Thursday, July 26, 2012

Forgotten Music Thursday: Seatrain - Seatrain (1970)

The Blues Project, from New York City, is a 60s band famous for not living up to their advanced billing. The group splintered quickly with hardly any success. The band's most famous members, Al Kooper and Steve Katz went on to form the original incarnation of Blood, Sweat, and Tears while two other refugees from the Greenwich Village outfit, Andy Kulberg (flute and bass) and Roy Blumenfeld (drums) moved to the West Coast and formed Seatrain.

Seatrain was a bluegrass/country/rock outfit whose big attraction was electric fiddler Richard Greene. He came over from another well known folk group, The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, that once featured singer Maria Muldaur.

Seatrain's eponymous second LP is the one most people remember and by the time of its release Blumenfeld had already moved on and was replaced by Larry Atamanuik. Also on board for this record were keyboard player Lloyd Baskin and guitarist Peter Rowan.

"13 Questions" was a minor hit single that reached #49 on Billboard's chart and "Song of Job," a track based on the Bible story, also received substantial airplay. Other listenable fare included the fine opening song, a cover of Lowell George's "Willin."

Greene's rocking fiddle is showcased on both the LP's closer, the old blugrass classic "Orange Blossom Special" and on "Sally Goodin," another country standard. Greene's lightning fast bow work dominates the entire album.

The Beatles' George Martin produced the record as well as the band's followup Marblehead Messenger (1971).

Seatrain's most prominent members had careers long after the band ended. Greene continued to play in folk groups and he still teaches violin today on a national level. Rowan joined Seatrain after stints playing with country giants Bill Monroe and David Grisman. He later toured with Greene in the late 70s and continues to compose and play today with various groups. In 1973 both Greene and Rowan joined a short-lived band named Old and in the Way with Jerry Garcia. Kulberg passed away in 2002 after a long career as a musician and composer.

You can buy a used copy of Seatrain at collector's prices from Amazon and you can listen to "13 Questions" here.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Importance Of Liverpool

John Lennon, in 1957, on the day he met Paul McCartney
Why would four young, inexperienced musicians from England's fourth largest city, especially one frequently described as a deteriorating and depressing outpost, make such an impact on music and culture across an entire planet? Without discounting their obvious talents, their endearing personalities, and the publicity machine behind them, there has always been another important component to The Beatles' success story that is frequently overlooked: their hometown.

Liverpool is the second largest port in the entire United Kingdom. This resulted in thousands of Americans coming to live and work in the city on the Mersey River. In addition, there was Burtonwood Royal Air Force Base located just a few miles from town. It was home to the largest contingent of American air personnel assigned to the U. K. during World War Two. Even after the war almost 20,000 American armed forces continued to be stationed there. The U. S. military presence was so large that the locals referred to the base as "Little America." Many of the Americans living and working in the region brought their records with them and they freely shared the music with their hosts. All of these factors combined to create an environment that allowed The Beatles and many other Liverpudlians to be influenced more heavily by the American pioneers of rock than the rest of their homeland.

The endless variety of music available to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr showed up consistently in their Hamburg shows, their residency at the Cavern Club, and later in studio number nine at Abbey Road. Many of the American rock and pop songs that influenced them were first heard by a whole lot of people here at home only after they were recorded by The Beatles and sent back to us across the ocean.

Wikipedia cited the roots of some of the group's more unusual covers. Here are just a few examples. Dr. Feelgood and the Interns' "Mr. Moonlight," from Beatles for Sale, is proof that the band didn't only rely on the big hits of the day. The song was a "B" side of a hit single called "Dr. Feelgood." Another song they performed regularly was "Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)." This very good cover was the flip side of a 1962 Arthur Alexander single, "Where Have You Been." The Beatles only known version of this tune exists on Live at the BBC. John Lennon was a big fan of American Larry Williams and The Beatles put three of his songs on vinyl: "Slow Down," "Bad Boy," and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy." Who would remember Williams today if The Beatles weren't there to remind us. "A Taste of Honey" became a big hit for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass in 1965 after the song appeared on Please Please Me, The Beatles' first British LP. The piece was originally written for a 1960 Broadway adaption of an earlier British play of the same name.

It has been said that The Beatles played around 600 songs originally composed and recorded by others before Lennon and McCartney began writing for themselves. The Fab Four's choices of cover versions speak volumes about their wildly eclectic tastes and influences. Much of what they gave the world is because of their deep roots in the city they grew up in.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Beach Boys - That's Why God Made The Radio (2012)

Many of us lived in trepidation that That's Why God Made The Radio would clobber us with a tsunami of such devastatingly bad music that even the most ardent Beach Boys devotees would easily believe Satan, and not the Lord, is really responsible for Marconi's wonderful invention. What a pleasant surprise to find that what floated ashore instead were the gentle waves of a really fine album that proves, when given the right set of circumstances, talent never really leaves those who have it.

That's Why God Made The Radio is the first album by California's native sons that Brian Wilson fully participated in since 1985's mildly satisfying, eponymously titled record produced by Steve Levine. It's the only official Beach Boys album not featuring the late Carl Wilson and that's sad because the youngest Wilson brother's voice was always an integral component of their effortlessly beautiful harmonies. Carl was also the man who kept the band together for many years after his big brother lost his way. He is definitely missed.

In addition to Wilson, who is once again in the producer's chair, the famous quintet currently includes original members Mike Love and Al Jardine, longtime member Bruce Johnston, and Jardine's replacement for awhile during their very early years, David Marks. They are helped out considerably by members of their boss's current group, especially bandleader Jeff Foskett. Without him neither Wilson's recent solo work nor The Beach Boys current tour would likely exist. Foskett and company not only assist instrumentally they also contribute to the vocal mix. Wilson's voice is not what it used to be and, while he can still sing, his upper range and falsetto have not aged well.

That said, the group's harmonies are still a wonder to behold, and Wilson's composing and arranging skills are still good enough to make this the finest Beach Boys album since 1973's Holland.

Radio isn't perfect. At times the guys still don't seem to understand they aren’t twenty years old anymore because, as usual, there are numerous references to girls, beaches, and hot fun in the summertime. As expected, the culprit behind much of this stuff is the juvenile Love but because Wilson can still construct dreamy vocal swells combined with lyrics and imagery reminiscent of his Pet Sounds and Smile period the twelve song set is quite a rewarding experience.

"Think About the Days" is the brief opener. Clocking in at only 1:27 it's wordless vocals could be a sequel to "Our Prayer," the opening track from Smile. The song title appears to ask the listener to recall what it was like when this beloved band, who made their first record in 1961 (almost three years before a famous quartet from Liverpool appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show), were at the peak of their vocal powers.

The title cut is next and if you've heard anything from the album on mainstream radio this song is it. It's a piece that takes awhile to reward you with its pleasures but eventually you'll appreciate everything it has to offer.

Lyrically "Isn't It Time," "Daybreak Over the Ocean," "Beaches In Mind," and "Spring Vacation," (the latter actually has the nerve to use the words "good vibrations" in the song) are all examples of Love being stuck in his glory days but his genius cousin's vocal arrangements and sense of melody save the day on every single one of them.

The oddity is "The Private Life of Bill and Sue." It's about wasting time watching reality TV shows when you could be out in the sunshine enjoying life. It seems a little strange coming from Wilson, a man who lost about two decades hiding in his bedroom. If the song is meant as a lesson it sure doesn't feel like one because of its typically bright Beach Boys arrangement.

The final three tracks take us down a different road as the mood becomes far more serious. Jardine's voice graces one of the bands better ballads, "From There to Back Again" and he gives a really fine performance. "Pacific Coast Highway" has a nifty acapella beginning that quickly turns into a sad opus in which Wilson confesses, "My life, I'm better off alone/My life, I'm better on my own." Then he ends the song with just one word: "Goodbye." Lyrically he's saying so long to the sun as it sets over California's most famous road but it really feels like he's saying goodbye to us, his fans, and everyone whoever passed through his life.

On the CD's closer, "Summer's Gone" Wilson uses the end of the season as a metaphor for coming to terms with growing older. He sings, "Summer's gone/I’m gonna sit and watch the waves/We laugh, we cry/We live then die/And dream about our yesterday." The very slow, airy instrumental track also features some woodblock sounds typical of the offbeat percussion its composer often used to great effect back in his heyday.

No one in the band has said That's Why God Made The Radio is a concept album because I'm sure it wasn't intended to be one. However, if you view it that way the album works better. Love's "endless summer" rides the ultimate waive to the finish line and then life takes you on a more mature, thought-provoking ride to the end of your days. When viewed in that context "Spring Vacation" really isn’t so silly after all.

Perhaps more praise is being heaped on the album than it deserves because of the low expectations. However, after repeated listens, the only conclusion one can come to is The Beach Boys golden anniversary album is an affair to celebrate.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Various Artists - Live at The World Café, Volumes 1 to 33

Live At The World Cafe, Vol. 33
The World Café, a very eclectic music program syndicated nationally by NPR celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. It's a daily, two hour show hosted by David Dye, a local Philadelphia DJ, who has a long history in rock radio dating back to the early 1970s. Dye plays a wide-ranging mix of folk, jazz, country, rock and even some world music. The show originates and is transcribed from the studios of WXPN, the alternative-rock station owned and operated by the University of Pennsylvania. It's currently aired on more than 250 NPR outlets nationwide. Dye's on air guests have included hundreds of fledgling artists trying to find their way in the music business as well as many interviews and mini-concerts from superstars such as Paul McCartney, Yo-Yo Ma, and Joni Mitchell.

As with all programming on public radio the show is commercial free so that means it relies heavily on funding from corporate sponsorship, the government, and donations from their listeners. Both WXPN and The World Café have created some very inventive ways of raising the necessary capital to keep the station and show on the air. One such venture is their series of CDs titled Live at the World Café that the station offers as a thank you to fans who make a donation. Each disc is loaded with a highly eclectic set of around fourteen to eighteen on-air performances by Dye's guests.

Loads of stars have allowed their World Café sessions to be used on the albums. The list includes Greg Allman, The Counting Crows, Joan Baez, Dave Matthews Band, Robert Plant, Mark Knopfler, Wilco, Norah Jones, and Sheryl Crow. The heavy hitters join dozens of artists known mostly to alternative music fans such as Bell X1, Michelle Shocked, Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Dawes, and Ryan Adams along with a lot of unknowns who hope these CDs will broaden their fan base. There's also room for modern rock. The Decembrists, The Hold Steady, and My Morning Jacket have all had their music embraced by the producers of these fine compilations.

Initially, most of the recordings were limited to solo or small group acoustic performances due to the very cramped studio space at WXPN’s old campus location. Eventually, after the station moved to roomier, more modern facilities, The World Café used their increased flexibility to host much larger groups and this enhancement is noticeable on many of the later releases.

Due to the diversity of music on these albums it's always quite possible you won't like everything on them. I'm sure the series' producers are aware of that possibility but they take great care to release top flight songs from the best performers the show has to offer. Fortunately, they mostly succeed.

Because every World Café release is a limited edition many eventually become highly sought after collectors’ items. Used copies of Volume 1, originally released in 1995, currently go for $70 on Amazon and as high as $99 in a Princeton, New Jersey CD store. The latest set, Volume 33 is currently available for a $75 pledge to the station. If you are at a WXPN sponsored event, you can get several of the more recent titles for just $15 each without a pledge or station membership.