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Posts Tagged ‘David Bowie’

 In a way, David Bowie’s unexpected death last January has freed his songs. Because we are no longer dependent on him to sing them, they are available to everyone to perform as they wish. On Saturday night at the Uptown Theater, the magic happened to come from a couple of the guys who helped create it in the first place.

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(Above: William Elliott Whitmore looks forward to “Digging My Grave” on the outdoor stage at the 2015 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

(Note: With more than 100 bands performing on eight stages across four days, it is impossible to hear everything at the Middle of the Map festival. I spent most of the festival’s final day on an unseasonably cold day at the outdoor stage.)

Phox:

Despite cold hands and early sound issues, Phox delivered an enjoyable set that delighted the fans that filled about two-thirds of the parking lot around the outdoor stage.

The six-piece band from Wisconsin performs soulful, confessional indie rock that recalls fellow Wisconsinite and mentor Bon Iver. Their delicate melodies never got lost in the expansive outdoor environment, thanks to inventive arrangements.

“Evil” featured a New Orleans jazz trumpet solo, while “Never Love,” an unreleased song, opened with a recorder and African guitar line a la Vampire Weekend. Throughout it all, lead singer Monica Martin was the not-so-secret weapon. Her soulful voice and playful stage talk kept the songs weighty and the downtime light.

The band threw a curveball into the mix with a hushed, dainty cover of Blink-182’s “I Miss You.” More fans sang along with that number than any of the band’s original numbers.

murder by death

Murder by Death

William Elliott Whitmore:

Armed with a guitar, banjo and bass drum, William Elliott Whitmore did a great job prepping the crowd for Murder By Death’s Americana rock. His 45-minute set was filled traditional folk songs about train trestles, digging graves and devils.

Between songs, Whitmore bantered with the audience with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Whitmore said he wanted his time to feel like friends hanging out on the front porch. While he’s a bit early for that festival, he accomplished the feel.

Murder by Death:

Murder by Death play the kind of songs that make you more likely to get pulled over for speeding. Even the band’s down-tempo numbers are full-throttle. Case in point “Curse of Elkhart,” a torrid cautionary tale fueled by Sarah Balliet’s furiously strummed cello.

Several of the band’s Americana opuses unfold like novellas. Judging by apparel and lips, plenty of the crowd already knew the stories. Highlights of the hourlong set included the David Bowie tribute “I Shot an Arrow,” “Spring Break 1899” and “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs.”

Keep reading:

Middle of the Map 2015 – day three

Middle of the Map 2013

Review: Vampire Weekend

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(Above: The only acceptable version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A fun game has been going around the internet recently: Name 15 albums that influenced your taste in music today in 15 minutes. Because we never play anything straight up at The Daily Record, we twisted the rules a little and came up with 15 songs we dislike by artists we like.

  1. Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven.” Might as well get this heavy out of the way first. Classic rock radio has destroyed this great band’s best-known song. I’ve heard it so many times at this point I can conjure it up in my sleep. I never need to hear it again. Let me go one step further: I’d rather hear a half-hour live version of “Moby Dick” than have to sit through “Stairway” again.
  2. Joni Mitchell – “The Circle Game.” Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song about the cycles of life is actually a remarkable song. It works too well, though, leaving me completely depressed and feeling like I care about has decayed around me in just under 5 minutes. No wonder Mitchell selected this song to close her classic album “Ladies of the Canyon.” After this there’s nowhere to go.
  3. Beastie Boys – “Fight For Your Right To Party.” The Beastie Boys were a lot more creative and fun than the frat boy stereotype this dumb song earned them.
  4. Van Halen – “Love Walks In.” The Sammy Hagar period of the band is rightly painted as inferior to the original lineup, but you can’t help when you were born and I came of age right in the middle of Van Hagar. I never had a problem with Eddie switching from six-string to synths, but the sugary melody combined with lyrics about aliens made this song more than I could handle.
  5. Boogie Down Productions – “Jimmy.” Usually a master of the message, KRS-One’s sermon on safe sex comes off as both preachy and simplistic. The idiotic chorus destroys what little credibility may remain. The track did inspire the Young MC cut “Keep It In Your Pants” from his follow-up to “Stone Cold Rhymin’.” I wish I didn’t know these things, but I do and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
  6. Anyone – “The Long Black Veil.” First performed by Lefty Frizzell in 1959, this country classic has become a staple for Johnny Cash, The Band, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and a dozen more. I can’t argue with any of those artists, but for a reason I could never put a finger on, it never resonated with me.
  7. Radiohead – “Creep.” This song introduced Radiohead to America, and for that I should be grateful, but “Pablo Honey” is the outlier in their catalog for me. In my mind, the catalog officially starts with “The Bends.”
  8. James Brown – “Killing Is Out, School Is In.” This song became the unintentional center point of Brown’s 2002 concert at the River Market. A lackluster set had already been derailed by a couple Janis Joplin covers by Brown’s then-wife and mayor Kay Barnes onstage proclamation of James Brown Day. Several years after Columbine, the message was not only no longer timely, but embarrassing. The song was later released as a single. Thankfully few heard it.
  9. David Bowie – “Changes.” Yet another song ruined by radio and turned into lazy shorthand for its era by television and movie producers.
  10. The Beatles – “The Long and Winding Road.” Dislike may be too strong a word for this song, but Paul McCartney had already delivered a better ballad for the “Let It Be/Get Back” project. This one feels like a syrupy afterthought to me.
  11. Steve Earle – “The Devil’s Right Hand.” This number brought Earle acclaim as a songwriter before he established himself as a recording artist in his own right. I think Lynyrd Skynyrd covered the same turf better with “Saturday Night Special.” The verses aren’t band, but the song is overly reliant on the repetitive chorus.
  12. The Who – “Behind Blues Eyes.” This sensitive number never seemed to fit in with the rest of “Who’s Next” and it seemed even more out of place as a single. Pete Townshend usually struck the right balance of being tough and vulnerable at the same time (see “The Song Is Over” or “How Many Friends”). He sounds weak and whiney on “Blue Eyes.” Limp Bizkit’s cover confirmed my instinct. Sympathy for Fred Durst? Never!
  13. Anyone but Muddy Waters – “Hoochie Coochie Man.” In the hands of Waters and the Chess studio pros, this is a blues masterpiece. For just about anyone else, it is usually a lame attempt for a middle-aged white guy to show he’s hep to the blooze. I’m looking at you Eric Clapton, Alexis Korner, Steven Seagal and Dion.
  14. Jay-Z – “Young Forever.” Alphaville’s 1984 hit “Forever Young” worked perfectly as the soundtrack to Napolean Dynamite’s dance with Deb. In the hands of Hova, however, it is ridiculous.
  15. Louie Armstrong – “What A Wonderful World.” There’s nothing wrong with Satchmo’s sublime performance. He manages to walk the tightrope between sincere and saccharine as the strings underneath support his presentation. Unfortunately, no one understood the song’s message, as it has a crutch when movie producers want to tug on heartstrings. Joey Ramone’s version was great upon release, but in the decade since it has become a hipster version of the same cliché.  I guess this leaves me with Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips’ weird yet heartfelt reading. I don’t think mainstream America is ready for that to be thrust down their throats – yet.

Keep reading:

Review: Flaming Lips New Year’s Freakout

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

Review: “Pops” by Terry Teachout

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(Above: Rare footage from Devo’s first-ever concert in 1973.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

On May 2, 1970, Bob Lewis thought he had it all figured out. In just a few weeks he would graduate from Kent State University. He would come back in the fall and start on his graduate degree in anthropology.

The National Guard arrived on campus the next day and everything changed. There had been rumblings of unrest before. The previous year there had been a skirmish over the administration allowing the Oakland police department to recruit on campus. When the students tried to protest at the disciplinary hearing of the student organizers they were locked in a building and surrounded by the police.

But that incident didn’t compare to what happened on May 4, 1970. The details of the day are well-known: four unarmed students were killed by National Guard troops trying to disperse an anti-war rally. In less than 24 hours an entire generation entered a new paradigm.

“Devo wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Kent,” said Lewis, one of the band’s founding members. “If it hadn’t been for May 4, I would have gotten my doctorate in anthropology and taught or gone out on digs. Jerry (Casale, Devo’s bass player) probably would have wound up as a graphic artist or art professor.”

Instead, Casale and Lewis decided to channel their outrage at the system by holding a mirror to it. Informed by professors who had become friends, visiting faculty and articles such as “Readers vs. Breeders and “Polymer Love,” the duo started creating their own agenda.

Kent State students run for cover as the National Guard open fire on May 4, 1970.

“Devo, at least partly, was a joke at first. It was a lens we turned on society,” Lewis said. “The plan wasn’t necessarily to be in a band in the beginning. There was always a multimedia, subversive element.”

In 1972, after working odd jobs in Kent, Ohio, the duo migrated to California to write for the underground newspaper the “Los Angeles Staff.” In exchange for writing legitimate articles, Lewis and Casale were allowed to insert pieces of Devo propaganda. The paper quickly folded and the two were back in Kent that fall.

“Jerry and I worked on Devo for two years before Mark (Mothersbaugh, Devo keyboardist) got involved,” Lewis said. “At the time he was in a group called Flossy Bobbit, playing Hammond B3 organ, mellotron, Moog (synthesizer) and Farfisa organ all at the same time. The first thing we told him when he joined was that everything had to be simple and stupid.”

Mothersbaugh not only brought a higher level of musicianship to the group, but several thousand dollars worth of equipment, including a PA. Like Casale and Lewis, Mothersbaugh was a Kent State alum and was also present at the protest on May 4.

“Mark was two or three years younger than us, so I didn’t really know him,” Lewis said. “I certainly recognized him from school. I think he and Jerry may have had an art class together.”

Mothersbaugh was recruited to perform at the university Creative Arts Festival in the spring of 1973. The trio of Mothersbaugh, Casale and Lewis – who played lead guitar – were joined by a drummer from town, Casale’s brother Bob on rhythm guitar and singer Fred Weber. Billed as Sextet Devo, the band promised “polyrhythmic tone exercises in de-evolution.”

In the book “We Are Devo,” authors Jade Dellinger and David Giffels described first show, also captured on amateur video. Bob Casale performed in scrubs, Jerry Casale wore a butcher’s coat, Bob Lewis was hidden under a monkey mask and Mothersbaugh sported a doctor’s robe and ape mask. The set opened with Mothersbaugh playing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” and featured what the band called a “headache solo.” Unsurprisingly, it took the group a while to find the next gig and a stable lineup.

“At one point it was Jerry and three Mothersbaugh brothers. Jerry didn’t like that because he’d always be outvoted,” Lewis recalled. “Jerry finally tormented Jim Mothersbaugh into quitting as drummer, but it took another year before we found Alan (Meyers) to play for us.”

An early band flier.

When the group began to get more serious, Lewis knew the musicianship would have to improve. When Bob Mothersbaugh started playing lead guitar, Lewis transitioned from guitarist to manager.

“I became more of a manager than a player because we decided someone had to do it,” Lewis said. “I liked that other (managerial) stuff better anyway.”

The five-piece lineup of the Casale and Mothersbaugh brothers and Meyers toured Ohio with their confrontational stage show. In 1976 they were the subject of the short film “The Truth About De-Evolution.” The combination of touring and the film set the table for the band to cut their first single. “Mongoloid”/”Jocko Homo” was released in 1976 on the band’s Booji Boy label.

“We sold 17,000 copies of that single ourselves,” Lewis said proudly. “I was trying to get us in record stores in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and England, which meant I either had to get up really early or stay up really late to talk to these guys and convince them to stock us. Of course now you could just send an e-mail, but back then it was an adventure.”

The first sign of the band’s cult following appeared before a show at Max’s Kansas City when a flat-black oldsmobile 98 zoomed up the street bearing the face of Booji Boy, the group mascot. After the release of another independent single and an appearance on a Stiff Records EP, Devo caught the attention of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. David Bowie suggested a production deal through Warner Brothers that he would produce, and the band went to Germany to record.  Bowie was unavailable, so his friend Brian Eno produced the first album.

“The band was in England recording while I was in the States trying to arrange for them to do some concerts in Europe on the way back home,” Lewis said. “Meanwhile, (Virgin Records president Richard) Branson takes them out on his boat on the Thames (River), gets them high and convinces them to sign with Virgin. Had I been able to, I would have told them they shouldn’t do that. Warner Bros. promptly sued them.”

Many recordings from Lewis' tenure have been released on the two "Hardcore Devo" collections.

Although Virgin and Warner Bros. amicably agreed to split distribution rights, it would not be the Devo’s final lawsuit. Lewis’ relationship with the band, and particularly Jerry Casale, had soured ever since Lewis told Casale that Devo would never be popular with him as the front man. It had to be Mark Mothersbaugh.

“From that point on I was on my way out,” Lewis said. “When Elliott Roberts, who managed Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, announced to Warner Bros. that he wanted to be manager, I knew I was gone, because then I was replaceable.”

Lewis received no credit or mention on Devo’s debut album “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” The album came out in 1978 and Lewis promptly sued for theft of intellectual property. With the band now located to Los Angeles, Lewis was up against a high-powered, label-financed law firm. Help came in the unlikely form of a cassette tape from a former high school newspaper reporter.

“Word had gotten around that I was suing the band and this person called me up who had interviewed us after one of our first performances at the Akron Arts Festival,” Lewis said. “This tape contained an interview of the band where he asked who came up with the Devo concept and Mark said ‘This guy right here, Bob Lewis.’

“When I played that tape at the deposition their lawyers looked like they had been gut-shot,” Lewis continued with a smile. “Shortly thereafter we reached an equitable settlement.”

Just as Lewis discovered he liked managing better than performing, he learned he enjoyed legal work. After managing a few bands to near-success, Lewis became a paralegal.

“I have the best job in the world.  Essentially, I’ve been practicing law without a license for the last 30 years,” Lewis said. “The catch is I always have to work with a lawyer.”

The band today. Devo plays tonight as part of the Buzz Under the Stars concert at the City Market with Ben Folds and Silversun Pickups. Tickets are $34.

Lewis left Ohio for Lawrence, Kan. in 1998 where his wife was working on her doctorate. Shortly thereafter the couple moved to Kansas City, Mo. Today, Lewis works as a paralegal for the Community of Christ Church in Independence, Mo. and lives in a house filled with antiques and art and a story behind each piece.

Last month Devo released “Something For Everybody,” their ninth album and first in 20 years. In the downtime, Mark Mothersbaugh has become a highly sought film composer. Mothersbaugh wrote the music for several of Wes Anderson’s movies, including “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” His brother Bob wrote the music for the “Rugrats” cartoon series. Jerry Casale, who directed most of Devo’s music videos, has also directed videos for Rush, Foo Fighters, Soundgarden and Silverchair. Myers left Devo in 1987; the drum stool is currently held by Josh Freese.

More than a generation after their lawsuit, Lewis said he is on good terms with the band. If he attends tonight’s show, however, it will be as a fan with a ticket purchased at the box office.

“It all depends on the weather,” Lewis said. “I e-mailed the guys the other day to let them know what they were facing here. I told them with as hot as it’s been it may not be a good idea for a bunch of 60-year-old guys jumping around in rubber suits. I’m sure they’ll be OK.”

Keep reading:

CSNY – “Ohio”

A Shooting Star finds home with the Young Dubliners

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light

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(Above: Billy Paul’s 1972 smash “Me and Mrs. Jones” is a quintessential slice of Philly soul.)

All Photos by Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There’s no shortage of history to be discovered and embraced in the City of Brotherly Love. Sadly, the many of Philadelphia’s musical landmarks have not been preserved as well as those associated with the Founding Fathers. Here is a photo essay from my brief trip to the city.

When Billie Holiday’s mother discovered she was pregnant in 1915, her parents exiled the unwed mother-to-be from their Baltimore home. Holiday’s mother settled in Philadelphia and gave birth in a housing development near what is now the theater district off Broad Street. The family returned to Baltimore shortly after Holiday was born.

The original building long destroyed, this marker is the only sign of Holiday’s neighborhood connection.

In 1952, John Coltrane used his GI Bill funds to purchase this three story brick house on 33rd Street. Coltrane’s house was on the right side of the building, now marked with a white door. The house looked to be in horrible shape, but no worse than the surrounding neighborhood. Several inches of trash lined the curb inside the street, broken windows and doors marked nearly every residence on the block. Located across the street from Fairmount Park, this was a rough part of town, even in the middle of a weekday afternoon.

A small red appendix on the street sign across the road is the only marker of John Coltrane’s former home in the area. The jazz giant obviously deserves better, but his old neighborhood has greater needs than gentrification.

This sculpture, located near Penn’s Landing, bears no obvious resemblance to any well-known saxophone players, but I thought it was fun.

With no signage or even address on the building, it’s very difficult to locate Sigma Sound Studios. Fortunately, someone was going into the building I suspected might have been home to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Sound of Phildelphia in the 1970s. David Bowie also recorded “Young Americans” behind these smokey windows.

Blessed with excellent timing, the employee I spotted entering the building graciously let me inside. Because they were being renovated, I couldn’t view the actual studios, but here’s the lobby of Sigma Sound Studios.

The Simgma lobby was decorated with awards from the golden age of Philly Soul. This platinum album celebrates Teddy Pendergrass’ 1978 album “Life is a Song Worth Singing.” Look for an exclusive interview with Sigma’s owner Durell Bottoms this fall in The Daily Record.

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(Above: The Stooges do “1969” in 2007.)

By Joel Francis

When Ron Asheton started playing electric guitar in the mid-’60s, there were no signs pointing the way he wanted to go. The Beatles were just starting to experiment with feedback and backwards instrumentation on their albums; Pink Floyd was buried in the London underground and Andy Warhol had yet to champion the Velvet Underground (not that many were paying attention anyhow).

The closest things to the sounds in his head were Pete Townshend’s guitar riff on The Who’s “My Generation,” the surf guitar instrumentals of Dick Dale and the dirty blues of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.

By the time Asheton, his brother Scott, and their longtime friend Dave Alexander hooked up with fellow Ann Arbor, Mich. musician Jim Osterberg there were a few more road signs. Home state natives the MC5 had kicked out their jams, and the free jazz freak-outs of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders were regularly released on the Impulse label. But there still weren’t many fellow travelers on the Asheton brothers’ weird road during the Summer of Love. Osterberg, who would soon call himself Iggy Pop, was one hitchhiker they had to pick up.

Four years later, it was mostly over. In retrospect, it’s amazing the band lasted that long. The Stooges two albums, released in 1969 and 1970, were rawer than razor burn, more violent than the 1968 Democratic Convention and as combustible as the Hindenburg. When it was over, Asheton’s guitar work pointed the way that nearly every guitarist since has followed, or at lease acknowledged.

It’s difficult to imagine the furious stomp of the White Stripes and the six-string perversions of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr without the expanded palette Asheton created. The Sex Pistols and the Damned both covered “No Fun” in concert. Heck, the blueprint of the grunge movement was mostly hijacked from the Stooges’ designs.

Of course David Bowie prodded the Stooges to reconvene in 1973 for “Raw Power,” but it wasn’t the same. Iggy’s name was out front and Asheton was confined to the bass guitar by Ig’s new best bud, James Williamson. There was even a piano player! Asheton’s rightful place on lead guitar was restored when the Stooges reunited a generation later for a couple guest shots on Iggy’s solo album, an R.L. Burnside tribute and, finally, an album of their own, but by then they were no longer leaders.

Ron Asheton’s name rarely comes up in “Guitar God” discussions. The music he made nearly 40 years ago remains difficult to assimilate by mainstream tastes. And like his long-overdue adulation, it took people a while to figure out he was gone. Six days after dying from a heart attack, Asheton’s body was discovered in his Ann Arbor apartment.

There was no obituary in the New York Times and little mention on the 24-hour news channels, but somewhere in heaven a white cloud is tarnished with soot and Asheton’s scary noise is driving the harp-plucking cherubs out of their minds. Which is as it should be.

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Martha and the Vandellas – “Dancing in the Street,” Pop #2

By Joel Francis

Poor, poor Kim Weston. Had she not passed on this song, she may be remembered for that being Marvin Gaye’s first duet partner. Instead, Martha Reeves got to place another jewel in her crown.

Funk Brother Benny Benjamin’s great drumming and the incessant, propulsive tambourine get the feet going before Marta Reeves opens her mouth. But once she does, Reeves embraces every syllable with her full voice, squeezing each note for maximum pleasure. The single was released at the end of July, 1964, but its not hard to imagine that even in the dead of winter, legions of listeners would heeded Reeves “invitation across the nation” and joined her in the streets.

The growing race riots throughout America soon cast the song in a different light. (Five years later, the Rolling Stones recast the number into the dark, political anthem “Street Fighting Man.”) It’s hard to erase the imprint that history has left on the number, but the heart of Reeves’ words is utopia: Whoever you are, whatever you wear, wherever you’re from, get outside, grab a guy (or gal) and dance. “All we need is music, sweet music.” If only life were this simple.

Like many of Motown’s signature songs, cover versions abound. The Kinks and The Who cut versions earlier in their career. Both fail to capture the joy in Reeves singing and translate the large soul arrangement to a rock quartet. Artists as diverse as Dusty Springfield, the Grateful Dead and the Carpenters also tackled the song.

Van Halen propelled the song back onto the charts nearly 20 years after the Vandellas’ hit. Eddie Van Halen’s post-disco keyboard part transforms the arrangement as Diamond Dave – never one to miss a party – celebrates the lyrics. The song is a high point on one of the group’s most puzzling albums. “Diver Down” contains not one, but two Kinks covers (which should provide a clue as to why they decided to do “Streets”), a polka featuring Alex and Eddie’s dad on clarinet, and closes with “Happy Trails.”

No discussion of “Dancing in the Street” would be complete without mentioning the horrific, oh-my-god-look-away cover performed by David Bowie and Mick Jagger. While the intent was noble – a charity single for Live Aid – the results were anything but. It didn’t help that the song was delivered at the nadir of these legendary careers. Bowie had just completed his dance-happy “Tonight” album and Jagger was in the middle of “She’s the Boss” and attempting to break up his legendary band. The production is sickeningly slick and the vocals sound tossed off. Never ones to be swayed by taste, the public sent the song to No. 7 on the U.S. chart (and clear to No. 1 elsewhere in the world).

The most intriguing version of “Dancing in the Streets” may not exist. I maintain a secret hope that somewhere there is a demo version of Marvin Gaye’s original performance. I have no idea if tape was rolling when Gaye, who co-wrote the song with Mickey Stevenson, presented the song to Reeves or if he attempted to cut a guide vocal, but I am optimistic an unmarked reel in the Motown archives will be unearthed and reveal this treasure. I got my hopes up a few years ago when the “Cellarful of Motown” rarities compilation was released, but so far nothing has surfaced. In the meantime, Martha and the Vandellas will more than suffice.

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