Monday, April 20, 2009

Get Your Mau Mau's Out!

by Scott Schinder

On April 28 and 29, the House of Blues in New Orleans will host the eighth edition of the Ponderosa Stomp, the annual marathon throwdown that showcases the surviving originators of R&B, soul, rockabilly, garage-rock, swamp pop and country. Since 2002, the Stomp—the brainchild of Big Easy anesthesiologist/music fiend Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos, kingpin of the shadowy Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau—has hosted performances by a dazzling array of vintage cult legends, forgotten geniuses and one-of-a-kind visionaries, many of whose careers stretch back more than a half-century.

Now in its third year at the House of Blues (following a long run at the vibier but worse-sounding Rock 'n' Bowl and a one-year post-Katrina exile in Memphis), the Stomp's 2009 lineup may be its most impressive and diverse to date, offering a typically tantalizing mix of old favorites, regional heroes and timely rediscoveries.

Along with such Stomp regulars as blues harmonica titan Lazy Lester (whose eponymous 1966 instrumental provided the Stomp's moniker) Louisiana rockabilly legend Joe Clay, R&B/blues guitar masters Li'l Buck Sinegal and Classie Ballou, '60s soul auteur Bobby Patterson, garage pioneers ? and the Mysterians and Bo Diddley's guitar-slinging distaff sidekick Lady Bo, the 2009 bill includes trailblazing rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, Boston garage legends the Remains, resurgent '60s soul standard-bearer Howard Tate, blues iconoclast Jerry "Boogie" McCain, Detroit rockabilly exponent Johnny Powers, influential Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey, durable New Orleans vet Robert Parker, pioneering outsider-country space cadet the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and the brilliant Memphis songwriter/producer Dan Penn.

One of the Stomp's most endearing features is Dr. Ike's knack for unearthing obscure and/or long-missing-in-action performers and coaxing them back to the live stage. Among this year's promising rediscoveries are California rock 'n' roller Roddy Jackson, Sun Records cult fave Carl Mann, fabled boogie-woogie pianist Little Willie Littlefield and Lil Greenwood, the former Duke Ellington Orchestra vocalist who also recorded numerous memorable R&B solo sides.

As is often the case at the Stomp, the backup bands are as stellar as the featured performers. For instance, Hi Records' fabled '70s studio combo, led by guitarist Teenie Hodges, will reunite with soul stalwart Otis Clay, while seminal rockabilly guitarist James Burton will accompany his former boss Dale Hawkins. In one of the fest's most eagerly anticipated sets, beloved slop-rock anti-geniuses the A-Bones will do backup duty for Flamin' Groovies founders Roy Loney and Cyril Jordan, who haven't played a full set together since Loney exited the Groovies three and a half decades ago. The A-Bones will also back Texas R&B/rockabilly hybridist Ray Sharpe. Also providing quality support will be ace retro-country-rocker (and frequent Stomp presence) Deke Dickerson and his ace combo the Eccofonics, Memphis soul instrumentalists the Bo-Keys, and Mississippi soul traditionalists Wiley and the Checkmates. And it's not unusual for the likes of Alex Chilton and original Fats Domino sideman Herb Hardesty to turn up as Stomp sidemen.

As if all of the above wasn't enough to keep music nuts occupied, the Stomp is also sponsoring a daytime music conference on April 27, 28 and 29 at the Louisiana State Museum's Cabildo museum in Jackson Square. The conference will feature interviews and panel discussions with such figures as Dave Bartholomew, Dr. John and an impressive roster of behind-the-scenes movers and shakers, along with some music-themed exhibits and screenings of new documentaries about Bo Diddley, the Remains and Wanda Jackson.


"The Dark End Of The Street" mp3
by Dan Penn, 1994.
available on Do Right Man

"Heart" mp3
by The Remains, 1966.
available on The Remains

"Yesterday's Numbers" mp3
by The Flamin' Groovies, 1971.
available on Teenage Head

"Geronimo Rock 'n' Roll" mp3
by Jerry McCain, 1955.
available on That's What They Want

"Hey! Pardner" mp3
by Classie Ballou, 1958.
Excello 2134
out of print

"I'm A Lover, Not A Fighter" mp3
by Lazy Lester, 1958.
available on I'm a Lover Not a Fighter

"Long Blonde Hair, Rose Red Lips" mp3
by Johnny Powers, 1958.
available on Long Blonde Hair

"Up, Up and Away" mp3
by Jivin' Gene and the Jokers, 1959.
available on Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

"Trying to Live My Life Without You" mp3
by Otis Clay, 1972.
available on Hi Masters

"The Midnight Hour Was Shining" mp3
by Little Willie Littlefield, 1953.
available on Going Back to Kay Cee

top photo: Bobby Emmons and Dan Penn © 2009 Jacob Blickenstaff

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Record Store Day 2009

Today is the second annual Record Store Day. This is a day for music lovers. Sure, the economy is shot. The record business is too, but that was started long ago by the creeps running record labels who have increasingly become not music lovers, but businessmen with bad ideas. There are exceptions of course, but not enough of them.

This is what I had to say last year and I think it's worth repeating today:

Record stores, while rapidly diminishing are still a great source of pleasure for music lovers everywhere. They have a smell. Downloading is easy, but it's impersonal. Even though most of you are here to do just that. Instead of plying you with a bunch of compressed mp3's, I urge you to go out and buy something today. Something that you can hold in your hands, with writing on the back and pictures or a booklet with all kinds of information and artwork to peruse while you listen to it. Go to a real record store, not Walmart or the Virgin Megastore if you can help it. Go somewhere and look around. Buy something on a whim. Buy something because you like the cover. Buy something because someone told you it's good or it has a funny title. Take a chance. Go buy one of the records you heard here or somewhere else. I can tell you where I bought most of the records in my collection, because record stores are fun...

Record stores are important too. People that run them and work in them know stuff that you don't. There are celebrations and instore performances taking place everywhere today.

If you are in Phoenix, Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets is playing at Zia Records. In Nashville, Charlie Louvin and Del McCoury are gonna be at Grimeys. Jay Reatard is at Goner in Memphis. Mark Olson and Gary Louris from the Jayhawks are at Waterloo in Austin, I'm gonna go listen to a preview of the new Dylan record at Other Music in New York City today. Bill Callahan is playing there later too. In St Louis, the Bottle Rockets are playing at Euclid Records, one of my favorite places, and they're also unveiling the latest of their exclusive 7" singles by none other than NRBQ's Terry Adams. Make sure you tell Euclid owner Joe Schwab happy birthday. John Paul Keith & The One Four Fives are at the Disc Exchange in Knoxville, and Wilco are gonna be there signing autographs. There's tons of shit happening everywhere, plus it's spring and you should get away from your computer anyway and enjoy the beautiful weather. For more info on Record Store Day, go HERE.


I wasn't gonna post anything to download today, but I do have one thing to offer up. This is an unlikely collaboration between Swamp Dogg and friend of Fluville, Ben Greenman. Ben is a writer at The New Yorker, co-proprietor of Moistworks, and the author of several books. His latest novel, Please Step Back, is the fictional story of a soul singer named Rock Foxx, troubled and living San Francisco in the late sixties and early seventies. Ben wrote some lyrics to an unrecorded Rock Foxx song for the novel, and asked Jerry Williams (AKA Swamp Dogg) if he would like to compose some music and record it. And he did.

Here's what Ben had to say about it...

"The song is pretty important in the book because it's all about verticality. He gets high often because, well, he has a problem, and he's always seeking ground -- solid ground, and personal rootedness. But in the song, he's trying to make sense of it. It's all about gravity and bounce and birds. Things that affect the vertical. As Swamp Dogg was making his song I also made a horrendous 30-second version myself, which was how I imagined Rock Foxx would sing it -- slow, draggy, and druggy. Since I can't sing and there were no instruments, it was a super-raw demo. I destroyed it immediately. I'm glad I did, because it was horrendous, but I have it somewhere in my head, and it helps me see what a great job Swamp Dogg did with the song."

For more of the backstory on this great and unusual collaboration, go to Largehearted Boy.


"Please Step Back" mp3
by Swamp Dogg, 2009.
via Largehearted Boy

Okay, now go out and buy a Swamp Dogg record. I suggest Total Destruction To Your Mind or Rat On! Buy anything that tickles your fancy. Just get out and support your local record dealer. Have fun, and if you feel like it, let me know what you picked up today in the comments below.

If you live on the West Coast, Ben Greenman is going to be reading at some of the finer bookstores out there in the next few weeks. We'll save the dilemma of bookstores for another post.


top photograph: © Ted Barron
Del-Pen Market, St. Louis, Missouri, 1986.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Going Down Slow

"Going Down Slow" mp3
by St. Louis Jimmy, 1941.
available on That's Chicago's South Side

"Going Down Slow" mp3
by Howlin' Wolf, 1961.
available on Moanin' in the Moonlight

by Jason Gross

Every song has a story and this blues standard is no different. It began life with James Burke Oden (1903-1977), a blues pianist who bounced around from his native Nashville to St. Louis and eventually to Chicago, following fellow keysman Roosevelt Skyes. In the windy city, he picked up the nom de plume St. Louis Jimmy and began cutting sides for Bluebird, an RCA subsidiary which specialized in blues and jazz (aka "race music").

In late '41, the 38-year-old musician recorded an original song, which would become the B-side of another original, "Monkey Face Blues." Heard in this first version, "Going Down Slow" sounded more like an R&B ballad than a blues tune, except when you listened to the lyrics: the original label itself classified it as "blues singer with instrumental acc." Oden is heard with just his piano and a bass backing him up. In the five verses, he sings in a nasal tone, speaking of his own demise, getting more and more desperate as the song goes along. He starts out with a rollicking piano intro as he passively accepts his fate, singing "I have had my fun/if I don't get well no more." You could say he's comforting himself in his last hours here. Then, when he can't soothe himself anymore, he comes out and faces down his miserable condition. " My health is failin' me/And I'm goin' down slow."

Any amateur M.D.'s wanna make a diagnosis here? Oden doesn't give you many clues or symptoms and we're left to wonder what's killing him. Maybe it's just life in general doing him in. But the fact that we can't pin it down adds a universality to the song and makes it a prime piece of suffering (masochism?) that would attract many other artists to the song.

Meaning and form change up in Oden's second verse:

Please write my mother
Tell her thee shape ah'm in
Pleeeeeeease write my mother
Tell her thee shape ah'm in
Tell her to pray for me
Forgive me for all my sins

He wavers between a soulful shout (on the 2nd 'please') to a labored recital of his words ("thee shape ah'm in"). Here, the words are revealing too as he asks for a letter to his mom, which makes sense for a guy like Oden (and later Wolf and many other bluesmen) who left his family in the deep South to make it up north in Chicago. These last two lines match up with what he told us at the start- his 'fun' is ultimately 'his sins.' It's that religious burden which lays out the rules where you pay hard if you play hard (you're going to hell for partying it up). This might also give us a clue about what's killing him also, related to his 'fun'- liver damage, alcohol poisoning, social disease, attack by a jealous lover. It's all divine punishment for his wicked ways. As we'll see, all of this becomes clearer and more vivid in Wolf's later version.

Oden's third verse lays out how desperate things are for him now:

Tell her don't send no doctor
Doctor can't do no good
Tell her don't send no doctor
Doctor can't do no good
It's all my fault Didn't do the things I should

There's no hope for him that he can see as he ends up blaming himself, again knowing that his partying ways left him as one hurtin' mutha. Religious guilt is a bitch, ain't it?

The fourth version doesn't provide much comfort either:

On thee next train south
Look for my clothes home
On thee next train south
Look for my clothes home
If you don't see my body
All you can do is moan

Oden labors "the" in the first line here but he's also so fucking delirious by now that he's already imagining his corpse being freighted back to his family. His clothes might make it back there even if he doesn't. What can do you, he shrugs. Moan and miss him. Pretty dire stuff and as we'll see, a little too dire for some admirers of the song.

Thoughts of his family return in the fifth and final verse:

Mother please don't worry
This is all in my prayer
Mother please don't worry
This is all in my prayer
Just say your son is gone
And out of this world somewhere

You figure that his words of comfort to his kin might be part of that letter he mentioned before and he's assuring them that he's trying to make good with God now, which he hadn't been doing before. He even tells them what to say about him after it's over - he's just a ghost drifting around now. With the song done, the suffering's done too and we can only hope that he's found peace though the torment we hear in the five verses makes you wonder.

(Oden would later re-record "Slow" for two other labels. For his 1955 version on Parrot Records, he did the song as an R&B trio with bass and a Chuck Berry-like guitar juicing up the later verses. For a 1960 Bluesville Records version, he did the song as a languid trio with Wolf/Muddy sideman Otis Spann on piano and Robert Jr. Lockwood on guitar - Oden skips the train verse there and Spann does an extended solo near the end).

Now let's zoom ahead twenty years from the original to 1961. Mississippi native Chester Arthur Burnett (aka Howlin' Wolf) had been recording for a decade and become a staple of Chicago music alongside Muddy Waters, his old friend and rival, with both of them signed to legendary blues label Chess. A bit of a late bloomer into his music career, Wolf's now 51 years old. Alongside him is guitarist Hubert Sumlin who was 20 years younger than Wolf and playing alongside him for over six years.

Earlier, Oden had recorded for Aristocrat Records (a Chess precursor) with Muddy playing alongside him. He was now peddling his songs to artists, looking for some more royalties. It's little wonder that "Goin' Down Slow" would fall into Wolf's lap then.

Another important figure here is Willie Dixon. Eventually, he'll get his due as one of the top American songsmiths of the 20th century alongside Rodgers/Hammerstein, Dylan, Hank, Biggie, etc. but for now, he's got another role to play. Like Muddy, Wolf had made his career at Chess by cutting many of Dixon's songs- for Wolf, this included such immortal and well-trotted tunes as "Evil," "Spoonful," "Back Door Man," "Wang Dang Doodle" and plenty of others. For a December '61 session, he had another pair of great ones for Wolf to record - "I Ain't Superstitious" (later covered by the Yardbirds, the Grateful Dead and Jeff Beck) and "You'll Be Mine" (also done by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dr. Feelgood).

But there was another song that they did for the session, which happens to the one in question here. Wolf and Dixon (who was Chess's house producer, not to mention its session bassist) transformed "Going Down Slow" radically. Not only did they make it their own but they also fleshed out meaning in it that Oden couldn't. As many later versions would do, they chopped out lines but while most of the other covers dropped a verse, Wolf/Dixon performed some radical surgery here- they cut out the last three verses and then added two of their own. If that wasn't enough, neither of the two new verses were sung- instead, they were recited. Such a radical transformation could have nabbed them a co-writing credit but they left it with Oden.

Where Oden's original had the air of languid R&B, Wolf's cover is done at a much slower, deliberate pace, adding heft to the struggle and pain we hear about in the song. The desperation of the words is finally matched by the music, much the same way that the bubbling funk of Sly Stone's original single version of "Thank You" compares to the deadly, zombified version on There's A Riot Goin' On.

Alongside Wolf, Dixon and Sumlin, there were other Chess Record regulars on hand for the "Slow" recording session: guitarist Jimmy Rogers (a recording artist in his own right and a member of Muddy's band), pianist Henry Gray (who'd also spent years working with Wolf) and drummer Sam Lay (who would later play with the Butterfield Blues Band and with Dylan at his fateful Newport Festival appearance four years later and on a little record called Highway 61 Revisited).

Wolf's version of "Goin' Down Slow" doesn't even start out with Wolf himself. Instead, we hear Dixon talking the first few lines, which was rare for these kind of sessions. In Dick Shurman's notes to the 1991 MCA Records, Howlin' Wolf box set, he speculates that there might have been tension in the studio between Dixon and Wolf over who'd do the quieter verses but one wonders how Wolf could have provided the right contrast there (later, we'll see how that went when he did try that in a live version).

In any case, it's Dixon we hear at the top, in this new first verse, speaking in a mellow, unhurried tone:

Man... you know I've enjoyed things that-
kings and queens will NEVER have

In fact things kings and queens can't never get

And they don't even KNOW about it
And good times? Mmmmmmmmm-mmm

While there's calm reflection in Dixon's voice, at the same time, he's also bragging and, as we'll later learn, trying to ease his own pain by remembering better days. Also, you gotta love how he savors the last line there, saying more in his "Mmmmm" than he could if he described his fun in detail. This intro also extends Oden's emotional turmoil, making it more gripping and descriptive, especially when Wolf comes in next.

Needless to say, Wolf doesn't take his verse calmly, instead applying his unearthly groan that he was famous for. The second verse here was the first verse in the original tune but now with some important differences. Wolf's voice finds the horror that Oden's words were only trying to convey, especially the way he belts out the last few words.

I have had my fun, if I never get well no more
I have had my fun, if I never get well no more
Whoa, my health is fadin'
Oh yes, I'm goin' down slow.

Along with Sumlin applying a wonderful rubbery guitar for the first two lines, Wolf (or Dixon) has some lyrical touches to add. Where Oden fretted about "if I don't get well no more," Wolf claims the more emphatic and final "never get well no more." Also, instead of having his health "failing," Wolf has it as "my health is fadin'," making for a much more rich, mysterious image and more downhome too.

The contrast and back-and-forth between Dixon's meditations and Wolf's death spiral is a stark one, repeating itself one more time in the song. In the third verse here, which is also a newly-penned one spoken by Dixon, he goes on to explain himself from the first verse, also ignoring the harrowing details of the second verse that just ended (maybe purposefully to avoid the pain of it).

Now looky here

I did NOT say I was a millionaire

But I said I have spent more MONEY than a millionaire
'Cause if I had a kept all of the money I've already spent,

I'd would have been a millionaire a loooong time ago

And women...? Greeeat, Googly Moogly...

The first few lines draw an important distinction. Dixon's character hasn't tucked away enough money to be rich but he's spent more money than a rich man. In other words, he's basically your average American consumer, tossing away money frivolously- something we now suffer through in our current economic woes. The last line about his lady friends is again a way to brag and comfort himself from the misery we hear in Wolf's verses. The contrast is stunning, considering that the two men are actually just talking up the same guy's grizzly fate from different angles.

Wolf's last verse (the 2nd verse of the original tune) brings us back to down the dire state of the narrator, buoyed along by Sumlin's guitar in the second line

PLEASE write my mama
Tell heeer the shape I'm in
Please write my mother

Tell heeer the shape I'm in

Tell her pray for me

Forgive me for my sins

Note that instead of "mother," Wolf calls her the more informal "mama" the first time. Also, when heard after Dixon's previous verse, we get more context here about what exactly "my sins" are- not just the wasteful spending but also "Great, Googly Moogly..." letting our imagination roam with how many skirts he's chased and cherries he's popped. But one place that Oden does have it over Wolf is in the last lines where the original did sound remorseful and sad about what he's done where Wolf's more powerful voice sounds almost like he's making demands - it's his mom's problem to get him right with God than any worry of his.

(Wolf's mom was indeed very religious and didn't approve of his fame, saying that he was playing the 'devil's music,' according to The Howlin' Wolf Story DVD)

And that's where Wolf and Dixon left it off. Nothing about the train, the doctor or comforting his mother. But in the way that they shuffled, cut, pasted and mashed up the original like a Frankenstein creation, they transformed the song. Oden had created a great blueprint for something that took on a life of its own. Where he served up a tasty morsel, Wolf and Dixon fried up a juicy steak.

But being a standard, "Going Down Slow" didn't end there. Even before Wolf sank his teeth into the song, it caught the ear of another famous singer. Ray Charles covered the song in 1949, renaming it "I've Had My Fun" (which sounds more upbeat, right?) and skipped the 4th verse, about the train. Like Oden, he also did it in a piano trio format, releasing it as a B-side to his single "Sitting on Top of the World" on the L.A. indie label Swing Time records.

But it was Wolf's version that spread the word and made the song more popular than ever, after it came out in 1962 as the B-side to "You'll Be Mine." For her Atlantic Records debut in 1967, Aretha Arives, the queen of soul did a nice bluesy version, using Oden's original lyrics but asks to write her father instead of her mom, skips the 4th/train verse and redoes the last verse. For a 1974 live album For the First Time...Live, with B.B. King, Bobby Bland also sticks close to Oden's original (nothing about "failin''' or 'mama') in a wonderful, soulful gut-wrenching version. For the 4th verse, Bland and King fight over who's singing it but then cut out the last verse.

Even Wolf himself would revisit the song, making it a concert staple. Heard on Rockin' the Blues- Live In Germany, 1964 (recently reissued by Acrobat), he takes all the verses of his own version himself, trumping Dixon. But even with Sunnyland Slim's lively boogie-woogie piano livening up the proceedings, Dixon's vocal absence is felt though he's still on stage playing bass- Wolf doesn't have the subtlety of Dixon so the contrast between the verses is missed. And though he skips the third (doctor) and last verse, he does tip his baseball cap to Oden by reviving the 4th verse, about the train. He also improvises some of Dixon's original dialog. Most significantly, right before the verse about writing his mom, Wolf says "I can't go home, I treat my mama wrong." Where before it sounded like he had to write to her because he moved to Chi-town for work, here he draws a different picture- just like in real life, Wolf's the errant son who doesn't have a place back home with his mom, at least until he's ready to be buried. But in the song, and the verse he ends with here, he warns that he might not make it back there when he does pass on.

He sounds so convincing that you really wonder if Wolf should be worried that he won't make it back South when he's ready to be laid to rest. Sure enough, he didn't make it back there in the end - even though an annual festival honors him near his Mississippi hometown, his gravesite remains in Chicago.


"Goin' Down Slow" mp3
by St. Louis Jimmy. 1955
available on Complete Works, Vol. 2

"Going Down Slow" mp3
By Howlin' Wolf, 1964.
available on Rockin' The Blues: Live in Germany 1964


"I've Had My Fun" mp3
by Ray Charles, 1949.
available on The Complete Swing Time & Down Beat Recordings 1949-1952

"Going Down Slow" mp3
by Aretha Franklin, 1967.
available on Aretha Arrives

"Goin' Down Slow" mp3
by B.B. King & Bobby "Blue" Bland, 1974.
available on Together for the First Time...Live


"I've Had My Fun" mp3
by Little Walter
available on The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967)

"Going Down Slow" mp3
by Guitar Slim, 1955.
available on Sufferin' Mind

"Goin' Down Slow" mp3
by Otis Spann with St. Louis Jimmy Oden, 1960.
available on Walking the Blues

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Fun With The Old Testament

Blood, Frogs, Gnats, Flies, Pestilence, Boils,
Hail, Locusts, Darkness, and Death.

Happy Passover!


"Matzoh Balls" mp3
by Slim Gaillard & His Flat Foot Floogee Boys, 1939.
available on Laughing in Rhythm

photograph: © Ted Barron, 2009.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Duane Jarvis: 1957-2009

Guitarist Duane Jarvis died this week after a long battle with cancer. I met him around 2002, when he was touring with my friend Amy Rigby, and they stayed with me and my wife at our Brooklyn loft. I can't say I knew him well, but we did spend one memorable evening together listening to records and talking about music. I made him a copy of a Don Covay record that I was obsessed with at the time, and he gave me a copy of his then current release, Certified Miracle. The songs are good and soulful, and have caused me more than once to do a double-take and check out what was playing when they came up in my itunes shuffle. He was a gifted guitar player and songwriter, who played with many artists, including Lucinda Williams with whom he wrote, "Still I Long For Your Kiss."


"Still I Long For You Kiss" mp3
by Duane Jarvis, 2001.
available on Certified Miracle

"Intoxicate Me" mp3
by Duane Jarvis, 2001.
available on Certified Miracle

"Last Time You Cried" mp3
by Duane Jarvis, 2001.
available on Certified Miracle


"Til The Wheels Fall Off" mp3
by Amy Rigby (with Todd Snider), 2003.
D.J. lead guitar
available on Til the Wheels Fall Off

Amy has written a nice remembrance of D.J. HERE



by Laura Cantrell

Duane Jarvis was someone I knew by reputation before I actually met him in person. He was in Lucinda Williams' band when I saw her a few times in New York, at the Mercury Lounge and maybe Tramps. She would introduce the song they wrote together, "Still I Long For Your Kiss," with a shout out to DJ. He was a low key presence on stage, and very approachable in person. I got to know him a bit back in Nashville, where he played with Amy Rigby and Tim Carroll and a lot of folks who had migrated down from NY. When I was finally starting to play on the UK/Europe alt country circuit, we crossed paths a few times and had a lovely show together in Edinburgh at Queen's Hall in 2003. Backstage at that gig, I got to tell DJ a story about hearing his music in a funny context. At the time I was still working on 57th street and one of my mid-day refuges was Bendel's department store on 56th Street and 5th Avenue. For several months that year, every time I was in the store I would hear DJ's song "A Girl That's Hip." I would sort of look around at the fancy ladies oblivious to the soundtrack of their shopping, and hope that DJ was getting some revenue from the spins. Hearing the song was also a little encouragement while I was trying to balance two totally different worlds, making my living in a big corporation and playing my own music whenever I could. So I got to tell DJ that his song had popped up a few times to lighten my mood, and we shared a nice smile over it backstage in Edinburgh. He was a very sweet guy.


"A Girl That's Hip" mp3
by Duane Jarvis, 1998.
available on Far From Perfect


"Still I Long For Your Kiss" mp3
by Lucinda Williams, 1998.
available on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

top photo: Jenine de Shazer © 2006

Thursday, April 2, 2009


by Scott Schinder

In its 23-year existence, the Austin, Texas-based South by Southwest music festival/industry gathering has always mirrored the mood of both the mainstream music biz and the alt-rock underground. So it wasn't surprising that the vibe at that this year's SXSW carried an undercurrent of unease over the perilous state of the recorded-music business, even as a horde of young and/or unsigned acts were in town attempting to launch their careers by bypassing traditional business models.

While the seismic shifts in the music biz are undeniable, music continues to play as essential a role in people's lives as ever, a fact that's affirmed by SXSW's ongoing vitality in these hard times. For me, the most significant thing about the festival is the sheer quantity of music that descends upon Austin during SXSW week. During the four days and nights of the music fest proper, one can't take more than a few steps on Austin's club hub of 6th Street, or on the booming hipster drag of South Congress, without being assaulted by all manner of live music. The fact that much of that music is mediocre-to-downright-terrible is beside the point; the overkill is exhilarating and inspiring all the same.

SXSW's reputation as a venue for buzz bands to be discovered, and for rising and established recording acts to launch new products, is well deserved. But attendees who focus exclusively on seeking out new talent are in constant danger of being disappointed, considering the multitude of unremarkable acts who regularly manage to stir up a SXSW buzz. Perhaps it's just because I live in New York, but I long ago stopped relying on SXSW as a vehicle for discovering new music. Of course, it's always a thrill to stumble upon something unexpectedly great, and I inevitably do on multiple occasions during the festival. But rather than spending SXSW seeking out the next big thing, I generally make an effort to sample the best of the festival's embarrassment of far-ranging musical riches, along with the countless unofficial events that take place within the festival's orbit, allows one the potential of seeing something great, or at least really good.

One early SXSW highlight was swamp-rock godfather Tony Joe White's riveting set on Wednesday, the festival's opening night. Four decades down the road from his signature hit "Polk Salad Annie," the Louisiana-bred singer/guitarist/tunesmith made some of the most raw and most compelling music of his storied career on last year's Deep Cuts. That album tricks out some of the artist's classic tunes with oddly appropriate electronic elements, creating a bracing mutant-blues stew that carries his iconoclastic style into exciting new sonic territory. The modified approach really comes to life on stage, where, accompanied only by a keyboardist and drummer, White's sublimely funky guitar work reaches new levels of funky inspiration.

Less inspired was resurgent psych-punk cult icon Roky Erickson's two-song mini-set the same night at the Austin Music Awards. Erickson's mere presence on stage, after decades of mental illness and musical inactivity, is miraculous in itself. But, after a run of inspired comeback shows with his '80s combo the Explosives, recent attempts to team Erickson with younger, hipper bands have been less satisfying. Tonight's pairing with talented Austin neopsychedelicists the Black Angels, must have seemed like an inspired concept on paper. But Roky tends to get lost in unfamiliar territory, and the Black Angels (like worthy Austin outfits Okkervil River and the Summer Wardrobe before them) weren't up to the task of keeping the erratic icon focused. After Erickson missed his cue on an otherwise promising reading of his 13th Floor Elevators classic "Splash One," the performance went off the rails and never regained its momentum.

More enjoyable was the awards show's paean to Roky's equally seminal contemporary, the late roots-rock godhead Doug Sahm, to celebrate the release of the largely excellent various-artists disc Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to Doug Sahm. Led by Sir Doug's son Shawn (whose effusive stage persona eerily recalls that of his old man) and featuring Sahm's longtime keyboard sidekick Augie Meyers and a one-song guest spot by Alejandro Escovedo, the four-song set maintained the sort of loose but insistent groove that Sahm helped to invent.

One of the best bands I saw on Thursday—Michael Hall's current combo the Savage Trip—wasn't even playing an official SXSW showcase. Hall, a matter-of-factly elegant songwriter whose much-loved combo the Wild Seeds was a leading light of Austin's '80s alt-rock boom, has been making consistently excellent records (the most recent being 2006's The Song He Was Listening to When He Died) ever since. The Savage Trip, comprised largely of longtime Hall cohorts, was a subtly powerful vehicle for the artist's evocative songcraft, and it's a shame that the band rarely performs outside of Austin.

Also trading in literate, infectious jangle are England's Blue Aeroplanes, whose SXSW sets marked the band's first U.S. appearances in nearly two decades. In that time, the band's personnel has turned over completely, with the exception of frontman/lyricist Gerard Langley and his drummer brother John. But the current lineup (joined here by local ringer Steve Collier, late of Doctors' Mob and the Rite Flyers, standing in for the band's rhythm guitarist, who'd been refused a U.S. visa) do right by the Aeroplanes' longstanding mix of punchy folk-rock and barbed beat poetry.

Unlike Hall and the Aeroplanes, ex-Mavericks frontman Raul Malo, actually had a new release (the fine Lucky One) to promote, and did so with effortless class and passion in his SXSW showcase. If there's a better male vocalist than Malo in contemporary American popular music, I'd like to hear him.

On Friday afternoon at the Yard Dog folk-art gallery, venerable indie roots-rock label Bloodshot hosted its popular long-running SXSW bash. Swell performances by '50s R&B innovator Andre Williams, postpunk rockabilly visionary Dex Romweber and Florida cowpunk pioneer Charlie Pickett showed how much the label's vision has expanded in its decade-and-a-half existence. And a typically rousing closing set by Bloodshot's flagship band the Waco Brothers—an Anglo-American sextet co-led by Mekons member and multimedia renaissance rabble-rouser Jon Langford, whose multi-band work ethic has long made him one of SXSW's busiest performers—demonstrated how the Wacos have evolved from alcohol-fueled diversion to protest-song juggernaut.

Friday night's Ponderosa Stomp revue offered a scaled-down version of the annual New Orleans-based festival of the same name, which every April offers a dizzying assortment of the underappreciated greats of early rock 'n' roll, blues, R&B, rockabilly and garage-rock, with an emphasis on vintage performers from the Gulf Coast region. This year's SXSW mini-Stomp offered a typically riveting array of talent, including such regulars as blue-eyed-soul wildman Roy Head, guitar-slinging soul queen Barbara Lynn and the great Louisiana guitarists Classie Ballou and Li'l Buck Sinegal, along with some of the never-thought-you'd-live-to-see-it rediscoveries that that the Stomp is so adept at providing. The latter group included memorable performances from fabled Dallas rocker Floyd Dakil, whose energetic set included his garage-compilation standards "Dance Franny Dance" and "Bad Boy," and Texas rockabilly original Huelyn Duvall. The latter pair received expert, unfussed backup from Austin semi-supergroup Eve and the Exiles.

Although they've never played an official SXSW gig, Houston's Allen Oldies Band is as much a SXSW success story as any act. Led by irrepressible frontman and vintage Top 40 fanatic Allen Hill, the Allen Oldies Band plays vintage AM pop hits with a transcendent fervor that belies the group's cover-band status, and their long-running marathon outdoor sets during the convention have won them a loyal following of SXSW registrants. Meanwhile, the group's instrumental expertise has won them a sideline backing vintage artists in their hometown and elsewhere. This year, the Allen Oldies Band was so in-demand that they managed to pack five sets in the space of six hours on Saturday. The marathon began with the band's annual 10AM throwdown at the Continental Club, followed by a noontime set across the street at Jo's Coffee (in between, Hill sat in on bass with German country-rock wiseacres the Twang). After Jo's, the band rushed across town to play behind the aforementioned Barbara Lynn and Roy Head at an outdoor neighborhood party, then returned to the Continental to back Andre Williams, after which Oldies multi-instrumentalist David Beebe walked down the street to play bass with Jon Langford at Yard Dog. Although none of these adventures was officially sanctioned by SXSW, it's this sort of thing that keeps the festival fun and exciting, and a big part of what keeps me coming back year after year.


"Roosevelt And Ira Lee (Night Of The Mossacin)" mp3
by Tony Joe White, 1969.
available on ...Continued

"Every Little Thing" mp3
by Michael Hall, 1994.
available on Adequate Desire

"Yr Own World" mp3
by The Blue Aeroplanes, 1991.
available on Beatsongs

"Sugar Shack" mp3
by The Allen Oldies Band, 2005.
available on Live and Delirious! on WFMU

"Dance Franny Dance" mp3
by The Floyd Dakil Combo, 1964.
available on Pebbles, Vol. 1

"Oh, Baby (We Got A Good Thing Goin')" mp3
by Barbara Lynn, 1964.
available on The Jamie Singles Collection 1962-1965

"Just A Little Bit" mp3
by Roy Head, 1965.
available on Teeny Weeny Bit

all photographs: Jacob Blickenstaff © 2009

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Fool's Day

by Mike DeCapite

April is here. When I got home from work on Friday my room was shadowy and the sky was bright above the alley. I set an ashtray on the windowsill, put my feet up on the desk, and listened to a record I’ve had since I was fifteen. One night Luke and I walked into one of the mall record stores where a harmonica was playing and I looked up as though I were in church. You know how you look up, by reflex? The record——I later found out from the words but I heard it instantly in the music——was about the road. It was about a life lived from place to place, person to person, job to job, but ultimately alone. It was about being honest rather than good. It accepted the nature of time and change, and imagined life as a series of episodes and entanglements which add up to an idea. The harmonica poured its heart out and the music glittered like sunlight on the spokes of a wheel or the surface of a stream. That moment was one of those recognitions of how things are, and are going to be, and the song has been like a church to me ever since.

Springtime always brings me back around to this record, which is about the presence of the past as much as anything else. On Friday as I leaned back against the bookcase, the music opened a window on the past. The past was a room I was looking into, and I was in that room, and it was the same room as the one I call the present. The things of this room are from the past, the same as my reasons for being here, all of which——the books, the trunk, the room, my reasons——are of the present, too. The past exists on the same plane as the present, with its wives and friends who come and go and the difficulties of communication and the permanence of impermanent relations and vice versa. I haven’t spoken to Flo since I left New York. A few weeks ago I had a tough conversation with Kitty, one of those conversations in which you can hear how things are and how they’re going to be. It’s five years since we split up, five years since I moved into this room. There are scenes and utterances which will be with me for the rest of my life. I undermined both marriages by drinking, which is a way of hanging onto a moment that’s already gone. I undermined my second marriage with guilt about the first, which is another way of hanging on. The guilt I’ve gotten past. I couldn’t carry that guy anymore, with all his ideas about things. What’s still standing, what’s hardest to accept, is the minor tragedy that all of us are right. There’s no turning back. There’s no help for it, there’s no one to call about it, there’s nothing much to say about it because it just is. And it’s always now.

When the record was done I swept and straightened the room and stacked some books on the bare floor. Then I went to a party which the warm weather had engendered as naturally as it brought forth the buds, walking quietly through the dusk, inhaling jasmine so sweet it was almost sour, and gardenia, and other things I couldn’t name. I didn’t want to go. I had nothing to say, I didn’t want to talk, or listen to others talk. The sky was emptying out. A bright pink contrail, which looked as permanent as a scar, had disappeared without a trace when I looked again.

At the party, everywhere I turned there were a bottles of liquor and wine and mixers and olive spears and fruit, and everyone was mixing and sipping delicious-looking and civilized martinis in cold metal shakers and Campari-&-sodas with orange slices and bourbons on the rocks, but my momentary temptation to have a drink was an ember easily stamped out, because it’s been a long time already and I have, hopefully, a long way to go.

It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be...

On Saturday morning I folded up the bed, made a pot of tea, did a little writing. Then I went to the racetrack.

I rode the train to the East Bay and got off at North Berkeley. There I left the station and crossed the road to where a cab driver was standing under a tree. There were three riders in his taxi, waiting for a fourth. I squeezed in and off we went, handing money over the seat——two-fifty each——the usual silent citizen with slicked-back hair in a blue windbreaker who rode up front, a shrunken man in a suit and turban, and a sizeable woman who said that if she won she was going to buy a new pair of shoes. Berkeley’s warmer, a month further into spring. We rode through streets of bungalows and yellow flowers in overgrown lawns, under the freeway to the bay.

At the curb we wished each other luck and went our separate ways. I took a Form, program, and coffee to the grandstand. The morning was spread below me with the Berkeley hills beyond. Sprinklers arced on the infield grass, which was mown in stripes. Slow tractors overturned the dark earth of the track, followed by the water trucks, which cooled it all down.

I had a bad day out there. In my first race I got shut out of a horse that won and paid $50, and then I had two out of three horses in the next five trifectas. Pete showed up and we caught a small trifecta which brought me halfway back. On our way out he wanted to watch them come around again, so we stopped and waited by the rail. I leaned on the fence, watching a bumblebee hovering above its shadow on the dirt. Funny how quiet it is when they come around. All you hear is the horses’ breathing, and now and then a whip...

Today, Sunday, I stood in the back door. Blazing sunlight had chosen a white flower and filled it with light, more light than it could hold, before moving on. Around 3:30 I took my laundry around the corner. The shadows were shot with sunlight, and the cool air carried the sun’s warmth. Everyone on the street looked a little blinded by the light, like they didn’t quite know what to do with themselves and they were waiting for it to die down a little...

It’s taken me five years to see that I live on the prettiest street in San Francisco. The trees won me over, the eloquent double row of elms in both directions...

After many months bare, the trees hang fully leafed now, slaves to life like everyone else.


"Tangled Up In Blue" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1975.
Available on Blood on the Tracks

"Simple Twist Of Fate" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1974.
available on New York Sessions: Blood On The Tracks

"Up To Me" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1974.
available on Biograph

"Call Letter Blues" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1974.
available on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991

"You're A Big Girl Now" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1974.
available on New York Sessions: Blood On The Tracks

"Buckets of Rain" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1975.
available on Blood on the Tracks

"April Fool's Day" from RUINED FOR LIFE! © 2009 Mike DeCapite; originally published in somewhat different form, by angle magazine in 2004.

Mike DeCapite's long-out-of-print novel Through the Windshield is now available as a Kindle book via Amazon.

Photograph: Folsom Street, San Francisco, CA. 2008
© Ted Barron