John Hammond has always been a strange case. Son of the legendary record producer and scout John Hammond Sr. who worked with Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, young John who sang and played guitar staked out a difficult piece of musical turf when he decided to make playing acoustic Deltastyled blues on the National Steel guitar his signature move.
I’d say on average that about 85 percent of the people I ask, hate Christmas music with an undying passion. I am one of a crazed minority who actually like the stuff and have long cultivated a collection of the stuff. Although I usually begin the season with the two volumes of Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits, both of which are now out of print (C’mon Rhino!), but are easily found used on Amazon, my general rule with Christmas music is: the weirder the better. And God knows when it comes to weird, Bob Dylan’s new collection of guttural holiday croakings is truly amazing.
There was fast food like Catalonian baguette pizza with chorizo. Tapas like flash fried baby squid or crispy potatoes with olive oil mayo and tomato sauce. And then of course there was that robber baron Rupert Murdoch and his damnable tabloid The Sun which every morning has a halfnaked twentysomething smiling at you from page two! Danni, 23, from Coventry was my personal favorite. Yes, Europe does have its advantages!
And then there was the music, right, right, the music. A mini-theme of the 41st installment of the Barcelona Jazz Festival was the 50th anniversary of Kind of Blue. The idea, and it was an admirable one, was to turn three groups of musicians loose on Miles masterwork and then sit back and enjoy the contrasting approaches. Now that I’m back in the States and have had a few days to contemplate what I saw, it all sort of comes under the heading of: “The Mysterious Ways in Which a Musician’s Mind Works(?).” Or “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Drummers.”
During my Barcelona sojourn, I made a trip to the leading high end gear store in that beautiful city, Casa Werner, which is downtown, on the Ronda Sant Pere. Open since 1933, this former music store which began selling Victrolas along with 78’s, before moving entirely from content to gear, has been in the same family now for about a decade.
Back at the Barcelona Jazz Festival, after many espressos, a hunk of Cod, potatoes with olive oil mayo and tomato sauce, grilled mushrooms, and some of the best cookies I’ve ever had (thumb sized sugar cookies with chocolate centers), I made the trip to several record stores including Jazz Messengers, which has perhaps the finest collection of live jazz CDs and some LPs, in the world. If you’re feeling strong, pay down a credit card and then check out their website, www.jazzmessengers.com. They ship to the States, I checked. I picked up a CD of Clifford Brown’s final concert in Norfolk, Virginia, which was recorded in 1956, the week before his tragic death at age 26 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The tenor player on the date was Sonny Rollins. Max Roach, Brownie’s friend and constant musical companion was on drums. It’s a legendary concert that has never been available in the US and needless to say I am thrilled to finally have a copy.
Transatlantic flights wipe me out. Chalk it up to being an old man I guess. But after a connection through a dark deserted Heathrow, I arrived in Barcelona for the 41st Barcelona Jazz Festival and within a couple of days, semi-disaster had struck. Not to me mind you but to American jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano who fell, not once but twice and broke an arm and a shoulder. He had to cancel his show here in Barcelona, his European tour and then had surgery with the chief orthopedic surgeon of Barcelona’s much beloved soccer team, FCBarcelona, presiding. I saw Lovano this morning as he was leaving for a flight home. He had both arms strapped up in this elastic, soft cast contraption but was in good spirits and ready to head back to NYC. He says he’ll be able to play again in about 15 days, but he’ll have to lay off performing until after the first of the year. No word yet however on what caused his tumble, which is the bigger question.
Even better than the STAX museum in Memphis however, is the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. I had friends in Nashville give me the whole rap about… “You don’t have to even know the music to love the museum”…to which I rolled my eyes, but it’s actually true. The CMH integrates music so beautifully in the museum. It could be an utter disaster in there musically, with listening stations bleeding into each other until it’s just a cacophony of noise. But through the intelligent uses of curled Nautilus shell shaped listening booths that control the sound yet still allow the listener to hear what they’ve chosen, the CMH is a model of keeping the music nearby yet allowing folks to look at cases of artifacts and talk among themselves without being blown out by music playing.
Still on the road in Memphis. At the center of any music trip to Memphis is the odd but very telling juxtaposition of Graceland and the relatively new Stax museum. Elvis was always very up front about where his influences came fromblack blues and R&B, along with gospel music, both white and black, and Tin Pan Alley’ most of which is honored in the Stax museum. And for the record let me say that I will never understand how Memphis, THE big city for all the delta blues pioneers, not to mention the town’s subsequent musical history, B.B. King, Elvis, Alex Chilton, Ardent Studios, etc. took their eye off the ball and lost the Rock Hall (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) to the mistake by the lake. Such a pity. It would have given this town a triple threat of music tourism. Whoever was Mayor then, not to mention the city council, the local state legislators and oh yes, the fine guntotin’, God Afearin’ folks of the Tennessee delegation to Congress ought to be beaten.
It’s that kind of place. Despite it’s economic distress, the empty streets, the halfassed Bourbon Street mess that Beale Street has become (goddamned is it bad!), and what seems to be a full on crime wave in certain parts of town, in Memphis you cannot keep the music out of your head. It may be the wash over that comes from being so close to the Delta, but I couldn’t keep, “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohen or the words to one of John Hiatt’s greatest songs, (and that my friends is truly saying something because John Hiatt has written a shitload, okay, like 25 genuinely great songs) “Memphis in the Meantime” out of my head.
“If we could just get off a that beat little girl
Maybe we could find the groove
At least we can get a decent meal
Down at the rendezvous”
Needless to say, I wasn’t in town half an hour and I was at the Rendezvous (www.hogsfly.com), down in the basement as it were, wolfing down chopped chicken, pickles, big hunks of cheddar cheese, cole slaw with vinegar and cumin, sweet tea, fries, red beans and rice (laced with sliced mushrooms?) and the best ribs I have ever tasted. The best. All covered in that secret shake mixture of spices that makes this place world famous. My God it was good. It’s so damned nice to find a “legendary” restaurant that actually lives up, or in this case exceeds its billing.
Show me a music writer who has no guilty pleasures and I’ll show you someone you don’t need to waste time reading. Anyone with passion for music, which is what drives you to try to put what you hear into words, has a brain studded with funny little weaknesses. Many is the music writer who has a Bobby Sherman record stashed somewhere. I have a friend, a blues nut extraordinaire, who one dark night admitted to me under the influence of single malt that he “had a few Beatles albums” hidden away under his bed like girly magazines. And then of course there’s always the issue of hipness overload. No one can be cutting edge all the time. There are times when you just want to hear Hall & Oates or Karen Carpenter’s dusky tones and you don’t care who knows. I like Grizzly Bear fine for example, but sometimes you just gotta give in, shed that uber skin and dive headlong into some accessibleashell Whiz.
So the big day, September 9, Beatles Day, has come and gone and after being away on a brief trip, I returned this morning to a number of voicemails that began, “Are the Beatles reissues worth the money?”
I know that every time someone dies, it’s now customary to intone about what a hero they were, how much they were always had a smile for everyone, how they were great family men, husbands, fathers, etc. etc. etc. Speak no ill of the dead, I get it.