Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story"

I have three stories that I keep writing over and over.

The first is about a social outsider who's also a creative person, and why you should be interested in them. (Most of my cover stories for the Fort Worth Weekly fit in this category.) The second is about a group of people who grow up together through music. (Most band bios fit in this category, one way or another.) The last is about a group of people who find a sense of community centered around music. The Wreck Room Stories book that I did with my wife is an example of this. Producer/director Tony D'Annunzio's documentary Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story is another, and it's a corker. (That means it's a goodun.)

The story of Russ Gibb's Grande Ballroom is one which signifies a great deal for me, since I spent a lot of time as a teenager listening to Detroit bands like the Stooges, the MC5, Mitch Ryder's Detroit, the Rationals, Bob Seger, SRC, and the Frost, and reading about the Motor City's radicalized youth community in Creem magazine and John Sinclair's articles for Jazz & Pop. From October 1966 to January 1970, the Grande was the epicenter of that community and a hotbed of rebellion, drugs, sex, revolutionary politics, and rock 'n' roll. For much of that time, it was also an essential stop for touring bands, particularly those from the UK.

While the Grande might have been patterned on the model of San Francisco psychedelic ballrooms like the Fillmore and the Avalon, the Detroit audience gave it a down-to-Earth, no-bullshit midwestern spirit that made it many performers' favorite place in America to play. And the hard-nosed, competitive Michigan music scene meant that listeners' expectations there were as elevated as their consciousness.

In his first film, D'Annunzio, a Detroit native with two decades in broadcast TV, tells this compelling story via interviews, archival footage and still photography -- including many of Leni Sinclair's iconic images of the MC5 and others -- and the stunning work of Grande poster artists Gary Grimshaw and Carl Lundgren. (After viewing Louder Than Love, I was motivated to peruse Sinclair and Grimshaw's book Detroit Rocks and immerse myself in those images again.)

The interviews are the heart of the story, and they're exceptionally well presented, including some surprises. Grande impresario Gibb -- a high school teacher who got his start in music promoting sock-hops because his students weren't allowed to have dances -- describes his exposure to the West Coast hippie ballroom culture (which every Texas music fan knows was exported there by Austin expat Chet Helms) and his efforts to bring it to the Grande -- a disused '20s dance palace and a great-sounding room designed for live music -- aided and abetted by rock 'n' roll beatnik poet/MC5 manager Sinclair. Gibb's an articulate and personable fellow who was willing to give the kids what they wanted even if it didn't appeal to him personally. (For the record, it was a blender the Stooges brought onstage for their first performance, not a toilet.)

Talking to D'Annunzio's camera, Sinclair comes across as much less overbearing than he did in the MC5 documentary A True Testimonial. Viewers who've seen that film will also note that guitarist Wayne Kramer seems more relaxed and spontaneous here, and drummer Dennis Thompson less angry and combative. (Maybe having a hometown boy behind the microphone makes a difference?) One of Louder Than Love's most surprising interviews is ex-Amboy Dukes guitarist Ted Nugent, who wisely puts his shrill right-wing blowhard persona on hold (or has it done for him editorially) and speaks of the Grande and '60s Detroit music scene with both fervor and humility.

Grande manager and Who familiar Tom Wright (whose memoir Roadwork is eminently worth seeking out) describes the importance of the Grande to the Who and other English bands, his reminiscences supported by Roger Daltrey's. Louder Than Love includes snippets from Wright's audio of the Who's world premiere performance of Tommy at the Grande, as well as previously unseen 8mm footage of that show. Emcee Dave Miller remembers having Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker to dinner at his parents' house, while photographer Tom Weschler recalls the night the crowd loaded Cream's equipment out over their heads so the band could make a flight home for Christmas.

B.B. King speaks with emotion of the rousing reception he received from the Grande audience, while Alice Cooper, whose band relocated to Detroit from L.A., talks about how they had to step up their game to earn a place on the Grande stage. Producer Don Was, too young to have played the Grande, provides a wealth of insight on the venue and its surrounding milieu. "Grande groupie" Ruth Hoffman and Fifth Estate editor Harvey Ovshinsky also provide valuable perspectives. My only beef with the interviews is that Rationals frontman Scott Morgan only makes a brief appearance, while non-participants like Henry Rollins (who's at least intelligent and informed in speaking of the Detroit scene's impact) and Slash get lots more onscreen time. It's also noteworthy that Morgan is seen without a hat for the first time since about 1987. (Why'd Ted get to keep his on?)

D'Annunzio integrates his interview material and period images seamlessly. There's a noticeable reliance on performance footage from other venues, most noticeably the 1967 Belle Isle Love-In (the Stooges' infamous 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival appearance is disguised in B&W), but it doesn't detract from the film's impact. The soundtrack is rich with Detroit rock 'n' roll music from the period. It also includes a new song from Frost leader Dick Wagner, as well as the late MC5 singer Rob Tyner's paean to "Grande Days."

Louder Than Love is currently making the rounds of festivals. D'Annunzio says it should be out on DVD by late fall or early winter this year. Watch for it. This story will resonate for you if you grew up getting your clothes moved around by air molecules from drum heads and speaker cones, whether or not you're familiar with the era it describes. For besides being unique and historic, the Grande's story is also universal.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Japonize Elephants' "Melodie Fantastique"

Myself, I blame Tom Waits.

If he hadn't teamed up with Kathleen Brennan and subsequently, with the release of Swordfishtrombones 30 (!) years ago, steered his career into a ditch even weirder than the one Neil Young headed for in the mid-'70s, we wouldn't be dealing with the glut of "twisted cabaret" acts -- you know, the kind that favor banjos, gypsy fiddles, accordions, and early 20th century-ish attire, and play music more redolent of Kurt Weill than the usual blues 'n' country suspects -- currently pounding the boards. Of those I've heard, Mark Growden and Tin Hat Trio are my favorites, and Japonize Elephants are another worthy one.

At first listen, their latest offering, Melodie Fantastique -- dedicated to departed band member Evan Farrell -- hits like an antique recording of jarringly modern musical fare. The title track has a cinematic sound, as if Bela Bartok and Bernard Herrmann collaborated on a soundtrack. Lyrics are cryptic, verging on Dada: "You fancy yourself a writer / Respond these questions three / Show her what she's won Nancy / A cut above the knee" (from "The Ancient Mariner's Boat Show"). "Endtimes, the Theme from Bat Boy" is a sinister instrumental worthy of Danny Elfman, while "The Publisher's Clearing House Sweeptakes" is a klezmer-rific rendering of a tale larded with contemporary garbage culture references. Side One ends with "Bruesters," a fiddle/banjo/steel-driven country lament with lyrics that would have had folks scratching their heads if it'd been broadcast on The Grand Ole Opry.

Turning the record over, the sequence "La Vida callejon rapida"-into-"Lord Crin Crin" conjures images of Mickey Katz's band bus getting lost somewhere in old Mexico, and the klezmorim mixing it up with the cantina band. From there, it's a short hop to the Wild West-themed "Willie's Whiskey II," which is equally evocative of Ennio Morricone (the whistling) and Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole strolling through The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. "Call the Zagorsky" and "The Zorlockian Anthem" sound like nothing so much as prog-rock in rustic old-timey garb. And the straight reading of "Stardust" is my favorite since, well, Willie Nelson's.

All in all, Melodie Fantastique is a mad romp that'll appeal to listeners who understand that there was popular music in America before 1956, soundtrack aficionados, and anyone whose tastes in tuneage are a little left of center. God bless the Japonize Elephants and all who sail on her.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Leadfinger's "No Room At the Inn"

Between 1999 and 2002, I was a frequent and regular contributor to the I-94 Bar, the Sydney-based e-zine whose webmaster, the Barman, pulled my coat to heaps of mighty Rock Action that made me imagine the Antipodes as a kind of alternate universe America, where all the Detroit and garage noise I took shit for liking when I was a snotnose working in the hipi record store was actually popular and influential.

Among my favorite practitioners of that style was Brother Brick, a band I once interviewed for the Bar, fronted by singer-guitarist Stewart Cunningham. Stew had an impressive resume, having apprenticed in the Proton Energy Pills and Asteroid B-612, and played in Challenger 7 and the Yes-Men concurrently with the Brick. (Speaking of which, you can cop Brother Brick's comprehensive Stranded In the '90s 2CD comp digitally via Amazon.)

The Barman recently hooked me up with some music by Stew's current band, Leadfinger (a nickname stemming from a childhood BB gun accident), including their 2011 I Belong To the Band EP (available digitally via the band's store or iTunes) and their brand new full-length, No Room At the Inn (available on CD or sweet, sweet vinyl via the estimable Aussie indie Citadel Records). He's got a lot of new tricks in his trick bag, and I was most pleasantly surprised to hear what he's been up to.

I Belong To the Band contains three originals and three covers that map out the territory Leadfinger inhabits. "What Did You See In Me?" opens the proceedings with Stones-y swagger before the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait" -- a song that, to these feedback-scorched ears, shall ever belong to Fort Worth's late, lamented cowpunk no-'counts Woodeye -- sets the stage for acoustic original "December Runaway," which jangles like the 'Mats' "Color Me Impressed" but also has an American roots flavor. (There's mandolin, but not in a Mumford & Sons way, thank Ceiling Cat.)

Rory Gallagher's "Tattoo'd Lady" tips its hat to the Irish blues-rock avatar without being slavishly imitative. Stew sees a parallel between Gallagher and Fred "Sonic" Smith, a connection I wouldn't have made, but which makes sense if one considers both men's penchant for relentless forward motion, minor keys, and idiosyncratic note choices and phrasing in their solos. "Leadfinger Theme" is all pummeling Detroit high energy, with an opening riff that shares a bloodline with the one in Wayne Kramer's "Sharkskin Suit." The title track's a nice surprise -- a deftly fingerpicked and soulfully sung rendering of a tune by acoustic ragtime bluesman Reverend Gary Davis.

No Room At the Inn puts it all together: a seamless and original synthesis of rock drive, pop sensibility, and roots flavor, built on a solid foundation of ace songcraft, impassioned singing, and expressive playing. On opener "You're So Strange," the introductory vocal, accompanied by shimmering tremeloed chords, recalls the work of Eric "Roscoe" Ambel of Roscoe's Gang/Yayhoos fame. The song's a mid-tempo rocker with an irresistible chorus, propelled by handclaps and adorned with female backing vocals. "It's Much Better" careens along like an out-of-control freight train, highlighted by a hook-laden guitar line. Stew sings it in an ebullient yelp.

"Gimme the Future" mixes ethereal backing voices with layers of ringing guitars, while "Cruel City" is another fervent rocker, recalling Brother Brick, but more melodic. "The Lonely Road," with its flatpicked intro, invokes the spirits of Gaelic ancestors in the same way as some of Rory Gallagher's music does. In a just universe, the jangle-rocker "The Wandering Man" would be a transcontinental hit. "Pretty Thing" isn't an homage to the '60s Brit despoilers like you might expect; rather, it's perfect pop worthy of Freedy Johnston, Brendan Benson, or Dom Mariani.

"The Other Ones" borrows the intro from the MC5's anthem of post-'60s disillusion, "Over and Over," then heads off in a whole 'nother direction, transforming into a minor-key guitar tour de force worthy of Neil Young when he steers his LincVolt for the ditch -- except Stew's got a lot more vocal power than ol' Shakey can muster. "Segue Three" is a cinematic snippet of modal guitar noodling, leading into the title track, a banjo-driven nod to the post-Uncle Tupelo Y'allternative nation, with a heart-tugging vocal performance from Stew. Closer "Don't Think Twice" juxtaposes crunchy six-string and chiming 12-string guitars, and is emblematic of the whole album's strengths. Rather than steamrollering you the way Brother Brick would have, it invites you in and then beguiles you to into staying.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Scott Morgan, Steve Hunter

Finally got my copy of Easy Action's incredible Scott Morgan Three Chords and A Cloud of Dust box set and have to admit that it's kind of overwhelming hearing all of this stuff in one place -- although also validating after being a Morgan fan for over four decades now.

I was on tap to write liner notes for this, but circumstances (a family situation) intervened, so my buddy Geoff from Philly (who has an insider's insight, having once managed Scott and amassed an unmatched collection of live Morgan recordings) stepped up to do the honors (I do get one page in the liners for something I dashed off on the quick; my blogged review is here). Makes me want to go back and dig out the cassettes Scott gave me of the Jones Brothers, the first Hydromatics album, and the Rationals' "fan club album" when/shortly after I met him at SXSW '98 -- for sentimental reasons.

Easy Action honcho Carlton Sandercock being the gentleman that he is, he always gives you something extra -- in this case, an Extended Play EP with a selection of tracks from various stages of Scott's career. A bedroom acoustic recording dates from 1963; if that date's correct, it's pretty incredible, as his mature vocal style is already in place at that early date, and the song's quite deep and soulful for an Ann Arbor teen who hadn't yet sung in public. A live version of Little Milton's "Feel So Bad" by Guardian Angel -- the band Scott fronted between the Rationals and Sonic's Rendezvous Band -- is a taster for an upcoming Easy Action release for which I penned an essay; it smokes.

"Rhythm Communication" features his early '80s outfit with two drummers, SRV-esque guitarist Mike Katon, and second vocalist Kathy Deschaine. "Heaven" is a re-recording of an SRB tune by his '90s-Millennial Euro band the Hydromatics, previously only available on a rare 7-inch (a copy of which I got from Hydros guitarist Tony Slug, a fine Dutchman to know and be associated with). "Wang Dang Doodle" is live from a rare 1995 Scots Pirates appearance in New York City, while Al Green's "Full of Fire" comes from a live radio broadcast by Scott's contemporaneous hometown band, Powertrane. Better order fast, as there are only 100 copies of the EP, and all 21 dollars American for the box set go to help defray Scott's medical expenses.

Speaking of classic Detroit jams, back in the early '70s, Steve Hunter was responsible for two slabs of white-hot guitar damage that were most influential on my young psyche: the fiercely aggressive biker-rock version of Lou Reed's "Rock and Roll" on Mitch Ryder's Detroit LP -- still one of the great rock records of the '70s, for my two cents -- and the epic intro to "Sweet Jane" on Uncle Lou's Rock and Roll Animal, on which Steve and his guitar partner, ex-Frost bossman Dick Wagner, also invested "Heroin" with incongruous beauty and majesty.

Hunter and Wagner also did yeoman work for estimable producer Bob Ezrin (on his odyssey from Detroit to The Wall) with artists including Alice Cooper (in whose "original" lineup Hunter now subs for the late, lamented Glen Buxton), Aerosmith, and Peter Gabriel. Hunter made a solo album, Swept Away, for Atco in '77 (including a version of the Beach Boys' "Sail On Sailor," if memory serves), then dropped off my radar (although he remained active, recording three more albums and doing sessions including those for Bette Midler's The Rose).

Imagine my surprise, a couple of years back, to realize that the grinning fella in the wool beanie behind the SG in the Lou Reed Berlin DVD was none other than Hunter. For an album with such a downer rep, the performances director Julian Schnabel captured radiate the pure joy of music-making; if you could bottle drummer Tony "Thunder" Smith's performance on "Caroline Says I," you could put the makers of Prozac out of business -- never more so than when Steve and Lou trade licks on "Oh Jim," the New York street poet turned cranky old man coaxing the hot Motor City axe-slinger to go just a little bit further.

Now, through the generosity of fellow fan Kerry Kudla, I hold in my hands a copy of Hunter's new, Kickstarter-funded solo CD, The Manhattan Blues Project. Off the bat, what's most striking about the music here is the gentle, ruminative nature of the settings in which Hunter frames playing of quiet lapidary beauty. It's not a Big Rock Record; those expecting Son of Rock and Roll Animal might be disappointed; its pleasures are much more subtle, but equally rewarding, if approached in the correct spirit (try listening while alone in a quiet house). Hunter renders his notes with as much exquisite detail as Jeff Beck, minus the bombast.

Hunter played most of the instruments here himself, with vocal contributions from his wife Karen and mostly unobtrusive assistance from a handful of stellar guests that include bassist Tony Levin (who also played on the original version of Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill," reprised here). "The Brooklyn Shuffle" is sort of a Freddie King-meets-the-Allman Brothers type thing, with solos from guest axe-slingers Johnny Depp (that's right, ladies, he can burn on git-tar, too!) and Joe Perry (paying Steve back for the first half of "Train Kept A-Rollin'"). A soulful version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" radiates spiritual peace, while "Twilight in Harlem" inserts Joe Satriani and Marty Friedman's fretboard gymnastics in the middle of a performance otherwise marked by taste and restraint. Guitar geeks with a contemplative bent take note.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Hickoids/Grannies, Pinata Protest

I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.

When I was looking to escape, Brooce Springsteen-like, from my nowhere town on Lawn Guyland back at the ass-end of the '70s, the two places I considered (after being dissuaded from moving to Boston -- what a mistake that would have been! -- by an acquaintance who'd moved there and was back in six months) were Louisiana and Texas, on the basis of their being the last two states in America with thriving indigenous musical cultures. When my drummer from college called after seeing the Sex Pistols in Dallas and told me they sucked, but local openers the Nervebreakers were great, not to mention the fact you could make $9 an hour "raking rocks in the road" (the only work he thought I was capable of doing, evidently), you could drive your car without liability insurance (I was paying $900 a year with a clean record in New York), and you could "drive up to a cop with a beer in your hand and he'd just wave" (unless you were in the Fort Worth Stockyards, in which case he'd probably be drunker than you and beat the shit out of you), my mind was made up.

It's a truism, but it's also true that in Texas, you get a cornucopia of musical styles, the product of the Lone Star State's confluence of cultures -- country, blues, Tejano, polka, jazz, Western Swing (jazz with cowboy hats, born in Fort Worth), rockabilly, psychedelia (a lot of the seeds of the "San Francisco sound" were transplanted from Austin), even punk (after the Nervebreakers came a deluge that included the Huns, Big Boys, and Dicks, to name but three) -- as well as its unique sensibility, which is unpretentious and often humorous. The archetypal Texas muso is a musical omnivore along the lines of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, or James Hinkle. Even musicians whose style remains in one genre have been nourished by more than one root source; the cats in Fort Worth doom-metal juggernaut Solomon, f'rinstance, teethed on both Led Zeppelin and Vicente Fernandez, and retain an appreciation for both. Which brings us to the latest release from Saustex Media, the San Antonio label helmed by Jeff Smith, frontman for long-lived (formed in 1985) cowpunks the Hickoids.

300 Years of Punk Rock, a split LP with Bay Area-based "fuckpunks" the Grannies, is both a taster for the Hickoids' soon-come Hairy Chafin' Ape Suit album and a souvenir of the two bands' recent rampage across Europe. The Hickoids' side comprises four tracks to the Grannies' six, with lots of room for guitarist Davy Jones -- one of the band's prime onstage visual vectors, looking for all the world like a psychedelic scarecrow staked out in the middle of the Hickoids' cornfield as he churns out the nasty Stooge-esque fuzz 'n' wah-drenched rifferama -- and utility muso Scott Lutz (pedal steel and keys) to stretch out. This includes two covers of songs by their familiars the Loco Gringos, a legendary Dallas outfit whose aesthetic revolved around Schaefer beer, tequila, corndogs, and bales of hay. (The Gringos' saga is memorably recounted in an oral history Jeff Liles penned for the Dallas Observer on the occasion of a 2009 reunion gig.)

Musically, the Gringos' "TJ" is a ringer for "Me and Bobby McGee," which means that the ghost of Janis J. hovers around the tequila bottle, but it's set to a bumpa-chicka beat worthy of '70s Waylon Jennings, overlaid with the Hickoids usual miasma of feelthy guitars, that takes off into a wailing rave-up worthy of the Stones ca. Some Girls. The other Gringos cover here, "Fruit Fly," is a suitably desperate-sounding minor-key romp. On "Stop It You're Killing Me" and "The Workingman's Friend," Smith comes across like a corn-fed Jim Morrison, intoning a tale of sexual misadventure on the former and navigating a barfly's odyssey on the latter (before taking a detour into the most bizarro Hendrix homage you'll hear this year). All of which whets one's appetite to hear Hairy Chafin' Ape Suit complete.

As befits a Bay Area crew, the Grannies are a little more visually extreme, if a little less naturalistically so, than the Hickoids, looking like a dystopian nightmare vision of glam and sounding like a holdover from the '90s wave of Scandinavian turbo rawk. They tip their collective lid to '70s punk via covers (Boston's Nervous Eaters -- frontguy Bjorn Toulouse is a Beantown expat -- and Brits Slaughter and the Dogs) and the "Chinese Rock"-alike intro to "Sonic Granitosis." "God Loves the Hickoids" pokes good-natured fun at their tour mates by approximating their sonic shtick, while elsewhere, the Grannies kick up a mighty ruckus, anchored by a hot rhythm section, and a mighty high time is had by all.

Pinata Protest, whose debut disc Plethora managed to slip by me last year, plays an unlikely hybrid: conjunto-punk. Front dude Alvaro Del Norte came late to Mexican music, studying accordion at community college, and recruited his band mates from a San Antonio skateboard shop that was also a local punk hub. On El Valiente, producer Frenchie Smith of Jet/Toadies fame gives their synthesis a big-label sheen, from the relatively straightahead (albeit uber-amped-up) conjunto of "Vato Perron" to the unalloyed hardcore of "Que Puedo." Separated from its cultural context, "Life On the Border" could be mistaken for Dropkick Murphys yerdy-yerdy Irish-punk, but there's no mistaking the provenance of Vicente Hernandez's conjunto classic "Volver, Volver" (which it took cojones the size of the Alamo to cover) and the venerable "La Cucaracha": the sound of a young band not just owning its cultural heritage, but making it stand up and roar.

(Speaking of Bay Area-Texas connections, listeners for whom Pinata Protest whets an appetite to hear the genuine article, unalloyed, are directed to the Mexican selections in the Arhoolie Records catalog, which include crucial releases by Flaco Jimenez and Lydia Mendoza. Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz is the subject of the documentary This Ain't No Mouse Music. Watch for it.)

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Further thoughts on the Stooges record

1) I've been listening to it non-stop since I finished the review. So far, so good.

2) Even the songs I was less than stoked with on at first listen are starting to kick in. While on one level, "DD's" is Iggy's one opportunity here to play his crass old dude card (which he did for all of The Weirdness, to its detriment), on another, the melody sticks in my head, and Mackay's horns remind me of the Saints when they added horns. And "Dirty Deal," which was my least favorite fast song at first, is becoming my most favorite. It's something about the way the song's relentless forward motion reminds me of being a kid and running down a hill as fast as I could, and the little 5th-to-7th riff at the end of the cycle reminds me of trying to stop.

3) Curiously, the record this most reminds me of is Sticky Fingers: It's short, to the point, a small batch of very diverse but memorable songs (although on Ready To Die, the fast-to-slow-songs ratio is the inverse from the Stones' album). Comparisons being odious, The Weirdness was a big batch of songs that all sounded the same.

4) The title is Truth In Advertising. Iggy's preoccupied with mortality here -- which is fitting and proper for a gentleman of his age.

5) I do believe that Ready To Die is James Williamson's masterwork, in terms of writing, playing, and production. So there.

6) While the bonus track "Dying Breed" fits in thematically, it doesn't really add anything to the pristine ten-track album. Musically, it demonstrates what a fine slide guitarist James is, but it does so in a way that's shrill in the same way as the Ron Wood-era Stones tend to be. I haven't heard the instrumental version of "The Departed," but I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything. Perfection doesn't require enhancements.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Mo' scrawl on

A review of Coherence Quartet's album Coherence is online now.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

My scroll on

A review I penned of Shofar's Ha-Huncvot is online now.