Monthly Archives: November 2013



The long-running Georgia band’s percussionist Sunny Ortiz talks about touring the planet, the fertile jam-band scene, the group’s take on live recordings and its new coffee table book of posters (available at independent record stores as part of the 2014 RSD Black Friday)—and about why he’s the luckiest guy he knows…


By his own admission, Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz has a great gig. While most working Americans are quick to grouse about their jobs, Ortiz, the percussionist for Atlanta-based band Widespread Panic, exudes a level of enthusiasm that would likely make most individuals bitter with envy.

 As Ortiz himself acknowledges, that’s the loosely-structured, carefree image that Widespread Panic has endeavored to purvey for the past 27 years, ever since they first formed in their original hometown of Athens Georgia. These days, the band — Ortiz, vocalist/guitarist John Bell, vocalist/keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann, guitarist Jimmy Herring, drummer Todd Nance, and bassist/vocalist Dave Schools — spends roughly half their year on the road, extolling a populist vibe at countless festivals and prestigious venues before legions of rabid devotees.

 Recently we had an opportunity to chat with Ortiz prior to venturing out on their latest jaunt, one that will bring them to our environs in just a few weeks. Once again, the ever-amiable Ortiz made no effort to suppress his eagerness.


BLURT: You seem like you have the greatest job in the world. You have this devoted fan following, you’ve been together some 27 years and so you guys must be buddies. What can be better?

ORTIZ: I can’t think of anything better. Like I tell everybody, the boys included, it’s a big adventure. It’s like going on a big camping trip. It’s like sitting around the campfire playing your music. Hanging out, singing, having a good time… That’s just kind of how I grew up. Oddly enough, when I met these boys, they were just out of high school. They were into the Grateful Dead. That was their thing, but for me personally, I never listened to the Grateful Dead til I met these boys. They were already in the fixation of gathering, enjoying the music, enjoying the scene. And enjoying each other. Our fan base really enjoys that scene of pre-gig parties, the parking lot thing. Tailgating is the proper word for it nowadays I guess. The fans get reacquainted with their buddies they may not have seen for a year or two. It’s just like a nice family reunion. Age-wise we’re talking about two generations of followers we’ve acquired over the course of our career.

The whole Deadhead phenomenon and the festival scene in general seems to have set things up nicely for you guys.

Well it did, and it did for a lot of other bands too. There’s Moe, Umphrey’s McGee and host of other ones too many to mention. It’s totally amazing what has happened in the past 20 years.

It’s that whole festival phenomenon.

Oh yeah. Where else can you go for the buck and see your favorite artists plus others you may not know? You can camp out for a few days and it’s just great to see. On the flip side, what’s not great to see is all the litter that everybody produces. But that’s part of the yin and yang thing. You’ve got to be able to accept the good and bad. Still, it’s just amazing how huge the festival scene has progressed in the past 20 years and how much it’s changed.

Widespread Panic played the first Bonnaroo festival, did you not?

I think we did, yeah.  But nowadays there are so many acts that just want to be a part of that scene. Not everybody can do Bonnaroo. But still, there are all these little festivals that have been spawned because there are so many acts that are out there performing nowadays. Take the Voodoo Festival. It started in New Orleans, but now I hear they have a Voodoo Festival in Las Vegas. It’s amazing, all these offshoots. It’s come a long way from Woodstock, I can tell you that.

Which do you prefer – the festival environment or more intimate locales?

Whether its 1,200 people or 12,000 people, it benefits any band to be out there performing. Widespread Panic isn’t the kind of band that gets lots of radio play, at least on the Triple A stations. College stations, yeah. We get some play there, but we’re pretty much a touring band. That’s how we sustain ourselves year after year, through the great support of our fans who come out to hear us play, whether they’ve been turned on to us by friends or they’re just bored and figure, let’s go out to hear this band play. They’ve been coming to our town for 20 years and we’ve never heard them play. We want to be in your face, but we don’t want to force you to listen to us unless you really, really want to. That’s been our existence. In this business you either like us or you hate us, or you’re clueless as to who we are. We’re still plucking away at it slowly but surely. And we’re still having the best time ever, just like we were in our late 20s and mid 30s.

Do you guys embrace that jam band label?

It’s just a label. I think what we embrace more is the music that we put out. Whether it’s in a studio or through airplay or in a special acoustic Wood tour, or if it’s on the beaches of Cancun or the Dominican Republic, it’s all about the music. That kind of erases everything else and makes it all worthwhile. Label us what you will, but the bottom line is that it’s the music that makes the label happen, and if that’s how you want to define it, that’s cool with us.

Given that so much of your music is improvisational and spontaneous, does that make it a challenge to transition from the live concert situation to the restrictions of the studio?

A challenge? No, it’s not a challenge, but the hard thing about the studio is not having that connection with a live audience. It’s a real sterile environment, and what we try to simulate in that live situation. The spontaneity is still there, but you got someone in the control booth stopping you in the middle of a transition and going, “You know, let’s go over that again.” Fortunately, we’ve worked with some outstanding producers… John Keene, Johnny Sandlin, Terry Manning… so we’re kind of set in our ways as a band and we get to say who says let’s stop or let’s continue while we’re running the tape.

Is that why you have such a predominance of live recordings? Does that make it easier?

We cannot reproduce that feeling of excitement that we get from the audience when it’s a live situation. So it’s tough to reproduce and by far it’s more challenging to do a live product because there’s so much energy built up. If you’re going to make a live album there’s just so much to think about. Number one is where are you going to record this, what venue are you going to record? Number two, will the venue allow you to record? And number three, if you do multiple venues for multiple songs, then you have to go back pick and choose what venue for which song are you going to use. So there’s a lot of things to think about it. When you’re in the studio, you get to run five or six takes of each song perhaps. It’s like a puzzle. So there’s a lot of work at both ends.

It’s probably safe to say that no two shows by Widespread Panic are the same.

You’re perfectly right. And we do different songs every night. We’ve got a pretty good amount of songs in our back pockets that we can throw out there. It’s a tough thing to do. You have six individuals that have their favorite songs and six individuals that on any given night might say let’s do something different. Let’s do an album’s worth of songs and we’ll do it from start to end. There’s an evening right there. We like to do things like that. We like to mix it up. It’s fun for us and it’s fun to see the audience’s reaction. At the end of the night when they’re looking at the set list that they’ve written down or put on their phone, they’ll go, “What? They did the whole Space Wranglers album!” It’s kind of cool.

How do you come up with some of your covers? On your new album #Wood#, you start off with “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” That’s pretty unexpected.

It’s personal preferences. Everybody has their say on songs they want to do. We all bring them to the table, so we’ll decide. There are some songs that we’ve talked about doing for years, but we just haven’t dissected them and learned them in our own time. The list is too long of artists and songs we want to cover. There are so many great artists in our lifetime that we still want to cover but we haven’t gotten to them. (chuckles)

As far as your original material, are those group collaborations for the most part?

Yeah. Ever since I started with the band back in ’86, that’s always how we’ve organized it. Someone will bring in an idea and it leads to all kinds of collaborating with one another and then we make it Widespread Panic.

It seems like you guys also give each other a lot of latitude to do your own projects as well.

Everybody has their own side ventures. Jimmy Herring has a great side project. John Hermann has an awesome side project. Dave is working with Mickey Hart. Todd has his side project, I have my side project. Everybody does different things when we’re not together as Widespread Panic and it kind of keeps us fresh. It’s still exciting after 25 plus years.

 However, didn’t you guys take a hiatus recently?

We took last year off. Some of us took time off from music completely. It’s always refreshing to take some time off and do what you want to do, whether it’s to attend your daughter’s piano recital or her ballet presentation, or you’re home for their birthdays or an anniversary. We kind of took care of some family matters because they’re the ones that suffer when we’re out on the road. We miss out on a few things, so it’s always good to check in with reality now and then. (chuckles) 

So how many days a year are you typically out on the road?

We typically do four weeks on the road and four weeks off the road. That’s not as much as when we first started this rodeo back in ’86 when we were doing 200 to 215 days a year. We’ve cut back considerably. But we cannot over-saturate ourselves. There’s just so much entertainment out there now, so any fan has to pick and choose due to school, a job, the economy. Getting from point A to point B is not as fan friendly expense-wise. It’s difficult to take three weeks off and follow your favorite band. You’ve got responsibilities. You got make that nut to sustain yourself.

Can we look forward to a new Widespread Panic album in the immediate future?

Possibly. Everything is still up in the air. Our biggest goal right now is to do this next leg of the tour, come back to Georgia right before Thanksgiving and get ready for our Tunes for Tots event that we do every year… and then to get ready for the New Years Eve show that we do every year in, Atlanta Georgia.

Where are you based these days?

We’re actually based right here in Athens, Georgia. It’s our home base right now. But we try to connect with Atlanta as much as we can because it’s in our own backyard and there are so many places to play there. It’s so much more convenient than trying to pick up the entire circus and move it to Charlotte or Denver or wherever.

But you still take the circus out on the road when you have to.

Yeah, we’ve been pretty lucky.

WPanic book

We hear you have something special coming out for Record Store Day’s Black Friday event this year.

Yes…we got together a coffee table book of all of our posters that we’ve accumulated all these years. We’ve been fortunate to work with hundreds – if not thousands – of artists that have designed posters for us and our office staff put together them all together with help from some of the artists themselves. It’s definitely a done deal.

It sounds like it will be a great collectable.

Well, we’re hoping. Just one of these things that we came up with while watching Seinfeld. Kramer had this magazine that had this little stand on it that turned it into a coffee table.

You just betrayed a secret there. You got your Record Store Day idea from Seinfeld!

That’s what I say, but if you talk to anyone else they might say something entirely different.

So what’s in the immediate future for Widespread Panic… aside from the combination book/coffee table concept stolen from Seinfeld? Are you going back into the studio any time soon?

Possibly. Everything is still up in the air. Our biggest goal right now is to do this next leg of the tour, come back to Georgia right before Thanksgiving and getting ready for our Tunes for Tots event that we do every year and then to get ready for the New Years Eve show that we do every year in Atlanta Georgia.

      We’re actually based right here in Athens. It’s our home base right now. So we try to connect with Atlanta as much as we can because it’s in our own backyard and there are so many places to play there. It’s so much more than trying to pick up the entire circus and move it to Charlotte or Denver or wherever.

But you still take the circus out on the road when you have to.

Yeah, we’ve been pretty lucky.

Panic will take the circus to Asheville, NC, on Dec. 13, and then to Atlanta on Dec. 30 for a New Year’s celebration. Details at


Chris 1

“I still look at music as a giant open canvas”: the “new weird Americana” guitarist paints a visionary new masterpiece.


 Chris Forsyth’s Solar Motel wasn’t built overnight. Admittedly, the group that plays on the LP, the Philadelphia guitarist’s first for North Carolina’s Paradise of Bachelors, came together pretty quickly, and the basic tracking was finished in a weekend. But the sound they flesh out had been in his head for years.

 It’s there in the drifting blues sprawl of “Downs & Ups,” included on the 2012 solo outing Kenzo Deluxe. It emerges during the middle portion of “Paranoid Cat” — the 20-minute title track to his scattershot full-length from 2011 — where riffs ricochet and spark, threatening to erupt as they do on his new effort. And, he says, it’s there on a 7-inch he released way back in 1998, a record that few people ever heard.

 “It was like 200 copies,” Forsyth recalls with a laugh. “I put it out myself. I had no idea how to put out a record. I used to make a lot of recordings on a four-track, and I put out this 7-inch and just kind of tossed it out into the world. I think I sent some copies to some magazines, but I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know how anything was done. I had no distribution. It’s pretty close to the last few solo records I’ve made. The Solar Motel stuff is obviously full-band and is firmly planted in the rock idiom, but in terms of the lyricism and the songwriting, it’s all kind of there in that record. Whatever I’m doing now, there’s definitely a through line to stuff that I was doing when I was 20 or 18.”

 Solar Motel benefits mightily from this patiently constructed framework. Existing somewhere between ambient guitar excess and classic rock boogie, the four-part suite moves with an elegant ferocity. Droning riffs build slowly into full-tilt shred-storms as organs pierce and the rhythm section rumbles. As with Forsyth’s more restrained work on his own, the melodies build with an exacting sense of purpose, a foundation from which the guitarist rips into the stratosphere, gliding through solos that sooth as they scorch. It falls comfortably within rock ‘n’ roll’s most accepted territories, but it pushes at the boundaries, delighting in giving familiar sounds a new purpose. Put simply, it feels like a classic.

 Forsyth’s ability to so fully realize his vision came, in part, from years of being challenged. Before his recent foray into solo performance and composition, he spent eight years playing with Brooklyn’s Peeesseye — first Perfect Salvation Initiation, then PSI before the name disintegrated further. That trio challenged many conventions, Forsyth’s included. They balanced feral feedback and lulling fuzz, distorted barks and hypnotic chimes. They most often improvised, letting their conflicting sensibilities battle it out instead of arguing. It was contentious, and it sharpened Forsyth’s focus.

 “It was three people who had entirely different record collections getting together,” he says. “Our tastes in music sort of overlap, but left to our own devices, we’re all pretty much out on these different poles. There would be arguments in the band about what we were listening to at the time. Someone would put on something they were really into, and somebody else would be like, ‘Jesus, do we have to listen to it again?’ We juxtaposed these really divergent influences, and everybody held their ground.”

 Forsyth moved to Philadelphia in 2009, completing Peeesseye’s New York exodus. Now stretched across the globe — JaimeFennelly in Chicago, FritzWelch in Scotland — the group is on a long-term hiatus, freeing Chris to follow his own muse. New to town, he was encouraged by the late Jack Rose, a Philly fixture and a legendary guitarist who spent decades excavating similar Americana weirdness. Forsyth had long been interested with the ties that bind this country’s musical roots — the pathways that guided Neil Young from delicate musings to extended jams, that carried Bob Dylan from folk protester to garage rascal. His solo forays quickly indulged this fascination, extending blues licks and traditional picking patterns with an increasingly cosmic palette. It was new territory for him, and he was initially unsure of its merit.

 “I just decided that I wanted to go with what felt right and what pleased me,” Forsyth explains. “Jack was a part of that. When I first moved to Philly, literally a month or two after I moved here, I played a show that like three people came to. Two of them were Jack Rose and one of his friends. He came up and was super complimentary, and it kind of boggled my mind that he was so into what I was doing. I was like, ‘OK, this has some value.’ There was certainly some encouragement I drew from that.”

Solar Motel Band

 The new album unites the boldest ideas from Forsyth’s recent works and lets them loose in a full-band setting. Joined by drummer Mike Pride, bass guitarist Peter Kerlin, and keyboardist Shawn Hansen, he summons otherworldly vibes with typical rock tools. On “Solar Motel Part I,” metronomic riffs build to a dominating thrum before they’re undone by Forsyth’s playful noodling. The melodies seem aimless, but they soon catch fire as a muscular groove kicks in with cowbell smacking that would make Christopher Walken proud. Reaching its climax, the song devolves into smoldering clamor. “Part II” emerges from these ashes, rekindling the blaze, a pattern that repeats throughout.

 “The next record might be totally different,” Forsyth says. His Solar Motel Band remains, but the lineup has shifted. Most of the new players live in Philly, making shows and practices more practical.

 “I have a band that plays all the time,” he continues. “I’m sure there will be some different elements. I still look at music as a giant open canvas. It’s not, ‘Oh, I play in a rock band now. I play rock music.’ Rock is a lens through which I see the world, but musically, it can be anything it needs to be.”


Luscious Jackson by Doug Seymour

Jill Cunniff talks about the return of her ‘90s group, their new album, and not being tethered to the music industry.


Let’s take a minute to reintroduce the world to Luscious Jackson: all-girl alt-rock group formed in New York in the early ‘90s; discovered by the Beastie Boys; signed to the Beastie’s Grand Royal label; had a mega-hit with 1996’s “Naked Eye”; broke up at the turn of the century after four albums.

 Not much had been heard from Luscious Jackson since. Now the trio of Jill Cunniff (lead vocals, bass), Gabby Glaser (vocals, guitar), and Kate Schellenbach (drums) are back with a new album and a handful of appearances. (Keyboardist Vivian Trimble left the band in the late ’90s and is not participating in the reunion. Below, the band as it looked in the ’90s.)

Luscious Jackson 90s

 The group’s Magic Hour dropped November 5, and was funded through PledgeMusic, a Kickstarter-type website designed for bands to crowd-fund projects. The 10 danceable songs tackle topics from the 2012 passing of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch (“We Go Back”) to more lighthearted fare in the derrière-inspired “#1 Bum.” At the time of this interview the band only has two dates announced in New York (Dec. 7, including an appearance on the Letterman show)) and Philadelphia (Nov. 23) but more should follow.

 Jill Cunniff, 47, took a few minutes to speak with BLURT from her home in New York about the new album, the band regrouping, and making it all work.

BLURT: I imagine you’ve been pretty busy with everything going on.

JILL CUNNIFF: Unbelievably busy. I think more busy than I’ve ever been in my whole life.

 Really? That’s interesting. Even busier than when your career was starting out?

Yes. Now we have families and kids and jobs. All I do is the band and my kids. Kate has a job. Gabby has a part-time thing. We all have full lives. Then we’re attempting to launch our band again, so we’re working around the clock.

 I saw an Instagram of Ikea bags filled with envelopes.

That was my week.

 You had to mail all those out?

Basically, we did the pledge drive, and one of the items is the CD.

 You got an intern to do it?

No. Easier said than done, right? When you have an intern you have to provide them an educational experience. It’s not that simple. So we didn’t get an intern. I had several—I call them my packing parties. And friends came over and we did labels and we did packing. The worst was the international shipments. I had no idea what that was. That was like four hours in the post office. We had to fill out each single shipment, right? And then they have to fill it out again. You can imagine how that was.

 What country did you mail to that surprised you the most, or what was the most far-flung you had to mail something to?

It’s all places we’ve been. The only place I noticed that had a lot that we’ve never been was Brazil. I’ve also noticed a lot of Brazil comments on Facebook. There’s this whole Brazilian interest there for us. We’ve never been there. Of course we’d love to go there. It’s not on the agenda yet, but I did notice that.

 In creating Magic Hour, why did you decide to go the PledgeMusic route?

It’s an appealing route because you don’t have to go and try and get a record deal. You don’t have to sign a bad record deal, which most of them are now. A 360 deal. We’re not a mainstream product right now. We’re older. We’re not touring around the clock. We’re not available on the level that an artist needs to be for that.

      It’s been really perfect for us. We did this at my home. I engineered and recorded at my home for the last year with Gabby, and Kate would send us stuff from L.A. We really enjoyed ourselves. There was no pressure because we already received the funding and basically, the fans who pledged, they just want a good record. That’s all we had to think about. Let’s make a great record. Let’s just make this how we want to make it. There’s no one sniffing around telling us how to do this. You can imagine how much fun that was and how great that felt. For our band, this is like a perfect storm of opportunities to self release.

 It looks like on the PledgeMusic site you had overwhelming support. You went way beyond your fund raising goal. What was your reaction to that?

It was really wonderful, and I think that enthusiasm infused the album. It’s a very positive album. It’s very fun and young. We really felt like we connected that youthful energy that we had. Not that we’re so old or anything. When we got back together, we reconnected with that energy that we had even as teenagers. I guess that’s the magic part of it. We’re like goofy kids.

 You touched upon this: Kate lives in L.A., and you and Gabby are in New York. What was the recording process like?

We basically had to work with the drums that she recorded. Either we would send her material, and she would play to it and send it back. Or she’d send us a lot of stuff that she played and we worked off of that, so that’s how that worked.

 What were some of the inspirations in writing Magic Hour?

They came out of left field. New York City’s still a big inspiration. “#1 Bum” was a song Gabby thought of about butts. That was just a total surprise to me. We had this great music sitting there. She comes up with butts. The song ended up being a really funny song.

      Adam Yauch passing away, we did a song called “We Go Back,” about our very old friendship with Adam from when we were teens. We’ve all known each other since like 13 years old. Adam Horowitz contributed a musical track called “So Rock On.” That’s one of my favorites.

 Those are good songs.

We were all so devastated for a good chunk of time there and shocked. We weren’t really expecting it. There wasn’t a lot of news about his health. So when it came, it was very shocking. We’ve known him so long that I don’t associate him with later years of life. I associate him with the earlier years of life.

 I notice you only have a couple of dates announced or lined up. Can we expect a tour?

What we’re going to do is isolated shows, special events, so that’s why we haven’t announced a tour. We’ll do specific cities that can work out. That kind of thing. It’s a little more complicated than a regular tour. We’re really focusing, we really need to get our name back out there and reintroduce ourselves.

 Like you mentioned earlier, with families and jobs, it’s a little harder to put it all together.

We’re still figuring out how to schedule things to make it work. Most important we need to get our name out there and tell people we’re doing it.

 Why get back together? What inspired this?

Gabby and I live near each other. We were making kids’ music, and we’re going to make some more kids’ music. The pledge drive came along. We realized we suddenly had all these opportunities. I was kind of like, I don’t know if I want to do any music. I was very cynical about the music business. I love making music. I’ve been songwriting for many years. I just was feeling cynical about the way it is right now. You can put in a ton of work, and you can lose money. You don’t really want to invest your own money into the music business. But when you have the opportunity to have a pledge drive, it’s not coming out your savings. We’re suddenly like, oh, there is a way to do this. That’s the big difference. I was not interested in record companies and record deals. They’re just very constricting now. It’s not appealing for us.

 Is the children’s album coming out?

That’s coming out November 12. A lot of our fans do have kids. [Baby D.J. is currently available at iTunes—see video, below.]

 Why is Vivian not part of this project?

She’s moved to New Hampshire, very happy, so it’s not really her thing.

 This whole thing, is this a temporary thing, or are you back together for the long haul?

We’d like to be back together for the long haul. We hope it’s the beginning of a whole new series for us. I think that would be amazing.

 Photo credit: Doug Seymour

AND IT STONED US: Van Morrison’s “Moondance”

Van by Elliott Landy

Although a rarities- and outtakes-packed deluxe reissue of the Irish Bard’s 1970 opus offers few new revelations, the original album remains a genuine classic. Listen to a stream of it, below.


Following a stint as a regular in the ‘60s squads of British invaders – courtesy of his role at the helm of the Irish band Them – Van Morrison decided to pursue solo success, scoring his first hit soon after with “Brown Eyed Girl,” and shortly thereafter with his metaphysical masterpiece, Astral Weeks. It was an abrupt change of pace for Morrison, one which abruptly boosted him to the highest plateau reserved for only the most preeminent singer/songwriters. While earlier outings ensured his standing on the pop charts (“Here Comes the Night” and “Gloria” with Them, the aforementioned “Brown Eyed Girl” on his own), it took the full depth and weight of his subsequent albums to ensure this shift in stature.

Still, at the time of this transformation, circa 1969, few were certain of Morrison’s intents, much less his change in direction. In retrospect, Astral Weeks remains nothing less than a singular achievement, one that’s frequently included in critics’ lists of the greatest albums of all time. Yet, it never sold well initially, and despite its transcendental qualities, it was deemed too obtuse for commercial appeal. It was left to its 1970 follow-up, the equally brilliant Moondance, to continue the connection between Morrison and the masses. With such soon-to-be standards as the title track, “Crazy Love,” “Caravan,” “Into the Mystic,” “And It Stoned Me,” “Come Running” and “These Dreams of You,” it possessed a soulful swagger, a rousing sense of urgency and determination, as well as an immediacy that its predecessor clearly lacked. They were songs so compelling, they became enduring anchors in Morrison’s ongoing trajectory.

Not surprisingly then, the decision by Warner Bros to offer an expanded reissue of this seminal effort — complete with alternate takes, between-song patter and tunes that didn’t make the original cut — was greeted enthusiastically by fans. Worth noting that it was received with considerably less joy by Morrison himself, who took to his website on July 18 to post the following terse commentary:

“Yesterday Warner Brothers stated that ‘Van Morrison was reissuing Moondance. It is important that people realise that this is factually incorrect. I did not endorse this, it is unauthorised and it has happened behind my back.

“My management company at that time gave this music away 42 years ago and now I feel as though it’s being stolen from me again.”

The statement now appears to have been removed from the website, but the artist’s attitude was certainly unequivocal. And for the most part, there’s really little here in the way of revelation. While the various takes of the aforementioned songs find the musicians faithfully repeating the same arrangements over and over — mainly spurred on by Morrison’s insistence that another take is needed — the repetition quickly wears thin, and even though the results were transcendent, hearing them over and over does become… well, ummm… tiresome. (Although, admittedly a song as beautiful as “Into the Mystic” does stand up to repeated listens.) Still, it’s to the credit of all involved that these tracks sound like they emerged fully formed, with both vocals and arrangements that clearly do justice to the final versions even from the get-go.

Van Morrison, R5241--35, September 1970

As a result, the ultimate incentive to shed big bucks for the 4-CD and Blu-Ray edition, or even the more modestly priced two-disc set, comes in the form of the liner notes, the elaborate packaging and, mostly, the rarities. “I Shall Sing” provides the motherlode, a song later covered by Art Garfunkel but heretofore unreleased in its original incarnation. Sadly though, preliminary run-throughs of “I’ve Been Working,” a song ultimately destined for His Band and Street Choir are decidedly less compelling, given the rote, roughshod composition of these earlier attempts. Likewise, a try at the depression-era standard “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” garners passing interest, but little that measures up to the final set list.

Like any reissue of this sort, the bonus tracks struggle to attain the high bar achieved by the album in its original incarnation. A curiosity for collectors, it will likely only be deemed essential by the most dedicated devotee.



Beatles top

With a new BBC sessions album just out and a book on the Fab Four’s early days recently published, we take a long look back—through the eyes of three lifelong fans.

 By A.D. Amorosi

 When it was announced in 2012 that the Beatles museum in Hamburg, Germany, would close due to a lack of interest, a part of me died. Beatlemania opened on the Reeperbahn in 2009, near venues such as the Star Club where the Fab Four had played their earliest, grungiest, speed-fueled shows. It was no more than a year before Beatlemania opened that I toured Hamburg to see the groundbreaking of Beatles-Platz, (Beatles Square) and its erecting of steel silhouetted statues during that town’s annual Reeperbahn Fest.



Picture SXSW at its wildest transplanted from Austin to Germany during Oktoberfest, and you get the mayhem and mad musicality that is the Reeperbahn Fest. Add the excitement of a too-long-in-coming tribute to the Beatles’ stay in this once-seedy, now-tony town, and the trip was a panic. Steffi Hempel, the ukulele-strumming guide, ran through the paces of the Beatles’ first steps along the St. Pauli region, cubby-holes like their first showplace, Indra Club, and its neighboring cinema, Bambi Kino, where the boys slept upon arrival in August 1960 (I found a fun quote from Paul McCartney, saying “We lived backstage in Bambi Kino, next to the toilets. You could always smell them. The room had been an old storeroom, and there were just concrete walls and nothing else. No heat, no wallpaper, not a lick of paint; and two sets of bunk beds, with not very much covers—Union Jack flags—we were frozen.”).



As Beatles-ish day-tripping occurred in the afternoons, we boozed our way through the nightly Reeperbahn Fest on the area’s broad main block, one of Europe’s naughtiest streets. The Reeperbahn was once Hamburg’s red light district, and its raw remnants still stand, in particular, at Herbertstrasse, a gated street where prostitutes sit in shop windows, and women visitors are not allowed dare they get doused with water. There’s a glowering red patina over everything this area beholds, a sloppy, smelly, phenmetrazine-filled vision that the Beatles lived nightly for the better part of two years.

“If you were going to write fiction, you couldn’t come up with the terrible conditions, colorful characters and stories these guys had from the start,” says Larry Kane, whose new book (and third Beatles -related tome) When They Were Boys: The True Story of The Beatles Rise to the Top, looks longingly into the Fab Four’s transition from greasy Hamburg rockers at warp speed to clean-cut mop tops.

 With the close of Hamburg’s Beatles museum and the latterday focus on the group’s later catalog, has interest waned in the Beatles early works? Who cares about such rough, druggy but quaint (in comparison to the present) times?

 With Kane’s book and the focus of Capitol’s newest release, On Air: Live at the BBC 2, trained on that 1960-1963 transition and featuring a wealth of cuts centered on tracks that made their amphetamine-fed debut in Hamburg (Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You,” a thrashing cover of “Beautiful Dreamer,” Little Richard’s “Lucille,” Chan Romero’s “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman,” and Carl Perkins’ “Glad All Over” and “Sure To Fall” amongst them), you get the feeling that the best is yet to come when recounting the Beatles’ first moments.

  “There’s a lot of energy and spirit,” says Paul McCartney in press notes for On Air. “We are going for it, not holding back at all.” The 70-year old McCartney’s enthusiasm must have spilled onto his own album of vibrant, rocking songs, New, to say nothing of the fact that the widow Lennon, Yoko Ono, has revived the concept of her one-time group with John, the Plastic Ono Band, for her new album on the occasion of her 80th birthday, Take Me to the Land of Hell.

“We were just artists at our start who did exactly what we wanted to do,” says Ono when asked if she saw a correlation between John’s raw earliest years in Hamburg, and her own initial avant-garde forays into performance art around the same time. “I don’t think we tried to draw such lines or ever thought of things in that manner. I know that it might interest critics such as yourself,” she says, softly stifling a laugh. “I just don’t think that we were so pre-meditated.”

 Hamburg was crucial to them, notes Kane, in regard to the Beatles having to play several shows each day and night. “It made them into crack musicians, let alone a unit,” says the one-time on-air journalist and writer, who is pictured below with Paul and John.

 28 LK Larry , Paul, John

Kane didn’t have a Beatles trilogy in mind when he penned the best-selling Ticket To Ride. Yet, as the only American reporter to travel with the group for every stop of their 1964 and 1965 tours, Kane caught the most unguarded sides of the foursome. That’s particularly telling when it comes to Kane’s newest book, one whose title comes from a recent conversation with Ringo Starr. “Ringo told me “you write this because you recall more than I do, but remember Larry, we were just boys then.” From there, Kane withdrew elements from his memory bank that, in retrospect, weren’t there when he dealt with the Beatles at first. (Below: Kane interviewing George.)

 19 LK interview w_ George

“When I played my tapes from 1964, I had real gems that I didn’t realize what they meant, because they were about their pre-fame escapades,” says Kane, who toured Hamburg on his own, to find the names and places the Beatles had name-checked during their early conversations. “When I was with them they were making references to places they played, and moments where they were depressed about their careers, so much so Paul got a job driving a truck, and George considered going back to school. Nobody had really written a good book about how they really got started without lionizing them. I saw a lot of myths. I wanted to get through those.”

 Go here to read our additional interview with Yoko Ono about musical roots, the Beatles and more. Photos courtesy EMI-Capitol, Larry Kane and A.D. Amorosi


Yoko Ono

As part of our Beatles celebration—go here to read our travelogue of Hamburg and an interview with biographer Larry Kane—we invited Yoko Ono to the party. She gracefully assented.


 On the occasion of her 80th birthday, Yoko Ono not only released the audacious, Take Me to the Land of Hell. She played a rare, dazzling show at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom with her son Sean leading her Plastic Ono Band. The next day, she may have been hoarse, but she was ready to talk.

 BLURT: When I asked that question about Lennon and Hamburg, you mentioned John in connection to your musical roots.

ONO: I was just thinking about my advent of creating music. My first attempt at doing such didn’t come out of me, alone; it was helped by John, alone or through his group who were interested in our ideals. Now, it is helped by Sean and his group of musical allegiances.

 Other than the time, and the players involved, how is it different, this Plastic Ono Band, and the one you and John put together?
The first one, ah, was sheer inspiration, and I only had John, really, to be excited about such things. His friends? Well, they were kind of far-out musicians to begin with, so they understood far out things. They didn’t have to do much, other than show up and express themselves, which was always new and always different. The reason they did this was to help us to communicate, but at the same time, I think they liked stretching out. This new band? They’re appreciative of what I do, and looking to break down their own barriers through me. They are very aware of what I do.

 What was the spark that began this new album?

I’m always working on something, even if I just let it sit. Then Sean reminded me that I had really better do an album for my 80th birthday. I had some songs, he had some songs, then there’s the studio. When I’m in the studio, things just come to me.

 There’s one song on the new album, “Watching the Dawn,” that seems to look back cynically at the ideals of the ‘60s, many of the universal love and peace messages that you and John espoused. That perhaps that time and those ideas weren’t all that they were cracked up to be. What say you?
It is not cynical. It is, however, emotional. I actually choked up when I sang it, because—then and now—I honestly do not believe that we were expecting this kind of society. We are always wanting society to become better and better.  There were beautiful ideals and beautiful teachers, but somehow, things right now are not that beautiful. To change, we must have insurrection or new direction. We must go back to being us, the good us.

 John Yoko



Catching up with the woman behind Elvis Costello’s classic track “Alison.”


 The girl in the song, her name isn’t even Alison. “Names were changed to protect the innocent,” Eliza Foley laughs.

 He fingers remain hunched in air quotes as she contemplates that last word. My eye is drawn to the handcuffs linking her wrists. She lowers them and looks away. She pulls her gown taut with her knees, lets it go slack. She repeats this for a minute or so. “Decky wouldn’t be surprised to see me here.”

 That’s what Eliza called Declan McManus, better known as Elvis Costello, during a semester abroad in 1971. He lived down the road from Foley’s host family, but they met in a pub when the family’s eldest daughter talked her into sneaking out. “He was playing darts when he saw me,” she says. Costello, smitten, completely missed the board, losing the match. But he smiled at Eliza even as he paid his opponent. He walked the girls home that night, and saw Eliza nearly every night for weeks afterward.

Costello Alison 45

 “He was sweet,” recalls Eliza, now 58 and a resident of Dorothea Dix Hospital in North Carolina. “He held my hand and always pulled out my chair. He’d play me songs I knew weren’t about me, but he sang them as though they were.” But Decky, as she prefers to call him, was also “a bit of a soccer hooligan. Once, someone called his team a bunch of poofs, so Decky hurled a pint glass at the man’s head. He barely missed, but he backed the man up against a wall and ranted about buggery and fire.”

 Eliza brightens and sits up straighter. “That’s when I knew I loved him.” Reading my bewilderment, she explains. “Everyone has their darkness. Soccer hooliganism was Decky’s.” Her smile fades. “He just couldn’t love me for my faults.”

One night, while taking a late stroll on the Liverpool docks, Eliza and Decky saw the man from the pub, wobbling drunkenly by a barrel fire. The man went to light a cigarette and dropped his matches in the sea. The couple watched the man shrug and lean over to light his smoke from the fire. Eliza let go of Decky’s hand, ran over and “kicked him in his ass.” The ale-heavy man fell headfirst into the blaze.

Eliza laughs heartily at the memory, but stops abruptly. “Decky was horrified. He tried to lift the man out of the barrel, but he was too heavy. He had to kick the barrel over, pull him out and use his coat to put out the flames.” He told Eliza to run home before the authorities arrived. Hamish Partridge had used a copious amount of oil to start the fire. His burns caused his throat to close. He died from suffocation before help could arrive.

“Decky told the police that he saw Partridge fall into the barrel,” Eliza says. “He protected me, but said we could never be together.”

Crestfallen, Eliza returned home and enrolled in the University of Minnesota. There, she met engineering student Kevin Foley. They married after graduation and relocated so Foley could attend graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It was the perfect marriage,” Eliza says, “but he grew intolerant of my ways.”

According to court records, Foley filed for divorce, citing mental illness. “It was just like with Decky,” Eliza says, pulling her gown tight again, but leaving it there. “Kevin was going to leave me. He promised me. Sickness and health. Health and sickness.”

One afternoon in 1984, Eliza parked outside a motel where Kevin Foley was staying and waited for him to leave for school. She confronted him in the parking lot and shot him point blank between the eyes. “He had cute little glasses just like Decky,” she says.

A nurse declares visiting hours have ended. I ask Eliza if she’d like to say anything to Decky via this story. She pauses, but doesn’t turn around. “My aim is true. My aim is true.”

Weeks later, a letter from Eliza arrived with a postscript and random doodles. “Please also tell Decky that his classical albums suck. Also, is ‘The Only Flame In Town’ about me? Myaimistruemyaimistruemyaimistrue and The Roots be slummin’ with you.”


Go here at BLURT to read the previous installment in this series, “Whatever Happened to… Maggie May?,” in which we tracked down the titular muse of the Rod Stewart hit.




When the Hoboken popsters took flight in the ‘80s, they positively soared. Richard Barone explains.


Each subject recently contacted by Masters & Johnson research checked “10: extremely pleased” on the form meant to ascertain the Bongos’ best material from the ’80s, an occasionally maligned decade. However, all those interviewed chose a different song. Could this rock combo from Hoboken, New Jersey possibly be etched in the collective memory for so many different ditties? This happens every so often in the inexact science of sociological research. But how were we to determine the finest material of lead vocalist/guitarist Richard Barone, bassist Rob Norris and drummer Frank Giannini who formed the Bongos in 1980, according to these young men—well, not so young now—and added guitarist James Mastro sometime later? Was the elite Bongos song permanently entered in our data base to be an early title like “Numbers With Wings,” “Bulrushes,” “Barbarella—or perhaps some dark-horse, later entry?

 Bongos 10-1

Now we find two more additions to the database. A “new” album by these same Bongos bears the title Phantom Train (JEM Records), although it was apparently recorded in 1985. Even so, two of its songs, “My Wildest Dreams” and “Diamond Guitar,” seem quite pleasantly raucous. And a number listed as “Sunshine Superman,” written by a person known as Donovan, also seems most agreeable with such lines as “we sat on a beach at sunset.” Imagine that! Finally, we must note a solo release by Bongos singer, Richard Barone, available now in two different formats. One is a reissue of the original 1987 live album Cool Blue Halo (JEM). It has nine bonus tracks added. Then there is the 25th anniversary edition of the same album containing two bonus discs of material, one a live DVD. It should be noted that complex events like these only confuse sociological researchers. In any event, quite pleasant stuff, we must admit.

 Richard Barone 10-1

This just in: Barone recently admitted, “The Bongos loved playing Max’s Kansas City, especially those late, crazy shows with that trans-sexual thing.” Now that’s more like it!


BLURT: I first saw the Bongos in 1982 and was stunned by your live sound, easily the best I’ve ever heard.

BARONE: From the beginning to now, we’ve always insisted on having a great sound guy tour with us. We thought the show should always sound as good as the recordings.


I have a theory that there would have been no R.E.M. without the Bongos.

 Oh, absolutely true. Of course. I think I agree with you, but I’d also like to maintain my modesty. They’re friends of ours, so it’s not for me to say. Pop music is all in the air, and everybody takes influences from everybody else. I’m very close to them since the days of our early shows. Pete Buck’s always been very complimentary and has thanked me many times for the chords. Those guys stayed with us in Hoboken when they got started. And whenever we played in Athens, they were there to support us.


Did you ever see Television live? They were the one New York band of that era that never gets as much praise as they deserved. I saw them in the spring of ’77 on their first California tour, and they were a real eye-opener.

 I never saw them live. I bought the records as a kid in Florida. As much as I came to love the Talking Heads, that first LP was just a little too quirky for my tastes. But I really liked the somber majesty of Television.


Mick Rock mentioned on the dedication page of your book [2007 memoir Frontman] that to be a good frontman you had to have a good sense of humor. Explain what that means to you.

 Well, you’ve gotta be able to laugh off a lot of stuff. If you’re gonna take yourself too seriously, or get pissed-off too easily, think what happens then. And I’ve seen a few, like Oasis. I think I have a good sense of humor. One of my heroes is Jack Benny. You have to be able to laugh at yourself, and Jack certainly could do that. I like self-effacing humor.


I love that Jack Benny bit where he’s being held up by a robber who demands, “Your money or your life!” After 20 seconds of silence, Jack finally answers, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”

 Somebody posted a video on You Tube of me working in my studio, and my timing was exactly like Jack Benny. Music and humor go really well together. That’s my problem with some bands. They take themselves way too seriously. That’s so boring. My theory is that some frontmen think that having a sense of humor makes them less sexy. I mean, you have to have fun in bed.

Bongos 2013 1 pc Chad Kamenshine

 (Top photo: Bongos back in the day. Lower photo: the band circa 2013.)





UNCANNY: Dismemberment Plan

Dis Plan 2


 The D.C. legends unite for an album and tour. Travis Morrison explains, in a fashion.


According to Wikipedia, an uncanny valley “is a hypothesis in the field of human aesthetics which holds that when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.” Simply put, R2-D2 and WALL-E are cute. That life-like Japanese android that mimics your movements is totally creepy.

 This has little to do with the Dismemberment Plan, the indie rock band that recently reformed and released its first album in 12 years. The title of the new album? Uncanney Valley, though it has no relation with robots, and is in fact misspelled.

 Dismemberment Plan formed in Washington, D.C. in 1993, and after four albums, called it quits in 2003. D-Plan – Travis Morrison (vocals and guitar), guitarist Jason Caddell, drummer Joe Easley, bassist Eric Axelson –  achieved only moderate success, but are beloved in their hometown. The band regrouped for a handful of shows in support of the re-release of their album Emergency & I in 2011. That led to more shows, their first album of new material in more than a decade, and a short tour that that includes dates on the coasts.

 Travis Morrison spoke with BLURT from his home in Brooklyn about getting back together, Gallaudet students, and naming their latest album after a hypothesis in human aesthetics.

BLURT: Uncanney Valley, did you intend to name it after that hypothesis in the field of human aesthetics?

TRAVIS MORRISON: Yeah, it does come from that.

 Why, what inspired that?

I don’t know. I think we just liked the sound of it.

 No underlying message?

No, I don’t think so.

 Did you know you misspelled uncanny?

Yes, that was intentional.

 Why was that? To throw people off?

I just think we liked how it looked.

 Tell me about the recording process. How long did it take and where did you record?

It took us about a year to write it. And then it took us a week to record the basic tracks, and then three weeks of intermittent overdubs for little details and fixes. And then it took about two weeks to mix.

 The writing of the album, what were some of the influences that went into writing it?

My real life. Songs I like.

 This is the band’s first album in more than a decade. What was it like to record together again?

Great. I love the guys. I love how they play. Always have. And I like the songs, so it was really fun.

 Was it easy to get back into the rhythm with everybody, or was it kind of strange at first?

I think it was great. We made the record because while we were practicing for reunion shows we started to jam, and we really liked to jam, so when the shows were over, we decided to get together and just jam with no playing of old songs. So by the time we decided to actually start a fully creative process, we were jamming, and we liked how the jamming felt. So we did not decide to make a record and then get together for the first time and say ok, here we are. We had already started to play, and were enjoying playing, and the reasons for making the record followed from the enjoyment of the playing and not vice versa.

 What inspired you to get back together two years ago?

We put out a vinyl re-release of one of our records. The label that did it asked us to play some promotional shows, and we said yes.

 Tell me about the story behind the video for “Waiting.”

That was my idea. I used to hang out at a bar in D.C. where deaf kids from Gallaudet college used to hang out, and being around them as they got drunk and they hooked up and they fought and they hung out with fiends, really made an impression on me. The ways that they communicated is so different. In a lot of ways people communicate primarily through sound. In the bar, the communication was very clear to them because bars are loud, but they can’t hear it. So a lot of the struggles that people that hear have in bars they don’t have. I found that very—I wish I could do that. It wasn’t an intellectual process, but I think remembering how they communicated in a bar, sometimes very angrily, remembering how they were communicating, and I think the subject of the song came together. It just popped into my head in some kind of Eureka moment.

 I read in some press release that the band is not burdened by expectations. What are your expectations with this album and with these shows coming up?

None. I just really like doing it, and I love to perform. I love to go up on stage and perform. I really like attention. I like people to look at me.

      I’m looking forward to it. No expectations, just excitement. I just like to be engaged in it. It’s fun for me.

 Is this a one time thing? Is this temporary, or is the band back together for the long haul?

I have no idea. We’re not thinking about it at all right now. We’re just enjoying the moment as it is. We have not talked about whether or not we want to do another record, write another song. I think it would just have to be if it sounds like an enjoyable thing to do. That’s just the place where we are in our lives now. It’s not about getting back together or breaking up. We’re not going out any more like we were going out when we were 23 years old. It’s now just to create a project to create a project.

 Will you add any more dates?

I hope so. I think that’s being discussed for the spring or the summer. It’s tough. We’ve all got busy lives.

 You live in New York. Do the rest of the band members live in D.C.?

One guy lives in Richmond, I live in New York, and two still live in Washington. I like to joke that we average out to Baltimore currently.

 That’s not bad.

Baltimore’s a cool town now these days. Baltimore’s where the action is.

 Being separated by a few hundred miles, what are the challenges?

We can’t get together any time we want. We have to schedule well in advanced. But even that proves to have benefits because you come into practice focused. I like that.

 Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez



Tommy Keene 1

Out favorite songwriters spill the beans on what makes ‘em turn green with envy; the only stipulation was that they couldn’t pick songs which they’ve previously recorded. This month: a power pop auteur who’s penned his share of classics.


  1. “In My Life”The Beatles

Not necessarily one of my favorite top five Beatles songs but one of the most poignant, endearing and timeless of the John Lennon canon. In perhaps my most famous song I was inspired—or stole?—lyrics for the title: “There are places I remember, some are gone and some remain.”

        A beautiful song and a precursor to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Lennon reminisces about people, places, lovers and things that went before. This song will surely be played at weddings, funerals and the like for centuries to come.


2. “Satisfaction” The Rolling Stones

Possibly the greatest rock riff of all time, and played through one of the first fuzz boxes on record, that I remember. The lyrics of “Satisfaction alone” would make it one of the best rock and roll songs ever written. But Charlie’s relentless martial drum beat (don’t forget the tambourine hitting on the 3-4-5 of the 4/4 beat) will resonate forever, recalling the thrill of that summer day when I first heard it blasting out of the AM radio speaker in my Dad’s car.


3. “My Generation”The Who

Pretty much a simple blues romp sped up at the suggestion of Kit Lambert, Townsend’s young man blues epic is the ultimate Who song and also the quintessential teenage anthem of all time! Serving as the stage-ending, mind-blowing finale during which they performed the ritual of smashing their gear, this song will never die even if we all do get old.


4. “I Could Have Danced All Night”Lerner and Loewe

Anyone who knows me knows I love Show Tunes, so much that I named The Tommy Keene Live Album just that. We have always used any number of Show Tunes as intro music to come on stage to. Throughout the years you might have heard “My Favorite Things,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” or the Paul Lynde ode to Ed Sullivan, “Hymn For A Sunday Evening” from the musical Bye Bye Birdie. Besides rock and roll, Broadway musicals were melodically some of the most influential sources for me as a songwriter.

      This song is one of my favorites from the musical My Fair Lady. The climax of the song when Eliza sings “I only know”—where the melody line stays on one note while the strings underneath form a descending pattern—is one of the most beautiful moments in any song ever written!


5. “The 59th Street Bridge Song/Feelin’ Groovy”Paul Simon & “Growing Up” – Bruce Springsteen

This could be a mashup: it’s obvious that whether he knows it or not, Springsteen used the basic chord sequence from the Simon composition for his song “Growing Up” (from his debut album). “Feelin’ Groovy” reminds me of my first trip ever to Southern California. My Dad took my brother and me along on a business trip where we visited Disneyland, which is what I think of anytime I hear the song. And it’s Harpers Bizarre’s version that was the hit in 1966, not Simon and Garfunkel’s. It’s just a happy song full of good feelings that I remember innocently as a kid. 

        Lyrically, “Growing Up” by the Boss is one of his best: “I stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in my masquerade, I combed my hair ‘til it was just right and commanded the night brigade.” Yeah!!!! Also some of Bruce’s best monologues from early shows took place in the middle of “Growing Up,” the best being from the Roxy in LA in ‘78. Talking to his parents who were in the audience he proclaims, “Well, one of you wanted a lawyer, one of you wanted an author, well tonight you’re both gonna have to just settle for rock and roll!!!”

 Tommy Keene’s Excitement At Your Feet album (out now on Blurt’s sister label Second Motion Records) features ace covers of Big Star, Roxy Music, Television, The Who, Rolling Stones and others.