Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Willie Nelson’

By Joel Francis

Peter Gabriel – Up (2002) As a fan who discovered Peter Gabriel in the early ‘90s, the decade between Us and Up seemed interminable. I’m glad no one told me at the time that I’d be waiting at least twice at long for his next platter of original material. Because of the lengthy delay, Up didn’t have the commercial impact of Us and So. Up is also a much darker album that features electronic elements in several songs. “The Barry Williams Show,” the first single released from Up, is easily its worst track. The arrangement never really gels and the lyrics lampooning talk shows and reality TV seems forced. (Lord, if Gabriel ever knew where those twin genres of trash television would lead us today ….) Sadness and mortality are themes in a couple songs, including the moving “I Grieve,” first showing up on the City of Angels soundtrack four years before Up’s release. Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn assists on the album’s emotional apex, “Signal to Noise.” As Gabriel has continued to move further away from rock music, hearing him surrounded by guitars, drum, bass and keyboards feels almost as gratifying as when this original material was first released.

Thelonious Monk – Solo Monk (1965) ‘Tis a pure delight to hear Thelonious Monk work without a band, with no filter between his mind and the music. The 13 songs on this wonderful album include standards, like the jaunty “Dinah,” which opens the collection, and the wistful, sentimental “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You),” which ends the album. Monk scatters his own compositions among the standards, including “Ruby, My Dear,” one of his signature pieces, “Monk’s Point” and “North of the Sunset.” In his autobiography, pianist Randy Weston talks about Monk holding court at his New York City apartment, sitting at the piano, playing whatever comes into his mind. Solo Monk is as close as we’ll get to eavesdropping on one of those private sessions. Solo Monk is a treasure in every way.

The Kinks – Sleepwalker (1977) The Kinks had such a long career they managed to peak twice. Between 1966 and 1971, they released an amazing cluster of albums, including Something Else, Arthur and Muswell Hillbillies. Then, in the late 1970s they peaked again, starting with Sleepwalker. Disco-era Kinks were a very different group than their swinging ‘60s counterparts. The group had ballooned to five members, to accommodate a keyboard player, and the sound was more hard rock than twee pop. Songwriter Ray Davies abandoned the concept albums that had bogged down most of the band’s 1970s albums, and brought sleek, stand-alone rock songs. Brother Dave Davies turns his guitar up loud enough to reach the cheap seats in the sports arenas they would wind up playing on tour. The subject of songs “Life on the Road” and “Juke Box Music” are evident in their titles. “Life Goes On” is an upbeat anthem guaranteed to brighten any bad day. Sleepwalker isn’t the best album from the Kinks revival, but it sets the table nicely for the pair of albums that follow and improve on this direction.

Lee Ranaldo – Between the Times and the Tides (2012) As a member of Sonic Youth, guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s solo releases were art projects not intended for mainstream audiences. Thankfully his first effort after Sonic Youth’s unfortunate demise is an accessible, low key indie rock album in the same vein as his old band’s album Murray Street. Ranaldo wrote all the songs for Between the Times, but he assembled an all-star band to bring the material to life. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelly, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Medeski, Martin and Wood jazz keyboard player John Medeski. My favorite song on the album is “Xtina as I Knew Her,” a haunting look back at underage drinking parties and the danger constantly lurking under the veneer of good times. Here are the lyrics to the bridge, which sets up a stinging Cline solo: “Slip behind the valley curtain/Looking for a place to hide/Shaky and those times uncertain/Everyone drunk on red wine.” The other songs are equally solid, proving that underneath are the abstract noise experiments beats the heart of a pop songwriter.

Steve Earle and the Dukes – So You Wanna Be an Outlaw? (2017) It feels like Steve Earle releases a new album of original material about 18 months. If you don’t like his current musical disposition, wait a few seasons and he’ll be there again in a different mood. Fortunately, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw?, a return to country-ish material, is a keeper. By virtue of being so prolific, Earle’s songwriting has gotten tighter and tighter, to the point where he can write a tribute to the people fighting forest fires simply because he learned they’d never had one (“The Firebreak Line”). Most of the other songs on the album deal with troubles: with women, money and society. Willie Nelson pops by to lend his voice to the title song. Earle ends the album with several earnest covers of classic outlaw country songs, including Billy Joe Shaver’s “Ain’t No God in Mexico” and Waylon Jenning’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”

Pearl Jam – Live at Easy Street (2019) In the spring of 2005, Pearl Jam stopped by a Seattle record shop to play a few songs and spread some hometown love. Seven of those songs were released on an CD exclusively available in independent record shops. Several years later, those same seven songs were released on vinyl for Record Store Day. My biggest complaint with this release is that I wished they would have released the full 16-song set on two albums, rather than the 27 minutes of material that populates this EP. What we’re given is great, though. Two songs from Riot Act, the band’s newest album at the time, one each from No Code and Ten and three covers. John Doe even comes out to perform X’s “The New World” with the band.

Last fall I ended up in Seattle for work. After making an obligatory stop at the Jimi Hendrix gravesite, I was hungry for both breakfast and crate digging. Both desires were satiated at Easy Street, which features a nice little brunch menu and an impressive expanse of vinyl. The large murals commemorating Pearl Jam’s concert brought two and two together for me. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, Easy Street is definitely worth a stop.

Read Full Post »

By Joel Francis

Stay strong and stay safe, my friends.

Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) The final Johnny Cash album released in Johnny Cash’s lifetime is appropriately fixated on mortality. Then again, Cash has been singing about death since he shot a man in Reno to watch him die. The album works more often than it doesn’t. The title song is one of my favorite Cash compositions, funneling the Book of Revelations through a strummy Martin guitar. Similarly, Cash turns Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” into a gospel song. He adds a layer of guilt and gravitas to Sting’s “I Hung My Head” that is absent from the original recording. Best of all, Cash infuses a lifetime of pain and addiction into “Hurt,” completely claiming the song from Nine Inch Nails. Most of the rest ranges from fine to worse. “Tear-Stained Letter” is too jaunty and “Desperado” and “Danny Boy” are unnecessary. Cash isn’t adding anything to those well-worn tunes. Even worse, are covers of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (with Fiona Apple) and “In My Life.” Surprisingly, Cash seems lost on these songs, unsure of what to do with them. The high points more than make up for the milquetoast material – there is usually a little filler on Cash albums, but the result is the least consistent of the American releases to that point.

David Lee Roth – Eat ‘Em and Smile (1986) Diamond Dave is looking to settle scores with his solo debut. He brought in hotshot guitarist Steve Vai and bass player Billy Sheehan to generate one of the highest notes-per-second rock albums in an era that celebrated six-string excess. For better or worse, Roth can’t help being anything other than himself so even this grudge match was delivered with a broad wink and jazz hands. The key word in the album’s title is SMILE. All the songs push the fun factor to 11, but surprisingly nothing feels forced. Of course it’s all junk food, but like getting the extra butter on movie theater popcorn, sometimes you just can’t help it.

Four Tops – Second Album (1965) More often than not, especially in the 1960s, Motown albums were collections of hit singles padded with other recordings. The result was often uneven, but the album tracks on Second Album are pretty great in their own regard. No one can argue with the three Top 10 hits on the first side: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “It’s the Same Old Song” and “Something About You.” The second side doesn’t contain any hit singles but doesn’t suffer from it. “Darling, I Hum Our Song” has a great Levi Stubbs vocal performance (really, he’s great on everything here) in a Jackie Wilson-styled song from the period when Berry Gordy was writing hits for Wilson. “Since You’ve Been Gone” first appeared as the b-side of “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” The energy from Four Tops and the Funk Brothers on this track make me think it could have been a hit on its own. Back on the first side, “IS There Anything I Can Do” is one of the few songs on the album not to come from the pen of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Written by Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracles Ronald White and Pete Moore, it’s not hard to imagine the Miracles performing this song. Surprisingly, as far as I know they never did. Come for the hits on Second Album but stay for the album tracks that illustrate just how special the Four Tops were.

The Damned – The Best of the Damned (compilation) It seems there are almost as many best-of collections for the Damned as there has been lineups. I picked this up at a garage sale because it has many of my favorite songs from their first three albums, back when they were more punk than goth. At some point I might expand my Damned album collection to include those early releases in their entirety, but until then this is a great overview of a tough band.

The Stooges – Fun House (1970) The hype sticker on my album proclaims “Iggy and the boys find their troglodyte groove.” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. The music on Fun House connects on a primal level, like howling at the moon. In a strange way, it connects with me in the same way as Howlin Wolf or John Lee Hooker – straight in the gut, without any pretense. Like it is hitting the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, shelter, etc.) In other words, the exact opposite of a pompous album review that references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The song “TV Eye” came from a phrase that Stooges rhythm section Scott and Ron Asheton’s sister used about men leering at her. It forces me to exceed the speed limit every time it comes on in the car. “Down in the Sleep” came to Iggy Pop in the middle of the night. He got out of bed trying to play the power chord he heard in his head, waking his wife in the process. Unlike Ziggy, Iggy didn’t play guitar. Perhaps he never found that chord.

After the opening assault, Fun House changes up a bit but remains just as gripping. Steven Mackay’s saxophone squonks across the second side like the group has just discovered fire for the first time.

This album needs to be played regularly to make sure you are still alive.

The Shins – Wincing the Night Away (2007) The third album from the Albuquerque indie rock quartet was their first release after Natalie Portman proclaimed them life-changing in the film Garden State. There was a lot riding on this release, but frontman and songwriter James Mercer wasn’t afraid to stretch the band’s sound. He sprinkles synthesizers and funk basslines among the familiar chiming guitars and la-la-la melodies. As a result, Wincing the Night Away isn’t as strong as the two Shins albums before it, but it is still very enjoyable.

Willie Nelson – Teatro (1998) Willie Nelson seems game to try just about anything. Reggae album? Sure. Duet with Kid Rock? Why not? Still, the decision to record in an old movie theater with producer Daniel Lanois was a solid nod. Nelson revisits several of his lesser-known songs from the 1960s with harmonica player Mickey Raphael and the marvelous Emmylou Harris on backing vocals. Many of the arrangements are Spanish or Mexican in spirit and give a vibe like we are lost in a marathon of Ennio Morricone films south of the border. Nelson, the other musicians and the songs thrive in this atmosphere, making this a distinctly unique album in Nelson’s vast catalog and also one of his best.

Peter Gabriel – Us (1992) It took Peter Gabriel six years to release a follow-up to his massively successful album So. That’s almost light speed, considering he’s only given us one other album of original material since then. But what an album Us is. Gabriel throws everything from bagpipes to a Russian folk group in the should-have-been-single “Come Talk to Me.” Other songs are just as overstuffed and immaculately excellent. The horn-driven “Kiss the Frog” ranks as one of the greatest extended sexual metaphors of all time. “Blood of Eden” and “Secret World” are passionately romantic. The only dud is “Steam,” aka Son of “Sledgehammer.” There is a lot to unravel in Us, but Gabriel gave his fans plenty of time to process all of it.

Read Full Post »

By Joel Francis

Joe Tex – I Gotcha (1972) Like a lot of people, I was introduced to Joe Tex through the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. Like most of Quentin Tarantino’s musical moments, “I Gotcha” was placed perfectly in the film, when the guys bring the captive cop back to the warehouse. I can’t remember where or when I first encountered “You Said a Bad Word,” but that song captured the same sexual menace, braggadocio and funk as “I Gotcha.” If you liked one, you would surely like the other. Lucky for me, those songs kick off each side of this album. “Give the Baby Anything That Baby Wants” was another single released from this album in the same vein as “I Gotcha” and “Bad Word.” The ballads on here aren’t bad, but when I spin this record I want to strut.

Cannonball Adderly – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at The Club (1966) If you don’t recognize the name Cannonball Adderly, you may know him as the saxophone player who isn’t John Coltrane on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. This album is a world away from Davis’ celebrated release, but it is fantastic in its own right. The title song actually crossed over on the pop charts and it’s easy to see why. It kind of rolls in from nowhere before building into a big gospel-fueled chorus. Composer Joe Zawinul takes a solo on the electric piano as the melody percolates until the band churns back into that big chorus. It’s the kind of song that could go on forever. To my ears, it also points the way to the jazz television themes of the 1970s and ‘80s, like Bob James’ “Angela,” used for Taxi and Mike Post’s theme for “Hill Street Blues.” If Zawinul’s name sounds familiar, he played on Davis’ fusion landmarks “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” before founding Weather Report with Wayne Shorter. Oh, and the rest of this live album is great, too.

Neko Case – The Tigers Have Spoken (2004) Technically this is a live album, but there’s no crowd noise or stage banter (until a hidden track at the end), so you could be forgiven for thinking this is a studio release. Either way, hearing Neko Case perform songs by Buffy Saint Marie and Loretta Lynn is a treat. Gospel music isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Case, but she and her top-shelf band do right by “This Little Light.” My hometown even gets a nod on “The Train from Kansas City.” All in all, The Tigers Have Spoken isn’t as essential or immediate as the many studio albums containing her original compositions, but it is a great homage to some of the people who inspired her.

Red Kate – Unamerican Activities (2016) Nearly every December for the past several years the RecordBar has hosted a great tribute to the late Clash singer and guitarist Joe Strummer. I always make it a point to attend because it is an opportunity to hear songs by my favorite band performed live. Red Kate were the closing performers in 2018 and blew me away with their intensity. Afterward, I struck up a conversation with lead singer L. Ron Drunkard – shout-out to that amazing stage name – who is exactly who you’d expect him to be: A guy who fell in love with punk music as a kid and has been playing in bands for most of his life while holding down a day job to pay the bills.

The music on Unamerican Activities reflects that proletariat, we’re-all-in-this-together perspective. These songs hit hard and punch back at the ruling class. No one’s working for the clampdown in these quarters.

Roy Orbison – All-Time Greatest Hits (1986) Every music collection needs so Roy Orbison, so this was one of the earliest albums I bought. A closer look reveals this aren’t the original recordings of Orbison’s best-known songs, but remakes done in 1986. The big clues are that the musician credits are the same for all tracks and there aren’t any licensing arrangements for the singles that were initially issued across several labels. The good news is that the producers didn’t try to update the Orbison sound. There are no gated drums or synthesizers and Orbison still hits all the right notes on “Cryin’” so this collection still works for me.

Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990) Despite its provocative title, Public Enemy’s third album isn’t as incendiary as the first two. This isn’t to say Chuck D is pulling any punches. “Burned Hollywood Burned” torches the movie industry for black stereotypes and the lack of black actors a generation before #OscarsSoWhite. “Fight the Power” doesn’t attempt to hide its manifesto. Deeper into this dense album “Pollywannacracka” discusses interracial couples (before Jungle Fever, I might add). Flava Flav’s comic relief comes in the form of “911 is a Joke.” Ha ha.

In a way, Black Planet is a distillation of the first two albums in manner more palatable to mainstream tastes. It’s PE’s best-selling album, but also the last album where nothing feels forced and it doesn’t seem like they are trying too hard. Looking at current headlines and the spike in hate crimes since 2017, it seems the concept of a black planet is still a very present fear in society today. Welcome to the terrordome.

John Fogerty – Blue Ridge Rangers (1973) John Fogerty was snake-bitten and gun-shy after the demise of Creedence Clearwater Revival. His label owner swindled him out of songwriting royalties and his brother Tom had sided with the label before bitterly leaving CCR. This is probably why John Fogerty’s name is hard to find anywhere on this debut solo album. The Blue Ridge Rangers are actually Fogerty playing all the instruments. He does a good job sounding like Nashville session players during this romp through a dozen country standards. My favorites are the gospel songs “Working on a Building” and “Somewhere Listening,” each featuring a choir of Fogertys on backing vocals. The performance of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” is as close as the album gets to CCR territory.

Willie Nelson – Phases and Stages (1974) Finding someone who doesn’t like Willie Nelson is like encountering someone who hates rainbows, ice cream and puppies. I mean, I guess mathematically that person has to exist, but you never expect (or hope) to encounter him or her. I’ll never forget a former co-worker’s diatribe against Nelson, but I took some satisfaction in knowing the disdain was for political, rather than musical reasons.

Phases and Stages is the album that immediately preceded Nelson’s breakthrough, Red-Headed Stranger and also the second of what would be three consecutive concept albums. I’d say that period represents peak Nelson, but the truth is that Nelson turns out so many albums and so many of them are solid that any valleys are likely to be followed by a couple more peaks. If you love country music, rainbows, ice cream and puppies, you should have this album. If you don’t like any of these, I feel sorry for you.

Read Full Post »

(Above: Survivor Billy Joe Shaver performs “Old Chunk of Coal” at Farm Aid 2011 in Kansas City, Kan.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Search the name of country legend Billy Joe Shaver and the phrase “honky tonk hero” isn’t far behind. It’s the name he gave his autobiography and the name of the landmark album Waylon Jenning recorded of Shaver’s songs in the early 1970s. That association earned him a seat at the far end of the outlaw table, another handle that has stuck with Shaver over the years.

It is difficult to summarize a life that reaches back to the Great Depression, when Shaver was born, and a catalog of music that spans five decades, but a better word to describe him may be survivor. Check out this passage from Shaver’s self-penned, online biography:

“I’ve lost parts of three fingers, broke my back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head,” Shaver writes, “fought drugs and booze, spent the money I had, and buried my wife, son, and mother in the span of one year.”

billy_joe_shaverWhen Shaver lost his fingers, he taught himself to play guitar again without those digits. The night his son died, he was back onstage, playing the scheduled gig. Guitar and pen are Shaver’s constant companions through crisis.

“I write songs as my way out of life’s corners,” Shaver said in a recent phone interview. “I always just wrote for myself, but it worked out that a lot of people got in the same kind of shape I did and identified with what I was writing and held it close to their chest.”

To Shaver, “Try and Try Again” and “Live Forever” aren’t just classic show-stoppers and sing-alongs – they’re literally lifesavers. When Shaver started writing “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” he was in a particularly bad spot.

“I was set up to be the next big deal in Nashville, but I was drinking, doing drugs, chasing women. I was doing everything you weren’t supposed to do,” Shaver said. “One night, I had a vision of Jesus Christ. He was sitting there, eyes like red coals.”

Too intimidated to make eye contact, Shaver sat there, stewing in humiliation.

“His head was in his hands and he was going from side to side with his head,” Shaver continued. “He did have to say it, but I knew he was asking How long are you going to keep doing this?”

Overcome with guilt, Shaver drove in the middle of the night to a special place away from the city he discovered with his son, planning to kill himself.

“I could have sworn I jumped off a cliff going to do myself in, but I wound up on my knees with my back to the cliff asking God to help me,” Shaver said. “He gave me this song when I was coming down the trail.”

By the time Shaver reached the bottom of the steep, tricky path he had half of the song. Getting the second half was no easier. Pulling his wife away from her friends and his son from his school, Shaver moved the family to Houston to distance himself from his dealers and temptations.

“I went cold turkey from smoking, doping, everything. I couldn’t keep any food down so I dropped to 150 pounds. One night, after I was finally able to eat again, I finally wrote the rest of the song. It took a year to finish.”

Whenever Shaver writes a new song, he holds it up to the standard of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” It’s one of the first songs he wrote, not only a key track on Jenning’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” album, but the title song on Shaver’s first album, both released in 1973.

“I wrote that song when I was eight years old,” Shaver said, “and I’m always trying to beat it.”

Next month Shaver plans to release his first new studio album since 2007. He’s been working on the project with Todd Snider, and is finalizing the tracklist, making sure everything is up to the “Five and Dime” standard.

“I don’t want to spill all the beans, but we’ve been doing a few of the new songs live,” Shaver said. “I’ve got a four-piece band that makes enough racket, but still lets people hear the words.”

Keep reading:

Review: Farm Aid

Read Full Post »

(Above: Alejandro Escovedo soundchecks “Lucky Day” during a recent stop at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

In a career that spans four decades, Alejandro Escovedo has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Mickey Raphael, Ian Hunter, Whiskeytown, a string quartet and a host of other talents in his own ensembles. On Thursday night at 1911 Main he performed with an octet of Kansas City’s finest musicians. The result sounded as strong and invigorating as any of Escovedo’s high-profile collaborations.

There wasn’t much room to get acquainted in the opening number, “This Bed Is Getting Crowded.” Far from intimidated, the ad-hoc band threw plenty of muscle into the hard-driving number from Escovedo’s latest album. The smiles exchanged across the stage confirmed what the fans in the comfortably crowded venue suspected: this was going to be a show to remember.Throughout the nearly two-hour set, Escovedo chatted casually between songs, sharing stories about the songs, recalling past gigs and friends in Kansas City — particularly his numerous shows at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club — and generally having a good time. In a lot of ways, the performance felt more like a night out with friends than a capital-P Performance.

High points included the beautiful back-to-back ballads “Five Hearts Breaking” and “Swallows of San Juan” — both of which featured nice steel guitar playing from Mike Stover — and the joyous “Always a Friend.” Later in the night the band smoothly slid from the smoldering “Everybody Loves Me” into the intimate “Gravity/Falling Down Again,” completely and effortlessly transforming the emotion of the room.

Friend and Midwestern Musical Co. owner Matt Kessler got numerous shout-outs for allowing the band to rehearse in his space, being a good friend and for turning 50 at midnight. His birthday present was being allowed to strap on a guitar and sit in with the band for the party-inducing “Castanets” and encore set.

The band, dubbed the Cody Wyoming Deal, was led by Wyoming on guitar and backing vocals, and also included guitarists Stover and Christopher Meck, Erik Voeks on bass and backing vocals, drummer Paul Andrews. Abigail Henderson, Lauren Krum and Katie Gilchrist also contributed backing vocals.

Setlist: This Bed Is Getting Crowded, Crooked Frame, Real As An Animal, Rosalyn, Five Heart Beating, Swallows of San Juan, Always a Friend, Wave Goodbye, Tender Heart, I Don’t Need You, Down in the Bowery, Sister Lost Soul, Pissed Off 2 a.m., Everybody Loves Me > Gravity/Falling Down Again, Castanets. Encore: Velvet Guitar, Shine a Light (Rolling Stones cover).

Keep reading:

Review: Alejandro Escovedo (2010)

Review: Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)

Review: Los Lobos (2011)

Read Full Post »

(Above: Paul McCartney goes to Kansas City with a little help from his friends.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Big Apple has “New York, New York,” “Empire State of Mind” and dozens more. The Windy City has “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Tom Waits gifted the Twin Cities with not one but two songs (“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and “9th and Hennipen”). Visitors to the Bay City are encouraged to “wear some flowers in (their) hair” while the City of Angels gets “California Love,” “Beverly Hills” and “Hollywood Swingin’.” Heck, the even the Gateway City has “St. Louis Blues.”

But there’s only one universally known song about my hometown: “Kansas City.” (Only obsessive music fans and listeners of a certain age will recall “Everything Is Up To Date in Kansas City” and “Train to Kansas City.”) When listening to Jay-Z, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong boast about other American cities I try to find comfort reminding myself that the Beatles only sang about one city during their career and they chose “Kansas City.”

“Kansas City” is the only song visiting performers feel obliged to work into their setlist. Willie Nelson played it at Farm Aid earlier this month and Paul McCartney used it to open his 1993 show at Arrowhead Stadium (the recording from that night also appears the album “Paul Is Live”). I’ve heard the song so many times in concert I feel like someone should tell all touring acts that no, really, they don’t have to play “Kansas City” on our behalf.

It’s not like the song is invisible around town. Twelfth Street and Vine may be gone (typical of my hometown – undermining its greatest assets), but the song is still very present. Go to a Royals game and if you stick around until the end you are guaranteed to hear “Kansas City.” If the boys in blue win, fans are treated to the Beatles version. If they lose then Wilbert Harrison is piped through the speakers.

“Kansas City” was seven years old by the time Harrison got his hands on it. Originally recorded by bluesman Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, the song was written by a couple of 19-year-old Jews inspired by a Big Joe Turner record. Littlefield’s performance featured a somewhat racier chorus, ending with the line “with my Kansas City baby and some Kansas City wine.” When Federal Records received Littlefield’s recording they promptly rechristened it “K.C. Lovin’.”

Wilbert Harrison

Harrison had been performing “K.C. Lovin’” for years before he decided to record it in 1959 under its original title and with the sanitized chorus we all know today. Released on Fury Records, the platter went straight to No. 1 and spawned an army of imitators. Within weeks, interpretations of “Kansas City” by Hank Ballard, Rockin’ Ronald, Little Richard, Rocky Olson and a reissue of Littlefield’s original recording could be found in record shops. Paired with his own “Hey Hey Hey,” Little Richard’s cover hit No. 27 in the UK and inspired the Beatles’ recording.

The men – boys, really – who penned “Kansas City” wouldn’t visit the town that inspired their song until the mid-‘80s, nearly 35 years after handing the tune to Littlefield. Despite this handicap, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller nailed their vision of “a melody that sounded like it could have come out of a little band in Kansas City,” as Stoller later explained on a UK television show.

Hot on the heels of “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City” cemented Leiber and Stoller’s reputation as rock and roll’s hottest songwriters. Before the decade was out they would write scores of hit songs for the biggest singers of the day – Elvis Presley, the Drifters, Phil Spector, Ben E. King and, especially, the Coasters – and shape the young days of rock and roll more than anyone else. A sampling of their songs from the time reads like an early rock and roll greatest hits collection: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block Nine,” “On Broadway,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and on and on.

Jerry Leiber (left) and Mike Stoller show the King of Rock and Roll his next hit.

The duo’s use of strings on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” predates (and foreshadows) the Motown sound that would dominate pop music in the coming decade. In fact many of their arrangements and innovations were so prescient that Leiber and Stoller found themselves on the sidelines for much of the 1960s. The Beatles and other British Invasion bands learned to write emulating Leiber and Stoller and other Brill Building songwriters, making third-party songwriters largely redundant. The expansive use of the recording studio rendered Leiber and Stoller’s pioneering arrangements sounding (for a while) like quaint relics of the past.

Despite these advancements, rock and roll and pop music will never outgrow the shadow of Leiber and Stoller. Grammy awards, hall of fame inductions and songwriting royalties stand as a testament to Leiber and Stoller’s perpetual influence. Even “American Idol” paused to pay tribute with an all Leiber-and-Stoller episode last spring.

Jerry Leiber, 78, died Monday. His survivors include Mike Stoller, his songwriting partner of 60 years, his family and everyone who ever picked up the guitar or sat down at the piano and tried to write a song or become a star.

Keep reading:

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

Talking King Records with Jon Hartley Fox

Remembering Gennett Records

Read Full Post »

(Above: Neil Young preaches and sings his only No. 1 hit at Farm Aid 26 in Kansas City, Kan.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record 

Several years ago and less than a quarter mile from the gigantic Farm Aid stage at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., Willie Nelson welcomed Bob Dylan onto the stage. It wasn’t that big of a surprise – the pair was playing minor league ballparks together for the first time that summer – but it was incredible to watch the two titans collaborate.

Despite Farm Aid’s star power, Saturday’s nearly 11-hour musical marathon/fundraiser didn’t feature any similar big-name collaborations but that’s about the biggest disappointment that could be leveled at the day.

The first of 16 artists went onstage at 1 p.m., but it wasn’t until Hearts of Darkness, Kansas City’s Afro-beat ensemble, came out a half hour later that the stadium started feeling less like a dress rehearsal and more like a concert.

The first half of the day was heavy on folkies and country music legends. Ray Price, 85, looked frail, but his deep baritone voice is immortal. His delivery on songs like “For the Good Times” and “City Lights” still pack the same emotional punch as it did when they were recorded nearly 40 years ago. Billy Joe Shaver proved to be spry at 71 as he hooted and scooted his way through “Wacko from Waco,” “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Honky-Tonk Heroes.” It would have been great to witness either Shaver or Price duet with Nelson – Price and Nelson have recorded a handful of albums together – but with mid-afternoon sets, the two were likely well-settled in their hotel rooms by the time Nelson ended the day several hours later.

Robert Francis and British actress Rebecca Pigeon (the only female performer on the bill) each delivered 30-minute sets of fine folk music, but the only performance that stood out was Francis’ cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”

The final acts before the headliners could have filed under nepotism, but provided some of the daytime’s strongest moments. With a singing voice eerily similar to his dad’s, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real married Texas blues with the Allman Brothers Band’s Southern boogie. Backed by former Wallflowers pianist Rami Jaffee, Jakob Dylan delivered several of his old band’s biggest hits, including “Sixth Avenue Heartache,” “Sleepwalker” and “One Headlight.” At times, the pairing of Dylan and Jaffee recalled Tom Petty’s more delicate work with Heartbreakers ivoryman Benmont Tench.

The unfortunate dud in this stretch came unexpectedly from Jamey Johnson, who despite getting an assist from Lukas Nelson and a solid six-piece band filled his time with too many mid-tempo numbers that failed to ignite both onstage and in the crowd.

Taking the stage shortly before 7 p.m., Mraz faced the biggest crowd of the day so far and drew more applause than any of the preceding acts.  Mraz got an assist delivering his bouncy acoustic folk/pop from longtime friend Toca Rivera on percussion and backing vocals. Their jazzy version of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (a.k.a. Mr. Roger’s theme song) drew a big reaction.

Several of his songs fit well with the day’s themes. Mraz said he wrote “Frank D. Fixer” for Farm Aid about the first farmer he knew, his grandpa. The second verse, ending with the line “what happened to the family farm?” was especially poignant.

Primed by Mraz, Dave Matthews fans were more than ready for their hero. Matthews – with help from guitarist Tim Reynolds – didn’t disappoint. His 45-minute set was packed with sing-alongs “Crush,” “Where Are You Going?” and the set-closing “Dancing Nancies.”

The crowd was ready for more singing when John Mellencamp emerged with his five-piece band, but Mellencamp played on his own terms. Detours through “Walk Tall,” “Death Letter Blues” and “If I Die Sudden” confused an assembly clamoring for the hits, but they were ultimately rewarded with a spectacular performance of “Check It Out” along with Farm Aid anthem “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Small Town” and “Pink Houses.” A quiet reading of “Jackie Brown” performed only by Mellencamp and violinist Miriam Sturm was another highlight.

Neil Young needed only a harmonica and acoustic guitar to take the title of the day’s best set. He only played six songs, but the first three were a murder’s row of favorites: “Comes A Time,” “Sugar Mountain” and “Long May You Run.” Attention spans may have wandered during Young’s sermons against corporate farms and a pair of songs from last year’s excellent “Le Noise,” but he easily won the audience back with the opening chords of “Heart of Gold.” This was the fourth time I’ve seen Young but my first with him in coffeehouse mold. Experiencing  these songs in such an intimate way was powerful and emotional, leaving me with goosebumps and a lump in my throat.

After Young’s transcendental set anything would be anti-climatic, and Willie Nelson drew the short straw for ending the day. While neither Mellencamp nor Young emerged beyond their appointed times, Nelson worked the stage all day, opening the concert, accepting checks and thanking people. Understandably fatigued, Nelson’s set was light on his biggest songs – “Whiskey River,” “Still is Still Moving” and “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” were the only chestnuts delivered.

He turned the mic over to his son for a blistering version of “Texas Flood” and the family tribute “Fathers and Mothers.” Blessed with a second wind, Willie Nelson serenaded the host city with “Kansas City.” Several backing musicians from the previous bands came back out to help with a trio of gospel numbers that wove through “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light” before ending bizarrely on “Roll Me Up,” a brand new Nelson song with the refrain “roll me up and smoke me when I die.” The subject was incongruous, but the music stayed in the same jubilant spirit.

Nelson’s herb of choice may not be a crop farmers can plant, but it was fitting end to a day focused on agriculture.

Keep reading:

Review: John Mellencamp

Review: Jamey Johnson

“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

 

Review: “Neil Young – Long May You Run: The Illustrated History”

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

(Above:  The song is called “Playing the Part,” but Jamey Johnson is definitely his own man.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Jamey Johnson stood onstage at Crossroads in a black t-shirt and blue jeans. The wind that pushed temperatures to the mid-century mark on Saturday night frequently floated the long follicles of his hair and beard. Subtract the acoustic guitar and add some tattoos and Johnson could have easily been mistaken for one of the performers at Rockfest, occurring simultaneously just a few blocks away.

Call him the last Highwayman or forgotten outlaw, Johnson’s music is wedged in a narrow crevasse in today’s country landscape, too traditional for the alt. country/no alternative scene and rarely sweet and polished enough for the new/young country machine. (Johnson has tasted mainstream success in co-writing Trace Adkin’s “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” George Straight’s No. 1 hit “Give It Away” and his own “In Color.” He performed the latter two to great response, letting the audience take over on the chorus.)

Johnson basks in the music of his idols, both stylistically and aesthetically. Littered with signatures, his blonde acoustic guitar is clearly a tribute-in-progress to Willie Nelson’s famous six-string Trigger. Johnson’s 24-song was an immaculate honky tonk playlist, seamlessly crisscrossing between original material, Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Don Wilson, Hank Williams – both father and son – George Jones and Ray Price.

The one-third-capacity crowd oscillated in their responses throughout the 100-minute set. They were either completely invested, whooping and hollering and singing along with every word as on “Get Straight,” “In Color” and several of the better-known covers, or completely disinterested and conversing over the performance. Perhaps the consistently low-key, understated arrangements wore thin, but given their overwhelming responses at times it’s hard to believe this crowd didn’t know exactly what they were getting beforehand.

High points included a steamrolling “That Lonesome Song” that gained energy from the interplay between the pedal steel and electric guitarists. During a spirited reading of “Tulsa Time,” Johnson gave each of his six band members time in the spotlight as they passed solos across the stage. “By the Seat of Your Pants” opened with an a cappella verse capped with a rare Johnson solo on his acoustic guitar.

After slowing the set to a crawl with the romantic “Amanda” and remorseful “Walkin’,” the night ended with the crowd-pleasing “In Color” and jubilant “I Saw the Light,” the most energetic number of the night. A few more moments like this would have kept the crowd in hand more consistently.

When the houselights came up few could believe it was over. There was no encore and Johnson had barely acknowledged the crowd beyond working our town into his lyrics a couple of times. It was clear as he left, however, that Johnson was satisfied he’d made his mark.

Setlist: High Cost of Living; Lonely at the Top; Cover Your Eyes; Night Life (Willie Nelson cover); Country State of Mind (Hank Williams Jr. cover); Can’t Cash My Checks; The Door Is Open (Waylon Jennings cover); Playin’ the Part; Mary Go Round; Tulsa Time (Don Williams cover); I Remember You; That’s the Way Love Goes (Merle Haggard cover); That Lonesome Song; For the Good Times (Kris Kristofferson/Ray Price cover); unknown slow blues cover; Still Doing Time (George Jones cover); Misery and Gin (Merle Haggard cover); By the Seat of Your Pants; Give it Away; Set ‘Em Up, Joe; Amanda (Don Williams cover); Walkin’ (Willie Nelson cover); In Color; I Saw the Light (Hank Williams cover).

Keep reading

Meet the New Boss: Pat Green

“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

Rock Hall commemorates 35 years of Austin City Limits

Read Full Post »

(Above: Arlo Guthrie pays tribute to his father as their friend Pete Seeger aids in a performance of “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Illegal immigration is a hot-button topic in the current political landscape, but it is hardly a new issue. In January, 1948, a plane crashed carrying 28 migrant farmers being deported by the U.S. government. All 32 passengers were killed in this tragedy, but when newspapers and radio stations reported the incident they only mentioned the names of the pilot, co-pilot, stewardess and guard. The workers were described only as “deportees.”

This incensed Woody Guthrie, who felt the workers were just as human as the other victims. Thus inspired, he wrote a poem expressing the injustice of the situation. Since the workers’ names were not known – 60 years later, 12 of the victims are still unknown – he made up names.

Ten years later, Guthrie had been hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital for what would later be diagnosed as Huntington’s disease. Although Guthrie was very much out of the public eye, learning his music became a rite of passage for the musicians in the burgeoning folk revival. Schoolteacher Martin Hoffman was inspired by Guthrie’s “Deportee” poem and set the words to music. The song was quickly passed around the folk community and Guthrie’s friend Pete Seeger added it to his repertoire.

Guthrie’s lyrics not only pay respect to the departed workers, but question the system that seduces workers to leave their families and risk their lives to find unsecured work under questionable conditions. In addition to the 28 workers who died in the plane crash, Guthrie jumps to first person and pays tribute to the other workers who either died on the job in America or perished trying to reach a better life.

“We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same. “

After restoring humanity to the anonymous deportees and chronicling the plights of their families and countrymen, Guthrie delivers some damning questions in the final verse.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?

In the 2004 book “Reefer Madness,” author Eric Schlosser raises many of the same questions with his essay “In the Strawberry Fields.” Drawing on firsthand accounts, Schlosser describes the conditions of the illegal farmers in the California strawberry fields. The workers’ living conditions and treatment are amount to slavery in all but name, he argues. Schlosser’s questions, like Guthrie’s, remain unanswered.

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” has been covered so often that Guthrie biographer Joe Klein declared it the “last great song” Guthrie wrote. Artists who have recorded their vision of the song, either in tribute, in protest or both, include Pete Seeger, Guthrie’s son Arlo Guthrie, the Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, the country super group the Highwaymen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Concrete Blonde, Nanci Griffith, the Los Lobos side group Los Super Seven, Old Crow Medicine Show and Billy Bragg.

Keep reading:

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

KC Recalls: Johnny Cash at Leavenworth prison

Read Full Post »

(Above: Roy Orbison performs “(Oh) Pretty Woman” on “Austin City Limits” in 1983.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The musical landscape of television was of a different world when “Austin City Limits” debuted on Public Television 35 years ago. Brief performances on late night talk shows or segments on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” were the only options for fans hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite act.

Baloons and the capital building, trademarks of the Flaming Lips and Austin City Limits.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrates the show that put long-form performances on the air with the new exhibit “Great Music. No Limits. Celebrating 35 Years of Austin City Limits.”

“There were certainly music shows on television before, like Ed Sullivan, ‘Shindig’ or ‘Hullabaloo,’” said Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs for the Rock Hall. “But ‘Austin City Limits’ was the first show where the performers didn’t lip synch and were provided with a platform that extended beyond just a song or two.”

The exhibit includes photographs, setlists, documents and video footage of the show’s greatest moments.

“A big part of the exhibit are the photos from the show. We have 30 or more pictures of artists ranging from B.B. King, Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello to Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and the Dave Matthews Band,” Henke said. “We also have a lot of different documents, including lots of early stuff like the proposal for underwriting the pilot episode and several handwritten memos.”

The memos show the evolution of the show’s title from “River City Country” to “Austin Space” before finally settling on the current title.

The Hag on ACL.

“We also have three setlists from Wilco’s performance where you can see which songs were added and changed before they went on,” Henke said.

“MTV Unplugged,” “Sessions at West 54th Street” and “Soundstage” are but a few of the shows Austin City Limits has inspired during its run. In 2002, the show spun off into the three-day Austin City Limits Music Festival.

“The show started out with Willie Nelson on the first episode then expanded,” Henke said. “If you look at who’s appeared since then it’s been a nice mix of artists.”

Henke pointed out recent episodes with Ben Harper sitting in with Pearl Jam and Mos Def with K’Naan as examples of the show’s continued innovation.

“The producers don’t just book established artists. They’re looking at younger artists as well,” Henke said. “Our video reel has everyone from Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe to Damian Marley. It’s not just focused on one era or genre. I think this is not only what made the show so innovative, but has given it such longevity.”

For museum hours and ticket and general information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.

Keep Reading:

Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)

Rock Hall celebrates the 40th anniversary of Woodstock

(Below: The Polyphonic Spree party on Austin City Limits in 2004.)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »