Monthly Archives: February 2011

THE GANG'S ALL HERE Gang of Four

Frontman Jon King talks Xbox commercials, the evils of iTunes, Tea Party and politics, and his band’s first
album of new material in 16 years…

 

BY RON
HART

 

For
nearly 35 years, Gang of Four from Leeds, England, have pressed on – albeit in
a fit of stops and starts (much like their music) – as one of the true
purveyors of the sound commonly known as post-punk. Alongside the likes of
Wire, Liliput and The Fall, they helped create a unique strain of eardrum buzz
that piggybacked off the momentum of the success of fellow Brits The Clash and
The Sex Pistols.

 

However,
in the case of the Four, the group pole-vaulted the genre to such dizzying
heights of Trotskyist confrontation that they simultaneously challenged their
audience to dig a little deeper within the premises of their politics and
social standings in the world. And in a modern age where governments have been
diluted to just another commodity to be traded on the global financial market,
blind consumerism and detached social networking are usurping the life’s blood
from the soul of the human race and people are forming united fronts to rise up
against the tyranny of their longtime oppressors across the Middle East, the
quartet’s incendiary strain of funk-informed guitar polemics is as timely as
ever.

 

It’s a
notion that had made Gang of Four’s latest album, their first collection of new
material in 16 years, one of the most anticipated releases of the still-young
year of 2011. Content (Yep Roc), a
record that was funded
through online donations via Pledge Music
, is the follow-up to Return The Gift,  their 2004 re-recording by the original lineup
of their greatest hits as a calculated strategy to divert money away from the
group’s original label EMI. It finds the foursome of vocalist Jon King,
guitarist Andy Gill and new members Thomas McNeice and drummer Mark Heaney
(replacing classic members Hugo Burnham and Dave Allen, respectively) taking
aim at the personal and economic struggles of maintaining a functional way of
life in the Internet era and stands tall as their strongest set of songs since
1981’s Solid Gold (still in dire,
dire need of a reissue).

 

BLURT
recently caught up via electronic mail with Mr. King to talk about the new
album, politics, the MP3 revolution and the group’s questionable decision to go
against their anti-advertising ethos to have one of their songs appear in an Xbox
commercial, among other topics.

 

***

 

BLURT: In hindsight, how do you feel
the PledgeMusic campaign went for the funding of Content?

JON KING: It’s been an interesting exercise and raised a useful amount of money
to help fund the album. We’ve always said that musicians should get reasonably
paid for what we do.  But the new model – where music is shared and
downloaded for nothing, where traditional record
companies are doomed but where technology based intermediaries – like Apple, who don’t invest a cent in talent [yet] are
making almost all the money – means that it’s no longer  possible to earn
any money from recorded music. So everyone’s been trying to find an alternative
way to do things.  This almost always ends up embracing advertising or
sponsorship, which is weird for musicians to want to do so wholeheartedly. It’s
a collective act of desperation.  

        If you want to know how a society is
going, follow the money.  And the money
doesn’t go to creative talent or their support networks but to advertising. This
is what filesharing has led us to. I’m with Jaron Lanier
on this, whose recent book, You Are Not A
Gadget
, makes the case very persuasively.
 
Did skirting the whole record industry machine in the creation of Content inspire a desire to record more?
We didn’t want to waste our energies looking for a patron or a record company.
We wanted to concentrate on the music.  The record
industry’s a busted flush and boring to engage with; we wanted to do
things on our own.  Musicians have to think differently about their craft
if they want to make a living or publish our recorded music now that music has
become effectively worthless due to illegal file sharing. The fans who do this
are killing the bands and their support networks.

 

Why did you choose to go with Yep
Roc to release the new album?

It’s a great label who loves what we do and knows how to get non-commercial
music like ours out there in a professional and commercially sound way. I trust
them. This is very important to us . Yep Roc’s passion is what we wanted, not their money.

 

In the actual recording of Content, what were some of the different
approaches you took in contrast to your last set of all-new material [1995’s Shrinkwrapped]?

We wanted to make music where every segment plays an equally  important
part, but has a relentlessness that took you somewhere else, like a train
falling off a cliff. It was intentional. I’m so bored by endlessly layered,
over-produced commercial music. Stops and starts feature as much on Content as back in the day. It’s much sparser
and raw than our last set of new records, like Shrinkwrapped, which had grown as
a project from soundtrack music we’d written for an indie film directed by Peter Hall called Delinquent;
the songs had an atmospheric feel that were quite worked up to as a result.

Was there anything you were listening to
casually as a fan that had a creative effect on the outcome of Content?

Sometimes you hear a tune that mixes up rock guitar, pop and hip-hop in an
interesting way. I like PLAN B for example. But a big reason to make Content, as for Entertainment!, was that we couldn’t hear things out there that hit
the spot. This is when you have to do it yourself.
 
Where do you stand in the argument of
digital music vs. physical product (CDs, vinyl)? How do you keep your own
collection these days?

I hate the sound of MP3’s. It’s shit. But, like everyone else, I can’t live
without portable music so I put up with it. It’s a shame there’s nowhere to buy
a 20-20 recording online that’s as good as on a CD. But my iPod would explode
with the noughts and ones.  I have a superb old Linn record deck that
makes every piece of vinyl feel like a luxurious and erotic sonic massage
that’s superior to CDs. We live through times when every audio technology
advance makes the music sound technically and emotionally worse.
       Physical things allow us to play
with words and imagery (and smells).  It’s obvious we really value
artwork, which can make an album richer; we spend a lot of time on this, as you
can see in the special edition metal box and on the early
records. It adds to the music.  
 
How does the integration of Thomas
McNeice and Mark Heaney as permanent members of Gang of Four affect the dynamic of your sound, in your
opinion? What do you feel this new rhythm section
you have brings to the table that sets them apart from original members Dave
Allen and Hugo Burnham?

There’ve been many versions of the band. The first founder members were Hugo,
Andy and me, and our first bass player was a guy called Dave Woolfson. He’s the
bloke referenced by an audience member (“Who’s the hippy on the bass?”) on
the cassette tape of our first ever show in Leeds.  Hugo, a good friend, was a magnificent
drummer and had his own style.  Dave Allen was great, too. But after he
quit very early on, we hired Busta Jones (ex-Remain in Light Talking Heads), my personal early days favourite;
then we hired the wonderful Sara Lee (ex-Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen,  later in The B-52’s and Indigo Girls). Sara
was great, too. And after her, Gail Anne Dorsey, who left us to play with the
Stones and Bowie.
Mark Heaney is currently one of the world’s top five drummers. He’s a genius:
solid, talented and inventive. It’s wonderful to play with him. Thomas combines
elements of Dave Allen and Busta Jones’ style and brings an intensity and
attack to it. The guys are world class.
 
What were your initial thoughts when the
Xbox people approached you to use “Natural’s
Not In It” for a TV commercial?

We thought it was fantastic.  Ten out of ten! If we’d ever been asked to
define a dream scenario for this song, the first lines of which are “The
problem of leisure/ What to do for pleasure”, this would be it. Superb. Just
like, back in the day, when we decided to sign to EMI, the ugly, corporate
beast of a record company. Some people were outraged, saying we should be with
an indie, but our music really made sense with a major at that time.
 
Are there any plans to reissue the rest
of your catalog following the great re-release of Entertainment! from Rhino in 2005? What album of yours would you
most like to see revisited and why?

There aren’t any plans to do this. I do love Solid Gold and Songs of the
Free
, however. 
 

The title of your new album is Content. What meaning of the word were
you thinking of when you chose it?

Well, the album is full of content. So the title’s good as a descriptor. And
creative people are all “content providers”. Journalists, writers, musicians,
artists, filmmakers etc. We collectively grovel to the technology
intermediaries who suck us dry, like the evil Apple
Corporation, who don’t invest a cent in music but charge a massive percentage
for every track sold on iTunes, worse than the worst record company. Worse,
even, than EMI, I might add. Another meaning is to be content, which is hard.
 
What do you think of the idea that some
people believe Barack Obama to be a Communist?

They’re crazy. He’s not even left wing. In Europe
he’d be seen as a centre-right politician. The people who say this know nothing
of ideas or of history, especially U.S. history. It was President
Eisenhower, the war hero who helped win World War II who warned us all to be
wary of the military-industrial complex, and the conspiracies in the right.
 
What are your thoughts on David Cameron as Prime Minister of England?
He’s a millionaire aristocrat who has 22 millionaires in a 30 man cabinet. He
represents the interest of the rich against working families and the poor.
 
What do you think about WikiLeaks and
its place in the world?

Our rulers depend on silence for compliance and that their secrets are never
revealed.  
 
Since Gang of Four has been a band, you have seen six American presidents sit
in office, from Jimmy Carter to Obama. Who do you
feel was the best president of those six and why?

I liked Bill [Clinton].
America had a balanced
budget, the rest of the world thought highly of the USA, a country I profoundly love.
 
What are your thoughts on the American Tea Party?
They should read some more books and get out more!

 

 

Go here to read our review of Gang
of Four’s Feb. 9 concert in Washington D.C.

 

 

[Photo
Credit: Mike Gullic]

¡CAYAMO! 2011!

The best festival ever still rules on the high seas.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Cayamo. The word itself
conjures up a celebratory sound. It even leaves a rather indulgent impression,
especially if said in the midst of a chorus of fellow revelers. Cayamo! Witnessing it firsthand, it
becomes a veritable call to party hearty. CAYAMO!

 

That was certainly the
case most recently as the fourth Cayamo cruise embarked from Miami,
setting its sites for the Caribbean. Yet, it
wasn’t the destination that mattered; rather it was the journey to get there.
Ensconced onboard, in the midst of over 2,000 partying passengers, were nearly
three dozen of the finest Americana artists modern music has to offer, much
less the finest contingent of musicians one will ever find on the high (at
times) seas. BLURT was fortunate to be there for the third year in a row,
documenting all the high (at times) lights over the course of an entire week.
BLURT’s own participation in a pair of seminars is also duly noted during the
course of these proceedings, but it’s the artists themselves, both singularly
and in a seemingly unending parade of guest appearances and cameo occasions,
that make Cayamo the most exhilarating experience a music lover could ever wish
for.

 

To overuse a tired cliché,
it rocked! Then again, words,
ordinary or otherwise, don’t do this event justice. Nevertheless, we’ll try.
What follows then, is our day-by-day rundown of Cayamo 2011.

 

[Ed. note: to see our photo gallery from the 2011 Cayamo! please go
here
.
]

 

 

***

 

DAY ONE, Sunday, February 13

 

The first introduction to
any cruise is always somewhat disconcerting. There’s much to learn about the
ship’s layout, and this year it was especially challenging as the ship of
choice had changed to the Norwegian Pearl after the last couple of years spent
on Norwegian’s Dawn. With a music cruise as intensive as Cayamo, however,
preparation becomes even more of a necessity; since several concerts occur
simultaneously, it’s essential to thoroughly plan a personal schedule so that
one can catch as many acts as possible, while contending with conflicting
performances at the same time. Some of the shows are set in stone; each
passenger is given assigned seating to one of three main stage shows that take
place every night in the Stardust Lounge, an onboard theater with a seating
capacity in excess of 1,000. In addition, there are special “hot seats” that
allow a repeat ticket to one of the headliner shows with upgraded seating.
Plus, the special alumni perks allow entrance into special performances that
are apart from general admission. The opportunity to trade tickets made this
location the most flexible of all in terms of planning a course of concert
action, and passengers posted notes at a central bulletin board offering to
exchange tickets for a show more to their liking.

 

In general however, Cayamo
cruisers are responsible for setting up their own schedules, and in our case
that often meant darting madly between shows on the pool deck, in the atrium,
in Bar City, the Bliss Lounge and more consistently,
the Spinnaker Lounge, where the majority of the must-see acts made repeat
appearances. The latter venue often became a particular challenge; with an
array of artists that included Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright, Allison
Moorer, Scott Miller, Works Progress Administration, Ellis Paul, Shawn Mullins,
Lucy Wainwright and ex-Men at Work mainstay Colin Hay, demand often exceeded
seating capacity. Some shows were wisely moved; tickets to Loudon Wainwright
stretched from deck five to deck 13 at one point, but nevertheless, the rule of
thumb was first come, first served, and grab your seat as quickly as possible
when inside.

 

Once the boat set sail,
the music began in earnest. Shawn Mullins, a perennial Cayamo favorite, kicked
things off on the pool deck with a set of songs that included highlights from
his excellent new album, Light You Up.
The crowd, already stoked, greeted the set warmly, and when Brandi Carlile,
another icon adored by the Cayamo crowd, made the first of several cameo
appearances, the audience predictably roared its enthusiasm.

 

Later, it was off to Bar
City (a strange name for a lounge, I reckoned, in that this particular city had
no police or fire department or other internal governmental workings as far as
I could see) to catch a talkative and charming Lucy Wainwright with a special
guest appearance by dad Loudon, followed by Shannon Whitworth, one of the more
promising newcomers on the cruise. The night ended with a performance by Work
Progress Administration, or WPA, the indie super group that made its bow on
Cayamo 2010 with mainstays Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), Sean Watkins
(Nickel Creek), and Luke Bulla (Lyle Lovett). As a bonus, last minute special
guest Dan Wilson sat in and played a couple of his spectacular songs as well.
It made for a perfect cap on a day that was exceedingly satisfying, to say the
least. Astonishingly, this was only day
one
!

 

Star sightings: Richard Thompson, with wife Nancy Covey, standing idly by during the
boarding ritual; the aforementioned Glen Phillips, chatting at the service desk
onboard; and Shawn Mullins, responding to a fan’s inquiry about his general
state of being by affirming, “Man, I’ve had a great year!

 

 

 

DAY TWO, Monday, February 14

 

Being Valentine’s Day —
by any standard, an ideal day to cruise and listen to music — the ship was
festooned with streams of hearts and plenty of references to romance as well. I
co-led a seminar on pop music’s greatest love songs, sharing the spotlight with
another journalist and playing samples of songs that we felt fit the occasion.
My choices included Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately,” the Beatles’
“Here, There and Everywhere,” “To Love Somebody” by the Bee Gees and “Unchained
Melody” from the Righteous Brothers. I worried that my selections might seem a
bit pedestrian to this sophisticated crowd of music aficionados, but when my
partner offered Olivia Newton John’s “I Honestly Love You,” I figured my own
hipness factor couldn’t take too bad a beating. In truth, she did trump me with
a song from Ani DiFranco and this very cool band from Seattle whose name I can’t recall. She also
knew how to program her music via IPod while I was forced to rely on a mix CD.
Hey, just saying the words “mix CD” makes me feel kinda cool anyway.

 

Besides, by this point,
everyone was in ecstasy, not the least of which the stars themselves. “It’s
invigorating to play for so many new people,” remarked David Ryan Harris, a
supremely gifted singer/songwriter and another holdover from a couple of years
before. “It’s also great to just sit and watch the other artists and be a fan.
It’s great to be stuck on a boat and casually observe all these other artists I
love and respect.”

 

Sam and Ruby, first time
performers on Cayamo, echoed Harris’ enthusiasm. “I can do this!” Ruby
affirmed. “It’s like band camp. You make friends right away and they become
friends for life.”

 

Much of the afternoon was
spent crowded into the Bliss Lounge with several hundred other new friends,
witnessing the end of Kevn Kinney’s set as he sang, “This one’s kinda like you…
A little bit lost, a little bit blue.” With his cowboy hat, hefty girth and
long black hair, he created the impression of the stereotypical cosmic cowboy,
but his amusing stories suggested he could also be everybody’s best buddy if
they and he were so inclined.

 

Scott Miller and Will
Hoge, two excellent Tennessee
singer/songwriters shared the stage next, swapping songs and stories for a
session recorded for World Café. Both men boast a terrific catalogue of
original material, and a good reservoir of wit as well. Miller, who is
originally from Virginia, remarked that his
wife is from neighboring West
Virginia, adding, “When you get married you always
have to give something up. In my case, it was half my jokes.” However, despite
his jocular personality, Miller’s songs are infused with heartrending pathos,
particularly “Lo Siento, Spanishburg, West Virginia,” a tale of transformation
in small town America, and “Freedom’s A Stranger,” an affirmative anthem even
the Boss would likely love to call his own.

 

Our first show in the
Stardust occurred that night, with John Prine taking the spotlight, accompanied
at one point by the ever-present Brandi Carlile. Looking older and grayer than
I had recalled, he nevertheless put on a great show, with the weary ballads
“Angel from Montgomery” and “Hello In There” providing the emotional
highlights. The crowd roared its approval, fully cognizant of the fact that
they were witnessing a venerable old master at work.

 

Ellis Paul, up in the
Spinnaker, provided another tender touchstone, his expressive vocals and tight
two-piece backing band adding poignancy to a remarkably revealing set of songs.
Damn if I didn’t have tears welling up in my eyes from the first song on. The
man’s a treasure, as surely as James Taylor or Jackson Browne, and one can only
hope someone recognizes that fact and clears him a passing lane on the road to
the big time.

 

Keith Sewell, another
one-time member of Lyle Lovett’s touring band and a former foil to Ricky
Skaggs, provided the musical nightcap with a rousing set of Bluegrass
revelry. “Man, this is the best festival in the U.S.,” he proclaimed. “Hell, it’s
the best festival in the world!”

 

We couldn’t agree more.

 

Star sightings: Hanging with my new best friend Scott Miller, introduced in absentia
by Mic Harrison, a Knoxville
pal and Scott’s onetime band mate in the late, great V-Roys.

 

 

 

DAY THREE, Tuesday, February 15

 

There was clear indication
that overindulgence has already set in. My wife Alisa and I spot a semi
familiar face on the stairwell. “You were terrific yesterday,” Alisa enthuses.
He thanks us and scurries away as I turn to her and ask, “So who was that?”

“I don’t really know,” she replied. “He did look kind of familiar though.”

 

I run into the Steep
Canyon Rangers at an interview session as they slowly, sleepily drift into the
conference room. A group of best buddies who happen to be adept at old
fashioned bluegrass, they’ve become stars of a genre that’s become more and
more popular with mainstream audiences in the past decade or so, a trend they
attribute to the crossover acceptance of artists like Dolly Parton, Elvis
Costello, Steve Earle and Robert Plant. The band’s own jumpstart to fame and
fortune coincided with a fortuitous partnership with Steve Martin, a subsequent
world tour and a string of television appearances that has swept them into the
late night and early morning talk show circuit over the past several months.
Their new album with Steve Martin is scheduled for release in March, and with a
cameo vocal by Paul McCartney, it’s likely to bring them even more
well-deserved attention.

 

Colin Hay proved a no-show
for our interview session when it’s disclosed that he’s complaining of a
stomach ailment and has been confined to quarters. I suppose that made him a
Man from Down Under (the weather), although fortunately that would prove
momentary.

 

A few songs with Glen
Phillips solo in the Bliss Lounge led into a much-anticipated Richard Thompson
show in the Spinnaker, another of the undisputed highlights of both the day and
the week as a whole. Droll as always, Thompson charged into a string of classic
works from his repertoire – “Misunderstood,” “Turning of the Tide,” “Walking on
a Wire,” “Wall of Death,” “Feel So Good,” “Misfortune,” a searing take on “Vincent
Black Lightening” and an emotional “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” penned by
his late partner in Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny. Once again, I catch
myself batting away a glistening tear. Thompson likened being on a boat to a
Jimmy Buffett moment, but happily decided a traditional sea shanty will suffice
instead.

 

An hour in and its over,
and RT clears the stage for the first formal set by Scott Miller, who, in his
usual aw-shucks country boy way, charms the crowd, which is rapidly warming to
him after only a couple of songs. “It’s one thing to make fun of the beast,” he
offers as he trades on some homespun philosophy. “It’s quite another to try to
outrun him.” Fortunately, there’s no need for any sprinting. By the end of the
trip, he will have sold out of all his CDs at the merch store and raised his
profile considerably among the Cayamo crowd. I go over to congratulate him
afterwards and find him surrounded by admirers, a good thing and well deserved.

 

We’ll take in a double
header in the Stardust tonight, beginning with a rousing show by the Indigo
Girls, who seem to have brought their own contingent of fans with them. Brandi
Carlile makes another obligatory appearance with her two gal pals and they end
their set with an anthemic “Galileo.” As the fans exit the theater, it’s
impossible to spot anyone who doesn’t have a smile frozen to their face.

 

Steve Earle follows and he
proves as incendiary as ever with a band that includes wife Allison Moorer, dBs
drummer Will Rigby and a husband/wife duo dubbed the Mastersons. They offer
riveting renditions of “Copperhead
Road,” “Guitar
Town” and the incendiary
“The Revolution Starts Now.” Yet, despite the high energy, Earle seems notably
less insurgent and lots more accessible, casual and almost offhanded. “I’ve
gotten a lot of second chances,” he allows.

 

The night concludes with a
hilarious set by a rubber-faced Loudon Wainwright, now moved to the Stardust to
accommodate an overflow crowd shut out of his earlier show in the Spinnaker.
“I’m Steve Earle’s half brother,” he declares, eliciting a roar of laughter. He
references his role in the film Knocked
Up
, generating further hysterics when he announces, “You’re looking at
Katherine Heigl’s gynecologist. Man, we just had to do that scene 30 or 40
times.” Songs about over enthusiastic fans, prescription medications and the
inevitability of aging, as well as ongoing pleas to snatch up his offerings at
the merch table provided further reason why the crowd to convulsed with
laughter. Wainwright redefines the entire concept of being laugh out loud
funny.

 

Star sightings: None today really, but after colliding with waiters repeatedly for
days, I actually witnessed two servers crashing into one another. Still, I love
those guys and gals. The plea for “washy washy” as they sprayed my hands with
disinfectant is destined to become my mantra.

 

 

 

DAY FOUR, Wednesday, February 16

 

We make landfall in Tortola, take a wonderful private tour, briefly hit the
beach and enjoy a relaxing lunch before making our way back to the ship. We
miss sets by Will Hoge and the now fully recovered Colin Hay, but do make our scheduled
show with Brandi Carlile in the Stardust. Sixthman’s head honcho Andy Levine,
the founding father of the company that launched these theme cruises some ten
years prior, intros her with a cryptic reference to her unbecoming behavior
that afternoon, suggesting that her return next year may be in doubt. The
crowd’s baffled, being that she’s been a Cayamo staple since the beginning.
Nevertheless, there’s growing suspicion it’s all an inside joke, and as she
takes the stage following a thunderous drum solo, she’s clearly nonplussed
about any idea of a conflict. As always, she incites the crowd with her rock
‘n’ roll posturing and proves herself the ever-enduring star. She then briefly
turns the stage over to “The Twins,” the gawky, baldheaded Hanseroth brothers
who are at the core of her backing band. They perform a note perfect rendition
of “Sounds of Silence,” after which Brandi asks, “Isn’t that the creepiest,
most beautiful thing you ever heard.” The audience roars in agreement.

 

We catch a reprise of WPA
in the Spinnaker and stick around for Kevn Kinney’s Truck Stop, which, its
banner aside, proves to be a surprisingly tender slate of rotating performances
from Will Hoge, Shawn Mullins and Ellis Paul. By now it’s late, and after an
active day of sightseeing, we’re clearly ready for bed. But what a way to wrap
things up!

 

Star sightings: Brandi Carlile on her way to an excursion, holding her niece’s hand;
and Dan Wilson, unrecognized until it was too late, as he hurried off to catch
a tour bus. Also, chats with Ruby of Sam and Ruby, and the ever-amiable David
Ryan Harris.

 

 

 

DAY FIVE, Thursday, February 17

 

The morning arrives in St. Croix, U.S.
Virgin Islands, and we awake early to catch a
catamaran for some sailing and some soaking up the sun. An abundance of rum
punches makes us oblivious to the sun’s rays and I return to the ship looking
like a lobster. I’m not bothered by it at all – at least not at this point –
and opt to catch the Celt combo Enter the Haggis, who are stirring up a storm
on the pool deck. Indeed, the waves are rising and the boat is rocking –
literally as well as figuratively. Patty Griffin, the evening’s headliner,
makes note of the rolling motion during her set that night, declaring, “If I
fall over, I’m going to keep on singing.” Having just been accorded a Grammy
the previous Sunday, she doesn’t allow her serious stature to get in the way of
some silliness. “Whenever I find myself in a precarious situation,” she says,
referring to the tossing and turning, “I find it helps if you just go
‘wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’.” The crowd takes the cue, and from that point on, her
show is punctuated by “wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’s” throughout.

 

Exhausted, we opt for an
early evening retreat. But the ocean keeps on pounding.

 

Star sightings: Steve Earle and Allison Moorer having lunch with baby John Henry at
the next table. They took turns taking their meal from the buffet line, but
when the baby starts getting antsy, they opt to leave. “The baby tells us when
it’s time to go,” Earle explains. Also sighted: Luke Bulla, on our sailing
excursion, accompanied by a lady friend who kindly buys Alisa a drink; and Sam,
of Sam and Ruby, who’s made his way over to the beach and now wonders how he’ll
get back to the ship. Take the catamaran back with us, I suggest. “I’m not
brave enough to be so bold,” he replies. Presumably, he got back safely anyway.

 

 

 

DAY SIX, Friday, February 18

 

Or maybe not. Sam was to
have been the special guest for my Bob Dylan seminar this afternoon, which
would find him strumming his guitar and doing a Dylan song. Then again, the
seasickness bags that draped the entrance to the elevators was not a good sign
so he could have been a casualty of the motion. The waves rocked the boat and
the passengers were finding it hard to keep their balance… and in some cases,
their meals. Fortunately, nobody lost their lunch during my presentation or I
might have taken it personally. Of course, encapsulating Dylan’s 50-year career
into less than an hour of talk time is a major challenge, but the crowd seemed
pleased. I was stopped several times by those who had attended my seminar, and
I got to stretch my fifteen minutes of fame throughout the rest of the cruise.
For once, people weren’t gawking only because my fly was unzipped. Heck, I even
got to sign an autograph. (Note to editor: I also got in plenty of plugs for
our beloved BLURT.) [Ed. note: Ya done
good, kid. You can keep your job for another year.
]

 

One perk of doing a presentation
in the Spinnaker was the assurance of great seats for the concert that
followed, which happened to be by none other than Allison Moorer. With hubby
Steve Earle’s band in tow, she put in a blazing set that included the stunning
“Alabama Song,” Crows” and “Hard Place to Fall.” As Earle waited in the wings,
she clearly couldn’t help engage in a bit of one-upmanship. Recalling her Oscar
nomination for her contribution to the soundtrack for The Horse Whisperer soundtrack, she noted that at the time they
weren’t married. “Who’s that little bitch?” she remembers him saying. “He’s
still waiting on his nomination,” she
said ruefully, and with no small amount of glee.

 

Other shows of note that
day included a now fully recovered Colin Hay, accompanied by his wife and the
Steep Canyon Rangers for some stripped down renditions of his newer songs, as
well as old Men at Work standards. Chuck Canon proselytized in Bar City,
singing, “God doesn’t hate Muslims, God doesn’t hate Jews, God doesn’t hate
Christians, but we all give God the blues.” A second Steve Earle show, possibly
even more stirring than the first, followed in the Stardust. A reprise of Shawn
Mullins took place soon after. The evening was capped by Buddy Miller, a Cayamo
constant, accompanied by a band that featured Cody Dickinson of the North
Mississippi Allstars on drums, Joel Guzman on accordion and the lilting
harmonies of Patty Griffin.

Star sightings: Seeing Loudon
Wainwright in the Stardust, I jokingly mentioned to him that I was also his biggest
fan, but I wouldn’t harass him like the stalker in his song. I also got
opportunity to speak with Will Rigby, who not only graced me with my first
autograph of the cruise, but also promised that a new dBs album would make it
way to store shelves by year’s end.

 

 

 

DAY SEVEN, Saturday, February 19

 

The last day of any event,
especially one as grand as this, is always bittersweet. Knowing that in 24
hours, you’ll be back to an ordinary life, bereft of the camaraderie of the
other Cayamo passengers, the magic of the music and the superb hospitality
afforded by the Sixthman staff, makes a return to reality all the more
difficult.

 

Fortunately, our final day
was a full one, beginning with an afternoon spent at the beach at Norwegian’s
private island, Stirrup Cay. The music was, as usual, plentiful that evening as
well, particularly the pair of Alumni Shows that began with the teaming of
Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright, who were cleverly billed for the
occasion as “Loud and Rich.”  The duo
leaned heavily on covers – “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” Sloop John B,” and “Love
Hurts,” which Loudon introduced by remarking, “Now that Valentines Day is long
gone, let’s get negative about love.” These two were indeed an odd couple, and
for their first show ever as a duo, they worked remarkably well together, a
kind of musical take on Martin and Lewis as it were. Prefacing one of Richard’s
songs, Loudon suggested it might be older than most of those in attendance and
then asked that the lights be turned up in order to get proof. Seeing the
crowd, most of whom were well into their 40s, 50s and 60s, he shrieked with
horror. “My people!” he exclaimed. Later, after asking Richard what it was like
to meet the Queen, from whom he had received the Order of the British
Empire honors, Loudon suggested he’d be lucky to meet the
surviving members of Queen.

 

You had to be there.

 

We took in a second Buddy
Miller show immediately after which Miller, a clear Cayamo Cruise favorite,
noting that it had been two years since his heart attack onstage and the
subsequent triple bypass surgery which prevented his Cayamo appearance in 2009.
He humbly offered thanks for the cards and emails he received from well-wishers
and then noted that among those urging his speedy recovery was guitarist Steve
Bruton, who sadly succumbed to cancer only a short time later.

 

Afterwards, we hightailed
it to the Spinnaker for a standing room only performance by Scott Miller. Scott
had really worked his way up to the Cayamo hierarchy in a very short time it
seemed. There was then a scramble for seats for an encore performance by
Richard Thompson, forcing me to sit on the on the floor and crunch myself in a
compact position that precluded any possibility of comfort. Midway through,
someone whispered, “Lee, behind you,” as they prepared to exit and graciously
give me their seats. I’m not sure who it was, but if you’re reading this –
thanks!

 

Star sightings: There were a plethora of farewells after Thompson ended his set. He
autographed my album after I had taken the opportunity to chat with his wife
Nancy, who, by the way, organizes Festival Tours, a jolly trip to the U.K. for
Fairport Convention’s anniversary gigs at the Cropredy Festival. It was also
picture taking time with Buddy Miller, who played on Thompson’s encore; the
aforementioned Mastersons; Cody Dickinson, to whom I paid complements for the
North Mississippi Allstars’ latest album, and, finally, my new pal Scott
Miller, who repaid my affection with a solid kiss on the cheek. The sentiments
are mutual, Scott, I assure you.

 

***

 

So that’s it. Another year
with a wonderful Cayamo adventure. As my friend Dan reminded me on Friday
night, there really is no way to aptly describe this cruise to those of have
never been on it. I’ve attempted to do so of course, but if you’re swayed at
all, I’d also suggest you partake in it yourself next year. As stated earlier,
it rocks… even when the seas are calm.

 

[Photo of Steve Earle
& Allison Moorer: Alisa Cherry]

 

Check out Lee “The Sailor Man” Zimmerman’s coverage
of Cayamo! 2010 right here.

NO RULES The Luyas

The Montreal combo, with connections to Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre, Final
Fantasy and more, aims to follow its heart.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

“When we started the Luyas, the concept was that there were no rules
about what it had to be or what it had to sound like,” says Luyas singer Jessie
Stein. “The band was conceived as a band for fun.”

 

The Luyas have been keeping it fun for roughly half a decade now,
playing secret shows in and around  Montreal,
relying on non-traditional rock instruments like French Horn, strings and a
12-string, three-bridged lute called a Moodswinger, and recording two albums. The
first, Faker Death came out as a self-release in August 2007 and was
reissued the following January on Pome Records. The second, Too Beautiful To
Work
, arrived this week on the much larger, much more visible Dead Oceans
label.

 

Stein says that the record’s title, which is also the name of its
opening song, is partly a reference to a girl she knows who seems to get by
solely on her looks. But it’s also an observation about her band’s languid,
dreamily gorgeous sound, which proved to be a surprisingly hard sell when she
went out to pitch it to labels. “People kept saying that they loved it, but
they didn’t know what to do with it,” says Stein.  

 

The Luyas began with Stein and her friends Pietro Amato and Stefan
Schneider, all living in Toronto
as part of the Blocks Recording experimental music scene. Stein was in an indie
pop band called SS Cardiacs. Amato and Schneider had a three-piece instrumental
outfit called Torngat. Their sounds could hardly have been more different, but
they became fans of each other’s work and embarked on a lasting friendship.

 

Later, when Stein turned up in Montreal,
she began to think about collaborating. “I thought, it would be awesome to just
take my songs and hand them over to somebody whose aesthetic sensibility was so
different from mine,” she says. “To let another set of ears and another style
of musicians arrange it. I guess I got that inspiration from the record
Destroyer did with Frog Eyes.”

 

By then Amato and Schneider were both in Bell Orchestre and Amato had
toured as a horn player with Arcade Fire. Stein began playing casually with
Amato, in the process incorporating one of the Luyas more unusual elements, the
French horn, into her songwriting. “It was more because of the fact that he’s
Pietro than because he plays French horn,” she says. “He was my friend and he
was a musician. There has never been any notion that, ‘Oh, we need a player who
plays this.’  So it’s a really organic
band. Everything happens for some natural reason.”

 

Schneider joined next, and the band began playing live as the Luyas in
December 2006. They released Faker Death on their own in 2007. In 2010, McSweeneys  writer Sean Michaels documented a secret
show in Montreal,
where would-be concert goers were summoned to a meeting point, blindfolded and
led by rope to the show venue. Michaels’ called the Luyas music “an art-pop
that’s supple, gold and silver, with messy choruses wedged between swells of
scattered sound.” A week or so later, Stein was at SXSW, taking meetings and
trying to find a label for her band.

 

For Too Beautiful To Work, the band added a new member Mattieu
Charbonneau.  This first album for Dead
Oceans also has string arrangements by another old Blocks Recordings friend,
the composer Owen Pallett, who was once Stein’s roommate.

 

 “Owen’s a really good friend of
mine. I met him when I was maybe 18 and living in Toronto,” she says. “He was writing the first
Final Fantasy record when I was living with him.  We’ve gone through a lot together through the
years, eight years.”

 

The mutual confidence built up in that long-term relationship allowed
Stein to simply hand over her tunes and allow Pallett to realize them more
fully. “I really trust Owen. He’s known every piece of music that I’ve made
since I started recording music, basically. So I know that he has a very good
sense of who I am.”

 

For Too Beautiful to Work, Pallett arrived at the studio one
day and took over. “He just walked in, and he said, these people are coming
today. How much time do I have?  He
called a bunch of his friends, and just told them what to do.  It was amazing.”

 

“Owen’s an incredible conductor,” she adds. “He’s very good at getting
people to do a very specific thing that he wants them to do.”   

 

The full palette of instruments transforms the Luyas’ dream-like songs
into lusher, more complex compositions, as on the album highlight “Canary,”
where a wash of strings adds tension to Stein’s languid vocals. The Moodswinger
plays a role on that song as well, first in its traditional guise as a
strummed, stringed instrument, and later in a giant crashing sound as Stein
moves the third bridge mid-cut.

 

“The third bridge on a Moodswinger is a sliding bridge, kind of based
on the concept of a screwdriver under the strings. It slides on two metal bars
pushed up on the strings at different positions on the neck to create different
overtone structures,” says Stein. Normally, a musician would set the third
bridge at the beginning of a song and leave it there, but it is possible
to reposition it on the fly. “You can do that, yes, but it makes a big, loud
scary noise,” says Stein. “In ‘Canary,’ that happens. When it goes to the
instrumental section, there’s a big crash.” It was no accident, and Stein would
do it again in a heartbeat. “It was a total move,” she adds impishly.

 

That sense of play is maybe the central think about Luyas. This is a
band that’s always willing to try something new. For instance, the song “Too
Beautiful to Work,” was one of the last ones to be recorded for the second
album, after new member Mattieu Charbonneau had joined Stein, Pietro Amato and
Stefan Schneider. Along among the CD’s tracks, it has an antic, manic,
dance-friendly vibe, with careening piano lines and a percolating electro beat.
“We never made a song that is remotely like that one before, but that’s the
spirit of our band,” she says. “To do whatever… to follow our hearts.”

 

 

The Luyas kick
off a major American tour next week – check out their tour dates right here.

The Luyas Present “Everything Is Outta Sight” | a film by Derrick Belcham & Vincent Moon from A Story Told Well on Vimeo.

TWO BRIGHT EXAMPLES Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion

With their acclaimed
new album, it’s truth-in-titling time for the country/folk duo.

 

BY NANCY DUNHAM

 

Think of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion as living in
something akin to a snow globe, where musical influences scatter down upon
them.

 

As the daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody, Sarah
Lee has always embraced her royal folk heritage. After the two married, Johnny
– well known in rock notably for Queen Sarah Saturday – joined in the family’s
folk endeavors through such projects as “The Guthrie Family Rides
Again” tour and even riding with the family on a Thanksgiving Day float in
last year’s Macy’s Day Parade.

 

“I’ve played loud versions of rock and roll and put out
some solo records,” says Irion, “This was a turning point for Sarah
Lee and me.”

 

Irion is referring to Bright
Examples,
the new album from the pair that some label as country rock,
others label as alt-country and still others just call indie. Whatever the
assigned musical genre, reviewers agree the songs – nine written by Irion, two
by Guthrie and one written as collaboration – charmingly swirl the duo’s many
musical influences. That’s just what the two were going for as they approached
the album as a way to set a musical soundscape for their work together.

 

In a way it was a move from South
Carolina to Massachusetts,
near where Guthrie grew up, that prompted the pair to write what they now call
the album they were always meant to record.

 

“We left South
Carolina and I just started maniacally writing,”
Irion says. “At the end we had about 50 songs.”

 

Some tunes, such as “Never Far From My Heart,” are
examples of Guthrie and Irion embracing a shared experience, while others (“Target
on My Heart”) are Irion’s more solitary musings. Suffice to say the songs
are richly textured, which is no doubt why U2 guitarist the Edge expressed
interest in producing the album.

 

“I was thinking that the Edge has worked with [great
producers and musicians] and learned from each of them,” says Irion.
“He was really interested but he’s crazy busy right now and we didn’t want
to wait. I’m so glad he didn’t [produce the album] because we ended up with all
kinds of great stuff on this album we might not have gotten.”

 

Although the stars didn’t align to work with the Edge, Irion
and Guthrie knew they wanted a producer who was also a player, not just a
technician. The duo’s creation process is quite organic, and producers who
aren’t players don’t add a lot to the mix.

 

Enter the production dream team of Vetiver’s Andy Cabic and
Thom Monahan (who in addition to Vetiver has worked with Devendra Banhart and
the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson), who had first introduced Sarah Lee and
Johnny. Almost from the first time, Cabic and Monahan heard the 50 odd songs
the duo sent them, the match seemed ideal.

 

“We sent [the songs] to Andy and Thom, and they wrote
back and says, ‘We have two records here. Here is the record we can make with
you guys,'” says Irion. “I’m still looking forward to making that
other record though.”

 

Perhaps now more than ever, because of the magical process
that surrounded the recording and production of Bright Examples.

 

“Thom is one of those guys, he is maniacal,” Irion
continues. “He is there and in the moment and if he thinks one way, you’re
going to have a hard time changing his mind. Thanks to him for that. We owe a
lot of the way the record turned out to that.”

 

Consider the track “Butterflies” that Irion and
Guthrie had envisioned as an ethereal, floating tune: Monahan heard the song as
something else and convinced them to record it with plenty of bluegrass sounds
that the duo is convinced ultimately brought it to life

 

“It’s one of those ‘clean your palate’ songs,” says
Irion. “It really works for the record.” Guthrie agrees, noting that
the entire process was an act of faith in many ways. “I am often of the
thinking if there are too many chefs in the kitchen, it might come out
fragmented,” she says. “In a way, you have to sacrifice and learn
from everything. That was the pool we were swimming in with Andy and Tom. We
loved the experience and we learned a lot from these guys who make great music.
That’s why it sounds complete and beautiful.”

 

Adding to the mix were flavors of several guests, including
Gary Louris and Mark Olson of the Jayhawks who brought their own style of harmonies
to the tune “Seven Sisters.”

 

“Without the Jayhawks we wouldn’t have Wilco,” says
Irion. “Those two, when you blend their vocals together it is like
blending Sarah Lee and me. It just worked on that song and that’s why you have
something of a Jayhawks’ feeling.”

 

In fact, the entire album has the laid-back Laurel Canyon
vibe of friends that are comfortable enough in their own musical skins to team
together with such disparate instrumentation as lap steel guitar and Hammond organ and
lovingly knit what seems to be a one-of-a-kind sound.

 

Irion says that it was the careful choosing of the
producers, the guests, and others involved in the album that made the songs
work. “It all harkens back to a great team. When you listen to all the
great records, obviously, Paul McCartney made great records [as solo albums]
but he also had to rely on a lot of other people to get there.”

 

Many songs on the album were recorded live, resulting in a
spine-tingling immediacy, such as when the vocals of Irion and Guthrie swirl together
on the aforementioned “Seven Sisters.” Take some Neil Young and a dab
of Tom Petty, mix in touches of Tori Amos and Stevie Nicks, put in a dash of
country – and you have Guthrie and Irion.

 

“This is a turning point, absolutely,” says
Guthrie, “We have been waiting for this for a long time, preparing for it.
It’s what we have always wanted to do. This has been the ultimate experience
for me and now we’ll take it from there.”

 

TRUTH TELLER Willie Wright

A long-forgotten, soulful
near-masterpiece from 1977 offers both power and poignancy.

 

BY STEVEN
ROSEN

Willie
Wright’s Telling the Truth, the
latest reissue/rediscovery from the archivists at Chicago’s Numero
Group, gets off to one strange start. A jivey voice, which
sounds like it’s introducing a live-radio broadcast from a glittery nightclub,
cheerily says, “Hello, music people of the world. Hotel Records and Variety
Recording at 130 West 42nd St. in New
York City, we proudly present Mr. Willie Wright.”
There’s a slight New York
accent to the voice and you wonder what kind of dated, hipsterish hokum you’re
in for. But then Wright starts to sing a laid-back, introspective, lilting
jazzy-folk number – ” Nantucket Woman” – pushed gently forward by the
expansive, Allman Brother guitar licks of the fine Harry Jensen, and you’re
taken aback. This sounds intimate, personal, real. What gives?

 

That’s
all part of Wright’s unusual story – this album was originally (and barely)
released in 1977, when Wright was just shy of 40. An African-American born in
the South who moved early to New York, discovered his relaxed, mellifluous,
honeyed voice (with a touch of Lou Rawls) and spent a peripatetic career
traveling between New York, Boston and points between.

 

He could
have had a career in the 1970s to match Bill Withers, O.C. Smith or Terry
Callier. And he seems to have tried. But he also seems to have been infused
with quite a bit of the countercultural spirit. According to the copiously
detailed liner notes accompanying this reissue, he and a partner once ran a
head shop in Allston, Mass., but broke up when he wanted to shift
all the contents vertically by 90 degrees. That meant the counter and clerks
would have to be suspended from the ceiling, which struck the partner as a bit
impractical.

 

Maybe
that kind of spirit is why Telling the
Truth
was released on Wright’s own barebones Hotel Records. And in order to
afford its production, he cut a deal with Variety Recording, a studio. It
halved its rate and got a plug on the album’s first cut. Wright pressed just
1,000 copies, selling them himself in Nantucket
where he was a popular club draw.

 

All this
makes Wright seem like a total eccentric, a flake, but he doesn’t sound like
that at all. True, the production limits the dimensionality of the recording,
so his voice isn’t as dynamic as it could be. But nevertheless, it is friendly
and unpretentious, romantic but never melodramatic – it finds the groove and
works intuitively with the limited accompaniment (he, himself, plays rhythm
guitar and flute). At times, the songs have a solid Southern rock-and-soul
dimension. These are tunes Van Morrison would love – quietly trying to push the
romantic into the mystic. Greg Allman, too, would have admired the funky-rock
fatalism of “It’s Only Life, That’s All.”

 

The songs
are often quite touching lyrically. Wright seems to know his dreams of musical
success are slipping from him, and he expresses it with wise resignation. He
seems badly to want love – a good relationship – and to need it to get by.
(Apparently he found it on occasion. the photo above depicts Wright with his
“one-time muse” Susan Hayes.) In “Dressing for the Occasion,” he finds solace
from job-hunting frustrations in his woman’s love. On “In the Beauty of the
Night,” a ballad that Wright prefaces with flute and some dreamy “la la las,”
he sings, “Searching through our sounds, for
our favorite LPs/There isn’t anywhere on earth I’d rather be.”

 

According
to the liner notes, Wright had a troubled family life. And that seems to bother
him. The ballad, “Son, Don’t Let Life Pass You By,” which has some gorgeous
minor-key chord changes to highlight its generous lyrics, is directed toward a
resentful offspring. The piano wisely plays off of Jensen’s guitar – at key
moments the voice is double-tracked. On the carefully pulsating groove of the
celebratory “I’m So Happy Now,” Wright is joined by a daughter on back-up
vocals: “Finally decided, we can’t be divided.”

 

The
reissue includes three extra cuts, two of which are also included on a CD-45.
One is a version of Curtis Mayfield’s powerful “Right On for the Darkness.”

 

Wright,
now just over 70, lives in Providence
and fights  Parkinson’s disease. Numero Group doesn’t dwell on this, but the liner
notes do have a recent quote from him: “I’m trying to do something comfortable
with my life. It’s not really about the money. I want to contribute
something…something timeless.”

 

He’s a
little late getting discovered, but with Telling
the Truth
he just might have done that.

 

Listen to tracks from the Wright
album at the Numero site.

 

HAIL TO THE RAINBOWS KING Radiohead

With the stealth release of The King Of Limbs, the British band vaults – well, slithers –
back into the spotlight.

 

BY MAX
BLAU

Last
Sunday, no one could shut up about how this year’s Grammy award had turned the
tide around for the music industry. For once the Grammys got it right, right?
But the Arcade Fire and Esperanza Spalding had less than a day in the spotlight
as the industry’s beacons of hope before Radiohead completely stole their
thunder by announcing that their eighth record The King Of Limbs would
be released five days later. By the time anyone actually came to some sort of
conclusion about the relevance of those Grammy wins, it was a moot point.

 

For four days following the album
announcement, Radiohead captivated the minds of fans worldwide with their
cryptic secrecy with no supporting hype machine, virtually no record
information, mysterious Japanese Tweets about potential secret performances and
an earlier than expected release date. As a result, The King Of Limbs became
a blessing and a curse for the British rockers. On one hand, Radiohead’s
unsurprising surprise had no pre-formulated expectations attached due the fact
there were only a few days between the initial announcement and actual release
date. At the same time, however, this short notice made everyone pay all the
more attention when the record dropped a day earlier than its announced target
of Saturday, on Friday morning. (“It’s a full moon,” quipped the band, via a
note on their website
, by way of explanation.)

 

So what does The King of Limbs hold in store for Radiohead four years after their brilliant In Rainbows came out?  For starters, it’s an undoubtedly a challenging record –
the closest thing to Kid A that the band has created since. It makes
senses given that some of these songs have been performed live dating back to
that period of time. With that in mind, The King of Limbs seems like a
patchwork of the band’s musical journey from Kid A, Hail To The
Thief, In Rainbows
and beyond.

 

The new record offers a varied
collection from the group, surveying the modern electronic climate. Jumping
around from dubstep to ambient, The King of Limbs is not Radiohead’s
most cohesive effort, but still offers an abundance of moments exemplifying
their brilliance. Bloom” opens the record with a seemingly solo Thom
Yorke effort, as the frontman’s voice and frenetic drum samplings showcases the
band’s return to left-field experimentation. Radiohead provides a more than
ample supply of previous examples from the bands previous repertoire. “Morning
Mr Magpie” resonates as a Hail To The Thief offering, while “Little By
Little” sounds like a B-side to Amnesiac’s  “I Might Be Wrong.”

 

While the first half of The
King of Limbs
is a scattered assortment of songs that may or may not work
together, the second half of the record resonates with several of Radiohead’s
most delicate moments thus far. In particular, “Codex” glows as an absolutely
stunning, heartrending gem, surpassing the group’s haunting trio of melancholic
ballads found on In Rainbows. “Codex” is downright brilliant,
echoing as one of the most beautiful tracks the band has ever coined.
“Separator” closes with an intriguing combination of Yorke’s floating vocals
and Phil Selway’s crisp drumming, recapturing some of the haunting magic found
on the band’s Grammy-nominated track “House of Cards.”

 

Once you get past all the hype and
flash-in-the-pan hoopla surrounding the record, The King Of Limbs ultimately
emerges as an album filled with shimmering glimpses of what Radiohead
could have done if they created a new record, rather than revisiting much of
what they have already accomplished. With that in mind, the album still carries
plenty of weight and reason to listen. While this record only holds a few
transcendent moments, at the end of the day all Radiohead is good Radiohead–an
easy thing to lose sight of amidst the enormous amounts of current musical
skepticism and judgment surrounding The King of Limbs.

 

IN PURSUIT OF LOFTY THINGS Drive-By Truckers

An extended interview
with Patterson Hood, on the new album and more. Check the live video, below.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

20 years ago, Patterson Hood packed his shit and left Muscle
Shoals, Alabama, distraught following the break-up of his band of six years –
Adam’s House Cat – and disillusioned with the small town in northern Alabama
that his father – David Hood – and his colleagues at FAME Studios and Muscle
Shoals Sound helped put on the map in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s recording
classic hits with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the Rolling Stones.

 

Like any good teenager who grew up in the late ‘70s
listening to The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Elvis Costello, Hood rebelled,
choosing to leave behind his hometown, his family’s business and his father’s
music for life on the road chasing the rock ‘n roll dream.

 

“I didn’t really intend to rebel against Muscle Shoals as
much as I feel like Muscle Shoals rebelled against me,” Hood says. “When I
started trying to play music, I was viewed as this snotty-nosed loser, fuck-you
kid that it made me rebel further. I mean, I wrote ‘Buttholeville’ as a
response; I didn’t come out punching. I felt like I was punched and so I
punched back. There are still some people in that town who are mad about that
song, and that was in 1988. I tried for a long time to stay there and finally
just left after Adam’s House Cat broke up with a lot of frustration and anger,
feeling like I had to leave.”

 

Searching for a more welcoming music scene, Hood relocated
to Athens, Georgia, founded the Drive-By
Truckers with former Adam’s House Cat bandmate Mike Cooley and the rest is
history. Over the next 15 years, the band would go on to make eleven albums,
record with Booker T. Jones and Bettye LaVette and tour the world, earning a
reputation as one of rock’s road warriors. All the while, Hood formed a musical
family in Athens
that interestingly mirrored what his father’s generation developed in Muscle
Shoals. David Barbe came on board for Southern
Rock Opera
and quickly became the band’s close confidant and de-facto
producing partner. Wes Freed was tapped to illustrate the band’s album artwork.
Scott Baxendale met the Truckers when the Decoration
Day
tour hit Denver
and has built custom guitars for them ever since. Last year, Hood and company
moved their band office and warehouse to Chase Park, the same complex that
houses Barbe’s studio and Baxendale’s new guitar shop. Every January, the
Truckers host three nights at the fabulous 40 Watt that benefit local non-profit
Nuci’s Space and serve as a reunion for their friends, extended family and the
entire Athens music community.

 

“Everyone who has an extended relationship with them are
just really quality people, from the folks at Red Light to Traci Thomas at Thirty
Tigers to Matt, Damon and the road crew,” Barbe says. “It is like a big family,
and now that they’ve moved their headquarters over here next to my studio and
Scott’s guitar shop is here as well, we’re all here next door to one another.
We all work together, and there’s a lot of love and a lot of loyalty, and that
starts with the band.”

 

With Go-Go Boots,
their new album out this week on ATO Records, the Truckers have once again
turned to their hometown for inspiration, tipping their hat to the country soul
made famous by Muscle Shoals while covering two songs by the late Eddie Hinton,
one of the town’s greatest talents. It’s perhaps their most well-rounded effort
since The Dirty South and further
solidifies their place among America’s
best rock bands.

 

*****

 

BLURT: Well, congrats
on another fine album. Lots of people are saying Go-Go Boots is the Truckers finally embracing the more soulful,
Muscle Shoals side of the band. In looking back over the last three albums, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark was almost
an extension of the Dirt Underneath tour, a more intimate, acoustic side of the
Truckers. The Big To-Do – a big rock
record – seemed like a reaction to that, like the pendulum swinging back in the
other direction. What is Go-Go Boots?

PATTERSON HOOD: I think it’s probably a little of all of the
above. We certainly didn’t go in the studio and say, “Well now we’re gonna make
the Truckers soul record.” Any talk of that was more after the fact, when we
realized this was the most Muscle Shoals-sounding record that we’ve ever made.
At the same time, it doesn’t sound like any particular record ever made at
Muscle Shoals. It sounds like a Drive-By Truckers record to me. It’s a little
heavier on the storytelling aspects than anything we’ve done since The Dirty South, and in some ways, it’s
kind of a follow up to that, except musically it moves in different directions.

 

You recorded Go-Go Boots and your previous album, The Big To-Do, during the same sessions.
Why is this band suited for that approach?

 Our band is not
economical. We’re not aerodynamic. We’re a big, gas-guzzling dinosaur of a road
hog. We’re made of big heavy steel, we’re hard to parallel park, but if you get
us out on the open road and gun it a little bit, we’re good on a nice long
trip. That’s just who we are. There have been times when we’ve gone through
periods where we’ve tried to be a little more agile and it’s just not what we
do best, unfortunately. So there’s an inherent bigness that comes with what we
do, and recording two albums at once was a way of embracing that without
putting out another two hour-long record like Brighter than Creation’s Dark. I personally have a real strong soft
spot for that record, but I didn’t want to do another one like it, not any time
soon.

        I don’t know if
we’ll ever choose to or get to do a project the same way again, but I’m really
glad that we got to do it this time and that it turned out the way it did. In a
lot of ways, doing two records at once really, really worked for us; the way we
operate and the way we record. I wish I could do it that way from now on, but
the reality is that to do it that way, you’ve got to put both of those records
out in a relatively timely fashion, which means having two records out in
eleven months. As cool as that sounded on paper, that’s a lot of work.

 

I need to follow up
on something you said a little bit earlier. You said this could be considered
the follow up to The Dirty South. I
find that interesting because to me that record represented the peak of that
particular lineup. Now you’ve had a couple of records with this band. Is this
record a good representation of the potential of this band?

 I have no idea where
this band will go next or could go next. The lineup is so stellar right now,
and I feel like in some ways we’re running at the peak of our potential, but in
another way I feel like we’re almost just now scratching the surface and
getting to the good stuff underneath. It’s a really fertile band in a lot of
ways, and there’s plenty of the good kind of dynamics that can make something
interesting without any of the troublesome dynamics. I’ve never had a band
that’s played just like the sound in my head, only way better. The band in my
head is the same as this band, and that’s really a good feeling.

 

Let’s talk about Go-Go Boots. How did you differentiate
the songs for it versus the ones for The
Big To-Do?

I knew that there was a record somewhere in my head that I
really wanted to hear, and that became Go-Go
Boots
. When we went in the studio, there was a very clear-cut idea of what The Big To-Do was, and then there were
these other songs that I felt just as passionate about, maybe even more so in
some cases. I knew it was gonna take a little more time than we’ve ever really
had the luxury of having to find that record, so we went about it at our own
pace while taking care of the business at hand, which was making The Big To Do. As we wrapped that record
up, we knew that we weren’t gonna be shut out of the studio for the next two
years like it used to be between records. We knew that we had this ongoing
thing that we could work on at our leisure. So we’d do a leg of the tour, and
I’d be listening to what we had so far on the Go-Go Boots stuff and thinking about what’s next. We’d book a
little studio time when we got home, go in there and apply what we worked on or
talked about on that tour and then go back out on the road some more. It was
really enjoyable to have this ongoing thing. I tend to write more if I’ve got a
project I’m writing for. That was the thing about the two-year gaps between
working on records in the past – I would tend to just not write during that
time. It’s an easy thing to put off when there’s nothing looming. With this
record on the horizon, I pushed myself to keep writing because I knew that we had
this record that had the potential to be as good as anything we’ve ever made,
but it still hadn’t found its identity yet. We had these really great songs, I
thought, but there wasn’t that thing that makes a collection of songs a great
album, that unifying thing that ties it all together.

        In the midst
of all this, we were asked to record a song for an Eddie Hinton tribute. That
turned out to be kind of the missing piece. That opened a creative door that
was like, “Wow, this really ties in with these Go-Go Boots songs we’re working on.” Once we decided to include
those songs on the record, this other running theme emerged in the record that
inspired me to dig out “Mercy Buckets” and turn it into something that we could
use. I’d had an earlier version of that song for many, many years that actually
predates the Truckers. If someone asked me to play at their wedding, I’d play
it, but it wasn’t a song I really heard on one of our records. Hearing the
Eddie Hinton songs on there changed my mind, so I went back and rewrote the
song and made it a much better song. We knew as soon as we recorded it that it
was the way the album should end.

        The last thing
I wrote was “I Do Believe,” which I wrote right as we were finishing the
record. Originally, we were gonna begin the record with “Go-Go Boots”, but then
once I wrote that song, it became pretty clear that it’s gotta be the first
song. Having that as the first song, “Mercy Buckets” as the last song and the
Eddie Hinton songs in the middle gave the record this arc that counterpoints
all of the darker killing songs in the middle.

 

 

 

You’ve chosen family
as the source of inspiration or song subject matter many times throughout your
career, “I Do Believe” being the latest. Tell me who that song is about?

 “I Do Believe” is
about my grandmother, Sissy, on my mom’s side. She’s the person on earth that I
was the closest to, as far as a child and as an adult. As long as she was
alive, she was the person I was the closest to. I really haven’t written about
her much. Some aspects of her have popped up in “Old Timers’ Disease,” which I
definitely count as one of my family’s songs even though it’s a fictional
story. My granddaddy used to talk about walking down the street with her when
they were young, and cars would just about start colliding because whoever was
driving would be so busy staring at her butt that they’d run into telephone
poles. She was a really stunning woman, so I used that imagery in “Old Timers’
Disease.” She’s in “Little Bonnie,” too, but I’d never written specifically
about her or our relationship.

        I’ve been
writing since ’73, since I was eight years old, and I’ve written a shitload of
songs, but it’s still as much a mystery to me now as at any point in time as
far as how it all happens. I can tell you where specific things in a song came
from, but I can’t tell you what made me think of it at that moment. We were
riding down the road in our van and we’d been to Europe, and then Colorado, and we were on
our way home, and everyone’s exhausted. We were driving home from the Atlanta airport, and I
was sitting in the back of the van and that song just hit me. I wrote it down
right there on a little notepad I had in my bag. I was no more thinking about
Sissy or any of the stuff that’s in that song…it was as far as anything could
have been from my mind, and yet, in about a ten-minute period of time, I wrote
that song. It was a very vivid snapshot of a moment in time when I was about my
daughter’s age, five years old or so. It wasn’t until after I finished writing
it that I realized I’d just written about Sissy. I can’t remember the last time
I’d thought about that day, but it’s all there in that song.

 

Does that happen a
lot for you, where a song just comes out of the sky like a lightning bolt?

 Almost all the good
ones. In a lot of cases, it’s an idea I’ve had for years, but the actual
writing of it happens like a lightning bolt. For years, I’ve wanted to write a
song about the cop that “Used to Be A Cop” is about. I had the basic idea for
that song when we were writing The Dirty
South
, but the song never got written. I have no idea what caused me to
write that song out of the blue one night a couple of Novembers ago when I was
just sitting in my office. I wasn’t thinking about it then, I wasn’t thinking
about any of that. It just came out. I had my acoustic guitar, and I pretty
much played what I play on the record, just that four chord little circle that
plays throughout the song. I demoed it as soon as I finished writing it, and it
already had the jagged staccato, psycho thing at the end, which was definitely
borrowing kind of a Bernard Herrmann feel, ‘cause I love Bernard Herrmann.

       As far as the
disco beat and all of that, that all happened when the band got a hold of it.
The song’s set in the late 70’s, early 80’s, so that’s the music that would
have been playing at the bar when the former cop’s watching his ex-wife dancing
with some dude and thinking about following her home. It’s so weird. It’s 7
minutes long, and it’s already gotten more radio play than any song we’ve ever
put out. We’ve always said if we ever have a breakthrough hit, it’s gonna be
from the outer edges of what we do. It’s not gonna be the hit version of the thing
we do, it would be from a different direction. I’ve always thought that. It has
gotten more radio attention than any song we’ve ever put out, and it’s seven
fucking minutes long. It’s funny. The studio version’s even longer than the
version live. It’s a minute longer on the record than the live version. When
does that happen? (Laughs)

 

So what’s the story
behind “Go-Go Boots?” When you see these things on the TV, hear them on the
radio or read them in the paper or online, what’s the first reaction?

 When I was a little
boy there were two things I wanted to do; I wanted to either be a rock star or
a film director. I always wanted to make movies and always wrote stories and
outlines for a number of things. Southern
Rock Opera
started off as an outline for a screenplay me and Earl (Hicks, former producer and bass player)
were gonna write, and then it made more sense to just make a record. That was
when it first dawned on me to merge those two worlds, so that’s been a big part
of what I’ve done over the years.

        The murder
that inspired “Fireplace Poker” and “Go-Go Boots” was a real event that
happened in my hometown in the late 80’s. It went down over a week or 10-day
period of time and was pretty much the front-page story every day. It was all
unraveling before your eyes, and just watching it all happen, I thought, “I
wanna make a movie about this.” I thought it would make an incredible Southern
gothic, Night of the Hunter-style
movie.

        I wrote the
song a long time ago, over the course of a number of years. I probably wrote
the first draft of it in the late 80’s and wrote pretty much the version that
we have now in the mid-90s. I had it in mind for the album I referred to as
“the Heathens record,” which was the album that morphed into Decoration Day, so it was definitely on
a list of song titles leading up to making that record. By the time we finally
made the record, we had so many songs and it was already going in so many
directions that it got shelved and put aside. It just wasn’t the time for it,
but I was still drawn to that story, so I wrote “Go-Go Boots” a little later as
another attempt to tell that story, just in a different form. That ended up
being one of the first songs we recorded for this album. It was a magical take,
and we knew early on that that was definitely gonna be on the album and that it
was like gonna be the title cut for this darker, weirder second record we were
working on as we did The Big To-Do.

        As we were
finishing the record last summer, the same weekend we did “I Do Believe,” “The
Fireplace Poker” reared its head one more time. We were about to finish the
record, we didn’t really need another song, and we sure didn’t need a
nine-minute long narrative about a murder that we already had another song
about, but if we didn’t do anything right now with, I knew we’d never do
anything with it. So we gave it a stab to see what we could get, and we very
quickly ended up with a magical take. So once again, I’ve got two songs about
the same thing from different perspectives on a record, and I guess that’s just
another one of those things we do.

 

I’d like to talk
about “Ray’s Automatic Weapon.” How often does it happen that you write a song
and by the time you start playing it out, or it comes out on a record, it’s
taken on a whole new meaning? I’m talking about the recent shooting in Arizona and the whole
debate right now about gun laws.

 I honestly hadn’t
even thought about that until you said it just now, about “Ray’s Automatic
Weapon,” but it’s very true. Southern
Rock Opera
happened that way, too, in that it came out on 9/11 and ends
with a plane crash. Playing that album the first time in New York was on October 11th of
that year, and Ground Zero was still smoldering. It was really weird stepping
up on stage to play that record knowing the closeness of all of that, even
though that record was set in a different time and place and was about
something totally different. People did come up to us after the show and they
would talk about “Angels and Fuselage” and the relation to what had just
happened in their lives. Nothing could have been further from our minds about
what we intended when we recorded that song, but none-the-less, those things
happened. That’s part of the beauty of this art form. Songs do take on new
meanings that were never intended, and that’s a great thing, particularly if it
helps somebody deal with something they’re suffering through.

 

Let’s talk about
Eddie Hinton. It isn’t as if the Muscle Shoals scene lacks folks who had all
the talent in the world but never made the spotlight. Why Eddie Hinton? Why not
Donnie Fritts, Tony Joe White, or countless others?

 With Eddie, it always seems to go one step
further. Eddie’s story is a tragic narrative. He was such an amazing talent in
a town that had so many amazing talents, but Eddie’s talent might have
transcended one step further even. He was a writer on the same level with Dan
Penn and Spooner Oldham.  He was a guitar
player of the caliber of Duane Allman. Extremely underrated, but a fantastic
guitar player, a great studio musician who could pretty much play whatever they
put in front of him. He played the harmonica, he could play drums, and he wrote
string arrangements. He wrote a string arrangement that he took to the London
Symphony Orchestra to play ‘cause he heard strings in his head on the song. He
wrote the arrangement on the plane ride over.

        When he got
there, those classically trained symphony players couldn’t believe that this
guy from Alabama
had written these parts. They were in awe of it. He was this vocalist on the
level with Otis Redding, but you can’t find his records. They’re almost all
imports. He lost his mind and spent a lot of time in and out of mental
institutions and was known to be a little deranged, maybe a little violent. He slept
on a park bench for about a year in Decatur,
Alabama. It’s just a very tragic,
sad, sad story, but if you listen to his records, they’re just beautiful. So we
were definitely drawn to his story. I wrote “Sandwiches for the Road,” which is
on Gangstabilly, a couple weeks after
he passed away in ’95. We’ve had this ongoing relationship with Eddie’s music
over the entire history of this band. It’s been the music that plays between
sets at our shows for at least eight or nine years. So it just made sense.

        I had wanted
in the past to record one of his songs, but it was vetoed from day one because
we were scared we wouldn’t be able to do it justice. But then we got asked to
do the tribute thing, and it was really then just a matter of talking Cooley into
it. He was always a little skeptical of the idea of covering an Eddie Hinton
song, for very good reasons. But at the end of the day we were all very happy
with what we did on that. And we’re glad we did it. I think in doing that, it
was a nice boost for our confidence in pursuing some of the loftier things we
were trying to do with this record.

 

[Photo and Video  Credit (both from January, at the  40 Watt Club in Athens) by Andy Tennille – who, in case you
don’t know, is our Associate Editor
. See
his print feature on the Truckers in BLURT #10, due to hit newsstands in
mid-March
.]

 

AND YOU’LL KNOW THEM BY THEIR TAO Trail of Dead

The Austin rockers align with a down-to-earth
philosophy.

 

BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA

 

Almost
as if nature dictates it, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (Jason
Reece and Conrad Keely) has returned the only way they could – by releasing the
enormous oeuvre that is TAO OF THE DEAD.

Released
February 8 through Trail of Dead’s Richter Scale Records Imprint and Superball
Music, TAO OF THE DEAD is the seventh
full-length in a long line of deeply intense and expansive records from the
Austin-based indie rock outfit. The album’s title is a play on Tao Te Ching, the classic Chinese text
attributed to Laozi essential to Philosophical Daoism that inspired the longplayer.
But this inspiration wasn’t intentional, says Reece. Instead, it was a pure coincidence
Tao Te Ching just happened to be
lying around the studio while they were doing scratch vocals. Still, he was
attracted to it, initially because of its similarities to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which he was reading at
the time. 

“I was
impressed with the philosophy. [It] was very practical, how to meet problems
and face adversity on a very practical level,” Reece says. “It wasn’t
like some kind of weird, mysterious, poetic thing you had to translate.”

“Daoism
is the most down-to-earth from a lot of the Eastern philosophies I’ve read
about,” says Keely. “It is really close to how you should try to lead
your life.”

In a way, TAO OF THE DEAD could be perceived as
more “down-to-earth” than their previous works – at least, in the
audible sense. Where 2009’s The Century
of Self
was more visceral and somber, TAO
OF THE DEAD
sounds more restrained in its frenzy – more grounded and faster
in energy. This disparity in resonance, though, is merely superficial and
interpretative. Yes, this record was more collaborative, and yes, they did team
up with Chris “Frenchie” Smith for production after 12 years (Smith
worked on Trail of Dead’s 1998’s self-titled LP), but TAO OF THE DEAD, still ripe with trademark fantasy, is an extension
of themselves and their craft, not a deliberate side-step or reinvention of the
wheel. And, to experience it means more than flippant listens to the first few
tracks.

“I think
of our records as an on-going continuation, a kind of journey,” says
Keely, who designed TAO OF THE DEAD‘s
cover art and will feature it during Trail of Dead’s North American
co-headliner spring tour with the equally idiosyncratic guitar-rock virtuosos
Surfer Blood. “[TAO OF THE DEAD]
is a logical progression from what we’ve done in the past. It’s not a
divergence. We haven’t had some crazy, drastic life change that has caused us
to write music any differently. But rather, we’re trying to refine and achieve
a vision we had for a long time [that an album can be a cohesive whole] and
this possibly is the closest we’ve gotten to it.”

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL RORSCHACH TEST The Church

A closeup of the
legendary Australian band’s “Future Past Perfect” 3-albums-in-1-night tour,
currently rolling across the U.S.

 

BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE

 

It has become fashionable
in recent years for bands to hit the road performing “classic” albums in their
entirety. Whether it’s Concrete Blonde doing some Bloodletting, the Flaming Lips delivering The Soft Bulletin, Roger Waters re-erecting The Wall or Rush putting up Moving
Pictures
, artists of all calibers and stripes are joining in the stampede
to exhume their past glories for fun and profit, not necessarily in that order.
It makes sense on a number of levels. In our current stagnant economy, a
run-of-the mill tour may not be viable. Cash-strapped fans are apt to take a
pass, rationalizing that they’ll catch ‘em next time when there’s more money in
the pocket. To combat this quite understandable frugality, a tour in 2011 must
be an event, a “this one can’t be
missed!” spectacle. Next, there’s the nostalgia factor. You may not have listened to the band for two decades, but the fact
that they’re trotting out your favorite album might be incentive enough to find
a babysitter and get out of the house for a rare night on the town. Lastly
there’s curiosity: Do the old boys (or girls) still have it? Can they recapture
that elusive spark that made you take notice in the first place?

 

Australian rock band the
Church is the latest to climb aboard the bandwagon, but typical of these
left-of-center underdogs, there is an intriguing twist: they have opted to
perform not one, but three albums in
their entirety, one for each decade of the band’s existence. Each performance
begins with 2009’s Untitled #23 and
progresses backward through 1992’s Priest=Aura to conclude with 1988’s Starfish, the
album that gave the band a brief taste of international success via the hit
single “Under the Milky Way.” (Tour dates can be found here.)

 

Three full albums in one
night. We’re talking a Springsteen-length concert here. To my knowledge the
only other band to have attempted something like this was the Cure, who did a
series of Trilogy concerts comprising
the albums Pornography, Disintegration, and Bloodflowers back in 2002. The key difference is that the Cure is a
spectacularly dull live band. The Church, on the other hand, is known for expanding
and improving upon its album work, often using the songs as launchpads for
inspired flights of improvisation.

 

The actual three
selections for this tour are interesting and quite shrewd. Anyone who was
listening to “modern rock” in the late eighties remembers Starfish, so the inclusion of that record was a must. Yet there is
nearly unanimous critical (if not commercial) consensus that the band is
actually doing its best work right now,
as borne out by the many 5-star reviews Untitled
#23
received both at home and abroad. It stands to reason that the lapsed
fans – the Starfish aficionados
making their way back into the fold to rekindle their cherished memories for
one night – might enjoy (and perhaps even want to purchase) the new material.
Then there is the curious case of Priest=Aura,
a space-rock epic that was ignored and/or drubbed at the time of its release
but has since grown in stature, possibly due to subsequent albums by other
artists (Radiohead’s OK Computer being the primary example) that seemed to tap into its vibe. To include Priest as the middle section – the very
core – of the show is a daring move, one that turns what might be a satisfying
but unambitious exercise into something really substantial. Nothing less, in
fact, than a comprehensive dissertation on the Church itself, for it’s
impossible to walk away from the concert with anything other than a full
picture of what the Church is, was, and will be. At that point you can accept
or reject based on comprehensive knowledge.

 

I was in attendance at the
February 7 show at the Triple Door in Seattle,
during which the band faced the added hurdle of having to perform to a dinner
theater with waiters circling the seated audience like flies, cock-blocking the
music. Or that was the danger, anyway. The Church dispatched this threat by
simply ignoring it and focusing all available energy on blowing the roof off
the place. And in that endeavor, Priest=Aura proved to be the secret ingredient: a magnificent, dark, intoxicating trip with
plenty of surprising twists and turns and lots of danger. Some of the more
subtle songs such as “Swan
Lake” and “Witch Hunt”
had surprising heft and power in the live context, while “Chaos” gave The
Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” a run for its money in terms of sustained
atonal freakout. The other two sets were not quite at this level, but both
still had enough moments of transcendence to validate the trilogy concept.
Think about it: the battle scene at the center of Lawrence of Arabia would not be nearly so effective without the
slow, careful buildup, or the equally crucial denouement.

 

Of the “men behind the
curtain,” Marty Willson-Piper owned the performance. Apart from some equipment
challenges during the first set, he was on point from start to finish: stabbing
out his guitar lines and driving the rest of the band with constant eye contact
and cues. He wore a happy grin that said: I love my job and I’m thrilled to be
here. His “Spark” (from Starfish) was
one of the highlights of the evening. Drummer Tim Powles, also, never flagged.
He absolutely demolished his kit – not in the literal sense of kicking it down
and throwing it into the crowd a la Keith Moon – but more in terms of a sustained, unrelenting siege. Think the
bombing of Baghdad
with eardrums the only casualties. Guitar magician Peter Koppes cycled through
a bewildering array of both stringed and non-stringed instruments and delivered
another high point
with “A New Season.” And hired wunderkind Craig Wilson filled out the sound
with additional keyboards, guitar, six-string bass, mandolin, percussion, and
vocals. Wow. He looks all of fourteen. Hopefully we’ll hear more of him.

 

This brings me to the man
on whom rested the heaviest burden, the man who had to memorize reams of his
own stemwinding lyrics and regurgitate them on command: singer and bassist
Steve Kilbey. What he brings to the table is a cracked piece of stained glass.
Approach from one angle and you’ll see beauty, from ugliness. If you don’t look
closely enough, you’ll miss it entirely, but if you focus too hard your eyes
will bleed. If, however, you move the whole arrangement just so, Ahhh…you’ll catch a glimpse of that
dreamworld he’s been sneaking off to for decades. And then you’ll be hooked.
You’ll keep coming back no matter what. 

 

I have written previously
about Steve’s Jekyll and Hyde persona; how there is “New Steve,” the norm in
recent years: warm, affable, generous and very funny; and “Old Steve”: dark,
cynical, bitter – or as he describes it in his own words: “tired n emotional.”

 

At the Triple Door we got
a little bit of Old Steve, which is to say, a little bit of an edge, a bit of
the old caustic energy. But with a very important distinction: in the past, Old
Steve gave the impression of being detached from the whole thing: a grumpy god
annoyed by the inconvenience of having to descend from the clouds (or climb up
from hell; you take your pick) and sing for his supper.  But this Steve, the Triple Door Steve, fully appreciated his audience. He didn’t say
much else but he continuously thanked the crowd. Detachment had given way to an
almost frightening engagement with the “angry” songs in the set. He snarled his
way through “Anchorage,”
“Mistress,” and “The Disillusionist” with something approaching Kurt Cobain
ferocity. “Anchorage”
set the tone:

 

Darkness returning
My torch keeps on burning for you
In the life you keep on spurning
Everything is hurting me

And “Mistress” seconded the motion:

Everything is going wrong
All my songs are coming true.

 

During songs in which he
was less engaged he would literally
and figuratively recede, giving up the reins to Marty. At some points he even
put his hand to his head as if the whole thing were causing him pain. Yet never
once during the show did he stop playing the shit out of his bass.

 

As for where the anger was
coming from, I imagine Steve would say that that’s irrelevant; the music is
supposed to be a Rorschach test into which we’re supposed to read our own rage. Sometimes the Church’s music
is water, sometimes it’s fire. Tonight it was fire. He wanted us to burn with him.

 

There. Have I convinced
you yet? You have the opportunity to see one of the best rock bands out there
sweat blood for you. This ain’t the Craptacular Black Eyed Peas at Superbowl
halftime, this is the genuine article. This is loud rock n roll in a small,
enclosed space where the stakes are very high. Get on a plane if you have to.
Just get your ass in one of those seats. Now.

 

Robert Dean Lurie is author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and the Church, published in 2009 by Verse Chorus Press.

 

Photo by Chris Rady. Visit him at www.chrisrady.com

 

More Church at BLURT: Deep in the Shallows: The
Classic Singles Collection

HARD ROCK HEAVEN Badlands

A reappraisal of the doomed late-‘80s L.A. combo, who were more
blues/Led Zep-based than their Sunset Strip hair-metal contemporaries
.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

From the rather
largish ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda’ file
comes one of the great lost bands of rock ‘n’ roll, Badlands.
Emerging from the 1980s nerf-metal scene, Badlands would be overshadowed first
by the enormous success of contemporaries Guns N’ Roses, a/k/a the luckiest
bunch of Hollyrockin’ droogs on the planet at the time, and then totally
eclipsed by the grunge leviathan that steamrolled its way outta Seattle in
1991.

 

Badlands’
lack of success remains a mystery almost two decades after the band’s
acrimonious break-up. The individual band members had the gutter-dwelling street
rat look affected by Sunset Strip rockers like Motley Crue or the GN’R gang,
lean and wiry with long hair and heroin chic. Badlands had an undeniable musical
pedigree as well, guitarist Jake E. Lee making his bones as part of Ozzy Osbourne’s
post-Randy Rhodes band, vocalist Ray Gillen fresh off an ill-fated short stint
with Black Sabbath. Future Kiss beat-blaster Eric Singer was another Sabbath alumnus,
while Badlands bassist Greg Chaisson had clocked in with Ron Keel in Steeler.

 

Whether it
was due to their lack of flamboyance when compared to even such notable second-and-third-tier
glam-metal hellraisers as Love/Hate or Faster Pussycat, or because their
blues-tinged hard rock sound drew more from Led Zeppelin than Hanoi Rocks, the
guys in Badlands received little love from the City of Angels and, thus, were
forever unable to break out of the L.A. rock ghetto. ‘Tis a shame, too, ’cause Badlands
had found a strong creative team in Gillen and Lee, who had developed an uneasy
songwriting relationship akin to Jagger and Richards, while the band’s talents
and electric chemistry allowed them to light up a stage wherever they toured. Badlands would manage to release just two great rock ‘n’
roll albums before burning out and breaking apart – their 1989 self-titled
debut, and 1991’s equally excellent Voodoo Highway.
 

 

Out-of-print
almost from the date of its release, Badlands the album has long been ignored by U.S. archival labels trying to mine
gold from the major label archives, resulting in a seller’s market charging
collectors $50 or more for a first-gen CD copy. Originally released by Atlantic
Records’ Titanium imprint, Badlands has finally been reissued on CD by England’s Rock Candy Records (www.rockcandyrecords.com),

the new
release featuring remastered audio, a pretty cool bonus track on top of the ten
original barn-burners, and a sixteen-page CD booklet with lengthy liner notes
and a bunch of rare, unpublished band photos…undeniably a deluxe package that
will have the band’s international fan base foaming at the mouth.

 

As for the
music? If you’re unfamiliar with Badlands, don’t cue up the CD expecting
something along the lines of the Crue or Poison, or even Ozzy’s bat-munching,
1980s-era Goth-metal Sturm und Drang. Nosirree, Badlands were unabashed Led
Zeppelin acolytes, with maybe a dash of the Jeff Beck Group on the side of
their plate, but definitely a boozy, blues-rock based gang o’ houserockers.
“High Wire” jumpstarts the album with a blast of white light/white
heat, Gillen’s voice teetering on the edge of the abyss as Lee’s guitar
slices-and-dices like some mutant six-string vegomatic. The rhythm section of
Chaisson and Singer crashes with the best of ’em, delivering a blustery backbeat
for the soaring vocals and guitar pyrotechnics. Call it Zeppelin mark II if you
will, ’cause this is where the boys from Britain may have gone musically if not
for Bonzo’s unfortunate demise.

 

Badlands continues to singe your
synapses with an unrelenting mix of mid-and-rapid-tempo firestarters that
refuse to fall into flaccid power-ballad tropes. The label-dictated single
“Dreams In The Dark” survived executive manhandling to become the
band’s calling card, garnering valuable MTV exposure (yeah, back when they used
to play actual music videos) and
inching into the Billboard Top 40.
The song itself is a pleasant enough lil’ rocker with Gillen’s voice sounding
like Johnny Van Zandt on a wistful tale of romance and lust that could pass for
a Southern rock number from a decade earlier if not for Lee’s metallic riffing
and the explosive rhythms behind Gillen’s vocals. The instrumental “Jade’s
Song” displays some of Lee’s underrated fretwork, with dexterous
acoustic-guitar strum serving as an extended intro to the deceptively benign
“Winter’s Call.” The closest thing the album has to a ballad,
“Winter’s Call” starts out all gentle and sensitive and such before
imploding like a deteriorating black star into another Zeppelin-esque pleasure
wail of screaming vocals and guitars and TNT drumbeats.

 

The
foreboding “Streets Cry Freedom” is drenched in dark malevolence,
Lee’s mesmerizing guitar lines matched by Gillen’s muted vocals until the whole
thing blows up in your face with a sonic howl colder and more powerful than any
arctic wind. Gillen reaches Plant-like heights with a tortured and nuanced
vocal performance delivered above sheer instrumental chaos. The band reaches
for its inner Blackfoot with the bluesy, blustery “Rumblin’ Train,”
which sports a fine set of Cajun-fried lyrics, a stomping rhythm, and Lee’s
best swamp-blues guitarwork. “Devil’s Stomp” offers up another
understated intro that is randomly punctuated with sledgehammer blows of bass
drum or wide slashes of wiry guitar. Lee’s fretwork here is simply unbelievable,
a pissed-off serpent that blindly strikes at anything within range while
Gillen’s black cat moan rides high above the fracas. A bonus track tacked on to
the back end of this Badlands reissue, “Ball & Chain,” is a rollicking blues-rock fever dream
with a maddening recurring riff and enough cacophonic, cascading rhythms to
make the most jaded of us wet our diapers in glee.

 

Reading
through the liner notes in the deluxe sixteen-page booklet that accompanies
this reissue, it’s amazing that the album was ever made in the first place.
Label executives imagined a far different band than that which they signed, and
kept trying to force them into the mold of washed-up hair-metal hacks rather
than the young soul rebels they obviously were. The producer caused a split
between the band’s leads (Gillen and Lee) and the rhythm section, and at one
point some damn fool suit wanted to toss Lee from the band that he started up in the first place.

 

Through
all the madness and the tension, a classic album was created, however, and Badlands stands today as a pinnacle of
the hard rock heights that were first explored by the Yardbirds, mapped by Eric
Clapton and Cream, and explored by Zeppelin, Mountain, and other fellow
travelers during the 1970s. Tossing aside the mindless hedonism and cretin
worldview of other Hollywood
street rats, and refusing to be bound by trends
and expectations, Badlands aspired to more,
and for a brief shining moment at the end of the 1980s, they achieved rock ‘n’
roll nirvana.

 

***

 

If their
self-titled 1989 album had proven to be a difficult birth, with Badlands’
manager usurping the producer’s chair, and with Atlantic Records A&R
“whiz” Jason Flom demanding a more commercial-sounding (i.e. trendy)
sound from the band, Voodoo Highway would, in the end, be the band’s undoing. (As with its predecessor, the record
has recently been reissued by the Rock Candy label.)

 

After
touring for the better part of a year in the wake of Badlands, long-simmering
tensions within the band would boil over at the end of the road. Singer Ray
Gillen and guitarist Jake Lee were determined to eject drummer Eric Singer from
the fold, with only bassist Greg Chaisson speaking on Singer’s behalf…a strange
turn of events as Singer and Chaisson had been at odds from day one. Badlands
found a new drummer in Jeff Martin, who had fronted L.A. speed-metal outfit Racer’s X as their
vocalist. Other changes were afoot, as the band kicked manager/producer Paul
O’Neil to the curb, Lee taking over the controls for the production of Voodoo Highway.

 

With Lee
at the helm, recording for Voodoo Highway started out better than the debut album, but would soon be undermined when
Gillen went behind his bandmates’ backs to tattle to Flom that the band had
more commercially-oriented songs that they were neglecting to record. It made
for an uneasy vibe in the studio, production was eventually halted and then
re-started, and by the time that Voodoo Highway actually hit the streets in 1991, Atlantic Records had officially washed its
hands of the band.

 

‘Twas a
shame, really, ’cause the label may have been able to bank a little dinero had
they shown the slightest interest in the success of Voodoo Highway.
The band’s overt musical worship of Led Zeppelin was tempered in favor of a
more streamlined metal-edged sound with just a bit of Southern-fried twang and
a little good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll funkiness.  Gillen’s voice still soars menacingly like a
hungry bird of prey, and the new rhythm section of Chaisson and Martin meshed
nicely into a solid foundation that, while not as bombastic as Singer’s eardrum
assault, had enough big-beat bluster to shame any hard rock pretenders. As for
Lee’s guitar, the man remains one of the most underrated of guitar heroes, Voodoo
Highway
displaying a wide range of the man’s
talents.

 

Kicking
off with chiming guitars and a swelling tsunami of rhythm, Gillen’s
leather-lunged wail opens “The Last Time” with a spark, the song’s
lyrics referencing, in passing, the Temptations/Rare Earth Motown gem “(I
Know) I’m Losing You” in building an emotionally-draining performance.
Gillen’s tortured vox are complimented by Lee’s raging fretwork, Badlands sounding more like a bluesy Guns N’ Roses than a
Zeppelin clone. Things quiet down somewhat for “Show Me The Way,” the
acoustic-strum intro leading into a muscular mid-tempo rocker with Gillen back
into Robert Plant mode while Lee fills in around the edges of the bass/drums
stomp with shards of razor-edged guitar.

 

The Mississippi funk of
“Whiskey Dust” takes the band to its stripped-down, swamp-blues roots
with a swaggering vocal performance by Gillen, an amped-up riff copped straight
from Tony Joe White’s “Poke Salad Annie” – perhaps the best since
Jason & the Scorchers mangled the song a half-decade earlier. Lee’s chicken-pickin’
is the greasiest you’ll hear outside of the Delta, each note lovingly covered
in blood and mud. The instrumental “Joe’s Blues” is a showcase for
Lee’s nimble-fingered fretwork, a lively country-blues number that is
immediately steamrollered by the metal mastodon that is “Soul
Stealer.”

 

With a
powerful vocal performance that cleverly blends Plant and Jim Morrison for a
little grimy transcendence, “Soul Stealer” is the kind of
evolved-in-a-straight-line-from-Zeppelin number that the Cult, Kingdom Come, or
a dozen other clones would have liked to record. Lee’s guitar shakes and
rattles like a wild boar stuck with a hunter’s arrows, while the rhythm section
hits harder than a B-52 on a bombing run, the song’s blues roots all but
obliterated under an explosive rock ‘n’ roll sunburst.

 

A loud,
taut guitar riff blasts the dust from your eardrums before Gillen’s blustery
vocals kick in on “Love Don’t Mean A Thing,” the song displaying a
little o’ that whiteboy foot shuffle that everybody from Humble Pie and Jo Jo
Gunne to even GN’R had tried to perfect with varying success. Lee’s riffing
here is monster, blasting out of your speakers like that hungry alien
facesucker leaping like a fiend from its host belly to attach itself to
Sigourney Weaver’s goodies. The title track lives up to its top-o-the-line
billing with a dark-hued blues romp firmly rooted like cypress in some Louisiana swamp,
Gillen’s slinky vocals assisted by Lee’s slithering Dobro pull.

 

Voodoo Highway contains the only cover song of Badlands’ two albums, a spirited take of James Taylor’s
“Fire And Rain.” While Gillen’s voice lacks the warm sensitivity of Taylor’s, he does a fine
job of connecting with the material, bringing a little rock ‘n’ roll energy to
the lyrics while the band’s high-octane arrangement builds upon the original
with emotional fretwork and a loose-knit rhythm track. Lee, again, brings out
the best in the song with a nervy solo that cuts to the quick. This performance
is echoed again in the album-closing “In A Dream,” an R&B-tinged
ballad with gospel undertones, Gillen’s soulful vocals carrying the song until
Lee’s subtle, high-lonesome guitar strum kicks in and underscores the emotion
of the lyrics.

 

Like
Icarus soaring too close to the sun, Badlands’
defiant approach to their music would fly in the face of contemporary trends
and eventually unravel the band’s delicate chemistry. By the time that Voodoo
Highway
was released in 1991, the juggernaut
that was grunge would dominate the charts. While Badlands’
rootsy blues-metal would have creatively fit in perfectly between Pearl Jam’s
arena-rock dreams and Nirvana’s complex punk-metal hybrid, label indifference
and eventual hostility would put the band on the street within a year.

 

Ray Gillen
would be sacked, then re-hired for an ill-fated U.K. tour when the band was
unable to find a suitable replacement…in the end, Gillen was as essential to
the Badlands’ sound as guitarist Lee, and after recording a slate of demos for
a possible Sony deal in late 1991, the band would break up permanently when
Gillen seemingly sabotaged the deal by refusing a label-mandated physical exam.
Gillen would be gone for good after dying of AIDS-related illness in December
1993.

 

Another
casualty of label hijinx and the demanding rock star lifestyle, Badlands had its shot at the brass ring, only to see the
rug pulled out from beneath them time after time. Between band in-fighting,
creative tensions, and unrealistic label expectations, Badlands
was doomed from day one…and still, they managed to deliver two classic albums
of influential hard rock and blues-metal, all of the band’s artistic battles
and macho turf-fighting resulting in a rare and unique musical chemistry. With
the long overdue re-release of both Badlands and Voodoo Highway, Badlands’
often-overlooked musical legacy is ripe for rediscovery.