Donny Hathaway: More Than I Ever Would Have Known (April 16th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

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You know, I can be a massive idiot at times–even incurious, which is the kiss of death for other people, as far as I’m concerned. As far as my being a massive idiot, for example, my initial response to Beyonce’s apparently titanic show at Coachella–barring a tinge of awe when I saw my first clip–was, “Y’know, I’m just distrustful of any show that costs that much to stage and attend, and that has that much stimulation outside of the featured performer.” What a starched shirt! Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees when you’re not seeing the trees for the forest!

I’ve tried to make amends with myself and others re: Beyonce’s achievement, because I was just wrong (I am buying that damn BluRay when it comes out), but elsewhere in the day, I also tried to make amends with my conscience, which believes I need to have heard every single great album of the past up to the present day. Sunday, while perusing the index of Rachel Rubin’s very enlightening 33 1/3 book on Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee, I noticed not only that one had been written about Donny Hathaway: Live, but that that particular item was one of the most highly rated in the series. I for damn sure wanted to read it, then, but also that would require listening to it, which I had never done, because I occasionally put too much faith in certain critics’ judgment (we obsessives need someone to help us separate the cyberjukebox wheat from the chaff). Case in point: Robert Christgau’s take. He is not on record that I know of about Hathaway’s live album, but his opinion, which had evolved somewhat as of his last reference to the man’s work, was not mellow: “Bourgeoisification at its genteel worst….” Bob’s word is not as from a god to me (any guy who snubs the Oblivians has problems in my book), but he’s generally reliable, there’s soooooo much stuff out there, and, as Lou Reed once sang, there is no time. Well, I ordered the book, and noticed that the live album had been repackaged with another live set for a reasonable price, so I figured, why not practice what you preach and take a plunge?

WOW.  Even with the presence of a few things that would ordinarily put me off, critical guidance or no (an electric piano, covers of Marvin Gaye–ill-advised at best–and “A Song for You”), I was enraptured for purt-near the duration of the two discs. The live vibe is excitingly intimate, with the crucial critical commentary being the crowd’s en masse eruption into off-beat clapping during “The Ghetto,” one of the many high points in the set. Willie Weeks on bass is like rolling ocean waves beneath Hathaway’s lines; as one Amazon reviewer pointed out, even though the whole performance is great, you can simply be hypnotized and mesmerized and satisfied by laser-focus on Weeks’ playing. And Hathaway himself? I literally had never heard a track of his before. That’s right: in, oh, 46 years of listening to music. He sounded a lot like Stevie Wonder to me at first, without that peculiar warbling effect Stevie’s got; not saying Hathaway’s a better singer, just different. And I quit thinking about Stevie the more deeply Hathaway became engaged in the material, a requirement when you’re trying to get away with “What’s Goin’ On,” which, surprise surprise, he does. He plays the keys with soul but restraint–just surfing nonchalantly atop Weeks’ waves–and keeps the groove going. And if bourgeoisification means, I guess, translating an Al Kooper composition for BS&T to the modern black supper club, hell, I’ll take his “More Than You Know” with my steak Delmonico any damn day. He gets into the nooks and crannies of that ol’ thing–just listen for yourself:

I’m returning to the thing today–it might just be one of the Top 10 live soul albums ever recorded. I haven’t started reading the 33 1/3 tome yet, but I’m licking my chops. My advice to you today: quit complacently accepting that you’re a massive idiot about some things, activate your curiosity, and sample something you’ve heard people raving about but which you’ve been rejecting because you and your sources know better. Now, if it’s Neutral Milk Hotel, I understand, but….

 

Moptops in the Offing (April 1st, 2018, Columbia, MO)

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“There’s such a lot of slang in [American] songs, and their diction leaves a lot to be desired!”

So Shelagh Turner prissily scolds, as The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” wafts from the family’s car radio; meanwhile, back at Nonnatus House, Trixie, Barbara, and Cynthia are twistin’ and boppin’ along happily as the song beams its aural sunlight there. It’s the winter of ’62 and ’63 on Call the Midwife (Season 7, Episode 1, to be exact), and it’s so cold that great girl group tune is like a space heater.

I love pretty much everything about Call the Midwife: the cast, the unspooling of a particularly interesting time, the eye cast where no show has tread before, the centrality of working class lives, the camaraderie between the nurses, Sister Monica Joan’s savvy lit-quoting–its virtues are abundant. I particularly love the show’s soundtrack, of course, which functions in many ways, one of which is to reveal how the sound of English radio often reflected changes in social mores; up until the last season, we’d heard few people of color, but that’s gradually changing. A new midwife hailing from Jamaica may have an influence on the house tastes, as well.

As far back as Season 5, I’ve been waiting for the inevitable moment when The Beatles will enter the nuns’, nurses’ and other East Enders’ lives and shake it up. As Season 7 opens, the Liverpudlians have hit the charts; however, their first official Record Retailer #1, “From Me to You,” will be springing with Spring on May 2, 1963–four short months away. If The Chiffons are a threat to the very language the characters speak, and tingle-instigators in presently unspeakable places–well, unspeakable in this context, what havoc will The Fab Four wreak?

It’s funny–I just realized I’m behind. We have had to wait for the shows to become free for streaming on PBS, so the reader may know the answer already.

Don’t spoil it for me!

Short-shrift Division:

I am not a religious man, but I’d go so far as to claim my wife and I claim a feeling for the spirit of life. Easter was on Nicole’s mind, Dr. King was on mine (thanks to terrific pieces by in Sunday’s New York Times by Michael Eric Dyson and Wendi C. Thomas), and we chose corresponding music for our meditation.

Various Artists: Jesus Rocked the Jukebox–a grrrrrreat starter for someone interested in ’50s small-group gospel that lit the fuse for the rock and roll explosion and is still extremely exciting.

Aretha’s Gold–You know, she did what she could with her vocal limitations…

Al Green: Call Me–The greatest soul singer of the Seventies greatest album. Straight soul, gospel, country covers, some mild politics, all sung with electrifying delicacy.

The Essential Ann Peebles–Give her some credit: she’s only one of the most exciting singers St. Louis ever produced!

 

 

Good To My Earhole, February 14-24: “Don’t You Hate It When….”

Highlights of my last ten days’ worth of listenin’, rated on an analytically shaky 10-point scale. Doin’ the diggin’ so you don’t haveta….

Various Artists: BOSNIA–ECHOES FROM AN ENDANGERED WORLD – 10 – Don’t you hate it when you buy a world music album highlighting a country that you think has pretty homogeneous traditional music, then you’re forced to eat a LOT of crow? Especially when you’re confronted with amazing vocalized ritual repetition that would make Roscoe Mitchell pull NONAAH from circulation?

Booker Irvin: THE TEX BOOK – 9 – Don’t you hate it when you think your favorite living jazz musician (see above) is unfairly characterized as less than subtle, then a record by your favorite deceased (and rowdily subtle) Texas tenor forces you to eat a little crow?

De Nazaten and James Carter: FOR NOW – 8.7 – Don’t you hate it when you think dark thoughts about your favorite living jazzman’s imagination, and you discover he’s teamed up on the sly with a strange Netherlands world-jazz outfit that, on its website, brags of being “[p]urveyors of Bastard music”? And poses for the cover photo with a sweet ol’ lady?

River City Tan Lines: ALL THE 7 INCHES PLUS 2 MORE – 9 – Don’t you hate it when you love totally raving Memphis rock and roll and you realize you totally missed out on a great band 10 years ago, when you thought you were totally paying attention, and were visiting twice a year?

I BELIEVE I’M GONNA MAKE IT–THE BEST OF JOE TEX – 9.8 – Don’t you hate it when a reissue label has a chance to assemble an A+ compilation on the world’s most underrated soul singer of the classic era, and they forget songs like “You Said a Bad Word,” “Heep See, Few Know,” “If Sugar Was Sweet As You,” “Bad Feet,” and “We Can’t Sit Down” (I could go on, and more would fit onto this CD)?

Good To My Earhole: Selections Across Two Busy Weeks

It’s hard to hold down a blog when you have two real jobs. But the need to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to tug underrecognized music out of the clutches of time’s dustbin, never wanes.

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Khaira Arby: Timbuktu Tarab (Clermont Music) Arby jumps out of the otherwise simply excellent Festival Au Desert concert recording with a possessed vocal that, though I do not know the Tamashek language, sounds like freedom to me. After two months of fruitlessly searching for more of her recordings–she’s a match for Mariem Hassan , if that name means anything to you, which it should–I stumbled upon this, apparently her only other available recording. Not only is she consistently in the same powerful form that she demonstrates on the the concert track, but her band is stellar, more shifty and demonstrative and less trancelike than Tinariwen and other “desert blues” stalwarts. Especially the guitar. Yeah: driving guitar and heart-stopping female singing–where you gonna go to get that these days?

Serengeti/Kenny Dennis: “Rib Tips” (video, produced by Jel and Odd Nosdam) Chicago’s favorite recovering alcoholic/lost ’90s MC/Ditka-head/hip hop alter-ego returns with another contagious, oddball video from last year’s Kenny Dennis EP. Possibly, he’s too quirky or silly or ramshackle for you; me, I find him an addictive antidote to the heavily constructed, brightly polished, vulgarly materialistic run of mainstream rap. Oscar Wilde: “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”

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Johnny Adams: The Soul of New Orleans (Fuel) This compilation catches the legendary Tan Canary, possessed of a rich vibrato redolent of Billy Eckstine but, more scintillatingly, a dry falsetto that lends his every recording an aspect of suspense, between his early years as a New Orleans r&b hitmaker (the stone-classic “I Won’t Cry,” “A Losing Battle,” “Please Release Me”) and his valedictory Sinatra-goes-soul sessions with Rounder. The time? The Seventies. The label? Hep’ Me. The producer? The legendary Senator Jones, who threw everything at Adams that might be a hit, in many cases country, which he handles with depth, care, and passion, and occasional disco and milder dance music, which he attacks like a pro (he gets away a strobe-lit “Spanish Harlem”). Couched among many strong performances are two more stone classics, “After All the Good is Gone” and “Hell Yes, I Cheated” (though this version substitutes “Oh” for the unmentionable hot place). The powers that be need to put together a cross-label best-of to cement Adams’ reputation in Soul Valhalla.

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Fats Domino: In Concert (Mercury German import) I know what you’re thinking: Wouldn’t a live Fats album sound pretty much like a Fats studio album? True, he had a sound and a method and he stuck to it like glue. The further truth is, on this mid-Sixties performance, you get some bonuses: his charming patter, some relatively wild piano solos, and–here’s the kicker–covers of fellow Crescent City legends Professor Longhair (who’d pay him back later on “Whole Lotta Lovin'”–see below) and Guitar Slim–as well as Tony Bennett! If you’re a fan, and if you’re persnickety about live albums, it’s worth your time and money.

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Professor Longhair: The Last Mardi Gras (Real Gone Records) It may be tainted by the guiding hand of Albert Goldman, but I believe he has degraded to atoms, so, if you’re new to Fess, this is a great place to start: he’s heated up in front of a live audience, Uganda Roberts is on congas–they are one of the great R&B instrumental pairings!–the horn section sounds like it’s just hit the sweet spot of a Friday night buzz, and the song selection is Longhair’s hits sprinkled with bawdy house classics. AND the audio is splendid. Learn why he earned that title.

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Muscle Shoals (PBS Documentary, directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier) I was disappointed when the first three voices we hear in a documentary about one of the great studios of the American South are those of Brits (!?), including that insufferable horner-in, Bono, but the film recovers to lift the veil on the fascinating and turbulent career of founder Rick Hall, the kinship and acumen of the Swampers (like the Funk Brothers and the Wrecking Crew, with mountains of hits to their quiet credit), and the sessions that produced such hits as “I’ve Never Loved Man (The Way That I Love You”),”I’d Rather Go Blind,” “Patches,” and “In the Midnight Hour.” Even music obsessives already familiar with the Fame/Muscle Shoals studio story may not know about the precise moment “Southern Rock” was invented; that anecdote alone is worth the two hours’ time of the movie.

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Deerhoof (w/Marc Ribot)/Ceramic Dog: Who Sleeps, Only Dreams (Northern Spy Split Single) One of only two Record Store Day purchases I made this year–and I confess, I bought ’em on line Sunday morning because I didn’t really have a choice. I am a straight sucker for the havoc Ribot wreaks on guitar, on Side A here alongside Deerhoof and Side B with just the most recent of his many underrated projects, Ceramic Dog. No guitarist with a sound this beautifully ugly has moved so effortlessly across r&b, cabaret rock, lounge/avant garde/chamber/free jazz, strict accompaniment, and experimentalism. This single belongs. Try an earlier Ceramic Dog recording on for size to test the waters:

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Bobby Rush: Decisions (with Blinddog Smokin’) (Silver Talon) and Upstairs at United (453 Recordings) Since he appeared at the high school I teach at and knocked a Tuesday evening crowd of students, their parents, and grandparents out cold with an old-school set of dirty-old-man blues–yep! in a public school!–Rush, the inventor of “folkfunk,” has been my hero. At 73, he shows no signs of slowing down, having just released a VERY solid full-length record featuring a dark Dr. John cameo as well as a 12″ four-song EP for Record Store Day, courtesy of the otherwise-pretty-indie “Upstairs at United Series” (on which he covers The Beatles and Eddie Floyd, writes a great new one, and reconfigures one of his own chestnuts). Never really mentioned in the same breath as his contemporaries, of which there are fewer with each passing month, Rush deserves our full attention–don’t wait ’til the heartbeat stops!–and, if you have a chance to see him live, you will see a 19-year-old in Grandpa’s body (along with, no doubt, a pair of women’s undies that belong in the Guiness Book of World Records).

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Wussy: Attica! (Damnably) I wrote about this one a few weeks ago. After a third focused listen, I am convinced it is the most passionate new work of what is still called rock and roll–in fact, my favorite new record of the year so far in any genre. If you enjoy the thrill of witnessing a very good band taking the next step–to greatness, to record-making, to artistic unity–you’ll want to check it out when it’s released later this month. And you’ll want the other records just to fully appreciate that witnessing. I’m just sayin’.

So Who the Hell is Swamp Dogg?

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Well, if you clicked on the link in my previous post, you know something. He is soul singer–not to mention a songwriter–from outer space, though on close inspection his feet are planted more firmly on Earth than most of ours are. He is also a very funny man. Read Perfect Sound Forever’s excellent interview with Mr. Dogg, or sample this Spotify playlist, rather than reading me rattle: