Social Distancing Spins, Day 9

By Joel Francis

A 30-day lockdown in my hometown of Kansas City, Mo. was announced today. It looks like this trek through my record collection will continue a while longer.

Bruce Springtsteen – Western Skies (2019) The Boss made his legion of fans wait five long years between releases before dropping Western Skies in the middle of 2019. The first few times I listened, I didn’t like it at all. The songwriting was good, but the strings were too syrupy and heavy-handed. Even though I couldn’t get into the album, when I saw it on sale online the completist in me pushed the buy button. I don’t know what changed, but something happened when I played it this morning. I heard everything with new ears and finally heard what Springsteen was trying to accomplish with the orchestra. I can’t wait to dig into this one again.

Neville Brothers – Yellow Moon (1989) The highs and lows of this album come in rapid succession at the end of side one. Aaron Neville voice soars cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Going to Come.” The civil rights hymn is accented by producer Daniel Lanois’ tremelo guitar and guest Brian Eno’s ethereal keyboards. The civil rights theme takes an uncomfortable turn with the next song, “Sister Rosa,” a well-intentioned by horribly awkward rap tribute. Fortunately the ship is righted with Aaron Neville back in the spotlight with a tender cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.” Elsewhere, the album explores cajun and the brothers’ native New Orleans on songs like “Fire and Brimstone” and “Wild Injuns.”

Kelis – Food (2014) Her milkshake brought the boys to the yard, but Food is a full meal of biscuits and gravy, jerk ribs and cobbler. Working with producer Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, Kelis’ most recent album to date rejects contemporary production and attempts at Top 40 success. The organic arrangements with live instrumentation make this a Kelis album with the singer in firm control, rather than a vehicle with her voice slotted into other producers’ ideas. The relaxed comfort of the sessions comes through in the songs. “Cobbler” opens with gales of laughter as a slow Afrobeat groove slowly builds. Those same horns also pop up in “Jerk Ribs” and “Friday Fish Fry,” propelling everyone straight to the dance floor. “Bless the Telephone” might be my favorite moment on the album. It’s also one of the most basic –Kelis and Sal Masakela sound so honest and vulnerable singing over a gorgeous acoustic guitar line. Then the party roars back to life.

The Flaming Lips – The Terror (2013) The Terror isn’t my favorite Flaming Lips album by a long shot, but it felt the most appropriate right now. Half the band was in a bad way when this album was being made and it shows. Singer Wayne Coyne’s longtime romantic relationship had ended and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd relapsed into substance abuse. There aren’t any hints of the magic and wonder fans got from the band’s breakthrough albums. Instead there are songs like the seven-plus minute “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die,” which sounds like the dawn of a nightmare in some post-apocalyptic desert. But hey, when you haven’t left the house in more than a week and have just been alerted your entire city is on lockdown for the next 30 days, sometimes even cold comfort is comforting. Happy spring, everybody!

Son Volt – Straightaways (1997)

Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne (1993) The first time I saw Son Volt was in support of Straightaways, when they opened for ZZ Top at Sandstone Amphitheater. The venue was your typical outdoor shed and my friend and I were miles away from the stage, out on the lawn. Frontman Jay Farrar was never known for his onstage energy and the songs sizzled out well before they reached us.

Oh to have seen Farrar just a few years earlier. If I could build a time machine, one of the first places I’d go would be to an Uncle Tupelo concert. Hearing Farrar’s voice pair with Jeff Tweedy’s on the chorus of “Slate,” the first song, always sends me to a happy place. While the sessions for what would be the pair’s final album were acrimonious – at least from Farrar’s viewpoint; Tweedy has said he had no clue of his partner’s hostility and disillusionment – the result is a timeless slab of alt-country goodness.

Bleached – Welcome to the Worms (2016) Centered around sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin, Bleached operates somewhere between Blondie and the Donnas. I first saw the band at the now-shuttered Tank Room on Halloween night with Beach Slang. The sisters, along with bass player Micayla Grace, all performed in costume. These songs were a little more garage-y in concert, but it is still great girl-group rock however you slice it.

Ahmad Jamal – Inspiration (compilation) This 1972 collection finds jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal primarily working in a trio format with bass and drums. The assemblage hops around from the mid-‘50s to the late ‘60s in both studio and club settings. Several of the songs are augmented with a string section, which can be a little jarring, since Jamal isn’t know for orchestral work. Despite the seemingly hodgepodge nature, the four sides make for a generally cohesive play. Jamal made a ton of records and none of them are very expensive. Any good music shop will have at least five or six inches of his platters to choose from in the stacks. This isn’t a bad place to start.

Emmylou Harris – At the Ryman (1992) Emmylou Harris was coming off the worst-performing album of her career to date when she stepped onstage at the storied Ryman Auditorium for three nights in the spring of 1991. Backed by her new bluegrass ensemble the Nash Ramblers (lead by Sam Bush), Harris tackles several hit songs associated with other artists. While her versions of Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” or John Fogerty’s “Lodi” won’t make you forget the original performers, Harris puts her own distinctive stamp on them. One of my favorite singers of all time, Harris’ voice is particularly affecting on the a capella “Calling My Children Home” and a medley of Nanci Griffith’s “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” and “Abraham, Martin and John.”


Review: Chris Hillman thumbs through his back pages

Above: Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson perform “Turn Turn Turn.”

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Chris Hillman is not a household name, but the influence of the bands he has been a part of has emanated from home stereos for nearly two generations. As a member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Manassas, Hillman helped blur the lines between rock, country and folk.

He visited all parts of his career during his free 100-minute concert Friday night at Olathe’s Frontier Park. His time with Gram Parson’s Burrito Brothers was represented by “Wheels,” which featured accompanist Herb Pederson on lead vocals. Two songs off the first Manassas album (with Stephen Stills) were also performed, but it was, of course, the Byrds numbers that drew the most applause.

“Turn Turn Turn” appeared early in the set and “Eight Miles High” closed it. In between, Hillman and Pederson performed several songs from their time in the Desert Rose Band: staples like “Together Again,” which was dedicated to Buck Owens, “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” and “The Water Is Wide.” Former Bonner Springs resident and fellow Byrd Gene Clark got a shout-out before a reading of his “Tried So Hard to Please Her.”

Hillman prefaced “Mr. Tambourine Man” with a story about joining the Byrds and how the group didn’t like the song the first time they heard it. Crediting Roger McGuinn with the guitar arrangement, Hillman proceeded to play it in a style closer to Bob Dylan’s original version.

With Pederson anchoring on six-string acoustic guitar and Hillman switching between mandolin and guitar, the vibe was more Greenwich Village than Monteray Pop. While the performances were well-executed, the limited instrumentation and style started to wear thin about halfway through.

The set picked up when Sam Bush joined the duo for three songs on the violin. Bush’s fleet-fingered fiddle playing drew big cheers on the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain,” but “The Old Cross Roads” was the highlight. The blend of Hillman and Pederson’s vocals recalled the Louvin Brothers, while Bush’s violin accentuated the country-gospel arrangement.

Hillman complained throughout the night about the humidity. It may have killed the tuning on his mandolin, but it also provided a platform for Hillman to tell stories about his influences and songwriting while tuning between songs. Although the humidity may have been miserable to a Southern California native like Hillman, a Midwesterner couldn’t have asked for a prettier mid-July evening.

About 500 people spread over the outfield for the show. Seated in camping chairs or on blankets, they brought their kids, dogs and magazines. With conversation at more than a murmur throughout, it was clear the music was just a reason to be outside, not the focus.

That was too bad, because while Peterman wasn’t McGuinn or David Crosby, his vocals complemented Hillman’s nicely. Both artists have been honing their craft for a long time, and they played off each other with a musicianship that is skillful, but not showy.

Bush concluded the evening with a set of his own. Leading his quintet on mandolin, Bush married traditional bluegrass with a rock backbeat on songs like Randy Newman’s “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man).”