Social Distancing Spins – Days 56-58

By Joel Francis

Radiohead – Hail to the Thief (2003) Radiohead’s sixth album is only disappointing in context. After blowing everyone’s minds with the Kid A/Amnesiac companion albums, musical expectations were ratcheted to the stratosphere to expect the unexpected. When the band revealed the album’s title, disenfranchised liberals hoped for a political burn that would send a person who occupied the White House despite losing the majority of the votes and his ginned-up war scurrying back to Texas. Spoiler: Neither happened.

Instead fans were treated to an album where guitars are played like guitars, drums are played by an actual human being and songs follow a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure. The band hasn’t turned the amps up this loudly and rocked out since Thief, which makes singles “2+2=5” and “There There” seem even more momentous in retrospect. Meanwhile, “The Gloaming” and “Backdrifts” nod to the Kid A/Amnesiac era. Nearly two decades on, it is easier to enjoy Thief for what it is and soak up its rich rewards.

Red Garland Trio – Groovy (1957) Confession: I bought this album based entirely on the cover art and the cred pianist Red Garland built playing in the Miles Davis quintet with John Coltrane. Paul Chambers and Art Taylor, the rhythm section for this album, were also members of Davis’ group. So what you have here is Davis’ band, minus the horns. Because they performed together so often, the trio are able to swap lines and support each other without breaking a sweat. The songs consist of standards, such as “Willow Weep for Me,” pop songs like “Will You Still Be Mine” and an original Garland blues, “Hey Now.” It might not be an ambitious selection, but the results are superb. In this case, my instincts served me well. Groovy is a 40 swinging minutes of amazing piano jazz.

A.C. Newman – Get Guilty (2009) The engine behind the New Pornographers gives himself a little more space to stretch out on this solo album. There are still tons of big hooks and bright power pop melodies, but Carl Newman sounds more relaxed and confessional here. Get Guilty is the second of Newman’s three solo albums to date and the fact that he still has the ability to craft these albums while doing the majority of the songwriting for the New Pornographers speaks to his prolific pen. Tellingly, Newman hasn’t released a solo album since Dan Bejar, the other songwriter in the Pornographers left the group. However, I have little doubt that Newman will lay another beauty on us at some point, and it will be worth the wait.

Bob Dylan – Live 1975: The Bootleg Series, Volume 5 (2002) Well before the sleight-of-hand Netflix documentary, Bob Dylan gifted his fans with this gift of the best moments from the first leg of his Rolling Thunder Revue tour. The performances are comfortably ragged and delightful. The set charges hard out of the gate with three reworked, electric numbers. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” tears like a locomotive. “It Ain’t Me Babe” sways like a gypsy waltz. Best of all is a hurtling “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” If Dylan was a prophet standing on the city wall, warning the people below on the original acoustic version, here he is Paul Revere, tearing through the countryside, shouting his message. The rest of the music isn’t as revelatory, but fantastic. The ensemble airs performs two-thirds of Desire, Dylan’s most recent album, including “Sara,” an autobiographical love song to his wife, with her listening from just off-stage. The acoustic material and duets with Joan Baez are fine, but nowhere near as intimate as what crowds were treated to on the first set of the 1966 tour documented on Bootleg Volume Four, or the 1964 show documented on Bootleg Volume Six. That said, Live 1975 is not only an essential Dylan document but a fun listen. I turn to it often.

Husker Du – Savage Young Du, LP2 (compilation) The second album from Numero’s four-record collection of early Husker Du starts with the band’s first single and features many unreleased live tracks recorded at various Minneapolis clubs in 1980. You can hear the songwriting start to sharpen a bit here as the music remains at full volume and throttle.  We discussed other albums in this eye-opening box set on Day 3 and Day 40.

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid of You and Will Beat Your Ass (2006) The New Jersey-based indie rockers have made a great career combining long noisy adventures with intimate ballads. For their 11th album, the noisy tracks bookend the shorter, poppier numbers. The nearly 11-minute opener “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” sizzles on James McNew’s bassline. From there, I Am Not Afriad hops from the horn-driven pop of “Beanbag Chair” to the falsetto of “Mr. Tough” and through a few other songs before landing on the nine-minute, soothing ambience of “Daphina” almost halfway through. At 15 songs and 77 minutes, I Am Not Afraid sometimes feels too long, but none of the songs are filler. Think of it like an album with a bonus EP buried in the playlist. If you haven’t heard Yo La Tengo, this is as good a place to start as any.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 53

By Joel Francis

Insurgence DC – Broken in the Theater of the Absurd (2019) Insurgence DC formed in the late ‘80s, but Broken in the Theater of the Absurd is just their third album, arriving 19 years after their previous release. The Washington D.C.-based punk trio has plenty to say about the corruption and incompetence they see around their hometown. Reading the lyrics printed across the back of the album, one could be forgiven for thinking she was looking at a Billy Bragg broadside. What keeps songs like “Poison Profits” and “Third Party Opinions” from being op-ed pity parties is a well-seasoned band that plays well off each other and knows how vary textures and arrangements to keep the music fresh. The aggressive songs are tempered by flourishes of avant noise (think Sonic Youth), post-punk moodiness and the gleeful ska of “Pick Pocket Pirates.” Fans of the Dischord label and anyone P.O.ed by the current political landscape will find a lot to like in the Theater of the Absurd.

Miles Davis – In a Silent Way (1969) I shudder to think how Miles Davis would have responded to the age of Twitter. Davis has been dead for nearly 30 years and audiences are still trying to catch up to what he was doing. The period when In a Silent Way came out demonstrates Davis’ restlessness and ambition. Just a year earlier, Davis disbanded his second quintet, one of the most incredible ensembles in music history. Three members of that quintet appear on In a Silent Way, but are used in completely different ways and surrounded by a host of other musicians. I’m having trouble coming up with a contemporary corollary for the sounds here. The last couple Davis quintet albums hinted at this direction, but In a Silent Way’s music still sounds surprising and fresh more than half a century later.

Neither rock, nor jazz (and not fusion), the closest touchstone to the music on In a Silent Way might be a psychedelic, improvised version of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp tried to accomplish both together and on their own in the mid 1970s. In fact, John McLaughlin’s electric guitar that opens the second side on “In a Silent Way/It’s About that Time” sounds like what Daniel Lanois would play with Eno in the 1980s. Davis had long moved on by that point, of course. He jerked even more heads by releasing Bitches Brew, another masterpiece, the following year. The vast expanse of the universe is barely enough to contain all of Davis’ ideas. I’m glad he never had to face myopic imbeciles limited to 280 characters.

Alex Chilton – Songs from Robin Hood Lane (compilation) What is it about the Great American Songbook of the 1930s to ‘50s that compels repeated interpretations? Late in his recording career Alex Chilton drew from this well for two solid albums. The output bears absolutely no resemblance to the power pop that Chilton created with Big Star or the blue-eyed soul he brought to the Box Tops. While no one would confuse him with Grant Green, the albums do reveal Chilton has decent jazz guitar chops. Chilton’s phrasing and vocal delivery also depict him as someone completely at home in this style of music. The title of this collection holds the key to Chilton’s comfort with these jazz standards. Robin Hood Lane was the name of the suburban Memphis street where Chilton grew up hearing his mom play these classic songs endlessly. Come to this collection not expecting “September Gurls” or “Cry Like a Baby,” but with an open mind to hear another facet from a criminally neglected (by mainstream society and himself) artist.

Eddie Hazel – Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs (1977) Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel left his stamp on many P-Funk classics (dig “Maggot Brain” as Exhibit A) but this was the only solo album released in his lifetime. Solo is a relative term here. Bassman Bootsy Collins co-wrote three of the songs here and keyboard legend Bernie Worrell is credited on two. Those two, plus the Brides of Funkenstein and a host of other P-Funk players all appear, but the album really does belong to Hazel. He transforms “California Dreamin’” into a slow jam and turns the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” into an acid-drenched guitar workout. The original songs fit well into the P-Funk songbook, but Hazel’s playing is remains prominent throughout. Although Hazel continued to sporadically appear on P-Funk releases after this album dropped, he was never as prominent as before. Thankfully back in print, Game is essential not only for P-Funk fans, but anyone who wondered what Jimi Hendrix or Ernie Isley might have sounded like fronting a funk band.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981) Nearly 40 years ago, when Hard Promises came out, MCA records wanted to hike the price to $9.98. Today, you can down the album on iTunes for $9.99. Inflation, huh? Petty and the boys refused to be the reason their label nicked fans an extra buck and Hard Promises eventually came out at the standard price of $8.98. Regardless of how much you paid, the music here is worth the investment. The songwriting on Hard Promises is every bit as good as Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s previous album, but doesn’t suffer from the same overexposure. The album starts with the classic “The Waiting” before leading into “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” the album’s second single. The remaining eight songs are all album cuts, but still beloved to hardcore Petty fans. Stevie Nicks duets on the gorgeous “Insider,” the Heartbreakers roar on “A Thing About You” and the album ends with another delicate ballad, “You Can Still Change Your Mind.” In between we get the slinky “Nightwatchman” and “The Criminal Mind,” which opens with a slide guitar part that sounds like a country version of the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

Heartbreakers bass player Ron Blair left after this album and didn’t return until 20 years later. Of the four original-lineup Heartbreakers albums, Hard Promises is easily my favorite. Heck, it might be my favorite Petty album pre-Full Moon Fever. Either way, all American rock fans need this album.

The Roots – Game Theory (2006) The Philadelphia natives that comprise The Roots are often labelled the best band in hip hop, an unsubtle jab at other groups that don’t play traditional instruments. Twenty-seven years after their debut album, I think it’s past time to drop the sobriquet and call them what they are: One of the best bands ever. Full stop. After striving (and compromising) for mainstream success on their previous album, The Roots went all-in on a darker, stripped down sound for Game Theory. Even though they weren’t aiming for the charts, I find myself humming the hooks in these songs for days afterward. Named after a mathematical model for decision making, Game Theory stares at big-picture topics like police brutality, drug addiction, poverty and dishonest media outlets. MC Black Thought’s isn’t afraid to drop heavy lyrics, but his delivery swings enough that you wind up tapping your foot as you nod your head. “Clock With No Hands” isn’t just a thought-provoking (no pun intended) look at addiction, but features a beautiful original (read: non-sampled) melody. In fact, one of the few samples on the album comes when Thom Yorke’s voice floats in and out of “Atonement.”

I saw The Roots perform with a full horn section on back-to-back nights of the Game Theory tour and they are among the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not in hip hop, but among everyone. Full stop.

Various Artists – Lows in the Mid-Sixties: Vol. 54: Kosmic City Part 2 (compilation) Between 1967 and 1973, Cavern Studios in eastern Kansas City, Mo., were a hotbed of recording activity. Local groups could venture into the subterranean limestone cave where the studio was located and, for the right amount of money, walk out with a record. The best of the rock sides were compiled on Numero’s exquisite collection Local Customs: Cavern Sounds, shown back on Day 12. Lows in the Mid-Sixties is a companion to that release, rounding up 14 covers of well-known hits by bands you’ve never heard. It is solid garage rock with a touch of psychedelia sprinkled across for good measure. One of my favorites is Dearly Beloved’s version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Dearly Beloved have clearly studied Van Morrison and Them’s cover, but removed the shimmering signature guitar line (later sampled by Beck on “Jack Ass”). The music here is far from essential and I’m not sure how interesting it might be to an audience beyond KC’s metropolitan area, but it proves the local music scene was humming around the Age of Aquarius.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 18

By Joel Francis

The journey through my record collection continues.

Pet Shop Boys – Actually (1987) The Pet Shop Boys’ second album is the strongest in their still-growing catalog (Behaviour is a close second). Come for the hit singles and stick around for the album cuts, like the Kraftwerk-inspired “Shopping” and “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” the moody track based on an Ennio Morricone melody that opens the second side. Still not convinced? This is the album with the glorious Dusty Springfield duet “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” That alone makes Actually worth owning. While the other nine songs aren’t as strong (how could they?), Actually is filler-free dance/pop perfection.

Daniel Lanois – Goodbye to Language (2016) As a producer, Daniel Lanois has worked on some of my all-time favorite albums by Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Robbie Robertson. (We talked about his work on the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon back on Day 9.) The sound on Goodbye to Language is closer to Lanois’ ambient work with Brian Eno than his commercial endeavors. The premise is simple. Lanois’ pedal steel playing is recorded and treated by Rocco DeLuca. The result is an ethereal dream guaranteed to release stress. Put this on and let yourself go.

The Decemberists – The King is Dead (2011) I jumped on the Decemberists bandwagon with their video for “Sixteen Military Wives,” which reminded me of Rushmore. Two albums later, I feared they got lost in their own mythology for the ponderous concept album The Hazards of Love. Fortunately, I was wrong. The King is Dead is everything Hazards wasn’t: succinct, buoyant, humorous, fun. That a few songs sounded like peak-era R.E.M. (“Calamity Song,” “Down by the Water”) or Tom Petty circa Wildflowers (“Don’t Carry It All”) doesn’t help. It may be easier to play spot-the-influence with The King is Dead than on the band’s other releases, but the sound is still filtered through singer/songwriter Colin Meloy’s grad school tweed and spectacles, making it distinctly the Decemberists.

Miles Davis – My Funny Valentine (1965)

Miles Davis – Four and More (1966) Both of these albums draw from the same 1964 performance at Philharmonic Hall in New York City. The ballads went on Valentine and the uptempo numbers were relegated to Four and More. By the time Four and More was released, Miles had moved on from his modal sound and was about to reinvent jazz once again. Less progressive fans probably enjoyed this look back at the time. Pianist Herbie Hancock was only 23 and drummer Tony Williams just 18 at the time of this performance, but both play with a confidence and ambition beyond their years. These are probably the best performances of saxophone player George Coleman in Miles’ band. He tends to get overlooked between tenures of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. The quartet lingers on the ballads, drawing out every note, particularly on the 15-minute title cut. Conversely, they blast through the chords on “So What” and “Seven Steps to Heaven” with almost careless speed.  FYI, the entire concert was finally released as originally performed on CD in 1992.

James Brown – Live at the Apollo, Volume II (1968) Five years after the first Live at the Apollo album propelled James Brown off the chitlin circuit, Brown returned to the same venue but in a different place musically. The R&B that defined the first Apollo album was giving way to funk on the sequel. Songs like a hard-driving “Kansas City” and “Think” (with Kansas City, Kan. native Marva Whitney) showed Brown’s roots, while “Cold Sweat” and “Bring It Up” point the way forward. The 11-minute version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is one-third as long as the original half-hour Apollo release. So the sequel isn’t as concise, but it captures the Hardest Working Man in Show Business in prime form.

Alejandro Escovedo – With These Hands (1996) Alejandro Escovedo is an undiscovered treasure. His songwriting deftly slides between different settings, from string quartet to country, Latin American to raw rock. For his third album, Escovedo enlists Willie Nelson and his harmonica player Mickey Raphael, cousin Shelia E and singer Jennifer Warnes. Despite these high-profile guests, the spotlight remains firmly on Escovedo and his masterful songs. From the moody opener of rocker “Put You Down” through “Tugboat,” a dedication to Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison that ends the record, there isn’t a bad song to be found.

Pearl Jam – Yield (1998) “Wishlist,” the next-to-last song on the first side of Yield, is my favorite Pearl Jam song. It’s simple, quiet and understated with none of the bombast of “Alive” or even “Given to Fly,” the song that precedes “Wishlist” on Yield. This album marks the first time the Seattle quintet returned to the meat-and-potatoes hard rock without any artistic detours. Although 2009’s Backspacer produced better results mining this same vein, Yield is still a good, direct hard rock album.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 8

By Joel Francis

Joe Tex – I Gotcha (1972) Like a lot of people, I was introduced to Joe Tex through the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. Like most of Quentin Tarantino’s musical moments, “I Gotcha” was placed perfectly in the film, when the guys bring the captive cop back to the warehouse. I can’t remember where or when I first encountered “You Said a Bad Word,” but that song captured the same sexual menace, braggadocio and funk as “I Gotcha.” If you liked one, you would surely like the other. Lucky for me, those songs kick off each side of this album. “Give the Baby Anything That Baby Wants” was another single released from this album in the same vein as “I Gotcha” and “Bad Word.” The ballads on here aren’t bad, but when I spin this record I want to strut.

Cannonball Adderly – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at The Club (1966) If you don’t recognize the name Cannonball Adderly, you may know him as the saxophone player who isn’t John Coltrane on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. This album is a world away from Davis’ celebrated release, but it is fantastic in its own right. The title song actually crossed over on the pop charts and it’s easy to see why. It kind of rolls in from nowhere before building into a big gospel-fueled chorus. Composer Joe Zawinul takes a solo on the electric piano as the melody percolates until the band churns back into that big chorus. It’s the kind of song that could go on forever. To my ears, it also points the way to the jazz television themes of the 1970s and ‘80s, like Bob James’ “Angela,” used for Taxi and Mike Post’s theme for “Hill Street Blues.” If Zawinul’s name sounds familiar, he played on Davis’ fusion landmarks “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” before founding Weather Report with Wayne Shorter. Oh, and the rest of this live album is great, too.

Neko Case – The Tigers Have Spoken (2004) Technically this is a live album, but there’s no crowd noise or stage banter (until a hidden track at the end), so you could be forgiven for thinking this is a studio release. Either way, hearing Neko Case perform songs by Buffy Saint Marie and Loretta Lynn is a treat. Gospel music isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Case, but she and her top-shelf band do right by “This Little Light.” My hometown even gets a nod on “The Train from Kansas City.” All in all, The Tigers Have Spoken isn’t as essential or immediate as the many studio albums containing her original compositions, but it is a great homage to some of the people who inspired her.

Red Kate – Unamerican Activities (2016) Nearly every December for the past several years the RecordBar has hosted a great tribute to the late Clash singer and guitarist Joe Strummer. I always make it a point to attend because it is an opportunity to hear songs by my favorite band performed live. Red Kate were the closing performers in 2018 and blew me away with their intensity. Afterward, I struck up a conversation with lead singer L. Ron Drunkard – shout-out to that amazing stage name – who is exactly who you’d expect him to be: A guy who fell in love with punk music as a kid and has been playing in bands for most of his life while holding down a day job to pay the bills.

The music on Unamerican Activities reflects that proletariat, we’re-all-in-this-together perspective. These songs hit hard and punch back at the ruling class. No one’s working for the clampdown in these quarters.

Roy Orbison – All-Time Greatest Hits (1986) Every music collection needs so Roy Orbison, so this was one of the earliest albums I bought. A closer look reveals this aren’t the original recordings of Orbison’s best-known songs, but remakes done in 1986. The big clues are that the musician credits are the same for all tracks and there aren’t any licensing arrangements for the singles that were initially issued across several labels. The good news is that the producers didn’t try to update the Orbison sound. There are no gated drums or synthesizers and Orbison still hits all the right notes on “Cryin’” so this collection still works for me.

Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990) Despite its provocative title, Public Enemy’s third album isn’t as incendiary as the first two. This isn’t to say Chuck D is pulling any punches. “Burned Hollywood Burned” torches the movie industry for black stereotypes and the lack of black actors a generation before #OscarsSoWhite. “Fight the Power” doesn’t attempt to hide its manifesto. Deeper into this dense album “Pollywannacracka” discusses interracial couples (before Jungle Fever, I might add). Flava Flav’s comic relief comes in the form of “911 is a Joke.” Ha ha.

In a way, Black Planet is a distillation of the first two albums in manner more palatable to mainstream tastes. It’s PE’s best-selling album, but also the last album where nothing feels forced and it doesn’t seem like they are trying too hard. Looking at current headlines and the spike in hate crimes since 2017, it seems the concept of a black planet is still a very present fear in society today. Welcome to the terrordome.

John Fogerty – Blue Ridge Rangers (1973) John Fogerty was snake-bitten and gun-shy after the demise of Creedence Clearwater Revival. His label owner swindled him out of songwriting royalties and his brother Tom had sided with the label before bitterly leaving CCR. This is probably why John Fogerty’s name is hard to find anywhere on this debut solo album. The Blue Ridge Rangers are actually Fogerty playing all the instruments. He does a good job sounding like Nashville session players during this romp through a dozen country standards. My favorites are the gospel songs “Working on a Building” and “Somewhere Listening,” each featuring a choir of Fogertys on backing vocals. The performance of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” is as close as the album gets to CCR territory.

Willie Nelson – Phases and Stages (1974) Finding someone who doesn’t like Willie Nelson is like encountering someone who hates rainbows, ice cream and puppies. I mean, I guess mathematically that person has to exist, but you never expect (or hope) to encounter him or her. I’ll never forget a former co-worker’s diatribe against Nelson, but I took some satisfaction in knowing the disdain was for political, rather than musical reasons.

Phases and Stages is the album that immediately preceded Nelson’s breakthrough, Red-Headed Stranger and also the second of what would be three consecutive concept albums. I’d say that period represents peak Nelson, but the truth is that Nelson turns out so many albums and so many of them are solid that any valleys are likely to be followed by a couple more peaks. If you love country music, rainbows, ice cream and puppies, you should have this album. If you don’t like any of these, I feel sorry for you.

Acid Mothers Temple

(Above: Acid Mothers Temple perform at Kansas City’s Riot Room in April, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Note: This feature was scheduled to run in the Kansas City Star.  Because of our language barrier, Kawabata Makoto requested an interview via e-mail. Unfortunately, the Mothers’ touring schedule didn’t give Makoto much time to respond to my questions. His short answers necessitated using quotes from the band’s Website. Ultimately the feature was shelved.

The Acid Mothers Temple welcomes all, but entry can be daunting.

The ambition of Kawabata Makoto, the founder and leader of the Japanese rock band, is both impressive and intimidating. For fans, the group and its affiliated side projects has released more than 80 titles since forming in 1995. For musicians, Makoto offers several homes across Japan where musicians can jam and do whatever they like. There is a good chance, however, that neighbors will report these free spirits as terrorists.

“Our slogan is “Do whatever you want, don’t do whatever you don’t want!!’” Makoto said in an extensive interview on the Acid Mothers Web site. “When all the Aum Shinrikyo (the group behind the 1995 poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 12 people) stuff was going on in Japan a few years back, the neighbors mistakenly thought that our house was a secret Aum hideout and managed to get us evicted. Also, mountain villages are always suspicious of outsiders, and sometimes we are ostracized by the community. These kinds of problems pop up from time to time, but there’s not much we can do about it.”

It’s not unusual for a Mothers’ composition to reach well beyond 20 minutes. Makoto wears his influences like badges of honor, naming albums in homage to Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. The music often sounds like an update to the rock scenes in Haight-Ashbury and London in the late 1960s. Psychedliec rock may be an easy handle to hang on the band, but Makoto prefers the term trip music.

amt“As I see it, psychedelic rock is a type of rock music that evolved under the influence of the drug culture,” Makoto said. “For me trip music does not mean the same as psychedelic rock. … A simple explanation of what I mean by a trip is something that allows you to hear sounds that you do not usually hear, or that allows you to experience those dangerous frequencies that mount a violent assault upon your soul.”

The writing and recording process is relatively straightforward. Makoto gathers whatever musicians he can find in a collective attempt to record whatever he is hearing in his head. Beyond that, anything goes.

“Music is constantly changing, depending on time and place and atmosphere, and attempting to tie it down never breeds good results,” Makoto said. “Our recording process is basically to improvise the broad structure of the songs, then to overdub stuff later. The line-up depends on who’s available on the day. So I suppose you could say it’s down to fate, since we don’t adjust the schedule to try and fit in with everyone’s plans. “

Makoto formed his first band in 1978, when he realized there was nothing on the radio like the sounds in his head. Completely self-taught, Makoto and his bandmates played through trial and error. It took four years, Makoto said, for him to realize there was a standard way to tune the guitar.

“I have always only mastered just the bare minimum of technique so that I can play my own music,” Makoto said. “I believe that it’s best in all things to have neither too much or too little. If you have too much knowledge or technique, then you’ll naturally want to show that off to others. At that point it ceases to be music, and just becomes a display of skill. That is not what I want my music to be.”

The Mothers’ were the final act of last year’s Middle of the Map festival. Unfortunately, their start was delayed and the band was unable to play a full set. Makoto is hoping to play a full set this visit.

In his many trips around the world, Makoto has noticed audiences behave differently depending on the country.

“Japanese audiences come to hear the music and that American or European audiences come to enjoy themselves,” Makoto said. “I don’t know which attitude is better. If you’ve paid your money to get in, then you should have the right to enjoy the music in whichever way you like. You can listen quietly or if you’re bored you can chat with your friends, it’s up to you. Maybe it’s more important for the musicians to try and play in such a way that people won’t feel like chatting.”

With Makoto’s AMT label dropping new albums in March, April and May and the band a third of the way through a six-week tour, it doesn’t look like the Mothers will be slowing down anytime soon. But Makoto knows there may be a day when his days of exploring new sounds and textures will come to an end.

“My personal goal is to recreate the music played by a heavenly orchestra I heard once in a dream. If I ever succeed, I will have no more need to play music,” Makoto said. “The other members of Acid Mothers Temple may have different goals – I don’t know. But even if I were to quit, I would like AMT to continue to exist, since I think of it as less of a band and more of a collective will.”

Keep reading:

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Rock Hall commemorates 35 years of Austin City Limits

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The Man in (Frank) Black

(Above: Frank Black visits “Manitoba” all by his lonesome.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It’s hard to believe, but the Pixies have been around as a reunion act for almost as long as their original incarnation. When Frank Black (aka Black Francis) announced his new project shortly after the Pixies’ first triumphant reunion tour, few could have predicted where he would end up.

The self-taught, idiosyncratic king of indie rock was working in Nashville, Tenn., with seasoned session musicians. The impulse yielded two albums, 2005’s “Honeycomb” and 2006’s double album “Fast Man Raider Man.” Earlier this year Black announced a third Music City installment was on the horizon.

“If you’re into the pop music of the 20th century and you happen to be a post-punk record maker, chances are you’ll like Patsy Cline and Miles Davis,” Black said. “Most rock musicians aren’t going to put out a bebop album, so we go to blues, folk, roots music, whatever you want to call it. It’s not that much of a jump for me — it’s all part of the same grassy hillside.”

It’s also a road well traveled. In 1966, Bob Dylan left New York City to record at the CBS studios in Nashville with the day’s top session players. More recently, Robert Plant ventured to middle Tennessee to work with Allison Krauss and Buddy Miller.

“The reason why you see this happening again and again is because of the opportunity to play with some of the best musicians in the world,” Black said. “It’s not just country music, but R&B and the whole world of 1950s and ’60s pop recording.”

Black’s collaborators are a world removed from the Boston underground scene where the Pixies formed in the mid-’80s. His album credits today include Muscle Shoals legends Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Chester Thompson, pal of Genesis and Frank Zappa.

During sessions in Los Angeles, Black worked with Funk Brother Bob Babbitt, Al Kooper, Phil Spector veteran Carol Kaye and drummer Jim Keltner. Grab any of your favorite major-label albums from the late ’50s to the mid-1970s and at least one of these names will be found on the sleeve.

“I guess you could say the era peaked in the ’60s and got a bad rap in the ’70s, because by then there was just too much easy-listening and knockoff, quickie records,” Black said. “But the people who grew up under the punk badge were young 20-somethings who didn’t have a lot of money and shopped at used clothing stores and decorated their apartments with kitsch. All of a sudden, out come those old Dean Martin albums again. Ultimately, what you rebel against becomes hip again.”

When Black comes to town on Monday, he’ll be without any of his all-star assistants. In fact, Black’s only company onstage will be his acoustic guitar. But regardless of his surroundings, Black said, his goal is the same: to satisfy the customers.

“That’s where I’m at now and it’s no different from when I played my first gig,” Black said.

“It’s all part of the world of the musician. Sometimes you play huge festivals for tons of money in front of tons of people, other times you’re playing Knuckleheads in Kansas City. Both are equally valid.”

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Review: Pavement

Review: Robert Plant and Allison Krauss

Dinosaur Jr Sets High Bar For Reunion Albums

Review: “The Art of the LP”

(Above: Jay-Z takes fans behind the scenes for the making of  the cover for his 2009 release “The Blueprint 3.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There is no shortage of books on album artwork. Pick a decade, genre or label and you’ll likely have several volumes to choose among. Johnny Morgan and Ben Wardle make an impressive entry into this crowded field with their book “The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers 1955-1995.”

While some of the album covers are inevitably familiar – Santana’s “Abraxas,” Nirvana’s “Nevermind”  – the grouping sets this volume apart. Albums are arranged in ten categories ranging from sex, drugs and rock and roll to ego, drugs, politics and death.

artofLPwebIt’s fascinating to watch the evolution of styles and boundaries. In the 1950s, for example, just showing a black man’s face with a red tint as on Sonny Rollins’ “A Night at the ‘Village Vanguard’ was enough to shock a racially uneasy country in the middle of the red scare. Barely over a decade later, “black power” was in full force on covers such as Miles Davis’ “On the Corner” and Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove.” More subtle comments on race and politics gave way to confrontational styles embraced in succession by reggae, punk and hip hop.

Especially interesting are the two-page spreads, like the one juxtaposing the use of the American flag on Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 release “There’s A Riot Going On,” Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 “Born in the U.S.A.” and the Black Crowes’ 1993 album “Amorica.” Stone alters the flag’s stars to make it a statement against the Vietnam War, while the backdrop to Springsteen’s anti-Vietnam statement is seen as patriotic. The Black Crowes chose an image from Hustler of a woman in a flag patterned bikini. The authors note that the Crowes statement wouldn’t have been unusual in the free love era of the ‘60s, but needed the relaxed censorship of the ‘90s to gain mainstream circulation.

Arranging the albums so they comment and reflect on each other, not only reinforces the themes, but adds a deeper appreciation of the work. Students of art will undoubtedly relish this experience, but for the rest of us Morgan and Wardle have added a solid block of text for each work. This paragraph not only provides the context of the time and artists, but explains what the artist may have been trying to accomplish.

This text is especially fun on the disastrous covers marked with an exclamation point.  The authors clearly have a special place in their hearts for the Scorpions. No less than three of the ‘80s German metal outfit’s covers are denoted. Reaching a “Spinal Tap” moment, they muse “Would the Scorpions ever learn the difference between sexy and sexist? Of course not.”

Ending just before the peak of the CD era, Morgan and Wardle give their subjects the largest canvass possible. The oversized pages allow for half-size reproductions. Music fans used to viewing tiny CD booklets will be amazed at the details that spring from the page. Fans accustomed to vinyl sleeves won’t miss much. Gatefold covers or albums that answer the cover artwork on the back are also given full exhibition. The handsome hardbound book is housed in a red plastic slipcase.

“The Art of the LP” is a visual jukebox that will entertain and inspire music fans and artists alike. Unless your coffee table is already loaded with similar books, I suggest making room for this one.

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Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Review: “Pops” by Terry Teachout

(Above: Satchmo and his septet rip through the “Tiger Rag.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The beauty of Louis Armstrong’s music was that it could be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from children to adults and seasoned jazz fans to hardened critics.

Pity then that “Pops,” the new Armstrong biography by Wall Street Journal critic and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout, isn’t as accessible.

Teachout is an exhaustive researcher who leaves few stones unturned. His biography draws not only from the two autobiographies published during Armstrong’s life, but dozens of books, articles, reviews and liner notes. It also boasts access to scores of previously unseen letters and hours of unheard conversations Armstrong recorded.

This unprecedented access allows Teachout to paint an intimate view of Armstrong. He paints a frank view of Armstrong’s daily marijuana use, which led to his 1931 arrest in California. We learn about the murder threats Satchmo received from the Chicago mafia for. When former boxing promoter Joe Glaser promised to make the threats stop, Armstrong rewarded him with a lifetime appointment as his manager. With Glaser taking care of everything else, Armstrong was free to focus on the only thing that matter to him: music.

Ironically, Armstrong’s music was most vital when his life was in the most upheaval. When he cut his classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides, he was in the middle of a failing marriage, having trouble keeping a steady band together, and running ragged across the country to poorly organized shows. Most of those problems went away when Glaser came on the scene, but Armstrong’s music also reached a plateau.

While the current crop of trumpet stars were heavily and obviously indebted to Armstrong’s trailblazing technique, they were also disappointed by Armstrong’s repetitive repertoire and unashamed desire to entertain (which hewed too close to minstrelsy for the newly empowered African American generation). Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were among the most vocal of Armstrong’s critics.

Yet even Diz and Miles were forced to reconsider their opinions after Armstrong cancelled a State Department-sponsored trip to Russia in protest President Eisenhower’s tepid steps to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Armstrong later sent Eisenhower a congratulatory telegram when the crisis was resolved.) Armstrong gained with respect with the trio of albums he released on Columbia in the 1950s that showcased a long-dormant vitality and sense of adventure.

Detractors may have been surprised when Armstrong spoke out on segregation, but he’d been fighting it most of his life. The color line is drawn most sharply when Teachout looks at what might have been were Satchmo’s skin lighter by comparing his career with his friend Bing Crosby’s. While Crosby was given his own radio show and starring roles in Hollywood films, Armstrong had to settle for guest appearances on the air and supporting roles in low-budget films.

“Pops” revels in the details of Satchmo’s glory days, but it doesn’t skimp on the leaner parts of his career. The last quarter of Armstrong’s life receive nearly 100 pages. These chapters document Satchmo’s renaissance as not only a premier jazz talent, but showman whose love knew no age or national boundaries. Stories of “Hello Dolly” knocking the Beatles off the top of the chart or recording “(What A) Wonderful World” do not feel like curtain calls, but the natural continuation of a career.

Teachout’s findings are fascinating, but impenetrable at first. It takes several chapters to comfortably negotiate Teachout’s style. His habit of identifying sources in the text instead of footnotes makes for a clunky read. Sometimes the sourcing overwhelms the content. However, after becoming accustomed to Teachout’s style, “Pops” is a pleasant and illuminating read.

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Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

(Above: Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ are one of many artists to get some love in a recent Oxford American music writing anthology.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Oxford American “Southern Music Issue” is an annual treat, loaded with great writing that unearths wonderful stories on longtime favorites and introduces several new discoveries. Coupled with a CD – in recent years it’s come with two discs – the magazine effectively serves as the ultimate set of liner notes to a killer compilation.

Now in its 11th year, these editions are been rightfully prized; back issues frequently fetch more triple face value online. Fortunately, there is a more affordable way for new readers to access the previously published essays and features.

The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing compiles the best articles from the magazine’s first decade. The 420-page book reads like a mixtape, transitioning smoothly from all the usual suspects – blues, country, jazz, rock and bluegrass – and spiking the playlist with pieces on Southern metal, the Sex Pistols and the art of playing.

Several of the best features provide an intimate view of the artist or their environment. Tom Piazza’s account on hanging out backstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry with snubbed bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin is so awkward Ricky Gervais could turn it into a screenplay. Similarly, John Lewis’ weekend at Ike Turner’s house puts the much-savaged abuser in new light, particularly when the host shows up in his pajamas at the end of the day to thank Lewis for coming and hug him goodnight.

A history of jazzman Bob Dorough by Paul Reyes takes us from the obscure keyboard player’s origins touring with Sugar Ray Robinson, recording “Blue Xmas” with a dismissive Mile Davis and ultimately as the force behind Schoolhouse Rocks. The line from “Up a Lazy River” to “Conjunction Junction” was never so clear.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s description of a night at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint with R.L. Burnside and Cynthia Shearer’s search for understanding in Janis Joplin’s hometown of Port Arthur, Texas both paint a clear picture of the artists’ native perspectives. One can feel the plywood sweat at Junior’s Place and imagine Joplin longing for some niche in town where she felt comfortable and ultimately yearning to get the heck out.

Despite a mention of Wu Tang Clan producer RZA in the introduction, the book eschews hip hop and most new music. A dated piece on R.E.M. circa “Automatic for the People” is the only time when the mainstream and the modern intersect. But while the book doesn’t touch on modern artists, it will certainly send readers scrambling back to dusty old platters, either on vinyl, acetate or plastic, to unearth old favorites, possibly for the first time.

Easier to carry than a stack of magazines, less trouble to hunt down online, the Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing will be a pleasant voyage for adventurous fans of both good writing and good music.

Review: Kind of Blue turns 50

(Above: Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band delivers “The Theme” – and a drum solo.)

By Joel Francis

Jimmy Cobb had been onstage at the Gem Theater for over an hour Saturday night before he finally gave the capacity crowd what they came for: a drum solo.

As the last living musician from the landmark Miles Davis sessions for “Kind of Blue,” Cobb would have deserved an ovation regardless of what he played. The taught and thunderous riffs that snapped from his 80-year-old wrists would have been impressive from someone half Cobb’s age.

All year Cobb and his sextet, dubbed the So What Band, have toured the world celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Kind of Blue.” Since Cobb is the last living musician from those sessions, it’s a noble gesture and fantastic marketing, but the execution could have been deadly. Play it too close to the original and you end up with paint-by-numbers Davis and John Coltrane. Improvise too much and the music not only loses its spirit, but the evening seems like a gimmick.

Fortunately, the band played it down the middle, playing homage without slavish dedication. As the trumpet player, Wallace Roney had the greatest cross to bear. While not emulating Davis, Roney’s similar moody tone and posture made comparisons inevitable. Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson seemed hesitant and overwhelmed at times in his role filling Coltrane’s shoes but overall added a strong voice to the night.

As the stand-in for the lesser-known Cannonball Adderly, alto sax player Vincent Herring had the most flexibility. Herring took advantage by chipping in adventurous solos that varied the textures laid by Roney and Jackson. Pianist Larry Willis was the ensemble’s hero, vamping on the chords behind the soloists with flourish and relishing every turn in the spotlight.

The band whipped through “Kind of Blue” in order, extending the original LP’s run time by about a half hour. “So What” started at an aggressive tempo accentuated by Roney’s angry solo that made “Freddie Freeloader” seem almost jovial in contrast.

Willis opened “Blue In Green” with a tremendous solo before Roney took over. The melancholy number was made even more poignant by the way Roney whipped away from the mic after his solo, leaving before the note was finished and before any resolution.

Since there was no drum solo on “Kind of Blue,” the band added “The Theme,” a piece from Davis’ period on the Prestige label, as a showcase for Cobb. He took another brief solo during “Four,” the joyous victory lap of an encore.

After striking the right tone, the ensemble had carte blanche with the rapturous crowd. The musicians were speaking through an established vocabulary with the emphasis on the right syllables. There would be no funk breakdowns, hip hop remixes or hard rock power chords. While the conservative approach often cuts against the genre’s best interests, Saturday night it sounded magnificent.

Setlist: So What, Freddie Freeloader, Blue In Green, All Blues, Flamenco Sketches, The Theme. Encore: Four.