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Music Notes


I think it’s time for my long-awaited Dead themed post.

There’s no real reason for the timing other than that I don’t have anything better to talk about. However, it is worth noting that Martin Scorsese is now making a feature film on the Dead, starring Jonah Hill as Jerry Garcia. I am skeptical, yes. I’m not real sure what the story arc here is that matters. But it is a good time to talk about the Dead, which might be the single most divisive band in rock history.

I happen to like the Dead quite a bit. I saw them on the last tour, in Portland in 1995. It was….fine. You know, Jerry wasn’t exactly at his peak for, oh, the 15 years before that. Like a lot of these big rockers, the years of living hard really took their toll and the creative juices were replaced by the tasty juice of heroin (or smoke in Jerry’s case). I think for the era, it was an above average show that included “Black Peter,” which they weren’t playing much and ending with “Box of Rain,” which might be the only good Phil Lesh song but is a true classic. Got a few favorites in the first set with “Jack Straw” and “Brown Eyed Women,” which was great. The Drums/Space stuff was typically bad, especially given that in this era they were using a lot of Midi stuff with it, making it somehow even less listenable than usual.

I think what I’m already saying here is that I really like the dead-I have 10 or so shows that I listen to in a semi-regular rotation–but that I also completely understand why people hate them. At the very least, they should be made fun of. I mean, 37 minute version of “Dark Star” really just beg for jokes and I am happy to make them. So let me discuss what I love about the Dead, what I don’t, and how I think a smart music fan (or me anyway) should fall in the end.

What makes the Dead really great is a combination of very good songwriting and a psychedelic experience deeply rooted in the heart of America. I think both of these aspects of them are underrated by the general public. First, the songwriting. In particularly the collaborations with Robert Hunter, the band has a series of just wonderful songs. Just think of a few of them–“Bertha,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Dire Wolf,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “Truckin,” “The Other One,” “Brown Eyed Women,” “Jack Straw,” etc. There’s a lot of very very good songs here. Second, their experience is so quintessentially American. These are songs of the road, of being in touch with the land and the nation around you, and of being able to channel that into good music. Of course everyone knows about the drugs and the riffs that go, well, somewhere on the longer versions of “Dark Star” and “The Other One,” and others are definitely what people know them for. But there are many bands whose output is based upon the use of mind-alerting drugs. Few of them did what the Dead did. The Band tried, but were only able to keep it up for a short time. Even their own fans don’t understand this. The jam bands of the 90s that followed–Phish especially but many of the others–were abysmal songwriters who were just fucking around with the lyrics and the real point was the jamming. For the Dead, the jams were only half the point. I happen to like the other half better. Yes, the guys in Phish are far better singers than Garcia or Weir or Lesh, but what they are singing about is complete nonsense. Me, I like a good song. And the Dead had them. Many of them.

Now, the Dead is also completely responsible for the many reasons people don’t like them. That starts with the fans and culture around them, which is barely tolerable for everyone else who isn’t part of this. They absolutely promoted this. Look, I don’t want to hang out with Deadheads much. Or at all because they probably haven’t bathed. But I do want to listen to the music. And isn’t that what matters. Second, a bad Dead show was a very bad show indeed and the 80s were full of them. But then the 80s were a bad time for nearly every artist that came up through the 60s–Neil Young, the guys from The Band, Dylan, the Stones, I could go on and on here. This was a rough time for aging artists who partied too hard and thought the good times would last forever as their bodies started breaking down and the minds got more fried than inspired. It was true enough of country music too–how many Willie and Waylon albums from the 80s do you want to hear? None? The Highwaymen is one of the worst albums I own. Heck, even the jazz legends of the 60s had really hit bottom in the 80s, unless you want to try and remember what Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin and Wayne Shorter were doing in that decade, which was, uh, inconsistent at best. And then there is the comeback Miles releases……

So let’s place the Dead in some context here. The difference between those guys and their peers is that they stayed on the road and worked through it. When Jerry wasn’t too wasted, it could be pretty good. It often wasn’t. The Drums/Space stuff was at best tolerable and often far worse than that. They stopped being innovative cover artists (another great part of the band) and started just adding third rate Dylan covers to their repertoire, the nadir being the horrible tour they did together and the awful album they released out of it. In other words, they were pretty washed up.

Well, OK, they were washed up. They were self-indulgent. The drugs that helped lead to good songs in 1971 led to pretty bad songs in 1985. The culture was laughable. All of this is true.

And yet, the Grateful Dead not only play a unique role in the history of American popular culture, but at their best, which is basically the entire career through about 1978, they were just a great fucking band. So let’s remember the awesome as much as we can and try to forget the bad.

Still not sure about a Dead feature film, but hey, whatever Marty go for it.

There’s a new Dead doc too.

This is a really good piece on the work Jason Isbell is doing with Black country/Americana artists in promoting them by having them open for him during his yearly Opry stint. This is good stuff. I’m still mad at Isbell for playing almost the exact same damn setlist at both sets in his festival a couple of months ago, but this helps me forgive him. I know Scott linked to this earlier, but I don’t have a links in this post so am keeping it in here.

Turns out ducks are big Ramones fans. Blitzkrieg quack indeed.

Album Reviews:

Antonio Adolfo, Jobim Forever

A perfectly fine and pleasant rendition of Jobim songs. Better for the background music than an an intensive listen. That’s OK, there’s a place for that. These are playful covers that move the conversation around the potential of Jobim’s music forward. That’s cool. I do think there are limitations for this kind of album, but it’s completely listenable and I bet a lot of people would like it quite a bit.


Old 97s, Twelfth

I don’t know why I didn’t listen to the latest release from one of my favorite bands for over a year, but sometimes this happens. In any case, this is a solid entry into the Old 97s catalog. Probably about average for the history of the band. There are some really hot songs here and a few that drag a bit, especially toward the end, which isn’t super shocking for a band that’s been going strong for nearly 30 years now. This isn’t at the level of Fight Songs or Most Messed Up, but probably is a step up from the previous album (or at least non-Christmas album, which I refuse to hear), Graveyard Whistling. Good rock and roll. Grade ticks down for them being Cowboys fans. I don’t care that they are from Dallas. Still not OK.


Dntel, The Seas Trees See

Like a lot of people, I basically know Dntel from his work with Ben Gibbard on The Postal Service album, one of the iconic releases of the mid-2000s. So I thought I’d finally check out his solo work, with this year’s release. It’s solid enough. I don’t as a general rule care for electronic music. But I did like this fairly well. It starts with a weird cover of Kate Wolf’s “The Lilac and the Apple,” which appeals. There are some interesting reflective pieces and some spoken word. Overall, it’s fairly evocative of a hazy nostalgia, which has its limitations as a theme but works OK here.


The Steoples, Wide Through the Eyes of No One

Completely fine but somewhat forgettable R&B. Fits squarely into the R&B nostalgia phase we’ve seen in the last 15 years. Some interesting tracks, some that I found a bit whatever. That said, it’s certainly more than functional within the genre. Bet some of you will like this a bit more than I did.


Bomba Estereo, Deja

Look, everything is horrible. Anyone with a conscious knows this. That includes the members of the great Colombian dance band Bomba Estereo. They spent the pandemic in isolation, making this album in Santa Marta, on the beach and near the jungles that provide so many of their sounds (I watched the Oregon-Ohio State 2015 national championship game in a bar in Santa Marta; it was an, uh, interesting experience). As they have previously, they combine Latin dance music with the indigenous sounds of their nation. And they’ve always a political bent to the music. But this is dance music for the apocalypse. They know the future is grim. They see what climate change and deforestation and the drug war and political corruption is doing to their country. They know what is happening around the world. They are happy to talk about it. But the first principle is finding hope and joy in the music. That’s the conscious goal of this album. It works brilliantly. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, the grooves are so great and Li Samet’s vocals so contagious that you will find yourself trying to sing along. Music can provide hope and joy in the middle of all the horrors of this world. Thank higher power of your choice that Bomba Estereo reminds us of this.


Natural Information Society/Evan Parker, Descension (Out of Constrictions)

Astounding album fearing the soprano saxophone of the great Evan Parker riffing over the mostly rhythmic contributions of Natural Information Society. This has a similar structure to the widely lauded collaboration between Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra I discussed a couple of weeks ago and which is frequently called the best jazz album of 2021. Well, that’s a great album, but I like this even more. This is really one piece of music, in which the Natural Information Society, a jazz band with heavy house and African influences that make it a rhythm first output, lays down the base for the legendary British saxophonist to do his thing. The results are amazing, even physically exhausting. This is an experience.


Cecil Taylor Quintet, Lifting the Bandstand

Very good archival release featuring a Taylor show from 1998 at the Tampere Jazz Happening. Like much of Taylor’s work, it features a European band because he was simply more popular in Europe than he was at home and could tour there and actually make some money. On this night, he played with the Finnish saxophonist Harri Sjolstrom, the German drummer Paul Lovens, the American cellist Tristan Honsinger, and the Finnish bassist Teppo Hauta-Aho. It’s a pretty fantastic set. One might argue the sound isn’t quite as good as it could be and it does start a bit slow. So if you are looking for a reason to drop this a tick from the very finest of Taylor’s releases, I guess that’s the reason to it. But what is really happening here is that one of the greatest artists in the history of modern music is performing at pretty close to the peak of his powers with a very fine band around him.


As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics or disease.

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