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Posts Tagged ‘Woody Guthrie’

(Above: The David Rawlings Machine perform the always-poignant medley of Rawlings’ “I Hear Them All” and Woody Guthrie’s timeless “This Land is Your Land” at musical celebration of the film “Inside Llelywn Davis” in 2014.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Folk music simultaneously looks back nostalgically at a bygone era while looking hopefully ahead at a better tomorrow. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk without becoming antiseptic and corny or preachy and naive.

With a repertoire that included an old-time telegraph man, a pretty, young mountain girl and several appearances by Old Scratch, David Rawlings showed Friday night at the Folly Theatre why he is one of today’s most sought-after folk artists.

The two-hour concert (with half-hour intermission) was Rawlings’ second performance at the Folly in a year. Overall, it was Rawlings fourth show in the area in as many years. Or as Gillian Welch, Rawlings’ partner and musical foil put it, “the rest of the country is not seeing us that often.”

daverawlingsmachinecolorThe first set was heavy on material from Rawlings’ just-released third album. Across the course of the night, he’d perform all but one of it’s tracks. While the songs aren’t as road-tested, they had a knack for seeming instantly familiar. By the end of several numbers, the crowd was quietly singing along, even if they were hearing them for the first time.

Old favorites dotted the opening half as well. Welch took lead vocals on “Wayside/Back in Time” from her 2003 release “Soul Journey.” That was followed by Rawlings’ early collaboration with Ryan Adams, “To Be Young (Is to be Sad, Is to be High),” introduced as a “song older than some of the instruments onstage.”

For their encore performance at the Folly, Rawlings and Welch brought the same musicians who backed them last year. Guitarist Willie Weeks, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, bass player Paul Kowert from the Punch Brothers and violinist extraordinaire Brittany Haas completed the ensemble.

In a group of world-class musicians, Haas stood out. Her fiddle provided a melodic counterpoint to Welch and Rawlings’ vocal harmonies and frequently drew mid-song applause, especially on “Short-Haired Woman Blues.”

The mournful “Lindsey Button” sounded like a lost Appalachian hymn until Haas started plucking her violin along to Rawlings’ solo, turning the performance into a minuet. Later, the ensemble returned to the classical motif on “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)” as two fiddles and Kowert’s bowed bass accompanied Rawlings’ guitar.

Other high points included a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” which featured a virtuosic Rawlings guitar solo that quoted “Midnight Rider.” Paradoxically, the solemn “Guitar Man” implored the crowd to “hear the band” and “clap your hands,” but Rawlings’ longing vocals and the band’s arrangement made it sound like they were looking at a faded photo and wistfully remembering something from long ago.

A medley of Rawlings’ original “I Hear Them All” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” has become the emotional centerpiece of the set. The pairing sadly never loses relevance, but seemed especially poignant in light of current turbulence and earned a standing ovation.

During “It’s Too Easy,” Welch swished her dress back and forth, dancing in place as Haas’ and Watson’s fiddles dueled. It seemed like the end of the night, but after another group bow, Rawlings reached back toward his guitar. After playing something Rawlings confessed they had been rehearsing at sound check, the night ended with all five musicians huddled around a single microphone. As the quintet sang “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” a capella, the audience provided percussive accompaniment with claps and stomps.

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(Above: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform a devastating cover of Radiohead’s “Black Star.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

The stage was adorned simply: two microphones, a pair of guitars, a banjo and a small black table set against a black curtained backdrop. In many ways it looked like the set-up for a radio show. The large banner advertising flour, soap flakes, a healing elixir or some other bygone product of American industry was implied.

For just over two hours on Sunday night, folk musicians Gillian Welch and David Rawlings delivered a spellbinding set to a near capacity Liberty Hall. The pair has been recording together for 15 years, but its music stretches back much further, back to the days of Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family and even Stephen Foster.

Rawlings provided the texture and coloring to Welch’s songs of isolation, desperate hearts, outcasts and murder. He coaxed many impressive solos out of his antique f-hole guitar, particularly on “Down Along the Dixie Line” and “Revelator,” the pair’s signature tune. The subject matter may have been bleak, but Welch’s  haunting voice and memorable storytelling, coupled with the duo’s understated but impressive arrangements made the material a joy to absorb.

They are touring behind their first album in eight years, “The Harrow and the Harvest.” All but one of the album’s songs found their way into the setlist, along with a handful of tracks from their four previous albums and a few surprising covers.

A well-schooled audience burst into applause at the opening notes of most songs, but then quickly quieted down to listen to every note. During the banjo-led songs “Rock of Ages” and “Six White Horses” the crowd stomped along so enthusiastically, the floor bounced along with it. Reverence was also broken when fans sang along with “Elvis Presley Blues.” David Rawlings’ side trip into Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” briefly turned into a hootenanny.

It might be tempting to write off Welch and Rawlings as a museum act, but the vitality and vibrancy of their performance make them impossible to dismiss. Their choice of covers was also shows pair refuses to be sealed in an antique vacuum. The set-closing cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” found Rawlings framing the song with Spanish flamenco flourishes.

A spellbinding reading of Radiohead’s “Black Star” – complete with a delicate introduction that showcased a conversation between guitars – was the evening’s best moment. The duo opened with “Orphan Girl,” the song Emmylou Harris recorded before Welch had a record deal to announce her talent.

Setlist: Orphan Girl; Scarlet Town; The Way It Will Be; The Way It Goes; Rock Of Ages; Wayside/Back In Time; I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll; Black Star (Radiohead cover); Dark Turn of Mind; Dusty Boxcar Wall (Eric Andersen cover). Intermission. Hard Times; Down Along the Dixie Line; Elvis Presley Blues; Six White Horses; Look At Miss Ohio; I Hear Them All > This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie cover); Tennessee; Caleb Meyer. Encore 1: Revelator. Encore 2: The Way The Whole Thing Ends; White Rabbits (Jefferson Airplane cover).

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 (Above: The voice of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn, transforms “Eight Miles High” and shows off his guitar chops with this stunning acoustic arrangement.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The stage was empty, but the sound was unmistakable. The shimmering jangle from the 12-string blonde Rickenbacker guitar rang clear throughout the Folly Theater as Roger McGuinn, voice and architect of the Byrds, strolled out casually from stage right. The chorus of the opening song, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” resonated throughout the night: “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”

For the next 100 minutes, McGuinn treated the two-thirds full theater to a stroll through his back pages, or, more specifically the music that influenced the sound of the Byrds and his songwriting. It took McGuinn half a hour to work his way up to the rock and roll era. He explained a reworking of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire” ended up as “She Don’t Care About Time,” a Byrds b-side, sang a sailor chanty, a spiritual and paid homage to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. He also used his own “Chestnut Mare” as an example of the cowboy songs from the old West.

These performances were interesting as a musical history lesson, but the show didn’t really take off until Elvis entered the building. Calling the transistor radio the iPod of its day, McGuinn explained how the portable radio freed him from having to listen to his parents’ music (and vice versa). The thrill of watching Presley inspired McGuinn to get his first guitar.

Now inspired, McGuinn told the audience about his lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where each week not only was a new song taught but several different styles of playing it. From there he took the crowd on a expedition through the Limeliters and Chad Mitchell Trio in Los Angeles into Bobby Darin’s band before landing at the Brill Building in New York City.

It was there McGuinn first heard the Beatles and recognized the folk-chord structures they used. Alone in his vision to marry folk with the British Invasion, McGuin fled the Greenwich Villagescene for the Troubador in Los Angeles where he met Missouri native Gene Clark and group that would become the Byrds were born.

Each adventure was illuminated by a musical representation of the time, from the Limeliter’s “There’s A Meeting Here Tonight” and Joan Baez’ “Silver Dagger” to “You Showed Me,” the first song McGuinn and Clark wrote together, which later became a Top 10 hit for the Turtles.

McGuinn performed most of the set seated on a piano bench at center stage. The only musician onstage, he was surrounded by four instruments, an acoustic and electric 12-string guitar, a 7-string guitar and a banjo. The open cases around him made McGuinn look like a posh busker.

The crowd relished every note and story. The room was often so quiet you could hear McGuinn’s pick hitting the strings. He frequently had to prod the audience to get involved, even singing the chorus on major songs like “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” another Dylan cover.

Although his tenor voice had lost some of its range, McGuinn’s singing was strong and his guitar playing was impressive. The best moment was a fascinating new arrangement of “Eight Miles High” that was more Ravi Shankar than Timothy Leary. Appropriately, the autobiographical journey ended with a relatively recent song, “May the Road Rise To Meet You.”

Set List: My Back Pages; She Don’t Care About Time; Leave Her Johnny, Leave Her (Time For Us To Leave Her); Old Blue; Chestnut Mare; Pretty Boy Floyd; Rock Island Line; Heartbreak Hotel (excerpt); Unknown Spiritual; There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight; Silver Dagger; Gambler’s Blues (aka St. James Infirmary); The Water Is Wide; You Showed Me; Mr. Tambourine Man; You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere; Mr. Spaceman; Dreamland; Up To Me; Eight Miles High; Turn, Turn, Turn. Encore: Feel A Whole Lot Better; Bells of Rhymney; May The Road Rise To Meet You.

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(Above: Justin Townes Earle performs the joyous/sorrowful “Harlem River Blues” for David Letterman.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

While he was living in Los Angeles in the throes of addiction, songwriter Steve Earle reached out to his son Justin, who was living with his mom in Nashville.

“I had very little contact with my dad growing up,” Justin Townes Earle said, “but once a month I’d get a package in the mail full of records.”

Steve Earle was a country sensation at the time, building on the success of his albums “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road,” but the albums he mailed his son bore little relation to ones he was making.

“I guarantee you I was the first kid in Nashville to have Nirvana’s ‘Bleach,’ because I got it from my dad in ’89 when it first came out,” Earle said. “I had all the AC/DC albums … Mudhoney. I got Ice Cube’s ‘Lethal Injection’ from my father.”

A few years later, the elder Earle — now clean of his addictions — offered some musical advice to his son: Write what you know and write honestly. By this time Justin Townes Earle, 14, had discovered the music native to his hometown.

“I took that advice and ran with it,” Earle said. “I’m the type of person who, once you point me in the right direction, just leave me alone and let me go.”

Earle plays the Bottleneck in Lawrence tonight. Fifteen years have passed since his songwriting career began, and although he suffered some of the same dark periods of substance abuse his father endured, Earle has persevered. He has released an album a year since 2007, each building on the last.

“My albums have been a conscious progression,” Earle said. “ ‘Yuma’ was me addressing my Woody Guthrie thing. ‘The Good Life’ addressed the honky-tonk ghost. With ‘Midnight at the Movies’ I was trying to push to the weirder side of folk, and then on ‘Harlem River Blues’ I was going for more of the gospel and blues.”

Last year’s “Harlem River Blues” opens with what may be the standout track in Earle’s impressive catalog, an upbeat, jaunty gospel number … about suicide by drowning.

“That song initially came from something I remembered when reading the ‘Basketball Diaries’ when I was young,” Earle said. “Jim Carroll and his buddies were the toughest kids in New York because they’d jump off the cliffs into the Harlem River.”

The darker elements draw on Earle’s days as a homeless junkie. Shortly after being fired from his father’s band in the early 2000s, Earle spent two years on the streets in perpetual search for the next fix.

“Because I am a drug addict, I have friends with fairly miserable lives and a few who actually took their own lives,” Earle said. “I talked with one friend about eight hours before he did it (killed himself) and as he told me his plan. I saw a look of ease on his face I’d never seen. It was what he wanted to do and why the song has a celebratory feeling.”

Barely 29, Earle feels like he has already lived several lifetimes. He quit school at 14 and ran off with some other budding songwriters at 16. A near-death experience hastened the start of his recovery from hard substances, although Earle still smokes and just swore off alcohol.

“The album ‘Harlem River Blues’ is about a man in his late 20s realizing he’s human and slowing down. The invincible part of my 20s are over,” Earle said. “I’ve run the gamut. There’s something about drugs that make you realize how delicate life is.”

Most of Earle’s immediate future will be consumed with touring, but he plans to take several weeks in October to record his next album. After that he’s moving from New York City to Europe for three years.

“I want to go to Barcelona on weekends and Paris for dinner,” Earle said. “I’ve been to Barcelona three times on tour but have never been to the beach. I want to spend a month in Marrakech. I just want to take in as much as I can.”

Thursday’s show will be Earle’s first appearance in the area since he opened for Levon Helm at the Crossroads in July, a night Earle calls “one of my favorite shows of all time.”

“I had done a couple shows with Levon prior to that night, but because his voice was bad he didn’t sing,” Earle said. “After my set I walked out and ordered a couple drinks from the bar at the right side of the stage. When the band kicked into ‘Ophelia’ and I heard that voice, I dropped my drinks and ran to the side of the stage.

“I didn’t move for the rest of the night.”

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 (Above: It may have been the holiday season, but John Lennon wasn’t pulling any punches when he put this video together. This extended cut also includes edited interviews with Lennon.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Before it was a song, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was a billboard. In 1969, two years before the song was written and recorded, John Lennon and Yoko Ono proclaimed “War is Over! (If You Want It)” on signage in New York, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo and several other major cities around the world. The signs were an outgrowth of Lennon and Ono’s bed-in for peace, but the phrase stuck in Lennon’s head.

When the couple relocated to New York City in 1971, Lennon quickly feel in the company of radical ‘60s activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Lennon had already gone on record against the Vietnam War at a Beatles press conference in 1966. The conflict was also a frequent topic of conversation during the bed-in. Instead of giving peace a chance, though, the United States had become even more entrenched in combat.

Inspired by his social circle and frustrated by another holiday season marked by fighting, Lennon turned his billboard slogan into a song. Lennon wrote the song over two nights in a New York City hotel room and recorded it almost immediately. Despite being released less than three weeks before Christmas, the single still managed to reach the Top 40. The feat was replicated each time the single was re-released. In Lennon’s native England, the single did not appear until 1972, when it went in the Top 5.

After a whispered shout-out (whisper-out?) to the pair’s children, Phil Spector’s wall of sound kicks in. The opening line – “And so this is Christmas/and what have you done?” – is both a nostalgic look back and the previous year and question of accountability. Despite having hope for the upcoming year, Lennon admits “the world is so wrong.” A chorus of children from the Harlem Community Choir echoes the words that started it all: War is over/If you want it.”

The melody is based on the folk ballad “Stewball,” a song about a British race horse. The first versions of “Stewball” date to the 18th century, but Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly put their stamp on the song in the 1940s. During the folk revival of the early ‘60s, both Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez included the song in their repertoire.

Many artists, including skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan, a big influence on Lennon and most British musicians of his generation, have cover “Stewball,” but their numbers pale in comparison to the roster of those who have recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” From Andy Williams and Celine Dion to Maroon 5 and American Idol David Cook to the Moody Blues and the Polyphonic Spree, the song has been covered by nearly every conceivable artist in nearly every conceivable genre.

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(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.

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(Above: Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy perform the unreleased Wilco song “Cars Can’t Escape.”)

By Joel Francis

When I first heard Jay Bennett had been fired from Wilco back in 2001, I was worried the band had just lost their secret weapon. Jeff Tweedy may have been the wordsmith and idea man, but Bennett was the artist who polished those ideas to perfection.

Bennett died in his sleep May 24. He was 45 years old.

Bennett’s presence was felt from the moment he joined Wilco in 1995. Tweedy was still trying to crawl out from the shadow of Uncle Tupelo and establish his identity independent of his Tupelo cohort (and rival) Jay Farrar. Bennett’s presence on the band’s second album, “Being There,” added a new dimension to the arrangements and production.

“Summerteeth” is arguable Wilco’s finest hour and definitely the perfect product of the Tweedy/Bennett vision. For each of Tweedy’s dark moments, like “She’s A Jar” or “Via Chicago,” there are the sun-drenched pop anthems of “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)” and “I’m Always in Love.” Wilco’s music has never been happier and more optimistic than it is on “Summerteeth.” For proof, check out the opening riff in the title song. “Summerteeth” the song is the musical equivalent of a gentle breeze caressing the backyard hammock, or those Corona beach commercials.

Bookending the recording of “Summerteeth” are two albums using unused Woody Guthrie lyrics recorded with British folker Billy Bragg. Bennett’s touch is felt across both volumes of the “Mermaid Avenue” material; “Secrets of the Sea” and “Hoodoo Voodoo” continue that “Summerteeth” vibe.

Wilco’s next album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” famously found the band in transition and butting heads. But if “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” point to the band’s future without Bennett, “Jesus, etc.” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” still held plenty of Bennett’s sunny, radio-friendly magic.

Although Tweedy continued building critical acclaim and growing his fan base after “Foxtrot,” Bennett was not as successful on his own. That Bennett was working as a VCR repairman prior to joining Wilco says a lot about his craft. Bennett was a tinkerer, one who was best improving and polishing other’s creations. Left to both build and execute, he struggled.

Despite this, Bennett’s four solo albums still have merit. His first post-Wilco release, a collaboration with Edward Burch called “The Palace at 4 a.m.,” has a remake of the “Summerteeth” track “My Darling” that may top the original. This album and the two that follow it have more unused Guthrie material which makes for a nice “Mermaid Avenue” post script. (The post script continued this year with Wilco’s release of Guthrie’s “Jolly Banker.” Hopefully a “Volume Three” will appear sometime.) Bennett’s limited singing ability can grows wearisome across these releases, his production never does.

Bennett’s most complete solo statement was his second-to-last album, 2006’s “The Magnificent Defeat.” The second word in the title should be given more emphasis than the third. Bennett’s lyrics and delivery have a bit of Elvis Costello anger to them, but the fun he had putting the album together jumps out the speakers and makes for an infectious listen.

Today, Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt are all that remain of the Wilco lineup that brought us “Summerteeth” and “Being There.” But every time the band launches into “She’s A Jar” or “ELT” – as they frequently do – a little bit of Jay Bennett will be smiling on the audience. And they’ll be smiling back.

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