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.

#30# 109 words

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.

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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.


145 words

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.”

415 words

Review (book): Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
By Lynne Truss. Gotham Books (Penguin Group), 2004. 209 pp.

Review written by Tom Wilmeth
September 29, 2004

Punctuation (noun). (1) Non-verbalized markings used in written communication for the purpose of clarity, (2) Necessary element of composition, (3) Set of grammatically related rules which are misunderstood and ignored by many writers under the guise of personal style or literary license, (4) Topic about which sane people do not, for any reason, ever become excited.

Lynne Truss has written a scathing and very funny expose. In it she complains bitterly about the public’s lack of respect for some of England’s own. But Truss is not lifting the lid here about treatment of the Royal Family, or even the recent disdain shown to the British music scene. Instead, she has composed a compelling book about . . . punctuation.

Truss is a London journalist who is quick to point out that carping over punctuation abuse is not a new topic. She admits that it is often a pointless and tiresome battle which leads directly to madness in most interested parties. But while aware that striving for the right in a fight over usage is a no-win situation, the author is nonetheless drawn to its constant defense like an addiction.

Truss has many useful examples about proper usage, often backing into her lesson by first demonstrating a humorous misuse of punctuation, and showing the effect that the error has on a sentence’s meaning. Included are examples which range from odd to obscene. The book’s title itself comes from a story revolving around one of her favorite punctuation conundrums: A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich and eats it. He then draws a gun, fires two shots into the air and departs. The stunned café owner demands an explanation, and is shown a badly punctuated wildlife manual left behind by the bear. He finds his answer in the book’s definition of a panda: “Large bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

All of this instruction-by-example would go unread were it not for Truss’s own awareness of the sometimes absurd nature of the topic. While undeniably British, her humor is not quite so deathly dry as found in the Fowler Brothers’ seminal work on language instruction of a century ago. As such, the book is less exclusively English and more approachable to an American audience. But like the Fowlers, Truss often stresses that the book’s comments are meant to instruct her British audience, pleading ignorance or perhaps a tacit disdain of American usage.

In spite of its focused target audience, Eats, Shoots and Leaves gives hope and inspiration to writers everywhere. It also heartens the avid reader of the English language, assuring both camps that there are punctuation watchdogs on guard, and that the language is in good hands. Through an instructive revision of incorrect usage examples, Lynne Truss helps her readers to rely less on their computer’s grammar checker, and more on an actual understanding of the language. While she clearly possesses a take-no-prisoner, us against them approach to punctuation, Truss’ optimism makes for a didactic but fun read.

# 30 #

Review (book): Paramount Records [Grafton, Wisconsin]

Alex van der Tuuk.
Paramount’s Rise and Fall: A History of the Wisconsin Chair Company
and its Recording Activities (Mainspring Press, Colorado). 243 pages.
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
Published in The Shepherd Express; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
June 15, 2004

One of the American people’s least proud traditions is that we are quick to discard that which no longer fascinates us. This is not a recent trend; in 1900 Mark Twain complained about America’s fickle obsession with new artists, comparing it with other countries’ ability to bestow lasting honors on their older performers. Evidence of this situation is seen in the modern era when one is forced to search-out foreign releases to find recording artists from America’s rich heritage. Germany’s Bear Family label leaps to mind for its dedication in making our own past available to us.

Now we gladly credit another international source, Holland’s Alex van der Tuuk, for providing Wisconsin with a focused and thorough look at its own legacy of recorded music. The story of Paramount Records, like most history, is complex. But in essence – the Paramount label was an appendage of the Wisconsin Chair Company, a major manufacturing firm based in Port Washington which at one time employed most of the town. The recording studios for Paramount were located just south of the chair plant, in neighboring Grafton.

Spanning a mere fifteen years (1917-1932), the Paramount label released 78 PRM records which are now feverishly sought on a global market. Blues legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Skip James, and Ma Rainey all made some of their first records in Grafton. Son House and Charley Patton also recorded on the banks of the Milwaukee River in this long closed studio. The Paramount discs were cheaply made and the sound inferior, even by standards of the day. Still, low fidelity notwithstanding, these Wisconsin-made recordings contained sounds found nowhere else, before or since.

Details about the Wisconsin Chair Company’s label have long been elusive. Even a list of all Paramount’s releases remains far from complete. But like an old film that has had some of its scenes deleted and lost, the book’s author is able to assemble and contextualize the fragmented pieces of information he has unearthed. More than a history of a single label, van der Tuuk’s book serves as an overview of the entire recording industry from the late teens through the 1930s. This was a tremendously important time, as the business of making records was experiencing huge changes in its technology while also struggling economically to stay alive during the Depression.

With over 150 photographs, the book is also visually appealing. The well reproduced graphics range from numerous advertisements for Paramount’s latest releases by its now famous artists to rarely seen photographs of the Port Washington/Grafton area. Yet while interesting, the book is not a casual read. The painstaking nature of van der Tuuk’s impressive research is evident throughout, but occasionally makes for some dry sections. The book also occasionally fights a static writing style, with some of these translated passages sounding stilted and academic. Yet the depth of information and its clear presentation are also the book’s great strength, with no related detail to the Paramount story too small for inclusion.

Quick to give credit to his many state-side sources, it was still van der Tuuk who pieced together often sketchy information into a successful and valuable book-length tribute to our region’s place in recorded music. Wisconsin historians, as well as music enthusiasts owe him a great deal.

Alex says that he plans to return to the area to continue his research on the Paramount label. Make him welcome when you see him. #30#

Review (book): Handbook of Texas Music

The Handbook of Texas Music. Edited by Roy Barkley, et al.
Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2004. 393 pages. $24.95

Review written by Tom Wilmeth
Published in The Shepherd Express; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
May 1, 2004

It’s an often asked question: How is it possible that so much great music has been created within the borders of a single state? Some reply that it’s simply the state’s vast size which gives Texas more than its share of important musicians and traditions. But if size were the major factor, note that it would take everything west of the Mississippi River to approach the scope of what Texas alone has contributed to American Music.

David Byrne recently questioned Lyle Lovett about this abundance of talent. Byrne was only have-joking when he asked, “Something in the water down there?” While the new Handbook of Texas Music does not try to answer Bryne’s questions concerning how and why, it does an outstanding job of describing the varied musical landscapes of Texas that make the subject worth pondering.

This Handbook will appeal to all devotees of American Music, and is set apart from other works on similar topics by two distinctions. One is its comprehensive goal – it addresses an unexpectedly wide variety of musical styles. While not a primary focus, the state’s place in the world of Classical Music is addressed, with particular attention to its San Antonio Symphony and to pianist Van Cliburn. Essays on trumpeter Harry James and saxophone great Arnett Cobb also demonstrate the book’s ability to look beyond the expected country genre, into other Texas musical strongholds. These entries discuss the state’s deep jazz heritage, with James a giant of the Big Band era and Cobb a worthy representative of Texas’ famous tenor saxophone tradition.

The other uniquely appealing element is the book’s well chosen photographs and documents. An ad from the early 1970s for Austin record shop The Inner Sanctum boasts artwork that rivals early Fillmore posters, as does a detailed poster for the final show at Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters. Historically noteworthy music publications and record advertisements are also reproduced, such as an impressive 1858 sheet music cover for “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” One such artifact will be of particular interest to Milwaukee readers – a mail order ad for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 78 RPM record “Worried Blues,” available from “The Popular Race Record” company, Port Washington’s own Paramount label.

The book is not without its occasional surprising blind spots and odd editorial decisions. For example, neither Lyle Lovett nor George Strait is given an individual entry, although both are native Texans. The contributions of each are discussed and praised, but within the context of other sections. Many famous performers from a previous generation are well represented, including Ernest Tubb, Buddy Holly, and Bob Wills. But with the wealth of information already available on such noteworthy artists, these almost obligatory entries are not among the book’s highlights.

The Handbook of Texas Music is an extremely useful research tool. But this work should not be limited only to a reference section. In order to grasp an appreciation for the Texas tradition and influence, it should be read from beginning to end. The individual stories told here complement one another to form a single, unified narrative. They offer not just the outline of one state’s influence on American Music, but together these vignettes weave the tale of a major part of the very foundations of that music.

Review (CD): Bob Dylan -- Halloween 1964

Bob Dylan. The Bootleg Series.
Volume 6: Concert at Philharmonic Hall, New York City; October 31, 1964
(Columbia Records)
Essay by Tom Wilmeth
April 5, 2004

[The Halloween 1964 concert has always rated among my favorite Bob Dylan recordings. I obtained a bootleg LP copy of this concert thirty years ago, and it has been an important touchstone of my Dylan collection since. I am glad that Columbia has made it commercially available, for it features stellar renditions of some of his most interesting material.]


October 1964 appeared to be a tough time for Bob Dylan. The previous August saw the release of his fourth LP, Another Side of Bob Dylan, an album which stridently marked a new thematic direction for New York City’s folk idol. Dylan, although hating the new album’s title, was purposefully shedding the mantle of political lightening rod and protest singer. Instead of commenting on social injustices, here was a collection of odd love songs and brooding introspections. The performances are, typical for Bob during this era of his solo acoustic work, engaging and inspired. But the songs! An eight-minute diatribe about his ex-girlfriend’s sister, a parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho plot, lusty musical longings, and advice directed toward former lovers and would-be friends. Including more than a few strange moments, the album was met with furrowed brows by Dylan aficionados expecting songs of protest that railed against society’s injustices.

Another Side of still remains an oddity of the Dylan canon. Although containing two of his most recognizable tunes (“All I Really Want to Do” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe”) the unusual nature of the album extended to its very sound – a surprisingly strident and brittle aura that seemed “to cry out for electricity,” to quote a good line from a critic whose name I have long since forgotten. The new record did not appear to present a logical extension of his previous album, The Times They Are A-Changin’,” released just six months before. Here the listener must retune expectations or get off the train. And the Dylan trip was really just getting under way.

Perhaps Dylan was affected by the negative press and hard feelings over the new LP. He rarely if ever performed most of these songs live. The New York City Halloween concert of 1964 is supposedly the only place he has ever sung “Spanish Harlem Incident,” and even with this song’s inclusion in his set that night, he still played less than half of his new record’s selections. Even the great “My Back Pages” and “Chimes of Freedom” go unperformed. But happy or not with his recent past, on this night Bob was looking toward the future. Although his next album (Bringing It All Back Home) would not come out for five months after this concert, Dylan performs three major centerpiece numbers from that unreleased work, including “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and premiering “The Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m only bleeding).”

Wilmeth, page 2

Yet even while offering a sometimes challenging program, Dylan courts the crowd beautifully. Switching between selections hoped-for and songs unknown, he offers the audience several unreleased older jewels that would have been highlights on any other artist’s album of the time, including “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” and “Momma, You Been on My Mind.” The former he places between the two new heavy numbers of the night (“Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma”), to allow the audience to breath, no doubt. Along with these more linear love songs, he also performs two of the protest songs that were long-withheld from official release – “Who Killed Davey Moore” and Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues.”

And while he mixes the old with the newer-than-new, Dylan’s instincts never fail him concerning pace and balance. Listen closely to the opening of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” He begins the guitar lines for “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” but stops and mutters, “Nah . . . I can’t . . .; I’ll do this instead,” and proceeds with a fine version of “Hard Rain.” Hollis Brown’s individual plight no longer spoke to him; it was confining. “Hard Rain” contains lyrics which refuse to focus on one man or a specific incident, instead suggesting a number of strikingly complex, yet more universal interpretations. This rich, apocalyptic selection is the prototype from which the evening’s three new songs evolve, and offers the most important early example of his “chains of flashing images,” as Dylan himself described his lyrics to the late Ralph J. Gleason.

Although on a different plane from this dense new material, Dylan gives strong readings to the few songs he does sing from Another Side of. “To Ramona” sounds like a true plea for the woman to help herself, and he uses the opening of “I Don’t Believe You” to lighten the serious mood which “It’s Alright, Ma” has created. (I maintain that the alleged forgetfulness bit is a clever crowd-control rouse of an experienced performer.) And given the strong rendition of the previously mentioned “Spanish Harlem Incident,” one can only wonder why this number immediately fell out of Dylan’s active repertoire. The new album’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “All I Really Want to Do,” while never among my own favorite Bob songs, were deemed sufficiently strong enough even at the time of their release to close the concert and use as an encore.

I have often said that the young Dylan had talent dripping from his fingertips. This recording is not a performance by that Dylan. Instead, this is a maturing Dylan in a creative growth spurt, and during this show we hear him evolve right before our ears. In hindsight, it is perhaps ironic that on his then most-recent, and somewhat scorned LP, Bob is explaining his situation as straightforwardly as any artist can be expected to. He insists to those who want him to be their eternal folk champion, “It ain’t me, babe. It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for.” And to those who won’t forgive him for not including overt finger-pointing political songs on the new record, he tries to cast aside their heated disappointment, explaining, “But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”

Wilmeth, page 3

Yes, perhaps these were tough months for Dylan. His most recent LP had such a hostile reception that longtime fans worried, and the artist himself would rarely acknowledge many of these songs at concerts for decades to come. Yet the attitude Dylan displays at this show is positively buoyant. He is writing some of the best songs of his career, and immediately showing them to his fans. In fact, the inclusion of a large number of new and unfamiliar selections was a gutsy move. He could have easily relied on a pure oldies show, which he clearly refused, and still refuses to perform. (Notice here, for example, the omission of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” then his most recognizable anthem.)

The summer following this concert, Dylan will release a partially electric album, and will front a rock band at the Newport Folk Festival. The October 1964 performance heard here is an important link between Bobby Dylan, the folk darling of Greenwich Village, and Dylan the electric traitor. Neither label was ever accurate, of course. But this concert demonstrates that with such a talented individual as Bob Dylan, not even his own devoted audience could possibly know what to expect from him, and would struggle with their own reaction to his changing art. What is indisputably clear from this recording is the fact that a young man – armed with only a guitar, a harmonica, and his own original songs – was able to hold an audience rapt for over 90 minutes; I still find this most impressive. As the audience in the hall that night demonstrates, the wisest and most rewarding thing one can do is to listen to this concert with a focus and intensity that matches this breathtaking performance.


Review (book): Shakespeare

Shakespeare in the Movies: From the Silent Era to Shakespeare in Love.
By Douglas Brode. Oxford University Press, 2000. 257 pp. $24.95

Review by Tom Wilmeth 3 August 2000

What sets this book apart from numerous other works on Shakespeare-related movies is the varied contexts that the author provides. While most books of this sort quickly become little more than capsule reviews and lists, Douglas Brode does an admirable job of giving historical backgrounds for the stage productions of each play before addressing the various film adaptations.

In addition, the book explores relevant situations behind the filming of most of these works. When discussing Charlston Heston’s 1972 version of Antony and Cleopatra, Brode takes the reader to the tumultuous set of this ill-fated effort, discussing aspects ranging from a miscast leading lady to stern directoral advice from Orson Welles. The intrigue stretches back to an industry’s refusal to put money into any Cleopatra picture after the major box office flop that starred Elizabeth Taylor as the queen just a decade before.

While providing a view of this type of Hollywood politics, Brode also lets the critics and scholars have their say. Battle lines are drawn over director Peter Brooks’ 1971 version of King Lear, starring Paul Scofield. Hailed as both “a masterpiece” and “a mess,” the book documents the heated debate that erupted over this strikingly bleak adaptation. The conversation, if not argument, that began in earnest over this film about “what Shakespeare cinema ought to be” continues to this day, as can be seen by the varied critical reactions to director Michael Almereyda’s recent Hamlet.

Brode is not afraid to champion lesser-known films, but he never becomes obscure for its own sake. Nor does he lift himself or the subject matter to the level of exclusivity or elitism. He unhesitatingly calls a Wales-produced puppet-animation adaptation of The Tempest “by far the most faithful representation of the play on film.” Although surprising to champion a 25-minute stop-action animated adaptation (seen domestically on HBO), Brode convincingly backs up his assessments here and throughout this interesting book.

Shakespeare in the Movies: From the Silent Era to Shakespeare in Love travels far beyond the role of a useful reference tool. It is fine read in its own right, and a well researched historical account of the transference of Shakespeare’s art from the stage to the movie theater during the last century.


Review (book): Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard’s House of Memories.
By Haggard with Tom Carter.
Cliff Street Books. $25 259 pp.

review written by Tom Wilmeth
5/19/2000; published in Shepherd Express, summer 2000

Merle’s hit song insists that “Mama Tried,” but her son should have tried harder on this book. Anyone reading this new autobiography with the hope of discovering insights to Haggard’s songs, and specifics about his music will surely be disappointed. The first half of My House of Memories focuses on the singer’s days as a juvenile delinquent, finally landing him in San Quentin Penitentiary. The escapades that led to this incarceration make for sometimes interesting, if repetitious reading.

Much like a false start on a recording, this book has numerous instances of aborted tales and often pointless build-ups with little or no pay-off. The few specific individuals Haggard chooses to discuss also proves odd. For example, he lavishly praises his longtime guitarist Roy Nichols, and then details the night at the Hollywood Bowl when Nichols got drunk and tarnished an important show for Haggard.

One vignette taking place at Milwaukee’s County Stadium is among the handful of music-related stories that the book could have used many more of. Haggard was playing bass for Buck Owens at this 1964 show when Owens broke a guitar string. Buck told Merle to sing something while he fixed it. Haggard sang the then-current hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Friction was caused between the star and the side-man when Haggard got an ovation that bested what Owens had received.

The book’s half-hearted account of random incidentals from Haggard’s life is a disservice to its subject (who doesn’t seem to mind), and to his music and his fans. The last third of the book is frustratingly fragmented, reading like a narrative with no editor, somewhat like Willie Nelson’s breezy reflections of the mid-1980s, offering little to the existing knowledge of country music fans.

Merle should have taken a cue from the comprehensive and informative autobiography of one of his favorite country performers, Hank Snow. Snow, like Miles Davis’ book, gave his entire life story and his music the effort that both deserved. At the conclusion of My House of Memories, Haggard talks about finding a hand written account of his mother’s life, including battles against Indians and malaria, travels in covered wagons and seeing the unopened Oklahoma territory. Now that’s the autobiography I want to read!


Review (CD): Texas '55

Texas ’55 – Extreme Hillbilly (Planet Cowboy Records PCR 102)
review written by Tom Wilmeth
9 October 1999

Country group Texas 55 must be commended for their complete truth in advertising, from band name to CD title. The Milwaukee outfit’s second release, Extreme Hillbilly, finds the band growing stronger in what seems to be a fervent mission of bringing two-step shuffles, western swing, and honky-tonk music to the north country.

Group leader Rob Laplander explains, “The band’s name reflects our goal of playing a mix of country styles that you could have heard on a Texas radio station in 1955.” While this focus might suggest a slavish approach to a distant time and place, Texas 55 does not step into the trap of mere recreation. The band’s freshness is due, in part, to Laplander’s numerous original numbers. Songs such as “Alcohol, Tobacco and Caffeine” and “Silent City Blues” show great respect for the pure country form, but are also fresh tunes in their own right.

The influences demonstrated throughout Extreme Hillbilly are strong, but pure -- not derived from second or third generation material. Echoes of a young Ray Price, Johnny Cash at Sun, and rockabilly Elvis echo through the entire disc, tacitly offering approval and encouragement. Laplander and his versatile colleagues make Texas 55 the band to hear for some absolute country music, both on their new CD and live at a local club.

Planet Cowboy Records; 3141 S. 39th St.; Milwaukee, WI 53215

Review(concert): The Everly Brothers

The Everly Brothers
Riverside Theater; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; 30 October 1998
Review written by Tom Wilmeth

Rabon & Alton Delmore, and Ira & Charlie Louvin have long since stopped performing as duos. But while Don & Phil will always be seen as the youth of America when compared with these earlier brother harmony groups, the Everlys honored the past with grace and style, as well as recounted their own important legacy during a recent stop in Milwaukee.

One might think that the Everly Brothers would now strive to make their show a living jukebox, including as many pop hits as possible. This might be especially tempting presently, with a musical stage play of their lives now playing at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. But almost the opposite seemed true at this late-October concert. The brothers’ performance demonstrated a renewed interest in emphasizing the musical traditions that had been so influential upon them.

The 70 minute set began with two songs honoring their home state, with “Kentucky” melting into a fine and unexpected rendition of their final chart entry (for now), the memorable “Bowling Green.” The following performance was long on ballads, as Don and Phil knew what still best suited their voices and what the audience most wanted to hear.

If the brothers had been sitting with their huge black Gibsons on your worn sofa they probably wouldn’t have changed much about the show, relying mainly on songs that still meant something to them. Don was the front man, singing lead and giving a bit of background at various junctures. He spoke of their father Ike’s ability with the guitar, and how this led Chet Atkins to take interest in Don & Phil and bring them to Nashville. In fact, the middle of the show featured a brief acoustic medley of country and folk tunes from the great Songs Our Daddy Taught Us LP, of which Don says they are still considering a follow-up project

Tradition aside, the reason the Riverside Theatre was filled for the Everlys show was to hear the harmony. And like the Delmores and the Louvins before them, the Everlys still have the distinctive sound of themselves. Whether as a duo or with full backing band, the inimitable harmonies remained in tact. It’s true that they don’t try for challenges such as the long sustained notes in “Cathy’s Clown,” and the hard rocking tunes are paced appropriately for the sake of the singers, one guesses. But if there is anything lost from the stamina of these brothers, both now on the cusp on 60, it is more than made up by their talent as singers. In amazement one watches Don & Phil simultaneously hit the most intricate of harmony patterns without even glancing at one another for articulation cues.

Albert Lee has been playing guitar with the Everly Brothers for some time, adding his great instrumental lines to the harmony without ever stealing focus from Don and Phil. A surprise on steel guitar was Buddy Emmons, who was warmly received by this far northern crowd. The Everlys briefly left the stage late in the concert to let Emmons and Lee each have a featured number. And while a longer night from Don & Phil would have been welcome, who could complain about an intermission such as this?

Everyone agrees that the Everly Brothers’ hit singles are many. But an arguably more important aspect of their legacy is their breathtaking, and still uniquely influential harmonies. Charlie Louvin once remarked that he and brother Ira only saw their idols the Delmore Brothers perform live once, late in the career of both acts. “And they sounded just like the records of decades before – the harmonies still fresh and pure,” marveled Charlie. “Neither Ira or I were let down in the least.” Charlie Louvin could just as well be describing the performance of Don & Phil on their recent stop in Milwaukee; nobody was let down.


Review (CD): Bela Fleck

Bela Fleck – The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From the Acoustic Planet, volume 2.
Warner Brothers 47332.
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
August 3, 1999

Published in the November-December 1999 issue of No Depression.

Bela Fleck says that everything he plays is “colored by the bluegrass heartland.” This would seem a self-evident statement for a banjo player to make -- unless one knows much of Fleck’s music. Since the early 1990s he and his group The Flecktones have repeatedly taken the banjo to uncharted realms, from Chick Corea-inspired chord change exercises to performing pieces with the Boston Symphony.

For the new Bluegrass Sessions release, Fleck steps away from his talented electric sidemen to assemble his bluegrass “dream band.” And although subtitled Tales From the Acoustic Planet, volume 2, the music here is closer in spirit and style to Fleck’s fine Drive CD of 1987 than to volume one of the Acoustic Planet series. No matter by what title, the successful collaborations on Bluegrass Sessions include variety ranging from the refreshing atmosphere of an Alison Krauss CD to the excitement of Flatt & Scruggs in their prime. In fact, Earl Scruggs appears here on two numbers as a musical elder statesman.

It’s good to see that the impressive diversity displayed with The Flecktones has not diminished Bela’s love or ability for bluegrass. Among the players in his dream band are veterans Vassar Clements, Tony Rice, and Sam Bush. But in spite of high bluegrass pedigree, the ensemble does not strive to document the form as scholarly traditionalists. With a set list including “Polka on the Banjo” (sung by John Hartford) and “Major Honker,” one can see that Fleck is still interested in musical cross pollination and, equally important, that his sense of humor remains in tact.


Review (concert): Dwight Yoakam

Dwight Yoakam at the Pabst Theater;
Milwaukee, Wisconsin – June 14, 2006
Review written by Tom Wilmeth

Dwight Yoakam returned to Milwaukee on Wednesday night for two-and-a-half hours of first-rate music. After opening with “She’ll Remember” and the title track from his latest CD “Blame the Vain,” he immediately offered homage to mentor Buck Owens. Yoakam sang complete versions of Owens’ hits “Act Naturally,” “Crying Time,” “Together Again,” and their duet “Streets of Bakersfield.”

Most of Yoakam’s own hits were also played, from early success with “Honky Tonk Man” and “Guitars, Cadillacs” through a reworked “Please, Please Baby” and “It Only Hurts Me When I Cry.” Intense takes of “Fast as You” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” were played during a generous and briskly paced set, as were moving ballads “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” and “If There was a Way.”

Yoakam occasionally talked about the songs, regretting that many album tracks rarely get heard in concert. He remedied this problem by singing “It Won’t Hurt” from his first album, plus “Home for Sale,” “Dreams of Clay,” and a slowly haunting “Long Black Cadillac.”

The singer was in strong voice and upbeat throughout the night, often leading his tight quartet with dance moves. Yoakam seemed serious, however, when thanking Wisconsin for twenty years of career support. Almost apologetic for playing newer material, he then featured impressive renditions of “Just Passing Time” and “Three Good Reasons.”

Late in the concert Yoakam paid tribute to Bonnie Owens. Although once married to Buck and then to Merle Haggard, Dwight credited Owens’ own importance to the Bakersfield Sound, making sure Bonnie’s legacy was not lost in the shadows of her famous husbands. Also acknowledged was bluegrass master Jimmy Martin, who died last year.

Yoakam has been accused of neglecting his music, becoming distracted by Hollywood side-trips. Wednesday’s Pabst Theater concert proved that he remains focused on giving his fans great songs, and lots of them.

Opening for Dwight was Robbie Fulks, who featured rollicking original material from his latest CD “Georgia Hard.” Milwaukee’s own Mike Frederickson played bass, and guitarist Grant Tye demonstrated furious single-note picking and sweet steel guitar sounds, by turns. Fulks closed a strong 40-minute set of pure country with his rousing “Let’s Kill Saturday Night.”


Review (concert): Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn at Shank Hall, Milwaukee – August 23, 2006
Review written by Tom Wilmeth

Bruce Cockburn’s performance at Shank Hall on Wednesday night was more lighthearted than usual, more politically charged than usual, and definitely more talkative than usual.

Although Cockburn’s albums have often included dark songs of personal and political despair, he does not always bring the heaviest of these songs to the concert stage. The second set gave a double shot of political consciousness with his 1981 composition “Dust & Diesel” followed by the recent “Baghdad,” on which he switched to a 12-string guitar.

If the second set showed his songwriting at its pointed best, Cockburn’s first set seemed at times to be an enjoyable but wandering sound check. He began with “Open,” “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” and hit one American hit single, “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” He then offered two instrumentals in close proximity, “Jerusalem Poker” and “The End of All Rivers.” Both were well played, but the audience seemed glad when Cockburn returned to singing, with “Different When it Comes to You.”

Gary Craig backed Cockburn an unnecessarily huge drum set, but his real assistance came from the many light percussive accoutrements he sprinkled throughout the songs. Julie Wolf was again present for this tour on various keyboards, often adding moody textures behind Cockburn’s acoustic guitar.

“Slow Down Fast” showed that the Canadian had not lost his sense of humor or his ability to rock, as he strapped-on an electric guitar and traded licks with Wolf. The evening ended with “Last Night of the World” and encores of two favorites, “Rocket Launcher” and “Night Train.”

Bruce Cockburn is neither a great singer nor a great guitarist. Yet his ideas were always interesting, and he must be given credit for reaching toward guitar lines which he was not always able to execute cleanly. On “Beautiful Creatures” Cockburn used a thin falsetto voice that was not exactly pleasing, but fit the atmospheric tenor of the composition.

Cockburn seemed to be having a good time all evening. He spoke about the songs and his new CD, “Life Short Call Now,” and indicated that for the first he had seen a bit of the city on this tour, taking a bike ride by the lake earlier in the day. If Cockburn expressed positive feelings towards Milwaukee, it was clear the feeling was mutual.


Review (concert): The Clark Family Experience

The Clark Family Experience
Rainbow Summer; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
review written by Tom Wilmeth
published in No Depression Magazine
July 19, 2001

“Would you care to pray with us?” asks a member of the band. Stunned, the confused local radio announcer suddenly tries to look busy and excuses himself from the group’s pre-performance tradition. And if this backstage encounter was unexpected, the audience too was about to witness some unlooked-for turns from the six brothers of The Clark Family Experience.

Opening with a frenetic psychedelic arrangement of “Crossroads,” the Clarks dispelled any notion that these boys were a typical brother or family act. The ‘ancient tones’ that their name suggests is certainly one important part of the group’s sound. Yet it is the well-balanced combination of traditional, gospel, bluegrass, and rock elements which lies at the heart of the Clarks’ diversity and appeal. The group’s eldest member (at 27) is front man & acoustic guitarist Alan Clark. He proudly stresses that the boys’ father taught them all to pick, and played them a steady diet of Louvin Brothers and Merle Haggard records.

The Clarks drew well for this noon outdoor show, in part, because of their two radio hits -- “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch” and “Standing Still.” In addition to these, their hour-long set ranged from inventive, but recognizable reworkings of Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer,” “The Orange Blossom Special,” and even a brief nod to “The Little Paper Boy.”

While demonstrating their awareness of the past, they also played several selections from a forthcoming debut CD. One of these tunes was called “Always Be You,” which showcased the impressive strengths and occasional limitations of the group. The song itself was not much, but what the brothers could put into even an unexceptional composition was impressive. Austin Clark’s fine dobro work and Ashley’s fiddle breaks were highlights here and throughout the set. Adam was a very strong soloist on both mandolin and the Les Paul. At several points, adequate material was made interesting and even exciting by the brothers’ instrumental abilities, including proficient solos and solid ensemble work that never flagged.

The set ended with a hard-drivin’ original called “I Just Wanna Play (even if the job don’t pay).” The joyful attitude concerning the importance of music overpowering all other distractions came across here, and throughout The Clark Family Experience’s performance.