Saturday, November 29, 2008

Carnegie Hall

And I thought seeing Tom Waits for the first time was something...

Pete Seeger is the greatest living person. No doubt. It may have been close up until Paul Newman died, but now there's no question. Pete Seeger is it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Catfish takes Manhattan

I'm about three hours from flying to New York, on a strange but super-cheap, double-layover red-eye combo flight. I'm not worried about the long trip - I have the time and good books to read, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn and Tom Robbins' Villa Incognito. Plus I'll be able to zero in mentally on this trip's centerpiece: Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall.

I've seen Arlo twice, in the last couple of years, but never Pete, who I consider to be pretty much the greatest living American. I guess you'd have to start off by calling Pete Seeger a musician, which fits, because I'm traveling to see him pluck a banjo and sing. But while musician might be good on a business card, it doesn't even approach a full or reasonable description of Pete's life and career.

I've come to treasure and seek inspiration in Pete Seeger for his creativity and his unwavering faith in the power of music and the power of people to make themselves one through music, theirs and others. An all-too-easy term for Pete is activist, and while his politics were from time to time clearly defined, and something for which he was victimized by the powers that be, I don't see him as a political figure. Politics and politicians live and die every day, bursting onto the scene or dying into the background. The most sustained thing you'll ever see in politics is a movement, the sort of ill-defined and loosely organized catch-all phrase loved by the TV news.

Pete Seeger was so much more - he's been a crucial and wildly influential part of the culture, the very life and soul, of this country, for three of my lifetimes. And I think he was driven for all that time by the simplest of motivations, to make people happy. He brought songs and passion and joy to the causes of justice, fairness and equality.

That no person or group should ever be oppressed by another, and that everyone should share in freedom and opportunity just as they share in the sunshine and oxygen that make life possible, and that a beautiful melody carries the power of humanity are hardly radical notions. But in Pete's days, sometimes they were called radical, and sometimes he was called a radical. What's so remarkable is the fact that he never stopped singing, never put down the guitar or banjo, never wanted to capitulate to anyone, and that even facing the vile and incomprehensibly insulting blacklist, he didn't shut up.

(Outstanding portrait by Annie Leibovitz)

I expect a rollicking good time tomorrow. I expect to be awed by the 89-year-old singer. I expect to laugh a lot. I expect Arlo & Pete to broadcast friendship as much as music. I expect to see generations on stage, and to celebrate the continuity of Pete's ideals. I expect to sing along an awful lot, possibly crying, with a joy that comes from music and humanity and the presence of as great an icon as there has ever been in American life.

Pete was the subject of an extraordinary American Masters episode I saw earlier this year. Watch the trailer below:

Pete Seeger - Smithsonian Folkways Sound Session (48 mb, 53 minutes)

Odds & Ends

Tucson's very own Golden Boots is the featured band at Daytrotter today. Three of the songs will appear on the band's upcoming Park The Van Records release, but also pay close attention to "Matters of the Heart," which will remain unreleased.
The band - with a self-described "crumbly western & alt-alt country" sound - is set up to have one hell of a start to 2009.
First up is a Locals Only performance on KXCI on Jan. 26, and the boys finish up that week with a special release show for their new record, The Winter of Our Discoteque. From this Daytrotter session and the Golden Boots' shows lately, I'm pretty sure this is going to be a break-out album for them.

Golden Boots - KXCI Locals Only, Jan. 28, 2008 (entire show)
Golden Boots - Beginnings of Modern Astronomy

I'm going to miss the Blitzen Trapper show tonight at Solar Culture, but I caught the band a year or two ago and was impressed. The band's live show is a ramshackle affair, energetic and enthusiastic, and the songs from the new record, Furr, are top-notch. Check 'em out if you can.

Blitzen Trapper - Furr
Blitzen Trapper - Gold For Bread

If I were in town Saturday, I'd have to choose between to promising shows - My Brightest Diamond with Clare and the Reasons at Solar Culture and the always entertaining Chango Malo, with Garboski at Plush.
Both Chango Malo and Garboski are shaping up to have big years in 2009. Garboski has some great new tunes up on MySpace and a Jan. 7 date for an EP release show. Chango Malo has been holed up, writing new music, for much of the past six months.

Clare and the Reasons - Obama

Chango Malo - Superstition (live Stevie Wonder Cover)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

It just ain't Thanksgiving without a little Arlo

And have a listen to a fascinating early draft of the song, performed live in Gerdes Folk City in 1966. There's the chorus, but none of the Thanksgiving or anti-war story - it's just Arlo talking about how the song was going to spread all over the world. He sounds much more like Woody as a 19-year-old.

DOWNLOAD: Arlo Guthrie - Alice's Restaurant (live 1966)

The ultimate goal of the song at that point was to teach everybody in the world Alice's Restaurant, issue everyone alarm clocks and then have everyone in the world singing Alice's Restaurant (in the same key). And if you don't know the words, everybody in the world will be against you, and come over and step on you.

And Arlo kinda got his wish, in a roundabout way that I'm sure gives him a chuckle everytime he launches into this 18-minute ridiculous epic, and once again as an auditorium of spellbound people sing the damn thing back to him, still, 41 years later.

Bless him, and I have the treat of a lifetime to see Arlo with Pete Seeger in two days, live at Carnegie Hall.

Best Singers

I finally got around to reading Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers issue, and while there's plenty to take issue with, they pretty much nailed the top of the list. Not all of the singers in the top 10 make my list, but it's hard to quibble with any of them.

The lead-in essay by Jonathan Lethem is an amazing read. He puts forth the best argument I've ever read about why those singers without classically great voices can still be considered great singers: "We judge popular vocals since 1956 by what the singer unearths that the song itself could never quite." How true. That's why Dylan and Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain and every rough-edged voice out there is capable of stirring deep emotion in the listeners. It's about conveying the heartache, or joy, or mystery of life - it's about the power that great singers have of layering meaning on top of the lyrics, just by how they make those words sound. Dylan has the greatest inflection of any singer I've heard, and he uses that skill to make a song like Idiot Wind sound more venomous than his own terrific poetry ever could.

What struck me most about Rolling Stone's list were a couple of omissions I was sure the magazine would include: Emmylou Harris and Jackson Browne. They're both square in the Rolling Stone demographic, and hell, Browne even wrote the John Lennon essay. Both make my top ten. I put together a quick list of other omissions, and stopped as it stretched to 50. Some others that didn't make my list include Elvis Costello, Nick Drake, Roger McGuinn, Gillian Welch, Joe Strummer, Roberta Flack, Lucinda Williams and Donald Fagan.

So without further ado, since Rolling Stone didn't get around to collecting a ballot from Catfish Vegas before they went ahead with this little exercise, I'll have to publish it here.

1. Van Morrison
2. Emmylou Harris
3. Sam Cooke
4. Marvin Gaye
5. Neko Case
6. Jackson Browne
7. Otis Redding
8. Bob Dylan
9. Tom Waits
10. Willie Nelson
11. Lyle Lovett
12. Dwight Yoakam
13. Aretha Franklin
14. Johnny Cash
15. Bruce Springsteen
16. Robert Plant
17. Roy Orbison
18. Elliott Smith
19. Natalie Merchant
20. John Doe / Exene Cervenka

And it kills me to leave off Solomon Burke, Mick Jagger, Neil Young, Sam Beam, Eddie Vedder, Jim James, Thom Yorke, Tim Booth, Kurt Cobain and Morrissey.

Rolling Stone is by of course stuck in the 1960s and 1970s when it comes to a list like this. Of the lengthy list of nominators, only Jim James and James Mercer represent anything close to the world of indie rock. And the magazine's top 100 had just two singers whose debut records came in the last two decades. So I had to bring the balance.

One last word on my main criteria: the singer had to have captured my full attention, imagination and spirit, solely with the power of his or her voice, and have that wonderful feeling of being truly moved to a new place emotionally stick around long after the song has ended. All of these, and many more, have done that, and the best ones do it time and time again, and leave such lasting impressions that I can't even think of the singer without recalling the sensation of experiencing the music.

Van Morrison - Into the Mystic (live)
Emmylou Harris - Shores of White Sand (live)
Jackson Browne - Fountain of Sorrow (live)
Neko Case - Live, Nov. 16, 2007, from Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (entire show)
Bob Dylan - Idiot Wind (live)
Elliott Smith - Waltz #2 (live)
Get a zip file with all 20 singers.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Hump Day Shuffle: 1982

Here goes 1982, the Year of Stu LeBlanc:

1. Bruce Springsteen - Born In The USA #3 - How Nebraska Was Born
The song that would become the cornerstone of Bruce's biggest album (and co-opted by a tone deaf Reagan campaign) started out so starkly different from the songwriter's original vision you have to wonder how exactly he arrived at the final version. This one is more than rough. There are discarded lyrics about Nixon and a completely different rhythm than the final album version, the finished Nebraska demo or the slide guitar version he turned to on later E Street tours (above). If he'd kept going in that route it would've practically been a rockabilly tune.

2. John Cougar Mellencamp - Jack & Diane - Words & Music: Greatest Hits (originally from American Fool)
I actually saw Mellencamp perform once. He and Neko Case were unlikely paired as "T Bone Burnett's Friends" at last year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Me and my friends kept yelling for "The Coug!" And we stared dumbfounded as Neko sang backup on "Little Pink Houses." All that aside, "Jack & Diane" is quite possibly the most overplayed song on all of classic rock radio. Even more overplayed than the Eagles, which sure says something. And did Jessica Simpson really need to go and sample it?

3. Marshall Crenshaw - Someday, Someway - Marshall Crenshaw
For years I'd heard Crenshaw's first record was a masterpiece, so I eventually picked it up. All Music isn't far off calling Crenshaw the "second coming of Buddy Holly, or possibly an Americanized Elvis Costello," and this is an outstanding song. Makes me wonder two things: How can good stuff like this hide from me for so long? And how the hell did this guy's career take such a nosedive after such an impressive debut?

4. Warren Zevon - Jesus Mentioned - The Envoy
One of the non hits, I hadn't heard this until the shuffle brought it up. When I got a few of his proper albums, I immediately dove into Excitable Boy and the self-titled record, but The Envoy is still new to me. Not the strongest Zevon song out there, but damn good nonetheless.

5. Peter Gabriel - Shock The Monkey - Hit (originally from Peter Gabriel IV)
I know Peter Gabriel's hits mostly from the strange and artisticlly far-reaching videos. So to me, that particular artist and that particular art form are so quintessentially 80s that it's impossible to take up a study of the culture without them. Go here for the video, which isn't embeddable.

6. The Jam - Tales From The Riverbank - The Sound of the Jam (originally the B-side to Absolute Beginners)
While I have some friends who spent the 1990s as die-hard Brit Pop fans, The Jam never made it to the center of their listening circle, so I picked up this album from my brother. This is a great song, and sounds more like The Clash than I would've guessed for a "mod" band, but I guess the later Jam was known for more of a groove-oriented rhythm section.

7. Bruce Springsteen - Bye Bye Johnny - How Nebraska Was Born
This bootlegged outtake (after quite a bit of revision) would show up as "Johnny Bye Bye" on the B-side to "I'm On Fire." Adapted from Chuck Berry's song about the death of Elvis Presley, it's a song about a girl hitchhiking to Memphis, and ends with the refrain "You didn't have to die."
(Coincidentally, this is the second song about Elvis' death on this shuffle, after Zevon's "Jesus Mentioned." Weird.)

8. Simon & Garfunkel - America - The Concert In Central Park
The massive free concert became a massive live album, and it may be the single best album the duo made. "America" is an undeniable classic.

9. The Fall - The Classical - Hex Induction Hour
A strange band that I've barely begun to crack, The Fall is pretty well summed up by the Wikipedia description of this album, which is called the band's most accessible music in one sentence and "raw and noisy" in the next. The song is punk and not at the same time, with killer drums and spastic guitars. I need to listen to more of the Fall.

10. The Replacements - Rock Around The Clock (outtake) - Stink
The spare tracks thrown onto deluxe reissues are shuffle killers. While this doesn't suck, it's obviously the band just screwing around: "Stink, stink, stink, around the clock tonight." As this shuffle project continues, I better get some real Replacements songs thrown into the mix.

Bruce Springsteen - Born In The U.S.A. (acoustic, live Las Vegas, 2000)
Warren Zevon - Jesus Mentioned (live)

Monday, November 24, 2008

TV On The Radio, Restored

Blogger spiked a post I wrote on Saturday. Not sure why - the only music links were to songs freely broadcast over the radio. I thought about reposting it via screen grab from the google cache, but I'll just repost it text-wise, without the tunes. Stupid blogger.

Another record I've been slow getting to this year is the new TV On The Radio. I loved Return to Cookie Mountain, but barely even heard about Dear Science until about a week after it came out. Then I didn't even unwrap the disc after I'd bought it for about another week. Kinda shameful, and certainly a far cry from how excited I used to be whenever I'd buy a new album. But I just wasn't going to get to it right away given how busy I was. And I'm definitely making up for it now.

Dear Science is unmistakably TV On The Radio - few rock bands can merge so many genres so seamlessly. At this point, I'd say I like it even better than Cookie Mountain, but it's a close call. What's so exciting about the band is that neither records sounds like a masterpiece, and I'm pretty sure there's going to be one coming.

I just came across the band's BBC recordings from earlier this month, three incredible live in-studio tunes that are a pretty sharp departure from the album. It's fascinating to be discovering these songs about the same time as the album itself.

The live version of "Family Tree" has a far more menacing tone, as if the band is from Manchester, rather than Brooklyn. What's amazing is they don't lose the melodic quality of the song, instead just sort of enveloping it in a gloom created by the insistent, echoing drum beat. The band even said they kept it faithful to the "pre-mixed" version, rather than the cut that made the final record. I actually prefer the BBC version, especially considering the context.

"Golden Age" also has a Manchester sheen to it, turning the album version's disco bounce into more of a mid 80s dance sound. It doesn't translate quite as well as "Family Tree," but it's a fascinating sort of stripped-down sound.

"Stork & Owl" seems to me like the Dear Science song most like TVotR's earlier albums, and it's the song of this live set that sounds closest to its album version. Perhaps this new record from TV On The Radio is a bit more of a departure for the band that it sounds like at first?

(No downloads in the repost, but anyone interested can probably find them in the google cache.)

New Boss single free today!

I just got word over the Springsteen listserv that the new single, "Working On A Dream," is available as a free download - today only.

Go to the Springsteen Web site to get the song.

It sounds like the Boss is continuing in the vein of his 2007 Magic album. It's definitely a Brendan O'Brien collaboration, with the same sort of studio sheen that got to be a bit much on Magic. But the mix sounds clean and crisp on "Working On A Dream."

Between the new record, his scheduled appearance at the Super Bowl, appearances on the Obama campaign trail and a tour schedule that seems to be inching toward Dylan's Never-Ending style, Bruce is as prominent in American culture as he's ever been.

Below is a stripped-down "Working On A Dream" performed at an Obama rally in Ohio two days before the election:

And then a performance of another classic from the 2004 campaign:
Bruce Springsteen - (What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding

Friday, November 21, 2008

Wading back in

It's hard to know where to start jumping back into music after putting most of it aside spending way too much time working these last few months.

So it never goes wrong to dig into some recommendations, and Stu LeBlanc has just thrown my way one of the best debut records I've ever heard: The Tallest Man On Earth's Shallow Grave.

The Tallest Man On Earth is Kristian Matsson, a Swede who has more than earned all the early Dylan comparisons headed his way now. Shallow Grave is the type of folk record, full of wailing and mystery, that can feel like a cold wind. It's banjo or guitar and a dude singing, and it's that simplicity that makes it stand out so much. The record sounds homemade, like Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago. And it's no surprise they have some performances booked together for next month.

The Tallest Man On Earth - It Will Follow The Rain

Check out more of The Tallest Man On Earth on MySpace.

Bon Iver - Wolves (Acts I & II) (live)
Get the whole live set as a zip file.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Andrew Bird in Tucson on Feb. 14

Stateside Presents has booked Andrew Bird in Tucson for a Valentine's Day show at the Rialto. It's a nice bit of synchronicity because Bird is another of the musicians I threw into the wedding mix (cocktail hour) this weekend. Performing with Wilco is also guaranteed to raise a musician's stature in my eyes.

He's an amazing songwriter who let the world in on his recording and writing process this summer on The New York Times' Measure for Measure blog. In it, he describes the craft in such detail that I found myself almost hearing parts of his new record, Noble Beast, which is due out in January. He introduces what would become the first single, "Oh No," in the very first post, saying it began for him as a way to capture the sound of a 3-year-old child crying on an airplane. The mournfulness stuck in Bird's head, and he worked out a guitar part that fit together with a violin loop he'd been toying with.

Then, in June, Bird wrote about the song again, saying that he decided to add drums on what was already a "complete" song changed it completely - and for the better.

Oh No - Andrew Bird

So whatever this new record holds, I'll come to it from an entirely different perspective, as an observer who got to see part of it being made along the way.

And then two weeks later he'll be in town to perform, and I'll watch the music created right before my eyes. Perfect.

Andrew Bird - Heretics
Andrew Bird - A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left

Andrew Bird - Tables and Chairs (live)
Get the whole 2005-05-01 show here.

U.S. tour dates: