Social Distancing Spins – Day 59

By Joel Francis

Charles Mingus – The Clown (1957) Jazz bass legend Charles Mingus’ second album for the Atlantic label was also his second masterpiece in a row. There are only four songs on The Clown, but as with any Mingus release, they leave plenty to unpack. The Clown opens with a Mingus bass solo before the rest of the band joins in on “Haitian Fight Song.” Mingus described the song as a contemporary folk number, but it reminds me of Jimmy Smith’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” the way the song starts simply before the horns swagger into the forefront. “Bee Cee” is a piano-driven blues number. Side two opens with “Reincarnation of a Lovebird,” Mingus’ tribute to Charlie Parker. You can hear different pieces of Parker’s melodies fly past in the song. Mingus revisited this song several times throughout his career. The title track concludes the album. Actor Jean Shepherd – who narrated and co-wrote the film A Christmas Story based on his life – tells the story of a clown who worked hard to please everyone but wasn’t appreciated until after his death. Mingus said the clown was meant to be a stand-in for jazz musicians. There’s a lot going on for an album that lasts a scant 28 minutes, but Mingus always rewards repeated listens.

Buddy Miles Express – Electric Church (1969) Former Electric Flag drummer Buddy Miles got an incredible assist on his second solo album from guitarist Jimi Hendrix. At the time, Hendrix was expanding the Experience to incorporate the players that would become the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows group that performed at Woodstock. Somewhere around this time, Miles was asked to join Hendrix’ new trio Band of Gypsys. Before that, however, Hendrix produced half the songs on Electric Church and played on several cuts as well. Putting aside the long shadow Hendrix casts over this album, Electric Church is a good slice of R&B. The horns on the first cut, “Miss Lady” wouldn’t have been out of place on a Stax release (and place Hendrix’ wah-wah guitar solo in a unique context). Hendrix’ fingerprints are also all over “69 Freedom Song.” The Memphis soul connection is made more explicit on Miles’ cover of Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee” and a live version of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Wrap It Up.” Side two kicks off with “Texas,” a slow blues number written with former Electric Flag bandmate Mike Bloomfield. There might not be enough guitar pyrotechnics to entice Hendrix fans to sit through the entire album. Likewise, fans of soul music might be put off by the acidic rock explorations. Somewhere between the two camps, however, Miles was able to carve out a nice little niche.

Van Morrison – A Period of Transition (1977) Van Morrison’s ninth album certainly lives up to the title. The gypsy soul that characterized early albums like Tupelo Honey and Moondance was coming to a close, but the jazzier, lengthier contemplations exemplified on Common One and Beautiful Vision had not yet arrived. Pianist Dr. John plays on every track here and co-produced the album, giving the songs his native New Orleans shuffle, particularly on the swampy opener “You Gotta Make It Through the World.” The single “Joyous Sound” shares a spirit and feel with “Domino.” Elsewhere, “Flamingos Fly” and “Heavy Connection” point to the jazzy, adult contemporary direction Morrison would later take on Avalon Sunset and Poetic Champions Compose in the late 1980s. The intro to “It Feels You Up” sounds like something from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, but the song remained a concert staple for decades. Of most interest to this Cowtown boy is “The Eternal Kansas City.” A gospel choir carries the meat of the melody while Morrison namechecks Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Jay McShan and other local luminaries. Incidentally, everyone Morrison honors in the verse was still alive at the time, except for saxmen Bird and Lester Young. Morrison must have liked “The Eternal Kansas City” enough to re-record it with Gregory Porter on his 2015 album Duets: Reworking the Catalog. A Period of Transition is far from essential, but dedicated Morrison fans will want this to see how he got from A to B.

Rare Earth – Get Ready (1969) The late 1960s were the time of meandering hard rock epics that encompass an entire album side, like “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” After transforming the landscape of pop music with their Motor City soul, Motown decided it wanted a slice of this acid rock pie as well. Get Ready contains five other songs, including covers of “Tobacco Road” and Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright,” in addition to the title song, but the 21-minute cut on the second side is clearly the selling point. These types of lengthy, meandering jams aren’t really my thing, but the live audience on the album is eating it up. I don’t think the band is saying anything with the album version that they don’t articulate on the two minute, 50 second single. Then again, I’ve never dropped acid or seen a show at the Fillmore. If you like drum solos or extended organ parts, this is for you. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with the Temptations.

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice (2017) The prolific Kurt Vile had been releasing laid-back, guitar-centric indie rock albums for nearly a decade when the Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett dropped her debut album. Barnett has a knack for inserting little details into her lyrics that tie her songs together without appearing like she’s trying too hard. In other words, she and Vile shared a laconic approach to songwriting and guitar skills that outpace the songs each write. For their first album together, Barnett and Vile create a level of relaxed comfort where they are able to swap lines like “What time do you usually wake up?/Depends on what time I sleep” (on “Let It Go”) without coming across as lazy or phoning it in. At just nine songs and 45 minutes, Lotta Sea Lice knows not to overstay its welcome. Hopefully we’ll get another collaboration at some point down the road.

Old 97s – Graveyard Whistling (2017) On their previous album, the Texas alt-country quartet turned their amps up and returned to their roots with the raw, profane Most Messed Up. The band appeared to be at a crossroads heading into Graveyard Whistling, their 11th album. While the production is slicker and the songwriting is less self-referential, the 97s are still fully committed to having as good a time tonight as possible and dodging the consequences of it tomorrow. Singer Rhett Miller acknowledges as much on “Bad Luck Charm,” the jig “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls, the lonesome “Turns Out I’m Trouble” and the bloody “Drinkin’ Song.” Elsewhere, the boys turn theology into a pickup line on “Jesus Loves You” (sample lyric: “He makes wine from water/but I just bought you a beer”), stare into the afterlife with the help of Brandi Carlyle on “Good With God,” and wax nostalgic on “Those Were the Days.” Ultimately, Graveyard Whistling isn’t as essential as Most Messed Up, but it is a very good album from a band with a great run.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 53

By Joel Francis

Insurgence DC – Broken in the Theater of the Absurd (2019) Insurgence DC formed in the late ‘80s, but Broken in the Theater of the Absurd is just their third album, arriving 19 years after their previous release. The Washington D.C.-based punk trio has plenty to say about the corruption and incompetence they see around their hometown. Reading the lyrics printed across the back of the album, one could be forgiven for thinking she was looking at a Billy Bragg broadside. What keeps songs like “Poison Profits” and “Third Party Opinions” from being op-ed pity parties is a well-seasoned band that plays well off each other and knows how vary textures and arrangements to keep the music fresh. The aggressive songs are tempered by flourishes of avant noise (think Sonic Youth), post-punk moodiness and the gleeful ska of “Pick Pocket Pirates.” Fans of the Dischord label and anyone P.O.ed by the current political landscape will find a lot to like in the Theater of the Absurd.

Miles Davis – In a Silent Way (1969) I shudder to think how Miles Davis would have responded to the age of Twitter. Davis has been dead for nearly 30 years and audiences are still trying to catch up to what he was doing. The period when In a Silent Way came out demonstrates Davis’ restlessness and ambition. Just a year earlier, Davis disbanded his second quintet, one of the most incredible ensembles in music history. Three members of that quintet appear on In a Silent Way, but are used in completely different ways and surrounded by a host of other musicians. I’m having trouble coming up with a contemporary corollary for the sounds here. The last couple Davis quintet albums hinted at this direction, but In a Silent Way’s music still sounds surprising and fresh more than half a century later.

Neither rock, nor jazz (and not fusion), the closest touchstone to the music on In a Silent Way might be a psychedelic, improvised version of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp tried to accomplish both together and on their own in the mid 1970s. In fact, John McLaughlin’s electric guitar that opens the second side on “In a Silent Way/It’s About that Time” sounds like what Daniel Lanois would play with Eno in the 1980s. Davis had long moved on by that point, of course. He jerked even more heads by releasing Bitches Brew, another masterpiece, the following year. The vast expanse of the universe is barely enough to contain all of Davis’ ideas. I’m glad he never had to face myopic imbeciles limited to 280 characters.

Alex Chilton – Songs from Robin Hood Lane (compilation) What is it about the Great American Songbook of the 1930s to ‘50s that compels repeated interpretations? Late in his recording career Alex Chilton drew from this well for two solid albums. The output bears absolutely no resemblance to the power pop that Chilton created with Big Star or the blue-eyed soul he brought to the Box Tops. While no one would confuse him with Grant Green, the albums do reveal Chilton has decent jazz guitar chops. Chilton’s phrasing and vocal delivery also depict him as someone completely at home in this style of music. The title of this collection holds the key to Chilton’s comfort with these jazz standards. Robin Hood Lane was the name of the suburban Memphis street where Chilton grew up hearing his mom play these classic songs endlessly. Come to this collection not expecting “September Gurls” or “Cry Like a Baby,” but with an open mind to hear another facet from a criminally neglected (by mainstream society and himself) artist.

Eddie Hazel – Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs (1977) Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel left his stamp on many P-Funk classics (dig “Maggot Brain” as Exhibit A) but this was the only solo album released in his lifetime. Solo is a relative term here. Bassman Bootsy Collins co-wrote three of the songs here and keyboard legend Bernie Worrell is credited on two. Those two, plus the Brides of Funkenstein and a host of other P-Funk players all appear, but the album really does belong to Hazel. He transforms “California Dreamin’” into a slow jam and turns the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” into an acid-drenched guitar workout. The original songs fit well into the P-Funk songbook, but Hazel’s playing is remains prominent throughout. Although Hazel continued to sporadically appear on P-Funk releases after this album dropped, he was never as prominent as before. Thankfully back in print, Game is essential not only for P-Funk fans, but anyone who wondered what Jimi Hendrix or Ernie Isley might have sounded like fronting a funk band.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981) Nearly 40 years ago, when Hard Promises came out, MCA records wanted to hike the price to $9.98. Today, you can down the album on iTunes for $9.99. Inflation, huh? Petty and the boys refused to be the reason their label nicked fans an extra buck and Hard Promises eventually came out at the standard price of $8.98. Regardless of how much you paid, the music here is worth the investment. The songwriting on Hard Promises is every bit as good as Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s previous album, but doesn’t suffer from the same overexposure. The album starts with the classic “The Waiting” before leading into “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” the album’s second single. The remaining eight songs are all album cuts, but still beloved to hardcore Petty fans. Stevie Nicks duets on the gorgeous “Insider,” the Heartbreakers roar on “A Thing About You” and the album ends with another delicate ballad, “You Can Still Change Your Mind.” In between we get the slinky “Nightwatchman” and “The Criminal Mind,” which opens with a slide guitar part that sounds like a country version of the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

Heartbreakers bass player Ron Blair left after this album and didn’t return until 20 years later. Of the four original-lineup Heartbreakers albums, Hard Promises is easily my favorite. Heck, it might be my favorite Petty album pre-Full Moon Fever. Either way, all American rock fans need this album.

The Roots – Game Theory (2006) The Philadelphia natives that comprise The Roots are often labelled the best band in hip hop, an unsubtle jab at other groups that don’t play traditional instruments. Twenty-seven years after their debut album, I think it’s past time to drop the sobriquet and call them what they are: One of the best bands ever. Full stop. After striving (and compromising) for mainstream success on their previous album, The Roots went all-in on a darker, stripped down sound for Game Theory. Even though they weren’t aiming for the charts, I find myself humming the hooks in these songs for days afterward. Named after a mathematical model for decision making, Game Theory stares at big-picture topics like police brutality, drug addiction, poverty and dishonest media outlets. MC Black Thought’s isn’t afraid to drop heavy lyrics, but his delivery swings enough that you wind up tapping your foot as you nod your head. “Clock With No Hands” isn’t just a thought-provoking (no pun intended) look at addiction, but features a beautiful original (read: non-sampled) melody. In fact, one of the few samples on the album comes when Thom Yorke’s voice floats in and out of “Atonement.”

I saw The Roots perform with a full horn section on back-to-back nights of the Game Theory tour and they are among the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not in hip hop, but among everyone. Full stop.

Various Artists – Lows in the Mid-Sixties: Vol. 54: Kosmic City Part 2 (compilation) Between 1967 and 1973, Cavern Studios in eastern Kansas City, Mo., were a hotbed of recording activity. Local groups could venture into the subterranean limestone cave where the studio was located and, for the right amount of money, walk out with a record. The best of the rock sides were compiled on Numero’s exquisite collection Local Customs: Cavern Sounds, shown back on Day 12. Lows in the Mid-Sixties is a companion to that release, rounding up 14 covers of well-known hits by bands you’ve never heard. It is solid garage rock with a touch of psychedelia sprinkled across for good measure. One of my favorites is Dearly Beloved’s version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Dearly Beloved have clearly studied Van Morrison and Them’s cover, but removed the shimmering signature guitar line (later sampled by Beck on “Jack Ass”). The music here is far from essential and I’m not sure how interesting it might be to an audience beyond KC’s metropolitan area, but it proves the local music scene was humming around the Age of Aquarius.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 13

By Joel Francis

I hope everyone is staying inside and remaining healthy while we traipse through my album collection.

Chico Hamilton – The Further Adventures of El Chico (1966) Chico Hamilton was a drummer who played with Count Basie, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan and Lena Horne. For this album he is joined by Clark Terry (another Basie alumnus) and Ron Carter. The set mixes jazz standards (“Stella by Starlight,” “Who Can I Turn To?”) with blues, a few originals and covers of then-contemporary pop songs. It works well for the most part, but the jumps to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” and the Mamas and Papas’ “Monday, Monday” are jarring and remind of the exact moment the album was recorded. The pop covers aren’t bad on their own – although they cling pretty faithfully to the original charts – but they work against the rest of the material.

Van Morrison – Three Chords and the Truth (2019) A friend summed it up perfectly: Van Morrison’s output for the past three decades is always good, rarely great. I couldn’t tell you that Three Chords and the Truth is any better than the two albums he released the year before this, or even the two albums he released the year before that. I could tell you that all but one of the tracks are new Morrison compositions. I can also tell you that guitarist Jay Berliner, who played on Astral Weeks, is back in the band. His distinctive guitar lines color the album effectively. With four full sides of music there is a lot for Morrison fans to digest. I don’t think this will win any new fans, but if you like anything he’s released since his classic run in the 1970s, there’s a good chance you’ll like this, too.

Ella Fitzgerald – The Duke Ellington Songbook (1957) I’m generally not a fan of lyrics being added to instrumental songs. This album is a delightful exception. Ella Fitzgerald scats and floats across Duke Ellington’s enduring melodies like a spring breeze kissing laundry on a clothes line. Of course having Ellington’s orchestra on hand doesn’t hurt, either. Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson also pop up. You already know most of these numbers, now hear them anew with Ella and the Duke as your tour guides.

I got this double-album set at an estate sale. The previous owner wrote down the date, location and price of album on the inside of one of the sleeves. I love these little touches that show how these songs were here long before we came along and will exist long after us as well.

Warren Zevon – self-titled (1976) The album that introduced Warren Zevon to the masses (or at least his devoted cult) plays like a greatest-hits album. Linda Ronstadt covered no less than four of the 11 tracks performed here. Jackson Browne produced the album and plays on most cuts. Members of Fleetwood Mac, Eagles and the Beach Boys also pop up in the musician credits. You may think you don’t know Zevon, but I bet you’ll recognize at least a couple songs here. And if you like that laid-back, 1970s L.A. singer/songwriter vibe, you’ll love everything here. A true classic.

Various Artists – American Epic: The Soundtrack (compilation) The majority of the 15 songs in this collection were recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Fans of early folk and roots music will be familiar with most of these songs. What they likely haven’t heard is the clarity of these performances. The compilers cleaned up all the hiss and noise that usually comes with primitive recordings like these. The songs here by blues, country and folk pioneers aren’t just a nice collection of Depression-era musicianship. They are an essential part of who America is as a nation today. To learn why, you’ll need to watch the American Epic documentary. Enjoy.

Neil Young – Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live (2018) Tonight’s the Night was the first of Neil Young’s so-called ditch trilogy, his non-commercial response to watching “Heart of Gold” hit No. 1. The studio version was held by the label for two years before finally seeing release. This live album comes from the same period (1973) but is less bleak than its studio counterparts. The songs are Young’s responses to the death of two close associates from drug overdoses. Their spirits hang heavy over the night, but the intensity is dissipated by Young’s stage banter about topless women, burlesque dancer Candy Barr, Perry Como and label honcho David Geffen. The band also goes into a short rendition of “Roll Out the Barrel.” The heavy emotion in the songs never flinches, but onstage Young allows the audience to take breaks. These moments of release are what makes Roxy a compelling bookend to the studio edition.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 5

By Joel Francis

In observance of St. Patrick’s Day, here are some of my finest albums with Irish ties.

The Pogues – If I Should Fall From Grace with God (1988) The only thing wrong with this album is that the title song is too short. The extended 12-inch version on the Pogues box set solves this problem. Mentioning the highlights is like reading the track listing, but I’ll narrow it down to the absolute best. “Fairytale of New York” is my absolute favorite Christmas song and is just as powerful in August as it is in December. Hearing Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan trade stanzas in the final verse always crushes me. This song’s all-time status was cemented in my soul when Bill Murray slurred his way through it with David Johansen and Jenny Lewis in his Christmas special.

There may be no finer tribute to the hope and heartbreak of the 19th century immigrants who traveled to the United States to start a new life than “Thousands are Sailing.” And that’s just side one. We’d better move on or I’ll be here all day.

Stiff Little Fingers – Greatest Hits Live in London (2017) The glory days of this Belfast-born punk band were long over when this live set came out. Although most of the material here pulls from the groups mighty four-album run in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the fire on this inflammable material has dimmed. I really bought this album because it was marked down on a Black Friday sale and signed by the current musicians. As it’s the only SLF I currently own, it will be what I spin when I need to hear “Tin Soldiers” or “Suspect Device.” Oh, one more thing: “Alternative Ulster” makes a great alarm song on your phone. It’s hard not to want to kick the day’s butt after hearing that first thing.

Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak (1976) Yeah, this is the album with “The Boys are Back in Town,” the only song that classic rock radio deigns to circulate, but this is a solid slab of rock from start to finish. “Jailbreak” blows out the speakers like a lost AC/DC song. “Cowboy Song” starts off like a campfire ballad before Phil Lynott’s storytelling takes over and the guitars plug in. Can we talk about Lynott’s lyrics for a moment? “Emerald” reads like a preview to a great lost epic poem. The story in “Romeo and the Lonely Girl” is just as majestic as Mark Knopfler’s masterpiece “Romeo and Juliet.” All with those dual guitars that can sting like a scorpion out of nowhere. Thin Lizzy gets nowhere near the respect they deserve.

The Chieftains – 3 (1971)

Van Morrison and the Chieftains – Irish Heartbeat (1988) If you blindfolded me and played me any one of the Chieftains first half-dozen albums, I’m fairly confident I couldn’t tell them apart. The traditional Irish troupe expanded their sound when they started adding guest artists and gimmicks in the ‘90s. (The Chieftains play movie themes! The Chieftains go to Nashville!) There are many moments to savor on those albums, but I like the unvarnished simplicity of the jigs and reels on their initial run.

Ironically, it was the success of Irish Heartbeat that paved the way for these cross-genre exercises. I don’t begrudge the Chieftains for trying to reach a broader audience but to my ears they’ve never found a better partner than fellow Irishman Van Morrison. For proof, take a look at the group’s star-studded release Long Black Veil from 1995. Everyone from Sting to the Stones shows up, but Morrison steals the album with his own “Have I Told You Lately.” Irish Heartbeat brings out a playful side of Morrison rarely heard, particularly on “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and “Marie’s Wedding.” Hoist a pint and turn it up.

Dropkick Murphys – The Meanest of Times (2007) Irish by way of Boston, the Dropkick Murphys combine the traditional feel of the Chieftains with Thin Lizzy’s hard rock and Stiff Little Finger’s punk attitude. When I played this album in the morning my son announced that he didn’t like it and left the room. That evening he was captivated by the Murphys’ live performance online. I tried to tell him they were the same band from earlier, but he didn’t believe me. I guess some things need to be seen to be believed. (By the way, streaming this concert was a brilliant idea and really seems to be taking off while all of us are stuck at home. According to the counter in the corner, 128,000 people were watching live. That’s a far bigger crowd than they ever could have hoped to reach by playing a St. Patrick’s Day show in Beantown.)

Flogging Molly – Within a Mile of Home (2004) It’s hard to imagine a Dropkick Murphys fan not liking Flogging Molly as well. Molly are slightly less hardcore than the Murphys on record but both acts generate a considerable mosh pit in concert. I found Within a Mile of Home at a ridiculously cheap price on CD shortly after its release. Seeing Lucinda Williams was featured on one track, I picked it up. A couple years later, I found Whiskey on a Sunday, the follow-up EP/DVD under the same circumstances. Watching those live performances convinced me I absolutely had to see this band in concert. While Within a Mile from Home is the only Molly vinyl I own, I’ve seen them a handful of times in person and never been disappointed.

U2 – Boy (1980) If it is possible to think about this divisive Irish quartet without the hype, bombasity and preening it has accumulated over the years, then Boy is it. With the exception of opening track “I Will Follow,” the rest of the album has been excluded from setlists and compilations (although some songs have gradually crept back onstage). The menacing “An Cat Dubh” almost sounds like an anthemic early Cure outtake (with glockenspiel!) that slides into The Edge’s wonderful guitar textures of “Into the Heart.” (Along with Bono’s earnest vocals. U2 were never not-earnest.) There aren’t many hints of The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby here, yet all the essential elements of those albums are present. Sometimes spending time with the boy is more revelatory than hanging out with the man.

Review: Ryan Adams

(Above: Ryan Adams improvises a song about his pet badger at the Music Hall in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 1, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

In a night that covered more than two hours and comprised 21 songs, including hits, rarities and fan favorites, the most memorable song may have been the one that didn’t even exist when the concert began.

Mistakenly hearing a fan’s song request as “My Badger,” singer/songwriter Ryan Adams immediately composed a song about his new pet badger “Admiral.” Containing references to the USS Enterprise, Mariah Carey and “Glitter” and the perils of domesticating wild animals, it was the “Iliad” of improvisation. The song contained four verses, a chorus and whistled bridge. It probably would have featured a drum solo if Adams weren’t the only performer onstage.“My Badger” wasn’t the only spontaneous song during Wednesday’s performance at the Kansas City Music Hall. The off-the-cuff material provided a nice contrast to Adam’s less-than-uplifting lyrics and allowed the singer to poke fun of himself as well. g.”

In the past, detours like those could have easily turned into wormholes that derailed the performance. This current solo/acoustic tour is an artistic showcase. Everything in the carefully crafted song arrangements and selections is designed to display Adams’ songwriting abilities. While Adams is a divisive performer and personality, there’s no question he has chops. A beautiful “Oh My Sweet Carolina” set the mood perfectly. Later, Adams gave a stripped down reading of his post-9/11 hit “New York, New York” on the piano, placing the familiar song in a new context.

For most of the evening, Adams was seated on a chair in the center of the stage with two red, white and blue Buck Owens-style acoustic guitars within arm’s reach. A notebook of song lyrics lay on a monitor at his feet. The low red lighting kept most of Adams face in shadows as he bent over his guitar, delicately finger-picking and strumming.

The setlist contained as many songs from Adam’s first solo album, 1999’s “Heartbreaker,” as his most recent, last year’s “Ashes and Fire.” In a way, the night had the same flaw as the album. Taken individually, every song was exquisite, but together they started sounding similar.

Varying tempos would have helped, but even upbeat numbers like “Firecracker” were slowed down. The songs that best fit the mood were the gentle “Please Do Not Let Me Go” and haunting reinterpretation of Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” The sole number from Adams’ days in Whiskeytown, “16 Days,” was another standout.

Although stacking mid-tempo numbers created a steady stream of fans in and out of the theater, those who remained were pin-drop quiet during each song. Between numbers they shouted requests and egged on the singer’s eccentricities. There was nothing that would have converted an undecided listener, but after experiencing two frustrating concerts previously at the Uptown Theater over the years, the devoted finally got what they came for. And then some.

Setlist: Oh My Sweet Carolina; Ashes and Fire; If I Am A Stranger; Dirty Rain; My Winding Wheel; Sweet Lil’ Gal (23rd/1st); Invisible Riverside; Everbody Knows; Firecracker; Let It Ride; Rescue Blues; Please Do Not Let Me Go; English Girls Approximately; Two; Lucky Now; Wonderwall (Oasis cover); New York, New York; 16 Days; Come Pick Me Up. Encore: When Will You Come Back Home?; Sweet Illusions.

Keep reading:

Review: Old 97s, Lucero

Review: Social Distortion

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

 

Six Songs of Spring

(Above: “April In Paris” brought spring to many parts of the world whenever it was played. Few did it finer than the Count Basie Orchestra.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Spring arrived on the calendar several weeks ago, but Mother Nature didn’t get the memo until recently. The half dozen songs that follow don’t explicitly mention chirping birds, budding flowers, sun dresses and deck parties, but they certainly conjure the feeling.

“Starting a New Life” – Van Morrison

Van the Man throws off the shackles of winter in the jubilant first verse of this song:

“When I hear that robin sing,
Well I know it’s coming on spring,
Ooo-we, and we’re starting a new life.”

In a little more than two minutes, Morrison and his buoyant country/folk melody captures the romance of the season and the essence of why so many couples get married in the spring.

“Starting a New Life” was one of the first songs Morrison wrote after relocating from Woodstock, N.Y. to just north of San Francisco. Although the move wasn’t his idea, he was clearly relishing his new surroundings.

The last time the Cleveland Indians won the World Series, in 1948, Satchel Paige was in their rotation. He is pictured here during his time with the Kansas City Monarchs.

“Satchel Paige Said” – The Baseball Project

For many fans of the nation’s pastime, spring doesn’t arrive until Opening Day. Wind chill and even snow are mentally eliminated once the boys of summer line up along the base paths.

Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey of the Minus Five and Young Fresh Fellows teamed up in 2008 under the name “The Baseball Project” and cut 13 tributes to their favorite sport.

“Satchel Paige Said” sounds like an outtake from Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever.” McCaughey’s lyrics draw on elements of Paige’s biography and his famous advice: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

“Radio Head” – Talking Heads

Generation X is littered with great bands that take themselves too seriously. Perhaps the only common element shared by Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins is that neither band wants to provide its audience with the opportunity to laugh.

But the biggest and most serious of all Gen X bands is Radiohead. Which makes it even more delightful that they titled their first album after a Jerky Boys gag and named themselves after this supremely silly Talking Heads track.

But even if the English quintet had chosen another moniker, “Radio Head” would deserve a footnote in music history. David Byrne’s song about a man who can pick up radio transmissions with his noggin is set to a poppy zydeco rhythm that makes it the perfect song for that first spring car ride with the windows rolled all the way down and the stereo turned all the way up.

“Bowtie” – Outkast

Once the temperature swells, the unshapely layers of winter clothing are shed. And when the flimsy summer apparel is donned, it’s time to strut. Urban radio stations bank on this transition, building their warm-weather playlists around the singles designed maximize swagger.

The funky horns on this cut from Big Boi’s half of “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” will make any stroll seem like a parade. The hip hop equivalent of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” this track exudes more than enough confidence to turn a timid Romeo into a pimp daddy for one night.

“April, Come She Will” – Simon and Garfunkel

Ah, the fickle fancy of spring flings. On “April, Come She Will,” Paul Simon uses the changing seasons as a metaphor for a girl’s elusive affection following a brief affair. Thematically, the romantic longing of “April” was echoed on “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her.” Both songs hover around the two minute mark. The economy of Simon’s lyrics and arrangements and the power of Art Garfunkel’s vocals make both songs potent vignettes.

Although it was written three years before the film, “April, Come She Will” is used to great effect in “The Graduate” as Benjamin Braddock chases the heart of Elaine Robinson.

If you haven't seen the original 1969 film of "The Producers," you are missing out.

“Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers”

You don’t have to be an English major to see the metaphor in the title song from Bialystock and Bloom’s failed musical. As chorus girls parade around in beer stein bustiers, and pretzel tassels, the faux fuhrer solemnly intones: “Springtime for Hitler and Germany/Autumn for Poland and France.” Any remaining sensibilities are purged when storm troopers in a Busby Berkeley-style dance form a swirling swastika.

The coup de tat that saves the song from being an anti-Semitic nightmare comes from the fact that Mel Brooks, a Jew who fought the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, gleefully wrote all the lyrics to this brilliant satire. (That’s his overdubbed voice delivering the line “don’t be stupid, be a smarty/come and join the Nazi party.”)

Review: Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” at the Hollywood Bowl

Above: Van the Man’s down on “Cypress Avenue.”

By Joel Francis

If Van Morrison’s 1968 release “Astral Weeks” is the album of a lifetime, then watching him perform it live in its entirety is the chance of a lifetime.

Kansas City’s own Irish troubadour Eddie Delahunt took advantage of that opportunity and booked a trip to see Van Morrison perform his seminal album on November 8, the last of two nights at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

“It was historic,” Delahunt said. “I’ve seen Van before, and sometimes he can be grumpy with the material. This was the best I’d seen him. He played it straight and true. You could see he was real with it.”

Morrison opened the night by revisiting some of his bigger numbers, like “Gloria” and “Brown Eyed Girl” and lesser-known album cuts like “And the Healing Has Begun” and “Summertime in England.”

“‘Caravan’ was great, but there were no leg kicks like in ‘The Last Waltz,'” Delahunt said with a laugh, referring to Morrison’s performance in the 1978 Martin Scorsese film about The Band. “During ‘The Healing Game’ he did a little back-and-forth (call and response) with Richie Buckley on sax, trying to trip him up.”

Delahunt’s $250 terrace seats placed him dead center, about 40 yards from the stage. He said the high prices – tickets started at $350 – kept the crowd over 30 years old and the bowl under capacity.

“Van had the crowd in his hands for the first set,” Delahunt said. “Then they took a 15 minute break to rearrange the stage for ‘Astral Weeks’ and Van ran it straight through.”

For “Astral Weeks,” Morrison’s band, which was assembled in a semi-circle around him, was augmented by a three-piece string section and “Astral Weeks” album guitarist Jay Berliner. Original session bassist Richard Davis was also scheduled to join the group, but a last-minute family emergency kept him away.

Morrison shuffled the album’s order, slipping the closer “Slim Slow Slider” into the third spot and coupling the upbeat jazz numbers “Sweet Thing” and “The Way Young Lovers Do” into a powerful one-two punch.

“Everyone loved ‘Madame George,’ but ‘Cypress Avenue’ was the best for me. He played it closest to the album and you could see he was enjoying it,” Delahunt said. “During a song like ‘Slim Slow Slider,’ he wasn’t just playing the harmonica, but humming into it.”

Morrison closed the evening with an one-song encore of “Listen To the Lion” and a twist on an old phrase.

“As Van said at the end,” Delahunt recalled, “‘You made a happy man very old.'”

Note: The performance was filmed for future release on DVD. Catch Eddie Delahunt in concert by checking out his concert calendar.

Down on “Cypress Avenue”

(Above: Bill Shapiro appeared on television in Kansas City in 2008 to celebrate 30 years of his radio show, “Cypress Avenue.”)

By Joel Francis
The Examiner

Late at night, the house is silent.

Everyone is asleep, or so it seems. In a bedroom, a dim light shines through the blankets peaked around a small figure sitting up under the covers. The sound of tinny music can barely be heard.

The boy beneath the sheets is still, but his heart is racing. His hands tremble as he fine-tunes the radio under the covers with him. He thought it was lost forever, but he has found it: the jazz radio station carrying the songs of Dave Brubeck and Shorty Rogers. It was only late at night he could pick up the phantom AM signals from stations in exotic places like New Orleans. Forget sleep, he had found something far more important.

Fast-forward 50 years.

Today, the city – Kansas City – is alive. Cars zoom past on the interstate, clearly visible from the law office’s window on the 20th floor near Crown Center. Visitors scurry in and out of the renovated Union Station.

A train blows by in the distance. The stress of daily life is lost in this picturesque, birds-eye view.

The scene is quite different, but the boy, now 62 years old, has not changed. The passion for discovering new music still burns within.

Today Bill Shapiro doesn’t hid his love of music; on the contrary, he broadcasts it. Shapiro has hosted the weekly radio show “Cypress Avenue” for more than 20 years on KUCR 89.3 FM, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, National Public Radio affiliate.

Taking the show’s title from a song on Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” album, “Cypress Avenue” has become one of KCUR’s highest-rated local shows.

Shapiro has found freedom on the airwaves. Unrestricted by playlists generated by demographic studies and corporate interests, Shapiro plays the music that excites him in hopes of engaging his audience.

“He has a lot more information and insight into groups that commercial radio doesn’t know about,” says Robert Moore, KCUR and “Cypress Avenue” producer and music director. “A show like his would never happen on commercial radio because they don’t break down artists. They just play one format.”

While commercial radio serves a bevy of Bachman-Turner Overdrive and saccharine teen pop, Shapiro slips his sophisticated audience the Velvet Underground, Stevie Wonder and Uncle Tupelo, all linked by a common theme for a given show.

PrinceWhen Beck’s “Midnite Vultures” was released in 1999, no Kansas City radio stations would pick it up, despite heavy play from MTV and VH1. “Cypress Avenue” not only spotlighted the album, but buttressed it with Prince’s “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic,” forming a fitting tribute to both.

Shapiro sprinkles his shows with information from box sets, liner notes and magazine interviews, but for the most part he lets the music do the talking.

His inspiration may come from a television special or an album passed onto him by a friend.

More often than not, Corky Carrol, co-owner of Village Records in Overland Park, Kan., points Shapiro to a quality release. The two usually talk once a week about scheduled new releases.

“It’s strange to think that this is the only place to hear Elvis Costello or Nick Drake on the radio,” Carrol says. “You know at least for two hours you are going to get a solid effort, not a couple of good songs then Celine Dion.”

Says Moore, “He turns the public on to new groups they won’t hear anywhere else. Unfortunately, it won’t have any impact on commercial radio because it is run by corporations. It’s expected that this is what non-commercial radio does.”

“Cypress Avenue” may be popular, but Shapiro has yet to reach the notoriety of Murray the K. Sure, he gets calls at the office from fans and fan mail isn’t unexpected, but for the most part Shapiro is anonymous. That’s fine by him.

“Other than family I don’t think I could tell you a specific person who might claim to be my biggest fan or a longtime listener,” Shapiro says.

Carrol has supplied Shapiro with music for more than 25 years and is a regular “Cypress Avenue” listener. Carrol says he has bought “thousands and thousands” of albums for Shapiro.

“It’s hard to get one past him, but there are a few records he’s missed,” Carrol says. “His purchases are all over the board. I think the only thing I haven’t sold him is a classical record.”

A hit all over the country

The diverse playlists on “Cypress Avenue” have made the show successful not only in Kansas City, but all over the country. During much of the 1980s, “Cypress Avenue” was distributed on NPR’s satellite uplink system.

“In those days you could buy an hour of stereo time for $40,” Shapiro says. “I thought it was worth a shot and was willing to invest a couple thousand dollars.”

Several stations picked up “Cypress Avenue” and it became a hit in Minneapolis and a dozen other smaller markets, but when satellite costs rose, Shapiro pulled his show.

“I knew it wasn’t going to grow because it didn’t fit the NPR format,” Shapiro says. “People think public radio should be country and jazz or folk for the adventurous.”

But Shapiro wasn’t content with confining the show to his hometown. He decided to give the satellite one more try, this time with a national sponsor. “Cypress Avenue” proved to be popular, running in more than 40 markets, including Detroit, San Francisco and Jacksonville, Fla. Unable to find a sponsor, expenses were mounting and Shapiro was faced with a decision.

“I decided I could either earn a living as an attorney, or I could get in my car and drive across the country and build ‘Cypress Avenue’ into a radio show,” Shapiro says.

For the second time, “Cypress Avenue” was pulled from the uplink

“We just weren’t penetrating the major markets,” Shapiro says. “Today radio is a secondary medium. People don’t care about shows, they care about stations and that’s why radio is as homogenous as it is. Advertisers just want a demographic to sell their product to. I don’t fit that mold. I knew I’d never get the audience I wanted.”

Compromising the show to build a bigger audience would be counteractive to everything Shapiro was trying to do – share the music he loves with his friends. And if his only contact with these friends is through the radio, so be it.

“A lot of people use the TV as a companion. My stereo is my companion,” Shaprio says. “I lawasy have 30 to 50 unopened CDs at home. They come to me faster than I can listen to them. There is always part of my head saying, ‘Is this something you want to take further and put on the radio?’”

When Shapiro listens to music at home, he makes sure it gets the audio treatment it deserves. At age 12, Shapiro built his own Hi-Fi system from a Heath kit. That system has been upgraded and replaced many times since.

“I’m a sound freak,” Shapiro says. “I have more money tied up in sound equipment than most people have in a home. I wasn’t to hear it as well as I can hear it. I buy all the gold CDs and audiophile stuff.

“To me, music is as important as oxygen and food,” Shapiro continues. “When I’m home, I have music on 24 hours a day. In the car, music is on the whole time.”

Hooked by a phonograph

Shapiro got hooked on music in 1942 when an uncle gave him a phonograph player for his fifth birthday. A family friend in the jukebox business kept Shapiro supplied with records once they were too scratched for commercial play. At age 12, he discovered Brubeck, Paul Desmond and West Coast jazz.

Shapiro tried music lessons – he tackled the piano, vibraphone and banjo – but his musical aptitude was mental, not physical. He spent his time amassing records and building playback systems.

“Whatever money I made went into getting more records and improving what I had,” Shapiro says.

Shapiro migrated across Missouri and graduated pre-med from Washington University in St. Louis in 1958 with the intent of becoming a doctor.

Still an avid jazz fan, Shapiro would often get together with friends and playelvis precords. Then he saw Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey show. Shapiro was hooked on rock and roll and spreading the gospel of Elvis.

“I didn’t know who or what it was, but it had the same impact on me as hearing JFK was shot,” Shapiro says. “I can still visualize that room and the TV set and here we are 50 years later.”

To a generation of buzz-cut, starched-collar squares, Elvis represented the rebellious, darker side of 1950s adolescence.

“Presley was a lightning rod from my generation, a button-down generation,” Shapiro says. “There was a whole side of our lives – smoking cigarettes, sipping beers, getting lad – that was never talked about, and here it was in our living room. I immediately became a hard-core rock and roll fan.”

By the time Shapiro graduated, he had abandoned the idea of being a doctor. He headed north to the University of Michigan and enrolled in law school. With his law degree in hand in 1961, Shapiro decided he wanted to be a tax attorney. He heard that New York University had a graduate tax law program, so he went to the Big Apple. One show on Manhattan Public Radio planted the germ that would become “Cypress Avenue.”

“It was a thematic program,” Shapiro says. “They’d take someone like big-band arranger Fletcher Henderson and play arrangements done by different bands. They might play a combo version next to a big band version. I listened to that show religiously. In later years, I got thinking that there was so much richness and social impact in pop music as in jazz and I could do the same thing.”

Shapiro had finally found his calling, but after three universities and seven years of higher education, a career shift was not going to happen.

“By this time my family and I had spent a lot on higher education,” Shapiro says. “If I’d know then what I knew no, I would have been in the music business. It just wasn’t in the cards.”

The jump from disc jockey to tax law may seem extreme, but Shapiro says his work is extremely satisfying.

“Tax law is not what most people think it is,” Shapiro says. “It is the most creative part of the law, because what we do is planning. You might want to buy your partner out. If you do it one way, Uncle Sam takes a hunk. If you do it differently, you save money.”

Shapiro left New York in 1962 and returned to Kansas City to work and start a family. As his family grew and Shapiro flourished professionally, he became involved with broadcasting, but it was television that proved to be Shapiro’s stepping-stone to radio.

Deeply involved with public television’s early on-air auctions and fund-rasiers, Shapiro’s good deeds did not go unnoticed. A high school friend working at KCUR called Shapiro and asked if she could take him to lunch and discuss fund-raising methods. At the end of the meal, she asked if there was anything she could do for him. Shapiro asked for an audition to do a public radio rock show.

The dream was starting to materialize. Shapiro arrived at the studio with a stack of records for the show and hoped that the manager liked it.

“My first show was called ‘Ballads by Rockers.’ It was all ballad material done by people thought of as screamers,” Shapiro says. “He (the manager) says, if you can do that every week, you’re on.”

Sonic spelunking

As Cypress Avenue entered its second decade on the air, Shapiro realized new music and artists – particularly rap and alternative – were not striking the same chord with him.

“I’ve known for a long time I’m the generation these people want to rebel against,” Shapiro says. “I respect the fact that the music says this to the previous generation,” he says, emphatically holding up his middle finger. “There is a need to shake up the status quo.”

Shapiro doesn’t mind the envelope pushing done by newer artists, he just doesn’t get it musically. The Talking Heads and Beck are about as modern asbrubeck Shapiro gets with “Cypress Avenue.”

But Shapiro’s show doesn’t need Moby and Soundgarden to be effective. “Cypress Avenue” is a discovery process – for both Shapiro and for listeners – of influential artists and the impact they’ve had on music.

By showing listeners the roots of music, Shapiro leaves the listener naturally curious of the modern amplification and integration of this process.

“Cypress Avenue” isn’t a forum for Shapiro to amaze everyone with his knowledge. It’s a platform for him to share his love of music and enlighten listeners who don’t fit commercial radio demographics.

Jackie Nixon, NPR director of strategic planning and audience research, says that shows like “Cypress Avenue” are what NPR is all about.

“We treat our listeners with respect and intelligence and try to produce programming that makes people think as well as entertain,” Nixon says.

For Shapiro, those sleepless nights in the early 1940s were a discovery process.

“It was like going into a cave with a flashlight and all of a sudden – bang, something is shining back at you,” he says.

Shapiro has not forgotten that feeling and tries to instill the same feeling of excitement in his listeners.

“I think I broaden the awareness of the intelligence and importance of popular music,” Shapiro says. “I lift it out of the aural wallpaper and let people know it can be a powerful element. That it shapes opinions and tells a lot about where we are and where we are going.”