Saturday, September 9, 2017

Gregg Allman - Southern Blood

In my feeble mind, he had nothing to prove.  Being a part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame meant a lot to him.  His place in music history, and his legacy as part of the Allman Brothers Band is secure.  I have the feeling that as Gregg Allman, solo artist, he must have thought he still had something to prove, if not to himself, then to his fans every night on the concert stage.  He need not have worried on that score.  His fans were with him regardless of whether he was in a big band started by his big brother Duane or in his own band.

When Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks announced that 2014 would be their last year as part of the Allman Brothers Band, the proverbial writing was on the wall.  Butch Trucks didn't want to read that writing, and he wasn't shy about saying as much.  If Jaimoe had any opinions about the Allman Brothers Band finally calling it a day, I never heard him express any feelings publicly one way or the other.  But it was Brother Gregg who made it official.  Publicly, he expressed the need to concentrate on his own career.  What we in the listening public didn't know at that time was that Gregg Allman was slowly dying.

The liver cancer that he had prior to his liver transplant in 2010 had returned in 2012, and this time it spread to one of his lungs.  Rather than go through further cancer treatment (as a spouse of a cancer survivor, I know that chemo and radiation therapy are tough), he accepted his time on Earth was short.  He wanted to be at the top of his game until he could no longer perform.  His feeling was that cancer treatment would affect his voice, a situation he thought unacceptable.  It was with that same determination to give all to his fans that he decided to make one final album, a gift for his fans and a chance to say goodbye and thank you to us in his own way.  That album, Southern Blood, dropped today, three and a half months after he breathed his last in late May.

Until now Gregg Allman's last musical statement was 2011’s Low Country Blues.  That record, made with T-Bone Burnett, contained covers of old blues songs and one original song he wrote with Warren Haynes (Just Another Rider).  I think Low Country Blues is a fine album.  But it bugged Gregg that he didn't record it with his own band.  That would change with Southern Blood.  When he decided to make this album, it was going to be with his own road band instead of studio musicians, and he was going to do it at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  This is the same studio where his brother Duane made his first musical mark when he recorded Hey Jude with Wilson Pickett in 1968.  Duane and Gregg’s band Hourglass recorded their BB King Medley here [it’s on the Duane Allman Anthology].  Gregg's own musical circle would indeed remain unbroken.

Like Low Country Blues before it, Southern Blood is filled with covers and one final original song.  Gregg wanted to tell the story of where he's been, and where he was going.  The songs he chose to tell that story sound like they were written especially for him, but of course they weren't - they just fit that well.  Gregg's song choices were impeccable, and as there are several surprises as to the songs themselves and who wrote them, he demonstrated he still had a few musical tricks up his sleeve.  While the content on Southern Blood is mostly covers like Low Country Blues, the production sounds like 1997’s Searching for Simplicity, while the feel is like Laid Back, Gregg’s first solo album.  Like that first album, there are female choir voices, a steel guitar here and there, and the recording itself has a very warm feeling to it.  According to producer Don Was, the songs were recorded mostly live.  Gregg had been playing with this group of musicians for years, and they were tight.  This album demonstrates how tight they were.

The songs:
My Only True Friend – The only Gregg Allman original on the album, this would be the last of his own songs that he would record.  Written with guitarist Scott Sharrard, this is Gregg Allman’s ode to life on the road.  Sharrard said he was staying at Allman’s home and working on songs a few years ago when he “had a vivid dream where Gregg was talking to Duane.” He remembered the words and started working on a song he envisioned “as a conversation across the universe between Duane and Gregg.”  This song speaks to Gregg’s journey, that he was nearing the end of his life, and that he wanted people to remember him long after he's gone.  A humble and sensitive man, Gregg Allman underestimated his own importance to the fans who loved him.  He need not have worried that he would be forgotten.

Once I Was – One of Gregg Allman’s favorite songwriters was Tim Buckley.  He used to play this song for an audience of one – Scott Sharrard.  When it came time to make the record, Sharrard convinced Don Was of the need to put this one down.  Always thought of as a rhythm & blues purist, one forgets that Gregg had a folkie side, the product of his association with Jackson Browne.  This song is the first surprise of several on Southern Blood.

Going Going Gone – A Bob Dylan original that first appeared on the Planet Waves album he did with The Band in 1974, the original context of the title involved Dylan’s impending split with his first wife Sara.  The circumstances of Gregg’s recording of this song make these dark lyrics even more dark:

I've just reached a place
Where the willow don't bend
There's not much more to be said
It's the top of the end
I'm going
I'm going
I'm gone

I'm closin' the book
On the pages and the text
And I don't really care
What happens next
I'm just going
I'm going
I'm gone

I been hangin' on threads
I been playin' it straight
Now, I've just got to cut loose
Before it gets late
So I'm going
I'm going
I'm gone

Black Muddy River – From Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, this slow ballad first appeared on the Grateful Dead’s In The Dark album [1987].  Gregg was never a Deadhead [that was Dickey Betts’ thing], so this song is a bit of surprise.  In Gregg’s hands, this turns into a full-blown country song, complete with steel guitars and [for the first time] mandolins.

I Love The Life I Live – I forget with whom he did the interview [it might have been The Big Interview with Dan Rather], Gregg said that he and his brother Duane always listened to the blues greats on Nashville’s WLAC, that they especially liked Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, and that they owned everything Howlin’ Wolf ever cut.  It’s no surprise that Gregg would include something from Muddy Waters on Southern Blood.  Gregg did Muddy’s I Can’t Be Satisfied on Low Country Blues.  Here’s another Muddy Waters song which I like much more than the original.  Gregg’s “unreconstructed Southern masculinity” oozes from every note he sings.  You can almost see the swagger in his walk when you hear this.

Willin – Brother Gregg finally does something from Little Feat.  It first appeared on 1972’s Sailin’ Shoes, this is an ode to living the life of a trucker, with bad weed and cheap wine.

Blind Bats And Swamp Rats – This funky [yes. you read that correctly] song is as fun as it is unexpected.  The song title was familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I heard it before.  Then it came to me – Johnny Jenkins, Ton-Ton Macoute! – the Duane Allman solo album that got away.  After Dickey Betts left the Allman Brothers Band, the Brothers had started to play Dr. John’s I Walk on Gilded Splinters from the same album [Duane played on it].   Gilded Splinters worked extremely well for the Brothers, and Brother Gregg does an equally fine job with Blind Bats and Swamp Rats.  This is my favorite from Southern Blood.

Out Of Left Field – This is a Percy Sledge song written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.  Gregg liked Percy Sledge.  He once recorded a demo of When a Man Loves a Woman [which can be found on One More Try: An Anthology].  Given these lyrics, this song tells me he’s singing about his wife Shannon.  After his previous marriage ended he publicly mused that he probably wouldn’t marry again.  But as the song says, “fate stumbled in…”

When least expected
Fate stumbles in
Bringing light to the darkness
Oh, what a friend
I needed someone to call my own
Suddenly, out left field
Out left field, out left field
Love came along, ooh

Love Like Kerosene – I first heard this one on Gregg Allman Live: Back To Macon, GA.  Scott Sharrard wrote this one.  Gregg and the band give a very spirited performance.

Song For Adam – Gregg Allman’s history with Jackson Browne is well-documented, so I won’t rehash it here.  Browne wrote this song in memory of a friend who died from an apparent suicide.  But it reminded Gregg of someone else who died young – his brother Duane.  Gregg made a demo of this song in 1974.  That demo can also be found on One More Try: An Anthology.  He never put the song on an album until now.  According to producer Don Was, “once Duane passed away, I think it really reminded him of his brother. He’d always wanted to record it.”  If you didn’t know the story behind the song, one could easily think it was about Duane. 

Well, I still remember laughing
With our backs against the wall
So free of fear, we never thought
That one of us might fall

Given everything I’ve read about the early days of the Allman Brothers Band, this describes Duane and Gregg to a T.  Those were the good times, then came the bad.  The original lyric went like this:

Though Adam was a friend of mine, I did not know him long
And when I stood myself beside him, I never thought I was as strong
Still it seems he stopped his singing in the middle of his song
Well I'm not the one to say I know, but I'm hoping he was wrong

Gregg changed the words very subtly, but when he did the meaning changed and you know that he’s singing about Duane:

And when I stood myself behind, I never felt so strong…

Here’s the gut punch – when he sang this line, he couldn’t do the line after it.  It was too emotional for him, and he choked up. If you’re listening on headphones, you can hear his voice crack:

Still it seems he stopped his singing in the middle of his song…

Duane Allman never finished his metaphorical song.  Don Was is a pretty good producer, and when he heard Gregg stop suddenly in mid-song, he must have known he was onto something cosmic and left it that way.  Gregg heard this mix of the song the night before he went to sleep for the final time.  He liked what he heard and told Don Was to leave it the way he heard it.

David Bowie did it with Blackstar, and Warren Zevon did it with The Wind.  Leonard Cohen did it with So You Want It Darker.  As each man found out he was dying, each decided to make a final statement to say “goodbye” on their own terms.  They pulled it off rather well.  I believe Gregg did what he set out to do in making Southern Blood.  This album is simply stunning.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Walter Becker - RIP

Walter Becker died on Sunday.  He was 67.  If you don’t know who he is, stop reading now.

Becker’s partner in Steely Dan [Donald Fagen] wrote this about him today:  Walter had a very rough childhood - I’ll spare you the details. Luckily, he was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny. Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art. We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues…

Walter Becker started out as a guitar player, but when Steely Dan formed, he switched to bass.  When you have two guitarists with the caliber of Denny Dias and Skunk Baxter, your guitar services become somewhat redundant, hence the switch to bass.  Steely Dan stopped touring after Pretzel Logic and became a studio concern.  The composition of Steely Dan varied from album to album.  It even varied from song to song.  If Becker needed to play guitar, he’d play it.  If he needed to play bass, he’d play it, though that became a lesser need once Becker and Fagen met Chuck Rainey.  What was Walter Becker’s role in Steely Dan?  Did he write the music, or did he write the words?  In an interview I read from nine years ago, Walter Becker was asked about the division of labor between himself and Donald Fagen:

Can you give a nutshell breakdown of the division of labor in Steely Dan? It’s hard for an outsider to know who’s responsible for what.
Yeah, I think that with most partnerships that run for a certain amount of time—and ours has run for a pretty long time—the division of labor is very ad hoc. So whatever needs to be done, sometimes I’ve got something to start with, sometimes Donald’s got something to start with. Sometimes we really work very closely, collaboratively on every little silly millimeter on the writing of the song and certainly of the records, and sometimes less so. And so over the course of the partnership, I think we’ve done all sorts of different things different ways, and probably that still is changing in a way, because if I can speculate on Donald’s behalf, I think there is a level of perfection, polish, sophistication, and abundance of detail and structural stuff that he wants to hear in his music that I sort of ran out of patience to do. My attention span is not that good anymore, and I sort of believe—and maybe the lyrics somewhere say this—that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Steely Dan’s music was different.  While many a group from the 1970s went for high volume and was for the most part in 4/4 time, Steely Dan took the jazz route.  In 1993, Walter Becker said “we thought superimposing jazz harmonies on pop songs was subversive.”  Fagen and Becker are somewhat like Tom Waits in the themes they write about.  They look at humanity’s dark side, and sang anything but love songs.  Kid Charlemagne was based on LSD chemist Owsley Stanley, Cousin Dupree is somewhat incestuous [the dude loves his cousin], Rikki Don’t Lose the Number and Everything You Did are about infidelity, Everyone’s Gone to the Movies is an ode to pornography, Hey Nineteen addresses cradle-robbing, and so on.  It’s sex, drugs and jazz for these guys.

Why would a band name themselves after a dildo from a William Burroughs novel?  I’m not a big Steely Dan fan – I won’t pretend that I was/am.  .  She Who Must Be Obeyed especially doesn’t like them.  I can take Donald Fagen’s vocals in small doses only.  But [and there is always a ‘but’], I like Aja, a lot [The Royal Scam is a close second].  A friend from the old Ohio neighborhood, whose parents didn’t think much of public school education [and these days with mandatory testing, teaching to the test and federal funding that is dependent on test scores, can you blame them?], went to prep school in Connecticut.  When he returned for summer break, he introduced me to Steely Dan.  More specifically, he introduced me to Aja.  It’s one of those albums [like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon] that you can ‘test drive’ a stereo you might want to buy.  It sounded so good you could play it on a shitty portable eight-track player [how’s THAT for dating one’s self?] and it would sound ok.  That came in very handy, for when I moved to Colorado in July 1978, all I had to listen to was a few eight-track tapes [one of which was Aja] and that shitty portable eight-track player. 

Until we finally moved into our little house on the prairie in March 1979, that’s all I had.  I still like Aja a lot.  After Aja came the song for a film called FM.  The song – FM [No Static At All] – that I thought was very cool [I still do].  Walter Becker didn’t play much lead guitar because he chose not to.  He and Donald Fagen were perfectionists, almost to a fault.  They hired the best players of any instrument in the business, and such was Becker and Fagen’s reputation for being stern taskmasters that these seasoned studio pros craved their approval.  They didn’t always get it.  Walter Becker was the EF Hutton of guitar players.  When he played, people listened. He played lead guitar on FM – I noticed.  It wasn’t until years later that I found out that FM was an outtake from Aja.  No wonder I liked it…  I eagerly awaited their follow-up, and it came in 1980 with Gaucho.  I heard Hey Nineteen on the radio, and I absolutely hated it [and still do to this day].  Gaucho was for Steely Dan what The Long Run was for The Eagles – it was boring, it took too long to make, and it was the album that killed the group [Third World Man is ok].  And like The Long Run, Gaucho killed my interest in Steely Dan.  It also killed Donald Fagen’s and Walter Becker’s interest in each other, so it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who felt that way about that album.

Awhile back a Facebook friend of mine asked me what I thought about Steely Dan.  My answer was dismissive – “I liked them when I was a kid, then I grew up.”  But I’ve been doing a re-assessment over the last year.  Over time I grew to realize these guys were as crabby as I am.  And in this age where all music sounds the same, and everything is Unicorns and rainbows [cue the “millennial whoops” now], “different” from two old crabby, grouchy guys who write their own stuff, and who play real instruments with real musicians is just fine with me.

There isn’t much to add here.  In announcing his death, Walter Becker’s website simply read the following:

w a l t e r   b e c k e r              f e b .   2 0   1 9 5 0   —  s e p t .   0 3   2 0 1 7. 

I’ll keep it equally as simple – RIP Walter Becker.

Songs for the iPod:
Do It Again [Can't Buy a Thrill, 1972]
Showbiz Kids [Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973]
Rikki Don't Lose That Number [Pretzel Logic, 1974]
Pretzel Logic [Pretzel Logic, 1974]
With a Gun [Pretzel Logic, 1974]
Charlie Freak [Pretzel Logic, 1974]
Black Friday [Katy Lied, 1975]
Doctor Wu [Katy Lied, 1975]
Kid Charlemagne [The Royal Scam, 1976]
The Caves of Altamira [The Royal Scam, 1976]
Don't Take Me Alive [The Royal Scam, 1976]
Sign in Stranger [The Royal Scam, 1976]
Haitian Divorce [The Royal Scam, 1976]
The Royal Scam [The Royal Scam, 1976]
Deacon Blues [Aja, 1977]
Aja [Aja, 1977]
Peg [Aja, 1977]
Josie [Aja, 1977]
Black Cow [Aja, 1977]
Home at Last [Aja, 1977]
FM [No Static At All] [FM original soundtrack, 1978]
Down in the Bottom [Walter Becker - 11 Tracks of Whack, 1994]
Junkie Girl [Walter Becker - 11 Tracks of Whack, 1994]
Cousin Dupree [Two Against Nature, 2000]
Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore [Walter Becker - Circus Money, 2008]
Circus Money [Walter Becker - Circus Money, 2008]
Lucky Henry [Walter Becker - 11 Tracks of Whack, 1994]
Janie Runaway [Two Against Nature, 2000]
Third World Man [Gaucho, 1980]

Friday, August 25, 2017

Hitman's Bodyguard - a short review

After another TDY and yet another mind-numbing test flight of Global Hawk with a new sensor [and the buffoonery that went with it], some much-needed comic relief was in order.  We saw Atomic Blonde last week [I highly recommend it - she fights better than James Bond], so we had to see something else.  Tom already saw Wonder Woman [his two-word review – “it rocks!”], and I’m still trying to talk She Who Must Be Obeyed into going to see Dark Tower.  Most of what was available for our viewing pleasure is horse squeeze [The Big Sick?  It’s a chick flick.  Annabelle: Creation?  It’s a sequel.  The Emoji Movie?  Please…Dunkirk?  Seen it.].  But one thing caught my eye – Hitman’s Bodyguard.  It has Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds.  What could go wrong?  The answer is…nothing!

Since Pulp Fiction, you pretty much know what you’re going to get with Samuel L. Jackson, except when he’s asking “what’s in YOUR wallet?” Ever since then, it has become a drinking game for some – how many times does he say “motherfucker” in a movie.  He’s made it his own artform – obscenity is his true medium.  There’s a video collage of him on YouTube called Every Samuel L. Jackson "Motherf*cker"...Ever [here’s the link -].  I just got back to the hotel after watching Hitman’s Bodyguard - the clip needs to be updated.  Ryan Reynolds hadn’t really achieved true stardom until Deadpool.  In Hitman’s Bodyguard he’s the same character as Deadpool, except without the costume.

Rather than give the story away, here’s my Joe Bob Briggs review of the movie:

45 dead bodies [that’s where I lost count];
8 explosions [or was it nine?];
22 “motherfuckers” [17 from SLJ, 3 from Salma Hayek, 5 from Ryan Reynolds];
Zero naked breasts;
Two gallons of blood:
Nail-gun Fu;
Chain Fu;
Pen-through-the-hand Fu;
One ass-kicking female Interpol agent [Elodie Yung];
Three lessons on romance from Samuel L. Jackson;
One scene of Salma Hayek’s ass in a tight pair of jeans;
Gary Oldman as a homicidal Belarusian president on trial for crimes against humanity;
A twenty-minute chase scene in Amsterdam including cars, trucks, motorcycles, and boats;

I loved the movie.  Everything you expect from Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds, and more.  This movie is laugh-out-loud, blow Pepsi through your nose funny. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Dunkirk - a review

A couple of years ago on a TDY to some faraway land [I think it was Hawaii], a friend and I watched a movie about Dunkirk that was made in 1958.  As with the movie that I saw last night, the movie was simply titled Dunkirk.  It was a very good, very effective portrayal of the chaos, desperation, and uncharacteristic [for the British] improvisation that was Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force [BEF] from Northern Europe in 1940.  The story’s focus is split in two – the first is one the homefront.  The British government kept the British public in the dark on the progress [or lack thereof] of the British war effort.  There was also a sense of complacency in Britain about the war, because they had been at war for eight months [the so-called “Phoney War’] where nothing really happened in Europe.  When the government starts to “requisition” private watercraft for an operation the on which the government won’t comment, that feeling of complacency starts to change.   During this part of the film. you get the figurative “big picture” about how and why things are going to Hell in a hurry. 

The second focus is on a squad of British troops lead by Cpl. Tubby Binns as they try everything they know to outwit and evade the Germans as they make their way through enemy-held territory to rejoin the BEF in northern France.  You had the sense the Germans were breathing down their necks at every opportunity.  This culminated in a very ballsy move by Binns and his troops to move right through a German camp, using the noise from a German air raid to cover their movements to avoid detection by the Germans they were trying to evade.  By the movie’s end, Binns and his troops make it back to Britain, and the split on the homefront between those who know there’s a real a war and those who think the war is a fake has disappeared.

About eighteen months ago I heard there was going to be a new movie about Dunkirk, and that it was going to be filmed in IMAX format.  Given the nature of the 1958 movie, one that I thought would be hard to top, and the technology available to tell the story again, I had very high expectations.  I had similar expectations for Pearl Harbor sixteen years ago.  Those expectations were dashed when that movie turned out to be a chick flick, and when Alec Baldwin was cast to play Jimmy Doolittle. Luckily, the new movie Dunkirk is no chick flick.

The story of the movie has a promising beginning.  British Tommies are fighting their way through the streets of Dunkirk when they are bombarded with German propaganda leaflets.  The leaflets are very simple and very effective.  They depict the disposition of German forces against the British – a sea of red in northern France, Belgium and Holland [the Germans] and a small pocket of white on the English Channel coast around the small town of Dunkirk [the British, labeled “you”].  We see the Tommies evading German sniper fire to just barely make it to the safety of the French lines, and then make it to the beach, where we see British troops patiently queueing up to wait their turn to get off the beach.   But what is missing is context, the “how did we get in this mess” part.  There is no sense that the German Wermacht is handing the Allies their collective ass in a rout.  The only sense of menace one gets is from the Luftwaffe.  The “oh shit” factor comes from the Stukas.  The movie easily captures the essence of that terror weapon from that time.  Sitting in the theater, you feel like those screaming Stukas are coming for you.

Scale.  The thing that was missing from this movie was “scale”.  Kenneth Branaugh’s character rightly stated there were almost 400,000 men stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.  But when you look at the shots of the beach, there’s lots of open sand.  Two weeks ago, I saw more people at Pensacola Beach to watch the Blue Angels perform than what I saw in the movie last night.  In the 1958 movie, the soldiers are packed into and around Dunkirk like proverbial sardines.  To provide a more recent example, Atonement captured more feel of how cramped, chaotic, grim and desperate Dunkirk was in a single, five-minute take than the new Dunkirk movie did in almost two hours. 

Dunkirk Scene from Atonement

This movie was filmed in IMAX.  The pictures are bigger, the resolution of the pictures is crisper, and the sound is better.  You can literally hear the bullets whizzing around you as the Tommies are trying to avoid being killed by the unseen Germans.  You get the sense the British are in trouble, but not that they are desperate.  The aerial sequences are outstanding.  You’re in the cockpits with the RAF as they try to keep the Luftwaffe away from the beaches.  When the bullets from the German aircraft hit the Spitfires, you can almost feel it.  There were only a handful of British aircraft portrayed in the movie, giving one the sense of a very few against the entire Luftwaffe.  Perhaps that was the intent, because from the vantage point of the ground pounders, “where was the Air Force?”  That question was asked in this movie, and it was asked in the 1958 movie.  Most of the air-to-air fighting was done away from the beaches. 

To imagine the scale of Operation Dynamo, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were trapped in a very small pocket of land about the size of Hong Kong waiting to either be rescued by the British or captured by the Germans.   Almost 700 ships of all kinds [some were just pleasure boats, not ships] were needed to evacuate such an enormous mass of humanity.  That wasn’t really depicted in the new movie.  When the “cavalry” finally does appear and Kenneth Branaugh says he can see “home”, it’s underwhelming.

Claustrophobia.  The claustrophobia you sense in the new movie is more on a micro level rather than a macro level.  It comes on the ships once the troops were evacuated.  One gets the sense that the thing that will kill the evacuees would be drowning below decks on the ships that get attacked by the Luftwaffe and the U-Boats.  You’re in the cockpit of one RAF pilot who had to ditch his Spitfire.  The water is rushing in but the pilot can’t get out because his canopy is jammed.  But fear not – without giving away too much of the plot, this guy lives.

There are two enemies in this movie – the Germans and the English Channel.  The Channel is ever-present, but one never really gets the sense that the Germans are closing in, tightening the noose around the BEF with each passing hour.  In the 1958 movie, you saw Germans.  You saw their faces, your heard their voices, you felt the approach of their tanks outside of Dunkirk.  The new movie doesn’t have that.  You don’t see any Germans at all until the last frames of the movie.

Shell shock – Cillian Murphy is a British private who is rescued [by one of the civilian boats requisitioned by the Royal Navy] from the remnants of a sunken ship.  Not only has he been chased out of France by the Germans, he nearly died after a U-Boat sank the ship that got him out of France.  He’s seen a lot of bad stuff, he’s been “in the shit”, and he’s seen enough. He doesn’t make any bones about wanting to go home.  But when he found out the boat he was on is going in the opposite direction, he freaks, with some unfortunate consequences.  When he asks the boat captain why he, a civilian, is doing such a thing to deliberately go into harm’s way, the boat captain has the best line in the movie - “Men my age dictate this war, why should we not fight it?”

Conclusion.  The new version of Dunkirk proves to me that “newer” doesn’t always mean “better.”  This movie has been hailed by some critics as a “masterpiece.”  The bar for such a distinction must be pretty low these days.  I’ve seen masterpieces, and Dunkirk [2017] is not one of them.  It isn’t crap either.  For me it is a case of missed opportunities and heightened expectations.  While Dunkirk is not a masterpiece, it isn’t crap either.  It is a good movie that could have been great.  Save your money and wait for pay per view.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Jason Isbell - Tony's Picks

It’s hard to put Jason Isbell into a neat, tidy little box.  What kind of music does he play – rock, alt-country, folk, soul, or Americana [whatever that is]?  He lives in Nashville.  He’s worked with country producer Dave Cobb for his last three records [Southeastern, Something More Than Free, and his latest The Nashville Sound], the same guy who produces Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.  But on tour, he’s playing Whipping Post, a very “un-country” song.  Sometimes he’ll play quiet, acoustic songs, other songs will have fiddles, the familiar twang of Telecasters and steel guitars. To further complicate things, sometimes he and the 400 Unit will sound like Neil Young & Crazy Horse [don't laugh - he released a very convincing cover of Like a Hurricane in 2012].  He’s all of the above.  Soulfully country-ish, he mixes his rock ‘n roll influences, intertwining his music with Southern themes of home, family, hard work with more universal topics of addiction, loneliness, loss, heartbreak, love and redemption.  But I think the quality that best exemplifies Jason Isbell’s music is empathy.  He can easily put himself in someone else’s shoes and know what they’re feeling about, well, anything.

I first heard of Jason Isbell when he was in the band Drive-By Truckers.  He first filled in for a no-show guitarist for DBT’s Southern Rock Opera tour, and stuck around for three albums with them [Decoration Day, The Dirty South, A Blessing and a Curse].  Like Lynyrd Skynyrd, DBT had three guitar players, each of whom was also a songwriter [himself, Patterson Hood, and Mike Cooley].  Excellent storytellers all, but Isbell's songs stand out.  Isbell was in DBT for six years [2001-07], after which time his hard partying and heavy drinking caught up with him and he got fired from the band.  Too bad for them – he was their best singer and guitarist, and a damn fine songwriter.  He went from writing two or three songs per DBT album to having to write an entire album's worth of material.  Some of it was very good, some of it not so much.  Then he met Amanda Shires.  A singer-songwriter in her own right [and a pretty good one] who also plays violin and guitar, the two started to work together on Isbell's Here We Rest.  They fell in love, he said to her once too often that he needed to go to rehab, she took him up on it and he dried out.  Now sober, it seems like everything Jason Isbell writes or touches turns to gold, starting with Southeastern [2013].  He and Shires married the day after he finished Southeastern.  Two years later he followed that with Something More Than Free, and just a couple of weeks ago came The Nashville Sound.  He’s on a winning streak.

Here are my favorite Isbell songs …

Dress Blues [Sirens of the Ditch, 2007]
“Dress Blues,” from Jason Isbell’s debut solo album was based on the real-life death of Matthew Conley, a high school acquaintance from Isbell’s hometown who died in the Iraq War. The song was recently covered on Zac Brown Band’s hit album Jekyll + Hyde'You never planned on the bombs in the sand or sleepin' in your dress blues.'

Elephant [Southeastern, 2013]
This is a sad ballad of a woman battling and dying from cancer and the friend, the song’s narrator, who spends her last days with her. ‘Elephant’ refers to ‘the elephant in the room’ the two people don’t want to talk about – the friend dying of cancer. 

According to Isbell - "It's not a song about what happens to people with cancer. It's a song about having a friend with an illness that can't be cured and about being the right kind of friend in that situation. People don't want to be treated differently because they're sick. They don't want that cloud always hanging over the conversation. They want to live out what life they have left. You have to fight your instincts to be overly sympathetic; you have to treat them as if they're the same people."

Cover Me Up [Southeastern, 2013]
Isbell’s straightforward song about getting sober and opening himself up to wife Amanda Shires is one of his best — simply because it is so vulnerable and deeply felt. “That was a hard one for me to even get through without breaking down the first time, because that one is really personal,” he told NPR in 2013.

Stockholm [Southeastern, 2013]
“Stockholm” is the musical twin of Cover Me Up.  She helped him replace his old love of booze (which he was shackled too) and made him see what true love really could be.  He gave the song its name because that’s where he wrote it.

Decoration Day [Decoration Day, 2003]
From his first album with Drive By Truckers, the song tells of a sort of modern day Hatfields & McCoys feud between two families by the name of the Hills and Lawsons and the history of that feud. The feud had been going on so long the people involved don’t remember what started it.
Tour of Duty [Here We Rest, 2011]
Unlike the subject of Dress Blues, this veteran came home from war.  We learn of a soldier’s return home and all of the things he wants to do now that he’s back like enjoy his family, eat oysters and not relive the nightmare that was his war service. “I've done my tour of duty; now I'm home and I ain't leaving here again.

Songs That She Sang in the Shower [Southeastern, 2013]
The narrator of the song recalls losing a love to his own stupidity and excesses. The one thing he absolutely can’t stand since she’s gone is to hear or remember all of the songs she used to sing in the shower, like Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Willie Nelson’s Yesterday’s Wine, or Dusty Springfield’s Breakfast In Bed.  My ex liked the Eagles…now you know why I’m like The Dude from The Big Lebowski.

Outfit [Decoration Day, 2003]
Another gem from DBT’s Decoration Day. The song about a father’s advice to his son leaving home. 
Don't call what you're wearing an outfit, don't ever say your car is broke
Don't worry about losing your accent, a southern man tells better jokes 
Have fun, stay clear of the needle, call home on your sister's birthday
Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus, don't give it away

Alabama Pines [Here We Rest, 2011]
“Alabama Pines” is loneliness and desolation defined that truly speaks those who’ve experienced similar things to what the song’s narrator is going through. If you don’t like the sound of Isbell’s voice after this song, you never will.
Go It Alone [Here We Rest, 2011]
This is Isbell plugged in, in bar-band country-blues mode. The guy in the song has to press restart on his life — in part because he’s lost a woman, presumably due to divorce [he split with first wife Shona Tucker before getting the boot from DBT].  “I’m realizing just how far I had to fall / And taking it home to go it alone again.”  He hadn’t “hit bottom” yet, but he could see it coming.

Speed Trap Town [Something More Than Free, 2015]
There are lots of these places in the South, where nothing really happens and the only way the town makes money to issue speeding tickets to outsiders who are just passing through.  These are small places that might have one traffic light, but probably not.  “Everybody knows you in a speed trap town…”  The protagonist gets the feeling it’s time he left the small town where he grew up:

Well it's a Thursday night but there's a high school game
Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name
These 5A bastards run a shallow cross
It's a boy's last dream and a man's first loss
And it never did occur to me to leave 'til tonight
And there's no one left to ask if I'm alright
I'll sleep until I'm straight enough to drive, then decide
If there's anything that can't be left behind

Traveling Alone [Something More Than Free, 2015]
Anyone who travels a lot for a living [truckers, touring musicians, software testers for the Air Force] knows the loneliness of the road, especially when you’re traveling by yourself and longing for a companion: “I know every town worth passing through/But what good does knowing do with no one to show it to?” Isbell nailed it.

Something More Than Free [Something More Than Free, 2015]
Isbell must think a lot of his dad, for this isn’t the first time he’s referred to his words of wisdom in song. 

The line in the title track, ‘I’m just lucky to have the work’, comes from something my Dad always used to say. He’s only 19 years older than me and he still works really hard. I do try and stay close to the people I grew up with who maybe have a different lifestyle to the way mine is now. I’m not interested in writing about musicians or touring. The people who’re most under-represented, at least in our society, are the people who work too hard for too little reward. My Dad spoke about how he’d love to go to church with the family on Sunday but, working the other six days of the week, he’s too exhausted to get up and go. And he doesn’t drink or smoke, either. It seems like that might be something worth writing a song about. Where I grew up, the only thing people have to be proud of is the fact that they work hard every day. They don’t have wealth or social status. Calling somebody ‘a good man’ there is the equivalent of calling him a hard-worker.

24 Frames [Something More Than Free, 2015]
This is one of those songs where you think you know what he’s singing about, but not really…

“You thought God was an architect/ Now you know he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow/ And everything you built was all for show/ Goes up in flames in 24 frames.”

Cumberland Gap [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
Here’s young guy stuck in a place where he sees no future and knows “there’s a reason I always reach for the harder stuff.” Cumberland Gap is a historical place where Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee all come together, where people traversed to “head west”.  It could be anywhere in the South, where natural beauty, the strong sense of home and familial ties keep people glued to these locations for generations.  But economic forces [probably coal mining in this case] conspire to keep them there until the resources dry up.

If We Were Vampires [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
Isbell finishes a list of things he loves about his wife with a dose of reality: “If were vampires and love was a joke, we’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke … It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever, likely one of us will have to spend some days alone, maybe we’ll get 40 years together and one day I’ll be gone and one day you’ll be gone.”

Last of My Kind [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
The rural kid goes to the big city and experiences major disorientation.  Musicians can appreciate this line: “Nobody here can dance like me/Everybody's clapping on the one and the three…”

Anyone who’s gone to a big, impersonal university can relate to this:

“I tried to go to college but I didn't belong
Everything I said was either funny or wrong
They laughed at my boots, laughed at my jeans
Laughed when they gave me amphetamines
Left me alone in a bad part of town
Thirty-six hours to come back down”

Did he go to school in Boulder?  I got left on the north side of town once, but that was from too much beer, not amphetamines.

Danko/Manuel [The Dirty South, 2004]
This is it, the song I think is the best one in DBT’s catalog.  If he never wrote another one, this would still qualify him as a great songwriter.  He started off writing it from the view of Richard Manuel or Rick Danko, but it evolved into a song about his own experiences.

I was reading This Wheel’s on Fire, the Levon Helm book about his time with The Band. He talks about how they had this pact on the road — it was kind of a joke —that whoever died first, they would take his body, take him home, and bury him and all of that. And that stuck with me, juxtaposed with the scene of Richard (Manuel) being found in a hotel room when they were at their lowest point, when they weren’t making a lot of money or doing a lot creatively, and Richard ended up killing himself. I thought about that and it really moved me, especially considering that I was traveling around with a band at the time and we were having some problems — problems with addiction and depression, and trying to stay relevant and get relevant in the first place. I saw a lot of myself in that book.
Live Oak [Southeastern, 2013]
This one asks a simple question – did you like the “drunk me” or the “sober me”? “That one originated out of sobriety. When I stopped drinking... there were so many things I had to face that I didn’t even realize were part of my makeup before.”

Seven-Mile Island [Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, 2009]
The lyrics tell of an unwanted pregnancy and a dead-beat dad hoping to find himself in an Alabama cave.  Seven-Mile Island is a wildlife preserve in Alabama. 

It's a location that's right out in the middle of the Tennessee River. It's close to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. When I was a kid, everybody used to go out there and hunt arrowheads.  I think it's more about the father in the son, really. He's really I guess kind of despondent about the whole situation. That thing that has happened, nobody planned. So he's really looking for a way out more than anything else. I guess that's, you can say, pretty similar to the people who left their groups, the natives that left their group and for whatever reason just gave up their lives and traveled by themselves or in a smaller group. I guess that location: He was looking for kind of an asylum from what was going on his life.”

Sunstroke [Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, 2009]
This one is psychedelic, a polar opposite of most of the rootsy stuff Isbell does.  This is a good headphones song.  There’s no deep meaning here [if there is it escapes me] – it’s just a cool song.

Tupelo [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
Isbell wants to get away from it all.   After he finishes his "plastic cup of real good wine" and finally sobers up, he plans to relocate to northern Mississippi, where "the summer is blistering, so there ain't no one from here that'll follow me there." Would you follow anybody to Tupelo?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Beatles Desert Island Discs - The Solo Years

Written today on a flight from Boston to Atlanta…

I listen to a podcast called Something About the Beatles.  It's produced by a couple of guys who are extremely well-versed in all things Beatle named Richard Buskin and Robert Rodriguez.  Buskin is the “John” guy, Rodriguez is the “Paul” guy. Both have written books about the Fab Four.  Each takes the piss at the other regularly, and they can be almost too snarky.  But it's all in good fun, and I find them to always be informative and usually entertaining (I’ll take informative over entertaining). Sometimes when I think each is completely off the mark and full of shit, I have to remember their opinions are just as valid as my own.

Their most recent podcast was a Desert Island Disc exercise about the solo years.  Whereas I have done this exercise with complete albums, these two gents looked at individual songs.  They went one step further and added a book they’d take with them.  When I saw the subject of this particular podcast, I thought I’d compile my own list before I heard their respective lists.  I didn't want them to sway me one way or the other.  Whereas Buskin and Rodriguez limited themselves to three songs for each Beatle [enough to fit on a vinyl LP], I just picked what I liked best based on my own listening taste. All the songs have to fit on a single CD.

I dispensed with the usual suspects, them being Imagine, My Sweet Lord, and Maybe I’m Amazed.  I’ve heard these so many times that I don’t have to hear them again - ever.  Every nuance, every note is buried in my head, so there's no need to take a recording of them to a desert island.  Having dispensed with these songs, here's my list.

  1. What Is Life - an uptempo song from George.  Who would have thought?  There's a nice role reversal where George is playing the fuzzy lead guitar and Eric Clapton is playing the rhythm.  This also works well without the vocals (from the remastered All Things Must Pass).
  2. Watching the Wheels - The lyrics always grabbed me on this one.  It doesn't sound forced, and is a concise explanation of his 5-year absence from the music scene.  His words “I just had to let it go” say a lot about a guy who once wanted to get to “the toppermost of the poppermost”.  I was 18 when Double Fantasy came out, and if you asked me then which song I would pick it would have been Woman.  But I’m 54 now and perspectives change.
  3. Too Many People - Paul takes a subtle shot at John.  To me this sounds like an angry song.  That would be typical from John but not so much from Paul.  I love the aggressive guitar solo at the end.
  4. Photograph - Ringo said it at the Concert for George, that this song has taken on new meaning since George's passing.  This is just a great song with George.
  5. When We Was Fab - I always thought this was an homage to I Am the Walrus, which is not a bad thing.  The lyric "the microscopes have magnified the tears…” to me means a complaint about Beatlemania.  That’s my interpretation, anyway.
  6. Handle With Care - Though it sounds nothing like When We Was Fab, the lyric (to me, anyway) has a similar theme.  I think back to a comment he made about Beatlemania - they gave their screams, we gave our nervous systems.  This song speaks to the fragile psyche left in the wake of Beatlemania.
  7. Tug of War - I think this is one of Paul’s strongest songs.  It starts off as an acoustic ballad, quickly switches gears to being a rocker, then settles into a big production with a superb orchestral arrangement by George Martin.
  8. It Don't Come Easy - Buskin and Rodriguez might think this song is a “usual suspect” and they're probably right.  I was 8 when this one came out.  I was too young to know the Beatles had broken up, and too young to know what that meant.  When I first heard it on the radio I thought this was a Beatles song. Was that because of Ringo’s singing or George's guitar playing?  The answer is “yes”.
  9. I Found Out - angry John.  It has angry lyrics with angry music from my favorite Lennon album.  The line that always gets me is “I heard something 'bout my ma and my pa/ They didn't want me so they made me a star”.
  10. #9 Dream - This song always reminds me of Across the Universe.  It has the Spector Wall of Sound without Spector.  Unlike most of the songs from Walls & Bridges, the saxes are nowhere to be found and it doesn't sound overproduced.
  11. The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord) - A non-preachy song on a preachy album.  Unlike ATMP, George is the only guitar player here, and he shows off a little without going overboard.
  12. Gimme Some Truth - very angry John.  Had I done this list on a different day, How Do You Sleep would be here instead of this.  The nasty slide guitar solo from George is a bonus.  How would Let It Be or Abbey Road have sounded if the Beatles had agreed to do this one?
  13. Every Night - In my opinion, this one is probably Paul’s best solo song.  Don't ask me why, it just is.
  14. Any Road - a ukulele-based song with clever lyrics.  A fun track with flawless slide guitar.
  15. Nobody Told Me (JL Anthology version) - This was a work-in-progress, but all the elements of the finished track are there.  He sounds like he's relaxed and having fun, something one didn’t hear enough of from John.  I always have a giggle and a smile when I hear “a rolly rolly rolly rolly polly” bit at the fade-out.  Apparently this was a first run-through of the songs, and given the finished product this illustrates how quickly John worked in the studio.
  16. Instant Karma - I think this one is obvious.
  17. New York City - On an album that is incredibly bad, here's a nugget that I enjoy.  I always thought of this as as The Ballad of John and Yoko, Part II.  A very uptempo song.from John, he sounds like he’s having fun, which is a rarity from John.  See Nobody Told Me above.
  18. The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp - atmosphere - this song has plenty of it, especially with Pete Drake’s keening steel guitar.
  19. Cheer Down - George’s slide is extremely tasty and well-done.  Anyone who thinks George Harrison is an underrated guitarist needs to hear this.
  20. Young Boy - A very good song from Flaming Pie.  This one screams “Beatles”, and since this was done immediately after Anthology, that was probably the point.  Outstanding guitar from Steve Miller.

There you have it.  This is heavy with John and George songs because John is my favorite Beatle, and George is my favorite ex-Beatle.  This was done off the top of my head today.  If you ask me tomorrow, this list would probably change.  Maybe there would be more songs from Paul.  To wit, which songs stumbled at the finish line?

  1. Only Mama Knows - Paul rocks like a bastard on this one.
  2. Beautiful Boy - listen to this back to back with Watching the Wheels and you get a good sense of John's headspace at the time.
  3. I’d Have You Anytime - George's tune, Dylan's words.  Clapton’s playing is superb.  Perfect.
  4. Meat City - a crazy balls to the wall track from Mind Games.  I couldn't get enough of this when I was a teenager.
  5. Beware of Darkness - This one could be on my list tomorrow.  Another perfect track from George.
  6. Flaming Pie - Paul being goofy, but it works here.
  7. Tweeter and the Monkey Man - George doesn't sing, but the slide on the 12-string is vicious.
  8. Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox) - After the blandness that was the album Mind Games, Walls & Bridges was much better.  Lyrically, this ode to May Pang always gripped me.  “Could it be that I’ve bitten my own tongue?”
  9. Here Today - no explanation necessary.
  10. I’m the Greatest - 3 Beatles on one song at the same time.  What's not to like?  Great because Ringo sang it instead of John.
  11. Woman Don't You Cry For Me - George being funky with Willie Weeks.  More great slide playing.
  12. That's the Way It Goes - one great song on Gone Troppo with even more great slide playing (a recurring theme, yes). Joe Brown did this at the Concert for George.

What Beatles book would I take with me?  None.  I’d take One Way Out, Alan Paul’s oral history of the Allman Brothers Band instead.