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Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Cash’

By Joel Francis

Our trawl through my world of vinyl continues.

Various Artists – Stroke It Noel: Big Star’s Third in Concert (2017) To butcher the cliché, probably not everyone who bought a Big Star album back in the ‘70s started a band, but it’s a fair bet that at least one person from most of your favorite bands did (unless you are super into, say, Norwegian death metal, in which case, thank you for branching out and reading this blog).

It’s been ten years to the month since Big Star’s frontman Alex Chilton died on the eve of his celebration at South by Southwest. The impromptu tribute that emerged from that tragedy morphed into a series of concerts around the world celebrating Big Star’s troubling third album. It’s wonderful to hear members of Wilco, R.E.M., Yo La Tengo, the Posies, Semisonic, the dbs and more pass the mic and hike through these songs. But the live reproductions are so faithful they miss the fragile, alluring qualities that made the original studio versions that almost seemed to disintegrate before coalescing into beauty – if they made it that far. So yeah, I dig this, but hearing R.E.M.’s Mike Mills bounce joyfully through “Jesus Christ” or Django Haskins struggle with “Holocaust” doesn’t make me a bigger Big Star fan. It just makes me glad that the people I’m into have such immaculate taste.

Robert Fripp – Exposure (1979) I have a great deal of respect for King Crimson, Robert Fripp’s groundbreaking progressive rock ensemble, but to my heathen ears their music is like listening to calculus. I can get behind Exposure, though. You can almost hear Fripp smirking as he takes the listener from wordless, off-kilter a capella harmonies to an endlessly ringing phone and then a boogie woogie pastiche – all in about a minute. It’s almost like Fripp is daring us to meet us where he is, then abruptly changing course and challenging us to follow him over there. This is also an apt description of his entire career. Listening to Exposure is like playing tag. You never stay in one place and may find yourself out of breath at times with the quarry just out of reach, but it’s always fun to play. Special mention must be made of the definitive version of “Here Comes the Flood” with Peter Gabriel on vocals.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear – Skeleton Crew (2015) This mother-son duo was poised to be the next big thing to break out of the Kansas City music scene when this debut album came out. They appeared on one of the last episodes of The Late Show with David Letterman, the Today show, Later with Jools Holland and played Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival. Things have been quiet since then – only one EP in 2018 – but these laid-back, folk blues romps are still a fun spin.

Kendrick Lamar – Damn. (2017) Damn. was my favorite album the year it came out and it remains a compelling listen today. The fact that I can say this despite a concert that nearly left me in tears is a testament to its strength. When the Damn. tour announced a date at the Sprint Center, I quickly jumped on tickets. Not wanting to take out a second mortgage, my friends and I got seats in the upper level, extreme stage right. The sound was fine for the opening acts, but when Lamar took the stage it was like the sound blew out in the speakers directed at our section. You know it sounds you’re just inside the doors, waiting to get in and the show starts without you? All bass with just a hint of vocals? That’s how it sounded inside the arena. Some ushers kindly moved us to another section where the sound was slightly better, but the spell had been broken and the show was a bust. All this and I still can’t wait to hear what Lamar does next.

Rush – Power Windows (1985) I know everyone loves the hard, sci-fi prog of Rush’s late-‘70s peak, but I am strongly partial to their synth-heavy early ‘80s material. This mostly boils down to the fact that during high school I played the band’s 1989 live album A Show of Hands so often I thought the laser would bore right through the CD. So you can have your “Cygnus X-1” and “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and I’ll stick with “Marathon” and “Manhattan Project,” thank you very much.

Husker Du – Everything Falls Apart (1982) Playing this record (included in the Numero Group’s essential early-days collection Savage Young Du) is like flying down the interstate on a Japanese motorcycle without a helmet. Insects slap your face and the wind stings your eyes as gravity forces you closer to the ground. Danger is imminent, but you twist your wrist and accelerate even more. Stopping is not an option. Oh, and there’s an entire side of bonus tracks.

Johnny Cash – Mean as Hell! (1966) Mean as Hell! is the single platter version of Johnny Cash’s double-record concept album Sings the Ballads of the True West. I think I got this at a garage sale, because who can resist an album with this title (with mandatory exclamation point) where a gaunt, drugged out Cash is dressed like a cowboy, holding a gun? The music isn’t as exceptional as the cover. The spoken-word bits are a little too somber. Cash sounds like a Southern preacher crossed with a National Geographic narrator on the title track and the studio version of “25 Minutes to Go” is nowhere near as fun as the live version at Folsom Prison. Despite these shortcomings, I’ll still put on my spurs for the ballads: “I Ride an Old Paint,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and album closer “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.”

Frank Black – Teenager of the Year (1994) No one liked this album when it came out. It didn’t sound like the Pixies, wasn’t as radio-ready as the Breeders and there was a lot of lingering animosity over how Frank Black ended the beloved Pixies. I didn’t know any of this at the time, however, because I was too busy listening to A Show of Hands. Coming to this album several years later, all I heard were nearly two dozen bright blasts of Black’s songwriting at its most accessible. Nurse a grudge all you want. I’ll be right over hear blasting “Freedom Rock” loud enough to drown out your whining.

Brian Eno – Reflection (2016) I don’t know enough about ambient music to tell you the difference between this album and Lux or the longer-form pieces on the Music for Installations collection. I can tell you that when it gets to the point in the day when I need some Eno, Reflection (and Lux) always comforts me. I also don’t think I have to get up to turn the record over as often with Lux, so there’s one difference.

Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle (1973) This is one of my absolute favorite Springsteen albums because it’s the sound of him fumbling through different sounds trying to figure out what he wants to be. It all clicked into place with Born to Run, his next album. The guitars at the beginning of “Sandy” sound like the Allman Brothers Band before the accordion whisks in foreshadowing the opening section of Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Where else can you hear Springsteen rocking with a clavinet over a Doobie Brothers guitar line but on “The E Street Shuffle”?

The picture of the band is especially priceless. Half the guys have their shirts unbuttoned all the way, only a couple are wearing shoes and Springsteen is rocking a tank top and blue jeans. They look like a group that would get uncomfortably close and overly friendly with a stranger, ask to bum a cigarette and then inquire if he or she liked to par-tay.

Wild and Innocent is also the only time multi-instrumentals David Sancious appeared as Springsteen’s main musical foil. Sancious left to form his own band shortly after this album came out and went on to work with Stanley Clarke, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Eric Clapton and many others.

Lee Hazlewood – The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes and Backsides (compilation) If you’ve heard “These Boots,” then you’ve heard a Lee Hazlewood production. This collection doesn’t contain any of Hazlewood’s work with the Chairman of the Board’s daughter – which is good enough to warrant its own anthology – but it does contain duets with Ann-Margret and Suzi Jane Hokom and solo cuts that sound like cowboy songs in Cinemascope. Drag Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to the wild west and your getting close.

R.L. Burnside – Too Bad Jim (1994)

T-Model Ford – The Ladies Man (2010) I saw T-Model Ford one time, right around the time The Ladies Man came out, a couple years before his death. The venue, Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club, or just Davey’s, was about as close as you could get to a juke joint in Kansas City. Split across two storefronts, the bar was on the left side, where you’d traditionally enter. The area with music was on the right side of the wall. If a performer moved too far stage right he or she was liable to bump into a door leading out to the street. That would be bad. Despite these shortcomings, the sight lines were decent, the drinks were cheap and the sound was usually OK. I mention all this because Davey’s, a century-old Kansas City institution, was gutted by a fire just a couple days ago. Everyone reminiscing online about the great times they had at the venue made me reach for this album.

R.L. Burnside’s blues were cut from the same primitive cloth as Ford’s. I don’t know if Burnside ever played at Davey’s but I’m sure he would have been welcomed and would have liked it. The good news is that the Markowitz family, who have run Davey’s since the 1950s, plan to rebuilt the space.

Loose Fur – self-titled (2003) Recorded before Wilco’s career-defining Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but released afterward, Loose Fur is the sound of Jeff Tweedy shaking off the weight of Wilco and getting acquainted with two new collaborators. Opening track “Laminated Cat” is one of my favorite Tweedy compositions. It’s more than seven minutes here, but Wilco frequently tear it down onstage like a Sonic Youth number and stretch it even longer. Jim O’Rourke’s “Elegant Transaction” provides a more relaxed counterpoint and while the album doesn’t get that relaxed again until the closing number, “Chinese Apple,” the opening pair frame the album as a balancing act between tension, experimental noise and release.

Benny Carter – Further Definitions (1961) Impulse Records are frequently viewed as the playhouse for avant-garde jazz workouts by saxophonists John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef and Sonny Rollins. Further Definitions is proof that Impulse wasn’t so one-dimensional (at least in the early years). Pre-war legends Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins push each other to new heights in the confines of this small group anchored by Coltrane’s rhythm section. The result is an album that jazz fans can appreciate for its sophistication and intricacy but your mom can hum along with. A win for everyone.

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(Above: Reggae pioneers the Skatalites pay tribute to Dave Brubeck, and prove that it is possible to skank to jazz.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The original run of the Skatalites lasted barely over a year. That brief window has proved to be more than enough time to build a legacy strong to survive nearly half a century later.

The music the seven-piece island band played for two hours at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club on Thursday night transformed the sound of Jamaican music, but has deep tentacles into many forms of American music, including jazz, doo wop, R&B, gospel and even country.

The band never tried to hide its influences. “Music is My Occupation” reappropriated the horn line from “Ring of Fire.” Next, on their version of the James Bond theme, the famous surf guitar was transferred to a punchy horn line. The arrangement inspired more dancing than danger. Think of it as the soundtrack to the scene after the big fight, when 007 waltzes away with the girl.

Three horns lined the front of the stage, proclaiming the band’s strength. Founding member Lester Sterling played an old saxophone that looked like it had been rescued from a shipwreck but never failed to summon a melody pure and true. The big rhythm section included keyboards and guitar. They players may have been hidden behind the brass, but never played second fiddle.

The band had no problem moving the tricky 5/4 time of Dave Brubeck’s signature “Take Five” to a ska beat. Originally recorded with Val Bennett as “The Russians are Coming,” the piece featured Sterling’s longest solo of the night and proved he could hang with the players in the Blue Room any night.

When Sterling wanted to show off ska’s versatility, he launched the band into a cover of “I Should Have Known Better.” The Beatles were contemporaries when the Skatalties first laid down their version. A cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” – courtesy of drummer Trevor Thompson – and the spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved” were the night’s only vocal moments.

The two-hour set was generous to a fault. While the room was packed for the first hour, there was plenty of elbow room when “The Guns of Navarone,” the band’s biggest song, finally emerged near the end. Most of the instrumentals employed a similar arrangement, allowing some sameness to eventually creep. The performances were always energetic, however, and kept a steady flow of dancing near the stage.

Purists can quibble over the lack of original members onstage and they’d have a point. Sterling is the only founding member, and almost half the band wasn’t born when the Skatalites were at their peak in Studio One. Blame Father Time for the attrition then ask if the music should be forced to pass along with its musicians.

Sterling put it another way between numbers: “When you’re good, you’re good.”

They’re good.

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(Michael Buble and Chris Isaak pay tribute to Kansas City by performing Lieber and Stoller’s classic song during a 2007 tour stop in Chicago.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Chris Isaak has made a career working of the blueprint established by Elvis Presley. The debt is apparent in Isaak’s music, hairstyle and demeanor, a cool, effortless charm to the humor and charisma that plays equally well in both music and acting. So it’s only natural, then, that Isaak pay homage to Sun Records, the label that launched Presley.

Friday’s 90-minute show before a packed Uptown Theater paid homage to Sun and underlined its connection to Isaak’s own 26-year- old catalog. “Don’t Leave Me On My Own” sounded like a cross between “Wooden Heart” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight”; “Let Me Down Easy” could have been a lost Presley single. During “American Boy” Isaak raised his arms and shook his hips with a vigor that would have landed him in trouble on the Ed Sullivan Show.

After driving through some of his favorite originals -– including a stretched-out “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing” and reliably hypnotic “Wicked Games” -– Isaak devoted the second half of the night to Sun. The arrangements stayed faithful to the original recordings, but the crowd’s energetic response showed there is still a hunger for this material.

It takes courage to cover songs as beloved and well-known as “Ring of Fire” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Isaak pulled it off, in part because those songs are right in his wheelhouse anyway, but also because of his obvious respect for, and love of, the material. The upbeat numbers also gave guitarist Hershel Yatovitz plenty of space to unleash several of his rowdiest solos.

Isaak performed most of the main set wearing a sparkly, sequined ensemble that looked like a Nudie suit designed by Lady Gaga. He poked fun of the outfit several times during the night and emerged for the encore in an even more outrageous mirror ball suit.

The tone was warm and casual. Both Isaak and Yatovitz ventured into the crowd. After winding through the main level during “Don’t Leave Me On My Own,” (with frequent stops for pictures) Isaak delivered “Love Me Tender” from the front of the balcony. Later, Isaak introduced pianist Scott Plunkett as the type of musician children could look up to. After the applause died, Parker promptly produced a large bottle from his piano and took a long swig.

Fans still shuffling to their seats three songs into the set probably regretted their truancy. Although Isaak performed a generous two-dozen songs, most of the songs delivered could have fit comfortably on the A-side of a 45. Isaak ended the night with a gorgeous solo acoustic version of “Forever Blue.” The ending seemed premature, but at the same time it didn’t feel like he’d left anything out.

Setlist: Beautiful Homes, Dancin’, Somebody’s Crying, Don’t Leave Me On My Own, Love Me Tender, I Want Your Love, San Francisco Days, Wicked Games, Speak of the Devil, Let Me Down Easy, Go Walking Down There > American Boy, Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing, My Happiness > Ring of Fire, Dixie Fried, How’s the World Treating You?, Live It Up, Miss Pearl, Great Balls of Fire. Encore: Blue Hotel, Big Wide Wonderful World, Can’t Help Falling In Love, (Oh) Pretty Woman, Forever Blue.

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(Above: Roger Daltrey and his outstanding band, which included guitarist Simon Townshend, rip through “Tommy” at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Roger Daltrey didn’t write a note of “Tommy,” but he found himself as a singer telling the story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a messiah at high-profile at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight. More than 40 years later, Daltrey is still finding ways to express himself through the character.

The Who singer brought a five piece band, including guitarist Simon Townshend, brother of Who mastermind Pete Townshend, to the Midland on Friday for a trip through “Tommy” and other favorites.The band stuck pretty close to the recorded version of “Tommy,” give or take a few guitar solos and a nice gospel piano intro to “Come to This House.” “Pinball Wizard” finally got the crowd on the floor to their feet, where they stayed for the rest of the night. After “Tommy” ended, Daltrey paused for a few minutes to introduce the band before plowing into more material.

For the second half, Daltrey wanted to sing some harmonies, so he enlisted the rest of the band to help out on “I Can See For Miles,” “The Kids Are Alright” and a side trip through Americana with “Gimme A Stone” and a Johnny Cash medley.

Although Daltrey’s voice isn’t as strong today, in many ways he’s a better vocalist. Improved phrasing and delicate attention to nuance make Daltrey more expressive than ever. This isn’t to say he doesn’t sing with authority. “Eyesight to the Blind” featured a tough blues growl, while “Smash the Mirror” and “Young Man Blues” were as forceful as the original Who recordings.

In an evening filled with highlights, the best moment was a potent reading of “Young Man Blues,” which featured Daltrey’s signature microphone twirling and incorporated the Who rarity “Water.” The immortal “Baba O’Riley” concluded a generous set that ran well over two hours.

Setlist: Tommy – Overture; It’s a Boy; 1921; Amazing Journey; Sparks; Eyesight to the Blind; Christmas; Cousin Kevin; Acid Queen; Do You Think It’s Alright?; Fiddle About; Pinball Wizard; There’s a Doctor; Go to the Mirror; Tommy Can You Hear Me?; Smash the Mirror; Sensation; Miracle Cure; Sally Simpson; I’m Free; Welcome; Tommy’s Holiday Camp; We’re Not Gonna Take It. Band introductions. I Can See For Miles; The Kids Are Alright; Behind Blue Eyes; Days of Light; Gimme A Stone; Going Mobile; Johnny Cash Medley; Who Are You; Young Man Blues (including Water); Baba O’Riley.

Additional thoughts:

The Star didn’t give me many words for this review, so here are some other thoughts that didn’t make the cut.

  • The set was cut short by a couple songs. Most shows ended with “Without Your Love” and “Blue Red and Grey.” It was clear after “Baba O’Riley” that the spirit was willing, but the throat was weak. Still, it’s hard to complain about an evening packed with more than two hours of classic material.
  • Filling standing room with folding chairs near the stage is usually the kiss of death for a performance  – most fans would rather sit than stand. But the crowd in the pricey seats on the floor stood and cheered for most of the night, a refreshing change of pace.
  • The first time I set foot inside the Midland Theater was when the touring version of the Broadway version of “Tommy” swung through town in the early ’90s. I was in high school at the time. Nearly 20 years later it was nice to come full circle.

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15 x 15

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(Above: Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness says he’s performed “Story of My Life” so many times it belongs to the fans more than him – but it never gets old to hear.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Bathed in a white spotlight, Social Distortion front man Mike Ness generated a wall of distorted chords with his Les Paul guitar before belting out the lonesome words to “Making Believe,” a song first recorded more than 50 years ago. Ness was joined by the rest of the band on the second verse, adding a punch Kitty Wells and Emmylou Harris probably never imagined when they recorded their hit versions of the song. Before the chorus came around again the classic country number had been converted to a punk anthem.

For many of the songs in Social D’s 90-minute set Tuesday night the Beaumont Club the reverse was also true. It isn’t hard to imagine songs like “Bad Luck,” “Bakersfield,” and especially “Prison Bound” as traditional country fare cast in only a slightly different light.

Social Distortion’s presentation recalls Black Flag – full of furious energy and tattoos – but its content – songs of the downtrodden and desolate searching for redemption – could have come from the Acuff-Rose catalog.

The Orange County quartet have been smearing the line between country and punk for more than 30 years now, long before the alt-country era of Uncle Tupelo or even cowpunk contemporaries Jason and the Scorchers.

The sidemen sometimes change, but Ness and company roll into town regularly enough that the singer/ lead guitarist knew where State Line divides the town and that he was firmly planted on the Missouri side. The current lineup includes drummer David Hidalgo Jr., son of the Los Lobos singer and guitarist.

Although the band released its first album in seven years in January, most of the night was dedicated to fan favorites and fevered sing-alongs. “Bad Luck,” “Sick Boys” and “Ball and Chain” drew especially hearty responses. On the rare occasion when the fans didn’t know the words, as on the new song “Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown,” they participated by crowd surfing and jumping around.

Hard-driving instrumental “Road Zombie” took off like a brick dropped on the accelerator. The band barreled through half of their main setlist in about 30 minutes, before Ness paused to talk and slow things down.

Near the end of the first set, Ness introduced the fiddle player from  Chuck Regan’s band, who opened, and invited him to sit in with the band. Second guitarist Jonny Wickersham strapped on an acoustic guitar and an accordion player joined the ensemble for a pair of stripped-down songs. The resulting performances of “Down Here (With the Rest of Us)” and “Reach for the Sky” proved even unamplified Social D was still electric.

Ness is clearly proud of his band’s legacy. Before one number he stopped to chat with a young girl who named Social Distortion her favorite band. She wasn’t the only pre-adolescent fan in the crowd. As Ness said before “Story of My Life,” these songs have been around so long they’re not really about him anymore. They belong to everyone who grew up with the band or is just discovering his music. Shows like this will ensure that circle remains unbroken.

Setlist: Road Zombie > So Far Away; King of Fools; Bad Luck; Mommy’s Little Monster; Sick Boys; Machine Gun Blues; Ball and Chain; Down on the World Again; Bakersfield; Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown; Down Here (With the Rest of Us); Reach for the Sky; Making Believe (Jimmy Work cover). Encore: Prison Bound; Story of My Life; Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash cover).

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Happy Clash-mas Eve

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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.”

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(Above: Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking,” released in 1964, is a classic, overlooked holiday album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The other day I was in a retail bookstore when I noticed the wonderful sounds of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack coming from the overhead speakers. As I enjoyed the music, two thoughts hit me. First, I wondered if the store would be playing Vince Guaraldi’s jazz interpretations of Christmas carols if they weren’t connected to an iconic cartoon. Then I started thinking about my other favorite jazz Christmas recordings. Joining me in this Yuletide journey is my friend Bill Brownlee, the award-winning blogger behind There Stands the Glass and Plastic Sax.

The Daily Record: I don’t pull out the Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but inevitably the first song I gravitate to is John Coltrane’s reading of “Greensleeves.” He cut this song many times. It can be found on his “Live at the Village Vanguard” collection and his “Ballads” album. My favorite version, though, may be found on Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse debut “Africa/Brass.” Not only does the performance run over 10 minutes – more than enough time to get lost in the playing – but classic Coltrane sidemen McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are augmented by a large brass section. The extra players beef up the sound and provide a larger-than-usual context.

Bill, what are some Christmas albums or performances that you turn to year after year?

Bill Brownlee: Along with most Americans, I’m inundated with Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. And as much as I love Donny Hathaway, Nat “King” Cole and Brenda Lee, involuntarily hearing their holiday hits saps my spirit.  Even Charlie Brown Christmas is played out for me.  And speaking of Vince Guaraldi, how often do you hear “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” played at a box store or on the radio?  There’s your answer.

That’s why I embrace the odd and the overlooked material.   Asked to supply music for my compound’s tree trimming festivities on Saturday, I immediately turned to Dan Hicks’ new Crazy For Christmas album.  The hillbilly jazz selection was so unpopular that I had to turn to (predictably boring) Motown Christmas to quell the insurrection.

TDR: The Motown Christmas may not be the most inventive holiday collection out there, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. It seems only a few new Christmas songs are allowed to escape each year. At this pitiful pace, it will be several years before today’s songwriters gift the public with something as great as Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.” His “Ava Maria” is also sublime. It’s also difficult to complain with the blending of the Temptations vocals (even if the arrangements are overly familiar) or the joy in Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s delivery.
If it’s a classic R&B Christmas you want, though, I’d suggest “Christmas in Soulsville” aka “It’s Christmas Time Again.” The tracklisting more inventive – where else are you going to hear “Back Door Santa” and not one, but two versions of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”? And the lineup is impeccable: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, Albert King and more. Stuff that in your stocking.

BB: I remember being so disappointed after I purchased a small stack of Motown Christmas LPs- the Temptations, the Miracles, the Jackson Five and so on. The arrangements and performances were totally uninspired.  Maybe that bad experience enhances my appreciation of stuff like Clarence Carter’s “Back
Door Santa.”

TDR: It sounds like we’re in agreement on the Stax recordings. What are some of your other Yuletide favorites? What’s been tickling your ears this season?

BB: The two new recordings I love are the aforementioned Dan Hicks and Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. It’s playful in a Lester Bowie/Rahsaan Roland Kirk sense. Fun.How about you?  What are you listening to?

TDR: There are several Christmas albums I reach for every year. Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking” is incredible. If you can get past the drum machines, Fats Domino’s “Christmas Gumbo” is a lot of fun. My wife insists we listen to Emmylou Harris’ “By the Light of the Stable” every year as we put up the tree. And if you’re stuck in a family situation where no one can agree on anything and you don’t want to be saddled with a commercial Christmas radio station, any of the eight EPs in Sufjan Stevens’ holiday series will do the trick.
Another treat of the season is watching bands incorporate holiday music into their stage act. Do you have any favorite Christmas concert memories?

BB: What kind of postmodern indie rock utopia do you live in?  Your suggestion that everyone can agree on Sufjan seems bizarre.
Oh, Emmylou!  Perfect.  There are certain voices that are ideal matches for the Christian holiday.  And no, Sufjan’s isn’t one of them.  I’m thinking of Emmylou, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
And I seem to remember that both of us attended a Charles Brown gig on a cold winter night shortly before he passed.  “Merry Christmas, Baby”!

TDR: First off, I should clarify that these Sufjan EPs all pre-date “The Age of Adz,” so he’s still very much in folky banjo troubadour mode. I don’t know why these recordings seem to pacify everyone, but it works for some reason. Granted, it’s a small focus group – six people. My sister and I (and our spouses) are Sufjan fans in general. He has some hymns and traditional material that pleases my parents and his arrangements low-key and accessible for them. Plus, after having to endure James Brown’s “Funky Soulful Christmas” and the Buck Owens Christmas album, I’m sure anything sounds good to them.

I’m not sure I can get behind a Dolly Parton Christmas, but I definitely agree with the rest of the singers on your list. Your mention of Mahalia Jackson reminded me to recommend Odetta’s “Christmas Spirituals,” if you haven’t heard it before.

That Charles Brown show was special to me in many ways. Not only was it his last performance in Kansas City, but it was my first experience at the Grand Emporium. I was 18 at the time, so I needed my dad to go with me so I could get in, not that I had to twist his arm to go. Even though it was February, everyone still enjoyed hearing him play his legendary Christmas songs, tell stories and sing the blues. Thanks for mentioning this amazing experience we shared.

More importantly, thank you for taking time to talk about Christmas music with me. Do you have any parting comments before signing off?

BB: I’ll close with a list:

TEN OF MY FAVORITE ODD AND OVERLOOKED CHRISTMAS ALBUMS:
Sam Billen- A Word of Encouragement (2010 release available as a free download)
Brave Combo- It’s Christmas, Man
Charles Brown- Cool Christmas Blues
John Fahey- Christmas Guitar
Dan Hicks- Crazy For Christmas (2010 release)
Tish Hinojosa- Memorabilia Navidena
Manzanera and MacKay Present: The Players- Christmas
Max Roach- It’s Christmas Again
Allen Toussaint & Friends- A New Orleans Christmas
Matt Wilson- Christmas Tree-O (2010 release)

Merry Christmas!

TDR: That’s a great list, Bill. You mention several of my favorites (Allen Toussaint, John Fahey) some I need to hear (Brave Combo, Sam Billen) and some I’ve been unable to find (Manzanera/MacKay, Max Roach). It’s certainly enough to keep me busy until Christmas next year. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for stopping by.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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