BOBBY ROBINSON, who died January 7, 2011, was one of the unsung pioneers of the 20th century American record industry. That sun you see setting in the illustration at left might well represent not only Robinson’s own passing at the age of 93 but that of the entire half-century-long, world-changing epoch of rhythm & blues and rock & roll in which he forged his career. “He outlived the record business,” remarked Tommy Boy Records founder Tom Silverman as we sat with Sire Records’ Seymour Stein in a front pew at the United House of Prayer for All People on West 125th Street, where Robinson’s funeral was held on this bitterly cold January evening.
The grandson of former slaves, Morgan Clyde Robinson (called “Bob” by his entire family including grandchildren) was born 4.16.1917 in Union, South Carolina and later became valedictorian of his (segregated) high school. Obituaries in the NY Daily News and NY Times don’t clearly state when Robinson arrived in New York, which event may have preceded his Army service during World War II. While stationed in Hawaii, Bobby honed his entrepreneurial skills as both the entertainment director of live shows mounted for servicemen on Oahu and as (in his own words) “the biggest loan shark out there.” Following his discharge, Robinson claims to have returned to Harlem with nearly $8,000 in cash. It was an enormous sum in 1945: According to U.S. Census figures, the median annual income for non-White families and individuals was $1,294.
In 1946, Robinson paid $2,500 to buy out a defunct hat store located at 301 West 125th Street, just west of the world-famous Apollo Theater at #253. There he opened Bobby’s Record Shop, later and better known as Bobby’s Happy House. It was the first Black-owned music store on 125th Street — the commercial and symbolic heart of Harlem — and possibly the street’s first Black-owned retail business of any kind (accounts vary on this point).
This modest establishment became Robinson’s base of operations for his freewheeling career as songwriter, record producer, label owner and distributor — one of the very few whose active career spanned the decades from Fifties r&b to Eighties hip-hop. His Wikipedia entry includes a detailed discography, but Gladys Knight & the Pips, Elmore James, Lee Dorsey, King Curtis, Spoonie Gee, and the Treacherous Three (with Kool Moe Dee) are just a few of the artists recorded by Bobby Robinson and released on one of his several imprints including Fire, Fury, Enjoy, Red Robin, and Whirlin’ Disc.
“Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison, “Fannie Mae” by Buster Brown, “Ya-Ya” by Lee Dorsey, “Number Nine Train” by Tarheel Slim, “The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez, “Tossin’ and Turnin'” by Bobby Lewis, “Rockin’ It” by The Fearless Four, and “Super Rappin'” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five — if you’ve heard any of these songs, then you’ve heard Bobby Robinson at work.
By 1959, when Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” became the first major hit for Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., Robinson had already made the national r&b charts with multiple releases. One man became a crossover giant who built a recording and publishing empire, produced Hollywood movies and TV specials, and transformed his artists into icons. The other was a guy you could find, most days of the week, holding court in a Harlem storefront.
That guy didn’t move to Hollywood, or buy a chain of radio stations, or become some major label’s Executive V-P of Urban Music — he just kind of hung out. Yet by doing so, Bobby Robinson touched the lives of thousands of people, a couple hundred of whom showed up on this night to pay their respects. (One of the first I encountered was the ethically-challenged Congressman Charles B. Rangel, who was departing as I arrived.)
At some point (in the 1980s? the ’90s?), the Happy House was displaced by a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet; Robinson moved his shop around the corner and slightly north on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The store remained open for more than 60 years, gradually functioning more as a clubhouse and community center than active music retailer. Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, lived a few blocks away; in a remembrance posted 1.9.2011, he wrote:
“Bobby’s Happy House…had a stream of visitors throughout the day, but nobody ever seemed to buy anything. The display cases were filled with rows of dusty, ancient CDs and cassette tapes. Folks were really coming to see Robinson: tourists from Europe on pilgrimage, neighbors and local characters stopping by between errands, old friends like Paul Winley checking on Bobby. Sometimes, like me, they’d wait for him. Bobby Robinson would usually saunter in mid-day — and what an entrance he would make. At 90, he was always clean, always sharp — usually in a bright-colored suit jacket that contrasted with his long, straight, shock-white hair. He walked slow, turned gradually, and sat tentatively. But when he looked at you, you almost felt zapped. A lot of life and light in those eyes…”
“As much as Bobby Robinson loved Harlem, Harlem loved Bobby Robinson. Even more atrocious than his eviction — just before the bottom fell out during the subprime mortgage crisis — is that the developer who sent him packing has done nothing with the building. [Emphasis added — A.S.] It still stands there, empty, boarded up, across from the Duane Reade and around the corner from the Apollo.”
Robinson’s funeral was a down-home neighborhood affair. Other than Tom Silverman and Seymour Stein, I spotted only a few music business veterans including Aaron Fuchs of Tuff City and DJ Chuck Chillout. I introduced myself to Vincent Davis, who claimed to remember me from 1985 (!) when I wrote the Elektra Records publicity bio for his artist Joeski Love. (Time to kill? Watch the story of “Pee Wee Dance,” Joeski’s hip-hop novelty hit. But I digress…)
If any of the many “name” artists recorded by Bobby Robinson were in attendance, they didn’t get up to speak or otherwise identify themselves. It wasn’t like Doc Pomus‘ funeral, in 1991, where I sat next to Kris Kristofferson and heard songs by Dr. John and Jimmy Scott. Instead, ordinary people — mostly but not exclusively Black, some looking hard-used by life — offered their tributes. Joe Jackson (not Michael’s dad) called the Happy House “a center of communication” and sang “Auld Lang Syne,” which I thought an odd choice. A woman declared “I stand here today with my right mind because of Bobby Robinson”; two others sang spontaneous, impassioned versions of the gospel standards “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Won’t Complain.”
Bobby Dunn hailed the deceased as “one of the greatest producers and songwriters.” (Gunn wrote or co-wrote “You Broke Your Promise,” the B-side of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ first Robinson-produced hit “Letter Full Of Tears.”) Another gentleman offered a litany of the many doo-wop groups on Robinson’s roster (the Velvets, the Kodaks, Earl Lewis & the Channels), prompting Seymour Stein to break into a sotto voce medley of said groups’ greatest hits.
Paul Winley, Robinson’s friend and competitor dating back to the Fifties, noted that “he was the first record shop owner to put a set of speakers outside the store. When James Brown first began to break out with ‘Please Please Please,’ I remember him sitting on one of those speakers outside the Happy House and telling people passing by ‘that’s me, that’s my song!'” We also heard from Robinson’s grandson and nephew, and from Bilal Muhammed (nee Jerome Robinson) whose father was Bobby’s cousin.
The Apostle H.M. Swaringer delivered the closing eulogy. He began with the hymn “My Living Shall Not Be In Vain” and launched into an evocative, free-flowing oration that touched on Robinson’s long relationship with the House of Prayer For All Peoples and the commercial history of 125th Street (the Braddock Hotel, Apollo Theater, etc.) along with a citation from the Book of Job. Bobby Robinson, the preacher noted, “came to the House of Prayer every day. He helped people.”
Amen, Brother Swaringer.
Rest in peace, Bobby Robinson.
Like the NY Times headline said: A Lot Of Jazz. Many More People.
But if you paid in advance and could deal with the sometimes-crushing crowds, the seventh annual Winter Jazzfest was one of the great NYC live entertainment deals of the year. For the online advance price of $35.00 plus the inevitable $5.00 “service charge,” I purchased a wristband good for admission on both Friday and Saturday nights to any set by any act in any one of the multiple WJF venues clustered around the historic Village intersection of Bleecker & MacDougal Streets.
There were three clubs in use on Friday and five on Saturday. The fewest number of acts to appear in any one of them was four, on Friday night at Le Poisson Rouge, where 89-year-old Chico Hamilton topped the bill beginning at 9:15 p.m. (I missed him). Every other venue was hosting nine acts per night, beginning at around 6:00 p.m. and running past 3:00 a.m. Each set ran about 50 minutes and the changeovers, at least the ones I sat through, went quickly and efficiently.
Naturally, I was not the only person taking advantage of this bountiful bargain: WJF wristbands sold out before 9:00 p.m. Saturday, seats were almost impossible to come by even at the seated venues, and some sets were packed to the firetrap level. (Zinc Bar was turning people away on Friday night, I never even tried to get in there.) I made the right move in going solo and thus able to maneuver independent of someone else’s level of discomfort, exhaustion, hunger, intoxication, etc.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 7
(1) JD Allen’s VISIONFUGITIVE! Conducted by Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris (8:15 p.m. @ Le Poisson Rouge) – Nearly a full house at this SRO venue in the former below-ground home of the Village Gate (1958-1993). But I manage to get close to center stage where Allen (tenor sax) plays some dense, fairly complex music with a large band conducted by Butch Morris: two basses, two drummers, percussion, vibes, four horns, and more. To my ears, the long (12-15 minute) opener never achieves lift-off although there’s a frisson of pleasure when the two drummers kick in together at about the halfway point.
After this piece, Butch Morris temporarily halts the proceedings to offer a show-and-tell demonstration of his “conduction” techniques — and rather than pedantic and boring, it’s informative and engaging. Morris pauses to explain his hand and baton movements while constructing a spontaneous composition from improvisational building blocks; at one point, he tosses into the front rows a batch of postcards imprinted with a detailed definition of “Conduction.” It reads in part: “The practice of conveying and interpreting a series of directives to modify or construct sonic arrangement or composition.” As the critic Howard Mandel wrote, Morris’ hand signals “convey instructions to repeat, hold, return, etc., but not specific pitches or beats; those are chosen by the players themselves.” He elicits some strong solos, including an extended foray by Allen, partly unaccompanied; and the piece as a whole is coherent, powerful, and (in my experience) unique in the context of jazz performance. I remember seeing Butch Morris in action several times since the late Eighties. But I realize that until tonight, I’d never really understood what he did.
(2) Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue (9:00 p.m. @ Kenny’s Castaways) – Speaking of something really different…This performance feels like it belongs on the concert stage, with better lighting and more room to move, rather than at the far end of this long-time Bleecker Street bar. Jen Shyu was trained from childhood in ballet, piano, and violin, and her WJF set incorporates dance elements along with her keyboard playing; she’s accompanied, with rapt attention and excellent musicianship, by Dave Binney (alto), John Hébert (bass), and Dan Weiss (drums). She sings in what sounds like three different languages: English, Spanish, and possibly Hokkien, the form of Chinese spoken by most people from Taiwan (Shyu’s parents are from Taiwan and East Timor).
On her Web site, Jen’s bio lists among her early accomplishments “playing [as piano soloist] Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, 3rd movement with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra at age thirteen; placing…in the Finals, at age fifteen, at the Stravinsky International Piano Competition, playing piano solo works by Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Chopin; being the youngest student at Yale University’s Summer Drama Program at sixteen; serving as Illinois’ Junior Miss her senior year of high school and winning the Miss America Talent Scholarship at America’s Junior Miss with piano.” I myself managed to graduate high school and haphazardly complete four or five semesters of college.
(3) Charles Gayle Trio (10:00 p.m. @ Kenny’s Castaways) – The spirit of late-period John Coltrane and Albert Ayler lives in the music of tenor saxophonist Gayle, a seemingly ageless fixture of “downtown” music for the past 25 years (he turns 71 on 2/28/11). At AllMusic.com, Chris Kelsey enumerates his “long, vibrating, free-gospel melodies, full of huge intervallic leaps, screaming multiphonics, and a density of line that evidences a remarkable dexterity” — Charles Gayle has been playing in this style since the late Sixties without getting any closer to the musical mainstream. His set is like one 50-minute-long song, with only a single quote I can recognize (from a standard, something like “They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful”), and bassist Larry Roland and drummer Michael Thompson are with him every step of the way. It’s fairly awesome.
(4) Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth (11:00 p.m. @ Kenny’s Castaways) – Never even heard of this bassist/composer, but his set follows Gayle and I decide not to relinquish a precious seat in the increasingly crowded room. Lineup is Craig Taborn on electric piano, tenor saxophonists Chris Cheek and Jeff Lederer, and Gerald Cleaver, drums; trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, another new name to me, sits in for half the set. Bigmouth is really good. Lightcap’s a strong, supportive bassist; his originals are melodic but not predictable, and the horns’ interplay remind me a bit of Ornette Coleman’s late-Sixties band with Dewey Redman on alto. I’d go see these guys again, for sure….It’s midnight, and although the night is relatively young, I head home to Brooklyn Heights.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 8
(1) Don Byron’s New Gospel Quintet (8:15 p.m. @ Le Poisson Rouge) – The free-wheeling Byron has kept this particular band together for three years: NGQ made its debut in the spring of 2009 at Jazz Standard. Performed to a full and enthusiastic house, this set is more expansive and more exciting than the one I caught last April at Jazz Standard. Certainly, having Geri Allen on piano raises the whole band to a higher level; she also turns in a couple of superb solos. Byron sounds great on both clarinet and tenor sax; Brad Jones (bass) and Pheeroan akLaff (drums) form a supple, propulsive rhythm section.
Meanwhile, vocalist DK Dyson lets loose her full complement of shouts, moans, swoops, bird calls, and glottal ululations, from “Precious Memories” and “Feed Me Jesus” through an especially stirring version of (I think) James Cleveland’s “The Last Mile Of The Way.”
(2) Charlie Hunter Trio (9:15 p.m. @ Le Poisson Rouge) – Hunter’s been recording since ’93 and gigging longer than that, but somehow I’ve never caught his act until tonight, when he leads a trio including Eric Kalb on drums and Michael R. Williams on trumpet. I thought I’d get the chance to see just how Charlie manages to play leads, chords, and bass lines simultaneously on a seven-string guitar; unfortunately, he remains seated and I can’t see him at all. After ten minutes of mildly funky mid-tempo jamming served lukewarm, I take my leave for Sullivan Hall and…
(3) The Curtis Brothers feat. Giovanni Almonte (10:15 p.m. @ Sullivan Hall) – Zaccai Curtis (piano), Luques Curtis (bass), Richie Barshay (drums), and Reinaldo De Jesus (congas) play high-powered Latin jazz that really cooks. Their efforts are undercut by vocalist Giovanni Almonte, whose delivery combines the least attractive qualities of Eddie Vedder and Nina Simone. The lyrics, presumably his, are a succession of vapid cliches and tired themes: let’s save the planet, let’s live in peace, you are/I am a beautiful person, etc.
(4) Nomo (10:45 p.m. @ The Bitter End) – Not most people’s idea of a jazz group, this eight or nine-piece band out of Ann Arbor MI mines the Nigerian Afrobeat grooves most famously plowed by Fela. They hit the Bitter End stage with a bang, propelled by rock-steady drumming and those distinctive Fela horn voicings. Sun Ra’s “Rocket No. 9” comes as a delightful surprise — I remember hearing NRBQ cover the same song live in the summer of 1969. Nomo keeps up the energy level until a female vocalist (whose name I don’t catch) takes front and center. Her singing fails to impress, the lyrics are eminently forgettable, and the Excite-O-Meter drops ten or fifteen points. But Nomo sounds like a very good dance band, especially if given more than 50 minutes in which to blow.
(5) Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers (11:45 @ The Bitter End) – With ElSaffar (trumpet, santoor, vocal), Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto sax), Carlo DeRosa (bass), Zafer Tawil (oud, percussion), and Nasheet Waits (drums). After the good-time party sounds of Nomo, the intellectual acuity, instrumental virtuosity, and global reach of this group combine to hit me with serious G-level force.
Two Rivers keeps flowing for 25-30 minutes, at which point ElSaffar switches from trumpet to the santoor. Wiki says: “It is a trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer…with seventy strings. The special-shaped mallets (mezrab) are lightweight and are held between the index and middle fingers. A typical santoor has two sets of bridges, providing a range of three octaves.” A unique and distinctive sound, for sure; unfortunately, most of the band has dropped out to let ElSaffar do his santoor-and-vocal thing, a little of which goes a long way for me. You can hear Two Rivers on MySpace, including the twelve-minute exploration “Menba’.”
(6) Underground Horns (12:45 a.m. @ The Bitter End) – With Welf Dorr (alto sax), Kevin Moehringer (trombone), Mike Irwin (trumpet), Ibanda Ruhumbika (tuba), Okai (djembe), Kevin Raczka (drums). Based on the enthusiastic endorsement of a woman standing behind me on line earlier in the evening, I stick to my bar stool to catch this Brooklyn band. Despite their upbeat energy, UH come across like a Berklee student tribute to Fred Wesley & the JB’s. Cliché riffs abound; the solos go on a while but mostly fail to develop. It’s 1:30 a.m. and I’m wondering how much longer I can hang.
(7) Noah Preminger Group (1:45 a.m. @ The Bitter End) – Noah Preminger (tenor sax) is one of the most critically hailed players under 30 to emerge in the past few years. I listened quite a bit to his 2008 debut, Dry Bridge Road, but was less favorably impressed the one time I saw him live. Tonight, however, Preminger is on from the first notes of his first tune — an Ornette composition, maybe “Toy Dance?” He has the searching quality that characterizes so many of the great soloists, building each solo with unpredictable note choices and a breathy tone. It’s 2 a.m. and the joint is barely half-filled — is someone really playing better jazz than this at some other venue? Seems hard to imagine.
Matt Wilson (drums) and John Hébert (bass) are right with their leader, but pianist Frank Kimbrough looks grim as he attempts to coax some music out of the club’s clangy, metallic, and quite possibly out of tune instrument. He almost succeeds, mostly sticking to the middle of the keyboard as he soldiers on through “Until The Real Thing Comes Along,” “Then I”ll Be Tired Of You,” and his own composition “Quickening.”
Meanwhile, Matt Wilson is showing no mercy to his good buddy: “Hey, Frank, is that a piano or a banjo?” he cracks with a broad grin. “Ladies and gentlemen, Frank Kimbrough on the pianjo!“ Such are the hazards and rewards of The Jazz Life…but wait ’til next year!
Last Saturday (6/6/2010), Leslie and I hopped the No. 7 train from Grand Central to MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. This semi-autonomous branch of the Museum of Modern Art is described on its Web site as “one of the oldest and largest non-profit contemporary art institutions in the United States. An exhibition space rather than a collecting institution, MoMA PS1 devotes its energy and resources to displaying the most experimental art in the world…MoMA PS1 actively pursues emerging artists, new genres, and adventurous new work by recognized artists in an effort to support innovation in contemporary art.”
On this particular day, the Oberlin College Alumni Association was offering a free guided tour to Oberlin grads (Leslie graduated with the class of ’77). I had not visited PS1 in years and was very impressed by the scope and diversity of the current “Greater New York” show, encompassing painting, sculpture, video, photography, mixed media, and two exotic koi goldfish (in a sort of living diorama by Tommy Hartung entitled B Roll). But my favorite among all the various galleries was the first complete NYC installation of the pictorial series Unbranded by the African-American artist Hank Willis Thomas.
Hank was born 3/17/1976 in Plainfield, New Jersey (the original stomping grounds of George Clinton and the nascent Parliament-Funkadelic, BTW) and holds degrees from California College of the Arts and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Father Hank Thomas was/is a jazz musician turned film producer, property developer, and stockbroker; mother Deborah Willis (Ph.D.) is an accomplished photographer, widely published author, NYU professor and current chair of the Tisch School’s Department of Photography. Hank the Younger has been showing his work since student days in the mid-Nineties, but PS1 was my first encounter and he knocked me out.
The starting point for Unbranded is 40 years of selected magazine and newspaper advertisements created by Corporate America and aimed at Black America from 1968. Hank has computer-imaged the ads to eliminate all the original text and brand identifications, so that what we’re left with are remarkably revealing and absorbing portraits of black people (occasionally
in the company of white people) over four decades of American life, with each year represented by two different images. In place of the ad copy, Hank has created his own captions outside the frames, and these are sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes…something else.
On his Web site, Hank Willis Thomas says of Unbranded:
“I believe that in part, advertising’s success rests on its ability to reinforce generalizations about race, gender, and ethnicity which can be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying, but which at a core level are a reflection of the way a culture views itself or its aspirations.
“By ‘unbranding’ advertisements I can literally expose what Roland Barthes refers to as ‘what-goes-without-saying’ in ads, and hopefully encourage viewers to look harder and think deeper about the empire of signs that have become second nature to our experience of life in the modern world.”
I should give props also to Hank’s fellow artist William Cordova (born 1971 in Lima, Peru) who shares this particular PS1 gallery with HWT. In the center of the floor, Cordova has constructed a maze from old LP covers, mostly r&b and disco — I believe the title is Laberintos (Labyrinths). This work demanded a little more attention than I was able to give it at the time: The tour group was moving on, and I was still buzzing from Unbranded.
As part of the “Greater New York” show, Hank’s masterful work is up through 10/18/2010. It’s rich in meaning, it looks great, and you really should see it for yourself.
The weather in Austin had been beautiful since I arrived on Wednesday but sometime in the predawn hours of Saturday, a thunderstorm blew in off the plains. When I awoke on Saturday morning, the rain had stopped but the temperature had dropped 20-25 degrees. It stayed cold right through Sunday — dropping into the 30s on Saturday night and as cold as I’ve ever felt at SXSW. At the many open-air gigs all over town, it was rough going for performers and audiences alike.
My first stop was Jovita’s, a popular Tex-Mex restaurant and bar in South Austin where radio station KDHX was sponsoring two days of its “Twangfest” parties with performances by a whole bunch of folky/rocky/country singer-songwriters including Ray Wylie Hubbard, Chuck Prophet, and Tim Easton along with the band I went to hear, the Waco Brothers. Spearheaded by the irrepressible Jon Langford, they began as an offshoot of the Mekons; the Wacos have included other members of that long-lived UK punk band, although other than Langford I couldn’t have named any of the people on stage at Jovita’s with any certainty.
The Waco Brothers still play with the energy, enthusiasm, and ragged edges one might expect of a band formed fifteen days rather than fifteen years ago. None of these guys can sing any better than I can (one reason why I don’t listen to their records) but I’ve always found the Wacos’ uproarious rebel spirit to be utterly contagious. Packed in with the crowd at Jovita’s, I was singing/yelling/cheering along from the second chorus of the first song and I don’t even know any of their songs. The set also included what was either the worst or the best version of George Jones’ “White Lightnin'” ever performed anywhere.
WACO BROTHERS – “TOO SWEET TO DIE” (Live at Jovita’s, 3.20.2010)
From Jovita’s, I moved on to Friends of Sound, a South Congress record store, where the Milwaukee soul band Kings Go Forth were set to play a mid-afternoon set on the patio. KGF’s Luaka Bop debut album, The Outsiders Are Back (released 4.20.2010), is likely to be one of my favorite non-reissue releases of 2010, and I’d be saying that even if I hadn’t been hired to write the band’s press bio (which you can read here).
Although hewing close to their recorded arrangements, Kings Go Forth sounded great at Friends of Sound. There is much more to their instrumental sound than, say, a straight-up homage to the JB’s or the Stax/Volt house band. The Latin percussion adds a Curtis Mayfield/Major Lance flavor, the bass and drums have a churning rock power, and in the trumpet/trombone unison lines I heard the cavalry-charge quality of the horns on a classic reggae track by Burning Spear (to name one example). I also loved the harmonies of the three-man vocal group up front led by Jesse Davis a/k/a Black Wolf with Dan Fernandez and Matt Norberg. Check out this clip and see if you agree:
KINGS GO FORTH – “ONE DAY” (from the Luaka Bop album The Outsiders Are Back)
I got back in the car and drove under the I-35 overpass into East Austin. I found a small down-home gallery called Birdhouse, located in the ground floor of an aging two-story house on César Chávez Boulevard, and an mixed-media art show entitled “Where They At”. Curated by photographer Aubrey Edwards and journalist Alison Fensterstock, the show examined the New Orleans hip-hop sub-genre known as bounce music.
“Bounce music [is] a phenomenon born out of New Orleans housing projects,” wrote Edwards and Fensterstock. “Mardi Gras Indian chants, brass band beats, and call-and-response routines equally inform bounce music, which almost invariably samples the Showboys’ ‘Drag Rap’ (a.k.a. ‘Triggerman’). Its lyrical patterns focus on sex, parties, and dancing, and invites — even demands — audience participation by calling out dance steps or prompting replies.”
Now, until about a week earlier I’d barely heard of bounce music, which seems to have spread beyond New Orleans only recently even though the earliest recordings (cf. “Buck Jump Time” by Gregory D) appeared more than 20 years ago. But I’d been enlightened by John Swenson’s excellent essay, “A Lucky Bounce,” published in the March issue of Off Beat. Thanks to Swenson’s article, I made sure to add the Birdhouse show and Saturday night’s bounce showcase at Submerged to my SXSW must-see list. I’d also learned that bounce music, at least as practiced in New Orleans, welcomes gay, lesbian and transvestite performers — something I’d never seen at any of the hip-hop shows I’ve attended since the early Eighties.
The Birdhouse exhibit was small but well-assembled and intriguing. It include excerpts from interviews with and color photo portraits of leading bounce artists (Katey Red, Big Freedia, Magnolia Shorty) along with other shots of some pretty scary-looking New Orleans clubs where they perform. I discovered that “Where They At” had run for nearly two months in New York at the Abrons Arts Center on Henry Street (i.e. a 15-minute walk from my apartment) and I’d missed it completely. (Edwards, Fensterstock, and their “Where They At” co-conspirators have created a deep and ever-expanding archive covering two decades of bounce and hip-hop music in the Crescent City.)
It was now around 5:00 p.m. and a small but enthusiastic crowd gathered outside Birdhouse for a brief front-porch performance by DJ Jubilee. You know all that post-Public Enemy talk about “having skills” and “conscious rap”? About how a DJ’s greatness lies in his or her ability to blend the unlikely and the unexpected into a mind-melding new creation? Well, all that stuff went out the window with Jubilee and his DJ (mixing from a laptop — I didn’t catch his name). Because bounce music is dance music — first, last, and always. And if there’s a message in that music other than the demand to shake dat azz to a walloping monolithic beat (the sampled bass line of “I Want You Back” surging from the noisy murk), then I failed to grasp it.
But: There are times when shakin’ dat azz feels like not only the most fun you can have standing up but an almost profound act of personal and cultural liberation. “Put your key in the car and back it up, now back it up!” commanded DJ Jubilee as he mimed his instructions — ridiculous, right? Kindergarten hip-hop, right? Except immediately everyone started doing like DJ Jubilee. It was wonderful — a total blast of fresh air amidst the white-guitar-band overkill of SXSW and a tantalizing taste of things to come later that night.
Holly George-Warren, Geoffrey Himes, and Geoff’s old friend Greg Timm got in my car and we drove to Manor Road for a very good Southern-style dinner at Hoover’s Cooking. Holly and I then plunged back into the Sixth Street maelstrom to Red-Eyed Fly, where Exene Cervenka gave a very good if not galvanizing account of herself with the help of an all-female band featuring violinist Tahmineh Gueramy and Dead Rock West vocalist Cindy Wasserman. I enjoyed Exene’s new and recent songs including “The Sound of Comin’ Down” and “(It’s Tuesday) I’m Already In Love,” and her son Henry was kind enough to snap a souvenir photo of the occasion.
I left Holly and went off to catch Kings Go Forth again, this time outdoors in the backyard of Galaxy. This set was at least 30% hotter than the one they’d played seven hours earlier and really lit up the crowd, few of whom seemed to ever have heard of the band before. Whatever time, effort, expense, and hassle it took to get these guys to Austin — at that moment, it felt worth doing.
It was now about 11:00 p.m. and over near the Austin Convention Center the bounce showcase was well underway at Submerged — in fact, I’d already missed Ms. Tee, Big Freedia, and (based on later YouTube research) the awesomely filthy-mouthed Magnolia Shorty. I’ve spent, like, no time in titty bars but Submerged sure looked and felt like one, with a mirrored wall at the back of its foot-high stage.
Before this post reaches an ungodly (and unreadable) length, let me just say: This show killed for the entire two hours I spent there. It had a blizzard of cross-cultural references, gender/identity switch-ups galore, some wild-ass (literally) audience participation, and a beat you couldn’t not move to. Not surprisingly, there was a large and avid multiracial gay/lesbian contingent in attendance. I couldn’t see too well from the back of the crowd, but it appeared that at various points in the show some female audience members took to the stage as unpaid extras to (you guessed it) shake dat azz.
I watched in wonder as the mind-bending Vockah Redu (wearing a visor constructed from cigarettes and “smoking” a stick of incense) was followed by the towering transsexual rapper Katey Red with her cheerful rhymes of anal sex, prostitution, and drug-taking. I also dug the versatile straight male rap duo Partners N Crime (who mixed some nice reggae bits with their NOLA funk) but after the sex-party-in-outer-space atmosphere created by Vockah and Katey, the dire street-warfare warnings of MC Black Menace‘s “Put On A Vest” (“or you gonna need a blood donor, nigga”) seemed almost quaintly old-fashioned. Joining me for this wildest of SXSW parties were a few other middle-aged rock-crit types including John Swenson, Bill Bragin of Lincoln Center Out of Doors, and the New York Times’ Jon Pareles, who later called the Submerged show “one of the best events at the festival.” For a 41-second taste of the vibe of this unforgettable show, click on this YouTube clip of Katey Red live in 2007.
Andy Schwartz at South X Southwest 2010 (earlier posts)
A month later, no wonder I can’t recall what I did all afternoon on my third day in Austin. But at some point, in the cavernous confines of the Austin Convention Center, I ran into my old friend Peter Jesperson. In 1975-1977, we worked together at Oar Folkjokeopus Records (Minneapolis MN) when he managed the store for owner Vern Sanden; today, Peter is senior VP of A&R for the estimable New West label, where he’s worked with John Hiatt, Drive-By Truckers, and Kris Kristofferson to name a few.
We hopped in my rental car and drove across the river to the Congress Avenue parking lot of a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store that — like every other available space in town, it seemed — had been converted into a music venue for the week. In so doing, we enjoyed that rarest of SXSW commodities, “quality time” — precious minutes of relative peace and quiet in which to carry on an actual audible conversation, catch up on each other’s lives, etc. Peter was another old friend of Alex Chilton who was coping with the shock and pain of his death amid the overwhelming hub-bub of Austin; I think it helped, a little, for him to tell a hilarious Chilton anecdote dating from the re-formed Big Star’s first gig, in 1993 in Columbia, Missouri. Anyway, we soon arrived at our destination to see the L.A.-based country rock band Leslie and the Badgers.
Peter’s enthusiasm for this group is boundless — I remember him carrying on in much the same way over David Bowie’s Station To Station in 1976 — but in this case did not prove wholly contagious. Leslie Stevens is a good singer, reminiscent of Emmylou Harris or Nicolette Larsen, but not an exceptional one; likewise, her band played well but not with any special fire or left-field surprises. My favorite song of the set was the Patsy Cline-inspired “My Tears Are Wasted On You,” a country weeper with a touch of jazz in the chords and melody. Leslie & the Badgers play the Mercury Lounge in NYC on Tuesday, 5/17/2010 — you can listen for yourself on MySpace.
My next stop — and last for the day, as I ended spending a good three hours there — was St. David’s Episcopal Church for a night of new-school UK folk music under the heading “Looking For A New England.” This show was made possible by funding from Arts Council England, i.e. the UK government’s cultural wing. I mention this fact because (a) the gig was truly great, the best multi-act showcase I attended at SXSW, and (b) it could never have happened without that government support. (Did you know that a US visa for a UK touring artist now costs upwards of $4,500.00?)
In any case, it was with a genuine sense of relief that I took my seat alongside a few dozen other listeners in the church sanctuary, an oasis of calm and tranquility just two blocks from the alcohol-fueled din of the Sixth Street club corridor.
It was now 9:00 p.m. so I’d already missed Gadarene and Olivia Chaney, but vocalist/violinist Jackie Oates (who’s from Dorset) had me from her first number, flawlessly accompanied by Mike Cosgrave on piano and acoustic guitar and James Budden on acoustic bass. I was especially taken with Jackie’s take on the traditional English ballad “Young Leonard” and a very moving lost-love song called “Past Caring,” but the whole set was excellent and later compelled me to purchase Jackie’s latest recording, Hyperboreans, which did not disappoint.
JACKIE OATES – “HYPERBOREANS” with James Dumbleton (acoustic guitar) and Mike Cosgrave (accordion)
Next up was Jim Moray (vocals, electric guitar), who offered a more rock-and-funk infused version of the folk music of the British Isles. Although he didn’t mention it, Jim is Jackie’s brother and he produced her aforementioned Hyperboreans CD, possibly at his own studio in Bristol (there’s no facility credited on the disc). His band included drums, violin, programmed bits from a laptop DJ, and another chap who doubled on violin and hurdy-gurdy. Jim seemed a bit nervous and talked a little too much between his numbers, of which my favorite was a twin-fiddles rendition of “The Wild Boar.” For a Child ballad (the title of which eluded me), Jim brought up rapper named Bubz. This combination almost worked as intended but not quite, and the same could be said of set closer “All You Pretty Girls,” a game attempt at an audience sing-along on this centuries-old sea shanty.
Trembling Bells, from Glasgow, may have sounded great. But at this point, exhaustion caught up with me and I confess to having nodded off for much of their set. Through the fog of half-sleep, I was stirred occasionally by the combination of Lavinia Blackwall’s pure soprano voice and the buzzing psych-rock flair of Mike Hastings’ lead guitar. Simon Shaw plays bass and the TBs’ excellent drummer Alex Neilson writes the songs. Fans of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and the like should give a listen to Trembling Bells on MySpace.
It was Geoff Travis of Rough Trade who, earlier in the day, had urged me to see The Unthanks: “If you ask me who you should see, Andy, I’ll always name one of my bands because of course I think they’re the best!” I must thank Geoff publicly and profusely for this particular recommendation, because I loved the Unthanks. Initially I thought their name was some kind of punk-rock gesture, like calling your band No Thanks or Thanks For Nothing. In fact, it is the surname of the lead singers Rachel and Becky Unthank, as I would’ve discovered had I ever listened to an earlier version of the group known as Rachel Unthank & Winterset whose 2008 CD The Bairns was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in the UK.
The Unthanks were at full strength for their SXSW shows with pianist Adrian McNally; Chris Prince on guitar, bass, and ukelele; Dean Ravera shifting with equal skill from drums to acoustic bass; cellist Jo Silverstone, and the radiant violinist and harmony singer Niopha Keegan. They opened with “Twenty Long Weeks,” from Winterset’s 2006 album Cruel Sister, but much of the set was drawn from the Unthanks’ new Rough Trade CD Here’s The Tender Coming. Becky Unthank even did some lively clog dancing on “Betsy Bell,” the hidden bonus track that closes the album.
Of course, I hadn’t heard any of these songs before and perhaps it was due to this surprise factor — combined with a certain emotional susceptibility brought on by lack of sleep — that “The Testimony of Patience Crenshaw” brought tears to my eyes. The story told by the lyrics (in which a young woman coal miner describes her hellish working conditions), the beautifully performed music, Rachel’s heart-piercing lead vocal and even her distinctive Newcastle accent — on that night, in that room, the combination was just devastating. Here’s an earlier (undated) live performance of the song:
THE UNTHANKS – “THE TESTIMONY OF PATIENCE CRENSHAW”
Rachel Unthank later explained to me that this song is not of 19th century vintage but was composed in 1969 by the obscure English folk musician Frank Higgins — who based the lyrics on the written records of the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842, the official inquiry to which the real Patience Crenshaw gave her real testimony. For further insight into the nightmare world of female and child miners during this period of British history, just read this Wiki entry for “hurrying.”
On the road in Europe at this writing (4.23.2010), the Unthanks have a North American tour set to begin in late June including an appearance at Joe’s Pub in New York. I’ll see you there.
Andy Schwartz at South X Southwest 2010 (earlier posts)
A lunchtime BBQ road trip to Kreuz Market in Lockhart TX has been a SXSW tradition for some years now. In the past, this excursion was supplemented by other out-of-town drives, such as to City Market in Luling (more great BBQ) and even a (now-defunct?) catfish farm; but SXSW itself has grown so large and all-consuming that most attendees are loathe to leave Austin for even a few hours. I myself was glad for the chance to escape, especially with meat as exceptionally delicious as Kreuz’s waiting at the end of the 45-minute drive to Lockhart.
At some point either today — or was it yesterday? — I stopped in at Yard Dog, Austin’s premier folk art gallery, on the hip strip of South Congress Avenue. I ended up purchasing an enchanting small-scale collage entitled “The Gardener of Good Intentions” by the artist Bill Miller, and Yard Dog head honcho Randy Franklin threw in an official YD t-shirt with its evocative skeleton-buckaroo-on-bronco image created by Jon Langford.
From the Yard Dog web site: “Discarded linoleum and vinyl flooring is reclaimed as a medium for the artwork of Bill Miller. Creating an effect that lies somewhere between collage and stained glass, Miller’s innovative use of the linoleum’s pattern and
color is his signature style. Miller’s work has been recognized for rendering narrative moods and a sense of common memory. His unexpected use of patterns taps into the medium’s nostalgic familiarity striving to impart a sense of history and story within each piece.”
Nearly every SXSW I’ve ever attended has been marked (or marred) by one day out of four or five when I just couldn’t seem to get it together: to make intelligent choices among the vast array of performances, to successfully navigate the crowds and the traffic, or to keep up my dwindling reserves of physical energy. Today turned out be that day. I wasted some afternoon time in East Austin, looking for an art gallery event actually scheduled for the next day; tried without success to take a nap (impossible with this much adrenalin flowing through my veins), and stood around in the bright sunlight for about an hour at the New West Records party at Belmont, jabbering away like everyone else while some band or other “rocked” dully in the background (I didn’t even stick around for John Hiatt’s appearance).
Nothing seemed to be going right until night fell and I ventured into Prague, a black box of a basement bar that felt like a firetrap and smelled faintly of untreated sewage. In a perverse way, it was just the sort of place where you’d want to experience a multi-band bill of the Batusis, with ex-Dead-Boy-turned-memoirist Cheetah Chrome and founding New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain; the Jim Jones Revue again; and the chronically underrated and hugely entertaining Kid Congo Powers leading his latest combo, the Pink Monkey Birds.
In the event, I was so on edge and uncomfortable in the venue that I took a 45-minute walk and missed the Batusis entirely (although this time-out afforded me the chance for an enjoyable accidental run-in with ASCAP’s Sue Drew). I returned to Prague and a now-packed house that included Maxwell’s owner Todd Abramson and Dr. Ira Padnos a/k/a “Dr. Ike,” presiding eminence of the Ponderosa Stomp.
If the Jim Jones Revue were really good the night before at Belmont, tonight at Prague they unleashed a veritable jukebox firestorm of unholy proportions — the same songs, probably in the same order, just wound up tighter and cranked up higher. It was unbelievable.
Kid Congo did not try to match the JJR’s artillery power but merrily rolled through his set with a Farfisa organ-tinged garage sound and delightful new tunes like “Black Santa” and “Rare As The Yeti” from Dracula Boots — the group’s latest release on InTheRed Records, and one I fully intend to purchase in support of this punk-rock veteran (Gun Club, Cramps, Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds). The Kid’s not just dragging his tired ass around Clubland USA — he’s performing with real rock & roll flair and unpretentious musicianship combined with a distinctive up-front gay sensibilty. Catch him if you can!
Andy Schwartz at South X Southwest 2010 (earlier posts)
My memories of events from 22 years ago can be fuzzy, but I think my attendance at the South X Southwest music conference in Austin TX began in March 1988 with SXSW #2. I came back for 18 consecutive years until 2007, at which point I took two years off from this annual rite of spring before returning on March 15, 2010. I arrived in Austin shortly after 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday 3/17, picked up my rental car, and drove downtown to the Austin Convention Center to pick up the laminated, holographic, computer-coded badge that would admit me to the official showcases, the panel discussions, and all the rest. After checking into my room at the Embassy Suites hotel on South Congress Avenue, I walked with a couple of friends and fellow attendees over to Threadgill’s restaurant for dinner. Two hours later, Holly George-Warren and I were traveling in a hotel van across the Congress Bridge en route to Wanda Jackson‘s set at Beauty Bar when another passenger announced — after receiving a call, email, or Tweet — that Alex Chilton had died suddenly at age 59, just four days before he was scheduled to perform at SXSW with Big Star. Holly nearly screamed out loud before bursting into tears: She and her husband Robert Warren had been Alex’s friends for at least 25 years, and Holly had spoken with Alex just a few weeks earlier. I didn’t know what to say or how to comfort my friend and colleague on this shocking loss: Nothing like this had ever happened in all my years at SXSW, and it was a strange and painful way to begin this one.
(Alex Chilton and I met only once, under strained circumstances in Memphis in 1979, and my memories of the occasion are not especially warm or pleasant. In no way did this encounter diminish my deep appreciation of Alex’s singular talent and especially the three original studio albums he created with Big Star. He lived according to his own code and if you didn’t dig it, that was entirely your problem.)
Not really knowing what else to do, Holly and I continued on to Beauty Bar (a venue with all the warmth and charm of a large storage shed) where Wanda Jackson gamely gave her all while backed by the worst band I’d ever heard her play with. At first I attributed their fumblings to a lack of rehearsal, but as the hour wore on I began to think this was about the best these guys could do — a few days’ rehearsal would have made little dent in their innate lack of feeling for the songs, arrangements, etc. Holly, at least, seemed temporarily lifted just to be in the warm glow of Wanda’s presence, and at one point remarked to me that she held out the faint hope that Alex Chilton had faked his own death “just to get out of playing SXSW with Big Star!”
VINTAGE WANDA JACKSON – “SPARKLIN’ BROWN EYES” (“JUBILEE USA,” 1959?)
When the set ended, Wanda and her husband/manager Wendell retreated backstage — “backstage,” in this case, being a cramped, darkened hallway, piled up with other bands’ equipment and without even a chair for the 73-year-old singer to sit down on. This, I guess, was the best that the staff of SXSW and/or the proprietors of Beauty Bar could do for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee whose recording career began in 1954. For shame!
I’m not sure what made me so determined to see The Jim Jones Revue from England: I didn’t own their first album, didn’t know that front man Jim Jones had been in the overlooked Thee Hypnotics (1988-1995), and wasn’t aware that the current band had been in the studio recently with an old NYC acquaintance of mine, Jim Sclavunos of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds. At midnight, a decent-sized crowd gathered on the patio of a bar called Belmont and waited patiently while drums were set up, sound levels checked, etc.
Guess what? These guys killed. The Jim Jones Revue lift all their song structures straight from Fifties R&B, bolt on some witty and/or bitter lyrics, then drive the whole thing through a howling wind tunnel of overdriven guitars, pounding Jerry Lee/Jim Dickinson piano, and an unstoppable rhythm section. It’s kinda like Richard Hell & the Voidoids playing the music of Fats Domino, and it had me rockin’. (Come to think of it, the Voidoids did play Fats Domino a few times — a live cover of “I Lived My Life” — and while Jim Jones and Rupert Orton may not be the sophisticated jazz-influenced guitarists that Robert Quine and Ivan Julian were, they’ve still got that go-for-the-throat intensity.)
THE JIM JONES REVUE – “ROCK ‘N’ ROLL PSYCHOSIS”
It was after 1:0o a.m. and tomorrow would be another day at South X Southwest. This one, for me, was now over.
On Monday, March 15, I attended the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. This was hailed as “the 25th anniversary” although in fact the first induction dinner was held in early 1986. I did not attend that inaugural event but have attended the majority of inductions since 1987 including events held in Los Angeles (1993) and Cleveland (2009). I’ve never paid for a ticket — a tablemate told me the price was three grand apiece this year — but rather have earned admittance either through the largesse of my former record company employer or (more often) as an editorial contributor to the program book distributed to all attendees. Holly George-Warren has served for several years as the managing editor of this handsome volume, accompanied by a sampler CD assembled by A&R veteran Gregg Geller.
I know there are quite a few Hall of Fame haters out there — some of whom I count as friends — but I’m not going to take the time and space here to address their assorted beefs ranging from “Why isn’t Link Wray in the Hall of Fame?” to “Why isn’t Yes in the Hall of Fame?” I take pride in my past work on the program book and have had a blast at the induction dinners, even if a lot of the event’s spontaneity was sacrificed years ago to the strictures and rituals of a televised awards show. Here are my thoughts on the 2010 ceremonies, in chronological order by inductee:
GENESIS: Sorry, prog people, but I never did and never will “get” this group in any of its stylistic phases and personnel lineups. It was therefore entirely appropriate that guitarist Trey Anastasio of Phish should have inducted the venerable British band, since I never “got” Phish either, even after attending one of their endless concerts (April 1998, Nassau Coliseum). I could relate to Trey’s fervent fan-boy appreciation: He spoke with the detail and devotion of a true believer and referred to Selling England By The Pound (1973) as “my all-time favorite album.” Certainly, this was preferable to Bobby Brown saying of Wilson Pickett, back in 1991, that he’d never really heard of Wilson Pickett until being asked to induct him a few weeks earlier.
[Perhaps it was just as well that Pickett was not even present for his own induction. I remember Seymour Stein portentously announcing from the stage that “Wilson Pickett is fogged in.” Since at the time Pickett was living in Englewood, New Jersey — roughly 90 minutes by car from Manhattan — I took this explanation to mean that maybe the defroster on his car had conked out.]
Phish then performed two long, meandering Genesis, er… compositions is what I’d have to call them, since they sure didn’t sound like “songs” as I define the term. After this mildly excruciating interlude, the honorees (minus former lead singer Peter Gabriel) took the stage, genteel expressions of gratitude were aired, and…oh fuck it, let’s get to
THE STOOGES: Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day began his induction speech in a curious but effective way. Having been born one year before the release of the Stooges’ Raw Power in 1973, Billie Joe had no personal memories of the original band performing in its own era. Therefore he chose to begin by quoting at length from Dictators guitarist Scott “Top Ten” Kempner’s account of the Stooges live at Ungano’s in NYC in 1970, as told to Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain for their 1997 book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. (Anybody still with me?)
Probably this is as close as Kempner, the Dictators, McCain and/or McNeil will ever come to actually being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — which, for some observers, will sum up all that’s heinously wrong with the thing. Indeed, following a few heartfelt remarks of his own, Billie Joe proceeded to reel off a long list of his favorite bands not yet inducted into the Hall, ranging from the Germs and Social Distortion to DEVO and the obscure UK group Penetration (with Pauline Murray).
The Stooges’ acceptances were very moving. Drummer Scott Asheton and guitarist James Williamson were thoughtful and touching but Iggy Pop was positively gripping. He began his speech by saluting the audience with both middle fingers upraised and ended by nearly breaking into tears.
Maybe Pop was thinking of all the dead Stooges: bassists Dave Alexander and Thomas “Zeke” Zettner (neither one made 35), road manager-turned-guitarist Bill Cheatham, and especially founding guitarist Ron Asheton. Asheton died of an apparent heart attack on 1/6/2009, still aggrieved and mystified that his band had yet to be inducted into the Rock Hall after 15 years of eligibility and at least one prior appearance on the ballot.
“Here we are, in the belly of the beast,” intoned Iggy. And: “A lotta money and power in this room…But music is life, and life is not a business.” And: “Ron Asheton was cool.” And: “Danny was cool” — a nod to the thankfully-still-living Danny Fields, who signed the Stooges and the MC5 to Elektra Records over the same weekend. And: “The poor people who started rock and roll, they were cool.” Joined by bassist Mike Watt (on board since 2003) and veteran Stooge sidemen Scott Thurston (piano) and Steve Mackay (saxophone), the Stooges tore it up with their two-song set of “Search and Destroy” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” They succeeded at least partially in breaking through the audience’s well-fed placidity and offered a thrilling taste of the tour that will follow on Sony Legacy’s deluxe reissue of Raw Power.
DAVID GEFFEN: With Hall of Fame honors already bestowed upon music biz moguls like Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Clive Davis, Chris Blackwell, and Mo Ostin, I suppose this was inevitable. Jackson Browne spoke with what seemed like genuine fondness for the man, invoking Geffen’s boundless enthusiasm for his artists and relentless efforts on their behalf. He managed to slip in the names of David Blue and Judee Sill, two Geffen signings that flopped in the marketplace (the latter’s fate was especially tragic) but whose work is more appreciated today. Of all that Eighties corporate rock crap that Geffen served up, like Whitesnake and Asia — the less said, the better. The honoree himself was at his most charming and disarming, cheerfully admitting that “I have no talent.” Geffen noted that his introduction to the music business occurred “when my brother was dating the sister of Phil Spector’s first wife” and thus provided David with entree to some of Spector’s legendary hit-making sessions at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood.
Safely stashed somewhere far from the Waldorf Grand Ballroom were the countless tales of insatiable greed and lust for power, of Machiavellian plots and whisper campaigns unleashed to destroy enemies, ex-partners, and even longtime friends. Details may be found in Wall Street Journal reporter Tom King’s 2000 biography The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells The New Hollywood, which Geffen initially authorized (and co-operated with) before turning on King and doing his best to suppress the book.
Little Steven Van Zandt inducted the Hollies with what can only be described as an unfolding oration on the past, present, and future of rock & roll. Part William Jennings Bryan and part Silvio Dante, it was really something to hear in this forum, although as Steve rolled along I wondered if he was about to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Like a 747 approaching Newark, Van Zandt circled over the subject of the Hollies for
about ten minutes before he finally came in for a landing with astute praise of their compositional, instrumental and especially vocal prowess. In the last-named category, Steven ranked the Hollies second only to the Beatles, a judgment with which I concur.(Got time on your hands? Read the complete text of Little Steven’s speech here.)
With blandly competent vocal support from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and Pat Monahan of Train, original Hollies Allan Clarke and Graham Nash sang strongly on “Bus Stop” and an exhilarating “Carrie-Anne.” I was particularly impressed by Clarke, who retired from music in 1999 and may not have sung on stage since then; he and Nash have been close friends for sixty-three years. Things got a bit weird with “Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress)” when another of the Hollies, Terry Sylvester, tried to grab Pat Monahan’s microphone away from him during this uncharacteristic Creedence-style rocker that — although intended for an Allan Clarke solo project (his is the only voice on the record) — became one of the group’s all-time biggest hits in 1972. Two other founding members, singer/guitarist Tony Hicks and the dynamic drummer Bobby Elliott, were MIA — reportedly fulfilling tour commitments in the UK with the version of the Hollies they’ve co-led for nearly two decades.
As is customary at these events, time was set aside for a still-photo montage of performers and music industry personalities who died in the year since the last induction ceremony. Among those depicted were the brilliant “American primitive” guitarist Jack Rose; fearless six-string adventurer James Gurley of Big Brother & the Holding Company); Memphis roots godfather Jim Dickinson; ex-Wilco member Jay Bennett; Richard “Squirrel” Lester of the Chi-Lites; rampant Fifties rocker Dale Hawkins, and folk music legends Kate McGarrigle and Mike Seeger. They’re all dead, and we’re left with…Adam Levine.
JIMMY CLIFF: He looked terrific and sounded great on “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” and “The Harder They Come” — all from the soundtrack of The Harder They Come, released in 1972. It’s anyone’s guess as to why this stirring singer and charismatic performer was never been able to match this early and groundbreaking success, despite extended major-label stays at both Warner Bros. and Columbia preceded in 1969 by a fine album for A&M, Wonderful World, Beautiful People. (The title track became one of Cliff’s only two US Top 30 Pop hits, followed in 1993 by a predictable cover of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.”)
Jimmy Cliff was inducted by Wyclef Jean, who I find a little tiresome in his seeming ubiquity but who at least has a personal relationship to the artist. Years before Wyclef reached multi-platinum stardom with the Fugees, he recalled, his boyhood idol Jimmy Cliff accepted an invitation to crash at Clef’s modest New Jersey apartment after the two musicians worked a session at The Hit Factory.
ABBA: I collected a lot of their singles and occasionally still play their first two Atlantic LPs, Waterloo (1974) and ABBA (1975). These immaculately arranged and produced records are descended directly from Phil Spector’s greatest “Wall of Sound” hits, with added elements of Swedish folk music, French chanson, and Italian aria. Of the four members of ABBA, only Benny Andersson and Anni-Fryd (Frida) Lyngstad showed up at the Waldorf, and only Benny had something historically meaningful to say.
“We had no blues, not what you in America would call blues,” he said, but in Swedish folk songs Benny heard what he called “the sound of ‘The Melancholy Belt’ — sometimes mistakenly known as ‘The Vodka Belt’ — this region that stretches from Siberia to Finland to Sweden…If the sun disappears for two entire months, you can hear it in the songs, you can even see it in the eyes of Greta Garbo.” Swedish radio in the Fifties, he noted, consisted of one station that played very little music of any kind and no American pop or r&b. Record shops thus became the sole purveyors of the new sounds, and after Benny bought a copy of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” in 1957, “there was no turning back.”
As for the importance of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Andersson noted that at present there are about 250 inductees in all categories: “Imagine what our world would be like if none of those people had ever existed, or ever created…I think it would be pretty dull.” The surviving Bee Gees, Barry and Robin Gibb, inducted ABBA in rather jovial fashion, reading awkwardly by turns from a teleprompter. With Benny Andersson on piano, Nashville star Faith Hill sang ABBA’s massive 1980 hit “The Winner Takes All” with what the late Lester Bangs (referring to another artist in another time) once described as “all the soul and passion of a doorknob.” Hill’s performance was not enhanced by the extravagant arm-waving and finger-pointing of the other keyboard player to her right, whoever he was.
The hour was growing late as a radiant-looking Carole King spoke, soulfully and unpretentiously, about the historic contributions of her fellow songwriters and now Hall of Fame inductees Jesse Stone (1901-1999), Otis Blackwell (1932-2002), Mort Shuman (1936-1991), Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, and Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich (1940-2009). By this time I had stopped taking notes, being more concerned with my table’s dangerously low stock of red wine. But I paid enough attention to know that Cynthia Weil’s acceptance speech went on far too long, given the number of other award recipients (or their family members) lined up behind her and awaiting their turn to speak. Weil didn’t clear the room, but she certainly depleted it.
Jeff Barry had lobbied as long and hard for his own induction into the Hall of Fame as any potential candidate since the hapless Chubby Checker. But when this magic moment finally arrived, Barry was unable to attend the ceremony due to flight delays from Los Angeles and instead Little Steven read Jeff’s acceptance speech from his Blackberry. Students of the Brill Building may wonder why Mort Shuman was not inducted back in 1992 alongside his former songwriting partner Doc Pomus; and why Jesse Stone — a crucial creative force in the early years of Atlantic Records — couldn’t have been inducted sometime between, say, 1988 and 1995 since he lived to the age of 98.
The musical tribute to these inductees featured a rough-sounding Ronnie Spector on Barry & Greenwich’s “I Can Hear Music” and “Be My Baby,” the two songs she sang at my wedding in 1995; Rob Thomas (ex-Matchbox 20) singing Pomus & Shuman’s Drifters classic “Save The Last Dance For Me” (bleh); and FeFe Dobson (who?) giving a good account of herself on “River Deep, Mountain High” (by Barry/Greenwich/Spector). This segment and the evening closed with an all-hands-on-deck version of Jesse Stone’s immortal “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” led by Peter Wolf of the periodically re-formed J. Geils Band — another real rock & roll group that has made the ballot in past years but has yet to be voted in, despite selling millions of records for Atlantic (1972-77) and later scoring a Number One album with Freeze-Frame (EMI) in ’82.
On the same week as my visit to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I spent most of bitter-cold Friday and Saturday nights shuffling around the Bleecker & MacDougal intersection of the Village, taking in eight or ten different sets of this year’s Winter Jazzfest. For $30, roughly the music charge for one set at Jazz Standard or Iridium, I purchased a ticket that enabled me to catch as many sets as I could among the various venues. On Friday, the clubs were (Le) Poisson Rouge, Kenny’s Castaways, and Zinc Bar; on Saturday, WJF added Sullivan Hall and the Bitter End.
This bargain price drew large crowds, including many attendees in town for the annual convention of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. Seats were almost impossible to come by for most sets, unless you chose to camp out at one club as early as 6:00 p.m. The rooms were often packed tight and some acquaintances told me they were unable even to get into certain shows, a problem I myself did not encounter.
On the up side, most sets started on time or close to it; change-overs were accomplished without undue delays, and the sound systems were good to excellent. Audiences were genuinely attentive and sometimes wildly enthusiastic, and it was a trip to hear actual creative music performed at a Bleecker Street tourist trap/frat bar like Kenny’s Castaways. (Not sure I’d even set foot in that place since the Eighties, when 1967 founder Pat Kenny was still alive and the Smithereens held forth regularly on its small stage.)
Here, in chronological order, are my impressions of the performances I witnesssed:
(1) Jamie Leonhart @ Le Poisson Rouge – A very good young singer, although not one much in (my idea of) the real jazz tradition — more like “alternative” pop/folk with jazz inflections. Jamie sang her own songs, no standards, and fronted a band whose odd instrumentation included two clarinet players. Deidre Rodman of the Lascivious Biddies was a subtle but strong foil, playing melodica and singing harmonies. The emotional peak of the set was the closing “Let The Flower Grow” — a
pro-humanity/anti-military song, poignant but not sappy, composed by Jamie’s father-in-law, the bassist Jay Leonhart.
(2) Briggan Krauss Trio Coordinate @ Kenny’s Castaways – Krauss has been living and gigging in NYC since ’94 but somehow I’d never heard of him until tonight. He’s made both jazz and electronic music recordings but here stuck to alto saxophone with bass and drums. Krauss had a floating sound with a lot of air around the notes, while drummer Kenny Wolleson’s playing reminded me a bit of Tony Oxley when I saw the latter duet with Cecil Taylor at the Village Vanguard in 2008. Trio Coordinate played what sounded like genuinely free improvisations of varying length — they definitely were communicating, although exactly what was being communicated is tough to put into words. My wife Leslie Rondin thought they sounded great.
(3) Jeremy Udden’s Plainville @ Kenny’s Castaways – Alto/soprano sax man Udden led an instrumental group of five or maybe six guys with a distinct Americana flavor: guitarist Brandon Seabrook doubled on banjo, Pete Rende switched off from electric piano to pump organ. The result sometimes sounded like Lee Konitz jamming with The Band — okay, not on that level, but good stuff nonetheless even if none of the individual tunes stuck in my head.
Like all tonight’s sets at Kenny’s, this one was part of a showcase put together by the youthful eager beavers of SearchAndRestore.com. At their info table, I picked up an entertaining pamphlet, The Jazz Pirate Press, with jottings by Roswell Rudd, Curtis Hasselbring, and Josh Roseman. SearchAndRestore’s mission statement reads, in part: “To build a sustainable jazz community, we need to make great jazz more open to the public…We only book double bills so the shows have a more communal feel. No drink minimum, no emptying out after a set. Standing room and seats. This more casual jazz environment lets people feel like they’re part of something.” Sounds good to me, although so far their Web site looks more like an aggregate of info on the regular NYC club calendar — I didn’t see many S&R-originated or sponsored shows there.
(4) Nicholas Payton SeXXXtet @ Le Poisson Rouge – The trumpeter and his group drew a full house for the last set of the night at this venue. The SeXXXtet included female vocalist Johnaye Kendrix and the wizardly Taylor Eigisti on electric piano; the overall groove reminded of some of Freddie Hubbard’s better Seventies tracks for CTI and Columbia. Payton played with his usual impeccable technique (and also sang a bit) but it was difficult to hear, through the band’s wall of sound, what if anything he was really saying on the horn. After about 20 minutes, I got tired of standing in one spot, there was no room to dance, and we headed home.
(1) Carmen Consoli @ Le Poisson Rouge – Not her first time in NYC but my first exposure to this female singer/songwriter/guitarist (born 1974) who grew up in a village near Catania, Sicily. A successful mainstream pop artist in Italy (seven studio albums, hit singles, slick videos, etc.) who in recent years has turned toward acoustic music, Carmen Consoli was the single most impressive performer I saw at Winter Jazzfest. Ironically, her music had less to do with “jazz” than any just about other act I heard all weekend. She employed the very effective stage strategy of introducing her songs in English, giving details of their story lines and inspirations, then singing them in Italian. She is a powerfully expressive vocalist, a superior melodicist, and a skillful if not virtuoso acoustic guitarist who used altered tunings and finger-picking patterns to give variety to her set.
This clip from a live MTV-Europe show gives some of the flavor of Carmen’s performance at WJF:
Here’s Carmen with orchestral backing, live in Taormina, Sicily:
(2) Ben Allison @ Le Poisson Rouge – The bassist led a quintet with Jenny Scheinman (violin), Steve Cardenas (guitar), Shane Endsey (trumpet), and Rudy Royston (drums). The music came across as stiff and overly composed, and the dutiful solos did not move me. This is the third band with which I’ve seen Jenny Scheinman play and I just don’t get what all the critical hoo-hah is about. A list headed “Jazz Violinists I Dig More Than Jenny Scheinman” would include Billy Bang, Charles Burnham, Joe Kennedy, Ray Nance, Sid Page (ex-Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks), Stuff Smith, Eddie South, even Svend Asmussen (age 94, he still gigs occasionally in Copenhagen).
(3) Gretchen Parlato @ Sullivan Hall – A technically accomplished singer with a sensual, breathy tone, rhythmic acuity, and flawless diction whose limitations began to weigh on me over the length of a full set. She benefited greatly from the instrumental support of bassist Alan Hampton, drummer Kendrick Scott, and Taylor Eigisti running enjoyably rampant on electric piano.
(4) JD Allen Trio @ Kenny’s Castaways – Tenor saxophonist Allen played with both muscle and melodic invention in the first half of this set, i.e the part I heard. Rudy Royston’s drumming was livelier and more propulsive in this setting than with Ben Allison the night before.
(5) Dr. Lonnie Smith @ Sullivan Hall – My third live exposure to this veteran organist was the best and hottest set I’ve heard him play to date. Guitarist Jonathan Kriesberg and drummer Jamire Williams, who are maybe half the leader’s age, seemed to propel the 68-year-old Smith to higher heights and funkier funk. The closing “Pilgrimage,” with its step-by-step modulations
rising to an ecstatic climax, conveyed an almost Hendrix-like majesty and drove the crowd wild. (Note: Dr. Lonnie Smith is not the keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith of Cosmic Echoes fame.)
(6) William Parker Quartet @ Sullivan Hall – Great and I mean great. About Parker’s bass playing, I can’t say it any better than Chris Kelsy at AllMusic.com: “Although he does, to an extent, serve as a harmonic anchor in his groups, his more important role is as a source of energy. Parker drives a band like few other bassists; in combination with a powerful drummer, a Parker-led rhythm section is an inexorable force.”
Here, with Hamid Drake absolutely killing on drums, the effect was like “inexorable” times five and a launching pad for the extended searching solos of altoist Rob Brown and trumpeter Lewis Barnes. Two tunes comprised the entire set: “Criminals in the White House” and “Malachi’s Mood.” Since I lack the technical vocabulary to describe this music, may these classic radical jazz album titles invoke its sound and spirit:
The Way Ahead… Far Cry… Tomorrow Is The Question… Ascension… Universal Consciousness… Destination Out!
The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens has been open to the public since 1994. But I’d never been there until Saturday (1.9.2010), when Leslie and I drove over in early afternoon for a free event featuring Terry Teachout, the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, published December 2009). The book is excellent: carefully researched, well paced, written with open ears in a clear and candid style. I’d recommend it to anyone with any interest in Louis Armstrong, jazz, and/or American pop culture.
In taking on this Promethean subject, Teachout had an edge over his several precedecessors in at least two respects. Although presently the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, he was once a professional bass player and thus the first trained musician to essay an Armstrong biography. Perhaps more importantly, Teachout was the first biographer to have had access to over 650 hours of reel-to-reel tapes recorded by Pops himself. These tapes capture Armstrong in uncensored casual conversations with friends and fellow musicians, playing trumpet along with records (both his own and those of other artists), even trying to coax his wife Lucille into the marital bed for a little pre-dawn action.
We may presume that the Armstrong archives were better organized and more easily accessible to Teachout than to previous researchers, and Louis’ own writings are excerpted often and effectively in Pops. “In between playing three hundred shows a year,” Teachout notes, “he turned out two memoirs, several autobiographical manuscripts, dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, and thousands of personal letters to friends and fans, as well as a number of strikingly frank autobiographical manuscripts that did not see print until long after his death.” The author sheds new light on some long-clouded episodes in the trumpeter’s life including his 1930 marijuana arrest — Armstrong was a lifelong pot smoker — and his entanglements with Chicago mobsters.
All that said, I’m not sure Teachout’s book is so vastly superior to its immediate predecessor, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen (Broadway Books, 1997). This was the first Armstrong bio I ever read, not counting the great man’s own Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, and it greatly enhanced my knowledge and perception of its subject. Until the arrival of Pops, Bergreen’s was the most comprehensive book on its subject but it seems to have gotten rather short shrift from both jazz and book critics, perhaps because Bergreen had never written about jazz or jazz musicians before. In his New York Times review of Teachout’s book, David Margolick referenced earlier biographies by Gary Giddins and James Lincoln Collier but not Extravagant Life; nor is it among the half-dozen books sold in the gift shop of the Armstrong House Museum. Witty, elegant, and warmly appreciative of its subject, An Extravagant Life moved me to pick up two more of Bergreen’s non-fiction works, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (also excellent) and Capone: The Man and the Era (bought but not read yet).
Meanwhile, back at the shack… After perusing the gift shop and helping ourselves to a bowl of complimentary gumbo, we joined the crowd seated on folding chairs in the low-ceilinged basement of the house. Following some opening remarks, Terry Teachout read excerpts from the first and last portions of his book, then screened a high-quality B&W clip taken from a 1958 TV appearance by Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. Pops sounded both vigorous and completely at ease singing “On The Sunny Side of the Street,” but the sweat dripping from his brow reminded me of the physical effort he put into his live performances. His trumpet solo, although described by Teachout as a “set piece” that varied only slightly from show to show, was a soaring work of sonic architecture — the musical equivalent of watching a ten-story building erected in elapsed-time motion before your eyes. Teachout then took questions and comments from the audience. Among the speakers were trumpeter Jon Faddis, who recalled being transfixed by Armstrong’s mid-Sixties appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; and vocalist Melba Joyce, who recounted her guest appearance with Louis and the All Stars on a show in Dallas in 1961.
We then joined a small group for an abbreviated version of the standard house tour. Louis and his wife Lucille purchased the modest two-story dwelling at 34-56 107th Street in 1943. It was the first and only home Armstrong ever owned, and to him a treasured symbol of his rise from the dire poverty of his New Orleans boyhood. After her husband’s death in 1971, Lucille Armstrong lived on in the house until her own passing twelve years later. By that time, the property had been deeded first to the City of New York, then entrusted to Queens College which today administers the Museum and the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.
Among the many intact period features of the house are Lucille’s custom-built kitchen cabinets, with their nifty jet-age design and turquoise enamel finish; Pops’ upstairs den, with LPs from his personal collection and his reel-to-reel tape decks; original Sixties oil paintings of both Armstrongs, and the bed in which Louis died on 7/6/1971. As we stood in the den, our guide clicked on a wall switch and the room filled with the sound of Armstrong’s inimitable voice on segments from his private tape stash. Pops was right there with us, in the home he loved.
Louis Armstrong – “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” (1943, with the Luis Russell Orchestra). “Even on the simplest of the big-band sides, his playing is charged with an expressive depth that seizes the ear…There is an underlying seriousness in his light-hearted art that recalls a remark made by the film director Howard Hawks, who claimed that ‘the only difference between comedy and tragedy is the point of view.'” (Teachout, page 146)