Sunday, December 19, 2010

Obituary: (Captain Beefheart)

Captain Beefheart – “Something about the Fidelity”
Obituary (of sorts) written by Tom Wilmeth
19 December 2010

Sorry to hear that 2010 must end with the death of Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet). Beefheart was the type of artist who had removed himself from the public eye so thoroughly that most people who even recognized the name would need to check their computer to see if he were still living. When somebody has already been gone from the scene for such a long time, it’s hard to say that he will be missed. Those who were influenced by his music have already been missing him for over 20 years. What is incontrovertible is that he will be remembered.

I think that, like many people, I first became aware of Captain Beefheart though the Zapped sampler album of early 1970. Zapped was one in a series of inexpensive records that featured songs from new Warner Brothers / Reprise label releases, and one of the still-healthy industry’s better promotional ideas. Zapped was more focused than most of these collections since they weren’t trying to promote everything from James Taylor to The Fugs on one anthology. Zapped only included recordings from the offshoot Bizarre & Straight labels, both under the absolute control of Frank Zappa, and distributed by Warners.

After a brief instrumental “Overture” by Alice Cooper (still a group – not one person – and a 2011 inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) Beefheart arrives, grabbing attention with an urgent narrative about some sort of impending doom involving a blimp. But it is the Captain’s track from side two – I still hesitate to call it a song – “Old Fart at Play” – which made me wonder if something new was afoot. At first this just seemed to be a Kerouac-flavored bathroom-humor recitation over disjointed Ornette Coleman riffs and insistently driven rhythms – radical at the time because of the outrageous subject matter. But -- Just what was the subject matter?

After this, I did buy the record from which these tracks were culled, Trout Mask Replica. It was an expensive double album at the time but was worth having on a several levels. First, the cover (described precisely by the record’s title) was unlike all others; second, merely by playing any part of the album you could immediately clear a crowded room (at that time in Des Moines, Iowa, anyway). More than merely strange, though -- it was unique, haunting, and unforgettable. Much of side one remained my favorite material, but that may be due to not hearing the other three sides nearly as much. I’m not sure if it was endurance or tolerance, but Trout Mask Replica did require a period of adjustment for the listener, especially for one still in junior high. “Old Fart at Play” was well chosen for Zapped, I always felt, as it was a high point of the set.

I stayed with Beefheart more than some and less than others. His vocals were featured on Zappa’s “Willie the Pimp,” from the great Hot Rats album of 1969 (and also included on Zapped). I was somewhat cold on Zappa when Bongo Fury was released in 1975, so the fact that Beefheart sang with Zappa’s band on this record didn’t matter much to me. I lost track of the Captain until 1978 when Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) got a big push from Warner Brothers, and rightly so. I searched out the first album Safe as Milk, but never really considered myself a fan or true aficionado.

That’s the personal background part of the obituary.
What follows is the brief section that might actually add to the conversation:
I was a huge Tom Waits devotee in his early years (another 2011 R&R Hall of Fame inductee, by the way). I still am a fan, but I was really taken with the first records and truly got on-board with the release of Nighthawks at the Diner in 1975 Even living in the great Midwest, I was able to see Waits several times -- on tours promoting his Small Change, Foreign Affairs, Blue Valentine, and Heartattack & Vine albums. I spoke with him before or after most of these concerts (sometimes both), and he was never anything but friendly, gracious, and accommodating. During one brief post-gig encounter, I expressed dismay that he had not an equal share of time on the PBS Soundstage (which aired in 1975). I also complained that he had only gotten a single tune on Saturday Night Live (1976). Waits patiently explained that he was supposed to play a second song, but they ran long and didn’t have enough time – that’s the way live TV is.

Concerning Soundstage, Tom Waits certainly wasn’t going to rip Mose Allison, who shared the hour with him in separate sets. But he did tell me – “The original guy for the other half of that show was Captain Beefheart. . . . We got into rehearsals and the Captain was unhappy. He picked-up this real Leave It To Beaver type of director by his collar and [shifting to a carefully articulated guttural] said ‘something about the fidelity.’ Everybody on the set got real nervous after that, and the next thing I knew Captain Beefheart was off the show.”

Not long ago I read something about how Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band were scheduled to perform at Woodstock, but that one of the guitarists quit the group right before the festival so they had to cancel. Would this exposure have helped? Who knows. Would they have even made the movie or record? Unknowable. Is this report even a fact or a rumor? Probably researchable. But for now I’ll leave you with that – the only Beefheart-related story in my arsenal which might come close to being useful. Everybody have a great 2011!

Best always,

Tom Wilmeth
Grafton, Wisconsin

(262) 243-4218


Notes: I have subsequently been told that the cancelled performance by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band was not intended for Woodstock (1969) but for the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. The guitarist who departed the band was Ry Cooder.


exciting new web site (of musty old reviews): “The Wilmeth Way”
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948 words

Friday, December 10, 2010

Review (CD): Broken Dreams Club by Girls

Girls. Broken Dreams Club (EP). Fantasy Trashcan / Turnstile Records, 2010.

Review Written by Tom Wilmeth 10 December 2010

Woe! A semi-stretch band with horns. And a steel guitar. And a mellotron! And plenty of mood. And an ethereal voice appropriately hidden in the mix. And interesting songs. And guitars that sounds like they are on loan from Chris Isaak’s Silvertones at their most atmospheric. This all adds-up to a distinctive and memorable collection.

Brief and to the point -- Broken Dreams Club by the band Girls is a musical high mark for 2010, arriving just in time to make the onset of winter seem a little less glum. Christopher Owens is clearly the driving force behind the group Girls – principal songwriter, guitar, vocals; he is even responsible for the CD’s cover art. Still, producer Chet Jr. White is also inseparable from the success of this 30-minute studio set. It is appropriate that White is listed immediately under Owens on the CD’s list of credits.

The Girls know the sound they are after – and they nail it with seeming effortlessness. Like slowly waking from a dream, the ethereal and compelling closing track “Carolina” drifts through your brain for nearly four minutes before Owens’ first vocal line emerges. White’s production takes the sound from phantasmagoric blend to crisply delineated sounds with the precision and expertise of a man well acquainted with his sound board. Fine songs, well recorded -- the six selections on this EP are often haunting, beckoning one to return to the set for repeated listenings.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

One Question With . . . #4

Tom Wilmeth
December 9, 2010
Last night I was trying to write part of an “Introduction” to a book I have been working on. It just wasn’t coming, and things sort of went into a different direction.
This is the carnage:
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Introduction [to that book I mentioned above]:

One of the things that my recent projects have taught me is that people are living their own lives, as they should. As such, they really don’t have time to dig in to my obscure writings. That’s fine, and in many ways it’s also liberating. Writing for myself, I am allowed to go after the short items such as my occasional “One Question With . . .”. Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while – here it is:

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Tom Wilmeth Presents Another: One Question With . . .

If I had one question with a specific individual, what would it be?

[This one is pretty obscure.]

One Question With . . . #4 – Barry Manilow Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Tom Wilmeth: So, Mr. Manilow, What is up with your recording the song “Sandra”?

Barry Manilow: What do you mean?

TW: Well, it’s about a woman who gets married young, has several kids, and then attempts suicide by slitting her wrists with a broken glass. Not exactly “Weekend in New England” stuff.

BM: [sings] “She wanted to be like her mother.”

TW: Yeah. We get that. The story’s a bit dark, isn’t it?

BM: Hey, the lyrics say that “she cut her wrist – quite by mistake.” By mistake! An accident!

TW: That slit wrist episode seems to be the centerpiece of the song. That, and how afterwards it was “touch and go for a while.” And that she also suffered from post partum depression and frequently drinks at home during the day. A pretty bleak portrait.

BM: It doesn’t exactly say all that.

TW: Sure it does. That tune is worthy of Lou Reed’s Berlin album.

BM: I’m not sure if that comparison is praise or a burn. But that’s good album.

TW: You like Berlin?

BM: Very sincere. Heartfelt stuff.

TW: Pretty stark vignettes of extremely sad situations.

BM: That too.

TW: Let’s get back to your recording of “Sandra.”

BM: That song is sung from the point of view of the husband.

TW: Right – and the fact that he isn’t all that troubled by his wife’s actions – that is frightening in itself. This is clearly the portrait of a woman drowning, and a husband blindly in denial.

BM: Succinct assessment. But you miss a lot by summarizing it in that way.

TW: You mean like the daytime drinking and the depression.

BM: Well . . . maybe. But the husband IS troubled by his wife’s situation. He absolutely is aware – he just doesn’t know what to do about it. So he writes it off to her being normal with a couple of temporary quirks. Easier to get through life that way. Ignore the bad stuff – it’ll work out. And he was able to explain that away as well – at least to himself.

TW: You did not write that song, did you.

BM: I’m not finished -- It’s clear that the husband too is calling out for help here – or his list of unhealthy things about his wife’s mental condition wouldn’t be the subject matter of the song.

TW: OK. But it still sounds like he is rationalizing a lot of stuff to himself on this. You did not write that song, did you.

BM: I co-wrote it – I added some things to Anderson’s original song, and I only performed that tune in concert for a short time, very early in my career.

TW: It wasn’t all that early – it was in your set when you played Carnegie Hall in about 1972. Or was Carnegie Hall an early, forgettable gig?

BM: You have long since passed the one question mark, so just back off a bit. But concerning playing that song live -- you need to remember the time and the audience.

TW: Meaning?

BM: The time was the early 1970s, so there was a bit of “women empowerment” in that song. Or maybe instead of the woman empowerment thing, you can see it as a wife who is also a real person, with real problems -- in a very different type of love song.

TW: She doesn’t seem very “empowered” to me. She knows she missed something, but isn’t sure what.

BM: Well, you are right about criticizing the husband. He should be throwing his wife a life-line, but he is pretending that there is no problem. Or he doesn’t really see one.

TW: So it’s an anti-man song?

BM: Once again -- It’s not that simple. “Sandra” not an anti-man song; it’s an anti- not caring song. An anti- not being in touch with your human surroundings song. It’s not an us-versus-them song for gender studies. I’ll say it again – it’s a love song, but not one that fits with flat character situations.

TW: OK, but you had to search-out that tune. You clearly really wanted it in your set. Even the original songwriter Anderson had never heard “Sandra” performed until your recording came out.

BM: I like that song and I liked performing it.

TW: You mentioned the time; what about the audience.

BM: Very New York – and most of my fans were very New York in the beginning even if they did not physically live in New York.

TW: Large gay audience?

BM: Some, but not as prominent as you might think. I never really courted that. I had seen that from the inside working the baths. And I knew that it would be a limiting thing for me to specifically target such a nitch audience.

TW: OK. So why did “Sandra” stay in your set list for such a short time?

BM: It sort of creeped people out – especially once I started to get non-New York City fans.

TW: It “creeped people out.” Go figure.

BM: Perhaps even more important – it is a depressing tune. It would take me a couple of really “up” songs to get the audience back from the doldrums that the song induced.

TW: Powerful stuff. So, “Sandra” was a song that would shatter the mood of your live show.
Yet you intentionally performed it, knowing the work it would take you to get the audience back. That’s quite a risk for a performer. Even now, for good or for bad – the song really distinguishes itself amidst any collection of your material. Any regret over performing or recording that song? Any second thoughts about including it in your show, even briefly?

BM: Not at all. Listen – that would have been a very easy tune to bury. It only appears on my second studio album, Manilow II, which has long ago been supplanted by various hits collections. I think it’s even out of print now. “Sandra” appears on none of my hits collections, as you might guess, so the only place to now get the song is on the expensive box set in the form of the live Carnegie Hall recording you mentioned.

TW: Oh. You mean your 4 CD, 1 DVD box set that contains very few of your hit singles?

BM: Guilty.

TW: But you did beat me to the punch on that box set topic – the place where you buried this intriguing oddity.

BM: I knew you were about to ask. The reason I put it on there is because I do like the song and I wanted to have some tangible evidence that it had been in my set. Sort of my take on Another Side of Barry Manilow.

TW: In a one song form.

BM: Right.

TW: Your specific parallel to Another Side of . . is a reference to Bob Dylan’s fourth album.

BM: Correct. The one where he does unexpected topics.

TW: Yeah – I’ve heard it. Is it true that Bob Dylan once hugged you in a hotel hallway, told you that everybody admired what you were doing, and then walked-on down the hall?

BM: Yes. I used to wonder if he were mocking me, but I don’t think he was. I think he is a fan of strong melodies. And love songs.

TW: Like “Sandra.”

BM: Just like “Sandra.”

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PROVISO: The above “interview” is fiction – written by Tom Wilmeth.


Tom Wilmeth
(262) 243-4218
exciting new web site (of musty old reviews): web site:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review (music festival): Paramount Blues in Grafton, 2010

“Tom & Kim – Livin’ the Blues in Grafton, Wisconsin”
5th Annual Paramount Blues Festival – September 17 & 18, 2010
As attended by Tom Wilmeth & Kim Koehlinger
Essay written by Tom Wilmeth

I wasn’t sure what to think. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Five years in, and the Paramount Blues Festival of Grafton, Wisconsin, almost seemed to have a cloud over it. The past couple of years had seen some pretty undesirable weather days for an outdoor music event. It had been moved to an earlier date, but this didn’t help. Sponsor money had dried-up; there were concerns over getting quality acts. In some ways, 2010 seemed like it might be a make-or-break year for the festival. And the weekend weather report was not promising. However, Friday afternoon arrived – Lime Kiln Park opened. It was overcast, breezy, and a bit cool -- but the rain that had been forecast had gone south of us. That was a major win. And while past years may have seen more recognizable names, I would say that this was the most successful of the Paramount Blues Festivals. Here is what I saw, heard, and thought:

The Bands:
Maple Road
Kim and I arrived for just the last couple of songs by this group, which opened the festival on Friday evening. Jenny Abbott seemed to be the group leader and was certainly the focal point. She played some fine leads on her Fender Stratocaster, taking this four-piece band through some unremarkable but satisfying Chicago blues. Hey, they can put that as a quote on their next CD: “Unremarkable but satisfying!” As I recall, they did a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” I should have taken some notes at the site, but didn’t. As such, this is all coming from two-day-later memory. Bottom line – a well rehearsed group that I would go hear again. We only saw the end of the set, but I give them the grade of a solid B. I remember saying to Kim – “That will be representative of a lot of what we hear this weekend.” Oh that it were true for the next band.

October Soul
When this group got going, it made me really glad that we had arrived for even the end of Maple Road’s set. These guys were the low point of the festival. It’s too bad, really, because female vocalist Jamie Brace had some very good pipes. But she was trapped in front of a band that covered her voice and played odd songs. And although she did have talent as a singer, Brace didn’t help her own cause much. Her overall presence and especially her stage patter needed a lot of work. Between every song she was urging the audience to vote for the band in the upcoming contest in the local Shepherd Express paper. Not subtle; not cool. (And they would be the last band there that I would vote for.) They also prided themselves on playing a lot of different musical styles. Fine, but not at a blues festival. And when they did play in another musical genre – an acoustic guitar country tune, for example – they still couldn’t quite decide what they wanted to do with it. I remember turning to Kim after the second number and commenting on the strangeness of the tune. He agreed. Another bad stage move was that Brace repeatedly told us how two members of the band had just joined. Um . . . if you have a quartet with two brand new guys, that’s not a good sign for group stability. They played too long (or at least it sure seemed like a long set) and were very needy – after every song was the vocalist’s call for assurance, “How we doin’?” Not good. Anyway – this band just didn’t get it. Glad to get this one out of the way. Grade: D (ouch, but they were below average)

Aaron Williams & The Hoodoo
After the disaster that was October Soul, I was fairly nervous about the quality of the next group. I mean, I knew that the festival had gone through some economic troubles, but I was hoping that the last band would not be indicative of the music quality for the weekend. After all, Kim & Donna had driven up from Leo, Indiana, specifically for this event!

No problem – As soon as Aaron Williams came out, all was well! Williams hit the stage playing an odd and interesting string instrument – an electrified cigar box. (Kim has an excellent picture of this.) It was during this set that Kim suggested we go up to the stage – something I was contemplating but hadn’t yet moved on. Once stage side, we pretty much stayed there for the rest of the festival, as Kim’s photographs make clear. The cigar box sounded a lot like a dobro. As I later looked at it, there was some metal mesh in the two F-holes. I wanted to ask Williams about it, but the opportunity didn’t come up.

I was very glad we went up to the stage for this set because from our chairs this looked to be an old black guy in a fedora hat. As we approached, it was clear that here was quite a young man dressed in an older manner. He had studied the styles of an earlier era. And this guy could play. As appropriate as his clothes were, his blues licks were just as studied – and yet fresh and distinctively his own. At the conclusion of the first number, which he took as a solo, two guys emerged and then they smoked as a trio. After what seemed like a quick set, Williams introduced the band and said they had one more tune. Especially after the overly long set we had just endured, I was sorry to hear this. And while Williams told the truth, that last number lasted about 20 minutes. And was great. He did the crowd-pleasing act of walking through the audience while still playing – something that wireless technology now makes pretty simple. They stretched like mad and played with great energy and enthusiasm. After the set was clearly over, he did come back for an unplanned encore. Unaccompanied, Williams played “The Star Spangled Banner” Jimi Hendrix style. He didn’t let it roll into the lengthy medley, but stayed with the melody. Brief and fine. The young man can play. I would go see these guys again tonight. Right now! Grade: solid A

The Jimmys
It would be tough to top the act we just saw. In fact, it would be tough to be on their level, I thought. However, when the road crew started to set the stage for horns, I was optimistic. The evening’s closer was to be The Jimmys, a local band I had never heard of. By this time in the night there were quite a few drunks wandering around in front of the stage. One stopped to tell Kim that all of the people in this group were named Jimmy. Wow, we said – what are the odds?

In fact, only the leader was named Jimmy – Jimmy Voegeli – a keyboardist who had been in another local band for about 15 years and was clearly starting his own group. I spoke with him a little as he was setting-up. He had a stripped-down keyboard that sounded like a Hammond organ, but it sure didn’t look like one. He assured me that it was a Hammond and, when I asked, pointed to the hidden Leslie cabinet. We agreed that no synthesizer could replace the sound of a Hammond, and I left him alone. Which was good, perhaps, because their sound check was interminable.

But when they finally did play it was very hot and well rehearsed. Nice to hear three horns and great to finally hear a harmonica at a blues festival! The trumpet and the two saxes were quite a bit younger than the rest of the band. They seemed both nervous and grateful to be there, repeatedly pointing to Jimmy the leader/organist to give applause credit to their group leader. And as much as I liked this band, I would still say Aaron Williams was a more exciting and fun set. But maybe I was getting tired by this time – they were very good, and as the night began to close The Jimmys played an intricate instrumental feature where the three horns were trading 8 bar phrases, then 4 bar, then 2 bar. It was impressive and, for me, probably the high point of their set. The harp was fine, the guitarist was quite good but seemed to want to stay out of the lime light. Late in the set I noticed that the three members of The Hoodoo had stayed for this band and were watching closely from the backstage area. Williams had nothing to worry about, it seemed to me, but the guitarist with the Jimmys was older and played a very different, more relaxed style. The Jimmys also played an encore – the surprising but great horn-soaked choice of “Ophelia” by The Band. I was happy with the set, but ready to call it a night. A-

And so the first evening ended. Kim and I headed back to my place after a successful opening.

Day II – Saturday afternoon

Kim had taken several hundred photographs of the performers on Friday night. We didn’t go to the after-party at The Bridge Inn in Grafton for the local band The Bel-Aires, but we did stay up quite late looking at the many pix he took. Some great ones which he has just sent to me, and which I hope he is willing to share with the Grafton Blues site and perhaps even the performers – they are professional shots!

So – we got to bed late. The following morning we listened to the recently released complete set of Johnny Winter at Woodstock, followed by numerous very early B. B. King singles. O Yes -- Plenty o’ Blues.

We waited for our final addition to arrive – son Dylan Wilmeth, who came back from college specifically to go to the festival with Kim and me. Dylan has told previous tales of driving fast from Chicago to Minnesota with Kim & Donna while listening to XM’s Bluesville channel the entire way. Dylan was impressed; Kim is an enthusiast. Our wives, by the way, had right around zero interest in the festival, so instead they went to the bash held over in Cedarburg during the same weekend. I think it was called “Knick-Knack Crap” or something like that. Anyway – to each his own.

So -- Dylan, Kim, & I walked the few blocks to the park on another nice fall day. Cool, but fine.

The Bands:
Robert Allen, Jr. & Cadillac Pete
I’ll tell you what – when the most memorable thing about a band is the fact that they can’t decide on a name, there’s trouble. These guys were were billed as “Robert Allen and The Zoot Suits with Cadillac Pete, formerly known as The Zoot Suit Boogie Band.” Ouch. Allen played a big Gibson guitar and Pete played harmonica. Bass & drums accompanied. Nothing wrong with this set, but nothing right enough about it to really make it stand out. C+

Grana’ Louise
I will indicate my prejudice right from the start – there are very few blues vocalists that engage me much. And even fewer female blues singers who do it for me. It all seems like it’s got to be modified fuck-talk and how much and how often they like it from their man, who is invariably unworthy of the woman giving the lecture. Grana’ L. fit that bill exactly, and more. Her set had too much dull sexual rap to the women of the crowd, and her band didn’t do a lot for me.

Still – having said all of that: I didn’t hate this. The set had its moments, and I appreciated the fact that Louise was quick to give credit to her musical influences, such as Koko Taylor. But women who think they are really something while working blue are not the reason I come to the festival. Not offended, just bored with it. C

Dennis Jones
This was a trio that I remember liking, but I don’t recall a lot about them. I think I was getting ready for Little Ed, the next act. I give them a B grade even though I can’t be at all specific about them. It was the blues, that’s fo’ sho’. (Maybe something will come to me -- I should have taken motes!)

Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials
I was looking forward to Lil’ Ed and he did not disappoint.
Still, it was sort of an odd situation, perhaps based on my high expectations:
I had seen Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials when I lived in Texas. They were wild, and really tore-up the small club in College Station. I remember Lil’ Ed riding through the room on the back of one of the other band members while he played some hot lead. As I watched the band set-up at the Paramount Blues Festival, it was immediately clear that Ed’s riding days were behind him. I didn’t see anybody in that band who could support Ed for a piggyback trek of any duration. That’s fine. Hell – the date I saw in Texas had to be more than 20 years ago.

I had been at that Texas show with Tony Davidson who, when he learned that I was going to see him again, told me to ask for the song “20% Alcohol.” So after Dennis Jones’ memorable set I walked up to the stage and asked Lil’ Ed if he would play the song. This is a fierce anti-alcohol number that appears on The Blues Imperials’ second album. It was written by Lil’ Ed’s famous uncle, J. B. Hutto, who taught Ed to play guitar. Tony told me that Lil’ Ed had gone through some substance abuse days, but (again) this was an anti-booze song.

So standing there alone in front of the stage, I asked Lil’ Ed if he could play “20% Alcohol” during the set. He looked at me for a long time in silence. I asked, “Do you guys still do that tune?” The rest of the band had stopped setting-up and were now looking at me. Lil’ Ed said – in an unmistakably surly tone –“I’ll play that song for six thousand dollars -- in advance -- cash.” Hm. . . . So I said, “Well, it would be worth every dollar.” And that was pretty much the end of the discussion. What the hell do you say to a response like that? I mean, the song was on one of his albums; it’s not like I was asking for something associated with another artist. When I later related that story to Tony Davidson, he snapped – “Man, if I’d been there I would have asked him if was too good to play his uncle’s songs!” Tony was pissed! Good to hear some real passion about music coming through the phone lines from Texas.

Ed is a distinctive sight. As the name indicates, he is not large in stature. Also, he wears a bright red turban-like hat of some height. In fact, he was putting this on about the time I was talking with him, a full 20 minutes before the set started. I guess he just likes wearing it. Or maybe he wants to make sure that you know just who is leading the group. I’m sure he has no problem letting his band know who the star is.

Lil’ Ed did not play “20% Alcohol” that night, and he did not ride around on the back of a band member. But his set was still the high point of the night, if not of the entire festival. His slide guitar was on fire and he smoked through a fine hour of blues. Dylan and I were very close to the stage and we saw Lil’ Ed put on a real show. What impressed me, in part, was how generous he was with the rest of his band. He had Mike Garrett on second guitar, a thin white guy who was great at holding down the rhythm section and playing single-line solos when given the chance. Ed’s huge brother (or so said Ed) was on electric bass, and drummer Kelly Littleton kept it honest with a very solid beat. Actually, I was surprised that I did not get tired of the distinctive sound of Ed’s slide, because he rarely played anything else. I think that was partially due to his willingness to share solo space with the other guitarist. Ed played an unusual guitar that looked custom made; I’m sure that Kim’s photos of the set picked-up the name on the guitar. He looked to have 3 absolutely identical axes in the rack, and played just one fire engine red & white guitar for the entire set.

At one point people behind us yelled that the sound mix was bad. It was fine where we were, but I guess his vocals were buried farther from the stage. That’s OK; you don’t go see Lil’ Ed to hear him sing. But that’s when the attitude briefly emerged that I had seen before the set. “What? You can’t hear me?” asked Ed. “Listen harder!” And he then stormed into the next number. That’s fine. It was a very good set. And like Aaron Williams on the previous evening, Lil’ Ed closed by walking unencumbered through the crowd playing wireless guitar and then returning to the stage to wrap-up the set.

One last thing that was impressive – after Lil’ Ed left the stage, the trio probably played close to 10 minutes without him, vamping-out on the closing number. It was here that you could again really appreciate the rhythm section and especially the abilities of Garrett’s second guitar. Good stuff. And I know Dylan had dug it, because when we got home he immediately went on-line to see if Ed would be playing in the area again anytime soon. Probably will, since he is out of Chicago. I found that reaction a win, and I agreed with Dylan that Lil’ Ed’s set was great.
Grade: A!

Zac Harmon
There was no doubt that Zac Harmon loves Grafton. He has played here four out of the five years we have held the festival. He came out in the middle of the day to participate in the dedication of the Blues Marker, linking Grafton with the blues of Mississippi through the Paramount Records label. When he hit the stage as the festival closer, people were ready for a hot set. And he gave it to them . . . for a while.

Harmon’s trio hit the stage and launched into a fine, up-tempo version of Chick Corea’s “Spain.” Wow. What a breath of fresh air – the fusion aspects and the unusual chord changes made this instrumental a welcome earful for me. They played pretty much a complete version of the song, replete with solos and back to the head when the bass player walked over to Harmon and yelled, “Hey man! This is a BLUES festival!” The trio turned on a dime and dropped into a very slow 12-bar blues pattern. Great. Planned? Of course. But some wonderful musical theater.

After a couple of straight-ahead blues numbers, though, I thought the band sort of lost their way. In fact, they devolved into an offshoot of the Grana’ Louise school of talking too much to the crowd instead of playing music. They had a planned disagreement within the band about how Grafton wasn’t really a Zac Harmon town, and Zac had to prove it with enthusiastic crowd reaction. As well as the fusion opening worked for me, this self-adulation routine failed. What also hurt the bit was that Harmon had already lost a large chunk of the lawn audience early in his set. Part was weariness of the crowd and part was the heavy dew that was quickly forming in the grass. Also, after Lil’ Ed’s high energy set, this was a come-down -- and the departing lines to the festival gate made that clear. The latter part of the set was also marred by a lengthy tune where Harmon brought out the main festival organizer, sat her on a stool, and sang to her for quite a while. Yawn. As I say, after a great beginning they lost me. Maybe Zac Harmon should take a year or two off from the festival. Grade B-

Kim took pictures to the end and we then headed back home to look at his day’s shots, this time numbering over 1000 photos!

And, well, that was the festival. I could write a bit about the Mississippi promotion tent, where southern diplomats gave away maps of their state and free Hohner harmonicas. I also liked the walk that Kim and Dylan and I had down to the river and the generally relaxed atmosphere of both days. I could talk about the lights set-up so people could make huge shadows on the abandoned lime kiln structures after sunset, and some other nice touches. But I think you get the idea. It was a well run festival, and if this was a make-or-break year, I’d say it was a win!

Tom Wilmeth
(262) 243-4218
Friday, 1 October 2010
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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Obituary (Mitch Miller)

“Mitch Miller Memories”
Wednesday, 4 August 2010
by Tom Wilmeth

Mitch Miller died this week at age 99. He was the Jack LaLanne of song. Just as the exercise guru led workouts by means of early television screens, Mitch Miller led his Glee Club of viewers in exuberant voice. And as with the gymnast’s approach, Miller insisted on an active audience.

News releases said that he had encountered only a brief illness before his death. I’m glad for that report, but I have read the numerous articles about Mr. Miller’s passing with increasing skepticism. For example, I have yet to encounter an obituary that heralds Mitch Miller as probably the finest classical oboist that this country has ever produced. Which he was. I have also read that Miller was responsible for signing Bob Dylan to Columbia Records. Which he wasn’t.

That Mitch Miller was in the record business and that he conducted orchestras at various junctures of his long career is mentioned in passing, but naturally the obituary notices have smilingly focused on the Sing Along With Mitch sensation of the very early 1960s. Certainly these popular sing-along albums and his corresponding network television show put Miller on America’s cultural landscape, and the Sing Along series is why he is remembered today. Still, it saddens me to see the man reduced to a gently mocked, stiff-armed caricature.
I’d like to offer another voice:

I had the opportunity to work briefly with Mitch Miller in St. Paul in the early 1980s. He had agreed to participate in a series programs about his career as a record producer. Minnesota Public Radio’s long-time jazz host Leigh Kamman was conducting the interview, and I was his regular board operator/engineer.

Mitch Miller was an impressive presence. Dressed in flamboyant colors with a cravat and beret, here was a man absolutely confident and extremely comfortable in his skin. His trademark beard was neatly trimmed into the point on his chin that made his visage unmistakable. Friendly, outgoing – so ready to talk about anything that the originally planned afternoon interview sessions stretched into three full days! Smoking was not allowed in studios, but no one ever considered asking Mitch Miller to extinguish his ever-present cigarette in its lengthy, ornate holder.

Here are a few of the things that I recall from those sessions, held nearly 30 years ago:

Miller embraced failure if you could learn from it. He had numerous failures in the recording studio, but his only regret was that he didn’t go back and do the same thing again. He lamented that he saw others succeed with some of his failed studio experiments only because he hadn’t the time to re-tweak some of his unsuccessful ideas. I can’t think that he meant his problematic recordings with Frank Sinatra or Aretha Franklin, and I don’t recall that Miller got specific about these unsuccessful experiments.

He did get specific about his role in convincing Johnny Mathis that he possessed an exceptionally good voice. But it was a voice well suited for ballads, and not for the jazz that Mathis wanted to sing. As Mathis himself has often said, he started to record “Wonderful Wonderful” as a syncopated romp. Miller confirmed to Kamman that he stopped the session and instructed the singer to sing the melody as straight and as unadorned as possible. Mathis reluctantly agreed, knowing that this unhip arrangement was a waste of time. “Wonderful Wonderful” would be Johnny Mathis’ first big single (1957) which began a strong career of hit ballads. Mathis still praises Miller’s insight.

This story about Johnny Mathis led Mitch Miller to indicate in more general terms of how he often had to convince some artists of their own talent. They were frequently unaware of their potential, he insisted. He mentioned Rosemary Clooney in this category, as I recall.

There was not a lot said about rock and roll. It is well documented that Miller, as A&R Man, was responsible for keeping rock acts off Columbia until somewhat late in the day. The Byrds would sell a boatload of records for the label, and this opened the gates for rock onto the label, but this was not until 1965. Thanks to The Beatles, Capitol Records’ profit margin likely had something to do with the Columbia brass taking the plunge, in spite of Miller’s objections – and he had plenty. But he was gone from Columbia by this time.

Mitch Miller and Leigh Kamman were of a mind about the subject. As Miller said, “Rock is dumb music for uneducated listeners. I knew that the kids would get tired of it. I was simply wrong about how long it would take. I thought it would be over in 10 years, but it has held-on a bit longer.” He was very convinced, however, that it was definitely winding down now and that rock music would soon be dead. Remember, this was 1982. Mr. Miller was a true believer in what he saw as refinement and taste.

Years later I again met Mitch Miller, but this time only in passing. In the late 1990s he was the guest conductor for a Christmas concert by The Milwaukee Children’s Choir, to which my daughter belonged. By this time I had spent several years in Texas and had become extremely interested in Country Music. As Mr. Miller was signing album covers and programs after the dress rehearsal, I asked him if it were true that he had been responsible for convincing Tony Bennett to record “Cold Cold Heart” in 1951. This Hank Williams composition would prove to be Bennett’s break-out pop hit, and would simultaneously introduce Hank Williams’ music to an entirely new, non-country audience.

Continuing to autograph various artifacts, Miller laughed and answered, “Oh yes. Bennett wanted nothing to do with that song.” Dropping into a low growl that was clearly supposed to be the singer’s reaction: “I’m not recording that cowboy crap!” Miller laughed again. I asked what gave him the idea to have Tony Bennett record “Cold Cold Heart.” He stopped signing, looked up at me and replied as if the answer were obvious: “It was a good song!”

When Miller concluded the Milwaukee Children’s Christmas Concert he thanked the audience for attending the event and said that he hoped to see them “many, many more times.” This, from a man who was not close to being young, even ten years ago. I was impressed that he clearly embraced what he was doing so thoroughly that the thought of slowing down or (God forbid) of dying was simply not on his radar. I envied his attitude.

I have friends who are rabid in their enmity toward Mitch Miller, calling him one of the great enemies of rock ‘n roll. Perhaps true, but the genre seems to have circumvented his opposition and thrived. Sitting across from him in a recording booth in St. Paul or talking with him at a concert in Milwaukee, it was difficult not to be engrossed by his every response. He was passionate in wanting to deliver quality music to people, whether from the oboe chair, the podium, the recording studio, or the television screen. And from my experience – that depth of commitment is a very rare thing.

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Notes: I believe I still have 10 ½ reel copies of these interviews.
I have a couple of things in quotes here that are based on my memory. As such --
If I were actually to do something with this for publication I would need to do some fact checking – on a couple of items.
I had quite a bit more about Dylan, but cut it back – got in the way of the focus.

Tom Wilmeth

Friday, July 23, 2010

Review (TV)

Review of Public Television’s American Masters presentation on Merle Haggard,
22 July 2010
Review written by Tom Wilmeth

I think the folks at PBS should slow-down a bit on their American Masters series. The latest entry was dedicated to the great Country Music artist Merle Haggard, but instead of a biography it was more of a hagiography. And a saint he ain’t, as he would be the first to tell you. The first hour was an acceptable if not outstanding portrait of the young and troubled artist. But in the last half hour it was made clear that Country Music was doomed without Merle’s leadership. Well shit. Haggard wouldn’t tell you that even at his crankiest.

Many talking heads filled the screen with praise, but curiously missing was Willie Nelson. Also absent was the great television footage of Johnny Cash indicating to the public that Haggard had truly served hard time in prison, although that point itself was made clear if not belabored. These omissions smacked to me of limited involvement on this project and perhaps of a hastily assembled program. Merle Haggard is uniquely important to Country Music, but I saw nothing in this 90-minute program that would convince the uninitiated to become familiar with the man’s work. And that’s too bad. Merle deserves better than the empty accolades found here.

Review (concert): Chasin' Mason

Review of the band Chasin’ Mason – Cedarburg, Wisconsin; 23 July 2010
Review written by Tom Wilmeth

Some of my reviews run a bit long; this one won’t:
The Country Rock band Chasin’ Mason is a competent sextet – two electric guitars, electric bass, acoustic guitar, drums, and vocalist. The singer could really sing and the pickers could really pick. However, somebody needs to choose their material for them. They played well, but chose to cover the “she loves my tractor” and “I’ve got such a big truck” crap from the backwater of the current country music survey. Lots of potential, but they just haven’t listened to the right records. Yet.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Review (concert): Yes

REVIEW of Yes at Summerfest
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Friday – July 2, 2010
Review written by Tom Wilmeth

It had been 35 years since I had seen the quintessential prog-rockers Yes. For some reason I had been on a bit of a Yes revival during the past few months, picking-up used CDs of Close to the Edge, Yesshows, and a copy of one of the myriad of best-of collections – The Ultimate Yes – a good but not perfect 3 CD overview of the band. The strangest part of the renewed interest was my re-examination of their work Tales From Topographic Oceans, which they were playing the first time I saw them in concert (1974). No; I take that back – the strangest part of my Yes revival was the lengthy “One Question With . . .” #3, where I interviewed Corporate Yes on my blog, born out of my Topographic Oceans interest.

So when son Dylan pointed out that Yes was going to be playing at the same large outdoor stage for Milwaukee’s Summerfest where we had seen Elvis Costello the previous summer, I was interested. I was also surprised that these boys were playing one of the free side stages. However, Milwaukee’s annual Summerfest is good about getting large if fading names for their entertainment. I was, to be honest, somewhat concerned about seeing the band live. I remember a concert video of the group from a few years ago and was not especially impressed. The friend who supplied the tape was a bit harsher when describing the band as resembling “shrieking old women.” Ouch.

We arrived at the Summerfest grounds in early afternoon, so had about 7 hours before Yes would play their 10 P.M. set. We enjoyed a fine time, seeing a marginal Steely Dan tribute band, followed by an excellent set by The Heavy – really solid. But we were getting pretty tired and the decision had to be made – boogie quick after The Heavy set to the far end of the grounds to try to get seats for Yes, or head for home. We were there – let’s go see Yes. I rushed us through the increasing crowds and we were able to get some bench seats. Good. We were all tired, and I’m not sure I would have fired-up to stand for 45 minutes waiting for the band to come on. But as I say, we did have a place to sit and chill.

As I looked at the stage, I thought about how the mighty had fallen. This was a bare bones set-up with a single large projection screen behind it. Gone were the elaborate sets that I had seen years before. I guess that makes sense – there was no point in putting together complicated (and expensive) Roger Dean-designed stage props. They were on the road to make some money and to play for the faithful, who were at an age where the extraneous stage trappings mattered less than just having the band show-up and play. And this is exactly what happened.

The quintet took the stage right at 10 P.M., accompanied by the dramatic conclusion to “The Firebird Suite,” a concert prelude they have used for decades. Pretentious? Arrogant? At this point it really doesn’t matter – it’s what they use for an entrance. Yes launched into the first song. It was one I didn’t know, but I was impressed with the sound, the tightness of the band and the fact that their lead singer sounded a whole lot like Jon Anderson. A whole lot! The fact that Anderson is not with the band for this lengthy tour point is a bone of contention with some fans and with the singer himself. No matter. I wasn’t expecting Anderson, and vocalist Benoit David had his part down!

During this first number we were able to move down the bench a bit – away from some talking drunks and into far better sightlines. I would say better seats, but this was a standing concert. Not just standing, but standing on the benches. Fine – and neither brother-in-law Scott or Dylan seemed to mind at all. We were all tired from a long day, but the music lifted us up.

After this first tune, drummer Alan White laid down a slow, steady beat. I was amazed, then, when the band hit the opening chords of “Yours is No Disgrace,” a very fast number in its recorded versions. I truly wondered, “Can this really be the tempo they mean to take it?” Clearly it was. They smoldered on this tune at less than half speed for probably 15 minutes. A full version, to be sure. Guitarist Steve Howe looked like an aging history professor, but played like he was on fire. I must have said to Dylan and Scott no less than four times: “Howe is really having a good night!” Unlike the sluggish renditions offered-up by the Steely Dan tribute band from that afternoon, Yes meant to play “Yours is No Disgrace” at this tempo. Very unexpected, very fresh, and very great!

We had talked earlier about watching part of the set and then heading out when Yes hit their material we didn’t know. Never happened. At one point Dylan tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Is this their third tune?” “I think so,” I replied. “They have been playing for 45 minutes!” It seemed to me like about 10. People around Dylan also stared at him in disbelief when he gave me that time reference. Hotcha. I learned later that Dylan was also a bit uncertain about this concert. He likes Yes a great deal but had been at Summerfest earlier in the week and saw The Moody Blues on this same stage. He departed after only a few songs – “No spark,” he said. He would later indicate how glad he was that we stayed for the Yes concert and for their full set.

Speaking of which – “This was a set list from heaven!” I gushed on the bus home. Following the opening pair of numbers they performed excellent versions of “And You and I,” and later “I’ve Seen All Good People.” I kept expecting some material I didn’t know, but the most recent tune they touched after the opening number was “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which was an actual #1 Billboard Magazine hit for them in 1984. A very impressive and hot short one.

Another pleasant surprise came when Squire introduced a change of pace, and Steve Howe played a ten-minute set on acoustic guitar. Seated, it was clear that Howe had listened to a lot of Chet Atkins as he ripped through country finger-style guitar licks during this medley comprised more of brief themes than of actual songs. This respite was welcome too because the entire audience sat down for a few minutes during the acoustic interlude. That helped.

Howe, a long time guitar collector, also showed class later in the evening by pointedly acknowledging Wisconsin as “the birth place of the great Les Paul” before the beginning of “Perpetual Change.” This song was also noteworthy as a real showcase for the interplay between Howe’s electric and Chris Squire’s famous Rickenbacker bass guitar. It also featured Benoit David’s vocals on the beautiful lyrics and surprisingly gentle melody which make-up the song.

Suddenly, or so it seemed, we heard the opening acoustic harmonics to “Roundabout.” I knew this had to be a set-closer, and it was. Howe had his unique method of keeping the electric guitar strapped-on while reaching over it to play an acoustic guitar mounted on a stand. Unusual but functional. He also played a bit of steel guitar in his way of making it sound unlike any steel player I’ve ever heard. They departed the stage and then returned to encore with a very hot rendition of “Starship Trooper.”

We saw a good set on a good night. I went on-line later and discovered that, perhaps surprisingly, the boys did not perform “Owner of a Lonely Heart” all that often these days. I was glad they did hit that one, as it is one of Dylan’s favorites and was the song that first grabbed his attention toward Yes. Also, they had not played “Yours is No Disgrace” in months! I was really glad for that one, and in retrospect that tune was my favorite of the evening. But they were all good! As I said to Dylan, although I had seen the band twice before this – these were the specialty tours of Tales from Topographic Oceans and the subsequent year’s Relayer, when they were rarely touching their back catalogue. As such, the only tune Yes played at Summerfest which I had ever heard them perform live was “And You and I,” and even that was a very different arrangement. When we saw them on Friday, they were far closer to capturing the more subtle elements of the studio recording, as opposed to the bombastic nature of the Yessongs version.

Another thing I leaned after the concert – which really does not impact on my review – was how deeply some people feel that this is not really Yes. OK, but as I pointed out on the bus trip to the festival site, the only original member of the band still playing with them is Chris Squire. He acted as sort of de-facto group leader, while Benoit David served as the reserved front man, knowing that he was fortunate to have made the leap from singing with a Yes tribute band to singing with the real thing. It happens.

But make no mistake, this was Yes -- Chris Squire, Steve Howe, drummer Alan White (although I do prefer Bill Bruford, I confess). The core of the popular line-up was solidly in place. Different vocalist, true, but more than capable, and keyboards handled by the son of the band’s most famous former member, Rick Wakeman. This too happens.

Yes is now at the tail end of a very long tour – they began the current stretch in November of 2008, playing more than 130 concerts. They will probably take a deserved break of some duration, but when they return to the road I will search them out. In the mean time, I will probably go through a Yes phase of some duration – I have already pulled their Lps off my shelf, ready for a return to duty.

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Notes: I subsequently learned that the opening song was “Machine Messiah” from the Drama album, a song that Jon Anderson refuses to perform with the group since he is not the singer on that Lp.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review (book): Handbook on Myth

A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy from Homer to Harry Potter.
By Matthew Dickerson & David O’Hara. Brazos Press, 2006. 272 pp. $20.00

Review written by Tom Wilmeth August 19, 2006

To draw-in the reader, this book’s cover shouts “Harry Potter” much louder than the rest of its lengthy title. However, I can forgive an obvious marketing strategy if it leads a fan of Dumbledore on a search for the professor’s predecessors. At under 300 pages the book can not be comprehensive, but Dickerson & O’Hara deliver an excellent overview of their topic. The authors demonstrate how the oral tradition of Homer and The Brothers Grimm offer a back-story of inspiration for the literary worlds created by Tolkien, Wangerin, and Rowling. Although this is one of many recent books on myth and fantasy, it offers valuable insights about the genre.

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Review (book): Rhythm & Business

R&B -- Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music.
Edited by Norman Kelley. Akashic Books, 2006. $16.00 326 pp.

Review written by Tom Wilmeth August 19, 2006

This book should be read by every musician who has ever played a gig for money. The title stresses the “black” thread that runs through these 20 essays, but Norman Kelley’s updated collection of articles on the music industry often provides clear-eyed assistance to all performers trying to make a living in the business, regardless of their color. Topics addressed range from artists’ rights and royalty payment theft to the problem jazz currently faces of competing with its own past. The record companies are usually the villains here, but Kelley rarely allows his useful book to become shrill or pointlessly bitter.

#30# 101 words

One Question With . . . #2

May 13, 2010 – Tom Wilmeth Presents: One Question With . . .

If I had one question with a specific individual, what would it be?
Here is the second entry: One Question with Neil Young!

Hello Mr. Young:
You seemed slow if not hesitant to release some of your mid-1970s albums onto CD. It is true that some of these albums blew, but this rarely stops an artist from re-releasing his own back catalogue, thereby cashing-in on the money that a new format guarantees. Now that all of your records – including the long delayed American Stars ‘n Bars and On the Beach – are out there on non-bootleg, official CD releases, you still hold back the 1973 live album Time Fades Away, which Uncut Magazine just this month rated as the #1 oddity for major Lp releases not currently available in any format. Man, you even trumped The Beatles, whose unavailable Live at The Hollywood Bowl Lp is at #3 on the list!

Concerning technology, you were way ahead of your time with Time Fades Away, and evidently proud of it. On the record label itself you mention how the live recording is digitally mixed to 2-track. The problem with this early digital recording technology is its inherent murky sound and that fact that the audio master can not be remixed, so the audio really can’t be enhanced. You have been quoted that Time Fades Away is your “worst album.” And while that is really saying something, many would disagree. The American Music Guide calls it “the most gripping music of Young’s career.” So my question: Concerning Time Fades Away – do you refuse its re-release because you dislike the songs, your performance of the songs, or the unchangeable audio mix?

Neil Young:
I get “cutting edge” technology credit for going straight to 2-track digital in 1973, but am reviled for my advanced-guard electronic work on my 1982 Trans album.

Life’s a bitch. Can you answer the question about Time Fades Away?

I’m not sure that my movie soundtrack to Journey Through the Past is available on CD.

Good point; I’ll look in to it. Most people wouldn’t admit to owning that one, though.

The tracks on Time Fades Away were recorded during a tour was not a good experience for me. I’d rather just bury the whole project.

By holding it back, you call more attention to it and make it more desirable, regardless of its quality. Also, that wasn’t a live hits collection -- most of those songs are unique to that release.

Bob Dylan recently went out of his way to visit the house where I grew-up in Canada. So bite me.

You win. But your Archives box set takes self-importance to a new level of grandiosity.

Hey – get the Blu-ray; it’s cleaner.

You buying?

Another burning question finally resolved!

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[PROVISO: The above exchange is fiction, written by Tom Wilmeth. But why?]

One Question With . . . #1

May 8, 2010
An Exciting New Feature –

Tom Wilmeth Presents: One Question With . . .

If I had one question with a specific individual, what would it be?

Here is the first entry (May 8, 2010): One Question with Neil Diamond!

Mr. Diamond: You recorded the song “Shilo” for the tiny Bang label, with whom you had your first six Top 40 chart entries. You subsequently signed with Uni Records, where you had your second wave of great chart success. After scoring several Uni label hits, Bang Records issued your older recording of “Shilo” as a single, to which they still had the rights and which became a radio hit. My question: Is the Bang Records single version of “Shilo” the same take that appears on your first Uni album, Velvet Gloves and Spit?

Potential Answer:
Mr. Diamond responds – “Security!!!”

Rebuttal: Hey big shot, I have both versions: I just don’t feel like hearing that song twice in a row to figure it out.


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[PROVISO -- The above exchange is fiction, written by Tom Wilmeth.]

One Question With . . . #3

June 6-30, 2010 – Tom Wilmeth Presents: One Question With . . . #3
If I had one question with a specific individual, what would it be?

Here is the third entry: One Question with Yes!

Tom Wilmeth: Um . . . thanks for being here. But I’m not really sure who you are.
You guys in the band Yes have not aged well, but I don’t recognize you at all.

Guest: Hey; back at ’cha, old man. You can call me “Corporate Yes.” Once we hit Rock God status in the early 1970s we really became a corporation logo more than a band.

TW: Ouch.

CY: Perhaps disappointing, but true. Don’t feel too badly for us, though – we sold a boatload of units after the corporation mentality kicked-in. We found the formula and milked it dry! Still at it.

TW: Units?

CY: Sorry, I meant “product.” No, wait -- I meant “albums.” I meant to say “works of art.”

TW: So you are not Jon Anderson or Chris Squire or Rick Wakeman or . . . ?

CY: No man – Corporate Yes! People got to know the distinctive sound, but very few could name the current members of the band at any given point. And that became a good thing. Also, people identified us visually from those trippy Roger Dean album covers. That helped us.

TW: You didn’t use his art work until the Fragile album.

CY: Right. That was the 4th record and also where we truly hit our stride.

TW: If only briefly.

CY: Bite me. That album was the template for all the Yes music which was to follow.

TW: Your previous release, The Yes Album, was a superior collection of songs.

CY: Probably right. We smelled what a hit single could do for a band with The Yes Album. “Your Move” threatened to become a hit, but it stalled.

TW: Fragile’s “Roundabout” was the hit you sought.

CY: Yep. And the best part was that we were still seen as an FM college radio album band – above the Top 40 hits of the dying AM radio. But there we were with a hit single, still acting like we were above it. Way too cool for the room.

TW: But you played that song at every concert.

CY: Hell yes. It’s what people wanted to hear. We encored with “Roundabout;” still do.

TW: Sort of your band’s “Whole Lotta Love.” One huge Top 40 hit that serves as icing on the concert cake.

CY: Yup. But those Zeppelin guys had the class to throw-in the towel when one of them died.

TW: Why didn’t you do that when Jon Anderson left before the Drama album?

CY: We had been through so many personnel changes by that time that we felt it was OK and not deceiving the fans if the line-up changed.

TW: Even if it meant replacing the distinctive sound of your lead singer?

CY: Right. Let’s move on.

TW: And the money was still really good.

CY: Hey ass hole! Did you have a question for me or not? Wait -- Anderson can suck it. He leaves the band and gets mad because we carry-on without him. Twice. And quite successfully, I will add! Wakeman is a prima donna – not even an original member. Shows up for the 4th album and then thinks he’s too big for the band. Comes and goes at his whim.

TW: Sort of the group’s own personal Neil Young!

CY: Hm. . . . So what’s your question?

TW: We were talking about Roger Dean’s distinctive album cover art work. I had a friend who claimed that the band Osi Bisa had a career only because stoned hippies saw Osi Bisa albums in record shops and bought them thinking that they were new Yes albums.

CY: Good one. We’ll, it’s been real . . .

TW: Wait. That wasn’t a question. It was a statement.

CY: sigh

TW: OK – On the CD reissue of your album Tales From Topographic Oceans, you . . .

CY: Oh Hell! You aren’t going to ask about that albatross, are you?

TW: Clearly I am.

CY: That era was our highest high and lowest low – as it was happening! I mean, when half the band openly questions to the press what the hell we are doing – that’s never a good sign.

TW: Healthy bands regularly fight.

CY: This was different. Wakeman summed it up pretty well when he said he left the band because he was unable to answer interviewers’ question about what the work was about. He got tired of defending it. I think they all did after a while, but Anderson and Howe wouldn’t admit to it.

TW: Assessment of the work?

CY: “Of the work.” See, you are acting like it is some important piece of art.

TW: I was a fan. Was it an achievement for Rock Music?

CY: An “achievement”? Maybe. But parts of it also got pretty close to self parody.
Those are bad memories for me, even though the fans tried to accept it and we were still OK with the record company because it sold quite well – especially for a pricey double album.

TW: Time Magazine listed it among the top rock albums of the year [1974].

CY: Ah yes, “That good old rock mag Time,” to quote a friend of yours. Time was just trying to jump on a band wagon – magazine sales were beginning to slip. Reach out to the youth!

TW: Time Magazine dissed The Beatles’ White Album when it was released [November 1968].

CY: Same sort of thing – trying to be hip – knocking down a sacred cow in that instance.

TW: Was Tales From Topographic Oceans still rock? It’s a long way from Chuck Berry.

CY: Rock almost did what jazz had accomplished in the post-bop era.

TW: Meaning?

CY: The musicians drove away the fans by playing for each other instead of the audience. How many non-musicians could understand anything coming out on the Blue Note label in the 1960s, for example?

TW: Tales from Topographic Oceans was written for other musicians?

CY: No. Good point – we were going for our rabid audience. But after the success of Close to the Edge, what do you do? Only 3 songs on that album. I know – we’ll make a double album with one song per side. Song or suite or “composition,” or some damn thing. Can you remember a single melody from that thing – that 90-minute work?

TW: um . . . maybe a couple of the riffs from side 4.

CY: I rest my case – “Some of the most beautiful passages” in the Yes canon, to quote the All Music Guide, but try to hum any of it. Note what happened as far as the structure of those albums. Three songs on Close to the Edge, one HUGE composition on Tales, then we backed-up into a 3-song structure on the next album, Relayer. Then we started to worry as sales slipped and we went back to albums with almost regular-length songs.

TW: I got off the bus with Relayer – the next album after Tales from Topographic Ocean. And by the way, you yourself also refer to Tales as a “composition.” A bit high hat, aren’t you? You must have had pretty healthy self-esteem at the time to release a double album like that. Am I right in thinking that you would not let people into the theatre for seating once you began the lengthy 4-part “piece” in London?

CY: I’m not proud of all this, but we did consider it to be a theatrical event.

TW: Like Pink Floyd’s The Wall? Like Jethro Tull’s Passion Play?

CY: Different than those. Not better – it’s not a contest, remember. But certainly different.

TW: OK. I thought Relayer was Close to the Edge under another name. I was getting bored.

CY: You weren’t listening.

TW: I was listening closely. You were recycling; the three new songs on Relayer were exact parallels to the three on Close to the Edge:
“Siberian Khatru” = “Sound Chaser”
“And You And I” = “To Be Over”
“Close to the Edge” = “The Gates of Delirium”

CY: Well . . .

TW: Don’t get me wrong. Yes was a very important band for me, but I peaked with the live Yessongs album.

CY: Join the club.

TW: I saw you guys twice – on the Tales tour . . .

CY: Sorry.

TW: Don’t apologize for the Tales concert – I’m glad I saw that unique show. I know Yes freaks who are very envious that I saw that tour. The only thing I was disappointed with was the lack of older tunes.

CY: Can’t play them all.

TW: Right, but you ran down the three tunes from Close to the Edge, three sides of Tales, encored with “Roundabout,” and split. A couple of older tunes would have been welcome.

CY: That was the nature of that tour. You can’t have it both ways. It was a full 2 hours, right?

TW: You win that one. Why did you decide to stop performing the second side of the album on the final American leg of the tour – too hard to play live?

CY: God, you’re an asshole.

TW: I’ll take that as a yes.

CY: Very challenging to perform live, you are correct. Dick.

TW: So you bailed.

CY: So we bailed!

TW: Were you getting bored with the whole thing?

CY: I’ve talked about that. What was the other time you saw us?

TW: Tales in Minneapolis [1974]; the Relayer tour in Iowa City the following year.

CY: And that show?

TW: Well, as I say, you guys played well and the light show was amazing, but it was still all newer stuff – Close to the Edge and up. And as I said, Relayer was rehash.

CY: Yes, you mentioned that.

TW: The coolest thing about that Iowa City show was at the end when you did a brief medley of high points from the first three sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans, and then went screaming into a full length take of side four. That was great.

CY: Thank you; glad you didn’t go away disappointed.

TW: Then I heard that on the next tour you were doing a bunch of older tunes again.

CY: Sorry. I think we are all pretty tired of this – did you have a question?

TW: OK. On side one of the Tales from Topographic Oceans Lp, the opening sequence is distinctly different from the CD reissue. The album starts immediately with unaccompanied vocals while the CD has nearly two minutes of an instrumental passage leading-up to the introductory vocal. Why the difference and why no indication on the CD that a change was made?

CY: You must remember that nobody really listens to that album.

TW: Maybe, but this is the very opening of the whole thing – the one part that you would hear if someone was to ever put it on.

CY: I do not know. Maybe you have an early pressing of the album and we later changed it to include the passage. Happens, you know.

TW: I do have an early one – I bought it the day it was released – January 1974. Speaking of which, why didn’t Atlantic Records make you get that out in time for the Christmas consumer season? You would have sold even more.

CY: You, sir, are a cynic.

TW: But you really don’t k now about that difference or why it is altered?

CY: Sorry. And I’m also sorry that you know that there is a difference. Isn’t there some book you could be reading or movie you could go watch? IS this really worth your time?

TW: Interesting comment, coming from you.

CY: I get paid to do this.

TW: Right. But I’m the cynic? I keep confusing art with units sold.

CY: Oddly enough, I envy that. And with this I believe we have come full circle. Good-night.

][][][][[][[][][][][[][][][][] ][][][][[][[][][][][[][][][][] ][][][][[][[][][][][[][][][][] ][][][][[][[][][][][[

PROVISO: The above “interview” is fiction – written by Tom Wilmeth.

[Instant review of the above by Tom Wilmeth’s son, Dylan Wilmeth:
“Well, it probably won’t be the weirdest thing on the internet. But still . . .]


Tom Wilmeth
(262) 243-4218
exciting new web site (of musty old reviews): web site:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review (CD): Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet

Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet. Husky. (Hyena Records)
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
October 23, 2006

Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet -- It’s a mouthful, to be sure, yet worth remembering since the group gives an exhilarating earful to all who listen.

Husky is this horn band’s new CD, recorded completely live in the studio in a single day. Sounding at times like disciples of Roland Kirk and Don Ellis, they travel beyond influence and emerge with their own distinctive and enjoyably aggressive sound.

The septet is led by Skerik on tenor sax, but the group is so unified that no single soloist dominates. From moments of hard swing and head tunes with expansive brass solos to lilting flute melodies, Husky showcases the musical depth of these players. Track titles suggest the diversity of the music on this CD, from “Summer Pudding” to “Fry His Ass” and “Go to Hell, Mr. Bush.” This is jazz of the now and for the living.


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Review (book): John Lennon

Memories of John Lennon. Edited and Introduced by Yoko Ono.
New York: HarperEntertainment. 310 pp. $25.00
Book Review Written by Tom Wilmeth; May 2006

Her Broadway play about John flopped. As such, Yoko must now feel a renewed urgency to remind the world of his importance. She does this badly in a completely superfluous book, inviting a myriad of people with famous names to wax-on about her late husband. The results are mixed, at best. Klaus Voormann does provide some insight as to what a relaxed Lennon must have been like with an old friend, comfortable at home in New York. More often, celebrity speakers themselves seem self-conscious as they acknowledge that they have nothing to say, and so offer unremarkable accounts about how they heard of John’s death. At the low end of this misguided valentine is author Jim Henke, who claims a lifelong total oneness with Lennon (whom he never met), and Donovan’s massive ego trip concerning how John begged Leitch to teach him finger-picking guitar style. As John might say, “Absolute rubbish.”

Review (book): Paul McCartney

McCartney. By Christopher Sandford. New York: Carol & Graf, 2006. 430 pp. $27.00
Book Review Written by Tom Wilmeth

McCartney is the latest Beatle biography. Christopher Sandford stresses from the outset that his goal is to praise and quantify his subject’s great talent, but takes an odd route to reach his destination. The book opens with an account of McCartney’s half-forgotten drug bust in Japan of 1980 and his week of prison time. The author seems somewhat fixated on this episode, returning to it at regular intervals.

The praise also has an uncomfortable ring to it. Championing McCartney as the truly creative Beatle, Sandford sometimes hurts his own case by crediting the Cute One with everything short of discovering Elvis and curing cancer. It is true that since Lennon’s murder, revisionist history has dealt Paul an unfair blow concerning his importance to The Beatles. But Sandford’s defensive tone wears thin, with McCartney miscast in the role of underappreciated victim.


Review (concert): Arlo Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie at the Pitman Theater, Alverno College; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Friday; April 21, 2006
Review written by Tom Wilmeth

Arlo Guthrie has been forced to live his life in shadows. His famous father Woody Guthrie has been a touchstone for politicized folk music since the 1940s. Often best known for being the son of the man who wrote “This Land is Your Land,” Arlo has also lived in the intimidating shadow of the disease that killed his father, a hereditary neurological disorder with symptoms similar to Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

In 1967 Arlo released his first album to enthusiasm unparalleled in his career since. The record was called “Alice’s Restaurant,” and contained a side-long account of his arrest for littering and its unexpected aftermath. The 18-minute work was not quite talking blues and not quite a folk song. It made his name famous but proved to be a millstone on the order of a band with one huge hit. In fact, to the dismay of some single-minded audience members, Guthrie refused to play the song for many years.

Time changes all things, and Arlo Guthrie now embraces the once-shunned celebrity of his epic – at least to a point. He has embarked on a 40th anniversary tour of Alice’s Restaurant, which he brought to Alverno College’s Pitman Theater on Friday. And while he performed the song, his almost academic rendering of “Alice” was not the high point of his two lengthy sets.

Instead, Guthrie offered songs of white-faced cattle and of various dreams, both darkly cryptic and patriotically inspirational. He performed a stirring rendition of “St. James Infirmary” as a tribute to New Orleans, and credited Bob Dylan’s influence with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Between the songs Guthrie was relaxed and engaging as he offered several warm accounts of his father, inviting the audience to see Woody Guthrie as a man and a father rather than as an icon.

The backing group included son Abe Guthrie on effectively subtle keyboards, and utility man Gordon Titcomb on steel guitar, mandolin, guitar, and banjo. Arlo himself played some fine lead lines on both 12 and 6-string guitar, and piano for much of the second set, including “City of New Orleans.”

Credit must be given to a performer who can navigate both the legacy of a father’s life and death, and the lingering shadow of his “Alice” fame. There is little the man can do about any of these parts of his past. On Friday, Guthrie emerged from all shadows, personal and professional, by addressing them directly with humor and style. It was clear that he is comfortable with his past, and is willing to share its winding backroads with an appreciative audience.

CD (review): Junior Brown -- Austin Experience

Junior Brown. The Austin Experience. Talarc Records, 2005.

Review written by Tom Wilmeth February 7, 2006

When Junior Brown has played Milwaukee, it’s never been in the setting that he deserved. In the mid 1990s he opened for The Mavericks and years later he played Rainbow Summer. Neither venue was conducive to his talent as instrumental jaw-dropper. As such, I was ready for Brown’s live CD to pin me to the wall. It is recorded, after all, on his home turf of Austin’s Continental Club. However, while Brown performs his best known songs, the disk never really showcases the true genius of the man’s abilities.

For the uninitiated, Junior Brown plays a twin-neck instrument of his own design called the guit-steel. And true to its name, one neck consists of a traditional six-string electric, and the other neck is that of a steel guitar. It’s a heavy instrument in many ways, needing a metal stand instead of a guitar strap. Brown’s ability at style shifting is at the heart of his sets, smoothly and instantly switching from Chet Atkins finger-picking to Dick Dale surf sound to Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun,” all within a single break.

Brown gets the song selection right on this 50-minute disk, largely choosing numbers from his first albums. “You’re Wanted by the Po-lice and My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” is a song as great as its title, and “Gotta Get Up Every Morning (just to say goodnight to you)” shows Brown’s fierce Ernest Tubb style of country leanings. But in spite of the entertaining song selection, it’s always been the instrumental breaks which take the live shows to the stratosphere. There are hints of the guit-steel magic here, but this live Austin Experience sounds like an average-to-off night for this exceptional talent. Perhaps it’s the overly familiar crowd of Austin regulars to whom he need not prove anything, but Brown doesn’t seem to be swinging for the fences here. Which is too bad.

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Review (CD): Wynton Marsalis -- House of Tribes

Wynton Marsalis Live at the House of Tribes. Blue Note Records.

Review written by Tom Wilmeth February 7, 2006

If anyone has done a thorough job of documenting his working live bands, it’s Wynton Marsalis. In the mid-1980s he released the lengthy double LP of his quartet Live at Blues Alley. In 1999 came a 7 CD set featuring three different Marsalis-led groups, all recorded at the Village Vanguard between 1990 to 1994. Although Live at the House of Tribes is a recent release, it was recorded in December 2002, meaning that the band does not yet include Milwaukee’s own Dan Nimmer on piano.

This quintet gives a program of expected composers. But give credit to the much maligned Wynton for keeping these renditions challenging and fresh. It would be easy for the heralded trumpeter to take a café society approach to jazz at this point of his career. He could play safe chamber jazz for the audiences often drawn to his concerts by cultural name recognition rather than by a love of the music. Marsalis clearly enjoys the celebrity he has gained over the years, but he is still leading a jazz group based on exciting improvisation, as this CD repeatedly shows.

Opening the set is Thelonious Monk’s lesser known “Green Chimneys,” which gets a quarter-hour workout, as does the following “Just Friends.” Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” is positively brief here at seven minutes. The set is rounded-out with the Cole Porter perennial, “What Is This Thing Called Love.”

Marsalis has been roundly criticized for being too studied in his playing, too reverent to the music’s history, and too opinionated in his promotion of jazz. Perhaps the truth behind much of the criticism is that he is just too successful for the medium. It has been five years since Ken Burns’ Jazz series was broadcast, starring Wynton in the role of Shelby Foote. For those sharply critical of Marsalis, for whatever reason -- Can we let him up now and just listen to the horn? It’s time.

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Review (concert): Corky Siegel w/ Kettle Moraine Symphony

The Kettle Moraine Symphony with Corky Siegel (harmonica)
Ruth A. Knoll Theater; Hartford, Wisconsin -- January 24, 2004
Review written by Tom Wilmeth

How far is it from Chicago to Hartford, Wisconsin? For harmonica virtuoso Corky Siegel the distance is not measured in mere miles, but in quantum leaps. Siegel has arguably done for the harmonica what Bela Fleck did for the banjo – unleash the stylistically fettered instrument onto brave new musical worlds and widening audiences.

Siegel was and remains the namesake of the Siegel-Schwall Band, a seminal blues quartet from the Windy City that has been releasing albums since 1966. He began recording with conductor Seiji Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony in 1973 (for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label). In recent years he has also led his genre bending group Chamber Blues to critical success. Saturday at Hartford’s intimate Knoll Theater Siegel joined The Kettle Moraine Symphony Orchestra as featured soloist for composer William Russo’s “Street Music: A Blues Concerto.”

“Street Music” is that rare mixture of a full symphony with an untraditional featured instrument that actually succeeds on various musical levels. The composer does not use the orchestra merely as a backdrop for harmonica solos. Instead, under the baton of Albert Asch, different instruments take up themes that initiate conversations with Siegel’s harmonica, beginning with a low brass trio and moving through the orchestra’s sections.

Siegel was in good form throughout the half-hour piece, which offered enough breathing room for him to present formal classical, as well as some less structured blues-flavored harmonica cadenzas. The middle movements of “Street Music” call for various piano styles, including stride and 12-bar blues. So in addition to harmonica Siegel happily demonstrated his Chicago-based piano chops, at a Steinway grand no less.

Siegel was clearly having fun winning over an audience largely unaware of their soloist’s lengthy and varied musical tenure. His body language often acted as joyful co-conductor, to the delight of both audience and orchestra members. In Siegel’s hands the unexpected pairing of symphony with harmonica defied limits, conjuring musical portraits free of category.

No one would ever confuse Hartford, Wisconsin, with Chicago. But Corky Siegel’s recent visit to The Kettle Moraine Symphony served as musical diplomacy. By bringing fine samples of both blues and classical music to the area, he was able to make Chicago seem as if it were just down the road.


Review (CD): Tom Waits -- Mule Variations

Tom Waits. Mule Variations. Epitaph CD 86547, 1999. 71 minutes
review written by Tom Wilmeth
Published in a July 1999 issue of The Shepherd Express.

Mule Variations will prove the most appropriately titled CD of the summer. Tom Waits’ first album of new material in over six years shows the artist stubbornly plowing his musical field exactly as he pleases, and on his own timetable. Variations is also accurate, with Waits’ new songs echoing his entire divergent career, but avoiding any backward glancing.

The recording has a casual atmosphere, as one can hear creaking chairs and occasional background noises on a few of the numbers. Some of the solos are not particularly well miked, and most of the set has the aura of inspired if imperfect first takes. It is reminiscent of J. J. Cale’s early LPs, informally recorded on his front porch. But while Cale settles into a relaxed folksy groove, Waits has different motives. He seems intent on rubbing a little grit into the perfect audio of CD technology, a grit that parallels most of his themes.

Mule Variations begins with a song that pounds its way into your brain, a struggling musician’s lament that recounts all the things lacking in his life. “But I’m big in Japan; I’m big in Japan,” shouts Waits. This self-justification seems funny at first, but on a deeper level becomes sad and unsettling. With this vignette, as in all of his best work, the characters Waits invokes on these 16 tracks are varied and realistically vivid – from a paranoid, wondering what his neighbor is building, to a man completely and unashamedly in love.

While masterfully portraying the situations of others, Waits may also be fairly involved with some of the attitudes found on Mule Variations. “The Chocolate Jesus” initially appears to mock its subject, until one sees that the lyrics are critical of society’s reduction of Christ to the level of a Star Wars action figure. The questions concerning religion get darker and unanswerable during the next number, when the singer wonders “why wasn’t God watching” when the central character of “Georgia Lee” lay dying in a field. In fact, one senses spiritual concerns at several points of this new set, and beyond. One of the few recording projects Waits has taken-on since his 1993 Black Rider CD was to sing, repeatedly and sincerely, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” at the culmination of Gavin Bryars’ moving soundscape project of the same name.

The final track on the new CD is “Come On Up to the House.” But instead of stepping into a house like Lyle Lovett recently constructed as a tribute to fellow songwriters, Waits invites us in for a more personal tour. In this house are extensions of the paradoxes expressed on track one – not offered with a defeatist attitude, but with one that reflects realism and hard learned recognition. It’s the same clear eye for life that this unique artist has always possessed when portraying the scenes that surround him, from Small Change to Rain Dogs. But on Mule Variations Waits seems to turn his gaze inward as well as outward. Because we repeatedly see ourselves on both sides of the world he presents, the CD withstands close and repeated scrutiny.

Much is being made of two things tangentially related to this music -- one is the length of time that Waits has been away. The second is disappointment over the man’s steadfast refusal to tour. The first shows a refreshing attitude – an artist who puts out new songs only when he feels that he and they are ready. Most of Mule Variations can certainly stand beside Waits’ best work, which does make the second point frustrating. Seeing him perform this material in a small theater could be magical, since his concerts have often been atmospheric extensions of his songs’ moods. But Waits must be respected for plowing his own deep and unique furrow. And like his rejection of conforming to a rigid release schedule, he simply refuses to go back on the road – must be that mule in him.

CD Liner Notes: Louvin Brothers Tribute

Liner Notes to:
Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers
Various Artists, including Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard (Universal South Records)
Winner of the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Country Album of the Year
Winner of the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Country Duet of the Year

Notes written by Tom Wilmeth
The Louvin Brothers are universally heralded as one of the greatest harmony duos in the history of Country Music. They wrote their own songs and performed them as well on stage as they did on record. Ira Louvin’s high tenor voice would never be matched, but would inspire awe and admiration in countless singers – from already established stars like Bill Monroe to future stars like Emmylou Harris.

Gram Parson paid friends to search used shops for Louvin Brothers records. It’s been said that Elvis Presley had advance copies of Louvin Brothers records sent to him to give to his mother. A young Johnny Cash waited by the side of the road to catch a glimpse of Ira and Charlie Louvin drive past when he learned they were coming to his town. Cash never lost his admiration for the Louvins’ music, as his work on this collection shows.

The Louvin Brothers were without limits. They could perform religious songs that would send you to church, then break your heart with a tale of lost love. Ira could give a recitation on topics ranging from alcohol to mother that would make an audience weep, then turn around and sing a comedy number in a dress. But like other extremely versatile musicians, the brothers’ wide-ranging talents proved to be a mixed blessing. Capitol Records had The Louvin Brothers straight-jacketed into a contract that allowed them to record only sacred songs. The same restrictions were imposed on them at the Grand Ole Opry. This was frustrating to Ira and Charlie, since the crowds at their live shows appreciated all their different styles. “The audiences were loving everything did, but the record company had no idea what to do with us,” remembers Charlie Louvin. “They thought our songs were too religious for country crowd, and too country for the gospel fans.” But to ears unconcerned with labeling music, the Louvin Brothers were great because they could do it all.

One song would change everything. The Louvins had begged Capitol Records to let them record a non-sacred song, but were constantly refused. Finally, the powers at Capitol told Ira and Charlie that they could release one secular single, but if it did not become a radio hit, then Capitol would cancel their contract. Knowing what was at stake, they thought hard before choosing one of Ira’s originals, “When I Stop Dreaming.” Holding their breath, the Louvins saw the song become a huge hit. This opened all the doors -- they could now record what they pleased at Capitol, and the Grand Ole Opry would no longer limit them to gospel numbers. But while the big hit single freed them from stylistic restraints, they would never turn their back on sacred music, which they would intermittently record for the rest of their career.

By the early 1960s the music world had changed. The Louvin Brothers decided to call it quits in 1963, with Charlie embarking on a successful solo career. Ira would be killed in a car wreck on Father’s Day, 1965. But the music the brothers created would live on, often appearing over the years in unexpected places. The Byrds recorded the early Louvin Brothers’ song “The Christian Life” on their Sweethearts of the Rodeo album, and years later Elvis Costello would sing “Must You Throw Dirt in my Face.” Like Gram Parsons before him, Costello encourages his listeners to search out the original recordings of the Louvins’ songs. All of the artists on this disk would tell you the same thing.

Listen to this CD, and hear the power of real music on collection born of love and of respect.

Review (book): Bing Crosby biography

Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams. The Early Years: 1903-1940. By Gary Giddins. Little, Brown, and Co., 2001. 728 pp. $30.00
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
31 August 2001

While in Milwaukee last winter to discuss his Elvis Presley biography, Peter Guralnick stated that the passing of time must eventually bring a decline to Presley’s popularity. Gary Giddins is determined to rescue Bing Crosby from this backwater of neglected cultural icons. Giddins’ challenge is arguably a more difficult task, for the decline that Guralnick describes took place decades ago for Crosby. Fortunately for author and subject alike, this new work is extremely successful, and with A Pocketful of Dreams Giddins does for Bing what Ken Burns did for Louis Armstrong. He is able to excite new audiences about a long-silent talent.

Remembered today primarily as a singer, and even then most often during the Christmas season, Giddins chronicles Crosby’s dominance of not only recordings, but also radio and movies. The young man who emerges from the text is one of tremendous talent, capable of handling a variety of fields. The scene also includes, however, a self-imposed and self-serving isolation that began early, as well as the insistence on getting every ounce of what he felt was his – from top billing for secondary roles to a generous cut of every royalty percentage possible. In fact, some of the business dealings of the book read like the Colonel Tom Parker guide for creative finance.

As this first volume nears its conclusion, the career parallels with Presley become striking. Like Elvis’ post army days, many of Bing’s recording sessions were a waste of the singer’s talent, capitalizing on the demand for anything bearing the Crosby name, with the focus of his career turning to movie roles. The music suffered, often due to poorly or hastily chosen material, or the record company’s misguided attempts to push the singer away from jazz material in favor of bland and widely marketable pop songs. But like Presley, Crosby’s natural talent saved many “dreary arrangements” with his constantly interesting voice.

A turning point in Bing’s life was the death of his guitarist and good friend, Eddie Lang. Lang was more than as essential accompanist however, as the guitarist would often take the unheard-of step of suggesting different ways for Crosby to phrase certain vocal passages. With Lang’s death (from a tonsillectomy suggested by Crosby) Bing built higher walls around himself. Giddins account of this friendship and its sad demise is among the best sections of the book.

Giddins obviously loves his topic, and clearly describes what takes place during the artist’s life, his various media projects, and what lies in the grooves of his best recordings. These detailed descriptions are welcome, since most readers of the book (as Giddins wisely acknowledges) will be unfamiliar with all but the biggest of the crooner’s radio hits. Along the road to Bing’s cultural dominance, Giddins chronicles Crosby’s stints with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey. Other notables from the arenas of jazz and film provide fascinating vignettes, as with Bing’s own comments on his one-time roommate Bix Biederbeck.

At one point of the narrative the author recounts various lost artistic jewels. Missing studio takes, unsaved radio performances, and especially some destroyed performance footage from an abandoned film project are all lamented. While these items are apparently forever gone, Giddins is determined to save the rest of the Crosby legacy, and makes it available and even enticing in this successful biography.

Review (CD): Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware. Shout! Factory Records. 6 CDs, 2004. $45.00

Review written by Tom Wilmeth
October 26, 2004

During his lecture at Milwaukee’s North Division High School a few weeks back, Bill Cosby stopped and asked abruptly, “Are there any niggers here tonight?” As with most of the evening’s proceedings, the shocking question was not meant to evoke laughter. Instead, it was Cosby’s way of making his audience think about labels and attitudes. Chris Rock mined this vein a few years ago when throwing around the N-word to distinguish social differences within the black race.

It was Lenny Bruce, however, who asked Cosby’s exact same question some 45 years ago, to a very different world. Like Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce wanted to entertain his listeners, but the end result must be a heightened thought process. Bruce was fascinated with the power of words – in terms of destruction, but especially in regards to education.

Shortly after his death in 1966, Lenny Bruce fell victim to the Albert Grossman biography treatment, and was later the subject of a 1974 Hollywood film biography (played by Dustin Hoffman). After sufficient money had been excised from the corpse through these typical means, Bruce was largely allowed to rest in peace for the past thirty years.

The name Lenny Bruce today is much like Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix. People often drop references to these important artistic milestones to show a depth of hipness, when they usually know little of the artist’s work. But to be fair to the posers, it has not been easy to locate some of Bruce’s most important recordings since the advent of CDs.

This situation has been remedied by Shout! Factory Records, which has released a 6 CD set entitled Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware that allows a full investigation of the man and his spoken art. Throughout these disks the seeds of modern comedy are not only present but in full bloom. From set pieces to largely improvised musings, the listener is able to connect with Bruce and follow his thought process to its logical culmination.

Part social commentary, part New York hip, part Jewish suffering – Bruce was fascinating until near the end, when a lifetime of battles finally affected his art. Sadly, one of his most readily available recordings is the uninspired Berkeley Concert from very late in his career. Fortunately, this new collection sets the record straight, offering a generous overview of Lenny Bruce’s talents. It is not all howlingly funny, nor was it meant to be. As the man himself often said, “I’m not a comedian; I’m Lenny Bruce.”

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