Trying To Get To You

Friday, April 18, 2008

Danny Federici: 1950-2008

Danny Federici, the wonderful E Street Band organist, accordionist and keyboard player who played with Bruce Springsteen for almost 40 years, died yesterday after a battle with melanoma. His last full show with the band was in November but there had been word that he was making a recovery (he made a surprise appearance with Bruce last month in Indianapolis), so this very sad news is also somewhat stunning.

Federici began playing with Springsteen in 1969, when Bruce was still a scuffling musician on the Jersey shore, in bands such as Child and Steel Mill. And when Springsteen got his record deal with Columbia in 1972, Federici was immediately called upon to be the organist for what would become the E Street Band, being one of only three musicians to be with the E Street Band throughout its entirety (Clarence Clemons and Garry Tallent are the two others).

Federici was not the most talented technical musician in the E Street Band (that honor would go to Roy Bittan), but as Springsteen acknowledged to Federici in his Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction speech, "Your organ and accordion playing brought the boardwalks of Central and South Jersey alive in my music." Danny's playing was simple, direct and warm. On songs like "Kitty's Back" and "4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," Federici brought an innocence to his playing that felt soulful. And his glockenspiel playing provided one of the essential signature pieces of the Springsteen sound in countless Springsteen classics.

Springsteen's music and persona has always emphasized community, and the E Street Band have always been the manifestation of that community. We look upon the band not as a backup for Bruce, but as part of the family. Danny had an ethereal presence about him, but that presence always solidified when he played. I met him only once, backstage at a big party Sony threw for Bruce and the band after their first Jersey show in '99. I was introduced to him and we shook hands and then later in the evening, while the rest of the band was milling around chatting, I saw him at a table by himself, set apart from the crowd, looking very much in his own world. There was a part of me that wanted to sit down and talk with him, but the look on his face had me feel that I would have been intruding. I have never quite forgotten the expression on his face that night. It was an existentially lonely look.

The songs below provide a range of the immense contribution he made to Bruce Springsteen's music over the years. His sound was one of warmth, friendship and camaraderie - and its those things that have always been at the core of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's music. He will be sorely missed. Rest in peace, Phantom Dan.

Download: "You Mean So Much To Me" 5/31/73, Richmond, VA
Download: "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" 4/9/74, Boston, MA
Download: "Prove It All Night" 7/7/78, Los Angeles, CA
Download: "Kitty's Back" 9/19/78, Passaic, NJ
Download: "The Fever" 12/15/78, San Francisco, CA
Download: "Hungry Heart" 8/20/81, Los Angeles, CA
Download: "Racing In The Street" 10/26/84, Los Angeles, CA
Download: "Darlington County" 10/13/86, Mountain View, CA
Download: "My City Of Ruins" 10/27/02, London, England

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Triple Shot Of Soul

As I alluded to in another post a couple of weeks back, I've been drowning in music lately. Whether listening to new releases, demos or or older stuff (like the 15 disc Chess Records box set that I got over the weekend), it's been "too much music, too little time." I've been listening to the new Breeders album (disappointing), the new R.E.M. (pretty good), Erykah Badu (occasionally excellent and often pretentious), the Kills (completely shallow and I like it more than I thought I would), Portishead (has done nothing for me so far) and the Black Keys (loving the vibe) amongst others. And then I listen to the Count Basie box set I bought last month, and then it makes all the new stuff I've heard feel faintly insignificant.

So now that we have that out of the way...let's get to some soul.

Ike Turner & The Kings Of Rhythm - "Gettin Nasty" (1969)

Lost in the myth of Ike Turner, wife-beater, is the fact that he was one of the most influential R&B artists, producers and talent scouts. His 1969 album A Black Man's Soul, is perhaps the greatest showcase for the range of the man's talent. "Gettin' Nasty" is exactly as advertised; a nasty piece of countrified funk that sounds like the Stones based most of Exile on Main Street on it.

Shirley Brown - "Stay With Me"

Shirley Brown's 1974 classic, Woman to Woman, singlehandedly kept Stax afloat as they headed toward their very sad ending in the mid-70's. "Stay With Me" is a epic ballad of pure pleading that showcases that very special voice that, unfortunately, caught a little too much of Aretha's shadow.

Download Woman to Woman at the Amazon MP3 store

Candi Staton - "He Called Me Baby"

From Candi's sessions at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals in the late 60's, "He Called Me Baby" is another of Candi's unheralded classics that for some inexplicable reason, didn't find the audience they should have. Put this on late at night. And buy her self-titled compilation that Capitol released four years ago. I guarantee this album.

Monday, April 14, 2008

WNEW LIves! (And I'm On It)

WNEW-FM was the New York rock radio station when I was growing up. I missed its glory years in the 70's, but it was a big part of my adolescence in the mid-80's. The station at its best was a mix of new and classic, but as the classic rock audience ossified in the late 80's and early 90's, the station became torn trying to please two very different masters. When Nirvana broke in '92, it was clear that the station could no longer be the vanguard of anything - its classic rock fans weren't that interested in new music - and expect to survive. By the late 90's, WNEW was gone.

But thanks to the magic of Internet tubes, the station is back, existing in the form of an Internet radio station and a blog, which I'll be writing for weekly. The site went live today, and I'm the lead piece tonight - my memories of the Firecracker 500.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Springsteen & Morello in Anaheim

Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello joined Bruce & the E Streeters for an incendiary rock version of "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" last night in Anaheim. Morello's playing especially at the end is incredible, and it's obvious that Bruce is feelin' it.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Rolling Stones: Shine A Light

In 2008, it’s easy to be snide about the Rolling Stones. “They’re no longer relevant; they’re only in it for the money; they’re ancient; they’re a joke.” I read these criticisms often – usually immediately upon the Stones announcing a new album and/or tour. And after a few too many mediocre albums, sometimes I even utter similar criticisms myself. The last time I saw them, at Madison Square Garden in 2006, was disappointing; a lackluster, sloppy affair that made me utterly disinterested in seeing the band again. (Especially at those prices.)

Therefore, I went to see their new Martin Scorsese directed concert film, “Shine A Light,” with very low expectations. The Stones have made many concert films, and with the exception of “Gimme Shelter,” none have been particularly mesmerizing. But “Shine A Light” is a very pleasant surprise; a thoroughly enjoyable trip through the Stones unparalleled catalog that inspires a lot of smiles and successfully captures the musical interplay that keeps the band young in spirit.

I think the Rolling Stones are undoubtedly the greatest rock n’ roll band of all time, because they, more than any other band, epitomize and embody the form of rock itself; a irresistible synthesis of blues, soul and country with a heaping of sleazy sex, braggadocio and bad habits and attitude. (The Beatles may have been a greater, more magical musical entity, but the Stones were by far and away the better rock band.) The great critic Robert Christgau wrote the following about the band almost thirty years ago, and I think it still applies:

Only rock and roll? The Stones are the proof of the form. When the guitars and the drums and the voice come together in those elementary patterns that no one else has ever quite managed to simulate, the most undeniable excitement is a virtually automatic result. To insist that this excitement doesn’t reach you is not to articulate an aesthetic judgment but to assert a rather uninteresting crotchet of taste. It is to boast that you don’t like rock and roll itself.
As a band in their sixties that emerged in the 60’s that still command a huge amount of attention, the Stones are an easy target for those who think they’ve long been irrelevant nostalgia mongers. Most of these opinions are from punk-influenced writers who miss the point. There’s nothing nostalgic about the Stones. There’s no “remember when” vibe like you would see at a doo-wop revival show, or a Poison/Def Leppard show at a county fair somewhere. Rather, the Stones emulate the blues, jazz and r&b artists they lionize - Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, Solomon Burke, Count Basie (Charlie Watts’s favorite musician) and others, who just kept playing because it is what they did. The Stones continue to play because it’s what they do. They just play bigger venues and get paid better for it than just about everyone else.

And with all that said, “Shine A Light” documents the band playing better than anyone has a right to expect. Charlie Watts is still the great Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards have a gloriously jagged interplay on guitar that continues to evolve in the moment. (They might be playing songs they’ve been playing for 30-40 years, but I’ve never seen them play the same guitar parts the exact same way twice.) The band is simply playing some of the tightest, most driving rock they’ve ever played. (You don’t believe me? Put on a bootleg from the 1975 tour and then listen to the "Shine A Light" soundtrack. You’ll believe me then.)

What about Mick? Well, Mick’s the most problematic part of the movie (and the Stones themselves). Yes, he’s in incredible shape and yes, his energy is amazing. But Mick performs the songs as though he's wearing a mask; he doesn’t inhabit them emotionally and in his elusiveness, one is left a bit cold, wondering if Jagger feels any connection to anyone, or if he's even interested in the messiness of intimate connections. I can't help but think that it's not an accident that the Stones song "Connection" (featured in the film) is sung by Keith, not Mick.

What makes “Shine A Light” work are a lot of little moments: Charlie Watts looking into the camera in between songs and trying to grab a bit of a breather, acknowledging with his winded expression that this is hard fucking work, and then going back to drumming magnificently; Buddy Guy’s appearance for an explosive version of “Champagne and Reefer,” which inspires the Stones back to their roots as a blues band, playing with passion and an obvious reverence for Guy that is downright moving; and during “Faraway Eyes,” when Mick and Keith share the microphone to harmonize together, the look of pure joy between them captures the fundamental truth about their relationship – they really do love each other, in spite of all of their petty feuding and bullshit.

Jack White acquits himself nicely in “Loving Cup,” hitting those sublime Keith Richards background vocal harmonies, all with an enormous smile on his face that I’ve never seen before from him. I’m a Christina Aguilera fan, but her appearance on “Live With Me” doesn’t work. She and Jagger have no chemistry (watching Jagger quickly discern that the duet isn’t working and then seeing what he does to try to make it work is to watch a professional doing his job) and while she’s got a powerful voice, she hasn’t learned how to use it effectively. Aguilera’s answer to everything is to over sing – it’s “Mariah Carey syndrome” at its worst.

To look for cultural relevance from the Rolling Stones at this point is a foolish exercise. Once upon a time, they were the kings of the jungle, transforming both music and culture at large. But that was a very long time ago. Now they are a well oiled, professional machine that on a good night, have some of the greatest rock songs ever written come spectacularly alive and make beautiful women just a little bit sexier and more beautiful when they dance to those indelible songs. Why do they continue to do what they do? In “Shine A Light,” Keith Richards reveals the answer to be very simple:

“We do it because we love it.”

Sunday Morning

I guess all that Dean Wareham talk from yesterday got me in the mood for the Velvet Underground.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Liz Phair on Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500 & Luna)

Liz Phair writes an excellent review of Dean Wareham's (Luna & Galaxie 500) new memoir of his life in music, “Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance” in tomorrow's New York Times Book Review. I haven't read the book yet, but after reading this review, I will be sure to.

Luna were on Elektra when I worked there in the early to mid 90's, and they were one of my favorite bands on the roster. Their second album, Bewitched, is a wonderful album, a collection of great songs, that while obviously indebted to the Velvet Underground, stand up incredibly well with the passage of fourteen years. And their third album, Penthouse, has my favorite Luna song ever, the utterly sublime "Chinatown," which encapsulates in song what I imagine Wareham sums up in his book; the life of the downtown New York demimonde, 90's style. Live, they were pretty good, but not even approaching great - they were way too emotionally distant from their audience to connect on a truly powerful level.

Phair's review mentions the emotional detachment found in Wareham's writing. It's a detachment that I remember well from Luna's music and it's the most likely culprit for Luna's inability to break to a wider audience. Ironic self-consciousness and emotional detachment may earn a lot of points in indie circles, but they don't play well to a broad audience. In retrospect, it seems incredible that a band like Luna was ever even on a major label, but in the post-Nirvana early 90's, a lot of things seemed possible.

And I can't wait to read the parts about Terry Tolkin.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

iPod To Go

A friend just sent me this photo from the Minneapolis airport. iPods, digital cameras, Bose headphones; it's all there in a vending machine. The perfect impulse buy. Labels would be smart to sell download cards pre-loaded with artists.