Saturday, August 27, 2011

Music Reviews-Elmore James, Billy Joel, Rigoletto, and more

Elmore James
Slide guitar is one of the best known techniques in blues. Playing slide is one method of permitting the guitarist to temporarily turn the guitar into a fretless instrument and more easily reach those microtones, the notes between the notes that are not normally recognized in Western music but are essential in many non-Western musics, especially much African music. As blues is African-American music it is unsurprising that slide guitar became (somewhat stereotypically in present day) a blues guitar hallmark. BB King, who does not play slide, came up with his distinctive trilling technique by initially trying to imitate the slide sound of his cousin, Booker White.

There were and are many great slide players as well as guitarists who occasionally made use of a slide but were just as talented without one. Some of them I may mention in the future-Hound Dog Taylor, JB Hutto, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Booker White, Ben  Harper, Duane Allman, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson, and several others. But one who stood apart was Elmore James. He was also a singer of some renown who had a distinctively masculine voice that sounded like a lovesick bull braying. You can hear both pain and pride in his voice and he's real about both of those feelings. Along with Muddy Waters, Elmore James virtually defined post-war slide technique.

Where Muddy's slide sound was trebly, whiny and always perched just on the edge of distortion, Elmore's sound was thick, full and bassy. And he dove into levels of amplified distortion meltdown that would not be attempted again until Hendrix, Clapton and the Young Brothers (AC/DC) took up playing. If you want to hear CRUNCH listen to Elmore James. From a technical standpoint this is really amazing considering that James very very rarely played a traditional electric guitar. He usually played an acoustic guitar that he had personally modified with his pickups. This was played through either some no-name cheap amp or a homemade amp. (James was a technical ace who had worked in a radio repair shop) Eventually James was able to replicate his slide sound even without using a slide.

Although many of his licks can now be considered simplistic virtually all of them remain exciting. James' band, The Broomdusters, were just as loud and as avant-garde as he was. It is quite easy to hear echoes of many of the above mentioned guitarists in his music as James was quite influential. Muddy's sound was quite urban. James travelled back to Mississippi quite frequently and his music reflected that. He was playing "blues-rock" before it had a name. If you like loud blues, rock-n-roll, and music that is designed to put your moneymaker in motion, if you want to know what a 1959 African-American house party or fish fry sounded like this might be for you. James had a chronic heart condition and passed away in 1963 but his music will live on forever.

Something Inside of Me   It Hurts Me Too  Done Somebody Wrong   Anna Lee
The Sun is Shining   I can't stop loving you   Bleeding Heart

Billy Joel

Billy Joel is a pop-rock pianist and songwriter from Long Island, NY. Somewhat unfortunately for him initially he came on the scene when critical taste had veered away from openness and honesty in music to irony, cynicism and decadence. Although some of Joel's music can be extremely cynical (having your brother-in-law and lawyers rip you off for millions can do that to a man) he also wrote many McCartney-esque pop tunes. These didn't endear him to critics who considered them "sappy" or akin to musical Hallmark cards. It didn't help that Joel played piano, not guitar, at a time when guitar had become the definitive RAWK instrument. And Joel's penchant for ripping up critical reviews on stage- well that sent the critics to the mattresses and the 1977 Village Voice war was on.

Unlike fellow piano superstar Elton John, Joel did not usually engage in a lot of flash and circus during his live shows (I don't think he was ever seen in heels or makeup either LOL) and generally relied on a pleasant, if somewhat nasally tenor voice and great songwriting. Joel was influenced much more by old school rock-n-roll, Brill Building pop, Broadway show tunes, doo-wop, light jazz, ragtime, classical, older R&B/soul and jump blues than by hardcore blues or hard rock, each of which were safer influences (critically speaking) to have during the early seventies.

Although the critics had doubts, Joel persevered and like others before him must have cried all the way to the bank (He is the third best selling solo artist of all time in the U.S.). We each may have only a few years to REALLY make our mark on the world and for Joel that period was the early seventies to the mid eighties. He created some really really good music during this era. Joel has suffered (still suffers?) from depression. He once tried to commit suicide and more than a few of his songs hint at the loneliness and darkness in life. (Piano Man anyone???) But although many of his classic tunes mention the darkness they aren't consumed by it. There's joy in his music. A lot of it. I can't pick a favorite song of his but Vienna comes close. It's a song Joel wrote after visiting his father.

It is the mark of a really good songwriter that they are able to take a quite particular point of view or set of experiences (in Joel's case a Jewish kid who was a teen boxer/delinquent growing up in Hicksville, Long Island) and make it universal without losing an ounce of specificity. I've only been to New York once yet I feel like I know it intimately just from Joel's songs. Joel's lyrics tell stories. His music often sounds like soundtracks to movies that haven't been made or maybe even to your life. I have little in common with Joel but he is a favorite. His music is quite fun to sing along to in the car or at parties. And everyone knows a Brenda or Eddie or has been a Brenda or Eddie.

Joel's muse has evidently left him -no one has an endless well of creativity or energy-and he has stopped writing new pop music. He still tours regularly playing from a huge songbook of hits and hidden gems.
Ain't No Crime        Captain Jack  Piano Man
Vienna                              Roberta   She's always a woman to me
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant  Streetlife Serenader
Moving Out(Anthony's Song)           Big Shot   Billy The Kid

Rigoletto is an opera by Verdi. It is a favorite of mine and is one of the better known of his operas. The story is classic and illuminates the meaning of the grim proverb "If you seek revenge, dig two graves". The Duke is a notorious player. He seduces women all over the duchy, married or not, young or old. He brags about this while the lesser nobles seethe. They can't touch the Duke. But they mean to take vengeance on the Duke's jester, Rigoletto, who even more so than his boss, mocks the cuckolded husbands, infuriated brothers or angry fathers. Rigoletto often picks out the women to be seduced and counsels the Duke to have this or that man executed, rather than risk the revenge of a dishonored individual. One such man curses Rigoletto-something which Rigoletto ignores at first but remembers later. Having heard a rumor that Rigoletto himself has a mistress the nobles intend to kidnap her and present her to the Duke.

Rigoletto has no mistress but he does have a young innocent daughter, Gilda, who for obvious reasons, he keeps hidden away. Both the Duke and the nobles discover Gilda. In an increasingly tragic series of mixups, Rigoletto is tricked by the nobles into kidnapping his own daughter and delivering her to the Duke. By the time he discovers the ruse it's too late. The Duke has "done the job" on Gilda and she's in love with him. Plotting revenge Rigoletto arranges the services of an assassin to remove the Duke from the planet but the lovestruck Gilda disguises herself as a man and is stabbed by the assassin (who has been convinced by his sister-also in love with the Duke-to spare the Duke's life, but murder the first man he sees). Rigoletto arrives to pay the assassin and remove the body (tied in a bag) of who he thinks is the Duke. Just about to throw the sack into the river, Rigoletto hears the Duke once again singing his signature tune about the capriciousness of women "La Donna e mobile" and in horror opens the sack to see his dying daughter, who even then still loves the Duke.

There are a lot of different versions of Rigoletto obviously but for my money the best feature Luciano Pavarotti as the Duke. There's a good chance that even if you aren't a big classical music fan you've heard portions of this opera.
La Donna e mobile   Questo o Quello  Three Tenors do La Donna e mobile   Bella Figlia Dell'Amore

Susana Baca
Susana Baca is an Afro-Peruvian singer and musicologist. I have a few of her cd's. The best way I have of describing her voice is probably languid and rich. Although their sounds are not similar much like Billie Holiday, Baca is quite skilled at singing behind the beat and occasionally turning the time around. Beside Holiday the other singers I am reminded of when listening to Baca are Edith Piaf, Astrud Gilberto and Dinah Washington (on her more reflective songs).

Baca sings primarily in Spanish so obviously I don't understand the lyrics for the most part but good music is good music. Although you can definitely hear the family connection to African performed or inspired music across the diaspora, Baca's music is NOT salsa, calypso, merengue or anything like that. It's very distinctive and sounds to my untrained ears like a mix of jazz, flamenco, bossa-nova and fado with a little soul mixed in for flavor. Before I started listening to her I was only vaguely aware that there were any Black people in Peru.

Ms. Baca recently was recently appointed as Peru's Minister of Culture and has released a CD, Afrodisapora, which explores the various musical links between the disparate African descended communities in the New World. You can read her interview here. I am happy to see someone of her age start to get more exposure and recognition.

Maria Landa   Toro Mata   De Los Amores  Live in Prague Valentin

Eugene McDaniels
Eugene McDaniels just passed away on July 29. He was a somewhat underrated songwriter and guitarist. Like many of the musicians I like McDaniels matured musically before genres had hardened into distinct categories whose adherents did not speak to each other. He sang like a jazz man, bent notes on his guitar like a bluesman, started some of the first "rap" songs-listen to Silent Majority, wrote love songs and produced records for R&B/soul singers, and performed guitar freakouts like the craziest rock star. He also had a noticeable folk influence (check out Susan Jane)
McDaniels was probably best known for his songwriting for Roberta Flack (Feel Like Making Love) and Les McCann/Eddie Harris (Silent Majority, Compared to What). Flack also covered his Reverend Lee.

If you can find them his socially conscious albums Headless heroes of the apocalypse and Outlaw, are definitely worth listening to. At the time when Headless heroes of the apocalypse was released evidently the content was considered so controversial that Spiro Agnew allegedly called up Atlantic records to see "what the hell was going on". And the album was not released. The album was definitely political in nature but McDaniels saw politics as just part of what impacted people's lives. I think his song The Parasite is one of the definitive protest songs about the experience of Native American peoples.
I have to say this-McDaniels was far more of a bluesman than anyone from England or the US who was just aping the culture or sound of someone else. While poseurs were singing about hard times on Mississippi chain gangs while touring in private jets McDaniels was writing and singing honestly about the world as he saw it in his time. While he was influenced by those who came before him he doesn't sound like anyone except himself-which really ought to be any artist's goal. That said, ironically much of his music has been raided by rappers looking for samples. But McDaniels said he was quite happy to provide the next generation assistance. So it goes.

Susan Jane  Silent Majority (with Eddie Harris)  Outlaw (contains some profanities)  The Parasite
2010 Interview  The Lord is Back
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