Monthly Archives: September 2014

THE 2014 AMERICANA FESTIVAL AND CONFERENCE

AmFest Logo

Our intrepid reporter goes undercover in Nashville and reports back: the “spectacular five day run” on Sept. 17-21 made it clear that the broad-based musical genre is in very good health indeed.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

It’s the final night of the 2014 Americana Festival and Conference, and the final event of a spectacular five day run. Lucinda Williams is about to begin a last minute invitation-only performance at the newly opened City Winery in Nashville, but first, Americana Music Association Executive Director Jed Hilly walks to the microphone. Americana is now a very real, living and breathing genre that finally found true context, he declares. It’s a statement that’s obvious to all who attend, as evidenced through the music, through the bonds of fellowship, through the shared experiences that ebbed and flowed throughout the festivities. Yet, what Hilly doesn’t point out, but what is equally true, is that the term Americana may have finally outgrown its initial meaning. For what had begun as a broad patchwork of singer/songwriters with a feel for the heartland and a scrappy roots rock, alt-country sound has now found a larger audience, one that embraces artists from all over the world — from the U.K. and Europe to the far realms of the Pacific. Indeed, the very term “Americana” seems something of a misnomer now, especially considering the international evocation.

And yet, even characterizing this festival and conference as “international” seems something of an understatement. It’s like describing Nashville – wonderful, wonderful Nashville – as a bastion of great music. Well, yeah, y’all. Forget those gracious and soothing southern accents. We heard the sound-speak of Aussies, Brits, Canadians, Norwegians, French and those from near and far. Ironically, the most difficult accents in terms of interpretation were those of the cab drivers, many of who seem to hail from regions even further removed.

That universality is one reason why Americana now bears such strong purpose. On Wednesday, the opening night of the festivities, the much anticipated Annual Americana Honors and Awards Show — held at the fabled Ryman Auditorium — demonstrated how a wellspring of common emotion can run so deep. There was the heartfelt appreciation for lifetime achievers Loretta Lynn, Flaco Jimenez, Taj Mahal and Jackson Browne. There was delight in seeing the legendary Ry Cooder make his presence known as part of the all-star band guided under the musical direction of the steadfast Buddy Miller. There was joy shared with Jason Isbell, Hard Working Americans, Milk Carton Kids, and Sturgill Simpson when they won honors for up and coming accomplishment. And of course, there was the appreciation for the genuine country gentleman Jim Lauderdale who steered the entire program with his usual finesse and humility. Likewise, where else can you catch a legend like Robert Plant making an unannounced cameo, singing in the company of his former paramour Patty Griffin while maintaining such an unobtrusive demeanor? One can only imagine the mutual nods shared in that all-star backstage gathering.

Still, the Americana Festival is mainly about more unassuming encounters. Consequently, our day began with the enjoyment of some intimate performances and complementary hotdogs at the headquarters of Compass Records. It was there that we were offered the chance to enjoy music and conversation with label boss Allison Brown, the Duhks, Jim Oblon, John Cowan, and Mike Farris. It was great to see the digs belonging to one of Nashville’s most industrious record labels. the heart and soul of Nashville’s thriving music industry was brought home in a way that’s best described as up close and personal.

Later, after the awards show, the festivities began in earnest, manifest in a progression of shuttle-traveled venues which illustrate the essence of Nashville’s stellar live music scene. It was the beginning of a nightly series of difficult choices that pitted opportunity to see one rarified band or artist against another, seemingly impossible decisions that encompassed logistics, crowds, the preference of companions and a dizzying array of motivating factors. The decisions mostly proved most gratifying. For example, Wednesday night we were urged to go to the Mercy Lounge to see Del Barber, a relative unknown for us, but a rollicking performer regardless. On the other hand, some concert picks proved less favorable, as we found out when we swarmed to the adjacent Cannery Ballroom to catch Todd Snider and friends… only to find the friends but no Todd Snider. Snider, who had earlier appeared at the awards show dressed in a white undershirt sans shoes before inexplicably exiting the stage midway into his designated performance, earned the distinction of being the unofficial bad boy of the event, courtesy of his no-show and evidence of erratic behavior.

Pictured below at the awards ceremony: Jim Lauderdale, Amanda Shires, Don Was, Jason Isbell, Joe Henry, Brady Blade, Buddy Miller, Rosanne Cash, Joachim Cooder, John Leventhal, Ry Cooder, Parker Milsap, The Milk Carton Kids, the McCrary Sisters, Paul Janeway (of St. Paul & the Broken Bones) and Rhett Miller. (Photo via AmericanaMusic.org)

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To its credit, the Americana Music Festival and Conference puts as much emphasis on the second half of its branding as it does on the first. Hence, there was a wide variety of seminars, panel discussions and educational opportunities that tackled subjects like marketing, airplay, management, career development, and navigating one’s way through the vast realms of cyberspace. Like many folks, I chose to sleep in most days, being that I’m a befuddled scribe whose main interest is in witnessing all the great music my mind is capable of absorbing. Consequently, the discussion I was most drawn to was a discussion of the Everly Brothers’ influence on Americana and pop music in general. The observations from a panel of experts that included Rodney Crowell were especially astute, but it was the vintage film clips depicting the Brothers in their various stages of progression that drove the point home — that point being that without the Everlys, the future progression of rock and country music might have been inextricably altered forever.

The name given the Outlaws & Gunslingers Luncheon, the first of two visits to the upstairs patio at Soulshine Pizza we’d make that Thursday, proved something of a misnomer. Hosted by Six Shooter Records and Starfish Entertainment, it was a showcase for a gathering of Canadian artists, among them NQ Arbuckle, Oh Susanna and Sean Rowe. My fondness for Canadian music was fully affirmed, and the opportunity to chat with the Arbuckle’s namesake (at least as far as its two initials are concerned) provided some terrific comic repartee. Likewise, meeting producer/songwriter Jon Tiven was also an unexpected thrill, given the man’s 40 plus years of working with such musical mainstays as the Rolling Stones, BB King and his current collaborator Bebe Buell. I inadvertently had him recite his entire resume due to some mistaken identity – his shirt said “George” – although I belatedly apologized when I found myself embarrassed by my obvious blunder. On the way out, I ran in to former Miami homeboy Robert Reynolds of the Mavericks, an encounter that offered another example of how star sightings are as frequent in Nashville as congressional quibbles are in Washington D.C.

Still, it was the stars who littered the stages that made for another great night of music. Following our return to Soulshine Pizza for the Plowboy Records Party, we meandered over to the Cannery for the electrifying Lee Ann Womack, before venturing upstairs to enjoy Amy Ray’s terrific country band and a performance by Robert Ellis, winner of numerous kudos at the awards ceremony the night before. Buddy Miller and Trigger Hippy, Joan Osborne’s impressive new jam band conglomerate with Jackie Green, attracted attention next. However, the highlight of the evening was far removed from the crowds and the chaos. The newly christened City Winery, opened mere days before, was the site for solo sets by Joe Henry and Robyn Hitchcock, both of whom held the crowd wowed and rapt throughout. The beauty of Henry’s intimate compositions was countered by Hitchcock’s off kilter psychedelia and a set of songs (“My Wife and My Dead Wife,” Madonna of the Wasps,” “Queen Elvis” and a sterling take on the Psychedelic Furs’ lovely “Ghost in You”). A welcome cameo from Grant Lee-Phillips further added to the star-like assemblage.

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Friday at Americana would prove equally auspicious. The day began with the Sounds Australia Taste of Australia” luncheon, a gathering which featured not your traditional cuisine from Down Under but rather the pizza that we apparently missed at the aforementioned Soulshine Pizza parlor the day before. An outstanding array of Australian artists – Immigrant Union, Falls, Brooke Russell & the Mean Reds, the Mae Trio and the Audreys – offered short but spectacular sets of wistful Americana music done Aussie style, further affirming the fact that the physical reach of this particular genre is indeed worldwide. Hosted by the inimitable Dobe Newton, an erudite entertainer himself, the fest attracted none other than Robyn Hitchcock, who did his best to blend with the crowd and enjoy the sounds… despite some pestering by diehard fans, yours truly included. Hey, it couldn’t be helped. Whilst one hesitates to appear star-struck, it’s hard to restrain one’s self when the stars abound.

That was all the more obvious when we achieved another one of those once in a lifetime moments, the result of an invitation to go backstage at the Grand Ole’ Opry, a place of incredible iconic glory and great music all wrapped in one magnificent historical setting. Artists play short ten minute sets, while backstage guests sit in church pews and observe the performances as well as the comings and goings of musicians, back-up singers, stage hands, a radio announcer and, of course, the performers themselves. On this particular evening we were treated to an array of both stalwarts and up and comers, from old guard artists like John Conlee Jean Sheppard and Jeannie Seely to the rambling teen and pre-teen combo Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, the spectacular Steep Canyon Rangers, the omnipresent Jim Lauderdale and the artist that literally stopped the show, Mo Pitney. Pitney was the only one who appeared truly nervous, but he went down a storm, even to the point of being asked to come back for a third song, the only artist of the night to receive such kudos.

Still, more than the music, being backstage at the Opry offered the opportunity to actually find ourselves in this breeding ground for so many country music legends. It was also nice to reconnect with the aforementioned Mr. Conlee, who just happened to be one of the first country artists I had a chance to promote when I worked for the late, great ABC Records. Yes, that was a long time ago, but one can never feel too old in Nashville. By law, the gatekeepers must ask for ID in Tennessee. Supposedly, they do that to be sure no one under 21 gains entry to a club where alcohol is served. However, watching them ID the old-timers gives the impression that 60-something may be the actual minimum age for consumption. At my age, I found it a real thrill.

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While it might have been enough to end the evening at the Opry, we opted to venture on, and being the intrepid music enthusiasts we are, we headed back to 3rd and Lindsey to catch the tail end of Hayes Carll’s set, followed by the old time mountain revelry of the Howlin’ Brothers and a full set by Jim Lauderdale who indeed he seems to be everywhere. with all that potential revelry in store, the joint was packed as usual, but by good fortune we ran into a couple of friends from Texas who kindly had a couple of seats in reserve. Wife Alisa opted to call it a night after that, but I ventured back to the Mercy to hear the much hyped band The Bros. Landreth who repaid my fortitude with an exemplary set that included a pair of Wings re-dos, “Let ‘Em In” and “Let Me Roll It.” Hearing such reverence immediately endeared me to the Brothers and made me an instant admirer. Nevertheless, there was one more stop to make, that being the High Watt, located in the same complex and only a few steps away. It was there that I ended my evening to the melodic strains of Truth & Salvage Company. All in all, it was a fortunate choice, but given the array of decisions that confronted us earlier in the evening, those that we passed on instilled some regret.

The array of choices facing us Saturday proved even more daunting, offering further proof that the ability to be in more than one place at once would be a most valuable asset if such a thing were possible. Alas, we did the best we could, considering our limitations. The first stop of the day brought us to Americanarama at Grimeys, an actual real record store, the sort that’s all too rare these days. It was there that we witnessed a short set by Ian McLagan, followed by a brief but enjoyable conversation with one of my great Brit Rock heroes of all time. It was, in itself, bucket list achievement if ever there was one. Even now, it’s hard not to get emotional just thinking about it. From there, it was off to the Bootleg BBQ held at another renowned record retail spot, The Groove, where an outstanding array of British bands held court in the store’s backyard. Those in attendance included Pete Molinari, Emily Barker, Danny and the Champions of the World and non-Brits Israel Nash and Austin Lucas. It was particularly gratifying to reconnect with young Mr. Lucas, who I had the pleasure of interviewing last year, and Danny George Wilson of the aforementioned Champions, with whom I’ve corresponded for the better part of the past decade. That’s the thing about the Americana Fest, the ability to actually meet those who you’ve long admired in order to forge that closer bond.

At that point, the afternoon was only half over. Our next destination was the Riverfront for the night’s big show, featuring Lone Bellow and the Avett Brothers. The setting was ideal; instead of the usual uncomfortable setting most outdoor venues have to offer, there were sloping verandas and terraced seating providing an ideal vantage point that was unhindered by those bobbing to the beat near the stage. Both bands effused a remarkable amount of energy and showmanship, but the Avetts’ perpetual motion and constant kinetic activity kept the crowd mesmerized and thoroughly enthralled. It’s no wonder those boys are rapidly riding a wave towards superstardom.

Still, the evening wasn’t finished quite yet. At the surprisingly sparsely attended 3rd and Lindsley, the Steep Canyon Rangers put on a spirited performance despite a less than packed house. From there, it was back to the High Watt for the evening’s final performance, this by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings who, as it turned out, were solely represented by Colin Linden. Still, he succeeded in representing his missing comrades admirably, and when Lucinda Williams popped onstage for a cameo appearance, Linden’s solo stature was all but assured.

* * *

Sunday brought the traditional Gospel Brunch, full of a spiritual sustenance in the form of the reborn Elizabeth Cook, the mighty Fairfield Four and the regal, rollicking McCrary Sisters. Even nonbelievers devoured their chicken and waffles with renewed fervor. The relocation to the City Winery meant no more waiting in lines or fighting for seating for what’s become one of Americana’s most popular gatherings. Later, it was off to another of Nashville’s iconic locales, the famous Bluebird Cafe where noted photographer Henry Diltz held court to discuss the stories behind some of the more famous photos that have graced so many classic album covers and now populate his Morrison Hotel Gallery, which currently claims the Bluebird as its Nashville home. Located in an otherwise unassuming strip mall, the Bluebird is surprisingly compact, but the photos — supplied by Diltz and partner Peter Blachley — reinforced the star power that’s made this esteemed venue such a venerable destination on many an artist’s road to prominence. Later, Diltz, Blachley and special guest guitarist David Mansfield entertained a packed audience with a selection of original material and selected covers. The combination of imagery and allure was breathtaking.

By the time the evening — and the festival itself — concluded with that invitation only performance by a now suddenly secular Elizabeth Cook and a famously feisty Lucinda Williams, Jed Hilly’s heartfelt sentiments seemed to be echoed by everyone there. As the event drew to a close, it was hard to escape the sense that everyone was a part of an exclusive but ever-growing community sharing a common bond and a common purpose. It will be another year before attendees reconvene, but there’s no doubt that in the interim, the cause will continue to flourish.

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A highlights show of the awards evening (musical performances only – no awards) called ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival 2014 will air on PBS starting Nov. 22. Go HERE for more details.

RETURN TO THE VALLEY OF WINE AND ROSES: Dream Syndicate

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On Friday, Sept. 26, the legendary Cali band recreated their epochal album Days Of Wine and Roses for an Atlanta audience—our man on the ground reports back from the front lines.

BY KEVIN OLIVER

It had been 28 years since The Dream Syndicate last played Atlanta, 28 years to the day to be exact, when they took the stage last Friday night for the first in a two-night stand at The Earl. The years didn’t matter once the band kicked into gear, however. At one point early on Steve Wynn informed the audience that the band was only playing material they had written or recorded in 1982 or earlier, and they played all night as if they had been transported back to that year themselves.

The hook for the Friday night crowd was the promise of hearing the entire 1982 debut album from the Dream Syndicate, Days Of Wine and Roses; one of those landmark albums of the ‘80s college radio era that positioned Wynn and company as adventurous yet traditional in their approach to rock ‘n’ roll.

DS poster

Before the main event, the band warmed up with a couple of early obscurities — “Some Kind Of Itch” and “Sure Thing”, two cuts from the first self-titled EP release on Down There Records in 1982 that didn’t get re-recorded for the full-length. The latter in particular is a classic bit of relentless rhythms and concise hooks that gives away Wynn’s predilection for Velvet Underground inspired sonics powered by drummer Dennis Duck’s precise, pounding backbeat.

The current edition of The Dream Syndicate includes original members Wynn and Duck along with bassist Mark Walton, whose first studio album with the band was Out of the Grey in 1986. Filling lead guitar duties is Jason Victor, who has been playing many of these songs with Wynn in the Miracle 3. Scant reference was made to prior members other than bassist Kendra Smith; when they got to “Too Little Too Late”, a song Smith sings on the album, Wynn simply said, “Kendra’s in the woods… that’s all I’m allowed to say,” before singing a beautiful version of the song himself.

Wynn was in an ebullient mood throughout the evening, cracking jokes at his band members’ expense such as when he was referring to 1982 and the recording of their debut, looking at Mark Walton and saying, “You were a girl back then,” another not-so-subtle reference to Kendra Smith.

Wynn also noted their long absence from Atlanta, and dedicated the performance of Days Of Wine and Roses “For the 688 Club,” namechecking that legendary venue where the band’s last shows had been.

DS live

As an album, DOWAR holds up remarkably well, with several solid classics in the track listing. Wynn and Victor were rarely content to play the songs straight, stretching the limits of the melodies with extended guitar jams and riffing from the opener “Tell Me When It’s Over” all the way to the title track closer. On the latter, Wynn brought the band down to a full stop before cranking up the chorus one last time and bringing it home to close out the set.

They weren’t quite done, but even in the encore they stuck to the pre-1982 motif by dropping a couple of covers—Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” and Bob Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues”, both of which can be found on an album called The Day Before Wine and Roses which documents a live radio broadcast prior to the album’s release. [Read a review of it HERE.]As a preview of the upcoming Saturday night concert where the band was slated to play Medicine Show, they closed out the night with another song from that radio show, “Open Hours.” It would pop up again as the more familiar “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” on Medicine Show in 1984, but since that would break the evening’s time capsule spell Wynn insisted this was that other song, from 1982. Never mind that both sound more or less identical, give or take some extended vamping on the lengthy instrumental sections.

The newly revived version of The Dream Syndicate may not sound or look identical to its 1982 self (then again, who among us does, either?), but on this night they managed to evoke that past glory on stage for a little more than an album’s duration.

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Note: photos are from the Dream Syndicate and Steve Wynn Facebook pages and not the actual show, but if anyone out there has a few good pics from the Earl they’d like to share with us, please get in touch!

 

 

15 QUESTIONS FOR… Wyatt Parkins of Saint Marie Records

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And… here’s the third installment in the BLURT series in which we profile cool independent record labels. What are the criteria for inclusion in the “cool” category? Hey, ’cos we say they are cool, that’s what! We’re making the rules around here, kids. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, coming soon. Meanwhile, go HERE for entry #1, Slumberland Records, and HERE for #2, 12XU..

BY TIM HINELY

Wyatt Parkins takes his shoegaze seriously. Very seriously. As you’ll read below this Texan began his label, Saint Marie Records, just a few years ago, but has amassed a hefty amount of releases in that short time span. This isn’t just American stuff, either — he scans the globe looking for bands that can hop on fuzz pedals with delight. Just recently he’s released records by groups like Seasurfer, Jetman Jet Team, Children Of The Stones and plenty more. Read the interview then go to his website and check out some releases as the label is definitely making its mark.

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BLURT: When did the label form/what was your original inspiration?
In early 2011, we announced the label, but it had been in the works for almost a year. I guess the music I am into and a few labels were my biggest influences in starting Saint Marie. I knew I wanted to start a label for some time, but I figured it was still going to be in the distant future.  But the stars just aligned, and we went for it.
Who designed your logo? Do you only have one?

I did the logo after many attempts and failures to come up with something I felt represented the name and its namesake. The name comes from a Piano Magic song/EP. Piano Magic had been a huge influence on me. I had been friends with Glen Johnson of Piano Magic for at least a decade at the time, so it just made sense. We would later release a record by Piano Magic, which was hugely exciting for me and is still one of the biggest highlights of the label’s existence.


Just one logo but there are several variations of it. What was most important to me was to make sure it scaled well so it would look good on a CD or vinyl record spine. The teardrop logo does this very well. The original image I had in mind was a silhouette of a saint’s face (basically a nun) with a teardrop, but I just stopped at the teardrop.

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What was your first release?

Patrik Torrson – At The Line Of The Border. He is actually a huge part of the reason why we decided to go ahead and start the label when we did. He had released the record digitally only, and I felt strongly that it needed a physical release. He agreed, and the rest is history.

SMR001 - Patrik Torsson (Wallet) - At The Line
Were there any label(s) that inspired you to want to release records?

Yes, absolutely! 4AD, Creation Records, Ghostly, Captured Tracks, Graveface, Club AC30, Clairecords just to name a few. I personally know the owners of last two mentioned, and they have been a huge help over the years in label-related matters.
What difficulties did you realize come with running a label?

The biggest headache is just managing the accounting portion of the label, especially as we release more and more records. We’ve recently converted to a new transaction-based system that has greatly improved this process. PR can also be a huge headache, but also gets better with each release. There are still a few of the biggest music sites that refuse to pay us any attention even though I strongly believe we are releasing some of the best records in our respective genres. Physical inventory management is somewhat difficult as well as the number of releases grows, but an offsite storage site has helped a ton.
If there is one band, current or present, you could release a record by, who would it be?

Slowdive, no question, although there are several very close runners up: Lush, Pale Saints,
Cocteau Twins, Locust, School Of Seven Bells… just to name a few.

 

What has been your best seller to date?
Without double-checking, I would have to say Trespassers Williams’ Cast. In fact, the CD itself is out of print and can only be purchased digitally or used via various outlets.

Trespassers William - Cast
Are you a recording/touring musician yourself, and if so, do you use your label as an outlet for getting your stuff out to the public?

No, not at all. I work in Information Technology, 9-5 and manage the label in my time outside of that. I play guitar but never find time to do it since starting the label. I have two kids, a wife, Saint Marie, a PR firm ‘Gas Pedal PR,’ and a music blog ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’.. .so not sure I could fit in a “creating my own music”. I do, however, handle much of the artwork for the label and have even created several videos for the artists on the roster.
What are your thoughts on having a presence at the major conventions like SXSW, CMJ, etc. Have you done them before and if not, would you like to?

Some of our bands have been showcasing artist at SXSW, but there has not been a Saint Marie showcase as of yet. Maybe one of these days we will do something about that. Hopefully, we will have the opportunity to do the same for CMJ as well.
Does your label use and/or have a presence on any of the social media sites?

Yes, we are very active on Facebook and Twitter.

Have digital sales been significant or nominal?

I believe roughly 50% of our sales have been digital, which is very significant, but we always prefer physical sales. Without digital sales, we would probably not exist, so we have a love/hate relationship with digital.
What are your feelings on vinyl? Have you always offered your releases on vinyl?

Many of our releases are available on vinyl. We hope to get to a point where all releases are available on vinyl. So far, it just has not been cost effective to do so.
What is your personal favorite format to release music?

The vinyl format has the most appeal to me now that digital exists for portability. For me, the vinyl and digital partnership is perfect, but vinyl is definitely my preferred format.
What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention?

Club AC30, Deep Space Recordings, NoYes, Moon Sounds, Marshall Teller, Neon Sigh, Second Language and Secret Furry Hole.
Do you accept unsolicited demos?

Reluctantly, yes… I say this because 99% of the ones we receive are not right for the label, and that is putting it nicely. 😉

 

Contact:
Wyatt E. Parkins
Saint Marie Records
Fort Worth, TX | Seattle, WA | Los Angeles, CA
www.saintmarierecords.com
wyatt@saintmarierecords.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Saint-Marie-Records/164080190305178?ref=hl

Twitter: https://twitter.com/StMarieRecords

NO REGRETS: John Davis of Superdrag/Lees Of Memory

The Lees Of Memory - Elvis Wilson

The power pop auteur talks about the curious trajectory of his old band, and the recent takeoff of his new one.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Knoxville’s Superdrag went into the studio in 1997 fresh off their wildly popular debut Regretfully Yours, an album that made a big impact thanks to the infectious single “Sucked Out,” ironically, a not so flattering song about the music industry and the perfect foreshadowing device for this article…

Their record label at the time, Elektra, was expecting more of the same with Head Trip in Every Key. The guys in Superdrag, however, decided to do what they’ve always done: simply make a record their own way without any considerations of how the label would sell it to the masses. And as this story has played out time and time again, it ended up being one of their career-best albums, lyrically and musically a fantastic record from start to finish, as well as a financial disappointment to Elektra who quickly dropped support for the album and walked away from the band.

Head Trip may have ended the band’s major label stay, but it has gone on to inspire numerous groups across the globe and built up a pretty fervent fan base. The tastemakers at SideOneDummy Records, a few individuals in a very long line of Superdrag fans, released Regretfully Yours on vinyl last year and just put out the first vinyl issue of Head Trip in Every Key. Doing a poor job of hiding their inner fanboys/girls, the label is also releasing Jokers With Tracers, a double LP of demos [reviewed HERE]; and Sisyphus Says, the debut from the band Lees Of Memory (reviewed HERE), which is a new group comprising Superdrag frontman John Davis, Superdrag guitarist Brandon Fisher and drummer Nick Slack.

Davis was cool enough to take sometime recently to talk about the recording of Head Trip, pissing off their old label and starting up the Lees of Memory.
 

BLURT: One thing that’s been hinted at for years and I wanted to find out once and for all – this was your second record for Elektra – did you intentionally try to piss off the label and not put an obvious single on this album? Did you just go in and record what you wanted without listening to what the label wanted?

JOHN DAVIS: That’s always what we did! They should have known we were going to do that. Honestly, I was just sitting here thinking about all that stuff right before you called me and it’s not like we sat down to write a song to spite them. We might have done that a little bit later. We were never short of material and that particular time period, in between those first two albums, I wrote a lot. I would say maybe four or five of the Head Trip songs I had before the first record came out. That first record was mixed and mastered and it was done, done, and then I wrote “Sucked Out” in the same batch of some of [the Head Trip songs]. I threw four or five of those songs on a cassette and sent them to the A&R guy and it was almost kind of sort of to be a dick, “Here’s our second album.” Ha ha.

I wanted him to know we were working hard. Obviously that changed everything and we added “Sucked Out” to the first record and then they wanted a video. They actually were going to license that first record to a smaller label.

 I’d never heard that before.

Yeah, there was going to be no video, no radio budget; that song kind of changed everything. But, that was just another song out of 13 or 14 other ones that went down on the four-track. We always just kind of did “us.” We would be the last dudes trying to discover some kind of hit formula. That was just never us, and obviously that second record, we had just got done touring for 11 months and played 250-something shows and really grew as an ensemble of players. I feel like when we went into the studio to make that second record we really wanted to show what we could do. When we signed and made the first album, we had no experience in a studio. We were used to recording the band live on an 8-track cassette and overdubbing vocals. That was it. That new batch of material obviously lent itself to that more studio head approach. We just kind of wanted to go all out. We never thought that would make the label’s job harder.

Did you ever get feedback from them while you were recording?

Not until really late in the game. A bunch of the stuff was already written and knocking around and they were aware of it. We went up to Bearsville (NY) and posted up there for a month. The A&R guy had like a house up there and we would chill at his house. He knew what we were doing. It wasn’t top secret or anything. He didn’t hand out a whole lot at the practice spot. Fast forward a few months and we’re in the studio for three months non-stop and we rarely saw anybody from the record company until the last week or two that we were in the stages of making final overdubs. And I just remember like there was a super awkward feeling in the air when they were listening to the stuff. Nobody was uncool, they just never really seemed too stoked about any of it.

A little bit later we started getting, “Hey, you need to write some more.” They kind of started to panic. We tried to go back to Bearsville a second time, but it was never the same. They had already doused the flames of any creative stoke, by then. We kind of worked up “Do the Vampire.” Then they told us to go and support Green Day for a little bit which definitely put us in a whole other frame of mind.

Superdrag

Were you still writing new songs at that point?

I never really did a lot of writing on tour. But we ended up going back in and adding “Do the Vampire,” we added “Mr. Underground” and we cut two other songs – they were full instrumental versions. “Do the Vampire” was the single.

I was always surprised that “Mr. Underground” wasn’t the obvious single from that album.

Well, they did “Do the Vampire” and then “Hellbent” and then that was it. There was one guy at Elektra, named Jim Cortez; he was a radio promo guy and I think in both cases he had 13 or 14 stations in his region and he had both songs added to all but one of those stations. So it could be done. I’d give him a high five if he was here right now.

So did that experience start to sour your relationship with Elektra?

Well, it definitely was on the downside of the bell curve, I would say. We went round and round about a video treatment with a friend and they pretty much wasted his time only to say they were not going to make a video to promote the record. In retrospect, we wasted a period of time feeling sorry for ourselves, but looking back on it now, it’s really not that surprising. How was that ever going to be a hit album? If it had come out in 1973 it would have had the same problems. I don’t really want to talk down on the record label because we didn’t make any choices that made it easier for them to do what they do. It was kind of crazy that we ended up in that kind of situation to begin with. In 1994 -1995 the whole playing field was completely different.

You’ve obviously had experience since then working with other labels, different sizes. Is there any part of you that enjoys watching the major label dying out right now?

(Laughs) Not really. It’s just not something I think about much. In any business, if you gouge your customers over and over and over again for years and years and keep charging more and more for a product that costs less to produce each year, it’s bound to happen eventually. People are going to find a workaround when you start charging $18.99 for a CD that costs something like $1.20 to produce.

I’ve been thinking more about 1997 recently than I ever thought I would. And I’d be the last person to make the comparison between us and Big Star, but a lot of people have. Like there was some kind of cosmic injustice that happened to us, but honestly dude, where is the justice ever in the music industry? Muddy Waters ended up being a maintenance guy at Chess Records. It’s funny, because I was 23 years old when we were making Head Trip and I didn’t know anything about anything, except playing instruments writing songs and doing shows. That’s all I knew and back then to thrive in the cutthroat environment of a corporate record company you’ve got to have some business acumen. I had zero. I don’t want to speak for the other guys, but I’m the guy that made a setlist on the back of the contract. Literally! The last thing I was spending any time thinking about was how do I please Sylvia Rhone (CEO of Elektra Records in the mid-‘90s). When I was writing music, the last thing that crossed my mind was making chess moves… The whole time we were on that label, four years, we spent a total of 20 minutes with Sylvia.

How did the relationship with SideOneDummy come about? They re-released your first record on vinyl, they’re putting this one out on vinyl, releasing a record of demos and putting out a record by your new band.

Well, they reached out to Superdrag’s manager about wanting to reissue the Elektra era stuff which was really cool. Honestly, I had a lot less involvement with the first record they put out because I have a lot less love for that album.

What involvement did you have for this one?

They started reaching out about creative choices like the packaging and “are you guys cool with these side breaks?” that kind of stuff. That Jokers With Tracers album I had a lot more to do with that one. The designer made it look so good, but we bounced a bunch of ideas off each other. I ended up taking the photos and the little icons of the cassettes on the inside are my actual cassettes.

Had it been awhile since you last listened to those demos?

Oh yeah, dude. I couldn’t tell you the last time I had heard them from start to finish. I just kind of stood in here between two speakers and listened to all four sides. It had been such a long time, I kind of forgot that I wasn’t supposed to enjoy it. It kind of bummed me out really hard too because of Jerry [Finn, producer]. He’s gone and that’s just wrong. He was a super gifted dude and such a fun person to be with. I just remember laughing a lot. He gave us a hard time, busted our chops, but he was always so funny. He was a total pro… One last thing I’ll say is that he never backed away from that record. A lot of industry dudes, when a record doesn’t sell, they’re pretty quick to abandon ship and distance themselves to save face, but he never did that. He backed it all the way. (Editor’s note: Jerry Finn was a widely respected producer who worked with Morrissey and a lot of punk bands throughout the 1990s. He produced Head Trip in Every Key and died in 2008.)

Do you want to talk about The Lees Of Memory for a few minutes?

I’d love to talk about it.

Let’s start with how the band came about.

Well, let’s see. Really, Brandon [Fisher, also with Superdrag] had a bunch of songs he was working on and he’s not really a drummer and doesn’t have a full kit set up, so he wanted to come down because I did. He had this one song called “Deliquesce,” and he wanted us to see what we could do with it. He came down here and his family came with him so the kids could play, our wives are tight and everyone was just hanging out and we spent an entire weekend just working on that one song and he was really pleased with how it came out and I loved it and we wanted to do more.

Not too long after that I got on a roll and started writing a bunch of stuff at that point still separately, but on a parallel track, two separate projects. It just seemed obvious at a certain point that we needed to join forces and just do this. We kept writing stuff and just about every weekend I’d fire up the four-track… All along the way, I just intended to do a bunch of four-track recordings and get an album’s worth, try and talk someone into mastering them just to make them loud and then just finding a way to throw it on the Internet and let people have it for free.

I always send [producer] Nick Raskulinecz everything I do. He’s just a super busy dude. Some years he’s making three, four, five records a year. One day he hit me back with an e-mail and said, “Dude, you’ve got a record here. When are you going to make it?” Nobody does it better than him and you’d be a fool to turn down his help… but at the same time, I really don’t have that fire in my belly to run my own record company. As much as I admire Ian MacKaye and all the dudes that did it all themselves, I’m not going to do that.

So you took it to SideOne?

They were so friendly and easy to deal with on these Superdrag things and we were already well into the Head Trip and Jokers records when I decided to finally send them a SoundCloud link just to see what they’d say. I’m pretty sure they hollered back that day and said “We need to talk about this.” From there on it just kind of happened… They also never really sweated the fact that we never played a show.

So what’s next for you?

For the future, as far as any energy I have to rock, it’s all going on the Lees Of Memory pile. And we already have another record’s worth of songs, so SideOneDummy, if you’re reading…

Lees Of Memory photo credit: Elvis Wilson. Further reading: our 2009 interview with John Davis, in which he talks about the Superdrag reunion that was going on at the time. Below: check out a little surprise we found on the web….

 

EVERYTHING CHANGES: Justin Townes Earle

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By making notable breaks from aspects of his professional life (via a new label) and his personal life (by getting married), the young songwriter with the famous last name has finally grown up and settled down.

BY SCOTT RECKER

Justin Townes Earle has been on somewhat of a rollercoaster ride lately. He had a falling out with Communion Records, which is partially ran by Mumford and Sons keyboardist Ben Lovett and was initially scheduled to release his forthcoming record. He found a new home at Vagrant Records, which released his fifth studio record, Single Mothers, on September 9th. And he was recently married, after which he spent half a year in his wife’s hometown, Park City, Utah. Now he’s back in Nashville, where he grew up, with what is another excellent piece of his never-ending search for “the sound” by bringing a more sparse, country-blues feel to the smooth, rhythmic Memphis soul he adopted so effortlessly on his previous record, 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. We caught up with Earle to talk about Single Mothers, how getting married has affected his songwriting, why he hates the show Nashville, and eavesdropping on strangers in restaurants.

 

BLURT: With each album you seem to be slightly tweaking and exploring your sound, as well as adding new ones. How do you think Single Mothers breaks new ground, has helped you evolve and/or differentiates itself from your other records?

JUSTIN EARLE: This record is very stripped down compared to my other records. It’s much more spare and exposing. There’s very little room to hide behind the four-piece band. But it delves further into the blues. When I first started playing guitar it was all about Texas and Delta blues. So, I think it’s kind of shifting back toward that, blending it with the Memphis sound of the last two records. Ya know, I get bored really easily. So far, I haven’t had to try to make each record different, because I’ve existed in a different place, listening to different music.

It was released later than expected because of label troubles. Could you talk a little bit about that?

The short and simple answer, without getting into details, which there’s no need for, is that we had some clashes as to what we thought was promised. Ya know, I don’t get along with blow-dried college boys anyway. And we actually made a mutual agreement to fuck off. After coming from Bloodshot — who, they love what they do, they are very good at it, when they say the check’s coming, the check’s coming — and then to a know-it-all, start-up bunch of bullshit. And that fell through and I found my way to Vagrant, which has the same feel as Bloodshot, just a little higher level.

How did you get hooked up with Vagrant Records?

After the deal fell through with Communion, several record labels came knocking. It didn’t take terribly long to sign on Vagrant.

 Has your songwriting process changed at all? Or has it remained pretty consistent, from writing and recording 2007’s Yumato now?

Most of my records were written in vans going down the road and things like that. This record was much more of a desk record, I think. I got married and didn’t feel the need to run constantly. So, I had to adapt my writing style to that. That’s what being an artist is: the day that you become stagnant, the day that you have nothing else more, that’s your time to crash and burn.

 It seems like you use fictional characters a lot when you write, but how much do real-life experiences slip into those stories, as well?

With my personal experiences and along with keeping my ears open and keeping my eyes open, it has blended together, for sure. Composite characters of all kinds of people I’ve met through my life. I do have a really bad habit of listening to people’s conversations in restaurants. When I wrote “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” [which appeared on 2008’s The Good Life] it’s because I heard a guy in a restaurant say, ‘You’ll be glad that I’m leaving, woman.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I wrote “White Gardenias” after I heard a quote from Billie Holiday: ‘Every night I had the white dress and the white shoes and they brought me the white gardenias and the white junk.’ So, I just took the junk off the end, because that’s become a part of my life that is far enough in the past and I’ve changed enough from that point that I’ve said everything to be known about that. I can’t even explain how much my life has changed in the past year.

 

You briefly touched on this, but circling back to it for a second: You were recently married. Did that have an impact on this record?

The record was pretty much written by that point, but there were a few songs that were added and, yes, it did affect those songs and it did affect the way that I went through and edited my songs. So, there were definitely some new ideas and new thinking added in.

 Are you guys living in Nashville?

Yeah, we’re in Nashville right now. We spent the first six or seven month in Park City, Utah, where my wife is from. It was a strange experience. It’s definitely different people in a different city. It was amazing to be out west in the mountains and the desert. I’ve been out there before and spent a day or so in the desert or something like that, but living out there was pretty amazing. I was introduced to a whole new way of life and a whole new way of looking at the country. There are too many horrid images of us as Americans. It restored a little faith.

 On Twitter, sometimes you seem frustrated by the way Nashville has changed. What are the pros and cons of being a songwriter in Nashville right now?

The city that I grew up in, the Nashville that I knew for the first 28 years of my life — I’m 32 now — is gone. It’s completely gone. It’s buried under the ugliest condos I’ve ever seen and disrespected from the start of our history. I’ve heard so many people say, ‘Well, now Nashville has a new, great reputation.’ And it’s like, What the fuck was wrong with our reputation before? What was wrong with the history of the Grand Ole Opry and country music? I don’t see anything that was in the attic with that. What, we need a stupid TV show that makes us all look like douchebags? That really improved the image of our city. It’s like we all wear rhinestone pants and fucking ugly cowboy boots.

 You produced Wanda Jackson’s Unfinished Business in 2012. It was your first time producing, if I’m not mistaken. What was it like to produce someone that renowned during your first time producing?

I co-produced with Skylar Wilson on my first five records. Well, not counting Yuma. All my full lengths. So I had experience producing myself, but you’re talking about having to please yourself and your audience and you know that a little better. Trying to please a 78-year-old woman who has made records for almost 50 years; it’s like, what do you do there? I listened and just found her sounding uncomfortable on the last several records. Stuff that I just didn’t feel represented Wanda Jackson as Wanda Jackson. Before I had my first meeting with her, I went through her Decca [Records] years. I picked some songs, she picked some songs and I helped make a record that was a little more of a throwback to her Decca years, but she was really excited about it.

After you release a record, how long is it before you start working on the next one? Does it vary?

I write when I get the feel to write. When I have something to write about. My records are written to be records, there are never any extra songs. When I feel like they’re finished, they’re finished. And I’m very careful about that. I want to know, by the time I’m done writing, to know the order that the songs go in? I wrote Nothings Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now in sequence. And I don’t think that record could have had the integrity that it did and told the story right without that.

I would imagine since you approach things with that sort of meticulousness that it has probably helped you keep things fresh without having to force anything.

I look at it carefully, but you do have to know that line where you are going to overwrite it. I suggest to everybody to listen to the masters like Bob Dylan and people like that, who can string an amazing line of words together, but I take an example from Tom Petty, too: as few words as possible, the most important information, leaving room for your fans’ imagination, who want to feel a part of what you do.

ZIPPER-DEE-DOO-DAH: Tom Maxwell

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“I am who I am”: the erstwhile Squirrel Nut Zippers members talks about his return to songwriting and his dip into the world of rock band memoirs.

BY JORDAN LAWRENCE

Both Tom Maxwell’s new album and his new book feature the same image on their covers. The picture — adapted from an old tour poster produced for his old band the Squirrel Nut Zippers — depicts a humanoid squirrel lighting a fuse on a walnut explosive. The color palate is altered slightly on each, but the artwork is otherwise identical. Strangely, despite the projects’ contrasting intentions, the cover works for both the book, Hell: My Life in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and the album, Tom Maxwell and the Minor Drag. For the singer, the synergy was obvious.

“I always just loved this image,” Maxwell says. “I was like, ‘Wait, that’s me!’ It’s obviously a costume. He’s got little dress shoes on. And then he’s doing something that is incendiary. And as much as people want the swing revival to have been toothless, and I think in many ways it was, we were a terrible threat to the jazz community and all kinds of different stuff. We came in and sort of upset everyone and made them spill the milk in their cereal for a minute. And I liked that.”

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Whisked along to chart-rattling heights by the unlikely successes of bands like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and The Brian Setzer Orchestra, whose sounds provided bright and brassy refuge following the morose aggression of grunge, the Zippers were always an odd fit for the reactionary movement. Formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, they stepped into their jazzy style after time spent in the city’s bustling indie rock scene. Their songs had an edge that many of their mainstream peers lacked.

Take “Hell,” the Maxwell-led hit that grabbed the Zippers the bulk of their popularity. Its bustling Calypso arrangement is also profoundly dark; the drums clatter meanly, and the gang vocals play more as accusation than celebration. As horns squeal out like a Creole funeral parade, Maxwell works himself into a ranting fit: “This is a place where eternally/ Fire is applied to the body,” he wails, barely sticking to the beat. “Teeth are extruded and bones are ground/ Then baked into cakes which are passed around.” This ain’t no “Jump Jive An’ Wail.”

Proving — for any remaining doubters — that he and the Squirrels’ approach was vital beyond any fad, Maxwell’s new album leans on similar juxtapositions of sound and lyrical mood, reaping dividends that build convincingly on past successes. It’s his second release following more than a decade of studio silence, a period of personal turmoil that irrevocably shifted Maxwell’s perspective.

“I had to get back to the idea that this is who I am and this is what I do because life can be discursive,” the singer explains. In 2006, at the age of three, his son, Esten, was diagnosed with leukemia. The news came mere days after his now-ex wife moved out of their house. Maxwell was shell-shocked.

“There was no room, I’m sorry to say, for magic or art,” he says. “Everything was like, ‘What are his white blood cell counts? What is his temperature? Does this mean he has to be hospitalized?’ Everything was numbers.”

His son pulled through, and Maxwell willed himself back onto the stage and into the studio. And while 2011’s Kingdom Come was the first step, many of those songs had been written years earlier, and newer ones — the haunting and intimate “Tenderness,” for instance — dealt directly with the singer’s wounded feelings and trying experiences. When he ventured to New Orleans to demo songs for what would become Minor Drag, Maxwell had to fully rekindle his creative spark.

“I go to the coffee shop to write lyrics,” he recalls. “I sit down and write a verse, and I could just feel this huge, huge, huge pushback emotionally, that I was doing something wrong, that I was doing something I should not be doing. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? I’m a grown man, and people can do whatever it is they want to do.”

That song he struggled with ended up as the new album’s opener and lead single. “Roll With It,” a jittery ragtime-inspired number featuring jubilant backing vocals from Ani DiFranco, is emblematic of Maxwell’s new outlook. As banjo and acoustic guitar stutter ecstatically, Maxwell confronts his obstacles: “When the blues comes around and tries to take my hand,” he intones, “I roll with it.” In the breaks, trumpets and pianos solo playfully. After everything he’s been through, Maxwell is acutely aware of the ominous challenges that lie ever in wait, but he’s also more sensitive to life’s happy moments, the times that validate all the toil and strife.

“What it’s done most of all, not only for music but for everything in my life, is make it more precious to me,” Maxwell says of his trying time. “It certainly was a great way of putting other things in perspective, like my experience in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, which at the time felt monolithic. Now, I only see it only for what it was, which was momentous.”

It’s this perspective that allowed him to write candidly about his brush with fame. [Ed. note: go HERE to read our review of the book.] It also allowed him to pull out old tricks, reinvigorating them with a time-strengthened touch for arrangement and a broader emotional palette. Consider “The Skeleton Dance,” which seems almost a sequel to the Zipper’s most famous single. Pianos and xylophone’s clink and clang as Maxwell croons through foggy fuzz. “Just slip out of your birthday suit,” he cajoles, his cheery delivery belying the grim imagery, “wade in and dance with your lawyer.” During the bridge, bongos, keys and all manner of instruments mimic the sound of rattling bones.

More than simply juxtaposing upbeat sounds with macabre signifiers, songs like “The Skeleton Dance” blend these contrasting elements with dark comic abandon. This squirrel has once more discharged his walnut bomb, blowing up his back catalog and assembling the rubble into his freshest work since the Zippers went away.

“At some point you’re like, ‘Man, I am who I am. And this is what I do.’” Maxwell concludes. “That’s about it.”

LINEAR, YET SOMETIMES OBTUSE: Green On Red’s Dan Stuart

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“Heaven must be similar to a recovery meeting or a bingo hall”: in which we talk with the songwriter about his recent memoir, his post-GOR trajectory, and how an “expat reprobate broke-ass writer” wound up on Oaxaca, Mexico.

BY FRED MILLS

While billed as “a false memoir,” The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings (published by the book wing of Britain’s Cadiz Music) contains nary a bum note. Oh sure, author Dan Stuart, who steered proto-Americana rockers Green On Red throughout the college rock years and into the early alternative rock era until the band dissolved in a haze of drugs and diminishing artistic returns in the early ‘90s, does take frequent literary liberties throughout this often-provocative, sometimes-harrowing, consistently-entertaining 150-page volume. Practically everyone, from bandmembers to roadies to girlfriends to record company folks, is given a nom du rawk; for example, Stuart becomes the titular Marlowe Billings, his Green On Red cohort Chuck Prophet is “Billy” (no surprise there: GoR fans often referred to the guitar-slinging Prophet as “Billy the Kid”), and Memphis producer Jim Dickinson becomes “Bubba,” appropriately enough for the Southern sonic savant. Certain timelines and events get compressed or altered, presumably in the interest of narrative efficiency or poetic license; the sections featuring the aforementioned Bubba might appear to be detailing a recording session, but in fact Dickinson worked with GoR over the course of two albums, while the ’86 Farm Aid the band performed at is fancifully described here as “Cowboy Longhair’s festival to save the narwhals or something.”

None of that is off-putting, however. In fact, for a reader already familiar with the general Green On Red history, and certainly for fans who know the entire good/bad/ugly of that story (I fall into the latter category – for proof, go HERE to read my BLURT feature on the band, and check out some audio and video treats as well), his “false memoir” aspect of the book is key to its appeal, rock fandom-wise. I mean, who needs another tired tale about a band that forms, catches a popularity wave, and rides it until the inevitable crash and damaged dissolution arrives, including the equally inevitable collateral damage that accrues in its wake? That’s 99.9% of rock groups anyway. So what Stuart has done is latched onto a means of making the story fresh, narrating from a matter-of-fact, unsentimental 1st person perspective (as any good memoir or autobiography must be narrated) and lending the yarn a kind of noir-ish sheen—that’s clear at the outset, with the hard-boiled moniker he gives himself—and following it through to his ultimate “deliverance,” in this case a serious drug addiction, precious few friends left, and a trip to a psychiatric facility.

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Billings/Stuart provides some fascinating snapshots of the late ‘70s punk scene in Tucson, where he grew up and eventually formed The Serfers, later rechristened Green On Red when the band moved to L.A. to seek fame and fortune. (Intriguingly, Tucson landmarks such as local clubs and music gear shop the Chicago Store retain their real names for the book. It’s also worth noting that there are a number of actual archival snapshots included, many of them photos of the bandmembers.) Soon enough, the group’s star begins to rise as they record an album for the “Trash” label—that would be Slash Records—and then graduate to a succession of larger, better funded ones. Touring is initially a whirlwind of chaotic fun, at least until fissures emerge among the personalities to take their collective toll upon the band, which finally splits up, leaving Billings and Billy to work with hired hands. But by the time the concluding pages draw near, music has taken a distant back seat to drugs, the pair sometimes reduced to scoring dubious-quality dope from squirrelly street junkies. Billings is strung out at his own wedding; Billy overdoses in a hotel room and has to be slapped back to consciousness by Billings. Somehow they still manage to land record deals, cut albums and tour, but like with any good crime novel, you sense that these characters are on their own personal highways to hell.

Danny Stuart once told me, either during a phone conversation or down at the record store in Tucson where I worked during the ‘90s, that he was “not a recovering anything.” In the context of his then-recent history he meant that he didn’t necessarily subscribe to the 12-step philosophy, that he viewed himself as simply haven beaten his drug addiction while still taking full ownership of his weaknesses and all the shitty things he’d done over the years. More recently, in the foreword to Marlowe Billings he admits that he’s “not a particularly nice person,” adding, of the book, “There is no real plot because I refuse to put a false arc on these events in order to make it all digestible to middlebrow sludge. If you’re fine with all that then read on, friend, read on. If not, put the book down and pick up some other post-punk tale of sin and redemption. You’ll find none of that here, I promise.” (Emphasis Stuart’s.)

That’s for sure. It’s no coincidence that Keith Richards’ recent memoir was judged so entertaining by fans and critics: in refusing to give in to his own temptation for revisionist history, Richards came across as candid and honest, a tell-it-like-it-really-was kinda guy. Likewise, by steering clear of those sin/redemption clichés that mark most celebrity “survival” stories, Stuart has done the rock-lit world a favor. His warts-and-all (some would say, “syringe-and-all”) style of storytelling may seem excessively grim and depressing, but hey, sorry to break the news to ya kids, but rock ‘n’ roll is populated by a lot of losers, misfits, egomaniacs and outright sociopaths who’ve committed far worse crimes against kith and kin than Stuart. So next time you read one of those survival yarns in which the artist emerges from rehab at the end of the book and, having seen the light and the error of his/her ways, pledges to go out and make the world a better place, squint at it with a big side order of salt ‘cos they’re just reciting from a script and trust me, you’ve seen this movie before.

I’ll take a dose of deliverance over a routine redemption any day.

***

Meanwhile, as Stuart and I initially met back in the mid ‘80s and since then, apparently discoving in one another semi-kindred spirits, have communed in some form or fashion at least once every ten years, we agreed that now would be a good juncture to discuss his book. Email is a beautiful thing, especially when one guy (me) is in North Carolina and has to get up early and get a kid off to school, and the other guy lives in Oaxaca, Mexico (him) and, per the “musicians hours” dictate, probably sleeps late…

Dan Stuart book

***

BLURT: Okay, so roughly outline for our readers what you’ve been doing since I last saw you at the Tucson Green On Red reunion show in 2005…

DAN STUART: After GOR played some shows in 2005 I wrote a few tunes and took ’em to Chuck but he wisely thought GOR shouldn’t record again. Very few have pulled that off, maybe Wire. At the same time I’m like, well fuck, I wonder if I miss recording so I took a couple of those tunes to Steve Wynn who had just broken his ankle and was laid up in upper Manhattan. We wrote for awhile and that became the second Danny & Dusty record [2007’s Cast Iron Soul] that was completely ignored in the land of Americana, go figure.

Then I’m like, double-fuck, I’ve always wanted to play in an art band so I started The Slummers with JD Foster and we made this cool record [2010’s Love of the Amateur]with the founding members of Sacri Cuori, toured a little and even less people cared. At that point my marriage imploded and my brain broke and Antonio Gramentieri from Sacri Cuori told me I was a pussy and just needed to make a solo record, quit hiding behind shit, and Jack Waterson from GOR concurred so we cut The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings album with those guys producing and one thing led to another… that’s how I became an expat reprobate broke-ass writer living in Oaxaca.

Sacri Cuori was the band for most of the record; they are this mostly instrumental ensemble from Romagna Italy that inhabit a post WWII cultural space between Italy and the rest of the world… they’re like a buffer or righteous diplomats or something. Very rarefied but not pretentious in the least. They turned me on to Paolo Conte and racchettoni and taught me not to eat bread with pasta… I learned to play and laugh again and I taught ’em a little about rock n roll, how to offend yourself basically. Those guys saved me.

When and why did you decide to move to Mexico? Too many ghosts in Tucson (or skeletons in the desert)?

I’m a dutiful husband… I was told to leave so I did, after twenty years with La Españnola, the last 8 in NYC. We had lived in Tucson for eight years before that after moving from Madrid… never go home, that’s all I can tell ya. Once gone stay git. As for NYC, I couldn’t have caught it at a worse time… or it me.

Dan Stuart CD

How did the Marlowe CD segue into this book, or was it the other way around? Your foreword has a 2010 dateline.

Well, [2014] is when it became publishable, I guess, you know how it goes. I had been writing it for awhile, just these little vignettes that are tied together in a gnarly knot… that was the tricky part. The Marlowe record was cut pretty much the same time as the book was being written, it was all part of the same thing… regurgitation of self.

How did the project initially come about and subsequently evolve? That’s a pretty hardboiled name, by the way.

“Marlowe Billings” has been around for ages… back to The Serfers [Green On Red’s original name] I think, maybe before. There’s this line from my teenage years: “I hunted grunion in my prime”… well, that’s Marlowe.

Conversely I’m completely against “name hogs”… you know, musicians who go by all these different names… I just record or write under my own name, but make no mistake, Marlowe is always hovering, jealous even. Shit, I forgot about Danny & Dusty… scratch that. Ha!

The most obvious question is why did you choose the “false memoir” aspect – altered names, compression of certain events, etc. – and had you ever considered doing an actual rock ‘n’ roll-type novel “loosely based on real events” so to speak instead? The fact that many of the personalities in the book can be teased out pretty easily by someone familiar with the GoR backstory suggests to me that this wasn’t done to ward off slander lawsuits or keep feathers from being ruffled… and in fact, for me at least, half the fun was reading between the lines.

Yeah an editor at [Serpent’s Tale books] said I was gonna get sued anyway, just lay it all out. But that’s not the point, I wasn’t writing history, or an autobiography… more a roman á clef. The book is just a little French dagger, that’s all it is. I tried to write it like a good punk song, linear yet sometimes obtuse. I wasn’t trying to be cute, I name some people and others I don’t… Why? I have no idea.

“Deliverance” versus “sin and redemption”: I think you draw a pretty clear line in the sand with that distinction. I don’t think the world needs another typical fresh-outta-rehab-and-planning-to-be-a-productive-citizen celebrity memoir anyhow. Discuss.

It’s interesting… deliverance does not translate well into Latin languages. It means a liberation of some sort, or a getting ready for, like marinating meat, but for what exactly… being put on the coals? No, I don’t believe in redemption… from what, pray tell? “Amazing Grace” is a great song, but such bullshit… “a wretch like me”? Really? ‘Cause you want to fuck and scheme and get as high as you can while there’s still time? Heaven must be similar to a recovery meeting or a bingo hall … do I really wanna be here with this bunch? I’m happy to burn, the movies will be much better down there.

You don’t pull many, if any, punches, and you’re pretty hard on yourself too. Without asking a clichéd question like, “Was the book cathartic to you?” I would be curious to know some of the emotions that got stirred up in the process.

I wrote a lot of it in a “severe depressive episode,” as the shrinks say, so the catharsis of it was the actual doing. I loved going to different cafes in Oaxaca and spending the afternoon doing this one little thing, writing and revising a book that appealed to no one but myself in that particular moment. It’s the ultimate subversion, mostly pointless but who cares? Darby was right: “What we do is secret.”

GoR fire

What kind of feedback, if any, have you gotten from people who appear in the book – especially Chuck, Chris or Jack?

Oh the boys have been very supportive. They know I’m a psychotic hypocrite but love me nonetheless. It’s hard for outsiders to know how deep it all goes; we’re brothers to the end. A few of the other characters read it before release, I thought that only fair. I might add that Cliff Green provided invaluable photos as did some other photographers, that was my one concession I guess for a more entertaining book… without those images the humanity in it might have been impossible to discern.

Lastly, the inevitable, “What’s next for you?” question. What are you doing these days in Mexico, and what kind of music-making is on tap?

Well I played about 50 gigs this last year, mostly in Europe, hope to keep playing as long as people still give a shit. Some shows were with Chris, Chuck and Jack, all individually, pretty special for me. I also have recorded 20 songs or so recently that are in different stages of undress around the world… some are in the hands of Sacri Cuori in Italy while others I cut in Mexico City with Twin Tones, another fabulous band.

I’m finishing a second book, Marlowe’s search for a just demise in Mexico, not an easy task. It’s all completely unsustainable but what isn’t nowadays? I don’t fear the future, death is our friend, enjoy the now… Mexico has taught me that.

 

 

OPEN DOORS: John Densmore

John Densmore

Currently on a tour promoting his recent book Doors Unhinged, the co-founding member and drummer talks about how he has documented his years of struggle to preserve the Doors’ legacy.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

There are several compelling reasons why the Doors were the archetypical band of the late ‘60s. A singular, shamanistic lead singer. A unique, indelible sound that was magical, mystical and mesmerizing. And a career path that involved drugs, decadence and the kind of drama that was such an intrinsic part of the times.

After the death of frontman Jim Morrison in a Paris bathtub in 1971, it was only natural that the three remaining members — keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore — would attempt to carry on. It was also apparent that they would find it futile without Morrison at the fore, shutting those Doors forever. Yet despite Morrison’s fury at the fact his colleagues had considered selling rights to their song “Light My Fire” to a car company in 1968, more than three decades later, Krieger and Manzarek leaped at the chance to trade their song “Break on Through” to Cadillac for $15 million. But when the opportunity came to regroup for a tour under the thinly-veiled moniker “The Doors of the 21st Century,” Densmore said, “Enough.” Determined to preserve the band’s legacy in a way he believed Morrison would have wanted, he and the singer’s aging parents took his former colleagues to court in 2004, enduring a five year trial, a year and a half appeal, the scorn of fans and former friends, possible financial disaster, and the isolation and uncertainties of standing alone for a cause and integrity he believed in.

Densmore documented his struggles in his book Doors Unhinged, published last year, approximately two decades after his best-selling autobiography Riders on the Storm. Now he’s about to begin a series of book readings that will bring him to various locales in the southeastern U.S., places he failed to tap in his first book tour (including BLURT’s sister business, Schoolkids Records of Raleigh, NC). We recently caught up with Densmore at his home in California and asked him to provide a preview.

Densmore poster

BLURT: This book of yours could be a major motion picture. It’s got the drama, the suspense, the intrigue…

JOHN DENSMORE: Yeah! That’s what I want to hear! Why don’t you become a movie producer and make it happen? I’ve heard that comment a lot. There’s only two Doors left so Robby would have to be comfortable with it.

Have you and he reconciled? Any hard feelings?

Before the book was published, I sent the last chapter to Robby and Ray with a note saying, “This will probably be a hard pill to swallow, but I wanted to be sure you got this last chapter where I say I love you guys.” How could I not? We created magic in a garage and we’re musical brothers forever. Our relationship had become quite strained with this mess. And then when I heard Ray had become quite sick, I called him and I was very thankful he picked up. I didn’t know at the time it would be our closing phone call, but it was. And we had it. Nothing specific was discussed at the time about the struggle. It was about his struggle with cancer. After he passed, I said to Robby, let’s play together and do a tribute to Ray and a benefit to raise funds for cancer research. So we’re trying to get this together, hopefully next spring.

So it appears that you and Robby are friends again. [Ed. note: at the bottom of the page, watch a videoclip of the two musicians getting back together last December.]

Yeah, we’re okay.

Nevertheless, this whole court ordeal must have been really difficult.

Litigation always is. I had no idea how crazy it is.

6 ½ years!

In the beginning, hardcore fans thought I was destroying the band. That’s why I wrote this book, to show what I went through so hopefully they get the message I was trying to preserve the legacy.

You have talked about how difficult Jim Morrison was to work with.

Yes, that was in my first book. I have two self-centered memoirs. (chuckles) Jim’s self-destruction was just an elephant in the room. We were young. We didn’t have substance abuse clinics. We didn’t know he was an alcoholic. Urrrrghhh. The question always is, if he was around today, would he be clean and sober. I used to think he was a kamikaze drunk. Now I’ve changed my opinion. You look at Clapton, Eminem… a very angry young man like Jim. So, yeah, maybe he would get sober. It’s a different time and there are alternatives.

What do you think he’d be doing had he lived? Do you think he’d still be performing or creating music or poetry of some sort?

Yeah. Ray and Jim went to film school. If I see a visual image with the right image, I just flip out. So I think we’d be doing music and films somehow.

You and the other two surviving members of the Doors continued to carry on for a couple of years after Jim’s passing…

Oh… good provocative question, Lee. I’m going to tackle it. We had this music synchronicity that the three of us had built up backing Jim, and we didn’t want to give it up. So we had the sensibility to have Ray and Robby sing, rather than have someone else try to fill those leather trousers. (laughs). We had a deal for five albums because the Doors were so big. A very lucrative deal. We did two and then we threw in the towel. We said, “What are we doing here? This isn’t the Doors without Jim!” I wish the other two had remembered that.

So they get back together in the early 2000s for that so-called Doors of the 21st Century tour and you didn’t join them. But if you had, wouldn’t it have given a little more credibility to the project?

Yeah, that would have given it more credibility. But would it have been the Doors with Jim? Could it be the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger? Or the Police without Sting? At the trial a British journalist said, “I don’t care if they have Ian Astbury – who was in fact a better singer than Jim Morrison – or if you get Mick Jagger to sing with the Doors, it wouldn’t be the Doors without him.”

On the other hand, you had two members of Queen carrying on with Paul Rodgers and later, an “American Idol” winner, all attempting to continue without Freddie Mercury.

I know. I know. And Paul Rodgers is a wonderful singer. I don’t take anything away from him. It’s touchy. When you have an iconic singer like Freddie Mercury, it sometimes seems okay. You can have no original members and still play Vegas. So whatever.

There are ways you can spin it so that it almost becomes like a tribute, rather than another attempt to replicate the real deal.

Yeah, there are lots of tributes bands out there. And they’re amusing.

But that’s not what you wanted to do.

No. I think I write about how I’m playing with Iranian musicians and jazz musicians, and I’m finding it real stimulating because I’m rearranging rhythmic brain cells. I love playing the old songs, but I did it with the man – Jim! – I did it!

Nevertheless, it must have been difficult to turn down the money you were offered by Cadillac. It must have been tempting for Jim’s parents.

Well, God bless Jim for anointing the four of us with veto power. Mr. Veto! But also remember that he couldn’t play a chord on any instrument, that he didn’t know how to write songs, that it became music by the Doors, and not lyrics by Jim. He laid out this template and he went crazy when we considered “Come on Buick, light my fire.” He wrote one line in that song… “Our love becomes a funeral pyre.” The rest of it was Robby’s. Certainly we arranged the song altogether as we did all the songs. So what does that say, Lee? He was concerned about all the songs in the catalogue. Not just the songs he wrote.

Those sentiments and that kind of integrity was very much a part of that era, the ‘60s. But nowadays, the use of pop and rock in commercials is fairly commonplace.

Yes, it’s rampant, and I don’t judge it. Nowadays the music industry is so unhinged, what with downloading and such. I write in the book that if you’re a new band and you need to do it to pay the rent, then by all means do it. But a little later, when you get a toehold on success you might want to reconsider that decision. As Tom Waits says, you’re changing your lyrics into a jingle. That’s the sound of coins in your pocket and maybe you’re selling your audience.

Are you a nostalgic guy?Do you often think about the old days?

I’m not, because I’ve found a new avenue of creativity in my writing and I’m real into that. But last night, I was watching a tribute to Richie Havens and it sort of got me a little wistful. He represented Woodstock in a way. The ‘60s did not fail. The seeds of civil rights, the peace movement and feminism were all planted. They’re just big seeds. It may take hundreds of years for them to come to full fruition, but we should get out our watering cans and keep going.

It’s clear that you have.

Yes, I guess so. That’s good. Some music should be priceless. What the hell. I spoke to Tavis Smiley and he said, “You either got a lot of integrity or you’re crazy turning down $15 million.”

Was there ever a point where you had your doubts about carrying on, where you thought that maybe it would be easier just to take the money?

Well sure. There was always the Robin Hood idea where you take the money and give it to causes you believe in. Then there’s, “Well, okay, do that, and then you’re in the corporate scene.” We have all have nice houses and cars, so it’s not that. Maybe Jim’s ghost will haunt me forever.

But in your struggle, you risked more than most people could ever even dream of. Your house, your finances… your friendships. You risked everything.

Yeah. That’s the bitch. I was thinking I’ll lose my house. But there are still Doors royalties trickling in. I wouldn’t starve certainly. Oh God. My musical brothers. It was awful

It appears that it still bothers you. Those feelings are apparently still with you.

I guess they are. It’s sad and hard… and oh, I don’t know.

Fortunately you were redeemed.

Yeah. But then there was the state supreme court! It was almost comic. I think I shaved off a little of my time on planet earth because of all that. My hair is grayer than ever. But do I regret it? No!

Maybe someone will make that major motion picture and you’ll be rewarded in another way.

It doesn’t have to be financial. Spiritual. Mystical. That will do.

Photo Credit: Bonnie Perkins. Below: Densmore and Krieger got back together on December 9 of last year for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “An Evening With the Doors.”

CLASSIC MOVES: Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams by Alice Baxley crop

On his new, self-titled, album the enfant terrible of the Americana scene grows up and embraces his classic rock roots, with no second-guessing and no looking back over his shoulder. The results are… well, read on…

BY FRED MILLS

Ryan Adams is a 5-out-of-5-stars album. I’m not afraid to be that blatant about my admiration for it; it’s been a constant fixture on my stereo since I got a digital advance of it several weeks ago. And yeah, I do realize that some of you out there are gonna have a problem with that. So much about Ryan Adams gets up people’s noses—the public temper tantrums, presumably a thing of youth and therefore a thing of the past (maybe…) but destined to footnote his bio for the rest of his life; the uber-prolific nature of his output, and all the inevitable attendant quality control issues that go with the territory (do we really need to hear every punk fart and black metal belch he impulsively lays down on tape?); the—horror of horrors—celebrity marriage, which meant that all those Mandy-watchers also placed Adams under their petty little lenses while the paparazzi aimed some pretty large lenses in his direction.

The sleeve art to his new self-titled album isn’t doing him any favors, either; not that it’s bad or too arty or anything, but in the larger context of a musician who has always appeared to be very image-conscious, the deliberately mussed/tousled/messy close-up photo is definitely gonna keep the haters’ gums flappin’. (One acquaintance remarked to me that he thought it looked an awful lot like—speaking of horrors and tantrums—Bryan Adams’ ’84 mega-seller Reckless, but I’m not so sure. Still, it’s fun to fantasize that our Mr. Adams is having an inside-the-inside joke moment here.)

Ryan Adams CD

But. The music. Everyone should know at this point that a lot of our artists have feet of clay; outsized antics and complicated psyches frequently accompany artistic genius. It’s up to us to figure out how to separate the music from the myth. And, my god, this is the best thing Adams has ever done, rich in sonic depth and lyric nuance, boasting an expansive widescreen ambiance while still pulling the listener in close, intimate. It just might even edge out Whiskeytown’s 1997 masterpiece Strangers Almanac, which for a lot of Adams fans has always been the impossibly high bar he set early in his career, one which he’s been trying to hit with his solo albums ever since.

Me, I’m neither a Ry acolyte nor a hater. Full disclosure: I currently live in Raleigh where there are apparently more Adams acolytes and haters per capita than any other city on the planet. Adams famously said from a local stage about 10 years ago that he would never again perform in Raleigh, where his high crimes ‘n’ misdemeanors included burning plenty of bridges with fellow musicians and the indie scene intelligentsia, and he’s kept his promise so far. Meanwhile, I had the fortune (or misfortune, take your pick) not to be in Raleigh or even North Carolina during Whiskeytown’s rise and Adams’ subsequent solo success, so as the saying goes, I ain’t got no dogs in this fight. Reputation or not, he’s just another collection of CDs on my record shelf. So I was having a discussion with my friend and fellow journo David Menconi, who is the rock critic for Raleigh daily The News & Observer and author of the 2012 Adams biography Losering. Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about the dude (as I pointed out in this review and interview about the book), and whenever I have an Adams-related question I call him up and pick his brain. I confessed to Menconi that while Strangers Almanac is one of my all-time favorite albums (and I said as much in this review and interview about the album), none of the Adams solo records ever quite did it for me in the same way, not even 2000’s stellar Heartbreaker and its almost-stellar followup, 2001’s Gold. Menconi, for his part, has followed Adams pretty closely—I’m sure the Adams camp would say “too close for comfort,” considering the rumored cockblocking Adams attempted when Menconi was scheduling interviews with his friends and associates for the book—and has very informed and detailed opinions about all the records. He’s clearly let down by Ryan Adams, as his review at his Losering blog makes explicit:

“Something… Losering emphasized was the futility of fandom: the fact that if you follow anybody long enough, they will surely disappoint you. Whether I should feel that way or not, I am disappointed in Ryan. I wish I didn’t feel that way. Maybe giving up what he had in order to get to where he is now was the right call for Ryan; perhaps his self-titled album will one day be mentioned in the same breath as Rubber Soul or Blonde on Blonde or Darkness on the Edge of Town. But I don’t think so…. What bothers me about Ryan Adams is just how generic it is. It’s not bad — in fact, it’s perfectly pleasant while it’s playing — but it also sounds like something that any number of other people could have made. I’d rather hear another record that Ryan and only Ryan could have made. Given his thoughts on his own catalog, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Maybe ever.”

That’s a perfectly fair, honest, assessment, and the review goes deep into the music and lyrics, certainly deeper than I, as an occasional Adams fan, am willing to go. Menconi’s neither an acolyte nor a hater himself—I can personally vouch for his ability to walk the tight wire of objectivity while retaining his deep love for rock ‘n’ roll—but a lot of locals no doubt assume he falls in the latter camp. So the reason for my digression here is to make a point: people’s reactions to albums are inevitably colored by their prior experiences and their own inherent biases and preferences. That’s not a crime. For me, I came to Ryan Adams with absolutely no expectations whatsoever; I occupy a position of middle ground when it comes to Adams. Well, I’ll admit that when I first spied the front sleeve artwork, I snickered and say to myself, “Pretentiousness alert!”

But back to the music. Like any good album, it scans well on the initial listen and is powered by the classic “make the first three tracks grab the listener” strategy via initial single “Gimme Something Good” (one of several songs on the record that conjure Tom Petty circa his Damn the Torpedoes classic—speaking of whom, that’s Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on organ), lost-lover ode “Kim” (with its Fleetwood Mac/”Go Your Own Way” rhythmic pulse and wandering-through-the-streets-alone vibe) and masterful, dynamics-rich anthem “Trouble” (also cut from the Petty template, its blazing guitars and urgent vocal can’t fail to draw the listener in—“We might as well be dead and be gone if we don’t belong here,” sings Adams, to all us misfits of the world). Adams no doubt realized long ago that if you hook fans right off the bat you stand a pretty good chance of holding their attention for the rest of the duration, something more indie rock bands should take to heart.

More important, though, like a truly great album, Ryan Adams doesn’t lose steam. In fact, it gets better with each spin. Song after song connects: from the spartan, atmospheric folk of “My Wrecking Ball,” which any fan of Jason Isbell would be proud to claim as a favorite, and the brooding, nocturnal “Shadows,” which in its moody grandeur is destined to wind up in on movie soundtracks; to the deceptively celebratory jangler that is “Feels Like Fire” (the contrasting lyrics portray another lost-at-sea Adams persona, as he sings “You will always be the hardest thing I ever will let go”) and the album’s other decisive masterpiece, a thrumming, ‘80s-esque rocker called “I Just Might” which contains a line so deliciously Springsteenian it also bears quoting: “Maybe every promise anybody makes/ Is destined for the rocks the longer it takes.” Point of fact, every tune serves the moment, like a series of self-contained filmic miniatures whose character sketches, though brief, are utterly memorable, with those sketches’ accompanying sonics just as resonant.

Regarding those characters, Adams’ tendency to rely almost exclusively on 1st– and 2nd-person pronouns as he paints his vignettes means that from the outside looking in it’s tempting to assume straightforward autobiographical narrative on his part, which is a risk all songwriters take. Given the public circumstances of his private life, it’s hard not to read some of his lyrics literally, perhaps through the lens of heartbreak or even break-up. A line like “I watched you walk away to be with him” (from “Kim”) seems pretty cut-and-dry, for example, while “Just so you know/ You will always be the hardest thing/ I ever will let go” more than simply hints that there’s been some kind type of parting of the ways. Adams, though, like many of his heroes and inspirations, has learned how to leaven his tales with just the right amount of generality in order to sidestep obsessive scrutiny on the part of the listener. (He’s not Taylor Swift, in other words.) You can listen to these songs and relate, in other words.That ability to infuse a universal quality into one’s songs doesn’t come as part of the writer’s DNA; it’s called honing one’s craft. And on Ryan Adams, the songwriter demonstrates that he’s done a lot of listening, a lot of learning, and a lot of honing.

Ryan Adams is also an unabashedly classic rock record, one that at times verges on homage but never slips into parody or cliché. If you are thinking “classic rock” as pejorative, guess again; another artist has staked out similar turf this year, War On Drugs to near-universal acclaim, with the Springsteen/Seger/Knopfler-infused Lost In A Dream album. On Ryan Adams there are the aforementioned Petty, Springsteen and Fleetwood flourishes, and speaking of the Mac, another song here, “Tired of Giving Up,” bears a remarkable resemblance to Lindsey Buckingham’s compositions of yore, most notably 1981’s solo hit “Trouble.” One can also detect more than a few guitar passages conjuring sonic memories of vintage Dire Straits and Eagles. And I could swear that Adams’ little foray into falsetto towards the end of “Shadows” is a nod to Roy Orbison (or Chris Isaac, perhaps). Adams, if anything, is hewing quite close to his roots here—or at very least, he’s discovering his latent roots. A lot of people probably forget that prior to forming Whiskeytown in 1994 he’d been playing straight-up punk rock, so the transition to alt-country raised more than a few eyebrows. This new album similarly marks a decisive, if not wholly unexpected, change in direction, for aside from “My Wrecking Ball” there’s virtually none of the stuff that’s kept him generally classified as an Americana artist.

Personally speaking, I think it’s a good direction to head in. That’s right, I said 5 out of 5 stars. If we were on a 10-star scale it’d be a 10. You got a problem with that?

Ryan Adams is released this week on CD and vinyl via PaxAmericana Recording Company/Blue Note.

A BLAZING BEGINNNING: Game Theory

Game Theory Press Photo 01 Robert Toren crop

In 1982 a little band from Davis, Calif., set out to document one man’s musical vision and wound up helping rewrite the decade’s pop and indie landscape.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

When Scott Miller died suddenly in 2013, his musical legacy existed only in the critical hosannahs that usually greet any mention of his name and in the hearts of guitar pop record collectors, as his entire catalog with his bands Game Theory and the Loud Family had fallen out of print. While the latter carved out an underappreciated but brilliant career in ‘90s psychedelia, it’s the former group for which he’s most fondly remembered. The band’s sparkling blend of psych rock and new wave pop sounds nearly prescient now, but in the band’s Reagan-era heyday it was lucky to find the cult audience it did – a legacy not helped by the difficulty (and expense) in finding the records in the past couple of decades. Fortunately, Omnivore, the most college rock-friendly reissue label on the racks, is rectifying the problem with a comprehensive reissue campaign.

The best place to begin is, of course, at the beginning; Game Theory’s debut LP Blaze of Glory, just reissued on CD and colored-vinyl LP by the Omnivore label. Considered somewhat raw, even amateurish, at the time of its original 1982 release, the record sounds far more accomplished in retrospect. The low budget nature of the production would be in vogue 15 years later, and the sonics indicate a band that knew how to make the most of its time in the studio. More importantly, Miller’s vision for Game Theory – a masterful blend of the catchy, synth-frosted new wave of the day with a ’60s-inspired approach to psychedelic arrangements and atmosphere, garnished by lyrics more concerned with feel than meaning – was there from the beginning, springing fully formed from Miller’s brow like Athena bursting forth from Zeus’ noggin. Tinkly synthesizers weave in and out of jangling guitar paintings, while Miller’s inimitable voice – high, keening, edging into a whine but never quite getting there – croons over the top. The rhythm section bounces gracefully between caffeinated bop and elastic shimmy, supporting Miller’s whimsy wherever it leads. “Bad Year at UCLA,” “Mary Magdalene” (despite its dubious assertion “Sometimes I feel just like Mary Magdalene”) and “Sleeping Through Heaven” are glorious pop songs, shiny, crashing and true to Miller’s distinctive sense of melody, the sound of a young band finding its groove loudly and enthusiastically. Even lower-key moments like “Stupid Heart” and “It Gives Me Chills” vibrate almost palpably with the excitement of an artist watching his vision unfold. Blaze of Glory is that special kind of debut album – not perfect, perhaps, but boiling over with so many ideas and so much talent it makes you eager to hear where the band goes with the rest of its career.

As with most reissues these days, this new edition of Blaze of Glory comes filled out with numerous bonus tracks – more than there are cuts on the original LP, in fact. The tracks include the usual live recordings and home demos, highlighted by the lovely solo pop tunes “In the Still of the Night” and “She’s a Woman of the Wind” and an in-concert romp through “Bad Year at UCLA” and “Aliens in Our Midst,” from the repertoire of Miller’s pre-GT band Alternate Learning. That latter entity also provides four delightful cuts – the fuzzy “What’s the Matter,” the bopping “Beach State Rocking,” the wistful “New You” and especially the skittering, angular “Another Wasted Afternoon” don’t sound like the later band, but definitely boast some of the molecules out of which Miller would construct Game Theory’s DNA. The extras enhance the original album in just the right ways, giving a glimpse into Miller’s creative process as he laid the tracks for the Game Theory train.

Game Theory Press Photo 02 Robert Toren crop

Photo credit: Robert Toren