Archive for the American Folk/ Country/ Western Category

Willi Carlisle: There Ain’t No More

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Music, PLUGS with tags , , , , on June 30, 2017 by travsd

You’ve got one chance left to see the amazing Willi Carlisle in his solo show There Ain’t No More! Death of a Folksinger before he blows town for parts north (Maine and New Hampshire, I understand). In an age when even our “folksingers” tend to be narcissistic careerists, Carlisle is traditional beyond your great-grandfather’s wildest dreams, dedicating himself to the Voice of the People rather than road maps of his own navel. He is a kind of folk music superman, both scholar and showman. He plays fiddle, banjo, guitar, harmonica (while he plays guitar, using a harp-holder like Dylan and others), and accordion (or some kind of sub-accordion squeeze-box, which is impressive enough). He sings like an angel. And he dazzles with tricks — he can dance while he plays, and even does crazy juggling tricks with his banjo without missing a chord during the tune. He’s also a first rate poet, story teller, and actor, with a presence more than a little like Victor Buono.

That said, There Ain’t No More is strongest as a concert, by several orders of magnitude. The production has ambitions beyond this, but the other theatrical elements (script and direction, in that order) lag far behind Carlisle’s pure, honest and exuberant brilliance as a musical performer. He’s well worth seeing on the strength of that alone, in spite of some Brechtian aspirations that lard the overall evening down. But Carlisle himself makes me extremely hopeful. 40, 50 and 60 years ago, New York city was full of hundreds, maybe thousands of performers like him, devoted to keeping the old cultural folkways of the past alive.  But then the weathervane changed direction and everyone began penning their own songs. I ran an open mike night for two years and I can tell you that while the performers are often great (this is New York, after all) their songs are frequently dreadful. In my 30 years of living here and paying attention, he’s the first guy I’ve come across who’s making it about the FOLK. (For a couple of related essays about what I think that is, go here and here).

Carlisle is playing at Ryan’s Daughter on the Upper East Side tonight. For my recent Chelsea Now article about him and his work go here. 

Oklahoma Bob Albright: Cowboy Tenor

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Crackers, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2017 by travsd

That’s him, fairly far down the billing and at Poli’s (the local Connecticut circuit) no less. His act, the ad says, is “characteristic”. Even his hype is unenthusiastic! But that’s unfair, he also played the big time Keith circuit and was well known from record albums and radio

I’ve only managed to gather a few scraps about cowboy singer Oklahoma Bob Albright, who has managed to rise from beyond the grave thanks to his 1929 Vitaphone short Oklahoma Bob Albright and His Rodeo Do Flappers. I find references to him in newspapers from the mid teens through 1952. He is described in old reviews as “magnetic” and “good natured”, with an act that consisted of singing, uke playing and storytelling. Author Timothy E. Wise, in his book Yodeling and Meaning in American Music, postulates that Albright may have influenced Jimmie Rodgers and other country singers by introducing yodeling into Appalachian style music in tunes like “Alpine” Blues” and others.

You see references to him on the Keith Circuit in the teens, but later he seems closely associated with the Pantages Circuit, and later even appears to have managed a Pantages theatre in the Los Angeles area with his father and brother. He was married to Murtle King, daughter of nickelodeon magnate John H. King. When vaudeville died, Albright did lots and lots of radio at least through the 1930s. He appears to have been alive at least through 1952 (I saw a contemporary reference to him that year in Billboard),

I’ve not seen the Vitaphone short, but just about every reference to it I’ve seen uses words like “disturbing”, “uncomfortable” and “un-p.c.”. Now I’m mighty curious!

To learn more about vaudeville and artists like Oklahoma Bob Albrightconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Fuzzy Knight: That Cat’s Alright

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by travsd

Probably best remembered today as a western sidekick in B movies, John “Fuzzy” Knight (1901-1976) came to acting through show biz. Surprisingly he started out as  LAW STUDENT (!) at the West Virginia University  and then got waylaid by his love of music. He was a cheerleader at WVU, co-wrote school songs and pep songs (some of which are still in use), and started his own band, in which he played drums. Knight also sang and played several instruments besides the drums, including the bass and the squeezebox. He later played with larger bands and performed in vaudeville, as well. The trail led to Broadway and such shows as Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1927 and Ned Wayburn’s Gambols (1929).

Next came Hollywood starting in 1929. Initially he was in all kinds of pictures at the major studios, but by the mid 1930s they were all almost entirely westerns. The Cowboy and the Lady (1938) and Union Pacific (1939) were major prestige studio pictures and he had good roles in both. In 1940 he was voted one of the top ten western stars as a box office draw. In the 40s and 50 it was mostly B pictures, sometimes as many as a dozen in a single year. Particularly in the earlier films, he sometimes sang in the movies as well. His career lasted until 1967.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

On “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the late, great Levon Helm (1940-2012), the only American in The Band, but I think most of his fans will agree that he had enough America in him for a million Americans.

Now, I’ve already blogged about his last years and the documentary about them here. Today, it seems timely to talk about his best known song and its deep personal meaning for me. I call it “his”, though technically it was co-written with The Band’s leader and guitarist Robbie Robertson. But really — come on. Robertson pursued his interest in rural American culture as a fascinated alien. Helm on the other hand, drove and encouraged the process from the INSIDE. He’s the one who sings the song for a reason. He owns the song, spiritually and artistically, if (clearly) not legally. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is about Helm’s culture and history. Robertson helped raise the barn, but it’s Helm’s lumber and nails.

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I’ve known and loved this song almost my entire life. Ironically, along with millions of other Americans I’m guessing, I knew the Joan Baez hit single version first. She released her one in 1971 and it went all the way to #3 on the pop charts. Though the original version by The Band came out in 1967, I don’t imagine that I ever heard it until some time in the early ’80s, through the agency of my best friend, who was a big fan of the group. I am fond of both versions of the song; I’ll compare and contrast them directly.

If I had to pick one popular American song of the post-rock era that means the most to me — more than that — is about me, illuminates me — this would be the one. Written in the style of a traditional American folk song, it’s a first person (fictional) testimony from an East Tennessee farmer about the last days of the Civil War when the North’s Total War slash and burn tactics had reduced the people of the region to starving beggars, the 19th century equivalent of having been “bombed back to the Stone Age.” They’re not just dirt poor, but demoralized, so beaten in spirit that they won’t recover for at least a century.

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For some Americans it is a kind of anthem, for others it can be thought of as a test of our humanity. I’m born and raised a Yankee, though culturally, through my father, there is much about me that is Southern. My entire life has been a sort of internal wrestling match to the death between both sides of my brain. Now, last year I wrote this piece about the Stars and Bars. I feel pretty strongly that museums and history movies are the only places it ought to be flown. The secret hope that “The South will rise again” has been the source of so much damage and hurt. It ought to have been a matter of settled politics over a century ago.

But this song isn’t about the cause of slavery. It’s about the cause of humanity. Men have been fighting wars since before there were men. This side or that one may be the aggressor, this cause or that one may be the more heinous. But in the end each individual soldier fights for his own reasons. A certain number of men who fought and died for the Confederacy neither kept slaves, condoned slavery or wanted secession, they were just doing their duty. And many others didn’t even take arms, but still suffered the same privations and so forth. On top of this it’s not like the North wasn’t also full of racists whatever their politicians and clergymen said.  So who “deserves” what happened is really an open question.

Ultimately, I can and do step back and say…yes but at the end of the day, they served the cause of evil. There were numerous Southerners who made a different choice…either became Union soldiers (some of my Southern relatives did that!), or like my (4th) great uncle Levi H. Knight spied for the union, or didn’t serve at all. I’m not someone who sees unquestioning duty as an intrinsic virtue. I am more partial to the American tradition embodied by Thoreau. God gave you a brain and a heart to make choices with. Abdicating the use of them just because you’re told to is to be less than a human.

But the ENTIRE South suffered during and after the Civil War, not just slave owners and racists. And in the end, war sucks for everybody, including innocent civilians. Well, that’s putting it mildly, isn’t it? It’s the worst thing humankind can endure. Granted, as an entity the South was akin to a mean, cruel and arrogant bully, but in the aftermath the bully lay in the mud, his bones broken, his eyes gouged out, his flesh lacerated in a thousand places, his home burned, his wife raped, his children killed, and he’s howling and crying in pain. What’s next, Victor? Our first reaction is to say, “Good! You had it coming!”. But I like to think most of us would soon soften, to as Lincoln said, quoting the Psalm, “bind the nation’s wounds.” If, once healed, the bully turns into a monster again (as I think it can be argued that the South has collectively done on occasion, many times), you cross that bridge when you come to it. But when someone’s down, you don’t kick them.

The Second Inaugural

The Second Inaugural

It’s amazing to me that The Band wrote and recorded this song at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King had the kind of largeness of spirit this song appeals to, one of the million reasons his assassination was a major loss to the nation. Luke 6:27-28: “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.” Easier said than done. But it’s exactly what Lincoln’s plan was for the post-war period, “Charity To All, Malice Toward None.”

Anyway, that’s my imaginary conversation with a Yankee who might be lacking in sympathy for the vanquished Rebel. I feel like I know how to have that conversation because, like I say, I grew up a Stranger in a Strange Land.  But as for those like me who are also children of the Rebels, I can attest that the memory of the wounds received lingered long, mostly because, yes, this is a stubborn and tradition-loving people, and they refused to let go. Culturally, many Southern people are Scots-Irish. They are a people given to multi-generational feuding. They don’t forget. Like, ever. They kept the loss and sense of grievance alive, nursed it, relived it every day. The culture of the South developed that beaten, fatalistic quality, that all the great Southern writers like Faulkner and Williams capture. My father absolutely had that quality. In some ways, it was as though the century behind us had never passed.

And a century isn’t such a long time anyway…the Civil War was four generations ago in my case. The children of that generation were my father’s grandparents, whom he knew well, and that knowledge was passed on to me. I was four years old when the Baez version of the song came out, so I was YOUNG when I first learned about the Civil War, as my dad parsed and interpreted this song for me. I generally have found myself confused and appalled to hear adults say they don’t understand what the song means…but that’s a wrong impulse. It ought to be a Teaching Moment. At bottom I find I can be a surprisingly crummy teacher.

Some nice person at www.traditionalmusic.co.ok posted the lyrics:

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My great-grandfather’s name was Virgil Stewart, and this became one of my earliest connections to the song…it’s impossible for me to hear this without thinking of him, of thinking of this as my story. And Virgil was a farmer in Tennessee, just like the narrator. (My family, just like Levon Helm’s, were cotton farmers). Virgil Stewart was born after the Civil War, though. It was his dad’s generation that fought it. Virgil’s father Calvin sat it out (my theory is that because he had a newborn baby at the time of enlistment, and then Tennessee was soon occupied by the North after that). But Virgil’s uncle William Carrol Stewart did go and fight and was badly wounded at Gettysburg, so it is him and other relatives I think of when I hear the part about “a Yankee laid him in his grave”.

The choice of the name Caine seems significant, Cain being the Biblical inventor of murder. And not just murder: fratricide. “Brother against brother”. The South started it, there’s blood on their hands, and like Cain himself, they paid.

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Years later, I began to link Virgil Caine with Buster Keaton’s character in The General.  A train engineer? Union soldiers tearing up the tracks? As I’ve written elsewhere, I firmly believe that the melancholy historical echoes of the setting were what prevented Keaton’s masterpiece from being a hit in 1927. The ticket buyers were the kids and grandkids of the Civil War generation. Too soon? Yes — too soon.

Whose eyes indicate that he's crazy enough to harm women, children, old men and animals? Well Stonewall Jackson is dead, so how about THAT guy?

Whose eyes indicate that he’s crazy enough to harm women, children, old men and animals? How about THAT guy?

“Stoneman” in the song refers to Major General George Stoneman, who led one of the last of the Union raids through the South during the Civil War, which was launched in Mossy Creek, Tennessee and moved East into North Carolina. His mission was to lay waste to everything he saw, and demoralize the civilian population. Mission accomplished!

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Like I say, lately I’ve been listening to both versions of this song, comparing and contrasting them. Baez’s and Helm’s voices couldn’t be more different. Her’s is pretty and polished, Helm’s is homely and real. Baez is interpreting something for us from the outside; Helm is re-enacting it from the inside. The Baez version is guitar-driven, the Band’s is driven by Richard Manuel’s piano. I am partial to the many voices on the chorus on the Baez version, which to me evokes the cries of the many. I feel like the Band’s version is marred by Robbie Robertson’s whiny high harmony, I’ve never been able to stand his weak, thin voice. But I love the haunting harmonica!

There are interesting differences in the lyrics in both versions, reportedly because Baez didn’t have access to the real ones (beyond listening to the record.). Why she didn’t try to obtain the real ones is a question. I know that things were clunkier in those days…it was just telephone and U.S. mail to conduct business, but that’s not exactly an insurmountable hurdle. There may have been a time crunch. But what is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie down” but a folk song? And all the great folk songs pretty much get rewritten every time they’re sung. That’s the way of oral tradition. What are the “real” lyrics of “Stagger Lee”? For that matter what is the real title of the song? There are none. It is a perpetually re-interpreted, protean cultural product.

One lyrical difference (to my ears): in The Band’s version it sounds to me like Helm is singing “You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.” On the Baez version that line sounds to me more like “You cant raise the cane back up once it’s in the feed.” I don’t know if that’s what she’s singing but that’s what it sounds like. I’d take it to mean something like…if you’ve already mixed sugar cane into the fodder (lucky livestock), you can’t pretend its still planted in the ground to inspire with visions of what you’ll do with your crop. This could be my own hallucination, but this metaphor also works for me. The deed is done and now all hope for the future is dead,

Also…I’ve always heard one of the lines as “There goes THE Robert E. Lee”. I always pictured it as a train named after the Confederate general and it’s being hijacked, just like in the Buster Keaton movie I mentioned above. As a kid, I also interpreted the”Dixie” of the chorus in the same way, as a train, literally being driven away. After all, Virgil “drove on the Danville train”. With Dixie of course ALSO representing the entire Confederacy being driven into the ground through the scorched earth tactics.

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There was also a steamboat named “Robert E. Lee” (like in the 1912 song “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”) but that vessel wasn’t christened until after the war (so much for letting sleeping dogs lie, South!). Consensus (including a quote from Helm) seems to indicate that the song refers to the literal Robert E. Lee, but that sounds dumb to me. Like, what’s he doing over there? Near a Tennessee farm, when he’s closing in on Appomattox? At any rate, I despise literalism in interpretation. If there’s only one meaning to it, it ain’t much of a fuckin’ song. As opposed to this song — which is a hell of a fuckin’ song. It’s a hell of a fuckin’ song.

Thoughts on Rubber Soul on its 50th Anniversary

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2015 by travsd

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This past weekend saw the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles album Rubber Soul; yesterday was the 35th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Today finds me…catching up.

One hallmark of great artists is that it is impossible to choose your favorite amongst their works. Or, you can choose one, but it keeps changing. Favorite Shakespeare play? Favorite Chaplin movie? Preposterous. So it is with me with the Beatles. But amongst my several favorites, Rubber Soul frequently surges to the top, and increasingly more so the older I get.

In my later teens, my tastes were Lennon-centric, tilted towards the later Lennon, the self-consciously “personal”, druggy, lyrically experimental and politically radical Lennon. But lately there’s a part of me that’s begun to think that Lennon’s best work was on Rubber Soul (and the album that preceded it, Help! which I’ll write about subsequently). “The devil!” you say, “His peak in 1965?!” Yes! And perhaps even the peak of the Beatles.

There is a universality about Rubber Soul, a sophistication, and a maturity. Influence from folk music brought lyrical depth, and a quieter, softer sound. Influence from jazz and classical music brought a broader range of styles. But it’s still the original act, an act with a much wider appeal, i.e., not yet explicitly drug-oriented or counter cultural. This is, to me, the last gasp of the Beatles as they were in their movies, as they were on television and as a live act, and as they might have been on Broadway (at a certain point they had discussed a Broadway show). There’s a charming bohemian edge to it, but it’s still show biz. It’s a record you could see playing on the same turntable that might spin “The Girl from Ipanema”, or “What’s New Pussycat?” or something. Like a lot of pop culture at the time (including movies) there are European influences in addition to the American ones. Lastly, this is the last album before Lennon virtually drops out, almost disappears into himself and then returns reincarnated. We’ll return to Lennon shortly.

Non-Rubber Soul

Non-Rubber Soul

When I was a kid, I liked the name of the record, but it seemed wrong. Where’s the “soul”? I wondered. Isn’t soul Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin? (It is). Ironically Paul McCartney’s best example of that kind of thing (“Got to Get You Into My Life”) would come on Revolver. McCartney had earlier used the phrase “plastic soul” in studio chatter during the sessions for “I’m Down”, a song which also fits the description. As for what WOUND UP on Rubber Soul, the only tunes I can identify that come close to that description are “Drive My Car”, “The Word”, and the breaks at the end of each verse of “I’m Looking Through You”. Ironically, there was a much more soulful version of “I’m Looking Through You” (later released on Anthology) but they switched it out for the better known version on the original record. And there were two more tracks from the sessions that would have gone a long way towards justifying the title. “Day Tripper” totally fits, but they pulled it off the record and released it only as a single (and on “Yesterday and Today” in the States). And they recorded a VERY interesting 12-bar Blues jam which is a really great peek at the Beatles behind the scenes. It’s the sort of thing they didn’t release on record very often, although they recorded quite a lot of these jams during the “Get Back” sessions. Until you hear it one mightn’t think they could play that way (and if you want to be mean, they sort of can’t. The Rubber Soul blues jam is a trifle lackluster, they never quite break out.) Still it puts across the IDEA of the title, and if they included these missing tracks it would have done more towards justifying this name. The record definitely hangs together as a concept album — it’s just that “rubber soul” doesn’t seem to be the actual prevailing concept.

What is the concept? You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s there. Rubber Soul is quite similar to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in that way. It feels sort of like a book of poems or short stories. The pieces do fit together. They’re coming from the same place. They evoke similar moods. But each entry in the whole is a little different. It’s not one single narrative.

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The dominating voice (it seems to me) is still Lennon’s. He was the original leader of the band, and he still is at this stage. In the long run, “Yesterday” (and the man who wrote it) would take the wind out of Lennon’s sails, but that wouldn’t be evident until Revolver, which can be thought of as Lennon’s low-point. (Don’t get me wrong, Lennon is always Lennon and that’s vastly more than most others; it’s just that his genius is less on view in Revolver than in any other album, for reasons we’ll get to when we blog about that record in a few months.) In Rubber Soul he’s still very much in the race, still musically ambitious (whereas later he would be much less so).

I think of “Norwegian Wood” as the best song on the album — it sets the tone for the whole record. The imagery it evokes — of a dude (I picture him in a turtleneck) sitting on a chick’s floor, drinking wine, waiting to score — kind of encapsulates the entire era, and with such economy. I can picture the whole apartment, can’t you? I see it in Greenwich Village, but it could be London, Paris or Berlin, or (given the title) Oslo. There are shelves full of art books and poetry. There are candles. There’s probably no heat.  (But there is a fireplace, come to think of it). And George Harrison’s sitar adds to the atmosphere of sophistication.  Another Side of Bob Dylan was full of this kind of imagery…but Lennon had gone to art school, and hung out with bohemians in Hamburg. It was “him” as much as it was Dylan, although it was Dylan who had freed him up to write about it. The other thing I love about the song is the characteristic Lennon drollery, probably one of the best examples of it. It is funny. I think I may prefer the version on Anthology. There is a “call and response” thing with the sitar (and a kind of gloopy punctuation at the end) which makes it seem even funnier.

Third thing about the song is that it’s also moody. The singer DOESN’T score. He has to sleep in the bathtub, and when he wakes up the girl has taken off. (Like the Rolling Stone’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, these are some of the first intimations of sex in pop music, which had previously  been the domain of teeny boppers).

The rest of Lennon’s songs on the album all have this moody, reflective quality. “Girl” sounds like a beautiful Eastern or Southern European folk song; there’s a tone of regret to it (even though the singer claims to have no regrets). The girlfriend sounds like a handful. (I’ve always found commentators’ claims that Lennon’s inhalations were meant to evoke pot-smoking, and that the background “tit tit tit” vocal was meant as a dirty joke, to be simplistic and moronically literal. They’re just sounds. Can’t you just enjoy sounds?).

The nostalgic “In My Life” is one of Lennon’s masterpieces — and THIS is what I miss when he begins dropping acid and losing himself. This is a clear bit of writing, and an ambitious piece of music. Lennon definitely wrote the words (which presage the mood of “Strawberry Fields”) but it’s a matter of some contention as to who wrote the tune, as McCartney now claims credit. He may be overstating it — that melodic figure when Lennon sings “li-hi-hi-hi-life” in the second line is SO characteristically Lennon (and not very McCartneyesque). I can’t divorce the tune from Lennon’s performance. At any rate, directly after this record, Lennon starts giving us much simpler music, in songs such as “Rain” (three chords) and “Tomorrow Never Knows” (one chord) and within a few years he would become a sort of rock ‘n’ roll oldies act. Ambitious songs like this were behind him. “In My Life” may well be his high water mark as a songwriter, at least as a writer of “standards”.

As for “Nowhere Man” I’ve never been as crazy about it. I find it repetitive and not very inspired. Its best aspects are in the production, the harmonies, the arrangement, etc.

Another striking track is “Run for Your Life”, which draws from folk in allowing the content to be MUCH darker than usual. It sounds like your basic 1965 Beatles track — but it’s told from the point of view of somebody who’s threatening his girlfriend with physical violence.

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As for McCartney’s contributions to the album — in a way, the entire album is his best contribution, i.e., it is often his musicianship in the support of the other guy’s songs which are what we value the most. Interestingly, he himself doesn’t seem to set out with any huge ambition as a songwriter on this album. For example, there is no “classical strings” number on the order of “Yesterday”, “Eleanor Rigby” or “She’s Leaving Home”. I think his strongest, most memorable tune on Rubber Soul is “Michelle”, which is very savvy in putting us into a Parisian head space in the age of the Nouvelle Vague. (Its imagery actually seems very much of a piece with “Norwegian Wood”). I’m also very fond of “I’m Looking Through You”,  with its folkie harmonies reminiscent of those on the song “Help!” And “You Won’t See Me” is very catchy. It strikes me as a song that would be excellent for a Motown girl group (though it was later a hit for the soporific Anne Murray).

But as I say frequently it’s McCartney’s musicianship we think of. His high harmonies. His bass playing is often the saving grace of many a weak tune. For example, Lennon’s “The Word” is a bit of a throwaway, saved by McCartney’s swinging bass playing. The fuzz bass on Harrison’s “Think for Yourself”, is almost exclusively what most people remember about that tune. And McCartney’s playing on “Drive My Car” is breath-taking.

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I love Harrison’s two songs. “Think for Yourself” like a lot of his early songwriting (e.g., “Don’t Bother Me) has an almost proto-punk quality, sort of melodically dark and cramped. “If I Needed Someone” propelled along by McCartney’s interesting, business like bass-line, the ringing, chiming guitars, and the sweeping three part harmonies, is downright majestic.

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As for the obligatory Ringo number, “What Goes On” is the weakest link. It’s tedious and repetitive. It’s always been the Rubber Soul track I’m mostly like to skip listening to. It’s not that it’s too country. It’s that it’s too blah. The Beatles’ cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” on their preceding record was downright inspired by comparison, as is Harrison’s solo on “Run for Your Life”.

As for “Wait”, which is about 50% Paul and 50% John, it’s pleasant enough (I love the tremolo effect on the guitar). It sounds like a throwback to the days of Beatles ’65 or Beatles VI. This and “We Can Work It Out” (pulled from these sessions for release a single) was one of the last occasions when the pair functioned together as a real songwriting team.

Is Rubber Soul the last proper Beatles album? Revolver finds them being even more experimental and also more individualistic…thus more separate, less collaborative. Ironically Rubber Soul seems a more “mature” album than subsequent ones — it pulls away from the pure pelvic passion and noise of rock. And while subsequent albums move even farther away from boy-girl romantic themes, they remain “adolescent” in the sense that their exploration of mystical and outre themes can be kind of superficial and sensational. You know what I mean? On the order of “Mr. Mojo Risin'” — although the Beatles, on their worst day could never be as stupid as the Doors. 

I’ll be writing about Help! soon, as I forgot to observe the anniversary a few months back.

 

Joe “Banjo” Roberts

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Classical, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on August 21, 2015 by travsd

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For someone so legendary in his own time, tantalizingly little information is readily available about Joe “Banjo” Roberts. (If anyone out there has more information than we have in this truncated little post, I know my readers would be glad to hear it). We know that he played the Palace in the 1920s. We know that he started out as a violinist, developed an injury and as a result, switched to the banjo, applying violin technique to that instrument. We know that he inspired Roy Smeck as a boy, who saw him in vaudeville and actually paid him for a couple of lessons. We know that he played theatres all over the country — plenty of glowing notices can be found for him online. And according to his grandchild, “he married a chorus girl.” And he cut a couple of records. Thanks, Tim Gracyk, for sharing this one:

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Loudon Wainwright III: Surviving Twin

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Music on June 4, 2015 by travsd

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As we’ve written previously (here and here) I have been a major league fan of singer/songwriter/ actor Loudon Wainrwight III  since I was a teenager. Hearing that he was workshopping a new theatre piece called Surviving Twin at SubCulture I wanted to be among the first to see it, and last night I was.

The show alternates Wainwright’s bittersweet autobiographical songs with the writings of his dad, the popular Life magazine editor and columnist. The significance of the show’s title is the realization that LW3 inherited his father’s gifts and preoccupations as a writer. LW3 fans admire his craftsmanship, his humor, his introspection, his (often painful, naked) honesty, and his ability to entertain. The same themes drive both men: birth, death, love of family, regret, loss, hope, and….appreciation for a fine dog. The songs and spoken bits are augmented with home movies and family photos. Those accustomed to the up-close and intimate nature of Loudon’s shows will be shocked at how much MORE intimate this one manages to be.

The younger Wainwright’s half of the dialogue amounts to a concert featuring some of his best songs from his (ye Gods!) 45+ year career. “White Winos” from the 2001 album “Last Man on Earth” is an especially dazzling piece of work, practically a magic trick both musically and lyrically. As was his closing number “In C” (off 2012’s Older Than My Old Man Now). (Much like Irving Berlin, the song references the fact that Loudon only plays the white keys at the piano). Yes — piano. The multi-talented Wainwright does play that instrument, along with a couple of guitars, a banjo, and (on 1974’s “Dilated to Meet You”, written for the newborn Rufus), ukulele. The acted bits reveal Loudon to be equally dexterous at this related but different craft; I’d not seen him do it live before. Directed by Daniel Stern  (yes, that Daniel Stern, from Diner, City Slickers, etc) with maximum simplicity, he generously showcases his father’s word-wizardry, humbly implying in a way that his own gifts are an inheritance, that he is part of something greater than himself.)

That’s a rather cosmic conception, the sort of wisdom that usually dawns on one at twilight, when a lot of the strife is over and parents are buried in the grave. Loudon even looks the part these days — his white van dyke unavoidably conjuring the late Burl Ives, who was also both an actor and folksinger. This may make baby boomer Wainwright cringe, but I’d own it if I were him. It’s high time he play the “elder statesman/ American institution” role that belonged to Ives for decades. And lest ye fear that it’s all about age and dignity, Loudon did the whole show with his fly down (a happy accident. He was wearing his father’s old suit and the zipper broke. Keep it in the show, Loudon! It’s not just funny but it’s a nice metaphor for your life and art — and I mean that in the best way possible.)

There are three more pchances to see work-in-progress performances of Surviving Twin: June 10, 17 and 24 at SubCulture (45 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10012). All performances will begin at 7:30pm. Tickets ($30 in advance, $35 day of show) can be purchased at http://subculturenewyork.com/wainwright/ or 212.533.5470.

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