Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bye Bye B B

The first time I saw BB King was at the old Loew's Theatre in Waterbury, Connecticut on a double bill with Malo, which was an offshoot of Santana, an incredibly strange combination, especially since Malo disappeared off the radar shortly after the concert. BB was a match for downtown Waterbury, his blue collar blues catching the working class mood, interspersed with classics like "Lucille" and "The Thrill Is Gone", the tune that every newscast in the country used for background when they announced King's passing at the age of 89 in Las Vegas,

The second time I saw him was as the closing act at the Newport Jazz Festival in - I think - 1985. By then, I realized just how much stature he brought to the blues, making his mark in Memphis as a dee jay first before embarking on his long long career. I also knew by then that BB was always dressed to a "T" , super polite, and capable of spinning off the smoothest riffs matched by a mournful vocal. I was familiar with "Every Day I Have The Blues", "How Blue Can You Get?". "Paying The Cost To Be The Boss" and all the other standards that were part of his permanent repetoire. The only problem was I had dragged my poor pregnant wife to the Festival to see Miles Davis, so her incredible patience was gone by the time BB got onstage,  so we stayed for maybe two tunes.

The last time I saw him was a little over a year ago in Providence. This time his band came out and warmed up the crowd - who seemed to spend more time getting selfies than listening to the blues (As I explained in a previous blog !) - before the King himself made a grandiose entrance in a wheelchair. I can't really say he was resting on his laurels, but BB seemed more intent on interacting with the audience, in between choruses of "You are my SUN-shine - my only SUN-shine" but eventually breaking into "Thrill" and "Everyday"  as a kind of musical tapestry. He was led off at the end by a dude with the King's coat and hat a la James Brown.

I guess I witnessed the three stages of BB King , as well as playing his music on the radio, truly the last of the Mississippi Delta masters. He was fortunate enough to live long enough to see himself crowned "King of the Blues." .

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Blurred Verdict ?

The recent court decision awarding Marvin Gaye's heirs over $7 million in damages from Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke over the "substantial similarities" between "Blurred Lines" and Gaye's classic "Got To Give It Up" was, at first, music to my ears, since I already blogged strongly in Marvin's favor, with all those noble thoughts about originality and integrity. But then I started thinking about the nature of music.

Is it possible that Gaye was ripped off? Yes. But you also have to take into account that someone somewhere might just come up with a similar beat at random that just happens coincidentally to sound similar.The nature of music - especially popular music - has always involved borrowing tunes, especially in the case of an idiom like the blues, which incorporates similar standard riffs over and over again. The crux of the matter revolves around copyright law and a famous term known as "fair use". Simply put, fair use refers to the nature and use of a copyrighted work in another context, such as education or training, with legal limits on what is permissible. Court decisions have been all over the road, the most bizarre being a decision favoring the Rolling Stones over an orchestral riff that was actually written and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

The only really convincing "substantial similarity" case as far as I'm concerned is the Led Zeppelin - Spirit controversy, which claims that Page, Plant et al stole a riff from a Spirit tune and then used it as the theme for Stairway To Heaven. I actually had a copy of Spirit's album back in the day-they were out of California. The two tunes sound almost exactly alike, so keep your ears open for another court action.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that artists do come up with similar ideas at different points in time in a general sense, but, when so-called original music sounds EXACTLY like someone's else's , you have to wonder where that inspiration came from.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Extra Extras

I guess I should be pleased that I finally excised my lingering fantasies about making it in Hollywood - I was one of the extras recently when the producers of "Bleed For This" - the cinematic story of Rhode Island boxer Vinnie Pazienza - called for a crowd to help film the final fight scenes at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence.

My brush with stardom began when I strolled into the venue shortly before the required arrival time of 8:00 AM, not wanting to be late - as is frequently the case in my life - for any potential dates with destiny. The idea was to re-create a pivotal fight that Vinnie Paz had with Roberto Duran, so potential participants were told to dress in 80s cocktail outfits. I scrolled through a few dozen pictures before deciding that the best retro look would be Miami Vice, so I picked out a wicked pink tie coupled with black shirt and black pants. I was such an idiot I actually brought a white sport coat to top it off a la Don Johnson / Phillip Michael Thomas, but chickened out at the last minute and left it in the car.

There was already a pecking order established, reminding me of the good old arbitrary radio days in Providence, ironically when Vinnie was up and coming as well as my stint with Carolyn Fox 94HJY, as evidenced by rows of seats set up right next to the "ring", which even had an old style MGM Grand sign in authentic 80s cocktail lettering, apparently reserved for the best outfits. It turned out they were invited guests or veterans from the previous day which makes sense - a reward for staying there 16 hours the previous day. I realized very quickly that I was probably not going to be discovered, so I decided to settle for the free water and lunch to come.

Eventually, finally, something started happening, after I had exhausted every morsel of conversation with the guy sitting next to me, a retired electrician from Westwood whose daughter was in the "business:" and drove down just to see what it was all about, and we were herded onto the main floor. The scene was one familiar in most boxing sagas, the moment when the two contenders make the long walk into the ring, our "extra" roles being to line the sides of the waist high barricades and jeer for Paz but cheer for Duran - or something to that effect - orchestrated by the assistant director and a plethora of other assistants plus assistant wanna bes helping them. This time, I was next to talkative woman whose son was in the "business" and who had been to various "shoots" with him, who started out sounding interesting but - just like the scene itself - became very redundant very quickly.

After several takes featuring my brilliant anti - Paz comments like "He's got a glass jaw!" - which I figured SOMEBODY would notice before picking me out of the crowd for a larger role - we moved to sections of seats on on side of the ring. As you'd expect, a lot of 80s type tunes were playing in the background in between the endless takes. It was eye-opening to see how they re-created the fight. A trainer would get into the ring with the actors and show them both how to throw the punches right before they filmed the scene. Our job was to scream or pantomime screaming while the punches were filmed from all different angles. They actually filmed a couple of scenes, one where Vinnie's trainer is trying to talk sense to him in the corner, and another where Myles Teller - Vinnie - sneers at Duran : "Is that the best you got?" after a flurry of punches.

I didn't get discovered - yet - but as a field trip into movie-making, it was a great experience. Plus I'll go anywhere for a free lunch !!!   

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Buddy Guy Conquers Cranston

I have driven by the Park Theater in Cranston for years without paying much attention to it, dimly aware that it was being refurbished until I started noticing more aggressive advertising for the venue as well as some iconic names of upcoming performers like the Wailers , George Thorogiood , and Buddy Guy. Buddy is the consummate Chicago blues hero,jamming with musicians ranging from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton. his guitar playing effortless, constantly reinventing popular music into the blues, his demeanor relaxed and self deprecating. The only variable when it comes to seeing "icons" is age - as in are they still up to the challenge? In Buddy Guy's case, onstage at the Park in Cranston recently, the answer is a resounding yes.

The show opened with Buddy's protege, 15 year old guitarist Quinn Sullivan, who powered through a few recognizable classics , paying homage to Guy, Hendrix and Clapton and generally tossing off long, elaborate riffs, getting the audience primed and ready. After a quick break for drinks, popcorn, etc., Buddy stormed the stage, opening up with "Damn Right I Got The Blues" off his Grammy-winning CD of the same name, his commanding riff combining with the desperate vocal. That segued into " Five Long Years", a slower classic giving Guy endless opportunities to coax seemingly impossible notes out of his guitar, once again combined with a mournful refrain: "I been mistreated / People you KNOW what I'm talking about".

Buddy had the audience involved, constantly berating us for screwing up , running through his vast repertoire including a nod to his late great collaborator, harp player Junior Wells, with "Hoodoo Man Blues". Guy really shook the place up when he walked down to the aisle in the middle of a spine straightening solo and proceeded to stroll past the audience all the way to the back of the house, never missing a note, grinning as he played relentlessly.

The teenaged virtuoso helped Buddy close out the show, the set showcasing their own blues drenched versions of "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream, and  "Voodoo Child" by Jimi Hendrix, trading solos with each other as well as  the keyboard player. When Buddy Guy finally slung his guitar over his shoulder, told his last joke and headed for his tour bus, we knew we had gotten a good dose of the real thing from one of the giants of the blues      


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Psychedelic Myths or Seperating Fact From Fancy

I started musing the other day about the rumors and myths that used to be routinely passed around regarding the "secrets" of rock and roll. As I recall, some of the most common myths were:

1. The Rumor: Paul McCartney was dead which is why he is walking barefoot on the cover of "Abbey Road - according to a blog on, he has been dead for years.
The Facts: Apparently, this wasn't true because he is still performing - or a zombie is anyway !

2 The Rumor:. Mama Cass Eliott of the Mamas and the Papas choked to death on a ham sandwich.
The Facts :According to the official police record, she died in her sleep of a heart attack after a series of performances at the London Palladium in 1974. A half - eaten sandwich was found in her hotel room, but no food was found in her windpipe. Cass Elliott had in fact been fasting four days a week prior to her death and had lost 80 pounds, so the heart attack was thought to be a result of her extreme weight loss.

3. The Rumor:  Jimi Hendrix' drummer died when his heart burst from doing too much speed.
The Facts: Both Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix' drummer and Noel Redding, the bass player, didn't pass away until the opening decade of the 21st Century, and neither one died from an overdose.

4.The Rumor: Ginger Baker was a likely candidate for the same fate
The Facts: His birthday was yesterday.

5. The Rumor: Kurt Cobain was killed and didn't commit suicide.
The Facts: The rumor about the rumor is that Courtney Love was responsible, partially because Kurt's body contained so much heroin that it would have been impossible for him to fire the gun. Nobody knows what happened except him.

6.The Rumor: Jim Morrison is alive
The Facts; Yeah, right - he lives with Marilyn Monroe.

7. The Rumor:Gene Simmons had a cow's tongue surgically attached to his mouth.
The Facts: See # 6


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Reggae, Rock, Country, Funk and The (Accoustic) Dead : Newport Folk Festival 7/25/14

I have an indelible image of Jimmy Cliff burned into my mind from the pivotal reggae film "The Harder They Come". Time has run out for Cliff's character - he has to flee Jamaica or face certain death at the hands of the brutal police. Cliff tries to swim after a Cuban bound freighter , struggling to plow through the waves as the crew beckons to him, finally forced to give up and retreat to a small island, where he is quickly discovered by the Jamaican authorities. In a final show of desperate bravado, Cliff's protagonist -dressed in his sharpest outfit, brandishing his six gun -   challenges the cops to " Send out the best MON" - a gonzo reference to TV Westerns a la High Noon - before he is snuffed out.

Fast forward 40 years or so to the Quad Stage at Fort Adams in Newport for the first day of the 2014 Folk Festival, where Jimmy Cliff himself launches into an energetic, uplifting set of the songs that reverberate in the collective baby boomer consciousness, the band kicking things off with an a cappella version of "By The Rivers of Babylon" before Cliff swooped onstage to "You Can Get It If You Really Want". He sounds exactly the same, and he knows how to handle a crowd , leading an informal singalong to "Under The Sun , Moon And Stars" that had the audience bellowing back the chorus between swaying to the accessible beat as Cliff reminded them" Got to have some fun - let happiness run - und-er the sun - moon - and stars." He delivered an appropriately moving "Many Rivers To Cross"  as well as "Wide World" a la Cat Stevens as opposed to the Maxi Priest version, and threw in an updated version of "Vietnam" substituting "Afghan-is-tan ---Afghan-is-tan" instead. Cliff's anthem will always be "The Harder They Come", which had the entire crowd on its feet swaying to the beat, the ultimate Jamaican poor man's lament: "They tell me of a pie up in the sky / Waiting for me when I die / But between the day you're born and the day you die / They never seem to hear even your cry". Jimmy Cliff deserves a lot of credit for knowing how to work the crowd in the tradition of James Brown or Wilson Pickett, as well as embracing the songs that - in many respects - first brought reggae to the world stage.

The great thing about festivals with the stature of a venue like Newport is the surprises you hear, as well as the sleeper acts. In this case, there were several surprises, staring off with The Devil Makes Three, a group I blogged about a couple of years back because of a personal connection, not to mention their high energy blend of strings including a stand up bass and a truly sizzling fiddle that resonated with the crowd. Another surprise was Reignwolf, falling somewhere between Stani'd and Jimi Hendrix, but exceptionally well played  heavy duty electric guitar. The "sleeper" was Robert Hunter. His name sounded vaguely familiar, but it wasn't until I was walking up to the stage that - with my girlfriend Sue's help - I realized Hunter was responsible for some of The Dead's best known songs. His entirely acoustic performance had the crowd gently singing along to Jerry Garcia standards such as "I Will Survive" and "Friend of the Devil". One of the true surprises of the day was a sudden appearance by Mavis Staples herself, unexpectedly joining Lake Street Dive on stage even though she wasn't supposed to play until Sunday. But that's why music festivals with a long tradition like Newport are the best way to experience music - you never know what you'll hear next !!!     

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Wolfman

If you've never heard Howlin Wolf, then you've never seen those insidious Viagra ads on TV, where the self confident but obviously over the hill dude with the muscle car uses bottled water to keep it from boiling over while Wolf moans "Oooh-ooh-eeee" to his signature tune "Smokestack Lightnin'" in the background- the new theme song of the ED- inflicted male.

In a kind of cultural twist, the first version of the song I ever heard was by the Yardbirds, another testament to the fact that the Wolfman's influence spread far and wide from his Delta roots, born Chester Arthur Burnett, June 10, 1910 in West Point,  Mississippi. Supposedly, his nickname came from his grandfather, who would warn little Chester that, if he misbehaved, howling wolves would get him for being bad.

Burnett was always an overpowering presence, as another one of his nicknames as a youth was "Big Foot" - Wolf was over 6 feet tall and weighed close to 300 pounds ! Like many Mississippi bluesmen, he started out singing in a local church choir, getting his first guitar at the age of 18. Burnett was drawn to the legendary  Charley Patton after seeing him perform at a local juke joint, amazed by Patton's Jimi Hendrix-ish gyrations with the guitar, playing it backwards, forwards, over his shoulder, between his legs. Wolf loved showmanship. One of his favorite tricks was to shake up a Coke or other carbonated soda, stick in his crotch prior to going onstage, then unzipping his fly at the climactic point of the song and popping the cap off.

After playing throughout the Delta in the 1930s with the likes of Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines, and serving in the Army during World War II, the Wolfman caught the ear of the legendary Sam Phillips, who recorded Burnett's first "hit" , "Moanin' After Midnight". A year later in 1952, Howlin' Wolf is signed by Leonard Chess, and moves to Chicago. If the movie "Cadillac Records" rings true, Burnett showed up in a pickup truck to sign the Chess recording contract. He was apparently pretty strict with his band and his morals, and was married to a woman who managed his money so well that Wolf actually paid his musicians decent salaries as well as health insurance.  One scene in "Cadillac" depicts the bluesman as paying for Little Walter's funeral in a tense scene with Muddy Waters, who reportedly clashed with Wolf over the theft of backup musicians.

A lot of Chester Burnett's music has permeated rock and roll, with tunes like "Ain't Superstitious" . "Spoonful", "Red Rooster", "Back Door Man", "Killin Floor", and of course - "Smokestack Lightnin" , which actually won a Grammy in 1959. The Wolfman died in 1976. and has a harmonica and guitar etched on his Chicago grave. Perhaps the most ironic tidbit to his cryptic career concerns an interview in which he was asked what the mysterious lyrics to "Smokestack Lightnin' " actually meant. Howlin Wolf reportedly - and somewhat sheepishly - admitted that he just liked the tune and the words really didn't mean anything at all.