Friday, September 30, 2011

Three verses to go

Last weekend I received the biggest boost ever for a song when my brother-in-law Mike heard me play "Red Dress" -- which has only three verses (so far) and no bridge -- and said it would have been perfect at the end of the Jeff Bridges film Crazy Heart. Well he is an old schoolboy friend married to my sister, after all. And Bridges, while no slouch as a singer and musician, is not quite Bob Dylan.

And neither is Donovan, who drew those inevitable comparisons when he came up through the British folk scene in the Sixties. We mention this because it was on this date in 1965 that Donovan made his U.S. television debut on Shindig!  Looking back at him performing "Catch the Wind" we see a poised young songwriter with a positive vibe that would soon play to his laid-back, flower child persona. We also see some really bad fake trees.

In the chilly hours and minutes
Of uncertainty, I want to be,
In the warm hold of your loving mind

To feel you all around me
And to take your hand, along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

When sundown pales the sky
I wanna hide a while, behind your smile
And everywhere I'd look, your eyes I'd find

For me to love you now
Would be the sweetest thing, 'twould make me sing
Ah, but I may as well, try and catch the wind

When rain has hung the leaves with tears
I want you near, to kill my fears
To help me to leave all my blues behind

For standin' in your heart
Is where I want to be, and I long to be
Ah, but I may as well, try and catch the wind

A beautiful song by a great artist. But what was it like battling those Dylan comparisons? Donovan gave this thoughtful response in a 2001 interview with BBC:

"The one who really taught us to play and learn all the traditional songs was Martin Carthy—who incidentally was contacted by Dylan when Bob first came to the UK. Bob was influenced, as all American folk artists are, by the Celtic music of Ireland, Scotland and England. But in 1962 we folk Brits were also being influenced by some folk Blues and the American folk-exponents of our Celtic Heritage...

"Dylan appeared after Woodie [Guthrie], Pete [Seeger] and Joanie [Baez] had conquered our hearts, and he sounded like a cowboy at first but I knew where he got his stuff—it was Woodie at first, then it was Jack Kerouac and the stream-of-consciousness poetry which moved him along. But when I heard "Blowing In The Wind" it was the clarion call to the new generation – and we artists were encouraged to be as brave in writing our thoughts in music...We were not captured by his influence, we were encouraged to mimic him—and remember every British band from the Stones to the Beatles were copying note for note, lick for lick, all the American pop and blues artists—this is the way young artists learn.

"There's no shame in mimicking a hero or two—it flexes the creative muscles and tones the quality of our composition and technique. It was not only Dylan who influenced us—for me he was a spearhead into protest, and we all had a go at his style. I sounded like him for five minutes—others made a career of his sound. Like troubadours, Bob and I can write about any facet of the human condition. To be compared was natural, but I am not a copyist."

That's good enough for me. So is "Catch the Wind," which Donovan completes in five verses without a bridge, just a short harmonica flourish. I'm halfway home.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Movie review in a music blog: Drive

By Robert Nelson

We plan to reward Twin Cities
contributor Robert Nelson for
doing double duty this week
by reimbursing his fiancĂ© for 
her portion of the bill.
 I love movies. I can get into a Rom-Com as easily as an action flick. I enjoy art-house as much as grindhouse. I’ll give anything a fair shake, but I hate crap. So when my buddy Kevin, who shares a similar, perhaps even more rabid flair for cinema, told me Drive was the best movie he’d seen all year, the fiancĂ© and I decided to split the bill on dinner and a movie Friday night.

I thought it was another Fast and the Furious cash cow, but it’s not. They’re just selling it totally wrong. What you see in the trailers is really the backdrop for the main character. The plot evolves into a violent, romantic tragedy delivered in this moody, nuanced tone that calls to mind a litany of influences within a style entirely its own. It’s visually compelling, performances are stellar all around, and punctuating it all is the eeriest score since Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood; Drive’s composer: one-time Red Hot Chili Pepper Cliff Martinez who also composed Pump Up the Volume, the movie that made me want to be a DJ).

The title song, “Nightcall” is by French house DJ Kavinsky and features Lovefoxxx, a Brazilian indie singer of German, Portuguese and Japanese decent. She delivers breathy, surfer chic vocals over a slow, haunting synth beat that totally captures the pace and cadence of the film. “Under Your Spell” by Desire, a producer-drummer-singer trio, evokes similar notions with a bit more rising action and even more melancholy. It’s a strange amalgamation of electro-synth-pop on Ambien and coke. Also heard in the film, “A Real Hero” by College featuring Electric Youth, which reminded me instantly of “Mouthful of Diamonds” by Phantogram; both are great tunes.

If you haven’t heard of any of these artists, you aren’t alone. Kevin said he might go buy the soundtrack, something he hasn’t done in a long time. I plan to dig a little deeper into their respective bodies of work, first, maybe go scavenging through iTunes or Grooveshark before I make a purchase. We can agree on one thing, however: Drive is the best movie of 2011.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pssst: Mercury rising for Pieta Brown

Let us tell you how much we enjoy Pieta Brown's new album Mercury, which is out today on Red House Records. Once we heard it we immediately checked her tour schedule to find the closest venue to our home here in Milwaukee. There is simply no way we're going to miss her this fall. Not the way this music sounds.

There are no dates in Wisconsin, so it'll be an enchanting October Saturday night in Iowa City, Iowa, and do not doubt such a possibility exists. Brown has roots in Iowa, after all, and the Englert Theatre is the perfect place for her CD release show. And for kickers, Iris DeMent is there a night earlier to help celebrate the theatre's 99th anniversary.

Lucky us. And lucky you, if you can make it there or anywhere along the tour to catch the brightest new star in Americana music. (Sadly, not everyone has recognized this. Even our hometown newspaper, which tries be musically hip, ignores Mercury in its weekly New CDs feature while mentioning releases by Maria Muldaur, LeAnn Rimes, Daryl Hall, Switchfoot, Chickenfoot, et al.)

Brown, daughter of troubadour Greg Brown (who recorded Pieta's tender "Remember the Sun" on his new album Freak Flag), has come into full bloom as an artist. She has always had a dreamy, sensual voice with a magnetic pull. And now, on Mercury, we hear lyrical poetry that begins to set her apart from the best in the genre.

Tonight I’m dancing alone
The world left me on my own
I’m not the first
I’m not the last
Rolling stone

There are several gems on the 13-song Mercury, but none more magical than "How Much of My Love." You would love to have this dance with her, but she is confident and content to do it alone. A true rolling stone, as we have suspected since we heard her for the first time years ago at a smoky dive in Minneapolis. Guitarist Bo Ramsey was with her that night and has accompanied her most of the way. His contributions are evident on Mercury, along with those of bassist Glenn Worf, drummer Chad Cromwell, multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield and Mark Knopfler ("So Many Miles.") It is Knopfler who calls Brown's singing "effortless and natural, like rain on earth."

Mercury was recorded in three days in a studio near Nashville, where producer Richard Bennett (Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Knopfler) was clearly moved. "Pieta's songs and melodies are beautiful, mystical, at times, frightening," Bennett wrote. "Among the many miracles about Mercury are those disarming vocals, recorded live as Pieta was also playing some very righteous guitar. Records are not made this way anymore and there aren't many artists capable of pulling that sort of thing off for three days running or even just one song. Most artists aren't Pieta Brown."

No they aren't, and Mercury is all the proof you need. It's time for Personal Six String Sanctuary Tout (PSSST) No. 24, Brown's second album to make the big board. We expect there will be more, and by then the rest of the world will surely know of this stunning jewel.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Does bubblegum lose its flavor?

Yep, our guy Al Tays is right:
Susan Dey (front right) was
pretty much the ONLY reason
for us guys to watch
The Partridge Family.
By Al Tays

Now THIS is an anniversary: On this day in 1970, the first episode of The Partridge Family was shown on U.S. TV. The idea came from the Cowsills, a REAL musical family. Apparently the original plans were to use the Cowsill kids, but that was dropped because they weren't TRAINED ACTORS.

You know, I think if someone had told me I was losing a role because Danny Bonaduce was a better actor, I might have gone right over the edge.

As for the other Patridges, well, let's just say that like most males, I paid a lot more attention to Susan Dey than to David Cassidy. I'm not sure I even knew what an overbite was, but on her, it looked good.

The Partridges' biggest hit was their 1970 release, "I Think I Love You," which made it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Don't remember? Click here. (And this is a good place to note that only Cassidy and Jones actually sang on the early recordings.) C

Overall, the Partridges released an astounding 89 songs on eight albums. That is a heck of a lot of bubblegum.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The new X games

We had to check out The X Factor last night. HAD TO. Simon Cowell back in the saddle with a new show? And no Ryan Seacrest? We're there, if only for half of the two-hour premiere. Hey, it's a school night.

One pet peeve about American Idol is its limited age group. Why not give an old rocker a chance to show up the kids? (X Factor has four categories: Girls, Boys, Over 30s and Groups.) So while we we're waiting for that old rocker to appear a spunky 13-year-old, Rachel Crow, comes onstage and we immediately become fans of the kiddie corps.  Rachel wins over the judges and audience with an audition more memorable than just about anything seen on Idol. Give her the $5 million now and we're outa here!

Another incredible moment is supplied by Stacy Francis, a 42-year-old single mom with two young kids who says "This is my last shot ... the time is now. I don't want to die with this music in me, Simon." She belts out an amazing rendition of Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman" that has nearly everybody spilling tears. Even our no-run mascara springs a leak. Simon, who has often played the bad cop but probably knows musical talent better than all of the judges on all of these shows, proclaims: "One of the best auditions I have ever heard in my life." Well, it's his show and he'll up the ante any way he can.

It isn't all good. Dan and Venita, a married couple ages 70 and 83, sing a dreadful "Unchained Melody" that leaves the judges unhinged, and they trot out some other freak shows just for shock value. The last performer is a recovering meth addict who sings an original song "Young Homie," that we're truly sorry we missed.

We're guessing X Factor will be BIG, with us or without us. Probably without us, at least until baseball is over. We're also guessing (hoping) that Rachel and Stacy will be around for awhile, so we'll have somebody to root for when we check back.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Foo in review: St. Paul rocked

By Robert Nelson

It's true, Woody did the wave.
At a Foo Fighters concert. The wave.
And it was ... cool. 
I ended up going to the Foo Fighters concert in St. Paul last week. We got in line for beer just in time to hear their first song. It was 8:30, which seemed insane until we left the arena at 11:30. For nearly three full hours, we rocked.

They played a cool hour and a half of notable tunes, pulling deeply from their new stuff before they got into the hits. That was the second half of the evening. Twice, somewhere in the middle of the night and again at the encore, Dave Grohl performed from the center of the floor on a small platform that elevated a good thirty feet into the air. The second time around, it was acoustically and without the band. This was the only part of the night they let us catch our breath. That’s when we did “the first ever wave at a Foo Fighters show.”

The wave doesn’t seem like a terribly rock ‘n’ roll thing to do, at first, and I think that’s why Grohl prompted us to go for it. It’s so un-rock ‘n’ roll that by doing it, we were rockin’ in the face of rock ‘n’ roll, and were thus, more rock ‘n’ roll than if we hadn’t rocked it out to begin with.

That's the Foo Fighters. Check out the video above. The wave’s at 4:25.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Junior moment

By Al Tays

The Sanctuary condones
quitting your job and
driving across the
country like Al Tays,
especially if you get
to see Junior Brown
somewhere along the way.
Mrs. Assistant Music Blogger and yours truly have been semi-crazy about Junior Brown since we stumbled upon him on Austin City Limits while channel-surfing one haze-filled late-1980s night in Fort Lauderdale. We had no idea who this goofy-looking guy with a Blues Brothers suit and a Quickdraw McGraw cowboy hat was, and we SURE as heck didn't know what that double-necked guitar-like contraption was that he was playing, but DAMN, was he ever playing it!

Some research revealed that his name was Jamieson "Junior" Brown, he was from Indiana but had moved to Austin and become a guitar legend. Actually, he became a "guit-steel" legend, as that was the name he had given to his fusion of the neck and pickups from a Fender Bullet electric guitar and a lap-steel guitar.

We bought his CDs and fell in love with his blend of twangy-country witty lyrics ("you're wanted by the po-lice and my wife thinks you're dead") and greased-lightning fretboard work. When you listened to Junior, you weren't just listening to Junior. Through the riffs in his various medleys, you were listening to Hendrix, Page, Clapton, et al. When I moved to California, one of the first things I did was take my car out onto the Pacific Coast Highway, put the top down and crank up the volume on Junior's ode to the Ventures, "Surf Medley." I told friends that the karma was so intense, my head almost exploded.

We had a chance to see Junior once. He was opening for the Mavericks at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. We were running late, but weren't worried, because no concert ever starts on time, right? Wrong. Apparently the ones in casinos do, because when we walked in a half-hour late, Junior was already gone.

A second chance presented itself last week. We were moving back to Florida from LA, driving across the country. As luck would have it, Junior was playing in Austin, at the place he got his start, the Continental Club, on the night we were scheduled to stay in that city. We drove 10 hard hours from Las Cruces, NM, hoping we wouldn't get shut out again. We were just a few minutes late, but Junior and his band were delayed, so we didn't miss a thing. We stood at the bar, maybe 20 unobstructed feet from the stage, drinking the Continental's homemade ginger ale (and a Lone Star beer, just for authenticity).

Junior obliged with all the crowd's favorites, even taking requests. When he was done with his 90-minute set, we followed the band to the back door and bought some T-shirts from his drummer (whose name, alas, is on a slip of paper somewhere well hidden among all the stuff that was jam-packed into our car). The guy manning the front door of the club reminded us that our $15 cover was not good for admission to see the night's headliner. Didn't matter to us. We had already seen our headliner, an experience we'll never forget.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Requiem for a rapper

Tupac Shakur: June 16, 1971-Sept. 13, 1996
By Robert Nelson

When I was in junior high, virtually all the boys in my class had divided into two giant gangs. Best friends were separated by allegiances. Guys who’d never spoken before became brothers watching each other’s backs. This went on for a month or so. On the day of the rumble, maybe 50 kids filled the hallway of the second floor, squaring off, ready for battle. When the first bell rang, the melee began: fists flying, bodies being tossed into lockers, and at the second bell, we scattered, laughing and talking trash. It was fantastic.

This was in the middle of the East Coast vs. West Coast rap rivalry, and a year or two after we read The Outsiders in grade school. Blame either, but we were just horsing around. Nobody got hurt. In fact, it was probably the last time we really unified as a class. Ah, the stories I could tell you.

In U.S. History class, I sat next to Jessica Morales. One day I showed up and she was crying. She had these high, strong cheekbones that lifted her smile, almost perky, and a single crooked tooth that could be completely distracting when you saw it, but on that day, was more conspicuous for its absence. Her hair was thick and long, and strands of it clung to the tears running over her lips. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me Tupac died. I don’t know if I ever spoke to her again. It was September 13, 1996.

In 1991, Pac was still a part of Digital Underground when they appeared in the movie “Nothing But Trouble” with Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Chevy Chase and Demi Moore. An abbreviated version of “Same Song” was featured in the film, and I ran out and bought “This is an EP Release” which included the full track with Tupac’s verse. That year, he released his first solo record 2Pacalypse Now. He was 20 years old.

Over the next five years, he released six studio albums, four of which were certified platinum (All Eyez on Me went 9x platinum), wrote enough material for as many posthumous albums, starred in as many movies, and in the 15 years since his death at 25 years old, has sold more than 75 million records. In 2010, he was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. His murder remains unsolved.

I watched a few 9/11 documentaries this weekend. Each touched on how quickly we seem to forget. I don’t remember how I felt when Jessica Morales told me Tupac died. I can recall everything about that moment but the feeling. It evolves. Tupac’s legacy is vast and rich and complicated, but that’s not so important to me. What matters is the feeling. Sometimes, it’s for the sake of nostalgia, sometimes it’s sorrow, but more often, it’s just because he was so good. The feeling is why he’s important. That’s music.

Join Twin Cities contributor Robert Nelson on Wednesdays at Six String Sanctuary and gain a temporary asylum for your soul.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Big Fish story

“I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars.”
-- Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

Not every big fish makes a splash: 
Gavel Ridge's 2010 Big Fish
is under the radar but over the top.  
Terry "Doc" Holliday does not sell wine produced at his fledgling vineyard in west central Wisconsin. Not before its time, not any time. It is made in extremely limited batches and reserved for the enjoyment of family and friends. (He did sell about half his Marquette grapes last fall, which helps pay for the fun he is having as a winemaker and grower, and he will do the same this year.)

But Doc, a research and development manager by trade, is quickly mastering his new craft. Perhaps the only thing keeping his 2010 Big Fish Marquette from becoming legendary is the fact that so few will have a chance to put their lips to it. Or perhaps that is why it WILL become legendary. Barely five cases were produced; only a dozen or so bottles remain. And Doc seems intent on killing the rest. His reasoning: If it's this good now, why not drink it?

Robert M. Parker Jr. will never have a chance to rank 2010 Big Fish, critics and aficionados will never discuss its immense possibilities, and Wine Spectator will never devote a spread to the tiny vineyard on Gavel Ridge. They will never know, and neither will you -- unless you join Doc and Patricia Holliday Saturday for the new Marquette harvest on the picturesque wind-swept hills north of Whitehall. Your reward: a Gavel Ridge T-shirt, and a chance to taste the jam-o-licious Big Fish before it disappears.

Already a curious story is circulating about the lush grapes of Gavel Ridge, a story that supports the ancient notion of grapes as an aphrodisiac. One area winemaker who bought Marquettes from Doc last year swears this is true: He gave a bottle of his wine to a brother, who shared it with his wife and later regaled a story of wild love-making that lasted through the night. Believe what you want, that winemaker has already placed his order for the new grapes.

We are very fortunate to have a bottle of Big Fish stashed away, and it might as well be the '61 Cheval Blanc from the movie Sideways. To paraphrase: The day we open that bottle of '10 Big Fish, that's the special occasion. We might even drink it out of a paper cup.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Leaving Rome

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere ...

This ain't Lambeau Field: The Colosseum by day.
ROME, Italy -- There is only one way to leave Rome at 4:45 in the morning. By limo. A cab ride to the airport is no way to put the finishing touch on a brief, magical brush with the ancient city.

The streets were nearly empty as a new day began to flicker. The limo arrived at the Baglioni Hotel, exactly on time, with two Italian gentlemen dressed in white longsleeve shirts, ties and black trousers. The driver was slightly older, with thick black-rimmed glasses. (He could have been the guy driving the Charger in the car chase scene from "Bullitt," sans gloves.) The other man, riding shotgun, was much younger. He carried a clipboard and spoke English well enough for a conversation.

When the door to the limo opened you could hear music blasting through the speakers. This was not music to help ferry passengers around the city, but rather something to help these men get into the spirit of their work day.

We weren't expecting Emilio Pericoli singing "Al Da La," although that would have been a nice touch. The Band's version of Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" (lyrics above) had been buzzing around in my head throughout our tour of the city the previous day, but again, the limo music hadn't been chosen for our listening enjoyment.

So what do a couple of sharp looking Italian men jam into the player before their first morning cappuccinos? The music du jour was the Allman Brothers, with Berry Oakley's instantly recognizable bass line to "Whipping Post" filling the limo and making, for a brief moment, this big old world seem just a little bit smaller.

Strumbum adds: I couldn't resist the Rome, Italy dateline. I mean, how many chances do you get?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Woody, briefly

By Robert Nelson

It's Wednesdays with Woody at
the Sanctuary, where our intrepid
blogster is experimenting with the
short form.
As a follow-up to a post from a couple weeks ago (and because I didn't go), I'd like to direct you to Rolling Stone's review of the Pearl Jam 20th Anniversary festival that occurred this past weekend.  It includes video of Chris Cornell joining the band to perform "Hunger Strike," which should completely blow your mind. 
It's a 2-page review, so don't get so caught up in the video that you forget to finish the story.  As a reward, they'll provide you with a link to the trailer for the Cameron Crowe documentary on Pearl Jam that hits theatres on the 20th ( 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day state of mind

It's Labor Day weekend and our favorite working class heroes -- the dedicated contributors to Sanctuary Nation -- have been too busy to post blogs. What's wrong with this picture?  Thought we'd better scramble together a list of songs to show some solidarity for the working man.

Remember if you're stuck at work today or returning to the grind on Tuesday, at least you have a job. There are 14 million employable Americans who aren't earning a paycheck.

1. Working Man Blues, Merle Haggard
2. Take This Job and Shove It, Johnny Paycheck
3. Working for the Man, Roy Orbison
4. Maggie's Farm, Bob Dylan
5. Working Class Hero, John Lennon
6. Chain Gang, Sam Cooke
7. Welcome to the Working Week, Elvis Costello
8. Hard Day's Night, Beatles
9. Takin' Care of Business, Bachman-Turner Overdrive
10. 16 Tons, Tennessee Ernie Ford

Friday, September 2, 2011

Losing their grip

By Mike Tierney

For music devotees, nothing approaches the nearly carnal experience of hearing a kick-ass song by an unknown artist for the first time, then setting aside everything -- work, family, food -- to research the band's background and its other offerings.

Mike Tierney
often gets stuck
between blogs,
but when he
delivers he's as
reliable as an old
Atlanta Journal
One of those moments, for me, was triggered by "Stuck Between Stations" a well-paced pleasure of organized chaos by The Hold Steady from late 2007. Melodic, grinding guitars blend perfectly with a creative rhythym section and a helpful piano.

Geeky songwriter Craig Finn's half-sung, half-spoken vocals is an acquired taste that I have yet to fully acquire. But his thoughtful narratives, if tarnished slightly by a habit of repeating lyrics and themes, inject a mostly welcome flavor.
The boys passed through my town the other night, enthusiastically churning out 90 minutes for a crowd of under 1,000 that suggest their following has flattened out. That is hardly a surprise.

The band has painted itself in a box, which speaks to a challenge for any musical act nowdays. To get noticed, you must stake out a piece of ground that is unplowed. Once you claim it, how do you expand and grow?

Since the coming-out, the Hold Steady limited itself further by jettisoning the piano man. It is all bass, drums and guitars -- 2 1/4 of them, given that Finn strums only every now and then. Finn and lead guitarist Tad Kubler have a good enough ear to find some freshness in most numbers, and I am content if these guys keep stringing together crunchy chords until they have run out of combinations.

I suspect the vast musical audience, impatient by nature, will move on, even those among them who were bowled over by that breakthrough song, The audience last night skewed Gen X and Baby Boomer, making the average older than the onstage players. Not a good sign.

Most bands unable to advance to what the sports world calls The Next Level soon dissolve. This one might stick around awhile -- a new record is around the corner, which might provide a bump -- but I'm guessing we will not have The Hold Steady to kick-ass us around much longer.

That would be too bad. As a keepsake, though, we would have a nice body of work. And I will have the memory of my introduction to them through "Stuck Between Stations," a song for the ages.