Friday, December 26, 2008

Wonderful Xmas gifts, cool software tools and Stevie Wonder

Boy, what a bewildering headline, huh?

You'll understand after I explain what I did for my wife this Christmas.

As I told you long ago, my wife is a huge Stevie Wonder fan. While kids my age growing up in New York and New Jersey during the mid 70s were all all about the gospel according to "Born to Run," teenagers like herself growing up in the Detroit area obsessed over "Songs In the Key of Life."

Since I wanted to something really special for my dearly beloved this Christmas that she couldn't get in any store, I decided to put together a Stevie Wonder video collection and burn it onto a DVD or two.

Mind you, I didn't set out trying to be a pirate by mining the internet for DVD-Rips of high-fidelity concert footage or music videos (actually, by the time, Stevie hit the music video circuit, he had already jumped the shark in my wife's eyes with pap like "I Just Called to Say I Love You.")

No, I just wanted to collect really cool stuff that, chances are, my wife has never seen.

So I hit YouTube. Big time.

A few words of warning: As you may know, the audio and video quality of YouTube videos is not the greatest. In fact, a lot of what I collected was pretty pixillated and of poor to fair audio quality. However, all I was out to do was document this wonderful artist and his work.

Also, I'm fortunate enough to own a Mac which has a hidden feature on its Safari browser that allows you to download YouTube clips onto your desktop as .flv (Flash video) files. For those who don't know about this trick, while you're on a YouTube page where a video is playing, press the A, Option and Apple keys simultaneously. That will bring up the "Activity" window detailing all that is happening on the page. Look for the .flv video that is in the middle of downloading and click on it. A new window will open (you can close it) and the video will start downloading onto your desktop.

To make the video burnable on a DVD, you have to use a video converter program. I like iSquint, a free program that converts almost anything into an Ipod compatible mp4 file. One word of warning: You have to ask Isquint to convert it to the highest video quality or you may wind up converting the .flv video into an audio-only file.

Anyway, little did I know that I opened up a Pandora's box of stuff that I never knew existed. I wound up creating three different DVDs. One DVD is almost entirely made up of a "Making of" documentary (long out of print) that celebrated the 20h anniversary of "Songs in the Key of Life" in 1996. The other DVDs had Stevie performing with the Rolling Stones; doing VH-1 Diva duets with the likes of Jewel, Queen Latifah, Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige; and teenaged Stevie performing in a Frankie and Annette movie with Don Rickles. Unbelievable.

A few observations:

•Consistently, the best stuff (as you'll see below) came from well-planned BET specials. In them, I found Stevie performing "I Got A Woman" at a Ray Charles Tribute, duetting with John Legend on "Ordinary People" and performing the wonderful but underrated "As" at an Alicia Keys tribute. These performances felt real and unforced (although I know they were carefully arranged). Contrast those to the Grammy's and VH-1 performances which were dripping with kitsch or inappropriateness – whether it was a way too-polished duet with Ray Charles on "Living for the City;" a 1985 synthesizer medley with Herbie Hancock, Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby (!); the disappointingly off-key "Mary Wants to Be a Superwoman" with Blige; or Stevie taking the stage with Scott Weiland, Tim McGraw, Bono and Norah Jones to sing "Across The Universe." Mere curiosity pieces with little musical merit.

•I had higher hopes for the "Songs in the Key of Life" documentary than what I actually saw. Most of the time, I find, these documentaries don't really answer the question I alway have: How was this stupendous piece of music really made? Often, we hear a lot of platitudes about how talented the artist is, but don't really get a sense of how this person was able to create his masterpiece. It was nice to see Stevie by the mixing board with his engineers, showing how he made certain sounds, talking about what inspired him to write some of the album's lyrics and how he struggled to get everything right. But I wanted more stories behind the songs, how outside contributors like Herbie Hancock helped and how this morphed into a double album.

•Watching all these videos, you not only get a sense of how talented Stevie is as an artist, but what an incredible musician he is. No one really pounds the keyboards quite like him. Plus, as we learn repeatedly, he was playing all the instruments himself on many of his records – the original Prince. (See below)

•One of the more fascinating clips I found was a British TV account of a press conference Wonder had earlier this year in London after the Grammy Awards. The announcer goes on to say how Stevie "had words of praise" for Amy Winehouse, but I thought Stevie was being very guarded and not particularly complimentary – as if he were trying to withhold his approval, but still wanting to be the polite guest. Tell me what you think.

Anyway, I thought I'd end this post by show you three of my favorite clips, in descending order.

3. Stevie with Gilberto Gil singing "Desafinado."
This was an unexpected delight. Stevie has dabbled in Brazilian music from time to time – most notably on "Bird of Beauty" on Fulfillingness First Finale (1974) with Portuguese lyrics from Sergio Mendes, as noted in this earlier post. But to hear him singing (well, okay, vocalizing) with Gil on one of Bossa Nova's most famous songs was pretty special. I have no idea when and where this took place, but the guy Gil is talking to at the beginning is, of course, none other than fellow Tropicalia pioneer and longtime friend Caetano Veloso.

2. Stevie jamming with Prince, India Arie and Yolanda Adams at a BET Chaka Khan tribute.
Part of one of those BET tributes I talked about earlier, this combination certainly didn't disappoint. You have Prince on guitar and Stevie on keyboards giving it their all on that killer "Ain't Nobody" riff, slipping into the sultry "Sweet Thang," then getting all nasty with "Tell Me Something Good." Masterful stuff.

1. Stevie and Grover. I saved the best for last. You want proof that "Sesame Street" will never be surpassed as the ultimate kids show on TV? Check out the clip that inspired me to go on this YouTube quest: Stevie Wonder teaching Grover how to sing during the early 70s. This is one of at least three Wonder videos related to what was apparently a kick-butt appearance on the PBS show. Performing with his full band, Stevie performs a no-holds barred "Superstition" and the "Sesame Street Song" as well. (You can find them separately on YouTube) Big Bird sure does have great taste.

By the way, my wife loved the present. Not quite the diamond necklace she deserves, but it'll do for now.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Who: Live!

I guess I'm making a habit of reviving this blog every time I see a concert that I liked. Why stop now?

I saw The Who on Tuesday night, the opening night of their abbreviated U.S. tour. My wife and I were in the third row at the Palace at Auburn Hills.

What was nice about this show was this as close to the stripped-down, genuine Who as we are ever going to get. Six people in the band: Roger Daltrey, Pete Tonwshend, Rabbit Bundrick (the band's keyboardist since ), John Enwhistle replacement Pino Palladino on bass, Zak Starkey on drums and Pete's little brother Simon on guitar – w-a-a-a-y in back.

As for the creds of Mr. Starkey, Ringo Starr's son and frequent drummer for Oasis these days, you might not remember this but Peye and Roger thought he so good at channeling Keith Moon that they invited him to be the band's permanent drummer – but he declined.

The night's biggest surprise: Based on previous tours, I expected Pete to once again take the back seat musically. But no, he played lead guitar throughout the night on all the classics. With all the theatrics and his unorthodox playing, we tend to forget how amazingly innovative he is as a player. And he was giving it his all. At one point (because we were so close) we noticed his fingers were bleeding.

No, their voices aren't what they once were. Pete, in particular, seemed to struggle. Roger also had his lesser moments. But give him credit. He could have gone with "Substitute," "Kids Are Alright" and other tunes that don't require him to stretch his vocal chords. But no, we heard "Love Reign O'er Me," "See Me Feel Me" and "5:15" at full blast. More notable: Both "Quadrophenia" tunes were absent from their last U.S. tour in 2006.

Also, Roger never really took a break except when Pete sang "Eminence Front." That was unusual. When I saw him on his solo tour about 20 years ago, he had to let guitarist Russ Ballard do a few of his own songs. Maybe that's the benefit of not dying before you get old. Your vocal chords get a second wind.

The other thing I loved was the retro look of the show. All the guitars and basses (and of course Roger's mike) had cords. The entire stage was filled with miked retro Fender amps. If you were an oldtime Detroiter, you had to love the shout out to the MC-5. Kick Out the Jams, indeed. Pete, in particular, talked about his affection for Detroit: How it was the first American city to play a Who tune on the radio ("Happy Jack"), how the best car he ever owned was a 1966 Lincoln Continental MK II "built in Detroit."

The band played for more than two hours including a three song encore that included "Magic Bus," a Tommy suite that included "Pinball Wizard" and "See Me Feel Me" and "Tea and Theatre" from theband's Endless Wire (2006) album. Among the tunes played live for the first time in years were "Getting in Tune," "Tattoo" and "Sister Disco"

There were a few technical glitches. Townshend restarted "Pinball Wizard" after one of the strings on his guitar broke, exchanging it for a "nice shiny gold one" that he assured the audiences would sound better.

But on the whole, it was an incredibly satisfying show. More than it had the right to be.

The photos you see are from my crappy 1.3 mp cell phone. I'm sorry that my personal technology is about 10 years behind the times.

My taste in music goes farther back than that.

Most of the time.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fulfilling some requests made over the last few months

Ain't it wonderful what you can find at garage sales?

My finds over this past summer have included Carly Simon's Hello Big Man and the Bull Durham soundtrack – yes, the long out-of-print version that sells for $60 on Amazon and I previously only had on vinyl. As luck would have it, some of our more gracious posters had asked for some more tracks from those albums. To thank them for their patience during this hiatus from all things musical, I thought I'd post them here.

"You Know What To Do" by Carly Simon

"Try A Little Tenderness" by Dr. John and Bennie Wallace

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Vienna Teng at Manchester's Riverfolk Festival

And we're back. At least for now.

I'm still absolutely buried in work as I launch my new business, but I wanted to talk about a concert I caught last night at Manchester's Riverfolk Festival, a tiny town about 15 miles southeast of Ann Arbor in southeast Michigan.

After more than 100 posts, I can't believe I've never talked extensively about one of my favorite contemporary artists, Vienna Teng. Described by many as a combination of Sarah McLachlan, Billy Joel and Frederic Chopin, Teng is even broader than that label, I feel.

I watched Teng perform live for the first time about two years ago at the Ark, Ann Arbor's well-known acoustic venue. It was a very good show, I have to say.

But Saturday's performance blew the doors off that earlier concert – even though Teng was performing much of the same material, mixed in with 3-4 songs from her new album that she has been recording in her new home of New York City. This was the first show of a mini-tour that Teng was taking after several months holed up in the studio.

The last time I caught her, Teng performed with a string trio, one of her traditional live configurations. This time, however, Teng was only accompanied by percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Alex Wong, formerly of The Animators, who is also serving as the primary producer of her upcoming album.

And when I mean multi-instrumentalist, I mean multi-instrumentalist. On my favorite Teng song, "Harbor," Wong simultaneously played the brushes and the orchestra bells. At various points during the evening, he also strummed the guitar, softly blew the melodica (so did Teng, as seen at right) and played a strange string instrument I've never seen on "Blue Caravan." On one song, he played a string instrument he had picked up at a booth only an hour earlier. It was pretty mindblowing.

I've got to admit that when Teng and Wong first took the stage I had my misgivings. Teng, after all, was forced to play a Yamaha MIDI synthesizer rather than her traditional grand piano. And rather than the intimate setting in which her music thrives, she was playing in an open air setiing where I was afraid some of the warmth of her sound would be dissipated.

Didn't happen. And I mainly credit Wong, who seems to be Teng's ideal collaborator on many levels. For one thing, Wong seems to have loosened Teng up. While Teng has sometimes taken a lighthearted approach to her music (Witness "1BR/1BA" from her latest Larry Klein-produced album, Dreaming Through The Noise), Wong's ability to float from instrument to instrument without (literally) missing a beat has taken the pressure off of her. And, she revealed, she has allowed Wong to start composing with her, which had always been a completely solitary process for Teng up until now. They showcased the song"Antebellum" from her upcoming fourth album, which they said should debut in February of next year. It featured a strong point-counterpoint melody at the end where Wong and Teng were singing a lá ronde. There was also far less meandering and earnestness than Teng's earlier performance – one of her infrequent shortcomings. In fact, she closed he show with a fun little stompalong numbr that seemed the very antithesis of that kind of work.

The other thing I realized as I watched the performance was how integral the complexity of Teng's time signatures are to the fullness of her songs. It's one thing to hear the wonderful "Gravity" with a string quartet. It's a whole other thing (and so much better) when you hear its unusual rhythms punctuated by Wong's playing. It really contributes to the overall depth of the song.

Take a look at Wong's MySpace page, which includes upcoming tour dates with Teng and some of his own material – including "In The Creases," a lovely song that Teng sang with him Saturday night.

Based on what I saw in Manchester last night, I think the best is yet to come from Vienna Teng.

Play "Harbor" by Vienna Teng

Play "Gravity" by Vienna Teng

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sorry About the Lack of Updates

Very hectic time for me – and it's only gong to be worse for the next week or so.

Besides trying to launch my own company, I've got other fish to fry. Like my son's graduation from 5th grade. Friends visiting from out of town. Teacher meetings. Job applications with pressing deadlines.

And oh yeah. An audition for "Jeopardy" in Cleveland on Thursday morning. I'll keep you posted. (Messages of support are always appreciated)

In the words of Christopher Robin: Bisy, Bisy, Bisy, Backson.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday : The George Benson Effect

George Benson's easy transition from respected jazz guitarist to multi-million dollar pop star raised a lot of eyebrows.

Sure, there were a lot of jazz purists who looked down on Benson for having "sold out." But it inspired several others to make a similar jump – with differing results.

Bernard Wright was a 16-year-old keyboard prodigy from Jamaica, Queens when he recorded 'Nard (1981) on GRP Records. Most of the material on the album was was what could either be described as funk jazz or Gil Scott Heron-lite. But he had one shining moment on the album that displayed his potential as a straight-ahead jazz pianist: A respectable version of Miles Davis' "Solar" with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Roy Haynes.

By the next few albums, however, Wright had abandoned jazz entirely to focus on r&b. And it almost paid off. Signed to Manhattan records, then a new Blue Note subsidiary focusing on crossover artists, his 1985 release Mr. Wright included his biggest hit, the utterly infectious "Who Do You Love." The single rose to the No. 6 on the R&B charts and pushed the album to No. 25 on the same charts. But two more albums later, Wright was forced to the sideline as a session musician who has played with the likes of Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack and Miles Davis.

Play "Who Do You Love" by Bernard Wright

As always, since this was the 80s after all, I give you the video.

Born in South Africa, Butler also played the hybrid of jazz and r&b that was popular in the 80s. But it's definitely fits more into the smooth/AC genre – especially his 1987 hit "Holding On." Despite the fact that the song was designed to appeal to Reaganite yuppies stuck in traffic on their way to work, there are some nice touches in this song: Butler's Benson-like vocalizing accompanying his pretty guitar playing, a nice backing choir and (you should know me by now) the ever-present horns.

Play "Holding On" by Jonathan Butler

Butler has continued to enjoy a successful solo career, recording about a dozen albums over the last two decades – including an album recorded live in his native South Africa last year.


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday– "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"

For my 100th post, which comes almost exactly six months after I launched this blog, I'm focusing on a soundtrack of rather recent vintage.

Released late last year and making barely a dent at the box office, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) stopped the string of hits from producer Judd Apatow, the guy behind Knocked Up (2007) and Super Bad (2007), among other films.

Why did it flop so miserably? Well, it had a few strikes against it. It was a music-oriented movie, which can be hit or miss with the public. It wasn't that funny, despite a few clever moments. And it was a bit schizophrenic: Sophomoric and scatological one moment, obtuse and filled with sophisticated in-jokes the next. It also couldn't decide whether to make the title character likable or a total buffoon.

I also think it was too narrowly focused in its satire. Most of the jokes were take offs from Ray (2004) or Walk The Line (2005). There were so many other great musical biopics to make fun of. What about La Bamba (1987), The Doors (1991), What's Love Got To Do With It? (1993)? So many opportunities, so much wasted celluloid. Heck, the non-satirical That Thing You Do (1996) had a broader focus.

But that's not the point of today's discussion.

My favorite part of the movie was Cox's Brian Wilson phase when he decides to record the perfect song with a full orchestra, multiple sitarists, bushmen playing diggeroos and a bleating goat. Let's not forget the trampoline, substituting for the sandbox. The song itself was so Wilsonesque that it almost seemed like a Smile outtake.

I found out why when the final credits rolled. The co-writer of the song was none other than Van Dyke Parks, who actually collaborated with Wilson on Smile (and walked away when it was clear to him that Wilson was never going to finish it – at least as a Beach Boy).

Play "Black Sheep" by John C. Reilly

Parks isn't the only musical hotshot on the soundtrack. Not in the slightest. Because the title track – and Cox's signature hit – was written by that paramour of power pop, Marshall Crenshaw, along with Reilly, Apatow and director Jake Kasdan. I'm surprised that the song – or any of the others on the fairly solid soundtrack – didn't at least get a Oscar nomination instead of all those craptacular songs from Enchanted (2007).

Play "Walk Hard" by John C. Reilly

As a bonus, I've tacked on one of my favorite scenes from the movie: Cox conversing with the four "Beatles" and contributing mightily to their eventual break-up. Paul Rudd as John Lennon is a real hoot.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

When I'm Polling You....

Hey Everybody,

As we approach 100 posts (this is actually #99), I thought it would be appropriate to ask folks about this site. So I've placed a poll on the left side of the page to get a feel fo what you guys really like – and perhaps want to see more of. Please take a moment to check off your favorite regular features.

Or you could leave me a comment and/or drop me an email. More Jazz? Less Jazz? Cheesier 80s stuff? Less cheesy 80s stuff? Requests for favorite soundtracks? I'd love to hear from you.

It's been fun for the last 100 posts (OK, 99) over the past five months. Hopefully, the next 100 will be just as memorable.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cover of the Week – Arcade Fire "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)"

You can thank your lucky stars that I never was that big a fan of "Burning Down The House."

Because then you would be listening to Tom Jones combining with The Cardigans on their truly awful cover of the Talking Heads hit. I mean c'mon Tom – we thought "Kiss" was cute. But did that justify an entire album, Unloaded (2000), made up of 80s covers? I think not.

I'll admit I whooped it up to "Burning Down the House" at plenty of beer bashes during my college days. But my favorite song on Speaking in Tongues (1983) was always "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)," one of those rare moments when David Byrne quieted all of his anxieties in order to get melodic and sweet.

Byrne has admitted that he wrote it as a love song – another rarity in the oeuvre of a band that fretted over society being "same as it ever was." And by the way, that's not your imagination. Tina Weymouth's bass and Byrne's guitar are repeating the same riffs over and over again in the song.

Still …

I've grown rather fond of the Montreal band Arcade Fire, despite their overwhelmingly pessimistic world view. Which made it all the more fascinating to me that they chose this live version (with AF fan Byrne on the backing vocal) of the cheeriest Talking Heads tune ever as the flip side to their "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" single in 2005.

If anything, the addition of steel drums makes the song sound even happier.

Hmmmm. Rock stars. I'll never figure them out.

Play "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)" by Arcade Fire

Here's a good-quality live video (without Byrne) of the cover.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Burt Bacharach's Best, Back to Back

First of all, a happy belated birthday to Burt Bacharach, who turned 80 on May 12th.

That gives me an excuse to play two versions of my favorite song by one of my favorite composers: "This Guy's In Love With You."

Back in 1968, the red-hot Herb Alpert wa in the process of putting together his first TV special. He asked his good friend Bacharach if he had any left over songs that somehow had never made it to the recording studio. Bacharach pulled out "This Guy's In Love With You," a song that some have speculated was originally intended for Dusty Springfield.

And what a song it is. Never has such simplicity resulted in a pop masterpiece. Designed not to push the vocally limited trumpeter, "This Guy" uses what sounds like five notes. Furthermore, Bacharach's partner, lyricist Hal David, doesn't include any words with more than two syllables.
In the TV show, Alpert sings it it to his then-wife Sharon (He would later divorce her and marry the Brazilian Lani Hall, the original lead vocalist for Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66)

Play "This Guy's In Love With You" by Herb Alpert

And the hokey video:

How good was this song? It became the first # 1 for both Alpert's own A&M label (Alpert is the A and partner Jerry Moss is the M). And – believe it or not, despite prior hits such as "The Look of Love" and "I Say A Little Prayer"– it was the first U.S. #1 for the songwriting team of Bacharach and David.

Further evidence of its strength: Just six months after Alpert's version was released, the duo's traditional muse Dionne Warwick switched the gender and came out with her own version, which promptly hit No. 7 on the Billboard charts. Interestingly, though Bacharach and David produced most of the Warwick album Promises Promises (1969) that contained this song, Don Sebesky actually was behind the boards on this track.

Play "This Girl's in Love With You" by Dionne Warwick

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – Under Cover (1987)

In the late 1980s, everybody was trying to get into the act.

Even those who had no business being there.

I'm talking, of course, about the easy money record companies were making by releasing soundtracks in conjunction with hit films.

There was a big caveat: The film had to be a hit.

And it wouldn't hurt if the record company knew how to do this sort of thing.

None of the above applied to Under Cover (1987), a fick produced by the shlockmeisters of the time Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus. It was designed to cash in on the craze for John Hughes/Cameron Crowe-type teen flicks – with a splash of gritty realism thrown in for good measure.

Directed and co-written by John Stockwell, who played one of Tom Cruise's colleagues Cougar in the smash Top Gun (1986) the year before, the movie also had as one of its co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) to boost its marketability.

Didn't matter. The movie made barely a dent in anyone's consciousness.

So why am I writing about this film?

Partly because of the company that released the soundtrack: Enigma Records was one of the great indie labels of the 80s alternative scene. If you were a college radio music director back then, you listened seriously to almost anything they sent you: Game Theory, Green on Red, Don Dixon, etc. This was also the label that launched the careers of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smithereens and (unfortunately) Poison.

Super-slick 80s soundtracks weren't their thing, however.

Until this one, which truth be told wasn't particularly slick. On one side were the instrumentals composed for the movie by the composer of it score, the one and only Todd Rundgren.

On the other side were five tracks from three Enigma artists: TSOL, Agent Orange and Wednesday Week.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post: To reintroduce the world to the single from the soundtrack, "Missionary" by Wednesday Week, a criminally overlooked piece of 80s power pop from a band that was unfairly compared to the Bangles.

This group – which did have a male among its four members – had a slightly harder edge. In this song particularly, I love how they fuse the garage band guitars into a song that has more hooks than a deluxe fishing lure.


Play "Missionary" by Wednesday Week

And here's the video – which differs from the one that includes clip from the film. Don't worry. You're not missing anything.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cover of the Week – Better Than Ezra "Conjuncton Junction"

Let's have a quick show of hands out there on the Internet.

How did you remember certain things as a kid? Like the preamble to the Constitution. Multiples of three. And what a noun exactly was.

Chances are, if you grew up in the 70s, you all cited the same source: Schoolhouse Rock!, those interstitional animated shorts that ABC put between its cartoons every Saturday morning.

The brainchild of an advertising executive whose young son was having difficulty memorizing things in school, the snippets began airing in 1973 – and ran solidly for 13 years, then off and on for the next couple of decades.

Yeah, I know. You're already humming the refrain from "I'm Just a Bill."

Anyway in 1996, 23 years after the series originally aired, some of the series' first generation of fans had their turn with the compilation album Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks. Among the highlights: Blind Melon singing "Three is the Magic Number," Pavement contributing "No More Kings" and Ween performing "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."

Plus this cover of a song that seems to always land at the top of everyone's list of favorite songs from the show.

Play "Conjunction Junction" by Better Than Ezra

I'll leave you with this bit of trivia. Lynn Ahrens was a secretary at the advertising company, McCaffrey & McCall, when she began writing songs and singing them for the show. Among the songs that she sang; "Interplanet Janet," "No More Kings" and "A Noun Is A Person, Place Or Thing." Today, she is one of Broadway's most successful composers, teaming with Stephen Flaherty to pen the music and lyrics for Ragtime (1998), Once on This Island (1990), Seussical (2000) and the animated film Anastasia (1997).

Ahrens didn't write the series best-known song, "I'm Just a Bill," but I'll leave you with a clip of this parody from The Simpsons.

Play "The Amendment Song" by The Simpsons

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Back to the 80s: Shona Laing "Soviet Snow"

To be truthful, there isn't much I know about Shona Laing other than what I've been able to glean from the internet.

She's fairly well-known in her native country of New Zealand. And has had several hits there, including a song I've never heard (and will in no way include this week) "Glad I'm Not a Kennedy." She also worked with Manfred Mann Band's 1983 political statement, Somewhere in Afrika.

Truth is, Laing is like a whole bunch of artists most of us encountered during the 80s. They put out one killer song. And were either never heard from again or never put out anything nearly as good as that first record.

In the case of Laing, that song was "Soviet Snow."

Remember that the 80s were during the waning days of the USSR. Despite glasnost, the country was still seen as mysterious and somewhat threatening. You could do a whole mix tape of ominous songs associated with a country that many people (mostly Americans) thought could wake up one day and decide to bomb the United States: Kim Wilde's "Suburbs of Moscow," the Beatles' "Back in the USSR," Renaissance's "Mother Russia," Sting's "Russians," among others.

One of the best of the lot, however, was this song – which was quite danceable, once you got past its disquieting lyrics about "radiation over Red Square." Another thing you have to get past: The song's way-too-long orchestral introduction, which takes up 1:40 of the song's 5:37 length. Keep your finger pressed on your Ipod's right arrow. You will be amply rewarded.

Play "Soviet Snow" by Shona Laing

And as usual, here is the video, courtesy of those 80s fanatics at YouTube.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Carly is the Bomb

Two records. Two complete bombs. Two record companies that dropped her quicker than hotcakes (only hardcore Simon fans will understand that reference) after they tanked.

What in the world am I doing focusing on tracks from two of Carly Simon's least commercially successful albums?

Actually, I'm not sure.

I'm just joking.

I guess you could say that my tastes sometimes divert from the majority of Americans, and this serves as de facto proof. Because two of my favorite Carly Simon songs are on Spy (1979) and Hello Big Man (1983).

"Vengeance" was supposed to be the big hit single from Spy, Simon's final album with Elektra. In fact, it's a blatant attempt to recreate the success of "You're So Vain," right down to the backing vocals. No, that's not Mick Jagger once again doing the honors. It's soundalike Tim Curry of "Rocky Horror" fame.

I actually prefer this song to Simon's bigger hit because of its shimmering sound and more blatant funkiness. (Not that it matters, but did you know that Simon is one-quarter African-American?)

Play "Vengeance" by Carly Simon

As for "Hello Big Man," the title track to her final Warner Bros. album, you can probably call it a companion piece to "That's The Way I Always Heard It Should Be" in which Simon gives a faux happy ending to the story of the romance between her father
Richard L. Simon (of Simon & Schuster fame) and mother Andrea Louise Heinemann. (Their marriage was actually pretty stormy)

Sure, it's a little heavy on the synths. The saxophone solo could have been turned down a notch. But here's one of its saving graces: Simon co-wrote the song with Peter Wood. Yes, the same keyboardist and co-author of "Year of the Cat" who was the subject of my first "Unsung Hero" post.

Ain't it nice to be revisting an old friend?

Play "Hello Big Man" by Carly Simon

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday, Rain Man (1988)

Rightfully so, Cameron Crowe and John Hughes receive lots of praise about their choice of music and how they weave it into their films.

But there's one other director I admire for the way he uses music to add extra dimensions to his work: Barry Levinson, particularly in his early films.

Can anyone imagine his directorial debut Diner (1982) without the mind-boggling assortment of 50s tunes that helps define the film's setting? Or how about the way Randy Newman's music in The Natural (1984) builds the tension and, eventually, brings out the joyfulness of the film's climactic scene?

Perhaps Levinson's most successful film to date, and the only one for which he won a directing Oscar, is another example of how music can play a key part in the way the film unfolds. This film about an autistic savant, played famously by Dustin Hoffman, and the cross-country road trip he takes with his brother is undeniably quirky – and the selection of the songs reflect both the theme of the film and the peculiar mind of Hoffman's Raymond Babbit. I mean, you have Etta James singing "At Last," Lou Christie of "Lightnin' Strikes" fame crooning "Beyond The Blue Horizon," Banarama doing their usual goofy stuff on "Nathan Jones," early r&b contributors Delta Rhythm Boys contributing "Dry Bones" and Aaron Neville combining with iconoclastic bassist Rob Wasserman on a delicate"Stardust." The one quibble I have is the inclusion of the Belle Stars ho-hum cover of "Iko Iko," rather than the Dixie Cups' original. But that's offset by the inclusion of one of my all-time favorite songs of the 80s: Juluka's "Scatterling of Africa"

Play "Scatterlings of Africa" by Juluka

Levinson's other unorthodox contribution was the hiring of a relatively unknown German composer to do the soundtrack. Although Hans Zimmer had done a few soundtracks, he was best known as an electronica composer who had played keyboards on the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star." Zimmer contributed a score that mixed elements of Stewart Copeland's rhythmic innovations with the popular electronic music of fellow German Harold Faltermeyer.
The soundtrack itself included two of his instrumental tracks, "Leaving Walbrook On The Road" and "Las Vegas End Credits."

Play "Leaving Walbrook On The Road" by Hans Zimmer

Rain Man won four Oscars in 1989 – including one for Zimmer's score.

But that's not the end of the story.

Zimmer, of course, was on his way to a highly successful career as one of Hollywood's top composers. Five years after Rain Man, he hooked up with Walt Disney and was hired to compose the incidental music for The Lion King (1993).

Yeah, you might have heard of that movie. The Broadway musical. And the blockbuster money-making machine.

The funny thing is, Zimmer's music didn't turn out to be so "incidental." First of all, the musician Lebo M. used it as a basis to compose many of the songs on the CD sequel Rhythm of the Pridelands (1993). And that music was, in turn, used to expand the score of Julie Taymor's Broadway production. Listen to "He Lives in You" (the original Rhythm of the Pridelands version), which has become almost as identified with The Lion King as the songs from Elton John and Tim Rice.

Play "He Lives In You" by Lebo M. and Hans Zimmer

Notice any similarities? Yeah, Zimmer sort of ripped himself off.

But really, that's the life of the Hollywood composer. Right, John Williams?

Two more things to note if you are intrigued by autistic savants and other variations on the ADHD/Autism spectrum. For insight into how an autistic savant's mind works, I highly recommend that you read the autobiographical "Born on a Blue Day" by Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant who is somehow able to explain the way his brain functions to the non-autistic world.

And Ronald Bass, who wrote the screenplay for Rain Man, was also behind Mozart and the Whale (2005), a love story that represents Hollywood's first mainstream attempt to portray the related but less disabling condition known as Asperger's Syndrome.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Stories From the War: Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force

I still own two Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force albums – and I'm proud to admit it.

For one thing, amid all the 80s era slag that has dwindled into irrelevance, a lot of their material still sounds fresh today. Maybe because the group (actually, the groups) managed to capture many of the early elements that would be embraced by hip-hop and rap. Whether you like those genres or not, that kind of influence is a formidable achievement.

But that's not really the point of the post. Because this is one of my "Stories From the War" – an anecdote from my halcyon days as a music business flunkie.

As I stated in several earlier posts, my first job out of college in the summer of 1986 was as a production assistant for U-68, an extremely low budget New York City TV station that broadcast music videos over the air when we weren't playing infomercials. Ever see that Weird Al Yankovic movie "UHF?" Well, the station was a lot like that.

Occasionally, artists would visit our remote Newark, N.J. studios for interviews and the privileges of "hosting" a show, where an hour of music videos would be interspersed with their comments about them. Stil enjoying the success of their big hit "I Wonder If I Take You Home," Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force were one of those bands.

The whole afternoon went very well. Lisa Lisa (Real Name: Lisa Velez), the two members of Cult Jam (Alex Spanador Mosely and Mike Hughes) and the six members of Full Force (Paul Anthony, Bowlegged Lou, B-Fine, Baby Gerry, Shy Shy, and Curt-t-t) were very pleasant and polite throughout the whole experience. Certainly not as boisterous as the Ramones,
who would visit us a few weeks later.

As an added bonus, I did something that would be the envy of 21-year-olds all over America: I was the one who pinned the clip-on mike on Lisa-Lisa's low-cut blouse. You don't soon forget that experience. Could any of classmates at Georgetown University who went on to big careers in Wall Street and the State Department say that?

Anyway, after it was all done, the musicians had some time to kill. The guys from Full Force and Cult Jam wanted to see our library of music videos so they could watch a few of them in our basement. So I brought them downstairs and into the room that held all of our individual tapes.

So what videos did they pull out to watch?

Not Atlantic Starr, Kurtis Blow, Run D.M.C. or any of the other R&B acts all over the airwaves back then.

Nope. They wanted to watch every single Jimi Hendrix video we had in our collection. Never mind that we didn't have a whole lot of them. (We were modeled on the MTV of that time frame, after all), but what we had pleased them no end. They watched them with amazement, pointing out all the great things Jimi was doing with his guitar and enjoying the educational experience thoroughly.

Needless to say, I gained a new level of respect for Full Force and Cult jam that day. Full Force (which was more of a production unit than a band) went on to produce James Brown, Samantha Fox and even the Backstreet Boys in later years.

And as he got older and more wise about the music he was istening to, Rob gradually got rid of the promo copies of the Shannon, Exposé, New Edition and S.O.S Band albums he had received over the years.

But he kept the Lisa Lisa albums.

Not only is the music good. But so are the people behind it.

Play "I Wonder If I Take You Home" by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force

Play "Lost In Emotion" by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force

As a bonus, I just came across this bit of "history" on YouTube. No, not the interview, but a series of PSA outtakes Marshall Crenshaw, Meat Loaf and Wendy O. Williams did for the station, a year before I arrived. They give you a sense of what fun this station was – and how much I miss it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Unlikely Cover of the Week – Cybill Shepherd "This Masquerade"

Maybe you were perhaps expecting a song from the 80s or 90s when Shepherd was already a big star, thanks to "Moonlighting" and her self-titled sitcom "Cybill?" A time when she had the pull, just like her co-star and "pal" Bruce Willis, to play prima donna and demand that the music busiess make her a major singing star?

Nope, believe it or not, this cover of the Leon Russell song (first made popular by George Benson) comes from her 1976 release called Mad About The Boy. Shepherd was just 26 then, a former beauty queen who was five years removed from her head-turning debut in The Last Picture Show (1971). Even back then when she probably wasn't always called back by her own agent, she desired to be an an actress and a cabaret-style singer – and this album, recorded over four days in a Hollywood studio. represents her first attempt at making that transition.

Play "This Masquerade" by Cybill Shepherd

But that's not the best part of the album.

Listen to that saxophone. Your ears aren't deceiving you. That is indeed Stan Getz backing Ms. Cybill with his inimitable sound. If it sounds vaguely like Stan is is once again in the Bossa Nova frame of mind, there's good reason for that. This is his first album after his final recording with Joâo Gilberto, Best of Two Worlds (1976), which we covered in this earlier post. Furthermore, the great Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, who arranged the music on Best of Both Worlds, did the same duties for this album – having Shepherd cover Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste" for good measure.

Play "Triste" by Cybill Shepherd

As he was throughout this prolific mid-70s period when he was working with the likes of Chick Corea, Ron Carter, Jimmy Rowles and Bill Evans almost every month, Getz is once again in fine form. Give him credit. Shepherd is no great shakes as a vocalist (although she makes the most of her limitations). He could have phoned this performance in and simply lent Shepherd his name to sell the album or provide her with the credibility she craved. But Getz' professionalism wouldn't let that happen. As you can hear, there are some really nice Getz licks on this album. As a big fan of this genius saxophonist (isn't that apparent by now?), I'm glad this album is in my collection.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Thoughts on the Future of the CD…

This past weekend, I did something out of the ordinary.

For the last year or so, I have been avoiding the purchase of CDs. Partly because I had so many in my collection that, in order to provide for the safety of my coming marriage, I had to sell off big chunks of my collection.

But also partly because of the change that is occurring all over America: That more and more, people are making CDs irrelevant (and record stores close) because of the rapid rise of using the music to download music.Certainly, I have done more than my share of that.

On Saturday morning, I went to a garage sale in my neighborhood. Much to my delight, in a box filled with used CDs selling for 50 cents, I found one of my favorite albums from 1982: Donald Fagen's The Nightfly. I already have all but two songs from the album on my iPod (and in my computer), but I figured it was time to actually own the album – if only because the cool cover made it worth the two bits I would be paying my neighbor.

I don't think I ever owned the physical album, but I certainly borrowed it enough from friends who owned it, the radio station where I worked or the local library. I admit I got a certain sense of smug satisfaction from finally having it in my hands as my very own.

Then I took the booklet out of the CD case and sat down with it.

Now, as far as liner notes and presentation go, there's nothing special about The Nightfly. As you might remember, it's a loose concept album that uses the optimism of the Eisenhower/Kennedy era as a starting point. As Fagen himself writes in the "liner notes:"
The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties , i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.

I was amused by this passage. I was also entertained by facts long-since forgotten in my overfilled brain. Among the contributors to the album were both Brecker Brothers (Michael plays that nice tenor sex solo on "I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)," Valerie Simpson (backing vocals on five of the album's eight tracks), guitarist Larry Carlton, bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Jeff Porcaro and even the ever-present Rick Derringer on "The Nightfly."

Play "I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)" by Donald Fagen

Play "The Nightfly" by Donald Fagen

I also had a good time reading the lyrics, which are always important when Fagen is trying to make a point.

That got me thinking: Some time in the very near future, when CDs finally disappear (and they will, believe me), we are all going to lose out on an essential part of the music-listening experience.

You can point out the fact that there will always be AllMusic and the hundreds of lyric sites all over the web. But the fact is, all of these sites produce second-hand information – and they don't always get it right. Thousands of mistakes are floating all over the Internet because they weren't posted right in the first place. Where do you know that 99.9 percent of the time, it's going to be factually accurate? That's right. In the original source: All those CD booklets that are going to gradually disappear in the coming decades.

I know. I know. We went through a similar change a few decades ago when CDs supplanted vinyl albums as the medium preferred by the record-buying public. Album artwork became less important, the enjoyable experience of opening a gatefold album cover went out the door, the colorful record labels became less relevant and even the pleasure of contrasting side one of the album to side two disappeared.

But I'm warning you: The change on its way will be more profound than anything that has happened before. Setting aside the fact that there may never be an Abbey Road (1969) or Pet Sounds (1967) released ever again (let alone concept albums like The Nightfly, the whole experience of listening to music is about to get less enjoyable.

And that makes me sad.

So do yourself a favor. Buy a CD soon (perhaps even by clicking on the Google ads that surround my blog). Prolong the pleasure as much as you can.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday: 'Round Midnight

As you might remember, one of the interesting bits of trivia from last year's Across The Universe was that many of the vocals for the film's Beatles songs were recorded by the actors on the set.

Well, try this on for size: An entire film with a soundtrack that was recorded while the cameras were filming.

That would be Round Midnight (1986), an often forgotten masterpiece from French director Bernard Tavernier. Taking its title from the classic Thelonious Monk composition (more properly named 'Round Midnight), the movie stands out as one of the finest films ever made about jazz and the musicians who played it.

Based on the later life of pianist Bud Powell (and to a lesser extent, Lester Young), the film recounts the friendship between an aging African-American saxophonist named Dale Turner who is befriended while in Paris by a French jazz aficionado. Their relationship helps Turner, at least for a time, overcome alcoholism and the many other challenges in his life.

It's a beautiful and gentle film that I highly suggest you rent, even if you are not a big jazz fan. The sweet relationship between Turner (played by jazz great Dexter Gordon in one of his only film roles), Francis Borler (François Cluzet) and Francis' young daughter Bérangère (Gabrielle Haker) permeates every touching moment in the film. It's a real treat. The performance by Gordon, who received an Oscar nomination, has been denigrated by some of his peers as Gordon simply playing himself. But you know what? Sometimes, there's nothing harder for someone to do – particularly someone not used to having a movie camera stuck in his face.

As good as the film is, the music may be even better. Herbie Hancock won the Oscar for his score, but the real stars are an all-star line-up of jazz heavyweights. Besides Hancock himself on piano, there's Freddie Hubbard on trumpet; Wayne Shorter on saxophone; Chet Baker playing trumpet and singing an achingly beautiful "Fair Weather;" Bobby Hutcherson on vibes; John McLaughlin on guitar; Ron Carter on bass; and Tony Williams on drums, among others. Most also appear in the film in vital roles as Turner's fellow musicians.

I have many favorite tracks on the album. Hancock and Gordon's version of "The Peacocks" ranks up there with the Stan Getz and Jimmy Rowles original. The haunting "Bérangère's Nightmare" really sets the mood during one of the film's most riveting scenes. Actress and vocalist Lonette McKee (The Cotton Club) sings a smoky "How Long Has This Been Going On?" that complements the proceedings.

Yet, today, I've chosen to spotlight two songs that feature Bobby McFerrin's wordless vocals: "'Round Midnight" and "Chan's Song (Never Said)," the Hancock original that closes the movie. Of the latter, I've got to say that the inherent loveliness of this song gets me every time. For another great version of the song (with lyrics), I suggest finding Dianne Reeves' rendition on her 1991 debut.

Play "'Round Midnight"

Play "Chan's Song"

Chan, by the way, is a reference to Chan Parker, wife of the late jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker – a tragic figure in his own way whose life has been captured on celluloid as well.

But that's for another Sunday …

Friday, May 9, 2008

Cover of the Week – Neville Brothers "Fly Like an Eagle"

It's been a busy week for me so far, so I want to apologize in advance for the lack of updates.

I also want to go back to a post I started last week, but couldn't get around to finishing due to the time constraints of enjoying New Orleans in all its newfound glory.

As I stated earlier this week, because my wife and I used miles to get to New Orleans, we had to leave Saturday afternoon and missed a lot of stuff at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – most notably the festival-closing appearance of the Neville Brothers (above in a New Orleans Times & Piscayune photo).

The brothers, the city's first family of funk, hadn't performed together at the festival since Hurricane Katrina had her way with the city in 2005. In fact, of the brothers, only Art remained in the city after the hurricane destroyed their home. Aaron relocated to New York, Charles headed to Boston and Cyril moved to Austin, Texas. Though he remains in the city, Art still hasn't returned to his house. Aaron (who just lost his wife of 49 years) will soon move to nearby Covington.

From all accounts, it was a heckuva show in many respects. Sure, it had its tearful reunion aspects to it. You could also call it make-up sex because lots of New Orleanians have apparently been mad at the band for seeming to abandon the Jazz Fest. From what I've read, there was also some great music on the stage. They played some of their great songs such as "Fire on the Bayou" and "Yellow Moon." They brought up fellow festival participant Carlos Santana to play on "Ain't No Use."

So what does this have to do with today's long overdue post? Not much. Except that it gives me an excuse to post this smoking cover of a favorite song by one of my favorite musicians. Seal did a nice version of this song for the Space Jam (1996) soundtrack, as did Les Paul on his Les Paul & Friends (2005) album, but in my mind the Neville Brothers have recorded the definitive cover of "Fly Like an Eagle" Included on their 1994 album Family Groove, this song not only boasts the participation of Miller himself but goes back to the song's roots. As I stated in an earlier post, Miller originally wrote this song in 1972 as a hard-edged form of political protest – the demo I posted several months ago proves that fact. This version, part of an album full of songs pleading for political and social justice, sheds some of the optimistic sheen that Miller himself placed on his final 1976 version of the song.

In other words, the song is finally brought full circle. By a group that itself just went full circle by returning to the city of its birth.

Nice, huh?

Play "Fly Like an Eagle" by the Neville Brothers

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Al Green

It's on my to-do list this week: Listen and maybe even try to get an advance copy of Al Green's new album on Blue Note Records, Lay It Down (2008), which according to the pre-release buzz is supposed to be a sensational return to form by one of the all-time great soul singers. It's supposed to hit the streets May 27.

We sometimes take Green for granted, but there's no question that you can't go wrong with his voice and choice of material – even when he devoted himself full-time to Christian music a few decades ago.

We've gotten so used to other artists covering Green ("Take Me to The River" by the Talking Heads and "Let's Stay Together" by Tina Turner, for example) that we forget that Green himself has taken on other people's material.

With mixed results, I have to say.

Which is the point of today's post.

I present to you Green doing two white soul classics – one is an interesting failure, the other is a stunning success.

From a purist's perspective, I don't consider Dionne Warwick to be an r&b artist. Particularly on her classic Bacharach and David tunes. Of all of these tunes, "I Say A Little Prayer" lands around the top of my list.

This is a song that has been done successfully by soul singers; Queen Aretha almost makes the song her own. But you really shouldn't go over the top for a song where its beauty is captured in its restraint. Dare I say it, but it really needs to stay on the dainty side to capture its inherent spirit. Green does his best to hold back on this version, which was included on his last secular album of the 70s, Truth N' Time (1977), but doesn't quite pull it off.

Play "I Say A Little Prayer" by Al Green

Way more successful is a more recent effort that paired Green with Vonda Shepard for a track on Heart and Soul: More Songs from Ally McBeal (1999). First sung by the English singer Lulu as the title track to the much-imitated 1967 Sidney Poitier film, it was a smash hit worldwide. But more than "I Say A Little Prayer," this was blue-eyed soul in the tradition of Dusty Springfield. In other words, Green could be his old self. Which is what he is as trades verse with Shepard, who often doesn't get due props due to her long association with the Fox series. Give it a listen. I think you'll agree with me. For a song featured on TV, this is pretty terrific stuff.

Play "To Sir With Love" by Al Green and Vonda Shepard

Monday, May 5, 2008

Mystery Solved!

A few days ago I received this email from a blog reader named Michelle:

I have a question that I hope you can answer because it’s been driving me and my sister nuts! The song “ A Night in New York “ is one we both remember but we thought the video featured 3 blondes and for some reason we thought they were The Coconuts from Kid Creole and The Coconuts. I have this image of them dancing on a roof top and also sitting in a 1940’s red convertible car. In your vast knowledge do you recall another cover of this tune or are we victims of flashbacks from watching way too many 80’s videos?

Good eyes Michelle. Because it was the Elbow Bones & the Racketeers music video for "A Night In New York"

But it also wasn't the one I posted on this blog a few months ago (which has since been removed by YouTube, unfortunately)

Let me explain.

Although it was never a huge hit, there were apparently at least two different music videos made for the song. One was for the 7-inch single or shortened radio version, which clocked in at 4 minute and 17 seconds and didn't include either dancing on the rooftop or a red convertible. That was what I originally posted on the blog. The other version was for the extended or dance version of the song, which was prepared for clubs. It lasted nearly six minutes and included both the aforementioned rooftop scenes and red car.

Here is that video. Thanks for writing Michelle. I hope that clarified things for you and your sister.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Few More Thoughts About the Big Easy and the Jazz Fest

My wife and I got back home from New Orleans late Saturday night/Sunday morning after a wonderful visit that included the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, eating stupendous food, walking around the French Quarter, eating more stupendous food, enjoying the view of the Mississippi River from our hotel room and eating more stupendous food.

If you'll indulge me, I 'm going to skip Soundtrack Sunday so I can sum up some of the highlights from the visit. I'm sorry I didn't post more during our visit, but Internet access was iffy at times and I was busy most of the time. Which is the point of any trip to New Orleans.
  • Please don't even begin to compare the NO Jazz Fest with any similar event. The event is that enormous and that ambitious in its scope. Elephant ears and corn dogs? Try Oyster Po'Boys and some of the best Jambalaya you'll ever eat in your life. And that's just the beginning of what you can taste. You will also never hear such a large variety of music. At one point Friday, if you were positioned in precisely the right location on the enormous infield of the racetrack where the festival took place, you could hear a New Orleans Ninth Ward rapper on the Congo Square stage and the strains of a traditional Dixieland jazz band from the Economy Hall tent. Aside from the music and the food, there was a full-fledged art fair, traditional Louisiana craftsman demonstrating their work and even cooking demonstrations underneath the racetrack stands. I've been to the festival about a half dozen times, but it remains mindboggling. You can never hope to capture it all. Just soak in what you can.
  • Despite all of the devastation brought about by Katrina, there remains no city in the United States – perhaps even the world – quite like New Orleans. The architecture, the nightlife and the cuisine remain one of a kind. And the city itself is gradually getting back on its feet, as I stated in my last post. But there remains some deep scars. My parents, who have been down for each of the 39 festivals, say the people in the city aren't as friendly as they once were – perhaps because of the deep psychic wounds not only from the hurricane but from the government's treatment of them. People just aren't getting along the way they once were. A classic example: One of the newspaper articles while we were there was about police stopping some jazz funerals. That never would have happened a few years ago.
  • I usually wander from stage to stage during the festival, rarely catching a full set. Two exceptions this time around: I saw Randy Newman's show on Thursday afternoon and Stevie Wonder's performance on Friday. Randy was his usual irrascible self, doing a mixture of familiar tunes between on-stage patter. He would play "Birmingham" from Good Ol' Boys(1974) and then launch into "You've Got A Friend In Me" from Toy Story (1995), a song that Newman introduced by saying that he had estimated he had contributed $4,000-plus to the total gross of the blockbuster Pixar film. As for Wonder, on the whole, I really got a kick out of his show. Sure, he was a little self-indulgent by allowing his thirty-something daughter Aisha Morris (The memorable subject of "Isn't She Lovely" in 1976) to solo on a piece and talking about his mother's death in relation to Katrina. The song "Ribbon in the Sky" went on much too long. But I came to the Jazz Fest expecting Old School Stevie and that's what I got – complete with a tight-as-hell band. Forget about "I Just Called to Say I Love You," "Part-Time Lover" or (gulp) "Ebony and Ivory" We heard "Superstition," "Sir Duke," "Living for the City" and "Don't You Worry About A Thing." It was 1976 all over again on the Acura Stage. And for once, I didn't mind it at all.
Play "Political Science" by Randy Newman

Play "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" by Stevie Wonder (Live in New York 1973)

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Walking Through New Orleans

Last night, at the conclusion of our excellent meal at The Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans' Garden district, we had a conversation with JoAnn Clevenger, the restaurant's proprietor about the city.

"New Orleans these days is like an eight bedroom house undergoing renovations," she said. "Three of the rooms still need major, major work. But the other five rooms are more beautiful than ever and are ready to be enjoyed."

This is my fifth or sixth visit to New Orleans, but my first since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy in 2005. And I'd have to say that Clevenger's assessment is pretty accurate.

If you look around, there are signs everywhere that this is a city finally getting back on its feet. Yesterday's two-mile ride on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar took us past all kinds of renovation and construction projects underway – including a major Borders book store in the heart of the Garden District. The five bedrooms are indeed ready for guests.

As for the other three bedrooms, we drove around the almost completely decimated Ninth Ward, formerly the city's poorest and most densely populated neighborhood. What was once an area teeming with people has been reduced to acres and acres of overgrown fields with the occasional badly damaged house – or, more hopefully, a newly constructed residence erected by groups such as Habitat for Humanity. Like I Am Legend (2007), you can keep on waiting for a lioness and her cubs to appear in this wasteland.

Even outside of the Ninth Ward, on every other block in residential neighborhoods, there is at least one house with a pile of flood-related debris still sitting on the sidewalk. On some of these houses, as well as others, you can still even see the lines to which the floodwaters rose.

Most Americans still have the image of flooding and a destroyed city in their head when it comes to New Orleans. And that is a big part of the problem for an area trying to get back on its feet.

With New Orleans' population dropping to 200,000 from what had been about 500,000 prior to the flood, the city is more reliant than ever on the tourist trade to support its businesses. And those tourists just aren't visiting at anywhere close to pre-Katrina levels.

On Tuesday night, after my wife and I arrived from Detroit, we walked through the French Quarter. Granted, it was the middle of the week, but less than a mile away, the New Orleans Hornets had just closed out their first-round playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks. We figured the Quarter would be crowded with celebrating fans.

No way. Almost all the streets were empty. Bourbon Street was more active, but nowhere near the levels I've seen in the past. All around the Quarter, which was mostly spared from the flooding, you hear of business owners barely scraping by. Or having trouble hiring busboys, dishwashers and other unskilled help because the city's poorest residents have been all but exiled to places such as Houston, Atlanta and Nashville.

Another sign of the city's struggles: We are staying on the 29th floor of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside in a beautiful room overlooking the Mississippi River. The waterway, prior to the hurricane, was almost always like a crowded interstate. These day, you're lucky to see more than one boat on the river at a time.

It's quite sad. In many ways, New Orleans is more beautiful than ever. But not enough people are around to enjoy it. Not the tourists. And certainly not the former residents who may never be able to come home again. I really am crossing my fingers for this beautiful city, but it may take more than houses and flood prevention efforts to cure its ills. (Speaking of which, the headline in today's New Orleans Times-Piscayune focused on the inadequacy of two of the supposedly improved floodwalls)

On a happier note, I'm about to go out to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival today, where I hope to watch Randy Newman perform. Newman is actually a Louisiana native, as you can hear in this autobiographical song from his 1988 album, Land of Dreams. I've also included an mp3 from one of my favorite New Orleans bands, Cowboy Mouth, which I hope to make the subject of a longer post at a future date.

Play "Dixie Flyer" by Randy Newman

Play "Hurricane Party" by Cowboy Mouth

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: One-Hit Wonder Soul Divas of the 80s

Bear with me this week, everybody. I'm heading down to New Orleans today to catch the jazz festival with my wife. I might give you some updates in this space on the great music we're going to catch, but new posts may also be spotty until I get back Sunday.

Anyway, back to today's post …

My tolerance for dance tunes is pretty low, I have to admit.

There's only so much I can take of the electronic beat boxes, droning rhythms and the repetitive choruses before I want to either head for the nearest exit door or switch to another station.

I do make a few exceptions, of course – most notably with these two tunes, which made a pretty significant dent on the charts during the 80s.

Why? I'd like to think that Jocelyn Brown and Gwen Guthrie have the pipes that their contemporaries on the 80s dance scene lacked.

Plus, behind that disco beat, are some pretty nifty hooks.

I'm particularly fond of Brown's "Somebody Else's Guy," which I'm always tempted to stick in with my retro-soul mix CDs despite its decade. She really slays me on this song, which hit #2 on the r&b charts but only #75 on the Hot 100 in 1984. Brown has mostly stayed in the background during her career, co-writing some songs with Boy George and touring with Culture Club for a spell.

Play "Somebody Else's Guy" by Jocelyn Brown

I'm less attached to Guthrie's "Ain't Nothing Going On But The Rent" (1986) – perhaps because it's less interesting musically. What is interesting is that unlike many of her contemporaries, Guthrie actually wrote her own songs – including this smash hit, a song that has become a feminist anthem in some circles. It hit #1 on the r&b charts and #45 on the Hot 100 to become Guthrie's biggest hit.

A sad note: Guthrie died at the age of 48 in 1999 of uterine cancer.

Play "Ain't Nothing Going On But The Rent" by Gwen Guthrie

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai"

Harold Faltermeyer. Jan Hammer. Vangelis.

These are all composers who hit it big during the 80s with their synth-based scores.

Although he never made it to the Top 40, Michael Boddicker deserves to be added to the list – thanks to his memorable and unique score for the equally unique cult film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), more simply known in most circles as Buckaroo Banzai.

It was one of those films you either loved or hated when it first came out. Some people couldn't get into it because of the complex plot machinations and heavy pseudo-scientific devices (Beings from the 8th dimension? And why did some of the aliens look like Rastafarians?) I have to admit that I had to watch it a second time before I completely understood what was going on.

But that was besides the point. The film is big campy fun – kind of like a comic book for the big screen, which it was designed to resemble.

The cast also made the film entertaining by itself. What other movie includes the likes of Peter Weller, Jeff Goldbum, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin and Christopher Lloyd? You've also got the bed-ridden President of the United States being played by Ronald Lacey, the evil Nazi in Raiders of The Lost Ark, Yakov Smirnoff as his national security adviser and Billy Vera (Mr. "At This Moment") as a member of Banzai's group, the Hong Kong Cavaliers.

To summarize it briefly: Weller is a scientist, brain surgeon, comic book hero and rock musician who needs to stop evil aliens from escaping from the 8th dimension after one of his experiments accidentally lets them loose. Inexplicably, the film ties in these aliens to the fake "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in 1939.

Back to the music: Boddicker, a synthesizer player who worked with Michael Jackson, was hired by music coordinator Bones Howe to provide the music and some of the ambiance for the movie. His equivalent of "Axel F" came during the end credits which finds Weller and the rest of the cast walking around a dry Los Angeles aqueduct. According to IMDB, the music wasn't ready yet so Boddicker told the film's producers to blare out "Uptown Girl" by Billy Joel for the filming because it would have the same tempo.

The song for the end credits that Boddicker came up with never became a big hit (just like the film itself), but it has become almost as fondly remembered as the movie itself.

Play "Buckaroo Banzai (End Credits)" by Michael Boddicker

Here is that final scene.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Cover of the Week – Radiohead "Nobody Does It Better"

I have to admit that this song is a rather sentimental choice because it was something I included on the wedding mix CD my wife and I handed out to our wedding guests last fall.

The reason: She loves Radiohead. Among other things, I love James Bond theme songs, Carly Simon and lots of 80s cheese she can't stand.

With this song, we're both happy.

In 1995, before launching into a live performance of the song, singer Thom Yorke decribed it ass the "sexiest song that was ever written."

I never would have thought that the song would have worked with a male singer, but in the case of Yorke, it sure does. You can almost picture him caressing the mike as he croons out every word, increasing the sensuousness of the lyrics with every verse. Vaguely homoerotic, but definitely a keeper, as far as I'm concerned.

Play "Nobody Does It Better" by Radiohead

Incidentally, I don't know how many of you caught the Rolling Stone article analyzing the financial success of Radiohead and other superstar bands that self-released their own albums in the last year. But according to the magazine's own math, despite the thousands of free downloads of In Rainbows (2007), the band likely netted $5 million – compared to $2 million from their last major album, Hail to the Thief (2003).

As a bonus, here's a music video of the band performing the cover.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Wednesday's Radio Show: The Name Game

Here's the playlist from Wednesday's radio show. As always, the underlined or highlighted represents songs that can be played.

Alex Chilton Replacements (1987)
Brian Wilson Barenaked Ladies (1992)

I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone Sleater-Kinney (1996)
Velvet Underground Jonathan Richman (1992)

I Saw Nick Drake Robyn Hitchcock (1999)

Axl Rose SR-71 (2004)

Buddy Holly Weezer (1994)

Don Henley Must Die Mojo Nixon (1990)

Bessie Smith Bob Dylan & The Band (1975)

Frank Sinatra Cake (1996)
Sir Duke Stevie Wonder (1976)

The Late Great Johnny Ace Paul Simon (1983)

Elvis Presley Blues Gillian Welch (2001)

Jackie Wilson Said Van Morrison (1972)

Levi Stubbs' Tears Billy Bragg (1986)
Aretha, Sing One For Me Cat Power (2008)

Almost made it: "Gene & Eddie," Stray Cats; "Bob Dylan" Nine Days; "Richard Manuel is Dead" Counting Crows; "Hank Williams," Ry Cooder; "Blind Willie McTell," Bob Dylan; "Antonio Carlos Jobim," Heatmiser; "When Smokey Sings," ABC; "Pure Smokey," George Harrison.

No way: "Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin" Scritti Politti

Just like last week's show, this idea has been brewing in my head for a while: Musicians singing about other musicians. Not just any musician, but specific ones. And (well, for the most part) great ones. The requirement: The song had to specifically mention that musician's name and hopefully not be just a tossaway line.

Also, just like last week, the best part of compiling this show was finding songs to fill in the gaps. It was always nice to have an excuse to play songs by unique talents such as Jonathan Richman, Robyn Hitchcock and Mojo Nixon.

Here are the notes:
  • As much as I like the BNL's original version of the song, I wanted to play Brian Wilson singing "Brian Wilson" on this show. Talk about a perfect Being John Malkovich moment. Alas, I couldn't track down a copy of his Live at the Roxy Theatre (2001) album, which features Brian and his backing band doing an a capella version of he song

  • Word is that Mojo Nixon has new lyrics for his viciously funny diatribe against the former Eagle, who "sings just like a wounded beagle." That's because in the middle of a performance in Austin, Texas, in 1992, Mr. Henley jumped on stage and provided Mojo with backing vocals. Said Nixon afterwards: "He has balls the size of church bells." Word on the net is that Phil Collins or Rick Astley became Nixon's target of ire in live concerts (or maybe both, I don't know)

  • Still brewing in my mind is a similar show with songs about actors and actresses. Such as: "Michael Caine" by Madness, "Grace Kelly" by Mika and "Steve McQueen" by Sheryl Crow. You guys will be the first to know whether I'm happy with what I ultimately collect.