Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Bye Bye '06 and Mr. JB

Once again, the year ends and we turn over a new page on the calendar. Without getting too mushy, I just wanted to thank you for reading my blog- I hope it's been worth your time. As always, I'd love to write more here but there never seem to be enough hours in the day. Hopefully, I'll find more moments here and there in '07 to report on this online forum.

Right up to the last moment, I've been torturing myself about the best music of '06 and though I've voted in a few polls about this, I probably won't have a final word until I put out the next issue of my own zine at the end of January. At this very moment, it might look something like this:

Granddaddy "Just Like the Fambly Cat" (V2)
Steve Reich "Phases" (Nonesuch)
Tom Ze "Estudando o Pagode" (Luaka Bop)
Sonic Youth "Rather Ripped" (DGC)
Original Soundtrack "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" (Geffen)
Greg Dulli "Amber Headlights" (Infernal Recordings)
Exene Cervanka & the Original Sinners "Sev7en" (Nitro)
Ghostface Killah "Fishscale" (Def Jam)
Lobi Traore "Lobi Traore Group" (Honest Jon's)
Dion "Bronx In Blue" (The Orchid)

Still, I might have to find a way to replace one or more of those with Nas, the Fucking Ocean, Clipse or Lorna Doom.

And last but certainly not least, a tip of the virtual hat to Soul Brother Number One, the Godfather, James Brown who left us at Christmas but was still scheduled to do a New Year's Eve show in Gotham.

Here he is kickin' live in the 60's for teen TV, doing "I Feel Good" and showing them (and us) how to dance. It still looks and feels fresh despite being overused in 100's of movie trailers and ads.

And just for good measure, one more JB spot, this time doing "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" and other then-recent hits in a break-neck medley in 1966 on Ed Sullivan (note how he first calls him "Jim Brown" and goes through his background in gospel and cotton picking):

Thank you Godfather, for getting us all up on the one...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Keep Xmas and Hanukkah weird

There are yearly statistics that point out that there's a spiked rate of depression and suicide during holiday time. The reason is usually that we're not as jolly as we're supposed to be or as we're led to believe we should be. I admit that I get blue sometimes too but I really think that part of it is that like many people, I can't stand hearing the same freakin' Christmas songs over and over and over again. That pain is only made worse when artists feel that they have to add to the junk pile by roasting the same old songs again and again on their Christmas albums. It's gotten to the point that even Billy Idol (yep, the 'punk' guy who did "White Wedding") has a holiday album out. Talk about depressing.

Luckily, there is some call for cheer. In this blitz of bad taste, the occasional gem creeps up from the pack to make us all merry.

Two of my favorite hold-outs from last year were delicious novelties that my family still enjoys. Mel Waldorf is the genius behind Meshugga Beach Party and their wonderful album Twenty Songs of the Chosen Surfers (newly reissued with four new tracks). Here, Jewish holiday music becomes surf music and the fit isn't just funny but a good groove too. Cross-cultural confusion also reigns on the Klezmonauts' Oy to the World where Christmas fare becomes klezmer music with dallops of James Brown, Iron Butterfly, Ennio Morricone and more surf music. If you wanna learn more, I wrote about both albums in more detail last year for the Seattle Weekly.

For you hipsters out there, the holiday also means yuletime mixtapes. My two favorites came from the inimitable mash-up master DJ BC and his Santastic II: Clausome mix along with Reboot Stereophonic's funky Hannukah.

For anyone complaining that the holidays ain't funky enough, there's Bootsy's Christmas Is 4 Ever (Shout Factory) which features not just his P-Funk friends but also Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack and (you can't make this stuff up) Charlie Daniels. And for those hankering for a power-pop-gone-country holiday, there's the expanded reissue of the db's Christmas Time Again (Collector's Choice) featuring fellow travelers Whiskeytown (you know, Ryan Adams' old band?), Marshall Crenshaw and Alex Chilton (including a reprise of Big Star's great "Jesus Christ," a nature holiday anthem). There's even an interesting ambient/experimental collection of Christmas-inspired music from Sibbler called (appropriately enough) Sounds of Christmas (which they're nice enough to let you hear for free to preview it).

As much as I admire Sufjan Stevens' genuinely cheery Songs For Christmas boxset (oy, that guy knows his concepts), my favorite new holiday music is probably Shtetl Superstars Sound System's Funky Jewish Sounds from Around the World (Trikont)- technically, it's not just Hanukkah fare but it's a great dance and religious celebration, as joyous as the holidays should be. A close 2nd might be a group that brings another meaning to "ho, ho, ho"- the nerdcore Christmas Gangstaz (including "Santa's Gettin' Dropped" on their EP and pleading with MySpace users "Please add us! We're a fake rap group").

And when it's time to clear out the house from those relatives who want to stay through New Year's, there's two good choices to help you give them the hint. First is Twisted Sister's A Twisted Christmas with their takes on "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas" as they dream of presents like an Ozzy tattoo, studded belts and spandex pants. There's also old Saturday Night Life hold-over Father Guido Sarducci's Worst Xmas song ever where he compounds "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" with his Scroogy shtick. If that doesn't do it, there's my old favorite stand-by: the Barking Dogs doing "Jingle Bells" and a kitty version for you feline fans.

Slappy holidaze to y'all...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Johnny Cash at San Quentin- crime and punishment

More than just a legendary concert recording, Johnny Cash's show at San Quentin prison in early 1969 also provided footage for one of the starkest, most harrowing films ever made. It also happened to be the show where he had the premiere of what was to be a number 1 hit, the novelty "A Boy Named Sue."

The reissue (on Columbia/Legacy) includes whole show, including numbers from Carl Perkins, Carter Family and Statler Brothers, which gives you a real feeling of a variety show along with the raucous concert that Cash gave for the inmates, not long after his famous Folsom prison gig. As with that gig, Cash had a song prepped about San Quentin that wasn't exactly complimentary.

What makes the 2-CD box set even more special is the inclusion of the long out-of-print hour-long UK documentary about the concert. It's not just seeing Cash in the flesh in prime form that makes it so unique but also the interviews that the crew does with the prisoners and guards. Dead Man Walking is usually regarded as the most cold-eyed look at the idea of the death penalty but it's only a close second after the Cash film. Listening to the prisoners talk about their bloody crimes in such a casual manner and tales of men being dragged kicking and screaming to the big chair (reminiscent of James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces except that these guys aren't putting on an act) isn't something you'll soon forget. Savor the concert and witness chills from the film.

See a clip from Sony Records (Windows Media format) about the making of the concert and reissue.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Mr. Tambourine Man needs your help

Though the name Bruce Langhorne might not ring a bell, you've probably heard his guitar playing, especially on Dylan's early electric work like Bringing It All Back Home- he's also known as the inspiration for the song "Mr. Tambourine Man" and has appeared on albums of many other 60's folk legends. The Richard and Mini Farina site has a nice tribute to him including Richie Unterberger's two-part interview with Langhorne. He later scored the film The Hired Hand which has been recently reissued on CD and has even promoted his own brand of hot sauce.

But Langhorne has fallen on some hard times recently. Along with a stroke, he's also dealing with diabetes and an hormonal imbalance (Cushing's Syndrome). This has left him with some hefty medical bills and like many musicians, he's not covered by insurance and unable to pay for his ongoing care.

If you happen to be in New York City, Other Music offers a "tin can drawer" (donation box) where a friend of Bruce's comes by every week to collect the money and write him a check. The Support Circle website also has a page set up for Bruce where you can see updates and information about him and send him a message of support.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Chuck Berry's rock and roll template

Maybe Eric Clapton said it best when he claimed that the whole sound of rock and roll comes directly from Chuck Berry's guitar lines. But even that isn't close to the best quote that comes from the movie Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, recently made into a lavish multi-DVD presentation.

Originally released in 1987, director Taylor Hackford (who would later do the acclaimed bio-pic Ray) already knew that he was going to have a hell of a time filming his subject. The plan was to have everything revolve around a home-town 60th birthday concert in St. Louis featuring Keith Richards (Berry's most accomplished disciple) and other musical celebs. Berry though is a famously prickly character- he tours alone, appears with local pick-up bands, takes an extra cut from management (only giving some back if the band and equipment are good) and only stays on stage for exactly the amount of time he's contracted for.

On the recent reissue, Hackford talks about some of the difficulties he had working with Berry, including making lengthy and painful financial arrangements with CB as star and producer. In interviews, Keith Richards and Jerry Lee Lewis both recall fights that they've had with Berry where he emerged victorious. Even during the rehearsal sessions, Richards and Berry go at it, arguing over the use of an amplifier- Berry exclaims that if people are going to hear him (speaking in the third person) they're going to hear him right and when Richards counters that this music is going to be around long after they're gone to put things in perspective, Berry snaps back that he simply isn't going to die. After the show, Richards says "He's given me more headaches than Mick Jagger but I can't dislike him" (not exactly lovey-dovey but this is Richards). Similarly, interviews with Berry's wife and secretary are disconcertingly brief, cut off quickly and uncomfortably.

But more than just being a difficult character, the film also presents Berry as a complex person. Yes, he's tight-fisted with demanding gig money up front and only playing exactly for the prescribed amount of time but we also see him speaking calmly and reflectively about his past. He shows off a slew of cars he bought in the 70's and sly tells us that though he couldn't find buyers, he'll still hold on to them for years and sell them to us for a nice profit. With that, he smiles and slides out of view. He also appears in a get-together of historic proportions with Bo Diddley and Little Richard as the three discuss the difficulties each faced being a black performer trying to break into the pop world of the 1950's.

But even with the solo interviews (Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee, Bruce Springsteen (jubilantly recalling when he backed up Berry) and the Everly Brothers), the highlight of the film and what it's built around is the birthday show. As opposed to the usual pick-up bands that are assembled on the spot for most Berry shows, Richards assembled an all-star band with Berry's old running buddy pianist Johnny Johnson, Robert Cray and Richards himself trading off solos. Though it's historic, the concert is still rough around the edges- Berry kept changing songs around, even during show after weeks of rehearsals and as revealed in the DVD extras, he had to re-record vocals from the concert later.

Nevertheless, you're still caught up in a big moment with the hometown crowd acting ecstatic, dancing in aisles, holding up banners. Eric Clapton does a great cameo on "Wee Wee Hours," taking an extra 2nd solo at Berry's insistence. Oddly enough, though it sounds questionable on paper, Julian Lennon and Linda Ronstadt sound good at the show, with the former shouting out like dad ("don't he sound like his pa?" Berry exclaims) and Ronstadt reviving her great take on "Living in the USA." Add in Etta James bringing down the house near the end on "Rock and Roll Music" and Berry being driven on stage for the finale and you have a hell of a show (though it seems from Cray's entrance and later incorporation into the band that the songs aren't shown in exact sequence).

Near the end of the film, Berry's asked how he wants to be remembered. He pauses to think and then says that whatever people say about him, he wants it to be real, whether it's good or bad. In that way, Hackford has honored his subject by presenting him as close to how we'll ever see Berry as he really is.