Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Woodstock 41 - reflections a week later

I realize that my blogging output is way lower than other folks. Many people ramble on about all the events of their day, before, during and after they happen. Anyone reading this entry has probably seen enough of my posts to know that I don't roll that way. Nevertheless, it came to my attention that not only do I need to write an entry about the Love Letters show from this past Saturday, but I also never wrote anything about the Woodstock 41 show that happened at Howler's on Sunday, August 15. I participated in that show too, playing in Refried Boogie, a Canned Heat tribute band. There's a lot tell about that show, so I'm going to run out of time before I can get to the Love Letters.

The Woodstock show was put together by Brian Colleran (man of many local bands, including but not limited to Weird Paul and Thee Starry Eyes) and Read Connelly (also of Thee Starry Eyes, Beagle Brothers). Reed started the show around 6 pm with a Ritchie Havens set that was as much shtick as it was music - in a good way. When he played "Freedom," he walked offstage up to Brian and asked "Are any of the other bands here yet," just as Havens did 41 years ago. Mr. Connelly is a ham.

Next up was a duo credited as Elliott Sussman and Middle Children, although I saw Mr. Sussman perform one night later and he didn't quite look like the gent who was in this duo. Anyhow, they recast Jefferson Airplane with pre-programmed computer beats, which was a clever twist from the usual homages that the rest of us were doing. For yuks, they threw in Starship's "We Built This City," in which "rock and roll" was switched out for "cock and balls."

Alicia Fronczek from the Garment District also rearranged Janis Joplin in a slower, almost goth way by skipping drums, but having guitar, bass and keyboards/lap steel back her up. On guitar was my once-and-forever bandmate Mike Prosser, who knows all the Big Brother licks anyway. Sara K from the Garment District was in the tricky position of playing bass and holding the tempo together and she was like a rock. Solid, that is. Eric, the fourth guy, sometimes got a little drowned out, which was unfortunate especially when he whipped out the saw. And Alicia was great as Janis. This dame can sing!

El Grosso cranked up the amps and did a great job with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Those songs are so straight ahead that it's easy to play them without getting the subtleties down, but these guys clearly knew what they were doing and whipped up the energy level in the room.

Next up was Refried Boogie. Now, at the real Woodstock, Crosby, Stills and Nash started their set by saying, "This is only our second gig and we're scared shitless." With us, it was only our second time playing together as a full band, and the first at full volume. Prosser and I had been talking about playing Canned Heat for several months prior to the show. For awhile it looked like I might be the second guitar player, since I was filling the role of Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson in the singing department. Luckily that never happened because even with an open tuning, I'm not to be trusted with six strings. We got James Hart from the Harlan Twins, who belongs in this kind of band anyway. When a guy who looked the part of drummer Fito de la Parra couldn't make the gig, we recruited Harlans drummer Neal Kling. Jason "Underwater Culprit" Baldinger rounded out the band, filling the role of Bob "The Bear" Hite. Our only five-piece practice occurred in Mike's apartment with acoustic guitar, practice pad and low volume bass.

"Refried Boogie" is the name of a 40-minute live track on a Canned Heat album where each member of the band gets a long, indulgent solo, but we avoided that in favor of the band's more popular, accessible (i.e. good) material - "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Going Up the Country," "Let's Work Together," and "On the Road Again," the latter where we pulled a guy up from the audience to drone on the tamboura. Jules from the Harlans was supposed to play it - and it was his axe - but he disappeared during our set. Hence the special guest.

Mrs. Paintbrush - aka Jackson from Grand Buffet - did a tribute to folksinger Melanie next. What I like about this guy is he's a badass mc, all fiesty and rowdy onstage, ready to drop f-bombs, but he knows Melanie's music and his professed love of it didn't sound ironic at all. And you have to love a guy who likes Melanie in part because she reminds him of his mom.

Cactus Wheelhouse, something of local supergroup, did Mountain next. Dave Wheeler (guitar) and Jake Leger (drums, also of Karl Hendricks) have played together before but the aforementioned Jules Krishnamurti (Harlan Twins) filled in for their regular bass player. Ear drums were damned when these cats started. Dave can chew up the scenery as both a guitarist and a singer, and he made a great Leslie West, albeit a lot lighter in weight. The two electric fans were blowing his and Jules' hair which only added to the visual effect.

They were so loud that I had to listen to the Weird Paul Rock Band do Joe Cocker from outside. Surprisingly Paul handed the role of Joe over to his keyboard player Ben, who put on a great show.

By the time Prosser, Baldinger, Connelly, Colleran and whoever else was up doing Country Joe and the Fish, I felt kind of spent. A lot of music had gone down that night. It was great to see Prosser clearly in ecstasy onstage, churning out leads and making rocking-out moves. Baldinger also seemed to reach transcendence as he got into the sermonizing aspect of the set. He was really into it.

BUT THEIR SET WOULDN'T END. It was hard to tell if things were falling apart or if the songs had a lot of breakdowns in them. They did "Rock and Soul Music" which Prosser said was a pretty long piece. But he and JB kept talking over each other and it got a little frustrating, so I had to get some water and clear my head.

Honorable mention goes to DJ Stripey who spun during the sets and actually avoided his uber-obscure usual habits and plays some pretty popular (and good) '60s stuff.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Who's Killing the Music Industry?

An article appeared in the New York Times several weeks ago which profiled a woman who works for BMI. It chronicled her struggles, as it were, in getting clubs to be compliant with the performance rights groups so that musicians will get paid each time their song is played. The article was also picked up by a Pittsburgh jazz blog of which I and many local and international jazz musicians are members.

First of all I want to say that I believe musicians are entitled to get money for their art. If you work hard at creating something - music that you hear in your head that motivates you to create and express yourself - and at some point after expressing yourself there is money to be made at it, you should get that money.

But this whole thing about BMI and ASCAP going after these deadbeat clubs or coffee shops because these places are denying musicians of their hard earned dollars - that starts heading into the category of malarkey. Or else it only serves to make sure that the big musicians get more money, not the little guys.

The way I see it, the money that these establishments pay to BMI or ASCAP goes into a big pool. It's not as if they're going to make sure that Dean Wareham gets paid for the Galaxie 500 song that might get played in some little boho coffee shop. If a club has a bunch of Blue Note CDs on their jukebox, or if they're played through the sound system, can you guarantee to me that Hank Mobley's estate is going to get a cut of the money? I'm sure that T.S. Monk and Miles Davis' estate both have strong grips on everything associated with their fathers' name and that they will get some percentage of what happens to it. But the rest of the guys? Don't count on it. The money paid to these performance groups probably flows towards the bigger performers. Fill in the blanks with names of them here, because I'm really out of touch with specifics. Let's just use the blanket term American Idol winners.

When I interviewed John Petkovic from Cobra Verde a couple years ago, he told me a story about what happened when the band's version of "Play with Fire" was used on True Blood. Great exposure for the band right? Sure, five guys from Cleveland who have day jobs and still play music get a little more exposure and get a few more downloads of songs. The other thing that came along with this was lawyers representing the Rolling Stones, who called day after day demanding that the figures about how many downloads the band received and how much money they owe the Stones for it. "I was like, you know I understand that Mick and Keith don’t the luxury to fall back on day jobs, but we do. But do you know that the money were talking here is less than the price of two tickets to see the Stones? If I joked [the lawyer said], 'This is a matter of getting publishing and mechanics paid up.'"

In this case, we're talking about ABKCO, the Stones' publishers, which is different than BMI or ASCAP, but it point out the same idea, that the big guys will go after the little guys to squeeze the last nickel and dime out of them, while less established musicians in that same position get very little.

It's also easier to talk about how any type of CD sharing or burning is bad when you know people are out there getting free copies of Britney Spears songs. Poor Britney is being denied her money because people are getting those songs for free. And that's because any copying of CDs is bad, right? You're taking money away from artists who deserve it right?

Well let's look at this: You have all of Thelonious Monk's albums on Riverside and you have the Blue Note box set. You either bought them new or someone got them for your as birthday and Christmas presents. You're interested in his Columbia albums because you might like to add to your collection, although you've read and heard from friends it's not the best period of his career. Very good in parts but not excellent, and maybe it's not worth the $15 risk. So a friend burns you a copy of It's Monk's Time. Turns out you really like it. A year later, you're in a CD store and see a copy of Monk's Dream, another Columbia album, and you decide to buy it based on what you thought of the other album. Six months after that you see Underground and you really dig the front cover. You make a mental note that it might be worth getting someday because it looks like some of the songs aren't on any other Monk album. (This is true. Three songs were new on that album.) Mum and Pop want a Christmas list from you. Since they won't be able to find a Tim Berne CD, you put down Underground.

Now if you're friend hadn't burned It's Monk's Time for you, you might not have ever considered purchasing the other ones. That's because for people who really like music this whole argument about "you burn CDs and you're killing music" is only true to a certain point. People who really like music and put the time, and effort into listening to it, will purchase it. We don't want a wall full of CD cases with handwritten covers.

Let me update that last image: We don't want a long of song titles on our computers taking up space. We want tactile pieces of music. We want artwork. We want liner notes. And we want to hear everything, maybe more than once. (Which gets harder once you pass 40 and kids factor into your daily life.) And as much as this might bug some people, if a person borrows a copy of Andrew Hill's Passing Ships from the library and copies it, there's still a good chance that he or she will buy Hill's Pax or Black Fire knowing that the Andrew Hill name is synonymous with good albums. AND FUNDS ARE LIMITED AND WE CAN'T BUY EVERYTHING.

If record labels limited access to songs - by making it hard to download songs and impossible to get them onto your IPOD unless you bought a tactile CD, what would happen? "Well, uh, then sales would plummet." Yeah, but only people that really wanted the music would buy them.

Jandek in Pittsburgh

Did you know that Jandek played in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago? It seemed like a pretty monumental event since actual performances by this elusive, prolific guy are extremely rare.

I didn't go because I had band practice that night and lately they've been hard to organize. But I heard he played for over two hours with no break. The person who reported this to me said it wasn't all that interesting. I'm interested in any comments on it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Playing catch-up with ESP-Disk

I've been really behind in my commentary of ESP-Disk releases. They've released several new albums in recent months, but this entry is going to just cover reissues. Going back nearly 12 months ago, their reissue series brought back several albums that proved their jazz roster consisted of more than unfettered free blowing, and including frenzied sessions that had plenty of chops to go along with squonking.

In particular, last summer or fall saw the re-release of the Revolutionary Ensemble's Vietnam, a suite divided between both sides of an album that came pretty close to 50 minutes altogether. The Ensemble consisted of violinist Leroy Jenkins, bassist Sirone (who passed away right around the same season of this reissue) and drummer Jerome Cooper. As Sirone stated in the brief liner notes, the trio took its name from the fact that even among the avant garde players, this instrumentation seemed pretty radical. It is a pretty dense sound but Jenkins avoids the nails-on-the-chalkboard fiddle attack in favor of something more harmonic and engaging. Not until the second half of part two does it start to head over the top, and by then they've won you over.

According to the booklet with the Albert Ayler box on Revenant, Charles Tyler left Ayler's band because he didn't want to play with Michel Sampson, a white violinist. If that's the case, it's surprising that Charles Tyler Ensemble includes a cellist named Joel Friedman, whose name implies that he's not only white but Jewish too, another attribute that many militants took issue with. Regardless, Tyler and Friedman make great music together along with Henry Grimes (bass), Ronald Jackson (drums, who is probably the same man who would start using the middle name Shannon before long) and Charles Moffett (orchestral vibes). Tyler plays in a manner similar to Ayler, with long, wide vibrato. Some moments are pretty free while other uses a simple riff life as a jumping off point into some blowing that's pretty heavy for an alto. "Three Spirits" sounds like a sibling of Ayler's famous "Ghosts," and I mean that in the best possible way. Tyler's solos frequently overflow with machine gun delivery of notes, rather than merely taking a few choice tones and wringing the life out of them with extreme vibrato and blowing.

The final album in go-back-and-find-these list is Marion Brown's Why Not? Brown, an overlooked alto saxophonist with a pretty diverse discography, appeared on John Coltrane's Ascension session, but this album reflects the influence of Trane's work about a year prior to that landmark session. Stanley Cowell plays with the dynamic, supportive presence of McCoy Tyner and Rashied Ali fills the drum chair, in a recording that was made the year after Trane died. Sirone fills out the group on bass. The ballad "Fortunato" could be a distant relative of both "After the Rain" and something Jackie McLean might have dreamed up. Two of the four tracks take interesting turns because they sound like they're winding down only to go into another solo, which takes a drastic drop in volume when Sirone is the soloist.

Among ESP's more recent reissues, the one that probably has the most intrigue is Sun Ra's College Tour Volume One: The Complete Nothing Is... Originally a 36-minute album with a few choice selections from a 1966 concert at St. Lawrence University, this two-disc set contains the entire set that generated those tracks, along with a partial second set and soundcheck material.

The liner notes call Nothing Is... "one of the most important albums of its and all time," going on to place it in the presence of two revolutionary albums that would appear one year after the album's release: Are You Experienced and Sergeant Pepper. I'll leave that assessment to more knowledgeable Sun Ra experts, but suffice to say this is some high quality Arkestra work, even in the moments when the rhythm section seems to get ahead of the horns during a swing vamp. One thing liner note writer Russ Musto nails is that the period of this recording was a pretty revolutionary time and Sun Ra was able to get his musicians to shift from steady swing to free shrieks within a song or two. What appeared as individual songs on the initial release now come across as different passages of a bigger picture. (As an aside, the original running order almost went in reverse of how the performances happened, or at least jumped back and forth during the set.)

This version of the Arkestra includes saxophonists/devotees John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick, bassist Ronnie Boykins and drummer Clifford Jarvis (who turns in another excessively long, somewhat dull solo). Allen's oboe showcase on "The Exotic Forest" over a repetitive bass line and beaucoup percussion, also sounds more engaging amidst everything.

Sonny Simmons' Staying on the Watch can be said to have taken on greater significance in retrospect. For one thing, it's one of the few "new thing" albums to feature a woman on the front horn line, his wife Barbara Donald, whose horn is recorded with a bit of overmodulation, which only adds to the impact of her playing. John Hicks, one of the most prolific pianists, and sideman with a lot of hard bop sessions and, in more recent years, with David Murray, made his debut on Staying on the Watch.

The first track, "Metamorphosis" has a stop-start AABA melody that again reminds me Jackie McLean's Destination Out period, though Simmons has a voice all his own. Hicks proves himself an able accompanist in this setting too. "City of David," the kickoff track for side two continues in this vein, with a pedal point drone riff that launches 15 minutes of free bop exploration. The two tracks that concluded each side both adapt the instrumentation. "A Distant Voice" is a pensive alto and bass duet, while Hicks lays out for "Interplanetary Travelers" which channels Ornette Coleman more so than Sun Ra. Definitely in the upper echelon of the ESP catalog.

One of the more far-flung releases to come in ESP's final years, Michael Gregory Jackson's Clarity finds the guitar player dabbling in chamber music, folk and free blowing, all with the help of David Murray, Oliver Lake and Wadada Leo Smith popping up in different tracks. The title track opens the album in a perfectly odd way, with an acoustic guitar, flute and saxophone trio sounding semi-classical but quickly giving way to a folkie melody that Tim Buckley would've appreciated. "Prelueoionti" has some beautiful picking, but at eight minutes gets a little long for a solo piece. The lack of a genuine rhythm section (Jackson and Lake pick up some percussion occasionally) gives some of the pieces the feel of early Art Ensemble of Chicago with a little more cohesion, like the taut "Oliver Lake" which features its namesake. "A-flat B-flat 1-7-3 degrees" makes that AACM comparison apt, though Anthony Braxton never dueted with wah-wah guitar during this time, as far as I know. Jackson later shifted his focus towards fusion and R&B. This album bears all the signs of an artist trying to figure out where his true interests lie, and that sense provides the album's strength.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The kid's first 78 & my first bandmate

I was singing "Doggy in the Window" to Donovan earlier this week and thought he needed to hear the original Patti Page version. When I found my 78 of it, there was a huge chunk busted out of it, which didn't leave enough of the song for him to hear. So one day after daycare, I took him to Squirrel Hill for his first trip to Jerry's Records. Jerry's son Willie actually runs part of the store with nothing but 78s in it, and that was our destination.

Donovan was in my arms going up the steps and around the corner past the huge speaker that was booming old r&b ("That's loud!"). I'm glad he was because if there's any place where you don't want to unleash a bouncy three-year old, it's a 78 shop.

We found the heavy crate full of Patti Page records and I started thumbing through them. He was standing next to me by now and he seemed excited because he kept asking, "Where's 'Doggy in the Window'? Where's 'Doggy in the Window'?" Knowing how popular the song was, I was confidant there was at least one copy. And knowing that Donovan wouldn't stay still for long, I grabbed the first one I saw, even though it had a flimsy sleeve. Besides it was in great shape and only $2.

Donovan will often get very excited about something until he actually gets it, at which point his loses interest. Not so with "Doggy in the Window." When we put it on that night, he wasn't freaked out by the Victrola volume and he clearly got a kick out of the song. Thankfully, he doesn't want to hear it five times a day, but he has asked for it since then.

Speaking of kids and records and (from the last post) talk of neighbors and their records, I heard back from my long lost friend Eric last week. When we were in kindergarten - and probably long before that because memories get fuzzy at that age - we were both into music, listening to it constantly and making up skits that he would tape on a big honkin' reel to reel player in his room. We were going to have a "band," even though neither of us played anything. But he moved to Columbus in first grade, which kind of ended that. Each time he visited Pittsburgh, though, he'd spend the night at my place and we'd put on a concert in my basement with the help of my brother Tom. The concert consisted of us lip-synching to records and playing guitars that Tom fashioned out of bamboo poles and cardboard.

Eric - if you're reading this, my sister reminded me that there's a Facebook group called "I played in a band with Mike Shanley," which you have every right to join since you were the first.

Just because he played with Bird doesn't make him hip

I was obsessed with records before I could read the writing on their labels. The colors, designs and shapes of the words used to guide me. When I would go visit families around the neighborhood, I probably asked them what records they owned, hoping most likely that they'd whip out some Herb Alpert or Fifth Dimension.

It was during one of these visits to an older gentleman across the street from our house that I first heard the phrase "Sing Along with Mitch." I didn't know at the time that those words were synonymous with "Squaresville." The rhythmic sound of them was pretty cool. Luckily, Mitch and the Gang were never thrown on the phonograph or the hi-fi and my ears were spared the chestnuts like "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider" or "Michael Row the Boat Ashore."

These memories came back to me this week because Mitch Miller passed away at the ripe old age of 99. I admire him for his longevity, but that's about it. When it came to the music industry, he was The Man, not like "my main man," but like "I'm sick of being hassled by the man." From forcing Frank Sinatra to record "Mama Will Bark" - a novelty song [that I have somewhere on 78] complete with dog barks and a deadpan duet partner named Dagmar - to refusing to sign any rock and roll acts to Columbia to those blankety-blank Mitch and the Gang albums, Miller personifies unhip.

However, he did a few things that made some good: He insisted that Rosemary Clooney record "Come On-A My House," a snappy little number with the fiestiest harpsichord solo ever; he got Frankie Laine to sing "Mule Train," which should be internalized by any kid who likes to sing loud; and he got Tony Bennett to sing "Because of You." It's funny that all of these songs wound up on an compilation album called Remember How Great, Volume 2 which I can practically guarantee you can find at any thrift store or used record store.

Finally, Mitch played oboe on a couple of Charlie Parker's Bird with Strings sessions. I have to wonder what he thought of Bird's soloing style. I also have to wonder what the energy in the studio was like that day, considering the hippest cat and the squarest man were in such close proximity.