By Joel Francis
Missouri’s governor announced concerts can resume starting today. I want live music back as much as the next fan, but I hope public health is quite a bit stronger before I’m standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a sweaty club again. Until that day arrives, I’ll be back in the stacks.
Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers – A Night in Tunisia (1957) Several years ago, I was record shopping with my sister in New York City. We both saw a copy of this album at the same time. Being a good sibling, I let her grab it. The moment we got home and placed it on the turntable, I realized I had made a mistake. Fortunately, I ran across another copy fairly quickly. Like many 20th century jazz artists, Art Blakey was so prolific and excellent, deciding what to listen to in his vast catalog can feel a lot like throwing a dart. The nearly 13-minute version of Dizzy Gillespie’s classic title song starts with a thunderous drum solo from Blakey before settling into the familiar melody. Jackie McLean’s alto sax spars with Johnny Griffin’s tenor saxophone throughout the album, creating a great tension and dynamic. This twin-reed lineup was a rarity in Blakey’s Messengers, which usually stuck to the classic quintet format. Later, the group tackle’s Sonny Rollins’ “Evans” and the Blakey and McLean co-write “Couldn’t It Be You?” This is a gem where every number flies past, leaving a smile burned onto my face and me wondering where three-quarters of an hour went so quickly.
Wilco – Live at the Troubadour, L.A. (1996)
Sleater-Kinney – Live in Paris (2017) By the time Wilco officially released Live at the Troubadour, L.A. on Record Store Day a few years ago, the version of the band on the album was a distant memory. While many of the songs performed on this album remain in the band’s setlists today, the pedal steel guitar and alt-country mindset that propels the archival show are vestiges of the last century. The 90-minute set leans heavily on the then-new Being There album. Songs from the band’s debut and a few Uncle Tupelo covers round out the rest of the evening. Wilco was still finding their sound at the time, as illustrated by two divergent, back-to-back versions of “Passenger Side.” The first attempt sounds like a lost early Replacements song. The second rendition is slower than the album version and plays up the country elements.
Live in Paris was recorded on Sleater-Kinney’s immensely successful reunion tour just a few years ago, but already seems just as dated the Troubadour performance. S-K drummer and not-so-secret-weapon Janet Weiss left the band in 2019 after recording their most recent, synth-heavy album. It remains to be seen how the older material will be interpreted through this sleeker, slinkier lens (and with a new drummer). Regardless, Live in Paris is a triumphant encapsulation of S-K’s triumphant return.
I’m crossing my fingers I’ll get to witness both Wilco and Sleater-Kinney later this summer. The two bands announced a joint, co-headlining tour last winter, just before the pandemic crystalized our world in amber. With tickets in hand, I hope the public health is sufficiently strong enough to keep this tour a reality.
In the Pines – self-titled (2006) This six-piece Americana band from Kansas City was a true gem in its time. I remember going to the album release concert at the old RecordBar and everyone in the room being both entranced by the music and elated it was finally available to play at home and share with friends. Taking their name from the old folk tune, In the Pine’s music is moody and foreboding. The violin laced through all melodies adds a mournful Gothic element to the arrangements. Sadly, the group fizzled away when half the members moved out of town. About five years ago, the group reconvened for a reunion show – with new songs to boot – but then fell silent again. As recently as March of this year, there was talk of a second album underway. My fingers are crossed that the pandemic doesn’t prevent this from happening.
While we’re on the topic of Kansas City folk bands from the early days of this century, I want to shout-out Oriole Post. They only released one album and never pressed it to vinyl, but their hopeful, energetic music was always inspiring. Sadly, they were another band with a ton of promise that faded away before capitalizing on their potential.
Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance (2018) Tucked near the end of the British punk group’s second album is a cover of Solomon Burke’s 1961 hit “Cry to Me.” Idles replace the New Orleans shuffle of the original with a post-punk drone and own the cover so convincingly it feels like one of their own. The choice is a nice encapsulation of Idles as a whole. They sneer like the Sex Pistols, but have the soul (and politics) of The Clash. One of the catchiest songs on the album, “Danny Nedelko,” champions immigration by telling the story of the Heavy Lungs’ – another British punk band – lead singer. Most bands sing about love, but singer Joe Talbot espouses true brotherly love and is utterly unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Even more rare than an earnest punk cover of an old R&B tune is honest, heartfelt embrace of emotion, free of irony and other filters. The Idles aren’t afraid to go there, either. “June,” is a devastatingly moving song about the loss of Talbot’s baby daughter.
I saw Idles almost one year ago with Fontaines D.C. and it was one of the best punk shows of the year. In the time since, Idles have released a live album captured on that same tour. Few acts are able to simultaneously channel such intensity and vulnerability as Idles. I can’t wait to see what they bring us next.