Seeing John Prine the other night on Governor’s Island with Stereophile's Stephen Mejias was a fairly profound experience, owing to Prine’s strange, elegiac tone. It may be that he wasn’t down with the venue (a windy island at night) or that he was simply tired (he looked it), but almost everything he sung, even the fun ones like, “Please Don’t Bury Me,” had an odd sadness clinging to it. I tried not to think about how Prine beat cancer back in 1998. The first time I saw him backstage after the cancer had been cut and radiated out of his throat, he cracked a smile and chirped, “Well Robert, this is what happens when you start smoking when you’re 14. What did I expect?” Thankfully his voice and his irascible disposition returned undiminished by the illness. He’s lost some tissue in his neck and his voice did indeed get a little growlier, but overall he was extremely lucky. I prefer to ascribe his lonely tone last Friday to the fact that he’s been singing some of those songs for 40 years and just decided to give them a different emotional bent in New York. Truly though I have never seen a Prine show that wasn’t laced with jokes, spot on wisecracks and sly references to the current world history. And never have I heard one of his signature songs “Donald and Lydia,” done so beautifully, its chorus lines turned into a near prayer:
“But dreaming just comes natural
Like the first breath from a baby,
Like sunshine feeding daisies,
Like the love hidden deep in your heart.”
It may be time to begin appending the words “The Great,” in front of the name of Wilco. At least that’s my unvarnished reaction to their headlining performance at the inaugural edition of their own Solid Sound Festival, held last weekend in North Adams Massachusetts. Where in the hell is North Adams you may ask, why across the Mohawk Trail is the answer. I once had a friend, upper crust Brahmin Bostonian he was, and his mother used to rhapsodize about “motoring along the Mohawk Trail. She must have been speaking about the end of the trail (otherwise known as Mass Highway 2), nearer to Boston because getting to N. Adams from Interstate 91 is an exercise in going up one side of a mountain (granted in Massachusetts mountains top out at like 900 feet above sea level so we’re not talking friggin’ K2 here), and down the other. It’s not a road for older ladies for whom cucumber sandwiches with the crusts left on is a big step.
When Sound + Vision splashed Tom Petty’s still remarkably vital mug across a recent cover it caught my attention. Inside, across 12 pages, they basically anointed his new record Mojo, as disc of the year. So Petty’s blues record, one that was a long time comin’, is the best album of 2010? No offense to Mike Mettler and Ken Richardson, both of whom I consider friends, but the whole thing seemed like a stretch to me.
One of the many musical sawhorses that I often put the spurs tobeing a pain the bass just comes with the territory I’m afraid7#151;is the whole bit about why labels who are all hurtin’ right now don’t spend more time digging in their vaults and hauling out treasure in the form of unreleased studio material and especially live shows. Well, the emerging empire that is Concord Records (proud owners of the catalogs of Telarc, Fantasy and now, Rounder Records), a label whose judgment I have questioned in the recent past (Stax Does the Beatles, WTF?), released a killer record earlier this summer that’s been finding its way back to my Musical Fidelity CD player as of late, Otis Redding, Live on Sunset Strip collects performances that didn’t make it onto the two previous albums, In Person at the Whisky a Go Go and Good To Me: Live at the Whiskey A Go Go Vol. 2, that came from a three night stand at the Whiskey in L.A. over Easter weekend 1966. While the set list of the three full sets on these two CDs contains some repetitions, it’s great to hear
First, it’s time for all good thoughts and good energies to be directed south, to Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville where Charlie Louvin, the great Charlie Louvin, is about to undergo the long and complicated operation needed to try and remove the stage 2 pancreatic cancer that he was unexpectedly diagnosed with last week. For those who don’t know, Charlie, 83, was once half of the Louvin Brothers, who were and basically still are the greatest duo act in the history of country music. Charlie has experienced something of a late career comeback in recent years thanks to Josh Rosenthal and his Tompkins Square record label. His brother Ira, (who Charlie calls EYE-ree), the man responsible for the tire fire on the cover of the duo’s most famous record, 1959’s Satan is Real was a hellion of the first order and was killed by a drunken driver in 1965. Charlie, not surprisingly, has been nearly the opposite and is one of the sweetest guys it’s been my pleasure to meet. I particularly remember one night at the Rodeo Bar in NYC where the man had an endless store of really silly sex jokes. He’s says he expects to be back onstage a month after his surgery so we’ll see. Despite his health, he’s gonna be a trooper and play a previously scheduled Opry gig this Saturday which because of the recent floods is back in the Ryman Auditorium, which seems very fitting for this Charlie appearance. He goes on at 8:45 PM CDT. Listen at www.opry.com
One of the weirder NYC boozing trends as of late is the faux speakeasy. Yes, that would be a room, usually subterranean, that for some unknown reasonperhaps every other cheeseball concept has been exhaustedtries to recapture some of those long lost flavors of the salad days of that joyous time in American history called Prohibition. You remember that grand social experiment perpetrated by the far right of American society that like all right wing idiocies, ignored reality and plowed ahead regardless of the damage it might have caused. Instead of stopping alcoholism, it spread the making and distribution of booze into the hands of criminals who got fabulously rich and turned horribly violent. Give those regressive social engineering types credit though; they sure know a good idea when they see one.
Sometimes wandering the streets of New York I hear whining about how “far from nature’ someone is; or how there’s too much concrete; or how the exhaustfilled air is hurting their lungs. Well, boo hoo. If it’s purple mountains majesties you seek, NYC ain’t the place. You come here for the human culture not the natural beautyalthough now that I think of it, there are other, very compelling forms of natural beauty in NYC, if you catch my drift, wink, wink, nod, nod, say no more, but I digress.
On Saturday night, in New York City, upstairs in Manhattan’s 54th Street Yamaha piano studios, which by the way is very close to that other keyboard shrine, Steinway Hall, Stereophile’s own contributing editor Bob Reina and his group, Attention Screen recorded their third live album for Stereophile Records, a label owned and run by editor in chief/sound engineer John Atkinson, our fearless leader. Just so there is no confusion, I mean that last term as an endearing salute rather than in the sense of Rocky & Bullwinkle’s Germanesque dictator of Pottsylvania.
If the cover of the latest issue of Uncut is any indication, “lost” albums never lose their appeal for the musicallyinclined or obsessed. Music fans always want what they don’t have or haven’t heard or hear is hard to get. It’s the allure of the forbidden record. And it’s a chief symptom of the record collecting psychoses.
Never did I think the day would come when I’d be standing in a line at 10:30 am on a chilly April Saturday to get into a record store. A record store mind you that is directly across the street from the now spacious, high-ceilinged NYU offices that were once the Tower Records on Broadway in downtown Manhattan.
So far, other than Steve Zahn who is really annoying as a devilmaycare DJ with goofy eyeglasses, the new HBO series, Treme is pretty great. Lots of flavor. Some hokiness of course, but still fairly believable most of the time. The best scene so far hands down was when Elvis Costello, playing Elvis Costello, comes out of a bar to crawl into his limo and Kermit Ruffins, playing himself, is standing on the sidewalk really huffing on fatty. When Zahn encourages him, through the cloud of smoke, to talk to Costello and maybe land himself an opening slot on an upcoming Costello tour, Kermit demurs and Zahn comes back with a line, and I’m paraphrasing, “So what do you want to do all your life, play music, get high and BBQ in New Orleans?” Kermit laughes and shakes his head in the affirmative. In some ways that’s the story of a lot of NOLA musicians. They can be provincial. And disdainful of success. It can be a town where a sort of collective inertia keeps people from doing anything but hanging out. I know, I’m painting with broad strokes here, but it’s always been a town, heavy with musical talent, much of it unwilling or unable for whatever reason, to leave. And then those who do leave get tarred as traitors or getting too big for their britches. There truly is nowhere like New Orleans, I adore it, but damn, the place is like a parallel dimension sometimes.