Archive for Saturday Night Live

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.

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SNL: Bring back the anarchy!

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , on March 9, 2015 by Todd

Belushi

It’s hard to believe Saturday Night Live has been around for 40 years.

I think I was in third grade the first time I watched SNL. If memory serves it was summertime and I was, at least for a few months, free to stay up till the wee hours of the night, when strange and wonderful things often found their way onto the TV screen.

The first SNL sketch that caught my attention was John Belushi’s Samurai Delicatessen, in which the show’s first breakout star prepared sandwiches for customers using the ancient power of his razor sharp sword. I think that was followed by the recurring skit where a clever shark knocks on people’s doors pretending to be a repairmen, door-to-door salesmen, or candygram messenger. Even to a kid raised on horror comics and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, this was bizarre stuff. I was hooked.

While I loved the off the wall comedy sketches, some of which were wildly inappropriate for a kid my age (apparently young minds weren’t quite so fragile in the 1970s), the moments I truly looked forward to were when the SNL musical guest of the night would come out to perform.

It’s been said before, but the cast members on SNL during those early days were the equivalent of comedic rock stars, with all the manic, self-destructive energy of their ’60s musical heroes. The bands that appeared on the show reflected that spirit, as well as the wide-ranging musical tastes of the cast members and SNL creator Lorne Michaels. Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Patti Smith, ABBA, George Harrison, Chuck Berry, The Kinks, Willie Nelson, Devo, Sun Ra, and the Rolling Stones all appeared on SNL between 1975 and 1978. There was also one fairly mind boggling episode that featured Levon Helm, Dr. John, and The Meters on the same stage.

willie nelson snl

At some point, the distinction between the comediennes and the musicians began to break down entirely. When Joe Cocker was the SNL musical guest in October 1976, Belushi joined him on stage, doing his dead-on, spastic limbed Cocker impersonation to hilarious effect.

In the same way that the early comedy sketches felt like they could go off the rails at any moment, the musical performances shared that same anarchic spirit. This was truly ‘live’ theater, and the realization that things could go horribly wrong at any moment made the payoffs all that more special. For every transcendent performance by the likes of Elvis Costello or, a decade and a half later, Nirvana, the shows history is also littered with truly terrible musical moments, like the Rolling Stones’ oblivious, out of tune 1978 appearance.

keith snl

And then, of course, there were the Blues Brothers, the pseudo, is-it-fake-or-not soul band concocted by Belushi and fellow SNL cast member Dan Akroyd. The idea produced one classic movie, a forgettable album, and several regrettable attempts to recapture the magic of the first film without Belushi, who died of a drug overdose in 1982.

Belushi’s death marked the end of an era for SNL, one that was fueled as much by recreational substances as youthful creativity. After a brief renaissance in the early 1980s thanks to Eddie Murphy, the most subversive, dangerous show on television simply ran out of gas.

And yet, somehow, it survived. Today, SNL still has moments of comedic greatness (pretty much anything with the recently departed Bill Hader qualifies) but all too often the sketches feel perfunctory and uninspired. The musical numbers have also suffered from that same lack of spontaneity in recent years, with slick, attractive entertainers seemingly more concerned with matching their performances to their prerecorded vocal tracks than with anything resembling blood and guts transcendence.

Live music, like good comedy, should be a high wire act without a net, where everything is risked in order to pull off the seemingly impossible. If SNL can locate that spirit once again, I’ll be more than happy to stay up past my bedtime to tune in.

D’Angelo returns with a triumphant, unexpected album

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , on February 7, 2015 by Todd

dangelo

For most people the highlight of the past weekend was Sunday’s Super Bowl match up between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. For me, however, the peak moment came one day earlier, with a live performance by one of my generations most talented, and reclusive, musical masterminds.

When Richmond, Va native Michael Eugene Archer, better known by his stage name D’Angelo, stepped up to the microphone on the stage of Studio 8H in the NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza last Saturday night, it marked the culmination of his recent return to the public spotlight. The Saturday Night Live appearance by D’Angelo and his band, The Vanguard, followed on the heels of the Dec. 14 release of his first album in 14 years, Black Messiah, an event that only a few months ago seemed all but inconceivable.

At this late date it’s easy to forget that the man was once considered the savior of traditional R&B, the gritty, bottom heavy but melodic sound that dominated black radio in the late 1960s and throughout the next decade, before giving way to the automated sounds of drum machines and synthesizers in the early 80s.

With his 1995 debut album, Brown Sugar, D’Angelo came on like a rawer, more blues based version of many of the performers in what was then known as the Neo-Soul movement, which looked back to the sounds of the past for inspiration, largely eschewing the modern touches that had drained much of the life out of what passed for R&B at the time.

But the young man would soon prove to be far less of a traditionalist and far more of a mad musical scientist in the tradition of Sly Stone or Parliament Funkadelic’s George Clinton, black musicians who, despite tasting pop success, chose to follow their own knotty, eccentric musical paths, often at the expense of their careers.

D’Angelo’s follow-up record, Voodoo, would take four and a half years to complete. Now hailed as a masterpiece, it features a far more mature voice, both musically and lyrically, with experimental touches and an almost surreally stretched out sense of tempo. The album also brought the reserved, almost painfully shy musician his first taste of mass success, with the slyly erotic video for the song “Untitled (How Does it Feel) garnering D’Angelo a new wave of female fans.

For better or worse, it was an image he chose to run from almost immediately. There would be no new music for another decade and a half. Over that period the once athletically built musician would become an alcoholic and frequent drug abuser, get arrested for soliciting an undercover female police officer, and be involved in a life threatening car wreck. And most unforgivable to many, he packed on a considerable amount of weight.

But according to fellow musicians, throughout those dark days D’Angelo never stopped working on the music, chasing new sounds, new rhythms and textures down whatever rabbit holes they happened to lead.

He also, apparently, became one hell of guitar player, based on the evidence of Black Messiah. I’m not sure any album could possibly be worth this kind of wait, but after multiple listens I’m still fascinated by the thing, which sounds like nothing else in the pop, R&B, or rock universe right now.

Black Messiah is a dense, narcotic album in the vein of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain and the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street. Voices and instruments melt into one another, with D’Angelo himself often buried in the mix, fighting to be heard along with every other instrument.

It’s a sound that doesn’t bow to any current trend in black music, or any other music for that matter. While the rock elements are more pronounced, jazz flourishes abound. The massed choral vocals that rise out of the murk harken back to D’Angelo’s youth spent playing keyboards at his father’s church, while the growling guitars pay tribute to Jimi Hendrix, the black guitar genius who built the space where Voodoo was recorded, Electric Lady Studios in New York.

Though the albums lyrics address the recent protests over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the true message of Black Messiah can be found in its tactile, off-kilter sound. This is clearly an album designed to be listened to from start to finish, with each song flowing into and building on those coming before and after. The hard funk of the opener “Ain’t That Easy” morphs into the avant-garde soundscapes and hyperventilating bass of “1,000 Deaths” which gives way to the uptempo R&B of “The Charade” and then we’re on to the mutant Dixieland jazz of “Sugah Daddy. And that’s just the first half of the album.

In the end, Black Messiah is an album to be listened to repeatedly and absorbed. It’s also an album that should be played very, very loud.

And based on the evidence of D’Angelo’s SNL appearance last weekend, it’s also an album that should be heard live. The man looked and sounded reborn, and his band, comprised of some of the finest musicians in the land, simply smoked.

After 14 years it’s damn good to have the man and his music among us again, alive, kicking and still chasing that elusive sound in his head.