Monthly Archives: March 2016

Life Of A Wings Man: Denny Laine

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From the Moody Blues to McCartney to sundry solo endeavors, the hard-working multi-instrumentalist and songwriter has led—and continues to lead—a busy life.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Denny Laine has to be the most unappreciated wing man in Rock. Better yet, the most unappreciated Wings man in rock. That’s because he spent ten years working side by side with Paul McCartney in his seminal post-Beatles band Wings and, aside from Macca’s late wife Linda, he served as McCartney’s sole collaborator for a good part of the band’s first decade of existence. It was Laine who served in the role of guitarist, bassist and vocalist when the band recorded its early landmark albums Band on the Run, Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Sound and London Town, and backed McCartney on his return to the U.S. during the group’s first landmark tour of the States in 1976. And it was Laine who stuck by the former Beatle during any number of personnel changes, practically up until the time the group finally called it quits.

Before that, Laine’s most distinguished work was as part of the original Moody Blues, into the era that prefigured “Days in White Satin” and Days of Future Past, before the group defined the essence of prog rock and psychedelia. Nevertheless, it was Laine who sang the group’s first hit in 1965, a cover of an obscure American R&B ballad by Larry Banks called “Go Now.” It’s still the song for which he’s best remembered and which still figures as a significant part of his live repertoire even today.

Interestingly, Laine’s musical associations don’t begin and end with those with whom he attained his higher profile. He’s helmed a variety of bands over the past 50 years, some with names that bore his signature (Denny and the Diplomats), others that tended to sound a bit tongue in cheek (his first post Moodies outfit was one called Balls), some that offered little clue to their intents (The Electric String Band, a precursor to the symphonic sound later crafted by ELO), and at least one that was a sprawling super group of sorts (Air Force, whose other members included Steve Winwood and ex-Cream/Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker).

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Indeed, a conversation with this journeyman musician inevitably finds him name dropping dozens of names associated with the so-called British Invasion — members of such revered Brit rock combos as the Stones, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, the Animals, the Move, and, not so coincidentally, the Beatles themselves. Likewise, despite Laine’s insistence that he’s turned his back on the past, he still does concerts that focus on his Wings material, and he’s currently in discussion about revisiting that initial Moody Blues album that he was on. He still tours consistently, generally for a week or two at a time, and mentions an upcoming album called Valley of Dreams that he began recording several years ago. He also mentions that he wants to resurrect an original stage musical he wrote with a friend about the environment, a subject he says he’s always had an interest in.

It was with some anticipation then that we recently caught up with Laine from one of his homes north of San Diego, on a large plot of land where he raises horses, and began by asking him about that first signature song.

BLURT: It might surprise some people to learn that “Go Now” was not an original song, and that it was actually written by an American.

DENNY LAINE: Yes, it was written by an American named Banks. I actually met his wife Bessie Banks recently and she thanked me for doing the song. It was quite a nice occasion actually. That was the first real big hit we had in England. We performed it when we were touring with Chuck Berry in England and that tour gave us a lot of television exposure and helped that song go to number one.

You’ve had quite a fabled career, but it’s always seemed like just when you had your greatest success with one band, be it with the Moodies or with Wings, you were ready to venture out on your own.

I like to do different things. I’ve always been that way. I don’t want to be stuck in just one bag just to make money. I like to experiment with different kind of fusion type sounds. With the Moodies, we owed our record company money, and so we had to keep touring. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to write new material, to go back into the studio and record. When they were eventually able to do that, they wrote “Nights in White Satin” and they got lucky as a result. It gave them their big hit. Which I felt good about. If I had gone off and joined Wings and they didn’t have another hit, I’d feel guilty about it.

You knew Paul early on, did you not?  The two of you were there together when Jimi Hendrix make his English debut at London’s Bag o’ Nails club. And he was there when your Electric String Band opened for Hendrix at the Speakeasy.

After Paul saw me open for Hendrix with my band, it prompted him to ask me to join him Wings. He knew me, after all. The Moodies had done the second British Beatles tour. He wanted someone who could do something progressively. He knew he had to do something different. He knew he couldn’t rely on doing Beatles songs on his own. It was all about being about to write and work with someone he knew to make it easier for him. It wouldn’t have been easy for him to work with someone he didn’t know. I was sitting around basically doing nothing when Paul called me.

One imagines, that must have been a nice call to receive.

It was interesting. I asked him what he wanted to do, and he said he and Linda wanted to do some original stuff and then hit the road. And I said, “Absolutely! I’ll be on the next plane”… and I was!

That first Wings tour was legendary. You rented a motor coach and hit the English countryside, turning up unannounced at various universities along the way, begging to be booked for a surprise concert at the various student unions. Why did the band choose to make their introduction in such an inauspicious way?

We basically wanted to rehearse live, and we didn’t want the press to know anything about it. So we got the band together, rehearsed a few songs and went on the road. They put us on that night so there wouldn’t be any big press interference. We didn’t want to be criticized so early in the day. We wanted to get back to our roots.

Wings’ roster changed and transitioned over the years, and at various intervals, it was down to only you and the two McCartneys that kept Wings aloft. Did you ever feel like you were the odd man out?

It was never meant to be like that, but that’s the way it was. We were in-between bands. We all stuck together. I’d go wherever they were and we’d write songs together. Then eventually we’d find new people and put a new band together.

One of the most infamous incidents in Wings’ career was Paul’s 1980 pot bust in Japan. What was it like for the rest of the band?

It was horrible. It was horrible for him and it was also horrible for us. It was like, what are we going to do now?

You left Wings shortly after that. What prompted your departure?

I was with them for ten years. I had a good time. But there was a point where we couldn’t tour anymore due to his Japan escapade. I had an album in the can that I wanted to go out and promote, so I decided to go out and do my own thing. I just didn’t go back really. I said to Paul, “Maybe it’s time you go out and do your own thing, and play the Beatles material. I’m going to go out and do my thing.” I wouldn’t have wanted to be in his band doing Beatles songs. That’s the way it was.

With your rich history, it would seem like a biography might be in order. Have you ever given that some thought?

I started one, but kind of ran out of steam. I wrote about the first 20 years and then ran out of steam when it came to writing the second 20, and then I thought about writing the next 20 and I just couldn’t do it. What do you leave out? What do you put in? It was too much work for me. But I’ve just been offered a deal recently to do a book on the ‘60s and not my own biography. That suits me much better. I’m not comfortable with my life being out there. It’s just like, “Why?” It’s kind of boring to me.

Below: Laine on tour in late 2015, with drummer Steve Holley

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Blurt’s Best Kept Secret #23: China’s Twinkle Star

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Ed. note: Several years ago BLURT had an ongoing series about up-and-coming and under-the-radar artists, “Best Kept Secret.” It was extremely gratifying to be able to uncover these musical diamonds in the rough, and to subsequently expose them to our readership, particularly when it was an overseas band that had virtually no presence here in the U.S. beyond, say, a MySpace page with some nominal information and maybe a track or a video. It’s fair to say that since then, international boundaries have crumbled with the ascent of multiple social media platforms; in 2016, all it takes is a namedrop, a Facebook link and a mouse-click to help jumpstart a viable young career. Just the same, it remains deeply satisfying for yours truly when one of our writers comes across a genuine talent that we feel is well-worth introducing to you, so this is the perfect juncture to re-boot the “Best Kept Secret” series. Meet Beijing’s Twinkle Star, a dynamic and tuneful four-piece that, as you shall read, came to the attention of our China-based correspondent Jonathan Levitt via random circumstance. Immediately smitten, he subsequently advised me that we should do a piece on the band. When some of their records arrived in the mail a couple of weeks later, I agreed 100%: this band has talent, and tunes, to burn.

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So much, in fact, that we’d like to offer a copy of their album The End of the New Beginning to one of our readers. Send an email to BlurtMag123@gmail.com and tell us why you think you deserve it. Make sure you include your snail mail. Best answer snags the CD. Okay, take it away, Mr. Levitt…..

 BY JONATHAN LEVITT

China has a ride hailing app similar to Uber called Didi. Late last Summer they were running a promotion on their carpooling service, so I thought, why the hell not give it a try? I press “send” and then a few seconds later receive a text message that a Lexus NX is heading my way to pick me up. What, a Lexus? I was expecting an Escort or a Jetta. Is this an oligarch elegantly slumming amongst the hoi polloi?

I head downstairs and the car with tinted windows pulls up. I must admit I find it a bit menacing, wondering who the hell drives a Lexus and yet is open to carpooling with people? I get in and we begin to shoot the shit and, lo and behold, the driver and his girlfriend happen to be in a local band called Twinkle Star, well known amongst indie rock loyalists in China.

It became the start of a great connection for me to a cool Chinese band.

“Can you believe the first ride we offer happens to be a Music Writer?”—or something to that effect—Is what they tweeted that evening on Wechat, a Chinese messaging service. What follows is my brief interview with Zhang Shuai (Jack), guitarist/vocals for Twinkle Star.

BLURT: How long have you guys been together? Has the lineup changed in that time?

 SHUAI: We’ve been together for 6 years. We’ve changed drummers a few times since we started. Our current singer is our former bassist.

Please introduce the members of the band to our readers.

Our singer, Kelsey Zhao, is also a member of the well-known Chinese band, “New Pants”. My name is Jack Zhang I’m the guitarist, and our drummer is Gao Wei, we’re both Midi Rock School graduates. Then we have our bassist, LC.

Cite some of your major influences on your music both Chinese and Western?

We’re influenced by so many American bands, such as Taking Back Sunday, The Used and Paramore. There’s a Chinese band from Hong Kong called Beyond, they are the Chinese Beatles.

Have you guys played America?

We haven’t played in America, but we really want to go there, if the chance presents itself.

What are some of the bands that you’ve shared the stage with

All Time Low, A Day to Remember etc. We are honored to have played a show with Saosin.

I notice you’re a bit of a collector of guitars and equipment what is your favorite guitar and amp that you use?

I use a lot of AMP before, such as Marshall JCM800 or Mesa Boogie, but I found the PRS Archon recently and I really love it. My favorite guitar is a Fender Custom Shop 1960 Strat; I’ve changed the pickups.

What sort of music are you guys listening to these days?

We’ve been listening to a lot of pop punk recently, such as the new album by Simple Plan, they were nominated for a Grammy this year. [Below: watch the band perform a live cover of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.”]

Do you think the Beijing music scene has changed a lot? 

Yes, there are more and more music festivals now but the quality isn’t that great. Bars are finding it harder to survive, which means less venues to play in.

What has the reception to your music been like in Japan when you’ve played festivals?

Yes, our music is popular in Japan, they love us. The Japanese audience is great and very professional!

How old are you guys

The singer is 29. The guitarist and bass player are 27. Our drummer is only 21.

Do you guys have day jobs or are you full time musicians

In addition to making music we also sell stuff on the web. LC and Gao Wei teach music.

What is your dream concert if you could play with anyone you wanted?

Taking part in the Warped tour is our biggest dream right now!

Any plans for a new album and any chance for a stateside release?

We are currently recording new songs, and expect to release a new album as well as tour China this year.

Anything else you guys want us to know?

We love the USA, especially American Rock and roll. We hope one day we can tour America and let more people hear our music.

Douban pagehttps://site.douban.com/altsenior/

Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/TwinklestarbandCN

 

BOOKING THE REPLACEMENTS: Bob Mehr, ‘Mats Biographer

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With the eagerly-anticipated Trouble Boys finally in stores and earning reams of critical acclaim, we sit down with the Memphis-based journalist, who holds forth on what turned eight years of hard research into a genuine labor of love.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Music journalist Bob Mehr was about four years into his labor of love – writing the definitive biography on The Replacements, one of the most wildly underrated and misunderstood American rock bands of the past four decades – when the group surprised Mehr and just about everyone who knew them by offering up a proper ending to his book.

Twenty-two years after the Minneapolis band left the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park—a show that ended with them putting their instruments in the hands of roadies, who finished playing the last song as the members walked off—singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson took the stages at Riot Fest in Toronto, Denver and Chicago, along with hired guns Dave Minehan and Josh Freese. The sets were a little sloppy, but for those who had written off ever seeing their favorite band play live, it was worth the wait.

Energized, The Replacements went on a spring tour, playing sets across the U.S. that got better and better with each stop. They toured for the first time in Spain and Portugal, and as soon as it started, in typical Replacement fashion, it fell apart on stage one night at a show in Porto, Portugal, where Westerberg announced to the audience that this show would be the band’s last.

In the lead up to the latest split, Westerberg took to wearing different t-shirts on stage each night. When pieced together, the shirts spelled out the phrase:  “I have always loved you. Now I must whore my past.” And for anyone who followed the band starting with their scrappy, punk rock beginnings in the early ‘80s and up to their uncomfortable tenure on a major label’s roster years later, it was actually a perfect ending to a very non-perfect musical career.

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Mehr, who works as a music critic for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, lays out The Replacement’s story brilliantly in his new book Trouble Boys (Da Capo Press). Mehr was able to get just about every living member of the band (drummer Chris Mars was the only one to decline), former managers, producers, friends and family members to talk about the enigmatic cult music heroes. The result is one of the strongest music bios to come out in years, honest and surprisingly in depth. Mehr tells the story of one of the most influential American rock bands out there, that managed to serve as their own worst enemy, both craving and fighting widespread acceptance the entire way.

On a recent afternoon, Mehr spoke with BLURT—it should go without saying that the ‘Mats will always be close to this publication’s collective heart; we’ve written about them a number of times in the past, including this remembrance by our editor of the Let it Be tour, and this interview with filmmaker Gorman Bechard—about the genesis of the book, what he learned about the band, and whether he thinks the last one was really the last.

BLURT: How did this project first come about? Did a publisher approach you or did you bring this idea to the band first?

BOB MEHR: Yeah, I had some existing relationships with people in The Replacements and their camp and management and I’d done interviews with Paul and Tommy over the years. I’d met Paul in ’04 doing an interview for a defunct magazine called Harp [Ed. note: Harp was BLURT’s immediate processor, shutting down in 2008.], so I met him, and knew Tommy through Peter Jesperson, their longtime manager. And I had also done liner notes for the Rhino Records reissues, so I knew the band a little bit. But I first pitched the idea to Paul in a letter and I had dinner with Tommy and pitched it to him. He said, “Okay, I’ll do it if Paul does it.”

He might have been thinking that was his way out. But I sat with Paul in early 2008 for a Spin feature on the band and we had a long chat about what the book would entail, my approach and what I wanted to do with the book, and after that was over, a couple of days later I got the call that said he was in and thus began what would be a seven-and-half year journey. I sold the book in 2009 and have been working on it in earnest since then and finished at just the end of last year. It was a six-and-a-half year process.

I assumed Paul would be the most difficult to agree to this. How hard was it to get other people to talk to you for this book?

Well, Chris [Mars] didn’t participate and he was the only one in terms of member of the band who wasn’t involved. I had done some interviews with him in 2008 for the Spin story… I obviously wanted him involved, but because of reasons of his own he didn’t want to and had basically drawn a line in the sand between his past life in music and his current life as a very successful artist. But that just made it a challenge for me to represent him and make him a character in the book. It was a little harder, but you don’t always have the advantage of having direct access to the people you are writing about. I certainly didn’t in the case of Bob [Stinson]; he passed away some 20 years before. So it was just about making sure the story was told through as many perspectives, through as many sets of eyes as possible. Working on that is partially why it took so long. I didn’t want to put something out there that was half-assed or not the complete picture. That was really where the effort lay.

Was there anyone else that was hesitant to talk to you?

No, I think once it was clear that I had Paul and Tommy’s approval, the approval of “The Replacements,” everyone was pretty much in line. And I had done the liner notes for them and had been a music journalist for more than 20 years, so the people I needed to reach out to I already knew or they knew me… I talked to family, I talked to friends, former managers, producers, fellow musicians all along the way going from their childhoods up to the reunion these past few years.

I think one of the most interesting parts of the book was when they go down to Memphis in the mid-‘80s to work on Pleased to Meet Me and their connection to Alex Chilton. You live and work in Memphis now: do you think that gave you any more insight into that scenario?

To be honest, I’ve been in Memphis almost 10 years, but when I really started proposing the book I’d only been here a year, a year-and-a-half maybe, so I’m not a lifelong Memphis guy. I don’t know how much that helped. I know it may have for Tommy who had a really strong relationship with [Memphis producer] Jim Dickinson and then with his sons. I don’t think it hurt, but quite honestly I don’t think it helped much either.

The Replacements

The Replacements

During these interviews and your research, was there anything that really surprised you? Obviously not much about Tommy and Bob’s childhood has been written about before now.

There’s a million things from little funny factoids to really bigger picture stuff that was interesting. I think I found the perception that many had of Paul as being self-sabotaging or unambitious in terms of his career was partly true, what really struck me was that in the years before he found The Replacements how really ambitious he was and what a drive he had to first be the lead guitarist and then he wanted to be a singer. And to find a band that had the right energy and desperation and he, of course, found that in the Stinson brothers and Chris Mars. There was a lot of years for Paul leading up to The Replacements trying to figure out who and what he wanted to be and he was pretty relentless in pursuing that in his own way. The fact that he had a drive early on to find this special band that he had in his mind was a surprise.

Certainly understanding how The Replacements were viewed by the music industry in the mid-‘80s by the top A&R guys and the process by which they got signed was always presented as a moment of revelation; Seymour Stein saw them and signed them and that was it. But there was obviously a lot leading up to that and to understand how that process played out for a band that probably scared a few A&R people off early on.

And the third thing was what they were really like in the studio and the making of the records individually. Certainly the major label years were interesting because the record making process was more involved and there was more riding on the records and who they were going to work with; some of the producers that were thrown out there over the years, people like Glyn Johns and even Ry Cooder and all these names. It was interesting to hear the “what if” scenarios. Those are the kinds of things I found out that were most surprising to me.

The last couple of Replacements albums have always been polarizing, labeled by many as Westerberg solo records. In researching and talking to others about how each album was made, did you go back and listen to the records again? Did you change your opinion about any of them?

Yeah, I like all of The Replacement’s albums for different reasons. When you have a band that’s been together for 12 years that goes through as many stages and changes as The Replacements did… I don’t think they ever made two records that sounded the same. It doesn’t surprise me that they gained and lost some fans along the way, particular the last couple of records where the sound was a little different and the last record, All Shook Down, was more of a singer-songwriter record. I re-visited them as records and some of the recording sessions, listening to outtakes to get a gist of everything. I don’t know if it changed my opinion of any of those records, it just gave me a deeper appreciation of the songs. There’s just more love there when you know the stories behind the songs or what was going on with the band at the time the record was being made.

I’m assuming you saw Paul and Tommy last year when The Replacements reunited to tour?

Yeah, I saw the first couple of shows and four or five total which was interesting, because at that point I was kind of still in the middle of finishing the book. I hadn’t written the epilogue yet, but had been living and breathing Replacements for the last four years and at that point they were an entity again… They gave me a great ending to the book which I really didn’t have, coming full circle as they did with the reunion. They did a real favor for me.

Based on the final show last summer it seems like they are officially over, with Paul saying they will never play together again and Tommy mentioning they scrapped the songs they had been recording. Do you think this is finally it for the band?

You know, I like to answer that in an open-ended way and that’s my honest answer: I feel like the reunion went on longer than either of them had planned for or expected and it was obviously a tremendous, tremendous success on every level and I think naturally they have been doing their own things these past 20 years when they weren’t in The Replacements. I think it’s hard to resume a band like that full time. It’s never going to be the same as when you were 19, 20 or 21.

I wouldn’t entirely—and this is totally just my opinion, not based on anything else— discount the fact that they might do something together again in one form or another whether its records or a show or whatever. I just feel like what they have is so special and unique between the two of them and obviously people love and appreciate what they have together and the demand is there.

It’s hard for me to think you can walk away from something like that. But, then again, they did once for 20-something years. In my heart I hope they’re not done.

Below: author Mehr. Go HERE to read our review of Trouble Boys.

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THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT. 8: The Sidewinders

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Dreaming about the bad, crazy sun that gazes down upon Tucson.

BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: features on Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter HoursGreen On Red and Thomas Anderson) I’m turning shamelessly nostalgic. My reverie was prompted earlier today when my good friend (and BLURT publisher) Stephen Judge sent me a short video clip from Austin featuring Arizona desert rock legends The Sidewinders performing at our annual day party during SXSW at the Ginger Man Pub. There they were, my old pals Dave Slutes, Rich Hopkins and the gang, ripping through one of my all-time favorite songs by the band, “Doesn’t Anyone Believe.” Cue up (a) a ton of regret for not being able to attend SXSW this year; (b) fond memories of our 2013 day party during SXSW when the band also performed, not to mention even fonder memories of seeing them numerous times in the ‘90s when I was living in Tucson; and (c) about an hour’s worth of revisiting Sidewinders videos, reading old clips on the band, and more. Translation: another unapologetically rambling missive from yours truly. Feel free to change the channel now, but if you harbor even the faintest good memories of the group, I trust you’ll appreciate this one in the spirit with which it is served up. As the saying goes—so it’s truth that you desire? Read on….

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 “Now I couldn’t tell you what I know/ It changes like the weather/ But what I know is what I feel/ What I feel is enough to get me / Out of life and everything it means/ None of this is really what it seems…” — “Doesn’t Anyone Believe,” from 1990’s Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall

Sometime around 1987 or ‘88 a record turned up in my mailbox. Hardly an unusual occurrence; at the time I was working as a music critic for a number of regional and national publications. Most likely the package was posted my way in hopes of securing a review in East Coast rock mag The Bob, which at the time had achieved a degree of prominence, both for its championing of the burgeoning alternative rock movement—at the time, in this pre-Nirvana era, we called it “college rock”—and for its inclusion, in each issue, a limited edition flexi record, which to date had included then-unreleased material by everyone from R.E.M. to Camper Van Beethoven to The Church. A lot of bands jostled for coverage back in those so-much-younger-than days.

But unlike much of the musical flotsam and jetsam that arrived on a daily basis, this particular artifact established its sonic prominence from the very moment the needle hit the grooves—clear vinyl grooves, at that. (Side note: a cassette copy of the album was also in the package, thereby allowing me a nice sonic preview of the music in the car on the drive home from the post office.) Titled ¡Cuacha!, the debut from Tucson’s Sidewinders was at once familiar and foreign to my ears, a mélange of part-jangly/part-distorted guitars, tuneful-yet-aggressive vocals and thundering rhythms (the familiar part) and otherworldly ambiance steeped in a subtextual yearning that suggested exotic locales and a romance with purpose (the foreign part).

Cuacha

Thus began a musical love affair that has endured for nearly three decades, and I’m proud to report that my initial instincts were accurate: in their lifetime the Sidewinders—or Sand Rubies, the other moniker they operated under for a number of years during the ‘90s due to legal issues arising from a dispute with a lawyered-up North Carolina-based cock-rock/Pat Benatar clone band called Sidewinder—would craft some of the most memorable and timeless tunes ever to emerge from the Arizona scene.

Witchdoctor said to me/ ‘You got no heart/ And you got no soul/ And you’ve got no life of your own/ Surrender what’s left/ And then I’ll set you free’…” —“Witchdoctor,” from 1989’s Witchdoctor

Certainly on their earliest recordings, including the aforementioned indie debut, Witchdoctor and Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall (both released on RCA via N.C.-based Mammoth), one can hear the vestigial remains of the mid-‘80s college rock scene that initially spawned the band (thank you, R.E.M.). The Sidewinders’ proud D.I.Y. ethos is fully evidenced as well, particularly considering that by the tail end of that decade thousands of bands were already tuning in full time to the nascent, noisy rumblings of the Northwest and those who still dared to wield a jangly riff or to sing in a voice south of a shriek risked excommunication from the Temple Of Hip. (My fellow Tarheel Mitch Easter, reflecting on his own band Let’s Active’s experience, told me that by the late ‘80s, anyone who came out on stage with a 12-string was just asking to have his ass kicked.)

Too, key roots and influences jostled for position in the group’s sonic tableaux, from the brawny pop raveups of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Neil Young’s Crazy Horsian gallop to the undulating psychedelia of the ‘60s-era Bay Area bands and—speaking of hip—the classic singer/songwriterdom of Neil Diamond, whose “Solitary Man” found its way into the Sidewinders’ setlists and soon became a performance mainstay.

Still, as with the proverbial “whole/more than the sum” distinction, what you got from the Sidewinders was considerably greater than what appeared to go into the band. First of all, founders Rich Hopkins (guitar) and Dave Slutes (vocals) carried the torch for immaculately-crafted, dynamically-rendered pop out of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s under the somewhat nebulous but still fitting banner of “desert rock.” 1993’s Sand Rubies album, cut for a short-lived subsidiary of Chrysalis Records and by some measures one of those “great lost…” records of the era thanks to a series of label and management missteps, is one of the most powerful documents of the era, panoramic in its sonic detail, richly evocative in its lyric nuance—and still capable, to this day, of taking the listener’s breath away with its scope and power.

And the Hopkins-Slutes duo, along with their shifting array of bandmates, helped lay the groundwork for similarly-inclined younger artists who, after weathering the ensuing decade’s worth of corporatized alterna-rock and its numerous hyphenated variants, would eventually go about the business of restoring the ideals of self-directed and –sustained D.I.Y. to rock ‘n’ roll. Although the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies would wield their greatest impact regionally—hugely respected by the Arizona music community, they were also very vocal and active boosters for scores of other groups—it wasn’t uncommon to find pockets of rabid fans in other locales across the country and around the globe. (I should know; living on the East Coast at the time, I was one of those fans who’d succumbed to the group’s charms. More on that in a sec.)

This was during the pre-Internet age, when following a band involved a lot more than calling up a Wikipedia entry and a Facebook page or clicking on an MP3 download link, and the resulting degree of devotion could be profound to the point of startling. Even as I was corresponding with the band prior to my 1992 relocation from N.C. to A.Z., writing about them for The Bob, England’s Bucketful of Brains and elsewhere (including the official Trouser Press entry), and swapping live tapes with fellow collectors from all points of the globe, other fans, scribes and collectors were doing likewise. You could label this somewhat naively along lines of “grassroots,” but the bottom line is that the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies built up a huge store of goodwill during their initial music industry foray, and no amount of subsequent rock world ups and downs will ever be able to take that away from us or the band.

Legacies are forged over time, of course, and the years have seen a fair share of personal and professional vicissitudes for both Hopkins and Slutes (one feature written about the band called ‘em “Arizona’s ultimate bad luck story”), with albums typically bookending protracted periods of inactivity for the band. More than once, they’ve played an Arizona “farewell” show, including as recently as 2011. Here in 2016, it strikes me as criminal that they haven’t recorded any new music in well over a decade; the Austin performance at this year’s SXSW mentioned in the intro above is but one of just a handful they’ve done since last year’s SXSW, and gig announcements only come sporadically at their Facebook page. That said, Rich and Dave live in different cities nowadays, so we fans will take what we can get.

But the music they’ve made together is permanently woven into the fabric of America’s grand tapestry of rock. 10, 20 or 30 years from now, when some kid encounters a futuristic variant of the mixtape containing, I dunno, the brooding psych-noir of “Bad Crazy Sun,” lush jangler “We Don’t Do That Anymore,” scathing/searing rocker “Goodbye” (one of the greatest kiss-off songs ever), or even the ethereally romantic Old Pueblo travelogue “Santa Maria Street,” he’ll be inspired to investigate further, and in digging deeper will ensure that the Sidewinders legacy continues to be carried forward.

***

A caveat: A portion of the foregoing was adapted from the foreword I penned for the 2011 book Came On Like the Sun: Collected Photographs of the Sidewinders and Sand Rubies, published by Hopkins and Doug Finical. In drafting my commentary, I compiled enough notes to disappear down the proverbial band rabbit-hole that we writers are prone to, having hung out with and interviewed the musicians numerous times over the years, dating back to the time of the arrival of that first Sidewinders album in my mailbox. Sometimes your objectivity gradually dissolves, and I will freely admit to being completely biased when it comes to their music.

Sidewinders book

Indeed, more than one friend has heard me talk about the time, circa 1991, when my wife and I were sitting around in our Charlotte, NC, house drinking wine and trying to decide whether it was time to seek out greener pastures, having grown weary and frustrated with our workaday routines in sales for a local shopping mall store chain. One tends to get restless every ten years or so, and thus there we were, literally on the verge of throwing a dart at a map of the United States to see what might be a viable destination. Among our options: New Orleans and Memphis, because we knew it would have to be a music town to make such a move worth cashing in our profit-sharing plans and surrendering our job security.

On the stereo that night were our favorite band, The Sidewinders, and mystically enough, at that precise decision point, “Get Out of That Town” from Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall came on. Against a sturdy backbeat and a bristly-jangly Hopkins guitar riff, vocalist Slutes offered this semi-sage lyrical advice:

“Now I know I’m crazy like a TV evangelist

But that town thinks it’s Los Angeles

And you know what’s worse? It’s trying to be it!

You gotta get out of that town…

And if you don’t know how,

We’ll find a way.

Anything that will allow you

To move out—and get away…

You gotta get out of that town,

Get out of those shopping malls—

C’mon down here!”

Certainly the song was born of the musician’s urging a friend or lover to ditch Phoenix—its sprawl, its plasticity, and yes, its shopping malls—to “c’mon down here” to Tucson. But in that instance, we knew they were surely singing to us as well. Two cross-country fact-finding and house-hunting vacations later, we had hired Mayflower movers to truck us and our stuff out to Tucson. Once we got there, it was not all moonbeams and tequila, of course; no overly romanticized notion ever fulfills itself. But the friends we made were lasting, and the memories we built were permanent. We even decided to have a child, something we’d resisted for ages, feeling that the time just wasn’t yet right for us. In Tucson, though, it finally felt right.

“At night you’ve got to stay awake/ The desert sun won’t even let you think straight…” — “Bad Crazy Sun,” from 1989’s Witchdoctor

Ironically, around the same time we were arriving in Tucson, the Sidewinders were finding themselves in the throes of the aforementioned legal woes, ultimately leading to the name change, a delay in the release of the much-anticipated fourth album, and a series of lineup changes. Within a few years, there would be a breakup and extended hiatus. I distinctly recall feeling, at one point, mildly betrayed: How dare they split after all the energy and emotion I’d put into them.

 Maybe that’s why the subsequent Sidewinders reunions have had a certain bittersweet edge for me. Watching that brief video clip of the band live in Austin the other night that Stephen Judge sent me was, well… like I said, I got pretty nostalgic. Happy to see Rich and Dave enjoying themselves (knowing, too, that Stephen was there filming the clip and probably pinching himself with delight), but sad I wasn’t there to be front and center, punching my fist in the air and singing along. Lord knows I have the lyrics to every one of their songs memorized. (Below: a live clip of the band doing “Bad Crazy Sun” from earlier this year.)

Postscript: Years before I moved to the desert, I was dreaming about it. Not just imagining what the desert must be like, or playing back scenes from classic films, but literally: I’d find myself transported to a sandy, saguaro- and yucca-dotted expanse while a bad, crazy sun scorched the back of my neck and an equally blazing brace of guitars played across a background soundtrack like the rumbling of a distant, incoming monsoon. I must have had those dreams for nearly four years before actually arriving in the desert in the summer of ’92, on a wish and a prayer that the physical change in locale—from N.C. to Tucson—would provide me with the psychological change I’d been needing in my life.

It did, and the ten years I spent in the desert remain among my most vivid, productive and alive. For those, and so much more, I have Rich Hopkins, Dave Slutes and the myriad members of their extended family largely to thank. I plan to get back there one of these days.

Every person needs a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack to his or her dreams, and the Sidewinders are mine.

“In this corner, by candlelight/ And that’s where we’ll meet/ On Santa Maria Street” —“Santa Maria Street,” from 1993’s Sand Rubies

STAR GAZING: Bill Frisell

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On his latest album the master jazz guitarist enriches several chamber-music-like thematic “suites” drawn from the scores of Boomer-favorite films in small ways and with unexpected notes, chords and solos that burrow into the melody without ever subsuming it.

 BY STEVEN ROSEN

The virtuosic electric-guitar instrumentalists, be they rock, blues or jazz, tend to emphasis speed and volume as a way to justify being the center of attraction. And they often slip into wretched excess because of it.

Bill Frisell, the (primarily) jazz musician who has released enough albums as a soloist, collaborator, band member or guest artist to fill a record store, has avoided that trap by stressing the song first and then thinking how he can quietly, subtly, smartly enrich it. He does so in small ways and with unexpected notes, chords and solos that burrow into the melody without ever subsuming it.

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That’s been his technique throughout a series of recent themed albums like Guitar in the Space Age! (early rock ‘n’ roll songs) and Disfarmer (meditations on a mysterious American portrait photographer).

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The latest, When You Wish Upon a Star, continues that approach with some differences. It consists of several chamber-music-like thematic “suites” drawn from the scores of Boomer-favorite films like To Kill a Mockingbird, Psycho and Once Upon a Time in the West, alternating with classic movie songs (“The Shadow of Your Smile,” “You Only Live Twice,” “Moon River” and the title tune).

There are also a couple light touches – a version of the Bonanza TV theme and the closing “Happy Trails,” the Dale Evans-composed theme from cowboy Roy Rogers’ TV show

While Frisell always makes the perfect choice as to the way to use his guitar to add color and texture to the material, he surrounds himself with fine instrumental help from violist Eyvind Kang, drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Thomas Morgan. Their nine-minute excerpt from “The Godfather” is good enough to wish they’d play the score live at screenings. Lee Townsend produced the album impeccably.

And Frisell uses a past collaborator, vocalist Petra Haden (daughter of the late virtuosic jazz bassist Charlie Haden) to sing the familiar songs, wonderfully, and to use her voice wordlessly as another instrument on some of the other selections. Her vocal phrasing joined with Frisell’s guitar phrasing is a match made in movie heaven.

Haden has already released her own similar album, 2013’s Petra Goes to the Movies. She also has joined Frisell, Morgan and drummer Paul Motian for “The Windmills of Your Mind,” and previously performed “Moon River” and “When You Wish Upon a Star” on a duets album with Frisell.

That does raise a criticism of this disc – some of the material is a little safe and overly familiar for the musicians. Still, jazz musicians – and also classical musicians and vocal interpreters – constantly rework the standards, adding insight and nuance to what they do. That’s part of the tradition of popular music. Frisell adds to it nicely here.

Bill Frisell is currently on tour; dates at his official website.

 

BLURT HEADS TO AUSTIN 2016!

 

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We plan to do it up right again at the Ginger Man Pub, natch, along with our sponsor Karbach Brewing. Waco Brothers, Everymen, Sidewinders, Soul Asylum, Hank Sinatra, Mercury Rev w/Simon Raymonde, Churchwood, Caleb Caudle, Basia Bulat, Robbie Fulks, Brett Harris… need we continue? Loads more slated to perform all four days! Below, take a gander at our party posters as rendered by Jonboy Langford—who, not so coincidentally, once again curated our Thursday show and will serve as your humble host that day

By Thee Editors

Once again we are headed to Austin for our annual March getaway—not so coincidentally, during the annual SXSW bacchanal which draws music biz types and punters from all over the globe. A big thanks to our pals at the Ginger Man – we couldn’t do this without you – as we plan to be hunkered down much/most of the time on the legendary outdoor patio of the beloved pub, located at 301 Lavaca St, Austin, TX 78701.

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We’d also like to thank our official sponsor this year, Karbach Brewing Company — “proudly brewed in Texas.”

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Bands? Yeah, we’ve seen a few over the years… This time around our trip will run March 16-19, and as usual the BLURT staff is busily scratching out daily and nightly itineraries, knowing full well that after, you know, a few hours in Austin you might as well chuck that proposed schedule out the hotel window and just wing it.

Meanwhile, though, there’s that little matter of the Ginger Man and our annual Industry of Music Showcase, which will feature both day parties and nighttime performances all four days, Wednesday through Saturday. As usual, these parties do not require wristbands or badges to get in—absolutely no guestlists or VIP crap either; everyone is welcome, even Donald Trump supporters—and as such, the venue will operate on the usual “one out/one in” basis whenever it reaches legal capacity. Experience has told us that certain bands are guaranteed club-packers, so it’s always a good idea to arrive early at the Ginger Man doors to ensure your getting in for the particular set(s) you are wanting to catch. Yes, there will be a line from time to time, but experience also has told us that nobody ever has to wait too long.

Come by early, stay late, and make sure you say howdy to the crew!

***

Check out our SXSW coverage from years past…

Blurt Heads to Austin 2015

Blurt Heads to Austin 2014

Photo Gallery: SXSW 2014 / 2014 SXSW Report

Blurt Heads to Austin 2013

2013 SXSW Report (w/links to galleries by Tony Landa, Susan Moll & Michael Passman)

Blurt Heads to Austin 2012

Blurt Heads to Austin 2011

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18th Annual Industry of Music Showcase / Austin 2016 – March 16-19

Proudly presented by Industry of Music and Blurt Magazine

Wed

~Wednesday, March 16th
1pm – The Kickback – https://www.facebook.com/thekickback

2pm – Freedy Johnston – www.freedyjohnston.com

3pm – Brett Harris – www.brettharrismusic.com

4pm – Robbie Fulks – www.robbiefulks.com

5pm – Supersuckers – www.supersuckers.com

6pm – Blackfoot Gypsies – www.blackfootgypsies.com

7pm – Yoko and the Oh No’s – https://www.facebook.com/yokoandtheohnos/

8pm – Radio Birds – www.radiobirds.net

9pm – Stolen Rhodes – www.stolenrhodes.com

10pm – Overtake – www.overlakemusic.com

11pm – Happy Abandon – http://www.happyabandonmusic.com

12am – The Head – www.theheadmusic.com

Thurs

~Thursday, March 17th (Jon Langford from The Mekons and Waco Brothers will host the day’s event!)
1pm – Darkwing – https://www.facebook.com/darkwingdarkwing/

2pm – Walter Salas-Humara (of The Silos) – www.waltersalashumara.com

3pm – Waco Brothers – https://www.bloodshotrecords.com/artist/waco-brothers

4pm – Banditos – www.banditosband.com
5pm – Churchwood – http://www.reverbnation.com/churchwoodtx

6pm – Bad Luck Jonathan – www.jonlangford.de

7pm – Ice Cold Singles – (Members of the Waco Bros!)

8pm – Insects vs Robots – www.insectsvsrobots.com

9pm – Happy Abandon – http://www.happyabandonmusic.com

10pm – Caleb Caudle – www.calebcaudle.com

11pm – Carbon Poppies – www.carbonpoppies.com

12am – Hank Sinatra – www.hank-sinatra.com

Fri

~Friday, March 18th

1pm – The Everymen – http://theeverymen.bandcamp.com

2pm – Dressy Bessy – www.dressybessy.com

3pm – Dash Rip Rock – www.dashriprock.net

4pm – Soul Asylum – http://soulasylum.com/ / https://www.facebook.com/SoulAsylum/

5pm – ‘Mercury Rev Song and Tell w Simon Raymonde ‘– www.mercuryrev.com

6pm – Luke Winslow King – www.lukewinslowking.com

7pm – Paul Burch – www.paulburch.com

8pm – The Bluebonnets – www.thebluebonnets.net

9pm – The Sidewinders – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sidewinders

10pm – SURPRISE GUEST (Who will it be THIS year???)

11pm – Hank Sinatra – www.hank-sinatra.com

12am – The Whiskey Gentry – www.thewhiskeygentry.com

Sat


~Saturday, March 19th

1pm – Jeremy and The Harlequins – www.jeremyandtheharlequins.com

2pm – Eli “Paperboy” Reed – www.elipaperboyreed.com

3pm – Basia Bulat – www.basiabulat.com

4pm – Hey Marseilles – www.heymarseilles.com

5pm – The Wild Reeds – www.thewildreedsmusic.com

6pm – Little Hurricane – www.littlehurricanemusic.com

7pm – Yoko and the Oh No’s – https://www.facebook.com/yokoandtheohnos/

8pm – Insects vs Robots – www.insectsvsrobots.com

9pm – Joy Again – https://www.facebook.com/joyagaintheband/

10pm – Wailin Storms – http://wailinstorms.bandcamp.com

11pm – Overlake – www.overlakemusic.com

12am – Dead Stars – https://deadstars.bandcamp.com

 

PRESTO! Freakwater

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Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwin have been crafting their unique blend of tale-spinning Americana since the late ‘80s, although it’s been a decade since their last studio album. Surprise—they sound utterly vital and invigorated.

BY JOHN SCHACHT

As the fable has it, Scheherazade owed her life to her skill at spinning a mesmerizing yarn. Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwin, who since the late 1980s have paired together as Freakwater, know a thing or two about that life-affirming talent. So the title of their first LP in 10 years doesn’t surprise; what does, though, is just how vital and reinvigorated Freakwater sound on the dozen songs that bear their inspiration’s name.

Bean and Irwin were last heard from in this incarnation on 2006’s Thinking of You, backed by Chicagoans Califone and Tim Rutili’s production. The fit was fitful; fantastic bands both, but the latter uses roots music as a launching pad for sonic exploration, while Freakwater’s strength has always been sticking to country’s sonic foundations while updating its content to regenerate the form. Thinking of You still showcased the duo’s considerable songwriting skills and distinctive vocal harmonies, but the record sometimes felt like it wanted to go in two directions at once.

Freakwater 2-5

Not so Scheherazade, released last month by the ever-reliable Bloodshot label. The songwriting pushes in a few new sonic directions—”Down Will Come Baby” has a reverb-heavy Buffalo Springfield feel in the sinister wah-wah pedal guitar from Evan Patterson, and “Velveteen Matador” has a Spanish vibe that recalls Desire-era Dylan—but succeeds mostly by concentrating on the vocal interplay and lyrics-writing chops of its two co-creators. They also left Chicago for the first time to record, returning to their home turf of Louisville to have Kevin Ratterman, My Morning Jacket’s longtime engineer, oversee the six-day session.

Whether it was a decade away from Freakwater, the addition of Ratterman, a different studio, or the move to Louisville’s “Kentucky crawl” (as Irwin puts it), the combination finds Freakwater’s eighth album recapturing the magic of their earlier recordings. Gruesome murders, cheaters and adulterers, desperate thieves and restless ghosts, gamblers and addicts, Icarus hubris and righteous vengeance pervade these songs like a compendium of old time-y music themes. But Bean and Irwin have always transcended the genre’s tropes through the depth of their narratives and clever—though never ironic—phrasing, and those skills shine here in more serious fashion than ever before. Pick any song, and couplets and images stand out for the beauty or desperation (often both) like the “diadems of light” Bean sings about over long-time collaborator Jim Elkington’s pedal steel swells on “Memory Vendor.”

Freakwater_2015_Tim Furnish_Horiz

“What the People Want” opens the LP with a girl split “stem to stern” as whorls of fiddle and eerie flute from Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis ominously shadow the women’s crosshatched harmonies and a pump organ drone. But Irwin plays with the notion of murder ballads by turning the spotlight back on the killers and equating their nameless victims with someone more dear: “So deep in blood the deed was done/and everyone some mother’s son/whose baby are you?”

Irwin’s gorgeous slow waltz “Bolshevik and Bollweevil” finds pedal steel adding just the right mournful tone to a Dust Bowl tale that rings down the ages to an era of middle class impoverishment, where it’s not too tough imagining that, “every last goddamned thing/will be the first thing you lose.”

Bean’s songs tend to bend the country traditions toward rock more, but mostly along the lines of “Velveteen Matador,” a loping, syncopated cautionary tale about cheating—”you know there’s a loser in this game/bank it all on a face down card/raise it blind on a double bluff/just so you feel like you’re living large”—that recalls late-era Byrds, complete with guitarist Morgan Geer channeling Clarence White’s Telecaster twang. Those simpatico contrasts between the styles of Bean and Irwin wind up strengthening both and making Scheherazade‘s sequencing another one of its pleasing aspects.

And just as Scheherazade sought, mercy is a common yearning. Over the sinister guitar licks and haunting fiddle of Bean’s “Falls of Sleep,” the duo plead for elusive mercy, taking it wherever they find it: In sleep’s “false oasis,” in a firing squad’s “coup de grace,” or even at the end of a vengeful god’s sword, where “we’re too weak to punish/the seven times your sword is brandished/so we thrust ourselves upon its point/begging for nothing more/than to reach its joint/and deliver us mercy until dawn.” The LP’s most traditional, simply arranged and uplifting cut, “Take Me With You,” follows, a song which would’ve fit neatly on the group’s earliest efforts. Or course, in fine Freakwater fashion, the promise of a golden land of repose comes with load-bearing clouds, too: “where is the mist that clung to every mountainside/has it fallen back to earth with every tear that we have cried/when all these hills are gone and all this work is done/our tears will rise to fill the skies and dark clouds will hide/the sun.”

Twenty-five years in, how well these two sides of a sung coin fit together and complement each other remains remarkable. That’s especially true given how many others pitched beneath the “alt-country” tent have either abandoned the fight or moved on to other forms. That kind of longevity reflects the “authenticity” so many pretenders hoped a Western shirt and a fondness for whiskey would earn them. But like their LP’s namesake, these stories resonate because the stakes are high—the need to sing them is part of Bean and Irwin’s   survival instinct, too, and that beautiful urgency comes across throughout. As the latter puts it on the gorgeous “Number One with a Bullet,” where a subtle tapestry of guitars, organ chords and fiddle billows beneath the women’s urgent harmonies, “I love the way you tell it/you tell it so low /like we’re already under the waves /my ear to your mouth/I can hear the blood roar/we rage on the ocean/to crash on the shore.”

Freakwater is on tour for the rest of this week—dates can be found HERE.

Photo credits: Tim Horiz (group) and Edward Neary (duo)

THE SOUNDS OF THEN, NOW AND FOREVER: Wussy

Wussy_JohnCurley_1

The Upshot: The Cincinnati band is as drone-y, discordant, dreamy and deranged as ever in crafting the kaleidoscopic sonic soundscape of its brilliant new album.

BY BARRY ST. VITUS

Ohio’s list of awesome bands that it’s spawned over the years is as long as your arm, certainly too long to include here. The Velvet Underground, it is said, always was received most warmly in Cleveland on their tours, so, as an ex-pat Buckeye it’s something in our blood, I guess.

Cincinnati’s self-described Midwestern drone band, Wussy is perhaps the latest, greatest to stand out on the roster. A spin-off of Chuck Cleaver’s Ass Ponys, the band formed in 2001 and now presents us with its 6th full-length project—and it’s as drone-y, discordant, dreamy and deranged as ever. Forever Sounds (Shake It/Damnably) is a kaleidoscopic, sonic soundscape, engagingly recorded at John Curley’s (Afghan Whigs) facility, Ultrasuede Studios.

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Indeed, the musicians had the full support and encouragement of their producers to really push the limits beyond what had come before and reach a new zenith in their sound, capturing the lightning in the bottle of their dynamic live shows. Lisa Walker’s and Cleaver’s latest songs were executed with aplomb by all, including Mark Messerly on bass, Joe Klug’s drums, and the pedal steel mastery of John Ehrhardt.

The last couple of years have been good to Wussy, and found them very productive, riding on the heels of their new found success, a European tour and spotlighted on CBS This Morning, that exposed them to millions of people. Promoting Forever Sounds, they are heading cross-country on tour soon, then off to England, Wales and Scotland in late April, and into early May.

The album leads off with “Dropping House,” with its exquisite wall of sound and din falling on you like the Mercer Arts Center. Likewise for the reckless ruckus and uproar on “Sidewalk Sale.” You will also bask in discordant feedback on the splendid and echo-plexed “Gone,” featuring Chuck’s vocalizing. Chuck also offers up a couple that he penned, but presented after the sessions had wrapped up and everyone heading out. After hearing him play “Hello, I’m A Ghost” (shades of the late Ass Ponys) and “She’s Killed Hundreds,” (watch video) equipment was unpacked and set up again to get to work on creating and capturing these gems on tape, thankfully, and giving us another 7 minutes of music to slobber over.

“Better Days,” a lovely, carefree number, and “Majestic 12,” both showcase Lisa’s deft and delicate writing, and ethereal singing skills, as does “Hand Of God,” (shades of the late Viva Voce) where her soft, breathy vocals prompts one to envision a soft, downy chick nestled in a nest of barbwire, as the music swirls and pulses around her voice. Track ten wraps them up with another one sung by Cleaver, “My Parade,” showcasing his ragged frayed and weary voice cushioned by Ehrhardt’s capable pedal steel playing.

A big doff of the hat to Shake It Records and others for keeping the faith in Wussy music, and promoting these magically talented guys. Hopefully they’ll get their due with Forever Sounds. at long last, and not just be a critic’s-favored, rarefied Best Band You Never Heard Of much longer.

***

Photo Credit: John Curley

Wussy will be touring this month—including tonight and tomorrow in Chicago— and well into June. Check their official website for dates. Below: Wussy live on KEXP in 2014.

THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT.7: Thomas Anderson

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“Hopefully the world is big enough for all us”: The Austin rocker, whose career stretches back to the ‘80s, on his remarkable new album, on death, dying and the afterlife, on the travails of dealing with indie record labels—and on the various other Andersons out there who keep stealing his digital thunder.

BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: features on Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter Hours and Green On Red) I’ve opted not to trawl through my personal archives—although, as you’ll learn, my subject today definitely is a favorite part of my journalistic history. Instead, I’m presenting an interview I did recently with an artist I’ve admired since the late ‘80s but who, for reasons that will become clear, I’d lost touch with for a good while. Ladies and gentleman, allow me to (re)introduce Thomas Anderson.

Anderson’s a native of Norman, Oklahoma, but for the majority of his adult life has lived in Austin. If memory serves, I first became aware of him as a journalistic peer; he was writing for the likes of Trouser Press and Musician and was an ace scribe at that. All along, though, he’d been writing songs and finally, in ’89, he decided to move to the other side of the stage lights and release his first album, Alright, It was Frank . . . and He’s Risen From the Dead and Gone Off With His Truck via his own Out There label. Critics like Robert Christgau approved, and as was frequently the case back in those days, the record found its way into the hands of such (cough) roccrit tastemakers as moi and my old pal Jud Cost; it’s entirely possible that Jud and I got on the horn and called each other up simultaneously to call “dibs” on reviewing the LP for the rock mag we both scribed for, The Bob. There was something undeniably compelling about Anderson’s Dylan/Reed style of literate rock lyricism, and he also knew his way around a good hook and a catchy riff.

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Nowadays, “singer songwriters” are not even a dime a dozen, more like a nickel a dozen (if that much). But a quarter century ago, at a time when Seattle was starting to breathe down everyone’s neck, it took a lot of huevos to prize actual songcraft over attitude, and to understand that to “kick out the jams” wasn’t a template, but an aesthetic—and that it was okay to have folkier, contemplative material alongside full-tilt rockers. In that, Anderson was clearly a traditionalist, one who didn’t mind wearing his influences on his sleeve while still bringing something absolutely fresh to the table.

Several acclaimed albums would follow, including Blues For the Flying Dutchman (Dutch East India) and Moon Going Down (Marilyn). Meanwhile, I landed in Tucson, and I consider myself fortunate to have struck up a friendship, first via the mail and then later in person when he traveled from Austin to Arizona for some shows. Gifted with an easy-going, self-deprecating manner and a brain containing veritable Wikipedia of musical facts and trivia, Anderson’s the kind of guy you could sidle up to in a bar and within five minutes find yourself deep in conversation about some obscure record or swapping rock ‘n’ roll anecdotes.

Which doesn’t exactly bring us to his new album Heaven (Out There) because Anderson’s put out a number of other records since the early ‘90s, including 1998’s Bolide, 2003’s Norman, Oklahoma and archival releases The Moon in Transit (2012) and On Becoming Human (2013). But Heaven, comprising all-new material (his first such collection in years) does serve to remind me of all the things that appealed to me in the first place. Cheerily billed as “songs about dead people and the afterlife,” it kicks off with the jangly “No Thought For the Morrow” plus a blazing T. Rex/Velvets-style rocker titled “Arguing With the Dead,” and indeed, with lines like “Old man lying in an ICU/ Loved ones around him weep” (the former) and “When I get to Heaven it’ll clear my head/ ‘Cause it’s no use arguing with the dead,” Anderson’s thematic mandate gets fulfilled right from the get-go.

Elsewhere there’s atmospheric ballad “Chelsea Grail,” which with its references to Andy Warhol and Brian Jones makes explicit that Anderson is paying tribute to the late chanteuse Nico; a Bowie-esque slice of wham-bam distorto rock, “All the Cool People Have Left the Party,” lamenting how our heroes, icons and objects of desire are “leavin’ too soon” and in their wake are “nothin’ but some loud and obnoxious goons”; and a folky, seven-minute epic “The Wilderness,” which provides Anderson his chance to ponder, at length, what the afterlife might resemble, his protagonist wandering around on the streets of Heaven, taking in the sights.

There’s plenty more, of course, but you get my point: Anderson remains a scholar of literate and thoughtful tunesmithery while instinctively channeling his rock ‘n’ roll roots, and the result is one of the nicest musical surprises to come down the pike so far this year. I caught up with him via the digital horn, and what follows is the result of the two of us doing some long-overdue commiserating.

TA 2

BLURT: Perhaps a good way to start would be to re-introduce yourself, as I imagine a good chunk of our readership, at least the younger ones, will be unfamiliar with your work. Could you tell us a little about your roots and background?

THOMAS ANDERSON: Well—the Okie roots aren’t much to talk about. Oklahoma is a place that people largely want to get away from. A lot of music has come out of Oklahoma, but with the obvious exception of the Flaming Lips, it’s mostly been made by people once they left there. From Woody Guthrie on.

As for me, I spent the ‘80s writing for music mags such as Trouser Press, Creem, Record and Musician. Around the end of that decade, I released my first album, titled Alright It Was Frank, And He’s Risen From The Dead And Gone Off With His Truck. Since then I’ve released seven more, including Heaven, the new one. There have also been a couple of 45s and some stray tracks on compilations.

So why surface now, in 2016? With the ascent of Donald Trump, a lot of people would appear to be getting ready to go underground and/or move to Canada…

Surface?! I never thought I went under! Really, I just put out records when I can, y’know? It’s always been that way. I have a neurotic fear that at some point—for whatever reason—I won’t be able to do this anymore, so I try to release stuff whenever I can. In the old days, when I was on actual labels, I was kind of at their mercy as to when my stuff got released; but now, I’m always working on the next one.

I remember when you were working at Waterloo, you quipped to me that you try to leave Austin during SXSW. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen go down in your adopted city, both pro and con, in the time you’ve lived there?

I’ve moved to Austin twice. The first time in…1984, I think? Back then I could walk over to the UT campus in the evenings and visit Sterling Morrison in his office. At the time he was working on his thesis on Cynewulf, the Anglo-Saxon poet, and he always appreciated an excuse to put it aside for awhile. Or I could talk to Roky Erickson, who was living with his mom and a black cat named Halloween, in a house with spray-paint all over the walls. The Big Boys had splintered into Poison 13, and the Standing Waves had moved to New York. I used to play at an awful coffeehouse run by some distant relative of Ernest Tubb, and go see the Tail Gators and Brave Combo.

I moved there again around 1993 and basically worked in what I call “yuppie support,” as most of the musicians did. Lotsa minimum-wage jobs to make rent on a ghetto apartment up on Rundberg. It was depressing. On the good side, I played a lot of shows at the Electric Lounge, and had records coming out on Unclean and Propeller in Austin and on labels in Europe. It’s… um… hard to explain. Austin’s great for a lot of people, but maybe not so great for me. It’s kinda like, if I go to a party and no one there is particularly happy to see me, I leave, y’know? Now, I kinda bounce back and forth. When Bob Mould moved there in the ‘90s, a friend of mine asked him what he thought of Austin. He supposedly said, “It’s nice to live in a place where the street don’t smell like piss.” So yeah—Austin has its advantages!

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen go down in the independent music world, bot pro and con, in the time you’ve been part of it?

Um… is Korn still big? No—seriously, I’m the last person in the world to ask about that…. Since I stopped working at record stores, I’m totally in the dark on what’s happening in music. I always figure that if something is great enough, I’ll probably hear about it eventually. Maybe in BLURT. [Damn straight. —Reviews Ed.]

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The new record—”Songs about dead people and the afterlife”: indeed, the songs frequently invoke words like dead, angels, graves, dying, etc. Were there specific incidents or losses that inspired you to go thematic on the record?

Awhile back, I was on a Mark Twain kick. In attempting to read everything available by him, I found a work called Captain Stormfield’s Visit To Heaven, which, as far as I know, has never been published in its entirety. It’s a story about a man’s visit to the afterlife, and who and what he finds there. And how existence works there. And I thought, ‘What a great premise for an album!’ I mean, you can do anything with that–songs about famous dead people, songs about people you’ve known, songs questioning good and evil, songs about the meaning or meaninglessness of life… you can do anything with that concept. And I wrote a ton of songs for it. In addition to the twelve songs on the album, I had songs about Lou Reed, Jeff Buckley… a LOT of songs.

Depressing subject in theory, but in execution, wonderfully contemplative, with gorgeous arrangements. Still, not the easiest “sell” from a marketing standpoint—discuss.

Well, hopefully I’ve kept it entertaining. I dunno… everyone from the Carter Family to the goth groups have been pretty death-obsessed. I’ve tried to keep it light. I mean, my Heaven has a porn star [Savannah, in “Savannah Got Screwed”] a gospel/blues singer [Washington Phillips, “Dolceolo Glory”], a Star Trek actor [Leonard Nimoy, “He’s Dead Jim”], Nico, and Sheb Wooley [“Sheb Wooley Dies in Oklahoma”] Plus, Michael Jackson has a romance with the author of Frankenstein [“Mary Loves Michael”], and Nixon and JFK stroll by [“The Gatekeeper’s Tale”]. Who else is gonna give you a Heaven like that?

Are all the songs of recent vintage, or are any from the archives? And given that you performed all the music yourself, were there any pitfalls in taking the extreme DIY approach?

A lot of it was written around the millennium, some more recently. “All The Cool People Have Left The Party” I wrote after listening to a bunch of Prince 12″ singles. The only pitfall in the DIY approach was that I was using a new digital recorder this time, instead of the 4-track cassette deck I used on the last couple of albums, and I was getting some anomalous sounds when I tried to use a lot of guitar distortion; which might explain why most of the guitars on there are pretty clean. My friend Kels Koch of the Million Sellers said the sound reminded him of The Blue Mask. So I’ll pretend that was the idea!

In that regard, you’ve come full circle/returned to late ‘80s roots, true? Which resonates with me: I basically write about music without getting paid these days, just for the free records and to scratch my creative itch—just like it was all those years ago when I was writing about you for The Bob.

It’s like you start out scratching the creative itch, and it becomes an obsessive thing. Which has led to a lot of mediocre art. I mean, it feels good—terrific even—to create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. You know that feeling when it all works—it’s there in journalism just like music—it’s just the best. So you keep scratching that itch. It’s kinda like a gambling addiction, I guess…

You seemed to go on a decade-long hiatus from 2003’s Norman, OK and 2012’s The Moon In Transit. What were you doing during that time? Did you continue to play music and write songs?

Simply put, my label ceased to exist. My stuff had been coming out on a German label called Red River, and they had started working with some new distributors who were jacking them around—telling them what to release and when, not paying them—and eventually the guy who ran the label, a great guy, by the way, just threw in the towel. I had an album ready to be released. It was called Radar Angels—it was recorded, mixed, mastered, the artwork was done… it was ready to go; then the label was gone. One song from it got licensed to Sony in Germany (for a blues compilation—I’m right in between the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Greg Allman), a few more I made available online; but eventually I just started working on a new album. So yeah, there was a little ten year break in there….

Your website doesn’t appear to have been updated since, er, the release of Norman, OK, and the Wikipedia page for you essentially cuts off at 2013’s On Becoming Human. Are there any plans to rectify this info gap for the general public? And how can people get the record, either hard copies or digital?

First of all, that’s not my website. I have no control over that. As for Wikipedia…wait—I’m on Wikipedia?! Where?! I mean, I’ve looked! Dude, send me a link or something! I’ve NEVER found anything on me on Wikipedia—it’s all Paul Thomas Anderson. [Ed. note: Thomas and I have subsequently rectified this, so BLURT is hoping that both the unofficial T.A. site and the Wikipedia page will see updates in the near future.]

People can get Heaven from CD Baby—and they also have the two albums that came out right before it. They have both physical copies and downloads. You can also get downloads from iTunes or Amazon or any of those places. Plus, you can stream the stuff on Deezer or any of those places. Y’know, I think both Unclean and Propeller Records in Austin still have a few original copies of my 45s from twenty years ago. Get ’em before they’re gone, kids!

What’s coming up for you next? More recording? Touring?

Two things—I’m working on a Requiem Mass For Nash The Slash, and I don’t know what the hell I’ll do with that, if anything…. Also, later this year I hope to do a digital reissue of my second album, Blues For The Flying Dutchman. Lately I’ve been dusting off some early demos of some of those songs for possible bonus tracks, and they sound GREAT.

Finally, what would you say to people who search for you on the internet and think that THIS Thomas Anderson, apparently based in CT, is you?

Nope, he’s definitely not me, though I wish I had his guitar. Cool shirt, too. Back in the MySpace days, some girl from Scotland contacted me because she thought I was the Thomas Anderson who sang a song used in the short-lived TV series Shark. I had to break it to her that I wasn’t the Thomas Anderson she loved. Weird girl—she seemed to be drinking or drunk in all of her online pics. She disappeared after awhile. Maybe her parents made her take down her page; she looked like she was about fifteen. But yeah, there are quite a few Thomas Andersons out there. Hopefully, the world is big enough for all of us. [Below: OUR Thomas Anderson. Accept no substitutes…]

TA 4

 

ROLLIN’ ‘N’ TUMBLIN’ with Reverend Keith A. Gordon

Keith Gordon book

Making the connection: blues reviews you can use—and fuggin’ better not lose—in an essential new book by a veteran music journalist. In our interview he also offers sage advice to fellow writers pondering going the self-publishing route.

BY FRED MILLS

In a sense, reviews of blues recordings and concerts are kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of the music criticism universe. Compared to the hyperventilating world of mainstream pop reviews, the more-earnest-than-thou style of writing favored by indie-rock and singer-songwriter reviewers, the blatantly apologist approach that informs most hip-hop “experts,” and the fawning, deferential manner into which (frequently older) reviewers typically lapse into when writing about this or that “heritage” or classic rock act… well, blues reviewers probably operate with permanent chips on their shoulders because they have to assume that (a) no one’s reading their stuff in the first place, given all the other white noise in the music world; or, (b) if someone does read a blues review, they probably ain’t gonna give a shit because the aforementioned white noise is too deafening in the first place.

I mean, hell, these writers are lucky if they can even get a blues review published, and when they do it’s usually some 50-word capsule blurb published in a city’s crummy little alternative weekly newspaper in advance of a blues musician’s upcoming appearance in a club—which means that both (a) and (b) are still operative, and that the only people who’ll actually see the review are the club owner, the artist’s publicist, and maybe a handful of local blues fans… whew. As an occasional blues reviewer myself, I’m exhausted just writing this paragraph.

Memo: veteran roccrit and longtime BLURT contributor Reverend Keith Gordon is here to do his part to get a little respect for his—our—blues-scribing brethren.

Rev. Gordon’s just-published Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’ (Excitable Press), a compendium of over 100 long-form (e.g., 400+ words, with many clocking in at over 1,000) blues reviews that he wrote from 2008 to 2014 for such venues as Blues Music here in the States and The Blues in the U.K., plus All Music Guide, BLURT, and About.com where Gordon authored that site’s “Blues Guide” section, doing reviews, interviews and features. These are actual, genuine, honest-to-Wolf, get-your-mojo-workin’ blues reviews, the kind that display an abiding passion for the artform, an appreciation for and deep knowledge of its history, and most important, the kind of descriptive, illuminating and no holds barred style of writing that serves to make its subject come alive.

If one key standard by which to judge a review is whether or not it makes you want to jump up and head immediately to the record store to get a copy of the record being reviewed, then Gordon passes that litmus test in spades. The opposite holds true, too: his reviews can serve as stellar argument starters if the reader decides to take issue with the relative merits of some artist/recording. Blues fans are nothing if not passionate. And combative. I’d hate to match wits with the Rev in a bar if he and I were taking opposite sides. Plus, he’s about 8 feet taller and 90 pounds bigger than moi, and I have seen enough photos of him over the years to know that he ain’t the backing-down kinda guy. (Below: Gordon of recent, possibly mellow, vintage.)

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Anyhow… the nearly 400 page book’s reviews are presented alphabetically by artist first name, rather than chronologically by original release date of the album; this allows artists that Gordon wrote about on more than one occasion to have their reviews grouped side-by-side. Apparently Gordon holds Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Watermelon Slim and Jimi Hendrix in pretty high regard, as each of them rate three reviews apiece, but this doesn’t mean that just because, say, Gary Clark Jr., Etta James and Hound Dog Taylor only have one album from each reviewed, Gordon skimps on the praise or information. “Context” is particularly important when discussing the blues, because as a musical form it is perhaps the pre-eminent one for which lineages can be traced and deep influences discerned; Gordon offers plenty of musical description when talking about the records and individual songs, but he never forgets to give the reader the relevant background and a sense of who this artist actually is and what he or she’s all about.

Every reader will have favorites among the artists and reviews here, and the book works nicely whether you read it straight through or by jumping around to your faves. My left-field pick? The review of Watermelon Slim’s No Paid Holiday, released in 2008, which contains this particularly, er, evocative passage by the Rev.:

“Slim’s half-slurred, half-growled vocal patois (equal parts Carolina Soul and Okie drawl) takes some getting used to hearing. But throw in Slim’s haunting National Steel slide guitarplay, which hangs across these songs like vines dripping down from the limbs of a Cypress tree, combine it with his shotgun harp work, include a band that knows when to be quiet and when to be loud, and you have a lethal chemistry.”

Lethal, indeed. Now I remember why I loved that album so much upon its initial release and why I still love it.

There’s also a small but meaty section devoted to some of his blues book reviews, such as Gregg Allman’s outstanding 2012 autobiography My Cross to Bear and a pair of quirky volumes that collect all of the album sleeves and popular blues, jazz and country artist trading cards created by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. A lot of music fans tend to associate Crumb primarily with Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company (because of his iconic Cheap Thrills LP art), but the artist’s passion for blues and jazz clearly runs the deepest, as Gordon rightly points out in highlighting some of Crumb’s portraits—which, he also suggests, have done a lot for bringing certain forgotten and even unknown musicians to the general public’s attention.

Rev. Keith kindly agreed to an email interview discussing the book, the blues, and also his adventures in the world of self-publishing—Excitable Press is his own imprint, and Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’ is also subtitled “The Reverend’s Archives, Volume 2”—along with some useful advice for those of you out there who (like moi) may be pondering your own self-publishing work. This isn’t the first time he and I have done this dance, incidentally; in 2014 I wrote a BLURT feature called “I Know It When I Read It” in which he talked about the book he’d recently published, That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014. And over the years we’ve often talked about music journalism and its milieu, seeing as how both of us have invested a lot of time and energy into it, going all the way back to the late ‘70s.

One thing he told me that I think remains absolutely relevant to now was also a timely tip for writers: “The best advice that I can give up-and-comers to this rock critic/music journalist thing is to listen to a lot of music from across the eras, and familiarize yourself with both better-known and obscure artists alike. The Internet is this amazing resource that allows you to explore a world of music, so why not do so? You can also find copies of old music zines and other publications online to read and educate yourself, so if you really care about the music, put in some time and effort to improve your knowledge and your skills.”

Amen, Rev. On to our interview, and to Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’

BLURT: For readers who only know you as a contributor to Blurt – which covers blues, but definitely is not a blues-specific publication or site – tell us your bonafides and background as a blues writer. Did anyone encourage you when you were younger to start writing about music?

No one ever encouraged me to write…my parents thought I was “wasting my time” well into their dotage. It was my exposure to writers like Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, and the almighty “Ranger” Rick Johnson, my first editor, which launched me on this path. I used to “borrow” copies of Creem, Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, and Rock magazine from a local bookstore and was inspired by their writing. I thought to myself, “People get paid to write about music? And they get free records? I’m in!” At the time, I didn’t know how little money you actually get paid to write about music…

As for blues music specifically, I was smitten by the blues after winning a copy of the Alabama State Troupers Road Show LP from a Nashville radio station. The double album documented a label-sponsored tour by Memphis music legend Don Nix that featured bluesman Furry Lewis. Furry was given the entire first side of the album, and I was enchanted by his performance. That experience opened the door to artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker that I’d read about in my music zines, starting a life-long love affair with the blues. The more I heard of the blues, the more I wanted to hear!

I began writing about blues albums for Thom King’s Take One magazine, a sort of underground Nashville rag with mainstream media aspirations, in 1976 and I’ve covered the blues one way or another for just about every publication I’ve been associated with since (well over 100 to date). I’ve contributed to the All Music Guide To The Blues book as well as the AMG website, and I’ve also written for Blues Revue, Blues Music magazine, and The Blues magazine in the U.K. Oh, and I was the Blues Expert for About.com for six and a half years.

 

What makes the blues a compelling genre and subject for you to listen to and write about? Give me the proverbial “elevator speech” you might make to someone (say, under 25) without any knowledge of the blues but whom you wanted to convince them to give the blues a listen.

The blues IS American music – jazz, country, bluegrass, rhythm & blues, and rock ‘n’ roll are all derived from early blues artists like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Charlie Patton, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Without the blues, all we’d have left to listen to is Justin Bieber, etc… the most soulless, commercial, life-sucking, horribly bland and uncreative music imaginable.

And for those who think that the blues is merely twelve bars of depressing “I woke up this morning” droning, I’d point out the incredible diversity to be found in the blues – explosive blues-rock guitarists like Walter Trout, Joe Bonamassa, and Gary Clark Jr; talented women like Janiva Magness, Shemekia Copeland, Marcia Ball, and Samantha Fish; traditionalists like Duke Robillard and Billy Branch; legends like Buddy Guy and John Mayall; outliers like Corey Harris and Seasick Steve; and even crossover acts like the Tedeschi Trucks Band. There’s a style of blues for almost every taste!

 

What is the current state of blues journalism, and how do you view that in the long-term perspective? What publications and websites are noteworthy? Which ones are no longer with us that are greatly missed? Can writers who specialize in the blues earn a living at it? This is related to an accompanying thought: My memory tells me that there was a ton of interest when Stevie Ray was peaking, maybe a decade later when John Lee was being rediscovered, and then periodically, say, each decade. So accompanying those moments would have been interest by the public in reading about the blues. But are there genuine blues scholars any more, and as the last members of the old school finally pass away, are there enough younger players to fill the void and keep enthusiasm regenerating?

Blues journalism and academic interest in the music is arguably stronger than with rock ‘n’ roll currently. Here in the states, there is the long-running Living Blues magazine, which does a fine job of mixing historical articles and interviews with coverage of new artists. Blues Music magazine (which I write for) rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the defunct Blues Revue zine and covers more contemporary artists than does Living Blues. Across the pond, there’s a thriving blues scene in the U.K. and several magazines to cover it, including The Blues (which I also contribute to) and Blues Matters.

For readers wanting a representative taste of today’s blues writing, Blues Blast is a free online publication (http://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/) that you can sign up for and get in your email box. American Blues Scene is a newish publication by some true believers (http://www.americanbluesscene.com/) that offers zealous coverage of the contemporary blues scene.

Mainstream interest in blues music does seem to rise and fall with whatever artist captures the audience’s imagination at the time – Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers Band in the 1970s, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray in the ‘80s, John Lee Hooker’s revival in the ‘90s, and the White Stripes and Black Keys in the 2000s. Today, the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Gary Clark Jr. are bringing the blues to young new fans. So yes, every decade or so the blues experiences a rise in popularity, and although it eventually ebbs, the music holds onto a certain number of those new fans and they help keep the spirit of the blues alive.

While it’s true that the best among the first generation “blues scholars” are getting older, nobody’s going to replace the erudition and knowledge of, say, a Bill Dahl or Robert Gordon (no relation) anytime soon. Considering that well-researched, substantially scholarly (and often entertaining) books on Skip James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, and Johnny Winter, among others, have been published in the last five to eight years, I have faith that a new generation of blues fans will pick up the gauntlet and continue to document the blues in print.

As for “earning a living” writing about the blues, there are precious few job openings for that position! Most blues artists themselves barely eke out a living playing the blues, and they work hard at it. Although some publications pay for articles and reviews, everybody I know that writes about the blues does so mostly as a labor of love with a little money on the side. Like other forms of music writing, there’s lots of opportunity for “exposure” and very little paid work…

 

Tell us your three favorite blues artists interviews you’ve done, and of course what made them special to you or unique.

Elvin Bishop – a 2016 Blues Hall of Fame inductee – is a blast to speak with because he has such great stories of both coming up in the Chicago blues scene of the early 1960s but also of the San Francisco scene of the 1970s and ‘80s that he helped shape. Joe Bonamassa is a reserved, subdued guy to talk with, but is a passionate, knowledgeable fan of the blues who made his bones opening for B.B. King as a teenager. Bruce Iglauer, founder of esteemed blues label Alligator Records, is not an artist but has made records with everybody from Hound Dog Taylor and Koko Taylor to Michael “Ironman” Burks and Tommy Castro, and he continues to find amazing new artists like Selwyn Birchwood…and he has funny, insightful stories about every one of the hundreds of artists he’s worked with and classic albums he’s produced.

 

What are your Top Ten (as of Feb. 2016) blues records of all time?

It’s hard to narrow it down to a mere ten, and my list excludes albums by worthy artists like John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor, Sonny Boy Williamson, Son Seals, Tommy Castro, Sean Costello, and others that I listen to frequently. Still, these are the ten platters that I play constantly, many of them for decades now (in alphabetical order by artist):

Paul Butterfield Blues Band – Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Etta James – At Last!

Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan – In Session

B.B. King – Live At The Regal

Savoy Brown – Hellbound Train

Walter Trout – The Blues Came Callin’

Muddy Waters – Hard Again

Junior Wells (w/Buddy Guy) – Hoodoo Man Blues

Johnny Winter – Second Winter

Howlin’ Wolf – The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions

 

Similarly, what are your Top Five (as of Feb. 2016) books about the blues?

There are a lot of great books available on blues music and artists, but if you read just these five – Sam Charter’s The Country Blues; Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues; Willie Dixon’s I Am The Blues; Peter Guralnick’s Searching For Robert Johnson; and Robert Gordon’s Can’t Be Satisfied (Muddy Waters bio) – you’ll have earned a solid fundamental education in blues music.

Muddy

You’ve self-published several books now. What are some of the notable pros and cons in self-publishing, as well as those that might not be immediately obvious? Why did you start publishing?

Self-publishing is a sucker’s game for fools like myself who fell in love with the written word at an early age. I published my first zine at twelve years old, was first published in someone else’s music zine at age fifteen, and I’ve been publishing steadily more or less since the early 1980s. After a couple of feeble attempts, I launched Anthem Publishing in 2003 when print-on-demand technology made it feasible to publish a book without emptying your bank account.

Thirteen years and ten titles later, we’re still struggling to be heard. For every book like my Frank Zappa Buying Guide or my collaboration with writer Tommy Hash, Prog2010, that sells reasonably well and makes a profit, there’s one like our title That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 where we spent more than usual and sold very few copies. There are over 300,000 new book titles published each year, and unless you have a large budget to advertise and market your book, it’s hard to compete.

The most notable con in self-publishing is obscurity. So, why do I do it? I love music, especially classic rock and blues, and I like writing about it, dissecting it, sharing good music with readers that may not have heard it. That’s why I keep a music blog (www.thatdevilmusic.com), contribute to a couple of publications, and publish books. But I also have worked the same day job for 23 years. Mainstream publishers are only interested in celebrity books, and I don’t work well with authority figures, anyway, so these days I write about whatever the hell I want to, and don’t worry about who’s “hot” or “hip” at the moment. The freedom to jawbone about whatever record or artist you want to is, perhaps, self-publishing’s biggest ‘pro,’ even if you’re preaching to a small audience.

 

Relatedly, give us the Rev’s quickie guide to starting one’s own book company – what are the most important nuts-and-bolts things that any novice should know before embarking upon the independent route?

First, take any delusions you may have about getting rich and retiring to Aruba with your self-publishing profits. Odds are, you’re not going to make much money at all, much less a fortune – especially if you’re publishing books about music! Don’t quit your day job unless you have a trust fund, because independent book publishing, much like indie music-making, will cost you money without much return… it’s definitely a part-time job until you get tired and quit or somehow strike gold. Success can be found – I know of one small-time fringe publisher that struggled for years until a well-researched and thoughtful book he’d done on Islam sold by the truckload in the wake of September 11th. But that’s definitely an anomaly.

Your first project as a publisher should be your own book, so that you’re invested in the final results. You’re going to have to “wear” a lot of hats – writer, editor, graphic artist, publisher – which means that you’ll have to develop rudimentary skills in grammar, proofreading, bookkeeping, business, PhotoShop, book design, sales & marketing, etc. If you’re not willing to put in the time to teach yourself this stuff, or suffer through a lengthy learning curve (much as I have), maybe you should find another way to express your creativity.

If this sounds daunting, it can be, but there’s an easier way if you want to just dip your toe in the water with your first book – Amazon.com! The online retailer offers some solid choices for writers looking to self-publish, and if you’re looking to get a book out on the cheap, that’s the way to go. You can follow their online guides to lay-out your book in a word processing program like Microsoft Word and publish it through Amazon as an eBook, also making it available as a print book through their CreateSpace program. The cost is minimal, and if you get encouraging results from your first publishing effort, you can always expand your company by using a print-on-demand service like IngramSpark (http://www.ingramspark.com/) to handle your print book and use Amazon.com for your eBook.

That’s the route I’ve taken for Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’, and initial sales are encouraging. I used print-on-demand for print copies, which are distributed through Ingram to bookstores and online retailers, and Amazon for an eBook version. Digital printing and eBooks have thankfully lowered the bar for writers wanting to publish their own work, and once you get a couple of titles under your belt, if you want you can expand your publishing empire to include work by other writers. Be forewarned, though – as mentioned above, indie publishing is a tough road, and once you start working with other writers, you’ll have to deal with their neuroses as well as your own…

Bonus Beats: Finish this sentence: “A college student comes up to you after you’ve given a short talk to his journalism class and says, ‘I have always wanted to write about music for a living.’ You think about it for a moment, then reply…”

“‘Kid, you’d be better off learning to be a plumber or else develop a taste for canned meats and microwave burritos ‘cause writing about music will only leave you broke and hungry…but you’ll have a lot of great tunes to listen to!’”