Friday, December 28, 2007

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison

“Hi, I’m Johnny Cash . . .” It has been 40 years since Johnny Cash walked onto the stage in the Folsom Prison cafeteria and said these words, kicking off his historic and groundbreaking concert. There is a great deal of myth surrounding Johnny Cash, much of it promoted by The Man In Black himself. One undeniable fact is that Cash’s live album, At Folsom Prison, is one of the great live recordings of all time. The record was, in fact, added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2003. The record was also recorded 40 years ago, on January 13, 1968. To my mind, At Folsom is the apex of Johnny Cash’s early career, the way the American Recordings he made with Rick Ruben represent the end of his career.

If you have seen the film, Walk the Line, you can get a bit of a sense of what it must have been like to record at Folsom Prison. Folsom was the last stop for hardened criminals in California. However, the film does take a few liberties. For instance, Cash was not, as the movie would lead you to believe, totally free of drugs at the time of the concert. He was certainly not incapacitated by drugs the way he once was. But drug free? No. This is well documented in the excellent book Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Streissguth. Streissguth has also written a great biography of Johnny Cash that takes an honest look at Cash’s life, trying to see clearly through the myth. In addition, while Cash does comment on the prison’s water with a pretty colorful description, he does not in address the warden or smash the glass of water on the stage as the film depicts.

But why record a concert in a prison? For Johnny Cash, there were a few reasons. He certainly had an emotional connection to the folks in prison. He once met with Richard Nixon to discuss prison reform. In his autobiography he described how he tried to represent “voices that were ignored or even suppressed in the entertainment media, not to mention the political and educational establishments.” There was also, certainly, a connection to Cash’s religious beliefs involved in this. He was very clear to point out, however, that he wasn’t a Christian artist. He was, “an artist who is a Christian.”

Beyond the aforementioned reasons, Cash also, needed a hit record. His years of drug abuse had taken its toll on both the publics’ view of him and his finances. Clive Davis who was the head of CBS Records, Cash’s label at the time, thought the idea of recording a concert at Folsom—in the prison cafeteria, to hardened inmates—was a terrible idea. He thought it wouldn’t sell. As Cash wrote in his liners notes, he knew that a “prison would be the place to record an album live.” And he was right. Not only did it sell, it sold a lot. It went Gold and it was his best-selling album up to that point. And it sold at a time when, even talking into account Cash’s relationship with Bob Dylan, his music was not in fashion. This was 1968: a year before Woodstock, the Vietnam War was raging; campus protests were prevalent. However, concern and compassion for prisoners was not a part of the philosophy of that time.

But in the end what makes this recording so great is the music. There is immediacy and an edge to At Folsom Prison that draws the listener into the experience. Two songs among all of the great tracks highlight this album: the opener, “Folson Prison Blues,” and “Greystone Chapel.” “Greystone Chapel” was written by an inmate at Folsom and Johnny Cash just learned the song the day before the concert. There is also purity to the recording. With the notable exception of the dubbing of a cheer from an inmate in the audience when Cash sang his famous line, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” the record really captures the experience and sound of the concert—of a performer climbing his way back to the top and an audience with nothing left to loose.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Joe Strummer Remembered

''Whether it's jazz or punk or anything else, you have to fight against the purists who want to narrow the definition. That's what kills music because it stifles it to death.''

''The way you get a better world is, you don't put up with substandard anything.''

It was just before Christmas five years ago, in 2002 that I heard the news that Joe Strummer had died. He died young of a heart attack. He was only fifty years old. When I saw the news on The New York Times website, I was shocked. One of my musical heroes was gone.

Do you remember some of the music that changed your life? For me it was The Clash. When I was fourteen, I heard Give 'Em Enough Rope. On vinyl, of course. Then there was London Calling, Sandinista, and the rest. All of these connected with me and seemed to carry a focus greater than much of the other punk rock music coming out at the time—which was strong on anger, but short on context. I was a developing punk rock kid, looking for a focus for my rebellion. And there it was with The Clash with Joe Strummer as its main singer and songwriter. And I have been listening to them ever since, for twenty some odd years.

Joe Strummer was born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey in 1952. He was the son of a British diplomat. As a child he moved to London and attended boarding school. As a young man Joe attended and dropped out of art school, lived in a squat, busked around London, formed the 101ers and then the co-founded The Clash in 1976. Ten years and the six albums later, The Clash broke up. In the late 1990s Strummer formed The Mescaleros. They were recording their fourth album when he died. In addition, there were many faxes going back and forth between the original members of The Clash about performing at their induction to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It seemed as though this was going to happen. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.

Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros, by the way, is a great band. Streetcore is the album that they were working on at the time of Strummer’s Death. It is well worth checking out, especially for Joe’s solo guitar version of “Redemption Song.”

But of course Joe Strummer is the best person to represent Joe Strummer. And of all of the quotes and statements he made, this is one of the best; and I think it directly connects to his vision of the world to his vision about music that is quoted at the top of this article. “People can change anything they want to . . . It’s time to take humanity back into the center of the ring . . without people you’re nothing.”

Biography and fact aside, what is it about Strummer and The Clash that have made me, and many others, keep listening after all these years? For one, the music still sounds totally fresh, and the anger and passion still timely. When the invasion of Iraq occurred, “I’m So Bored with the USA,” got a great deal of rotation in my listening. Also, unlike much of the music I listened to as a teenager, their music still connects and reminds me as Joe Strummer once drew in a cartoon, that the “Future is unwritten.”

And check out this tribute to Joe Strummer.

Here are some of my favorite The Clash and Joe Strummer songs in no particular order and certainly not exhaustive and totally my opinion.

London Calling: The Clash from London Calling

(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais: The Clash from The Clash

Coma Girl: Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros from Streetcore

Lost In The Supermarket: The Clash from London Calling

I’m So Bored With The USA: The Clash from The Clash

Stay Free: The Clash from Give ‘Em Enough Rope

Safe European Home: The Clash from Give ‘Em Enough Rope

All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts): The Clash from Give ‘Em Enough Rope

This Is England: The Clash from Cut the Crap

The Magnificent Seven: The Clash from Sandinista

Police On My Back: The Clash from Sandinista

The Street Parade: The Clash from Sandinista

Johnny Appleseed: Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros from Global A Go-Go

Redemption Song: Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros from Street Core

Redemption Song: Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash: From Johnny Cash’s Unearthed Box Set


Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Music of 2007

This post originally appeared in the Tompkins Weekly under the title, "Worth a Listen: Favorites from 2007"

It is that time of the year again:
the season of best of lists. I, for one, am completely addicted to year-end best of lists. So in the spirit of the occasion here is my offering. I, however, am not going to call my list, “The Best Music of 2007.” Music is far too personal and people’s tastes vary too greatly. Instead, I am going to offer up a listing of music, and a book, that had an impact on me this year. So, without further adieu, and in no particular order here it is.

Radiohead In Rainbows. There was a great deal of discussion about how this was released by Radiohead online. So as the dust settles from the tumult of the way Radiohead released the music and I listen regularly to In Rainbows, it is truly an excellent album. It deftly bridges the styles and elements the band has been exploring in its 7-album career. And, at a time, when so much of the music being released has no edge and no challenging elements, Radiohead pushes its listeners to follow them on their musical journey.

Wilco Sky Blue Sky.
“Maybe the sun will shine today.” These are the words that open Sky Blue Sky from the song “Either Way.” They are a perfect summary of Wilco’s music: beauty and dissonance coming together to craft some of the best rock music being released today. While the lyrics aren’t always clear, the way the musicians play together creates some marvelous layers that beg you to listen with headphones on.

Pearl Jam Live at Lollapalooza 2007. This iTunes only release finds Pearl Jam in blistering form. While the band also released a large live box set in 2007 chronicling their performances at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington State, this is the economical place to turn. This 21 song set is the fiery performance that closed the 3 day long Lollapalooza Festival in Chicago in August. The band blazes through a career spanning set that has all the elements of the personal and the political that have kept me listening to them. While Eddie Vedder is a great front man and Mike McCready is a totally underrated guitar player, what this performance really proves is that Pearl Jam is still relevant and playing compelling music.

Feist The Reminder. In some ways, 2007 was the year of Leslie Feist. She had arguably one of the most recognizable songs of the year with “1, 2, 3, 4.” For me this is usually not a complement. More often than not a song that has become ubiquitous is also just plain annoying. Not so with “1, 2, 3, 4” or with the rest of the album. The Reminder, filled with lovely well-crafted songs, has remained a staple of my listening since its release in May.

Battles Mirrored. I don’t usually listen to prog rock or math rock or however one might attempt, without much success, at defining Battles. The band’s music is mostly instrumental rock. What words there are in the music are pretty well integrated into the whole mix. This is a fascinating record to listen to that continues to show that the music coming out of NYC is really interesting these days. I certainly don’t listen to this band all of the time, but when I do I am treated to a wholly original band playing music that I can’t help but be drawn into.

The Shins Wincing the Night Away. The Shins hail from Portland, OR (where I went to college), so I automatically had to check them out. Permit me a side bar about Portland. I lived there during the heyday of Seattle Grunge, which more or less passed Portland by. However, now with The Shins and Modest Mouse hailing from there, it may finally be Portland’s day in the sun. James Mercer is the singer and songwriter for the band and the man writes some killer melodies. Be it the can’t help but shimmy to it “Australia” or the achingly lovely, “A Comet Appears,” Wincing the Night Way marks The Shins as a band to watch.

Bjork Volta.
A new release by Bjork is always welcome. She constantly experiments and the results are always intriguing. This album finds her collaborating with more people in the making of her record, including Timbaland.

The Good, The Bad & the Queen The Good, The Bad & The Queen. Take the singer/songwriter from Blur and the Gorillaz, add the bass player from The Clash, The Guitar Player from The Verve, and the drummer from Fela Kuti and what do you get? TGTBATQ. This mix, which could have possibly been a train wreck of styles, turns out to be one heck of a band. They actually call it a project, though. Band, project; whatever you call it, this collaboration works. And with lyrics that comment on the current state of the world it is the perfect soundtrack to 2007. “Kingdom of Doom” is a great example. When Damon Albarn sings, “Friday Night, In the Kingdom Of Doom/ Ravens Fly/ Across the moon/ All in Now/ There’s a noise in the sky/ Following the rules/ And not knowing why,” I couldn’t help but feel that he was taking our pulse. This might be my favorite album of 2007.

Amy Winehouse Back To Black. I really didn’t want to like this CD. Heck, Amy Winehouse is all over the tabloids. Be that as it may, this is some great music. Amy Winehouse has a great, soulful voice that defies her age. Her first album was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2003. So here’s to hoping that she can get herself sorted out and continue to make more great records.

Once Soundtrack. I actually haven’t seen the movie that this soundtrack comes from. The good news is that these songs stand up well removed from the context of the film. This, certainly, isn’t always the case. The music by The Frames Frontman, Glen Hansard (who first came to light in the movie The Commitments, and Markéta Irglová from the Czech Republic is really wonderful. To my mind, though, it is Markéta Irglová’s involvement that truly makes this such great listening. Moreover, this record contains one of my favorite songs of the year, “Falling Slowly.”

And lest I forget, there are two other albums that came out this year that I have just begun to digest, but wanted to mention: Bruce Springsteen’s Magic Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Even in the beginning stages of listening to these records, it is clear that they certainly need to be included on this list.

Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield. Do you remember making mix tapes? I do. Do you remember the moment you realized how deeply you were in love with your partner or spouse? I do? This wonderful book by Rob Sheffield, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, is a punk rock love story that tells the story of meeting and marrying his wife and what happens after she dies unexpectedly. This is all framed around the many mixed tapes and music that were a part of their relationship. I really can’t recommend this book enough. It is ultimately a story of love, loss and the incredible power of music to connect to the deepest parts of who we are.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The In Rainbows Connection

A great deal of buzz has been generated by the way Radiohead released In Rainbows. To be sure it was bold to release their album online without a label, but not necessarily innovative. Smaller artists have been releasing music this way for a while. However, for one the biggest bands to do this took the music industry by surprise. Should the industry have been surprised by Radiohead’s move? Certainly not. Of all the major bands going, Radiohead is arguably one of the most leading edge and has publicly questioned the need for record companies.

There has been a great deal of turmoil in the “traditional” music industry of CD sales in recent years. This has affected all major record companies, including EMI, Radiohead’s former label. By turmoil I mean shrinking sales. (There are many reasons for this, including the low quality of much of the music being released. But that is for another article.) Without EMI the band was label-less at the time of In Rainbow’s online release on October 10. EMI was furious about the bands move as Radiohead sells CDs and therefore generates profits at a time when this is a rarity. Subsequent to the online release, Radiohead has negotiated deals for the distribution of In Rainbows as a CD in both the US (on TDB Records, a new imprint of Dave Matthew’s ATO Records) and XL Recordings everywhere else. One can only imagine that the initial digital self-release gave Radiohead a great deal of negotiating power.

What I have not yet mentioned, though, is what might have shocked the record industry most. Radiohead allowed downloaders to pay whatever price they wanted. There has been a lot of hubbub about this. The research group comScore surveyed buyers and claimed that only 38% of downloaders actually paid for In Rainbows. Radiohead has vehemently refuted this claim, though they have not given out any data of their own. Smaller artists have complained that it is all well and good for Radiohead to giveaway its music as they have already made oodles of money. However, developing artists depend on getting paid for the music they release, whether online or through traditional CD sales. Googling Radiohead can lead you to the whole range of debate about this.

Where does the truth lie? It is hard to know. For the record, I paid $9.99, the same as an album on iTunes, based on the logic that this payment structure seems pretty fair. So maybe I’m a chump, but I don’t really feel that way. I feel like paying was the right thing to do. Radiohead is one of my favorite bands. They are certainly among the handful of major artists who are selling a lot of records, while still producing great music.

But perhaps the most important part of this whole debate is whether or the not In Rainbows is any good. Yes, is my answer to this question. The record (Maybe I should stop calling it the record and start calling it the data or the bytes as it only exists on my computer and my iPod?) is very good. To my mind it is certainly not as outstanding/classic/desert island as Kid A or OK Computer. It is, however, very, very good. It combines elements and sounds from the entire Radiohead catalog from their lovely, melancholy ballads to the pulsating grooves that defined Kid A. One outstanding track to my mind is, “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” a song about a first date with, perhaps, The One. Another great track is “Reckoner,” which with the lyrics, “in rainbow,” functions as close to a title track as we get. Its sound harkens back to The Bends. All in all, In Rainbows seems more personal than Hail to the Thief. There is nothing wrong with this and certainly nothing wrong with Radiohead’s latest offering.

Please note, that while writing this post Radiohead announced that the downloading structure for In Rainbows would be ending on December 10, 2007. For those who didn’t download it, it will be released as a good old fashioned CD on January 1, 2008.


Saturday, December 1, 2007

Neko Case Live at the State Theatre in Ithaca, NY Januray 26, 2008 Set List


Friday, November 30, 2007


About Me
Stephen Kimball is the father of 2, a husband, PR and Marketing professional, and writer living in the Ithaca area of Upstate New York. I gladly accept music for review.

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