Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Buried Treasure: Steve Forbert - Any Old Time (Songs of Jimmie Rodgers) (2002)

I've always had respect for country music but Ken Burns' sixteen hour documentary provided me with a much greater appreciation of the genre even though I'm not yet fully indoctrinated.

While country's roots grew from the rural South the music appeals to a far more cosmopolitan audience today and its influence has become universal. Respected rock, folk, and R&B musicians often profess their love.

Country's first major star, Jimmie Rodgers, from Meridian, Mississippi, was featured heavily in the early episodes of Burns' epic documentary, and while his influence on the music is incalculable his name and work are virtually unknown today except to musicians and historians. One of these is the veteran rocker and singer-songwriter, Steve Forbert, who covered twelve of Rodger's songs in 2002.

Not coincidentally, Forbert is also from Meridian and, while you can't otherwise compare the two, both are respected songwriters. Forbert's voice is gravelly while Rodgers' is not. The current star's recording sessions are firmly rooted in the 21st century and usually employ a full band, often with electric guitars, while Rodgers had to contend with far more primitive studios and equipment. In the end Forbert sounds just like himself while lovingly resurrecting the late legend's body of work. That's a good thing because most listeners will prefer his modern versions even while acknowledging the fact that Rodgers is an excellent composer.

The CD was produced by Tim Coats and E Street's Garry Tallent and features perfectly retro cover art.

The album's highlight is its opening track, "Waiting For A Train." You can listen to it below following Rodger's original version.

See the following websites for more information.
Jimmie Rodgers
Steve Forbert
Ken Burns

Friday, August 23, 2019

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound (2017)

Labeling Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit's latest album as Americana, suits The Nashville Sound quite well. It's a rock record with a lot of acoustic touches - many by Isbell's wife, fiddle player Amanda Shires, who has her own successful career - but it never quite crosses the line into pure country, except for the outstanding closer, "Something To Love."

While all of the music here is very listenable it's the songwriting that makes this disc stand out. As always, Isbell is a thoughtful and introspective composer.

"If We Were Vampires" is an acoustic ballad that discusses death and life after one half of a couple passes. He sings, "....this can't go on forever. Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone. Maybe we'll get forty years together, But one day I'll be gone, Or one day you'll be gone" and "If we were vampires and death was a joke we'd go out on the sidewalk and smoke...."

On the uplifting "Something To Love" Isbell advises, "Just find what makes you happy girl and do it 'til you're gone."

"White Man's World," finds the former Drive-By Trucker confessing, "There's no such thing as someone else's war," while admitting he should have done more to help the causes of those who need assistance.

Both the beginning and ending of "Anxiety" are pure hard rock passages propelled by heavy, electric guitars, but if hooks are what you're looking for you may find "Molotov" and "Cumberland Gap" more to your liking.

The Nashville Sound is a varied, ten song set, no two tracks sound alike, so it never gets stale. Great writing, an excellent band, and very good singing don't often find each other but on this album everything connects.

Related websites:
Jason Isbell
Drive-By Truckers
Amanda Shires
The Highwomen

Friday, August 16, 2019

Fifty Years Ago: Three Days of Peace, Music, And Mud At The Little Aquarian Exposition On Max Yasgur's Farm

I wasn't at Woodstock but here are my thoughts on the historic festival.

I was only sixteen that summer. I didn't have a car or my driver's license yet, and I had no other means of getting to Max Yasgur's farm in rural Bethel, NY. Nor did I know anyone from my hometown or high school who ventured there for the infamous three day event. Even if I had been able to catch a ride with someone neither one of my usually easy-going parents would have allowed me to go. I don't blame them.

It's fine that I wasn't there. I would have been miserable. I've never been a fan of standing in the rain or wallowing in mud, not bathing, going without adequate bathroom facilities, a lack of food, smoking mind altering plants or ingesting harmful chemicals. I was too straight for Woodstock but I was deeply fascinated by the whole 60s counterculture movement as a sideline spectator. A lot of it had to do with the music.

I've always preferred more intimate settings for live performance. When I go see bands play it doesn't have to be at a small club, but to this day I don't enjoy large, overcrowded, baseball stadium concerts where you can't see the performer except on a large video screen with the volume turned up so loud that all of the instruments bleed together into one huge blur of sound.

Many of the top bands of the day took the stage at the mid-August, 1969 event including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Sly & The Family Stone, Santana, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and many more. Much of the music was terrific.

My favorite probably would have been Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, whose beautiful harmonies and songs continue to thrill me in the 21st century. The sounds CSN&Y made were quite sophisticated for pop music. Just listen to "Suite: Judy Blues" and you'll understand. The quartet isn't quite as good here as they were at later shows because Woodstock was only their second gig together.

Below is a lesser known version of the song "Woodstock" and CSN&Y's complete performance.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Elvis Presley - If I Can Dream (1968)

Despite its melodrama Elvis Presley's 1968 hit single, "If I Can Dream," is one of his finer performances and has always been a particular favorite of mine.

It was written especially for The King by Walter Earl Brown two months after the Martin Luther King assassination and the connection between the song and MLK should be obvious. The song's world debut was as the finale to Presley's '68 Comeback Special, a show that completely revitalized his career.

The vocal and arrangement utilized one of my favorite musical devices. It starts out soft and low, gradually builds in intensity, then pushes the pedal to the metal, ending with a full blown orchestra and chorus. When he heard it, Presley said, "I'm never going to sing another song I don't believe in. I'm never going to make another picture I don't believe in."

His obsessively controlling manager, Col. Tom Parker, did not want Presley to do the song but he wanted to record it, in part because he was sick of Parker (who wasn't really a colonel) telling him what to do. Presley had become embarrassed by the crappy movies he was making and the songs that went with them and he wanted to do something more substantial with his career.

"If I Can Dream" introduced us to the "new" Elvis, the one who recorded mature pop music that was in tune with the rapidly changing late 60s. It began the era that included "Suspicious Minds," "In The Ghetto," "Kentucky Rain," and more.

The record was on the Billboard Hot 100 for thirteen weeks, peaked at #12, and earned a gold record.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Buried Treasure: Black 47 - Trouble In The Land (2000)

This is an updated review that originally appeared here in May 2005.

Black 47, named after the blackest year of the Irish potato famine of 1847, began recording in 1992, but I never had the opportunity to hear them until 2000, and then only because I sampled Trouble In The Land at a listening booth at Borders Books & Music. After that I immediately became a huge fan and even had the opportunity to interview bandleader Larry Kirwan.

Black 47 was a cult favorite with a sizeable national audience but you'll almost never hear them on the radio. After searching the web I discovered they had quite a following, especially in their native New York City.

The only time I've ever heard them on the radio is when Kirwan plays them on Celtic Crush, his own SiriusXM radio show. The program appears on their eclectic rock station, The Loft.

Times change. Borders is gone, Black 47 is too. They broke up after twenty-five years in 2014, and The Loft is on no longer on the satellites even though you can still listen to the station online.

The sextet combined the usual rock line-up of electric guitar, bass, and drums with saxophones, trombones, and a whole host of Irish folk instruments, including those great uilleann pipes. Singer Kirwan surrounded himself with top-notch musicians who played their hearts out. You are never bored by the band's unique musicianship and arrangements and Kirwan's imaginative lyrics.

The band played a loud mix of reggae, Celtic folk music, and punk rock punctuated by Irish revolutionary politics. If you can visualize Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Chieftains, and The Clash all playing on stage together in the same band, you get the idea.

Since Kirwan is also a novelist and a playwright, you should expect something different lyrically. He composes songs that teach us about the Irish political experience on "Touched By Fire," a song about the band's own stage performances on "Those Saints," and a song about the martyrdom of an Irish-American he obviously idolizes on "Bobby Kennedy." There is an anti-hate group message in the title track, and a story about a girl the narrator was attracted to while making Irish folk instruments in "Bodhrans on the Brain." There are references to James Joyce, Irish political leaders Bobby Sands and James Connolly, and John Lennon and the Beatles.

One can not totally describe the sound of Trouble In The Land or the personality of this band. You must listen to fully understand them. Kirwan's left-wing view of everything should not offend those of a more conservative nature. Possibly, that's because they had a member of the NYPD as a band member. Chris Byrne, who founded the group with Kirwan, was their piper at the time this disc was recorded.

Kirwan is not trying to be a revolutionary. All he wants is justice as he sees it.