Archive for August, 2018

aretha franklin, 1942-2018

Aretha Franklin, circa 1968.

Some friends and I had gathered at Josie’s for breakfast this morning. We discussed bad movies, politics and getting old – the usual rubbish. Then the five or six televisions in the eatery tuned to almost as many different news stations all switched to a breaking topic.

Aretha.

We knew the passing of Aretha Franklin was imminent, given reports of her failing health and subsequent hospice care. But that didn’t lessen the blow. If you saw a train coming at you, even in slow motion, would that lighten the fury and devastation of its ultimate impact?

Bearing the often touted but still rightly earned title of Queen of Soul, Franklin was the kind of artist whose influence upon modern music simply cannot be understated.

As a vocalist and soul music stylist, she was unparalleled. She could take a gospel staple like “Amazing Grace,” a watershed Carole King tune like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” or a classic work by one of her contemporaries, like Otis Redding’s “Respect,” and make them sound remarkably like-minded. The blend of stamina, soul, grace, joy and intensity within her vocals was so assuredly balanced that Franklin made any song she sang her own. But there was always emotive variety. Her performances could be as soothing as a whisper, as persuasive as a preacher or as unrelentingly forceful as a battering ram.

As a woman artist that came to prominence during the ‘60s, she was also a towering voice of independence. There were others, of course, who strayed from roads to stardom created solely on image. But Franklin was as strong as oak when it came to standing up for herself, her music and her career. “Respect” wasn’t just a song for her. It was a mantra forever ingrained into her entire artistic being. No wonder so many women continue to champion the song 50 years after it became a hit.

There was humor, too. It’s tough to forget her single, show-stealing scene in John Landis’ 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.” That’s where Franklin played the owner of a soul food restaurant that led a diner dance hall routine centered around “Think” as a defiant ultimatum to her husband (played by Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who died in June). Of course, that followed her matter-of-factly pegging the film’s lead characters, Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) as “two honkies dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants.”

But Franklin’s departure runs deeper than that. She was one of the last connections this generation had to the vanguard soul music fashioned by Atlantic Records and its subsidiary labels during the late 1960s – a stable of artists that included Redding, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and many others. Their music, of course, has been thankfully immortalized on recordings. But there will simply never be another sound to equal that Atlantic era’s sense of natural, impassioned R&B.

My favorite Franklin song? That’s easy. It was the title tune to the first Aretha album I ever bought – “Spirit in the Dark.” Released in the fall of 1970, its sound was slightly looser and less produced, but was in no way less fervent. Composed by Franklin, the song is essentially a gospel work fashioned during a time when the youthful idealism of the late ‘60s had vanished, leaving a social fabric weather-beaten by Vietnam and racial strife. But like many great gospel works, it opens with a quiet glimmer of hope before eventually boiling over with tent-revival style jubilation.

“Tell me, my brother, brother, brother, how do you feel?” Franklin sings as the song gathers steam. “Do you feel like dancing? Then get up and let’s start dancing.”

That might seem less empowering than the chorus of “Respect.” But for today, the day the Queen has left us, it is comforting advice. After all, when the spirit in the dark comes out into the light and invites you to dance, don’t ask. Just start moving.”

 

in performance: david byrne

David Byrne. Photo by Jody Rogac.

During one of the first greetings he gave the audience last night at the PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati, David Byrne proudly came clean. He admitted, without prejudice to modern pop technology, that every note, beat, melody and backing vocal fueling his beguiling one-and-three-quarter hour performance, was produced organically and in real time by a band that often rivaled the head Talking Head himself for crowd attention.
That’s because the 11 members of Byrne’s ensemble – over half of which were percussionists – were as much of a portable fixture as Byrne. Operating from a stage completely barren of platforms, monitors or anchored equipment of any kind, the musicians – all dressed in matching grey suits, all barefoot – became a performance composite of marching band, dance squad and street parade crew. The show, in fact, stayed put only at its onset, when Byrne was seated alone onstage at a table pondering a model of a human brain the way Hamlet pontificated over the skull of Yorick. The tune this set up was “Here” – curiously, the finale song to Byrne’s new “American Utopia” album.
Singer/dancers Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba slipped onstage during the opening and remained Byrne’s tireless performance lieutenants for much of the evening. The bulk of the rhythm section was introduced during the riotously joyous “Lazy” (an obscure bonus track from 2004’s “Grown Backwards”) before the full percussive might of the band fell in line for the 1979 Talking Heads dervish “I Zimbra.”
That the band remained in constant motion (often, choreographed motion) was dazzling enough. But the fact it sounded so clear, vibrant and, frankly, resourceful, added a true sense of fascination. Take for instance the transformation of two “American Utopia” tunes that proved to be vast improvements on their studio versions. During “I Dance Like This,” the robotic chorus originally constructed around pulsating synthesizers was propelled by three members of the percussion team tapping out beats on the single-string berimbau. Earlier, for “Everybody’s Coming to My House” (arguably the new album’s most arresting tune), the entire melodic structure opened up with rich vocal and keyboard textures.
As for Byrne himself, he remained something of a pop wonder. At 66, he sang with unblemished clarity and verve, whether it was during the jubilant “Every Day is a Miracle” (also from “American Utopia”) or a densely patterned but modestly streamlined take on Talking Heads’ turbulent “The Great Curve.” It was also a kick to watch a discreet lighting effect produce a colossus-sized shadow of the singer during the Talking Heads obscurity “Blind” in a way that brought to mind similar hijinks from the vanguard concert film “Stop Making Sense.”
While there were hints of topical protest, especially during the encore cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Taimbout” (where Byrne and the entire band reverted to percussion), this was a purposely good natured, even polite program. You could tell just how keenly Byrne was minding his manners when he half apologized for a lyric in the “American Utopia” tune “Dog’s Mind” that referenced “doggy dancers doing duty.”
“By that, I meant obligation,” Byrne sheepishly told the crowd. “Not the other kind.”

in performance: montgomery gentry

Eddie Montgomery onstage last night for Montgomery Gentry’s performance at Manchester Music Hall. Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

“It’s so awesome to be home, baby,” shouted Eddie Montgomery five songs into a fun and suitably scrappy sounding performance last night at Manchester Music Hall.

But the show was far from a mere homecoming. This was the first Montgomery Gentry outing on Lexington turf without co-frontman Troy Gentry, who died 11 months ago in a helicopter crash. So while the sizeable audience turnout knew what to expect musically, it was really anyone’s guess as to how this homegrown outfit, one that got its start in local clubs two decades ago and before that as band brethren to elder sibling John Michael Montgomery, would sound with one of its chieftains gone.

That’s a query last night’s show couldn’t entirely answer. The immediate state of affairs relating to a Gentry-less Montgomery Gentry, though, seemed quite hopeful. Montgomery has always been a jubilant performer, serving as much as a cheerleading foil to his now-departed partner as he has as a frontman and singer. The latter attributes came front-and-center last night near the onset of the performance with “Lonely and Gone,” a song that reached back to Montgomery Gentry’s 1999 debut album, “Tattoos & Scars.” The tune let Montgomery’s loose, smoky tenor free against a modestly churchy, mid-tempo backdrop. It was perhaps the most concise and expressive vocal showing Montgomery would present all evening.

The song also offered a somewhat reserved contrast to the more electric, Southern rock-rooted flair that powered such anthemic works as the swing-savvy “All Night Long” and especially the dark and sobering “Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm.”

But these were all shades of the Montgomery we knew – a musical spirit that, thankfully, doesn’t appeared to have been impaired by the loss of his onstage partner. That Montgomery’s performance gusto was still roaring proudly was easily the more encouraging aspect of the concert.

The bigger question sat with how Montgomery Gentry was going to deal with the bulk of tunes Gentry sang or shared lead on. To that end, several members of the six-member Montgomery Gentry band (half of which were guitarists) stepped in to handle the high end harmonies on the show-opening “Where I Come From” and especially the tireless party piece “Hell Yeah.”

Especially telling was a reworked version of “Roll With Me,” a power ballad and longtime Gentry concert showpiece from 2008’s “Back When I Knew It All.” Last night, keyboardist Eddie Kilgallon took over vocal duties in a faithful performance that didn’t get built up as a tribute but stood as one all the same.

That was the most overt adjustment to the repertoire. The rest of the 90 minute set integrated band members more gently – a verse or chorus here, a harmony line there. The rest relied on Montgomery’s high spirits, from the reminiscences he gave of his Central Kentucky friends before launching the group’s biggest hit “My Town” late in the evening to his crowd instruction on the tipsy chorus to “Drink Along Song,” one of two tunes pulled from the “Here’s to You” album, which was completed only days before Gentry’s crash.

So the big takeaway from last night’s show was that Montgomery Gentry, for now, seems to be fine with one engine running and an able support staff taking on extra duties. What the future holds is a tough call. This is group that was built as a partnership with two different but oddly complimentary personalities sharing leadership duties equally. There was enough of Gentry’s spirit on hand last night to rekindle that balance onstage. But how this will play out should Montgomery choose to carry the band name on for another album with his singular persona running the show sets up an altogether different dilemma.

For now, though, there is ample reason to celebrate Montgomery Gentry as a still vital and entertaining performance entity. Even if one of the guests of honor was unavoidably absent last night, it was inspiring just to have everyone else home again.


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