Santa Monica of the East
New York’s outdoor concert season is in full swing and I happened to catch a couple pretty wonderful shows, one free and just the opposite the other night.
The free one was King Sunny Ade and his 12 piece band. For those who’ve never seen him. Ade, born Sunday Adeniyi, is quite a performer; his Nigerian grooves, which make use of talking drums, electric guitars and synthesizers are long and build momentum as they go along. Needless to say long grooves that build draw multicultural white folks like flies. They were all there dancing, such as it is, along with a lot of Africans who were very happy to be touching a little bit of something from their home.
In the show I saw, the band was dressed resplendently in matching yellow, white and black costumes. The four singers (including Ade) are, along with drums, at the center of the show. The music, which first came to the attention of western ears thanks to Island Records 1982 album, Juju Music, is most often called Juju in the west although it includes lots of oral traditions from King Sunny’s Yoruba ancestry. Many of the vocal lines are spoken rather than sung. But behind it all are the drums. And the electric guitars although I have seen King Sunny in recent years with more guitar players, and interestingly enough, a pedal steel guitar. The longer I write about music the more I realize there is very little music that the pedal steel cannot add something good too. Even if it’s jus atmospheric chords in the background, the pedal steel is a wonderful instrument.
The other show was Jackson Browne, which was a benefit and so not free. Now I’ll readily admit, I’m a huge fan and yes, I know that makes me a bunch of controversial things beginning with 70’s SoCal folk rock goon and ending with P.C. liberal. I have to say though it’s Browne’s political records that really don’t do much for me or I have to say, his musical reputation.
After a string of great records that ended with 1977’s Running On Empty, Browne fell into a fallow period which is no surprise or shame considering how great his first quintet of records was. His great single of the 1980’s “Somebody’s Baby” was still top flight Browne: even though until 2004’s Very Best of Jackson Browne it was only ever available as part of the soundtrack to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Browne having a hit in a teen movie has always seemed very odd, but whatever, artists need to be eat too. But by the time you get to 1986’s Lives in the Balance and World in Motion three years later, his songwriting is taking a back seat to his political beliefs. By 1996’s Looking East Browne is beginning to regain his footing. And his more recent pair of Solo Acoustic records, Vols. 1 and 2 show that the man is back on his game and has happily found a blend between politics and folk rock tunefulness that works for him.
In the show I saw it was the usual push pull that you see between older artists who want to remain vital and write and their new songs and the crowd who is aching for the golden oldies. I will admit to tilting my head back and singing most of “Fountain of Sorrow,” at the kind of volume that does not make friends at a sit down show. My wife let me know in no uncertain terms that there would be no repeats of that shameful practice. At one point he mentioned that out west Brooklyn is being called the Santa Monica of the East, which elicited a satisfied murmur from the crowd of hard boiled locals. You can’t help but feel bad for an artist like Browne, who dutifully chugged through much of his latest record, Time the Conquerer to polite, low key applause, only to have the crowd explode when he launched into a older hit like “Jamaica Say You Will,” “Doctor My Eyes” or the closer, “The Pretender.” The highlight of this show was Browne and his band including longtime guitar player Mark Goldenberg and a pair of teenaged singers from Los Angeles, Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills, jump started an in the pocket version of the Browne/Frey tune, “Take It Easy.” It is easily one of Browne’s best tunes. Loved the line about “Standing on the corner in Winslow Arizona…”
Celebrities trying to blend in should stop wearing baseball caps. It’s a dead giveaway. Right in front of us at the Jackson Browne show were Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and a teenager who had to be their son. Both mom and dad had on baseball hats and raincoats, but they still stuck out like sore thumbs. Happily, we were in New York where seeing celebrities stopped being a big deal, at least to the natives, back when Jimmy Walker was mayor. Sarandon is proof that it’s all about having good genes. The woman was luminous in her Pearl Jam hat and striped rain boots. Those big round eyes and that skin like butta...most normal humans have never, and will never look that good.