The Musical Box Walter Tunis on music Thu, 24 Jul 2014 16:17:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 in performance: dave alvin, phil alvin and the guilty ones Thu, 24 Jul 2014 06:09:30 +0000 dave-and-phil-alvin

dave alvin and phil alvin.

“I know you’ve been covering your ears all night,” said Dave Alvin to a patron seated next to a sizeable speaker last night at the Southgate House Revival in Newport. “But I should really warn you that things are about to get ugly.”

Up to that point, the performance the Grammy winning songwriter and guitarist was showcasing with elder sibling Phil Alvin was something of a roots rock jamboree. The initial repertoire dealt with the more acoustic driven works from their fine new Big Bill Broonzy tribute album Common Ground (All By Myself, Key to the Highway and especially the ragtime flavored instrumental Saturday Night Rub) as well as lighter fare from the brothers ‘70s and early ‘80s tenure in The Blasters (Jimmie Rodgers’ Never No More Blues) and brother Dave’s solo catalogue (the still regal King of California, which was dedicated to the Alvins’ mother). And, frankly, one could have walked home from that expansive segment and considered the evening a win.

But the “nasty” aspect had Dave switching to electric guitar and piloting the vastly rockier aspects of this highly roots conscious outing.

For the Broonzy songs, that meant riding the crest of lean, wily grooves that unfolded during Southern Flood Blues and pumping up the rockabilly sass of Truckin’ Little Woman. For the Blasters tunes, that meant serving up a big, chunky slice of roots rock fun during Border Radio and igniting the gospel-esque stride in their 1981 version of Samson and Delilah. And to prove the great Broonzy wasn’t the only inspiration at work, brother Phil delivered the ‘50s-era James Brown hit Please Please Please with the kind of combustible vocal vigor that stood in contrast to the ultra-reserved stage presence he maintained throughout the 2 ¼ hour performance.

The show wasn’t some makeshift Blasters reunion, either. In that band, the boundaries were clearly set (Phil sang, Dave wrote and played guitar). Last night, the brothers were equal partners. And while Phil’s ageless rockabilly tenor was obviously the more buoyant vocal utensil, Dave’sfolk-directed singing (especially during the anthemic Dry River and Fourth of July) nicely balanced a roots-hearty rock ‘n’ roll show fueled by extraordinary musical instinct and undeniable brotherly love.

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critic’s pick 332: keith jarrett/charlie haden, ‘last dance’ Tue, 22 Jul 2014 14:38:36 +0000 last danceLast Dance is many intended things album of understated but extraordinary beauty, a subtle and soulful conversation by two jazz titans – Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden – whose friendship extends back nearly a half century and a loving representation of a jazz standard’s seemingly limitless interpretative possibilities.

It is also something fully unexpected. Released on June 17, the album stands as the final recording prominently featuring the great bassist Haden to be released in his lifetime. He died on July 11 at age 76 of complications from post-polio syndrome.

How noble it would be to view this delicate, spirited music without factoring in Haden’s passing. Maybe you can do that. I couldn’t.

The hushed finesse of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s My Ship, for instance, takes on an unavoidably bittersweet quality. That doesn’t detract from the beauty of one of Jarrett’s most delicately graceful recorded performances or the way Haden follows him like a shadow until his own playing on the double bass – a sound that absolutely sings – is allowed to solo.

The same feeling emerges when Jarrett glides serenely into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s It Might As Well Be Spring, where Haden’s feathery bass punctuation serves as a dance partner as much as a duet voice.

Last Dance was recorded during the same round of 2007 sessions that gave us another Jarrett/Haden duets album, Jasmine, in 2011. So finality wasn’t on either player’s mind when this music was recorded. What surfaces instead is a reflection of the musical camaraderie that began in the ‘60s and hit its first pinnacle with several ‘70s collaborations for the European ECM label (which also issued Last Dance). The communication between the two players on the new album is so heightened and exact you can almost picture them playing this music in your living room.

Jarrett, of course, is an old hand with this stuff. Aside from his famed solo piano concerts centered exclusively on improvisation, he has led a resourceful trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette for over 25 years devoted largely to new explorations of jazz standards. But listen to the solo bass blues-speak Haden creates here on Everything Happens to Me and you discover his ability to unlock the lyrical bounty of a standard is equally authoritative.

Then, of course, we have the coincidental application of the titles. Could anyone have imagined Haden’s final album would bear the name Last Dance? Or that its closing tune, would be a pastoral interpretation of Gordon Jenkins’ Goodbye? Or, for that matter, that the next-to-last song would be an equally lovely version of Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye?

It all makes for the most touching of parting shots – the kind that was never intended to be one.

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of brothers and broonzy Mon, 21 Jul 2014 15:40:01 +0000 dave and phil alvin 2

phil alvin and dave alvin.

Phil Alvin remembers well the first time he heard a Big Bill Broonzy record. He was barely in his teens, growing up in the Southern California town of Downey with an infatuation for music that was fervently matched by younger brother Dave.

Once they hit their ‘20s, the siblings fell into a Los Angeles punk and roots music movement that yielded such vanguard acts as X, Los Lobos, Kentucky’s own Dwight Yoakam (who would eventually score a major hit with a cover of Dave’s Long White Cadillac) and the band that gave a platform to the Alvins’ rock ‘n’ roll passion, both as stage performers and as recording artists – The Blasters.

Before any of that though, there was Big Bill.

“I remember there was a reissue album my mother bought for me in a department store,” said Phil, 61. “The cover was great. There was this real sharp looking guy on it. That was my introduction to Big Bill’s songs. I took it home and played for my brother and we both just loved it.”

The multi-stylistic blues of the Southern-bred Broonzy, who penned and copyrighted over 300 songs before his death in 1958, did more than inspire two brothers in search of their own musical voices. It would, roughly a half century later, serve as the sound that reunited them after a lengthy period of estrangement and solo career activity.

On Common Ground: Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy, the brothers refocused on one their foremost inspirations to cut their first full studio album together since 1985.

“The thing is, Big Bill Broonzy never played in just one style,” said Dave, 58. “If we were doing, say, a Lightning Hopkins tribute we would pretty much have to sound like Lightning Hopkins all the way through. But Big Bill could play in ragtime. He would play country blues. He did everything.”

But when asked the chicken-or-the-egg question about which came first, the idea of recording a Broonzy tribute or reuniting with his brother, Dave didn’t hesitate.

“It was the chance of doing something together.”

Perhaps that’s because another circumstance intervened to bring Common Ground to fruition. While on tour in Europe with the present day Blasters (which Dave has largely steered away from over the years, save for a tour in 2003), Phil was hospitalized for an infection caused by an abscessed tooth. The condition caused his heart and vital signs to momentarily stop.

“Everything has changed since then,” Phil said. “You put more value in music. You put more value in everything. It’s hard not to when your mortality flashes before you like that. I wish it was something I could get away from, but I can’t. But I’m out here and staying healthy”

Dave was solemn and succinct in describing the reunion. “It’s just great to be out playing with my brother.”

During their years apart, Dave released a succession of roots-driven solo recordings (1998’s Blackjack David being among the finest) and forged a devout Lexington following though a series of late ’90s performances at the defunct Lynagh’s Music Club with his band, The Guilty Men. The group, now dubbed The Guilty Ones, will back the brothers during a Wednesday concert at The Southgate House Revival in Newport.

The two will resume their separate careers this fall. Phil, in fact, will make his Lexington debut on Labor Day when the Blasters perform at Willie’s Locally Known. But with their professional and personnel bonds now strengthened, neither brother plans on letting too many years slip away before reteaming again.
“I’m not that stupid anymore,” Dave said.

Added Phil: “That’s funny. I think I’m getting more stupid.”

Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones perform at 8 p.m. July 23 at the Southgate House Revival,111 E. Sixth St. in Newport. Tickets: $25, $35. Call (859) 431-2201 or got to

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in performance: chuck mead and his grassy knoll boys Sun, 20 Jul 2014 05:36:51 +0000 Chuck-Mead

chuck mead.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                “Don’t forget about the big dance floor down here,” said Chuck Mead, motioning to the crawlspace in front of the stage at Willie’s Locally Known last night already occupied by a string of sizeable stage monitors.

A few couples squeezed into other available spaces to two-step (or something close to it) to the self-described “big country show” Mead brought to town. But those content to sit back and soak in the litany of traditional and roots-driven sounds the singer and his trio, the Grassy Knolls Boys, summoned certainly didn’t miss out. As a friend once told me, “You can dance to anything.” And indeed, the expert level of vital, vintage fare Mead was dishing deserved active listening from its audience.

Mead had a new album to promote, a fine Kansas-themed record call Free State Serenade that dominated roughly half of the 75 minute set.

The show-opening combination of Knee Deep in the Wakarusa River and The Devil By Their Side (which also serve as the first two tracks on Free State Serenade) were, to borrow a term from the latter tune, “cornfield shuffles” that centered around the continually spry pedal steel guitar colors of Carco Clave, a lightly toned but swiftly paced rhythm section and a vocal lead from Mead full of country reverence but also a hint of wry humor that helped seal the deal on this music.

Such a game plan further unfolded in the UFO parable Ten Light Years Away. Mead prefaced the tune with a story detailing the flatness of his home state (“There would be about six trees between you and Canada”) before the song outlined the prospect of an actual extraterrestrial landing there (“That ain’t no Chevrolet”).

The rest of the show was equally roots-driven, but drew on a wider range of source material. Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys took highly appealing stabs at tunes popularized by Buck Owens (Hello Trouble), Ray Price (Crazy Arms) and Del Reeves (Girl on the Billboard), as well as several appealing flashbacks to the singer’s tenure in the country roots band BR549. From that bunch, the beer-soaked neo-ballad Lifetime to Prove best reflected the soul, sass and solemnity that drove this Saturday night country revival.

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in performance: mic harrison and the high score Sat, 19 Jul 2014 15:18:14 +0000 MicHarrison-byAnnieClarkRankin

mic harrison. photo by annie clark rankin.

The clock was closing in on midnight at the Green Lantern as the crowd dwindled down to a small handful of patrons. Even the evening’s headliner admitted this was the latest start time he had been given for one of his shows in about four years.

But Mic Harrison and his longrunning Knoxville band The High Score carried on last night as though they were basking in prime time. Their show was fueled by a fine catalogue of elemental original tunes with a high garage rock quotient and a stylistic reach that stretched from honky tonk to surprisingly immediate post-punk jaunts. But Harrison put one in the win column with his stage demeanor alone. Despite the miniscule turnout and the late hour, his performance attitude reflected an unflinching love for his work and music. That made an already vital set sound all the merrier.

The show opening Wiser the Whiskey set the pace and temperament of the hour long set with a front line of three guitarists and a bassist, all of whom doubled as vocalists. While Harrison’s general vocal cheer recalled the mischievous immediacy that highlighted the late’90s records of the Bottle Rockets, some of the heavy lifting was left to guitarist Robbie Trosper. His meaty rhythmic jabs fortified the song’s loose groove and carved room for some serious instrumental shredding.

Elsewhere, the tunes themselves underscored – and then tinkered with – the show’s roadhouse vibe. Hey Driver, for instance, was a vintage-style trucker song with an inviting backbeat supplied by drummer Brad Henderson while Ruin of My Days (from the Harrison and the High Score’s fine 2012 album Still Wanna Fight) was a vastly involved suite that slipped a slice of ensemble psychedelia in between two passages of heavy honky that sounded like Status Quo on a rural country holiday.

The set also reached back for a pair of tunes from Harrison’s ‘90s tenure with the Knoxville power pop troupe The V-Roys (Sooner or Later and No Regrets) and two well chosen covers (Tom Petty’s Listen to her Heart and an exhaustive, show-closing take on Bob Seger’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man).

All in all, an enthusiastic, well balanced and highly intuitive performance sent to us from the other side of the Tennessee border. Too bad so few folks from the homestead showed up for the visit.

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johnny winter, 1944-2014 Thu, 17 Jul 2014 23:49:25 +0000 johnny-winter

johnny winter.

At the height of his powers, which was on just about any record issued under his name between 1968 and 1986, Johnny Winter was one the most potent and unrelenting blues stylists to roar out of Texas.

A wiry figure from Beaumont born with albinism, Winter could not have looked less like a bluesman. But once unleashed in performance, his guitar work and singing became something of a perfect storm. Sure, there were instances where he bowed more directly to the blues (as in his 1968 debut album The Progressive Blues Experiment and 1977’s return-to-the-roots primer Nothin’ But the Blues). But Winter’s appeal was built around a sound that shunted blues tradition through the guitar-dominate sounds of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. His jams were tireless blasts of boogie-driven rock that favored drive and groove over subtlety. Winter’s singing was the same – a tough-knuckled howl that seemed to egg on the intensity of his playing.

But Winter, who died yesterday at the age of 70 while on tour in Switzerland, was also a product of his time. He found his place in an age of psychedelia, a situation cemented by a career defining performance at Woodstock. The freshness of the music he fashioned during that era was captured on the first two entries in a near flawless stream of recordings for Columbia – 1969’s Johnny Winter and 1970’s Second Winter.

There were extraordinary highs, like a late ‘70s alliance with Muddy Waters that resulted in three sublime Winter-produced recordings for the blues master, as well as near fatal lows that included an early ‘70s addiction to heroin. And as with any great artist whose career has prevailed through both extremes, there have bee numerous recording triumphs that have never received their just critical due, including 1974’s Saints and Sinners (his most stylistic diverse rock-dominate set with a deliciously nasty version of the Rolling Stones’ Stray Cat Blues), 1980’s Raising Cain (a primal blues adieu to Columbia), 1985’s Serious Business (arguably the finest of three albums Winter cut for the famed blues label Alligator) and 1991’s Let Me In (a looser, blues dominate session Pointblank/Charisma).

“I remember making records when I was a teenager – maybe 16 or 17 years old,” Winter told me in a January 1992 interview. “I thought at the time, ‘I wonder what these are going to sound like to me when I’m 50 or 60. I had an awareness even then that I was making a record for the future.”

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critic’s pick 331: john hiatt, ‘terms of my surrender’ Tue, 15 Jul 2014 19:44:40 +0000 JohnHiatt-TermsOfMySurrender“I guess we all have dreams floating on feathers,” remarks John Hiatt near the end of Terms of My Surrender in a song of separation titled Come Back Home. It’s a sentiment both passive and deflating, a shadow from the darker side of a songwriting psyche with a front row seat to the human condition. Color that with the low, scorched tone of his singing and the light, rustic tone of the instrumentation and you have a portrait of the 21t century Hiatt at work.

Well, you have one portrait. Hiatt may sound like he belongs to an elder school of hard knocks on Terms of My Surrender. But, as has always been the case with his recordings – especially the remarkable string of nine albums he has issued over the last 15 years – Hiatt wears the comedic mask as much as the tragic one. Two songs earlier, on Here to Stay, brittle guitars sway in bluesy simpatico preaching romantic salvation and familial faith in the face of desolation (“Even your pride is gonna leave you; my love is here to stay”). And in a wily instance of roots-rock diplomacy called Baby’s Gonna Kick, Hiatt takes a whimsical pass at domestic distrust that is revealed when the title’s full intent unfolds in the chorus (“My baby is gonna kick me out someday”).

Such are the peripheral glances of domesticity that Hiatt serves up throughout Terms Of My Surrender. The wiry, rootsy backdrops Hiatt designs with producer/guitarist Doug Lancio nicely compliment all the emotional fence-straddling, too. But even within that context, the album offers a few surprises.

When the troubled skies clear for the baby talk parlor piece Marlene, Hiatt and Lancio create a light, summery sing-a-long. Then during the title tune to Terms of My Surrender, the sound turns to slow jazz while the mood becomes whimsical enough for Hiatt to summon a truly distinctive metaphor for the lovelorn (“my heart is so heavy, like a stack of Bibles”).

Still, the sound and imagery permeating the record suggest the blues. Hiatt began leaning more prevalently in that direction with 2008’s Same Old Man. But on the new album’s most arresting tune, Face of God, Hiatt gets worldly (perhaps even otherworldly) with a brittle acoustic meditation that strives to find the balance between earthy suffering and spiritual release.

Nothin’ I Love is a more earthbound reverie with a dirty, dirty, dirty guitar riff and a sense of playful confession fit for a priest (“I keep-a slink-slack-slidin’ down a slippery slope”).

Ever since Bring the Family redefined his career over 25 years ago, Hiatt has sounded remarkably at home in the well worn skin he calls home. While the stories on Terms of My Surrender aren’t autobiographical, they are told with enough crusty, curmudgeon-ly zeal to make Hiatt the master of all the bliss and wreckage before him.

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‘a hard day’s night’ 50 years on Tue, 15 Jul 2014 02:26:52 +0000 a hard day's night 2

on set, but offscreen: ringo star, john lennon, paul mccartney and george harrison during a break from filming ‘a hard day’s night.’

The mood is set the instant A Hard Day’s Night begins.

From the soundtrack, we hear that single isolated guitar chord – the signal that kicks one of the Beatles’ most familiar and endearing hits into gear.

From the screen, we see Beatlemania in all its 1964 splendor with the boys from Liverpool racing down a backstreet pursued by the screams and cheers of teen hysteria. It’s a staged scene of a very real pop phenomenon. But within this segment there is a moment of priceless spontaneity. Within seven seconds of the opening frame, down goes George Harrison. It’s a moment worthy of Monty Python, not because the guitarist stumbled on the sidewalk but because director Richard Lester – presumably with Harrison’s approval – left the shot in.

a hard days night 2Thus begins the remarkable moment-in-time that is A Hard Day’s Night, which celebrates its 50th anniversary with a fully restored version that will be screened Wednesday as part of the Kentucky Theater’s Summer Classics Movies series.

A Hard Day’s Night isn’t a documentary, but it might as well be. With the Beatles’ global popularity having just spread to America, the film follows the band on a supposed day of promotional activity and improvised mischief. That’s it. There is no real plot and no conflict to speak of other than the brief disappearance of a hapless Ringo Starr before a TV performance and the innocuous sideline exploits of Paul McCartney’s “very clean” grandfather.

The obvious intent at the time was to capitalize on what was already a boundless pop enterprise. But what the film translates into today is a remarkable time capsule of the Beatles at perhaps the most seemingly innocent point of their career. American audiences already saw how the four, especially John Lennon, won over the media during press conferences marking their Stateside TV debut the previous winter. That charm plays into the seemingly unscripted remarks and asides that pepper A Hard Day’s Night. A personal favorite comes offscreen from Lennon as Starr gathers his cash winnings from a card game: “That will never buy you happiness, my son.”

In the end, A Hard Day’s Night revolves around its presentation of the Beatles’ still spectacular music – the railway storage car setting for I Should Have Known Better, the swinging social club backdrop for All My Loving, Lennon’s playful rehearsal serenading of Starr for If I Fell and the gloriously dated outdoor foolery (“Sorry we hurt your field, Mister”) for Can’t Buy Me Love that reminds us this was, indeed, 1964.

For better or worse, A Hard Day’s Night stands as the template for countless teen pop and boy bands over the generations as they created their own commercial profiles. But it’s also more than mere nostalgia. Viewing it today is like looking at any snapshot of youth. Captured by Lester and crew in brilliant black and white, A Hard Day’s Night is a chronicle of promise. Within it, we witness up close the vigorous, playful personalities of four pop soldiers merrily conquering the world.

‘A Hard Day’s Night’ will be shown at 1:30 and 7:15 p.m. July 16 as part of the Summer Classics Movies Series at the Kentucky Theater, 214 East Main. Admission is $6. Call (859) 231-6997 or go to

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in performance: kenny vaughan Sun, 13 Jul 2014 04:27:16 +0000 kenny vaughan

kenny vaughan.

On most Saturday nights, you’re likely to find Kenny Vaughan on the road, ripping through a country roots repertoire as guitarist for Marty Stuart. Last night, though, Vaughan was on his own at Willie’s Locally Known – and we do mean “on his own.”

With his bassist succumbing to stomach flu earlier in the day and his drummer taking another Nashville gig as a result, Vaughan performed as a true solo act. But if anything, that only heightened the stylistic breadth of his playing while giving the crowd an intimate and in depth look at one of Nashville’s premier fretmen at work.

Those expecting the kind of vintage county fare that Vaughan ignites with Stuart were rewarded with the Buck Owens-like groove of Country Music Got a Hold on Me (and a truly fearsome blast of warp speed picking that served as its coda) and the George Jones-like drive of Who’s on the Other Side of That.

But Vaughan’s setlist was hardly content to spend the evening rolling in the country. The 90 minute performance opened with the clean jazz stride of Mose Allison’s Ask Me Nice and concluded with a hearty encore of the Little Walter blues jam It Ain’t Right. The latter was one of three tunes that sported help from Lexington guitar maker Chad Underwood. The rest of the show employed loop-like pedal effects that captured and played back riffs and grooves. That effectively allowed Vaughan to serve as his own rhythm guitarist.

Such a practice has become increasingly popular among solo artists. But Vaughan’s use of such technology was judicious. It wasn’t implemented to create layer upon layer of melodies, as is the want of some guitar stylists. Vaughan used the effects primarily as a lean, rhythmic supplement to solo over during Ghost Riders in the Sky and as a harmonic device within the nocturnal jazz-blues soundscape of Mysterium.

Technology, stylistic daring and pure instrumental prowess combined during the new Vaughan instrumental Blues for Bill (a jazz centerpiece colored by a splash of psychedelia that was named after the guitarist’s one-time teacher, the then-unknown Bill Frisell) and an exquisite acoustic guitar reworking of Bill Monroe’s My Last Days on Earth. Vaughan dedicated the latter to Tommy Ramone, who died a day earlier.

Linking Monroe and The Ramones? No one but Vaughan would have attempted such a feat or made the results sound so honestly and simply poignant.

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thomas erdelyi (tommy ramone), 1952-2014 Sat, 12 Jul 2014 20:07:34 +0000 tommy ramone

thomas erdelyi, aka tommy ramone in 2007.

Now they’re all gone. With the passing yesterday of Thomas Erdelyi – better known to vets of the ‘70s punk revolution as Tommy Ramone – all four original members of The Ramones have left us. Erdelyi, who was 62, was the third to die from a cancer-related illness (the other, bassist Dee Dee Ramone, died of a drug overdose in 2002).

Erdelyi’s involvement with the famed New York rockers has largely been unheralded. As drummer, he was the least inconspicuous and the most businesslike. He was the first player to leave and the first to return.

ramones 1976

the ramones in 1976: johnny, tommy, joey and dee dee ramone.

Initially the band’s manager, Erdelyi took over the role of drummer because, in an oft-quoted remark attributed to Dee Dee, “no one else wanted to.” He also wrote one of the Ramones’ cornerstone hits, I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, and contributed greatly to the composition of several others. All were ultra-economical, ultra-basic garage rock gems with a deceptively high quotient of pop. He stayed with the band for its first four years and its first four albums – Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia and It’s Alive. He returned to produce the underrated 1984 album Too Tough to Die.

The Ramones have been rightly revered as a vanguard band of the punk movement. But of all the flagship acts of the era, it was hands down the most fun. The Ramones were seldom political, completely un-fashion conscious and, once you got past their street thug looks, refreshingly non-threatening. Their battle cry was never revolution, per se. It was a simple pronouncement of youthful vigor: “Hey, ho. Let’s go.”

One shouldn’t spend too much energy pinpointing Erdelyi’s role in the Ramones’ early music. This wasn’t a unit where fans devoted time to deciphering lyrics and dissecting riffs and solos One must approach any Ramones roster, especially its founding lineup, as a whole that shot out tunes with remarkable briskness, drive and authority. Their songs were always a treat while they lasted. They just never lasted long. That was the point.

In his final performance years, Erdelyi formed the string music duo Uncle Monk and re-embraced a love of folk and pre-bluegrass country that predated his work with the Ramones. But wherever he played, including an April 2007 WoodSongs date, the shadow of Tommy Ramone sat right beside him.

“There is a kind of cognitive dissonance that goes on with people like us,” Erdelyi told me in an interview prior to the WoodSongs appearance. “Ramones fans can’t imagine me doing acoustic music, not realizing that I’ve been listening to it all my life.”

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