Sunday, July 28, 2013

Living Colour @ The Kessler, 7.27.2013

Blindingly great show. They kicked open the doors with Robert Johnson's "Preachin' Blues" (a stroke of genius), played the whole Vivid album front-to-back, and encored with a couple from Time's Up plus JB's "Sex Machine" with Corey Glover traversing the balcony with his cordless mic. Wall-to-wall fiery musicianship, songs that still signify, and unexpected visual comedy from Corey (looking like a middle-aged Dead End Kid) and Vernon Reid (dressed in clashing checks and plaid). For me, the high points were Corey's taking it to church on "Open Letter To A Landlord," Vernon's powerfully emotive chromatic whirlwind solos, and the deep, deep pocket Will Calhoun made with hip-hop originator Doug Wimbish (who used an octave pedal and metal slide to play crazy guitar-like solo things, and did an homage to Hendrix at the very end). Total wish fulfillment. I'll be surprised if I see a better band this year.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Ronald Shannon Jackson primer

1) Charles Tyler Ensemble (1967). First record date. Fellow FTW expat Charles Moffet hooked him up. (Moffet was Ornette's drummer and OC didn't want him playing with other bands so he compromised by playing vibes.) RSJ was frustrated by ESP-Disk's no-rehearsal/one-take approach, but it's not as bad as he probably thought it was. Sometimes he sounds like Ed Blackwell. Sort of a chamber free jazz ensemble with a cello and Henry Grimes.

2) Albert Ayler Quintet, Live At Slug's (1966). Ayler (from Cleveland; Ohio is the secret music capital of America) was the only early free jazz pioneer without even a thimbleful of bebop in his style. Instead, he played a purely emotional, vibrato-laden amalgam of spirituals, marches, and nursery rhymes that Charles Ives would have understood and RSJ underscored, his kick-drum driven parade ground-via-honky tonk style coming to the fore.

3) When Dancing In Your Head came out, I had only heard two other Ornette Coleman records (Crisis and Science Fiction), so it was hard to figure out what to make of this most Ayleresque of all OC jams, on which he was accompanied by what sounded to me like James Brown's band on acid and Captain Beefheart's drummer. RSJ's stomping backbeat propels this ecstatic romp, but is kind of buried under what sound like percussion overdubs. When these records were new, I liked Body Meta (the follow-up album, recorded at the same sessions less) less, partly because Charlie Ellerbee had the ugliest sounding fuzzbox on Earth, but in the fullness of time, I probably dig it more because it's easier to hear Shannon.

4) RSJ only went with Ornette for a finite period, while OC's son was in college, but Ornette didn't work a lot, so in 1978, Shannon spent a few months touring and recording with Cecil Taylor. The titanic pianist had worked with some great drummers, but none of 'em had the unmitigated audacity to put a backbeat behind his shifting techtonic plates the way Shannon did. They made four records together, and One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye, which in its 2CD form documents a complete concert (including duos and a drum solo that were left off the original vinyl), is my fave. On it, RSJ does the best percussive impression of an erupting volcano since Elvin and Rashied teamed up on Trane's Meditations, and he was doing it all by himself! If you don't think you could withstand 140 minutes of this, try 3 Phasis, which doles out the thunder in smaller, more digestible chunks.

5) RSJ's original Decoding Society teamed veterans with newcomers that included a pair of Brooklyn teens named Vernon Reid and Melvin Gibbs. Shannon's compositions juxtaposed rhythmic complexity with graceful contrapuntal melodies, and as a leader, he seemed more focused on creating a band dynamic than with dominating the proceedings with flashy playing. That said, his rhythms shaped every note they played. Over time, the lead voice on top shifted from Billy Bang's violin to Lee Rozie's soprano to Khan Jamal's vibes to Henry Scott's scream trumpet, while Vernon balanced his fierce, Mahavishnoid intensity with rustic turns on banjo and steel, and Melvin conducted ongoing bass dialogues with Reverend Bruce Johnson. After a few indie releases, a major label contract brought them a shot at mass-ass acceptance without artistic compromise on Mandance and Barbeque Dog.

6) The mid-'80s brought collaborations with producer Bill Laswell, including Decode Yourself, where Shannon added electronic percussion to the Decoding Society's mix; Last Exit, a jazz-skronk supergroup with Sonny Sharrock, Peter Brotzmann, and Laswell, where RSJ occasionally interrupted the otherwise unremitting intensity to sing a Jimmy Reed ditty; and Pulse, an album of solo drums and spoken word (his own and others; actually produced by jazz scribe David Breskin) on which he declaimed Shakespeare, Poe, and "Puttin' On Dog," giving George Clinton a run for his money.

7) Also in the '80s, RSJ toured the world (Asia, Africa, Europe) at the behest of the Reagan State Department, and was a frequent visitor to FTW's Caravan of Dreams. (I was stationed at Carswell and totally unaware of his, Ornettte's and Blood Ulmer's frequent and regular performances there. Duh.) When Colors Play, written on a trip to Africa, gets short shrift for being released on Caravan's itty-bitty label, and for its paucity of big-name sidemen. I consider it his masterpiece (so far).

8) Power Tools - Strange Meeting (1987). Bill Frisell seemed kinda rustic and pastoral to be collaborating with RSJ and Melvin Gibbs, but then again, Pat Metheny made a good record with Ornette, so anything's possible. This is one of my favorite recs of the '80s, and I don't have words to describe the pleasure of getting to hear Melvin and Shannon play "Howard Beach Memories" from this album together at the Kessler in Oak Cliff last summer.

9) The late Jef Lee Johnson had more blues grit in his style than you'd expect of a guitarist from Philadelphia, and he was the mainstay of RSJ's bands on four albums: the guitar-centric Red Warrior and Raven Roc, the quartet date What Spirit Say (with rising young reedman James Carter), and Shannon's House (a larger ensemble with FTW home folks Thomas Reese and Rachella Parks). If you dig melodic Rawk guitar ramalama a la Jeff Beck/Funkadelic, you owe it to yourself to hear Jef Lee deconstruct "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" on Shannon's House. And if you think RSJ doesn't have a sensahumour, you should see the leprechaun suit he's wearing in the pic on the back of Raven Roc.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Hickoids, Pat Todd

Although the inevitable reference is to Exile On Main St., nobody makes diesel-fueled, Chuck Berry-based, C&W-infused rockaroll better than Meercuns. Exile was a wealthy Englishman's fantasy of truck stop, trailer park America. But for bands like the Hickoids and Pat Todd and the Rankoutsiders, the music the Stones were making in their prime (Beggar's Banquet through Exile) resonated because it was a refraction of a set of life experiences with which they were already familiar.

The Hickoids are superannuated punk-rockers (formed in Austin, 1985), not unfamiliar with the joys of consciousness-expanding substances, who embrace their Texan-ness in the same way as kindred spirits Doug Sahm, the Nervebreakers (whose frontman T. Tex Edwards records for head Hickoid Jeff Smith's Saustex Media label), and the Loco Gringos (two of whose songs the Hickoids cover on their brand new album, Hairy Chafin' Ape Suit).

The album title's one the Hickoids have been threatening to use since 1989. Consummate frontman Smith milks the chemically-fueled bad behavior for laughs on tracks like "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me, Kill Me" and "Stop It, You're Killing Me," while behind him, the band mixes 'n' matches its genres as if Waylon Jennings' Waylors and Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers had climbed into a time machine in 1979 and somehow got morphed together on their way to the present day.

Nothing purist about these boys; amiable scarecrow Davy Jones' wah-wah pedal (dig the Axis: Bold As Love homage that comes out of nowhere at the end of barfly's anthem "Workingman's Friend") rubs shoulders with utility muso Scott Lutz's pedal steel as though it was the most natural thing in the world. And "Cool Arrow" will appeal to folks with a sensahumour like my old housemate, who used to encourage me to stand on the porch in our majority-Hispanic Oak Cliff neighborhood and yell "Hijo de la gran puta!" at our neighbors. The cover art, by Dallas-based "outsider artist" Clay Stinnett, captures the Hickoids' sensibility nicely.

Meanwhile, over on the sincere side of the street, 14th and Nowhere is Pat Todd's third outing with the outfit he formed after logging 20 years with the Lazy Cowgirls (retaining the big beat of terminal Cowgirls drummer Bob Deagle, with original Cowgirl Keith Telligman returning to the fold on bass for this record). The Hoosier expat to L.A. connects the stylistic dots between Hank Williams and Peter Laughner and still rocks out with his heart stitched to the sleeve of his snap-button, as song titles like "Carry'n A Torch," "You and Your Damn Dream," and "Small Town Rock Ain't Dead" attest.

While Todd isn't exactly pushing back any frontiers here, there's honor in being a journeyman muso who continues to hone his craft, and there isn't a more reliable name in all of rockaroll. Ex-Sparks axe-slinger Earle Mankey provides his usual uncluttered, sympathetic production. And when the diminutive Todd -- who drives a truck when he isn't slogging around the rawk dumps -- digs in his heels and roars from the bottom of his feet over Deagle's magnificent crash and thump, as he does on "Dancin' To A Pack of Lies," one is inclined to believe him.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Wire Nest - "Sea of Sand"

More ambient/dub wonderment from once/future Sub Oslo magicians Frank Cervantez and John Nuckels.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


I was recently inducted into the Fort Worth Weekly's Hall of Fame during their annual Music Awards shindig. My friend Anthony Mariani, who introduced me, said and wrote some very kind things, and my computer-savvy middle daughter found a web app that allowed her to extract the five minutes where I appear from the much longer Youtube vid of the event. Hooray for technology.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Chris Butler's "Easy Life"

I just heard the best record I'm going to hear this year. It's not even scheduled for release yet, but when it is, you owe it to yourself...

"I'm a child of Cleveland, Ohio, but I became an adult in Kent, Ohio."

Ohio is the secret music capital of America, and Chris Butler came out of the most underrated scenes of the rock era, the one that arose around Cleveland and Akron in the early '70s, the most visible products of which were Devo, Pere Ubu, and the Dead Boys (not to mention Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders). Butler's best known as the creative force behind the Waitresses of "I Know What Boys Like" and "Christmas Wrapping" fame, for whom the late Patty Donahue was the public face. Before that, he played in Tin Huey, a band of which Butler's contemporary, Pere Ubu mastermind David Thomas, recalls thinking, "This is the mark, the standard, we're going to have to beat." More recently, Butler's been in the Guinness Book of World Records for recording the world's longest pop song, and gained notoriety for owning the childhood home of mass murder Jeffrey Dahmer.

More to the point, Butler was a student at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, when, in 13 seconds, the Ohio National Guard fired 67 rounds into a crowd of students protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, killing four. Butler was present that day, and his friend Jeff Miller was among the dead. The day was a defining event in Butler's life, and Easy Life is his attempt to process the emotions that have haunted him for the past 40 years. It's best heard as the soundtrack to a theater piece; the spoken interludes between the songs give the piece a substantial chunk of its impact, and the climactic song "Beggar's Bullets" even includes stage directions. It's a masterful piece of work, powerful and poignant in a way that should resonate for listeners too young to share Butler's memory of the historical events he describes.

Butler is the trickiest of songwriters, masking prog rock grandeur and dynamics with an exuberant pop sensibility and keenly observed lyrics that are funny because they're so true. For the first three quarters of the hour-long Easy Life, he vividly evokes the feeling of being a young college kid, experiencing freedom and discovery, talking about ideas with his friends in bars, playing in a band, falling in love, getting jilted. Because it's 1970, he's caught up in the social upheavals of his time, and views them in the context of those of the past that he's studying in his classes. At times, this mature man's take on a young man's vividly recalled inner life can be heartbreaking, as when Butler remembers his barroom claque, "All looking for something, that slippery whatever that's always missing. We're sure this is only temporary, though. We are too young to know that's what life is."

The loss of innocence comes like a punch in the gut. A reprise of the title song, which opened the piece, foreshadows it. "I have never ever felt that way ever again," Butler the narrator says, "of being swept up and pushed along by history towards a singularity...SHIT HITS FAN." The Dylanesque, solo acoustic "Beggar's Bullets" interpolates "Captain Trips Bums Clevo (What A Short, Dull Trip It Was)," a spoken account of a Grateful Dead concert, which leads unexpectedly to the big affective payoff. The denouement carries more weight because of everything that's preceded it. The bitter questions Butler spits out at the end of the song hit even harder. As crowds all over the world rise up to speak the truth to power, they remain sadly topical, too.