Monday, February 25, 2019

A Salute to Peter Tork, Who Tears the Top Right Off My Head

The first time I heard the Monkees' "Your Auntie Grizelda," I don't think I liked it. It didn't bother my young ears as much as Davy Jones' sappy, spoken word lyrics in "The Day We Fall In Love." In reaction to the latter song, I took a pencil, crossed out the title as best I could on the record label and wrote "BOO!" next to it. "Auntie Grizelda" got under my (approximately) seven-year old skin because of Peter Tork's goofy noises during the lead break. It felt too close to some sort of baby talk noises. It wasn't funny to me.

But different qualities float to the surface of Monkees songs as time goes on that offer a deeper appreciation. In the final verse of the song, the comedy almost makes way for melancholy. The first two verses have set up the song's title character as a comedic character, a stuffy "normal." Now, Peter Tork is warning the person in the song to break away from her, "or, just like her, you'll have to make it alone." As he sings those final words, Peter's voice always seemed to take on a sadder tone. It explained why Grizelda is so stodgy - she's lonely, and more of a tragic figure. Even in the early days, the Monkees were good for drama. Think about the way that Micky sings, "And I don't know if I'm ever coming home," in "Last Train to Clarksville." It sounds nervous, truly like a guy who doesn't want to leave his girlfriend for Viet Nam. (Years later, it was admitted that the song was about that.)

I say all this while I remember what a former co-worker once told me after reading an article of mine that explained the depth of the Monkees bubble gum music. He told me, "I don't know if I'm just missing something or if you're full of shit." It could be that I'm over analyzing their work, though I doubt it. Regardless, it seems like a good way to start a salute to Peter Tork, who died last week at the age of 77. Peter was typecast as the dumb member of the band, on both their tv show and to some extent onstage. When he finally got a song, on the second Monkees album, it was "Your Auntie Grizelda," a joke tune. Sort of. But he managed to elevate it beyond that before it was over. He did quite a bit to elevate the band's music, in fact.

One album later, on Headquarters, his talents really added to the work, when the band took artistic control of the recording sessions. His banjo fueled the drive of Mike Nesmith's "You Told Me," blending country and rock perhaps a few steps ahead of the Byrds. Tork also did the finger-picking guitar work in Nesmith's "Sunny Girlfriend" which it's author did the rhythm part.

If that weren't enough, Peter co-wrote one of the album's cornerstone songs. "For Pete's Sake" is not only catchy, built on a guitar lick with a lot of snap, it also has a strong call for love and unity. Maybe it comes off as a little more simplistic than other things that came out during the Summer of Love, but damned if the whole thing doesn't hit hard. Micky Dolenz sings the whole thing, but Peter put the words in his mouth, knowing that the drummer would leave a greater impression as he wails, "We gotta be freeeee." So effective was this song that it became the closing theme to The Monkees during the second tv season.

Peter only sang about two lines on Headquarters but they were significant. He delivers the start of the second verse of "Shades of Gray," which already sounds sad due to the somber piano intro. After Davy Jones sings the first verse in a near-whisper, Peter takes the second one, with his voice, with a bit of echo on it, almost sounding like it's about to crack. Not to forget the title line of the song, which he sings all by his vulnerable self, except during the final chorus. Not to belabor the point, but it reinforces the meaning of the song, which, perhaps in retrospect, spoke legions for what the country was going through at the time.

The next couple Monkees album shortchanged Peter. On Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., his sole contribution was "Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky," which played into his role from the show. Instrumentally, he did contribute a lot to the songs though. But The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees has nothing by him. The CD version has a short song called "Alvin." "Tear the Top Right Off My Head" was a strong one that didn't see legit release until the late '90s. There were a few others that he recorded around that time, including the haunting "Merry Go Round." I once played that for a former bandmate, who was appalled at the keyboard-heavy, drumless song. "He's not even singing into tune!" Yeah, but This Mortal Coil should've covered it on one of their albums.

Head, the movie and album, set the record straight, with two solid Tork songs, "Can You Dig It" and "Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again." The Monkees brought the latter back into their stage show in the early 2000s, I believe it was, which I was happy to hear. If nothing else, that song, with its frantic pace and arty time signature changes during the solo, should be enough to solidify Peter's credentials.

Then he left the band. Of course, he returned, left and returned again. He also did other things, like teach high school and start a blues band, Suede Shoe Blues. He also fought a battle with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer of the head and neck. He seemed to be doing well when he went back on tour with Dolenz and Nesmith in 2014.

In the weeks prior to that tour, I got to interview Tork by phone. There wasn't a chance for me to publish an article anywhere but one doesn't turn down a chance to talk to this guy, who sounded strong and healthy. And I posted the interview on this blog in two entries: Part One and Part Two. We only had 15 minutes, so I did my best to avoid all the typical questions and cover a few things that he wouldn't normally get to talk about. Peter was gracious, serious when he needed to be and witty when it was called for. I've always hoped that there would be a chance for a follow-up, where we could pick up our previous conversations. Life had other ideas.

In closing, here's an odd story.

A couple weeks ago I had a pretty vivid dream about playing at an open stage at Pittsburgh's Club Cafe where Peter and Mike Nesmith were also on the bill. That's a weird set-up for me because I never do open mike nights. And it seems funny to think about either of them doing them as well. Like many dreams, I didn't actually see either one perform. In fact I think that provided part of the tension: Mike and I were chatting after the show, shaking our heads at the soundman who was being kind of rough with the microphones as he tried to strike the set. Rather than taking the mike out of the stand, he was yanking the cable, making the stand fall over, and smashing the valuable equipment on the stage.

It looked like I was going to get away without admitting that I missed his set, so I looked at Mike and said, "Well, I'm going to get going. It was great seeing you, Peter. Uh, WAIT, I can't believe I just called you Peter. I mean....I know which one you are. I really do...." He looked at me with the understanding face of a guy who's been in awkward situations like this before, not really believing me but trying to be polite.

On the way out, I saw Peter and told him what had happened. He laughed it off.

The next thing I knew I was on Craig Street in Oakland where I ran into my high school friend Priscilla, who as it happens was a Monkees fan too. In fact the whole dream might have transpired because she recently posted a picture on Facebook of Nesmith holding a Monkees t-shirt. But she was walking up to use a payphone, which could only mean the year in this dream was somewhere around 1988, so I didn't tell her what happened.

And that's what Peter Tork means to me. I salute you, sir. Did you know my uncle was on your show twice?

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Nellie McKay's Show at the Andy Warhol Museum

There's a lot to unload from the past week or so: Peter Tork's death; the announcement that Juke Records will be closing in a few months; a pile of records that I bought as a result of that announcement; my son getting braces; Nellie McKay's show at the Warhol last week.

I'll probably devote a whole post to Peter before long. Pittsburgh Current posted a piece I wrote opining on Juke's closing right here. If you click on it, you'll see that not just the store but the storefront has been a big part of Pittsburgh music for quite some time. So, with all due respect to my son, that leaves Nellie.

Leading up to the show, she and I talked by phone, covering a range of topics from how she wound up covering Moby Grape's "Murder In My Heart for the Judge" (her mom turned her on to it) to the activist tendencies we all have at the root of beings. (She didn't put it that way. I'm just sort of paraphrasing.) Some of those highlights can be found here.

At the theater in the Andy Warhol Museum, the performer has to enter the room through the doors in the back, the same way the audience does, which means they potentially have to run the gauntlet of fans. Or someone is likely to say, "Look, there she is!" McKay came in without fanfare but instead of being introduced, she went up to the soundboard and spoke through a mike, saying that she was Andy Warhol's mother. She then went on a long explanation that asked that patrons turn off their cellphones. Then Mama Warhol introduced the evening's entertainer and Nellie and ukuleles made their way to the stage, starting the set off with the Paul Simon-penned hit (for the Cyrkle) "Red Rubber Ball." When it came time for the key change in the final verse, she modulated with ease, like it was second nature. This strong sense of technique would factor heavily during the next 75 minutes or so.

The last time McKay played the Warhol, there were several moments during the set where she started one song and stopped before completing it. She also expressed doubt about playing something, going forward only after getting encouragement from the crowd. It could have been a shtick or maybe she was off (it was still a great show) but none of that doubt happened this time around.

McKay, alternating between the piano and the ukuleles, leaned heavily on interpretations, downplaying her own songs. But that was no easy covers set because her choices provided their own challenges. Les McCann's fired-up R&B hit "Compared to What" needs to be delivered with a punch, and Nellie used two fists for her version. She even recreated the modulation through every key that McCann did in his version. She dove into the Beatles' "If I Fell" on uke, taking it in what seemed like a pretty high register. Nevertheless, it showed the extent of her vocal range, pulling off the song without the need for a harmony partner like John and Paul did.

Among the clever moments of the night, she chose "High Anxiety," from the Mel Brooks movie of the same name. She also added a song from her upcoming stage show about Joan Rivers. The standard "Where Or When," which appears on last year's Sister Orchid album, started off with the rarely-heard verse. "A-Tisket A-Tasket" came at a pretty brisk pace, with McKay handling the lead vocals and the shout-vocals that usually come from the band. Tempos like that one never deterred McKay's piano chops,  even while she rapped in double-time.

When she welcomed requests during the encore, calls went up for "Dog Song" and "David," which almost makes you wonder how well the audience knows albums like Pretty Little Head or even her Doris Day tribute album Normal As Blueberry Pie. (Somehow "Murder In My Heart for the Judge" felt like too much of a mouthful to yell as a request.) But it seems like "Dog Song" is one of the obligatory parts of her set. The verse done in Tom Waits voice worked well because she also had the lower range for that.

Afterwards, Nellie graciously signed numerous album covers (see above) and posed for pictures, including the top shot in this entry. I handed her the Pittsburgh Current issue with her preview in it, thinking she might want to check it out. Before I could explain, she and her sharpie were signing it for me: "Keep one eye closed at all times. Lots of love, Nellie. xox." Sigh

Friday, February 08, 2019

New Things on the Stereo and Around Town

Playing right now: Bob Mould - Sunshine Rock

If this album is any indication, Bob's upcoming appearance in town (February 19) will blow away fans from all parts of his career. This album rocks hard. It's sequenced like a great live show, with very little break between songs. Dynamic shifts or variations in tempo are strategically inserted for best impact. Lotta heavy power chords, with no high-gloss sheen or phase on them. The vocals are mixed almost evenly with the guitars too, almost like those classic Mission of Burma records. Luckily there's a lyric sheet that comes along with the record.

Why, oh why didn't I request to have off on the 19th? That's the same night Ben Opie is playing a set of Ornette Coleman songs at Alphabet City too. Someone could play their cards right and see both shows.

And speaking of Ben Opie....

That's him on the left, sort of in the shadow, Dave Throckmorton on drums and Tony DePaolis on bass. Tony was filling in for Paul Thompson, so technically the group was not the Thoth Trio. But they kicked off a new weekly series at a brand new establishment in the Strip District called Kingfly Spirits. This series, curated by Ben, will pick up where Space Exchange left off. That was the weekly Tuesday series at the Thunderbird Cafe, up the road in Lawrenceville, which closed for remodeling a few years ago but appears to be ready to reopen in the next month or so.

Stop me if I've told you this before. But Space Exchange was a great gathering place for musicians and listeners. Sometimes the music was straightahead, right out of the book of Monk or featuring an organ trio. Sometimes it took a world music turn or went right into minimalist experimental noise. Maybe it wasn't always what you were in the mood for, but with no cover, a great bartender and a chance to catch up on what was happening in a variety of scenes....I don't know, I'd like to imagine it as being like the city's version of the Knitting Factory, a Venn diagram of musicians coming together.

So now Kingfly is doing it on Thursdays. Next week, Patrick Breiner (who has played in Battle Trance) is playing with a quartet. The following Thursday, Jeff Berman is there with his group BLINK, with Tom Wendt playing the last Thursday in February. The venue is really big and vast, with a bar toward the front and an area in the back for the band. Acoustic were good. Other than a few patrons who had no regard for the band playing mere feet from them (but who thankfully either left or moved after the second song), the audience grew as the evening progressed and they were into it. In fact, I think it was during one of Tony's bass solos, it felt like the whole building fell silent. 

Saturday, February 02, 2019

CD Review: Devin Gray - Dirigo Rataplan II

Devin Gray
Dirigo Rataplan II

Drummer Devin Gray gets around, working the kit for a great number of projects in the U.S. and Europe. That partially explains why it's been seven years since his first album with his Dirigo Rataplan quartet. The group includes Ellery Eskelin (tenor saxophone), Dave Ballou (trumpet) and Michael Formanek (bass) along with Gray.

The album's production has some sonic qualities akin to an ECM release. There is a lot of space between the musicians. In fact Eskelin and Ballou are panned into separate channels and though their sound is crisp, their attack feels subtle. The wood of Formanek's bass resonates, especially when he plucks heavily on it. But Gray sits in the background to all of this. It's not that he's lost in the mix but his energetic ideas could have been boosted a little because the group is clearly involved in some interactive conversations.

Free improvisation factors into a lot of the album's 10 tracks, in a variety of ways. "Congruently" follows more of a theme-solos-theme format while others begin with no structure and eventually morph into a groove. "Trends of Trending" takes this direction, following some trumpet and tenor discussions over some rolls and crashes from the leader. In "Texicate" the real action seems to be coming from the bass and drums, but that doesn't stop Eskelin and Ballou from scattering a series of ideas out front. This one also concludes with a theme, in this case a stop-start idea where the whole quartet moves as one.

The time apart clearly did nothing to loosen the connection between the Dirigo Rataplan group. Eskelin unleashes a great solo in "The Wire" while the rhythm section goes wild behind him. When Ballou takes his turn, he picks up on that energy, with big trills and long tones as Gray and Formanek shift into a double-stop vamp. When Formanek scrapes the strings with a bow in "The Feeling of Heeling" it adds a kick to the music that doesn't quite appear in other tracks. While the music sounds tight, much of it resides in the same dynamic level. In person, this music surely catches fire. (Gray came off like a powerhouse when he came to town with Adam Hopkins' Crickets sextet a few months ago.) Hopefully these four can find the time to convene more often in the future.

Friday, February 01, 2019

CD Review: 10³²K -The Law of Vibration

The Law of Vibration

These days it's not surprising to see a saxophone player backed by just a bassist and drummer. Sometimes a trumpeter even joins forces with just the core rhythm section. Seeing a trombonist working in this format remains something of a rarity. Ray Anderson did it with BassDrumBone in the  '80s and '90s, and perhaps there are a few out there flying under the radar. But 10³²K should be on everyone's radar at this point. Not only do they utilize the 'bone/bull fiddle/skins format, they pay homage to their avant-peers/forefathers by interpreting past works that might have originally felt more like seemed more like personal sketches. In their hands the music becomes their own personal expression.

10³²K, named for the Planck temperature at which matter starts to break down, features Ku-umba Frank Lacy (trombone, flumpet), Kevin Ray (bass) and Andrew Drury (drums). Following in the direction they began on 2014's That Which is Planted, the group interprets two pieces originally done by the band Air and one by John Coltrane. But this time, Lacy also contributes two originals and trombonist Roswell Rudd drops by to join the band in his lively "Yankee No-How" in a recording made a few years before his passing.

Even without the addition of Rudd, these guys fill up the room with their sound. Lacy, who added some gravelly vocals to an album by the Mingus Big Band in 2015, blows with a clarion tone whether the music calls for the feeling of a free ballad, like his own "All The While...Forgiveness," or something more abstract, such as Fred Hopkins' "RB" which features percussion tolls in between passages by Lacy's "flumpet."

Drury and Ray sound equally as pliable, able to go from out of tempo introductions to grooves, creating something solid every time. The whole group seems to be having a joyous time with Rudd on "Yankee No-How," making the guest trombonist's death feel like an even greater loss. In Coltrane's "Living Space" bass and drums create a rolling boil beneath Lacy, whose trombone implies the idea of space through an echo, double-tracked effect. Even when they're playing the works of other musicians, they're using those templates as a way to present their own ideas. In fact, other than "Living Space," it might only be clear to the most die-hard avant-jazz listener which of these tracks are originals. They all sound like their originals.

Sometimes in writing about albums, I feel like I've come across something that should draw some wide-ranging attention. That did happen with Jaimie Branch's debut album two years ago. Several people I knowalso dug into Wendy Eisenberg's music after reading about it here. But those are really the exceptions. Not that I'm trying to be a tastemaker here, but when my socks get knocked off by an album, I just kind of assume that, being a small time writer, I shouldn't be the only whose digging it. The Law of Vibration gives me this same kind of feeling. The guys in the band aren't exactly new kids to the scene either. (For more about Andrew Drury's work as a leader, click here.)

Albums like this can convert people who might be reticent about free music, hearing in it a connection to more grounded work, while getting off on the energy of the group. People who already appreciate this music will likewise be enthralled by it. And perhaps they'll have a better understanding of their Air albums when they go back them after hearing "RB" (and "BK," which they played on That Which is Planted).