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 (Above: Charlie Louvin sings of the “Great Atomic Power” at a February, 2009, performance in Raleigh, N.C.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

My first exposure to the Louvin Brothers was on one of those “worst album covers of all time” Web sites. Standing in front of what appears to be a backyard BBQ gone horribly wrong, two Bing Crosby wannabes in matching white suits raise their arms in welcome. Above them, the title proclaims “Satan is Real.” Behind them, the most ridiculously fake, wooden Mephistopheles looms like failed a junior high shop class project.

A few years later, while visiting home during college, I decided this cover would be a perfect piece of art in my dorm room and went to the Music Exchange in search of a copy. I asked the man behind the counter (it wasn’t Ron Rook) if they had any albums by the “Lovin’ Brothers.”

“Do you mean the Loooovin Brothers,” he asked, making a point of drawing out the long “o” and informing the store of my ignorance.

“Um, yeah, whatever,” I stammered. They were out.

Sometime after that, I happened upon a CD of “Satan Is Real” at the Kansas City Public Library. After mocking its cover for so long, I had to hear what the actual music sounded like. Pretty freaking good, it turned out.

Charlie and Ira Louvin’s music wasn’t the kind I wanted to listen to that often, but when the mood hit it landed deep and only the Louvins would do. As if by magic, their names started appearing in the album credits of my favorite musicians – the Byrds and Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Buddy Miller, Uncle Tupelo. Far from a novelty act or wacky cover, the brothers’ influence was everywhere.

A couple years ago, a friend lent me his copy of the Louvin Brothers Bear Family box set. At eight discs it was way more than I’d ever need, but he swore it was the best stuff ever recorded. I respected his deep and diverse tasted and promised to dive in. I’ll now confess that I only just scratched the surface. A little country gospel still goes a long way for me.

This same friend also told me about the time he saw Charlie played the Grand Emporium. Only a few people bothered to show up for the full set peppered with stories and a fond remembrance of Ira, who died in a car crash near Jefferson City, Mo. in 1965. Afterward, Charlie hung out, reveling in conversation with his fans.

I made a mental note to see Charlie the next time he came through town. His next appearance was opening for Lucinda Williams. It was a dream ticket, but I had other obligations that night. Then were appearances booked at Knuckleheads and Davey’s Uptown. Just before the show, however, the performance would be cancelled. Then, miraculously, another date would be booked several months out.

Each time a show was cancelled I feared that I’d missed my chance. Wednesday my worries were confirmed: Charlie Louvin died from complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 83.

My in-person opportunity may have vanished, but I have hours of his music to relish. As I think of Charlie reuniting with Ira at long last, a song by Gram Parsons, one of the brothers’ greatest disciples – in style, if not message – springs to mind: “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night.”

Keep reading:

Review: Chris Hillman thumbs through his back pages

Carrie Rodriguez honors family, roots on new album

KC Recalls: Johnny Cash at Leavenworth prison

 

 

 

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(Above: Arlo Guthrie pays tribute to his father as their friend Pete Seeger aids in a performance of “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Illegal immigration is a hot-button topic in the current political landscape, but it is hardly a new issue. In January, 1948, a plane crashed carrying 28 migrant farmers being deported by the U.S. government. All 32 passengers were killed in this tragedy, but when newspapers and radio stations reported the incident they only mentioned the names of the pilot, co-pilot, stewardess and guard. The workers were described only as “deportees.”

This incensed Woody Guthrie, who felt the workers were just as human as the other victims. Thus inspired, he wrote a poem expressing the injustice of the situation. Since the workers’ names were not known – 60 years later, 12 of the victims are still unknown – he made up names.

Ten years later, Guthrie had been hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital for what would later be diagnosed as Huntington’s disease. Although Guthrie was very much out of the public eye, learning his music became a rite of passage for the musicians in the burgeoning folk revival. Schoolteacher Martin Hoffman was inspired by Guthrie’s “Deportee” poem and set the words to music. The song was quickly passed around the folk community and Guthrie’s friend Pete Seeger added it to his repertoire.

Guthrie’s lyrics not only pay respect to the departed workers, but question the system that seduces workers to leave their families and risk their lives to find unsecured work under questionable conditions. In addition to the 28 workers who died in the plane crash, Guthrie jumps to first person and pays tribute to the other workers who either died on the job in America or perished trying to reach a better life.

“We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same. “

After restoring humanity to the anonymous deportees and chronicling the plights of their families and countrymen, Guthrie delivers some damning questions in the final verse.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?

In the 2004 book “Reefer Madness,” author Eric Schlosser raises many of the same questions with his essay “In the Strawberry Fields.” Drawing on firsthand accounts, Schlosser describes the conditions of the illegal farmers in the California strawberry fields. The workers’ living conditions and treatment are amount to slavery in all but name, he argues. Schlosser’s questions, like Guthrie’s, remain unanswered.

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” has been covered so often that Guthrie biographer Joe Klein declared it the “last great song” Guthrie wrote. Artists who have recorded their vision of the song, either in tribute, in protest or both, include Pete Seeger, Guthrie’s son Arlo Guthrie, the Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, the country super group the Highwaymen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Concrete Blonde, Nanci Griffith, the Los Lobos side group Los Super Seven, Old Crow Medicine Show and Billy Bragg.

Keep reading:

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

KC Recalls: Johnny Cash at Leavenworth prison

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By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

We at The Daily Record try to play clean in our tiny corner of the interweb. Once a year, on “music’s biggest night” the gloves come off and the snark comes out. This year, we present a live diary of the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards. We’ll be doing this live throughout the telecast, so keep checking back.

7:01 – Lady Gaga opens the show in a dress she bought at Bjork’s garage sale.

7:02 – She forgot to buy the pants, though.

7:04 – At last, Elton John has found someone with more flamboyant taste in eye wear. Wonder how that feels.

7:11 – Stephen Colbert may have already delivered the line of the night. Re: Susan Boyle selling the most records of ’09 and saving the bottom line –  “You may think you’re the coolest people in the world, but just remember that your industry was saved by a Scottish woman in sensible shoes.”

7:13 – Beyonce wins “Song of the Year” but can’t make it onstage to accept the award. Why not have it received by the Chippettes, stars of the year’s best film “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel”? Now that’s synergy!

7:15 – Who the hell thought it was a good idea to turn “American Idiot” into a musical? I can hear this one flopping faster than Twyla Tharpe’s tribute to Bob Dylan. Forget “Movin’ Out,” how about moving on?

7:16 – Nothing screams “punk rock” louder than a Broadway chorus. Even the Clash buried their choral version of “Career Opportunities” on the last side of “Sandinista.”

7:24 – I can’t figure out which interests me less Kirsten Bell’s insipid new movie “When In Rome” or what song Bon Jovi will play tonight. Let me guess: a really lame one from the ’80s.

7:26 – Does Taylor Swift have a clause in her contract that she must win every award for which she is nominated? Has she ever lost?

7:27 – I’m a little disappointed Kayne West didn’t jump onstage and start talking about how great Keith Urban is.

7:28 – Hey, Beyonce brought the S1W’s with her. Nice to see her kicking it old school.

7:29 – (The S1Ws were the black panther dancers who guard the stage during Public Enemy performances.)

7:32 – Nothing screams 2010 like Alanis Morrissette songs. On to the next one.

7:37 – Questlove just tweeted “must admit that watching twitter tweets are better than watching the actual event.”

7:41 – Pink is wearing the sexiest berka of all time.

7:44 – Nothing screams “class” like a chick in a g-string spraying water everywhere. Pink is so talented!

7:45 – Between Pink and GaGa that’s four butt-cheeks bared tonight. Just wait until Howard Stern and Prince come out.

7:47 – I’m not sure who the Zac Brown are, but respect the fact that they didn’t get all gussied up for the show.

7:48 – I’m also glad none of them were wearing a g-string.

7:55 – Will.I.Am looks like Mr. Roboto from that Styx album.

7:56 – Fergie looks like someone from either Buck Rogers or the original Battlestar Galatca. Does anyone else remember when Channel 62 used to show all those back-to-back on Saturday afternoons?

7:58 – I gotta admit that watching the Peas do “I Got A Feeling” in concert would probably be a lot of fun. That song got a lot more infectious energy than it deserved.

8:00 – OK, so we’re an hour into this thing and a couple ground rules have already been established. No. 1, no one can perform a song all the way through. Medleys only, please. No. 2, all performance must somehow make their way from the main stage to the satellite stage, and back.

8:01 – They keep advertising the 3-D Michael Jackson tribute with Celine Dion. That woman’s so skinny, I bet even in 3D she’s only 2D.

8:06 – Who the heck are Lady Antebellum?

8:07 – I knew it would happen. People are starting to compose songs for those episode-capping montages. This Lady Antebellum song would be perfect over the poignant closing moments of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

8:09 – The presenter just said there was a Grammy category for artists who don’t have musical talent. Wait, there’s a Grammy for people with musical talent? When are they going to give that one out. Oh yeah, it was done earlier in the day in the parking lot behind the Ross downtown.

8:11 – I bet Stephen Colbert’s daughter thinks her dad is cool now that he’s one a Grammy.

8:12 – Oh, just as I blogged the above Colbert asked his daughter if she thought he was cool now. I am so freaking prescient!! (She said yes, by the way.)

8:13 – The Target ad just showed a white dog with a red spot of his eye. Spuds McKenzie lives!

8:14 – OK, that’s three exclamation points in the past two entries. I’m calming down now.

8:18 – Wow, Taylor Swift was up for “Song of the Year” and she didn’t win. I bet she gets at least half an album’s worth of songs of out how she’s feeling right now.

8:20 – They just introduced Robert Downey, Jr. as the most “self-important” actor of his day. How out of control is your ego when you’re crowned most “self-important” in Hollywood?

8:21 – That operatic introduction to “Blame It” was brilliant. Every time I hear this song I remember that Stevie Wonder stopped his show at Starlight last summer to play it over the PA.

8:23 – If they hadn’t just shown George Clinton in the audience, I would have sworn he was the white-haired conductor onstage.

8:24 – I think “Blame It” is starting to suffer from auto-tune overload. It sounds like Kraftwerk.

8:25 – Now Slash is onstage playing the guitar solo from “November Rain.” He probably just heard someone talking about alcohol and bum rushed.

8:27 – Joe Posnanski just tweeted: “They really had people VOTE to determine what Jon Bon Jovi sings at the Grammys? Was there a ‘What’s the difference’ option?”

8:33 – Hey, Green Day won “Best Rock Album” for their follow-up to “American Idiot.” Can’t wait until that gets turned into a Broadway musical.

8:34 – Chris O’Donnell looks like McSteamy on “Grey’s Anatomy.” I hate myself for knowing this.

8:36 – Wow, a “country” band singing a patriotic song. Way to think outside the box, guys.

8:37 – Answer: Leon Russell with the Zac Brown Band. Question: Who will be headlining Knucklehead’s Labor Day celebration in 2012?

8:38 – Are the red-staters happy that the Zac Brown Band is celebrating America by playing a patriotic number, or upset with them for supporting Obama? This is so confusing. I thought we established that one couldn’t love their country without blindly supporting its president.

8:46 – Has anyone noticed how Taylor Swift strums from her elbow and not her wrist? It’s like she just picked up a guitar for the first time.

8:47 – I hope the tattooed guy on banjo is getting paid well for this gig.

8:49 – Good Lord, Taylor, stay in key! She has pitch like Mariah Carey at a baseball game in Japan.

8:53 – Dang, I forgot to get my 3D glasses. Fortunately, I still have 7 minutes to make it to Target.

8:54 – All you chumps who forgot your 3D glasses will now be given a migraine.

8:56 – I think Smokey could have handled the whole MJ tribute on his own. I would have loved to hear him cover a less-maudlin ballad on his own. I’d even settle for “Ben.”

8:57 – I love how Beyonce is wearing her 3D specs while Jay-Z is sans glasses. Hey B, you’re at the event. It’s already in 3D.

9:01 – I bet MJ’s kids feel really out of place when they hang out at their Uncle Tito’s place. Those are some pale-faced children.

9:03 – Wow, they were just paying tribute to MJ on the Grammys and now there’s a a commercial for “This Is It” on DVD. What a weird coincidence. It’s almost like it was planned.

9:08 – All you have to do to win an icon award is write “Sweet Talkin’ Guy”? Seems to be setting the bar a bit low.

9:09 – So what you were really voting for was which part of a Bon Jovi song they’ll perform.

9:10 – I hope Roger McGuinn is getting a cut of “We Weren’t Born to Follow.” Methinks Bon Jovi should have paid more attention to the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow” when they were ripping it off.

9:11 – Someone needs to say it: Bon Jove are looking old. How many chins does Sambora have, anyway? I count three.

9:12 – I’ll tell you who says you can’t go home: Thomas Wolfe. And if home sounds like this, I’ll be out with Dean Moriarty on the road.

9:14 – Jon Bon Jovi should be forced to sing “Living on a Prayer” over the PA at a Home Depot.

9:16 – What the? How did Mos Def get onstage? “True Magic” had more artistry than the entire careers of everyone else onstage tonight – combined (except for Smokey Robinson and Leon Russell).

9:18 – Next year at this time, I hope Mos Def and Talib Kweli are being presented with the Best Rap Song award for “History.” Black Star rules.

9:19 – So Kanye actually wins an award and he doesn’t show up to collect it? How classic would it have been for Taylor to crash his speech? Probably why he didn’t show up.

9:21 – Seriously, though, best of luck to you and whatever you’re going through, Kanye. Your albums are genius. I hope you get your magic back and exorcise those demons.

9:26 – So it’s OK to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to show support for the Haitians even though the song was banned by Clear Channel in the wake of 9/11?

9:28 – I just want to get this off my chest: Mary J. Blige, magnificent voice, but she oversings and all her songs are vamps and choruses. She doesn’t know what to do with a verse. And the a-hole who thought it would be a good idea to run that voice through auto-tune for MJB’s latest single should be shot. That’s like tying Fred Astaire’s ankles together.

9:30 – Do Mary J and Andrea Bocelli know they’re both singing the same song? Their “duet” was like an otolaryngological cock fight.

9:37 – Who’d have thought the Latin Grammys would have lasted a decade?

9:38 – How come there isn’t a Jazz Grammys or Klezmer Grammys?

9:42 – How many support musicians does the Dave Matthews Band need for this song? Maybe the USC Marching Trojans will show up again.

9:44 – Dave Matthews dances worse than Elaine Benes from “Sienfeld.”

9:46 – Now Ricky Martin has stolen Chris O’Donnel’s close-cropped look. He should just be glad he’s not forced to pay is way in with the general public.

9:48 – I think Beyonce’s dress is made of all of Jay-Z’s discarded bling.

9:55 – When I saw Maxwell last fall at the Saavis/Keil/Whatever it’s now called Center in St. Louis I imagined the experience was similar to seeing Marvin Gaye back in the day. Maxwell is the real deal and he’s killing it right now. Best performance of the night so far.

9:58 – Maxwell + Roberta Flack. At last, a duet with two people who actually know how to sing with a partner.

10:00 – As the show rounds the three hour mark, just think: the whole night could have been as good as what we just heard.

10:05 – I wonder if this is the combo Jeff Beck will be bringing to Starlight in April.

10:06 – So what’s the thinking here, now that all the kiddies have gone to bed we can shelve the pop tarts and have some real music?

10:07 – Does Quentin Tarantino know that pretending to act like such a badass is making him look like a huge douchebag?

10:14 – Is there a song underneath all these edits? Why not change the lyrics for television? I wonder if the producers have a lyric sheet up in the booth so they know when to drop out. That would be classic to see.

10:17 – Jamie Foxx is singing along with every lyric, but I have to say I think Drake is horribly overrated.

10:18 – Drake’s blend of preppie (black leather jacket, black shirt) with ghetto (torn, sagging jeans) is cracking me up. He’s clearly trying to have it both ways.

10:26 – Taylor Swift wins Album of the Year. Yawn.

10:29 – That’s it for the night. Thanks for reading and for hanging out.

Keep reading:

2010 Grammys: A Running Diary

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sugar-pie-honey-bunch
Four Tops – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

The piano riff that kicks off this tune is instantly and universally recognizable – and with good reason. Depsite the apologetic lyrics, Levi Stubbs’ magnificent vocals are a ray of sunshine. He might be singing that he’s “weaker than a man should be,” but Stubbs is clearly having more fun than he should for a man in his predicament.

The string arrangement echoes the upbeat, impulsive melody – pay attention to the delightful vibraphone line – while Funk Brother Richard “Pistol” Allen’s offbeat drumming keep the feet moving. Stubbs’ vocals sound like the direct descendent of Kansas City, Mo. jazzman Big Joe Turner’s “shout” singing style. If they couldn’t bring his lover back, then the saxophone interlude should have sealed the deal.

Holland-Dozier-Holland’s song capped five straight No. 1 hits with the Supremes. Although the trio penned the Tops’ early hits like “Baby I Need Your Loving,” Berry Gordy thought they had lost their touch and passed the Tops to Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter’s pen for “Ask the Lonely.” After the success of “I Can’t Help Myself,” Holland-Dozier-Holland were given nearly exclusive rights to the Tops’ singles for the next three years.

In the summer of 1965, this song fought for the No. 1 spot with The Byrd’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” by the Rolling Stones. What a summer that must have been.

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