Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul”

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Immediately after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 people turned to one another in shock and apprehension and knew inistinctively that this changes everything. We’re in a similar situation now, which I suppose is why Bob Dylan rummaged through his unreleased material to find the song “Murder Most Foul” which he released a few days ago.

It’s something of a dirge, slow and dramatic and most definitely not hummable. The lyrics focus  on the assasination itself, describing much of the action, the violence, the panic, and how it was “the greatest magic trick under the sun” because “thousands were watching and no one saw a thing.” Dylan hints at conspiracy.  The villain speaks in plural, as in “we’re going to kill you with hatred without any respect,” and at one point Dylan asks “What is the truth and where did it go?” and answers “Ask Oswald and Ruby, they ought to know.” And yet, this is not a finger-pointing song like the ones he was so famous for long ago. If Dylan has a theory about who was behind the Kennedy murder, he isn’t saying here.

A few things I learned as I studied the song:  Deep Ellum is the neighborhood in which Kennedy was shot; the Trinity River flows through Dallas (and speaking of a trinity, who are the “three bums…dressed in rags?); Parkland Hospital was where they took Kennedy, and Zapruder’s film caught the murder and has been studied ever since.

The title of the song is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet wherein Prince Hamlet’s uncle has murdered Hamlet’s father, so he can marry Hamlet’s mother and be king. The uncle wants power. Hamlet wants revenge. In the end no one in Denmark gets what they want. The ghost of Hamlet’s father describes his demise as “murder most foul,” and Dylan applies the phrase to Kennedy’s assassination in the beginning, middle and end of the song.

But Dylan does not just focus on the assassination. The song is seventeen minutes long, so he has plenty of time to move forward through history and mention the subsequent touchstones of sixties rock music:  the Beatles, Woodstock, Altamont. It seems funny that he would conjure up these iconic images now when he tried so hard to avoid that scene at the time and preferred to “just sit here and watch the river flow.”

Dylan moves on to name check many musicians. He seems to be paying tribute to performers he admires, much as he did time and time again in his  autobiography Chronicles. Here he also quotes from countless songs, and at first the lyrics and song titles seemed rather random. But upon further listens it’s easier to see how he weaves in the titles to tell the story of bygone times.

I remember how Dylan’s Love and Theft was released on 9/11 and how I’ve always associated the album with the tragedy. And, in fact, how songs like “Mississippi” and “High Water” seemed to be written about the terrorist attack.  “Murder Most Foul” will be remembered the same way, as somehow pertinent and necessary in our current struggles.

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Top Ten Albums for 2019

One thing good about having lots of medical issues, it has meant I’m homebound, and this unwelcome lack of travel has given me time to work on my annual top ten list. Instead of exploring the deserts of Southern Utah or the beaches of Southern California I came up with a list of my favorite albums from the past year:

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Better Oblivion Community Center, self-titled:  Conor Oberst’s latest collaboration is stellar thanks to Phoebe Bridgers’ ethereal voice, and her own songwriting, which stands up to that of her mentor. Rumor has it this album signaled the end of his marriage, and if that’s the case, I’m truly sorry. But it’s a good album. Check out tracks “Dylan Thomas” and “Chesapeake.”

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Tips, Miwi LaLupa:  I’ve been waiting for this one, and Miwi’s new material is full of nuance and surprise once again. I’ve mentioned before that I love his voice, so much humanity and kindness in the vocals.

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Sunset Kids, Jesse Malin:  This singer/songwriter is underrated, for sure. Along with some midtempo rock on this album, Malin changes the sound up just enough with some smooth R&B undertones. “Room 13” featuring Lucinda Williams belongs on my favorite song playlist.

 

Lahs, Alla-Las:  The album to play when you want to listen to 1960s psychedelia but you’re tired of all the good stuff.

 

 

Days Of The Bagnold Summer

Days of the Bagnold Summer, Belle and Sebastian: The band’s latest release is a  soundtrack, and the movie must have a wistful tone because the band has provided that with their signature brand of pretty songs and instrumentals.

 

 

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Life of Compromise, Stathi (EP) — Stathi’s songs and delivery feel personal in a folk singer kind of way, but on this EP they include instrumentation that make them memorable. Check out “Cache Start” and “Angeline.”

 

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Father of the Bride, Vampire Weekend — It’s great to get some new Vampire Weekend after a six-year hiatus. Even without former member Rostam Batmanglij the band continues to create bright, tuneful songs with deceptively thoughtful lyrics. Eighteen tracks long, the album is cohesive without being monotonous.

 

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Thrashing Through the Passion, Hold Steady. Craig Finn is a heck of a songwriter. He’s a storyteller along the lines of Charles Bukowski, painting portraits of likeable characters who nonetheless keep doing really dumb things. Finn has released some decent solo albums, but he’s at his best with this band behind him.

 

Ode To Joy

Ode to Joy, Wilco:  A very mellow offering from Wilco which shows off Tweedy’s sweet, tender vocals as well as the band’s melodic side. Check out “Everyone Hides.”

 

 

Western Stars, Bruce Springsteen — The orchestration and production here make the album feel like it comes out of the early 70s. “Hello Sunshine,” for instance, is reminiscent of Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blue.” Comforting and nostalgic.

 

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There is No Other Way, Let’s Try it Another Way…a history of the Hammond Organ

A Guest Post by Nathaniel Gordon

I often use rock music themes in my college writing classes, and once in awhile I run across a student essay that really gets me thinking. While Dylanologists have written at length on the impact of Bob Dylan’s opus “Like a Rolling Stone” rarely do they focus on the use of the Hammond organ, crucial to the sound of that original recording.  ~Lu

Despite huge leaps forward in technology, in the early 1960s rock and roll bands most often performed as a four piece: drums, electric bass, and two electric guitars. As much as they pushed the genre forward, groundbreaking bands such as the Beatles were still performing music that directly echoed the 50s rock ‘n’ roll from which they were born. Though what they were doing with these instruments was innovative, the basic tools used to create these works were not. It wouldn’t be until 1965, when a former folk musician named Bob Dylan released his sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited, that something new would hit the mainstream, an electric instrument that rock hadn’t considered valid before: the Hammond organ.

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Photo courtesy of Retro Rentals, Burbank, CA

The Hammond, invented by Laurens Hammond and John M. Hanert, consisted of one hundred twenty two keys on two drawers, reaching five octaves. The organ also featured twenty six pedals that could be used to further expand the organ’s range, or warp the sound. This made it popular with electric blues musicians, much of whose sound came from the emotion found through intentional distortion. Setting the Hammond apart from its contemporaries were its preset keys, which could be edited to make certain combinations of sounds that otherwise would be unobtainable. Released in 1935, the Hammond and Harnet marketed as a cheaper alternative to the classic church based pipe organ. Its detractors, however, argued that the Hammond was simply too dolce to be conventionally used. As a response, the Hammond BC was issued, featuring more powerful sound production technology, along with what has come to be known as the Hammond’s signature cabinet. This innovation came about in 1937 when Donald Leslie purchased a Hammond for his own enjoyment but was disheartened at how weak the sound was in a room with sub par acoustics. To remedy this, he created a device that boosted the audio signal by rotating the output around a circular motor, creating a spooky and distinctly modern sound. The instrument would go through numerous additional revisions, improvements and additions over the next thirty years, until Dylan featured it on Highway 61 Revisited.

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courtesy Wikipedia

“Like a Rolling Stone,” the first track on the album, was six minutes of pure rebelliousness as Dylan brayed “How does it feel/How does it feel” on each chorus over a swelling, raucous, abrasive Hammond organ. This organ was played by twenty-one-year-old session guitarist Al Kooper, who had been invited to watch Dylan record in the studio. When Kooper felt inspired to play along, he decided to join in on the Hammond organ, simply because it was the only instrument in the room not being played. When Dylan heard it, he demanded the organ be turned up and used in the final mix. This created a particularly warped, psychedelic sound that was new to folk music as well as mainstream pop. “Like a Rolling Stone” would go on to be Dylan’s best selling single, and introduce the Hammond organ to the public eye.

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courtesy Wikipedia

Over the next few years, the instrument’s prominence grew to the point that it became nearly as ubiquitous as the guitar. A young British band called Procol Harum released their self titled debut album in 1967 featuring a dedicated organ player who often performed the lead role in songs. Their debut single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” featured this organ over the top of the mix, louder than any other instruments, even the vocals. As singer/songwriter Gary Brooker crooned abstract lines such as “One of sixteen vestal virgins/Who were leaving for the coast” Matthew Fisher’s organ rose and fell, swelled and subsided as if to give the song a sense of traveling through space. The crowd called out for more, and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” shot up the charts becoming the band’s first number one single, and has gone on to sell over 10 million copies across the world.

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courtesy of Wikipedia

At the same time, future progressive rock stars Pink Floyd were recording their debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The first track on the American edition, “See Emily Play,” once again featured the Hammond organ as the lead instrument. This song started to show the psychedelic influences of the time, and the organ’s sound reflected this. After each chorus of “free games for May/see Emily play” Richard Wright’s organ would break into a free-form, distorted section that showcased the instrument’s unique sound and range.

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courtesy Wikipedia

Just a few weeks after this, The Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which prominently featured the Hammond on most of its tracks, including the fan favorite Ringo Starr showcase “With a Little Help From My Friends.” From here, psychedelic rock would experience a boom in popularity, growing into one of the most groundbreaking genres of the next decade.

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courtesy Wikipedia

In Hang on to a Dream: the Story of the Nice, Martyn Hanson writes that inspired by the enigma that was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a young British keyboard player named Keith Emerson decided that he could do more with the Hammond organ, if he only had the capitol. When his blues band imploded in 1966, Emerson made a bargain with record company executive, if he could cannibalize and rebuild one of Immediate Records’ Hammond organs, he would perform in multiple Beatles-knockoff groups to pay the company back. The record company thought that Emerson’s innovations would go nowhere, but they could still make money off his ability to play simple music well in front of an audience. Therefore, the company’s head obliged, and Emerson went to work rebuilding. During this time, Emerson formed a band called The Nice which became Emerson’s showcase for his Frankenstein-ed instrument, and it was something completely new for the time. The band performed electric renditions of old classical songs, rearranged by Emerson for guitar, drum, bass, and, of course, Hammond organ.

ELP-ELP

courtesy Wikipedia

From the first notes of the band’s first album’s first track, it was apparent that the Emerson’s organ and piano work was nothing short of virtuosic and clearly the driving force in the band’s sound. Despite this, all five of the band’s albums subsequently failed commercially. Much like Procol Harum before them, the public wasn’t ready for a band quite that progressive. After the demise of The Nice in 1969, Emerson went on to form a group called Emerson, Lake and Palmer which continued to feature Emerson’s organ playing, with the addition of newer keyboard instruments such as the mellotron and moog synthesizer. ELP revolutionized the way in which music was recorded, but that’s a story for another day…

Dylan continued to experiment with new musical styles for the rest of career, everything from country to R&B to the Great American Songbook. Excluding a few outliers in the mid nineteen seventies and early nineteen nineties, all would include the Hammond organ which continues to be featured in popular music up through the present day. Artists across all genres include the instrument on their albums, ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Evanescence, from Frank Zappa to Taylor Swift. Other than guitar, no instrument has impacted popular music so instrumentally.

Nathaniel

For any classic prog fans, that’s a Larks’ Tongues in Aspic shirt.

Nathaniel Gordon is sophomore studying psychology at the University of Maine at Farmington. He hopes to one day become a therapist like his father before him. In his free time he listens to music, reads about music, writes about music and thinks about music. His tastes range from classic blues to modern progressive metal (but not rap…anything but rap…). He’s pictured here with his friend Ozzy the snake.

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Beauty and the Beat

Conor bandWe’re out on the thumb here in New England, not really on the way to anywhere, and what that sometimes means for logistics is that we’re the first stop on someone’s tour. That was the case last night when Conor Oberst and band defied the rain and triumphed over a ridiculous Beauty and the Beast castle backdrop to deliver a really enchanting night of outdoor music at Prescott Park in Portsmouth.

 

Miwi

multi-instrumentalist Miwi La Lupa

This gig was not only the first of an eleven night run through the East Coast and Midwest but very likely the first live performance ever for this line-up. The band features Miwi La Lupa , who has often played with Oberst and also put out a killer album of his own on Oberst’s Team Love Records a couple years ago. (Ended Up Making Love. Listen to it!) On bass is Stephanie Drootin, who plays with a couple Saddle Creek bands. Oberst referred to this group of musicians as “family”  so chances are the drummer and keyboard player are also part of that extended Omaha network of his.

conor.jpgOberst opened with “I Won’t Ever be Happy    Again (great title for Conor song…) from a little-known 2008 compilation album called Rock the Net.  Little known to me at any rate. In fact, I got pretty excited thinking this was a new unrecorded song and told my concert-mate Katie that it was possibly the first time he’d ever played it live, but I suppose that’s not the case. Before he launched into “Trees Get Wheeled Away,” he mused that he had written up the setlist and sent it to the band awhile ago, and now he was kind of shaking his head over some of his obscure choices.  Also from his rarities album was “Blue Angels Air Show,” which begins “Claire’s turning blonde for the summer I guess” and which he dedicated to his cousin, one of his best friends “who is really ticked at me right now.”

Guitarist La Lupa did double duty adding color with horn parts, as did the keyboard player, and I wonder if maybe knowing that he had a couple of talented horn players Oberst chose songs that had either been recorded with horns (like “Hundreds of Ways”) or lent themselves nicely to them.

Towards the end the band leaned more heavily into Oberst’s latest solo effort, Salutations, building to an energetic “St. Dymphna,” (“we can keep drinking til St. Dymphna kicks us out”) a paean to both the patron saint of the emotionally distrubed and to a New York City bar once frequented by both Oberst and La Lupa). The encore included a killer version of “Napalm” which used to sound kind of like Bob Dylan’s “On the Road Again,” but last night sounded more like an urgent Despercidos song.

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Joanna Sternberg playing in the rain

I should also mention that before the rain let up Joanna Sternberg opened the show with a quirky set that managed to keep the audience’s attention. How to describe Sternberg? Talented. Deceptively simple lyrics. And an odd sort of awkward stage presence that was really quite endearing.

 

I suspect as the tour moves on this band of seasoned musicians will add more of their own flourishes to the songs. Last night they seemed to still be feeling them out, and a sound check abbreviated by the rain probably didn’t help. But these straight forward versions put the lyrics front and center, and a Conor Oberst song can always stand up to a low key arrangement, a few rain drops, or even a cheesy castle backdrop from a children’s play.

Conor band 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cold Chocolate and Pumpkin Pie

Frank and I strolled over to High Street tonight for some live music at the North Church. This is a wonderful old venue right in our neighborhood, built about 150 years ago by the Unitarians. Owned now by the Farmington Historical Society, it’s a rustic, cozy place, romantic enough for a wedding (indeed, son Nate and daughter-in-law Justina were married here) and charming enough for an evening of live music.
North Church

The North Church, which has been beautifully restored by the Farmington Historical Society. The steeple blew off in a wind storm in the late 1940s. (Photo courtesy of the Farmington Historical Society)

We treated ourselves to a pieces of pumpkin and apple pie in the basement reception area, chatted with friends and neighbors, and then strolled upstairs to take a seat in one of the long wooden pews.  Tonight’s offering was Cold Chocolate, a folk rock trio from Boston.

These accomplished musicians rocked the old church a little harder than the usual folk artists I’ve seen there, and I enjoyed their energy. A memorable cover from early in their first set was Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You,” a good choice for them since their original songs fit that same mid-tempo, Americana sort of sound. Their originals were entirely new to me. I enjoyed them but will not try to review them after only one listen. I did buy a cd, however. Maybe a review, or an interview with the band, will happen in the future.

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Cold Chocolate at the North Church. You can listen to them here.

Venue is so important to a live music experience. I like the dark, noisy, crowded atmosphere of Tuck’s, our neighborhood bar, and I like the elegance and expanse of the State Theater in Portland, but there’s a place too for the casual, intimate ambiance of a restored 19th century church, where ticket prices are reasonable, pie is free, kids are welcome and those who aren’t much for the bar scene can feel comfortable.
Cold Chocolate warmed  to the venue. We were a small but appreciative audience, and we warmed to them too.
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Inviting the Wild In

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Left to right: Joe Hodgkins, Chris Goodwin, Melody Bickford, Dave Fish and D.J. Taylor

I met with Dave Fish and Melody Bickford recently to talk about their band Invite the Wild, a blues rock quintet that plays local night spots from the apres ski Widowmaker to the late night Roost to my own neighborhood hangout, Tuck’s Ale House. I asked them to tell me about the beginnings of the band.

“The Delta Roots way back in the day, that was the beginning of it all,” said Fish before launching into a rock and roll tale that included Barack Obama’s inauguration, band member departures and arrivals, and three or four name changes.

But we’ll get back to that.

In more recent history, Invite the Wild released a self-titled album last fall. It’s available on all the major streaming platforms, and the band also has cds which they sell online and at shows, where sales are still brisk. Invite the Wild

The album showcases the band’s bluesy style on a collection of originals, Bickford most often on lead vocals, delivering a Bonnie Rait kind of confidence to songs like “Please Find Me” and “Rearview Mirror” and showing her vocal versatility when she effortlessly tackles the more country “Goin’ Down to Nashville.”

The band is full of songwriters. Fish contributed  clever lyrics to the dynamic “Trade it In,” where lines like “I don’t know what I was thinkin’/I thought we were the perfect match” approach the Dylanesque. Guitarists D.J. Taylor and Joe Hodgkins show off their story-telling talents in the rags to riches to rags saga “Comin’ Back from Nashville” and  the ghost tale “Moses Varnum.” Deft guitar work from both Taylor and Hodgkins shows off their bar band pedigrees.

The work is the product of several recording sessions with Farmington native Jon Gaither at his home studio in Portland. Bickford and Fish have fond memories of the recording process which involved the band settling into Gaither’s Victorian house for entire weekends and setting up in his third floor studio. “We worked 9 a.m. to midnight the whole time,” said Bickford, bolstered by “lots of coffee and Chinese food.”

All the tracks were recorded live, not an easy feat in a small studio space, but the team found a way to make it work, with amps tucked into closets and the drums in an adjacent room. Gaither handled the technical side, recording, mixing and mastering the album. “Jon knows what he’s doing. He’s learning all the time,” Bickford said. “Vocals got laid last most of time, but at the end of the day when we did the vocals he had the same energy and attention to detail.”

If Gaither seemed like a sixth member of the band on this album, it’s no surprise. He was in the very first version of this group, back in 2009 when he and Fish and drummer Chris Goodwin,  returning from a trip to Washington D.C. to attend the inauguration festivities for Barack Obama, decided to form a band. “Jon had a beat up old drum set, and we started playing in our living room,” Fish recalled. That was the Delta Roots, who played together for several years until Gaither moved to Portland. Then Goodwin and Fish placed an ad on Craig’s List only to discover their perfect fit in Melody and Joe Tinkham, a couple they had never met before, but who lived only a mile away. They called the new band Quick Fix and kept playing, that is, until Tinkham left the band.

Meanwhile Fish knew D.J. from sharing gigs with the band Nigels Thornberry. “I always knew I wanted a band with Melody and D.J.” said Fish. “And I was literally sitting next to D.J. when I heard Joe was quitting.” The offer went out to D.J. immediately, and “a second life was breathed into our musical career.” It was about this time that the band became the Usual Suspects, and they gigged together as a quartet for several years. The next iteration came when “magically we found Joe [Hodgkins], and it changed a lot,” said Fish.

IMG_9289-2Playing Alex Fest at Titcomb Mountain with Hodgkins was a band highlight. “It was unbelievable,” said Bickford. “Beautiful weather. So much local music, so many local bands.” The event was a fundraiser honoring Alex Witt who died tragically in a ski accident in 2017. “We learned Grateful Dead songs because Alex was a Dead fan,” explained Bickford. “We found our songs learning those songs and playing that gig.”

Once the band had an album to put on music platforms they realized just how many “usual suspects” were out there and another name change was in the works. Taking inspiration from a Nikita Gill poem they decided on Invite the Wild.  “The poem deals with the idea of Red Ridinghood, and what if she invited the wolf in willingly?” explains Bickford.

Since the album release, Fish said, “we’ve been able to be a little more selective with gigs. And we play more what we want. We play a lot more originals now.”

bandcopy4Bickford agreed.  “Once you lay an album, once you have that, so much pride and confidence comes from that. I feel so much more comfortable filling the set with originals.”

“And we always get good reactions from them,” said Fish.

Many of the band’s covers are from the sixties and seventies and their originals are inspired by the same era. “I can’t picture us playing anything else, “ said Fish. “It’s all any of us have loved since we were young.”

The band seems to agree not only on musical style but on just about everything else. “We love each other like family,” said Fish. Chris and I don’t communicate, we just play. He’s definitely the quiet guy. The four of us, he said, referring to the rest of the band, “we don’t argue or debate.”

“We have the only guitar players on earth who don’t have egos,” agreed Bickford.

The camaraderie has carried over to their songwriting, and the first song on their album is a good indication of what’s to come. “You Keep Me From Home” sounds like it could be an angsty love song but in reality the lyrics are about the band’s relationship with music. Fish came up with the chorus and then each band member contributed a verse. “This is our solid band song,” he said. Lots of songs for their next album are ready to go, all of them written as a band. They also have live shows booked into next fall. “We’re happy to stay local,” said Fish.

“The music scene around here is really great,” said Bickford. “There are a lot of places in Western Maine that support local music.”

Currently the band is excited about a new song they are working on called “Red,” what Fish and Bickford label as a feminist anthem, drawing inspiration from “Girls of the Wild,” the same poem that inspired their band name. “It’s one of my favorite songs to play now,” said Bickford.

Bickford and Fish seem confident about the band’s future, but they also said that sharing “music and life philosophy” with their bandmates has kept them in the “now.”  “I find myself knowing how to live in the moment so much easier,” said Bickford. “And that shows in the music big time.” It inspires their approach to recording, writing and playing live. “Because that moment is special,” she said. “That moment is powerful.”

 

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Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds….

    by Jim Mello

Cross Center Bangor Maine 10/27/18

   It was raw, cold, had been snowing, was raining diagonally, and there is no real close parking, the exact opposite of Southern Cal, at least The Beach Boys mythic version. Surf wasn’t up.
     Turned my collar to the cold and rain and made my way to the Cross Center…one hour and fifteen minutes early because last week the ticket window person said because I didn’t buy the tickets direct from Ticketmaster I might “have problems” and, “somebody else might have your seat.” Gave me a chance to chat with Freeman, the manager of the local Bull Moose. Silver linings.
   And yes, the sound system was playing muzak version of Beach Boys songs…rather bizarre…even Dylan isn’t welcoming people with Sinatra covers. The couple behind me commented on it. I must confess, because of my love of Beach Boys harmonies, whether the subject matter be cars, surfing, or surfer girls; I was not too troubled by the muzak..kinda restful for the seniors among us. Kinda New Age Surf music. The guy in front of me, who is “into radio”…I was supposed to know him…but, he didn’t know me, the air guitar legend. Anyway, he knew the set list: three parts: Beach Boys hits/Pet Sounds in its entirety (depends on your point of view)…and two or three encores. He said there’d be a 15 minute intermission, but that didn’t happen. Not sure they could have gotten Brian in and out from behind the piano in that amount of time…besides looking lost and anxious, he was sporting a fairly large cast. They plunked him down behind the key board, and there he stayed. looking at times almost comfortable..
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Brian Wilson, photo from the Los Angeles Times

   Then the band came on stage…10 musicians counting Brian who played piano all night…Any ten piece band catches my attention and these guys were good…a thermin (yes!), two keyboards!, two or three guitarists, depending on the song…bass, and a guy who played a huge saxophone..flutes, a clarinet?..and something that looked like an oversize harmonica…they were tight, flexible, at times jazzy…and well oiled…everything centers around Brian and whether or not he, or Al Jardine, can hit the (wonderfully harmonic) high notes.
    They started off with nine, yes, count ’em nine, Beach Boy hits! Only Logan and Ernie would have been moaning. The Fun Fun Fun had begun…Now, I’m not a big fan of some of the tunes, but they are in my DNA…pumped into my adolescent not-yet-finished-growing, reptilian(Pavlovian ) brain and I was dancin’ in my seat, playing air guitar, harmonizing with the wino few. The 15 year old girl next to me knew all the tunes, thanks to good parenting, and me and her dad were doing the high harmonies. What I realized was this was good old Chuck Berry based rock and roll(which you don’t hear very often anymore) with lyrics about living in California…cars…girls…surf…I like it , you can dance to it, its got a good beat. Ill give it a 75! It was great medicine for the melancholy mood I was in. (California Girls, I Wanna Dance, I get Around, Shut Down, Deuce Coupe, Surfer Girl, Water, Don’t Worry Baby (The Best Beach Boy song ever…so sadly romantic!), and Darlin’. The band was playful and loose and harmonically correct. Better than benzos IMHO…
    And, then this character (or caricature) appeared out of nowhere(backstage physically, but spiritually somewhere else), looking like a refugee from Bob Dylan’s “Cowboy Band”…hair like Dylans, a semi-too-tight fitting Nudie suit…kinda like Link Wray on acid. He was Blondie Chapin, and he was like a Shaman…moving about the stage like he was in a trance, while almost everybody stayed in place, and playing the best damn blues based guitar I’ve heard in years.Something transcendent happened and the light show intensified and for three songs Feel Flows, Wild Honey, and Sail on Sailor… we were in a different musical space…Beach Boys on acid…for real…and, just as quickly he disappeared….only to “appear” intermittently for the rest of the show playing mostly lead tambourine (my instrument of choice)…still never stopping, banging the tambourine on his chest, anywhere…sometimes with his hands..pure intrigue. Wild Honey was just that, wild…with burning guitar…great harmonies, and psychedelic lights. Good thing I resisted the THC.
   All that as a warm up to Pet Sounds! Now, I’m not one to claim Pet Sounds is the album of the decade or century or whatever…it did influence The Beatles (McCartney)..and has a few lovely songs on it, including “Caroline No.” Otherwise I’m ambivalent about Brian’s magnum opus “adolescent symphony for God (the West Coast God?). But live! With this band! Well, it came alive and Brian‘s compositional skills were evident. It was a thing to be heard. A blending of jazz, rock, and classical, and Four Freshman harmony that was an aural treat. I even didn’t mind “Sloop John B.”
    Even the adolescent themes, which really are universal themes about relationships, were heard from the perspective, my perspective, of fifty years of difficulty…Brian‘s romanticism banging into the real time pain of relationships but always with the hope of healing and reconciliation. I was flashed back to Friday Night Legion Hall dances (Put your head on my shoulder…) and everything since…all with beautiful musical contexts (except “John B”)…the sax player was great…the drummer was fantastic…
Brian served as an MC kinda…announcing the song, and who would be singing lead…and then there was Blondie drifting in and out like some disembodied ghost…
And, then it was encores and if you weren’t ready to dance then, what can I say? The security people kept people from dancing in the aisles…but some kids broke through..the rest of us boogied in place.
    “Good Vibrations” especially…only the Grinch would have refused to move…
then a quiet shift to “Love and Mercy”, the title track from a Brian solo album…kind of his theme song…he sang the best he did all night, and almost carried the vocal himself…
Love and mercy is what we need.
    All I can say is, Amen…
Waiting for Brian Wilson or someone like him)
the people drip in one by one
snaking into their seats
as muzaked Beach Boy songs
greet them
“Help Me Rhonda”
shifts nostalgia into fourth gear
the cold wet non SoCal Maine weather
blusters outside
dropping torrential rain
diagonal across the street lights:
the surf’s not up
Brian‘s sad saga the unsung soundtrack:
a fable of hope
an inspiration
in darkening times
until Brian appears
behind the piano
a literal figurehead
to his ten piece band
voice missing high notes
covered by the well oiled band
face distantly pained
mind on another plane
mirrored in grimaces
and nervous scratches
he never seems to quite be here
but his music
on the wings of faith
and expertise
soars… surrounds
lifts in exquisite harmonies
and musicians
channeling genius
bring melodies
that unfold into
some just discovered
jazz tapestry masterpiece
enveloping the audience
in this adolescent
Pet Sounds symphony to God
as the wounds of generations
lie open
to a Chuck Berried salve
dipped in wild honey
so sorely needed these fifty years later
leading us to
“Love and Mercy”
jlm 1027/18
Visit Jim’s Facebook page at Jim Mello:  Writer and Poet
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1942: An Album Review

Julian Saporiti has always been a masterful lyricist. His perceptive observations crafted with well-chosen words manage to convey mood and message without excess. Along with his writers’ feel for language come lovely, memorable melodies that embrace every line. Back in the early 2000s Saportiti brought his songs to life with his band the Young Republic, releasing a couple of impressive albums on End of the Road records before the band broke up in 2010.  You can hear their work hereAnd here:  

(Full disclosure and proud parent moment:  my son was in this band!)

Saporiti disappeared from the music scene for several years while he pursued studies in American history, earning a master’s degree in Wyoming and landing at Brown University to pursue a PhD. Now he’s back in the spotlight with a new collaboration with fellow Brown PhD candidate Erin Aoyama as the duo No No Boy and a new album called 1942. The time behind the scenes has been productive for Saporiti, and the new album glows with quiet songs of loss and longing. Inspired by his doctoral research, the songs evoke eras past from the Asian American perspective, illuminating their marginalized experiences during WWII and the Vietnam War.

Image result for no no boy 1942

A major focus of 1942 is on the internment of Japanese Americans by their own government during WWII. Oddly enough, as Saporiti explores the plight of these internees, the stories blossom as love songs. In “Heart Mountain” a man looks forward to an idyllic future with his sweetheart, “with so much love that it spills and runs down in rivers past the house that we build.” But meanwhile, “a daydream must do” along with stealing kisses in the laundry room and admiring her “perfect crooked tooth.”   

In “Two Candles in the Dark,” a boy is infatuated with a girl who doesn’t know how to dance (“my eyes are stuck on her/her eyes don’t leave her feet).  And there’s the “would-be Casanova walking three girls home” in “Instructions to All Persons.”

And yet we feel the undercurrent of despair. In “Heart Mountain” (the real name of an internment camp in Wyoming, the camp, in fact, where Aoyama’s grandmother was incarcerated) the lovers lament that “over and over our hearts are rapped by the rules,” And again, when the two lovers are dancing, the woman who can’t dance says she’s “gotta get out of this place,” not the idle lament of a restless teenager, but the desperate yearning of a woman incarcerated. Casanova has received a letter that begins “Instructions to all person’s of Japanese ancestry,” and in the context of the album 1942, we know what that means: he is being forced to leave his home to be interned in a camp far away, simply because of his Japanese heritage.

In “Ogie/Naoko” two young Japanese Americans living in Hawaii can’t see each other because of the restrictions of martial law (the backstory explained in the liner notes). “Where may our loyalties end?” Ogie asks Naoko, the woman he loves. “To each other, of course, to the end,” she answers. Personal bonds transcend political ones for these characters, and we love them all the more for that.

Yet Saporiti doesn’t back away from the political realities in these love stories. The unfair plight of these characters becomes even more poignant as we see them struggle with their bondage while at the same time experiencing the wonders of romantic love. “And he felt good, for a moment or so,” Saporiti tells us in the refrain of “Instructions to all Persons.” Of course he did. I would too, we think to ourselves, and in our empathy we find more disgust for the system that put these innocent people in such unfair imprisonment.

Other songs are more autobiographical, as Saporiti examines his own Asian American experience. In “Boat People,” a riveting tale of a doctor’s perilous escape from Vietnam in an flimsy fishing boat, he reflects that “my mother came here too, forty years ago.” And in “Dragon Park” he seems to be recalling his own youth as a Vietnamese-American in Nashville when he says “I know that Southern stare/not just at home but everywhere.”

Musically 1942 stays low key. Acoustic guitar is punctuated by well-placed strings. Piano, ukulele, and pedal steel are all used sparingly to good effect. Saporiti’s voice is consistently warm and expressive while Ayoama’s harmonies add clarity to the lyrics. I confess, I miss the drums and would like to hear a full rock band rendition of some of these songs, but clearly that’s not what Saporiti is going for on 1942. The quiet approach allows for romance and whimsy while also lending gravity to the underlying loneliness of characters stung by the irrationality of prejudice and racism.

1942 is an album about war and incarceration. And yet, it’s really quite lovely. Saporiti’s musical story of the Asian-American experience is ultimately one we find ourselves humming along to as we reflect on our own stories.

See also Indie Rocker or Academic? Former Young Republic leader finds a brilliant way to be both

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Indie Rocker or Academic? Former Young Republic leader finds a brilliant way to be both

A new album by Julian Saporiti is always a big event in my musical life. Julian’s former band, the Young Republic, made some of the best music of the early 2000s, and I’m not just saying that because my son was in the band.

Really.

I’m not.

Julian recorded this fall’s offering, 1942, with Erin Aoyama as the duo No-No Boy. It’s the product of several years of ambitious research into Asian-American history, in particular the Japanese internment camps that were part of U.S. policy in this country during World War II. The project is not only an album of new material that will appeal to a wide audience but also serves as part of Julian’s PhD studies at Brown University.

Recording the album was a long and collaborative process. Saporiti traveled to Illinois last summer to spend a week cutting basic guitar and vocal tracks with fellow Berklee grad Seth Boggess. “Over the course of the next year I tinkered with the album,” he said. “I’d have friends layer on instruments.” Those friends included recording artist Kishi Bashi who layered strings onto some of the songs. “I kind of crave feedback and collaboration,” Julian told me. “I’m more open than I used to be, for sure.                                                                              No-No Boy is currently touring behind the album, playing dates across the country from east coast to west and back again, culminating in a performance at New York’s Lincoln Center in mid-November. Playing libraries, universities and even a Buddhist temple, the tour is far from the typical rock band tour. “This project just effortlessly has an audience,” said Julian, due, he said, to “the uniqueness of the academic/historian/folk singer thing.” Performances on this tour are as much presentation as concert with Julian and Erin sharing family stories and human interest stories from their research along with moving images of the Asian American experience.

This tour is more befitting a performer in his thirties, said Julian, in contrast to the spartan, hand-to-mouth touring days of the Young Republic. “This time there are honorariums and food and big arts institutions with lots of money who say ‘come and play,’” said Julian. Gone are the days of “KFC buffets where we stuff food in our pockets.”

Image may contain: Julian Saporiti and Luann Yetter, people smiling

photo by Sam Carignan

Last fall Julian came to the University of Maine at Farmington not only to give his musical presentation but also to visit my classes where he talked at length about his research and aspects of the Asian American experience of which my first-year college students were unaware. They learned a lot from both the classroom visit and the performance, and Julian says that educational aspect is the main focus of this tour.

Many days off from the public performances are filled with school visits and workshops, and No-No Boy is selling not only the album but also an annotated lyric book. “We’ve already had teachers that are using this in the classroom, along with the images,” he said.

Despite the academic slant, No-No Boy can play a rock club when the opportunity arises. The have opened for Kishi Bashi in more traditional rock venues. “That poor unsuspecting indie rock audience,” Julian joked. But in truth, he said, those shows have gone over well. The duo can stage what Julian described as “an indie rock show with projections behind us. The material is really malleable in that way.”

Back when I knew Julian in the Young Republic he was firmly planted in the music business. Although now he’s as much scholar as musician, he sees a link between his first band and the work he’s doing now. “The foundations are with the YR,” he said. “In ‘Black Duck Blues’ you see the theoretical principal developing. I just hadn’t read a book yet in my life.”

Saporiti seems to be happy combining the music business with academia. He seems passionate in his desire to “illuminate the understudied past” as his promo material explains, and he knows that using his music business skills and experience can help him find an audience. “One of our videos has 5000 views,” he said. “That’s a lot more people than are going to read my peer-reviewed articles.”

1942 is available through Bandcamp, Apple Music and other music services.

A trailer for the album can be viewed here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1z4J9avL400

 

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