Friday, May 31, 2019

My Dinner with Roky or RIP Roky Erickson

Roky Erickson has passed away. May he rest in peace. His life seemed to be a series of steep ups and downs, but it appears that in his final years, he got to do the thing he liked best of all: play music. He might not have been a rock superstar but his music inspired a lot of people who took inspiration from him and did it themselves.

I got to meet and hang out with Roky on a few occasions when he was living in Pittsburgh with his brother Sumner. Roky was getting his life back on track and while it was far from a rock and roll experience, it gave me some things that have stuck with me ever since.

I had heard about the 13th Floor Elevators since I was a teenager. Being fascinated with all sort of '60s rock, I wanted to hear the band. When I discovered how rare their original albums were, it made them even more appealing to me. Easter Everywhere wasn't the best introduction for my ears. When I finally did hear it, on a reissue in the '80s, it felt a little too wordy to me. There weren't enough crazy guitar solos like Vanilla Fudge or Iron Butterfly (my two heavy psych references at that point). During college, when I finally heard their debut Psychedelic Sounds of... and also Bongwater's covers of "You Don't Love Me Yet" and "Splash 1," I had the background to appreciate them. The Dylanesque trip of "Slip Inside This House" left a better impression too.

Then we had dinner together.

The year was 2001, maybe 2000. Sumner lived in Pittsburgh where he was a tubaist in the Pittsburgh Symphony. Roky was living with him for a time, getting his life and his mind back in order. My friend Grant knew Sumner, who said that Roky liked to get out of the house while he practiced the tuba. Grant suggested that he, Roky and I go out for dinner together. At the time, I was on staff at InPittsburgh and I thought this would make a great story: Psychedelic Rock Originator Living in Mt. Washington! I understood that Roky might be a little fragile and not ready for a proper interview. And I certainly didn't want to write something that would come off as exploitative. But I figured it'd be good to get to know the guy. Hell, meeting him would be cool!

We made plans to pick him up at the house where the brothers lived in Mt. Washington. Sumner took us in the house and called Roky, who answered from the top of the steps in a Texas drawl. Instead of the wild and woolly guy I had seen on album covers for the past 15 years, the man who finally came down had short hair and neatly trimmed beard and mustache. Maybe not exactly like Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti, but somewhere in the vicinity.

"Good t'see y'again," he said a couple times when we were introduced. Maybe he had met Grant before but this was the first time he and I ever crossed paths. Still, when he said those words, the enthusiasm was infectious and it put me at ease. It also gave me a phrase that I've repeated since then with a few friends who are in the know.

We went to a Mexican restaurant in Oakland where Roky had become a regular. The owner greeted him at the door with, "Hey, amigo," clearly recognizing him from previous visits. He surely had no clue that this happy-go-lucky fellow was one of the originators of Psychedelic Rock, but it didn't matter. Roky just seemed happy to have friends that greeted him like that. During dinner there were periods where he would get quiet and just keep to himself, and Grant and I had our own conversations. But at one point, Roky brought up the name of Red Krayola, an Austin band that was a contemporary of the 13th Floor Elevators. Up until that point, Roky seemed like he either didn't want to talk about his past or his memory of it was a little fuzzy. When this happened, it came out of the blue and it was cool.

Roky and I had one more dinner date after that. I still felt wary of being exploitative and anyway InPittsburgh went out of business in the fall of 2001 and I never got to write the article. We never saw each other again. Sometime a year or two later there was a benefit/tribute concert for him at the Rex Theater, where he was in attendance. One friend who was there said he looked kind of uncomfortable, like the crowd was a little much for him. A few years later - my details are fuzzy on this part - he moved back to Texas.

A few documentaries were made about him, one apparently showing him in a rather radical type of therapy that helped him get his life back in order. I always wanted thought I should watch it, if nothing else to see where he was coming from. But time slipped away.

A few years prior to meeting Roky, a filmmaker came to town to screen a doc that he had made about Roky. I was enlisted by the then-editor of InPgh to put a band together that would play a few 13th Floor Elevators songs before the screening. (I wound up playing drums for that band instead of bass.) It was cool except that the filmmaker fronted the band  and his rhythm guitar was cranked up louder than anything else onstage, including the lead guitar playing of my friend Rob, who still bitches about it if the subject comes up. (Rob is an amazing guitar player, so I don't blame him.)

Then again that type of situation might be indicative of Roky's life: a little scattered but stuck in your mental draintrap all these years later.

Good t'see y'again.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

CD Review: Samantha Boshnack's Seismic Belt - Live in Santa Monica

Samantha Boshnack's Seismic Belt
Live in Santa Monica

Trumpeter Samantha Boshnack hails from rural New York, but after studying at Bard College, she made her way to the Pacific Northwest where Seattle has been her home base for the past 15 years. She has received several commissions and residency spots, and has worked with Wayne Horvitz (himself a Northwest resident), drummer Jim Black and the late Butch Morris, to name just a few collaborators. She has also lead groups of varying sizes. B'shnorkestra is a 14-piece orchestral ensemble, while the Sam Boshnack Quintet toys with more avant-garde jazz. 

Seismic Belt represents Boshnack's attempt to combine both of these stylistic qualities in one group. Along with a piano-bass-drums rhythm section, it features the leader's trumpet in the company of a  saxophonist alternating on baritone and tenor, and two string players. The music, commissioned by the California-based 18th Street Art Center's Make a Jazz Fellowship (and sponsored by the Herb Alpert Foundation), is inspired by the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped region around the Pacific populated with most of the world's volcanoes and which experiences 90% of the world's earthquakes. 

Like the multiple layers of the earth's strata, the music has several interlocking parts. Drummer Dan Schnelle and bassist Nashir Janmohamed hold down complex ostinatos, occasionally joined by pianist Paul Cornish when he isn't moving with the rest of the group or adding another counterpoint. 

Lauren Elizabeth Baba (violin, viola) and Paris Hurley (violin) add a frequently eerie, uncertain quality to the music, which Boshnack matches with a tone that expresses the inquisitive feeling that inspired this song cycle. She favors the warm, middle range of her horn, never getting overly animated except during "Churo." Baba and Hurley take care of that, often following the trumpeter with solos that get more frantic. Saxophonist Ryan Parrish also kicks up dust on tracks like "The Summer That Never Came" where Hurley picks up further on the idea.

Although the melodies provide the main focus on the album - and Boshnack reels off solos like the one in "Subduction Zone" that feels like an elaborate thought - the rhythm section sounds comparably subdued, at least on the recording. Schnelle offers a strong solo on that same track, but too often he and Janmohamed settle into the background, offering support but not really driving the music. The approach means that the dynamics on several tracks and don't provide enough to distinguish them from one another. The closing "Submarine Volcano" makes a break, with a call and response section between Cornish and the rest of the band, followed by a strong Parrish solo on tenor. But if the group had kicked the energy up a notch earlier, it would have elevated Boshnack's writing even further. 

CD Review: Stephen Gauci's Live at the Bushwick Series, studio session with Cooper Moore

Stephen Gauci/Sandy Ewen/Adam Lane/Kevin Shea
Live at the Bushwick Series

Chris Welcome
Beyond All Things

Cooper Moore/Stephen Gauci
Studio Session Volume 1


If you happen to be in the New York area on a Monday night, get on over to the Bushwick Public House on Myrtle Street in Brooklyn. For the past two years (June marks the second anniversary), tenor saxophonist Stephen Gauci has been hosting the Bushwick Series, a weekly improvised music event. Six different bands play from 7:00 pm to 12:30 pm, each week. (While that number seems a bit crowded, the Series seems to run smoothly, with everyone getting to play a short but full set.)

In an email he sent to me earlier this year, Gauci said he envisioned the night as a hybrid between a jam session and a concert series, giving the music a proper venue, with hopes that it would become a place for musicians to hang rather than simply play and split. It seems to have met his hopes. Not just younger musicians but a handful of more established players frequently drop by each week. At a time when any series might have trouble surviving and when improvising musicians struggle to find an audience, this event should be commended and supported.

Gauci live-streams sets each week on his Facebook page so folks outside New York can see what they're missing. The entire set of over 500 video performances can be found here as well. Two of these three releases on his label document live sets. The saxophonist plays each week with his trio of bassist Adam Lane and drummer Kevin Shea. On the night their CD was recorded (no date is listed) they were joined by prepared guitarist Sandy Ewen.

The three-track disc begins with an everyone-for-themselves feeling of free blowing. Gauci begins with some upper register wails over the skittering rhythm section. But the whole set features variety in their approach. In track two (no song titles are listed on any of these discs), the tenor gets loud a few times but he generally holds it down, playing some simple melodies while his partners run wild behind and around him. Shea gets particularly spastic, clattering at times like Tony Oxley. The final 22-minute track begins with some rapid plucking from Lane and goes on to alternate between free sections and themes presented by Gauci. Ewen's prepared axe adds percussive color through most of the set, but in the final seconds, she adopts a surfy twang as she and Gauci take things out.

Guitarist Chris Welcome is involved with several groups in New York, including Hot Date (a sound collage duo) and Chaser (a harder group), which both feature bassist Shayna Dulberger, who played with him on Beyond All Things. This 28-minute continuous performance also includes Jaimie Branch (trumpet), Kirk Knuffke (Bb & Eb cornets), Anthony Ware (alto sax), Sam Weinberg (tenor sax), Ben Gerstein (trombone, percussion), Mike Pride (drums, percussion). It begins with a joyous blast of gong crashes and horn blasts, not unlike the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the opening moments of a Sun Ra Arkestra performance from more recent years. The horns eventually play a loosely structured theme, with pedal drones still resonating beneath them. The whole piece sounds cohesive and spontaneous but a few count-in directions can be heard during the performance, implying that some music was written-down or pre-determined. The recurring themes feel a little dissonant or minor compared to the initial one. Yet moments like the interactions between Gerstein and Welcome (who must be using effects that often sound like primitive synthesizers) give the music plenty of energy and keep the mood rather festive.

Mike Watt of the Minutemen used to say that records were like flyers, meaning the recordings were meant to motivate listeners to come to the next show. That's exactly what these two discs do. Both have good sound quality, capturing the natural feel of a band in a room, without any production effects added to clean it up. It can make you wish you were there.

Incidentally, on Monday, June 3, Welcome's 10:45 set serves as a CD release show, according to the schedule. Judging from the personnel listed for that evening, it celebrates Beyond All Things. If I'm wrong that means he's already put out something new, in which case, more power to him.

Studio Session Vol. 1 breaks with the Bushwick Series setting, placing Gauci's tenor in the recording studio with pianist Cooper Moore. Together they create uninhibited energy music which moves loosely but also shows their high level of communication. When Cooper Moore introduces a subtle piano figure, Gauci responds in kind, figuring out what direction the music should take, harmonically. The saxophonist's altissimo range is particularly strong and he frequently uses it less as a method of wild punctuation and more like a vehicle for peeling off some intense melodies. His partner's work includes everything from fragmented arpeggios, notes hanging alone in the air and percussive sounds that could either be pedal manipulation or ten fingers rapping on the keys. While things get a bit raucous, especially during the final 11-minute track, the energy and rapport never dissipates during the album.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Missing Live Music But Buying Records from Jerry (a sort of grumpy rant that ends with a comedian)

I really hate missing shows. Maybe missing out on a night of music is simply a factor in growing older. Life will go on and - as our parents might tell us - there will be other shows. (I'm at that age, so I might as well say it too, though it hurts a little.)

But damn, I've missed some gooders this year. Bob Mould, earlier this year for one.Jonathan Finlayson came back and I missed him. Then this week: Sebadoh on Wednesday; Michael Formanek's new quartet AND, at another venue, local vibraphonist (and drummer and dulcimer maestro) Jeff Berman's trio; then last night New York saxophonist Brian Krock's quartet came to town with the Pittsburgh Saxophone Quartet opening up. I feel especially bad about that one because I tried to get some press for that show but only succeeded in a calendar blurb for Pittsburgh Current which I haven't seen yet because I haven't come across the recent issue and it's also not online. Maybe I shouldn't feel guilty or beholden to any publicists, but there's that part of me that treats this music writing as a crusade that I need to continue.When I drop the ball, I get mad at myself.

And the reason I missed all these shows? Work. I've been on the closing shifts at work pretty much all week. Granted I feel thankful because I requested and received Sunday off to go to a baseball game with my son. But goddamit, I would like to have it both ways, unrealistic as that is. It puts me in a quandary about what to do.

I typically work until 10:00 or 10:30, which really means that by the time I get into the car and head out of the parking lot, it's 10:15 or 10:45. And I work at least 20 minutes away from where all the shows are. Another thing that's become a little more of a trend around Pittsburgh is that shows start and end on the early side these days. Most 50-something guys would really like that, but not this one. Sometimes I can make it to a show in time to catch some of the final songs in the set. But there have been many times where I've gotten there in time for the last verse of the last song. When that happens I feel like I'm better off just skipping the show. One night (when I wasn't working but got out late due to family stuff) I got to a venue at about 10:00 and totally missed the whole thing. I'm not expecting shows to drag on until 2:00 a.m. like the good old bad days, but a happy medium would be nice. Some old guys want to rock. AND still get up on the early side the next day.


For the past week, local Vinyl Man himself Jerry Weber has been selling records at the Irish Center of Pittsburgh. He did this last year and a few years before too. This time he's doing it for eight whole days, today being the last. When I went last year there wasn't a whole lot in the bins that spoke to me. I ended up paying a dollar each for Dave Dudley's Truck Driving Son of a Gun and a Ray Conniff album that I had as a kid.

This year I went on a Tuesday morning when there was hardly anyone there so I had a chance to look without feeling cramped. (That was the other thing about last year - it was wall-to-wall people.) Selection was better this year, with more things in the $3-$7 range. I found a Chris Connor album on original black label Atlantic, and Lenny Bruce's What I Was Arrested For which I have on cassette somewhere but is good to have in the Lenny collection.

And just for the hell of it, I picked up an album by comedian George Gobel. I know him predominantly for his appearances on The Hollywood Squares where he did little to really distinguish himself as a comedian. I remember his knit sweaters and his flattop haircut most of all. But, like radio announcer Harry Von Zell, there's something about Mr. Gobel that just warms my heart, so I had to get the album.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

CD Review: Dave Scott - In Search of Hipness

Dave Scott
In Search of Hipness

Too often, being hip has a pejorative connotation, from the clueless protagonist in Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg's "I'm Hip" to current-day hipsters selling their own kombucha or IPA. But trumpeter Dave Scott is taking back the word.

The hipness that Scott seeks has nothing to do with being designated as cool guy. He isn't being ironic either, in an effort to make jokes about being "hip with the kids" or anything like that. Hipness, to him, has a more zen quality. The title track, he explains in his liner notes, "speaks to the never-ending quest of enlightenment, musically or otherwise. The beauty of the creative process is that it is ongoing, and as artists we always strive to find a higher level."

Dig. Now that is heavy.

To some degree, In Search of Hipness feels like a live performance to these ears. Four of the seven songs last between 12 and 15 minutes. Not merely blowing vehicles, these pieces often include several sections. They also give the soloists chance to stretch and reveal themselves, and they aren't worried about keeping things to a certain length.

That being said, the opening track proves to be the exception. "Ludwig" is built on a rolling rubato melody inspired by Mr. Beethoven. It also serves as an introduction to the sextet's instrumentation. Along with Scott's trumpet, Sarah Bernstein's violin and Nate Radley's guitar play flowing melodies over a sinister foundation created by Jacob Sacks (piano) and Dave Ambrosio (bass). After stating the theme, this could have gone into any type of solos: free blowing or something played over a modal vamp both come to mind. Instead, "Ludwig" comes to a close after the theme, barely lasting three minutes but making a strong impact.

Scott's trumpet and Bernstein's violin make great melodic partners in "Time Dilation," a piece which changes time signatures three times during its theme.  In another bold move, Ambrosio's bass takes the first solo, going against drummer Mark Ferber's steady rhythm to really sing. Sacks' left hand descends down the piano next, moving away from the freedom in the right hand but always meeting the drums to accent the crash at the end of a phrase. When Scott enters for his solo, he sounds inquisitive at first. But like everyone who precedes him, he never lets the complex rhythm of the song constrain his melodic sense.

After a number of equally strong bits of adventure, Scott closes the set by playing "Black Hole" with a Harmon mute. The piece has harmonic freedom but the tone brings his scope full circle, showing the way that a trumpeter can take some Miles Davis inspiration and inject it with other things along the way. He says as much in the liner notes, but it's equally noticeable in the music, especially when put at the end of the album. While free improvisation and straight, chord-based music both have their values, Scott proves that they can coexist. And they can sound hip as well.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Rediscovering Peggy Lipton

The Mod Squad was syndicated in reruns when I was in first or second grade, which seems to match up with the end of the initial broadcast. It came on in the weekday afternoons right as I was getting home from school. I was probably hooked initially by the opening theme sequence, with the punchy theme song and scene of the cast running through the underground sewer system of LA (or whatever that was). I loved a lot of theme songs (Medical Center, Sanford & Son) but often lost interest once the show started. After awhile, though, the cast of The Mod Squad really grew on me. Linc Hayes (played by Clarence Williams III, whose real name was cool in and of itself) was my favorite. 

At some point, my mom told me she didn't want me watching the show because it was too violent. In retrospect, I'm not sure if that was the reason or if had to do with the subject matter. In high school, a teacher once told my class that abortion was mentioned on The Mod Squad. This teacher wasn't very good and a bit alarmist, so I don't know how accurate she was, but between any mention of abortion and maybe pot, I can see why a mother might not want her six-year old watching the show. 

In our house - probably since my uncle was frequently a guest star on tv shows (including two episodes of The Monkees) - it was not uncommon for us to become familiar with the names of actors on a show. Thanks in part to a commercial that the local station created for the show, I knew the names of Williams, Michael Cole and Peggy Lipton. So when my mom told me she saw an album by Peggy Lipton, I had to hear it. (In retrospect, I wonder if she came across it at the 5&10 where she found the Rugbys and the Hassles.) 

Once she bought it for me, I stared at the album, pictured above, a lot, until Lipton's eyes looked a little too intense. Then I'd open up the cover, because  of course it was a gatefold with a few more pictures, including one of her squatting down barefoot on a rock, looking coyly at the camera. The other two inside shots caught her looking away from the lens. 

When I first got discovered used record stores around middle school, I tried selling a stack of albums to a couple places thinking I'd get some good money for them. I couldn't understand why they didn't want Three Dog Night's Cyan and a few other questionable things. By that time, I was over Peggy Lipton and after trying to unload it locally, I shipped it off to a used mail order store in San Francisco who gave me about $1.00 in credit for it. 

Back to the current times. There's a beer we sell at work called Lager of the Lakes, which made me think of a song on the album called "Lady of the Lake." That was a gateway to a few other memories of the album. I recalled really liking Lipton's version of Laura Nyro's "Stoney End." Plus, her version of "Natural Woman" was the first one I ever heard. A few days ago, I decided to see if it was on Spotify and to check it out again. (We recently got a family deal for Spotify so after several years, I have taken the plunge. I still only use it for research, as you'll see here, rather than as a substitute for buying music.)

Sure enough, Peggy Lipton was there in all its "Expanded Version" glory. A few things are apparent from the opening bars. The kid could sing. She could also write a decent song too. "Let Me Pass By," one of the four that Peggy wrote, ain't a bad little tune. And that message of letting her do her thing and spread her wings? Right on, sister. 

There's something else that hits you immediately: strings. This is not some attempt to cash in on Peggy's counterculture cred, surrounding her with a rock band. This is an attempt to make her palatable to Middle America. The Wrecking Crew provides the rhythm section but without even checking the credits, I recognized the gentle voicings of arranger Marty Paich. That comes in part because they sound an awful lot like the charts that he wrote for Spirit's first album, which like Peggy Lipton was also on Ode. A lot of violins, some flutes, an oboe or two. With backing vocals by a group called the Blossoms, I'm sure this album appealed to me in the same with the 5th Dimension did. Those Laura Nyro songs didn't hurt either, though even as a kid, the title of "Hands Off the Man (Flim Flam Man)" was too silly for me enjoy. 

In the bonus department, there's a version of "Just a Little Lovin' (Early In the Morning)" which was also recorded by Stony Brook People, a band that was I knew around the same time. My childhood worlds are colliding! There was also a really slow version of Donovan's "Wear Your Love Like Heaven." (Upon checking Discogs, it seems like The Complete Ode Recordings also has versions of Pet Sounds' "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" and Bacharach's "Wanting Things.") 

After a while, it started to seem like all the songs were in the same key. That thought occurred to me while getting through the bonus tracks, which weren't meant initially to be heard in sequence, but it felt like Peggy had been in the same key for more than half the album. So maybe it fulfilled a curiosity and kept me from doing the mid-life crisis thing and plunking down some serious bucks for an original copy of the album - or the Complete set, which looks pretty expensive. 

But if the album ever turns up at a yard sale or flea market, I'll have to snatch it up.