New Depression Songs

Seems to me most musicheads always have a reserve of bands, solo artists, string quartets, jazz soloists that they know but haven’t really seen or connected with. You know `em but you don’t.

Loudon Wainwright III has for years been that for me, but that’s all changed. Yeah, I know his hit, his nightmare come true that he has to sing every time he plays, “Dead Skunk,” but it was always clear that that tune was an anomaly, the unlikely hit that became the bane of his existence. This Wednesday at Madison Square Park in Manhattan I got a chance to see Loudon do his thing and it was superb. He’s currently working on a very cool project, an album of Charlie Poole songs, High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project. North Carolinian Poole (1892-1931) was sort of a crazier version of Jimmie Rodgers. He was a drinker, raconteur, baseball player, ladies man, the works. He died in 1931 after what has been reported to be a 13 week drinking binge. There's also a story about a doctor giving him a mysterious injection. Whatever the case, like a lot of great musical figures in American history, his death is shrouded in controversy. Not a songwriter, Poole nevertheless owned whatever material he chose to cover. He had an idiosyncratic way of playing the banjo that has influence players to this day and his band the North Carolina Ramblers had a number of hits the biggest being, “Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues."

Along with the Poole songs, Wainwright also did a number of new tunes that he wrote. A pair, “Fear Itself” (After FDR’s famous phrase) and “Krugman Blues” (which pokes fun at economist and NYT columnist Paul Krugman), were full of the kind of intricately fitting lyrics that are a Wainwright specialty. At one point the singer/songwriter who is quite the jokester on stage, switched over to ukulele which was out of tune.

“This Ukulele is out of tune… (pregnant pause)…You know this is a free concert… (much laughter)… so I’m not going to tune it.”

Even better was his tune “Susie” about an incident he had where an airline broke his guitar. The lyrics are a hoot. Wildly funny.

Live shows being about the only way musicians make money these days, I also saw Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow get together and play again as The Posies. There are some positive linings to this recession, one being the return of customer service, especially in restaurants. Many formerly snooty, even outright nasty New York restaurant employees (and owners) are now much more solicitous of your needs. It’s about time. Uppity bastards. Another favorable trend in these economically challenged times is that bands are suddenly playing some of their best albums of the past, from beginning to end. Lucinda Williams did it last year. Steely Dan is doing it now. And The Posies did it last Friday when they played their best, Frosting on the Beater, in its entirety. God, it was good to hear those tunes and those two part harmonies again. It was 1993 all over again. Kurt Cobain was still alive and Bill Clinton was president. Don’t wake me I want to dream…all day.

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