Archive for an appreciation

butch trucks, 1947-2017

butch trucks.

Take all the stereotypical images of the rock ‘n’ roll drummer instilled through the decades – especially the ones that stressed bravado and Spinal Tap-level theatrics over taste, timing and talent – and then flip them. Among the artists you are likely to find on the other side is Butch Trucks.
For 45 years, Trucks occupied one of the two drum chairs in the Allman Brothers Band. From its inception in 1969 to its final dispersal in 2014, he was a deceptively quiet partner in a tight knit pack of mavericks that meshed Southern blues, rock, swing, country and jazz into a sound that spawned successive generations of imitators. The headlines always went to the figurehead players – namely, singer Gregg Allman or the succession of remarkable guitarists passing through the ranks that included founder Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes and the drummer’s heralded nephew, Derek Trucks. Aside from brother Gregg, the elder Trucks was the only player to serve in every incarnation of the band.
But listen to the Allmans’ studio or numerous live recordings and what you heard was a remarkable contrast to the machismo beats and grooves that dominated mainstream rock then and now. Trucks’ playing, like that of longtime Allmans co-hort Jaimoe, fell into an easier stride. It seemed more jazz-rooted than anything, pinpointing a shuffle or bit of swing and then leading it more by instinct than technique.
Wonderful cases in point: the light but relentless percussive groove that glides along with “Dreams” on the Allmans’ self-titled 1969 debut album, the subtle acceleration that pumps into action during 1972’s “Les Brer in A Minor” and the seemingly docile rhythm that whips itself into a slide-savvy frenzy during the crescendo of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” (especially the 1973 live version, a decidedly jazzy revision with Chuck Leavell on keyboards).
Sure, Trucks got plenty of room to solo during the increasingly long jams that became prevalent throughout the band’s later years. But like all truly great drummers, regardless of genre or generation, he was at his best when others were at the helm. A star he wasn’t. Trucks was instead the engine driver, an unassuming but assertive percussive force within a legendary band and sound.

greg lake, 1947-2016

keith emerson (left) and greg lake, circa 1977. photo by neal preston.

keith emerson (left) and greg lake, circa 1977. photo by neal preston.

In the very early ‘70s, my key to the musical world around me was a pint sized transistor radio. From a technical standpoint, the sound it produced was, not surprisingly, tiny and tinny. But the sounds it brought to me, from the pop mainstream to the rock underground, were beyond nourishing. The discoveries I made, from local rogue stations playing album tracks in lieu of hit singles to late night reception of out of town stations like WCFL in Chicago, were many.

I remember one occasion well that involved the latter. It was early 1971 and WCFL was flowing in and out through waves of static during a thunderstorm. But it settled long enough for me to lock onto a voice singing a forlorn chorus followed by the low moan of an electric instrument I had never heard. The combination was dark but immediately arresting.

“Ooh, what a lucky man he was,” the song went. That was the chorus fading in from “Lucky Man” and my introduction to the singing of Greg Lake. The instrumental coda came from what I later found out was a Moog synthesizer, an altogether unknown beast at the time. That was my introduction to the music of Keith Emerson.

The first five albums Emerson and Lake recorded as trio with drummer Carl Palmer were a collective soundtrack for my adolescence. Their sound was unapologetically huge – arty and classical at times, but mostly just massive in way that was purely rock ‘n’ roll, only with keyboards subbing for guitars and the robustly clear singing of Lake, who died yesterday at the age of 69, as its prime point of commercial appeal.

ELP was a band that was either revered or reviled. There was no middle ground. Those that championed it were fiercely loyal to its representation of a prog sound that had somehow managed to gain commercial acceptance. Those that hated it seriously hated it – so much so that bands like ELP sat at the center everything the punk revolution sought to destroy when prog’s moment in the sun faded in the late ‘70s.

I didn’t discover Lake’s epic pre-ELP prog work – specifically, the 1969 debut album by King Crimson (“In the Court of the Crimson King”) until a few years after that faint reception of “Lucky Man” popped through on WCFL. In retrospect, the Crimson record is easily a stronger and more enduring work. But those early ELP albums were essentially companions of my youth, especially 1971’s “Emerson, Lake & Palmer,” 1972’s “Trilogy” and 1973’s “Brain Salad Surgery.” So, yes, nostalgia rules.

Laugh all you want, but the ELP records turned me on to Aaron Copland, to the structure of the bolero and to early advancements in electronic keyboards and percussion. Unfashionable? Of course. But part of one’s admiration of any art comes from knowing when something speaks to you even when critical evidence and popular acclaim suggest you’re in the wrong gallery.

Emerson died in March. Now Lake is gone, too. It’s a sad time of year to lose anything, especially a sound that befriended you in your teens and stay true during the stumbles of the “awkward years.” But to have had Lake and ELP in my corner then – and now, for that matter – creates a comfort that far outweighs loss.

To that end, I’m appreciative of what a lucky man I was.

sharon jones, 1956-2016

sharon jones.

sharon jones.

By contemporary music standards – meaning criteria that stressed image and appearance over artistic instinct and integrity – Sharon Jones was a success story that should have never happened. She possessed not the camera ready looks that sold most careers, nor did she cater to the commercial whims of artists that turned the soul music traditions she took to so naturally into shameless, retro-directed stabs at stardom. As the breakout artist of the heralded indie soul-roots label Daptone, Jones was never a revivalist, either. She simply embraced the emotive core of predominantly new songs and let her potent yet very elemental voice roar. Sure, her brass-savvy band, The Dap Kings, dressed her vocals with the kind of organic orchestration that helped define soul and R&B music during the ‘50s and ‘60s. But this particular pairing of singer and band never remotely sounded like a purposely retro driven enterprise. In terms of spirit and stamina, Jones and the Dap Kings created a soul sound that was never less than immediate and vital.

Jones died yesterday at age 60 after an extended battle with pancreatic cancer.

Jones’ Daptone records – especially, 2007’s “100 Days, 100 Nights,” 2010’s “I Learned the Hard Way” and 2011’s far more aggressive and funky “Soul Time!” were splendid documents of a vintage-flavored soul sound retooled with vitality for the present day. But it was onstage, where the full powers of Jones and the Dap Kings came into play.

I was lucky enough to see them in performance twice. The first, a 2008 concert in Louisville was surprisingly tentative. Jones sang great, but the show’s numerous quirks, including a faulty monitor mix, seemed to get the better of her to the point where she briefly left the stage. All in all, an accomplished evening that fell short of expectations.

The second was at the now defunct Buster’s in 2010 and the difference was astounding. The voice, the band, the audience and, most of all, the spirits, were all in peak form. The latter attribute sold the show. Having been introduced onstage as “the most brilliant star in the Daptone soul universe,” Jones gave a quick demonstration of the dance moves she grew up with – the Pony, the Funky Chicken, the Mashed Potato and the Swim – with the Dap Tones’ three man horn team at her side. Later, she triggered the volcanic vocal intensity of “When I Come Home” but chilled the festivities for the regal soul cool that sat at the heart of the title tune from “I Learned the Hard Way.” At every step, the singer looked to be having the time of her life. The singing was astounding, the music was arresting, but it was attitude that ignited this joyous, cross-generational soul celebration.

“Soul music ain’t something you can count off every few measures as you go,” Jones told me in an interview prior to the performance. “Oh no. You’ve got to feel it. It all comes from the heart. And that’s what you hear when we’re onstage – that presence, that happiness, that spirit. You’re feeling what we’re feeling.”


mose allison, 1927-2016

mose allison.

mose allison.

A third giant has left us in just under a week. First, Leonard Cohen departed. Then went Leon Russell. This afternoon came word that Mose Allison has died, four days after his 89th birthday.

Allison’s visibility to the pop mainstream was modest compared to the legacies of Cohen and Russell. That’s largely because he wasn’t a pop artist, but rather a jazz and blues pianist who sang like an unassuming hipster elder, squeezing wry social commentary and pure acerbic whimsy into songs far too clever to be considered sarcastic but too worldly to be brushed off some kind of pseudo-pop novelty.

But make no mistake. Rock ‘n’ roll was plenty hip to what Allison was up to over the years. Among his most vocal champions was Van Morrison, who spearheaded an Allison tribute album, “Tell Me Something,” in 1996. Then there was The Who, who turned Allison’s shuck-and-jive meditation “Young Man Blues” into an atomic anthem on its landmark 1970 concert album “Live at Leeds.” A newer generation chimed in when Americana journeyman and noted song stylist Joe Henry served as producer for Allison’s final studio album, 2010’s “The Way of the World.”

But the beauty of Allison’s music sat in its simplicity. He was as basic, at least on the surface, as someone like John Prine was (and still is) to singer-songwriter based folk music. Like Prine, there was a tremendous narrative depth to Allison’s songs. But since the latter’s whispery, conversational singing was so summery, the potency of his music could often be disarming. There was an unforgiving nature to his lyrics, though, with song titles regularly serving as set ups for savage punch lines.

A few examples:

+ “Everybody’s Crying Mercy” (… “when they don’t know the meaning of the word.”)

+ “Your Mind is on Vacation” (… “and your mouth is working overtime.”)

+ “Ever Since the World Ended” (… “I don’t get out much anymore.”)

Allison would regularly mix jazz and blues standards in with his own songs during concerts – gems both familiar (the Willie Dixon staples “Seventh Son” and “I Live the Life I Love”) and comparatively obscure (the 1947 Nat King Cole hit “Meet Me at No Special Place”). It all became part of the Mose lexicon – a light, bluesy and imminently soulful sound that was immovably cool.

Allison played Lexington regularly during the ‘80s – at the now-demolished Breeding’s on Main and at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall. Though nearing 60 at the time, his style was essentially unchanged since his first albums on the Prestige label were issued in the late ‘50s. When in town, Allison usually played with pickup bands of local musicians that quickly fell in sync with the swift, blues-savvy swing of his songs.

On record, there was a tendency, at times, for producers to gussy Allison’s music up with additional instrumentation, especially on his late ’60s and early ‘70s albums for Atlantic. His most recommended and enduring work was displayed on records built around unobtrusive piano trios. As such, the two volumes of “The Mose Chronicles: Live in London” (released in 2001 and 2002) are ideal for novice fans. But are trio sets and serve essentially as primers on Allison’s sardonic and soulful songs, all of which are sung with a casual performance ease that nonetheless packed a substantial emotive wallop.

In the end, Allison was perhaps the best judge of his own artistic dichotomy. In one of his most clever late career compositions, 1987’s “What’s Your Movie,” he seeks a means of defining a hapless profile. Maybe his motives were likely rooted elsewhere, but I’m guessing this enduring musical original was singing, with cool and elegance to spare, about himself.

“What’s your movie? Are you the artist who’s misunderstood? The bad guy trying to do good? The nicest damn fella in the neighborhood?”


leon russell, 1942-2016

leon russell.

leon russell.

We’ve lost another one. In a year that has seen the exit of far too many artistic elders (and a few younger ones, too), we now must add the name of Leon Russell, the piano-pounding Okie who was a living rock ‘n’ roll contradiction.
In performance, especially during his early ‘70s heyday, Russell was a Midwestern variation of Jerry Lee Lewis, blending blues and barrelhouse piano with a distinctive vocal howl that was as primal as it was celebratory. But the songs he will forever be best known for – “A Song for You” and “This Masquerade” – were ballads covered by scores of stylistic disparate artists. Likewise, the fearless, festive abandon of his early performance years was balanced by a scholarly music reputation, one forged by extensive studio session work behind artists as far ranging as The Monkees and Frank Sinatra.
I first became enamored of Russell’s music not through his own recordings or even his own songs. One of my first album purchases as pre-teen was Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishman,” a chronicle of a traveling rock and soul circus that, even with top-billing going to Cocker, was built around Russell’s direction and, more overtly, the joyous drive of his piano work. Listening to it again this morning, it was remarkable how fresh and vital the recording still sounds.
Russell’s first six studio albums, released yearly between 1970 and 1975 are classics. The first three, “Leon Russell” (1970), “Leon Russell and the Shelter People” (1971) and “Carny” (1972) should be considered essential listening. But the country covers collection “Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. 1” (1973), the Mose Allison-inclined swing set “Stop All That Jazz” (1974) and the gloriously produced and engineered “Will o’ the Wisp” (1975) were royal sleepers that challenged audience perceptions of Russell by stretching his stylistic reach. He paid a price for the latter three records, though. By altering his musical course, Russell interrupted the commercial momentum of a career that never fully recovered.
Russell slipped into touring purgatory not long after that. It seemed like he was forever on the road, a fact reflected in his often perfunctory concerts. Every so often you would catch him on a good night, though. A 2012 concert here at Buster’s, done in the midst of a career renaissance triggered by the hit 2010 collaborative album “The Union” with Elton John was one of his stronger local outings.
But to experience Russell in his primal prime, search out his near show-stealing performance in George Harrison’s “The Concert for Bangla Desh.” Better yet, give a spin to the Okie soul that runs rampant through Russell’s early records – specifically songs like “Prince of Peace,” “Delta Lady” or “Crystal Closet Queen.” They contain a rock ‘n’ roll presence as jubilant as it was distinctive. No one, not even Russell himself in his later years, has been able to summon such a spirit since.

leonard cohen, 1934-2016

leonard cohen.

leonard cohen.

My favorite parting shot of Leonard Cohen comes from, as far as I can tell, his only Kentucky concert – a 3 ½ hour poetic manifesto of sublime elegance performed at the Louisville Palace on the eve of Easter in 2013.

Instead of casually walking offstage before intermission or encores, he skipped. At 78, he skipped like a kid at a carnival, seemingly enraptured by the sounds and sights around him.

That image sticks with me this morning, the day after his passing at age 82. As a poet and pop stylist, his loss is incalculable. It is hard to imagine folk and pop music, especially work attributed to singer-songwriters of multiple generations, having its sense of narrative insight without artists like Cohen. Sure, he can be more properly viewed as a poet with his songs serving essentially as half-spoken recitations of spiritual reflection, unwavering romance and thinly veiled social discontent. While his stories usually didn’t end well, they seldom succumbed to despair. Even his darkest meditations like “The Future” (“I’ve seen the future, brother… it is murder”) were fueled by a proud, subdued defiance. But when his heart openly yearned, as it did on such early classics as “Bird on a Wire,” Cohen and his songs took flight. Maybe that’s why he skipped offstage with childlike animation in Louisville. Maybe he was trying to see if he had wings – or, at least, if they still worked.

I bought my first Cohen album in 1974. It was called “New Skin for the Old Ceremony.” Critics, for the most part, hated the record because it departed from the coarser folk sway of the initial Columbia releases that had already defined his career. I was especially taken with a song called “Field Commander Cohen,” a darkly orchestrated work filled with great love/war metaphors and a protagonist described as “some grateful, faithful woman’s favorite singing millionaire; the patron saint of envy and the grocer of despair.” Short of Bob Dylan, who could come up with a character profile like that?

Any summation of Cohen’s career, however, has to pay heavy respect to the last decade of his life. After returning to the stage following a 15 year absence that included time spent living in a California monastery as a Buddhist monk, Cohen dived into a period of extensive recording and touring that yielded three wonderful studio albums (the most recent of which, “You Want It Darker,” was released as recently as last month) and four live recordings. They presented Cohen as a fedora wearing sage, an artist that recited his songs in a deep, inviting whisper alongside contained orchestration that was almost noir-like in its mix of cool and contemplation.

There is a bit of the gentlemen monk within these remarkable victory lap recordings. The same held true for the Louisville concert, when Cohen sheepishly apologized for the fact his band didn’t include the then-hospitalized bassist/bandleader Roscoe Beck that evening.

“I hope you won’t feel any disgrace to the enterprise,” he remarked.

Quite the contrary. Thank you for your years of service, Field Commander Cohen. We salute you.

stanley dural jr. (buckwheat zydeco), 1947-2016

stanley dural jr., a.k.a. buckwheat zydeco

stanley dural jr., a.k.a. buckwheat zydeco

Stanley Dural Jr. was a joyous giant of a musician. More than any artist of his generation, he introduced and furthered the Cajun/R&B music known as zydeco. It became so synonymous with him that audiences came to know Dural mostly by his professional non-de-plume – Buckwheat Zydeco.

Of course, serious Cajun music followers will forever credit the great Clifton Chenier as the forefather of zydeco, and they would be correct. But it was Dural, a longtime Chenier protégé and bandmate, that essentially inherited the elder’s accordion-led legacy and pushed zydeco into the mainstream. With Chenier, zydeco was more roots-directed, meshing Creole sounds with the blues. Dural had a bigger party in mind. From the dawn of the 1980s onward, he invited rock and soul into the songs he fashioned and put it all on display with an immensely infectious and endearing performance style.

Critics sometimes scoffed at how crossover his music became, especially on his late ‘80s crossover albums for the Island label. But Dural never let his Lafayette, Louisiana roots leave him even as his fascination for more broad based music grew. The title tune to his finest and most recommended Island album, 1987’s “On a Night Like This,” may have sounded like a Creole jamboree, but it was really a zydeco recasting of an underappreciated Bob Dylan tune from the early ‘70s.

Reflecting just how vast his musical reach had become was a growing list rock ‘n’ roll notables that lined up to work him. Dural’s A list collaborators included U2, Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Robert Plant and Paul Simon.

Luckily, Lexington got in on the fun, too. Though absent from local venues for much of the past decade, Dural and his Ils Sont Partis Band played long-since-demised downtown clubs like the Bottom Line and Breeding’s throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, flashing a smile as big and bright as the cosmos and making the rooms bounce with that white accordion adorned with the word most post-Chenier audiences would most come to associate with zydeco music: Buckwheat.

toots thielemans, 1922-2016

toots thielemans.

toots thielemans.

I heard the playing of Toots Thielemans, who died yesterday at age 94, before I ever knew who he was or understood the importance and extent of his musical history. I was about 11 and remember being transfixed whenever the theme to the then-popular film “Midnight Cowboy” came on the radio. It boasted a slow, elegant melody performed on, of all things, harmonica. It was one of the loneliest sounds I had ever experienced. But there was also a lightness and warmth to it that countered the desolate feel with comfort.

That was the sound of the Belgian musician born Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Thielemans but who was forever known simply as Toots.

It took a few years to understand Thielemans’ astonishing career, playing alongside the likes of jazz titans such as Charlie Parker, George Shearing and especially Benny Goodman. But Thielemans never stood on accolades. His playing also graced comparatively contemporary recordings by pop stylists (Paul Simon, Billy Joel) as well a newer jazz voyagers (Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Joe Lovano) that introduced him to successive generations of fans. But his playing was a constant. While he never again sounded as lonesome as he did on “Midnight Cowboy,” Thielemans’ musicianship always possessed a lyrical sweetness that was unwavering.

A versed guitarist and whistler (as witnessed by his signature song “Bluesette”), Thielemans also had a performance affinity for pianists. Two of his recordings that especially resonated with me paired him with two cross-generational piano voices – Bill Evans (on 1979’s “Affinity,” one of Evans’ final studio recordings before his death the following year) and Fred Hersch (on the underappreciated 1989 concert album “Do Not Leave Me”).

I got to see Thielemans play just once, at a University of Louisville concert in 2010 backed by another great pianist, Kenny Werner. Thielemans was a spry 88 at the time. The program ranged from Brazilian music (Luiz Eca’s “The Dolphin”) to a medley of Frank Sinatra hits. But the harmonica tone was as exotic as it was steadfast, transporting the instrument from more expected folk and blues domains to a very different musical paradise. In the hands of Thielemans, the harmonica was a voice of and for the world.

bobby hutcherson, 1941-2016

bobby hutcherson.

bobby hutcherson.

No instrument defines swing and bop’s sense of pervading cool better than the vibraphone. It is the ice cube in the proverbial jazz cocktail, a touch of chill that differs from all other percussive sounds. As a melodic device, it exudes clarity and elegance. To that end, no one played the vibes with more persuasive invention than Bobby Hutcherson. The great instrumentalist and composer died Monday at age 75.
There were giants before him, like Red Norvo, Kentucky’s own Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson. There others than came in his wake, like Gary Burton and a legion of new generation stylists that include Stefon Harris. But Hutcherson’s brilliance began in bop with a series of sterling Blue Note albums than spanned a remarkable 12 year period (1963-75), a stretch where artist and label both weathered shifts that steadily urbanized their music.
The early Blue Note records were things of beauty. A personal favorite from that era was 1965’s “Dialogue,” mostly because it showcased Hutcherson’s stylistic restlessness (it was rooted in bop-flavored cool, but would regularly jump off into waltz structures and free-style excursions). A hearty guest list (saxophonist/flutist Sam Rivers, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Andrew Hill) helped, but nothing matched Hutcherson’s gliding beauty when a vibes solo presented itself.
Later albums for the label were hit-and-miss, but early ‘70s collaborations with reed player and flutist Harold Land were standouts recorded just as Blue Note hit the crossroads of jazz and more R&B leaning appeal. The best of those works was 1970’s “San Francisco,” which wonderfully chronicled a stylistic changing of the guard. With a young Joe Sample on piano and electric keyboards, the record embraced groove but kept Hutcherson’s mix of boppish fancy and improvisational prowess in the driver’s seat.
As is often the case with musical artists whose career and performance stamina continue long enough to outlast trends and entire musical eras, Hutcherson settled on a largely traditional sound for his final records. 2007’s aptly titled “For Sentimental Reasons” boasted a repertoire dominated by standards set to the relaxed interplay of a quartet. But the exchanges between Hutcherson, sounding lighter and more fanciful than ever, and pianist Renee Rosnes sit at recording’s luscious core.
All three records should be considered essential listening for anyone intrigued by, but unfamiliar with, Hutcherson’s music.
“When you become involved with jazz, you’ve already received your reward,” Hutcherson told me in an interview prior to a Louisville concert with the SF Jazz Collective in 2005. “The thrill comes from being inside this world of music, of being tossed around inside the moment.”

bernie worrell, 1944-2016

bernie worrell.

bernie worrell.

Listening to Bernie Worrell play keyboards was like taking a trip into outer space. Sure, he spent the better of a career perfecting, dissecting and retooling all manners of groove. But at his best, Worrell took flight. The sounds he created left earthbound rhythm behind and went bouncing around the cosmos, unfurling in waves and textures that were distinctly his own.

Take the way his synthesizer work on the Talking Heads classic Burning Down the House blasted through the melody like a theremin at the song’s conclusion or examine his early ‘70s work with Funkadelic, George Clinton’s evil twin counterpart band to Parliament that threw funk into a psychedelic blender. Better still, give a listen to the scores of other projects he has been a part of, from world beat sessions with Fela Kuti to collaborations with former Lexington groove troupe Catawampus Universe. Worrell was always the player that knocked a groove or a melody on its ear with a progressive charge that was orchestral in its expansiveness, elemental in its sense of soul and unendingly playful in its sentiment.

Best of all, Worrell’s appeal was remarkably diverse. As one of the chief musical architects in Clinton’s Parliament ranks, he helped refine funk music for R&B crowds. Witness the still exquisite party anthem Flash Light for proof. But for artsy, post new wave audiences, there was his work with Talking Heads – specifically, the headier groove experiments on 1983’s Speaking in Tongues and the landmark concert film Stop Making Sense made from the record’s subsequent tour. Worrell played Lexington with both bands in 1977 and 1983, respectively.

But his best local viewing came through a series of club shows in the late ‘90s at the long-defunct Lynagh’s Music Club with his Woo Warriors band. Worrell may not have been in prizefighting form at those performances as he so clearly was in Stop Making Sense. But the club appearances, executed as career overviews of sorts, were ripe with animation and invention that presented Worrell without the Clinton sideshow of his Parliament-Funkadelic years.

Lexington also provided a famed non-appearance for the keyboardist. Having been recruited by Chrissie Hynde for the Pretenders’ underrated 1986 comeback album Get Close, Worrell and bassist T.M. Stevens were sacked from the band just prior to its January 1987 performance at Memorial Coliseum with Iggy Pop. Hynde even held court for two days of rehearsals at the venue to work in replacements.

All of these adventures added up to an unrelenting original voice – so much so that when news broke of Worrell’s death yesterday at age 72, the tune I reached for first was the live version of Crosseyed and Painless that served as the finale to Stop Making Sense. It began with sunshine and psychedelia then jumped lines into the most feverish funk Talking Heads ever recorded. Worrell isn’t even that present as a soloist on the performance. But listen to the groove and all the profound color surrounding it. That’s where you heard him – in the engine room making the music soar like a rocketship.

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