As you know by the now, the great Dr. John has passed. One of the most unique figures in late 20th century music, his reputation probably somewhat outmatched his body of recorded work. The heroin took its toll. But as perhaps the most prominent ambassador of New Orleans music to white rock kids, he is certainly a very valuable and pretty cool guy. Many truly loved him. I saw Dr. John live once. This was on a package show in Knoxville, Tennessee sometime between 1998 and 2000. He was basically fine that night, but not really remarkable. Unfortunately, what I really remember about the show was a racist going ballistic when Keb Mo played a Hank Williams song (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” I think), shouting racist epithets and throwing shit at the stage. That was probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen at a show. Sigh. There was a story about it in the newspaper the next day. When the cops arrested him, one got pricked by the hypodermic needles in his pocket. Good times. Charlie Musselwhite played that night as well. I also enjoyed Dr. John’s appearances in Treme, to the extent I could understand what he was mumbling. David Simon’s Twitter thread about this is pretty great.
Two other major deaths in the music world. First is that of Tony Glover, from the folk group Koerner, Ray, and Glover, which I maintain is an underrated group from the 1960s folk revival. Second is the epic Bushwick Bill, from the Geto Boys, who sadly died of pancreatic cancer, a mere 52 years of age.
What is country music? This is one of the most annoying questions in the music world, largely because it’s all about gatekeeping. When race factors in, it gets even worse, because there are a lot of country fans who inherently believe that it has to be white. So when Lil Nas X did a country album, people flipped the hell out, forcing Billboard to withdraw it from the country charts. This is, uh, not good. But much better is this excellent article about race and country music in response to all of it.
I was lucky enough to see the Kora player Sona Jobarteh play at a little festival in Providence the other day. Jobarteh comes from one of the great Gambian Kora families, the cousin of Toumani Diabate. Having grown up in the UK and thus a bit separated from the traditional society of her people, she broke the gender barrier of the Kora and is really the first major female kora player. While the venue wasn’t the best–the first act of an outdoor downtown arts festival where you have a lot of indifference to what is going on–she was really quite good and it turns out that Providence has a Gambian population, a few of whom at least came out and were very excited.
Speaking of the Kora, when I was forced to go to Disneyworld last month–an experience I guess I would describe as slightly less horrible than I expected, but still mostly bad–one slightly pleasant surprise is that when we were in Animal Kingdom–largely a reminder of how much Disney continues to traffic in colonial and Orientalist tropes–I guess in order to push back against that a little bit, they actually had a stage with African musicians playing throughout the day. The music was mostly pretty good that I saw–although the racist responses of various white people to intentionally dance like idiots made me murderous–but among them was a Kora player, which opened up the opportunity for me to explain to the 10 year old niece we were taking was a Kora was and how cool is. She mostly had no idea why I would know something like this.
In their entire collective careers, Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw have combined to say absolutely nothing of interest. So it’s not surprising that their op-ed about the complexities of country music’s politics also says absolutely nothing of interest.
Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts
Other than perhaps Matthew Shipp, Craig Taborn is possibly the best pianist of his generation. I’ve had the fortune of seeing him play a couple of times live and he’s just utterly amazing. This 2017 ECM release is a solid entry into his canon of great albums. It certainly sounds like an ECM album, which is both a compliment and a diss, as there are few labels who shape a sound more, sometimes to the detriment of the music being very exciting. But with Chris Speed on sax and clarinet (perhaps the most underused instrument in jazz), Chris Lightcap on bass (one of the times I’ve seen Taborn was in a Lightcap project), and Dave King on drums, the material stays pretty interesting. It’s not an album of big solos or showing off (ECM after all!). They play as a tight and often beautiful quartet. Taborn has always been more interested in electronics than a lot of jazz pianists and he uses them to great effect here as well. Very much worth your time.
Wolf Alice, My Love is Cool
Finally decided to check out the 2015 debut from these British rockers. I liked this more than I thought I would. Perhaps I am jaded from the bad anthemic British pub rock, but it’s unfair to compare other acts to that. Anyway, this grew on me as I listened to it. The songs often switch tone, both lyrically and musically, as they go along, revealing more emotional heft than I perhaps expected. Ellie Rowsell is a strong vocalist. By many accounts, they put on a very rocking live show, which I would now like to see. Pretty interesting band.
Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra, Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra
To what extent is a performance real? And does it matter? Some years ago, the French Institute in Haiti invited the great Nigerian drummer Tony Allen to come to Haiti and play a big show with the nation’s leading musicians. He readily agreed. They practiced a little bit and played the show. But the recording in the show got all screwed up so the live document was never able to be released. However, still wanting to get some material from this get together out to the public, one of the musicians, the guitarist Mark Mulholland, who had since moved to Mali, told some other musicians about it, some producers got involved, some new vocals were recorded over the practice sessions, the producers cleaned it up quite a bit, and the album was released. So is this an “authentic” performance? Who cares. It’s a great album, however much it reflects what was actually going on in the practice studio at the time. And that’s all that matters. Great musicians doing wonderful things.
Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, 1980
It’s a real shame how much of Gil Scott-Heron’s work is unavailable. Sure, you can get Pieces of a Man. But he released solid material all the way through the 70s, usually with the keyboardist Brian Jackson. And hardly any of it is commercially available. I realized I hadn’t heard 1980, which I think is the last album they did together and was technically released i 1979. It was hard to find. Luckily, someone had put it all up on YouTube. It’s not brilliant exactly, but it’s very good. It’s a dark vision of the decade to come after a decade of great disappointment at the lack of social change. “Shut ‘Um Down” is a classic anti-nuclear song from the peak of that movement. But really, it’s “1980” is astoundingly great song to express the overall disappointment of the 1970s and a taste of the far worse 80s, especially poignant considering that is when Scott-Heron’s despair overwhelmed him and he became a crack addict. The disco-era arrangements don’t always work, but his entire catalog deserves some high quality remastering and releases.
L7, Scatter the Rats
I had at least minor hopes for this, but they weren’t fulfilled. L7 was a great band in the early to mid 90s, and there’s no reason that such a band can’t still be today (Sleater-Kinney’s new stuff, for instance!), but there’s just nothing much here of interest. It kind of rocks, but the songs aren’t very meaningful and the band sounds tired despite the occasional good lick or groove. Too bad.
As always, this is an open thread for none things politics and all things art.