Social Distancing Spins – Days 22-24

By Joel Francis

Saturdays and Sundays are for family time. I think the trend of fewer weekend spins and a combined entry spanning Friday through Sunday will continue going forward.

The Dirtbombs – Ultraglide in Black (2001) Musically speaking, the Motor City is best known for two groundbreaking styles of music: Motown, of course, and the raw rock and roll that would become punk, pioneered by the MC5 and Stooges. The Dirtbombs combine both of these genres masterfully on this tribute to their hometown. Hearing Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye get a layer of scuzzy guitars and blown-out drums not only casts the songs in a new light but is a pure delight. If you like Detroit music, heck if you’ve ever driven a Ford, you’ll find something to like here.

I saw the Dirtbombs touring in support of another album, several years after Ultraglide came out. The show started after midnight and there were about a dozen people in the audience. It was fantastic.

The Temptations – All Directions (1972) Before taking the compass to All Directions, let’s pause for a moment and marvel at the industriousness of the Motown machine. All Directions was the first of two Temptations releases in 1972. Overall, it was their 16th studio album (counting two full-length collaborations with the Supremes) in only eight years. Think about that for a moment. In less than a decade, they went from “The Way You Do the Things You Do” to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Wow!

“Papa” is the standout track here, a No. 1 hit on the U.S pop charts, but the rest of the album isn’t a bunch of cast-offs. “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On” starts the album with a faux-concert intro before the five Tempts trade lead vocals a la “Ball of Confusion.” Album closer “Do Your Thing” is a rare example of Motown covering Stax. The version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” won’t make anyone forget Roberta Flack, but newcomer Richard Street handles it well. After this album, the Temptations took a whole seven months off (during which they were no doubt touring) before releasing their next album.

Tom Petty – Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)

Tom Petty – The Last DJ (2002) Last autumn, I was on a business trip with the better part of a day to burn in Gainesville, Fla. Knowing that was Tom Petty’s home town, I did some online sleuthing and found several Petty-related points of interest to visit. The night I got in, I was walking around a nice little square of shops near my hotel when a sign caught my eye: Lillian’s Music Store. I had to go in. As I ordered my drink the bartender who gave me the scoop: Lillian’s hadn’t been a music store for some time (it claims to be the oldest bar in Gainesville) but kept the former occupant’s business name. Which is why on the song “Dreamville,” the third track on The Last DJ, Petty sings “Goin’ down to Lillian’s music store/To buy a black diamond string/Gonna wind it up on my guitar/Gonna make that silver sing.”

Now, the larger question is this: If I am going to buy a drink at Lillian’s Music Store chiefly because it appears in a Tom Petty lyric, as a Clash fan am I likewise obliged to get inked at the Death Or Glory tattoo parlor? The answer of course, is yes. And yet it didn’t happen. My apologies, Mick and Joe.

One more quick note about Lillian’s. They had these weird heavy, glass dishes that I hadn’t seen for several years scattered around inside. Ashtrays. Because indoor smoking is still cool in Florida, I guess. All my clothes smelled afterward and I had to double-bag them so they wouldn’t reek into the rest of my luggage.

A couple quick thoughts about the music on these albums before moving on, because this is already running long. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) contains one of my favorite Petty deep tracks, “Runaway Trains.” It has very ‘80s production and feels almost more like an adult contemporary tune closer to something Sting or Steve Winwood would come up with than anything in the Heartbreakers catalog. I love it because it is so unusual and has those great Petty lyrics and singing. This album also has “It Will All Work Out,” one of my all-time favorite Petty songs. The Last DJ is excellent, except for the song “Joe,” which is my least favorite Petty song. It sounds like a demo that should have been scrapped in the studio. You should still own both albums.

David Bowie – Station to Station (1976) One of many favorite moments from catching David Bowie’s concert on the Reality tour during its stop in Kansas City, Mo. was watching him hang out on the side of the stage, arms holding on to the scaffolding, grooving along to as his band churned through the long instrumental introduction to “Station to Station.” It was the first song in the encore set and for those minutes, Bowie was just another music fan, like all of us in the crowd.

Bowie claimed to have no memories of making this album, but Station to Station’s detached, synthesized paranoia paved a direct path to Joy Division.  Single “TVC15” was durable enough to find a spot in Bowie’s Live Aid set nearly a decade later and his cover of “Wild is the Wind” is an touching showcase of Bowie’s vocal talent. An essential addition to any rock fan’s music collection.

Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom (1982) Elvis Costello’s seventh album concludes an incredible opening run with the country tribute Almost Blue as the only misstep. (Almost Blue doesn’t miss because of the genre – the songs and performances just aren’t as strong as on the surrounding albums.) Former Beatles engineer pulls several tricks out of George Martin’s playbook with his gorgeous production arrangements. I love the orchestral countermelody on “And in Every Home” and what sounds like a sitar on “Human Hands.” Not every song is dressed up. “Tears Before Bedtime” and “Man Out of Town” have a pared-down Attractions sound that could have come from Trust, Costello’s previous album. It’s not hard to imagine bands like the Decemberists obsessing over Imperial Bedroom and coming away with dozens of ideas. Costello wouldn’t stay in this baroque mood for long, however. By the next album (and year) he had moved on to a more modern sheen and added the TKO Horns for Punch the Clock.

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell (2019) Lana Del Rey got a lot of buzz when her album Born to Die came out nearly a decade ago. I watched her on Saturday Night Live, eager to hear what the fuss was about and sampled her debut album before dismissing her as a joke trying too hard to be ironic (and iconic). NFR is the album that finally won me over. Del Rey has built her catalog almost exclusively on torch songs, but here she does them really, really well. Early in the album, the sweeping guitars at the end of “Mariners Apartment Complex” lead right into “Venice Bitch,” which slowly builds into a psychedelic meltdown. Later, Del Rey delivers one of the sexiest music nerd songs ever on “The Next Best American Record.” Don’t ever say she doesn’t know her demographic. The super-profane opening couplet that opens the album belongs in the poetry hall of fame as a stand-alone lyric. I don’t know how long LDR will be able to hold me, but she definitely got me with NFR.

Slobberbone – Bees and Seas: The Best of Slobberbone (compilation) Alt-country fans lamenting the end of Uncle Tupelo need look no further than Slobberbone. The questionably named quartet from Texas perform with the same reckless abandoned that fueled UT classics “Screen Door” and “Gun.” This two record set devotes roughly one side to each of the band’s four albums. The band remains remarkably consistent in sound a quality throughout. There are no detours into horn sections or bagpipes and Brent Best’s songwriting via scenes of everyday life never fail to suck me in. Sadly, like Uncle Tupelo, Slobberbone is no longer releasing new material. Unlike their forebearers, though, Best and company frequently reunite and tour.

The Kinks – Face to Face (1966) As the Fab Four started to migrate toward more intricate, artistic material, the Kinks stepped right into the void, albeit with a more garage-y sound. Straightforward rockers “Party Line” and “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” set the album off strong, but Ray Davies takes a couple surprising turns with the Indian instruments on “Fancy” and faux-Hawaiian guitars on “Holiday in Waikiki,” a charming tale about winning a holiday in the Pacific. “Dandy” is the type of music hall number only an Englishman could write (and probably stomach – it’s much to cloying for me). Several years ago, I was fortunate to hear Ray Davies perform “Sunny Afternoon,” my favorite song from Face to Face, in concert. It remains an enduring memory of a fantastic night.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 20

By Joel Francis

O.V. Wright – Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose (1977) O.V. Wright is the greatest soul singer you’ve never heard. Wright had some chart success in the mid-to-late 1960s, but a prison term for narcotics sidelined his career. When Wright got out he cut several albums for Hi Records, the home of Al Green and Anne Peebles. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose was Wright’s first record post-incarceration and it has the pent-up power of a man finally able to cut loose. Hi Rhythm, the studio house band, provides the perfect support throughout. The album is barely longer than half an hour, but it is consistently superb throughout. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose is definitely work seeking out.

Wu-Tang Clan – Iron Flag (2001) Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is Staten Island hip hop collective’s best album, but Iron Flag is my favorite. Released just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, every MC is on point here to protect their city. Running under an hour at 12 tracks and no skits, this is a focused, fierce Clan. Blaxploitation horns power “In the Hood” (which starts after a brief introduction) and the single “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” a track so strong it threatens to jump out of the speakers and start a fight. Method Man’s “Y’all Been Warned” pivots on a simple keyboard and guitar sample. Boasting has long been a staple of hip hop, but the braggadocio here takes on a deeper significance in the wake of 9/11. Or as Ghostface Killah puts it on “Rules:” “Together we stand, divided we fall/Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war.” We should be so lucky as to have him in charge.

Booker T. and the MGs – McLemore Avenue (1970) The Fab Four cast a long shadow. Here the Stax Records house band – and hitmakers on their own – pay tribute to Abbey Road by naming their album after the street where Stax resides. The album is three long medleys and a stand-alone cover of “Something.” A 15-minute track comprising the final medley on Abbey Road kicks things off. It’s a bit odd to hear “The End” so early in the album but ultimately not a big deal. The second side encompasses roughly the rest of Abbey Road’s flip side, with the exception of the closing medley that opens McLemore Avenue. Got that? The musicianship is stellar. Booker T.’s organ does most of the heavy lifting with the melodies, but Steve Cropper’s guitar always comes in at the right moments to help out. The rhythm section of Duck Dunn and Al Jackson is equally superb. If you like the Beatles and/or classic R&B, this is the album for you.

Chris Bell – I Am the Cosmos (1992) The Memphis power pop and cult band Big Star only made three albums during their initial run, losing band members after each release. Guitarist and singer Chris Bell was the first to exit. I Am the Cosmos collects the songs Bell made in the mid-‘70s after leaving Big Star, with many tracks featuring his old bandmates. The only song on this collection that came out during Bell’s lifetime is the title number, which never came near the charts but grew so large in the Big Star lore that the band started performing it when they regrouped in the 1990s. The music is raw and vulnerable and in addition to displaying the power pop chops of Big Star also points the way to introspective indie rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie. For proof, look no further than “Speed of Sound,” used masterfully in the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Big Star’s Third is hailed as the group’s lost masterpiece, but in many ways I Am the Cosmos is just as important and more accessible.

Elton John – Honky Chateau (1972) As Elton John’s first No. 1 album, Honky Chateau helped tip the pianist toward stardom. Everyone knows “Rocket Man” but the rest of the songs may be even better. “Hercules” is folk pop in the vein of early Cat Stevens, while “Slave” veers toward country. The deceptively bouncy “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” hides a lyric so caustic and cynical that Elvis Costello would blush. Ballads “Mellow” and “Salvation” are the type of song that would become overblown productions in a few years. They are great here in standard rock band arrangements.

The true gem for me is the wonderful “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” which I first heard in Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous. Yeah, I know I’m not breaking any stereotypes about music nerds here. Want to come over and help me arrange my albums autobiographically? We can look for inside jokes in the liner notes.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 11

By Joel Francis

Let the hit parade continue.

Sonic Youth – Washing Machine (1995) On the surface, Washing Machine appears to be just another release by avant rockers Sonic Youth. Released nine albums into their three-decade career, the band doesn’t have much to prove by this point but they certainly aren’t coasting through this set. All three of the band’s songwriters are in peak form. The album opens and closes Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo taking lead vocals on their respective compositions. Moore’s closing cut, “The Diamond See” is a fascinating 20-minute track that shows the quartet stretching out, yet never repeating themselves. It’s the longest they let a mood percolate on a studio album. (An even longer 25- minute version was released on The Destroyed Room rarities collection.) Overall, Washing Machine points to the more mature direction Sonic Youth would take in the early ‘00s.

One Day As a Lion – self-titled (2008) Well, this is it. The 20 minutes on this EP comprise most substantial release by Zack de la Rocha since the end of Rage Against the Machine at the end of the millennium. It boggles the mind how someone so politically aggressive during the Clinton administration could be so quiet during the Dubya and current administrations. If anything, you’d think de la Rocha would be out stumping for Bernie Sanders.

Brief as it is, the music here meets all expectations. It’s loud, combative and better than either of Rage axeman Tom Morello’s acoustic Nightwatchman full-lengths.

Andrew Hill – Point of Departure (1964) I discovered Andrew Hill about six months before he died. Even though I didn’t have a lot of history with his art, I was still deeply saddened by his loss. Selfishly, I had hoped that I would be able to see him perform at some point. I was also disappointed that such a monumental talent hadn’t achieved the renown and accolades Hill deserved.

It can be easy for pianists to get lost in the background when playing in larger groups, especially with reed-player Eric Dolphy in the mix. Hill’ steady hand is ever-present across this album, guiding every song and creating the spaces for Dolphy and saxman Joe Henderson’s solos (and delivering plenty of his own as well). “Dedication,” the final piece, is as beautiful a piece of music as you will ever hear.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Get Happy!! (1980) Elvis Costello has released so many great albums across so many styles it is hard to pin down a favorite. That said, of the four classics in his initial “angry young man” phase, this might be my pick as the best. Costello skitters across all forms of soul music in these 20 songs, moving quickly from Motown to Northern and blue-eyed soul. Ballads and Southern soul are also given their due. What reads like a dull, academic genre exercise on paper is a hoot to hear because of the Attractions manic energy – particularly Steve Nieve’s hopping organ – and Costello’s lyrics, that slash like a switchblade in an alley fight. You don’t realize how quickly they cut until they’ve moved on to the next victim. Best to keep dancing and sort it all out later.

Robbie Robertson – Storyville (1991) Anyone disappointed that Robbie Robertson’s debut album bore few traces of his time with The Band will find more to like with this sophomore effort. Although the performances are far more restrained and the production more polished than anything with his old group, it’s not hard to imagine Rick Danko singing on “Night Parade” (although he does contribute backing vocals on the gorgeous ballad “Hold Back the Dawn”). Taken on its own terms, this is still a very satisfying album. Neil Young stops by to help with “Soap Box Preacher” and the Neville Brothers appear on “Shake This Town,” recorded with Rebirth Brass Band, and “What About Now.” The spirit of New Orleans, where Storyville was made, also appears on “Go Back to Your Woods.” In a way, Storyville makes a nice companion piece to the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon, released the year before with Daniel Lanois, the man behind the boards for Robertson’s debut.

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five – The Golden Era Series, Vol. 1 (compilation) It blows my mind that these recordings are approaching their centennial. These are among Armstrong’s first sessions as a bandleader. His solos here went a long way establish jazz as an improvisational genre. Satchmo doesn’t sing on every cut, but when he does it is always memorable. The dozen cuts here are so celebrated and influential it is impossible to have a favorite, but I’ll share some of the titles to whet the appetites of the uninitiated: “Heebie Jeebies,” “Struttin’ with some Barbeque,” “Gut Bucket Blues,” “Hotter than That.” Just reading those titles, how can you not want to dive in?

The songs here appeared roughly the same time as George Gershwin’s compositions and significantly predate Aaron Copeland’s most celebrated pieces. This is the sound of America growing up and forcing its way on the world’s artistic stage well before it became impossible to ignore as a superpower.

Ben Folds – Supersunnyspeedgraphic, the LP (compilation) The first three sides of this two-record collection encompass highlights from the digital-only mini-albums Folds released in the early 2000s. It’s fun to hear Folds give the Cure and the Darkness his own demented spin. His potty-mouthed cover of Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is funny the first few times, but gradually wears out its welcome. In his memoir A Dream About Lightning Bugs, Folds recounts a stint opening for John Mayer where he would perform this song several times in a row relishing the jeers. I can relate to how that audience must have felt. Original songs including “Adelaide,” “Songs of Love” and “Still” more than make up for Folds’ West Coast rap mishap. The fourth side of this set is a real treat, too. We get a half-dozen cuts from the Over the Hedge soundtrack, including a great cover of The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” and an alternate version of “Rockin’ the Suburbs” with an epic William Shatner rant based on real events.

The Supremes – At their Best (compilation) Conventional wisdom holds that the Supremes were over once Diana Ross left. True, Ross had much greater success as a solo artist than the Supremes did without her, but they were still a potent force. The group had six Top 40 hits in the post-Ross era and several more hits on the R&B charts. Many of those tracks are included on this 10-track collection, which spans 1970 to 1976. “Stoned Love” and “Up the Ladder to the Roof” are as good as anything the Supremes released in their prime years. “I’m Going to Let My Heart Do the Walking” and “You’re My Driving Wheel” update the group’s sound with elements of funk and disco. The Supremes were always a better singles act than album artists and this anthology is a fitting encapsulation and the final chapter.

Review: Elvis Costello and the Imposters

(Above: Elvis Costello and the Imposters take the stage on a hot summer night at Crossroads KC.)

Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Elvis Costello solved the age-old problem of what to do when an artist has too many great songs for one show – he brought them all onstage with him.

Costello’s “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tour touched down at a crowded Crossroads on Thursday night. Behind the acclaimed songwriter’s left shoulder loomed a huge multi-colored wheel adorned with three dozen of his favorite songs. One at a time, members of the audience were invited up to spin the wheel and pick the next number.

“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” usually an encore, came up early. So did “Earthworms,” a song Costello wrote for singer Wendy James in the early ‘90s but never recorded himself. When the wheel landed on Bob Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire,” Costello let the crowd choose between that number and his own “Human Hands.” The headliner won out.

First employed in the late ‘80s, the spinning songbook is a novel way for the performer to experience his work in a new context. On that level it was a success. The quartet was tight and energetic, clearly feeding of the energy of the fans dancing along to their selections onstage. But the wheel also killed momentum and started to feel kind of gimmicky after a while.

That said there was indisputably some great music in between spins. A spooky “I Want You” and an extended reading of “Watching the Detectives” that played up the song’s dub roots were among the high points.

Many of the best moments came early. Costello and his Imposters took the stage in with many favorites in a potent 15-minute romp before introducing the wheel. The extended jam on “Uncomplicated” found Costello and bass player Davey Faragher trading lines from Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun.” The Motown connection returned during “Alison,” when Costello incorporated several of the verses from Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.”

Keyboard wizard Steve Nieve was the driving force on many songs, adding calliope runs to “Radio Radio,” a Theremin solo on “Peace, Love and Understanding” and sneaking some Stevie Wonder clavinet on “Shabby Doll.”

The night nearly ended with a brilliant three-song encore in which Costello and his band somehow took the jumpy “Pump It Up” straight into the reflective “Alison” before somehow ending up on a surprisingly strong version of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Costello had other plans, however, returning with two thirds of the Lovell Sisters to play some bluegrass.

Setlist: I Hope You’re Happy Now; Heart of the City; Mystery Dance; Uncomplicated > Radio Radio; Talking in the Dark; Clubland; (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding; Earthbound; Human Hands; Watching the Detectives; (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea; Almost Blue; Shabby Doll; I Want You. Encore 1: Brilliant Mistake; Pump It Up; Alison > Purple Rain. Encore 2: Sulfur to Sugarcane; The Crooked Line; The Scarlet Tide.

Keep reading:

Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

The Miracles – “The Tracks of My Tears”

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

Rock Hall commemorates 35 years of Austin City Limits

(Above: Roy Orbison performs “(Oh) Pretty Woman” on “Austin City Limits” in 1983.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The musical landscape of television was of a different world when “Austin City Limits” debuted on Public Television 35 years ago. Brief performances on late night talk shows or segments on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” were the only options for fans hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite act.

Baloons and the capital building, trademarks of the Flaming Lips and Austin City Limits.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrates the show that put long-form performances on the air with the new exhibit “Great Music. No Limits. Celebrating 35 Years of Austin City Limits.”

“There were certainly music shows on television before, like Ed Sullivan, ‘Shindig’ or ‘Hullabaloo,’” said Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs for the Rock Hall. “But ‘Austin City Limits’ was the first show where the performers didn’t lip synch and were provided with a platform that extended beyond just a song or two.”

The exhibit includes photographs, setlists, documents and video footage of the show’s greatest moments.

“A big part of the exhibit are the photos from the show. We have 30 or more pictures of artists ranging from B.B. King, Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello to Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and the Dave Matthews Band,” Henke said. “We also have a lot of different documents, including lots of early stuff like the proposal for underwriting the pilot episode and several handwritten memos.”

The memos show the evolution of the show’s title from “River City Country” to “Austin Space” before finally settling on the current title.

The Hag on ACL.

“We also have three setlists from Wilco’s performance where you can see which songs were added and changed before they went on,” Henke said.

“MTV Unplugged,” “Sessions at West 54th Street” and “Soundstage” are but a few of the shows Austin City Limits has inspired during its run. In 2002, the show spun off into the three-day Austin City Limits Music Festival.

“The show started out with Willie Nelson on the first episode then expanded,” Henke said. “If you look at who’s appeared since then it’s been a nice mix of artists.”

Henke pointed out recent episodes with Ben Harper sitting in with Pearl Jam and Mos Def with K’Naan as examples of the show’s continued innovation.

“The producers don’t just book established artists. They’re looking at younger artists as well,” Henke said. “Our video reel has everyone from Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe to Damian Marley. It’s not just focused on one era or genre. I think this is not only what made the show so innovative, but has given it such longevity.”

For museum hours and ticket and general information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.

Keep Reading:

Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)

Rock Hall celebrates the 40th anniversary of Woodstock

(Below: The Polyphonic Spree party on Austin City Limits in 2004.)

Review: Allen Toussaint

(Above: A snippet of Allen Toussaint’s cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” from one of his regular appearances at Joe’s Pub in New York City.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

At his first-ever performance in Kansas City, New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint transformed the Folly Theater into a place where “mardi gras” was a verb and Fat Tuesday occurred every night.

The soon-to-be 72-year-old songwriter, arranger and producer delivered around 100 minutes of material he wrote for others, recorded himself or wished he had written for a nearly sold-out crowd.

From the first chords of the opening vamp it was obvious that Toussaint and his four-piece band were determined to melt a little of the mounds of snow stacked outside. Thanks to the jumping introduction, the party was already in full swing by the time Toussaint launched into “There’s A Party Going On.”

Although Toussaint’s heart lies in the Big Easy, his influences were all over the map. “Sweet Touch of Love” ended with Toussaint adapting the melody of “An American in Paris” over a modified Bo Diddley beat. The effervescent “Soul Sister” moved between a stately melody and calypso rhythms and felt like the type of number Billy Joel and tried – and failed – to write at least 20 or 30 times.

The most impressive juxtaposition was Toussaint’s classical piano solo during “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On). For several minutes the maestro interspersed snippets of well-known concertos against contemporaries Professor Longhair and Dave Brubeck.

Two songs stemmed from Toussaint’s recent jazz album, “The Bright Mississippi.” The title song, a Thelonious Monk number, was a syncopated throwback to the Dixieland tradition of New Orleans jazz and featured saxman Brian “Breeze” Cayolle on clarinet. It was followed by “St. James Infirmary,” which found the drummer slapping his knees and snapping his fingers to keep time while Toussaint and his barefoot guitarist traded licks.

Toussaint may not be a household name, but the artists he’s worked with are. His songs have been recorded by everyone from British invasion bands like the Yardbirds, Rolling Stones and the Who to soul singers such as O’Jays, Lee Dorsey and the Pointer Sisters, to artists ranging from Jerry Garcia and Iron Butterfly to Warren Zevon and Devo. Toussaint has also recorded with Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, the Band, Dr. John and the Meters.

The set’s centerpiece was a medley several of Toussaint’s best-known hits, including “A Certain Girl,” “Mother-in-Law,” “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Fortune Teller.” It was followed by his most-recorded number, “Get Out of My Life Woman.”

Between several numbers, Toussaint told stories about working with Ernie K. Doe and Costello, plugged upcoming TV appearances, and recalled his impression of a chocolate commercial set to his song “Sweet Touch of Love.” The stories were entertaining on their own, but the beautiful beds of chords Toussaint created under his monologues made especially scintillating.

The night’s only flaw was a slightly sour mix, which buried Toussaint’s piano and vocals during the opening number. The piano was quickly lifted to its proper place over the drums and guitar, but the vocals remained faint throughout the evening.

After sharing the spirit of Mardi Gras, Toussaint closed his main set by going one step further. Walking along the lip of the stage, he threw out beads and masks and searched for the perfect girth to receive a t-shirt. After a few moments, the band returned and Toussaint delivered a breathtaking, unaccompanied performance of “American Tune.” Toussaint’s experiences during Hurricane Katrina added extra resonance to Paul Simon’s lyrics, and the pin-drop quiet crowd burst into approving applause as the last note faded.

Setlist: There’s A Party Going On, Whatever Happened to Rock and Roll?, Sneaking Sally Through the Alley
Sweet Touch of Love, Who’s Going to Help a Brother Get Further?, Soul Sister, Bright Mississippi, St. James Infirmary, Medley: A Certain Girl/Mother-In-Law/Fortune Teller/Working in a Coal Mine, Get Out of My Life Woman > Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On), Mr. Mardi Gras, Southern Nights. Encore: American Tune, Shoorah Shoorah > Fun Time.

Classic Christmas Carol: “St. Stephen’s Day Murders”

(Above: Ceoltoiri Chluain Tarbh [Clontarf] go on the wren in 2008.)

By Joel Francis

Information on St. Stephen is scarce. Everything known about his life is contained in two chapters in the New Testament’s book of Acts. Stephen was one of several men appointed by the 12 disciples to preach the gospel. A man “full of faith,” Stephen “did great wonders among the people.”

However, the religious leaders in the synagogues at Libertine, Cyrene and Alexandria were not impressed. They falsely accused Stephen of blaspheming against God and Moses, and bribed witness to lie and corroborate the charges. Stephen was found guilty, taken outside the city limits and stoned.

At this point, history ends and religion takes over. The Catholic Church paid tribute to Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr after the crucifixion of Christ, designated Dec. 26, St. Stephen’s Day. On this day, also known the Feast of St. Stephen, families gathered to eat and drink together. Because Christmas Day was celebrated with friends at parties at the time, this day with family was a nice counterpoint.

Centuries later, the Irish further appended the legend with the hunting of wren. At some point during the Feast of St. Stephen, the children from each family would find a wren and chase it until it was captured or died from exhaustion. After “going on the wren,” the children would tie the dead bird to the end of a pole or put it in a cage and parade around town singing.

Each group would stop at homes around the neighborhood, show their bird and collect some money. At the end of the day, the money the town’s children gathered was pooled and used to host a huge city-wide dance.

There are two tales why the wren became the unfortunate victim of the day. In one version, St. Stephen had all but eluded his capture when a singing wren betrayed his hiding place. This account conveniently ignores Stephen’s statement on trial about seeing the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. The other explanation is that during the Viking raids on the Emerald Island in the eighth century, wrens betrayed the Irish soldiers’ location and foiled a potential ambush.

With this tradition in mind, Catholic-raised songwriter Elvis Costello teamed with Irish luminary Paddy Maloney and the Chieftains to pen a song depicting one of the most Irish of holidays. Against the backdrop of an Irish reel, Costello paints the picture of family “feeding their faces until they explode and getting drunk in an attempt to hide the awkwardness that comes with not having seen each other since this time last year.

The day’s only relief comes when the nattering, obnoxious children finally go out to murder the wren and the adults are finally “rid of them (rid of them!).”

“St. Stephen’s Day Murders” originally appeared on the Chieftains’ 1991 holiday album “The Bells of Dublin.” The theme of the wren is revisited in the songs “The Arrival of the Wren Boys” and “The Wren in the Furze Dance.” “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” also appears as a bonus track on the Rhino edition of Elvis Costello’s “Mighty Like A Rose.”

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Jesus Christ”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

(Above: “Fairytale of New York” may be the best modern Christmas song of all time.)

By Joel Francis

There aren’t many Christmas songs set in jail, but dang if songwriter Shane McGowan and the Pogues don’t turn lockdown sunny side up during the four and a half minutes of “Fairytale of New York.”

“Fairytales” opens famously on Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. As an old man sings and mourns his last Christmas, the narrator’s mind drifts to a Christmas Eve with the love of his life.

McGowan paints a vivid picture of that day in the New World with “cars big as bars,” “rivers of gold,” and a wind that “goes right through you.” After exploring the Big Apple together, the pair stumbled into a place where

“Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing.
We kissed on a corner,
Then danced through the night.”

Irish composer Fiachra Trench’s string arrangement captures perfectly the hope of the moment and excitement of a new life in a new world. During the subsequent verses, love fades and is replaced by drunkenness and addiction. But even as the couple exchanges insults, they keep returning to that Christmas Eve when the choir sang and the bells rang out.

Guest singer Kirsty MacColl appears as the woman in the story. Her melodic voice is a nice counterpoint to McGowan’s gruff brogue. MacColl’s part was originally written for Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan. That plan fell through in 1986, when O’Riordan absconded with Elvis Costello, who was producing the band’s second album.

When the group hired Steve Lillywhite to produce their third album, he suggested MacColl, his wife at the time, to sing guide vocals on a demo until the band could find a replacement. McGowan liked her part so much she was asked to sing on the record.

Released in December, 1987, “Fairytale of New York” has become a holiday staple. In 2005 the song was re-released as a single, to benefit “Justice for Kirsty,” a crusade to uncover the truth behind MacColl’s 2000 death in a controversial boating accident.

“Fairytale of New York” has been covered numerous times, but never improved.

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed

(Above: Cross Canadian Ragweed show off their new song “51 Pieces.” What’s with the Raiders shirt on an Oakie?)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The television show “CMT Crossroads” found a niche by pairing seemingly disparate artists like Taylor Swift and Def Leppard or Lucinda Williams and Elvis Costello for a one-hour performance. With their blend of arena-ready country channeled through classic rock radio, Cross Canadian Ragweed could fill a show all by themselves.

The Oklahoma-based quartet preached to a half-full Crossroads Friday night delivering nearly two dozen tracks from across their 12-year career and several songs from their just-released seventh album. Singer and lead guitarist Cody Canada played like a character from the latest edition of “Guitar Hero,” flipping between Eddie Van Halen’s finger-tapping technique, the heavy rhythm riffs inspired by Angus Young and subtle finger-picked solos a la Mark Knopfler.

Although it’s fun and easy, the congregated faithful weren’t playing spot the influence. They were too busy dancing in bliss, rocking to the music, hands raised, hallelujah. Their following is so loyal Canada could toss a lyric to the crowd and get it back twice as loud, but even he was impressed when the boisterous bunch sang along to material released just 10 days ago.

The high points of the two hour set came from opposite ends of the spectrum. “Anywhere But Here” opened like the country cousin of “Panama” and benefited from the extra muscle the band put into the extended reading. When snippets of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” appeared, it was less a cover than an assimilation.

Canada’s three-song solo acoustic set showed off his songwriting and storytelling chops. “Lonely Girl” was inspired by his sister while new number “Bluebonnets” was written for his four-year-old son. The trilogy of acoustic numbers was followed by a three-part medley Canada dubbed “The Trifecta,” which swaggered from rock to blues before ending with another new cut, “Pretty Lady.”

Bass player Jeremy Plato gave Canada a smoke break by handling lead vocals on two songs. His voice was a nice change of pace but too many bass solos – including two in the final three numbers – bogged the energy a bit. Ditto for the drum solo that preceded “Number.”

Ragweed’s set ended with guaranteed crowd pleasers “Carney Man” and “Late Last Night.” For “Time To Move On” Jonathan Tyler, who led the first act on the bill, joined the quartet on guitar. The night ended with a new song that felt old. Although it wasn’t officially released until Sept. 1, the crowd went ballistic for “51 Pieces” based on the opening lines of the story that introduced the number.

Lucero got sandwich billing between opener Jonathan Tyler and Northern Lights and Ragweed. The Memphis-based quartet sounds like the E Street Band via Uncle Tupelo and front man Ben Nichols sounds like Jay Farrar after too many cigarettes and way too much whiskey.

Their one-hour set was heavy on fan requests and included “Kiss the Bottle,””Raising Hell” and new material like “Darken My Door.” Although Lucero weren’t the band most of the crowd came to see, they did a great job of firing up the sizable swarm in front of the stage.

Setlist: Sister, Alabama, Burn Like the Sun, Mexican Sky, Deal, To Find My Love, Hammer Down, 42 Miles, Soul Agent, Anywhere But Here (including Won’t Get Fooled Again), Drag, drum solo, Number, (acoustic set) Let the Rain Fall Down (unsure if this title is correct), Lonely Girl, Bluebonnets, The Trifecta (including Pretty Lady), Carney Man, Time to Move On (with Jonathan Tyler), Late Last Night, (encore) 51 Pieces

Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

spasc

By Joel Francis

When Elvis Costello picked up an acoustic guitar in the mid-‘80s after two baffling albums full of horns and keyboards, the result was one of the high points in Costello’s already-great discography. Costello teamed with producer T-Bone Burnett for that album, “King of America,” and 23 years later the two are back together for “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.”

Costello has never quite eclipsed that peak, settling into a pattern of churning out reliable genre exercises in country, jazz, classical and rock and collaborating with Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet and Allen Toussaint. Burnett, on the other hand, has become the go-to man for Americana/roots recordings, winning a Grammys for his production on Robert Plant and Allisson Krauss’ debut album and the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. The reunion of Costello and Burnett creates an accessible entry point for a public that reaches beyond his usual audience of the core and the curious.

Unfortunately, the magic that sparked “King of America” is absent on “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.” While Burnett has rounded up an all-star cast of bluegrass musicians, the music feels like a stiff genre exercise. It is almost as if Costello is guesting on his own “Pickin’ On” tribute, or starring in “O Brother Where Art Costello.” Costello’s decision to revisit two songs from his back catalog reinforces this notion. “Complicated Shadows” was a great Johnny Cash-inspired slow-burning rock song in its original incarnation back in 1996. Here, it’s half the length and feels like Costello slapped his old lyrics over a generic bluegrass arrangement.

It neither helps nor hurts the listening experience to know that these songs were culled from an unfinished opera about Hans Christian Anderson, previous albums and leftovers from other projects. With little exception, they are all painted with the same brush and do little to distinguish themselves from the gray wash of an album that is neither offensive nor interesting.

The songs that do stand out are the two co-written by Burnett and Costello. “Sulphur to Sugarcane” is an extended innuendo delivered with a broad poke in the ribs and exaggerated arched eyebrow. It recalls the routines of Dusty and Lefty, the off-color cowboy duo played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Riley in the film “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“The Crooked Line,” however, is a standout in the good way. This next-to-last tune rewards the listener for nearly making it through the album with the harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris. Harris may be the best and most underrated duet singer in music. She consistently works harder on her supporting vocals than most singers invest in their singles. Her voice soars, subtly complimenting the melody, adding a mesmerizing countermelody. Whether on Lyle Lovett’s “Waltz Through the Bottomland” or Bob Dylan’s “Mozambique,” her voice never ceases to inadvertently creep into the spotlight and eventually command full attention.

Drawing on the chemistry she and Costello established in their previous collaboration on his “Delivery Man” album and subsequent tour, Harris doesn’t disappoint on “The Crooked Line.” Like a jazz musician breathing life into a trite pop standard, Harris signing salvages a ho-hum song and arrangement and turns it into something worth repeated listens.

“Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” has been released on Starbuck’s Hear Music label, and it seems a perfect fit for the latte-drinking, NPR-listening caricature scribbled up in political circles. For this audience, Costello’s name means maverick, Burnett’s means quality and the country-folk stylings make it unique, yet comfortable. But fans of Costello, Burnett and bluegrass alike can do much better than this.