Trying To Get To You

Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Fine Morning For Brother Ray

I recently got a wonderful Ray Charles show from 1979 - a taping of Austin City Limits. It's a typical Ray show, sublimely mixing jazz, country and blues into his own special brew. Ray didn't think care much for musical barriers, and you can hear it in this music. Whether covering Johnny Cash ("Busted") or Johnny Nash ("I Can See Clearly Now"), performing a song from Oklahoma ("Oh What A Beautiful Morning"), or playing a song beloved by Texans, all Ray cared about was whether there was a great song there or not. That's a lesson to continually learn from.

Download: "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" - 10/23/79, Austin, TX
Download: "Georgia On My Mind" - 10/23/79, Austin, TX
Download: "Busted" - 10/23/79, Austin, TX
Download: "Born To Lose" - 10/23/79, Austin, TX
Download: "I Can See Clearly Now" - 10/23/79, Austin, TX
Download: "Deep In The Heart Of Texas" - 10/23/79, Austin, TX

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Punk Posturing

John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band has been one of my favorite albums ever since I first heard it as a teen. The first album he released after the Beatles split, it’s an unrelentingly intense album, filled with Lennon exorcising the pain he experienced losing his parents to divorce (his father left completely and his mother left him to his aunt to raise), and eventually, losing his mother again when she was hit by a car and killed when Lennon was a teen. Filled with gorgeous and simple accompaniment by Billy Preston, Ringo Starr and Klaus Voormann, the whole album is a testament to the power of musical simplicity and emotional honesty. It’s a soul album.

A couple of days ago, I saw a clip on YouTube of Green Day performing “Working Class Hero,” a song on Plastic Ono Band on American Idol. I suppose that Green Day’s performance of that song was supposed to be a “punk rock move,” as one of the key lines in the song is, “keep you doped with religion and sex and TV/and you think you’re so clever and classless and free/but you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see/a working class hero is something to be.” And performing it on Idol, the country’s biggest TV show by far, and one of the few common cultural touchstones left, I guess was meant to be a “this is what’s it’s really about, you ignoramuses” moment.

I thought it sucked.

The band’s arrangement of the song was uninspired; it only proved that this is a band with limited ideas and talent. Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocal only hinted at the depth of Lennon’s anger and resentment – what we got instead was self-righteousness and an arrogant display of (what was supposed to be covert punk) superiority. And in the smugness of the moment, it conveniently neglected an important fact: John Lennon was a pop idol. “Eight Days A Week” would have been a far better choice.

It’s a testament to how fallow mainstream rock has become that Green Day, a good-but-not-that-great band, is being held as of the standard bearers for rock n’ roll. If mainstream rock can’t do much better than that, then just turn out the lights and come to grips with the fact that the party is over.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Keep A Light On In The Window

Memorial Day is one of those holidays whose original meaning has been somewhat washed out for many Americans. While I’ve always known it really meant – a day of remembrance of those who have sacrificed their lives in defense of this country, most often what it really meant for me was “the beginning of summer,” “the (near) end of school for the year,” etc. It’s a shame – for in the trivialization of the day, we lose our sense of what’s at stake in our country – and we then place ourselves at risk to the policies of men like George W. Bush.

Today, in honor of all the men and women who have given their lives to this country, and to the men and women currently serving, I am posting my favorite war song. It’s Solomon Burke’s version of a song written during World War II, “Keep A Light On In The Window.” Solomon’s version was recorded in 1964, and it’s simply one of the most beautiful and well-arranged songs I’ve ever heard. The martial drum opening, the way the horns build in the second verse and the way Solomon’s vocals bring the song to a climax in the final chorus – I know of few songs that I would deem “perfect,” and this is one of them.

Download: "Keep A Light On In The Window"
Buy Solomon Burke At Amazon

Friday, May 25, 2007

By Popular Demand!

After getting several emails requesting the rest of the Springsteen songs from the 12/31/75 show I wrote about yesterday, I am happy to say that I accede to your demands. Have a great weekend!

Download: "Night" 12/31/75, Philadelphia, PA
Download: "Spirit In The Night" 12/31/75, Philadelphia, PA
Download: "It's My Life" 12/31/75, Philadelphia, PA
Download: "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City" 12/31/75, Philadelphia, PA
Download" "Jungleland" 12/31/75, Philadelphia, PA

Sly Stone Hits The Road

This might be great, but after seeing his Grammy appearance from 2006, I'm not expecting much. Still, in a situation like this, one can only hope for the best.

Dates are:

07-12 Perugia, Italy - Umbria Jazz Festival
07-13 Montreux, Switzerland - Stravinski Hall (Montreux Jazz Festival)
07-14 Gent, Belgium - Blue Note Records Festival
07-15 Rotterdam, Netherlands - North Sea Jazz Festival
07-19 Nice, France - Nice Jazz Festival
07-20 Pori, Finland - Kirjurinluoto Arena (Pori Jazz Festival)
07-23 Paris, France - Olympia Hall
07-27 San Sebastian, Spain - Jazzaldia
07-28 Bournemouth, England - Opera House

Emo Is Coming For Your Kids!

There are plenty of reasons not to like the genre of music known as "emo." But I came across this news report from Utah this morning, and it's perhaps one of the most unintentionally funny things I've seen in ages. Remember those old news clips from the 50's where they would talk about how rock n' roll was going to bring the white man down to the level of the black man (not the term they used at the time)? This newscast is about on that level. It's the "Reefer Madness" of today. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Teardrops At The Tower

When I was fourteen, I bought a Springsteen bootleg cassette off of a kid in the library of Tenafly High School. The bootleg was called Don’t Look Back: 1974-1980, and it contained some studio outtakes that then held a huge amount of lore in Springsteen circles (“Roulette,” “Don’t Look Back” - they're now on Tracks). It also contained some incredible, rare live stuff that I had never heard before, such as an acoustic version of “Rosalita” from a radio show in 1974. But the song that really got me was a slow, re-arranged version of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” from the Tower Theater in Philadelphia from December 30th, 1975. I wore the TDK cassette out playing that version – it was the song that I often played for people who didn’t get Bruce to show them how amazing he was/is as a band leader and re-arranger. It might be one of the greatest things he's ever done and hearing the song in that arrangement was one of the many epiphanous moments I had as a kid that got me deeper and deeper into music.

Last night, thanks to a hard-core Springsteen fan who has made it his personal mission to have high quality, unreleased Springsteen material put up on the net, I now have that version of “Tenth Avenue” to share with you in professional quality. It’s from the 12/31/75 show at the Tower, and it was recorded for a possible live album that never happened. This is not a soundboard – it’s a fully mixed version from the multi-track master. It’s incredible. Only nine songs from the show were uploaded, but here are four of them for you, including two of his great covers; Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” and Harold Dorman’s “Mountain Of Love.” Play this loud!

Download: "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" 12/31/75, Philadelphia, PA
Download: "Pretty Flamingo" 12/31/75, Philadelphia, PA
Download: "Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?" 12/31/75, Philadelphia, PA
Download: "Mountain Of Love" 12/31/75, Philadelphia, PA

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Imagine my surprise walking past a newsstand yesterday and seeing Jerry Garcia on the cover of Fader Magazine, the hipster bible. I actually did a double take. First it was Springsteen who had a renaissance amongst the indie/hipster set – will it now be Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, the scourge of punk rockers and hipsters then and now?

The issue is a small oral history featuring interviews with Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, as well as indie darlings such as Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse (who’s typically snarky), Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, longtime fan Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets and jazz legend Ornette Coleman. It’s not worshipful by any stretch of the imagination (a good thing), but it does recognize Garcia’s impact on music; that many of the strains of today’s music, whether it be electronica, jam band or Americana were all explored in great depth by the Garcia and the Dead years ago. They might be the most unfairly maligned band of all time.

If you download the Fader via iTunes, it comes with a great podcast that I highly recommend – some killer Dead and Garcia cuts. I’m including a great version of the Jerry Garcia Band doing “Tore Up Over You” from NYC’s Palladium in February of 1981. It gets to the heart of Garcia’s love of R&B and soul, which is why I’ve always been such a big fan of his – the guy had soul by the bucketload.

Download: Jerry Garcia Band - "Tore Up Over You" (Palladium, New York, NY, 2/11/81)
Download: Jerry Garcia Band - "I Was Made To Love Her" (Stevie Wonder cover, San Francisco, 2/6/72)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Stuck In Retro

Just when I write that new soul is not nostalgia comes an album that does as much as possible to prove me wrong. The album is the debut by Ryan Shaw, This Is Ryan Shaw. Shaw is a 26-year-old Georgia native, who, according to his bio, has been singing in church since he was 3. He moved to New York and cut his teeth singing Motown standards at the Motown Café, amongst other gigs. He was discovered by producer Jimmy Bralower (Cyndi Lauper) singing at a club in the East Village. Brolower got him a deal at Columbia and produced the new album.

The album is a disappointment. It’s soul with all of the edges dulled, that is, it is not really soulful at all, and it unsuccessfully recreates a past while offering no glimmer of what the (soul) future should be. Shaw’s voice is pleasant but undistinguished, and instrumentally, the album’s retro-glossy polish makes the material veer headlong into generic territory. Rhythmically, there is little interesting going on, and his remake of Bobby Womack’s “Looking For A Love,” sounds unnecessary; it adds nothing to the original version, nor does it cast the original in a new light. If someone told me that this album was produced by the same people that had created the California Raisins ad campaign (which featured Motown songs), in the late 80’s, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. If there’s hype on this one, don’t believe it.

Download: "Do The 45"

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Soulful Brooklyn Street Fair

My first street fair in Brooklyn. It ran up 5th Avenue in Park Slope. A far superior street fair to anything I've been to in Manhattan. It was one of those "it's wonderful to be alive" days.

Left: The view from 5th Avenue walking north.

Right: The Domincan food was out of control.

Above: Cute kid on a pony.
Right: Lounging in the middle of 5th Ave.
Below: Real Live Show with Maurice Brown on trumpet. They were great - perfect vibe for the day.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Betty Davis

I love powerful and unabashedly sensual women, so discovering the music of Betty Davis has been a treat. Betty was a pioneer in the 60’s and 70’s – an untamable musical and cultural spirit who, according to Carlos Santana, “(She) was the first Madonna, but Madonna is more like Marie Osmond compared to Betty Davis. Betty Davis was a real ferocious Black Panther woman. You couldn't tame Betty Davis.”

In 1968, at the age of 23, Betty Mabry married the then 46-year-old Miles Davis. He was smitten by her youth, beauty and sex appeal, and he quickly ended his marriage to actress Cicely Tyson to be with Betty. She quickly turned his life upside down, changing his sense of style by getting rid of the elegant suits he had worn for years and introducing him to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. The result would be such groundbreaking albums such as Bitches Brew. Even Miles acknowledged the impact: “Betty was a big influence on my personal life as well as my musical life. The marriage only lasted about a year, but that year was full of new things and surprises and helped point the way I was to go, both in my music and, in some ways, my lifestyle.”

After her marriage to Miles ended, Betty first concentrated on songwriting, writing songs for a new Detroit band called the Commodores (the songs got them signed to Motown, but Betty turned a Motown deal for herself down because Motown wanted too high a percentage of her). Then, after meeting T-Rex’s Marc Bolan, she became emboldened to become a recording artist in her own right.

Her music was a synthesis of funk and the hard rock of Hendrix and Sly, and beautiful, incredibly sexy and stylish, she created an unapologetic bad girl persona that was ahead of her time and a challenge for radio to play – too hard for black radio, and too black for white radio. According to writer John Ballon, “When a popular Detroit radio station played ‘If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up,’ the lines list up with outraged callers; a bomb threat followed. Within days, she was blacklisted by the NAACP.” Betty recounted, “Bourgeois blacks find me very offensive. They’ve been programmed to think that black women who shake their asses are whorey. The NAACP called up the record company. They’re trying to stop me from making a living. They stopped all my airplay in Detroit.”

After recording four albums, Betty quit the business entirely, retreating to Pittsburgh. It is said that she is currently broke. Her first two albums, Betty Davis and They Say I’m Different were just re-released this past week - they are definitely worth checking out. Listening to them now, it’s obvious how influential she was, and as The New York Times wrote in in 1974, “Her recognition by most of the pop world will be a long time coming. For, like Bessie Smith and all those other dirty-blues singers of forty years ago, Miss Davis is trying to tell us something real and basic about our irrational needs; and Western civilization puts its highest premiums on conformity and rationality and rarely recognizes the Bessies or the Bettys until they’re gone.”

Download: “Anti Love Song”
Buy Betty Davis at eMusic

Special thanks to John Ballon’s piece in the current issue of Waxpoetics.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Soul Is Not Nostalgia

Nostalgia: A sentimental longing for something in the past (Webster’s)

There was an item in Jon Pareles’ New York Times review of last week’s Amy Winehouse show that I haven’t been able to get past. He wrote that if Winehouse was a “purely an old-fashioned soul singer, she’d just be a nostalgia act.” I couldn’t help but think when reading that line, why is someone who draws upon soul “nostalgic,” and bands like the Strokes, who draw upon 70’s New York punk and proto-punk bands like Richard Hell & The Voidoids, aren’t? Why aren’t the Killers a nostalgia act, given their aping of 80’s new wave? Given the lack of technical innovation in rock in general for the past 2 decades, what the hell is (or isn’t) nostalgic?

It’s hard for me to imagine people being nostalgic for a time they didn’t live in. Amy Winehouse’s album is appealing to people because it connects with them, occurs for them as emotionally authentic, and just plain sounds good. I’m a believer in the possibility of soul coming back in a modern context – not because the 60’s or 70’s were “better,” but because at its best, soul music connects simply, directly and intensely. It's music that gets to the heart of what it is to be a human being; to love, to struggle, to win and to lose. It might have a piano, a horn section and play in 4/4 time, but that doesn't make it nostalgia.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ideal Forms

I think this is what Plato had in mind when he was writing "The Ideal Of The Good." The bass playing itself is profound enough to inspire it's own entry.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Eyes On The Prize

The Staple Singers were one of the most luminous acts of the soul era. Anthems like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” embodied much of the hope and struggle of the civil rights era. As one of the leading lights of the Staples Singers, Mavis Staples has been one of the mainstays of soul music for over fifty years. Her new album, We Won’t Turn Back, is one of the better albums I’ve heard so far this year; a post-Bush, post-Katrina demand for change. Ry Cooder’s production adds a darker and more modern hue to the material, and the anger that is present in the songs and in Mavis’ vocals is refreshing – she has become an intolerant champion of tolerance and equality and she sings with the knowledge that being nice isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.

Download: "Eyes On The Prize"
Mavis Staples at Emusic