Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Kenneth Bowser’s Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune Does Justice to a Legendary Cult Songwriter

For those who haven’t already discovered him, Phil Ochs was arguably the greatest rock songwriter of the 1960s. Ochs cut his teeth in the West Village folk movement in the early part of the decade alongside Bob Dylan, a friend in their early days who would become something of a competitor. A legendary party animal, rakishly handsome and considerably talented multi-instrumentalist proficient on guitar, clarinet and piano, Ochs grew from a wryly witty singer of stinging topical songs, to become one of the most devastatingly powerful lyricists in the history of rock. But where Dylan found rock and roll, Ochs followed his muse into classical before embarking somewhat frantically on a rock career most notable for his 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement, probably the most resonant requiem ever written for the idealism of the 60s. With its cover image of Ochs’ tombstone, it left no doubt that it was also a somewhat early suicide note. Kenneth Bowser, producer of the acclaimed Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, has a poignant, insightful new documentary out, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a rapidfire collage of period footage, brief snippets of live performances and interviews with colleagues and fans which traces Ochs’ career from his early coffehouse days to his 1975 suicide. It’s currently playing in New York at the IFC Center at Sixth Ave. and West Third St.

Singer Judy Henske, who comes across the most articulately of all of Ochs’ contemporaries, explains that he “made people nervous.” Ochs’ brother Michael (whose halfhearted decision to manage his brother springboarded a successful career as a music executive and archivist) and sister Sunny dredge up some cringe-inducing childhood anecdotes including a candid assessment of the mental illness that had plagued their father, and which their brother probably shared. His plunge into chronic alcoholism may have only exacerbated what seems to be a pretty clear-cut case of manic depression. Bowser follows the theory that Ochs saw himself as an archetypical everyman who took every attack on his fellow freedom fighters personally, and substantiates it well. Ochs is credited with changing Bobby Kennedy’s views on Vietnam on a flight from Washington, DC to New York by playing him his epic JFK requiem Crucifixion, and took Kennedy’s assassination, just a few months later, very hard. The police brutality against protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, followed by the Kent State murders left Ochs at a loss as to how to address them; a particularly crushing blow seems to have been the coldblooded assassination of his friend the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara by a CIA-sponsored death squad in 1972. There’s almost as much footage of Ochs toward the end of his career is there is for his early years, and it is heartbreaking. A brief recovery promoting a benefit concert for Chile, alongside Dylan – who otherwise is conspicuously absent here – is followed by some cruelly vivid homemade footage of Ochs in various inebriated states shortly before the end. While there are numerous contributions on Ochs’ legacy from the likes of Sean Penn and Billy Bragg, Bowser also smartly puts Ochs’ producers Jac Holzman and Larry Marks on screen, who along with A&M Records’ co-founder Jerry Moss offer considerable insight into Ochs’ legacy as someone who was something of an eminence grise before his time. Perhaps the most telling moment of all is when frequent Ochs collaborator and pianist Lincoln Mayorga, playing completely from memory, rips into the ragtime of Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, the uncharacteristically lighthearted 1967 song (and Dr. Demento staple) that remains, somewhat ironically, Ochs’ best-known composition. IFC showtimes are here.

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January 11, 2011 Posted by | Film, folk music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Tim Eriksen – Soul of the January Hills

This is definitely not folk music for the faint of heart, but it’s heaven for fans of gothic Americana. Tim Eriksen is one of the world’s more fearless performers: long admired as a singer, steeped in Americana and particularly the eerie northern New England tradition, the multi-instrumentalist is no stranger to singing a-cappella. What’s most impressive is how this album was made: Eriksen sang all fourteen songs solo with neither band nor instrumentation, in a single take, in a tower along the wall of the Benedictine Abbey in Jaroslaw, Poland. His slightly twangy baritone is a potent instrument, but he doesn’t overdo it: this is an album of interpretations, a voice alone setting and maintaining a mood with the lyrics. Yet it also doesn’t offer the impression that he’s holding anything in reserve, waiting til the end when he knows he can empty the tank and blow out his voice if he wants. And what technique! Eriksen is pitch-perfect, working those blue notes with a sorcerer’s subtlety. Tenacity in the face of hardship, mourning and even gruesomeness is the feeling that links most of the often centuries-old songs here: many of them, even a hymn like Son of God, are absolutely macabre. Most of them are in minor keys; and to Eriksen’s credit, he doesn’t sing them all in the same key. The tension lets up a little at the end of the English folk song Gallows Tree, where the prisoner at the end of the rope is finally rescued as the hangman is paid his bribe (for another, absolutely lights-out solo vocal performance of this song, check out the version on Robin O’Brien’s album The Apple in Man).

By contrast, Eriksen gives the narrator of Drowsy Sleeper – dying of food poisoning – a chance to make a forceful last stand. He works segues between several of the songs so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins. A couple of them are traditionally sung by women, but Eriksen pulls them off, notably the ominously gleeful A Soldier Traveling from the North, where the girl begs the traveling soldier not to leave (the implication is that she’s pregnant). Eriksen recasts Amazing Grace as rustic Appalachian folk, and finally lets the clouds dissipate with a rousing, revival camp-style version of Better Days Coming to end the album. This ought to appeal to a wide audience, from fans of groups like the Handsome Family to otherworldly Balkan-Applachian singers Æ.

June 18, 2010 Posted by | folk music, gospel music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Carolann Solebello – Glass of Desire

Carolann Solebello is one of the three women in well-loved Americana-folk band Red Molly. One of the reasons for Red Molly’s popularity may be the way they skirt cliches – their unselfconscious, refreshingly down-to-earth sensibility is all too seldom seen in the ostensibly “poetic” world of folk music and singer-songwriters. As with her main band, Solebello relies on comfortable, familiar chords and changes on this cd (her first solo effort in nine years), but with a potent, metaphorically loaded lyrical style and that soaring voice that frequently evokes another extraordinary Americana singer, Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette. The production is rustic and oldschool, a tastily melodic mesh of acoustic and electric guitar textures.

All That I’ve Done Right is a perfect example of how Solebello works. It’s a straight-up country song, a mother addressing her daughter. But it’s not mawkish or sentimental, in fact in its own characteristically understated way it’s kind of harrowing, a “faded chorus girl” looking for a grain of hope in her kid and coming up with it – sort of. Likewise, Michigan, a nimbly fingerpicked tale of a would-be New York expatriate who’s “sick of living underground, sick of being tightly wound.” It has a trick ending, one that’s as sadly universal as it is funny. Another first-class track here is Behind the Door, images tumbling in a vivid evocation of how to walk away from the past – or is it possible to do that at all, Solebello ponders?

The rest of the album mixes shades of light and dark. The opening track, Home, is a memorably uneasy traveling song:

Said goodnight to my soul
Jesus went in that great big hole
Throwing rocks but still I roll

Shibboleth is a teeth-gnashing anthem, Steve Kirkman’s reverb-drenched lapsteel sheets matching Solebello’s angst note for note. The pensive Dance with Me features producer Fred Gillen Jr. sitting in on mandolin. And on Michael, an old lover tries to reconnect with her – while she may be “clinging to an oar in a sea of memories” she wisely decides against it as Kirkman’s deliciously evocative electric guitar ending seals the deal. The album winds up with the Gillian Welch-inflected Ties That Bind and a subdued ballad, Long Time Gone. The whole album is as smart as it is accessible – just like Solebello’s other project. And it’s a clinic in how to write a good folk-pop song: other songwriters should get their hands on this to see how it’s done.

March 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Jay Bennett – Whatever Happened, I Apologize

What a harrowing way to start the new year. This cd hits you with a gale force, bitter, brutal and direct. Even if you try to get out of the way, Jay Bennett – the talented multi-instrumentalist who for all intents and purposes was Wilco until he left the band and Jeff Tweedy decided to become Brian Wilson – will still knock the wind out of you. Most of this cd – Bennett’s fourth solo album –  is just voice and acoustic guitar, occasionally embellished with organ and bass that are so good that you’re left wanting more. While the songs on this album scream out for a full band to flesh them out, even if this is as far as they ever get, that’s fine: they still pack a wallop. Stylistically, Bennett evokes Matt Keating or Richard Buckner in particularly energetic mode: this is smart, terse, gorgeously melodic Americana rock with equally smart, tersely unwinding lyrics. It’s a concept album about a relationship gone awry, spectacularly: this one was doomed right from the start, and if Bennett is to be taken at face value, it’s something of a miracle he got out alive.

 

The cd starts with a road song, just a bit of ominous foreshadowing in the same vein as the Wilco classic Far, Far Away (from the Being There cd), followed by the matter-of-fact, dismissive I Don’t Have the Time. Bennett knows there’s drama coming down the line and he wants no part of it. “I don’t have the good looks, but I know yours won’t last,” he caustically tells the woman. With the next cut, I’ll Decorate My Love, the genie’s out of the bottle, Pandora’s out of the box and all hell breaks loose, setting the tone for the rest of the cd:

 

There will be no profit in protection

Even when you’re walking miles in the rain

I will curse the day I met you

And you will curse the day I lost control

And there will be no reward for your actions

Even when you’re trying to save your lover’s soul…

You were down before me

 

The themes that recur again and again here are missed opportunities and wasted time (go figure), notably on the cd’s towering centerpiece, the big, crescendoing 6/8 ballad The Engines Are Idle:
 
The engines are idle and the trees are all bare

And the issues are clouded and hang in the air

The best part of the story is the part that you missed…

The best part of the record is the part where it skips

And she lost the lyrics and the jacket is ripped…

Cos it’s ageless and timeless but beauty must fade

And you looked so much better when the picture was made

 

The pace picks up and emotions reach a fever pitch on How Dull They Make the Razor: Bennett wants to wait this one out, but he ends up getting dragged in anyway:

 

It don’t matter how dull they make the razor

You won’t feel it when you’re dead 

 

On the next track, Without the Benefit of Sight, Bennett likens himself to a block of ice on a Chicago rooftop in early spring, loosened just enough to become deadly. Exasperation and despair take over center stage:

 

If you want to weigh me down there’s just one layer left

I’ve been repainted so many times it’s anybody’s guess

 

And that’s pretty much where it’s left. Bennett muses on how Hank Williams might have written this story, then throws up his hands and lets that work as a smokescreen: he’s through with trying to cut through the smoldering underbrush, and the songs follow suit. “I lost my best friend last night, I’m working on number two/Won’t you give me a chance cause your chances are through,” he warns on the stark, mandolin-spiced ballad Talk and Talk and Talk. The cd ends with a lament for the world as a whole – the relationship seems to be a microcosm of something far worse – and then with the understatement of Little Blue Pills, “that don’t make you ill – someday they will.”

 

Intensely personal yet not the least bit self-absorbed, this is the best thing Bennett’s ever done. And the best thing about it is that the cd is absolutely free: Bennett is giving it away as a free download at rockproper.com, click here and then hang on, this is not exactly easy listening.

January 5, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Matty Charles Live at Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn NY 3/23/08

“Are you following the presidential race?” Matty Charles asked the crowd who’d filled the tables in the little back room at Pete’s.

Silence.

“I kind of like this Obama guy,” he admitted. More silence. This was white Williamsburg, 2008, after all, strictly Republican territory, if these people vote at all.

“The thing that impresses me is that he can actually speak…that’s something we should require of all our politicians,” deadpanned Charles. He went on to give Obama credit for not reducing his response to the tempest-in-a-teapot over Rev. Jeremiah Wright to a soundbite. “Even if it ends up derailing him,” he added somberly. Then Charles played a catchy, oldtimey new song that sounded straight out of the Woody Guthrie catalog, a familiar-sounding, upbeat broadside about the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and still paying all the taxes. But it ended as a resounding call for the people who “pick the apples that make this apple pie” to get up and do something about it. A song like this coul have come across as strident, but delivered in Charles’ warm, laid-back baritone, effortlessly fingerpicked on his acoustic guitar, it had a ring of authenticity.

If memory serves right, Charles and his band the Valentines took over the weekly Sunday residency that Rev. Vince Anderson had held for what seems like ages back in the late 90s and early zeros. Since then he’s been all over the place and back again and tonight he was back, for sure. A weekly residency can be a blessing – regular gigs keep your chops fresh and give you a chance to work up a lot of material over a relatively short period of time, but they can also be a curse because they drag on your fan base. Conventional wisdom to the contrary, New Yorkers, especially the newer arrivals, tend not to be the most adventurous types. Most of us will go out to see a friend’s band, others go because a band reputedly draws cute girls (or boys), but counting on a fan base to populate a club week after week is tough. But Charles has that fan base, and he’s earned it. Americana is his thing, veering to the oldtimey, folk side of country: he’s been compared to Guy Clark, but he’s a better singer and a considerably better songwriter, somebody who would rhyme “screw ya” with “hallelujah” as he did tonight. Jack Grace is probably a better comparison, although whiskey doesn’t figure as prominently in Charles’ songwriting, and he doesn’t milk the crowd for laughs. As with his vocals, the humor in his songs is completely casual, like the story he told tonight about going into what turned out to be a drug deli on Williamsburg’s south side back in the day when such places were everywhere, looking for a beer, but finding only milk in the store’s cooler.

That this site has been up now for almost a year and Charles hasn’t been reviewed here until now is, to be blunt, kind of stupid. There. It’s been done. You should go see him sometime: lately he’s been at Pete’s every Sunday at 8:30 and has a new album coming out next month. If the songs he played tonight are any indication, it’ll be as good as his last one.

March 23, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Hippiefest at Asser Levy Park, Brooklyn NY 7/26/07

Old hippies tend to skew hard in one of two directions, either totally inspiring or completely pathetic. Think back to the most recent antiwar protest you attended, and who was doing most of the heavy lifting, and who came out in full force: that segment of the demographic is clearly still firing on all cylinders, role models for all of us.

Then there’s the wrinkly, potbellied element lost in the ozone of whatever residual chemicals remain from all the groovy lids and trips they undoubtedly wish they could remember. If they only could remember what it’s like to remember. That element doesn’t come out much but usually trickles out for shows like this one. But not tonight. This free Thursday summertime outdoor concert series has a smalltown vibe, local merchants taking the stage to hawk their wares, the wide expanse of lawn taken up mostly by what’s left of the indigenous white blue-collar community here, local celebrity and longtime New York dj Cousin Brucie Morrow serving as master of ceremonies tonight.

We got there as former Wings guitarist Denny Laine, his voice shot, was wrapping up his set. He and his generic backing band phoned in Go Now (the single he sang with the Moody Blues before he left the band and they got really good), and the edited, single version of Band on the Run, complete with cheesy synthesizer. After what seemed an interminable break, Cousin Brucie going on and on about not much of anything, Melanie took the stage, backed by a young guitarist who may have been a family member: the vocals weren’t coming through very clearly at this point, so it was hard to understand what anyone, Cousin Brucie included, was saying.

While it obviously took Melanie considerable determination to drive down from Brooklin, Maine, past the Whitestone Bridge where she’d burst into tears (she’s from Queens: can you think of any other city, Paris included, that evokes such powerful nostalgia for returnees?), to play the longest set by anyone we saw here tonight, she really shouldn’t have been up there. Her voice is completely gone, and to make matters worse, she tried to hit all the high notes. Watching her struggle and miss the mark every time was viscerally painful. She’s a perfectly adequate acoustic guitarist: why she didn’t capo up her guitar and transpose the songs to a lower key is a mystery. When she did the obligatory version of Brand New Key, she made it abundantly clear that it was not what she wanted to be remembered for, telling the audience how she’d originally conceived of it as a roughhewn, Leon Redbone-style song, blaming her producer for making it fluffy: “Here I am, with silver hair and what am I doing? Cute!” she railed. Though she went out of her way to make it clear that she’d always seen herself as a socially conscious songwriter (which she was), tonight she did the hits, ending with Lay Down, which dissolved in a mess.

Country Joe McDonald was next, also solo acoustic, and got all of three songs. “Gimme an F,” he joked, then did some nice fingerpicking on an excerpt from the 1967 Country Joe & the Fish psychedelic classic Bass Strings. Then he launched into a fiery, sarcastic new song called Support the Troops. “Draft dodging chickenhawk son of a Bush,” he spat, and any preconceptions about this part of town being redneck Rudy Mussolini territory went out the window. The crowd loved it.  When McDonald hit the second chorus, “son of a Bush” became “sonofabitch,” undoubtedly the nastiest word ever to resound from the loudspeakers here, and the crowd was completely energized for the first time tonight. McDonald followed with another recent number,  a sea chantey about saving sea creatures. And then he was done. When Cousin Brucie returned to the stage, it turned out that he’s also against the Iraq war. And that Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz (a craven shill for luxury housing developers) wanted to hear Country Joe do the Fish Cheer! Cousin Brucie always came across as a man of the people, but Markowitz? A complete surprise.

Finally, the Zombies took the stage, just singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent left from the original band, joined by their very first bass player (who’d returned to the fold in 1969 in Argent’s self-titled project), along with a decent drummer who didn’t overplay and a heavy metal guitarist who unfortunately did. Though it was clear to everyone, Cousin Brucie included, that they were the act that everybody had come out to see, they got all of a half-hour onstage.

It wouldn’t be fair to expect Blunstone, now in his sixties, to have the pretty, airy voice of his youth, and he doesn’t, but he still hit the notes. One would, however, expect the musicians in the band to play the songs pretty much note-for-note with the records, especially considering how iconic their hits have become, but Argent didn’t, and his extemporizing didn’t add anything to the material. They opened with I Love You and followed with a bouncy, aptly bluesy I’ve Been Abused. Then they did Time of the Season, with a long, pointless keyboard jam at the end, followed by Argent’s lone, long top 40 hit, the forgettable stoner riff-rocker Hold Your Head Up.

Their best song of the night was Tell Her No, the chorus just as fresh and memorable as it was when the song was released over 40 (!) years ago. They closed with She’s Not There, the solo at the end unfortunately taken not by Argent but by the guitarist, who failed to ignite the crowd with a grotesquely self-indulgent, excruciatingly long heavy metal wank-a-thon. And then they were done. The Turtles and the Rascals – woops, Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals – were scheduled to play afterward, but even as brief as the Zombies’ performance was, most anything else would have been anticlimactic. So we went over to the beach to see why there’d been a police helicopter circling with its searchlight on during the show (a young girl had happily escaped the clutches of a predator, who’d managed to escape by the time the helicopter showed up).

By the way, if you haven’t been out to Coney Island lately, make sure you do. Developers are salivating over the beachfront, and not that there are enough rich Americans or Eurotrash to buy the whole strip of coastline, but the Russian beach bars, deep-fried bellybomb stands and surprisingly cheap Astroland with its $2 rides will undoubtedly not survive the onslaught. The Mets’ single-A minor league affiliate plays at the ballpark toward the end of the boardwalk, admission is $7 and there’s not a bad seat in the house. The Pakistani taxi driver joint on Ocean Ave. a couple blocks north of Surf Ave. is heaven for hot pepper addicts, and Mrs. Adler’s Knishes a block north of that is still open and delicious. Don’t take this place for granted: it won’t be here much longer, take a long walk along the sand before it’s patrolled by private security from Halliburton.

July 28, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments