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(Above: D’Angelo exposes “The Charade” in the opening hours of Black History Month on “Saturday Night Live.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two anthems of the civil rights movement were released within days of each other, in the dying weeks of 2014. John Legend and Common wrote “Glory” for the civil rights film “Selma.” As the third track on D’Angelo’s long-delayed third album, “The Charade” was released with less fanfare but greater anticipation.

More importantly, after being shunted to the underground for more than a decade, protest music has reemerged in the mainstream. Both “Glory” and “The Charade” were performed on national, network television in February.

Glory-From-the-Motion-Picture-_Selma_-SingleOn paper, “Glory” almost looks too obvious. John Legend recorded an entire album of R&B protest songs with The Roots in 2010 (with Common guesting on the lead single). Common’s history of uplifting poetry has earned him invitations to perform at the White House and guest spots from Maya Angelou and the Last Poets on his albums. “Glory” isn’t the first time Common has invoked Martin Luther King for a film. In 2006, he collaborated with Will.I.Am an end-credits anthem for the movie “The Freedom Writers” that sampled King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

It is clear from the opening gospel chords, that “Glory” is a celebration. It doesn’t challenge the listener like Common’s “Song for Asatta” or Legend’s version of “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” It something we can all feel good about while listening. That may sound like an insult, but it’s not. The civil rights movement brought out the worst in our society, and anyone who weathered that storm, or had a loved one who did, deserves a moment to catch their breath, smile and feel proud.

(Above: Common and John Legend show “Glory” at the Grammys.)

While “Glory” namechecks Ferguson, “The Charade” captures the confusion, frustration and anger of the injustice there. “All we wanted was a chance to talk,” D’Angelo pleads in the chorus. “’Stead we only got outlined in chalk.”

Like most of the songs on “Black Messiah,” “The Charade” doesn’t announce its presence as much as slink into being. D’Angelo’s lyrics are tough to decipher on the first listen, demanding repeated listens and close attention. “Glory” has a gospel choir; “The Charade” has multi-tracked vocals.

The difference between the songs is even more stark in performance. On “Saturday Night Live” D’Angelo and his band dressed in all black, with a chalk outline behind the singer on the floor. Backing vocalists wore shirts stating “I Can’t Breath” and “Black Lives Matter.” D’Angelo wore a hoodie, his face hidden in the shadows. The blistering delivery was a gauntlet – ignore this, America. Driving the point home, the ensemble raised fists in the air over the dying notes, summoning images of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics.

Less than two weeks later, Common and Legend were tapped to close the Grammys. Backed by an orchestra and a gospel choir, everyone wore suits and was clean-shaven. The production dovetailed with Beyonce’s stirring version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” King’s favorite song. The performance was moving, but if “Glory” didn’t feel as powerful as “The Charade” on “SNL,” it might be because it felt more safe.

“Glory” points to how far we’ve come and “The Charade” shows how far we have to go, but both songs end up at the same hopeful place. “Comin’ of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory,” Common concludes. “With the veil off our eyes, we’ll truly see/and we’ll march on,” D’Angelo affirms. “And it really won’t take too long.”

Keep reading:

John Legend and the Roots – “Wake Up!”

Edwin Starr – “War”

Review: Gil Scott-Heron

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(Above: Cake’s newest video is called “Sick of You.” They definitely seem tired of the lifestyle.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It won’t be hard to spot John McCrea on Friday night. The lead singer and chief songwriter for the alt-rock band Cake will hold center stage in a night of music in the City Market.

Seeing him in the future, however, may be more problematic.

Concerned with the direction of the music industry and unwilling to make a living by touring alone, McCrea is seriously considering a second career as a farmer.

“When I look five to 10 years in the future, I don’t see myself able to afford to make a living as a musician,” McCrea said. “We just spent 2½ years on an album, which is a significant investment. I’m not willing to do that again if people are just going to take it against our will, play it a few times then move on to the next thing to consume.”

Although celebrity musicians will always exist, McCrea said, midlevel, working-class bands like Cake may cease to be if there’s not reciprocity between fans and artists.

“Touring is a grueling thing to do, and if that’s a musician’s only source of income it means they can never come home,” he continued. “I have a family. I hate touring, and if there’s no other option I’ll get out.”

Fans can rest easy for now, however.

When Cake’s sixth album, “Showroom of Compassion,” debuted at No. 1 last January, much was made about the fact that it had sold fewer copies than any previous chart-topper.

What people missed, McCrea said, was that it sold roughly the same number of copies in its first week as Cake’s previous release, “Pressure Chief.”

This consistency is even more remarkable considering seven years had passed between those albums, years marked by turmoil in the record industry.

“We watched everyone stop paying for music during those years (between albums),” McCrea said. “The joke in the studio was that by the time we were finished nobody would be buying music anymore.”

Cake had a solid run of Top 40 hits in the 1990s, including “The Distance,” a cover of “I Will Survive,” “Sheep Go to Heaven” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.” Vince DiFiore’s trumpet and McCrea’s sardonic spoken/sung lyrics became the band’s calling card. Radio airplay combined with constant touring earned the band a cult following.

“So far I’m happy with what’s happened with this album,” McCrea said. “It tells me we have a relationship with our fans, and they trust us to go out on a limb and buy something without hearing it.

“I know when I was a kid I didn’t have that much money, and sometimes you’d buy an album and there’d only be one good song on it. I learned to be careful, but at the same time I learned that other artists always seemed to put out good records and knew I could trust them. We try very hard not to waste our fans’ time or money.”

The California-based quintet still toured during their recording hiatus — they stopped in Kansas City several times — but for the main part the group’s focus was on extricating themselves from their contract with Columbia Records and setting up their own shop.

“I don’t think a major label is a good place for a band like us,” McCrea said. “Since music is now free, the industry needs to economize and go out to dinner less. We didn’t want to have to pay for all the waste at a label.”

After testing the waters with a 2005 rarities and B-sides collection, Cake decided to self-release “Showroom of Compassion.” Liberation and success instilled a newfound sense of confidence, and for the first time in a while all of the band’s members were excited to contribute.

“Democracy is a slow process,” McCrea said. “There were a lot of disagreements, but we found our way through. Unlike past albums, everyone is completely happy with how this one turned out.”

A band at a crossroads, Cake is considering setting up an annual summer event similar to Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival or Cracker’s campouts. Cake tested the concept several years ago with its own multi-artist Unlimited Sunshine Tour, but the idea of staying in one place appeals to McCrea.

“I guess by definition fewer people would be able to see it,” McCrea said, “but I travel enough as it is.”

Keep reading:

Review: Cake

Cracker: The Grateful Dead of indie rock

Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Cake

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 (Above: A pre-Soy Bomb Grammy performance by Bob Dylan.)

For the past couple years, The Daily Record has celebrated the Grammy Awards with a running diary, documenting every moment with maximum snark. It was a lot of fun, but it won’t be happening tonight.

Making fun of the Grammys is like saying Bud Selig is out-of-touch or pointing out bias on Fox News. There doesn’t need to be any more wood added to this well-fueled fire. In fact, making fun of the Grammys irrelevance may perversely be giving them more relevance. For years, Grammy ratings were steadily sliding downward. Over the past few telecasts, however, viewership has sharply risen. This spike has coincided with the bevy of Tweets, blogs and Facebook posts lampooning the event.

I’m sure there will be some incredible moments on tonight’s broadcast. I’m also sure it won’t be worth more than three hours of my time. Tomorrow dozens of Websites will have links to the evening’s best moments, which I’ll be able to view in their entirety in under 20 minutes.

The Grammys try to be all (mainstream) things to all people. This weakens the telecast, but could be a boon the next day. Since all the performances are professionally recorded and mixed, it shouldn’t be too much trouble to put MP3s of those songs on iTunes the next day. Granted, there isn’t a lot of money left to be shaken from that tree, but I’m confident a substantial profit could be easily turned.

Just a thought. See you in the funny papers.

Keep reading:

2010 Grammys: A Live Diary

2009 Grammys: A Running Diary

 

 

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(Above: Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking,” released in 1964, is a classic, overlooked holiday album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The other day I was in a retail bookstore when I noticed the wonderful sounds of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack coming from the overhead speakers. As I enjoyed the music, two thoughts hit me. First, I wondered if the store would be playing Vince Guaraldi’s jazz interpretations of Christmas carols if they weren’t connected to an iconic cartoon. Then I started thinking about my other favorite jazz Christmas recordings. Joining me in this Yuletide journey is my friend Bill Brownlee, the award-winning blogger behind There Stands the Glass and Plastic Sax.

The Daily Record: I don’t pull out the Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but inevitably the first song I gravitate to is John Coltrane’s reading of “Greensleeves.” He cut this song many times. It can be found on his “Live at the Village Vanguard” collection and his “Ballads” album. My favorite version, though, may be found on Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse debut “Africa/Brass.” Not only does the performance run over 10 minutes – more than enough time to get lost in the playing – but classic Coltrane sidemen McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are augmented by a large brass section. The extra players beef up the sound and provide a larger-than-usual context.

Bill, what are some Christmas albums or performances that you turn to year after year?

Bill Brownlee: Along with most Americans, I’m inundated with Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. And as much as I love Donny Hathaway, Nat “King” Cole and Brenda Lee, involuntarily hearing their holiday hits saps my spirit.  Even Charlie Brown Christmas is played out for me.  And speaking of Vince Guaraldi, how often do you hear “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” played at a box store or on the radio?  There’s your answer.

That’s why I embrace the odd and the overlooked material.   Asked to supply music for my compound’s tree trimming festivities on Saturday, I immediately turned to Dan Hicks’ new Crazy For Christmas album.  The hillbilly jazz selection was so unpopular that I had to turn to (predictably boring) Motown Christmas to quell the insurrection.

TDR: The Motown Christmas may not be the most inventive holiday collection out there, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. It seems only a few new Christmas songs are allowed to escape each year. At this pitiful pace, it will be several years before today’s songwriters gift the public with something as great as Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.” His “Ava Maria” is also sublime. It’s also difficult to complain with the blending of the Temptations vocals (even if the arrangements are overly familiar) or the joy in Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s delivery.
If it’s a classic R&B Christmas you want, though, I’d suggest “Christmas in Soulsville” aka “It’s Christmas Time Again.” The tracklisting more inventive – where else are you going to hear “Back Door Santa” and not one, but two versions of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”? And the lineup is impeccable: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, Albert King and more. Stuff that in your stocking.

BB: I remember being so disappointed after I purchased a small stack of Motown Christmas LPs- the Temptations, the Miracles, the Jackson Five and so on. The arrangements and performances were totally uninspired.  Maybe that bad experience enhances my appreciation of stuff like Clarence Carter’s “Back
Door Santa.”

TDR: It sounds like we’re in agreement on the Stax recordings. What are some of your other Yuletide favorites? What’s been tickling your ears this season?

BB: The two new recordings I love are the aforementioned Dan Hicks and Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. It’s playful in a Lester Bowie/Rahsaan Roland Kirk sense. Fun.How about you?  What are you listening to?

TDR: There are several Christmas albums I reach for every year. Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking” is incredible. If you can get past the drum machines, Fats Domino’s “Christmas Gumbo” is a lot of fun. My wife insists we listen to Emmylou Harris’ “By the Light of the Stable” every year as we put up the tree. And if you’re stuck in a family situation where no one can agree on anything and you don’t want to be saddled with a commercial Christmas radio station, any of the eight EPs in Sufjan Stevens’ holiday series will do the trick.
Another treat of the season is watching bands incorporate holiday music into their stage act. Do you have any favorite Christmas concert memories?

BB: What kind of postmodern indie rock utopia do you live in?  Your suggestion that everyone can agree on Sufjan seems bizarre.
Oh, Emmylou!  Perfect.  There are certain voices that are ideal matches for the Christian holiday.  And no, Sufjan’s isn’t one of them.  I’m thinking of Emmylou, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
And I seem to remember that both of us attended a Charles Brown gig on a cold winter night shortly before he passed.  “Merry Christmas, Baby”!

TDR: First off, I should clarify that these Sufjan EPs all pre-date “The Age of Adz,” so he’s still very much in folky banjo troubadour mode. I don’t know why these recordings seem to pacify everyone, but it works for some reason. Granted, it’s a small focus group – six people. My sister and I (and our spouses) are Sufjan fans in general. He has some hymns and traditional material that pleases my parents and his arrangements low-key and accessible for them. Plus, after having to endure James Brown’s “Funky Soulful Christmas” and the Buck Owens Christmas album, I’m sure anything sounds good to them.

I’m not sure I can get behind a Dolly Parton Christmas, but I definitely agree with the rest of the singers on your list. Your mention of Mahalia Jackson reminded me to recommend Odetta’s “Christmas Spirituals,” if you haven’t heard it before.

That Charles Brown show was special to me in many ways. Not only was it his last performance in Kansas City, but it was my first experience at the Grand Emporium. I was 18 at the time, so I needed my dad to go with me so I could get in, not that I had to twist his arm to go. Even though it was February, everyone still enjoyed hearing him play his legendary Christmas songs, tell stories and sing the blues. Thanks for mentioning this amazing experience we shared.

More importantly, thank you for taking time to talk about Christmas music with me. Do you have any parting comments before signing off?

BB: I’ll close with a list:

TEN OF MY FAVORITE ODD AND OVERLOOKED CHRISTMAS ALBUMS:
Sam Billen- A Word of Encouragement (2010 release available as a free download)
Brave Combo- It’s Christmas, Man
Charles Brown- Cool Christmas Blues
John Fahey- Christmas Guitar
Dan Hicks- Crazy For Christmas (2010 release)
Tish Hinojosa- Memorabilia Navidena
Manzanera and MacKay Present: The Players- Christmas
Max Roach- It’s Christmas Again
Allen Toussaint & Friends- A New Orleans Christmas
Matt Wilson- Christmas Tree-O (2010 release)

Merry Christmas!

TDR: That’s a great list, Bill. You mention several of my favorites (Allen Toussaint, John Fahey) some I need to hear (Brave Combo, Sam Billen) and some I’ve been unable to find (Manzanera/MacKay, Max Roach). It’s certainly enough to keep me busy until Christmas next year. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for stopping by.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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(Above: “Go To Sleep” is one of many new songs rapper Lupe Fiasco has completed for his new album, “Lasers.” Despite submitting the album to his label two years ago, a release date of March, 2011, was just announced last week.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Today hundreds of young music fans will protest outside the headquarters of Atlantic Records in New York City as part of Fiasco Friday. A similar rally will also take place in Chicago.

The gatherings started as an frustrated discussion on an internet forum over Atlantic’s two-year refusal to release an album by rapper Lupe Fiasco. Inspired by success stories of similar incidents with Wilco and Fiona Apple, this new generation of fans want major labels to respect their voices.

“Lupe is just one part of a larger issue,” said 17-year-old Matthew LaCorte, one of Fiasco Friday’s organizers. “I would like Atlantic to stop interfering in the creative process of its artists and to help get a more positive message – a message like Lupe’s – on commercial radio.”

Tall requests, to be sure. Artists complaints of label meddling can be found in ever era of the music industry, and are a major reason why artists from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to the Eagles have divorced themselves from major label. Complaints of commercial radio playlists have increased – while overall listenership has decreased – since the 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed single corporations to gobble up more and more of the national spectrum.

 

Rapper Lupe Fiasco.

 

“Our goals mirror Lupe’s L.A.S.E.R.S. manifesto, which he posted online,” LaCorte said. “We want to alert people and tell the message of Lupe Fiasco, who’s music has a drastically different message from what you hear on the radio.”

In part, the 14-point manifesto declares an end to glamorizing negativity in the media, promotes environmental responsibility, individualism and political accountability, elevates substance over popularity and calls for the end of war and a “processed culture of exploitation, over-consumption and waste.”

But it will take more than T-Pain’s ubiquitous and chart-topping auto-tune to make these lofty goals part of any mainstream discussion.

“I’m not exactly sure what to expect from the rally,” LaCorte said. “I know we’ll have lots of signs and so some picketing. I’m planning on giving a speech, and I know we’ll have lots of chants and rally calls based on Lupe’s music.”

Oh, and Fiasco will be personally participating in the New York rally. In late September, Fiasco tweeted “well if y’all there…I guess I gotta be there too!”

“This started because we all wanted ‘Lasers’ to come out,” LaCorte said. “Last week Atlantic finally gave us a release date of March 8, 2011, so in a way we’ve succeeded. Fiasco Friday will be both a celebration of our success and a chance to protest issues we feel still need to be addressed.”

Fiasco is hardly the only rapper facing label resistance right now. Last week Nas raged against Def Jam’s refusal to release the second volume in his “Lost Tapes” series as part of his contract.

“Beefing with record labels is so 15 years ago,” Nas wrote in his open letter. “I could go on twitter or hot 97 tomorrow and get 100,000 protesters @ your building but I choose to walk my own path my way because since day one I have been my own man.”

LaCorte said he was fine with Nas’ perspective. But when the original petition calling for ‘Lasers’” release was ignored by Atlantic, he knew it was time to make a bigger noise.

“Having fans protesting is not good for business,” LeCorte said. “But if we fans do this – petition, boycott, make phone calls, send letters and stand up for the musicians we admire – if we make our voices heard, there will be a change.”

Keep reading:

Review: Lupe Fiasco

Chuck D looks forward in reverse

Review: “How to Rap”

(Below: Howard Beale’s ever-relevant rant from the 1976 film”Network.”)

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(Above: Author Greg Kot discusses his book “Ripped” in this 30-minute radio interview.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When I was in graduate school I wrote my précis – an abridged thesis – on how the internet was changing the music industry. It was an exciting time. Napster was in full swing and Metallica’s lawsuit was not only breaking news, but new research ripe for my writing. (Incidentally, the record industry’s great hope at the time was to create a new type of CD that could not be copied or ripped to computer.) I was praised for my paper, but the research did not age well. Barely two years after graduation, its findings were horribly outdated.

Greg Kot fares much better in his recent book “Ripped” How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.” Published in 2009, he takes the long view on the digital evolution of the past decade. The book opens with an overview of how the major labels wound up on the wrong side of their consumers at the turn of the century. In the first three chapters, Kot covers the consolidations that homogenized commercial radio and placed extra emphasis on the major labels’ profit margins; the labels’ revolt against the payola system they built and established; and how labels quashed their artists’ efforts to embrace the Internet.

That’s a lot to cover in 50 pages, but Kot is wise not to belabor these points. Other books – notably Steve Knopper’s “Appetite for Self-Destruction,” which appeared a few months earlier – cover this ground in far more depth. Kot’s summary provides a nice launching pad for the real meat of his book, namely how the net has allowed artists and fans to connect in unexpected ways with unexpected results.

Today Prince is a punching bag for declaring the internet “completely over,” but his actions in the mid-‘90s laid the groundwork for the path Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and other bands currently follow. Walking away from his contract with Warner Bros., Prince built a network with his fans where he would release music directly to them, at a pace he dictated. Without the modern digital infrastructure, distribution was often slow and frustrating. It is puzzling that yesterday’s visionary opted out just when technology became the most accommodating.

Kot also discusses how the internet helped Wilco and Death Cab For Cutie develop an online cult following and how that translated to mainstream success. Another chapter is devoted to the impact of Pitchfork and other online tastemakers. The book ends with the stories of Lily Allen, Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor and Radiohead and how their business models have turned the industry on its head.

A music critic and reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Kot draws on his day job to incorporate first-hand quotes delivered in the heat of the moment. Putting the reader in the speaker’s mind in real time keeps the stories fresh and makes the linear exposition more exciting. Very little is revealed through hindsight; the reader gets everything as it occurs.

“Ripped” shares many traits with Thomas Freidman’s 2006 exploration of the online paradigm “The World is Flat.” Both books hold few revelations for readers who followed the events unfold in real time, but are also handy encapsulations of everything that has occurred. At the same time, they are immensely in explaining to the uninitiated how we got to where we are. Whether “Ripped” deserves a spot on the bookshelf or a visit to the library depends on the reader’s level of knowledge. Either way, it is worth reading.

Keep reading:

Review – “Record Store Days”

Radiohead Rock St. Louis

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: Wilco returns to the Crossroads (2009)

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(Above: “Jefferson Jericho Blues” is one of several new songs Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been regularly playing on their tour this summer.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The sets Heart and Sarah McLachlan delivered back-to-back at last week’s Lilith Fair were studies in contrast. Sure their styles are wildly divergent, but each act presented three new songs during their one-hour sets.

Heart was proud of their songs, delivering them in succession. They may have gone one song too far, but the crowd responded positively. McLachlan, on the other hand, apologized for performing new songs. She sprinkled them throughout her hit-laden set and express regret before and after each one. She needn’t have bothered – the audience enjoyed them anyway.

Beloved songwriter James Taylor has only released one album of original material this decade.

Nostalgia is the single most lucrative element in the music industry today. Fans are wiling to shell out more than ever to see legendary artists in concert. Paradoxically, those fans are loathe to hear anything outside of the sacred catalog. This is a closed cannon. With a few exceptions, anything after two dozen hit singles or 10 successful albums is off limits. Some artists, like Billy Joel, are fine with this. Joel hasn’t written any new pop material in nearly two decades. Others, like Fleetwood Mac, shuttle most of their new music to individual projects (although the band did deliver a new album in 2003, their first in eight years).

Solo performers have fewer options. Paul McCartney and Elton John have bravely soldiered on, each releasing four albums in the past decade and highlighting his latest release in concert. James Taylor and Paul Simon have slowed their output to a trickle; both have only released one or two albums of original material in the new millennium, respectively.

Guitarist Junior Marvin and the Original Wailers have been playing material from their upcoming album alongside Bob Marley's classic material.

Then there are the rare established artists whose fans salivate over new material. In 2007, Bruce Springsteen’s “Magic” hit No. 1 on the album charts. Despite a Clear Channel missive not to play any of the new material on its stations, Springsteen performed the majority of the album on his sold-out tour. When “Working on a Dream” appeared just 18 months later, it featured heavily in setlists as well.

The Original Wailers face an even more daunting task. Their catalog is not only the most popular and indelible in reggae, but Bob Marley, their frontman and songwriter, has been dead for 30 years. When the band performed in Kansas City earlier this year they boldly mixed many original songs from their upcoming album in with Marley’s classics. Surprisingly, the new riddims didn’t stop the dancing for a moment.

Artists have three choices onstage: ignore performing new material, apologize and play a couple new songs, or deliver a block of new material. None of these are optimal. (Quick caveat: the songs in question should be worthwhile additions to the catalog, not a cheap excuse to trot out the same tired hits yet again.)

Overconfidence in new material may send fans fleeing for the bathroom and bar. I’m confused why any artist would ever apologize for the music they perform, especially if it is something they have written or hold dear. Ignoring new work reinforces the same message as apologizing: I’m not proud of this material. If they’re not proud of it, why should fans bother?

Despite their perceived authority and glamor, artists have little power over how their music will be marketed, sold and received. Going onstage is as close to complete control that they will ever have. Songwriters should own all of their material, especially the latest and least familiar. Don’t be afraid to surprise. Weaving new material in with the old not only freshens the setlist, but shakes some dust off the favorites by placing them in a new perspective and context. It tells the fan “if you liked this then, try this now.” Remember: Today’s new songs are tomorrow’s sing-alongs.

Keep reading:

Review: Lilith Fair

Review: The Original Wailers

Review: Bruce Springsteen

Review: James Taylor and Carole King

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(Above: Tommy James and the Shondells do the hanky panky, or at least pretend to.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Even as it was unfolding, Tommy James knew he had a heck of a story to tell. The intimidating visitors, angry phone calls, mysterious disappearances. Little of it was directed at him, but James knew that could change in an instant if his hits dried up.

James knew the stories were too good to keep, but he realized he needed to stay quiet and let time pass before he shared them. Nearly 40 years later, when James could finally paint the picture, he grasped he wasn’t even the star of his own tale.

“As I was writing, I realized this story is more about Morris Levy than it is about me,” James said. “I could have called it ‘Crimson and Clover’ and talked about the music, but realized if I wasn’t telling the Roulette story I would be shortchanging everybody.”That’s OK, it’s as it should be. People called Morris the godfather of the record business and he was appropriately named.”

In his new memoir “Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells,” James recalls his tumultuous, dangerous relationship with Levy, a mafia associate who ran Roulette Records as a mob front.

“I recorded ‘Hanky Panky’ in 1962, but it didn’t become a hit until 1966, when out of nowhere it went to No. 1 in Pittsburgh,” James said. “After that I grabbed the first bar band I could find and took them to New York to sign with a label. We visited everyone, Atlantic, Columbia, and got a yes from them all. The only one we didn’t visit was Roulette. One by one, the labels started to call us back. They all turned us down. They had been told we were Roulette property and to back off.”

Morris had the business sense to know a sure thing, and the goons to make sure he got what he wanted. And at that moment he wanted James. Although he was intimidated by Morris, the two men eventually became good friends.

“Morris was more fun than any 10 guys, but doing business with him was a disaster,” James said. “On the other hand, people called Morris the godfather of the record business for good reason. I frequently found myself walking on eggshells around him.”

Levy withheld all royalties, and kept James in the dark about his finances. In fact, since the label was under Federal surveillance, Levy kept three sets of books. When songwriter Bo Gentry realized he wasn’t getting paid for the songs he co-wrote for James, including “Mony Mony,” he started giving his a-list songs to other performers. A call from Levy corrected the situation. When James’ account gave Levy an invoice for the estimated $30 million to $40 million James was owed in back royalties, Levy threatened to send him to the bottom of the river.”

“I was very afraid several times,” James said. “The Morris’ associates were flat-out psychopaths who devoted their lives to the dark side of everything.”

Afraid for his live, James started carrying a gun and staying away from the Roulette offices, fearing retribution from Levy’s partners or, worse yet, becoming a casualty in the mob wars. Yet at the same time, he never refused a weekend invitation to get away with Levy on his upstate New York farm.

“Every time I go to say something nasty about Morris or Roulette, I know there probably wouldn’t have been a Tommy James without them. I always keep that in the back of my mind.

“Morris was an important chapter in my life, no doubt about it,” James continued. “I learned a great deal from him and Roulette about nuts and bolts of the business. If I had been on a corporate label, I would have been handed to a producer and lost in the numbers. I ended up on Roulette with 23 gold singles and 9 gold and platinum albums.”

James left Roulette in 1974 and used what Levy taught him to set up his own label in the late ‘80s, about the same time the government finally caught up with Levy.

“They finally nabbed him on something that seemed pretty minor at the time,” James said. “He got involved in a scheme to rip off a Philadelphia record promoter named John LaMonte. When LaMonte realized what was going on, he refused to pay. When Levy threatened to beat him to a pulp, he went to the feds.”

Sentenced to 10 years for racketeering and extortion, Levy died from colon cancer before serving a day. In 2005, the last of the Roulette Regulars, as Levy’s partners were known, died, clearing the way for the book.

“I’ve been amazed by the response to the book,” James said. “There’s going to be a movie and a Broadway show. There will probably be a couple actors playing me because of all the time involved, but one of the actors we’ve looked at is Val Kilmer, who is a friend of mine.”

Once again, Levy has already beaten James to the punch. The “Sopranos” character Hersh Rabkin, played by Jerry Adler, was based on Levy. Although he has been dead for 20 years, Levy is still an inseparable part of James’ life.

“I miss Morris, strangely enough,” James said. “I have all these mixed feelings about him, and I guess part of me always will.”

Keep reading:

A conversation with Elijah Wald

Talking Motown with Bill Dahl

Rock Hall commemorates 35 years of Austin City Limits

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(Above: Stefani Germanotta goes gaga for John Lennon.)

A few random thoughts for this mid-week blog entry.

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Lilith Fair

I’m looking forward to catching my first-ever Lilith Fair tomorrow night, but must admit I have several reservations. It’s never a good sign when Sarah McLachlan, the tour headliner and organizer, admits that ticket sales have been “soft.” Several dates were cancelled, and a quick glance at the temporarily unavailable TicketMaster instant seat locator showed that many of the remaining dates had vast sections of available seats. I don’t know how to fix the sour ticket industry (eliminating “convenience” fees and lowering prices spring to mind, but I’m sure it’s much more complicated), but I think Lilith hasn’t done itself any favors. Many of these problems could be fixed by paying more attention to the Lilith Fair Website.

Fans should be able to see where each artists performs without having to click on every date. Clicking an artist’s name brings up a highlighted list of her cities, but without dates. This is needlessly complex. Furthermore, the schedules for each city are missing. Eleven artists will play at Sandstone Amphitheater tomorrow night. Performances will start in the mid-afternoon. Approximate schedules should be posted weeks before each stop so fans will be able to make plans and adjust to be in place for their favorite performer. Each of these issues have easy solutions. Judging by the Website, it appears as if everyone threw in the towel long ago. These shows may be a loss, but fans still need to be cared for.

Lady Gaga and John Lennon

My little brother cracks me up. With very little coaching from me, he has become a huge Beatles fan. His Facebook posting the other day reminded me of something I would have written as his age. He was outraged that the “freak” Lady Gaga had covered “Imagine,” “the magnificent song by John Lennon.”

I can’t recall any Beatles covers drawing my ire, but for a brief period I grew very upset when rap producers (I’m looking at you, Diddy) were too reliant on the source material. “I’ll Be Missing You” and “Feel So Good” seemed like glorified karaoke to me. The kicker came when Jimmy Page and Tom Morello, two guitarists (read: “musicians”) I greatly respected helped Diddy rework Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for “Come With Me.”

I have mellowed over time. Now when I hear Gaga’s cover of “Imagine” I’m glad she has good taste and that someone is keeping Lennon’s music alive, however the performance rates.

Going Deep

In another lifetime, in another era I would have been a great producer at Rhino Records. I love scouring the catalogs of artists, unearthing gems from dismissed albums or periods. Much of this ends up in multi-volume anthologies, but these treasures also work as nice garnishing in a playlist.

The other day I was working with a friend who took great delight in all the solo Pete Townshend material I had sprinkled into a Who playlist (there were Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle solo offerings as well). He thought it was hilarious that I would venture beyond “You Better You Bet,” the band’s final classic single. I think he’s missing out. “Slit Skirts” and “Give Blood” may not be the second coming of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “Substitute,” but they’re easily as good as anything that came after “Who By Numbers.”

This leads me to Ringo Starr. Obsessive that I am, I created anthologies for all the fallow periods in the solo Beatle catalogs – except Ringo. The Fab drummer’s 70th birthday last week caused me to reconsider this stance. So I dutifully investigated all of his albums. The critics weren’t wrong – there’s more bad than good. That said, there’s always at least one keeper on each album, and if I hadn’t been so dedicated I would have completely missed out on Ringo’s first two fantastic albums.

Ringo’s third solo album, 1973’s “Ringo” soaks up all the love but “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” are just as good, albeit for very different reasons. Both albums came out in 1970, and both clock in around 35 minutes. Both the brevity and timing work in Ringo’s favor. 1970 was both the best and worst year to be a Beatles fan. Sure the band broke up, but on the other hand fans got “Let It Be,” “McCartney,” “All Things Must Pass,” “Plastic Ono Band” and the aforementioned Ringo platters.

Although they hit shelves only six months apart, “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” couldn’t be more different. Both albums are genre exercises, but the big-band swing of “You Always Hurt the One You Love” is both geographically and generationally separated from the country twang of “Loser’s Lounge.” Yet Ringo’s enthusiasm and personality shines through both project, making them an infectious and irresistible listen.

Neither album will replace “Abbey Road” or “A Hard Day’s Night,” but they easily trump “Red Rose Speedway,” “Extra Texture” or “Some Time in New York City.” Better yet, they can be found easily and cheaply on vinyl. Do yourself a favor and grab ‘em next time you haunt the bins.

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(Above: Cracker perform “Take Me Down to the Infirmary” at Crossroads in Kansas City on July 6, 2007.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

As the 1980s morphed into the 1990s, David Lowery was riding high. The underground band he started in 1983 had attained major label success, and his new band, Cracker, continued to ride that wave. His songs “Low” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” were all over the radio and MTV.

This year, Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band they founded together out of the ashes of Camper Van Beethoven. In that time, Cracker has come full circle, operating in a landscape that eerily mirrors the early days of Camper Van Beethoven.

“To me the real story isn’t that we had bit MTV and radio hits in the early ‘90s,” Lowery said, “but how the band kept going after that for 15 years. We’ve done it by cultivating a loyal following that exists away from the rest of the industry.”

Cracker’s model of relentless touring, taper- and fan-friendly policies and annual weekend destination festival should be instantly recognizable to any jam band fans.

“We all got it from the same place,” Lowery said. “I remember back in Camper (Van Beethoven) days telling people we had more in common with the (Grateful) Dead than the punk scene. Out of all the jam bands, I don’t know how many played with the Dead, but we did.”

David Lowery (second from left) and Cracker perform a free concert tonight on the KC Live! stage in the Power and Light District. Start time is listed as 8 p.m., but bands usually go on much later.

The Dead invited Cracker to open for them in 1994 at their annual stand at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. Lowery remembers well his meeting with Jerry Garcia.

“Apparently when I met Jerry he had just come out of a porta-potty. I went to shake his hand, but the only thing I could think was ‘there’s no sink in there,’” Lowery said. “Jerry told me he totally loved our song ‘Euro-Trash Girl’ and was trying to work up an arrangement so the Dead could play it. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to get it done.”

Camper Van Beethoven emerged in the early ‘80s, in the Southern California underground rock scene, but didn’t fit comfortably. They definitely weren’t punk and too quirky to be mainstream. Over the course of five albums, Lowery and his band mates carved their own niche. Similarly, Cracker came up in an era where they were too poppy for grunge and too much of a country influence to rest beside other rock bands. In 2000, Lowery revived Camper and splits his time between bands.

“The music business has gone all the way back to where we started, where we had to do a lot of stuff independently, within our own organization,” Lowery said. “It wasn’t a challenge for me, because I learned how from the Camper Van Beethoven days. When the labels started coming apart, we always knew what to do.”

In a way, Lowery and his bands have always operated both on their own and on their own turns. The window of high-profile success was so brief they didn’t consider changing how they worked.

“The alt-rock bubble or financial bubble,” Lowery said, “where any band together for more than two weeks and three shows got signed was such a brief period in the 20 years of Cracker and my 27 years of recording that it almost seems like a fluke. There was hardly time to adjust.”

After seeing Internet entrepreneurs being praised for the books they wrote about their five-year-old businesses, Lowery decided he might have something to say about his 27 years in the music business and started working on a book that’s part memoir and business manual.

“People give record labels way too much importance in their minds,” Lowery said. “I learned some things doing research for my book. Like, very few labels last more than 10 or 15 years. Most collapse or are absorbed. The average lifespan of an A&R man (a talent scout who works as a liaison between the label and artist) is less than four years. The people who have been around a long time, that have all the experience, are the artists and the managers.”

Keep reading:

Review: Cracker get on this (again) at Crossroads

Concert Review: Cracker and others at the Wakarusa Music Festival (2006)

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