Trying To Get To You

Friday, January 30, 2009

Bootleg Friday: Sam & Dave, 1967

There are two kinds of improvisation in music. One kind is self-conscious. It is improvisation for improvisations sake (countless jam bands). Then there is the kind of improvisation that exists because the performers can't be contained within the known limits of a song. The songs from this Sam & Dave show in Stockholm, 1967, are examples of the latter. The greatest of all soul duos take some of their best known songs and recreate them - slow them down, expand them, inject subtle changes in tempo and feeling and make them overwhelming.

Stax's Spring 1967 tour of Europe was one of their greatest triumphs. Greeted with a love and an un-ambivalent respect that they could not receive in America, they responded by delivering shows that forty years after the fact, remain legend. The four songs contained here are a small example of the fire they brought to the stage every night. Both Michael Jackson, who used to watch them in the wings at the Apollo, when the young Jackson 5 was playing the chitlin circuit, and Bruce Springsteen, who went to see them in the 70's, both said they stole liberally from Sam & Dave's show. Mediocre artists borrow, great artists...

Download: "You Got Me Hummin'" - 5/2/67, Stockholm, Sweden
Download: "Soothe Me" - 5/2/67, Stockholm, Sweden
Download: "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" - 5/2/67, Stockholm, Sweden
Download: "Hold On, I'm Coming!" - 5/2/67, Stockholm, Sweden

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Perfect Hour In Preservation Hall

Earlier this month, I was in New Orleans, and while there, I went to Preservation Hall to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It was an experience I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.

Preservation Hall itself, located in the French Quarter, is the rawest, funkiest space I’ve ever been in. The building that houses the venue is over two centuries old, and judging from the looks of the interior and exterior, very little, if any work has been done to it.

I walked in, and took a place in the back of the tiny room. There were about 30 seats inside, and the rest was standing room only, taking in probably another 75. The room was dimly lit, in a warm amber hue that only enhanced the feeling of being out of time. Some large and gothic paintings of musicians hung from the walls. There was no bar and the packed crowd, mainly tourists, milled about in an expectant air.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band formed in 1963, and its membership is a floating one. Countless jazz musicians have played under its name. Its original members could lay claim to playing with Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden. For twenty-five years, they’ve toured around the world as ambassadors of New Orleans Jazz – the essence and root of the music itself.

When the band came on (six-pieces on that night: trumpet, clarinet, sax, piano, bass and drums) and plowed into the first song, “His Eye On The Sparrow,” I experienced as pure a feeling of joy as I’ve ever experienced in music. I felt like I was in the same room that jazz was born in, and even though I knew intellectually that it wasn’t true, I experienced it as such.

The music was immensely celebratory, defiantly so, for in each note of the music was the blues, and with it, an acknowledgment of the travails and disappointments of life. The crowd grinned, danced and sang. And they listened. They really listened. The applause that followed each solo was in direct proportion to the skill with which the solo was played. I’m used to the New York music business style listening, which usually consists of, “Is this happening? Is this cool? Will other people like this?” This listening was something entirely different, much purer, a communion with the essence of one of music’s main functions; the celebration of being alive.

The sixty-minute show passed blissfully, the crowd hollering the verses and choruses of “Shake That Thing” with love and reverence. My own personal history of music flashed before my eyes, and the world of ephemera disappeared; for a little while, I felt enveloped in the real thing, and the real thing only. It was cleansing. It was perfect. My girl and I walked out of the hall after the 60 minute set, grinned at each other, and barely said a word, except to ask each other where we should eat.

Download: "His Eye Is On The Sparrow"
Download: "Shake That Thing"

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bruce And The Super Bowl

I never thought Bruce Springsteen would play the Super Bowl. Too obvious. Too gross. Too much of what represents everything wrong with America. And then when he announced that he and E Street Band would play it, I got psyched.

Here's a great piece from Sports Illustrated about the conflict many Springsteen fans feel about him performing at the halftime show. Very worthy reading.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review: Bruce Springsteen - Working On A Dream

Sometimes, I think, it’s got to be hard to be Bruce Springsteen. Even as he nears 60, there are many, many great expectations placed upon his music. While Dylan fans never know what to expect and are thrilled when Bob releases an album good enough to put his 80’s output further in the rearview mirror, hard-core Bruce fans expect something that is more than just good – at our core, we still hope and expect that he’ll deliver his best music yet. Not Born To Run II mind you (although I’m sure there are some fans who’d be thrilled with that), but something that powerfully and intensely illuminates and deepens our own lives and experiences – like a combination of The River and Tunnel Of Love. And Springsteen has been so remarkably consistent throughout his career, with such an incredible body of work that it almost seems unfair to judge him against his past, but fair or not, that’s how the great ones are judged.

I’ve been trying to write a review of his new album, Working On A Dream, for the past week. But I have found myself confounded by it. On one level, it contains some of the most beautiful music he’s ever made, grand and orchestral, with swirling string sections, stately melodies and symphonic pop that goes in directions that Bruce has never quite gone before. But on another level, at least half the songs feel somewhat hollow at their core. The resonance of Springsteen’s greatest music – where the song hits you right where you live, in the most authentic part of your being, well, in that context, the tank is running low here. Somehow, Bruce Springsteen, an artist who has made his career subverting form for content, has made a record that uses form to disguise the fact that most of his new songs aren’t great.

You can hear what’s wrong with Working On A Dream on “Outlaw Pete,” an Ennio Morricone influenced tall tale that isn’t funny enough to be taken satirically, nor is it affecting enough to be taken seriously as an epic. The music soars at moments, but it never fully lifts off. It’s stuck in some sort of weird middle ground, and at 8 minutes, it goes on for about four minutes longer than necessary. It’s all very interesting – interesting and a little cerebral as opposed to viscerally powerful the way great Springsteen music is. “Queen of the Supermarket” is another interesting song – Bruce being enraptured by the sensuality of the truly super market, and falling in love with the cashier. It occurs as a clichéd parody until the last verse, when Bruce drops an F-bomb that brings it all back to reality, and you end up wondering whether the whole song is brilliant – or just a very interesting songwriting device by a master writer. If you have to ask…

“My Lucky Day,” “This Life,” “Good Eye,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” "Surprise, Surprise," “What Love Can Do,” “Life Itself…” none of these songs are bad. Hell, If Tom Petty wrote “My Lucky Day,” it’d be heralded as a classic. There are lovely melodies, exuberant choruses, plaintive sentiment…and it just doesn’t doesn’t work at Springsteen’s usual level.

Only on two songs, “Kingdom Of Days” and “The Last Carnival,” does Springsteen hit the levels we're accustomed to. “Kingdom Of Days” is a soaring mid-tempo reverie of a love and life that is made more resonant by the consciousness of its finiteness. The towering melody, lovingly detailed lyrics and especially the gorgeously romantic instrumental bridge are the sound of peace, gratitude and acceptance – it’s as though Springsteen has finally arrived in the spot he wrote about in "Born To Run;" where he's gotten to that place he's wanted to go, and is walking in the sun.

“The Last Carnival,” a meditation on the death of founding E Street Band organist Danny Federici, is an out and out Springsteen classic. Over a simple guitar riff, gorgeous background vocals that sound like they’re out of a Simon & Garfunkel song, and lyrics that recreate the circus life of “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” from The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle, the song is a tear-jerking elegy to a fallen comrade that transcends mere sentimentality. It’s a sublime love song.

Musically, the album showcases Springsteen’s love and exploration of the sound of the white pop/rock of his adolescence. The Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Byrds, the Righteous Brothers and Roy Orbison are all present and accounted for. It's a sound that works well, but the lushness and prettiness of the sonic template doesn't always feel a match for Springsteen's grittiness. Where Springsteen's soul sound always feels like can extension of the man himself, these pop sounds occur more like a coat he's trying on temporarily.

Working On A Dream is a good album. Sometimes it is very good. But Bruce Springsteen is capable of making a better one. Perhaps that is harsh. I consider it a compliment. When no one expects greatness from Bruce Springsteen anymore, he’ll truly be finished.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

A Happy 74th To Elvis Presley!

Had he lived, Elvis Presley would be 74 years old today. He has long since passed into the realm of myth - a Rorschach test upon which people project their thoughts, opinions, desires, feelings, resentments and dismissals about almost any conceivable topic: Music, America, race, culture, materialism, decline and a few hundred subjects.

I've never cared much about any of that. The fact is that Elvis was a sublime singer and a singular presence as a performer and instigator of a cultural movement whose repercussions we continue to live with today. It's a common canard that Elvis won his acclaim because he was white and some of his other contemporaries (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc.) were black, and that he was just derivative of them. But Elvis Presley released his first singles in 1954, before Chuck Berry and Little Richard ever released a record. (And Elvis was more charismatic than Chuck, and prettier and more versatile than Richard.) He could sing anything - rock, country, r&b, gospel - and when he was at his best, during the 50's and his late 60's comeback, he wove together those various strands of American music to create something mythic in scope, a force which resounded all over the world.

Unfortunately, his music, like much early rock, gets far less respect and acclaim than it deserves; it’s been subsumed by the myth. To many, the songs sound like quaint period pieces. I think they are still stunning. “Hound Dog” remains explosive. “Mystery Train,” “Baby Let’s Play House,” “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Trying To Get To You,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Jailhouse Rock” continue to provide joy, delight, and a far greater sense of risk, danger and sex than the most rebellious punk band you can find.

Happy birthday Elvis! For my money, you are still, and will always be, the King.

Buy Elvis Presley at Amazon (No record collection should exist without The Sun Sessions, his Greatest Hits, or the NBC-TV Special!)

Download: Bruce Springsteen "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You" 8/27/85, Toronto, ON (A very great version preceded by Springsteen talking about what Elvis meant to him - both as possibility and warning.)

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

New Orleans: Soul City

I spent a few days last week in New Orleans. I had been there once before, but only for a one night business trip, so last week my first real opportunity to spend a significant amount of time there and get to know the city.

I fell in love.

New Orleans, for those of you who haven’t been there, is the most European of American cities. The French Quarter, especially, resembles the old centers of so many European cities. The languid pace, the wonderful food, the public drinking, the music everywhere – it is certainly the most anti-Puritanical city in the U.S. And given that it’s in the American South, there is also an element of a somewhat tacky American shopping plaza (especially so when 75,000 college football fans are in town for the Sugar Bowl). It’s a mixture of the wonderful and horrible – some of the best hospitality, people, food and music one can imagine, and some of the most glaring decay I’ve ever seen. I experienced a lot of the wonderful and only saw a tiny bit of the horrible, from the safety of a van touring the city. I was a tourist, and while I sought out as much of a “native” experience as possible, I certainly didn’t see how 70% of New Orleans truly lives.

New Orleans is an elemental city – it runs on food, drink, sex, music, art, history and the celebration of pleasure -the good time in the face of struggle, without the pretenses of fashion or trends. It is not looking for the next big thing. There is a distinct lack of irony in New Orleans, or at least the sort of deadening post-modern irony that suffuses so much of modern art and music. It is a city that is all about the expression of authentic feeling and engagement: of joy and wonder, of sorrow and grief. Yes, there is plenty of cool, but it’s a city that defines as cool as willing to let yourself go, rather than taking on a studied and jaded affectedness.

As a lover of the music that was born in New Orleans and emerged from it, I felt at home the whole time I was there. There are a few places in the world where my soul feels like it belongs: New York City, Montauk, Italy and now, New Orleans.

I’ll be writing about some of the music and sights I saw last week over the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ed Rivadavia On Ron Asheton Of The Stooges

Ron Asheton, guitarist for the Stooges, died sometime at the beginning of the year. Ed Rivadavia, music executive for the RCA Music Group and writer for AMG, contributes the following:

The passing of guitarist Ron Asheton due to an apparent heart-attack in his Ann Arbor, Michigan home, some time during the start of 2009 (an official coroner’s report is still pending as of this writing), robbed the world of rock and roll of perhaps its ultimate punk rock guitar icon. The amazing thing is that, were it not for The Stooges’ unlikely reunion in the early ‘00s, Asheton’s death would probably have elicited only the scarcest and briefest obits beyond the ultra-specialized rock press – the likes of which would have made the recent en masse Ramones deaths seem like widely covered, major events. Ironically, I suppose even the worst-case scenario would be somewhat fitting, in the end, for a musician whose limited technical ability essentially defines what punk rock – in the most enduring definition of the oft-abused, and stylistically spread-thin term – is all about.

And in my opinion, no song exemplifies that genre’s pure, D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) spirit better than The Stooges’ original recording of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” on their eponymous 1969 debut album.

Sure, the Ramones (one of my all-time favorite bands), the Sex Pistols, and any number of other major and obscure punk, pre- and post-punk bands have produced songs that were arguably just as timeless over the years (The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” for example, being one of several worthy precursors), but I don’t think anything quite compares with Ron Asheton’s raw, uncivilized, and obviously untutored down-picked barre chords on “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” as complemented by that brilliantly droning open E-String. Unless it is Ron’s notably uncomplicated guitar solo, launched a few minutes later, which likewise stumbles (literally, it sounds like Asheton is stumbling along, trying to get the notes right) upon a supernatural ‘feel’ that music only seems capable of achieving in its most spontaneous and unrehearsed form.

The word ‘primitive’ always springs to mind when I think of that riff, solo, and song, and I mean that as a compliment because, curiously, it never sounded as great when bolstered with extra speed and adrenalin by the countless bands that later covered it; nor even the older Ron himself, on those oft-times transcendental Stooges reunion shows of the mid-‘00s. (Being a traditionalist music snob, I’m usually dismissive on principle of such belated reunions, even when most all of the original members are involved, but I’ll be the first to admit that I was powerless to resist the sheer brilliance of a reconvened Iggy Pop, Asheton brothers, and bassist Mike Watt.) Ron may have been a far better guitar player – technically speaking – by the time he was brought out of forced retirement for those new millennium tours; but his improved chops were simply no match for the poor playing and unadulterated spirit (emphasis on ‘adult’) captured by that long-gone, stoned-out teenager, and his fellow delinquent band members: Iggy Stooge, drummer Scott ‘Rock Action’ Asheton, and long-deceased bassist Dave Alexander.

No, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is pretty close to untouchable where primal, non-conformist, and positively unique rock and roll statements are concerned.

And even though first impressions of this song will almost inevitably result from Iggy’s sublimely twisted lyrics (a topic we’ll save for discussion in another written appreciation, hopefully still many years in the future), for me it will always be Ron’s guitar work that holds the secret of its dark, elusive magic. As with all of Ron Asheton’s few but crucial contributions to the long thread of rock and roll history, this one will undoubtedly be eclipsed by Iggy’s blinding presence, but there are far worse fates than that, and ultimately who cares?

Immortality, by any measure of scale, still means ‘forever.’