Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Mighty Lester- which one's the bluesman?

Mighty Lester isn't so much of a "who?" as he... or rather "they" are a "what?" That is to say that Lester was once a member of a certain Raleigh blues band but when he left them, the group decided to retain his name. Makes sense- there was nobody named Floyd in Pink Floyd, right? And appropriately enough, PF were named after two bluesmen.

Other than the fact that there's eight guys in the band, the rest of Lester's story is a bit of a mystery, maybe because they like their mystique or more likely because they haven't mastered the art of the press release yet. Either way, the group is more proof positive that like rock, the blues ain't quite dead yet. Singer/songwriter Todd Dewberry doesn't quite have a full-throated shout but is solid enough a vocalist to make you believe in his songs, which are helped out in no small part by a three-piece horn section and Lenny Terenzi's tasty guitar licks. With a CD out (their second album, titled We Are Might Lester to help with the name confusion) and a tour going on, it's a good time to discover this band.

Listen to a few of their tunes at their MySpace page or gorge on their whole album at their CD Baby site where you can also buy the record.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Black Flag- punk nostalgia

Thanks to Joe Carducci (who'd know 'cause he was there), I was tipped off about some vintage Black Flag clips from their early '80's five-piece days with Henry Rollins in the line-up but when Chuck Dukowski and Dez Cadena were still around too. Dig 13 whole minutes (which includes plenty of material from the hardcore classic Damaged on the Google Video site (who needs YouTube?) from a spring '83 show. Granted, the audio and video ain't top notch but this is punk music we're talking about- alive, real and raw. Rollins is pumped and primed for action while leader/guitarist/songsmith Greg Ginn spews out six-string madness. I haven't heard much music that brings about sweet catharsis quite like these guys did in their heydey. Also note that on the left side of the Google page are links to other BF videos from that era.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Blind Lemon Jefferson- remembered off-Broadway

The idea of blues theatre shouldn't seem so foreign. The late August Wilson had been perfecting it for years and in this spirit comes Blind Lemon Blues.

Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde's play takes place in the 1920's and 1940's and in between, tracing connections between Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly. Jefferson (played by Babatunde) is the obvious hero but the story is mostly told by Leadbelly (played by Cavin Yarbrough, who serves as one of the musical directors and was known as half of 70's R&B duo Yarbrough and Peoples) who relates his musical apprenticeship under Jefferson. As such, we hear not only Jefferson's material but also Leadbelly's and Blind Willie Johnson's. Jefferson is seen as a loser at first and eventually triumphant but in the end, freezing to death during a snow storm. Leadbelly carries his legacy along with him and relates his place in history. Johnson is seen as a kindred spirit but also as someone who overshadowed Jefferson.

During the course of the show, some 60 traditional blues songs (including many by Jefferson) are heard during the play within its two hours- remember that back in the day, song lengths rarely lasted more than a few minutes (something that the Ramones would later take to heart). Yarbrough is still in good voice and Babatunde makes a good Jefferson, expressing not just his pride but also his sadness and dejection. The story is also told by a four-piece ensemble that sometimes functions as a Greek chorus, Jefferson's conscious, Jefferson's fan club and characters in Jefferson's songs. This includes Alisa Peoples Yarbrough (the other half of Yarbrough and Peoples and also a musical co-director of the play). Not only is she still in good voice but she also has good acting skills and plays a mean boogie-woogie piano on several songs, including Leadbelly's "Silver City Bound." Speaking of music, one of the (literally) hidden heroes of the play is guitarist Sam Swank, who plays Leadbelly's and Jefferson's guitar parts offstage.

Other than the fine song selection and interesting subject matter, what makes the play also noteworthy is that thanks to the four-piece chorus, the blues material has a soul and gospel edge to it also. Needless to say, this was part of the intention of the play, to show how these early blues songs were a well-spring of other American musical forms and not just the horrible 'devil's music' it was thought of by many back then, much less an overly-antiquated art form it's seen as now. I did have to wonder though why, other than a pre-school child, my girlfriend and I were the youngest people in the audience by a few decades, much less that there were few white audience members in attendance. That's a shame because regardless of race or age, this is an upbeat, enjoyable history lesson that should be attended.

Blind Lemon Blues is only going to be around for one more weekend so if you're at all interested, you better catch it now.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ussachevsky remembered

When he's remembered at all as part of music history, Vladimir Ussachevsky is usually noted as one of the founders of the Columbia Experimental Music Studio in the early 50's (which is thankfully an ongoing project at Columbia, long after his death in 1990). Not as well known are his own works as a composer but that was partially rectified in 1999 by the CRI label when they gathered his works from a bunch of collections to form a CD, Vladimir Ussachevsky: Electronic and Acoustic Works 1957- 1972. Since New World took over the CRI catalog, they've resurrected a number of releases, including this CD, now with the Soviet Constructivism-style cover you see to the left.

As noted in the liner notes to the CD, Ussachevsky started out with the simplest of equipment to produce his extraordinary, ghostly music- a tape machine, microphone, headphones and a recorder. In this relatively primitive (though not for the time) pre-digital environment, he was able to sculpt not only his own creations but also make a musical lab for other composers. True, the French had beaten him to the punch (the INA group) and he was working at the same time of another German studio (WDR, which would soon include Stockhausen) but Ussachevsky brought a distinct slant to the music he created. "Other-worldly" is the term that I usually come up with for this but he also had a fascination for technology-themes (appropriately enough) as heard in "Wireless Fantasy" (from 1960) and for quick, jarring contrasts ("Of Wood and Brass" from 1965) that would later manifest itself in the early electronic experiments of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

Also of interest from the CD are some non-electronic works he did. The choral piece "The Creation" (1960) is very moving and fluid, standing in stark contrast to his earlier work. Similarly, the mournful, Weil-ish "Miss Breva" (from 1972) shows another side of his work.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Richard Thompson on Iraq

In addition to his fairly recent topical songs about Madonna and Kenny G, Thompson now weighs in about the Iraq war with "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" (posted at the Huffington Blog). He name-checks Fox News and talks about cleaning up other peoples' mess. There's a nice extended guitar solo at the end and rest assured, the guy's not a hawk...

Monday, February 05, 2007

Prince, Clifford Brown and Big Black- so-so video, great clips

Ah, YouTube... how else would we non-football fans (hey, it's a fake sport... unlike wrestling) catch Prince's half-time show. Sure, his medley stayed back in the 80's and he dared to take on "Proud Mary" and "All Along the Watchtower" but he's part of the tradition now and deserves a place there- if I was there, I'd be waving my cell phone in the air during "Purple Rain" too. Also, maybe because of his religious beliefs or a panic-stricken NFL, he didn't have any wardrobe malfunctions (bet the FCC would dying to see that). Also, as you can tell from the clip, he's still a helluva performer- along with Springsteen, he puts on the best shows I've ever seen and I'd definitely catch him again.

But if you're in the mood for a little more nostaglia and video clips with not-so-great visuals, there's two other great ones on YouTube. First, there's a mid-50's excerpt from the Soupy Sales show with trumpeter Clifford Brown (who died at age 25) where he's playing his heart out, chatting with Soupy and playing out the show while the Soupster does a wacky dance.

Then there's a clip from Touch and Go Record's 25th Anniversary last September. As part of a few once-in-a-lifetime reunions, there was Big Black with Steve Albini. Again, this video of "Racer X" ain't great quality but just to see and hear this is a treat.

As Albini notes in the clip, there's a lot of people that forget what was happening between punk and Nirvana during the 80's. This video is a nice reminder of that. The two other songs they did for the brief set are also posted but not as vital as the one above: "Cables" and "Dead Billy." Also note all the cameras near the front, frantically trying to snap a picture of this piece of history.