Thursday, May 25, 2017

Thoughts on American Epic - Episode 2 - Blood and Soil

After the disappointment of Episode 1, I didn't have particularly high hopes for the rest of the American Epic series. It seemed trite, half-baked. Simplified.

But, well. A lot can change in an hour. The second episode - Blood and Soil was tremendous. It dug in deep and got it. Let the music speak for itself, and made genuine connections (mostly) - showing how these slices of vernacular music captured (magically!) by record companies in the 20's reached far and wide.

Elder J.E. Burch

The first segment was anchored, neatly, in the sanctified church movement of the early 20th century (who can forget the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers?) - and looked smartly forward and backwards from there.. The role of preacher records, gospel music - all centered around Elder J.E. Burch and the quiet fervor of "My Heart Keeps Singing."

The filmmakers actually show the work - dig in the archives. Travel to Cheraw, SC. And talk to people who knew Burch. (They could do more of this - the story of the search).

Connections are nicely made to the civil rights movement, and Aretha Franklin and Dizzie Gillespie (who grew up next door to Burch!). Nimbly, niftily done. And letting Sister Rosetta Tharpe's Up Above My Head roll for a while at the opening? Spot-on. It frames the whole section perfectly - old and new; secular and spiritual; sensual and gospel and political and oh so powerful.

And, blissfully, no celebrities pontificating.

Coal Country

Just hearing the opening chords of Henry Lee made me smile, deeply. We're firmly on Anthology territory. This segment focused on Logan County - the land of Dick Justice and Frank Hutchison. Some great footage of the mines (including a great juxtaposition at the end of mine cars full of workers matched against an engineer in a lab coat watching a record get cut). Excellent discussion of music as a hobby - and a quick (too quick!) mention of the battle of Blair Mountain and Union struggles.

Could have used a bit more discussion of the connections between this music and the blues - the cross-cultural, cross-regional pollination - the broad range of song styles and traditions. It could have gone deeper into the connections between music and labor struggles. And it could have used a bit more on how these folks were "discovered" by the record companies - and how they saw making records. But these are quibbles, really. We're blissfully spared the Episode 1 nonsense about the Carter's being some sort of purist hillbilly music monks.

Notably this segment includes the first mention of the Anthology. It's well out of scope - but this story could be told again from the other side - from the perspective of the Blues Mafia and that wave of white college kids who went south to "rediscover" this old music. And the canonization of those discoveries in things like the Anthology.. But another time, another film (or book!).

Also, Springsteen doing John Henry did very little for me. I mean, I love the man dearly. But why was this tacked on here?


Probably the best segment yet. The opening was simply brilliant. May 1965. Shindig. Mick Jagger doing Red Rooster, transitioning to Brian Jones introducing Howlin' Wolf.

Then on to archival footage of Dockery with Wolf describing Patton. A line drawn through time in a great, simple, set of segues.

And then we're deep into the legend of Patton. As a friend pointed out, more could have been done with the poetry of his lyrics (see Chapter 2 of Robert Palmer's Deep Blues - Heart Like Railroad Steel) or their context as laid out in Elijah Wald's excellent piece . But there's plenty to love here from the lengthy clips (High Water!) and the interviews with those who knew him. The biggest thing I got from the interviews was just how key the role of working with mules in the fields was - to the lope of the rhythm, to the roughness of the voice. Lots of great stories about Patton's showmanship - he was an Elvis. A Jerry Lee. Playing the guitar with his teeth, behind his back. On the ground, kicking dust in the air.

And the links forward were nicely done - to Son House (that footage of him doing Death Letter!) and Robert Johnson and the world. All neatly placed into the context of Dockery Farm - a way of life with its roots before the Civil War.

Simply amazing footage. And hearing Robert Lockwood cover Robert Johnson's immortal Love in Vain reminded me how that song is about the best 2:20 imaginable:

When the train, it left the station, was two lights on behind
When the train, it left the station, was two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind.
All my love's in vain.

And again, no celebrities in sight. Thank g-d.

Next week looks to cover the field - Cajun and Hawaiian and who knows what else. I've ordered the Book (apparently it's quite helpful for context - and reams of unpublished interviews). I may be along for the ride despite myself...

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Thoughts on American Epic - Episode 1

So I was taken a bit by surprise by the launch of American Epic. Apparently it's been in the works for years - but I've been out of the Old Time circles, alas.

And I was pretty excited - finally, a chance to see pre-war music get a shot in the public eye! The magic, the mystery. That incredible moment when the music industry met vernacular music on its own terms - and captured the diversity and depth that was out there far better than well-meaning folk song collectors like Lomax were able to. Charlie Patton and Geeshie Wiley. Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson. Skip James. Furry Lewis. All recorded commercially. All sublime.

And maybe, just maybe, Robert Redford and Jack White and T Bone could conjure some of that up - put it in context, and show why it mattered. Where it came from and how it grew. And what it tells us about the intersections, the seams, in our fabric.

And. Well. They tried. There's a lot to like in Episode 1. Split between the Carter Family and the Memphis Jug Band - they let the songs roll where appropriate (instead of just short clips). There's some great old footage - particularly of the record cutting machines. And the story of Peer going to Bristol to record is well told.

[First, though, a confession. I've never really liked the Carter Family. I get why they're important. But I find the fingerpicking repetitive and dull. And, aside from say Single Girl, I never really connected with the songs emotionally. Certainly not the same way I do when hearing Clarence Ashley or Bascom Lamar Lunsford or Frank Hutchison. Heresy, I know. And I don't care.]

That aside though, it makes sense to start the story with the Carters. In Bristol. But the story they tell is full of banal cliches. At one point Redford actually says: "Though poor in material goods, the mountain folk are rich with tradition. And none more than the Carter Family." What does that even mean? They were the poorest? The richest with tradition? Whatever they were, they didn't just appear. Where's the story of where this music came from? The mash-up of british isle murder ballads and the blues? Ghosts and vegetables and death?

Later, there's an assertion along the same lines - that the Carters had "no influences." Really!? All while failing to mention Leslie Riddle - A.P. Carter's African-American friend and fellow song-collector (who taught Maybelle her finger-picking technique). There's a great story to tell here - how A.P. pulled together and synthesized a wide range of song styles (and then took credit for them). But that's not in here.

There's a certain treacly nostalgia that creeps in. Assertions the Carters were "about music and not about money" (noting they didn't charge widows and orphans to see their shows) - when A.P. drug his pregnant wife from rural Virginia to Bristol to get a shot at a record deal? The list goes on.

So, do things improve with the Memphis Jug Band? Yes and no. Jug band music is dealt with as a fully-formed thing - without discussion of where it came from, or that it existed well beyond Memphis. Will Shade is given some well-deserved attention. There's some good discussion about how bands like the MJB played a bit of everything from Broadway showtunes to blues, but not nearly enough.

But then Nas - and Redford as narrator - keep repeating more cliche banalities - this time about the crime and violence and danger of Memphis in the 20's. And it's as false a fetishization as the spin on the Carters. The clip of Nas covering "On the Road Again" is interesting - but what does it really do to help us understand the jump from pre-war blues to Illmatic?! Or is it just a teaser for the separate film / concert / video / CD / stream of the "American Epic Sessions"? I blame T. Bone Burnett (his soundtrack to the concert for the film of Inside Llewyn Davis is pure hucksterism. No matter how good Rhiannon's performance was). [But I can't stay mad. T Bone will always have a spot in my heart for Rolling Thunder 76. Always.]

The preview for next week mentions Charlie Patton. I'm holding my breath. There's real magic possible here - a world just waiting to be put into context and explored with actual intellectual depth and rigor. Amazing, explosive stories about how our country came together (and didn't, and haven't). Stories of Love & Theft. And they're waiting to be told. Still.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Heart Like a Levee (Tift Merritt / Hiss Golden Messenger, Bootleg Theater, LA - 10/22/2016).

A photo posted by Ben (@lonesomeace) on

Back from the desert, back from LA - and back to bullets. For efficiency's sake, of course.

  • There's something about the desert. The space, the land, the sense of time on a geological scale. The stars at night. Then driving down, out of the hills, into the impossibly sprawling megalopolis. A stolen weekend - MOCA and LACMA and Point Dume - actually making it to the sand this time, body-surfing, riding wave after perfect wave into shore.

  • Saturday night. Bootleg Theater. Small, but warm. Wood beams and hipsters and craft beer sold from a folding table. Exposed rafters in the back room, warm, lovely sound. I caught the end of Tift Merrit's soundcheck, an almost-empty room, hanging on every word. Then, later, once the show started she was incredibly present. Human. Funny. With a voice like Emmylou's and some solid songs.

    Hiss Golden Messenger had a Dawes-type feel. Polished, but heartfelt. And I missed a bit of Tift's raggedness and earnestness - but it all fit together quite well.

  • Sunday brunch in Los Feliz with amazing family. Wonderful, rambling conversation. Bookstore wandering. That sky. Prolonging the drive back to the airport until the last possible minute..

  • Then home. Words sent into the space. Accepting a new job offer on my birthday, then taking J to Ted's Bulletin to celebrate.. Dancing into the unknown, but excited about the possibilities. Returning to the world of museums and libraries and archives. On the cusp of big changes - technology, copyright, trade. In a position where I can make a difference, hopefully.

  • Off to Shenandoah again over Veteran's Day with J. To test the new backpacking tent and some new campstove recipes and try some new trails. Skipping St. Paul & The Broken Bones to do so - but excited about Mitzki and Loretta Lynn and Zadie Smith. And oh so much more.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Vaya Futoro / Fishlights - El Imperial (Mexico City) - October 8

So it's been far too long. I have drafts of reviews of Jenny Lewis and those Watson Twins (Lincoln Theater - 9/18) and Okkervil River (9:30 Club - 9/19) and Sturgill Simpson (DAR - October 11) all queued up. But they're just gonna have to wait.. .

Writing this from an airplane to sweet California - I splurged and got WiFi. Flying into LA, then off to the mojave for a week to ramble around the desert - for work. Back to LA on Friday and a few stolen days in the city of angels. Almost two years to the day that I was there with J on that great western ramble. Thinking about retracing my steps (Getty / Malibu) - but also ready to push into the new. LACMA. Griffith Observatory. Thrift shops. Los Feliz. Tacos. The beauty of the freedom of now.

Instead of those reviews, though, I'm still stuck in that tiny club in Roma Norte, CDMX - El Imperial.

Vaya Futuro

A video posted by Ben (@lonesomeace) on

First of all, Mexico City was incredible. Solo traveling is incredible. The looseness, the ease. The deliciousness. The rambling. The tacos. The art. The music.

Second - the show. Fishlights came out first. That's them in the clip above (despite my Insta mislabeling) - which only captures a tiny sliver of what it was like to be there. The lead singer had a loping, languid presence - but was simultaneously the center around which the band spun. The keyboard player sang backup vocals and her parents were in the audience, easily the oldest (and happiest) ones there. Cheap drinks, beautiful people. Hipster night out. But they played a kind of heartfelt, guitar-based, lightly psychedelic music that I hadn't heard from an American band in years... I was in the front row. Toe-tapping.

And then, after a short break.. Vaya Futuro took everything up a level. A tight four-piece with a charming lead singer. Long instrumental passages that were aggressive, visceral, yet tender. They took no prisoners. This was for keeps. And I didn't realize until later that they're from Tijuana... border music. Liminal. And I was in the front row. Dancing. Moving. Slip sliding along the floor in my new shoes.. free.


A photo posted by Ben (@lonesomeace) on

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Patti Smith - 3 January 2003 (a flashback)

I found myself thinking today about the first time I saw Patti. January 2003. The 9:30 Club. And what a crazy, phenomenal show that was. So I looked up the setlist:

3 January 2003, 9:30 Club, Washington, DC, USA

Waiting Underground
Dead City
Kimberly (For Kimberly)
When Doves Cry
Redondo Beach
Beneath the Southern Cross
One Voice
Mickey’s Monkey
Strange Messenger
25th Floor
Don’t Say Nothing
Dancing Barefoot
Summer Cannibals
Paths That Cross (For Beverly)
Where Duty Calls
Not Fade Away
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Pissing in a River

And then found my old review:

...the glorious primal energy of Patti Smith at full steam, belting encores through the 1 am 9:30 club smoke full-tilt rock-and-roll - Jumpin Jack Flash and Gloria - her version - brilliant not only for it's opening line "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine.." and it's fantasy sequence - shifting from a boring party to a dream about a girl (!) leaning on a parking meter outside the window - but for the way she teases you, playing with the van morrison chords and motown motifs "oooh she looks so good/oooooh she looks so fine/and i've got this crazy feeling /.. i'm gonna make her mine" .. until she breaks into the chorus, breaking out the letters - G, L, O, R, I - drawing them out I I I I I I I - until they become nonsense symbols.. and the band churning away beneath it all. Bacchus himself would be blown away..

It was wonderful to see her.. it took her a good 1/2 hour to get warmed up, but once she did (and we stood - as we did for the White Stripes a year ago - within 10 feet of the stage) she was charming and open and joyous. Giving. What impresses me most about her is her organic musicality - her sense that everything out there (although her musical vocabulary doesn't quite stretch back to Uncle Dave or Lonnie Johnson) is worth listening to - integrating smokey robinson and the MC5 and Television to the Rolling Stones and stream of consciousness poetry (that only works out loud). Its theatrical. Its visceral. It's cereberal. And theres not much out there that combines all three at the same time (unless of course you're talking about the RTR, but thats an entirely different plane)..

But I still drove 30 Hours

After seeing Kanye a few weeks ago, I finally started to dig deep into Pablo. I know. It took long enough. But I'm still adjusting to albums that exist only as streams. As ultralight beams. And, at first it was only on Tidal. But it's on Spotify now. And I can plug my laptop into my stereo and stream it over my speakers. Windows open. Throwing Kanye out into the general rainbow stream of cursing and music and laughing of North Trinidad.

And there's a lot to unpack. But for now, I'm caught in the slipstream of 30 Hours. Apparently it was added late - after the big Madison Square Garden unveiling. Almost as a bonus track, a toss-off. And in a way it is.

But it's so much more. It's that slow, easy, effortless series of highly specific images (Doubletree / Waffle house / St. Louis to Chicago) - that somehow become universal - that's captivating. And then the long outro. The phone call. The casualness, the ease, the smoothness. It's like White Dress. A world away from the reality shows and illusions and games. Or maybe it's not - it just feels real.

Friday, September 16, 2016

We on a Ultralight Beam - Kanye - Verizon Center - September 8

We on a ultralight beam
This is a god dream
This is everything

Ultralight beams..

A photo posted by Ben (@lonesomeace) on

Words. It's been a week and I still have the words rolling around in my head. The sound. The sheer vibrating presence. The energy.

I saw the Yeezus tour with Ben E. in November 2013 - tucked in the very top row of a deep distant corner of the Verizon Center. It was like watching a play through a telescope. But oh those songs. The way that album cut through as I wandered those Paris streets that summer of 2013. It always takes me back to soft rain and wide boulevards and a sort of visceral liminality. And what I most remember from that show were the rants - 10-15 minutes at a time. About shoes. About his genius. And how they threw off the rhythm of the music.

Now a little under two years later I was back. Spur-of-the-moment stubhub ticket and this time I was towards the bottom of the 400 level. I got there early and let the energy build. Bought a t-shirt. The place slowly filled up, and promptly at 9:30p, the lights went down and he was there. Floating above the crowd on the floor on a small industrial rusted metal stage the color of Richard Serra steel. And as I looked closer,I finally noticed there was a wire bolted to the center of his stage that attached to the back of his shirt. He was tethered. Floating. Pacing. Sometimes leaning out over the edge - straining. Reaching.

The songs were mostly Pablo throughout - but particularly at the beginning. That great verse from Schoolboy Q's That Part. Some old hits - Mercy, Tell Me Nothing. And then he hit Power. And after the first verse stopped short. Cut the music. And talked, earnestly, about how much the words of the song meant to him - right now, in this moment. How he needed to hear this song. How it was for him. And when he launched in again, it was pure energy. The crowd feeding it back to him. Then a killer Blood on the Leaves - the heart of Yeezus, that hook - floating.

The sound was fuzzy at first, but quickly got better. And to be in a huge venue, with everyone in the whole place knowing every word to each song, was simply exhilarating. He was there, real, present. Trapped on his floating island. The kids moshing below him. In control and controlled. Fighting to be free.

Towards the end he sang Only One - that ballad to his daughter he did with McCartney and Rhianna. And stopped again. And talked about how the song was actually written when he thought about his mom singing to him. From heaven. Which led to a beautiful ramble about color and heaven and his mother and life...

And he then finished with a run of hits that had us all dancing in aisles - Gold Digger- Touch the Sky- All of the Lights - Good Life - Stronger. By the end, as the choir in Ultralight Beam soared, the stage floated away - Kanye disappearing in a beam of light. And I was almost in tears. Moved. Touched. Transported. In a way I haven't been by a show in a very, very long time..

Up next - Jenny Lewis @ Lincoln on Sunday night; Okkervil River @ 9:30 Club on Monday. Sturgill in early October at DAR. Good times. Indeed.