Classic Country

I love almost every form of live music, but I’ve got an especially soft spot in my heart for classic country.  These guys performed at a conference I’m attending, and they were terrific.  Give me a banjo, and a fiddle, and some tunes by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash or the Stanley Brothers and I’m a happy camper.  I’ll get out on the dance floor and show my appreciation, too.

You can argue about the best decade of rock ‘n roll, or whether Bach or Mozart or Beethoven was the greatest genius, but one musical point is indisputable:  modern country sucks and isn’t a patch off the George Jones/Merle Haggard/Patsy Cline/Tammy Wynette era.  Why did “country music” become some crappy form of pop music lite?  It was great to hear these guys play the vintage stuff, and in vintage style, too.

Beautiful 

Last night Kish and I hit the Ohio Theatre to see the traveling production of Beautiful, a show that tells the story of the life and music of Carole King that, in the process, sounds larger themes about American music and the ’60s.  It’s a terrific production that will be playing at the Ohio through June 11 — although given the packed house on a Wednesday night, I’m not sure any tickets are available if you don’t have them already.

King’s story is a rich one.  As a teenager with obvious musical talent, she decided she wanted to be a songwriter, which was not a standard career choice for girls growing up in the ’50s.  After selling her first song, she met her future husband, became a wife and mother while still a teenager, and with her husband wrote a series of hits, had an office in a songwriting shop on Broadway, and became friends, and friendly competitors, with another songwriting couple.  But while her career is soaring, her marriage became more troubled.  After it ended, she headed to California and wrote the songs that made Tapestry a landmark album.  The show ends with King back in New York, performing at Carnegie Hall the year Tapestry is released.

The story is told largely through songs — both those written by King and her husband and those written by others — with short bits of dialogue mixed in.  It’s fast-paced, funny, and poignant, all at the same time.  The staging is amazing, with sets silently sliding in and out and pop acts from the ’50s and ’60s cleverly recreated.  And, of course, the music is great.  Julia Knitel, who plays Carole King in this production, is a tremendous talent who plays the piano and has the singing and acting chops that are perfect for musical theater.

If you’re going to the show, get there early.  Last night the show drew a decidedly older and largely female crowd, and you’ll need plenty of time to steer through the forest of walkers, canes, and slow-moving seniors.  But we’ll give them all a break, because we know they all owned a treasured copy of Tapestry that they played over and over until their turntables broke, and when they heard the music again they were transported back to when they heard it the first time, nearly 50 years ago.  The intervening 50 years may have made the listeners older, but the music itself remains as fresh and vibrant as ever.

Gregg Allman

Gregg Allman died yesterday.  One of the founding members of the Allman Brothers Band, a group that unquestionably is one of the finest rock bands America has ever produced, Allman had been ailing for a while.  He was only 69.

Allman was one of those recording artists whose personal life always seemed to be a mess — he was married to Cher, of all people, for a while, which probably tells you all you need to know — but you felt that his life really was about his music.  Allman played guitar and keyboards in the band, but everyone really knew him as the voice of the band.  His unique, smoky vocals, with their gravelly, gritty undertones, injected life and soul into the bluesy songs that the Allman Brothers Band made their own.  Songs like Whipping Post, One Way Out, Not My Cross To Bear, and Midnight Rider are classics in large part because the vocals are so . . . legitimate.  When Allman sang about being tied to that whipping post, you felt that he really knew what he was singing about.  He could make Happy Birthday into an exploration into the dark recesses of the human experience.

We’re getting to the point where many of the rock icons of the ’60s and ’70s are moving on.  It’s sad, but it’s also a reason to listen, again, to some of the music that made them enduring icons in the first place.  Today, it’s time to go listen anew to the Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East, one of the very best live albums ever recorded.  This performance of Whipping Post below comes from one of the band’s Fillmore East performances.

Invasion Of The Geriatric Rockers

We’re on the cusp of the summer big-name rock concert season.  Hey, who’s out on tour this year?

rod-stewartDon’t look now, but it’s a lot of the same acts that were touring 40 years ago, soon to come to a sports stadium or outdoor amphitheater near you.  The list of tours this year includes Queen, Foreigner, Boston, Aerosmith, Kiss, Alice Cooper, Billy Joel and Rod Stewart.  Rod Stewart, in case you’re wondering, is 72 years old, and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith is 69.  And as for Queen, their iconic lead singer, Freddie Mercury, died more than 25 years ago.  But neither advanced age, nor the death of original band members, nor concerns about wrinkles, hair loss, gum disease, adult diapers or iron-poor tired blood can keep these dedicated rockers from their appointed tours.  Just don’t be surprised if their contracts requires that the dressing room be equipped with Geritol rather than bottles of Jack Daniel’s.

The promoters call these “nostalgia acts” — which doesn’t exactly seem consistent with the whole notion that rock ‘n roll has a youthful, cutting edge, rebellious element to it.  When you’re a “nostalgia act,” around 70 and still playing songs that you first released when disco was king, you can’t fairly lay claim to the “rebellious” label any more. But there’s a strong market for concerts by these geriatric rockers because their music still gets played on “classic rock” radio stations, and the people who first heard their songs when they were in high school are still out there, willing to spring for tickets to hear “Cold As Ice” performed live one more time.  If you’re a performer, why not cash in, make some money, and give your fans what they want?

I’m torn about this, because I think it’s weird to see 70-year-olds strutting and rocking out on stage, and I wonder if these codger acts don’t crowd out younger musicians who’d like to get some stage time and radio play.  At the same time, in the past few years I’ve been to concerts to see two long-time performers — Stevie Wonder and Bob Seger — and they both put on really good shows.  So I’m taking a live and let live attitude, and figuring that if Rod Stewart wants to sing “Hot Legs” again, and his fans want to hear it, why not let them?  But I think I’ll pass.

At The ASO

Last night we went to see Julianne perform with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, which is the reason we came to the capital city of Texas in the first place.  The ASO delivered a stirring rendition of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, then Julianne’s oboe solo kicked off John Corigliano’s beautiful and touching Music from the Edge.  I’d never heard anything by Corigliano before, but I really enjoyed that piece.  The concert closed with a return to Copland, for some fine clarinet work on the Concert for Clarinet and String Orchestra (with Harp), and finally Dvorak’s powerful Symphony No. 8 in G Major.  Julianne played marvelously — of course!

It was a great performance by a really good orchestra.  One other thing about the ASO — its performance hall is world class, with a walkout area that offers a magnificent view of the Austin skyline across the river.  And since the ASO doesn’t like photos taken inside the building, I took the photo above to remember a wonderful evening.

Way to go, Julianne!

Live On Sixth Street

Everybody knows Austin has a thriving bar and live music scene.  Last night we started our pub crawl in the very cool Rainey Street area, which I’d never visited before, stopped to have a beer at the Container Bar, which is largely constructed out of those enormous corrugated containers used by the shipping industry, then legged it up past Stubb’s to a bar called Cheer Up Charlie’s, where a kind of light show projected against a white bluff entertained us.  After noshing at Stubb’s we headed over to Sixth Street, the traditional strip of bars and live music venues that keeps getting bigger — and louder.  

Around Austin you see people with t-shirts that say “Keep Austin Weird,” or something like that.  After our foray through Sixth Street, I’d say that goal is being accomplished.  You see people wearing flags as capes, masks, wigs, glitter, and just about any combination of clothing, or lack of clothing, you can conceive.  On Sixth Street, you can still freely let your freak flag fly.

Farewell To The Brown-Eyed Handsome Man

Chuck Berry died yesterday at age 90.  He was the man whose songs gave rock ‘n roll a sound and a shape and a theme and a direction, way back in the ’50s, and thereby helped to create a genre of popular music that has endured for more than 60 years.  His song Maybellene, his first big hit, was released in 1955, and its combination of irresistible guitar licks, a chugging back beat, and a story about teenage angst, girls, cars, and speed created a lasting framework for what was then a shocking and utterly new sound.  (Interestingly, just last year Chuck Berry was working on an album of new material to be released some time this year.  Let’s hope we get to hear it.)

chuck-berry-1957-billboard-1548The tributes to Chuck Berry are pouring in from across the music world.  The Billboard tribute linked above notes that John Lennon once said:  “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”  The New York Times has published a fine list of 15 essential Chuck Berry songs that are worth listening to, again, in honor of his passing.  And a good indication of Berry’s huge influence on other crucial artists in the rock ‘n roll genre is that his songs were covered by the Beatles, who released excellent versions of Rock and Roll Music and Roll Over Beethoven, and the Rolling Stones, who recorded memorable live versions of Carol and Little Queenie, and just about everybody else of consequence in the world of rock music.  Has any artist had more songs covered by more superstars?

I can’t compete with the likes of John Lennon and Billboard in assessing the impact of Chuck Berry on the world of music, so I won’t even try.  I can say this without fear of contradiction, however:  when my college roommate and I hosted parties back in the late ’70s where the whole point was to drink draft beer and dance with wild abandon, nobody was better at getting people up and moving their feet than Chuck Berry.  That remains true today, 40 years later.  That’s quite an impact, when you think about it.