January 24, 2010

Going Back To Amchitka: The 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace (Review)

In the fall of 1970, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was planning (and had already begun low-level trial runs of) nuclear-weapons testing on Alaska's Amchitka Island. Besides its designation as a wildlife preserve, the region was also seismically sensitive and environmentalists and scientists alike feared the intended tests could wreak ecological devastation.

In a grassroots campaign against the experiments — specifically, to generate enough funds to charter a boat (christened the Green Peace) up the Pacific Rim to Amchitka in a nonviolent, vigilant demonstration — activists organized an all-star concert, held at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver on October 16, featuring Phil Ochs, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell. Almost 40 years later, the landmark event is now officially available, its proceeds benefiting Greenpeace.

Considering it in the context of a live album, Amchitka is at turns remarkable and creatively foretelling, particularly in the cases of Taylor and Mitchell. On the cusp of what would become known as the singer/songwriter era, two of its principal architects are captured here at the pinnacle of their artistry.

Of the three artists on the bill, Ochs is undoubtedly the one most associated with penning songs of protest and social dissidence. And in rendering the likes of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and “I’m Gonna Say It Now,” he reflects as such in his opening set. It’s through the reflective, almost melancholy passages of “Changes,” however, that Ochs makes his most gripping statement.

For his part, Taylor delivers an earnest offering of songs that would gain immeasurable stature over time and, in many ways, lay the foundation for his career to come. Here, though, everything is relatively new and in some cases — like “Riding On The Railroad” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” — yet to be released. “I've got a single out now and I'd like to play it for you,” Taylor mentions early on, sheepishly, before delving into “Fire And Rain,” effectively preserving the song from its now-nostalgic familiarity.

Yet it's Mitchell, who as if tapping into her most intuitive perceptions right there on the stage, summons the event’s standout performance. In singing of the metaphorical muse that inhabits “The Gallery” to the ominous refrains that haunt “Woodstock,” she is, quite frankly, mesmerizing. A few months shy of releasing her groundbreaking masterwork, Blue, Mitchell treats this unsuspecting audience to three of its finest selections: “My Old Man,” “A Case of You,” and “Carey.” Having segued from the latter into a cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” she then invites Taylor back to trade off on its verses, presaging a grand-finale singalong to “The Circle Game.”

In spite of all protests and the specific demonstration funded by this performance, the Amchitka nuclear experiments took place as scheduled. However, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission preemptively ceased further testing within the next two years, thanks in no small part to its many voices of opposition. And thanks, as well, to these three influential artists that stood for the cause, underscoring the fundamental values of what would ultimately manifest and endure as Greenpeace.

Amchitka: The 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace
is available (as a 2CD set or on MP3) via the release's official website. For more information, please visit Greenpeace online.

January 15, 2010

An Interview with Tomeka Williams

With a rock edge and live instrumentation, thought-provoking narratives, and vocals as commanding as they are convincing, singer/songwriter Tomeka Williams summons a powerful debut with The Black Hood, released on Rhyme Cartel Records. It's the work of a mature artist and the culmination of years of diligence and dedication toward her craft.

As a child, Williams soaked up the sounds of the records her parents played around the house — soul and gospel for the most part — all the while cultivating her own desire to sing. Upon moving to Washington with her parents as a teenager, Williams explored the local talent-show circuit, eventually landing a spot in a national competition on BET. She caught the attention of Seattle-based rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot, who encouraged and, in time, helped facilitate her artistry. The two formed a friendship, with Mix inviting Williams on the road as a featured performer and eventually producing The Black Hood.

In speaking with Donald Gibson of Blogcritics Magazine, Tomeka Williams gives insight to making of her debut album, the messages she hopes listeners gain from her music, and how she's appreciated the experience to this point.

Did you write all the lyrics on the album? How did that work?

We both co-wrote a lot of the songs, but “What She Gave” and “Think About Me,” [Mix] wrote a couple years prior to ever meeting me and [they] just matched what I was going through. The process — as far as writing — everything came through conversation. We would go to dinner and just talk about real life. Like, what’s going on, not necessarily [in] my life, but maybe [about] a friend or someone that I know… I was sick of hearing everything be the same in music — it’s either ‘I love you’ or ‘how could you leave me’ — just so pretty. At that point in my life, I was like, ‘I’m not like this every day.’ There’s no way. There’s real life that’s going on and people have things that they talk about. That’s what I grew up on; the music that I listened to was in your face. You had your good moments, but at the same time they talked about real things. That’s what I wanted to do.

How did the song “Ho” come about?

I took two experiences [for the song]. I was in a relationship and things were good for a couple of years. Then he stopped working; he just started doing his own thing. A woman has her intuition if something’s going on, but I was young and I was in love and didn’t believe it. Then one day I just really got tired of it... You can only take so much before you finally say, ‘I’m fed up.’

Also, when women go out, and let’s say you go out with a group of your friends and a guy is interested in you and approaching you. And maybe you’re just there to have a good time with your girlfriends or you’re not interested. You let them down nicely — ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ — and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is either ‘Ho’ or ‘Bitch,’ one of those two, if they don’t have any sense.

A lot of the songs on the album have a wake-up message in them. You’re not wallowing in sad situations; you’re pushing to overcome those situations.

Yes, and that’s what I wanted to do with the album. It wasn’t about being sorry for myself or sorry for anybody. These are real-life things that people deal with every day. I did “What She Gave,” [for example] because there are too many young girls out here having sex. I’m not saying I’m here to tell you ‘Don’t do it,’ but at the same time you need to know there are consequences to all of this. When I grew up, my parents were very strict; they told me what it was, but at the same time I knew what not to do… Having sex is very emotional. I don’t think everybody realizes that. And I wanted to talk about that. Hopefully it would help men, too, to listen to it, to be, like, ‘If I do this, this could be a consequence.’ I’m hoping as a writer and as an artist that would come about.

In reading the ‘thank-you’ portion of the CD booklet, it’s clear that this album is a dream that’s been a long time coming for you. What does it mean to you to have reached this point?

To finish this album and to see what I’ve done, it’s meant so much to me. People say ‘When I was a kid I dreamed of this,’ but I truly, truly thought of this from the age of seven — I knew what I wanted to do; I knew that I wanted to sing. And when I got older, I met someone in my life who was very, very important to me; she was my voice teacher… She started to teach me things about my voice, like, ‘If you really love music and this is really what you want to do, you’ve got to hone into your craft.’ And she told me, ‘Singing is telling a story. You’ve got to be able to tell the story to someone to where, if they don’t know anything about it, now they feel like they do.’ You’ve got to have a connection.

And you’ve got to have conviction.

Exactly. I love to tell stories in this way. Because that was how I could relate to things. Whenever I was happy or sad or indifferent, I always went to music. No matter where I went in life, music and singing was always there. If I tried not to chase it, it was still chasing me.

Because it’s a part of you.

It’s a part of me. And there was a time where I told myself I have to concentrate on real life. And real life does get you, but [music] was always there. And when I met Mix and he had such a conviction in believing in me — more than I believed in myself at the time — and was so supportive and said ‘You can do this. I’m going to do whatever I can to make this happen for you.’ Throughout the years, he has always been there for me. And just having all of the support I’ve had, whether it’s Mix or my parents or my friends, just knowing that they see something in me just as well as I feel it…You can want this dream on your own, but when you have other people who see it in you, it’s awesome. So for me, it’s not just my album, but it’s my family’s album, it’s my friends’ album. And I’m proud of this. I’m proud of what I stood for when I did the project. I believe the sky’s the limit.

For more information on Tomeka Williams, please visit her official website.

January 14, 2010

Remembering Teddy Pendergrass

The music world is without its Teddy Bear tonight. Soul music legend Teddy Pendergrass died from complications due to colon cancer late Wednesday at Bryn Mawr Hospital in his hometown of Philadelphia. He was 59.

In a career spanning forty years, Pendergrass personified chivalrous seduction, enthralling listeners with his gruff, commanding voice and sentiments best expressed in intimate confines. Dubbed the Teddy Bear by his adoring female fans, Pendergrass famously staged “For Women Only” concerts in their honor (and much to his pleasure).

He gained his first touch of acclaim as the lead vocalist in Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes—who in 1972 were signed to Philadelphia International Records by the production and songwriting team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff—the group contributing to the signature Philly Sound with such hits as “The Love I Lost,” “Wake Up Everybody, Pt. 1” and the incomparable smash, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”

Pendergrass launched a solo career in 1977, turning out a string of hit singles—including “Come Go With Me,” “When Somebody Loves You Back,” “The Whole Town's Laughing At Me,” “Close The Door,” and “Love TKO”—putting him in the same league as Lou Rawls, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green. Only a devastating 1982 car accident, which rendered him paralyzed from the waist down, curtailed his burgeoning success.

After lengthy and arduous physical therapy, Pendergrass resumed recording in 1984 with Love Language, featuring the hit single “Hold Me,” a duet with then-newcomer Whitney Houston. Subsequent albums, including Joy, Truly Blessed, and A Little More Magic, confirmed that despite his physical hindrances, his abilities as a singer and songwriter remained undiminished.

In 1998 he published his autobiography, likewise entitled Truly Blessed, in which he chronicled his life and career to that point, underscoring it with the perceptions of a man who admittedly still grappled with the day-to-day realities that his disability had long forced him to confront.

Aside from a handful of select appearances—arguably none so inspiring as the one he made at Live Aid in 1985—Pendergrass remained off the road until 1996, when he starred with songstress Stephanie Mills in a touring production of the gospel musical, Your Arms Too Short To Box With God. He followed that up with a critically acclaimed return to the concert stage, the tour documented on the 2003 CD/DVD From Teddy, With Love.

Teddy Pendergrass is survived by his two daughters, Tisha and LaDonna, as well as his son, Teddy Pendergrass II, who said upon his father's passing, “To all his fans who loved his music, thank you. He will live on through his music.”

January 05, 2010

An Interview with Emily Haines of Metric

Metric recently wrapped a U.S. tour in support of their latest LP, Fantasies, which saw them playing in several cities for the first time, gaining traction with new listeners while getting reacquainted with their core fanbase. It'd been almost five years since their last album, Live It Out, and for the Canadian-based indie-rock quartet—frontwoman/keyboardist Emily Haines, guitarist Jimmy Shaw, bassist Josh Winstead, and drummer Joules-Scott Key—their return not only entailed headlining packed venues on their home turf (they sold out two nights at Toronto's storied Massey Hall), but also performing twenty-minute sets on multi-artist bills.

"If we want to continue to exist and if we want to continue to really achieve what we [can] as musicians, you can’t always have it be like your aunt and uncle’s in the audience," Haines says. "It’s not going to be your friends from high school the whole time."

Along the way, the band scored a Top 20 hit with "Help I'm Alive," the single garnering an encouraging amount of support from commercial rock radio. And most recently, they released Plug In Plug Out, an EP that showcases five songs from Fantasies in acoustic variations.

"It's been a hell of a year," Haines reflects, and her insights to the music she makes with Metric, particularly her songwriting, illustrate as much.

On Fantasies, there seems to be—I don’t want to say darkness—but some cynicism in context to human connections, love, emotion. Is that accurate?

I would never tell anyone that they couldn’t read whatever they want into the lyrics. I think that’s part of what’s great about music. It’s kind of up for grabs. It’d be no fun if I sent out a pamphlet saying exactly what everything’s supposed to mean. But generally the response has been very interesting and for me, like, an inkblot for a journalist. Because some people, when they hear the record and they see the album work as well, they say, ‘There’s all this dark imagery and sinister undercurrents of superficial things,' and they get a certain darkness from that—which is totally valid.

And alternately, I’ve probably talked to the same number of people who say, ‘There’s a light bulb on the cover of your album. This is the most optimistic and hopeful album Metric has made by a long shot, compared with the preoccupation with deception and the cynical tone of previous albums.’ So I think what’s happening is that we’ve paid a sort of balance right in between there with light and dark. And it’s kind of going to depend on your mood and the timing from where you’re coming at it; certain things will be illuminated. Which makes me happy, because that’s always been our approach to music—that openness to pop sensibilities and the beauty of a three-minute song while also being interested lyrically in more unusual subjects.

There’s an abstract element to it that lends to interpretation.

Right, exactly. Also for us, when we put some things together, the process of creation is always interesting looking back because it seems you knew all along what you were creating, but you really don’t. You can’t. At least for me, I can never see what it really is until it’s done. And then I stand back from it—and from the benefit of conversations with listeners—I’m also discovering it as time goes on.

When you completed the album and listened to it as a finished work, how did it measure up to your initial ambitions?

I was really pleased with the album. We really took our time and went through all kinds of personal things individually and confronted a lot of realities in our own lives in the making of this record, kind of by accident. [We] confronted aspects of what was happening on the business side, the inner workings of our lives, [and we] also took the reins on building our own studio… By the time this thing was done, we didn’t even know really what it was that we were pursuing. We just knew when it wasn’t good enough.

I’d read that the fans wanted it, but what was the artistic motivation to release
Plug In Plug Out?

Well that was really the main impetus. I think when people come to us and say that something matters to them even if we’ve moved on, it’s like, ‘Alright, sure, if you want to hear it I’ll put it out there.’ Artistically, I think what Jimmy and I found by accident—this acoustic stuff, which just kind of came out of the writing process, to be honest—was this thing called the "campfire test" where it’s kind of a way of curing yourself of getting too excited about production tricks. So the idea was any song on Fantasies, you had to sit there and play it—play it on a piano, play it on guitar, play it in a room with five people sitting there.

It had to hold up.

It had to hold up, exactly. There’s lots of great music out there that doesn’t meet that test, but it was an experiment for this particular album. In the process of doing that, we found ourselves developing these acoustic versions that I found had a different mood…they worked. Also, having put out my solo record and done the tour that I did, at the piano I found that I feel quite comfortable now performing that way. It felt like a natural thing and I’m really glad people enjoyed it.

On “Help I’m Alive,” in particular, the contrast is striking between the Fantasies version and the EP version, which takes on a more contemplative tone with you just on the piano.

I would say, in general, the songs that I bring to Metric do have that contemplative tone. I think that’s mostly how I write. And picking up on what you were referring to earlier—about the darker side of the lyrics—I think that’s always been and always will be in our music. Because so many of the songs come from me at the piano, usually in some sort of self-enforced exile. And for me, it’s an amazing process artistically to put myself in those positions and then bring it back to the band and then be able to have, like, people moshing to it. [Laughs]

That communal spirit is pretty electric when you’re in a crowd like that.

Oh, I love it. I’m just so lucky to have found the people that I did to make music with. Because they get where the song is coming from, but it’s really me who wants to take it out of being in the contemplative realm—because you can always go back to that. You can always strip something down… People have asked me, ‘How do you have all that energy on stage?’ It’s like, have you watched Joules? That guy is seriously digging in.

And you’ve got adrenaline up there too.

Exactly. I really like that this is becoming part of who we are, having these two sides develop and coexist.

For more information on Metric, please visit the band's official website.