Saturday, June 27, 2009

Don't Stop Till You Get Enough

Playing right now: Talibam! - Ordination of the Globetrotting Conscripts (Whacked out improv featuring Kevin Shea. I hope to write about their new album in this spot during the coming week.)

Everybody's sounding off about Michael Jackson's death, so I feel like I'm entitled to add my two cents to the forum. For starters, it shocked and bummed me out a lot more than I expected. It probably had something to do with the fact that I get weird feelings about any musician that I like or liked passing away. (See posts on Andrew Hill and Bud Shank.) Having a kid can do that to you too, changing your perspective on the whole life and death thing.

And Michael did have a profound impact on my life when I was about 5 or 6. Before I discovered the Beatles, the Jackson 5 were it. (There was another group of family singers I liked at that time too, but we don't need to do the full disclosure thing here.) "I Want You Back" and "ABC" were little pieces of magic to me. Literally little pieces in my case: I got those songs on records that came on boxes of Alpha-Bits cereal. And when I first heard "Never Can Say Goodbye" on their Greatest Hits album, it was the first time I ever got knocked over by a real bonafide hook. I'm referring to the chorus, where the music does a descending riff while Michael sings the title line and the group ends up with those "no no no"s. Damn. I made my friend Eric play that over and over and over.

Years later I'd discover that the tight arrangements at Motown had a lot to do with what made the songs so memorable, but Michael's voice was part of that, standing front and center. At the time, Tito was my favorite member of the group because he was the guitar player and that was what I wanted to play. But I knew Michael's voice was leading the group. Somehow Eric and I convinced ourselves that everyone in the band also played an instrument and sang, and we thought Michael was the drummer.

In some ways, Michael is probably responsible for paving the way for the current spate of glitzy performances where singers have five dancers with them onstage, where the spectacle has become more important than the song their singing. But for Michael, it was all about the song and making come across the best you can. Those early Jackson 5 records planted the seed in his head and - if a press release I read this morning had any truth to it - when the Jacksons worked with Gamble & Huff in the late '70s, Michael picked up a lot from them about the nuts and bolts needed to make a song good. Of course, he worked with Quincy Jones too, who knew all about arrangements from his big band days. Their collaborations weren't about jumping on the latest trend to make a cheap buck. They were setting standards, coming up with songs that would withstand the test of time. That's why "Billie Jean" might be a corny song, yes, but I'll be doggone if that bassline isn't catchy. Or, ask Michael would say, "It's smelly."

So maybe it's the old mindframe about having respect for the dead, but rather than focus on all the freaky things from the last 15 years of his life, I think it's much healthier to remember the early things that prove that he was at one time a consumate performer.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

JazzTimes in suspense

So I just received an email (actually it arrived last night) informing me that JazzTimes has "suspended publication of the magazine and furloughed its staff while it finalizes the sale of its assets." That's a direct quote from the website, so I'm not speaking out of turn. (I can't hyperlink where I am now, but you can find it at

That's just beautiful. Not just another magazine on the chopping block, but one that's devoted to jazz and that writes very well about it. And I'm not talking about my writing by any means. Evan Haga, Bill Milkowski, our beloved guru Nat Hentoff, as well as the occasional sharp and witty two cents from editor Lee Mergner - it made me glad to be part of the publication. The magazine also proved that while jazz has a rich past, it has an equally important future that people need to know about. (And how. You know how hard it was to get a Mosaic review in there if your name wasn't Scott Yanov? No offense, Scott, you're the tops too. I did get to review a few Mosaics.)

I'm getting ahead of myself. The magazine's not defunct yet. I'm just worried. It's just that I've been through this before, you know.

Go out and buy the May issue of JazzTimes while you can. It has a great interview with John Zorn, who's on the cover. And when you go to the counter, slam it down and say, "I'm mad as all-get-out, and I'm not going to take it anymore."

If only that would happen on some sort of scale, maybe we could start a revolution.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

SST Weekend - Grant Hart returns!

It was an SST weekend in Pittsburgh. Friday night the Meat Puppets played, although I didn't make it to that show. Last night, Grant Hart - the once and forever drummer/vocalist of Husker Du - played at Howler's. Opening the show was none other than Ed fROMOHIO, the once and forever vocalist/guitarist of fIREHOSE. Ed has lived in Pittsburgh for a couple years now, but, other than an appearance at the Who Tribute show earlier this year, this is the first time I saw him play a set. I think his arrival coincided with Donovan's arrival into this world.
Funny thing, the Meat Puppets' original drummer, Derrick Bostrom, didn't join the reunited band. He's working for the same company I work for, although he's in Tuscon and I'm in Pittsburgh. What are the odds? (Answer: not all that unusual).
Anyhow, the evening at Howler's began after the Penguins got crushed 5-0. (I'm tired of hockey [sorry, everyone] but even I know that was AWFUL.) Then Moonlight Motel played, which features one of my bff's Mike Moran (vocals), along with Steve Seel (bass), Steve Morrison (acoustic guitar), Sam Matthews (mandolin) and Kip Ruefle (hand percussion). Mike has an amazing voice and it's great to hear him in this context, which not only brings together guys of different musical backgrounds, but puts them in a context that could appeal to acoustic fans without loosing people who know them from the noisier settings. One of the songs was called "The Ballad of Edward Moran," which is about Mike's grandfather, and I swear in one verse he sang in a brogue and it sounded really natural.
I loved fIREHOSE and saw them nearly every time they played Pittsburgh in the '80s. Mike Watt was my bass hero but I always thought Ed was a great player and singer too. One song into his set, he had me wanting to pound my table to show my enthusiasm for his band. They were catchy and edgey with all kinds of chord changes that you didn't expect. He pulled out a couple of fIREHOSE tunes that took me back and he even did a spirited version of the Minutemen's "Corona," which also did my heart good.
Then a few minutes after Ed and his crew wrapped up, a thin guy dressed in a cap, with a guitar got up onstage and plugged in. "So that's him," I asked my friend John. "Yep," was the reply. Of course a lot of years have passed since Grant Hart had long ratty hair and was a little pudgy. Still it took me by surprise to see him, and when John kidded me, "Maybe it's a scam. Maybe it's not really him," I did wonder for a second. It could be his twin brother Brant. Or maybe someone named Harte Grant. However, his voice was pretty unmistakable so I knew it was really him.
The other surprise came with his set. John and I were kidding that we should yell out Husker song titles, thinking that if we did, we'd get our asses kicked. But sure enough, he played "The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill," [note the verb tense there, Post-Gazette] a couple songs in - right when I was at the bar trying to get a drink. Then, he started asking, "Anything you want to hear?"; "Any requests?" A couple times I yelled "Now That You Know Me" from Intolerance, but when that went unheeded, I yelled "Keep Hanging On" which I still find to be one of the most inspirational punk songs ever (if you've heard the version on Flip Your Wig you know why). His delivery last night wasn't as frantic as in the original, but it still got me feeling a tad ferklempt.
Other highlights included "Terms of Psychic Warfare," "2541" and one newer, almost torch song number, during which he stopped and asked a loud talker, "Am I interrupting anything?" After that one, he asked us, "Ok, who paid $16 to get in here tonight?" Silence. "Who paid $24?" Silence. "Who paid $32?" Silence. "OK, well let's have a little respect for the people who paid $8." He added some subtle-but-cutting comment about how it's always the hipsters who disrupt things. Whoever had been talking then shut-up.
Afterwards we were talking to him a little and without any prodding, he started trashing Bob Mould. I don't think it's telling tales out of school to mention this because he wasn't revealing any big secrets, and besides Bob's no angel. Some guy talking to him said it sounded like there'd be no Husker Du reunion and I wanted to smack him and say, "DUH!" That band fueled mostly by aggression anyway and the hostility that exists between the two of them wouldn't be a good way to run a band now anyway. Grant just said that it would be a shell of what it once was.
I asked him how it came together that he and Bob played a benefit for the late bass player of Soul Asylum. He said Bob called him about it and used it as a way to one-up Paul Westerberg, who also played the show. Notice he just kind of skipped over "Bob called me" to get to a rant about Westerberg. What was the call like? What was it like going onstage? Was it fun? At all?
By that time, I figured I needed to go home anyhow, so I left it at that. If I get to interview him when he comes through next time (he has an album coming out), maybe I'll follow up with him about it.