Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Strange, Imaginative Night of Johnny Cash Covers at Symphony Space

Why – beyond Buttermilk Bar and the Jalopy, maybe – are punk bands the only people who cover Johnny Cash? Probably because it’s impossible to top the Man in Black. Plugging in and blasting Ring of Fire through a Fender Twin at least puts a fresh spin on an old chestnut. So in its own way, Symphony Space’s Saturday night Johnny Cash extravaganza was as challenging as any of their other annual, thematic, Wall to Wall marathons, from Bach, to Miles Davis, to the unforgettable Behind the Wall concert a few years back that spotlighted Jewish music from lands once locked behind the Iron Curtain.

The highlight of the first couple of hours of Wall to Wall Johnny Cash was jazz reinventions of mostly obscure songs. Some would say that making jazz out of Johnny Cash makes about as much sense as jazzing up Pearl Jam. An even more cynical view is that a jazz take of a Cash song gives you a get-out-of-jail-free card if you end up murdering it. As it turned out, not all the early stuff was jazz, and a lot of it wasn’t Johnny Cash either. Left to choose their own material, pretty much everybody gave themselves the additional leeway of picking songs covered rather than written by Cash. Badass resonator guitarist Mamie Minch did that with a Neil Diamond number and wowed the crowd with her ability to hit some serious lows, while blue-eyed soul chanteuse Morley Kamen did much the same with a similar template, several octaves higher. And banjo player/one-man band Jason Walker got all of one tune, at least early on, but made the most of it.

Representing the oldschool downtown Tonic/Stone contingent, guitarist/singer Janine Nichols lent her signature, uneasily airy delivery to There You Go and Long Black Veil, veering toward elegant countrypolitan more on the former than the latter while lead guitarist Brandon Ross matched her with spare, lingering washes of sound. Eric Mingus brought a starkly rustic, electrically bluesy guitar intensity and then a defiant gospel attack after switching to bass while tenor saxophonist Catherine Sikora made the most impactful statements of anyone during the early moments with her stark, deftly placed, eerily keening overtone-laced polytonalities. Extended technique from a jazz sax player, the last thing you’d expect to hear at a Johnny Cash cover night…but she made it work.

Word on the street is that the later part of the evening was much the same as far as talent was concerned, lots of people moving across the stage while the music went in a more bluegrass direction. And there’s a rumor that the venue will have another free night of Cash around this time a year from now.

Advertisements

April 27, 2015 Posted by | concert, country music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 10/28/11

Slowly getting back on track, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album was #460:

The Million Dollar Quartet

As portrayed in the film Walk the Line, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were all drinking buddies who’d frequently hang out and jam. This informal 1956 acoustic session was assuredly never intended for release, although it might have been an attempt to get some decent quality demos down, considering who was involved (some sources say that Cash wasn’t, since he doesn’t sing on it). Other uncredited Sun Records session guys may have been in on it as well. Obviously fueled by a little hooch and who knows what else, the low-key confidence of this band, whoever all of them were, is irresistible. Most of the songs clock in at less than a minute, among them Elvis’s Don’t Be Cruel and Reconsider Baby, Jerry Lee’s Rip It Up and a bunch of gospel numbers. While it’s a little incongruous to hear Jerry Lee Lewis on a Chuck Berry song, it just goes to show you never can tell who’s cross-pollinating with whom. Here’s a random torrent.

November 3, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 6/12/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album was #597:

The Highwaymen’s first album

From 1985, this is the ultimate outlaw country summit: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Sly, often surreal, it’s a party, the guys trading verses (although not everybody sings on every song) through a mix of smartly chosen covers and originals. The funniest one is Cash’s Committed to Parkview, part nuthouse, part rehab; likewise, Welfare Line, a Reagan-era souvenir, perfectly captures the angst of the times. There’s also the defiantly gloomy Desperados Waiting for a Train; Cindy Walker’s elegaic Jim, I Wore a Tie Today; the Jimmy Webb-penned title track; a plaintive version of Woody Guthrie’s Deportees; a singalong of Big River; and Steve Goodman’s not-so-optimistic The 20th Century Is Almost Over. The only dud here is Bob Seger’s Against the Wind, which the band has absolutely no clue how to play. If you like this, the other two Highwaymen albums from the 90s are also worth a spin. Caveat: purists may have a hard time with the synthesizers and chorus-box guitar here – it’s a period piece for sure. Here’s a random torrent.

June 13, 2011 Posted by | country music, lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Long-Awaited Rare Johnny Cash Classics Out Today

The long-awaited Johnny Cash – From Memphis to Hollywood is just out today. As Volume 2 in Sony’s Bootleg Series, following the amazing solo acoustic Personal File box set, it’s a must-own for Cash fans. As with any posthumous release from an icon like Cash, the operative question is whether there’s anything left in the vaults that’s worth releasing and the answer is an enthusiastic yee-ha! The songs that everyone will be salivating over include what sounds like a more or less complete radio show from May of 1955 broadcast over West Memphis, Arkansas’ KWEM and sponsored by a local home remodeling center. This performance with Cash’s Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins on lead guitar and Marshall Grant on upright bass) is understandably tinny, but through a good system it sounds better than it must have to Memphis listeners that day. And those who prefer mp3s won’t notice the difference. How does Cash solicit requests? By encouraging listeners to mail them in to the station. And in a characteristic stroke of humility, he even offers to learn the ones he doesn’t know. Listen to Johnny fumble as he reads the commercials, and be prepared to be amazed at how much higher the timbre of his voice is. Part of it may be nerves (this was his live debut on radio), but it’s obvious that at this point in his young career, he hadn’t quite settled on his signature style. Songwise, we get Wide Open Road, One More Mile, a brief Luther Perkins guitar instrumental and a matter-of-fact reading of the requisite “sacred song,” Belshazzar.

The first of these two cds also includes almost two dozen solo demos, some from an unknown session from around the time of the radio show, others recorded at Sun Studios. To call them fascinating doesn’t do them justice. I Walk the Line has Cash doing the first couple of verses an octave higher than usual: he finally goes down into his bass register for the last one. It’s obvious that these songs were for sale to anyone who wanted them, and some people did want them, among them Ricky Nelson and Marty Robbins. There’s a heartfelt When I Think of You, the rockabilly Rock & Roll Ruby, Leave That Junk Alone – a cautionary tale to a drinker which is funny for completely unintentional reasons – along with an absolutely chilling Nashville gothic version of Goodnight Irene, and an eerie western swing shuffle version of Big River (complete with extra verse that didn’t make it onto the original single), which is worth the price of the album alone. By the time he recorded these, in 1957, he’d grown into the Man in Black.

The second cd collects singles, b-sides, demos and rarities, most of them previously unreleased in the US, many of them included on the 1969 More of Old Golden Throat compilation. Five Minutes to Live, from 1960, has a stunningly surreal eeriness, echoed in Shifting, Whispering Sands, a creepy duet with Lorne Greene. Send a Picture of Mother has a Maybelle Carter autoharp solo; One Too Many Mornings beats the Dylan original hands-down. Put the Sugar to Bed, a co-write with Carter, takes an oldtime hillbilly melody and grafts on Bob Johnson’s fuzztone psychedelic guitar to raise the WTF factor. There are a couple of understatedly potent antiwar numbers, the grisly battlefield scenario On the Line and his boyhood friend B.J. Carnahan’s Roll Call, which bombed as a single in 1967, memorializing Vietnam War casualties from their hometown. There’s also a handful of duds which really shouldn’t have seen the light of day again, but those take up barely ten minutes worth of space here. The question is not whether or not there’s more unreleased Johnny Cash out there; it’s whether or not it sounds good enough to make up a Volume 3 to follow this one. Let’s hope there is.

February 22, 2011 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 12/8/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #783:

Mark Sinnis – The Night’s Last Tomorrow

As the leader of dark, artsy Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House, Mark Sinnis and his ominous baritone have been a forceful presence in the New York music underground since the late 90s. Lately, he’s been devoting as much time to his solo acoustic project, most fully realized with this one, his third solo release, from early 2010. It’s an obscure treasure and it’s probably the best thing he’s ever recorded with any group. This one mixes brand new tracks with a couple of radically reworked Ninth House songs and classic covers. 15 Miles to Hell’s Gate, a not-so-thinly veiled requiem for a New York lost at least for the moment to gentrifiers and class tourists, is a stampeding rockabilly number just a little quieter than the Ninth House version. Likewise, the lyrically rich Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me (which made our Alltime Best 666 Songs list) doesn’t vary much from the original, although the Cure-inflected Quiet Change is….um, quite a change. With a new last verse, Sinnis’ version of Gloomy Sunday leaves no doubt that it’s a suicide song. Likewise, the cover of St. James Infirmary is definitely an obituary, although the Sisters of Mercy’s Nine While Nine is a lot more upbeat, a vividly brooding train station vignette. The catchy, rustically swaying Skeletons and the downright morbid, Johnny Cash-inspired In Harmony wind it up. This is one of those albums that’s too obscure to have made it to the usual share sites, although it is available at shows and at cdbaby.

December 8, 2010 Posted by | lists, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 11/24/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #797:

Lefty Frizzell – 16 Biggest Hits

Lefty Frizzell was a legendary Texas honkytonk singer from the 50s, a guy who sounded a lot older than he was. By the 70s, now in his 40s, he sounded close to 70. One of the songs here, an early proto-rockabilly number, is titled Just Can’t Live That Fast (Any More), but in real life he didn’t seem to have any problem with that. He drank himself to death at 47 in 1975. But he left a rich legacy. This album is missing some of his best-known songs – notably Cigarettes & Coffee Blues – but it’s packed with classics. Frizzell’s 1950 version of If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time topped the country charts and beat Hank Williams – a frequent tourmate – at his own game. Other 50s hits here include the western swing-tinged Always Late (With Your Kisses), the fast shuffle She’s Gone, Gone, Gone and Frizzell’s iconic version of Long Black Veil – with its echoey, ghostly vocals and simple acoustic guitar, it’s even better than the Johnny Cash version. From the 60s, there’s the surprisingly folkie version of Saginaw Michigan, the sad drinking ballad How Far Down Can I Go, the torchy, electric piano-based That’s the Way Love Goes and I’m Not the Man I’m Supposed to Be. His later period is best represented by I Never Go Around Mirrors, later covered by both George Jones and Merle Haggard. This is one of those albums that pops up in used vinyl stores from time to time, but isn’t easy to find online. There’s a popular “500 greatest country songs” torrent with several of these on it out there; if you see one for this particular album, let us know!

November 24, 2010 Posted by | country music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/30/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #852:

The Jack Grace Band – Drinking Songs for Lovers

This brand-new 2010 album has the Martini Cowboy reverting to the classic 1960s C&W party vibe of his 2005 cd I Like It Wrong, but with a better band, better songs and an unbeatable concept: this is party music for smart people. With a swing jazz rhythm section of Grace’s wife Daria on bass, Russ Meissner on drums and either longtime Johnny Cash pianist Earl Poole Ball or New Orleans bluesman Bill Malchow on keys, Grace himself takes over the lead guitar here, with literally delirious results. It’s a tribute to all states of drunkenness and those who indulge in it: the crazy neighborhood guy you run into at the bodega on a beer run right before four AM, the guys at OTB, the serious dude who watches his roommate drink himself into a dangerous state, and the drunken parent (on the album’s absolutely brilliant centerpiece, If You’re Gonna Raise a Drunk). The titles pretty much say it all: Morning Margaritas; Drink a Little Hooch; Drinkin’ and Gamblin’; I Drank Too Much Again; and a surprising, vividly cautionary cameo from Daria, Drank Yourself Into a Corner. Jack’s George Jones-inflected baritone offers just the hint of a tequila-infused wink as the band sway and careen behind him. For nondrinkers who find the appeal of this album utterly impossible to fathom, consider that reality – woops, we mean sobriety – might just be a little less fun.

September 30, 2010 Posted by | country music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Dolly Parton – Letter to Heaven

We strive for counterintuitivity: bet you never thought you’d see a Dolly Parton album here, let alone a country gospel record! Letter to Heaven is a reissue, most of its tracks recorded over a three-day span in 1970 and released on her Golden Streets of Glory album in 1971, included in its entirety here along with an outtake and a small handful of subsequent singles, some hits, some not. This is as pop as country ever got back then and yet it’s more country than most anything coming out of Nashville these days. As was the case back then, on many of these songs, by the time the last chorus rolls around, the only things left in the mix are vocals, orchestra and drums. But the changes, and the voice are pure country gospel: Carrie Underwood, eat your Philistine heart out. As with any Dolly Parton recording, she’s the star, although an allstar cast of Nashville studio veterans including pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, the late pedal steel player Pete Drake and guitarist Chip Young all get to contribute memorably, if only for a bar or two at a time.

The test of spiritual music is how well it resonates outside the choir, and if there’s anyone capable of transcending that limitation, it’s Dolly Parton. You hear that brittle vibrato and you don’t realize what an explosive upper register she has – it’s amazing how little that voice has aged. Plaintive, longing and above all, humble, she probably had no idea how well this album would withstand the test of time – or maybe she did. She was a first-class songwriter in an age when women were not exactly encouraged (other than by Owen Bradley) to write their own material, and unsurprisingly it’s her own songs here that stand up the strongest. The best song on the album is, perhaps expectedly, the previously unreleased track, Would You Know Him If You Saw Him. Pretty and jangly with guitar and organ, it has Parton gently yet pointedly reminding us not to turn away from those in need: a test could be involved – or just the opportunity to do a mitzvah and feel good about it. Robbins gets to add some marvelous barrelhouse piano on Master’s Hand, which switches in a split second from a retelling of the story of the Flood to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago. Church is fun for this crew! The country gospel classic Wings of a Dove gets mariachi horns; Comin For to Carry Me Home, a country shuffle reworking of Swing Low Sweet Chariot gets a remarkable bounce courtesy of an uncredited bass player (they just ran ’em in and ran ’em out in those days – how little times have changed!). Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man, a duet with longtime harmony partner (and civil defendant) Porter Wagoner has a Johnny Cash feel to it. And the title track runs from schmaltzy to creepy in seconds flat – the little girl misses her dead mom, so she gets hit by a bus. Ostensibly the two are happy together again. By the time the last track, The Seeker (a #2 country hit in 1975) comes up, it’s striking how fast things have changed – the dirt has been scrubbed out of it and exchanged for a swamp-pop bass groove.

Dolly Parton’s latest initiative is typical: it’s called “Dolly Helps Nashville,” a campaign to aid survivors of the recent floods there. Details at her site at the link above. Bless her heart.

May 26, 2010 Posted by | country music, gospel music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Mark Sinnis – The Night’s Last Tomorrow

On the cover of his third solo album, Mark Sinnis, frontman of dark rockers Ninth House stands with his back to the camera, staring into a glaring New York sunset from a rooftop somewhere in Queens. The picture captures the subtext here far less subtly than Sinnis’ songs do: this is a requiem for lost time, lost hopes and by implication a lost time and place. It is a classic of gothic Americana. Richly and masterfully produced, electric guitars, strings, keyboards, lapsteel and accordion weave their way tersely into and out of the mix behind Sinnis’ remarkably nuanced baritone. Sinnis has been a good singer for a long time – he is an extraordinary one here, going down low for Leonard Cohen murk or reaching for Johnny Cash irony. If Ian Curtis had been an American, and he’d lived, he might sound like Sinnis does on this album.

The title track sets the tone for what’s to come, a slow, swaying, sad requiem, Sara Landeau’s sparse tremolo guitar mingling with Lenny Molotov’s lapsteel and Annette Kudrak’s plaintive accordion. It’s utterly hypnotic. The centerpiece of the album, or one of them anyway, is 15 Miles to Hell’s Gate, classic country done chamber goth style:

Fifteen miles to Hell’s Gate
And I’m a thousand miles from home
From New York City

The one that dragged me into a hole
I’m in my own purgatory
Where I pay for my sins each day
And I pay dearly
While my youth slowly slips away

He picks it up a little on the second verse. It’s gently and masterfully orchestrated.

Originally released on Ninth House’s 2000 album Swim in the Silence, the version of Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me [#290 on our 666 Best Songs of Alltime list – Ed.] recasts the song as slow, Leonard Cohen-esque country sway, Sinnis’ pitchblende vocals quite a change from his usual roar when Ninth House plays it live. Fallible Friend, a catalog of failure and deceit, goes for a dusky southwestern feel capped by Ninth House guitarist Keith Otten’s perfecly minimalist fills. An understatedly desperate account of a drunk driver just trying to get home in one piece, Follow the Line takes on a hallucinatory, wee hours feel with Kudrak’s swirling accordion front and center – when Sinnis finally cuts loose and belts on the second verse, she’s there to calm him down. The Fever (not the Peggy Lee standard) could be a John Lennon song, a bitter metaphorically charged tale of alienation and rebellion.

Of the other originals here, wobbling funeral parlor organ makes the perfect final touch on the brooding Skeletons. Scars is gospel as the Velvet Underground might have done it, Out of Reach transformed from its original electric menace to haunting death-chamber pop with Ninth House keyboardist Matt Dundas’ piano and stark cello from star New York string multistylist Susan Mitchell. There’s also the ghoulish country shuffle In Harmony, the uncharacteristically sunny Quiet Change, and the album’s last song, a death-fixated, quite possibly sarcastic gospel clapalong. The covers are also terrifically inventive: Nine While Nine captures the song’s grim grey tube train platform ambience far better than Sisters of Mercy ever did, Otten perfectly nailing the menace of the song’s simple hook; St. James Infirmary rips the deathmask off the song’s inner goth, lapsteel pairing off warily against tense piano; and Gloomy Sunday gets a new final verse from Sinnis, who leaves not the slightest doubt as to what that one’s about.

Sinnis’ first solo album Into an Unhidden Future was a treat for Ninth House fans, a diverse, often radically rearranged acoustic mix of hits and rarities. His second, A Southern Tale was more country-oriented and surprisingly more upbeat. This is the best of them, in fact arguably the best thing that Sinnis has ever recorded. Mark Sinnis plays Otto’s on May 16 at 11, with a date at Small Beast at the Delancey coming up in July.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Mark Sinnis at the Slipper Room, NYC 4/18/10

Mark Sinnis, frontman of Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House plays his solo acoustic show at least as frequently, maybe more than he does with his band. Celebrating the release of his third solo cd, The Night’s Last Tomorrow, he held the goth night crowd at the Slipper Room rapt Sunday night with his most energetic solo performance in a long time. Most recently, he’d been mining a quietly creepy, Leonard Cohen-esque, minimalist style. This time out, backed only by extraordinary string player Susan Mitchell – doubling on electric violin and electric cello – he alternated between a stygian croon and an unleashed roar, his acoustic guitar amped almost to the point of distortion. Still, the show maintained the same kind of nuance of his most recent acoustic gigs – it’s not often that you see a guy who plays with a band as loud as Ninth House projecting gently with a laid-back, black velvet Johnny Cash style delivery.

Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate, the opener, is a furious stomp when done by the band, a not-so-subtle swipe at a no-longer-edgy New York where the fashion-centric shallowness of indie rock overshadows the real thing. This one downplayed the local angle, an elegy for dashed hopes and dreams. Mitchell’s gracefully descending violin gave the offhandedly dismissive Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me considerable added poignancy; their version of Saint James Infirmary unleashed the song’s inner goth, culminating in a flurry of Balkan violin madness. Another new one, Fallible Friend, a catalog of disillusionments, flipped the script with a trick ending; the gospel-tinged That’s Why I Won’t Love You became more of a backwoods funeral, Mitchell again adding white-knuckle intensity. She switched to cello for a macabre janglerock version of the once-banned classic Gloomy Sunday. They encored with the Ninth House concert favorite Follow the Line, a characteristically passionate tribute to drinking and driving, “poison” becoming “whiskey” as Sinnis let the word slip out, Freudian style, on the second verse. Watch this space for a review of the album, his best solo effort to date.

April 23, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment