Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Things we like: Al Green, Allan Holdsworth, furthur down the Dead rabbit hole

1) Is there a sound possessed of more human warmth than Al Green's voice? I'm a-thankin' not. According to my wife, the last of the great Memphis soul men (I used to drive by his church on my way to work at the Sound Warehouse on Elvis Presley Boulevard, which I moved there to open in late '81 and got shitcanned from right after New Year's '82) owns the word "Baby" the same way Keanu Reaves owns "Du-u-ude!" and Harvey Keitel owns "Fu-u-uck!" These days, Fat Possum owns his catalog, and in the tradition of up-marketing reissues (as Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits gave way in turn to Golden Decade, The Great Twenty-Eight, and The Ultimate Collection), the LP and CD incarnations of Al's Greatest Hits and the 34-track The Absolute Best have been superseded by a 42-track double CD with the belt-and-suspenders title Al Green Greatest Hits: The Best of Al Green, which is as close to all his music we'll ever need as we can get this week. Like Sam Cooke, Al embodied the dichotomy of sacred and profane and even sang about it in songs like "Take Me To the River" and "Belle." Sometimes I wonder if the reason why fundamentalists are always getting caught in sexually compromising positions might not be that the folks driven to religious sanctimony are also the ones who struggle the most with their inner urges (apologies to Joe Henderson).

2) The big sleep claimed another estimable muso this week. The preternaturally fleet-fingered guitarist Allan Holdsworth, whom I saw in '76 with the New Tony Williams Lifetime and in '78 with UK, passed on Saturday at age 70. Holdsworth also performed with Soft Machine, Jon Hiseman's Tempest, Pierre Moerlin's Gong, Jean-Luc Ponty, and a great Bill Bruford band that also included Annette Peacock. He went on to lead his own bands for 30 years, often in the company of ex-Zappa drummer Chad Wackerman. The quicksilver fluidity of his lines was even more hornlike than John McLaughlin's and Sonny Sharrock's approaches. I always assumed he was hammering, but Thinking Plague guitarist and Holdsworth aficionado Bill Pohl maintains that Allan "picked way more notes than people realize." Worthwhile listening: Williams' Believe It, Bruford's Feels Good To Me and the Rock Goes To College DVD, Wackerman's Forty Reasons, and Holdsworth's own I.O.U., Metal Fatigue, and the live Then! A week before Holdsworth's passing, Manifesto had just released a pair of retrospectives of the guitarist's work: the comprehensive 12-disc The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever and the more concise 2-disc Eidolon.

3) Spurred on by Valderas' mid-jam "Other One" quote of a couple of weeks ago, I descended further down the Grateful Dead rabbit hole, reading bassist Phil Lesh's 2005 autobiography Searching for the Sound: My Life With the Grateful Dead and checking out a sampling of the treasure trove of Dead audio and video that's available online. After reading a Rolling Stone int with Lesh around the time of the last set of reunion shows, it occurred to me that being in the Dead was probably a lot different than anybody outside the band imagines, an impression borne out by Lesh's highly readable recollections. As much as the Dead's mystique came from their ability to create an improvisational gestalt -- proof positive that in music, the whole can be much more than the sum of its parts -- and the celebratory gathering of like-minded individuals, Lesh reveals that they could be a fractious lot. While they were still developing their experimental approach (as in the 2.14.1968 set, dedicated to the just-deceased Neal Cassidy, where they solidified the running order for their classic Anthem of the Sun LP), they were also talking about firing founder/early focal point Pigpen and Bob Weir, who'd go on to become an important contributor as they became more song-focused. Watching their 4.21.1972 performance for the German Beat Club TV show, I experienced transcendent moments during two different performances of "Playing in the Band" and one of "The Other One" that made me think my late friend Mike Woodhull was on target when he quipped, "The secret to being a Deadhead is knowing when to wake up."

Friday, April 14, 2017

Heater's self-titled EP

I was reading the news -- if 59 missiles are "presidential," then surely deploying "the mother of all bombs" must make 45 the greatest president of all ti-i-ime, ri-i-ight? "Is this 'situational and improvisational,' NYT?" I muttered, imagining a toddler going through his toy box, when my wife brought in the mail and the package containing this slab of vinyl, and changed my day for the better.

Heater's debut EP has been available digitally since last year, but I wanted to hold off on writing about it until I had the vinyl artifact in hand, because their music demands the tactile interaction only a record can give you. I've known Jamie Shipman, the bassist in this outfit, for years, but I never heard his band until Stoogeaphilia split a bill with them at Lola's Trailer Park last summer. When they tore into their first song, Hembree and I looked at each other, smiled, and said, "Kinda Husker-ish," for Heater's sound has the same confluence of aggression and melody that Messrs. Mould, Hart, and Norton's did.

Jamie, guitarist-singers Travis Brown and Adam Werner, and drummer Josh Lindsay might all be dads with livestock in their yards (well, almost all), but they're the kind of dads who could bond over a Descendents T-shirt one of them wore to parents' night at their kids' school. Their EP, recorded with Britt Robisheaux at Cloudland and released by Austin indie Twistworthy, contains four short, sharp shocks of powerful, politically-aware punk. "Reaching for Things Unknown" opens things with a statement of purpose, then "Take A Look Around" gives a snapshot of 2017 America. Turn the record over and "Rattled Walls" takes an unflinching look at the people on the receiving end of our bullets and bombs, and "Blur the Lines" examines "post-truth" from an interpersonal perspective. It's over before you know it, but no fear; you can turn it over and let the sound wash over you again.

Heater will be at Doc's in Fort Worth for Record Store Day, Saturday, April 22. Buy their record there, at Dreamy Life, or Born Late in Fort Worth; Good, Josey, or Spinster in Dallas; Waterloo in Austin, or online here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Things we like: Brokegrove Lads, Magma, Grateful Dead

1) Had another Brokegrove Lads session at Cloudland this past weekend, with Britt Robisheaux at the controls. Matt Hickey was under the weather and so sat out the tracking sesh, but will mix and add magic in his home studio. Poet-dramatist Rob Bosquez, a veteran of Wreck Room jams with whom I collaborated on a stage piece a couple of years ago, was along to flow verse over our noise. Terry Valderas, a drummer-DJ-producer who thinks like a composer, provided us with four sound beds, based on dreams, that served as springboards into the jams. One he thought would be "darker and weirder" ("Buluga Push Transit") morphed into Chic-like funk, with a particularly memorable bass hook courtesy of Robert Kramer. "Camilla La Luna," based on a dissonant snippet of Steve Tibbetts guitar, inspahrd me to play a solo that channeled Gary Quackenbush from SRC. Another piece had a Pharaoh Sanders-like spirituality, over which I played a line inspahrd by Chuck Berry. "Semicolon" was our bastardization of FZ's "Apostrophe." I allowed myself to be persuaded to overdub my solo instead of playing it live, which I found unsatisfactory. Next time, I'll blow the solo live and overdub the riddim. The closing jam in 6/8 was the least satisfying for me and made me realize we need to write something in that meter, which Terry seems to enjoy. I think I have just the thing.

2) When Magma was new in the early '70s, it was hard to figure what to make of a drummer-led French jazz-rock group, produced by Yardbirds/early Soft Machine svengali Giorgio Gomelsky, who wore Star Trek-like uniforms and sang in an invented language, but I've been drawn back to them by Jon Teague's advocacy and more recently, the chapter on Kohntarkosz in Julian Cope's Copendium. That album, their fourth, was an installment in mastermind Christian Vander's Kobaian saga, a kind of outer space sci-fi analog to Wagner's Ring cycle (with choral vocals to boot), and it stands along with its immediate predecessor, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, as the "classic" Magma. On the follow-up, Udu Wudu, Vander took his hands off the controls for a minute, allowing bassist Bernard Paganotti to pen a track, "Weidorje," the title of which he'd appropriate when naming his own band a couple of years later, and bassist/co-leader Jannick Top to dominate his own composition, "De Futura," with a bass solo that uses hypnotic repetition in a way that points to the heaviosity of stoner rock bands 20 years later. On Live/Hhai, which I've been checking out in my "deep listening room" (e.g., the car) of late, the lineup includes the distinctive solo voice of violinist Didier Lockwood, giving the music a feel not unlike Michal Urbaniak's Fusion, whom I heckled mercilessly when they opened for Larry Coryell's Eleventh House at SUNY Albany back in '75. We live, we learn. FTW progfather-turned Thinking Plague guitarist Bill Pohl also pulled my coat to a '74 BBC set with Top I'll have to check out.

3) Thanks to Valderas, I may have found the live Grateful Dead thing I've been looking for. Being of frugal mind and inclined to pick favorites even among my favorites, I lack the endurance to dig very deep into the available archives of live Dead, and find their non-American Beauty records tough going. Till now, the John Oswald-produced Grayfolded has been my go-to -- kind of an ultimate "Dark Star," cobbled together from over 100 performances -- but Terry shared with me a Youtube vid of Sunshine Daydream, the filmed record of a 1972 Oregon performance that reunited the Dead, recently returned from Europe, with the Merry Pranksters of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fame. The nine-song set includes a nice "China/Rider" and a 30-minute "Dark Star," along with some Chuck Berry to open and C&W to close. Turns out the thing is DVD-available, along with a 3CD set of the whole 21-song show. Something to remember when my music-buying moratorium is over.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Chuck Berry's Gradual Ascent to Heaven

[Apologies to Nels Cline for the title.]

I took a silly test on Facebook that, based on my musical preferences, guesstimated my age at 74. (I'll be 60 in a couple of months, if I still be livin'.) It's a fair cop. For the last decade or so, I've played in a band with guys aging from nine to 18 years younger than me. I'm the only one of us who doesn't like Van Halen. And I'm the right age for that shit -- turned 21 the year their first LP dropped.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago, when I picked up a Julian Cope tome I didn't know existed: Copendium. It's basically an analog version of his Head Heritage website, crammed with musical arcana from "my era" of music (late '60s on up), floridly described in his highly idiosyncratic and unremittingly enthusiastic prose style that makes the relative brevity of the entries advantageous. The pieces are arranged chronologically by the decade in which the subject rekkids appeared. (The '80s are thin because that was the decade Julian was busy telling the world to shut its mouth. I can relate; that was the decade I mostly spent Guarding Freedom's Frontier.) Looking at the entries for the '90s on up, I realized that there isn't a lot of music there that I care about. At a certain point (ca. 1990), everything new I heard started reminding me of something old. And it was surprising to me how much of that "something old" was Black Sabbath.

As a high schooler, I was an oddity among my age cohort for preferring first generation Brit invaders (Animals/Yardbirds/Stones) and their Meercun forebears (Chuck 'n' Bo, Wolf 'n' Muddy, John Lee Hooker) to the Holy Trinity of Grand Funk, Black Sabbath, and Led Zep. (True, I was enough of a partisan of the MC5 and Stooges to earn a trip to the school shrink for my sub-Bangsian English journal droolings over them, and there honestly wasn't a lot separating the bands I dug from the ones I didn't, sonically speaking. But that was the child I was.) And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that when I was first able to lay hands on the Chess catalog, a lot of what I heard seemed to me, as it did to St. Lester's nephew, "kind of bare without the feedback." But I acclimated.

So when I read the news that Chuck Berry had passed, I went to the cabinet where I keep my records and pulled out the copy of Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits that I bought when I was 13, abandoned when I moved to Texas, and got back a couple of years ago via my sister. I wanted to hear "Nadine" for the line "campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat." Like Dylan, there are lines of Chuck's that have seeped into the argot and our consciousness. In songs like the oft-quoted "You Never Can Tell," the oft-covered "You Can't Catch Me," and the secret Freedom Rider homage "Promised Land" (penned in a prison cell), as well as the ones everyone of A Certain Age knows by heart, Charles Edward Anderson Berry (1926-2017) captured the cadences of American speech better than any poet.

As deracinated as his music was -- besides Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, and Springsteen, contemporaries like Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran owed him their jobs -- Berry's life experience, which included stints in prison as well as in the charts, was that of a 20th century African American man. He wanted to get paid, and he demanded respect -- played with pickup bands for years to keep his touring expenses down, then delighted in fucking with them by changing keys and tempos on the fly. In the Hail, Hail Rock and Roll doco (DVD copies of which are fetching a pretty penny right now, along with copies of his out-of-print autobiography), you can see him handing his acolyte and advocate Keef Richards his head for trivializing his lead guitar style.

Chuck was the whole package: an instantly recognizable musical stylist (if not an innovator), a dynamic performer, and the great mythologizer of post-WW2 American consumer culture. Of his generation, only Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis remain, and he casts a longer shadow than any of them. I always say Hendrix was the water I grew up swimming in, as a guitarist, but in a very real sense, Chuck was the air I grew up breathing, as a fan. He has a new album, his first in damn near 40 years, coming out later this year. It might be great. It might be shit. No matter. We will not see his like again.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Brendan Toller's "Danny Says"

Since the music I love became popular fodder for documentary films (gotta catch those folks before they shuffle off this mortal coil), it's seemed a no-brainer to me that Danny Fields deserved his own movie. Aesthete, sensation seeker, and scintillating raconteur, Fields was present at the creation of punk (book readers, refer to Please Kill Me and From the Velvets to the Voidoids): a fixture at Warhol's Factory and Max's Kansas City, he edited teen magazines, got the MC5 and Stooges signed to Elektra, managed the Ramones, and lived to tell about it all with impeccable grace and charm. If some people's beef with Jarmusch's Stooges movie was that it's basically one guy talking for an hour and a half, what Brendan Toller's documentary portrait of Fields, Danny Says, has going for it is a subject whom you could listen to without getting bored for even longer than that.

Toller's interviews are all conducted in the present day (with the exception of a bit swiped from the excellent MC5: A True Testimonial), but rather than showing us a talking head for an hour and 45 minutes, he avails himself of photos and ephemera from Fields' personal collection (much of which has been donated to Yale University) as well as using archival footage and animation (the signature device of so many recent docos) to provide visual interest.

Danny Says delves into some areas of Fields' life of which I was unaware (graduated from Penn State at 19 and spent a year at Harvard Law before landing in Greenwich Village; as editor of Datebook, he pubbed John Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" remarks that resulted in the Beatles receiving death threats while touring the American South), as well as all the well-known tales, presented here with Fields' distinctive panache. Interviews with Fields' familiars such as Iggy, Elektra founder Jac Holzman, Leee Black Childers, Judy Collins, Alice Cooper, Lenny Kaye (who offers a heartfelt homage) and a particularly perceptive Legs McNeil help flesh out the picture.

Fields understood intuitively, perhaps better than anyone else, rockaroll's appeal to oddballs and outcasts, and how it could unify them and bring them (us) a sense of community -- although he would probably shudder at the very notion. His story, like James D. Cooper's Lambert and Stamp of a couple of years ago, proves that the people behind the scenes can have stories as compelling as the performers. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Things we like (songs and other things for insane times)

With a tip o' the lid to Kevin Ayers.

1) The Move Magnetic Waves of Sound -- Yet another comp by the estimable Brummers, with the added bonus of a DVD that includes three songs by the original five-piece from Beat Beat Beat (including a definitive "I Can Hear the Grass Grow") and the complete Colour Me Pop session (proving, if there was any doubt, that Trevor Burton was one flash bastard). Sure, it's all on Youtube, but I hate watching things on the puter as much as I hate reading PDFs.

2) Wadada Leo Smith Ten Freedom Summers -- Currently, I'm three months into a music-buying moratorium, but right after New Year's, I saw an Amazon deal on this I couldn't pass up. (Yes, I know, Stuff Central is evil. But too damn convenient.) While I need to listen a lot more to analyze in depth, I'll say that the contrast between the small jazz group (with one or two drummers) and chamber orchestra is seamless, and that the music is as immediately satisfying as anything I've heard recently.

3) Playing. Having had two Stoogeaphilia shows in as many months, in February I finally got to play synth and guitar improv with Jon Teague -- who leaves for Europe with Pinkish Black in April, then hits the west coast -- the end of February. We'd only been talking about it for like ten years. Maybe we'll even do it in public sometime. Recording with Brokegrove Lads the end of the month, then looking forward to my 60th (!) birthday show with the li'l Stooge band the end of June, and accompanying the jam at the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival at TCU in September. If I can contrive playing opportunities for all the other months, I'll consider 2017 a success in one area, at least.

4) Anticipation. Is making me late, is keeping me waiting...for April 22, when Pretties for You NYC performs the first Alice Cooper LP in its entahrty at Good Records in Dallas; April 28-30, when I Am Not Your Negro screens at the Modern Art Museum here; and TBD, when Tsi'iibil Chaaltun, double vinyl from Dennis Gonzalez's Ataraxia Trio drops. Also, sometime in November or December, the opening of Panther City Vinyl, which my old, dear friend, gifted visual artist and old school record man Dan Lightner will operate in a spot on Magnolia that's currently under construction. All I ever need is something to look forward to.

5) Divestiture. Getting rid of some records and CDs to eliminate some (but not all) duplication where I had both formats. Discovered a McCoy Tyner LP I thought I'd given away (actually I think I did, I just bought another copy) and a promo CD that was sent to me a couple of years ago, when I was too busy to write about it.

6) Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (which an estimable Brit scribe of my online acquaintance referrred to as "trendy") is disturbingly relevant these days. It seems all I need to do after getting my daily fix of outrage via the headlines is open her book and some particularly apropos passage will appear. F'rinstance: "The outstanding negative quality of the totalitarian elite is that it never stops to think about the world as it really is and never compares the lies with reality. Its most cherished value, correspondingly, is loyalty to the Leader, who, like a talisman, assures the ultimate victory of lie and fiction over truth and reality." I'm hoping to have her finished in time to start a Baldwin binge around the time I Am Not Your Negro screens at the Modern next month.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Harriet Tubman's "Araminta"

Harriet Tubman is the rubric chosen to represent a power trio of veteran musos who are accustomed to working the territory where free jazz, funk, and heavy rock intersect. Guitarist Brandon Ross has long been a mainstay in the groups of Henry Threadgill, Cassandra Wilson, Lawrence "Butch" Morris, and Oliver Lake, among others. His axe's blues-drenched song is refracted through a composer's sensibility and an array of electronics. Bassist Melvin Gibbs honed his craft with leaders like Ronald Shannon Jackson, Sonny Sharrock, and Henry Rollins. He lays down a foundation of shifting tectonic plates and slings thick-textured notes around like shards of obsidian in his solos. Drummer J.T. Lewis is equally at home subdividing the beat behind R&B divas, straight-ahead jazzers, and "outside" improvisers. With his bandmates in Harriet Tubman, he engages in three-way discussions where any man can dominate the conversation at any given time.

On Araminta -- the name given at birth to the band's namesake abolitionist -- their trialogue is joined by the trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, that most Milesian alumnus of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who's been doing career defining work in his seventh decade with a series of suites commemorating the American experience (the latest of which, America's National Parks, topped a lot of year-end poll lists last year). Together, they create a music that is simultaneously intentional, free-flowing, and spontaneous.

"The Spiral Path to the Throne" opens the proceedings with layers of shimmering electronic sounds, giving way to a series of solo exchanges over a dense rhythmic underpinning. Ross and Gibbs raise architectonic structures on "Taken," before "Blacktal Fractal" -- inspired by designs on Shoowa textiles from Congo -- is energized by some of Wadada's most salutary playing. "Ne Ander" lumbers with crushing heaviness before the lovely lyrical interlude that is "Nina Simone." The album's climactic tour de force comes with the one-two punch of "Real Cool Killers" -- which combines dub ambiance with heavy psychedelic sonics -- and Smith's composition "President Obama's Speech at the Selma Bridge." On the latter piece, the players conjure a storm over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with Gibbs and Lewis' thunder following Smith and Ross' lightning, evoking the memory of past struggles to summon strength for those to come. The closing ballad "Sweet Araminta" is a respite, a blessing, and a benediction.

Perhaps the uncertain days we're entering will bring a resurgence of freedom music. We'll have to wait and see, but for now, Araminta provides the kind of sustenance that your psyche and spirit have probably been craving.

Stream, download, or pre-order the physical CD from Sunnyside Records here.