Wednesday, February 27, 2008

There's never enough live Wilco

I can't possibly be the only person upset that I couldn't alter space and time enough so that I could live in Chicago's Riviera Theater the last couple weeks or so.
Five nights of every song the band has put on album has got to be the pinnacle of Wilco performances.

And if that isn't enough, the band jets right off to Washington D.C. to play a show tonight that the good folks at All Songs Considered are graciously sending out to all us other folks. It's on as I write this, but perhaps there's still chance to catch it: Wilco live on NPR.
If not, I'm betting NPR keeps up with the trend of podcasting its live performances.

And just because it's the song playing when I tuned in, here's a different version of "When The Roses Bloom Again," a song originally recorded for the Mermaid Avenue sessions that was scrapped after they learned it wasn't a Guthrie-written tune.

Wilco - When The Roses Bloom Again (live on A Prairie Home Companion)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Open, space

This is the time of year the desert starts bursting. The temperature is in the upper 70s, the sun is bright and clear, everywhere you look people are energized. We don't sit through long harsh winters like most folks, but that doesn't mean that the coming spring is any less enjoyable.

Wildflowers are in bloom. The air smells like life. Spring training is just about to get underway. The temperature swings more than 40 degrees from day to night. You need to be outside, need to feel the simply energy of an absolutely gorgeous day. Take a few moments of glory for yourself - nobody will mind.

When the landscape and the days are this open, you need some music to fill it. You need tunes that sound a bit dusty and a bit breezy. Bright sun-soaked tunes, energetic and laid back at the same time. Tunes that get you singing along. Simple, great tunes.

Roger Clyne - Fonder & Blonder (live)
Greyhound Soul - Rainer (live)
Dusty Buskers - Sail Away Ladies
River Roses - Forever 17

Sunday, February 24, 2008

M. Doughty: The Man

I had a busy week and could hardly get in a couple of listens to my newest album purchase - Mike Doughty's Golden Delicious.

You see, it's a concept album about apples... The narrator is a young German boy in 1920s New York City, and in his playtime stumbles on a magical apple tree hidden from view in a roof-top garden. It lets him hear the music of clouds, and wind, and streetlights, all of which are constantly surging with beautiful sounds heard only by him. As the boy ages, the apples grow fewer and fewer on the tree, until one day the tree itself resembles nothing more than twigs jammed into hard-packed dirt...

That would be tremendously strange. The truth is, I've hardly had two listens to the new record, as I said (don't you pay attention?). But I'm a big Doughty fan from back in the day, when the cassette most frequently thrown into the tape deck while we cruised around in the back of pickup trucks was Ruby Vroom, the absolute paragon of cool in my own personal version of 1994. Somehow, between Nirvana and Radiohead, Soul Coughing was all that really mattered.

Doughty himself described Soul Coughing as "deep slacker jazz," and in writing about the first time I saw Doughty solo, I termed his lyrics "dream-scape beat poetry," perhaps more apt for his earlier solo work, but still something I hear in the latest stuff.

Doughty has a new vision for his music; it's a more organic sound, readily identifiable as music played by a musician. Gone are the samples and drum loops that gave the punch to Soul Coughing's stranger tunes. Doughty terms the new sound and recording method "Dude Theory." It's simple: when the listener sits down with the new tunes, he or she hears five dudes playing music. There aren't any tricks pulled - the layering or overdubs are toned down. And even in the first couple listens I hear the difference. I'm still working my way through Golden Delicious, but it sounds fantastic so far. It's a sparer album than Doughty's Haughty Melodic, but it's better for its simplicity.

"Fort Hood" is the first song that really jumps out at me, with the line "you should blast Young Jeezy with your friends in a parking lot" one of Doughty's most wistful and specific. There's no doubt I'm going to continue burrowing into Golden Delicious for quite a while. And hoping Doughty sticks a Tucson show into his latest tour itinerary...

Mike Doughty - Fort Hood (live MPR 2008-02-19)
Mike Doughty - I Just Want the Girl in the Blue Dress to Keep On Dancing (live 2007-11-13)
Mike Doughty - Madeleine and Nine (live 2007-11-13)
(Get the MPR whole set, with some really interesting interview segments, here. Check out more live Doughty at

And if you're not following Doughty's blog, you're missing out on a damn good thing.

And if you're into dj stuff, Doughty's been doing some spinning lately. Check out his work in that realm: Dubious Luxury - Soul Power Dry Run

Lastly, props also go out to So Much Silence, who tracked down a promo album of Doughty busking in the NYC subway.

I just noticed that Doughty's cover of the Magnetic Fields' "Book of Love" is finally recorded as an official release, but it's an iTunes only bonus track. I don't really dig this new trend of digital only extras. I'm not going to re-buy the album for one track. For now, all I could find is a snippet of a live performance:
Mike Doughty - Book of Love (live, partial)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Tucson show alert: Keren Ann, Dean & Britta

The other day I wrote about Dean & Britta, so now here's a quick look at Keren Ann, who opens Wednesday night at Club Congress in what the promoter calls a "double bill from indie heaven."
Overstatement aside, this is one hell of a promising show.

I've been sampling some live Keren Ann I've tracked down from a recent in-studio performance on Minnesota Public Radio and she's an extraordinary singer-songwriter. With Jewish, Dutch and Indonesian heritage, she was born in Israel and raised in Holland and France and aside from being multilingual, her musical influences are varied enough to produce a truly unique artist in a genre that's hardly known for break-through performers these days.

In the immediate aftermath of Amy Winehouse and Feist battling it out for Grammy's best new artist, Keren Ann is all-but-assured to get noticed soon, and big time. At least from the live tracks I've heard, she has the potential to be a jazzier and folkier performer than either. But there are exotic elements that seem to pop up throughout.

Regardless of whether you're struck more by Keren Ann or Dean & Britta, definitely catch both, Feb. 20 at Club Congress.

Keren Ann - The Hardships of the World (live)
Keren Ann - In Your Back (live)
(Get the whole set, with interviews, here.)

And here's just another little taste of Dean & Britta:
Dean & Britta - Night Nurse (live)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Tucson show alert: Dean & Britta with Keren Ann

Just over three years ago, Luna played Club Congress as part of their farewell tour and it was amazing to see the band members so zeroed in on making those last songs and notes stand as their legacy. The band's ascendancy, through seven albums and too manu tours that never broke through the nightclub level, had finally reached its peak. And then they were done.

In the aftermath, a mellowed 40+ Dean Wareham and his bass playing wife Britta Phillips turned their attention to a different sound, a lusher and loungier cousin to the transcendent mix of soaring guitar leads and fuzzy indie pop. Their two albums mix covers (most fitting are the French pop gems) and originals, with a vocal harmony that's surprisingly excellent and beyond anything Luna attempted.

Dean & Britta are coming back to Club Congress Wednesday and check out the Tucson Weekly for an interview. I'm psyched to see what they bring to the stage and how their new direction influences the live performance. I can't imagine anything less than an excellent show, especially given what I've read about the opener, Keren Ann, an Israeli-born, New York and Paris-based dream folk singer.

Below are a couple tracks Dean & Britta recorded earlier this month for Minnesota Public Radio. The stripped-down "Night Nurse" is a particularly good performance.

Dean & Britta - Words You Used To Say (live on the Current)
Dean & Britta - Night Nurse (live on the Current)
(Get the whole set, with interviews, here.)
And check back in a couple days for some live Keren Ann, also from MPR.

Lastly, here are two more worthwhile diversions:
* a handwritten interview with Dean & Britta. (an incredibly cool concept)
* And the trailer for "Tell Me Do You Miss Me," a documentary of Luna's farewell tour. (Check out at 2:25 for the top quote of the film, "I'm in a bunk bed in Tucson.")

Monday, February 11, 2008

"One more gift to bring..."

I first heard about the amazing collaboration between Iron & Wine and Calexico long before any official word was released about the In the Reins EP. In late 2004, Sam Beam had been spotted hanging around the Tap Room in Hotel Congress, and he was talking a little about recording with Calexico over at Wavelab. I was immediately intrigued and thought the combination had a lot of promise, though the album wouldn't be released for another nine months or so. Beam didn't have any sort of a band to speak of at that point and Calexico is a band full of seasoned musicians who show tremendous versatility in backing various singers.

After the album dropped they all teamed for a tour, also bringing along Salvador Duran, a Mexican singer-songwriter who's since become something of a Tucson institution. I caught the tour at a very packed Rialto Theatre and later found a free NPR recording of a show from Washington D.C. later in the tour.

The day before the Tucson show, Sam Beam, Joey Burns and Salvador dropped into KXCI for an in-studio session that featured a more subdued take on some of In the Reins top tunes. Most interesting was hearing Burns take the lead vocal on "Prison on Route 41," with Beam providing the harmony. The EP started with Beam songs that he'd written with just vocals and guitar. The bands collaborated in the studio for a much fuller sound, and once the songs are stripped back down for a radio performance, there's somehow something more there.

Iron & Wine and Calexico - Prison on Route 41 (live KXCI)
Iron & Wine and Calexico - Dead Man's Will (live KXCI)
Iron & Wine and Calexico - He Lays In The Reins (live KXCI)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Grammy love

During commercials while watching tonight's too-close-for-comfort Suns win over the Wizards, I flipped by the Grammys, just checking to see if anything interesting was happening.
And just once out of a dozen or so flipovers, something worthwhile was going on (that would be Beyonce and her wonderfully short skirt joining Tina Turner for a decent enough rendition of "Proud Mary").

I don't like the Grammys and I never really have. The only award I've bothered to follow is Best Contemporary Folk Album, which a shocking number of my favorites have won in the last decade or so (Steve Earle, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash). The award has become a sort of below-the-radar acknowledgment of who really deserves some props, or maybe a backdoor sort of lifetime achievement prize.

For me, mostly, the Grammy Awards show represents pretty much all that sucks about music and the entertainment industry that surrounds it. It's all show, no passion. It's all mainstream, no creativity. It's all popularity, no room for the fans who don't take their cues from ClearChannel radio. It missed the best and awards the mediocre-est. It's static, monied, unmemorable and mostly worthless. It's further behind the curve than music companies themselves.

And once in a while it's an open forum for some industry prick to attack the very fans who support the whole damn multibillion dollar boondoggle. I remember clearly when good ol' industry shill and recording academy president Michael Greene pulled out his ticket book to call all Internet fans of music criminals. Never mind the blindly accusatory tone that dick-hole took to the podium. I'll call him out on the absolutely blatant misrepresentation of the whole notion of downloading in his preaching. I can't believe that speech was so many years ago, and the "music" industry still hasn't taken step one toward getting its shit together in recognition of the shifts in technology.

Anyway... The one Grammy awards show I can clearly remember watching was 10 years ago, when I wandered across the street from my dorm to some long-since-closed restaurant to watch Bob Dylan take three Grammys (album of the year, best male rock vocal performance and best contemporary folk ablum [see?]) and perform in probably the strangest segments in Grammy history.

(Worth noting here is the fact that the same song that got "Soy-Bombed" was featured in a number of Victoria's Secret advertisements... a fact that makes the term "soy bomb" seem ever so much dirtier...)

So why did I even bother flipping over to the awards show during Suns commercials? For one moment, five years ago, when all the disdain that the Grammys have had for music fans like me washed away in a coup of rock n' roll brilliance.

With a shout of "This is for Joe!" from Bruce Springsteen, an unbelievably awesome group struck into The Clash's "London Calling" as a tribute to the great Joe Strummer, not even two months gone from this realm. Joining Springsteen were Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and Miami Steve Van Zandt and I was blown away. If it was planned, I didn't know, so I just like to think that somehow that crew of musicians told the suits to fuck off and that they were gonna do a Strummer tribute, like it or not.

It was a great moment and a truly amazing performance because it was obvious that each of those dudes knew they were singing for Joe, singing like it mattered.

And so, no matter who won whatever tonight, or who won whatever whenever, I have a tiny bit of props for the Grammys because of that performance. Plus, I'm one of the very, very few music fans in my age group who say Grammy got it right picking Steely Dan's Two Against Nature over Radiohead's (overrated in every way) Kid A for album of the year in 2001 (though Beck's Midnight Vultures would've been my overall top choice).

So the music industry deserves maybe 1 percent attention during awards season, just in case somebody pulls out something as awesome as that Clash tribute.

Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl & Steven Van Zandt - London Calling (live Grammy 2003)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Thanks I Get

Folks keep trickling in to the site looking for "The Thanks I Get," a bonus song from Wilco's latest album, Sky Blue Sky. So why not give 'em what they're looking for?

"The Thanks I Get" is my personal favorite from the Sky Blue Sky sessions and I think it works equally well as a soulful full-band romp and as a plaintive Jeff Tweedy solo acoustic tune.
Tweedy actually wrote the song for Solomon Burke to sing, hoping it would be included on the 2002 project that ended up as the Don't Give Up On Me album. It's an incredible record, full of specially written songs by the likes of Dylan, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello and Joe Henry. The soul legend brought an amazing life and presence to the tunes... what I wouldn't give to hear him sing "The Thanks I Get."

So here are two versions, a solo acoustic one (pay attention to the banter at the end - that's where Tweedy tells the Burke story and talks about the upcoming Sky Blue Sky) and a full band recording from Conan O'Brien.

Wilco - Is that The Thanks I Get (live Conan).mp3
Jeff Tweedy - Is that the Thanks I Get.mp3

Monday, February 04, 2008

R.I.P. John Stewart

Folk singer and songwriter John Stewart died last month, passing away in the same San Diego hospital where he was born 68 years earlier. For some well-written obituaries about his 50-year career as a musician and songwriter, go here and here.

His career never hit the big time - my guess is he was just too clean cut and harmless to make much of a splash in the turbulent last 1960s and early 1970s when he did the bulk of his solo recording - but I've known his music my whole life.

John Stewart was absolutely my mom's favorite and I can clearly remember hearing his signature records - California Bloodlines and Willard - regularly as a child. I don't remember liking them, but they were there. And later when I branched out musically I gave them another shot.

His voice was deep and soothing like a great storyteller - which he was. Stewart seemed to be wrapped up in some visions of a truly good America, one that didn't exist because it had passed, or because it hadn't come yet. Such nostalgia runs through his songs, but he was no conservative - he stumped for Bobby Kennedy in 1968 after leaving the Kingston Trio.

If nothing else, Stewart had a varied and fascinating career. He got his start in a top-selling combo that seemed to be the safe alternative to all the new groundbreaking folkies led by Dylan. His most well-known song is "Daydream Believer," an impeccably catchy (and well, dreamy) pop gem the Monkees took to No. 1 for four weeks in the winter after the summer of love.

Stewart's run of quality troubadour albums started not long after Kennedy was gunned down on the campaign trail. He brought folk and country together with a storyteller's charm for a certain type of Americana that somehow skipped over Gram Parsons and the rest of the hippies.

Then, whether he was influenced by disco or glossy California rock, he turned once again, donning a white suit and sticking a red rose between his guitar strings for one of the gaudier album covers ever. But Bombs Away Dream Babies would be his biggest hit, with gloss to spare from the guitar, vocals and production (and who knows what else) of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. But the songs are top-quality, like he finally started writing with night in mind instead of day.

He never stopped touring. I don't know how many times my folks saw Stewart play, but that last time, in December of 2002, they brought us kids along. Stewart was an elder statesman of folk by then, but he never lost his die-hard fans and (I'm guessing, but I think this is a safe one) never put on a bum show.

It kinda hit me when I saw that he died, and it actually felt like weighty news to pass along to my mom. But later I put on some tunes and I don't think there'll ever be a day when John Stewart's music isn't a familiar comfort for me.

John Stewart - July, You're a Woman (live)
John Stewart - California Bloodlines (live)
John Stewart - Gold
John Stewart - Heart of the Dream