April 19, 2012

Lionel Richie Retraces Country Roots, Rekindles Old Flames on Tuskegee

The seeds had likely been sown long before they surfaced in his songwriting, yet to various degrees throughout his career Lionel Richie has shown he has a soft spot for country music.

In Commodores songs like “Easy” and the underrated gem “Lucy” the influence was evident; whether in his down-to-earth, say-what-you-feel lyrics—“I gave you my heart and I tried to make you happy, but you gave me nothing in return,” he sang in “Sail On,” another one that sounded more Music City than Motown—or in the earthy, Southern drawl in Richie’s delivery.

Upon going solo, however, Richie branched out beyond the group's hardline R&B and funk foundation to embrace new influences, including mainstream country, in earnest.

There was “Deep River Woman,” on which the legendary Alabama—then at the peak of their success—sang backup; and to a lesser extent “My Love,” which featured Kenny Rogers hitting the high notes and harmonies. Richie’s rolled the dice a few times with The Gambler, in fact, producing his 1981 LP Share Your Love (which included hits “I Don’t Need You” and “Through the Years”) and penning “Lady”—a #1 smash on the country and pop singles charts.

And so Tuskegee (Mercury Nashville) doesn’t sound so much like a genre experiment as it does an extension of what Richie has been doing in fits and starts for years. A host of contemporary and veteran country acts are on hand and often help to effect new perspectives and contexts out of old memories, but the real stars here are the songs themselves. Most of them are instantly familiar—if you were awake in the ‘80s some were unavoidable—and just about all of the ones here have held up to time and interpretation.

Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers know a thing or two about how to interpret a song, of course; and Richie creates magic with both of them, culminating in a poignant performance of “Easy” and an epic reprisal of “Lady,” respectively.

Also, Richie and a sublime-voiced Shania Twain offer a compellingly understated take on “Endless Love”—the only song here that was a duet to begin with—one that is attuned more to subtleties of an adult relationship than to the rapturous, burgeoning romance celebrated in the original. Other standouts include “My Love,” on which Kenny Chesney sings with a strikingly dignified, crooner-like cool; and “You Are,” which Blake Shelton injects with a homegrown shot of grit and twang to make it arguably the most characteristically country-sounding cut on the album.

Indeed this is not your daddy’s country music, but the timeless qualities that made those old songs great are by and large the same as the ones present in Richie’s best work and, specifically, in the music on this album: stories to which anybody can relate and melodies which everybody will remember.

(First published at Blinded By Sound.)

April 06, 2012

Singer/Songwriter Adam Levy: The Craft of Conviction

As a teenager first learning to play the guitar, Adam Levy wasn’t bent on mastering the signature riff to “Purple Haze” or the chord sequence in “Stairway to Heaven.” Instead he practiced stuff like Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Junior’s Farm,” or “China Grove” by the Doobie Brothers. “I wasn’t really interested in the things that people often turn to,” Levy recalls. “I still can’t play ‘Purple Haze’ or ‘Little Wing’ or any of that.”

His six-string instincts and musical curiosities have served him well over the years as a sideman and session player—Levy’s credentials include studio work with the likes of Amos Lee, Tracy Chapman, Sex Mob, and, most notably, Norah Jones, on whose first three albums he performed as a member of her Handsome Band—as well as a singer/songwriter.

Composing with and for other artists—Jones recorded his track, “In the Morning,” on her sophomore LP Feels Like Home—Levy has also produced a string of solo efforts, the most recent being The Heart Collector (Lost Wax Music). Cozy and mostly acoustic, the album evokes the character of a classic short-story anthology chock full of picturesque imagery and humble, endearing emotion. His voice soft yet dusky—think Keb Mo mixed with a bit of Lyle Lovett—Levy renders each narrative like a seasoned storyteller or, perhaps, an old friend.

“The whole point of songwriting is to tap into some universal thing,” he says, and just as an author embellishes within a plot, Levy doesn't necessarily base his songs on personal experience. “It’s not like you found my journal and you’re reading my innermost thoughts,” he explains. “They’re in there, but most of the songs come from other places. Anything that’s really confessional would go by really quickly. I wouldn’t ask you to listen to my confessions for three-and-a-half minutes… I would never write a song that says, ‘I woke up today at 7:20 and ate some leftover mac and cheese.’ That’s what I really did, but I wouldn’t put that in a song.”

Of greater importance, Levy says, is that his conviction be sincere.

Take, for instance, one of The Heart Collector's most charming songs, "Painting by Numbers," which was inspired by Edvard Munch's Self Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed. “So I started off with what was there," Levy explains. "The first line is, ‘I made up the bed the way that she likes it / Then I polished the floor ‘til it shined so bright / Then I oiled the gears in the grandfather clock / And put on my best suit of blue and green.’ In the first verse I’ve just described the entire painting.”

Levy employed a bit of poetic license to craft the song’s chorus and remaining two verses, filling out a narrative whose protagonist is neither directly informed by the portrait nor his own conscious thoughts. "And yet,” he maintains, “at the same time, that character is really sympathetic to me. I could see myself in him.”

That his songs in turn resonate with listeners is for Levy not only rewarding, but encouraging as well.

“That’s part of the challenge of being an artist if you want to have any kind of longevity,” he says, “writing songs that will have some staying power, of course, and also finding ways to keep your own self amused, entertained, bemused, whatever. Because as soon as you get bored, as soon as you tune out, I don’t think you can expect anyone else to tune in.”

(First published at Blinded By Sound.)

McCartney Can't Save The Love We Make

In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, a timid unease plagued the music industry, resulting in the cancellation or postponement of numerous previously scheduled events and concert tours. As sad, horrific images blanketed the television airwaves around the clock—on seemingly every channel, not just the usual news networks—many artists wrestled with the notion that by going ahead with business as usual (particularly when business as usual was a rock show or likewise celebratory event) they’d be perceived as insensitive to prevailing sentiments.

Having grown up in post-World War II England, where blitz bombing raids had ravaged entire communities, Paul McCartney understood the invaluable role musicians had long since played in lifting people’s spirits during perilous times. Compelled to use his stature to in any way mitigate the grief pervading America, McCartney organized the all-star benefit Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden, which ultimately boasted such icons as Elton John, David Bowie, and the Who.

Directed by Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter), The Love We Make aims to document "McCartney's cathartic journey through New York City in the aftermath of 9/11.”

The film often feels unnecessarily self-serving, however, focusing more on what it’s like to be Paul McCartney during a press junket rather than on the film's more altruistic ambitions. Much of it dwells on a dizzying schedule of promotional appearances for the benefit concert as well as for his then-current album, Driving Rain, including television and radio interviews, logistical planning, and autograph signing—on a crowded sidewalk, in an elevator, in a car—at every turn.

Still, the film isn’t lacking for compelling moments. One such bit of footage finds McCartney visiting with firefighters—his father had been a volunteer fireman, something which clearly means all the more to him when visiting a local ladder that had confronted the Ground Zero inferno—and interacting with random fans and strangers on the street. That he still can relate to people far less famous than himself, after half a century of unprecedented notoriety, is remarkable and quite touching to behold.

Another intriguing element of the film is how it captures McCartney in creative mode during rehearsals for the Madison Square Garden concert, breaking in a then-new band and work-shopping songs he’d only recently written and recorded (specifically “From a Lover to a Friend” and the makeshift anthem “Freedom”). For all the available footage that exists of McCartney down through the years playing music, far less shows him actually working on it. 

Unfortunately such moments are all too rare and disjointed within the overall presentation. McCartney's compassion and selflessness is indisputable. The manner in which Maysles attempts to portray this ostensibly poignant experience, however, just doesn't come across.

(First published at Blogcritics.)

April 04, 2012

Interview: Chris Welch, Author of Eric Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History

Even in his formative stages Eric Clapton was earning a rapturous, rabid following and inspiring generations of guitarists to come. “He was already a star,” says veteran music journalist and author Chris Welch. “Even then as a teenager, people were talking about Eric.”

Welch was one of them. A reporter at British music weekly Melody Maker and still a teenager himself at the time, he first chronicled Clapton as a founding member of the Yardbirds. “I went to a club in South London called the Bromel Club, just a hotel gig, very small little bar and not many people there,” Welch recalls of one such occasion. “The band were playing ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and all those songs the Yardbirds specialized in. They finished to mild applause. Eric looked quite fed up. So I went up to him and said, ‘Well, you look fed up. What’s the matter?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you noticed, did you?’ a bit sarcastically.”

The two hit it off and a friendship ensued, one which has witnessed Clapton’s many incarnations — from stints in the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers through supergroups Cream and Blind Faith to subsequent solo endeavors — as well as Welch’s journalistic career to date. Writing at Melody Maker and later NME, among other publications, he’s also penned biographies on such rock icons as Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, and Cream.

In his latest book, Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History, Welch comes full circle in a sense, surveying Clapton’s life and career while offering firsthand reflections along the way. Interspersed throughout the narrative are rare and renowned photographs along with images of vintage concert posters in kaleidoscopic brilliance and, most striking of all, the arsenal of guitars behind the music of this seminal blues-rock artist. 

In the preface of the book you write about Eric in those early days as striking you like a man on a mission, of him having a certain discipline about what he was doing. 

He always gave the impression of being more serious about what he was playing than the other guys in the band. They’d all be jumping about like school kids, really. Eric was much more focused and serious about the blues and what he wanted to do. He never felt like he quite fit in with any of the groups he was in at that point, I don’t think. He was always very restless and slightly detached from the band. 

What initially drew you to his playing? What distinguished him, even in the beginning, from the other guitarists in Britain at that time? 

Most people were still playing in the old-fashioned way, like the Shadows and groups like the Ventures in America; that kind of echoing rock ‘n’ roll guitar style, rather nervous and jerky, staccato playing. Not really steeped in the blues at all. It was only Eric, really, and a few others—there was a guy called Alexis Korner, who played [blues] guitar as well—but none of them really matched Eric’s ability. Because not only was he a just a very good guitar player; he suddenly managed to absorb the sound and real spirit of the blues. He’d been listening to records, of course—Freddie King and B.B. King—and that’s really how he learned, but miraculously he absorbed that style and sound and made it his own. 

Ray Charles said once, “I never wanted to be famous. I only wanted to be great.” Eric seems to have shared the same ethic. 

Exactly, yes, that’s true. He always found the whole pop scene very amusing. I think when Cream became successful they certainly did enjoy that fleeting, couple of years of pop fame. I mean, you couldn’t not enjoy it; it was such a good time for everybody. They wanted Cream to be a success and to be recognized, obviously, but they still wanted to do it playing their music, not compromising with the music. 

The Band’s Music From Big Pink was ultimately a catalyst for Eric to break up Cream. 

It was a big turnaround, because Cream had been locked into a corner where people expected them to be playing “Steppin’ Out” and “Toad” and lots of guitar solos at high speeds all the time every night. Eric understandably got a bit sick of being cast in that role as the superhero guitar player. He could do it, but night after night it wore a bit thin. As you say, when first he heard Music From Big Pink, he could see a different way of approaching the guitar and music, slowing down a bit, playing with a bit more relaxed feel. I remember he actually played me the album while I was interviewing him. He had a flat in Chelsea. And that’s when he was telling me Cream were going to break up and this was the kind of music he wanted to play… [but] he said, “You can’t tell anybody yet. This is top secret.” So I had to wait for a few weeks before it was officially announced. But that was a pivotal moment, you’re right. 

Eric and Jack Bruce and the other musicians of that lot seemed not so much celebrity or fame-seeking but rather like tradesmen pursuing their craft. 

They always wanted to learn more and study their instruments…. They were a very competitive sort of people. They all came from that revivalist thing in Britain where people wanted to pick up on the best of American music and find the source and play it to the best of their ability. Rather than just being in pop music, which is totally commercialized and aimed at the charts and instant popularity and fame, these were people who were sincere about their musical ambitions. And that really was why the public would recognize that eventually and why they became so hugely successful. There was truth in what they were playing. 

They ended up being more successful than the ones seeking commercial fame. 

That’s the irony of it, isn’t it? The public at large recognized that what they were hearing was the real thing. It was sincere, important music that they were playing—well, at the start it was—whereas people could see through all the sort of instant-pop nonsense. [Laughs] They weren’t seeking success, necessarily, but somehow it was thrust upon them. 

You’ve known Eric for so long, where do you draw the line between journalism and friendship? If you catch him in a performance and he’s just not really into it, do you write that? 

Very difficult, yes. I have done it in the past. He went through a patch when he wasn’t really trying terribly hard, during the drinking period…. I remember writing a piece about him at this gig in London, which was rather critical actually. But he accepted it. There were no sort-of bitter complaints. I remember seeing him with Elton John at Wembley Stadium; that wasn’t a particularly good gig either. 

There’s a quote from Eric in your book in which he says, “I really don’t rank myself very highly in any of the fields I work in.” Do you think he acknowledges his skill? 

He once described himself to me as a musical laborer. Eric’s always been a pretty modest guy, really. It is very difficult, isn’t it, if you’re being praised to the hills and then you get knocked back by criticism? It leaves you in a confused state. But generally speaking, I would say that he’s well aware of his technical abilities as a guitar player. You don’t get that good by not working at it; and he must be satisfied with his own playing. I think what Eric has learned to do over the years, if you listen to his playing, is how to construct a solo and, [also], editing his own work. Not like those guitar players who go on forever and ever and never stop improvising endlessly, trying to baffle everybody. He’s an artist in that sense. What we’re talking about is an artist who knows how to make the best use of his talents. 

Chris Welch
Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History by Chris Welch is published by Voyageur Press, an imprint of MBI Publishing Company, 2011.