Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 2/16/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #713:

Them – The Story of Them Featuring Van Morrison

We recently went on record as saying that for a moment in the early 60s, the best rock band in the world wasn’t the Beatles, and it sure as fuck wasn’t the Rolling Stones. And come to think of it, it might not have been the Yardbirds either. How about Them? Although they seem to have been the model for the Lyres – more turnover among band members than you can count – Ireland’s greatest contribution to rock music until the punk era put out one ecstatically good garage rock single after another. Arguably, Van Morrison’s best moments were as a member of this band. And as great as all their original albums with Van the Man are, we got greedy and picked this reissue because it has more songs. You want the best version of Simon & Garfunkel’s Richard Cory? It’s by Them, right down to that snarling bass hook. How about It’s All Over Now Baby Blue? Or Route 66, Turn On Your Lovelight, I Put a Spell on You, or even a MC5 cover? The originals have the same wild, out-of-control intensity: Gloria, Mystic Eyes, Don’t Start Crying Now, Friday’s Child and more. The rest of the fifty tracks on this double cd set include the considerably laid-back, soulful original of Here Comes the Night (with Jimmy Page on guitar) and the epic Story of Them as well as covers by Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed. After Morrison split, the band continued but were never the same. Here’s a random torrent.

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February 16, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jazz Passengers and Deborah Harry Party Like It’s 1989

The Jazz Passengers are defined by their sense of humor. Even their name is sardonic, as if to imply that they’re just along for the ride, which of course they aren’t. It’s a deadpan, surreal kind of humor that strikes some people as ineffably hip when it’s actually just a shared cultural response common to most oldschool New Yorkers, and the Jazz Passengers are nothing if not oldschool New York. Last night at the Jazz Standard they brought bundles of that humor, and that’s what energized the crowd – that and special guest Deborah Harry. Yet for all the jokes and satire, they also showed off a vividly perceptive, sometimes plaintive, understatedly sympathetic social awareness: they’re not just a funny jazz/R&B band. Alto saxist/bandleader Roy Nathanson, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and drummer E.J. Rodriguez did time in a late-period version of the Lounge Lizards, so they got an early immersion in jazz spoofery; violinist Sam Bardfeld, vibraphonist Bill Ware and bassist Brad Jones reminded that they were just as in on what was happening half of the time. Sub guitarist Kenny Russell played it pretty straight, alternating between terse wah-wah funk and bright, slightly distortion-tinged sustained passages. Much of their set was taken from their superb, forthcoming album Reunited, their first in over ten years.

Their opening number shifted from ebullient straight-up swing to suspenseful, noirish interludes, Ware nimbly sidestepping Jones’ gritty chordal attack when they brought the lights down low. Fowlkes sang the jaunty early 70s style funk number Button Up with a casually thought-out determination, Bardfeld doing a spot-on imitation of the wah-wah of the guitar when Russell took a solo. Seven, another song from the new cd, held tight to a similar Headhunters/Quincy Jones vibe, Nathanson and Fowlkes moving judiciously from agitation to something approximating atmospherics. Then they brought up “The Baronness.” Deborah Harry has been in finer voice than ever on recent Blondie tours: the Jazz Standard’s crystalline PA system revealed a little more huskiness, a little more grit than typically comes across with a rock band behind her, not to mention a completely natural, slightly sepulchral swing phrasing. The band serenaded her with a creepy, carnivalesque intro that she shouted down. “Blasé was never a strength of mine,” she sang without a hint of irony on her understatedly torchy opening number – it was one of the funniest moments of the night, one that would recur a bit later.

Little Jimmy Scott’s Imitation of a Kiss saw her shift from torch-song angst to a sultry purr: although she wasn’t exactly wearing her heart on her sleeve, she made it clear that this was a welcome return to the good times she’d had with this band in the years between Blondie’s top 40 heyday and their revival on the nostalgia circuit. The opening cut on the forthcoming album, Thought I Saw the Wind, is sung by Elvis Costello with a detached buoyancy; Harry made its down-and-out cinematography austere and poignant, and the band matched her phrase for phrase, sometimes chillingly: “A dime’s not enough, can you spare a quarter?” Up to this point, Nathanson had repeatedly made fun of a pretentious review the band had just received in an Austrian jazz magazine, to which Harry eventually responded, “Does it mean anything?” The answer came in their final song, a shambling cover of the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop cheeseball Reunited, which pretty much brought the house down, and just when it was getting completely out of hand, Harry took it upon herself to sing straight from the review. They encored with an unselfconsciously intense, hypnotically evocative, swirling version of When the Fog Lifts, Bardfeld’s deft accents punching through the mist rising around him. The new album is out in October: watch this space.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Rockabilly Night at Lincoln Center 8/18/07

The Dixie Hummingbirds opened, playing to a shockingly small crowd in the park out behind the concert hall complex. They were fantastic. Established in 1920, this gospel group gives new meaning to the term long-running. Their oldest member joined as a 13-year-old in 1938 and proved that he still has his pipes, even if he’s due for a knee operation. “You get old, it happens,” he waxed. Backed by a rock-solid rhythm section and a superb guitarist, the gospel harmonizers left no doubt where the soul stars of the 60s got their inspiration, their melodies and even their arrangements and choreography. They may have been playing religious music, but for them it is clearly a religion of passion. Their young bass singer stole the show with some low notes to rival Huun Huur Tu, and their guitarist wound up their set with a long, spectacularly good solo to rival any coda Tony Iommi ever lit into. One would have thought that the Harlem church contingent would have come out in full force, especially as this was a free show, but they didn’t.

Now who wants to hear about a bunch of old geezers playing stuff that every bar band in the country knows by heart. Yawn, right?

Was a time that this stuff was revolutionary. Hard to fathom in the gangsta rap age, until you realize that the songs they played tonight were just as much IF NOT MORE reviled than the raunchiest Fitty number you can imagine. And the guys onstage got it right, making sure they included plenty of R&B – real R&B, not the stuff that Macy Gray does – and gospel and blues and a Chuck Berry number to go along with the barrelhouse boogie and the country and the embryonic rock they played tonight. Half a century ago, racists across the country would stage bonfires of rock records because they were terrified that their precious, virginal children would listen to black music and actually prefer it to Pat Boone. Allen Freed ended up going to jail for playing rock music. Hard to imagine that happening today to, say, Funkmaster Flex. The songs the band played tonight may sound pretty tame to jaded late-zeros ears, but the band onstage wasn’t. Major props to these guys for taking stuff they must have played literally thousands of times, over and over again and giving it a defiance and passion worthy of players a third their age. It was as if they were just glad to be alive.

One of the reasons that a lot of 50s rock recordings sound pretty harmless compared to what came later is that the people who were making them were using such primitive instruments, amps and studio gear. As guest singer Dale Hawkins told it, in his native Arkansas there weren’t any recording studios. To make a record, you had to go to a radio station between midnight and 1 AM when they were switching between transmission towers. Tonight, with some big Fender tube amps roaring and screaming, it seemed that these musicians were finally giving voice to their songs as they’d originally envisioned them, wild and fiery and absolutely unstoppable.

Backed by a drummer who doubled on harmonica, a young bassist and aptly named piano player David Keys, 67-year-old baritone rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef ran through a whole lot of 50s favorites. While there were some excellent performances tonight, this was his cavalcade of stars and he was its leader. He’s a hell of a guitar player, equally adept at blues as rockabilly, and with his big beautiful hollowbody Gibson roaring with overtones and distortion, he wailed all night long. The songs were familiar: My Gal Is Red Hot, Waltz Across Texas, Polk Salad Annie and something of a surprise, These Boots Are Made for Walking. Keys dazzled on a brief Jerry Lee Lewis medley, and LaBeef did a great job with the Johnny Cash numbers. A couple of times, the band wound up the songs with trick endings followed by excerpts from surf songs.

After about half an hour, LaBeef brought up the night’s first special guest, blues guitarist Larry Johnson, whose amp was stuck on standby for awhile before the roadies finally got it to work. “I’ve had moments like this,” he told the crowd. “One time I got to a club and the mic didn’t work, so I got paid and left.” He then did Mystery Train and then the haunting, minor-key gospel tune Can’t You Hear the Angels Crying.

Philadelphia singer Charlie Gracie – “the only Yankee on the bill,” as he put it – sang Butterfly, the relatively innocuous pop single that knocked Elvis Presley off of #1 on the charts for the first time, and then delivered an absolutely sizzling guitar instrumental. If anything, he’s twice as good as he was fifty years ago: something to aspire to. Dale Hawkins reminded the crowd how important gospel was to early rock, leading the crowd in a singalong with a jaunty version of his signature song Susie Q (a gospel ripoff, he explained), strikingly similar to the Creedence cover. In a particularly talkative mood, he demonstrated how Willie Dixon turned a Sister Rosetta Tharp gospel number into My Baby Don’t Stand No Fooling (a hit for both Hawkins and Little Walter). He also led the band through a particularly soulful version of the Ray Charles classic I Got a Woman, complete with an excellent harmonica solo from the drummer and an even more energetic one from Keys.

The night’s only Branson moments came toward the end, when 60s Texas white funk singer Roy Head – who seemed pretty drunk – took the stage and did a forgettable James Brown impersonation. Naturally, it was this clown that the crowd decided to get up and dance to. At the end, the whole crew wrapped it up with a medley, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (a final nod to the bluegrass influence in early rock) and then a singalong on Amazing Grace. A clinic in American music from some of its more inspired practitioners.

August 19, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments