Social Distancing Spins – Day 18

By Joel Francis

The journey through my record collection continues.

Pet Shop Boys – Actually (1987) The Pet Shop Boys’ second album is the strongest in their still-growing catalog (Behaviour is a close second). Come for the hit singles and stick around for the album cuts, like the Kraftwerk-inspired “Shopping” and “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” the moody track based on an Ennio Morricone melody that opens the second side. Still not convinced? This is the album with the glorious Dusty Springfield duet “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” That alone makes Actually worth owning. While the other nine songs aren’t as strong (how could they?), Actually is filler-free dance/pop perfection.

Daniel Lanois – Goodbye to Language (2016) As a producer, Daniel Lanois has worked on some of my all-time favorite albums by Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Robbie Robertson. (We talked about his work on the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon back on Day 9.) The sound on Goodbye to Language is closer to Lanois’ ambient work with Brian Eno than his commercial endeavors. The premise is simple. Lanois’ pedal steel playing is recorded and treated by Rocco DeLuca. The result is an ethereal dream guaranteed to release stress. Put this on and let yourself go.

The Decemberists – The King is Dead (2011) I jumped on the Decemberists bandwagon with their video for “Sixteen Military Wives,” which reminded me of Rushmore. Two albums later, I feared they got lost in their own mythology for the ponderous concept album The Hazards of Love. Fortunately, I was wrong. The King is Dead is everything Hazards wasn’t: succinct, buoyant, humorous, fun. That a few songs sounded like peak-era R.E.M. (“Calamity Song,” “Down by the Water”) or Tom Petty circa Wildflowers (“Don’t Carry It All”) doesn’t help. It may be easier to play spot-the-influence with The King is Dead than on the band’s other releases, but the sound is still filtered through singer/songwriter Colin Meloy’s grad school tweed and spectacles, making it distinctly the Decemberists.

Miles Davis – My Funny Valentine (1965)

Miles Davis – Four and More (1966) Both of these albums draw from the same 1964 performance at Philharmonic Hall in New York City. The ballads went on Valentine and the uptempo numbers were relegated to Four and More. By the time Four and More was released, Miles had moved on from his modal sound and was about to reinvent jazz once again. Less progressive fans probably enjoyed this look back at the time. Pianist Herbie Hancock was only 23 and drummer Tony Williams just 18 at the time of this performance, but both play with a confidence and ambition beyond their years. These are probably the best performances of saxophone player George Coleman in Miles’ band. He tends to get overlooked between tenures of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. The quartet lingers on the ballads, drawing out every note, particularly on the 15-minute title cut. Conversely, they blast through the chords on “So What” and “Seven Steps to Heaven” with almost careless speed.  FYI, the entire concert was finally released as originally performed on CD in 1992.

James Brown – Live at the Apollo, Volume II (1968) Five years after the first Live at the Apollo album propelled James Brown off the chitlin circuit, Brown returned to the same venue but in a different place musically. The R&B that defined the first Apollo album was giving way to funk on the sequel. Songs like a hard-driving “Kansas City” and “Think” (with Kansas City, Kan. native Marva Whitney) showed Brown’s roots, while “Cold Sweat” and “Bring It Up” point the way forward. The 11-minute version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is one-third as long as the original half-hour Apollo release. So the sequel isn’t as concise, but it captures the Hardest Working Man in Show Business in prime form.

Alejandro Escovedo – With These Hands (1996) Alejandro Escovedo is an undiscovered treasure. His songwriting deftly slides between different settings, from string quartet to country, Latin American to raw rock. For his third album, Escovedo enlists Willie Nelson and his harmonica player Mickey Raphael, cousin Shelia E and singer Jennifer Warnes. Despite these high-profile guests, the spotlight remains firmly on Escovedo and his masterful songs. From the moody opener of rocker “Put You Down” through “Tugboat,” a dedication to Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison that ends the record, there isn’t a bad song to be found.

Pearl Jam – Yield (1998) “Wishlist,” the next-to-last song on the first side of Yield, is my favorite Pearl Jam song. It’s simple, quiet and understated with none of the bombast of “Alive” or even “Given to Fly,” the song that precedes “Wishlist” on Yield. This album marks the first time the Seattle quintet returned to the meat-and-potatoes hard rock without any artistic detours. Although 2009’s Backspacer produced better results mining this same vein, Yield is still a good, direct hard rock album.

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

(Above: Alejandro Escovedo soundchecks “Lucky Day” during a recent stop at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

In a career that spans four decades, Alejandro Escovedo has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Mickey Raphael, Ian Hunter, Whiskeytown, a string quartet and a host of other talents in his own ensembles. On Thursday night at 1911 Main he performed with an octet of Kansas City’s finest musicians. The result sounded as strong and invigorating as any of Escovedo’s high-profile collaborations.

There wasn’t much room to get acquainted in the opening number, “This Bed Is Getting Crowded.” Far from intimidated, the ad-hoc band threw plenty of muscle into the hard-driving number from Escovedo’s latest album. The smiles exchanged across the stage confirmed what the fans in the comfortably crowded venue suspected: this was going to be a show to remember.Throughout the nearly two-hour set, Escovedo chatted casually between songs, sharing stories about the songs, recalling past gigs and friends in Kansas City — particularly his numerous shows at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club — and generally having a good time. In a lot of ways, the performance felt more like a night out with friends than a capital-P Performance.

High points included the beautiful back-to-back ballads “Five Hearts Breaking” and “Swallows of San Juan” — both of which featured nice steel guitar playing from Mike Stover — and the joyous “Always a Friend.” Later in the night the band smoothly slid from the smoldering “Everybody Loves Me” into the intimate “Gravity/Falling Down Again,” completely and effortlessly transforming the emotion of the room.

Friend and Midwestern Musical Co. owner Matt Kessler got numerous shout-outs for allowing the band to rehearse in his space, being a good friend and for turning 50 at midnight. His birthday present was being allowed to strap on a guitar and sit in with the band for the party-inducing “Castanets” and encore set.

The band, dubbed the Cody Wyoming Deal, was led by Wyoming on guitar and backing vocals, and also included guitarists Stover and Christopher Meck, Erik Voeks on bass and backing vocals, drummer Paul Andrews. Abigail Henderson, Lauren Krum and Katie Gilchrist also contributed backing vocals.

Setlist: This Bed Is Getting Crowded, Crooked Frame, Real As An Animal, Rosalyn, Five Heart Beating, Swallows of San Juan, Always a Friend, Wave Goodbye, Tender Heart, I Don’t Need You, Down in the Bowery, Sister Lost Soul, Pissed Off 2 a.m., Everybody Loves Me > Gravity/Falling Down Again, Castanets. Encore: Velvet Guitar, Shine a Light (Rolling Stones cover).

Keep reading:

Review: Alejandro Escovedo (2010)

Review: Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)

Review: Los Lobos (2011)

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

(Above: Alejandro Escovedo and his Sensitive Boys revisit “Chelsea Hotel ’78” at the Record Bar on August 28, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Before playing a note, Alejandro Escovedo apologized for letting five years elapse since their last show in Kansas City. That show featured Escovedo’s True Believers band mate Jon Dee Graham, a string quartet and ended with Mott the Hoople covers around two a.m.

Saturday’s sold-out show at the Record Bar was a little more restrained in contrast, but no less potent. The strings were gone, and Graham was replaced by other True Believer, drummer Hector Munoz. He was part of a lean, four-piece band that knew how to wring maximum emotion from Escovedo’s songs. The 90-minute  show also ended at a more respectable time – just 30 minutes into the next day – with a Rolling Stones cover.

Escovedo’s songwriting holds more facets than a jewel, encompassing classical, country, Mexican, punk and classic rock. He displayed several of those sides, especially on the gorgeous instrumental “Fort Worth Blues” and the south of the border flavored “Rosalie.” Mostly, though, the quartet modulated between two modes – full-throttle rock and poignant acoustic ballads. Songs like “This Bed Is Getting Crowded” and “Tender Heart” were too mature to be straight-up punk, but they weren’t far off. It was invigorating to watch the 49-year-old songwriter rip into his material with such raw passion.

Ten years ago, Escovedo played a benefit show at the City Market for Jim Strahm. A big influence on the Kansas City music scene, Strahm sold a lot of musicians their first instrument, booked them their first gigs or joined them onstage. Sadly, Strahm did not survive his bout with cancer – Saturday would have been his 50th birthday. Fittingly, Escovedo dedicated the show to his friend, which added extra juice to the opening song, “Always a Friend.”

While the electric numbers were delivered with a fury that barely allowed anyone, band or audience, to catch their breath, the ballads were given ample space to breath. An incredible reading of “Sister Lost Soul” was delivered at half its album tempo and felt almost like a prayer. It was followed by “Down in the Bowery” and a story about Escovedo’s 18-year-old son who once called his father’s music “old music for old people.” Built on the generations’ shared love of the Ramones, it included the line “I hope you live long enough to forget half the stuff that they taught you.”

Regardless of style or tempo, one element was consistent: the intricate, interplay between Escovedo’s rhythm guitar and David Pulkingham’s tasteful leads. Some of their best moments included the solo over the stomping bass-and-drums introduction to “Street Songs,” “Fort Worth Blue” and “Rosalie” and “Real as an Animal.”

“Castanets” was one of a handful of the night’s songs that wasn’t pulled from Escovedo’s two most recent releases. Banned from setlists for a while after Escovedo learned it was a favorite of former president George W. Bush, it had the crowd dancing and joining in on the infectious chorus of “I like it better when she walks away.”

After performing a new song, Escovedo closed the night sans guitar on a lengthy cover of “Beast of Burden.” With a trio of fans onstage providing backing vocals or percussion, Escovedo worked the crowd like, take your pick, an exuberant wedding singer or fevered rock and roll evangelist. By the end, everyone was converted.

Setlist: Always a Friend; This Bed Is Getting Crowded; Anchor; Street Songs; Tender Heart; Fort Worth Blue; Sister Lost Soul; Down in the Bowery; Rosalie; Chelsea Hotel ’78; Castanets; Real as an Animal. Encore: Sensitive Boys; Lucky Day (new song); Beast of Burden (Rolling Stones cover).

Keep reading:

Carrie Rodriguez honors family, roots on new album

Review: Old 97s, Lucero

Review: Los Lobos

Carrie Rodriguez honors family, roots on new album

(Above: Carrie Rodriguez graces the Austin City Limits stage.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Over the years, Carrie Rodriguez closed her shows with “Punalda Trapera,” a Spanish-language number frequently performed by her great aunt, Eva Garza. Inevitably, fans asked which album it was on. The catch: it wasn’t – until now.

“Love and Circumstance,” Rodriguez third album, pays tributes to her family, inspirations and some contemporaries.

“Because of the response from fans, I decided to record these songs the way our band does them,” Rodriguez said.

Producer Lee Townsend helped Rodriguez pick the dozen covers, including well-known songs by Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, and surprising numbers by M. Ward and Little Village. Townsend was also able to convince Buddy Miller to take time from his tour with Robert Plant and Allison Krauss to contribute to the cover of his song “Wide River to Cross.”

“I’m a huge Buddy Miller fan. He’s one of the people I’ve always wanted to work with,” Rodriguez said. “Fortunately, he had a portable recording rig with him on the road, so he was able to record his vocal tracks from his hotel room on the road. It was very sweet of him.”

Carrie Rodriguez performs with Jim Lauderdale and Tim Easton on Sunday at Knuckleheads.

Rodriguez discovered “Punalda Trapera” while going through a stack of her grandmother’s records. The song was immediately added to her live act.

“Eva died in the late ‘40s, so I never got to meet her,” Rodriguez said. “She’s always been a family legend. When I was younger, my grandma would talk about her famous sister who was in films and made records and was on the radio. I always thought she was exaggerating until I got older.”

Even more personal is “When I Heard Gypsy Davy Sing,” a song by David Rodriguez that only existed as an e-mail file until his daughter recorded it. The elder Rodriguez came up in the Houston folk scene of the late ‘70s and moved to Holland when Carrie Rodriguez was 16.

“The song is about a singer in a bar looking back on what he’s done with his life and what he’s left behind,” Rodriguez said. “It was pretty heavy for me to sing as his daughter, but it was very therapeutic. Signing it made me feel closer to him.”

Longtime fans may remember the songs Rodriguez cut with Chip Taylor – writer of the song “Wild Thing” – as the violin player in his band. Her fiddle was largely absent on her last album, but has returned to prominence on “Love and Circumstance.”

“I let the song dictate what instrument I play,” Rodriguez said. “Part of why there wasn’t as much fiddle on the last record is that I couldn’t find a way to fit it in. The songs didn’t seem to need or want it.”

Writing songs on the guitar instead of the fiddle not only came more naturally to Rodriguez, but changed the dynamics of her songs.

“These days I end up writing on the guitar and can’t find a way to fit the fiddle in,” Rodriguez said. “There’s still plenty of fiddle in the live show, though.”

Two years ago, Rodriguez toured in Austin, Texas singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo’s band. Escovedo has been trying to convince Rodriguez to shift her alt-country roots and record a rock album.

“Al has good advice. I always have to consider his suggestions,” Rodriguez said. “Part of why I made this covers album was to take a step back and look at what kind of songs inspired me, and what kind of songs I want to write. Hopefully it’s given me some good inspiration for the next batch of songs I write.”

Keep reading:

Review: Robert Plant and Allison Krauss

Catching up with the Hot Club of Cowtown

Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

Top 10 Albums of 2006

Game Theory – The Roots
The Boxing Mirror – Alejandro Escovedo
The Obliterati – Mission of Burma
St. Elsewhere – Gnarls Barkley
Fox Brings the Confessor – Neko Case
Fishscales – Ghostface Killah
Return to Cookie Mountian – TV on the Radio
In the Pines – In the Pines
Begin to Hope – Regina Spektor
Modern Times – Bob Dylan