Wednesday, April 27, 2016

They Say the Wind Made Them Crazy's "Far From the Silvery Light"

Photo by Ginger Berry
They Say the Wind Made Them Crazy is a collaboration between two of the most individuated artists to emerge from the small but hardy North Texas experimental music scene. (Denton's long been a hotbed, but currently, Dallas is supporting two regular performance series: Cody McPhail's monthly Dallas Ambient Music Nights, and Stefan Gonzalez's weekly Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions. And Fort Worth...lags behind.)

Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Ruth Alexander has performed with a myriad of Denton-based improv and noise ensembles, as well as the progressive rock-influenced Cerulean Giallo. (I first encountered her singing backup with freak-folknik Warren Jackson Hearne and the Merrie Murdre of Gloomadeers.) Her solo work incorporates elements of "voice-as-instrument," storytelling, and performance art. Last year, she released Words On the Wind, a haunting and deeply personal meditation on a desolate place -- specifically, the West Texas farm where she grew up.

Guitarist Gregg Prickett is a member of the ritualistic jazz-rock trio Unconscious Collective. He was the last guitarist to work with titanic drummer-composer Ronald Shannon Jackson, who thought highly enough of Prickett's compositions to include two of them in the setlist for his last live performance. Prickett has played in numerous other groups, including black metal band Dead To A Dying World, Wanz Dover's garage rock outfit Black Dotz, and his own heavily Mingus-influenced Monks of Saturnalia.

The duo's inaugural release, Far From the Silvery Light, drops in June on Tofu Carnage, a label that understands The Romance of the Artifact, favoring heavy colored vinyl and deluxe packaging, with artwork by Ginger Berry that effectively conveys the label's aesthetic.

The music runs the gamut of human emotion, creating an atmosphere that's eerie, primal, and atavistic. While both musicians are classically trained, they're seasoned enough improvisers to use their technique to channel subconscious energies. It's thrilling to hear the sound of Alexander's voice so clearly -- both in its pristine state and with electronic embellishments -- outside the clamor of a large ensemble. Prickett matches her with shimmering arpeggios, bone-crushing distorted chords, and shuddering dissonances, the metallic clangor of his feedback and scraped strings matching her ululations and agonized shrieks.

The thematic content of this mostly wordless record relates to subjects the two artists have visited before in their separate endeavors: loneliness and isolation; mankind's loss of connection with the land and the human and animal spirits that inhabit it. The album's centerpiece is the sprawling, 16-minute "Comancheria," which can be viewed as a continuation of two Unconscious Collective songs named for different Comanche bands, and inspired by the different ways in which they responded to genocidal colonization by Europeans. When a narrative does intrude, it's in the form of two views of a confrontation between humans and animals, a text informed by the understanding that those who had a purer relationship to Nature often died by its violence.

Far From the Silvery Light is both a notable achievement for its creators and a compelling listening experience for those with adventurous ears.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Robert Bensick Band's "French Pictures in London"


Estimable indie Smog Veil continues their documentation of Cleveland's rock underground with this, the latest installment in their "Platters du Cuyahoga" series. As every Velvets to Voidoids reader knows, Robert Bensick was a principal in the early-'70s synth-based experimental outfit Hy Maya, and a catalyst in the budding Cleveland scene. French Pictures in London is the previously unreleased LP recorded under Bensick's leadership in 1975 by a unit that included future Pere Ubu members Scott Krauss and Tom Herman. (The formation of that band effectively scuttled Bensick's plans to tour the material.)

Bensick (b. Sandusky, 1950) was a Cleveland State University art student who'd drummed in Nuggets-era outfit The Munx before he developed an interest in electronic music, started circuit-bending analog stomboxes into primitive synths, and participated in eclectic jams that brought together advanced thinkers from Clevo's visual art and music communities. The songs on French Pictures in London describe various characters from that milieu. The album was recorded in a professional studio for A&M Records under a deal that subsequently fell through (perhaps because it lacked the commercial appeal of Bensick's friend and booster, ex-Raspberries frontman Eric Carmen). The circuitous path leading to its release, as well as the background and events that led to its creation, are detailed in Nick Blakey's meticulously researched liner notes -- some of the finest historical rockwrite to come down the pike in a few seasons.

By the time these recordings were made, Bensick had reinvented himself as a quirky pop singer-songwriter-guitarist who also played flute and ARP and EML synths. Absent fellow Buckeyes Devo's high concept, Ubu's dark undercurrent, or Tin Huey's zaniness, the Bensick Band's closest auditory analogs are the Canterbury bands, with whom they share both early (pre-fusion) jazz-rock proclivities and a penchant for lyrical obscurity. Bensick's not a strong singer, so he compensates with an arch and artful delivery worthy of Bryan Ferry or Russell Mael. Keyboardist Michael Hronek, who helped Bensick shape the arrangements, and future Ubu guitarist Tom Herman, whose wah-drenched leads predict Funkadelic's Mike Hampton, provide instrumental spice.

The songs flow together to form a seamless suite. Standouts include "Lilly White," with its brisk forward motion and tasty flute solos; "Night Life," in which an ominous fuzz bass ostinato gives way to instrumental explorations; "Muse," on which Bensick declaims over moody atmospherics; "Sweet Pricilla," with its haunting Mellotron backing; and "Doll," an orgy of synth racket and mock dementia. French Pictures in London is an intriguing introduction to a unique musical voice and proof positive (as if any more were needed) that '70s underground rock still hasn't yielded all its treasures.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Dennis Gonzalez at the Grackle Gallery, 5.14.2016

Since retiring from teaching a couple of years ago, Oak Cliff Renaissance man Dennis Gonzalez has had more time to devote to his visual art, which -- like his music and poetry -- finds beauty in realms of spirituality and the subconscious. His new musical project, Ataraxia, teams him with bassist Drew Phelps and tablaist Jagath Lakpriya, and they'll be performing at Grackle Art Gallery at 4621 El Campo in Fort Worth on Saturday, May 14, in conjunction with the opening of a show of his works on paper. Ataraxia's not a firestorm like Gonzalez's trio with his sons, Yells At Eels. Instead, it's a quiet, spacious sound that will lend itself well to the intimate setting of the Grackle, where Linda Little and Matt Sacks are making good things happen. Here's some audio from Ataraxia's debut performance at the Benbrook Public Library a few weeks ago:

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Ten things about Prince

1) When I was stationed in Korea, '82-'83, 1999 was just a notch below "The Message" and "Atomic Dog" among my anthems. When I got off the plane at Lambert Airport coming "back to the world," I kissed the tires of a red Corvette because of him.

2) Miles Davis had him pegged. Prince synthesized all the black music of his lifetime -- not just Jimi, Sly, and JB, but Little Richard, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson, too -- into an amalgam that was always distinctly his own.

3) He was also a better male Joni Mitchell impersonator than either Townshend or Rundgren.

4) No one else so defined the sound of the '80s. Those drum and synth sounds were ubiquitous. And he wrote, played, and produced everything on his records. No Quincy Jones and battalion of songwriters and studio cats needed.

5) Unlike Michael, who styled himself as a child, or Bruce, who was about as sexy as the Brawny paper towel guy, Prince exuded a polymorphous sexual vibe that scared the bejeezus out of people like Tipper Gore (which is part of the reason why I voted for Nader in Y2K, FWIW).

6) "Purple Rain" is the anthem of the '80s, hands down. It works as a gospel song, a rock song, or a country song. I used to think the strings at the end lasted too long. Now they seem just right.

7) The 12" mix of "Kiss" is the greatest funk jam the JBs never played.

8) He was the ultimate crossover artist. And in that sense, a creator of an inclusive community. We need more things to all agree on.

9) His concert on MTV was like Sly at Woodstock meets JB at Boston Garden -- some kind of ultimate R&B throwdown.

10) He was a Jehovah's Witness who gave back, quietly. More successful folks should follow his example.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Things we like: Don Pullen, Yves Theiler Trio, Tahiti with Doc Strange

1) Spurred on by my buddy Phil Overeem, I've gone on a dive back into the catalog of Don Pullen, a favorite ivory-tickler and, like my other fave, Jaki Byard, a Mingus alumnus.

Pullen first came to light in the mid-'60s with Giuseppe Logan, playing knuckle-busting clusters and glisses that elicited Cecil Taylor comparisons which Pullen claimed were unwarranted. After years in eclipse backing singers and playing in organ trios, Pullen re-emerged with Mingus in the early '70s and was part of the quintet with tenorist George Adams that recorded the two Changes LPs -- arguably the titanic bassist-composer's last great work. After breaking the seal on his solo career with the sterling Solo Piano Album on tiny Canadian indie Sackville, Pullen alternated challenging albums for Italian labels Horo and Black Saint (my favorite being the explosive Capricorn Rising quartet date with Sam Rivers and the ruminative solo Healing Force) with more commercial efforts for Atlantic (adding session guys on electric instruments and percussion, as was their wont with artists like Pullen, Don Cherry, and even Mingus during the fusion decade).

Through the '80s, Pullen co-led a quartet with Adams that also included Mingus' long-serving drummer Dannie Richmond until his death in 1988. In the late '80s, the group signed with the revived Blue Note label, and it was for them that Pullen recorded his last series of albums, at the helm of a trio and his African Brazilian Connection. Pullen's "late period" was characterized by elegiac lyricism, as heard in his compositions "Ah George We Hardly Knew Ya" and "Ode to Life," that could have been inspired by Adams' death in 1992 and his own 1994 diagnosis with lymphoma, which took his life the following year. Less astonishing than Taylor, as versatile as Byard (but less humorous), Pullen might just be the most consistently moving of the three.

2) The saxophonist Dave Liebman is reputed to have told Miles Davis, when Miles chided him for leaving the trailblazing early '70s Davis band to play styles that Miles had abandoned in the previous decade, "You might have played that music already, but I haven't." Or words to that effect. It's as good of a response as any to the periodic jeremiads one reads (particularly online, where complaint is the lingua franca) regarding the dearth of innovation in jazz since the aforementioned decade (which I find as odious as the periodic ancestor-bashing one also reads -- usually by jealous people with an axe to grind). But it needn't be so.

It's always a thrill to stumble upon a young musician, influenced by but not in thrall to tradition, who's managed to forge an original expression out of the old idioms. One such is pianist-composer Yves Theiler, born  Zurich, 1987, who leads a trio with bassist Luca Sisera and drummer Lukas Mantel on Dance in a Triangle, their second outing as a unit. As a leader, Theiler is confident enough to feature his men prominently on the lead-off track, "For Bass." Drummer Mantel is definitely a player to watch -- as likely to borrow ideas from his previous career as a hip hop DJ as he is to careen off into orbit like Tony Williams circa Filles de Kilimanjaro.

Theiler's compositions have the formal elegance of Herbie Hancock's, as well as more funk and grit than European jazzers often possess. For proof of the former, dip a toe in the title track, where Theiler plays electric piano; for the latter, dive into the mutant fatback R&B groove "Book of Peace." Theiler's technique is impeccable, but never flashy or showy, always serving the demands of the piece first. Every note he and his well-balanced group play demonstrates a rigorous musical intelligence.

3) Back when he was still with the group PPT, rapper-producer Tahiti was always threatening some big conceptual stroke. Their album Denglish, f'rinstance, was sort of a Daisy Age take on Swinging London, although its best moment was a song dedicated to Tahiti's mother. The group fragmented, with Tahiti and Pikahsso reforming under the moniker Awkquarius and becoming part of the creative team for the Trap House Youtube TV show.

Now Tahiti and another Trap House collaborator, rapper Doc Strange, have an EP, Sindrome, that's due for digital release May 31 on Sanction Records, the imprint of producer-engineer Ty Macklin's Alpha Omega Recording Studios. (Macklin also performs under the moniker XL7; Tahiti and Doc Strange both appeared on his 2015 single, "Don't Get It Twisted.")

Sindrome is nothing less than a 27-minute hip hop opera about alien abduction, replete with a no-fooling narrative arc, allusion-rich wordplay, an anti-hero protagonist ("Villan"), Dark Side of the Moon sonic signifiers ("Astounding"), outer space sex ("Making Love"), hubris ("So Special") followed by tragic denouement, with the hero in the hands of a government that seems more malevolent than the aliens ("Syndrome").

Most valuable players include guitarist-keyboardist Taylor Pace, bassist John Cannon (who died of cancer in 2015), and vocalist Shaniqua Williams. Standout track "What Is You?" dissects hip hop's (and America's) obsession with identity and ethnicity, with an insidious hook line: "Where I'm from, boy, I'll tell you / They'll walk up and straight ask you...'What is you mixed with?'" You might well arsk. (I'll post a download link when one is available, so watch this space.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Roy Nathanson's "Nearness and You"

Roy Nathanson's a New York-based saxophonist who's co-led the Jazz Passengers -- whose music juxtaposes lounge jazz and freeblow -- with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes since 1987, after the two men played together in John Lurie's Lounge Lizards. The Passengers' work includes collaborations with Elvis Costello, Deborah Harry, and Little Jimmy Scott. Nathanson's also toured and recorded in a duo with pianist Anthony Coleman, and released Fire at Keaton's Bar and Grill, a concept album about a fire in a fictive nightclub.

Nearness and You, recorded during a June 2015 residency at avant-gardist John Zorn's Lower Manhattan club, The Stone, finds Nathanson performing in duos with various regular collaborators, alternating versions of the Hoagy Carmichael chestut "The Nearness of You" with spontaneous improvisations. Besides Fowlkes and Coleman, Nathanson's duet partners include Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra leader-pianist Arturo O'Farrill, guitarist Marc Ribot, and pianist Myra Melford (whose mentors include Jaki Byard, Don Pullen, and Henry Threadgill, and it shows). Trombonist Lucy Hollier, a student of Fowlkes', joins in on her composition "Ludmilla's Lament."

The tracks flow together like a seamless suite, or perhaps more accurately, like an ongoing conversation where different speakers interject at different times. Of the pianists, O'Farrill's the most rhapsodic (particularly on Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino," which makes me want to re-hear her '70s albums like Dinner Music and European Tour 1977), Coleman the most volcanic, Melford the most elegant. Ribot's pointillistic approach to the acoustic instrument on this date reminds me of the time I saw him cover Albert Ayler on solo acoustic. As a saxophonist, Nathanson's capable of lyricism, virtuosity, and rigor. He and Fowlkes complement and mirror each other the way Ornette and Cherry did. The expressive range of his playing on this set makes me want to hear more of his work.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Bruce Springsteen's "The River"

About ten years ago, my mother went missing for 23 hours at Christmastime. She was at the bank and called my sister to tell her she was coming right over. My sister lived about ten minutes away from the bank. Mom wound up traversing the state of New Jersey several times, turning around each time she encountered evidence that she was going the wrong way: New York City, the ocean, Philadelphia, the Delaware Water Gap. She turned up at a mall 60 miles from home, where she parked her car and walked around until she saw a guy using a cellphone and asked if she could borrow it to call her daughter. My sister wound up having to call the local police to arrest Mom, since mall security couldn't hold her. When she and her future ex-husband went to pick up Mom, they had to drive around the parking lot for hours because she couldn't remember where she'd left the car. I asked Mom later how she'd felt while she was driving around lost for hours. "It was fun," she said. My sister and I tried to make Thelma and Louise jokes, but only later did I realize the truth: Mom was Bruce Springsteen.

I was never what you'd call a Springsteen fan.

When his first couple of records came out, he seemed to me like a particularly loghorrheic Van Morrison imitator. Indeed, on songs like "Blinded by the Light" and "For You," the boy sounded like he was trying to recite the entire Manhattan phone directory. It didn't help that "Blinded" had been covered by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, who got the lyrics wrong and gave us the immortal "Wrapped up like a douche" to make fun of. And my freshman year of college, it seemed that every freshman girl owned the same two LPs: Greetings from Asbury Park and Piano Man. (I grew up on Long Island, so I'm entitled to hate Billy Joel.)

When Born To Run arrived, replete with "rock 'n' roll future" hype from Rolling Stone scribe Jon Landau (the man who eviscerated the MC5 in the studio when he produced their sophomore album), its Spectorsound-aping production reminded me of Christmas music. When I went back to visit my bad-acting college chums after I'd dropped out, I walked into my old drummer's room (the man who later talked me into moving to Texas, although he claims not to remember doing so) and found a copy of the album on his turntable. I immediately ripped it off and smashed it to smithereens as he looked on in horror. (Looking back, it's a wonder he didn't kill me.) Later, on the way to Texas, I pitched a traveling companion's Springsteen mixtape out the window somewhere in Mississippi (for which I have since apologized numerous times). Curiously, when the Clash hit the U.S. with similar hype from the same label a few years later, I accepted it without thinking. Perhaps by then I wanted to believe more.

The worm began to turn when I moved to Texas in June '78, the month when Darkness on the Edge of Town was released. Darkness got to me in a way none of Springsteen's earlier stuff had -- possibly because there was more loud electric lead guitar on it. And more yelling. The rush of "Candy's House," with its arcing "Heart Full of Soul" guitar break, was genuinely exciting. (A few years later, when Uncle Lou wanted to achieve a similar effect on a song called "Finish Line," he borrowed E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan for the session.) Some of the less verbose lyrics ("Factory" in particular) reminded me of people and situations I was familiar with. (Somewhere there's a tape I made with a guy I used to play in a band with, the first time I went back to Long Island to visit, where I'm attempting to play bass a la Entwistle on "Promised Land," and some song my friend wrote.)

In the fall of '79, I moved to Austin, and thence to Aspen, Colorado (the misadventure recounted in the London Calling post I wrote a few years ago). When I got back to Fort Worth in the spring of '80, my "music collection" consisted of two cassettes: the debut albums by the Pretenders and the Specials. I could have done worse. I lived in a duplex on Winthrop, off North University, next door to a couple of truckdrivers who were always offering me stuff they'd stolen out of their loads. The windows were all nailed and painted shut, and the only heat source was gas space heaters, which I believed would tip over and set the place on fire if I went to sleep with them on. So every night when it was cold, I'd put on every stitch of clothing I owned and shiver under the covers. When it got warm, I would have perished if Dan Lightner (bless him) hadn't brought me a rotating fan, which I'd sit in front of until I'd sweated out every molecule of moisture from my body, then get up and walk to 7 Eleven for more Gatorade, beer, and cigarettes.

For awhile I shared the place with a coworker whose wife would come to stay with him in the living room (their arrangement was complicated and I never did get -- or want -- the full particulars) and I'd have to tiptoe over them when I got home late. One weekend I went to Austin with a couple of buds and got stopped for a taillight in Waxahachie. Because our car was full of empty beer cans, I got arrested and my friends drove my car to Dallas. When I got sprung (by either Lightner or Charles Buxton; my memory is unreliable on this), I had to walk downtown from my apartment to the Greyhound station to catch a bus to Dallas to reclaim my car. I got home, went to the can, flushed the toilet, and immediately a geyser of water started shooting out of the toilet tank: life as a Jerry Lewis movie. Because I was too clueless to turn the water off, I managed to point the stream toward the bathtub, then walked to the pay phone around the corner to report my problem to my landlady, who said she'd send her son the next day (!) to take care of it.

I threw all of my belongings (it was still possible to do so then) in the trunk of my car and went to check into the Rio Motel on Camp Bowie, just down the street from the record store where I worked. When I got off work the next day, I went back to the duplex, which by that time was like a swamp. Water was still shooting out of the toilet tank and had overflowed the bathtub to the point where it was lapping at the living room carpet. At that point, I decided to kiss my security deposit goodbye and went and found an apartment at the Warren House on Las Vegas Trail near I-30. When my driver's license was belatedly suspended for a year-old drunk driving charge, my future ex-wife, who worked with me, would pick me up and take me to work (which necessitated extremely considerate scheduling on the part of our boss).

This lengthy story is relevant because when The River came out in September, it took up residence atop the stack of records I'd play on the turntable I'd bought for five dollars from Mike Woodhull when I moved into the apartment. You had to put a nickel on the tone arm to make it track, and I'd run it through my tweed Fender Deluxe -- probably how I screwed up the best sounding amp I'd ever have (my future ex-brother-in-law -- RIP -- would destroy it completely a couple of years later, when I left it with him "to repair" while I was stationed in Korea). I listened to The River as incessantly as I'd been listening to Arthur Blythe's Illusions, Captain Beefheart's Doc at the Radar Station, Gang of Four's Entertainment!, and Otis Rush's Original Cobra Recordings (and as much as I'd listen to the Clash's Sandinista! a couple of months later). And when Springsteen's tour in support of the album came through Texas, we caught him both in Dallas on November 8 (she drove) and in Austin the following night (I took her...on the bus).

Live, Springsteen really did "prove it all night," for three and a half hours on two consecutive nights. His exuberant presence radiated positive energy and drove his band and audience to peak after peak of excitement. Then he'd downshift and talk to the shed crowd as though they were in a much more intimate space, telling stories during the slow numbers like "Point Blank" and "Independence Day" -- the ones I loved best. When I'd seen the Clash, they played fewer slow songs than Springsteen, but also looked haggard by the end of their show. Springsteen looked like he could have done another couple of hours. Years of four-hour gigs in Jersey bars had taught him how to pace himself for the long haul. For that reason, I'd have to put Springsteen ahead of the Clash on my list of greatest-concerts-I-ever-saw. And that makes him Number One.

That said, I still don't listen to his records.

Even at the height of my Springsteen appreciation, I could see how, viewed from a certain perspective, he still sounded like a Van Morrison simulacrum, albeit one who was obsessed with driving his car at night. And on record, his singing -- a two-fisted, testosterone-infused roar that made the likes of Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder sound like sissies -- used to wear on me after a few songs. Plus, canned, you couldn't enjoy the camaraderie between Bruce and his band boys the way that you could onstage (although Clarence Clemons' Junior-Walker-on-steroids tenor sax and Steve Van Zandt's equally manly backing voice served to signify same on record).

I think the difference between Springsteen's mega-success under Landau's tutelage and the MC5's failure comes down to the fact that from the beginning, Bruce had a better idea of where he wanted to go than the Five did. Once he'd traded slumming fusion guy David Sancious for the aforementioned Roy Bittan, and original E Street Band drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez (the name kind of says it all) for the crisp, professional Max M. Weinberg (who comported himself behind the traps as though Baker-Bonham-Mitchell-Moon had never existed, hewing to the rules as laid down by Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine), he had a band equal to his intentions.

His Big Idea was to use the structures of embryonic rockaroll and Brill Building pop as a medium to tell stories that addressed his great overarching subject: the struggle to maintain hope in the face of failure. Is there a more American concern than that? I think not, which is why I'd rank him as the greatest Meercun rocker of the '70s, in the same way Dylan was for the '60s and Elvis was for the '50s. ("Greatest" doesn't necessarily mean "my favorite." Pre-rockaroll, I'd rate Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, and Louis Armstrong as equivalent figures for their respective decades.)

I've been thinking about Bruce because he's in the news this week for canceling a show in North Carolina after they passed a law there making it legal to discriminate against transgender folks under the guise of "religious freedom." Springsteen -- who decades ago (after I'd stopped following his music) took John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie as his models in standing up for the oppressed -- called bullshit and gave them a little taste of what his right-hand man Van Zandt once gave apartheid-era South Africa with "Sun City," because economic impact is something rat bastards understand. Plus, I still have the copies of Darkness, The River, and Nebraska that Mike Woodhull let me borrow before he passed last year (which I still need to return to his wife). So the time seemed right to listen, too.

Through more experienced ears than I possessed with the album was new, it's the melancholy songs on The River that ring the truest, as if Springsteen -- who was 31 when the album was released -- had started to figure out that the romance of "getting out of here" wears off when you realize that you take "here" with you wherever you go. The fun of the upbeat songs seems forced by comparison, which is almost the point. Still, you can't deny the pleasures of "The Ties That Bind," which roars out of the gate with a ringing 12-string that carries the song until Weinberg's "Ticket To Ride" fill on the bridge, neatly encapsulating 1965 in the same way as "Hungry Heart," "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)," and "Fade Away" distill the respective essences of the Ronettes, Chuck Berry, and the Drifters.

The dark heart of the matter lies in one song on each of the first three sides, and 75% of the fourth side (which would be perfect -- if unremittingly bleak -- if you could substitute "Stolen Car" for "Ramrod" at the top of the side). "Independence Day" resonated the most for me when it was new, because it mirrored my own difficult relationship with my father. "Point Blank," a tale of desperation and despair, was the most arresting moment in both of the live shows I saw. The title track shattered every dream of the protagonists on Springsteen's first three albums, while "Stolen Car" depicted a man reduced to trying to get arrested to prove he was alive. Even with "Ramrod," the last three songs on the fourth side have the somnolent rhythm of a late night drive to nowhere. "Drive All Night" is the climactic tour de force, but then it's followed by "Wreck On the Highway," with its false ending and intimation of mortality. The vibe and subject matter of these songs would inform Springsteen's follow-up, the solo acoustic Nebraska, which he cut on a cassette recorder, giving it an even starker sound.

When I was young and still thought I had the world by the balls, I used to look at old burnt-out motherfuckers and wonder how they got that way. Now that I'm one of those motherfuckers, I know. It's called life.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Brokegrove Lads - "Onward Through the FOGG"

Here's our tribute to a trio of young bloods who play the old style in the correct way.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Harvey Gold's "Harvey in the Hall"

Harvey Gold, the ebullient singer-songwriter-guitarist-keyboardist with Half Cleveland, seems like one hell of a nice guy. He's such a mensch that when the original bass player from his '70s-'80s band Tin Huey declined to relocate from Akron, Ohio, to Noo Yawk City with the rest of the band, Gold manfully strapped on the four-stringed instrument himself. These days, he and fellow Huey alumnus Chris Butler hold forth on a more-or-less regular basis with a revolving cast of players under the Half Cleveland moniker. But when they're not, Gold's still making music.

Harvey in the Hall is an EP's worth of mostly home-recorded, Bandcamp-downloadable toons by Gold with heavy friends that include bassist Deborah Smith Cahan (Chi-Pig), who played on Half Cleveland's Live @ the Wi-Fi Cafe last year, and Half Cleveland's regular drummer, Bob Ethington. For such an upful guy, Gold-the-songwriter's capable of plumbing the depths of adult angst, which is a far blacker dog than the adolescent variety.

Gold's eclectic influences have always included early Brit Invasion stuff, particularly the vocal-oriented Beatles/Kinks/Hollies/Zombies axis, and he tips his hat to that era and sound here with a half-speed, minimalist take on the Fab Four's "I've Just Seen A Face" that allows the interested listener to hear the words and harmonic motion with a clarity the breathless Rubber Soul original wouldn't allow.

"Lemon Beazly" is probably as close as we're going to get to a new Tin Huey recording in 2016, reuniting Gold with Huey guitarist Michael Aylward and drummer Stuart Austin (on percussion here) for a characteristically skewed romp through swampy Beefheartian territory.

My pick-to-click here is "Lazy Boy," an anguished plaint with an achingly poignant melodic line that unfolds over a hypnotically monotonous repeating chordal figure, building tension that's only released by the closing orgy of rampaging guitar (some of it provided by Black Key Dan Auerbach, whose drummer's uncle played sax with Tin Huey).



Auerbach also contributes seasick slide licks to "Allegheny Load," a convincing mountain music simulacrum that features a mandolin solo by none other than ex-Byrd Chris Hillman (I'd like to hear how that connection came about).

"In a Very Good Place" sounds for all the world like a Physical Graffiti homage, of all things, with its orchestral arrangement (including "girl vocals"), flashes of dissonance, and Bob Ethington's heavy kick drum foot. The recurring refrain, "Am I always going to worry about you," is redolent of the kind of relationship fallout with which your humble chronicler o' events is intimately, regrettably, familiar.

Go, listen, download, and when you do, tell Harvey who sent you, won't ya?

Monday, April 04, 2016

The Hydromatics' "Dangerous (The Sonic's Rendezvous Band Songs)"

[Full disclosure: This record was released by a label for which I have written liner notes (not for this release, however), for which I was compensated fairly, without having to jump through hoops. Thanks and a tip o' the hat to Carlton P. Sandercock, a fine, fine, supafine Englishman to know and be associated with.]

I've written a lot of words about this band, its principals, and its important precursor, but this time it's personal.

I referred to Sonic's Rendezvous Band as "the one that got away" in the title to the oral history of the band I penned for the I-94 Bar back around the turn of the century (which Easy Action Records excerpted to serve as liner notes for their 2006 SRB boxed set). For back in the mid-'70s, while I was intrigued (as a fan of the Stooges, MC5, and Rationals) by the notices I'd read on them in Creem magazine, I lived a little too far (Long Island) from their base of operations (Detroit) to hear 'em in person, and there were no records to buy until '78 -- and then only a single with the same song on both sides, on a tiny local label that wasn't distributed where I was living. In the event, by the time the "City Slang" single was released, I'd moved to Texas and had other things on my mind.

Luckily for me, SRB's shows were well documented (mainly by brothers Joe and Dan Hurley, who roadied for them), and tapes of these shows circulated as far and wide as Europe and Australia, spreading their influence to new generations of musos who could appreciate the grit, soul, sincerity, and authenticity (for as degraded as all these terms might be, they're the ones that apply) of these prophets without honor in their homeland, who have become my favorite band of all ti-i-ime (at least on those days when the Nervebreakers are not).

Among the European musos who caught the virus were Tony Slug (ne Leeuwenburgh), guitarist with Amsterdam's Nitwitz, and Nicke Andersson (aka Nick Royale), frontman for Stockholm's Hellacopters, who'd previously drummed in death metal band the Entombed. The two men had been kicking around the idea of an SRB tribute project when a chance meeting (brokered by my buddy from Philly, Geoff Ginsberg) brought them in contact with Scott Morgan, ex-Rationals singer-guitarist who'd stood in front of SRB alongside ex-MC5er Fred "Sonic" Smith (RIP). With some interest from Swedish label White Jazz, this transcontinental quartet (adding Nitwitz bassist Theo Brouwer to complete the lineup) was off and running.

Last year, Easy Action reissued the first two Hydromatics albums (Parts Unknown and Powerglide) in deluxe editions (liner notes by your humble chronicler o' events), but because Mr. Sandercock is a fella who appreciates The Romance of the Artifact, they've also collected all the SRB covers from those two discs (plus some live wonderment) on a red vinyl LP (with a CD version included so you can hear the ones that didn't fit on the record -- "Power and Glory" and "Mystically Yours").

Heard in a block in this format, these songs sound, to these feedback-scorched ears, a hell of a lot like the purest distillation of high energy, come-out-and-kill-in-20-minutes Detroit ramalama as typified by the first side of Kick Out the Jams, Funhouse in its entahrty, the Rationals' most primal moments like "Guitar Army" (the intro to which was the basis for "Thrill") and "Sunset," and things like the early Mitch Ryder stuff and Frost's Rock and Roll Music. Most of the songs are Morgan compositions, and they make a good case for him as the best songwriter to come out of the whole Detroit development. (Sorry, Mr. Seger.) Where else are you going to find hard rock songs as well constructed as "Dangerous," "Earthy," and "Electrophonic Tonic?" And Fred Smith's two compositions here, "Sweet Nothing" and "City Slang," ain't no slouches either. There are folks who think "Slang" might be the greatest rock single of all ti-i-ime, and I'm inclined to agree with 'em. The live version included hear supports the case.

For Scott Morgan, the Hydromatics recordings represent the full flowering of a career that started 40 years earlier, and continues to this day. After overcoming some health issues, Morgan is using internet crowdfunding to help pay for his medical bills and bankroll new work. He's back on the boards fronting a young band called the Sights, and appears to be in good health and good voice. Long may he run.

I've argued geopolitics over the intarweb with Tony Slug, who wears his Les Paul lower than Jimmy Page, and is taller to boot. While he can't replicate Sonic's staccato scalar lines, he gets a similar tone to the massive one Fred employed with SRB. He also gets big kudos for making the Hydromatics happen. (In retrospect, I think Tony was correct in our political argument, too.)

Andy Frost, the Ann Arbor kid who drummed on Powerglide and also in Morgan's hometown band, Powertrane, died of a heroin overdose in 2010, aged 32. I don't have words to convey how much I hate that shit, or the goddamn lie that rockaroll and self-destruction go together. I prefer to remember Andy gloriously alive and kicking up a storm behind the traps, as he is here. Don Van Vliet said it, and I believe it: "Death be damned...life."

ADDENDUM: Easy Action will release Space Age Blues, a recently unearthed SRB show from 1976 with original bassist Ron Cooke, on April 8th. You know what to do.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Pop Clearinghouse - Banking with Intent to Turn

New noise from my baldheaded "son"/HIO and Brokegrove Lads compadre Matt Hickey. Fans of Euro dance music and electro pop, get on this!

For Mike Woodhull, Carlos Santana, and me

I don't get out much anymore, but luckily for me, I have friends who make sure that I don't lack entertainment. The other day, Big Mike Richardson -- who knows thousands of songs, and can sing and play them on several instruments -- messaged me that he had just left a care package on my doorstep. How Big Mike, a large man, was able to do so without my awareness while I was sitting right by the window is a puzzlement. But I'm sure glad he did.

Among the goodies that were waiting when I opened the door were Carlos Santana's 2014 autobiography The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story To Light, and a couple of CDs' worth of vintage live Santana from the Fillmore, recorded in '68 and released in '97. I was unaware of the release because I've only been a fan intermittently over the years, but I was as delighted to have the tunes as I was the book (for I devour music books like potato chips, even when my attention span is otherwise about three minutes long, as it is now). So it was that I spent yesterday -- which would have been Big Mike's and my mutual friend Mike Woodhull's 63rd birthday, had he not passed away last June -- reading Carlos' story and alternating sides of Santana's Lotus live triple LP (recorded in '73, released in '74, but only in Japan) and Miles Davis' Agharta, also recorded live in Japan a couple of years later. (Woodhull's wife Kristin says it's better to celebrate the life than mourn the loss, and I'm inclined to agree.)

I always say that Hendrix was the water I grew up swimming in, but in truth, it was more like a marinade, and some of the other ingredients were Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter, Miles, and Santana. (I loved the 'orrible 'oo most of all, but once I started playing, other people became more important to me.) Jimi and Jeff came first, when I was 12. Johnny became really important to me after I met my teenage guitar mentor when I was 15. Miles came later, during my "jazz snob" phase when I was 18.

The first two songs I ever played in a band, when I was 15, were "Oye Como Va" and "Samba Pa Ti." But I was aware of Santana before that. "Evil Ways" got played on AM radio when I was 12, but in my memory, it's eclipsed by two other hits from that year that seemed more foreign to my inexperienced ears back then: Desmond Dekker's "The Israelites" and Sir Douglas Quintet's "Mendocino." Seeing Santana burn through "Soul Sacrifice" while tripping balls on mescaline (the Santana musos, not your humble chronicler o' events) in the Woodstock movie the following summer made a deeper impression. While Carlos writes that Sly, Hendrix, and (probably) the Who owned Woodstock, my most vivid memories were of Richie Havens (my mom, who could clap against any beat in the world, took my sister and me to see the R-rated movie and loved Richie), Ten Years After, and Santana. In later years, my bad-acting buddies and I used to play a game called "Faces and Attitudes of Rock 'n' Roll," which included Alvin Lee ("pretend you're being jerked off with steel wool") and Carlos ("pretend you're being lifted up to Heaven by God, by your mustache").

Thinking about Santana's iconic Woodstock performance while listening to Live at the Fillmore 1968, it's striking how strong of a musical personality Carlos had already formed by the age of 21 or 22. He doesn't need to wow you with speed and flash like Alvin, or blow your mind with showmanship and electronic mastery like Jimi. He just digs in and squeezes only the good notes out of that red SG (which, it turns out, he had trouble keeping in tune and wound up destroying). His idiosyncratic note choices are perfect, and totally distinctive. Sure, there are precedents, and he'll even call their names -- B.B. King, Mike Bloomfield, Gabor Szabo, Robbie Krieger -- but his phrasing and tone are as personal as a thumbprint. More to the point, though, unlike Hendrix, Beck, and Winter, Santana's guitarisms were integrated into a solid band concept (rather than a leader-with-sidemen scenario). The original Santana band was a collective that only took his name by default. One could argue that the percussion section was (is) as much of a draw as the guitar. This has remained true as personnel have shifted over the years, even after Carlos took over no-fooling leadership in the mid-'70s.

Carlos' bio is a lot different than your average rockarolla's. He grew up poor in rural Jalisco, Mexico, and played Mexican music on violin before starting on electric guitar, inspahrd by Richie Valens. As a teenager, he played R&B in Tijuana strip joints, and dug the rawest American blues: Lightnin' Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker. Only after he'd relocated with his family to San Francisco did he begin to take an interest in the African-derived musics of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The "learning guitar" parts of his book resonate for me, because as a teenage tyro, I studied some of the same folks he was digging a few years earlier: Hooker, Live at the Regal-era B.B. King, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with Mike Bloomfield, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, Peter Green's original Fleetwood Mac. (I'll never forget the first time, down in my parents' basement, when I was able to bend a note with vibrato, "like B.B." It felt like some other being had taken control of my hands. These two younger cats from down the street who used to sit outside my house and listen to me practice asked me, "Who was that playing your guitar before? Whoever they were, it sounded good.")

We heard the Abraxas album front-to-back on FM radio before it was released, back when they used to do things like that. Other albums I heard that way: Mountain's Nantucket Sleighride and Who's Next, which I had memorized by the time I saw 'em at Forest Hills in '71. As Carlos describes it, Abraxas was probably the best representation of the original band's gestalt. It's a pity classic rock radio has played it to death over the years. These days, I'll take the third album when it's that lineup I want to hear. But "Incident at Neshabur" from Abraxas really encapsulates everything I love about Santana: intense drive and sensual lyricism. My favorite way to hear it, however, isn't on Abraxas but rather on Lotus, which remains my favorite Santana album. Carlos writes that the '73 lineup with Tom Coster and Rich Kermode on keys was his most challenging ever, and indeed, on Lotus, they take his music as far as it ever went -- far enough to stand up to electric Miles, and that's saying a lot. After Lotus, I kind of lost the thread, but whenever I'd check in (for 1990's Spirits Dancing in the Flesh, say, or 1993's Sacred Fire), while Carlos' thing never changed much, it was kind of reassuring that he was still out there doing it.

Lotus is a product of the early '70s period when Carlos and drummer Michael Shrieve co-led the band through a jazz-fusion phase, and Carlos immersed himself in spirituality as a kind of countervailing force to the pitfalls of ego and hard drugs that dogged successful bands, including his. While he left guru Sri Chinmoy after a few years, he's continued to make music that's as full of positive energy as Stevie Wonder's. In his maturity, he became more focused on his family, never touring for longer than four or five weeks to avoid upsetting the "domestic rhythm."

The Universal Tone co-author Ashley Kahn, who's written books on Miles Davis and John Coltrane's masterpiece albums, as well as Impulse Records, does a good job of capturing the florid, spacey street spirituality of Carlos' speech, with nuggets of earthy wisdom scattered everywhere. And someone -- Carlos? Kahn? an editor? -- was wise enough to realize that Carlos' early life and career are of more interest than his later mega-success; in a 500-page tome, the '80s begin around page 400. Carlos spills the beans about being sexually abused as a kid. He writes warmly and respectfully of his mentors and benefactors Bill Graham and Clive Davis, colorful Santana musos like Jose "Chepito" Areas and Armando Peraza, musical influences like B.B., Miles, John Lee Hooker, and Buddy Guy, as well as his family members. His memories of '60s Tijuana, San Francisco, and Woodstock are particularly evocative. The Universal Tone is a swift read that gave me new respect for its author and subject. And, of course, made me want to hear his music.

Speaking of the city by the bay, also on loan from the Richardson library: Grace Slick's Somebody To Love? Film, as they say, at 11.