Trying To Get To You

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Definition Of Soul

Ray Charles, 1968:

"Soul is a force that can light up a room. The force radiates from a sense of selfhood, a sense of knowing where you've been and what it means. Soul is a way of life - but it's always the hard way."

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Live Blog Coverage Of Live Nation/Ticketmaster Hearings

The Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger hearings took place in Washington D.C. today. Here's some good live blogging from the Wall Street Journal.

Here's Bill Wyman's live take in his blog, Hitsville.

However this goes down, it will have an immense impact on the future on both the live and recorded music business.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Benjy Ferree Live At The Bellhouse

I have an affinity for artists like Benjy Ferree - the ones who can't be contained within one genre, who don't quite fit in anywhere. Ferree's new album, Come Back To The Five And Dime, Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee is a good one, an amalgalm of rock, blues, soul, with a little T. Rex thrown in for good measure. But the kind of music he plays is not quite fashionable, and at his show at the Bellhouse in Brooklyn this past Friday night, he saw the barriers in front of him in connecting to an audience, and was a little shaken - and at his best, a bit defiant.

Fronting a five piece band, Ferree was opening for Tim Fite, a fact that a semi-heckler would not quit reminding Ferree of for most of his set. Ferree's strongest asset is his voice, a wonderfully versatile instrument capable of rock and soul assertion as well as delicate subtlety. And when he played the strongest songs from his new album, such as "Fear," that voice was used to great effect.

But for too much of the set, Ferree seemed distracted - in his own head, the worst place for a performer to be. Playing for a typically reserved indie rock crowd, Ferree seemed unsure of how to connect. Ironically, it was the Tim Fite fan/heckler that finally freed Ferree from the tyranny of his own mind and prodded him to play his best music of the night.

Ferree is clearly a talented artist, but if he's going to have a chance to succeed, he's going to have to extend himself much further. There's an exuberance within Ferree - he plays for love - that was not quite on display on Friday night. The guy is soulful, but he plays in a genre that isn't completely comfortable with the unfettered, sometimes messy emotions that soul conjures. Once Ferree summons the courage to put himself completely out there, it's quite possible that this already fine artist will become something far more than fine.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bootleg Friday: Dusty Springfield At the BBC

Whether you like Amy Winehouse, Adele or Duffy; if you're a fan of the British female soul singer, then all roads lead back to Dusty Springfield.

Springfield, like the R&B besotted Brits of her generation, sang her versions of American soul with love and enormous respect. What she brought to it was a pop sensibility informed by her very catholic tastes - everything from Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart and Cole Porter to Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller. The woman knew great music, and it came out in both her song selection and in the American acts that she promoted in England. In 1965, she hosted the first Motown TV show in England, and decades later, many Motown greats credited her with helping their music grow in popularity in the UK.

Her greatest and most beloved work, Dusty in Memphis, recorded with Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, is one of the greatest white soul albums of all time, an album of remarkable and lasting emotional resonance. If it sounds effortless, it wasn't. Surrounded by the producers, singers and musicians who were responsible for some of the greatest soul music ever, she was clearly intimidated. Suffering from what Jerry Wexler called, "a giant inferiority complex," she had to record her vocals in New York, away from the musicians.

But that is another story. Today, on Bootleg Friday, her exquisite taste is revealed here in the songs she selected for her performances on the BBC. Revel in that voice.

Download: Tossin' And Turnin'
Download: I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself
Download: Little By Little
Download: Uptight (Everything Is Alright)
Download: You Don't Have To Say You Love Me
Download: Good Lovin'
Download: To Love Somebody
Download: Son Of A Preacher Man
Download: (Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher And Higher

Monday, February 16, 2009

Melinda Doolittle's Soulless Soul

I don’t watch American Idol, but unsurprisingly, the times I’ve watched it, I’ve loathed it. Listening to the singers, even the ones with good technical voices, butcher some great songs – it’s just excruciating. Nor can I get into it on a post-modern “it’s so bad, it’s good” level. I get no joy laughing at the self-deluded contestants – I just end up feeling icky and uncomfortable. Even the amongst the singers who possess technically strong voices, I find no emotion conveyed in their singing except for perhaps their own banal ambition to win.

I write this because I’ve spent the past week or so listening to Melinda Doolittle’s new album, Coming Back To You. Doolittle was a controversial runner up on American Idol a couple of seasons ago. Simon Cowell thought the result was unfair and that Doolittle should have won instead of Jordin Sparks. I can’t say that she deserved to win, as I didn’t watch the show. But if Coming Back To You is any indication, Doolittle will soon be consigned to the dustbin where most Idol performers languish, soon to be forgotten, except perhaps as the answer to a trivia question, or a contestant on a future reality TV show.

Doolittle has a strong voice, but it signifies nothing except that she’s got a gift that she doesn’t really know how to use. Her singing exists solely to convey itself, rather than the emotional truths that a great vocalist communicates. Her voice swoops, dives and competently executes the classic gospel influenced inflections, but it has the all the warmth and inspiration of a deodorant commercial. The songs – all covers – float by harmlessly and pointlessly. And on the two Robert Johnson covers, “Dust My Broom” and “Walkin’ Blues,” Doolittle drains the songs of their sexuality and dread – their authentic humanity – making them fit for perhaps a turn singing them to Oscar the Grouch when she makes a promo appearance on Sesame Street.

Melinda Doolittle may be a soul singer in the context of a genre, but in reality, she is anything but a soul singer. Safe, banal and harmless are all adjectives that disappear when truly soulful music is present.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bruce's Journal

Bruce Springsteen's Super Bowl journal says everything that needs to be said. (From


Six Air Force Thunderbirds have just roared overhead at what felt like inches above our backstage area, giving myself and the entire E Street Band a brush cut. With 20 minutes to go, I'm sitting in my trailer trying to decide what boots to wear. I've got a nice pair of cowboy boots my feet look really good in, but I'm concerned about their stability. Two days ago we rehearsed in full rain on the field and the stage became as slick as an ice pond. It was almost impossible to stand on. It was so slick I crashed into Mike Colucci, our cameraman, coming off my knee slide, his camera the only thing that kept me from launching out onto the soggy turf. When Jerry the umpire in "Glory Days" did his bit, he came running out, couldn't stop himself and executed one of the most painfully perfect "man slips on a banana peel" falls I've ever seen. This sent Steve, myself and the entire band into one of the biggest stress-induced laughters of our lives that lasted all the way back to our trailers. (A few Advil and Jerry was okay.)

I better go with the combat boots I always carry. The round toes will give me better braking power than the pointy-toed cowboy boots when I hit the deck. I stuff my boots with two innersoles to make them as fitted as possible, zip them up snuggly around my ankles, stomp around in my trailer a bit and feel pretty grounded. Fifteen minutes…oh, by the way, I'm somewhat nervous. It's not the usual pre-show jitters, not "butterflies," it's not wardrobe malfunction anticipation anxiety, I'm talking about five minutes to beach landing, "Right Stuff" "Lord Don't Let Me Screw the Pooch in Front of 100 Million People" one of the biggest television audiences since dinosaurs first screwed on earth kind of semi-terror. It only lasts for a minute…I check my hair, spray it with something that turns it into concrete and I'm out the door.

I catch sight of Patti smiling. She's been my rock all week. I put my arm around her and away we go. They take us by golf cart to a holding tunnel right off the field. The problem is there are a thousand people there, tv cameras, media of all kinds and general chaos. Suddenly, hundreds of people rush by us in a column shouting, cheering…our fans! And tonight also our stage builders. These are "the volunteers". They've been here for two weeks on their own dime in a field day after day, putting together and pulling apart pieces of our stage over and over again, theoretically achieving military precision. Now it's for real. I hope they've got it down because as we're escorted onto the field, lights in the stadium fully up, the banshee wail of 70,000 screaming football fanatics rising in our ears, there's nothing there. Nothing…no sound, no lights, no instruments, no stage, nothing but brightly lit unwelcoming green turf. Suddenly an army of ants come from all sides of what seems like nowhere. Each rolling a piece of our lifeline, our earth onto the field. The cavalry has arrived. What takes us on a concert day 8 hours to do is done in five minutes. Unbelieveable. Everything in our world is there…we hope. We gather a few feet off the stage, form a circle of hands, I say a few words drowned out by the crowd and it's smiles all around. I've been in a lot of high stakes situations like this, though not exactly like this, with these people before. It's stressful, but our band is made for it…and it's about to begin…so happy warriors we bound up onto the stage.

The NFL stage manager gives me the three minute sign…two minutes…one…there's a guy jumping up and down on sections of the stage to get them to sit evenly on the grass field…30 seconds…they're still testing all the speakers and equipment…that's cutting it close! The lights in the stadium go down. The crowd erupts and Max's drumbeat opens "10th Avenue." I feel a white light silhouette Clarence and I for a moment. I hear Roy's piano. I give "C"'s hand a pat. I'm on the move tossing my guitar in a high arc for Kevin, my guitar tech, to catch and it's…"ladies and gentlemen, for the next 12 minutes we will be bringing the righteous and mighty power of the E Street Band into your beautiful home. So…step back from the guacamole dip. Put the chicken fingers down! And turn the TV ALL the way up!" Because, of course, there is just ONE thing I've got to know: "IS THERE ANYBODY ALIVE OUT THERE?!"

All I know is if you were standing next to me, you would be. I feel like I've just taken a syringe of adrenalin straight to the heart. Before we came out, I had two major concerns. One, something might go wrong beyond my control. That completely disappeared before we hit the stage. Tonight our fate is in the hands of many, so no sense for useless worry. Two, I was worried that I would find myself 'out' of myself and not in the moment. My old friend Peter Wolf once said 'the strangest thing you can do on stage is think about what you're doing." This is true. To observe oneself from afar while struggling to bring the moment to life is an unpleasant experience. I've had it more than once. It's an existential problem. Unfortunately, right in my wheel house. It doesn't mean it's going to be a bad show. It may be a great one. It just means it might take time, something we don't have much of tonight. When that happens, I do anything to break it. Tear up the set list, call an audible, make a mistake, anything to get "IN." That's what you get paid for, TO BE HERE NOW! The power, potential and volume of your present-ness is a basic rock and roll promise. It's the essential element that holds the attention of your audience, that gives force, shape and authority to the evening's events. And however you get there on any given night, that's the road you take. "IS THERE ANYBODY ALIVE IN HERE?!"…there better be.

I'm on top of the piano (good old boots). I'm down. One…two…three, knee drop in front of the microphone and I'm bending back almost flat on the stage. I close my eyes for a moment and when I open them, I see nothing but blue night sky. No band, no crowd, no stadium. I hear and feel all of it in the form of a great siren like din surrounding me but with my back nearly flat against the stage I see nothing but beautiful night sky with a halo of a thousand stadium suns at its edges. I take several deep breaths and a calm comes over me. I feel myself deeply and happily "IN."

Since the inception of our band it was our ambition to play for everyone. We've achieved a lot but we haven't achieved that. Our audience remains tribal…that is predominantly white. On occasion, the Inaugural Concert, during a political campaign, touring through Africa in '88, particularly in Cleveland with President Obama, I looked out and sang "Promised Land" to the audience I intended it for, young people, old people, black, white, brown, cutting across religious and class lines. That's who I'm singing to today. Today we play for everyone. I pull myself upright with the mike stand back into the world, this world, my world, the one with everybody in it and the stadium, the crowd, my band, my best friends, my wife come rushing into view and it's "teardrops on the city…"

During "Tenth Avenue" I tell the story of my band…and other things "when the change was made uptown"…. It goes rushing by, then the knee slide. Too much adrenalin, a late drop, too much speed, here I come Mike…BOOM! And I'm onto his camera, the lens implanted into my chest with one leg off the stage. I use his camera to push myself back up and…say it, say it, say it, say it…BLAM! BORN TO RUN…my story…Something bright and hot blows up behind me. I heard there were fireworks. I never saw any. Just the ones going off in my head. I'm out of breath. I try to slow it down. That ain't gonna happen. I already hear the crowd singing the last eight bars of "Born to Run" oh, oh, oh, oh…then it's straight into "Working on a Dream"…your story…and mine I hope. Steve is on my right, Patti on my left. I catch a smile and the wonderful choir, The Joyce Garrett Singers, that backed me in Washington during the Inaugural concert is behind us. I turn to see their faces and listen to the sound of their voices…"working on a dream". Done. Moments later, we're ripping straight into "Glory Days"…the end of the story. A last party steeped in merry fatalism and some laughs with my old pal, Steve. Jerry the Ump doesn't fall on his ass tonight. He just throws the yellow penalty flag for the precious 40 seconds we've gone overtime…home stretch. Everyone is out front now forming that great line. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch the horns raising their instruments high, my guitar is wheeling around my neck and on the seventh beat, I'm going to Disneyland. I'm already someplace a lot farther and more fun than that. I look around, we're alive, it's over, we link arms and take a bow as the stage comes apart beneath our feet. It's chaos again all the way back to the trailer. A toast…our families, friends, Jon, George, Brendan, Barbara, with Don Mischer, Ricky Kirshner, Glenn Weiss, Charles Coplin, and Dick Ebersol, the great team that put it altogether and the end of a good football game.

The theory of relativity holds. On stage your exhilaration is in direct proportion to the void you're dancing over. A gig I always looked a little askance at and was a little wary of turned out to have surprising emotional power and resonance for me and my band. It was a high point, a marker of some sort and went up with the biggest shows of our work life. The NFL threw us an anniversary party the likes of which we'd never throw for ourselves (we're too fussy) with fireworks and everything! In the middle of their football game, they let us hammer out a little part of our story. I love playing long and hard but it was the 35 years in 12 minutes…that was the trick. You start here, you end there, that's it. That's the time you've got to give it everything you have…12 minutes…give or take a few seconds. The Super Bowl is going to help me sell a few new records, that's what I wanted because I want people to hear where we are today. It'll probably put a few extra fannies in the seats and that's fine. We live high around here and I like to do good business for my record company and concert promoters. But what it's really about is my band remains one of the mightiest in the land and I want you to know it, we want to show you…because we can.

By 3 am, I am back home, everyone in the house fast asleep and tucked in bed. I am sitting in the yard over an open fire, staring up again into that black night sky, my ears still ringing…"Oh yeah, it's alright."

February, 2009

Friday, February 06, 2009

Bootleg Friday: The Replacements, 1987

When I was a kid, I expected and waited for the Replacements to get huge. They didn’t. Even though it’s twenty plus years later, there’s still a part of me that thinks/expects/hopes/prays that someday, maybe just around the corner, justice will prevail, and it will happen.

Maybe someone will write a blockbuster movie about growing up in the 80’s and will use their music as the basis for it – the sound of sensitivity, snark and punk/soul all wrapped into one. I figure that there has to be someone who is a great writer in their prime, who, back in the day, was sustained by Let It Be, Tim and Pleased To Meet Me. Their catalog sales will explode and they will finally get the full measure of their due as one of the best, if not the best, American bands of the 80's.

Today’s Bootleg Friday is a selection of songs from the Replacements show at St. Andrews Hall in Detroit, on November 12, 1987. Touring behind the great Pleased To Meet Me, the music is a combination of punk insouciance and soul conviction. And the Prince cover (from Sign Of The Times, which had just been released) displays Replacements leader Paul Westerberg’s great taste to full effect. It’s shambolic and highly moving – just like the band.

Download: “I.O.U.” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI
Download: “Never Mind” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI
Download: “Hold My Life” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI
Download: “Can’t Hardly Wait” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI
Download: “Little Mascara” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI
Download: “Nightclub Jitters” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI
Download: “Sweet Soul Music (Arthur Conley)” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI
Download: “20th Century Boy (T. Rex)” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI
Download: “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man (Prince)” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI
Download: “Unsatisfied” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI
Download: “I Will Dare” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI
Download: “Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones)” 11/12/87, Detroit, MI

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Some Worthy Reading

A couple of good reads for you today.

I had the pleasure of listening to "Jonesey's Jukebox," ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones's show on Indie 103.1 in L.A. a few times while in Los Angeles over the course of the past five years. His show was for me, what radio should be all about; locally oriented and highly personalized with wit and great taste to spare. The L.A. Times has a piece about him today.

I was sent a link to this piece from the literary review N + 1. It's about a mix tape for Britney Spears - an explanation of the songs and how they might make a difference for her. I found it to be a great post.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Fake Lefsetz Letter On Springsteen And Bonnaroo

I wrote this, not Bob Lefsetz. But given all his absurd Springsteen bashing, I figured I'd give him a break and write his next piece for him.

I promised myself I wouldn't write about Springsteen anymore for a while, but did you see that he's now playing Bonnaroo? Can you say DESPERATE?

Bruce doesn't sell tickets like he used to, and touring behind an album THAT NO ONE IS GOING TO CARE ABOUT, now he's going to play to a bunch of HIPPIES? Bruce doesn't even do drugs! I guess because his own audience just doesn't care like it used to, he and Landau think they have to find a new audience. Don't they know that the typical Bonnaroo fan doesn't CARE ABOUT HIM AND ARE JUST THERE TO SEE PHISH?! Oh sure, there will be a few curiosity seekers, coming to see what the "legend" is all about. But they don't want SCHTICK! The Bonnaroo audience only cares if you can PLAY, and while the band could play when I first saw them in 1974, they haven't played like that in YEARS! They don't care about knee slides at Bonarroo - they want PASSION, not empty GESTURES! This is sad. Are legends so craven, their lives so empty without the crowd that they'll stoop to play in front of anyone?

And speaking of craven, while I respect the empire Coran Capshaw has built, this is a textbook example of IGNORING WHAT YOUR AUDIENCE WANTS! Bonnaroo was built on jam band principles - people who can play and improvise. The Bonnaroo fan HATES big stars. The BEASTIE BOYS??? Can you even NAME ONE SONG they've done since "Sabotage?" And don't tell me about how influential Paul's Boutique is! Can you sing one song from it? THEY'RE DONE! And then they're trying to get the Pitchfork crowd too, with a slew of indie bands that NO ONE is going to remember five, let alone ten years from now. Is EVERYTHING just about following the dollar instead of staying true to your principles??? Is it just about REELING IN BIG NAMES so you'll have a great day of publicity??? Is there any INTEGRITY anymore?

This crap writes itself. Oy.

New Orleans Picture Gallery

Here are some photos from last month's trip to New Orleans:

Guitarist at Commander's Palace - Three piece jazz band would come to each table to take requests. I asked for "All Of Me." They did it well.
I took this photo from a trolley car at around noon on New Year's Day.
Bathroom at the Louisiana Music Factory. Dexter Gordon on top of Jackie Wilson next to the toilet paper. Perfect.
An abandoned house in the Lower Ninth Ward. The empty lot surrounding it contained other homes, pre-Katrina.
Little Freddie King at D.B.A.
Gospel Brunch at the House Of Blues.
Gumbo, Jambalaya and a shrimp Po Boy at Mother's.
The Muffaletta at Central Grocery

Raw Oysters at the Oyster Bar in the French Quarter after seeing the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Ridiculous brunch at Commander's Palace: Pecan pancake, duck confit and a poached egg with hollandaise. I, unfortunately, didn't have the courage to order this out of fear that I would have a coronary on the spot
Ladies getting on stage to dance during Kermit Ruffin's set at the Blue Nile.
Kermit Ruffin
Kermit Ruffin
Robin Kinchun at House of Blues. Started off slowly, but she got good as the evening progressed.
Rainy night in New Orleans.

Behind the counter at Mother's.

Artwork by Robert Tannen, a great New Orleans artist who grew up in Coney Island, and moved to New Orleans in the 50's.
Dancing in the street.

Staff at Cafe Du Monde taking a break.
Ridiculously good baked oysters with Parmesean cheese at Acme.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Bruce Springsteen, The Super Bowl And A Healthy Dollup Of Corn

Bruce Springsteen’s 13 minute set (they went over by one minute) last night at the Super Bowl halftime show was a lot of fun. Bruce and the band looked like they were having a great time, and true to his word, the mini-set showcased the feeling of the final 15 minutes of a Springsteen show – fun, communal, exultant, and occasionally, very corny and silly.

That corniness has been a part of the band’s legend since before there was a legend of the E Street Band. Bruce has feigned heart attacks on stage, staged wrestling matches with bears, had conversations with aliens, spoken to God, and has had his mother admonish him on stage so he’d play one more encore. As Greil Marcus wrote in 1980, “At his finest, Springsteen can get away with almost anything, stuff that coming from anyone else would seem hopelessly corny and contrived – and that he can come up with stuff to get away with that most rockers since Little Richard would be embarrassed even to have thought of.”

Certainly, Springsteen stole many of those moves from the early rock and soul tradition. One thinks of James Brown shucking off cape after cape, leaving the stage only to come back to drive the audience further into ecstasy. Bruce has acknowledged these debts in interviews, and they are as crucial a piece of understanding his performances as any.

It is this portion of Springsteen’s artistic and performance persona that turns off a lot of smart people to his music. Bruce got mainly great reviews from last night’s set, but some predictable pans came in from writers like the utterly awful Jim DeRogatis, and from the New York Times. (And I'm sure we'll soon get another anti-Bruce missive from the awesomely tiresome Bob Lefsetz shortly.) What writers like these miss is that Springsteen (especially when he’s with the E Street Band) views a good part of his job to be an entertainer. And to a lot of people who love rock, and especially the denizens of post-Velvet Underground music, entertainer is a dirty word, redolent of inauthenticity, insufficiently artistic. (Can you imagine what Jeff Tweedy or Thom Yorke would do if you called them entertainers?)

But Bruce Springsteen is much smarter than these guys. Because he knows that a show is a SHOW – that when one is on stage, it’s inauthentic not to recognize that there is a stage. Punk and post-punk bands seek to eradicate the boundaries between audience and performer by pretending (emphasis on pretense) that there’s no difference between them. Springsteen recognizes that there’s a difference between the performer and audience, but he creates an emotional connection over the course of the night that reaffirms the common humanity of every single person in the building on that night – for the band and the audience. It's that affirmation of a common humanity - its joys, struggles, pain, fun, heartbreak and possibility - that makes a great Springsteen show so transcendent. And it’s what makes him so much wiser than the mistaken and misguided spokesmen for authenticity and cool who criticize him for his soulful, and sometimes corny heat.