December 28, 2009

The Genius Gets Into The Holiday Spirit

When in 1954 Ray Charles reworked the old gospel spiritual, “Jesus Is All The World To Me,” into the decidedly carnal exaltation of “I Got A Woman,” opponents assailed the song as sacrilegious—the Devil’s music. The song not only sparked the sound we call "soul," but it also foreshadowed on what side of the mortal plane his music would interminably reside.

Such is what makes
The Spirit of Christmas—originally released in 1985 and reissued earlier this year on Concord Music—a somewhat surprising anomaly in Ray Charles' monumental career.

While the Genius doesn’t break creative ground on this, his first and only holiday album—it certainly isn’t a pivotal game changer like
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music—he nevertheless delivers a mostly satisfying set that contains its fair share of highlights and serves its purpose well.

Upon a foundation of light, jazz-tinged arrangements, Charles engages these songs with considered renditions, the best of them letting him be himself rather than impressing upon him to conform to any notions of how certain Christmas songs should sound. So while Charles comes across as a bit awkward and out of his element on a hokey version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," on less familiar fare like "This Time of the Year" and "Christmas In My Heart," he's as earnest and soulful as ever.

The centerpiece of this collection is "That Spirit of Christmas," in which Charles summons all of the nostalgia and optimism that the holiday season can inspire. It was an instant classic in '85 and hearing it now, twenty-five years later and after the legend's passing, makes it seem all the more so. And the bonus cut of another classic—Ray Charles wooing Betty Carter on the definitive duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"—makes this album even more worth owning.

December 19, 2009

Album Review: Al Jarreau - The Very Best Of: An Excellent Adventure

One of contemporary music’s consummate vocalists, Al Jarreau is as stylistically diverse as he is distinguished. The only artist to win Grammy Awards in three separate genres — pop, R&B, and jazz — Jarreau has turned out a superlative body of work over the course of his career. And with his latest release, The Very Best Of: An Excellent Adventure (Rhino), he brings the breadth of his catalogue suitably—if not definitively—into focus.

Evidenced most throughout this sixteen-track set is Jarreau’s versatility, as much in the myriad of song forms he’s embraced as in how he's tailored his voice to best suit them. Whether on serpentine grooves like “Roof Garden” and “Boogie Down” or on a more measured treatment such as “Spain (I Can Recall),” Jarreau envelops each phrase with nimble precision and nuance. Likewise, he enriches the sumptuous, pop-flavored rushes of “Mornin’” and “We’re In This Love Together” with earnest, palpable joy. And he renders such rhapsodic ballads as “After All” and “We Got By” with soaring, soulful command.

Rounding out the set is the freshly recorded title track, its brisk and percussive arrangement comparable to some of the livelier featured cuts. However, as is the case with many new or unfamiliar songs that often get tacked onto best-of collections, this one just doesn’t resonate as well as the primary material.

Because of the range that has underscored Al Jarreau's career to date, it would be difficult for a compilation (save for a box set, perhaps) to reflect his every artistic dimension and diversion. Indeed, a plethora of live cuts, duets, and still more of his own signature performances — “It’s Not Hard To Love You,” “Trouble In Paradise,” “Teach Me Tonight,” and “Heaven and Earth," to name but a few — could just as well have merited inclusion here. For a one-disc retrospective, though, The Very Best Of: An Excellent Adventure succeeds as an adequate sampling.

December 12, 2009

An Interview with Melissa McClelland

When Melissa McClelland got together with her band to record a batch of songs she'd written for her third and latest album, she didn’t know how the LP would ultimately take shape. “I really wanted it to be a lot of fun to play live,” she says of her one set objective. “I wanted us to be able to go into the studio, as a band, and play the songs top to finish — just play them live and get a real vibe going in the studio. And then once we started doing that, this kind of old-timey feel came through the production.” 

The result was Victoria Day, released in April on Six Shooter Records, on which McClelland marries a vintage, barrelhouse flavor to narratives rife with sensuality and ruinous sin. Produced by her husband, musician Luke Doucet, the album underscores McClellands progression as an artist — which began with her debut, Stranded in Suburbia, and continued on its followup, Thumbelina’s One Night Stand — including the musical influences that have fostered her talent. 

McClelland discusses her songwriting process in detail and how her most recent efforts manifested on Victoria Day. 

On this album, you’ve got a rockabilly, blues thing going on. What inspired you toward those styles? 

I’ve always been searching for my voice. And I’m really drawn to a lot of different styles so that doesn’t really help... But when I started singing anything that had a hint of the blues in it or gospel, it just opened my voice up. It stretched everything out. I love those beautiful, slow, spacious songs where I can just enjoy singing. The ones from my previous record, Thumbelina, I knew that the songs that had those qualities are the ones that really stuck with me and [are] the ones I continue to play live. So I knew that on this record, I wanted to take it further into that direction. 

Before getting into the studio, what was the songwriting process like? Did you write songs whenever they’d come to you or was it a concerted effort, like, “I’m going to write today”? 

My approach to songwriting is so different than it used to be — because it used to be an escape. I’d come home from school [and] to procrastinate from doing my homework or cleaning my room, I’d play my guitar for hours and hours, and write songs. But now my music is my work. I do have to instill discipline into my writing. I have to block off time and tell myself, ‘Okay, I need to work on my songs.’ But usually the initial inspiration of a song is unexpected. It’s usually a line, a lyric, a melody, a chord structure — just one little, little, tiny glimpse of a thing that just catches my attention. And I’ll usually repeat that to myself for months and then finally when I take the time to sit down and work at it, that’s when the song becomes a song. But the little ideas, they still kind of come out of nowhere. 

And you develop them as you go along. 

Yeah, and the editing process, that’s something I’ve learned over the years. Before, I used to just write a song and then there it was, that’s it. But now, I’ll write the song and sometimes I’ll rewrite it three or four times. 

Full songs, not just lyrics. 

In different ways. I do have some songs, like “Seasoned Lovers,” that song I just wrote and that was it. It just came out and there it was; it was done. Then there are other songs, like “God Loves Me,” I rewrote that two or three times. Certain lyrics, the vibe of a song, the way I would play it, certain chords, I would just play with it a lot until I felt like it was the best it could be. 

When you’re writing, do you know this one's going to be a blues song and that one’s going to be a ballad? 

Well, some times that changes, too. A lot happens in a studio. Some songs just sound completely different after we’ve recorded them than when I first wrote them. Like “I Blame You.” When I wrote that, it was kind of a lullaby. And now it’s like a jump, swing song [Laughs]. And I love that about songs. I don’t attach myself to them. I love the way they evolve and they change. Even from playing them live, they’re constantly evolving. Or else you would just get bored with them. But night to night, as a band playing live, the songs transform. I think that’s wonderful; each song has a life of its own. 

The songs are like short stories. They’re not all first-person narratives; they’ve got characters. 

I’m a singer, one, but also I’m a writer. I work really hard at that. And I feel like sometimes songwriters limit themselves to the first-person emotional account, page-out-of-the-diary kind of writing. As a songwriter, we have all the freedom in the world. We can write fiction. We can write non-fiction. We can write about our dreams, our travels. 

One track on the album, “Glenrio,” sounds like you scrambled into Tom Waits’ backyard and got away with some of his mojo. How did that song come about? 

Tom Waits is a really great example of a blues artist who has done something new with it. He’s doing his own thing, but it’s definitely rooted in the blues. I have been covering a Tom Waits song for the last five years, with my husband Luke. We’ve been doing a duet of “Gun Street Girl,” from Rain Dogs… We’ve been playing it for five years and we’re still not sick of playing it; we love playing that tune. I just love the imagery and I love how he can get certain emotions across by using that imagery. He really inspires me to try and write that way. 

And “Glenrio” is an example of that. Glenrio is a ghost town in New Mexico — on the border of New Mexico and Texas. It’s a really, really rough-looking place, with packs of wild dogs roaming the streets. You can’t even really get out of your car and walk around. It’s not a welcoming place at all. So I’ve only had a very small glimpse of that little ghost town, but it’s such a great name and it just had such mystery surrounding it. And when we drove away, I knew right away. I’m like, Ah, Glenrio, that’s a song. 

Of the styles on Victoria Day, what is it about the blues, in particular, that resonates with you? 

It’s almost unexplainable. It’s hard when you feel a connection to something — when you’re passionate about something — to put it into words. I’m not completely well versed in blues history [though] I definitely listen to my share of it. I come from the suburbs in Canada. [Laughs] So it’s an interesting place to come from and to feel a connection to that. But we live in a kind of world where we have access to everything now. I can go online and listen to traditional African music or traditional Indian or anything. It’s worldwide now. I can access any type of music and I feel like that’s really bled into my creative process. I’m always drawing from everything around me — especially being a girl from the suburbs, where your surroundings can be pretty culturally dead at times... My first real connection to [the blues] was when I sang it. It just feels so good. I can just close my eyes and get lost in it and that’s when I know that it’s real for me. 

For more information on Melissa McClelland, visit her official website or that of Six Shooter Records.

December 08, 2009

Neil Young in Review: Dreamin' Man Live '92

For years, Neil Young resisted what he’d considered the archetypal singer/songwriter, middle-of-the-road approach he carved on his 1972 album, Harvest. Never one to consent to having his music categorized or dictated upon, he spent much of the next two decades producing albums that satisfied his (at times, eccentric) tendencies rather than anyone else’s expectations. Such is what made his 1992 LP, Harvest Moon—with its folkish, gentrified style and its deliberately allusive title—an unlikely mainstream hit.

Recorded during various stops on the road before Harvest Moon was released, Dreamin’ Man Live ’92 rephrases that album (not in sequence, but in totality) through solo, acoustic performances. Young alternates between guitar and organ—with the occasional harmonica break—deconstructing the songs down to their structural, emotional core. 

Truth be told, these renditions don't sound all that different than their comparably low-key Harvest Moon counterparts, but Young redeems them with unflinching, soul-baring conviction and the sort of in-the-moment immediacy that only a live, solo treatment can inspire. So on something like "Harvest Moon" or "Such A Woman," for instance, he's not aimlessly work-shopping their arrangements or reflecting them in radically divergent lights—just more intimate ones.

Craftsmanship matters, of course, and indeed it's present here. Over the arc of this live album, though, sincerity matters—and resonates—most of all. And so as Young cuts to the quick of "War of Man" or the eleven-minute wonder of "Natural Beauty," in particular, he evokes their intrinsic spirits in ways both impassioned and strikingly prescient.

While Young’s similarly styled Unplugged album arrived on the heels of Harvest Moon the following year, it featured only three of its songs, but (and perhaps more importantly) also a band and back-up vocalists. In contrast, Dreamin’ Man Live '92 offers up the songs from Harvest Moon in a context closer to that of which they were borne. In short, this journey through the past is well worth the trip.

December 05, 2009

Woodstock Co-Founder Michael Lang Reflects On Festival, Its Legacy

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock when, in August of 1969, half a million people made a pilgrimage to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York for “three days of peace and music.” More than just a concert—although with such artists as the Jefferson Airplane, Sly & The Family Stone, CSNY, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix on the bill, it was quite the concert—The Woodstock Music and Arts Fair ultimately reflected the ideals and convictions of a generation of kindred spirits.

For all that’s been written on Woodstock, relatively little has addressed the nuts-and-bolts details of its genesis and preparation—certainly not to the extent that the festival’s co-founder, Michael Lang, does in The Road To Woodstock: From The Man Behind The Legendary Festival. In a narrative that's equally pragmatic and personable, Lang chronicles the integral decisions and logistics that went into making the event possible and how even the most unforeseen circumstances were handled (and, more often than not, overcome) along the way. It's an engrossing read throughout, certainly for music fans but also for anyone interested in pop culture in general.

In this exclusive conversation with Donald Gibson, Lang revisits The Road To Woodstock to speak of the festival’s underlying objective and how its legacy continues to inspire and manifest in constructive, conscientious ways today.

In the book, you write, “For me, Woodstock was a test of whether people of our generation really believed in one another and the world we were struggling to create.” How long after the event did you think that ideal came true?

I don’t think it ever really fully came true. I think it’s still manifesting today. What we got was a taste of what it would be like if people became more of a family of man or of humanity rather than the environment that we were in. To me it just signified that there is the possibility of us creating a better world to live in and to relate to each other in a better way.

The event certainly captured a sort of spirit or zeitgeist. Do you feel that kind of momentum and communal spirit can still be nurtured?

I definitely do. Not necessarily at a concert or festival, but wherever people come together with good intent, I think there’s always that opportunity to create that kind of spirit. And it has a lot to do with being willing to actually put yourself out for your beliefs... I think that that’s always going to be a possibility.

In the planning stages of Woodstock, what was it about a mass gathering in one location that appealed to you in expressing the counterculture’s ideals that a tour of smaller events spread out over cities or over time wouldn’t necessarily have achieved?

What we were looking for was to bring the whole community together. We didn’t realize how big it was. We thought to bring these like-thinking people together to see each other and celebrate the efforts we’d been making over the past decade and come together as sort of a tribal gathering, if you will. I think that was the attraction for me and obviously for a lot of other people. It was just that wanting or longing for us to become a community in one place at one time. That was the attraction over a tour. It wasn’t just about entertainment; it was really about becoming this community. 

You planned for 200,000 people. Then it became clear more than that was showing up—and they weren’t paying to do so. If it had gone according to planned and you’d actually gotten 175,000-200,000 people, do you think it would have resonated and become as significant as it turned out?

I don’t know if it would’ve resonated the same way around the world as it did. I think it certainly would’ve resonated as well for the people who were there. The fact that it was free—which people point to as one of the things that made it so special—in my mind was just a happenstance. I don’t think that had anything to do with it. Our attitude on how to deal with it was probably significant. We didn’t do stupid things to try to cure something that was already a fait accompli. Most people coming were looking to buy tickets; we just didn’t have ticket booths. So I think that the experience was the result of really the environment that brought people into. And they would’ve had a very special experience in any case. That a million and a half people were on the road and they had to close the freeway and they had to close the Canadian border and the traffic jam stretched for 100 miles—those are the things that build legend... I think the significance of what could’ve happened and what did happen would’ve been the same.

What distinguished Woodstock from what happened at Altamont and some of the negative vibes at the Isle of Wight?

Again, I think it’s planning and intent. There was no planning at Altamont. And the result was kind of chaos. And the Isle of Wight, their intent was to make a bunch of money. Nothing wrong with that, but that was really their main focus. And I think that they dealt with it poorly and that resulted in all those bad vibes floating around.

Woodstock seems to be an anomaly, but an anomaly in a very positive sense.

Yeah, I think that’s true. But again, it’s because of what we were in it for.

Obviously there are parallels now to then. You had a war that many disagreed with and rallied against. We’re engaged in a war now that most people don’t agree with. Do you see any other parallels, either socially or musically?

I do. Musically, I think it’s a very different time. The Internet, Pro Tools, and technology have sort of taken it to a whole new accessibility, both for sharing it and for making it. The music business in itself is in such strange shape and is in the midst of trying to figure itself out. It’s kind of an interesting time and one I think that will produce a new direction eventually. Sociologically, there are those movements that were started in the ‘60s that were looked at as accoutrement to the hippie generation or whatever... There were, I thought, very important and very insightful sustainability movements afoot. There were green movements afoot. The first Earth Day was after Woodstock. Holistic medicine, alternative treatment, all of those organic pursuits seemed to have flourished in the ‘60s amongst the counterculture and then disappeared into mainstream life and emerged again as a big part of our world—some unfortunately because of a threat like global warming, but others because we were right about the healthy nature of living. 

In the acknowledgment section of the book, you say, “I realized that much of what happened at Woodstock and the months leading up to it was a result of my own inner journey. That’s something that’s usually hard for me to reveal.” In what ways was that difficult?

It’s something I don’t usually share with people. I do what I do and internalize the things that get me to certain decisions, certain actions. This is how I’ve always been. I’m very private. I guess it’s a fear of being thrown off course. So I just never go there, that’s not my style. And so in writing the book, I had to sort of delve into that. It wasn’t just the results of those things; I wanted to let people see what the internal process was. And it was very rewarding at the end of the day.

In your opinion, what is it about music that makes people want to get together to hear it collectively?

I’ve always thought that music was a great communicator and a great bridge that strikes you on an emotional and gut level. In that era in particular, the groups and artists were very much involved in the counterculture and very much the voice of the counterculture in a way. As diverse as those groups were—from folk to Jimi Hendrix, funk, blues, and everywhere in between—all of the artists in one way or another were very much committed to the ideals that we were as a community committed to.

Do you still believe in music’s power to shape or at least to constructively influence a society or generation?

Oh, absolutely.

The Road To Woodstock: From The Man Behind The Legendary Festival by Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren is published by Ecco, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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