If you’re like me, your Christmas shopping is best preserved for those special, quiet moments on Christmas Eve, when not a creature is stirring — because the they’re all caught in traffic at the Mall. But this gift recommendation is a pretty easy hit, especially for the music lover on your Christmas list.

My own taste in music is fairly broad — from jazz to classical, an occasional country song, New Age and electronic, and of course raucous rock. There is something in the sound of a Les Paul played at obscene volume through Marshall amps which causes a near euphoric rush of some beneficial neurotransmitter from deep in my limbic system. Most of my music is now converted to digital MP3s, and a lot of different iTunes playlists make for a good variety. Nevertheless, there are a few things as exciting as discovering a new group, or an old group with which I am unfamiliar.

Recently I had such an opportunity. While browsing a less-frequented but excellent blog from my neck of the woods, Nothwestern Winds, I picked up a recommendation for the group Ollabelle, and their most recent CD, Riverside Battle Songs. A quick trip to the iTunes store, a quick listen to a few cuts, and I was sold — hook, line and sinker. This is one of the most interesting and enjoyable groups I have heard in many years.

Ollabelle was formed as a side project by a group of six New York-based singer-songwriters who came together to play informally at the Sunday night gospel show of the 9C club in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Each an accomplished musician and vocalist in their own right, with varied backgrounds in folk, jazz, blues, and session work, they coalesced into a remarkable unit with complex vocal harmonies and extraordinary, intricate instrumental interplay. Their music is somewhat difficult to categorize, with strains of folk, bluegrass, Celtic, jazz, gospel, and rock.

It represents something of a revival of early Negro spiritual and gospel traditions, but does so in a surprisingly modern and pleasantly unpredictable style. What starts out as a seemingly prosaic folk ballad, a cappella in a major key, metamorphizes seamlessly into a minor, then a blues key, accented by Dobro or rich, evocative pedal steel background which makes the pseudo-orchestral synthesizer fills of most modern music sound pathetic and banal by comparison. It is alternatively rich and soulful or upbeat and joyful music. If this music doesn’t set your toes to tappin’, you either have no legs or have no soul.

So there’s still plenty of shopping time to grab this CD for the music-lover on your shopping list. And while you’re at it, grab a copy for yourself.

You won’t regret it.

Grace 4 U2

Bono of U2After seemingly endless weeks recently of watching Tom Cruise air-box, jump on chairs, pontificate on depression, and talk about the idiocy of Scientology, it’s definitely refreshing — yea, one might even say a veritable antidepressant — to have some sanity expressed by another celebrity who appears to have a more rational cerebrum (although, granted, not as much of a pretty boy). Swiftly and with Style (HT: In the Agora) finds an intriguing quote from Bono, of U2 fame, in his book Bono in Conversation:

It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma. . . .You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics, in physical laws, every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that: “you reap, so will you sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff. . . .

I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep sh-t. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.

I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there’s mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and let’s face it, you’re not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humbled. It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven.

It’s a little scary when Karma and Christ get mentioned in the same breath — from a rock star never seen without his wrap-around shades and so-cool demeanor — in a literary aside laced with the appropriate profanities, moreover — and it’s one of the clearest expressions of how the world works you’ve heard in months. God’s a very funny guy sometimes, and uses rather peculiar mouthpieces — which gives me great hope indeed.
Continue reading “Grace 4 U2”

Jack Daniels On Tour

Rolling StonesCleaning out your garage is not exactly my idea of a great way to spend the weekend. But, every now and then, you find some little treasure that makes it all worthwhile. Such was my good fortune last month.

Amidst the boxes filled with old check registers, broken parts from kids’ bikes, and other largely disposable detritus, I stumbled across a box of Kodak 35 mm slide carousels. We’d been carting them around for years, never unpacking them, and they’d survived moving vans, hot storage facilities, and the dust and neglect of years of garage life. On a whim–I was really getting bored with the cleanup task–I decided to take a glance at the photos.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the slides–many 25 to 35 years old–had survived in extraordinary condition: the colors were virtually unchanged from when they were taken. A host of subjects presented themselves–a trip to Europe after college, early photos of my wife and I in the first years of marriage, our children at early ages, and those agonizongly long years spent enduring my Army assignment at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

But then the prize of prizes: photos of a Rolling Stones concert in 1972. Whoa! Cool!

I remember having the taken the photos, and had several of them made into prints–but the prints had been lost, and I assumed the slides were gone forever as well. But there they were, in all their glory. Amazing.

The concert had been held in RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. on July 4th 1972. I had just graduated from college (no giggling out there, you young whippersnappers…), but I have no recollection with whom I went or how I got tickets. I do remember bringing a Pentax Spotmatic camera, and a new zoom telephoto lens I bought just for the occasion. I was using a Kodachrome slide film–ASA 400, as I recall. Film technology was not what it is today, and the film is fairly grainy when the shots are blown up.

The lead-off band was Stevie Wonder:
Stevie Wonder Band
You can see Stevie on center stage, surrounded by his band. The crowd, as you can see, was huge, but not particularly animated at this point. Once the Stones got on stage, however, this changed rather dramatically:
Rolling Stones

The Stones had released their Sticky Fingers album–one of their best ever, in my opinion–in April 1971, and this was their first US tour after the release. In addition to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the band featured Bill Wyman on bass, Charlie Watts on drums, Mick Taylor on lead guitar (who had played with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and had just joined the Stones the year before), Billy Preston on keyboards, and Bobby Keys on sax.

Jagger was dressed to kill, in an androgynous outfit suited to the 4th of July: white tights with stars, a laced white vest, red sash, blue denim coat, and long red and white ascot:
Mick Jagger
Purple lip liner and mascara, with purple stars at the corners of his eyes and on his forehead completed the look. Mick Taylor is seen on the left, and Charlie Watts on drums.

Keith Richards was less ostentatious, in jeans and a tie-died shirt, with blond-streaked hair, ripping out chords on his modified `58 Les Paul (this bad boy can be yours today for a mere $400,000) through paired stacks of Ampeg amps:
Keith Richards
Look closely on top of the amp head to Richard’s left: there’s a partially emptied fifth of Jack Daniels bourbon. Richards problems with alcohol and drugs are the stuff of legend, although by report he has currently cleaned up his life.

Bill Wyman stayed in the shadows throughout the concert, playing a clear Lucite Dan Armstrong bass.
Bill Wyman

Update: Here’s one more photo which required a little Photoshop tweaking, since it was a little out of focus:

Jagger & Richards

So there you have it–a blast from the past: 4th of July 1972, the Jack Daniels tour with the Rolling stones:

Album Back

UPDATE: High resolution images (up to 1200 DPI) may be viewed on my Flickr page.

Alice in Wonderland

Alice Cooper

OK, I’m not much of a quote-link-comment blogger, but this is a must see: An interview with Alice Cooper (HT: Chrenkoff, Tim Blair–gotta love those Aussies).

Alice Cooper was over the top, even for me–and I was a fan of King Crimson and Kiss. Never much cared for gross-out rock (vomiting blood? beheadings?? Maybe this is where the jihadi’s got their ideas), but as it turns out, it was–and still is–all an outrageous act–late twentieth century vaudeville, in essence.

Count among his fans: Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Salvador Dali, George Burns, Mae West, Fred Astaire.

Count among his mentors: Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon.

Count among his skills: scratch golfer, good cook.

Count among his character assets: great sense of humor, married faithfully for 29 years (to a Joffrey Ballet dancer), recovering alcoholic, Christian. And one of the sanest assessments of why we are in Iraq I have heard (could the Bushies hire this guy for PR?? Well, maybe not…).

Here’s a teaser:

When I did take the cure for alcohol, which by the way was not a cure, it was a healing. I came out of the hospital never, ever being tempted by a drink, never, ever being like in the least bit, under the worst stress, ever thinking about taking a drink, never went to AA. Everybody’s sitting there going, “Wow, what great willpower.” I have no willpower. I came out and it was a total… It was a healing. My dad was a pastor, my grandad was a pastor, my wife’s father is a pastor, and I’m Christian now. It was a… people say, “There are no miracles,” and I go, “Oh, yes there are.” I’m a walking miracle because I was the worst alcoholic you could imagine, and 24 years I haven’t had, not a drop.

This is right up there with Jeff Baxter. I just love the irony of it all.

Check it out. Really.

The Skunk

Jeff Sometimes you run across a situation which makes you laugh–not because it is inherently funny, but because of the element of surprise, irony, or unpredictability. This week I stumbled across just such wonderful revelation.

Ever since my college years — when I was an aspiring guitarist and composer with far more dreams than talent — I have had a passion for excellent rock guitarists. Of course, there were the big players, many spawned by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers–Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Mick Taylor, to name but a few. Then there was Jeff Beck, a Yardbirds graduate whose innovative and unpredictable style made him by far the most interesting of the 70’s guitar wizards, although far from the best known or most successful. Style always trumped speed in my book: Alvin Lee, of Ten Years After, played guitar riffs which broke speed limits in every state but Montana, but lacked the power, subtlety, and emotional impact of Duane Allman, whose dual guitar leads with Dick Betz in the Allman Brothers Band created unbelievable energy and emotive power (listen also to his amazing slide work with Eric Clapton on Layla), and created a playing style still emulated today in such bands as Boston and Aerosmith.

But beyond the big names, I had a special interest in the extraordinary unsung talent that played sessions behind name bands. One group which utilized such session musicians to great effect was Steely Dan. Founded by Donald Fagan and Walter Becker– talented songwriters but themselves, initially at least, only average musicians– Steely Dan utilized extraordinary studio talent in crafting their eclectic, dark, jazz-influenced sound. These artists were often uncredited on liner notes, and it became something of an art form to discern who was playing behind them on any given cut.

One of their original session guitarists–perhaps one of the most talented, yet largely unknown, rock guitarists– was Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Baxter joined Steely Dan on their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill, and played behind Fagan and Becker through their third album, Pretzel Logic. He subsequently moved on to become a member of the Doobie Brothers. A master at electric, acoustic, and pedal steel guitars, his understated presence is easily overlooked, as he rarely forced himself into the spotlight. But his playing was nothing short of spectacular. Blow the dust off that old Steely Dan CD Countdown to Ectasy, and listen to several cuts. The guitar lead on the best-known song, “My Old School”, is bleeding edge: chicken-scratch harmonics, octaves, syncopated rhythms perfectly woven into the horn section riffs, spot-on bends, all played at breakneck speed without being ostentatious. (Keep in mind this is 1973, when the “innovative” releases were McCartney’s Band on the Run and Billy Joel’s Piano Man). Then listen to the amazing rhythm riff behind King of the World, perfectly fx’d with echo (analog, no digital back then), thereby creating a remarkable high-energy driving sound to contrast to Becker’s simple bass line and Fagan’s darkly cynical lyrics about a post-nuclear-war rendevous. His pedal steel work–long considered an appropriate instrument only in Country and Texas Swing–can be heard in its beauty and power with the Doobie Brothers on South City on The Captain and Me album, or in Brooklyn on Can’t Buy a Thrill with Steely Dan.

Jeff Baxter Baxter–seen in the above photo with the Doobies (on the lower left), in his trademark aviator glasses, bushy mustache, and chest-length hair–never sought the limelight and never released a solo album, although his discography is impressive. He wrote regularly for various trade magazines, including Guitar Player magazine and Electronic Musician, with well-written and informative articles on the rapidly-evolving technology of electronic and digital music. After the breakup of the Doobie Brothers, he continued to do studio work, but otherwise dropped out of sight.

Last week, out of curiosity, I decided to check if he had done any session work or released an album in recent years. And, to my amazement, I discovered that, while still involved in music, he had a new career: as a defense consultant on Homeland Security, strategic missle defense, and WMDs.

Color me astounded:

Along with a roster of high-power politicians and military men, Baxter — who learned everything he knows about military defense from reading war history books, technical weapons texts and defense manuals — is now playing a key role in determining how the U.S. can best protect itself against a major nuclear, chemical or biological attack. And while he may be a big fan of the music of John Lennon, he doesn’t believe in giving peace a chance, insisting that the mere threat of American military might isn’t enough to sway the behavior of radical fundamentalists.

Now, this shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. In part, my surprise arises from the vastly more common sight of rock stars and other celebrities pontificating about foreign policy–virtually always in opposition to Afganistan, Iraq, or some other aspect of the war on terror–while having no expertise in the area, nor offering any substantive arguments or alternative solutions. The spotlight of fame and media exposure appears to convince its recipients that their influence in the arts transfers seemlessly to politics and foreign policy, when in fact they end up looking foolish, half-witted and inept. Baxter superficially seemed to fit this bill, with a decidedly counter-cultural appearance, and association with bands not likely to be seen warming up for an Ann Coulter rally.

Of course I have no problem with celebrities speaking their mind on political or miltary issues–this is what makes America great. Recently, while in D.C. by the White House, I saw a protestor dressed up in a George Bush costume and mask, with blood running from his fangs while holding a sign saying “Bush is the real terrorist.” Yeah, whatever. But it made me realize what a special place we live in, where such protest is tolerated, even encouraged. Imagine the fate of such a protester in Saudi Arabia, or Syria, or North Korea, or China, or a host of other countries around the world.

No, it’s not the voices of opposition that trouble me: it’s the cheap grace of freedom. You oppose the war? Fine, many people did–what’s your solution? What are you doing to solve the problem of terrorism, national self-defense, Islamic fundamentalism? If you believe its root cause is social injustice, or poverty, or oppression, what are you doing to change the world into a better place? Talk is cheap–spare us the lecture about how your music empowers people to change, or your street protests speak truth to power, or other such cost-free drivel. Show me the money, give us a plan, then get to work putting it into action.

Jeff BaxterI guess that’s why the story of Jeff Baxter strikes such a chord with me: rather than get on a soap box, he got to work–using skills he’d acquired both from his creative side in music and from a strong personal interest in technology, he became part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Military technology and music may seem to be unusual – if not incompatible – avocations, but to Baxter his two fields of interest and expertise go hand in hand. “The musicians are the frontline freedom fighters,” he explained. “The bad guys are more afraid of music than they are of guns and bombs. Everybody who plays music is a freedom fighter. When the Taliban started cutting off the hands of musicians, that’s when I got involved.

“America is very powerful militarily, but culture is the strongest spoke of the wheel,” he added. “I’m blessed to have a hand in both camps.”

Amen. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to some Steely Dan on my iPod…