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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Bethlehem rock city.

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The salaryman went out and saw himself some live music tonight, from a most unexpected source.

In the past few years, part of the old Bethlehem Steel plant in south Bethlehem has been revamped into a performing arts complex with several stages, a cafe, and sundry other new-urban tweaks.

At least one of the stages — the one I visited tonight, Levitt Pavilion — backs directly up to the rusty tangle of the Steel’s old industrial complex.

It’s a wild view; several artists who have played in Bethlehem have tweeted pictures of the stage, with a note to the effect of, “Isn’t this the coolest stage you’ve ever seen?”

Levitt Pavilion at SteelStacks.

 

An attempted panoramic view of the site, with Levitt Pavilion at far left. You’ll probably have to click to enlarge this for a better view.

I went to see a free show featuring Shonen Knife, the long-running all-female Japanese punk-pop trio.

I have no special fondness for Shonen Knife. But I remember them knocking around 20 years ago when I was in college — I even played one of their songs on one of the two college-radio shows I ever DJ’d.

I figured if they were still out there working at it, they were a cause I could support. Plus, it was free.

Guitarist and singer Naoko Yamano.

They played for 70 minutes or so, and the music was about what you’d expect — big and bouncy and simple and slabby and candy-colored and fun.

There were songs about banana chips, and songs about eating barbecue, and songs about rubber bands, and a song called “Osaka Rock City.” Oh, and a surprisingly charming cover of the Carpenters’ “Top Of The World” to encore.

Are you having a good time, Bethlehem?

The Ramones, of course, were a major influence on Shonen Knife, who covered “Rockaway Beach” at one point in the show. And as I listened, I couldn’t help but think back to the one time I saw the Ramones.

It was the spring of 1994. I was an exchange student in Australia, and the band played Sydney as part of an alternative festival tour called the Big Day Out.

The Ramones played closer to the end of the day than the beginning. And they sounded like a jet taking off, only without the bass frequencies. It was so painful that I had to retreat to the back of the rugby oval, or whatever the hell the outdoor venue was, and sit in a seat at the rear just to escape the murderous treble.

At Levitt Pavilion the sound was perfect, not overwhelming in the least, no matter how close I got. The music was fun and the setting was beautiful; I could easily spend a full day at the arts complex, walking from stage to stage and listening to different bands.

As one gets older and fatter and greyer, it is easy to romanticize how much fun the old times were. But I am reassured to know I am capable of having a better time than I did back then, and there can still be plenty of pleasant evenings of live music if I only go find them.

Oh, yeah — before I snap out of the reverie, I’ll mention one other flashback to my yout’.

Before Shonen Knife performed, a local band called Taking Tomorrow played on a small stage across the street. They’re either high school students or recent graduates. And at first they were playing fairly current stuff — Franz Ferdinand covers, things like that.

And then they burst into back-to-back Hendrix covers — “Purple Haze” followed by “Voodoo Chile.”

I’m pretty sure I played at least one of those songs with my own high school band, a quarter-century ago.

I guess it’s a tribute to Hendrix’s chops and charisma that — even after the coming of grunge and post-grunge and punk-pop and ska and God knows what else — high school kids with guitars are still throttling his music. (That’s a little unkind; these kids were quite good.)

I suppose that as long as there are guitars and basements and teenagers, there will be “Purple Haze” and “Voodoo Chile.”

Taking Tomorrow.

Bayou country.

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Hope is a remarkable thing.

Consider how the label boss(es) at Lake Charles, Louisiana’s ANLA Records must have felt in 1971, when they heard the tape of a new track, “Gonna Put My Foot Down,” cut by regional musician Bill Parker.

Record labels, large and small, then and now, don’t put out records out of the goodness of their hearts. They don’t spend the money to put out a song unless they perceive some sort of commercial potential.

So, presumably the guy in charge of ANLA sat there listening to “Gonna Put My Foot Down” and thinking to himself, “This is dynamite! Soulful! Cajun jukebox TNT! Start the presses.”

I have listened to “Gonna Put My Foot Down” repeatedly over the past few days — it is included on Southern Funkin’, a CD collection of obscure regional Louisiana soul and funk tracks from the 1960s and ’70s.

I wish I could have what the ANLA guy was having when he heard it:


Parker sings like he’s trying to freestyle the lyrics after a handful of quaaludes, and his thoughts are so soggy and enmucked that he can’t drag out more than three syllables at a time.

Or perhaps he is simultaneously translating the lyrics from Esperanto as he is singing them, and some of the lines get a little lost in the journey.

According to the liner notes, Parker was a drummer on the Louisiana musical scene for many years. Perhaps he is handling the beat and the mic simultaneously on this recording … in which case, suffice it to say he ain’t Levon Helm.

I’ve been weirdly obsessed with this song for a couple days now. Not just Parker’s lyric, but the chugging monochordal backing track and the rasty, cheap-fuzztoned sub-Funkadelic guitar leads.

It’s not as minimalist as, say, a guy with an acoustic guitar. But it’s just about as primitive and minimal as a full-band record can be. One chord, one drumbeat, a handful of words and a two-note vocal melody.

This record has pretty much the absolute fewest elements you can possibly have in order to sit a bunch of guys down in a studio and say, “We’re making a record.”

And, y’know, maybe that’s why I like it. You could say very much the same thing about “Surfin’ Bird,” and that’s one of my five favorite rock n’ roll records of all time anywhere anyplace.

“Gonna Put My Foot Down” isn’t quite as nonsensical as “Surfin’ Bird,” which is a strike against it, but it still taps into that nerve of having no melody, no chords, no words, but still having something to express.

The liner notes to Southern Funkin’ helpfully mention that Bill Parker (born William Guidry — and it’s too bad a guy who never sold a record outside Louisiana couldn’t just go by his real name) also cut a Fifties regional classic called “Sweet Potato Mash.”

YouTube comes to the rescue again — and to my delight, “Sweet Potato Mash” is an absolutely wonderful dance-craze record, even if it sounds like the guitar player and the bassist haven’t really agreed what key they’re in.

This should have been a bigger hit:

For that matter, there’s also “Sweet Potato Cha Cha.” Bill Parker: sweet potato :: James Brown : popcorn.

Mundane Moments: Dead leaves crackle.

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My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then:

It happens in Charlie Brown’s universe, and only there.

In the cloudless sunshine of fall, young children rake up piles of leaves — and then disrupt them — while wearing T-shirts and knee shorts. Come to think of it, they wear the same outfits outdoors in late November to eat Thanksgiving dinner as well.

There is no biting wind in a “Peanuts” autumn, nor any of the cold rain that makes raking and bagging leaves such a clammy experience a day later.

(While we’re on the subject, Charlie Brown probably lived in one of those pampered communities where they only had to rake their leaves to the edge of the road and wait for some sort of municipal super-sucker to come inhale them. I bet he never filled two dozen black yard-bags in a single day and then dragged them all to the curb.)

The boys in this picture probably don’t see it as such, but they have been granted a 24-hour pass into Charlie Brown’s world.

The front yard where this snapshot was taken is maybe eight miles away, as the crow flies, from the shore of a Great Lake.

Judging from the leaves, which are turning color but only just starting to fall, it is probably the end of September or even early October. This is apple season. Sweatshirt season. Jacket season. Jack Frost season.

The kids seem perfectly comfortable in their short shirt-sleeves, though.

And — while the picture suffers from Seventies cheap-camera craplitude — if you blow it up to maximum size, you see something that looks a whole lot like a bare foot sticking out of the bigger boy’s right pants leg.

What we have here is a last unseasonal burst of summer — a final day or two to laugh in the face of the wind, and frolic as if it were June.

It is a rare and limited treat in this front yard to walk barefoot through autumn leaves.

These children, one imagines, have stopped savoring the opportunity for thirty quick seconds so some adult can capture their glorious moment for the ages. Then they will burst forth again to laugh and gambol.

And yet, if you blow the picture up again, the older boy appears to wear only the dimmest of smiles, if that. (The younger boy has a prankish Ulysses Macaulay kind of look about him.)

The older boy leans gently to one side, as though the tree is holding him up. To me he looks pensive or wistful, or even worried, or perhaps like he is thinking hard about something off in the distance.

The same sorts of emotions, in short, that one might associate with Charlie Brown.

Perhaps the older boy, like ol’ Chuck, has discovered that there is a psychic price to pay in exchange for living in the magic autumnland where dead leaves crackle between the toes. Maybe he is learning that it only looks like fun.

He is lucky: In a day or two, he will be back in the soothing, familiar chill of an upstate fall, and standard emotional service will be restored.

Charlie Brown and his friends, meanwhile, are fated to do time until the snow falls and the pond freezes, stuck in their monotonous non-autumn.

It is an OK place to visit but a better place to leave … if you can.

Penfield, New York, September/October 1975.

In color … and in black and white.

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Boston magazine used to have a regular feature called “Thank God We’re a Two-Newspaper Town.”

The magazine would juxtapose a headline that ran in the liberal broadsheet Globe with the headline from the same news story in the conservative tabloid Herald. It often seemed as though the two papers had covered completely different stories.

We get a little of that same dissonance here in the Lehigh Valley from time to time.

From the Easton Express-Times’ review of Sunday night’s Cheap Trick/Aerosmith concert in Philadelphia:

“(Cheap Trick) singer Robin Zander still has a set of pipes, belting out lyrics with bravado and nary a sour note or botched vocal.”

From the (Allentown) Morning Call’s review of the same performance:

“Zander’s singing was bad. Brutally bad. … Zander’s voice is totally shot.”

(TMC also criticized Zander for wearing an aviator’s cap, suggesting instead that he show his baldness. Yup. Cutting-edge fashion commentary.)

I have no idea which reviewer was right. It would have been interesting to find out — my inner 16-year-old flirted briefly with buying tickets to this show, but I couldn’t make a Sunday night in Philadelphia.

Leaving that debate for the ages, then, here’s a clip of Cheap Trick (including a bare-headed Zander) from the days when I would really have been interested in seeing them perform.

Five For The Record: Van Dyke Parks, “Clang of the Yankee Reaper.”

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A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Third solo album by peripatetic singer, songwriter, arranger and former Brian Wilson collaborator. Released 1975 on Warner Brothers Records. Features bass playing by equally well-traveled pop cult hero Klaus Voorman. Failed to chart in any city, state, country or other jurisdiction I know of.

Note the notch at the upper right. We’ll get to that.

And here’s why I like it:

1. It’s a Van Dyke Parks album. Van Dyke Parks albums, especially his early ones, are like platypi — rare, sometimes bizarre, charming in a quirky way, and totally different from everything surrounding them.

His first, 1968’s Song Cycle, featured wild, fantastical arrangements; lyrics so allusive as to be Nabokovian; and Parks’ distinctive voice, which could easily belong to a foppish Muppet in top hat and monocle. The album credits listed two guitarists and six balalaika players. The record, while critically praised, did not sell.

Then came 1972’s Discover America, made up entirely of cover versions reflecting Parks’ fascination with Caribbean calypso and steel-band sounds. It too did not sell, though it briefly crept onto the playlist of a single station in Tucson, Arizona, which by VDP standards is a measurable triumph.

Clang of the Yankee Reaper also features a horn-and-steel-drum sound, with occasional side trips — such as an all-too-brief piano-and-vocal sojourn into “You’re A Real Sweetheart,” a pre-Depression pop nugget so old you can watch YouTube videos of player pianos playing it. (Old American songcraft is almost as much a Parks fascination as steel drums.)

When an artist averages one album every three-and-a-half years, you’d think that artist would make at least some concessions to commercialism just to get another shot at the studio. VDP, in contrast, remained so focused on his own unique vision that he makes garden-variety mavericks like Neil Young look like Ace of Base. And who can’t find love in their heart for a pop individualist, even one who sings like a foppish Muppet?

2. Some mall-based music store lost money on it. I’ve always hated mall CD stores, as most of them seem to combine high prices and poor selection. If the age of the MP3 kills mall music stores, it will be a loss only to the handful of slack-jawed teens still being paid to mumble numbly, “Naw, we don’t have that.”

I’ve tried to avoid mall music stores. But I did make a score at one such store — I forget where it was — maybe 15 years ago, when I discovered Clang of the Yankee Reaper being sold for something like $3.99 in a cutout/bargain bin.

I doubt the manager had any idea who Van Dyke Parks was. I imagined him telling the clerk, “Uhhhh, we got a shipment of the new Poison live album coming in. We gotta make room in the P’s. Find someplace to put this shit, would you?”

(Actually, I would find it equally believable if the manager said: “Uhhhh, we got a shipment of the new Van Halen live album coming in. We gotta make room in the V’s. Find someplace to put this shit, would you?”)

3. Clang. It would be wrongheaded to describe Clang’s title track as the best Beach Boys song that didn’t make it onto SMiLE. Parks’ solo work deserves to stand or fall on its own, without always being tied to his more famous collaborations with Brian Wilson.

I’d definitely recommend the song to anyone who enjoys SMiLE, though. It’s cut from similar cloth with its droll wordplay, cinematic arrangement and languid, memorable chorus.

(In particular, the phrase “Hearken to the clang of the Yankee reaper” deserves to hang alongside the more celebrated “Columnated ruins domino” in the American Museum of Impressionistic Lyrics.)

As a side note, I find it astonishing that Mariano Rivera chose “Enter Sandman” as his entrance song when he could have had “Clang of the Yankee Reaper” instead. Perhaps the next generation of pinstriped relief pitchers will pick up on this ready-made anthem.

4. “Iron Man.” No, it’s not the Black Sabbath song. It’s a catchy calypsonian chestnut about a woman who can’t get enough steel drumming … probably the only song you’ll ever hear to use pans as a metaphor for sex.

Parks sings it with all the elan he can muster. You imagine the foppish Muppet throwing off his top hat, loosening his tie and shimmying back and forth in the tiki torchlight as he tells the tale of his conquest (“How can you beat iron so, sweet Parksie?”)

Unfortunately, this song isn’t on YouTube. I’d love to link to it, because it’s infectious, and if there were a hit single on Clang this would have been it.

I’d also hoped to link to it to get my readers’ opinion on something that’s dogged me. There’s a female backing vocalist who sounds distinctly like Joni Mitchell, particularly on one line (“…that they call Iron Charlie”) where she swoops up and becomes more audible. Joni’s not credited, and I know of no reason why it might be her, and it probably isn’t. That line always tweaks my ear and makes me wonder, though.

5. Out on a high note. The closing track is listed as “Cannon in D” and credited to Pachelbel. But it’s not a canon (or a cannon); it’s not by Pachelbel; and according to Wiki it’s not in D, either. Presumably the track listing is some sort of in-joke.

What the song is is a funky instrumental treatment of the 16th-century hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” sounding like it was played by the Grambling marching band at halftime of the Port-au-Prince Bowl.

It’s a charming and totally random end to a charming and totally random album. Shame VDP wouldn’t make another one for nine years.

Five For The Record: The Soul Survivors, “Expressway To Your Heart”

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A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it. Tonight, for the first time: A single.

Today’s subject: Effects-laden hit single (the first of only two) for Philly-based honky-soul ensemble. Reached No. 4 in the fall of 1967.

And here’s why I like it:

1. Beginnings. “Expressway to Your Heart” was the first Top 40 hit not only for the band, but also for its producers, a pair of ambitious Philadelphians named Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

Gamble and Huff would go on to develop the silky sound of Philadelphia soul, perhaps the single greatest musical style to reach America’s radios in the Seventies. (Think “Love Train,” “Me and Mrs. Jones” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” just for starters.)

They hadn’t found their own sound when “Expressway” came out. It’s pretty much Young Rascals with a twist of Righteous Brothers. But a few arranging touches — one of which we’ll get to in a minute — suggest these guys already knew what they were doing.

2. Endings. I like progressive-rock excursions and Grateful Dead space jams as much as the next aging longhair. But as I get older, I think more and more that the best songs are the shortest.

“Expressway” runs about 2:08 from the first horn to the point where your average hit-radio deejay would come in and start talking. It is absolutely the perfect length for the song. No third verse, no instrumental solos, no endless repeat-chorus … just wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said that a man’s legs should be just long enough to reach the ground. By the same logic, an AM radio single should be just long enough to fill the space between the introductory talk-up and the throw-over to the traffic reporter. That’s “Expressway.”

3. Rrrrawwwwwwk! Soul Survivors frontman Charlie Ingui puts a little too much of himself into the “much too crowded!” vamping after the first verse. As a result, he sounds like he’s fighting to get most of the second verse out of his throat.

Sinatra used to call those moments of hoarseness “coughing up a Chesterfield;” Ingui’s second verse sounds like he brought up a half-pack of king-size. And yet, it works, in an impassioned sort of way.

I like to imagine the studio chatter after that particular vocal take went something like this:
Ingui, breathing heavily: “Aw, man, I totally hacked up a lung on that one. Can I cut that again?”
Gamble and Huff, smiling: “Hells, no.”

4. Organ transplant. We were talking a moment ago about Gamble and Huff’s arranging genius. Nothing on “Expressway” — not even the sound effects — demonstrates that quite like the Hammond organ.

Now, you can’t have a Young Rascals-style white-soul single without the Hammond organ any more than you can have clam sauce without garlic. But the main keyboard instrument on “Expressway” is the driving piano that carries the riff, and that needs to come through loud and clear.

So G&H found creative uses for their Hammond player, who lays out in the first verse; drops in to support the breakdown (“I was wrong / It took too long”); and then leans on every two-beat during the second verse, further accentuating the work being done by the snare drum.

The listener receives his or her required dose of soulful organ without ever really noticing it, like the vitamins that are baked into bread. (“Expressway” builds funky bodies 12 ways.)

5. Been there, seen that. In October 2009, Philadelphia’s long-standing hockey rink-slash-concert venue, the Spectrum, closed with a special farewell concert featuring Philly-bred acts Hall & Oates, Todd Rundgren and the Hooters. Tickets were $4 to $6, the same range that had been in effect for the Spectrum’s first concert in 1967.

For the first encore, Charlie and Richie Ingui came out front and sang a soulful, muscular, hair-raising version of “Expressway” backed by Hall, Oates, their band, and sundry members of the Hooters. In keeping with his policy of doing the unexpected, Rundgren didn’t come out to join in; he doesn’t know what he missed.

Seeing Philly musicians throwing down on one of Philly’s earliest and greatest hits in a venerable Philly venue still sticks with me as a memorable concert experience. The live version ran longer than 2:08, of course, but I didn’t mind in the least.

There’s a summer place.

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The grocery store nearest my house likes to act all modern n’ crap when it comes to music.

There was a period, for instance, when I heard the Bono-Mary J. Blige duet version of “One” every single time I went into the store.

I also hear a fair amount of that dreadful Southern-accented pop-country that goes on nowadays. I would cite examples if I cared to look up the names of the performers or the titles of the songs.

I was wicked surprised, then, to hear Percy Faith’s “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’ ” the other day while I was comparing the virtues of various avocados.

I didn’t think this song ever really got played anywhere nowadays. I thought it was just sort of a cultural earworm — a song we’ve all heard at some point in the past, and that we all know the name of, but that we don’t ever actually hear unless we happen to catch the movie of the same name on the late show.

(Maybe someday I will Google the lyrics, just to know what they are. I have a sense that the first line is “Theeeeeeeeere’s a sum-mer plaaaaace.” The rest of it could be the Bar Harbor phone book as far as I know.)

To people who know the movie or are of a certain generation (my folks’), the song is probably evocative of love and longing and salty sea breezes.

To me, it is the veritable National Anthem of those dull dead polite years around 1959-60 when good energetic rock n’ roll was harder to find than rocking-horse shit.

Ol’ Percy redeemed himself 15 years later, though, when he leaped on the emerging disco train and cut a funked-up version called “Summer Place ’76.” (The effort apparently exhausted him, as he passed away in February of 1976.)

This is what an earworm should be — replete with big strings and dramatic horns and conga players and waka-jawaka. Now this is what I call easy listening:

The only radio station on record with the good taste to play “Summer Place ’76” was KVSL in Show Low, Arizona. The ARSA database of local radio play surveys has “Summer Place ’76” showing up on two KVSL surveys from December 1975.

KVSL’s Dec. 15, 1975, survey — the last to include “Summer Place ’76” — suggests a certain schizophrenia in the station’s format. Dig the top two tunes on the countdown: Simon and Garfunkel’s mellow “My Little Town,” followed by a cold shot of British heavy metal in Rainbow’s “Man In The Silver Mountain.”

There’s some weird business going on on that countdown. I’d say more about it if I didn’t have this … this thing in my head.

“Theeeeeeere’s …. a sum-mer plaaaaaaace….”