Thursday, May 24, 2018

Gems & Stones: Neil Diamond

[purchase Hot August Night]

I’m willing to bet that the first time you saw The Last Waltz, there was a moment when you shook your head, surprised at what you were seeing on the screen. After seeing The Band play, then a guest spot from the rough and tumble rocker Ronnie Hawkins, who basically gave the guys their schooling in the music business, a brief excerpt from The Canterbury Tales (OK, that was kind of a head scratcher), and then performances from Dr. John, Neil Young, and the Staple Singers, out to the stage, in all of his blow-dried, tinted aviator glasses glory, strode none other than Neil Diamond.


In 1976, when the concert was filmed, Diamond was not really considered part of the rock world at all—his music was too theatrical and bombastic, it would have seemed, to have shared the stage with the rest of the performers that night—the royalty of what is now called Americana music—folk, blues, and rock. And yet, there he is, strumming and belting away. Apparently, his inclusion in the show was the result of the fact that he and Robbie Robertson were friends and neighbors. Robertson produced the album from whence came “Dry Your Eyes,” the song that Diamond performed (and which Robertson co-wrote).

Not surprisingly, the decision to include Diamond was as strange to the other Band members as it was to us watching, especially, of course, Levon Helm, who wrote in his autobiography, "When I heard that Neil Diamond was going to play I asked, 'What the hell does Neil Diamond have to do with us?' Robbie called me up and said, 'Well, Neil is like Tin Pan Alley. That Fifties Brill Building scene, songwriters like Doc Pomus.'" Levon wasn't convinced. "Why don't we just get Doc Pomus?'"

The funny thing, though, is that Diamond’s performance was not bad at all.

Here’s the other thing about Neil Diamond—the guy is a hell of a songwriter and performer, whose career really did straddle the music business from the Brill Building era, through the early rock era, into the folk-rock sound before he veered completely off into the easy listening, glossy pop world of people like his former high school chorus mate, Barbra Streisand (apparently, though, they didn’t know each other all that well).

Diamond was inspired to write music by a combination of seeing Pete Seeger perform at his summer camp (!), when Diamond was 16, and the fact that girls seemed attracted to guys who could play guitar and write love songs. He also attended NYU on a fencing scholarship (!) He wrote “I’m A Believer” (among other songs) for The Monkees, He wrote songs that were recorded by Cliff Richard, Jay and the Americans, Elvis Presley and others before he really got his performing career going.

In his early performing years, he had hits with “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “Sweet Caroline,” and “Holly Holy,” and “Cracklin’ Rosie,” among others. In 1971, Diamond released his album, Stones, which I am basically only mentioning because it fits the theme, although it was successful, and spawned singles “I Am….I Said” and “Crunchy Granola Suite.” And as far as I am concerned, that was pretty much the end for me, other than “Song Sung Blue” from his next album.

The real turning point for Diamond, though was the release, in 1972, of his double live album, Hot August Night, which, as Allmusic aptly states:

Captur[ed] all the kitsch and glitz of Neil Diamond, the showman. And that also means that it's not just loaded with flair, but with filler [and] attempts to write grand, sweeping epics that collapse under their own weight. Still, that's part of the charm of Diamond and while it can sound unbearable on studio albums, it makes some sense here, surrounded by his pomp and circumstance. That spectacle is the great thing about the record, since it inflates not just his great songs, it gives the weaker moments character. 

I actually remember listening to that album, often, in those days, because it was captivating. Looking back now, I think that much of the appeal was the strength of (some of) the songwriting, but also by Diamond’s utter confidence and power as a performer.

There’s a story about Diamond’s performance at the Last Waltz concert that has been denied by him, but is still pretty good, and certainly reflects Diamond’s belief in his performing prowess. Supposedly, after his one song, Diamond came off stage and said to Bob Dylan, "Follow that," to which Dylan responded, "What do I have to do, go on stage and fall asleep?"

Saturday, May 19, 2018

May/Might: Might As Well

purchase [Might As Well ]

I've never been so dedicated as to call myself a Dead Head, but I have spent many a happy hour groovin' to their sound.

And more than once I have noted here and in my now retired alternate blog (noted to the right side here for its inactivity for many a moon) my appreciation that the Dead have been pretty liberal in the way they allow dissemination of their product.

One of the best sources of Dead concerts is the Internet Archive, where there is in fact a dedicated channel to their live shows - much of it downloadable. Their message? Might as well let them record and share. Sharing our music is good.

I consider myself lucky in that I experienced some of the 70s free-flowing culture - frequently hitch-hiking up and down the East Coast, but not so much with abandon - I was generally headed to a place where I could lay my head on a known pillow.

There's a lot of funky stuff out there if you're willing to let it go and give it a try. The message being, "Might as well give it a try."

Decide for yourself if I read it right:

Never had such a good time in my life before
I'd like to have it one time more
Whoa! One good ride from start to end
I'd like to take that ride again, again!
Ran out of track and I caught the plane
Back in the county with the blues again
Great North Special been on my mind
I might like to ride it just one more time

The word <might> shows up not infrequently in the Dead's lyrics, most often not in terms of might, as in power, but as in might, not sure what the future brings.

Use the left-side Home/Search and plug in <might> as your search term to see what I mean.

Another version by the Persuasions:

Friday, May 18, 2018

May/Might: She May Call You Up Tonight

The Left Banke: She May Call You Up Tonight 

When you think of the Left Banke, if you do, you probably think about “Walk Away Renee,” or maybe “Pretty Ballerina.” And maybe, just maybe, you think about “She May Call You Up Tonight.” After that, though, I bet you are drawing a blank. Certainly, those are three great songs that helped to define a style referred to as “baroque rock,” but after that, the Left Banke’s musical output is pretty much unknown.

I’m in the camp of people who know about those three songs, and basically nothing else about the Left Banke. Luckily, though, I have access to the Interwebs. Turns out, the band has one of those stories that is all too familiar. Early success, internal bickering, revolving door membership, even competing versions of the band, and various reunions over the years, with varying lineups. There are even some brushes with future fame—versions of the band included, at times, Michael McKean, better known as an actor, including as David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap, and Bert Sommer, who played Woof in the original Broadway production of Hair in 1969-70 (and whose actual hair was immortalized on the Playbill). A young Steven Tyler sang background vocals on the band’s little-heard second album. But you cannot deny that the Left Banke’s sound was influential well beyond the band’s output or commercial success. You can hear their influence in early Linda Ronstadt, in Eric Carmen, and Belle & Sebastian, among many others.

I’m pretty sure, though, that while I may have heard the original version of “She May Call You Up Tonight” at some point, I really paid attention to it when I heard Richard Thompson do it live, with son Teddy, at the Tarrytown Music Hall. I remember thinking that it sounded familiar, but was totally unable to place it. There’s a recording of it, with Teddy, on 1998’s live album Celtschmerz. There’s also another version on Thompson’s Chrono Show album, featuring performances from his 2004 tour. The Wikipedia article for that album says that Thompson had been doing the song live since the 1970s, and it must have been something that the Fairport Convention crowd was into (Thompson has been quoted about his love for the Left Banke’s debut album)—The Albion Country Band, led by former Fairport member Ashley Hutchings, played it live in 1972 (with a gender change), with Richard and Linda Thompson guesting, Ian Matthews (who left Fairport in 1969) did a cover of it in 1980, and Linda Thompson did the gender-changed version of it on her solo album in 1985, after breaking up with Richard.


Disclaimer: This post might well contain folk music.

May, both the day and the month, is big in british folk, with any number of songs relating to happenings in the the days thereof, many more specifically to actual individual days. Why not so April or June? I don't know, and there probably are examples in and of each, but I suspect it has to do with the whole pagan shebang of Mayday, a date long important before any international workers apprehended the date. Walpurgisnacht and Beltane vie with the Floralia for the earliest affectations, each being, broadly, celebrations of spring into summer.  Thus, and unsurprisingly, many of the songs set in May are based around sex and fertility, with, often, the snatched deflowering of maidens fair, overtly or in allegory.

This is one of my favourites, the initial amalgam of Shirley Collins, linnet voiced doyenne of the early 60s folk movement, and Ashley Hutchings, soon to be her husband, and the guv'nor of the whole  english electric folk-rock movement a near decade later, founding, in turn, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the various incarnations of the Albion (Country and/or Dance) Bands.
This first iteration of the Albion b(r)and was a remarkable mix, melding many of his chums from Fairport/Steeleye alongside such mavericks as Lol Coxhill, free jazz sax maven, and some of the champions of the unaccompanied choral song tradition, the Watersons.  (Shirley had earlier included the song on a recording with her sister, Dolly, in which the genesis of the version below is ever more apparent.)

This next version, an unashamed tribute to the first, to the extent of later royalties having to cross hands for the appropriation of the arrangement, was my first exposure to the wonderful and still extant 10,000 Maniacs. Short and simple, carried by the ghostly vocal of Natalie Merchant and the swell of keyboard in the instrumental middle eight, this was enough for me to give up my then immersion in only folk to explore the rest of their catalogue, as it appeared, in turn leading me on to the delights of the then not unassociated act, R.E.M. (Natalie and Michael Stipe were factionalised, or not, by their respective publicity machines into being a couple, 10k M often appearing as support to the more famous group, and Natalie sharing a vocal on 'Photograph', for a charity recording.) Whilst some of the sparkle may have dropped since Natalie left to plough her own furrow, 10k M forge on, with a thoroughly decent 2015 offering, 'Twice Told Tales', containing only songs culled from the trad.arr folk tradition, give or take a lyric by W.B. Yeats.

Sort of full circle, I guess, in the never more incestuous canon of the UK folk scene, Eliza Carthy, daughter of Martin, who appears on 'No Roses', as do her uncle and auntie, Mike and Lal Waterson. (Carthy is married to Norma, the 4th and final member of the celebrated Watersons.) Here she slows the song right down, and imbues it with a drama missing from the two earlier and jauntier versions, her voice retaining, however, the same degree of melancholia. 'Anglicana' was, arguably, her breakthrough solo recording, but she remains a powerful force on the circuit, with her Wayward Band.
As a footnote, the Watersons themselves were no stranger to May songs, with, strangely enough, this also turning up on 'No Roses.'

Keep it simple, get this, this and this. (Yep, all of 'em.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

May/Might: Might As Well Be Spring

Purchase "It Might As Well Be Spring"

"It Might as Well Be Spring" is a Rogers and Hammerstein composition from the 1945 film, State Fair.  As part of its designation as an "old standard", the song has been done numerous times, by some notable performers.

Sarah Vaughn did it, with a somewhat obtrusive Miles Davis trumpet line stepping all over her silky vocals.

Nina Simone covered the song for her first album, and it is tinged by the same dark sadness that all of her music simmers and broods with.

Peggy Lee took the mid-tempo ballad and swung it about, making it a snazzy, floor-filling dance tune.

Sinatra had a hit with it in 1961. But, Sinatra made everything a hit, didn't he?

The Bill Evans Trio turned the song into a smoldering yet bright instrumental, that might put you in the mood for a smoke and bourbon on the rocks.

I picked the song for the obvious title match with our chosen theme this month, but also for the light airiness of the tune, and certain happy feeling it brings to hear the timidly melancholy lyrical musing on the change of season as a stand in for silly love, and the metaphorical discovery of being out of season.

Here in the desert, Spring is the end of the season, and rather than a new beginning, there is a sense of sad goodbye that pervades everything. As the days get hotter, the whole place is winding down, the cafes are closing, the outside world we've made is being rolled back, pulled into storage and put undercover until the fall returns, when the sun won't be so relentless and we can all go outside again, blooming back into life. Spring is backwards here, and the desert is hard pressed to give up the only possession it owns. But, even if the time of year is wrong, when it's beautiful again here on the wrong side of the world, it might as well be spring. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

May/Might - Carl Perkins: The Rain Might Wash Your Love Away

purchase [Carl Perkins]

I don't 'specially follow Carl Perkins. It's a name I know, but I couldn't - before today - provide much background.

That's one of the side benefits of writing for SMM - you might learn something new: in this case, how is Carl Perkins associated with May/Might.

May/Might is a theme so open as to include <the month of May>, <any songs including May/Might in the title or lyrics> and most anything in between.
I went for the chance to learn something new by looking for songs with May/Might in the title: and there are many.

Carl Perkins - y'all know the name, but ... can you correctly associate it to:
a) Rockabilliy
b) Blue Suede Shoes
c) The Beatles' <Honey Don't>
d) May/Might
e) All of the above!!!

Correct Answer: e) - Carl Perkins did it all. RIP 1998. Age ~ 62

Perkins should rightly get credit for helping establish/define the rockabilly sound - a melange of hillbilly, boogie, honkey-tonk and the evolving musical styles of the early 1950's.
He wrote Blue Suede Shoes. According to Paul McCartney, he influenced the Beatles. And of course he wrote the May/Might song featured here.

Lots of other names come into play in defining the Rockabilly sound, but Sam Phillips, James Cotton, and a guy named Elvis Presley make the list of those most of us know. Most of them would note the influence that Carl Perkins had on their style and the genre.

Carl Perkins ... Chet Atkins ... anyone who can pick a guitar that way (and that includes Mark Knopfler with Chet Atkins and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and so many more of the same ilk) - folks that display a form of country pickin' with a jazz edge, if you please. I'll gladly listen. And wish I could come close.

While I also like the sax style of Spyro Gyra (and for me, the sax just rolls and the guitar picks the way I like to hear it), it's the roots of the style - the essential I-IV-V format with a significant variation that turns me on, and Carl Perkins does the job.

Friday, May 11, 2018

May/Might: You Might As Well Pray

Jules Shear (w/ Amy Rigby): You Might As Well Pray

Jules Shear has had a pretty interesting life, for a musician who has never really become famous. He’s released more than 20 albums since 1976, most recently in 2017, as a solo artist and with others. He’s acknowledged as a top-notch songwriter, and has penned hits for Cyndi Lauper ("All Through the Night"), The Bangles ("If She Knew What She Wants") and has had written or co-written songs recorded by artists as diverse as Olivia Newton John, Iain Matthews, Aimee Mann, Art Garfunkel, Alison Moyet, and Roger McGuinn. He dated Aimee Mann, who wrote a song about their breakup. He’s worked with Todd Rundgren, Tony Levin, Elliot Easton, Rick Danko, Jimmy Vivino, Rod Argent, and Chuck Prophet, among many others. Shear was the inspiration for, and host of the first 13 episodes of MTV’s Unplugged. And yet, he is one of those musicians who have had a long career tarred by the phrase “critically acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful.” Although I don’t know for sure, I’ll assume that Shear has been able to make financial go of it for all these years, but I bet it wasn’t always easy.

I remember seeing his second and third albums, as a member of Jules and the Polar Bears, released in 1978 and 1979, around the WPRB studios, but they made no musical impression on me. I have no recollection of having played them on the radio, but maybe the name was distinctive enough to stick in my brain. I’m also pretty sure that I don’t remember hearing any of Shear’s music until his 1998 album, Between Us. (I wasn’t watching MTV back when Unplugged was on). And I’m fairly certain that I heard songs from the album on WFUV.

Between Us quickly became a family favorite. It is an album of 15 low-key duets between Shear and (mostly) female singers (and one instrumental duet with bassist Rob Wasserman). The songs are charming, interesting, and I remember listening to them in the car as my family sang along (and I kept my terrible voice quiet). Some of the highlights are his duet with Suzzy Roche (“On These Wheels Again”), complete with barking dog, “Who's Dreaming Who,” with Rosanne Cash, and “Betrayal Takes Two,” featuring Angie Hart (best known, I guess, as a member of Australian band Frente).

But another favorite from the album was his duet with Amy Rigby, the wistful “You Might As Well Pray.” I think that it is about a couple looking at the damage they have caused each other, yet hoping that just maybe, with divine intercession, they can work things out. I could be wrong, of course, because the lyrics are a bit vague, but as is common in a Jules Shear song, they are interesting and well chosen.

I’ve picked up a few of his albums over the years, both recorded before and after Between Us, and while I have enjoyed them, nothing of his has stuck with me as much as that album. It’s an interesting thing about music, isn’t it? As good an album as I think Between Us is, it is far from universally appreciated, even among Shear fans (and it doesn’t even appear to be available in downloadable form anywhere). But it was a combination of the music, and the time in my life when it came out, and the fact that my wife loved it (and still plays it from time to time), that has cemented it in my mind. With music, like comedy, sometimes timing is everything. There are times when I hear a song on the radio, and it does nothing for me, but it reminds me in some respects of stuff that I like, and I wonder if I might have felt different about the song if I had heard it, say, 20 years ago. Or conversely, whether music that I love would leave me cold if I heard if first today.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Punk: Proto-Punk - Velvet Underground

purchase [Velvet Underground ]

The second group of  10 albums I owned included Janis Ian's '68 record, <The Secret Life of J. Eddy Fink> and the Velvet Underground's '69 <The Velvet Underground>.

At that time I had a mentor who directed my music selections and was ahead of his time - he also turned me on to Hendrix at about this time ('69)

I was certainly aware that these musicians were outside the mainstream (that would have been the first 10 albums I bought: Sgt Peppers, Between the Buttons, Smokey Robinson, Simon and Garfunkle..).

To me, the Velvet Underground had something meaningful to say - something beyond "corn flakes floating in a bowl" - lyrics that gave pause, music that made you sit up and listen. Something like what Elvis Costello had to say 20 years later.

It seems like I was listening to "proto-punk" without realizing it. Of course, that nomenclature only came about after the fact. Back then, it was a reaction to main-stream rock.

The general perception of Punk is <hard driving>, but I think that isn't a given: take a listen to this anti-most and see if it fits the "proto-punk" genre.