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(Above: At 79 Sonny Rollins still has plenty to say with his horn.)

By Joel Francis

Sonny Rollins’ saxophone has the power to bend time. For nearly two hours Thursday night, the jazz legend and his five-piece band melted minutes like hot butter in front of a near-capacity crowd at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Ark.

The first number, “Sonny, Please,” set the mood for the night. The song started slowly, with Rollins repeating the melody, like a cook tasting the broth before serving it for dinner. Once Rollins’ palette was whet, he cued the band and the song was twisted, flipped and cavorted into as many different ways as possible. The format was almost like a congenial roundtable discussion: If a musician had something to say, they jumped in and said it for as long as it took.

Rollins opened “Park Palace Parade” with an a capella solo before the band dropped into a reggae beat behind him. At five minutes it was one of the shortest songs of the night. For another song he strolled to the front of the stage and delivered a solo on the precipice, leaning over the audience.

Although several songs reached over 20 minutes, there were never any filibusters. In fact, time seemed to accelerate with each solo. The opening three-song, 40-minute set seemed fleeting.

After a 25-minute intermission, the band wordlessly dropped into a reading of “In A Sentimental Mood” that somehow disposed of 50 years of schlock and clichés. Rollins’ longtime bassman Bob Cranshaw was given a lengthy solo and the ensemble performance wound down after 20 minutes with another extended, a capella sax solo.

Rollins was gracious in ceding the stage to his band. Trombonist Clifton Anderson and guitar player Bobby Broom took the majority of the solos. Anderson’s mellow horn and Broom’s tasty licks provided a nice counter-texture to Rollins’ saxophone. When he was really feeling their solo, Rollins would snap his fingers and bob his head in rhythm. Drummer Kobe Watkins made the most of the three-bar fills Rollins repeatedly gave him on Noel Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You.”

This was Rollins’ first performance in Arkansas and he announced how proud he was to be playing his idol Louis Jordan’s home state. Later in the set, he interrupted himself during the intro to “Nishi” to reminisce about a radio host he used to listen to as a child, Bob Burns, better known as the Arkansas Traveler.

For a man who could compress time so pleasurably and succinctly, introducing Burns, who died more than 50 years ago, to the present was no big deal.

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The Temptations – “My Girl,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

Lightning definitely struck twice for Smokey Robinson and the Temptations. After struggling for years, Robinson gave the Temptations their breakthrough hit with “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” “My Girl,” their follow-up, is not only Motown’s biggest song, but one of the biggest soul numbers of all time.

Inspired by his wife Claudette, Robinson and fellow Miracle Ronald White wrote the one of the greatest Valentines of all time as an answer song to their previous hit “My Guy.” Bob Dylan may have been thinking of the lyric “I’ve got so much honey/the bees envy me” when he proclaimed Robinson “America’s greatest living poet” in 1965.

David Ruffin made his lead vocal debut delivering these deceptively simple lyrics. Though it seems a no-brainer in retrospect, the decision was controversial at the time. Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams had shared the lead role prior to this song, and, to make matters worse, Ruffin was a ringer who replaced original Temptation Al Bryant. Ruffin got the nod after Robinson saw him singing “Under the Boardwalk” as part of their Motown Revue repertoire, and quickly became the group’s featured singer.

The Motown string section furthers Ruffin’s references to sunshine and fluttering birds, while Funk Brother James Jamerson’s signature two-note bass line anchors the entire performance.

It’s unclear why Robinson and White didn’t keep their song for The Miracles, but it didn’t take long for other acts to put their stamp on the number. Otis Redding added some blues for his 1965 reading; both the Rolling Stones and the Mamas and Papas cut it in 1967. Since then, everyone from Al Green to reggae artist Prince Buster to Dolly Parton to British shoegazers The Jesus and Mary Chain has reinterpreted this timeless classic.

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Above: “Chuco’s Cumbia” at Austin City Limits 2006

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

For a band as accomplished as Los Lobos, the reach from Jimi Hendrix and Willie Dixon to Richard Thompson and Ritchie Valens is a small one. The gulf between the lip of the stage and the front row, however, can be trickier to navigate.

The sextet’s 16-song, two-hour set was a celebration of all forms of music from New Orleans soul to Spanish mariachi. However, bottom-heavy sound and fixed seating proved nearly insurmountable for the band during the latest entry in the “Cyprus Avenue Live at the Folly Theater” on Sunday night.

The show never completely got off the ground, but it had its share of inspired moments. “Chuco’s Cumbia” featured a dirty Latin groove, while a medley of “The Neighborhood” and “Wang Dang Doodle” bridged the South Side of Chicago to East Los Angeles. The first set ended with a cover of Richard Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights” anchored by a thunderous backbeat.

After a 25-minute break, the band returned with a second set guaranteed to knock the yawn out of any weary political supporters (there were plenty of T-shirts from Saturday’s rally throughout the crowd). The one-two of “Come On Let’s Go” and “Don’t Worry Baby” got people involved, if not on their feet. The band traded 88 piano keys for 22 guitar strings on their cover of Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” which included a shuffling solo from drummer Cougar Estrada.

The high point of the night was a surprise cover of Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing.” Between David Hildago’s lead guitar and Cesar Rosas’ vocals, they not only nailed the song, but stretched it out and made it their own.

There were plenty of covers, but the band also touched on all phases of its career. While lesser bands make a career out of mining the same niche, Los Lobos were able to transition from the early rockabilly of “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” to the more experimental “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” and from the Spanish festivity of “Maria Christina” to the quiet introversion of “The Valley.”

The sound was muddy for most of the night and Steve Berlin suffered the brunt of it. His keyboards and woodwinds were often barely audible in the mix. The Folly is a wonderful venue for intimate shows -– recent performances by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and Randy Newman were sonically incredible -– but it is ill-suited for six amplified musicians.

The rigid seating and formal environment also inhibited the dancing and shaking Los Lobos’ music cries for. Toots and the Maytals, an earlier “Cyprus Avenue”/Folly booking, faced the same problem at its reggae concert last year. The younger crowd that turned out that night was less inhibited about dancing in the aisles.

Hildago finally coaxed people to their feet before “I Got Loaded,” and the band followed up with the one number guaranteed to keep everyone on their feet: “La Bamba.” After a brief encore break, the band picked up where they left off with a blistering “Good Morning Aztlan” and a frantic “Cumbia Raza” that featured another drum solo from Estrada and guitar solos from Louie Perez and Hildago. Just as the band and audience were hitting the mark, the band closed the set. It was a shame they had to stop. It felt like they were just getting started.

Setlist: Short Side of Nothing, Chuco’s Cumbia, The Valley, Luz d Mi Vida, The Neighborhood/Wang Dang Doodle, Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes, Shoot Out the Light (intermission) Maria Christina, Kiko and the Lavender Moon, Come On Let’s Go, Don’t Worry Baby, Little Wing, The Fat Man, I Got Loaded, La Bamba/Good Lovin'(encores) Good Morning Aztlan, Cumbia Raza

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Above: Of course they played “Roller Skate Skinny.”

By Joel Francis

There is something to be said for a band who can play an entire set without changing instruments.

The Old 97s are not quite that band – lead singer/songwriter/heartthrob Rhett Miller swapped his electric axe for an acoustic one a few times – but they are as close as we’re going to get. For almost two hours they entertained a nearly full Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kan. with little more than the instruments and songs on their backs.

The setlist encompassed more than two dozen songs, from radio favorites like “New Kid” to fan favorites like “Jagged” and new songs like “No Baby I.” When the band played “Question,” a recount of Miller’s wedding proposal, all the women pulled their men close and sang softly in their ears. “Barrier Reef” erupted into a raucous sing-along.

In a rare moment of between-song banter, Miller recalled the band’s first show in Lawrence at the Replay Lounge where they performed for a night of unlimited, free video games. A few songs later, those days were celebrated in “Niteclub.”

Miller may have the easiest job in showbiz. Offstage, all he has to do is write songs that combine the alt-country terrain plowed by Uncle Tupelo with the pop sensibility of Paul McCartney. Onstage, he just makes love with his eyes to all the doe-eyed women pressed against the stage and occasionally shake his ass while Ken Bethea takes a guitar solo.

Bethea plays lead guitar via chainsaw. Standing on the edge of the stage with his headstock hanging over the crowd, he rips through songs with a Chet Atkins-meets-Dick Dale style. On the other extreme of the stage, modest Murry Hammond cradles his bass like a baby and tosses out the harmony (and intermittent lead) vocals that push the songs from good to great.

Late-tour shows can be a mixed bag. When Wilco played the Uptown Theater in 2006 at the end of the Kicking Television tour they were tired of both the road and their material. But with only a couple dates left on their current tour the Old 97s played with the perfect mix of familiarity and abandon. “Doreen,” one of their hardest-rocking numbers, positively smoked.

The evening ended with the encore haymaker punches of “Murder (Or a Heart Attack),” “Big Brown Eyes,” “Dance with Me” and, of course, “Timebomb.” When it was over, everyone left a little drunker and a lot happier.

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Above: We’ve got a friend in Randy.

By Joel Francis

The setup couldn’t have been simpler – a grand piano, bench, monitor, couple of microphones, a small rug. But add Randy Newman to that list and the payoff couldn’t have been greater Saturday night.

Strolling casually onstage at 8 p.m. sharp, Newman rolled into “It’s the Money That I Love.” Throughout the next two and a half hours (counting a 20 minute intermission), he walked through nearly three dozen album tracks and hits like “You’ve Got A Friend In Me,” “I Love L.A.” and “Short People” for a nearly sold-out Folly Theater crowd.

He may have been alone onstage, but Newman had a theater of fervent supporters. The audience of NPR-listening baby boomers was pin-drop quiet on the moodier numbers and clapping and laughing on the upbeat songs. When Newman finally enlisted their help on the chorus of “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” the enthusiastic response was startling. “You sound like a Queen record,” he joked.

Newman is as good at directing a crowd as he is an orchestra. He shifted effortlessly from the laugh-out-loud satire of “Korean Parents” to the melancholy “I Miss You” – a love song “for my first wife while I was married to my second one,” Newman said – to the upbeat children’s song “Simon Smith.”

Some of the evening’s best lines came between songs. “The World Isn’t Fair” was prefaced by a story about his son’s progressive pre-school where they would “sit around on cushions and come home with lice every couple weeks” He led into “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” a screed about rock stars who don’t know when to retire, by explaining “no one is applauding at home” and “no one is going to tell Paul his best work was with Wings.”

Every song was a highlight, but several numbers stood apart. “Dixie Flyer,” a song about Newman’s emigration from the Bayou State to Los Angeles, segued into “Louisiana 1927,” a historical recount of the great Mississippi flood. Two songs named after cities, “Birmingham” and “Baltimore,” were powerful paeans to the working class in decaying towns.

Although the generous setlist encompassed Newman’s entire catalog, it tipped toward his last two releases. All but one song from this year’s wonderful “Harps and Angels” was performed. That album provided one of the better political songs in recent memory, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country.”

Newman let his songs do his stumping for him. Several of the numbers he wrote more than 30 years ago, like the bomb-happy “Political Science” and the plea “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” sadly have a contemporary relevance.

Today, Newman is better known for his sweeping film scores and Pixar songs than stinging lyrics and clever songwriting. He did OK with only 88 keys to replicate his orchestrations. His more complicated songs, like “A Piece of the Pie” and “Harps and Angels” survived the transition more or less intact. “Love Song (You and Me)” actually sounded better stripped down.

Like many of his generation’s best songwriters – Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Tom Waits come to mind – Newman’s froggy voice is an acquired taste that is easily parodied. Saturday’s magical immersion in Newman’s world of five centuries of European history in three minutes (“The Great Nations of Europe”), senior forgetfulness (“Potholes”) and erotic humor (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”) was more than enough to convert the few who carried any reservations into the theater and leave the devoted a performance to cherish.

Setlist: It’s the Money That I Love/My Life Is Good/Marie/Short People/Birmingham/Bad News From Home/The World Isn’t Fair/Korean Parents/I Miss You/Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear/A Few Words in Defense of Our Country/Laugh and Be Happy/Losing You/You Can Leave Your Hat On/I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)/Political Science/<intermission>/Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)/The Great Nations of Europe/Potholes/In Germany Before the War/Baltimore/Only A Girl/Love Story (You and Me)/Real Emotional Girl/You’ve Got a Friend in Me/Harps and Angels/Dixie Flyer/Louisiana 1927/Guilty/I Love L.A./God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)/A Piece of the Pie/I Think It’s Going to Rain Today/<encores>/It’s Lonely at the Top/Feels Like Home

Below: Because you were going to Google it anyway….

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Velvelettes – “Needle in a Haystack,” Pop #45

The real action in “Needle in a Haystack” is happening away from the microphones and behind the glass. This song was the first single the late Norman Whitfield’s produced for Motown. Whitfield got his start at the label as a songwriter, co-writing Marvin Gaye’s hit “Pride and Joy,” but he made his name as a pioneering producer on the edge of the psychedelic soul movement.

In keeping with Berry Gordy’s assembly line mentality, the song sounds very much like the other Motown productions of the time. None of the experimental flourishes that mark Whitfield’s groundbreaking time with The Temptations are present. The promise of sounds to come, however, makes the song historically worth hearing.

History aside, there’s little that makes “Needle in a Haystack” stand out. The single was the Velvelettes’ second single for Motown and first charting effort. Although they had a follow-up hit, the Velvelettes, like Carolyn Crawford, are a footnote in Motown’s great history. – by Joel Francis

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By Joel Francis

Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy is to the electric guitar what a match is to kerosene.

The 68-year-old blues legend lit into opening number “Best Damn Fool” like a house afire and closed out the Roots ‘n Blues ‘n BBQ Festival Saturday night in Columbia, Mo. with 90 minutes of barn-burning blues that skimmed through the encyclopedia of the genre.

After starting with a cut from his new album, “Skin Deep,” Guy tore through his classic “Hoodoo Man.” The song culminated with a guitar duel between Guy and his backing guitarist, who was more than capable of holding his own. After whipping the song into a frenzy, Guy put a finger to his lips and hushed both the crowd and his band. In whisper silence he noodled into “Love Her With a Feeling,” which merged with “She’s Nineteen Years Old.”

Guy’s mind is as frenetic as his fingers. He rarely plays a song all the way through, opting to mine the most joyous parts, then skip along to the next number that races through is brain. He treated the audience to a nearly two full minutes of his signature number “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” before remembering he played Peggy Lee’s “Fever” at his last gig in Columbia 15 years ago and gave them all of that instead. No one seemed to mind.

“Boom Boom,” a tribute to John Lee Hooker, suddenly inspired “Strange Brew” and a shout-out to Eric Clapton and Cream. Guy hopped offstage and wandered through a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd a block deep and half a block wide to deliver “Drowning on Dry Land” and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.”

Like a woman plied with one drink too many, Guy was able to coax things from his guitar beyond its natural limits. Armed with a cream-colored Fender Stratocaster instead of his trademark polka dot model, Guy hopped on a wah wah peddle to riff over the intro of Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child” before launching into Muddy Water’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You.”

The night ended with “Out in the Woods,” a boast about taming wild beasts. It was a great closing number, but also slightly redundant – at this point, Guy no longer had to prove how bad he was.

Bettye LaVette

In a perfect world, Bettye LaVette would be enjoying the same kind of success Tina Turner receives today.

After 47 years in the business and five years into her renaissance, LaVette’s raspy voice – no doubt enhanced by years of working smoky dives – is informed and enhanced by the pain and frustration of her wilderness years.

Her performance of early songs like “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man,” “Let Me Down Easy” and “Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love)” hint at the career that could have been. But Lavette is not bitter. She can deliver a line like “I’ve been bruised, hurt and cheated on/ but still they couldn’t break me” (from “Close As I’ll Get to Heaven”) with both honesty and a smile.

Clad in a sleeveless black shirt and tight black pants, LaVette swayed and strutted across the stage channeling every note from her band, completely invested in every lyric. She added a swagger to her reading of “Joy” that songwriter Lucinda Williams could only dream of. Likewise, she added a level of sensuality to Leonard Cohen’s “You Don’t Know Me At All” unheard in the original. The sashay of her hips to a sizzling guitar solo said more than any of the verses.

Two years ago, LaVette put on a breathtaking performance at the Folly Theater in Kansas City. She was even better in the open air in Columbia and her band was the difference. For the earlier date, LaVette was backed by musicians who, like her, had been catapulted from juke joints to concert halls. Unlike her, they were not ready for the spotlight. Her new, four-piece band was tighter, funkier and able to keep up. They added a wash of psychedelic soul to “Sleep to Dream” and a superb gospel feel to “Choices.”

LaVette closed her 75-minute set with a riveting a cappella performance of a Sinead O’Connor song that summed up her life today: “I have all that I requested/And I do not want what I haven’t got.”

Doyle Bramhall

Drummer Doyle Bramhall grew up playing with the Vaughan brothers, so it makes sense that his Texas blues oscillate between the smooth strut of Jimmie and the rough and rocky bluster of  Stevie Ray. Unfortunately, there’s not much in between.

His five-piece band could turn it up when needed, like on a spirited cover of “Keep A Knockin’,” but for the most part they were content to keep the meat in the smoker instead of taking it out and slathering on the sauce.

Bramhall’s hour-plus set ran through songs from his solo catalog like “Top Rank Boxing” and “Cryin'” and a couple numbers he wrote with Stevie Ray. Predictably, “Change It” and “The House Is A Rockin’,” which closed the set, drew the greatest cheers.

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