Friday, July 15, 2016

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Goldwater Institutionalized

Most recent news from Arizona's politics includes bills being discussed in the state legislature to allow guns to be carried on college campuses. The curious irony in northern Arizona is the best-known appearance of hand guns resulted in a deadly shooting on the campus of Northern Arizona University. The basis for this wave of open carry stuff is, of course, the Second Amendment, built upon the premise, among other things, that a militia would be needed to remain armed in case, say, the British came back. And in the case of the shooting right down the street, it turned out it wasn't a British invasion, but a fleet of television trucks to display what, exactly? is the benefit of having guns on campus. But extremism is ... blah, blah, blah ...

If you follow this flintlock musket policy initiative to a few logical implications, all part of a Barry Goldwater meme buried like valley fever in the sands of the Southwest, then the sovereign principality of Arizona should send away all federal employees, including the military and border patrol. Then it can establish its own constitution, supreme court, and enforce what it really has in mind, a rigidly biblical caliphate where everyone should be carrying a rifle to everything.

Arizona voters are the first to blame for the apparent dysfunction of this crew. But rather than voting out the designers of the budget crisis, a governor was put in to reinvent the wheel. And Goldwater Institute goons were brought in to be the "yes" men. Sounds like the crunch over school funds is just the tip of the iceberg since these designers, not being scientists, won't embrace the wheel until more research comes in. It's good advice to keep following the money for all kinds of categories as the radicals seek to privatize law enforcement, prisons, social safety nets or hand over public lands to developers. They seem to be intent on handing over government programs to a legion of mercenaries, reintroducing a system that we haven't seen since the 19th century, or, in some cases, the Middle Ages. It's becoming a cruel world, indeed. Which is why, I suppose, all of these rifles are needed.

The Goldwater Institute, hunkered down in the melted money mounts of Paradise Valley, is a menace to compassionate governance. If we had listened to that bunch, there would be no light rail system in the Valley. It's an anti-union, anti public healthcare think tank for the tax dodging cronies of the New Capitalism, replacing social ideals fought for across the Western World with a new religion called "profit." We haven't seen this wave greed hounds since the Reagan era, and now the fate of the 99 percent is at their mercy.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Mythville: Time and Sound

Mythville: Time and Sound: W aking to the working man music, seeking the shadows in the sounds of the nineteen seventies, since we are all churned into se...

Friday, July 18, 2014

Brotherhood in Arms: Chris Robinson gets psychedelic

When an artist enters the studio intent on "experimentation," the results will be unpredictable. With any luck, new sonic territory will be discovered. And yes, some old fans may feel betrayed if a rock star attempts to reinvent himself. In such cases, as the Chris Robinson Brotherhood has found, the success of the end product, "Phosphorescent Harvest," depends on your point of view.
If your point of view is listening through ear plugs while staring at your smart phone, the chances are a psychedelic boogie called "Humboldt Wind Chimes" is not your cup of tea. It may test your patience, as you keep looking for the jingle, sounding all pretty confusing to you as seasoned guitars crunch dirty chords and layered walls of keyboards twist in galactic clouds of warbling stars. If sensations of dysrhythmia persist, cease listening and call your doctor.
But if you are looking for something not quite so truncated, nor compact as a three-minute ditty suitable to be clipped for an Apple television commercial, and you have actually listened to music by the Grateful Dead from, say, "From the Mars Hotel," or, an even stranger trip, "Anthem of the Sun," then you might marvel at the dexterous musical complexities of the latest album by CRB, an event in vintage rock returned from retrograde and rendered anew.
As Robinson commented recently, the kaleidoscopic suites for the band's third album were never intended to sell cell phones.
More than 20 years ago, The Black Crowes hit the scene with their hard-rock sensibilities during the birth of an alternative rock era where Brit bands such as Depeche Mode and Seattle grunge were the rage. But the 1990 debut album "Shake Your Money Maker" proved that the old rock wasn't dead, and that audiences were hugely in favor of that classic-rock familiarity. "Shake Your Money Maker" went quintuple-platinum and generated the chart-topping cover of the Otis Redding song, "Hard to Handle," and the Crowes' own tune, "She Talks to Angels." The band went on to produce eight more studio albums (and four live albums) but as the years wore on, Chris Robinson was in the mood for something different.
Although The Black Crowes have had reunion tours in recent years, the band currently is on hiatus as Robinson has gotten more in line with the folk-rock revival. He calls the result of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood's "Phospherescent Harvest" experiment "hippie baroque."
And if space is your final frontier, "Phosphorescent Harvest" is the perfect fuel to get there, especially if you are not in any particular hurry. The songs are long by pop music standards. As CRB guitarist Neal Casal says, "We are amazed if we come in at five minutes."
Casal said the group went into the studio thinking it would take many of the road-tested tracks further than they had ever gone before, exploring brave new worlds of sound. There's a reinvented Deadhead-ness about it, but with a musical palette of turning knobs to create distorted layers of weirdness that ebb and flow, strange and murky as Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," but more naturalistic than hard-wired, all encasing Robinson's southern rock roots growl and mystical, post-giant-celebrity-rock-star storytelling songwriting style.
Controversial, perhaps, in its delivery, but after a few listens, the surreal musicality of it starts to reveal Robinson as no more alien, in terms of the tunecraft, than The Doobie Brothers on "The Captain and Me." His songwriting is still melodious, straight-ahead, except now (especially on the ballads) with more of a subtle tendency to purr than howl. Yes, Robinson's swagger is still there, especially on such tracks as "Shore Power" and "Jump the Turnstile," the latter of which goes over the horizon with an extended revelatory guitar jam. But the lead singer is only a part of the puzzle here. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is a collaboration.
"The concept of the band is to be experimental, to not be heavy rock like The Black Crowes," Casal says. "We wanted to lighten it up with something Grateful Dead inspired, very pyschedelic, bluesy, with a Herbie Hancock sort of cosmic jazz. I am by no means a jazz player, but we were dipping into those areas. We wanted to expand the field and just go for it."
In going for it, the tight thump and grind of the old Black Crowes sound is road kill. Very little of what the Crowes recorded is played on this tour. Robinson, who Casal says is an "amazing musicologist," is more of a folk-rock crooner these days. However, the California rock intentions are perfect for a mature sharing of the bill with a band such as Bob Weir's post-Dead ensemble, Rat Dog, which is what Casal was preparing for as, during the interview, he refused to compare the Chris Robinson Brotherhood with his previous band, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, only to say "They (Robinson and Adams) are two completely different kinds of people, different kinds of songwriters."
Of his Ryan Adams and the Cardinals years, 2007 to 2009, Casal said it was a great live band and amazing time of his life. "We were a dangerous group," he says. "But there is nowhere I'd rather be than where I am right now. With this band I've really grown as a musician, and it has really opened up my playing."
Casal was born in New Jersey and somehow became more of a Jerry Garcia fan than an aficionado of Bruce Springsteen, and he's all about California as a resident of Ventura now. Hence, the continuum of the Grateful Dead legacy remains unbroken.
"I was intrigued with his (Garcia's) voice," he says. "It's so complex, and somewhere along the line I became obsessed with the song 'Casey Jones,' and saw the Dead live many times."
He speaks of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood as a "hard-touring group" that after three albums takes a lot of joy in its teamwork. He credits ex-Crowes keyboardist Adam MacDougall for being extraordinarily adventurous with bright synth sounds and the deep, rich atmospherics of "Phosphorescent Harvest."
In terms of the sonic oddities on the record, MacDougall "was the one who really led the charge," Casal says. "He's incredibly knowledgeable to work with. There were times where we were in the studio and he was trying to come up with something and we would be like, 'Why is this taking so long?' But it was worth the wait. It's not just bullshit sound effects he came up with; they are creative, different, keeping to the melody lines with washes, layered sounds. That's what he's really good at."
The entire group -- Robinson (lead vocals, guitar); Casal (guitar, vocals); MacDougall (keys, vocals); George Sluppick (drums) and Mark Dutton (bass, vocals) -- is really starting to make the Crowes look pretty small in the rearview mirror. When the tour began, they had performed more than 230 shows. That's not too bad for a band Robinson created to jam with in Los Angeles, and then expanded to the rest of California.
"We are getting to the point where we can really back up our talk," Casal says. "It's not just a spoken concept, it's one where we are actually living it. When the band works hard as a unit, it does become a real point of pride."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The clock is ticking on classic rock: that great age of forty or more years ago, when the musicianship and lyricism of the post-Woodstock years just sorta peaked, and the whole world just bought a Coke, harmonized, perfectly, and went to the dark side of the moon. Rock'n'roll decided to go to college and, during the decade-long romance of the 1970s, out came this intergalactic baby prodigy called progressive rock.

With Brit bands consisting of art-school dropouts and classically trained musicians, acts such as King Crimson, the Moody Blues and Gentle Giant set the pace to the mellotron sky, reclaiming the tradition of the great English poets going back to William Shakespeare, giving us at least two things. The first, painted sound creating visual landscapes in your head reminscent of classical music set to nursery rhyming metaphors or set in avant-garde netherworlds. Some critics, scorning it all, called it "flash rock." The second thing to come out of it all was punk rock, emerging from the pure frustration that most performers couldn't reach those heights.

Nope, you had to be a genius of some kind to play that kind of music, and intellectual acuity will only get you so far with the rest of your stoner friends in the mundane world. But now, think about this: Soon, many of the artists of the short-lived age of progressive rock will be passing on, unable to perform at even the casino as a has-been name-brand band. I mean, have you seen Peter Gabriel's waistline lately, and, hey, Roger Daltrey! Put on a shirt!

Even the classic rock tribute bands are aging. Consider Living With the Past, the planet's only "officially sanctioned" Jethro Tull tribute band.

"We are the only endorsed Jethro Tull tribute band in the world," says Ray Roehner, group leader for Living With the Past, who has been interpreting the "Baker Street muse," the Pied Piper of prog rock, for two decades. "A lot of tribute bands are kind of corny," he says. "I like the act that tries to do the music, and not focus so much on the way bands dress and the antics. People appreciate the sincerity of doing that without the mimicry."

Roehner, who says he's an associate of Tull's Ian Anderson -- the bug-eyed, flute-whipping, Pan-like whirling dervish who launched the iconoclastic "underground" group in the late 1960s -- doesn't attempt any of the on-stage mannerisms, such as standing on one leg while he plays. Indeed, trying to play such tricky music is hard enough. "If you let your mind wander a bit, you are lost," Roehner says. Yep, you'd better keep up on the coffee to focus on the ornate, exacting time shifts of "Songs from the Wood," or, as Living With the Past does, the first 26 minutes of "Thick as a Brick."

Roehner, who lives in Sedona but is flying his band in from New York, along with a large cache of vintage instruments, including Pearl Jam's old drum kit to get the fills right, and a piano "that weighs a ton," has kept in contact with Anderson over the years. The actual Tull leader, now performing as Ian Anderson (including a date in Mesa this fall), has recognized Living With the Past's dedication to his music. Roehner and the creator of such 70s rock staples as "Aqualung" and "Bungle in the Jungle," have a kind of collaborative relationship. For that reason, Roehner doesn't like to steal Anderson's visual eccentricities.

"He keeps up on what we are doing and he gets ideas from us, such as how we structure a set or combining and incorporating things, and he's done that with his shows," he says. "But jumping around and throwing the flute around while standing on one leg, it's kind of like his signature, and he's been very gracious in letting us do this. People tell me you really need to stand on your leg while you play. Those are his moves and I just don't feel comfortable doing that."

From a distance, Roehner looks a bit like Anderson on stage, and he's certainly capable of capturing the Tull leader's accents on the flute. The rest of the band, with its two guitarists, makes one appreciate original Tull guitarist Martin Barre. His legacy in the annals of hard rock from the 1970s and 1980s is really captured by Living With the Past.

The opening act for the Tull tribute, Adrian Conner, a guitarist, singer and songwriter who has her own band, Adrian & the Sickness, but also does an AC/DC and Judas Priest tribute band called Hell's Belles, says she wouldn't be able to make a living as a musician without her "day job," that is, covering Angus Young and Rob Halford tunes.

"I wouldn't have been able to put out seven of my own albums without doing Hell's Belles," she says. "It's not easy to find paying gigs playing original music these days."

But Conner should get more notice for her own work. She is a tremendous player who attacks the guitar, and her stage antics are more than just entertaining. Her delivery of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" had a number of people in the small crowd at a recent show at the Oprheum in Flagstaff, Arizona, drew some raves. After her relentless shows, she sold more than a few CDs ... of her own music combining classic rock riffs with a more punked out, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts orientation.

In this age of the "American Idol" karaoke star, we can all pause and wonder how tribute bands, if they are good enough to get out of the bars, like these two bands, just how they can get good enough to go out there and sound like Jerry Garcia on guitar, Keith Moon on the drums, or Ian Anderson on the flute. Takes a musician with some peculiar skills as both musician and actor to pull it off. And someday, just imagine. It won't be that classical pianist drawing grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Instead, it will be four cats who can deliver "Stairway to Heaven" note-for-note. That'll be the day job creation for musician-actors reaches "The Great Gig in the Sky," when a Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd or Genesis performance is as common as Shakespeare in the park.

Monday, April 14, 2014

From the Flatlanders to the Clash: Joe Ely's long and winding road to the core of roots rock

Forty years after the Flatlanders record went nowhere in 1972, the group consisting of  (above) Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmy Dale Gilmore is something of an alt-country super group sensation now.

Ely is pretty sentimental about those formative years and those factors that led to success a half-century later.

After the Flatlanders record was released only as an eight-track tape, selling very little, Ely hit the road and ended up in New York City. He returned to Lubbock a few years later and joined the circus until a rib injury sidelined him. Kept still for a while, he formed the Joe Ely Band, which became a kind of unclassifiable country rock band synthesizing all of the music of the region, and in many ways becoming one of the core Texas-based seeds for the southwestern sound.

He signed with MCA Records in 1975, which over the decades became a kind of Billy Martin/George Steinbrenner relationship.

"I was on MCA Records four different times," he says. "They liked what I was doing, but they never found out what to do with it."

But Ely knew what to do: keep moving. By the late 1970s and early 1980s Ely had become a critical fave for such songs as "Musta Notta Gotta Lotta" and "Honky Tonk Masquerade." His razor-sharp lyricism, full of concrete details and a self-deprecating sense of humor getting notice at about the time as the Blasters were arriving, Jerry Jeff Walker was nearly a household name, X was experimenting with country rock and the Boss was blowing listeners away with the American roots oriented album, "The River."

Ely's band became the opening act serving as a tastemaker for such bands as Tom Petty and Heartbreakers, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones, all bands that blanched at the synth-pop of new wave, seeking a guitar-oriented rock'n'roll restoration with Ely as the lead off authentic genuine article to set the mood. It was during those years that Ely, suddenly better known in England and Ireland and Scandinavia than in the U.S., met the Clash.

"It was an odd meeting of two different bands from two completely different parts of the world," he says. "The one thing we had in common was a love for rockabilly. They had just recorded Sonny Curtis's 'I Fought the Law and the Law Won,' which I had also recorded, and we hit it off. All of the sudden we had a connection, and they showed us all around London."

It was Ely doing the chorus parts of "Should I Stay or Should I Go," with the lines of poorly remembered Spanish bits remembered from his days in Lubbock, and the band sought Ely's assistance for a roots-rock oriented series of performances in Texas. Ely says the Clash had a pretty romanticized idea of where they wanted to play, "places that promoters would never book anyone ... but we eventually were able to find them places to play like a high school gym in Laredo and a bordello in Juarez: They were looking for a kind of mystical passage into another era."