Frank Zappa

I just saw this post on Dangerous Minds about an un aired interview with Frank Zappa in 1985.  I figured, why not, lets give it a viewing.

Suddenly, before I knew it, I was catapulted back to my early teens, sitting in my New Jersey living room, watching the VHS (!) rental copy of Baby Snakes from Tower Records.  It was long out of print, they wouldn’t sell it, so I just kept renting it over and over.  My neighbor, who was actually in the film randomly on the stage, showed it to me, and forever changed my musical outlook.

Zappa is a musician and figure who doesn’t get much notoriety these days.  This interview reminded me of that.  On the surface to the casual listener, he made really weird, sometimes funny music.  Obviously, the first song I latched onto was called “Titties and Beer”  about a motorcycle rider fighting the devil over his girlfriend.  Yep.  But go slightly beyond the silly lyrics, and all of his music was incredibly complex.  The man was unstoppably prolific.  In his lifetime he released over 70 albums.  Composed music for orchestras, early synthesizers, rock bands, jazz groups, made films, was an early pioneer of clay-mation, and who knows what else.
Oh yeah, he also testified before congress and led the fight against censorship in music.

After bringing my first guitar teacher some Zappa recordings I wanted to learn, it soon became evident there was a lot more going on than lyrics about strange characters.  If you watch Baby Snakes, finally reissued on DVD a few years back, look at the band.  Terry Bozzio is on drums, and looks about 14.  He’s playing some ridiculous stuff, somehow not sounding as annoying as any wanking fill-fueled fusion asshole drummer that came after him.  You get the sense that he’s just trying to do what Zappa envisioned, and there’s no one else on the planet who could do that.  Adrian Belew of King Crimson is on guitar, dressed as a flight attendant for most of the evening.  Nearly everyone in the band has a modular synthesizer.  There is a full orchestral percussion setup.  The vocal arrangements could make your head explode.  And on top of that, it ends with Zappa shredding the face off of all in attendance on several guitar solos.  Who the fuck was this guy?

Luckily, he did write a book before he passed.  The Real Frank Zappa book is 100% required reading.  I haven’t thought about it in years, I’m now going to go back and re-read it.  If for nothing else, the political connotations.  I rarely if ever will get political on this here blog, but I’ve gotta throw out a few things.  Zappa makes the point in the above interview of defending freedoms.  There’s this whole Occupy Wall St movement happening, and say what you will about their methods, but their message is important.  Pretty much no people of note have stood up and outwardly supported the movement.  Sure, some musicians have played short sets, but I mean, come on.  No one comes out in the media and supports it.  We’re stuck with these shitty 24hr news as entertainment outlets. Has anyone of note written a scathing article taking down the financial criminals? Its not like there’s no outlet for it. Like it or not, celebrities have power in our lovely land, why not do something with it. Eh?

When Tipper Gore (wife of the inventor of the internet) decided to form the PMRC (parents music resource center) in order to get those “Parental Advisory” stickers on albums at the time….Zappa stood right the fuck up.  No one could quiet him down.  He led the fight, flaming sword full of unplayable arrangements waving.

Would Bieber do this?  Would ANYONE? Radiohead couldn’t articulate it this clearly.  But Zappa marched right up to the hill and spoke in his own words.  He read the first amendment out loud to the committee trying to censor him, then he said “That’s for reference!” Just watch the video.  How did his balls fit through the door!

I just wish we could see what Zappa would be doing today.  Sure, people say that about any musician long gone…Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain, whatever, but all of them would have likely fallen from greatness, sold out, made much worse music, and tarnished their reputations to some degree.  What would Zappa have done with the internet?  Pro Tools?  Youtube?  His output would have made Ryan Adams look like Axl Rose.  Can you imagine Zappa’s blog?  Would you see his music in a Wall Mart commercial?

These are just some things to think about.  Go back and listen to “We’re Only In It For The Money”  then listen to “Sheik Yerbouti”  then watch these videos once more. What we’re really missing is someone who just does not give a shit about what anyone else thinks, answers to no one but themselves, and says whatever they believe it. It’s surprising, because we basically all have our own broadcast networks, the major labels are dead, MTV and Radio are irrelevant, and you can sell your own products without distribution.

Anyhoo, that enough ranting for now. Happy Chanukah!

Sharon Jones And The Dap Kings Dec 13 2011 Bowery Ballroom Review

Very few bands can get away with a direct imitation of another era’s style.  It’s so hard to pull something off convincingly, let alone accurately.  Those swing bands of the 90’s, the garage band revival, the brief polka boom of the mid 2000’s, it often just doesn’t work.  So when Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings pull it off, it means that much more.

I’ve written on these here pages about Jones and the Dap Kings before, so I won’t go into an extended description of what they’re about.  You probably know, and to quote the one and only Binky Grip-Tight of the Dap Kings  “If you don’t know, you got to ask somebody!”

Sharon Jones 1

They held their Daptone 10th Anniversary Shows over 4 nights, 2 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and 2 at the Bowery Ballroom.  First off, you have never seen that many people on the Bowery stage.  9 musicians in the band, 2 backup singers on a riser, and Jones out front.  Not exactly spacious.

The crowd at a Dap Kings show is unlike most indie bands crowds.  Decidedly less drunken obnoxious people, but the ones who are there, obviously gravitate right towards me.  Here’s a little tip.  If you’re a drunken white girl, it’s probably not the best idea to try to do those soul-vocal trill things from the crowd while Jones is in telling an emotional story about her mother being sick.  Ya know?  Just my opinion.

Something about the band seemed just slightly off last night.  Jones clearly was having monitor problems, kept asking for more reverb and saying she couldn’t hear.  While the dap kings stage presence is always stoic, it seemed a little more stoic than usual.  Having said that, (that’s a Larry David reference) Sharon Jones feeling a little off, is like most musicians on the best day of their lives, so we’ll give her a pass.

She still gives 100%, there is no doubting that.  The crowd at the Bowery responded to every move.  In one surprising moment, they brought out Eric Kalb to sit in on drums.  Kalb, an early childhood drumming hero, was part of Deep Banana Blackout, and was probably the first drummer I ever saw play in that ghost note shuffle style in person.  It permanently changed me as a musician.  I’ve heard he’s been playing with Charlie Hunter recently, as for the rest of Deep Banana, we don’t really know where they’ve gone…somewhere into the jam band ether.  We wish them the best.

Homer Steinweiss, the regular Dap Kings Drummer, (who also seems to have a Food Blog) apparently is a lefty,  something also discovered last night. The kit was set up semi backwards, playing the kick with his left foot, but still playing the hi hat with his right hand.  Whatever, he’s allowed to do what he wants.

My favorite Dap Kings show still remains the Starland Ballroom, in the Middle Of Nowhere, South Jersey, during a snow storm.  It’s always the unexpected ones that get you.  Yes, the Bowery was a great show, they played with precision most bands can only dream of.  But when the bar is set so incredibly high, you have to be held to that standard.  I’ll give them a pass this time, you’ve earned it Sharon Jones.

Jenny Scheinman, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade @ The Village Vanguard

Well, it was quite a week for live music.  There are a lot of things that can be substituted or forgotten.  If you wanted, you could get away with never speaking another word to another human being.  Never read an actual bound book.  Forget seeing a movie in a theater.  But there is no substitute for live music.

Vanguard 1

The week came to an end with Brian Blade, Bill Frisell, and Jenny Scheinman at The Village Vanguard.  Well, it was Thursday, but who’s counting.  The Vanguard is a NY institution, that looks nearly exactly as it did in its heyday.  Every legend of jazz has played there, and the more spiritual among us like to imagine that there is a little spirit of those left behind.

It was a fitting week to visit, as Paul Motian had just passed away, the Vanguard was his home for the last few years, and Frisell was a member of his long running trio with Joe Lovano (who else would have the balls to have a trio with sax, drums, and guitar??)

One of my favorite shows of all time was the Brian Blade Fellowship at this venue a few years back.  I couldn’t see a thing (which happens if you sit anywhere except the very front) but it made no difference.  Everyone in the venue was straining their necks to see what Blade was up to behind the vast array of musicians on that tiny stage.  This evening was a little easier, there were only 2 other up there.

The set was less experimental than you would imagine.  Frisell had his pedal board, some looping devices, probably a magic pedal that allows him to play a Statocaster at the Village Vanguard and not look ridiculous doing so…and probably not a Boss Metal Zone.  Scheinman was leading the band, playing most of the melody, but in truth, you can’t have Brian Blade on a stage and expect him not to be the focus.

Brian-Blade02

It’s not even through showmanship or excessive display of chops.  Blade could probably play just a ride cymbal with a broomstick and most of us would have been captivated.  The man has something most do not.  It goes beyond time.  Its not speed, or some Dave Weckl-esque shit, he’s just operating on a level different from the rest of us.  I commented to my friend that this is what Elvin Jones must have sounded like at the Vanguard.  You can see everything he’s doing – he’s using the same tools available to anyone else.  But he’s just extracting something different from them.  He’s from New Orleans, let’s call it Voodoo.

This week it will continue, at a much more relaxed pace, with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, also Peter Lugers steak, and while that is not music, it is certainly worth noting.

Dawes at Maxwell’s, 12/7/2011 Review

dawes 1

Well, this makes two posts about the same band fairly close together, but you know what?  I don’t even care.  You want a wide variety of editorial content centered around pop culture and bands who dress like homeless crackheads set loose in a party store, then go watch Morning Joe.  OK?  Glad we’re past that.

After the Dawes show at Webster Hall, two very small shows were announced at Maxwell’s, one of the 3 greatest venues in the New York metropolitan area.  If you have never been, Maxwell’s is a hidden gem in Hoboken, NJ, a mile square city of dudes in white baseball hats who work in finance.  It became famous in the 90’s, hosting bands like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and approximately 2 billion others.  Hoboken had a vibrant music scene at the time, yes, I know it’s surprising if you look at it now.

Maxwell’s has a feel like no other.  It is not filled with pretentious people, the food is actually good, and the drinks are not expensive.  On this particular evening, I trekked the 12 blocks north in the pouring rain from the PATH, and Joe Strummer’s “Coma Girl” was on the juke box.  I took this as a good omen. I had an extra ticket, and the doorman found me a person looking for one.  That’s not going to happen in Manhattan.

Dawes 2

The feel of the show was a bit ragtag, in a good way.  The band seemed relaxed, maybe they had enjoyed a few beverages, not over rehearsed, again, all in a good way.  It was like seeing your friends band play a local bar.  But not like that friend’s band who takes themselves too seriously and just wants to rip 15 minute solos over “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”  More like those guys you think “I feel kind of lucky to be seeing this”

One thing I seemed to have missed at the recent Webster Hall show is what great technical musicians these guys are.  There were quite a few guitar solos by Taylor Goldsmith, but none were gratuitous, all supporting the melody, not just mindless shredding.  Great interplay between all of the musicians, lots of listening going on.  Also great bass lines.  Almost reggae sounding – not in the bouncy Bob Marley way, but in the “the bass feels like a giant blanket engulfing me with happiness” way.

Also, I’ll bet that bass player listens to a lot of Lee Sklar, the famed LA studio musician, most known for his work with Jackson Browne.  Browne has been hanging around with Dawes recently, they played a song at Occupy Wall St together.  I mean, that relationship is probably good for all involved.  Browne gets an excellent young group of musicians, Dawes learns from one of the master American songwriters, we all get to hear the results, and I’m sure the environment and foreign economies benefit as well somehow.

I’d love to see what the future holds for a band like this.  They put on a great live show, and their first album was fantastic (I haven’t fully explored their latest release.)  Maybe a collaboration album with Browne?  A random cover?  I feel like a live EP would be a great idea, just record it at any of these shows, the entire crowd singing “When My Time Comes”  you can’t feel left out.  Thats just my two cents, I’ll send you an invoice for the consultation fee.

On the way home, I wasnt going to walk the 11 blocks in the rain once again, so I hailed a Hoboken Cab ($5 flat rate anywhere in the city!)  Annnnd….this was the interior:

Hoboken Cab

You really can’t ask for more than flashing Christmas lights inside your cab on a rainy Wednesday night.

Ryan Adams Dec 6th 2011 at Carnegie Hall Review

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I consider myself a man of science.  Not an active practitioner of science, but certainly an enthusiast.  (this basically means when Planet Earth or NOVA is on, you know where I’ll be.)  But some things defy common knowledge.  I was thinking of my old friend Eric yesterday, a bass player in a former band, and all around unique character.  We hadn’t spoken in nearly 2 years, he’s not on Facebook, I figured he dropped off the map.

That evening, I’m walking home from purchasing a synth in the most sketchy craigslist transaction of all time (and thats saying a lot) it’s pouring rain, and my phone rings.  Its Eric.  How do these things happen?  These weird little experiences happen to all of us, lets get someone to fund some research on this shit.  Anyway, he asks “Want to see Ryan Adams tonight? I have a free extra”  To that there is only one response  “Is he performing as his Rap and/or Metal alterego?”  If the answer to that question is “No” then the followup response is “Yes, of course”

This is the only pic from the night you get, I'm not loading up the post with shit like this
This is the only pic from the night you get, I'm not loading up the post with shit like this

I tried to get tickets to this event initially, it sold out very quickly, and was very expensive.  Its strange how things like that work out sometimes.  I have had 3 live experiences with Ryan Adams in my life.  First, he played a Bob Dylan tribute at Lincoln Center, and lit the venue ablaze with a cover of “Isis.”  Next, I met him in a Deli, told him I enjoyed the “Isis” cover, to which he was very nice and responsive.  Finally, I saw The Cardinals at Town Hall.  Adams came out in giant leather moon boots, with a little ponytail on top of his head, and played a very long set of what sounded like Grateful Dead covers, lots of solos…we had to take a break.

This tour seemed a little different, Adams was performing solo acoustic, he had taken time off from music for the last year, he had cleaned himself up, it’s worth a shot.  I haven’t heard much of his new album, a friend commented “it almost seems too easy for him, like he just wakes up and writes 45 fairly decent songs”  You definitely get that vibe.  None of his songs are hideous, but only a few are truly great.  I won’t go into a full on “Heartbreaker vs the 297 albums that came after” analysis, but you know what I’m getting at.

Adams came out, picked up his red white and blue guitar, and went into “Oh My Sweet Carolina”  Things were pretty much all good from there out.  While I was up in the nosebleeds, Carnegie hall is a beautiful sounding venue, made for music like this.  You could hear every quiet note, the natural sound of the room enhancing everything.

The show was not without its signature Ryan Adams banter, calling out various photographers “thanks for bringing your camera from 1981, do you have to change the flashbulb after each shot?” Commenting on the snakes in the balcony (one dude kept shushing everyone who clapped at parts of a song) and creating several on the spot songs – One woman yelled “That was beautiful!” he responded “did you say Howard Is Beautiful?”  a full song about Howard being beautiful followed.  Apparently Howard gets all the Apple products first, and controls inter-dimensional force fields.

The highlight of the show was unexpected.  We heard all the hits, “Winding Wheel”  “Come Pick Me Up” all that, but I was blown away by “New York, New York”  Played on piano rather than guitar, and slowed down a whole bunch, it just got to the heart of the song.  It bypassed the sax solo and conga parts that made it the pop song it was, and stood up completely on its own.  You got the feeling that when Adams is at the top of his songwriting game, he taps into some magical shit.  How many others could hold the attention of a venue like that completely on their own?  It’s almost as if you could see these mythical women he writes about, a cartoon version of all his famous exes combined, 14 feet talk, swinging one of those spikey ball chains from fantasy thriller movies.

We did get a cover of RATT’s “Round and Round” and a closing number thanking everyone, including C&C Music Factory, a running joke throughout the evening.  So until he puts out 16 albums in a row about space travel, or decides to write a series of novels about a sea captain trapped in a worm hole with Tom Brokaw, I’m confident in saying, he can still perform a serious show.