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(Above: The RZA and Paul Banks tear down the Tank Room in Kansas City, Mo. with “Giant.” The frenetic performance literally had the floor shaking.) 

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

As the guitarist and singer for Interpol and mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan, Paul Banks and the RZA, a.k.a. Bobby Steelz, have filled and commanded spaces far bigger than the intimate Tank Room. Wednesday night, the duo treated a sold-out crowd to a masterful mashup of indie rock and hip-hop.

The seemingly disparate musical approaches have driven each artist to deliver some of their best work. On party tracks like “Sword in the Stone,” Banks’ soulful indie rock chorus played off RZA’s aggressive verses. Other times, formula reversed itself when RZA’s insistent contribution punctuated Banks moody vocals.

banks-steelzThe hourlong set comprised all but one song of the duo’s debut album, and ignored their other groups. The night started with the soulful yet ominous “Point of View” before exploding with “Ana Electronic.” Fans may not have been able to sing every word, but they had no problem swaying to the beat.

The room reached fever pitch with “Giant,” the album’s lead track, which has been generating airplay and online buzz. As Banks sang “everything is shaking through the walls” on the chorus, the floor was literally pulsing with the rhythms of everyone dancing.

RZA took the stage holding a large bottle of vodka. After several liberal pulls, he distributed cups along the front row and filled them before passing the bottle into the crowd. Later in the show, he popped open a bottle of champagne and sprayed the room.

A woman on the front row and her companion were singled out by RZA to set up “Can’t Hardly Feel,” a song about loving someone who belongs to another.

While the RZA had the flash and energy to command attention, it was in moments like this that Banks quietly stole the spotlight. His plaintive tenor drove not only “Can’t Hardly Feel,” but the philosophical “One by One” and the potent “Speedway Sonora.”

Walkmen drummer Matt Barrick supported the duo, turning the group into an all-star trio. His tight bossa nova rhythms anchored the song “Wild Season” and showed why RZA later called him the human drum machine. The three stretched out instrumentally only once, during “Conceal,” when Banks’ lengthy guitar solo gave way to RZA’s keyboard/organ.

Setlist: Point of View, Ana Electronic, Love and War, Sword in the Stone, Wild Season, Conceal, Speedway Sonora, One By One, Can’t Hardly Feel, Giant, Anything but Words.

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

Peter, Bjorn and John Heart Hip Hop

 

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(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.

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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.

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