Saturday, January 31, 2009

Got me some blues

I love a tight blues band, which is why I found myself at Bradenton's Cigar Bar Friday night on Old Main listening to the Alternator Blues Band.

I love being so close to the bass player that the big head stock on his Fender Jazz Bass almost brushes against me.

I love a lead guitarist whose Paul Reed Smith electric is playing so fine channeled through a hopped up Princeton amp that he doesn't even think about the 1961 Gibson SG in the stand beside him.

I love it when the Haitian keyboard player gets in a groove on "Stormy Monday'' and leans over those keys like he's Charlie Brown at the piano.

I love it when my friend Tom sits at the drums and plays the kit straight and easy, holding it all together, even though he could be a wild drummer in savage rock and roll band, which he once was.

And I love it when the sax player shows up, even though he looks like a kid who might be blowing his curfew.

If you're ever in or around Bradenton, Fla., you need to check out this band. They played a rousing first set last night, opening with Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway'' before torching the place with a barrage of standards including "The Blues Is My Business'', "The House is Rockin''' and "Messin' With the Kid.''

An hour and few beers later I stumbled out on Old Main wondering what had hit me. I looked back into the bar, listened to the chatter of patrons and watched the smoke rising in the room. And I knew.

The blues had hit me, and hit me good.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Happy birthday, Little Jazz

Congratulations, you made it to Friday. But watch your back! As dates go, January 30 has not always been kind to people or history. We've seen:
  • The beheading of King Charles I of England in 1649.
  • The naming of Adolph Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in 1933.
  • The assassination of Gandhi in 1948.
  • The spectacular fireworks known as the Tet Offensive in 1968.

So even if you're having a lousy day, remember that it could be worse. And by all means, don't be a tyrant out there.

On an upbeat note, January 30 is also the date, in 1911, when jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge was born in Pittsburgh. So if you can find a record or download with Eldridge on it, play it on your stereo or IPod today and get the hitch out of your giddy-yup.

"Little Jazz'' never received the wide acclaim of contemporaries like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, but he played an essential role in the transition from the swing to be-bop eras, and other players and band leaders held him in high regard. For a full biography click on or just Google his name.

Jackie Robinson is always the centerpiece in discussions about blacks breaking the color barrier, but jazz players like Eldridge were enduring racial hatred and humiliation well before Robinson's much celebrated appointment with big league baseball. Eldridge, in particular, was singled out for joining Gene Krupa's band in 1941, and later hooking up with Artie Shaw in 1944. Eldridge's spectacular solo playing added a crucial component to the brass sections of those popular groups, but this was a difficult time to be a black player in a white swing band.

Tap a foot for Little Jazz, who would have been 98 today.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Wanted Man in California

That's me. A wanted man, just like in the Johnny Cash song.

There's a bench warrant for my arrest in L.A. on felony drug charges stemming from a 2002 arrest. I'd give you the case file and a few of the details but that would probably get me into even more trouble.

I've been in contact with the LAPD, the L.A. District Attorney's office and the L.A. Public Defender's office. Each call has revealed conflicting information, but everyone I talked to seems to agree about one thing: Unless I can prove otherwise, I'm their man. Somebody in the D.A.'s prelim office told me the only way to resolve the problem and clear my name is to appear before a judge in an L.A. courtroom. (Like I'm going to voluntarily get on a plane right now and fly into their jurisdiction.)

Everyone I talked to has asked me the same question: Are you sure you don't have some recollection of this event?

I do not.

I'm in this pack of trouble because I volunteered to be a writing tutor at a local college, and their background check includes fingerprinting. (Did you know the old ink kit like we've always seen on TV has been replaced by an electronic scanner? I was so disappointed.) Anyway, I can't blame the school for wanting clean teachers and employees, even volunteers. But my name, date of birth, height, weight, color of hair and eyes all matched some bad boy who skipped town back in L.A.

If you ever see me coming and if you know who I am
Don't you breathe it to nobody 'cause you know i'm on the lam

I've been out of a salaried job for seven months, and now I can't even work for free.

My fingerprints, which are supposed to be unique, should be in some national database and would undoubtedly clear me. That doesn't seem to matter. I'm more than willing to supply a fresh set, though I'm a little wary right now about stepping into any police department. Today, at the suggestion of a public defender, I'll be talking to the Department of Justice. Wish me luck.

This is what I get for being Jim Smith. I'm also on the federal government's no-fly list, which guarantees a hassle every time I step up to an airline counter. Although things would have been tougher for me as a kid, I'm wishing right now that my parents had named me Horatio, or Zebedee. Or even Johnny, who sang it like he was living it:

Wanted man in California, wanted man in Buffalo
Wanted man in Kansas City, wanted man in Ohio
Wanted man in Mississippi, wanted man in ol' Cheyenne
Wherever you might look tonight you might see this wanted man

The really scary thing is I could be wanted in some of those other places, too.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Strumming and chumming

Want to eavesdrop on endless chatter about guitars and (mostly) music-related matters? You can tap into every thread that has ever wound though the informative Google acoustic discussion group by going directly to

Just click on any highlighted monthly total from the last 15 years and you have entered the inner sanctum where more than 100,000 topics have been covered. If you're a player visiting for the first time you just hit the mother lode. It's a lot to wade through, and at times you will encounter an excess of back-patting and birthday wish back-and-forths, but hey -- maybe these people just love each other. What's wrong with a bit of comraderie among stummers? You can also scan the topics list and avoid some of the off-topic chatter, unless you truly want to know about the eats at the O'Hare airport.

These are players of every skill level contributing information and dispensing suggestions and advice. You might even want to join the group and start a thread of your own, assuming you have a specific query to pose or worthwhile info to share.

What started with a then-robust 568 posts in September 1993, mushroomed to a high of 9,471 posts in January 2002. But there have been some lean months since (including "only'' 3,435 posts last December). It's not for me to reason why, though I suspect the related groups for jazz and beginners (also worth visiting if your interests and playing level apply) may have splintered the original group. And no doubt there are many other sites out there that have sprung up since.

And threads can wear a person down, you know? The all-time poster, Wade Hampton Miller, has nearly 10,000 posts. I remember Wade once giving me advice about the appropriate strings to wind on my war-era Gibson L-50. What I didn't realize is he apparently had a response for EVERYBODY and EVERYTHING!

Did I mention these Usenets are free????

I once visited a freak show...

In 1984 I was working at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and dialing in whenever possible to Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, the Replacements, Dire Straits and the Pretenders. I found Prince curious but annoying, Cyndi Lauper kinky and Culture Club just plain queer. There were still plenty of good tunes to wrap yourself around, but a strange Orwellian cloud was forming on the horizon. Were the animals finally taking over the music asylum? Was the end really near? (In three years REM would chime "It's the End of the World as We Know It'' -- and their arrival certainly helped save the day.)

But ... it's still scary to survey the carnage of '84. Paul McCartney was teaming up with Michael Jackson, Ray Parker Jr. was charting with "Ghostbusters'', and Prince -- despite being only the third-best act out of the Twin Cities -- was generating the No. 1 hit of the year with "When Doves Cry.'' We had a Minnesotan on staff who continually apologied for Prince, and was irritated to no end that his daughter had a crush on the Purple Rain rocker. You could say our colleague was an old fart, but come on!!!!

Even country seemed to be falling apart with the Judds and Alabama dominating airplay (although Emmylou and Merle Haggard did score Grammy awards).

Now before you dismiss me as a redneck hick from Wisconsin who can't deal with culture change you need to know that I consider the Talking Heads' 1984 film and soundtrack "Stop Making Sense'' -- a freak show if ever there was one -- the best damn rock movie ever produced.

Ladies and gentlemen, this was your Billboard Top 5 exactly 25 years ago today:

1. Owner of a Lonely Heart, Yes
2. Say Say Say, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson
3. Karma Chameleon, Culture Club
4. Talking in Your Sleep, The Romantics
5. Break My Stride, Matthew Wilde

Is it safe to say we were on the precipice? That was arguably the worst chart song ever by Yes. And who was Matthew Wilder? Were these rankings based on record sales? Then who was buying the records? And what are these discerning consumers purchasing today (assuming they have jobs -- hey, it's tough out there).

The rest of the world may be falling apart, but the music scene appears to have righted itself. This Sunday Springsteen headlines the Super Bowl halftime show. Neil Young, no matter which guitar he's slinging or which switch he's flipping, continues to be essential. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame has affirmed himself as one of the great guitarists, songwriters and collaborators of his generation (his recent gem "Kill to Get Crimson'' is a must-listen.) Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders are back on tour where they belong. And the Stones will rock on forever.

Prince did get his own Super Bowl halftime show (and the sky did cry!!!) But Matthew Wilder took his synthesizer and went home. (To be honest, he won an Academy Award for something, but it wasn't a rock score.) And the news we hear about Michael Jackson and Boy George is rarely good.

So what am I complaining about? Nothing, really.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Springsteen throwdown

I feel a little bit like Beethoven today (and some of you thought I would never reference classical music!) My audio is temporarily out so I'm, well, deaf to what's going on with my computer. And that's too bad, because an old friend and colleague has issued a throwdown to Bruce Springsteen that requires at least one good ear. Damnit, Ludwig, what would you do in this situation???

Charles Walston, whom I worked with at newspapers in St. Petersburg and Atlanta, fronts the band Bourbon Dynasty in the D.C. area, and the group released the song "Girl in the Checkout Line'' on its self-titled 2006 album. Now that the Boss has "Queen of the Supermarket'' on his new album, B.D. has issued this bold challenge: Which song is better?

They dare take on Springsteen??!! It's not like they'll be appearing onstage during the Super Bowl halftime show.

If you're just comparing video, Bourbon Dynasty wins hands down. I mean, the girl in their video is yummy, even if she never gets to the checkout line. If I ran into women like that at Publix I'd become a serial shopper. And speaking of serial (actually, cereal) the guy standing standing there with a box of Fruit Loops (Chuck, is that really you?) missed a golden opportunity in that deserted supermarket aisle.

Check it out yourself and vote at And by all means let me know what you think.

I lost track of Chuck after I left Atlanta, but was a huge fan of his alt-country band there, the Videlias. If you can't track down their exceptional debut CD, "Melodyland'' try this link:

I'm not sure how Chuck, with possibly no formal music training and a background reporting on, among other things, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Georgia state capitol, wound up bagging journalism to do what he really loves -- and having some measurable success. But I aim to find out.

Sunday morning coming down

Good morning, it's Sunday, January 25.

If the beer I'm having for breakfast this morning tastes good, should I have one more for dessert?

I had the opportunity to interview Kris Kristofferson in 2007 and this question was inevitable: How long has it been since you had a beer for breakfast? He was talking by phone from his home in Hawaii where he was preparing for a limited world tour that would bring him to the Van Wezel in Sarasota.

Kristofferson is one of America's great songwriters and "Sunday Morning Coming Down'' might be the grittiest and grandest in his catalog. There have been hangover mornings when I've stumbled to face the day and thought of that song, and it has always helped to believe that no matter how bad I was feeling, man, I couldn't be hurting as bad as the dude in that song.

Anyway, he laughed a rough, hearty laugh before replying. "It's been a looong, looong time.''

I mention this not only because it's one of those Sunday mornings, but also because Kristofferson performed the song on a recent episode of Elvis Costello's new television series "Spectacle.'' If you missed the show you can see it again at 2 p.m. today and 1:30 a.m. Tuesday on Sundance. This episode, one of the strongest to date, also features Rosanne Cash, John Mellencamp and Norah Jones in an old-fashioned "guitar pull.'' You can check out the "Spectacle'' schedule and a synopsis of the episodes at

(Costello still has the singing and playing chops -- his voice really is incomparable -- and he'll trot out some vintage guitars on the show that will make you drool. He also generates insightful conversations, putting artists at ease with an interview style -- clipboard and all -- that would make David Frost proud.)

But this morning is dedicated to a pilot and Rhodes scholar who bagged a military career to write songs in Nashville, who once landed a helicopter on Johnny Cash's lawn just to deliver a song. We should all have the balls to do something like that.

You wanna show me something brave? Grab a Sunday morning beer with me and toast an Americana legend. Then sit down and try to write a kick-ass song.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

So good you could smell it

If you were a kid forty-four winters ago you probably fell asleep at night listening to songs like the Zombies' "She's Not There'' and the Searchers' "Love Potion Number Nine'' that were receiving heavy airplay on "night stations'' like Chicago's colossal WLS -- our link in rural Wisconsin to the strange, seductive new beats of that matchless era. This sweet music was transported directly to our brains via the earplug from a tiny six-transistor radio positioned near our pillows.

The Billboard Top 5 at the time:
1. Downtown, Petula Clark
2. You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', Righteous Brothers
3. Love Potion Number Nine, Searchers
4. I Feel Fine, Beatles
5. Come See About Me, Supremes

I remember buying the "Love Potion Number Nine'' 45 RPM with a paper dust jacket that proudly proclaimed the Searchers as "The Group that knocked the Beatles out of No. 1 in England!''

Meanwhile, the stubborn jukebox at the Corner Cafe in Whitehall seemed to refuse pocket change for any song but Bobby Vinton's sad ballad "Mr. Lonely,'' that distinctive yellow Epic label spinning endlessly through the night after basketball games (more often than not a Norsemen victory.)

The boys weren't saps -- they were just trying to find a way to get under the girls' warm, soft sweaters. So they kept feeding that box to hear Vinton croon ...

Lonely, I'm Mr. Lonely
I have nobody for my own
I'm so lonely, I'm Mr. Lonely
wish I had someone
to call on the phone...

You didn't even need to dance! Just lean in lightly, follow her lead, and nuzzle up for a whiff of Heaven Scent or Chanel No. 5. Meanwhile, the boys were sloshing on heavy doses of English Leather or Jade East and hoping -- and groping -- for some luck. For a discussion on the colognes of the day, go to

Donovan's "Wear Your Love Like Heaven'', in addition to making his Greatest Hits album, served as the ditty for eau de cologne. Check out the video at

The music back then was so good you could smell it ...

Friday, January 23, 2009

I was listening to Tift Merritt today ...

...and that jangling guitar riff that begins "Trouble Over Me'' always puts me in a good mood. Her phenomenal debut album "Bramble Rose'' was one of the best of 2002 and is well worth owning (I saw it on Amazon today for $9.99 -- cheap!) Of course nobody wants to pay for music these days. You should at least pony up for the MP3 of the song. But then you'll want to listen to "Virginia, No One Can Warn You'' and "When I Cross Over'' and, well, you might as well get the CD. You won't be disappointed.

Check out her video at and dig that sweet cherry (wood) Gibson she's playing. I want that guitar!!!

I strum, therefore I am

Are you ready to discuss music? I hope so, because it wouldn't be much fun by my lonesome.