Elephant Dancing: ‘Our New Orleans’ (03/06)

Elephant Dancing: ‘Our New Orleans’ (03/06)

A brief essay on a modern masterpiece of soul music. If you have not heard OUR NEW ORLEANS, do not delay.

GreilMarcus.net

Our New Orleans, a recent collection of performances by refugees and expatriates from the city, recorded after the flood that destroyed it, is the latest in a series of New Orleans tribute-charity-telethon extravaganzas—all of which seemed to feature dull performances by Irma Thomas, “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”

In the early 1960s Thomas caught a vein of pain and defiance that was altogether her own. “Wish Someone Would Care,” from 1964, was both more and less than soul music was supposed to be: less because it was so fragile, more because it demanded more of the music than the music could give. The singer was demanding that the song—or something, someone—stop her from killing herself. After that, the spark was gone.

When the producers of Our New Orleans gathered musicians from the city’s diaspora—in Memphis, in Houston, in New York City, in Maurice, Louisiana, a village halfway across…

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On Listening to BEGGARS BANQUET for the First Time in a Long While (no, a poem does not follow….)

Listening to The Rolling Stones’ Beggars’ Banquet for the first time in awhile, cranked up to the max in my truck on a hot Sunday at the end of a bad week for the country and world, it occurred to me that “Jigsaw Puzzle” is the prequel, if you will, to “Gimme Shelter.” The rain’s turned torrential, the persona’s up off the floor and out in the streets, the puzzle unfinished. And, thinking about how Dylanesque “Jigsaw Puzzle” is, it made me realize that, for all the Stones’ defects (in my mind, not too many at this point), unlike Dylan they did throw themselves into the storm, as artists and performers. Dylan: always a hustler, ankle a quarter of an inch out of the bear trap. But in this intense, world-historic pop scenario, not a thing for one’s CV. So, you be the judge:

“Jigsaw Puzzle”:

“Gimme Shelter”:

“I Threw It All Away” (in more ways than one? I do love this song, but Johnny Cash be damned….)

Top 10 Great Music-Related Things That Happened to Me This Week

I. My wife Nicole became fully converted to Wussyphilia, via repeat listenings to a folder I put on her iPod including their very lively 2014 release Attica! plus some of their earlier great tracks. Her fave rave–and who can blame her?

2. After all of these years, Greil Marcus’ writing, as knotty, theoretical, and deeply referenced as it can be, is as easy and pleasurable for me to read as drinking a glass of water after mowing the lawn (Hannah Arendt and C.L.R. James, on the other hand, are wonderful, but not easy). While not perfect, his new book, The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs, intriguingly explores many of his (and my) favorite themes, particularly that our musical and cultural past is always, through the magic of rock and roll, in conversation with our present. He brought about many revelations in my musical thinking, one I am somewhat ashamed to admit. While actively liking “Rehab,” I mostly rolled my eyes at the output and antics of the doomed Amy Winehouse; however, in a chapter focusing on “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” as he glanced off into Shadow Morton and the Shangri-Las, he described a Grammy performance of Winehouse’s that made it impossible for me not to YouTube it. I don’t Grammy, so it was new, shocking, and wonderful to me, and I take back my eye-rolling (I am a huge Shangri-Las fan, and should have recognized her lineage instantly):

3. I started practicing ukelele again. My wife bought me one almost ten years ago for our anniversary, I practiced hard for awhile, but I don’t have a great physical affinity for stringed instruments. I hadn’t gotten it out in awhile, but I muscle-remembered several things. That damned “B” chord formation, though.

4. Some very cool Swedes released a compilation of the great Midwestern rock and roller Charlie Burton‘s awesome, comedic songs. And…it is authorized. And…it has the greatest song ever written about Elvis:

5. It was a long week. Nicole and I ended it with a trip to the amazing, enduring Tony’s Pizza Palace (in Columbia, Missouri) for a pizza, a Greek salad, and a pitcher. We got in the car, relaxed and satisfied, and as we pulled away, Nicole realized she had the car iPod turned down. She turned it up, and I discovered she’d segued from one of my favorite bands to another: Nashville’s Natural Child. As we cruised around a little that night (and the next morning), we were treated to many of their early singles on Infinity Cat, which, though not hallowed by the indie press, were extremely strong in the areas of wit, riffage, cameraderie, and persona (“trio of weed bandits bemusedly working through the obstacles of modern USA”). They have evolved a bit: they’re better players, more relaxed performers, far more well-known on the circuit, and still fun to see live. But there is something about their early drive, humor, and bleary desperation I miss. Here’s one we really loved this morning, a bit of a landmark, really, in the gender politics and sexual documentation of rock and roll:

6. I have recently joined a Facebook group called Expert Witness that is made up of 200+ devoted followers/readers/proteges of the great rockwriter Robert Christgau. Facebook is supposed to be really bad for you in nine different ways, but–it feels like home to me. The conversation is intelligent, useful (since Christgau’s various review columns are defunct–he’s now at Billboard, but I am not sure what he’s really gonna do there), witty, and civil without everyone behaving as if he has a napkin folded in his lap, in Allen Lowe’s great phrase. Case in point: this week, I finally found a cheap copy of sound-bard David Toop’s infamous Sugar & Poison comp, a two-disc modern R&B mix that ambitiously tries to replicate the various hills and valleys in a real-life roll in the hay (for example, in the middle of the groove, the listener might be confronted with financial anxiety (see Dennis Edwards’ track embedded below, my favorite on the collection)). That’s not all it does, and it is fascinating, particularly because no megahits are used (the tracks are mostly excavations!), but, initially, I wasn’t impressed as much as I was expecting to be. I’d read about it almost twenty years ago and my imagination had exponentially swelled. When I posted on the forum about having gotten the CD and been a little underwhelmed, Chicago’s Kevin Bozelka, one of my favorite participants, and I engaged in a Beavis and Butthead-cum-Siskel and Ebert thread-scrum that, despite the multiple double-entendres (and double-nonentendres) led me to a better understanding of the record. Verdict: you must have it. I can’t wait for Nicole to hear it.

7. These reggae greats, blasting from Saturday speakers, motivated me to get school-prep work done and post here: Lee “Scratch” Perry (Who Put the Voodoo ‘Pon Reggae?), Desmond Dekker, Toots and the Maytals, Junior Byles, pre-Marcus Garvey Burning Spear, and ’60s solo Peter Tosh. Thank you, gentlemen. Smoke and see on.

8. I have thoroughly enjoyed two other music tomes this week other than Marcus’: Allen Lowe’s epic, insightful, deeply-researched, contentious, mischievous American Pop: From Minstrels to Mojos and Thomas Brothers’ second volume of his Louis Armstrong critical biography trilogy, Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism. I like books that indicate hard work and deep love. I highly recommend both, and you should get the nine-disc companion box to Lowe’s history.

9. By simply displaying a photograph of the long-forgotten Indianapolis punk band Panics’ compilation I Wanna Kill My Mom on the above-mentioned Expert Witness Facebook group page and expressing my enthusiasm–how can you not love a band whose goal it must have been (and they did not reach it, part of the charm) to sound exactly like the Sex Pistols trying to learn “Roadrunner” on The Great Rock and Roll Swindle soundtrack?–I got to have a cyberconversation with Chuck Eddy, one of the more eccentric and provocative rockwriters out there. I don’t often agree with him, but he’s fun to read, and he…approved of my purchase. I am unaccountably needy, and so easily made happy.

10. I want to know about Lee Wiley. Always thankful to have a new musical grail after which to quest. Expert Witness eminence grise Cliff Ocheltree, I hope you can help.

The Washington Post Says Jazz is Dead — Again? Really? Seriously?

Give it a rest, ignatzes.

Jazz Lands

If jazz is dead, then why are the would-be hipsters trying so hard to kill it?

Last week, the New Yorker ran an unfunny and rather mean-spirited “satire” of Sonny Rollins, titled “In His Own Words.” Rather than offering a genuine interview with the 84-year-old jazz legend, the publication wasted space on a humor piece that didn’t even touch on several of the key episodes in the saxophonist’s career.

dunce cap

And now, another major publication, the Washington Post, hammers on jazz with a piece that reads like satire but, sadly, is not.

“Jazz has run out of ideas, and yet it’s still getting applause,” someone named Justin Moyer writes, in a column titled “All that jazz isn’t all that great.”

Right up front, Moyer admits that, while he studied with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Pheeroan akLaff and Jay Hoggard at Wesleyan, he found jazz “hard to grasp.” In…

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Good to My Earhole (and Other Music-Related Phenomena): Last Half of July–and I got my month right!

Feet in Street

“I bet I know how many kids your dad had…”

For those few of you who may have wondered where I’ve been, it’s been to the Land of the Uninspired as well as to the opposite–the American South, specifically New Orleans (again!). I am trying to get the hang of regular blogging; my life-energy is too variously diffused, I think, to write every day, but I am a creature of routine. If I am IN a routine–I mean IN–you can count on me like the sunrise. But if what I am involved in has an irregular pulse, I am likely to fade. So I am fighting this. I would also like to clarify that this is a music blog that, really, is aimed at people like me (life-energy variously diffused) who don’t have time to be music-obsessed (though I find time because I am helpless). So, for example, if I mention Mr. Quintron, to whom many would now react with a gargantu-yawn…well, I am not writing at you. OK, enough. My life does revolve around music, so here’s what has happened since I last made contact.

1. I saw Johnny Winter with a colleague whose mother taught him English in high school in Beaumont, Texas, and who had Johnny’s brother Edgar (I am sure you have heard of him) as a–wait for it!–but it should not be a surprise!–Sunday school teacher. My buddy got to say hi at an otherwise depressing meet-and-greet (where to hold one these days? in a store specializing in video games!), then we went to the show, where either the sound guys at the venue-that-shall-not-be-named fucked up the mix, or the mix was designed to disguise Johnny’s age-and-illness-related struggles. It was not a bad show, but you couldn’t tell what Johnny was singing (“Bill Haley preaching Armageddon,” Lester Bangs once wrote of his performance on 1969’s Second Winter), and you had to watch his fingers (we were in the balcony) to tell if he was soloing. Barely a week later, he was a gone dead (silver) train. Did he matter? Listen to this:

Also, below, is a great picture of my friend, looking perfectly Sunday-school-defiant, standing in front of the teenaged Edgar “Frankenstein” Winter:

Sunday school

2. I adore Western Swing–Bob Wills’ 1946-7 version of the Texas Playboys is as close as I think that products of Western civilization have ever gotten to fully realized–and, if you don’t count the late, ineffably great Canuck Ray Condo and his Ricochets, I had never seen or danced to such a band live. It materialized that I got a chance to see Asleep at the Wheel, to my mind the world’s best and maybe last Western Swing band. Well, they only had one fiddle, they didn’t play a song from their great early records The Wheel and Comin’ At Ya, and they didn’t play either of their classic Kinky Friedman covers, which are important since a) Kinky cannot sing, and b) he is a cowboy-hatted Jewish Texas country-singer, crime fictionalist, animal-lover and channeler of Mark Twain. ASSIGNMENT: look up Asleep at the Wheel’s beautiful run at “Before All Hell Breaks Loose,” in which Kinky advises resigning from the human race, and “Homo Erectus,” in which Kinky gets wood for a teacher. They played OK, but we didn’t dance. That’s the measure.

3. We did not make a second visit to Fred and Annie Mae McDowell’s grave on Tate-Panola County Road between Senatobia and Como in Mississippi. We had hoped to make a practice of keeping them clean–on our first visit, Annie Mae’s grave was littered with butts and other detritus–but we realized only three months had transpired since our first visit. We are going to make it practice, but instead we went to the Como, Mississippi, library and saw some great North Mississippi Hill Country photos on the wall. If you’re ever in Como, stay in the Como Inn and go to their library.

4. Nicole, my wife, who is gamely, heroically, and intelligently struggling with the recent passing of her mother (and, really, she has no other) from brain cancer, loves New Orleans even more than I do–and people, I was born to love it–so we booked about a week at the highly recommended Frenchmen Hotel in the heart of the Marigny on Frenchmen Street, which, if you don’t know, is where you end up if you keep walking east past the French Market and out of the Quarter. I had a nice conversation with Jan Ramsey, the editor of Off Beat!, the guide to avoiding tourist shit and having fun local-style (it’s free in NOLA, but we pay to subscribe here in Misery), whose office is above the great Louisiana Music Factory, which was right next door to our hotel, and she was concerned with our experience on Frenchmen Street: “Was it just a touristy extension of the Quarter?” is what her concern was. Yeah, tourists find their way there, BUT, first, Frenchmen Street and the Marigny is the bohemian version of the Quarter (think about that), and it is virtually all music venues that are devoted to local acts, which, in New Orleans, deliver.

5. When in New Orleans, you must see and hear music. Every genre is represented, and not as a passing-through thing. We had a series of literally (in other words, I am not writing figuratively) mesmerizing live experiences:

Ellis Marsalis, one of the city’s first modernists, slyly guiding us through a mixture of Tin Pan Alley, bebop, post-bop, and modernistic pieces at Snug Harbor (go! go!), with his youngest Jason drumming and exchanging wry looks and strangely autistic rhythmic responses throughout.

Heavy Lids

Heavy Lids (above)

Siberia, an old-school punk dive that we revelled in–no summer scarves, no beards, no preciousness, lots of smoking!–featured an amazing four-band bill: Planchettes and Heavy Lids, who must be among the best punk bands in New Orleans, the  former anorexic teenage sex-god trash, the latter a casually fierce, “I don’t give a shit” unit with a great Mr. Quintron-produced 45 which we found at the stern but awesome Domino Sound, supporting the Nashville duo of Pujol, who must be the shortest band in rock and roll history but whose guitar tone drilled a hole through my brain, and–honestly, we didn’t know they were going to be in NOLA–Natural Child, whose new album Dancin’ with Wolves is their worst (they’re tryin’ to go country–why?) but who remain totally unpretentious, fun, and offer the best t-shirts in indie-dom. I count myself as easily in their Top 10 biggest fans, but they don’t give a shit–as it should be! We went in dreading enduring the huge bill, and left elated at how consistently exciting and fun the band–and, largely, the crowd–was. Props to a dude I met there named Ronin, who immediately made us feel welcome (my ancient Husker Du shirt helped).

John Boutte plays almost every Saturday night at dba’s on Frenchmen. The lay(wo)men would know him as the singer of the theme to HBO’s Treme. While not quite Sam Cooke risen to walk amongst us (as some claim), the little sprite has a very similar, though drier, delivery, and–honestly–better taste. We had suffered through douchebags standing directly behind us talking about their BMWs and cocktails when we’d seen him at Tipitina’s in NOLA in March, but dba’s insists on decorum during Boutte’s sets, and it made all the difference. He swung smoothly from anti-war song to Tin Pan Alley standard to trad-jazz NOLA to Iris DeMent’s “My Life” and Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” backed by acoustic guitar, piano, trombone, sax, and his own tambos. The man really would be a star if he chose to step out of the Crescent City, which he has no plans of doing. Respek.

We were, unaccountably, on a Marsalis kick. I find Wynton’s musical politics a sad and misguided distraction, but the family can play, and we bought tickets to see the trumpeter lead the Lincoln Center jazz orchestra at the beautiful Saenger Theater in a benefit for the Tipitina’s Foundation, which gets instruments in the hands of NOLA youth. I expected a dry performance, but the set list was inspired (nice onscure Brubeck and Silver, plus some Marsalis originals), and Wynton, really getting off on his mute and vocalizations, came off as a true and proud and funky son of the city. Two nights later, we found ourselves at the Royal Sonesta, watching Jason Marsalis’ vibes group nail a bunch of Monk tunes and being blown away by Justin Faulkner, one of the best young jazz drummers (along with New Orleans’ own Joe Dyson) that I’ve seen–look for him in the upcoming film about Buddy Bolden. He is the son of Art Blakey and Roy Haynes, if that means anything to you.

Records: four blew me away. Two 45s: a limited edition split-single where local boho-community booster-weirdo-organist Quintron does nouveaux-zydeco Keith Frank’s awesome and inspirational “Haterz” on the “B,” and Cajun heroes Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys do Quintron’s addictive “Chatterbox” on the “A”; and a great 1971 single by eccentric Lousiana bluesman/ex-con Robert Pete Williams, where, on the “A,” he says goodbye to Slim Harpo with stinging and unusual slide-playing, and, on the “B,” addresses our involvement in “Viet Nam.” I casually snapped it up for $10, only to find it was going for $30-40 in the collectors’ market. That shit makes no difference unless the music wails–which, here, it does. One LP I scarfed up collected the great NOLA trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen’s accompaniments of ’30s blues singers. Allen wasn’t Satchmo, but he had plenty of subtle and ecstatic moves. Finally, I got a 300-copies-only cassette comp of the best of the aforementioned Mr. Quintron, which, to my ears, is a) perfectly selected, and b) perfectly timed, since I just bought a new Denon dual cassette deck for $25 on eBay.

Finally, I met a small passel of locals at the Envie Cafe on Decatur–one of which had previosuly just been a cyberfriend, but who, in physical space, was even more interesting: a former stud wrestler, a master geneologist, and stellar record collector (I suspect him of being former CIA). He introduced me to his morning band of caffeinated reprobates, and I learned very, very much–about James Booker, Wynton Marsalis, Algiers Point, 504 Records, much, much more.

If you ain’t been, you really ought to go.

6. There are only two records that matter this year: Wussy’s Attica!, which is passionate and mysterious as rock and roll has not been for a long time, and Allen Lowe’s Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4. I’d like to say one thing about the latter (well, maybe more than one): read Lowe’s great book American Pop: From Minstrels to Mojos, which explains better than anything our tangled musical legacy, listen to the nine-disc audio companion, then load up his new four-disc set, lean forward, and revel in how he and his mutating jazz units (featuring players like Matthew Shipp, J. D. Allen, Lewis Porter, and the raw, ebullient-toned Lowe himself, on alto sax) try with all their might to live up to that legacy. All that’s missing, Allen, is a fiddle. Props are also extended to Bo Dollis, Jr’s A New Kind of Funk and the Jenny Lewis single “Just One of the Guys,” which transcends the too-polished album it’s attached to with real live commentary about being a rock and roll woman.