Sunday, April 19, 2009

Like a farting watchdog

T Rex sums up the way I've felt about newspapers for most of my adult life here. Mainstream print media may be an endangered species for a number of reasons, but until I can open a newspaper without being exposed to mediocre writing, bogus wisdom, false perspective, toxic mendacity and outright stupidity, I'm going to have an awfully hard time shedding too many tears.

My prediction is that we will probably have several very large papers shut down as the big corporations decide that this is not a lucrative business to be in anymore. What I wish for in the aftermath is to see those journalists who are actually dedicated to their craft and their ethics banding together to create smaller, independent, hard-hitting, truth-seeking publications of their own to fill the gap, perhaps hiring some of the stunning writers you can find on our blogroll over the right of this page for their editorial sections. Hey, let me dream if I want to.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Seen Your Video: The Howlin' Wolf Story

As a genre, blues has its limitations. One of the most formulaic musical forms ever invented, 95% of the songs have the same chord progression, for crying out loud. Go to a bar on "blues night" and it's all cliches, solos, and bravado, fine for drinking beer to, but don't expect to have your heart moved or your mind blown. And dear God, if you're at a party and someone suggests a blues jam, it's probably time to go home. For the most part, blues is more an ingredient that spices up other musical forms (jazz, soul, folk, rock, psychedelia, West African music, zydeco, even country and punk) than a music you can spend much quality time on in its own right. (I'm practically inviting a flame war here; this blog needs more comments anyway! Bring it on!)

[UPDATE: OK, I must clarify. In that paragraph, I'm mostly talking about "blues" as it is played today by too many lazy people. Please read on...]

And yet...

There are so many great visionaries who have made the blues their life's work, found their voices there, and created whole worlds within those limitations. Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, I can listen to those guys all day. Bessie Smith, of course, was a goddess, as was Memphis Minnie. Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson II made some killer records throughout their careers, though other stuff by them I have to admit I respect more than enjoy. But there's one artist out there who I love without reservation: Howlin' Wolf.

Wolf, born Chester Burnett, had the best band (especially guitarist and longtime foil Hubert Sumlin, who spewed out snappy, economical, biting riffs that spoke more in a few choice twangs than other guitarists could do in their solos), the best songs (by both himself and Willie Dixon), an arresting growl of a voice (without him, Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits would have sounded very different), and a huge personality abundant with power, dread, rage and humor. But despite all the pleasure I've gotten from his records over the years, I started this movie knowing very little about the man himself.

We get lots of performance footage, with Wolf belting out his songs in that voice and pulling some wild stage antics like licking his instruments (harmonica and guitar), bugging out his eyes, and scowling and pointing his finger like an angry hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, all while sitting in a chair and not looking the least bit sedentary. (Too bad he didn't have more cameras pointing at him in his younger years, when he could really let go; we have to rely on eyewitness accounts for that.) Wolf took his role as a showman seriously, working hard to keep the audience excited. At the same time, when he stops the clowning, narrows his eyes, and points that finger at the audience, you can feel the sting of the reprimand as surely as if you were the character he's singing to in the song.

We are taken back to the childhood of young Chester Burnett, a poor black kid in rural Mississippi from a broken home, shuffled from relative to relative, scared of wolves (which led to him getting his famous nickname), and discontented with the lot of a 15 cent a day cotton picker in the segregated South. A more interesting alternative shows up in the form of an itinerant guitar player (none other than the great Charley Patton himself) who stirs the kid's love of music. When Chester comes of age, he has been living with his father, a kind-hearted man who gives in to his son's request for a guitar of his own. He strikes out to make his fortune and starts playing dodgy juke joints in the area, including a stint where he and Robert Johnson perform as a duo...

Gotta stop here. My jaw dropped at this point. Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson, performing together? How amazing must that have been, these two electrifying young artists throwing down together in front of an audience? Of course, being the Deep South in the 1930s, no one filmed or recorded this; the people we now think of as revered American cultural icons were regarded as nothing but n*****s, hardly worthy of attention. What a crime.

Anyway, our hero is paying his dues, receiving his baptism by fire in these rough backwoods venues, until he decides that Memphis is the place to go. We get our first inkling of the enterprising side of the Wolf; he not only establishes himself as a busy local musician, but he also gets himself a regular radio gig. One thing that impresses over and over in this movie is what a serious work ethic Wolf had. Earlier we are told that as a child his mother threw him out because he wouldn't work in the fields; one could conclude from this that he was a lazy adolescent, but looking at how hard he worked all his life, one gets the impression that he was too smart to allow himself to be exploited as a second-class citizen performing cheap labor. Wolf wasn't an explicitly political artist, mostly singing about personal conflict, emotional turmoil, and (especially) the wondrous pleasures of the flesh, but you get the impression that black pride was an innate thing with him. And it was that pride that sustained him and brought him his success.

In Memphis, this larger-than-life artist started to get some real attention. We get a nice cameo from Paul Burlison of Johnny Burnette's Rock & Roll Trio telling us how he met Wolf at the radio station where their respective bands performed, and we see how it was the power of music that helped break the barriers of the segregated South in the 50s and 60s; despite the system, they were peers digging each other's sound. (Peter Guralnik's book Sweet Soul Music is full of stories like this. An essential history book. Go get it.) The catalyst that propelled Wolf into the next phase of his life was the legendary Sam Phillips (long before Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny, or Carl), who recorded Wolf's first record, the haunting, eerie "Moanin' At Midnight", which instigated a bidding war that was won by Chess Records in Chicago. Wolf, proud man that he is, moves to Chicago not by train or thumb, but drives there himself with $4000 in his pocket.

In Chicago, Wolf has a long career full of steady gigs and hit records, eventually crossing over to the white rock audience curious about the original versions of the songs they've heard the Rolling Stones, Doors, Cream, and others do. And young Hubert Sumlin is there for the whole thing. Now an affable old man, Sumlin is here to talk about his imposing, no-nonsense mentor: "If you said something to him, you had better be right, and you'd better say it right." Meanwhile, Wolf's two daughters talk about him as a father and a husband to their mother, and we see another side to the guy: a sweet, open-hearted man who adored his wife and kids. The daughters make a point of saying that there was no contradiction between the stable family man and the wild man on the stage: "That was just his spirit coming out." The jilted (and jilting) lover in so many of his songs must have been drawn from his younger years.

Again, pride, resilience and self-improvement are a recurring theme here. (Functionally illiterate as a youth, he eventually put himself through school in his fifties, where he learned to read and write, got a GED, and went on to study accounting. For a man his age, this was no small achievement, and testifies to his incredible drive.) We see Wolf at the Newport Folk Festival at one point, heckled by a drunken Son House, one of his old musical mentors gone to seed and coming off as a pathetic old man. Wolf delivers a blistering speech at House for wasting his life and his gifts that must have made him feel six inches tall. "He didn't take no mess", another associate recalls.

Late in the movie and in his life, we are told of Chester Burnett's reunion with his mother. It does not go well. His mother was a fiercely devout Baptist and never forgave her son for playing "Devil's music", throwing the money he gave her on the ground with contempt, and leaving her heartbroken son to drive away in tears. Shortly after, when Wolf cries out "Please write my mama/Tell her the shape I'm in/Tell her to pray for me/Forgive me for my sins" in one of his last great songs, "Goin' Down Slow" (which also references the illness that killed him in the end) we realize how poignant that lyric must have been to him, despite Willie Dixon's somewhat goofy spoken-word interjections in the same song.

Dixon is strangely absent in this story, and it's hard to fathom why. A powerful figure at Chess Records, Dixon played bass and, most importantly, was a gifted songwriter who penned great tunes for many of his fellow Chess artists, including Wolf. From all accounts I've seen, there was a lot of tension between the two men; Wolf didn't feel he needed anyone else to write songs for him, and even detested at least one of the songs Dixon gave him, "Wang Dang Doodle". (A great song, actually, a surreal, crazy downhome scenario worthy of Bo Diddley) I'd have liked to see some light cast on the fractious Wolf/Dixon working relationship, but even though the DVD includes a bonus feature on the infamous Howlin' Wolf/Muddy Waters rivalry, we get nothing on the subject here. I do think the guy who gave us "Little Red Rooster" deserves some recognition here.

Otherwise, I have no complaints. It has been a pleasure to make the acquaintance of Mr. Howlin' Wolf via this movie. I come away with admiration for his heart and strength along with the music I've always loved.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

For all my old Rough Trade friends

A BBC documentary on the history of Rough Trade. Worth watching.

Updated impressions after viewing 80% of the show:

Nothing at all about the US branch of Rough Trade, which is a pity, as both the San Francisco shop and the American label had a huge impact in their own right. The Grant Ave. and later, the 6th St. Rough Trade deserves their own documentary; wonder if it will ever be made. Steve Montgomery, who we see an awful lot of in the beginning here, was more or less forcibly ousted by the San Francisco Rough Trade, which reorganized itself as a collective until the UK parent company imposed a management structure on them later; it's a fascinating story that deserves to be told. (And then, there's the German Rough Trade, the only branch of the company which never went bankrupt...and yes, as a former Rough Trade Deutschland recording artist I have a personal interest in learning more about them, obviously)

My, Geoff Travis certainly becomes elusive when any financial issues come up.

In retrospect, it's highly amusing when the company goes into a big dramatic identity crisis over Scritti Politti's "The Sweetest Girl": "Oh my God, we're betraying our vision by putting out a slick pop record!" If you listen to that song now, it sounds like an outtake from Rock Bottom more than anything, which is no surprise since Robert Wyatt himself played keyboards on the single. Later, of course, Scritti Politti moved into serious helium-voiced 80s cheese with semiotic pretensions, but at this stage, they hardly sounded like commercial pop at all. Funny.

Liked seeing Mayo Thompson and Shirley O'Loughlin and others give their take on the history. And what a great bunch of footage of the Raincoats, Fall, Wyatt, Stiff Little Fingers and more. Oh yeah, and the Smiths too. (At the time they came out, I was more appreciative of their role as Rough Trade's cash cow than their actual music, but looking at them now, I have to admit they really were a dynamic little band for a while.)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Conspiracy Of Beards: New York Diary, Pt. 3

Today's earworm: the la-da-da-da chorus from "A Singer Must Die". Bursts from the throat and rolls off the tongue like honey.

The street crazies in New York are louder, scarier, and way more entertaining than the ones you find in San Francisco. This morning, a youngish black man with blazing, enraged eyes and a receding hairline was running around, pounding on restaurant windows, bellowing something about Obama, and marching into the street on red lights. (Striding purposefully into oncoming traffic is something all New Yorkers do well, but this guy was a master.) I expect to spot him again soon as a token black pundit on Fox News making a special guest appearance on the Glenn Beck show.

Yesterday, on the Bowery, a disshevelled, wide-eyed fifty-something white man was communing intensely with his headphones, stomping briskly through the crowd, and providing edgy, enthusiastic running commentary: "These guys! Were GENIUSES! Back then they made MUSIC! Not like this TECHNO PUSSY SHIT you hear now!" He would take breaks from his tirade to leer at all the hot, sharp-dressed New York women who wisely gave him a wide berth, then he'd resume his riveting rock criticism. Maybe Christopher Stigliano was visiting New York this weekend too.

A conversation I had more than once this weekend: "So, you're an all male choir, you don't have any instruments, and you only do Leonard Cohen songs?" "Yeah, that's right." "And that's it? You guys don't do anything else?" "Well, it's good to have a focus, don't you think?"

Actually, there was a moment yesterday that broke the instrument barrier. Deron, our most extroverted member, the one who throws his head back, contorts his face and visibly feels every second of every song with the utmost intensity (if you've seen the Beards, you know who I'm talking about) is also an ace harmonica player, and there is a trio arrangement of "Stories From The Street" which employs two voices backed by Deron blowing a humungous chromatic bass harmonica. One day I hope to see this performed for myself; unfortunately, this was the opening number while we were all sequestered in a tiny (literally) green room behind the stage at the Bowery Poetry Club last evening, so I have only experienced the audio so far.

The Bowery Poetry Club felt tiny after the Highline Ballroom, a long narrow corridor of a venue with a busy little deli up front and a bar and seats in the back room and paintings of great New York poets on the wall above the bar. The set was exciting, possibly the best performance of the weekend; the audience up close, noisy, and engaged. We pulled off the best version of "The Window" yet. David Bentley's solo vocal is tear-jerkingly beautiful on this song, one of Cohen's most cosmic, universe-embracing spiritual pieces ever; I am in awe when we do this one.

For the second time that day, we did "Bird On The Wire", two rows of dudes swaying like happy drunks with our arms around each other's shoulders. It seemed like every baritone singer was singing a slightly different part, but this time, rather than straining to figure out what was correct I just threw my voice in the mix and relied on my sense of harmony. Turns out, according to Tom, one of the wise elder Beards, this is the appropriate approach to this song: the more somebody tries to tighten up the arrangement, the more divergent versions are created, which then end up all being sung at once. But why argue with success, when all this disagreement results in such a mighty sound? Other songs benefit well from precision; "Bird" is magnificent "midnight choir" chaos.

Larry and his cousin converged at the bar the same time I did, and Larry bought us all a round of Guinnesses. Generous. And delicious. As we all gathered to plan how we would all get to the loft party that night, Sloan, one of our bass singers who was leaving and wouldn't be joining us there, passed me by and cryptically shouted, "Arrange memories!"

"What's that now?"

"Arrange 'Memories'! That song we were talking about!"

"Oh yeah! Thanks!" I kind of like the way I misheard it, though. "Arrange memories." That is what I'm doing right now in this Chelsea internet ice cream parlor, actually.

Larry's cousin led the way to the L train, walking faster than anyone I have ever tried to keep up with, and I always thought I walked pretty fast. If I lived here, I would no doubt be getting an aerobic workout every day of my life. When we got to the Bedford Ave. station in Brooklyn, he steered us to Driggs Pizza, where we had some real New York style slices. Now I like some of our local pies, and am especially loyal to our good friends at Eagle Pizza on Taraval (a really friendly, funny, and down-to-earth couple who make some of the best food in San Francisco), but Brooklyn pizza is a category all its own that must be experienced.

On to the party. Williamsburg is going through the sort of transition that SF went through during the original dot-com boom, where live-work spaces moved from being a raw pioneer experience for arty types seeking cheap living and freedom to being a status symbol for the upwardly mobile, ("the hedge fund managers are pushing the artists out now", we were told) but the transition is not fully complete, and you can still find cool, progressive, artistic young people living in well-furnished storage-locker-like digs in highrises that look foreboding on the outside and teem with life on the inside.

The party was a maelstrom of noisy, shouting conversation with faint sounds of Beirut coming off of a laptop. (I always liked Beirut OK, but I was curious as to who actually listens to them. Now I know.) The acoustics were so live, and sound carried so well, that everybody kept talking louder to hear their own conversation. Some of the younger, more hippie-ish Beards were arguing strongly that we should all perform with our shoes off, but the sound of breaking glass quickly put a damper on any such notion. I milled around, drinking Cabernet and locating pockets of interesting conversation while we waited for Daryl and his wife and adorably trouble-seeking two year old son to show up.

The woman hosting the party came up to some of us. "I think it's about time you guys got started."

"OK, but we're still waiting for our director."

"He's not here yet? OK..."

"You'll recognize him when you see him. He's a bit shorter, wears glasses and a mustache, and radiates an aura of calm authority."

"Well, I hope he gets here soon." In another corner, Ruben had already seized the reins and was putting a set list together in case we had to go it alone. Happily, in came Daryl and family in the nick of time and we assembled. I recruited Tim's (a Beard bass and excellent vocal arranger) sister Allison to videotape us as we performed. Thanks, Allison!

It was a loose, fun singing session; now all the pressure was off and it was time to just indulge in the fun that we all got into this thing for. Several party guests called out requests for great songs we have never done like "Tonight Will Be Fine" and "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye". There's plenty more material for us to do in the future! As usual, everybody loves "Hallelujah". That song touches something deep in people; even atheists and agnostics relate to the theme of just opening your heart to the universe and singing "Hallelujah"; no explanation or justification necessary. It's nothing more or less than all our humanity coming out, rejoicing that, in spite of everything and no matter what your circumstance, it's such a goddamn gift to be alive.

That may be the central message, if there is any, of Leonard Cohen's mission: a deep, ecstatic, yet clear-eyed inquiry on what it means to be alive. Even when he has written and recorded songs like "Dress Rehearsal Rag" or "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" that confront with terrifying empathy how it feels to be driven to suicide, every word and note from a Leonard Cohen song is full of the sheer wonder of life. And if that sounds corny to you, you have some growing up to do.

Anyhow, after our set, the party changed its tone, and suddenly the music got louder and more rhythmic as Beards and other guests went wild, break-dancing and ecstatically throwing one another around the room. As I was just saying, here it is: the wonder of life.

I have been on enough tours in my time to know full well how reality has a tendency to bash you on the head with a hammer once you get back home and return to your regular routine, but I feel regenerated by the last few days, and have a strong intention to stay that way. Next week, we will be seeing Field Commander Cohen himself in person in Oakland, so I know this feeling will not be passing quite so quickly.

Now, a long shuttle ride, a longer flight, and a reunion with my girl await. Your correspondent is signing off for now. Cheers.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Conspiracy Of Beards: New York Diary, Pt. 2

The Stain Bar is a cozy little joint a block away from the Grand St. subway station in Brooklyn. On this night, they had a special on mulled wine, which was nice for the throat before singing. The courtyard is decorated with a giant sculpture of a quarter, with George Washington's profile fashioned from what appears to be old auto parts. To the left, various artists (or is it one artist with many moods?) have contributed to a graffiti mural (which may still be a work in progress) with fire-breathing monster men, sultry mermaids and more. The room itself is full of comfortable couches you can sink into. Behind the bar is a turntable on which the bartenders spin old vinyl by the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, and Lou Reed.

Gradually, the place began filling with people: Beard friends, relatives, and sweethearts; and, most gratifyingly, strangers who showed up because they read about it in the listings. There was a good write-up in the AM Metro that helped bring the people in, though Daryl was disappointed that the writer used all of his least favorite interview quotes in the piece. That's a Murphy's Law of journalism one should always allow for: they will always end up using your worst quotes, so be as brilliant as you can to journalists (without trying too hard...that can bring on the lameness if you're not careful). With L. Cohen on tour right now, excitement about his work is running high, which makes it a good time for the Beards to be on the road.

We did a full set, including some smaller group pieces like "Suzanne", the arrangement of which was changed again, just before the show. (And what an arrangement it is, a quintet with Daryl himself as lead tenor and staggered wordless harmonies that actually sound like boats rolling along the river!) We also laid out while various small groupings did "In My Secret Life" (my first time hearing this) and "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On", a supremely ridiculous, rollicking potboiler from Death Of A Ladies' Man, Leonard's ill-fated, lush & lusty Phil Spector collaboration. Later after our set I brought up the over-the-top doo-wop ode to adolescent hormones, "Memories", my favorite song from that same album which is currently in rotation on Ear Candle Radio (there's also a very sparse voice/piano version by the Extra Glenns on their Martial Arts Weekend CD which we've played in the past) and was told more than once "You should do an arrangement! You can get some help from some of the others if you need it!" to which I said, "that'd be fun, maybe a ways down the road, when I feel ready." It would certainly bring down the house to have the Beards do THAT one.

Other than my dissatisfaction with my part on "First We Take Manhattan" (I'm switching from the low baritone part to the high one; there may more guts in my voice in that range, I think), the set went swimmingly. We had our first successful live version of "Land Of Plenty", and I think we're all feeling like we got over a big hump there. It was a sweet evening, and the subway got me back to Chelsea like a charm. Then my darling rang my cell phone just as I opened the door to my room. Perfect.

Woke up early this morning and jumped on the southbound E train to keep my promise to check out Ground Zero and videotape what's there now. What's there is a well blocked off construction site surrounded by blue fences and barbed wire to keep out the snoopers, while cranes diligently raise and lower themselves and cement trucks pass through the security entrance. The area is dotted with camera-wielding tourists, myself included, all seeking some sort of epiphany. Across Liberty St. is a museum devoted to 9/11, but the walking tour did not fit today's tight schedule. But being present there did conjure up the same "is that all there is?" feeling that ends Wim Wenders' Land Of Plenty, which I can now draw from my memory banks when the choir performs the title song. At least the scene hasn't been turned into a grotesque monument to patriotic kitsch yet. Overall impression: New York has moved on, thank you very much. And if you're gonna just stand there gawking, you might as well come in and buy some memorabilia already.

On to the Highline Ballroom, where the boys have an afternoon show. A nice mid-sized rock club it is too, perhaps analogous to Slim's in SF. (Maybe a bit smaller than the Great American Music Hall.) We share the bill with Peter Whitehead, a former Beard doing a solo set playing folkish music with instruments he created and built himself like a 10-string sort of guitar-mandolin hybrid. We performed two sets, served by a good sound system, which compelled us to lean towards subtlety. I did my best to blend and not stick out. There were some beautiful moments.

The audience was seated at tables, a bit polite at first, cheering and whooping by the end. (Do I need to tell you how good that feels?) They went wild for "Hallelujah". Of course, who doesn't love "Hallelujah"? I really appreciate that in our arrangement, we sing "do ya" and not "do you" in the first verse, unlike most interpreters of the song. (Jeff Buckley, please rise up from the grave so that you may receive your well-deserved spanking!) [UPDATE: Leonard himself sang "you" at the Paramount on April 15! I still prefer "ya", though.]

Next on today's busy agenda: the Bowery Poetry Club, followed rapidly by a loft party in Brooklyn. Zounds! I should know these songs pretty well by the time the night is over.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Conspiracy Of Beards: New York Diary, Pt. 1

I read Cat's Cradle in its entirety on yesterday's flight to New York and spent the remaining hour daydreaming ominously about Ice-Nine while passing over what I think was Lake Huron. If you read the book, you'll know what I mean.

My fellow newbie-Beard Larry stepped up to say hello on the same flight. Later, my seatmate, a middle-aged woman traveling with her husband and her mother, asked me if my friend and I were traveling to New York on business. No, I replied, I'm in a choir called the Conspiracy Of Beards. "What a name!", she exclaimed. "Yeah, we're a men's chorus who do Leonard Cohen songs." Her mother, who looked to be in her 70s, lit up. "That's so great!" Leonard crosses all age boundaries.

We convened at the 14th St. PATH station and took the train to WFMU in Jersey City, where we did a live-on-the-radio spot on Billy Jam's show. I remember Billy Jam from the Bay Area where he was a hip-hop DJ on the radio back in the 80s. He's still playing hip-hop, but he also has crazy men's choirs belting it out live in the studio, or at least this one. The station was a homey little hipster haven full of astonishing oil paintings of famous villains like Donald Rumsfeld, Osama bin Laden, and Phil Spector; great kitschy old album covers; back issues of zines like Roctober, XLR8R and Motorbooty; and (buried somewhere deep in their library) some of our label's Content Providers and X-tal CDs. Call 'em up and request them sometime.

Much stretching of limbs and limbering of voices in the green room as we warmed up by doing vocal imitations of the Asteroids game in the room, then did lots of songs before our director Daryl Henline showed up and put us through our paces. Daryl is great at kicking your ass and putting you at ease in the same moment, a true example of leadership. There is a version of "The Window" we do that is arranged for octet and solo voice, with the rest of the group bursting in on the choruses. In rehearsal, it was exquisite.

Time to go on. We strolled upstairs into the performance room while Billy and his assistant watched from the other side of a window. We rolled through "First We Take Manhattan", hit a snag when "So Long Marianne" morphed into "The Window" in the first few bars, and got our groove back with "Famous Blue Raincoat", "If It Be Your Will", "A Singer Must Die", and the amazingly arranged (kudos to Ruben Fonseca for this...various choir members write arrangements for the group, each with his own makes for fun and challenging singing) "Is This What You Wanted?" I really think the Beards need to do a good studio recording of that last one. It's a hit, man!

It's amazing to be part of this THING that happens when the hard work pays off and this diverse group of imperfect voices suddenly meshes into a powerful musical force. I was a fan of the Beards before I joined, and I am a fan now. It's a thrill to be here doing this.

On the PATH train back to New York, the boys collected in one end of the car and sang "Chelsea Hotel #2". I grabbed the camera and shot a crude movie of us performing, until the conductor yelled at me, "Hey you! Didntcha HEAR ME! You can't take pictures on the train! Put it away or I'll call a cop!" Fortunately the song was already over. I think I caught an awesome moment. Hooray for spontaneity.

This evening, it's off to the Stain Bar in Brooklyn, where we will be doing our first live show of the weekend. I think it's going to be great; WFMU was the perfect warmup. Wish me luck. Gotta run.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ear Candle Radio's Top 20: March 2009

What a stunning bunch of tunes this month! We added this classic Davy Graham track in memory of the recently deceased maverick British folk guitarist, and our listeners responded by kicking it up to the top spot. Elsewhere, we're proud to present loads of rare punk and post-punk vinyl from the Plugz (whose album, Electrify Me, was one of the first independently released full-length punk albums of the L.A. scene; Tito Larriva's performance here is stunning, railing against complacency in the verses and softly whispering "No, no, no" between power chord assaults on the chorus), the Slits (whose definitive take on "Man Next Door" is extremely hard to find), Snatch (Judy Nylon and Patti Palladin collaborating here with Brian Eno on a rare B-side inspired by '70s Euro-terrorists and airplane paranoia), and Alan Vega on the fluke hit single (in France, of course) from his awesome first solo album, circa 1980.

A much more serene (and dryly funny) take on air travel is brought by Australia's mighty Cannanes in the seemingly inappropriately titled "Marching Song", while the Poison Girls show that no one can express political anger more strongly than a concerned mother on "Statement".

The Damned show up with a peculiar and catchily melodic track, "Lovely Money", which is notable for featuring a cameo performance from the Bonzo Dog Band's late mad genius Vivian Stanshall, who portrays a disgruntled London tour guide whose cheerful historical banter gradually degenerates into a nasty, incoherent drunken rant. (When he starts going off on Argentinians for no particular reason it gets a bit uncomfortable, but here at Ear Candle Radio we make the likely assumption that Viv was just being in character, playing the role of the xenophobe in "unreliable narrator" fashion rather than being one for real. Since the Damned's Captain Sensible has always been a cool cat with both humanitarian ideals and a rollicking sense of humor, and the Captain even collaborated with Crass around the time they were raging bravely against the Falklands War, we have a hunch we're right about this. We do love our Argentine friends!) A great track nonetheless; it's always good to hear Mr. Stanshall play with language like putty.

Much trancing out on this month's list also; our listeners are enjoying being taken away by Windy and Carl, Terry Riley, and the Master Musicians Of Joujouka, as well as the downhome singalong kirtans of our friend at Harbin Hot Springs, Peter B. Are our listeners on a spiritual path, or do they just have marijuana in their brains like Dillinger? Or perhaps they dropped a tab and are watching the dripping walls with Vomit Launch? Whatever the case, the fantastic soul-punk-yodeling Detroit Cobras agree, everybody's going wild.

1. Davy Graham - Blues Raga - Mojo Presents: The Quiet Revolution
2. The Plugz - Satisfied Die - Electrify Me
3. The Slits - Man Next Door - Wanna Buy a Bridge?: A Rough Trade Compilation of Singles 1977-1980
4. Peter B & Friends - Radhe Sham - Harbin Temple Kirtan
5. Windy & Carl - Lighthouse - Drawing Of Sound
6. The Detroit Cobras - Everybody's Going Wild - Baby
7. Snatch - R.A.F. - SNATCH
8. The Cannanes - Marching Song - Cannanes
9. The Wild Magnolias - (Somebody Got) Soul Soul Soul - The Wild Magnolias
10. Poison Girls - Statement - Poisonous
11. Kevin Ayers - Run, Run, Run - The Unfairground
12. Dillinger - Marijuana In My Brain - Straight To Prince Jazzbo's Head
13. Wire - Sand in My Joints - Chairs Missing
14. Vomit Launch - Dripping Walls - Mr. Spench
15. The Master Musicians Of Joujouka - Your Eyes Are Like A Cup Of Tea (Al Yunic Sharbouni Ate) - Brian Jones Presents The Pipes Of Pan At Joujouka
16. Generation X - Wild Dub - Wild Dub - Dread Meets Punk Rocker
17. The Damned - Lovely Money - Smash It Up: The Anthology 1976-1987
18. Alan Vega - Jukebox Babe - Jukebox Babe
19. Terry Riley - A rainbow in curved air - A rainbow in curved air
20. Suicide - I Remember - Suicide

Keep listening, dear friends!