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.


May 1, 2007

but i’m gonna stay

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, folk, live shows, music, news, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 9:51 pm

Here’s something cool. So last week I spent all this time at the EMP listening to lectures and pondering music, and this week I get to play my own music in the same space.

And I thought I was getting better at the whole world collision thing, but now they collide in the same space in the same fortnight. That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Thursday, May 3

Not only is the show free, but the whole EMP and SFM are open to the public from 5-8PM. Also the Old Bay Warblers, my old-time outfit, will be making a brief appearance. Check it out!

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 #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 #10 – The Pure Land

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, digital, distribution, folk, indie, live shows, music, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 10:46 am

Phil Ford quoted an old professor of mine, Scott DeVeaux – so much UVA love this weekend. DeVeaux taught a really wonderful class, Music and WWII, where I thought about many things for the first time and will never forget. The quote he read, I wish I had been able to record it, was so typical of the way DeVeaux spoke – it was perfect.

Ford’s presentation was about some obscure acetate recordings that the Beats made. I sort of lost track of the talk, just a personal ambivalence about the Beats – it’s hard for me to really pay attention to it. He made a general point about the purity of experience though, which is what they were striving for, and all of a sudden the quality of the recordings became an issue, then extrapolated to the larger circumstance of all recorded music. Ford talked about the expression of a particular kind of inability to attain this purity, which he then likened to “the melancholy of recorded sound itself,” a loaded and entirely plausible statement.

Recording brings a kind of distance to the musical experience. Yes, OK, well, this is an obvious point, however existential you’d like to make it. The physical distance between the room in which the sound was made and the room in which it is heard cannot be stressed enough. Is this distance detrimental to the musical experience? On both ends, for the musican and the listener, I think something is lost. Other things stand to be gained, of course, but some people may never be able to reclaim the visceral experience of proximity.

I learned about a different kind of music that seems to be entirely about the visceral experience of proximity in Lorriane Plourde’s talk about a kind of Japanese experiemental music mainly performed at a gallery called Off Site. I can’t remember the Japanese term for the genre, but it involved cramming a bunch of listeners into a typically small Tokyo apartment space, where they listen to a performance that consists mainly of sounds that you must strain to be able to hear. These performances are so quiet (made up mostly of sine waves and feedback noise from a mixer), that apparently you must strain to stay awake as well. What Plourde took away from her study of this music was the sense of physical tension, explaining the palpable sense of stress and, well, strain, among the audience members and their relation to the performing artist. More of a happening than a concert, it illustrates a lot about what remains to be sought out in a lot of American commercial recording. Conceptually, this experiemental form seemed to me to be sort of a reactionary form of art, forcing the kind of particiption and recipriocation that hardly any popular music asks of us anymore.

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?

EMP Pop Conference #7 – Too Much Analysis?

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, folk, live shows, music, recording, reviews, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 8:57 am

John Shaw has a really nice take on his experience at the conference this weekend. Mainly centered around Jonathan Lethem’s keynote, which I skipped, he repeatedly brings up something that I think about often, in music and also in life. “We should exult that such secrets live among us,” he writes, referring to the seemingly endless attempts my music writers to analyze, unpack, and deconstruct what exactly it is that makes this or that do a particular thing inside our bodies and minds.

A (perhaps the) central conflict in my professional life (see Quality) is between what I think as a critic and what I think as a musician. I am constantly looking to more experienced people in this situation for advice or for something that helps ease the tension, but more often than not, I have to make little decisions here and there choosing one over the other and weighing the results over time. But in general, I find that I am unable to truly separate. Either my writing about music becomes increasingly lyrical and personal, or my songs or promotional strategies have these highly analytical tics that come off as inappropriately intellectual in the wrong circumstances.

Bob Christgau would call me a bad critic. But would he also call me a bad songwriter? I don’t know.

At any write, Shaw thinks that “Maybe the ubiquity of music has masked its mystery, like a drug to which our tolerance has grown,” and I absolutely agree. I could go on forever about the ways in which recorded music has changed our relationship to music in general. In fact, I probably already have, somewhere on this blog, if you’re willing to search for something about mp3’s and albums and live performance.  

So it might be the hybrid nature of my music appreciation that both feels exactly what John is saying (exults, if you will), but also just as equally feels the necessity of critical analysis. It’s just as important. Living too much in one world or another would seem like missing out on some things.

Is this an extension of the wrap-up panel about Academia vs. Journalism?  If so, then Journalism all of a sudden just became the heart instead of the brains, as far as binaries are concerned. Interesting. More on this later.

April 20, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #3 – Music Sound

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, digital, folk, live shows, music, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 9:44 pm

For people who revel in the rich, eternal abyss that is the recording studio. This particular writer is more fascinated with the ideas of the possibilities of the technology, however, when confronted with the real thing, wants to eliminate the presence of it altogether. I’ve always felt that this instinct of mine is a bit like musique concrete, in a way.

Which David Grubbs spoke about in his presentation that was basically the story of his struggle to define the term “sound art.” He eventually arrived at “Sound art is an argument about the context in which the work should be received.” A good, relativist approach, for sure, that, like the artwork itself, “aims to evoke an aesthetic reaction.” Especially in a room of critics.

Tim Hecker spoke about Glenn Gould, always a fascinating figure to mull over. It sort of centered around the ineluctable existential conflict that lived inside of Gould, his inability to rise above himself. The amount of paradox is too much to bear. But in particular, his simultaneous feeling of liberation and anxiety surrounding the recording studio, his fervent desire to escape his bodily restrictions, the interiority of his reclusiveness versus his megastar status. (Semi relevant factoid: apparently Gould was the first North American musician to tour the Soviet Union after WWII – see here.)

Interestingly, Hecker chose not to play and of Gould’s music. One could argue that it was irrelevant to this paper, but it would have illuminated a lot of the character attributes discussed in the paper, in the sense that hearing the music would illuminate certain things about Gould’s personality or inner conflicts. Maybe his frenetic style or his eccentric virtuosity. Without Alex Ross around this year to play some “classical” music and explain to us all why its pop music after all, I felt a big empty hole.

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