Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

In Memoriam – Danny Federici

One of the greatest rock organists of alltime, Danny Federici of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band died this past Wednesday after a battle with melanoma. He was 58.

Originally an accordionist, Federici brought a sweepingly orchestral, haunting sensibility to Springsteen’s songs. Go to your favorite file-trading site and download the live version of Sandy from the live box set (you can also get the album version from The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, but the vocals aren’t nearly as good because Springsteen goes way out of his 2-note range). Listen to how plaintive and beautiful Federici’s accordion intro is.

While you’re at it, download the album version of Independence Day, from The River, if you don’t already own it. Federici plays the lead, a soaring trumpet melody, a particularly nasty Sunday morning wakeup call. This is one of Springsteen’s best songs, a vicious, offhandedly dismissive slap upside the head of a controlling parent, as resonant today as it was almost three decades ago, and it’s Federici who makes it work, his organ line hopeful, optimistic and brutally inevitable behind the Boss’ vindictive vocal.

Also download Point Blank, arguably the best song on The River. Federici doesn’t really contribute til about three-quarters of the way through, when his organ starts mingling with Steve Van Zandt’s distant, reverbed-out guitar in a devil’s choir of overtones. It’s a song about losing a girlfriend to either drugs or simply the call of the underworld, something that happens to a whole lot of people who have nowhere else to go. The brilliance of Springsteen’s lyric is its blunt opaqueness, leaving the listener guessing as to what horrible fate befell the woman. Federici offers more than a hint.

And since everything Springsteen is up online for download, Federici’s first solo album, Flemington is worth owning. It’s a thoughtful, pensive, ultimately optimistic bunch of soundtrack-style instrumentals, the title track a particularly standout cut.

Federici wasn’t a “chops” guy – tens of thousands of classically or jazz-trained keyboardists could play faster and more fluently than he did. Federici’s genius was a seemingly instinctive ability to find the underlying emotion of a song and channel it with a purity and clarity that bordered on the supernatural. If you’re a Springsteen fan, now’s the time to revisit his good albums – Nebraska and everything before that, along with his criminally underrated Live in NYC double cd set, featuring Federici at his understated, brilliant best. If not, you’re missing out on one of the most soulful players who ever sat down behind a keyboard.

April 19, 2008 Posted by | Music, obituary, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Booker T & the MG’s with Sharon Jones at Metrotech Park, Brooklyn NY 6/14/07

Daytime shows tend to be lacklustre because they’re a bitch to play. Musicians are by nature nocturnal creatures, and these guys were forced to take the stage a few minutes after noon. Meaning that they’d had to soundcheck at some ridiculously early hour of the morning, as if they’d had to get up for a dayjob.

Now imagine doing that if you’re in your sixties and you’ve been on tour for awhile. That’s the task legendary soul instrumentalists Booker T & the MG’s were facing. Yet not only did they manage to acquit themselves decently, they turned in an inspired performance that built slowly and finished on an ecstatic note. Sadly, the one most important person in the band was missing (and has been missing for a long time): drummer Al Jackson Jr., who died in 1975. Booker T & the MG’s without Al Jackson Jr. is kind of like the Stooges without Iggy, Sabbath without Ozzie or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs without that trust fund kid (which one, you ask? The girl in the raggedy dress). Jackson more than anyone defined their sound: simple, always in the groove, a minimalist who could make your hips move one way or the other with just a flick at the cymbals.

Instead, they had Anton Fig, who plays in the house band on one of those network tv gabfests. To his credit, he stayed in the background and other than a solo early on, didn’t clutter the songs. Instead, organist/bandleader Booker T. Jones, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and guitarist Steve Cropper held down the fort. They opened with a slowly shuffling, psychedelic groove version of Dylan’s You Gotta Serve Somebody, which was basically unrecognizable (which is probably why Jones told the crowd what it was). They continued in this vein for awhile. On the Gershwin standard Summertime, Cropper took an admirably lean, meaningful solo, like Albert King without all the long, sustained bends. By the time they got to their big 60s hit Hip-Hug Her, they’d picked up the pace. Soon after that, they played Green Onions and basically phoned it in, a tad fast. Essentially, it became the basis for another Cropper solo. It’s a silly little ditty, probably not what the band envisioned would become their signature song, and they played it as if they just wanted to get it out of the way and get on with the show.

The high point of their instrumentals was the classic Time Is Tight, which started out all churchified, just Jones’ organ and Dunn’s bass, sounded like Georgia on My Mind. Then Cropper’s guitar came in and they went into Theme from a Summer place for a couple of bars, which was delectably funny. Then Dunn started into his famous bassline, and they played a long, 10-minute version. Dunn has incredible touch: his melodic phrasing can change the meaning of a whole verse with just a subtle adjustment of how his fingers attack the strings, and this was fascinating to watch.

In their 60s heyday Booker T & the MG’s backed a whole pantheon of great soul and blues artists at various times, most notably Albert King, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, so it was only natural that this era’s greatest soul singer, New York’s own Sharon Jones, would be invited up to front the band for the latter half of the show. Though her own band the Dap-Kings are a mighty, authentic funk/soul group, today’s show was pretty close to a marriage made in heaven. Like Tina Turner, Jones uses her lower register most of the time (although her voice is considerably higher and clearer), exuding an earthy sensuality. Yet she exhibited equal amounts of subtlety, intelligence and taste in her phrasing. She only really kicks it into overdrive when she needs to: she’s a universe removed from the melismaddicts of corporate, so-called “R&B” who dream of becoming Beyonce’s replacement in the reunited Destiny’s Child.

Sharon Jones did a matter-of-fact take of the Wilson Pickett classic In the Midnight Hour, then Dunn launched into the most famous bass hammer-on in the history of rock, and the audience picked up on it right away. After the first couple of verses, the frontwoman brought Sitting on the Dock of the Bay way down and tried to get the audience to whistle along with the solo. Nobody, even the band, could do it. It was just as well: whistling is annoying, anyway, especially if it’s amplified. Then she took it even further down, sat down at the edge of the stage, then went into the audience for a bit. She took another Otis Redding standard, I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, even further down and ended on a whisper after a trick ending that was so quiet the audience missed it. The sky looked ominous and a sprinkle of rain could be felt through the trees, so they closed the show with Knock on Wood. Again, Dunn stole the show with this one, leaving the blues scale and reaching up to the high sixth note on the verses’ central hook. Jones got the obligatory solo from each band member as she introduced them.

This is a weekly Thursday noontime summer series booked by the Brooklyn Academy of Music featuring mostly older Black artists, and once in awhile they get someone really good. Props to whoever was responsible for scoring Booker T. There are additional shows worth seeing here on July 26 with Muddy Waters’ harp player James Cotton and his band, and on August 9 with roots reggae vets the Itals. And Sharon Jones plays a free show with her own band at Castle Clinton in Battery Park, also on July 26, with two free tickets per person being given away at the table in front of the fort starting at 5 PM.

June 14, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment