Friday, October 29, 2010

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts- Fly Translove Airways

For their second installment of vintage live recordings, Collector’s Choice Live has unearthed four tremendous Jefferson Airplane concerts from four very different and pivotal periods in their career. Kicking off with original singer Signe Anderson’s final performance with the band, the October 15th, 1966 show at The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco was the biggest surprise to me. I assumed that it would be the least interesting since I know the least about Anderson and there is so little stuff out there about her. Well the show is an emotional powerhouse as the band, the audience and even famously curmudgeon-like promoter Bill Graham all take turns making their feelings known to this singer. The little speech Marty Balin makes saying goodbye and her reaction that she is going to be a mother is a classic bit of 60’s nostalgia not to be missed. The band is tighter than expected and their repertoire is classic ballroom fare. The second release in the series comes the very next night as new singer Grace Slick doesn’t waste a minute in making her presence known. They perform a largely different set that shows Grace unafraid to get her feet wet with new material and comfortable singing with three other male lead singers. It bodes well that over the course of two sets you can hear her become more confident and the band responds by becoming more excited.

The third set skips ahead a month to two shows at the Fillmore that bring us a fully engaged Grace and a band that is really feeling their oats. Two full shows loaded with classics from the first two albums as well as a bonus couple of songs that were played at a late night photo session. The version of “The Other Side Of This Life” from the late session clocks in a almost 10 minutes and presents the Airplane in full flight. The final release is from February 1, 1968 and is a very special show the band was asked to play at the their old stomping grounds The Matrix. The Airplane had become much bigger than The Matrix (a small club) would indicate, but they good-naturedly loaded in to the club they used to own and proceed to tear the place down! The set now boasts material from the third album After Bathing At Baxter’s and even a couple of the not yet released Crown Of Creation songs and the presence of LSD is quite evident in their music as lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen lights up one solo after another with high-octane rocket fuel. The band is now a live musical beast on a par with their contemporaries The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. The Airplane were always the best songwriters and singers but now their musical muscle is bursting Hulk-like out of their Bruce Banner sized clothes and it is something to hear. All four of these sets are fantastic recordings, and far surpass some of the dicier live Airplane releases of the last few years. The packages are beautifully illustrated with vintage photos of the band and informative liner notes. This is a great series.

What's in the Bin?

One of the sheer joys of being in an indie record store is browsing the bins. Just starting somewhere, flipping through things, pulling out items that catch your eye, giving a few of them a test spin. So in the eighth of a hypothetical series, I've browsed the "New Arrivals" bins here at Twist & Shout, picked out a few things, and gave them a listen. The nature of used record stores being what it is, I can't promise these items will still be in the bin by the time you get here. But hey, browse the bin anyway. You might find something else of worth.

CD - Los Campesinos! - Hold on Now, Youngster...
The first blow across the bow in what's shaping up to be a very prolific band (this one came out in late 2008, and they've already released two follow-ups). They vaguely fit in with the rest of the indie/college crowd circa the late '00s - with song titles like "This Is How You Spell 'Hahaha We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics'", how could they not?  But they do have their own sound - it's just hard to pinpoint exactly what sets them apart. There's a vague sense of exuberance to the music here. It sounds like the band is really enjoying recording this album, and that seeps through even when they sing "I was sick in my mouth because of the fear of the scent of an ex-girlfriend/and no more conversations about what Breakfast Character you'd be/I'd be the one that dies (no one dies)." The arrangements are busy but rarely sound cluttered, and the end result sounds "different" without sounding too "out there". If there's a negative, it's that I'm left with an overall impression rather than actual tunes, songs or lyrics running through my head. Oddly, the most memorable bit of the album to me was the extended yelped countdown leading into "Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats". That doesn't mean the album's bad by any stretch - it just means I'll have to work harder to remember I have it, and like it, and should play it again.

LP - Max Steiner/LeRoy Holmes - King Kong - Original Motion Picture Score
There are "soundtrack people", who obsessively hunt down, collect, trade, and argue about every single bit of music recorded for film, TV and video games. (A friend of mine does some TV soundtrack work, mainly for children's shows, and even he has semi-obsessive fans.) I certainly don't fall anywhere near this category. Most of the soundtracks I own were purchased due to "having that big hit on there", or having that not-available-elsewhere song by some artist I'm a fan of. But there are a few soundtracks and scores I own that don't fit that category. I don't recall what led me to buy the score (or "tonalities") of Forbidden Planet, but I love that one. And this one might just join it. It's a 1975 rerecording of the original score from the 1933 filmKing Kong. I haven't actually seen King Kong, so I can't speak for how faithful the reproduction is. I'm guessing they took some liberties with the main title, as there's a steady backbeat that vaguely hints at disco, and I can't imagine that being in the original. But the rest sounds appropriately moody, threatening, or pulse-pounding as the situation warrants. I don't need the film (or even to have seen the film previously) to enjoy the cues. And frankly, who couldn't use song titles like "Rescue Team Follows Kong and Meets Brontosaurus" and "And That, Children, Is Why There Is No 6th Avenue 'L' Today" in their library?

45 - Ray Charles Orchestra - "Booty Butt/Sidewinder"
45 buyers going in blind might have run into what I call the "baker's chocolate effect" when first encountering a single by the Ray Charles Singers. They might have simply bought the 45, taken it home and put it on, expecting to hear the blind piano genius (and perhaps the Raettes) yelping out "Love me with all your heart!" in front of a funky groove. And instead, they were treated to prototypical easy-listening fare recorded by Charles Raymond Offenberg that most people couldn't tell apart from Ray Conniff. And it's a bit like when you were five, and you found the baker's chocolate in your parents' pantry, and excitedly unwrapped it and took a bite. For some, the facial expression might even be identical.
Once bitten and twice shy, such a person might immediately circumvent anything by the "Ray Charles Orchestra", or at least approach it with great caution. But approach it one should. The title "Booty Butt" should put everybody at ease that yes, this is the Ray Charles we all know and love. He's just not singing on either track. The flip-side (the Lee Morgan number) actually sounds like the backing track for Ray Charles that he just didn't get around to singing on, but it's upbeat and soulful enough that it's quite enjoyable. But "Booty Butt" really is the star of the show. A slower, slinkier tempo for Ray to pound his piano to, and a great BB King-like guitar line running across. This might not replace "Hit the Road Jack" or "Busted" as your favorite Ray Charles track, but it should definitely help get that taste of baker's chocolate out of your mouth.
- mondo gecko

Thursday, October 21, 2010

An interview with Marnie Stern

I called Marnie Stern last week just as she was walking into a coffee shop in New York City. She told me, “I would like for people to think of me as a songwriter instead of just a guitar player because it becomes like a carnival act.”

It’s easy to understand how she might seen as a novelty: a chick wields a double-neck axe and rips out fast and nasty licks. For her new album, though, she focused more on the songwriting as opposed to “hiding behind tricks” like she had on previous releases.

“My tendency is to put a lot of stuff in there,” she told me, explaining her earlier releases densely layered sounds. “These songs have a simpler structure. This album is more straightforward and direct.”

It’s also more personal. “For Ash,” a song that she made available on the Internet before the self-titled album’s release is about an ex-boyfriend who killed himself last year. She’s reluctant to talk about the stories behind these songs. All I could get out of her was “I put a lot of myself into them” and “it was cathartic to write them” and “it’s just personal stuff.” She recently told the Village Voice: “I let it all in, I mean, on the thing, as opposed to being abstract. And I know it's OK, but I feel embarrassed, a little.”

Even the album’s cover, which was painted by her good friend, Brooklyn artist Bella Foster, is steeped in personal narrative.

“It’s a painting of my bedroom,” Stern told me. “Not actually my bedroom. It’s idealized. Lots of little things we’ve talked about together. My dog. Guitars. Stuff like that.”

She told the Voice writer that “she worries that all the recording, writing, interviewing, and touring is just vanity.” I got a sense of that when I talked with her last week. It seemed as though she was reluctant to say anything because she couldn’t quite understand what the point would be if she did.

I might have caught her near bedtime. It was about one in the afternoon; All the articles I read about her said she stays up all night and crashes somewhere around the noon hour.

Plus she was with her band. “They’re sick of hearing me talk about this stuff,” she said.

Which might be a passive-aggressive way of saying the album speaks for itself.

Monday, October 18, 2010

An interview with The Growlers

One second after The Growlers’ vocalist Brooks Nielson told me he is “a classic hoarder,” he rattled off a list of stuff he hoards. He spoke too quickly for me keep up, though, so my notes read “old furniture, old machines, piano, surfboards,” which is about a tenth of what he said.

“We’re always digging in dumpsters, so after every tour we come back with a bunch of stuff,” he explained. “We live in a warehouse and every inch is covered.”

We got to talking about this because I wanted to know more about the Costa Mesa, California, band’s sound. They call it “beach goth,” which, to my ears, is as accurate a categorization as you’re going to find. It’s got the Ventures’ twang and driving beat mixed with ghostly vocals and lyrics about death and graves and pale-skinned creepy concerns. They might want to consider adding “cowboy” in there somewhere, because there’s a little “Ghost Riders in the Sky” stirred in. And “low-fi,” too, because their new album, Hot Tropics, has the gritty tinniness of records recorded decades ago for next to no money, the kind you might find while dumpster diving. It’s a sound they get by recording on equipment from the 70s and 80s. The kind of equipment you might find in a dumpster.

“The lack of quality in our equipment adds to our sound,” Nielson says. “With certain bands, when you take away the old gear, they’re not as interesting. It’s the same with us. If you put us in clear digital, it’s not as good. I like it more ghetto. It kind of fills up the sound. It’s not empty. There’s weird scratchy noise in the background.”

Their equipment is always breaking down and that adds to the complexity of their sound, Nielson says. For example, when they made their first album, Greatest Hits, the 4-track they were using broke down midway through. They switched to an older, crappier machine while it was being fixed. When the original, better machine came back from the shop, Nielson says, “It was like, ‘Shit. We shouldn’t have fixed it.’ It was definitely a little different sounding.

“But I didn’t care,” he adds. “I don’t put too much thought into that stuff. If we record on a cell phone or on tape, personally, I don’t care. It’s not that important. Because when does it end?”

When I asked him to name some of the equipment they use, he had to ask their bass player and technology guy, Scott Montoya. Lately it’s been an Ampex MM 1100 8-track and an Otari MNR-100 24-track, Montoya said.

“It’s from like the 80s,” Nielson added, a little irritated at having been bothered with such details. “And of course crappy mikes and crappy homemade cables.”

He hates it when they play larger venues with good sound systems, especially the way the drums sound when they’re all miked up. It feels unnatural to him. He wants The Growlers’ music to sound the way it does when they’re playing in their warehouse, where they live in together. They’re housemates, Nielson explains, “so we don’t have to track each other down. It’s our own little world within a world where we can make music and party.”

By this point, ten minutes or so into our conversation, Nielson was getting restless.

“This band talks about music too much,” he said. “I just want to make the song, record it, and move on.

“We’re just making music. This is a weird, stupid business and we’re trying to figure it out so we can one day not be broke.”

--Joe Miller

Bob Dylan- Bootleg Series Volume 9 – The Witmark Demos 1962-1964

Ok, the question at this point has to be: how did this happen? How did this guy come to be? It seems inconceivable that a man in his early 20’s, from an unsophisticated background in a modest Midwest town would turn out to be the genius of the age. Dylan’s place in American history is assured, although it is still evolving. With each new album, book, radio show or movie he bends the light around his image becoming more tantalizing, more smoke-like. This set of demos (songs recorded in a minimal fashion to secure the copyright and use as a calling card to other, more famous, singers) recorded between 1962 and 1964 do indeed show this young man to be a genius. It is just hard to fathom the creative arc this skinny kid embarked upon in the first six years of his career. He goes from a topical folk singer - on a par with his hero Woody Guthrie - to a once-in-a-generation poet using the most elevated language and demonstrating a real understanding of poetic convention and the turn of history in just the two years illustrated on this box (2 CDs or 4 LPs). Early on we are struck by the seemingly wizened experience of the words to songs like “Poor Boy Blues,” “Rambling, Gambling Willie” or “Man On The Street.” Then like some bolt from the blue, “Blowin’In The Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” signal a seismic shift in his songwriting, and he is off to the races. His reputation and career could have stopped right there. Ponder that for a moment. The majority of his storied career could have never happened and his place in history was still assured. That’s how good those songs are. But, as we know, and as this set amply illustrates, this was just the starting gun for Bob Dylan. His winning streak has been so long and so varied and so exhilarating, that going back to the beginning and re-examining those first sparks is instructional.

In addition to the miracle that is the songwriting, one has to marvel at Dylan’s abilities as an instrumentalist and his already developed performance sensibilities. He is self-assured and funny pulling off even the trickiest emotions and tongue twisting phrases like a seasoned pro. One has to imagine that this kid was so smart and paying such close attention to the culture evolving in front of him that he somehow became the tip of the spear. When you see a flock of Geese winging south, somehow that one at the very front of the flock ended up there through some combination of circumstances and genetic predisposition. That’s Dylan. He is so far ahead of the pack you can’t help but just shake your head in wonder. Over the course of the 46 songs on this set, Dylan exceeds expectations again and again, moving from the stately “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” to the mature “Boots Of Spanish Leather” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright." There are humorous side-trips through “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” and “I Shall Be Free,” but by the time we arrive at “Mr Tambourine Man” and the incomparable “I’ll Keep It With Mine” all one can do is sit back in awe.

Everything on this set is unreleased. These are different versions than you are used to, conveying the solitary achievement of this one person. Listening to the entire box reinforces the fact that it wasn’t the producers, or the backing musicians, or the other three Beatles - it was Bob. Loaded with gorgeous unreleased photos and a fascinating narrative by journalist Colin Escott that explains, among other things, how Dylan single-handedly destroyed Tin Pan Alley, this might be the most important of Dylan’s Bootleg Series because it so clearly shows the germination of a singular talent that shook the world.

I'd Love to Turn You On #20: The Tickets – The Tickets

I came to discover the little gem of a record that is The Tickets by way of their Brewery label founder, Walter Clevenger. Clevenger and his band the Dairy Kings made some fine Bakersfield inspired pop records in the late 1990s, so by association, I figured his taste as a label head would be in a similar style. I figured right, and have been enjoying the Tickets ever since.
Mainly active in the mid to late 1980s in Southern California, this quartet released but a single, followed by a cassette entitled The Tickets Make a Record in 1990. It is these archive recordings, with a bit of keyboard embellishment from Clevenger, that make up their lone CD release. Lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Bryan Shaddix offers up a treasure trove of charming guitar pop. Like most all power pop, the classic Beatle-y and '60s guitar combo influences are quite easy to spot in the Tickets, but the group's energy and fresh approach scuttle any formulaic negatives. All the tracks boast any number of hooks: fuzzy guitars, roaming bass, nimble drum fills, and choruses buoyed by the band's vocal harmonies. Not all is sunshine and light; the song "Dream About Me" displays a haunting, Searchers like melancholy, while "I Don't Belong" is pretty lyrically downbeat, portraying the singer as a ragged outsider.
Several of Shaddix's songs are in the vein of character sketches, no doubt owing not a little to the likes of Nick Lowe or Squeeze. Indeed, like Lowe in his days with Rockpile, the Tickets favor a touch of rockabilly in their tunes. "Way Down Here" is a definite twangy stand out, the kind of thing the Beat Farmers also reveled in during their time. Reference points aside, the Tickets' originality does shine through. Particularly, Shaddix's nicely weathered voice adds a new dimension to the usual boy-girl lyrical concerns. "Heartland" is another showcase song on the album. Sporting a great jangly riff, Shaddix pulls off the rare achievement of penning an earnest, metaphor based love song without succumbing to dreaded sentimentality.
Power pop like The Tickets, and the kind of bands that craft them are important to the landscape of rock n roll. As with other kinds of genre music - trad folk, prog rock, singer songwriter - new bands making a fresh, personal take on familiar styles renews long-established legacies. The future is brightened. Certainly do not pick up The Tickets looking for a tortured confessional, nor any avant-garde fireworks. But certainly do indulge if you like well crafted rockin' poppin' songs that convey a basic, enthusiastic joy. And while you’re at it, check out the 2010 releases by the Posies, Hoodoo Gurus, Teenage Fanclub, Tommy Keene... and the Apple label reissues from the late, great Badfinger.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts-STONED

Finally, the most compelling evidence of The Rolling Stones as greatest band in the world is here. The 1972 concert film Ladies and Gentlemen... The Rolling Stones has never officially been released for home video and now it is out, in all its glory. This is it. If you love The Stones, there is no greater footage of this band in concert. I took home the Blu-Ray version and waited breathlessly as the band takes the stage and breaks into “Brown Sugar.” Not only is the song list exactly to my taste - heavy on Exile and Sticky songs, one can’t help but be mesmerized by the real miracle of this era of Rolling Stones - Mick Taylor! Again and again throughout this program Taylor absolutely floors you with his perfect guitar solos. His ability to lock into Keith’s groove and then go high above it with perfect, wailing cascades of notes is chilling. Speaking of Keef - he could not look or act cooler than he does in this movie. He is Rock perfection. Which is not to take anything away from the other Mick, whose performance is propelled by his manic, druggy charisma more than the cultivated dance steps and audience manipulation of his modern performances. It should be a humbling reminder for any other band to watch this footage of how great the Stones really are, and any guitar player who thinks he is hot shit should take a moment to review Taylor’s leads on “Gimme Shelter,” “Love In Vain” or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” before slinking back to their hole to practice for another thousand years. The picture and sound are cleaned up beautifully and the release also includes some interviews and three songs from a tour rehearsal that show the band in uber-hipster mode. It is hard to convey how great this footage is - all I can say is "this is it!"! 

Want more Keef? There has just been a release of his rarely heard reggae group called The Wingless Angels. Originally released in 1997, this album of chants and drum circles featuring Keith on guitar, bass, organ and vocals on every song. It is real roots reggae. This is not a bunch of goodtiming hits - it is a deep meditation of like-minded dreads and their patron from Babylon. It says much about Keith that this group of Rasta elders and experienced musicians let him into their circle, but they did, and they trusted him enough to play with them and record the results. This release expands the original album with a second disc of sessions that is as good if not better than the original. This is healing music for deep smoking and meditation. If you are ready for it; it can be a healing and uplifting experience, and it is an essential part of the Keith Richards mystery and mystique.

Phish in Broomfield: The View from Suite 222

Phish has long considered Colorado to be their second home.  While their post-reunion tours of the past couple of years have mostly ignored the Western half of the country, we in the Mile High State have been fortunate to have multi-night stands at Red Rocks, Telluride and, just this past week, three nights at the brand new 1st Bank Center in Broomfield.  This new venue is small enough to provide an intimate atmosphere yet large enough for Phish to bring in their arena sized light show as well as the big rock sound they've developed so well over the years.  These three nights would see some awesome jams, heavy rock energy and a few surprises along the way.
The first night, 10/10/10, got underway with "Chalk Dust Torture," perhaps a predictable opener but still bringing a burst of energy into the room.  Strong versions of "The Moma Dance" and "Stash" highlighted a safe but well played first set.  Set 2 kicked off in fine form with a spectacular run of "Mike's Song," "Simple," "Ghost" and "Weekapaug Groove."  "Ghost" in particular went to a lot of interesting places and may just have been the best jam of all three shows.  Next the fun started with Trey Anastasio busting out his megaphone for the classic tune "Fee," the first song on Phish's debut album Junta.  A fun and funky rendition of "Makisupa Policeman" led to the debut performance of "My Problem Right There," a quirky little number that the crowd seemed to pick up on right away.  The ever-popular "Slave to the Traffic Light" was spot on and a rocking "Julius" closed the set.  The band returned for an encore of The Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup," an appropriate conclusion to a show dominated by strong versions of longtime favorites.
Show number two also began on a classic note with the pairing of "Runaway Jim" and "Foam," two songs that opened many a show in the early 90s.  While this set also focused on time-tested favorites, it did contain another debut song, Mike Gordon's funky "What Things Seem."  The set was highlighted by an amazing rendition of "Tweezer" that packed a ton of energy and innovation into its twelve minutes.  "Reba" built to a stunning climax and "Run Like an Antelope" ended the set with more hard rocking energy.  The run of shows was now half over and while everything played was excellent, the song selection and placement were fairly safe.
In the second set they started to throw a few curves, starting right off with a cover of the TV on the Radio song "Golden Age."  Phish played this once before, during the fall of 2009, and it's starting to become a big hit with the fans.  It's a great song to get everyone dancing and a great way to start a second set, similar to their covers of The Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll" and The Who's "Drowned."  Many fans and I hope that this enters the regular song rotation.  The jam out of "Golden Age" led to a nice version of "Piper" and the funky "Camel Walk," a song that Anastasio performed acoustically when he appeared at Twist and Shout back in 2006.  The ballad "Wading in the Velvet Sea" gave everyone a chance to catch their breath before a spacey version of "Twist" and the beloved epic "Fluffhead."  The set closed with the lead track from last year's Joy album, "Backwards Down the Number Line."  The show ended as it began, with the familiar encore pairing of "Sleeping Monkey" and "Tweezer Reprise."  Another strong, well-played show left everyone in anticipation of what was in store for the final night.
Tuesday night's show, in sharp contrast to Sunday, found Phish taking numerous chances with song selection and placement.  Not every choice they made was successful, yet the positives far outweighed any missteps.  The first unusual choice was playing "Time Turns Elastic" as the second song of the night.  To say that this complex, composed piece has not been well received by the fans would be an understatement as the song has often met with outright hostility.  But the band may actually have found a solution by playing it so early in the show.  Now we could sit back and appreciate it for what it is without the flow of the show being greatly interrupted.  Everybody perked up again with the now rare appearance of the funky "Meat" followed by the always welcome favorite "Divided Sky."  Another first set highlight was the appearance of "On Your Way Down," a bluesy number by New Orleans master tunesmith Allen Toussaint.  The set closed with an awesome hard rocking rendition of "46 Days" that just kept getting heavier and heavier.
One of Phish's most overlooked traits is their ability to rock out with the best of them.  They certainly proved their kick-ass-rock-n-roll credentials with a loud and rocking "Carini," which opened set two right where the first set left off.  This segued nicely into another long time favorite, "David Bowie."  From this point on, Phish took a number of chances by playing a good amount of new material and foregoing some of the big songs most fans assumed they'd hear on the last night.  One pleasant surprise was the second ever appearance of "Halfway to the Moon," a new song by keyboardist Page McConnell.  This is a nice mid-tempo tune that could turn into a great jam song if they decide to take it in that direction.  "Bug" has always been a personal favorite of mine and this version got very intense toward the end.  Just past 11 o'clock when most fans were probably expecting "Harry Hood" or "You Enjoy Myself" to close out the show, Phish pulled out another curveball unleashing "Split Open and Melt."  This was solid all the way, first going into some unusual jam territory before hitting the slam-bang conclusion.  For the encore, the band acknowledged a fan-made sign requesting "The Meatstick," the song that launched a nationwide dance craze in 1999.  As they left the stage, they encouraged the crowd to keep singing the chorus, which everyone did till the house lights came on.  What a way to end a show.
Phish's tour now takes them back to the east coast.  They will conclude with a three-night stand in Atlantic City on Halloween weekend.  The band is sounding great right now and as the tour goes on, they look to get even better.

--Adam R.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts- The KGNU Dead Special

It kind of just crept up on me. I know I have been doing this for a long time, but when I got the poster for our bi-annual Dead special and realized it was 15 years since Jerry died, and that I had been doing the special for at least 10 years before that, it made me realize, to borrow a phrase, what a long strange trip it’s been! My first exposure to the KGNU Grateful Dead special was as a listener in the late 1970’s. I remember in the spring of 1981 DJ Carey Wolfson played the New Years Eve show I had been at the previous December. This was obviously way before the age of immediate downloads and complete accessibility to everything all the time. I remember what a thrill it was to relive the show, and how special it felt that it was my local public radio station playing it. There was a nice, circular, community feeling to it. A few years later I was blown away when then music director Paul Metters asked me if I wanted to work with a younger guy named Carter York to produce the Dead special. He knew I was a big collector, and we had done some radio together, so he trusted my ability to speak fluently on the radio. What a thrill those first couple of specials were for me! The Dead were at the peak of their popularity and the audience reaction was immense to what we were playing. People called in constantly, the studio was filled with happy Deadheads and we made a lot of money for the station. I kept doing it-twice a year for a few years with Carter, until he split to work at a radio station in Austin. He was a great guy and I hope to run into him again someday. Mike Massa then stepped in, bringing years of radio experience and a similar obsessive knowledge to my own. About a year or so later we were joined by our poster-designing friend Chris O’Riley, and that line-up has lasted the ensuing 15 years.

Aside from the well- known pleasures of playing music for an appreciative audience, the special has come to mean much more to me in recent years. The special we did two months after Jerry’s death remains the most emotional night of radio I have ever experienced. The feelings in the Dead community were so raw and freaked-out that it is hard to remember now how that felt. A lot of people listened that time, and we received a record number of pledges. I remember seeking out the most emotional performances I could find - long, slow versions of “Peggy-O,” “Comes A Time,” “Morning Dew,” “Stella Blue” and “So Many Roads.” The phrase from “Terrapin” kept running through my head; “soon you will not hear his voice,” over and over, as powerful versions of his greatest songs poured forth from the speakers, through the wires and out to a mourning community. It was a brilliant illustration of what radio (especially public radio) can and should be-a reflection and amplification of the community’s feelings and a provider of the emotional balm it needs. We live in such fractured times, so removed from any shared sense of well-being, that the ability for a media outlet to really be part of the emotional life of a community truly is a rare gift. And that gift has kept on giving.

It gives to me in a number of ways. I love the programming on KGNU. I love how it has remained a bastion of progressive thought and music, even in times when such an attitude has felt out of step with the prevailing political climate. I love that it is so casual and non-corporate in the station, and I love what doing this special twice a year for all these years has done to me as a collector. In a very real way, my collecting life revolves around this special. Every new addition to my collection gets listened to with an ear toward the special. What will people want to hear? What will surprise Mike Massa? Will I have a version of “ The Other One” that will make Chris O’Riley smile? This year, I can guarantee there will be some selections from the magnificent Furthur shows at Red Rocks, and there will be another bunch of those heart-filling Jerry ballads to mark the 15th anniversary of his passing. Join us on October 16th from 7pm until 1 am at 1390 am, or 88.5 or 93.7 fm or You can pledge your support to the rare and wonderful gift of public radio, or you can just listen… and remember.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I'd Love to Turn You On #19: John Prine - Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings

Is this Prine's best album of his 40-year career? How can it be, when you have his self-titled debut album to contend with? How can it be when the rock-leaning production by Howie Epstein offers up flourishes that betrays his folky roots? Well, that title album is great, sure (and so are Sweet Revenge and The Missing Years and Common Sense, and…), but by this point in his career, he’d had 25 years to hone his wit to razor sharpness, and was now able to throw down absolutely perfect lines at will that marry serious topics to Prine's goofy sense of humor. Take for example, one of the many rocky marriage songs that are strewn throughout this album, “Quit Hollerin' At Me,” where he notes that "They already think my name is where in the hell you been?" cutting straight to the heart of a troubled relationship with a grin. Or take in the entirety of “New Train” which kicks album off with the lightest view of divorce ever heard. It’s viewed as a new beginning rather than a spiteful and bitter melodrama, maybe because he's singing from the other side of the a divorce that's already happened unlike Richard & Linda Thompson on Shoot Out the Lights or the entirety of Fleetwood Mac on Rumours. Throughout the record, Prine alternates between slower love songs and more rock-ish upbeat ones, decorated with the flourish of a cadre of fans Epstein assembled to back him, including Marianne Faithfull and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. As the songs progress we see that the sentimental side that penned “I Love You So Much It Hurts” and “This Love Is Real” with tongue nowhere near cheek co-exists with the puckish side that wrote “Big Fat Love,” about a skinny kid, and “We Are the Lonely,” which takes a look at the day’s personal ads to find the common denominator in the title. And then there are the songs – most of them in fact – where the two co-exist within the song, as in his best ever song (that’s right, I said best ever, so move aside “Sam Stone”): “Lake Marie,” where he ruminates on a fading marriage (and other darker subjects) with lines like "Many years later we found ourselves in Canada/trying to save our marriage/and perhaps catch a few fish/whatever came first" that still doesn’t convey the catchiness of the sing-along chorus or the perfect timing and emphasis with which he dryly delivers the line. The album could exist merely as a vehicle for providing that highlight alone, but it also happens to be Prine’s most consistent record ever as well, right along with that debut album, and better than the others named above. Every record I've heard of his has a few gems and some workable stuff. Sometimes the gems shine so brightly that the rest of the stuff basks in their gleam and the record sounds great throughout. Only on the debut and here do I think that all the lesser material has its own shine to give when you're listening. To sum up: “Perfectly crafted popular hit songs never use the wrong rhyme” he says elsewhere, and then to prove his point in this perfectly crafted non-popular non-hit song, completes the rhyme with “You’d think that waitress could get my order right the first time.”

Friday, October 1, 2010

My Journey With Posters

Recently the guy who does all my framing, Corey Hartman at Furthur Frames, asked me if he could take some pictures of the stuff he had framed for me at the store. I said sure, but that a lot of the good stuff was at home too, and I suggested he come over and photograph some of that too. He did, and the experience turned out to be eye opening for him in several ways. First off, he had forgotten how many posters he had framed for me over the years. He was also surprised at how many things I had that he didn’t frame. It made me realize how long I have been collecting posters, and what a big part of my life they have been. Corey wrote up this piece for his newsletter, and it inspired me to do some writing of my own. Smoke fills the globe and the mists of time start to cloud the present as the milestones of the past return to me. 

My first thrills as a poster collector all happened in the 1960’s in New York City. My older brother was allowed to go into Greenwich Village to “head shops” to buy posters and he took along my allowance promising to return with something cool. I think the first time he came back with the four colorful Richard Avedon images of The Beatles. I ended up with Paul and Ringo which I still have to this day. Another trip to the Village brought me a poster of a chimp sitting on a toilet bearing the caption “Pot Relieves Tension.” Unbelievably my Dad thought it was so funny he let me put it up in my room. Also a number of “black light” posters, a map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and a series of posters by a company called East-Totem-West that mixed psychedelic imagery with an Alice In Wonderland motif. I still have the best East Totem-West and Corey did a completely bitchin’ job on it. The point is though, that the Beatles Avedon posters and these East-Totem-West posters lit my young heart on fire. I was off on a lifelong hobby. The fact that some of these relics of my own anthropology are now valuable was not then, and never will be my motivation. Like the music I have obsessively collected my entire conscious life, the need to have and cherish it is almost entirely emotional and not practical. I have had to create a willful schism in my mind that separates the guy who sells this stuff for a living from the internal 18-year old who desires it. 

As I passed through Jr. high and high school I continued to collect posters, usually advertising upcoming local concerts or the kind of commercially available stuff that you found at record stores and other counter-culture emporiums. I remember I had a 6- foot tall poster of The Who with a bunch of concert shots super-imposed over an iconic image of Townshend in full windmill form. Oh man, did I love that poster. I finally ended up trading it for two photo-posters: one of CSNY, one of The Grateful Dead. The kid from my dorm who I traded it to ended up flipping out and being taken off campus in a straight jacket. I wonder what ever happened to that kid and that poster. Also in High School I started learning about the cool exclusive stuff that only record stores got to promote new records. In the early 70’s I got many sweet items from the various local Budget Tapes and Records stores that would give you a poster if you bought the new album the first week it hit the stores. I also found out if you shopped in the store a lot and weren’t a pain-in-the-ass they might give you stuff off the wall if you asked. That’s how I got the Pink Floyd Animals, three-dimensional creamer that Corey considers his greatest achievement. In fact I got it from the very store - Underground Records - that many years later I would end up buying in a tax auction and turn into Twist And Shout. The fact that I kept this monstrosity throughout my entire adult life without destroying it is miraculous. At this point it is probably worth noting that even at a pretty young age I was at least a little careful with my stuff, and I was insanely devoted to it, keeping it safe through move after move - hippie house after hippie house - always being hyper about my posters, my boxes of toys, my comic books, records, books... you get the idea. I am a collector. Not a hoarder - a purposeful collector. 

Throughout my High School years I worked at The Century 21 Theatre on Colorado Blvd. It was there I got interested in movie posters. I quickly realized that the theatre was tossing 90% of the cool shit they got into the dumpster. In fact they were sending ME out there to do it. I asked the manager if I could have them instead of just throwing them out. Thus I got a great collection of 70’s music and cult classics - Woodstock, Monterrey Pop, 2001, Chinatown, The Godfather, and on and on. And I held on to all of them. 

In College in the mid to late 70’s I was pretty focused on punk, reggae and new wave and regularly stripped telephone poles and campus billboards of gig flyers for bands like Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones, The Clash, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley. At the same time I was majoring in English and becoming obsessed with the Beat Generation of authors and their immediate progeny, seeking out anything that mentioned, Ginsburg, Kesey,  Kerouac, Ferlinghetti and the like. During the first half of the 80’s I was a high school English teacher and my collecting took a back seat to the most thankless job on earth - great trade off right?

In ’84 I became 1/3 owner of a store in Boulder called Trade-a-Tape. The other owners were Bart of Bart’s CD Cellar fame and a guy named Bill who was a truly unique and shady character. He was also a die hard collector and lover of music. He had a collection of epic proportions - records, tapes, posters - same as me. Bill entertained an almost endless parade of fellow freaks, geeks, half-wits and criminals some of whom were the holders of tremendous caches of cultural goods. There was one guy in particular I will never forget. Bill told me he knew someone who was selling off his psychedelic posters, and he had a bunch. We went out to a non-furnished house in South Boulder where a skinny, wired long-hair met us at the door with darting eyes and hustled us in and to a back room where we sat cross-legged on the floor and he produced a series of boxes full of vintage, first-pressing Fillmore and Avalon Posters. Bill had already been there once and gave his famous giggle as my eyes got big as saucers. At this point in history -probably late 84 or 85 - the real deal - the classic ballroom posters from 65-70 were still an unknown commodity to everyone but the people who originally experienced them - a number far fewer than their increasingly collectible nature might suggest. In other words, nobody was really collecting them and nobody really had any idea what they were worth. Remember 1969 was less than twenty years in the past and most of baby boomers were in full erase-your-youth-and-idealism-by-becoming-a-sellout mode. Not this guy though. He was selling his few possessions (the posters) so he could pursue a monk-like existence of whores and heroin in Thailand. He proudly told us the only Thai he needed to speak was “you got any heroin?” and “how much does it cost?” When I reached out to inspect a handful of posters he pushed my hand away “hands off bitch.” In the mid-80’s this was the first time I had ever been called a bitch (in fact it remains singular to this day). “Don’t touch them until you own them.” This experience was getting just too weird. But Bill seemed unfazed and said, “show us what you got.” The guy then proceeded to slowly, lovingly, almost sexually unveil a peep show of the most fantastic things I had ever seen. I had experienced a few images of this particular genre on album covers and in magazines during the 60’s. I had a vague awareness that these were important, but like the Golden Age Comic Books of the late 30’s to late 40’s, they were just out of my reach. Interestingly, to this day I have never owned a Golden Age Comic Book and still consider them out of my reach. Anyway, as this nut case doled them out I instinctively knew this was a turning point in my life. This was it! These were the ultimate manifestation of my rock and roll quest. They didn’t take the place of music in any way, they were a different category of aesthetic pleasure that brought together elements of music, literature, graphic design, cartooning, high-art, high behavior, photography, and an ineffable whiff of the glory days of my favorite bands. I now understand why the guy was such a bastard about us touching them because they were stone mint. Every one of them glowed like burning coals (thanks Bob) and just being in the same room was intoxicating. Not heroin intoxicating apparently, but definitely good enough for me. Bill had told me ahead of time that he was selling them for 35 bucks each, which seemed outrageously expensive to me at the time. After actually looking at them, I had to have them. I think I walked away with 6 or 7 that first day. I took them home expecting my wife (girlfriend then) to be pissed at me for spending so much on them. But she (having gone to Berkeley from 66-70) immediately recognized them and was thrilled that I had gotten them (thanks Jill!). She even encouraged me to go back and get more if I wanted - which I did. Bill set up another meeting, and this time Tweaky McBadvibes told us he was leaving for the land of milk and heroin any day and this would be our last chance. I came a bit more financially equipped this time and bought 10 posters for 350 dollars. 

They were awesome! Big bands like The Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Santana and The Doors side by side with obscure bands like Blue Cheer, The Charlatans and Peanut Butter Conspiracy and unlikely artists like Thelonious Monk, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry opening the bills. The art was a mind-blowing mix of real artistic technique mixed with heroic doses of LSD. I was immediately drawn to the work Rick Griffin, who remains my favorite, but I really liked it all. If the artwork wasn’t as great on one as another, it might have Albert King opening for Van Morrison at the Denver Family Dog - so it was still pretty special to me, and I was able to find something to love in all of them. 

 I was still a few years from opening Twist and Shout and my focus on finding these posters became pretty intense. I started going to record shows and garage sales and second hand stores looking for them and did find a few, but I quickly realized that the quantity and condition of the original stash from the deranged world traveler was rare as hen’s teeth and I was a fool for not buying everything that fool had right then and there. Unbelievably, shortly after Jill and I started Twist and Shout he resurfaced, walking into the store looking much worse for wear but brandishing a smaller box of the same high quality goods in addition to some interesting rice-paper Thai prints of Buddha’s and such which I purchased along with most of his posters (again - why not all of them schmuck!). I put one of those rice paper things up recently in a closet and get a big chuckle every time I see it. I later heard from Bill that the guy ended up in a Thai jail. From then on Jill and I referred to him as “Thai jail.” 

At this point I probably didn’t consider myself a serious collector, and I wasn’t. I was just a guy who liked posters and had a huge collection of music and a record store - so although I may not have considered myself a serious collector, I was setting things up to turn out that way. In the first weeks of Twist and Shout a kind of hip, speedy, weird, older guy came in with a box of stuff. I had never seen him in the store before. He looked all around the store, his eyes darting over the posters from my childhood collection that I had used to decorate the store. I was paranoid to put up any of my psychedelic ballroom posters, because I didn’t have the money to frame them properly and I didn’t want to damage them. So, in those early days of the store I decorated the walls with those Avedon Beatles posters, and the free posters I had gotten from Budget Tapes and Records and the Map of Middle Earth etc. This guy introduced himself to me as Mike and said, “I like this place, I’m gonna give you this stuff.” He proceeded to pull out a poster-Bob Dylan at The Denver Auditorium. He told me it was from the early 60’s. He left the rest of the box - which was crap - newspapers, cassette tapes, but that poster made me change the way I felt about posters. I realized I was now in an amazing position to get a lot of posters. That Bob Dylan Poster has become the symbolic center of my collection - even though it is not a psychedelic poster - it is emblematic of lots of other facets of my beloved obsession. 

I continued to acquire posters, largely through the store, but also through sometimes totally unexpected sources. One summer afternoon I was working the store when Jill called me up from some guy’s house (long before people carried cell phones) saying she had found something interesting. In the past her interesting finds had included Neil Sedaka records and such so I was a dick and resisted. But she was insistent. She said it was only a few blocks away and the guy had a bunch of psychedelic posters. I bit. I remember I walked over to the guy’s row house and every one of his possessions was strewn on his front lawn in a desperate attempt to avoid the clutches of the landlord who was evicting him. The guy’s name was John Fish and he told me he had done many the posters for Denver’s Mammoth Gardens venue in the early 70’s. I was quite aware of Mammoth Gardens (it is now a much renovated Fillmore Auditorium) and all the many great bands that played there in the late 60’s and 70’s so I was excited. He pulled out artist folio after artist folio of his own work - finished posters, artist proofs - everything. Thinking back to my hesitance with the last nut I said - “I’ll take everything.” He was thunderstruck. “Whaddya mean 'everything'?” I said, “I will take every poster you drew - all the loose artwork and anything you did that has to do with popular music.” I think I gave him 3 or 4 hundred dollars and I walked away with literally hundreds of pieces of art. Much of it was completely worthless, and even the best of it didn’t have the artistic merit or historical provenance of the Fillmore/Avalon/Family Dog Stuff. However, it was to pay unbelievable benefits a number of years later when Mammoth Gardens was being converted to The Fillmore, and it became known that the only known stash of original Mammoth Posters was in my hands. I managed to get into negotiation with The Bill Graham Archive. They (arrogantly) offered me a pittance for about half a dozen of the best Mammoth posters. I held tight and told them I would trade them one for one for first pressing posters from their archives - I wasn’t interested in money. That was how I got a couple of my favorites - including the Led Zeppelin Avocado design and a really great Pink Floyd among others.

The last huge score from the era before poster prices became inflated was a guy about 15 years older than me, who told me he had worked for Barry Fey, the great Denver Area concert promoter, back in the early Family Dog days, had a huge poster collection, and wanted to start selling them off. He took me out to lunch and got me drunk on really expensive Tequila and then took me over to his apartment to show me his collection. As soon as he opened the door I saw a bunch of framed beauties on his wall. He said those were his favorites and he wouldn’t sell those, but he then broke out a couple of folios of pristine posters from the ballrooms with a COMPLETE set of Denver Family Dog posters; number 1, all the Doors gigs, The beautiful Quicksilver Pony Express design,  and best of all - an incredibly rare variation of The Grateful Dead Show from Sept 1967 with the band’s name printed across the skull. Again, I didn’t hold back and I paid him the 45 dollars each he wanted. This time I remember handing over more than 5 large to walk out of there with the posters. I didn’t look back.

From this point on, the public perception of psychedelic posters started to grow, and the prices inflated exponentially. It became much harder to get those kinds of deals, and as I framed and put stuff up in the store I realized I was going to eventually run out of room. I started to narrow my focus. I only collected certain artists, certain bands, certain cities - but not everything. There have been many great and hilarious and not so hilarious stories in more recent years. There was the guy who was hired to put up posters for the Jimi Hendrix concert at Regis Field House in Denver on Valentine’s Day 1968. He handed out some of them, but sat on a stash of them for 35 years. I managed to get a poster and two handbills out of him. There was the guy who came in and told me he was The Family Dog. “Uh sure, you were The Family Dog.” He insisted he was the spiritual and social center of the commune and venue known as The Family Dog in Denver and he had all the posters. Whether he was full of shit or not, I don’t know, but that bitch sure did have some nice posters. It seems like every couple of weeks someone comes into the store with some poster to sell. Some are great, some are crap, but Twist and Shout has sort of become known as THE place to look at posters between New York and Los Angeles.

So what this all started out as, was my way of telling you that key to a successful poster collection was having a great framer. Not a good framer - a great one. An artist. Because after collecting for a while I realized that they were not worth that much to me in a box under the bed. I really only liked them when they were up where people could see and enjoy them. This is real art. Last year The Denver Art Museum produced a fantastic show featuring psychedelic poster art. I was thrilled to be part of that. There are psychedelic posters hanging in the Louvre. Watch Antiques Roadshow for a couple of weeks and you’ll undoubtedly see some psychedelic posters pop up. This is indeed, real art. Check your box under the bed for some gold, take it over to Furthur Frames and allow these important historical artifacts to breathe new life into your home.

--Paul Epstein