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By Joe Bendel. It was a Texas kind of night in D.C. A concert bill that featured the likes of Billy Preston, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Delbert McClinton certainly reminds us of Texas’s contributions to blues, soul, and R&B. Ostensibly, the show was part of the inaugural festivities of President George H.W. Bush, another Texan, by choice. Of course, inaugurations are really just an excuse to party, which is definitely the vibe of A Celebration of Blue & Soul: the 1989 Inaugural Concert, which airs nationally on participating PBS stations during the March 1-16 pledge drive.

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Long feared lost to the ages, the multi-camera recordings of the inauguration night bash have been rediscovered and restored, with a longer DVD release planned for the future. Naturally, Bush campaign manager and former Percy Sledge sideman Lee Atwater served as the honorary chairman of the concert and the invisible hand behind the scenes bringing it all together. After his greeting, the shorter PBS version launches into Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time,” perhaps the most perfunctory performance of the evening.  Next, Atwater’s old boss Sledge gives the crowd what it wants: “When a Man Loves a Woman,” for probably the 500,000th time in his career, but he still does his thing with genuine feeling.

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Obviously, the 1989 concert has been edited with an eye towards greatest hits to make it pledge drive friendly, but just about everyone brought their A-game for their signature tunes. Eddie Floyd shows the showmanship of an old pro on “Knock on Wood,” while Sam Moore lays down the authority on “Soul Man,” backed by musical director Billy Preston and Stax veterans Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn.

Clearly, there is a lot of real deal blues on the program, including legendary Chess Records mainstay Willie Dixon performing “Hoochie Coochie Man,” which represents the height of blues authenticity. Albert Collins also gets his solo spotlight on “Frosty” (along with his protégé, Vaughan) as does McClinton on “Just a Little Bit.” Most of the artists are backed by the funky ensemble led by Preston and featuring Dunn and Cropper (but alas multi-reed jazzman Patience Higgins is not prominently spotlighted in the PBS cut). Of course, Bo Diddley brought in his own band, because that was how he rolled. He also had Ronnie Wood sit-in on the classic “Bo Diddley Beat” strutter, “Hey, Bo Diddley.”

From "A Celebration of Blues & Soul: The 1989 Inaugural Concert."

For understandable reasons, Stevie Ray Vaughan is the only artist allotted more than one number (this is pledge season after all), but he sure could play. He also closes the show with some fittingly nonpartisan, patriotic life-affirming sentiments. It is depressing to think only a year and a half later his own life would be cut short in helicopter crash, while he was still at the absolute peak of his powers. Indeed, the 1989 Inaugural concert captures for posterity many late greats in an appreciative setting, performing the songs that made them famous.

This is a great week for music on PBS. While the 1989 Inaugural Concert does not offer as many surprises as last night’s Jazz and the Philharmonic, it cooks along nicely. The concert itself is a lot of good, clean, soulful fun, but do not be surprised if someone asks you for money at least once during the broadcast. Recommended for fans of blues and Stax-style Memphis soul, A Celebration of Blue & Soul: the 1989 Inaugural Concert aired twice yesterday (3/1) on New York’s Thirteen and can be seen on PBS outlets throughout the country over the next two weeks.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on February 2nd, 2014 at 2:51pm.

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Apr 032012

By Joe Bendel. Some things never change. In the late 1970’s, Chicago was home to musicians who played the blues and crooked politicians who gave them, just as it is now. For his feature directorial debut, future Fugitive helmer Andrew Davis captured the vibe of his hometown in the hip musical drama Stony Island (a.k.a. My Main Man from Stony Island). Despite the talent involved in the production, it has been nearly unseen for decades, known mostly to diehard record collectors familiar with the smoking hot soundtrack LP. Happily, this will soon change. Stony Island screens this Wednesday and Thursday at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center, in advance of it April 24th DVD release from Cinema Libre.

Guileless guitarist Richie Bloom has come to Chicago with a dream. He wants to start a band, so he does with the help of his vocalist Stony Island neighbor Edward “Stoney” Robinson and Percy Price, a beloved tenor sax veteran of the Chicago music scene. Slowly, they piece together a grooving big-funk band, but just as it all starts to click, Price, their spiritual leader, tragically dies. With their first big gig on the horizon, the Stony Island Band must pull together to find a way to give the destitute Price a proper send-off.

Comprised largely of tunes arranged and composed by David Matthews (the CTI Records house arranger), the Stony Island soundtrack should have been more sought after by vinyl hounds. Though ostensibly R&B, the Stony Island Band often plays more in a greasy soul jazz bag, which is very cool. A lot of great musicians’ musicians appear in the film, such as Chess Records mainstay Gene Barge, making a strong impression as Price. Those heard but not seen include studio warriors like alto saxophonist David Sanborn (during his groovy CTI, pre-smooth days), guitarist Hiram Bullock, and bassist Mark Egan.

Some of Island’s musician-actors are a bit awkward on-screen, but they always mean well. In contrast Barge gives a fantastically soulful and assured performance as Price, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of funk. Likewise, Ronnie Barron, a onetime sideman to just about everyone from New Orleans, brings the film a fresh jolt of energy as keyboard player Ronnie Roosevelt. His NOLA arrangement of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” is also one of the film’s highlights.

Viewers should keep an eye out for jazz vocalist Oscar Brown, Jr. in a nonmusical role as the corrupt Alderman Waller. Ironically, a young Rae Dong Chong has a mostly musical rather than dramatic part, appearing as Janetta, a back-up vocalist. Likewise, Susanna Hoffs, the future Bangle and daughter of co-writer-co-producer Tamar Hoffs, never sings a note as Bloom’s girlfriend Lucie.

Even more than his crime dramas like Code of Silence, Davis vividly conveys to viewers of Island a sense of Chicago, soaking up its distinctive sights and sounds. He even uses Daley Sr’s real life funeral as a surreal backdrop. Considering the future big name stars appearing here early in their careers (Dennis Franz as a sleazy hustler? You bet) and the highly regarded (if not exactly world famous) musical talent heard throughout, it seems downright bizarre the film was not reissued far earlier. Cheers to Cinema Libre for getting it.

Granted, the let’s-get-a-band-together story is a bit predictable, but its earnest enthusiasm is endearing. Sentimental in the right way, Island feels like the last gasp of big city innocence. Featuring a swinging, funk-drenched soundtrack and a wonderfully humane supporting turn from Barge, Island is a criminally neglected movie musical gem. Highly recommended for blues-funk-R&B-soul jazz fans, Davis will personally present both screenings at the Siskel Center this Wednesday (4/4) and Thursday (4/5), with the mother and daughter Hoffses set to attend both nights and the great Barge also scheduled to appear at the first screening. For those outside Chicago, it releases nationwide on DVD and screens at Los Angeles’ American Cinematheque on April 24th.

Posted on April 3rd, 2012 at 2:25pm.

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By David Ross. The dynamics of rock and its offshoots are very strange. Young men make a ruckus and recede into burnt-out abeyance or empty iconicity. Why should this be? The law of diminishing returns does not especially apply to painting, poetry, or fiction. Milton began Paradise Lost at age fifty. Yeats did not begin to write his greatest poetry until roughly the same age. Yeats’ late poem “An Acre of Grass” indicates his geriatric ferocity:

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear….

Why do bluesmen deepen and roughen and come to perfection, while rockers become parodies of themselves? Drugs take their toll, I’m sure. It may also be that rockers’ aesthetic aspirations merely euphemize the deeper lust for fame and fortune, upon achievement of which the creative apparatus begins to shut down.

Flamenco’s great guitarists shame the oligarchs of rock. These liver-spotted old men play with immense pride and passion, confirming what Hemingway says in Death in the Afternoon, his treatise on Spanish bullfighting: “In Spain honor is a very real thing. Called pundonor, it means honor, probity, courage, self-respect and pride in one word. . . . Honor to a Spaniard, no matter how dishonest, is as real a thing as water, wine, or olive oil.” The Spanish flamenco guitarists of the previous generations were full of honor in this sense. Like the great toreador Maera, they “gave emotion always” as a matter of their own arrogant mastery. Can we say the same of any member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Sabicas (b. 1912) is my ideal; so too Carlos Montoya (b. 1903), despite occasional errant notes (for Sabicas, see above; for Montoya, here and here). They represent precisely the “old man’s frenzy” that Yeats has in mind. Coincidentally or not, both were of Romani origin.

The great Flamenco guitarists of the younger generation – Paco Pena (b. 1942), Pepe Romero (b. 1944), Paco De Lucia (b. 1947) – are astonishingly virtuosic, but cooler and more clinical, less evocative of old Spain as I imagine it. Fair or not, I see conservatory practice rooms instead of sun-baked streets, dusty markets, girls parading in the evening. What’s lacking is swagger, sensuality, the manly disregard that purifies Maera in Hemingway’s telling:

He was driving and the bull was driving and the sword buckled nearly double and then shot up into the air. As it buckled it dislocated his wrist. He picked the sword up in his left hand and carried it over to the barrera and with his left hand pulled out a new sword from the leather sheath his sword handler offered him.
“And the wrist?” the sword handler asked.
“F*k the wrist,” Maera said.

Posted on January 10th, 2012 at 7:54pm.

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By David Ross. Bert Jansch, storied fingerpicker and warble-voiced bard of the British folk movement, died last month at age 67. He achieved quiet glory as a guitar stylist and as guiding light of the folk group Pentangle, in which he was paired with equally legendary guitarist John Renbourn.

Above, Jansch performs “Moonshine,” a lovely tune of his own composition, circa 1975. Here Pentangle performs in the lush first flush of its jazzy, bluesy thirteenth-century folk rock. Jansch is seated to the right, the bearded Renbourn to the left. Jacqui McShee could not sound or look more the part of the British folk chanteuse. Her pale, somber, chinless face is a lovely study in the art of the church altarpiece, lacking only a halo and a swaddled Christ.

Jansch’s influence on Jimmy Page’s acoustic style is unquestionable. Page’s “Black Mountain Side” from Led Zeppelin I is a note-for-note nicking of Jansch’s “Blackwaterside” (here), which appeared on his 1966 album Jack Orion. Jansch was miffed enough to consider suing Page, but he could not afford a legal crusade on a folk guitarist’s salary and let the matter drop. One can easily construe Tolkienian epics like “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Battle of Evermore” (featuring Jansch’s old protégé Sandy Denny) as grand bastardizations of Jansch’s antiquarian interests. Admittedly, Page is the more gifted musician. In this clip, he transforms “Black Mountain Side” into a frenzied druidic raga, achieving an intensity that was well beyond Jansch and Renbourn.

Jansch’s complex, open-tuned stylings equally influenced Nick Drake, the Keats of British folk, in whom the movement’s decade of research and experiment became something new and consummate. As far as I know, there is no extant footage of Drake performing live, but a tune like “Cello Song” (here) gives the feel of his exquisite little nocturnes.

To have schooled both Jimmy Page and Nick Drake is to have helped midwife the music of the twentieth century. I hope that Jansch, his work done, rests where he belongs, in some old churchyard, amid the moss and weathered stone.

Posted on November 23rd, 2011 at 11:31am.

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By David Ross. Erik Mongrain’s “Air Tap” (see above) is a genuine benchmark of the modern guitar. The composition is perfect, the technique largely novel. Beyond the slightly uncharacteristic “Air Tap,” Mongrain’s music seems at first merely atmospheric in the Windham Hill tradition, but his compositions turn out to be aggressively intricate and even scholarly – as it were solutions to thorny riddles of musical theory. One realizes that Mongrain has fully departed from bop and rock histrionics in order to create a new mode on an entirely different basis of order, symmetry, and almost Asian apertures of silence. If Bach had played the koto, he might have sounded something like this. Mongrain’s two albums – Fates (2007) and Equilibrium (2008) – are as deceptively understated and precisely reflective as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913):

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.

I would call Mongrain a link in the guitar’s fundamental evolution. He is, of all things, a Quebecois – see here for biographical details.

Posted on October 11th, 2011 at 11:32am.

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By David Ross. Two propositions about James Brown: 1) He was the highest energy performer ever. In full overdrive, he was the rubber-legged soul incarnation of Chuck Jones’ Tasmanian Devil. Nobody – not Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, or Bruce Springsteen – ever approached Brown’s expenditure of calories per second or approximated his capacity for what amounts to self-detonated metabolic nuclear explosion. 2) His bands of the late fifties and sixties – featuring vocal backup by the Famous Flames and best captured on the classic album Live at the Apollo (1963) – were the greatest of the R&B and rock era. These bands were not necessarily the most gifted, but they were the best rehearsed, the most cohesive, the most rhythmically agile, and in all ways the most pinpoint. The most virtuosic rock units – The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, The E Street Band – sound tattered in comparison. While the rock ethos tended toward drug-induced laziness, Brown was an obsessive-compulsive Karajanesque whip-cracker, as his sixties-era sax player Maceo Parker recalls:

You gotta be on time. You gotta have your uniform. Your stuff’s got to be intact. You gotta have the bow tie. You got to have it. You can’t come up without the bow tie. You cannot come up without a cummerbund … [The] patent leather shoes we were wearing at the time gotta be greased. You just gotta have this stuff. This is what [Brown expected] ….

This YouTube chestnut (see above) shows footage from the famous T.A.M.I. (Teenage Music Awards International) concert, which was held in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on October 28 and 29, 1964. In addition to Brown,  the concert starred the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry, the Supremes, and Smokey Robinson. The Stones famously whined about having to follow Brown onstage – one understands why. You can purchase the full concert here.

By way of bonus, here’s Brown, circa 1966, belting out an epic version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

Posted on October 3rd, 2011 at 1:33pm.

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