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Music Notes


Another recent show I’ve seen was Steve Earle, at City Winery in Boston. This was the 3rd time I’ve seen him but in some ways the first normal show I had seen. One was at the opening of the John Sayles film Silver City, which was cool but obviously not normal and was just a few songs. The second was when he was working with the Del McCoury Band in the late 90s, which was a show when Del played a few songs, Earle played a few songs, and then they played together. That was great, but again, different. This was a solo show, just him and his acoustic guitar. About tine I saw him in this way. His voice has gotten pretty gruff and it really works for him. He’ll be a good old man singer. He isn’t doing a lot of new music anymore. He went into this and it was really interesting. He is living in New York and has gotten into working on musical theater, which he says takes way more time than writing a regular song or album. His outstanding Ghosts of West Virginia project came out of this but now he is working on a full-fledged musical and that is taking forever. He also doesn’t tour a ton anymore because he has a seriously autistic son and he takes care of him during the school year. So he just tours in the summer, when presumably his ex-wife Allison Moorer takes care of the boy.

In any case, what this meant is that he played broadly from across his career. Some are certainly what you’d expect–“Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road,” etc. But it’s not quite some kind of greatest hits package. He does a few covers–The Pogues “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” and Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” which Earle did on his album of Jerry Jeff covers. Then there was his cover of his son’s “Harlem River Blues” and I gotta say, listening to him talk about losing Justin Townes was tough. He was pretty straightforward about it, said it was better to talk through the pain, and then noted that while he died of fentanyl, he was a coke guy, not a opioids guy. The coke was tainted, he took one hit, and died before he could reach the bathroom door. Rough stuff.

Damn fine show overall. While Earle’s albums are, to say the least, inconsistent, at his best, he’s one of the great American songwriters. Wish he had played some material on The Revolution Starts Now, but I did get to hear “Taneytown,” which is an old favorite.

Two enormous losses in the jazz world this week. The trombonist Curtis Fowlkes passed, at the age of 73. Bad heart. If you know Fowlkes, it’s probably from his great work with The Jazz Passengers, which were mostly known in the 90s and were an important attempt for avant-garde musicians to reach into something more mainstream without giving up their identity. It was a great band. I am particularly a fan of Implement Yourself, from 1990. At that time, Marc Ribot was in the band, though he left it later. The other thing I’d note about Fowlkes work is his appearance on Bill Frisell’s Quartet album, in 1996. This was an unusual band, with Frisell on guitar, Fowlkes on trombone, Ron Miles (RIP) on trumpet, and Eyvind Kang on violin. So no normal rhtythm instruments. Add to this that most of the songs were Frisell’s compositions for the TV Far Side special that his friend Gary Larson did in 1995. So it’s an odd album but it is, along with This Land, the best of Frisell’s career, at least among the bands he led. Fowlkes’ work on this album is incredible. I saw this band twice in person and he was great both times. It’s a big loss.

An even more profound loss is that of the saxophonist, bassist, and pianist (and other stuff too) Charles Gayle. It was Burning Ambulance who broke this new news to me. He was old, but it is still a huge loss. As BA says, Gayle was always wildly misunderstood. He really should be seen as one of the great giants of modern jazz, but he usually is kind of forgotten about. Gayle albums are not often the easiest to listen to, but they are deeply profound, infused with his very felt Christian spirituality that flows through his sax and piano especially, As with so many greats who were falling on the wayside, the bassist William Parker did a lot of work to bring back Gayle and they played together on several albums. Gayle was one of the key people interviewed in the German film about the New York free jazz scene, Rising Tones Cross. This was during Gayle’s intentionally homeless period, which he felt freed him to be the jazz musician he wanted to be. So yeah, he was a trip. And a great.

We talked about the death of the great Richard Davis last week, but here’s the Times obit of him, which came out after I wrote last week’s post. Also need to note the passing of the early folk scene figure Len Chandler.

Jann Wenner is trash and I am glad that he is finally facing consequences for it. But as a friend of mine and sometime commenter here texted me about the comments to Cheryl’s post about Wenner, “I love how the LGM commenters can be “Yes, the boomers dominate American culture and have since 1964. Yes, Wenner and Rolling Stone promoted a particular brand of white man music. But also, that music is objectively the best ever made.” Yes, this.

And I mean, the ways in which the olds continue to claim the music of bands who started between 1961 and 1975 is the greatest music ever made is totally ridiculous. That doesn’t mean that it was bad music–much of it is indeed great. But no era has better music than any other. You can aesthetic preferences–for me, a lot of 80s music doesn’t hold up because I hate the production values of the era, but that’s just me. Much of the music from this era that people reference in our comments is also far from the best examples of rock and roll from that period. If you want to argue that the Stones are the greatest band ever, I won’t argue, though I don’t know what “greatest band” even means. If you want to argue that Emerson Lake and Palmer belongs in any discussion of the era in which the greatest music ever is supposed to have been made, just stop it.

In any case, again, there’s no reason the best rock and roll band in the world is not playing in some garage right now. There’s absolutely nothing inherently better about old rock than new rock. What is really going on here is the same people who have dominated American popular culture from the time they are 10 are now 70 and they just won’t let go (checks average of leading Democrats) and so they continue to insist that the music of their high school parking lot is the best and not the crap their kids or grandkids listen to. And I mean, c’mon. Just listen to new music in between your old music!

Maren Morris claims she is giving up on country music due to the right-wing politics of Nashville and country fans. I’m not sure what it means to give up on a brand of music. I assume she is just going to keep doing her music and playing her songs. I mean, I guess Taylor Swift gave up on country music too, but she was just a kid when she played it and then went on to make choices of her own.

Hey, today is Hank Williams’ 100th birthday!

How Latin stars became mainstream American stars

A playlist from the surprisingly robust music scene of Denton, Texas. In fact, this town has been an important incubator of American music for a long time now.

This week’s playlist, quite short due to a lot of shuffle:

  1. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin III
  2. Sunny Sweeney, Trophy
  3. Elizabeth Cook, Welder
  4. Alejandro Escovedo, More Miles than Money
  5. Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
  6. The Harmaleighs, She Won’t Make Sense
  7. Lorelle Meets the Obsolete, De Facto
  8. Amyl and the Sniffers, Comfort to Me
  9. Julia Jacklin, Pre Pleasure
  10. Guy Clark, Cold Dog Soup
  11. Scout Niblett, The Calcination of Scout Niblett
  12. Merle Haggard, It’s All in the Movies
  13. Janelle Monae, The Age of Pleasure
  14. Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer
  15. Willis Alan Ramsey, self-titled
  16. Ray Price, Night Life
  17. Duke Ellington, Black Brown and Beige, disc 2
  18. Joanna Newsom, Divers
  19. Lucinda Williams, self-titled
  20. Butch Hancock, Own and Own
  21. Bill Callahan, Rough Travel for a Rare Thing
  22. Old 97s, Most Messed Up
  23. War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
  24. Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley, Lost in the Lonesome Pines
  25. Tom Russell, The Long Way Around
  26. Peter Rowan and Don Edwards, High Lonesome Cowboy
  27. Buddy Tabor, Edge of Despair
  28. Material, Live in Japan
  29. Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight
  30. Spring Heel Jack, Masses
  31. Herbie Hancock, Speak Like a Child
  32. Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerard, Pioneering Women of Bluegrass
  33. Jason Isbell, Live at the Ryman
  34. Jim Lauderdale, Game Changer
  35. Willie Nelson, God’s Problem Child
  36. Waco Brothers, Going Down in History

Album Reviews:

Thumbscrew, Multicolored Midnight

Thumbscrew is the name of the band featuring Certified Genius Mary Halvorson on guitar, her frequently collaborator Tomas Fujiwara on drums, and Michael Formanek on bass and this is their album from late last year. They play so beautifully together, which isn’t surprisingly since they’ve been playing with each other for years (Fujiwara and Halvorson especially). Evidently, the band has a tradition of getting a lengthy standing gig in Pittsburgh of all places and they hone their albums there, meaning that they play together as a band a lot more than most jazz groups do before recording. It shows too, as the compositional tightness here is really outstanding. Very fine, if not truly amazing album.


Illegal Crowns, Unclosing

And here’s some more Mary Halvorson! Why? Because she fucking rules.

I loved the first Illegal Crowns album, which I consider one of the finest releases of the last decade. So definitely pretty happy to see another release! Fujiwara again appears on drums, as well as their frequent collaborator Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet. The wild card here is the pianist Benoit Delbecq and in my opinion, he’s the real star of the project, taking these frequent collaborators into new and fascinating places. One of the finest albums I’ve heard in 2023 and probably the best jazz album.


Ditz, The Great Regression

First of all, an excellent album title even if the band name is kinda dumb. More importantly, real good post-punk from some angry young Brits. As the band itself says, “People forget that it’s just quite fun to shout really loud.” Indeed my friends and we have so much to shout about these days. Pretty intense vocals, lots of interesting effects, and a lot of anger about the shittiness of shit jobs, intolerance, harassment, and the general state of the world, both Britain and otherwise. The next in a long history of great British punk and punk-adjacent bands.


Jack White, Fear of the Dawn

Jack White has finally gone all the way down the road of dumb overbloated rock. White Stripes were great, in part because of their minimalism. White’s solo career I have found significantly less successful. He’s now using electronics and bloat to make up for a lack of vision. Lots of overweening pretentious prog-style singing on top of it. He’s still a hell of a guitar player, but mostly this sucks.


Arbor Labor Union, Yonder

Alright but a bit boring, more like the AFL in the 30s than the CIO. At its best, catchy Americana, but often a bit weak and even dull. The Americana thing definitely has its limitations, as some of it is bands just not wanting to commit to one road in American music and so it can get all mushed together. That’s great when you are Gram Parsons or Doug Sahm but sometimes ends up being a bland middle and that’s the case here mostly.


Charles Lloyd, Tone Poem

I confess to not being a huge Charles Lloyd fan and I often find his work to be fine, but somewhat less interesting than a lot of other living legends of jazz. For this project, he is with Bill Frisell (very prominent in the mix) on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. It’s well-played and nice enough, but also rather dull at times. Like, it’s fine, but I so often find Lloyd’s work to be the kind of thing that is very background except then sometimes it is not but in ways I don’t find particularly compelling.


Florence & The Machine, Dance Fever

Good solid release by this now long-tenured band. Florence moves away a bit from the pop-oriented material of earlier albums and turns inside, exploring her own problems. It’s still Big Music and it’s still good music too, but it’s a bit different than what came before and I think that’s useful. I don’t know if I’d say this is better than the previous albums exactly; I tend to feel about the same about these releases, which is that I mostly like them but probably won’t listen t them a bunch. Certainly very worthy though.


Amanda Shires and Bobbie Nelson, Loving You

A nice if not particularly urgent or necessary project. Shires was going to do Willie’s “Always on My Mind” on her latest album and then she kicked it off and decided on a collaborative project with Sister Bobbie, who has since passed. Well, she was always underrated in Willie’s band and she plays those barrelhouse high notes like no other. But “Always on My Mind” is also most definitely the best song on the album, so maybe it just should have stayed on Shires’ main release. But you know what? It’s not only fine, but it’s sweet to give attention to Bobbie. Willie shows up for a song too and even at his advanced age, he still makes others sound good in duets. Really, he’s such a great duet singer. The couple of instrumentals are there to center Bobbie and they are fine, but not that memorable. Neat project, but again, not exactly one that deserves repeated listens.


Speedy Ortiz, Rabbit Rabbit

Great new album from one of the finest indie rock outfits of our time. Sadie DuPuis goes dark here, exploring the sexual abuse she faced as a child and the way her family covered it up. And yet, how dark can Sadie get when the music is so bright and cheery? Amazing how listenable this album is given its subject matter. The band is good too and so when they play, it’s not Sadie and the Band, it’s a real band of people who intersect. Even live, she doesn’t dominate the proceedings, even though she is why everyone is there. Very fine work.


Franky Perez, Crossing the Great Divide

Big voiced accompanier to big voice hair metal dudes releases an album of his own songs that is vaguely Americana, but also still pretty much sounds like if Sammie Hagar or Tommy Shaw decided to record an Americana album. Avoidable due to cheesy vocals.


Big Brave, Vital

As I have stated, I am not inclined to like metal very much, but this is more than a partial exception. This is a pondering album that repeats themes and goes deep into the world of the slow build. The sludgy guitar and the building but not annoying in the way that so many metal vocals are to me really does work pretty well. Robin Wattie can really sing. And since you can actually mostly understand the vocals here for once in a metal band, a song like “Half Breed,” about racism against mixed-race people (I assume this is a very personal issue here) is really quite powerful. Like I’d actually listen to this again. Interestingly, I’d say the closest thing to this is one of the only metal people I do listen to occasionally and that’s Chelsea Wolfe.


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

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