Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Return of the Obsessed Listener! All Aboard for More Essential Vibrations!

Hey, long time no see! Where you been there Mr. Catchagroove?? Well............

Over the past several months, the ability to keep up with my desire to write here has been impacted by circumstances both personal and otherwise. Some of those circumstances have left me wondering if I have much to say, about music or anything else. As part of this phase (which may still be in progress), music continues to be a source of light and relief, for which I am eminently grateful. I will refrain from waxing too philosophical here about the healing power of music despite my typical urge to do so. The opinions of some aging goofball with a turntable and $1.50 might get you a cup of coffee, right? I mean, really - what do I know?? I can only report what I've experienced to the best of my abilities. What can I say definitively? Music has been good to me. As a listener and active practitioner, music has been a constant companion. And when the adversities of life set in, music continues to be a touchstone to remind me that I am not alone. Not to say life's always been a bed of roses, but the down sides have been smoothed out often enough by the Great Vibration for me to be a believer. So, in the spirit of passing it on - I intend to compose several short-ish entries over the next few months to make up for the lack of activity here. There's lots of great music happening and positive vibrations to dig into - old and new. So hang on for the ride!

From the bottomless bag of "Just when you thought you'd heard it all........"

There's nothing like finding a new song with words that open up a feeling you've had, but never knew how to express - let alone the idea that maybe somebody else might have felt the same thing and came up with a clever way to communicate that experience. Dang! That's pure gold right there. I have recently been hipped to the great songwriting of   Kevin Ayers . How did I miss this guy for so long? Well, the answer is - I've known about him for a while, but how many Canterbury Scene dudes who struck out on solo careers are you going to dig into in one lifetime? That was my feeling for a few years - like "Yeah, yeah. Okay another Soft Machine guy starts a solo career. I'm still trying to get through the Robert Wyatt stuff. Ain't got no time for this other guy." Then I recently picked up the legendary live album from Eno, Cale, Nico and Ayers here:
 While I bought it mainly to indulge my erstwhile fantasy of being a John Cale completist, the best stuff was the Kevin Ayers portion of the show highlighted on Side Two. I was like "Whaaaat??" Where's THIS GUY been? Well, of course when I finally do the obligatory wiki search I read the quotes attributed to John Peel about how Britain has only produced so many genius songwriters, Kevin Ayers and Syd Barrett among them it's like, well well.......back to the drawing board. Here's a neat clip from the early 80s with Andy Summers joining the Kevin Ayers band stomping through a few classics. 
 Apparently the pre-Police Summers had been among the guitar players Ayers employed along with the criminally under-rated Ollie Halsall during the early 70s. Halsall's highest profile moment was coincidentally his most invisible one at the same time. He was drafted into the Rutles project by Neil Innes, but his physical presence was substituted by Eric Idle (though the musical contributions remained). Although this could be viewed as the ultimate Rutles / Beatles in-joke of the whole parody (Idle playing a "Paul McCartney" character who is really just an image backed up by an invisible talent in the shadows - "Paul is Dead" freaks anyone??), the lack of attention only helped to keep Halsall in the obscurity bin, alas.

And for all I've read about Kevin Ayers, he only managed to fare slightly better than his marked-for-obscurity lead guitar player! The accepted explanation for this includes a standard combination of esoteric talent mixed with a consistently carefree attitude toward greater success. How rare indeed is the magic combination of real rock-and-roll attitude / lifestyle with sharp business acumen. Most folks just don't get equal measures of those potions in their DNA. Usually the thing that makes an artist unique can also be the thing that keeps them from being responsible in a business environment. It can say a LOT about the nature of our species, of course.........

What to say about the gifted artist / musician / composer who creates timeless, magnificent art yet is dogged by destructive addictions and/or personality quirks? Ayers is certainly not alone in this experience. Maybe the balance tips towards the art itself - what the art points to. If the art demeans, shames and generally pulls people down, then that is the legacy no matter who the person is. Likewise, if the art is transcendent, uplifting and inspires a general appreciation of the humanistic outlook, then that is also the legacy, no matter who the person is. In the case of some artists, the art itself can be the best of who they are - the best of what they have to offer. I think the issue becomes more complicated when artists become insulated from their own humanity by the success (or even perhaps likewise by failure) of what their creative efforts bring into their lives.

This reminds me of a thoughtful essay about the impact of success on the creative life of an artist (and the artist's relationship to their audience - and humanity in general) from Tennesee Williams. This brief, but precise essay appeared in reprinted editions of "The Glass Menagerie" and is among my favorite essays by anybody on any topic.

There are many who never manage to reconcile success with their own humanity. Others may be inclined to go to extreme lengths to "prove" their humanity by indulging their lower natures - their human flaws - as a way to connect to their human side. This is purely speculation, however. Who really can say what motivates a person behind the talent of, say, Charlie Parker? We remain dazzled by the art, if puzzled by the people. Of course it can be refreshing to discover relatively down to earth people behind fantastic talent. Yet, understanding the basic realities behind creative pressure and the pressure of commerce - or how the two intersect - can be enough to put even the most astute individual to the test of sanity, not to mention an early exit off the planet.

As time has gone on, I've become almost used to the experience of discovering great musical talents long after their demise. Or too close to their demise to see them in concert. To counteract this unhappy trend I've put a little more effort in to paying attention to LIVING ARTISTS and LOCAL ARTISTS in the last few years. I have come to appreciate the artistry and talents of regionally-oriented musicians more than ever. There are giants who walk among us every day. You might never suspect the beautiful artistry tucked away behind the short-order cook, bus driver or 9-to-5 office person. It is often enough that I encounter local artists who make me think "More people need to hear this!". So in my own fashion, I am passing along some vibrations from my area - which is quite liberally saturated with great musical talent.

One really does miss the impact of the regional support major music labels and radio outlets used to give to artists years ago. What else could explain why it is nearly impossible to find early Bob Seger records in my part of the US (Northeast)? Maybe he just wasn't working that market in his early years and consequently not many people bought his records here - in spite of the fact that they were on Capitol Records (a well-established and nationally distributed label). The regional effect is the only explanation. However, he must have done enough business in the mid-west for Capitol to justify taking the risk on him for many years before he had major national success. And I cite Bob Seger because I am only mildly aware of his late 60's / early 70s output. Yet, who doesn't know "Old Time Rock and Roll"? As a matter of fact, I can think of a few fine local artists that could have a recording career much like Seger had in his early years, who could find national success if only there was a company to get behind them now so they have a chance to develop. When are people going to just get fed up with the same 20 classic rock songs getting shoved down their throats by the major broadcasting conglomerates - enough to turn those stations OFF for good? So, instead of the umpteenth time of hearing The Doors "Touch Me" - consider picking up any one of the following releases from local and emerging artists instead. I think there are some pleasant surprises in store for those who catch an earful beyond the comfort zone from the corporate schnozzle of destiny.............

Pottymouth - From the Pink to the Stink
This one is long overdue. I have to qualify - technically this band is not immediately local to me. However, the great guitarist Freddy "The Fist" Miller is an old friend from my musical stomping grounds. Initially being a bit surprised by the, shall we say, specialized nature of the lyrical content of the songs - one earful of the actual music informs the listener this is no mere "novelty band". These guys play hard and put their message over with catchy, accessible MUSCLE ROCK (muscle in question is open to interpretation.......). In fact, I enjoyed this CD after a long day at work while lazily sipping a favorite chilled white wine........
If perhaps the bouquet of the vintage grape might appear to contrast sharply with the bouquet of the scatalogically-obsessed lyrics, the riffing and song-craft complimented the complexity and boldness of the piquant finish. If the general theme of body fluids might appear to be too narrow for the average audience, consider the true universal nature of the various topics addressed. Indeed, we find an admirable desire to advocate for personal hygiene in the lyrics to "In the Shower". Pottymouth singer Dread Spaghetti has your overall health at heart with the song "Mysterious Lump" - best to get those yearly checkups! The upshot of the entertaining lyrics is, certainly, how they lead to a "must be seen to be believed" live show. I will encourage the curious to investigate on their own the various videos available via the band website and youtube. Of course, the best thing to do would be to see these guys live. Although I have not had the pleasure to do so yet - I would not hesitate. Aside from the truly inspired guitar playing (yeah, Fred's my friend, but he's the serious business on six strings!), what I find most refreshing about this band is the "throwing caution to the wind" attitude and the complete lack of connection to "supernatural pretensions" common to so many metal-edged groups these days. Pottymouth is grounded in the here and now and the celebration of the earthy experiences that make! As an old media attention grabber once noted, "Sacred cows make the best hamburgers." Pottymouth is the band that writes the songs you only ever dreamed about. A slamming good time is guaranteed for the adventurous and brave. Be brave and check 'em out!

Real Estate - In Mind 
 Of the several "new" bands I have decided to track over the past few years, Real Estate is edging toward the top of the favorites pile. I am utterly disappointed to have missed their only area live appearance for me (due to having my own show). Yet, I am excited by their new disc as being a logical step in creative development. In Mind absolutely picks up where Atlas left off. Now, somewhere out in cyberspace there was a review of the new album comparing it unfavorably to the 2015 solo release from lead singer Martin Courtney - Many Moons. 
Now, I also have Many Moons and dig it, but Courtney as a solo act stands apart from the obvious power behind Real Estate as an example of the "sum of the whole being greater than the parts" if you get my drift. If you like Real Estate don't be a chump! Get the Martin Courtney album! You'll dig it! However, don't think Courtney is all that Real Estate is, squire. In Mind takes good risks to advance the art of the band while keeping the fan base happy. And the fan base ought to be darned happy - enough to get out there and support the band on the road at live gigs. What I noticed immediately with the new record was a more confident ensemble playing with the tracks. A few years ago I wrote a tentative review of Real Estate based on a live stream I watched / listened to of the Atlas material. If it seemed they were finding their identity as a live band, with the main event being the LP - the new record feels more the product of a solid ensemble of players. As always it's always the musical side of things that catches my attention initially. The lyrical content hits me later on. Of the new songs I have a particular affinity for the tracks "Serve the Song" and "After the Moon". In both cases I'm hearing evidence of growth - a building upon the unique group identity established so far. This is what I have been hoping to hear - a good band developing and improving over time. This is not an easy path to take in these difficult times. The resurgence of vinyl has opened a new avenue for exploration for many new bands and listeners. The trend of excellence established years ago - the new "golden age" of music appreciation - seems to keep chugging along. In fact, the cultural side of life seems to be the best thing going. Might as well draw deeply from that resource and give thanks for the vibrations that carry us down the road. The new Real Estate has a fun mix of the new and familiar. Let's hope these guys keep dishing up the goods to get us through! Yeah!

Until next time..........soon!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Freedom, Discipline and No Rules

    Music has been good to me. Aside from being an active listener, I've managed to be a participant in a variety of functions. Mostly as a drummer. I've run the gamut of marching bands to pit orchestras to variety show gigs to heavy psychedelic weirdness and beyond. To tell the truth, I've been lucky beyond my abilities. More than a few times I've found myself playing drums behind players that were a few galaxies ahead of me. Luckily, no major damage was ever done and things are cool between me and most folks I've had the pleasure of playing music with. I'm glad to have had the experience of being stretched to the limit of my abilities by some truly world-class musicians. This is not a moment where I want to crow about this person or that person that I got to jam with, exactly. I've had some super-cool path crossings for sure. Yet, I know these were merely lucky moments so I'm not going to get into some phony trip about how great I think I am because I got to play with so-and-so, etc.......

     However, I would like to acknowledge one truly special musician who has just recently left our planet - the great jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. I had the opportunity to meet him a handful of times and got to perform with him onstage just once. The performance was limited to a select few songs with NO REHEARSAL and in front of a decently sizeable audience. To say I was fairly terrified would be a gross understatement. Please understand - I love jazz music, but I am not a jazz musician. My abilities are far too limited for me to make such a claim. Yet, that night Mr. Coryell illustrated for me what a true professional musician does:  pull the best out of whatever players you are working with, as if by magic. As part of the mercifully brief set we played, Mr. Coryell decided to call off a Thelonious Monk tune (I think it was "Well, You Needn't") at a tempo which represented the EXACT LIMIT of what I was capable of holding together for an extended period of time. It wasn't slow. Yet, somehow he made me and the rest of the young charges backing him up sound WAY BETTER than we actually were. After the show he was gracious and kind  - and I did get to hang out with him at the Blue Note in New York City once after that (the band I was in included his older son Murali - a great talent in his own right). Those few encounters I was blessed to have with a musician of such stature are burned into my consciousness. I cannot fathom the loss felt by his family - children, grandchildren and loved ones - in the wake of his passing. Godspeed, Mr. Coryell - your music made the world a better place.
     What I've come to accept about my own playing is to what degree my abilities exist in relation to my discipline. I love to play, but I never was the most committed to "practicing" - at least in the rudimentary way. I sometimes wonder if I'd had more discipline and drive, would I have been able to hold my own a little better when my path crossed with musical giants like Larry Coryell? There are scores of musicians who never get anywhere near a legend and I've had a few run-ins over the years. What if I were a better musician? Would it have made a difference? Not that I'm unhappy with what I do now. For me it's all about serving the music as best as I can. I still perform on a regular basis with several groups. And folks get up and dance and don't "boo" or throw things. Yet I know there's that discipline thing................
     Sun Ra was big on discipline. Any cursory study of his music and life will reveal that theme. Yet, the goal echoes what can be found in many styles of music - FREEDOM. Indian musicians practice their hearts out and, somewhat like jazz musicians, discover the freedom of music in performance where the exercise leads to inspiration. In a few instances I have had the experience of what a little extra attention to chops-building can do. There are some moments I wish HAD been captured on tape - moments where I played beyond my usual abilities. That "state" of playing can be awfully exciting and gratifying. No wonder some folks get obsessed with building their chops to those levels. But it takes DISCIPLINE. Study and practice. The payoff is the freedom to engage in the ULTIMATE TRUTH of music.......which is: there are (actually) NO RULES!

     Larry Coryell was known as a "jazz" player who blurred the boundaries between jazz and rock music. Yet, one of the most enduring memories I have of hearing him perform live was being exposed to the great classical Maurice Ravel piece "Pavane for a Dead Princess" :
The first I heard this was not on the LP above (great album as it is). I got to sit front row when Larry was the opening act for Miles Davis at the Tanglewood Music Shed one summer evening and he played this piece. It was as if my molecular structure got re-configured! Fairly blew my young mind. This helped to reinforce my growing belief that THERE WERE NO ACTUAL BOUNDARIES in music. If you like it - it's good. If you don't - it's bad, or you haven't figured out why you don't like it. THAT'S the ONLY RULE.

     All the rest comes down to so much marketing. Which is not to say it's pointless, of course. If one buys a ticket to a country music show, will you be happy with a marching band playing Dolly Parton songs? Most likely not. Commerce works against total freedom. But that's life. The trick is pushing those boundaries - and for me that's where the most exciting music lives.

     Over the next few entries, I have a lot of new music suggestions to pass along. I know I haven't been as active lately here. Yet, the listening has not stopped. I have some great stories to tell and vibrations to send out. For now, I want to put the word out about a few new things I've been listening to lately.........
     Speaking of boundary-stretching guitar players - Harvey Mandel has a NEW album out titled Snake Pit! I got it on vinyl and it smokes! Harvey is backed up by some of Ryley Walker's musicians here and the results are impressive. Harvey Mandel is one of the guitar's finest advocates - his talent has caught the attention of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and even the hip-hop world! His own solo LPs have been sampled many times by folks looking for awesome grooves and beats. The latest LP adds to his stature as a major musical talent of our times. Support living artists and get this record now!
Michael Chapman has a new album out now titled "50" - in celebration of the number of years he has been an active, prolific musician. A great guitarist, performer and songwriter - I was fortunate to see him last year in support of his other great release titled "Fish". I hope I can catch him again soon. I cannot believe what deeply profound and moving music is coming out of this guy - he's at the top of his game! Grab his new record NOW!
Aha! What strange record is this? How about The Crazy World of Arthur Brown? The new (2014) LP - "ZimZamZim". Dear reader, are you sitting down? Get this - I SAW Arthur Brown live in New York City a few weeks ago where I bought his new album AT THE SHOW! He was amaaaaaazing! Sang his azzzz off and put on a fantastic show. It was a true bucket-list experience and Arthur did NOT disappoint for one moment. See him if you can and get his new album and check out this wild video!!!
Arthur Brown is still cutting edge, people! Oh, bugger it - here's the show in LA about a week before the show I saw in New York:
Arthur announced from the stage that he had achieved the 75 go-round point in his life and his energy was more like that of a 25 year old! These artists are inspiration to us all. We need them. We ought to treasure them and cheer them on when given the chance.

Driving down to the Arthur Brown show, I was cutting it close to showtime and grabbed a spot in the nearest available parking garage to me. Just so happened to be located across the street from the Blue Note. The last time I had been there was to see Wayne Shorter and Mr. Coryell met his son Murali and I for the show. It was not the last time I saw Mr. Coryell, but I couldn't help but pause outside the Blue Note to recall the happy memory. As it happens, the club I saw Arthur Brown perform at that night had once been a famous jazz club - The Village Gate. Now taken over by new owners with a new name - still a great venue for live music. However, I couldn't help think about what that club looked like back in the 70s when the Coryell Family (and band) posed for this album cover picture:
Time is is a carnival.......take care to treasure those important to us while they're here and hold those good memories close along the path..............and may music be the center of the celebration! Until next time! Bright Moments!