Monday, September 24, 2012

Did some shopping thru the supercheapie bins at Princeton Record Exchange and came up with some sweet stuff for $1.99!

*Glenn Mercer "Wheels In Motion" - 2007 solo outing from Feelies' singer/lead guitarist, co-songwriter. Features just about ALL the current Feelies (and their original bassist and second drummer [Anton Fier] on some tracks). The only one missing is co-founder, rhythm guitarist Bill Million. On first listen, that JUST what it sounds like -- any of the last 5 Feelies album with Bill's parts mixed out. On one hand all the good stuff IS there, on the other -- it is surprising how much Bill's writing input and guitar parts.

*Bruce Springsteen "Magic" - what can I say? I was born and raised in NJ. Springsteen played the Commuter Student Center, "The Ledge," frequently when I was attending Rutgers. It was pretty impossible for me to pass this up for the price though I probably haven't bought a Springsteen album new since, "Born To Run." On first listen - it's real nice. But honestly once Bruce found his stride on album #2 he's never released a bad 'un or one that didn't fit neatly within his oeuvre. He's always in great voice, surrounds himself with able players and the man DOES know his way around a tune. This will be good to have when those random Bruce moments hit.

*Paul Butterfield Blues Band "Incense Herbs" - I've belonged to many cultural subsets that reviled white blues rock -- Zappa-phile freak rockers, punks... -- and I still think the suspicion is sound but...hearing Danny Kalb rave about what a transcendental guitarmonster Mike Bloomfield was first time he heard him playing some little club, making the acquaintance of Howlin Wolf drummer Sam Lay and having him mention that he was a member of this outfit (who were the folks that backed up Dylan at Newport when he "went electric"), recalling Elvin Bishop's solo heyday and recalling he was the other guitarist. In retrospect seems very portentous. Now to give it a listen with mature ears.

*The Subdudes "Primitive Streak" - part of my NOLA research project. Just as the Treme bug had bit hard, I wound up at the mighty Louisiana Music Factory -- a little tipsy -- asked for a recommendation for a funk record, got handed a Galactic record and turned my nose up at it... "Ya got anything I can't find in a Best Buy and not by white guys." JEEZ WHAT A SNOID I WAS BEING! I've slowly come to appreciate to some small degree how complex that music scene is and has been. The interrelationships between bands and genres are exceedingly complicated and basically inextricable. So while the Subdudes ain't Huey Smith And The Clowns, their sort of easy-groovin' take on lightly Cajun-ized Americana rockin' does represent an important part in the culture.

*Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind soundtrack. I bought this to hear what exactly Jon Brion actually sounds like. I know his rep as a quirky, baroque-pop informed auteur - but it's not like there's a wealth of Jon Brion albums per se to acquire!

*Little Feat - eponymous debut. This actually cost $4.99. This first album is utterly distinctive in its mix of blues, rock and country flavors allied with some wonderfully ambitious structural conceits, renderering it fairly unique and pretty powerful stuff.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Geek that I am, my idea of a fun thing to do on Labor Day was visit Princeton Record Exchange -- one of my favorite record stores. Large if spotty selection of music in multiple genres, large vinyl selection and LOTSA budget bins.

Having just watched some 3 hour doc on Krautrock I was kinda hoping to fill some of the holes in my collection as -- being patronized by WPRB DJs, and staffed by avant music freaks extraordinaire -- there's usually a healthy amount of deep prog and vintage psychedelia on hand. I was looking for the 1st 2 Kraftwerk album (pre "Ralf & Florian"), Amon Dull (not AD II), Kluster (before they changed their name to Cluster). Had no luck whatsoever.

Started browsing the Soul & R&B section - and likewise, struck out. So I headed over to the general budget bins and then the "Cheap R&B/Hip Hop" shelves. And hit some sweet paydirt. Outkast "Idlewild" (certainly lacked the immediate hit material of its predecessor but honestly SOLID - lotta great cathcy and imaginative tunes, out-there instrumental arrangements), Neville Brothers "Uptown Rulers" greatest hits (I don't know that I buy in quite yet but nicely full blooded readings of "Hey Pocky Way" and "Brother John/Iko Iko"), Warren G's (a G-funk architect)"The Return of the Regulator" (the earlier "Regulate" is a classic -- smoove as shizz, bursting with Atlanta Rhythm Section samples -- perfect Summer afternoon fare), 2006's "Testimony Vol 1" by Indie Arie -- a wonderful proponent of "acoustic soul" (great tunes but the lyrics -- (as Creighton from "Treme" would put it - "a celebration of the wonder that is ME!") and "Lady Soul" by Aretha Franklin.

Growing up, Aretha Franklin was pretty ubiquitous - heard her singles all the time. It was in the air. Didn't need to buy the albums coz I was hearing her all the time. Eventually got a two CD great hits package that served me well for many years. But have been feeling that I needed to expand my collection and start picking up her Atlantic recordings. I must admit, that "I Never Loved A man The Way I Love You" and "Aretha Arrives" didn't thrill me. Her vocal performances are great. The playing's funky, authoritative and distinctive. But the A&R...a little shakey - "96 Tears," "Satisfaction" on "Arrives" -- are just good. Not transcendent.

"Lady Soul" on the other hand plays like a mix tape of Aretha at her gritty, funky best. It's EXACTLY what you wanna hear when you wanna hear vintage Aretha and not one second of filler. Even the slow jams grind out as sweatily or tearfully as you could want.

I'm NOT knocking ANY of Aretha's releases -- but if I was going to give a non-believer one of those early albums confident that by record's end they'd be converted "Lady Soul" would be it.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Anyone who spends any time contemplating New Orleans' music history eventually is likely to encounter the phenomenon of Preservation Hall. This was a run down space on St. Peter's Street in the French Quarter taken over by an artist who was using it as gallery space, then in the 1950's decided to make it available as a venue for the adherents of pre-bop New Orleans jazz, a lot of them veterans of bands that were active in the 20's and 30's.

Before I started acquainting myself with Preservation Hall, I'd assumed it was A band per se - one where members had quit or passed away over the years and then were replace by new members but I've finally come to realize that it was initially a venue where a variety of bands performed -- some of them particular units per se and others one off sessions by whoever showed up that night; as well as admixtures of the two.

In the 1960's Allan Jaffe was coaxed into taking over and made it into fascinating umbrella organization several Preservation Hall Jazz Band line-ups being assembled and maintained and utilized for various purposes with one outfit regularly performing at the Hall itself while others would tour nationally and internationally.

My interest actually stemmed from trying to track down a recording of "Oh Didn't He Ramble" a traditional tune played at New Orleans funerals with a wonderfully macabre and mystifying lyric: "Didn't he ramble, ramble. Ramble all around. In and out the town. Rambled till the butcher cut him down." It's never explained who the butcher is or why he cut the poor man down. Clearly we're talking Grim Reaper here but one suspects that there could be a reference to a particular, now long forgotten, incident behind it. Ah well - another worm hole to crawl down!

The only version I owned was by ex Fairport Convention guitarist Ashley Hutchings and while it's a rousing knees only made me long for something outta NOLA itself even more. Looking online I found a version included on Preservation Hall Jazz Band's "New Orleans Vol IV" for $3. I read a fair amount of disparaging buyer reviews, knocking these "slick" and "anemic" performances and touting the 50's recordings that Neshui Ertegun (Ahmet's older brother) had done and some local releases that came afterwards. But those cost considerably more and $3 seemed like the right price point to get my toes wet with -- and here was "Oh, Didn't He Ramble."

When I got the CD in the mail -- I was pretty stoked, threw it right on the changer and was, entirely entranced. A lot of these players were old buzzards at the time and sound like it -- but SALTY old buzzards with a million musical tricks up their sleeves and who'd been LIVING the life these songs depict from youth through to their old age. It was pretty fuh'in delectable. I quickly picked up a cheap copy of "New Orleans Vol. 1" and was similarly charmed.

I started filling the changer with a mix of Preservation Hall, Kermit-era Rebirth, Eureka Brass Band, Treme Brass Band (the '95 all-star line up that mixes old timers with their most ardent young acolytes - including Ruffins and Trombone Shorty's brother James Andrews among others), Lil Rascals, etc. and get to hear how various musical ideas and traditions are maintained while evolving over the decades -- which is one of the central characteristics of the NOLA musical experience as far as this Yankee can tell. And the historian and music geek in me is continually thrilled and fascinated getting to experience music that is so powerfully part of a continuum, reliant on its context and community in a way most commercial music and even underground music scenes just are not.

Recently a friend of mine sent me a promo of a new 4 CD anthology of Preservation Hall Jazz Band recordings and even the just the burns with white paper info sheets are pretty sweet coz of the music contained therein -- a comprehensive survey of the back catalogue of this brand which includes the recordings Ertegun had made, the local releases that came before the CBS then Sony releases, the indie stuff that's happened since. Cunningly they've mixed up the repertoire instead of organizing it in chronological order so that old and new sit side by side and honestly it's hard to discern which dates from when without looking at the notes with a few notable exceptions when special guests like Tom Waits or Del McCoury or Andrew Bird appear. And while the idea of injecting big and apparently incongruous "names" into a tradition-rooted project like this appears like heresy -- honestly Waits does a terrific and totally credible version of the old Creole dance tune "Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing" ...even compared to Danny Barker's version from the 40's which has been in regular rotation 'round this house since that fateful day that "Jazz A'La Creole" arrived (this being the record that Antoine Batiste grabs to take with him in the scene where his family is about to evacuate pre-Katrina -- during the flashback in the season finale of "Treme")

Another live music highlight of Spring 2012 was Rebirth Brass Band playing Union Transfer in Philly. UT is a newish venue opened by the Bowery Presents folks outta NYC (carpetbaggers) and a local promoter. It was once a train station and more recently was home to a Spaghetti Factory (a chain family restaurant). In its new incarnation, the building has been tricked out nicely - meant to look a bit lived in and post-industrial (which fits right in with a significant portion of Philly) but also nicely stylized. Mainly a standing venue but with strategically located bleachers scattered about so that the frail of limb can take the occasional break.

Opening act was a a special gathering of several Philly based brass bands (never even knew there were such beasts! stupid me!) who gave spirited readings of various soul and pop standards. All very rousing but with so many players blowing at once (about 20) it was hard for melodies and riffs to really cut through and be clearly audible, let alone punchy. But it was sweet that instead of just one of the Philly outfits getting the spotlight that a bunch got invited to share it.

I should point out that UT was FULL - so about 1500 in attendance - a hell of a lot more than I expected to show up for a brass band from New Orleans in Philly! So, clearly a lot more folks hep to this music 'round here than I ever imagined or maybe just a lot of "Treme" addicts? Either way -- very cool

Rebirth came on to tumultuous applause and fair amount of Mardi Gras umbrellas (this show came at the opening of carnival season) and got down to business. Immediately the difference between earnest amateurs and seasoned pros was apparent - the tunes and beats came through loud, clear and ever so funky. The sound was sophisticated, complex yet focused and never became cluttered or murky. The interplay between robust horn arrangements, propulsive second line rhythms and lusty group chanting was intoxicating and seductive. Even up in the balcony where we retreated to (to have ready access to bleacher seating) it was impossible not to start dancing.

After the show we went down to buy a CD off one of the junior members who's drawn merch duty. Cost about $6 than buying it online. OY! That's what the heat of the moment will do to ya! Having gotten "Rebirth of New Orleans" home I have to say that while there's a lot of great playing here and some memorable tunes that compared to their earliest recordings -- featuring Kermit Ruffins, one of the founders of the group -- it's a little slick, a little pat and has more of a serious jazz feel, less rawness, funk and Mardi Gras Indian style percussive derring do. Compared to Coldplay of course this is the mother-of-all-stinky-butt nastiness -- but compared to their back catalogue...they've cleaned up their act a tad.

mea culpa - gone AWOL since...MARCH?! Yipes. Funny how time slips away. Well, I've not been idling. Work's been thriving, the garden was kept in shape for most of this year, made a buncha trips to Asheville, Los Angeles, Baltimore, DC -- even NYC (which for me STILL feels like a work commute (which it normally is!) There were many musical highlight during this time as well (OF COURSE) and besides all those relating to vintage R&B, soul, jazz, etc. the biggest was...seeing Kraftwerk at the Museum of Modern Art! To be honest I was not initially jazzed when these dates were announced and never attempted to buy tickets. Hell, I didn't go see these guys live in the early 80's when they played the Ontario Theater in DC around the release of "Computer World" - tickets were EXPENSIVE (for my then-threadbare pockets at least) and I was dubious as to what kind of show they'd put on as the hype was that they were carting their entire recording studio around with them and reconstructing it for each night's performance. Not likely anyone would be leaping about, thrashing, er computers, or engaging in any of the shennigans that would register on my ideas of entertaining live performance at the time. And Amy wound up PISSED that tickets had sold out before she even knew that Kraftwerk had annouced these dates. AND THEN - she won tickets from! Made her very happy. And I was not adverse to tagging along, seeing as how this could the last go-round for these geezers (or me for that matter!) She'd won tickets to Sunday's show which was for "Electric Cafe" performed in its entirety followed by a greatest hits segment. We went up early, had a nice feed (which was our introduction to Prosecco -- DRY Italian sparkling wine: YUM!) headed over to MOMA and got on the already lengthy line and enjoyed a nicely balmy evening for a while. Upon admittance we made straight for the Atrium where the concert was being staged, noted the merch area and went over to check it out. While Amy was poring over the goodies I struck up a conversation with a volunteer doing security who clued me in to the fact that there was a sweet spot in the center of the audience area where you'd get full advantage of quad sound system and 3D visuals which we then proceeded to, happily planting ourselves. Right on time (8:30PM, 8PM? I forget exactly when, but relatively early) the scrim cloaking the stage raised and at their totemic podiums stood -- Ralf Hutter...and three other guys I'd never seen in any photos of the group I've come across. Later press accounts noted that two of them have been in the band since the "Tour De France" days and the last one was a recent edition, in charge of controlling the visuals. And while music's the priority for me, I must admit that the visuals were mighty cool being 3D (glasses came with the complimentary program) with each song getting its own unique video treatment. Some were vintage music videos, others were created specifically for recent live performances. They were all nicely done and no doubt a strategic part of the show considering that the four musicians remain glued to their work stations, eyes glued to their gear, occasionally reaching down to tweak this or that (some press account revealed that most of them just had iPads and were working via apps). Hutter actually sang and played a small keyboard hidden by the lip of his podium. And... It sounded AMAZING. "Electric Cafe" was not my favorite Kraftwerk album but their "performance" (it'd seem that basically everyone started their respective drum, bass or keyboards program, monitoring the song-program and make alterations as necessary -- excepting Hutter who, again, was performing in real time) was vivid, full-bodied and as funky and danceable as utterly white people can get; and I mean that as a compliment. After performing "Electric Cafe" in its entirety in album sequence they launched into the second half of the program which was a career retrospective that touched on most of the key tracks from all their albums from "Autobahn" onwards. I don't know that I'd say I could die happy having finally seen them play "Trans Europe Express" and "Pocket Calculator" live -- but it was an undeniable thrill and just plain great visionary pop.

Blood Music Sex Magick panel at SxSW 2012

On March 16, the SxSW Music Conference in Austin, TX played host to the Blood Music Sex Magick panel discussing the interplay between magickal theory and practice and popular music over the last 100 or so years.

The panel was moderated by myself and comprised, Andrew WK, Erik Davis, Alison Fensterstock and Brother Joshua Sharp

On his website Andrew W.K. describes himself as "the KING OF PARTYING. Infamous for his bloody nose, famous for his high-life attitude, beloved for his songs like, "PARTY HARD", "WE WANT FUN", and "YOU WILL REMEMBER TONIGHT", Andrew's true will is to use all forms of entertainment to create feelings of pure joy, fun, love, freedom, and possibility.

"He is a multi-faceted musician and performer. Starting his musical career at age 4 with classical piano lessons, then exploring experimental and fine art interests, Andrew went on to create his own brand of extremely high-energy rock 'n' roll. Andrew grew up in the open-minded Midwestern city of Ann Arbor. At age 18, after being accepted into The Art Institute of Chicago, Andrew decided instead to move to New York City and pursue art and music on his own. He released his first album ‘I Get Wet” in 2001 and has been busy recording, touring, lecturing, making television appearances, producing other artists and the like ever since.

Erik Davis has been writing about the intersection of popular culture, media technology, and alternative religion for over twenty years. He has written a number of books, including the 33 1/3 book on Led Zeppelin IV and the more recent Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica. He hosts the popular podcast Expanding Mind, and is currently earning his PhD in religious studies at Rice University.

Alison Fensterstock is a New Orleans-based music and pop culture writer. Her work has appeared in Paste, Vibe,, MOJO, Q, the Oxford American, the New Orleans alt-weekly Gambit and the New Orleans Times-Picayune where she blogs regularly

In 2011, she co-wrote the book "The Definition of Bounce" with rapper 10th Ward Buck She was the bounce consultant for season 2 of HBO's dramatic program "Treme" and co-curated the bounce and hip-hop documentary exhibition and oral history archive "Where They At," with the photographer Aubrey Edwards.

She is also the programming director for the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation, for whom she researched the Louisiana State Museum’s “Unsung Heroes” exhibit on Louisiana R&B, rock, garage and blues.

Joshua Sharp was the founding Master of Alombrados Oasis, the New Orleans based body of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a Thelemic initiatory fraternity. He has been an initiate of this Order since 2002 and has had an avid interest in Thelema, the discipline of Magick, and the method of Scientific Illuminism since 1999. He has also been an Aspirant to the A.'.A.'. since 2008 and continues to prosecute this Great Work.

Joshua is a graduate of the University of New Orleans and holds a continuing interest in neuropsychology, philosophy, and the sciences in general. He holds a strong interested in the intersection between ritual and music. He continues to explore both of these as sources for inspiration and as techniques for producing the ecstasy of transcendence.

The major revelations of the Blood Music Sex Magick panel were:

The practice of magick is alive, well and apparently valid in our scientific era; that most popular American music was infected by the conventions of religio-magickal practice at their inception; that these conventions have been affecting and been manifest in the work of a number of massively popular musical performers, sometimes intentional and sometimes not; and finally that an acknowledgement of what’s popularly termed “magick” at the very least can lead to an appreciation of one’s environment and circumstances that results in additional zest and excitement.

The panel was led off by Joshua Sharp, a long time member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a magickal Order once helmed by notorious ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley. Sharp explained the myriad areas of study and types of practice that comprised his pursuit of this interest which included the works of Christian mystics, Hebrew Qabalahists, and Greek magical papyri to name a few and as yoga , meditation and martial arts. No magic wands, no sacrificing virgins, no crystal balls, just lots of intense earnest study and application. The goal of all this was first and foremost self-understanding and self-mastery but also having visionary experiences and creating objective change. None of this conforming to popular stereotypes of Dungeons and Dragons aficionados wielding elaborate, arcane spells, wearing gaudy costumes primarily to bring a bit of glamor into otherwise pathetic lives.

Alison Fenstertock, an active music journalist from New Orleans then addressed the influence that the ritual music of Vodun practioners performing in Congo Square had on the Jazz, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll that would eventually emerge in that city. She identified the distinctive rhythms, peculiar syncopations that were intended to induce particular trance states, opening up participants in rituals to possession by respective Loa/deities with different Loa having distinctive emotional make-ups -- aggressive, erotic, serene and so on -- affects echoed in the mood altering powers of differently composed and performed secular music. Fensterstock also discussed the relationship that various performers had with the religio-magical traditions of New Orleans pointing out that even those who weren’t devotees still were notably influenced - comparing this to how many New Yorkers, whatever their ethnicity, use a smattering of Yiddish and have to have their bagel and lox in the morning!

Author and radio show host Erik Davis addressed the matter how seriously prominent rock musicians had been in their involvement with the occult. He cited artists like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, David Bowie and the band Black Sabbath among others and noted that there was a range of actual practice and belief ranging from Black Sabbath’s viewing occult topics as purely spooky trappings, straight out of horror movies and intended are entertainment and nothing more to Jimmy Page who’s discreetly but vervetntly discussed his belief in and practice of the magickal techniques established by Aleister Crowley for decades now. One of his main points was that even when artists are using occult language and symbolism without any sincere belief in its efficacy that they do in fact have a life of their own that becomes activate by such use; it creates a “current,” or flow of synchronicity that impacts the objective world and the audience in ways that the artist likely never intended.

Musician Andrew WK expressed his excitement at sharing the panel with these other speaks, thanked them for all he learned from their presentations. He voiced his opinion that involving such studies and practices in one’s life should and could lead to a strong, healthy and more deliberate sense and expression of individuality and thus life as a celebration of joy and creativity.