Monthly Archives: July 2013

Reviewing the Neil Young Autobiography

Neil Young bookWaging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream. Neil Young. 2012. Blue Rider Press. 497 pages.

Aging rock musicians and songwriters are writing again, but this time it is beautiful long biographies.  More entertainment, different format! These artists (Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, Carole King, et.al.) could grab our attention writing songs and performing; now we are seeing another side of their multi-talented characters.  Those of us from that era can take notice: retirement is time for pursuit of new talents and abilities, or slighted hobbies.  Rock on into oblivion.

Under review here is a great piece of non-fiction that is lacking for an Index, Table of Contents, and Discography. Some of the chapters have titles; others do not—a deficiency attributable to deadlines? Publishers, please educate me in the “comments” section below. However, showing good form is the inclusion of approximately forty-seven full-page non-glossy black and white pictures of people and bands, houses, cars, lyric notes, album covers, etc. that add to the fun of reading.  All things considered, this book is deserving of high marks.

For assistance in finding passages expanding upon the material and quotes I provide in this article, I am citing page numbers and chapters of the text.  Also, the quotes hopefully give you a feel for the spirit and tone that underlie this book. Young does not acknowledge the help of anyone in writing this book, but writes words of thanks to those in his life that become subject matter here.  For example, Thanks, David Briggs (music producer); Thanks, Larry Johnson (film-making collaborator); and Thanks, Elliot Roberts (manager) are just a few of the expressions of gratitude.

Note the subtitle of this book is “A hippie dream.” The songwriter Neil Young (NY) is a self-proclaimed hippie who likes to speak of dreams. NY is waging a war on the deterioration of sound quality in music products—“making heavy peace” describes that effort. “Waging war” would not suffice and does not fit his makeup. After he heard PureTone (now named Pono, Young’s new music sound delivery system), personal staff member Ben Bourdon “. . . asked me if I was making war on Apple. No, I’m waging heavy peace (p.143).” “I really feel sorry for kids with their MP3s today who can’t hear music the way we did then. What a bummer. I can’t imagine that. It really bothers me (p. 150).” Improving music sound quality delivered by CDs, MP3 players, and internet downloads is a major current project.

A dilemma today for NY is that there are two evils lurking: the first is his inability to write songs and the second is his fear of encroaching dementia. Young’s dad, a writer of books and a daily newspaper columnist, died at age 75 with dementia. A strategy has been to quit drinking and pot smoking to deal with this lurking problem; also, this behavior change is upon doctor advice.  The effect to date has been clear and real thinking for the generation of the 100,000 words that complete this fine book. “I’m not smoking weed anymore. I am a lot more focused now (p. 56).” However, quitting pot is believed to be the cause of the song-writing demise. “Smoking weed opened the door for me, and I miss that part, especially when it comes to songs and music (p.224).” In another place in the book, he declares that upon smoking a joint he writes a song; but, imbibing more than that and he is not productive. Smoking is a catalyst or spark for the creative process.

The abstinence continues—one must respect the muse, which operates in a deliberate fashion. The muse controls the distribution of songwriting and performance talent. It is the spiritual element in the art–determining who composes the great tunes and when. “When” is not now for Neil Young. Young has great respect for the muse, however; one must not push or try to force manifestation of the muse—it will stir the creative abilities in the man when the time is appropriate. Of course, he has produced great songs in the past and is now producing a fine book(s). Writing books is the direction his talents are taking him today.

The bands, the locations, and culinary delights.

The first band was the Squires out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the early sixties. The first long road trip was actually by train—up north to Churchill, Manitoba, “through Indian country.”  The trip was okay, but the venue was rough and the Squires decided they were too young and at the mercy of the locals. The decision was to return to Winnipeg unhurt and pursue the next road trip, this one a longer lasting experience in Fort William, Ontario and a gig at the Flamingo Club. The Squires were playing folk and folk rock on the hootenanny circuit, a region including Fort William, Regina, and Winnipeg.  One band to enter the circuit was the Company, a band with a guitarist and vocalist that sounded to NY like a soul singer.  Neil Young, meet Steve Stills.  They developed a friendship, these two lead guitarists that continued to this day.  But they went separate ways at the time, agreeing to stay in touch, and were to partner later in Los Angeles of course as part of CSNY.

Things got rough in Fort William: “. . . we lived on Spam and Ritz crackers we bought in a little liquor store across the street from the motel (p. 67).” The owner of the club they were playing at allowed the band to stay in a motel he also owned, Dinty’s Motor Inn. The hearse they were using as the band vehicle broke down in Blind River, Ontario. “. . . several days later we were still there and running out of money; we were living on roasted potatoes from the market. We hung out in an old junkyard/dump near the edge of town (p. 67).” The event helped lead to the band breakup–they split and scattered, NY ending up in Toronto.

About this time NY transitioned to electric guitar:  “. . . when the instrumental break came along in the song, ‘Farmer John’, I just went crazy on the guitar solo. I had just started to do that. One night it just happened, and now I was doing it all the time. . . Every note was out of the blue. . . I knew I was doing something that had just come out of me, not something I learned, but something that was me (pp. 278-279).” I credit this moment of catharsis as a manifestation of the muse so often referred to in Young’s writing.

It was the mid-60s in Toronto.  Young looked for work in Yorkville Village, the arts neighborhood. “I got a job at Coles Bookstore on Yonge Street and took a flat nearby at 88 Isabella Street so I could walk to work. I had a hot plate to cook on there; beans mostly (p. 275).” Both the job and the flat were gone before too long. He continued songwriting—the music took precedence over everything. He was writing folk songs; e.g. “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and “Sugar Mountain.”  He slept on the floor of a friend’s place.  For a while he shared floor space with John Kay, who later starred with the band Steppenwolf (see chapter 40).

In a brief sojourn to Detroit, “. . . after one night sleeping in some girl’s basement, to the amazement of her parents, I left one morning in a snowstorm and returned to Toronto. It was cold and I didn’t have any warm clothes. That was a long trip (p. 72).” Things continued badly in Toronto, and Young had to sell his Gretsch guitar and returned to acoustic playing. During a subsequent trip to Detroit, on a recommendation he checked out a group called “The Mynah Birds.” He was hired and got back into rock and roll when the band manager bought him a Rickenbacker electric.  About this time Young began to smoke weed, “I got high and loved it instantly. The music sounded like God (p. 72).” While playing with the Mynah Birds, NY shared a basement apartment with the lead singer Ricky James Matthews. “I became introduced to other drugs. I was trying amphetamines and smoking a little hash.  Looking back, I could have gone a lot deeper. Luckily I didn’t get too far in the stronger drugs (p.73).”

The band got a recording contract with Motown and was joined occasionally in the studio by Smokey Robinson with advice and the Four Tops with backup vocals. “We were on our way to the big time! And then Rick (lead vocalist), who was a U.S. citizen, got busted for evading the draft for the Vietnam War. He was gone, just like that. It was over. Zip (p. 73-74).”

It was time for another move. Young had met Stephen Stills in Toronto and they had agreed to form up some time in the future.  The States offered greater opportunities for a folk rocker.  Without work papers, a site along the border that offered easy entry was sought.  Driving west across Canada with bass player Bruce Palmer and others in a ’53 Pontiac hearse, “we immediately headed for Sault Ste. Marie, the most nondescript border crossing we could find (p. 125).” Upon being questioned at the border as to their purpose for being there, they announced their destination was Vancouver, B. C.; and, the roads across the northern United States were straighter and smoother than Canada roads.  No problem, you’re okay boys come on through.  Actual destination: Los Angeles. For many years Young remained in the U.S. illegally, living without a green card and driving without a California license. He did not visit Canada; returning to the U.S. would again require sneaking across the border. He finally got a green card, but that also involved an illegal act—see chapter 21 for the story.

In LA, Young failed to find his friend Stills; but on a lucky day while cruising he spotted Stephen walking down the street. Richie Furay, who Young had met in a short visit to New York, was hanging out with Stills–warm greetings all around. The band Buffalo Springfield was formed and within six weeks they had a regular gig at the Whiskey a Go Go. “Stephen and Richie sang incredibly well, and because of the diversity of musical roots, the band had a blend of music that was largely unknown at the time. It was kind of folk rock, but kind of country blues with a rock and roll edge. Richie’s great voice and Bruce’s unique Motown bass style brought depth. Dewey’s smiling face behind the drums was both incongruous and appealing. It was Stephen’s soulful vocals and phrasing that set us into another class. Stephen and I would play these intricate parts off of each other all the time that were largely improvised, and people could hear that it was spontaneous. It was exciting, and we were young and very alive. Everything started moving really fast (p. 388).”

The fan base was building. “Riots were happening on the Strip. Hippies against the war, cops against the hippies. Stephen wrote ‘For What It’s Worth’ about the riots. It was a great message song of the times, with his signature vocal phrasing (p. 390).” The group carried on for eighteen months and then broke up. Bruce Palmer got busted for pot and was deported to Canada. He was given a second chance and got busted for “driving down the Pacific Coast Highway on acid without a license. That was really the beginning of the end for the Buffalo (p. 406).”

At this point in the book Young discusses the importance of chemistry for any group. Speaking of his long-time buddy Palmer, “His roots in R&B were so important. He played like Motown, but he had an added flair (p. 391).” They tried other bass players, but an “essential ingredient” was irreplaceable. Band members became frustrated with their rhythm section problems. The band dissolved. “Thank you, Buffalo Springfield. There will never be another. It’s about chemistry. Love and chemistry (p. 393).”

In LA, his first place to live was the Commodore Gardens. “The Springfield was playing the Whiskey a Go Go, and I had some cash. Some girls from the Whiskey were living there. . . I tacked up some matting on the walls that I had bought at Pier 1 Imports. I put a blue light bulb in the fridge. It was an old fridge. I don’t know what I ever put in it. Must have been Cokes and Twinkies. I wasn’t into health food yet, that’s for sure (p. 423).” Later, Young was able to rent a cabin near the top of Laurel Canyon. “It was very simple, with only two rooms, a bedroom and a bathroom, and a little add-on porch where I kept my fridge. Who knows what I put in that fridge? It was certainly not much. I think I had a hot plate, too. I used it for pork and beans . . . probably (p. 150).”

As for Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (CSNY), NY hints that his primary role was to strengthen vocals for the group while on tour. This was not one of Young’s favorite professional periods. He does have kind words for the individual work of each member of the band (see chapter 33). The product of this mix of talent was energy. “But then came the fame, the drugs, the money; houses, cars, and admirers; then the solo albums. The band did not break up; it just stopped. We were all doing our own things. . . We had a golden time, and then we lost our way. Be great or be gone (p. 242).” Young wrote “Ohio” and “Southern Man” during this period. He expresses some regret for authoring the lyrics to the latter song.

In 1968, Young had recorded a solo album, Neil Young. About this time, he began playing casually with The Rockets, a group consisting of musicians that he would later lead as members of the band Crazy Horse (CH). Young now refers to this band as his band, meaning it reflects the ideals of country rock purpose and performance standard so important to him. This group seems to be his musical backstop. They had played together for pleasure in one another’s homes in Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon. An early project was After the Gold Rush, which included the songs “Cinnamon Girl”, “Down by the River”, and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” At the time, Young was actually sick with the flu, “but happy and high”, when he wrote these songs in one sitting in his Topanga living room with the personnel to become Crazy Horse. Young was soon to suffer a personal and professional loss with the death of Danny Whitten, the lead guitarist and vocalist for CH (see chapter 23). This was the first of several episodes involving drug overdose described in this book.

In 1974 in Chicago for the funeral of his girlfriend Carrie Snodgress’ father, he recorded a song at the great blues shop, Chess Recording Studio, with the newly reformed Crazy Horse—Poncho Sampredo had replaced Danny Whitten. “Poncho is Spanish, Billy (Talbot) is Italian, and Ralph (Molina) is Portuguese; three Latins and a Canadian . . . There was something sympathetic about the way we played together. It felt really fluid and hot, yet funky and solid (p. 382).” Crazy Horse went back to LA, but Young went to Nashville and recorded with his Stray Gator buddies, Jack Nitzsche, Kenny Buttrey, Tim Drummond, and Ben Keith. The album entitled Harvest, released in 1972, had included personnel from this latter ensemble.

Following that trip, it was back to LA and Malibu and David Briggs’ (Young’s long-time music producer) home studio for more recording. “We (Crazy Horse) set up a Green Board control room in Briggs’ den. We played in the garage. One day Bob Dylan, who lived nearby, came along and sang a blues tune with us. On a break, Bob and I took a walk around the neighborhood, talking about the similarity in some of the paths we had each taken. It was the first time we had ever really talked. I liked him.” “Those were some of the finest, most alive days of my life . . . making some good music, and starting to get a grip on something: an open future in my personal life and a new future with Crazy Horse after Danny (p. 384).”

NY had migrated to Northern California in 1970. He was writing lots of songs and recording; but, many of these songs were not released, and were stashed away in the archives. He released a solo album and bought property he named the Broken Arrow Ranch; he increased the building footage fourfold and lives there today. Albums have been recorded in his ranch studio; he is currently working on Crazy Horse: The Early Daze. This is a project to apply modern sound technology to the early unreleased tracks of CH that feature Danny Whitten on lead guitar and vocals. “I know that if I can bring them (tracks) all back in their pristine glory with PureTone, it will be a revelation for music lovers today, to actually hear these songs the way they were with the original resonance, creating the feeling that moved a generation’s hearts in the beginning. This is getting closer with every passing day (p. 14).”

I have written here of the early days in the musical career of a person who is arguably one of the greatest songwriter/singers in rock music history. Young is considered a man of professional integrity and deservedly so. Additional subjects discussed in the book include: filmmaking projects, a vintage automobile collection, other collectibles (“I am a material man”), touring band vehicles, live performance standards, women, lincvolt (an electric car he reconditioned from a Lincoln Continental), health issues, the environment, and this:

“I don’t make CDs or iTunes tracks. I make albums. I remember how I hated the shuffle feature on iTunes because it (bleeped) up the running order I spent hours laboring over . . . having the shuffle feature available sucks as far as I am concerned . . . I make albums and I want the songs to go together to create a feeling . . . I don’t want people cherry-picking the albums. . . After all, it’s my shit (p. 409-410).” So, my readers and listeners, retain the artistic essence of a musical project by not playing individual tracks out-of-order; and, you may refer to any recorded musical project as an “album,” preferred over “CD” if you choose.

Peter Furlong, PhD, volunteers at the public radio station KUVO 89.3FM in Denver, CO, USA

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Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell at Denver Botanic Gardens, Chatfield Unit July 20, 2013 by Geoffrey Anderson

            All my life I’ve wanted to play a concert in Littleton, Colorado. Tonight, I feel like I’m one step closer to my goal.

            Steve Martin first hit the national scene in 1977 when he released his first album Let’s Get Small. The album started off with him playing the banjo. After a few seconds of snappy banjo licks, Martin said, “Hey, this guy’s gooood.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=htTLWC1unMc That simple beginning revealed two Martinesque aspects that define him to this day. The first, and most obvious, is his banjo playing, something he has been doing much more of in the last few years. The second is a style of humor based on how great he is. (What’s the opposite of self-deprecating humor? Self-aggrandizing humor?) Both of these characteristics were well represented Saturday night at the Denver Botanic Gardens, Chatfield Unit.

            Some nights I play the banjo fantastic. Sometimes I play good, it could be better. I went to see Eric Clapton in concert a few weeks ago. I didn’t think he was so funny.

                About the same time as his first album, Martin really became a wild and crazy guy and started hosting Saturday Night Live. A movie career followed kicked off by the erudite The Jerk. During that time, the banjo seemed to play second fiddle. Now the banjo is back.

            We’re enjoying the excellent weather, the beautiful sky and playing for your cellphones.

            Over the last few years Martin has been recording and touring with the Steep Canyon Rangers, a straight ahead bluegrass band from North Carolina. The five piece band does everything a bluegrass band is supposed to do: instrumental prowess, if not virtuosity, on the main bluegrass instruments, guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass (all acoustic) and tight three and four part vocal harmonies essential for creating that high, lonesome sound which is indispensable to true bluegrass.

            I’m doing two of my favorite things right now, comedy and charging people to hear music.

            For the most part, Martin played his banjo and told jokes. He provided some “response” vocals on the hilarious “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” a Martin original. See link, below. Another comedy song was “Jubilation Day” which was actually a break up song. The majority of the tunes, however, were fairly serious bluegrass fare. Most of the songs in the program were originals written by the Rangers, Martin or Edie Brickell. The originals were in traditional bluegrass style and would fit right in next to standards like “Rocky Top” or “Wabash Cannonball,” had the band chosen to play tunes like that.

            Coming back on stage after the Rangers played a tune without him: I got to do something just now most of you didn’t, I went to the bathroom. In the bathroom was a sign that said, “Employees must wash hands.” That couldn’t be referring to me! Me?!? An Employee?

            Coming back on stage later for the encore: There’s quite a commotion backstage. The police are there. It turns out I am an employee and they were insisting I wash my hands. They had soap and towels….

            Edie Brickell seemed to be a fairly unlikely candidate to be part of a tour like this. Best known for the hit “What I Am” from her first album in 1988 and married to Paul Simon, she didn’t exactly seem to ooze bluegrass. Her comedy resume also seemed somewhat lacking. (Wait, that’s Martin’s department. Never mind.) But earlier this year she released an album with Martin called Love Has Come for You which gets down to the earthy bluegrass sound with the Rangers backing. Martin wrote the music for the album and Brickell wrote the lyrics. Several songs from this album were on the evening’s set list.

            You could follow us on Twitter. Or you could do something meaningful with your life.

            Brickell was on stage for about half the show. Her presence added some vocal diversification to the evening. The Rangers can sing, no doubt, but the female vocals in the harmonies were a pleasant addition.

            I don’t think of the Rangers as my backup band. I think of me as their celebrity.

            Comedy and bluegrass; two types of entertainment that usually don’t go together, but Steve Martin can do both and he pulled it off.

Atheists Don’t Have No Songs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wogta8alHiU

 

Set List

Katie Mae
Instrumental
Daddy Played the Banjo
The Crow
Get Along Stray Dog (with Brickell)
When You Get to Ashville (with Brickell)
Yes She Did (with Brickell)
Love Has Come For You (with Brickell)
Instrumental, Rangers only
Just Got to Heaven (a cappella)
Atheists Don’t Have No Songs
Jubilation Day
The Great Remember (Martin solo)
(Brickell on remainder)
Sun’s Gonna Shine
You Can Stay with Me
Pretty Little One
Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Train
Auden’s Train

Encore

Dance at the Wedding
Remember Me This Way
Pour Me Another Round/So Long Now

The Band

Steve Martin, banjo, vocals, jokes
Charles Humphrey, bass
Graham Sharp, banjo, guitar, vocals
Nicky Sanders, fiddle, vocals
Mike Guggino, mandolin, vocals
Woody Platt, guitar, vocals
Edie Brickell, vocals, guitar
Mike Ashton, percussion

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Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters at Red Rocks, Denver July 10, 2013 by Geoffrey Anderson

           Image Sometimes a man has to get back to his roots. After several years, a couple albums and a couple tours exploring American folk, roots and country music, Robert Plant has returned to the music that first grabbed him as a teenager in the early ‘60s. The blues provided the underpinnings of Led Zeppelin’s early heavy metal sound and Plant has been revisiting his home base on his current tour by revivifying many of Zeppelin’s original mainstays.

 

            The first four Zeppelin albums were the source of most of the evening’s material. The other major inspiration was Plant’s 2005 album Mighty Rearranger which was his last before his extended dalliance with Alison Krauss and, later, Patty Griffin, whom he married. (Did Krauss turn him down? Did he ask? Enquiring minds want to know! Well, maybe not.)

 

            Mighty Rearranger paid homage to blues and R&B greats like Bobby Bland and Ray Charles. It had a dark and menacing sound throughout. Wednesday night’s show recreated that ambience, and no wonder because Plant reassembled nearly the whole Mighty Rearranger band for the current tour. The only changes were David Smith on drums and, notably, the addition of Juldeh Camara from West Africa.

 

            Camara only played on about a third of the songs, but his contribution was unique and immense. He played a couple different African instruments, one resembling a violin and the other similar to a banjo. His playing Africanized the proceedings. However, unlike the results with bees, this Africanization proved to be much more pleasant and satisfying. 

 

            A particular highlight was Plant’s cover of “Spoonful,” a tune usually credited to Willie Dixon from around 1960, but with versions going back to the 1920s by Charley Patton, Papa Charlie Jackson and Luke Jordon. Howlin’ Wolf recorded one of the more well know versions. Plant’s interpretation incorporated the brooding and mysterious sound of Mighty Rearranger and some of the darker Zeppelin sound. This rendition sounded like it could have been arranged by a band of Ring Wraiths. Camara entered the creep-show about half way through with his violin-like instrument and transported the proceedings from Mordor to West Africa. Although his playing changed the flavor, the mood remained the same.

 

            “Black Dog,” a blues rave up from Zeppelin’s Fourth Album, was another that benefited from Camara’s African sensibilities. This version, less bombastic than its original incarnation, nevertheless oozed the blues and continued to express concern over the eternal salvation of big legged women. Camara made an appearance on this tune, this time with an Africanized banjo and again shifted the dimensions of the familiar song to something heretofore unknown and unheard.

 

            Although Plant and company rearranged most of the familiar subject matter, the band played straight-up versions of several songs including the opener “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” from Zeppelin’s debut album which set the stage for the blues-based festivities to come. “Going to California” also received a treatment fairly close to the original version and provided a brief respite from the dark and the blue.

 

            The Sensational Space Shifters closed their main set with an epic version of “Whole Lotta Love.” The classic guitar lick was intact and by the time the band got around to it, the tune sounded a lot like it does on Led Zeppelin II. However, it took a few minutes to get there. Zeppelin was criticized (and rightly so) for ripping off blues tunes and failing to give attribution to the songs’ authors. “Whole Lotta Love” is one of those. The tune is but a minor variation of Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love.’” Certainly, the heavy, distinctive guitar lick played a big role in the song’s popularity, but justice, fair play and good sportsmanship all demanded that Dixon’s name should have been added to those of the four Zeppelin band members who were credited as the composers on the early editions of the album. (Later CD versions have added Dixon as a composer).

 

            In any event, Wednesday night’s version at Red Rocks began with a long introduction that featured Plant singing the original lyrics somewhat in the style of 1950s and ‘60s Chess Records, from whence the song sprang. Interestingly, the vast majority of the audience didn’t catch on until the electric guitar started to do its thing.

 

As veterans of the 1970s well know, the Led Zeppelin II version of the song has a spacy interlude with Plant yelps and other noises shifting back and forth from speaker to speaker. (Scene from a dorm room at CSU circa 1975: several freshman are gathered there listening to this song on a pretty good stereo with, shall we say, a little volume, and stuff. About a minute into the spacy interlude, one of the attendees blurts out, “Oh wow, they must have made this for people who are stoned!!!” (DUH!) Never has so much incredulity occupied such a small space.) The interlude in the 2013 version, instead of offering space shifting sounds, featured Camara for an African interlude. While the dorm denizens of the mid-70s may not have thought this idea was necessarily a good one, it sounded pretty good to 21st Century ears.

           

Plant chatted with the crowd, commenting on the majestic rocks and the altitude. He also explained his early love for the blues and how he got a chance to see many legendary bluesmen in the early ‘60s when they came to England and were welcomed as heroes at a time when they remained in obscurity in their home country. One of those bluesmen was Bukka White and Plant covered one of his songs, “Fixin’ to Die.” The other blues cover (in addition to “Spoonful”) was a brief taste of “Who Do You Love” tossed in the middle of the aforementioned “Whole Lotta Love.” Besides the blues covers, the early Zeppelin and the Mighty Rearranger tunes, Plant played two others; “I’m in the Mood for a Melody” from his second album, 1983’s The Principle of Moments and “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” from Band of Joy which is actually his most recent album.

 

The voice: Plant sounded good. He no longer goes into the stratosphere, but he can still reach higher than Colorado’s 14ers. Wednesday night, he displayed power, the ability to set a mood and much of the drama he’s been known for over the past four decades. Also, according to recent interviews, he has been relishing the freedom to sing unchained from the need to harmonize with another singer. Getting back to your roots can be a liberating experience.

 

Set List

Babe I’m Gonna Leave You (I)

I’m in the Mood for a Melody (The Principle of Moments)

Tin Pan Valley (Mighty Rearranger)

Spoonful (Willie Dixon and others)

Black Dog (IV)

Another Tribe (Mighty Rearranger)

Goin to California (IV)

The Enchanter (Mighty Rearranger)

Free. Percussive jam

Four Sticks (IV)

Friends (III)

Fixin to Die (Bukka White)

What Is and What Shall Never Be (II)

Bluesy intro You Need Love (Willie Dixon) >>

Whole Lotta Love (II) >>

African interlude >>

Who Do You Love tease >>

Whole Lotta Love

Encore

Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down (Band of Joy)

Rock and Roll (IV

 

The Band

Robert Plant, vocals

John Baggott, keyboards

Justin Adams, guitars

Skin Tyson, guitars

Billy Fuller, bass

David Smith, drums

Juldeh Camara, African instruments

 

Muddy Waters, “You Need Love:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-VCiYLX9ts

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Spotlight on Tara O’Grady

Tara O'Grady at the Refinery Hotel Photo by Richard Velasco

Tara O’Grady at the Refinery Hotel
Photo by Richard Velasco

Tara O’Grady’s relationship with jazz started with a distinctive pair of dark mushroom-colored eyeglasses. Tara’s optometrist was wearing these glasses during an examination, and Tara requested the same frames for her new glasses. Her doctor, who went on to play guitar for Tara for 14 years, said only jazz musicians can wear these glasses. Knowing she could carry a tune and had a good voice from singing Irish trad at family gatherings and singing along to the Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline records her Irish mother played, Tara said she was a jazz singer. When her doctor asked her to sing some Billie Holiday, however, she responded, “Who’s he?”

Her optometrist directed her to a weekly jazz jam session. Each week the musicians would send her home with a new assignment: learn a song by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, etc. After a year of faithful attendance and hard work studying songs, Tara earned the glasses. But by then, it wasn’t about the glasses anymore, of course. Tara had fallen in love with jazz singing. Compared to the Irish folk songs and rock n’ roll she had been singing before, she felt jazz was more relatable and allowed for more expression of herself.

On July 9th I caught Tara’s set at the Refinery Hotel in New York City and had the opportunity to chat with her a bit about her music, life, and band. Guitarist Michael Howell and bassist Dave Hofstra filled out her band at the Refinery. Both players bring very impressive bios, with Michael having toured for years with Dizzy Gillespie and Dave, as one of the most in-demand bassists in New York, having worked with everyone from John Zorn to Marshall Crenshaw. Dave anchored the band playing basslines that clearly kept the form and changes while bringing enough variety to his playing to keep the pieces engaging and interesting. Michael comped expertly, alternating steady quarter notes in the style of Freddie Green with short bluesy breaks responding to Tara’s melodies. And when he soloed, his playful inventiveness shone. He played some stellar bebop melodies and beautiful block chord passages. Always enjoying himself immensely, he included little jokes that made the band laugh, for example, quoting “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” during “Stormy Weather,” and Woody the Woodpecker’s laugh in “L.O.V.E.”

But Tara’s stunning voice was the star of the show, channeling all the jazz greats. At one moment she’ll sound like Billie Holiday, the next, Nina Simone. She attributes this in part to the fact that not being able to read music, she learned all these songs from recordings. Therefore, when a certain phrase from a particular singer’s rendition of song moves her, she’ll incorporate that into her own sound. Her setlist included not only old jazz standards, but also some songs made famous by Elvis and Sam Cooke (including “That’s Alright, Mama” and “You Send Me”), traditional Irish tunes (like “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and “Nora”), and her own originals, all sung and swung with Tara’s signature smoky, sultry sound.

The arrangements of two traditional Irish songs mentioned above come from Tara’s first album, Black Irish, which is made up completely of traditional Irish songs, which Tara arranged almost entirely on the subway riding to and from work. She puts a brand new spin on these classic tunes, singing them in a swinging jazz/blues style. Many of the originals she sang on Tuesday came from her second album, Good Things Come to Those Who Wait, which she began only two months after the release of Black Irish at the encouragement of some Nashville producers who really enjoyed the first album. Instead of doing more traditionals, this album is made up entirely of songs Tara wrote or co-wrote. Hearing these songs, the listener can tell that Tara is not a strict jazz purist, embracing folk, rock, and pop influences, too. I asked Tara about her composing process, and she said she tries a variety of techniques. Sometimes a melody will come to her first, and other times, she’ll focus on a theme she wants to write about, getting some words and phrases first. Even now, she often gets her best ideas on the subway. The bridge to the title track of Good Things Come to Those Who Wait popped into her head one morning on the way to work, and not wanting to lose it, she was unable to speak to anyone until she got into her office where she could record it.

Her third and most recent album, A Celt at the Cotton Club, combines these worlds into a bluesy, jazzy, folksy album that flirts a bit with country at times, featuring both traditional Irish tunes and originals. A favorite of mine is her bossa nova take on the traditional “Black Is the Color,” which she also played on the 9th. The album version is particularly notable for an electrifying solo by saxophonist Michael Hashim.

A Celt at the Cotton Club album cover Photo by Richard Velasco

A Celt at the Cotton Club album cover
Photo by Richard Velasco

But music isn’t the only creative outlet Tara is pursuing currently. She has also just completed a memoir, chronicling a 2011 road trip she took to reconnect with a grandmother she never met. In 1957, her father’s mother set out from the south Bronx for Seattle in a Chevy Bel Air to see the wild American west. When Tara approached Chevy with this story, for their hundredth anniversary, they sponsored her trip. From New York, to the site of Granny’s first milkshake in Idaho, to a mining hotel in Butte, MT and back, Tara followed her grandmother’s route, and Granny’s spirit followed Tara. It’s a beautiful story, to be published as Transatlantic Butterflies and the November Moon. Keep an eye out for it.

Check out Tara’s website for more information: http://www.taraogradymusic.com/.

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A Moment with Justin Poindexter of The Amigos Band and Jazz at Lincoln Center

The Amigos Band is guitarist Justin Poindexter, accordionist Sam Reider, saxophonist/washboard player Eddie Ray Barbash, and upright bassist Noah Garabedian, and with roots spread across the United States, they create a genre-defying style of music that combines country, folk, and jazz to make their own unique sound. Between his role in the Amigos Band, his position as Manager for Education and Community Programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and his capacity as Artistic Director at the Music Academy of the American South, Justin is a busy man, but I had the opportunity recently to sit down with him to talk a little about the Amigos, American music, and jazz education.

I first asked Justin how he juggles so many projects and how they relate to each other. Hailing from a small town in North Carolina, Justin said he learned to play music in both country and jazz bands at a young age out of necessity to make it as a musician in such a small scene, though he cites Oscar Peteron’s 1962 Night Train as the album that really sparked his interest in jazz. Early in his career, he would compartmentalize these different styles, but now he says he sees it all as part of the same thing. For example, in July and again in November, The Amigos Band will be playing at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center. On July 29th western swing guitarist and yodeling virtuoso Ranger Doug will be joining them, and their show on November 25th will feature bebop/beat generation guru David Amram. Justin also recalled something bluegrass legend Del McCoury once told him when they were playing together: bluegrass musicians and jazz musicians used to not only listen to the same popular music, but also play these same songs. The strict separation between canonical jazz and bluegrass standards is a recent development.

This theme recurred in our conversation, since the Amigos’ music celebrates all kinds of American styles. This is partially why the US Department of State has chosen the Amigos Band as cultural ambassadors for the American Music Abroad program. From February to April of 2014 they’ll be touring the world, presenting their Adventures in American Musical Landscapes. Since they embrace disparate influences from different times and places in American history from bluegrass to bebop, their shows simultaneously pay tribute to American music history and exhibit their fresh, new sound. Justin mentioned a professor in his composition program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts who expressed a philosophy about composition somewhat akin to T.S. Eliot’s opinion on modern writing, specifically that the most interesting composers don’t focus on new things, but instead study history and the past, which naturally leads them into their own sound. In addition to their unique melting pot style, the Amigos are all stellar instrumentalists and singers, which is evident on their album, The Tres Amigos, available at http://thetresamigos.bandcamp.com/album/the-tres-amigos.

The interconnectedness of American musical styles and intersection of old and new is also a major theme of Justin’s work at the Music Academy of the American South (MAAS), which brings together representatives from all kinds of American roots music as well as other genres like jazz and soul to explore the commonalities and differences of their music and facilitate cultural exchange. Justin noted the importance for musicians to be able to coherently explain the significance of their music and its importance to today’s culture, and the MAAS examines that for many types of American music.

We also talked a bit about Justin’s role at Jazz at Lincoln Center, in which he organizes concerts for elementary and middle school students as well as the elderly in hospitals, medical rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes. He manages the Jazz for Young People concert series, which has groups perform at 75 school in New York three times each year, presenting a production that first introduces the elements of jazz music like improvisation and swing. But he loves returning to the schools for the second and third productions, so the band and the students can delve deeper into the cultural significance of jazz music, like its role in the civil rights movement for example. The real magic of jazz education comes with seeing these young people get emotionally connected to a kind of music they previously did not know. Working with the elderly population, however, has a different kind of magic. Many of these people have known and loved jazz all their lives, so these performances bring them back through the years, especially since Justin has the opportunity to hire some players of their generation, like bassist Bill Crow who can entertain the audiences with his music and his stories of playing with jazz legends like Benny Goodman.

Check out videos of The Amigos with David Amram and Ranger Doug below. You can tell from their smiles how much fun they have making this music.

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