At a time when the heads of most record labels barely know how to play a record, let alone make one, Manfred Eicherowner, founder, and inspiration of ECM Records, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010has been intimately involved in the making of nearly 1200 of them. How many, though, can he actually remember working on?
"When I listen back to them, I know the story of every record," he says without a smile or a moment's hesitation. "There is never an easy record. Every record needs a lot of input and concentration and dedication and passion to be made, that's clear. Create an atmosphere that is a productive search for music, and when this is the case, you have very memorable records."
By convenient circumstance, I recently caught Tony Jo White on a Sunday night at the Thunderbird Caf in Lawrenceville, a rapidly changing for the better part of Pittsburgh, Pa. In a small but sweet back room, White put on a low key show that shows both his voice and his ability to get in a groove and jam are still potent. His methods are easily understood, he comes out, looking vaguely like a long and lean version of Charlie Rich, when the Sliver Fox wore a similar kind of hat, and plays either spooky ballads or a bluesy, rumbling groove that runs for many verses and becomes a long jam. His hits (or “best known songs” if you prefer) , “Polk Salad Annie” which is probably most famous because of Elvis’ version (Tom Jones actually slays it as well) came off with the needed amount of snap to the choruses. And then there’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” a tune I always forget TJ wrote until he starts singing it or someone puts a Tony Jo record on. It’s a sweeping slow number whose chorus changes are really gorgeously bittersweet. The man has soul, there’s no doubt. And rock gigs like the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival gave him serious rock chops for awhile as well.
The Ugly American: stalking the streets of Paris’ Latin Quarter, tongue wagging, wrists dragging along the pavement like Quasimodo, desperately searching out record stores in which to spend my rapidly depreciating (Go!) Euros.
Berlin was a much smaller market yet there were some interesting music stores, headed by Mr. Dead & Mrs Free which sells only new vinyl. Nearby was Rock Steady Records (pictured above) which had a decent selection of used vintage vinyl. I hear the flea market by the Brandenburg Gate has a number of vinyl dealers but somehow I never made it there.
So call me a wild colonial boy, but while I found European record stores fun and alland being in huge Virgin megastores stuffed full of jazz and classical records made me long for the days when they were still in the U.S.one visit to Jerry’s Records in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania made me realize what that rock and roll immortal Chuck Berry said best “Anything you want, we got right here in the U.S.A.” Jerry’s is easily, I mean EASILY! one of the top five record stores here on Starship Earth. The man is a mensch, the store is a huge, rambling barn of a place, and my God does he have the product. No onesies at Jerry’s. You often have many different copies of a single title to choose from. Never, ever miss Jerry’s when you’re anywhere near Pittsburgh. Seriously, the place is as much a shrine to the vinyl LP as it is a store.
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.