Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk

Don Byron Sax

Don Byron is a musician’s musician. In the four times I’ve seen him play, including most recently a performance at UT-Austin, it’s been impossible not to notice the respect that he commands among fellow players both on stage and off. It doesn’t hurt that his recordings over the years have themselves been testaments to his own appreciation for, and innovative interpretations of, previous artists’s work such as 1993’s Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz and 2004’s Ivey-Divey, featuring music by Lester Young.

His latest release, Do The Boomerang: The Music of Junior Walker is no exception. Joined by an inspired crew including Chris Thomas King on vocals (you might remember him from his role in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and guitarist David Gilmore (not that David Gilmour), this time around Byron puts his trusted clarinet aside and delivers a world class turn on sax (where he lacks in dexterity compared to his clarinet work, he delivers on the instrument’s penchant for rich coloration and sustained intensity).

There are numerous stand-out tracks including “Cleo’s Mood,” “Shotgun,” and the ballad “What Does It Take (to Win Your Love),” but my current personal favorite is actually a cover of James Brown’s “There It Is.” Byron wisely chooses not to stray too far from Brown’s signature instrumentation and song structure, complete with that unique feel of studied improvisation, hit-mes and all. The result is an utterly infectious 7+ minute stream of cascading solos, change-ups and rasped vocals, driven by an indefatigable rhythm section.

Catch a Don Byron show this winter.

Cross-posted to Shake Your Fist on October 29, 2006

The Precocious One

Kate Bush and Sea

Image: courtesy of gaffa.org

For some it’s the voice: ethereal, sensuous and operatic are a few of the more common attempts at description. For others, it’s the progressive rock-influenced lyrical dexterity and experimental instrumentation, often an amalgam of electronic loops, sound effects, and “primitive” percussion. And then, of course, there are the leotards.

All aspects of Kate Bush, and there are many, conspire to drive you to love or hate her work. Today, her late 70s theatrical aesthetic, tempered by the lens of 80s music video art (not to mention hair styles), can appear a bit precious if not touched, leading one to wonder what drives such a devoted following. Is it just one of those inexplicable, positively British things?

Her mainstream hits such as the early and defining “Wuthering Heights,” “Running Up That Hill,” and “This Woman’s Work,” combined with her collaborations with Peter Gabriel (“Games Without Frontiers,” “Don’t Give Up”), retain the timbre and spirit of excess that Kate Bush embodies. A kind of modern day Maya Deren, eyes wild and lips puckered, she is as comfortable humming number sequences (“Pi”) as chirping with birds (“Aerial Tal”), both from last year’s much anticipated if uneven Aerial.

Musically and lyrically, her most accomplished effort is also my first introduction, 1985’s Hounds of Love. Highlights include the insistent If of the aforementioned “Hill,” the swooning vocals and lazy banjo of “Cloudbusting,” and the second part of the album, a 20 + minute concept piece entitled “The Ninth Wave,” that stretches from the invocation (“Little light!”) of “And Dream of Sheep” to the creepy imagery of “Under Ice” to the slow-motion chants submerged in the closing bars of “Hello Earth” (back in the day my 90 minute cassette tape cut short the redemptive waking of the final track “The Morning Fog,” leaving me forever plummeting).

Cross-posted to Shake Your Fist on September 27, 2006

Holding Out

Pabst Theater

Now that I’ve had a bit of time to let the impressions sink in, I thought I would put a few words down. A couple weeks back, we traveled to Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater to see Neko Case in concert. In retrospect, I’m happy the Chicago show at The Vic was sold out and gave us an excuse, at Jon’s suggestion, to make the trip. Despite the distance, the night was a good time: we had our pick of seats, the vintage theater architecture and decor were beautiful, and the band delivered a solid performance. Just a couple of dates into the tour and it showed a bit — I’m pretty sure the opener Martha Wainwright was in her cups (forgetting lines and what not) and the set list felt like it was still taking shape, including a cover of Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”. Neko’s onstage persona was relaxed and goofy, sometimes to the point that it was antithetical to the gravity of her songs, which was OK but begged the question . . . why?

Interestingly, the supporting cast was as much the highlight as Neko herself: Kelly Hogan exhibited that Renaissance ideal, sprezzatura — effortlessly delivering her brilliant backing vocals and warmly reining in Neko when she got away from herself. Jon Rauhouse possessed a scary level of musicianship and artistry too. Watching him saw away at the pedal steel guitar with an organic, fluid mastery, you got a very real sense of the countless hours surely logged sweating out the notes. I walked away impressed and anxious to see where this all goes.

The Unfolding

Neko Case Red and Blue

The Surrealists of the 1920s created what they called “unfilmable” scenarios, marked by vivid and shocking juxtapositions (think the famous razor scene in Un Chien Andalou (1929)), murky longings taking on real-world manifestations, and a wash of subconscious imaginings — a phantasmagoria tugging at the edges of visual representation.

There is a movie unfolding in my head that reminds me of these unfilmable, if not unknowable, worlds. Ever since my first introduction to Neko Case (and Her Boyfriends), courtesy of Jon, I’ve had the not-so-secret wish to happen upon Chicago’s The Hideout one night and catch an impromptu performance. These things happen, I’ve been told, though now with the release of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and the much-deserved swelling in popularity it has unleashed, my guess is those days are long-gone. In my version, David Lynch-inspired crimson red curtains frame the crooked stage, creased and bunched like crushed velvet. Plastic lawn lanterns dangle along the walls, throwing rippled, multi-colored light over the shadowed crowd. Oh, and an air conditioner reliably hums and drips in the far corner, a few strands of tinsel from last year’s Christmas tree fluttering from its bent vents. You get the picture.

And now, with Confessor, Ms. Case has pointed out the glaring absence of, and at the same time delivered, the crucial centerpiece: “Star Witness.” It’s the perfect song for this movie in my head, gently but willfully rolling on and on, spacious and lonely, as if breathing in the humid air of a (doomed) mid-August night. From the first hesitant bars, through the lazy, assured swish of the snare and Case’s at first sharp and twanged then lullaby-ready vocals, right down to the last, pseudo-haphazard strains of a distant piano, each song element feels loosely joined, like memories themselves. And that’s to say nothing of Case’s quintessential lyrics: ripe with roadside pathos, everyday details (“there’s glass in the thermos and blood on my jeans . . . ”) and, yes, ineffable mystery.

Cross-posted to Shake Your Fist on March 17, 2006

Countrified

John Doe

The Knitters / “Burning House of Love

In Amy’s absence (happy birthday, Toots!) I’ve been given the reins for this week’s No Hits entry. Power Pop be damned! You’ll be hearin’ none of that, friends.

I think I might have hit the jackpot with this week’s heavy-rotation track, given all the chit-chat ‘round here lately. It’s got 80s “roots rock” pedigree, it’s a cover (of sorts), and it’s too good to ignore (though given recent airplay and TV appearances it may be at risk of immediate “No Hits” disqualification). I’ll take the heat.

First, let me take a step back, though — 20 years back. While Geldof, Bono, and the gang were saving Africa, bands like X and Jason and the Scorchers were reworking country music conventions and paving the way for the alt-country watershed of the 90s. In Music City, U.S.A., Jason and others — including Webb Wilder (still working, last I checked), local hopefuls like Raging Fire and In Pursuit, and L.A. import and cross-over breakthrough Dwight Yoakam — were concocting strong medicine to remedy new wave excess and the then-bankrupt and cliched country sound epitomized by the likes of Kenny Rogers.

Which brings us back to Burning. The original 1985 X composition might betray the era a bit with keyboards sparking at the edges, but the rich vocals and no nonsense guitars left an indelible and influential mark. The Knitters, comprised of X bandmates John Doe, Exene Cervenka, and D.J. Bonebrak joined by Dave Alvin and Jonny Ray Bartel, deliver a sparse, jangly update with the clickity-clack shudder of a dark train puffing across the high plains. It’s a much more haunting (and haunted) telling this time around, tinged by dread and bitter memory.

Get The Modern Sounds of The Knitters, their second release in 20 years. Their first, Poor Little Critter On The Road, is also a must-have.

Cross-posted to Shake Your Fist on August 15, 2005