Staff Picks: Music
If you lived in Kalamazoo during the 1970s and listened to WIDR (WMU campus radio) you undoubtedly heard a lot of Gil Scott-Heron – like others I’m sure, that was my first exposure to this highly influential musician and poet. Scott-Heron is often described as “the godfather of rap” for his sharply pointed spoken word infused jazz and soul. In his 1970 single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” his deep soulful voice—accompanied only by a steady drum beat—brought life the hot-button issue of racial inequality; not as a radical street preacher but as an articulate street-smart professor (he held a master’s degree in creative writing). His words were riveting and immediate. “The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions. The revolution will not give you sex appeal. The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.”
He collaborated with many of the jazz heavyweights of his time – Brian Jackson, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws to name a few and his influence is acknowledged by a generation of artists, from Kanye West and Public Enemy to Eminem. His work touched on a variety of social and political issues, including addiction (“The Bottle” - 1974), slavery (“Rivers of My Fathers” - 1973) and racial oppression (“Johannesburg” - 1976). In 1979, he joined other high profile artists in Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) and contributed “We Almost Lost Detroit,” a poignant reminder of a close-by nuclear near-disaster in 1972.
In 2010, Scott-Heron released his fifteenth studio album, I’m New Here, to great critical acclaim. A track called “Where Did The Night Go” is highlighted here. Gil Scott-Heron passed away last Friday in New York after a brief illness. He was 62.
It’s amazing how some artists are able to reveal their true selves on stage, while others simply go through the motions.
Back about 1978 or so, Phoebe Snow performed at WMU’s East Ballroom (today’s Bernhard Center) in what appeared to be another case of a big time star giving an obligatory concert in a smallish market. She was singing, but that was about it. It was clear that she just wasn’t feeling it.
Phoebe’s career was still riding high at that point... she had a HUGE hit with Poetry Man in 1974 and a cover story in Rolling Stone magazine a year later. I assumed that she could probably care less about Kalamazoo… get in, get through it, and get back to the real world on the East Coast.
After plodding through a couple of songs, Phoebe stopped and apologized to the audience for her lack of enthusiasm. It seems her best friend was in the hospital back East at that very moment having a baby. Phoebe admitted that her body was on stage in Kalamazoo but her mind was clearly with her friend far away. Well, at least she was being honest. The show continued.
During the middle of the very next song, a stage hand came out and whispered something in her ear. Phoebe stopped the song immediately and jumped and screamed, “It’s a girl!”
With that, the veil was lifted and a very different Ms. Snow took the stage. Expressive, exuberant, entertaining; the mundane became magnificent! I had yet to see (and have seldom since seen) a performer so genuinely reveal her true “self” to an audience.
I will always remember that show… and appreciate how Phoebe allowed a small audience in Kalamazoo to be part of a very special moment in her life. And that, I guess, created a very special moment in ours.
Phoebe Snow passed away Tuesday in Edison, New Jersey, due to complications caused by a brain hemorrhage she suffered a year ago. She was 60.
I am certain that friends, colleagues, and assuredly my own family have grown tired of my consistent response when the conversation turns to music and the inevitable “what are you listening to” question pops up. My answer, since its early May release, has been that I can’t get enough of the latest by the Akron, Ohio blues rock duo The Black Keys. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a real fan of the band and I have loved and continue to listen to everything that they have put out, but their latest record Brothers is just so good that I have found myself listening to it almost daily. The Black Keys music continues to be a perfect mix of the elemental power of traditional guitar blues with cool indie rock sensibilities and, on Brothers, bits of soul thrown in for good measure. From my perspective the band, six albums in, has matured in all the right ways, adding a bit more production and instrumentation on its last two records, Brothers and 2008’s Danger Mouse produced Attack & Release, and singer Dan Auerbach tests out a falsetto on a couple tracks on Brothers, including the great Everlasting Light - great live version posted below, that I never saw coming and weirdly comes close to sounding Antony and the Johnsons like, but the band never takes this experimentation too far, always keeping the song structure tight and holding firm to what makes them such a great band in the first place.
Be sure to catch the Blue Moon Blues Band in an intimate “unplugged” performance on Wednesday, October 21st, at Central Library, as part of KPL’s ongoing Live Music series.
We have it on very good authority that this should be quite a unique and memorable event, including a rare opportunity to hear some of Mr. Carambula’s smokin’ acoustic(!) guitar work, and some brand new music they’ve never played in public before!
Blue Moon’s library appearance will also be one of the band’s final public performances - after nine years and four CDs, they’re moving on to new and different opportunities, so stay tuned! Don’t you dare miss this chance to see one of the final (and perhaps finest) performances by one of Kalamazoo’s most revered musical institutions.
Here’s Blue Moon, recorded live at Clydes Side Door in Battle Creek on March 21, 2009.
Blue Moon Blues Band
The Malian duo Amadou & Mariam have been in nearly constant rotation on my ipod and home stereo since I became aware of their music with the 2005 release of Dimanche a Bamako. I knew little of the couple’s inspiring story then, but responded immediately to the music they create. Singer Mariam Doumbia and guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayokothan, who are both blind, met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, 30 years ago and have been making amazing and infectious music ever since. Already huge stars in West Africa and Europe; in recent years Amadou & Mariam have gained a large following in the indie rock world where they have become a show stealing staple at large festivals, which has helped spread their popularity across the glode. The duo’s latest title, Welcome to Mali, has received almost universal, and I would say very well deserved, critical acclaim and I can't stop listening to it. Even without the faintest clue as to what the lyrics of the songs are saying (the couple sings primarily in French), it is easy to hear why the global spread of Amadou & Mariam's hypnotic sound cannot be stopped.
Welcome to Mali
Fusing jazz, classical and blues music together like no one before nor after her, Nina Simone was a one-of-a-kind artist whose artistic achievements and life-long support of civil rights places her firmly within the pantheon of twentieth century greats. Her long-time battle with bipolar disorder, her tumultuous relationship with the music industry and her self-imposed exile are also part of her rich narrative as the “High Priestess of Soul” but it is the plaintive beauty, ferocious spirit, immovable anger, and affirming force of her music that makes Simone so vital. One need only listen to her eulogy for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Why? The King of Love is Dead to grasp the depth of character her music embodied.
To be free [sound recording] : the Nina Simone story
To say that music lost another of its heroes today seems a shallow understatement. But a visit to the Gibson guitar company’s website says it best, where a page-wide banner proclaims, “In loving memory of Les Paul, the world’s most influential, innovative guitar player and inventor.” Les Paul passed away on August 13th at the age of 94.
Les Paul had strong connection with Kalamazoo - or at least with one of Kalamazoo’s more famous manufacturers, the Gibson guitar company. Together, Les Paul and Gibson profoundly altered the face of popular music.
Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Les was already a professional performer by the age of 13. His guitar playing technique became second-to-none, but it’s said that a music critic changed the course of his life by suggesting to Les that his guitar should be louder.
During the 1930s, Paul worked up an electric prototype (affectionately called the “Log,” actually a pine board with homemade electric pickups!) and in 1941, presented it to the Gibson company in Kalamazoo. This first attempt was a miserable failure—Gibson laughed at him—but he never looked back. “I took the Log to Gibson and I spent 10 years trying to convince them that this was the way to go,” said Paul. By 1950, Gibson’s management sensed growing competition and according to Paul, said, “Go find the kid with the broomstick and the pickups on it!”
Eventually, Les Paul formed a partnership with Gibson that not only affected his own career, but dramatically changed the face of the entire music industry. Alongside the Fender Stratocaster, Gibson’s Les Paul model is perhaps the most widely known, highly acclaimed and best loved electric guitar ever made. Period.
“The men up at Kalamazoo are working overtime to fill all the orders…”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 1951
But Les Paul’s talent for invention wasn’t limited to the guitar alone. During his career, Paul pioneered such cutting edge technology as multi-track recording and overdubbing, plus commonly used sound effects like reverb and echo.
After cutting his teeth on the radio in the 1930s, Paul’s performance career skyrocketed during the 40s and 50s with partner Mary Ford. He produced his own television show in the 1950s, and did more recording during the 60s. In 1976, he released the highly acclaimed Chester and Lester, a country and jazz fusion album with Chet Atkins. Though his hands were nearly crippled by arthritis, Paul performed actively right up until the end.
A 2007 film, Chasing Sound, celebrates Les Paul’s 90th birthday by documenting some of his final performances and highlighting his incredible contributions.
According to Gibson, Les Paul is the only individual to share membership into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He was also an honorary member of the Audio Engineering Society.
“He put the tools in our hands,” says Keith Richards. According to B.B. King, “...he’s the Boss!”
Les Paul (Associated Press photo)
I got the blues... and that’s a good thing! The 16th Annual Kalamazoo Blues Festival kicks off today at the Arcadia Creek Festival Place. As in past years, the setup will feature two side-by-side stages of top-name entertainment, plus educational workshops, children’s activities, and great food.
Thursday – Duffield/Caron, Mike Espy & Yakety Yak, Tarbox Ramblers, Fruteland Jackson, Coco Robicheaux & Dave Easley
Friday – BluesTime Band, Left Paul Trio, 6 Hands Down, Stacy Mitchhart, Reba Russell, Jimmy Thackery, Out of Favor Boys
Saturday – Garage Band 101, Fatt Lapp, Nomad Willy, Thirsty Perch, Blue Heaven, Left Turn Blues Band, Chris Canas Band, Crossroads The Resurrection, Delta Moon, Larry McCray, Sista Monica, Smokin’ Joe Kubek, Blue Moon
Admission is $5 Thursday, $10 Friday, and $12 Saturday (do the math… that’s only about-a-buck-a-band. Beat that!)
Of course, ALL the acts on this year’s bill should be fantastic, but real standouts for me will be Tarbox Ramblers (a great performance at last year’s Wheatland Festival), Jimmy Thackery (a true guitar hero!), Larry McCray, and Smokin’ Joe Kubek.
To top things off, this year’s festival will be bookended by some longstanding local friends. Duffield/Caron will open the fest on Thursday, featuring longtime KPL friends Tom Duffield and Lorraine Caron. Loraine, a regular on WMUK, appeared at KPL earlier this spring with Mark Sahlgren and is our celebrity pronouncer at the Great Grown-Up Spelling Bee. Capping off the festival on Saturday night will be our good friends, the Blue Moon Blues Band, featuring their new front man, Bryan Michael Fischer. They’ll rock your sox off at the festival, but can also catch Blue Moon in a more intimate setting at KPL in October as part of our ongoing live music series. Willie Dixon once told me... “you’re in between the blues, now, boy…” Indeed!
The guitar in the photo? It’s a “Kalamazoo,” a budget brand (1933-42) once made locally by Gibson. Be sure to check the KPL catalog for new music, hidden treasures, blues, local artists, and lots more music!
16th Annual Kalamazoo Blues Festival
Sometimes you listen for fun, other times you listen to learn. The Library of Congress recordings of Jelly Roll Morton offers a little bit of both – actually a LOT of both. Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax is an amazing eight disk set, which presents for the first time, the complete recordings (including the spoken word segments) fully restored, speed corrected and remastered, along with a series of interviews and performances from 1949 conducted again by Alan Lomax, exploring the roots of jazz with Morton’s contemporaries. Rounder has long been acclaimed for presenting traditional American music with great attention to detail, and this is certiainly no exception. With 128 tracks in all, the set includes lavish liner notes, photos, letters, notes and more in both printed and digital form.
Recorded in 1938, these recordings offer more than nine hours of music and conversation with one of the self-proclaimed inventors of “jazz, stomps and swing.” Aside from great spontaneous performances of early jazz, ragtime classics, and a little dose of “them dirty blues” (hence the parental advisory), Morton tells the stories behind many of these tunes, and describes the people who inspired them. In what is perhaps one of the first true oral histories, it’s a fascinating first-hand account of the evolution of popular music, told (and played) by someone who not only witnessed it, but actually lived and breathed it. The following dialog is typical and opens the set…
”When I was down on the Gulf Coast in nineteen-four, I missed going to the St. Louis Exposition to get in the piano contest, which was won by Alfred Wilson of New Orleans. I was very much disgusted because I thought I should have gone. I thought Tony Jackson was gonna be there, and of course that kind of frightened me. But I knew I could have taken Alfred Wilson. So then I decided that I would, uh, travel about different little spots. Of course I was down in Biloxi, Mississippi, during the time. I used to often freq— frequent the Flat Top, which was nothing but a old honky-tonk, where nothing but the blues were played. There was fellows around played the blues like Brocky Johnny, Skinny Head Pete, Old Florida Sam, and Tricky Sam, and that bunch.” (excerpt from The Story of “I’m Alabama Bound”)
How fortunate we are to have documents such as this, which allow us to explore the roots of contemporary music and culture. It’s a fascinating set and well worth the time.
Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax