Archive for an appreciation

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.”

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.

lonnie mack, 1941-2016

lonnie mack.

lonnie mack.

There is no disrespecting Prince in noting he wasn’t the only music colossus that died yesterday. Buried under waves of purple posts today and yesterday was news of the passing of Lonnie Mack, one of the true guitar innovators of the ‘60s.

Mack could best be described as an early prototype of the guitar hero. Through a series of classic instrumental singles from the early 1960s– specifically, Wham and a hotwired revision of Chuck Berry’s Memphis – his innovations were less defined by his technical prowess, although he had that in abundance. With Mack, it was more about the sound he got out of the guitar – a charge that was exact, expressive and potent. There were elements of surf and twang, of blues and boogie and of pure effervescent rock ‘n’ roll.

There was just enough dirt in his playing to toy with the inherent country accents of his tunes. But Mack was also a piledriver of a player whose more muscular tunes possessed a roots-friendly sound that bordered on swing, although the rock and pop undercurrents kept things very melodic.

You could detect Mack’s inspiration in the playing of numerous disciples, from the more briskly packed works John Fogerty ignited with Creedence Clearwater Revival (check out Ramble Tamble from Cosmo’s Factory) to the music of his most outspoken protégé, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Thanks in no small part to Vaughan’s very vocal accolades, Mack’s career enjoyed an unexpected renaissance in the ‘80s, releasing four albums in five years for the Chicago based Alligator label – the most essential being the 1989 live album, Attack of the Killer V (a reference to the famed Flying V, his guitar model of choice). With the Alligator albums came frequent performance stops in Lexington, most notably at the long-since-demolished Breeding’s across from Rupp Arena.

Essential Mack listening: 1964’s The Wham of that Memphis Man (the definitive representation of his initial ‘60s sound), 1971’s The Hills of Indiana (a vastly more reserved and organic country-leaning exercise) and 1985’s Strike Like Lightning (the first Alligator record, a blues-rock joyride with Vaughan as co-producer and guest guitar star).

But to hear the lyricism and power of Mack at his best, just click on a youtube video for Wham and experience two minutes of pure musical joy that cemented his place alongside Dick Dale and Link Wray as one of the cornerstone guitarslingers of his, or any, generation.

prince, 1958-2016

prince.

prince.

Oh, there were stories surrounding the December 1984 Rupp Arena debut of Prince. He wanted his dressing room painted purple. He wanted his hotel room painted purple. He wanted a bath tub painted purple It didn’t matter if the tales were true or not, although the latter request was granted and became one of the Rupp show’s more outrageous stage props. They all fit the persona so completely of a star that had reached a level of commercial popularity the previous summer with Purple Rain that equaled his far more established critical and artistic reputation.

To many, Prince was the epitome of celebrity. He was a funk-soul renegade, a monster guitarist and a restlessly creative and prolific recording artist. But it was his sheer stage presence, along with an innate ability to embrace and shatter social extremes within pop tradition, that will forever define a career unexpectedly halted yesterday at the age of 57.

To that end, Prince joined a very short list of artists whose cultural impact was profound enough to completely shift the way an audience perceived pop, soul, funk and rock music. There was Little Richard. There was Chuck Berry. There was Miles Davis. There was Sly Stone. And there was Prince.

Listen to his early albums – especially Controversy and 1999 – and you heard the sound of youth gone wild. But the means of expression wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll, it was soul music retold with unharnessed drive, curiosity and sensuality. Critics immediately championed him as much for his instrumental smarts as his remarkable sense of songcraft.

With Purple Rain, Prince’s commercial profile exploded. But by 1986, when he played a surprise show at Louisville’s Freedom Hall, Purple Rain was already in the rearview mirror. Audiences expecting Let’s Go Crazy and Purple Rain’s epic title tune got monstrous jams that were, in essence, psychedelic stepchildren of the innovations the artist had cultivated only two years earlier.

Everything was reshuffled again a year later with Sign O’ The Times (which, along with 1999, stand as Prince’s finest work) for music that blended the spiritual, the social and the sexual in to a parade of multi-generational groove. There was also 1991’s pop-soul scrapbook Diamonds and Pearls, 1999’s triple disc Emancipation that broadened its soul scope into retro and futuristic terrain, 2004’s unexpectedly streamlined Musicology and 2014’s unapologetically forward thinking groovefest Art Official Age.

There were nearly 40 studio albums in all. Some were brilliant, others were comparative throwaways. But they all paled next to what Prince summoned onstage. In the four times I witnessed him in concert, the moments that were truly magical weren’t forged out of the hits but rather instances when the artist celebrated life with music that both defined and defied the times.

There was the Santana-like guitar charge of Computer Blue (from his 1984 Rupp show), the brassy soul intrigue of A Love Bizarre (from the 1986 Louisville concert), a cover of Joan Osborne’s One of Us that became a treatise of faith (from a 1997 Rupp return) and a cover of the Sam and Dave staple Soul Man with sax giant Maceo Parker (at his 2004 performance at Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena).

But as fans were absorbing their power and beauty, Prince was already at the next mile marker working on a new groove. The older songs may have indeed been signs of the times. But for Prince, time never stood still.

merle haggard, 1937-2016

merle haggard.

merle haggard.

Here’s my favorite Merle Haggard memory. On a sweaty August evening at the 2003 Kentucky State Fair in Louisville, the veteran country music renegade polled a Cardinal Stadium crowd with this query: “How many ex-convicts do we have with us tonight?”
What was surprising wasn’t just the number of hands that shot up in the crowd, but how enthusiastic – proud, even – the respondents seemed. The Hag, without question, was in his element.

As someone who did his own share of time in the ol’ gray bar hotel, Haggard reveled in his unassuming but rebellious spirit throughout his career. Picking up on Buck Owens’ brand of California country, he all but reinvented country music convention with stories of hard won truths and music that both embraced and subverted honky tonk tradition. It was nothing to hear him sing songs of drinking and loss, yet equally uncommon to hear horns in his band for music that sometimes sounded as much like jazz as it did country.

Haggard was a frequent visitor to Rupp Arena during the ‘80s, usually in the company of fellow traditionalists George Jones and/or Conway Twitty. While he had a library of genre-defining tunes to draw from – Swinging Doors, Workin’ Man Blues and Mama Tried were always personal favorites – the one that always got me in the throat was Kern River. It was a song of death, of a raging current that swept away a loved one with unforgiving swiftness. “It’s a mean piece of water, my friend,” Haggard sang with sadness as stark and stoic as the river in question was wild. Just try finding something like that on country radio today.
Generations of country artists have claimed Haggard as an influence. Yet in an industry he saw as unduly commercialized decades ago – hence the very reactionary slant of his music – few seemed to absorb his narrative or stylistic tenacity. The only one to even approximate his sense of invention was Dwight Yoakam.

It didn’t matter if Haggard sang a forgotten celebratory hit like Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man) or if disciples like Emmylou Harris or Dave Alvin echoed his darker visions in covers of Kern River. Haggard, who died earlier today – his 79th birthday – was an original in a genre starved for true distinction. He spoke to the country poet, the working man (and woman) and, yes, even the ex-con, in us all.

keith emerson, 1944-2016

keith emerson.

keith emerson.

We’ve lost another one. Keith Emerson, the instrumentalist who set the standard for keyboard instrumentation in rock music – and with it, a level of performance bravura that riled critics as it thrilled audiences – has died at age 71. The specific cause has not been announced.

Emerson’s uses of organ and, eventually synthesizers, were as renowned as they were revolutionary. His playing was introduced at the height of ‘60s psychedelia with the power trio (and, briefly, quartet) The Nice, a band that tossed Brubeck, Bernstein and Dylan into a prog rock pot where keyboards served as the dominant spice. But it was in the ‘70s with the advancements of Moog synthesizers that Emerson’s bold musicianship turned to stardom alongside bassist/vocalist Greg Lake and drummer Carl Palmer in the aptly named Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

“I suppose it was rather like the early airplane pilots,” Emerson recalled of ELP’s early days with synthesizers in an interview I conducted with him in 1996. “We were really dealing with equipment that wasn’t designed to fly. The early modular synthesizers, which I was using then, were very prone to changing keys and picking up radio signals. They would even catch transmitter calls from passing taxis when we would be playing. It was quite extraordinary.”

Audiences ate the music up, especially Emerson’s onstage antics, which included shoving knifes into the keys of a Hammond organ to sustain notes and feedback. The growing punk movement, though, used bands like ELP as targets of generational outrage, making most commercially successful prog bands dinosaur acts by the end of the decade. Still, Emerson found his way to Rupp Arena twice – one with ELP in January 1978 and again in August 1986 with the late drummer Cozy Powell replacing Palmer.

For all his wildness (Emerson’s autobiography was titled Pictures of an Exhibitionist), nothing compared to when he unplugged the synths and played freely on piano – whether it be the acoustic interlude of Take a Pebble from ELP’s self-titled debut album in 1971 to the barrelhouse rolls of Honky Tonk Train Blues from the trio’s last vital studio recording, Works, Volume 2 in 1977. And then there was his Piano Concerto, No. 1 which took up all of side one of Works, Volume 1 and served as a bright reaffirmation of Emerson’s classical roots.

“Even though we’re still very dependent on the synthesizers today, there remains a feeling of apprehension when one goes out onstage because they can always break down,” Emerson said during our 1996 talk. “I’m far happier playing a piano.”

nana vasconcelos, 1944-2016

nana vasconcelos.

nana vasconcelos.

To the far too lengthy list of musical giants that have already taken leave of us in this very young year we now add a far less recognizable name. But to those who knew his music, Nana Vasconcelos was an incantatory colossus.

The Brazilian percussionist, who died Wednesday at age 71 from lung cancer, was part of an immensely creative stable of instrumentalists that recorded for the European ECM label during the ‘70s and ‘80s. On occasion, his playing would venture into artier areas of the pop mainstream, as shown by contributions to Talking Heads’ Little Creatures and Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints. But it was through the ECM projects – recordings of jazz, worldbeat and ambient abstractions – that Vasconcelos blended colors from shakers and the stringed Brazilian instrument known as the berimbau along with otherworldly chants to chart a new stylistic plain.

Probably the most visible and lasting of these alliances was an early ‘80s tenure with the Pat Metheny Group. The sense of joint adventure panned out initially on the 1981 collaborative album between guitarist Metheny and his longtime keyboardist Lyle Mays, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, and the PMG’s equally far-reaching followup, 1982’s Offramp. Vasconcelos highlighted both recordings during an October 1982 concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts with the PMG (his only Lexington appearance that I know of). He followed Metheny through avenues of cool, groove and cinematically expansive atmospherics. But it was during As Falls Wichita’s suite-like title tune that Vasconcelos went wild, emitting shrieks and chants over Mays’ waves of synthesizers. The combined sound approximated the landing of a helicopter on the Singletary stage for a rescue mission. A milder version of that glorious mayhem was captured on the PMG’s 1983 concert album Travels.

There were scores of other great recordings that have emphasized Vasconcelos’ globally inclined/cosmically accented playing. Leading the pack are a string of fascinating trio albums featuring percussionist/sitar stylist Colin Walcott and trumpeter Don Cherry (under the group name Codona) and three beautiful records with Brazilian guitarist/pianist Egberto Gismonti (all six are on ECM).

But the image of him in a sonic field of wonder and danger at the Singletary is what I will always remember most about Vasconcelos, an artist from Brazil but a musical ambassador of the world.

sir george martin, 1926-2016

george martin.

george martin.

Perhaps no other contemporary British musicmaker more rightly bore the title of ‘Sir’ before his name than George Martin.

To my generation, the legendary producer, who died last night at the age of 90, was the patriarch of British pop whose eventual global reach in the construction of melody and arrangements was unparalleled. Though wildly learned, he kept his ears and mind open by employing ideas of the past to adorn new pop concepts in an age when cross-generational music making was largely unheard of.

The catalyst for Martin’s grand career was a band called The Beatles. To their remarkably forward thinking pop songs he added the inspirations of more versed and traditionally inclined ears – classical accents, harmonic structures and all kind of studio finesse that enriched songs like Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby and A Day in the Life to sound unlike anything audiences had experienced up to that point. That this remarkable alliance continued right up to the finale of The Beatles with Abbey Road also demonstrated the remarkable trust that existed between artist and producer. The ideas pioneered by this storied pop alliance continue to echo through all forms of contemporary music.

Martin maintained a sense of restlessness long after The Beatles dissolved. One of my favorite ‘70s records under his direction was Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow, a groundbreaking album of instrumental reinvention by the storied British guitarist – a record highlighted by Beck’s dazzling intuition and Martin’s robust production and orchestration.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Sir George in 2004, prior to a presentation he gave for the then-Lexington based ideaFestival. Eloquent, gracious and impeccably mannered despite the onset of hearing loss, he stressed the role of a producer was to enhance an artist’s creative concept, not intrude upon it.

“The producer is never the important guy. The important guy is the one who wrote the original piece of music. The producer comes after that. His job is to get to know who he’s dealing with and do everything he can to bring out the best in a performance and help shape the frame what goes around that performance. You can do that in different ways. Some producers do it by bullying. I can’t subscribe to that. I’ve got to get the fellow to like me and trust me so he will listen to me. It’s terribly important for a young producer to get that credibility.”

There you have George Martin: artistic nobleman, pop architect and father figure.

maurice white, 1941-2016

maurice white.

maurice white.

The first time I heard Maurice White – the first time, in fact, I heard Earth, Wind & Fire – was during that curious era of early ‘70s television when programs like In Concert, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Midnight Special blurred genres during the wee hours and introduced a generation to music that only the early days of FM radio was addressing.

It was also the first time I heard someone playing kalimba in a contemporary setting, a tip to the rootsy drive and eclecticism prevalent in EWF’s music even then. This was roughly two years before That’s the Way of the World established the band as a star attraction. Its music was funk with jazz-like temperaments, all of which played out on the first record I bought that involved White’s buoyant optimism. Curiously, it wasn’t an EWF album, but Ramsey Lewis’ 1973 gem Sun Goddess – the title tune of which featured White and the band he founded as willing jazz fusion accomplices.

During their ‘70s heyday, White and EWF were the Beatles of contemporary R&B. They had everything – singers of wildly different extremes, an almost orchestral musicality and a groove as serious and unrelenting as anything the more overt funk bands of the day were dishing out. They could play to the pop crowd. They could write. They could swing. And onstage, all that kinetic groove and joy ignited into a party beyond belief, as shown by its New Year’s Eve 1977 performance here at Rupp Arena. Throughout, White was the ringleader – a tireless frontman that radiated the uncompromising warmth and invitation that was always at the heart of EWF’s music.

The magic remained intact through much of the ‘80s (EWF’s 1980 double album, Faces, remains an overlooked classic). Having bowed out of the band two decades ago due to the growing ravages of Parkinson’s Disease, EWF never wavered from his vision. As promised by Head to the Sky, the album the band was promoting during those early ‘70s TV jams, his music was the R&B voice of hope and celebration. That was truly the way of Maurice White’s world.

paul kantner, 1941-2016

paul kantner.

paul kantner. AP photo by Shawn Baldwin.

At the heart of the San Francisco psychedelic music movement of the late 1960s, at least the part that grabbed the attention of the rest of an unknowing nation, sat Paul Kantner. As the founder and perhaps most politically and socially outspoken member of Jefferson Starship, he fanned the flames of a generation beset by the Vietnam War and the draft, a following caught in a cultural shift of attitudes towards drugs, police, parental obedience and simple personal identity.

Curiously, his onstage role with the Airplane, and its more commercial ‘70s and ‘80s permutation, Jefferson Starship, was regularly overshadowed by the presence of the group’s towering vocalists, Grace Slick and Marty Balin. But Kantner was unquestionably at the controls during the band’s heyday – so much so that when its tenure with singer Mickey Thomas turned overtly commercial in the mid ‘80s, Kantner quit and effectively pulled the plug on his mates by taking the rights to the band’s name with him, hence the formation of the more generically pop-driven group known simply as Starship.

“I felt like the last guy at the party,” Kantner told me in 1993 of his final days with the original Jefferson Starship. “There just wasn’t anything worth staying around for. Everyone else wanted to go and be pop stars.”

But Kantner’s glory days unquestionably fell within the golden age of Jefferson Airplane. The four studio albums the band cut quickly between 1967 and 1969 – Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing at Baxter’s, Crown of Creation and Volunteers – drew on the strengths of multiple musical personas with Kantner’s socio-psychedelia and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s electric blues resolve being the most prominent.

Surrealistic Pillow was the hit, mostly because it made a star out of Slick. But I’ll place After Bathing at Baxter’s, an indulgent but panoramic blast of psychedelic invention, at the top of the list. “It wasn’t always successful,” Kantner said in our 1993 interview, “but it took giant steps, dangerous steps musically and sometimes got away with them.”

It should also be noted that when Balin bolted in 1970 and the blissed out West Coast fantasy of the ‘60s eroded into the dark, sobering reality of the early ‘70s, the Airplane followed suit with two underrated and often unsettling coda albums (Bark and Long John Silver). Both were preceded by Kantner’s first and finest quasi-solo record, 1971’s Blows Against the Empire, a fascinating last gasp of West Coast psychedelia with a science fiction slant.

Kantner’s only Lexington performance seems to have been Jefferson Starship’s performance at Rupp Arena in 1978. But in the hour I spent with him prior to a 1993 concert at Bogart’s in Cincinnati and was amazed to find how little of the political idealism and restlessness that drove him during the ‘60s had settled. The music Kantner made from the ‘90s onward didn’t match the cunning and stylistic breadth of his earlier work – proof that the magic of Jefferson Airplane was rooted far more in band chemistry than the advances of one member. But from its first flight in 1965 to when it was grounded in 1972, there was no mistaking who pilot of this plane was.

“It’s all about good songs,” he said of any enduring artistic legacy, “Some songs are so bad that you just want to throw your radio across the room when you hear them. Others are so good that it sometimes doesn’t matter how or when you sing them.”

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