Archive for May, 2016

guy clark, 1941-2016

guy clark.

guy clark.

A few years back, I discussed an ode to vegetable lore called Homegrown Tomatoes with its composer, Guy Clark. To ears perhaps unfamiliar with the works of such a masterful Texas songwriter, the yarn would seem a novelty. But Clark was in earnest when he outlined his intent with the tune.

“It’s a love song.”

It was, too – an unassuming and poetically plain-speaking love token. It’s just that the object of the author’s affection came from the garden and was edible. The design, though, was typical of Clark’s sense of songwriting. It was worldly in a way that songsmiths like John Prine have long been. But it was also conversational on an everyman level. He could be singing of the rigors in cosmopolitan stress (L.A. Freeway), cross generational relations (Desperados Waiting for the Train) or simple homesickness and regret (Dublin Blues). Clark’s music wonderfully examined the many faces of the human condition but ways that were wholly accessible.

Such songwriting intent would seem to fall under the definition of country music, which would make perfect sense as Clark resided in Nashville for over 40 years. But Clark was also a Texas native. It was that heritage, not the one offered by the headquarters of corporate country, that guided his writing. So did the company Clark kept, especially the renegade songsmith Townes Van Zandt. Clark’s songs were never as dark or desperate as those of longtime pal Van Zandt, but both shared a sense of sagely narrative told with simple, unspoiled candor. In terms of imagery and emotive detail, their songs helped define a generation of Lone Star troubadours and, in turn, a successive legion of writers from around the country.

News of Clark’s death at age 74 spread quickly today, so much so that when I commenced a phone interview with Gillian Welch this afternoon, the impact of his passing was very fresh.

“I’m just thinking about Guy so much,” she said. “So I’m probably going to be a tiny bit distracted.”

The song that came to mind first after hearing of Clark’s death was Boats to Build. Aside from being the title tune to a 1992 album that largely reintroduced Clark to a booming Americana audience, the song nicely summed up the kind of earnest but unfrilly affirmations that often populated Clark’s later music.

“Sails are just like wings,” it went. “The wind can make ’em sing. Songs of life, songs of hope, songs to keep your dreams afloat.”

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and sometimes you think you’ve had all the good ideas you’re going to have,” Clark told me prior to an appearance at the 2011 Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. But I know there is always something new out there. That’s what keeps me doing this. Songwriting is something you never get through. You never get to be the best there is. You never get finished. There is always one more song.”

in performance: sturgill simpson

Sturgill Simpson performing last night at the Opera House. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

Sturgill Simpson performing last night at the Opera House. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

“I know this is an opera house, but you don’t have to be so formal,” remarked Sturgill Simpson early into a sold out two evening run last night at, fittingly, the Opera House. Truth to tell, the invitation was probably a necessity. The capacity crowd acted liked it didn’t really know what to expect when the program kicked off and it was certainly left scratching its head when the show was over.

Musically, the Jackson-born, Versailles-reared Simpson’s game plan revolved around traditional country. That was most apparent in his singing which, despite all his frequent comments to the contrary, seemed fixated on the deep outlaw drawl of Waylon Jennings. That proved a potent reference last night as Simpson regularly chose instances to pump up the country tenor of his singing to amply dramatize a verse or chorus. The drawback? Such heavy vocal punctuation, which didn’t seem apparent during the few times he spoke to the audience, tended to steamroll over the narratives of his songs. In Simpson’s case, such a drawback weighed in more when one factored in the depth and detail of his songwriting.

Backing him was a seven member unit that included a three member New Orleans horn section. Here is where things got really interesting. As rooted as Simpson seemed to be to country tradition, he was also was industrious enough to shift the music to areas of Memphis and Muscle Shoals style soul in a way similar to what fellow Kentuckian Dwight Yoakam did during the mid ‘90s.

But as flexible as the music surrounding Sturgill’s sense of country soul was, his repertoire turned out to be surprisingly regimented. He opened with five selections from his 2013 solo debut album High Top Mountain that relished in vintage country settings typlified by the show opening shuffle and dash within Sitting Here Without You and the more tempered ramble of Time After All.

After a cover of the country staple You Don’t Miss Your Water was performed as a slice of Muscle Shoals-inclined R&B and served as an interlude, Simpson dug in deep with complete performances of his 2014 sophomore album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and the new A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Both turned loose Estonian guitarist/pedal steel ace Laur Joamets, who piloted Metamodern’s trippier accents (specifically the wiry, outer space squeals that wormed in an out of It Ain’t All Flowers) as well as much of the more nautically themed father-son fare from A Sailor’s Guide that tossed the music much closer to soulsville (in particular, the groove saturated Brace for Impact and the torchier Oh Sarah).

Everything coalesced – or collided, depending on your tolerance for the more rough-hued tone Simpson adopted in performance as opposed on record – on the album’s vitriolic finale Call to Arms, where vocals, guitar and brass meshed into a brassy rampage of rock and funk.

Then came the biggest surprise. Nothing – no encore, no real spoken adieu, just an instantaneous lights-up and a quick stage exit. A few patrons seemed miffed at Simpson bucking such a tired and expected performance rite. But given the scope, drive and sheer stylistic might of this 110 minute country and soul blitz, no one in the house had any justifiable reason to feel jilted.

Sturgill Simpson performs again at 8:30 tonight at the Opera House. The performance is sold out.

isao tomita, 1932-2106

isao tomita.

isao tomita.

I’ve always been of the belief that full acceptance and appreciation of any form of music isn’t achieved until it is communicated by an artist of the listener’s own generation. You can study the past masters and try your best to understand their histories and instincts. But it’s not until someone has absorbed a style of music, reshaped it with their own interpretive spin and offered it to the ears of their audience as something new that musical traditions truly connect, live and flourish.

That has been the case numerous times with me, especially with jazz. But one very specific instance was the work of Japanese electronic music pioneer Isao Tomita, who died last week at the age of 84. It wasn’t so much Tomita’s immensely animated creations on synthesizers that struck me at first, but rather his interpretive skill. While he would go on to create masterful compositions of his own, his 1974 debut album, Snowflakes Are Dancing, opened the doors for me to the music of Claude Debussy. Within Tomita’s world of keyboards, Claire de Lune sang like a comic lullaby, Reverie became a quiet but enormously emotive meditation and the gorgeous Engulfed Cathedral came alive the way some fantasy creation of Hollywood would, defying time and invention in every note. Generations have been enchanted by Debussy for ages, but Tomita made such music resonate with me by sending French impressionism straight into outer space.

Tomita would devote subsequent albums to the works of Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Holst, Ravel and, in a wonderful but overlooked 1982 recording of The Grand Canyon Suite – Grofe. But it was the reinvention of Debussy over 40 years ago on Snowflakes Are Dancing that proved a gateway to a glorious, but previously unexplored musical world. For that alone, Tomita will always be a hero.

in performance: the james hunter six/liz vice

james hunter. photo by mark shaw.

james hunter. photo by mark shaw.

In the closing moments of tonight’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, British pop-soul ambassador James Hunter offered a few vaudevillian turns on guitar. During an encore version of Talkin’ ‘Bout My Love, he played his instrument upward like a double bass, then let it slip from his hands as if he were going to bounce the guitar off the stage floor like a basketball. In general, Hunter acted like an entertainer determined not to leave without a little levity.

The truly funny thing, though, was he didn’t need any of that schtick. The rest of Hunter’s WoodSongs set – specifically, four economical tunes from his fine new Hold On! album – offered a fascinating retro blend of British soul that borrowed generously from pop, rhumba, bossa nova and lots of vintage rhythm and blues. And that was just what you heard within the musical fabric of the singer’s expert sextet, imaginatively dubbed The James Hunter Six. The real magic was Hunter’s singing.

For Something’s Calling, an effortless, good natured soul croon heavily reminiscent of Sam Cooke was employed. Such a reference illuminated the neo-lounge style sway of A Truer Heart as well as the more exacting soul sound – one where the baritone and tenor sax duo of Leo Badau and Damian Hand played with almost metronomic precision and restraint – of (Baby) Hold On and If That Don’t Tell You. There were occasional shrieks of vocal falsetto to fuel the fuss, but the joy boiled down to the Six’s natural but animated ensemble charge and the scholarly soul voice that fronted it.

Portland, Oregon gospel-soul stylist Liz Vice, the program’s other featured artist, seemed almost purposely timid in comparison. Backed only by a drummer and keyboardist, Vice revealed an appealingly melodic vocal tone in songs like Enclosed By You and a meditative cover of Pure Religion (both from her 2015 album There’s a Light). There wasn’t much dimension to her singing, though. A curious encore recasting of the Nirvana staple Smells Like Teen Spirit as a torchy jazz meditation only added to the stoic feel of her set, especially when compared to the combo party gusto Hunter was letting rip alongside her.

in performance: alejandro escovedo

alejandro escovedo. photo by todd wolfson.

alejandro escovedo. photo by todd wolfson.

“Your silence is most revealing,” remarked Alejandro Escovedo early into a sublime trio performance last night at Willie’s Locally Known. The comment didn’t reflect any disinterest on the part of the sold out crowd. In fact, pockets of patrons were annoyingly chatty throughout the show. It was rather an observation made after the singer described how a population explosion within the Texas metropolis of Austin has forced numerous artists, including himself, to relocate – a topic fleshed out during the show’s second song, Bottom of the World. In true Escovedo fashion, the tune was a stylistic mesh-up, opening with elegiac grace before reverb soaked vocals and a honky tonk keyboard roll underscored the tune’s inherent sense of upheaval.

So what if the song’s geographic/demographic saga of Lone Star displacement didn’t fully register with the Lexington audience. The music most assuredly did with Escovedo, cellist Brian Standefer and keyboardist/harmony singer Sean Giddings forging works of fragile, folkish intimacy and scorched electric immediacy into keenly orchestrated works of considerable emotive depth and breadth.

Escovedo said at the onset of the 90 minute set that the performance was part of a tour designed to promote the vinyl reissues of his first two albums, 1992’s Gravity and 1994’s Thirteen Years. In reality, he played only one song off those records, a gorgeous show opening reading of Gravity’s Five Hearts Breaking that capitalized on the quiet but immensely complimentary support of Standefer and Giddings. After that, the program shot ahead for a trio of tunes from 2012’s Big Station with the sublime 2001 ballad Rosalie serving an elegiac, chamber-friendly interlude.

While Escovedo has completed his next album with an eye for a September release, last night’s performance shied away from new material to focus on, in a description he attributed to his son, “old music for old people.” But there was considerable life in such elder works, from a wonderfully ragged electric medley of Chelsea Hotel ’78 and Everybody Loves Me that revealed Escovedo’s still-abundant punk perferences to the comparative acoustic reflection of San Antonio Rose and a show closing cover of the David Bowie-penned Mott the Hoople hit All the Young Dudes, the latter being part eulogy, part requiem and part sing-a-long affirmation.

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