Dammit

Posted in Video with tags , , on May 18, 2017 by Todd

Malcolm Holcombe: Another Black Hole

Posted in Video with tags , , on March 18, 2017 by Todd

Sturgill Simpson’s had enough of your crap

Posted in Bent Notes Column, Concert, Review with tags , , , on February 7, 2017 by Todd

simpson

Saturday Night Live is in the midst of a comic resurgence, thanks to one of their strongest casts in years and an abundance of surreal political and social material for their writers to draw from. Last weekend, they finally chose a musical guest that matched the best of what the show has always offered — the kind of black wit and ferocious irreverence rarely seen on prime time television, and a working class disgust at the endless parade of hypocrites and charlatans that seem to curry such favor in this country.

The head honchos at SNL took a risk when they chose Sturgill Simpson, a relatively unknown country artist as last week’s musical guest. He responded with a performance that evinced more teeth gnashing anger, energy and full-on foot stomping glee than any rock group, rapper, or R&B warbler I’ve seen on the show in years.

Simpson performed two songs off his latest release, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a concept album dedicated to his young son that offers advice on navigating the trials and temptations of 21st century adolescence and adulthood.

Taking the stage dressed in an expertly tailored black suit, Simpson led off with “Keep it Between the Lines,”  a plea to “stay in school and stay off the hard stuff.” Backed by the horn-driven funk of the Dap Kings, the Kentucky native stalked the mic with tight-eyed intensity, bearing down on key lines like a prize fighter cornering a punch drunk opponent.

If there’s any doubt, then there is no doubt

The gut don’t never lie

And the only word you’ll ever need to know in life is, why”

His follow-up performance of the raging “Call to Arms” put to rest any notion that Simpson is merely a classic country retread. He stomped and raged like the love child of George Jones and Johnny Rotten, riding the roiling groove and locking eyes with his bandmates as the song unspooled  its cold, coiled admonition.

“Well they send their sons and daughters off to die for some war

To control the heroin

Well son I hope you don’t grow up

Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man”

A country act on SNL is rare, but then Sturgill Simpson probably isn’t most people’s idea of what that musical term has come to mean over the last three decades.

Born in Jackson, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia, he was the first male in his mother’s family not to work the coal mines. The son of a state cop, he was busted selling drugs in his senior year of high school and, before graduation, enlisted in the Navy.

“I saw shocking things in the impoverished pockets in Kuantan, Malaysia, that, as a teenager, shook me to my core. My worldview darkened,” he told Rolling Stone magazine recently. “When I got out after three years, I hung around the Seattle area, a lost soul. I seated tables at IHOP. Then I came home to Lexington in 1999 and experienced an epiphany: I was driving my pickup when Bill Monroe’s “Wayfaring Stranger” came on. I was transported to childhood.”

After being reintroduced to the dark, keening sounds of his home state, Simpson formed a bluegrass band and shortly afterward moved to Nashville in an attempt to kickstart a songwriting career.  Instead, he found himself broke and depressed, stuck in a cinder block apartment with no idea how to hustle his music.

By 2006 Simpson was living in Salt Lake City, working for a railroad as an operations manager. But still, there was the music.

Sensing his growing desperation, Simpson’s wife convinced him to give Nashville another try. He followed up an impressive, though fairly conventional debut, High Top Mountain, with a wildly genre defying sophomore effort, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which featured feedback symphonies and lyrics about reptilian space aliens made of light.

With A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and with last weekend’s SNL performance, Simpson has proven himself to be  one of the few country artists with the brains, heart and guts to embody the best of the music’s past while paying absolutely no heed to the genre’s staid conventions.

“Maybe I’ll do a dance record. Or maybe another song cycle, this time a love story from the Old West,” he told Rolling Stone. “Whichever way I go, I’m trying to learn not to second-guess myself.”

Whatever he decides, I’ll be listening.

Songs of love and hate

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , on December 28, 2016 by Todd

Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen i

 

Sometimes the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.

Sometimes a boil on the backside of humanity is elected president and Leonard Cohen dies.

Such is life.

My reaction to this world’s less certain, bleaker junctures has always been to hunker down with music and sweat it out. And even before his death on November 7, I found myself turning increasingly to Cohen’s music, not for comfort, but for the dark and visceral joy of listening to a man who saw all this coming and wasn’t afraid to stare it in the eye.

The great comedian Richard Pryor once commented, “It’s hard enough being a human being; it’s really hard enough just to be that. Just to go through everyday life without murdering a motherfucker is hard enough, to just walk through life decent as a person.”
Pryor was talking about the added weight racism adds to the burdens of everyday life. But his words could just as easily describe the central theme of Cohen’s music: life is hard, and we multiply the suffering through our own arrogance and stupidity.

The Canadian-born musician began his career as a poet, a path that would later influence his searching but concise lyric style. Disappointed with his lack of success as a writer, Cohen moved to the United States in 1967 to pursue a career as a folk music singer–songwriter. He would go on to produce some of the most spiritually and emotionally incisive work of the following decade, rivaled only by Bob Dylan in his creatively off center examinations of religion, politics, and sex.

But as fascinating as those earlier albums are, the music I’ve been drawn to over the last year is the handful of albums Cohen made in the late 1980s and early ’90s, work that jettisoned his trademark folk and flamenco stylings for cold, synthetic electronics and vapid, soul sister backing vocals. Combined with his increasingly husky, age-damaged voice, the work presented Cohen as a demented lounge singer in some backwater of purgatory.

“I’m Your Man” in 1988 was the first Cohen album to feature his new, grimly sardonic take on modern music and themes. Released during the bleak days of AIDS, crack and Reagonomics, the album revived Cohen’s career, a remarkable accomplishment considering its pitch-black humor and dead-eyed examination of the era’s economic and spiritual malaise.
“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows”

Released in 1992, “The Future” can be seen as an even grimmer companion piece to “I’m your Man.” Only four years down the road, but now the very fabric of America and it’s supposedly inviolable values are in question, and a funhouse world of moral turpitude has replaced the heartland imagery of yesteryear.
“Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it’s lonely here
there’s no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby
that’s an order!”

The title song also includes what may be the most flesh-crawlingly accurate lyric Cohen ever penned: “I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder.”

If all these themes sound familiar, it’s because our world has finally caught up with the man’s horrific vision. We’ve arrived, and now the question is: How do we live with that knowledge, and with each other?”

But for all his hard-eyed realism and unsentimental musings, Cohen was no misanthrope. In “Anthem,” an oasis of a song set among the apocalyptic decay of “The Future,” he offers a vision of hope among the ruins, and words we would all do well to heed in these strange, heartsick times.
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”

Ralph Stanley: 1927-2016

Posted in Bent Notes Column, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by Todd

ralph_stanley

High and lonesome doesn’t even begin to cover it. When bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley left this world on June 23 after an extended battle with cancer, the man took with him a spirit and a sound that, though it may echo in a thousand lesser hands and voices, has no hope of being replaced.

Like the recently departed Merle Haggard, Prince, and David Bowie, Stanley’s small physical being contained a talent and drive that seemed beyond the merely human. Like some mythological Greek deity, entire universes of music routinely sprang from his head and fell to earth, impossibly strange gifts for us mere mortals.

Born in 1927 in Stratton, Virginia, Stanley and his guitar slinging brother, Carter, began blending the folk traditions of their home region and Carter Family-style harmonies into their duo the Stanley Brothers and their backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys, in the mid-’40s. Their 1951 recording of the traditional song “Man of Constant Sorrow” was both faster and harder-edged than the music of acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe. Stanley’s wickedly-accelerated banjo style and high, rough-hewn voice helped take the musical genre of the mountains to new audiences.

To my ears, too much of today’s bluegrass music focuses on the dazzling technical expertise of its instrumentalists at the expense of songcraft. For all his fleet fingered skill on the banjo, “Dr” Ralph Stanley (as he was known to fans) never showboated, never tried to overwhelm audiences with 20 minute, blazing solos. His was a music of loose limbed rhythm, deep blue melody and voices intertwined like strands of mountain laurel.

All of those talents were still very much in evidence almost six decades later when I had the good fortune to catch Stanley in concert in 2008 at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.  Backed by a fine band that included his son, Ralph Stanley Jr. on rhythm guitar, and his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin, the 81-year-old tore through a lean set of originals and folk and gospel standards with the elan of a man half his age.

Dressed in an immaculately tailored western-style suit and white cowboy hat, Stanley also proved he still retained an impressively rude sense of humor. While encouraging the audience to show their appreciation for the band, he quipped, “Giving the band applause is like making love to an old maid — you can’t go overboard.”

Although the march of time had slowed his movements and robbed him of the ability to play his beloved banjo for extended periods, all eyes were on the Grand Ole Opry and Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor member as he stood at center stage and led the band on bluegrass touchstones such as “I Saw the Light,”Man of Constant Sorrow,” and a particularly moving version of “Angel Band.”

The audience that night was larger than one would have expected for an octogenarian performing songs older than most of their grandparents. But by that time Stanley wasn’t just another bluegrass performer — he was the guy who sang “O Death,” which earned him a Grammy in 2002 when it was included on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

As he had in the movie, he sang the song a cappella that night in Roanoke Rapids. With starkly unsentimental lyrics such as “I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk, I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk, … Oh Death, won’t you spare me over for another day?” the song both pointed up Stanley’s courage at facing up to life’s inevitable finale and made one ponder just how much longer the good doctor would be with us to share his remarkable talents.

The diminutive legend seemed to catch a second wind during the last few songs of the show. Here’s what I wrote in my review of the concert the following day:

“Saving the best for last, the veteran performer kicked his voice into high gear, cutting through every instrument and harmony singer with his piercing mountain rasp on “Little Maggie” and closing the night with a sped up, punk rock-raw version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Pretty Polly” that left the audience’s younger members nodding in appreciation.”

I expect anyone who takes the time to discover Ralph Stanley will have the same reaction. Hopefully, today’s listeners can put aside any lingering prejudices about his song’s hillbilly, backwoods origins and simply hear them for what they are — soul music in excelsis.

A cockeyed take on fatherly advice

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , on July 5, 2016 by Todd

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Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” may be the best country album  ever to include an R&B horn section, strings, sheets of psychedelic guitar and a cover version of one of alternative rock’s most beloved hits.

The fact that Simpson’s latest release is also the only country album to include all those elements does nothing to diminish the remarkable beauty and soul to be found therein.

For anyone who’s kept up with Simpson’s career thus far, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” should come as no surprise at all, following as it does on the heels of his Grammy-nominated 2014 release, “Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.” But where that previous album featured songs that pondered the significance of “reptile aliens made of light” and transcendental realms of consciousness, Simpson’s latest was inspired by a far more traditional subject — fatherhood. The entire album, in fact, was constructed as a way to pass on the hard knowledge Simpson has gained over the course of his 37 years of sometimes hand-to-mouth living.

Listeners searching for a set of clichéd bromides to pacify their youngsters would do well to stay far away from Simpson’s version of fatherly advice.

“Go and live a little, Bone turns brittle, And skin withers before your eyes,” he urges on the scalding “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).”

Simpson, a Navy veteran, also addresses the age-old ritual of the young being  sent off to war, and a society that equates violence and callousness with manhood.

In “Sea Stories” he describes a new service member as “Just another enlisted egg, in the bowl for Uncle Sam’s beater.” Simpson imagines the young man’s battle with drug addiction, which results in his dishonorable discharge.

“You’ll spend the next year trying to score

From a futon life raft on the floor

And the next fifteen trying to figure out

What the hell you did that for”

And then he drops the unexpected denouement:

“But flying high beats dying for lies

In a politician’s war”

The song that immediately follows, a midnight soul cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” takes that work’s critique of unthinking consumer culture and cross pollinates it with the Bee Gees classic “To Love Someone.” It’s a startling move that could have been deeply embarrassing in lesser hands. Simpson’s reading, however, sounds as natural, as inevitable, as a child’s first words.

Of course, all the inspired lyrics and hip song choices would mean little without an equally potent sound to brace up the whole affair. In that  pursuit, Simpson is aided in no small part by both his ace touring band and The Dap-Kings, the swaggering R&B horn section perhaps best known for their work on Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough album “Back to Black.” The combination concoct a dense, rhythmic brew that is at once brighter and more seethingly alive than anything he’s tried before.

With the recent passing of country contrarians Merle Haggard and Guy Clark, Simpson is one of the few musicians left standing who seem willing to not only meet the music’s storied traditions head on, but also cast them aside completely when it suits his restless vision. In the process, he’s proven himself to be one of the few country artists whose albums are anticipated with the same sense of ‘What will he come up with next?’ wonder as progressive rock and rap acts such as Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar.

Whatever direction Simpson chooses to go in the years ahead, he’s already left most of his peers far behind. With a voice like pine tar and dust and a mind like a tornado, it’s bound to be a fascinating journey.

Saying goodbye to an electric talent

Posted in Uncategorized on May 16, 2016 by Todd

Prince+Prince Rogers Nelson+Once Eye Covered+Sexual+Teasing+Flirtatious+Peek a boo+flirtation+mysteriousness+allure+romance+Body

Prince Rogers Nelson, his Royal Badness, the genre shattering Purple One from Minnesota, was the last true rock star worthy of that title. There is simply no other living musician who comes close to embodying his almost supernatural combination of instrumental and songwriting prowess, showmanship, forward looking fashion sense and unflagging work ethic. And that’s to say nothing of his very real, and very vital, eccentricity and mystique, that sense of otherness that seems to envelop many of the most talented among us.

I missed out on the heyday of much of my favorite music from the past. I wasn’t even born yet when the Rolling Stones released “Honky Tonk Women” in 1969 and I was barely out of kindergarten when punk finally broke through the morass of stadium rock in the mid-’70s. But I was damn sure there in 1983, sitting in front of the TV in my parent’s living room, when Prince and his band, The Revolution, appeared on the ridiculous pre-MTV pop music show Solid Gold to lip sync their way through one of his earliest and greatest hit singles, “1999”.

I was 12 years old, my parents were out of the house, and I remember stopping whatever it was I had been doing to stare at the TV when those first, orchestral synth riffs came leaping from the screen. Clearly, this was something new, and if the song itself didn’t make that clear enough, the musicians themselves certainly did. The female keyboard player, who sang the first verse, writhed suggestively in some sort of barely there latex outfit; her counterpart on the opposite side of the stage jammed away in a green doctor’s smock and sunglasses. And then there was Prince himself, decked out in that iconic purple trench coat and the funkiest jerri curl ever seen, already clearly a mega star, if only in his own mind at that point.

This band was male and female, black and white and…whatever Prince was; frankly it was hard to tell. For me, and I’m sure for many others watching that night, this was a Moment, one of those rare instances when something genuinely distinctive and modern crystallizes right in front of your eyes.

A little over a year after his Solid Gold appearance, Prince was, arguably, the most famous musician in the world, with both a number one album and movie, Purple Rain, and a growing reputation as one the most gifted players and performers in the world. At least for me, Michael Jackson simply could not compare.

I couldn’t have intellectualized it at the time, but this Prince character had somehow synthesized a lot of disparate elements of music and fashion that were part of a loose New Wave/ post-Disco scene at the time, everything from the electronic experiments of Kraftwerk and Devo, to Parliament Funkadelic’s synth infected funk and the minimalist punk stylings of The Ramones. At the same time he was also a throwback to Little Richard (the scream, the hair and makeup), James Brown (the dancing and funk jams), and Hendrix (that insane guitar facility), musicians who also prided themselves on being performers par excellence.

He was also, unlike many performers who find massive success, determined to test himself and his audience. This is, after all, the guy who stripped the bass part from maybe his greatest song, “When Doves Cry” at the last minute, despite protests from his music label. And when’s the last time you heard something as weird, stripped down and freaky as “Kiss” on the radio?

It speaks volumes about the man and his talent that musicians from every branch of the sound spectrum have offered their appreciation for Prince in the wake of his death on April 21 at age 58. A few hours after I heard the news of his passing, I read a comment to the effect that the world had lost its finest singer, guitarist, drummer and performer on the same day. That’s hyperbole to a certain extent, but not by much. If you don’t believe me, just watch any of his live performances that are available on YouTube, or the Saturday Night Live special that was given over to his appearances on the show over the years.

On the stage, the man simply burned. Just consider that much of the Purple Rain album, including the majestic title track, was recorded live. I’d go so far as to say that Prince may very well have been the most gifted guitarist since Jimi Hendrix and probably the single greatest showman American popular music has ever seen. He really was that incredible.

And he was sharing that gift until, almost literally, the very end. Which makes it that much sadder that he should end his days alone in an elevator, having apparently overdosed on pain medication prescribed for injuries sustained over years of performing

A larger than life rock star who was also a diminutive, extremely shy man. A fabulously wealthy celebrity who chose to remain in his home city most of  his life. An utterly enigmatic diva and, apparently, one hell of a basketball player. Male, female. Rock, pop and funk.

Prince contained multitudes. We’ll never see his like again.