Friday, November 4, 2011

Tom Keith -- A Remembrance

Tom Keith – A Remembrance
Written by Tom Wilmeth
1 November 2011

I am weary of writing obituaries in 2011, and I don’t want to write this one. But I need to.

Tom Keith had a career at Minnesota Public Radio that spanned 4 decades. My own association with him lasted a mere 3 ½ years, from July 1980 to early 1984 -- my era at the station working as a Board Operator. And while I have not been in the same room with Tommy for a very long time, I remember him as well as if I had been drinking coffee with him last week. Maybe it’s because I could always hear his voice and check-up on him most Saturdays on A Prairie Home Companion. Which I did.

In recent years, I always knew the show was on tour when Garrison would fail to announce the name Tom Keith as the Sound Effects man at the end of a show. He once told me that his wife worried about him during the road trips. But it seemed to me that Tommy himself grew weary of the star trappings, and especially the touring, shortly after the PHC went national and became so widely embraced in the early 1980s.

I was at Minnesota Public Radio during a curious and perhaps pivotal time. I recall being in The World Theatre for the Saturday radio broadcasts when there seemed to be more performers on the stage than people in the audience. But soon, tickets would become so scarce that my regular balcony seat was needed for paying customers. So I was invited to work backstage instead, on the show itself.

Others have said it this week, but I want to echo that fact that Tom Keith brought a sense of calm to any situation, yet he was always the exacting professional. It was a balancing act that he made look easy. Tommy found humor in unpleasant situations, repeatedly diffusing workplace tension. At the same time, if some task was being shirked, he would be the person to let you know. I remember leaving some masking tape markings on a mixing console to remind me of audio levels. Tommy called me back to the control room and calmly made it clear that I needed to clean-up after myself. Never happened again – not from any fear, but from my respect for him.

It was a joy just to have a conversation with Tom Keith. Much has been made of Tommy’s sense of timing during the radio performances, but he was this way naturally. He regularly floored me not only with his fast rejoinders, but with a perfectly timed delivery that echoed an earlier era of comedians – Jack Benny, Bob & Ray, Johnny Carson. I think this combination of talent, attitude, and personality is why he could stay on Keillor’s A-List for such a long time. It seemed to me that Garrison could throw Tom into any situation and he could quickly adapt and make it work. And do so without ego or attitude – no small thing in any performance setting.

Tom always made me feel welcome and at ease, whether in the MPR studios or on one of my few road trips with the PHC. It was on such an outing to do a live broadcast in upstate Minnesota where I saw the respect that Tommy commanded on so many levels. He filled a unique position on the show as a performer, of course, but never acted the part of the Talent on this trip. He was chief roadie, technician, and van driver. And after this he would be ready to assist the actual show in all possible ways – sound effects, characters, anything that would help the broadcast -- on the air or at the mixing board.

I had known for some time that Tom was a really good guy, but it was on this trip that I could also see first-hand what a well rounded and tour-tested radio professional he was.
“Just stay out of his way when he is packing the van,” I was told. “Don’t try to help.”
“Why?” I asked. “He’s never seemed temperamental before.”
“It’s not that. The guy can pack 50 pounds of sh*t into a 40 pound bag.
Just watch and learn.”

I did watch, for over 3 years, but I could probably have learned a lot more from Tom Keith during my time with him. Tommy will be missed by the Minneapolis/St. Paul radio community and by all those who enjoyed his talent on the radio. I count myself lucky that I spent time with the man.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

CD Review: Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn – Small Source of Comfort (True North CD, 2011)
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
July 2, 2011

Bruce Cockburn’s latest release could be called a “best of,” but this term is reserved for previously released material. Let’s instead call it a “culmination,” for on his new Small Source of Comfort CD Cockburn is able to assimilate all that has been good in his catalogue since 1971.

Politics have not left the singer’s oeuvre, but neither has Cockburn’s sense of humor. Simultaneously fearless, bizarre, and compelling -- “Call Me Rose” is a first person narrative by Richard Nixon reincarnated as a single mother-of-two living in the projects. Accepting this strange premise prepares the listener for other surprises.

Perhaps more unexpected than Nixon’s transformation is that of Cockburn himself as he reassess his own long held views concerning war. Having recently seen Canadian casualties at Camp Mirage in the Middle East, Cockburn sings “Each One Lost” with an attitude reflecting far more sorrow than anger. This, from a man who may be best known for his revenge-soaked “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”

Cockburn’s love songs are still poignant and increasingly mature, which makes sense as the artist cruises past the 60-year mark. “Radiance” and “Boundless” both address physical love, but each also moves into different directions of spiritual and Jungian devotion.

Another form of love is found with “Lois on the Autobahn,” an instrumental work inspired by Cockburn’s late mother. Each of the CD’s five instrumentals serve as islands on which one can reflect on the album’s lyrics. Most were commissioned for, but not used in various film projects. I suspect that the reason a director would refrain from including these rich pieces is because none behave like background music. Each is strong enough on its own to compete with a film’s visual elements.

Small Source of Comfort closes with the brief ballad “Gifts,” used for years by Cockburn in concert as a final encore. The inclusion of this long withheld jewel makes it clear that the performer himself regards this CD to be a special release. Last year the government of Canada honored Bruce Cockburn’s career with a high profile concert broadcast from Toronto’s Massey Hall. This album demonstrates why such recognition is appropriate.

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Book Review: Prince biography

Book Review:

Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution. By Jason Draper
Backbeat Books, 2011. 272 pp. $20
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
July 1, 2011

Must tremendous talent always be accompanied by startling strangeness? Perhaps not, but Jason Draper’s new biography of Prince portrays equal doses of prodigy and poser.

Draper does a good job of chronicling Prince’s rise from a Minneapolis basement studio to the world stage. The book also stresses Prince’s early awareness of the power of the Internet, only to later miss various web-based opportunities and ultimately to remove himself from cyber space. The infamous battle with Warner Brothers Records is recounted, and the reader can see why both artist and label could have had legitimate reasons for unhappiness.

One of the strengths of this biography is Draper’s meticulous discussion of Prince’s numerous early side-projects, many released under pseudonyms. Also tantalizing is the author’s description of Prince’s Vault in his Minneapolis home, where great unreleased jewels are said to reside. What undercuts the desire to open this Vault is found in the latter part of the book – if so much wonderful Prince material lies dormant, why does he insist on releasing unremarkable music at this point in his career?

Draper is not afraid to be critical of his subject’s career mis-steps, but the author also never loses sight of why Prince is worth an exasperated fan’s devotion: This is one very talented cat! The book is sometimes repetitive, but descriptions and assessments are clear and fair throughout. A useful Career Timeline appendix is included. A complete discography would have also been welcome, but such a list for this extraordinarily productive artist may have necessitated a second volume.

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Essay: Portrait of Leigh Kamman

Portrait of Leigh Kamman – Jazz Broadcaster
Article written by Tom Wilmeth
June 27, 2011
First Published by JazzTimes on-line site, June 2011

Leigh Kamman is alive and well and living in Edina, Minnesota. Now recently retired from the airwaves, Leigh (rhymes with say) had been a fixture on jazz radio for many years before I met him. That was in the summer of 1980, while interviewing for a board operator position at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Leigh had caught-up with the person who was interviewing me to discuss a jazz event taking place that weekend in Minneapolis. Leigh’s program The Jazz Image was the late night show which the state-wide network of stations ran each Saturday from 10 P.M. until 4 on Sunday morning. It was a voice well known to me long before this meeting, and I quickly realized that this unerringly polite man was its source.

More striking than the familiar and well articulated speech patterns of this announcer was his professional attitude, clearly evident in his manner and his clothes. While most everyone I encountered in the halls of the radio station on that hot July day wore shorts, T-shirts, and sandals – Leigh Kamman had on a tailored 3-piece suit. Since this was a job interview for me, we were the only two in sight formally dressed. Leigh’s professional attire fit his voice perfectly and, as I think back on it, I’m not sure I ever saw him in anything but a suit and tie.

I landed the job and was soon fulfilling the various functions of radio station board operator. Before long, Saturday’s late night shift fell my way. Most thought this an unenviable position, but I was glad for the opportunity to serve as Leigh’s engineer. The near-empty station and Leigh’s jazz selections created a relaxed atmosphere compared with the frenetic pace of the broadcast day.

Leigh is a Minnesota native who spent some time in New York City in the early 1950s and then returned to St. Paul to work in radio and later for the 3M Corporation. That’s about all I knew about his past. His taste in jazz was a bit different than mine, but that was not surprising. Leigh was deep into Johnny Hodges and the big bands. I liked Paul Desmond and fusion. But to pigeonhole either of us by these narrow overviews would be a disservice, as I quickly came to see. As the weeks went by and my number of Saturday night shifts mounted, my interest in older jazz increased. Leigh played a mix of old and new, but largely stayed with the music of the 1940s and 1950s, which his listeners had come to expect.

As my father prized arrangements over solo virtuosity, I grew-up hearing Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Benny Goodman, and especially Glenn Miller. Leigh played a little of the Dorsey Brothers and less of Miller. He too liked Benny Goodman, but was even more interested in bands that I knew little about. I was aware of the bigger hits of Duke Ellington, of course, and had even participated in two high school jazz clinics run by Stan Kenton, but Leigh played material from these artists that I had never heard before. Deep catalogue stuff. I learned a lot about music on those Saturday nights, but was usually ready for 4 A.M. to roll around so I could start the syndicated Jazz Alive reels and head home to bed. It wasn’t until Leigh was assigned the task of recording individual jazz modules that my Master Class in Jazz Appreciation really began.

By the early 1980s, the Minnesota Public Radio empire had multiple FM stations positioned around the state and one AM station in St. Paul. I think the AM had been a donor’s gift, but it was sort of a white elephant for the place. We filled the signal with news and some simulcasting, but the FCC demanded that the station not just be a “repeater” of the FM signal. Leigh was asked to put together a series of one hour shows which could be run on the AM station at night. These were to be self-contained shows that would fill time while providing original content. Leigh agreed to come in to record these shows after his 3M day was over, and I volunteered to be his board operator.

We were well aware that these were production-line shows, cranking out 3 or even 4 of them a night if we could do them in real-time without stopping. “Sausage links,” is what Leigh called them, but he also knew that there was precious little space given to jazz on any radio station, so was glad for the opportunity to fill this void. He took the task very seriously. Because of repeats, these shows could ultimately have a larger audience than his Saturday night state-wide broadcasts.

Every module needed to be exactly 55 minutes in length in order to allow for the 5 minute newscast from AP at the top of each hour. No problem. We started with some basics, recording four hours on Louis Armstrong. Featuring only one artist per show, Leigh was able to give his listeners a well rounded musical portrait of each artist. While rolling tape in the control room, I learned of artists never heard in my youthful years – Jimmy Lunceford, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, Jack Teagarden, Benny Carter. Fascinating material, with each selection back-announced by Leigh’s informative but concise commentary. Sometimes he was reading liner notes, sometimes jazz reference books, but most often he was giving information from his own knowledge of jazz and from years of living with the music.

Leigh was open to suggestion – direct or circuitous. At one break between tapings, I asked about baritone sax man Gerry Mulligan and his unexpected tenure with Dave Brubeck. After answering my question, Leigh decided that we would next do a series of Mulligan modules. Fine. I think we did 6 hours. I even provided a couple of albums. And then we did two more hours of lesser-known material by the classic Brubeck quartet. It was work for both of us, but simultaneously a luxury to be able to record as many shows as we wanted on whichever artists struck Leigh’s fancy.

We were in the studio when the wire services reported the death of Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. We assembled a 4-hour special on the great pianist that very night which was picked-up the next day by the NPR network and distributed nationally. Leigh had the knowledge and the recordings; I knew how to operate turntables and tape machines. We flew.

Leigh Kamman was successful in providing jazz to the Minneapolis/St. Paul region and beyond. As suspected from the first, those modules were aired frequently for a period of several years, but because there were so many of them we never had a listener complaint concerning duplication. Also, each hour would stand-up to repeated listening. This is because Leigh would play the well known material by an artist from the station’s music library, but he would also dig into his personal record collection and into that of his friend Ray Marklund. Together they would regularly come-up with fascinating recordings from deep within their own archives.

Leigh consistently kept the focus on the music, and never on himself. He had spoken to Duke Ellington on numerous occasions, first as a 17-year-old fan at a train station! But he wouldn’t think of dropping this fascinating nugget into a conversation in order to impress. I had worked with Leigh close to three years before I heard him mention, in-passing, about speaking with Charlie Parker. I froze at the tape deck with reel in hand. I asked him to expand a bit, but he drifted away to another subject.

It makes sense that Leigh would not stress his conversations with Charlie Parker. For one thing, hard bop was not his favorite form of jazz. And there weren’t a lot of upbeat aspects to address in Parker’s life during the 1950s, when they met. Leigh played Bird on the air, but not frequently. One time when I pressed him a bit, Leigh did say that he had talked to Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Oscar Pettiford. As I recall, Leigh said they were all together at his NYC apartment after their respective gigs. I asked Leigh if he had any overall remembrances of the conversation. He paused for a long while and then finally said, “They were all quite bitter about money.” “You mean,” I asked, “They felt cheated?” “Yes,” was all Leigh said, but this short response said worlds.

Leigh had very little to say about various musicians’ public struggles with substance abuse or their detrimental personality quirks unless these things had to do with the music itself. During his time in New York, I’m sure he had seen the darker side of the music alley up close and had no interest in lingering there.

If Leigh was a jazz fan first, he also knew the realities of the business side. He was slow to get involved with anything which might step on the rights of musicians, keenly aware that paying gigs were a professional musician’s life blood. I never knew Leigh to take a comp seat; this would hurt ticket sales and the bottom line for the performer. He was also very aware of who owned the rights to which recordings and was determined that no one was to be cheated out of a fair share. One night I showed Leigh a recent Joel Whitburn book which listed a record’s peak position and overall statistical performance on the Billboard Magazine charts. Leigh looked at it for a while and proclaimed it of limited use because it did not include the copyright holder for each song. Wow. But that’s what he wanted to know! Chart position and sales figures can be manipulated. Ownership is ownership.

Leigh was responsible for helping keep jazz not only on the airwaves but also on the stages of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Whether from weekly promotion on the radio or actual involvement with booking artists, he remained among the greatest supporters of jazz in the area. One time Leigh told me that an old friend from New York was coming to town and that he wanted the station to record his talk. I didn’t think much about it until he later casually mentioned that the name of his friend was John Hammond!

Some younger jazz aficionados – usually new to the genre – were critical of the playlist heard on the Saturday night show. True, it did not always reflect the latest trends, but that wasn’t because Leigh was unaware of them. I would regularly see him investigating the Minneapolis jazz scene – from locals like the Natural Life band and the talented Peterson family to touring individuals like Phil Woods, Howard Roberts, and Jon Hendricks. I saw him at Minneapolis’ famous First Avenue club when Wynton Marsalis first played there in 1981 -- checking-out the new young lions. Leigh was easily identifiable in the packed house by his suit and tie, the only one so dressed except the band. Just as with his radio show, he was drawn to the music. He had a very open mind and a broad musical perspective; but he also knew what would and would not work well on his weekly Jazz Image broadcast.

When the numbers were counted, we did a total of 187 modules and I worked at least 150 Saturday nights with Leigh. After that, the MPR network acquired a long sought-after deal with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the need to fill time became less critical. We would plug-into the CBC for long stretches. The modules project was suspended and even the length of Leigh’s Saturday night show was scaled back. Formats shifted.

In the fall of 1983 I made plans to depart Minnesota for Texas. I didn’t have direct contact with Leigh for several years after that. Even so, it was clear that he was keeping his ear to the ground. When I received an academic accolade, he sent congratulations through mutual friends. On the rare occasions when our letters did form a pre e-mail conversation, he was always encouraging me to return to radio – even going so far as to point out to jobs he thought appropriate. His confidence was encouraging, of course. But I left radio, in part, because I had already enjoyed the good fortune of doing everything in broadcasting that I wanted to do – things almost exclusively related to music. I would later have other fine teachers in various fields of study, but Leigh Kamman’s lessons on jazz and on personal grace have stayed with me the longest.

2,102 words

Tom Wilmeth
MPR retirement piece
Museum of Broadcasting link

Essay: Jazz in the Key of Bob

Jazz in the Key of Bob May 23, 2011
Article written by Tom Wilmeth
Published on the JazzTimes web site – The Wilmeth Wyvern

Bob Dylan turned 70 last week. That statement alone is a mind-bender. That he is still on the road more than 100 nights of the year is amazing. Yet it’s true. I noted with interest Rolling Stone magazine’s new issue, which celebrates Bob’s 70th birthday with a list of his best 70 songs, as chosen by their editors. The issue also contains lists of Bob’s most inscrutable lyrics (“Gates of Eden”) and what they consider overlooked jewels (“Dark Eyes”). These lists put me in mind of a tape I compiled ten years ago, for Bob’s 60th birthday. Inspired by the famous bootleg Elvis Presley’s Greatest Sh*t, my idea was to create a set-list of Dylan recordings that would make a hilariously bad collection.

It sounded like a fun plan, an inverted exercise in fan devotion, and so I set to work. I drew, of course, from the notorious 1970 double album Self Portrait and from various back-roads of the Dylan canon. My final list included such original jewels as “Wigwam,” “Billy 4,” “Handy Dandy,” and “New Pony.” The tape also featured Bob’s covers of “Let It Be Me,” “Froggy Went a-Courting,” “You Belong to Me,” and “This Old Man.” All officially released tracks.

But damn -- once completed, the tape was not the humorous artifact I had intended. I instead discovered what perhaps I had known from the start -- that even a set spotlighting Bob Dylan’s strangest odds & ends held interest, and that the very selections I had intended for comic value held up well to repeated listening.

One of the songs I included came from the 1970 album New Morning. This was supposedly the album that Bob quickly recorded after the debacle of Self Portrait in order to shore-up a sagging reputation and to appease stunned fans. The song I used was not chosen because I thought it to be bad, but because it was like no other in Dylan’s canon. “If Dogs Run Free” is as close as Bob himself has come to recording a jazz tune. The number is a spoken work of hipster monologue, a la Kenneth Rexroth. Scatting in the background behind Bob’s narrative is Maeretha Stewart, along with the single-note improvisations of Al Kooper’s tinkling piano accompaniment. I am not arguing here for Dylan to be viewed as a jazz artist, of course, in spite of this one-song genre exercise.

The reason “If Dogs Run Free” stood out for me is because the concepts of Jazz and Bob Dylan are not often linked. While not obvious matches, they are also not mutually exclusive. Dylan has certainly had songs that do not adhere to traditional folk, blues, or rock chord changes – his “Too Much of Nothing” is interesting for its ascending chromatic chords, while other songs from this same era, such as “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” and “Tiny Montgomery” each use only two chords.

Yet no matter the simplicity or complexity of the songs’ structure, few musicians seemed to have taken interest in arranging Dylan melodies for a jazz setting in the 1960s. This, even as Beatles’ melodies were making tentative inroads into jazz with albums like Basie’s Beatle Bag (1966) and George Benson’s The Other Side of Abbey Road (1970). Still, there were a few.

Among the first jazz renditions of Dylan’s material is Bud Shank’s 1963 release Folk & Flute, which included 3 songs credited to Dylan – “Quit Your Lowdown Ways,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Although a jazz player, Shank was apparently riding the still-expanding Folk Music wave, as he had previously done with albums of jazz arrangements of Brazilian, Bossa Nova, and Broadway music. As such, even with an album title with the word Folk in it, a quartet including Joe Pass on guitar, Charlie Haden’s bass, and session leader Shank on alto sax and flute, this LP must be seen as an outing for jazz musicians.

Perhaps surprisingly, baritone sax-man and cool jazz pioneer Gerry Mulligan was another established jazz musician to record Dylan early-on. In his tellingly-titled 1965 album If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em, Mulligan included an unusual, piano-dominant version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

The first full album of jazz arrangements of Dylan songs appears to be Dylan Jazz, from 1966. One can argue about whether these arrangements are truly jazz charts, but with high caliber session cats like a then-unknown Glenn Campell on guitar, Jim Horn on reeds, and Hal Blaine on drums – it makes for some interesting interpretations. Also of note, this album was co-produced by Leon Russell.

Like Shank’s inclusion of Dylan’s then-unreleased “Quit Your Lowdown Ways,” Dylan Jazz also includes an original which had not yet been issued by Dylan, “Walkin’ Down the Line.” I believe that this is a clear indication that these musicians are making some of their song choices from publisher’s lead sheets and not necessarily from listening to Dylan’s albums.

This same theory can also be used to demonstrate that Elvis Presley was not extremely familiar with Dylan’s actual recording of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” since Presley follows the published Witmark sheet music version of the song. As such, Elvis sings the verses in an incorrect order – inverting verses two and three as performed by Bob on the Freewheelin’ album. A big deal? Well . . . Yes! By the way – Dylan has said that his favorite cover version of any of his own songs is Elvis’ version of “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” a song that, like some jazz arrangements, was released before Dylan’s own recording of the song. This too indicates song selection chosen from sheet music over album awareness, just like other albums of Dylan songs interpreted by performers from Odetta to Sebastian Cabot. Honorable mention must go to the 1972 release Lo & Behold by Coulson, Dean, McGuiness, Flint. The album contains this quartet’s renditions of ten then-unreleased Dylan originals, three of which remain unreleased by Bob to this day!

Music genres were in the midst of radical and unprecedented cross-pollination in the mid-1960s. One who was quick to grasp the possibility was Willie Nelson, who in 1966 would slyly slip The Beatles’ “Yesterday” into a live set for a rough Houston crowd by introducing it as a song by “a little country quartet you may have heard of.” Two years later vibraharp virtuoso Gary Burton plays Dylan’s “I Want You” at his 1968 Carnegie Hall concert. After the melody is introduced by Burton and guitarist Larry Coryell, this brief number becomes a solo feature for bassist Steve Swallow.

Dylan’s melodies seemed to lend themselves well to bass features for Bob’s early jazz arrangers. The same year that Burton played “I Want You” with his quartet, Keith Jarrett’s 1968 live trio recording of “My Back Pages” also becomes a bass feature – again for Charlie Haden – on the album Somewhere Before. This take of “My Back Pages” was used by Vortex Records as the B-side of a Keith Jarrett single. The A-side is an instrumental studio recording of another Dylan song, “Lay Lady Lay.” The song did not chart, and Vortex failed to include it any of Jarrett’s albums.

It’s hard to know whether the pianist himself had any input on the release of either side of this single, but what is unmistakable is Jarrett’s appreciation of Dylan’s music and of his lyrics. In an 1987 interview for the NPR radio show Sidran on Record, Jarrett tries to express to host Ben Sidran some of the indefinable aspects of music. At one point he attempts to sum-up his feelings by quoting, “Beauty walks a razor’s edge.” He repeats the line and tells Sidran that this type of beauty is what he is trying to create at each performance and on every recording. “Beauty walks a razor’s edge” is a line from Dylan’s 1974 song “Shelter from the Storm,” whose imagery clearly had an impact on Jarrett.

The Dylan numbers selected by Burton and Jarrett are interesting choices. I recall talking between sets to Texas guitarist Jimmy Raycraft. His band had just performed an instrumental medley of Dylan’s “I Want You” and The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” I mentioned to Raycraft that the Bob song was a good choice for such a workout because Bob’s “I Want You” is so melodic. He immediately countered, “No man! It has no melody. That’s what makes it so great! All of those lyrics are sung on one note.” And after reflecting on this for a while, I saw that he might be right. He sure thought so. There are chord changes to the tune, and the bright accompaniment provided by Nashville’s studio A-team is infectious. But the memorable vocal passages of “I Want You” do not follow the melodic accompaniment.

In the late 1960s, Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett were among the young lions of jazz. They were arguably looking at music in a different way than their respected elder statesmen, most of whom were certainly not interested in Bob Dylan. Bassist Rob Stoner encountered this situation head-on when he accompanied Dylan to Chicago in December 1975 to be the closing act on the PBS special The World of John Hammond. The program was to bring together many of the music legends who Hammond had signed to Columbia Records. Among those performing on this two-part tribute were Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and Milt Hinton. While Stoner does not get specific with names, he says that none of the jazz performers would even talk to him because he was associated with Bob’s band. These had been his “heroes,” laments Stoner, who was crushed by their collective snub.

It was rare for the old guard of any musical genre to embrace Dylan’s work in the 1960s. Flatt & Scruggs – the most famous of all bluegrass duos – broke-up their act because of Earl Scruggs’ fascination with Dylan’s songs. This may sound like an over-statement, but if Dylan’s music was not the cause for the split, it certainly embodied the different paths the two wanted to take. On their later albums, guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo master Earl Scruggs recorded enough Bob Dylan songs to fill a 60-minute tape. I know; I compiled one. Earl loved the new directions; Lester couldn’t relate. They parted.

No less a player than the great country guitarist Chet Atkins was never one to reject a melody because of genre. Atkins recorded instrumental versions of several Dylan compositions and even performed a medley of three Dylan tunes on a 1970 episode of Porter Waggoner’s syndicated television show. Atkins always seemed to have his ears wide open. I saw him play in St. Paul in the early 1980s, during one of his first visits to the Prairie Home Companion radio show. Seated alone on stage, he concluded tuning and said to the audience, “Well folks, you take a good song where you find it.” And with that he played a beautiful version of the recent #1 pop hit, “Heart of Glass” by Blondie. When I later spoke with Atkins, he voiced dismay over those among his fans who dismissed new music. Atkins had obviously held an unbiased view of melody for some time, as he recorded an instrumental version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” as early as 1965.

Another supremely gifted guitarist, Jim Hall, brings us full circle to jazz versions of Dylan songs. Unlike the late 1960s examples I cite from Gary Burton and Keith Jarratt, Jim Hall has released a 2008 recording of Dylan’s “Masters of War,” another jazz arrangement featuring bass, this time Bill Frizzell.

Known as a superlative wordsmith, it seems clear that Dylan has also worked hard on his melodies and song structures. In the first volume of his Chronicles autobiography, a somewhat defensive Dylan asks, “If my songs were just about words, then what was Duane Eddy, the great rock-and-roll guitarist, doing recording an album full of instrumental melodies of my songs?” Probably unaware of Duane Eddy, some jazz musicians would nonetheless soon follow his lead.

If most of the jazz community was slow to hear Dylan, he had certainly been listening to them. Also in Chronicles, Dylan remembers his early days in New York. “I’d listen to a lot of jazz and bebop records,” and to the arrangements of Gil Evans. “There were a lot of similarities between some kinds of jazz and folk music.” Dylan then lists several Ellington compositions, including “Tattoo Bride” and “Tourist Point of View” and concludes that, to him, “They sounded like sophisticated folk music.” It is also in this section where Dylan talks of the influence of jazz records by Roland Kirk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Christian’s sides with Benny Goodman. Living and working in an early 1960s New York City, Dylan attended various jazz clubs, being taken with the music of Thelonious Monk and speaking briefly with him. When Dylan introduced himself as a folk music performer, Monk would tell the young man from the Midwest, “We all play folk music.”

This article does not attempt to be comprehensive in its examination of Dylan jazz arrangements. Certainly many other artists of this genre have offered interpretations of Dylan’s work, from Duke Ellington’s recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to guitarist Michael Hedges’ cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” Surprisingly few jazz vocalists have waded in to this interpretive stream, although genre-crossing Janet Planet has recently released an entire CD of Dylan’s work. We should be surprised by none of these jazz interpretations. As Bob himself explains, “Musicians have always known that my songs were about more than just words, but most people are not musicians.”

#30# 2,275 words

Tom Wilmeth

Essay: John Coltrane: Thank God He's a Country Boy!

John Coltrane -- Thank God He’s a Country Boy!
Essay written by Tom Wilmeth
April 27, 2011

There is a something very curious taking place right now on the Billboard Magazine Country Music chart. I’m certain there is no Grammy Award or even a statistical category for this anomaly, such as Artist with the Most Records Sold, the Single with the Most Weeks at #1, or even sub-categories such as the Longest Song to Make the Chart. Nonetheless, let me briefly draw your attention to a strange confluence now on country radio: There are specific references to the late jazz saxophone master John Coltrane currently found within not one, but in the lyrics of two separate country hits this week!

The jazz recordings of John Coltrane are about as far from country music as one can travel while still being on American soil. Briefly, Coltrane was born in 1926; he joined Miles Davis’ quintet in 1955; in 1960 he began his own solo career. Before his death in 1967, Coltrane was responsible for expanding not only the possibilities of the tenor saxophone, but of jazz itself.

So how is it feasible that two discrete references to a jazzman more than 40 years dead are simultaneously appearing on country radio in the spring of 2011? What does it mean? Why do we care? Let’s look:

The first Coltrane sighting is found on the latest single by guitar virtuoso Brad Paisley, whose abilities could make Eric Clapton stop and listen. Paisley offers another of his up-tempo hot and clever country numbers on the song “Old Alabama.” It is sung from the point of view of a young man wooing his lady to the sounds of the band Alabama – a country group with its own very impressive chart statistics. The kicker here is that Paisley, in a continuing nod to his country music roots, has persuaded Alabama itself to come out of retirement to accompany him.

As the young lovers of the song are entwined on the back roads, headed for the back seat, their music of choice is that of Alabama. Paisley sings:
“Forget about Sinatra or Coltrane / . . .
And Barry White ain’t gonna work tonight /
If you really want to turn her on.”

“Forget about Sinatra or Coltrane”? Frank Sinatra was, of course, the singer of choice for make-out artists of a previous generation. Barry White has similar appeal as the go-to guy for inducing romance. But John Coltrane? That’s a disconnect; a non sequitur. Why would this truck- driving Romeo even have Coltrane on his I-Pod? Just what sort of mood does the young man want to create? True, John Coltrane recorded many lovely ballads, but he is far better remembered for his lengthy, sometimes atonal exploratory improvisations which quickly leave any semblance of melody in the dust.

Maybe the inclusion of the sax-man’s name is a hip, inside joke by songwriters Paisley, Randy Owen, Dave Turnbull, and Chris Dubois, especially since the word Coltrane doesn’t even rhyme with any other lyric line. Maybe the girlfriend in the song is a meth freak. But no matter the reason – a reference to John Coltrane appears in a current Billboard Country Chart entry!

Unlike the one-time, passing reference in Paisley’s “Old Alabama,” the second example is even stranger as it links a young man’s positive attitude with a specific Coltrane composition. Uncle Kracker exudes extreme happiness during the sunny number “It’s Good To Be Me.” In the song’s culminating comparison, the singer’s euphoric attitude is equated with having “caught some Coltrane Love Supreme.” That’s odd.

John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is a 4-part cycle of compositions praising God. Released in 1964, it is a well known concept album in the jazz canon. The work was embraced as a religious touchstone in the mid-1970s by guitarists Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, and more recently on separate recordings by both Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Primarily instrumental, the piece does have a hypnotic spoken repetition of the title words “A Love Supreme” during much of its opening section.

Similar to the source itself, Uncle Kracker’s “It’s Good To Be Me” also repeats the phrase “Coltrane Love Supreme” numerous times. The reference only appears near the song’s conclusion, but becomes a shouted mantra of sorts as Kracker reaches his joyous finale. I suspect that songwriters Robert Ritchie, Brett James, Matthew Shafer, and Thomas Harding are purposefully mimicking the spoken chant in Coltrane’s original recording with the repetition found here. But why is it included at all?

I don’t know. Other than this specific reference, “It’s Good To Be Me” has no religious overtones. It is a number glowing with life-affirming optimism but is completely secular. Its tone bears little resemblance to the extremely sincere gratitude shown towards God or the humility found at the center of the Coltrane work it sites. I’ll say it again -- very odd.

So, what can we learn from these unexpected examples of musical cross-genre references? From Brad Paisley’s “Old Alabama” we discover – and guys take note – you should not attempt to create a romantic mood for your girl with John Coltrane tunes. Simple advice, perhaps, but well worth the reminder.

In “It’s Good to Be Me,” the words “Coltrane Love Supreme” become a late-song sing-along hook. It’s the part of the melody and lyrics which one remembers after the number is over. I maintain that if you can get a young Country Music fan to sing the words “Coltrane Love Supreme,” you are well on the way to planting seeds for one of the strangest musical pollinations imaginable. The true country devotee may one day wonder just who or what this Coltrane might be. And with just a cursory search, a new musical world could unfold. That is, if the listener doesn’t think that Uncle Kracker is singing about a Coal Train.

This type of discovery flash point happened to me, albeit in a less jarring musical transition. In about 1985, when I was just getting over being a snob about current country, I was enjoying a live set by George Strait on Austin City Limits. After a handful of hits he introduced a song that he said meant a great deal to him, called “Lefty’s Gone.” It immediately stuck in my brain, but I had no idea who Lefty was and I didn’t worry much about it. However, after continually singing these heartfelt lyrics to myself for a few days, I thought that the man who inspired this tune might be worth finding. Early in the search I found Willie Nelson’s tribute LP, From Willie to Lefty, and some of Merle Haggard’s recordings of Frizzell songs. But Lefty himself remained elusive.

When I finally tracked-down original recordings of Lefty Frizzell, I was transformed. I immediately realized why, in spite of only a handful of hits, his style had been so influential and important to country radio in the early 1950s. Hearing George Strait sing “Lefty’s Gone” that night ultimately resulted in my purchase of a 12 CD set of Mr. Frizzell’s complete works. Small seeds of interest can grow large. And perhaps this type of discovery is what will eventually occur with these two Coltrane citations. A few curious country fans may search-out the references found in songs they like and become devotees of John Coltrane. I hope it. And I doubt it.

But apart from possible repercussions of influence, I still marvel at two different country music songs dropping Coltrane’s name into the lyrics. Even stranger, how could these songs share the same chart? This seems like it should be a once-in-a-generation songwriting fluke. And who in the country audience did these songwriters expect to connect with by using jazz references? I’d give worlds to know. I began by saying that Billboard Magazine had no category for such an anomaly, but I would like to suggest one for next year’s Grammy Awards – Most Pleasantly Unexpected Reference to a Musician from Another Genre in the Lyrics to a Hit Song. Hey, why not? We already have two entries vying for the award.

#30# 1,329 words
(262) 243-4218

appears in JazzTimes May on-line issue; direct link at:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

CD Review: Neil Young & The International Harvesters

Neil Young & The International Harvesters – A Treasure
Reprise Records / Neil Young Archive Series #9
Recorded in concert 1984/1985 – Released 2011
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
July 13, 2011

This one is a bit difficult to assess because it is hard to separate the music from the events surrounding Neil Young’s career in the mid-1980s. I mean, how many artists get sued by their own record company for not sounding enough like themselves? Few, but this what Geffen Records did to Neil after he submitted a string of albums which were not in line with label expectations.

Evidence for the prosecution include Trans from 1982, an odd experiment in vocoders and electronics. This was followed in 1983 by Everbody’s Rockin’, credited to The Shocking Pinks, on which Neil offers a brief Rockabilly rave-up. These uncharacteristic styles incensed his new label because the records sold so poorly. Young apparently tried to appease Geffen in 1985 with his appropriately titled Old Ways album, but then immediately toured with a band he christened The International Harvesters.

Neil took this country group seriously, hiring crack players and appearing on Nashville Now with Ralph Emory, who wasn’t quite sure what to make of his rock star guest. In fact, the first track on this live compilation CD comes from the Nashville Now cable show. Maybe Emory would not have been as surprised if he had been aware of Neil’s brilliant and respectful interpretation of Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” a full 15 years earlier. Still, if Ralph Emory was a dumbstruck observer, many of Young’s actual followers had gotten off the fan boat years before. Neil followed the huge success of Harvest in 1972 with a tour of largely unrecognizable selections and dense electric sound, as documented on the live Time Fades Away LP. Neil’s new fans also faded away when his subsequent studio albums bore little resemblance to Harvest.

So, battles with Geffen Records and the artist’s indifference to frustrated fans aside –
How is the music on A Treasure? It’s good, and this is a most welcome release. It could be called a historical document, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inferior set. The band is tight and Young is keeping the songs concise and clear – no 16-minute guitar workouts here. Also, nearly half of the songs are previously unreleased in any form. And of the rest, only the true Neil devotee attending these concerts would have recognized many of the tunes.

Young released his car-themed Fork in the Road CD in 2009, but it is clear that his mind has wrestled with the subject of efficient automobiles since at least the early 1980s. On “Motor City,” first heard on Re-ac-tor (1981), Neil is angry over North America’s automotive situation. Interestingly, the take included here comes from a 1984 Los Angeles show. I will leave it to the Neil obsessives to research whether the song was in his set-list throughout this tour or whether it was included on this night as a specific shot at the Los Angeles car culture.

One of the highlights of the CD is “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” first recorded in 1966 when Neil was a member of the Buffalo Springfield. This is a fine arrangement of a number that shows the high quality of Young’s songwriting abilities at the beginning of his career.

On the other end of the time spectrum are the five songs which are new to Young’s canon:
If “Motor City” laments America’s relationship with cars, “Southern Pacific” is a love song to the railroads. “Amber Jean” is a more traditional love song, including references to the moon and to the girl’s pretty eyes. “Let Your Fingers Do the Walking” is a humorous western lament about a woman who formerly “gave good phone” to the singer. But no more.

The new “Nothing is Perfect” might first appear to be a criticism of “God’s perfect plan,” but is clearly a song of gratitude. Neil here sings of comparisons, urging the listener to “look in the shadow.” By viewing the dark side one will see that “we got so much to be happy about,” including “plenty of food on the table” and “lots of love in the house.” This unexpected song of appreciation perhaps speaks to the contented nature of the singer. He has an “honest, strong, and soft woman” who “helps me be a good man.” Yet in the midst of this description of bliss comes one verse about soldiers burying their dead and then “shooting blind,” and another verse about airport hostages and an abused workforce. A very odd lyrical juxtaposition, this, but Neil makes his point: Doesn’t an awareness of the bad make the good seem all the better?

“Are You Ready for the Country?” and “Get Back to the Country” are used as concert bookends of sorts. But without the brand of International Harvesters on the label, I doubt that all of these songs would be termed Country Music. Notwithstanding the oft-heard fiddle and steel guitar, some of these tracks would easily fit into live shows from Young’s other eras. This is never more true than on the final new offering, “Grey Riders,” which closes the album and whose thick electric guitars would be at home on last year’s fine Le Noise release. Interestingly enough, it is this song -- uncharacteristic of the set -- that has been released to radio as the CD’s first single.

I’m glad to have these beautifully recorded concert tapes released. Unknown material and surprising trunk songs placed within a well paced live overview. In its own way, this CD is “a treasure,” as it documents an unexpected and short-lived era of Neil Young’s performance history in a most engaging manner. So when do we get similar live document for the Shocking Pinks?

#30# 937 words

Tom Wilmeth
Grafton, Wisconsin
Former Home of the Paramount Records blues label
(262) 243-4218

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Wilmeth -- Now a Columnist for JazzTimes Magazine -- Link

Friends: May 5, 2011

I now have a monthly column on the JazzTimes magazine web site. JazzTimes has been around since 1970, and I am pleased to be offered a regular spot with them. The articles I write for JazzTimes will eventually end-up on this site as well. Check out my first JazzTimes piece, called "John Coltrane: Thank God He's a Country Boy" at the link found below.


Tom Wilmeth
(262) 243-4218

Well, the link won't take in this format, so go to the main site.

Go to:
On the Main Page go to ARTICLES
Click on COLUMNS
Scroll down and look on the right-hand column for the list under ALSO IN COLUMNS
Near the bottom of this alphabetical list is my entry point for writings --

I'll explain later.
Here is the direct address, but I could not get the format (of this blog) to cooperate:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Essay: "By the Time We Got to Mole Lake . . ."

“By the Time We Got to Mole Lake . . .”
Written by Tom Wilmeth
April 21, 2011

An article was recently published by an Assistant Engineer who worked on Bob Dylan’s 1974 masterwork Blood on the Tracks. As a former board operator, I read this piece with great interest. It brought back both fond and frightful memories of laboring in radio studios and over professional recording consoles. I have never worked with or at all close to Dylan, but a couple of people asked me to write-up these memories, believing they might offer some tangential insights into the one true Bob. They don’t, but as I thought about the weekend described below I realized that maybe I did have something worth recounting. So here we go.

I was 22 years old in the summer of 1977, about to start my senior year of college at the University of Northern Iowa at Cedar Falls. I had been working part-time at the school’s radio station KUNI for over three years, longer than a lot of the full time staff. I pulled 30-hour weeks of largely DJ work, most of which was on the weekends. But this was no house-current college station going out to dorm rooms; we were 100,000 watts of clean FM power covering a large chunk of eastern Iowa. It was fairly early in the National Public Radio era. We were still absolutely commercial free and could do as we pleased. There were some underwriters, but nothing obtrusive.

At KUNI we had classical music mornings but were known for specializing in Folk Music. Why? Because Station Manager Doug Vernier liked Folk Music. In fact, each weekday afternoon we had over 3 hours of it! From 2-4 P.M. we aired a record show called Folkways. Later in the day, after All Things Considered and the evening local news, we did another 90 minute show featuring Bluegrass. Then the Black Community would take over for 2 hours of soul and funk on Nationtime, and the night would conclude with several hours of current rock and whatnot on a program called Progression.

The music for these shows was all selected by the announcer, a fact that stuns current radio broadcasters into stupors of envy. I still occasionally come across an errant play list of mine stuck away in some music book – songs that I aired during one of my lengthy late night shows. These weekend shifts did little to help my social life in college, but I didn’t care. I now find these unearthed lists of songs simultaneously humorous, heartbreaking, and usually on-target. At least for their time. I got into radio for one reason – Music. And I was able to play my fill on KUNI from the spring of 1974 to the late fall of 1978. I was lucky to be there at an extremely fertile time.

By 1977 the station was getting some grants for special field recording projects. There was a Folk Festival to be held in upper Wisconsin, and Doug wanted it recorded. My recording partner and I loaded-up the car with a high quality Nagra reel-to-reel machine, some microphones, and blank tape. And off we went, not dreaming that an August weekend in Wisconsin might require something more than shorts and a T-shirt. Turns out, weather would not be our biggest surprise.

We arrived the day before the festival started and had a major culture shock. Never before had I seen such dire poverty. The roads within the Mole Lake Indian Reservation were mere dirt ruts; the houses were tin or cardboard shacks; everything looked abused and broken. In the midst of this community was a large field with a raised stage at one end. There were designated areas in the surrounding woods for both trailer parking and tent camping. I was glad that we would be staying at a hotel off the reservation, some 20 miles away. We needed a getaway from the long and pretty intense days. Although I had been an active camper during my Boy Scout era, this was not the same. Even before we left the festival grounds each night, things were getting loud in the camping areas with alcohol fueled fun and fights.

But the thing that I remember most vividly was that, in the midst of this extremely dire economic situation, the government was putting in concrete sidewalks. SIDEWALKS! When there was no real street for miles around -- only glorified cow paths where cars drove. With just a cursory look, I could have named a dozen things that this reservation needed before sidewalks. “Don’t worry about the government,” says David Byrne, but he wasn’t there.

Despite a location set deep in the Upper Wisconsin Nowhere territory, the festival was to have some known names -- both country and folk. Doc Watson was there, Lester Flatt’s band performed, and several other lesser local groups I can’t recall right now. Most of the big name acts were from the South, and I could tell right away that I was not the only one somewhat irritated by the surprisingly cold nights. Doc Watson played fairly late on the first evening and seemed very aware of the time remaining in his set. He was undoubtedly eager to return to the relative warmth of his tour bus. Still, he put on a solid show and the crowd loved it. I remember late in the set he said, “Well, it’s pretty cold for him tonight, but let’s saddle up that ‘Tennessee Stud,’” and he proceeded to play the song in stellar fashion.

Doc’s son Merle was with him, as usual. I interviewed Merle briefly, but he was more interested in chatting-up the local girls who were inviting him to a party. Still, he answered my questions about record labels and album obligations without haste or hesitation. (Their contract at the time called for one album a year, if you are interested.) The one time I tried to speak to Doc Watson, he told me to go find Merle. That’s fine – Doc needed Merle’s eyes. Merle Watson was killed a few years after this festival, when a tractor ran over him. Doc would later say how he could never have been able to tour had Merle not been there to help with all aspects of the road. Thank you Merle for delivering Doc to us!

Lester Flatt’s band did a full show as headliners the second evening. The steel guitar player noted how holding his instrument’s silver bar “was just like hanging onto a piece of ice all night.” I’m afraid that I didn’t appreciate Lester Flatt’s set as much at that time as I should have. First, I was behind the stage, recording – not able to see the performance – and second, the scales had not yet truly fallen from my eyes about the brilliance of some country music. The next day I was told by several audience members that this had been an exceptionally good night for the veteran performer.

“Why?” I asked.
“Because Lester didn’t once leave the stage during the entire set,” I was told.

I at first thought they were joking, but they weren’t. These were devotees who had already seen the man perform several times that summer. This was during Lester’s later days, when health problems were sidelining him during shows with some regularity. He would often need to go into the wings and rest for a bit as his band played-on. I recall seeing Mrs. Flatt backstage, dressed as if she herself were going to perform – ready for the Opry spotlight – aging elegance incarnate. But I felt badly for her as she looked very concerned all the time her husband was on stage. When I learned of his declining health, I understood. At the other end of the age spectrum that night was a young Marty Stuart, a talented sideman for Flatt in the 1970s.

By the time of this Mole Lake gathering, Folk and Bluegrass Festivals had already been big for over a decade. Even so, I was still enthralled with the whole idea of being at a festival! And being there to record the music made me feel like a useful part of the scene. Woodstock was a full 8 years over and done with, but its shadow remained a long one. The title of this piece bears witness – we must have said that line every three minutes: “By the time we got to Mole Lake, we were half a million strong,” an intentional variation of Joni Mitchell’s tribute to the Woodstock festival.

I don’t recall a lot about the other bands except for one local group opening with a hot, bluegrass take on The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” There were the typical show business elements that are not especially fond memories – self-important organizers chief among them. We had real trouble getting some of the performers to sign-off on broadcast rights for the recordings we were making. Doc Watson consented without hesitation, but some of the lesser names wanted to hear the sound mix on the tapes before signing and really gave us ego-trip troubles. We finally had enough with one guy and said, “Hey! Doc Watson trusts our mix. Are you a bigger star than Doc Watson?” This shamed the guy into signing. I forget who it was, probably with good reason.

Eric Weissberg was also on the bill, still getting bookings from his huge 1973 Top 40 hit “Dueling Banjos,” an instrumental duet with Steve Mandell. The number was featured during an unforgettable scene early in the movie Deliverance. In fact, Weissberg named his backing band Deliverance, although he seemed a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. Prior to his unexpected success with “Dueling Banjos,” Weissberg had largely been a first-call studio musician, recording with performers from Barbra Streisand to Billy Joel. He also occasionally did film soundtrack work. But I didn’t search out Eric Weissberg to talk about Billy Joel or “Dueling Banjos” or soundtracks. I wanted to ask about his work backing Bob Dylan on the Blood on the Tracks album. Weissberg was tolerant, but not enthusiastic about our conversation. {endnote 1}

The afternoon had warmed-up considerably. As we began to talk, a couple of his band members looked-on, bored. I began to ask my questions when he interrupted me: “I have sort of a thing I say to interviewers, and if this doesn’t cover what you want, then we can speak in specifics.” I agreed, of course, and he then recounted his work as a studio cat with occasional film work. He told me that after Deliverance was released he got a phone call from his agent, telling him that “Dueling Banjos” was racing up the chart. Weissberg couldn’t believe it and thought it was a put-on, having been given no idea that it was even being released as a single. He acknowledged the hit as a fluke, but he was understandably making the most of it while he could.

That biographical nutshell was fine and all, but what about Bob Dylan? Why did Bob call you to play on the Blood on the Tracks album, and what’s your connection? “I met Bob in the very early 1960s, when I was at school in Madison and he was en route to New York City for what I think must have been his first trip there. I didn’t think he remembered me, so I was surprised when I got a call to play on a session for him. It was odd from the start. I didn’t know if he wanted just me or if he wanted me to bring my band. So I brought the group along.”

Weissberg’s responses became slower and more thoughtful; I was now entering into non-standard interview territory. I asked him if it was a pleasant, relaxed session or if there was a lot of tension in the room: “I’ll tell you – It was the strangest recording session I have ever worked on. Bob barely ran down the tune to us and then we were off recording it. Then the engineers immediately backed-up the tape so he could hear it. And while they played back the song we had just recorded – loud! – Bob was running down the changes to the next tune to us. At the same time! I had never seen anything like it. Completely unorthodox studio method. I didn’t really enjoy the session, and I can’t imagine that Bob enjoyed it.”

Eric Weissberg & Deliverance appear on one song on the Blood on the Tracks LP, “Meet Me in the Morning.” So when he mentioned chord changes for a second tune, I immediately asked about it: “As I recall, we did two songs -- the one that shows-up on the album and one other one. Seems like it was a blues, but I can’t be sure.” {endnote 2}

I asked him if multiple takes of either or both songs had been recorded: “We did each tune once. That was it. Then we packed-up and it was over.”

With the interview concluded, I thanked Eric Weissberg for his time and he departed. But then, after their boss was well out of ear-shot range, members of the band chimed-in with force: “That session was an absolute joke. Weissberg was being nice about it. Dylan got so drunk that night that Eric had to re-string his guitar for him when Dylan broke a string. And it wasn’t even good stuff. He was getting smashed on his ass on Ripple or some cheap-o crap.”

These guys had been there, and were clearly not impressed. Not fans. Anger in their voices. No one among them was the least bit in awe of Dylan; they sounded disgusted. I don’t know who from the band was making most of the proclamations, but all were in agreement: it was a bizarre night. I tried to question them more about the date, but they had said their peace – everybody hated the experience. {endnote 3}

The All Music Guide lists Deliverance’s personnel for live dates during this era as: Steve Mandell (guitar), Charles Brown (guitar), Tony Brown (bass), and Richard Crooks (drums). Clinton Heylin indicates that Weissberg, C. Brown, T. Brown, and Crooks played on the Blood on the Tracks sessions. But to repeat, I don’t know who made these pointed remarks to me that afternoon. But I do know that the live show Weissberg and these guys gave was as hot as anything that the Mole Lake festival saw that year.

It does seem that Weissberg was taking the high road in our conversation, although he was clearly frustrated when recalling the experience. And let me stress what Eric Weissberg did say that afternoon about the oddness of the Dylan session: He had never seen anything like it – had never been a part of a recording experience run that way. And this assessment from a professional studio musician who had previously played on hundreds of recording dates!

And that was pretty much it. We began our long drive back to Iowa late that night, some festival glamour and mystique having been drained from our consciousness. It had been a good time, often a fun time, but nothing to romanticize. And people hating-on Bob! Go figure.

As we drove through the Northern Wisconsin night we saw in the distance what appeared to be a major forest fire. It was spread over several hilltops, raging some miles away from us but very clear in the distance against the dark sky. I wanted to drive toward it for a closer look but was told that was a stupid idea. True, of course. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the fire, even years later, and how beautiful it had appeared that night. Like the dangerous flames which had attracted me, I also escaped largely unscathed from my experience with a music festival. I saw some unpleasant business elements, social problems, and personality quirks up close. But I returned to Cedar Falls largely undaunted -- still the unsinged optimistic concerning the regenerative powers of live performances and of Music itself.

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Endnotes & out-takes:

1 – I use quotation marks throughout my conversation with Eric Weissberg and his band. But since I don’t have the interview tapes for reference, these should be seen as close paraphrases. Having offered this disclaimer, though, I can hear Mr. Weissberg say each of these sentences to me. His words still ring in my ears.

2 – The other tune he mentioned was “Call Letter Blues,” which would finally be released by Columbia in 1991 on the first of The Bootleg Series CDs. And Weissberg’s memory was accurate; it was a blues number they had recorded.

3 – [While the following section is accurate, I removed it from the body of the essay as it seemed to muddy the water as far as who was likely playing with Weissberg that day.]
The drummer’s Anvil cases had the name of the group Fat Mattress stenciled on them. If this was the drummer with Weissberg at that time, it would have been Eric Dillon. But the drums could have been on loan, and Dillon’s presence seems unlikely.

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Silent out-take – [I didn’t want to close the body of the essay with a lament.]

OK -- So what happened to those reels of music and the interview tapes? Most of them were broadcast at least once on KUNI (FM), but after that they seemed to drift away. Which is odd, in retrospect, because I made myself safety copies of just about everything at that time. But not these. Because they were played over the air in a well publicized special, air-check copies from the broadcast could be sitting in somebody’s basement in Iowa on cassette tapes. But where the master reels went, I don’t know. Over the ensuing years, I have asked former and current employees of the station to keep an eye out for these tapes, but they are not to be found. That’s OK – they would be nice to have, but . . . perhaps anticipating their eventual return is even better.

#30# 3,008 words
(262) 243-4218

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Charlie Sheen & De Cordova – Neglecting the Dog

Charlie Sheen & De Cordova – Neglecting the Dog
By Tom Wilmeth
Written April 3, 2011

Interesting how timing works. Just last night I was reading Mark Twain’s thoughts about one of his contemporaries. The theme of undeserved recognition in the world of arts & entertainment surfaces regularly when Twain recounts his own years as a platform performer. But the familiarity of this particular instance seemed uncanny:

Mark Twain was commenting on how a humorist identified only as De Cordova had quickly achieved a reputation with scant talent as a writer. People were anxious to see De Cordova in person and to hear him deliver some comedic tales. In the case of this novice performer – long forgotten even when Twain related the incident in 1898 – this new celebrity had packed a large hall with an audience eager to be entertained. It was a generous crowd, so sure of the humor that was about to be poured forth that they initially laughed at almost anything this man said or did.

However, as De Cordova failed to deliver the comedic goods – the audience’s demeanor quickly shifted. There were walk-outs; there were cat calls; there were demands for refunds. Mark Twain and his fellow, seasoned platform speakers took no small delight in this failure. It seemed that arrogance had gotten the best of the recently elevated De Cordova. Part of Twain’s purpose in writing the brief, previously unknown vignette was to stress the importance of preparation. In this instance, the man thought he was above getting his act ready for a major engagement by rehearsing to smaller and less scrutinizing audiences.

According to Mark Twain, this type of performance preparation is called “Trying It Out on the Dog.” To get any comedy act into shape, it must have constant revision and polish – there is no substitute. Twain stresses that this preparation is only possible in front of an audience. I have been told that Bob Hope and The Marx Brothers, to name only two subsequent acts, would regularly book halls in the Midwest to try-out new material and to hone their comic timing before taking new pieces to radio, Broadway, or the movies. (I guess this makes The Midwest “the dog” in this analogy, but that’s OK with me.)

In this morning’s paper I see that Charlie Sheen’s first live show in Detroit bombed. The parallels recounted by Mark Twain in 1898 and the Detroit reviewers of 2011 are remarkable – walk-outs, cat calls, demands for refunds, an audience’s unmasked hostility for a performer who could not deliver. But while parallels abound, let’s be fair. De Cordova apparently did not openly taunt or purposefully insult his audience. De Cordova did not mock the patrons for spending their money on the evening’s alleged entertainment. De Cordova did not glibly admit that he was using this engagement as a testing ground for his future performances. De Cordova was just plain bad – an entertainment rookie with a falsely inflated sense of his talent. Sheen was hyperspace bad in a warp nine free fall.

What is the point of the present commentary? To embarrass Charlie Sheen? Of course not – he does that himself every waking minute. No, I write to stress the obvious, placed in my head this morning by simultaneous encounter of these two reviews. And the obvious is – There is nothing new under the sun, history repeats, and we can learn from the past. And especially that Mark Twain is still well worth reading. Maybe Charlie Sheen should give it a try.

561 words #30#
(262) 243-4218

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Concert Review: Motorhead

Concert Review: Motorhead at The Eagles Ballroom; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
w/ support acts Clutch and Valient Thorr
Wednesday; February 17, 2011
Review written by Tom Wilmeth

“Motorhead? You are going to see Motorhead?”
“Hear them, more likely.”
“I’ll regret it if I don’t.”
“What was their big hit?
“They didn’t have one.”
“‘Ace of Spades’ probably comes closest.”
“Never heard of it.”
And so the conversation was repeated with various people during the weeks before the concert.

“Who are you going with?”
“Can’t find anybody who wants to go.”
“And you’re going anyway?”
[See above . . . ]

Since starting to take really heavy metal more seriously a few years back, some bands went from being quasi-joke status to worth checking out. The single thing that had the greatest impact on my change of attitude was XM’s Liquid Metal station, and especially Ian Christie’s informative show Bloody Roots. I listen to this show and the Devil’s Dozen overview of new metal releases each week, learning quite a lot along the way.

Motorhead’s early 80’s live album No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith opened a world of rock that had largely been outside my experience. I knew some guys who were into Black Sabbath back in high school 40 years ago, but that was about it. Hearing Hammersmith – I was strangely impressed, but I certainly did not immediately embrace this genre. In fact, for a long time I thought of it in the same way I viewed the most avant-garde of jazz – as almost joke music. Not that the musicians weren’t deadly serious and dedicated to their vision, but I just found it more amusing than engaging. And preferably taken in very short doses.

I especially wanted to see Motorhead now, in part, because I knew they wouldn’t be around forever. I wanted to see this elder statesman Metal Band! This differs considerable from the elder statesman of Hard Rock. I’m not talking about the The Who or even Led Zeppelin. I’m talking about thrash metal. Clever lyrics, a la Pete Townshend? Why bother? A strong melody? What’s that? A vocalist like Robert Plant? Unimportant to this level of metal.

As I said to my wife upon returning from the concert –
“Remember Dylan’s performance at the Grammys?
Bob sounded like Jim Reeves compared to Motorhead’s Lemmy.”

Which recalls another friend’s astute summary –
“Some people can’t get past the fact that vocals can be used as a rhythm instrument.”

Good one. And he wasn’t talking about scat vocals. Lemmy was indeed singing lyrics, but I don’t think it mattered much. Still, the guy next to me apparently knew the words to every song. I think this because I could see his lips move. Lemmy introduced the various songs as being about certain things, so it’s clear they do have substance. But I don’t think many people in the large crowd were there for the lyrics, whether they could sing along or not.

But let’s start at the beginning.
I went to the 8 P.M. show quite early because it was a choice of waiting at home or waiting at the club. Limited street parking was available, so I showed-up about 45 minutes before the first band was suppose to start. I knew I had a substantial wait in front of me – rock time, after all. The venue is a beautiful old structure on Wisconsin Avenue, The Eagles Ballroom, built in 1926. Acts from Glenn Miller to Buddy Holly had played this hall in its younger days. I had been there a few times in my 20 years as a Milwaukee resident to see varying folks – Bob Dylan, Bela Fleck, Kenny Wayne Shepherd. But I hadn’t been back in several years.

Maybe it was because I scanned older than the target audience, but everybody working the place could not have been nicer. “Use the side door please, sir.” “Do you have a ticket or do you need a ticket?” Professional folks. And because I was early, there was not a mad crush to get in. I was thoroughly frisked by a large security guard at the entrance. He hit a solid mass in my coat pocket and looked at me quite surprised. “Binocs,” I said. He smiled and nodded. I was not the Droid they were after.

I wasn’t really sure how well Motorhead would draw. They are highly respected by the Metal community, but they had played Milwaukee just over a year ago, at this same venue. Part of the reason I felt comfortable in attending tonight’s show was a review of the previous appearance that stressed the aging nature of the audience. I expected a large motorcycle contingent of tough guys and lots of leather. There was some of each, but not nearly as much as I had seen at an Emerson, Lake, & Palmer concert in Milwaukee some years back. Now those boys draw a leather clad crowd!

I walked-in to a smallish bar in the building’s basement, where a quartet was playing hard. Bag of Balls was their name and I was pleased – at least there was some music from a live band to kick things off. The room was crowded and too warm, but not terrible on either front. I was, however, immediately glad that I had switched-out my heavy winter coat for my own leather jacket. After about their sixth largely interchangeable number, Bag of Balls’ singer said something about Motorhead playing in the adjacent room later in the night. That made sense – this was a pretty small stage for headliners.

I wandered over to the main room – it was the large cavernous area that made-up most of the building. This was the original, 25,000 square foot oval wooden dance floor, now a standing area for those wanting to be near the bands. Because I was there when the doors to the main room opened, I walked to the metal railing that separated the crowd from the stage. Between the two was a space for security and photographers. I was arguably too close, but at least I had a place to throw my jacket and (more importantly) I had something to lean on – both would become important as the evening progressed.

I saw that the guy next to me had his earplugs in place, so I thought I would follow suit. Mine did a fine job, but worked best if I kept my stocking cap on, to keep the plugs from expanding out of my ears. Before too long the first of the advertised groups took the stage. I was glad that they were at least pretending to be on time – with three bands, I knew this would be a long night. The group’s name was Valient Thorr. I thought at first it might be sort of a joke name, a band with a sense of humor – willing to gently mock the very genre they also embrace. After all, they seemed clueless about the correct spelling of their own name and claimed to come from Venus. Then I thought that with a name like Valient Thorr, they might be a gay metal band. That would be cool -- and something different! I’d welcome it. But I was wrong on that front, too. Everybody was very serious and starkly hetero about this music, Venusian or not.

These guys had the most stereotypical metal look of the night – very long, very greasy hair, prominent tattoos, and a flying V guitar! The standard line-up of two guitars, bass, drums, and vocalist. Valient Thorr looked the part of a metal band and sounded it, too. I was right in front of the lead guitarist, but the other guitar at the far end of the stage seemed to also be constantly soloing. The sound was loud, of course, but I was unable to distinguish what each instrument was doing. Lyrics were largely unintelligible, but before the last song, the band’s vocalist directed the audience’s attention to the banner hanging behind the stage. “That’s not just some band logo,” he shouted. “That design symbolizes ‘Peace through Rock & Roll’!” OK – his heart was in the right place, it seemed. This impressed me much more than the tough-guy Satan worshipping attitude that some metal bands claim to promote. I don’t know – will these bands be playing long sets in Hell some day? I can’t think that most of them really believe the Satanic crap that is often spewed forth in this genre. Copping an attitude, as we used to say. And maybe this is where a lack of intelligibility in the lyrics is an asset to the music.

As to musical genres and sub-genres, even the most popular of the so-called Alternative Country acts recently admitted that labels were immaterial – they were struggling bands just trying to get their music heard. Jeff Tweedy, now of Wilco, said that his seminal band Uncle Tupelo never billed itself as Alt Country, but they weren’t going to argue if this tag helped sell records and get people to their concerts. Ralph Stanley didn’t cal his own music bluegrass, but if you bought a ticket he wouldn’t dispute the point. Perhaps the same is true of some metal – if a band can sell records by implicitly riding the tail of Satan, what the hell (literally). Having said this, none of the three bands on this bill seemed especially interested in overtly promoting Satanic rituals to the crowd.

Valient Thorr’s front man seemed very appreciative of having the opening spot on this leg of the tour. More than once he said how nice it was to “play the big stage” and to be opening for Motorhead. He told us to hold tight for Clutch and then left to the same great enthusiasm which the crowd showed for their entire set. Even so, no chance of an encore with a tightly packed night such as this. That’s fine – I’d heard what they could do. The roadies were efficient – monitors and drums sets switched-out, the banner replaced at the rear of the stage. Mikes checked, and here we go!

Clutch sauntered into view looking more like well groomed construction workers than a metal band. Short hair, black t-shirts and black baseball caps, both without logos or demarcation -- normal attire that would have been considered conservative in its own audience that night. These guys came to play and they too were deadly serious about it. A quartet, Clutch ripped in to a 45 minute set that I enjoyed greatly. These guys were . . . well, if a metal band can be subtle, they sometimes were. Still positioned at the front of the stage, I noticed that this guitarist took interesting, even thoughtful solos on his Les Paul. That, and he was dripping sweat from beneath his baseball cap from song one.

Unlike most of his metal guitar contemporaries, Clutch’s Tim Sult had a very dark tone. Not dark like a Kenny Burrell fat-note jazz sound, but Sult played almost all of his solos down on the low E and A strings. This is very different from most guitarists who go screaming up past the high octave range on the B and high E strings. Refreshing. Restrained. Also, Sult was not speedily trying to play every note or every lick he knew on each solo – they were well paced, and I could actually hear what he was doing.

Clutch had a better mix than the first band. At least, it sounded better to me through my ear plugs and a wool cap. What an odd way to experience music. I felt badly for some of the folks around me who had no ear protection – live and learn. It took me a few days of ringing ears after several concerts in my youth to become convinced that ear safeguards might be worth the effort.

Speaking of which -- This concert was certainly among the loudest shows I have attended, but maybe not THE loudest. The top three on that front would belong to Grand Funk Railroad – Des Moines, Iowa; December 31, 1970. The Doobie Brothers in St. Paul, ca. 1982 in the first of their alleged Farewell Tours was pretty painful on the ears. But the dubious winner (surprisingly) must go to Earth, Wind, and Fire in Ames, Iowa, about 1977. That was a true soul review -- with The Emotions, The Brothers Johnson, and then Earth, Wind & Fire. I wanted to enjoy it, but my recollection equates that concert to ice picks being stabbed into my ears.

I was a little concerned that if Clutch and Valient Thorr were this loud, then they may save the really high wattage for headlining Motorhead. And Lemmy’s band WAS loud, but they didn’t seem that much louder than the others. Of course maybe my ears were already numb. At one or two points I briefly removed an ear plug. Wow. The high end of the sound spectrum returned, but at what cost! So I lived with a muffled but tolerable sound level. I do wonder what the decibel level measurement would have been. Just as I wonder what the size of the crowd was – certainly a couple of thousand enthusiasts. At least. The place was packed.

Both of these opening bands were absolutely traditional in gear: Fender basses with 4 (not 5) strings, all cords plugged-in to amplifiers (no wireless connections), drum sets with a single bass drum, and the requisite Gibson Les Pauls. Yep – no doubting the pedigree of the equipment! The other thing that I liked was that the guitarists stayed on one instrument all night. They had racks of other axes sitting near-by, but each guy had a guitar he liked and played it throughout the set. No switching around for special sounds or alternate tunings. No need. I interpreted that (rightly or wrongly) as having few pretensions. Just play the damn thing. And while Les Paul guitars are a gold standard for many players, Marshall Amplifiers are the long-favored weapons of choice for assaulting a crowd with loud music. And this stage had stacks galore of Marshall amps. In fact, it seemed that each player in every band had his own double stack of Marshalls. Visually impressive. Aurally frightening.

The other, more important similarity between Valient Thorr and Clutch was that each group did hit some grooves at various points of their sets. They straddled the fence between Valient Thorr’s competence and some pretty accomplished musicianship, as exemplified by Clutch’s Tim Sult. Clutch was not a newcomer to the field, as I had supposed – they were on tour supporting their 9th studio release! Although quite stable in personnel make-up since 1991, they had just dropped their organist, returning to a 4-piece band and to their original guitar dominated sound. That was OK, really. The presence of keyboards at this show would likely have been too exotic for most of the crowd. Sort of like adding Steve Vai to a wind ensemble. (Although I’d listen to that.)

As with Valient Thorr, Clutch’s front man Neil Fallon indicated the group’s great pleasure in being on this tour. “When you wake-up every morning and realize that your band is going to play with Motorhead that night . . . it’s amazing!!” He may have dropped an F-bomb or two in there along the way – I just can’t recall. Clutch played its last song and were gone. Their set had actually sped-by for me.

The roadies again took the stage. This break was quite a bit longer and the crowd grew somewhat restless, but not terribly so. When I had initially entered the hall, I grabbed a place on the far side of the stage. This was unintentional but turned out to be fortuitous, as the center section had become a mosh pit of sorts, with some pretty fierce dancing / slamming starting to take place during Clutch’s set. Now between bands, with the recorded music on the sound system, the frenetic dancing continued. I didn’t mind watching it, but had no desire to participate.

One thing that was good about being so close to the stage was the lack of beer in my area of the hall. It was a long haul back to the bars, especially through the densely packed crowd. As such, drunks seemed few and nobody was spilling drinks on each other. That is, on me. There were photographers taking pictures of the excited and happy crowd. It was still a good, if intense vibe.

Huge security men positioned themselves in front of the stage – not so muscular as just plain large. Lights dimmed and Motorhead hit the stage. Yep – this was different. The cords were gone – this was a wireless outing all the way. The drums were on a highly raised pedestal – and this time it was a double bass drum set-up. Loud? Yes, but not that much different from the other bands. I was glad – it had been a loud enough night for me from note one. I don’t want to downplay the volume. Even though I became resigned to the expected stunning sound levels, I still couldn’t help but notice that my blue jeans felt at times as if they were being blown by a pretty stiff breeze around my ankles. Sounds waves & shock waves. Too damn much. Just as I had expected.

Lemmy’s bass guitar looked to be a modified Rickenbacker – a large, beautiful instrument that seemed to be wrapped in tooled cowhide – somewhat like country artist Hank Snow’s acoustic guitar. Very cool. Lemmy came to the microphone and announced, “We are Motorhead! And we play Rock & Roll!” The crowd screamed approval, and with that the trio roared into the anthem “We Are Motorhead!”

The thing that immediately stuck me was how healthy Lemmy appeared. I was expecting a road weary, bedraggled presence. But Lemmy looked great and was absolutely running the show with strength. The huge, thick sound of his bass carried the songs. The rest of the band also made their presence known, however. Unlike Clutch’s Sult, who stood still and played guitar with head bowed beneath his cap – Motohead’s guitarist Phil Campbell was a showman, striding the boards and repeatedly coming to the very lip of the stage to engage the crowd. In fact, I could have reached him if he and I had both stretched our hands toward each other. But I had no desire to touch him, and I’m also sure that the security guards would have taken exception to this. Campbell had the more traditional style of fast licks played high on the fret board. It wasn’t a Les Paul, but the design of this white guitar was similar. And, as with all of the guitars that night – the strings’ tuning pegs were where they were supposed to be – that is, at the visible end of the fret board. No weird, modern empty sticks for guitars. Not in the world of Metal, which is traditionally conservative in its own way – but they would cut me for saying that.

I didn’t recognize the types of drums that Mikkey Dee played – probably custom jobs. Dee was an energetic drummer who would have been more of a positive presence if we could have actually seen him play. But with such a huge drum set, he was largely hidden from view -- although the few glimpses I got of his face indicated that he was having a great time. A drummer who kept things surprisingly interesting and a hot guitarist who added energy and color to the set were both indispensable, but this was Lemmy’s band and Lemmy’s show all the way. He retained the crowd’s attention all night – the undeniable focal point of the stage.

I did not know any of the songs after the first one, but I assume that many were from the new CD that the band had released that very week, The World is Yours. Earlier in the night, I heard two guys quoting a recent interview with Lemmy about the new release: “Lemmy, why do all of Motorhead’s albums sound alike?” To which Lemmy answered, “It’s the same band.” Those two guys loved that response, as did I when they related the story. And this comment summed-up the evening. The songs were very similar, but also exciting and well executed.

At one point Lemmy announced, “Here is an old one. It’s from 1983 – before you were born!” A girl’s voice behind me protested that this did not apply to her. They played a tune I didn’t know, but I thought it was good that the back catalogue was being acknowledged. I took a pen with me and was planning to take a note or two, but there was no chance of having enough room to do this. I was pretty packed-in, increasingly pushed into the unyielding steel mesh fence. At one point I moved sideways from the fence so a young girl could throw her room key at Lemmy -- in hopes of a post show rendezvous. Witnessing that act was by far the creepiest part of the evening.

The crowd was changing. The mosh pit was expanding. I felt two hard blows. These were not accidental shoves, but some of the folks a few people away were starting to flail themselves recklessly into others. I was the indirect recipient of what was passing for dancing. I had already checked the exits, and it looked like it would be a slow road out of the hall. Having experienced uneasiness at the size of the departing crowds during last year’s Summerfest late one night, I had planned to make my exit before the encore. But now I thought that maybe 45 minutes of Lemmy would suffice for the evening. A couple more strong body blows and I was convinced – time to leave. I started to progress down the metal fence to the side of the crowd. There was a green Exit sign close to the edge of the stage. The crew behind the fence, although still very polite, pointed me away from this exit, around the periphery of the crowd to the far exits. OK -- Probably illegal and undoubtedly a fire department violation, but OK.

In fact, that exit strategy was fine. Being stage side for the whole night, I hadn’t the opportunity to do any people watching. So I slowly wound my way around the outer edge of the crowded, but not impassible ballroom. I was amazed that there was a coat check room in operation. I stopped at the merchandise alcoves for all 3 bands, but didn’t really see anything I wanted. I almost bought a Clutch CD, but they all looked pretty beat-up and road weary for being new copies. As is true at all such gatherings, there were quite a few people there just for the event and not to hear the band. I looked a little more in line with the age of some of these back-of-the-room folks at the bar and those just hanging around.

I wanted to get out before the set ended, so I kept moving. I knew I would miss “Ace of Spades,” which I did want to hear, but that would be near the very end of the show. And I was ready to go. I walked back to the side door where the same people who had initially welcomed me were still there. I told the woman that I had a fine time, but it was getting just a wee bit violent near the stage. She didn’t seem especially shocked at this, but was glad I had a good time, thanked me for coming to the show, and I was out the door. One thing that surprised me on the street was how little of the band sound leaked out of the hall. That was one solid building, now on the National Record of Historic Places. And that seemed appropriate to me as I drove home – after all, it was the historic nature of Motorhead that got me to come to this very “unWilmeth” type of gig, as good friend Pete proclaimed it.

I enjoyed the night; I was not above it; I wanted to be there. I was guilty of raising a fist in the air once or twice in pure excited metal joy and of occasionally pointing at the guitarists in admiration. As Motorhead’s set progressed I saw body surfing up-close and I almost became an unwilling member in a mosh pit. And I escaped unscathed. Who could ask for more?

The next morning, I woke-up feeling like I had been in a minor car wreck. My body ached. My head throbbed; I felt pretty hung over. What the hell? I knew that I had absolutely nothing to drink the previous evening. Ah yes – the Motorhead concert! Of course. My ears rang a bit, especially the left, but not terribly – similar to the aural after effects of a rough plane ride. I went to school to teach my classes. The few colleagues who knew of my plans were intrigued as to whether I really, actually went. I showed tangible evidence by taping the ticket stub to my office door.

“So how was it?”
“Oh. It was great – had a good time. Glad I went.”
“Do you plan to write something about it?”
“Probably not.”

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Tom Wilmeth

(262) 243-4218

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obituary (Charlie Louvin)

Charlie Louvin Obituary
Written by Tom Wilmeth
Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Well foot. I’ve been trying to break away from writing obituaries and convince some folks that I can deal with the world of the living. But here’s one I can’t let go by. It may sound harsh, but Charlie Louvin was the lesser half of The Louvin Brothers, a close harmony duo that you have probably never heard of unless you study country music or are at least 60 years old. And even then, it would help greatly if you were from the South.

Together, Charlie and Ira Louvin are without question the finest harmony singers Country Music has ever produced. I love the Delmores, the Stanleys, the Blue Sky Boys, the Carter Family, and many others. But for perfection of harmony nobody can touch The Louvin Brothers. They stand toe-to-toe with The Everly Brothers, who influenced the rock and pop world, beginning in importance with John & Paul. The Louvin Brothers impact, however, stopped at the country music border.

Perhaps two primary differences between these brother acts will help distinguish their place in American music. The Louvin Brothers emerged from a childhood rich with Southern Shape Note Singing, a choral effort which adds an unmistakably rigid element to the sound. The Everly Brothers had no such influence in their background. In fact, when I spoke with Don Everly some years ago, he had never heard of Shape Note Singing. Everly was also quick to correct a very common misnomer of influence. Because of the edge to much of the Louvins’ vocals and the absolute perfection of their harmonies, many view the Everlys’ smoother sound as a natural extension of the Louvins and see Ira & Charlie as key musical role models for the younger brothers. But Don insisted that this sort of direct-line approach was absolutely wrong. He told me that he and Phil really respected what the Louvins were doing, but that the Everlys already had their harmony sound solidly in place before they came to Nashville.

The other main difference between the groups is found in the content of the songs. Unlike Everly Brothers’ tales of teenage heartache, many of The Louvin Brothers’ greatest songs are original gospel numbers, penned primarily by Ira Louvin. “Just Rehearsing,” “Weapon of Prayer,” “Satan Lied to Me,” “The Great Atomic Power” – These songs merely touch the hem of the garment of Ira’s deep catalogue and remarkable talent as a songwriter. Porter Wagoner once observed, “Ira could write out the lyrics to a new song the way other people would write out a grocery list.”

The Louvin Brothers would finally cross over to the country charts in 1955 with Ira’s secular “When I Stop Dreaming,” but this was only after Capitol Records grudgingly let them try one (and only one) non-gospel number. Fortunately, it was a big hit, which then convinced Capitol to let them record what they pleased. This success also got the brothers an invitation to join the Grand Ol’ Opry, where they were well received and where Charlie Louvin had been performing regularly until his death this week from cancer, at age 83. Charlie had worked the Opry as a single for quite a long time – the brothers dissolved the act in 1963, and Ira died in a car accident two years later.

Let there be no doubt, Charlie had once been the solid lead vocal line to Ira’s aching tenor -- the anchor and an integral part of the harmony. But the man’s singing voice had been absolutely shot for decades. This may have had something to do with the chain smoking I witnessed over three days in 1995. But I can’t be sure. Charlie Louvin was not a difficult interview, but he seemed pretty unhappy that people always wanted to talk about The Louvin Brothers and not his solo career. “I’ve sold more records by myself than The Louvin Brothers ever did,” he insisted – not with pride but with irritation. That is a believable statistic, since the brothers had an important but relatively short career. Their last Top 10 Billboard Country Chart hit was in 1958.

Brother Ira’s volatile temperament never helped the group, nor did his ever increasing alcoholism. But Charlie was protective of his brother’s image to the end, demonstrating pride and frustration by turns during our conversations. “Ira could do a recitation as good as Hank Williams,” he told me. Big talk, but it was true. Of the 14 recitations Ira recorded, most are on the level of Luke the Drifter – the gold standard for country recitations.

When I left Charlie at his home in Bell Buckle, Tennessee that day in 1995 he was copying cassettes of Louvin Brothers songs to send out to various performers. He hoped to generate fresh recording interest in the back catalogue before his copyrights expired. He was simultaneously handing me several new solo CDs he had made for various small labels, such as Watermelon. Charlie was looking forward to recording a song about tour buses called “Silver Eagle,” thinking this one might get him back on the radio.

Before I left, I asked him about country peers and newcomers. “I know what goes into being a country artist,” he assured me. “I know who can make it and who can’t. And I know why!” He had the greatest respect for George Strait because he had a “man’s haircut” and Dwight Yoakam because Dwight had paid for a huge number of roses to decorate the entire Opry interior for Minnie Pearl when she was ailing. When I asked him for favorite songs by either performer, an embarrassing silence followed. But he knew that they were both the real deal. I thought he might be more comfortable in the past -- he told me Jim Reeves had the best voice in country music. He hated Webb Pierce and loved Ernest Tubb. “People in Nashville were just waiting for Webb Pierce to fail. But if anybody could help Ernest in any way, they’d do it!” He wondered how Bill Monroe could live with himself, and when I asked about Hank Snow, Charlie only smiled and laughed. Finally, Louvin didn’t see how anybody could consider Jimmie Rodgers to be the Father of Country Music, as he became surprisingly angry about Rodgers’ reputation. “Look here, now – he had a trumpet on one of his records. That ain’t country!”

Money was a recurring topic. Charlie Louvin clearly felt he had not received his share. “If we could have gotten Elvis Presley to record just one of our songs . . .” It was clear that Charlie firmly believed that he would now be on permanent easy street from royalty income. But Elvis never did, in spite of his reportedly high regard for the duo and the fact that they were the favorite gospel group of Elvis’ mother. Of course, it may not have helped when Ira went off on Presley at an early gig during a package tour. The infamous story summarized: Elvis was playing gospel music on a backstage piano between shows; Ira took exception, calling him a “white nigger.” I asked Charlie his thoughts on Elvis. “Very professional; night-in and night-out,” he said thoughtfully. “I had no problem with Elvis or his act; but Ira was having none of it.” Charlie then sort of snapped back to attention, as if he had forgotten something. “But we were headlining that tour. Make no mistake! Elvis was opening for us!”

Since he was trying to get newer artists to record his and Ira’s songs, I thought Charlie might have done well financially with The Byrds’ 1968 recording of The Louvin Brothers original “The Christian Life.” There was an awkward silence, and I then hesitantly asked if he had liked the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Charlie took a long drag on his cigarette and just stared at me. I tried again – any thoughts on Gram Parsons, and how he had been partly responsible for bringing a younger audience to country music? Another long pause and another long drag. And then, very deliberately, he said, “I have never understood how one man can be sexually attracted to another man. I just can’t understand it!” I was dumbstruck. And this time it was I who was silent.

Charlie Louvin talked with me for three days in 1995 because he thought I could help promote him as a solo artist – he encouraged me to do a separate book about his solo career when I finished with my Louvin Brothers project. And maybe I should have; but I didn’t. I spoke with Charlie out of a deep love for his music with Ira, but also because I thought writing about him could help my reputation and potential career as a writer. I guess we both came up short, but that’s OK. Charlie Louvin did just fine – although he had no further chart action, he remained a respected elder statesman of Country Music, even being inducted with his brother into the Country Music Hall of Fame a few years after our visit. I too was very fortunate – none of my writings about The Louvin Brothers got much attention, but my interaction with Charlie Louvin opened my eyes to fascinating sides of the music business I never knew existed.


Tom Wilmeth 1,552 words

(262) 243-4218

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Tom Wilmeth wrote the liner notes to the Grammy winning CD Songs of The Louvin Brothers, a various artists tribute CD including one of the very last recordings made by Johnny Cash.

Wilmeth has also published the book The Music of The Louvin Brothers: Heaven’s Own Harmony.

He will probably post it all on his blog one of these days when he gets around to it.

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Addenda – Letter to a Friend, who wondered about the Bill Monroe and Gram Parsons references in the Charlie Louvin obituary

So -- Bill Monroe, the acknowledged Father of Bluegrass -- he took the sound from String Band to Bluegrass. And that a large difference. Charlie Louvin was down on Bill Monroe for not taking care of his own brother, Charlie Monroe, who lived in the area but was doing poorly economically and health-wise. Bill and Charlie Monroe had once been an act as the Monroe Brothers, then Bill made it big on his own -- I think Charlie was in the military at this point. Anyway, Bill became huge (but was still very much eclipsed for decades by his own former sidemen Flatt & Scruggs) while brother Charlie Monroe couldn't get a gig. That's a simplified version -- but you get the idea.

How did I get into country music? Well, I was never truly opposed to it, but had almost no time for it EXCEPT for Hank Williams, who I felt was the Alpha and Omega -- I discovered him in the late Cedar Falls days. When I got to Texas, my new friends said, Yeah Tom, Hank is the man. But how about checking-out some of this other stuff? And so I was introduced to country old and new, such as -- Dwight Yoakam, George Strait (then new) and Louvin Brothers and Bill Monroe (old).

Gram Pasons -- not gay. I almost left that exchange out of there, but the reason I left it in -- Because every time I relate that story to someone who knows about Parsons, they are stunned that Charlie Louvin thought that -- cuz Parsons was NOT gay. As I say, judgment call. And I started to explain it in the obit, but it took the focus off of the dead Louvin.

Hope this helps -- I'll say it again: you are now only one of two to ask me for clarification on these points. Nobody ripping on me, so that's good.

Hey -- better run. Stay in touch and thanks for reading this stuff.