Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Hump Day Shuffle: 1986

1. Bon Jovi - Without Love - Slippery When Wet
This was the first tape I bought with my own money, an undeniable classic of 80s excess and glam, with a core songs, beyond the singles even, that are actually good enough to listen to 20 plus years on down the line. Sure it's mostly out of nostalgia, but a little Bon Jovi every now and again is still a good time.

2. Steve Earle - Goodbye's All We Got Left - Guitar Town
Steve Earle's debut album is by far his most country sounding, but it's loaded with absolutely great songs, this one included. As unconventional as his career has turned out to be, it's a shock that he started with a record so straight forward. There's very little of the Townes Van Zandt influence evident here, but even early on, Earle could pen one hell of a heartbreaker.

3. Dead Milkmen - The Thing That Only Eats Hippies - Death Rides A Pale Cow (Originally on Eat Your Paisley)
The Dead Milkmen sound off-the-charts crazy more often than not to me, even so far removed, so I can't imagine what they would've been like to hear fresh in the mid 80s. "Funny punk" doesn't really capture the band's essence, but it's certainly true: "It ate Stills and Nash before they could shout / And then it chewed on David Crosby / But it spit him out."

4. Rainer & Das Combo - I Wish You Would - Barefoot Rock
Rainer Ptacek is a slide guitar virtuoso and blues legend whose work is surprisingly hard to track down. I was first turned on to Rainer watching the film High and Dry, about the Tucson music scene in the 80s and beyond. He recorded this record as a tight three-piece combo, with a hard-charging electric blues that's groovy and a bit edgy. Watch a great video clip here.

5. Beastie Boys - She's Crafty - Licensed to Ill
Built around an instantly recognized but very well-placed Led Zeppelin riff, this gem from the Beastie Boys' debut still stands as one of the band's handful of best songs. The sample-heavy song and record wouldn't be possible today, but what a hell of a sound they created.

6. Billy Bragg - Greetings to the New Brunette - Talking With The Taxman About Poetry
Surely one of the best album's from 1986, this is Bragg branching out with a full band and more nuanced love songs. And this is among his best, with lines like "Celebrating my love for you with a pint of beer and a new tattoo" and "Would the leaves fall from the trees / If I was your old man and you were my missus."

7. The Replacements - Beer For Breakfast - All For Nothing
Yet another goof-off outtake from Replacements, this was recorded during the Pleased To Meet Me sessions and later showed up on the second disc of Sire's best-of compilation.

8. R.E.M. - Cuyahoga - Life's Rich Pageant
I've been on a slow trek back through R.E.M.'s early records for the past few years now, and there are standout songs to be found on every record, but for some reason I have a hard time listening to any of the albums straight through. So thanks to shuffle for bringing this one back up... it's got every element that made the band great, jangly guitars, a mid-tempo sing-along chorus and a shuffling beat that gives the song just enough of an edge.

9. Sonic Youth - Expressway to Your Skull - Evol
Another album that I just got, Evol is probably at the far edge of what I've considered listenable, so for me, it's fascinating and challenging in equal measure. This song swirls and drones as much as it sticks to the point, but that's Sonic Youth in a nutshell. I'm not really sure I'd want to listen to all 7:20 of it all that often, but I'd listen to what could more or less be called a chorus over and over again.

10. Peter Cetera - Glory of Love - Solitude/Solitaire
Perhaps the cheesiest song in a decade known for laying down thick slabs of cheese everywhere it could, "Glory of Love" is remarkable for its absolute wimpiness. It's in my collection for two reasons: it's prominent place in The Karate Kid II and Heinecke's incessent playing of it in high school. It's a song that never fails to make me laugh. Just check out the video:

Billy Bragg with Ian McLagan - Greetings to the new Brunette (live)
R.E.M. - Cuyahoga (Unplugged)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Celebrity Death Pool 2009!

Ladies and gentlemen, come one and come all, step right up and join the Celebrity Death Pool 2009!

We had a new winner in the 2008 contest, finally ending the deathly streak put forth by Mr. Tim Finnagain, who was the defending champion for three years running. Now Charlie has to defend his honor and his creepy prescience.

The prize for 2009 will be the same as it was for our 2008 winner: One free year of Immortality, from the diety of your choice.

Put your picks in the comments - we're looking for about 10 guesses per person, but don't worry about going a few over if you're really feeling a psychic connection with the Grim Reaper.

Get your picks in by Jan. 7 and good luck!

Celebrity Death Pool 2008 winner

It was a tight contest all the way, but there's a new champion in the Celebrity Death Pool for 2008!

Charlie, from San Francisco, has dethroned our three-time defending champion, Mr. Tim Finnagain, who was shut out this year after starting to really creep me out with his prescient picks over the last several years.

Charlie correctly predicted the demise of Gordon Hinkley and Studs Terkel. Congratulations also to our three runners-up, who each predicted one celebrity death. So, R.I.P. as well to Sir Edmund Hillary, Evan Mecham and Estelle Getty.

There were plenty of notable deaths in 2008, but the remaining Death Pool participants were all shut out, including yours truly.

From the mountains, back to the desert

I'm back from a long and relaxing trip north to Prescott, to celebrate the holidays with my family and friends, chill out, read, hang out and pat a best friend on the back just before he took his wedding vows, saying quietly that it was going to be the easiest thing he'd ever do.

And what's a better way to reintegrate back to life in the Ol' Pueblo than with a Calexico show? It was their annual benefit show for KXCI, Tucson's incomparable and treasured community radio station. It was by my quick count the fifth consecutive benefit or free show Calexico has played in Tucson, quite a streak of giving back to the locals.

Opening was the brassy mambo attack of Sergio Mendoza y La Orkestra, a tremendously energetic act that could very well have time traveled from the middle 1940s. Sergio Mendoza also sat in as Calexico's piano player.

The show ended typically, with somewhere near 20 musicians on stage for the finale and encore, a crashing, leave-it-all-on-the-stage rendition of Guero Canelo. Overall, it was an amazing welcome back.

While I was in Prescott, I missed noticing that Calexico has given an exclusive new song to a Threadless promotion. Joey Burns says the song was "written at home looking out the window at the weekly funeral procession... soul migration."

Calexico - Absent Afternoon (Threadless exclusive)
Calexico - Guero Canelo (live 2006 KXCI Benefit)
Calexico - 2006-12-02 KXCI Benefit (whole show as a zip)

Friday, December 19, 2008


I've written about my approach to mixes, and posted several others, in the past here, so it should come as no surprise to friends and readers that I have another one prepared as the year burrows into the heart of winter.

I used to have an ongoing debate with Mr. Chair about the proper frequency of making mixes: I argued that twice a year is optimal for for getting to fall in love with a new batch of songs, plus that pattern fits so well with a school year. Chair, on the other hand, had a streak of making mixes every two months, with the twist of picking two or three songs from several different albums. He'd argue that the really good records shouldn't be reduced to just one song and that the every-two-months schedule fit his listening habits well.

Either way, I'm attached to the idea of making new mixes in regular intervals because each one can stand for a particular period of time, for me essentially representing the highlights of six months of music listening. And I go back to my mixes, all the time, for example playing Whirlwind & Refuge and jumping mentally back to The 505.

This new set of tunes is intimately tied to the last several months of my life. It's the music that has driven me, provoked new thoughts, reminded me of this that or the other, and been the soundtrack to an all-together strange and unique combination of days and nights.

The title, Vagabondish, captures the essence of the time (in several senses) moreso than the music, but it also touches on the songs as well.

It's a zip file, so add the folder to your iTunes and then "import" the xml file to automatically generate the playlist.

Give it a listen: Vagabondish.

And if you're curious, check out The Arid Madlands as well.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Odds & Ends

Like Calexico did this summer, Neko Case has released a video promo for her upcoming record, Middle Cyclone, which features one of the strangest chick-holding-a-sword-on-the-hood-of-a-muscle-car album covers I've ever seen. She talks about both the writing and recording processes, and shows off her new piano-laden barn. I'm voting with Kevin for a Rialto Theatre record release show in March.

* * *

In other New Pornographer news, the can't-miss Carl Newman is set to release his second solo record next month, and from the first promo song, Get Guilty sounds like another winner.

Across four New Pornographers records and one solo project, Newman has never come up with a bum song. And I don't doubt that his influence is growing among younger songwriters who are looking to upend and reconfigure pop songs without losing the catchiness.

If only Newman could see fit to put Tucson on his tour itinerary. We know he's no stranger to the Mexican food that's famous in these parts.

A.C. Newman - There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve

* * *

Fast becoming one of Tucson's favorite singer-songwriters, Tracy Shedd released the fantastic Cigarettes & Smoke Machines on TeenBeat Records this fall. Now comes a free live EP, and anyone interested should download the slightly stripped down versions of five Cigarettes & Smoke Machines songs.

Tracy Shedd - Never Too Late (live)
Live From WMBR 88.1 FM [EP]

* * *

The Crooked Fingers are the latest band showcased at Daytrotter, with four free downloads of live in-studio performances. Highly recommended.

* * *

The 2008 Best-of lists have been flying fast and furious for weeks now, but I prefer to wait until the end of the year to put so much energy into reflecting on the one that's just past. Look for the Catfish Vegas top albums, top songs, top shows and other sundry artifacts of 2008 in early January. If you're curious and/or impatient, review the 2007 Catfish Vegas year in review.

* * *

And get ready also for the next round of the Celebrity Death Pool. There's still more than a week left, but in 2008 this crowd has already bid a special farewell to Sir Edmund Hillary, Gordon Hinkley, Evan Mecham, Estelle Getty and Studs Terkel. By my quick review that's it, which would make for a clear winner, and dethrone our three-time defending champion, but all of the 2008 participants should review their picks.

And the 2009 Celebrity Death Pool is coming up soon, so sharpen up your mind pencils and start thinking, of both the creative and the obvious picks. You never know what can happen. It's a shame nobody got Charlton Heston, but at the same time, I'm glad nobody was prescient enough to throw in a Heath Ledger guess. I was especially surprised to see the Dakota Fanning pick, as well as Artie Lange, who was chosen by not one, but THREE participants. Amazing.

The Hump Day Shuffle: 1985

1. The Cure - The Blood - The Head On The Door
When I first listened to the Cure, on my friend Marc's tapes in high school, I had the distinct sense that The Head On The Door was sort of set apart from the rest of their work. These days, that sense has entirely vanished, mostly because I've heard far more of the band's sparer earlier work, as well as much of the hit-or-miss Cure of the past decade. Still, at least with this song, there's evidence that the Cure was a much more rhythmically dynamic band at its midpoint, when they'd grown into a force, but before the success was too great.

2. Richard Manuel - Piano Quickie #2 - Whispering Pines (Live at the Getaway)
The most soulful member of The Band, and perhaps the one most torn apart by personal demons, Richard Manuel never had any sort of a proper solo career to speak of. This is from a live set that barely saw release in the U.S. in 2005 (fittingly on a Canadian label). Manuel's take on "Georgia On My Mind" is heartbreaking and on par with Ray Charles' own best take.

3. Bonnie Raitt & John Prine - Angel From Montgomery - Tribute to Steve Goodman
This live cut has long since become the definitive version of Prine's classic tune in my mind. I absolutely love the lines: "If dreams were lightning thunder was desire / This old house would have burnt down a long time ago."

4. Meat Puppets - Maiden's Milk - Up On The Sun
This instrumental, with its rolling, jittery guitar lick, tangled bass line and subtle whistling, is the perfect follow-up to the album's opening title track. Up On The Sun is every bit as good as Meat Puppets II, though lacking any song that Nirvana would later cover to international acclaim. I finally saw the Meat Puppets this summer, and was blown away.

5. The Replacements - Bastards Of Young - Tim
Simultaneously anthematic and careless, this is one of the best songs ever recorded. I was plenty late to the Replacements, buying this classic album in 2001, and playing it incessently all fall, when the line "Got no war to name us" developed an unexpected and depressing poignancy.

6. Jesus & Mary Chain - My Little Underground - Psychocandy
Though "Just Like Honey" is absolutely genius, much of the rest of the Jesus & Mary Chain debut record strikes me as just too far buried in distortion. Yes, I know that's the hallmark of their innovation, but I definitely prefer the darkly melodic Darklands, the synthier Automatic and definitely the poppier Stoned & Dethroned, which for my money is the band's peak.

7. Dire Straits - One World - Brothers In Arms
Since I actually really like this record, I would have preferred any other song to this one. The slickest song on a supremely slick sounding album, this is without a doubt one of the best examples I can point to of a song done in by its era. The fulcrum of a cold and pathetic decade, 1985 will never be remembered as a cultural high point in any way.

8. Bob Dylan - Tight Connection To My Heart - Empire Burlesque
Just my luck to have been born when Dylan was embarking on a 10-year dry spell. I'd love to give shuffle the chance to pick through the 1960s and 1970s classics instead of the over-produced 1980s records. Still, as with many of Dylan's lesser-known songs, this one has many of the elements of greatness: there's compelling lyrics and an outstanding groove. I'd love to hear what Daniel Lanois would have done with this song. And it's never been a live staple, but given a different setting, the song does grow significantly better.

9. Sonic Youth - Ghost Bitch - Bad Moon Rising
I'm a complete Sonic Youth neophyte, and I just picked up this record after reading "Our Band Could Be Your Life." I guess like even most music fans at the time, I'm not sure what to think of this record or this song. It's unapologetically dark and disconcerting, not a listening experience I typically go for. On a first listen, all I can offer in response is mild curiosity - I kinda wonder what I might find on repeated listens, but then again, I probably wouldn't care if I never heart it again.

10. Clarence Carter - Strokin' - Dr. CC
I've seen conflicting dates for the release of this bawdy classic, but it sure as hell sounds like 1985. While the appeal of this song is certainly in its barely concealed sexual references, I think it's lasted for its groove as much as for its audacity. I have fond memories of my friend Tim going where few karaoke singers dare to go and setting the bar on fire with a spirited rendition of "Strokin'," complete with a few lyrical additions that, ah, shall we say, pulled back the veil even further.

Replacements - Bastards of Young (live) - (From the Shit, Shower, Shave bootleg)
The Cure - The Blood (unplugged)
Bob Dylan - Tight Connection to My Heart (live)
Meat Puppets - Maiden's Milk (live KCRW, 1986) - (Download that entire performance at the Meat Puppets live repository)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Dusty Buskers: Foot-stomping folk at just the right time

Photo: Jim Whitesell

Combining frantic, foot-stomping energy and a deep well of old Irish and bluegrass songs, The Dusty Buskers seem duty-bound to draw folk music out of the past - out from scratchy records and forgotten bookshelves. They place the music squarely on the sidewalk, where an ear accompanies every foot that walks by. And these revved up, modernized folk songs gather plenty of notice, because the first thing any good busker learns is how to turn a head.

With fiddle, mandolin, guitar, harmonica and occasionally a washboard or upright bass, The Dusty Buskers create a folk music that's the perfect fit for its time and place. The eclectic and artsy Fourth Avenue where the Buskers usually play is an everyman's zone, with families and tattooed freaks equally at ease. Out of several folk veins, the Buskers pull songs both chaste and raunchy, adding verses as they please along the way. I'm particuarly partial to their versions of the Dead Milkmen classic "Punk Rock Girl" and Woody Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'".

The Buskers owe their start to a chance New Year's Eve encounter, and what might be a preposterous backstory in the hands of another band is a perfect fit for souls who live at the intersection of Ireland, Tucson, punk rock and old-timey mountain tunes. That the band's core is two dudes who are skinny, scruffy, go by the names of Fiddlin Phoenix and Dusty Squirrelfisher and have billed themselves as "the band that fits on a bike" is all part of the charm.

The Dusty Buskers have just completed their debut album, The Life & Times Of..., which captures the energy and clever song choice of their live show. The band performs a CD release show this Thursday, Dec. 18, at Plush, with the Silver Thread Trio and Nancy McCallion & The Wild Irish Revue. Fiddlin' Phoenix was kind enough to join in a Q&A:

Catfish Vegas: With busking as the very core of the band, how did you approach the transition to more formal (on-stage) performances and the recording studio?

Fiddlin Phoenix: We worked our way up to clubs and stages by polishing our street act like Grandpa's best set of church shoes. As street musicians, we were hungry for love and money. Uncle Dusty took my raw street skills and trained me to work a mic. Our act was designed to stop people dead in their tracks as they went about their day on 4th Ave. We brought the same attention-grabbing energy to the taverns and saloons. For the album, we didn't use a traditional recording studio. As a D.I.Y. band, we recorded "The Life & Times Of..." in a woodshed in the historic Menlo Park neighborhood. Our producer, Dusty Squirrelfisher (Stuart Oliver), is a core band member and so he was easily able to capture the frisky anarchic Buskers spirit on the record.

CV: What sort of things do you look for in cover songs? How do you select the songs that become part of the Dusty Buskers' repertoire?

Fiddlin Phoenix: Obviously we didn't write the songs on "The Life & Times Of...", but the words and melodies seem to resonate in our souls. We only perform songs which feel meaningful to us. There are so many wonderful ballads and story songs of yesteryear, and many of the themes in those works mirror the struggles and joys we Buskers also live with. We figure if a song has been around for hundreds of years, it must be pretty good. We learned a lot of our songs from fellow street performers on 4th Ave. and others from songbooks and public library CDs. We enjoy a challenging hook and a raucous chorus. Many of our songs are about pretty gals, other intoxicating temptations, furry critters and the afterlife.

CV: How do you see the folk tradition playing out in your combination of American mountain music and Celtic songs?

Fiddlin Phoenix: For us, it's really all the same music. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants. American mountain music has its roots in the settlers and pilgrims from other lands. We see ourselves as adding another footnote to the story of folk music. We often write additional verses to traditional songs. Our goal is to keep the old songs not only alive, but revitalized.

CV: How do you approach these songs in a way that adds a special Dusty Buskers' touch?

Fiddlin Phoenix: We bring our unique backgrounds to the picture. Dusty Squirrelfisher is a jazz man. I grew up listening to Lookout! Records punk albums and Public Enemy. I slept on the couches of Berkeley's 924 Gilman St. after shows. I saw Gwar and Fugazi. We're not your parent's folk music. We channel our biological hypo manic personalities into the music and play like our lives depend on it. Because they do.

CV: You're the TAMMIES Up-And-Coming Artist of the Year for 2008, and now you're releasing the debut album. What's next for the Buskers?

Fiddlin Phoenix: We intend to tour to California and New Mexico to support "The Life & Times Of..." and we're already planning our second album, "Buskin'". We'd like to break into the national bluegrass festival circuit. And we have our eyes focused on Europe as a friendly market for our enthusiastic up-tempo twist on classic Americana and Celtic tunes.

CV: The CD release show has a stacked bill. What can we expect Thursday?

Fiddlin Phoenix: We Buskers are going in with both barrels blazing. We'll be performing with our full band, featuring Mighty Joel Ford on washboard and Cousin Dylan Charles on mandolin, plus special guest Gary Mackender of the Carnivaleros. We're proud to be sharing the stage with the talented ladies of Silver Thread Trio, who are also releasing their debut album that night on Old Bisbee Records. And opening act Nancy McCallion is a Tucson gem. Expect to be entertained!

The Dusty Buskers - The Irish Rover (from The Life & Times Of...)

More Dusty Buskers videos at YouTube

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pete & Arlo

(I sat on this for a while, then finally decided to type and post what I'd written in a notebook the evening after seeing Pete Seeger & Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall.)

I was early enough to buzz the Carnegie Hall Museum and catch the buskers outside for a while. I settled into my seat - the very farthest back corner of the theater - then traded it for the other very furthest back corner so a lady could join her two friends on the other side.

Seeing Pete Seeger was magical. I'd already decided that he was the greatest living person, and only felt more certain of that fact at the show.

To see 89-year-old Pete Seeger, with his Mexican grandson on stage, alongside Arlo and his four kids, and several grandkids, all descendants of Woody, I had to mentally note, was a celebration of life and continuity, of spirit and family and love and the functionally living ideals of peace and togetherness.

And the music was beautiful and powerful and funny and uplifting and as Arlo said, exatly what the world is supposed to sound like ("When people sing together, it fixes things. It's the sound of the world as it's supposed to be.")

The whole night was one of those moments in life when all is right, when the moment itself is accompanied by the crystal realization that you're in the midst of one of the greatest things you'll ever do.

It's happiness, mixed with the sense that it's actually, partially at least, you're doing, and intensely and personally historic. And then comes the creeping realization that you're also in a historic moment as far as the world goes as well. It's history, in the sense of plain old history.

When I first heard of the show, I didn't think I'd actually be there. But I came to the knowledge that I could and should, and had without a doubt earned it, and ultimately, I have the power to make great moments for myself, and that life is made out of such moments.

And as Arlo himself said, quoting Marilyn Monroe, "Ever notice how 'What the hell?' is always the best decision?"

And so I'm here, staring out the window at the Chrysler Building, shining in a dark and rainy fall night, in a city that's carried this world for well over a century, a partially vagabondish character taking grateful advantage of the hospitality of a friend and letting my spirit become brighter in the face of new and great experiences. I'm recharged, renewed and improved, and thinking about how this city intertwines the lives of so many people, and about how so much of the history of the things that I love was written here: This is a city of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie, of so many musicians and artists and writers and thinkers and people who simply came here seeking life, and found it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Hump Day Shuffle: 1984

1. Prince - The Beautiful Ones - Purple Rain
1984 belonged to Prince, with his masterpiece Purple Rain topping the charts for a solid five months on its way to selling 13 million copies. Since I've never been a huge Prince fan, some of it can't help but sound synth-heavy and dated, like "The Beautiful Ones" in fact. But in all, it's a fantastic album, and "Purple Rain" is as transcendent as the 80s ever got.

2. Bruce Springsteen - Working On The Highway - Born In The U.S.A.
No shit, this is the curveball shuffle decided to throw out after Prince. It's also from the album that Prince knocked off the top spot in 1984. It's hard to wrap my head around how massive this album was at the time - seven singles charted, plus two songs that weren't even released as singles. Not this gem, though, which ended up with a glorious rockabilly kick after it had gone through several revisions since it's early life as a Nebraska outtake called "Child Bride."

3. The Smiths - You've Got Everything Now - The Smiths
Not one of the fantastic singles from The Smiths debut record, this is the sound of a great band stretching into their style. It sounds a little tight and stilted, but it's nonetheless distinctive, groovy and gives a clear window into the charm of one of the UK's best bands of the decade.

4. Depeche Mode - People Are People - People Are People (originally a single from the Some Great Reward album)
The industrial-sounding synths never fail to make me think of people working in some sort of a high-tech warehouse. The lyrics are borderline terrible, but there's an overall catchiness that pushes the song over into the "Like" column for me.

5. The Minutemen - History Lesson Part II - Double Nickels On The Dime
Shuffle is on the ball tonight! I barely know this album, despite so many recommendations and all sorts of references, but I just started reading "Our Band Could Be Your Life," by Michael Azerrad, which takes its title from the opening line to this song. In all honesty, this is the first time I've listened to this song, but it could come at no better time.
I wish I was part of that era, discovering new underground bands via sketchy zines and mail-ordering LPs from the likes of the Minutemen. This song hits like a ton of bricks, and I can't help but think of it's connection to Wilco's "Sunken Treasure," with its similarly soul-baring confession of "I got my name from rock and roll." Fittingly enough, Jeff Tweedy also wrote a song called D. Boon, in honor of the Minutemen's lost leader.

6. Willie Nelson - Wind Beneath My Wings - City of New Orleans
From heartfelt to outright sappy, now I think shuffle is playin' tricks. As much as I love Willie Nelson, I can't step up to justify shit like this. I mean, I have it in my library, but that's not out of unfettered love for the song. Actually, I have to call out Adam Becker here, for putting this song on a mix tape he passed around to some of us in 1996. I only have the song digitally because I'm a completist like that.

7. U2 - Pride (In The Name Of Love) - The Unforgettable Fire
This album, and this song in particular, marked the change in U2, when the band went for soaring anthems above all else. And it worked. This song is big in every way, from the castle on the album cover to the boldness in bringing Martin Luther King into pop music, and it was the first U2 single that was truly memorable.

8. The Del Fuegos - I Should Be The One - The Best of The Del Fuegos (originally on The Longest Day)
This one is fairly new to me, something I picked up in my ever-present search for the roots of the movement. From Boston, this Slash Records group was named Rolling Stone's Best New Band in 1984 and counted both Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen among their fans. Yet another band that now goes from the "should hear" to the "should hear more" pile.

9. Fishbone - Skankin' to the Beat - Essential Fishbone (originally from 1984 self-released EP)
Fishbone would grow into one of the most versatile and party-heavy bands of the 1980s and 1990s, but this early track is pure ska, hardly hinting at the horn-heavy rock & funk mixture the band would become known for. One of the most amazing live shows I've ever seen.

10. The Replacements - I Will Dare - Let It Be
I wrote last week that I hoped more "real" Replacements songs would come up on shuffle, instead of the moderately interesting throwaway studio outtakes that populate the deluxe reissues. Well here goes, the opener to the band's breakthrough album and one of the best things Paul Westerberg ever wrote. This is definitely the song of the week for this Hump Day Shuffle.

The Replacements - I Will Dare (live)
The Del Fuegos - I Should Be The One
U2 - Pride (In The Name Of Love) (live)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Double Denver invasion

Photo by Gary Isaacs

Two of Denver's best bands, the Crooked Fingers and Devotchka, are kind enough to journey southwest to Tucson, where they'll play a double bill Feb. 6 at the Rialto Theatre. And since both bands seem to have a soft spot for the Ol' Pueblo, this is one hell of a promising show.

Eric Bachmann's Crooked Fingers have been a favorite of mine for years, and they put on a stunning performance opening for Neko Case here in August (sadly I missed their Plush show last month, out of town for a wedding).

The new record, Forfeit / Fortune, is a purely independent record, available at only select record stores, as a digital download, and from the band directly. It's a fitting transition for Bachmann, who despite being one of the most talented songwriters alive has remained on the fringes. In fact he's spent some time in between recording and touring by running a Cuban sandwich cart in Denver.

Forfeit / Fortune is the latest triumph for a band that keeps getting better. More than any other song lately, I'm stuck on the closing track, "Your Control," a steady backbeat rocker, with Bachmann's bittersweet vocals sent into the atmosphere when guest Neko Case joins in. It's as catchy as anything Bachmann has put out and I can't help but hope Neko joins him on the Rialto stage.

I'm new to Devotchka, but their anything-goes blend of indie rock and European-based folk music sounds right at home to me. And I hear tell that the live performance is a thing of beauty.

Crooked Fingers - Your Control
Crooked Fingers - Phony Revolutions
Devotchka - Transliterator
Devotchka - Live at the Triple Door, KEXP Seattle (entire show) (45 minutes, 61 mb)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


The images that flooded my head when I read that Odetta had died are black and white, of a single performer in a spotlight, with a pained expression and a powerfully affecting singing voice. It's a clip used in No Direction Home, the Martin Scorcese biopic of Bob Dylan:

The New York Times obituary had a beautifully succinct lede, calling Odetta "The singer whose resonant voice wove together the strongest songs of American folk music and the civil rights movement."

As far as my own musical exploration and interests, Odetta had just barely passed through the "Anyone Bob Dylan likes is OK with me" world into someone who mattered in her own right, more for her singular place on the boundary of blues and folk than anything else. I missed seeing Odetta perform by missing out on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival this October in San Francisco, but hers was actually the first set I found bootlegged. And as I searched Flickr for a good picture to use as album art, I was struck by the frailty that stood in such striking contrast to the powerful woman that clip showed, nearly 50 years earlier.

Such is life, and death, but two aspects of Odetta's death, now, in early December 2008, are especially moving to me.

The first comes from the obituaries, several of which state that Odetta had hoped to perform at Barack Obama's inauguration as president. It's a moment the world will never give to human history, but what a sweet moment to imagine. I thought first of Keb Mo, on a steel guitar at a fictional inauguration, but Odetta's song for Barack, and for this country, triumphing over a past that required so much to overcome, would have been something far more powerful, a moment far more meaninful and carried with far more grace. I wouldn't doubt it if Obama mentions Odetta at that podium, as well as his grandmother, speaking about an America that wakes on a new day to bow in grateful reverence to those who spent a life delivering it, only to close their eyes before taking even a first, fleeting glimpse.

The other notion that Odetta's death sparked so strongly for me is more personal, and from a more thankful and hopeful perspective. I just saw Pete Seeger perform, an 89-year-old giant, surely in decline, but still driven by that same love of peace and humanity and music that marked his entire life. Pete Seeger, I wrote just in advance of taking off for New York City just days ago, "has been a crucial and wildly influential part of the culture, the very life and soul, of this country, for three of my lifetimes."

What Odetta's death and Pete's concert distill for me are both part of the overwhelming sense of what can be learned, of what history can really be heard and felt, now, by those young and questioning and yearning for direction, by just having the good sense to look up. There's little mystery left about this world to those who have lived it the most. Don't let these teachers get away without learning something.

If there's a better lesson on not missing out, I don't know it.

Time Magazine wrote that "Odetta's stage presence was regal enough: planted on stage like an oak tree no one would dare cut down, wearing a guitar high on her chest, she could envelop Carnegie Hall with her powerful contralto as other vocalists might fill a phone booth... Some folks sing songs. Odetta testified." I could've seen Odetta, but didn't. Shame. But Pete is still with us. Dylan, Willie, B.B... The list is actually quite long. Learn from them, and celebrate the challenges and the artistry and the inspiration of a lives that really meant something to the course of human history.

The only Odetta record I have is one of Dylan covers, from 1965, but Dylan himself said that "The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta." Great place to start. And I hope that thinking of her has a musician first, and a Civil Rights figure second, speaks mostly to how this country has changed after she made her mark. These live songs are from a bright afternoon, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, not two months before her death, and not a month before this country elected its first black president. Thanks, Odetta.

Odetta - Bourgois Blues (live San Francisco, 2008)
Odetta - House of the Rising Son (live San Francisco, 2008)

The Hump Day Shuffle: 1983

1. Social Distortion - It Wasn't A Pretty Picture - Mommy's Little Monster
One of my favorite all-time bands, their first full-length record is the very definition of ascendancy. Terribly raw overall (though it's not as if Social D ever became "polished" in any sense) it's got the sort of choppiness of a band still unsure of itself, well on the way to establishing what would become a legendary sound, but not yet having figured the whole thing out. This is the perfect example of why an early and somewhat lesser record can be just as thrilling as a band's best work. You see the potential everywhere, and know exactly how those dots got connected.

2. Bob Dylan - Neighborhood Bully - Infidels
From the perfect fit of "Man in Me" in The Big Lebowski, to various cover versions that opened my eyes to the real power of "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" to "In The Summertime" sounding like one of rock's most perfect songs when it popped up on a mix while I was driving around with cousin Tommy, mid-career Dylan songs have a fantastic track record of creeping up on me, out of context, and settling right in among what are already too many favorites. Accustomed to this unexpected way that Dylan songs keep sounding fresh and amazing, I'm always on the lookout. This one isn't quite in that group, but that doesn't mean I'll ever give up on Infidels. Wikipedia says this song "is often regarded as a thinly-disguised defense of Israel's foreign policy." Why this made the cut and "Blind Willie McTell" didn't is anybody's guess.

4. R.E.M. - West Of The Fields - Murmur
Perhaps the best debut album of the 1980s. This song seems to me like a precursor to "Driver 8" in its sound, a little less jangly than most of the rest of the album. Any recommendations out there on the new Murmur deluxe reissue?

5. Randy Newman - Real Emotional Girl - Trouble In Paradise
Knowing Randy Newman's tendency to hide his most subversive lyrics right underneath his most tender music, I listened to this one three times through, but damned if I didn't find anything but a love ballad in this one. A debate has raged for several years among some friends about what claim Newman really has to being the sort of songwriter who deserves any respect in rock 'n' roll circles after so many big and schlocky Disney paydays. But I think that Newman's defenders can point to more evidence than his critics. And one of the leading Newman critics I know recently asked me to slip him Sail Away on the sly, without informing the leading Newman defender of our circle. I complied with the first part.

6. Tom Waits - Johnsburg, Illinois - Swordfishtrombones
I'd like to see more Tom Waits songs popping up in these shuffles, because no matter how much I keep listening and how much more it seems like I'm becoming a Waits expert, in truth I'm probably just barely catching up to half of his music. This 94-second song is practically hiding in plain sight, over before you know it's started. Another surprisingly tender and innocent song from a writer who made a career out of songs that went a little deeper into the gutter.

7. U2 - Surrender - War
Early U2 is just awesome. Despite being more than a decade behind the curve, this is the first U2 album that I really really loved. Still my second favorite (after Achtung Baby). This isn't the pretty, soaring music that U2 is known for, but it has more depth and soul, and a much deeper groove than those Joshua Tree hits. It was simply the absolute right batch of songs for the band to sound a bit mean.

8. The Smiths - This Charming Man - Peel Sessions
The greatest Smiths song? Quite possibly. This live version trades in a bit of that swirling vocal precision for a bit more sass and in that regard is just as thrilling as the better-known album version. But this one was recorded first, and it's really the recording that launched the Smiths.

9. X - The New World - More Fun In The New World
Opening with killer buzzsaw guitars before taking a jump into a rockabilly swing beat, the opener of X's fourth record is one of the band's all-time classics. Oh, and screw Reagan. The Gip's white-washing revisionist fans ought to take another listen to X for the truth.

10. New Order - Blue Monday - Substance (originally released as a single)
This original, 7 and a half minute version is so painfully synthy it sounds like an outtake from a band that was never heard again. I much, much prefer the 1988 remix that lands on the band's Best Of. It's probably sacrilige, but all this song really makes me want to do is listen to "Temptation."

U2 - Surrender (live 1983)
Tom Waits - Johnsburg, Illinois (live 2008)
X - The New World (live 2008)