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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Brokedown palace.

Robert Hunter is on the road again.

And like the Grateful Dead — the band for whom Hunter wrote lyrics for almost 30 years — he is capable of summoning the highest highs and the lowest lows within the course of a single set.

Hunter stopped by Miller Symphony Hall, a quaint old joint in downtown Allentown, tonight for the second of an eight-show East Coast run.

I’d guesstimate the room was half full, maybe a touch over — and it’s not a big room. I was one of about 15 people in the balcony, which enabled me to grab a front-row seat with plenty of room to myself.

The balcony, a half-hour prior to showtime. The two guys in the front row are setting up a recording rig.

The balcony, a half-hour prior to showtime. The two guys in the front row are setting up a recording rig.

It would have been nice to see a couple more people show up for an honest-to-goodness legend. Hunter was a core contributor to the Dead’s legendary trip, as much as any of the band members, and he’s also co-written songs with the likes of Bob Dylan.

But on the other hand, there’s a reason Hunter doesn’t draw big crowds: He’s simply not a great performer, and probably not even a good one.

His voice pleasantly surprised me. It’s not instantly identifiable, but is more than strong enough to do justice to his material. Hunter’s voice at age 72 is miles ahead of Dylan’s at the same age — and also miles ahead of Jerry Garcia’s voice at age 50.

On the other hand, Hunter’s guitar playing is all over the map.

His right-hand fingerpicking rhythms can be erratic; his left-hand chording can be imprecise; and every trip out of first position is an adventure. Simply put, the guy doesn’t have consistent enough chops to support a one-man-with-guitar show.

And when his deficiencies in playing skill meet apparent deficiencies in musical knowledge, the results are as cringeworthy as the worst of the Dead.

I will always take some degree of pleasure in knowing I saw Hunter play “Stella Blue,” the beautiful country-tinged ballad from the Wake of the Flood album. It’s one of my favorite Dead songs (one of Hunter’s favorites, too, he says), and one I never got to see the Dead perform.

Unfortunately, Hunter doesn’t know the chords. We’re not talking about an occasional mistake: We’re talking full-on what-comes-next unfamiliarity. The result made me squirm; people would cheer in polite encouragement when one of Hunter’s vague, shambling instrumental transitions resolved on the correct chord.

(I spotted at least four tapers in the crowd; if their recordings make their way online, I may post “Stella Blue” here, just to defend myself against anyone who thinks I am being too harsh.)

While “Stella Blue” was bittersweet at best, Hunter’s performances of a crop of 1969-70 songs shone.

“Candyman,” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace” all featured Hunter in strong, spirited voice, with steadier instrumental backing. It was a pleasure to see all five songs done well by one of their creators, and a reminder that the strength of the best Hunter-Garcia material will outlast Hunter, Garcia, and probably everyone else in the room.

“Box of Rain” and “Brown-Eyed Women,” also written in the 1969-70 time period, were perhaps not quite as well-performed as the others, but still warming and welcome.

And the Western outlaw saga “Jack Straw” featured a charming moment when Hunter drew a blank on the verse that begins “Leaving Texas / Fourth day of July.”

He looked around and asked, “Anyone out there remember the next verse?” … whereupon everyone in the room sang that verse, and the rest of the song, along with him.

Hunter’s music had probably provided uplift to everyone in the crowd at some point or another; and when he needed a hand, they were there to help him in return. When I think back on this show in five or 10 years, that’s probably the moment I’ll remember best.

If you want to see Robert Hunter live, he’s got six more East Coast shows scheduled between now and Oct. 10. I would not expect them, based on my experience, to be transcendent.

But the best of Hunter’s performances suggest that he still has the capacity to bring some great songs to life. If you happen to like those songs, it’s worth taking the chance.



A shameless hyperinflation of an idea I expressed in 140 characters on Twitter earlier today. The beast must be fed.

Today I learned from Wikipedia that Blind Lemon Jefferson and Linda McCartney share a birthday. (Yes, it happens to be today, Sept. 24.)

Imagine *that* jam session, I tweeted.

Once you get past the obvious laffs, that’s kind of an intriguing idea — to me, anyway.

If you had locked the man who sang “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and the woman who sang “Cook Of The House” in the same room, and compelled them to collaborate on a three- to five-minute song, what do you think it might have sounded like?

Seriously, ask yourself that, and try to imagine it.

Some people think that way about combinations of food — “What if you took mango, blood orange and Chantilly cream, and baked them in puff pastry in a slow oven, and then plated them with a chocolate swirl?”

I think that way about music, or at least I did today.

Here, then, are some other unlikely birthday partners. See if you can imagine what kind of music they would have agreed to perform together, and what it would have sounded like.

(In some cases, both performers are still alive, so there’s hope yet.)

February 13: Peter Tork and Peter Gabriel

March 1: Roger Daltrey and Justin Bieber

March 2: Lou Reed and Method Man

March 26: Teddy Pendergrass and Kenny Chesney

March 29: Vangelis (“Chariots of Fire”) and Patty Donahue of the Waitresses (“I Know What Boys Like”)

April 10: Bunny Wailer and Brian Setzer

April 30: Rev. Gary Davis and Amanda Palmer

May 16: Robert Fripp and Jonathan Richman

July 10: Ronnie James Dio and Arlo Guthrie

Nov. 17: Gordon Lightfoot and RuPaul

Thoughts, drunk on the season’s first apple.

Today I ate the season’s first apple,
a Honeycrisp,
the size of your head.
To hold it strained my fingers.
It was mellow,
tasting mildly of banana,
and it made my mind spin
all the way
to poetry.

# # #

I will condone,
as an adult,
only one thing
to be flung from car windows:
An apple core.

There is, no doubt,
some argument against that;
some innocent wild beast
to choke on the core,
or some native plant
pushed from its one true home
by intrusive apple-shoots.

I do not care.
I eat precisely
behind the wheel,
stripping each morsel
from off the core
like diamonds.

And then,
along some ill-watched stretch
or blind-treed curve,
I fling
with best wishes.

# # #

When I run for President,
mark not my words,
because there is only one promise
on which I plan
to ever make good.

When I am President,
the scientific resources
of our mighty nation
will be devoted
to the creation and nurture
of a brand-new apple —
sweet of flesh,
dappled in color,
resilient in nature,
generous in yield,
to be called
Hobo’s Feast.

Front-page photos
will show horn-rimmed men
in pristine lab coats,
holding up strains
of brand-new cultivars,
practically vibrating
with potential.

When the magic combination
reveals itself,
shy undergraduates,
too fresh-faced or knock-kneed
for the Peace Corps,
will do their civic duty
scattering seeds
in public parks,
in forests,
in empty Midwest pastures,
in vacant lots,
millions and millions,
a far-flung cosmos
of seeds.

And when they grow,
all may reap.
Hungry travelers,
sportive children,
the desolate,
the down-and-out,
and those
who simply enjoy
crispness between their teeth
and gentle sweetness fading on their tongues.

Yes, my friends,
a Hobo’s Feast
on every palm.

I have never lied
to the American people.

Might as well.

The fat man’s gonna hear some more live music.

I’ve been listening to metric arse-piles of Grateful Dead over the last few weeks, and that helped push me over the edge to make a purchase I’d long been considering:

I’m going to see Robert Hunter, the Dead’s longtime lyricist, at Symphony Hall in downtown Allentown on Sept. 28.

Once upon a time, Hunter was a moderately active live performer. If you went to college in the late ’70s or early ’80s, your school’s Student Union entertainment committee might well have booked him to play the gym.

He doesn’t get around much any more, though. His upcoming string of East Coast shows will be his first in almost 10 years. And, there’s only going to be eight of them.

I’ve not heard much of Hunter’s solo music, but I’m led to believe he’s not a tremendously gifted singer.

I’m willing to deal with that, though.

I’ve decided that Hunter is up there with Bob Dylan, Todd Rundgren and a few others in the ranks of people I absolutely want to be in the same room with if he comes to my town.

This is the guy who co-wrote “Ripple,” a song I used to sing to my newborn sons. And “Stella Blue,” the song I would want played at my memorial service if I thought anyone would show up for such a thing.

And “Terrapin Station,” “Box of Rain,” “Black Peter,” “Crazy Fingers” … the list of Hunter lyrics I admire for their creativity, beauty and insight could go on for quite a while.

So, while I don’t expect Hunter to dazzle me with his voice or guitar chops, I’ll plunk down some cash to keep his tour bus rolling from city to city. And, I’ll park myself in a balcony seat as a physical show of appreciation for his lifetime of work.

Mundane Moments: Harry’s new companion.

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.

# # # # #


Harry, I speak for all of us at the firm when I wish you a long and happy retirement. As long as any of us can remember, you’ve been on the job, quick with a smile and eager to help.

Now, as you head off to enjoy your golden years, we’ve all chipped in to get you a small token of our esteem.

*sound of paper ripping*

Yup. It’s a brand-new television!

Y’see, Harry, regular interaction with other people is gonna go from a daily reality to a distant memory, sooner than you know.

With your new television set, you can establish rewarding interpersonal relationships with the casts of such quality programs as “Occasional Wife,” “The Monroes” and “Pistols n’ Petticoats.” Pshaw, Harry! Retirement need not be lonely.

And when the arthuritis locks your knees so badly you have to sit still for three or four hours, your TV will allow you to live vicariously through the antics of the Yanks, Mets and New York Football Giants. Yes, nothing keeps a man quite so young as televised sports!

But that’s not all. Sister Bertrille — and yes, red tartan looks fantastic on you, Sister — would you tell Harry more about his new television set?

It’s not just any television set, Harry. It’s portable!

That means watching the TV never has to be boring. When you get tired of watching in the den, you can move your set to the kitchen. Then, after a few weeks, you can move it back to the den. And in the summer, you can even move it to the screen porch.

(As long as you’re still physically able to lift it, that is.)

There’s nothing like a TV set to remind you you’re alive, Harry.

Why, I was up late the other night after a couple beers, and there was this actress in an old black-and-white movie who looked just like a girl I dated when I was 19. Yeah, we were real close, she and I. In fact, seeing that face felt like somebody had grabbed my heart and turned it about 90 degrees counterclockwise. That’s what I mean by feeling alive, Harry.

Anyway … we’ll all miss you.

But now that you’ve got America’s best friend to keep you company — in any room of the house! — we know you’ll be just as busy, engaged and on top of things as you were in your days at the firm.

Want some chocolate cake, Harry?

June 1967, Stamford, Connecticut.
It was a retirement party; that much is true.

The inner mounting wind chill.

I don’t have anything particular to say tonight, but I’m overdue to feed the beast.

So I’m gonna post a couple random links that have nothing in common but a shared place and time — Syracuse, N.Y., in 1972, as it happens.

First we have a live film of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, recorded at Syracuse University in April of that year.

(I was trying to figure out what time of year it was based on the clothing. At least two of the band members wear short sleeves; the students around the stage are wearing winter coats; but you can’t see anyone’s breath. Finally, I had to Google the concert to find out the exact date.)

I love when stuff like this washes up from some obscure date and place. I don’t know whose idea it was to film what was probably the university’s big spring concert, but it’s cool that they did. The student filmmakers did a nice job, too: The film sounds great and looks respectable.

The musicianship is just as exact as you’d expect. Drummer Billy Cobham is especially impressive: From time to time, he just explodes. The tightness and dexterity of the musicians make me embarrassed about all that sloppy Grateful Dead I’ve been listening to lately.

Next, from earlier that same month, we have film of a Charlotte Checkers-Syracuse Blazers minor-league hockey game.

The game included 232 minutes in penalties, and the film consists almost entirely of brawling.

Order disappears for so long, you almost start to forget there’s a game going on. At one point, three separate pairs of belligerents are skating around the ice, gripping each other like weary dancers.

The occasional hockey fight has its place, but what we have here is a view back to the worst excesses of the Seventies. This kind of thing, I suspect, is the reason people like my parents didn’t like hockey:

And finally, we have a few minutes of Syracuse TV news from sometime that spring.

The clip starts with a story about the state deciding not to expand Interstate 81 on Indian (er, Native American) land. The anchor chews on it at what seems like remarkable length, with no graphics or film to break it up.

Then, we get a couple of commercials featuring a Bette Midler lookalike luring her blind date with macaroni and a convertible-driving Stepford wife touting the benefits of milk.

The piece de resistance is the next story — a lengthy, heavy-handed, groan-inducing mood piece about the sale of heroin in a leafy city park.

Finally, the clip closes with a story about five men being chosen to head one of 14 task forces looking into New York City administration … a story that positively screams “slow news day.”

It’s easy to criticize the clip. I’m not sure today’s more rapidly paced TV news is any better, though.

From the Valley: Sunday Guts, “Leave It Go.”

The latest in an occasional series of reviews of recent releases by Lehigh Valley bands.

The website of Bethlehem pop band Sunday Guts features what must be the most unusual local music swag ever — guitar picks with the Lehigh Valley International Airport logo.

If you’ve never flown through LVIA (and you probably haven’t, unless you live here), it’s a charming little airport trying to climb uphill.

It’s lost a number of airlines over the past decade or so — one of which, Hooters Air, skipped town owing the airport $1.4 million. LVIA is also on the hook for a $16 million land dispute. Oh … and, having lost its occasional service to Toronto, the airport is international in name only.

What does LVIA have to do with Sunday Guts?

I have no idea, actually … because, while the airport is struggling, the band is taking off.

A week or so ago, Sunday Guts posted a new four-song EP, Leave It Go, on Bandcamp. It took a few listens to hook me, but now that I’ve gotten to know it, I highly recommend it for your next layover.

It’s bustling pop, mostly guitar-based, whose textures and sounds remind me of the ’80s. Opener “Alone In My Principles” features a classic Big Guitar Pop Hook, with a layer of chiming guitar adding contrast on the chorus.

I’ve heard both riffs somewhere before — I’m trying to figure out where as I write this. (Rick Springfield?) It all works out fine, though. While the song felt familiar, it didn’t feel derivative or boring.

Interesting keyboard lines pop up here and there, particularly the string machine on “Hit For The Cycle,” which is probably the catchiest song here and also my favorite.

The lyrics to “Hit For The Cycle” don’t have much discernibly to do with baseball. Or double-entendre, or airports, or the rising price of imported mustard, or anything else. They seem to be pretty much free-associative: “Getting rid of everything but my invisible / Homemade clothes / Fortunately, gotta get a redundant team / Some experience canvassing.

The whole album’s like that — somewhere between allusive and simply nonsensical. That doesn’t especially bother me; I’ve come to prefer the abstruse to the heavy-handed (not to mention the nakedly personal or the cliched.)

The singer’s delivery bothers me more than the lyrics do.

He’s often double-tracked, precise in his diction and sort of buttoned-down. He doesn’t sound particularly invested in the lyrics; he sounds more like he’s concerned that the studio headphones will ruffle his hair.

After a few listens I started to like him well enough. He’s in tune, and not actively offensive, and not given to histrionics. He fits in fine with the tone of the music. None of the other guys get their hair mussed either, really; it’s not that kind of band, at least not on record.

Sunday Guts might not capture you at first listen, but they’re worth a little effort. Leave It Go is a well-turned, catchy pop EP, and I hope to hear more from these guys.

Maybe they’ll even get some out-of-town gigs on the basis of this EP.

But unless they’re playing in Orlando, Clearwater, Chicago, Detroit or Atlanta, they’re gonna have to take the van.

Leave It Go is available for download on Bandcamp here. Or, you can order the pink-shell cassette with bonus items if you want. If it comes with one of those nifty guitar picks, it’s definitely worth it.