Monday, May 29, 2006

Howard Fishman visits Dylan's basement

For Bob Dylan's 65th birthday, lots of celebrations were planned, including cakes being made in his old hometown in Minnesota. Surely, a lot of shows were being planned around this too but none may have been as unique or as thoughtful and endearing as a multi-night stand done to commemorate some of his greatest semi-official work.

He's a lovable old-timey New York folkie who doesn't get the recognition that he deserves and in a brilliant stroke, he came up with a concept that would get him noticed- for three straight nights at Joe's Pub, Howard Fishman decided to dedicate his shows not just to a one performer but one of his albums. Dylan isn't exactly a stranger to covers; other artists have devoted whole albums (not to mention entire careers) to him. Fishman isn't your typical Zimmie fan though.

His concept was a tribute to the Basement Tapes, once the ultimate rock bootleg item until Bobbie and Columbia released two records of it in 1975, eight years after the fact. The songs were never supposed to make up an album per se and floated around as demos and cover fodder for years before they came out. As much of a treat as the original release was, there was so much more that Dylan and the Band recorded in the summer of love. About 4 or 5 CD's worth actually, which eventually came out on box sets. Fishman got a hold of this material and absorbed it for years, wanted to do a show (or series) like this for a while. He came up with the idea of three evenings of songs: the first dedicated to the roots of the music, the second devoted to material that was unreleased from the sessions (most of it still officially unreleased) and finally an evening of the album itself that came out in '75.

As a music nut (and with no out-of-town plans for Memorial Day), I knew I had to go to one of these nights. Since my girlfriend's mom was a Dylan freak and she was going to be around on Saturday night, it seemed like the right time to go- this was the unreleased Tapes show, a natural for a fan of obscurist music like me.

While the show wasn't totally sold out, it was a good crowd, especially for a holiday weekend. When Fishman polled the audience, many said that they were there the previous night and that they'd be back the next night (including someone in front doing sketchings of the band throughout the whole show). And so, with a notebook at his feet (a cheat-sheet of lyrics) and folded copy of Greil Marcus' Old Weird America (covering the recordings themselves too) under his chair, Fishman led an almost all-acoustic band (including trumpet and violinist). And for the next hour and a half, he made a good case for these mostly unheard songs to be released, if not by Dylan than at least by Fishman.

That was not small accomplishment actually. Fishman fleshed out the songs well even if some of them were nothing more than jokes ("Flight of the Bumble Bee," "I'm A Teenage Prayer") and fragments ("Santa Fe"). Others are dead serious though- the beautifully eerie "I'm Not There," the rockin' rave-up of "Silent Weekend" and what's probably Zimmie's best religious song, "Sign on the Cross." The full set list was:

I'm Alright
One Man's Loss
Baby Won't You Be My Baby
I'm A Fool For You
Santa Fe
Bourbon Street
Quinn the Eskimo
Flight of the Bumble Bee
Try Me
Don't Know Why They Kicked My Dog
I'm A Teenage Prayer
Gonna Get You Now
I'm Not There
All You Have To Do Is Dream
Sign on the Cross
Encore: Silent Weekend

Like I said, clean up tapes, get rid of the hiss and fog, balance the instruments, bring up the vocals and this would make a dandy album.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

RIP Grandaddy; Long live Lytle

The wise review editor at Harp Magazine warned us last year that us scribes had to stop using phrases like "one of the best albums of the year" in our reviews. He had a good reason for telling us this- it was getting overused and when people keep saying it again and again, an idea like that starts losing its meaning. I become self-conscious of that when I wrote elsewhere, trying not to drag out that phrase again and again.

But this time I can't help it. In light of their recent break-up, it's a shame that Grandaddy's Just Like the Fambly Cat is their finest album, it's also (forgive me, Harp) one of the best albums I've heard so far this year.

In a recent interview at Tune Tribe, head Daddy Jason Lytle explains that the pressure of a group and matters in his personal and professional life made him decide to pull the plug on the band after roughly a decade and a half. When a band is already led by a songwriter, you usually think that a break-up is just semantics, bad blood and ego: Lytle will continue to do his music thing but now stick his own name on the product.

In the meantime since he's in the awkward position with a new album to promote and no band yet to do it with (and also the fact that the band whose name he did it under is already gone), Lytle decided to do a record-store tour to promote Cat. Not a bad move since he gets to thank the stores that have supported him, not to mention his fans with free shows.

Since he was only doing one New York area performance as an in-store at the redoubtable Other Music, I decided to bite the bullet last week and see him there. Usually, I hate lining up and waiting for something like this especially since I ain't as young as I used to be and it happened to fall on my birthday. But I thought it'd be interesting to hear how he'd pull off a show like this and maybe it'd be a nice present for myself.

Turns out it was. Even without the guitar chugging and spacy keyboards, the new songs sounded beautifully transported- appropriately enough, one of the early band songs he revived was about painting the moon. Hearing the Cat songs with Lytle alone on acoustic guitar made me appreciate just how beautiful those tunes really are and made me appreciate the album even more (though it would have still been nice to see a longer set with a band). Even with 100 of us crowded in the store, the 45-minutes flew by and as a good entertainer, he left us wanting more (even with a one-song 'encore').

When Amazon recently grilled Lytle about his favorite music, much of what he came up with were singer/songwriter albums rather than straight rock albums per se: David Bowie's Hunky Dory, Frank Black (as opposed to the Pixies), John Prine, Handsome Family, Fleetwood Mac, Elliott Smith, Giant Sand, Traveling Wilburys (plus A-Ha and the Beastie Boys as surprises). Considering his solo tour and pending solo career, that's certainly where he's heading and as evidenced by his recent show, it looks like a good place to be for him.

Monday, May 22, 2006

New Orleans on my mind

You'll forgive me if I can't get my mind out of New Orleans. Not only were the NOLA levies faulty before Katrina hit but we also found out today that the National Hurricane Center says that we're in for a bad and maybe worse storm season this year and that we'll be saddled with the same for the next ten years.

Maybe to remind me of the city at its best and one of the many reasons that it must survive, I come back to two great collections from the early 90's from the people at Soul Jazz Records, documenting some of the golden years of NOLA R&B, during the 60's and 70's (though truth be known, the 50's were the beginning of this revolution). New Orleans Funk has the Meters, Lee Dorsey, Professor Longhair, Huey 'Piano' Smith, Aaron Neville, Allen Toussaint, the Wild Magnolias, Dr. John, Ernie K. Doe among others. Probably because of licensing, they don't nail all the best-known/loved hits (i.e. "Mother-In-Law," "Right Place Wrong Time") but the line-up alone is a wonderfully delicious gumbo mix of the best artists from that time and place. Sadly out of print now, its follow-up volume Saturday Night Fish Fry (with its amazing cover of a smiling, gun-totting Dorsey) is a great companion, including hits like the Dixie Cups' timeless playground romp "Iko Iko" and Dorsey's ultimate brotherhood statement "Yes We Can Can."

Need something even more historic? Try French label Blues Collection's New Orleans Blues, which spans the 20's and 30's. Despite the title, the genre it salutes is jazz, featuring some of its first order of original pioneers- Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and a wonderful cameo from Satchmo ("I'm Not Rough," later covered by the J. Geils Band). Unfortunately, this one is also out of print at the moment so scour the used shops for it- it's worth it.

In the meantime, we better get ready to support our brothers and sisters down the Delta again this year because they're going to need it.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

NOLA addenda- JazzFest article

Silly me... I forgot to mention that on my other blog, I have a detailed overview of the first weekend of the Jazz and Heritage Festival: Dancing in the Face of Adversity (which comes from a Ze Records compilation). Burrage and Carson are mentioned briefly there but it's more about what I saw around NOLA itself and at the festival. Unlike other articles covering the fest, I thought it would be best to spend as little space as I could about the bigger acts (Costello, Springsteen, Dylan, Dave Matthews) that get plenty of coverage as it is and sadly this crowds out any reporting about all of the other wonderful acts that perform there.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

New Orleans local music legends

Attending the (just finished) Jazz and Heritage Festival for two days in New Orleans can take a lot out of you. Spending about 6-8 hours in the hot sun, running around to different stages and filling your face with all manner of seafood combinations that are a local specialty can take a lot out of you. I know, I know... it's a problem that most people wish they had, especially 1/2 of the local population who still haven't made it back to NOLA after Katrina.

But this yearly festival is by no means the be-all/end-all of the music to see and hear in NOLA. Other than the clubs scattered around town, there's a seven-block area down on Bourbon Street that's filled with bars, restaurants, strip joints and music clubs. If you wander towards the end of that area (where the residential area just about begins), you'll see two local legends.

Ryan Burrage is all of 31-years-old but has his heart set back in the '20's. The clarinetist holds court at Fritzel's European Jazz Pub (733 Bourbon Street, New Orleans, LA 70116; Ph. (504) 561-0432). There, along with a five or six piece band, he takes his turn letting out screaming solos. Some of the horn players look like they could be his grandfather while the pianist looks like he could be his son. No matter as you'll be hard pressed to hear wilder or more joyous music down the Bourbon way. Nowadays, the club has a cover to promote Jazz Relief, an organization that supports local musicians. For a $1 fee, it's well worth it. Also note that Burrage's 2003 CD, Toulouse Street Blues, captures a good part of the raucous interplay that he gets live. With all due respect to Preservation Hall, he's got the hottest jazz band in the area.

A few short steps away from Fritzel's is the Funky Pirate (727 Bourbon St; Phone: 504-523-1960). Though you can get all your buccaneer gear there (plastic sword, eye patch), the real attraction is well-named blues shouter named Big Al Carson.

It's hard to miss the guy, sitting at the end of the bar on a stool on a small stage, half of which he takes up so that one guitarist has to play near the bar: in all fairness, he himself should take up the name "Roomful of Blues." Because of his size, Al doesn't even bother to get up during their breaks- he just sits there and signs autographs for fans to come up to meet him. You'd probably imagine that a crane lowers him onto stage at the start and finish of the evening.

But this guy is proud of being 300 pounds of joy (as Wolf would say). Even stationary, he knows how to work up a crowd, saving his shouts for the right moment and using saucy (but good natured) stage banter for certain females in the audience and making eye contact and hand gestures to other people in the crowd to grab their attention. His set list is a good mix of Chicago standards (heard from where it probably originated) that he can make something out of.

Tipitina's is justifiably a legendary NOLA music haunt but music fans should also scout out Hiller and Burrage while they're down there especially to enjoy the small club atmosphere.

Speaking of NOLA, here's some news from the Blues Festival E-Guide:

"Starz Entertainment Group LLC will help bring music back to New Orleans with the premiere screening of its feature-length original documentary "New Orleans Music in Exile" on Saturday, May 13, 2006. The day-long event begins with a public screening at 11:45 a.m. followed by an invitation-only screening at 2:30 p.m. both at the Landmark Theatre in the Canal Place Center.

The day culminates with a private Benefit Concert Celebration at Tipitina's French Quarter at 5:30 p.m. featuring performances by famed New Orleans musicians including Irma Thomas, Kermit Ruffins, Theresa Andersson, ReBirth Brass Band and World Leader Pretend.

"New Orleans Music in Exile" will premiere exclusively on Starz InBlack at 7 p.m. ct. Friday, May 19, 2006, with an encore presentation on Starz, Saturday, May 20th at 12:00 p.m. ct."

A full schedule of showings is available at

Sunday, May 07, 2006

RIP Grant McLennan

Sad and unexpected news that Go-Betweens co-principal McLennan died yesterday. At the very least, he could be proud that with the group's 2000 reunion, the Aussie group was getting some of the recognition that it didn't get during its initial run in the '80's, not just with new product and shows but also with the lovingly expanded reissues of their entire back catalog.

As good as the GB's records were (some of the best indie pop ever), McLennan's post-GB solo work is definitely worth investigating also. Heresy though it may be, I sometimes thought the give-and-take trade-offs he did with Robert Forster on GB records slighted his songwriting gift sometimes. If you're more of McLennan fan like me, who sees him as the sweet Paul in their Beatle-ish relationship, then his own albums are definitely the best place to experience his gift.

While 1995's Horsebreak Star (seemingly out of print now) was almost too much of a good thing, a double record cut down to a lengthly single, it was still filled with wonderful little vignettes ("Lighting Fires," "Put You Down," the title track). His first solo record is a total gem though it also seems to be unavailable now. 1991's Watershed (with its wonderful contrary cover of GML mid-shave with a San Fran sports hat) has his engaging, dream, sweet style on full display. Songs like "Stones For You," "Black Mule" and "You Can't Everything" aren't the types to sweep you off your feet but to stay with you for a long time with their haunting melodies

As nice as it is to have the GB's catalog full available to enjoy, a nice tribute to McLennan would also be to have his wonderful solo work also available again. Somebody get to work on that!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Arthur Lee benefit & hear Neil Young roar

To follow up on the Arthur Lee news, a new website has been set up with info about an upcoming benefit and a way to donate to Arthur to help out with his medical bills.

Also, unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard that Neil Young rushed into a studio and cranked out a new anti-war, anti-Bush record that you can hear from start to finish online now. At this year's SXSW conference, honcho Roland Swenson recalled the power of Neil's "Ohio" over 25 years ago, making an impassioned plea for now: "Neil, we need you to write another song." Not long after came Living With War. A slow burn rock album with all the fuzz and distortion that Crazy Horse fans slobber over though he recorded it without them and with... a 100-piece choir? Sounds bizarre but this is Neil we're talking about. Strange, unpredictable turns in his career, nothing subtle about his work. What's more is that it works somehow, even with "America The Beautiful" near the end. For a Canadian, he's a real American patriot for sure.