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Archive for the ‘Americana’ Category

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at The Theater at Madison Square Garden

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Last week Robert Plant was quoted in the Village Voice as saying that America “needs to hear its music.” Leave it to a Brit to tell us what we need. Plant’s condescension aside, he is right. The former Led Zeppelin singer’s recent album and tour with Alison Krauss, which stopped at the Theater at Madison Square Garden last night, prove that he is doing more than just talking the talk. About halfway through the show, Plant, humble and gracious throughout, paid homage to those American musicians who came before, telling the crowd “If it weren’t for Chicago and Mississippi, I wouldn’t even be here right now.”

Plant gets it. All the amazing musicians who shared the stage with him get it. He is right though – more Americans need to get it.

It’s hard to claim that popular music today has largely forgotten its roots. How can any music become untied from its history when, consciously or not, it is a product, a direct descendent of that history? Take rap music for example. Where would rap music be without James Brown, Bo Diddley (think “Who do You Love?”), Muddy Waters, and even Elvis and his televised gyrations? But, is rap conscious of its ties to history? Despite heavy use of samples, the answer is largely, no. Popular music across the board has lost its ties to the deep past. This would be okay (after all innovation is a good thing) if it weren’t for the fact that American music’s original soul, the soul that makes it exceptional in the truest sense of the word, has been largely flushed out as well.

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Quick Hits: Mudcrutch – Mudcrutch

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When Tom Petty decided to put the band back together he really decided to put the band back together. After a thirty-two year hiatus, Petty recently re-assembled his old college group, Mudcrutch for an album and tour. The tour ended last month. The album is a gem.

Regardless of what you think about Tom Petty or his performance at this year’s Super Bowl, this album proves that Petty has gotten better with age. Mudcrutch combines songs from all walks of the American musical landscape, ending as a record that is refreshing while maintaining a welcomed amount of familiarity. Nowhere on the record is this more evident than in its first song, a cover of the classic mountain tune “Shady Grove.” By opening with this older-than-the-hills tune, Mudcrutch sends two immediate messages: first, this is not a Tom Petty record; second, the band knows its roots, cares about ‘em, and ain’t afraid to use ‘em. The same can be said about “Six Days on the Road,” the classic rocker that has been covered by the likes of Steve Earle, George Thorogood, and Taj Mahal (whose version tops them all). Mudcrutch, like Mahal, plows through the song like a tour bus flying down an open highway.

As for the band’s other material, there is little disappointment to be found. Songs like “Orphan of the Storm” resemble the best of pioneering country-rock bands like the Byrds. The instrumental track “June Apple” harkens back to the soul of early Stax artists like Booker T. and the M.G.’s mixed in with some driving seventies-country twang. “Lover of the Bayou,” an early single (“Scare Easy” is another standout), sounds like the great Petty hit “Last Dance with Mary Jane” only Mary Jane is being drowned in a dark, muddy, Louisiana swamp (which, it turns out, makes for one hell of a song). My favorite track is the finale “House of Stone,” which has the soul of a Monroe or Louvin Brothers gospel song, and a mandolin solo to boot.

On a whole, Mudcrutch is a tour through the last sixty years of American soul music. While the album is not without its faults, the few throwaway tracks are outnumbered by the wealth of well-written and soulful tunes that look back and pay homage without losing sight of the road ahead.

For more on the re-assembled band check out this NYTimes article.

The Grateful Dead You May Not Know

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Hippies. Potheads. Tie-dye shirts. Endless jamming. These are few of the things that come to mind when someone mentions the Grateful Dead. To many people, the band’s name itself is a pejorative term, something associated with bums, drugs, dropping out. This is an unfortunate legacy for a band that was unequivocally great but terribly misunderstood.

Yes, the Dead were a traveling circus for many years. Towards the end of the band’s and Jerry Garcia’s lives, a Dead show meant a sold out football stadium or arena and a city full of Volkswagen Microbuses and broke, ticketless Deadheads holding up hopeful fingers in search of that “miracle” ticket. The aftermath of a Grateful Dead concert meant parking lots full of garbage and the lingering stench of patchouli and stale beer.

More positively, The Dead were community builders. Their loyal fans were mostly peaceful, well-behaved, and always idealistic. This idealism and desire for freedom (and drugs) of both the fans and the band have since spawned a new musical genre and touring style. But that’s a whole other article.

The kind of social impact The Dead had is pretty obvious and well documented but the band’s musical impact and place in the American musical tradition is now, and has always been, sorely misunderstood. In short, the group’s style has largely overshadowed its substance. Its jams have, according to the accepted story of American music, overshadowed its songs. Its countercultural tendencies have overshadowed its ties to the deepest roots of American music, not to mention its origins as a jug band.

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Written by JustJake

April 20, 2008 at 8:15 pm

Skippin’ in the Mississippi Dew

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The Mississippi River holds a prominent, mythic place in the American psyche. Dating back to its days as part of France’s territory in the new world, the Mississippi has been a place where cultures commingled; where trappers and Indians traded pelts; where shipping fortunes were made; and where frontier forts were built. Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition left for the interior from the shores of that great River. And later, some of the country’s largest and most brutal plantations sprung up along its banks. Steamships, casinos, showboats, houseboats, and of course, rafts, all float in and out of our mythic notion of what it means to be American, a notion forever tied to the Big Muddy.

Writers have long spoken of our rich river tradition. Alexis de Tocqueville, Mark Twain, and John Steinbeck all wrote about Americans’ connection to their river. William Faulkner even likened the Mississippi to an long umbilical chord connecting us to our homeland and to one another.

And then there’s the music.

It’s called Mississippi Delta Blues for a reason. Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, B.B. King are only a few of the greats who grew up just miles from the muddy riverbanks. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan were also raised near the great river. Dylan’s home town of Hibbing, Minnesota is only a stones throw away from the Mississippi’s oft-disputed source. Not to mention all the music that came out of the strange commingling of cultures in New Orleans as a result of the city’s unique location at the Mississippi’s mouth.

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Written by JustJake

April 8, 2008 at 8:12 am

Townes and Guy: Songwriters You Should Know (Part II of II)

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Townes

Townes Van Zandt is the greatest American songwriter to have ever lived, period. As Steve Earle, a talented songwriter in his own right, put it, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

(To Live is to Fly)

Like Guy Clark, Townes was a songwriter’s songwriter, a true poet. He was a little more commercially successful than Clark, though, blipping on the radar with his “Pancho and Lefty,” made famous by Willie Nelson. But most still don’t know who he is and why his music is magic.

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Written by JustJake

April 1, 2008 at 8:42 pm

Townes and Guy: Songwriters You Should Know (Part I of II)

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Guy Clark2

It’s fitting that I was at a Guy Clark concert when I overheard someone telling the person next to him how sadness was the easiest emotion for a songwriter to elicit. In the world of singer-songwriters this is apparently a motto of sorts. Any guy with a guitar can make you feel sad. There’s just something inherently sad about a guy up there all by himself with nothing but a guitar to protect him. There’s such vulnerability in it. The chance of a mistake, naked without accompaniment creates tension that can drive a quiet performance and bring a listener’s emotions into a more accessible space. And the most accessible emotion for the performer to reach is always sadness.

This mantra has become a barometer for me, helping to separate the songwriting cream from the songwriting crop. A common question I ask myself is whether a new musician makes me feel anything but sad? Can that musician make me feel happy, or angry; inspire feelings of longing, or any number of complex emotions. The great singer-songwriters can certainly make you feel sad but they never stop there

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Written by JustJake

April 1, 2008 at 8:20 pm

Good Ol’ American Soul

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In a dimly lit back corner of Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, a television interview with Ray Charles plays on loop. His is an unexpected face among the other inductees. The museum’s walls pop with tributes to such country giants as The Carter Family, Hank Williams, Garth Brooks, and Dolly Parton. Yet, the Ray Charles exhibit somehow gets its own floor. Not bad for an R&B singer.

In that back corner of his floor, Charles talks about his love for country music and about the impact of his hugely successful album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962); how he famously spurned the advice of his label, cut the record, and became one of the most successful crossover acts in history. In between his signature “ya dig”s and “groovy baby”s, Charles, in his trademark sunglasses and dark suit, defends his actions with a statement as epic as his album. “See, there’s only two types of music in this world: good music and bad music.” His label couldn’t have guessed that Modern Sounds would stay number one on the Billboard charts for twelve straight weeks and take home a Grammy. But Ray, you’re an R&B singer; they’re not going to buy a country album from an R&B singer. The suits are right, they wont buy it. Unless, of course, it’s good.

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Written by JustJake

March 28, 2008 at 10:17 am