Last weekend, I had the tremendous pleasure of seeing a really great music festival plus other music related ridiculousness. Next week’s post will discuss the music museums I visited. This week, we will focus on the music. I started in Memphis, where I saw my 23rd Drive By Truckers show at Graceland. The only bummer was not being able to actually visit Graceland as part of the experience, but whatever. Someday I will do that. I can only say about Graceland at this point that it is very on-brand for Elvis to be surrounded by some really terrible suburban sprawl. In any case, a few years ago, Graceland opened a nice music venue. It was a little large for DBT and the show was somewhat lightly attended, but it was still a really good set. Even more exciting was that Blue Mountain opened. This was the early 90s alt-country band that stopped playing a long time ago. But they are good friends with DBT and came back together to open the show. That was a lot of fun and they still sounded pretty great. One theme of this post is that seeing people in or near their hometowns is a very good thing if you can pull it off. I won’t go too much in the DBT set because we’ve had so many discussions of the band around these parts, but you can see the setlist here. Personal highlight was seeing them play “The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town” in Memphis, which is their song about their crazy time in that city. I’d seen this song a couple of times before, but it’s a lot of fun in the town where it happened.
The next night, my friend and I drove to Huntsville, Alabama to see a festival called The First Waltz, which opened a brand view venue in that city. The venue itself, The Orion Amphitheatre, is pretty nice, but has some kinks to work out. First is that they have like 9 bars but nowhere that serves food. The strategy was to have food carts but those were completely overwhelmed and if you ordered from them, you were basically guaranteed to miss an entire set of music. Nonsense. The second kink is that when you were on the outside waiting for your food, rather than stream the live music, they were playing other music. Even bigger nonsense. So yeah, there’s work to do. But it’s a nice place.
The theme of the festival was Alabama-based or Alabama-originating artists. And let’s just say that a lot of bands come from Alabama. The first night started with John Paul White, who you may remember from The Civil Wars. I’ve always found his records to be boring and so is his live show. If your priority is “pretty,” then he might your guy. That is very much not my priority. The second set was the great Waxahatchee. This was my 5th show of hers and it’s the first time I’ve seen her with a full band. She sounds just great in that set-up. As I noted the other week with Lydia Loveless, the problem with opening acts is that they are just not able to perform to their ability without things such as drums and bass. The finances of opening acts make that usually impossible. The other thing about Waxahatchee is that she spent the first decade of her career running away from being from Alabama (understandable) and has since pivoted to embracing those roots. It’s helped her songwriting, which was also great before but was also very relationship focused. She was beloved by the crowd and that’s because we should all love her.
The next act was…..Emmylou Harris!!!!!! OMG!!!!! I had never seen Emmylou and there were few people still playing I wanted to see more. She still sounds amazing. To hear her play classic songs such as “Together Again,” “Get Up John,” “Guitar Town,” “From Boulder to Birmingham,” “Ooh Las Vegas,” “Red Dirt Girl,” and a bunch of others, I mean this was a spiritual experience. Just astounding. Plus the steel player from the Hot Band days played with her for the first time in 40 years.
The first night closed with Jason Isbell, in what I think is the 9th time I’ve him. I’ve expressed some frustration with his live shows before because he’s become the guy who plays the same songs and says the same things every single night. Given his now quite impressive catalog, I have no idea what he does this. He certainly didn’t come up that way with DBT. So it’s super frustrating. Don’t get me wrong. The band is TIGHT. They sound great. It’s just that I can predict almost every song they will play. The only moderate surprise I suppose was “Speed Trap Town.” Also, I just flat out don’t like “Cover Me Up,” which he will have to play until the end of time.
Day two was pretty special too and also something of an object lesson on race in music. The day stared with the one and only Mavis Staples. This is another artist that I am extremely glad I finally got to see. Mavis is starting to slow down. Her voice is still pretty strong and when she’s up there she brings the energy, but she only played for about 30 minutes before she got tired. But don’t fool yourself–it was a magical 30 minutes. Now that I have seen Mavis sing “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” I mean, I’m good to die now. Amazing. Moreover, she played with the last living Muscle Shoals session player, the bassist David Hood, who is DBT’s Patterson Hood’s father. She kept saying “Play it Little David!” It was great. Just great.
Then…..St. Paul and the Broken Bones came on. Now, this band can put on a good show. But this band is also the ultimate in white appropriation of Black music. He tries to be James Brown. He has his moves. The band is pretty funky. It’s also all-white except the sax player. He makes a lot of money. He’s the latest in a long, long, long line of acts that makes Black music safe for the whites. The crowd loved him. But, well, more on this in a minute.
Next came DBT show 24. Another fine short session set. I’ve heard Hood sing “Let There Be Rock” a lot of times but when he sings about how he had tickets to see Skynyrd in Hunstville in 77 but it got cancelled, well, let’s just say it has more meaning in Huntsville itself. They also played “Thoughts and Prayers,” with its great refrain of “shove it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers” but given that it was in response to the Buffalo shooting that had happened earlier that day, it was more depressing than an outlet for anger. Here’s the setlist.
Then the set closed with Britney Howard and hoooooooooly shit. This was one of the best sets I’ve ever seen in my entire life. She tore the motherfucking place apart. She’s from there (in fact, Patterson Hood initially hooked her band The Alabama Shakes up with music execs) and it was just magical. I am talking pure rock and roll and pure soul combined in one amazingly aggressive and beautiful set. This is a big, openly queer woman who has no compunction being from the South and being exactly who she is. Her biracial band just kills it. It only got better and better and then the encore was a spirtual experience that is exactly why I go and see a lot of music. This is easily a top 10 set of my entire life, and I’ve seen a lot of damn shows at this point. It’s equal to when I saw DBT play the New Year’s Eve 2010 show or the first time I saw William Parker play when he was with Susie Ibarra and Cooper-Moore and Hamid Drake and my entire life changed or the time I saw a bunch of guys in Sumatra that were playing electric western instruments and traditional wind and drums while they were jamming before a wedding. And this was a great way to remember why St. Paul and the Broken Bones isn’t that good. That was the facsimile. Howard was the real thing. It’s what that band aspires to be and will never ever get there despite copying everything they can. My god.
This week’s album playlist:
- Ray Wylie Hubbard, Off the Wall
- Soccer Mommy, Clean
- Leonard Cohen, Live in London
- Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die
- Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, Ba Power
- Kate and Anna McGarrigle, self-titled
- Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze
- Tom T. Hall, In Search of a Song
- Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
- The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Brazil
- Rhianna, Talk That Talk
- Roscoe Mitchell, Splatter
- Whit Dickey, Mat Maneri & Matthew Shipp, Vessel in Orbit
- Greg Brown, Milk of the Moon
- Juliana Hatfield Three, Whatever My Love
- Christopher Paul Stelling, Labor Against Waste
- Tomeka Reid Quartet, Old New
- Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch
- X, Alphabetland
- Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse, Dark Night of the Soul
- The Steeldrivers, Self-Titled
- Algiers, The Underside of Power
- Drive By Truckers, It’s Great to Be Alive
- Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Kick Your Ass
- Miguel, Wildheart
- Jane Weaver, Flock
- Eliza Carthy, Restitude
- Wayne Horvitz, 4+1 Ensemble
- Ass Ponys, The Okra Years
- Beverly, The Blue Swell
- The Flaming Lips, American Head
- Marika Hackman, Any Human Friend
- Mdou Moctor, Afrique Victime
- Amyl and the Sniffers, Comfort to Me
- Bonnie Prince Billy and The Cairo Gang, The Wonder Show of the World
- Childbirth, Women’s Rights
- Joanna Newsom, Divers
- Dave Douglas, High Risk
- Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree
- John Moreland, LP5
- Jerry Lee Lewis, There Must Be More to Love Than This
- Iggy Pop & James Williamson, Kill City
- Frank Proffitt, Frank Proffitt Sings Folk Songs
- Guided by Voices, Motivational Jumpsuit
- Rosalia, Motomami
- Bill Callahan, Dream River
- Johnny Paycheck, On His Way
- The Derailers, Soldiers of Love
A couple of big music losses this week. I don’t care about Vangelis. That kind of bombastic movie soundtrack is very much not my thing. But there’s no question that “Chariots of Fire” is something you remember. Bobby Neuwirth really is more than just a guy in Dylan’s circle as the obit in the Times claims. He was a key figure in the folk scene of the New York in the 60s and was a mentor to people such as Kris Kristofferson. In the end, he’s a minor guy in the history of modern music, but he’s a lot less minor than a lot of better known people.
Interesting New Yorker feature on Bill Frisell, in part because to take seriously the very real critique of his work in the last 10 years but totally misses it.
A familiar critique of Frisell’s music is that it is too beautiful, too enjoyable—that, after a groundbreaking first decade, when he reimagined the jazz guitar by stretching and smooshing his sound with effects (compression, delay, and so on), and a second decade, when he reimagined it again by drawing on country and rock, he has settled into making easy-on-the-ears boomer soundscapes. That view misses the giant step that Frisell’s music represents. His music has the guitar, not the guitarist, at its center; it’s rooted in the guitar’s history and textures and harmonic possibilities, more so than in any particular genre. And the role he occupies in music today has a lot to do with the fact that he plays the instrument that rock, jazz, blues, folk, and country have in common. It’s the guitar that sets these musical traditions apart from classical music, on the one hand, and electronic and sample-based music, on the other.
This seems to elide the point of the criticism. Yes, sure, the guitar is at the center of Frisell’s music. That’s fine. But I have absolutely no idea how the first and second halves of this paragraph work together. The role Frisell occupies in music today may in fact have to do that he is a master of the instrument that is central to all the genres and which all influence him. This has nothing to do with the equally true fact that most of his music has become extremely boring. It bums me out because Frisell was absolutely my favorite musician in the world between about 1995 and 2010. But I don’t even bother seeing him when he’s in town now. Boomer soundscapes indeed.
Introduction to the albums of Westbound Records, the late 60s-70s iconic Detroit label that included Funkadelic.
Album Reviews. I don’t think I was extra cranky this week. Just bad luck I guess.
Hedvig Mollestad Trio, Ding Dong You’re Dead
Prog wankery disguised as jazz. A great example of what happens when jazz comes from nations with no Black diaspora influence on their music. Excellent musicians, no question. But jazz for Dream Theater fans is not my bag.
Sue Foley, Pinky’s Blues
The problem with a lot of contemporary blues is that it’s basically a set of white nostalgia acts for a time and place where they could go see poor Black people perform and gain inspiration from them. I’d like to say that Foley’s album from last year is different, but it’s not. The first track is a somewhat pointless instrumental. The second is all about hearing Muddy Waters on the radio. There’s a reason the audience for this music is now almost exclusively white and almost exclusively old. It’s sad. But there’s no new energy here and, again, Foley, while a very good guitarist and an OK vocalist, doesn’t really move it in any direction past this. It’s not really that this is bad. It’s just pointless.
A Certain Ratio, ACR: Set
I don’t often listen to compilations, but I thought this would be a good way to get at the work of A Certain Ratio. Given they’ve been around forever and are a historically important, if rather minor, band, I figured I should fill this gap. Alas, the ratio of interesting songs to not interesting songs is not good. This band is OK if you want some general background music that is just catchy and interesting enough to grab your attention here and there. But if this is as good as it gets, I’m not sure what the actual albums would deliver. Perhaps my indifference here comes out of white English disco, which……..
Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
I saw Valerie June play a few years ago and didn’t think nearly as much of it as so many people seem to. The reason was that I couldn’t stand her overly high-pitched voice which felt as put on as anything. So I was a bit skeptical about her new and well-regarded album from last year. Well, whatever I thought about seeing her live, she had her voice under much more control in this recording. Lyrically, this is a pretty heavy album examining her past. Musically, it’s ambitious and interesting, with a bunch of real short interludes allowing us to breathe between the songs. I don’t exactly love this, but it’s worthy.
Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars
This is alright. Springsteen seems to be well-positioned to write an album about the modern West, regardless of where he is from, especially when it is about the decline of the America he knew as a youth. The problems is that all the songs basically sound the same and most are only passably interesting. His voice really isn’t what it once was. This is hardly a bad album. But if it had the name “Joe Ely” or “Tom Russell” atop it, it would be immediately forgotten. I am sure the BRUCE!!!!!!!!!!! crowd will be outraged, but not all his albums are good.
Maybe I’ll like next week’s albums better. In any case, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics.