(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Concert review - Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 with Atomga

29 March 2012 (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)

This has been my week for afrobeat and Egypt 80. I reviewed a new release of vintage Fela Kuti earlier this week and last night I got to see his son front that band. What an amazing show!

I talked to Frank Roddy and Casey Hrdlicka from Atomga before their set. They told me their original intent was to start a Fela Kuti tribute band, but they decided to broaden their vision to a musical sound rooted in afrobeat. They've been making the rounds in Denver, but this was their first time playing at the Boulder Theater and they were excited to be sharing the stage with Egypt 80.

Afrobeat demands a fairly large band. The polyrhythmic beat needs to stand out, which calls for a drummer and at least one percussionist. Guitar and bass are also critical, along with keys if possible. But the crown of any afrobeat band is the horn section. Atomga's line up covered all of this plus a vocalist, filling the stage with eleven musicians.

They started the set with their song, Kapital, laying down the beat and letting the horns play the hook. The horn arrangement on the tag had a great Latin vibe. Once the song got underway, the guitar and horns traded off sections in a tight funk groove. When vocalist Devan Blake Jones came in, his smooth voice added a jazzy veneer. Later, Jones proved to be very versatile, shifting from soulful to more reggae style. The backing vocals looked good, but were too hard to hear. The sound engineer should have kicked them up in the mix.

The horns were very tight, showing off some well crafted arrangements. Each player had many chances to show off. While all of the horn players took some great solos, Alekzandor Palesh's trombone stood out. He had a couple of surprising leads that showed some subtlety. Guitarist Casey Hrdlicka was a little more forward than normal for afrobeat, but he had a tasteful touch that emphasized the soul/funk influences on the style.

Any concert performance needs to balance the music with a good entertaining stage presence. Atomga covered this well. They were clearly having a lot of fun and reacted to each other and the crowd. Whether it was Palesh's absorbed dance steps or Bari sax player Leah Concialdi's aura of joy, the band connected well with the audience.

The crowd's excitement built in the interval between the bands. I talked to a couple of people who had seen Fela Kuti back in the '80s and several others like myself who had only heard the recordings.

I've seen tribute bands and "classic" reunion bands, but this was different, although the surface seems similar. Like a cross between the two ideas, Seun Kuti leads his father's old band, covering several of the old songs and channeling his father's performance to some extent.

But this wasn't a band trapped in amber or in decay. Instead, they had a vibrant sound, which featured numerous new songs. They also had less emphasis on free jazz than Fela had. Seun may affect some of Fela's mannerisms, but he's not playing a role. He sang. played his sax, and danced with total intensity, carried by the music.

Seun didn't come out until the second song and the difference was electric. He strode to center stage with the grace and poise of an athlete. And as the band vamped, he raised his sax to play. That's when the stage energy leaped to a new high. Seun reveled in both the attention and the ecstasy of music. Seun let the song build before breaking into a call and response with the dancing backup singers. During the main vocals of the song the two women punctuated his phrases with the repetition of their lines.

There were so many great songs, but one of Seun's newer songs, Rise, stood out. While most of the grooves were uptempo, Rise started with a cool, mellow funk groove and mournful horn lines. Here, he followed Fela's style and riffed on political/social themes while the band played: "Government does not represent people, they represent big business." While he spoke of Africa, he made the connection between there and the US. Drawing a parallel between African debt and our banking crisis, he declared it the "same shit, different style". His sly tone and cadence conjured Fela for us.

In constant motion, his dancing style was also familiar. Part spastic surrender to the polyrhythms and part storytelling mime, he embodied and channeled the songs' spirits. But while Seun held court in the center, the rest of the band were anything but passive. Just as each found a space in the groove to fit their beat, their notes, or their fill, each band member created his own performance space through dance, singing, or eye contact.

In particular, the axatse player was incredibly dynamic. He danced and lunged, all while keeping his beaded gourd in time. As he mouthed the words and gestured, he interacted in turn with the audience he could see. In the middle of a pounding rhythm and dance party joy, when he made eye contact, he created a moment of personal connection.

Aside from the pair of beautiful dancers, Egypt 80's stage management also contributed to the energy. The horn section were lined up in the house right back corner. But when they traded off leads, the soloist came down to center stage to garner full attention. So, there was a constant movement of players coming in and out. Even Seun dropped to the horn line when someone else soloed.

There are plenty of hot bands putting on great shows, but at the end of Egypt 80's 2:20 minute set, I felt grateful that I had caught this show. The music and message were moving, the grooves demanded a night of dancing, and we all formed a connection to a distant time and place as the band raise both Fela's Africa of the past and their own vibrant sound of now.

Many more photos on my Flickr.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

March singles

Happy March! This month features a soulful cover, a rework of classic blues, and something new.

Birdy - Skinny Love (from Birdy)

Young newcomer Birdy is getting a lot of attention these days. Her song Just a Game is on the soundtrack for The Hunger Games, she's recently appeared on The Ellen DeGeneris Show and Conan, and she's built a strong following in the UK. Her cover of Bon Iver's Skinny Love made it to #17 on the UK Singles chart and it's easy to hear why.

Bon Iver's version features their casual indie folk treatment that conjures a front parlor jam. But Birdy strips it down and gives it a soulful intensity. I love the way she plays with the tempo. The piano slows in moments of tentative reflection, but then the whole song picks up speed to push through the emotional sections. The idiosyncratic delivery, along with her voice recall Joni Mitchell, but Birdy's home base is more soul than jazz. Skinny Love is one of several covers on Birdy's self-titled debut.

Gary Clark, Jr. - Catfish Blues (From the PBS Special, Blues At The White House)

Guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. is another hyped, young talent. Much like Birdy, his reputation is validated by his performance. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call him the savior of the blues, but he has brought a new energy to the sound. Much like Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clark has an innate sense of the blues that's filtered through his own stylistic voice. He evokes the classic Muddy Waters sound without paying slavish attention to the master.

His solo here on Catfish Blues is a treat as he maintains the basic groove while getting in some squonky lead punches. I've heard a few tracks before this and I'd been impressed, but now I'm motivated to give Clark a deeper listen.

I Used To Be a Sparrow - Life is Good (from Luke)

Swedish band I Used To Be a Sparrow is an unlikely duo. Indie rocker Dick Pettersson's work with In These Woods has a dark driving sound, while Andrea Caccesse's Songs for the Sleepwalkers is more thoughtful and layered.

Their work together on Life is Good emphasizes Caccesse's earnest character in the vocals with Pettersson's musical energy. The arrangement is open and airy, with a definite Irish rock sound that comes from the ringing guitar tone. Drop by their Bandcamp page to sample Luke and see what you think. It's a fairly interesting album.

The Men - A Minor (from a Record Store Day sampler from Sacred Bones, Todo Muere, Volume 2)

Record Store Day (April 21) is an annual event designed to support locally owned record stores. Quite a few artists create special vinyl or CD offerings that are only available from participating stores and many shops also feature live performances. It's a cool idea because big name bands like Wilco and My Morning Jacket participate along with less well known bands.

The Men's extensive eight minute psychedelic jam, A Minor, is collected along with other artists from Sacred Bones Records. The meandering start recalls a mix of garage-psych and early Pink Floyd. The simple, one chord strum is decorated with resonant echoes and fill melodies. Then the Men kick in with the vocals, driving the song's acid rock intensity. Like all great head music jams, A Minor uses hypnotic repetition to hammer away the listener's ego. The transition into an early heavy metal grind is pure icing.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Commentary - Old and in the way

Photo credit: Gene Kirkland, via SlashOnline

Slash recently outed himself as the crotchety old guy of the neighborhood in an interview with Absolute Radio. Actually, he complained that, in a world of digital downloads, "music has lost its magic". With physical CDs falling in popularity, he misses the packaging, which used to contribute to the whole experience of a new purchase.

To some extent, Slash is right. Aside from the cover art, CDs can offer booklets full of lyrics or liner notes. Occasionally, the packaging itself is interesting, like the cool NES cartidge presentation for Beck's 8 Bit Variations.

Back in the day, record albums provided a larger canvas for much more intricate artwork. Anthony Phillips' Wise After the Event featured Peter Cross' amusing illustrations and people have spent hours identifying everyone on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band cover.

But is all the magic gone? Björk's recent Biophilia offers a good counter argument. The album is a multimedia release with music and associated apps to accompany the songs. It may not spark a new mainstream trend, but it is a sign of a wide open universe of cool ideas that aren't tied to albums, per se.

More important than the packaging or sales model, the magic is really in the music itself. My first encounters with several bands have been hearing the music without the benefit of packaging, whether it was the first time I heard Elvis Costello on the radio or the Golden Awesome via a download.

Maybe Slash is bothered by more practical concerns. He probably doesn't like that consumers are no longer forced to buy full albums. Instead, they can select just the tracks they want. This makes recording an album's worth of songs more risky. At some level, I'm sympathetic to the old model because I am still an album oriented listener. But there are some advantages to "pick and choose" song selection.

The obvious benefit is that consumers get more power: they don't have to pay for filler songs. But it's more important that people are listening differently now. They create song lists like the old school mix tapes, but longer and easier to share. And shuffle play lets people discover interesting juxtapositions within their music collections.

Nothing stops artists from selling full albums, but they have to create the value to justify it: it might be a concept album that gains its power through the narrative flow of tracks or more fluid transitions that turn the whole album into a single musical piece where each track is a movement.

In any case, where Slash only sees what's lost, I see some interesting possibilities. Slash's pessimism hasn't forced him out of the business, though. His new solo album, Apocalyptic Love, is due out in May. In the meantime, stay off his lawn.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

CD review - Fela Kuti and Egypt 80, Live in Detroit 1986 (2012)

Looking for an answer in Afro-beat exploration, Fela knows his heart

Every life sends out its ripples. But in his time, Fela Kuti raised waves that continue to rock the world. Fela is credited with creating Afro-beat by melding jazz, funk, and African elements into a potent stew. This distinctive sound still largely defines what many people understand as African popular music.

But music was more than entertainment for Fela; it was a political lever. His songs were uncompromising in confronting the corruption and oppression he saw in his own Nigeria, as well as across Africa. He asserted his belief in an Africa built from its own cultural strengths and values. The Nigerian political leadership responded to his criticism and rising popularity with force. Attacks on him and his commune were followed by trumped up charges.

Fela was released in 1986 and he participated in Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope tour in the US that June. After that tour, Fela continued to perform in the US, including at Detroit's Fox Theater in November 1986.

New York's Knitting Factory Records is releasing Live in Detroit, 1986 this May. This bootleg recording captures Fela's live show feel: four songs spread out over 2 hours. This long form approach gives Egypt 80 the chance to effectively set a hypnotic groove that's more a shared ritual than a simple song. Fela's stage presence shines through this recording as he talks to the audience, teaches them the call and response parts, and leads the band out into wide open spaces.
In my country, you know, things happen just like that. You go on your way, mind your business. You don't do shit, don't do nothing. Next thing, man, you're in prison, man. Just like that.

Then sometimes you want a drink of water. Open the tap. No water. Just. Like. That.
In my country, things happen. Just. Like. That. Not only in my country. All in Africa. Hey, when I say my country, I mean Africa.
Fela's matter of fact tone during his simple spoken intro for Just Like That belies his troubled history. The music starts with a syncopated beat and a jazz vamp. Additional parts slowly layer in and build up the complexity. The rhythms are unmistakably African, but the groove captures astrong 1970s, Miles Davis vibe. When the horns kick in with a Latin flair, it shifts the feel into a more recognizable Afro-beat sound. By the time the chanted, interlocking vocals kick in, the song has built up a deeply complex polyrhythm.

Egypt 80 adroitly drops parts in and out, allowing the jazz vamp to reassert before falling again under the waves of crossing instruments. The horn solo is another Miles touch. The band drives the tight, repetitive groove to support free floating horn solos.

Then, while the the song slips into a holding pattern, Fela sets up the crowd for their part. He teaches the call and response, explaining the words. He tosses the lines with the audience a few times, then he starts in with his lead vocals. With a rapper's sense of flow, he free styles a bit and then settles into the story of the song. The balance here is wonderful. Like a plate juggler, he moves between his solo vocals, a call and response with his own choral singers, and the call and response he taught the audience.

The song drifts ever onward but never gets boring. Even better, each of these longform tracks has its own style and sound. Confusion Break Bones leans experimental, using discordance and time differences to create a muddy, confused sound that resolves into order when Fela is ready to let it. Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense has a more joyous, driving tempo, with looser horn solos and Fela's hypnotic voice. Beast of No Nation uses a heavier bass line to set up a reggae style groove to underlie the Afro-beat polyrhythms to come.

This show demonstrates Fela's chosen path to rankle political feathers and challenge an audience with long, jazzed out explorations. He succeeds because his message comes through and the base groove anchors the chaos. Like his music, Fela is a man looking for an answer, all the while knowing his own heart.

As a bootleg recording, Live in Detroit, 1986 has its weaknesses. The sound quality is compromised with a strong electrical hum that stands out during the pauses. But when the music's playing, there's nothing to hear but a great man and his band.

Here's a very brief excerpt from Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense that focuses on the central vocal section of the song:

Monday, March 26, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 3/26

It's not all music this time, with Henry Rollins on the list. This week showcases serious diversity on the Front Range.

26 March (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Henry Rollins

Henry Rollins evolved beyond singing for Black Flag to become one of America's more interesting voices. Storyteller, commentator, ranter, and provocateur, Rollins has played all of these roles. His more recent work has been sharing his experiences on the road less traveled. Expect stories that will challenge your worldview and make you feel.

29 March (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80

Seun Kuti carries on his father's work fronting Egypt 80. Fela Kuti largely created Afrobeat from an amalgam of jazz, funk, and several African musical styles. Despite his father's long shadow, Seun Kuti continues to develop his own voice, organically updating Egypt 80's sound. Last year's From Africa with Fury : Rise has a more modern edge, but still has the interlocking grooves and polyrhythms that Egypt 80 forged in Fela's heyday. This promises to be a great show with plenty of ecstatic dancing and heavy grooves.

29 March (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
30 March (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
31 March (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

Hip hop duo Blackalicious will be making a couple of stops here on the front range this week. Rapper Gift of Gab had some recent health issues, but it sounds like that's under control. Of more interest is his new solo album, The Next Logical Progression (review coming soon), which is releasing this week. He and Chief Xcel always throw a great concert. Their tracks are solid but with a little bit of quirky style. Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest is touring with them, so catch one of these shows.

30 March (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
31 March (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
The Greyboy Allstars

Karl Denson and the Greyboy Allstars are a must see band. From acid jazz to funk grooves, this is an incredibly tight band that will open your mind to about five types of music you've never heard of, including a couple they'll make up on the spot. Yes, they're that good. Denson's sax and flute are amazing, but the rest of the band works him hard with their own chops.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Concert review - Sleepy Sun with Overcasters and Sparkler Bombs

22 March 2012 (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)

A great Spring evening with some hot music. The decent Thursday night turnout half filled Larimer Lounge. Each band offered their own version of sonic catharsis.

Sparkler Bombs
Sparkler Bombs is another in the legion of drum/guitar indie rock duos. With a few rougher edges that hinted at punk aspirations, their songs offered brief bursts of energy. The guitar's discordant jangle filled out the sound fairly well, but a bass would have been welcome.

Their personality made their show. There were self-effacing with a touch of dork pride, but comfortable with their music and playing for the crowd. Their patter sounded unrehearsed, but still clicked with the crowd. Whether it was the earnest admission, "We're not punk rockers" or their attempt to explain their name, they were confident in their geekiness and not too worried about losing the crowd.

Their songs were often catchy, but much too brief. It was a bit like the Minutemen schtick: songs would peter out or just stop suddenly after a single verse or so. Throwing in another verse or bridge would have helped them fill out their time and given the crowd more chance to appreciate the songs.

Sparkler Bombs wrapped up their set by trading positions. The guitarist turned out to be a credible drummer while the drummer showed off his frontman skills by belting out a spirited version of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' You Really Got a Hold on Me. An odd choice, but fun.

Within the first few bars, I was ready to love Overcasters. The cathartic waves of distortion and rich tonal texture found a home in my brain's noise zone. But they lost me just as quickly with a stage sound that was completely unbalanced. Guitarist John Nichols knew how to manipulate feedback and screaming distortion, but his amp was so loud it drowned out the other members of the band. Sure, his guitar work was an integral part of the band's sound, but it made him the boor of the party.

Plenty of bands are loud -- Hooray for Earth's mind control volume comes to mind -- but the sonic assault should be layered to reveal the drumbeat pound in your temple and the bass throb in your gut along with the psychotically echoing wall of guitar. Of course, the justification is the tone, but Sleepy Sun's guitarist managed to wrench just as much resonant wail within the limits of the band's mix.

Every time Nichols dropped back, I could appreciate the rest of the band. Drummer Erin Tidwell was particular impressive. Her full body drumming style was incredibly dynamic. She'd rise to her feet and do a full drop smash on the toms. In a head-shaking trance, her flailing frenzy of abandon still translated into tight, driving beats. At these points of relative sonic calm, the drums and bass sounded like Bauhaus on steroids.

Tidwell's ecstatic energy made up for the more shoegazer introversion of the rest of the band. Lead singer Kurt Ottaway physically sold the emotional turmoil of his vocals, but it was too loud to hear much of his delivery, much less the words. That said, Overcasters put some thought into the show part of their performance. Projected patterns and a fog machine matched the intensity of the music.

I've dropped by Overcasters' site and listened to their music playing on the page. It's full of passionate intensity and thickly reverberating layers. Beautiful. I really wish I had heard that band last night.

Sleepy Sun
With singer Rachel Fannen (Williams) out of the band, Sleepy Sun focused on newer material from the upcoming Spine Hits. Their earlier male-female dynamic was deep: Fannen's expressive emotion balanced Bret Constantino's introspection. The new songs handled this change by drifting more towards a Blind Melon sound, with laid back tempos and close, melting harmonies. Sometimes, the lead guitar line sat in for the backing vocals and meshed in with Constantino's vocal melody.

Sleepy Sun opened the set with the thick vocals of their new single, Stivey Pond. Brian Tice's drumming was great as he peppered the beat with fills. A perfectly brief pause of silence at the end of a softer bridge could set up the crashing return to the verse. These dynamic breaks contributed to the rich feel of the arrangements.

While the set list favored the new songs, the band still pulled out material from Fever like the retro psychedelia of Wild Machines. But this wasn't so far from the dreamy vibe of Siouxsie Blaqq from the new album. The live version's interplay of clean 12-string guitar and Jack Allen's solid bassline were grounded in an old San Francisco jam sound, but the song evolved into a wilder direction as the jangled, resonant lead guitar came in.

Sleepy Sun closed out their encore with Marina, my favorite track from Fever. The song's lazy indie-psych groove was a soothing closer for the evening. The meandering melody and inevitable, laid back tempo didn't sacrifice a drop of intensity. The mind warping effect was more mushrooms than acid, acting as an ideal gateway out into the night for the ride home.

More photos on my Flickr.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

CD review - Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, Unida Cantina (2011)

Familiar sounds with more lyrical maturity

Roger Clyne hit the scene fronting one of my favorite groups of "snotty boys with guitars", the Refreshments. With a sneering, know-it-all voice and tight, clever lyrics, Clyne and the Refreshments laid down songs like Banditos and Down Together that showcased characters who were victims of fate and their own bad choices.

As a solo artist, Clyne keeps those characters alive by playing the old songs, but his newer material shows more maturity. With less sneer and plenty of heart, he writes more about grown up problems and less about youthful irresponsibility. This reflects the sincerity and gratitude of his stage persona.

Unida Cantina reflects this with songs like Dinero, which keys on personal integrity and debt, or Marie, that offers an unflinching look at the cost of sin. But Clyne hasn't gotten soft -- the emotional regret in Marie has no self-pity, just a sad acknowledgment. My favorite track, Empty Highway, centers on a fringe character, but without the false bravado of Clyne's older songs. The story here is hinted at: a life has slid out of control and the singer is trying to figure out a next move. Meanwhile, the music sounds like a bluesy take on George Harrison's I Me Mine.
Alcohol, THC.
We're packing heavy

Be all you can be
Brown bag of $20s,
.45 ACP

A head full of Jupiter
And as we drive into the sun
And all the good we thought we did has come undone
In the end I find I'm back where I'd begun
I'm on an empty highway with a loaded gun
In a single song, Clyne sums up the story arc of Breaking Bad.

The mix of Americana, alt country, and rock on Unida Cantina will sound familiar to Clyne's fans. As always, the Peacemakers are the perfect backing band. The arrangements emphasize fills and backing elements more than pyrotechnic leads and the Peacemakers smoothly execute the songs with a sweet economy. From anthemic sing-alongs to stripped down reflections, the album's flow showcases Clyne's writing and expression.

If there's a fault with Unida Cantina, it's a lack of novelty. Unlike some artists, Roger Clyne is settling into himself rather than trying constant reinventions. The upside is that each new Peacemakers album will deliver more of what the fans love.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 3/19

Whether you like darkness or light, there are some fine musical choices this week.

19 March - Bluebird Theater, Denver CO
White Rabbits

I really enjoyed White Rabbits' last album, It's Frightening. The primitive feel and the subtle power of their sound was compelling. I haven't had a chance to listen to their latest, Milk Famous, but it's on my list. Their dark, atavistic sound should translate into a good show.

20 March - Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO
21 March - Bluebird Theater, Denver CO
22 March - Fox Theatre, Boulder CO
Donavon Frankenreiter

Indie rock icon Donavon Frankenreiter has a full set of shows across the Front Range this week. His lazy summer vibe would have fit last week's weather better, but his cheery indie pop will certainly give us a touch of brightness.

22 March - Larimer Lounge, Denver CO
Sleepy Sun

Last time I saw Sleepy Sun, they blenderized retro rock, acid rock, and prog into a unique, intense mix. Their new album, Spine Hits, is coming out next month (review soon!). Singer Rachel Fannan has left the band, breaking up the male/female dynamic, but it's still a fine follow up to their earlier work. This should be a great show.

24 March - Hi-Dive, Denver CO
Delicate Steve

Delicate Steve is returning to Colorado. This time, as a headliner, he should have a full length set to showcase his layered, experimental guitar sound. Even though his music is largely instrumental, he's an engaging performer. The Hi-Dive will be reverberating with chaos and beauty.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

CD review - Todd Snider, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (2012)

The raconteur is back with more stories from the fringe

If there's a brief summary for the characters in Todd Snider's songs, New York Banker comes close: "Good things happen to bad people" and, of course, its corollary about good people. In this case, Snider uses his song to explain the whole banking crisis and add a human element. The sloppy, bar band alt-country rock music frames the song as if Snider is the slightly drunk high school teacher bitching about his fate. If the Occupy movement could settle on an anthem, it ought to be this.

Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables carries on Snider's tradition of using fringe characters and their stories to throw some perspective on our own lives. Sometimes the themes are big, like New York Banker or the cynical assessment of religion, In the Beginning. Other times, he closes in on smaller, personal stories. Either way, despite his casual speak-singing delivery, he lavishes attention on each track. Even on the most tossed off songs, like The Very Last Time, which promises that this last time is not like all the other last times, he still creates a moment of poignant perfection:
I had a dream where you came to see me
You asked if I was okay
That's how I knew that I was dreaming:
You asked if I was okay
The matter of fact tone and lack of self-pity combines with pig headed optimism to give the simple idea some depth.

Agnostic Hymns reaches back to the ramshackle feel of The Devil You Know. The unreliable narrator/scam artist of In Between Jobs is a younger brother of the confident construction worker in Lookin' For a Job. Snider's voice drifts across the dirty blues licks, spinning his web. His cocky attitude encourages distrust but also a grudging respect:
There's only one way to win this shell game
Be the one that gets the other guy to play
You think I'm not very bright and you might be right
I might have been born yesterday
But I was up all night...
The least direct song on the album, Brenda, paints Keith Richards and Mick Jagger as flawed lovers that offered each other redemption. While that probably shouldn't be read literally, Snider gets awfully close to a deeper truth. Whether or not the Rolling Stones' chemistry "was true love", Snider shares the true love in his heart.

Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is another fine Todd Snider album. He doesn't really break new ground, but, like a great raconteur, Snider shows us what he does best without repeating himself.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Music news - Desperately seeking a clue

I made my weekly trek through the music news, looking for something interesting enough to cover. Some weeks are easier than others and this week was a cake walk.

God hates fags and Radiohead
God hates fags and Radiohead,

The Westboro Baptist Church picketed Radiohead in Kansas City last weekend, decrying the band as "freak monkeys with mediocre tunes". I was shocked. Did they somehow mistake a Radiohead show for a military funeral or something? If they're going to get into music criticism, should I start ranting about my religious delusions ("God hates godly haters")? And why Radiohead? They could have waited for Friday to vent on Jane's Addiction.

But just as I was settling into a good anti-bigot rant, I had to put it on hold because we need to have a face off for most clueless of the week. I'm talking, of course, about Courtney Love and her assertion that the Muppets are raping Curt Cobain. Or at least his memory. That's right, including the song in The Muppets movie last year stepped over a line that Weird Al, Miley Cyrus, 2Cellos, and Paul Anka couldn't find.

Evil Muppets
Photo credit: Ross Hawkes

It's not nice to pick on the handicapped and Love's critical faculties put her into that category, albeit largely by her own doing. But I'm not sure I understand her rationale. Disney apparently negotiated in good faith with Primary Wave Music (Love sold them half her rights to Cobain's music, including full distribution rights). The other members of Nirvana apparently signed off as well.

Aside from the issue of rights, it's still not clear what's so egregious about the Muppets? I don't necessarily think Cobain would have been thrilled, but who knows? Maybe what Love's really trying to say is that she was effectively raped by the Muppets. Or more to the point, the Muppets hurt her feelings by not giving her enough attention. But there's never enough.

Which side wins the Clueless Olympics? I'll declare a draw.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

CD review - Groundation, Building an Ark (2012)

Growing beyond natural roots, the album presents a modern reggae sound

Groundation manages to square the circle. While holding on firmly to reggae roots, they skip the slavish devotion that snares many American reggae bands and update the sound in natural direction. Natural for both the players and the music. Lead singer and founder Harrison Stafford may be a professor of reggae (Sonoma State University), but Groundation doesn't intellectualize reggae. Instead, they tap the heart of the groove, following where it leads. Given the band's jazz roots, their horn decorations can drift to ska and soul, but the conscious lyrics keep the vibe on target.

Building an Ark is my introduction to Groundation. The opening title track defies expectation, beginning with a simple soulful feel like early Cat Stevens. Setting up a love song lyric, Stafford's reedy vocal is the only reggae touch. Groundation adeptly shifts the musical context a couple of time before the main groove of the song. A comforting organ accents a 2 Tone ska flavored soul progression. The horns add subtle emphasis until the Miles Davis style trumpet solo. These unexpected transitions show off the band's range and fusion aesthetic.

My favorite section of the album is a pair of tracks: The Dreamer and Who is Gonna. The first track sets up another moody 2 Tone skank, with a haunting organ riff and a simple chank.The chanting lyrics have a philosophical sense:
I believe in the day and the dawning
Yes I believe in this world still so
And with all of these years, I have learned through trials
To be in company with you is like a dream
The song is hypnotically simple, but it's full of little details surrounded by enough space to appreciate them. The track is lush without being rococo. The ending fades down and back up again, but now we're in the following song. At first it's not clear why they even split the tracks, but Who is Gonna is more active, with more chord changes and passing vocal lines.

Building an Ark is slickly polished, but the heart still shines through. The funk and soul adornment rounds out the sound.

Take a listen to the first single, Humility. The fill work references ska, but the reggae groove is solid. The parts all mesh into a smooth whole: bubbling chank, guitar fills, horn punches, mellow organ, warm melodic bass, and tight high hat/rim shot drumwork. It also shows off the vocal interplay between Stafford's thin vocals and the warm female voices from Kim Pommel and Kerry-Ann Morgan on the conscious lyrics:
No one sees that you're riding places
But every now and then you come to study their faces
When one looks into the system of man
We are ruled by the knife and we are fooled by the pen
Oh, lift up your eyes and see
Your humility
The lazy sway of the beat and lush arrangements on Building an Ark offer both simplicity and the novelty of fractal layered details.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 3/12

A couple of big name bands coming through and an intriguing newcomer...

13 March - 1st Bank Center, Broomfield CO
Radiohead/Other Lives

Radiohead albums are never mired in the band's past. They reinvent their sound each time. Last year's The King of Limbs exposed a stronger electronic side of the band. Their shows do tend to include some older tracks and I'm interested to see whether they're reinterpreting the songs according to their current aesthetic.

I've seen Other Lives in smaller clubs, where their soundtrack oriented songs fill the room. They should be a great opening act for Radiohead.

14 March - Ogden Theatre, Denver CO
Flogging Molly

Like the Dropkick Murphys. Flogging Molly plays hard rocking music with a Gaelic twist. Celtic beats, pipes, fiddles, and accordion will be turned up to 11 for a night of drinking, dancing, and warming up for St. Patrick's Day.

16 March - Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO
17 March - Fox Theatre, Boulder CO
The Polish Ambassador

I don't know if I'll catch this show or not, but the description caught my eye. "A beat machine from the future...hailing simultaneously from the far reaches of other dimensional Universes and Oakland, California"? The story alone sounds worth the time. The Polish Ambassador lays down electronic DJ jams built from all over the musical map -- everything from glitch to hip hop is thrown in the mix.

17 March, Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO
The Wailers

And for St. Patty's day, it's time for the showing of the green. Of course, the Wailers will be showing the gold, red, and black as well. Good reggae music is always a joy and the Wailers have kept the fire alive. Continuing on after Bob Marley's death, the band mixes the older tunes with newer songs and younger players.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Concert review - Los Lobos with Muskateer Gripweed

8 March 2012 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

The Aggie usually draws a strong college crowd that doesn't build critical mass until the opening acts are wrapping up their sets. Last night's show broke the mold. The age spread was quite a bit wider -- I might have even seen a grandmother or two -- and local stars Muskateer Gripweed had a good full audience for their hot set. The Led Zeppelin music between the bands was an interesting choice, but it was a night for joyous dancing and rhythmic excitement.

Muskateer Gripweed
It's been a while since I've seen Muskateer Gripweed. They weren't weak before, but now they've honed their show into a high energy tent revival. Their frontman, the Reverend Monkey Paw Patterson (Jason Downing) took a seat at center stage but rarely sat still. He stayed as focused as an ADD eight year old on Red Bull and Pixie Stix.

Bouncing around the stage, Downing was in constant motion, jumping from guitar to tambourine or from the stage to stand on his seat. Even when others could have stepped forward for a bass jam or guitar lead, he scampered around and air played along. The interplay between the gyrating Reverend and his tightly focused band was a study in dynamic contrast. It was as if the band channeled all of their stage movements into their frontman.

Downing may have played the goofy clown, but he and the rest of Muskateer Gripweed were perfectly serious about setting up a sweet pocket in the groove. Like the best blues bands, they whipped through intricate arrangements with a casual aplomb.

Laid back soulful jams, bluesy shuffles, and Southern rock all meshed together as the band skipped through their hour long set. Several of their songs had a Little Feat bounce, especially with the drummer's tight syncopation. The straighter rock tunes offered a small taste of Bad Company's guitar/bass drive. But it wasn't all retro '70s sounds. The hyperkinetic beats and vocals recalled Blues Traveller, even if the harp playing wasn't quite John Popper. For all of the comparisons, Muskateer Gripweed have their own sound and personality.

Muskateer Gripweed will be back next month, hosting their CD release party for Straight Razor Revival at the Aggie on April 7.

Los Lobos
Los Lobos ambled out on the stage and kicked off the set with a rollicking Mexican folk sound that got everyone dancing. A steady bass throb, syncopated guitars, and accordion fills bounced along as the crowd shouted their encouragement. After this warmup, Cesar Rosas warned us, "We're doing the acoustic thing tonight" before the band kicked into Saint Behind the Glass from their classic album, Kiko. Los Lobos would dip back to Kiko several times during their set.

Maybe it was the wider age range of the audience or the casual camaraderie, but everybody surrendered themselves to the easy, waterflow melodies and tight harmonies. This was backyard music writ large. From Conrad Lozano's easy grin at the enthusiastic shouts to David Hidalgo's shut eyed focus as he played his bajo sexto, the band created a relaxed vibe and the crowd could feel the love.

But this didn't translate into sleepy seranades. Instead, Los Lobos created a party atmosphere. Uptempo classical runs, interlocking rhythms, and even electric guitar kept the crowd dancing. While they often returned to the traditional Latino folk music of their roots, they stirred in a host of other sounds: meandering jams (accentuated by Stever Berlin's flute), solid funk rock grooves, Latin jazz, and some New Orleans rhythms.

That's really the beauty of Los Lobos. Their roots may stay true to the Latino music they were steeped in, but they are a truly American band. Louis Pérez's jarana huasteca and Lozano's guitarron meld with electric guitar and keyboard to create a fusion sound that connects across cultures and eras.

Maintaining the same players since the beginning (although younger drummer Cougar Estrada now joins them) has imbued their music with a rich depth. The songs could be deceptively simple, but that effortless flow is the result of countless hours of playing.

When the band came out for their encore, Rosas teased us with a couple of Led Zeppelin snippets, referencing the music from the set break. But that was just a feint before they launched into the Cuban classic, Guantanamera. Then, a last upbeat jam (Mas y Mas) kicked it up before sending us out.

More photos on my Flickr.