Good music for a Saturday night. Also, Sesame Street!
[SL]: A backhanded tribute to a great innovator: “Howlin’ Wolf looked at me and he said ‘Why don’t you take them wah-wahs and all that other shit and go throw it off in the lake — on your way to the barber shop?’.” Has anyone heard The Howlin’ Wolf Album? Sounds kind of fascinating, actually. I’m certainly always open to listening to Cosey; he was a marvel.
Doc’s story is well-known to fans of Appalachian music. Blind from infancy, Doc learned to play a guitar as a child. He made no money at it despite his skill and was selling pencils when Ralph Rinzler came to western North Carolina looking to record folk music. Doc was recruited as someone who could play almost anything; from those sessions he’s probably most noted for playing with Clarence Ashley when that old folk giant was recorded. But Doc was not the traditional unchanging Appalachian stereotype the early folk audiences of the 60s looked for. He was a man with one foot in the 19th century and another in the present. He played in local rockabilly and rock bands to earn money and had a great ear for turning old-time songs into resonant tunes for present day listeners. Because he was a guitarist playing fiddle parts on a different instrument, he tapped into the guitar-god stuff rock and roll audiences loved. And oh boy could Doc Watson pick a guitar. His deep baritone was a modern voice, as opposed to the scratchy, heavily-accented voices of a lot of old-time musicians and his voice stayed great until he was very old. He got big during the folk era, then was picked up for the Will the Circle be Unbroken sessions, then played with his son Merle. Merle died in a farming accident in the 80s, but Doc kept on, creating Merlefest, one of the most important yearly gatherings for bluegrass and old-time musicians. I’ve never been to this and I always wanted to go. Regrets abound.
I saw Doc Watson play twice. The first, at the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville was a show with David Grisman. Grisman was friends with Ralph Rinzler as a teenager in New Jersey and was amazed upon hearing Doc’s work (more so than Rinzler). They became friends and finally toured together. This must have been 1998. In 2000, I saw Doc play a more traditional show with his grandson Richard in Maryville, Tennessee. Both shows were quite different and just really great. Grisman of course likes his jam sessions and Doc could pick with the best of them. Richard Watson was more of an acoustic white blues picker and so I got to hear Doc do some old blues tunes in the first half of that show, then pull out his more regular repertoire in the second half. Both were just amazing. He’d play these songs he’d claim his mom knew as a child and right there you have to figure this is a song from 1900 or even earlier. Yet here he was making it relevant for listeners a solid century later. He was a living history lesson, bringing part of the late 19th century to your ears.
There was nothing like seeing Doc Watson live, but here’s a couple of clips to give you a taste of his awesomeness. Here he is playing “Tennessee Stud,” which was a Jimmy Driftwood song but Doc probably did more than anyone else to keep it known, at least until Johnny Cash played it on the first American album.
And here’s him with Merle and some other guys doing “Summertime,” always a favorite.
There’s been way too many great musicians dying lately. I’m sick of writing these posts.
The bass player in the Flying Burrito Brothers has passed. While everyone thinks of the Burrito Brothers as Gram Parsons’ band, Ethridge co-wrote several of their most well-known songs, including “Hot Burrito #1,” “Hot Burrito #2,” and “She.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Levon Helm and The Band over the past week. A few final thoughts.
I’ve been really impressed with the outpouring of grief for the passing of Levon Helm. While his passage may not have had the pop culture impact of Whitney Houston, for “music people,” broadly defined, Helm’s passing was a very big deal. I’m certainly too young to have been aware when Richard Manuel died, but I was already a big fan of The Band when Rick Danko passed. I remember that being a noteworthy event, but hardly a matter of massive remembrances and sorrow. Maybe that’s because internet culture was not fully developed in 1999 and maybe because Danko did himself in through his drug use.
What’s interesting to me is to think about why Helm’s death has had such a greater impact than Manuel or Danko’s. While all three shared the vocals for The Band, Helm sang of most of their most remembered songs and there’s no doubt that people’s knowledge of “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” makes a difference. At the same time, none of The Band’s members exactly had a stellar post-breakup career. Manuel was a total mess. Danko put out at least one album in the 80s that people I respect talk fairly positively about, but I’ve never heard it and it’s hardly an important album (taking a look at Danko’s Wikipedia page, it seems that someone has been releasing live recordings of Danko solo shows from the 80s. Why? Am I missing something here?). It’s not like Levon did all that much more. His acting, since he had real skill at it, did keep him in the spotlight. But he didn’t release any solo albums of note. His “Midnight Rambles” definitely made people brought him back into the public eye on a small level, but it’s not as if that many people ever saw them (I looked into going to one last year and it was like $80 and I had trouble justifying that expense). Of course, Garth Hudson became the session keyboard whiz he always was after 1977. Robbie Robertson was supposed to be the one with the big solo career, but that fizzled fast.
So in creating a public historical memory of The Band, which members grab the attention. Somewhat to my surprise if you had asked me this 10 years ago, it’s clearly Levon.
I know that some people talk positively of The Band as a live outfit, but I’ve always found their live recordings pretty disappointing. I picked up the Live from Watkins Glen album several years ago and, while it’s OK, I hardly ever listen to it. I’ve felt this way watching footage on You Tube as well. They are tremendously skilled and do a functional job with their material, but there’s a huge difference between The Band playing their own shows and backing up Dylan. With Dylan, they feel so incredibly loose and awesome in a way that they never did by themselves. See these two clips:
Feel free to disagree with me, but to me, they sure sound better backing up Dylan on a Woody Guthrie cover than doing their own songs.
I’ve wondered if sudden fame for a career backing band didn’t freak them out a little bit and make them tight. None of those guys had the charisma of Dylan, even if Robertson tried. Despite their 2 transcendent albums and couple of pretty good albums, I still think The Band would have been better as primarily a backing band that occasionally did their own material, something like the members of The Meters and Booker T & the MGs. Today, I think of Calexico this way. Calexico does great work as a backing band, such as on Tom Russell’s Blood and Candle Smoke or that EP they did with Iron & Wine 6 or 7 years ago, but their solo work has always left me profoundly indifferent.
I’ve also been thinking about Helm’s noted bitterness over The Last Waltz and toward Robbie Robertson for hogging all the songwriting rights and thus the money. Of course, Scorsese and Robertson were good friends by the mid 70s, snorting coke together and such (I believe they lived together for awhile around 1980) so it’s hardly surprising that the film would focus on Robertson. And let’s face it, after 1970, he basically wrote all the songs. Now, one might argue that with a band like this, did the lyrics really encapsulate the songwriting? But the other guys did totally drop the ball on even trying to write lyrics for the most part. Even after Robertson broke up the band, the later Band albums were almost all covers. We might think of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” as Levon’s songs, but those were Robbie’s words and that does matter.
Still, Robertson’s slickness has always rubbed me the wrong way. His own solo albums are not good. Moreover, I have no problem that he’s embraced his Native American heritage late in life, even if it hasn’t helped his music. But I do have a major issue with him rewriting the history of The Band to include some sort of Native American influences. I saw an interview with him 7 or 8 years ago where he claimed that the indigenous music he grew up with as a small child was as big an influence on his music with The Band as rock, country, blues, gospel, and everything else that went into it. There’s zero evidence of this whatsoever. It’s not like the 1970s didn’t see hippies embracing Native American culture; had Robertson really felt this way, he could have talked about it sometime before the 1990s. This is a small thing, but annoying and somehow indicative of the slight prevarication I’ve always felt from him when reading or listening to interviews.
So I wonder whether Robertson will be remembered as fondly upon his passing as Helm. He seems less relevant today, maybe because he never sang much and maybe because his solo career is almost totally unremarkable and unremembered. I might be wrong about this of course.
Finally, given the age of the 60s generation rockers and the lack of concern with which most treated their bodies, I suspect we’ll be having several conversations like this in the next few years.
In my mind, The Band has the greatest two album stretch of any band in rock and roll history. Those first two albums are both perfect, not to mention their work backing Dylan. They combined fine lyricism with a combination of voices and amazing music. The first two of those voices, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, destroyed themselves through substance abuse. Levon Helm tried to do this as well but he survived.
Levon Helm is in the final stages of a fight with cancer. I am hearing various reports on whether he has passed, but it will be soon. And it is very sad.
This translates as “The path of talent on Capitalist shores / The path of talent on Socialist shores”
And let’s face it, it’s not like this is all that inaccurate given how hard it is for a violinist to make a living in the United States.
This also reminds about how odd I’ve always found the marketing of female classical musicians, trying to dress them up in as classy/sexy way as possible in order to appeal to older upper-class men. Or I guess that’s the point of it. Weird though.
Happy birthday/April Fool’s to LGM co-founder R.M.F.
Speaking of the embedded band, djw and the author happened to be at a conference in Portland for a DBT gig at the Crystal Ballroom last week, the first one I’ve seen since Shonna Tucker’s departure. Despite two slightly suppar albums which probably should have been one really good longer one (with material that, as is often the case, improved live), I’ve never seen them better. Appropriately for the political and economic context they ripped off a “Sinkhole” fiercer than any I’ve seen them do before, and the momentum rarely dissipated. Designated bassist Matt Patton was fine. One way the Truckers’ (to oversimplify) Skynyrd/Stones hybrid doesn’t resemble the latter is that the rhythm section tends to be subordinate, but where the basslines drive the song Patton did the job, nicely replicating the ominous base Tucker laid under the Go-Go Boots highlight “Used to Be A Cop.” And John Neff is a most welcome addition, his lyrical solos/slide/steel playing Mick Taylor to Cooley’s Richards, so to speak. And after an already two-hour show, the killer “Marry Me”/”Let There Be Rock” /”Shut Up and Get on the Plane”/”Angels and Fuselage” encore left me wishing they were doing a multi-night stand. See ‘em if you can if you’re into that sort of thing.
Just because George Jones is awesome. This is not stated often enough.