Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Well, it's Christmas time, pretty baby!"

Merry Christmas! 
圣诞快乐! Fröhliche Weihnachten! Merii Kurisumasu! 
Heri la Krismasi! Joyeux Noël! C Рождеством Христовым!

Catch the Spirit; it's everywhere, and contagious. Plug in the tree. Light a fire. Pour yourself a drink. Put your feet up. Lean back and take a breath. Take a moment and soak It in. There's 10 minutes somewhere out there to wrap that last gift. "It's Christmas time, pretty baby!"  

No holiday, no time, is constituted of Music more than Christmas. The scale and beauty of the tunes inspired by the Season is staggering. It's the one topic that virtually every musician who commits song to tape addresses at one time or another. What else could Run DMCPavarotti, and Waylon Jennings have in common? It fills the air wherever you go, like smoke from chimneys interspersed with winter fog. Whether rattling through a tinny speaker at the grocery store or playing on the soundtrack inside your head, it's everywhere. Holiday is the one musical category that, regardless of genre preference, everyone, and I mean everyone, likes. Dare you say otherwise? Be it wistful (the immortal "White Christmas") serious ("The Little Drummer Boy"), playful (the ubiquitous "Jingle Bell Rock"), it's all equally beloved. We just want to hear it and to know that, for 30 short days, the world is the slightest bit Different. The Season allows us to place problems great and small in context and feel the energy that comes with shared Joy; Music serves as a medium for the serene excitement of Christmas. 
"It's Christmas time, pretty baby!"      

At Christmas, Music joins an infinitely diverse global citizenry in a singular celebration of a Savior, born in a barn, in a small town, a long way from here, a long time ago. Whilst walking about the nearest mall in December, look around. Consider the socioeconomic, geographic, religious, and experiential histories of the people you pass. They may not celebrate the Season. Giving may be the furthest thing from their minds, or they may be spending their last dime on a modern day Gift of the Magi. But, when they hear mention of a certain Reindeer with a flushed nose or the (highly improbable, in the South) prospect of Christmas snow, it affects them all, in the best way. They know it. The song brings us all together. "It's Christmas time, pretty baby!"     

Looking back at 37 Holiday seasons, I'm so thankful for Christmas and the role that its Music has played in my life. When I was a child, Dad had an old Sony receiver that sat on a mahogany table in the tile-floored, wood-paneled study that hung off the side of our Georgian brick cottage. The Sony had a metallic silver front and wood sides and you had to turn a knob to move an actual needle to find a radio station. It had cushioning at the end of the dial so it would give you a pleasing bounce when you went too far to the right past 108 FM. When you flipped the power switch off, it took it several seconds to go dark. (It looked like this.) A more modern black double cassette deck sat on top of it. When Mom pulled out the musty-smelling box of ornaments each year, one of the first things that came out was a solid black cassette tape. It had a red and white label on the side with "Perry Como - Christmas Music" written on it. I knew how to work the old Sony, so I could get Perry started. Sister Beth and I (Sister Meg was toddling at the time) didn't know a thing about Perry Como and would never have voluntarily listened to any non-Christmas song of his; I don't think Mom even listened to him. But, every December, in the green glow of the old Sony and the full spectrum splendor of the tree (colored or white this year?), Perry brought us the joy of tradition. That's when the celebration started in earnest. We knew it then. "It's Christmas time, pretty baby!"    

It seems like a different world now. We go so fast these days. It takes so much work to create a moment, we are often too exhausted and anxious to enjoy it when it arrives. Let this year be different, and let the Music be your guide. To paraphrase Dylan, the answer's in the air all around us. Take a few seconds and focus on the words you hear sung in church, at the mall, sitting in your wing chair with your feet up, or inside your head. What you will find in them is the reason that we celebrate and, in many ways, the celebration itself. "It's Christmas time, pretty baby!"  


Friday, October 18, 2013

Redemption (Jason Isbell)

When excess and stubborn pride diminish a man's life to a point of near zero, the first step in redemption is to admit a lack of control; to recognize and confront weakness. In Rock, where careers are built on ego and gluttony, redemption and adoration are hard to find simultaneously. If you take the bottle of liquor out of a Rock Star's hand and strip him of self-destructive bombast, what's left?

Jason Isbell had to figure it out. The scion of a musical family and a natural talent, in 2001, Isbell found himself leading the Drive By Truckers' southern-fried 3 guitar attack at age 22. He endeared himself to a half-generation of Southern music fans with timeless statements of the "Dirty South" such as "Outfit" and "Decoration Day." While former DBT mates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley focused on the South's grimy underbelly, Isbell's approach was more nostalgic and down home. Where Hood focuses on anthemic statements of Southern mystery and faded glory ("Sinkhole," "Ronnie & Neil"), and Cooley on loners and crooks ("Women Without Whiskey," "Cottonseed"), Isbell was more the rebellious teenager feeling his way while raging in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot ("Goddamn Lonely Love," "Never Gonna Change"). It was never really a square fit, and Isbell left DBT in 2007 to walk alone.

It was a long and painful road littered with plastic liquor bottles, small crowds, and self-destruction. Success did not find him quickly, substance abuse set in, and Isbell came to represent one of Cooley's desperate loners. The gutter was deep, but thankfully not too long. Things started to turn with the release of 2011's well-received Here We Rest and its memorable sing-along highlight, "Codeine." During the sessions for Rest, Isbell fell in love with now-wife Amanda Shires and sought out sobriety. He found it, probably saving his life in the process. Building off of the success of Rest, Isbell sharpened his focus, embraced sobriety, and moved boldly in the right direction. For a former Drive By Trucker, facing the world solo with an acoustic guitar in hand and his back to the bottle must have been daunting.      

With the release of 2013's critically-acclaimed Southeastern, things have come full circle. Instead of running from his past, Isbell used it as fuel for great music and a better tomorrow. On album highlights like "Tired of Traveling Alone," we see a man with his weaknesses on full display. Haunting album opener "Cover Me Up" provides an immediate admission of vulnerability; elsewhere we find fear of death (barroom rocker "Super 8") and intrigue ("Elephant"). Hardly abandoning his Muscle Shoals / DBT roots ("Flying Over Water"), Isbell is comfortable, and effective, with a Martin acoustic in his hand ("Live Oak"). The result is a superb tour de force that serves as a necessary component of, and stirring testament to, Isbell's ongoing quest for redemption.

I saw him play the Georgia Theater recently with his backing band, the 400 Unit, and he looked and sounded great. This is not a man on shaky ground; there's no apparent apprehension of falling back into the Hole. Watching the taut 90 minute set, I saw a traditionalist that would have been as comfortable at Johnny Cash's Sun Studio as he would jamming at Muscle Shoals with the Stones (this night brought a solid rendition of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking"as the closer). Eschewing displays of virtuosity on the guitar in favor of more terse solos in the Carl Perkins mold, Isbell is a natural and enigmatic showman. He shows an appreciation for his audience instead of rebelling against them; engaging them instead of prodding them. While his DBT songs remain the crowd-pleasing centerpieces of the set (a scorching "Never Gonna Change" was this night's highlight), his solo material continues to gain traction on its merit. What I saw was a healthy, rejuvinated, and vital artist nearing the top of his game; a man who is comfortable in his skin in a way nobody could have expected when he was passing around a handle of Jack Daniels at 1:40 a.m. in his DBT glory days. It's inspiring to watch a man who has confronted and conquered self-destruction, with the battle serving to fuel a vital new period of his art.      

Thursday, September 26, 2013

SOTW - September 27, 2013 - Tigers Come to Town ("Fearless")

The Big Game. It's a Southern bit of greatness. For seven precious fall days, dusk becomes a bit cooler and anxiety rises like a bottle rocket. There's an omnipresence in the air that occupies Everyone's minds, whether they will admit it or not. The clock ticks ... slowly ... towards Friday at 6:00 p.m. Then, and only then, we can focus 100% of our attention on The Big Game. At some point, you've read every available bit of analysis and breakdown. For better or worse, the world will be temporarily but sharply different at 8:00 p.m. Saturday night; this much we know. Will they or won't they? Do we have enough defense? Can they stop us? Is Murray over the hump in Big Games. Who have they really played? Will the crowd show up? Will this be Clemson, or South Carolina? Is Mettenberger for real? Are we really favored. Will The Hat do something crazy? The Tigers are coming to town. They are good. So are we. At some point, the matter must be left to skill and chance and strength and nerves and luck and sweat and strategy and all the infinite variables that, no matter how hard we try to break it down, will decide The Big Game.

No matter what we do or say or think, it's all going to be in the hands of a bunch of kids that were in high school a few years ago come 3:36 p.m. on Saturday. We will be there with them in mind, body, and unified spirit. Pull. It. Out. Dawgs!

I wish they'd put me in charge of the PA in the locker room just before kickoff on Saturday. As tempted as I'd be to blast "Seven Nation Army," I'd take a different tack, one of calm inspiration. Instead of trying to charge the young gladiators' bodies, I'd try and focus their minds. Pink Floyd recorded their excellent 1971 album Meddle when they could find spare moments in a frenetic concert schedule. You'd never know it from the placid, stirring sincerity of my favorite track from the album and your Song of the Week for September 27, 2013, "Fearless." The song, built on an unforgettable open G acoustic riff (atypically played by bassist Roger Waters in the studio), challenges then inspires before reaching a peaceful lyrical resolution. It winds into an unpredictable ending (hinted at early in the song) in the form of the Liverpool F.C. Kop choir singing the English football chant, "You'll Never Walk Alone." We will be playing American football on Saturday, but the message resonates on any continent.

"You say the hill's too steep to climb. Climb it!"

pink floyd - fearless by (Unknown Artist) on Grooveshark

Thursday, September 12, 2013

SOTW - September 12, 2013 - "Easy" (John McCauley)

Equal parts Kurt Cobain (self-destruction) and Neil Young (quirky folk-rock earthiness) with a dash of Axl Rose (ssweat-drenched kisses from the front row), Deer Tick frontman John McCauley is an enigmatic indie rock hurricane. His catalogue is wide and deep despite his youth, ranging from Bakersfield alt country (2007's War Elephant),  to power pop (2010 side project Middle Brother), to crass garage grunge (2012's not-so-well received Divine Providence). He's turned himself into Jim James for the unwashed, super late-night crowd (complete with a recent Q&A in none other than Esquire magazine). Can he get comfortable with stardom?

Like Young, McCauley is as comfortable (and good) solo acoustic as he is with the amps blowing apart. When you get through the showmanship and occasional boorishness, there's a delicate earnestness about him. He can weave dreams (my personal favorite, "Dirty Dishes" off of Elephant; don't get me started) and say grace ("Choir of Angels" off of 2010's Black Dirt Sessions). The only time I've seen him live, your Song of the Week for September 13, 2013, which lies on the other end of the McCauley spectrum, was the set highlight. A tense introspective rocker off of 2009's Born on Flag Day that evokes a man with a bad hangover, "Easy" is anything but. Your music collection could probably use a little more Deer Tick. 


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Album Review - T. Hardy Morris, Audition Tapes

T. Hardy Morris
Audition Tapes

Dangerbird Records

Reminiscence is a more common musical theme than coming of age. Everybody has a past. All to often in music, the artist doesn't have a future. Both themes are effectively spun on Audition Tapes, the debut solo effort from Athens, GA stalwart and Dead Confederate frontman T. Hardy Morris. 

While young at 33, Morris is a veteran of the music scene, having played live music in Confederate and its predecessors (Redbelly) dating back to his teenage years. His experience shows here in perspective and patience. Confederate fans will be surprised by the tempered ambiance of Morris outside of his normal context. The stainless industrialism of Confederate is nowhere to be found, and Morris decompresses wearing a (figurative) thrift store Cowboy hat. The result is stripped-down, pedal steel infused indie folk that evokes Unplugged-era Kirk Cobain blended with Harvest Moon Neil Young. The musical theme is subtle, with open-space instrumentation devoid of flash but supportive of the contemplative mood.  

Statements of nascent post-road adulthood (excellent opening track "Lucky") are patiently presented alongside cautionary tales of excess ("Hardstuff," with its stirring "leave yourself alone" refrain; album closer "Own Worst Enemy"). On another page, the listener gets a playful look backwards with the portrait-of-youth title track (Wes Anderson, take note). Mature advice is dispensed in the form of "Disaster Proof." (The comforts of marriage and home inevitably give a man perspective.) The material here is serious in theme, but none of it feels heavy. It's a neat trick. If this is Morris's audition tape, he makes the cast.    

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

SOTW - July 3, 2013 - " ... we can not hallow this ground."

We Americans celebrate our Liberty tomorrow. Its blessings are infinite, but the price is great. 150 years ago this evening, our Nation experienced the latter on an unimaginable scale. Lee sent his Grays up a 40 foot tall ridge just south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on a hot July afternoon. Meade's Blues held fast. The determination of a brave few to preserve a More Perfect Union prevailed. The lives of 51,000 American sons and husbands were lost or forever altered on those immortal fields. We are all better for it, for the Union persevered. The Battle of Gettysburg, and the war of which it was a part, are the most incomprehensible chapters of our history. But they must not be forgotten, lest the cost paid by those brave souls on 3 July 1863 be in vain. About the battle, Abraham Lincoln later uttered some of the greatest words any mortal ever has. They bear repeating on the eve of our Independence Day (and forevermore): 

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." 

If you know little of The Civil War, then Ken Burns's documentary of the same name is a wonderful place to start. Every American should watch it at least once. The theme music of Burns's masterwork is your Song of the Week for July 3, 1863. Happy Independence Day, fellow Americans! Let's never forget how lucky we are to live and breathe on this soil. 

Friday, June 28, 2013


Lakewood Amphitheater in Atlanta, Georgia is the Wrigley Field of music in the South. Outdated, painted-over, dilapidated, and unfortunately located, it's home field charm shines through its rust. Ask a Southern music lover where "the Lawn" is. You'll get a knowing smile and an immediate "Lakewood. [Insert some variant of 'I've had some killer times at that place!']." It's hard to explain how or why it has survived. It's difficult to get to; getting home is even worse. The neighborhood can be scary. The lots are unsavory barely-maintained urban asphalt and gravel-dirt with no facilities and indicia of squatting everywhere. Tailgating friends can be a 30 minute urban adventure away with poor coordination. And what's with that old stadium? But on just the right midsummer night, when the obligatory afternoon micro storm had passed and the heat started to seep out of the concrete as the sun set, a stirring Vibe took over.

For me, there's significant personal history there. It was the site of my very first concert (a Pantera/Sepultura/Prong triple bill in '94; the '80's era Poison and Bon Jovi shows at Albany Civic Center were a non-starter in the Johnson household) and some of the best I've ever seen (where to start: Phil Lesh Quintet 8/5/01, Phish 6/23/00, Radiohead 5/8/08). When Phish hit town back in the early '00's, typically around July 4, you could smell the electricity around the place. Tickets sold out the day they went on sale (waiting in line at the Publix in Buckhead on a Saturday morning was the only chance you had) and were impossible to come by. With every type of handmade good being offered by every type of person imaginable, for half a day, it was an island unto itself; the closest analog that children of the '70's and '80's will have to a prime era 'Dead experience. The memory of weaving through the glow stick wasteland peppering the standing, laying, spinning, spun-out, and jumping bodies on the Lawn is eternal. As bad as you wanted to find Your Spot and unload a couple of the beers you carried through the melee for your journey friends, the journey was strangely pleasurable. It was like stumbling through a cloud of bliss, a momentary oasis of unadulterated joy that would only dissipate when the sun rose again.

I'm heading back to Lakewood tomorrow for the first time in years. The Bob Dylan Americana Music Festival awaits. We will see whether the nostalgia masks the grand old venue's deficiencies to more discerning (i.e., aged) eyes. The place will be different to me now, but that's quite OK. The Ghosts of those magical nights in the '00's live on in my head.

[For your listening pleasure, Early Evening presents the aforementioned 8/5/01 show from the "The Q." What. A. Night. You can see the setlist here. The opening Jam > Help on the Way > Viola Lee and the near 20 minute "Sugaree" (track 6) are sure to get your weekend off to the right start.]

Thursday, June 20, 2013

SOTW - June 21, 2013 - "In a booth in the corner ..."

It's a love story as old as time. A smoke-filled dive bar, late at night. Packed and steamy hot. The din pulsates, warping the dimly-lit air. You can hear the juke box playing, the song indiscernible. Glasses and foreheads sweat. Things reach a crescendo. Romance abounds, floating, waiting to attach itself to two souls in (fleeting) communion. A man walks in. There's a lady in a booth in the corner. Eyes meet, then meet again. Seconds pass. Then again. No coincidence. People begin filtering out to find the Night's conclusion. Not these two. A pitcher of drinks. Then another...  

Daylight comes and birds chirp. No eye contact now. Only pleasureful shame. What the hell? They know the score. A love story as old as time, but a short one.

Loretta Lynn was 43 years years old when Jack White was born. Musically, several genres separate the Coal Miner's Daughter and The Pale Master. How and why they came to make music together, much less tell us a dazzling story of temporary lovers, I cannot explain. Such asymmetry in age, style, and experience can spell forced disaster; not here. Jack and Loretta are both too great for that. Plus, they really like each other. (Not how you are thinking.) This unlikeliest of musical unions - between a then 72 and a 28 year old- produced one of the great modern American albums, 2004's Van Lear Rose. If you grew up in the country, this crossover classic will carry you home, straight to Grandma's arms. It's sound evokes the wind rustling the old pecan trees out back on a hot July evening. Woven with themes of tradition ("This Old House", "High on a Mountaintop"), family ("Family Tree"), trial, and triumph (the title track), this was Americana before Americana was cool. It's essential material for any library and enrichment on a hot summer day.

The album's unforgettable track, and your Song of the Week for June 21, 2013, bucks the narrative arc of the album a bit and takes us back to our smoke-filled bar. The daydream haze of the intro segues into a gentle hook before blasting into the soaring highs of the main theme. Instead of the story of conquest and adventure that the music portrays, the listener is dropped into a little bar and a sloe gin fizz soaked story of one man, one woman, and an unforgettable night. "Portland, Oregon" is one big smile. "And a pitcher to go!"


Thursday, May 9, 2013

SOTW - May 10, 2013 - Wayside


  [no-stal-juh, -jee-uh, nuh-] 
a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life . . . a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.

Was it really so good "back then?" Does our memory place a sheen on the past that obscures the bad? Try or not, we humans constantly assimilate knowledge, understanding, and experience; how would those transpose onto a fondly-recalled past if we re-lived it? Were the Good Ol' Days really so blissful? I say "yes," but not for the reason you might think. It was no better then than it was now, only new. What is new and different is stimulating, and stimulation breeds joy. But, if we have our eyes open, if we are paying Attention, then we are always learning and seeing something new. It happens every day. The past may have been good, but it's the past. Nostalgia, which is longing for "back then" (or the feeling that the past is better than today), is counter-productive because it obscures the glory of the present.  

Not that Gillian Welch agrees with any of this, at least not based on her dusty-box-in-the-attic classic (and your Song of the Week for May 10, 2013), "Wayside (Back in Time). This crackling campfire bit of mood folk represents the purest form of nostalgia; not only fond recollection, but the desire to actually go backwards in time. (All to get back to a drunk lover and an apparently unproductive relationship). Wistful and longing in theme, the song embraces the listener from the first soothing ripple of B-3 in the intro. Productive or not, if Gil' is selling nostalgia, I'm buying. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Album Review - The Futurebirds, Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga
The Futurebirds
Fat Possum Records
Released April 16, 2013

Making one excellent album is a daunting task for any band; pulling it off back-to-back takes rare skill. With each successive record, the task becomes exponentially more difficult, but you've got to get to second base before you can reach third. The Athens-based Futurebirds are early in the game, but two LP's in, so far, so very good. 

Baba Yaga, the follow-up to 2010's Hampton's Lullaby, sees the 'Bird's shift their distinct brand of galactic alt country to a more mature and contemplative space. The grind of heavy time on the Road leaves a positive and weary mark. The move is more evolution than revolution, but it's a big step forward that was almost three years in the making. (The band had extended trouble finding the right label for their sophomore effort, eventually landing with the Oxford, Mississippi based Fat Possum label.) Growing up isn't an easy thing for a Rock Band, but the process starts here.  

The beer-shower singalong choruses of Hamptons ("Yer Not Dead," "Sam Jones") are nearly absent, being exchanged for more nuanced instrumental crescendos. The tableau of Baba's is wide and thickly layered with sound, never noise. The production value is improved versus Hampton's. Dennis Love's soaring pedal steel flourishes weave themselves throughout and serve as the unifying thread in the band's sound. The other colors are more subdued. The six-string guitar work is more rhythmic than melodic, with few (unneeded) big ticket Rock solos. There is little space in the mix, but it never feels crowded. The lyrical themes have matured, with the listener finding less conquest and more contest. If Hampton's was an afternoon on the beach, Baba is a campfire on the sand under the stars. 

All hands are on the songwriting deck, with guitarist Carter King carrying the bulk of the water. King's irresistible album high-point, "Tan Lines," builds on its rollicking pedal steel hook with a sex and sand lyrical theme that exudes longing and compromise. In the next breath, King has the listener pondering the un-ponderable while channeling Tennessee Fire era Jim James in the stare-and-sway "Death Awaits." When the tempo drops, a contemplative cosmic feel pervades, always propelled by Love's steel, e.g., the spiraling dreamscape of guitarist Daniel Womack's "Felix Helix" and low plains haze of multi-instrumentalist Thomas Johnson's "American Cowboy." Now-departed drummer (and Dead scholar) Payton Bradford evokes Gram Parsons while stumping the listener with a barrage of unanswered questions in the hoist-your-beer instant classic, "Keith and Donna." The subtle sound experimentation built into the album-closing "St. Summertime" (think Z era My Morning Jacket with a dash of Sky Blue Sky Wilco) gives a tantalizing hint at what could come next.  

The album could stand to shed a few songs, but the excess material is neither superflous nor offensive. It's a compelling piece of work by a band staying faithful to its name. Stay tuned.   

[Editor's Note: While you should absolutely buy a copy of the record and support these artists, you can preview Baba Yaga courtesy of Paste magazine here.]

Friday, April 12, 2013

SOTW - April 12, 2013 - Crowes in Spring

At some point, the rising flood of a river must give way to dry land. And so it was in the early 1990's that the The Black Crowes saved Rock and Roll.

By 1990, Hair Metal had subverted and perverted the Rock of the grand Stones tradition. The genre shifts ("Tommy") and historical fusion experiments (Let It Bleed) of the Golden Era had given way to an arms race to reach the most perfectly vapid party chorus ("Don't mean nothin', but a good time, how can I resist?!") draped with obnoxious wammy bar guitar antics ("Kickstart My Heart"). The only similarity between Hair Metal and the Golden Era was what went on backstage. The Motley Crues of the Hair world misread what their forbears told them; it wasn't all about the Party. Hair Metal garishly threatened to erase all of the musical gains made in the preceding 25 years. (Disclaimer 1: At the time, I loved Hair Metal. How could any teenager of the time not attach to it? It was pop and it was cool. Still, it was terrible music.)

Then, in 1991, the world shifted slightly on its axis. Nevermind. Ten. Grunge put Hair Metal quickly out of its misery. This was a flood that swept all in front of it musically. But, there was a problem. Like its uncle Punk, for all of its style and attitude, Grunge eschewed musicianship; its purveyors flaunted their lack of musical ability as an anti-Establishment bona fide. At least Hair Metal preserved the core element of the larger-than-life Rock Star. In the Grunge Era, to be a Star was a reason to kill oneself. It was the outright rejection of the time-honored link between Music and fame. Was anybody having fun? (Disclaimer 2: At the time, I loved Grunge. How could any teenager of the time not attach to it? It was pop and it was cool. Still, it was more an attitude and a style than a musical exposition.)

In this transitional malestrom, a lone candle burned. Ignoring the storm outside, two brothers from Marietta, Georgia looked backwards and drew inspiration from the Masters. Like the Beatles and Stones before them, Chris and Rich Robinson and their Black Crowes hitched their wagon to a few R&B standards, threw some of their own brand of Rock in the back, and rode straight out of Atlanta, GA to Glory. Who needed black plastic cod pieces? Corduroy bell bottoms were more comfortable. As their world embraced studded leather and then flannel, they showed up in velvet and round shades and took the place over. They were an enigma, but they had the chops to make it stick. The world soon took note.

1990's Shake Your Money Maker staked a definitive piece of Classic Rock turf in what was still a Hair world. It was like Keith Richards had called his hippie nephews, sent them a box of old Blues albums, and told them to go and reclaim the family turf from those who were desecrating it. We all know "Hard to Handle" and "She Talks to Angels," but the blistering piano boogie of "Jealous Again" (thanks, Chuck Leavell) and coming-of-age Soul shot of "Seeing Things" showed that the Crowes believed history's lessons. To hear the album now is to marvel at its concept relative to the norms of the day. Three million people agreed. It was the first CD I ever owned, and I still remember the cardboard longbox sitting under the family Christmas tree in 1990 right next to my first Sony Discman.

By September of 1992, Grunge ruled the world, with the exception of the Crowes, that is. Rejecting the self-absorption and depression of Grunge, they doubled down on their good times brand of Rock and lit a post-hippie fire that gave the burgeoning "jam" scene pop credibility. From some genius corner of their smoke-fogged minds, they reached far back into history and borrowed the greatest album title your writer ever heard from the title of an old hymnal: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. They then attached to said title a masterful collection of Southern Fried Country Honk Brit Rock that fit the 1992 Georgia Coastal Plain like a custom glove. (Grunge never quite sounded right whilst camping at Reeves' Landing next to the Flint River; The Southern Harmony left our 17 year-old minds no doubt as to where its loyalties laid.) Bare feet became more common in my peer group and "dude" re-entered the vernacular after Southern Harmony landed at the old Music Mart on 16th Avenue.

Money Maker producer George Drakoulious and engineer Brendan O'Brien assembled the album with an unpolished two-channel sound that evokes the days when blues masters could not afford multiple takes and everything was recorded live-in-studio. The soaring B-3 river flow of "Thorn in My Pride" and the impossibly punchy roadhouse Gospel of "Remedy" are the albums finest songs, but your Song of the Week for April 12, 2013 is a deep track slide scorcher that serves as a late album peak before the mellow departure of Bob Marley's "Time Will Tell." The jet-powered opening riff and verse chorus of "My Morning Song" give way to a spacey bridge that slowly soars right back into the chorus's grabbing directive: "Kiss me baby, on Easter Sunday day. Make my haze blow away!"

. . . And so the grand tradition of Rock was preserved and the torch passed on to a new generation (enter everyone from the Kings of Leon to the Drive By Truckers). It remained cool to be Southern and chill and deferential to those that came before, while still reserving the right to kick open the door and declare the place yours.  

My Morning Song by The Black Crowes on Grooveshark

Saturday, April 6, 2013

SOTW - April 6, 2013 (A Mad World)

[Editor's note:  Sometime today, Early Evening will celebrate page view number 5,000. For those four or five of you who actually care enough about what I write to look at it 1,000 times, thanks! Seriously, I deeply appreciate all of you who've taken the time to read this blog. It's been a blast!]  

When this glorious spring weekend nears its end, when the referees' whistles are silent and the Sunday sun has set, the nation will turn its eyes to the television and the greatest show there is (and ever has been, in your writer's opinion). Set in the metro grit of 1960's New York, AMC's Mad Men is brilliant for not only the way it looks, but even more for what it says. This tale of high-powered advertising executives and those that are affected by their world of ego and ambition forces the viewer to confront both yin and yang: faithfulness and betrayal; empathy and indifference; brutal honesty and naked pretense; tolerance and prejudice; tireless devotion and flip laziness; courage and cowardice; genius and plagiarism. These recurring themes of the human experience are all found here in dense and often disturbing 60-minute doses. Anyone who refuses to consider them must reach for the remote. The revolutionary style of the show is always there, but it's more garnishment than entree. It should go without saying that I love Mad Men and think it's the kind of intelligent entertainment the world needs more of.

Since our theme this weekend is brilliance set in 1960's New York, let's turn to a real world example of just that. The Velvet Underground were nothing if not brilliant. Drawing their energy from the same trash-littered sidewalks that Don Draper & Co. traverse in the show, the Velvets shifted from the dark to the light as their career progressed and pop success became more of a goal (they never found it). The VU's Warhol-led ascendancy tracked the same late 1960's period that we expect to see in this season of Mad Men, so we can consider this a period study of sorts. Your  Song of the Week for April 6, 2013 is a VU masterpiece and one of the under-appreciated anthems of American music. It is easy to visualize Jack the banker, Jane the clerk, and the song's narrator standing on the same corner with Draper as he tugs on a Lucky Strike and stares off into space searching for some unanswerable. May your cup be filled this weekend.


Friday, March 8, 2013

SOTW - March 8, 2013

Legend's Legend Neil Young blazed trails in the stars in the 1970's. Beginning with the 1969 Crazy Horse debut, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, and culminating with 1979's Rust Never Sleeps, Neil reeled off a nigh uninterrupted run of epic recordings that saw him wielding sledgehammers (Everybody Knows), delicate chisels (1972's dreamscape album-for-the-ages, Harvest) and searing hot branding irons (1975's recorded-in-a-day pain-riddled Rock cautionary note, Tonight's the Night). These albums represent a raw, unfiltered rejection of virtuosity in favor of earnestness. Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time is littered with material from Neil's hot streak.

Your Song of the Week for March 8, 2013, "Powderfinger," is classic 1970's Neil; vivid imagery welded to an Everyman 1/4 rhythm structure (with minor key flourish) and overlaid with lead work that is gripping in its simplicity. One quality of Neil's music is that it moves the listener to believe he can be both poet and guitarist; here's a prime example. Neil only gave us "Powderfinger" live, supplementing its access-ability. In 5 and 1/2 minutes, your SOTW will put you deeply inside the head of an unfortunate, confused, yet inherently brave 22 year-old left behind to defend a town on an unnamed river Somewhere against a menacing, unknown foe for reasons that only Neil knows. You can feel the conflicting thoughts of youth and manhood running through the narrator's head as the main riff drives us repeatedly towards a tragic conclusion told by one of my favorite verses in any song:

Shelter me, from the powder and the finger.
Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger.
Think of me, as one you'd never figure,
Would fade away so young,
With so much left undone,
Remember me to my love, 
I know I'll miss her.  

Saturday, February 2, 2013

One Spring Friday in Huntsville (In Unison)

Widespread Panic is the most honest band I've ever heard. They have no pretense, no fabrication, no costume, no cause. You won't find a less rock and roll Rock and Roll band. You also won't find a band that has delivered more quality live performance more consistently over a longer period of time. (Yes, the Dead were the Greatest of the Great at their peak, but compare a '72 Europe show to an '89 stadium gig and tell me if you hear a difference. Then, go to and listen to one of last weeks shows at Punta Cana, and let me know if you hear an aging band fading towards a sad end. I don't.) Panic's musical creed is captured in a single line from "Driving Song": "An honest tune with a lingering lead has taken me this far." Perhaps that's why they've been making music together for 27 years this week. For Georgians and those with any connection to Athens in particular, they are the home team, the local boys who held onto a Dream and rode it to fruition while never forgetting from whence they came. They've always been just popular enough to sustain success without shouldering the burden of pop notoriety.

I've seen Widespread live on maybe 40 occasions, everywhere from a minor league baseball stadium in Charleston to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. To call these times great doesn't begin to do them justice. They were formative experiences of my young life, and then some. (More on that later, particularly a little amphitheater nestled on a hillside in central Alabama.) Cooking pancakes for the family this morning and re-studying the band's 1991 eponymous LP (a/k/a "Mom's Kitchen" or "the green CD"), I was reminded of one of my favorite lines in the vast Panic lexicon. If you love a band, then you have your favorite lyrics. People who love the same band tend to share fondness for the same lyrics. Such is the case with Widespread Panic fans, as exemplified on a balmy Friday ten years past.

April 27, 2001 found the group of marvelous souls affectionately referred to as "Team Panic" (your writer included) at the unlikely destination of the Von Braun Civic Center in Huntsville, Alabama.     There is precisely one thing that could take that group to that spot on that day: a Widepsread Panic show. It was to be a weekend run, with the Huntsville show on a Friday and a Saturday performance to follow just up the road in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (another story altogether, for another day). Those members of Team Panic that were available for duty set sail from Atlanta shortly after lunch on what was a warm spring Friday and drove towards north central Alabama in no particular hurry - windows down, sunglasses on, bootlegs blaring, inter-vehicle rolling groove offs - a max chill Road Trip of unforgettable variety. "And the road goes on forever."

I don't know whether it is coincidence, but with the exception of the traditional Philips Arena NYE run, Widespread always seems to choose venues near grass fields. Grass fields are convenient and pleasant places to throw frisbees, drink beer, and generally tailgate in the setting afternoon soon. This was the case that Friday in Huntsville. It was like first day of summer camp, but for young adults. As a fully- engaged parent and professional, it's hard to internally recreate the liberated feeling of standing around in flip flops, shorts, and T-shirts, slightly sunburned with a small backpack of stuff for an entire weekend; no worries or agenda in the world but making sure we started traversing the distance between our field and the venue so as not to miss the opener. The only stress the situation presented was figuring out which song I would pick for the traditional Round of Beer Pick the Opener Derby. (That contest required rigorous pre-departure study of the previous 3 nights setlists; Panic never plays the same song more than once every three shows there was no mobile web then for pre-kickoff study. I almost always went for "Surprise Valley" if it was out there and won only once that I recall under "blind squirrel gets a nut" circumstances.)

April 27, 2001 was one of those nights when one doesn't walk around so much as he Floats. Time and space become more fluid and the Moment is paramount; the Plan is whatever will lead to increased happiness during the next 30 minutes and the time beyond that is irrelevant. Action takes priority over consequence. Anyone who does not share the common goal or expresses an individual agenda is quickly discarded as a "buzzkill." It's a very circumstantial feeling that can only be experienced during that interval of life before one bears the Weight of Great Responsibility. Nights like that Change you just a little; for the better, I think.

I well remember standing deep in the dark belly of the Von Braun arena on the floor not 100 feet from our heroes as anticipation gave way to motion (in the form of "noodling") during the First Set. Any show that started with "Disco" (my personal favorite version here) and contained a first-set cover of Robert Johnson's legendary "Stop Breaking Down Blues" was all right with me. Then, came the highlight of a highlight night, a single line belted in unison by 10,000 souls illuminated by cigarette lighters who, for three hours out of the history of the World, were the greatest of friends. As a lyricist, John Bell never sought philosophical precision. Once again, there is no central message. Panic's lyrics allow the listener to transpose his thoughts, feelings, and experiences into the song on his own terms. Such is the case with this sacred chestnut:
First I thought of this,
Then I turned to that,
And then I turned a little bit scared.
Well, I feel a little bit easier,
Knowing that you're all here.      
Thought of what? Turned to what? Why? What was frightening? Who is the "you?" Is it the person standing right next to you? The person you knew you'd see later? The person you hoped you'd see again someday? Or, was it all the persons surrounding you who'd chosen to share your Joy at this Time and Place? It's all whatever you want it to be. The answers mattered not on 4/27/01 in Huntsville, Alabama. Whatever meaning the people standing in that building gave those lines, the result was a unified, elated, clattering cheer. It was shared happiness par excellence. Hearing it all during that moment, I could only smile, look upwards, and shake my head ...

Ain't Life Grand?

[Author's note: For those of you where were there or care, to hear the 4/27/01 version of "I'm Not Alone," click here and enjoy what was an excellent show through track 7.]

Saturday, January 26, 2013

SOTW - January 26, 2013 - Jack and Dolly

I don't know anything about Dolly Parton ... besides the obvious. I've never been to Dollywood and her brand of post-outlaw, heavy make-up Country has never been of particular interest. I don't mean to knock Dolly, I just don't know a thing about her. Her style of music and my tastes overlap in one microscopic point. Leave it to Jack White to find it.

We haven't talked much about Jack White here. For the uninitiated, Jack White is a 100% genuine complete total through-and-through authentic mucho bad ass; a modern musical Legend (capital "L"). There is no genre that Jack White cannot conquer. No bit of musical history, no matter how minute, is lost on him. If music had a Riddle of the Sphinx, Jack White would be the man we'd call to solve it. He's one of the few Big Ticket Rockers whose musical IQ and ego are of like size. Most of us know him from the White Stripes; it's hard to watch a sporting event these days without hearing the crowd chant the Epic Riff For the Ages from "Seven Nation Army." But the creator of that atomic bomb also recorded a modern masterpiece with .... Loretta Lynn?!?! (If you do not have Van Lear Rose, there's a hole in your library.) More later on Jack White later. In the meantime, check out the 2008 Page/Edge/White documentary, It Might Get Loud, for more background.

I have a pages-long list of questions that I'd ask Jack White if given the chance, but near the top is the following: "Man, how in the world did you end up covering a Dolly Parton song?" I'd like to think he was stretched out on an ratty old tweed sofa one night in a one-bedroom studio apartment in Detroit combing through a dusty box of discarded vinyl he'd picked up at a nearby thrift store that day for $5. Meg would have been sitting on wooden stool nearby staring blankly at the wall above the muted television and beating the coffee table with her sticks. Upon pulling out a well-worn copy of Dolly's 1974 LP Jolene and considering the Great Lady of Country's visage, how could he not have given the title track (and your Song of the Week for January 26, 2013) a try? So moved, how could a man of such dark proclivities not have been enthralled by a haunting tale of a homely woman repeatedly begging a more-attractive seductress: "please don't take my man." And a whole new universe of people who'd never even heard of Dolly Parton now sing in unison ...


Friday, January 18, 2013

SOTW - January 18, 2012 - Shovels & Rope


  [doo-uh-liz-uh m] 
the state of being dual or consisting of two parts; division into two.

Yin and yang. The two sides of the coin. One contrasts the other. June and Johnny. Joan and Bob. Ike and Tina. Graham and Emmylou. Dave and Gil'. Jack and Meg. The primal tension between man and woman plays most vividly in music. It's that which we cannot see transposed onto that which we can. Where watching Keith and Mick share a mic' makes us squeamish, Bruce and Patty set things on fire with their faces two inches apart.

Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, a/k/a Shovels & Rope, are a charming example. Drawing off the recent wave of Americana Country Folk, they have the immediate synergy of Rawlings/Welch, but with a half-dose of seriousness. What they lack in instrumental prowess, they make up for with buoyant delivery. Hearing them, you get the warm feeling that there is nothing they'd rather be doing. If you find yourself wanting tickets for the spring Old Crow/Avett tour, buy some Shovels & Rope for the drive. Folkies should start with their 2009 eponymous debut, while Nashville Rockers will gravitate towards 2012's O' Be Joyful. 

Your Song of the Week for January 18, 2012 is unadulterated sunny day driving music (preferably in the country). An irresistible adventure tale of lovers in crime, "Boxcar" is once-a-day tonic for dour moods. If they can keep making songs like this, "Cary Ann and Michael" might one day be written in stars.  

Boxcar by Shovels and Rope on Grooveshark

Thursday, January 10, 2013

SOTW - January 10, 2012 - Left Turns

Bob Dylan was prone to Left Turns. Unless he was on a motorcycle, they all led to Glory. Nothing I could ever say or think could ever change what's been said and thought about Bob Dylan. I may try nonetheless, but later. Tonight, let's focus on one song, starting with a bit of context.

Beginning with his arrival in Greenwich Village in January 1961, Dylan became a closely-shorn folk tornado bringing peace on earth and goodwill to men in 3 minute intervals. (See The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan). When we think of this Dylan, we think in black-and-white. We see him at protests surrounded by rapt followers with an acoustic in his hand and a harmonica around his neck. "The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind."

Then, in 1965, he decided the World needed changing again, so he did. [Cue Left Turn 1.] The 1965 release of Bringing it all Back Home brought us Electric Dylan. (The live debut of this incarnation was his over-analyzed summer 1965 appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, which came a few months after Brining It was released). This is the first Dylan we think of in color; the too-far-too-fast young man hiding behind black Wayfarers seen unravelling in D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. This is the Dylan of "that thin wild mercury sound" on eternal display in Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966). "Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine, I'm on the pavement thinking 'bout the government..."

As Electric Bob wore thin, his thoughts turned to the country. (Who could blame him?) That's where he wrecked the Motorcycle (in July 1966) and that's where he stayed to recuperate, in then-unknown Woodstock, NY. After three masterpieces in 18 months in '65-'66, it would be that long before he recorded again. [Cue Left Turn 2.]

That brings us to 1967, and the release of the sparse and contemplative John Wesley Harding. Against a canvas of recuperation and decompression, he painted a gritty landscape of the robber heroes (title track), jokers and thieves ("All Along the Watchtower"), and supernatural redemption ("Drifter's Escape") set on the American frontier. The theme of open space carried over to the recording, with distance placed between the simple acoustic guitar, harmonica, bass, and drums. The somber adventure of John Wesley ends the only way it could, with an intra-album Left Turn and your Early Evening Song of the Week for January 9, 2012. Stepping down from his storytelling soap box, Dylan bids us goodbye with a simple lover's plea in the form of a pedal steel lullaby. Anyone who's longed can relate.    
Close your eyes, close the door.
You don't have to worry, anymore.
I'll be your, baby tonight.  
May such harmony and good fortune find you this weekend, and always.