moments before the wind.

May 5, 2007

can still burn your fingers

Filed under: authenticity, country, folk, indie, live shows, music, news, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 8:00 am

Last night’s Elvis Costello show at the Sunset Tavern was a benefit for 826 Seattle, the quirky, fun, and incredibly dedicated tutoring center fronted by a Space Travel Supply Store.

Quirky, fun, and incredibly dedicated? Sounds like 826 has found their musical counterpart. I’m not sure if the idea for the benefit came from 826 or was a secondary decision, but there could not have been a better chosen figure for celebration in their presence. And I feel like I am qualified to say this because not only am I a huge Elvis fan but also I am an 826 volunteer.

Think about it this way. What would you expect the audience to look like at an 826 benefit? Bookish, plastic frames, slightly less casual clothes, clean-cut-yet-subtly-hip seriousness of people who appreciate serious art. Add a tie and there you have it – the audience you’d expect at an Elvis Costello tribute concert. A marriage made in heaven.

It was a packed house, sold out in under an hour. There were 15 bands, each doing one to three songs. Even the selection was hyper-indie selective, only rarely would a group allow the audience the pleasure of doing one of Elvis’s smash hits. Highlights:
-both versions of “Indoor Fireworks”
-“Living in Paradise” sung in octaves with an acoustic guitar
-“Miracle Man,” because it’s currently hanging on my wall also
-The intense wordiness that I hear as Costello’s magic touch, filtered through all these other bands…it was like American Idol, seeing how the various singers would attempt to do what seems to come so naturally to the writer. Some did a really awesome job. It reminds you od Elvis’s brilliance, because you don’t realize how complex the music is until you try and perform it yourself.
-This beautiful Gibson guitar that one of the performers used. I think it was a Hummingbird.

By the way, 826 Seattle is one of the best things. Period. If you don’t know much about it or what they do, please visit their site and check it out. Space travel is just the beginning. They are always, always looking for volunteers in one way or another, and I have never had a more rewarding experience. I was not asked to make this statement. It’s really true.


April 23, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #16 – End Bits

One thing that I continually find entertaning is the feedback loop at the conference, presenters quoting writers to help support their point, and those writers are literally sitting in the audience listening to their own words spoken back to them. This kind of validation (or cancellation?) is a kind of black hole, a weird moment in time when the reasoning behind an argument starts to sound circular. For some reason the fact that the original writer is in the room listening sort of serves to render the intellectual capacity of the argument null and void. Like anything that is circular, you have to wonder whether it’s useful to end up where you started. Of course it can be. And of course it can’t be.


There seemed to be an exceptional amount of political commentaries built into the arguments I saw. The theme of the conference, “Waking Up From History,” propelled many writers to arrive at the concusion that we should actually wake up TO history, to learn from history, and to draw conclusions between the cultural sphere that our work covers and the political sphere of which we are citizens.

Some examples:

-Robert Bennett on the Jazz Diplomacy program and the things we should learn from it.
-Scott Nelson’s timely mention of “abortive gun policies” in the paper about John Henry’s exhumation – I’m not sure how he managed to reference the VA. Tech shootings in that conversation but at the time it made perfect sense.
-Brendan Greaves’ talk of Terry Allen’s border politics and the ways in which the Texas/Mexico border is treated by the government versus the inhabitants. 
-There was also an entire panel about New Orleans, as well as a smattering of other related papers throughout the weekend, all of which contained a fervent expression of the power of music and solidarity and the essential character of the city.

In general, as there seems to be in more and more things these days, there was a real sense of urgency that was more palpable than in previous conferences. It may have been the effect of the theme, but in general people’s research was very much rooted in the grim realities of life and music’s ability to help maintain and even create hope where all seems quite hopeless.

EMP Pop Conference #14 – Van the Man

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, country, distribution, folk, music, recording, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 1:51 pm

A note about a song. Charles Hughes said that “Dark End of the Street” (1967) should be America’s national anthem. I didn’t previously know the song, but the part of it he played was beautiful. It made me think of Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road,” released in 1979 on Into the Music, because of the obvious lyrical relationship.

Where writers Dan Penn and Chips Moman write:

I know time’s gonna take its toll
We have to pay for the love we stole
It’s a sin and we know it’s wrong
Oh, our love keeps going on strong
Steal away to the dark end of the street
You and me

Van says:

Little darlin, come with me
Wont you help me share my load
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road

In my mind, there’s no other possibility except that Van is responding to this hugely popular song of the previous decade. It’s just too explicit. I wonder what Hughes would say about the racial politics surrounding Van and his music, with the mixture of a serious anglo-saxon background and a decidedly soul, R&B musical influence. Maybe he would say that the exact kind of hybrid that Van exemplifies is a direct product of the mishmash love triangle in the south. See this for more on that.

EMP Pop Conference #13 – What You See Is What You Get

Filed under: authenticity, country, distribution, folk, live shows, music, radio, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 1:32 pm

Michael Bertrand spoke of the radio barndance on WLS in the 20’s and specifically on the minstrelsy aspect of the shows.

Without getting into the details, I just want to post this quote from his presentation. It’s a wonderful thought and is applicable to most everything in today’s world as well:

“When listeners heard dialect through their radio transmitters, what exactly did they see?”

I mention this because I think we all conjure up visual images in the absence of being provided one. Especially when we read books, there’s an imaginary space in our minds that we situate stories within. On the radio, especially the kind of radio that is pre-television, serial soap operas and variety shows, it’s just the same. And of course every listener conjures a different image. What an idea, that every perspective is completely relative. Maybe it’s the same even when we are provided with visuals.

Another barndance based out of Nashville in the 20’s is still running today; it’s called the Grand Ole Opry.

EMP Pop Conference #11 – County Lines

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, business, country, folk, music, producers, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 11:28 am

A recurrent topic at the conference is the black reclamation of a southern identity, namely, southern hip hop. Countless papers brought this up in conversations about racial politics and pop culture, which makes sense due to the huge and growing popularity of african-american musicians re-forging their southern roots and identities.

To talk about Leadbelly here would be going in the wrong direction, because the idea is that this new generation of hip hop is fueled by a kind of empowerment and self-conscious purpose. But to talk about Cowboy Troy might be entirely appropriate? Or maybe just bizarre. Jon Caramanica was so giddy to get to be talking about Cowboy Troy, I can only imagine the sorts of things that might be going on at Vibe Magazine.

But I think there is something else to this element of absurdity. Charles Hughes gave a fantastic presentation on the love triangle of Nashville, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals – namely, the particular symbiosis of country and soul (and disco?), black and white, that largely determined the mainstream sounds of both genres in the 70’s. And when someone asked him what contemporary artists could be compared to the genre benders Billy Sherrill, George Jones, Ray Charles, etc etc…he said Bubba Sparxx’s album Deliverance. Now that to me is absurd. Not that Hughes is wrong, but that I never took Sparxxx seriously – I think one too many frat parties may have tipped the scales for me in that respect (one?! okay, maybe 20). And then Hughes himself addressed this, as if he’d read my mind, bringing up artists like Solomon Burke and Allen Toussaint, lamenting that “they’re all so damn serious.”

Lightbulb! I get the “too damn serious” comment a LOT, so I get what he means here, though I may be on the other side of the coin. Bubba Sparxxx? Definitely not. Fans of Bubba Sparxxx too – POPISTS! Which is the whole reason why we’re at the Pop Conference in the first place.

We all draw our own lines between what’s pop and what’s serious. Different for every person. This makes me think of a little tibit that Meghan Askins taught us yesterday, that Nevada County, CA, drew their county lines in the shape of a pistol aimed at Nevada State, angry for stealing their name. The way that we all draw our lines tends to have a kind of larger metaphysical purpose as well, aimed with a certain discourse in our sights.

EMP Pop Conference #8 – John Henry

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, country, distribution, folk, live shows, music, writing — alimarcus @ 9:41 am

Saturday was one of those days that was full of echoes, like a 15-hour-long song cycle, rhyming continuously throughout the hours. I often have the feeling that my entire life is a series of these song cycles (maybe 100 or so) all happening at the same time, but let’s just talk about Saturday’s John Henry.

In the morning, Rachel Richardson, a Wallace Stegner Fellow and from the UNC-Chapel Hill Folklore department, gave us a narrative comparison between “John Henry” and “John Hardy.” It was a fairly standard lyrical analysis, and became captivating once she turned to the realm of female characters in blues ballads. She drew some conclusions about the stereotypical roles of women in these songs (wives, daughters) and, noticing that their voices are never represented, decided to write her own version of “John Henry” from his wife Polly Ann’s point of view.

It struck me as a very Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea) method, and despite the obvious imitation, I have to credit Richardson with originality here, because in the context of 19th century folk song, this is truly novel. Even the songs that are sung from a women’s perspective put the women in their place, so to speak. For instance, “I Never Will Marry” (A single woman laments, “the shells in the ocean shall be my deathbed/ the fish in the water swim over my head”), or “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” (“They’ll tell to you some loving story and make you think they love you well/ and away they’ll go and court some other, leave you there in grief to dwell”). Or how about the ones where even the women who have the true love of a man get murdered, like “Banks of the Ohio,” where the male singer stabs and drowns his love because she said no to a marriage proposal, or “Polly Von,” where he accidently shoots her while out hunting?

And then Richardson did something truly original, and commissioned her re-written lyrics to a musician friend, Jocelyn Arem, who (beautifully) performed the song up at the lectern as part of the presentation.

“He let me go out of his hands
For that hammer and a crooked fight
Damn hammer and a crooked fight.”   -Richardson 

Why was this the first music performance I’ve ever seen in three years at the Pop Conference? Kicking myself for not having thought of it first, I enjoyed the spirit that it brought to the whole presentation. The idea that folk music is just a thing that happens in rooms, in life, in regular places – it just crossed a boundary that made a lot of sense, and all of a sudden made many other presentations lacking in that sense.

But back to John Henry.

In a different panel later in the day, Scott Nelson walked us through the process by which he tracked down the sequence of events in the real John Henry’s life to city records and signed contracts to buried bones in the Virginia clay. Literally de-mythologizing the hero of the song, Nelson brilliantly unveiled a mystery, revealing a narrative that is just as much a part of American history as the legend.

It turns out, John Henry was a prisioner at the Virginia Penitentiary. Along with hundreds of other convicts, he was leased out to the railroad companies to build the tunnels, work that men would not volunteer for due to the incredibly high risk of death (Nelson says that in 1866 the highest export from the state of California was Chinese bones, the dead men who came to America to work in the tunnels). Anyways, Nelson found records of a steam-engine drill at Lewis Tunnel, across the WV border but near the Big Bend Tunnel of the “John Henry” ballad. He found contracts that fined the railroads $100 for every man not returned to the Penitentiary, which explains the hundred of skeletons found buried in mass graves, Henry’s presumably among them.

The bones are now at the Smithsonian being analyzed, and Nelson mentioned an upcoming article in the September issue of National Geographic. What a great story. Also, he mentioned that Henry’s prison record marked him as 5’1.25″ tall – that’s my height, on a good day. How could a man my size have acquired this superhuman strength? Fascinating.

Oh, and Nelson also credits the legend of John Henry as the inspiration for superman – “Steel-drivin’ man” : “Man of Steel.”

I had to leave to conference in a big rush due to a show I had to play that evening in Tacoma. But on the drive down there, I’m explaining this whole day of John Henry to my pal in the car. The coincidence of these presentations provided a lot to discuss. And then, the other performer opened his set with “John Henry”! It was a lot of coincidence for one day. When things like this happen, I am reassured that I am doing something right, you know?

April 20, 2007

i heard there was a major chord – introduction

Ahhhhhhh. So nice to be back. The continual decline of the EMP’s institutional gravitas only makes this conference all the more sweeter. Oh, how imminent demise doth make the heart grow!

But in the lovely Seattle springtime, everything feels like a rebirth, and so this weekend we embark on the eternal journey of speculation and debate, insight and confusion. Does this stuff matter to anyone else? If it doesn’t, does that matter? And if it does, then what are we doing here?

We are analysts, we are critics, we are artists: I cannot think of a more potent combination of inspired and cynical people who must against all odds maintain faith in this crazy work we do. For me, the conference feels like a yearly pep rally. So lets get to it. Thanks for reading!

March 12, 2007

keep your silver shined

Filed under: authenticity, business, country, distribution, folk, indie, live shows, music, news, reviews, writing — alimarcus @ 12:14 pm

Times are slow on this here blog. It seems to be to inverse of reality, which actually probably explains the situation.

I went to see Deadwood Revival over the weekend, a folk/country duo from Port Angeles. Coupled with the recent Josh Ritter show that I saw the week before (see this review), I am full of inspiration. When I spoke to them, DR seemed a little out of their element in a quiet performance space, even though on stage you never would have known. I can understand that, because the general string band/old-time/folky crowd here in the Northwest is largely dance-based.

Now I don’t know what’s going on, because the traditional stereotype of Northwestern residents is that they don’t move at all – the rowdiest rock show will only produce a few head-bobbers and such. But it’s true, all the dancers come out with the banjos. I’ve seen it. What’s interesting is that where I come from back in Virginia, there’s plenty of the quiet listening shows for this kind of music. Deadwood Revival strongly reminds me of what I call Virginia Folk- namely Eddie from Ohio, the Nields, John McCutcheon. Music that I grew up with, from locally based artists who all now have these huge national audiences. But there is a sound about them that screams Virginia to me. Here’s what I wrote once on this here blog:

The “Virginia Folk” thing is a bright streak in my musical tastes, from stuff like EFO and the Nields to a few  select years of the Pat McGee Band, and of course the Dave Matthews Band. Living in Charlottesville as a college student put us in the path of many a frat party band aspiring to fame, including the early days of O.A.R., Virginia Coalition, Dispatch and Georgia Avenue…This is definitely not Virginia as in Carter Family, Galax and Appalachia and all that, though the ghosts are there, mainly in the acoustic guitar-ness of it all, the swingy country rhythms and the preponderance of tight harmonies.

DR is originally from Georgia, which could be part of the reason why there are so many similarities. And I am willing to bet that they are familiar with EFO- the Julie/Robbie dynamic runs very strong through Kim and Jason. I have been to literally countless shows for all of these bands, and they run the gamut of locales, but generally tend towards the “listening” rather than dancing situation. It depends on what you are out for. In general though, if I really want to pay attention, I am going to want some quiet. I know that as a performer these situations feel like you are being put on the spot, but that is sort of the point too. It’s a privilege to get people to shut up and listen – and it’s precisely the challenge to succeed that makes it fun.

But this is all my own opinion. The original point is that I just wanted to say that Deadwood Revival rocks. You can tell how on point they are, how well rehearsed, and how much detailed attention they pay to the arrangement and execution of their songs. They cover great songs (“Cold Rain and Snow,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,”) they write great songs, and they keep you interested all the way through. Listen to and buy there CD here.

And speaking of how important it is to buy independent music, have you bought my album yet? I am not sure if it fits into the “Virginia Folk” category, but then again I will never hear my own music the way that you would. You tell me.

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