Friday, September 30, 2005

Don't Look Back

If this were 1966, this street sign would probably last as long as the "Abbey Road" one:

(You've heard of Bob Dylan, haven't you? They say he's the Caetano Veloso of the U.S.!)

Yes, yes, of course I watched the PBS broadcast of Martin Scorsese's Dylan bio. How could I not?

And of course I loved it. How could I not? Admittedly, I thought the whole structure was a little wacky (everything's a flashback from the 1966 concerts where the audience was nearly booing him off the stage), and I was very sad that it stopped so abruptly with the motorcycle accident, effectively omitting the next, oh, FORTY YEARS of the man's career (not Scorcese's idea, we learned in the post-show interview with Charlie Rose). But holy smokes, that was some amazing footage. Suzie Rotolo! The '66 British tour! Crazy press-conference sequences with reporters asking Bob to suck his sunglasses! Bob and Joan B, right here in Buffalo, NY! (Bonus low point: ill-advised duet between these 2 on "With God on Our Side" at Newport.) And so on, and so on. Need I say more, when you can read the thoughts of poet Ron Silliman (thanks, Comrade Lampkin, for bringing that to my attention) and the one and only Right-Wing Bob? (I thought I had posted a link to RWB here right after I discovered the site, which is exactly what it sounds like, but maybe I only did that in my mind.)

I had a whole entry planned around the two recent archival releases, Bootleg Vol. 7 and Live at the Gaslight, but I never quite wrote it. Then I was gonna post my actual review of those discs to my website, but I haven't quite done that, either. And I was gonna encourage fellow Dylanologists to pick up the September issue of Mojo, which contains such treasures as a completely random list of the 100 best Dylan songs of his career, a recent interview with the man himself, a review of the aforementioned sort-of-soundtrack-album, and so on, as well as a bonus CD of 15 Dylan covers both sublime (Andrew Bird and Nora O'Connor's "Oh Sister"!) and ridiculous (Nancy Sinatra doing "It Ain't Me,Babe"!) (Also: the Driscoll/Auger version of "This Wheel's on Fire" that served as the title song for AbFab, a typically raw Chris Whitley take on "Spanish Harlem Incident," and a not-great-but-interesting "Girl from the North Country" by Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes, M. Ward, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.) Good points, bad points--an even mix of both. Perhaps you can still find it somewhere. If not, feel free to blame me for missing out. It's what I'm here for.

Monday, September 26, 2005

I want to wake up

I know the party line on Hurricane Rita is that it wasn't as bad as Katrina, it spared the major cities in its predicted path, etc. But I'm here to say that two of the places it most affected--Beaumont, TX and Lake Charles, LA--happen to be the two places where most of my remaining family lives. My sister, her family, and my father are all up by Dallas now, biding their time until they can go home, which is not possible at the moment given the absence of electricity, drinkable water, drivable streets, workable sewage systems, and other little luxuries like that. It's not entirely clear yet whether they'll even have homes to return to or not, particularly my sister, since hers was a mobile home, and we all know those don't fare too well under hurricane conditions.

I mention all this as context for the talk I attended tonight, which was part of the consistently excellent UB Art Department Speakers Series every Monday night through early December. Every week a mopey-looking assortment of undergrads struggles to stay awake while one wonderful guest after another delivers yet another outstanding presentation on visual art, performance, activist media, you name it. These kids have no idea how lucky they are, evidently; for them it's just an easy "A" (all they have to do is sign in and sit still for a semester to get one credit hour; no papers, no exams, no nothing but listening--though many of the talks float right over the heads of their intended audiences, I suspect).

Anyway, tonight's guest speaker was James Currie, who's on the faculty of UB's Music Department. Two of my friends highly recommended the talk; his name didn't ring a bell until I saw him and realized I'd met him a while back through mutual friends. Here's one of my characteristically unimpressive cell phone snapshots of his talk; maybe you'll recognize him, too:

The lecture was a brilliant pastiche of the personal and the theoretical, touching on 9/11, a parable about the Tower of Babel, voguing, the shortcomings of identity politics, totalitarianism, the rain outside, Cornel West, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the depoliticization of the gay community, and much, much more, punctuated with full-length song interludes. Given his home department, I was expecting something difficult and atonal and academic, but, surprise, surprise, the actual selections turned out to be Caetano Veloso's "Cucurucucu Paloma," a bit of improvised flamenco, and something I first thought was a boy's choir chanting something semi-Gregorian, which I soon realized was an a capella song by Virginia Rodriguez. These were not identified, not discussed, just presented in their entirety, and then passed over in silence.

I can't possibly paraphrase what Currie talked about, partly because I took only about five lines of notes, and partly because he'd make some witty or provocative or poetic comment and it would send my mind off on some internal journey for five minutes or so, and I'd have to work to find my way back onto the main road. But I guess I'd call it a defense of hysteria--sometimes the hysterical voice is the only way to effect change--in the face of our collective desire to sleep through the scary stuff of life, whether that be the rise of fascism in Walter Benjamin's day or the dance of terrorism and "patriotism" in our own. (I repeat: this is NOT a paraphrase; these words are mine, not his.)

Song comes in, he said at one point (and in a moment I really will be quoting, albeit three or four words at a time), in the balance between "where we are" and "where we want to be." Music, among other forms of art, sometimes provides us with moments of transcendence, of community, of somthing bigger than our individual lives--like on a dance floor, or at a rally--but how do we sustain that, or (okay, now I'm down to a two-word quote) "cash in" on these isolated moments?

See, my fragments of memory are even more fragmentary than his flashes of insight; you're lucky you're getting even this much out of me. But sitting in that classroom, listening to Caetano's voice and hearing someone speak so eloquently about the desperate need to wake ourselves out of our slumbers, thinking about my displaced family and their uncertain futures, everything started to come together for me, if only for a second or two.

LATE-BREAKING UPDATE (10/3/05) : For those of you keeping track, my family is okay. Still living the evacuee lifestyle up near Dallas, but my brother-in-law headed down to Beaumont and Lake Charles last Thursday and found out that, miraculously, his trailer is intact, my niece's new house is okay, and my dad's place is all right. Huge mess at each, and still no water/power/etc., but no major damage. Hooray! And now back to music talk...

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Carolina in My Mind 3: On the beach

Quick quiz: Which city between Buffalo, NY and Tarboro, NC is pictured here:

Answer: Every damn one of 'em.

Well, that particular picture was actually taken somewhere in Pennsylvania, but Don and I could have taken a similar one every 30 miles along our journey into the New New South. These days, the term "blue highway" refers to the blue Wal-Mart sign at either end of town. Of course, that's unfair to the rainbow of colors in the Starbucks, Target, Circuit City, Best Buy, and Applebees logos, and we wouldn't want to omit any of them from the picture, would we?

This probably shouldn't have come as a shock to us, but it's been a while since we've taken a multi-state road trip, and the situation is way worse than ever. One thing I do remember from a mid-eighties driving trip to Seattle was the death of local radio. Even two decades ago, it was no longer possible to note much difference between the stations from one area to the next: AM was all (stupid) talk, commercial FM all the same hits. I hate to say it, but even the college stations on the low end of the dial all pretty much follow the same formula. (At least there, DJs actually open their mouths every now and then, and acknowledge what's going on around town.)

So it came as a real jolt when we left the college towns of North Carolina and headed east to Tarboro in the more rural middle of the state to visit transplanted Buffalonian friends. Fiddling around with the radio dial on the way into town, I happened upon FM 107.9, an oldies station apparently out of Goldsboro, NC.

From almost the very first song, it was clear this was no generic oldies station; the selections were too obscure, the sound too idiosyncratic. And when DJ Jerry Wayne (aka Big Daddy) announced we were listening to "Sundays on the Beach," I knew I'd hit pay dirt.

I said in my last entry that I have long associated North Carolina with No Depression and alt country. One of the other things I think about in terms of the Carolinas is that strange phenomenon known as "Beach Music." I've heard dribs and drabs of information about the genre over the years and never quite understood exactly what it was all about, even after picking up a fun little 99 cent compilation a year or two ago.

But after an hour or so with Big Daddy, and another couple with "Steve Hardy's Beach Party" on the way out of Tarboro, I think I've got the basic idea by now (and if I"m wrong, please, please correct or further enlighten me, because this has been one of the longest lasting musical mysteries of my life). Compared to other regional genres I can think of (polka and cajun come to mind), this one is pretty eclectic, embracing a lot of R&B and soul, a little blues, a little country, even a little disco. Most of the acts are names I don't know, other than the Chairmen of the Board (whose mid70s greatest hits album in my collection is fantastic). In the mainstream oldies universe, these guys are mainly known for "Gimme Just a Little More Time" (a sentiment that hits deep for a master procrastinator such as I)--but on the beach music planet, they're superstars. I got to hear two of their beach classics, "Gone Fishin'" and "Bless Your Heart," and several more references to them throughout the evening. I wish I'd caught the name of and artist behind the extremely catchy novelty song with nonsense lyrics that is evidently a more recent smash, but I missed it. I did make out the title "I Ain't Drunk, I've Just Been Drinkin'," but the smutty country song by that name on iTunes doesn't sound like the bluesier one I heard on 107.9.

Guess my biggest misconception was that beach music mainly dates from the sixties and is thus a dead genre. Untrue: judging from the DJs' patter, there seem to be a mighty large number of bands cranking it out nowadays (after a lull sometime in the eighties or so). And I can't overstress how broad the aesthetic is; at one point I heard some obscure disco-era BeeGees song, and the "Blues Groove Salute" of the night was Van Morrison's "Goin' Down Geneva," of all things.

Do I need to point out just how bizarre it is to hear a Van deep cut (or anything of his recorded after "Brown Eyed Girl," for that matter) on a commercial station? And this was a completely mainstream, right-end-of-the-dial station, not some college station (which is where most cajun and polka music seems to reside nowadays, even in their native lands). Between every song the DJ plugged somebody's farm supply store or local business, along with lots of barbecue talk--the kind of downhome chitchat that used to be the lifeblood of AM in my misbegotten youth. It annoyed me then, but as Joni says, you don't know what you got till it's gone. Give me a motormouth DJ with some personality and an accent over mass-produced commercials (or Howard/Rush/etc) any day.

In a trip paved with interchangeable shopping plazas, this side journey into a parallel universe was the one sign that regional differences still exist, that crossing a state line still means something. (Well, there's Christian Exodus, but let's not go there. Literally.)

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Carolina in My Mind 2: Cat's in the cradle, and the silver spoon...

The main catalyst for our trip to North Carolina was the wedding of friends in Carrboro. Just down the street from the ceremony and reception (itself a merry affair, complete with mariachi and salsa bands) was the Cat's Cradle, one of those classic clubs that balances a great lineup of acts with a pleasantly dumpy environment. You know the type: the (Rock) Island in Houston (at least when I lived there in the 70s), the 9:30 Club in DC (at least when I visited in the early 80s), the Continental and Mohawk Place in Buffalo, and on and on. Every livable/visitable city of a certain size since at least the heyday of punk has one, or should. These are the joints that make America great, if you ask me, and I would be perfectly happy making a road trip across the land checking them all out, particularly if it were, say, 15 years ago and gas wasn't outrageous and I wasn't a middle-aged guy who prefers sitting down all the time.

Lo and behold, the night we were in Carrboro, there was a 10th Anniversary party for No Depression at the Cradle, featuring four acts from the area. This was almost too convenient for words, since one of the main things I associate with that famous triangle of NC college towns is that glorious magazine. It would be sort of like going to Hawaii and finding, oh, Don Ho playing at your hotel's swimming pool (which happened to us about ten years ago, but that's another story) (well, that's the whole story, so let's get out of these parentheses and back to Carrboro). We missed the first two acts on the bill (maybe next time, Chris Stamey) but arrived just in time for the second or third song in Tres Chicas's set.

I didn't know them, but I was hooked from the first note I heard: three strong lead singer/songwriters, unbelievably tight band and harmonies, nice songs in that time-honored Gram Parsons tradition (where the lyrics actually venture out of the easy tropes of drinkin' and lovin' and into the deep waters of shame and salvation), the works. Don loved 'em, too, and he's not a particular fan of alt (or any other)-country. Bought the CD, but I can't offer an opinion on it since I immediately loaned it to my friend and fellow wedding guest Cheryl, who was the first friend I wanted to tell about them. (They're one of those bands you just want to tell all your friends about, pronto.)

The next and final act of the evening was $2 Pistols.

They seemed perfectly fine but a little generic (absolutely not Don's cup of country tea), and we were dead tired and both felt perfectly satisfied by the Chicas, so we headed out after a song or two, walked up and down the street a bit, then hit the hay.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Carolina in My Mind 1: Wish I was in the land of Dixie...

Let's just pretend these next few entries from a recent trip to North Carolina and environs were actually posted on the days they occurred--that was my intention, but Blogger didn't seem to want to play along.

New Orleans haunts me. Even here, in Fredericksburg, VA (the eleventh most misspelled city in the US), we find a quaint-looking restaurant called Cafe New Orleans:

Standing outside, we hear an impressively loud noise, sounding something like Sonic Youth circa 1985 or so. Where's it coming from? And how can we get closer? Don, his brother Dave (a new Fredericksburger, as of 2 weeks ago), and I circle the building, looking for clues. Eventually we figure out that there's a club on the second floor of the Cafe, and we make our way upstairs, where we find...

... a very, VERY loud band called (I think--it was hard to hear the bartender over the racket) the Offering. Vintage goth/synth/noise in the high 80s mode. Squint real hard and maybe you can make them out in the picture. Vocals impossible to decipher, and they seem beside the point--the wall of sound is the whole point, and it's a great soundtrack for such chaotic times. Don and I both like them a lot, Dave not so much. I count eight people in the club (two of whom are playing pool) and four more onstage. The bar itself actually looks very French Quarter-y, which is to say it's a bit of a dive, but in a good way, with a nice colorful mural on the wall and air conditioning and lots of darkness. The actual Quarter is closed for the time being, but its spirit lives on.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Storms of Life

I'm rarin' to go with another entry or two or seven, but there doesn't seem to be enough time in the next few days to lay any finely tuned prose on ya. Plus, to be honest, the whole Katrina disaster (natural and manmade alike) has me so bummed out that it's been hard to do much of anything for the last week.

So instead I will steer you to this new page I set up on my main website which is devoted to accounts of what's going on in New Orleans right now plus lots of links I find interesting or useful or just plain odd. As should be painfully clear by now, I know next to nothing about HTML or web design, but I just wanted to get this stuff out to more people, particularly those who don't know the city and what makes it so very special.

Quite a few links are music-related, including this one from Fresh Air: an entire episode devoted to the likes of Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, and Harry Connick, Jr. Archival interviews, plus new material from folklorist Nick Spitzer. (I've only heard one snippet of one segment of his American Routes public radio show, but it was enough to make me once again curse both my local affiliates for depriving us of so many great music programs.)

Speaking of music, here's some thoughts on the whole affair from my Buffalo-based musician friend Kilissa.

And I hope everyone will take a look at this first-person account of the first few days of the storm and its aftermath, written by my friend Donna from the motel room in Austin where she is currently biding her time in exile.

More to come, so stay tuned.