Archive for an appreciation

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.”

glenn frey: 1948-2016

glenn frey onstage with the eagles in july 2015.

glenn frey onstage with the eagles at rupp arena in july 2015.

The death yesterday of Glenn Frey presents something of a paradox. The dominant feeling, unavoidably, is one of sadness. There have several major artistic deaths already in 2016, some famous (David Bowie, Lemmy), others overlooked (Mott the Hoople drummer Dale Griffin). While Frey certainly belongs in the former category, his musical legacy illuminates a division.

To many, the music Frey created as co-pilot of the Eagles was a benchmark representation of the country-rock sound bred in Southern California during the ‘70s, a style that held considerable sway over the contemporary country music industry that began engulfing the charts during the ‘90s. In short, there would be no Garth Brooks without the Eagles.

Others will quickly pick up the argument that such succession among the pop and country ranks wasn’t such a great thing. We’ll leave that argument for another time. And in the interest of simple respect, we’ll shrug off the later Eagles records along with Frey’s solo work, much of which represented a smugness that often seemed like a corrupted adult version of the Eagles more unassuming beginnings.

It was with no small amount irony that Lexington was witness to one of Frey’s – and the Eagles’ – final concerts. The last of several extensive reunion tours was winding down when the band played at Rupp Arena last July. There was no hint of illness in Frey’s singing or his overall performance. It was an evening of living pop history, one that he and band co-founder Don Henley upheld with authority.

The performance did little to alter my general dislike of the band’s final 70s albums, Hotel California and The Long Run, which dominated the second half of the concert. I realize I’m in the minority on that score. The Rupp crowd’s acceptance of those songs heartily countered that estimation. But what struck me was how strong – and, at times, rather innocent – their early music sounded. Maybe it was the decades of watching countless bar bands sleepwalking through Eagles covers or classic rock radio’s unyielding airplay of the band’s records that deadened me to the songs’ craftsmanship. But hearing Frey and Henley open the show with a duo version of Saturday Night, a forgotten country relic from the Eagles’ self-titled 1972 debut, brushed aside the excess and celeb status of the later years. On simple, uncontested display was the embodiment of the Eagles’ – and certainly Frey’s – best work. It was a rewind to the beginning of the long run, a trek Frey travelled unashamedly as a celebrity. Luckily the musician under the veneer got a chance, during those final nights onstage, to reclaim some of that simpler glory.

david bowie, 1947-2016

david bowie.

david bowie.

Few rock performers were so many things to so many different audiences as David Bowie. To many, he was the face of early ‘70s glam-rock and the sexually androgynous imagery that fueled it. But as the decade progressed, Bowie shed images, looks and musical styles with stunning frequency. There was the Thin White Duke that drove the dark rails of one of his finest records, Station to Station (released 40 years ago this month), the pioneering Krautrock stylist, the post disco soul man, blonde popster, industrial rocker, techno banshee and more. At his best, he was combinations of all those personas. And when he put one or more of them onstage, the magic burst forth.

I admit to being stunned when word of Bowie’s death at age 69 spread Monday morning. News reports said he had battled cancer for the last 18 months, but given the reclusive lifestyle he maintained over the past decade, who was to know? How fitting, perhaps, that one of rock’s most outrageously visible artists would spend his final years living a predominantly quiet and undisturbed life in New York.

By wicked coincidence, I spent late Sunday afternoon writing a review of Bowie’s new Blackstar album which was released Friday, the singer’s 69th birthday. It’s a beautifully strange work ideal for winter listening and his second record since retreating from public scrutiny. He had his hands in numerous other projects, including the Off-Broadway production of Lazarus (the title tune of which is one of Blackstar’s prime cuts) and retained a decades-long love for making music videos (he fashioned a wondrously abstract nine minute clip for Blackstar’s title song). But there was no touring and no interaction with any press in recent years. Bowie let his final work roar on its own merits.

Many wonderful memories exist of his music. Bowie played Rupp Arena one time as part of 1987’s Glass Spider Tour. It was a completely over-the-top production promoting one of his weaker albums (Never Let Me Down). But it didn’t matter. It was my first time seeing an artist I had grown up listening to. Sure, the choreography and overall staging embraced kitsch, but there was also the guitar duo of Peter Frampton and Carlos Alomar, along with Bowie in fine voice, to ignite tunes popular and obscure, including Loving the Alien, Fashion, Scary Monsters and Fame. In typical Bowie splendor, the show ended with the singer sprouting wings atop the massive stage for his Aladdin Sane gem Time.

His best album? The answer could be as fleeting as what day it is or what mood you’re in. The 1977 Berlin epics Low and Heroes are pretty much unmatched. So was the aforementioned Station to Station, the early Brit pop classic Hunky Dory and the 1978 live set Stage, which featured Kentucky native Adrian Belew on guitar.

I have a huge soft spot for Bowie’s later albums, as well, especially 2002’s Heathen and its incandescent title song, as well as the new Blackstar. But what dominates all these works, along with the entirety of Bowie’s astonishing career, is his unending fearlessness. Bowie took on the kinds of changes in image and style that would destroy most careers as a manner of common practice. But the consistency was always the quality of his work. Whether acting out as a squeamish pop crooner, a glammed up celebrity or a darkly progressive journeyman, Bowie was a rocker of the ages. His loss is huge, but the path of inspiration he paved is considerably greater.

scott weiland, 1967-2015

scott weiland performing at louisville's brown theatre in may 2002. herald-leader staff photo by mark cornelison.

scott weiland performing at louisville’s brown theatre in may 2002. herald-leader staff photo by mark cornelison.

At the height of his stage power and popularity, Scott Weiland was as wondrous as he was infuriating.

He was a rock star in every sense of the term – flamboyant, indulgent, self-absorbed and, ultimately, self-destructive. All are traits that go hand in hand when celebrity status, commercial stardom and good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll collide. Collectively, they form a circus that audiences not only accept, but often mercilessly encourage until the music stops and attention is shifted to the next sideshow in waiting.

Weiland’s tenure in the big top concluded yesterday. He died at the shamefully young age of 48, concluding a career that gained as much attention for his vices and excesses as it did for his music.

Critically, Weiland was revered and reviled. His initial recordings with Stone Temple Pilots helped define a grunge revolution even if many dismissed the band as blatantly imitative of contemporaries like Pearl Jam. The band’s performances, all rhythmically jarring and furiously electric, seemed to depend on how lucid Weiland chose to be.

When he performed a Derby Week concert with STP at Louisville’s Brown Theatre in May 2002, Weiland was a clear-headed, energized and inviting performer who provided a healthy sense of cunning to his band. That night, STP saved favorites like Vasoline, Crackerman and what remains my favorite entry in their catalogue, the piledriving groove workout Big Bang Baby, for later in the set and opened with 10 minutes of Pink Floyd’s prog-saturated Shine on You Crazy Diamond.

The latter tune was a requiem for Floyd founder Syd Barrett, a drug rattled champion of the psychedelic era who spent the last three decades of his life too broken to even perform in public. Even at his worst, Weiland never teetered that far out of bounds. But the parallel was obvious.

Standing tall and healthy that night in Louisville, Weiland seemingly shook loose of his demons and celebrated rock ‘n’ roll as the huge musical affirmation it was always intended to be. Naïve as it may sound today, that’s the snapshot I will keep of him – as one of the music’s proudest revelers instead of one of its latest casualties.


allen toussaint, 1938-2015

allen toussaint.

allen toussaint.

A few winters ago – late January of 2011, to be exact – I was burning the final hours of a short New York trip by having brunch at Joe’s Pub, a popular haunt affixed to The Public Theatre that operated primarily as a nightclub. This day, however, Allen Toussaint quietly took the stage as a winter sun lit up a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan.

Over the decades, Toussaint has been many things – a champion songwriter, a vanguard R&B stylist, a heralded producer/arranger and one of New Orleans’ foremost musical ambassadors. On this day, though, he was alone at the piano offering stories and songs from an extraordinary career. In such a setting, works like Freedom for the Stallion, A Certain Girl, Holy Cow and even a few non-original favorites like St. James Infirmary were performed with the kind of soul, ease and confidence only a scholarly elder like Toussaint could summon.

In true show business fashion, though, he saved his greatest party piece for the end of the show – a near 10 minute version of Southern Nights. Pop audiences probably recognize the tune through the hit version Glen Campbell delivered to radio in 1975. But in the hands of its composer, Southern Nights turned impressionistic. It was a love song, a lullaby and an elegy all rolled into one but played with an understated, contemplative joy. The performance will forever by my favorite remembrance of Toussaint and his astounding music.

Toussaint died yesterday at the age of 77 of a heart attack following a concert in Madrid. His departure completes a mammoth chapter of American musical history that runs from early pop hits like Fortune Teller to ‘70s-era Crescent City funk to a string of final recordings that included the Elvis Costello collaboration The River in Reverse (2006) , the predominantly instrumental Joe Henry-produced The Bright Mississippi (2009) and the career retrospective concert album Songbook (2013). The latter chronicled another Joe’s Pub show.

The venue served as a performance home for the pianist for several years. He had resettled in New York after floods in the wake of Hurricane Katrina engulfed his New Orleans studio and home. If anything, the disaster only heightened his pride and faith in the city.

“I’m proud to be one of the senders,” he told me in an interview promoting the benefit album I Believe to My Soul of the love generated for his ravaged homeland. “But I’m a receiver, as well.”

cory wells, 1941-2015

three dog night, circa 1969. from left: cory wells, danny hutton and chuck negron.

three dog night, circa 1969. from left: cory wells, danny hutton and chuck negron.

It’s understandable that discussions centering on any lasting cultural impact of late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll would bypass Three Dog Night. In its heyday, the band was always a greater commercial force than a critical darling – meaning a Three Dog Night record was never far away from the airwaves, and, as a result, decidedly unhip. I didn’t care. My most trusted companion at the time was a transistor radio – a device that dispensed Three Dog Night music frequently and plentifully.

The group’s novelty was that it delegated vocal duties between three male singers. They didn’t write much of their music. They didn’t need to. In a rare sense of artistic foresight within commercial pop circles, Three Dog Night and its overseers selected tunes from the generation’s most gifted songsmiths. So, without even knowing it, I was introduced to the songs of Randy Newman (Mama Told Me Not to Come), Laura Nyro (Eli’s Coming), Harry Nilssen (One), Hoyt Axton (Joy to the World), Argent (Liar) and even Elton John (Lady Samantha) through Three Dog Night.

The finest of the group’s vocalists, Cory Wells, died yesterday at age 74. Where Hutton and Negron were more overtly pop leaning in their delivery, Wells was the rock and soul-driven center of Three Dog Night. His sang lead on Mama Told Me Not Come and Eli’s Coming, arguably the band’s two finest singles.

Three Dog Night began to fracture in 1976 with the exit of Negron. Wells and Hutton maintained a touring version of the band until recently, but the magic really started to dissolve in 1972. Maybe I grew up and moved on. Maybe Three Dog Night simply had its creative day. But those early recordings served as a gateway, a primer for those of my generation to the kind of songcraft deemed unfit for pop radio – unfit, that is, until Wells and Three Dog Night took it to the masses.

chris squire, 1948-2015

chris squire of yes.

chris squire of yes.

I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit I loved ‘70s prog rock. It was pretentious, excessive and, as the decade progressed, unfashionable. And women, for the most part, hated it. So it wasn’t anything a guy was going to scores points with the girls for liking. Even at the close of the decade, when punk held prog by the throat and used it as a punching bag for everything it rebelled against, I still privately championed the music and all of its instrumental extremes.

At the head of the prog pack for nearly that entire era was Yes, and at the core of the band’s fanciful orchestration, its synth and guitar adorned arrangements and the high, otherworldly tenor of Jon Anderson was the bass guitar work of Chris Squire. On such career-defining albums as 1971’s The Yes Album, 1972’s Fragile and what remain Yes’ shining hour, 1972’s Close to the Edge, Squire made the bass as prominent and purposeful and any other instrument in the band. His sound was huge and rubbery. It was sweet enough to color Yes’ more pastoral passages but rocked like a jackhammer when the band hit full throttle, as in the elemental cosmic groove that drove the title tune from its last truly classic album, 1977’s Going for the One.

Squire died yesterday, less than two months after revealing he had been diagnosed with leukemia. He was 67.

A co-founding member of Yes, he anchored every lineup that toured and recorded for over 45 years. Admittedly, some of the later, post-Anderson outings signaled the band had finally run its creative course (although 2011’s Far From Here album was surprisingly strong). But spend some time with any of Yes’ seminal ‘70s recordings and you will experience one of the key architects of prog having a field day. His playing was as joyous, in its own way, as it was wickedly intense.

“As an individualist in an age when it was possible to establish individuality, Chris fearlessly staked out a whole protectorate of bass playing in which he was lord and master,” wrote Bill Bruford, veteran percussionist and Yes drummer up through the release of Close to the Edge, in a Facebook post yesterday. “I suspect he knew not only that he gave millions of people pleasure with his music, but also that he was fortunate to be able to do so


ornette coleman, 1930-2015

ornette coleman.

ornette coleman.

As a precocious fan of fusion music, my gateway drug into the world of jazz, Ornette Coleman was a total mystery at first. Try as I might as a teenager, I just couldn’t connect the dots within the kind of abandon his music reached for. But then some things, especially fine art that steers clear of the obvious, takes times to understand and ultimately appreciate.

In a life that ended yesterday in Manhattan at age 85, Coleman shattered harmonic, compositional and especially improvisational expectations of jazz music.

The standard line from traditionalists was that Coleman’s music was, in essence, anti- jazz. Many dismissed it as noise and “jive.” But while he indulged in free forms of time and harmony, there were also strong undercurrents of bebop in the saxophonist’s playing. But when he met up with like-minded proteges like Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, the unorthodoxy of Coleman’s music simply exploded.

The quartet’s groundbreaking 1959 Atlantic album The Shape of Jazz to Come is considered a vanguard work for so-called “free jazz” expatriots. I have to admit later works for Blue Note (the live 1965 trio date At the Gold Circle), Columbia (1971’s Science Fiction) and a jumbled fusion/funk work for Horizon/A&M (1977’s Dancing in Your Head) pulled me in first, albeit reluctantly. But once those Atlantic records soaked in, the freshness and immediacy of Coleman’s sound didn’t seem so offsetting. It just seemed wonderfully of-the-moment, as all did great jazz.

Near as I can tell, Coleman never played anywhere close to Lexington. But the legacy his music bares is more than apparent in the Chicago, New York and European artists that have performed locally for the Outside the Spotlight Series. In their hands, as it was in Coleman’s decades earlier, the music didn’t wear its traditional reverence openly. But it was there, a stepping stone to a brave and unflinching musical territory where possibility was boundless.

Ornette Coleman opened the door to that world and dared naysayers to enter while simultaneously welcoming them.

jean ritchie, 1922-2015

jean ritchie.

jean ritchie.

It’s easy for anyone in Kentucky who grew up with the music of Jean Ritchie to claim her as their own. That’s a polite way of saying it was easy to take her for granted.

To us, she was a teacher and neighbor whose graceful but topical songs became a part of our very artistic upbringing. Decade and after decade, we would see her perform with a dulcimer on her lap, a voice sent truly sent from a higher place than the Southeastern Kentucky mountains she hailed from and songs that served a folk primer for successive generations.

To the rest of the world, she was rightly viewed as a folk matriarch, a regal but uncompromising representative of Appalachian culture and the inspirations and activism that fortified it. Here in Kentucky, she was more than that. She was practically family, an artist so much a part of our art that it seemed inconceivable to picture our state’s heritage without her.

I can’t even remember the first time I heard Ritchie, who died yesterday at age 92. For the longest time, I couldn’t separate the songs she wrote from the traditional tunes she made her own. Regardless of the demarcation, she was the one who introduced me to The Cuckoo, Shady Grove, Wayfaring Stranger and other folk essentials. I would hear countless versions of these songs through the years, many by artists from Europe and beyond. But Jean Ritchie forever fashioned the blueprint.

I was a sophomore in college when None But One was released. The first album cut for the Greenhays label she began with husband George Pickow, it was a renaissance work for Ritchie, exposing her to an emerging folk and bluegrass generation that favored tradition but also sought ways to connect it to the causes and influences of the day. To that end, Ritchie was no finer conduit. She was the voice of Appalachian tradition but never sounded remotely out of time with her songs.

I didn’t get to see Ritchie perform, however, until 1982 when she played with longtime friend and fellow folk giant Oscar Brand at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Her songs were forces of nature. You almost sensed the presence of Leadbelly or Pete Seeger, iconic artists Ritchie and Brand befriended in New York decades earlier. But Ritchie never made the songs sound weighty. The music of the mountains remained her native tongue. She upheld a culture and invited all to share in its beauty.

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