Monthly Archives: February 2016

TAYLOR SWIFT WHERE ARE YOU NOW? The Straight Dope On Why China Gets The Best Deals On Digital Music

taylor swift

In China, music piracy has been the norm for ages, and as a result consumers have for a very long time seen little or no value in music—and as a result they continue expect it to be free. The various services have traded off that idea to gather as many people under one umbrella because the hope is to eventually monetize most of what they have to offer. But it’s an uphill battle, and all indications are that it will be that way for some time to come. The normally outspoken—in the U.S.—Swift, however, remains strangely mum. Our correspondent in Beijing investigates.

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

Recently I started to think about how the music industry has changed especially in relation to China. These days everything is so fragmented that people just cherrypick the songs they want, and disregard the rest. In America, iTunes’ success prompted attention from the music industry as it showed how a digital portal vending music, if done right, could be very lucrative. CD sales have been dying a slow death ever since, and now in some cases on Amazon, digital prices can exceed the physical price for a disc, which is sort of counter to the digital/eco idea of giving people a choice not to have to put out money for a plastic disc when they could have a digital version with accompanying digital booklet. This seems odd, given the obvious lower costs involved.

pat metheny unity band

Piracy in America exists, torrent sites come and go—and the RIAA, after losing the PR battle of taking individuals to court, had to try other methods to ensure labels and artists would get paid for their products.

HISTORY

China, Russia, and India are the powerhouses of piracy in the world, and yet they seem to be the ones to benefit from it the most. When I first came to China in 1991, cassette tapes were the norm.  By 1999 I could walk near Beijing University to a massive mall that sold books, music and musical instruments, and would have no less than a handful of migrants asking me if I wanted CDs software or porn. If I said yes (for the music, ahem!), they would ask me to follow them around the corner into an area known as hutongs (alleys) where low rise houses were laid out row after row—a poor area that would eventually see the wrecking ball during modernization. I would walk down these dirty alleys then be escorted into a house where from some back room a man would come out with a cardboard box, filled with the latest music from the West.

Classical, Pop, and other genres were there for the taking. The packaging was in a thin plastic bag with the front cover and tray card inside. The disc would even sometimes bear the ifpi (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) symbol. In 2001 music pirates seemed to take an even bolder approach to selling their wares. Box sets started to appear, and not just shoddy replicas; the quality for many of these sets was flawless with liner notes, inserts, down to the ISBN number. The only way to tell these sets from the real ones besides the price was the occasional typo.

Today, top quality pirate CD box sets are being sold on Taobao.com, China’s Ebay-like portal, which is owned by Alibaba (stock symbol BABA). For a mere $8.00 the US 13-CD Mono Beatles box as well as the Japanese 12-SHCD Led Zeppelin Box can be yours. The officially released Beatles mono set sells for $171 on Amazon.

amazon_beatles

http://www.amazon.com/Beatles-Mono-Complete-Recordings/dp/B002BSHXJA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1454477337&sr=8-1&keywords=beatles+mono

beatles pirate box set

https://item.taobao.com/item.htm?spm=a230r.1.14.15.s1YImm&id=524796607020&ns=1&abbucket=14#detail

led zeppelin japanese pirate boxset

https://item.taobao.com/item.htm?spm=a230r.1.14.35.1wfVY6&id=44777357825&ns=1&abbucket=14detail

***

In the ’90s in China, lack of copyright protection and few legitimate releases by western artists initially created a wide berth for pirates to operate. This, coupled with an archaic slot release system by the major labels, basically ensured that by the time a release did hit the shelves in China, the pirate edition was already changing hands down on the street.

Outdustry.com, a website dedicated to examining all aspects of the Chinese music industry, explains in an article on their site, “It is worth noting at the outset that despite the real and persistent challenges that piracy presents to copyright owners in China, there have been notable gains in recent years, and at least some observers feel that the general trajectory in China is toward an improved enforcement environment.”

The most intense crackdown on piracy happened when the Olympics were a mere six months away. It was at that point you could feel the atmosphere tensing up. Soon all of the DVD and music stores were closed down in Beijing. Time was, you could wolf down some shish kabobs on a side street for a few RMB, and then walk a few stores down, duck into a DVD shop, and purchase the out of print, Criterion Collection DVD of Dead Ringers for a dollar.

MUSIC SERVICES

In 2008 Nokia, who at the time was the top cellphone maker in the world, decided to try and compete with iTunes head to head in countries where Nokia was more popular than Apple. When Nokia opened the Comes With Music service, (eventually to be renamed Ovi Music Unlimited) initially in Europe, it was essentially DOA, first because the pricing was expensive compared to iTunes. In addition, the catalog selection was not as comprehensive, and DRM restrictions on top of the convoluted ways of getting the music from your computer to device made the Comes With Music experience synonymous with European bureaucracy. In fact, when the service came to Singapore, Comes With Music devices were being sold for a 25% premium over the same devices, minus the service. So consumers, who were used to getting their music for free, decided, why pay a premium for it—and decided to purchase the cell model without the added cost.

In 2008, the Chinese Comes With Music team negotiated a deal with the record and publishing companies, to not only offer the service, but to do so DRM free and without any computer restrictions whatsoever. Outdustry.com says, “As recently as 2011, virtually all music downloads in China were unauthorized. Subsequently, the international major record labels struck an accord with some of China’s major search engines — one of the most common sources of links to unauthorized music downloads — which resulted in the search engines receiving licenses for at least some music content.”

For Nokia, the payment was a small fixed dollar cut of the device cost that the majors divvied up. The service was as convenient as could be. One could use their cell phone, the OVI player (a standalone digital player), or their browser to download individual tracks or full albums if so desired. The beauty was that if one person had an account on the Comes With Music site, they were granted the rights to their hearts’ content. The promotional materials at the time played up the oceans’ worth of music of over a million tracks available to device owners. Some Ovi Stores in different territories like Russia and India contained up to 11 million tracks.

1

I worked as the China Music Editor for the Nokia Comes with Music service, and was shocked by the amount of music being licensed. While most people simply snacked instead of feasting (as management liked to term it), the deep catalog offerings from labels such as EMI and Warner were a treasure trove for anyone with a bit of investigative musical curiosity. Where else could you hear a zither tune and then look up Greek music and find 20 or 30 releases from EMI Greece? How about the entire Serge Gainsbourg catalog, or everything ever released by Stax Records? It was an amazing service that had the misfortune of being provided by a cellphone maker that was taking on water fast and about to sink to the bottom of the cellular sea. The cost for the keys to the kingdom was a low end device that would set you back around $200. Imagine a million tracks all meta-tagged, with cover art and decent bitrate for the cost of what iTunes would charge you for 200 tracks!

In 2010 Boy Genius Reports published an article, “Nokia launched DRM-free Comes With Music in China.” In this article the writer Michael Bettiol asks, “When is this type of business model is coming to the Democratic world?” In China, when Comes With Music launched, according to a Wall Street Journal report titled “Nokia Offers Free Music in China”, the article stated, “The labels have been especially willing to experiment with digital music in China, which has the most Internet users of any nation but is also one of the most challenging markets for the music industry in fighting piracy,” and that, “China is a huge market for Nokia and it’s a huge music market from a consumption perspective.”

***

Let’s be careful here, as the default logic that many western companies operate with is: If I could just get each Chinese person to buy my product I would be a billionaire!

How many have believed that mantra and have since gone back to their country, tail between their legs, because the Chinese didn’t want their product or could find a way to do it better? The same faulty logic is to constantly view Chinese as the underdog, the ultimate saver sleeping on a mattress of cash.

In an article by the China Daily, “E-shopping fuels domestic consumption”, it basically states that the Chinese year over year are buying more and more on the Internet, and that, “Chinese shoppers spent 511.9 billion Yuan online in the first six months of this year, up 46.6 percent year-on-year.” That’s 90 billion Yuan, and isn’t it safe to assume that, given the rise in consumption, the Chinese need to learn to shell out for services they take for granted such as music services?

The PR for Nokia’s music service stated when it was launched in China as being the first time labels actually got paid in this market. How did that trickle down to aggregators that rounded up indie content for the Nokia Service? Did these artists ever see a penny? Remember that cut of the device cost well a miniscule fraction of that went to indie musicians.

Nokia’s music service morphed into Mix Radio and has since been sold off to Line a Japanese messaging service and has continued on as a zombie service of sorts, only to announce recently in February of 2016 that the service was being shuttered.

THESE DAYS

in 2016 there’s an incredible music service available in China known as Netease Cloud Music. It’s free to download on all sorts of devices and doesn’t cost a penny to download millions of tracks.

Today I can get the complete discography of The Beatles, all of their bootlegs and singles, in about 10-minutes time—all at 320kbps quality. And even as I was writing this, The Beatles were slated to come to streaming services.

beatles 1

Beatles 2

Beatles 3

beatles 4

beatles 5

Netease Cloud Music is easily the top music site in China, with other services like Xiami backed by Alibaba taking a distant second. The site is basically a free-for-all that operates under the concept that unless a rights holder comes forward to take music down, the music will stay up for all to download as many times as they want.

The site has started to also sell albums along with subscriptions that allow the user to download a couple hundred tracks a month. The deluxe service gives users a download ceiling of 500 lossless quality tracks a month for about $20 a year.

Let’s do the math. For iTunes, at an average cost of $1.29 a track, 500 tracks a month would be $645 a month or $7,740 a year.  A small fortune that hardly a soul in the USA could afford. The above pricing does not reflect the music that doesn’t fall under this agreement with the labels; that music is free to download at one’s will until it gets taken down or is shifted over to the for-a-fee concept. So is the pricing fair? Adele’s 25 fetches 15 RMB or $2.30 dollars for the entire album, whereas on the US iTunes page it sells for $10.99.

adele netease cloud music

Adele Itunes for sale

taylor swift single track price

Taylor Swift, who criticized Apple Music’s not paying royalties during the trial period, receives a paltry 32 cents a track for music off of her 1989 album. (see photo) Swift’s impassioned, widely circulated plea to Apple stated, “This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt.”

One wonders why she would accept so little for her music and yet not apply the same approach asking Netease to start actually paying the ocean of bands that appear on the service an actual rate?

WHY ARE PEOPLE STILL PAYING SO LITTLE IN CHINA FOR MP3S?

Back in early 2000, there was so much Microsoft piracy that the company eventually relented and lowered their prices. If there is a positive side to piracy, it brings sometimes more equitable pricing structures. If there is a democratization that supposedly ensues after rampant piracy (the so-called bringing the mountain to the man), why has that not found its way to places like the USA, where prices for MP3s have actually gone up in cost.

China is a country going through massive changes, and piracy is hard to stamp out. If the concept of services like Netease are to eventually put everyone on a paid subscription and wean people off of free music, then in theory, great. But the reality with a site like Netease is that it is basically left to users to police things, along with the occasional label that complains to take things down. If they really were open to scrutiny and an honest discussion on the music on their site, then they would have created the page for lodging a takedown request in English.

Instead, this is what a Western artist would see if they were so lucky to navigate to the page. The only thing they’d see is an email address way at the bottom and nary a hope that anyone would actually respond to their inquiry, since they don’t write Chinese.

If bands have any hope of getting paid, then artists will have to start understanding the entire global music monetization picture instead of just focusing on Apple, Spotify and the like. I just don’t see how labels, though, can justify cutting such deals overseas. It’s unfair for those who legitimately pay for their MP3s at a $1.29 a pop to have someone in another country be able to get it for free, or for a mere fraction of the cost. Capitulation to a standard that being paid at all is better than the specter of mass piracy has forced many artists, when dealing with Chinese music services, into deals that are being subsidized by legitimate sales in other countries.

To be fair, the Chinese consumers have for a very long time seen little or no value in music, and expect it to be free. The various services have traded off that idea to gather as many people under one umbrella because the hope is to eventually monetize most of what they have to offer. So it’s an uphill battle for companies like Apple (whose users have no problem dropping $1000 for an iPhone in China) to create a revenue generating service that engenders in its users a feeling that most have never had, which is that music should be treated as art and should be curated, collected, and most of all, given its due respect.

So Taylor Swift where are you now? Can you help use your clout to get a better deal for the bands that appear on Netease, Xiami, Kugou and QQ? Because if the industry doesn’t take heed soon and institutes a global standardized pricing structure, then all it takes is a tech savvy American to purchase a cheap VPN ($5 a month), sign on from a China node, download the relevant app from the Google Play or App store, and start downloading to their heart’s content, ensuring the cycle of piracy continues unabated.

TRUE CONFESSIONS: M. Ward

M Ward 2

“In my mind, all the records I’ve made are part of the same story and the same book”: Just the same, on his new album the songwriter (and She & Him/Monsters Of Folk member) ditches the introspection and atmosphere for something more upbeat and joyful.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Let’s face it. M. Ward’s music isn’t the type of sound you’d want to stick on the CD player when you’re anxious to brighten your mood and get a party going in full gear. Its dark, introspective mingling of ambiance and atmosphere casts a decidedly downcast sound. An encounter with any of the seven albums he’s released up until this point reveals a singularly sobering persona, one that’s as ominous as it is assertive, menacing to the point of intimidation.

That’s been the case since he kicked off his career in 1999. Surprisingly then, More Rain, Ward’s new opus that is released by Merge on March 4, reveals him taking a bit of an upbeat approach, one that’s rarely been witnessed before. With an array of special guests—among them, Peter Buck, Neko Case, k.d. lang, the Secret Sisters and Joey Spampinato of NRBQ—it shows a lighter side that’s been absent from the music he’s made on his own. While his side sojourns alongside actress/singer Zooey Deschanel in She and Him, and his one-off collaboration with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James under the collective handle Monsters of Folk, have revealed a penchant for rock and pop, More Rain purveys a sound and sensibility he’s rarely displayed on his own.

M Ward album

Blurt caught up with him after his return from a vacation in Hawaii and prior to a whirlwind of promotion planned for the new record. Like his studio persona, we found him thoughtful, contemplative, soft-spoken and quite candid.

BLURT: It’s been said that the genesis of this album was to make it a doo-wop album. Was that the original intention, to do an entire album just using voices?

WARD: The original idea was just to use voices and guitar, and vocals would be all the other layers. I wanted to emulate the way early doo-wop singers made their voices sound like strings and horns and percussion and all the other instruments. So that was the original intention and it just started to grow and snowball into other areas. So it still has that backbone in my mind, but I wanted to take every song to its conclusion and that meant adding other layers. So that’s how the record was made.

Your music is known for its introspective, atmospheric style. So this album seems to be a bit of a change. There’s a more upbeat element to it. The songs are more varied with the different styles and sounds. Was that a deliberate decision on your part?

At the conception of the record, I didn’t know exactly what I was making, but as time went by, I thought it would be interesting to try something new, as easy and as difficult as that may sound. I had an idea of making a record that would work in winter time, but would still be upbeat and get me through the rainy season as well.

You appear to be an extreme multi-tasker. You have your side job with She and Him, you did that album with Monsters of Folk, and you seem to always be collaborating with other like-minded artists. Is it sometimes difficult to determine where you want to go next?

Not really. I realized a long time ago that one of the best parts of this job is getting to work with talented people, relying only on my own abilities to make records that are interesting to me. I love what happens when you bring in the human element, and I love those surprises when you bring in talented people to your songs and to your records, and I can’t imagine any other way of making a record. Collaboration is half the pleasure of making records.

Is there ever any pressure in knowing that the buck stops with you? For the most part, it’s your name on the masthead after all. Wouldn’t it be easier to bury yourself behind a band?

No, I don’t feel very much pressure. I’ve tried to fire myself a few times, or just completely turn a page and do something entirely new with…life. But songs keep happening and rearing their heads. I’ve been doing it since I was fifteen, following these songs and seeing where they want to go and that leads me towards eventually making a record because there are always certain songs that feel wrong not to share.

The atmospheric element you apply to those melodies seems to be equally important to the formula. How do you develop those arrangements in sync with the songs?

It goes hand in hand. The environment and the atmosphere are just as important as the song. If a great song is recorded too heavy-handedly then the song in my opinion, doesn’t come across. However to be absolutely honest, I don’t know where it comes from.

When you set out to do an album, is there an overall concept that you have in mind, or is it really just a set of songs that you’ve written and manage to fit together?

It’s a cross between the two. I’m definitely inspired by whatever record came before it, and I’m thinking in my mind what should be the next logical chapter. In my mind, all the records I’ve made are part of the same story and the same book. I’m not really interested in rewriting anything, but I am interested in pushing the ball forward and continuing to experiment. For this new record, it was mainly an experiment with vocals to see if I could create some interesting layers just relying on my voice. I’ve never relied on my voice that much. I’ve always relied on guitars and other instruments to keep the drama going.

So what accounts for the more upbeat quality that’s evident in this album?

That’s a good question. The people that I’ve spoken with that have heard the record have all sensed a more upbeat feel to the record, which is absolutely great that people are feeling that way. To me, it feels as balanced as my last few records as far as dark colors and lighter colors. I always appreciate other peoples’ takes on a record because you guys that have a better perspective on the record and I’m the one with zero perspective because I’m so inside it.

When you’re assuming the role of a producer on someone else’s project, do you go in with a specific sound or arrangement in mind? Do you have a preconceived notion of what you want to do with the record?

Normally the process begins with studying the demos and listening to them over and over again. Ideally, I’ll listen to the very first recordings by whoever wrote the songs because there’s a lot of colors inside that recording that will tell you where the song should go, or wants to go. It always starts off with one song at a time, and once you get that song inside the studio, sounds begin to form and you start to follow those sounds. A lot of times you already know who those musicians are, which makes a big difference. I just produced a Mavis Staples album and we knew ahead of time who the musicians were going to be. They were the musicians in her touring band. That was a huge bonus for the record, because there was a built-in chemistry. We could move along a lot faster because we knew who the players were going to be. When I’m making my own records it’s a little bit more of a kaleidoscope.

She and Him seem to have taken on a life of its own. It appears to have developed as a parallel career.

Yes, that is a parallel career. When we started out, we had no idea how many records we were going to make, but we both jumped into the project to see what would happen and we tried to record these songs. It’s completely different from my M. Ward records and that’s part of the pleasure of being involved with it. I get to be somebody else for awhile. It’s like having an alter ego.

Is it a 50-50 participation in terms of your respective involvement?

Most of the songs are composed by Zooey. She will send me her very rough garage band demos and I will live with them for a long time. Once there’s enough demos, we meet at the studio and start making the record.

How did the two of you meet?

I was doing music for a film she was starring in called The Go-Getter, and the director had the idea of getting us together to cover a Richard and Linda Thompson song. We ended up reading each other’s instincts in the studio, and definitely found some common ground.

Have you ever asked her to give you a cameo on her TV show?

No. I’m definitely no actor.

And what’s the status of Monsters of Folk? Any chance there will be a second album from that band?

There’s always a possibility but we have no plans at the moment. Everybody stays very busy with lots of different projects.

It’s not surprising to hear you calling yourself an introvert, because your music tends to be a bit introverted. It would seem a natural transition.

I definitely have parts of myself that are extroverted and outgoing, but by and large, I’m much more at home in the studio and experimenting with songs and sounds and ideas. I’m not so much born to be on the stage.

Isn’t it a bit of a contradiction, to be a bit withdrawn and still be an artist who’s expected to appear in front of audiences?

I agree that there is a traditional trajectory of making a record and touring for a year, or longer. But I also believe there is space to create a different path for anyone who does anything creatively. It’s nothing that my label and manger love to hear from me go on and on about, that is, carving a different path because of course the best thing for the music is to be out there on the road like Bob Dylan, but I have no interest in that.

It seems like you’re aiming for a very delicate balance.

I’m a Libra, a born and bred Libra, so it’s my burden in life.

Out of curiosity, how did you get the name M. as opposed to Matt or Matthew which is your given name?

It was a name that I was given when I was young. It works for me.

It adds a bit of mystique.

I guess so. People have told me that. It was bestowed upon me.

 

M Ward 1

M Ward info and tour dates are at his official site.

Fri, April 29: Saxapahaw, NC – The Haw River Ballroom
Sat, April 30: Charlottesville – The Jefferson Theater
Sun, May 1: Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
Mon, May 2: Philly – Union Transfer
Wed, May 4: New York – Webster Hall
Fri, May 6: Portland, ME – Port City Music Hall
Sat, May 7: Boston – Royale

FORCE OF NATURE: Lisa Fischer

LisaFischer_AW16_06

In concert at Toronto’s Koerner Hall on January 29, the “Twenty Feet From Stardom” cast member and Rolling Stones backing singer demonstrated who’s the REAL star. Her ability to light up a room with her voice and highly-charged, giving personality is something to behold. Talent this rich will find its way to an audience that demands it.
TEXT BY ERIC THOM / PHOTOS BY ERIC THOM & ATAEL WEISSMAN

Anyone mesmerized by Gil Friesen’s spellbinding Twenty Feet From Stardom documentary, chronicling the painful geography that separates a backup singer from a solo artist, will be familiar with Lisa Fischer. In fact, anyone aware of her too-brief solo career back in ’91 or her support work, since, with Luther Vandross, Sting, Tina Turner, AC/DC and – especially – the Stones, will know all about her.

The resultant spin from Twenty Feet has positioned this somewhat reluctant Force of Nature about 19 feet closer to front-and-center than she had seemed willing to be. In her words, from a pre-show interview prior to the following evening’s Montreal concert, “I feel everything has really culminated to this moment where I am now. As much as I love the backup work, I don’t want to waste this opportunity to explore and do my music with Grand Baton — because opportunity doesn’t come very often, and sometimes not at all.”

LisaFischer_AW16_04

I really don’t think any of us in attendance for the Toronto show knew what to expect, as Fischer’s phenomenal vocal range and base of experience has embraced rock, soul, R&B, jazz and all points in-between. Nor could we be fully prepared for a voice of this magnitude, together with Fischer’s absolute, turn-on-a-dime control. She internalizes her music. It comes from deep within her and she feeds off her fellow musicians who – in this case, are a like-minded ensemble, well-versed in world music but capable of spinning around on a variety of rhythm pattern combinations, melodies and experimental sounds. Grand Baton is a band, of which Fischer feels more a part of than she does its leader, which includes: JC Maillard (musical director, arranger, guitar, SazBass, backing vocals), Thierry Arpino (drums & percussion) and Aidan Carroll (bass & backing vocals). Maillard is a native of Guadeloupe and is as adept in the realm of electronic music, dubstep and rock as he is the cultural nuances of his native country, encompassing influences from the church to the carnivals. This, together with virtuoso Parisien percussionist, Arpino, and his gifts with the extended vocabulary of the melodic Ka drum, plus the ultra-versatile, New York jazz-schooled, bassist, Carroll. What comes out the other end is by Maillard’s design, yet driven by the spontaneity and spiritual firepower of Fischer and her intensely personal gift.

Needless to say, anyone expecting Fischer to rip into a rousing version of “Gimme Shelter” would be a little lost as she deconstructed some of her favourite ‘story’ songs, transforming each into delicate tapestries, fired by the sturdy Caribbean-influenced rhythms of Arpino/Carroll and the deft artistry of the multi-stringed Maillard and his twisted arrangements. Fischer spoke of her fascination with how things transform into performance to the Montreal Gazette: “Each word might have a different nuance. It may have more of an R&B feel or jazz feel or rock feel — but always an emotional, soulful feeling. I get to shade and use the colors in my palette, but it’s really the words and melody that get me there.”

LisaFischer_AW16_01

LisaFischer_AW16_03

To watch her perform is to appreciate an artist releasing each internalized musical idea from a very intimate place. Barefoot, her hands and arms are butterfly wings of expression, as she coaxes note after note from across a broad spectrum of frequencies, reaching high or, gracefully positioning herself in Sumo-like stance to harness hidden powers and maximum projection, still caressing each lyric for emphasis. Fischer claims it was Luther Vandross who taught her to sing with “more air”, introducing subtleties that ultimately contributed to such unparalleled control. Of her style of singing, she puts it simply: “…you’re a little feather and somebody just said (she blows into her cupped hand) …and you just go…you just go and you never fall…you never hit your head…you just kinda land. That’s what it feels like to me.”

LF-FullSing7475ET_1

Truly something transcendent happens and each of the night’s 11 songs brought something different forward about both singer and her band, merging a wide, wide range of styles and genre blends. Beginning with an Amy Grant song, “Breath of Heaven”, Fischer swayed to its lengthy acoustic guitar intro, as Carroll added a warm bass sound from his acoustic bass while Arpino contributed the soft punch of brushed drums and hand-played cymbals. Eric Bibb’s “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down” seemed like her antidote to a music business that has treated her so indifferently, transforming it from a gospel-blues track into some more ethereal, jazz-like and exotic. As the heavy bass and drums gave “Bird In A House” a strong reggae flavor, Maillard burst into a feverish Spanish-sounding guitar solo as Fischer swirled and danced. As Maillard switched over to electric piano, Fischer encouraged the crowd to sing along with the words “freedom”. Introducing her songs, she noted, “I love stories. Each book becomes a little book and your ears become the reader….and you just get lost.”

SongbirdFischer7483ET_1

SilentFischer7453ET_1

OverThere7458ET_1

Picking up the pace with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” (“it’s been a long time since I rocked and rolled…”), Fischer unleashed power and grace in the form of a huge voice with the accompanying theatrics she’s become known for as her band kept pace. It elicited such a huge response from the crowd she gave a momentary oh-what-have-I-done? look of fear, for purely comedic effect, as she began to talk about the impact of the documentary on her life. For soul fans, her elongated version of her own UK hit, “How Can I Ease the Pain” practically blew the roof off in an entirely different direction. Maillard incorporates a repeated guitar line as the pair reconstructs the original, Fischer reaching deep inside to present high, soaring notes that simply build and burst into the ozone, while the band incorporates a sound more akin to Pat Metheny than the more pop-like original. The response to her talent soon had Fischer clapping back to the audience in her appreciation. Turning up the heat with her sultry cover of Little Willie John’s hit “Fever”, Arpino moved in front of his kit to work a beat box as Maillard took things in a Spanish direction, adding simpatico vocals to Fischer’s. Achieving a chirping sound with her voice, a steaming bass solo made way for a change-up in rhythm, picking up speed, before winding back down to flamenco-styled guitar as each band member added vocal support.

LF-Guitarist7463ET_1

Always the selfless, modest presenter, she thanked the audience for being there in support of a singer who, “as long as there’s a melody a groove and a reason”, would be there. As Maillard strapped on his 8-stringed SazBass mando-guitar, a heavy drumbeat revealed another Stones’ cover – “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. Slightly reworked into a funk mode, Fischer and Maillard dueled back-and-forth as guitarist and vocalist would copy and out-do each other’s flurry of notes, Maillard’s sound again akin to that muted jazz sound of Metheny’s. It was certainly obvious that – if Fischer had spent an entire lifetime singing in the shower, this could not account for a gift so special.

The next unidentified song featured a clapping intro that faltered slightly as Carroll’s sound went Pastorius, joined by electric keys and electric guitar, leading to what might have started as a flashback to the drum solo of old. In Arpino’s care, however, it quickly became entirely non-traditional and something special to witness. Fischer would use her hand-held microphone and add further effects to her vocals with a stand-mounted microphone with an added element of reverb, working the two against each other at times. Laughing and squeaking out hilarious pig noises at the song’s conclusion, Fischer apologized for the distance travelled, adding, “we space out sometimes” (not that anyone was complaining). Similarly, a song called “Addicted” gets a jazzy treatment allowing her to, again, soar like a bird.

LisaFischer_AW16_02

Applying some lipstick (“when you need it, you need it”), she launched into her final song, “Gimme Shelter” – an aural ballet of a track that built up like a storm cell which, after a tasty acoustic bass solo, turned quickly inwards to accentuate the positive ..”Love is a kiss away….we need more love and (over and over) love.” The audience was on its feet and stayed there until Fischer returned for another Stones’ track, “Wild Horses”. This was Fischer alone, accompanied by Maillard’s guitar, with a slow build and, if I heard correctly, incorporated lyrics from the O’Jays’ “Wildflower”. This proved to be one of the evening’s true highlights. Towards the end of Twenty Feet, Fischer notes, “some people will do anything to be famous and then there are other people who…just…sing. It’s not about anything except being in this special space with people…and that is really the higher calling to me.”

Fischer may be unwilling to play the game, uncomfortable finding her way through the business side of things. Yet, her ability to light up a room with her voice and highly-charged, giving personality is something to behold. Talent this rich will find its way to an audience that demands it. She needn’t worry about the details. She’ll be singing either way – but her audience will seek her out.

 

WHERE THE SPOTLIGHT SHINES: Walter Martin

_images_uploads_gallery_Image_9

With the kind of laconic detail and precision normally reserved for a Paul Simon or Loudon Wainwright, the young songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with indie-rock band The Walkmen serves up a classic.

BY STEVEN ROSEN

If nothing else, Walter Martin deserves accolades – and maybe a Grammy nomination – for rhyming “Philippe de Montebello,” former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with “unsuspecting fellow” in his new solo album’s opening song, “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous.”

A key track on the recently released Arts + Leisure, it’s a wry, autobiographical song that paints the young Martin – now a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with indie-rock band The Walkmen – as a merry prankster in his youth, working at the Met’s switchboard and transferring calls to its director to his sleepy roommate at home.

Yet the song is more sweet – bittersweet, actually – than funny. Martin’s reflective, straining and understated voice, which sometimes leaps up an octave at a line’s end as if still changing or breaks into a whistle, carries a sense of melancholy. That touch of sadness or loneliness gives this quirkily sincere album with its likably subdued songs a deceptive depth.

It’s primarily about Martin’s memories of how he became interested in visual art, but it’s also an examination of his youth.

To continue with “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous” a minute, it’s a marvelous song that keeps unassumingly peeling off insights. Martin recalls working at the information desk of The Cloisters museum when Billy Joel walks in:

 

I take a long long look at him.

A dignified old music man.

And that’s when I devised my plan.”

 

That’s a striking image – you can see Joel visiting a New York museum in a free moment, perhaps seeking commanding artistic inspiration, and commanding respect not by demanding it but because of what he’s accomplished. You don’t even have to like Joel’s work to be moved by line.

The “plan” Martin refers to was to become a New York rocker like Joel. He closes the song by describing that as his current job.

 

“Where the spotlight shines and the people all cheer.

And the pretty girls flock from far and near.

To touch my hand and hear my song.

And buy my t-shirts and sing along.”

 

Maybe that’s true, but maybe there’s also some self-deprecating irony there, as well in the song’s title. But not in the final line, where he refers to another job he once had: “Goddam this sure beats mowing lawns.” No doubt.

 Much of the rest of the album is almost as good, as the well-traveled Martin reflects on first seeing such artworks as “Calder’s Circus,” the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow (“Charles Rennie Mackintosh”), the David in Florence and Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (“Michelangelo”), and visiting “Amsterdam” with his father.

He’s nicely in touch, without being sentimental, about how art was experienced by him as a youth whose parents take him to a museum. In “Watson and the Shark,” about how as a kid he loved John Singleton Copley’s thrilling, terrifying 1778 painting of a shark attack near Havana, he can precisely, analytically (and wittily) recall – in a mid-song spoken-word passage – why other art at the National Gallery bored him:

“Portraits of old people, blurry water lilies, landscapes of places that looked boring, and interior scenes that said nothing.”

 (A child’s view of art history, however, does have its limits. One hopes by now his thoughts on Monet have changed.)

The arrangements provided throughout the record by his accompanists vary – there’s a touch of country (“Old as Hell”), reggae (“The Tourist”) and polite singer-song rock. A couple do veer into a thin slightness, however, like “Down by the Singing Sea.”

Because Martin earlier released a children’s album, We’re All Young Together, with a childlike point of view and a musical simplicity, it’s tempting to compare him to Jonathan Richman in his “Ice Cream Man” period.

But Martin isn’t trying to be an adult naïf or an outsider musician. His writing has the kind of laconic detail and precision of a Paul Simon or Loudon Wainwright. He might be on his way to someday becoming a “dignified old music man.”

Walter Martin 1-16

Photo Credit: Sebastian Kim

NYMPHS, NAIFS, AND NYMPHETS GALORE: Fleetwood Mac Fest, L.A. 2/9/16

phases4

A star-studded night to remember in Glitterville USA. “Hoo-wee, it was fun!” says our sweet shutterbug, of her night out on Feb. 9 at L.A.’s Fonda Theatre. (Pictured above: S Nicks Alert! Z Berg of Phases, Gorgeously resplendent in gossamer black.”)

TEXT & PHOTOS BY SUSAN “GYPSY” MOLL

For the better part of a decade now, The Best Fest brain trust has produced a host of namesake musical events in the U.S. and abroad honoring the likes of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Neil Young for the benefit of various charities. The ninth and tenth of February, however, belonged to Fleetwood Mac, and the Fonda Theatre enticed Angelenos back to the velvet underground for Fleetwood Mac Fest L.A., whose proceeds helped fund the Sweet Relief and Sweet Stuff organizations.

Nymphs, naifs, and nymphets galore turned out, many swathed in diaphanous Nicksian raiment and channeling the sisters of the moon within. Events of this nature, especially those held in Hollywood, make for interesting bedfellows. Sarah Silverman, Courtney Love and Perry Farrell all signed on to perform, and Ron Jeremy was even reportedly spotted backstage…

Emceed by the Cabin Down Below Band, the singers, songwriters, actors and various and sundry others plumbed the depths of the Fleetwood Mac canon as well as the solo output of its principals. A sprightly Carly Rae Jepsen had just enough time to drop in for “Hold Me” before boarding a red-eye to New York to film a video… Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig— both of Lucius, each sporting a vermilion quiff—teamed up for a passionate take on “I Don’t Wanna Know.” …Bijou Phillips and better half Danny Masterson (That ‘70s Show) checked in with the rollicking “Second Hand News,” and Pacific Northwest songsmith Noah Gundersen mesmerized all with his interpretation of “Little Lies.”… Jack Dishel of Moldy Peaches fame nimbly played every one of Lindsey Buckingham’s notes to perfection on “Holiday Road,” an ideal complement to the day’s balmy weather…

No Mac-centric event is complete without “Gypsy,” and it all came down to Music City songbird Jessie Baylin. …Fellow Nashvillian Ruby Amanfu, one of Jack White’s Peacocks, delivered “I’m So Afraid” as only a true soul diva could…. Gorgeously resplendent in gossamer black, Z Berg led Phases through “Everywhere,” one of the setlist’s many acmes…. Dhani Harrison and Mereki Beach, performing as Dhani & Mereki, played a subtle, poignant interpretation of “Landslide” that easily put the Smashing Pumpkins’ to shame. We witnessed Harrison milling through the audience post-set but dared not approach. If this were the closest we’d ever get to our favorite Beatle, we’d take it. … KT Tunstall puzzled over Mick Fleetwood’s wooden balls, as anyone who’s ever listened to or at the very least been conscious of Rumours has, before tearing into “You Make Loving Fun.”… A barefoot Courtney Love managed to remain upright through her tone-deaf version of “Silver Springs” and couldn’t resist victimizing the audience with a flash of her ass as she left the stage… The girl with the most cake? Joanna Newsom, who played the tender “Beautiful Child” not on the harp, alas, but from behind a piano in a distant corner of the stage… Juliette Lewis, fierce in a saffron catsuit, completely obliterated the cloud of fairy dust Newsom left in her wake with her ferocious rendition of “Stand Back.”… A statuesque vision in scarlet, Karen Elson took a solo turn with “Rhiannon,” joined Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) and Weezer’s Brian Bell for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” and made way for Mark Ronson, Butch Walker and an out-of-control Alison Mosshart for “The Chain.” …Twenty-eight songs later, the evening culminated in “Don’t Stop.” It’s safe to say no one did.

***

Alison Mosshart & Butch Walker

alison_mosshart_butch_walker
Bijou Phillips

bijou_phillips3
Carly Rae Jepsen

carly_rae_jepsen4
Dhani Harrison

dhani_harrison

Danny Masterson

danny_masterson2

Jack Dishel

jack_dishel4
Jamestown Revival

jamestown_revival2

jamestown_revival
Jess + Holly (Lucius)

jess_holly
Jessie Baylin

jessie_baylin2
Joanna Newsom

joanna_newsom_rsz
Juliette Lewis

juliette_lewis
Karen Elson

karen_elson
KT Tunstall

kt_tunstall3
Noah Gundersen

noah_gundersen3
Phases

phases4
Ruby Amanfu

ruby_amanfu

 

Mereki Beach

mereki_beach2

 

The Pierces

the_pierces

 

Sarah Silverman

sarah_silverman_rsz

 

 

O CANADA! The 19th Annual Maple Blues Awards

 

SlideSign7260

On January 18 at Toronto’s acoustically and visually stunning Koerner Hall, the annual honoring of Canadian blues artists was a profoundly moving – and rousing – celebration. Below, take a look at the complete list of winners as well as our photo gallery.

TEXT & PHOTOS BY ERIC THOM

Quick – can you name 5 top Canadian blues acts? Didn’t think so. Yet, many Canadians would be equally hard-pressed to do so, if only because the sacred genre continues to find itself buried alive in its own vague mystique, never completely understood as a distinct category unto itself. Truth be told, Canada is a long way from Chicago or the crossroads of Highway #1 and #8 in Mississippi. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from the continuous flow of blues talent originating in this country.

Canada is, in fact, a hotbed for the blues. And it would seem that all it takes is an international Awards Show to throw fresh wood on the fire each year, rejuvenating ‘the brand’ and building excitement afresh in this much-maligned, sometimes tired, category.

Two decades back, the Toronto Blues Society pushed forward with the notion of a national blues awards program with the two-pronged goal of promoting blues music across this vast country and to recognize outstanding achievement in the field. In a country so geographically challenging to the sacred heart of journeymen and women who slog thousands of thankless miles to play live, the Maple Blues Awards have become more of a national group hug and something to look forward to, besides getting rich quick.

These awards do offer a lovely twist on the traditional awards blueprint. Once nominees are thrashed out by a representative panel of blues-related aficionados, the voting process is, for the most part, opened up to Canadian blues fans from across the country to choose their winners. Real people voting for real winners is a reality; yet, on the downside, if you don’t have a profile amongst the voting public (which can only come from touring and keeping in the news), then you’re not likely to take home any hardware. As such, a lot of the winners are ‘regulars’ but, over time, new blood does trickle into the process and the special night tends to shine a light on what is distinctive about Canadian blues – a celebration of where it’s been and, quite likely, where it’s going next.

CBC'sGillDeacon7272

The outcome of this year’s Maple Blues Awards – and the show itself – proved an outstanding example of how exciting, and affirmative, the blues can be. The show itself is held in the Royal Conservatory’s showpiece, Koerner Hall – a stunning example of Euro-design with near-perfect sightlines and divine acoustics. Despite that you’d be hard pressed to ever find a typical blues audience here, it makes the occasion all the more special, lending a sophistication to the proceedings and an excellent focal point for both the Maple Blues Band (comprised of the cream of Canadian Blues musicians) and the evening’s six featured showcase artists. Guest host, CBC Radio’s Gillian Deacon – pictured above; a self-confessed blues newbie – did a very impressive job of hosting the gala event while the hugely popular MBA band kept the show moving with well-rehearsed stings and full-bodied instrumentals, ably lead by Downchild bassist, Gary Kendall.

Colin7309

With the run-down of nominees and ever-rotating presenters from the blues community announcing the winners, the busy schedule moved along surprisingly quickly – broken into uniform sections by single-song performances from the list of nominees. These included Harrison Kennedy, Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar, Colin Linden (above) David Gogo, Cécile Doo-Kingué and John Campbelljohn (joined by the gospel-fired voices of Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar). With the exception of Linden’s coin-drop, solo presentation of the title track from his latest album, “Rich In Love”, each act was backed by the Maple Blues Band. From the full-tilt gospel scorch of Martin and Delta Sugar to the acoustic bliss of Linden’s polish; from the blues-rock bite of Gogo’s guitar-playing to the smooth, soulful spin of Kennedy’s take on “Milk Cow Blues”; from world music fire of Doo-Kingué’s joyful “Animal Kingdom” (below), to Campbelljohn’s full-bodied testifying over “The Poor Man Pays” – there could not have been a better turning out of the healthy state of blues in this country, based on this significant range of blues styles.

CécileDoo-KinguéTwo7395

Cleaning up in the Entertainer, Electric Act and Guitarist of the Year was Montreal’s one-man-band, Steve Hill, while everybody’s favorite sideman, Linden, got some overdue attention for his latest solo project with both Recording and Songwriter of the Year Awards. Much beloved Manitoban icon, Big Dave McLean, scooped Acoustic Act, playing his heart out with his Sinners Choir for the post-awards party. Twice in two years honors went to New Brunswick’s Matt Andersen and Montreal’s sultry Angel Forrest who repeated for Male and Female Vocalists of the Year. New blood was welcomed as Alberta’s own Kirby Sewell Band claimed New Artist of the Year while, speaking of youth, Conor Gains pocketed a tidy cash award, having earned the Paul Reddick/TBS Cobalt Prize for his original composition, “Leave It On The Line”. Individual ‘Best of the Year’ instrument awards are listed below with a special upset in the bass category with Wicked Grin’s Leigh-Anne Stanton taking home the coveted prize. Ex-pat David Vest, upon accepting his award for Piano Player of the Year, noted – charmed by his new Canadian home – that “I wasn’t born here but came as soon as I heard about it”. Outstanding contributor awards were earned by the First Lady of Maritime Blues, Theresa Malenfant (Lifetime Achievement Award) while Larry Kurtz (below) Artistic Director of his successful Orangeville Blues & Jazz Festival, graciously accepted the Blues Booster of the Year award.

Larry Kurtz7297

The successful evening didn’t end there, spreading from the main hall into the adjoining bar/lobby area where Dave McLean’s set became an open stage. These guest spots and cameos plus the chance to mingle with fans and artists alike, have become the highlight of each MBAs, once the prizes are doled out. As always, the beauty of a night of celebrating the blues – encompassing everybody’s definitions of the blues – provides us all with the opportunity to revel in our personal victories and a chance to seek out those artists who are new to us. That’s good for the artists. It’s good for the fans. And, most of all, it’s all the better for the blues.

***

John Campbelljohn, showcase performance:

JohnCJ7449

David Gogo, showcase performance:

DavidGogo7278_1

Colin Linden, Songwriter of the Year:

ColinSWOTY7413_1

 

Steve Hill:

SteveHill7420 copy_1

Guest Presenters, Eric Bibb and Steve Strongman:

Bibb&Strongman7389

Barbara Newman, CEO Blues Foundation & Charlie Andrews, SOCAN, Presenters:

BarbaraNewman7325 copy_1

Angel Forrest, Female Vocalist of the Year:

AngelForest7408 copy_1

Wicked Grin’s Leigh-Anne Stanton, Bassist of the Year:

Leigh-AnneStanton0055

Big Dave McLean and his Sinners Choir, kick off after-party:

BigDaveMcLean0009

Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar, showcase performance:

SamanthaMartin7343

 

***

WINNERS OF THE 19TH ANNUAL MAPLE BLUES AWARDS

 

 ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

Steve Hill

 

ELECTRIC ACT OF THE YEAR

Steve Hill

 

ACOUSTIC ACT OF THE YEAR

Big Dave McLean

 

MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Matt Andersen

 

FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Angel Forrest

 

NEW ARTIST OR GROUP OF THE YEAR

The Kirby Sewell Band

 

RECORDING OF THE YEAR

Colin Linden – Rich In Love (Stony Plain)

 

BLUES WITH A FEELING (Lifetime Achievement)

Theresa Malenfant

 

BB KING INTERNATIONAL ARTIST OF THE YEAR

Buddy Guy

 

GUITARIST OF THE YEAR

Steve Hill

 

HARMONICA PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Harpdog Brown

 

PIANO/KEYBOARD PLAYER OF THE YEAR

David Vest

 

HORN PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Jon Wong

 

DRUMMER OF THE YEAR

Tom Bona

 

BASSIST OF THE YEAR

Leigh-Anne Stanton

 

SONGWRITER OF THE YEAR

Colin Linden

 

BLUES BOOSTER OF THE YEAR

Larry Kurtz

RETURN OF THE (INDIE) GLIMMER TWINS: Nikki Sudden & Epic Soundtracks

Nikki and Epic by Chris Coleman

A pair of expanded reissues ably sings the praises of the late Godfrey brothers. Above photo by Chris Coleman.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

Ed. note: England’s Stones/Faces-worshiping rocker Nikki Sudden passed away in 2006, while his somewhat more art-rock inclined younger brother, Epic Soundtracks, preceded him by nearly a decade, in 1997. By then, though, both had attained cult-hero status—their punk maneuverings of the late ‘70s as Swell Maps certainly didn’t hurt their legacies—and here in modern times, the music-buying public is simply fortunate to have the opportunity to dip into both artists’ oeuvre. No stranger to either man, Britain’s Easy Action label, well known to fans of Motor City-centric archival titles, along with sundry other Detroit-looking artists from around the globe, recently went to the well once more, and with stellar—not to mention greatly expanded—results. Our own scarves-brandishing, glam-rockin’ contributing editor Michael Toland explains, below. – FM

***

Nikki Sudden Brocade

1999’s Red Brocade was my first Nikki Sudden album. After years of reading about him in various publications, particularly the Trouser Press Record Guide, I decided it was time to indulge my curiosity. Since this album featured Chicago’s Chamber Strings, with whom I’d recently become infatuated (R.I.P. frontman Kevin Junior), and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and Sudden had proclaimed it his best to date, it seemed like a good place to start. Plus, it was new, and on an American label (albeit a tiny one), and it was the only one on the racks at my local store.

Since this was in the days before you could stream a song on YouTube or SoundCloud, I’d never heard a note of Sudden’s music, and I have to admit: I couldn’t get into it. The, shall we say, contrast between the Strings’ shimmering rock/pop and Sudden’s atonal singing didn’t sit well with me at all. In those days when I was still expanding my palette as far as what constituted acceptable music, I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. So I gave it a couple of spins and sold it back to the store from whence it came.

A couple of years later, having grown more accustomed to dissonance, I tried again, this time with Secretly Canadian’s then-recent two-fer reissue of his earlier band The Jacobites’ Texas/Dead Men Tell No Tales, and that resonated with me far more than Red Brocade ever had. Why? Who knows? Sometimes music comes into your life at the wrong time. At any rate, I became obsessed, seeking out everything I could find beyond SC’s reissues series, buying everything I could get my hands on… including, at the tail end of a couple years’ spree, Red Brocade.

Maybe it was due to a lingering bad first impression, but I still wasn’t into it, even after becoming acclimated to his style. Despite Sudden’s claim that it was his best record up to that point, it was still my least favorite. I literally haven’t listened to it in probably a decade. That makes this new two-disk remaster on archival specialist label Easy Action an almost brand new experience.

Throughout his long post-Swell Maps career, Sudden stuck to pretty much one groove: a raucous and romantic blend of the Stones, Dylan, the Faces and T. Rex. But that doesn’t mean the former Adrian Godfrey kept his mind closed. (The hints of disco that pop up on some his best albums prove that.) After years of raw rock & roll and unvarnished ballads, Sudden took a big leap of faith with Red Brocade, originally released in 1999 and now reissued by Easy Action, current caretakers of the Godfrey brothers catalog. Decamping to Chicago and recording with the recently passed singer/songwriter Kevin Junior and his then-upcoming band the Chamber Strings, Sudden attempted to do something new with his music, something more lush and orchestral – an unusual move for a rocker so unrefined.

But, as was often the case with this mercurial artist, there were speedbumps along the way.

Recording with Chicago producer Ellis Clark, member of smart pop groups Epicycle and June & the Exit Wounds, as well as the Strings, Sudden and Junior pretty much accomplished what they set out to do. But once Sudden took the tapes back to England and his regular producer John A. Rivers, the results were remixed until they sounded like.. .a Nikki Sudden album. Not necessarily a bad thing in concept, as we’ll note, but one wonders if it betrayed the spirit of the original recordings. Clearly Sudden didn’t think so – he told all and sundry at the time that he felt it was his best album to date. Certainly, Rivers’ mix gives the lush instrumentation sharp clarity without blunting Sudden’s rock & roll edge, making Red Brocade one of his most sonically pleasing albums.

Listening to it so long after its initial release, it’s hard to argue with that assertion. The Chamber Strings were easily the slickest, most professional group he’d yet worked with, and their touch brings out the craft he poured into the songs. (Ironically, according to Kevin Junior’s liner notes, Sudden arrived at the sessions with no songs and banged out this batch in short order.) Adorning the tracks with horns, strings, timpani, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin actually enhances this set of tunes, rather than obscures them. The Strings are particularly effective on the ballads, a state of affairs of which Sudden takes full advantage. “Broken Door,” “Stained Sheets” and the elegiac “Silver Blanket” stand as some of his absolute strongest songs in that arena, thanks to collision of tuneage and musicians.

That’s not to say the album stints on rockers – “Tie You Up,” the bonus track “So Many Girls” and the (original) album closer “Take Me Back Home” riff heartily and rock righteously. Taking further advantage of a versatile band, Sudden also branches out into country (“Miss You So”), soul (“Countess”) and, on another bonus track, groovy psychedelic grunge (“Stained”).

The only track that doesn’t quite work is the one that was intended to garner the most attention: “Farewell, My Darling” features Jeff Tweedy on duet vocal, but the Wilco leader’s hapless performance just underscores how Sudden writes lyrics to suit his own voice and nobody else’s.

But that’s a rare bump in this road. Otherwise Red Brocade finds Sudden at his most well-crafted and focused.

Nikki 2

One might wonder what Rivers found wrong with the original mix, done by Clark and Sudden. Clark claims in the liner notes that the mix was done too quickly under deadline; regardless, this edition includes a second disk with that first mix for comparison’s sake. Fans expecting the “Angel City Mixes,” as they’re called, to be more true to the Chamber Strings’ aesthetic may be surprised, as these versions aren’t really any more opulent than Rivers’. That said, “Miss You So” and “Countess Kicks” have more emphasis on their rhythm sections, “Scarred” becomes a more dynamic “Scarred Again,” “Scent” adds a piano prologue and “Broken Door” gives prominence to the string section coda. Other differences pop up in the vocals – the reverb on “Farewell, My Darling,” the prominent backing vocals on “Tie You Up,” altered lyrics and lead performances on a few tracks, and more centered, upfront singing in general.

Whether or not the Angel City Mixes trump the Rivers mixes will be down to individual listeners. But even if you don’t want to bother, disk 2 includes a few extras, including live album tracks, a cover of Clark’s “West Side Girl” and a blazing live rip through Swell Maps’ (remember them, Sudden fans?) “Midget Submarine” slammed into the Sudden classic “Kiss at Dawn” by a sadly unidentified band. The guitar sound alone on the live cuts is worth spinning the second disk.

The bonus cuts truly enhance the experience and comparing the two different mixes is educational. But ultimately what makes the record hold up nearly 17 years after its first release is the original collection of songs. With a decade and a half of distance and a shiny new remaster, Red Brocade has gone from my least favorite Sudden album to one of the best.

***

Epic Soundtracks 11-27

Meanwhile, to kick off its treatment of the Epic Soundtracks catalog, Easy Action initially released the wonderful compilation Wild Smile in 2012, as comprehensive a look at the late British songwriter’s career as could be hoped for. Three years later, the label follows up with the first actual reissue: Rise Above, the former Kevin Paul Godfrey’s first solo album after years of playing second fiddle to Rowland S. Howard (in These Immortal Souls), Simon Bonney (Crime & the City Solution), and of course his brother Nikki Sudden (with whom he formed punk cult heroes the Swell Maps in the late ‘70s).

Originally released in 1992, Rise Above was likely a surprise to Soundtracks’ fans at the time. After all, his aforementioned former acts never shied away from dissonance and distortion. Plus, a glance at the liner notes reveals the presence of then-current alt.rock stars Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr), Martyn P. Casey (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) and Will Pepper (Thee Hypnotics). But instead of the noisy rock record that lineup might presage, Soundtracks delivered an album of pop classicism.

As freshly evidenced by this expanded reissue, Soundtracks—relying on his piano rather than his usual drum kit—produces lovelorn odes inspired by the most vulnerable sides of his heroes Alex Chilton and Brian Wilson. Backed by tasteful instrumentation – often by piano alone – the troubadour sings with matter-of-fact conviction, rarely kicking up a fuss even when the emotions he’s conveying call for a psychologist’s couch.

Relying on stripped-down arrangements, “Sad Song,” “Farmer’s Daughter” and “Fallen Down” sound like lost classics from the catalog of Todd Rundgren or Carole King, wistful and melancholy all at once. “Big Apple Graveyard” and “Wild Situation” fill out his sound considerably, verging on being widescreen epics, yet never get in the way of Soundtracks himself. Not even Chris Lee’s free jazz trumpet on the former or Howard’s menacing slide on the latter break the spell. Probably the closest thing Soundtracks had to a hit, “She Sleeps Alone” – present in two different versions, one dirge-like and the other stately – splits the difference, putting Soundtracks’ vulnerable observations in the spotlight for the first half and letting strings and horns carry the coda. The tune ends the original album with its strongest song and performance, capping a pure pop classic that unfortunately never came close to the charts.

Epic

Easy Action doesn’t let it go there, however, filling the rest of this two-disk set with demos and outtakes.

Most of the former repeat the songs found on the original album, some in slightly tweaked arrangements, but most in solo form. The added instrumentation gives welcome color to the recordings, but the solo demos present Soundtracks naked, as it were, for a much more intimate experience. The handful of new tunes fit right in with the previously released in tone and style, to the point where one wonders if the only reason they remained in the vault was reluctance to release a double album. The clearly-recorded “Can You Keep a Secret” and “Caroline” exploit his plainspoken vulnerability to moving effect, while lower-fi demos of “Lay in Bed All Day” and “Beatles Song” prove that even partially realized efforts still have strong appeal. The studio version of “I Wish I Had a Girlfriend” (previously appearing in solo form on Wild Smile) uses horns and the leader’s sprightly piano to create a delightful cut that should’ve seen the light of day long before now.

The disks contain multiple versions of the same songs — “Caroline” = “You Still Shine,” “Black Hole Girl” = “Hole of a Heart,” “When You’re Not Around” = “Sad Song” — so casual fans uninterested in watching the material develop over time may not have the patience for the whole package. But even casual fans will find the original Rise Above indispensable, and those wishing to dig deeper will find pockets of riches wherever the laser hits.

Below: the greatest U.K. band… ever! Swell Maps, natch. Photo by Andy Bean.

Swell Maps by Andy Bean

 

THE ANSWER MY FRIENDS, IS… The Syl Johnson Movie

Syl_still2

The Rob Hatch-Miller directed Any Way The Wind Blows, currently making the rounds of film festivals (next screenings Feb. 20 & 21) to mucho acclaim, captures life of musical underdog and soul legend Syl Johnson.

BY DENISE SULLIVAN

Following the sustained period of grief over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., soul/funk singer-songwriter Syl Johnson responded with his own version of a mourning song.

“After Dr. King was killed… I didn’t want to make a militant song. My song… was asking a question,” he says.

Johnson’s downbeat “Is It Because I’m Black?” dented the charts, as did the other expressive jams he arranged and cut for Chicago’s Twinight label but mostly, his songs were soul-powered cries in the wilderness. Despite previous and future appearances on the charts and on Soul Train; a Willie Mitchell-mentored Hi Records tenure; a later, post-disco hit (“Ms. Fine Brown Frame”); and a cult following that grew among cratediggers at the dawn of the hip hop era (further fueled by the advent of the CD)—Johnson’s name and reputation as one of soul’s finest remains a fairly well-guarded secret.

Now, nearly 50 years after his solo recording debut, the documentary, Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows (directed by Rob Hatch-Miller), currently making the rounds of indie film festivals, goes some way toward unravelling the mystery of why things went the way they did for one of American music’s premiere voices and most-sampled artists (were it not for his explosive track, “Different Strokes,” hip hop as it’s known would not be the same).

SylPoster1200x1800

Johnson’s story is not your average unsung musician’s tale: Timing, as ever, was part of a long miscalculated equation that includes mismanagement and Johnson’s own quirky character traits. But as friends, family, fellow players, at least one hip hop mastermind (RZA) and an ex-wife testify, Johnson’s stalled career was not for lack of talent. His gift for delivering songs of timeless and enduring strength, with a lyrical depth, and dynamite swagger should not be open to debate. Yet for reasons unexplained, his musical abilities are challenged by novelist Jonathan Lethem, who asserts Johnson only had a “a tenth” of what his rival Al Green did.

The word “genius” in the context of Johnson’s creative spark is also argued against by different folks but facts are facts: The only things Johnson lacked in the starmaking department were promotion and a commitment from London Records (Hi’s parent company). Throughout the film, the talking heads agree that Johnson’s rare “loose” and “raw” qualities are what set him apart, contributing to his Twinight sides rising to heights of excellence. Those records, from “Come On Sock It To Me” and “Different Strokes” to “Dresses Too Short” had the sound that called producer Mitchell out of his Royal Recorders in Memphis toward Chicago in search of Johnson, his original choice to sing “Take Me To The River.”

In more recent years, representatives from the Numero Group label, which reissued a Grammy-nominated box set of Johnson’s music, would seemingly diminish the singer’s influence by categorizing him as part of their Eccentric Soul catalog (though enthusiastically received by collectors as well as critics—BLURT included—the series comprises mostly amateur records issued by complete unknowns). Yet keen to spread the good word, collect kudos, and sell records, the young executives and his new musical sidemen seem sincere enough; though Johnson isn’t entirely convinced, only half-joking when he says he’s “keeping an eye on them.”

Johnson’s great grandfather Wallace was a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi; according to the film, his grandfather bought the plantation and Johnson grew up with seven siblings, picking cotton and singing, inspired by listening to the birds sing. No one knows exactly how old Johnson is (one of his daughters suspects he’s considerably older than the 79 years currently assigned to him); it’s certain that in 1950, he followed his siblings and mother to Chicago. He immediately began to hang out and hold his own, playing blues guitar on the Chess Records scene, learning “discipline and how to dress” from Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Junior Wells.

“To go hear Muddy Waters play? You wish you had been there and heard Muddy Waters play,” Johnson says in the film.

But singing the blues was not his desire. “We got some new shit for you, Pops,” he says, of the prevailing attitude behind 1959’s “Teardrops.” Dropping his birth name Thompson, he changed it to Johnson on a suggestion by notorious record man, Syd Nathan of the Federal label. Touring, recording, and trying to earn a living consumed him for the next few decades; the music took a turn and Johnson turned to the restaurant business for his hustle until that dried up too. As destiny would have it, with the advent of sampling, the popularity of Johnson’s records used as basic tracks and themes on rap’s greatest hits allowed him to earn a living from his music again.

syl-johnson-becky

Nobody knows better than Johnson what he gave to the business versus what he got from it, although his immediate family and the musicians he worked with have empathy and an understanding of what it took for him be a groundbreaking musician, as well as a man in all his dimensions—from abandoned child to father, businessman, and playa.

But it’s Wu Tang Clan’s RZA who shows the most generosity of spirit and unconditional gratitude for the price Johnson paid so others might benefit.

“It ain’t only the music that makes you valuable. It’s also something,” he says, pointing to his guts, “that you may have in here, that the other people don’t have.”

***

Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows screens February 20th at the Noise Pop Music Festival, 7 PM at the Roxie in San Francisco (with Johnson and filmmakers in attendance); and at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula Montana on Saturday, February 20th | 12:45pm at the Top Hat and Sunday, February 21st | 7:30pm at Crystal.

GEEK SHIT: David Klein & “If 6 Was 9”

 

Klein book

The most fun argument starter you’ll read all year, and quite possibly the best music trivia book since ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.

BY FRED MILLS

Quick, what’s the first song that comes to mind when you think of the number “19”? Yessiree, that would be the Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown,” no argument on my end. How about 19’s sibling, “18”? Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen,” natch; show me someone who disagrees and I’ll show you someone who don’t know their Jethro Tulls from their Lynyrd Skynyrds. Try “99”: why, the eternal “99” by the equally timeless Toto, of course! And—waitaminnit, you say “99th Floor” by the Moving Sidewalks?!? Sheesh. Hey, I’m all about Billy Gibbons and the first three ZZ Top albums, but c’mon! (More on this in a sec…) (Below: see how many numerical utterances Alice makes during his Beat Club performance of “I’m Eighteen”)

Perhaps we can agree on the ridiculously obvious “69”? That’s clearly the Stooges’ “1969,” no question about it, not to mention “70” and… Hold on, buckaroo. According to Chapel Hill-based music/pop culture journalist David Klein, who has just published what’s quite possibly the best music trivia book since Gavin Edwards’ 1995 mondegreens-in-rock dissection‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy, a true rock-songs numerologist must adhere to 3 prime (no pun intended) directives:

  • The definitive song must have the number in its title.
  • Both ordinals (“Positively 4th Street”) and apostrophized constructions (“Cruel Summer ‘89”) are OK.
  • The number must stand alone—Klein’s example being that Prince’s “1999” is not eligible for 19 or 99.

Ergo, for the purposes of If 6 Was 9: And Other Assorted Number Songs (White River Press), “1969,” no matter how ultimate-top-ten-in-rock awesome Iggy & Co.’s legendary track might be, it technically can only be applied to the number one thousand nine hundred sixty-nine. And to be honest, it’s a good thing Klein does lay down some rules, because as it is, he disappears down plenty of rabbit holes over the course of his book’s 244 pages, taking the reader with him (and not necessarily unwillingly).

The project began when Klein was still living in NYC and grew out of (presumably besotted) conversation at his favorite watering hole. As he tells it, his there-might-be-a-story-in-all-this lightbulb moment arrived one evening while he and the barkeep/deejay were enthusing over “88” by singer Anna Domino. This led to the not-inaccurate observation that perhaps Jackie Brenson & His Delta Cats’ classic “Rocket 88” was a bit more “ultimate,” or at least more ubiquitous in terms of the number of times it’s been covered over the years, when talking about the number eighty-eight. Or perhaps even the Nails’ new wave goodie “88 Lines About 44 Women,” which gets numerology bonus points for nailing (sorry) not just one but two numbers in its title. At that, the rabbit hole opened wide for the pair: “Strawberry Letter #23”… “24 Hours”… “96 Tears”… and of course “I’m Eighteen” and “19th Nervous Breakdown.”

Klein’s book began life over beers, took flight via his blog, and by 2012 was a self-published volume covering numbers 1 through 33. Which, if you’re interested, are represented by Sparks’ “The No. 1 Song In Heaven” (don’t even get the author started on “One of These Days,” “The One I Love,” “One Nation Under a Groove” or even “One” and about a hundred other variants); and Stereolab’s “Peng! 33” (which apparently was far easier to select compared to “1,” since its main competition seems to consist of primarily Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” the Verlaines’ “Heavy 33,” the Clientele’s “No. 33” and Sinead O’Connor’s, uh, “33”).

For each of those initial 33 picks and, now, the other 66, Klein starts off with a general discussion of some of the cultural touchstones the numeral in question represents. For example, the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 comes up—it is actually namechecked in the “43” commentary—as does Yankees slugger Roger Maris, because he hit a record-shattering 61 home runs in, dare we say it, 1961). He also meditates upon other reasonable candidates for “ultimate” status, similar to how he and his bartender friend had wrestled with their “88” songs. Then he delivers The Verdict, which in perfect synch with the whole notion of rock-geek-dom does not always go for the most obvious pick. Yes, indeed, “19th Nervous Breakdown” and “I’m Eighteen” are the only reasonable choices, as is Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited” and Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Some things were just destined to be.

But Klein also isn’t afraid of stirring the pot, which is why I suspect he opted for The Who’s “5:15” over Wire’s “The 15th,” thereby guaranteeing an outcry from hipsters everywhere; or, going the opposite direction, Captain Soul’s (who?) “T-Shirt 69” over Ryan, sorry, Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” I am quite certain that those who vote coolness/obscurity over obviousness are applauding that move, even if they don’t know that Captain Soul was a British quartet of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s who wound up on Alan McGee’s post-Creation/somewhat-also-obscure Poptones label. Of course, if you’ve been paying close attention to all the foregoing, you’re possibly saying to yourself, “But despite the note above about allowing apostrophied constructions, ‘Summer of ’69’ refers to the year 1969, right? So technically, by the prime directives, it can’t qualify, right?” By my reckoning, that’s correct, so unless for his songtitle, Adams was slyly inserting the image of he and his girlfriend simultaneously performing oral sex upon one another, we’ll have to pit the Wire tune against a couple of others Klein mentions in passing, R.E.M.’s “Star 69” and Ministry’s “Psalm 69,” both of which might justifiably rouse the hipsters from their beers for some serious kibitzing.

See what I mean about rabbit holes? You can even argue about those three prime directives!

I mean, don’t get me wrong; I adore Tom Waits and will respect him and treasure his recordings until I die. But his “Ol’ ‘55” was not what came to mind (and stuck there) when I got to the chapter on “55.” It’s a killer song, and it’s been covered by a slew of my favorite artists. Yet all I could think of was “I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar, who is decidedly not one of my favorite artists. To his credit, Klein does bring up the Hagar track early on in his discussion, but he dismisses it almost as fast. Harsh, bro.

In a similar vein, getting back to that “99” issue I alluded to above, you have probably already guessed that the Moving Sidewalks’ “99th Floor” gets Klein’s nod for the ultimate “99” song, edging out such admittedly strong contenders as Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” (no doubt that would be Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s pick), Springsteen’s “Johnny 99” and the oft-covered soul nugget “Ninety-nine and a Half.” But he doesn’t even mention the Toto mega-hit “99,” from the equally-mega 1979 Hydra album! Admittedly, it is soft-rock pabulum at its most egregious, a whiny “I’m sorry I have to hurt you” ballad masquerading as piano-driven neo-orchestral fluff, and this will mark the last time, ever, I listen to it willingly:

But c’mon, David, the song was friggin’ ubiquitous on radio and, eventually, MTV in its day, and it still turns up in regular rotation on flashback-hits radio. Plus, the fact that “99” is itself a number song that references another number (both the song and the accompanying conceptual video are apparently tributes to the George Lucas film THX-1138) just screams to get it awarded bonus numerology meta-points!

Well, in a sense this brings us back full circle to the book’s drinking-establishment origins, eh? I may or may not raise the Toto argument next time I’m out at the bar and feeling feisty, for depending on who I’m getting drunk with, there’s a good chance I’d get my ass kicked for daring to namecheck “Toto.” But I’ll keep you posted.

Incidentally, in addition to my beef about the “99” snub, I’m personally heartbroken that we can’t bring Zager & Evans’ immortal “In the Year 2525” into the discussion, but since Klein at least mentions it himself in his introduction and also includes it on a delightful appendix list he titles with the “infinity” symbol (it includes several personal faves of mine, including Blue Oyster Cult’s “ME 262,” Gram Parsons’ “$1000 Wedding” and Ten Years After’s “50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain”), perhaps there’s a second book in him one day that will get as far as the number 2,525.

As it is, he has opted—wisely, according to his wife and kids, sources assure me—to close down his investigation at 99. Considering that the numbers one through ninety-nine yielded him 244 pages of, as the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood puts it so eloquently in his foreword, “geek shit at its finest,” I think we can all thank Klein for all the legwork.

And compliment him on retaining his sanity.

Incidentally, you’re probably wondering whether the Hendrix song that gave this book its title landed at the “6” or “9” spot: you’ll have to pick up a copy to find out. The answer may surprise you, though….

David Klein

MAKING THE MATH ADD UP: Alfie Agnew

Alfie professor

Ed. note: this interview originally appeared in the most excellent zine Dagger, which clearly knows how to dig deep and uncover some of indie- and punk-dom’s archival treasures. Hence: Alfie Agnew, of the celebrated Agnew family, a veteran of such outfits as Crash Kills Four, D.I. and even the Adolescents. Dagger, incidentally, is not so coincidentally helmed by regular BLURT contributor, blogger, Denverite, and all-round indie-rock bon vivant Tim Hinely. Take it away, suh.

BY TIM HINELY

Punk rock fans you probably know more about Alfie Agnew’s brothers, Rikk and Frank, two Orange County punk rock legends who were in The Adolescents. I remembered hearing a bit about a younger brother who’d spent some time in the Adolescents as well as D.I. with Casey Royer. I did some searching and found out that Alfie (also known as Alfonso) is a math professor at Cal State Fullerton but definitely had his punk rock past. I emailed him and found him to be an amiable chap who was more than happy to expound on his famous family as well as the bands he’s been in and his life in academia. Take it away Alfie… [Below: D.I. does “Hang Ten in East Berlin”]

 

Were you born and raised in Fullerton, CA?

Pretty much. My family moved to Fullerton from La Puente when I was 3 years old (1972). Went to all Fullerton schools right up through my undergrad degree. Lived in the same old Fullerton house until I came of age. My parents still live there. Lots of great memories for lots of people!

How many siblings do you have? Where are you in family age-wise?

I have 3 siblings. In order of descending age: Rikk, Toni (sister), Frank, myself. So I’m the “baby”! I also have a half-brother Jim and a half-sister Beverly that are older than Rikk.

Were your parents always supportive of you and your brothers’ musical pursuits?

My mother was for sure. My father was supportive to a degree, but he had the burden of trying to get us to balance music with more practical pursuits, earning a living, etc. Not an easy task for him! Music is firmly rooted in our DNA.

What was the first song you remember hearing that really knocked your socks off?

It’s hard to recall a very first one, but “She Loves You” by The Beatles was certainly an early fav, as was Karn Evil 9, Third Impression by Emerson Lake and Palmer. In the early 70’s when I was just starting to form memories, Rikk was pretty into progressive stuff like ELP, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd (especially “Relics” and “Atom Heart Mother”), and needless to say, he was my music mentor. We also had a bunch of Beatles and Monkees LPs that Frank and I devoured. There was always a lot of Irish music playing in the house that I enjoyed via my father. Iggy and the Stooges, Ramones, Sex Pistols, New York art-punk stuff, and the rest of punk rock entered the Agnew house soon thereafter.

Do you remember what your first punk rock show was?

I have a very poor memory! Maybe the Starwood in LA with The Adolescents and The Germs? Most of the gigs were in LA back then. I suppose they still are! But my brothers were very cool to me as a little brother, and they took me out and around whenever they could. They and their friends nicknamed me “Foetus” because they were mid-late teens and up to 10 years older than me, so I was hanging out at band practices as early as 5 or 6 years old. It was great fun for me! Many of the venues were 18+ or even 21+, so they’d have to sneak me (and sometimes Frank, even when he was in the band!) in through the back door, and I’d have to keep a low profile to stay in!

Alfie 1

I know you spent time in both the Adolescents, with your brothers, and D.I. Which came first?

D.I. came first by 2-3 years. Both were with Rikk, not Frank. Frank and I have done other projects together, though.

Can you talk a little about your time in those bands?

I think I was about 14 or 15, my current band Almost 21 was just about wrapping up, and at the same time D.I. was going through lineup changes after the Royer-Taccone-Maag-O’Brien era that put out that great first EP (see also the Suburbia movie). Casey and Rikk started jamming with a couple of guys (incidentally, from the band Confederate), then I was added in and I brought a couple of buddies (John Knight and John “Bosco” Calabro) from my previous band Almost 21. That was the lineup that you see on the covers of the Ancient Artifacts and Horse Bites albums, when D.I. really took off. Around 1986 the Adolescents were feeling out a return with the original lineup, but brother Frank left the project and I replaced him, and Sandy Hansen replaced Casey on Drums, and the “Brats in Battalions” or 2nd Adolescents lineup was born: Tony, Rikk, me, Steve, Sandy. We recorded the 2nd album, did some shows and road trips. I was still in D.I. at that point. After several months to a year I left both bands to focus on university work, and Dan Colburn replaced me in the Adolescents, and D.I. was going through another series of changes leading to the “What Good is Grief to a God” lineup.

What do you recall being the most memorable gig from either band?

Playing with the Adolescents was pretty cool anytime, since I was somewhat of a mascot with the original lineup and looked up to them as a kid. With D.I., it was really a series of shows when our popularity really skyrocketed, but perhaps I can point to one of the early shows at Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach, when it became clear that we were now one of the biggest and best-liked SoCal punk bands. The crowd response was insane, surpassing the headline acts we were playing with by a wide margin. The crowd knew our lyrics and would sing along, massive slam pits and stage diving, standing room only, etc. That’s when we became a large-drawing headline act and all that goes along with it. It was intoxicating!! [Below: D.I.]

 

DI

 

Were you playing in any other bands that I we might not have heard of?

My very first band was called The Attack. I wrote all the music, I think all the lyrics, and was the drummer. We played the Cuckoos Nest once. I was maybe 11 or 12 years old! The other guys were all older than me, in high school. When I got to high school, I met some cool guys, some of the few punks, and we started Almost 21 in my freshman year. Lineup: Jay McCarty on vocals, myself on guitar and vocals, Hal Hughes on guitar, Tom Hughes (first Mark “Sneak” Engels) on bass, and John Knight on drums. Another band out of that small pot of high school punks was Subculture/Subversion/Aversion, which included the Tatar brothers Joey and Eddie (now of D.I.), and John “Bosco” Calabro. Almost 21 was getting a pretty big local following before splitting up, and we recorded a demo that has recently been released as a 7” vinyl on Gummopunx Records.

What was next? Did you go back to college?

I started college right out of high school in 1986. I was balancing both music and school for a couple of years, then it became impossible to balance touring with upper division university work. I chose to stay in school and leave the music biz.

Please tell us about your current life in academia? How did you get there?

As an Agnew, it is my nature to pursue everything intensely. I fell in love with mathematics and physics like I had already done with music. Once I got into these subjects, I knew I wanted to make a living learning ever more about them, so becoming a university professor, a nice blend of teaching and research, was the obvious choice. I went straight from high school, through my undergrad and grad school to complete my PhD in Mathematical Physics at Oregon State University. I did a postdoc at SMU in Dallas, then got my professorship at CSU Fullerton, where I’m currently a full professor in the mathematics department, and a faculty member in the Gravitational Wave Physics and Astronomy Center (GWPAC).

Who are some current bands that you like?

The singer of Crash Kills Four has a stepson that’s in a couple of really good bands, “Red Curtain” and “Getting Married”. But to be honest, I’m quite a bit out of the loop on current Bands, regretfully. I’m sure there’s great stuff out there, there always will be, but I don’t have time to keep up like I used to. If anything, I keep discovering old gems from the last century!

Care to list your top 10 desert island disc?

10? That’s tough! Ok, I’ll have a go. At the moment, in no particular order: Odessey and Oracle (Zombies), Sgt Pepper (Beatles), Pet Sounds (Beach Boys), Brain Salad Surgery (ELP), Grace (Jeff Buckley), Ziggy Stardust (Bowie), “Blue Album” (Adolescents), “Black Album” (Damned), Priest=Aura (The Church), Grains of Sand (Mission UK). (I left out all my classical and jazz faves!)

Do you play any music these days?

I got back into music about 3 years ago. Thank heavens! It was really missing in my life, and I am much more complete and happy because of it. Bosco and John Knight got a hold of me after 20 years to do some recording, just for posterity. I was hesitant as I was quite rusty to say the least! But I agreed. Then I couldn’t put my guitar down, and now I play, write, and record quite a bit. The recording project with Calabro and Knight resulted in the Crash Kills Four CD/digital download we released last year, titled “A Raincoat, Shoes, and Pornographic Blues”, after one of the A21 songs we re-recorded for the album. Those that are interested in more info can check out crashkillsfour.net or our facebook page. I’m very proud of that work, and it has been very well received! It is very authentic 80’s SoCal style punk, and most of the songs were written back then. In fact, Gummopunx Records also released a special 12” vinyl version that includes 3 new songs. We’ve played several shows in SoCal. My biggest partner in crime nowadays Sean Elliott, ex of D.I. and Creepy Nice Guy. We play with Rikk in “The Detours”, a band formed originally in the late 70’s and was a sort of musical embryo of what would later define the Adolescents and D.I. sound. We also have a project we’re working on that I’m particularly excited about called “Professor and the Madman”. We have one rule: No rules! So the music style is all over the map, and because of this, it is the most fun project I’ve done in a long time! We have a website professorandthemadman.com and a facebook page for more info, and we released (free!) a “Halloween single” on Oct. 31 that includes two songs from an album we will release in the next couple months. Things should get really get rolling in the next several months with record releases and shows. [Below: Crash Kills Four]

Alfie Crash Kills Four

Any closing comment? Final thoughts? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?

Not really, your questions were pretty thorough, thanks!! It’s always fun to talk about exciting old days, as well as those to come.

Note from Tim Hinely: If anyone knows who took any of the above pictures please do let me know as I do want to give credit where credit is due. Thank you.

Alfie on left