Wacko Jacko, certainly, deserves the nickname, but who out there is so self-righteous that they could suddenly deny the basic bliss of "Off the Wall" just because its creator wound up in court? Likely the same gnarled gnomes who pick apart a politican's every gaffe in a frustrated attempt to canonize a saint instead of hire a public servant.
Some young trick even claimed recently that Boy George chained him up as a slave in the pop star's basement. Now the bloke is barred from entering the United States (Homeland Security finally pays off!). And you wanna diss George Michael for smoking the occasional spliff and not averting his gaze when a hot cop makes eyes?
So we welcome back George Michael — the beleaguered pothead, the lonely john, the misguided angel with the angelic voice — and with his new tour arriving here this week and his new greatest-hits CD ("Twenty-Five," out now), let us remind the masses of the most important part of his rollicking, ever-evolving Wikipedia biography:
Dude can sing.
Give him five songs
Without getting too old-man, everything-was-better-when-Roberta-Flack-was-on-FM on you, the robots are taking over popular song. If it's not a young woman showing off her vocal gymnastics by cramming 18 notes into each syllable (thank you, Mariah), it's a young mallpunk whose mediocre voice has been so "doctored" by ProTools software that he sounds like the second cousin of Matthew Broderick's computer in "War Games." Those who hunger for real singing — who relish the experience of being lifted up by a single powerful voice carefully evoking the words of a well-crafted lyric — are reduced to making pop stars out of young opera tenors. Mamma mia!
Pull out your old George Michael records. You didn't sell them all, despite what you claim at parties. Log on, catch up with the last few albums you probably didn't buy. Listen again. The familiarity of his hits can obscure his formidable talent. There's gold in them thar skills.
I'm not even that big a fan. I only own two full albums, "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" and "Songs From the 20th Century," plus a few of the hits. I just never thought he was worth the butt of the joke. (OK, the butt of Dana Carvey's "SNL" butt jokes, funny stuff.) Here we are in another election year; let's take this opportunity to train ourselves to keep perspective amid petty character assassinations. Suck it up and listen to at least these five songs — five songs from the solo George Michael catalog that showcase the man's incomparable pipes and will make all the gags irrelevant:
— "A Different Corner" — After proving that Andrew Ridgeley's contribution to the Wham! equation was virtually nil (as everyone with ears suspected) by scoring a massive solo hit with "Careless Whisper," George Michael released this second single in 1986, and was it ever solo — the first record to top the British charts that was written, performed, arranged and produced by a single person. The song sways ever so gently in a somnambulant cradle of bass, piano and patient synthesizers, over which George Michael's voice coos, aches and, when the words demand it, wails. The only special effect you hear on this recording is the perfect echo of the room.
— "Faith" -- Wondering what all the fuss was about a few weeks ago when Bo Diddley died? Wasn't he just some academic hero of bluesmen? The simple, chukka-chukka-chug acoustic guitar riff that props up this easy, urgent hit is a prime example of how far Diddley's influence spread. When an artist like George Michael — berated by then as a bubblegum trifle — needs to lean on some credibility, he brings out the shave, the haircut, and both bits. (Heck, this riff was so simple even Ridgeley could've played it.) But its freshness — dig the way he shifts gears between the breathless and the bombast — is evidenced by its near ubiquity in pop culture, even eclipsing the song everyone wouldn't shut up about in 1987, "I Want Your Sex" (which is — huh? — not on his new greatest hits double disc!).
— "My Baby Just Cares for Me" -- Did anyone buy this collection, "Songs From the 20th Century"? Released in 1999 — when doing a covers album was past de rigueur and had become de manded — George Michael tossed out his take on a bunch of his favorite tunes, spanning the century in question, from "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" to the Police's "Roxanne." His reading of this old, jazzy standard brims with effervescent, almost mischievous joy ("even Ricky Martin's smile ..."), and his vocal delivery over all those runs is smooth as buttah.
— "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" -- Recorded in 1985 at Live Aid but not released until 1991, this exciting concert moment ("Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Elton John!") shows how strongly he delivers outside the studio. His reading of this classic rock ballad is so fluid and lovely, almost soulful, that Elton's entrance is frankly an unwelcome interruption.
— "They Won't Go When I Go" -- George Michael's most awesome performance. On the acclaimed but less successful 1990 "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" album, George Michael set out to prove himself an artist and adult, which he could have accomplished simply by choosing to attempt this Stevie Wonder album track. But his transcendent recording, afloat on a tidal gospel arrangement, bests Wonder's original and sets us all up for the notion that — yeah, Eli — maybe he is an angel.
It's not all golden, of course. He's tossed off his share of stinkers — try to stay awake during "Jesus to a Child," I dare you — and all we can say for the Wham! years is, hey, it was what it was (and sometimes, c'mon, it was fun). But compare him to his contemporaries, and he indeed begins looking pretty saintly.
Boy George? A crap solo career and the aforementioned legal troubles. Rick Astley? He's about to release a greatest-hits set with more than one song on it, go figure. Pet Shop Boys? Undoubtedly iconic, but they didn't exactly rise above the dance-club rut. Paul Young? (Crickets chirping.) Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spandau Ballet, Dead or Alive and all the other 1980s chart toppers now playing the state-fair circuit? Shudder.
George Michael stands with the icons of that particular age (and their peccadillos), with Madonna (spiritual slut) and Bono (spiritual hack) and Michael Jackson (arrogant oddball). And these days his voice — granted, it's been well-rested of late — sounds better than any one of them.
So, children, come back. Forget the jeers of rock critics, and ignore the sanctimonious temperance leagues. Put down the gossip rags. Give some thought to what the experience of listening to music means and the power a strong voice can transmit through your bones. Come see a happy, fulfilled singer at possibly another peak of his performing career.
It may be your last chance, after all. He once again recently mulled over the possibility of retiring, with a maturity to his perspective that made us love him all the more: "Mainly the reason is because I'm 45 and I think pop music should be about youth culture. ... It shouldn't be an endurance test."
I won't let you down
So please don't give me up
Because I would really, really love to stick around ...
- - -
GEORGE MICHAEL THROUGH THE YEARS
You'd be perfectly within your rights to have forgotten that George Michael has a shred of talent. In the last 10 years, he's had plenty of media coverage, hardly any of it about him singing. To his credit, you'd be hard-pressed to find a worldwide celebrity who has taken his public embarrassments in such easy stride. He copped to the whole bathroom arrest by joking with Oprah in 2004: "They don't send Columbo in there, you know. They send someone nice-looking."
Here's a look at the high notes and low notes of George Michael's nearly 30 years in the public eye. And consider this: Can you think of a single moment in all these years when he's been clean-shaven?
November 1979: Forms his first band, a ska group called The Executive, with pal Andrew Ridgeley.
April 1982: Ridgeley and George Michael, now teamed as a duo called Wham! (named, so the record company said at the time, for the sound these two made when they came together ... now stop laughing ...), release their first single, "Wham! Rap," in which George Michael (gulp) raps lines such as, "Hey, jerk! You work! This boy's got better things to do."
July 1983: The debut Wham! LP, "Fantastic," enters the British albums chart at No. 1.
June 1984: Now on a bigger label, Epic, the single "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" hits No. 1.
August 1984: Even though the song appeared on the second Wham! album, "Make It Big," the single "Careless Whisper" is billed as solo George Michael. It's an instant No. 1 and is Epic's first million-seller.
December 1984: A Wham! world tour begins as George Michael is featured on the charity Band Aid hit "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
April 1985: Wham!'s tour of China, the first visit to that country by a Western pop act, generates enormous worldwide media coverage, much of it centered on George Michael.
July 1985: George Michael duets with Elton John on the latter's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" during Live Aid at Wembley Stadium. The recording won't be released until December 1991, and it hits No. 1 two months later.
June 1986: Taking a stand against the band's manager selling out part of his interest to a South African company (or at least seizing on a fantastic excuse), Wham! decides to split up and plays its farewell concert for 72,000 fans at Wembley Stadium.
April 1987: "Faith" is released, the George Michael solo debut. It'll sell 6 million copies in a year. Today, it's minted at least 15 million copies.
June 1987: The "I Want Your Sex'" single hits the streets, but not many airwaves. Some American radio stations ban it, and British DJs are allowed to discuss it only by referring to it as "I Want."
March 1988: Wins a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," his duet with Aretha Franklin.
February 1989: Wins another Grammy for Album of the Year, for "Faith." (Yes, it was released in '87. The Grammys, to put it mildly, are slow on the uptake.)
September 1990: "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" is released. It sells "only" 4 million copies.
1991-95: Begins a long legal fight to escape his contract with the Sony corporation. A casualty in this battle is "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2," which dies in preproduction. (Three songs from the project are eventually donated to the AIDS charity disc "Red Hot + Dance," and the song "Crazyman Dance" turned up on the B-side of 1992's "Too Funky," his final recording for Sony.) He's silent for the next three years during the court fight.
July 1995: Settles with Sony, signs with Virgin Records.
May 1996: "Older" is released, becomes the fastest-selling album in the history of Virgin Records.
June 1996: Meets his current partner, art dealer (and former cheerleading coach) Kenny Goss.
April 7, 1998: Arrested for "engaging in a lewd act" in a public bathroom at the Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills, Calif. Anyone who didn't know he was gay gets the memo. He's charged and released on $500 bail.
April 10, 1998: Finally comes out of the closet in an interview on CNN, saying, "This is a good of a time as any. ... I want to say that I have no problem with people knowing that I'm in a relationship with a man right now. I have not been in a relationship with a woman for almost 10 years." Not a single gasp is heard.
May 1998: Pleads "no contest" to the charges, is fined $810, ordered to perform 80 hours of community service and seek counseling — and was banned from the park.
November 1998: The video for "Outside," from "Ladies & Gentlemen — The Best Of George Michael," parodies the restroom incident.
December 1999: Releases "Songs From the Last Century," an album of covers, from "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" to the Police's "Roxanne."
April 2000: Joins Melissa Etheridge, Garth Brooks, Queen Latifah, the Pet Shop Boys, and k.d. lang to perform in Washington, D.C., as part of Equality Rocks, a benefit concert in support of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian organization.
May 26, 2004: Appears on "Oprah" — his first U.S. television appearance in more than 10 years — to promote a new album, "Patience," and discuss his arrest.
Early 2005: Goss and George Michael open the Goss Gallery in Dallas.
Feb. 26, 2006: Arrested for drug possession after he's found slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes near Hyde Park Corner in London. He later describes the incident as his "own stupid fault, as usual."
May 2006: While driving his Range Rover in London, hits three parked cars. Later is found by a passer-by again slumped over the steering wheel at a traffic light.
September 2006: Scandal again, but one we can support — he's chastised for a tour prop, a giant figure of George Bush in a ... compromising position.
Oct. 1, 2006: Found unconscious again at the wheel of his Mercedes in the middle of traffic. He pleaded guilty and was banned from driving for two years, plus more community service.
December 2007: Plays himself in a public park looking for action in the series finale of HBO's "Extras."
Jan. 16, 2008: Signs a fat book contract with HarperCollins for a memoir which he is to write "entirely himself."
April 1, 2008: Releases the double-disc greatest-hits CD "Twenty-Five," featuring 29 songs, including a new version of "Heal the Pain" recorded as a duet with Sir Paul McCartney.
June 17, 2008: Opens his first U.S. tour in 15 years in San Diego. Tells the California crowd, "I was watching TV yesterday and saw two women get married!" He then launched into the song "Amazing," which he dedicated to Goss.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When his music became popular again during the 1990s lounge-music revival, Juan Garcia Esquivel — known singularly and more exclamatory as Esquivel! — was fond of telling a favorite Chicago story.
"There was a very influential columnist named Sig Sakowicz," Esquivel said. "He wrote an entertainment column, where he would critique everyone playing in town. Before we opened, he wrote in his column, 'Esquivel! ... Why?' He came to the show, and I showed him why. He came almost every night. The next week in his column, he wrote, 'Esquivel is so good, he deserves two exclamation points.'"
In 1974, several years after Sakowicz had moved on, Esquivel landed a gig back here in Chicago — six months performing nightly at the La Margarita Mexican restaurant in Morton Grove. The age of the great bandleaders had long passed, and Esquivel's group was down to a combo of four musicians, two singers and himself on piano. The music, however, still had the zing! and the pow! and the wow! that earned him those exclamation points. While they were in Chi-town, the restaurant manager suggested they record a live album to help promote the gig.
They did, and Bar/None Records recently reissued the session as a disc titled "The Sights and Sounds of Esquivel." (The original title was as windy as the city: "An Evening at La Margarita With Esquivel! and His Sounds.") The music wasn't captured live at La Magarita, though. Esquivel being a bit of a control freak — for good and ill — the songs were cut "live" in a studio in December of that year.
"I've had this tape for years and years," said Yvonne DeBourbon-Rodriguez, Esquivel's widow (he died in 2002 after years of ill health after a fall) and one of the two vocalists in the band at La Margarita, in a recent interview. "This was done exactly as we would do the show, on one track with no overdubs. The only thing added was the applause. Juan was very, very particular when it came to recordings. I don't think he would have wanted to record in a nightclub. He never made any actual live recordings. This is it."
Esquivel's meticulous detail in making his "space-age bachelor pad" music is one of the reasons his albums were lurking in hipsters' collections long before the '90s lounge-music fad and will remain there long after. Esquivel was a Latin bandleader in an era when "Latin bandleader" meant Ricky Ricardo. He was one of the first arrangers to make use of stereo recording, leading his slide guitarist or his drummer to pop in and out of the left or right speaker for lively, unpredictable effects. His music was aimed at the easy-listening market, but it wasn't always the easiest listening.
His resurgence in the '90s was often heralded as "unlikely," but given the electronic music experiments taking place at the time around the world, it wasn't all that surprising. DeBourbon-Rodriguez saw the connection.
"People still feel connected to this music. It's like Trekkies. It doesn't matter how old 'Star Trek' is, people will always be fascinated with it," she said. "You know, when his music became popular again in the '90s, he was absolutely delighted. He loved arranging — that was his forte. He played incredible piano, but he wasn't as interested in composing as he was in arranging. It was fascinating for him to see how he could make an old song dance to a new tune, or the challenge of bringing something alive that was in a dusty vault somewhere. All these young people and their remixing today — it's the same thing. That's why they love him."
Esquivel loved performing his arrangements as well, which is why even into the '70s, he was accepting the gigs offered him — like playing dinner music in the Chicago 'burbs. But whether performing at the Hollywood Bowl or the early equivalents of Planet Hollywood, Esquivel was always as entertaining and unpredictable as his tunes.
"He was a consummate performer," said DeBourbon-Rodriguez. "He looooved having an audience. He had a glow about him when he was onstage, and he loved having little jokes with the audience, double entendres.
"We were performing in Puerto Rico one time. I'd had surgery and couldn't perform the dance routines. The crowd was calling out, 'La colora!' He couldn't figure out what that meant, though he spoke fluent Spanish. Finally, someone said, 'The redhead!' They wanted me to dance. He tried to explain why I couldn't, saying I'd had surgery. 'Want to know where she had it?' he asked the crowd. 'In Las Vegas!'"
You can almost hear the rim shot.
Things in Chicago remained pretty hot. Literally.
"I think we experienced one of the mildest winters Chicago had ever had," she said. "I love snow. I live in California, where normally we don't have snow, but that year in Chicago, it was beautiful. I enjoyed the smell of it and walking in it. I'd been in Chicago in January, downtown with winds off the lake, and oh my God, my ears felt like they were burning off, but for some reason that winter was very mild, and we made such lovely friends with the musicians and their families."
Several years ago, during the revival of his music, a movie about Esquivel's life was reported in the works. DeBourbon-Rodriguez said it's still "in the works" to her knowledge, with Alexander Payne ("Election," "Sideways") contracted to direct and John Leguizamo starring.
In the meantime, DeBourbon-Rodriguez is still involved with music, working with husband and Latin jazz musician Bobby Rodriguez. The two recently finished a book, The ABC's of Latin Jazz.
"We discuss Juan in the book," she said, "because of his contribution to arranging and because of the music he used. You know, he's not often thought of as a Latin music figure other than the fact that he was from Mexico. But he helped pioneer clave, that kind of rhythm. He was one of many musicians who were using native music styles at the time, but it wasn't identified as such then. It's just one of many ways he was a pioneer."
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
There's been a lot of ink poured around the Tulsa World,
trying to define and describe Red Dirt music, the elusive
mix of country, rock, blues and folk native to Oklahoma and
centered around Stillwater. It's like nailing smoke to a
wall. You can see it, you can smell it, but how do you grab
hold of it?
In all the interviews with musicians classified as Red
Dirt players, a lot of names come up as influences. A lot
of folks hearken back to the Tulsa Sound days of Leon
Russell and J.J. Cale. Some trace their sound back to Merle
Haggard, others tell stories about Garth Brooks' days in
the Stillwater bars. Songwriter Bob Childers is pretty
universally hailed as the genre's godfather.
But one name comes up more than all the others. In a
recent search of the Tulsa World's electronic archives
(stories back to 1989), 176 stories mentioned Red Dirt
music, and 143 of those mentioned Woody Guthrie.
If Red Dirt is the great consolidation of American
music, especially south of the Mason-Dixon, then surely its
crucible can be found in the tangled woods around Guthrie's
old Okemah home site. Guthrie was famous for a certain
slice of his music — frank, topical folk songs — but he wrote
and performed every conceivable genre of music in the
decades he wandered this land with his guitar slung over
his shoulder on a rope.
The comprehensive four-CD, boxed set from Smithsonian
Folkways Records, "The Asch Recordings," covers most of this --
his cowboy music, his Tex-Mex, his kids songs, his blues.
Guthrie respected differences in people and in music.
"The unifying theme in Woody's music is that he wrote
about the land he loved," says Tulsa scholar Guy Logsdon. "He
played the melodies and music that came from the land he
loved, from Oklahoma, one of the most culturally diverse
places in America. Let's also say he modified it. He used
the music he heard as a foundation and built upon it.
"That's what these Red Dirt guys are doing. The Garth
Brookses and Jimmy LaFaves and Tom Skinners and there's a
guy in Bristow named Brett Graham — they use their heritage
as a foundation and build their own sound on top of it. It
just happens to be a very broad foundation," Logsdon said.
LaFave, who grew up in Stillwater but relocated to
Austin to make his career, is considered one of the
principal standard-bearers of the Red Dirt ideal. He cites
Guthrie's influence consistently and has become a pillar of
the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah.
Another expatriate Stillwater son, Bruce Henderson now
in New York City, cites Guthrie among the lathes that
shaped his easy-going, country-rock songwriting. Regional
singer-songwriter Brandon Jenkins said in a '98 interview,
"I've been real involved with Woody Guthrie music lately,
and it got me back to writing music for my own reasons, not
to have a hit."
"It's about finding your identity," Logsdon said. "Often we
search for ourselves and discover we're part of something
greater." "Where is Woody Guthrie in Red Dirt music? In
the truth," said John Cooper of the Red Dirt Rangers this
week. The Rangers are probably the ultimate example of Red
Dirt's nebulous but potent mixture of styles.
"It's in the lyrics, in trying to tell the absolute truth
as you see it. Woody said you can only write what you know
about, and it's true," Cooper said.
The Rangers themselves have struggled throughout their
11-year existence to explain to folks what they do, what
their music is. Someone once called them "Woody Guthrie gone
In '95, Cooper told the Tulsa World, "A lot of people
think we're a country band, which is true, but we do a lot
more than that. It shows in the kinds of gigs we do. We've
done kids shows, bluegrass festivals, rock 'n' roll events,
city festivals, prison shows and private parties."
The broad base of their sound and influences allows them
to be that versatile. But it's that element of truth that
separates them from most style classifications based purely
on musical form. It's almost like Christian music, a
musical category containing every possible style of music
but segregated purely because of its message. Red Dirt
places a higher importance on truth in the lyrics than most
other genres, certainly pure country.
"Like a song on our upcoming record, ‘Leave This World a
Better Place.' I'm serious about that," Cooper said this
week. "I didn't write that just to be catchy. I want people
to hear that and believe as much as I do that that's what
we should do."
That does not imply that Red Dirt music is protest
"It's not necessarily political like Woody got sometimes
and like he's so well-known for being. You can't take the
politics away from Woody, and really from us either, but
we're more about the politics of love, if that's not too
"Our connection to Woody is through that desire to tell
the truth and to lift people up no matter what kind of
stories you're telling them," Cooper said.
"Woody was the voice of all people who struggle," added
Ranger singer Brad Piccolo, "but people struggle in many
different ways, not just political stuff. There has to be
honesty in every area of playing music, because people come
to music for a lot of different reasons."
Even Guthrie himself didn't know what to call his music.
In 1940, a reviewer included a discussion of Guthrie's "Dust
Bowl Ballads" under the heading "Americana." In his scrapbook,
Guthrie scribbled his response: "Americana is a new one on
me, but when these fellers hire out to write a column every
day they ain't no telling what kinds of words they'll fall
back on to make a living."
Guilty as charged.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody
What: The Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit.
When: Opens Friday, runs through May 4 Where: The Oklahoma
Museum of History, Wiley Post Building, southeast of the
state Capitol at 2100 N. Lincoln Blvd., Oklahoma City.
Woody Guthrie wrote a lot of songs about rambling
He literally could not sit still. He had a natural
restlessness and a fierce wanderlust, and he died of a
nervous disease that made him shake. He was on the move all
the time — hopping freights across the Midwest, riding
sagging jalopies with Okies through the Southwest, touring
with his singing group in the Northeast, writing songs
about the Grand Coulee Dam in the Northwest, hiding out in
a swamp in the Southeast.
He touched every point of the compass — N, E, W, S — and
then he wrote songs that reported the news of the places
and people he'd seen. His songs were, for the most part,
journalism — with a large literary license. He happened to
be conducting his field reporting during this country's
hardest times, starting in the 1930s, so he met a lot of
homeless people, drifters, the dispossessed. The Okies.
Guthrie's own home back in Oklahoma had disintegrated,
partly because of the hard times and partly because of
family turmoil. Guthrie, a teenager, was left behind in the
decaying boom town of Okemah. His ties broken, he finished
his junior year of high school and stuck his thumb in the
wind. He left Oklahoma at age 17 and, except for a few
brief visits, he never came back.
Strange then that this rascally, clever songwriter --
famed for spirited songs as widely sung as "This Land Is
Your Land" — should be considered a native son of our state.
Strange then the fuss over Okemah's long-overdue embracing
of its late hometown boy and the fanfare of its annual
summer folk festival in his name. Strange the effort of
officials at the Smithsonian Institution and the Woody
Guthrie Archives to make sure the museum's current
traveling exhibition of Guthrie's life and work actually
opens in Oklahoma this week.
Or maybe not so strange. When you hear Guthrie's songs,
when you read his prose, when you study his life, it's
clear that Woody left Oklahoma but Oklahoma never left
The value of land
Oklahoma is restless land. Its
history is a pile of pulled-up stakes. Countless Indians of
every stripe were dumped here
— because the land wasn't valued. Only after the rest of the
continent had begun filling up did the government open
these lands to white settlers — because the land wasn't
valued. Oil companies jumped in, sucked the marrow out of
the earth and left as fast as they'd come — because the land
was no longer valuable. Thousands upon thousands of those
same white settlers were evicted from those same land
claims years later when severe drought turned them to dust --
and the land wasn't valuable. Migration, resettlement,
migration again. On and on.
But the land had value to those who planted it, hunted
on it, were born on it and buried their parents in it.
Those hard-working Okies probably had more sentimental
value for land than any category of Americans, and one wiry
little fellow watched all those land lovers come and go,
seizing and releasing the fields around his hometown. As a
boy growing up in Okemah, Guthrie met Indians, farmers,
ranchers and oil men. As he began traveling the plains
roads, he met countless farmers and ranchers who'd been
thrown off their land.
As he roamed to California and back with the
dispossessed, Guthrie learned about the value of home.
Thomas Wolfe had just informed the world that none of us
can truly go home again, but Guthrie discovered that, no
matter where someone hangs his or her head, home can be
rebuilt in an instant simply by strumming a few chords and
singing the old songs.
Joe Klein, in his 1980 biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life,
wrote of Guthrie's discovery on the road with the Okies:
"They always wanted to hear the old tunes — there weren't
many requests for fox trots in the boxcars — and Woody was
amazed by the impact the songs had. . . . The whiny old
ballads his mother had taught him were a bond that all
country people shared; and now, for the migrants, the songs
were all that was left of the land . . . It wasn't just
entertainment; he was performing their past. They listened
closely, almost reverently, to the words. In turn, he
listened to their life stories, and felt their pain and
anger. An odd thing began to percolate. He was one of
So Guthrie learned those songs — "The Boll Weevil," "The
Farmer Is the Man," "The Buffalo Skinners," "A Picture From
Life's Other Side." The ones that made him famous, though,
were the ones he wrote about the land and people's tenuous
relation to it in the 1930s.
In the songbook of folk favorites Guthrie and Pete
Seeger compiled in 1940 (which wasn't published until
1967), Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, there's a
chapter called "The Okie Section." Each of the baker's dozen
of songs is by Guthrie — "I'm Goin' Down That Road Feeling
Bad," "Dust Can't Kill Me," "Dust Bowl Refugee," "You Okies and
Arkies," "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," "If You Ain't
Got the Do Re Mi," "Tom Joad," and more. They're all songs
about Okies — about people who'd been cut loose from their
homes and homesteads.
It wasn't just Okies out there on the road, heading to
California. In his introduction to "The Okie Section,"
Guthrie explains that by 1940 he'd come to a realization --
that the plight of the Okies is mirrored in the
workingman's struggle in every state.
"It looks like this Okie section ought to be my pet
section — but it ain't," he wrote. "When I first commenced a
working on this book, I thought myself it would be. And
then I took a looking tour through about 20 of the other
states — and everything was just about as hungry, and in
some spots hungrier. Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania,
Kentucky, Ohio, New York and back to Oklahoma and Texas
again. One is about as naked as the other."
He was learning that the common man's struggle he
witnessed in Oklahoma was hardly different from the same
struggle in any other state or any other country. He was
becoming a citizen of the world.
Taking Oklahoma's message tothe world: But he was still
a gosh-dern Okie. Not long after arriving in New York City
in '40 — after years on the radio in L.A. as "Oklahoma Woody" --
Guthrie wrote a song called "Down in Oklayhoma," in which he
was still reflecting on the gulf between the state's
abundant natural riches and the workingman's poverty:
Just dig a little hole, you'll find soft coal
Some lead or zinc, just dig a little hole;
Everybody I know goes in the hole
Down in Oklayhoma
Other songs followed — "Hooversville," about a squalid
homeless camp in Oklahoma City; "The Dalton Boys" about the
famous gangsters and their Green Country hideout; "Verdigris
Headrise" about a young Will Rogers; "Okleye Homeye Home," in
which he begs the listener to "take me back to my
He dressed like an Okie. He often smelled like one, too.
More importantly, he spoke like an Okie, which means he
wrote and sang in the same way. "I'm Goin' Down the Road
Feeling Bad" is built around a chorus that declares, "I ain't
gonna be treated this-a way," and his songs were heavily
spiced with this down-home dialect. Guthrie's
autobiographical novel, "Bound for Glory," was described by
the New York World-Telegram as being written "largely in
Even as Oklahomans forgot Guthrie, Guthrie never forgot
his home state. Even when his politics got mixed up and out
of context over time — he supported unions and even
communists, because, as he wrote, "Nobody cared — except the
Union Boys. They was the onliest ones that was on our side
through thick and thin" — Oklahomans eventually shunned him,
but he never brushed the red dirt off his soles in protest.
He took the message of Oklahoma to the world, and it's just
now beginning to echo back.
Oklahoma Folklife Center plans to protect folkways for the future
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
In 1941, Woody Guthrie was involved in a theatrical
production in New York, a revue of sorts led by Earl
Robinson. The show involved a skit in which a group of
stalwart, American singers, featuring Guthrie, were set
upon by an unscrupulous music publisher hoping to buy them
off and water down their music. The script called for
Guthrie to stomp and cry out in outrage, but when he
performed the lines his laid-back, Okie drawl sounded
Robinson, according to Guthrie biographer Joe Klein,
said, "Woody, for Chrissake, don't you ever get angry at
people in Oklahoma?"
Guthrie leaned back and, slower than ever, replied, "Yup.
We get angry. But when we get angry, we just give 'em a
long, hard stare."
That trait, believe it or not — that laid-back approach
or the refusal to show immediate, hot anger — is a folkway,
a characteristic element of a particular group of people
that is learned or handed down from generation to
generation. It's ephemeral, it seems, but it's these little
distinctions that separate an Oklahoman from a New Yorker
or a Tennessean or a Californian.
And it's these folkways — from music to crafts to these
elusive social traits — that the Oklahoma Folklife Center
plans to preserve and to provide opportunities to examine
The Tulsa-based Oklahoma Folklife Center is a new
creation, a satellite of the Smithsonian Institution's
American Folklife Center, and organized under the umbrella
of the Oklahoma Historical Society and funded thus far
through a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the
Arts. So far, the center has one employee, director Guy
It doesn't even have a home yet. The center eventually
will be housed in Tulsa's historic Travis Mansion, 2435 S.
Peoria Ave., undergoing renovation and additions by its new
owner, the Tulsa Historical Society. Until those
improvements are complete, the Oklahoma Folklife Center
will operate out of Logsdon's midtown Tulsa home.
That's fitting, of course, because Logsdon's home is its
own folklife center. For decades, the former University of
Tulsa librarian has compiled his own massive and impressive
collection of Americana and folk music-related research,
and his back room is its own museum — a storehouse of
documents, research and artifacts relating to cowboy
poetry, American folk music and other subjects far and wide
— including recipes, folk art, even the peculiar way some
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma
Historical Society, has even bigger dreams for the folklife
"I foresee this growing to the point where we need a
physical location for the center itself," Blackburn said
last week, "especially because of the performing arts aspect
of folk arts. It would encourage the performance of music
and the exhibition of more folklife materials, the
demonstration of folkways and apprenticeships."
Blackburn expects the folklife center to catch on
quickly in Oklahoma, largely because of its Tulsa base.
"The Tulsa community has always supported the arts so
well," he said. "I remember attending the Chautauqua event up
there five or six years ago, when Danny Goble portrayed
Huey Long, and it was standing room only. I thought, ‘Boy,
these Tulsans really get into this sort of expression of
our cultural heritage.'
9/11 reverberates through music industry
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Stocks aren't the only sector of American industry
reeling from last week's terrorist attacks. The folks who
create the artistic expressions that offer both escape and
insight into the world situation have been derailed and
befuddled by the new world order, too. Here are some items
illustrating the attacks' ripple effect in the music
The hit list
One of my favorite episodes of the old TV series "WKRP in
Cincinnati" involved a radical preacher named Dr. Bob who
asked the fictional radio station not to play a list of
certain songs he and his followers found offensive. It's a
pretty poignant discussion of artistic expression and
censorship — for TV, anyway — and it features Mr. Carlson
(Gordon Jump) reading the words to John Lennon's "Imagine,"
which the preacher dismisses as anti-God and "communist"
despite its lack of any offensive words.
"Imagine" allegedly made another hit list this week when
Clear Channel Communications, the Texas-based company that
owns nearly 1,170 radio stations nationwide — including six
in Tulsa — circulated a list of 150 "lyrically questionable"
songs and suggested its stations consider the wisdom of
playing them in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks,
according to the New York Times.
It's a curious list (see page D-4). Some selections are
obviously insensitive for this particular moment in history
-- Soundgarden's "Blow Up the Outside World," Billy Joel's "Only
the Good Die Young" or "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" by Tulsa's
own GAP Band — but others are truly bizarre and
overreaching. Some poor, pin-headed exec somewhere must
have racked his brain for titles that might allude to
anything related to the tragedy, such as planes (the
Beatles' "Ticket to Ride," Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets")
or New York City (Sinatra's signature song "New York, New
York," the Drifters' "On Broadway").
Some songs, though, are even patriotic, like Neil
Diamond's "America," or universally uplifting, like Louis
Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World."
Clear Channel was quick yesterday to issue a denial. It
was carefully worded, denying the fact that they actually
banned any songs but not denying that a list was
circulated. Accoridng to the Times, the company's corporate
headquarters generated a small list of songs to reconsider,
and an "overzealous" regional executive expanded it and
circulated it widely.
Tulsa DJs never saw one, anyway. Rick Cohn, vice
president and marketing manager of Tulsa's Clear Channel
stations, said he had seen no song list from his corporate
headquarters. What he had seen was a statement "suggesting
that each program director should take the pulse of their
market to judge the sensitivity of listeners given the
circumstances now," he said Wednesday.
"We voluntarily went through our playlists to see if
there were things we might want to avoid in good taste,"
Cohn said. "I mean, `Leaving on a Jet Plane' just doesn't
seem like the song KQLL `Cool 106' needs to be playing
Wise choices, surely, as long as they aren't mandatory
and lasting. After all, in times like these, music is what
we should be turning to, not running from. One of the songs
on the list, Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled
Water," gives voice to a narrator who assures the listener
of help through whatever trials and sadness we encounter.
Of course, Lennon's "Imagine" is the ultimate sing-along in
times of desperately needed unity:
You may say I'm a dreamer
but I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
and the world will live as one.
You ought not be in pictures
Three months ago, DJ Pam and Boots Riley holed up with
their Photoshop manuals and produced what they thought
would be a cool and controversial image for the cover of
their new CD. They had no idea how controversial it could
The image features the two rappers standing with the
World Trade Center Towers looming behind them. DJ Pam is on
the left holding drumsticks while Riley, on the right, is
pressing a button on what is assumed to be a bomb
detonator; the towers behind them are exploding in flames
and smoke — at what look like the exact spots where the two
hijacked airplanes hit on Sept. 11.
Needless to say, the duo's record company, 75 Ark, has
ordered all the covers destroyed and replaced before the
CD, innocently titled "Party Music," is released Nov. 5.
"The intent of the cover was to use the World Trade
Center to symbolize capitalism," Riley said this week. "This
is a very unfortunate coincidence, and my condolences go
out to the families and friends of the victims."
This is the second album release interrupted by the
attacks. Neo-progressive rock group Dream Theater's "Live
Scenes From New York" was yanked back from shelves last week
because its cover depicted the Manhattan skyline, complete
with WTC towers and the Statue of Liberty, in flames.
Local benefit song
Michael Jackson has already written his benefit song for
the victims of last week's terrorist attacks, which he
hopes to cast with big stars (a la "We Are the World") and
release within a month. For my money, though, I'll stick
with Bristow native Alan Pitts' tune, "She Still Stands
Tall," penned last week after the tragedies and already a
KOTV, channel 6 has played Pitts' song several times,
complete with a video montage assembled by the station. The
song has rocketed up the country chart at
www.soundclick.com since it was posted on Sunday. Pitts
also may perform the song at the Tulsa State Fair;
arrangements are pending.
Demand for the song has already overwhelmed Pitts and
his Tulsa-based band. Until full-scale production of a CD
can be completed, Pitts has been burning copies on his home
computer. He hopes to have them available soon for $10,
with a third of the money going to the American Red Cross.
For information about obtaining a copy, call Redneck Kid
Productions at (918) 582-5316.
Off the road
The attacks last week interrupted the music business,
namely some tours that were making the rounds on the East
Coast. Some of the bands that canceled shows around the
country in the wake of the attacks were Aerosmith, the
Beach Boys, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Clint Black, Jimmy
Buffett, Coldplay, Billy Gilman, Phil Lesh, Jerry Seinfeld
and They Might Be Giants.
Oddly enough, the Pledge of Allegiance Tour — featuring
such deathly metal acts as Slipknot, System of a Down,
Rammstein and Mudvayne — was scheduled to begin last week.
The first four dates in the upper Midwest were rescheduled
for later in October. Also, the annual CMJ Music Marathon
has been rescheduled from its original dates last weekend
to Oct. 10-13.
Carol Anderson of CMA Promotions reported that most of
the Christian pop shows she represents are moving ahead.
"They feel that the kids need words of hope even more than
before," she said.
Most of the artists' publicists we deal with as
journalists are headquartered in Manhattan, and it's been
nerve-wracking checking in with them the past week. Gary
Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, posted an
editorial on the magazine's web site last week encouraging
Americans not to hide at home throughout the aftermath.
"If you afraid to buy tickets and attend public events,
then you let the bastards win," he wrote. "Make no mistake
about it, no one can completely guarantee your safety as
you walk through the turnstiles. But then, no one can
guarantee it as you sit on the couch at home, either."
A final word
Jessica Hopper at Hopper PR in Chicago summed up the
nation's sudden readjustment of priorities in an email to
industry insiders last week: "Nothing like profound tragedy
to make our myopic punk world and scene squabbles seem
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
It was the spring of 1940, and Woody Guthrie was
becoming a star — or as close to one as he'd ever let
In May of that year, Woody stood alone in Victor
Records' New Jersey recording studio and sang out some of
his best — and now best-known — songs: "Dust Bowl Refugee," "I
Ain't Got No Home," "Do Re Mi," "So Long, It's Been Good to
Know You" and many more. He was paid $300 for the session,
more money than he'd ever thought a man could be paid for
singing "dusty ol' songs."
Immediately after the session, Woody wrote to his
younger sister Mary Jo back in Oklahoma about his recent
good fortune in New York City. "I just bought a new
Plymouth, and it really splits the breeze," he said. Then he
added, "I'm coming to Oklahoma as soon as I get a check from
Months later, he began that journey back home, and his
traveling companion was fellow folksinger Pete Seeger. It
would be a pivotal journey for Woody's political
motivations and a crystallizing moment in his personal
According to Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life, the two
young folkies headed south and rolled through the
Appalachian Mountains "carrying on a running conversation
about music and politics."
Along the trip, they stopped briefly in Tennessee to
visit the Highlander Folk School, a training center for
labor organizers. The owners, Myles and Zilphia Horton,
were focusing on the use of music as an organizing tool.
From then on, Woody became preoccupied with writing union
songs, and later in the trip he would pen his ultimate
They traveled through Arkansas into Oklahoma, stopping
in Konawa to visit Woody's family. It was a tense reunion.
The Guthries had been split up years before after Woody's
mother Nora went to the mental hospital in Norman. After
that, Mary Jo was sent to a relative's in Pampa, Texas, and
Woody's father, Charley, moved to Oklahoma City. Woody and
his older brother were left behind in Okemah to fend for
themselves. Woody's inherent restlessness got the better of
him, and he left soon after high school.
Charley was in Konawa during this visit, but as Klein
wrote, there was "a real tension between them, and the visit
lasted only a few hours."
They pressed on to Oklahoma City, where they spent a
night with local Communist Party organizers Bob and Ina
Wood. The Woods put Guthrie and Seeger to work, singing for
the poor people in the Hooverville shantytown on the banks
of the Canadian River. It was during this stay that Woody
wrote one of his most recognizable songs, "Union Maid."
Later in his life, Woody wrote that the song was
inspired by the story of a southern Tenant Farmers' Union
organizer who was badly beaten, but in a recent interview
with the Tulsa World Seeger recalled the more direct
inspiration for the song.
"We were in the (Woods') office, and Ina said, ‘Woody,
all these union songs are about brothers this and brothers
that. How about writing songs about union women?' " Seeger
said. "Well, it was true. The (union) meeting that night
might have been broken up had it not been for the women and
children singing songs and keeping it peaceful."
"Union Maid" — with its chorus, "Oh you can't scare me, I'm
stickin' to the union" — was written that night as a parody
of an older song called "Redwing." At first, Seeger thought
Woody's song was silly, but he said its simplicity and
directness soon won him over.
"His words now are much better than the ‘Redwing' words,"
he said. "Who would think that ‘stickin' to the' would be
such a fun line to sing?"
The rest of the trip was personally difficult. Woody and
Pete continued to Pampa, where Woody had left behind his
first wife and children. That reunion also was tense.
Seeger didn't stay long, opting to continue travelling west
after a few days. Woody left soon after that, leaving his
wife the $300. He headed back through Oklahoma City and
picked up Bob Wood, taking him back to New York City for a
huge Communist Party convention at Madison Square Garden.
When the convention was done, Woody gave Wood the
Plymouth so he could get home. It was the official car of
the Oklahoma Communist Party for several years after that.
God save the Cain's
Historical notes on the Cain’s Ballroom
by Thomas Conner
Tulsa World Pop Music Critic
© Cain's Ballroom
One day, I’m going to meet Malcolm McLaren, and I’m going to buy him a pint. Maybe two.
I owe him that, at least. He sent the Sex Pistols through Tulsa back in ’78 and put T-town on the rock ‘n’ roll map. Well, not Tulsa, really, but certainly the Cain’s Ballroom.
It was a shameless publicity stunt McLaren always was brilliant at causing a fuss though by the time the Pistols pulled up in front of the Cain’s that winter, the gas had pretty much spewed out of the band’s eight-show tour. This was the Pistols’ first jaunt across America, and it would be their only one until a lame reunion tour in 1996. Instead of sending them to New York City and L.A. where they would be easily adored and scrutinized, McLaren scheduled shows throughout the Southern states parading this snarling, angry Brit punk band before crowds who would understand them the least. The reactions were volatile, the carnage was massive and Johnny Rotten spent most of Jan. 11, 1978 hiding out in Larry Shaeffer’s office at the ballroom. The night before, in Dallas, he’d destroyed a $10,000 lens belonging to a documentary camera crew, and he was a walking target.
The Sex Pistols concert at the Cain’s was tepid. “They were hot for the first three numbers, then lost it,” said local music maven Peter Nicholls immediately after the show. Tulsa Tribune critic Ellis Widner wrote in his review, “It was too loud, too dull, and the songs were too much alike to make a serious, lasting impact.” But the quality of their performance never carried high expectations, nor was it even necessarily important in the long run. In the end, it was only relevant that the soon-legendary Pistols actually played here, and since the Cain’s is the only venue from that tour that’s still in operation, people know about it. The connection is made. The details are inconsequential. The Pistols played here and that’s enough to open many musicians’ otherwise tired eyes and ears to a ‘burg in the middle of nowhere.
This tidbit of Cain’s rock ‘n’ roll history has been brought up by countless stars during interviews with the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune. Members of Garbage, Van Halen, the Ramones, the Blackhearts, the Plimsouls and Cake have asked something along the lines of, “Didn’t the Pistols play there?” David Byrne knew about the Sex Pistols show, as well as the fact that the Cain’s was originally, as he put it, “a cornerstone of western swing music.” David Grohl, formerly of Nirvana and now the leader of the Foo Fighters, placed his hand in the hole that Sid Vicious allegedly punched in a backstage wall, like a kid trying to measure up to his dad’s handprints. The most telling remark, though, came from Rancid guitarist-singer Lars Frederiksen: “You hear horror stories about people from Arkansas and Oklahoma, but the Sex Pistols played there, so it’s got to be OK.”
Swinging into action
This, of course, is but one extreme in the rollicking history of the Cain’s Ballroom. This is how people my age came to know the place. We’re the third or fourth generation which has rocked the Cain’s-Bah. But one thing’s for sure: the place has always rocked. Long before the word “rock” meant anything more than stone, the building that would become Cain’s Ballroom was erected in the heart of a burgeoning oil-boom city. It was 1924, and the place was built as a garage for one of the city’s founders, Tate Brady (as in Brady Street, the Brady District, the Brady Theater). By the latter half of the decade, though, the garage already had transformed into a nightspot called the Louvre Ballroom a taxi hall where two-steppers could buy a dance for a dime. Madison W. “Daddy” Cain bought the building in 1930 and christened it Cain’s Dance Academy, where dance lessons were also 10 cents. The music folks were dancing to wasn’t yet called western swing and wouldn’t be for many years. Instead, people came to hear that “hot hillbilly music” or “hot string-band music.” Many of the tunes and most of the bands came from Texas. In Fort Worth during the late ’20s, an aggregate of nimble musicians was defining the music on a daily radio show sponsored by the makers of Light Crust Flour. They were called the Light Crust Doughboys, and one of the leaders was Bob Wills.
The band’s manager, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, was a slave-driver, insisting that the players work 40-hour weeks loading flour trucks in addition to their musical duties. Wills and the playboys didn’t like that arrangement, so they parted company and struck out on their own. That infuriated O’Daniel, and he dogged the former Doughboys every time they tried to set up shop elsewhere in Texas. Eventually, Wills, his players and a new manager, O.W. Mayo, traveled to Oklahoma, seeking a radio station out of reach of O’Daniel’s impeding influence.
The whole bunch of them drove to Tulsa with an appointment to meet the owners of 500-watt KTUL radio. But just for the heck of it, they decided to stop first at 25,000-watt KVOO radio. A skeptical station manager put them on the air at midnight, and Wills and his newly christened Texas Playboys played their first Tulsa broadcast. When letters of praise came from fans as far away as California, the station was no longer reluctant.
On Feb. 9, 1934, Wills and the Playboys played their first regular broadcast concert direct from the Cain’s Ballroom. For the next nine years, nearly all of their daily (except Sunday) shows originated from the Cain’s stage. In addition, they played dances in the evenings, including regular ones at the ballroom on Thursdays and Saturdays.
“We played six nights a week and funerals on Sundays,” recalled the late guitarist-arranger Eldon Shamblin in a 1981 interview with the Tulsa World. “I can remember doing 72 one-nighters without getting a night off.”
KVOO soon doubled its power, and its clear-channel signal reached all over the continent. The Playboys quickly became a national phenomenon, and Bob Wills was recognized as a big-time bandleader on par with Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman. The music they were creating would soon be called western swing, and Wills’ name as well as the ballroom’s would be inextricably linked to it.
In 1943, Wills left for Hollywood where he continued to play and began appearing in movies. His brother, Johnnie Lee Wills, who had formed his own band in 1940, took over the daily broadcasts and dances without missing a beat. Johnnie Lee Wills kept up the shows all the way to 1958. In fact, many people who recall seeing and dancing to Bob Wills at the Cain’s during the ’40s and ’50s actually saw Johnnie Lee.
Regardless of country music’s current wholesome image, these dances weren’t always wholesome family gatherings. Those who decry alleged violence and craziness in today’s rock ‘n’ roll shows clearly never braved a night at a Cain’s western dance. In 1947, the city prosecutor declared the ballroom a menace, saying, “We have more trouble there than any place in town.” The Tulsa World reported that “some of the city’s roughest gang fights have been staged there.” In the late ’50s, the story remained the same, and the place became such a rowdy roadhouse that not many music promoters wanted to get involved with the place.
Throughout the ’60s, the Cain’s Ballroom struggled to stay open. Mayo had purchased the ballroom from the Brady estate the same year Bob Wills left for California. Alvin Perry and his wife, the Willses’ secretary, ran the place from the ’50s on. But once the Wills brothers were gone and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll shoved the great bandleaders into the shadows the Cain’s fell out of use and favor. For many years it sat virtually empty, until Marie Meyers bought it in 1972.
Meyers was 83 years old when she acquired the Cain’s. She wanted a dance hall more than a concert venue, and she tried to revive regular dances every Saturday night. Instead of the crowds of nearly 6,000 that jammed in and around the place during the Wills heyday, Meyers dances were lucky to bring in a hundred. Times had changed.
Over the next few years, there were several squabbles over ownership. Numerous local concert promoters leased it, made some improvements, then moved on. Late in 1976 one year after Bob Wills died a scrappy concert wizard named Larry Shaeffer bought the ballroom for $60,000 the profits he had made from one Peter Frampton concert. During the next several months, he put another $40,000 into refurbishing the place, being careful not to alter or mar the original look and feel of the already historical venue. In early September 1977, he reopened the new Cain’s Ballroom with a concert by Elvin Bishop.
If the Wills-Mayo era was a triumph for country music, the Shaeffer era was and still is a triumph for rock ‘n’ roll. Five months into his Cain’s reign, the Sex Pistols were on Main Street throwing snowballs outside Shaeffer’s new office. In the months and years that followed, Shaeffer booked a veritable who’s-who of new rock talent into the Cain’s. In most cases, the acts were not yet enormously famous, and some audiences you could count on two hands saw amazing concerts by bands who months later became huge international stars the Police, Pat Benatar, Huey Lewis and the News, the Greg Khin Band, Talking Heads, INXS, Bow Wow Wow, the Blasters. Heck, Van Halen played the Cain’s for $500 before anyone knew who they were.
Ever unsure of himself, Shaeffer would, during the early ’80s, announce about once a year that he was selling the ballroom. Investors would swoop in for the buy, but the deal somehow always would fall through. Shaeffer just couldn’t let go of the place. A Bob Wills disciple himself, the Cain’s history had entrusted itself to his care. During one attempted 1982 sale, Shaeffer received what he later would call “a kick in the rear from ol’ Bob.” “The day I told my employees I was going to sell, one of the ceiling panels in my office slipped down, and out fell three fan letters addressed to Bob Wills.” The prices bandied about one offer was reported at $290,000, another at $400,000 were clear indication of the ballroom’s new stature and success as a rock venue.
Shaeffer didn’t just expand the Cain’s music capabilities, either. Throughout the ’80s, he tinkered with an array of hilarious and bizarre entertainment events in the ballroom. In 1980 he began a series of mud-wrestling events, as well as some boxing matches. At one point, there were pig races. Things evened out once rock took hold. By the 1990s, Shaeffer had partnered with another Tulsa promoter, David Souders, who helped to lure the cutting edge of modern rock the way Shaeffer had earlier attracted the newest of the New Wave. Since then, the Cain’s has borne the impact of alternative acts ranging from the industrial rock of Ministry to the lewd bombast of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult.
All of this has been watched over by the silent portraits on every wall. Roy Rogers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hank Thompson, Ernest Tubb, Tex Williams, Leon Mcauliffe, Tex Ritter, Eddy Arnold, Kay Starr, Roy Acuff, and Bob Wills himself hang around the ballroom, grinning wistfully, languidly … eerily. Their presence provides a sometimes alarming and often amusing contrast to the modern rock acts of the ’90s. They kept grinning when someone threw a burning Bible on stage during Marilyn Manson’s concert at the Cain’s. They’ve kept straight faces while Mr. Lifto picked up a car battery chained to his nipples during the Jim Rose Circus Side Show at the Cain’s. They even tap their frames when beat-heavy acts like Crystal Method have rolled into the Cain’s, putting the spring-loaded dancefloor to the test.
It’s that heady mixture of old and new that makes the Cain’s such a vibrant venue. Everybody has their Cain’s story, whether it involves fiddles and a pickup or Marshall stacks and crowd-surfing. The Cain’s can handle anything. On my watch thus far, as the local pop music critic, I have learned volumes about music just because of the people this silly building attracts.
I’ve met country and rock legends. I’ve seen shows I never would have approached. I’ve sat on the Cain’s stage and talked to Billy Bragg about the social implications of traditional American music and to members of the Dandy Warhols about post-Pistols noise rock. For over 75 years, the Cain’s has offered everything to everyone, and its ghosts belong in its rafters and in the heart of every music lover who lives in or passes through Tulsa. Even if, like the Pistols, you’re just looking to cause a ruckus.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
In 1971, Willis Alan Ramsey cut his first record. The
self-titled debut, released through Leon Russell's
Tulsa-based Shelter Records, sold modestly, but it packed
an influential wallop in Ramsey's adopted home state of
Texas. That one record, it has been claimed,
single-handedly spawned the alternative-Nashville stance
that has made Austin, Texas, the so-called live music
capital of the world.
Just don't ask Ramsey when his next record will appear.
"That's an area I really don't want to go to," he says,
dodging the requisite inquiries about his work since that
first — and, thus far, only — album ("Have you been writing
all this time?" "Has anything been recorded?" "Will we ever see
a second album?").
"Willis Alan Ramsey" remains the songwriter's one-hit
wonder, and nearly 30 years later many musicians still
invoke it as the fountainhead of their inspiration. A
Ramsey show was the first concert a young Lyle Lovett ever
attended, and he has reported that it inspired him to start
writing songs. Lovett also has covered songs from that
"Ramsey" album, as have such artists as Jimmy Buffett,
America, Waylon Jennings, Sam Bush, Shawn Colvin, Jimmie
Dale Gilmore, Kate Wolf, Jerry Jeff Walker and, of course,
the Captain and Tenille, who made Ramsey's "Muskrat Love" a
Top 5 hit in 1976.
Indeed, never has one batch of 11 songs had such
stamina, and rarely does one find a songwriter so humble --
almost insecure — about such influence. While remaining
enigmatic about his affairs during the last 29 years,
Ramsey frequently writes off his initial experience to the
pure luck of youth and happenstance. "I was just a kid
knocking around," he said, in a rare interview last week, in
which Ramsey eked out a tale of time, Tulsa and tenacity.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., and raised in Dallas by his
Georgia-native parents, Ramsey graduated high school and
"got away as quick as I could." He dropped south to Austin
where he explored some of the guitar-picking he'd been
tinkering with. Ray Wylie Hubbard's fledgling band took
notice of his skills and asked Ramsey to open some of its
shows in 1969.
"I was playing the UT coffee house, and I heard that Leon
(Russell) and Gregg Allman were in town playing a festival
and staying at the same hotel. So I walked in, knocked on
both their doors and told them I thought they should give
me a listen," Ramsey said. "It was a pretty asinine thing to
do back then, and I guess they thought I was so cocky they
gave me the chance. I played my songs for Leon and his
roadie, and then for Gregg and (Allman Brothers guitarist)
Dickey Betts, right there in their rooms."
Both musicians heard promise in Ramsey's material, and
both offered him contracts on their record labels — Allman's
Atlanta-based Capricorn Records and Russell's Shelter,
based then in Los Angeles. Ramsey sought Shelter — with
possibly purely personal motives. "I've never really
thought about this," Ramsey chuckled, "but I guess since my
whole family was from Georgia I liked the idea of going to
L.A. better than being closer to Atlanta."
Mad dogs and Southerners
Ramsey headed to L.A. to cut his record in Russell's
home studio, "probably the first professional home studio
anyone had in the world," he said. He was largely left to
his own devices, as Russell had decided to move back to
"At that point, Leon decided he'd had enough of North
Hollywood and wanted to move back to Tulsa," Ramsey said. "He
and Denny (Cordell, Russell's and Ramsey's producer and
manager) had good luck with Shelter, so they took it home.
Leon bought that whole block with a church on it and put in
a studio . . . He left me in his L.A. place, so I got to
learn how to work in a studio — by myself. I learned how to
write in the studio. That's something Leon taught me: how
to use the studio as a writing tool."
Most of Ramsey's record was completed in L.A., with
Russell helping out and adding piano to one track, "Goodbye
Old Missoula." It was that work directly with Russell that
made Ramsey feel every bit the lucky kid just knocking
"I was a kid musically, and I was stretched and stretched
to the point where I was way past my musical abilities," he
said. "Leon would put you in a studio with Jim Keltner on
drums, Carl Radle on bass and Don Preston on electric
guitar, and he'd sit at the piano. He'd say, `Well, this
song needs an acoustic guitar solo. Willis, why don't you
just play a solo here.' I was 20 and not in the space where
I could just do that on the spot yet. I was definitely over
Ramsey's record came out in 1972 and sold moderately --
not well enough to give Ramsey the escape he needed. Ramsey
-- like nearly all Shelter artists, from Russell to Phoebe
Snow — fell out with Cordell, but without big profits he
couldn't get out of his Shelter contract.
"I didn't have enough sales to be able to just leave and
tell my lawyers to clean it up. Tom Petty did, Phoebe Snow
did, I couldn't afford to," he said.
So he sat out his contract — all eight years of it. By
the time it ran out, it was 1980, Ramsey was in the
doldrums of a divorce and had been all but forgotten by
non-musicians. He bought some synthesizers and "fooled
around with those," but he quickly found that there was no
place for a shy, sensitive songwriter in the "Urban Cowboy"
"I just didn't want to play in a place with a mechanical
bull in it," Ramsey said.
I will survive
Since then, Ramsey says, cryptically, he's been writing.
He wants to record again, but he's not sure he'll ever get
to do it on his terms — which is the only way it'll happen,
"My No. 1 goal right now is to have more kids. No. 2 is
to make more records," he said. "But making records these
days requires a record label, and label budgets are small
these days. That record of mine cost $80,000 to make, which
would be about $300,000 in today's dollars. It was a pretty
expensive first-time record in 1972. I'm not the kind of
guy who can make a $30,000 record. It takes me longer.
There's too much I want to do."
He still performs around the region — "some old songs,
some new" — drawing a sizeable cult following. He's even
appeared on a record recently, coming out of the woodwork
to sing on two Lovett records in the '90s, "Joshua Judges
Ruth" and "I Love Everybody."
Last year, Koch Records reissued "Willis Alan Ramsey" on
CD, and the record has begun to find a fresh audience.
"It still gets around," Ramsey said. "It's been a real
work-horse all this time."
Ramsey on Oklahoma
Willis Alan Ramsey recorded his one and only record for
Shelter Records back in Leon Russell's heyday. That meant
hanging out in Tulsa at Russell's many area studios, where
"you'd go to pick up the phone, and it would be George
Harrison or someone," Ramsey said. Here are a few of his
recollections and praise of his Okie counterparts: "I
was in the process of finishing up my record and got to
work with people like Leon and Jamie Oldaker. J.J. Cale
took me in the studio. I was hanging out with guys like
Gary Gilmore and Jesse Davis, both of whom played with Taj
Mahal. Chuck Blackwell, too. Some pretty serious musicians
came out of Tulsa. I mean, Jimmy Lee Keltner — he and
Oldecker . . . if Tulsa can produce two drummers like that,
well, they're the best, in my opinion. Those Tulsa boys
raised me in the studio."
"When I was playing the Cellar Door Club in (Washington)
D.C., this long-haired kid would come sit on the back
steps, and I'd get him in for free. He was going to the
Peabody Institute in Baltimore. When he finally got up
enough nerve to play the acoustic guitar for me, he turned
out this amazing stuff. He said, 'What should I do with
this?' and I said, 'I dunno, but you'd better do
something.' It was Michael Hedges."
"I still say this, and most people I know say it, too:
Leon Russell is a musical genius. He still is. He's so
incredibly talented, and he's a free thinker. Lots of
Tulsans are . . . But I don't think he ever really
scratched the surface of his ability."
"It was in the '60s when I figured out I wanted to write
and say some things. In New York, I found a book called
Born to Win, a compilation of Woody Guthrie's songs,
stories, poems, letters and drawings. It was this fabulous
direct hit from his pen, with his own unique voice. Even
when I think about that book today, it still really does
motivate me. He was another free-thinking Okie. There was
something about the way he could connect with the thought
and deliver it to you totally unvarnished. So visceral, but
so elegant . . . (My song) 'Boy From Oklahoma' is sort of a
romanticized version of Woody."
Woody Guthrie, 'The Asch Recordings'
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"The Asch Recordings, Vols. 1-4"
Like Little Richard was to rock 'n' roll, or Louis
Armstrong was to jazz, Woody Guthrie is to American folk
music — the clearest, deepest source. Humble, frank and
amazingly prolific, Guthrie churned out more music in a
17-year period than some whole subgenres of pop, and the
imprint of these tunes and these lyrics is still being
felt. Smithsonian Folkways continues to enshrine America's
roots music in valuable boxed sets and CD releases, and the
label reaches its apex with this four-CD collection that,
as a whole, sums up Guthrie's entire vibrant statement to
Such a summation is no easy task, but Moses Asch was
destined for it. The idealistic, workaholic record company
owner could usually be found in his small office/studio at
all hours of the day or night, and he had enormous respect
for truly creative artists — whether or not they were
commercially viable. In his lifetime, Asch was responsible
for recording and releasing the songs of more than 2,000
artists, including Guthrie cohorts Leadbelly and Pete
Seeger, as well as singers like Josh White and Burl Ives.
In the spring of 1944, Asch met Guthrie — an Okie who'd
been wandering the country much of his young adulthood — and
was taken by his political convictions and creative spirit.
For the next six years, Asch recorded Woody singing his
songs and those of other songwriters. The sessions that
survive comprise the bulk of Woody's recorded legacy, and
this digitally remastered set may be the definitive Woody
collection. "Oh yes, it's definitely definitive," said
Guy Logsdon, a Tulsa resident and probably the pre-eminent
Guthrie scholar. With sound archivist Jeff Place, Logsdon
compiled and annotated these four discs, which were
released separately in the last few years and are just now
collected in one boxed set.
"I read in a music catalog a while back, someone wrote
about this that 'anyone interested in American music must
have this collection,'" Logsdon said. "That's because Woody
was such an influence — not just on folk but on rock 'n'
roll, pop music, all the way down the line. He gave us
children's songs that people sing and don't even know Woody
wrote them. This is the collection."
Asch became the source of Guthrie recordings because of
his lengthy relationship with him. Guthrie's Library of
Congress recordings were made during a two week period in
1940. After that, he put down the "Dust Bowl Ballads" for
RCA, plus a few records for small labels. He took a hiatus
from recording while he was in the Merchant Marines, and
then began his most productive period with Asch.
Those six years are expertly compiled on this set, each
disc with its own theme. Volume 1, "This Land Is Your Land,"
presents many of Guthrie's best-known and best-loved songs,
from the child-like fun of "Car Song" and "Talking Fishing
Blues" to serious issues tackled in "Do-Re-Mi" and "Jesus
Christ." Volume 2, "Muleskinner Blues," is a selection of the
more traditional folk repertory Guthrie had learned and
adopted as his own throughout his life, from "Stackolee" to
the "Worried Man Blues." Volume 3, "Hard Travelin'," culls
together the best of Guthrie's current-events songs,
swinging between the World War II version of "So Long, It's
Been Good to Know You" and amusing cultural trendspotting
Volume 4, "Buffalo Skinners," looks at a side of Guthrie
many might not have seen before. While compiling a complete
discography of Guthrie's songs during a 1990 post-doctoral
fellowship, Logsdon explored Woody's unheralded cowboy
In Logsdon's extensive liner notes for this set, he
traces the development of Guthrie as a cowboy songwriter,
starting with "Oklahoma Hills." The eventual recording of
that song became a country-and-western hit in 1945, sung by
Woody's cousin, Jack Guthrie. The success of that song
inspired him to write more, and he enjoyed another hit in
1949 when the Maddox Brothers recorded "Philadelphia Lawyer."
"Most people don't associate Woody with cowboy songs,"
Logsdon said. "Woody's father came to the Creek Nation as a
cowboy, though. He worked on a ranch east of Okmulgee. He
and his granddad were ranchers in Texas. In Michael Wallis'
book about the 101 Ranch, he refers to Gid Guthrie, Woody's
great uncle. So this fourth volume may come as a bit of a
surprise to some folks."
Guthrie's body of work is full of surprises. Those of us
who grew up singing "This Land Is Your Land" in grade school
and hearing about Woody the serious, hard travelin' folk
singer are always taken aback by the depths to which his
convictions plumbed, as well as his underappreciated
playful side. Both are on parade throughout "The Asch
Recordings." Guthrie even wrote songs to accompany Omar
Khayyam's ancient "Rubaiyat" poem. Only a few copies of the
recordings exist, and Logsdon said no one's sure yet how to
sequence them. One of these tracks is featured on Volume 3,
and it's a textbook example of Guthrie taking time-worn
philosophies and trying to apply them to the events of his
This set is, indeed, a must-have for anyone with even a
passing interest in American music or American history. No
other artist in the mid-20th century put down the issues,
the angst and the joy more accurately and frankly than
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Dwight Twilley doesn't sit still. Even in his own home.
He's sitting cross-legged on his living room floor,
rocking back and forth, sucking Parliament cigarettes to
the filters. Sometimes he gets up and paces behind the
couch. He bites his nails like a new father outside the
He is a new father, really. His latest baby is being
born right here in this living room, on the stereo. It's
Twilley's new album — his first record of new songs since
We're in Twilley's living room in a nondescript house in
a midtown Tulsa neighborhood like any other. The dogs
frolic in a fenced yard out back. The neighborhood kids
loiter in the front yard, hoping to find one of the box
turtles that live underneath the property's massive,
signature oak tree. There are no fancy cars in the
driveway. Only the converted garage with no windows --
Twilley's recording studio — gives away anything unusual
about the house. No one would drive by and think this was
the home of a Top 40 pop star.
"It's only when I'm out mowing the lawn and looking dirty
and awful that somebody drives by and stops. 'Are you
Dwight Twilley? Can I get your autograph?' " he says.
That odd, windowless garage is where the entire new
album was recorded. It doesn't sound like a homemade
record, though. It sounds bigger and brighter than any
album released in his three-decade career. It sounds as if
he had a huge, major-label recording budget — or, as Twilley
is fond of putting it, "We tried to make this record sound
like we had a deli tray."
But there was no caterer, no staff of engineers, no
heady Los Angeles vibe intoxicating everyone in the
process. Just snacks in the kitchen across the breezeway,
Twilley's wife Jan Allison running the control board and
the laid-back comfort of Tulsa keeping the couple sane for
a change. In fact, the heady Tulsa vibe informed and
inspired practically every note, word and sound that went
into this new record — from the use of a recorded
thunderstorm and cicada chorus to lyrics such as, "I gave a
lot up for rock 'n' roll / I had a lover but I let her go
A quick scan around the living room reveals prints of
Twilley's paintings on the wall, a Bee Gees boxed set on
the stereo cabinet, Twilley himself jittering through his
nervous energy on the floor. At least he's still got the
energy, and at least he's home.
The new album will be on shelves Tuesday. It's called
All roads lead to Tulsa
It's 1970. Twilley and Phil Seymour have finally gotten
out of town. The two had met three years earlier at a
screening of "A Hard Day's Night" and discovered their
musical chemistry, as well as their desire to practice that
science far and away from Tulsa.
In a '58 Chevy, they head east to Memphis. Driving down
Union Avenue, they pass a storefront painted with the
moniker of Sun Records. "Hey, look, it's a record
company," Twilley says.
He and Seymour walk into Sun Records and talk to "some
guy named Phillips." They have no idea where they are — Sun
Records, the studio where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis
and countless others were molded, talking to Sam Phillips,
the man responsible for their molding.
Phillips listens to the tape of songs by Twilley and
Seymour. He doesn't send them away. Instead, he sends them
to Tupelo, Miss., to see Ray Harris, who says, "Y'all sing
"We had no idea where we were, really. We thought Elvis
was a movie star and that the Beatles invented rock 'n'
roll. We heard this Elvis stuff and were saying, 'Hey, that
sounds like Ringo,' " Twilley says of the trip. "It made an
impression. That's what wound up setting us apart.
Everybody else thought the Beatles invented rock 'n' roll,
and we fused the two.
"Plus, when we came back, we didn't sing like (weenies)."
A few years later, after learning to blend the catchy
pop of the Beatles with the backbeats of classic rock 'n'
roll, Twilley and Seymour escape Tulsa again. This time
they go west, to Los Angeles. Once again, they start
shopping their tapes to record companies. "Leon
(Russell) had started Shelter by then, and that was the
last thing we wanted," Twilley says now. "We thought that was
the stupidest thing in the world. Every club in (Tulsa) had
someone singing like this — " and he launches into a wheezy,
whiny Leon Russell impression. "We drove 1,500 miles to get
away from that."
Still, during the pair's first week in L.A., someone
takes their tape to the Hollywood office of Russell's
Shelter Records. Within days, Twilley gets a call from
Russell's manager and label head Denny Cordell.
"I show up at the Shelter office and sit in the little
waiting room. The Shelter people are in listening to the
tape and apparently freaking out. Somebody said, 'They came
out here with a tape of 30 of these (songs)!' Denny walks
out and says, 'I've heard your tape. Here's how I feel
about it,' and drops a record contract in my lap. Then he
walks out, saying over his shoulder, 'You'd better get an
attorney.' That was it," Twilley said.
"Then they sent us back to Tulsa."
It's a chilly night early in 1975. Actually, it's early
in the morning, maybe 3 a.m. Twilley and Seymour are toying
around in the Church Studio (then owned by Russell) under
strict orders from Shelter Records to get to know the
studio and not — under any circumstances — record any songs.
Maybe it's the hour, maybe there are stimulants --
regardless, Twilley and Seymour buck the orders. Seymour
takes Twilley into the hallways and says, "Let's do it.
Let's record a hit. Right now." Building on a groove
Seymour had been tinkering with, and handing guitarist Bill
Pitcock IV the riffing opportunity of his life, the Dwight
Twilley Band records "I'm on Fire."
The Shelter people will be annoyed — until they hear it.
The single will be rushed out. By June it will hit No. 16
on the charts and stick in the Top 40 for eight weeks. For
the next 10 years, Twilley's career will ride a
roller-coaster of fame and frustration, scoring another Top
10 hit in 1984 with "Girls" and settling him into life in
The prodigal star
Fast-forward to November 1996. I'm at Caz's in the Brady
District, checking out the latest band to be graced by Bill
Padgett's thundering drums, a now-defunct act called Buick
MacKane. The singer, Brandon McGovern, moved from Memphis
to Tulsa just to be near Phil Seymour, who had died from
cancer a few years earlier. The influence rings in every
sweetened, Beatlesque chord.
Buick MacKane is the opener tonight. The main act is
Dwight Twilley. Most in the audience remember Dwight, after
all, he had some hits. Those still new to the Tulsa scene
probably don't realize he was a Tulsan, much less that he's
back in town. But the crowd is willing
to give his set a listen.
When Twilley walkes into the bar — feathered hair,
sloganeering buttons on his lapel — he turns heads not with
the ghosts of his good looks but with an intangible aura of
a superstar. His set on the floor of this tiny shotgun bar
was bigger and stronger than any other local show in recent
memory, and the songs were gorgeous, crystalline, catchy as
hell. What on earth was he doing back here?
"After the earthquake ('94, in California), the insurance
people said we'd have to move out of the house to fix it
and then move back in," said Twilley's wife, Jan Allison.
"Dwight looked at me and started singing, 'Take me back to
Tulsa . . .'"
Weary of the literal and figurative shake, rattle and
roll of the L.A. lifestyle, Twilley and Allison moved back
in '94. Twilley wasn't retiring. In fact, quite the
contrary — he planned to finally record a new album right
"But with fax machines and Fed-Ex, you don't need to live
in the big business centers anymore," Twilley said.
"I wanted to come home."
'I'm Back Again'
Before Twilley and Allison premiere the new record,
Twilley shows off his home studio. It's a masterfully
rehabilitated garage, an immaculate studio and a small drum
room; set into the door between them is a porthole from the
Church Studio. He points out a few pieces of equipment used
in the recording, and talks about how many favors he cashed
in to lure old Dwight Twilley cronies out to play on yet
another record — original guitarist Bill Pitcock, noted
local axmen Pat Savage and Tom Hanford, original Dwight
Twilley Band drummer Jerry Naifeh, Nashville Rebels bassist
Dave White and drummer Bill Padgett, among others.
"I used up every favor, burned every bridge. There's guys
who won't return my calls anymore," Twilley says.
But he doesn't seem to regret the effort. He's very
proud of the results and is quite sure that his moving back
to Tulsa was a great career move.
"This record wouldn't have been possible without the
incredible musicianship in this town," he says. "I've always
said that Tulsa musicians are the best in the world because
they have to work so damn hard, harder than anywhere else.
That was part of why I moved back. I wanted a band of Tulsa
musicians again . . . and I feel a real sense of
accomplishment that I've made a new Dwight Twilley record
here in Tulsa."
"Tulsa" will be released Tuesday by a Texas-based
independent label, Copper Records. It's the first new
Twilley record to hit shelves in 13 years, the first
recorded in Tulsa in two decades. A CD collection of
rarities and outtakes will follow later in the summer from
a different label. A new Twilley single — 7-inch vinyl, no
less — is the current best-seller for a French indie.
Twilley classics have popped up on every "power pop"
collection worth its salt in the last three years.
Twilley just doesn't sit still — especially when he's
Between the cracks
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Twilley's latest salvo includes not one but two new CDs.
In addition to the album of new songs, "Tulsa," Twilley soon
will release a CD called "Between the Cracks, Vol. 1." It's a
collection of rarities, demos and outtakes from the early
'70s to the present.
Twilley is an extensive archivist of his personal
exploits, and he's saved nearly everything he's recorded on
his own and with the Dwight Twilley Band. "Between the
Cracks" features several gems from this collection,
including several tracks from "The Luck" album, which was
never released. There's also a demo of a song from about
1973 featuring just Twilley and a piano.
"Between the Cracks" will be released by Not Lame Records
For more information on Twilley recordings, look to his
website at http://members.aol.com/Twillex.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.