Trying To Get To You

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin

I really loved George Carlin - and I grew to appreciate his brilliance more as I got older. I always marveled at his ability to sniff out hypocrisy and tell it like he saw it. He reminded me of a true hipster of the old school variety, and watching him take off on one of his riffs always felt to me like a great improvisational instrumentalist. So I'm saddened to hear about his death tonight. Here's one of my favorite clips of his:

He will be sorely missed.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Emergence Of Jackie Greene

Since I first heard Jackie Greene’s Sweet Somewhere Bound roughly four years ago, I’ve been waiting for him to release an undeniable album. He’s one of those rare guys who has got all the gifts – great melodic sense, a keen eye, emotional depth, wisdom, charisma to spare and a simmering passion. The man has got soul.

After releasing a fine, if not quite thrilling debut on Blue Note in 2006 (after three albums on independent labels), Greene retreated from the “next big thing” conversation he was a subject of. Instead, he toured, continued writing and somewhat surprisingly, became a featured part of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s ensemble, Phil Lesh and Friends. Despite not being a Dead fan, Greene has taken to performing for the Dead’s still considerable fan base. Perhaps playing some of those classic Garcia-Hunter compositions every night rubbed of on Greene, because his new album, Giving Up The Ghost, is the sound of an artist coming into his own and is easily one of the best albums released so far this year.

Giving Up The Ghost is modern in feel, but even though it breaks no stylistic ground, it simply sounds great and is full of excellent songs. Steve Berlin’s production keeps things simple and focused on the important stuff – the songs and the vocals. From the deceptively simple “Like A Ball And Chain” to the absolutely fantastic “Animal,” and the Stax-Volt of “Don’t Let The Devil Take Your Mind,” the songs reward upon repeated listening; Greene conjures great artists from the past – you can hear hints of the Band, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, Paul Westerberg, Santana and half a dozen great soul singers - without ever just being an echo of them.

In a just world, Greene would already be a major star. But Greene isn’t the sort of artist who fits in easily anywhere. There’s no community for artists like him; no Warped Tour, no Pitchfork Festival, no Coachella. But the ironic part is that for anyone with ears, Jackie Greene should hit home like few artists around today. Buy this album.

Buy Giving Up The Ghost at the Amazon Mp3 store

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I'm Available And Looking For Gigs

If there are two things I’ve always had a difficult time with, it’s self-promotion and asking for help. In the context of asking other people for assistance, I’ve always tried to do things on my own, without anyone’s help – which of course, is totally absurd. Given that I am now working for myself and am committed to creating a successful business, I’m giving that up.

(Ironically, this being a soul music blog – I can’t think of one great soul artist who was shy about his abilities or was afraid to ask for something.)

So I’m here to announce that I am available and looking for consulting opportunities in the following areas:

Bio Writing: I have written over 100 bios in the past 18 months for both independent and major label acts. Check this page out for more info:

A&R & Production: I can promise you that in working with me, you will reach a new level of authenticity in your musical expression, which will translate into more powerful music, far greater confidence and more fans. Basically, I’ll cut through the bullshit and pull your best out of you. You can draw upon my experience of over a decade at major labels in tandem with the last two years of learning the new music media space to create a winning combination of old school music values with new school marketing and technology.

Business Consulting: If you’re involved in a music venture, I can make a difference for you. I can navigate the ins and outs of building a team, planning an event creating a digital marketing and PR plan and many other things.

Reissues: If you’re a label involved in reissues, my encyclopedic knowledge of rock and soul will ensure you’re creating the best package from both an A&R and marketing context, finding the best balance between telling the story of a band and giving the people what they want.

DJ’ing: I am a great DJ – I can bring a perfect mix of soul, jazz, blues and rock to your club, party, or wedding. (And if this money’s good, I’ll even do Bar Mitzvahs!) I have over 15,000 CDs to choose from.

I am currently working with the following companies:

Ariel Publicity & Cyber PR – Bio writer and Sales. I am their bio writer and have written bios for every genre of music. I have also brought Cyber PR (a digital music PR firm) to the major labels and they have been hired to work on several campaigns as a result of my work.

Tipping Point Partners – I am currently arranging a series of showcases where I am introducing up-and-coming artists to music supervisors at advertising agencies.

If you would like to talk about a project I can be reached at
Blazar70 AT GMAIL [dot] COM

Friday, June 13, 2008

Isaac Hayes Ushers In The Summer

*These pictures were taken by me from about 450 away from the stage with very little light. To whatever extent they came out well, I thank my Canon S3IS with the 12x optical zoom and the 48x digital zoom.

Last night’s Isaac Hayes show at Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park will not go down as one of the great soul shows of all time. But that’s so besides the point that it just about has no point at all. No other kind of music would bring in a crowd like last night’s: White and black, old and young…all grooving and celebrating the start of the summer.

But when Hayes tore into a great version of “Walk On By,” (from Hot Buttered Soul) the show went to another level – the crowd responded from the opening riff, delighting in the greatness of the song and their lasting love of it – and Hayes responded. His voice, wavering during various points in the set, gathered strength and passion, and for a moment, the crowd was swept away.

Hayes introduced the next song as, “a song I wrote a long time ago,” and went into a somewhat tepid version of “Soul Man.” But the quality of the version didn’t really matter. “THAT’S THE GUY THAT WROTE ‘SOUL MAN,’ AND HOLD ON, I’M COMIN’” I exclaimed to myself. I uttered out loud, to no one in particular, “This is like hearing God recite the Ten Commandments.”

And of course, from the opening hi-hat notes of “Shaft,” the crowd erupted. Building anticipation, with the wah-wah guitar, synth-string and synth-horns increasing the tension – it was a little slice of heaven. And the crowd, on their feet, with enormous grins, sang those faintly ridiculous and utterly irresistible lyrics about the “private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks.” It was a delicious moment and a wonderful way to usher in the summer. The night was a great reminder that soul may go in and out of fashion – but it’s eternally in style.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Count Basie Retrospective On NPR

A wonderful piece on Count Basie on NPR's "Jazz Profiles." If you're at all curious about jazz, swing, the history of rhythm or the Basie band, you owe it to yourself to check this out.

Of New Commerce And The Grateful Dead Myth

**This piece was written on Thursday. Fortuitous timing - check out Paul Krugman's column in today's NY Times.

I’m attending the Advertising Age 2.0 conference this week, as part of a new music and advertising venture I’m involved in. It’s my first time attending a non-music conference and it’s interesting to hear new terms, new languages and hear the different discussions going on. And yet…it’s all the same.

The first panel I attended was about how the Internet is transforming the advertising world and how advertising, which used to be a controllable, easily measured, one-way communication has become a fragmented, two-way dialogue between advertisers and consumers that’s difficult to monetize and even harder to gauge the effectiveness of. As I was listening, I said to myself, “Uh, I think I’ve heard this somewhere before.” It’s the exact thing the music business has been going through – except in the case of the music business, it’s been going on for the better part of a decade and the resultant carnage to companies, employees and artists (in terms of record sales) has been far more drastic.

The dinner panel I went to was more music business intensive. A lot of talk was about brands and business models, and then to my surprise, the conversation turned to the Grateful Dead, who apparently are being held up as the model to emulate because “they gave away their music for free,” which as the myth goes, ensured them becoming the stadium (and merchandising) juggernaut they were in from the mid-80’s until Garcia’s death in 1995.

Like most myths, this contains the element of truth but are usually used to justify someone else’s ideas of what good “business models” are. Here are some useful separations of myth vs. what actually happened.

Myth #1 – They gave away their music away for free.

The Dead didn’t give away anything for free (with the exception of an occasional free benefit concert). They just didn’t bust tapers at their shows and they turned a blind eye to their fans exchanging live tapes (unless the tapers and/or traders were trying to make a profit). It wasn’t a business model; it was simply an extension of the band’s anti-authoritarian attitude and aversion of control. All of the band’s studio work and their countless live albums were available for pay only.

“I don’t have any desire to control people as to what they’re doing and what they have. There’s something to be said for being able to record an experience you’ve liked, or being able to obtain a recording of it. Actually, we have all that stuff in our own collection of tapes. My responsibility to the notes is over after I’ve played them. At that point I don’t care where they go.” - Jerry Garcia

Myth #2 – “Giving away their music” was the key to their success.

Certainly, the live shows in circulation that hardcore Deadheads traded help build the devotion between the audience and the band, and it helped hardcore Deadheads spread the word. But it was only one element (and probably a smaller one than others) among many.

The Grateful Dead were a touring as opposed to studio band – despite wanting to make great records, and doing so with 1970’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (which took their following up a level in the early 70’s), they were mainly a failure as a recording act. The live show was their strength. Equally influenced by jazz as they were with rock, their devotion to improvisation ensured that each show would be a unique one, never to be repeated. This stood in stark contrast to most rock bands, who played roughly the same set each night. And so they build an enormous cult audience, many of who traveled the country to follow them band; all of which became a story and curiosity in its own right.

In addition, the Grateful Dead live experience wasn’t simply a concert – it encompassed so much more. There was the bazaar outside the show, a self-sustaining economy with everything from veggie burritos, tie-died t-shirts and LSD. There were the Deadheads themselves, thoroughly anachronistic yet welcoming to just about all who entered. Entering a Grateful Dead show was like stepping out of planet earth and into another dimension – and that experience became a ritual and rite of passage for thousands of young Americans for during the course of the band's career.

And what is also conveniently ignored is that the biggest factor in the Dead’s 80’s explosion was what is now called, in new media circles, an “old school driver;” the hit single, “Touch Of Grey,” which went top 10 in 1987. It brought a huge influx of fans (many of who stuck around) and took them from being a band that could sell out arenas, to a stadium band, earning the enormously high grossing touring numbers (and merchandising) they enjoyed in the last years of their career.

Myth #3 – “The Grateful Dead are a great business model to emulate”

Again, this contains an element of truth, but the real story is that the Dead were in serious financial trouble at various points in their career. In the mid to late 70’s and early 80’s, the band may have allowed tape trading, but there was no huge merchandising set up for the band. That all came later, after their late 80’s renaissance. In truth, the band skirted financial difficult for years.

The Grateful Dead were one of the great American bands, but in a climate where everyone is worried about how they are going to get paid for their content, people are confusing the methods of their success for the reasons they were successful. The Grateful Dead became who they were because at their best, the provided an experience of the soul and spirit. Drummer Mickey Hart once said, "The Grateful Dead aren't in the music business. They're in the transportation business," and he was right. They provided a singular experience. Artists and businessmen would do well to concentrate more on the quality of their creation and the singularity of its experience and a little less with the means with which they sell their product.

*This piece from CBS from 1985, just as the Dead scene was getting larger, addresses their appeal from various vantage points. Note that no one says anything about tape trading or getting the music for free.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Dave Alvin On Bo Diddley

I was going to write something about Bo Diddley, but this piece on him by Dave Alvin of the Blasters says everything necessary. Wonderful stuff.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Rock N' Roll True Believing With The Hold Steady

I’ve ceased to be a true believer in rock n’ roll. It’s happened mainly because of a couple of factors. Of course, there’s my ever deepening love of soul, r&b and more recently, jazz, which has taken my ears in new and different directions. The other thing is that I’ve found very little rock in the past 10-15 years that’s I’ve connected to. Alt-rock, in the abstract, has bored me to tears for years. (To listen to modern rock radio is an exercise in self-flagellation) Emo and post-hardcore strikes me less as coherent genres then persistent and long winded complaints. And indie-rock, despite providing many fine albums that I’ve enjoyed over the years, has a certain joylessness; operating under a constraint of studied indifference that while perennially in fashion to the eternally cool everywhere, leaves me more than a little cold. And the rock vanguard's obsession with texture at the expense of song craft has alienated me from the most heralded bands of the day (Wilco, Radiohead, etc).

So I want to love a band like the Hold Steady, a band that’s courageous enough to wear their heart and vulnerabilities on their collective sleeve and smart enough to know the very-fine-line they need to walk if they’re going to pull off being a band of rock n’ roll true believers in 2008. I’ve spent the last couple of days listening non-stop to their new album, Stay Positive, hoping to be inspired by it; enjoying it and even admiring it; but more often than not, wanting more, feeling like this is a good band who have the best of intentions, but are in search of great songs.

But I have to give credit where credit is due. “Sequestered in Memphis” and “Joke About Jamaica” are both excellent, and if the other tracks don’t always reach the level of the sublime, there aren’t any outright clunkers either. Craig Finn’s vocals may be an acquired taste, but in a world of vocalists who don’t even pretend to mean what they sing, I have to recognize. The piano arpeggios are reminiscent of E Street without being a direct rip and the guitars and drums crash and roar in the best way.

It’s hard to fight a battle when the war was lost a long time ago. But what can a rock n’ roll true believer do but sing for a rock n’ roll band? There’s a nobility in the Hold Steady’s music and in their willingness to put passion over smarts, they occasionally, dare I say it, are a soulful rock n' roll band.