Friday, May 29, 2009

Dave Alvin and The Guilty Women

Dave Alvin continues his search for real American music. He doesn’t have to look further than the mirror, because very few musicians are as adept at encompassing all the varied elements that make music that is distinctly American as he is. He has done it the right way he takes the stuff he loves - Blues like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Country like George Jones, R 'n' B like Joe Turner and Rock like Bill Haley - and puts it into a cocktail shaker and makes his own signature drink out of it. It is clearly derivative of his influences, but there is never any doubt that this is indeed Dave Alvin. On his new album he teams up with an all-star, all-girl band that kicks the boys’ asses all over the block. Names like Cindy Cashdollar, Laurie Lewis and Marcia Ball help make up the Guilty Women. It is safe to say if you like Alvin’s post-Blasters work in general then this will not be a stretch for you. The main difference is that there are essentially no electric instruments on the album. Alvin plays acoustic guitars throughout and shares vocal duties with Christy McWilson. The results are a gas. The album swings in a totally authentic way, but is absent some of the show-offiness that is always present on male-centric albums. Maybe I’m imagining that last part, but it sure felt just a little kinder and gentler.

As always the real star of the show is Alvin’s world-class songwriting abilities. Also as usual, my favorites are the ones where he sings about his own musical history. In particular is his memory of driving around with his brother and their hero Big Joe Turner in “Boss Of the Blues,” and his priceless memories of being taken to see Jimi Hendrix in “Nana and Jimi.” What could be cooler than having one of your favorite rock stars tell the story of his Grandma (I assume) taking him to a life-changing Jimi Hendrix concert. They begin the album with a bright rearrangement of the classic “Marie Marie” and ends with a heartfelt version of “Que Sera Sera.” As usual, the listener never feels that Alvin is anything less than completely authentic and one of the true keepers of the flame.

A long ago hippie summer.

Coincidental or not, there is a flood of releases right now that are highlighting the spirit of Woodstock. This August the reality and the myth of Woodstock will turn 40. It is hard to believe that this three day rock festival was at one time considered an earth-shaking event to an entire generation of music fans. In the era of gigantic festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, Mile High Music Festival etc. it is hard to imagine what was so special about this event. With the re-issue of both of the original sets on CD (Woodstock and Woodstock II) there is a renewed opportunity to evaluate them. It is hard to separate the phenomenon of Woodstock with the actual group of performances on the releases. The movie, which was seen and obsessed over by millions, provided such compelling images of the audience and surrounding scene, that a narrative of hippie paradise was woven that may have overshadowed, or changed the perception of the music.

The original set, Woodstock, remains the more diverse and more iconic of the two. Originally a three record set, it is now a 2 CD set with all the original artwork and greatly improved sound. Some of the performances really crackle now. Like many of today’s festivals, the line-up features acts that were already established (Hendrix, The Who, Jefferson Airplane) and mixes them with groups that would become famous (Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and some that would remain obscure (Sha Na Na). The performances are for the most part uneven, some plagued by sound problems, some out of key, some suffering from nerves, but those that shine really shine. Richie Havens’ hypnotic and largely improvised version of “Freedom” remains a high-water mark of the festival. It is an unforgettable performance with energy and spirit oozing from every note. The Who provided probably the most intense set of the festival, and their one contribution to the soundtrack (“We’re Not Gonna Take It”) is truly the stuff of legend. Townshend claims to have been freaking out on STP the entire time, but the power and bravado of the band justifies their reputation. Thanks to John Belushi, it is almost impossible to judge Joe Cocker’s performance without some humor (I guess we didn’t need Belushi for that - Cocker is just funny to watch). However, the version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” he and The Grease Band turn in is magnificent. He was a ballsy performer and nobody else really matched his performance style. In many ways, Santana built their international acclaim on the back of their performance at Woodstock. The version of “Soul Sacrifice” is incendiary and drummer Michael Shrieve provides one of the only really interesting drum solos in rock. Sly and The Family Stone also provide a career-making medley of music so energetic and funky it is impossible not shake your booty while listening. Of course the signature performance of the entire festival was Hendrix closing the show on the final day. The version of “Star Spangled Banner” followed by “Purple Haze” and a long, spacey Jam is just unbeatable. His playing is loose and druggy, but masterfully precise at the same time. I think the images and sounds Hendrix created at this festival did more to propel the myth than anything else.

At the time, I remember thinking that Woodstock II was a leftovers kind of release that wasn’t as serious as the first. In reality, it expands the realities of some of the higher profile performances and introduces a couple of different names to the mix. The selections by Jefferson Airplane and CSNY unfortunately do little to improve the memory of their performances. Both groups are filled with the spirit(s) of the day, but both suffer from sound and/or nerve problems. The Airplane were playing early in the morning (probably after partying all night) and their performance is ragged. There is some nice guitar work out of Jorma Kaukonen, and the band looks really cool, but the vocals are off key much of the time. CSNY also are clearly nervous and have some trouble singing together, although it is interesting to hear both acts trying. The Hendrix material is good and showcases more virtuoso playing. Mountain is the big surprise of the set, offering up a couple of powerful performances that predict in some ways groups like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.

Overall, it was a pleasure to revisit these sets and try to determine what was reality and what was hype. Surprisingly, very little sounds like hype. To those who participated it seems like they were truly moved by the experience and gave it there all. For others, the experience truly did inspire career-making performances that history will remember.

If you want to get a better feel for the promise and talent of Crosby Stills and Nash, I suggest the soon to be released Demos. Compiled by Graham Nash, this collection brings together early stripped down versions of songs that would become hits (“Marrakesh Express, “ You Don’t Have To Cry,” “Love The One You’re With”), some songs you have never heard (“My Love Is A Gentle Thing,” “Be Yourself,” “Singing Call”) and some radically different versions of familiar songs (“Déjà vu,” “Music Is Love” “Long Time Gone”). Throughout the album, one is struck by both the professional authority they bring to their vocals and playing, but also the breezy sense of discovery that is evident on every track. The highlights were many but for me Stills’ unreleased “Singing Call” is a sweet folk/blues in the vein of “4+20” that really is a lost gem. Crosby delivers my other favorite moments with a solo performance of “Déjà vu” that ends with him scatting by himself what would become a very complicated arrangement. The version of “Long Time Gone” finds Crosby and Stills running through a different, jazzy arrangement of this classic that is very appealing. Finally, there is a version of “Music Is Love” which would appear on his solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name. The final version was a masterwork of cascading, over-dubbed vocals. This version is just Crosby, Nash and Young working through the song without all the embellishment. The vocals are still magic, and the melody is even more striking. It is really a find for lovers of that great album. CSNY jumped to superstardom after their somewhat uneven performance at Woodstock, but this is the stuff that really proves their greatness.

Woodstock and Woodstock II will be reissued on June 2nd. There will also be a reissue of the movie, and a box set of music to follow later in the summer. CSN Demos will also be released on June 2nd.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Flight of the Conchords at Red Rocks 16 May 2009

A par for the course magical evening at Red Rocks, slightly marred by lots of people who made me feel old and overly sober. What are they all doing out on a school night, anyway? OK, so it was a Saturday, but still you see my point. Apparently, lots of tweens and so forth are able to look up from their sexting activity long enough to turn on their Television sets and tune in to Flight of the Conchords on HBO. And apparently, there are several youthful types who like indie-folk godhead Iron & Wine, too. Must have downloaded it on one of the internets or on their "I-pod" or some such thing. Seriously though, is it TWICE as illegal to be underage and inhale an outlawed substance? Food for thought.

Despite my apparent fogey status, I too enjoyed the delightfully hirsute singer-songwriter Iron & Wine, real name Samuel Beam. Reminded me a little of Phil Ochs, or perhaps a male Buffy Sainte-Marie. Too arcane a reference for you? Well, I can assure you that Mr. Beam has heard of them. It is entirely possible that I will walk into an actual record shop and purchase an actual three-dimensional CD by this talented chap. Wow, are they making vinyl again? How about that. Where was I? OK, next up was Dave. He told some off-color jokes which we all laughed at, because the sweet twilight hour was upon us, and things were getting that way. No, he was quite excellent and segued perfectly into the headlining act; "FOTC." It was their explicable Antipodean charm that had caught the attention of my wife who then decided to drag me out to the middle of nowhere for all of this. And, I am very glad she did, because it was a lot better than the time she made me sit through that Beck concert, me thinking it was going to be Jeff Beck. No, really, these boys have something going on. They opened up in a very theatrical manner, vaguely reminiscent of Starlight Express or early Genesis, but without all of the complicated chord changes and rollerskates. The rest of the concert, however, was mostly stripped back, with lots of commentary and chuckles. It all came over very well, and despite some questionable language, they had some lovely tunes which everyone seemed to enjoy very much. Really, though, must we swear so? Apparently we must. At this point, I started feeling a little sleepy so I had to wonder why everyone has to stand up the whole time. I mean, can't we all just sit back and listen? Anyway, I would certainly recommend these boys to anyone who likes hearing real music played by real musicians. I might even try and catch the show on TV, although I don't have a TIVO thing on my VCR, so I'll have to stay up to 10 O'clock and actually watch it at the time they chose to show it.

Also, it was a tad on the chilly side.

- Ben Sumner

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Steve Earle at Twist & Shout

Sometimes you just run out of superlatives. But let me give it a try. Steve Earle came to Twist and Shout last night and proved to be one of the absolute greats. He showed up a bit early, so I had a chance to talk to him for a few minutes. What an incredibly humble and approachable guy. For someone as multi-talented (Singer/Songwriter, actor, writer, poet, etc) he has almost no star pretension. He just seems like a very normal guy. Obviously his colorful past belies that he was always thus, but now he was most interested in talking about green chile, fishing and sports. After watching him sign about two hundred autographs I heard him speak expertly about a lot of subjects with no hesitation. He is a smart and engaging person.
When he has a guitar in his hands and is standing in front of an audience, he is an extraordinary person. Last night, he played about an hour-long set that had the audience holding its breath in ecstasy. Focusing heavily on songs from his new album of Townes Van Zandt songs Townes as well as a few of his own - most of them about Townes or Colorado - he put every ounce of feeling and heart into every moment, singing with his eyes closed and kicking the wooden stage with his boots to punctuate songs (and knock over water bottles). It was magic. I have to say I think it might have been the best in-store ever. I don’t know, I often feel that way right after an in-store, but this one was really a different animal. The audience of over three hundred was in the palm of his hand as he talked about his friend and mentor Townes as well as his feelings about politics. He is a truly committed liberal who doesn’t just speak out when it is safe. Shortly after 9-11 we hosted him on his The Revolution Starts Now tour and he was just as outspoken - at a time when it wasn’t so safe. But that is Steve Earle. He is never worried about what people want or expect, he is true to his heart and his art.
All the parts came together to make it a special evening. The label (New West) and distribution company (RED) did a lot with few resources and the audience responded by buying over a hundred and fifty copies of the new album. Steve Earle himself gave his time and talent generously and performed a set that nobody in the room will soon forget.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fados by Carlos Saura

Trust me on this, it's worth changing your Wednesday or Thursday plans to catch the new film by Carlos Saura called Fados. Fado is a Portuguese style of song and the film highlights the many different ways this style can be presented. Saura is a Spanish filmmaker whose interest in music and dance has long been documented on film, from his famous Flamenco Trilogy (Blood Wedding, Carmen, and El Amor Brujo) through Flamenco (de Carlos Saura) and Tango and now to this film, which is playing at the Starz Theaters at 7Pm Wednesday and Thursday before the print must move on. The film consists simply of singers and musicians playing their own take on the Fado style while Saura's stunning camera work and lovely backgrounds highlight both them and the dancers who also interpret the songs.

There are standout performances from Mariza (whose new album Terra I think I'll now have to check out), from the great Lila Downs, from Caetano Veloso, from Chico Buarque plus archival footage of the Queen of Fado, Amalia Rodrigues. And that only scratches the surface of the terrific stuff here - my favorite two performances are from singers whose names I don't know yet. Remember, act fast or you'll have to live with the regret of not seeing this gorgeous film on the big screen it deserves to be seen on.

Bob Dylan - Together Through Life

Bob Dylan now occupies a place in American arts that is rare indeed. He can be compared to Gershwin, Cole Porter, Yip Harburg, Hank Williams or even his hero Woody Guthrie. He has broken the chains of the mundane and entered the atmosphere of the great. This is based on the entirety of his career. The fact that the last decade of his work has been so consistently fascinating has just magnified this truth. During some periods in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s it seemed as though he might give lie to his perceived greatness. Careless albums and shoddy live shows made it look as though he might be another soul to not make it out of the 60’s intact. With hindsight, I find that even the “lost periods” hold some part of the puzzle. The Christian albums now sound well-crafted, Self-Portrait now sounds like “Americana” before such a term existed. Individual songs on originally derided albums like Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, or Down In The Groove stand up to scrutiny with material from his best albums, although there is no doubt that Dylan has indeed seen periods of lesser artistic valor than the period we are currently living through.
Together Through Life fits comfortably in the footsteps of Modern Times. Musically it might be his clearest production to date under the identity of Jack Frost. There is an airy sense of space between the instruments, with Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell showing taste and restraint on every track and David Hidalgo offering simple but elegant accordion lines. Dylan himself plays some evocative keyboards, especially on upbeat numbers like “Jolene” and “Shake Shake Mama.” His voice is strong by Dylan standards. It is expressive and singular as it always has been.
Stylistically it is an accurate reflection of the music Dylan loves; early rock, folk, jazz, pop, tex-mex…he makes music for record store employees. It is the taste of a man who has had the drive and luck to spend his life in art. He clearly is informed about and enamored with what we now call “roots music”(one listen to his endlessly entertaining Theme Time Radio Hour will confirm this). The songs he crafts are amalgams of all these genres, not paying tribute, but inhabiting them with authority and a seamless ability to mix them and make sense. It is the sound coming from the windows of a neighborhood of houses in mid 20th century America. This one Polish, that one Dominican, this one happy, that one miserable, gospel/heathen, janitor/millionaire. It all blends together in the listener’s ear to collectively form the soundtrack of his day. I find it to be completely comforting.
All the songs but one on Together Through Life were co-written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The overall effect is to ground Dylan at some level. Like Dylan, Hunter has dwelt in both earthly and celestial realms lyrically. They both seem to favor a more grounded approach these days, and Hunter brings a common-man sensibility to balance Dylan’s sometimes floral eloquence. They still sound like modern Dylan songs; tales of heartbreak, revenge and tender love against an all-American Cinemascope background populated by cowboys, priests, star-crossed lovers and crooked politicians, they are a little more John Ford than John Huston with Robert Hunter on board. As always with Dylan there is the occasional wag of the finger and the always-present wink of the eye. If you don’t get a kick out of the farcical album closer “It’s All Good” you may have a hard time with Bob’s sense of humor in general. Again, I find his brand of old timey wisdom to be comforting in times of strife. And that is one of the great strengths of this album. Bob does seem to dwell in a place just over the horizon looking back, but he is quite aware of what it is to be a man of the present. He lives in this world just like the rest of us. He may or may not be referring to crooked politicians of the present day, but he knows they are on our minds. As with all his recent music, it is highly relevant to the present because it has not forgotten the lessons of the past.
Bob Dylan’s latter-day career is as miraculous as his early career. I remember thinking while listening to “Visions Of Johanna” or “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” “this guy can’t be of this earth. No human could write this.” Now, I find myself thinking “this guy must be of this earth. This is very human.” In a very real way Dylan reflects the emotional growth, and day-to-day experiences of so many of his listeners. It must be a burden. But I certainly appreciate the effort.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

South By Southwest 2009 - a late review from a former Twister, Tim Garvey

Perhaps it’s too little too late – it’s definitely too late – but for what it’s worth, I went to SXSW in March of 2009, and this is what I have to say about it.

I spent most of my twenties working at Twist and Shout. When I entered my thirties, I decided it was time for me to try something new. Not one for slow progressions, I opted to leave the happy confines of my all-time favorite record store and explore my academic side and enrolled in law school. Having spent the past year and a half studying books rather than liner notes, I was ecstatic when I discovered that this year’s spring break (woo!) coincided with SXSW 2009. While I have no regrets about trading my life as a record store geek for a real-life academic geek, it sure was nice to be around people that I could talk about music with once again.

What follows is a brief description of what happens when a law student tries to recapture his former life as a music enthusiast:

Day One:

I started the festival off by going to a lecture on the art of song writing by the one and only Jarvis Cocker. Some of you may have no idea what this means, but to me this was the event of a lifetime. Jarvis Cocker was the main songwriter and lead singer for the Brit-pop group Pulp, which provided the soundtrack to a large portion of my formative years. Had I never discovered Pulp it’s quite possible that I would never have fallen in love with music the way that I did. Pulp affected my life in the way that few other bands ever have.

During this lecture, Professor Cocker explained to a standing room only crowd why Noel Gallagher was wrong when he said the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” was proof that one could write a load of gibberish and call it genius. He broke down every aspect of the song exposing the true genius that it was, while at the same time exposing the ignorance of the Oasis songwriter.

The next step in Prof. Cocker’s lecture was to denounce the unfortunate trap that many songwriters fall into when they embrace “rhyme whorism.” To demonstrate what he meant by the term “rhyme whore,” he sang Karaoke to Des’ree’s hit song “Life.” Seeing a bespectacled gentlemen in a bespoke suit sing karaoke to such a trite song was thoroughly enjoyable. At other points in his lecture, he pointed to subtleties of great songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and Scott Walker, and explained the differences between them and modern-day troubadours such as James Blunt. While discussing Scott Walker, he played a video he had made as a student for one of Walker’s songs. That was a treat. Not necessarily for the quality of the film (which was obviously that of a student), but rather because of his willingness to share such a project with those assembled. Clearly though, the biggest thrill (at least for the many Pulp fans at the lecture) came when he broke out the acoustic guitar and played a few of his own songs to demonstrate the point of his lecture. Hearing him play “Babies” (an all-time favorite of mine) was among the highlights of the festival.

With my day off to a proper start, I was in a great mood to check out lots of bands in the evening. I’ll confess, having been away from music for so long, I had to trust the advice of some friends. Let’s just say I haven’t talked to a few of those friends since I’ve returned . . .

The Bands:

Dananananaykroyd – Probably my favorite band of the whole festival. They’re a young Scottish band that just blew me away. It’s hardcore pop music with hugs. A bit like Les Savvy Fav meets Belle & Sebastian – only with a lot more hugs. At one point they got the crowd to form a mosh pit of sorts, and then instead of having everyone run into each other they had everyone run together and hug. Truly a great energetic live band. Sadly, they have no domestic label, and therefore no domestic albums, but expect that to change soon.

I also caught several other bands, though not all deserve mention. Ty Seagall from San Francisco was a lot of lo-fi indie fun; Blank Dogs, Wavves, Vivian Girls were all worth seeing too.

Day Two:

Many people will tell you that one of the best things about SXSW is all the free booze! I can only partly agree with such statements. Free booze can be fun, but when you combine it with a lot of heat, a lot of people, and a lot of time, you have the possibility of making a lot of bad decisions. Fortunately, my decisions were not nearly as bad as those made by three friends of mine who all decided to get tattoos to celebrate their partying spirit. I cannot decide which of those three made the worst decision but have narrowed it down to two – either the seal with a ball on its nose that said “Party!” or the sombrero that said “Fiesta!” I’ll let you decide. In any case, here are some of the bands that I remember seeing, and remember sort of enjoying...

The Bands:

School of Seven Bells – Newly-signed to Ghostly International, SVIIB quickly differentiate themselves from the rest of that label’s roster (at least as I knew it a year and a half ago) as they are neither dancey nor glitchy. They are simply pretty. I saw them early in the day, so my memory is pretty good. However, this was at the party where the free booze started being served at noon.

Graham Coxon – another hero for me here. Graham was the guitar player for Blur. While he’s been quietly putting out some fantastic solo albums for more than a decade, he’s evolved from a noisy guitarist into a finger-picking guitarist. That he is amazingly adept at both styles is a quite a pleasant surprise.

(Post script: I managed to record one of Graham Coxon's sets. It's posted on youtube (with Graham's permission), and can be found here:

Abe Vigoda – different party but more free beer. Abe Vigoda are kids who like loud and noisy music, and make the kind of music they would like to listen to.

Beach House – more pretty soundtrack music.

Tricky – I had been really excited to go see Tricky. That much I remember. I remember being there too. I’m sure it was good, it was Tricky.

Freeland – Former DJ Adam Freeland, re-born as rock and roll frontman. I got talked into going to see this show by an ex-Twist and Shouter (Liz, the former danceroom diva). Not something I would have chosen to see on my own, but I kind of enjoyed it nonetheless. Sounded like The Faint meets ... nope, just sounded like The Faint.

Ended the night in a parking lot where a bunch of smaller bands were playing acoustically under an oak tree until the wee hours of the morning. Decided to leave while The Fresh and Onlys were playing because some random guy asked me if I wanted to buy a bullet-proof vest; when I asked him if I needed one he told me I might.

Day Three:

Nothing was fun this day, but that wasn’t the fault of the bands, it was the fault of all the free booze from the day before. Nonetheless, I managed to check out the 5th Annual Mile-High Fidelity party. While the label I used to run (Public Service Records) helped organize the first two, I was shocked at how many people showed up to the party this year. With bands like Born in the Flood, Photo Atlas, Young Coyotes, and Dressy Bessy playing, I can totally understand why.

The Fresh and Onlys – I finally got to see this band play a proper electric set, and they are fantastic! Lots of lo-fi fuzzed out indie fun. Featuring another former Twister, Wymond Miles, on guitar, this band has the potential of becoming quite big. Think the Modern Lovers meets C86.

Tinted Windows – not nearly as good as I had hoped. This pseudo-supergroup features members of Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne, and Cheap Trick, with Taylor Hanson on lead vocals (yes, HANSON). Sometimes a group is less than the sum of its parts.

Glasvegas – I’ll admit I never saw the Jesus and Mary Chain play live, but I love that band. My guess is Glasvegas has never seen them play live either. However, whereas I’m content with that fact, these guys spend every ounce of energy they have trying to re-create exactly what they think that experience would most likely have been.

Camera Obscura – smart, intriguing, intelligent, Scottish pop music. They looked, and sounded exactly as I thought they would. That would be delightful.

Hot Leg – I have a friend who got a “Party” tattoo at SXSW this year – you know, ‘cause that’s what you do when you drink for three days straight. Anyhow, he told me I was gonna love these guys. You know how Tropic Thunder is about a bunch of actors who think they’re making a movie, but it turns out they’re actually in a war. Well, Hot Leg is kind of like that. They think that they’re Spinal Tap, but no one’s told them that they’re actually playing to real audiences yet. I sure do hope someone does that soon.

All in all, another great SXSW experience. But, I’m starting to realize that I might be [gasp!] too old for this. It keeps getting bigger every year with stages spread out across the town. I just can’t run from venue to venue as fast as I used too. I also can’t appreciate all the free booze in the way that it should really be appreciated. But then again, where else are you going to get the chance to see 1600 bands in four days, and everything from Metallica to, well, any of the other 1599 bands at the festival?

-Tim Garvey