Monthly Archives: October 2009

POP SAVIOR, OR GIGANTIC MANATEE? Pugwash

Thomas Walsh holds
forth on Brian Wilson, Kim Fowley, Andy Partridge, Neil Hannon, Michael Jackson’s inconvenient demise, and more.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

Thomas Walsh’s Pugwash have been one of Irish pop’s best
kept secrets for a decade now. That looks set to change, though, after Walsh
recently signed to Andy Partridge’s new Ape House label, a move that’ll see
Pugwash’s back catalog made available in the US and the UK. To whet appetites,
Partridge has also curated Giddy, a
compilation drawing on the band’s four albums (review is here).  Ape House is the ideal place for
Walsh, steeped as he is in a rich English pop tradition ranging from the
Beatles and the Kinks to Honeybus, ELO, XTC and numerous points in between.

 

In addition to his duties as the brains behind Pugwash,
Walsh has always kept himself busy, from ’90s work with legendary producer Kim
Fowley and singer-songwriter Andy White to popular success in summer 2009 as
one half of cricket-pop phenomenon the Duckworth Lewis Method (with the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon; read the review here).

 

Without a bathroom break (that Blurt was aware of, at least), the extremely affable and garrulous
Walsh held forth on, among other things, getting the thumbs up from Brian
Wilson, being treated to an impromptu XTC gig in Andy Partridge’s living room,
his aversion to the other B-word, his love of garden sheds, the magic of Abbey
Road studios and his (and others’) telephonic toilet habits.

 

***

 

BLURT: Tell me about
the roots of Pugwash.

 

WALSH: I started out watching my brother playing the guitar:
watching the chords, looking at his fingers and then replicating it. I used to
spend forever in the back bedroom of my parents’ house just playing the guitar.
They say it’s a misspent youth — well, it has to be. I didn’t want to go out
and play football or anything like that. I just wanted to sit inside and strum
the guitar. So I wrote my first songs when I was 15, I think — pretty late on.
And of course they’re all shit, but you’ve got to get them out of the way and
write and write and write. Then, in the late ’80s, I got into XTC. Andy
Partridge and XTC were a huge influence in the second stage of my life as a
writer. Until then, it was all ELO, the Beatles and ’60s kind of stuff and
classic ’70s stuff. And it still is, ultimately, but with XTC it was great for
me to find a band that were so different and were still out there doing stuff.
I heard Skylarking and it changed my
life, I suppose.

 

You also liked the
idea that Andy Partridge worked on music in his shed.

 

Yeah. I found out that Andy Partridge wasn’t playing live
any more but that he recorded at home and that he had a shed — so I wanted a
shed. I got one — a little wooden shed — and I put some gear in it and my dad
put electricity into it, and that was it. I started demo-ing. I used to go out
in the shed and record songs on a little tape recorder. It was too much Jeff
Lynne, too much Ray Davies, XTC, far too much Lennon and McCartney, just
overdosing on their songs. And a lot of those early songs were on my first
record, Almond Tea, in 1999.

 

What is it about
sheds and creativity? Eno even had one constructed
inside his London office.

 

I have such fond memories of my shed, down the back garden
with a little heater in it. I used to come back from hanging out with my
friends in the middle of winter. There’d be snow on the ground, freezing cold,
and I’d come in, stick the plug in for the electricity in the back garden and
open the shed door. It’s just a wooden shed, it’s freezing cold in there, all the
gear’s freezing cold, and I stick the heater on straight away. Then I’d shut the door again and walk back into the
house, put the kettle on and make a cup of tea, have a biscuit, walk out there
again 10 minutes later, and it’s like a cozy, warm piece of wood with all your
gear in it amid freezing cold snow. When everything’s going on around you, it’s
a bit of tranquility. I love that Colin Moulding line in XTC’s “Fruit Nut,” where he talks about having a shed:
“A man must have a shed to keep
him sane.”

 

Talking of sanity,
how did you get involved with Kim Fowley? Does he live up to his reputation?

 

The thing with Kim Fowley is that in America he’s such a
fucking eejit — and I can say this openly because I’m a friend of Kim’s. When
he’s in his home country, it’s Kim with his obnoxious façade; when he’s over in
Ireland, he’s a great guy. He was a big influence on me getting going because
he gave me the confidence that nobody else had. I learned so much from him. He
got me the job playing with Andy White.

 

When he came to Dublin in the mid-’90s, he asked Hot Press magazine, “Who’s the
biggest thing right now? I’m not talking about sales, I’m talking about
demos.” I’d sent a demo in to Hot
Press
and they’d given me the “Demo of the Year,” so they gave
Kim my number. So he rang me up and went, “Hi, I’m Kim Fowley.” And I
went, “Yeah, right. Bye!” At the time, I didn’t believe it was him. I
thought, “Why would Kim Fowley be ringing me?” He said, “We’re
here writing some songs. Can you come in?” I couldn’t comprehend, but I
went in and there was Kim with, like, 20 new songwriters all sitting around and
he’s saying things like “Metal
World!”
and “Flying Angels
of Shit!”
And people are writing songs called “Flying Angels of
Shit” and I was, like, “This is shit, I don’t want to be in
here.” I was sitting on the outside of it all and he grabbed me and went,
“Are you Thomas? I’ve heard your stuff, it’s very
Beatles-y,” and I said, “Thanks very much, but I’m not really
into this stuff. This isn’t me.” And he goes, “I just want to see if
you can write a fucking song. If I say” — and he just comes up with any
old shite — “‘Pillows in the Sky,’ could you write a song?” I said, “Yes, I can.” And he said,
“Do a T.Rex beat!” So I did a T.Rex kind of beat, like “Get It
On,” and we just wrote very quickly together, in front of people.

 

I was so happy to get out of there alive. I thought I’d never hear from
him again, but he rang me the next day and he went, “Hey man, weren’t most
of them people shit? Fucking hell! What’s going on in Dublin? You’re the only
guy!” And for the next five years, I became Kim’s right-hand man in
Ireland, and his mate. I feel bad because he’s been in touch, but I haven’t got
back to him recently. If you ring Kim, you have
to designate a week to be on the fucking phone — I mean, I’m bad enough as you
can hear — but he’s incredible. Once, I went to the toilet twice during a conversation: one was
sitting down, the other was standing up. He never stops.

 

What’s the
Pugwash-Brian Wilson connection?

 

I met Brian Wilson originally in 2005 through Joe D’Ambrosio
in New York, who did some freelance stuff for me, just for the laugh and
because he loved my songs. I did a promo of “Nice to Be Nice” [from Jollity] in early 2005, and when Joe was
over in Dublin, he picked up a few copies and brought them back to the States
because he loved it. He gave one to Brian Wilson’s manager, David Leaf, who’s a
friend of his, and David played it to Brian. Then I got
an email from David saying, “Thomas, Brian would like to meet you when he
comes to Dublin on his tour.” To say that I urinated all over myself would
be an understatement. He said, “Brian’s really getting into the track and
he’d like to meet you.” I couldn’t even comprehend that statement. So I
got to meet him. It was quick. With Brian, you’re not going to sit down at this
stage and discuss the finer points of Oscar Wilde. It’s just going to be
“hello” and “how are you?” And that’s how it was, but he
was so nice. He actually said, “Are you the ‘Nice to Be Nice’ guy?”
And I went, “Yes. Are you the guy that changed the world?” He was
brilliant. I got a great picture of him: me standing there like an idiot, grinning.
It was an amazing night.

 

Pugwash’s music has a
strong retro flavor. What distinguishes you from other similarly inclined
bands?

 

With every single fucking band that’s headlining festivals
around the world this summer, from your Kasabians to your Kings of Leon to your
Fleet Foxes, there’s elements of their music that you could say are Beatlesque
or like Crosby Stills and Nash or Roxy Music or whatever. All these bands are
more retro than me because they look like they’re from back then and they sound
like they’re from back then. Now, I just look like a fucking gigantic manatee
— that’s me — and I love the instruments of that era and I love using them,
but I definitely put my own little slant on things. I don’t want to just
recreate the past. I mean, I’ve been to Abbey Road and I’ve worked on records
there — but I’ve never wanted to go there just to put down feckin’ rugs and
try and recreate ’67 or something. It wasn’t in my head to do that. I just know
it’s an incredibly brilliant studio to record in, and
I knew the sound of the place would help a record. I was very honored to
be there, but I’ve been there to work every time. I think you have to work in
the place: it’s steeped in history, but it’s a place of work.

 

What do you think
when people like me use the B-word to describe your music?

 

To describe something as Beatlesque is beyond lazy. It’s
just a way of referring to a song with any melodic content. That’s a kind of
compliment in the way that the Beatles were so melodic and covered every genre
of melody, but it’s lazy. The lowest common denominator is the Beatles, but
I’ve got so many other elements — the whole XTC thing and obviously the ELO
thing, and I actually push more towards that. If someone says, “You’re
very ELO,” I take that as a huge compliment because I’m such a huge Jeff
Lynne fan. I’d rather they say that I’m like ELO than the Beatles because it
means that at least they know a little bit more than just going back to the
kings: it’s so easy just to refer to the Beatles. Obviously, it’s a huge, huge
compliment, but I don’t think it’s meant in that way. But, you know, it could
be worse — they could say you’re shit, so I’ll take it!

 

Part of the retro feel in Pugwash comes from
those old instruments that you mentioned. You’re a big fan of the
Mellotron/Novatron.

 

My Novatron is the weight of five of me in a coffin; an
original Mellotron would be about ten of me in a coffin. They’re the heaviest things on the planet. It’s made of
pure, thick wood and it’s got one little keyboard in the front. I use it on
everything. It’s my favorite instrument in the world, pretty much. I love it.
It’s one of those instruments that doesn’t date. To me, the Mellotron, the
Novatron and the Chamberlin, their sounds are completely timeless. I absolutely
love them.

 

Your first two albums, Almond Tea and Almanac, are
hard to come by now.

 

The Vélo label, who
put out Almond Tea and Almanac, went bust the week Almanac came out, and I took 300 copies
that were left in the storage space. The people at the storage space told me,
“You’re not getting these records. We’re owed money off your label, so
we’re keeping these.” And I went, “I’m coming down with a car and I’m
fucking reversing in and I’m taking them. So try and stop me.” And they
went, [meekly] “Oh, okay” and they even brought them out on a little
conveyor thing and just gave me them. I got 150 copies of Almond Tea that were there, as well. And because Jason Falkner’s on
Almanac, I got in touch with his web
site person, Linda, and she offered to sell the album through his web site for
10 dollars. That’s where they went over the years, and that’s why it’s such a
cult record in America. It used to cost me five dollars just to post them. I
just didn’t feel like I should even fucking take money for them. I just
thought, “Let people have it.” Then my friend Daragh Bohan heard Almanac and said, “You’ve got to
make a real record that’s gonna do something and get it out there.” So he
started the 1969 record label and Jollity came out on 1969. I thought I really had to step up and make a statement: it
was my first album with a real label that’d been set up with some money behind
it.

 

XTC’s David Gregory worked on Jollity.
How did that happen?

 

Andy Partridge did a
song called “Born out of Your Mouth” for the Microsoft web site — a
friend of mine, Peter, who’s a big XTC fan, had asked him to do it and he’d
gone to Swindon to discuss it. And when Peter was in Swindon, he’d also met
Dave Gregory. So I said to Peter, “I’ve got a song called ‘A Rose in a
Garden of Weeds,’ and I’ve got some money for this record; do you think there’s
any chance Dave Gregory would do a string arrangement for me?” He emailed
him and Dave said, “Send me the songs and if they’re any good, I’ll think
about it.” So I sent him the demos of the songs and I got an email back
saying, “Hello Thomas, Wow! Jesus Christ! The songs are wonderful. I’d
love to work on them.” I asked him straight away what the price would be
and it was an incredible, do-able price: for a man as brilliant, as genius as
Dave Gregory is to sit down and write a string arrangement, it was do-able for
me.

 

And on top of that, you ended up recording at
Abbey Road’s Studio Two.

 

In the meantime, I’d
got to know the Section Quartet from Los Angeles. When they came to Dublin, I
got up and sang “Us and Them” with them when they did Dark Side of the Moon and “Ashes to
Ashes” when they did some Bowie stuff. They were fans of what they’d heard
of my stuff, so I got in touch with them and asked, “If Dave
Gregory scores this track for my new album, would it be possible for you to
record it if I send the score over?” I was
thinking I’d send the backing tracks and we could do this over the internet.
They said, “We’ll go one better than that. If you’re around at the start
of April [2004], we’re going to be in London with Grant-Lee Phillips. We’ve
done loads of stuff with Jon Brion in Abbey Road, and we can get you Studio
Two.” I went, “No, that’s bollocks! No way!” I was nearly
shitting meself. Again, it was totally do-able. So I said to Dave, “Do you
fancy coming down and conducting the Section Quartet in Studio Two at Abbey
Road?” And that’s how it happened. It was really natural. That’s how we
got to Abbey Road and that’s how Jollity started.

 

Was it through David
Gregory that you met Andy Partridge, hence the deal with Ape House?

 

Yeah. After the string arrangement went so well, Dave said,
“You must come over to Andy’s to have dinner,” and so I went to
Swindon and met the guy. The day I met Andy, it was like meeting Jesus Christ.
When he walked towards me and gave me a hug, it was like, fucking hell! Then,
for it to snowball into him signing me up and, of course, me writing with him,
it was too much. When I went to Andy’s for dinner, with Dave, they did an
entire XTC gig for me in Andy’s front room. Then, they said, “You play a
song.” And I said, “Not one of mine!” and I did “Love on a
Farmboy’s Wages” or something. It was brilliant fun. I did do a couple of
mine, though, because Andy asked. But, of course, when Andy’s on it, he’s like,
“Let me do ‘Collideascope,’
” and he’d be grabbing the guitar back off me because you can’t stop him
then. That’s the thing: he’s a born entertainer. It’s just that the stage as a
medium isn’t where he wants to be. I think he’s never really utilized the power
of the podcast or the webcam — if he did, the guy would be a star, his time
would come around again. He’s so entertaining at home. That was a very special
day.

 

So after that, I sent him over copies of my back catalog, Almond Tea and Almanac, and he got back in touch and said, “This is fucking
brilliant stuff.”  Almanac is Andy’s favorite Pugwash album.
After that, we sent emails and spoke on the phone a lot. Andy can push Kim
Fowley for madness on the phone, but he’s a lot more concise: Andy needs to go
off and have a piss, so he’ll get of the phone after about 40 minutes or so. We
have such fun on the phone.

 

Although you’re Irish, your music could be
described as a quintessentially English — part of a tradition of quirky
psychedelic pop.

 

I’m a great example
of a real Irishman, which is basically to say that any real Irishman is steeped
in Englishness, because we literally grew up with BBC TV and radio. It was
infinitely better than all the shit we had in our country. I do love my
country, but it’s unbelievably, inherently talentless as a broadcasting nation.
We’ve got incredible writers and poets, but let’s be
honest, Irish TV and radio and the majority of music we got at the time I was
growing up were all awful. I would have moved to Belgium to get the semblance
of a decent fuckin’ radio station. There was no way you could turn on
Irish radio when you had Radio Caroline and Radio Luxembourg or the BBC. But
the reception was terrible: it would fade in and out, and I used to listen to
music like that. It was even more exciting like that than hearing some fuckin’
eejit on Irish radio with perfect reception playing the fiddle for ten hours. I
really immersed myself in everything English because, as well as that, English
psychedelia is the best. Me and Andy Partridge totally agree on that: my
favorite psychedelic bands from America are the Lemon Pipers and the Left Banke
because they’re the most English. Andy always says Vietnam is basically
American psychedelia and English psychedelia is, like, tea: the Americans had
Vietnam to write about and English psychedelia goes back to tea, 1890s
novelists and silly things like that.

 

Your songAt the Sea,” on Eleven
Modern Antiquities,
could easily be
about the ambiguous charm of English summers….

 

I wrote “At the
Sea” with Andy. It was a melodic collaboration, but lyrically it was all
me. I wrote those lyrics because that’s what Irish summers are like — that’s
how close they are to English ones: we went to the
seaside, we bought fish and chips, we had knotted hankies on our heads; it was
freezing cold, and people did pose for photos with their trousers rolled up to
their knees. My ma would sit out in whatever sun there was for, like, days,
just to get brown. You know, she’d be out in the rain if there was a bit of sun
coming through. There was no difference between English and Irish summers.
We’re very different countries in a lot of ways, but we’re so similar as well.
And I think so many Irish mannerisms and language have come over to England —
especially Liverpool. It’s like East Dublin, as a place. I think it’s great. I
mean, I’m a big cricket fan, and I actually support England; I went to see them
win the Ashes, and I sang “Jerusalem” and “Rule Britannia,”
and I have no problem saying that. Why should I? They’re only songs. People
aren’t singing them because they want to take over the world. I have no problem
accepting other countries’ wonderful traits. I speak up very quickly about the
bad stuff, but when it comes to the good stuff, I embrace all things English —
especially the good music and the sport.

 

Andy Partridge called you “the savior of modern pop.” No pressure there, then….

 

Yeah, no pressure there…and almost embarrassing — and I
mean that in the nicest way possible. It’s an incredible thing to say. He also
had a great quote for me when I asked for a few words to put on a biog when I
released Jollity very low-key in England.
Actually, it was so low-key that I don’t think it even got off the
fucking ship and landed in England. So Andy sent back a quote: “Better
than McCartney; fatter than Lennon,” and I thought, “Brilliant.”
I laughed my fucking head off. Andy has a turn of phrase that’s just killer.
He’s a genius like that.

 

There’s some really talented people on his label. We’re all
steeped in that classic tradition of quirky pop that Andy loves. This is what I
think is great about Andy. He flies in the face of everything, really — even
when it comes to be being a label boss. He might get a bit of a ribbing that
we’re very like XTC, but what are you going to do? Sign a band that’s
deliberately anti-XTC? How dare he get bands he likes on his label! Why is he
going to promote a band he doesn’t like? It makes no sense. He’s not in it for
the business. He’s in it because he wants to release music from bands he loves
and musicians he loves, and I think that’s the perfect way of having a
homegrown little label. I’m hugely proud and honored to be there. And whatever
he says about me, I’ll take it!

 

Andy Partridge
selected his favorite tracks for
Giddy. While that’s great, the fact that one
person chose everything inevitably means some people will complain that their
favorites aren’t on it.

 

Andy is releasing pretty much everything from the back
catalog, so it’s going to be great that people can find all the other tracks
when they come out. With the 2003 Australian Earworm compilation of tracks from the first two albums, there was
too much stuff and it was too incohesive. So I thought it would be great to
release a really concise compilation, leaving off some big tracks, like
“Here,” “Take Me Away” and “Landsdowne Valley”
from Eleven Modern Antiquities — and
Andy’s releasing Eleven Modern
Antiquities
in England and the US next year. With Andy saying, “I want
to do this, this, this and this” — unless it’s something that really
sticks in my throat — I’m just letting him do it. I’m having great fun just
knowing that he’s really enjoying tinkering around with all this because this
is what he’s brilliant at.

 

Changing the subject,
how did the Duckworth Lewis Method project come about?

 

I met Neil [Hannon] at [comedy writer] Graham Linehan’s
wedding: Pugwash were his wedding band. Neil was there as a guest too, and he
was going to play “Songs of Love” and a couple of other things, and
he asked for a lend of my guitar, my piece of shit Charvel guitar. And six
months later Graham Linehan had lost his mobile phone — which Graham does
regularly — and he sent out this email, cc-ing everyone, saying he’d lost his
mobile phone and giving his new number. And, halfway down the emails, I saw
Neil Hannon’s address. I wasn’t stalking him or anything — I’m a fan of
Neil’s, but I’m not like some of the fans he has…. I wasn’t just getting in
touch to go, “Oh, you’re brilliant” and all that stuff! I was releasing
a charity single for Brainwave, the Irish epilepsy organization, in December
2006. It was a Roy Wood-esque, silly, over-the-top Christmas song, “Tinsel and Marzipan.” I said to
Neil that it would be good for the sales of the record to get a big star on it,
and Neil’s a big star. I thought it would be really cool for the record.

 

And you eventually
discovered a mutual love of cricket?

 

We realized that we both loved cricket and ELO. There was a
real synergy there. We tried writing a few songs
together, and it went really well. We wrote some silly love songs and pop songs
for other people, like Tom Jones, but they were never taken up. We were having
fun, though, so we used them anyway. We thought, “Shit, we’ve got four
songs here that are really good,” so we wrote some more, and then we
decided to do an album. We finally got twelve tracks, and Neil’s management and
label in England were interested, and 1969 Records were interested. It’s
probably gonna be my pension record. It’s done so well.

 

Inevitably, people
were dubious about the Duckworth Lewis Method record before they heard it. I
mean, an album about cricket, of all things?

 

So many people would say, “This can’t be good, this is
going to be shit, it’s about cricket,” as if the album’s going to be five
days long and be narration about cricket. For some reason, people forgot that
we were musicians first and foremost. We weren’t suddenly cricket players or
cricket historians. We were just using that as a jumping-off point to get pop
melodies across. But we do love the subject. If people’d sat there and thought
about it for two minutes, it was always going to be a pop record. But that’s
fair enough. It’s good to know that the power of the recorded song is still
there, because people really thought this was going to be crap. Then, all of a
sudden, they hear it and think, “Oh, this is actually really good.”
So we were happy with that.

 

The record got
massive media coverage, particularly since its release coincided with the start
of the Ashes series. You were even on the BBC’s Test Match Special, performing
live in the commentary box. What was that like?

 

It was the most surreal thing. There was ten people stuffed
into a room the size of a port-a-loo. It was mental. It was really, really
great, and it was one of the highlights of the whole Duckworth Lewis thing.
Neil was very nervous. I got him through that session in a way, because I just
talk shite a lot more, to relax him. We even met Shane Warne. Shane Warne is the
Kurt Cobain of cricket. It’s him who’s saved the game. He’s the greatest player
that’s ever lived.

 

Just before the
release of the record, you were invited to a special dinner in the MCC pavilion at Lord’s cricket ground.

 

Which is an incredible honor, bestowed only on very, very
special people. And me being a working-class lad from Dublin, it was a very
weird, very special and proud moment. I even took the seating chart off the
board and took it home with me because it showed all the names of the people on
our table: Frank Skinner beside me, the likes of Tim Rice sitting across from
me with Michael Atherton, Graeme Swann, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Ronald
Harwood, Mervyn King (the Governor of the Bank of England) and a load of
[London] Times journalists. We were
served a four-course dinner by these incredibly dressed Lord’s waiters and
waitresses. And we just talked about cricket, back and forth, Michael Atherton
asking me and Neil and Tim Rice questions about music. It was ridiculous.

 

And it took an even
stranger turn.

 

We ate the meal and talked around the table and then
everyone broke off into little huddles. And I was sitting there drunk with Frank Skinner, talking about football and Roy Wood,
and Neil was talking to Graeme Swann about spin
bowling, and Graeme Swann was showing him how to grip the ball. And,
then, Tim Rice wanders over with his mobile phone and says, “Michael
Jackson’s just died.” So everyone turned on their phones at the same time,
getting their messages, and all the Times journalists who were there had to leave and go back to the office, at 11.30 at
night. And I remember sitting there and saying to Neil, “Can this night
get any more fucking surreal?” It’s a real sad loss, and obviously it’s
something that should never have happened, but to be told the next week that,
after he died, 15 of his albums went straight into the charts…. I’m not going
to slag Mr. Jackson, of course, but we were told we’d have got to number 29 in
the charts if Michael hadn’t popped his clogs! That’s the way it is. Of course,
it’s far worse to be dead.

 

You and Neil both cultivated impressive Victorian facial hair for the Duckworth Lewis Method. Your WG Grace style
beard was outstanding.

 

If people are gonna remember me for something, it might as
well be a beard. Some people never get remembered, so it might as well be a
beard for me.

 

 

[Pictured above: Pugwash (L-R) – Thomas Walsh, Johnny Boyle,
Keith Farrell]

 

TRY TO BE READY Malcolm Holcombe

“We gotta get out there with a hoe”: the Appalachian
twanger keeps the burners going.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

“It certainly
doesn’t begin with me,” Malcolm Holcombe says. “It starts someplace bigger than
me, you know? Take that however you like. That’s up for grabs there. “

 

Despite having released five LPs and an EP-including 2007’s
fantastic Gamblin’ House- that have
earned him reams of critical praise, Malcolm Holcombe deflects credit for the
Appalachian folk blues music he’s played for the better part of the last twenty
years.  But when acknowledging the
inspiration behind For The Mission Baby, his
latest release on Echo Mountain Records, Holcombe is quick to pay credit where
credit is due.

 

“I watched that damn helicopter take off from the Capitol,
you can bet your sweet bippy on that,” he says, of former President George W.
Bush’s exit from office last January. “There are some people that don’t watch
television or listen to the radio. I’ve been through that phase, but I think
it’s my responsibility with a family to pay attention. Maybe I can muster up
some songs weighty enough to surpass my breathe along the way.”

 

The 12 songs Holcombe assembled for For The Mission Baby deal with
greed, poverty, corruption and war, modern day fables filtered through his
Everyman sensibilities. On “Doncha Miss That Water,” Holcombe references
Hurricane Katrina, with New Orleans native Mary Gauthier providing beautiful
vocal accompaniment. (“Her soul just bled all over that tune,” he says.)
Perhaps the biggest influence on For The
Mission Baby
are the contributions from multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien,
whose diverse talents Holcombe foresaw when writing for the album.

 

“I thought his playing would be very in keeping with the
songs, but I didn’t know Tim,” he recalls. 
“I asked Ray [Kennedy, the album’s producer] if he thought Tim might
like to pick and sing some on this and he told me to give him a call. Next
thing I know, Tim’s knocking on the door with a slew of instruments. His spirit
is as much a part of these songs as anything else was at their birth.”

 

For the second record in a row, Holcombe worked with Grammy-winning
Kennedy (Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings, David Allen Coe), whose recording
approach is conducive to Holcombe’s relaxed, down-home demeanor.

 

“Ray’s got the patience of Job and is totally consumed with
bringing out the best in the songs,” he says. “We both like keeping all the
burners going on the stove.e’ He’s a pa
The good Lord will give us the rain and the sunshine, but man, we gotta get out
there with a hoe. When it comes, I try to be ready.”

 

Upcoming concerts for
Holcombe include:

 

Oct 30 2009  12:00P

            WDVX Blue
Plate Special      Knoxville, Tennessee

Nov 7 2009    8:00P

            Time Warp
Tea Room          Knoxville, Tennessee

Nov 13 2009 8:00P

            FBISC- @
Pirate’s Cove         Elberta, Alabama

Nov 14 2009 4:00P

            FBISC @
Pirate’s Cove          Elberta, Alabama

Nov 21 2009 8:00P

            Ashland Coffee and Tea       Ashland, Virginia

Nov 25 2009 7:00P

            Tennessee
Shines live from The Bijou       Knoxville,
Tennessee

Nov 27 2009 10:00P

            The Nu-Way
Lounge            Spartanburg, South Carolina

Nov 28 2009 8:00P

            The
Sentient Bean     Savannah, Georgia

Nov 30 2009 9:30P

            White Water
Tavern             Little Rock, Arkansas

Dec 2 2009    8:00P

            The Blue
Door           Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Dec 3 2009    8:00P

            AllGood
Cafe Dallas, Texas

Dec 5 2009    9:00P

            ListeningRoom
at NiaMoves            Houston, Texas

Dec 6 2009    8:00P

            Continental
Club Gallery      Austin, Texas

Dec 10 2009 8:00P

            641 RPM        Boone, North Carolina

Dec 18 2009 8:00P

            The Blue
Moose        Morgantown, West Virginia

Dec 19 2009 8:30P

            The Garage    Winston-Salem,
North Carolina

           

 

ALL MY FRIENDS ARE IN THE MOVIES Califone

Some
bands make music that’s merely cinematic in feel. And then others

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

A few years back I caught The Art of the American Snapshot exhibit in Washington D.C.,
a collection of anonymous photos taken from 1888-1978 that documented personal
lives through that simplest of photographic mediums. These were the sort of
shots you’d find in dusty attic boxes or amid estate sales: unknown people
mugging for the camera or caught in candid repose; families on vacations and
road trips; the young and old at birthday parties, graduations, backyard BBQs,
and funerals. What emerged was a portrait of America, but the anonymity of those
frozen moments encouraged the viewer to sketch their own narratives.

 

I had the iPod with me, and myriad choices for musical
accompaniment; Califone made the most sense. The Chicago-based quartet has been
crafting intensely visual music since forming from the ashes of Red Red Meat in
1998. But besides the visceral textures in the band’s collage of folk-blues
traditions, pop forms and digital alchemy, primary songwriter Tim Rutili’s
narratives read like stills where mood prevails and context is the listener’s
province. They were the right fit.

 

As Rutili put it during a recent phone interview discussing Califone’s
latest record, All My Friends Are Funeral
Singers
(Dead Oceans; reviewed here), “That’s what music is to me: You take
the feel of something and you strip away the something – you just have the feel
of it, you have the atmosphere, and it leaves it open so that the song can be
different things to you at different times.”

 

The open-to-interpretation nature and visual component of
Califone’s music follows. Rutili was a student at Columbia College Chicago’s
film school before band life intervened and he wound up “on tour for 15 years.”
But he’s always kept one foot in the visual arts world. In the ‘90s, he co-directed
videos with filmmaker Jeff Economy for Mudhoney, Freakwater, and Veruca Salt,
among others. The Deceleration One and
Deceleration Two discs collect
Califone’s live scores for silent films, and they’ve also contributed music to
Brent Green’s animated films. Rutili’s produced his own surreal short
documentaries, experimental films, and Califone videos, and in recent years –
after moving to Los Angeles
to be closer to his son – he’s added soundtracks for film and television to his
resume.

 

But even long-time followers registered surprise when Califone
announced that All My Friends Are Funeral
Singers
, the band’s sixth studio record and first since 2006’s Roots & Crowns, would be released
simultaneously with a Rutili-written and directed full-length feature film of
the same name. Both projects took just over a year from stem to stern, and though
they work as companion pieces they’re meant to stand on their own.

 

That’s not how things began, however. In August of 2008, Rutili
started collecting people’s superstitions – from one-line charms to paragraphs-long
incantations — for the next Califone record. Out of these superstitions, he
says, emerged a story that “sent everything in a new direction.” By
September he was writing songs and a
script that often incorporated the same characters and images.

 

The story, which Rutili jokingly insists we call “magic
realism,” is about an eccentric young woman who does séances and psychic
readings – “stuff that a roadside fortuneteller in a rural area would do,” he
says — and lives in a house full of ghosts who pass for family. That includes
a quartet of spectral noise-makers who live upstairs and are familiar to us as Califone:
Rutili, drummer Joe Adamik, multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker, and percussionist
Ben Massarella.

 

Rutili filmed on location about 90 minutes outside of Chicago in Chesterton, Indiana, inspired in part by the legend of a reclusive woman
who died under suspicious circumstances in the 1920s and is said to haunt Dunes State Park
on Lake Michigan (chronicled in the song
“Alice Marble Gray”). Using an experienced film crew and a Chicago-based cast that
included cult actress Angela Bettis (Girl,
Interrupted
) in the title role, they shot the film in 11 days at a cost of
$30,000.

 

“When this project started we thought we were going to make
the thing using cell-phone cameras,” says Rutili, “but as it went on it just
got more and more pricey.”

 

Rutili likened directing to “taking an army into battle — you
have to keep your eyes on every aspect of it.” Compared to making an album,
being on a film budget meant less exploration or time for things to “bake and
take different directions.” But that didn’t preclude on-set improvisation. For
example, the script called for a character named Buñuel to
wander the set carrying a Super 8. Rather than just use the camera as a prop,
Rutili filled it with film on a whim and wound up incorporating footage that Buñuel shot.   

 

“You still have to be open to surprises and receptive to new
ideas,” he says.

 

Those have always been defining traits in Califone’s music,
where chance and experimentation play fundamental roles in the studio, and live
sets always include open spaces for improvisation. Rutili’s songwriting, too, seems
open to inspiration from any fertile source; some of these tracks were written
while he immersed himself in Frank Capra and Luis Buñuel DVD marathons.
The superstitions that first fired his imagination also made it onto the record
in the form of instrumental interludes like “Snake’s Tooth = Protection against
Fever and Luck in Gambling” and “A Wish Made While Burning Onions Will Come
True.”  These augment what Rutili calls
the “the strongest batch of songs we’ve ever done.”

 

There’s plenty of evidence to back that up among the 14
tracks on All My Friends Are Funeral
Singers
. Long-time producer Brian Deck dials back his most aggressive sonic
experiments, and Rutili opts for a cleaner (though by no means antiseptic) and
more melodic song-oriented approach throughout – more “Vampiring Again” (from
2003’s Quicksand/Cradlesnakes) or
“Orchids” (the Psychic TV cover from Roots
& Crowns
) than, say, the drone-flavored experiments of 2004’s Heron King Blues. Once the record and
film were inexorably linked, Rutili wanted to subvert the notion that the music
would have to be more atmospheric and soundtrack-y.

 

“There were things that we got meticulous on like we did
last time around, but a lot of this was just emptying out and leaving these
songs as bare as possible,” he says. “There’s still some textural experiments
and still some crazy noises and little touches on there like we usually do, but
for the most part it was, ‘let’s make a song record.’ We didn’t try to fuck
with anything that didn’t need to be fucked with.”

 

The songs that emerged still blend the band’s familiar
traditional styles and instrumentation – guitars, drums, piano, fiddle, banjo –
with less typical fare like optigan, prepared piano, stylophone, baritone
ukulele, steel drum, bass clarinet, and ring modulators, among other
instrumental exotica. Deck’s singular effects still color enough of the
proceedings to make his warm production touch instantly recognizable. But the
pop perfection of “Polish Girls,” the urgent hook that drives “Funeral
Singers,” the Beggars Banquet-like
guitars of “Buñuel,” the
counter-harmonies on the elegant processional “Krill,” and the dreamy
soundscapes of “Evidence” all manage to expand the band’s template while delivering
Califone’s most accessible set of songs yet.

 

Their music has often been described as cinematic, but never
before have the music and film elements been this ambitiously integrated. The
film isn’t scheduled for official release until Fall of 2010, but Califone have
been screening it at select shows and performing a live, interactive soundtrack
for the movie. If the prospect of his first film, a new record, and new-fangled
live shows seems daunting, Rutili is nonplussed. This feels like home to him.

 

“I feel like I’m getting back to where I started,” he says.
“This is what I wanted to do when I was younger, and I just put it away. Now
I’m getting back into it, and it’s a good thing.”

 

[Photo Credit: John Adams]

 

CALIFONE
LIVE DATES:

 

October 26      The Southern   Charlottesville,
VA*

October 27      The
Earl           Atlanta, GA

October 28      WorkPlay
Theatre       Birmingham, AL*

October 29      The
Basement Nashville, TN

October 30      Bear’s
Place    Bloomington, IN*

Dec 3               Husky Union/Univ.
of Washington  Seattle, WA

Dec 4               Rickshaw
Theatre       Vancouver, British Columbia

Dec 5               The
Mission Theater    Portland, OR

Dec 7               Great American
Music Hall  San Francisco, CA

Dec 9               Hammer Museum
       Los Angeles, CA

* – denotes a film performance

 

 

BLURTING WITH… Saviours

Talking
fun and magic and filthiness with the “indie metal” messiahs.

 

BY KENNY HERZOG

 

You could hypothesize that it sucked to be
Saviours circa 2006-2008, a period that saw the Oakland, California
thrash-metal revivalists release their first two LPS, Crucifire and Into Abaddon.
After all, one couldn’t pick up a Blackberry without perusing some blog that
deemed metal to be the new indie rock, and dudes like Austin Barber
(vocals/guitars), Cyrus Comiskey (bass), Scott Batiste (drums) and recent
recruit Sonny Reinhardt (guitars) as headbanging messiahs for the hipster set.

 

But as Batiste says rather flatly, “I don’t
think we really ever gave much of a shit about any of that.” And that lack of
pretense is exactly why they continue to thrive as both contemporary genre
icons and get recognized by their influences, like newest tour mates and doom
legends Saint Vitus.

 

Fresh off a hat trick of 7-inches that
boasted both new material and covers of heroes such as Saxon and Judas Priest,
their newest full-length, Accelerated
Living
(due in late October on Kemado), is a fitting paean to the holy
unholiness of hard rock, and finds the foursome in meaner, leaner,
riff-ravaging form than ever.

 

Not that they give a shit what you think.
Batiste elaborates on the band’s blissfully uncaring philosophy, while owning
up to his own stereotypical metal qualities and revealing who else on the
axe-slinging scene actually lifts their weight with indulgent backstage Abaddon.

 

***

 

BLURT:
I have to admit I was disappointed that Accelerated
Living
lacked the wordplay of Into
Abaddon
or Crucifire. Why break
that pattern now?

BATISTE: It’s just the right name. We
argued about different names forever and this came up and it just sums up where
we’re at musically, personally, vibe-wise, etc… I like that it has a lot of
different connotations and possible interpretations.

 

What,
in your estimation, are the essential cornerstones of an accelerated lifestyle?

I guess drinking, drugs, girls, extremely loud hard rock and metal, and just
doing our best to kick ass in all of those endeavors constantly.

What
specifically about the sound of Living feels more locked in than your previous efforts? Layered guitar harmonies?
Superior thrash?

We just wanted to kick it up a couple
notches and make a punishing and uncompromising record. Adding Sonny to the mix
definitely helped with that. We wanted the speed, the sludge, heaviness, solos,
harmonies and everything to be there. It’s pretty diverse for what it is.
Someone told us recently it reminded them of Celtic Frost meets Sweet. [It’s] Slayer
meets old Blue Öyster Cult, whatever you like.

 

 

It
seems the media fervor around the “indie-metal” scene is dying down. Was it
tough to stand out as distinct and genuine when that such a buzzed-about
movement?

There’s not much in modern metal that
interests us. We don’t read the magazines or pay attention to any of the hype
stuff. Lump us in with whatever you want. Our approach from the start has been
to do fun or weird shit and play as much as possible because that’s what we
love to do and if you dig it, cool. And if not, whatever, fuck off.

What’s
the reception like for you guys overseas versus the States? I’d imagine in
certain European and Asian territories you’re treated with headbanging
hysteria.

Europe is killer, though I wouldn’t say it’s any rowdier than the killer U.S.
spots. We’ve only been over a few times but it does get more rad each time. We’re
going to Japan
for the first time in February 2010, [so] we’ll see about that.

You’ve
toured with metal acts old and new, legendary and upcoming. Who are the
craziest motherfuckers you’ve shared stages and dressing rooms with?

High on Fire and Annihilation Time come to mind first. Oakland, go figure. U.S. Christmas, Black
Cobra, Earthless and The Sword all were awesome too.

What’s
the biggest cliché about guys in metal bands?

I’m a vodka-drinking homeless drummer, so I might the wrong guy to ask.

It’s
kind of mind-blowing that Saviours has roots in ’90s hardcore band Yaphet
Kotto. Is it a natural evolution for talented hardcore musicians from the
hardcore scene to rediscover the relative sophistication of metal?

Most of the guys I know from that time are either still involved with hardcore
or else graduated to limp-dick indie rock or else are not involved with music
at all. There are some exceptions of course. I was into metal in late
elementary school and got into punk shortly after. The actual music aside, I
have a pretty bad taste in my mouth about most of what hardcore is “about” now
after my time and experiences with that band. We had some good times, but I
hope Yaphet Kotto stays dead forever.

In
a nutshell, what’s the feeling you hope to deliver to people who experience Accelerated Living and/or see you play
live?

A completely punishing and exhilarating metal experience. Hopefully putting
some fun and magic and filthiness back into metal. Everyone is so serious and
slick and biz oriented, it fucking kills me.

 

 

 

DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Pushing onward in full
farce and without shame.

 

BY CHRIS PARKER

 

Ed. note: With the
Rock Hall’s 25th Anniversary Concerts taking place this week at
Madison Square Garden in NYC, we thought it appropriate to revisit journalist
Chris Parker scrutiny of the Hall, previously published in BLURT #7. His “Hall
of Shame” roundup of the Hall’s notable sins of omissions and commission
follows the main story.

 

***

 

A priest, an imam and a rabbi walk into a bar, and the
bartender says, “What is this, a joke?”

 

The bartender had the same response when I told him about the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a once interesting idea that long ago lost its luster-or,
for that matter, its credibility. You’d have to visit post-war Iraq to find a
plan with a more muddled sense of purpose. Beset by cronyism, stylistic
blinders and a self-aggrandizing sense of entitlement, the Rock Hall’s become a
sad, little side show with less continuing relevance to the music world at
large than the Pet Rock.

 

In April the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Jeff Beck,
Little Anthony & the Imperials, Metallica, Run-DMC, Bobby Womack, Wanda
Jackson, Bill Black, DJ Fontana and Spooner Oldham. Meanwhile obviously
deserving and influential artists including The Stooges, Kraftwerk, Tom Waits,
and Joy Division wait on the sidelines. Entire genres such as Prog Rock, Power
Pop, and American Hardcore are all but ignored by the cloistered
self-congratulatory backslappers that comprise the nominating committee.
Shedding credibility like contestants on The Biggest Loser shed pounds, the
entire endeavor needs to be taken out back and put out of its misery. But what
went wrong?

 

Well, the concept of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is
problematic from the start-specifically, what qualifies as rock? While the term
easily encompasses any number of critic-spawned sub-denominations, most would
draw a distinction between rock and pop music. While the two are certainly not
mutually exclusive, they are entirely different domains, one populated by acts
like the Stones, Beatles and Ozzy Osbourne, the other by Wham!, New Kids on the
Block and Christopher Cross.

 

Popularity would seem to be one of the least effective
signifiers. While McDonald’s may have sold billions of Big Macs, it certainly isn’t
the world’s finest food. Indeed, rock ‘n’ roll’s very existence is an outgrowth
of youthful dissatisfaction with sentimental pop crooners such as Perry Como
and the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra. Otherwise, why isn’t Tom Jones in
the Hall? After all, he’s sold over a 100 million records worldwide.

 

Yet last year, Madonna was inducted into the Hall the first
year she was eligible. There’s more rock in Whitney Houston’s bloodstream than
Madonna’s entire catalog. Surely it has nothing to do with the fact that
Seymour Stein, who originally signed her to his label, Sire Records, helps head
the Hall Foundation board. Little coincidence that other Sire acts like the
Ramones, the Pretenders and the Talking Heads have also been inducted, ahead of
almost every one of their new wave/punk contemporaries. (Worth noting: Stein
received one of the four lifetime achievement awards the Hall handed out in
2005.)

 

But Madonna’s inclusion is more than cronyism; it’s
symptomatic of a larger sickness. A glimpse of this was provided by when Joel
Peresman took over as CEO and President of the foundation from his predecessor
Suzan Evans Hochberg.[1] Peresman went before the nominating committee, and according to one
report
, told them they should vote for who “would be the most commercial
and who’d be best on the TV show.” (The Hall has since lost its contract with
VH-1 and will broadcast this year’s festivities on lesser light Fuse.)

 

It’s no surprise that complaints about the nomination
process are legion. The 32-member nominating
committee
is populated by former Rolling Stone journalists, a handful of
musicians (Lenny Kaye, Robbie Robertson, Steve Van Zandt and Paul Shaffer), and
other industry insiders whose interconnections rival a Wall Street board of
directors. Most can trace a path of no more than two degrees of separation from
Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner
(another Lifetime Award recipient), who helped launch the Rock Hall, and has
chaired the board since Atlantic Records’ founder Ahmet Ertegun’s death.[2] (Before
that, Wenner was the vice chairman.)

 

Rumors abound of personal
grudges
, and flat-out animosity toward certain acts (KISS in Dave Marsh’s case, apparently),
not to mention the preponderance of old white men (there are but 3 women and 3
blacks, including journalist Claudia Perry, who fulfills two of those slots) on
the committee, including many who probably haven’t heard a lot of new music in
the last 20 years.

 

This doesn’t, of course, absolve them from dunderheaded
nominations like the disco act Chic (You think the committee’s showing its
age?), the Eurythmics (Really? I mean, why not Cyndi Lauper?), Herman’s Hermits
(Mrs. Brown does have a lovely
daughter…), the Sugarhill Gang (On the basis of “Rapper’s Delight”? Why not
Dexy’s Midnight Runners?), Manfred Mann (thanks to some well-chosen covers),
and Judy Collins (Send in the clowns, oh, wait, they’re already here….).[3] How many committee members must die before Sonic Youth or the Dead Kennedys get
nominated?

 

All of which brings us back to the difficulty of evaluating
history’s best and/or most influential rock acts. This isn’t sports, with its
abundance of statistics to base the decisions on. It’s a purely subjective
choice presided over by a tiny committee that’s generally so far removed from
what’s happening in music they might as well live in Beirut. That’s not even
mentioning the 500-600 anonymous individuals who vote on the nominations.

 

At its best, rock is something of populist movement whose
rebellious undercurrent is reflected by the musicians who generally struggle to
live hand-to-mouth, and rarely see any monies from the records they sell, yet
still persevere largely out of love for music. In this light, the travesty of
the Hall’s membership is blinding, and debases those deserving artists who have
been inducted. (We’re not even going to touch the $15,000-$25,000 the artists
or their label are expected to pay for a table, a
fact the Sex Pistols alluded to
in their refusal to participate. Neil Young
also opted out when Buffalo Springfield was inducted, citing the ridiculous
cost of tickets, which run artists $1500/apiece after the first two comps.)

 

But if you really want someone to feel sorry for, save your
sympathy for the residents of Cleveland,
who ponied up $65 million in public monies to build the Rock Hall, but before
this year have hosted the induction but once in 23 years, back in 1997 when the
museum first opened.

 

The excuse, according to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum
President and CEO Terry Stewart, is that it costs 20% more to hold the
extravaganza in Cleveland than New York. This stretches credulity more than
Roger Clemens protestations he thought he was getting a B-12 injection. One
doesn’t have to live in Cleveland to know Manhattan’s cost of
living is twice as high. So how does that work?[4] More likely the New York-centric board members don’t cotton to well to visiting
fly-over country. Instead, many of them were probably attending the Paul
McCartney-Ringo Starr benefit at Radio
City Music
Hall that same night. Some have suggested the only reason it wasn’t in Manhattan this year
is because Wenner’s already planning an all-star blow-out at Madison Square
Garden in the fall.

 

The induction ceremonies are supposed to return to Cleveland every few years
henceforth, but don’t hold your breath. The Hall’s leadership has demonstrated
a tone-deaf sensibility that rivals Wall Street’s bonus babies. Of course, this
is an industry whose captains have rarely failed to treat their artists like
chattel, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame upholds the tradition with a fubar
process presided over by a legion of old has-beens. That any decent acts make
it in at all is almost surprising.

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Evans’
only apparent qualification for her post was as a former
litigator who hated her job
. When a client who was an independent producer
mentioned the idea of a Rock Hall, she seized upon it and sold it to the current
powers that be, earning her a cushy six-figure post for 23 years. In fact,
despite having retired, she was still earning her $150,000 salary as of last
year. Very Rock ‘n’ Roll.

[2] A true
rock ‘n’ roller to the end, Ertegun died at 83 after falling and hitting his
head backstage at the Rolling Stones concert documented in Martin Scorcese’s Shine A Light.

[3] According to a list
compiled at FutureRockLegends.com

[4] Stewart
attributes it to the stage, sound and lighting costs for the bigger stage at
Public Auditorium versus the usual site, the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom, as well
as the costs of flying in the crew. Apparently despite the fact Cleveland spends more per capita on annual operating
investment in the performing arts than any other metropolitan area other than San Francisco, and
boasting a world-class theatre complex at Playhouse Square with an annual budget of
$30 million, they couldn’t find lighting or sound techs locally. How is it
catering costs in Manhattan
don’t eat up the entire difference?

 

 

***

 

HALL OF SHAME

 

The Rock and Roll Hall
of Fame once held great promise. Once. Here’s a roundup of its sins of omission
AND commission.

 

The list of deserving artists is indeed a long one, casting
a disparaging light on some of the lesser lights that have even been
considered, let alone inducted. How does one even suggest The Gap Band or Chaka
Kahn when John Coltrane or Stevie Ray Vaughn hasn’t been inducted? My reasoning
was based and the act’s musical imprint and its lasting impact on music. I have
also leaned toward representation – covering a variety of styles, something the
Rock Hall’s too often failed to address with their Boomer-centric vision.
(NOTE: I’m unwilling to even dig into the morass of great sidemen. The Rock
Hall also opted out until last year, after they rightly took up the issue and
inducted 11 backing musicians, including Hal Blaine and James Burton, from
2000-2004, just another example of their disjointed vision.)

 

 

Who’s Missing?

 

Gram Parsons. It
would be difficult to understate his influence. Without Parsons there would be
no Eagles (inducted ’98), as he helped create country rock with the Byrds
(inducted ’91) on their seminal ’68 release Sweetheart
of the Rodeo
, then honed the sound with the Flying Burrito Brothers. His
close friendship with Keith Richards probably influenced the Stones’ early ‘70s
country bent, and he gave Emmylou Harris her first break. Where it not for his
1973 O.D., he’d have become even huger. In light of Americana’s recent rise in profile, he claims
my top spot. Nominated in ’02, ’04, and ’05.

 

The Stooges. Is
this even a discussion? They’re singularly responsible for as much post-‘80s
music as the Velvet Underground (inducted ’96). Their loud, primal animalistic
grind and Iggy Pop’s atavistic lyrics didn’t just open the door for punk, they
designed the door frame. “Search and Destroy” off 1973’s Raw Power remains one of the most powerful blasts of white-hot
aggression in history. Despite releasing only three albums from ’69-’73, their
influence on the vast majority of underground rock has been inestimable, and
Pop’s spastic fury has become the standard by which many frontman are measured.
Nominated ’97, ’98, ’04, ’05, ’06, ’07, ’09. (Their recent re-nomination might make them seem a shoo-in for ’10, but don’t count on it.)

 

Kraftwerk. Arguably even more influential than the acts above them on the list, it’s
difficult to imagine what electronic music would sound like with this German
duo, who got their start in ‘70s. Their minimalist, experimental industrialized
pop would inspire everything from techno to new wave to modern day electro-pop.
It’s arguably not the most accessible music, though 1974’s Autobahn and 1977’s Trans-Europe
Express
(whose title track provided the beat for Afrika Bambaata’s “Planet
Rock”) are masterpieces of the canon. Nominated ’03.

 

DJ Premier. Hip-hop has posed a special problem for the Hall, which they’ve been trying to
rectify for the past few years. In another Rock Hall controversy, Jann Wenner
allegedly squeezed the Dave Clark Five out in favor of Grandmaster Flash and
the Furious Five in ’07, despite the fact DC5 had a handful more votes. (They’d
wait until ’08 for their induction.) While Premier, or Primo, as he’s often
referred, cites Juice Crew DJ Marley Marl as one of his primary influences,
it’s Premier’s beats – noted for the raw, aggressive interplay of loops and scratching
— that have endured. While most MCs have been unable to sustain, Premier’s
brand remains strong. Never Nominated.

 

Cheap Trick. It
seems strange that AC/DC (inducted ’03) should be in, but not their American
cousins, especially since they continue to release good music (check out 2006’s
Rockford)
while AC/DC output for the last 25 years has been mediocre at best. They
brought a hard rock edge to über-catchy melodies, beefing up power pop to arena
size, a blend which college and indie rock have generally appropriated to some
extent. They’re hurt by a lot of pretty “meh” albums during the late-‘80s and
‘90s, but bolstered by a handful of songs that have lodged themselves in the
pop culture consciousness. Never Nominated.

 

Stevie Ray Vaughn. I’m not a huge fan, but there’s no discounting his influence. The man almost single-handedly
rescued the blues from irrelevancy and spurred an entire nation of blues clubs
to open their doors, a legacy that remains, now long after his death. His
playing reunited rock and the blues, and brought attention a passel of
under-recognized artists like Albert King and Buddy Guy. He wasn’t really an
innovator, which slides him down the list a bit, but his cultural impact was
large and his legacy is still felt, and given that he was cut down in his
prime, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Only became eligible in 2008.

 

King Crimson. If
this were based solely on technical ability, they’d rate higher. Robert Fripp
is clearly a mad genius, and his protégé Adrian Belew an equally innovative
player, that with Fripp pioneered the idea of melding electronic effects to a
guitar. Their sound is the best exemplar of the much-maligned art-rock
movement, with the band’s several incarnations staking out a wider, more
intriguing expanse than similarly minded acts like Emerson, Lake
and Palmer or Yes. Indeed, their playing has touched everyone from jam bands to
math rockers, whose angularity owes a significant debt to Crimson’s knotty
arrangements. As experimental iconoclasts, their music seems even more likely
to be appreciated and inspirational 20 years from now, which is more than we
can say about the Velvets, after a couple decades of heavy plundering. Never
Nominated.

 

Tom Waits. He
edges out Randy Newman, in my mind, on the basis of his pop culture
infiltration. Like Newman, his audience seems peculiarly cultish. He’s not a
clever lyrically as Newman, but his music is uniquely his own, and in that way
has made a strong imprint. I’d not be surprised to see an upswing in dark
cabaret rock, though, obviously that gravelly rasp is inimitable. His
adventurous, theatrical style and uncompromising stance toward commercial use
of his music tips the scale for me. Never Nominated.

 

Joy Division. Were it not for Ian Curtis we might know new wave as a much peppier,
light-hearted endeavor. Their stark atmospheric sound would provide the
template for legions of gloomy, dyspeptic, synth-driven malingerers, clearing
the way for Bauhaus, Depeche Mode and the Cure. While the Cure in particular
have some claim to induction, they need to queue up behind Joy Division,
without whom the bleached white pallor and black lipstick of goth teens might
never have existed. (Okay, small loss, but still…) Never Nominated.

 

Sonic Youth. While
there are other influential experimental noise-rock acts such Throbbing Gristle
and The Fall, it took Americans Sonic Youth to make it popular (sorta).
Inspired in part by the New York no wave scene, their dissonant,
feedback-ridden symphonies not only sparked a plethora of followers but found
more acceptance and popularity than they probably had a right to, given that no
one in the band can really sing, they generally avoid conventional structures,
and the melodies are bathed in a wall-razing roar. Their success as much as
anyone’s made the possibility of a career in rock seem possible to a generation
of noise-addled slackers. (Okay that’s as much a demerit as a credit.) Never
Nominated.

 

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): Big Star, John
Coltrane, Dead Kennedys, Electric Light Orchestra, Eric B. & Rakim, KISS,
Randy Newman, New York Dolls, Roxy Music, Leon Russell.

 

 

Least Deserving

 

Madonna (’08). Blame the Rock Hall’s craven desire to suck up to VH-1. (Then she didn’t
perform, allegedly
because the Rock Hall refused to give
to her Raising Malawi charity –
itself probably an ultimately unsuccessful gambit to smooth her recent adoption
attempt.) Honestly, her choice demeans the entire process, and on her first
year of eligibility, no less. There’s never been anything remotely rock about
her, despite the fact she’s changed her image enough to suggest someone on the
lam. I’d laugh if my throat weren’t clogged with puke.

 

Jackson Browne (’04). He’s not a bad singer/songwriter but how do you justify electing him to the
Hall ahead of Randy Newman? Mark this down to a cadre of former Rolling Stone
contributors led by the junta chief, Jan Wenner, who are all clearly “Running on
Empty” when it comes to shame, especially given his particularly spotty catalog for THE LAST THIRTY YEARS. This guy got
in ahead of the Stooges? Only positive was to make Bob Seger seem more
palatable.

 

Bob Seger (’04). Part of an absolutely apocalyptic year, Seger helps make the case that the
committee basically stopped listening to music around 1982. Maybe some heard
his ’86 album Like a Rock before it turned into a Chevy commercial, but I doubt
it. The only thing he paved the way for was John Cougar Mellencamp, another
notable car salesman. This is what happens when you base membership on about a
stretch of 7-8 years and a handful of albums. Maybe they thought it was a sop
to the heartland, or maybe it’s just Jann Gone Wild. This is also the year he
took, er, was given the Lifetime Achievement Award.

 

LaVern Baker (’91). One of several ‘50s R&B artists who got in mainly because she signed to
Atlantic, the label founded by late Foundation board chairman Ahmet Ertegun. Baker was brash-voiced jump blues diva who had a
handful of hits in the late ‘50s, but petered out within 7 years after her
final hit, the title track from 1963’s See
See Rider
. A pretty sizable reach given her thin catalog.

 

Percy Sledge (’05). Speaking of short careers, Sledge built a cultish deep soul following after his
breakthrough ’66 single “When a Man Loves a Woman.” It went steadily downhill
from there. While he kept touring for many years, but so did Toto, and nobody’s
nominating them, despite the fact that they had a nice big hit in “Hold The
Line.” So, yes Virginia,
one-hit wonders also have a chance for Rock Hall fame. Here’s hoping EMF
finally get their due.

 

The Dells (’04). Okay, maybe I don’t have enough appreciation for smooth soul and doo-wop, but
whatever I think of “Oh, What a Night” or their 34 year career, it’s not enough
to merit the Rock Hall, in my estimation. Hell, they didn’t even begin until
the mid ‘60s, by which time rock wasn’t taking a lot of new input, and funk was
already getting started. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that the
committee threw them on there to counter-balance the bland Wonder bread
whiteness of 20-year has-beens Browne and Seger.

 

Bobby Darin (’90). When’s Dion getting his invitation? This is another example of how the Hall
doesn’t really know what “rock” is, and can’t resist the temptation to water it
down with pop singers. While Darin, admittedly, explored some folk and rock,
most of his pedigree was earned as a swinging Vegas hipster in the Rat Pack
mold, and as a pop-minded teen idol. While he’s had an interesting,
multifaceted career, so has Pat Boone, but no one’s in any rush to induct him.

 

John (Cougar)
Mellencamp (’08).
Nobody’s denying this guy’s had more hits than Cheech
& Chong’s bong, but so has Eddie Money, and last I heard he was playing
state fairs. While Mellencamp’s fortunes haven’t declined that much, the
erstwhile car shuckster isn’t exactly a beacon of inspiration and creativity.
Jack and Diane my ass, KISS have 24 gold records and are actually fun to listen
to, even equally as dumb. The John Cougar Concentration Camp is a heartland
answer to Bruce Springsteen, with kids ride tractors instead of fast cars.
(Sounds good already, right?) While an artist in the best sense, it’s hard to
imagine this watery roots rock lasting as long as Gram Parson’s work. Hell,
it’s not even better than the Wallflowers. My feeling is, without payola, this
guy wouldn’t exist. I know my life would have been much fuller had I never
heard “Hurts So Good.” Another compromise for VH-1 attention.

 

Blondie (’06). Hey, who doesn’t still find Deborah Harry sexy? But after a 6-year run of hit
albums, poof, they disappeared like the money in Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scam.
They were pretty influential as new wave goes, being the most successful
commercial act to emerge from the movement, but are they even one of the
greatest 500 bands? 1000 bands? Certainly contemporaries The Police (’03) and
Tom Petty (’02) made a greater impact on their peers. This is what happens when
the choices are made by industry people whose judgment of great music is
incumbent on chart positions.

 

Earth, Wind &
Fire (’00).
They’re a tough act to pick a fight with. They’ve sold
gajillions of albums, have maintained their profile, inspired other acts, and
kept the funk flowing for 40 years. Indeed, someday they might deserve entry,
but their best moments are circumscribed around a small stretch of time in the
mid-70s, and beyond that have been no more workman-like solid, and hardly
revolutionary. Isn’t funk already pretty well represented (certainly better
than prog), and wouldn’t the Meters be a better token funk act? But they’re
certainly more deserving than Chic, lord save us, who’ve been nominated four
years running.

 

 

WORLD BOOGIE IS COMING Jim Dickinson

Paying our last respects to the legend.

 

BY JEFFREY DEAN
FOSTER, CHUCK PROPHET & TERRY MANNING

 

[Ed. note: Following legendary producer Jim
Dickinson’s death (November
15, 1941- August 15, 2009) we began putting together a tribute to the
man. In the new issue Blurt we have a story on Dickinson penned by Associate Editor Andy
Tennille. Meanwhile, below, three artists who knew and worked with Dickinson offered to
share their memories of the man with Tennille.]

 

The Mentor

 

By Jeffrey Dean Foster

 

When we got out
of the van in Memphis
that day, it must have been 125 degrees.

 

It was the week
before “Death Week”, the ten-year anniversary to be exact. The week that people
from all over the world come to Memphis
to celebrate, mourn, and really cannibalize Elvis. Dickinson said it always seemed appropriate
that they celebrated Elvis’ death date and not his birthday.

 

A couple of
months earlier, Jim had flown to NYC to meet Clive Davis and talk about
producing our band’s – The Right Profile – record. He showed up wearing a
burgundy satin jacket, looking more like a professional wrestling manager than
a semi-legendary southern redneck artist. I knew that coming to NYC to be
interrogated by Arista Record’s suits was only slightly less painful than a
root canal for Jim, but he did it for us. He got the nod from the suits to
commence with some pre-production experimenting with us. Jim always thought he
got the gig because Clive thought he was the Jim Dickson that had produced
those Byrds records!

 

We moved back to
NC where we belonged, loaded up the van and drove to Memphis. The first place we landed was Sam
Phillips’ studio. It was the time capsule of a room that Sam had bought when he
sold Elvis to RCA. “Wooly Bully” was recorded there and The Cramps’ Gravest Hits, too.

 

Roland Janes was
our engineer. Besides being Jerry Lee’s guitar player, Roland was a big chunk
of sanity in the middle of it all. When we broke the strap on a kick drum
pedal, Roland came out, surveyed the situation, undid his belt, pulled it out
of the belt loops around his sizable girth, produced a pocket knife and cut a
8″ piece of leather off of his belt and fixed the pedal on the spot. Right on!
In a “big city” studio, the secretary would have called the drum doctor to come
out and do surgery, but they didn’t have a Roland.

 

All kinds of
older fellows would wander through the studio all day. One skinny handsome
fellow picked up my Telecaster one day and picked on it a little bit. After he
left, I found out that he was Paul Burlison of the Rock and Roll Trio, and
depending on who you ask, the inventor of guitar distortion!

 

Jim was always
building us up and comforting us in the studio but pushing and challenging us
at the same time. He believed in us but believed we could be better. With
Arista behind this record, Jim even broke one of his own rules about picking up
the phone in the studio. It was of course a lawyer from NYC telling Jim how our
record should sound. He told me that it took him three trips to the record
store to realize that I-N-X-S was “in excess”, the Aussie band, one of the
examples of how we should sound, according to the record company. He argued
with Clive over fiddling with my songs too much, tell him that they were modern
morality tales and should not be tampered with. We had always kind of hated our
name, so I dubbed us The Blue Lights. Dickinson
took up for us and all of our tape boxes at Ardent were labeled “The Blue
Lights.”

 

Besides being a
beautiful piano player and conjurer of fantastic studio performances, Jim was
known for his storytelling. Tales about Joe Walsh, Alex Chilton, Ry Cooder, the
Stones and Freddie Fender filled the hours waiting for music to happen. The
best story for my money was about the Frat Rock band from around Memphis that seemed to be
an Otis Day and the Knights kind of outfit. They would come out and do the
regular party rock schtick until the crowd would start to chant, “Bring out the
Bullet, Bring out the Bullet!!” From offstage, they would carry on this tiny
man with no arms or legs and set him on a stool in front of a mic. This guy
would proceed to burn the place down with his soul stylings like a shrunken
head version of Wilson Pickett.

 

Jim didn’t have
much patience for some of our influences, from Bruce Springsteen to Johnny
Thunders to Kate Bush. He hated what Neil Young’s Heart of Gold beat had done to make folks stop wanting to dance to
rock and roll. He used to say, “Now let’s see your Johnny Thunders do that!”
and told us if we wanted to see a real “knee walker,” come back next week when
Joe Walsh was gonna be there!

 

This one day,
Jon Wurster, Tim Fleming and myself were casually playing Springsteen’s “Racing
In the Streets” in the studio before we got started. Jim got on the piano and
began playing with the kind of soul that Roy Bittan only dreamed about. He
stopped mid-song and yelled, “That’s a goddamned Springsteen song, isn’t it? I
can see liking Bruce if you’d never heard rock and roll”. A year or so later,
Bruce started covering Jim’s song “Across the Borderline” in concert, which I
imagine softened his stance on The Boss a bit. Maybe not.

 

Being the
insecure and self-conscious sensitive songwriter that I was, Jim was always
trying to get me out of my head and make me stop thinking. He was right, of
course, and I’ve been trying to do that ever since. He wanted me to come home
with him and have his 12-year-old son Luther produce some of my songs, thinking
that that would loosen me up. This one time, he heard me singing some verses of
Dylan’s “Hurricane” in the headphones and quickly tried to get me to sing my
songs with the same kind of detachment. Perhaps his greatest and most cryptic
instructions for vocals were to think of how Montgomery Clift spoke on the
telephone. He thought Monty’s acting was incredible when he was pretending to
be on the phone with someone and creating his own reactions to the conversation
on the other end.

 

At the end of
our third session in Memphis,
we had some songs that probably could have been on a record. Admittedly, it
would have been a bad record. It was probably one of the worst times in history
for a scraggly southern rock band to try and make a rock and roll record.
Computers and machines were just starting to dominate the way albums were made,
and Dickinson
was trying to embrace the new ways. He was a little caught between the two
worlds, trying to please the company men or at least fool them enough to let us
finish the record while trying to help us make a big rock and roll record. Not
big in a commercial sense but big on ideas. We were young and too green to know
how to stand up to the record label, and we ended up with neither the great
southern redneck masterpiece we wanted nor the slick product that Arista
sought.

 

Jim loved rock
and roll and had very strong opinions about what the term meant. It was all
about soul and the space betweens the sounds and the distance between the band
members’ hearts. One morning toward the end of the sessions, Jim brought in a
multi-colored brocade vest that he had bought the first time he stepped out of
a car on the Sunset Strip in ‘67. He also handed me a double LP (“Sold Only on
TV”) of Roy Orbison’s greatest hits. It had the ugliest painting of Roy imaginable on the
cover but contained the most beautiful music ever.

 

Jim knew I loved
Roy and would
dig the cover painting as well. Our band was a tiny blip on Jim Dickinson’s
life in music, but he cast a long shadow over us. I will never outrun it.

 

Thanks Mudboy.
[JDF]

 

 

***

 

The Raconteur

 

By Chuck Prophet

 

“Have faith in the process.
Trust the producer. Listen to the songs. Never, NEVER, stop rolling! Don’t
answer the phone in the studio, it could be the company telling you to stop!
Don’t let anybody make you feel bad about what you’re doing. You can burn out
but that doesn’t mean you can’t get lit again. I’ve seen in happen.”

 

I just learned that Jim died. I’m punched in the chest.

 

Jim’s presence here may be gone. And it was a big presence.
But his music, his spirit? Well, hell, you know how this sentence ends…I’m
sad. Deeply. But the memories that swirl tonight under the ceiling fan aren’t
sad at all.

 

Jim’s health hadn’t been good for some time. I reached out
to his son, Luther, last week to see how Dad was doing. They were preparing a
benefit show for Jim, and Luther sent me a text, “Dad woke up at midnight after
sleeping all day, and started barking orders. Still producing!”

 

Dickinson: you might know him as the guy who
produced Big Star’s 3rd, or the guy
on the back of the Paris, Texas soundtrack
rolling what looks like a round of duct tape across the keyboard of a Steinway
grand piano (they opened tuned that piano, by the way. “It took days!” Jim told
me). Or playing with Dylan. Or maybe you know him as the man who played those
three notes of tack piano on the Stones’ “Wild Horses.” Jim was a magnet. The
people that stopped by the sessions were unreal. Sputnick Monroe? Sure. And Ry
Cooder coming by and sharing a chat with us. Casually picking up every one of
the 15 guitars laying around and playing a half riff. Always searching.

 

He was a sensitive man, but full of mischief and fun. Corny
as it sounds, he was like a father to me. I was definitely a student. I always
feel his presence. He left his mark.

 

Jim was also a dedicated man, dedicated to the art of record
producing and to his family. He believed making records was a fight of Light
vs. Dark– but he refused to work Saturdays so he could watch his Memphis
Wrestling on TV. A tangle of contradictions, his gruff exterior never hid his
huge heart.

 

As a producer, when he sensed that Green on Red lacked faith
in ourselves, fearing it was all hollow, a scam, Jim said, “Never let anybody
make you feel bad about what you’re doing.” He offered belief and made you feel
your work was important. It was clearly important to him. What a gift he gave
us.

 

Makes sense that Jim once wanted to teach history. Every
session, every van journey, was a history lesson with Jim. Often in the morning
of a session — and Jim was old school: he was punctual — Jim would play music
to inspire us. Might be scratchy vinyl of Kerouac recitations, or Mac Rice
demo’s on 7″ reels he’d cribbed from Stax. (Tina the Go Go Queen was on there.)
Or Black Oak Ark sessions Jim produced back when Ardent
was still eight-track. Back when Jim engineered. “Sure, I used to go out and do
the hand claps with the band,” he told us. It was all part of our extended
education.

 

I made several records with Jim, including two-and-a-half
Green On Red slabs, and the odd session Jim hired me for. With my band, we
backed Jim on a live record. Jim had been a constant presence in my life. A
mentor. A friend. Just the other day, a Radio 6 DJ accused Jim Dickinson of
producing my last record. She was wrong, but I said, “Yeah, well, it’s like
he’s always in the room.” I told the truth. Jim was always excited about new
music. He loved The Cramps. He never got old. “Yeah, you’re right, this Johnny
Dowd record is DANGEROUS,” he said. “Gives me faith it can still be done this
late in the game, Chuck.”

 

When Jim came to LA in ’86 to produce Green On Red, we
picked him up at LAX to take him to the studio. He mentioned that he’d like
some weed. No problem. We took a slight detour to Alvarado St. where you hold a ten dollar
bill out the window and a kid runs off with it. Out of nowhere, someone lowers
a basket from a rooftop on a fishing pole with a bag of weed in it. Jim later
said to me, “Boy, you guys, I have to say, I was really impressed.”

 

I remember over-dubbing the guitar solo on Green on Red’s
“Morning Blue” and Jim saying, “Come on Chuck, grow up, play something
cohesive!” Or when working on the backing vocals on “Zombie for Love,” with Dan
Stuart singing and Dickinson playing drums with those paint stirring things
from the hardware store, Jim instructed, “Make it sound like one of the black
extras for the cheap horror movies: Eye’s
a S-s-s-sombie/Eye’s a S-s-s-s-om-beee
.”

 

“Tuning
is a decadent European habit bordering on the homosexual,” Jim used to say when
we were in the studio, with no malice, just his grin. Years later, he told me
one day, “This auto tune is great. I’d run the drums through it if I could.”

 

Rehearsing
with Jim for a couple of gigs that later turned into the Thousand Footprints in the Sand live record, I asked, “Is that a
major or a minor chord you’re playing there?” Jim looked down, studied his
fingers at the keyboard and said, after a pause, “I don’t know, I just kind of
float it.”

 

Once
when Dan Stuart and I made the trek to Hernando for dinner at the Dickinson house, Jim
said, “I was hoping you might be willing to go down in the basement and fuck
with my kids.” So we did. Went down there and fired up the Marshals and jammed
with Luther and Cody on some thrash metal. When we resurfaced, Jim was really
pleased. Just beaming. Jim and Mary did something right, because they raised
two boys who are a couple of the kindest and most gentle men you’ll ever meet.

 

That
was a long time ago. The dot where Memphis
is on the map became a tunnel and a journey and a life’s work. And now the new
heroes are the businessmen. It’s a mixed up, shook up world. Indeed.

 

“Don’t
answer the telephone in the studio, it could be the company telling you to
stop.”

 

God
bless Mr. Jim Dickinson. God blessed us with him. [CP]

 

***

 

The Man

 

By Terry Manning

 

The Passing of Jim Dickinson is a very difficult
one for me to get a grasp on…

 

We all relate anything that happens, good or
bad, to ourselves; how it affects us, how it relates to our own lives…we
humans can’t help it, because we can each only understand anything in our own
personal context.

So we speak of any event in terms of our own experience.

In this case, this one event touches me deeply.

Jim was a very long-time friend. We were on the road together. In the studio
together. In each others’ homes. I was in a band with Jim’s wonderful wife,
Mary Lindsay. Jim and I co-produced together, wrote together, fought together, reveled
together. I took one of the cover photographs for one of his solo albums. We
played jokes on each other. We drank from the same water bottle.

 

Jim was producer on the first session my band
(Lawson and Four More) did in Memphis
in 1963. We soon after traveled together with that same band for the follow up
single session to Fred Foster’s Monument Studio in Nashville, where the legendary Bill Porter
engineered for us.

 

Jim and I were the first two employees of Ardent
Studios when John Fry took it from his “garage” to a commercial
location.

 

Most of this was many years ago. Obviously we
went on separate paths…but at one time, those paths were a larger road moving
in one direction.

The thought that this friend, this bandmate, this deeply thoughtful fellow
human being, is now…no more…is highly disturbing. Most people become their
parents…no matter how hard the fight in youth against the inevitable.

 

Jim is one of the ones that became himself
instead.

 

Intellectually, we all know that each and every
one of us will die.

 

But when it happens to
someone very close, no intellectualization will suffice to assuage newfound
grief…or to calm our inner fears for our own mortality.

 

My thoughts naturally
reach out to Mary Lindsay, my special friend, my fellow watermelon thief, and
to their talented offspring Luther and Cody. May your days be peaceful, replete
with the thought of the happiness Jim brought to so many with his music.

 

Godspeed.

 

Fade to black…

 

 

***

 

Contacts:

 

Jeffrey Dean
Foster: www.jeffreydeanfoster.com/

Chuck Prophet: www.chuckprophet.com/

Terry Manning: www.terrymanning.com/

 

 

DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF PHILLY Bruce Springsteen

With E Streeters in
tow, the Boss digs deep into his roots to help give an old girlfriend a proper
sendoff.

 

BY STEVE KLINGE

 

Few artists are as at home in big venues as Bruce
Springsteen is, and the arena that has been his home the longest is
Philadelphia’s Spectrum (now branded the Wachovia Spectrum). He played his
first arena show there in 1973 opening for Chicago, and he’s been back over
thirty times (a banner proclaimed 47 Philadelphia sell-outs, but that includes
neighboring sites). With the 43-year-old venue slated for demolition after
Pearl Jam plays the last show there on Halloween, Springsteen returned for four
final concerts, just after he played his farewell shows at New Jersey’s Giants
Stadium.

 

It’s easy to wax nostalgic for the end of landmark, and the
old Spectrum has its merits: for a venue that seats over 17,000, it is
“intimate”: the rows are so close together that the neighboring Wachovia,
although it seats a similar number, seems cavernous. But the place is old: the
concourses are narrow, with no logical traffic flow, and women end up using the
men’s room because there are so few stalls. Still, it has its charms, and its
history is one of its main ones.

 

A few weeks ago Springsteen announced that he would perform
one of his albums straight-through each night: Born To Run on October 13th and 19th, Born in the USA on the 20th, and
Darkness on the Edge of Town on this
night, the 14th. (On a personal note, I had my own nostalgic reasons
for picking the Darkness night: my
first Springsteen shows were at the Spectrum in 1978, once in May just before
the album came out, and then twice in August.)

 

Philly is an important city in Springsteen’s history, and he
often treats it to something special. On the previous night, which was by all
accounts a rowdy three-hour marathon, he opened with the old rarity “Seaside
Bar Song” and included a new song, “Wrecking Ball,” written to commemorate the
demolition of Giants Stadium but with lyrics tweaked for the Spectrum. On this
night, after taking the stage to Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” he opened with
another old surprise, the Greetings from
Asbury Park, NJ
outtake “Thundercrack,” which became a joyful ten-minute
jam centered on sax and violin solos from, respectively, Big Man Clarence
Clemons, dreadlocked and in a black priestly robe embroidered in gold, and
Soozie Tyrell, looking like Emmylou Harris’s sister.

 

The tendency can be to look for messages in Springsteen set
lists, and choosing The River‘s “The
Ties That Bind” as the next song might have been a site-specific statement
about community and long-term allegiances. But then again, that theme comes up
in about 25% of Springsteen’s catalog, so who knows? The rest of the show’s
first section included the night’s only tracks from his current album, “What
Love Can Do” and the title track, “Working on a Dream” – the former with a
grander crescendo than on the album, but still overly repetitive and
under-written (although the “mark of Cain” line may have been a bit of
foreshadowing); the latter a crowd-pleasing bit of romanticism. Those two
sandwiched a showboating version of “Hungry Heart” that began as karaoke for
the audience as Springsteen strolled to the end of the catwalk. As he sang the
verses, Springsteen sauntered back to the midpoint of the floor. And then the
60-year-old crowd-surfed his way back to the stage. Looked like he was having
fun, too, and he certainly wanted that fun to be infectious, soon thereafter
slipping into preacher cadences, stating that the band was going to “build a
house out of music and spirit” and exhorting the crowd to “bring the noise”
(which, sad to say, was not a Public Enemy allusion).

 

After that half-hour section, Springsteen introduced Darkness saying that it is “a record
that means a great deal to me” and that, coming three years after Born to Run, it “wasn’t greeted with the
kind of affection that it’s gained over the years.” With Darkness, Springsteen turned from “pulling out of here to win”
escapism to an “I believe in the hope that can save me” blend of idealism and
fatalism that would dominate most of his future work. True to its title, it’s a
dark and edgy work, and an especially coherent statement about the psychic
costs of working class monotony when performed front to back.

 

Highlights: “Badlands,” slowed down slightly and with
Springsteen singing behind the beat, with more bitterness than affirmation.
“Adam Raised a Cain,” with Springsteen leading a five-strong army of guitars
and boring into a bent-note and powerfully dissonant guitar solo. “Candy’s
Room,” with Max Weinberg ramrod-straight as he played the machine-gun rhythm
and with another searing Springsteen guitar solo. “Darkness” itself, done as a
grand epic.

 

But the real treats were the ballads: “Racing in the
Streets” and “Factory,” both with gorgeously delicate and lengthy piano solos
from Roy Bittan, urged on by Charles Giordano’s organ playing (Giordano
replaced the late Danny Federici, who died last year), and the seldom-performed
“Streets of Fire,” that was full of heavy anguish and more impassioned guitar
soloing, this time with Nils Lofgren stepping to the fore to join Springsteen.

 

With the exception of “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and
“Prove It All Night” – the ones that have stayed the most prominent in
Springsteen’s set lists for three decades – these aren’t fun songs: they’re by
turns gut-wrenching and empathetic, angry and resigned, and they don’t hide
their bitterness in the way Springsteen would on Born in the USA. And they have lost little of their emotional
resonance.

 

At the end of the hour-long run through the album, the
original E Streeters-Clemons, Bittan, Weinberg, bassist Garry Tallent,
guitarist Steve Van Zandt-joined Springsteen at the front of the stage to take
a bow. And then party time began.

 

The current ritual for Springsteen shows is for the crowd to
interact through handheld signs for requests and acknowledgements. (The most
unusual request, unfortunately ignored, was for Randy Newman’s “You Can You
Leave Your Hat On.”) One sign, held by a girl of about six, said “Can I PLS
Sing With You?,” and she got her dream (or, perhaps more likely, her parents’
dream) of joining in on “Waiting On A Sunny Day,” even managing an a cappella
chorus. Very cute. Then came a joyful, loose “Sherry Darling,” also by request,
with Bitten, Giordano and Lofgren on accordions for a carnival flavor and with
Springsteen grabbing wife Patti Scialfa to share his mic (that song prompted
Springsteen to shout, “Now that’s entertainment!”). A spiritual trifecta
followed, with “Human Touch,” “Long Walk Home” (with Little Steven doing some
soul-style testifying at the end) and a stagey “The Rising” (no need for the
crucifixion pose, Bruce).

 

Amid the surefire finales of “Born to Run,” the old “Detroit
Medley” of “Devil with a Blue Dress” / ” Good Golly Miss Molly” / “C.C. Rider”
/ “Jenny, Jenny,” “Dancing In The Dark” (with a 13-year-old birthday girl
taking the role of Courtney Cox, rather awkwardly), and “Rosalita” came a few
surprises: A crowd-requested “Ramrod” (the third highlight from The River) done as a garage rocker
complete with Big Bopper-style brrrrrrs and a sax and piano call-and-response
section; “American Land,” done in full Irish jig style with guest trumpeter
Curt Ramm and fiddler Tyrell taking leads. (Sadly, the great B-side “Be True”
was dropped from the set list.)

 

That’s a lot in two hours and 45 minutes, and in some ways,
it seemed like two shows: a preamble and then Darkness, and then a romp through the past. It might not have been
as coherent or provocative or exhilarating as some of the past thirty-odd shows
Springsteen had performed at the Spectrum. Sometimes the showmanship and the
audience participation took precedence over the rock and roll itself, and while
Springsteen constantly engaged and interacted with the crowd, he didn’t make
any statements, political, social or personal, and his ability to articulate
insights in the context of a rock and roll show is unique. But it was a fitting
examination of his range and history, and Darkness,
in its dark glory, was powerful indeed.

 

 

Set list:

 

 

Thundercrack

The Ties That Bind

What Love Can Do

Hungry Heart

Working On A Dream

Badlands

Adam Raised A Cain

Something In the Night

Candy’s Room

Racing In the Street

The Promised Land

Factory

Streets of Fire

Prove It All Night

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Waiting On A Sunny Day

Sherry Darling

Human Touch

Long Walk Home

The Rising

Born To Run

 

Encore:

Ramrod

Detroit
Medley: Devil With A Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly/C.C. Rider/Jenny, Jenny

American Land

Dancing In the Dark

Rosalita

 

[Photo courtesy
Backstreets.com; photographed by Joseph Quever
]

 

A RELENTLESS AND DIFFICULT WORLD Willy Vlautin & Richmond Fontaine

The Portland songwriter wants to let you know
that you’re not alone.

 

BY JOHN DWORKIN

 

There’s an old Paul Simon song titled “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy.” It
begins by telling the listeners that some people end up living the good life.
Yet Simon quickly gets to the heart of the matter: “But most folks’ lives,
they stumble/ Lord they fall/ Through no fault of their own/ Most folks never
catch their stars.”
Willy Vlautin’s songs on Richmond Fontaine’s brilliant new
We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River (El Cortez/Arena Rock)
are about these same “most folks” Simon sings of. Not only do Vlautin’s
characters miss out on “catching their stars” as in Simon’s tune, but that same
sky those stars shine in is caving in on them. Freeway is a collection
of alt-country rockers and ballads for the accidental underachiever.    

 

Many have written about Vlautin’s sparse lyrics. But that can be an
understatement. They’re often so spare as to be nearly invisible and the song
comes at you like an apparition – a sleight of hand formed out of thin air. You
don’t notice the weight being accumulated until it hits you like an oncoming
car. Part of this effect comes from the writing’s tone being a sort of blue
collar vernacular – more like voiceover dialogue from a gritty indie feature
than lines of  poetry. And Freeway truly reads like minimalist narratives. Maybe it was an inevitability for
Vlautin’s sparseness to come to this: The song “Watch Out” has just a single
sentence as its lyric. And it works: “Watch out or your heart will be
nothing but scars.”
Just a friendly warning against ruining your own life.

 

Though comparisons to Son Volt, Charles Bukowski, Springsteen, or even
an updated Walker Evans are not unwarranted, it should be understood that
Richmond Fontaine and Willy Vlautin’s songs are not overly derivative in any
way. It’s all from the heart, whether it recalls the sound of Wilco, REM, John
Prine, or a punk rock aesthetic. And the band is a group of superior craftsmen
who take care in bringing these songs to life: Dan Eccles’s twangy, vibrato
laden telecaster backdrops; Vlautin’s stellar acoustic guitar playing, at turns
bruised and melancholy or propulsive and fiery; Dave Harding’s rich and warm
sounding bass; and Sean Oldham’s seemingly endless creativity behind the drum
kit providing the opening tune’s 2/3 clave, straight ahead rock backbeats,
tight snare rolls, and a whole lot of attitude when needed like on the punkish
“43.” Oldham apparently also plays the “radio
trowel” on the recording: “The [radio trowel] uses a capacitive sensor array
based on Max Mathew’s radio baton… The trowel’s movements control sound
synthesis parameters…”
And Sean’s brother Collin, along with the cello on Freeway, also plays another electronic instrument he developed – the Cellomobo: “A
computer music instrument that attempts to model the behavior of a bowed
string. It gives haptic feedback to the bow at audio rate…”
These guys
don’t lock themselves into any single musical box and the music benefits from
the openness. The haunting singing saw melody that opens the record is a prime
example.

 

The songs create a mosaic of Hometown Diaspora and speak to a seemingly
innate desire to get away. But the act of fleeing where you’re from has a
built-in push/pull effect: the tension between wanting the freedom of
forgetting and independence (push/leave), and the need for belonging and
comfort (pull/stay). The chorus from “You Can Move Back Here” states the second
half of the equation plainly: “You can move back here/We all miss you/
Please, you don’t have to be anything here/We all need you.”

 

This hometown olive branch could be seen as extended to multiple
characters in other songs throughout Freeway, but most notably in
“Lonnie.” Six songs past “You Can Move Back Here,” after dealing out some harsh
truths to face, Lonnie’s old friend tells him, “If you come back I hope I
remember you/ But you know it’s getting hard to.”
That’s an amazingly razor
sharp and brutally honest admission/observation on the nature of friendship to
find in the line of a pop song these days – or any day for that matter. It’s a
heartbreaker. And the way the essence of that earlier song seems to creep into
the latter one happens throughout Freeway. The entire record can be seen
as being about a single couple at different stages in their lives.

 

The details in the songs are so precise that instead of getting an
image or just a strong emotional reaction, you get fully formed scenes that you
can watch being played out vividly in your mind’s eye. And these details range
from the horrific to the banal (often within the same song): working at a paint
store, watching TV to help you sleep, a stray homeless kid finding your gun and
blowing his brains out with it, living out by the mall, a drunk cop breaking
your ex-wife’s jaw, etc… 

 

But as detailed as Vlautin can be, he knows when to draw the line and
let the listener do the work. Confident writers aren’t afraid to leave an open
question in a story that only the audience can answer. Some of the most
important details can be the ones that are omitted. For example, Clint Eastwood
is a master of the omitted detail in his directing (Gran Torino and Million
Dollar Baby
come to mind). In “Lonnie,” the narrator tells Lonnie in the
song’s closing line, “If you come back, maybe they’ll come back too.” But we don’t know who “they” are. Nobody else is referred to earlier in the
song. Are “they” a couple from a previous song on the record? Are “they” even
people? And in “Ruby & Lou,” these two skip town and “They thought they
were finally free of it.”
What is “it?” There were some things mentioned
earlier that you could refer to as the “it” being mentioned, but really it’s
something larger or a combination of things. Something less obvious. These
omitted details are open doors that lead to limitless space.

 

A few of the songs on Freeway deserve special mention and
“Lonnie” is one of them. Its crackling distorted rhythm guitars throwing off
sparks, detailed melodic hooks, and attention to dynamics recalls Shawn
Colvin’s “Get Out Of This House,” but with more of the rough edges left in.
“Ruby & Lou” is just Vlautin with a weary, beautiful acoustic guitar
accompanied by a cello (and light cellomobo). It’s a grocery store job, down on
their luck, Frankie And Johnny type of love story. But tough events lurk
just around the corner and they unexpectedly slap you the face – the way life
keeps slapping these songs’ characters around, kicking them when they’re down
and making it hard to get back up. “43” is the knockout punch you don’t see
coming. It’s got the impact of a freight train and you can’t dodge it. The
first verse opens with just Vlautin’s urgent, two chord acoustic strum and
voice. Then the band enters exploding and all of a sudden the song is on fire.
The song’s events keep piling on over the same two chord vamp drawing out like
a long blade of trouble into the night. And “The Pull” is yet another
sensitively detailed song about hard times. Vlautin’s singing here is occasionally
closer to speaking (the entire final track is spoken word) and has an almost
comforting quality in spite of the facts of the story being told; like a parent
telling a child about an unknown uncle who’s had it rough. This one is about an
ex-addict who turns pro boxer. But for every Rocky Balboa there’s five thousand
Million Dollar Babies who don’t come close to touching their dreams. This song
is for, and about, them.

 

Freeway may come off
as unrealistically bleak or morose to “some folks.” And whoever sees it like
that, can’t relate, and doesn’t recognize themselves in these songs should
thank their lucky stars. But “most folks” will recognize the ring of truth in
these songs and will take solace that they’re not alone in a relentless and
difficult world. They’ll be thankful they’ve got a songwriter and band turning
their pain into beauty.

 

***

 

View some of what we mean:

 

 

REAL ANIMALS Ari Up & the Slits

The irrepressible
frontwoman on her long legacy, on girl groups, on motherhood, and on writing
about getting her period and writing about it.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

There’s a 30-year gap between the first Slits album and the
band’s third Trapped Animal, but
that’s just barely time for the world to catch up with the band’s
groundbreaking feminism, embrace of world cultures and fiercely independent
approach to making music. But through it has been three decades since her gang
of teenage revolutionaries posed naked for the cover of Cut, Ari Up says it’s like no time at all has passed. “We were the
first and now we’ll be the last, too,” she says. “It’s all one big time to
us…1979 or 2009.”   

 

***

 

BLURT: How did it
feel working with Tessa Pollitt again after all those years?

 

ARI UP: It felt the same. We were in some kind of twilight
zone anyway, to begin with. We were 30 years ahead of time.   

 

You were a kid then.

 

We all were. We suffered what child stars suffer. Like what
the children stars feel when they’re completely put into exile. They grow up a
certain way where you lead in the world of, in this case, music. And then they
are disposed of when they are 20. When they have not even reached an age of
their full blossoming of music or whatever. They haven’t even reached their
full capacity and they’re already thrown into the garbage bin. So that’s what
happened to the Slits.

 

But today, people
consider the Slits one of the great female punk rock bands…has the world caught
up now?

 

Not caught up so much as prepared for something like the
Slits now. You know, when the Slits were out, we were banned from radio and a
lot of gigs just because of the name. Just for being the Slits. But I don’t
think we’re just like a punk band. I think we’re also the first girl band. Because
all other girls before that were just playing the tambourine.  

 

What about the
Runaways?

 

The Runaways were put together by a man for an image. We
weren’t put together as a gimmick. And we were also the first to have artistic
control – which even Jimi Hendrix didn’t have. Jimi Hendrix has to change his
album cover. But if we didn’t have artistic control, we would have had to
change our album cover.

 

You’re talking about
the one on Cut?

 

Yeah. That only happened because we made sure we had
artistic control. Can you imagine us little girls, most of us under 20, how
could we have gotten that going? It was an extreme revolution that was
happening.

 

I think your new
stuff has the same youthful energy as when you were teenagers. What’s different
about it this time?   

 

I think you’re right. The music is the same. It has the same
energy. And all that comes into it is just a little bit of extra stuff that we
have accumulated. Obviously, me living in Jamaica…I’m
totally influenced by the modern style of Jamaica. And Brooklyn.
I’m really just a Brooklyn girl for years. So
there’s a lot of hip hop influence. The club in there. And the other girls have
their stuff that they’ve been doing.

 

All of that comes into our new stuff, but it still sticks to
the same roots. So you can hear all the history of the Slits in it, but without
sounding nostalgic. It’s not supposed to be a retro album. Some people think
we’re trying to compete with Cut. They
think we’re trying to say, “Oh, how can we be better than Cut ever was?” We don’t think like that. We’re just thinking,
“Well, we’re going to continue now. Slits music has to keep going and growing.”
 

 

 You have three sons. Did that experience play
into “Ask Ma”? That’s the song where you’re asking mothers to raise better
sons?

 

I’m not asking mothers directly. I’m saying, if you’re
wondering about guys and what they’re thinking, why are guys the way they are,
or why are they acting the way they do, then I say, ask ma. Ask his mother.  

 

I’ve thought about that all my life – not just as a mother. Because
I’ve had abusive relationships with boyfriends. I’ve seen other people in abusive
relationships. And I’ve seen mothers who are horrible and I see maybe that the
mothers act a certain way and guys can’t deal with it, and later on, they throw
their frustrations out on their girlfriends. It’s really about their mother.

 

You have another song
about child abuse, one called “Issues.”  

 

I do. I’m saying basically, you’ve got issues and I’ve got
them, too. But you have to finish the cycle. You keep on reproducing and keep
on going on with the cycle of abuse. Or you can choose to stop it.

 

I wanted to ask you
about one other song, “Reggae Gypsy.” It’s almost like a manifesto. It’s a
declaration that you’re back and you’re still doing what you’re doing, isn’t
it?

 

Yes, it’s explaining in a nutshell who we are. It shows our
history, who we were, how we started, who we still are, where we’re going, the
future, the past. It’s showing the spiritual side. It’s showing the blood side.
Where we come from. You know, my mother’s side is actually gypsy.

 

The song says “By blood and history.” We’re reggae gypsies
because of our history. It’s like an anthem, a little biography…

 

What’s next for the
Slits?

 

Well, next we’ve got to have more tours and albums. We
should really have a DVD. We must put our music in a visual medium. I’ve got
tons of old stuff. And I’ve also got tons of stuff on tour that we did recently.
We want to mix it up, sure.

 

Are you writing new music
now?

 

Oh, I’m always writing. I’ve too much piled up. I’ve got
about 300 songs. So that album really is a mixture of new songs and lyrics that
have been around for years. A lot of the songs have been written years ago.

 

Which ones are the
oldest, in terms of the lyrics.

 

“Peer Pressure” is on behalf of me when I was 11 years old. That’s
totally a school experience. I wrote that in the 1990s. And “Ask Ma” that’s
newish, 2000 something. The lyrics. The melodies came in a different time.

 

Do you write all the songs?
Or do other people in the band also write?

 

Back in the day, the Slits was a complete collaboration.
Everybody wrote everything. There would be a bass line. Someone would make a
lyric. Maybe two of us would make the lyrics. Two of us would make the melody
or one of us. So there was always something. Everyone put something in. So we
would always say the Slits were writing.

 

This album is mostly me. The other girls didn’t have time to
write. Now we all have responsibilities, whether it’s money or kids and family.
So it takes away from writing. But luckily, I have always been doing music, all
my life. I never stopped writing. I’m in the flow of it. So it’s just a matter
of the other girls jumping back on the bicycle. There were a few that Tessa wrote
the lyrics to. You can know …she writes those dark lyrics. She’s more gothy. She
wrote “Holiday”. She wrote “Can’t Relate.” She’s
very dark. Totally dark.

 

What are you writing
about now?

 

I’ve just got my period now, and I want to write a song
about periods and real women issues.

 

You know, I saw a
band at SXSW called TacocaT, and they have a song about urinary tract
infections. There’s a real female subject.   

 

I wouldn’t mind hearing that song.    

 

CLIMBING THE MOUNTAIN Heartless Bastards

Erika Wennerstrom has gone through hell,
but don’t try to pin the Tortured Artist Effect on her.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

“I think there’s
like 15 Mexican restaurants within three blocks of where I live, and I’ve
probably tried half of ‘em.”

 

Erika
Wennerstrom giggles diminutively at her newfound chile relleno addiction, the Dayton, Ohio native downright giddy
about the epicurean delights and fresh start she’s found in her new adopted
home, Austin, Texas.

 

Life hasn’t always
been so sunny for the 31-year-old frontwoman for Fat Possum Records rock trio
Heartless Bastards. Just over a year ago, Wennerstrom packed her bags and left
behind friends and family in Ohio
after the dissolution of a 10-year relationship that left her heartbroken and
listless. The break-up didn’t just result in the loss of a boyfriend, but also
her bandmates: bassist Mike Lamping left shortly after his falling out with
Wennerstrom and took with him drummer Kevin Vaughn, both of whom had played in
the Bastards since their stellar, under-the-radar 2005 debut Stairs and Elevators.

 

“We had a lot of
the same friends and with a relationship that long, I felt like it’d be a lot
harder to be in the same city,” Wennerstrom says of Lamping. “My manager is
here in Austin,
and I have some family down here as well. There’s a lot of music going on, and
the weather’s real nice. I’d met a lot of cool people coming through here on
tour over the years, so it seemed like if I was going to go anywhere, it made
the most sense to come here.”

 

 

 

I Could Be So Happy, If I Just Quit Being
Sad

 

“I came down
here to Austin to get my master’s degree in music and was at a Dr. Dog show one
night standing up near the front when Erika came nudging up through the crowd
and stood next to me,” recalls new Heartless Bastards drummer Dave Colvin, with
a laugh. “I hadn’t seen her in years, but that’s how we reconnected.”

 

Colvin and Wennerstrom’s
friendship dates back almost a decade when the duo served as the rhythm section
for Shesus, a mostly female punk rock band (“I was the only dude,” he quips)
that played the Cincinnati
club scene in the late ‘90s. While she was not the primary songwriter in the
band, Colvin says Wennerstrom was “unique in the sense that she wrote great
songs and also had the perfect voice to deliver them. She’s been able to do
that since the first day I met her.” After the dissolution of Shesus,
Wennerstrom enlisted Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebaugh of Cincy blues rockers
Pearlene to record a handful of her songs over a Christmas holiday.

 

“At the time, it
was just a recording project for me and not really a band,” Wennerstrom says.
“I figured once I recorded the demos, I could pass them around and put a band
together.”

 

The band she
assembled – then-boyfriend Lamping and Vaughn – drew their moniker from one of
the wrong answers to a quiz question on a bar-top music trivia video game
(Question: What’s the name of Tom Petty’s backing band?). The trio gigged
steadily throughout Ohio, but didn’t catch
their break until after a sparsely attended show at the Lime Spider in Akron, when the demos made
their way into the hands of Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney.

 

“I listened to
it in my car the next day, and it blew me away,” Carney says. “It was obvious
that she had a real good sense of melody, and I really liked the way she played
the guitar. It’s not very technical at all, but it’s really, really powerful.
You don’t hear that many women playing Les Pauls through blown-out Vox
amplifiers. That struck me as being pretty awesome.”

 

Carney passed
the tape to Fat Possum label chief Matthew Johnson, who quickly saw the group’s
potential and met them in New York
for an audition. Within a week, the band was signed and Wennerstrom was in the
studio recording her first full-length as a bandleader.

 

“I just thought
that thing was gonna bomb,” she says with a laugh. “I’m honestly still
surprised at the response we got from it. We didn’t really have a lot of time
to experiment or try different sounds. We were all convinced that it was horrible
and the band would be over before it even really began.”

 

Stairs and Elevators was released in February 2005, and
critics praised the Bastards’ raw, stripped-down garage rock and Wennerstrom’s
otherworldly, androgynous voice. A cross-country tour supporting the Drive-By
Truckers followed that spring. A year later, the band released All This Time, the sophomore effort
garnering more accolades and winning the band a spot at the Austin City Limits
Music Festival. But by the time the band returned to the festival the following
year, Wennerstrom’s relationship with Lamping was fracturing and the band was
on the outs.

 

 

 

I Could Be So Funny, If I Just Quit Being
A Drag

 

“I was dating
this girl for a short time and as these things happen, she happened to be a big
fan of Heartless Bastards,” producer Mike McCarthy says rather sheepishly, on a
break between sessions at his studio in Austin.
“She told me I needed to record them, but I’d never heard of them before. I
listened to the first two records and was just blown away. I just remember
thinking, ‘Man, this girl can sing.'”

 

A Cincinnati native himself, McCarthy reached out to Wennerstrom
and invited her down to Austin
for a meeting. Having produced the band’s first two albums herself, Wennerstrom
was naturally a little apprehensive at the prospect of bringing a total
stranger into the studio.

 

“Some producers
jump from job to job, and maybe they’re amazing at what they do, but in the end
it’s just another job to them. With Mike, he’d heard of us and wanted to work
with us,” she explains. “The more I talked with him, it seemed like he believed
in what I was doing. It’s important to me to work with people who care as much
about something as I do.”

 

With her
personal life in upheaval and no band to speak of, Wennerstrom decamped to Austin and found an
apartment on the east side of town. Though she had a handful of songs written
while Lamping and Vaughn were in the band, she bagged them and hunkered down to
write what would become The Mountain.

 

“There were days
at a time when I couldn’t come up with anything,” she recalls. “I don’t know if
I was still getting over the break-up of my relationship or if I had writer’s
block. The melodies would sometimes just pop right out, and I’d arrange the
whole thing, but figuring out what I wanted to say took a long time. Even if I
knew what I wanted it to be about, just putting it into words was difficult for
me.”

 

The words on the
11 tracks that make up The Mountain sound at times like the inner monologues of a lonely soul. Some songs (“Had to
Go”, “Wide Awake”) come off as dark confessionals; others, like frantic cries
for help (“Out at Sea”). But a few (“Hold Your Head High,” “Early in the
Morning,” “Be So Happy”) are brave anthems of independence, as if Wennerstrom
is shouting down the thunderclouds overhead.

 

“I just feel
like I’m getting better at creating the songs I hear in my head,” she says. “This
is my third album, and it’s getting easier to find the sound that represents me
as a musician and an artist.”

 

“She’s just a
natural,” McCarthy says. “Her voice is so powerful, and her lyrics just make me
want to cry sometimes. They’re so true and honest and down to Earth. She’s just
so real.”

 

Sonically, The Mountain is an ambitious step
forward for Wennerstrom, due in no small part to McCarthy’s production
instincts. When Wennerstrom showed up in Austin without a band, McCarthy –
who’s manned the boards for artists ranging from …And You Will Know Us by the
Trail of Dead to Patty Griffin to Dead Confederate – enlisted drummer Doni
Schroeder and multi-instrumentalist Billy White, two old friends and regular
collaborators who brought a fresh perspective to the session. The move was a
masterstroke. While the gritty simplicity of the Heartless Bastards’ sound
remains intact, Schroeder and White brought a looseness to the music that
enabled Wennerstrom and McCarthy the freedom to explore new sounds. Whether
it’s the luminous pedal steel riffs on the title track, the mandolin on “Wide
Awake,” the violin on “So Quiet” or the banjo on “Had to Go,” the duo’s choices
were bold but take nothing away from Wennerstrom’s performances.

 

“I wanted to go
for instruments other than guitar for overdubs in general ‘cause Erika’s style
and approach to playing the guitar is so specific that having another guitar on
there didn’t seem very interesting or cool to me,” McCarthy says. “Adding more
guitars would have detracted what makes Erika a special guitarist with a unique
sound.”

 

With the record
complete, Wennerstrom began the search for a new touring band, auditioning
musicians from the fertile Austin
music scene.

 

“It’s scary to
play with new people,” she admits. “I played with some different people, but
I’m kind of a shy person, so the idea of rushing off to tour with complete
strangers in a van for a good year and a half was a little scary to me. That’s
when I decided to call Dave and Jesse.”

 

“When she called
last summer, it was exactly the right time,” bassist Jesse Ebaugh says. “She
didn’t even leave a voicemail, but she didn’t need to. When I saw that she
called, I knew what she was gonna ask. She didn’t even have to ask.”

 

A week later,
Ebaugh was riding in a minivan with Wennerstrom down to Austin with his gear packed in the back. “By
some strange twist, Erica is back with Dave and I, the two guys she recorded
those first demos with,” he says. “We’ve come full-circle, and it feels real
good right now.”

 

Some may see
Wennerstrom’s decision to reunite with Colvin and Ebaugh as an attempt to
restore some familiarity in a chaotic time in her life, like a child clutching
a security blanket. Wennerstrom doesn’t buy it, nor does she subscribe to the
belief that all great art is birthed from the heartbreak and grief of a
tortured artist.

 

“I’d like to say
no, ‘cause I’d rather not have to go through all of that in order to write
great songs. It just so happens that I went through a particularly
heartbreaking time in my life, and these songs were born out of it,” she
concedes. “But I really think now I’ve found a band that I can grow with. I
don’t want to discredit anyone in the past lineups, but I just didn’t feel like
things were growing. Now that I’m playing with Dave and Jesse, I really feel
like this is a band that not only I can grow in, but we can all grow in
together.”

 

[Photo Credit:
Arol Horkavy1]