Something interesting going on in American Music. (2014)


dave-grohlSomething very important to American music is going on right now. A couple of weeks ago there was a preview as David Letterman had The Foo Fighters playing at the show’s end every night for a week with remarkable guest artists. Ann and Nancy Wilson of “Heart”, Zak Brown rendering a thundering rendition of a Black Sabbath song, Rick Nielson of “Cheap Trick”. Each of these productions is simply incredible and predictive of what’s coming next.

Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters are spending a week in each of eight cities, each with a specific musical heritage to absorb the unique vibes, then write a song at the end, the lyrics of which are gleaned using only quips and memorabilia learned by interviewing local musicians during the week. One side of the ledger is things learned, the other side lyrics cut and pasted from the experience. Grohl paired the music and documentary to give substance and depth to the final song, making for a tight emotional connection.

First city was Chicago where the Grohl explored the evolution of Chicago Blues and the legendary Buddy Guy, then the evolution of the punk rock scene that influenced many of the Chicago musicians. For the final song, they’re joined by Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielson to record the first song for “Sonic Highways”.

The second city is Washington, DC, home of most of the American punk scene in the early 70s. Punk band Bad Brains and Ian MacKaye of Teen Idles, Minor Threat and Fugazi, who all recorded at Inner Ear Studios in DC over the decades. Virginia-raised Grohl says that vibe “produced the entire soundtrack of my youth,” and he dwells on the punk scene of each city.

The “Punk” scene permeates all of American music, including early Nashville and Austin, Tx music. The American punk scene was remarkably different from the coincident European punks, a reaction to unemployment. The American punks embraced the concept of absolutely no limits in musical expression. Anyone anywhere could stand on stage and try their luck. By the sheer volume of those playing, a lot of creative music congealed and emerged.

Third city was Nashville and interviews with still productive country greats, Dolly Parton, Tony Joe White, Willie Nelson, and Emmylou Harris. Fourth city was Austin Texas, home of Austin City Limits, as exploration of the ingredients that brought legendary Stevie Ray Vaughn to greatness. Gary Clark Jr. Joins the Foos for the final songs “What Did I Do? And God As My Witness”. This is some of the best music I have ever heard. The final product, four cities yet to go, will be a very interesting interpretation of how environments shape music. This has never been done before.

Dave Grohl believes that all music can eventually be traced to a central origin that nurtures and modulates it and he’s working very hard to explore that path. The best way to explain the concept is to postulate the repository of music as an unstable star in the universe of existence, undulating and straining but not ready to explode just yet, waiting for the right stimulus. Back in the 40s, big band music was simple and staid, feeding upon itself. In the 50s, a fundamental instability began with skiffle in England that created the Beatles In the USA, be-bop and rhythm & blues, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and of course, Elvis. All of this boiled to the surface to bring the star to an explosive point in the early 60s, setting the stage for the cataclysm that occurred in the second half of the 60s when it all literally and metaphorically went electric. A musical revolution never before dreamed of and will probably never be seen again.

The star erupted sending chunks of musical expression out into the abyss. Lets make a quick & dirty list of just a few the blinding chunks flying forth to change the fundamental nature of music. Hendrix, The Animals, the Zombies, The Kinks, Cream, the Doors, Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Otis Redding, Creedence Clearwater, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkle, Janis Joplin, James Brown, Miles Davis, The Who, Sly & the Family Stone, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Buffalo Springfield, Procol Harum, Paul Revere & Raiders, Hollies, Dave Clark Five, Neil Young, Steve Miller Band, The Guess Who, Roy Orbison, Them, Beach Boys, Steppenwolf, the Temptations, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Marvin Kaye, Jefferson Airplane all at once.

Each of these chunks shone brightly and independently, eclipsing other nuggets in similar situations. But in the end, like real stars, gravity rules and all the chunks were slowly drawn back into the mass of the star by gravitational pull, stabilizing it into a huge mass of encyclopedic, heterogeneous, eclectic sound and tone. There is no more critical mass. The star now allows a solar wind to emit from its surface, a temporary swell of unfiltered music that waxes & wanes in time. Disco, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, “American Idol”,‘The Voice”, any black female singer with ironed hair. They’re all out there wafting around at the whims of the desultory solar mini-eruptions.

The solar wind occasionally allows some bright spots. There’s a lot of incredible music out there and if you seek it, there is one rule. Don’t follow the money. The money will lead you to hype, glitz and an empty box with a Kardashian brand on it. The performers that we’re still listening to pushing 50 years later wandered into Nashville or San Francisco on foot, broke with a Taylor or Telecaster strung over their back and played for five drunks in a dark bistro. They all shared one commitment and that was absolutely no compromise. The music was what it was and would not be altered for any commercial advantage. It was all about the music. They didn’t care if they starved as long as someone was listening.

Neil Young who never compromised a minute in his entire life wrote: “We may not compromise……I may not suit your taste tonight”. Kurt Cobain wrote: “”I’m too stubborn to allow myself to ever compromise our music or turn us into big rock stars,” Cobain said. “I just don’t feel like that.” When Kris Kristofferson arrived in Nashville, Sam Phillips of Sun Records said his shoes were “falling off his feet.”

These are the musicians I want to hear and you want to hear. That’s where the creativity is. The innovation, initiative, inspiration, artistry and vision. The further you get away from money, the better it gets.

Dave Grohl understands this and has explored it for 20 years with the Foo Fighters. A substantial book could be compiled on his formidable abilities as a musician, songwriter and producer since the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994. In “Sonic Highways” Dave digs deep into the musical history of each city and crafts a song for each in hopes of showing the differences. It isn’t perfect but it’s good. A musical map of America. Highly recommended by me:

All that said………

The one big paradox in American music is the ascension of mediocre talent to big money. No performer illustrates mediocre voice talent more than Taylor Swift. I’ve heard equal voice talent in local bar band singers. As it pertains to the nuts and bolts of voicing, tone and ear worthiness, Ms. Swift cannot stand on the same stage as Sharleen Spiteri of the Glasgow band “Texas”, who in 25 years continues to enjoy only local UK exposure.

Ms. Swift’s latest album of sophomoric personal narratives, “1989” sold 1.287 million copies in its first week, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 and making Swift the first singer act to have three albums sell more than one million copies in a week.

Postulating that talent must (eventually) equal success, it’s difficult to explain how this can be.

The unfortunate reality is that lack of talent does not necessarily equal failure once marketing becomes involved. This is because the ears of the general public are mercilessly commuted by aggressive marketing techniques blending visual images into the mix.

Taylor Swift is an exceptionally attractive blonde young woman with a great body. Savvy marketers have worked this to the max and it’s extremely rare to see her without a full regalia of Avant guard clothing and makeup. Her concerts are full of frenetic flashing lights, glitz and costume changes. This product was created and tweaked by legions of experts to focus on a specific audience; probably teen and especially pre-teen girls (see Britney Spears elsewhere).

Looking at the big picture, selling “millions” of records isn’t that impressive compared to the number of listeners out there, especially ones that don’t purchase records. Recently, Charlie Rose interviewed actor Jake Gyllenhaal regarding his new film “Nightcrawler”. The conversation about a sociopath that creeps around Los Angeles at night photographing violent, salacious activities and selling them to local TV stations. The question of who could possibly be interested in such things arose.

The answer was interesting. Back in the 60s, television news was immune from TV station merchandizing for profit. This changed somewhere along the way and the news section was expected to generate a profit. This quickly produced what we see now on every local TV station in the country. Roving reporters looking for anything that might possibly be of interest to a population of jaded viewers bored with life in general. Weepy mothers decrying their kid shot dead just minding his business in the middle of a high drug exchange area at 3 am. Vivid car accidents. High visibility court cases, especially involving sexual infidelity. This is news? No, it’s entertainment and it draws viewers, which draws sponsors, which generates money. It is an inalterable fact of life.

In section three of Dave Grohl’s monumental HBO series “Sonic Highways” (Friday nights 11pm), Dolly Parton candidly discussed the poisoning of talent by progressive “business” practices fomented by bean counting money experts who have nothing to do with music. Nashville used to be a town where raw talent could arrive, pay their dues and eventually find at least sustenance and possibly fame.

Nashville is no longer about singer-songwriters. It’s about songwriters writing songs for singers who fit the profile for the proper amount of glitz and showmanship to generate money. The song matters less than the milieu of how it’s delivered, passing a gauntlet of financial and marketing experts who know moneymakers when they see them. Dolly opined that if she walked into Nashville today, no one would give her the time of day.

It naturally follows that Taylor Swift started out in Nashville. She worked it for years, plying the potential to make money while delivering at least a serviceable vocal product. For years the mentors gently nurtured her into a product that would fill the bill. None of this had anything to do with vocal talent. It was leaping onto stage from spring loaded boxes, dressed to show her figure as provocatively as possible and warble to the flashing lights and a swell of electrified instruments.

She learned her lessons very well, and as of this week, continues to learn them from the legions of business managers that surround her. In removing her material from Spotify (a realistically priced music streaming site), she remarked: “I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music.” Other critics suggest this move will generate more short-term dollars from fans forced to purchase her new album.

So the new flavors of popular music have quickly moved to sacrifice widespread listeners of their music for a higher marginal price to disseminate each portion of it.

Unclear where this will end if it ever does. In the days of singer-songwriters that strode into town, broke, unwashed, wrote their own music, stood on stage with minimal if any accouterment, played for endless hours for drinks and refused to compromise even a little are clearly over. This is where genius resided. The only environment that can nurture genius. If there are any more Kris Kristoffersons, Willie Nelsons, Steve Earles, Emmylou Harrises, Waylon Jennings we may have to catch a seat at the historic Bluebird Café to see them. There will be plenty of Taylor Swifts for sale.

Just some desultory thoughts while I watch my leg heal.

U2: The little band that could (and did) In Pittsburgh (July 26, 2011)



U2 came to Pittsburgh for the last American night of their three year “360” tour.  They essentially filled Heinz Field, about 60,000 seats. Of course that meant nearly as many cars trying to get somewhere near the stadium, creating an epic traffic jam. Most stadium parking slots are pre-sold to football regulars so most attendees parked as far as a mile away as downtown parking garages and walked over various bridges to get there. It was a crowd nightmare.

All teenagers at the time, U2 started life as a garden variety Dublin punk band in 1976, but they quickly expanded to many other musical influences, making them one of the most recognizable bands in history, selling 150 million records and collecting 22 Grammies, more than any other band in history. Rolling Stone ranks them 22 in the list of the greatest rock bands of all time. In addition to music, they have campaigned for numerous human rights organizations and political causes.

There is no question that U2 has the credentials to draw 60,000 people to a stadium to watch them perform. The showmanship was simply spectacular (see photos and a brief clip enclosed) I’ve never seen anything like it. When he introduced the band, he said something about Dave Evans (The Edge) that I picked up on. He said Edge “changed the game”. And I think that’s true. The Edge can play both rhythm and lead at the same time like no other guitarist I have ever heard. He changes guitars with every song and he uses very creative digital delay and echo. He’s probably in the top five living guitarists.

All that said, I have some criticism.

I think Bono is letting politics color the musicality people pay a lot and endure crowding to see and hear. He gushes now a little too long, heaping unrestrained praise on the warm-up band “Interpol”, an average house band escapee from a dark New York City club. One wonders why the greatest contemporary band in the world needs a warm up band. He also tends to gush over some other artists without much discrimination, most notably Christina Aguilera, whose only claim to fame after many creative and performance flops is beating out Britney Spears for a Grammy in 2000.  Hardly a stellar accomplishment. I think Bono has been glad handling too many politicians of late and has learned to play the game a little too well.

U2 went pretty far out of its way to point out a list of social inequities in the world that existed long before them and will exist a long time after U2 is gone. Bono is a very personable person with a sense of social responsibility and he has the ear of many politicians involved in these issues. Although a noble gesture, 60,000 people expecting to hear a musical performance are not much interested in hearing about human rights issues in Burma. Bono can be equally effective in addressing these issues as a political personality separate and apart from his music.

I think this was an outstanding one of a kind performance, but I have some reservations.

I give it three and a half 160 foot high alien claws.

I liked Joshua Tree (1987) better.





Jeff Beck at the Pittsburgh Carnige Hall 4/23/11


Some background.

The electric guitar is a radically different stringed instrument than the rest. Technically a percussed string instrument, the piano has 88 frequencies and all sound the same no matter who plunks one, whether it be a 5th grade student or Elton John. The difference is only how fast, how frequently and how many strings can be plunked in sequence. Similarly, acoustic stringed instruments such as the acoustic guitar and cello all have a mostly monotonic quality, broken up by technique. (I expect to get some argument on this)

The electrified guitar (e.g.: a Fender Stratocaster- see photo of mine) has six strings and 23 frets for a total of 138 discrete frequencies, added to which are the nuances of string bending, stretching, muting and position on which they are struck with a plectrum (pick) or the fingers. The guitar can be played like a piano (Stanley Jordan and the late Jeff Healey) or with a plectrum or with the fingers.  The result is a blip on an oscilloscope having frequency and amplitude (loudness) that’s interpreted by the human ear as “sound”.  That sound can then be passed through electronic processing to render echo, delay, distortion, chorus and a host of other effects, generating an almost infinite variety of tone falling on the ear.

The most technically proficient players are not the most listenable. At one end of the spectrum, awesome technicians that can play with all ten fingers at lightning speed (Eddie Van Halen, Satch Satriani, Steve Vai) are interesting for about three minutes than you start getting a headache. Angus Young once commented that EVH sounded like he practiced all the time, implying a lack of natural soul.

On the other end of the spectrum is BB King, a guitar minimalist said to be capable of embodying all human passion in one note. You can listen to BB all day long and ask for more (“BB King live at the Apollo”).

Then there is everything in-between, and that brings into play the concept of soul in rock music. Traditionally, soul (blues) is a medium of emotional pain and protest. Rock is an emotional disturbance that engenders danger and incites anarchy. I saw an audience rip chairs out of the floor at a Jerry Lee Lewis concert in 1962 (much more about JLL when he dies, if he ever does). Cops on Guns N’ Roses wackos like pit bulls on poodles.

The most listenable rock artists are those that combine some measure of soul. Pound for pound, Eric Clapton embodies near consistent perfection in this regard for a very full career. Never-a-day-of-music-training Neil young consistently reaches into a bag and drags out the exact right sound for every song, some chords no one else has ever seen. No one can sit still through Angus Young et al. Led Zeppelin assaults the senses on every level. The list goes on.

A true virtuoso of the instrument, Beck uniquely integrates measured selections from all the above. His knowledge of the fret board is encyclopedic and his ability to mobilize both right and left hand technique is about as good as it gets.  He stands in one place and rarely takes his eyes off the fret board. He plays using his thumb as a plectrum, which is a bit unusual (I can’t do it), but brings other finger style techniques into play, including occasionally tapping harmonics EVH style.

But I’m not impressed that Beck is a soulful player. Beck’s technical ability on the fret board is excellent but not stellar. The thing about Beck is the richness and variety of the tones he can produce. A lifetime of experimenting.

Tone is tempered by the design of the sound pickups, nature of the strings, variety of wood in the body and fret board and whether the instrument is hollow or solid. Then modulated by electronic amplification. Whether the amplifier is tube driven or digital, size and engineering of speakers. Most electric guitarists (including moi) spend years in search of the perfect tone.  My current rig is about as good as I will ever get and it took me 20 years to get there.  I’m on the low end of the spectrum. Dave Evans (“The Edge”) of U2’s rig looks like the cockpit of a 747.

Beck effortlessly creates a huge variety of tone mimicking horns of all variety, organ, and every kind of stringed instrument, virtually anything that creates a sound. He casually walks over to a standard array of effects pedals, tapping lightly and weaving them into exceptionally creative and expressive music. This is Beck’s stock in trade and why he’s still drawing full houses after a career of 46 years plus (~2000 people at the Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh last night).  He got a full standing ovation.

If you appreciate all kinds of guitar music, he shouldn’t be missed.

He gets a full 5 of 5 signature Strats.

Britney Spears from a while back (barf)


Probably few of you know that the number one album in the country two weeks ago is by a 17 y/o Louisiana female named Britany Speers. Fewer of you have probably heard any cuts from the album, but I did as my 10 y/o (female) came home with the CD the other day and insisted playing it on my car CD player. What I heard brought me back to 1959.

Back then the record industry was just figuring out that teens bought records simply on the basis of artist ambiance. Talent never entered into it. So they searched high and low to find nature’s most perfect teen sex (such as it was) symbol. They came up with a South Philly 16 y/o with slick black hair…..Fabian Forte, a nice looking specimen of a male child. They then schlepped him around to photo sessions for all the teen magazines aimed at females for photo ops, but eventually it was necessary for him to sing.

So into the studio they went for a single……..”Like a tiger”. An overproduced and overdubbed sound track was necessary to partially obscure the fact that Fabian couldn’t sing a single note. But back in those days, they didn’t have the technology to do the job right so the finished production came out the croak of a not-quite-teen male shortly after the first squirt of hormones, accompanied by a reverberation, tremolo driven wall of sound. No matter. No one could hear the voice for the screams anyway.

Teen girls went absolutely nuts. Fabian became the dream of every red blooded American female between 10 and 17. Sales of the single “Like a tiger” depleted the world supply of black vinyl. He was greeted by screams everywhere he went, but the money, of course, went to promoters. Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avlon followed quickly. Then the Beatles hit the shore in June of 1963 and the party was over, but that’s another story. Now it’s 1999 and the ages of kids that buy records have gone into the single digits and technology can make anyone sound like a Spice Girl. The the lyrics are more suggestive, and the average 8 y/o knows exactly what they mean.

Continuing searches for idols turned up Britany, an absolute knockout beauty of a teen that also can’t sing a note. No matter. A digital voice modulator can transform her into Barbara Streisand and digital synthesizers can mimic the Philharmonic. But anyone familiar with those devices can spot them in the first ten seconds. And to a reasonably attuned ear, it sounds like fingernails on a chalk board.

So I complain to my daughter that this is not only pretentious trash, it’s a vision of the end of music as an art form. “Alexa, my middle child……… your poor old daddy a favor and listen to Eric Clapton “Live in the 70’s” CD. A virtuoso musician at the top of his form, playing a real instrument with a real band, improvising modes and making musical history. Or try Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”, the roots of jazz and rock fusion from the master of all time.

Reflections at a U2 concert:


Reflections at a U2 concert:

I went to a U2 concert in Indianapolis sometime in the early 90s and on my way back I had an epiphany regarding an otherwise mundane experience there. I pulled out a scrap of paper and wrote it as I drove home on the Interstate. Here it is:

“Warily we fix each other,
this testament to my immortality and I.
All of fifteen, a shock of blond hair,
jacket collar insouciantly upturned.
I stand a paradox to him.

Similar in garb, but with an air of cynicism
born of war and pestilence,
The burden of human life balanced upon my fragile whims,
and having been to a county fair or two.

When I became a man, I did not put aside childish things.
He weighs this curiosity in silence,
portending a specter of myself in another lifetime,
for now an intruder in his world.

The band dispenses promises of hope and fulfillment;
deafening undercurrents finding common ground within us,
plucking his imagination as it once did mine.
But that was another time, another world.

I thoughtfully study technical nuances.
He conjures revelations of peace and love from nonsense,
and eyes me with curiosity
and rejoins me with an unexpected smile.

Behold my apocalypse,
this child, father to the man, prophesy yet to be fulfilled,
destined to go forth into the darkness, as I have done,
and keep the candle burning”.