December 25, 2011

The gyroscope just keeps on spinning...

Jack White's been busy being brilliant again.  Actually, though, that's a misnomer, as the man seems to never stop being brilliant.  If you haven't been paying attention, it'd be easy to think he's not done anything since the end of last year's Dead Weather tour or this year's handful of shows with the Raconteurs but, in actuality, he's turned out a tremendous amount of music and records over the course of this year.  It just hasn't all been the sort to put him in the spotlight.

As far as newness in his own music goes, 2011 was a year of collaborations.  First released was the spaghetti western-inspired Rome, a five-year-in-the-making labor of love by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi, on which Jack contributed lyrics and vocals to three songs.  The lyrics are not a huge a stretch from what a dedicated White Stripes fans might be familiar with, but his vocals and the music they're paired with are quite a departure.

Next was the long-awaited release of The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a project begun by Bob Dylan roughly a decade ago.  In a turnaround from Rome, the musicians involved in this project were asked to write music for unfinished Williams lyrics and then perform on the album.  I've not yet listened to the entire record, but from what I have heard it doesn't seem that any of the other artists involved created anything as authentic as Jack did.

Most recent was a startling cover of U2's Love Is Blindness on the AHK-toong BAY-bi covers compilation, which I babbled about a couple months ago, but will post here again for the sake of comparison.

I'm struck every time I listen to these songs by the contrast between the delivery of them-- Not so much in the difference in style, but in how Jack chose to approach them.  In You Know That I Know, the "quiver and twang" in his voice and the distinctive pedal steel guitar in the music he wrote are a touchingly faithful recreation of Hank's style. He's done this sort of thing before, notably with the White Stripes' covers of Blind Willie McTell's Your Southern Can Is Mine and Lord Send Me An Angel, and Bob Dylan's One More Cup of Coffee and Isis, but not to quite this fine a degree.  In comparison, he took Love Is Blindness and ran miles away from U2's original to create something so much more extreme and intense, which, again, he also did with the Stripes on Dolly Parton's Jolene, Son House's Death Letter, and Robert Johnson's Stop Breaking Down (though he and Meg also did a slightly more faithful rendition of that one, as well).  And there's pretty much no way to compare the songs on Rome to anything he's done before.  When news leaks of things like this year's cover tunes and collaborations, the most exciting part of waiting to hear them is that there's just no telling what direction Jack will have taken.  It's fascinating to contemplate-- How does he make the decision each time?  Is it pure gut instinct based on a visceral reaction to the music?  Or does he actually thoughtfully consider the song and make conscious decisions? He spoke in a recent interview (that I now can't find) about problem-solving in relation to the business at his label, Third Man Records, of how he prefers to vary his own style from problem to problem rather than tackling every challenge that comes up from the same perspective, and that seems to also speak directly to how he approaches music.  

This same diversified approach is reflected in the output of the Blue and Green Series singles from Third Man, on which Jack steps into the background as producer.  This is where he's really been busy.  What's notable about these records aside from his astute production is that he personally searches out and contacts individuals with whom he feels he can create something new and inspiring.  With 33 releases in less than three years, these two series run a gamut that defines the word "eclectic"--  From relative unknowns like JEFF the Brotherhood, the Secret Sisters, and Chris Thiles, to actor John C. Reilly and 70's icon BP Fallon, Conan O'Brien and auctioneer Jerry King, Japanese girl group the and rapper Black Milk, to Carl Sagan and, controversially, Insane Clown Posse, the catalog of these two series is a blatant indication of just how wide-ranging Jack's interests and imagination run.  

The most recent of the Green Series singles has totally blown me away.  It features poet/actor/playwright, Edgar Oliver, whom Jack apparently noticed in an episode of the Discovery Channel's Oddities program. For his Third Man single, Oliver wrote and read a pair of poems-- In The Park and Hunger and Light.  While his voice, delivery, and poetry are certainly not necessarily everyone's cup of tea, they're right up my own eerie little alley.  A clip of the a-side, In The Park, can be heard at the Third Man Records on-line shop.  It's a gruesome yet lovely contemplation on the approach of death, read in a manner that summons up a delightfully daft combination of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.  But the b-side, Hunger And Light, is the kicker.   

Recorded in Triple Reverse Cryptophonica™, it left me initially nonplussed at what sounded like nothing but gibberish.  I thought it would be great to listen to at Halloween, but it had no meaning for me beyond that.  

But then Third Man announced a contest promising a gold record of the single to the first person who could correctly interpret and transcribe the poem.  I had no clue of how to accomplish this, but there were plenty of other technologically-inclined audiophiles who took up the challenge.  When the results hit the internet, it left me giddy.  Whether Oliver's dark themes and creepy tone are appealing or not, the production of this piece is still a wonderment.  First, the single was pressed to physically play in reverse, from the inside run-out groove to the outer edge of the record  (which produces the sounds heard above). But by flipping the head of the turntable tonearm, it can be played in the normal direction of outer-to-inner edge, which creates the second reverse-- the direction of the sound.  But instead of hearing "Paul is dead" or some Satan-worshipping mumbo-jumbo like you'd hear if you played your records in reverse in the old days, you get this--

The final fantastic element is that Jack recorded Edgar reading the words in reverse order (as heard above).  Reversing things for a third and last time through transcription reveals the original poem—

Hunger and Light. I’m going in my sleep to the Galaxy Deli for a bacon and egg sandwich. I must cross daylight to get it. I went to the Galaxy Deli in my sleep. I crossed the Egyptian daylight on 3rd Avenue, fearing death at every step, but exalting in the sun on the mud in the street. This was not dreaming. I really crossed that Styx, and came back with two bacon and egg sandwiches, both for me and some for my cats, who are driven mad by the smell, as am I, of bacon and sunlight. The day, like a beautifully fried egg, sits coolly on a blue plate. Today is a blue plate special. I’ll go swimming around the rim and drown in my hunger. Sun sets a gold eye on a fly, hungry for everything glinting in the mud. It’s today in my dream. Cruelly today. Today I will eat the last bite.

Now that I'm able to comprehend it, I find it beautiful in every direction.  What leaves me most excited about it, though, is wondering how on earth Jack came up with the Triple Reverse idea.  How many people's minds work like that?  It's obvious that his brain is on a different plane than those of average individuals.  I've joked at one of the message boards dedicated to him that if you opened up his head, instead of a mass of grey matter like the rest of us have, you'd find a gyroscope spinning at breakneck speed, spitting out ideas like lightning.  Though the lightning image makes it more appropriate, probably, to compare Jack's brain to a Tesla coil like the one displayed on the roof of Third Man Records, or the one he showed off in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee And Cigarettes--

Clearly, the spark gaps of the Tesla coil inside Jack's head have always been adjusted for overdrive performance and that's something for which we should all be thankful.  The music world would be a damned dull place without him in it.

Note: Bearing in mind how he seems to feel about his tangible creations being turned into internet ephemera, I debated for several days whether to post the videos and translation of Hunger And Light.  In the end, I decided it was worth risking Jack's displeasure in order to demonstrate to the few people who read this just how insanely creative he is.  If anyone affiliated with Third Man Records should happen to stumble across this and feel that it should be removed, by all means please let me know.

December 19, 2011

I'm gonna sing this song, An I ain't goin' to sing no mo'

Finally made the pilgrimage to Skip James' gravesite at the Merion Memorial Park outside of Philadelphia.  

Merion's a fairly small cemetery but it sprawls down a hillside, so I decided to make things easy on myself by asking in the office where to find Nehemiah James.  The two older white folks working the office couldn't seem to find him in their register, but when I mentioned he had been a musician also known as Skip James, a lightbulb went off.  They sent me back outside to ask one of the groundskeepers, a young, dreadlocked black guy who knew right away who I was talking about and who was very happy to walk down the hill with me, chatting along the way about blues music and what it's like to work in a cemetery full of Canada geese (and their droppings).  Then he left me alone to sit in front of Skip's headstone and smoke and think about the man, the music he made, and how he came to be buried in Pennsylvania rather than in some cypress grove in the Delta. 

Here's hoping you've been resting in more peace than you had in life, Skip.

December 18, 2011

Welcome to the "Middle of Everywhere"

Take a step back with me, would you please?  Back to a time several decades ago, a time that was both simple and yet, in many ways, every bit as complex as those we live in now.  It's a very easy time to romanticize.  The music of that era is very different from what's produced these days-- It's one of the simpler elements of those years and contributes mightily to that sheen of romance, but it's pretty well overlooked by a majority of today's contemporary music listeners.  There are a handful of artists out there, though, who not only appreciate this music but do everything they can to keep it alive and vital.  One of those groups is Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, and I'd like to introduce you to 'em.

I first heard of these fellas via the 7" single they cut for Third Man Records earlier this year--  A tune with the tongue-twisting title "Chitlin' Cookin' Time In Cheatham County", backed with the just as terrific "Pack It Up".  Their vintage look and traditional roots sound got me curious, but one particular recommendation from a conversation at a message board I frequent intrigued me even more-- "[Pokey] inhabits the authentic essence of the old music but carries it on with original lyrics and tunes. imagine alan lomax combining all the dna of american music and injecting it into this slight lad from south st louis..."  That's a kicker, folks.  Few people have done more to preserve and promote true American music than Alan Lomax did throughout his career, so the idea that this group could possibly distill the spirit of Lomax's work within their songs was compelling.  Think of the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" embodied by four very young men from St. Louis, Missouri, and you begin, just begin, to get the picture.

So I began reading about them and watching videos here and there (NPR, especially, has a terrific archive of Pokey and SC3 material).  I loved the idea of the group, but didn't quite connect.  Until, that is, I found out that they would be opening for the Raconteurs' first performance in three years at Third Man Records in Nashville in September--  I wanted badly to attend that show just to see the Racs, but had missed the tickets that sold out immediately.  Hemmed and hawed about spending a couple hundred dollars via eBay, plus the price of a plane ticket, and then heard that these guys would be the opening act.  They were the deciding factor, as my gut told me that this was a combination not to be missed.

Well, I'm happy to tell you, my gut was dead right.  Seeing this band live made all the difference in the world.  Their sound is one thing, but their performances are quite another.  They are consummately professional and meticulously talented, both smoothly polished and raucously fun at the same time.  Not to mention, endearing to a fault.  Pokey is a little guy with a huge voice, who plays rhythm on a beautiful old parlor guitar and occasionally hangs an amplified kazoo from his neck to add a snazzy accompaniment to various tunes.

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Ryan Koenig gives Pokey some serious competition for the spotlight on just about every tune, alternating entertainingly delivered accompanying vocals with some of the most intense harmonica going, then putting down his harp and strapping on his homemade washboard, complete with dishes and a bell, which is fascinating to watch.

Photo from

Photo from

The self-effacingly self-described "rhythm kings" of the band are Adam Hoskins on guitar and Joey Glynn on standup bass.  I'd never seen anyone play standup bass before this band and really looked forward to the experience. Checking out Joey's bass on the stage before the show began at Third Man, I wondered how the heck you got sound out of string like that-- The lower strings looked practically like twine.  When he started slapping away, I was spellbound by the thumping beat he created.

Photo by Corey Warner

But some of my favorite moments came from Adam Hoskins and his gorgeous vintage acoustic guitar.  When he jokingly referred to himself as one of the "rhythm kings" of the band, he was actually way off base.  He plays some of the most beautifully articulate guitar I've yet heard, with perfectly clean technique whether he's finger-picking notes or sliding a bottle-neck along the frets.  (And talk about endearing-- When I saw the band again, as described below, it was mentioned during the show that Adam had just bought himself a $3,000 vintage Gibson.  When I asked him about it afterward, I was struck by not only how eager he was to get it set up and be able to play it live, but also by his comment that it was the first guitar he'd bought himself with money that he'd earned by playing guitar. It was sweet to see just how gratifying this was for him.) 

Photo by Ryan Leith

So I came home from Nashville and immediately ordered a copy of their most recent record, Middle of Everywhere.  The album is terrific.  But, as fun and fantastic as the music is, the attitude behind it is what makes it real and significant, not just a campy bit of fluffy entertainment.  In the liner notes, Pokey talks about just what this style of music means to him--

...When jazz, blues and country took off early on, where the artists came from was as much of the music as the music itself,  that framework giving deep meaning and relevance to what they were saying and playing.  While the old music may have origins in regions and communities, it's been grabbed hold of and evolved as it's spread across America.  For me, the point is to find my place in this changing landscape and continue to express myself speaking the language of the old music while holding on to the roots.

It's that compulsion to keep this music alive rather than just to recreate it that makes it essential listening for anyone who cares about the history of American music.  Even if it's not your bag, it's hard to deny that maintaining that "language of the old music" is a worthwhile undertaking for young contemporary artists like Pokey and the South City fellas.  Like losing any other historic language, for this music that's so rich in history and culture to go extinct would be a sad and unnecessary loss

I followed the show in Nashville a few weeks later with a, get this, free show at Hill Country BBQ in Washington, DC, where I danced, talked to a couple of the boys in the band, and picked up a cd of their earlier record, Riverboat Soul.  The crowd at Hill Country packed the downstairs bar/performance area and was apparently full of friends and long-time fans of the band, and the atmosphere of the over-two-hour long show was joyous.  These boys work hard and seem to enjoy every drop of sweat they put into their performance as much as their audiences do.  If you get the chance to go see 'em, do yourself a favor and do so.  I intend to every chance I get.

Pack It Up at the Watermelon Park Festival in Berryville, VA, a show I would have attended if it hadn't been an hour and a half away and pouring down rain when I left work that night.  Comments from the audience at Hill Country BBQ made me very sorry I'd missed it--

So, now that we've stepped back, let's follow Pokey and the boys and step forward to keep the wonderful traditions of this music alive.  As Pokey says, "We'll see you down the road..."  Let's just hope it's a long one.

October 28, 2011

Back to Mississippi: Exploring the Delta, part II

Freaking hell, it was cold in Clarksdale when I woke up on this day.  And still grey as a tomb, though the sun ended up breaking through the clouds after I got on the road and headed along the very scenic way towards Tennessee and Nashville.

After the same breakfast as yesterday again at the Rest Haven, I steered the Shark up route 6 to route 55 with the plan to stop in Como on the way to Senatobia in order to find the gravesite of Mississippi Fred McDowell.  Como's so small it didn't even have a stoplight, but it did have Blues Trail markers for both Fred and fife master Otha Turner.  Fred's mentioned that he was buried north of town at Hammond Hill Missionary Baptist Church on Hammond Hill Road, but the young guy at the gas station where I asked didn't know where it was.  Just for shits'n'giggles, I decided to head up route 51, which parallels the larger, four lane route 55 up to Senatobia.  Went a little ways looking for Hammond Hill Road, but when I crossed into the next county it seemed that I was on the wrong side of the north end of Como.  So I decided to turn around and head back to check out the other side of town.  Picked a random side road in which to pull a u-turn and, lo and behold, there was a sign for Hammond Hill M.B. Church that wasn't visible from the direction I'd been headed.  

That road ended at a T intersection, but there were no more signs specifying a direction to the church.  Made another random decision and headed right (The first sign said "keep right", right?).  About a mile down, tucked next to a crossroad between pine and sweetgum woods on one side and empty fields on the other, was Hammond Hill M.B., with the cemetery on the hill across the street.  I always get a hell of a kick out of such serendipitous discoveries.

Hammond Hill cemetery had many of the same style of home-made headstones I'd seen yesterday at Charley Patton's gravesite, in addition to newer ones on which much more money has obviously been spent.

From Como, the Shark and I headed up to Senatobia, then juked east toward Holly Springs to see if I could find a record shop listed on the Mississippi Music Tourist Sites map-- Aikei Pro's (Pronounced "ecky", as in "ecky thump". Some of you will catch the White Stripes connection...)  Stopped first to choke down the worst fried green tomato po'boy in the history of southern cooking (fried green tomatoes should be breaded, not battered), then asked at the lunch counter if they could direct me to the street where the shop was located.  The woman who worked there didn't have any idea, and when she asked a local who'd come in to pick up carryout, we were told that the record store had closed.  I went back out and drove around anyway, and within five minutes had found both the old town cemetery (of course, I have a built-in radar for these things) and Aikei Pro's.  Wondered whether perhaps the woman at the lunch counter was correct, because when I peeked in the door it appeared that there were piles of records and magazines and Lord knows what other sorts of junk leaning up against each other just inside.

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It was hard to tell if there were any signs of life inside, though.  Started to head back to the car, where a down'n'out local started to pester me for a ride to somewhere, when the door of the shop opened and out squeezed a college-aged white girl and a grizzled little old black man.  After she thanked him and wandered off, I squeezed as far in as I could get (which was about one foot), said hello to the grizzled guy and told him I'd heard this was the place to come for good records.  He laughed and started talking, and it was an hour before I got myself back into the car.  Mr. Caldwell talked to me about how there's no such thing as hill country blues-- That's something created by the white folk because they came along and wanted to be a part of things.  All blues are delta blues, no matter whether the musician playing them came from Mississippi or Texas. He went on to describe his experience of coming to Mississippi from Kentucky after serving a handful of years in the army in Europe-- After being called a nigger for the first time in his life and being told to go back where he'd come from, he decided that, no sir, he was going to stay put.  In his time in Holly Springs, he's since seen them desegregate the local schools and elect a black mayor. I can't help but think that he had at least a little to do with that.  But he also told me that if we went back to the lunch counter that very afternoon and ordered coffee, that he wouldn't be served.  I'd like to think that's not true, but we didn't put it to the test.  In hindsight, perhaps I should have offered to buy him a cup.  He's apparently also pretty famous amongst blues aficionados (he showed me a couple of magazine articles he's been interviewed for), as well as a good friend of Junior Kimbrough.  The one thing I could actually see in the shop that I wanted to buy was a record of Junior's up on the wall, but Mr. Caldwell told me that album wasn't for sale for any price. I'm unable to embed the video from this link, but you have to go and watch it in order get a feel for the place and the man-- Portrait of a Record Dealer: Holly Springs, MS - Aikei Pro's. (If the video there doesn't work, go here. Or check the one below that I found when updating/editing this post on 3/13/2017)

Back on the way towards Tennessee, the empty roads I'd become used to began to fill up with more and more traffic.  By the time I got to Nashville, it was well after dark, I was hungry, tired, and pissed off at being challenged on the highway by assholes in SUVs.  Much as I was looking forward to the plans I had for N'ville, couldn't help but wish I was back down in the Delta at the Shack Up Inn, listening to that cold wind blow outside the windows.

Complete set of photos from this trip, here.

October 27, 2011

Back to Mississippi: Exploring the Delta, part I

It's a cold, grey day in Clarksdale.  I've returned for a more extensive visit than last year's, back again at the Shack Up Inn, but with a different ride.  Lucifer the Pony, a black Mustang, has been replaced by a silver Camaro that, with it's wide mouth-like grillwork and side "gills", reminds me of a shark.

The weather, though, is just as unsettled as last year.  Woke up this morning to the sound of wind whipping around outside the windows of my Cadillac Shack.  Broke the night's fast at the Rest Haven restaurant, smoking a cigar while waiting for two eggs sunny-side up with a pork chop, surrounded by good ol' boys who were all also puffing away while waiting for their meals.  Smoking in restaurants is enough of a novelty these days, at least where I come from, but is even more exotic before breakfast.  Reminded me of my crotchety grandfather who began each day with coffee and a cigarette, which was soon followed up with the first of many Budweisers.  But back to Clarksdale-- The topics of conversation among the Rest Haven regulars that morning ranged from deer hunting to ant and roach control.  A handful of Japanese tourists then wandered in and squeezed into the booth in front of mine to complete the scenario.  William Least-Heat Moon wrote in Blue Highways that the more calendars on the wall in little country restaurants, the greater the guarantee of good food.  Rest Haven has only one calendar, but I've now had the same breakfast there three times and the pork chop has been perfect every time.  So much for Least-Heat Moon's rule.

Headed into downtown Clarksdale, such as it is, to re-visit the Delta Blues Museum, then stopped in Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero blues club for a post-breakfast Coke and peach cobbler.  Perhaps it's ignorance or snobbery on my part, but I just don't think much of Freeman's place.  His intentions are good, but it's like Bourbon Street is to New Orleans-- You get only a gloss of the real thing, a touristified version.  I'm sure the music booked at Ground Zero is very good, but the atmosphere, with the encouraged graffiti of visitors on every bare bit of wall and ceiling and the studied dilapidation, is just too cheesy for me.  And their peach cobbler leaves much to be desired.

While spooning up the gooey, soggy cobbler, I sat and contemplated the scribbles all over the bar and the wall behind it.  What is with the need people have to write on walls, anyway?  From graffiti to bathroom stalls to places like Ground Zero, where it's encouraged, to the shacks at the Shack Up Inn, where it's specifically not-- Is it some sort of cry for attention?  Or perhaps, on a deeper level, a fear of mortality?  So many people seem to have the need to be seen, recognized, remembered, even if it's only by anonymous strangers.  They need to leave a bit of themselves for eternity, even though their graffiti'd scribbles represent nothing worth being remembered for.  Though as I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps it's not all that different from babbling to the anonymous interwebs in some blog...

Braced by breakfast and the double shot of sugar from Coke and cobbler, I mapped a route around the Delta that headed east and then south on 49, east on 8, south on 7, then west on 82 to loop back towards the Mississippi River, north a ways along 1, and then back over to Clarksdale, then queued up the soundtrack for my wanderings--  John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Son House, and the White Stripes Live in Mississippi.  The last is significant because it was their final show as a band and was, ironically in light of Jack's deep love of Delta blues, the first and only one they ever played in Mississippi, at a venue between Clarksdale and Memphis.  John Lee's Boogie Chillun was the band's walk-on music to begin the show, and after a moody, brooding version of Death Letter, Jack very touchingly thanked Son House for letting him finally come home.  He ended that last show by saying God bless you to both House and Robert Johnson, and so I felt it was fitting and necessary to include this album in the day's listening.

Stopped at a convenience store outside of Tutwiler for a package of dill pickle-flavored sunflower seeds and couldn't help but compare the real dilapidation of empty store fronts next door to the faux effects at Ground Zero.  The faces of a handful of older gentlemen lounging outside matched the buildings, but the freshly mopped floor of the bathroom inside the convenience store was spotless and had just enough of a bleach aroma to smell clean as a sunny day. 

I feel alien in places like this, with my fast rental car and my rock'n'roll attire, having slept comfortably the night before in a restored version of the sort of sharecropper's shacks that still line many of the roads down here.  What am I documenting when I snap photos around here?  I've felt the same thing driving through certain neighborhoods of Baltimore back home.  Am I romanticizing a place and people I don't fully understand?  My family was pretty poor when I was a kid and I'm far from well off now, so I have some idea of what it's like.  But this seems to be a level of poverty I've never experienced anywhere near firsthand.  Or is life around here really not as hard-scrabble as I imagine based on appearances?  What's the reality?  Without living it the way these people do, I'll likely never know, and that leaves me uncomfortable about pulling out the camera in these spots where I find a sort of desperate beauty and picturesqueness.

Heading down South 49W towards the site of the notorious Parchman Farm, you pass a sign that reads "Penitentiary area.  Emergency stopping only next 2 miles."  And yet there's a Blues Trail marker directly across the road from the prison, which is now the Mississippi State Penitentiary.  Of course I pulled over to snap a photo of the sign, then turned my head to look across the street and found a handful of inmates, in their distinctive green and white striped pants, lounging near the gate and watching the crazy tourist who wasn't supposed to stop.  One of the more notable inmates of Parchman was Son House, who spent two years there supposedly for killing a man in self-defense, though there is apparently some debate over the accuracy of that story.


Between stops, the Shark and I rolled past the ubiquitous, endless cotton fields of the Delta, which is not as monotonous as you might think.  Fallow fields of empty dirt rows alternated with harvested fields bordered with huge rectangular bales of compressed cotton, along which the roads were scattered with loose, dusty white puffs.  Occasionally you pass an unharvested field in full bloom and the white of the cotton against the brown of the plant stems creates a silvery shimmer that, on this day, mirrored the grey of the cloudy sky above.

Unfortunately, I got so caught up in the joy of moving fast on un-trafficked backroads that I missed the turn to the church where Mississippi John Hurt is buried outside of Avalon.  Wanted to also find Robert Johnson's gravesite (the official one, according to the Mississippi Music Tourist Sites map I was using as a reference), but drove around Greenwood without finding the right road.

Looked for something to eat while in Greenwood, too, but there appeared to be nothing except the usual fast food and chain restaurants.  Until I got to the edge of town and caught sight of a little shack with smoke pouring out of the side of the building and a bunch of cars out front.  Turned out to be the Rib Shack, of which Johnny Edwards is head chief (according to his business card).  I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw and a side of baked beans.  Would have sat right there in the car to eat it, but felt I was providing a bit too much entertainment for the locals.  One gentleman asked if I was from around there.  When I said no, he confirmed that he didn't think so, 'cause he didn't think he'd seen a Camaro around town.  When my food was ready, I headed down the road and found an empty public park, where I sat and had a very windy picnic of gloriously succulent pork.  If you ever find yourself in Greenwood, MS, be sure to look around for Johnny's shack. 

One pilgrimage site I did manage to find was the gravesite of Charley Patton, in a sad excuse for a cemetery next to Hicks Cotton Gin outside of Holly Ridge.  Just a scrubby field scattered with graves, many with nothing but a small, plain white cross, some unmarked at all, and a few collapsed to the point that you'd fall in if you weren't watching where you were walking.  Most touching of all, for a reason I can't define, were the plain concrete slabs that had name and dates of birth and death scratched in by hand, like the way people scratch their names into freshly poured concrete on a sidewalk.  There was something very caring about those headstones, despite the bleak simplicity of them.

Wandered about for a bit, but the place was so disorganized that I couldn't find what I'd come for right off.  The wind began to push me back toward the car, but then a good ol' boy wandered over from the gin and asked if I was "looking for Charley".  The way he asked-- not "was I looking for Charley Patton", but "looking for Charley"-- was so disarming I couldn't help but smile.  He pointed me in the right direction and walked with me a bit, asking where I was from, then headed back over to work while I trudged the rest of the way through the dusty grass to the spot.  Stood there looking at the headstone and accompanying empty bourbon bottle and tried to imagine the slight, ornery man with the growling voice and flamboyant playing style.  Patton was one of the first precursors to today's modern rock stars, though few of those rock stars probably realize it.  I couldn't help but wonder how Charley might've felt if he'd had any clue that people like me would make pilgrimages to his grave in the heart of the Delta, eighty years and more after his death.

Ended the day back at Ground Zero for some passable electrified blues.  Decent stuff, but not as moving as Johnson's or House's acoustic blues or as mesmerizing as Hooker's groove or Patton's growl.  And certainly not as gut-wrenching as any version of the blues from the White Stripes, but decent enough for an evening's diversion.  Fell asleep worn out from hours of driving, listening again to the wind blowing around the edges of the windows of the shack.

Full set of photos from the trip, here

October 10, 2011

Why don't you just take the night, wrap it all around me

I've written before about my fascination with the effect music can have on us.  I've read one book on the topic so far that unfortunately fell short of a satisfying explanation, and am currently in the midst of two others (Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia and Robert Jourdain's Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy)  in the hopes that at least one of them will provide more insight.  I want to understand this--  How can certain combinations of chords, melody, rhythm and, specifically for me, voice and words, sweep us to such intense heights of emotion?  How can a mere song inspire an addictive craving to hear it over and over and over again?  If anyone out there knows... please, explain it to me.

The latest song to have this effect on me is one that I first heard about a few weeks ago, when it was announced that Q Magazine was releasing a special issue including a bonus cd in tribute to U2's Achtung Baby.  Amongst the artists covering tracks from the original album was Jack White.  I immediately pulled up a video of U2's original to get an idea of what he'd be working with.

Took one listen for me to fall in love with the song.  I've never been an outright fan of U2, but this and other tunes like With Or Without You stir every romantic yearning I've ever had.  The blend of words, Bono's voice, and the music effectively brings me to tears.

But tonight... Tonight Jack's cover version was leaked onto the internet and moved me in a way I think nothing I've ever heard before has.  So many elements of it are typical of his style--  The interplay of acoustic and electric guitar, the high pitched vocals, the drama... but, at the same time, it's so very different from anything he's done before.  In this one song he's taken every one of those familiar elements to a higher level than I've heard from him before.  The man is known for passionate performances, most famously on the White Stripes cover of Jolene and the Raconteurs' Blue Veins, but this one contains a sustained tension and passion that tops anything I've heard from him yet.  As incredible as his own songwriting is, he's got a brilliantly uncanny ability to take other people's words and music and transform them into something so much more powerful than the original artist created.  I've been left with my eyes wide, my jaw dropped and my heart pounding, and I can't stop listening to it.   

Love is blindness
I don't want to see
Won't you wrap the night
Around me
Oh my heart
Love is blindness

In a parked car
In a crowded street
You see your love
Made complete
Thread is ripping
The knot is slipping
Love is blindness

Love is clockworks
And cold steel
Fingers too numb to feel
Squeeze the handle
Blow out the candle
Love is blindness

Love is blindness
I don't want to see
Won't you wrap the night
Around me
Oh my love

A little death
Without mourning
No call
And no warning
Baby...a dangerous idea
That almost makes sense

Love is drowning
In a deep well
All the secrets
And no one to tell
Take the money

Love is blindness
I don't want to see
Won't you wrap the night
Around me
Oh my love

From, a review of the song that uses words like "devastating" and "stunning" that I didn't have the presence of mind to summon up: Listen To Jack White Cover U2's "Love Is Blindness"

September 19, 2011

Jack White's Ego, live and in person

Whatever assumptions you've made about this post based on the title, just go ahead and discard 'em now.  This will be a bit of a ramble, so please bear with me...

I saw Jack White last week. For those of you who don't know, the Raconteurs have reformed for a scant half-dozen shows this fall.  I bought tickets for two shows immediately when they went on sale, then agonized and changed my mind and agonized some more before dropping a silly amount of money on eBay for a ticket to a third-- at Jack's 'house', Third Man Records.  There was just no passing up the opportunity to see this band, one that I wasn't sure I'd ever see, at that location.  The place is too special. 

So last Wednesday I hopped a plane to Nashville and, upon arrival, headed straight downtown to line up outside TMR with a bunch of fellow fans. My timing turned out to be perfect, as I was close enough to the front of the line to end up at the edge of the stage in the same spot I had for each of the Dead Weather shows I saw last year-- right next to Jack's pedal board.  So close, in fact, that I had paranoid visions of knocking a cable loose and creating technical difficulties for him.  This didn't come to pass, fortunately, and paranoia ended up eclipsed by bliss.  

Here's where you need to begin bearing with me as I ramble--  Of the famed trio of bands in which Jack's been involved, I have to say that the White Stripes are far and away my favorite.  That's due in large part to the immensity of their catalog compared to the other two, but also to the mesmerizing interaction between Jack and Meg.  But my chance to see the Stripes live was lost before I ever had it and has to be fulfilled through a blessed bounty of recorded performances.  The third of the tripartite, the Dead Weather, was my introduction to Jack live, with four shows spread over the spring and summer of last year.  Each show was an incredible kick of adrenaline, but that rush was somewhat tempered by the fact that Jack was not the frontperson of the band.  So that left the Racs as the band that I've felt a compelling urge to experience, in order to see him up front, at a mic, with a guitar, for the duration of a show.  Imagine my thrill when this fall's shows were announced.

But there's another thing about the Raconteurs. It struck me at some point last year, while I was immersing myself in and digesting Jack's catalog, that this triad of bands is very loosely reflective of Sigmund Freud's concept of the Id, Ego, and Superego... 

The White Stripes may have been portrayed with a child-like element, but there was nothing childish about the way Jack approached the band.  Articles and interviews during the ten years they performed are full of references to the "box" he constrained himself within when writing their music, to his and Meg's intense work ethic, even to their apparent lack of typical rock star partying.  It was a rarity to read a cuss word in any of Jack's interviews during that time (though he'd loosened up quite a bit in that regard by their final year of touring, as evidenced in the Under Great White Northern Lights documentary).  He was a gentlemanly "brother" to Meg, his demure "sister".  Despite the inner complexities depicted in Jack's lyrics, they were characterized as just about the most clean-living, well-mannered, moral rock band conceivable.  They were, in many ways, Jack's Superego, "persuading [his] ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones, and to strive for perfection". 

Id, on the other hand, "operates on the Pleasure Principle, which is the idea that every wishful impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of the consequences".  Listening to even a handful of their songs makes it quite obvious that this was the driving element of the Dead Weather's music.  Whether it was Alison Mosshart's influence or something that she and Jack brought out in each other, I've no idea.  But he took on a sometimes almost frighteningly dark persona in that band, which manifested itself not only in the music but also, towards the end of last year's tour, in his behavior on stage.  

Which leaves us with the Raconteurs and Jack's Ego.  Freud's use of that word was very different from the definition most people apply to it.  In his concept of the psyche, "Ego controls higher mental processes such as reasoning and problem-solving, which it uses to solve the Id-Superego dilemma, creatively finding ways to safely satisfy the Id's basic urges within the constraints of the Superego".  The Raconteurs strike me as Jack's balancing act between the Superego of the White Stripes and the Id of the Dead Weather.  While Freud's concept is much more complex, when taken on a simplistic level, it's not a stretch to see this band as the one in which the tensions of the other two are resolved and Jack becomes grounded and, dare I say it, even relaxed.  The interaction with Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence, and Patrick Keeler, combined with the quiet skill of Brendan's songwriting contribution, seems to create a musical equilibrium Jack's not had in either of the other bands.  This is what was apparent to me at the two shows I attended last week.

The tone of the TMR show began with the opening act, Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, four of the most authentic roots musicians and charmingly goofy showmen you could ever hope to see.  They had us singing and smiling by the end of the first song, which was the perfect state in which to experience the Raconteurs when they hit the stage and began to blow us away (which I unfortunately can't share with you, as video and photography are not allowed in the Third Man venue).  The Racs have been described as four friends who got together to make music, and it was so obvious all night long that that's still what they are. And to be making music on Jack's own stage had to leave them feeling as giddy as it did all of us in the audience.  While the setlist was short because the show was being recorded (to be pressed to vinyl for some as-yet-unspecified future release), it was augmented during the reel changes by Jack and Brendan telling stories of when they first met.  The smiles up on that stage were almost non-stop, and the band's performance was both loose and intensely electric.  

Three days later, I followed the Racs to Michigan for the inaugural MI-Fest.  I'm not a fan of festivals.  There are just too many people making it that much more difficult to get to the front of the stage.  But this was originally announced as the only show the Raconteurs were going to play, so I jumped to get a ticket and make arrangements to fly to Michigan.  I won't go into the chaos created by the promoters leading up to the event because, for my intents, everything worked out just fine.  The location was beautiful, the weather was gorgeous, the people I hung out with throughout the day were great fun, and, yet again, I ended up in almost exactly my favored spot at the front of the stage-- granted the stage was over six feet from the ground and the pit between it and the barrier was at least ten feet, but I still had as good a view as I could have hoped for.  And the band was worth every one of the eight hours (ten, for some folks) my compatriots and I spent waiting for them.  What this show lacked in the intimacy provided at Third Man was made up for by the extended setlist that included songs I'd sorely missed hearing on Wednesday night.  But you don't have to take my word for it.  There were a lot of phones and cameras in the audience that night, for which I will be forever grateful (one person, in particular, filmed some wonderfully high quality footage).  My own personal favorite songs of the night--

Top Yourself--


Broken Boy Soldier. Note the dangling guitar string, which apparently broke just as Jack began the song--

Steady As She Goes--

Blue Veins. Listen for the note Jack holds at the end of "don't mean nothin'..." I've not heard him do anything like that in any show or live recording I've listened to, and it made my hair stand on end--

And, finally, Carolina Drama. It's not complete and you need to keep the sound low due to distortion. But, man, it sure looks good--

These two shows fulfilled every expectation I had for this band. They were energetic and powerful and, most of all, full of an extraordinary joyfulness.  Just writing about them has put a huge grin on my face.  And the best part is that I've got a ticket to see the Racs again in Atlanta in November, their final show until who knows when.  At that point, I'll have completed a trio of shows for the band that is, in so many ways, the most glorious of Jack's triad.  His Ego's a beautiful thing.

More reviews --

Live Review: The Raconteurs at Nashville’s Third Man Records, Consequence of Sound

The Inaugural MI Fest, krewechief's Live Music Blog

Raconteurs End Three-Year Hiatus at MI Fest, Spin Magazine


August 25, 2011

I used to have some friends, but they wished that I were dead

From a mural at the old train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi
What is it about the blues?  I'm learning that once you get into them, you can't easily get out.  They do more than just move you, they suck you in to the point that casual listening becomes pretty much an impossibility.  But to figure out what it is about them, it's helpful first of all to know what they are, and that's apparently an even more difficult question to answer.  Somehow, the music doesn't seem as easily defined as some other genres, which is part of what makes its impact a mysterious thing.  I've read a handful of books about the blues at this point and a couple of them go far beyond the basic "12 bars, AAB rhyme scheme" definition to actually attempt to determine what's behind the most commonly accepted ideals of this music.  Those attempts head in some unexpected directions. 

In In Search of the Blues, Marybeth Hamilton goes looking for what she calls "the authentic origins of the blues" and comes back with some interesting conclusions.  Describing her thoughts upon looking at a photograph she'd taken during her trip through the Mississippi Delta, she says "Every landscape is a work of the mind, shaped by the memories and obsessions of its observers."  Replace the word 'landscape' with 'song' and that one sentence pretty much sums up the gist of her book, as she goes on to discuss how the blues was not shaped so much by the musicians who played it as it was by the white people who sold it then, later, studied it and, later still, revived it.  From the record label talent scouts of the 20s and 30s, to Alan Lomax in the 40s, aficionados such as James McKlune in the 50s, John Fahey and Brit rockers like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton in the 60s, and even, I would add, all the way up through the early 2000s and Jack White's determination with the White Stripes to "trick teenaged girls into singing Son House"--  It has been people like these who've shaped what the term "blues music" brings to mind.

While the true roots of the blues are generally considered vague and undetermined, its earliest popular incarnation was embodied by full band-accompanied performers singing well-crafted and sophisticated numbers.  Women such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Mamie Smith were considered the queens of blues music.  Band leader W.C. Handy claims to have discovered the blues, but his interpretations of it bear no more resemblance to the genre's current definition than what was crooned by the queens.  And even within the commonly recognized genre, there's variety.  The early
Mississippi Delta/country blues of Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson migrated north to become the electrified Chicago blues of Muddy Waters and B.B. King, which were eventually usurped by the white boy blues of musicians like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Charlie Musselwhite. It goes on and on.  Jazzmen such as Jelly Roll Morton even traced a strong connection to the blues, tangling the skein even further.  What it all really boils down to, if you look at it objectively, is that defining what the blues is and what its effects are becomes a highly subjective and personal thing.

My own preferences in blues music were originally inspired by and continue to be influenced by Jack White.  A quick look through the blues tunes he's covered reveals an extensive knowledge of the genre-- He's run a gamut through the Mississippi Sheiks, Charlie Jordan, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Tampa Red, Tommy Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson...  But it's obvious that he's got a special reverence for the old Mississippi Delta guys such as Johnson, Patton, and, most of all, Son House.  What is it about that particular style of blues that he so loves?  From what he's said in interviews and how he's crafted his own music, it would seem to be something along the lines of how Hamilton described the singing of these musicians in In Search of the Blues--  '... it was "rough, spontaneous, crude and unfinished," dominated by "stark, unrelieved emotion"...'  Even the most polished of Jack's tunes contain elements of that rough spontaneity and stark emotion.  And it's even more apparent when he performs live that he's channeling exactly what the blues mean to him.  Since his own music has moved me so intensely, it's not surprising that I'm also moved by what inspires him.  As a result, my own fast-growing collection of blues records runs straight through the heart of the Delta.

One thing that does surprise me, though, is that I've yet to find evidence that Jack's ever paid homage to one of the most hard-core Delta musicians of all--  Skip James.  So my intro to Skip came via a detour from Jack to a record label run by Jimmy Danger, who once played in the band Henry & June with one of Jack's buddies (this digression isn't as aimless as it seems, as Jack has also covered H & J's Goin' Back to Memphis, which is a fantastic modern day blues tune).  Danger Limited Records' Black Jesus 7" series was launched with a cover of Skip's Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues that blew me away.  So much so that I contacted Jimmy to ask him about the song.  Turns out Skip is one of his favorite bluesmen and his description intrigued the hell out of me--

There are many things that set him apart from his contemporaries. The main thing was his choice of tuning. He played primarily in an open D minor tuning. He was the only one at the time to adopt that style and there haven't been many to do it since. He was the master at it. The other often overlooked difference was his piano playing. He was just as good at piano as he was the guitar. His guitar songs are soo haunting. I think it is half the tone of his guitar and half the way he sang. His voice would be the third thing to make him so different. He sang in a high falsetto. If you buy anything by him make sure to pick up the 1931 Grafton Wisconsin sessions. It will change the way you hear the blues.

Well, I've yet to find a good copy of those Grafton sessions, but I did stumble upon another gem, one that hit me even harder once I learned the history behind it. The Biograph release of Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues was recorded in 1964, 20 or so years after the last time Skip had picked up a guitar, and after he'd been hospitalized for a horrendous case of cancer.  He was rediscovered that year in a Mississippi hospital by a group of Washington, D.C. blues fans including John Fahey, who brought him to D.C. where he ended up again in the hospital.  After more treatments, they eventually took him all the way to the Newport Jazz Festival, at which Skip's performance stood in stark contrast to that of previously rediscovered Mississippi John Hurt.  But in between, they took time to record the set of tunes on the Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues collection.  Two of those songs were specifically about Skip's time in that D.C. hospital, and they're two of the most heartbreaking songs I've ever heard---

Layin' sick, honey, on my bed
I'm layin' sick, honey, and on my bed
I'm layin' sick, honey, and on my bed
I used to have a few friends but they wished that I were dead
In awful pain and deep in misery
Awful pain and deep in misery
Awful pain and deep in misery
I ain't got nobody to come and see about me
And every dog, baby, got a day
And every dog, baby, got a day
Every dog, baby, got a day
But I said, "Please, ma'am, don't you treat me this-a way"
The doctor came, lookin' very sad
The doctor came, lookin' very sad
The doctor came, lookin' very sad
He diagnosed my case and said it was awful bad
He walked away, mumblin' very low
He said, "He may get some better but he'll never get well no more" 

I've got a long trip and I'm just too weak to ride
I've got a long trip and I'm just too weak to ride
I got a long trip and I'm just too weak to ride
Now it's a thousand people standin' at my bedside

I hollered, "Lord, oh Lord, Lord, Lordy, Lord
Oh Lordy, Lord, Lord, Lord
I been so badly misused and treated just like a dog"
I ain't gonna cry no more

I ain't gonna cry no more
I ain't gonna cry no more 
Cause down this road every traveler got to go 
I been on the ocean, I been across the sea
Been on the ocean, I been across the sea
Been on the ocean, I been across the sea
I ain't found nobody would feel my sympathy

You take a stone, you can bruise my bone
You take a stone and you can bruise my bone
You take a stone and you can bruise my bone
But you sure gonna miss me when I'm dead and gone


In the hospital, now

In Washington D.C.
Ain't got nobody
To see about me

But I was a good man
But I was a poor man
You can understand

All the doctors
And nurses, too
They came and they asked me
'Who in the world are you?'

I says, I'm a good man
But I'm a poor man
You can understand

The doctors and nurses
They shakin' their head
Said, 'Take this poor man
And put him to bed'

Because he's a good man
We know he's a poor man
We can understand

I didn't go hungry
I had plenty to eat
I had good treatment
And a place to sleep

Because I was a good man
They knew I was a poor man
They could understand

I met a little damsel
She promised me
That she would love me
And always be sweet

She found out I was a poor man
And I thought I was a good man
She couldn't understand, no

Now, when she left me
She got in the door
She waved me, good-bye
I haven't seen her no more

She found out I was a good man
She knew I was a poor man
She couldn't understand

The doctors and nurses
They shakin' my hand
Say, 'You can go home now, Skip
You's a sound, well man'

Because you's a good man
You's a poor man
We can understand

I's thankin' my doctor
And I was shakin' his hand
I'm gone play these, 'Hospital Blues'
'Till you's a wealthy man'

You took me as a good man
You knew I was a poor man
You could understand

You know I was a good man
But I'm a poor man
You can understand

That, right there. That's what it is about the blues.  Get it?  Now see if you can get out.