The Man Who Would Be King of the Blues: Tab Benoit

•October 10, 2017 • 1 Comment

 

“If you really want to know how to play the blues? Watch Tab Benoit.”
— B.B. King

1a TB 2[Photo by Drew Stawin]

The Man Who Would Be King
Of The Blues:

Tab Benoit

 

By JAC TRICE

“When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times and to the latest.”
– Henry David Thoreau

Though those words were written by Thoreau, they easily could have come from Tab Benoit, a hard-driving, multi-award-winning locomotive of a blues guitarist and songwriter out of the bayous of Southern Louisiana. Recognized by all the best in his genre and recipient of a multitude of awards for his prodigiously authentic journey through the blues, he’s an artist who has always maintained a direct and visceral connection with tradition, while forever evolving and moving forward into the musical future.

Having made music professionally for almost three decades, this Louisiana Hall of Fame inductee is still considered a “new guy of the blues.” Beloved for his gravelly, Delta-inspired vocals and candid lyrics, his high-voltage, electric-Cajun-delic concerts never fail to send his audiences, and often his band, into the stratosphere. And beyond.

At a festival in Frisco, Colorado, following an especially rousing version of his original “Bayou Boogie,” his drummer Terrance Higgins seemed completely entertained, while Corey Duplechin, his bassist of twenty years, exclaimed, “Dude! You can’t play that fast at this altitude!”

Yet Tab does project a perpetual air of “fear no danger” as he lyrically, instrumentally and vocally dares you to think he is not serious:

A little pepper makes it fine!

Take it down with some homemade wine!

Get yourself another plate!

Before it gets too late!

While it’s running down your chin

I’m gonna play you bayou boogie again!

 I’m gonna boogie!

You’re gonna boogie!

We’re gonna boogie!

C’mon – let’s do that bayou boogie all night long!!

(Repeat like a thousand times and then:

“Y’all, I can’t boogie no mo!!!”)

 

As a teenager he performed at the extraordinarily rustic Blues Box in Baton Rouge, LA with blues legends Tabby Thomas, Henry Gray, Raful Neal and others who grew up at the knees of the sons and daughters of the founders of the blues – the field hands who bellowed call and response rituals during their dark history and plight. The Blues Box was legendary in the blues world with the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Guitar Kelly, and Silas Hogan regularly jamming on the stage back in the day. Frequented through the years by luminaries such as Paul Newman, Bruce Springsteen and Shaquille O’Neal, The Blues Box was renowned for not for daylight, but for authentic blues.

A direct conduit, not many others can claim these influential elements of the blues with the same authority as he can. Using no pedals or effects, the haunting tones he invokes with those elements from his worn-to-the-grain vintage 1972 Fender Telecaster Thinline are uniquely his, and ethereally stunning. This is not mimicry, this is solid inspiration fed by those Louisiana blues legends who studied under the genre’s founders. And the bayous, where the organic rhythms of music and nature ebb constantly, were the backdrop of Tab’s childhood backyard and where he still makes his home to this day.

Of Cajun descent, he remains devoted to his hometown in Southern Louisiana.  His commitment and stewardship are evident in his constant work as an avid environmental conservationist. His mission is to save and ultimately restore this region, which is in constant danger of being washed away, within a generation, due to cataclysmic coastal erosion. This includes New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz.

(The lack of marshes in Southern Louisiana is contributing to increasingly damaging storms out of the Gulf as the recent flooding in Houston can attest. Tab’s own family has lost 260 acres out of 300 in the last twenty years.)

As founder and President of the nonprofit Voice of the Wetlands organization (“VOW”), Tab has banged the drum of concern for over two decades including a searing testimony to Congress.

In addition to bringing the message on tour through his music, he also oversees an annual music festival, “The Voice of the Wetlands Festival,” every October near the bayous of Houma, Louisiana.  The idea is to bring awareness of the national and global adversarial effects of losing the nation’s largest port and the most active foreign trade zone. The festival brings world class talent and regional talent together to discuss and to jam for three days and until the wee hours of the morning. Anyone from Joe Bonamassa to Samantha Fish jam with bayou legends as attendees from around the world find their inner rockin’ Cajun at this growing festival, now recognized as the number one Louisiana festival outside of New Orleans.

In addition, his musical talent continues to be rewarded with industry wide respect as he’s invited at any moment to jam with everyone from Bonnie Raitt and Buddy Guy to Quinn Sullivan and Taz.

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Photo by Drew Stawin

Despite all of this, in years past he has shared his reservations about one aspect of his craft: his songwriting.

“All I know is what I feel,” he said to Offbeat magazine. “If it feels good, I do it. When it comes to using my head and writing lyrics, I can’t do it.” This approach has resulted in writings in more recent years that are beautiful because of their lack of complexity – refined only because of the bold internal editing that occurs before the pen hits the page.

His dedication and perseverance extends back to his earliest days in the Baton Rouge blues scene. Those were the days when Tabby Thomas used to escort him out of The Blues Box with a gun because vagrants would have mugged him for his guitar. As one Texan reviewer stated back then, “[Tab] plays as though his life depends upon it.” Probably that writer didn’t know just how true that statement was.

And if further doubts about his convictions still linger, it should be remembered that at the age of twenty he walked away from financial security — a burgeoning pilot’s career and a position in the family oil business — in order to pursue music. In Frisco, when this subject was delicately broached, about his family he said, “Oh, they disowned me!” For the first time, he further elaborates on this in the following interview.

1a TB 1[Photo courtesy of Monica Muil Photography]

A private person and a reluctant, rare interviewee, Mr. Benoit generously spoke for over three hours about all that has driven him, what inspires his works, and what keeps him in the game no matter how difficult or intimidating the counter forces.

In an unapologetic Cajun accent (“What? I have an accent?”) reminiscent of his friend Dr. John, we start Tab’s story with a discussion of his name:

TAB BENOIT: Well, the name Tab means “drummer.” When I was looking up baby names I found my name was in there and it meant drummer [Laughs].

Did your parents know that when they named you?

No. I told my mom that later and she said, “Well, there you go.”

[Laughs] How did they come up with the name Tab?

My mom liked the name Tab like Tab Hunter who was an actor back in the ’50s. She said she wanted to give me a name that nobody could have a nickname to. So, they wouldn’t shorten it and give me a nickname. Her family and her siblings all had nicknames and she hated it. She was like I want to give you a nickname [Laughs] right off the bat.

You started playing the guitar at nine. How young were you when you started playing the drums?

Before I was born!

Really? How so?

Well, according to my mom, I was kickin’ in the womb to whatever music was being played and there was a lot of music being played (everyone played an instrument – family, neighbors and friends).

My earliest memories are of sitting at a drum set, before I could walk, and swinging my foot into the drums.

Is it true you didn’t love the guitar you got for your ninth birthday?

No, actually I thought (the guitar) was cool, but I felt that I would give it to my little brother and teach him how to play guitar so that I could play drums along to something or with somebody and I just noticed that there were no drums anymore! [Laughs] The seed was planted though and I was determined to play music on something and if that’s what we had, then that’s what we had.

Though you’ve been playing professional for 20 years now, you’re still considered one of the new guys on the scene —  

Well, you know, when you have guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy and all those guys that live to be ripe old ages and still out there you know kickin’… You know B.B. was still out there playin’ until the end. Till 89. I opened for B.B. for his last full show.

So, I mean when those guys are in their eighties [laughs], I guess I am the new guy! That’s the way I look at it…as far as the blues goes…it seems they all live to be an old age, y’know?. And still playin’ and still doin’ well. I mean Buddy’s gonna turn eighty like next month I think…

Wow. He does not look it.

No. And he’s still full of energy and he’s still full of fire…and still sings and plays as good as he ever has. So I am the new guy and I’m fine with that! It doesn’t really matter when it comes down to it. As long as someone out there knows what I do. My whole philosophy is that if there are at least more people in the crowd than we have in the band, we’re good. I only have a three piece band, so four people is a show!” [Laughs]

When you got that call to be in the B.B. King tribute for the final show of Jazz Fest this year, how did you feel in that moment?

Well, Quint Davis (director and producer of the New Orleans Jazz Fest) called me himself and I was like, “Are you sure?”  There are so many legends out there that I’m sure would have loved to be a part of that and he wanted to make sure that I was on it. Quint is a friend and a fan and he really listens and you know he comes out and sees me even on a normal basis you know – just out of the blue he’ll show up at shows in New Orleans and we’ll talk and a lot of times we’ll talk at one of my shows about the next Jazz Fest.

He put me on before Eric Clapton a couple of years ago. He definitely puts me in spots where people that might like what I am doing are gonna see me. So, you know I have to say that hands on, he’s trying to help get me in front of an audience that would probably appreciate what I am doing. And he knew that I played that gig with B.B. for that last show that he did and the history with me and B.B. so, you know.

The year before I opened for Buddy Guy (at Jazz Fest) and I had just played that (last) show with B.B… And me and Buddy were talkin’ about it and he was disappointed because they wouldn’t let him see him once they put B.B. King on hospice. They wouldn’t let Buddy see him. And Buddy and him were really great friends for years and years and years. So, he was kind of saddened by that so me and him up there together doing a tribute that’s an unbelievable thing you know. It’s one of those shows I’ll never forget. That’s definitely one of the highlights of my entire life right there. All in one place you know on that stage I mean … it‘s just really, really cool you know?

Well, and I can tell you that those of us out in the crowd knew it and felt it as well. Your connection with your audience is always remarkable and pure. Is that something you do on a conscious level every time? Or simply let it happen?

The only real conscious thing that I do is that I don’t control what is going to happen. I really want the moment to dictate itself to us and let us all take the moment for what we want to take out of it. That means me, the band and the entire audience. You know everybody there is a part of that moment. I like the fact that it takes the pressure off of me. When I allow the moment to dictate what’s going to happen and I don’t have to think about it.

I learned that from guys like B.B. King, Albert Collins and Buddy Guy – all of those blues guys – that’s what they did. When I saw Albert Collins at Tipitina’s – in the audience I felt like I was a part of that show. You could feel it. That’s what I wanted to achieve when I was going to do it. This is before I was known as a professional musician and I would go see bands. That’s all I wanted to achieve was the same thing they were achieving. I wasn’t trying to copy their playing or anything like that. I just wanted to try to make the audience feel the way they made me feel when I was in their audience. Doing it, getting out there, basically blind, it figures itself out. It’s more powerful than me. Who am I to try to control it, you know?

Not only that, but look at how many different venues we have to play, different size places and different size crowds and some of them are standing and want to dance and some of them are seated and want to listen. You can’t really work a rehearsed out show and have that work, universally, with every audience and every venue and every moment that we play. So I leave the moment open to itself then the show takes care of itself, you know?

Sure.

A couple years ago I played a guy’s surprise birthday party in his garage.  What happened was I ended up playing drums all night while he played my songs [Laughs] on guitar and sang. That’s what he wanted to do so that was fine with me. That was his favorite show he’d ever seen me play in! [Laughs] I barely sang or played any guitar. But that’s what the moment wanted, that’s what he wanted, we go with it…

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Photo by Drew Stawin

 

How long did it take you to learn to go with the moment in your live shows?

Not long. As soon as I started playing blues in front of people. The first blues jam I ever went to. That’s where it starts because you don’t know the band and we had never played with these guys before and you gotta get up there and try to not to run anyone out of the audience! [Laughs] That’s the first thing you do the first time you go jam with a blues band – just try not to kick anyone out by sounding bad. I think it starts right there.

You know the blues is a simple formula as far as the structure of the song. Then it’s just a matter of improvising the emotional parts and the moments that are happening right now. I couldn’t think about being nervous so hey, just let the nervousness be part of it. That can be energy.

Do you still get nervous up there?

No. I mean I was doing comedy for awhile so that pretty much killed the whole nervousness thing while playing music. I mean if I can walk out there with a couple more people, hey man that helps a lot. When you’re doing comedy you’re by yourself. I used to get so nervous at the beginning of that… that I had to be the nervous guy. That was my persona on stage, you know? And it worked. I got hired and I got gigs. And I got paid for it! [Laughs]

Yes, it’s said that comedy is the most difficult art form —

Yeah. You know, nothing I did in life was wasted. Everything I tried ended up working its’ way into what I do. And making it what it is. Keeping it comfortable and keeping it alive I guess? Music needs to be alive. It needs to be a living thing which means it’s constantly changing and moving. And it’s got to find a way to survive. I don’t want to stop that.  The only thing I can do is stop that from happening.

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Photo by Drew Stawin

In terms of your songwriting, you have an exceptional penchant for being concise and direct. How do you achieve that? How do you keep your writing concise, yet beautiful?

Well, from my perspective what it comes down to — and I think many songwriters are in the same bag with me — and that’s the one element we don’t want to be is cheesy! [Laughs] Every songwriter. Let’s just try not to be the cheesy guy. A lot of times what makes it cheesy, is over -thinking things. Trying to squeeze something in there that really doesn’t belong, but hey it’s gotta rhyme so we gotta throw it in there. There is always something in a song that does that.

I think the one thing that I do and I do it the same as I do shows or anything else and it’s – I let it write itself. If I have to haggle on it, I usually just throw it away. I am not a guy that goes out and writes a hundred songs and then picks the best four of them for the album. I write twelve songs and they are all going to go on the album. There’s no filler. So that means every song has to mean something and every song has to come up naturally.

If you look at interviews with songwriters who had hits, usually the biggest hit that they ever had was the song that they wrote in three minutes. It took as long to write it on the paper as it did to write the song. That says something right there.

I gotta play this stuff every night too. If it’s something that I don’t like right off the bat, then why would I record it and then put myself through that every night of having to play a song that I don’t like? [Laughs] And it’s not comfortable. The songs that are the most comfortable are the ones that I finish. When they’re comfortable, they’re natural and when they’re natural, they’re organic and they’re real and that’s not cheesy, you know?

An example of that would be your song “Nice and Warm”, which you almost didn’t record —

Well, because that was my first experience in a studio and I wrote the song the night before we went into the studio. It woke me up basically. And I thought that I’d heard it before. So, I didn’t think it was my song. The whole song was there, I could hear it in my head and it kept waking me up and I couldn’t sleep and I was going into the studio for the first time with a record label behind me to record the first ever recording that I was going to do that would go out to the public and so you know there were some nerves there and anxiousness and I really thought when I woke up that I’d heard the song somewhere else.

So I wrote down the lyrics and when I woke up they were all there… and as the day went on we recorded like four or five songs. I mean, right before we were about to pack up I said “Well, let’s just play this one. I got this song.  I don’t know where it came from, but let’s just play it.” And the first take is what went on the record. We played it once…

That’s amazing.

The band had never heard it; I had never played it before… It was just a song I‘d heard in my head and y’know come to find out nobody else had written it so… [Laughs]

Thank goodness right?

Right! Alright, cool. I’ll put my name on it then! [Laughs]

…You know some good friends got together

And they took me away

From this old alley

To a warm place I could stay

And I can’t wait to get back home

Where the sun is always… nice and warm

You know I am so happy to be here with you all

And that old nasty chill is gone…


Does it amaze you sometimes that a song that maybe almost did not end up on that CD catapulted you on to the world stage?

Yeah, I do think about it and the only thing that would have kept me from doing it was me. And that’s one of the lessons I learned from that was “Hey man, stop talking yourself out of it and just go do it. Don’t be afraid of it, just do it, let it happen the way it’s going to happen.

I can’t say that I have ever recorded an album to where I went “Wow, that’s great shit” y’know? I really don’t care to listen to my own stuff and I think that’s normal. Let the audience judge whether it’s good or not. It’s not for me to make a call if it’s good or not. If it’s honest I can live with it. If it’s not then I can’t. That’s all that I try to accomplish. Same way in the writing part of it too, y’know? It all works together and it all really comes out the same way to me. It’s all just throw it out there, be honest, let it happen. I just want it to be honest…

Sure. Good, bad or indifferent, it’s honest.

Right. I mean there are songs that I recorded that I never thought an audience would like… [Laughs]. But, there was something that had to come out and then you go play shows and that’s the one their requesting all the time. So who am I to be the judge of that? That’s for them to judge…

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 “Night Train” is one of your most requested songs and it connects with the older and younger audiences alike.

That’s another one of those four minute songs – don’t think about it, don’t over think it, just go play it… I think that’s the concept that always connects with people. It seems the ones that there are the most requests for are the simpler songs…

…I’m a night train baby

Rolling nine hundred miles

Can’t you hear me comin’

Ain’t stopping ‘til the morning light

 

Keep it burnin’ baby

Got that fuel for my fire

You know – smokin’ that track thru Memphis

Ain’t stoppin’ ’til the morning light

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Photo by Drew Stawin

Ain’t no time for trouble baby

I got my midnight burnin’ bright

Keeping one eye on the crossroad

I ain’t stoppin’ ‘til the mornin’ light

As far as trying to reach an audience, I get younger people that talk to me about what’s the best advice I could give them. And I always tend to gravitate toward telling them that if no one in that audience has ever heard of you, you have to find something that’s somewhat familiar to that audience so that they will stop and listen.

I have heard artists say “Well, I’m just going to go out there and play my show. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t.” Well that’s fine if you are not trying to be a professional. You know there’s two different things here. A professional artist is selling artwork. So you have to have something that is attractive to the audience that’s going to potentially buy your artwork. Being a professional means you have to sell it. If you are being a pure artist for yourself – then it doesn’t matter. Then you don’t have to worry about anyone buying it.

I always try to tell the younger people – I’m not saying you have to play a burnt out everybody-has-to-do-it kind of song. I’m not saying you have to do “I Got My Mojo Workin”. You can do an original song, but if it has some kind of familiar element to an audience, you have a better chance of hooking them in. Then you can show them something that they have never heard before.

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Photo by Drew Stawin

I still think there is an element of something recognizable that draws the audience in and it seems to work with bands that are coming up. Every time I see a new act the big song that gets everybody hooked on them is something that’s familiar and it’s something that is simple. It’s not some complicated piece of music that everyone has to go “wow” on…

How soon in your career did you learn this?

Well, I started writing as soon as I got a guitar. I think the first thing I played on the guitar was something I had written. It seems I can remember writing a song about a car. I wasn’t old enough to drive yet so I dreamed my dream car or something. I remember playing it for my babysitter and she said, “Wow! That’s good!” So she had me record it on a little tape recorder for her. I was like “cool!” You know it was the kind of thing where I just had something to say with music.

The first time you walked into the Blues Box and there is Tabby Thomas, what immediately went through your head?

First time I walked in there, I got there early so I could meet him and talk to him. I got there so early he was unlocking the front door himself. He was stocking the bar because there was a jam session that night. I showed up ridiculously early, but it gave me a chance to sit and talk with him and get to know him. And he was like “Well alright, y’know before you get up and play your stuff, you gotta play with me first.” And I was like well alright, that’s even better! [Laughs] That’s what I was hoping would happen!

And did you feel like you were ready?

Yeah! Oh yeah, because I was playing around Houma and Thibodeaux and trying to put blues around here and it really wasn’t clicking that well. People were like “Man, what you doin’ playin’ blues stuff man?” They wanted to hear Classic Rock or Country or something like that. Something “familiar”, y’know? [Laughs] So, I was like well I’ll play this Jimi Hendrix version of this song. [Laughs] And, I’ll play the Allman Brothers version of that song. “Hey, alright cool!” And they would start listening.

And then one guy came up to one of those jam nights. I used to host a jam night here in town every Tuesday and he came up to me and said “Man, if you want to play blues you gotta go to Tabby’s Blues Box in Baton Rouge.”

So, when I went over there the first thing Tabby told me was, “You see that sign on the wall?! It says Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall! We don’t play nothin’ but blues in here. A lot of you young guys, y’all come in here and y’all want to play rock ‘n roll. That ain’t gonna happen! We just do the blues – strictly blues!” I was like “THANK YOU!! I can’t wait! This is what I have been waiting to hear!” So, it was like a welcoming mat to me. It was like hey come on in – this is the place for ya, y’know?

As you well know, the blues over the last thirty or so years has had its’ heyday and then it waned. Fortune Magazine recently predicted that the blues is about to experience an unprecedented resurgence. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, pop and all of that other stuff all came from blues. Blues was the original form of American music. So, I think what happens is people come out with tricks in the pop world of music and then the audience gets smart to the tricks. And then they figure out well that’s just a trick now, so they start looking for something real again and there’s the blues – it’s always there – it’s always on the back porch.

The front porch might look prettier, and it might have all of the flowers and the wreath on the door, but the back porch drives the whole house hold. That’s where you go out and watch the birds and drink coffee in the morning and talk about real stuff. The big decisions are made on the back porch, not the front.

Would you advise the upcoming generation to learn that?

It’s a good place to start. You know forget the flash – the attractant. You know there are a lot of young blues artists out there who are fishing.  And I kind of equate it to fishing. You go out there and you want to throw a big old shiny lure, but sometimes the fish just want the plain old worm. And that’s the one go to thing that they will always bite on no matter what time of year. Because if you use artificial ones you have to change colors and you have to change styles and you have to keep changing with the season and try to keep up with the fish, but hey the old worm still always works.

It kind of goes back to what we were saying about something familiar. The blues really is the most familiar, in musical terms, for everybody. It’s the one simple formula of music that just cuts to the bone and everybody can appreciate. It’s just not always in the forefront where everybody can directly see it, but when they hear it – hey it’s familiar – no matter what style of music they listen to…

B.B. King once said that if you want to know how to play the blues, watch Tab Benoit. How did that strike you?

Well, I don’t know. That’s a shocking statement to me. I did hear that and I had people talk to me that met B.B. and he told them to come see or listen to me. You know maybe he just understood where I was coming from. I am sure he did in that he was a very smart person and musically intelligent also. I know he really knew the difference between the real stuff and something that was fake. The first time I opened for him he sat beside the stage and watched my whole show.

Wow – no pressure right? [Laughs]

No! [Laughs] And, I kept looking over there! I figured he would walk away at some point, but he didn’t. Man, he stayed there until I walked off the stage and I walked right up to him and he invited us to join him on his bus and hang out with him after his show. That’s how cool he was and how generous he was. The only thing I can think was that maybe he was seeing the honesty that was there. You know and I gave him my full attention every song.

First of all, remember I don’t know what is going to happen next so I have to give my full attention. When you play in the moment you are forced into paying extra attention because you don’t know what is coming next. Nothing is rehearsed. The band doesn’t know what’s coming next so I have to lead them around also. And the audience doesn’t know…

Sure. So you have to stay present no matter what and bring your best game…

Yeah. Look, I know from being a fan of other people and an audience member – because I like to listen as much as I like to play – I notice instantly when the band is distracted or not fully into what they’re doing. I have seen huge artists where people have paid hundreds of dollars to sit in the seat and watch and I’m going “Man, I can’t even sit through this whole thing.”

I have to go somewhere else – just to see something where somebody is trying. I am talking even Karaoke night at the lounge at the Holiday Inn would be better than that! Because whether people can sing or not doesn’t matter because at least everybody that is getting up there is trying. And I appreciate that more than I appreciate a great singer walking up there who is just going through the motions. So I try, no matter who is listening or watching, to give it my full attention.

You mentioned rehearsal. It’s surprising to learn that you don’t rehearse. I imagine there were a lot of family jams growing up where no one rehearsed, you just showed up and did your best. Is that what you did?

Yeah.

Because it is quite stunning that you don’t rehearse —

I think it’s stunning to have a rehearsal!” [Laughs] You have to do the same thing. You may as well be working in an assembly line job if you are going to do that. You have to keep putting that screw in that hole every time you see that hole come around. And I feel for those people. I know somebody has to do that job. That doesn’t fit me and it doesn’t fit artwork in general, because we are trying to sell artwork. We’re artists. I am a live artist. So, I am painting a picture and it’s a different picture with a different canvas every night. But, it’s a musical picture.

It’s like if you hired Van Gogh, you wouldn’t ask him to paint the same thing again–
Yeah, I just want you to do ‘Starry Starry Night’ man. [Laughs] Yeah, just do that, I like that one…It would be like a paint again request, right? So, I think that in this genre I am in it is not only open for that, but it’s what it demands.

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One of my favorite Lightnin’ Hopkins albums is one of the last ones he did where a guy found him in a boarding house in Houston – they all thought he was dead. They actually kind of kicked him and this guy took a recorder, a guitar and a bottle of gin and went to his (Hopkins) rental shack and sat down and just recorded him holding a microphone up to him and his guitar. This is a whole albums’ worth of material that Lightnin” Hopkins wrote right then. It was like ‘this is happening now”. He didn’t even own a guitar. This is powerful stuff. It doesn’t get more powerful than that.”

Back in the day when you were at The Blues Box, did you know who these old blues guys were?

I knew they were important in the blues world, but I also knew them as friends and family. They treated me like family from day one. Tabby, Raful Neal and Henry Gray and all of the people there just treated me like I was part of the family. I guess it would be like if your Grandpa was famous. You know he might be famous to the rest of the world, but really when it comes down to it your relationship with him is that he’s still your Grandpa. You just want to hang around with him because he’s cool. This is my cool Grandpa who happens to play music…

Do you think that without the experience that you had playing with these guys, would you have a different career today?

There would be something that would be different. I can’t say exactly how different it would be. I mean there was definitely a drive on me to be a live musician. I was getting a lot of encouragement from people around me. I mean for me to quit the job that I had. You know I went through a lot of schooling and all of that just to become a pilot. You know that’s not a cheap occupation to get involved in. You know my parents spent a lot of money.

You basically had to disconnect from your family to launch your career. What advice do you give to young musicians facing that same kind of adversity, especially on the family level?

That’s a tough thing to try to encourage some young person to go against their family. I don’t know that I would actually ever be able to do that. But, I would tell them this – you’ll know it when it hits you because there won’t be any other decision in your way. If it presents itself to you that strongly like it did to me then there’s only one way to go. It takes all the options out of it.

Because you know before that I had so many options. Because you know I was doing comedy and I was doing music on the weekends and stuff like that. And I was racing cars and racing motorcycles and I was good at a lot of those things and you know I grew up in the oil field support business and the machine shops so I can weld and I can machine and I can do all that kind of stuff. There was a lot of things I could have done for a living.

And before that it was like there were too many choices and it made the decision very difficult to make. And so I chose flying because it was something that interested me in this area and the oil field business and there was work for that here. And I liked the fact that it’s that singularity kind of thing where once the wheels leave the ground it’s on me and I enjoyed that. I liked not being stuck in an office or behind a machine or something like that.

It plays in the same way in my being in music and comedy and performing.   You get up there and it’s on you. You’re on your own up there. Once you start you know you have to land! [Laughs] And it was a similar kind of thing, but it just got to the point where I was getting more offers to play music and I was offered more money to play music than I was making as a pilot (for Hammond Air of Houma, LA). So then financially I was giving up a job where I was making less money to go do a job where I was making more money and doing a job I love to do. And so it was a no brainer.

Yet it must have been hard to tell your parents music was to be your life, and not business.

You almost have to be a kid to make that decision, to where you’re going to have time if it doesn’t work to recover from it. And you got to start this before you have a family and responsibilities. Because you are not going to be able to support a family at the beginning you know? And if you can, someone else is going to be in charge of your career and that means you signed a deal with somebody who controls you and that’s a horrible thing to have to try to get out of. So, I don’t wish that on anybody. I get scared of record deals, you know?

1111 11 1 1 VOW
At the VOW Festival

Now you’re at a juncture where you can take on other things in addition to your live performance career and recording career, most notably founding the non-profit VOW. And once again you find yourself in an adversarial position. Not just with some of the oil corporations, but perhaps with some family members.

Well, the truth always wins. When you know the difference – when you know the truth versus what you’re told –  you’re kind of forced into a position where you either lie to yourself and just continue to listen to the garble you are being fed or you step up and try to uphold the truth knowing what it is.

I learned so much from flying along the coast of Louisiana that I saw it from a bird’s eye view and there was no mistaking what I was seeing. It got to the point that I kept my pilot’s license up and I was able to show people who were trying to contradict me what I was seeing. So, I was able to cut out all the middle man stuff and say if you want to know where I am getting my information from, here it is. Because when you have the truth on your side, you don’t have to worry about it. It takes care of itself and there’s nothing to hide.

And that’s the reward for doing this. I mean, I don’t know that I will ever be able to get anything fixed on the ground, but I know for sure that I will be able to go out there and hold up some element of truth in all of this. Every time something happens down in Louisiana the world is like “what happened”?

There’s a big reward there for everybody in this country, not just me, for upholding the truth. It’s our duty. They were actually welcoming me in those big doors (Congress).  They wanted to hear what I had to say. And, we have to be proactive in protecting our rights. We can’t take it for granted that our elected officials in Washington are going to protect our rights. That’s actually our job…

So, with infinite personal sacrifices including losses in Katrina and Rita and probably more to come, Tab has become the town crier for the region and potentially the nation. An ongoing David against Goliath story, he prefers influence over credit any day of the week…

Ma cherie, she has left me for good.

After I gave my love for so long.

She’s out there with somebody new

And I just can’t sit here alone, no

 

But it’s so hard to drive with these tears in my eyes

And it takes a long time to get to Baton Rouge

And all I want is to hear somebody play my song

Lord when a Cajun man gets the blues.

 

When I’m feeling the weight of the water

Lord I know that there’s blues in the Quarter

If I could hold back my tears and make it there.

I’d be alright

But I might need you, New Orleans, every night

 

Now when I’m feeling the pain, the bayou’s

Calling my name

And that’s an offer I can’t refuse

Oh it’s hard to miss you Louisiana

When a Cajun man gets the blues

 

An Afterword from the Writer:

At the 2013 Wanee Festival in Live Oak, Florida, Tab is invited up onstage by the late Gregg Allman and his son, Devon Allman, to join them for a rousing eight minute rendition of “One Way Out.” Afterwards, to the immense ovation of screaming hoots and hollers from the standing crowd, the musicians take their bow. Flanking Tab Benoit is Gregg Allman on his right and Devon Allman to his left – a bridge between past and present.

As Thoreau wrote, “I am related to the earliest times and to the latest.”

Research Support: LBC Consultants

Learn more about VOW, The VOW Festival, and The VOW All-Stars at:

www.voiceofthewetlands.org

Movies: Hurricane on the Bayou (IMAX) starring Tab Benoit, Amanda Shaw and the wetlands challenges. Narration provided by Meryl Streep.

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On the Passing of Songwriter-Singer-Beloved Friend Sandy Ross.

•May 10, 2017 • Leave a Comment
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                                          Sandy Ross at Republic of Pie, North Hollywood, California.                                          Photo by Paul Zollo

 


Our dear friend, fellow songwriter-singer, life lover and cherished friend Sandy Ross died this week. This is a message to all her friends and fans from her partner in life and love, also a cherished friend, Lee Hirsch. 

Dear Friends and Colleagues of Sandy Ross:

It is with great sadness that I tell you of the passing of contemporary folk and acoustic blues songwriter-performer, Sandy Ross. She was surrounded by her family and loved ones, when she left us, on Saturday, May 6, 2017.

Sandy was known for her laughter, that bright smile with her twinkling eyes, and her welcoming ways, and of course her many talents, musically. She entertained audiences with her own special blend of contemporary folk and acoustic blues for more than four decades. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, she spent the ’70s in Los Angeles, working as a staff songwriter for Warner/Chappell Music and producing demos on a single-song basis for nine other major song publishers including: Filmways Music, MCA Music, and
Screen Gems/EMI.

During that decade she had songs recorded by Kim Carnes and Anne Murray at a time when they were at the height of their careers. In addition, she released an indie LP of her own performances (A Lady of a Different Time, 1971). She was a regular singer-songwriter throughout the greater Los Angeles area and also booked other performers of many different genres at various Hollywood live-performance venues, including
the Los Angeles Performing Arts and Folklife Festival and the internationally-renowned Bla-Bla Cafe.

Sandy released three indie recordings in the’90s and toured the greater U.S. four times doing more than 48 live syndicated radio shows and 120 coffeehouse/bookstore performances.

In 1995, her third album and first CD, Portraits of Innocence, made the FOLKDJ-L Top 50 and received airplay on folk shows on 387 radio stations, including rotation play on 17
Americana reporting stations. The Portraits of Innocence cut, “All My Heroes Sang the Blues,” not only made the Americana rotation, but was featured on the CBC in Canada and made Top 40 rotation play in Hong Kong, during that same time period.

In 1998 her CD, Coloring Outside the Lines, also made the FOLKDJ-L Top 50 (at number 9) when it debuted and in 1999 both CDs were incorporated into the Smithsonian Institute Folkways catalog, in addition to the Fast Folk recordings she made for the two Los Angeles compilation albums. (Sandy has the distinction of being the only Los Angeles singer-songwriter to have been included on both LA Fast Folk compilations.)

In 2005 Sandy wrote and compiled the book A Place Called the Bla-Bla Cafe, which is an insider’s look at Hollywood talent showcasing against the historically political backdrop of the 1970s. The book has received great reviews and accolades from indie book  ublishing organizations and readers’ websites, including a 2007 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY).

Sandy’s most recent CD, Grandma’s Got a Boombox, 2015, was exceptionally
well-received by the folk/acoustic music community. It reached number 14
on the Folk Radio Top 70, was on the charts for six months straight after its release, and at year end was the 53rd most played album of the year (out of the top 300). “Distant Campfire,” from that album, reached number six on the Top Folk Songs chart, and was the 26th most played folk song for 2015.

Sandy just completed her last project, an acoustic blues compilation CD, All My Heroes Sang the Blues (May 2017), which is scheduled for release this May/June.

There will be a CD Release party/Celebration of Life, for Sandy, but information is not available at this time. When it is, you’ll be notified of the details.

Again, I share your sorrow. Can’t help but wonder where all that intelligence, humor, and love she so willingly shared, went. She will be missed by so many, but none more than I.

      –Lee Hirsch, May 9, 2017

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Sandy & Lee

Poems by Stephen Kalinich

•December 23, 2016 • 1 Comment

7The Poetry of Stephen Kalinich

 

Poems by STEPHEN KALINICH
All photos by PAUL ZOLLO

In times of darkness, more than ever we need artists of light. In times of war, we need beings of peace. So as this year comes to a close, we are thankful for Stevie. The man contains multitudes; he’s a beloved and legendary poet, songwriter, artist and visionary. A true poet in a world of false and hollow voices, his presence is needed now more than ever.

He’s written songs with Beach Boys Dennis and Brian Wilson, P.F. Sloan and others. With Dennis Wilson, he wrote both “Little Bird” and “Be Still.” Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson recorded “A Friend Like You.” Brian Wilson called Stevie a “poetic genius” and credited him with stunning the music world by unleashing Dennis Wilson’s full creative potential.

Stevie’s “Rainbows” and “Love Remember Me” are featured on the acclaimed 2008 reissue of Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue album. The Beach Boys’ second anthology, Hawthorne, CA, contains his song, “A Time To Live in Dreams.” His “California Feelin’” is among the all-time hits on The Beach Boys Classics Selected by Brian Wilson and appears on California Feeling, a collection of his songs released in late 2010. 

When legendary songwriter P. F. Sloan, most famous for “Eve of Destruction,” recorded his epic poem “If You Knew” and “Soul of a Woman” on Sail Over in 2007, the poet realized his lifelong dream of working with his mentor. Among the other top musicians who have immortalized Kalinich’s lyrics are Mary Wilson of the Supremes, singing “You Dance My Heart Around the Stars”; Odyssey, whose recording of “Magic Touch” was a top 40s hit; and Randy Crawford, with “Only Your Love Song Last.”

Although he has risen to the highest echelons of the music industry, Stevie considers himself a poet first. A voice of conscience comparable to Bob Dylan, he has inspired audiences around the world. He was invited to Washington, D.C. to recite his epic poem “If You Knew” before members of Congress to benefit Children Uniting Nations. Actor Stacy Keach recorded his poem “The Magic Hand,” and former Beach Boy Al Jardine’s EP A Postcard from California features Alec Baldwin reciting “Tide Pool Interlude.” Newscaster Jerry Dunphy appeared on a video in which he read “America I Know You” by Kalinich. Jez Graham’s 2004 CD featured Kalinich’s poems “America Is You and Me,” “Life Against the Wind,” and “You Can Soar.”

After being lost for nearly forty years, Kalinich’s masterpiece “A World of Peace Must Come” was rediscovered and appeared on Attic Records’ 2008 CD boxed set devoted to the poetry of Kalinich. Another early composition, “Leaves of Grass,” was released on this CD, accompanied by Mark Buckingham and produced by Carl Wilson.

 “As long as I have breath, the river of love will speak through me,” Stevie said. “When I look back, I will ask, Did I stir someone, reach one soul. . . . Did I help them understand that when the breath of love poured itself into others, it didn’t forget them.”

Bluerailroad is proud to publish a selection of his poems. We start with “Angels,” as Stevie is one of our most beloved angels here in this angel city.

Angels

I know there are Angels

You can feel them in your heart

They are the answer to your problems

when you feel torn apart

Listen very closely, hear them stirring deep inside

they turn the sadness into love

give it nowhere to hide.

I know there are Angels

When you are overwhelmed

When you are stressed out too much

they can turn the days around

Feel their healing Touch

in the Greatest challenge

On the darkest o lonely nights

They can comfort you

Let you know everything is alright.

I know there are Angels

you can feel them everywhere

though you do not see them

I know they are there.

In smiles on Children’s faces

the hope that shines in their eyes

I know there are Angels to be experienced and realized.

I know there are Angels

in the midst of crisis they give you comfort

and peace in all situations

they give you release

I know there are Angels

when you are troubled restless

Don’t know where to turn

when you are in pain

and your insides burn

your emotions are raw

and can find no relief

when you give up on life

and have no belief

there is an answer

when you are torn apart

I know there are Angels

you can feel them in your heart.

All of your sweet burdens will cease

I know there are Angels to give you release

they are here to protect you

you can find peace

whatever come at you

whatever knocks you down

I know there are Angels

Right here on the ground

so when your heart is heavy

and you need a lift

the angels surround you

they are a gift

I know I know I know

there are Angels

*
I Love You Too

I love you too.

I too am going through 

rough waters  

which forces me  

to live the poems  

and not just  

write them  

which is a great challenge. 

When it is dark 

when life feels oppressive 

when there seems  

no way out  

in the midst of tragedy

I surrender to Grace

to Divine love.

I find my peace

in the stillness.

It does not always work out

the  way I want it to

but it gives me more peace

as I  travel on this journey.

I have heard it said

the sign of mental health

is how we tolerate frustration

deal with our set backs

our disappointments.

So rather than say

to someone

it will all be OK

I say I turn it over to grace

to work it out

in its own way.

Which is difficult for some

but in my own life

until I surrender

to the grace

to God so to speak

nothing ever works out

or is right,

I only know

I love you

and I pray for you

and as a human

that is all I know.

However I believe

there is a peace

that comes to us

a way to navigate

through

the difficult waters

and I celebrate

the gifts of every day

Love

Stevie

*

Beauty Holds Us

Beauty holds me in its hand
and hugs me more
than I thought possible
I am not alone
The spirit graces me and touches me every day
with gratitude
underneath the yearning is a peace with no name
that surpasses the senses
the source of all art and poetry
the creator of all
It caresses me.
*

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With Donovan 

Laughter

Laughter is an unwritten poem
A child’s first touch of joy.
A smile within a wounded world.
Certainly the world has grown too serious
We need laughter
to bring us
closer to each other.
Laughter as a voice against our sorrow
Laughter as a voice against our heartache
Laughter as a voice of hope
That carries us into other hearts.
Laughter as the appreciation
of simple childhood days
When all the earth
lay before us
Like an open road
Echoes of laughter
From the winter’s wind
of our youth
We need laughter in our world
If we are to survive.

*
Rise Up And Greet The Day

With music as with life
one should not fear
going into the unknown
one should not be diminished
by anger
expressed towards them
or someone
opposed to one’s idea.
One must go
for the difficult
not be afraid
of what is emotionally challenging
one must learn
even if one is not nice
or kind to you
you can learn.
One must build up a hide
of sorts
a resilience
to thrive and survive
in the creative world.
Many people
will let you down
but Grace will never do that.
We are all human.
Keep composing
being a creator
of art and music
and know
you are a sweet soul
and I love you.
Rise up and
greet the day.

*

Wind Concerto

wind concerto

sunlight symphony

blade of grass

ballad of the trees

memories of Mozart

symphony of winter

a chill runs through me

like a Cello

that plays

on my heart strings

the whole earth

comes alive

with emotions

*
September

always sadness
always pain
always possibility
out of these arise
the spirit and the will to triumph
over adversity and hardship
the courage to break the limitation
of ignorance
and lack
to bring to as many beings as one can
kindness
in human terms.
Only a few souls
know how to help us
in ways we need
most advise and words of reprimand
miss the mark.
Acts of kindness
help
in the long run
more than stern discipline

which will never let us
or teach us love
but can make us act
because we fear
which is a weak foundation
for lasting change
averaged out
over a lifetime
my lifetime
those who have helped me
the most to develop
are those who freed me
from dependence upon them
with a light refreshing touch
they never demanded credit
or called attention
to their own good deeds
but let an almost invisible imprint
on my soul and because
of these people
I ride the waves
of chaos
and hope emerges
out of darkness
and depravity
that opened me
up
changed me
allowed me to experience
lasting joy
not based upon
what I receive
but
just living
and giving from my highest
and best potential
to aid the disease
of the planet
and touch the world
with doingness
beyond words.

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With Quincy Jones at 2016 Desmond Tutu Birthday Celebration

*
Embrace

Embrace what you do not like

Caress what is difficult

From what you resist

and what disturbs you

the greatest lessons

can be learned.

From your detractors

and those who despise you

those who do not get you

Give them peace

Give them love

Do not be afraid of sadness

or mental pain

They are part of the purification

*

The Pulse Of The Poet

Inspiration is your practice
tenderness is your path
sorrow is your teacher
sweetness is your celebration
attention is your awareness
that everything is now
limitations fall like leaves from a tree
lifted by winds of change
wonder is the daily walk
the earth is a living thing
we are breathing spirits bodies emotions minds
You are the key to you
Look there where you are no need to cross the galaxies
except to bask in colors
all colors yellows green shades of reds blues purples..
surrounded by love and a spiders web of white
golden light
A bay was born you are that baby gown up slightly
enter gently into the world
let no man notice
your good deeds and presence
leave a ripple with your acts
that have no weight of you within it..
each epiphany is a mere echo
of the beauty we faintly discern
all is a miracle
touch the invisible with you heart
fall into the petals of yellow roses and violet tulips
help all that reach out to you but do not do their work for them
point them to themselves
That is the way of the possible
willingly yield to letting go of false e attachments
and relationships that are damaging to you
do it with kindness..
in the heart there are no wall or boundaries
but in our relationship with others
we must give them their own space and being
That is the way with me and it is the way of everyone.
That is the pulse of the poet….
That lives in everyone every waking moment
Now is the Time
Life nothing but life
rising through the disappointment and the struggles.
Life

*
A Poem for Margaret

(For Margaret Lane)

I could just slip away
into the night
dissolve
and perhaps be gone
forever
whose lives I have touched
will miss me
I will become dust
It is all too brief
this earthly journey
we evaporate as we are being
formed
we dance before we fall
into that eternal sleep
where
we are not seen
by mortals
we know not of gods
with any certainty
so I say
live as best we can
take care of the day
attend to know
love now be kind now
do good now
if that is all we have
it is enough
it is glorious
that I live
and what I will become
I do not know but with grace
I accept
my present
unconditionally.
I do not need more.

*
Letter to a Friend

I stand at the threshold
of a new dawn
trapped between
heaven and earth
sky and sea
I touch this daily stress
with all its rude awakenings
and challenges
with my safari hat
I slide
in and out of virtue
and I dance
all beauty in my soul
tenderness caresses me
in my loneliness
I yearn
for undying
moments that
live
that I cannot bring back
the past alive as present
right here passion
inspires each calm surrender
each change of direction
on an uncharted course.
In sacred syllables
the words sing
break limitations
enhance this earthly journey
that I love
I touch and I take
I give
so
little
and gain so much
from each breath
morning only comes
once a day
victory is a single day
lived well
magic in the everyday encounters
grasped
shared spoken
written
This is what I leave for you today.

*
Inspiration Never Leaves Us Where It Finds Us

Tenderness and listening
are essential
for the creative act to occur.
This is what i believe-
Tortured souls
pass through our lives ;
and they can drag us down
if we are not aware
or alert.
We all get caught up in events
and circumstances
and we get swept into things.
There is no time for breath..
each day is a miracle of sorts
and definitely life is a gift.
Calmness is the seed
from which creativity springs for me
and stillness is the flower
and out of this
Oceans of inner waters
a feeling arrives
an impulse to share
to bring something forth
into the world.
A child of sorts an Art
no one can do it for us
but I find
the more one opens up to Grace
that all is a gift
the more one can create works
and live lives
that reach out
and touch others.
Cold icy nights in Europe
awakened my spirit
for a brief span of time.
Casual relationships
come and go
but true friendship
that turns into love
or that is love
lasts as long
as being lasts
We cannot be too cautious
because if we are too guarded
we miss life
repel new expression
and experience
only to fall flat
on our face again
doing is the way
to learn for me.
I mountain climbed in New Zealand
did Rock sculpture in Japan
collaborated on paintings in UK
and Holland
and wrote my poems
on Canvas for charity
Each country
each city
a unique adventure
and a time
for quiet reflection
alone in my rooms
where ever I was.
…many different beds ,

The fact
that I am still alive
is a miracle.
Sometimes i just like to sit
and think
be at peace
goodness is attractive
in someone a way to be
a path that is not selfless..
help arrives from somewhere
and though we are alone
we are not alone
in some strange way..
We are trapped
in our own consciousness
and the only way
we ever break out
is through Art
or love
and more through living
and being love
than anything.
This is what I live for.
I am not after life
but I am after living.
Love to you
talking about
getting carried away …
sleep is what i need!!!
Wisdom is a treasure
and it comes from experience
when we look at the experience
and find the lesson
or the lesson reveals itself.
We are complex
magnificent
selfish
and sometimes selfless creatures
here on this planet
and yes we are still blossoming
in our own unique ways
but we have to water the plant .
We probably are complete
even though we feel
we are not
and life is letting go
of what is not essential
and chipping away the stone
around the sculpture
alone
or with someone special..
someone you trust
and care about
that brings out your highest
and best self
that does not make you
ugly or sour.
I agree with the philosophy
if ones believe in oneself
one is on the right road.
Every outward journey
is a journey
towards the self
a line
from one of my poems.
When the dust settles
life is glorious
most of the time
it feels awful
beyond description
when we lose a loved one
only the quiet comforts
at other times
we complicate it
by too much wanting
our own way
and not following the grace.
Wisdom comes in small doses
nothing is forgotten
each memory is forever
each dance a testament
that we still are life
with all its challenges
and pitfalls..
Only the striving must cease
and we must become quiet
for the true self to emerge
through the chaos
and perplexity.
Under the rock
there is a diamond
we have to polish it
and the diamond is us
each unique
when we find our own voice
it reveals itself to us
forward happens
we cannot stop it…
dominion is our birthright
all is
only as real
as we make it
the thoughts we give power to
can shape
and sculpt our lives.
Blaming is a street
not to travel.
Let those who have wronged us go
and let our resentment go too.
Songs of the self
pour out of us
when our hearts sing
all is in the way
the notes are brought to life
and sound.
Now it is time for breakfast.

*

Loneliness

There is a loneliness
you cannot share
that does not go away
its symphony
is muted pain
like the hush
of a trumpet
underneath everything it sits
in the dark
that no one faces.
A place no one can go to
in you
that you can no describe
where you find no comfort
where what you might say
is muffled
never can be articulated
in the body
beyond the soul.
This land
where no one exists.

*

I Shout At The Sky

Every moment is
what you make it.
You put the blue
in blue Monday
as we all do
You put the light
into the darkness
Before the violent explosion
is the calm
as the energy is brewing
and building
after the final stanza
the last poem
has been written
The silence will overtake everything
and we who were
are no more.

All poems used by permission, Stephen Kalinich. Copyright 2016.

 

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New Reviews, Spring 2016

•June 8, 2016 • Leave a Comment

New Reviews
Spring of 2016

By PAUL ZOLLO

Michael Wesley Hughes
Tryin’ To Come Back Home

Print
[All lyrics by MICHAEL WESLEY HUGHES]

Stains
On your heart and on your hands
Stains
Waging wars in foreign lands

One of the most poignant and also rocking anti-war statements to have emerged in years. A vivid masterpiece long brewing in the soul of this old soldier, and now emerging after years of playing the blues. Beloved as a brilliant bluesman and the songwriter of blues classics, Michael Hughes now shares his hidden crucible of song and survival. A Vietnam vet who was blown to kingdom come only to be sewn up and sent out to be blown up again, this is his real story, a rock and roll spiral directly into the unfathomable hell of war, and the world after the war, the long and enduring road back home. Although these are songs of outrage, they’re also redemption songs, the songs of an ultimate survivor. And don’t worry: these songs aren’t weepy or pedantic; the man rocks. As pointed and even political as these songs get, they never abandon the aim of good songwriting: compelling choruses, visceral verses and rich melodics ensue.

He’s an incendiary lead guitarist who wails with deep electric sorrow and redemptive joy to cut through the noise and transcend words. Several of his songs from his critically-acclaimed eBlues Highway (2009) were used in HBO’s “True Blood” (as those Southern vampires evidently dig authentic blues). His blues – the songs, singing and playing – spring from a source so deep and genuine that they resound like the first blues, like the songs of the ages.

This album digs as deep, but is a shift to a different kind of songwriting. Still it’s informed by the blues. Fortunately for fans, his electric guitar solos abound, and are as blistering as any on his blues records or live shows. He sounds like a man on fire. But that crying soul is crying about a whole other kind of American blues, that of the thousands of American sons sent to battle. Those who weren’t killed and were sent home found themselves forever chained to the horrors they endured, perpetually – as the title says – tryin’ to find their way home. There is no resolution, no answer to any of the fundamental questions that arise, because war is simply a crazy solution to any problem. Going crazy, as the famous Catch-22 dictates, is the most rational response to the insanity of war.

This is the sound of authenticity. It’s an unmistakable sound. Humans can sense when others are faking. Inherently and organically. Which is why his anthem of human phoniness – “Faking It” – is so perfect here, united around the whole crowd singing, “Fake you!” The sin is deep enough of sending sons to battle. But to do so based on lies – based on intentional falsehoods –– is even more egregiously evil. It’s an outrageous rock stomp about the powers that lie, those who wear, as he writes, “a third degree black belt in Bullshit.” Hughes burns through the song, both vocally and on guitar, while unleashing pure electric fury at the masters of war.

So accustomed are we to hearing music devoid of musical or lyrical substance, albums with little coherence but much filler, it’s like living on a diet of junk food. One yearns for something, anything, that’s real. So when you hear this, the raw power of a man singing from his soul, so revelatory of human drama, it resonates even more powerfully. With rampant frivolity and banality celebrated daily, and with more and more people making music with less and less substance, the sound of a true artist rings like a beautiful bell-tone through the noise.

The reason for the resonance is because it’s real. Through the history of American popular song, those songs which specify the real facts – the truth – are the ones that persist in resounding so powerfully. From the classic songs of Willie Dixon, who always said the blues were the facts of life, though songs such as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn, “Pastures Of Plenty” and “Deportees” by Woody Guthrie or Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” up to “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse and beyond, we find songs deriving their power by drawing on the truth itself, on real life as it is really lived.

These songs exemplify that musical highway of truth. These entail his excursion to hell, and his protracted emergence. A nightmare so brutal that it never left him. To this day. Nightmares. Like so many veterans, the nightmares never stop. Asked about honor, he answered soberly with no lack of sorrow: “There is no honor when you are carrying your friend’s body, and he’s been blown in two.” It’s that madness, and all that is too horrific to even remember let alone relate. There are, as he sings, “stories that I can’t tell.”
After all, when our fathers, and grandfathers, went to fight Hitler, the threat was real and understood. World War II was a war the directly affected America, and the entire world. The war was still hell, of course, as are all wars. But it was based on an equation that added up. When soldiers returned from the war, they were welcomed into the fold of American life again with love and gratitude. Their service and sacrifice was felt and understood, and the war was over.

Whereas fighting in a civil war in the swamps of Vietnam never made any sense because it was insensible. And when those soldiers were sent home, there was so resolution there, nothing won or resolved, no honor. And what have we learned since then? Iraq. Afghanistan. We continue to wage wars, far from our own shores. “All my dreams now undone,” he sings, “sent to a war that can’t be won.”

All of it and more, all these years later, now channeled into a charged and remarkable cycle of songs. Here is a man of heart trying revealing this madness in “Evil,” the album’s closing song, which he tells us in the liner notes, embraces the mission of transforming a “human with compassion” to a “trained killing machine.”

Produced dynamically by songwriter-producer Lisa Nemzo, the entire album surrounds Hughes in driving grooves, rich choirs of voices, and soulful rhythm beds on top of which his guitar gently – and powerfully – weeps. Nemzo powerfully connected with these songs and with their singer. Each is etched ideally to the artist’s contours, his voice and style. These are songs of great intensity, and the production directly embodies the character of each, and with great soulfulness. His singing has never sounded more vital, as electric as his combustible Hendrix meets B.B. King at the crossroads guitar playing throughout.

The  visceral “Stains” opens the album, and sings of the profound and indelible darkness forever imprinted on the spirits of all soldiers. A song of rage and sorrow, it’s crafted with cunning; it’s catchy, even when he’s singing of bombs raining on the innocent. It’s got a great melody, one that builds and builds with organic grace and rightness. It’s boldly audacious, especially in the blistering bridge – all emergent tension that keeps building and building until it explodes into a fiery guitar solo – not unlike “If I Had A Rocket-Launcher,” another fiery anti-war song, by Bruce Cockburn. When Hughes returns after the bridge and solo, he comes back with even more fervor than before, emblematic of his survival and emergence.

“Blind See” is a sound painting, based on his hallucinogenic ramblings after almost dying, his eyes blinded and bandaged, testifying of an angel who told him to see. And he did. He saw again, emerging from the nightmare of blindness to the light.

“Bullets, Bombs and Bodybags” is a compellingly melodic anthem of survival, which he wails. “Angel Without Wings” is a tender and unique story, a ballad of a soldier falling in love with his nurse, her loving care confused for love. “Arlington,” written by Nemzo with Artie Colatrella, is a poignant epic that is the album’s first single. It starts with a 500 mile drive to bring roses to the graves at Arlington. It’s a long distance to come to pay tribute to the fallen, and a long distance this nation has come since its first war for freedom. Sadly this “saddest acre in the nation” doesn’t stand as a reminder of something ancient, but a living memorial to those soldiers who have fallen through our history, and continue to fall today. The colors of the blood red roses and the cherry-blossoms draw a stark contrast to all the stone-white graves and crosses. We see the trees and flowers that still flourish where the world absorbs all the lives lost, here where “eternity keeps calling.”

It’s the most ancient kind of grief, even here in modern times, centuries removed from armies facing each other on bloody battlefields, the fact of mankind still embracing war. Still a young nation, we’ve waged wars through each chapter of our history. And here we have Arlington, and other fields of the fallen, all over America. On Mr. Hughes’ album cover, he’s shown in mirrored shades that reflect the sorrow in his eyes, and a vast field of white gravestones. Half of his face is painted with camouflage, like what he wore in the jungle. Half is unpainted, but engulfed still, among the tombstones, in this field of death. This isn’t war in the abstract. This is the reality, the outcome. Thousands dead. Generations decimated.

So it is with gratitude that we honor those who have survived, and those like Mr. Hughes who help us, though his words and music and especially, his soul, to make sense of this madness. That Mr. Hughes not only survived, but survived to write and sing these kind of songs, gives us all hope. This album helps us remember not to forget, to honor those who did for their country what their country asked them to do. It honors the fallen, those who paid the ultimate price even without knowing the reason. And it honors the dream of a world beyond war, a world where humans can learn the meaning of harmony, and the song of true peace.

To buy Trying To Get Back Home, click here.

 

 

 

1 Thom Bishop

Thom Bishop
The Amber Ages

Since I was a kid spinning 45 singles over and over, never feeling the need for a different song when I found a great one, I’ve always been drawn to the single. Not the hit necessarily, but the singular song that stands out from the rest and resonates with grace and greatness. And which not only stands up, but grows better and even more compelling with each listen. Not every album affords us this opportunity. But this one sure does, and it’s the title track, “The Amber Ages.” Thom wrote the lyrics, with beautiful cinematic music composed by Linn Brown. It is dedicated, I have learned, to his father, Thomas Bishop, Sr.

A multi-dimensional masterpiece, it’s hard to listen to this song without shedding any tears, as I’m also the son of a reluctant warrior who also fought in France, and whose life is over as mine goes on. That dynamic of yearning to hold onto the past resonates throughout my generation, as does the inclination to honor the bravery of these men – just boys then – sent overseas to save the world. Those who survived and came back were humble heroes, as was my father, rarely wanting to talk about it. The song contains that dynamic but so much more: it’s a timeless epic of remarkable proportions, a cinematic summation of recent human history, beautifully detailed. Dedicated to an unnamed soldier who also fought in France long ago, it is the song of a son for a father who peers over fading pages of old journals. Deeply felt and delivered, it’s beautifully underscored by piano. A sprawling song with a beautifully arching and elegiac melody, it’s deeply nostalgic and new at the same time, and grandly poignant.

“The parrots are rustling on Telegraph Hill
Your memory throbbing your spirit is still
And there in the corner defying the dust
Your proud suit of armor stands speckled with rust..”

From “The Amber Ages”
By Thom Bishop.

For that song alone, this would be well worth the price of admission. But there is much more. Beautifully lyrical and luminous songs abound from this Chicago son, including one called “Luminous.” A song about humans being human, that aspiration towards something singular, something special. Always there was a luminous quality in his singing, since he first emerged from the vital Chicago folk-music scene in the 70s. Playing acoustic guitar, he sang with a spirited, angelic tenor voice, delivering stunning, lyrical songs. The stunning songs remain, as does the angelic tenor, but on this song cycle he plays no guitar. The setting is more jazz than folk, speaking of Miles Davis’s famous embrace of silence, the space between the sounds, with Jeff Jenkin’s elegant piano at the heart of each track, fleshed out by Eric Thorin on lyrical double bass. Other colors are painted with warm pedal steel by John Macy, and soulfully haunted flugelhorn and trumpet passages by Gabriel Mervine.

The other shift here is that, unlike previous albums for which he wrote the songs alone, here he’s collaborated on many songs, writing the lyrics while various composers create the music, including Jude Swift, Ed Tossing, Gary Grundel and Linn Brown. And so these songs resound like new jazz standards – like something in the hip wheelhouse of Ben Sidran or Mose Allison. He does bring one of his older songs, the haunting “Mr. Arthur’s Place,” into this jazzy realm, and it comes alive in a new way. Its beautiful meandering melodics lay lovingly with the piano, and the delivery is all heart. It’s a song of great grace, of recapturing the essence of long ago love. Another beautiful song cycle by Thom Bishop, it’s united by the timeless and limitless power of song.

 

1 Jason Wilber echoes

Jason Wilber
Echoes

Knowing that John Prine’s longtime multi-instrumentalist, the great Jason Wilber, had recorded an album of covers, bringing us new renditions of great old songs, I assumed it would be mostly folky songs, the kind most easily suited to an acoustic guitar-based artist. But as often happens, I was wrong. Instead he has chosen songs quite removed from the acoustic guitar as we know it – singular and remarkable songs originally rendered with production grand and dimensional, including piano-based and/or open-tuning derived chromatic excursions. But in Jason’s gentle hands, he returns us to the essence of each song – the words and melody – and brings them home in a brand new and poignant light.

The instrumentation is pure and unadorned throughout, with Jason on vocals, guitars and bass, and with touches of percussion by Paul Mahern, who also produced and engineered the album, and Devon Ashley. That simplicity beautifully frames these songs, and keeps the focus keenly on the lyrics and melody of these great songs.

Seeing that he’d included Joni Mitchell’s “Edith and The Kingpin,” from her vastly under-appreciated Hissing of Summer Lawns, I was surprised. Of all of her remarkable songs, it’s one that rarely gets celebrated, even by the most die-hard Joni fans, of which there are a multitude. Truth is not a lot of Joni songs ever get covered – not because they’re not amazing songs, but because they are so complex, so distinctive to her style, her voice, her open-tunings of guitar, that it would be a supreme challenge for all but the most gifted singer-musicians to do right. Prince famously covered “A Case Of You” with great love. But, sadly, there are few Princes around.

Jason, however, is an exceptional musician, most famous for his multi-instrumental role in the Prine band for decades now, and his easy penchant for bringing as much soul to a mandolin solo as to a harmonica refrain or guitar rhythm. His rendition of “Edith” is revelatory. It brings a softness to the sharp, angular contours of the song, and a sweetness that was always there but obscured by the sonics of the production. His vocal is relaxed, allowing this mysterious story to unfold in a whole other way. This is greatness. This is ambitious. If one can imagine Joni performing it solo, just voice and guitar, before making the album, it might sound like this. All those years with Prine seems to have taught him a lesson of great consequence: that when you have a song filled with rich, complex lyrics, it’s wise to keep the instrumentation simple so as not to get in the way.

He does it again with one of Stevie Wonder’s most exultant melodies and lyrics of sweet ardor, “Overjoyed.” This chord progression – like so much Stevie has created – is beyond complex. No normal musical logic holds it together; rather it is connected by Stevie’s singular genius, which bypasses all conventional ideas of harmony and chord structure to create a progression that propels this melody with transcendent beauty. It’s the kind of chromatic chord structure, not unlike Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows,” which on paper would seem so complex as to be unfocused and desultory. But it’s the purity of melody which sails this vessel, so that all those chords line up in a sublime symmetry that never sounds unusual or complex, it just sounds right. And with Jason’s warm acoustic guitar playing and gentle voice, the genius inherent in this composition comes alive with humble, understatement, and the effect is stunning.

He similarly transforms another similarly complex song by another genius songwriter known like Stevie and Joni for intricately elaborate chord progressions, David Bowie. “All The Pretty Horses.” Again, a song that is rarely if ever covered, because the artist defined it so deeply already, and because it’s so complex. The chords, as in other songs of his, seem convoluted, even. But on acoustic guitar with a single gentle vocal at its heart, it rings with great grace and beauty.

He also delivers a song he’s performed himself thousands of times, Prine’s classic “Paradise.” He gives it a bluesy edge that is haunting, bending the famous melody into places where its sorrow rings like a church bell. It’s a keen kind of triumph, discovering a whole new depth in this song he’s done for decades, and outlining the paradigm shift in the lyrics – the American towns forever decimated by the coal industry – with a deep and perpetual sorrow.

Other unusual and great song choices are here, including a beautiful rendition of the Stones’ lovely ballad, “As Tears Go By,” as well Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” and Big Star’s “I Am The Cosmos” by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. In each he delivers the essence of the song with stunning clarity, letting us hear each word, each melody note, in a whole new way. This is new, unexpected and great record-making.

 

1 Hollie Stephenson

Hollie Stephenson
Hollie Stephenson

I have seen the future of R&B, and her name is Hollie Stephenson. This is greatness, an astounding debut. She’s a stunning singer who writes songs that resound like R&B standards. This is the heart of real soul, the sound of exultant, transcendent horn-charged R&B. It sparkles like the heart of Motown soul with a measure of pure Philly sound and  a modern, poignant edge. At first listening it resounds like Amy Winehouse but without the drugs, just pure soul and retro girl-group elation ideally suited for a new world. But the Amy comparisons fall away after listening over and over, and this is an album that invites constant listening like the classic records of yore. Her voice, with the warmth and piercing agility reminiscent of other great soul singers like Amy and Duffy and Dusty Springfield, is very much her own. At all of 17 years, she discovers and crafts new songs like an old soul, one deeply immersed in soul, R&B and classic songwriting.

It would be easy to listen to this and assume this young singer had chosen soul chestnuts, great standards of the past to belt out with tender romance. But, amazingly, these are all new classics.

These are the kinds of songs that songwriters spend their whole lives to write. She’s written them all before turning 18. It’s prodigious of the first degree. “Broken Heart Strings” starts good and just gets greater, with a chorus of great power. “Dried Out Lies” is set against a dizzying horn section and a tempo which quietly increases the singer’s passion simmers. “Pointless Rebellion,” the album opener, sparkles with bright yearning, delightfully delivering the title and all it implies with both whimsy and wonder.

She’s the discovery of Dave Stewart, who produced the album and co-wrote some of the songs, including the gorgeous “Sunday Morning.” Swelling with strings and a choir of voices, it’s a sumptuous ballad for the ages. Were she only a songwriter and not a vocalist, she’d be providing luminous and soulful songs for other singers. But as vocalist she rises to the high bar of her own material to deliver the kind of album we used to live for. This is a very rare debut, a soul masterpiece.

 

1 quiet life froggy
Quiet Life
Foggy

Beautifully resonant and hypnotic roots rock. Quiet Life is a great Americana band who write songs for the ages, the kinds of songs that seem to have been around forever. Produced by Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog and recorded at his Mt. Slippery studio in Philly, it’s an album of much tenderness and charm. Songs like “Summer of ’16” and the title song, “Foggy,” resound with a warm wistfulness. Close harmonies and organic textures abound. The ghost of Jerry Garcia is evoked in the mystic and folky focus of these songs, starting simple but always with the promise of infinite expansion, that these songs never really stop, but keep spinning like galaxies into the mystic. It all starts with “Live Wire,” a compelling song of simplicity and grace. If The Band collaborated with Pink Floyd, it might touch a realm like this. Everything starts small, and gradually builds and builds, sending this humble song home wrapped in wonder. For this track alone, this would be one worth keeping.

Known to tour America in a fabled forest green Ford van which runs on used vegetable oil, this is a roots band for the 21st century. Foggy is an album perfect for the upcoming summer of ’16, already rendered iconic in advance. It’s music that makes you happy, but also evokes a whole world far beyond. It’s brand new and modern, yet forever connected to those great albums of the past which still deliver, even after all these years. This is one for the ages.

 

 

 

 

 

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Melinda Gibson
Money In The Bank

Very great and unexpected. Fun, spirited, angularly singular songwriting abounds. Entirely on her own ground, Melinda Gibson is no folkie though often seen in their company: these are super-charged, fervently delivered rockers which have more to do with a raw, punk-fueled energy reminiscent of John Doe and Exene’s incendiary exhortations in X than anything unplugged. It’s powered by a muscular three-piece ensemble of Melinda on voice and guitars, Shawn Clawson on bass and vocals, and the ferocious David Rodgers on drums. She’s funny and serious as Patti Smith, with lyrics that cut through the sonics with a whimsical mingling of enlightenment and resignation. “Money In The Bank” is a brilliant reflection of modern times and the financial crosses we all bear: “You do what you have to do to get the money in the bank, the money in the bank…” “Madman” springs out of the gate on a galloping electric groove that seems one-part folk and one-part Bowie.

Written and produced with James Hurley, this is a delightful EP of five finely etched songs. She sings with soulful authority throughout, projecting the lyrics with pointed whimsy and soulful focus. With only one song in five that exceeds three minutes, she knows how to make a strong, essential statement without every overstaying her welcome. This is inspired and vigorous songwriting and robust record-making. The only weakness is that, unlike almost every album made these days, there’s not enough here. We want more! But kudos to the artist for bringing such essential power and punch on an album that reminds us just how good it can get. There’s no wasted moments here, no excess, no self-indulgence. Just the powerful purity of singular passion. Here’s hoping there’s much more to come.

 

 

 

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Skip Heller
San Fernando Valley Blues

The man is prolific and engaged, and this is but one of many collections he’s recently created and released. But it’s so good I can’t get past it. He writes beautifully detailed, sensual songs, the kinds of songs people complain that nobody writes anymore. Both evoking retro ghosts but with his feet planted firmly in the now, this is seriously good. He sings with the calm confidence of Johnny Cash mixed with the wounded soul of Townes Van Zandt and a touch of Buddy Holly rockabilly swagger. Recorded at assorted homes and apartments spread through the vast urbanity of Los Angeles, it’s an album of much quiet grace and focus. When he sings, you want to listen – there’s a summoning, compelling dynamic to his voice that invites you to take in every word. It’s delicately attired by as assortment of musicians who revolve around the sun of his acoustic guitar like satellites, a dynamic cast of players including Paul Eckman, Wyatt Stone, DJ Bonebrake, Christopher Lockett, Jim Cavender, Dale Daniel and more. “With Me Everywhere I Go” resounds like a beautiful ballad Elvis would have loved, romantic and generous both. “I Used To Love California” is an essential exploration of a musician’s world, filled like love songs with symbols that lose their charm when the love ends. It brings to mind those musicians who blame the state itself, not the music industry or their own bad luck, on their lack of success, as in “I am outta here, dude – California has messed with me enough. I’m going back to [fill in name of any home-town] where they treat me better.”

“Duke Ellington’s Tears” is a remarkable rootsy country-stomp about the “quiet grace” of the maestro years past his heyday, on the great abyss, finding himself playing in a high school gymnasium. It’s a tribute to the fortitude of all musicians, of the hard roads traveled down decades for the few quick trips on the glory train. The sad fact that, as Shel Silverstein once wrote, even living legends have to live. “Too Hot To Sleep” is temperate and hypnotic.

“San Fernando Valley Blues” sounds like a modern blues standard, with perfect charged-blues phrasing on sad lines like “In Panorama City, she’s topless in some bar.” (Anyone who has spent any time in Panorama City knows just how sad that is.) In the vast desolation of the San Fernando Valley, what Van Dyke Parks once termed “an endless suburban nightmare,” there are infinite stories of hollow despair. But this crystallizes all of it, the perpetual yearning for stardom that brings some so close to the luminous core of Hollywood without ever attaining it.

It all ends up with the retro charm of “Tracy Lee,” a love song by an admitted fool that swings with rockabilly ardor. Skip Heller’s the real deal: a deeply committed and gifted songwriter who seems capable of just about anything. This is not only a great collection of perfectly conceived and executed songs, it’s a lot of fun. I want to put this in my car and drive through the valley all day long.


1 Ivas John
Ivas John
Good Days a Comin

It opens with spirited guitar and violin, like the early jazz flights of Django with Stephane Grappelli. That is until his voice comes in, a voice resonant as the earth, singing with a gentle warmth and delivering beautiful originals and some great covers. This is a beautifully intimate, warm song cycle all built on the simple foundation of his fine guitar playing with just a few delicate touches, such as the sparkling violin of Robert Bowlin.

Ivas’ guitar style is reminiscent of the late great Steve Goodman, who blended layers of fluid ragtime and jazz into a rainbow of country and folk, and could play leads and rhythm and sing all at the same time. Ivas seems cut from the same cloth, and with a voice like Goodman’s, of much amiable love. He brings us beautiful and timeless songs of his own which echo with a beautiful Americana purity, such as “Roll Mississippi” and “Here I Am,” the latter of which was co-written with Edward John. He also delivers some entrancing covers, including Merle Travis’ spectral “Dark As A Dungeon” and Tom Paxton’s great “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound.” This is an artist of purity, a gifted and lyrical guitarist and songwriter. It’s an album you can live inside of for weeks, and never feel let down. This is soulful and solid stuff. Honoring the traditional ground from which he’s emerged, Ivas John embraces the source while reaching into the hopeful future, the good days he knows are a comin’.

 

 

1 Jared Rabin
Jared Rabin
Something Left To Say

An Americana masterpiece. A tender, beautifully realized and lyrical song cycle from Jared Rabin, founding member and lead singer-multi-instrumentalist of Chicago’s great Falldown. He writes perfect songs, beautiful melodic gems lovingly layered with rich vocal harmonies throughout, wed to compelling grooves. It all starts with the gently galloping “Something Left To Say,” a song about grabbing the reins of the present while they’re in your hands. He brings it home with a perfect couplet, like a great Paul Simon line, both simple and complex at the same time: “And I’ve got something left to say/Soon tomorrow will be yesterday.”

Produced by Jared with Rick Barnes at Chicago’s great Rax Trax studios, this is an album which shows off the multitudes of music which live in this one man. As those who have invited him for years into their bands and onto their tracks know well, he’s a remarkable multi-instrumentalist who brings a dynamic and delicate warmth to everything he touches. Unlike other gifted songwriters who leave guitar solos to others, he takes burning leads throughout, such as the fleetly fluid one in the center of “Eight Trips Around The Sun.” And besides the solos, he covers so many bases at once it’s staggering, like an Americana Stevie Wonder. Besides singing and writing all the songs, he plays acoustic and electric guitars, bass, mandolin, violin, banjo, piano, organ and harmonica.

Besides that the only musicians are drummer Jordan Kozner, as well as Dan Kristan, who plays double bass on two songs, and Kallie Palm on vocal harmonies. Percussionist Juan Pastor provides great tapestry rhythms and handclaps on the opening cut.

His music reflects a music lover who has seriously absorbed every kind of music his whole life, from old jazz and standards through folk and country to rock and far beyond. It all informs his music, which is deeply dimensional and richly rendered. “Nothing I Can Do” is a charged fiddle-based country stomp, like one part Jackson Browne and one part Charlie Daniels. “Ride the Wheel” is a slowly simmering anthem which closes the album with amazing guitar exhortations throughout set against an urgent pedal-tone bassline.

The effect is exultant and powerful, as if Hendrix sat in with the Eagles, even exploding at the end, after the harmonies are gone, into pure incendiary feedback. It’s an apt conclusion to this song cycle both tender and volatile, touching on every degree of this one artist’s vast musical spectrum. He seems like a guy who could do anything musically, and I look forward to what’s next. In the meanwhile I’ll keep spinning this disc, and keep it with my collection of classics.

Jill Freeman, “A Handmade Life.” A Review

•June 4, 2016 • Leave a Comment

1 Jill Freeman cover

A Review:

Jill Freeman

A Handmade Life

By PAUL ZOLLO

All Lyrics by JILL FREEMAN


I dress in rags, I suck on stones
Sometimes hunger shakes my bones
But deep inside, below the strife
I have a precious handmade
life

From “A Handmade Life”

A masterpiece of audacious proportions. A stunning, truly ambitious achievement. The kind of album songwriters talk about someday making. As in “Yeah, someday I am going to choose, like, thirteen of my favorite fairy-tales – including some really dark ones – and write a song about each.” And you go, yeah, yeah! Good idea. Some day.

Well, she’s done it. A Handmade Life is a remarkable journey through the mystic world of myth. Each song is lovingly and luminously inspired by a fable, some of which are ancient – while others, such as “Completely Unaware, ” based on The Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum –  are slightly more modern. This is timeless and visionary stuff, resonant with the symbology of the ages, yet also brand new. Though many of these myths have been around for eons, they speak directly to modern times.

If Rickie Lee Jones, Lou Reed and Laura Nyro were to collaborate on songs with Kurt Weill and Edgar Allen Poe and made an album produced by Tom Waits and Daniel Lanois, they might create something like A Handmade Life. Or not. Words fail to define that which is beyond words, so we reach for convenient comparisons. But some things – including deeply felt, beautifully executed art – exist in a realm beyond words. And that’s why God invented song.  And songwriters like Jill Freeman to write them.

Mythic, mystic and magical, this is  a song-cycle that unfolds like a great theatrical spectacle. We meet a multitude of characters, some wounded, some wicked, all mysterious and essentially human. Within each story comes a distinct facet of  the human psyche, and the struggle to make sense of an illogical world. We journey through a great procession of stories, all united by the voice of “heartache’s daughter,” the deep yearning love in the heart of these songs. It’s a cycle that weds human darkness – and hopeful “bits of light” – with melodies of great heart, charm and mystery. At the start and end of this journey of much darkness, some murder, mayhem, hunger and death, there is redemption. There is the light at the end of the human tunnel.

My aching search
For loving kindness
Is the light that leads me there.

From “The Light That Leads Me There.”

A deeply gifted songwriter, she compresses these fables down into beautifully rhymed and metered verse like romantic poetry of yore, finding the essence of each myth and making it musical. She unwinds these tales with an elegant economy of language.  As in the core of great storytelling, there are no wasted words.

Crazy wisdom ancestor
Pit of my desire
Grant me your blessings
Give me eyes of fire

From “Eyes of Fire”

Other examples of language use both stark and stunning abound. “The Inside Room,” based on the Arthurian legend of “The Fisher King,” uses short, poignant haiku-like lines to embody this character of few words, forever fishing in the mystic:

Barefoot, cold rock
Drops of water
Midnight’s maiden
Heartache’s daughter
Hook, no barb
On a bamboo pole
In the deepening silence
I fish for my soul

From “The Inside Room.”

She’s long been beloved on the L.A. songwriting-singer scene. With the Life Is Grand Band and as a solo artist, she’s not only one of the best songwriters around, but also one of the finest singers. Bringing a powerfully poignant and focused tenderness to her lead singing, she’s also a remarkable harmony singer, lending a warm, loving blend to anything she touches.

Her vocals on this new album are resplendent:  ethereal and earthly, dynamically delicate, combining all the voices she has and more to tell these stories with all the darkness and co-mingled light intact. Sometimes it’s a voice jazzy and cagey, sometimes strong and pointed. Other times it’s wispy and vulnerable – like a little girl lost in the woods, abandoned maybe, as the sun starts going down. Her voice, raw and open, set against a single ukulele strum and the sounds of the world roaring around her, opens the show:

I have slept in cold and lonely places
With no comfort but the ground

From “The Light That Leads Me There”

But often it’s the omniscient voice of the story-teller, that ancient soul who has woven magic into our lives for centuries. The soul who dances in the forever joy of music itself, as in the great scat section of “No Hands,” just jamming, beyond words, celebrating the joy of life even without hands.

She’s always been a remarkable songwriter, one who – like John Prine and Randy Newman – can bring humor and sorrow to the same song. Beautifully poignant yet whimsical gems like “Everything Makes Me Cry,” about being a raw nerve in the world (aka artist), from her previous album, resound like standards.

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But this might very well be her definitive album. Every artist at some point creates the one album that defines them forever. This is that album. It’s a dream nurtured and born, a vision realized.

Songs, and these songs especially, are the ideal vehicle for the surreal landscapes of fairy-tales. Written in meter and rhyme and wed to melody, these myths become even more potent than the spoken word. As revealed at every stop on this musical journey, within a song a full story can be contained. Revelations often emerge in the middle, in the chorus, like the sun around which all planets spin. The songform propels the narrative in a non-linear way, with time flowing from the center, as if in a series of dreams. The result is chilling and unforgettable.

Listen to “No Hands.” It’s all there. A jaunty and jazzy plea based on “The Handless Maiden” by The Brothers Grimm, it’s about a woman navigating the world without hands. Hands stolen by the haunted man inside of her. It’s dark, beautiful territory. And it swings with soul. It’s an extreme equation, this human so destitute in every way, forced to steal a pear from a tree, homeless, hungry and, yes, handless. Yet the character speaks with a simple and brave dignity. And with yearning for something so fundamental. These are bold and brilliant brush-strokes, crystallized with a powerfully simple yet visceral melody,and the picture is stunningly complete:

Oh God, to hold a hand in mine
Watch the fingers intertwine

To feel with my own fingertips
The softness of my lover’s lips…

From “No Hands.”

These tracks are all based on arrangedments by Jill, and produced by her husband, the great Joel Wachbrit. With sonics dynamic and dimensional throughout, the production of each song is as beguiling as the vocals and the songs. That the producer and artist are married makes sense, as the production here is intimate and perfect, so sensitive to every element of every element, like the beautiful symphonic splendor of the Oz song, “Completely Unaware,” with strings arranged by Jack Van Zandt. It’s absolutely sumptuous, as majestic and ageless as that mythic Emerald City. It’s an ending that’s absolutely exultant, with Jill scat-soaring over the orchestra of strings and muted horns, evoking such diverse spirits, from Oz itself to old Hollywood and beyond.

Get up and dance a jig with me, as if it was your last
I’m not trying to be coy, it’s essential
Then write down all your thoughts, quickly
Those future and those past
Don’t lie, don’t cheat
Here’s a pencil

From “Welcome To The Bonehouse.”

She explores the hidden interiors of these tales, the stories that resonate, and the reasons for that resonance. It’s about the child in all of us yearning always for stories. And some stories – that ones that last, speak directly to the deepest parts of our soul: the ancient, primal parts, the human essence forever fearful of forces too big or mysterious to fight.

“Letters From Murdertown” resounds like the theme song of the album, like notes from dreams sent to the waking self. It contains an understanding that some things we encounter are beyond understanding, some darkness perhaps too dark to fathom, and maybe even beyond capturing with words. But in songs the fullness of the dream can be captured, as it’s bolstered by this mesmeric ¾ dark waltz-time groove, both compelling and creepy. And Jill’s earnest vocals in the midst of it, like the last sane voice in a crowded asylum, is aching and perfect, as she sings in finely-detailed lines of perfect rhyme:

I miss my home of origin
That dusty cornered land of sin
Where good and evil all mix in
Cotton candy, bathtub gin
So if you see me smiling
All wistful and beguiling
You’ll know my heart is filing
Letters from Murdertown
Letters from Murdertown

From “Letters From Murdertown”

Add to that Mike Nelson’s outrageously elastic clarinet solo in the middle, set against a choir of Jills, and the result is like a great surreal movie, brand new and now and yet timeless, evoking ghosts which have been dormant for decades.

The musicianship throughout is stellar, led by Jill on acoustic guitar with Joel  on electric and acoustic guitars throughout. Debra Dobkin provides deep grooves throughout on  percussion and drums, with Steve Nelson on bass, Tommy Reeves on keyboards, Judy Rudin on harmonica, Claudia Russell, Aeone Watson and Severin Browne on harmony vocals, Bruce Kaplan on mandolin, George Landress on dobro and harmonium, Bob Sheppard on bass clarinet, the Eclipse String Quartet on strings, Mike Nelson on baritone sax, tenor sax and clarinet. The luminous April Hava Shenkman (aka my brilliant cousin) provides the manic voices in the head of “Welcome to the Bonehouse.”

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As mentioned, this album of considerable darkness begins and ends  wrapped with light,  in the sweet top and tail of  “The Light That Leads Me There,” based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling.” Set out in the wild in the opening, the sounds of bedlam brewing, by the end we have reached a peaceful place. Jill’s no longer alone in the wild world, but now joined beautifully by full band and then many voices, sharing this crucible of life, underscored hauntingly with Uillean pipes played by Dave Champagne.

I’ve seen many things on this brutal earth
The horrific and the sweet
From the way the violence tumbles forth
To the flowers at my feet

And I’ve pondered as I wandered
On the mystery of man
Why does such a privileged creature squander
All the gifts that he commands?

Still I shall find my way
And I will know my people
They’ll embrace me with deep care
You see my aching search for loving kindness
Is the light that leads me there.

From “The Light That Leads Me There.”

It brings to mind Warren Zevon’s excitable message to co-writer Jorge Calderon after writing another great song: “Jorge,” he said, “You know, this is high art.” He knew it, and it’s true. High art. It’s stuff for the ages. Both inventive and inspired, these are paintings by artists aiming for masterpieces. Gratitude abounds that even in these modern times, these times in which many declare the album format dead forever, there are still artists like Jill and Joel still aiming so high, still making the kinds of albums we always lived for.

For more on this album and this artist: www.jillfreeman.com

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Rob Zombie at the Roxy

•April 15, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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Words & Photos By PAUL ZOLLO

 

Seeing Rob Zombie and his band at the intimate Roxy on the Sunset Strip is akin to seeing a jet engine rev up and take off in a Starbucks. To behold that much sheer power in such a small space was staggering. Yet it was exhilarating and great, and Rob and the gang seemed to enjoy it as much as the audience. “It is weird playing here,” said Zombie. “Our rehearsal hall is bigger than this place.”

They usually tear into giant concert arenas, and are preparing for a concert tour with Korn this summer (July 24 Irvine Meadows here in Los Angeles), the ostensible reason for this, a voluminous valentine to those lucky fans who got in. It’s the first time he’s played in a club like this, he said, since the baby days of his first band White Zombie. Though the Zombie ensemble has about a fifth of the musicians as Springsteen’s band, it has as much if not more passion and pure, electric rock and roll energy. And it was thrilling to behold.

For his is a remarkable band, a quartet that plays together with the precision of an atomic clock, and with the propensity to explode at any moment. The fundamental rock equation of guitar, bass and drums, is locked together with a wild, untamed ferocity. Much of which stems from the fact that John 5 is an extraordinary guitarist, a musician of real multitudes, capable of providing visceral rhythm guitar on every song while simultaneously ripping off savage solos and pyrotechnic fills. With two hands and one guitar he often sounds like two guitarists, if not more.

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Even before Ginger Fish would kick in with monster beats on the drums, a roar like a jet plane revving would fill the venue and start to swirl; it all came from the arsenal of John 5, who would lift the old club right off of Sunset simply with his left hand voicing partial chords, before his pick hand would slice into the strings and paint with colors so bold and brash it was blinding.

And he’d do this in motion, prowling the stage like a madman swinging his axe, his face often covered by a creepy translucent mask. A young fan in the crowd testified to the effect: “He is the greatest guitarist alive – and also the scariest! He terrifies me!”

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Piggy D. laid down rapid-fire, machine-gun blasts of pounding bass with a look of manic glee, stomping around the stage, barely missing clocking front-rowers with the neck of his bass. At one point he came on with a bass fashioned like a crucifix out of weathered wood  from a wrecked raft, and lit it on fire (musically). He and Ginger worked bass and drums together like the supercharged engine of a mad machine, wildly raucous and yet fluidly refined. 2 John 5

Mr. Zombie was on fire all night, spinning like a dervish, resembling a biblical prophet wearing warpaint. He delivered the crowd-pleasing Zombie anthems with deep passion, none so resonant as “Living Dead Girl,” to which the entire audience bounces vertically in beat, singing the refrain. “Dragula” bursts out of that gate propelled by a deep, killer groove, as Ginger and Piggy laid down a rhythmic bed so solid that both Rob and John could rocket off of it, and yet return where they started. It’s a rock and roll lesson in abandon and restraint, as Rob and the electric guitar seem ready to careen off into orbit, while the drums and bass, like gravity, kept them tethered to the earth.

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He kicked the night into an elevated gear immediately with the White Zombie classic, “More Human Than Human,” before breaking out in every direction – doing their anthemic cover of “American Band,” as well as new songs from the upcoming album The Electric Warlock Acid With Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser,including the exultant tribute to extraterrestrial carnal knowledge, “Everybody’s F—ing In a UFO.” Also performed like they had been doing it for decades, another new classic and crowd-delighter, “The Hideous Exhibitions of a Gore Whore.”

7 zombieOn came special guest Glenn Danzig like he was shot to the stage by a cannon, and with whom Zombie sparred in duet on the Misfit’s “Vampira,” two and a half minutes of pure intensity squared.

At one point Rob asked the crowd for some semblance of sanity, suggesting they all put down their cellphones for a moment to remember what the world was like before we drove over the digital edge. “Just give me five minutes to remember what it was like to be in a club 20 years ago. Learn how to have some fun.”

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Though we were in a little club, the crowd didn’t hold back, and occasional moshing led to a few fans being propelled to the stage, where they would do a spastic dance before diving headlong back into the mob, while Rob and the band deftly danced around them.

Rob and crew encored with “Scum of the Earth,” Meet The Creeper, and a song for his wife Sheri Moon Zombie, who was in attendance, “Ging Gang Gong,” which became a final frantic sing-along.

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Afterwards the fans, those still standing anyway, seemed stunned. One woman who had eyes wide open as if she had just seen a miracle, testified: “Man! Zombie. Roxy. Man! OH MY GOD!” Yes. That said it all.

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Maurice White: The Bluerailroad Interview

•February 7, 2016 • 1 Comment

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Shining Star 

By PAUL ZOLLO

He was the shining star, the drummer turned songwriter turned singer and producer extraordinaire, the heart in the heart of the soul, the founder of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Earth, Wind & Fire. The elemental poem, connecting the natural elements at play forever on his astrological map to form his universe of song.  Earth is the rhythmic bedrock, the groove, the foundation for the tower of soul. Wind is pure melody, notes in succession, the expression of the human soul,the voice, the tune forever flowing, and with  harmony entwined, perpetually in motion,  flowing forever forward. Fire is elemental passion, the heat in the blood that pumps the heart, the sparks that catch when words of love and spirit fuse with  groove and the melody and everything ignites. All these disparate elements he wired together, and connected like miracle clockwork. Everything to accentuate everything. Pure precision yet infused with authentic soul. He was the guy who did it. The unifier.

First came Gospel. He sang in church and he sang at home. Then came the drums, and the passion for pure rhythm which propelled  him on a forever path towards  one of the most essentially soulful, exultant musical experiences ever preserved on record: Earth, Wind & Fire. As the guiding light of this expansive group,  the unifier of all elements,  the heart in the heart of the soul, Maurice White wrote or co-wrote all of their signature songs, including “The Way of the World,” “September,” “Fantasy,” and “Shining Star.” He won seven Grammy awards, and a total of 21 nominations.

He was also an artist highly respected by his peers, and universally beloved by all those whose lives he touched.

But like other shining stars that burn so bright, his light is already gone. Just weeks past turning in the draft for this book, February 4, 2016, Maurice White died at the age of 74 in Los Angeles from Parkinson’s Disease.

But that shining star spirit shines forever bright  in his  chain of inspirational songs, and in those  deeply dimensional musical tracks he concocted, always anchored with solid grooves, and colored beautifully with horns, strings , synths and rich vocals. The sound Maurice made.

He was born into a musical family in the musical mecca of Memphis, 1941. His father was a doctor who also played saxophone, and his grandmother was a Gospel singer. Gospel was the only music he knew for years, and it was enough. Raised by his grandmother at first in the Foote Homes Projects in South Memphis, music infused his soul.

He started singing at six. At 12 he started playing drums. He took to them like he’d played them his whole life. His great rhythmic prowess on the snare itself inspired him to join the school marching band, becoming its shining star.

In time he moved to Chicago with his grandmother to be closer to his mother and step-father.  It’s there he fell in with Chess Records, or “Chess University,” as he called it, since it’s where he gained experience and wisdom about how great records are made, and how the business works.

At Chess, he became an in-demand house drummer, playing on records by their legion of legendary artists, including Etta James, Ramsey Lewis, Muddy Waters, Betty Everett, Buddy Guy and Sugar Pie DeSanto. In 1966, he went off to become the drummer in Ramsey Lewis’ trio.

His own band began to coalesce when he first teamed up as a songwriting trio in Chicago – to write jingles for commercials – with Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead. This lead to a record deal with Capitol as the Salty Peppers. Their first single was “La La Time.” When the second single failed to fly, they moved to Los Angeles to regroup.

Maurice renamed the band after the elements that united like harmony parts in his astrological chart, Earth, Wind & Fire. He was the main songwriter, lead and harmony vocalist, and producer. Always yearning for new equations of sounds to distinguish his tracks,  he began to weave in the acoustic kalimba – a thumb piano – with early Moog synths, rich horn sections and lush strings. It all came together like magic, and it was a magic that emanated from his singular soul.

Having momentously stepped out front from behind the drums, he was always impeccably and chromatically attired-  this shining star shone in shiny suits – and he danced his exultant way up the soul and pop charts, shaping the sound of the late 70s. In time his band would sell more than 90 million records.

Eventually the Parkinson’s caused him to cease touring with the band, but like Brian Wilson with his Beach Boys, Maurice stayed at home and wrote songs and produced records. The music never stopped flowing. He also wrote songs for and produced a host of great artists, including Minnie Riperton, Weather Report (he did the vocals on “Mr. Gone”), Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Barry Manilow. All turned to Maurice as the magic man, wanting an infusion of his chromatic soul in their music.

I always remember, personally, being in my freshman dorm room at Boston University, 1977. These were the days long before computers. We didn’t even have a TV in our room. We didn’t want one. We had a stereo. And my roommate – who was a terrific dancer – had Earth, Wind & Fire records. It’s when I discovered what true soul – the heart of R&B – with harmonies and synth textures transcendent – sounded like. It sounded like Maurice White and his band.

We spoke on a resplendently sunny day in Los Angeles, where he graciously and generously expounded on his remarkable life in music.

 

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Maurice White: When I moved to Chicago, I was seventeen. In order to go to college.  I went to a junior college first, and then to Chicago Musical Conservatory. I wanted to be a schoolteacher.  I wanted to be a music teacher.

What happened?

What happened is that after about a year or so, I started to work at Chess Records.  Chess Records was like Chess University. [Laughs]

It gave me an opportunity to really spread my wings.  I got an opportunity to play with all of the artists I had dreamed about when I was a kid. I would pick up their records and follow their careers.  I had an opportunity to play with just about everybody.

Were you already writing songs before this time?

Well, what happened, as a result of being in the business, going to Chess every day I kind of got the knack of understanding the simple songwriting you know.  That was what it was really all about.

I kind of experimented a bit with some of my friends as far as songwriting but we just did like a local stuff. We did commercial jingles and things like that. So it wasn’t anything on a large level at that time.

And at Chess you got to work with Willie Dixon

Yes, I played with Willie. I got to play drums on a lot of his records, and he played stand-up bass.  I learned a lot from him.

Etta James? 

Yes, Etta James.  She was extraordinary. I worked with everybody on the roster.

And when you were playing drums, were you also beginning to produce and arrange?

Not at first. Mostly drumming at that time.  I was just getting my feet wet learning the structure of song, and learning how to apply it in the proper way.  It was like a university, man, it really was. All the production was done in one room and I just got a chance to pick it up.

How long were you at Chess?

For five years.

Longer than a college term-

Yes. And it was like college and graduate school all in one.

How did you hook up with Ramsey Lewis?

Ramsey Lewis was an artist on the label.  And he used to come down to Chess all the time and just watch the band.  Because we had a band that worked for Chess primarily.  And so he would down and just watch us. And we all knew each other.

When his own band broke up, he needed a drummer and a bass player.  So he called on me and a friend of mine, Cleveland Eaton, who played bass. And we’d go out on the road.  It started just an experimental trip to see how I would work out.  And we all gelled, so we decided to stay together, and I joined his band.  I worked with Ramsey for about four years.

Before Earth, Wind and Fire you started your own band?

Yes. What happened, during the time I was with Ramsey, I had a group on the side called the Salty Peppers. And we made a little record deal with Capitol Records.  We had a regional hit in the mid-western area with a song I wrote called “La La Time.” I wrote it with Don Whitehead and Wade Flemons.

What happened was when we wrapped up doing what was the formation of that band, and I didn’t know it at the time, but the members of that band the Salty Peppers became the original members of Earth, Wind & Fire.

How did that transition from Salty Peppers to Earth, Wind and Fire happen?

We all came out to Los Angeles after I quit Ramsey’s band as the Salty Peppers. So we changed our name to Earth Wind & Fire.

Your name?

Yes.  That’s my name.  I was looking for a name for the band because I wanted to change it from the Salty Peppers.  This all happened in Chicago before I had my astrological chart done. It was laid out on the table and I saw the elements that were in my chart, which were earth, air and fire.  I turned air to wind. The rest is history.

We all came out to Los Angeles to try to make it. There were six of us. In fact, we had a female in the band too.  Her name was Sherry Scott.

Then I augmented the band with some members I picked up out here.  But it was six of us from Chicago.  We stayed together for about 18 months.  Then my brother Verdine eventually joined that particular band as bass player. We began to augment and expand the band, and Verdine was a part of that.

In the band, you started by playing drums?

Yes, I was playing drums at first.  And I singing a little bit but I had to have some main singers because they was away from it.

By that time were you writing a lot of songs yourself?

By that time, because of circumstances,  and because I didn’t have any writers to depend on, there were two other writers for in the band, Don Whitehead and Wade Flemons; they had a lot more experience in commercial writing than I had.  But I picked up on it because of my experience of my playing, you know.

So we wrote all the songs together. And then Sherry Scott, she was a pretty good writer too.  She contributed heavily to the writing.

So the writing would be done in a collaboration of all of you working together?

Mostly the three of us, Whitehead, Flemons and myself.

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Is it true your songs always start with music?

Yes.  The way I’ve always written is that we write the music first and then the music suggests the lyrics.  I’ve always written like that.

Do you write on keyboard now?  What do you generally usually use to write?

I usually write on keyboard now.  I usually collaborate with other people.  I like writing with other people.

There are only two songs that I wrote primarily from the piano by myself, “Head To The Sky” and “Devotion.”

But the band changed, and after 18 months we decided to go separate ways.  So I had to reform the band, and got Ralph Johnson as drummer, and I got Philip [Bailey] as a conga player and singer and Larry Dunn and Andrew Woolfolk and that was expanded from that point on.

How did you hear of Philip Bailey?

A real good friend, Perry Jones, was a friend of Philip’s and he turned me on to Philip.

What a perfect player for your music. And his voice and your voice are perfect together.

My intention in the beginning, when I got Philip in the band, was to put him out front.  I was not going to sing.  I was only just going to play drums in the back. But that didn’t work out because Philip’s range was a high range.   So I needed to balance that range.

Did you enjoy stepping out front from behind the drums?

It was always hard to get out front.  I didn’t like it too much.  But after the girls started screaming and that stuff

Then you got used to it.

I got used to it. [Laughter]  It was pretty easy to get used to.

Also you got a fine drummer in Ralph Johnson. Early on you started using kalimba in your music.

I started playing kalimba while being with Ramsey. Because Ramsey gave me a great forum for exploring my talent.  Ramsey, every night during the concert, he would feature me as a drummer.  I had a twenty minute feature.  During that period, of course, I played the drums.  But then I started to introduce the kalimba as well.  That’s how the kalimba was discovered.

That’s such a great sound. You also began to write songs with Charles Stepney.

Charles Stepney was a great friend of mine.  He contributed heavily to my development.  During my years in Chicago playing jazz music, Charles and I used to have a trio.  We played jazz music.  Also, Charles was great as an orchestrator.  While working at Chess, Charles was an orchestrator there, and he knew about arranging and stuff. Once I got my band together, Charles contributed quite a bit to the sound of ours, as far as strings and horns.

So that’s why he has writing credit on “That’s the Way of the World”?

No. He has credit on that because he helped to write the melody. But he had started to work with me much earlier.  I think the first album was Open Our Eyes.   And he contributed very heavily to the orchestration because he was really good with that.  He was my first real co-producer.

On your records, not only is the songwriting great but the horn parts, harmonies and vocal arrangements are so beautifully conceived, as perfect as the songs themselves.

Yeah. Well, everything enhances, everything enhances the other. That’s our objective of it, to make sure everything fits hand to glove.
When you write a song, are you thinking in terms of the parts of the production or does that come afterward when you go to the studio?

First of all, I think in terms of the melody.  Melody and rhythm, that’s my first thing, the first thing that approaches me.  And then from that point on, I’ll start to think in terms of story.  But first, melody comes first for me.  Melody is always to me influenced by lyrics.

So you generally finish an entire melody before you even consider lyrics?

Yes I do.  And it’s worked for me all these years.

Yeah. It sure has.

Yeah, Pretty much.  The melody complements the words, and the words complement the music. And you also have a string melody that complements the horn melody. It all fits together.

Some songwriters keep the tape rolling while their writing.

Yeah, I like to do that too.  I do.

Do you generate melodies from chords, or do you work on the melody itself?

No.  From chords.  What I try to do is I try to push chords. I’m concerned sometimes when certain melodies will not fit up with certain chords.  And I’ll push real hard and try to make something fit.

There’s no really formula that I use, either than to start off first with melody or rhythm. I always start from that point, you know.

 

 

Speaking of melody, “That’s The Way Of The World” has such a sweet and enduring melody. It’s inspirational.

That melody was written by Charles Stepney, and from that melody and those chords, I wrote the words. The music influenced the lyrics.  It sounded in a way that suggested those words.

He wrote the melody and the chords some time before we really approached the song. And I knew it was great. It reaches a climax and just stays there. It was a great song from the beginning.  Some songs are just more inspirational than others. And that’s one of the few.

It sure is.

Yeah. When it comes on, I think what happened too is that all the pieces fit together perfectly. The melody, the strings, the horn melodies, everything works hand in hand.

It’s a song – and track – that never loses its greatness.

It just gets better and better and better. It really reaches the climax and it just stays there. And one point that made that record good was the contribution of Charles Stepney. Especially with the string lines and the horn lines. By that time he had really developed as a great string writer.

He also wrote “Reasons” with you?

Right.  He wrote “Reasons” with Philip [Bailey] and I. That came out of the same batch of songs.  There was “Reasons” and “That’s the Way of the World.” Those two melodies were two melodies that he played for me.

It was very interesting because during our time, that was a rather early time for the synthesizer.  And all melodies he had put on tape with the Moog synthesizer. Which was brand new and unknown still at that time.

So he didn’t sing them at all?

No.  They were all done with synthesizer.  And that was from the mid-seventies, ’75 or something like that.  That sound, the sound of the synthesizer, was very new.

On “That’s the Way of the World,” did that lyric come quickly or did you have to work on it for a while?

We had to work on it for a while.  The overall lyric came easy but the verses were something we had to labor for a while.  It wasn’t hard, but it took time.

“Shining Star”was written with Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn?

Yes. “Shining Star” was very easy to write because we came out, and we had just recorded a melody in the studio, like a funk melody and I was just walking. We actually did it in Nederland, Colorado at Caribou Ranch, where Chicago used to record.

I love Nederland.

So you know. It’s a beautiful place. We were just walking outside and the stars were so plentiful it was almost like you could reach in the sky and pluck one out.  And actually, it was having that experience of the stars in the sky being able to see them so clearly influenced me to the title “Shining Star.”

Had no idea! It’s a Colorado song!

Yeah.  The environment helped. Had we not been there, I don’t think that song would have happened. The stars don’t shine as brightly in L.A.

Not the ones in the sky anyway. [Laughter] Do you recall how “September” was born?

Yep.  That was written by Al McKay and myself and Allee Willis.

You came up with that melody?

Al McKay and myself.  That was written actually in Washington D.C. in the middle of a riot. We were checking into this hotel in Washington D.C. and I remember there was a riot going on outside. We were just trying to find something to do so in the middle of it, we just started to write a tune. [Laughter] We wrote it while looking outside the window at the riot.  And “September” was the song.

Yet that lyric wasn’t about the riot at all?

Oh no.

Why did you choose that title?

September had always been a favorite month.  For some reason.  I don’t know why.

That’s another great melody. 

That was another great one, yes. A ballad with big groove.

I understand that the last time the band went on tour that you stayed at home to work on the record?

Yeah, while they were on the road.  I am basically have retired from the road. And after 25 years on the road, that’s long enough for me. I’m getting more into production. I am basically a producer now.  It was the first time, and we wanted to see if they could do a performance without me.

You think it works okay without you in the band when they are out there?

It works pretty well.  I make an appearance every once in a while. [Laugher]  I stay at home and work on a live album.  We have a live album that’s coming out pretty soon. We recorded in Japan.  So at first I stayed home to work on that.

Many great artists, such as The Beatles, or Brian Wilson, did some of their greatest work when they stopped touring.  

Yeah.  You can really concentrate on the work.  Touring takes a lot out of you. It takes all your concentration.

Also, at the same time I’m dealing with a company now.  I’m actually building a studio right now.

Is there a favorite Earth Wind and Fire song of yours?

Probably “That’s the Way of the World”.

Yeah.

Probably is my favorite.  There’s another tune that I like pretty much.  It’s called “Lover’s Holiday.” I like that too.

It’s a great song.

Yeah.  We’ve recorded quite a number of tunes [laughter] throughout our career you know.

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