Archive for the ‘2011’ Category

Uncovering More Browne Covers

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

This morning, as I scanned the lower depths of the Billboard Hot 100 from November 29, 1975, I saw the name of a group that tickled some vague place in my memory: Prelude.

I let the circuits connect – it took a few seconds – and came up with a reference: I’d mentioned the folk-rock trio from England a couple of years ago and shared its cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” in the context of looking at a chart from November of 1974. Prelude’s cover of the Young song had gone to No. 22.

The chart I was looking at – the one from about a year later – showed Prelude with another cover, this time of Jackson Browne’s “For A Dancer.” As November 1975 came to a close, the Prelude’s single was sitting at No. 100 in its first week on the chart. It spent another seven weeks on the chart and peaked at No. 63, far lower than had the 1974 single. And it was the last appearance on the American pop chart for the English trio. I remembered liking the trio’s cover of “After The Gold Rush,” and the group’s take on “For A Dancer” has its charms as well.

From there, I had a few possible routes. Had Prelude had a third single listed in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, I might have dug for some more of the group’s music. I imagine that some of the group’s five albums are floating around out there, and there are two CD collections available, including one that offers everything the group recorded for the Pye and Dawn labels between 1973 and 1977.

And I pondered digging into more of that chart from the autumn of 1975. Despite my mining of that season numerous times, there are likely a few nuggets still to be found. But having found that Prelude cover of a Jackson Browne song, I decided to look for more Browne covers (something I did in two consecutive posts last spring).

My first stop was Joan Baez. On her 1975 album Diamonds & Rust, she offers a sweet cover of “Fountain of Sorrow,” a track I’d not been able to find at YouTube the last time I went digging for Jackson Browne covers. This time, it was available. Now, I enjoy Diamonds & Rust so much that it’s hard to pick out highlights beyond the title track, but, powered by Larry Knechtel’s piano and Jim Gordon’s drumming, “Fountain of Sorrow” is pretty close to the top of the list.

Perhaps the most-remembered accolades bestowed early on Baez had something to do with the purity of her voice, which was remarkable. These days, the same is often said about Alison Krause. The clarity of her voice is, in fact, one of the things that have moved her beyond the bluegrass niche in which she was first placed. Yes, she fiddles well, but, to me, it’s her singing – along with the quality of her backing band, Union Station, and the crafty selection of good material – that has brought her to a wider audience. On 2011’s Paper Airplane, she covered Browne’s “My Opening Farewell” with her customary brilliance.

We’ll close today’s post with a cover that on first thought surprised me and on second thought didn’t. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never quite embraced Browne’s two late-1980s albums Lives in the Balance and World in Motion, probably because they were so vastly different in focus from his earlier albums, from 1972’s self-titled debut through 1980’s Hold Out. (I tend to disregard Lawyers in Love from 1983 because it seems to have no focus.)

But when I heard Richie Havens’ take on “Lives in the Balance” (a performance I shared in one of those earlier posts of covers), I began to think that perhaps my main difficulty with those late 1980s albums isn’t the material but Browne’s performance of that material. I’ve come to no conclusion yet, but I think I’m going to have consider that possibility a bit more closely after coming upon a very accessible cover of “World in Motion” by the late Roebuck “Pop” Staples. With some help from Bonnie Raitt (and what sounds like Jackson Browne himself), the track showed up on Staples’ 1992 album Peace to the Neighborhood.

An Evening With Bob Dylan

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

The first two times I saw Bob Dylan in concert, I’m not entirely sure I gave him my complete attention. Last night I did, and I was rewarded with a very good – maybe even great – show.

Last night’s fifteen-song concert at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center spanned fifty years of Dylan’s catalog, from 1962’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” to “Early Roman Kings” from this year’s album, Tempest. A majority of the songs performed by Dylan and his amazingly tight touring band came from the 1960s – including the essential final three: “Like A Rolling Stone,” “All Along The Watchtower” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” – but there were a few other stops along the way.

Those other stops included several songs performed in a country jive pre-rock ’n’ roll style that at times, said the Texas Gal later, resembled the Western swing sounds of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. (I concurred, though I’d thought of the more recent sounds of Asleep At The Wheel.) One of those songs, “Summer Days” from Love and Theft, thus sounded as close to its original version as did anything Dylan and his band offered us last night. (Another of those Western swing-styled offerings was the opener, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from 1967’s John Wesley Harding. Despite having once correctly predicted Dylan’s opening tune, I didn’t even try last night; I would certainly have been wrong.)

Dylan’s well-known propensity for altering the shape and sound of even his most famous songs was on full display last night. Whether seated at a grand piano or standing behind the microphone at center stage – he never picked up a guitar at all – he offered the seven thousand folks in the audience reworked versions of several tunes. The most altered, it seemed to me, were “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” with Dylan’s piano leading the band in rhythmic riffs as he rapidly spat out the lyrics between those riffs. The least altered, along with “Summer Days,” was the gleeful spitefest, “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

The seventy-one-year-old Dylan didn’t speak at all last night except to introduce the members of his band, but he was in good voice – a little gravelly but not as raspy as he’s sometimes sounded lately – and he seemed to be having fun: During his ninety or so minutes on stage, he added his customarily idiosyncratic harmonica solos to many of the songs, occasionally shuffled across the stage (perhaps like the “song and dance man” he once said he was in one of his famously evasive interviews), and interjected a throaty chuckle just before the final phrase of one of the verses of “Things Have Changed,” an addition that brought him a mid-song round of applause and laughter. (Joining Dylan onstage for “Things Have Changed” and two other numbers was Mark Knopfler, whose own group offered a forty-five minute opening set.)

As I noted above, last night’s performance was my third chance to see Bob Dylan in concert. During the first, at St. Paul’s outdoor River Fest in 1989, I was distracted by both my company and by the mass of the forty thousand folks who wedged themselves onto Harriet Island, and I remember only a few moments. My second chance at Dylan live came in the mid-1990s, when Rick and I attended a show at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis. Weighted down with what I now recognize as a nearly decade-long depression, I pretty much noticed nothing.

So I went to last evening’s show determined to absorb it, and I think I did, from the opening bars of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” to the last strains of “Blowin’ In The Wind.” And even though it’s difficult to pick a best moment from a show like last night’s, I’m going to mention three: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” because it should have been on my occasionally discussed bucket list, “Things Have Changed” for that chuckle and Knopfler’s liquid fills, and “All Along The Watchtower” for its fire, both lyrically and during its long closing jam.

This video, from an October 29, 2011, performance in Berlin, Germany, will give you an idea of how “Things Have Changed” sounded last night.

And here, courtesy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, is last night’s set list:

I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (with Mark Knopfler)
Things Have Changed (with Mark Knopfler)
Tangled Up in Blue (with Mark Knopfler)
Early Roman Kings
A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall
Summer Days
Blind Willie McTell
Highway 61 Revisited
Spirit on the Water
Thunder on the Mountain
Ballad of a Thin Man
Like a Rolling Stone
All Along the Watchtower
Encore:
Blowin’ in the Wind

Finding A New Realm To Explore

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Almost three years ago, I wrote about my fascination during my adolescence and young adult years with The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s massive fantasy saga. I didn’t say then, as I might have, that no other piece of fantasy fiction had ever come close to filling the hole in my reading appetite that was left when I finished the trilogy the first time.

I tried to fill that hole, as I wrote (in a post that is available at Echoes In The Wind Archives), with regular browsing in Tolkien’s work and annual re-readings of the entire trilogy. That frequent browsing ended sometime in the mid-1970s, probably around the time I left college and entered the working world. The annual readings stopped sometimes in the 1990s, I’m guessing. (Most of the 1990s blur in my memory, primarily because not much happened.) But even as I was browsing through Tolkien’s appendices or re-reading his account of, say, Gollum’s treachery at Cirith Ungol, I was still looking for a book or series of books of fantasy fiction that could compare to Tolkien’s work.

It took years to find that rarity. During college, browsing in the St. Cloud State library and in the college bookstore, I tried first one and then another fantasy epic, but saw in all of them nothing more than pale imitations of Tolkien. In search of a fantasy fix as the years went on, I dug lightly into Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion and the various volumes titled The History of Middle-earth compiled and edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. But those left me dissatisfied.

One set that came close was the Majipoor series of novels and stories by Robert Silverberg, which I discovered during graduate school in the early 1980s. The series begins with the 1981 novel, Lord Valentine’s Castle and now continues through nine more assorted novels, novellas and story collections, according to Wikipedia. I read the first novel avidly and the next two with mild interest, and when nothing more appeared for some time, I didn’t care. I see from Wikipedia that Silverberg re-threaded the needle in 1995, but by then, my fiction menu was pretty much drawn from historical, legal and detective novels. Will I go back to Majipoor? I think it’s unlikely.

But I have found that rare series of books that can rival Tolkien, and it’s thanks to HBO. I’ve enjoyed over the last few years the various historical series that HBO and the other premium cable networks have been airing: Rome, Deadwood, The Tudors, Mad Men and a few others. And in late winter, I began seeing promotional spots for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Intrigued, I watched the first episode of the series and was hooked. I watched it again with the Texas Gal, and she was hooked. The series became one of our few must-watch hours.

And of course, we learned that the HBO show was based on the first of five novels – with more to come – by George R.R. Martin, novels collectively called A Song of Ice and Fire. As the first season of Game of Thrones came to an end, the Texas Gal and I wondered if the quality of the writing in the books matched the quality of the story being told. So we tentatively bought the first of the five volumes, A Game of Thrones. It came to my table first, and I made short work of its nearly seven hundred pages, and as I passed the book along to the Texas Gal, I ordered the next volume, A Clash of Kings. And then, in quick succession, we ordered the next three.

As you might guess, we find Martin’s work remarkable. The world he’s created for his tales has – like Tolkien’s – a deep and rich set of histories for each of its cultures. The long game of thrones in which his characters and their cultures are engaged is enthralling, drawing me deep into the tales and keeping me there. As I read further into the books – I’m about midway through the fourth of the five, A Feast for Crows – I find my attention drawn away from other pastimes: I’m about three weeks behind on my reading of Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated, and a pile of about two dozen CDs sits on my desk awaiting logging into the database.

I think I was likely as engrossed in Tolkien’s work the first time I read it so many years ago, taking any spare moment available to move forward another few pages. But there are major differences. First of all, Martin writes much better than Tolkien did. Part of that, I imagine, is the era, with Tolkien’s work coming from the years that bracketed World War II, and part of it, I would guess, is because Tolkien – an academic whose real career was the study of languages and myth – came to write The Lord of the Rings at least partly as a result of his experiments in creating languages. Martin came to write A Song of Ice and Fire because he’s a writer.

And that leads to two of the other major differences I find between the two works. First, Tolkien’s work was set out in stark black or white; nearly all the characters – the notable exceptions being Boromir and Gollum – were either good or evil. There were no real enduring shades of grey in Middle-earth. In Martin’s Westeros and the surrounding lands, shades of grey are the norm. There is evil and there is good, there are evil characters and there are characters that are mostly good. But I cannot think of a character in Martin’s work who is so unfailingly and purely and unrealistically good as was Tolkien’s Aragorn. And that’s fine with me. People are flawed.

And the last of the major differences I find as a reader comes about because flawed characters are more realistic than are perfect characters. I care about Martin’s characters in a way that I never cared about Tolkien’s. Oh, I worried as I read years ago about the hobbits Frodo and Sam, anxious to know not so much if they would finish their quest – that seemed foreordained – but whether they would survive and, if so, would they remain whole? (As we know, they were both altered fundamentally by their quest, a very human fact that – as I look at it from the age of fifty-seven – is one of the more real things about Tolkien’s work.) But I also realize as I look back that I cared very little about anyone else in The Lord of the Rings. Part of that was being fourteen, but part of it was the one-dimensional nature of most of Tolkien’s characters.

Martin’s world, however, with its shades of grey and its very human characters, has made me care about nearly all the major characters I’ve met so far. I don’t like all of them; there are some I detest wholly. But I see them as human, not as the archetypes that peopled Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

So I turn the pages, anxious to know who thrives and who doesn’t. And as I do, the quality of the writing, the complexity of the tale and its characters, and my wishes and worries for those people I’ve come to know in those pages are making A Song of Ice and Fire one of the great reading experiences of my life.

To close, as always, with music, here is the opening sequence to HBO’s Game of Thrones. The main theme is by Ramin Djawadi, and it’s won the affection of the soundtrack geek who loved his time in Middle-earth and is now thrilled and terrified as he wanders through Westeros and its surrounding lands.

An Evening Of Surprises

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Well, Sunday evening, I got to listen to Honeyboy Edwards sing the blues. But the Texas Gal got to hug him.

Shortly after the end of the two-hour performance by the Big Head Blues Club at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, as we were making our way to the lobby, I stopped in the men’s room. When I came out, the Texas Gal said, “You missed it! Honeyboy Edwards just came through the hall, and I got to hug him!”

I stared at her. (She said later, “I have never seen your eyes so wide. I thought they were going to fall out!”) And I looked around. No sign of Honeyboy Edwards. She said that the ninety-five-year-old bluesman had chatted for a few moments with the departing concertgoers in the hallway and then sat down in a wheelchair and was wheeled away. “I kept looking at the door, hoping you’d come out,” she said. “And there was no way I could go get you.”

I sighed as we headed up the ramp to the lobby. I would have loved to have met Edwards. His presence was the main reason I’d wanted to see Sunday’s concert to begin with, as I mentioned last Saturday. That’s not to disparage Big Head Todd & the Monsters (billing themselves for the “Blues at the Crossroads” tour as the Big Head Blues Club). Nor is it a knock on the other featured guests: guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm, drummer and guitarist Cedric Burnside and guitarist Hubert Sumlin.

But Edwards is living history. It was his presence that directly connected the concert Sunday with its purpose, which is to celebrate the centennial of the birth of bluesman Robert Johnson. (Sunday’s show was the next-to-last in a nineteen-show tour that started in late January in San Francisco and ends tonight in Urbana, Illinois.) After all, Edwards knew Johnson and traveled and played with him in 1930s Mississippi. And Edwards – along with Sonny Boy Williamson II – was with Johnson at the Three Forks Store north of Greenwood, Mississippi, on the night in August 1938 when Johnson was poisoned with tainted whiskey.

So as we walked up a short ramp to the lobby after the Texas Gal got her hug from Honeyboy Edwards, I consoled myself with the joy of the show I’d just seen. Edwards had been on stage for eight or so numbers during the show. Looking a little frail as he made his way on and off stage, he’d played well and been in good voice, particularly on the blues standard “Goin’ Down Slow” toward the end of the evening. He’d also done well on “Sweet Home Chicago,” one of the blues standards written by his one-time traveling companion Johnson.

Here’s a video shot from the audience Sunday of Edwards performing “Sweet Home Chicago” with Malcolm and a harp player whose name I sadly did not catch.

Sumlin had performed well, too, his stinging guitar riffs leading the band – the other musicians traded off all evening, performing in various configurations – through some of the Howlin’ Wolf classics on which Sumlin played in the 1950s and 1960s. Chief among them were “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Killing Floor” and “Sittin’ On Top Of The World,” on which Sumlin – now seventy-nine and using an oxygen tank – took the vocal lead.

It was an evening with some surprises: Count among them the performances of Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside (the grandson of well-known Delta guitarist R.L. Burnside). Malcolm’s quick guitar and Burnside’s muscular work on the drums helped knit the evening’s music together. I’d not heard of the two before I saw the ad for the concert around Thanksgiving, but I’m going to have to look up the two albums they’ve recorded together.

Another surprise was how well Todd Park Mohr did as a blues singer. No disrespect intended, but there is a stylistic gap between the Monsters catalog and the catalog of Robert Johnson’s blues. But from his solo opener with a steel guitar – Johnson’s “Love In Vain” – to the closer, when everyone was on stage for “Dust My Broom” and an audience sing-along of “Sweet Home Chicago,” Mohr did well, even handling adroitly the keening vocal parts in Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.”

But the biggest surprise was hearing that the Texas Gal got to meet and hug Honeyboy Edwards. I was musing on a missed moment as we made our way to the lobby. And there at a table, sat Honeyboy Edwards, signing autographs and posing for pictures. The Texas Gal got us a place in line as I dashed to the nearby sales table and bought a copy of 100 Years of Robert Johnson, the album released in conjunction with the tour.

When I got to the head of the line, Edwards gladly signed his picture in the CD booklet. But not until he gripped my hand, and then looked first at me – with eyes that so long ago looked at Robert Johnson – and then at the camera the Texas Gal had brought with her. I can still feel his strong grip – the grip of history – this morning.

(I hope to post the picture of me with Edwards later this week.)

Saturday Single No. 228

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

On a Sunday sometime just after Thanksgiving, I was paging through that day’s edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune as a football game played itself out on the television. When I got to the arts section, I was moving pretty quickly, scanning and turning pages in rhythmic progress, when I stopped.

What was it on that last page? What had I seen?

I turned back, and there, in an ad near the bottom right corner of the right-hand page, was the smiling face of Robert Johnson, the image known as the studio portrait. The ad was for a concert some months away at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, a gathering celebrating the centennial of the influential bluesman’s birth in 1911. (He was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, most likely on May 8.) Intrigued, I looked closer.

Leading off the list of performers was Big Head Todd & the Monsters. I blinked, not ever having thought of that band as one steeped in blues, and then I read on: Cedric Burnside, Lightnin’ Malcolm, David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Hubert Sumlin.

I didn’t – and still don’t – know much about either Cedric Burnside or Lightnin’ Malcolm. The only information All-Music Guide has about Malcolm is that he’s a guitar player who’s released two albums, one in 2005, the other this year. And I assumed – correctly, as it happens – that Cedric Burnside was related to R.L. Burnside, a north Mississippi blues guitarist who passed on in 2005. It turns out that Cedric is his grandson and has released a couple of albums in the past ten years working as a duo with Malcolm.

I didn’t go dig at that information as soon as I saw the ad. That came later. Because as soon as I saw the names David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Hubert Sumlin, I stopped breathing for just a moment. Sumlin was the long-time guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf, complementing the Wolf’s force-of-nature vocals with sometimes stinging and sometimes supple leads and backing.

As for Honeyboy Edwards, who’s now ninety-five, well, he’s played blues for longer than most of us have been alive. His recorded catalog is slender, but it includes a 2008 album – Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live In Dallas – that won a Grammy for best traditional blues album. But what made my breath catch as I saw the ad was the knowledge that Edwards traveled and played with Robert Johnson in 1930s Mississippi.

I got up and took the ad into the living room, where the Texas Gal was working on a quilt. I showed it to her. She read it and said something like “It looks like a good one, but, it’s on a Sunday night, and that makes it a long night getting home, what with work and school on Monday. We could look at the budget, but . . .”

And she was right. It was impractical. I nodded, looked once more at the ad, then folded up the paper and went back to the study, where I most likely picked up the metro news section. And I didn’t think any more about the concert.

Until Christmas Day. That’s when I opened a shoe-box size gift from my sister and her family and found inside an envelope from Orchestra Hall containing two tickets to “Blues at the Crossroads,” the very same concert about which I’d asked the Texas Gal a few weeks earlier.

It turns out that a few weeks before I did, my sister had seen an ad for the show, and – to make sure there was no gift duplication and that we kept the date of the concert open – she’d clued in the Texas Gal on Thanksgiving Day that I’d find the tickets under the tree Christmas morning.

Looking at the tickets, I stammered my thanks, and then tucked them safely away. At home that evening, the Texas Gal told me that when I’d shown her the ad for the concert, she’d had a difficult time. “I wanted to discourage you without being too over the top,” she said. “I already knew you were going to get the tickets and that I was going to take Monday off so we don’t have to worry about work and school that day.”

I was impressed. And more than pleased. And tomorrow evening, we’ll be in Orchestra Hall for the musical celebration, one of a series of such concerts around the country this year. I’ll likely report on the concert come Tuesday, but in the meantime, from a performance at the Riley Center in Meridian, Mississippi, here’s a look at Big Head Blues Club featuring Big Head Todd & the Monsters and a performance of  “Come On In My Kitchen.” And it’s today’s Saturday Single.

In addition to the concert series, an album titled 100 Years of Robert Johnson has just been released; credited to the Big Head Blues Club featuring Big Head Todd & the Monsters, it features the same musicians as will be on the Orchestra Hall stage Sunday as well as B.B. King, Charlie Musselwhite and Ruthie Foster.