Saturday, December 15, 2018

Record I Couldn't Live Without: The Rugbys - Hot Cargo; Remembering Pete Shelley

Pittsburgh Record Fest 20 took place last Sunday, December 8. It opened at noon and ran through the afternoon, rather than being an evening event. Since I had to be at work at 2:30, I had just enough time to run in, take a look around and buy a few things.

I've noticed over the past year how the price of used vinyl has gone up, at least in Pittsburgh. Maybe I got spoiled by the low prices that I'd see at Jerry's Records throughout the years that it was owned by its namesake. And I understand the reason for inflation. Running a record store isn't a sure-fire way to make money so if one wants to keep the doors open, the price tag will help with that. But that means the days of finding that the Five dollar blind buy album are long gone. Earlier this year, when I went on my '80s kick, I thought I'd be able to find Submarine by the Catheads in a used bin. Time was when I saw it constantly. (Time was when I owned it too, but wasn't enthused with the whole thing, so I sold it. But that's another story.) Now it's MIA. At least in a brick and mortar place.

With that in mind, events like this one make me go in thinking that I should look for records that I can't live without. I know my listening time is limited, as are the finances, so whatever I buy, make it count.

So when I came across this album, I stopped in my tracks.

I was given a copy of the Rugbys' Hot Cargo when I was in either kindergarten or first grade. In fact, I still have it. It's really scratched but I've pulled it out a few times and tried to ignore the loud pops made by the those scratches that can be felt on the vinyl surface.

The Rugbys initially showed up on my little radar around that same time when I got a box of 45s, also as a gift, probably around Christmas time. They were in a thin box, probably boxed up as a cut-out, designed to make a quick buck. Several of them had the SSS logo from Shelby Singleton Records. The Rugbys were on Amazon Records (with a label design that included a nude woman with long hair covering her chest) but that label was also run by Singleton. The single was "You, I" b/w "Stay With Me" and I loved it. Not only did "You, I" rock, with a nervy stop-start riff, it had some great wah-wah guitar. The final seconds have some of the nastiest fuzz this side of Big Brother and the Holding Company's "Ball and Chain." "Stay With Me" was more of a pop song, but it also had an urgency to it, with drum fills after each chorus that, in retrospect, remind of Moby Grape's "Omaha."

When I got both records, I couldn't read too well yet, because I remember asking someone in the family what the band name was and the song titles. I committed them to memory, but also used the shapes of the letters to help. (Thanks, Sesame Street.)

Sometime later, my mom came home from Downtown Pittsburgh, probably after a visit to the 5&10, with Hot Cargo, a whole album by the Rugbys! (The other time she did this, she brought me the debut of the Hassles, long after they had broken up but before their keyboardist went on to super-stardom as Billy Joel.)  Now I knew their names, who sang and wrote each song and what they looked like. However, I never knew which guy was bassist Mike Hoerni and which was drummer Glenn Howerton since neither of them are photographed playing instruments. They just look on while Steve McNicol plays guitar and Ed Vernon sits at the B3.

That record spent a lot of time on my Mickey Mouse phonograph. I knew it inside and out. I learned that "Stay With Me" wasn't listed on the back cover, but it did appear on the label and on Side one. Though in a reverse of the normal standard, the album version faded out before the roaring climax at the end of the single.

The copy of Hot Cargo at the Record Fair was sealed, and only $12, so I knew I couldn't live without it. Since I brought it home that Sunday, I think I've played at least a little of it every day. Part of this is probably the nostalgia factor, but the band sounds really good. They could fit in on any Nuggets compilation (and they might be on one, for all I know), but they're more than a typical garage rock band. For one thing, McNichol and Vernon, who split most of the songwriting duties, came up with some great music, moving well beyond the confines of three-chord rock. Their lyrics left a bit to be desired but "You, I" is a tense little number. "The Light" sounds slightly Doors-ish, but it uses some sly 4/4-to-6/8 time changes in the verse. During the bridge it makes a change that really takes it from catchy to intense. It's hard to tell if Vernon was going for a soul feeling on "Juditha Gina" but his delivery captures that. The nearly seven-minute "Wendegahl the Warlock" used to scare me a little as a kid, with the eerie organ intro and Vernon's opening shriek, but this could have been a showpiece in their live sets.

Which brings me to the band itself. Presumably they played everything and didn't get subbed out by the Singleton Wrecking Crew. That being the case, these guys are tight. Finally hearing the whole thing on sound system with good speakers and minimal surface noise, Horeni's basslines jump out a little more on "You, I." Throughout the album, he really locks in with Howerton, who sounds like he might have some jazz roots in his playing. McNicol's guitar solos are constructed really well, building up in melody and intensity in a song like "Juditha Gina," leading into Vernon's yell that brings things back down.

So the question lingers - how did these guys sound live? "Wendegahl" could be a long jam out song that got the teenyboppers in Louisville screaming. Maybe they danced wildly to "You, I." And maybe the purists thought they were okay when Hornei stepped up to sing the boogie rock of "Rockin' All Over Again."

A few years ago, I found a video of "You, I" on youtube where Steve McNicol had left a comment. It made me think that maybe I could track him down and do an interview that I'd post here. As I went looking for that video this week, I came across another one with some grainy footage of them lip-synching "You, I" on some TV show. Scrolling through the comments, there  was one that was posted eight months ago: "The guitar player just died last night." Sigh. RIP Steve. Somewhere along that search someone also mentioned that Ed Vernon, who seemed to go by "Eddie" everywhere except on the Hot Cargo cover, had also passed. Maybe Mike Hoerni or Glenn Howerton are out there somewhere.

When I think about how my ears were shaped by music, and what I listen for - harmonies, rhythm, noise, et al - Hot Cargo probably played a big role. I got it at a time when I was really impressionable and I played it enough times to keep it lodged in my brain over 40 years later. Some of the nuances of it could have been second nature ideas that I'd think of when writing my own songs.


In a similar vein, Pete Shelley's death last week was a pretty big downer, another addition to list that's become too damn long this year. I can remember seeing the cover of Buzzcocks' Another Music in a Different Kitchen in my brother's room when it first came out. (His copied came in the mylar sleeve.) It would be another five years or so before I really heard them, after locking my radio dial to the left side and soaking up music on WRCT and WYEP. The number of Buzzcocks songs seemed endless, and usually pretty high quality. Even the songs that beat a good idea to death (the end of "I Believe," "Why Can't I Touch It," "Hollow Inside") still got me pumped up.

I remember buying a used US pressing of A Different Kind of Tension and trading it for the UK version because I had to have the lyric sheet. Understanding all those contrasts in the title track's lyrics were important. But even without it, the crunch of those guitars was amazing. I used to imagine Shelley and Steve Diggle putting their whole forearms into it as they banged away on the strings. When the guitar solo reaches the high notes in "Raison D'etre," I was slayed every time. The way Pete whined the title of "I Don't Know What To Do With My Life" might you think that even a wordy title like that can sound breezy if delivered the right way.

Shelley's death seemed to effect a lot of far-flung people, if tributes on Facebook mean anything. They were a pop band but they were also a punk band, combining both qualities in a way that didn't water down either of them. When Shelley went solo, he dove into synth heavy music, but "Homosapien" and even moreso on the later, somewhat overlooked "Telephone Operator" and "Many A Time," the quality never waned.

I regret not getting into Buzzcocks' revamped music, as everything I've heard from people say it's also high caliber. Plus the one time they came to Pittsburgh was, according to many friends, one of the loudest shows they had ever heard. Someday, I'll dig into the part of their discography. For now, I raise my coffee mug to Pete and thank him for all the music and the conversations it has sparked over the years. You knew how to bring us together, Pete.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

CD Review: Josh Sinton Predicate Trio - making bones, taking draughts, bearing unstable millstones pridefully, idiotically, prosaically

Josh Sinton's Predicate Trio
making bones, taking draughts, bearing unstable millstones pridefully, idiotically, prosaically

Josh Sinton just came to Pittsburgh recently, as part of Adam Hopkins' Crickets project. Like everyone else in that band, he has a number of his own musical irons in the fire. Earlier this year he released Krasa, an album of vicious solos on an amplified contra-bass clarinet. He has also lead Ideal Bread, the quartet that plays the music of Steve Lacy. The hook, so to speak, with that band is that no one plays Lacy's instrument, the soprano saxophone. Sinton plays baritone, as well as bass clarinet. Both are utilized on this session, recorded with cellist Christopher Hoffman (also a member of Henry Threadgill's groups) and drummer Tom Rainey.

The album has an open feeling while it simultaneously maintains a strong sense of direction. This happens in "Bell-ell-ell-ell-ells." Rainey charts a loose course underneath Sinton's ruminations which initially have a tonal quality that feels like a ballad. For a brief moment he delivers some upper register notes that sound like a trumpet. Hoffman enters and Sinton steps back to give him room, only to reemerge mid-way through the nine-minute track with a riff that sounds like a theme. As it turns out, it functions more as a cue that leads to more interesting transitions.

Sinton has written music for dance and theater and that experience can be felt in the thoughtful "A Dance." Hoffman begins playing plucked cello, crisply getting harmonics to ring in a few spots. When the trio comes together, the cellist alternates between bowing and plucking. Their work nods to Julius Hemphill's trio with cellist Abdul Wadud, but the subdued, probing quality of the work evokes a looser version of Chico Hamilton's early groups. They work in a freer direction without leaving the melodic framework behind.

With the next track,"Blockblockblock," they shift gears. Sinton and Hoffman volley some stop-start blasts between baritone and cello. The action continues into "Unreliable Mirrors," this time with bass clarinet. Again, freedom kicks it off, and the trio presents some fine reasons that this style. With that in mind, the session also includes a couple spontaneous improvs. Rainey, who has recorded numerous albums on his own and with people like Tim Berne and Ingrid Laubrock, plays all over his kit and always seems to have the perfect accents to help the group take flight.

The album's mouthful of a title came about when Sinton created an anagram with the titles of the nine tracks. It shows a devotion to his work that reverberates after the album is done, leaving these inventive performances in mind.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

CD Review: Mars Williams Presents An Ayler Xmas Volume 2

Mars Williams
Mars Williams Presents An Ayler Xmas Volume 2
(ESP/Soul What)

A few weeks ago I was thinking about the upcoming Christmas holiday season and getting a feeling of anxiety. For the first time ever, I wasn't looking forward to Christmas. The holiday season, starting with Thanksgiving, has started to become a reminder of family members who have passed away around this time, some in the past, some more recently. Add in the usual stress that the holidays put on everyone - fighting crowds, worrying about getting the right gift or any gift for people, getting everything together for holiday visits - and the whole thing started to become too much to handle.

When this CD showed up on my doorstep, I felt skeptical. Sure, Albert Ayler's music has been placed in different contexts. Saxophonist Jeff Lederer has combined it, to good effect, with sea shanties (on 2016's Brooklyn Blowhards) and fused Ayler's controversial New Grass album with shaker hymns early this year on the not quite as successful Heart Love. But Christmas music and Ayler seemed like a bit close to a gimmick. (Somehow I missed the first installment of saxophonist Mars Williams' fusion of Yuletide carols and tenor shrieks.)

All that changed while listening to it on the way to work. The shift came during the second track, a live performance in Vienna with Williams and a quartet (with trumpet, bass and drums). Vocalist Christof Kurzmann joins them to sing "O Tannenbaum," in a gentle, calm voice. The music begins to take on a deeper significance when Kurzmann goes into two verses of "Red Flag," the anthem of the British Labour Party, which was written on the same melody. (Robert Wyatt recorded in the '80s.) Now the message has moved beyond parties and beautiful trimmings. By adding that extra song, the music also includes the hopes for a better future, something that's been weighing heavily on my mind all year.

Right as that feeling sets in, the group barrels into Ayler's "Spirits" rapidly digging into the folk quality of it and accelerating it. Before long they're seguing into "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which still sounds like an Ayler theme, especially when Williams gets to "five golden rings."

It was at that point that I realized that taking the joie de vivre of rollicking free jazz and smashing it up against Christmas music really makes me happy. It was a nostalgic feeling but one that threw all the sad thoughts and the stress out the window. They are actually playing music that's indeed the healing force of the universe. Or at least in my personal orbit.

One other track comes from that Vienna performance, in a medley that starts with Ayler's "Universal Indians" and concludes with Kurzmann singing "We Wish You a Merry Xmas." The remaining three tracks were recorded in Chicago with Witches & Devils, Williams' Albert Ayler tribute band. This octet gets even more anarchic in the 15-minute "Xmas Medley," like a band of revelers at the holiday party who have had too much spiked eggnog but still maintain their charm. Another of their tracks includes Ayler's "Bells" in between "Carol of the Drum" (aka "Little Drummer Boy"), "O Come Emmanuel" and "Joy to the World." Williams also makes a personal reference, throwing in a quote of the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping," on which he played the original sax riff.

Williams himself played a big part in blowing away my personal holiday malaise. He recreates the Ayler sound beautifully, with the raspy tone, heavy vibrato and an energy that his horn can barely contain. And, though some might consider this a minus, the recording quality of An Ayler Xmas gets just a little ragged during the loud, free sections - bringing to mind some of Albert's original ESP records.

An Ayler Xmas Volume 2 , co-released by ESP and Williams' Soul What imprint, is mandatory holiday listening. (Presumably the first installment is as well.) It might not be the best thing to play at the office party but it'll cheer up any free jazz fan who might not be looking forward to holiday festivities. My copy will occupy a special place, right next to my Beatles Christmas record compilation and The American Song-Poem Christmas compilation, which can be read about here.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Seeing Adam Hopkins, Pittsburgh Banjo Club, talking about town

The last week got away from me. It began with two features for Pittsburgh Current, which is just hitting the street as I type. This coming Saturday, saxophonist James Carter hits town for a tribute to Rahsaan Roland Kirk. While I'm often skeptical of tribute shows, the subject of this one and Carter, who is really steeped in both the history of music and is dedicated to pushing it forward, is someone who can pull this one off.

I also interviewed Danielle de Picciotto of the duo hackedepicciotto. The other half of that duo is Alexander Hacke, who has been in Einsturzende Neubauten since almost the beginning. There music is both heavy and beautiful.

You can find both of those stories at If you're reading this in town, look for a physical copy at your closest coffee shop or watering hole.

Interviewing, transcribing and writing those articles, along recording my spot for WYEP-FM, happened in the early part of the week. Then last Wednesday, bassist Adam Hopkins came to Alphabet City with his sextet which I suppose has been dubbed Crickets, since that's the name of their CD. (For a link to a story on them, check the last post.)

Someone once said that to find out more about jazz musicians from the '50s and '60s, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue offers a great starting point. By investigating that album and then exploring the careers of the six other musicians on that record, a whole goldmine of jazz history will open up before you. I'm not being hyperbolic by saying this, nor do I wish to compare the Crickets group to the Kind of Blue group, but the same could be said about Hopkins and crew in the context of modern music. It consists of musicians who are all leaders themselves doing creative music: saxophonists Anna Webber, Ed Rosenberg and Josh Sinton; guitarist Jonathan Goldberger; and drummer Devin Gray.

The group pretty much played the Crickets album all the way through. Having listened to it a lot, it took on more depth hearing it come to life just a few feet away. The interplay between the tenors of Webber and Rosenberg stood out more, providing tension through occasionally dissonant blends.  Hopkins, since he had a microphone at his disposal, took the opportunity to build a greater rapport with the audience between songs. Since few small groups feature two tenors, he also joked about using the evening to decide which player would stay in the band based on their solos. Of course both killed in very different ways, Webber during the more aggressive "Mudball" and Rosenberg on "Haven of Bliss," which is exactly how the latter felt, topped off with some fiery tenor wails. Sinton was amazing on both baritone sax and bass clarinet.

Goldenberger seemed right at home with the indie rock foundation of the songs, drawing on a bank of pedals and a small violin bow to add extra clarity to his playing. Gray held things together until the closing "Scissorhands" when he really cut loose, as the horns slowly built up the melody of the song. Hopkins, hidden behind the tall drinks of water in the horn section, worked as the anchor to all of this. Another 75 minutes would have been cool too but for a weeknight show starting at 7 p.m., Crickets gave us plenty.

In an interesting observation, Hopkins told the audience that it would take them a year to find an audience of the size we had here. It sounds crazy because, while it wasn't a dead night at Alphabet City (which charges no cover and only requires advance reservations), it was nowhere near as crowded as it often gets during their Jazz Poetry series in September. As a city resident who has been involved in several pockets of the music scene, it made me wonder that maybe we have it better here than we think.

Or at least, we have a good spot for touring groups that play freer, less traditional versions of jazz. I overheard talk from a few people afterwards about how hard it is to maintain an audience in New York anymore because no one goes out, including musicians who used to be seen regularly at their peers' shows, hanging out, swapping stories and making connections. Here they were in Pittsburgh, doing just that with - get this - a bunch of musicians that moved HERE from New York! Granted they didn't move here because of the greener musical pastures but they certainly had a fresher look of our scene than some others do.

And where do out-of-town jazz folks go after blowing out minds with their music? To the Allegheny Elks Lodge, where the Pittsburgh Banjo Club has their weekly gig! By the time we arrived there, the Club was getting ready for their second set and the shuttle of senior citizens had departed with their patrons. (I'm not making that up. I saw it driving away I parked.) Still it was a good time, even if the banjos were a little under-miked. Incidentally, the Lodge is cash only.

I went home still needing to write an album review for Pittsburgh Current, but  also having an early workday the next morning. That, combined with a PC-sponsored happy hour on Thursday at the dive bar located about 50 feet from my house, ensured that the review didn't get written until Friday morning. Which brings us up to now.