Saturday, March 17, 2018

Things we like: St. Vincent

1) Recently seen in the comments to a Prince video on Youtube: "Prince was such a great guitarist, he could have had a great career in rock, if he hadn't wasted himself on pop." Sigh.

2) Is Annie Clark the new Bowie/Prince or what? Her music is that ambitious, her persona that big.

3) I'll admit that I first became interested in her music because the 1967 Harmony Bobkat she played on Strange Mercy reminded me of my old Harmony Silvertone 1478 Silhouette (the "one that got away" in my Blogger profile pic, since reished with better pickups and a Bigsby). It made my heart glad to know that she was playing vintage, rather than a custom job. And that someone who actually knew how to play could light up the strings on such an axe so brilliantly. (She now has a signature Ernie Ball Music Man guitar.)

4) A muso friend whose opinion I respect recently purchased the entire St. Vincent catalog. "It's amazing," he said. "This music even has harmonic movement. Is there anybody else out there like this? (Don't respond if you don't know what 'harmonic movement' is.)" We recently followed suit. He'd listened to her albums chronologically, but we're not those people, so we slipped in her second, Actor, and had our synapses zapped with gorgeous indie psychedelia replete with beguiling melodies and, yes, honest-to-goodness chord changes, swimming against the tide of this age of drone 'n' groove. "Will wonders never cease?" we marveled.

5) As Iggy said, "Break it down": St. Vincent is a pop figure, one whose presentation is based on an ever-more stylized persona. Yet, she's also her own boss -- she calls her own shots, writes her own tunes, is less akin to your stereotypical autotuned diva with multiple writers and producers than she is to brainy art-rockers like Bowie, Eno, and David Byrne, with whom she collaborated on 2012's Love This Giant. I think it's possible that the social media teapot tempest over Mr. Byrne's failure to include any women on his subsequent collabs project could be down to Annie scaring the bejeezus out of him. My wife thinks working with Annie "humanized" him a bit, and I suspect it might have given her songwriting a kick in the ass. (The sonic palette she employs on my favorite album of hers, the self-titled one from 2014, is basically the same as the one from Strange Mercy, but with more immediately arresting songs. Although you can't mess with "Cruel." And "Cheerleader.")

6) Her work process while composing can be hermetic, and in her current live show, she's the only performer who appears onstage.

7) I need a few more spins -- maybe in the car, my "deep listening space" these days -- to get friendly with her newie, MASSEDUCTION. There's nothing I've heard so far that jumps out and grabs me, but it's nice to have a performer whose work can require focus and attention to get next to. (Which reminds me, we're overdue for a "deep" listen to Laurie Anderson's newie with the Kronos Quartet.)

8) Is the title character of MASSEDUCTION's "Happy Birthday Johnny" the same as the previous album's "Prince Johnny?" Their circumstances sound quite different, but someone who could see himself in Jim Carroll, take a fix and set his room on fire might also be capable of extorting a piece of the Berlin Wall -- to snort. One wonders.

9) Listening to her albums from 2007's Marry Me up to St. Vincent in sequence, you can hear an artist steadily gaining assurance and control. The backing on the debut seems cluttered and obtrusive compared to the self-titled record, even when the latter-day musos are playing flashier stuff. (Bobby Sparks' Minimoog is particularly crucial.) The glossy electronic sheen of St. Vincent's instrumental backing -- bass-heavy, in the modern way, everything mixed louder than everything else -- sets the human frailty of her voice in striking relief. So when she tops a Bo Diddley beat with synth squiggles before intoning "BringmeyourlovesallyourlovesIwannalovethemtooyaknow," you figure she means it.

10) Some of the St. Vincent tracks that initially elicited Prince comparisons ("Birth in Reverse" and "Digital Witness" in particular) now seem as redolent of Kraftwerk, and Giorgio Moroder. "Icy funk" might seem like an oxymoron, but don't tell those damned clever Euros.

11) "I Prefer Your Love" (" Jesus") sounded like the ultimate answer song to "Belle" at first. Then I read it's about her mother, which explains "All the good in me is because of you." What parent wouldn't appreciate hearing that?

12) Right now, the song of hers that resonates the most with me is "Severed Crossed Fingers," with its lyrics about trying to find hope where there's none -- a worthwhile undertaking these days. I have no idea what she's literally singing about, but it doesn't matter. The personal can be universal. How fortunate are we.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

3.9.2018, Fort Worth

My wife and I hadn't been out to a show together in over five years, but last night, we trekked over to the Tin Panther -- the former home of tiny-but-storied J&J's Blues Bar (where she once saw John Lee Hooker, and where my friend, the late Hosea Robinson, once got to blow harp behind Hubert Sumlin) -- to see Andy Pickett and Big Heaven (the latter of whom wound up not performing, due to Amanda Hand's illness, for which the always-entertaining Jesse Gage compensated by playing a solo set, with four-piece jam band Chillamundo in between). Tin Panther manager Tyler Stevens learned the ropes slinging drinks at Lola's and booking bands for the Cowtown Bowling Palace (where the li'l Stooge band once played one of our most satisfactory gigs). We wish her many years of success there!

Andy's another Fairmount phenom (like Leon Bridges and Cameron Smith -- 60 percent of whose band War Party also plays in Andy's band) who's been making waves locally for about as long as my wife and I have been off the set, although I heard and dug his 2015 digital debut It Happens Every Night for its dryly humorous observations of the passing scene. As a soulful, piano-playing singer-songwriter, he manages to skirt the obvious comparisons, with a voice that covers a spectrum from phlegmy growl to angelic falsetto, and a self-deprecating wit that, on this night, extended to introducing the members of his ten-piece band by name and astrological sign at the beginning of the set.

The Tin Panther stage is not large, so the band wound up deploying with the riddim section (War Party's Peter Marsh on drums, Christopher Gomez on bass, Cam Smith and my old Wreck Room ally Brock Miller on guitars, and Ray Osborn on synth) occupying the stage, the four horns (War Party's Ricky Williford on trumpet, Ben Marrow and amazing youngster Reid Murphy -- about whom, more in a minute -- on tenor saxes, and first album co-producer/Telegraph Canyon-ite Chuck Brown on trombone), with Andy himself seated facing the band with his back to the audience. I didn't sense any Miles-ian contempt in the gesture, but figure Andy's just a self-effacing cat who also wanted to be able to direct the band, whose sound was impressively on-point and uncluttered (although they could have used some more vocal mics, no knock against sound tech Khalif Dove, son of another old Wreck Room ally).

The set was heavy on tunes from Andy's self-titled newie on Dreamy Life, which was cut in Austin with White Denim's James Petralli and Steve Terebicki, and drops (digitally and on sweet, sweet vinyl) on April 1st -- no fooling. So far, my favorites from thatun are "Paid," which voices a universally understandable sentiment, and for which an intriguing video exists, and the self-explanatory "I Love My Piano," on which the aforementioned Reid Murphy took a blazing, King Curtis-on-steroids-via-late-Coltrane solo that broke the place up. A kid to watch. Reid got another solo turn when the crowd demanded, and Andy granted an encore of his signature tune, "It Happens Every Night," which had folks singing along. Hopefully a lot more of us will get to see this engaging unit, which has upcoming gigs at SXSW, the Fortress Festival, and Friday on the Green.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Jimi Hendrix's "Both Sides of the Sky"

I've often said Hendrix was the water I grew up swimming in, even though he checked out in the year when I first heard his music. And while it didn't take me long to lose the thread of posthumous releases -- both the quickie cash-ins that followed his death and the completist trawls released under the Experience Hendrix imprint (I'll admit to having greatly enjoyed the Rykodisc Winterland and BBC sets when they were new) -- all of the albums he released during his three-year (!) recording career still stand up, as do the two (The Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge) that were compiled from the material he was working on at the time of his death. Even his inheritors remain uber-influential: No Jimi, no P-Funk, no '70s Miles, no SRV.

As I said in re: the Who last week, technology changes the way we consume entertainment, and in Jimi's case, that means I don't need a plethora of live albums when I can view DVDs of Monterey to see him triumphantly exploding out of the gate, Woodstock to see just how far he could take his music, and Isle of Wight (when I can stomach it) to see him at the end of his tether. Both Sides of the Sky is the third in a "trilogy" of albums containing what Experience Hendrix claims are the last of Jimi's unreleased studio recordings (although I'd swear they previously said the cupboard was bare after Valleys of Neptune and People, Hell and Angels, but I suppose I could be mistaken), and even if you're not an obsessive who wants to hear every note he ever recorded, there are reasons why you might want to hear this.

The obvious one is that Hendrix was a master of the guitar and the recording studio, one who was operating at an incredibly high level of creativity as he struggled to move his music forward after the masterwork of Electric Ladyland, while maintaining a grueling tour schedule and building Electric Lady Studios, jamming or working on material practically every waking moment. Five decades later, even his ideas that weren't fully developed make for rewarding listening, and provide insight into his processes.

The tracks here are a mixed bag: full band takes of songs, jams, and studio experiments. In the first category, "Mannish Boy" shows the newly formed Band of Gypsys applying Jimi's unique riddimic sense to the incantatory Muddy Waters/Bo Diddley blues, while on "Lover Man," they essay an oft-played (but never definitively waxed) tune based on the version of "Rock Me Baby" he played at Monterey. "Hear My Train A-Comin'," most famous in its filmed acoustic 12-string and electric '70 Berkeley Community Theater versions (the full audio version of which was a highlight of Rainbow Bridge), here gets a fervent treatment from the disintegrating '69 Experience, cut just a couple of weeks before the aforementioned BoG "Mannish Boy." There are also worthy BoG studio takes of "Stepping Stone" and "Power of Soul" (you can even hear everything he's singing!) which recall the worthwhile authorized bootleg The Baggy's Rehearsal Sessions.

Among the jams, Guitar Slim's "Things I Used To Do" is dominated by Johnny Winter's slide; I first read about this track in an interview with Johnny in the September '75 Hendrix issue of Guitar Player that was my bible for a couple of months, when my last college roommate was schooling me in musical structure before we both dropped out. On "Georgia Blues," Jimi backs his chitlin circuit compadre, singer-saxman Lonnie Youngblood (anybody remember Two Great Experiences Together?) to the hilt on a slow 12-bar. Stephen Stills, whom it's instructive to remember was once an in-demand jammer (cf. his "Season of the Witch" on Super Session and his appearances in the DVD-available Supershow from British TV), is on organ for a Stills original ("$20 Fine") and a pre-CN&Y take on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" that Stills sings while Jimi plays bass (as he did on Robert Wyatt's "Slow Walkin' Talk").

The studio experiments include "Jungle," an early guitar-and-drums attempt to work out the "Villanova Junction" theme that wound up closing Jimi's Woodstock set; "Sweet Angel," a Ladyland-period run through the beautiful chord sequence that ultimately emerged as "Angel" on The Cry of Love; "Send My Love To Linda," a never-finished song-in-progress pieced together from three different takes; and "Cherokee Mist," a fascinating '68 snippet of bluesy electric sitar and feedback that includes some ideas that showed up on the third side of Ladyland.

This is no place for a Hendrix novice to start; uninitiates are directed to the three Experience albums, Band of GypsysThe Cry of Love, and Rainbow Bridge. (Not to mention the three aforementioned full-festival-show DVDs.) But if you already care about Jimi, and need another taste, Both Sides of the Sky will do for you. His leavings still beat loads of bands' diamonds.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

The Who's "Live at the Fillmore East 1968"

The Who were the first band I loved, and as a result, I've always been more critical of them than other bands, because I expect more: the buzz from that initial moment of discovery. I was puzzled by Tommy when I got it for Christmas the year it came out. It seemed sterile, compared to the band I'd read Lillian Roxon's description of in some Scholastic rag at school. Sell Out was magical and wondrous when I found it in a cutout bin the following spring, conjuring ever after a fictive English summer that existed only in my imagination. But why did Magic Bus, released a year later, have two of the same songs? 

Leeds nailed me to the wall when it arrived, and Sings My Generation proved pleasingly rough and raw. But what the hell was Happy Jack all about? (I couldn't see It's Hard coming.) I didn't dig Who's Next at first (all those synths) even before classic rock radio played it to death, and a lot of their Forest Hills show I witnessed that summer went right over my head (my first rock concert, the one part of which I will never forget is the expression on my father's face -- for he'd taken my sister and me, figuring they must be legit if he read about them in the New York Times -- the first time a joint came around).

Meaty Beaty filled in some of the holes in their mythic discography, which I spent the next couple of years investigating via imports (that great run of singles between Who's Next and Quadrophenia!) and bootlegs. (This was back when you used to have to hunt for stuff.) Quadrophenia kind of saved my life -- sounds melodramatic, but aren't 16-year-olds melodramatic anyway? I dug the rarities on Odds and Sods (some of which I already owned on boots), but by the time By Numbers dropped, I'd lost the thread (my teenage guitar mentor was a Johnny Winter freak, and who wants to listen to a 30-year-old crying about getting old?), although in my dotage, the bridge to "Slip Kid" and the ukelele song "Blue, Red, and Grey" are two of my favorites.

I tried hard to like Who Are You the summer I moved to Texas, but it seemed ponderous and overblown. The Kids Are Alright pulled me back in for a minute -- saw the flick in the theater three times, while playing in a band with some old allies who were also fans -- but the less said about the Warner Bros. albums, the better. I saw 'em again in Dallas in '80 and they looked haggard; I almost walked out before the end, but then I heard them start playing "Naked Eye" and ran back in. I watched the "Unix ponytail and too many people on stage" '89 tour on TV, and figured they were done, but then a friend offered me a ticket to see them in Y2K and I got re-impressed. Freed from the responsibility of writing new masterpieces, Townshend seemed to be digging the stage again, and with Ringo's kid on drums and Rabbit on keys, they were a five-piece rock band who brought a lot of new light and shade to the old faves. The new lyrics Townshend sang to "The Kids Are Alright" brought tears to my eyes, when I was but a callow lad of 43.

Digital technology has changed the way we consume entertainment. After the innumerable upgrades Live At Leeds has undergone over the years, it's ironic that these days, when I want to experience vintage live Who, it isn't a record or a CD I reach for. Instead, it's the Isle of Wight DVD, so I can see the goofy faces Moon makes while playing, Entwistle's ridiculous skeleton suit, Daltrey finally having a role to inhabit besides school bully, and Townshend looking simultaneously Ichabod Crane-awkward and coiled spring-dangerous.

That may change, however, with the imminent (on 4.20.2018, heh) release of Live at the Fillmore East 1968, the first official airing of the oft-bootlegged April 6, 1968 show which manager Kit Lambert had recorded as a possible live album to buy his charges more time to finish Tommy. Instead, the band opted to release the retrospective-but-incomplete Direct Hits in the UK and the patchy (and fraudulently titled) Magic Bus: The Who On Tour in the States, which inexplicably recycled tracks from the previous two LPs at a time when most of their early singles were yet to appear on American album. Fans would have to wait another two years, till Leeds, to hear what Nik Cohn correctly called "the full force of the Who" on vinyl (and another year after that for a decent singles comp).

Fifty years on, Pete 'n' Rog were running out of time to claim copyright on this material, hence its belated release -- same reason Jimmy Page just put out the Yardbirds' '68 Anderson Theatre show (which he'd taken legal action to have pulled when Epic first released it in '71) and final studio sessions (previously released, with Page's approval, by UK indie New Millennium back in Y2K). Universal's Fillmore East 1968 promises cleaned-up audio by longtime Who sound tech Bobby Pridden, as well as some previously unheard music. There's a version of Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody" (from a set that also includes two other Cochran songs, "Summertime Blues" and "My Way"), as well as the '66 single "I'm A Boy," and complete takes -- 12 and 11 minutes, respectively -- of Sell Out highlight "Relax" and the "mini-opera" "A Quick One." Most intriguingly, the third LP is taken up with a 33-minute "My Generation."

Looking at Discogs, I see that "I'm A Boy" and the complete "A Quick One," at least, had previously been bootleg-available. But they weren't on the yellow vinyl (!) Trademark of Quality boot I bought in '73, stoking my fandom while waiting for Quadrophenia to appear, or the longer CD-R version I bought a few years ago (and which I've been listening to in the car the last couple of days). On those, the long jam on "Relax" fades out after eight minutes or so, and "A Quick One" starts abruptly with "Ivor the Engine Driver." The bootleg "Generation" I've heard peters out (you see what I did there?) after about nine minutes; one wonders what they do for another 20+ (instrument smashing is promised); we'll see.

The '68 tour, to these feedback-scorched ears, was the moment when the Who started to really find their legs onstage. Compare the '67 Monterey Pop version of "A Quick One," the one on Fillmore East 1968, and the one filmed for The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus to observe the progression. Watching Monterey, one can't help but feel underwhelmed by the sonics, if not by the ruffled 'n' spangled visuals (which inspired the MC5, among others, to adopt more flamboyant stage costuming). But the sound of Townshend's Fender, in particular, through the rented Sunn amps is thin and anemic. (Hendrix had his Marshalls shipped over for Monterey, resulting in an iconic performance.)

On the Fillmore East 1968 versions of "Relax" and "Shakin' All Over," you can hear the Who beginning to stretch out and reinvent their material. The former, in particular, sounds like the bridge between the Pop Art autodestructive frenzy of the instrumental break in "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and Townshend's acoustic extemporizations in the Tommy "Overture." Entwistle and Moon are already their classic selves, churning up a thunderous roar you feel in your solar plexus. Sure, when Townshend kicks on the fuzzbox, his tone still isn't quite there. But later in the tour, he'd get his hands on a Gibson SG and with its ringing chords and stinging leads, the last piece of the Leeds sound fell into place.

The "Fortune Teller"/"Tattoo" sequence, familiar to Leeds listeners since the '95 expanded CD, is better here, in spite of the occasional blown vocal harmony. The Fillmore East was where the Who broke in the Benny Spellman R&B novelty, and they played it with more energy there than at Leeds. "Tattoo" is one of the magical and wondrous story-songs Townshend specialized in before Lambert goaded him into setting his sights higher, and "Little Billy," a cautionary tale about cigarette smoking written at the behest of the American Cancer Society (around the same time Townshend unwisely recorded a radio ad for the U.S. Air Force), is part of the same tribe.

Those, then, are the highlights. The rest is a good Who set list you can hear lots of other places. The $64,000 question with the $40 answer is, "Would you recommend this set to a novice Who fan over Live At Leeds?" Well...maybe. (Remember, I'm not a big Tommy fan.)

I'm not going to lie: I'll be happy to have this set, but this could be the last hurrah for my Who fandom -- I don't know. Do I really need to hear more extended jamming from these guys? (I have had at least one friendship which developed solely on the basis of our shared ability to sing all the parts from Leeds, including the mistakes.) And ponder the absurdity of listening to a 50 year old recording of geezers now in their 70s and about to start playing Vegas, singing "Hope I die before I get old." But then I remember the Velvet Underground Complete Matrix Tapes, about which I was skeptical at first, before it supplanted 1969 Live as my go-to VU selection. Technology changes, but we keep on trying (and trying) to recapture the buzz from that initial moment of discovery.