Monthly Archives: May 2009

SCAT SINGING Sarah Silverman

The recent Webby Award
recipient and Comedy Central mainstay doesn’t just cross boundaries – she
laughs as she does it.

 

BY ED CONDRAN

 

It isn’t easy to offend a New Yorker. Those who trudge
through the pothole ridden, urine-scented streets are oblivious to the legions
of homeless begging for change, the overwhelming sea of humanity at rush hour
and angry cabbies screaming obscenities in a myriad of languages.

 

However, when Sarah Silverman performed at a downtown club
and told some Nazi-holocaust jokes, a bunch of Gothamites rushed for the exits
as if an act of terrorism was committed. Silverman, 36, is on a comic jihad.
The pretty, sexy, raunchy standup is freaking people out.

 

“Without the people who walk out, there is no provocative
comic,” Silverman says. Those people are part of that comic’s identity. That
said, I’m not looking to offend. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I want
to make them laugh.”

 

Jimmy Kimmel’s better half is making comedy fans laugh,
cringe and at times explode in knee-slapping fits of hysteria. “I was raped by
a doctor,” Silverman says. Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl. The
politically incorrect performer’s sex joke warms up the audience for her racial
crack. “Everyone blames the Jews for killing Christ,” she offers. “And then the
Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I’m one of the few people that believe
it was the blacks.”

 

Silverman’s edgy, mean-spirited and often scatological humor
helped make her sitcom Comedy Central’s
The Sarah Silverman Program
the funniest show on the air (with apologies to
NBC’s 30 Rock. It’s rare that a
contemporary show could be as angry and hilarious as Silverman’s show. The
brilliant ‘80s sitcom Buffalo Bill, which featured Dabney Coleman,
and Jay Mohr’s short-lived vehicle Action,
which aired during the ‘90s, are examples of shows on a par with Silverman’s
stab at television. Apparently, such exceptional programs come along once a
decade. Silverman also won a coveted Webby Award recently in recognition of her
YouTube hit “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” as well as her political activism via “The
Great Schlep.” The Webbys proclaimed her to be “a viral superstar and a
comedienne representative of cutting-edge online culture.”

 

Female comics as funny as Silverman are even rarer than
outstanding sitcoms. The New
Hampshire native might be the most amusing comic with
breasts since Drew Carey. While interviewing Silverman, you can’t help but
notice how cool she is while just shooting the breeze. Silverman earns respect
without even trying. I found a common denominator between my Silverman
conversation and a discussion with comic-actor Janeane Garofalo. Each of their
dogs barfed during the interviews. Garofalo used her dog’s illness as a reason
to end the chat. However, Silverman poked fun at her pooch.

 

How can a girl be cool, cute, hot, smart and funny? I asked
Silverman just that and inquired if there was something wrong under the hood.
She admitted that there is something awry.

 

As a teenager, Silverman was severely depressed. “I would
miss months of school,” she recalls. I would have panic attacks and was given Xanax.
At my most depressed, I was given 16 Xanax a day. The happiest day of my life [at
16] I was weaned off of my last Xanax and I was alright.” Thanks to her depression,
Silverman was in her latter teens when she lost her virginity. She’s taking her
time with sex in terms of characters she’s played on screen as well. “I’m such
an asshole. I’ve made my own movie [Jesus
is Magic
] and I have my own show where I have complete power over my
character, and I made her a sexless douche in both. I’m an idiot.”

 

Silverman is far from a dope. Her character may be sexless –
and that was exploited to full effect during the episode in which Silverman
thought she was a latent lesbian – but her sitcom humor is actually funny,
which is a far cry from the polite, conflict-free form of boob tube
entertainment. Having a successful sitcom wasn’t Silverman’s goal, but she’s
not opposed to it. “I didn’t always want a sitcom,” she says, “but I grew up
with sitcoms and watched and loved them all. Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, MASH, Family Ties, Benson, My Two Dads, My
Sister Sam, Silver Spoons, It’s Your Move
– I could go on forever.”

 

Silverman is comfortable with her life as a humorist and her
relationship with Kimmel. “We’re different in a lot of ways but I’ve learned so
much from him,” she says. “He’s the most prolific writer and all-around idea
man I’ve ever met.”

 

There’s another side to Silverman which is actually sweet
and sensitive that her fans don’t often get to see. After cracking up her
followers and weirding some of them out during her aforementioned New York performance,
the pop culture-consuming future icon examined some CDs I handed to her.

 

The discs comprised overlooked gems of the last half decade.
One platter was Silverchair’s Diorama.
The under-heralded release is filled with melodic pop-rock recalling the
Flaming Lips and Jeff Buckley. However, when most music fans think of
Silverchair, images of the half-baked rock the band made as 13 year olds during
the mid-‘90s comes to the fore. It was obvious that flashed through Silverman’s
comedic mind. However, she suppressed her urge to call me a dink. “They’re
supposed to be good, right?” Silverman said, as she flashed a big, nervous
smile after accepting Diorama.

 

It would have been a perfect time for Silverman to slag me,
but she’s not all about insults and shocking humor. What’s most intriguing
about the mercurial performer is that she’s the full package. She’s got the
looks; she can sing, dance and make people laugh; and she doesn’t give a damn
what anyone thinks. Silverman is kind of girl that women would be comfortable
enough to hang out with and guys would like to date.

 

What’s most appealing about Silverman, though, is that she’s
a dangerous performer. You never know what she’s going to do when she steps in
front of a camera or appears onstage. There aren’t enough unpredictable
performers in the world of entertainment, the kind that just might step over
the line. Silverman doesn’t just cross boundaries – she laughs as she does it.

 

“I just go up and express myself. You can’t worry about what
people think, but I hope they laugh.”

 

READY TO SWIM Whispertown 2000

Currently on tour with
Maria Taylor, the L.A.
band is a secret no more.

 

BY AARON KAYCE

 

Speaking to BLURT from her L.A. home, the Whispertown 2000 lead
singer/guitarist Morgan Nagler is happy, bubbly even, talkative and full of a
youthful exuberance. The one-time child actress was ushered into the music
world by another ex-child star, Jenny Lewis. It was while opening for Lewis
(who also played in the Whispertown 2000’s infant stages) that Gillian Welch
witnessed the band’s heartwarming blend of folk-pop-Americana. Welch and
partner David Rawlings were so impressed that the Whispertown 2000 became the
first signing to their Acony Records. The result is Swim, the band’s second album but first proper introduction to the
masses.

 

***

 

 Why did you name the new album Swim?

 

The album wasn’t a preconceived concept record but it just
happens to be that there are a lot of underwater and survival themes in there. Metaphorically,
it’s exactly what I’m talking about and also literally there’s so much
underwater imagery that it just seemed to make sense.

 

 

 These are really pretty songs with beautiful
harmonies, but underneath that there seems to be a real dark edge; do you tend
to see the world through rosy shades and if so, where does this darker side
come from?

 

I feel like there’s quite a dichotomy in my world because it
is my nature to see things through rosy shades, but I see the things. I
definitely feel the darkness of everything and it’s a constant matter of
perspective.

 

 

 I was reading about your “House Party Tour,”
did you really play in people’s houses and how did that happen?

 

We did. It was all from MySpace, we just posted that we need
$200 to play your party. And we toured for a month playing house parties.

 

 

 And did that all work out?

 

Almost all worked out great, there was one that wasn’t my
favorite, but it still wasn’t that bad.

 

 

 What was it about that show?

 

Towards the end of the night about a million wasted marines
showed up, which if you’re a girl is not the best position to be in.

 

 

 This isn’t the easiest life; you already had a
career path [acting] that probably would have been more stable, so why do you
do this?

 

It’s the first thing that made me feel a part of the world.
I’m not trying to say the song was good, but the first time I wrote a song was
the first time I felt like I did something.

 

 

 

 

 

         

 

POST-POSITIVE Delta Spirit

Having recently
completed a high-profile national tour with the Shins, the acclaimed SoCal
upstarts let the sunshine in.

 

BY LAVINIA JONES WRIGHT

 

Delta Spirit are often grouped in with former tour mates Dr.
Dog and Cold War Kids into the neo-‘70s Americana/soul revival because they
share the naïve innocence and rootsy timbre their peers have mastered. But
there is something incredibly literate and sober about the Southern California
natives that sets them apart from their contemporaries. Something contained in
the dark stomp-clap sing-along “People C’mon,” from Delta Spirit’s earthy and
sun-drenched Rounder debut Ode to the Sunshine, with its jangly piano
and Beach Boys-esque guitars, or in “Street Walker,” with its 1960s girl group
rhythm and heavy layer of frontman Matthew Vasquez’s weather-worn and plaintive
voice, proves that although the group’s approach to songwriting seems loose, it
comes from a very genuine place. BLURT spoke to guitarist Jon Jameson.

 

***

 

Do you feel like the
overall tone of Ode to the Sunshine is hopeful and positive? You’re
dealing with some heavy themes in your lyrics – abandonment, drugs -but you
seem to have an attitude of survival.

 

The
record has some dark themes but a warm, positive feeling… of possibility. I got
a book of poetry by St. John of the Cross the other day in Toronto and I find
that same paradox there. We try to balance the themes of hope and depression
without getting either sentimental or nihilistic. That’s what people need to
hear these days. We don’t pretend to be big-time activists, but we also are
trying to live a life free of convenient ignorance.

 

 

I heard you were
isolated in a cabin in California
when you recorded Ode.

 

Isolation
and absence of distraction, we really needed that… a place that we couldn’t
really leave. Most of the songs were completed before we went to the cabin. We
put together the song “Parade” there, and the rest was just recording
and production ideas.

 

 

You’ve been accused
of “borrowing” from many different musical styles including folk, blues, and
soul as well as, obviously, rock. What do you call your style of songwriting?

 

Post-post-post-punk.
We like that all the songs have a different pattern of production. The majority
of those ideas came while writing with five of us in a room. With this record
we tried to hold back with the production for the most part so that we could
keep everything playable. We had been playing most of the songs live for a
while so we had a pretty good idea of how we wanted them to sound.

 

 

Are there any contemporary bands who you
feel a musical kinship with?

 

We
love pretty much every band that our booking agent does. Dr Dog, Elvis Perkins,
Cold War Kids, AA Bondy, Clap Your Hands, Port O’Brien. I will add We
Barbarians, Dawes, Sparrow Love Crew and Richard Swift to that list. Anyone who
says that there isn’t any good music anymore just isn’t looking in the right
places.

 

 

What about bands from
prior eras? Do you feel you would have found a place in the musical movement of
another generation?

 

I
like the Waterboys. I think they had an interesting thing going on. They were
like us in the way that it was hard to classify them, but easy to see their
influences. They pushed boundaries. I hope we will keep doing the same.  

 

RAIDING THE MUSIC-IN-FILM ARK Joe Lauro

The cultural
archivist’s massive trove of historic film preserves cinema, TV and music video
for posterity.

 

BY CHRISTIAN KIEFER

 

In the closing scene of Raiders
of the Lost Ark,
we are given a brief fantasy into how we treat our history.
After a long, absurd battle to retain possession of the fabled Ark of the
Covenant, it ends up in the hands the American military who box it into a
wooden crate and load it into a warehouse filled with infinite other such
crates. Once a lost Ark and, in the end, a lost Ark redux.

 

My sympathy has never been with the protagonist, or with the
fabled Ark, but rather with all those other boxes. What’s in there? Robert
Johnson’s guitar? Instructions for tuning Nordic harps from the time of Beowulf? What else? I want to open those
crates, rummage around them, catalog them so they can be easily searched, find
more stuff to add to the collection (which, in this writer’s case, would be
less religious and more musical).

 

Joe Lauro likely had much the same impulse. For him, it was
78rpm records at first, an obsession that started when he was twelve years old
and extended on into his adult life, expanding and changing until he landed a
job helping run a small archive. From there, Lauro went solo, opening his own
popular culture film archive (with a focus on music and related media): The
Historic Films Library.

 

If you’ve seen virtually any well-made music and/or pop
culture documentary in recent years then you’ve been privy to Lauro’s own
collection of seemingly infinite crates (of film, not of Arks). The footage is
almost inconceivable in both quantity and breadth, including backstage film
from the set of The Wizard of Oz, the
entire run of The Ed Sullivan Show,
1968’s Live from the Bitter End variety
show, the Murry “The K” Archive, the D.A. Pennebaker Archive, and the
collection of the Center for Southern Folklore (just to name a few).

 

“I see it as a kind of mission,” Lauro says, via telephone
from his home in Sag Harbor, New York. “I’m a musicologist. I’m interested in
letting people know about some of this music. It’s the greatest contribution
that [America] has given the world and it’s just not taken that seriously by
people in this country.” Lauro has not only accumulated this material but he
has preserved it, digitizing it for safety and ease of transfer, and has
cataloged it so that filmmakers and researchers can put their fingers on the
right material quickly and easily.

 

Indeed, the archival cataloging that Historic Films has
accomplished is perhaps Lauro’s most important contribution to the art of
filmmaking. Ponder the idea that, when making a film about Muddy Waters (for
example), one does not only need footage of Muddy himself but of the environs
that the great bluesman inhabited.  “We
have footage of the nightclubs in the 1950s and 1960s where Muddy Waters
performed,” Lauro notes. “The venues, the parties, the places where this music
was created. This material is all part of the story.”

 

All of that is indexed via the Internet so that researchers
(and you too, fair reader) can find what you’re looking for. John Lennon and
Frank Zappa performing “Scumbag” in 1969? Joe has it. How
about Honey Boy Edwards (see the image, above) and Johnny Shines performing in the same year? Yes, Joe
has that too. And, of course, much more.

 

“I’ve gone out of my way to accumulate as much of this
material so that it can be used by other people who are doing documentaries or
need this kind of thing,” Lauro says. Indeed, it is his mission and his life’s
work. This is a religious quest of a sort -not for Lauro (who might balk at the
description), but for us as a culture and, at that, not only America but the
world. How much of this material might be lost to history were it not for his
efforts?

 

In my imagination, I want there to be a dusty, crate-filled
warehouse that this material lives in and so I’ll continue to think of it in
this way. For you though, take your hat and your whip to www.historicfilms.com and type a few
words into the search box. You’ll be surprised at what Joe Lauro has put his
hands on and for the right project (and a modest fee), he just might allow you
to put your hands on it too.

 

 

HELL IS OTHER BANDS Art Brut

Eddie Argos is in a
hades of his own making-and it sounds great.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Since their 2005 debut, Bang
Bang Rock and Roll
, Art Brut have concerned themselves with the important
things in life: music, girls and alcohol. And they’ve done it with three-minute
punk-pop songs that mix humor with a touch of pathos. The band’s latest album, Art Brut vs. Satan, adds a fourth
subject to the band’s oeuvre: crappy bands and idiots who like them. In singer
Eddie Argos’ world, U2 and the acts who ape them are Satan, and Art Brut, is
well, Art Brut. Eddie used his standard mix of sarcasm, sincerity and
self-deprecation to talk about his battle with the devil, why Germans know him
as The Depressive Dandy and embarrassing himself in front of their producer
Frank Black.

 

***

 

BLURT: There’s an old
saying that hell is other people. According to you, Satan is other bands?

 

ARGOS:
Other bands and the people who buy their records. The record buying public are
idiots. There’s a song on our album about The Replacements. I can’t understand
why they weren’t most famous band in the world, or why someone like Jeffrey
Lewis isn’t more popular. Why are The Wombats, The Kooks and these other
terrible bands on the [UK]
charts?

 

 

Isn’t it dangerous to
insult the record-buying public? Aren’t you talking about some of your own
fans?

 

No. Its people who don’t like Art Brut that I’m talking
about. If you don’t like Art Brut you are Satan and I’m against you.

 

 

Do you ever run into
the bands you insult?

 

I got in a fight with Bloc Party. I said Bloc Party was
rubbish, and Kele Okereke punched me. He went on TV and called me fat. Then I
saw him at a London club and he punched me. We’re friendly now. After all, I
don’t want to get punched again. (laughs)

 

 

Any other incidents?

 

Not yet. I’ve been slagging The Wombats off and they’re
rehearsing in same studio as us. I have to sneak out the back door.

 

 

You seem to especially
hate bands that sound like U2.

 

It’s mainly because those bands, like The Killers, only
sound like U2 to make a lot of money. I guess the problem is that I don’t like
U2, so I hate bands who sound like them by default. Their music can be made by
robots. There’s no emotion. Listen to The Mountain Goats, who are really good,
and you can hear the difference.

 

I hate bands whose songs are about nothing. The Replacements
were a good band because their songs were about something. Jeffrey Lewis is a
great lyricist. Every indie band at the moment doesn’t sing about anything.
Their songs are just words, yet they’re on the charts.

 

 

Do I detect some
jealousy? Do you hope to be on the charts someday?

 

It’d be nice. But I doubt I’m going to get there by going
around saying I hate everything. (laughs)

 

 

It’s not like Art Brut
are wholly original. People might say you sound like a lot of 70s punk bands.

 

They do say that and maybe it’s true. But those bands are a
lot better than U2, aren’t they?

 

 

When people heard your
first album, a lot of them suspected that because you had a sense of humor,
you’d be a joke band without a long career. Did you ever have those fears?

 

No. I didn’t really we think we were a joke. A lot of the
songs that people thought were funny weren’t supposed to be. When I sing
“Modern art makes me want to rock out,” it’s because I genuinely find modern
art exciting. I thought it was strange that people were finding it funny.

 

 

On your last tour, you
eventually became miserable singing the breakup songs from your earlier albums.
Is that why you wrote less about girls this time?

 

There are still some songs about girls, but there were just
different things on my mind this time. Some of those songs are quite miserable.
In Germany, Berlin University has a lecture on my songs. They call me The
Depressive Dandy.

 

 

How did you get Frank
Black to produce your album?

 

We wanted to do the album in one or two takes to give it an
immediacy. That’s how he does his albums, so we figured he’s the expert at
recording things in one take. We asked him and he said yes.

 

 

What did he add to
your sound?

 

He just gave us added confidence and enthusiasm. We wouldn’t
have a seven-minute song [“Mysterious Bruises”] if it wasn’t for him.

 

 

I was surprised you
did that.

 

I had to be convinced of it. I’m a punk. I like three minute
songs. But we played it a few times and he was excited about it. He’s the dude
from The Pixies, so it’s not like you can really argue with him. (laughs)

 

 

As a Pixies lover, did
you have any embarrassing moments where you turned fanboy on him?

 

People call him Charles in real life [Black’s real name is
Charles Thompson], so we talked about who would be the idiot who slips and
calls him Frank first. Of course, it turned out to be me.

 

 

IT DON’T MEAN A THING IF IT AIN’T… Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys

They had that swing, as
evidenced on a massive collection of early transcriptions.

 

BY
RICK ALLEN

 

When
Bob Wills and fellow Texan Milton Brown formed the Light Crust Doughboys in the
1931 they were just two of the many young musicians in Texas,
Oklahoma and
other parts of the American Southwest who somewhat simultaneously started a new
musical hybrid form that would become known as Western Swing. Wills, Brown and
their brother musicians were doing what young white American musicians had been
doing since the days of Stephen Foster and before: blending they heard in their
homes and churches and at their social gatherings with music of the black
culture that existed sometimes side by side with yet worlds away from their
own.

 

It
was a cultural exchange that would come again in the 1950’s with rock and roll
– Wills was clear and definite about the unbroken connection between his music
and rock and roll, calling it “the same kind of music we’ve been playing since
1928 – and later with hip hop with new variations sure to come.

 

The
exchange went both ways too. Black movie cowboy and Count Basie Band vocalist
Herb Jeffries, “the Bronze Buckaroo”,  was
among the African American artists who would embrace country and western music
(and Western swing) a decade or two before the world had heard of Charley
Pride. The phenomenon got a gentle send-up in “Cow Cow Boogie” a song about a
“swing half-breed” who’s got “a knocked out western accent with a Harlem touch”
recorded by Dorothy Dandridge and Ella Fitzgerald as well as Jeffries and Ella
Mae Morse a white singer who was a fixture on the R&B charts in the forties
and fifties.  Though white jazz musicians
like Stan Kenton would even come to record with country artists like Tex Ritter
the hardnosed bigotry of the time meant that there would be no Western Swing
equivalent of Benny Goodman’s groundbreaking integrated quartet but there was
plenty of undocumented action on the QT. Who wouldn’t have wanted to witness Ray
Price’s swinging Cherokee Cowboys jamming with the Charlie Parker, as legend has
it? Cross pollination has always been the true musician’s bread and butter.  

 

In
pursuit of a bigger slice of the pie – family financial concerns were part of
the reason – Brown left the Doughboys in 1932 and formed his own group, Milton
Brown and his Musical Brownies. Headquartering in Fort Worth the band would become a popular
live act and were responsible for several innovations that would become
standard parts of country music, Western Swing in particular. Brown and the
Brownies would become the first country and western band to utilize the
electric lap steel guitar after guitarist Bob Dunn, originally a jazz man, got
the idea to bring the instrument to the band after hearing a black blues
musician play on the Coney Island boardwalk.
Brown’s life and career would be cut short after he died in 1936 due to the
pneumonia he contracted while recovering from a car crash likely caused by his
narcolepsy. Brown’s premature death would leave the way open for Wills to
become the name most associated with Western Swing music.

 

Wills,
whose Waco
based Texas Playboys were modeled after Milton Brown’s Brownies got a big
career boost from the film work he and the band had during the golden age of
movie Westerns, especially the lower budgeted “B” westerns of the 1940’s. “San
Antonio Rose”, also the title of the group’s most well-known song had Wills and
the Playboys appearing with the likes of Lon Chaney Jr. Eve Arden and Shemp
Howard.

 

Over
the years the Playboys would become the New York Yankees of country and Western
Swing music. Their roster would include a changing but consistently impressive
list of those styles’ most iconic names; guitarists Junior Barnard and Eldon
Shamblin, pianist Al Stricklin, Fiddler Johnny Gimble, mandolinist Tiny Moore,
steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe and vocalists Leon Rausch and Tommy Duncan.
Their core instrumental lineup of guitars, fiddles, pedal steel, used in much
the same way as horns were used in swing and big bands, became the template for
the classic country outfits of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

 

Their
enduring influence can be heard in the music of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and
Mel Tillis to the Mavericks and Jim Lauderdale. Wills and the Texas Playboys
were arguably Merle Haggard’s most important musical role models and Eldon
Shamblin would perform with Haggard’s band, the Strangers, for almost ten years.
He would join Tiny Moore and other one-time Playboys for Haggard’s 1970 album The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World (Or
My Salute To Bob Wills)
. So determined to do right by Wills, Haggard, already
in his early thirties, learned to play fiddle for the recording. Later, in
1973, Haggard was instrumental in the organization and execution of For The Last Time, an album of Wills
classics which brought together Playboys alumni from their 1930’s beginnings to
their last days in the late 1960s. (Though Wills had a stroke on the second day
of the sessions and was unable to contribute much to “The Last Time” thereafter,
it is one of the finest recordings in his canon)

 

The Tiffany Transcriptions (Collectors’ Choice, www.collectorschoicemusic.com; via
Tiffany Music Inc.,  the company formed specifically
for the project by Wills and his partners, a pioneering country disc jockey from
California called Cactus Jack and songwriter Clifford Sundlin) were recorded during
breaks from long stretches of consecutive one-night stands across the West and
Southwest almost thirty years before “The Last Time.” They give a glorious
opportunity to hear Wills and the Playboys at the apex of their popularity and
musical ability. The ten discs contain versions of many of the same classics
that are on “The Last Time” and other studio recordings but the need for enough
material to cover dozens of radio shows meant the Playboys also had to draw
from more than just their regular repertoire. Besides the polka/mariachi/Celtic
folk music rooted country music most of the band grew up playing and which they
blended with the more urban/Eastern/African American music to create their
signature sound, the boys got to directly address those latter styles, expertly
interpreting the music of Fats Waller (“Honeysuckle Rose”), Count Basie
(“Jumpin’ At The Woodside”) and Duke Ellington (“Take The ‘A’ Train”; “C-Jam
Blues”) – proving they could play it straight and still cut the mustard with
jazz and swing as well as with more standard country and/or western fare.

 

In
1946 and 1947 Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys made a series of “transcriptions”
pre- recorded radio shows of the band performing with Wills also acting as MC
and ringmaster – that were sent to various local radio outlets. These
recordings allowed space for the local stations to insert local advertising and
announcements and were aired at the stations’ convenience giving the impression
of immediacy and proximity.

 

With
the project being in the control of Wills and his partners, the band had the
freedom to take on a broad range of material but also to take a more expansive
even improvisational approach to playing it; if somebody hit a sweet spot they were
given the leg room to play it out, to wail while the wailing was good. And for
these cats, farm boys, city slickers and small town sharps to play was to live,
and to live was to swing.

 

Some
of the songs here were released by Kaleidoscope records on vinyl in the early 1980s
and later on CD. But this is the first time all of the transcription recordings
have been available in one package. It’s the first complete collection of any
kind since the original 78s were distributed in the ‘40s. Each of the ten discs
has a particular, though sometimes loose, theme; “Basin Street Blues”; “You’re
From Texas” etc. One disc, titled “Sally Goodin”, is made up of fiddle tunes
and reels and even includes “Oklahoma Hills.” Fans of folk music and muckraking
slightly “pink” patriots will recognize that one as a Woody Guthrie joint. Another
disc features the singing McKinney Sisters, Dean and Evelyn. Dean would marry
Playboys mandolinist Billy “Tiny” Moore.

 

Wills,
as his film appearances show, was a dynamic, energetic, appealing performer; one
hundred per cent Texas
ham. Onstage, he would dance, clown and mug, employing some of the schtick he
picked up from his days in blackface minstrel shows. He’d call out his
musicians by name to cue solo breaks hollering his trademark “Ah!” when the
feeling hit or, since no audience would feel a show was complete without it,
convincingly made it seem that way.  One
might well ask, “What Makes Bob Holler?” and in the song of the same name the
band did just. “Because he loves to play,” they testify. One would be hard
pressed to find any evidence in his films or recordings to the contrary. From
Bob, what might have seemed corny, contrived and phony from someone else was,
well, corny, sometimes contrived but hardly false. Bob Wills had loads of charm
and a love of music making that transmitted easily to live audiences and are
just as much in evidence on record, especially in this almost dauntingly
comprehensive collection.

 

Despite
the popularity of contemporaries like Brown, Bill Boyd, Moon Mullican, Spade
Cooley and others, there are many reasons why Wills, is the enduring face of
Western Swing. The lively, vital performances on The Tiffany Transcriptions give at least 150 re-mastered ones. There
were better fiddle players and singers, more prolific songwriters and certainly
there were more graceful dancers but somehow Bob Wills caught lightning in a
bottle. He was that rarest of musical people; a great bandleader. They are generally
good to great musicians but more than that they are strategists, spokesmen,
focal points and sometimes even jesters and clowns.

 

The
bandleader – Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Cab Calloway – is the locus of a band’s
energy, soul and magic. Wills, who as a child could not be separated from the
black children and their families and friends who were his companions and early
music sources, had those qualities to spare. A stroke in 1969 ended his playing
career at age 64; four years older than Bruce Springsteen is now and several
years younger than Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy and the surviving Beatles and
original Rolling Stones. After the ’73 stroke his physical decline was rapid
and inexorable. A love of high living – he was married five times – and a
fondness for the bottle contributed to the decline.

 

But
since his death Wills’ legend has been growing,
not fading. With fuel like the “TT’s” to keep it going there’s no reason to
expect that to change anytime soon.

 

 

NEW ORLEANS VITALITY Allen Toussaint

Whether telling musical fortunes or charting the
bright Mississippi, the composer and pianist
has always been at one with the Crescent
City.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Since the 1960s, Allen
Toussaint has been nearly synonymous with New
Orleans’ funk, soul and R&B, writing classic songs
like “Fortune Teller,” “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley,” “Working in a Coal
Mine,” and “Pain in My Heart” and working with everyone from Lee Dorsey to Paul
McCartney to Labelle to Fats Domino to Elvis Costello.

 

What Toussaint had never
really done, until this year’s The Bright Mississippi, was to play jazz. Funny,
because Toussaint grew up in the town that invented jazz and played piano in
its juke joints and dance hops from the age of 13 on. His neighborhood, Gert Town,
was full of musicians, an old banjo player on one side of the block, a blind
guitarist on the other. The music of New
Orleans’ funeral marches and Dixieland clubs was in
the air, drifting through the windows, playing on radios, and yet Toussaint
never tried his hand at it. “Well, I heard jazz, but I didn’t take to performing
it really,” says Toussaint. “I had been busy with the R&B and didn’t really
know how to find these wonderful songs.”

 

That all changed during
sessions for Our New Orleans, a 2005 benefit album for Habitat for
Humanity’s post-Katrina reconstruction efforts. Joe Henry, who was producing
the album, writes that he came upon Toussaint one evening alone at the piano,
playing Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina”:

 

“What came through the speakers, though, bore little
resemblance to the song all of us in attendance knew. It sounded instead like a
history lesson in American musical alchemy. I mean to say that in less than
three minutes, the performance referenced European classical music, tango,
pre-war jazz, parlor folk, and show tunes-all articulated with an eye out for
the blues. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before and like everything
I’d ever heard. Allen shrugged off my wonder at the piece, volunteered his preference
of the two takes he’d played (the first; though to his dismay I’d only recorded
the second), and then disappeared down Fifty-third Street.”

 

That
song started Henry to thinking. Why shouldn’t Allen Toussaint turn his
considerable skills at the piano towards jazz, playing a hand-picked selection
of classics, backed by an all-star combination of players, people like Joshua
Redmond, Brad Meldau, Don Byron and Marc Ribot?

 

“It was all Joe Henry’s idea.
It’s his brainchild,” says Toussaint. “The whole idea of the songs and even
choosing all of the musicians in various combinations. I’m so glad he did
because on my own, I might never have gone in this direction. But he saw a
possibility there of something good.”

 

Toussaint says he knew almost
none of the musicians before recording The Bright Mississippi — he had
met only with trumpeter Nicholas Payton and drummer Jay Bellerose – and was
unfamiliar with much of the material. “But now, I just love all of those
songs,” he says. “And I like other musicians’ performances so much. Joshua
Redmond on ‘Daydreams,’ that is a wonderful heart and soul. And of course, the ‘Blue
Drag,’ that’s Marc [Ribot] on guitar, just superb, just wonderful.”

 

Toussaint admits that playing
jazz piano is different from the R&B and funk styles that made him famous,
yet says he took to it with surprising ease. “It was quite comfortable and very
relaxed,” he explains. “I found it not nearly as taxing as much of the other
R&B and funk and all of the rest of the music. It was just playing the
songs. The songs are so beautiful, so they took care of a lot of it themselves.”

 

His “Winin’ Boy Blues” duet
with Brad Meldau, for instance, required only one take for the two pianists to
find an effortless groove. “We didn’t talk at all. Joe Henry had the foresight
on what should happen, and he just told us, ‘When you’re ready, go out and
play.’ And that’s what we did. We didn’t talk about who would play when or
whether you’d take it or I’d take it. We just played it and that was it.”

 

 Toussaint says that he never had any doubts
about the project, even though it led him into unfamiliar territory, largely
because he believes so strongly in Joe Henry. “I would have tried anything he
said — and I’m so glad he tried this. I was really surprised when he told me
the kinds of songs that it would be, but now I see what he saw.”

 

 He adds, “I just went from song to song and
did the best I could, mostly not to ruin them. I had a very good time with
them, because they are all delightful.”

 

Although Toussaint had never
played jazz before, trying new styles is nothing new for him. One of R&B’s
most prolific and accomplished songwriters, he has long been adept at fitting
melodies, lyrics and arrangements to specific artists’ needs. Toussaint says he
wrote his first song at age 9, a short duet between trumpet and trombone, and
by the time he’d turned 12, he was writing lyrics, too. He came from a musical
family. His father had played trumpet in a big band before Toussaint was born,
and his brother played the guitar, though only for pleasure, never
professionally. He still remembers the day a piano arrived, for his sister, who
briefly took lessons.

 

“Oh, the piano was brought to
the house and I walked over and touched it and instant gratification. I feel in
love,” Toussaint remembers. “And for some reason, very early on, I felt the
structure of it. As big as this instrument is, it’s 12 things over and over. I
began to pick out little simple melodies by ear and listening to the radio and
any music on it, I’d try to play that way.”

 

One thing led to another, and
by age 13, Toussaint was playing local record hops with a band called the
Flamingos. At 15, and still well under the drinking age, he and his band mates
started performing at country juke joints. “We’d play anything we heard on the
radio, old R&B, Fats Domino, that kind of thing. It was a wonderful way to
grow up. We didn’t have to wait to see what the grown ups were doing.” 

 

By the 1960s, Toussaint had
become one of the stars of the New
Orleans funk and R&B scene, writing songs for Irma
Thomas, Aaron Neville and Lee Dorsey. For each of these artists, he says, he
took a different approach to songwriting, trying to find the right voice, mood
and sound for every particular talent. “For instance, Lee Dorsey was such a
high spirited, happy go lucky kind of guy, so I could write things for him that
I wouldn’t have dared to have written for Luther Vandross, who was so cool and
romantic. I could write a humorous song about working in the coal mine. I can’t
think of anyone else I could have written something like that and asked them to
sing it. But yes, I always wrote for a particular person.”

 

Yet though he wrote songs for
particular artists, his works were often covered by singers and bands with far
different aesthetics. The Lee Dorsey song, “Working in a Coal Mine,” for
instance, was memorably covered by Devo. “Fortune Teller” turned up in the
repertoire of the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Hollies,” and “Get Out of My
Life, Woman” was covered 36 times – the best selling version by the Grateful
Dead.

 

Toussaint claims that he
loves all the covers of his songs. “Whether they deviate from the song, or
whether they stay close to it, I appreciate it all equally. I dearly
appreciated it when I get covered, my songs, because that means someone cares
enough to do it, they have to spend time with it, get it into their heart and
then give it back out.”

 

And for the moment, Toussaint
finds himself in the unusual position of interpreting other people’s songs,
taking them into his heart and giving them back out. After hitting the New
Orleans Jazz Fest recently, he’s now rehearsing for a weeklong series of
concerts at New York City’s
Village Vanguard, May 19-24, accompanied by all but one of his Bright Mississippi band members. (Trumpeter
Nicholas Payton will not able to make the shows.) It will be a return of sorts,
since Toussaint maintains an apartment in New
York City and lived there for some time after Katrina.
Yet, he says, make no mistake, New
Orleans is home, the source of all the musical styles
– funk, R&B, soul and now jazz – that play into his art.

 

“New Orleans is my source of energy. I feel
that I breathe vitality the minute I get to town.” 

 

 

[Photo Credit: Michael
Wilson]

 

AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE Tinariwen

The African desert
blues of the Touareg nomads come vividly alive in a new film.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Most people in the west first heard of Tinariwen, the desert
blues band of Touareg nomads, through the Festival in the Desert, which brought
together traditional African music with rock stars like Damon Albarn of Blur. Ironic,
really, since by this point, the band had already been through a full two
decades together, overcoming poverty, political unrest and persecution to
become the voice of a nearly forgotten people.  Tinariwen: Live in London presents both sides of Tinariwen’s
story, the triumphant success and the long struggle towards it.

 

The concert footage, shot at Shepherd’s Bush in London in 2007, gives a
sense of the band’s visceral stage presence, its hypnotic drones that are
always halfway poised between heartbreak and celebration. It shows, also, the
immense popularity of this music in the UK (and elsewhere) with a packed
crowd of Westerners grooving to hallucinatory compositions.

 

The bonus features, including a mini-documentary, an
interview with producer Justin Adams, a brief instruction on how to tie a
“shesh”, or traditional Touareg turban, and, especially, a long interview with
founder Ibrahim Ag Al Habib, provide context about the world that Tinariwen
comes from. The landscapes of Northern Mali and Algeria come to life in these extra
features, their wild, sparsely populated expanses, traversed by camel caravans,
torn by war and rebellion, stunted by famine and drought, but ultimately the
source of inspiration for all of Tinariwen’s art.   

 

The main course is, obviously, the concert film, lushly
photographed from multiple camera angles, colors saturated to the glowing point
to pick out the interplay of psychedelic lighting and ornate desert costumes. Ibrahim,
tall and afro’d in the center, turns a Stratocaster into something exotic, his
sinuous bends and pull-offs a distant cousin to the blues, but wholly different.
 Guitar solos, when they come, lift off
in flurries and slides, then settle back into an intoxicating home groove.

 

Likewise, the drums, all played by hand, have a
side-slipping, caravan-like syncopation, not wholly foreign to American soul
and R&B rhythms, but bearing the unmistakable trace of the desert. The
vocals, a mournful call, a ghostly group response, are all in Tamashek, the
Touareg language, but there is no mistaking the intensity of loneliness, loss,
endurance and human triumph in their repetitive cadences.

 

This is communal, performed music, meant to tie a troubled
community together and give it hope – so it is, perhaps, not surprising that
two members of the ensemble are on stage merely to clap and groove to the beat.
A woman dancer carves out serpentine curves, waves and ovals with her hands,
the motions somewhere between conducting and interpretative dance.  At one point, she faces the blue-turbaned bass
player, curling her fingers towards his fretboard, as if she could coax the
notes right out of the instrument.

 

Throughout the show, footage is uniformly excellent,
alternating between close-ups of the players and longer shots showing how they
are all connected together. One camera captures weathered fingers on a guitar
neck, another pulls out to document little jump kicks by the bass player, a
third widens the view to show the whole ensemble in pendulous sway. The
costumes are lovely – a white headdress and mouth veil for one guitar player, a
shimmery tunic for Ibrahim, a blue tunic and hanging headdress for the bass
player. The female dancer wears a shiny, waist-length veil, which must be
continually rearranged as she performs her stately, sideways shimmy. If you
haven’t seen Tinariwen – and if you don’t live in a major city or go to
Coachella you probably haven’t – this film is a wonderful second best.

 

The concert film is so uplifting, so celebratory, that you
might forget how much difficulty lies behind it.  That’s where the bonus features come in,
reminding you what a miracle it is that these musicians are even alive, let
alone playing successfully at some of the largest concert halls in Europe. The best of these bonus features, “Ibrahim: The
Campfire Tales”, is the least elaborately produced. It is simply Ibrahim,
recounting his life in front of a fire, somewhere in the desert.

 

It’s an extraordinary life. When he was three years old,
Malian government forces came for his father, just after breakfast one day and
he never returned. Ibrahim only heard later, from other children, that his
father had been shot. Three days later, the soldier returned and killed all but
one of the family’s cattle. (The remaining cow was old and perversely liked to
follow the goats, so was not found among the others.)  His family left for Algeria by night shortly after, and
his grandfather died on the trip. They lived on the frontier between Mali and Algeria for about five years. At
nine, Ibrahim ran away to find work, hiding under a tarpaulin in a cement truck
to make the journey north. Odd jobs sustained him through his teenage years. Once
after working for six months in an Arab family’s garden, he used his wages to
buy a sewing machine, some cloth and scissors, hoping to make a living sewing
Touareg clothing. He got his first guitar here, in Algeria, after befriending an Arab
musician and saving to buy his instrument. Then in the 1980s, he and the other
young Malian emigrants heard that Colonel Qadaffi was training a rebel army. They
trained all day in the camps, but sang songs at night. Ibrahim convinced the
soldiers to chip in to buy him a guitar. It was at these camps that he and
friends Inteyeden, Diara and Hassan “Abin Abin” began playing together,
recording their first cassettes and performing at weddings and baptisms.  They called themselves “Ked Tinariwen” or
“people of the desert”.

 

In the early 1990s, Ibrahim returned to Mali for the first time since he
was a small boy, fighting in the Malian rebel forces by day and making music by
night. With the peace accord of 1994, he was finally able to devote his full
life to music and, he says, to helping other people understand his people, his
desert, his way of life.

 

The harshness of Touareg life filters through into the
songs, with lines like “they murdered the old folk and the child just born,”
yet also its resilience. You can hardly hear songs like “Chet Boghassa” or
“Amassakoul N’Tenere” without swaying slightly, from side to side, or at least
tapping a foot or a finger. You could enjoy the live footage of Live in
London
on pure aesthetic terms, as a trance-inducing oasis of serenity and
groove, but that would be missing the point. It’s much more meaningful to
appreciate it as a celebration of survival against overwhelming odds.

 

[For an
interview/feature on Tinariwen that we previously published when we were still
Harp magazine, go HERE.
]

 

 

FAMILY VALUES Akron/Family

The experimental band
reinvents itself once again.

 

BY NANCY DUNHAM

 

Miles Seaton, nominally the bass player for Akron/Family,
isn’t going to be pinned down on who did what part of the band’s new album Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free (Dead Oceans).

 

Fans know the band members each love to dabble and create,
working as almost a musical co-op. The result is pieces of Jimi Hendrix, the
Grateful Dead and all the artists in between coming together as Akron/Family
sound that perhaps even the members can’t specifically describe.

 

“You can definitely feel it’s a lot wider and thicker
sound,” explains Seaton. “There is a heavy feeling to it.”

 

It’s impossible not to think of Akron/Family as arguably one
of the most pure jam bands around. The musical stew of ideas combined with each
member playing every instrument on the album at various points finds the sound
on this latest CD moving from jam to psychedelic and beyond.

 

Although one of the band’s original members, Ryan
Vanderhoof, recently left, Akron/Family – Seaton, Seth Olinsky and Dana Janssen
– doesn’t feel like a different band “by any stretch,” says Seaton. “We are
always looking to reinvent ourselves and change and grow.” The move proved a
positive one, proof being found in the 11 songs on the album, which constantly
shift and change almost like colors in an old Wurlitzer jukebox. “The call of
outside stuff is always there. All of us love the music and really want to work
on every process of it. On this [album] we spent a lot of time playing music
and recording different versions of things and keeping the music together. “

 

Considering the band’s background, that isn’t surprising.
The basic formation of the band came together when Seaton met Olinsky as a
co-worker at a New York
coffee shop.

 

“It was a real dead end job in a coffee shop/restaurant,”
recalls Seaton. “We worked ‘til 2 or 3 a.m. and then… got off work and played
music. We were both looking for something more than we had found previously.
Looking back, it all kinds of makes sense now.”

 

Life had grown so harsh in New York that Seaton was on the verge of
leaving when he met Seth.  Music, says Seaton,
became their shelter and life preserver. “The menial job and all that stuff was
tough. But when Seth and I were working on recording together, it all sort of
came together. My girlfriend at the time listened to it and said it was really
beautiful. Before I met Seth, I had lived in New York for six months and thought, `This
place is a bummer. I’m leaving.’ When I heard the music we recorded, I thought,
`That is why I came here.’

 

“God, I haven’t thought about that in a long time.  That’s so cool to remember.”

 

 

[Akron/Family will be
touring all summer. Dates at their MySpace page
]

 

 

THE HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SOUNDS OF… The Who & The Smithereens

A pair of new ‘oo
artifacts arrive and leave the author sw’ooning.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

That the Who is my all-time favorite band is far more than
an understatement. In my personal pantheon of life-changers – and one’s journey
through rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not a series of such album/concert-wrought
moments – the Who was primary. The band schooled me in everything from classic
British Invasion pop (along with the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things,” the Who’s “I
Can’t Explain” opened my eyes wider than anything by the Beatles or Stones) to
psychedelia (1967 opus The Who Sell Out and of course that little ol’ rock opera from 1969 known as Tommy; more on those in a sec) to sinewy hard rock steeped in soul and
introspection (Who’s Next, natch, and
much of Quadrophenia), all the while proposing
that brains and brawn can and should coexist
within the rock milieu (regardless of what month you were born). Yeah, I drank
the k’oolaid.

 

The concurrent arrival of two new Who-related releases, therefore,
offers me ample opportunity to revisit my roots. Notice I didn’t say “relive my
childhood”; I’m not about to launch into some dewy-eyed variation on Almost Famous, and in any event, I
didn’t have an older sibling to leave a crate full of LPs under the bed for me
– I had to ferret out this shit on my own. Besides, if one is to presume that
rock’s as vital an artform as, say, modern dance or the visual disciplines,
then it follows that as with all artforms, there must be acknowledgment of the
proverbial old masters. One doesn’t “relive” anything in that regard: a classic is just that, a classic, with all the timelessness the
term implies, and to experience and re-experience a classic is to approach and
engage it on an organic, living/breathing level.

 

Well, that’s what I do,
at least. Which makes The Who Sell Out one of those classics. Unsurprisingly, it’s my favorite Who album.

 

While we’ve previously seen an expanded reissue of the album
(the 1995 edition boasted remastered sound and 9 bonus tracks), earlier this
year in the UK Polydor/Universal issued a two-CD Deluxe Edition, and it’s due out stateside on June 2 on
Geffen/Universal. Tracklistings and other pertinent details can be viewed at
the album’s official MySpace page, and the April issue of Mojo featured as the cover story an in-depth look at the making of Sell Out. The question, of course, is
whether, after more than four decades of commentary on the Who, there’s
actually anything new to say about an individual album.

 

(Petra Haden, one of several musical progeny of legendary
jazz bassist Charlie Haden, may have given the answer to that a few years ago: in 2005, at the urging of her friend Mike
Watt, she recorded a song-by-song remake of Sell
Out
, done entirely a cappella. Possibly the ultimate “tribute album,” the
Haden Sell Out even featured the
vocalist recreating the four photos that appeared on the original LP cover.)

 

But we rock fans do love our old war stories, so the
question is probably moot. I could go on for hours about what I love about Sell Out. Conceptually, it plays with
some of pop art’s notions about how mass culture and crass commercialism
collide, while also paying tribute to the pirate radio stations that operated
in Britain
in the mid ‘60s. Goofy musical radio ads and hyperventilating jingles are
interspersed between songs, giving much of the album the feel of a broadcast;
one of my favorite moments is when a chipper-to-the-point-of-Stepford female,
backed by a schmaltzy orchestra, croons blandly/blissfully, “It’s smooth sailing
with the highly successful sounds of wonderful Radio London.” The LP artwork
remains one of the most iconic record sleeves ever, too, a brilliant sendup of
product placement depicting Pete Townshend applying a giant stick of underarm
deodorant Roger Daltrey soaking in a tub of baked beans which clutching an
oversized can of the product, Keith Moon attacking a monstrous pimple with an
equally monstrous tube of medication (Big Is Better for the Who, apparently),
and a caveman-outfitted John Entwistle, fresh from his Charles Atlas exercise
regimen, wearing a teddy bear on one arm and a busty bikini-clad blonde on the
other.

 

Song-wise, the album is all over the map, from churning
psychedelia (“Armenia City In the Sky”) and wistful, soaring balladry (“Our
Love Was”) to blisteringly aggressive hard rock (“I Can See For Miles” – still
the Who’s finest studio moment ever)
and anthemic powerpop (“I Can’t Reach You”), all the while boasting some of the
most agile – at times, Beach Boys-worthy – vocals and vocal harmonies Daltrey
and Townshend ever mustered during the Who’s long career. Even most of the ads,
though jokey, have an inherent musicality to them; “Odorono,” ostensibly a
cautionary commercial for anyone hoping to impress a member of the opposite sex
but unwise enough to go out without first applying the titular antiperspirant,
has a memorable riff, a hummable melody and a yearning quality to it that
elevate it to “actual” Who-song status.

 

There’s also “Rael,” a two-part mini-suite that foreshadows Tommy via certain riffs and melodic
themes that Townshend would subsequently recycle for his epic rock opera. Positioned
as the final track on the original LP, this somewhat convoluted futuristic
fantasy provided a direct bridge between Sell
Out
and Tommy, and for those who
originally experienced the two albums in their proper temporal order, the quiet
thrill of delight upon hearing those riffs and themes magically reappear in Tommy was profound.

 

At this juncture I should point out that someone who not
only could discuss Sell Out for hours, already has: John Dougan, author of the Continuum
Books’ 2006 title The Who Sell Out, part
of the publishing house’s ongoing 33 1/3 series of books devoted to individual
albums. Dougan provides detailed dissection of not just the music and the minutiae,
but the unique British cultural milieu that spawned Sell Out (for example, he spends a good time chronicling the rise
and fall of the pirate stations). His love for the album and the band
consistently shines through, but he never lets that get in the way of cogent
analysis, and he additionally brings to the fore a dry wit perfectly suited to
his subject.

 

Aside from the Dougan book, the extensive liner notes
accompanying the new Deluxe Addition also
provide ample commentary. As Who authority Dave Marsh penned the liners to the
1995 release, his essay reappears here in slightly truncated form. It’s
bolstered by a second essay written by project producer Andy Neill, and the combination
of Marsh’s take on the music and Neill’s account of the circumstances
surrounding its creation makes for a satisfying read.

 

All the foregoing, then, leads us to the real pressing question surrounding any
such reissue, deluxe or otherwise: given that most Who fans already have the ‘95
edition, should they spring for yet another version?

 

In terms of packaging, the new Sell Out is absolutely on par with the previous Who Deluxe Editions (Tommy, Who’s Next, My Generation, Live at Leeds): thick booklet
with the aforementioned expanded liners, rare photos and detailed track
annotations, plus a handsome quad-fold sleeve sporting additional previously
unseen images (here, outtakes from the LP sleeve photo shoot). The notes
further indicate that this is a fresh 2008 remaster, courtesy longtime band
associate Jon Astley, who helped oversee the previous remaster, so in theory
you get “better sound” (admittedly, a relative concept, but hey, if you have
the stereo gear and the ears to go with it…).

 

What about the actual music? Well, first and foremost,
leading off both Discs One and Two is the original 13-song album, presented in
stereo and mono, respectively. The latter scans fine, but as Sell Out always had a certain
headphone-ready surround sound quality to it that I adored, I can’t imagine
myself touting the mono over the stereo like Beatles enthusiasts sometimes
claim that mono versions of Fab Four albums are superior to the stereo ones. As
for bonus tracks, you get a whopping 27 extra goodies – 17 on the first disc,
10 on the second. And with a slew of additional radio jingles sprinkled
throughout the bonus section of Disc One, it’s almost like getting a entire
alternate version of Sell Out, albeit
one that lacks the sequencing cohesion of a “proper” album. With the exception
of two songs, “Melancholia” and “Glow Girl,” all of the bonus material from the
1995 CD gets reprised here (which is a bit of a head scratcher; why not include them, particularly “Glow
Girl,” which like “Rael” is a close musical kin to Tommy).

 

And sure, while a fair chunk of the material has surfaced
over the years on bootlegs as well as on the Who box Thirty Years of Maximum R&B, for a project like a Deluxe Edition, the idea is to get all
of the proximate recordings (or as many as possible) under one roof so those collectors
who are truly passionate about the band can get a sense of the larger picture, and,
hopefully, gain a better grasp of the artistry. Bonus tracks can frequently feel
like somebody at the record label is scraping the barrel or throwing the fans a
few bones while lightening their wallets, but when done properly, and with an
eye (ear) towards actual context, they can be hugely enlightening. At times,
exhilarating, even. What comes through here is a portrait of highly creative
and driven songwriter – Townshend – in the throes of experimentalism and open
to myriad influences, trying out different sounds and motifs even as a
signature Townshend “style” was gradually coalescing (and would eventually lead
him to Tommy) and his band was
evolving into the muscular outfit we all know the Who would soon become.

 

Among the bonus track highlights: the zooming, aerodynamic
pop-psych of “Jaguar”; a blistering, almost heavy metal jam titled not inaccurately
“Sodding About”; the original version of “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand,”
featuring Al Kooper on organ; and a revealing piano/guitar/drums demo of
“Relax” that Townshend cut in July of ’67. The other members of the ‘oo are represented
among the extras, too, notably Entwistle’s peppy, horn-powered “Someone’s
Coming” (sung, for some reason, by Daltrey), with Daltrey’s “Early Morning Cold
Taxi” and Moon’s “Girl’s Eyes” coming off as pleasant but somewhat slight
ditties. There’s also the group’s studio recording of “Summertime Blues,” but
of course if you’ve ever been flattened by the brawny, brawling Live at Leeds take on the Eddie Cochrane
nugget, you won’t be listening to this one all that often.

 

But wait, as the saying goes – there’s more. At the end of
Disc Two, following the conclusion of an alternate mono mix of “Rael,” comes
about a half-minute of silence. Then unexpectedly, up cues a swirl of backwards
guitars and French horn, duly excised from the “Armenia City In the Sky” tapes
so you can get a sense of how the trippy tune was stitched together. That goes
on for about three minutes or so, then after a few more seconds of silence
comes a fake milkshake ad for the so-called Great Shakes company, featuring pitchman
Keith Moon supplying his spoken testimonial. Neither of these tracks are listed
on the sleeve or in the booklet, so all that’s left to say is – the Sell Out sessions: the gift that keeps
on giving.

 

Bottom line: whether or not you need The Who Sell Out – Deluxe Edition really depends on how completist
a Who fan/collector you are. There’s not a thing wrong with the ’95 edition, of
course. For those who want to go deeper, though, the new version is here for
you. And as suggested above, the album itself does bear close scrutiny (and it
has been scrutinized time and time again), both as a solid musical artifact
that never seems to age or lose its sonic luster, and as one of the key pieces
to the Who/Townshend puzzle. I really can’t imagine anyone professing to like
the band not owning a copy of the album.

 

***

 

Which brings us to “Thomas.”

 

I’m not a musician. But if I was, I’d probably be either drummer
Dennis Diken or guitarist Jim Babjak, who along with guitarist Pat DiNizio and
current bassist Severo Jornacion comprise New Jersey’s
Smithereens. In a most literal sense, the long-running band, extant since the
early ‘80s and always a fan- and critical-fave, might never have existed had it
not been for the Who. As Babjak relates in his liner notes to the brand-new The Smithereens Play Tommy (E1
Entertainment/Koch), it was a color photo of the Who in full
guitar-windmilling/microphone-swinging flight, duly taped to Babjak’s notebook
in high school, that prompted the kid sitting behind him in science class one
morning in 1971 to ask him if he was into the Who. The other kid turned out to
be Diken, and although at the time Babjak confessed he was really more into the
Beatles, the photo spawned an earnest conversation about rock in general, and
in turn planted the seeds of an enduring musical partnership.

 

Being a staunch Who fan, Diken encouraged Babjak to start
backtracking, and according to Babjak, “I was hooked… by 1973 I had every Who
album and most of their singles. I even bought a used Gibson SG200 (a much
cheaper version of Pete’s SG guitar). Dennis and I would practice in my
parents’ garage often and we started playing songs off the Tommy album… Whenever we’d play the ‘Listening To You’ part of ‘See
Me Feel Me’ I’d start [windmilling] around like Pete. My adrenaline was really
pumping as I banged out the chords [and] I used to cut my hand all the time but
I didn’t care. I was even proud to show my friends the blood spatters on the
garage ceiling.”

 

Babjak additionally notes that his visual impressions of
Townshend were largely formed from watching the Who’s performances in the Monterey Pop and Woodstock films. To anyone of a certain age, this observation surely rings true. Again,
while I’m not a musician myself, those cinematic images, particularly the ones
from Woodstock, are forever burned into my
memory too. Townshend, in white boiler suit and sporting a purposeful grimace,
assaults his Gibson with the lethal precision of a serial killer while the
mic-twirling Daltrey, resplendent in golden-god locks and a long fringed
leather vest, externalizes Townshend’s implied chaos. To this day when I watch
the film – it’s a mainstay of VH1 Classic and hard to avoid – I inevitably bolt
out of my chair and begin windmilling across the living room, and I’d like to
publicly apologize right now to my 8-year old for probably leaving him with the
sneaking suspicion that his dad is certifiably nuts. (Don’t worry, son. You’ll
inherit all my Who albums eventually and then you’ll understand.)

 

Three and a half decades later, Babjak gets to revisit his
roots. Okay, in his case, he actually does relive his childhood. Bastard. The
Smithereens Play Tommy
is the latest in a recent flurry of activity for the
band, coming on the heels of the band’s pair of Beatles tribute albums, 2007’s Meet the Smithereens (a song-by-song
remake of Meet the Beatles) and
2008’s B-Sides the Beatles (exactly
what it says it is, covering the Fab Four’s flipsides until 1966), plus last
year’s live album and a 2007 collection of Christmas tunes. I’ll confess that
the Beatles tribs, though in places so note-perfect they’d fool the unsuspecting
blindfold test taker, didn’t do a whole lot for me, primarily because it’s
post-Rubber Soul Beatles albums that
inform my appreciation for John, Paul, George and Ringo and not the early
Merseybeat material.

 

The Smithereens Play
Tommy
, however (henceforth referred to as TSPT), doesn’t require any heavy lifting on my part to get into and
get with the spirit in which it was
created; as you may have already surmised, the Tommy/Who Sell Out axis is what directly informs my enduring love
for John, Pete, Keith and Roger. I say this as someone who in the past has gone
on record stating that tribute projects, in general, are a waste of time,
energy and magnetic tape, while actual recreations of individual artifacts court
artistic disaster. I can count on one hand the number of remakes that I’d want
to hear again; among them are Carla Bozulich’s uncanny 2003 re-envisioning of
Willie Nelson’s The Red Headed Stranger,
Chuck Prophet’s quirky-but-cool 2007 take on Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams (retitled Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams) and the Petra
Haden album mentioned above.

 

Add TSPT to the
shortlist. Wisely, the Smithereens opted for a pared-down version of Tommy, jettisoning a number of songs
that either served primarily to advance Townshend’s sometimes sketchy narrative
(“1921,” “Sally Simpson,” “Welcome”) or weren’t all that musically compelling
in the first place (“Cousin Kevin,” “Do You Think It’s Alright?”/”Fiddle
About,” “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”). Out of 25 tracks comprising the 1969 Tommy, 13 appear here, and the result,
far from being a dilution of the original vision, works wonderfully by
distilling its very rock essence. My lone gripe is over the decision to forego
“Underture” as that always seemed to beef up Tommy‘s recurring melodic and rhythmic motifs. But with the “Amazing
Journey”/”Sparks” segment preemptively taking care of that to a degree, and in
considerably less running time than the 10-minute “Underture,” complaints about
the latter’s omission probably fall on the die-hard purist side of the equation
(always tread lightly when calling anything in rock ‘n’ roll sacrosanct). Plus, when the Smithereens catapult headlong into
“Sparks” and you suddenly realize they’re giving it the Live at Leeds treatment via the 1970 LP’s behemoth “My Generation”
jam, the message is clear: sit back kids,
let us do the driving, and just enjoy yourselves.

 

That unhinged Leedsian
aesthetic – by way of Woodstock, no
doubt – rears its head several times on TSPT,
notably during a searing “Go To The Mirror” and of course in the “See Me Feel
Me/Listening To You” section, towards the end of which you can practically feel
the whiff of Townshend’s windmills and Daltrey’s mic-swings. Yet at other
points the Smithereens’ dedication to excavating not just the physical but the emotional core of Tommy comes into striking relief.

 

In the nominal singalong “Tommy Can You Hear Me?” for
example, DiNizio doesn’t forget to include the plaintive “Tommy… Tommy… Tommy”
recitation heard during the fadeout, while by doubling Babjak’s lead vocal on
“Amazing Journey” the band effectively captures the simultaneous yearning and
celebratory quality of Daltrey’s original vocal. This isn’t as easy as it may
seem, either. DiNizio, Babjak and Diken all swap off on lead vocals, but none
of them sounds exactly like Daltrey or Townshend; for his part, DiNizio’s voice
is pitched considerably lower than either man, which makes a few songs, such as
“Acid Queen,” seem just a tad “off” upon first listen. So the fact that the
band still manages to leave the listener nodding and singing along,
particularly on the harmonies, is pretty remarkable, and it’s to the
Smithereens’ credit that they understand just how important the Who’s vocals
were; without the crucial Daltrey-Townshend interplay, the Who would’ve been
just another hard rock band.

 

Other little touches – the way Townshend’s original acoustic
solo in the midsection of “I’m Free” is translated to electric; the pulsing,
rhythmic “lala-lala-lala” and “oooohhh” backing vocals in “Christmas”; and
absolutely nailing the entirety of
“Pinball Wizard” (that’s Diken taking the lead vocal) – are equally inspiring.
Factor in Diken’s astounding drumming, which replicates and in places
elaborates upon Keith Moon’s anarchic style, and we’re way beyond “inspiring.” (Let
me repeat: the way Diken channels Moonie is astounding. Pete, Roger, if Zak
Starkey can’t make one of your periodic Who tours, I’ve got just the man for
the job.)

 

It’s the overall, collective vibe of the performance, then,
that makes TSPT so wildly successful
and not just a collection of well-intentioned Who covers, the Smithereens striking
the perfect balance between reverential nuance and riotous glee. Furthermore,
the one thing that can deep-six any project such as this – listeners’
familiarity (and in many cases, over-familiarity)
with the source material, which thus enshrined is rendered unapproachable – actually
becomes, for the Smithereens, an asset: listening to TSPT is part-guilty pleasure, part trainspotting exercise, and part
celebration and literal exercise,
which I discovered firsthand when I found myself windmilling across my living
room (sorry, son) during “Sparks” and then later during the big finale.

 

In closing, perhaps a note on the sleeve art for The Smithereens Play Tommy is in order.
The CD booklet takes as its inspiration the old EC line of horror comics and
depicts a mummy-wrapped and presumably deaf/dumb/blind Daltrey mentally adrift
(“See me… feel me… touch me… HEAL ME!!!” read his thought bubbles) while from
the distance someone is shouting, “Tommy – CAN YOU HEAR ME?!”; in lieu of the
Cryptkeeper and sundry EC ghouls displayed in the left margin insets we see the
Acid Queen and a pair of other Tommy visual references. Sharp-eyed music fans, and in particular old-school
collectors of rock bootlegs by the Yardbirds, Rolling Stones and others, will
immediately recognize the cartoon as emanating from the twisted pen of one
William Stout, still a very much in-demand artist.

 

Two of Stout’s most memorable early renderings, in fact,
were for Who bootlegs originally released in the early ‘70s and now considered
collector’s items: Tales From The Who (a live radio broadcast of a Quadrophenia concert), and outtakes/rarities compilation Who’s
Zoo
(both can be viewed in closeup HERE). Tales From The Who clearly must have found its way into the
collection of one or more members of the Smithereens, as it’s also a Stout
re-envisioning of an EC Comics cover, this one showing a fetid, rotting ghoul
emerging from a grave as the thought bubble above its head reads, “I know…
what… it means… but… I CAN’T EXPLAIN!”

 

I have no idea what Stout’s initial reaction was when the
Smithereens first approached him about doing the art for their Tommy flashback. But I can readily
envision a broad, knowing smile creasing his face as he listens to TSPT for the first time.

 

One homage is worth
another
, Stout, a lifelong Who fan, thinks to himself, as smile turns to
smirk and he reaches for his trusty pen and ink to commence revisiting his
roots….