Archive for March, 2017

chuck berry, 1926-2017

chuck berry, circa 1957.

Now who will tell Tchaikovsky the news?

For over 60 years, the job belonged to Chuck Berry via one of his most familiar and prized hits, “Roll Over Beethoven.” With Berry’s passing yesterday at age 90, rock ‘n’ roll lost not only one of its preeminent stylists and composers, but one of its most integral architects. Jazz without Jelly Roll Morton? Bluegrass without Bill Monroe? Country music without the Carter Family? That’s what Berry was to rock ‘n’ roll. Since rock has been more pervasive that any other contemporary music style, the weight of his influence and inspiration can in no way be understated.

Everything from song structure and thematic source material to guitar riffs and the music’s very joy and rhythm shook every succeeding generation. More than any other artist, more than even the Beatles or the Rolling Stones (who proudly admitted to being disciples), Berry shaped the very landscape of rock ‘n’ roll. His songs were covered countless times and imitated (often blatantly so) to unending degrees. Among them: “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Maybellene,” “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Too Much Monkey Business” (a personal favorite). Collectively, these songs served as the DNA for an art form that, during the remarkably contained period in which they were recorded and released (between 1955 and 1959), had barely learned to walk.

After the 1964 singles like “You Never Can Tell” and “Promised Land,” Berry’s hold on the rock charts slipped, although the 1972 novelty tune “My Ding-a-Ling” became one of his best selling hits. By then, his music had already become part of the pop vernacular. There was perhaps no more satisfying tribute paid to his influence than Taylor Hackford’s 1986 documentary “Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the filmed account of two 1986 concerts that had all-star protégés Keith Richards, Roy Orbison, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, Robert Cray and more playing Berry’s hits alongside the master. Today, it serves as a moving timepiece that chronicles the lasting presence, vigor and resilience of Berry’s music.

Like rock ‘n’ roll? Any kind of rock ‘n’ roll? Then pass along some thanks today to Chuck Berry. The party, quite simply, would not have been anywhere near as fun had he not crashed it.

 

critic’s picks: bela fleck, ‘the juno concerto’ – danny barnes, ‘stove up’ – noam pikelny, ‘universal favorite’

Here we have engaging new works from three generational pioneers of the banjo, each exhibiting their often maligned and stereotyped instrument in a trio of radically different settings. Bela Fleck’s “The Juno Concerto” unleashes it with a full symphony, Danny Barnes’ “Stove Up” opts for a traditional bluegrass combo environment and Noam Pikelny’s “Universal Favorite” goes it completely alone. All are strikingly original projects that, because of the dramatic contrasts within the music they promote, unlock seemingly boundless possibilities for an instrumental voice still viewed by some as a purely rudimentary accent of the rural South and Appalachia.

Fleck is an old hand at this type of mythbusting. Even so, “The June Concerto” is quite a feat. Though hardly his first foray into classical music, this collaboration with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jose Luis Gomez is a rich and astonishing work, from the instant the banjo makes its entrance during “Movement 1” amid contained orchestral luster to the way the instrument leads the full symphonic charge of “Movement 3” while retaining a sound within Fleck’s impossibly nimble runs that is alternately commanding and giddy.

The recording is fleshed out by two equally dynamic pieces with the contemporary chamber ensemble Brooklyn Rider, the loose and lively “Griff” (titled, in true Fleck fashion, because the piece is constructed around a G riff) and a starker, stately “Quintet for Banjo and Strings” co-written with longtime pal Edgar Meyer in 1984, making it Fleck’s first classical work.

Danny Barnes is probably the least known of these three titans, but has very independently become one of the great innovators of banjo music over the past two decades, taking it into modern realms of jazz and electronica as well as the most ancient corners of traditional music and pre-bluegrass country.

The fact that “Stove Up” is a straight up, scholarly bluegrass session might not seem a revelation unless you know how seldom Barnes has traveled this path on record in the past. But once you hear him and a pack of bluegrass pros (that include past and present members of the Del McCoury Band) make the Rolling Stones “Factory Girl” sound like Flatt & Scruggs while making the Scruggs staple “Flint Hill Special” sound both reverential and original, you understand the depth of Barnes’ scholarly bluegrass insight.

Punch Brother Pikelny’s “Universal Favorite” is a pokerfaced triumph, an unaccompanied set of banjo pieces that regularly suggest Fleck’s warp speed tenacity, as on “Waveland.” The album is curiously colored by Pikelny’s baritone singing, which gives these tunes a stoic commoners’ touch. But the agility and daring of the musicianship here makes Pikelny a storied successor to the trails Fleck and Barnes blazed ahead of him.

1971 today

Sunday’s “1971” presentation at the Downtown Arts Center by Lee Carroll and a number of his local music co-horts is hitting home for a number of reasons.

Though in my early teens, I recall the year – at least in terms of the contemporary music it yielded – quite well. The quality and quantity of the output was breathtaking, producing an artistic renaissance the countered by the coarse taste of the preceding year. The same topical ghosts were still there – Vietnam, Nixon, racial strife and more – but given how 1970 began with the breakup of the Beatles and ended with Altamont, 1971 had to be an improvement. And it was. Folk, soul, rock and a booming underground prog movement soared. There were still the rough patches. The death of Jim Morrison less than three months after the release of his finest album with The Doors, “L.A. Woman,” served the most pronounced jolt. But there were also many triumphant releases that defined still-active careers. Discovering the music of 1971 greatly shaped my own musical tastes for the years to come.

Assembled below is a sampling of 10 albums that remain favorites from that year, but there were so many more. Not making the cut were classics by John Lennon, Santana, Elton John, Humble Pie, Al Green, Van Morrison, The Moody Blues, The Faces, Weather Report, Traffic, T. Rex, Ten Years After, Soft Machine, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, The Grateful Dead, Procol Harum, Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Mountain, King Crimson, Paul and Linda McCartney, Leon Russell, Jethro Tull, Hot Tuna, King Curtis, Deep Purple and more.

Here at the 10 listed in order of release in 1971

+ Carole King: “Tapestry” (February) – A perhaps obvious choice, but there is no way to underemphasize King’s full and unassuming transformation from Brill Building pop princess to confessional pop-folk monarch. A complete generational and genre game changer of a record.

+ David Crosby: “If I Could Only Remember My Name” (February) – Released at the height of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-mania, this debut solo album corralled a who-who’s of West Coast psychedelic folkies for a trippy, hippie electric summit. A sublime moodpiece of the era.

+ Marvin Gaye: “What’s Going On” (May) – The definitive statement of the early ‘70s Motown, “What’s Going On” was a gloriously cool but often unsettling meditation on the times – a prayer for peace from a soul titan previously fascinated by largely carnal concerns.

+ Joni Mitchell: “Blue” (June) – Joni’s finest hour? Perhaps. But “Blue” beautifully placed her Laurel Canyon musings on stark, brilliant display. Future records heightened the musical sophistication with increasing inferences of jazz. “Blue,” however, was all folk poetry.

+ The Allman Brothers Band: “The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East” (July) – Fans love to place “Fillmore East” atop the Southern Rock mantel. But the record’s reach extended far beyond that for a distinctive portrait of blues, rock and even jazz driven jams set to a guitar sound of peerless taste.

+ The Who: “Who’s Next” (August) – Another obvious choice. What seems remarkable today, though, are the killer Pete Townshend songs (“The Song is Over,” “Getting in Tune,” for starters) that were forgotten through the years in the face of the album’s career-defining hits.

+ Pink Floyd: “Meddle” (October) – Far darker than the forthcoming “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Meddle” represented Pink Floyd’s last true glimpse of post-Syd Barrett experimentation. A trippy snapshot of the band taken before the Roger Waters narcissism completely took hold.

+ Sly and the Family Stone: “There’s a Riot Going On” (November) – Few records, outside of “What’s Going On,” mirrored the dispirited post ‘60s mood more than Sly Stone’s turnabout soul sound on “Riot.” A ruminative, disturbing but, always, groove-friendly sign of the times.

+ The Kinks: “Muswell Hill-billies” (November) – The follow-up to the smash “Lola” was largely ignored upon its initial release, but Ray Davies’s Americana references on “Muswell” have since been championed by subsequent generations of country-leaning rock scholars.

+ Alice Cooper: “Killer” (November) – Cooper’s finest hour with what may be his greatest composition (“Desperado”). Cut before his surrender to stardom, “Killer” captured a daring Detroit-drenched rock sound that never bowed, as Cooper’s later records did, to sensationalism.

“1971 – A Happening with Lee Carroll and Friends” will be presented at 7 p.m. March 12 at the Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main, as part of the Sunday Sessions series. Call 859-423-2550 or go to https://tickets.vendini.com.

 

critic’s pick: the old 97’s, “graveyard whistling”

The Old 97’s play as if the devil was truly on the band’s tail at on the onset of the new “Graveyard Whistling.” Against a frantic electric shuffle, a wall of guitar distortion and Rhett Miller’s reverb soaked vocals, the veteran Dallas troupe sound like the Son of the Pioneers crossed with Link Wray. It’s pop. It’s punk. It’s an Americana dervish. There is even a spot-on title to top off the intro tune’s electric Western mayhem – “I Don’t Want to Die in This Town.”

The results also continue a trademark sound that has distinguished the Old 97’s for just shy of 25 years. It’s remarkable the band – Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples – has carried on so long without a personnel change and with its overall sense of musical purpose intact. Not all of “Graveyard Whistling” matches the night train propulsion of “I Don’t Want to Die in This Town,” although “Good With God,” a piledriver of a collaboration with Brandi Carlisle that pins its turbo twang to a saga of a restless but proudly unapologetic protagonist (“I’ve got a soul that’s good and flawed”), comes close. Mostly, “Graveyard Whistling” is immensely spirited, darkly hued, ragged alt-country tinged fun with a lyrical menace that always keeps the Old 97’s cruising somewhere in the shadows.

Miller remains at the helm for most of this mischief. For the better part of the band’s history, he has been a quirky assimilation of cross-generational inspiration that falls somewhere between Buddy Holly and David Byrne. That mix surges to the surface on “Jesus Loves You,” a tune that bears a melodic similarity to the Holly classic “Everyday” although the music here has been revved up to a fearsome shuffle. The lyrics are a hoot, too, outlining the overtures of a come-on artist facing insurmountable competition for the affections of his intended (“You say Jesus love you, but what about me?”).

Similarly clever is “She Hates Everybody,” which essentially flips the narrative to detail a romance where a connection is made at the expense of the rest of humanity (“I miss her when she’s gone, my misanthrope”). Here, the drive downshifts to a jamboree groove that provides the tune the necessary lyricism to become one of the season’s most peculiar but inviting sing-a-longs.

Think that’s wild? Then get a load of the album-closing “Those Were the Days,” a play-by-play of hoodwink adventures that begins by crashing a retirement home (“We ate some Jello, we ate some Vicodin and tap danced for the old folks, and they all thought we were crazy”) before a chemically-enhanced tour of Central Park (“We floated off the grass into the galaxy”) bleeds into a “doo-doo-doo” chorus of pure pop confection.

That’s “Graveyard Whistling” in a nutshell – a journey that begins like a demon locomotive and ends by tripping to the stars. In short, the Old 97’s are merrily rocking on.

the whole oates

john oates.

In the introduction to his forthcoming memoir “Change of Seasons,” pop-soul celebrity John Oates states his mission succinctly – to tell both his personal story as well as that of his remarkable 45 year friendship and artistic alliance with Daryl Hall.

“Daryl has his own unique and powerful story,” Oates writes. “One day he may choose to share it… or maybe not. But until then, I can only offer my own story.”

That is exactly what Oates does over the course of 400 pages in an immensely readable chronicle that traces not only a storied pop career but also an absorbing personal saga that runs from a childhood spent outside of Philadelphia to recent time in Nashville with renewed emphasis on a solo career. There are personal lows (divorce, financial devastation) and highs (the birth of his son) and an unexpectedly moving chapter devoted to his dog. It is the story of an especially full and prolific life, one Oates is eager to share. He will do so, ahead of a spring book tour, with a performance and reading for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday at the Lyric Theatre.

“You know, I’ve kind of had an interesting life,” Oates said. “Obviously, people know me for the pop success I’ve had with Daryl. I understand that, but at the same time, I’ve done a lot of other things people aren’t so familiar with. So it was a chance for me to tell my story.

“One of the biggest challenges was, ‘How do I tell my personal story without it being the Hall and Oates Story, which has been so much a part of my outer life. So it really was an interesting challenge to weave my own personal story and at the same time not ignore the fact that I spent my whole adult life in this incredible musical partnership.”

The idea for “Change of Seasons” began through a series of interviews conducted with author and journalist Chris Epting, even though Oates’s own passion for writing has never been limited to music.

“I’ve always looked at myself as a writer,” he said. “I was a journalism graduate from Temple University and I’ve always known I would write a book. I just didn’t know it was going to be a memoir. But I’ve always written prose alongside the music I’ve made.”

Still, there is little denying the enormous level of stardom Oates achieved with Hall. In one of the most engaging chapters of “Change of Seasons,” Oates outlines the many artistic riches that came the duo’s way in 1985 – specifically, a mammoth tour supporting its “Big Bam Boom” album, an acclaimed performance at the Apollo Theatre with Motown legends David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick (chronicled on a subsequent live recording) and participation in the iconic Live Aid benefit and charity single “We Are the World.” In the aftermath, citing “there was no place to go but down at that point,” Hall and Oates turned the hit machine off and went on hiatus.

“If you really want to isolate that episode, it becomes really symbolic of who I am as a person and who Daryl is,” Oates said “I don’t think people ever really knew we were very private people even though we were so commercially successful. We’re people who really care about our own personal integrity. Even though the pop songs and the stupid MTV videos – well, the silly MTV videos – kind of gave it this lighter than air quality, the reality was we were very committed and very dedicated to what we were doing. Every decision we ever made was based on what would allow us to keep making music for the rest of our lives, whether it was successful on a grand scale or a small scale. It didn’t matter to us.

“That scene, where we stepped back from this immense commercial success in 1985, was not the smartest thing to do from a commercial point of view, a business point of view or a monetary point of view. But it didn’t matter because we made a conscious decision to make sure we could somehow sustain this on one level or another. And that’s what we’ve done.”

John Oates and John Michael Montgomery perform for the WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour on 6:30 p.m. March 6 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets: $25. Call 859-280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

critic’s pick: rhiannon giddens, ‘freedom highway’ and ‘factory girl’

On “Birmingham Sunday,” one the many highlights from “Freedom Highway,” the second solo album from Rhiannon Giddens, cultures and generations beautifully collide.
The Richard Farina folk tale, first cut by his sister-in-law Joan Baez in 1964, details the bombing of a Baptist church by the Ku Klux Klan and has become widely recognized as an anthem of the civil rights era. Giddens’ take is equally solemn, grounded in steadfast fervency but illuminated by the spotless tonality of her singing and the swelling yet subtle support of a choir. At first, it hits you like a vintage Dylan song, but one done by Sandy Denny during her late ‘60s tenure with Fairport Convention. The performance doesn’t overstate the song’s potency. Instead, it relishes in control and unwavering confidence.

“Freedom Highway” beams regularly with such brilliance. Unlike Giddens’ remarkable 2015 solo debut, “Tomorrow is My Turn,” which stressed stylistic dexterity by downplaying her own material, “Freedom Highway” is more centralized and sports eight original tunes that blend in so naturally with Mississippi John Hurt’s “The Angels Laid Him Away” and the Pops Staples-penned title tune (a true Civil Rights document) that it is often difficult to tell who wrote what.

That’s mostly because of the astonishingly pure voice Giddens remains in possession of. On “Hey Bebe,” co-written with Americana journeyman Dirk Powell (who also co-produced “Freedom Highway” with Giddens), the singing glides along with the joyous but decidedly rootsy jazz/blues support of trumpeter Alphonso Horne. This is “Freedom Highway” at its merriest. But at the other extreme is the original “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a declaration of identity by a young mother and slave sung not with bluesy remorse but with subdued defiance and a touch of grace.

It’s easy to focus exclusively on the refreshingly unforced cast of Giddens’ voice, so much so that hearing “Following the North Star” revert back to the instrumental string fortitude that fueled her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops is a bonus. With the singer on minstrel banjo, the tune nicely compliments this sublime sophomore work from one of the country’s most gifted roots conscious ambassadors.

As a footnote. “Freedom Highway” coincides with the first CD issue of “Factory Girl,” a five song EP initially released digitally and on vinyl in late 2015. Culled from the same T Bone Burnett-produced sessions that yielded “Tomorrow is My Turn,” it similarly champions the astonishing vocal diversity that distinguished that album.

An Appalachian/Celtic spirit runs through these songs. “Mouth Music” embraces the celebratory side with Gaelic vocal acrobatics that morph into beat box worthy grooves. But the title tune is simply devastating. It’s a different kind of slavery saga, rich in Irish elegance but still saddled with unmovable oppression. Not surprisingly, Giddens sings it with a beauty as deep and pure as the song is relentlessly dire.


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