Monday, June 30, 2008

Fleet Foxes at Solar Culture tonight!

I've had the Fleet Foxes EP Sun Giant on the stereo over and over this weekend and while I haven't heard their full-length yet, if it's anywhere near as good this should be a great show.

I hear the comparisons to Band of Horses and My Morning Jacket right away, but Fleet Foxes are in a whole other league in how they draw together three and four singers at a time.

I just ran across a live set/interview on the BBC in which the interviewer asks how they created their "incredible vocal blend." The band's immediate reply: "through witchcraft." They were obviously joking, but it's an interesting notion because it does fit their sound. It's no stretch to imagine these bearded Seattle fellows as practitioners of some sort of mystical arts.

The BBC interview is a gas, with the host describing the band's physical appearance as "people who may have hung around with Charles Manson, but not done any harm" and wondering what sort of medieval influences went into their vocal style. The Foxes handle the strange British questioning well, describing the album cover as something that gets stranger the more you keep looking at it.

Check out the Tucson Weekly preview of the show.

Fleet Foxes - Mykonos (live BBC)
Fleet Foxes - White Winter Hymnal (live BBC)
Get the whole set, three songs plus interviews as a zip file.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Live: Mike Ness

One one hand it's a shame that Mike Ness couldn't sell more tickets in Tucson, a burg I always considered a Social Distortion kind of town, but then again, I prefer to see shows stuffed in a sweaty club. The magic of live music tends to dissipate a bit as the venue gets larger, and while Club Congress was bursting tonight, I'm glad it won out over the originally scheduled Rialto Theatre.

Performing under his own name (though two other Social Distortion members were in his four-piece back-up band) Ness toes the line of honkey-tonk and rockabilly. But be sure: he loses no toughness in the presence of pedal steel, upright bass and harmony vocals. The tattooed and ferocious rebel comes through no matter which songs he's playing.

While I've counted Social Distortion among my favorite bands for well past a decade now (the first show I saw in Tucson was Social D, with a somewhat incongruous opening set from the Old 97's), I also have to say that Mike Ness solo isn't some vanity trip that involves simply throwing on a cowboy hat.

Tonight's show drew mostly from Cheating At Solitaire, his 1999 record that remains an overlooked but triumphant set of rough and twangy songs that gave country music a dose of attitude not seen in far too long. His follow-up never hit me as hard, but as a covers record it more than pays homage to the country & western and rockabilly songs that fed his youth.

Two of those covers opened the show, Wayne Walker's "All I Can Do Is Cry" and Carl Perkins' "Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing." Next was a self-penned song Ness introduced as a tribute to early Johnny Cash songs, "Ballad of Lonely Man."

It was a great opening, but the band then ripped through eight Cheating songs in a row, setting the bar higher and higher with each one, and taken together they made a pretty strong argument that the solo Ness should've been playing to thousands instead of hundreds. The title ballad led into his barn-burner rockabilly version of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," and then to the down-and-dirty "Devil In Miss Jones." He twanged it up next with "Rest of Our Lives" and the Hank Williams classic "You Win Again" and then hit the (almost reformed) outlaw portion of the night: "Dope Fiend Blues," "Misery Loves Company" and "Crime Don't Pay."

Ness finally dipped into the Social D catalog at the end of the set, playing "Down Here with the Rest of Us," stripped of a layer of distortion and a bit of menace, before giving his honky-tonk reading of his calling card, "Ball and Chain." The Under the Influences version never did much for me, but live Ness strayed even further from the path for the lyrics, and his new phrasing crystalized for the song's potential as a full-on country weeper, with the forlorn jumping out in front of the anger.

For the encore, Ness opened up with a new song that I wish I could find on a bootleg or demo version somewhere. He introduced "I Think I'll Stay" by saying the crowd looked like a bunch of criminals, and that he bet all those bad boys would like to someday find a good girl, instead of the trainwrecks they're with. To do that, he said, you'll have to make some changes, and then the hardened punk rocker lit into a country ode to fidelity that's more or less the tattooed version of Adam Sandler's "Growing Old With You." And it was incredible.

The show closed out with "Charmed Life" from Cheating and then a cover of "I Fought The Law," a song Mike Ness was born to play.

My only complaint is this: Couldn't he have brought along his special guest from the Jersey show?

Mike Ness - Don't Think Twice (live, Bob Dylan cover, Woodstock 1999)
Get the whole set as a zip.
(From the amazing SDSickBoy site)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

New Giant Sand record due Sept. 2

I just saw an announcement from Howe Gelb that he's releasing a new Giant Sand album in September. Howe has plenty of recording projects, and released a solo album in 2006 and the Arizona Amp and Alternator project in 2005, but it's actually been four years since a proper Giant Sand record.

So it seems like 'bout damn time for proVISIONS, which, according to the band's announcement, features collaborating friends like Isobell Campbell, Neko Case and M. Ward.

The biggest part of the anticipation for me is wondering what sort of vibe this new album will have. I'm not quite well-versed enough to put forward a good guess on how Howe chooses to name any particular recording project. Hell, he himself says "Giant Sand is a mood," but to me his records as Giant Sand have been no less, shall we say All Over The Map, than solo Howe or any other name.

I absolutely love the Arizona Amp and Alternator record, a dusty ramshackle sort of thing. And I got turned onto Giant Sand during the Chore of Enchantment days, which to me sort of best define Howe as an off-kilter desert folkie who's always ready to unleash a burst of guitar feedback. And then there's the slightly earlier stuff like Glum and the earlier stuff like Valley of Rain I've been turned onto at different points. And yet I'm still a novice. So there's really no telling...

For my money though, the best overall Howe Gelb or Giant Sand recording you can find is a live set recorded at the Club Congress 20th Anniversary festival. Put aside how tainted this opinion is by the fact that I was at the show and consider this: his set list spanned just about as far as it could span. The whole set is at, but check out a couple samples.

As I wrote about that night: "I lost some of the specifics as the night grew hazy, but that sound is still in my mind: Howe Gelb doing whatever he wanted with that guitar. And I was constantly amazed."

Giant Sand - Yer Ropes (live, Club Congress, 2005-09-02)
Giant Sand - Classico (live, Club Congress, 2005-09-02)

And check out a great clip on Howe that KUAT did a couple months back.

Live: Grand Archives

I nearly forgot about the Grand Archives show tonight at Plush, then nearly backed out because of general work-tiredness. Either way, I'd have been a sucker to miss out.

Even given the quick ascent of the band, which formed hardly a year ago and landed immediately on Sub Pop, Grand Archives aren't getting nearly enough buzz. Plush was pretty full and super enthusiastic, which is great for an end-of-June Wednesday, but some of that has to be from the band's Tucson ties.

The simple truth is Grand Archives is an excellent band - with a sound woven together from plenty of threads: obvious influences are the British invasion and Laurel Canyon scenes, but they don't stop there, bringing country, soul and straight ahead bar rock into the mix. The songs are all have a brightness that seems to come mostly from very tight harmony vocals.

All through the show I felt a small guilt that I hadn't yet picked up Grand Archives' record for some reason. And, kinda broke after the cover, I didn't get it at the show either. So I'm tuned into the songs on their MySpace and Sub Pop pages and growing even more hooked.

As hard as it is to write about Grand Archives without the Band of Horses comparisons, I only bring it up to say this: I first saw Band of Horses opening for Okkervil River (twice, actually) long before their first album came out (they were peddling a quickly put together CD of demos and live tracks) and aside from being blown away, it seemed clear to me that the band was a sort of two-headed monster. I was obviously wrong, as the Ben Bridwell-led Band of Horses have taken a slightly different direction after Mat Brooke left the band. But tonight I found what I thought was missing on Band of Horses second album.

Brooke has a light touch, but his songwriting is intricate and he creates a more timeless pop sound than Band of Horses more atmospheric tunes. It's like siblings, who can look the same and different at the same time and figuring out exactly how is not only tough to do, it misses the point.

The band turned in a great version of Sam Cooke's "Another Saturday Night," giving the soul classic a poppier, harmony-laden and guitar-driven feel. And they took a turn doing Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown" in the encore, rocking out with a Stones swagger as they transitioned to the final tune.

Lastly, I'll say that there's a ton of fantastic music in this current Seattle-oriented wave of bands. With the Long Winters, the Fleet Foxes (who hit Solar Culture on Monday) and Sub Pop's non-Seattle acts like Wolf Parade (another soon-to-visit-Tucson act) Blitzen Trapper and a great many others, I'm about ready to give any Northwest band more than a fighting chance based that geographic pedigree alone.

Grand Archives - Torn Blue Foam Couch
Grand Archives - Miniature Birds

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Theme Time Radio film

I've been loosely following Bob Dylan's XM radio show since it started and found a sort of dual fascination to the program: one is Dylan's transfixingly quirky personality as DJ, yapping in between tracks like it's his dream come true to host a radio program, while the other is not only a reverence for these unearthed treasures he plays week after week, but just the pure enjoyment that damn near every one of those old-timey country, blues, R&B, jazz and rock songs bring.

Dylan is now up to 75 hours worth of broadcasts, each episode thematically defined. And the amazing Night Time In The Big City blog has 'em all.

I just stumbled across a creative short movie made by stringing together audio of the various sultry opening lines and panning across a marvelously detailed painting that incorporates images of all those lines:

I've loved the Baseball episode most, and given away the Mother and Father episodes as gifts to my folks. And I gave the Young & Old episode as a joke for a just-turned-30 friend. It's an immensely entertaining show. Check out a typical Dylan fact-filled interlude and a cut from one Dylan's most played artists, Mose Allison.

Bob Dylan - Fountain of Youth (spoken interlude from Theme Time Radio Hour season 2)
Mose Allison - Young Man's Blues

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Live: Tom Waits, El Paso Plaza Theatre

My companions for the trip to El Paso were a guitar player, a pizza maker and a guy who drives trains, fitting because that's exactly the type of rag-tag company I imagine Tom Waits likes to keep.

Inside the magnificent restored Plaza Theatre, Waits took his place on a slightly elevated platform, center stage and smack in the middle of a junkyard set that was as odd and fitting as his video "press conference" announcing the tour.

In what appeared to be an all black leather suit, Waits shimmied and stomped his way through the opener "Lucinda," one of the "Brawlers" that highlight his 2006 Orphans box set. Looking like a scarecrow come to life, he raised a small cloud of dust with every stomp, a rhythmic and mood-setting touch that was brilliant.

Next up was "Way Down in the Hole," a resurgent tune among his best known tunes now thanks to its appearance on The Wire and subsequent cover versions. With those two songs Waits set a spooky and mesmerizing tone that carried most of the way through the show.

I was more clueless than I wished on the set list, which took a big detour from his Phoenix shows. Nine of the songs came from his records this decade, and along with the three 1999 tunes, it was a surprisingly new set list. The highlight for me was those three tunes from Mule Variations - "Chocolate Jesus" in the high-energy early part of the set, an exceptionally bluesy "Get Behind The Mule" mid-set and the gorgeously mournful "House Where Nobody Lives" during his short stint on piano.

I've always leaned more toward Waits piano ballads and would've loved it if he'd sat at the keys for a few more songs, but Waits seemed restless and was back to his quirky stomping and preacher-style arm waving quickly.

Right before his first tune on the piano, a cop walked out on stage, saying he was there to serve Waits with something. The singer turned wiley, with a string of excuses that ended with him saying that he didn't know exactly where Tom Waits was, but he could surely get a message to him. The bizarre interlude ended with Waits being given the key to the city, and saying "If you find me in your living room in my underwear, we have an understanding."

We talked afterward about whether Waits knew what was happening, or how he'd been approached about an in-set interruption. Turns out, he set the whole thing up himself, according to the review in the El Paso Times.

Thinking back, I'm taken by just how accurately named this tour is. Glitter & Doom is evocative of Waits' music in general, but there's something extra fitting about his live performance Friday. He's a showman to the core, and as he ran through song after song, he kind of danced around both of those extremes. With "Lucinda" and the closing "Dirt in the Ground," I'd say he mixed in equal measures of glitter and doom.

The show was a remarkable experience, and one that in no way satiated my desire to see Tom Waits live. I was able to put a check mark on that goal, but all I really want now is to see the reclusive and rarely-touring Waits again and again.

Tom Waits - House Where Nobody Lives (live Storytellers)
Tom Waits - Storytellers 1999 (zip file)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tom Waits muxtape

OK, here's a new muxtape, which features exclusively Tom Waits songs that turn my crank.
Or activate my trapeze artist. Or invert my disguise. Or pass my stones. Or sugar-free my jazz. Or Bugs my Potter. Or smoke my Jim Rodriguez. Or doctor my Chung. Or... nevermind...

Give it a listen: Catfish Vegas's Favorite Tom Waits Songs Muxtape!

Waits' PEHDTSCHJMBA underway

(Photo: Joe Odea,

All that separates me from Tom Waits now is a night of sleep, several hundred miles of scorching hot desert and whatever line there is to get into El Paso's Plaza Theatre.

With the tour underway, I feel properly immersed in Waits' tunes, tales and mythology to really go nuts at the show. Sure it's a shame that our own Fox Theatre in Tucson didn't get booked for this tour, but it's an absolute blessing to have a chance at all to see the man.

The reviews — uniformly glowing — are rolling in for the first night of this Glitter & Doom Tour:
Los Angeles Times
Arizona Republic
Phoenix New Times
Rolling Stone
Associated Press
LA Weekly

I'll be back with a review of my own, but in the meantime, here's a tremendous live Waits performance from Tucson, in 1975, broadcast on KWFM. (Pay close attention to his story/poem about being hustled in 9-ball.)

Tom Waits - Rosie (live KWFM Tucson, 1975)
Tom Waits - Ol' 55 (live KWFM Tucson, 1975)
Live From Lee Furr's Studio - KWFM Tucson 1975 (zip file)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Mule Introduction

If Tom Waits hadn't released the stunning and remarkably varied Mule Variations in 1999, I don't think I would have ever found myself exploring his music so deeply, or ever found so many of the off-beat treasures and poetic screwball truths that flowed out like an unexpected drip from his rough growl of a voice and beatnik shuffle tunes. I'd be missing several favorite songs, I'd have likely bypassed all but his most obvious musical moments. I'd be left wondering what the big deal was when I heard his name. And I'd certainly have a clear head today, not lost in the anticipation of watching the man perform in El Paso on Friday.

Sometimes albums are released at the absolute perfect time in your life, when they can smack you in the face and shake up everything you thought you knew about music. They alter what you want from a song - deliver meaning when you wanted a beat, substitute truth for a good melody, or leave you staring at the horizon in confusion just a second after you thought you might be close to grasping what it all mean.

The most powerful albums in my life have almost always been the ones I caught on to when they were fresh, those new musical artifacts you get to ride as if they were waves, right at the same time everyone else in the world is listening. The new is what captivates the most. The new is what makes you feel like you're worthy of walking the hippest razor's edge you can find. The new is the powerful.

And Mule Variations is Waits returning with a new studio album after seven years. His 16th record was lagging a bit considering it was his 16th in 26 years, but as an established musician and cult favorite it really wasn't that long. So consider this as a comparison: Mule Variations was released the week I turned 20, more or less a good ways down my road to being a savvy music fan. But as a 13-year-old barely able to wrap his head around the emerging grunge trend, I wouldn't have had the slightest clue what to do with an album like Bone Machine.

But I was more-or-less equipped mentally to take in Mule Variations. And friends from all walks seemed to be finding it and sharing it in one big soupy mix of exploration. I was finding that folks who called their favorite bands Radiohead, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, the Magnetic Fields, Wilco, Bad Religion, Johnny Cash and Beck were all coming together over this new Tom Waits record. The agreement was notable enough in itself, but the fervor with which I was watching various friends recommend this new album was what drove me to join the club.

I was most immediately drawn to the ballads: "Hold On" is permanently the list of my five favorite songs - and "House Where Nobody Lives," "Pony" and "Picture in a Frame" were all immediate touchstones on that album. That reaction is fitting because as I've continued to dive into the man's intense and dense catalog for the last nine years (digging both proper albums and a good number of bootlegs), that early folk-jazz period is what I find most captivating. But Mule Variations is far from a pretty or precious album. Waits' ramshackle rythymic witchery just may be at the highest level he ever reached.

After all these years, what I like most about the album is how it makes such a strong statement in favor of all the different paths his career has taken over nearly 30 years. Mule Variations represents everything that Tom Waits does well - from the heart-broken troubadour stuff to his so-called junkyard orchestra. He's a madman and an oracle, running through 16 songs, half of which you could dance to with your grandmother and half of which make you shake with fear.

I'm sure 99 percent of the people who ever wrote a song would rest their heads with pride and glory to have Mule Variations as a greatest hits collection. And the record could certainly stand as a greatest hits for Waits, if anyone is reductive enough to take it as such. It's certainly one of my all-time top 10 albums, but more than that, it was a springboard for me into a fascinating and rewarding catalog of albums that I'll almost certainly continue absorbing over decades rather than years.

And I can't say enough great things about the VH1 Storytellers show Waits performed in connection with the Mule Variations release. It is without a doubt among the top handful of concert recordings I have ever heard. The songs, the stories, the overall performance and the recording quality are all A+ material. So give it a few good listens, and let's all just thank the man for writing and singing songs for all these years...

Tom Waits - Picture in a Frame (live Storytellers)
Tom Waits - VH1 Storytellers 1999 (zip file)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Two young men and two old men

I'm fascinated by watching these Tom Waits interviews with David Letterman, with various available clips spanning 20 years. They both look like they're having loads of fun whenever they get together. Hell, you could put together a nightly show with just the two of them (it'd be funny enough, but of course it would ruin the mystery Waits has built up over the years).

Throughout, there's this sort of comfortable charm between the two. Letterman plays the straight man, patiently goading Waits into answers he knows will be ludicrous. But Letterman obviously knows how much he's being put on and doesn't even try to conceal how funny he thinks the whole thing is. And Waits is just bursting to let loose with ridiculous answers and strange yarns. It's really an act more than an interview.

Taken together, these clips form an insightful and compelling overview of Waits' music and persona. He's at turns rough and wise, a jester and a showman, and all along Letterman keeps poking around for something weirder and funnier from his guest. I'm sure they know each other fairly well by now and I don't doubt that private conversations are any less hilarious.

First up is a 1983 interview, with Waits pushing Frank's Wild Years:

Next is Rain Dogs era Waits, in 1986:

"Straight from the Top," in 1988, and another top-notch interview:

And next we'll jump forward to 2002, with Waits playing "All the World is Green" on his promo push for Alice and Blood Money:

And then we reach the near-present, with Tom visiting Dave once again, in 2006:

Tom Waits - A Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis (live Austin City Limits, 1978)

Monday, June 16, 2008

"Tom, you project a very strange image..."

Welcome to Tom Waits Week here at Catfish Vegas Presents...

Until Friday we'll be celebrating and sharing the music and stories of the great and truly singular American icon Tom Waits. And then on Friday, it's off to El Paso to see the man himself in concert. Two Phoenix shows sold out in something like eight minutes (and tickets on Craigslist are going for something like $500 a pair), but apparently the LA crowd isn't willing to cruise the extra few hours down I-10. I was shocked a couple weeks ago when some friends said tickets were still available, but I got to it and ordered a pair myself.

And I've certainly been preparing, listening non-stop to Tom Waits. And while I had no doubt that his recording career was rich and varied enough to support this sort of extended immersion, the breadth of excellence is truly astonishing. The volume of top quality songs and albums recorded by Waits puts him in a league with probably just Dylan, Springsteen and Neil Young. And his personality dwarfs all those other fellers in terms of how captivating he is as a sheer character.

The quote leading off this post is from an appearance Waits did on The Mike Douglas Show in November 1976. Douglas introduces Waits as a "combination of a poet, jazz singer and vagrant, with a surprising amount of personal charm."

I'm about halfway through Jay S. Jacobs marvelous biography "Wild Years: The Music and Myth of Tom Waits," and Jacobs describes how shocking Waits was to the television folks: first Waits missed out on rehearsing because the security guard refused to let him into the building, then Douglas himself nearly freaked out when he found a "homeless" guy asleep on the green room couch.

After playing "Eggs and Sausage," Waits sat in for a typically mystifying interview, telling Douglas that he's "an unemployed service-station attendant" and he "just talk(s) this way on the weekends." Check out the clip:

And here's an August 1977 Waits appearance on Fernwood Tonight, with "The Piano Has Been Drinking" and another curveball interview:

Tom Waits - Eggs and Sausage (live KQRS, Minneapolis, Dec. 16, 1975)
Tom Waits - The Piano Has Been Drinking (live WNEW New York, Dec. 14, 1976)

Stay tuned all week for more Tom Waits...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Lost Dutchman Tapes

I had this notion a while back to write a story or screenplay or something about an imagined future for Kurt Cobain, a skewed and new reality in which he decided to just hide out for a while instead of ending it all. This future takes his anguish and dries it out, puts Kurt in a radically different environment as embarks on a new pursuit of his songcraft and through it, a new life...

Picture it as sort of like Kurt finding his Woodstock, with the Meat Puppets playing the Band to his Dylan. Kurt gets off tour feeling like the world is closing in on him and gets into (or fakes) a motorcycle accident. From there he takes off to the Arizona desert, living on some hidden ranch somewhere with the Kirkwood brothers and spending months making fractured sun-soaked country music and experimenting with a whole new way of storytelling.

They make tape loops of psychedelic and grating sounds all day and sit around campfires at night, strumming guitars as though they'd been taught a new sacrament, staring up as the smoke curled its way up into the dry night sky.

Kurt would fall in love again with music, and find a new sense of purpose with a fellow band of one-time punkers who saw their music branch out into crazy directions. They'd probably get their hands on some peyote and make up dusty blues songs with alien lyrics.

Maybe Kurt would take road trips and long walks through the desert with Roger Clyne, buying blankets and tequila from Mexican children after crossing south of the border. They'd talk of death and struggle and the suffocation of fame, as it grew from fleeting to incessant. But it would all be in the abstract because they were out there, in the hinterlands, away from any pressure to perform and to respond to countless demands, or to do anything else but simply breathe.

Maybe Kurt could've taken his exodus from fame in time to meet up with Doug Hopkins, and just maybe the two wildly different but wildly talented songwriters could've found some common inspiration, maybe a sort of rivalry as they pushed each other to come up with better and better songs, everyone else be damned.

All the while there'd be new songs - conquistador ballads, lonesome cowboy tunes, mythologically based inquiries into modern life, an intensely personal examination of life on the road as the spokesman of a generation. A sun-baked madness and a calming wisdom would emerge as two competing forces in his lyrics. Always an abstract writer, Cobain could have found a new plane for his contemplations. He could have forced an entirely different worldview into his head, turning out songs while he was awake that would seem to have sprung from the soundest depths of sleep.

Some fans might get wind of all this of course, and make ill-fated pilgrimages to try and drag Kurt back to Seattle, back to the limelight. Geffen would call and call and call. The inevitable bootlegs would leak out after a time, coveted because the quiet and shaky tapes would come out like a previously unimagined form of salvation. But those "Lost" Cobain tapes would seem so unlikely that they'd be questioned at every turn. No definitive answer would emerge.

But they'd pave the way for Kurt's return, for a new sort of "tour," with a ramshackle posse of long-haired musicians taking a stage coach from town to forgotten town, arriving unannounced at sundown to light a campfire and pass a bottle of tequila before dusting off guitars and starting in on several hours of mind-blowing songs. These unexpected and hard-to-believe performances would become legendary. Fans would leave Seattle and Los Angeles for Benson and Jerome, taking ouija vacations trying to predict where the troupe would emerge next.

At long last a proper release would be put together, recorded during a performance at Gammage, with a rotating cast of musicians reveling in the anonymity of a completely dark theater. The only certainty would be that Kurt was at the center of it all, singing for an audience once again, singing his desert songs, joyous in the culmination his restful phase and ready to find a new muse to chase.

These musings have been brought to you by the stunning and excellent Meat Puppets Live Repository. There are more than 30 full live shows there, dating from 1981 clear through to the band's reunion in 2007.

Meat Puppets - Plateau (live Whiskers, Phoenix, Aug. 19, 1983)
Meat Puppets - Lake of Fire (live Warfield, San Francisco, Aug. 7, 1991)
Meat Puppets - Backwater (live Slims, San Francisco, April 18, 1993)
Meat Puppets - Comin' Down (live Austin, June 1, 2007)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Plush Grizzle and Chuck Norris

Catfish Vegas favorite SumKid Majere has come out with one hell of an mixtape, "Plush Grizzle." It's no surprise that he throws together jazz, blues, hip-hop and rock and makes it all flow.

His style as an MC is a mish-mash of the sounds of his various stomping grounds, Chicago Atlanta, North Carolina, Los Angeles and New York styles. He's informed and influenced by too much to pin down easily, but aside from stylistic origins, there's no doubt that Sum is one of the master lyricists of hip-hop today, who can handle utterly fascinating and detailed imagery just as well an absurd stream-of-consciousness flow.

He's also got plenty more in the works for this year - sign up for Sum's mailing list at ReverbNation.

In the meantime, check out the video for "Sloth," from his Batmilk EP:

SumKid - Chuck Norris On Drugs
SumKid - September

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Free Suicide Kings download; Calexico in Space

Phoenix's ornery honky-tonk heroes The Suicide Kings have relocated to Nashville, home of their record label, Blue Plate Music, as they ready their newest album.

Set for an August release, the record is streaming on the band's Web site (or just listen below), and what's more, sign up for their mailing list and you'll get an email link for a free download of the song "Bottle and a Gun."

I'd been a fan of the band (formerly the Revenants) for years, but never got to see them play live until March, and it was a hell of a show.


Next up is news that Calexico is going into space. Not Joey and John and the rest, that takes training and whatnot. But their music, specifically "Crystal Frontier," will be played as the astronaut's wake up Friday. Apparently Cmdr. Mark Kelly is a big fan and selected the song.

Calexico - Crystal Frontier (from Even My Sure Things Fall Through)

Monday, June 09, 2008

New James on the way

James, the blokes responsible for one of my all-time favorite albums, are back, seven years after a split that nearly consigned the band to being all-but-forgotten. Big in England, the band had the misfortune to chart just one song in the U.S., which in the attention deficit of this country's pop culture means you're a one-hit wonder, regardless of the quality of the rest of your music.

Of course, "Laid" was one hell of a single and definitely earned the band plenty of curious American fans (yours truly), but for some reason the American music public in general just stopped there. And subsequently missed out on a damn good thing.

The Laid album was a staple of mine from nearly the time it came out in 1993 clear through most of my college years, a span of eight or so years. Few albums have ever come along with such fortunate timing to really mean something in my life, and that brooding masterpiece of alternative rock was one of my cornerstones. I always loved the lyrics especially - James was a band that was daring me to figure myself out, with words and clues throw out along the way and a certain yearning sound that always felt like a part of the search in itself.

I don't think James ever quite fit with the Manchester scene they came up in - they never were as dance-oriented or as punk-inspired as the bigger Manchester bands (hence no Brooklyn-based rip-off/revival movement these days). Brian Eno produced Laid and while the record certainly carries his touch, it's neither as experimental as his own work or as polished as his U2 production. What he did was let James be James, and the band always relied on an intricate instrumental base, letting acoustic guitars and well-placed horns have their place in alt.rock.

News of the band's return a few months back caught me by surprise and frankly had me listening to Laid straight through for the first time in years. And it holds up, my friends, it really does.

Hey Ma has already been released in the UK, but the U.S. release date isn't until September for some reason. Until then, check out the tunes on the band's MySpace, or the KCRW set they performed last week:

It's clear from this preview that James has emerged on this side of the seven-year hiatus with the band's signature sound intact, a melodic and atmospheric swirl, anchored by Tim Booth's soaring and passionate vocals. The new songs are fantastic, just the right mood for this 2008 that we're living.

(An aside just gleaned from wikipedia: Booth played Victor Zsasz in Batman Begins and is apparently returning in The Dark Knight. I had no idea.)

James - Hey Ma (live KCRW)

Get the whole set (six songs, plus interviews) as a zip file.


After finishing the last post, I zapped on the tube for a little relaxation, and flipped back and forth between a Pete Seeger biography on PBS and and rerun episode of The Shield.

What's funny is that X falls somewhere in the middle of all that - a legendary folk singer who's spent most of a century writing and singing about and organizing the underclass, and a contemporary television show about the gritty criminal underground of Los Angeles...

It seems like X is a product of all that... or should at least acknowledge its place in the whole schebang.

Here are a couple of loose threads that have been on my mind since the last post:
First is an absolutely spellbinding story about John Doe and his roots as a poet in Baltimore.
Next up is my own take on X's country counterpart band, The Knitters:
It’s true and good and right. And the punk shown through. The punk will always show through and always has. Until the 1970s, it simply went by different names and came from different places. It was Woody and the Carters, it was Charlie Mingus, it was boogie brothel piano and Robert Johnson’s devil guitar.

What X put on stage in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and what the Knitters put on the stage last night is proof it’s all the damn same. The Knitters did turns on Woody’s “Do Re Mi” and the Stanley Brothers “Rank Stranger,” as well as the X screamer “Burning House of Love” and the Knitters fave “Call of the Wreckin’ Ball.”

It’s the America that fell beneath the cracks and is better for it. It’s the America of Woody and Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. It’s the outlaws and the righteous, but more accurately and most importantly, it’s the America that denies and abhors the power structure. It’s the America that doesn’t want the Machine of oilmen and bankers and war-mongers. It’s the America of Hunter S. Thompson and Edward Abbey.
Damn. Feisty shite there. I kinda rule.

Dave Alvin - Fourth of July (live, 2007-10-07, Golden Gate Park, S.F.)

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Live: X

"Reunion" shows are typically transparent attempts to cash in on the money-to-spare, now-that-the-kids-are-gone Boomers who once made up what may well have been a fairly intense fan base at one time.

And then there's X, a band that gave the American West its own form of punk rock - and while the region may have been slightly late in developing compared to the British and New York scenes, it was one that, spurred by X, ultimately became richer musically, with its nods to rock 'n' roll rootsiness and a greater sense of the poetry that could be conveyed alongside churning and screaming electric guitars.

X was never just three chords, never a band that could've been pinned down as anarchist instigator wannabes, and never a band that stopped innovating. And though I was somewhat prepared for the stage presence and general excellence of X by a Knitters show I saw almost three years ago, this was my first time seeing the band itself. So, though I'm not typically a front-and-center type of show-goer (at least once the crowds climb past 1,000), I wasn't going to take any other position for this one. There was going to be no action-figure-sized musicians in my recollections of the night, no back-of-the-hall timidness to mar my evening.

The quick review? Incredible, bad-ass, inspirational and memorable, not only because I finally got to engage a long-time favorite band close up, but also because those incredible songs just kept coming, and as my eyes kept scanning their way across the stage's four outstanding and iconic musicians and I kept jumping up and down, I felt as though I could've been there at the beginning, that I was stuck in some sweaty and dingy LA club back in the day, that it wasn't 30 years after the music was burning-white-hot new shit. The furthest thing from a nostalgia show is one that convinces those who were never around the scene to begin with that they just might've been. Had I not been an infant in those days, I would've belonged, that's for sure.

And X delivered. The freshness and the energy the band brought to the Rialto Theatre Saturday - the final night of the band's 31st anniversary tour - was so clear, and so clearly dependent on each of the four band members, that it could've lit the marquee itself. Those four reunited punks have emerged three decades later as legends for no other reason than they are legendary:

Exene Cervenka simply has the most commanding presence of any woman ever to front a punk band - fierce and menacing on the microphone, with a confident sass that she's built up over 30 years on stage. As I wrote about the Knitters, Exene's and John Doe's vocals just meld into this otherwordly thing altogether, a synchronized wail that slowly becomes its own singular creature, born to breathe fire and shout heartache.

At 54, John Doe looks as if he was born to live in this sort of extended middle age. A few wrinkles only make his face all the more expressive, and hint at a backstreets wisdom that's precisely in line with the sound and style of music he plays, particularly the loud thump-and-wail of X, but also the weary troubadour country- and folk-tinged songs he churns out solo. No wonder he's an actor. Dressed all in black at the show, Doe is the archetype outsider, a rebel intellectual who found his home in punk rock. But in other eras of American life he would've been a beat poet, a James Dean, a drinking buddy of Hemingway, a rail-car compatriot of Guthrie, or a pen-pal of Mark Twain.

Billy Zoom engages the audience more than any performer I've ever seen, and all without a microphone. He's the king of eye contact. With his lightning fast punkified Chuck Berry guitar riffs coming from muscle memory, Zoom was constantly scanning the crowd for any camera or camera phone pointed his way, and he'd just mug away, eyebrows bouncing up and down as he zeroed in on each fan. Dipping his guitar neck for the front few rows of people to touch and constantly smiling and winking (I think he got me four times), Zoom must've personally connected with hundreds of people in the crowd - stretch that tally night after night across the whole tour and there are thousands of X fans, some old but most young, with the smiling and slightly wrinkled face of Zoom forever etched in memory, a silver pompadour combed high and a personalized guitar strap signifying not only celebrity but legend. Billy Zoom is practically ready to run for office.

Zoom brings an effortless virtuosity to the band, and D.J. Bonebrake is an equally gifted musician on the drums, a dynamic powerhouse and one of punk's standout rhythm-men. Perhaps the most appropriately named musician ever to walk this Earth, D.J. Bonebrake still comes across on stage as a teenager having the time of his life. It wasn't until he took off his pork-pie hat midway through the set that it was clear his hair is white, rather than just the typical bleached look of punks.

(And now a bit of a break to complain about the annoyance of moshing, which assaulted me countless times during the show and turned my attention from the band during some of their best songs.)

I never liked moshing when I was 16, either as a participant the couple half-assed tries I gave it or as the more sane crowd member who didn't join in. And I've only grown more curmudgeonly about the senselessly assaultive practice since those days of my early punk shows. If rumblers wanted to rumble with rumblers at shows that would be one thing, but moshing takes no pains to avoid the non-participants, most of whom have turned their backs to the pit to actually watch the band, and are rewarded by incessant shoving that comes close to whiplash each time. Few things can be more distracting than literally having to defend yourself from being pummeled. Moshing is meat-headed and jockish at its core, something that in my mind never really fit in with the music, especially for a band as intelligent and reverential of its forefathers as X is.

(And now back to focusing on the music, as I was mostly able to do at the show once security booted the most grievous instigator, some rough and dread-locked chick who looked like she was out for nothing more than a fight.)

X holds a truly crucial place in the canon of American rock music. The band is rightly understood as one of the lynchpins, one of the bridges between styles and generations that - along with the Beach-Boys-loving Ramones - made punk fit, made this left-field energy and amped-to-11 sound seem like something Elvis would've been into if he'd only come along 20 years later, raised in a faltering inner-city instead of the rural South.

Punk was less a rebellion against anything in particular than a back-to-basics approach that reconnected with what made rock 'n' roll what it was in the first place. Punk rendered rock 'n' roll relevant again - it was a bunch of disaffected youths harnessing the power of the amplified guitar and the kick-and-snare backbeat. And if early rock 'n' roll was a response to the repressive Eisenhower years, punk rock returned again to turn American society on its head during the Carter and Reagan era.

While X is a band that didn't record minor works, the group's debut Los Angeles remains its best work and there's no denying that on the final night of the 31st anniversary tour. Seven of the albums nine songs made the set list and they were more often than not the ones that sent energy pulsing through the crowd. X was a band that landed fully formed, with Los Angeles as the template for its uniquely rootsy punk sound that chronicled dirty LA and the lovelorn rebel life as they lived it. The next three records to follow were all outstanding, but for its immediacy, its rawness and the dedicated following it spawned, Los Angeles is really what was being celebrated on this tour.

I realize that I've written as much about the band in general as I have the show in particular. But that's simply because, during the course of the show, I just kinda felt X in its entirety. The live performance is so well-honed, and the band's catalogue so impressive, that to be in an X show is to literally be embracing the band for all that it has accomplished in 31 years. I was born too late to be there for so much of the music that I love, and while I have no hesitation in catching a band well-passed its prime, that just can't be said for X. Not for this tour. X plays with fire every night, and as I could see from my front-and-center position, they're legends who inspire everybody, including the excellent openers Detroit Cobras, who spent the night jumping and dancing and generally rocking out in the wings like they were star-struck fans instead of tour mates who'd been there night after night.

X - The World's A Mess, It's In My Kiss (live 2008-05-27, Cat's Cradle, Carrboro, N.C.)

X - Positively Fourth Street (live, Bob Dylan cover, 8-2-1986, The Ritz, New York City)

Friday, June 06, 2008

In which Catfish starts thinking about ways to be in two places at once...

Since complaining about having too much great stuff to do on a Friday night is a pretty low-class move, I'll leave the complaining out of it and just say this: I'm having a dickens of a time trying to choose between the rock and soul confection of The Bellrays and perennial Catfish Vegas favorites Chango Malo on one side and a stacked local bill celebrating a new KXCI Locals Only album, as well as bidding farewell to founder Don Jennings and his incredible 10 years hosting the program.

The trump card might just end up being the fact that the Bellrays are the only out-of-town band in the mix. And though I've technically seen the Bellrays, that was just as a vocal-and-guitar duo during last year's HoCo Festival after the apparent abrupt departure of the rest of the band. And that was amazing, really highlighting what singer Lisa Kekaula can belt out, but from what I've been told, the full band sound has that beat to a pulp.

Still, the combination of at Plush, with Golden Boots, The Deludes, The Swim and others is downright delicious. And the farewell to Don Jennings is compelling too...

My guess is I'll end up trying to rush back and forth between the two clubs, to at least make a righteous attempt at hearing it all.

The Bellrays - Infection
Chango Malo - Superstition (Stevie Wonder cover)
Golden Boots - Beginnings of Modern Astronomy
The Swim - Margaret With Comets
The Deludes - Production Line

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The top of the heap

Occasionally an artist will catch you by storm, and you'll quickly go from never having heard a song to counting your new favorite among your all-time favorites. It's like a damn good infection.

And the latest one we're dealing with around these parts is Kathleen Edwards. I wisely took a chance on seeing Edwards and her killer band at Club Congress a few weeks back. Then on a vacation to San Francisco I caught her again just a few days later. And I'm hooked.

She's an incredible performer, a talented songwriter and definitely has the potential to be considered legendary somewhere on down the line. Edwards can rock your ass off just as easily as she can break your heart.

One thing is absolutely for sure: "I Make The Dough, You Get The Glory" has rocketed up to the top of my list for the next mix (and rest assured, I take these things seriously). This is easily one of the best songs I've heard all year. So I was thrilled to come across a live radio performance Edwards gave just last month.

Kathleen Edwards - I Make The Dough, You Get The Glory (live World Cafe)
Get the whole set as a zip file.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

New Calexico on the way

I ran into a feller at lunch today who dropped me the news that Calexico has finished recording a new album and set a release day for Sept. 9.

"Carried to Dust" will be the band's fifth proper LP, but that doesn't come close to capturing the amazing array of recorded material that's come from Joey Burns and John Convertino. Add to that total two proper EPs, an iTunes-only live EP, an EP-worth of bonus downloads from their last album, six tour-only albums of mostly instrumental or live music, a live DVD and a tremendous collaboration with Iron & Wine.

Oh, and not to mention the five Calexico collaborations on the I'm Not There Soundtrack, their work with Giant Sand and the Friends of Dean Martinez and backing music on albums by Richard Buckner, Neko Case and Victoria Williams. If that wasn't enough, the band has made six full concerts available for free at, any one of which would make a fine live album.

The new record features Sam Beam from Iron & Wine, Douglas McCombs of Tortoise and singer-songwriter Pieta Brown, who brings here own connections to the Tucson music scene.

On the band's Touch & Go Records page, Burns says the new record is:
"at least partially, the story of a writer in Los Angeles around the time of the writers’ strike we had a while back in late 2007. Our hopper heads out east on a whim and a dry Santa Ana tail wind. Stopping at the Yucca Valley swap meet he buys an old road map with a route already marked with red pen. It leads him to a cabin and from the cabin to a chain of other small town thrift stores, picking up old copies of National Geographic magazines along the way. Stories about snow drops in Moscow, leaning houses in Valparaiso, abandoned neighborhoods in New Orleans, and a manmade lake full of cell phone trees creep their way into his notes. He finds further inpiración at old roadside diners, bending an ear to each waitress and the local news over badly brewed coffee. The break proves to be enlightening. He falls in love with the newly found space and being carried along spontaneity's spark.”
That sounds like a traveling record, one full of introspection and odd encounters. And the reference to space and spontaneity's spark might just serve as one of the better descriptions of Calexico's music in general.

Burns & Convertino introduced two new songs at their Rialto show last month that sounded sparse and haunting in their two-man arrangements. They later introduced another one with a shortened version of Burns' description, called "Writer's Minor Holiday." And lo and behold, some thoughtful soul captured it, YouTube style:

Another new song that was introduced at Calexico's December KXCI benefit show, "Absent Afternoon," doesn't appear on the track list for "Carried to Dust," but here's a video from TucsonScene:

"Carried to Dust" track list:

  1. Victor Jara's Hands
  2. Two Silver Trees
  3. The News About William
  4. Sarabande In Pencil Form
  5. Writer's Minor Holiday
  6. Man Made Lake
  7. Inspiración
  8. House of Valparaiso
  9. Slowness
  10. Bend To The Road
  11. El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)
  12. Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)
  13. Falling From Sleeves
  14. Red Blooms
  15. Contention City
Calexico - Sunken Waltz (live Studio 2A, KXCI, 10-15-2002)
Get the whole set as a zip file.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Bo Diddley, R.I.P.

The intro to the New York Times story says it all: "The singer and guitarist invented his own name, his own guitars, his own beat and, with a handful of other musical pioneers, rock ’n’ roll itself."

Listening to some of his tunes today, it's striking how fresh they sound. It really must've blown minds to hear those songs in the 1950s. It's not just that those songs are the foundation of a whole new type of music, that their very existence marked the creation of "rock 'n' roll." Bo Diddley's songs are tough as nails no matter, and that would be true no matter when they were written. So give him all the props in the world as a guitarist and an innovator, but don't get caught looking past the fact that Bo Diddley was an absolutely amazing songwriter. He stretched the blues into a whole new art form and it wasn't something he accomplished with his beat and boxy guitar alone.

I can't claim to be a Bo Diddley expert - reading through the different obituaries, it's almost all new to me, and fascinating too, especially that his first band was the Langley Avenue Jive Cats - but I absolutely dig "Who Do You Love." It's one of the greatest rock songs of all time, one of those standards that is never going to get old, no matter how often it's performed.

I first heard of Bo Diddley through the Bo Jackson commercials when I was a kid, and I'm sure that's pretty common for people under 30 or so. And while that bit of pop culture is long gone, it did put a legendary rock and blues icon back in the spotlight.

His death is sad news, but hopefully it brings with it the reflection and resurgence in people's interest that accompanied the passing of Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. An Oscar-winning biopic is probably already in the works. I'll be there.

Bo Diddley - Who Do You Love
Ronnie Hawkins & The Band - Who Do You Love
Townes Van Zandt - Who Do You Love
Robyn Hitchcock - Who Do You Love
North Mississippi All-Stars - Who Do You Love
Patti Smith - Who Do You Love