“The Rhythm, The Rebel!” (June 17th, 2018, Monett, MO)

Since I’m on va-cay and out of pocket, I’m departing from my newly-established Sunday ritual of Spotifying the week’s listening and sharing another project I’m working on that might benefit and enlighten you and me.

I’m two chapters into Chris Weingarten’s so-far stellar 33 1/3 offering on Public Enemy’s Nation of Millions. I’ve read a passel of ’em; this is vying for my favorite, though it’s perhaps a shade too glib and overwritten. One neat thing Weingarten does is focus on the construction process behind a highly constructed album that, due to the profusion of samples the Bomb Squad layered in, couldn’t conceivably be made today, even by a moneybags like Jay Z.

What I decided to do was, chapter by chapter, include all the sample sources, influential tracks, and highlights in a YouTube playlist as a reading supplement. Needless to say, it’s under construction, but it’s already 29 tracks deep and is enjoyable independent of the book.

For our edification, enjoyment, or both:

Aaaaaand…this week’s awards!

Plucked from History’s Dustbin (best recent purchase of an old record): Everything But The Girl’s Amplified Heart.

Grower, Not a Shower (old record I already owned that’s risen in my esteem): Bettye LaVette’s relatively new Things Have Changed.

Encore, Encore! (album I played at least twice this week): Big Youth’s Screaming Target.

Through the Cracks (sweet record I forgot to write about): Busdriver’s Electricity is On Our Side.

Phineas’ Hour (June 2nd, 2018, Columbia, MO)

 

I’ve spent the afternoon luxuriating in the music of two brothers from Whiteville, Tennessee (and always associated with Memphis), pianist Phineas (pronounced FINE-us by his family but eventurally FIN-ee-us by the artist) Newborn Jr. and guitarist Calvin Newborn. The elder brother’s command, invention, precision, and speed on the 88s was such that critics still battle, as they’ve done with other keyboardists, over whether he was a purveyor of mere (mere?) technical facility or an artist of abiding soulfulness–the latter requiring a treacherous, possibly arrogant and presumptuous leap for the listener to make. As much as I’ve listened to music, I’m not at all convinced that I listener can accurately gauge “soul”; I mean, I can say for certain how it makes me feel, but if soulfulness exists in the musician as he plays, how would I ever know, and precisely what aspects of the recorded evidence indicates whether it did or not–and why do they? As for the younger Newborn, one has to dig a little to hear him in his exuberant youth, then in his prime, as he was usually an accompanist, and versatile and flexible enough to thrive in any setting, especially (maybe) when he was asked to play a discreet musical role. Only some thirty years after the advent of his recording career did he become a solo artist, and by then his best work may well have been past him. Suffice it all to say that he was one of jazz’s most underrated guitarists of the ’50s and ’60s.

You can think about both questions–of Phineas’ soulfulness and Calvin’s unjust obscurity–on the records I listened to today, combined on one CD by Jazz Beat Records: 1956’s Here is Phineas–The Piano Artistry of Phineas Newborn, on Atlantic, and 1958’s Fabulous Phineas, on RCA. The brothers play together on both releases (more so on the later) and furnish plenty of evidence to support my claims that the feeling, knowledge, and ideas behind Phineas’ playing = soulfulness, and that Calvin, coming out of Memphis blues and southwest jazz, was a force to be compared with the likes of Pee Wee Crayton and even (lightly, hoss) Wes Montgomery–particularly in his ability, honed through sibling battles and the oversight of their drummer father, to stick with Phineas even at his fleetest and highest.

As a bonus, enjoy the masterly rhythm sections on both, the Atlantic session featuring Kenny “Klook” Clarke and Oscar Pettiford, the RCA Denzil Best and the Newborns’ childhood friend and long-time musical cohort, George Joyner (each pairing, drums and bass, respectively).

Short-shrift Division:

I mentioned this a few pieces back, but if you love the above, you’ll want to try this very, very, very unsung set from the same basic period, as it features a mess of smokin’ Memphis players, most of him are from the Newborns’ cohort.

Up for some very entertaining and enlightening music lit you’ll have to search, then pay for?

I suggest this. (Price range on three used copies currently for sale on Amazon: $125-150–I didn’t pay half that much, so you might set your bobber out on the pond, if you know what I mean.)

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‘xcuse me while I plagiarize my Goodreads review:

This hard-to-find book is a classic of Memphis culture. Newborn and his brother Phineas Jr., both skilled multi-instrumentalists–the latter one of the greatest jazz pianists of the latter half of the 20th century–rise up through the Memphis’ rich musical soul, then ride a rollercoaster through regional and national tours, professional recording sessions, the Armed Forces, night life in New York and Los Angeles, and struggles with substance abuse.

Note: the book is not particularly professionally assembled. Misspellings and typos abound, a chapter number is skipped, three blank pages leave the reader in a state of mystery, the index is in alphabetical order by first letter ONLY, and the photo section is slopped together at the very end of the book. HOWEVER, it is also chock-full of great stories, the author’s mischievous wit, insights into mid-century African-American life in a very complicated city, charming candor, delightful idiosyncrasies of narrative…and the slopped-together photos are GREAT. I paid a pretty penny for a copy, and I do not regret it in the least (though I would like to know if EVERY copy has the blank pages).

Out of This World (April 10th, 2018, Columbia, Mo)

Elza

Nope, this ain’t about Gino Washington! On one hand…have you ever felt like you just want to get out of this country for awhile? Yeah, me, too, so I did so through musical trips to Agadez, Lagos, and Rio (I also went to Manhattan, but it might as well have been Rio or Sao Paulo).

Also, unlike the night before, I was not about to get distracted by a damn haint (aka Hank Williams, Sr.) while I was trying to read. I am borderline insane when it comes to reading, and I added three new books to my active stack of three. If you’re curious, they were Colin Escott’s update of his solid Williams bio, I Saw the Light (the Hank fire’s done been lit); Gayle Ward’s Rosetta Tharpe book Shout Sister Shout!, which for some odd reason I didn’t read when immediately when it was published; and Patrick Parr’s account of the late-teenage MLK, The Seminarian: Martin Luther King, Jr. Comes of Age, which tells many relatively new stories, including this one. So, anyway, I picked some international groove music, though at least two of my selections were jumpy and angular enough to break my page-gaze.

You cannot go wrong with Bombino, the great guitarist from Niger. The man can work up a serious head of sustained, flowing steam with just six strings and percussion propulsion. His album from 2013, Nomad, is a great introduction to his work, and, if you get the chance to see him live, GO–we witnessed him at Minglewood Hall in Memphis opening for Gogol Bordello, and he made it very tough for the headliners to keep us at the venue:

 

Despite the man’s sprawling discography, you also cannot stumble randomly selecting works by the great Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti. I did not choose randomly; I picked my favorite Kuti Komp, The Best of Black President, Volume 2, which features an extended version of the eternal, and eternally sorrowful, and eternally motivating “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood” (“it’s their regular trademark”). It’s where I’d start anyone new to Fela’s Afrobeat wiles.

 

Have you heard of Elza Soares  (that’s her pic at the top)? That’s OK, neither had I until a couple years ago. Apparently, she’s thought of by some as the Tina Turner of Brazilian music, but what you need to know is that she’s a defiant octogenarian who, in 2016, plunged headlong into an thrilling avant-garde setting and sprung some samba sujo (“dirty samba”–that alone should tempt you to put it on) on our unsuspecting ears. The resulting record, A mulher do fim do mundo (The Woman at the End of the World), intentionally or not, captures the beauty, sensuality, surprise, and madness of modern Brazil. Come to think of it, I think Brazilians have it a good deal worse than we do.

 

I’m not the first and won’t be the last to say it, but if you go Brazilian on a particular day of listening your ears likely won’t go back to where they were until the next day. I closed out with Arto Lindsay’s Cuidado Madame; Arto’s a New Yorker, but he’s been dedicated to adapting classic Brazilian musical styles–bossa nova, samba, and the wild, wooly, and wonderful variant called Tropicalia–to stateside pop forms, though it’s sometimes been hard to discern much of our traditions in his more recent music. This is his most recent release; it’s quite great, especially after repeated exposure. I love it in particular for two reasons: the opener, which features Mr. Lindsay writing his name on his lover’s naked belly until she forgets her own, and the multiple tracks on which, more often than has been his recent habit, he expresses himself on his inimitably untutored guitar. Also, the critic Robert Christgau once described Lindsay as being James Brown trapped in Don Knotts’ body; I’d update that from the Godfather of Soul to His Purpleness.

Short-shrift Division:

Tapper Zukie: Man Ah Warrior–Spacey early ’70s dub, driven by the bass line from “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Here, take a hit:

 

We Interrupt This Music Diary for a Promotional Announcement (March 19th. 2018, Columbia, Missouri–Memphis in spirit!)

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If you don’t know who Robert Gordon is, he’s a fine documentary director (check out The Best of Enemies) and stellar chronicler of southern music: his Muddy Waters biography is currently the definitive one. It’s when he’s writing about his hometown, however, that Gordon is most smashing. I have read his It Came from Memphis at least three times and manically thumbed through it about 15 times more: it convincingly argues for that city as the hub of American cultural change through much more subterranean and esoteric means than just Elvis’ pelvis, and, in terms of spirit and tone, it rocks and rolls. It’s also the only book I know that has threeseparatecompanion CDs, all of them magic.

Gordon’s newest book, available preferably from Burke’s Book Store in Memphis but also from Fat Possum (still trying to do their best by offering a companion LP I’d recommend), gathers numerous fascinating shorter pieces and interviews from Gordon’s exciting career observing Bluff City weirdness. I’m not finished reading it yet, but on the basis of the Jim Dickinson and Tav Falco interviews and the appendix alone, it’s worth your ducats. One of my favorite of Gordon’s discoveries so far is the existence of a “Levitt Shell Archive” YouTube channel. The Levitt Shell (formerly the Overton Park Shell) in Memphis’ Overton Park was the location of Presley’s first paid appearance (opening for Slim Whitman), and has not only survived several attempts to raze or repurpose it but is currently a thriving rock and roll/blues/country venue. At its best, Memphis music always contains a dollop of all three of those flavors!

You can spend hours watching clips from this channel. Here are a few that I listened to and loved today:

The great Memphis blues pianist Mose Vinson:

Calvin Newborn, the guitar-playing member of the famous Newborn family:

Alvin Youngblood Hart covering Neil Young:

Also–and, now, you gotta promise to buy it if you like it!–here’s a handy YouTube playlist of the Memphis Rent Party companion.

Good to My Ear- and Eyehole Since Last I Posted: Part 2, The Read.

Part of the reason I’ve struggled keeping this blog updated regularly is I am a compulsive reader. If 24 hours pass and I haven’t read a page or two of something other than what I’m teaching my students, The WeekThe Columbia Tribune, or liner notes, I feel as if I have committed a venality. I’m such a dork, I have my Goodreads blogroll on the opening page of this site, plus I have challenged myself to read 105 books this year, up four from 2013, and I am at 91 as of today. I have even bet my literacy class a pizza party that, as a class of 15, they cannot outread me by the end of the semester (we are currently tied–you have to remember these are kids who struggle with reading, whom I only see every other day, and who have serious difficulty reading at home). I don’t read music tomes exclusively; in fact, they are usually in the minority–except for recently, which accounts for what follows, although I regret that I haven’t yet cracked the weirdly-authored and -titled Jerry Lee Lewis: My Own Story, by Rick Bragg.

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Todd Snider: I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like: Mostly True Tall Tales) (Da Capo, 2014)

If your a Snider adept, like me, you might ask yourself, “Do I need to read this?” Answer: unequivocally, yes. Yes, you do get many stories you already know from concerts and records, but you also get the stories behind the stories, which, when they involve Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Buffet, Billy Joe Shaver and a host of less immortal rounders, are a serious trip. You also will get inspired, page by page, to live life while you’re living, even if Snider himself may be dead before he hits 50 (fucker will probably live to 90). If you don’t know the man, you can actually read this, enjoy the hell out of it, and go straight to those records you missed. Note: His compassion for outside-the-law dudes is well-documented, but he’s equally compassionate when it comes to outside-the-law babes. Props, buddy.

Carter family

Frank M. Young and David Lasky (illustrations): The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (Abrams Comicarts, 2012)

Things to recommend this GREAT graphic novel: a) the illustrations and text match the deadpan beauty of Carter Family music; b) the chapter titles (Carter Family song titles) wittily match the stories that follow; c) it doesn’t shirk on the black influence on the Carter Thing, and it certainly ain’t romanticized; d) it’s written and illustrated to show how much ASS these Carter women kicked; e) it comes with a CD of rareties; and f) I got it cheap at an Osage Beach outlet store. What else do you want?

Jimi

Charles Cross: Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix (Hyperion, 2006)

A huge fan of Cross’ Cobain bio, Heavier Than Heaven, in which he just puts its head down, does a shitload of research, conducts a million interviews, and undermines miles of bullshit conspiracy theories, I wanted to read this immediately when it came out, but was vexed by middling reviews by folks I trusted. Children, a lesson: fuck reviews. If it’s a subject or writer you dig, go ahead with your bad self. Goosed by my love for the film Jimi: All is By My Side and curious about its degree of factual accuracy, I picked this up eight years after it came out, and within 100 pages quietly paid penance for not trusting my instincts. A Pacific Northwesterner himself, Cross is interested in his subjects beyond their celebrity, and works his ass off to get the story right. Most moving here is the long-time influence of Hendrix’s mother, whose funeral Jimi’s dad forbade him to attend (the bastard) and whose Seattle grave (in the same cemetery as Hendrix and his dad’s elaborate tomb) is still uncommemorated, and the similarities between Hendrix’s and Cobain’s sad goodbyes: they could not exit the grind, and had no one handy who knew how to facilitate it. I was also blown away to learn that, by Cross’ account, Hendrix spent more days hungry than Elvis–and, you know, Elvis had his mom behind him as he penetrated into cultural acclaim. BTW: that movie nobody went to, Jimi: All is By My Side? With a few exceptions, it’s pretty damned factually accurate, and, affectively, as they say, it’s spot-on.

George

George Clinton (with Ben Greenman): Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?: A Memoir (Atria, 2014)

If you’re like me, you have got to be saying, “How can this NOT be a thrill-ride?” If Greenman just captured the voice that once uttered, “With the rhythm that makes [us] dance to what we have to live through/You can dance underwater and not get wet, OH!” the plot points would be immaterial. Well, the book’s only boring when, in the latest music memoir fashion, it lapses into attorneys and addiction in its final quarter, but for the other three-fourths, George gives us precious little detail regarding what P-Funk sessions were really like, and, come on, isn’t that what you were hoping for? As far as the voice is concerned, Greenman dries out Uncle Jam’s naturally funky delivery, though it does raise up when barbering and fishing are under discussion. Really, it’s a pretty funny read, but not revelatory–for that, I am afraid you must still go to the much slimmer (159 pages!) but much stankier George Clinton and P-Funk: An Oral History (For the Record), a David Mills-written and Dave Marsh-edited oral history that lets it all hang out. Also: Blipp needs to get its shit figured out–the cover trigger doesn’t deliver 1/20th of what it promises.

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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10 Reasons to Read Amanda Petrusich’s DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE

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I had been eagerly awaiting the release of this book. I am a man who has no resistance to enthusiasm–I prefer it, in fact, to appearing cool, by a long shot–and a serious, 35-year record-collecting habit that’s led to an 8,000-unit collection tentacling through my domicile. My only 78s are a little Ernest Tubb “book” from the early ’50s, but the collectors chronicled here have long been heroes of mine, having made it possible for me to hear Jim Jackson’s “Old Dog Blue,” Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” and countless other heart- and mind-piercing classics from before Hitler permanently darkened the world. In fact, my only worry about reading the book was that I’d go on auto-pilot, since I’d already read much by and about Harry Smith, Joe Bussard, John Fahey, and R. Crumb (who’s not profiled here, for good reason). That mild anxiety, joined with my tendency to self-start, my voracious and ominivorous regular reading habits, and my almost-hysterical imagination of the contents of a future book about which I’ve become interested–well, I was prepared to be disappointed. Ms. Petrusich, however, did a wonderful job on a difficult task. The proof of the pudding is I devoured it in two days, and I’m a busy guy.

As a bow to her chapter on the links between gender (and disabilities such as OCPD, Asperger’s and autism) and record collecting, being a man, I will present you a list of 10 reasons why you should read Amanda’s book:

1. She is very fair to a parade of (mostly) weird, old white guys who would alienate most people–even the mysterious and not particularly hygienic Don Wahle. As alienated as many of these collectors are, she imparts them with dignity.

2. She learns to scuba dive, braves foggy, twisty Appalachian roads, fends off lecherous truckers, suffers stomach viruses, seldom gets to draw on sisterly support, has to endure a thirty-year-old hipster with a bowler hat and pocket watch, and sits still under the imperious gaze of every collector who demands total silence while a record’s being played–just to bring us this book.

3. She very deftly blends thorough research, probing interviewing skill, bemused humor, both aesthetic and psychological analysis, skepticism, deep curiosity, and the time-honored quest narrative.

4. She will send you hurrying back to your own collection (or to your purchasing wish list) with her descriptions of piquant songs–and you will be surprised and enlightened, no matter how well-versed you are. For me, it was to learn the history of “Skokiaan,” a song I love in its current interpretation by The Pope of NOLA Kermit Ruffins, but didn’t know the history of. An iron law of music books: it must lighten your wallet and enrich your aural store.

5. This is a subject that could easily have been presented with great (and fatal) sobriety and convolution. Ms. Petrusich succeeds in navigating it with delight and clarity–the delight especially rubs off.

6. She can write a great chapter heading (and subtitle), then justify it.

7. She’s from Brooklyn, and you never feel hipped out to the margins.

8. These days, it seems like every non-fiction writer is required to incorporate brain research into her text, but, by the time Petrusich reaches that chapter, you feel it’s…necessary. In fact, you will probably have developed your own theories, which she will make it fun for you to test.

9. She is moved to buy 78s herself.

10. Regarding the matter of what makes a performance great, after a little wrestling, she seems to side with Dionysus as opposed to Apollo. This appears to be because, according to the research, she’s a woman, but Joe Bussard and I stand here to cry that you can make research say whatever you like. It won’t trump the joy that roars from ear to heart to extremities.

Follow Amanda on Twitter, and, until Amazon chills out, grab her book from one of the OTHER choices listed here.