Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: John Prine – In Person & On Stage

John Prine is one of those songwriters whose music give you instant cred because he’s such a cult artist. He never had a radio hit of his own (although Bonnie Raitt scored mightily with Angel from Montgomery), never was particularly trendy or popular, quite possibly because his output over the past forty years has been so consistently intelligent and often brilliant. Over a career that spans part of five decades, Prine has written scores of wry, clever Americana-rock narratives, many of them classics. Steve Earle would be hard to imagine without him. Prine was one of the first artists to abandon the major label world and release his own music on his own label, Oh Boy Records, the folks responsible for this latest live album which came out late last month. For Prine fans, this is a must-own; for the uninitiated, it’s as good an introduction as any to one of the great songwriters of this era.

In the 70s, Prine’s sardonic drawl always made him seem twenty years older than he was – at this point, his vocals have a time-ravaged edge, approaching Ralph Stanley territory, but his vitality as a performer and writer comes across absolutely undiminished here (NPR has his recent Bonnaroo appearance streaming here). In this semi-acoustic setting, he’s joined by Jason Wilber, a richly melodic, tasteful yet exuberant lead guitarist who’s equally at home with twangy honkytonk as he is with incisive blues. The set is a mix of material from live shows from the recent past, with songs dating as far back as Prine’s 1971 debut album. He’s always had a sentimental streak, but even on the occasion where that vibe might overwhelm the song, the quality of the music here transcends that. She Is My Everything might not be the most poetic love song ever written, but its rich, spiky web of interlocking guitars is, well, transcendent (you can get a free mp3 here). He’s still got that indelibly literate, stream-of-consciousness stoner humor, and there’s virtually always a slyly defiant undercurrent at work here, whether on the upbeat Spanish Pipedream (be careful what you wish for), or going full blast on the classic Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore, as apropos today in the “tea party” era as it was in its Vietnam War heyday.

The acoustic version of the death-obsessed Mexican Home (with Josh Ritter) doesn’t have the spooky organ of the original 1973 recording but still holds up surprisingly well. The brooding, metaphorically charged Saddle in the Rain gets a fresh treatment that considerably surpasses the studio version. There’s also the surreal In Spite of Ourselves, a comically boozy duet with Iris DeMent; the subdued Long Monday, with its surprise dark ending; a slow, pretty version of The Late John Garfield Blues, with Sara Watkins on vocals; a fiery, careening, guitar-stoked version of Bear Creek Blues; the poignant Unwed Fathers (also a duet with DeMent) and the obligatory Angel from Montgomery, Emmylou Harris mystifyingly waiting to appear on the second verse after Prine has announced in his baritone drawl that he is an old woman named after his mother. Surreal as it is, it actually works alongside everything else. Nice to see an icon from decades past still going strong.

June 17, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album Review: Joe Pug – In the Meantime

The brash, fearless lyrical mastermind is here for the long term and as proof he offers up his second consecutive free ep. For the price of getting on the Joe Pug email list, you get this. And it pays off: his fan base keeps building, the gigs keep getting better and better and he hasn’t shown any indication of selling out. As usual, it’s just Pug, his guitar and his harp, hammering on the strings and blowing til the reeds distort, his voice closer to Steve Earle than the John Prine-inflected style he was mining on his brilliant debut Nation of Heat (very favorably reviewed here). Because of the instrumentation, a lot of people will call this Dylanesque, and it is, but there’s a whole lot more going on here.

 

The opening cut is Dodging the Wind, a defiant 6/8 ballad. It’s an apt anthem for anyone who belongs to the ones who got away: “When you think of the kid who left when you did, he too will be thinking of you.” The title track is a pensive, fingerpicked cheating ballad: “We’ll be honest to each other – meaning you,” Pug sardonically rasps. The metaphors never stop: the house will never be built for lack of lumber, and he ends up sleeping in the closet, hiding from the cops.

 

Lock the Door picks up the pace: it has bass and drums. Like Rosalita by Springsteen, the protagonist here just won’t take no for an answer, but he makes his point in about seven fewer minutes:  

 

Who’s that man knee-deep in sand waiting on the tide

With an atlas and a ladder, undaunted from the height

Lock the door, I’m standing on your porch tonight

 

A Thousand Men is the most overtly Dylanesque cut here, rich with history, Pug alluding to the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington as he teases the listener:

 

See Thomas Jefferson on the eve of Bunker Hill

Writing words to die for, writing sentences to kill

They’ve come to paint his portrait

So he grabs a chair and sits

As the surgeon orders cotton

For a thousand tourniquets

 

Pug knows that virtually all inventions were devised for waging war: “Every good idea kills at least a thousand men,” and Pug’s thinking he’s probably number 1001.

 

The ep wraps up with the catchy Black Eyed Susan “When you look right through me I wonder what’s behind my back.” Pug is blowing up right now – this year’s nonstop tour includes Bonnaroo, Lolapalooza and the Newport Folk Festival. Don’t be the last one on your block to find out about the guy.

July 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 3/19/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Thursday’s song is #496:

John Prine – Down by the Side of the Road

Prine at the peak of his drawling, narrative power, an offhandedly scary, death-obsessed tale of a woman’s long fall that leaves her in the song’s title – a shot rings out, a pickup truck pulls up and the rest is left up to you. Nice tune, too. From the Pink Cadillac lp, 1979, reissued on his own Oh Boy label.

March 19, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 10/8/08

The countdown continues from #666 all the way to the best one ever. Today’s song is #657:

John Prine – Mexican Home

“Last night it got so hot outside, you could hardly breathe,” Prine drawls in this death-obsessed, viscerally intense country-rock dirge driven by haunting organ and a sweet horn chart that rises as the chorus kicks in. Obviously, he never intended it to have the universality it’s taken on in the age of global warming. Available at most of the file-trading sites; if you prefer an album version, check your local used vinyl store (beware the horribly remastered cd reissue) for the 1973 album Sweet Revenge.

October 7, 2008 Posted by | Music | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Demolition String Band at Rodeo Bar, NYC 6/9/07

Uncommonly fun country band at the top of their game. Demolition String Band know how to work a crowd, raising their glasses and leading the audience in a “holler and a swaller,” and speeding up a bluegrass tune to the point where it was practically unplayable. But these guys (and frontwoman) aren’t a bar band: they may thrive in that milieu, but they’re a lot smarter. This is real country music: as LJ Murphy famously said, country music is the kind of music that has nothing to do with Garth Brooks. Although Demolition String Band are a boisterous, electric outfit, they wear their bluegrass and old-timey roots proudly on their sleeves.

Lead singer Elena Skye sang with a casual grace, in the Maybelle Carter mold: she doesn’t overemote. Telecaster player Boo Reiners pretty much stole the show all night with his spectacular, sometimes supersonic, twangy leads and fills – although Skye caught fire as well when she picked up her mandolin and started wailing. Predictably, alcohol figures in a lot of their songs – they’ll be huge if the swinging Thinking About Drinking and the fast, electrified bluegrass tune Drinking Whiskey (both of which they played tonight) get onto college radio.

They’d played a John Prine tribute a few days earlier and dragged out a particularly apt cover, the outlaw country tune Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore. They also did their signature spaghetti western theme, Reiners playing baritone guitar on it this time: Skye told the crowd that she wrote it in the bathroom during a recording session. Pretty productive bathroom break. They stretched it out, drummer Phil Cimino taking a long solo that the crowd went nuts over (nobody ever said the audience here was sophisticated – which is odd because New York country audiences tend to be very sharp, sometimes ridiculously so).

At the end of their first set, they launched into the old bluegrass standard True Love Never Dies and then segued into Fortunate Son by Creedence. How nice to be able to actually understand the lyrics – which are actually really good. Then they segued back into the bluegrass tune and took it just about doublespeed. Impressively, bassist Winston Roye didn’t cop out and play everything in the usual tempo and let the drummer do all the hard work (a common trick): he stuck with the same blues scale, never missing a note, sweating his way through it and coming out victorious. At the end of the song, Reiners stole one out of the Bill Kirchen playbook, throwing in a couple of amusingly obvious Beatles hooks, and, finally and seemingly inevitably, Hendrix.

As good as the show was, you know something has gone wrong in this town when Rodeo Bar – strictly by default – becomes your best bet as a weekend destination. Sure, the music is reliably good, and so is the sound. And it’s free. But there are ominous signs: the bar has cut back on the free peanuts (although you can still find a basket if you look around) and their signature tekillya slurpies are significantly smaller than the tall glass you’d get for eight bucks until very recently. And forget about getting a seat: you still have to jockey for position with the sloppy drunk Baruch college kids who are oblivious to the music and make it pretty near impossible to hear unless you can negotiate a spot toward the front of the bar.

But…there’s not a trendoid in the house, and the tourist crowd generally hails from places like Georgia and Nebraska. And is very nice. As annoying as the Baruch kids can be, chances are they’re going to Baruch because they can’t afford to go elsewhere, so they don’t have the prissy sense of entitlement you find in Williamsburg or the East Village. Considering the alternatives, the Rodeo could become your local. And you could actually be happy there.

June 10, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments