Social Distancing Spins – Day 46

By Joel Francis

The weather is nice and cabin fever is real. Stay safe and keep the faith.

Brian Wilson – Reimagines Gershwin (2010) The opening minute of this album is an absolute dream. Layers of harmony vocals music fans have enjoyed for more than half a century cascade into the melody of the iconic “Rhapsody in Blue.” The rest of the album isn’t quite as exquisite, but maintains the same premise: Two intimately familiar musical styles melting into something new. Wilson’s versions of “Summertime,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” or “I Got Rhythm” won’t make anyone forget about the legion of stellar interpretations that have come from Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald or Willie Nelson, to name but a few. But they do show how Gershwin’s pen was subconsciously at work in Pet Sounds, “Cabinessence” and “Surf’s Up.”

Rhett Miller – The Interpreter: Live at Largo (2011) In April, 2008, a few days after the University of Kansas Jayhawks won the men’s national basketball championship, my wife and I were in Los Angeles for vacation. I had heard about the club Largo over the years and was hoping to see their unofficial artist in residence, Jon Brion. The multi-instrumentalist wasn’t performing the when we were going to be there, so we happily grabbed tickets for Rhett Miller’s show instead. The Old 97s frontman was in a great mood, telling stories and playing some of his favorite songs by other people (and previewing material from the upcoming 97s album, Blame It On Gravity). About halfway through the set, Jon Brion took a seat behind the piano and the two banged out tunes like a pair of long-lost brothers. That night – and the following one, where Brion wasn’t present but Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago was – comprise the selections here on The Interpreter. Because I was there, it is impossible for me to grade this album objectively. It always takes me back to that night and makes me wish the full performance would be released on Nuggs or something similar. Your mileage may vary, but if you enjoy Miller’s voice and the songwriting of David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Ray Davies, Jeff Tweedy, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, you are definitely in the right place.

King Curtis – Live at Fillmore West (1971)
Aretha Franklin – Live at Fillmore West (1971)
Both of these landmark live albums are taken from the same run of shows at the historic San Francisco venue, where King Curtis and his Kingpins were backing the Queen of Soul. Franklin’s album has more contemporary rock covers than her better-known soul material. After marching through Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Franklin manages to make Bread’s “Make It With You” engaging. Franklin starts cooking on the second side. After the slow blues “Dr. Feelgood,” Franklin and her incredible band – including Billy Preston on organ and the Memphis Horns – tear through “Spirit in the Dark.” As the song winds down after about five minutes, Ray Charles comes out and they do it all over again for another nine minutes.

Although less well-known, Curtis’ Fillmore album is just as incredible. Setting the table with “Memphis Soul Stew,” Curtis blasts through the Moody Blues’ “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and destroys Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” The second side is just as good, with readings of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and “Ode to Billie Joe.” Unfortunately, this album also served as Curtis’ swan song. He was fatally stabbed outside his New York City apartment a week after it’s release.

In 2005, Rhino released a limited-edition collection of all three Fillmore shows in their entirety. Finally, fans could hear the music as it was presented each night, with Curtis opening the show, then Franklin coming out. This four-disc box set is definitely worth seeking out.

Jay-Z – American Gangster (2007) Sean Carter rolled into his alleged retirement – Did anyone really believe he was done? – on a hot streak. I confess to wondering if he could rise to the occasion on his inevitable comeback. And he didn’t – until American Gangster. Inspired by the Denzel Washington movie, Jay-Z played to his strengths and crafted 15 songs that revisit his oft-celebrated days as a drug dealer and Washington’s portrayal of black drug lord Frank Lucas. Though the album feels a couple songs too long to my ears, there isn’t a bad cut on the record. The long-awaited track with Nas lives up to the anticipation. American Gangster isn’t as good as The Blueprint or The Black Album, but it’s not far behind them either.

Two quick anecdotes before we move on. For a long time the downtown location of The Peanut hosted Hip Hop and Hot Wings on Sunday nights. (The Peanut has some of the best wings in Kansas City.) The fun usually started late and lasted later, which made for a rough Monday so I never got to attend as often as I wanted. About a month after American Gangster came out, around Christmas time, one of the DJs dropped the needle on “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)” and the entire room exploded like a grenade had gone off. Strangers were high-fiving and everyone was signing along and dancing. “Roc Boys” got bonus local points for featuring Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson in the video.

Alright, the second story. On the same vacation in Los Angeles that I discussed in the Rhett Miller entry, my wife and I had tickets to see Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige at the Hollywood Bowl. Despite leaving hours early, we got there just in time to hear the opening song (all the traffic was between the exit and the parking lot). Jay-Z was touring in support of American Gangster and it was incredible to hear those songs in person, with a huge band backing him up. MJB was a solid bonus for the evening.

William Onyeabor – Who Is William Onyeabor? (compilation) Even though this collection spans three LPs and 13 tracks, by the end we are nowhere closer to knowing the answer about William Onyeabor than when we started. According to internet reports, the Nigerian producer self-released eight albums between 1977 and 1985, which were quickly bootlegged. It is not hard to see why so many people would want this music. It’s primitive electronics – clunky drum machines and Casio keyboards – married to Afro-beat rhythms, with a little P-Funk stirred into the sauce for good measure. Who is William Onyeabor? Well for the 75 minutes of this album he’s a fillpin’ musical savant. That’s who.

Various Artists – Red Hot + Riot (2002) The Red Hot charity albums have generally been pretty good, but this one, honoring Afro beat legend Fela Kuti, stands above the rest. For one, it features some of the top socially conscious/backpack rappers of the time: Blackalicious, Talib Kweli, Common and Dead Prez. Plus a mix of great soul singers, including D’Angelo, Macy Gray, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Kelis and Sade. Finally, a sprinkling of jazz legends (Archie Shepp, Roy Hargrove), African musicians, Kuti’s son Femi Kuti and bluesman Taj Mahal. If this roll call doesn’t pique your interest, trust me, the result is even more impressive. Rap, jazz, blues, soul and gospel all flow into a river leading back to Mother Africa. Can you dig it?

Review: Old 97s, Lucero

(Above: The Old 97s road-test the new song “Every Night Is Friday Night Without You.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The 16-year history of the Texas-born Old 97s follows a trajectory well worn by other bands: start out with plenty of youthful energy and fire in the belly and gradually grow more mellow and/or pop-oriented. For theirThursday night’s performance at Crossroads, the alto-country quartet shrugged off its pop trappings and attacked their material with vibrant intensity.

The first sign of the evening’s energy came on the second song, “Dance With Me.” Recorded as a pop song for their latest album, 2008’s “Blame It On Gravity,” guitarist Ken Bethea tore into the main riff like a buzz saw, pushing the tempo to nearly double its original speed. When bass player Murry Hammond was given the mic shortly thereafter for a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” the band pushed and prodded the laid-back vocalist.

Flanked by Bethea and Hammond in nearly matching red plaid shirts, photogenic singer/front man Rhett Millershook his hips like Elvis behind his Stratocaster. He yelped, yowled and screamed his way through the 90 minute set list that featured as many cuts from their first album – four- as their latest.

The band’s third album, “Too Far To Care,” is widely considered its best. They treated the crowd to six cuts, or nearly half the album and they consistently received the biggest responses of the night. “Big Brown Eyes” and “Barrier Reef” got everyone dancing and Miller took an audience request of “Niteclub” during the encore.

Miller seemed to enjoy playing the scorned lover and dumping extra venom into likes like “I hope you crash your momma’s car” and “Thought so much about suicide/parts of me have already died” on back-to-back trips down lonely street during “Lonely Holiday” and “Wish the Worst.” A couple songs later, on “Melt Show,” he emphatically kicked the air during the chorus.

Bethea spurred Miller’s energy, leaping into the air at the start of “The Fool,” dropping a Dick Dale-style guitar solo into “Smokers,” another Hammond vocal showcase,” and adding a nice countermelody to the most delicate and upbeat song in their catalog, “Question.” His solo leading into “Timebomb,” the traditional closer, turned the already fast number into something like a punk song.

Drummer Philip Peeples was the brick on the accelerator that never let up. His cadences consistently pushed the band harder and faster. His kit was at the center of “Every Friday Night Is Lonely Without You,” a staccato-riffed song from the band’s upcoming fall album. It was the only song the half-capacity crowd didn’t sing or air guitar along to all night, but embraced just the same. Peeples also took nice mini-solos during “Doreen” and “Early Morning.”

Lucero rock the Bottleneck in 2008.

The drum solo after “Early Morning” led into a reading of R.E.M.’s “Driver 8,” one of covers the band cut for its new “Mimeograph” EP. The arrangement hewed closely to the original, but it was interesting to hear the lyrics through Miller’s enunciation.

Normally the more rambunctious of the two bands, Lucero was more subdued that night. Singer Ben Nichols embraced the band’s mellow side with numbers like the gospel piano ballad “Goodbye Again,” “Kiss the Bottle” and the one-two of “Hey Darlin’ Do You Gamble?” and “Nobody’s Darlings.”

The five-piece band displayed its Memphis roots by adding a two-piece horn section for a set that featured several cuts from last year’s album “1372 Overton Park.” Early in the set the horns competed with the pedal steel in the mix, but they soon settled in adding extra punch and depth. The brass gave “That Much Further To Go” and “Sixes and Sevens” an E Street sound.

Lucero’s 65-minute set ended with nearly everyone taking a solo during the joyous “All Sewn Up.”

Old 97s setlist: Streets of Where I’m From; Dance With Me; Won’t Be Home; Mama Tried (Merle Haggard cover); Lonely Holiday; Wish the Worst; The Fool; Smokers; Melt Show; Question; Stoned; Up the Devil’s Pay; Barrier Reef; Driver 8 (REM cover); Early Morning; Can’t Get A Line; Big Brown Eyes; Doreen. Encore:Every Night Is Friday Night Without You; Niteclub; The Easy Way; Timebomb.

Keep reading:

Review: Old 97s (2008)

Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed (with Lucero)

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

Review: Old 97s


Above: Of course they played “Roller Skate Skinny.”

By Joel Francis

There is something to be said for a band who can play an entire set without changing instruments.

The Old 97s are not quite that band – lead singer/songwriter/heartthrob Rhett Miller swapped his electric axe for an acoustic one a few times – but they are as close as we’re going to get. For almost two hours they entertained a nearly full Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kan. with little more than the instruments and songs on their backs.

The setlist encompassed more than two dozen songs, from radio favorites like “New Kid” to fan favorites like “Jagged” and new songs like “No Baby I.” When the band played “Question,” a recount of Miller’s wedding proposal, all the women pulled their men close and sang softly in their ears. “Barrier Reef” erupted into a raucous sing-along.

In a rare moment of between-song banter, Miller recalled the band’s first show in Lawrence at the Replay Lounge where they performed for a night of unlimited, free video games. A few songs later, those days were celebrated in “Niteclub.”

Miller may have the easiest job in showbiz. Offstage, all he has to do is write songs that combine the alt-country terrain plowed by Uncle Tupelo with the pop sensibility of Paul McCartney. Onstage, he just makes love with his eyes to all the doe-eyed women pressed against the stage and occasionally shake his ass while Ken Bethea takes a guitar solo.

Bethea plays lead guitar via chainsaw. Standing on the edge of the stage with his headstock hanging over the crowd, he rips through songs with a Chet Atkins-meets-Dick Dale style. On the other extreme of the stage, modest Murry Hammond cradles his bass like a baby and tosses out the harmony (and intermittent lead) vocals that push the songs from good to great.

Late-tour shows can be a mixed bag. When Wilco played the Uptown Theater in 2006 at the end of the Kicking Television tour they were tired of both the road and their material. But with only a couple dates left on their current tour the Old 97s played with the perfect mix of familiarity and abandon. “Doreen,” one of their hardest-rocking numbers, positively smoked.

The evening ended with the encore haymaker punches of “Murder (Or a Heart Attack),” “Big Brown Eyes,” “Dance with Me” and, of course, “Timebomb.” When it was over, everyone left a little drunker and a lot happier.