May 25, 2011

Album Review: Artists Return to Fox Hollow to Honor Tom T. Hall

Wholesome songs about simple things can transcend generations to appeal to just about anyone; which is as good a reason as any why Tom T. Hall’s 1974 children’s album, Songs of Fox Hollow, has resonated with listeners of all ages for almost four decades.

The country music legend, known for such hits as “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine,” “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” and “I Like Beer” was inspired by two of his young nephews who had visited his rural farm and home, Fox Hollow. Taken by the children's wide-eyed curiosities, Hall chronicled their adventures and perceptions as they explored the pastoral landscape and, in so doing, penned perhaps the most beloved work of his career.

In honor of this landmark album comes the just-released collection, I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow (Red Beet Records), featuring interpretations by a venerable host of folk and country artists.

The standout performance comes from Patty Griffin, whose expressive gifts as a songwriter herself no doubt influence the way she renders “I Love,” instilling it with near tear-inducing compassion. Other highlights include Tommy Cash’s rockabilly narration of “Ole Lonesome George The Basset” (in which he name checks his late brother, Johnny, just as Hall did on the original); Buddy Miller’s Southern-funky take on “Sneaky Snake,” with guitarist Duane Eddy revving the rhythm; and Bobby Bare’s poignant cover of “I Care,” which he imparts with just the right amount of empathy and encouragement.

Tom T. Hall even joins in on the fun, singing a bit with folk artist Fayssoux McLean on “I Made a Friend of a Flower Today,” a heartwarming gesture to end the album, which is no doubt a labor of love for everyone who contributed. Above all, I Love is a delightful tribute to some timeless songs and one masterful storyteller.

May 15, 2011

Review: Paul McCartney & Wings - Band on the Run [Special Edition Reissue 2CD/1DVD]

Not even four years had passed since the Beatles had broken up and 31-year-old Paul McCartney was already contending with the band’s larger-than-life mythology. Sure, he’d scored some resilient solo hits, singles like “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Live and Let Die,” and “My Love,” but in the main his albums didn’t rival the consistent artistry illustrated on Revolver or Abbey Road.

Whether or not he achieved that distinction with 1973’s Band on the Run is debatable, but with such songs as “Jet,” “Let Me Roll It,” and the three-movement title track, McCartney had unquestionably created his strongest, most cohesive solo album to date, solidifying his relevance as a solo artist.
Issued late last year by Concord Music Group as the inaugural volume of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection — its next installments, 1970’s McCartney and 1980’s McCartney II, are set for a June 14 release — Band on the Run is given fuller context on this triple-disc (2CD/1DVD) set. Apart from the album proper, a bonus disc of solid, in-studio performances as well as the B-side “Helen Wheels” help in illustrating McCartney’s aesthetic at the time and, in so doing, complements the album well.

The real gem of the bonus footage, though, is the grainy, home-video-quality film, One Hand Clapping, which shows McCartney and band working through tracks in the studio from Band on the Run as well as other select cuts. It’s not Let It Be by any means — no one in Wings really questions, much less criticizes, McCartney’s ideas or methods — but it nevertheless gives viewers an insider’s look at his creative process at this point.

That McCartney could carve out a fruitful solo career for the long haul was not a given at this point — that he’d one day become the most successful songwriter in popular music history was, of course, even less conceivable — yet his will to create music on his own and on his own terms is most evident in this compelling reissue collection.

May 10, 2011

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to Honor Women's Achievements

Whether in rockabilly or punk, heavy metal or soul, women have made a profound, enduring impact on their craft. In recognition of their seminal achievements and influence, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland is set to premiere a groundbreaking new exhibit, Women Who Rock.

Commencing on Friday, May 13, and running through Feb. 26, 2012, the exhibit occupies two full floors of the seven-story museum. Divided into eight sections, it not only chronicles women’s contributions within the rock ’n’ roll era to date but those of preceding and otherwise influential genres as well.

“Women have played a major role in the evolution and development of rock ’n’ roll,” says Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, “especially during the early years, people think of it as being a male-dominated form. What we wanted to show is that women have played a key role.”

Even as it recognizes such contributions, the exhibit is very much designed to educate and enlighten its visitors. “It’s interesting,” Henke notes, “Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey made blues records before any men made blues records. ‘Mother’ Maybelle Carter, she made country records before any men were making country records. A lot of people don’t realize that.” 

Since its inception, one often tacit yet ubiquitous theme of rock ‘n’ roll has been its depiction and perception of women as objects of sexual temptation and fantasy. Some of the exhibit’s featured artists, like Debbie Harry and Madonna, cunningly toyed with their images and gender roles; others, like Diana Ross and Stevie Nicks, asserted their femininity in more discreet but no less iconic ways.

As Henke suggests, though, the exhibit concentrates more on talent. “It does show that it wasn’t just based on their looks or anything like that,” he says. “There were a lot of important musicians and singers and songwriters who were women who played a big role.”

An arsenal of artifacts—guitars from the likes of Wanda Jackson and Chrissie Hynde; bass guitars from Tina Weymouth and Kim Gordon; a Dobro® guitar from Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time sessions; one of Meg White’s bass drums—illustrate perhaps the most tangible manifestation of such talent. “The exhibit includes a lot of different instruments,” Henke confirms, adding that while procuring them was no easy task, artists and their representatives were eager to assist. “When we called and told people about this exhibit, almost to a person everyone was excited and wanted to take part in it. They were very receptive. The general excitement was probably greater than most of our [other] exhibits put together.”

To commemorate the opening of Women Who Rock, some of music’s leading and legendary ladies, including Mavis Staples, Wanda Jackson, and Darlene Love, will headline this year’s Its Only Rock and Roll Spring Benefit Concert, Saturday night at Public Hall in the Cleveland Convention Center.

“Look at the charts now and they’re pretty much dominated by women,” Henke concludes, “but they have been playing a key role, and we just wanted to bring that to the forefront.”

May 09, 2011

An Interview with Christopher Cross

With the release on Tuesday of his first studio album in twelve years, Doctor Faith, singer/songwriter Christopher Cross believes his career has come full circle.

“I did the first record with no expectation,” Cross says, recalling his 1979 eponymous debut, which spawned such defining hits as “Sailing,” “Never Be The Same,” and “Ride Like The Wind” and garnered him five GRAMMY® Awards. Additional hits included “Think of Laura” and “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” the latter winning the 1981 Academy Award for Best Original Song, but neither those accolades nor a string of subsequent albums stood to rival the windfall of his initial effort.

“I never expected in a million years that my first album would be successful at all,” Cross says, maintaining that his modest aspirations back then in many ways mirror his outlook today. “It was pure belief in the process and in the craft and the desire to do it,” he reflects, “and that’s kind of the same with Doctor Faith.”

Cross crafted the new album, which he produced, with deft and distinctive musicianship—guitarist Eric Johnson and vocalist Michael McDonald make select appearances—while writing with Rob Meurer, with whom he has collaborated to various extents since his career's inception.

“Music has been my solace through my whole life,” Cross confides. “I’ve had a lot of marriage failures and personal problems like everybody has, but music’s always been there for me, and it continues to be. I’m enjoying it more than ever.”

You reflect a certain amount of insecurity and vulnerability in some of the songs.

For Rob and I, who write the songs, it’s about growth as men. At this point in life you do realize there is a lot of vulnerability and mortality. So it’s really a time for reflection. Songs like “Still I Resist” and “Prayin’” express our personal spirituality and struggles with our own growth and life. That’s clearly what it’s about.

Was it difficult or daunting to confront those kinds of issues?

No. I think a lot of it is cathartic; it’s freeing. I’m older, done a lot of therapy and a lot of self-investigation. It’s like an exorcism. It allows you to get all this stuff out and express it, be truthful and honest with yourself, and express that with other people in the hopes that they can relate to it. At this point it’s too late for pulling punches; it’s what it is…. We’re expressing a lot of real important things to us in the songs at this point, because you never know how much time you have left to express it.

Before you began writing this record did you have any preconceived objective as far as what you wanted it to sound like? There’s a lot of guitar on this one.

What happened in the last two or three years is I started to really get back into the guitar, buying pedals and guitars and just getting back into playing. I hadn’t produced on my own. This record I knew I was going to do on my own and so I just approached it completely from a guitar perspective, spending hours and hours in the studio just layering guitars. I didn’t really know what it would come out like in any way. I didn’t know what to expect; I had no preconceived notions. I just kind of did it pretty naturally, and I followed my instincts as I went along.

In the years subsequent to that first rush of success did you ever question if perhaps you peaked too early as an artist?

Well, yeah, of course. Of course you’re going to feel that way. You wish you could have a different kind of arc. I mean, let’s face it. If you asked me would I have rather had a career like Sting—where he starts out in the rock genre and moves on to pop and has a long, illustrious, very well-deserved career that’s still going based on great songwriting and records—yeah, I’d love that.

At this age, I don’t look a gift horse… If you walk out on the street and say to most people, “Do you know who Christopher Cross is?” They’ll say, “Yeah, he’s that guy who did ‘Sailing.’” At least I have a name. I can go out and tour. I’ve got some hits, and I can do music for a living and continue to do what I do. I’ve learned over the years to look at it as the glass half-full instead of half-empty, but yeah in the beginning it was very tough, because all I seemed to be doing was live down that. But I don’t look at that [now] as trying to live that down. I just try to be proud of it, and when I play the songs live it’s wonderful to see that kind of reaction and the connection with people.

With the new album now complete, can you look back and tell if you learned anything about yourself as an artist?

If anything, maybe I have some confidence from a producer’s standpoint that I can put a record together. I worked with Michael Omartian on my early records, who was absolutely brilliant; I learned a lot from Michael. I’m kind of like a baby bird out of the nest on my own now. So I do have some confidence that if I do follow my instincts it’ll turn out okay. And songwriting-wise, too, we had that early success and the whole meteoric thing happened. There’d been a lot of years where I put out records that didn’t do as much. All that big fanfare and pressure drifts away. Now I’m doing what I love to do for the right reasons.

(First published at Blogcritics.)

May 05, 2011

An Interview with Bruce Hornsby

This week Bruce Hornsby and his longtime band, The Noisemakers, have released their first live album in over a decade, Bride of the Noisemakers, a double-disc set overflowing with diverse musical influences and in-the-moment inspiration.

“I felt it was time for there to be a document of what we sound like now,” says Hornsby, a three-time GRAMMY® winner. As he explains, “Our approach makes it so if you hear a said song of ours in 2003 and then you hear it again in 2009 it’s probably evolved and changed a good bit, and hopefully for the better.”

In addition to experiencing the music in contexts different from what they already may be accustomed, concertgoers hoping to hear a rote performance of Hornsby’s greatest hits—“Mandolin Rain,” “Across The River,” “Every Little Kiss,” and “The Way It Is,” to cite just a few—may walk away scratching their heads. Hornsby confirms, “That person who’s going to a concert for a nostalgic reason, we’re not really going to placate.”

Nevertheless, he notes, “We still play three or four hits every night. Now, we don’t play them like the record. We try to find new ways to do it.” Above all, Hornsby says, “I feel like what I owe my audience is what I’m most passionate about.”

The performances on Bride of the Noisemakers come from the years 2007-2009. What were you looking for in selecting its tracks? The technical best? The energy?

Not technical at all although I want the playing to be strong. I don’t want there to be much sucking going on. [Laughs] I’m looking for definitive versions. And what would define a definitive version for me is a spirited and creative version where I’m singing it really well; where the groove is great. It’s got to have that spirit—the joyful-noise quality about it—because I think that’s really important. Hopefully that comes across on this record, how much we enjoy playing and how much spirit is in the music.

Your performances are known for their spontaneity and improvisation. How much leeway do you give the guys in your band? Do you essentially wind them up and turn them loose

It’s not so much about that. It’s not about leeway or turning somebody loose. Although our approach is improvisatory we’re not much for the long, two-chord jam. You don’t hear on this record or you don’t hear live somebody just being turned loose, quote unquote, as you say. “Hey man, just blow.” That to me is kind of dull. And it’s not that creative to me to do that. What I think is spontaneous about what we do is, for instance, the bass player, J.V. [Collier], will play some lick. I’ll hear the lick and I’ll play the lick back at him. And then we’ll make that into a new section, kind of a riff. Then everyone jumps on that. Then that lick will be played. And I may come up with some chords that go under that and then somebody will hear the chords, and they’ll go with the chords and you move… It’s more about creating new sections. It’s a very conversational approach.

No autopilot allowed.

No. When you come to our shows you’ll see that the band pretty much does not take their eyes off of me for long, because I’m always looking to move it around. Frankly, what I’m looking to do is entertain the band. We’re all grizzled vets of many gigs from our beginning days probably playing wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs, disco bands, rock bands, frat parties, soul bands. Having to play the songs straight is a real prison for me.

So when something sparks off a riff and then you move into different territory, everybody’s got to be locked in. 

They’ve got to be ready to turn on a dime; ready to move with the groove or just ready to move with whatever the new germ of an idea is. Sometimes I’ll go into another song. And the guys will look at me, like, “Oh no, I don’t know this song.” So I’ll be singing, and I’ll play the piano with one hand and with my other hand I’ll be holding up numbers for chords. That happens a lot, too. To me it’s just what’s fun about music; it’s trying to keep it always fresh. And, hey, we don’t mind screwing up at all. I’m not trying to play the perfect gig at all. I’m hoping to do it very well, to play it really well and sing it well, but I’m not looking for it to be perfect. Hell, I’m forgetting words. [Laughs] There’s lots of screwing up going on!

That’s sort of the point of “live.”

Well, for me it is. For most bands it’s really not the point at all. Most bands that you would hear they’re playing it very much by the book. And a great gig for them is when they play it with no mistakes. They’re doing the same set every night. They want to play the songs exactly right—no mistakes; no clams, as we call it—but I don’t care about that. That couldn’t be less interesting for me as an approach.

Does your approach to the live show—that spontaneity, that spirit—affect your songwriting?

Not really; not so much. The songwriting is a very different thing. I’m just looking to be inspired by a lyrical idea or a musical idea that either moves me to the point of giving me chills or it's just something new; some new harmonic area or some increasingly dissonant chord structure or melodic structure that I’ll utilize in my music increasingly through the years.

You’ve never been complacent to play just one type of music. To what do you attribute your musical curiosity? 

Musically I am intellectually curious. And I play an instrument that is quite possibly the only instrument that exists that you can be the whole orchestra; the whole orchestra is at your fingertips. You could spend two lifetimes and not deal with the literature of the piano.

If you talk about the incredible, massive classical tradition and then you go into popular song styles from ragtime to boogie-woogie and blues and then to all the jazz… Just dealing with jazz from Jelly Roll Morton, which comes from ragtime; and then goes into Fats Waller and then Art Tatum with the stride music and James P. Johnson; and then to be-bop with Bud Powell and then into hard-bop/post-bop in the ‘60s with Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett and McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, and on and on. Then deal with New Orleans piano—Professor Longhair, Huey “Piano” Smith, Dr. John… You could just go on and on.

I love all this music and on a virtuosic level I’m interested in playing the instrument well, and I’m interested in all these styles. I’m interested also in finding a place for this pianistic expression in my songwriting.