By Joel Francis
The weather is nice and cabin fever is real. Stay safe and keep the faith.
Brian Wilson – Reimagines Gershwin (2010) The opening minute of this album is an absolute dream. Layers of harmony vocals music fans have enjoyed for more than half a century cascade into the melody of the iconic “Rhapsody in Blue.” The rest of the album isn’t quite as exquisite, but maintains the same premise: Two intimately familiar musical styles melting into something new. Wilson’s versions of “Summertime,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” or “I Got Rhythm” won’t make anyone forget about the legion of stellar interpretations that have come from Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald or Willie Nelson, to name but a few. But they do show how Gershwin’s pen was subconsciously at work in Pet Sounds, “Cabinessence” and “Surf’s Up.”
Rhett Miller – The Interpreter: Live at Largo (2011) In April, 2008, a few days after the University of Kansas Jayhawks won the men’s national basketball championship, my wife and I were in Los Angeles for vacation. I had heard about the club Largo over the years and was hoping to see their unofficial artist in residence, Jon Brion. The multi-instrumentalist wasn’t performing the when we were going to be there, so we happily grabbed tickets for Rhett Miller’s show instead. The Old 97s frontman was in a great mood, telling stories and playing some of his favorite songs by other people (and previewing material from the upcoming 97s album, Blame It On Gravity). About halfway through the set, Jon Brion took a seat behind the piano and the two banged out tunes like a pair of long-lost brothers. That night – and the following one, where Brion wasn’t present but Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago was – comprise the selections here on The Interpreter. Because I was there, it is impossible for me to grade this album objectively. It always takes me back to that night and makes me wish the full performance would be released on Nuggs or something similar. Your mileage may vary, but if you enjoy Miller’s voice and the songwriting of David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Ray Davies, Jeff Tweedy, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, you are definitely in the right place.
King Curtis – Live at Fillmore West (1971)
Aretha Franklin – Live at Fillmore West (1971) Both of these landmark live albums are taken from the same run of shows at the historic San Francisco venue, where King Curtis and his Kingpins were backing the Queen of Soul. Franklin’s album has more contemporary rock covers than her better-known soul material. After marching through Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Franklin manages to make Bread’s “Make It With You” engaging. Franklin starts cooking on the second side. After the slow blues “Dr. Feelgood,” Franklin and her incredible band – including Billy Preston on organ and the Memphis Horns – tear through “Spirit in the Dark.” As the song winds down after about five minutes, Ray Charles comes out and they do it all over again for another nine minutes.
Although less well-known, Curtis’ Fillmore album is just as incredible. Setting the table with “Memphis Soul Stew,” Curtis blasts through the Moody Blues’ “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and destroys Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” The second side is just as good, with readings of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and “Ode to Billie Joe.” Unfortunately, this album also served as Curtis’ swan song. He was fatally stabbed outside his New York City apartment a week after it’s release.
In 2005, Rhino released a limited-edition collection of all three Fillmore shows in their entirety. Finally, fans could hear the music as it was presented each night, with Curtis opening the show, then Franklin coming out. This four-disc box set is definitely worth seeking out.
Jay-Z – American Gangster (2007) Sean Carter rolled into his alleged retirement – Did anyone really believe he was done? – on a hot streak. I confess to wondering if he could rise to the occasion on his inevitable comeback. And he didn’t – until American Gangster. Inspired by the Denzel Washington movie, Jay-Z played to his strengths and crafted 15 songs that revisit his oft-celebrated days as a drug dealer and Washington’s portrayal of black drug lord Frank Lucas. Though the album feels a couple songs too long to my ears, there isn’t a bad cut on the record. The long-awaited track with Nas lives up to the anticipation. American Gangster isn’t as good as The Blueprint or The Black Album, but it’s not far behind them either.
Two quick anecdotes before we move on. For a long time the downtown location of The Peanut hosted Hip Hop and Hot Wings on Sunday nights. (The Peanut has some of the best wings in Kansas City.) The fun usually started late and lasted later, which made for a rough Monday so I never got to attend as often as I wanted. About a month after American Gangster came out, around Christmas time, one of the DJs dropped the needle on “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)” and the entire room exploded like a grenade had gone off. Strangers were high-fiving and everyone was signing along and dancing. “Roc Boys” got bonus local points for featuring Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson in the video.
Alright, the second story. On the same vacation in Los Angeles that I discussed in the Rhett Miller entry, my wife and I had tickets to see Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige at the Hollywood Bowl. Despite leaving hours early, we got there just in time to hear the opening song (all the traffic was between the exit and the parking lot). Jay-Z was touring in support of American Gangster and it was incredible to hear those songs in person, with a huge band backing him up. MJB was a solid bonus for the evening.
William Onyeabor – Who Is William Onyeabor? (compilation) Even though this collection spans three LPs and 13 tracks, by the end we are nowhere closer to knowing the answer about William Onyeabor than when we started. According to internet reports, the Nigerian producer self-released eight albums between 1977 and 1985, which were quickly bootlegged. It is not hard to see why so many people would want this music. It’s primitive electronics – clunky drum machines and Casio keyboards – married to Afro-beat rhythms, with a little P-Funk stirred into the sauce for good measure. Who is William Onyeabor? Well for the 75 minutes of this album he’s a fillpin’ musical savant. That’s who.
Various Artists – Red Hot + Riot (2002) The Red Hot charity albums have generally been pretty good, but this one, honoring Afro beat legend Fela Kuti, stands above the rest. For one, it features some of the top socially conscious/backpack rappers of the time: Blackalicious, Talib Kweli, Common and Dead Prez. Plus a mix of great soul singers, including D’Angelo, Macy Gray, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Kelis and Sade. Finally, a sprinkling of jazz legends (Archie Shepp, Roy Hargrove), African musicians, Kuti’s son Femi Kuti and bluesman Taj Mahal. If this roll call doesn’t pique your interest, trust me, the result is even more impressive. Rap, jazz, blues, soul and gospel all flow into a river leading back to Mother Africa. Can you dig it?