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by Thomas Hauner

17 Nov 2008

I’ve come to terms with the fact that middle-aged, middle-class white people love the blues. Be it festivals, buskers or your straight-up concert, no one else flocks to the sounds of alcohol-soaked despair quite like Jane the Soccer-Mom and Joe the Plumber. So finding the Fillmore packed with coupling chaperones, wildly cheering on Susan Tedeschi was not at all surprising, it was expected.

Tedeschi, herself alluring in a Sparta-like shimmery dress and heels, was at ease, her voice equally dripping with her signature soul and fireworks. Though touring in support of her latest album Back to the River, she was still apologetic about playing so much new material to an audience continually clamoring for old hits. The crowd did, however, quickly open up to the familiar themes and sounds emanating from her latest compositions.

The redemptive “700 Houses”, which she referred to as her “disaster song”, was written in response to Katrina, yet applies to tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes too she quipped. “People”, a communal anthem for civic action and voting that she penned with Sonya Kitchell, was harmonious in both message and her effortless delivery. Awkwardly enough the audience was listless when Tedeschi congratulated them on making the right choice November 4th. Despite being the average audience member’s contemporary, Tedeschi’s glittery peace-sign button on her guitar strap and world views reverberated best with younger concertgoers.

Politics aside, Tedeschi and her five-piece backing band charged through a tenacious “Little by Little”. The ensemble especially came alive when they tip-toed through one verse before thundering into the next, allowing Tedeschi’s gospel-raised vocals to both coax and dominate the crowd. She also showed some serious guitar chops. Doubling lead guitar on the song’s final turnaround with Dave Yoke, Tedeschi borrowed a page from her husband Derek Trucks’ Allman Brothers playbook.

Prominent throughout the night was tenor-saxophonist Ron Holloway, frequently matching the late LeRoi Moore’s pointed and flowing style. Holloway was a key component while the band traded solos, like on jazz-inspired “Love is Black”. Vocally, one could practically feel the velvet drapes as Tedeschi diffused into sultry lounge singer mode.

Already thinking ahead to their dreaded late-night commute home, the crowd was more excited about Tedeschi singing “It Hurt So Bad” to finish her set than any of the four songs she played for an encore. That’s probably because they never stuck around to hear them.

by Jason Gross

17 Nov 2008

The news keeps getting worse and worse for music scribes and any writer on the cultural beat.  Entertainment Weekly is shedding over a dozen jobs.  Also, CBS has decided to shut down their Juke website even before it launched- this included several notable music writers.  Just in the last few weeks, Wenner Media, Time and Gawker also announced cutbacks among plenty of other publications and sites forced to do the same.

Think about the hundreds and thousands of lives effected by this.  Not only do the writers lose their livelihoods but what about their families and the business that they buy from?  Also, what about the readers who lose all of these important voices, viewpoints, inside info and tips?  It keeps feeding into the bad economy and also means that the cultural dialog is being cut down, even though it’s growing elsewhere online.

I’ve wrestled with the idea of being a full time writer or editor for a while now but even before all of this economic gloom or even before the Net started draining resources from many print publications, I worried about the up’s and down’s that regularly go along with the biz.  Needless to say, I’m even more reluctant now to take the plunge and I just remain grateful that I can do some freelancing with good publications (like PopMatters for instance).

For the hard-core full-time people in the writing biz, I wish I had good news.  The best thing I can think of is a piece of advice when you’re hit with hard times in any field.  Diversify.  You already have a solid background in writing (and maybe editing) so use that skill.  If there isn’t any work on a music beat, maybe there’s work or opportunities to be found in another field for now or maybe even long term.  It may not be your first choice but at least you can still do part of the work that you still love and keep writing.  Think of it as an opportunity to explore other realms and delve into other interests that you might have had over the years but haven’t had the chance to pursue until now- I’m kind of a film buff myself and I’m looking to expand on that in my writing. 

It’s true that all publications seem to be hurting now but if you can break into other areas, you’ll have a better shot at finding some short-term or maybe even long-term work.  What have you go to lose?

by Sean Murphy

16 Nov 2008

Not for nothing was the band called The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Certainly, Hendrix did—and does—go by his own name; he effectively created his own brand the second lighter fluid soaked that Stratocaster at Monterey.

So, while it wouldn’t have made that much difference who he chose to keep time behind him, he was fortunate that his manager, Chas Chandler, found Mitch Mitchell. Hendrix went in so many amazing directions, in order for his vision to be consistently realized, he needed a drummer with the chops and versatility to keep up with (and, at times, complement) him. Enter Mitchell. No rock drummers sounded like this, then. Keith Moon certainly hit the ground running and, throughout the mid-‘60s, showed the signs of a controlled frenzy that would reach its full flowering on Tommy. Ginger Baker kept time with Cream, the first super group, holding his own with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. But Mitchell never needed to evolve—he came into the equation fully formed and ready to contribute.

Mitchell named jazz drummer icons Elvin Jones and Max Roach as two of his primary influences. Normally, name dropping like this (certainly from a rock musician) sounds too clever by half, and more than a little presumptuous. Mitchell, however, provided ample evidence that he had absorbed not only the complexity, but the unique approaches that Jones and Roach brought to bear. Roach’s supple dexterity and Jones’s jackhammer pyrotechnics are in abundant display on all of the Jimi Hendrix Experience recordings.

A few obvious examples: songs like “Hey Joe” and “Manic Depression” would be pretty complete regardless of Hendrix’s accompaniment, but there is no question that Mitchell’s passive-aggressive assault renders what is already whole and fully formed something a bit above and beyond. On the indelible “Third Stone from the Sun”, Mitchell is not just keeping time, he’s making time: inventive fills, and propulsive but never busy embellishment. On the other hand, “The Wind Cries Mary” is a clinic in doing more with less.

While Ginger Baker, for instance, could occasionally run the risk of tripping over himself, Mitchell was able to bring the blitzkrieg without exploding, or (worse), encroaching on the considerable space Hendrix needed to clear for himself in order to lift off. Not to pick on Baker (who is usually considered amongst the better and more influential drummers from the ‘60s), but Ginger sometimes sounded like a bricklayer. Occasionally, he seemed too preoccupied with how many balls he had in the air; on Cream’s mellower songs, it almost seems like he had to slip on a coat and tie just to calm himself down. Mitchell, on the other hand, maneuvered effortlessly between the wasp’s nest flurry (“Fire”, “She’s So Fine”) and in-the-pocket precision (“One Rainy Wish”, “Castles Made of Sand”).

Mitchell was fast, he was clever, he was edgy and he was original. He was the perfect engine for Hendrix’s inimitable machine.

by Bill Gibron

16 Nov 2008

1965 was a transitional year for international icons The Beatles. It would see the release of their artistic “breakthrough” album, the pot-inspired mostly acoustic gem Rubber Soul. It marked their turn from pop music phenoms into actual artists, dispensing with the cover songs and collective cutesy routine that made up the majority of their marketability. In its place was a growing sense of self, a realization that the mania began on their little British Isle was spreading, unabated, across every aspect of popular culture. And it was the year they reluctantly starred in their second feature film, Help!   Hoping to capitalize on the success of A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester kept the eccentric English humor intact. Gone, however, was the carefree innocence that seemed to spark their first foray into film. In its place was a workmanship and ethic that, while winning, provided portents of careering things to come.

After receiving a ring from an adoring fan, Beatles drummer Ringo finds himself locked in a life or death struggle with the notorious Kaili worshipping cult. Seems the piece of jewelry is one of their sacred ornaments, and whoever wears it will end up a human sacrifice to their god. Trying to avoid the murderous motives of High Priest Clang and his henchman, the boys seek help from a jeweler, the employees of an Indian Restaurant, and a crazed scientist named Foot and his bumbling assistant Algernon. Unfortunately, the only person able to help is fellow cult member Ahme. She seems sweet on Paul, and wants to return the ring to its rightful owner. With the help of Scotland Yard, the band records under heavy military guard, travels to Switzerland to avoid the thugs, and winds up confronting the perplexingly persistent fanatics on the shores of the Bahamas.

It’s a shame that Help! is constantly saddled with the “second best Beatles film” moniker. When compared to the rest of their output—the maddening Magical Mystery Tour, the next to no involvement in the decent Yellow Submarine, the dark and bitter aura of Let It Be - it’s faint praise indeed. Certainly A Hard Day’s Night set a cinematic bar so high that not even the most important band in the history of modern music could compete with it, and compared to other rock and roll film showcases of the time, it’s an unbridled masterwork. But for some reason, when placed along an equally fictional version of a ‘day in their life’, The Beatles’ East Indian romp gets some substantial short shrift. Frankly, it doesn’t deserve it. Fault it all you want for being a refashioned farce (the script was originally meant for someone else) or a marijuana soaked semi-spectacle, but the film contains some of the best onscreen work the band ever accomplished. It also features some of their most astounding songs of the pre-psychedelia/Sgt. Pepper period.

Help! is actually a hard movie to hate. The Beatles may be a tad dispirited here, less hyper and more humbled by what was rapidly becoming a cultural cocoon trapping them within their own fame (the next year—1966—would mark their decision to stop touring and concentrate on writing and recording only), but they make a perfect proto-punk Marx Brothers. While Ringo is the supposed star, perhaps because of the glowing notices he received from Night, it’s actually the entire foursome that truly shines. The reconfigured screenplay gives every member a standout sequence, from Paul’s amazing adventure ‘on the floor’ to John’s constant taunting of every authority figure in the film. The main narrative still centers on the emblematic drummer with the tendency toward ostentaceous jewelry and a large neb, but the other three turn in delightfully deadpan performances as well. It helps sell the rather clumsy, crackpot concept.

Equally endearing is the superb supporting cast. Made up of many then UK luminaries, Leo McKern and Eleanor Brom are excellent as opposing sides of the killer cult. Handling the pigeon English elements of his role with class and creativity, the future Rumpole of the Bailey never registers a single false note. Brom, on the other hand, is a strange choice for a romantic lead. Dark, imposing and very focused, she is a million miles from the hippy dippy flower children that were coming to mark the midpoint of the ‘60s. Returning to the Beatles camp for a second cinematic go round, Victor Spinetti is the perfect nonsense spewing mad scientist. Along with soon to be inseparable sidekick Roy Kinnear (the two became synonymous because of their brilliant chemistry here) they literally light up the screen. The sequence where they put Ringo into a metal expanding machine is a classic of screwball science shtick. In fact, there is a wonderful balance between physical and intellectual comedy here, something that definitely differentiates Help! from Night’s more normative approach.

And then there’s the music. While different entities love to claim the title of “Originator of the Music Video”, the Beatles will always remain the format’s grandest champions. Unlike Night, which used a performance based paradigm almost exclusively to showcase the songs, Help! creates little mini musical montages that form the foundation for everything MTV would do two decades later. While the title track purposely recalls the previous film, the next number, the fabulous pop tone “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” sets the new standard for such presentations. Playing in a dimly lit studio, their silhouettes barely visible through the fog of cigarette (?) smoke, the boys bang out one of Lennon’s best, a catchy little number with a tantalizingly tough lyrical line. Indeed, most of the songs in Help! would avoid the June/Moon/Spoon musings of their Tin Pan Alley take on rock and roll to enter into realms that are dark, confrontational, and dismissive.

With titles like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (a nice nod to new buddy Bob Dylan), “The Night Before” and “Another Girl”, The Beatles were proving that they’d matured, and indeed, one of the main reasons some fans don’t like this glorified goofball lark is that it posits grown men, ready to explore the mysteries both inside and outside their insular world as juvenile jokesters. Many of the gags are aimed at the lowest levels of wit, and even some of the smarter material is offset by a clear cut cartoonish ideal. Still, there are incredibly clever moments (the opening sequence where we see the boys’ fictional living quarters, the police inspector’s spot-on Ringo impression) when the group’s inherent intelligence shines through. In fact, aside from the standard action film finish which finds the gang involved in car chases and foot races, the verbal humor is on par with anything Night had to offer.

As part of the long awaited DVD presentation from Capital Records and Apple Corps, we learn about the difficulty director Richard Lester had in coming up with another Beatles project. Popularity was demanding the boys’ return to the big screen, but since another mock documentary about their career was out of the question, something slightly more surreal had to be created. On the second disc of added content (sadly, sans current input of the remaining band members) we hear stories about the infamous amount of ganja on set, the description of a disastrous sequence that didn’t make the final cut, and confirm what many at the time were already quite aware of—the Beatles were chaffing at their continued closed-off existence. It was almost impossible for them to travel anywhere—even on set—without crowds of screaming fans isolating them. It’s clear that what seemed exciting in A Hard Day’s Night was becoming more and more unbearable by Help!

This is perhaps why the film feels strained to some. The madcap mop tops who captured everyone’s hearts a year before had become slightly dampened slaves to their incalculable success. The notion that they were now international trend setters, mocked and mimicked by every group looking to ride the cresting British Invasion must have manifested itself in ways that, subconsciously, snuck onto the celluloid. It is clear that the fun loving blokes we see cascading down the Alps to the glorious sounds of John Lennon’s classic “Ticket To Ride” would soon become introspective—and independent—parts of an unique whole. They would go on to make albums that transcended the medium, offering timeless examples of composition as art. But Help! remains a wonderful testament to a time when being a Beatle was still satisfying—at least, on the cinematic surface.   

by Karen Zarker and Sarah Zupko

15 Nov 2008

On this chilling November day we make our way to downtown Chicago to join thousands in a demonstration of Democracy: our demand for GLBT civil rights in America. Billed as nationwide Anti-Proposition 8 protests and coordinated by various GLBT rights groups across the country with a speed and accuracy that can only happen in the age of the Internet, we find ourselves surrounded by smiling gay and straight supporters.

//Mixed media

Con Brio: The Best New Live Band in America?

// Notes from the Road

"There’s a preciousness to McCarter and the rest of the mostly young band. You want to freeze the moment, to make sure they are taking it all in too. Because it’s going to change.

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