Song of the Week – The Rhythm Changes, Kamasi Washington

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I had the privilege of seeing Kamasi Washington in a small club setting, Menlo Park’s Guild Theater, last Wednesday.  One of the highlights of the show was the performance of “The Rhythm Changes” from his acclaimed 2015 album, The Epic.

It’s the only track on the album that features vocals (by co-writer Patrice Quinn), so it veers from the hard bop jazz of the rest of the album.  But it is outstanding nonetheless.

The title of the song comes from a jazz term, “rhythm changes”, which refers to a 32-bar chord progression common in jazz, that harkens back to George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”.

“The Rhythm Changes” was included on the soundtrack for Becoming, the Netflix documentary on Michelle Obama.

On a side note, Washington arranged and played alto sax on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark album, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015), providing its decidedly jazzy flavor.

He has a few more concert dates on the west coast, then heads to the Midwest.  Check him out if he visits a city near you!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Richard Cory, Simon & Garfunkel

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Occasionally I hear a song that I liked years ago but have forgotten about because it never receives any “airplay” (whatever that means in 2022).  One such song is “Richard Cory” from Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence (1966) album.

The song, written by Paul Simon, was based on a poem published in 1897 by Edwin Arlington Robinson.  Wikipedia summarizes the narrative as “The poem describes a person who is wealthy, well educated, mannerly, and admired by the people in his town.  Despite all this, he takes his own life.”

That about sums up the Simon & Garfunkel song except “the song’s ending differs from the poem in that the speaker still wishes he ‘could be Richard Cory’, even after Cory has killed himself.”

Sounds of Silence is largely an acoustic folk album.  But on “Richard Cory” Simon is accompanied by Joe South on guitar and Hal Blaine on drums.

Other versions of the S&G song exist.  Van Morrison’s band Them released “Richard Cory” in 1966 as a non-album single.  Paul McCartney and Wings released a version on Side 3 of their three LP vinyl release of Wings over America (1976) with band member Denny Laine taking the lead vocal.

I hope hearing “Richard Cory” brought back a happy reminder of times past or, if you’ve never heard it before, that you’ve discovered a cool new song.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Shakespeare in Music

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I just learned yesterday that a very dear friend of mine, Matthew Wells, died in early June while living in Thailand.  This brings me profound sadness.  Matt was a very gifted writer of poems, plays, and fiction.  Sadly, he never achieved the popular recognition that he deserved.  Perhaps that will happen posthumously.

Among Matt’s many, many areas of expertise was his PhD level knowledge of the works of William Shakespeare.  It is with that in mind that I humbly offer today’s SotW.

The words of William Shakespeare are considered some of the most important works of poetry and literature in the English language.  They have lived through the centuries because of their beauty and how they capture the essence of human emotion and behavior so accurately.  So it is no wonder they have occasionally been set to music.

My first exposure to Shakespeare’s words used in modern music was when I heard the original cast album for the (Off) Broadway musical, Hair (1967).

“What a Piece of Work is Man” is from a monologue from Hamlet. In Act II, Scene 2, Hamlet addresses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  The speech describes the wonder of God’s creation of the human body and mind.

Jazz vocalist Cleo Laine recorded a version of Shakespeare’s lullaby “You Spotted Snakes” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on her 1986 album A Midsummer Night’s Dream: You Spotted Snakes.

From Act II, Scene 2, “You Spotted Snakes” is sung by the Fairies to protect their sleeping Queen, Tatiana, from the dangers of spotted snakes, thorny hedgehogs, newts, and blindworms.

In 2016, Rufus Wainwright released an album called Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 40 – Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all, describes the hurt of a love triangle between the narrator and a person that had an affair with his lover.

These are timeless, beautiful words, set to music.

I hope you approve, Matthew.  This one is for you!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, Roger Waters

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In 1984, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd released his first solo album – The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.  The album has a concept that is dense and difficult to comprehend.  It seems to have something to do with a man that is suffering from insecurity (?), a midlife crisis (?), and/or paranoia (?).  Who really knows other than Waters.

The concept was originally presented to Pink Floyd in 1977/78 along with The Wall.  Waters asked the band to consider both and choose which one they wanted to pursue for their next album.  They wisely chose The Wall.

One of the details I like about Pros and Cons is the way Waters framed the album as taking place over a specific period — 4:30:18 AM to 5:12:32 AM.  The song titles all have a start time that accurately coincides with the actual running time of the record.  In fact, when it was released on vinyl in ’84, Waters even built in an extra 5 seconds between the ending of Side 1 and the beginning of Side 2 to allow for the listener to flip the record!

The most popular song on the album is the title cut – “The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.”

It is the track that sounds the most like a Pink Floyd recording.  The women’s gospel choir in the chorus is a nice touch.

Waters enlisted the help of Eric Clapton and sax players David Sanborn and Raphael Ravenscroft (“Baker Street”) to flesh out his ideas.  Unfortunately, the album liner notes don’t give track-by-track credits.

Another point of interest related to this record concerns the album cover.  Created by Gerald Scarfe, who handled the album artwork for The Wall, it presented a backside view of a high-heeled, naked woman with a backpack, hitchhiking.  The model was soft porn actress Linzi Drew.  The first release showed her exposed butt.  Later pressings had her backside covered by a black rectangle.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Unknown Legend, Neil Young

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At the end of 1992, Neil Young released his 19th studio album, Harvest Moon.  After a couple of hard rock albums – Ragged Glory, Arc, and Weld – the folky, acoustic Harvest Moon was a welcome return to the style of earlier fan favorites like Harvest and Comes a Time.

The album’s lead track is “Unknown Legend.” 

The lyrics are often said to be written for his then-wife Pegi.  But quotes from several of his biographies paint a more complex picture.  Pegi may have been one influence but it appears the woman in the song is an amalgam of several subjects.

It’s a beautiful song with touching lyrics about a waitress in a diner who is raising two kids but doesn’t give up her lust for life.  This portrait of a woman is a much more sympathetic treatment of a woman than some of Young’s other songs like the cringe worthy “A Man Needs a Maid.”

She used to work in a diner
Never saw a woman look finer
I used to order just to watch her float across the floor
She grew up in a small town
Never put her roots down
Daddy always kept movin’, so she did too

Somewhere on a desert highway
She rides a Harley-Davidson
Her long blonde hair flyin’ in the wind
She’s been runnin’ half her life
The chrome and steel she rides
Collidin’ with the very air she breathes

The air she breathes

You know it ain’t easy
You got to hold on
She was an unknown legend in her time
Now she’s dressin’ two kids
Lookin’ for a magic kiss
She gets the far-away look in her eyes

Somewhere on a desert highway
She rides a Harley-Davidson
Her long blonde hair flyin’ in the wind
She’s been runnin’ half her life
The chrome and steel she rides
Collidin’ with the very air she breathes
The air she breathes

Linda Ronstadt provides the backing vocals.

In the Jonathan Demme movie, Rachel’s Getting Married (2008), the song is sung a cappella by the groom (Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV on the Radio) in the wedding ceremony scene.  It is lovely.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Hollow Reed, Seals & Crofts

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In the early ‘70s, Seals & Crofts (Jim Seals and “Dash” Crofts) had a string of hit singles in the style of soft rock – now often called Yacht Rock.  The hits included “Summer Breeze” (#6), “Hummingbird” (#20), and “Diamond Girl” (#6).

Those hits came from their 4th and 5th albums.  The first few were much less popular, even though they contained some pretty good tunes.

The early album that always interested me was record #2 – Down Home (1970).  The thing that initially interested me in Down Home was their backing band.  John Hall of Orleans and No Nukes fame played guitar.  John Simon played piano.  He produced The Band’s first two albums and Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills with Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Harvey Brooks played bass.  You may recognize Brooks’ from his work with Bob Dylan (Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited) and as a member of Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield’s Electric Flag.  And let’s not forget Paul Harris who played organ with Stephen Still’s Manassas and Joe Walsh’s Barnstorm.  That’s quite a group!

My pick for the SotW is “Hollow Reed.”

In the oral history The Yacht Rock Book, by Greg Prato, Hall conveys his role in the recording:

Seals & Crofts wanted me to be the ‘coloration guy.’  So, I would not only take solos, but I would set up some weird sound effect stuff in the background, with feedback and slide guitars, through all kinds of effects – I’ve got an Echoplex and a compressor into a Leslie, and play the guitar with a slide through all that stuff.  It wound up being… especially there is a song called ‘Hollow Reed’ on that record, that I did some of the most out there guitar playing that I recall doing.

Earlier this month, Seals died at the age of 79.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – The Sensual World, Kate Bush; TV Or Not TV, Firesign Theatre

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Bloomsday was last Thursday, June 16th.  Bloomsday you ask?  Yes, Bloomsday celebrates the date that Leopold Bloom’s adventures take place in the renowned novel, Ulysses, by James Joyce.  Joyce picked this date as the setting for his novel because it was also the day he had his first date with the woman that was to become his wife, Nora Barnacle.

So how does James Joyce or Ulysses connect with the SotW?  Kate Bush recorded a great song titled “The Sensual World” that was inspired by the famous last chapter of Ulysses – Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.  The soliloquy captures Molly’s stream-of-consciousness thoughts as she lies in bed next to her husband Leopold.  It is written with little punctuation to illustrate the s-o-c technique, and for many years held the record as the longest sentence in published literature.

Bush’s original idea was to set the soliloquy to music but the Joyce estate nixed that idea.  So she wrote her own lyrics to capture the essence of the soliloquy, allowing Molly to jump out of the pages and have a voice.

Stepping out of the page into the sensual world
Stepping out, off the page, into the sensual world

And then our arrows of desire rewrite the speech, mmh, yes
And then he whispered would I, mmh, yes
Be safe, mmh, yes, from mountain flowers?
And at first with the charm around him, mmh, yes
He loosened it so if it slipped between my breasts
He’d rescue it, mmh, yes
And his spark took life in my hand and, mmh, yes
I said, mmh, yes
But not yet, mmh, yes
Mmh, yes
Mmh, yes

In 2011, the Joyce estate granted her permission to use the actual text and she rerecorded “The Sensual World”, renamed “Flower of the Mountain”.

Molly Bloom’s soliloquy was also captured in popular culture by The Firesign Theatre, my favorite comedy group.  Their routine  “How Can You Be In Two Palces At Once, When You’re Not Anywhere At All” is the “odyssey” of the character Ralph Spoilsport.  The bit ends with phrases lifted directly from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy (just like Ulysses ended).  Brilliant!!!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Pulse, Ten Wheel Drive

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In the late ‘60s, at the height of the “horn band” craze, musician/songwriters Aram Schefrin and Michael Zager hooked up with Genya Ravan to form Ten Wheel Drive.  The name refers to the 10 person lineup in the band.

Ravan was a pioneer woman in rock with her all-female band Goldie and the Gingerbreads.  Except for Ravan, the ability to read music was a requirement for joining the band.  These were serious musicians.

In her 2004 autobiography, Lollipop Lounge: Memoirs of a Rock and Roll Refugee, Ravan tells of an early gig at the Fillmore East where she aroused her audience when she shed her see-through jacket and continued to perform with her painted breasts exposed.

I have the band’s first two albums in my collection and I’m partial to the second – Brief Replies (1970).  It contains their version of “Stay With Me”, the original of which was released by Lorraine Ellison and was the subject of a SotW post on September 19, 2015.

Today’s choice for SotW is “Pulse.”

It features a driving beat and exploits the group’s great horn players.

Brief Replies has the sax player Dave Liebman in the horn section.  Liebman went on to record and release several excellent jazz fusion albums that are worth checking out, including Lookout Farm (1974).

Ravan currently hosts a SiriusXM show, Goldie’s Garage, on Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Call Me, St Paul and the Broken Bones

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A few weeks ago I saw St Paul and the Broken Bones for the second time at the Fox Theater in Oakland.  Paul and the band are at the top of their game.  Paul is a terrific singer and entertainer and the band is tight!

St Paul (Janeway) got his nickname from his bass playing bandmate, Jesse Phillips, because he doesn’t have many vices.  Janeway has said “I’ve never drank, or smoked, or anything like that. He thought that would be funny and, of course, with the preacher background, it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek.  And the Broken Bones comes from the first song that me and Jesse ever wrote in his living room. It was called ‘Broken Bones and Pocket Change,‘ and the line goes ‘All she left me with was broken bones and pocket change. So all she left me with was hardly any money and this band.’ So it kind of worked out that way.”

Yes, it’s true that growing up in Alabama, St Paul was raised in the church with little exposure to the outside world.  “The only secular music that I heard at all was a ‘70s group called the Stylistics, and Sam Cooke. That was about it. The rest of it was all gospel music. When I was about 10 years old, I was groomed to be a minister. My goal in life until I was about 18 years old was to be a preacher.”

He later spent time working as a mechanic and trained to be an accountant, all the while dabbling in music.  When his first EP, recorded with Phillips, gained some notice, they decided to go all in.

Today’s SotW is “Call Me”, a concert favorite from his 2014 release Half the City.

The Music Musings and Such blog raves about “Call Me” writing:

From the first seconds, horns burst and pervade against a plinking guitar line. At first, it is quite tender and composed; delicate strings and emotive brass do their work, before the song is opened up and strikes. With its Motown-flavoured sounds, there is an energy whipped up that not only gets you to your feet, but puts you in mind of some of the late, greats- Otis Redding came to mind, initially. Janeway, however, is his own man, and with a powerful and crackling soul tone, he lays bare his emotions. Early words talk of realisations and emotional ground; with some ambiguity and mystery laid in, cards are being kept close to chests: “This ain’t the heartache/That I thought I knew/This ain’t the party/That I thought we do“. The band aptly and deftly support out hero, eliciting a smooth, sexy and powerful composition, that blends their components together. Percussion is steady but driving; guitar and bass is uplifting (and funky, somehow); in the midst of brass notes which swirl and sway. In the video for the song, our hero stands by the mic., side-stepping and arm-waving. Entranced by the rhythm (and perhaps his own voice) the band play around him- the boys never let the smile drop. Whether the song is surveying a broken relationship or is a calling card to a desired sweetheart, I am unsure, but you get some oblique- yet evocative- images and words summoned up; everything is pure but filthy; direct yet withdrawn. Sentiments such as “You got your limit/Baby I got mine/Six Eleven/Three Three Six Nine” perhaps have a lot more sweat than sweetness; our hero roars and powers through each line, ensuring that it fully hits home. It seems that there is some resistance around town; that some tongues are talking- causing ruction and anger in Janeway’s mind. Leonine of voice, evisceration and laceration are words that come to mind; truths are being laid down, and a weight is exorcised from his soul.

St Paul and the Broken Bones have appeared on all the late night TV shows and performed “A Change is Gonna Come” with Lizzo at SXSW in 2014.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Sweet Black Angel & All Down the Line, The Rolling Stones

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ classic double album, Exile on Main Street.  I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to verify the exact date of release.  I recently read a review by Robert Greenfield that was in Rolling Stone magazine dated April 27, 1972.  In the article, he says that the album will be out on May 7th.  But it’s very plausible that the release was delayed after he wrote that.

An article in the WSJ claimed the release date was May 12, 1972.  Wikipedia says it was May 22nd.  I think part of the confusion may be related to the US versus UK releases.  It could have been the 12th in the US and the 26th in the UK.  I guess it doesn’t really matter!

The backstory of the making of Exile is well known so I won’t be pedantic in telling it.  The short version is that the Stones were living in France in 1971-72 as tax exiles from England.  Unable to find an acceptable recording facility in France, the band decided to record from the basement of Keith Richards southern France villa (Nellcôte) using their mobile studio.

Describing this arrangement, Keith said “It was nice for me making this album.  At the end it got a little hectic in the house what with playin’ all night in the blazin’ heat… but with the 16 track truck always outside and ready, we’d go downstairs whenever we felt like it and work on a riff.”

My choices for SotW are the b-sides to the two singles released from Exile.  “Sweet Black Angel” was the flip to “Tumbling Dice” and “All Down the Line” was on the other side of “Happy.”

“Sweet Black Angel” was written in support of Black activist Angel Davis.  At the time, Davis was on trial for murder because she had purchased the gun used in the courtroom killing of a judge and the three black defendants (The Soledad Brothers) on trial for killing a prison guard.

But the gal in danger
Yeah, de gal in chains
But she keep on pushin’
Would ya take her place?

She countin’ up de minutes
She countin’ up de days
She’s a sweet black angel, woh
Not a sweet black slave

For a judge they murdered
And a judge they stole
Now de judge he gonna judge her
For all dat he’s worth

I skipped one verse that makes me cringe and probably makes the song unplayable in concert for the same reason “Brown Sugar” is avoided.  It just ain’t politically correct.

Ten little niggers
Sittin’ on de wall
Her brothers been a fallin’
Fallin’ one by one

“All Down the Line” is an R&B influenced rocker.

It features some smokin’ horns and a bluesy, rockin’ slide guitar solo by Mick Taylor.  It was originally recorded in an acoustic version during the Sticky Fingers sessions and is available on bootlegs.  I’ll include it here because I can.

Clearly, the Stones made the right decision to table it until they could record a version worthy of release!

Exile has survived the test of time. Upon its 1972 release the messy, beautiful album was met with mixed reviews.  Rock journalist Nick Kent summarized his review with this:

On Exile the Stones have picked up on the old idea of ‘when in doubt, get back to your roots’ – there is no spirit of adventure or any real variety and for a double album that’s bad.  But by concentrating on what they’ve always been good at, they’ve proved once and for all their capabilities as rockers.  For that alone, Exile on Main Street should not be ignored.

Exile is often in the top 10 of lists of the greatest albums of all time. In Rolling Stone’s most recent list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (October 2020) Exile earned the #14 slot.  Not bad!

Enjoy… until next week.