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Guitar Solos

Posted by sdrury on December 26, 2009

If there is such a thing as a staple of rock and roll, something that transcends the lyrics, the posing, the outfits, the hair and whatever other tropes can be associated with the genre, it is the guitar solo. Seeing and hearing one in person, live, sends otherwise normal people with normal jobs and normal clothes and normal lives, shivering and writhing as if in the presence of a shaman. In anticipation of one, strangers trade knowing glances and then tilt their heads skyward acknowledging a tradition created by bluesmen like Robert Johnson, modified by Chuck Berry, and then re-created all over again by Jimi Hendrix (is it a coincidence all these men are black?). Indeed, every guitar solo has its roots in the Blues.

Any musical list is far from empirical, nevertheless here’s my two favorites:

Mike McCready:

David Gilmour:


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Jay Farrar Doesn’t Give a $h!t What I Want

Posted by sdrury on December 12, 2009

In the rather insular world of independent music the break-up of Uncle Tupelo in 1994 was biblical in its importance. Few musical divorces were so public and filled with acrimony. The real tragedy of course, was musical, because the leaders of Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy went their separate ways with Tweedy forming Wilco and Farrar forming Son Volt.

I’m embarrassed to say I learned about this piece of history well after the fact, as a fan of Wilco. As all the members of Uncle Tupelo—except for Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn—ended up in the original lineup of Wilco, the dramatic back story of the band’s formation accompanied every early write-up of them. So, everything I knew about the so-called fathers of alternative country was through the prism of one of the aggrieved parties. And as everyone knows, story of every relationship has two sides—at the very least.

Since purchasing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002 my admiration and respect for Tweedy and Wilco has only grown. I’ve seen them in concert numerous and I can identify their songs in an instant, even those from side projects. Tweedy has made little secret of his wish to achieve mainstream success with Wilco, and the evolution of their music reflects that aim. They’ve won two Grammys and are among the top-selling independent bands in the country (Foxtrot has sold nearly 700,000 copies).

And up until recently, when it came to choosing between Wilco and Son Volt I felt like a child caught in the middle of a custody battle. Despite all they had in common they were mutually exclusive. Liking one band meant loathing the other.

So, when I took in The Son Volt show a few weeks back at The Handlebar  in my new hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, I felt like a party-crasher. I half-expected a loyalty test before being admitted—“Quick, what are the first five tracks from Okemah and the Melody of Riot?” I undoubtedly would have failed any such questioning since my knowledge of Son Volt’s records is slim, especially in comparison to…another band…whose name rhymes with Bilko (I have since remedied this imbalance.)

Now, I can’t help but believe that the mere mention of Uncle Tupelo or Jeff Tweedy in the context of a Son Volt discussion has become immensely tiring and more than a little irritating to Jay Farrar at this point. I’ve heard interviews where the operatics from days gone by is brought up to Farrar in a very casual way, where the interviewer is giving the listener a frame of reference and Farrar’s answers, after a deep sigh or two, are perfunctory at best and occasionally caustic. He could easily say, “Really? We still are talking about this?” Then again, it’s quite possible he’s just annoyed about having to deal with the music press.

And that’s the thing about Farrar. It’s a tired cliché to say a musician is all about the music, but with Jay Farrar it really is true. He apparently doesn’t have much interest in playing stadiums or winning a Grammy. Or having his music used to sell cars. Son Volt’s sound is extremely uncompromising and it’s very much a progression of what Farrar began with Uncle Tupelo, the fusion of twang, punk and classic rock that was famously dubbed Alt-Country.

The first half of Son Volt’s set was dedicated to the twangy portion of their catalogue. Farrar played an acoustic guitar that was seconded most prominently by a steel guitar and bass. The drummer and lead guitarist seemed to be apparitions. The crowd nodded approvingly and applauded politely at the end of each number. For a moment, I thought the audience might be taking the measure of Son Volt, but upon seeing them whisper along to Farrar’s pleasant baritone, I knew I was among diehards.

About five songs into the set I talked my companion into walking up close to the stage and in a matter of moments we were within a few yards of Farrar. Next to me, was a brave soul sporting a Wilco t-shirt, which, in this setting, was tantamount to wearing a Yankees jersey in Fenway Park. In between songs, I sarcastically advised him that he should not expect me to come to his aid if he found himself on the business end of someone’s boot. He laughed knowingly and said, “Ahhh, who says you can’t like both of ’em? It’s cool man…” I was relieved to hear this and it got me thinking about the last concert I attended. Such a discussion about band loyalty would be considered a triviality when the artists playing before 80,000 strangers at a football stadium invoked poverty in Africa and solidarity for Burma. But here, among several hundred fans (a review the next day said the venue was “packed” when in fact it was about two-thirds full) in a converted warehouse, it was the music that mattered. Farrar slipped from one song to the next with such fluidity that it was hard to tell where one song ended and the next one began. The mood was casual and comforting, even though, Farrar might have spoken ten sentences to the attendees, and that’s a generous estimation.

And it was at that point, with the room filled with knowing fellowship, that somebody opened a door and let the rock and roll in. If earlier Farrar was aloof or disinterested, when the opening chords to Afterglow 61 rippled from his guitar his expression turned to a gleeful sneer,

Goodnight Irene inside the prison walls, Killed a man and lived to sing about it all, Stella 12 on Highway 61..” (here’s an earlier rendition on Letterman)

For the next 45 minutes Son Volt pumped through one pulsating song after another, songs that often invoked Farrar’s musical ancestors, the type of songs that, not too long ago could be heard on AOR radio, but now seemed precious and vital, made that way because the guy at the microphone, leading this blistering rock band, pouring this music over an appreciative throng, was doing exactly what he wanted in the way he wanted to do it. And in this day and age, where what we used to call the music business is whimpering into decline because of market pressures, there’s something reassuring about a guy who bows to no one.

Of course I hoped I would hear No Depression, Uncle Tupelo’s signature song, but I didn’t. It left me wanting more, but Jay Farrar probably doesn’t give a shit what I want.

Posted in Life in Greenville, Music | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Bob Dylan Must Be Santa

Posted by sdrury on December 1, 2009

Well, who else would it be? That’s Dylan in the gray wig, simultaneously mocking and celebrating Christmas songs.


Posted in Music, Video-Humor | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Cabin Fever

Posted by sdrury on November 21, 2009

Go to any coffee shop or café and you’re bound to hear a singer-songwriter introspectively crooning James Taylor or Cat Stevens songs. You can throw a Frisbee and hit an angst-ridden, earthy, unshaven white dude in his late 20s amid some existential crisis. Or you can just listen to NPR’s All Songs Considered for about ten minutes. There’s so many of these guys that when a good one comes along I take notice.

Bon Iver (pronounced bawn ee-vair) is the nom de plume of Justin Vernon. In November 2006 he retreated to a cabin in Wisconsin. The band he was in had just broken up. He and his girlfriend had similarly parted ways. He spent three months in the cabin, just him and his guitar. The result of his Spartan existence became an album called, without irony, For Emma Forever Ago. It was released in 2008.

The first time I listened to Emma I was non-plussed, put off by his falsetto. Then I saw this video.

 It’s from ex-Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland’s BBC show. The song is called Skinny Love. The man is serious. You can’t fake heartbreak.

Now, if a week passes that I don’t queue up Emma, I feel as if I’ve been disloyal to a friend. And I’ve been listening to it for over a year. It’s that good. Buy it here. You’re welcome.

Posted in Music, Video-For the Heart and/or Soul | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Cavett Rocks On

Posted by sdrury on November 1, 2009

Imagine a talk show where the host’s face is, often, momentarily obscured by a plume of smoke from one of his guest’s cigarettes. Or a boom mike quite obviously dropping into a stoned guest’s personal space so as to better capture his incoherent ramblings. Or the host, again, being caught off guard by an impending commercial and then making little attempt to hide his frustration about yet another interruption to his conversation; crankily, and through rings of smoke, he announces the show will return after a brief commercial message.

Nowadays such qualities in a show would be openly mocked by a media-literate audience. Any imperfections that do occur in the dozens of talk shows that now poison the airwaves are well-planned attempts by the host or producer to keep it “real” or to convey an air of spontaneity or off-the-cuffery. Perhaps that’s why the fall-back technique for most non-fiction programs is to illuminate the production flaws, thereby perpetuating the myth that what is being viewed has not been plotted with meticulous precision. It didn’t used to be this way. People who worked in non-fiction television didn’t always try to dupe their viewers.

Lest anyone suspect I’m about to launch into a nostalgic riff about the glories of live television, that era was well before my time. I’m referring to the Dick Cavett Show, which in its various incarnations aired on seven different networks, most memorably for five years on ABC starting in 1969 and then in a scaled down version on PBS from 1977-1982.

The talk show has been around since the earliest days of television. For as much as television has changed in the last 50 years the talk show has changed very little. Neither have TV executive’s admiration for it. The reason talk shows are held so dear by the suits is not because they are a more highly evolved form of entertainment. It’s because they’re cheap. The only major outlay is the salary of the host, which is not insubstantial, but it pales in comparison to the cost of shooting on location, where a cast and crew must be paid, fed, housed and insured. In a time when viewers of prime time network television are dwindling like a 401k it should come as no surprise that a popular host landed a gig at 10 o’clock five nights a week.

Even though hundreds of channels are now available for every imaginable niche group, as a format, the talk show remains much it like it did at its inception. There is an opening monologue, a sidekick, a desk (usually), a band and invited guests (who are paid a few hundred dollars for their troubles). The guests, generally, are actors, musicians or comics. Occasionally, politicians, authors or athletes find their way onto the seat next to the host. Other variables include skits, stunts, and conceits that invite audience participation.

Dick Cavett made every effort to reject these clichés over the course of a forty year career. 

I recall my mother watching the Dick Cavett Show during the PBS iteration, but I can’t honestly recall a specific episode or guest from that period. Later, I heard my mother draw a comparison between Cavett and Charlie Rose. Since I’ve always admired her taste in anything cultural, I put myself on notice for anything bearing his name.

In 2005 Shout! Factory released several theme-based multi-disc DVD sets of Cavett’s old shows. They include specials with blandish titles like “Hollywood Greats” and “Comic Legends.” I recently rented the three-disc “Rock Icons” set through my Netflix account and I expected that the discs would feature only music performances and interviews, but the shows are available in their entirety, with a brief introduction from Cavett himself. Presently, he writes semi-regularly for The New York Times website and often includes clips from his old shows in his column.

In all the clips I’ve seen of Cavett’s shows I can’t help but having the impression that the only reason he had a talk show to begin with was because it gave him an excuse to meet and chat with a lot of really interesting people. The opening monologues from the ABC shows are terrible. They are too often referring to events germain only to New York, which is where the show was shot; garbage strikes, the incompetence of Mayor John Lindsay and local weather are common topics. He had a bandleader/sidekick who he tried, usually without success, to engage in witty repartee. Cavett himself could barely conceal his distaste in these talk show tropes. The PBS version of his show suited him much better as it dispensed with bandleader banter (there was no band to lead) and the opening monologue was more of an introduction than a series of one-liners. Cavett is at ease in this format, a mood that was probably exacerbated by a very small audience as opposed to the large studio audience that greeted him on the ABC version. There’s little doubt as to which version Cavettheads prefer.

Nevertheless, the ABC show aired during what could be fairly described as the salad days of popular music in America. The first program on the Rock Icons disc aired the day after Woodstock. Jimi Hendrix was slated to appear but had back out since his performance had lasted into the early morning hours of the day of shooting. The guest appeared more or less together. Joni Mitchell, looking childlike, sang three songs, one of which was performed a cappella. She had declined an appearance at Woodstock in favor of preparing for her appearance on Cavett’s show. A scheduling faux pas that her career was able to overcome. The other guests were David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Jefferson Airplane, whose singer, Grace Slick, referred to Cavett as Jim. Crosby is his usual grating self, commanding attention through the quantity, rather than the quality of his thoughts.

What’s interesting about this show is neither the guests nor the now-classic music, it’s Cavett. He and the musicians are seated in a circle, on what look to be pillows. Cavett, ignoring his usual jacket and tie, briefly dons an ascot—which he tosses into the crowd, recognizing the absurdity of its presence around his neck—and opens at least two buttons on his shirt. He looks like a complete square—to use the parlance—yet the musicians see that his curiosity is genuine. Watching this scene, I tried to imagine fellow talk-show host (and fellow Nebraskan) Johnny Carson in such a setting. And this, really, was the essence of the difference between the two men. Carson, who had his beginnings as a game show host was a master at making his guests feel comfortable and the best way to do that was to exude an air of comfort himself. He had great timing as a comic, and his monologues expertly combined self-deprecation with Midwestern sensibilities. Mostly though, Carson loved the Hollywood-ness of being the host of The Tonight Show. Sure, occasionally a topical guest found a spot between him and Ed McMahon, but he loved talking to Jimmy Stewart and Buddy Hackett and Shelley Winters and Phyllis Diller, about their latest movie or vacation or pet or hilarious circumstance. Very few people, besides Tiny Tim, made news on The Tonight Show. Carson specialized in being familiar.

By contrast, Cavett was willing to step out of his comfort zone if it meant he could book non-traditional guests. While it’s possible this was for the sake of ratings, it’s more likely that he was fascinated by people like Salvador Dali and Ingemar Bergman. Not only was Cavett willing to rattle his own cage he was not above rattling his guest’s when he felt it was merited. He interviewed Lester Maddox and Angela Davis, until she was forced to cancel. A guest, Jerome Rodale, died on his show (it was never aired) and he talked bluntly about pornography. He had no reservations about playing a role in the “Symphony of Emotions.” Try to imagine Carson doing this.

The first disc of the “Rock Icons” series concludes with interviews of David Bowie and Sly Stone. I’ve never been much of a fan of Bowie, but his appearance with Cavett was mesmerizing. He’s probably high at the time of the interview and once seated, his frame is so lean his bones seem ready to burst through his suit. As Cavett questions him, he grips a cane for balance, emotional or otherwise. Whether it’s Cavett’s presence or the narcotic effect, Bowie is as forthright any rock star I’ve ever seen. His very British smile (cosmetic dentistry apparently was not among Bowie’s expenses at the time) reveals an air of uncertainty about his well-established career. It’s Bowie as raw as he’s ever been.

Of all the performances on the set, Sly Stone’s is the best. He and the Family Stone are vibrant, enthusiastic and utterly charming. Unfortunately, Sly seems to also be under the influence when chatting with Cavett, his beaming smile providing little clue to what was actually coming from his mouth. At one point, Cavett looks like he has no clue what Sly just said—a very un-Carson like loss of poise—but plows on, knowing that another musical number will render this lapse in coherence irrelevant.

The second disk is dedicated to Janis Joplin. As with Bowie, I’ve admired her music more than I’ve enjoyed it, but here she is heartbreakingly endearing. Of course, I know what fate awaits her, but Cavett, who has acknowledged his own battles with depression, senses that this is a woman worn out. Cavett tries to build her up through praise, but then Janis talks about the loneliness of the road. He sympathizes with her complaint about overly cerebral European audiences. He lights her cigarette. In one memorable sequence, seated among Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, and Chet Huntley, she and Racquel Welch talk about current events and overzealous fans. Try to imagine say, Lady Gaga, talking with, say Harrison Ford, Tom Brokaw and Kate Winslet. It would be impossible in today’s heavily regimented, self-promotion environment, where guests have been trained to speak only of themselves.

Later, Janis finds herself on the same set as Gloria Swanson. Cavett seems to make an effort to include her in every conversation like an older brother guarding his baby sister in her first days in high school. He wants to indulge her and protect her.

The final disk opens with Paul Simon performing, talking about songwriting and working out an early version of “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Once Simon departs Cavett himself is interviewed by three authors—Jerzy Kosinski, Barbara Howar and Anthony Burgess—on the occasion of the printing of his own memoir. The authors critique the book and  Burgess is wonderfully frank while Kosinski attempts, with moderate success, to penetrate Cavett’s psyche. In a moment of meta-media, Howar reminds Cavett that what he does on a nightly basis as a talk show will quickly be forgotten, having written a book will be a more permanent accomplishment. I wonder which sells more these days, the book or DVDs of old shows?

The next artist featured is the effervescent Stevie Wonder. Even when writing about inner-city violence and despair, he manages to remain bubbly. Here, Cavett is somewhat placating, he appears unsure of how to refer, if at all, to Wonder’s blindness. The format of the traditional talk show, demanding some sort of acknowledgement of the obvious, is something Cavett would rather ignore, and I got the feeling that there many questions that went unspoken.

Finally, the series concludes with the quiet Beatle, George Harrison (Cavett’s interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono comprise a separate series on Shout!). Harrison performs anonymously as a guitarist with Gary Wright. The interview with him is all-encompassing. He and Cavett talk about the Concert for Bangladesh (and what a hassle it was to manage the money), why the Beatles broke up (he was tired of his “quota” of one or two songs per album and wanted to perform his own material), drug use and Ravi Shankar. Harrison mocks the convention of talk shows by reading from the commercial cues before Cavett. Cavett groans at every station break like a child being told to go to bed on Christmas Eve. “Commercial??? Can’t you see I’m talking to George Harrison!!!”

Whatever his frustrations, he is clearly enjoying his time with Harrison (and later, Shankar) so much so that he seems sincerely disappointed when Harrison compares his appearance on the show to a performance. “Do you really look at this as a conversation or a performance?” he asks. When Harrison assured him it’s the former, I felt Cavett’s relief. And that really was why Cavett endured. He understood that smart people respond to other smart people and a smart audience would understand and appreciate that. While he never garnered the audience of Carson, the devotion of his fans has never faded.

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