Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Album Review: Live At Shea Stadium from The Clash

I was a mere lad when The Clash played their epic gig at Shea Stadium, opening for The Who on October 12, 1982. Technically speaking, I was just shy of my 12th birthday. I wasn’t yet loyal to any one band and was just starting to figure out the music scene and my place in it. That all changed for me when I heard Give ’Em Enough Rope a few years later. While this is perhaps not The Clash’s finest album, it was my gateway.

So now I’m not a mere lad. I, in fact, have a lad and lass of my own now. But the release of The Clash’s set from Shea Stadium proves, once again, what a great band they were. The set is thrilling to listen to. It’s the band at the top of their game, although teetering on the brink. They had recently fired drummer, Topper Headon, due to his drug use. Tensions were high. (The 11/08 issue of Relix has a great story about the gig.)

It is great to hear some of their older songs played with The Clash’s later influences, such as early hip hop, mixed in. This is chill inspiring stuff, and that’s what matters most about this recording. It’s a testament to the fact that music can save your life. For me, The Clash was one of the first bands that proved this to me. However, Live At Shea Stadium shouldn’t be viewed as an epilogue to The Clash’s greatness. It should be viewed as a further proof of their continued power and influence.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Album Review: The Rhumb Line From Ra Ra Riot

If you’re not from Upstate, NY (And by this I don’t mean Westchester County!) you probably have no idea that Syracuse has a pretty active music scene. If you’re from Upstate, you likely think that its emphasis is on the blues. And while the blues certainly has a strong base in Syracuse—punk and indie music also hold great sway. Take for example Ra Ra Riot, who have recently released The Rhumb Line, their full-length debut, on Barsuk Records. This fierce band uses both a cello and a violin as centerpieces of their sound. But they’re no chamber-pop outfit. They rock. The use of the strings works great with their sound. Often when these instruments are utilized in rock music they’re either used to play the role of a lead soloist or to create saccharin string lines. Ra Ra Riot integrates the cello and violin into the overall fabric and texture of their music.

The band has received comparisons to Arcade Fire. While this is fair, what is great about Ra Ra Riot is that they’ve really developed their own sound and style in a very short period of time. They only came together in 2006. And during this time, one of the founding members passed away.

Lyrically the band writes some wonderful stuff. Take the chorus of the opening track, “Ghost Under Rocks.” “Here you are breathing life into / Ghosts under rocks like notes found / In pocket coats of your fathers / lost and forgotten.” Beautiful. Poetic. And together the lyrics and the music produce what I keep describing to myself as joyous melancholy. Yeah, I don’t totally know what joyous melancholy means. All I know is this is how I can describe the way the music makes me feel—and I like it. Or perhaps this sound and the feeling it creates is connected to the rhumb line—a path of constant bearing.

Check them out playing "Ghosts Under Rocks" on Conan O'Brien

Or stream more songs here.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Billy Bragg Keeps the Faith (and rocks) at The State Theatre

Man, I am still buzzing from the killer Billy Bragg (See my interview here) show at the State Theatre in Ithaca, NY this past Saturday. It was without a doubt one of my top shows. It was Billy playing his guitar—mostly electric, but some acoustic as well—on a simple black stage. And I want to say that his influence as a songwriter in general is never questioned, but his amazing guitar playing is not often singled out. He really has his own sound on the instrument and I can totally say that he didn’t need a backup band to rock the theater.

His set list was a mix of old, new, and a few covers (Woody Guthrie, The Clash, and Laura Nyro). Attending this show pre-election was really inspirational. Billy Bragg told great stories and really pushed the audience to realize that Election Day is not the end. It is the only the beginning and that we’re voting for the entire world that needs the change that an Obama Presidency has the hope of bringing. And to never loose hope and keep the faith.

One of the many powerful moments was his playing of “Levi Stubbs Tears.” Levi Stubbs, the lead singer of the Four Tops, had died the day before and you could tell that Billy was really affected by this.

He’s also very gracious. Billy came out and signed after the show, so I was able to thank him for the interview and get a CD signed for The Young Man and Miss T. He had picked up the Tompkins Weekly, which had my interview with him in it. There were quite a few people waiting to meet him and to get things signed and he said that he would stay as long as people wanted him to.

The Watson Twins opened the show with a lovely set. They also came out and met people and signed. They were super friendly and gracious as well.

Check out their hand written set lists and Billy Bragg singing Woody Guthrie's "Ain't Got No Home" below.

Billy Bragg Set List on the top left. Watson Twins on the bottom right.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Miss T Reviews Delta Spirit's Ode To Sunshine

I reviewed this back in August. Miss T gives her input this past weekend. Play it louder Daddy!


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Billy Bragg: An Interview With Mr. Love & Justice

Billy Bragg was born in Essex England in 1957, under the name Stephen William Bragg. He released his first album, Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy, in 1983 and has been performing and recording ever since. Due to his 30-year-long, 12-album career, it’s difficult to decide what to highlight. Fortunately, I got a chance to ask Billy Bragg a set of questions, so we can hear from the man himself. I’ll try and fill in some of the blanks.

As a songwriter he deftly balances the political and the personal in a really powerful way. And his politics are of the grassroots/left/labor/anti-fascist variety. Additionally, in 2004 he recorded a song for the album Rock Against Bush. He’s also a strong proponent for the right of artists to receive royalties for the music they place online, especially on sites such as MySpace. When he became a father in the early 1990s, he took time off to be with his son. In 1998, along with Wilco, he recorded the wonderful Mermaid Avenue I and II—writing music for Woody lyrics that had never been recorded. Bragg’s musical influences include punk, blues, soul, and folk.

So there is his long and great career in a very small nutshell. More importantly, Billy Bragg will be playing at the State Theatre on October 18 at 8 PM. And as he’ll be playing solo, you’ll get to see up close and personal what his moniker the “One Man Clash” is all about. The Watson Twins will be opening the show with their amazing vocal harmonies and great tunes.

DM: Early on in your career you were described as “the one man Clash.” How did this sit with you? And, was you music a response to anything?

BB: My music was a response to the New Romantic movement of the early eighties, bands like Spandau Ballet and Visage, who claimed to be radical by putting style over content. I was trying to stay true to my punk rocker ideals by doing the opposite, so “One Man Clash” was a pretty good description.

DM: You have a large catalog of material to choose from. How do you put your set together?

BB: I try to mix new songs with old and throw in a few covers to catch people out. The most important criterion, however, is dynamics. A solo performer needs to have light and dark in their set.

DM: “Waiting For The Great leap Forward” is a tune that keeps evolving with the times. This really keeps the song fresh for the listener—listening for the new lyrics. Does this keep it fresh for you, since this is obviously a song you must play a lot?

BB: My audience loves the song, but the original lyrics reflect a political era that we no longer live in. As the song was a bit tongue in cheek anyway, it seems fitting that I should update the subject matter now and again.

DM: Mr. Love & Justice is your latest album. The title seems to address two of the main elements of your writing—the personal and the political. Do you have a different writing process depending on a tune’s subject?

BB: In my experience, there is no method to writing a song. It’s rather like having a conversation with someone—you don’t enter into it with a plan, you just follow where it takes you. That’s how I write songs. Something inspires me—a phrase, an idea, a situation—and I follow it to its conclusion.

DM: One of the songs I really like off the new album is “Sing Their Souls Back Home.” It’s really soulful. Is soul music one of your influences? What are the others?

BB: Soul music has had a huge influence on my song writing. The first music I owned was a tape of Tamla Motown Chartbusters Volume 3: Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Four Tops, all that great Sound of Young America stuff. The other formative influence was Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Trouble Water. When I was twelve years old, these two albums ruled my world.

DM: Do you approach songwriting differently now than you did earlier in your career?

BB: I guess I don’t have the same urgency that I did when I first set out. I no longer feel that it might all end tomorrow. The irony is that it is more likely that it will, but now I feel confident enough to be judged by what I have done.

DM: You have a directness in your writing that really creates an emotional intimacy for the listener. “Tank Park Salute” is an excellent example. Is this an aspect of your writing that you really try and develop in your songs?

BB: “Tank Park Salute,” which concerns the death of my father in 1976, is a good example. Of all my songs, it’s probably the one that elicits the strongest response from people. I’ve sung it and watched guys in the front row sobbing their hearts out. It was a hard song for me to write, as, prior to performing it, I had never spoken to anyone outside my family about the death of my father, shying away from the subject if it should come up. The effect it has on people seems to bear out a theory of mine—that in order to write songs that touch people deeply, you must first articulate your own deepest feelings, those that are the most difficult for you to confront.

DM: The Mermaid Avenue material you did with Wilco is so wonderful. Was this a different writing process for you—writing music with partners to Woody Guthrie’s lyrics?

BB: I can remember explaining the project to Natalie Merchant and she was incredulous. ‘You don’t have to write any lyrics! That’s just brilliant’. For some who spend ages creating lyrics, like Natalie, or Jeff Tweedy or myself, Mermaid Avenue was like a holiday. We got to choose these amazing lyrics and then write tunes for them.

DM: Do you get a different reception for your material, especially the political tunes, depending on the country you’re playing in?

BB: Well, the context of a political song can change if you’re in another country. The way to counter that is to pick up on a local issue that is connected with the subject and use that to introduce the song. For instance, I was playing in Köln, Germany last week, where people recently took to the streets to oppose a racist political party. Referencing this in the introduction to my song ‘I Keep Faith’ allowed me to offer then an example of my faith in humanity. I could have spoken about the events in England that inspired the song, but by using the local example, I was better able to relate to them the meaning of the song.

DM: You’re a parent, as am I. Did becoming a dad change you politically and/or musically at all? It certainly changes us all personally.

BB: If it doesn’t change you, you’re not doing it right.

DM: Earlier this year, you wrote an op-ed in the New York Times discussing the need for creating a workable way to compensate artists for their work appearing online. You said this was especially important for up-and-coming artists. You in fact were instrumental in pushing MySpace to honor the rights of the artists posting their material on the site. Where do you things stand now?

BB: We are still struggling to establish the right of artists to be paid for the content they provide. Social networking sites like MySpace make hundreds of millions of dollars every year through advertising, yet they pay nothing for the content that attracts users to the site. My preferred solution to this would be the commercial radio model: the artists should be paid a percentage of the advertising revenue, which would leave the audience to continue enjoying their music for free.

DM: You’ve done some performances with Kate Nash? How did these come about?

BB: We were performing on the same stage at a festival in Australia and decided to do a couple of songs together.

DM: Also, the Watson Twins are opening the show. Are you planning on doing any tunes with them?

BB: There is always a possibility.

DM: Who are you digging musically? Anyone kind of off the radar?

BB: Dunno if he’s off the radar but I’ve been listening to Joe Henry’s album Citizen’s a lot lately. Wonderful heartfelt singing, marvelously understated arrangements, best of all, lyrics somewhat damaged but full of hope, just like America these days.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Who You Are: An Interview with Band Leader Trevor MacDonald

For those of you who aren't from the Ithaca, NY area, you may not know that we have a pretty great local music scene here. That said, I have been immersing myself in the eponymous debut album from Ithaca's Who You Are over the past week. And I can tell you that Who You Are is now leading the charge as my favorite local recording of the year. Since I began listening to it, I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe it. What I came up with is this: Americana Trip Hop. Trevor MacDonald, the band’s leader and songwriter, took some time out of his busy schedule as a musician and a farmer to answer some questions about the band, Ithaca, music, and more.

Dynamic Meter: You’ve been around the Ithaca music scene for a good bit of time. How do you think its change in the last 10 years?

Trevor MacDonald: Many of the old venues are gone. The old Haunt was a small club that used to mix national acts with local music and brought fresh energy to the community. The Rongo is on life support. Now there is the State Theatre, but even they struggle to keep it together. If it weren’t for GrassRoots where would we really be? A decade of change . . . more Big-Box stores, less culture.

DM: Is Ithaca really as supportive as it seems for local musicians?

TM: On one hand, absolutely; on the other . . . I don’t know. Some people still see me as the kid from Sunny Weather . . . what I'm doing now is more honest. The town seems to be increasingly jaded. Especially compared to what we found on our first southern tour. I see a lot of people hanging out in coffee shops pretending this is Brooklyn, but doing nothing. At least there is creativity and a thriving, successful music scene in Brooklyn. I guess the grass is always greener . . .

DM: What is the genesis of Who You Are?

TM: Last weekend we were billed as Who We Are, Who Are You and Who They Are . . . I don't even know WHO I AM
ANYMORE! (The band is actually called Who You Are.)

DM: So other than confusion about the name, was the band your concept and you brought in the other guys?

TM: Yes, after finishing Porch Light I was floating a bit. So I tried to take on what I would call, grown up responsibility. I was renovating a house I bought downtown, I was bartending for this catering company, I was doing music (mostly on the side) and to be honest I was feeling kinda dead. However, like a lot of people I had a mortgage to pay, so what do you with your dreams? On a trip to NYC by chance I met Al Kooper, a musician and a bit of a legend. He played with Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival the first time Dylan went electric and also produced Lynyrd Skynyrd. We sat and talked about life and what, in his opinion, you should do with it. I came home quit my job, and began this journey, which led me to Who You Are. Now I have this band, a record label (yup nope Records) I started with my manager and a better outlook.

DM: Do you approach writing and arranging differently than you did with Sunny Weather or your solo work?

TM: Yes, I am always writing. To me music is like the ultimate jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has a different shape. I don't get musicians that stick religiously to one formula. So for me the change in the sound is a natural evolution. When you are 15 your brain does not meditate on the same things that it does when your 35 . . . but I'm not 35 yet so I'll let you know.

DM: There seems to be a political vibe to the record, especially with a track like "Your America." Is this an important part of your writing?

TM: What this country represents to me makes me proud. However, there is a dark side to our government that we, as individuals, need to deal with. Sometimes you hear things that don't add up. For instance they tell us that we all have a voice . . . our vote counts . . . but it appears to me that the lobbyists with the most money are the ones they hear the best. I am no expert on politics, but I think that they’re ultimately important . . . in the sense that we, the people, must try to make an impact however we can. So, if you’re paying attention, these realities start to creep into our lives and in turn, into our songs.

DM: In 2007 you were involved with organizing a benefit for the Ithaca Health Alliance/Ithaca Free Clinic. Are you still involved with that work?

TM: Universal health care is something I firmly believe in. The Ithaca Free Clinic is a first step in that direction . . . ironically, that benefit was a rude awakening . . . I was left with a sense of just how far we really have to go. I always like to use my experience as a musician to help my friends and neighbors. I will do it again when the time is right.

DM: You guys have started gigging around a lot. Is it nice to be back playing with a band after working solo?

TM: Definitely, I love the power of a live band. But in actuality it can be a pain. The band dynamic can often be a struggle for me. As a singer/songwriter I have to balance my creative force with the side of me that just wants to be in a band. Sometimes I think we, me included, could use a little Band Boot Camp.

DM: You’re also a farmer. Is there any synchronicity between farming and music?

TM: The hours suck for both jobs. But one actually keeps people from going hungry?! The average person may not realize how much goes into making something out of nothing . . . farming and music share this challenge. That may explain the success of Britney Spears and Burger King.

DM: Who are you digging musically right now? Anybody off the radar?

TM: I find that more and more I listen to talk radio.

TW: Wow, talk radio. Who do you listen to?

TM: As funny as it may seem, and this is not meant as sarcasm, my favorite was Jerry Springer's radio show. I can't find it anymore, but his show was the smartest one out there. Currently, I like to listen to programs as diverse as Democracy Now and Rush Limbaugh . . . because there are two sides to every story and somewhere in the middle is where you get the real scoop. People need to remember that more these days. With the upcoming election we are in one big propaganda spin cycle so you have to do some of the work yourself in order to keep focused and sane. That being said: be alert, listen with care and make only well informed decisions. . . .

You can stream the album below.
Who You Are


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Album Review: Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson's Rattlin' Bones

I’ve been a big Kasey Chambers fan since her debut, The Captain, in 1999. I was, however, unfamiliar with Shane Nicholson, her husband and co-writer and performer on Rattlin’ Bones. Man, I really dig this record. On her four previous albums Kasey Chambers had definitely inhabited the more rock and roll side of her alt-country world. With the new album, she and Shane have drawn on the more country and bluegrass side, that’s always been present, but not at the forefront of the sound. The emphasis on acoustic instruments such as the fiddle, dobro, upright bass, and the banjo reflects this change in sonic approach—as does the almost-universal lack of drums. The instrumentation also perfectly matches with the songs on the album. All this comes together with their voices, which work really, really well together. It’s not just the harmonies, but also the sonic quality meshes in a really natural and compelling way.

And the songs? What a great collection of tunes. They wrote most of them together, including my favorite—the love song “Wildflower.” And I tell you what: the first time I listened to this song, I had tears running down my face. It’s a straight up beautiful tune. What a great reminder of why I love music—to be moved. Other standout tracks include: “Sweetest Waste of Time,” “Once In A While,” and “One More Year.”

Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson have just completed a very short US tour and have returned home to Australia. And hopefully they’re working on more great songs.

Here are a few tracks from the album.

Wildflower - Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

Once In A While - Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

Rattlin Bones - Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson