prophets of rage, psychedelic furs, bobbie gentry album covers

Random record reviews: the Psychedelic Furs, Bobbie Gentry, Prophets of Rage,

By Joel Francis

Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain

For better or worse, the Psychedelic Furs will always be tied to “Pretty in Pink” and the films of John Hughes. The master of 1980s coming-of-age movies directed his last film in 1991, the same year the Furs released their final album. That is until now, 29 years later, and Made of Rain.

Just the eighth album from the band, Made of Rain is far from the cash-in or pale imitation skeptics could rightly assume after so long an absence. To be sure, Made of Rain will never be mistaken for one of the Furs classics made in the first half of the Me Decade, but it is also better than some of the albums released toward the end of the group’s original run.

 “The Boy that Invented Rock and Roll” opens the album with no concession to the passage of time. Singer Richard Butler is still entrenched in that odd niche between Johnny Rotten and David Bowie, while Mars Williams’ saxophone darts around Tim Butler’s propulsive bassline. Lead single “Don’t Believe” is a tough number that features a short, soaring chorus against a dark backdrop. Later, “Come All Ye Faithful” finds Richard Butler at his sardonic best, delivering lines like “When I said I loved you, and I lied / I never really loved you, I was laughing at you all the time.”

Even less-successful numbers such as “Ash Wednesday” and “You’ll Be Mine” get by on their ability to conjure the specific feelings and memories only the Psychedelic Furs can produce. It isn’t pure nostalgia, but also a wonder that no matter how much has changed, life could somehow sound and feel this way again.

Bobbie Gentry – The Delta Sweete

After the surprising – and massive – No. 1 hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry recorded a sometimes-autobiographical song cycle about life in the South. As a Mississippi native, the material is a natural for Gentry, but odd production choices make The Delta Sweete a completely unique release.

Neither psychedelic nor countrypolitian, the acoustic instruments at the heart of each performance are saturated with strings, horns and seemingly everything producer Kelly Gordon could think of. The busy arrangements often draw the focus away from Gentry’s voice and lyrics. At times, the material resembles folk songs posturing Las Vegas show tunes.

Perhaps no number on The Delta Sweete embodies this juxtaposition better than “Sermon,” also known as the country gospel song “God’s Going to Cut You Down.” Gentry’s version is startling upbeat, accented with punchy horns. It is especially astonishing for those used to the foreboding Johnny Cash version.

The new deluxe version unearths a mono mix of the album, along with band tracks, but the spare acoustic demos are most fascinating addition. The Delta Sweete might be a better album if it stayed closer in spirit to these stripped-down performances, but it would also be a lot less interesting.

Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage

The remaining members of Rage Against the Machine have had a hard time filling the void left by the unexpected near-retirement of frontman Zack de la Rocha nearly 20 years ago. The trio paired with Chris Cornell for three albums in the ‘00s and are now working with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord and B-Real of Cypress Avenue.

The supergroup’s 2017 self-titled album is closer in sound, content and spirit to the Machine’s celebrated catalog. Chuck D has no problem agitating a lyric against injustice and the like-minded B-Real is a better foil in this context than a post-reality show Flava Flav.

Neither Public Enemy nor Rage Against the Machine were known for subtly and truthfully the Prophets of Rage doesn’t offer many surprises. The album sounds pretty much exactly as one would imagine. Those excited by this prospect know playing the Prophets at maximum volume satisfies both a primal and sociopolitical need.

Keep reading:

Review: Prophets of Rage

Review: “All Over But the Shouting”

Review: David Rawlings Machine

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.

Review: Prophets of Rage

Chuck D looks forward in reverse

(Above: Chuck D pays tribute to Muhammad Ali.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Legendary hip hop ensemble Public Enemy is $20,000 away from fulfilling its efforts to raise enough money for its upcoming album. But PE front man Chuck D doesn’t want to spend much time talking about that project.

“I’m not spending long on this. That’s a 2011 project,” D said in a recent telephone interview. “I will say that it is a collaborative effort with Tom Morello, Boots (Riley, of the Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club) and Z-Trip.”

D quickly moves on to more immediate projects, like the three-CD, three-DVD retrospective of the band’s post-Def Jam era. Or Chuck’s second solo album. Or the other bands he’s trying to break through on his SlamJamz label.

The “Hits, Vids and Docs” box set is three discs of live cuts, remixes and album tracks covering the band’s history since 1999. Three additional DVDs contain interviews, documentaries, music videos and concert footage.

“This set covers the last 10 years since we left Def Jam,” D said. “Some of the video material has been repeated from other sets, but there is also new content. One thing I’ve learned is that if you are going to try to release anything in retail as an independent you’d better give the customer chock-full of their money’s worth. This certainly does.”

A dozen years after his solo debut, D is preparing to drop his second effort, “Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’.” Unlike the first, proper album, “Riddlin’” is a collection of D’s collaborations and one-off projects. The album will include “Tear Down the Wall,” his response to Arizona’s controversial immigration bill.

“The artists in SlamJamz are another big concern,” D said. “We just put out a song called ‘First Lady’ by a trio of female MCs called Crew Grrl Order. They also did a song called ‘Go Green’ which is a response to the BP disaster. My thing is just to try to encourage people in the genre to take action for themselves. Don’t look to me to do it for you. I will help you, but you have to be the one to do it.”

But while D is loaded with current projects and thinking of the future, Public Enemy has also taken some time this year to look back. D, Flava Flav, Professor Griff, DJ Lord and the SW1s have been celebrating the 20th anniversary of their landmark release “Fear of a Black Planet” by performing the entire album at special concerts and festivals.

“’Fear’ was the first album where people had expectations of us. We had broken through. It’s fun to think back to that year, because I just kind of put it out of my mind,” D said. “There are several cuts on there we either haven’t done before or haven’t done in a long time. It can be a challenge just to remember the words.”

Even the United States government got caught up in the celebration. The album was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

“The people in government are different from the government as an organization,” D said, clarifying Public Enemy’s legendary anti-establishment stance. “Washington, D.C. is the large sum of many parts. The day we were honored was a good day to be in D.C.”

Keep reading:

Professor Griff discusses the past – and future – of Public Enemy

Review: Gil Scott-Heron

Review: Public Enemy, Rage, the Roots and more at Rock the Bells (2007)

Review: Gil Scott-Heron

(Above: The video for “Me and the Devil,” a track from his 2010 album “I’m New Here.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

WASHINGTON, DC – The “more info” tab on the Blues Alley Website informs the curious that Gil Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania because it was the alma mater of his hero Langston Hughes and that he has a Master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. Informative, but hardly enlightening.

From the twilight of the ‘60s until the early ‘80s, Heron was a groundbreaking artist, fusing poetry, jazz and soul into militant anti-establishment statements. The first chapter of his career extended from the high point of the Black power movement to its nadir, the height of the Reagan administration.

Heron has only released two studio albums since 1982, appearing more often as a sample in works by Public Enemy, PM Dawn and Kanye West, and making the news for his intermittent stays in prison. Heron responded to both occasions the way he handled everything during the next-to-last show of his summer residency at Blues Alley: with humor.

“The first thing you do when you find out you’ve been sampled,” Heron said “is go someplace private and make sure everything is in the right place. Then you want to want to play the song every once and a while make sure it’s still alright.”

After a shout-out to Common, who sampled the song “We Almost Lost Detroit” for his 2007 single “The People,” Heron proceeded to play the original number without the signature keyboard line that had been lifted. Few seemed to mind.

On prison, Heron poked at critics who said his sentences had made him sound unhappy on his new album “You might be unhappy when you go in, but you’re sure not when you come out.”

Dressed in a dark beret, oversized suit jacket and baggy, untucked white dress shirt, Heron split his time between standing behind the mic and sitting behind a Fender Rhodes. His voice was in fine form, gruff, but not as raw as on “I’m New Here,” his aforementioned new record. Halfway the nearly two-hour performance he was joined by a four-piece ensemble of keyboards, saxophone/flute, congas and harmonica.

Heron opened with 15 minutes of stand-up comedy, riffing on Black History month, cable news experts, meteorology (“I’ll tell you what a high-pressure front is: Three bothers walking toward you smoking a joint.”) and inventing your own “ology.” He joked about the volcano that stymied his – and many other’s – travel plans and the difficulty pronouncing its name.

“Does Norway have a brother who sells consonants?” Heron asked. “It seems like they put every vowel in a row then tell you ‘say that.’”

He was just as chatty when the songs began, opening “Winter in America” with a lengthy retelling of the African folk tale that inspired the metaphor. He recounted the history of jazz, from its brothel-parlor origins to big bands, before “Is it Jazz.”

“Is It Jazz” provided the first explosive moment of the night, igniting the previously silently respectful crowd with the succession of solos. Saxophone and flute player Carl Cornwell was the perfect foil for Heron’s verbose verses, punctuating each phrase with a sharp blast from his horn.

Despite the fierce and sometimes bleak politics of Heron’s lyrics, the night was relentlessly upbeat. “Detroit,” a dark recollection of a near nuclear meltdown in the Motor City flowed seamlessly into the hope-filled refrain of “Work For Peace.”

The night ended with “The Bottle,” one of Heron’s most popular songs that hit No. 15 on the R&B charts in 1974. Buoyed by a funky organ line, the lyrics paint a harrowing portrait of alcoholism in the inner city. It was odd when Heron gave a short designated driver PSA before the song, and even more puzzling when the band moved into a joyous chorus of “Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.” But for whatever reason, it worked and everyone in the club had smiles on their faces as they sang along.

As the crowd shuffled outside, the line for the 10 p.m. show snaked around the block. For the previous four nights, Heron had played two shows each evening, and the upcoming performance was the 10th and final of his stay at Blues Alley.

It was clear the set wouldn’t start on time, but the fans in line fed off the beaming faces of the emerging crowd and started to whoop and holler in anticipation. They would not be disappointed. Although there was no encore, and Heron omitted his two biggest numbers, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Johannesburg,” the evening felt more than complete.

A note on the venue: Blues Alley is literally tucked away in an alley off Wisconsin Street in the Georgetown district of D.C. The sun was bright outside when I entered, but it was dark as midnight inside. The only illumination came from small candles placed at the center of each circular, formally decorated table. With its old brick walls and thick ceiling timbers, it felt like walking into a colonial cellar. The tiny stage barely had enough room for the grand piano, let alone the emerging quintet. A waitress told me the venue was originally a colonial carriage house that was converted into a jazz club nearly 50 years ago.

Setlist: Stand-up set, Blue Collar, Winter in America, We Almost Lost Detroit > Work for Peace, Is It Jazz, Pieces of a Man, Three Miles Down, I’ll Take Care of You, The Bottle > Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.

Keep reading:

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

Another Side of Norah Jones

Nas and Damian Marley – “Distant Relatives”

 (Above: Damian Marley and Nas perform at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo. on June 26, 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When the rapper Nas and reggae artist Damian Marley, youngest son of Bob Marley, first teamed up five years ago, the result was solid, but not spectacular. “Road to Zion” was a typical mash-up with Nas dropping a verse into the pocket of a mostly completed composition. There was little interaction between the two.

All of that immediately flies out the window on “Distant Relatives,” the new full-length collaboration between Nas and Marley. Open cut “As We Enter” finds the pair tag-teaming stanzas. As Nas spits “My man can speak patois/and I can speak rap star,” Marley drops the line “from Queens to Kingston/gunshot we use and govern the kingdom.”

The “rhythm piranhas” – as Marley dubs the duo – started toying with the idea of producing an EP to benefit school in Africa back in 2008, but the project grew as it progressed. Predictably, the lyrics find both vocalists working in a political vein, which is not a radical departure for either.

Nas shines in this environment, weaving street parables into Marley’s global paradigm. Marley, on the other hand, brings a sense of optimism lacking on most hip hop albums. His influence permits Nas to deliver his most straightforward and affirming lines this since “I Can” on the track “Count Your Blessings.”

Although “Distant Relatives” celebrates Africa, the only musician from the continent to appear on the record in person is K’naan, who blesses two tracks. The reset of the album captures the energy and rhythm of the motherland through samples that include Ethiopian jazz, Angolan singing and the Malian couple Amadou and Miriam. And while the pulse is definitely (defiantly?) African, the concrete jungle of Marley’s Jamaica and Nas’ New York are never far.

The only time the third world spell is broken comes on the song “My Generation.” Lil Wayne’s appearance on the track is passable, but feels like a ponderous attempt at mainstream radio play. The most egregious offender, however, is Joss Stone, ruins a decent production with an over-the-top delivery that seems to parody an American Idol wannabe.

Despite the title, the worlds of rap and reggae aren’t really that distant. Afrika Bambaata and Run-DMC dipped into the reggae in rap’s first decade. KRS-One later incorporated reggae into his 1987 hit “The Bridge is Over,” which famously dissed Nas’ home borough. The decade would also find KRS-One collaborating with Sly and Robbie and Shabba Ranks.

Likewise, Marley is no stranger to hip hop. His raspy voice has always worked better in a spoken cadence than in his limited singing range. Both of his major-label albums bounce with an urban beat. “Welcome to Jamrock,” the Grammy-winning album that fostered his meeting with Nas, also featured a track with The Roots MC Black Thought. In addition, Marley’s brother Stephen Marley, who produced two of the cuts on “Distant Strangers” oversaw a remix album of his father’s songs that featured The Roots, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Guru and former Fugee Lauryn Hill, who is married to Rohan Marley, another of Bob Marley’s sons.

“Distant Relatives” flattens this musical landscape. It is an ambitious project with global aims, not only musically, but lyrically, dealing with humanity, morality and messy nuances of emotion like greed and humility that can easily come across as clichés or preaching. Few artists have the vision to imagine a project of such scope, let alone pull it off.

Marley and Nas teamed up because they wanted to respond to the disasters in Haiti, Somalia and Darfur. Their intentions should be appreciated. The results should be celebrated.

Keep reading:

Review: The Original Wailers

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Bela Fleck’s Africa Project

Review: Sly and Robbie

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

2010 Grammys: A Live Diary

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8:06 – Who the heck are Lady Antebellum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep reading:

2010 Grammys: A Running Diary

Professor Griff discusses the past – and future – of Public Enemy

(Above: The title says it all: “Professor Griff drops knowledge.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Onstage, Professor Griff, minister of information for the veteran rap group Public Enemy, rarely smiles. Griff rarely takes center stage, but sets the tone of the show by marshalling the S1Ws, Public Enemy’s uniformed faux-security force, through their militant dance steps.

Offstage, Griff may not be mistaken for Flavor Flav, the group’s much-lampooned comedic foil-turned-reality TV star, but he is far from the grim-faced drill sergeant he appears. In fact, right now he is laughing.

“At first, I was DJ Griff,” the founding member says through a chuckle. “I laugh because people don’t see me like that. Then it morphed into minister of information, because I was always studious. I took it upon myself to be an avid reader and study. That’s how I got the name Professor.”

Griff, nee Richard Griffin, describes the early days of Public Enemy and discusses his political views and philosophies in his new book, “Analytixz.”

“Readers already know the media’s version of who Griff is. This lets me tell aspects of my story without writing an autobiography,” Griff says. “The ugly truth and the controversies are there. I don’t like it, but I can’t write it with a pink cover and make everything cute.”

The lengthy first chapter covers the most controversial part of Griff’s career, when he was kicked out of Public Enemy for being quoted making anti-Semitic statements in the Washington Times.

“The first chapter was the most difficult,” Griff says. “It was the only time I had to stop tape, because it brought back a time I didn’t want to re-experience.”

Although that rough experience is the lynchpin of the book, another hardship brought the manuscript to fruition.

“’Analytixz’ came together in 90 days because I lost the other three books I was working on when my house burnt to the ground,” Griff says. “It comes from a place of hurt and pain, but I wanted to fulfill my promise to put out a book.”

Griff laughs again remembering how Run-DMC’s DJ Jam Master Jay and Def Jam label co-founder Rick Rubin’s original plan for Public Enemy.

“When Jam Master Jay saw (Public Enemy MC) Chuck (D) at Adelphi University, he and Rick Rubin wanted to sign him as Chuckie D,” Griff says through a snicker. “Chuck and I are still laughing about that one. Basically, Chuck brought Flav along, and everyone else came from me.”

“Everyone else” is the groundbreaking production unit known as the Bomb Squad and the group’s DJ, Terminator X.

“Members of the Bomb Squad had a group called Spectrum City, which included me,” Griff says. “We brought Chuck on board to be part of our mobile DJ unit.”

Public Enemy is nearing its 25th anniversary, but Griff, Chuck and company are still intent on bringing the noise. After leaving Def Jam, the band is financing their new album through SellABand. By purchasing $25 shares, fans can help the band reach its goal of $250,000 and get everything from a mention in the liner notes, to profit sharing and input on the final product.

“It’s interesting to see how things are unfolding,” Griff says. “People say, Public Enemy, you guys were popular, it should be no problem to raise that money, but they’re on the outside of it.”

While many rap acts from the ‘80s are dismissed as old school, Public Enemy has worked hard to stay at the vanguard. The band pioneered the digital distribution model with their album “There’s A Poison Goin’ On” 10 years ago, and introduced a play-listed based album on 2002’s “Revolverution.”

“Me and Chuck are 49,” Griff says of his bandmate, who was born on the same day in the same hospital. “It’s not over. We still have to put our period at the end of the sentence.”

What’s on Griff’s iPod?

“If I lent you my iPod for one day, you’d probably say ‘What the hell?’ The first thing you’d notice is I have a large music collection – easy listening, rock, soulful stuff. When it comes to my hip hop playlist, you’ll see Rage Against the Machine, the Roots, Immortal Technique, Wize Intelligent, Dead Prez, KRS-One – because I’m still learning from him – and the new Can-I-Bus. There’s no Nelly, no Snoop Dogg and nothing produced by Jermaine Dupri.

“The most surprising thing on my iPod is (long pause) Asher Roth, which is on there probably because me and my son share a computer. I play that song when people come in the car with me and they say, Griff, what do you know about a white Jewish boy? I listen to everything, man.”

Keep Reading:

Review: Public Enemy, Rage, the Roots and more at Rock the Bells (2007)

Review: The Roots (2008)

More Hip Hop on The Daily Record

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

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By Joel Francis

When RZA needed a hook for “C.R.E.A.M.” he turned to the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” and joined a large fraternity of rappers and producers who have leaned on the Stax catalog for their tracks. And though Stax has provided the samples for hits by Jay-Z, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G. and countless others, the source material has somehow remained in the secret province of crate-diggers.

Until now. “Stax: The Soul of Hip Hop” is 14 wonderfully selected, mostly obscure late-period Stax cuts released as part of Concord Record’s revitalization of the label. It’s unlikely that many Ghostface Killah fans listening to “Supreme Clientele” would have the urge to track down the source material for “The Grain.” But listening to Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Funky Penguin” on this compilation not only sheds light on the music that informed Ghostface – it’s fun enough to make the album more than a history lesson.

It’s great if De La Soul and Cypress Hill are the reasons these song sound familiar, but the collection succeeds because it dusts off great songs that are ignored on most retrospectives. 24-Carat Black’s lone album was ignored in 1973. That album’s title track “Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth” opens this compilation with a slab of socially conscious funk. The female trio the Emotions found their greatest success with Earth, Wind and Fire in the late ‘70s, but “Blind Alley” shows they were fully formed pop soul act long before Maurice White helmed their albums.

The Dramatics’ “Get Up and Get Down” foreshadows the disco movement, while Little Milton’s “Packed Up and Took My Mind” is the marriage of soul and blues that Robert Cray has been chasing for 20 years. The inclusion of Isaac Hayes and Booker T. and the MGs tosses a bone to casual fans, although two Hayes cuts may be one too many.

The only misstep is a song that dates from Stax’ early days with Atlantic Records. Wendy Rene’s 1964 track “After the Laughter (Come Tears)” is an unconvincing ballad whose best quality is a great calliope organ line. Complaining about this cut, the extra Hayes track and the wish that the producers would have packed the disc with more tracks, though, misses the point and spoils a great treasure.

This set not only proves that the hip hop samplers had immaculate taste, but that they weren’t just cherry picking.  While they may have only mined 10 or 15 seconds from each track, the ore runs consistently deep through each performance.

If hip hop is the reason for this collection to exist and that marketing angle will draw those fans to this music, then so be it. But a celebration this fun doesn’t need an excuse.

The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part Three): The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records

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Above: No, it’s not Beyonce. The wonderful Etta James during her Chess period.

By Joel Francis

As the 1960s dawned on Chess Records, label founders Leonard and Phil were at the peak of their powers. Thanks to the proselytizing of the British Invasion bands, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and other blues artists were performing for the largest crowds of their careers. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley had helped formed rock and roll, and the label had branched into more genres, including R&B, comedy, jazz and gospel.

But Leonard and Phil were still looking for new ways to stay on top of the trends and build their roster. One of their biggest signings of the decade was an immediate success. The other took more than three decades to reach his commercial potential, but stands today as the greatest living link to Chess and Chicago blues.

Etta James was born in Los Angeles to an unwed, 14-year-old mother. She was discovered at age 14 by bandleader Johnny Otis, and recorded with him for Modern Records in the late 1950s. She signed to Chess in 1960 and converted Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” into an R&B hit. Her breakthrough came the following year with “At Last.” The gorgeous soul ballad was a bit of a departure for the label – guitars and harmonicas were replaced by a lush string orchestra. From the gritty soul of “In the Basement” and “Tell Mama” to the heartache of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” James’ versatile voice found success for the rest of the decade.

Buddy Guy showed up in Chicago in 1957 and quickly fell under the wing of Muddy Waters. Although he was known for his anarchic guitar playing onstage, the Chess brothers reigned him in on record. Primarily a session guitarist, solo singles like “The First Time I Met the Blues” barely hinted at the flamboyant style that influenced Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Guy didn’t find true success until his 1991 comeback album “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” on the Silvertone label.

With the exception of Berry, who briefly recorded for Mercury in the mid-’60s before returning to Chess, and Dixon, who took a short-lived job at Vee-Jay, all of Chess’ major artists stayed with the label until its sale. By the end of the ’60s, Leonard and Phil had been looking for a way to get out of the record business and into television. When GRT made an offer of $6.5 million for all of the label’s properties, they accepted. Less than a year after selling their label, Leonard Chess was dead. Just 52 years old, the elder brother had died of a heart attack in his car less than two blocks from the Chess headquarters. He had been on his way to a meeting at WVON.

A little over twenty years after opening the Mocambo Lounge, Leonard and Phil Chess’ dream of striking it rich had come true several times over. With Leonard no longer alive, it was up to Phil and Marshall, Leonard’s son, to appease the worries from their biggest stars that the brothers had made unreasonable profits off their artists.

While many of the Chess stars were also very well off, other artists showed less financial responsibility and had very little to show for their success. In the 1970s, several Chess artists, including Waters, Wolf and Dixon sued for back royalty payments. All the lawsuits were settled confidentially out of court; the issue is still debated today. Bo Diddley was especially bitter about his treatment, telling Rolling Stone in the 1987, “My records are sold all over the world and I ain’t got a f—ing dime.” While we’ll likely never know the truth, cases of labels withholding royalties from artists are still common today. Leonard and Phil probably felt they took good care of their artists, but they also made sure to take great care of themselves at the same time.

Nearly 40 years after its sale, the legacy of Chess Records continues to burn bright. From bloozy biker bars and hole-in-the-wall BBQ juke joints to stadium tours by the Rolling Stones and samples used by rappers Nas and Chuck D, there are few corners of the English-speaking world where the impact of Chess’ artists isn’t felt. In 1977 NASA gave the label celestial influence when they placed a copy Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” inside the Voyager space probe.

In 1964 the Rolling Stones, hot on their first tour of America, made a pilgrimage to the Chess building at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago. Decades later, Dixon’s widow purchased the property, which serves as a Chess museum and headquarters for Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. Each year, tourists and musicians alike visit the building to pay homage to the Chess masters and stand in the space where so many incredible songs were captured.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part One: The Birth of Chess Records and Chicago Blues
Part Two: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll