Funkadelic, Mayfield, Redding, and Gaye Day (June 20th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

One thing I’ve noticed about this listening diary project is it makes me feel too responsible. Specifically, responsible for playing new releases, and even new acquisitions (not the same thing anymore)–sometimes months will pass before I actually slap a mailman’s present on the turntable. The deal is–by this time in a normal year I’d have probably listened to Professor Longhair’s Crawfish Fiesta five times by now, or had a couple-three “Dylan Days” or “Wills Weeks.” I feel like I’ve neglected many time-tested goodies.

Not today. National news got to my ass yesterday, so I needed medicine today–proven medicine.

I thought listening to Marvin Gaye’s evolution might be healing, so I journeyed with him from “How Sweet It Is” through Here, My Dear. Speaking of which, a recent reissue tagged on an extra disc of alternate takes, extended versions, and disco mixes. That usually translates to crap, but in this case, the alternates, arrayed in the same running order as the official version, is superior–more grooveful, more funky, and better balanced against the subject matter (divorce). It was good to me!

Good to me? The way to keep that buzz going? O-T-I-S! Stacked up the fantastic Dictionary of Soul, the underrated duet album with Carla Thomas (they were never in the studio at the same time, BTW), and a cherry-picked Dock of the Bay, with this deep-cut fave:

They say two martinis are perfect, no need for a third. Not true with a soul record shakedown, but I needed a little mescaline in my grits, so I moved on to my three favorite Funkadelic albums, Let’s Take It To The Stage, the accurately-titled Hardcore Jollies, and, of course, One Nation Under a Groove. In some ways, the group’s extraterrestrial/subterrestrial (get me?) fusion was even more of a balm than Marvin’s yearning and Otis’ good cheer–I was reminded that, as Hunter Thompson wrote, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Evidence?

(I used to skip this song; now, I never miss it)

(Even more righteous 40 years later!)

At present I’m rolling behind some Curtis Mayfield pickin’ and persuadin’, specifically We’re a Winner and The Fabulous Impressions, which features the incandescent “Isle of the Sirens,” simultaneously the greatest pop song ever written about The Odyssey and one of Mayfield’s greatest patented encouragements to The Movement:

It felt so good to be irresponsible today. I think I’ll make a week of it.

Literary Notes:

I finished Chris Weingarten’s 33 1/3 series venture upon PE’s Nation of Millions. 4.3 outta 5: consistently interesting, witty a bit more than intermittently, and, most important, informative. You’ll learn much about the construction, contents, and context of the record, including a bounty of detail about records sampled and simply influential. In case you decide to read it, here’s a completed musical companion–you’ll be delighted and surprised. Put ‘er on shuffle for best results!

Cigarette and Coffee Duel, and a Resulting Hypothetical (June 11th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Every morning for the past damn-near-decade, I’ve awakened and posted two songs on my Facebook wall. Sometimes they address current events; sometimes they are morning earworms; sometimes they are predictive of what I’ll be listening to later. I awakened this morning having listened to Lefty Frizzell for over two hours yesterday, and sure enough, Frizzell’s “Cigarettes and Coffee Blues” was humming in my ‘drums:

What to pair it with? I do tend to awake almost immediately into full consciousness, and in a flash, Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee” came to mind:

Talk about two very different songs, as much as their titular subject matter is almost identical. Frizzell’s is a bouncy blues about separation and loneliness; Redding, with the genius assistance of the Stax/Volt house band (especially drummer Al Jackson and guitarist Steve Cropper), creates a dramatic, just-before-dawn solemnity in which is embedded a moment of great joy: a marriage proposal.

Usually, these song posts just end with the posting. Sometimes folks will comment, sometimes I pursue the artists’ music further. In this case, though, Redding came back later, on Facebook, but in a different thread. Last night, several friends and I were playing a game of “Make Me Choose Between Two Bands” on my wall and having a blast. B52s or Go-Gos? Skynyrd or Allmans? Cecil or Thelonious? Dolls or Stooges? Sonics or MC5? You can see how music nerds would go hog-wild with such questions.

In last night’s case, I had been in the position of doing the choosing (with some justification required), but as I prepared to retire for the night, I decided to pose a choice of my own: Pickett or Redding? An unspoken rule of the game is that, if you pose the question, you let the other player/s choose. Myself, well–I’m fortunate I don’t really have to choose, but I am more an Otis guy as far as taste and my own personal makeup are concerned. Otis was deeper, and, as my buddy Ken wrote, warmer. And a sharply skilled writer, too.

Be all that as it may, a question came up, or was suggested, in the thread: had Otis lived, what would have been his path? Maybe I run in the wrong circles, but I hear that question asked about every other tragically snuffed-out music icon, but not about Otis. And it’s a very fascinating question. One participant stated pretty straightforwardly that his star would have continued to rise, but–not that I would have it this way, it’s just that the circumstances he would have faced would have been complicated–I found myself disagreeing. I’m going to blatantly plagiarize my Facebook commentary/suggestion to said individual, if you don’t mind:

Take a close look at the soul masters of the Sixties with a) a rural background, even a Southern base; and b) no particular innovative acumen. Then trace their progress in the Seventies. Also, I’d take a look at the book Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick, and the chapters that deal with the impact of King’s assassination and the collapse of the Civil Rights Movement on, in particular, Memphis-based soul, and the financial disaster at Stax. I LOVE Otis, and I’m not saying my theory is fool-proof (you could argue Al Green is an exception, but I have a counterargument for that), but he had a very specific thing — within that thing a little variation — that I see him having some difficulty adapting out of. “Dock of the Bay” was different, maybe a sign of a shift, but I’m not sure. Disco Otis? Doubtful. Silk – suit slick – session Otis? Unlikely. Indelibly Southern, naturally gutbucket and unpretentious Otis? Probably. And there you’re heading into Latimore/ZZ Hill/Bobby Bland territory. The Staples adjusted, so maybe Otis could have. But Pops already had a quarter-century of biz-navigation under his belt. A fascinating question, but you’ll have difficulty convincing me he could have sustained his success much further than the early Seventies.

Here’s the dealio: if you’re reading this, and you have a dog in the hunt, would you mind giving your take? Again, the question is fascinating, and infrequently asked.


Elsewhere in the day, I was striving to finish Lamont “U-God” Hawkins’ Raw, his look back at his Staten Island Youth and time with the Wu-Tang Clan, which he helped found. It’s pretty good, if in need of some editing (might have been more powerful at 200 as opposed to 290 pages), and it pushed me to listen to two amazing rap rekkids I hadn’t unshelfed in forever.

While listening to The 36 Chambers, I practiced identifying each of the MCs. That’s easy, I think, with Meth, Ghost, and Rae, but the others not so much. Ever more impressed with production, the lyrical skills, the personas, and the concept, but they sure as hell never topped it:

I am embarrassed, somewhat, to say it, but I had not listened to Ready to Die since the mid-’90s. That’s right. Initially, I guess, the insistent sex rapping backed me off from it. I’m funny that way. BUT THIS TIME? Jeez Louise, those beats broke my damn jaw, and Biggie’s command of accents and dark sense of humor? Audacious.

I guess I’ve grown up a bit since I turned 31….





Three Spaced Masterpieces by “The Hillbilly Dalai Lama” (February 25th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

PhasesSpiritDecember Day

My Sunday afternoon was graced by these three magical records recorded across forty years by Willie Nelson, the man accurately dubbed “The Hillbilly Dalai Lama” by Kinky Friedman. If Nelson had left nothing but these albums, he’d be in the pantheon; it’s truly awe-inspiring to consider that outside of these masterworks lay hundreds and hundreds of diamonds. I have often casually said to friends and students that Hank Williams wrote 50 of the 100 greatest country songs of all-time and he only lived to 29. In tranquility, and hypnotized by the man’s stunningly eloquent and accurate way into our moments of darkness and light, I think that Willie just picked up that mantle and extended it, as if to rebuke an unjust universe.

All three of these albums are humbly conceptual, the first two linked by the lyrical thread of Johnny Gimble’s fiddle, the last two by big sister Bobbie Nelson’s piano, all three by crack bands and Willie’s unmistakable acoustic guitar. Phases and Stages (1974) plumbs the heartbreak, humor, and illumination of both a woman’s and a man’s side of a break-up–taken outside the context of the concept, each of the songs is a classic, either major (“Bloody Mary Morning”) or minor (“Sister’s Coming Home” / “Down at the Corner Beer Joint”). Spirit (1996), sparer, drumless, linked mostly by the instrumental passages titled “Matador” and “Mariachi,” meditates on loss and perseverance, and its songs, perhaps, rely on each other for their eternal air. December Day (2014) is one of the most startling road-band studio recordings I’ve ever heard. The concept’s pretty simple, and seems to have come from Bobbie: as she’s quoted as asking in the studio, “Why not record our favorite songs like we play them for ourselves?” It works–the listener does feel like he’s eavesdropping on a little corps of musicians (on a family of musicians) laying back and sharing what’s always made them happiest. In that way, December Day might be the most successful of the three, and its song list may well have been assembled much more casually than the others’: three Irving Berlins, a Reinhardt, a Jolson, “Mona Lisa,” and “Ou-es tu, mon amour” surrounding several old Nelson copyrights (for example, “Permanently Lonely,” ’63) and a couple of very poignant–and dryly funny–new ones  (“I Don’t Know Where I Am Today,” “Amnesia,” and “Laws of Nature,” of which the Dalai Lama himself would surely approve). The effect is confidently valedictory: “This is the stuff I’ve loved all my life, and, by the way, do you notice how my stuff stands up in the American pop canon?” Not too valedictory, as it turns out, as Willie’s released several albums since then, and probably has more in the chute. I don’t doubt that he might also have another masterpiece in him, and that it’ll be 2028 before we know it.

Dig in:

Short-shrift Division:

Otis Redding: Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul–Willie got me hankering for more mastery, and when I called this up on Apple Music I was stunned by what sounds like an expert aural restoration.

Swamp Dogg: Gag A Maggot–“Just call me wife-sitter / I’m a mighty happy critter! / Don’t be bitter / ‘Cause I’m wit’ her….”

Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra (Horace Tapscott, conductor–and pianist): Flight 17–I have yet to hear a Tapscott-associated album I didn’t love, and this is no exception. It’s wayyyy out of print, so I had to throw my bobber out on Discogs Lake and wait for twitch…and wait…and wait. But was it worth it! Recorded at Los Angeles’ Immanuel United Church of Christ, it’s a large group recording of power and delicacy, with no Tapscott compositions but two strong ones by the departed honoree (pianist Herbert Baker), one by saxophonist Sabir Mateen (who’s on board, and how), and a winning foray through a Coltrane medley.