Music: Live & Otherwise

Choose a Category

Currently showing posts tagged Personal Stories

  • New Music & Other Thoughts

    I’ve been slammed with work and the joys of owning a 99-year-old house recently, which means my ability to see concerts has been severely compromised. And it’s too bad, because there are a number of shows I’d like to see these days.

    A number of new and relatively recent releases have caught my eye and found their way to my Apple Music account, however. I’m really enjoying the latest albums from Hayes Carll, Patty Griffin, Josh Ritter (produced by Jason Isbell), Jack Ingram, Ryan Bingham and Steve Earle. And I can’t wait to hear all of “Breakdown on 20th Ave. South,” the long overdue album from Buddy and Julie Miller. Three of the 14 tracks are available now, and each is stellar.

    There are no surprises to be found with these artists, because all are among my favorites. I’m also enjoying Maren Morris’ new album, and Kacey Musgraves’ award-winning “Golden Hour” has snuck into heavy rotation. “Dying Star,” by Musgraves’ husband Ruston Kelly, has remained there since I saw him at The Anthem earlier this year.

    Two that you need to seek out and find are “Alive in Tennessee,” a live album that captures what makes Anderson East’s live shows so much fun, and Rhiannon Giddens haunting “There is No Other,” recorded with Francesco Turrisi.

    Meanwhile, here are some other music-related thoughts from the past several weeks:

    • Your ability to survive a MRI could depend on your tolerance for Lou Reed's “Metal Machine Music” album. I had one recently and hated it, but have to say that hearing punk and metal bands close up over the years came in handy when I was in the tube.

    • Quote of the day, from an appearance Bruce Springsteen made to promote the Netflix documentary of his Broadway show: "I think as you get older, that’s what you grow comfortable with: Faith is faith. It’s trust. It’s about all of the mysteries and the answers that you’re never going to come up with…But if you let it be, that’s when you find a little bit of peace. That’s what I’ve found anyway.”

    • I saw a music press release that made me realize journalism and P.R. copy editing have really taken a hit over the past few years. Check out this lead and tell me what’s wrong with it: “The late Alex Chilton, former lead singer of Big Star and the Box Tops, will release two new LP’s, Songs From Robin Hood Lane and From Memphis to New Orleans."

    I’m pretty sure that Chilton had little to do with the current releases. But with holograms of Elvis, Selena and Prince floating around, who knows?

  • Interview: Jon Dee Graham

    Jon Dee Graham is nothing if not a realist about life in the music business. As his 60th birthday approaches at the end of February, the acclaimed Texas songwriter is working to raise money to make a new record he hopes won’t be his last.

    “Acclaim doesn’t put food on the table,” Graham says. “It’s adorable and I’m touched, but I cannot possibly be more tired of the phrase ‘Best songwriter you’ve never heard of.’”

    Graham has self-funded every album he’s recorded since 2012’s “Garage Sale,” selling music and watercolors of bears out of his car when he tours. From now until midnight Wednesday, he is raising money to document a “milestone.” You can make a donation here.

    “I’m turning 60 and I never really expected to find myself here,” Graham says by phone from his Austin home. “This is not like grave portent or foreshadowing of anything, but my contacts list on my phone is full of people who are not here anymore. You just don’t know. You never know.”

    Over 45 minutes, Graham and I talked about his impetus behind the new album, mortality, his songwriting process, and the state of the music business, among other things. I have long been an admirer of his work. The photos accompanying this feature are from a 2015 show I shot of Graham performing in his weekly residency at Austin's Continental Club; you can see that essay here, as well as another one here.

    Here are edited highlights from our conversation. All of the quotes are Graham’s:

    The new album

    “Potentially this will be my last record. I hope not but what if it is? At my age and the crowd I ran with, let’s just say they were enthusiastic about living (laughs) and a lot of them are not with me anymore. If this turns out to be the last record, I want it to be right.

    “I’m not writing a death record. I was talking to Terry Allen a few years back. He was working on a new album and then got stuck. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong and then he realized he was working on a death record. So he scrapped it and started over again. I thought about that when I started this. I’m carefully conscious that I’m not making a death record. My approach is, ‘Let’s say this is your last, what do you want it to accomplish?’”

    Life as a working musician

    “I have to leave Austin to make money basically. Truly I do. I’ve never played a club that does not want me back. That seems like a small measure but in our business that’s what it’s really about. The audience doesn’t owe me anything. It’s my job to convince them that they need to hear what I have to say.”

    Self-funding his music

    “I invented crowd funding. ‘Garage Sale’ was done completely on pre-orders. That was the same year Kickstarter launched, and they didn’t have a platform in place that was functional until after I did that album. Now I’ve been doing it on my own for so long that I don’t know there’s any other way.

    “I make a record, put it in my car and drive around playing and selling it to people. We’ve done alright by it. We’ve never missed a meal and almost own our house, so it works. It works really well.”

    On songwriting

    Graham is famous for austerity in his writing. In a lengthy 2013 essay for the Bitter Southerner, editor Chuck Reece marveled at how Graham’s “$100 Bill” has only 28 words. That led us into a discussion about his songwriting process.

    “What I learned pretty early on was the stuff that moved me was simple. Not in the sense of the obvious but in the sense that the fewer moving parts a machine has, the less likely it is to break or to do something that’s not its job. … There’s so much to be said for letting the listener’s imagination do what it’s there for.

    “I had a writing teacher during my brief tenure at (the University of Texas) who told me, ‘Words are under no obligations to you.’ That is so true because I can write these very simple lines that mean what I want them to mean. Then three different people can listen to it, be deeply moved and it means something completely different to each of them.

    “I wish I could say this is how I write my songs, but I can’t because they come at me all different ways. Some of them arrive fully conceived and take about as long to write them as to sing them. Some are like feral cats. You leave a bowl of milk out on the porch and coax them in. Gradually you get to pet them and eventually they come indoors. … Sometimes if I try and write a song before I’m ready or before I can see it clearly enough to catch it, I’ll scare it off.

    “My process is I say a prayer and pick up a guitar and a legal pad and see what happens. But that being said, I’m a harsh critic. I’m hard to please. I don’t put a word on the paper unless I believe it. If you go through my notebooks that I use to work on songs, there are not a lot of different versions. There’ll be some aborted versions, and there will be versions that are slightly different, but I know in my heart when I hear the right line. That sounds corny but it’s true. In order for me to write something down I have to believe it’s going to work.”

    Superstitions and Faith(less):

    At this point, Graham and I talked about how thoughts are at times so quick to disappear, and why capturing a thought is so important, no matter when it occurs. That led into a discussion on superstitions, religion, faith and one of his two best loved songs — “Faithless.”

    “Let’s be square about this here. Who knows where this stuff comes from? It is a superstitious process. If I have one of those feelings, what I want to capture is that certain feeling. If I don’t sit down and start to write it, it can leave the tracks and I can’t get it back.

    “Faithless — I’ve played it in a couple of churches as well as at a couple of funerals. People get confused with the terms spirituality and religion. Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who’ve been to hell.

    “Literally the definition of faith is the belief in things unseen. If you can’t muster that up you’re going to have a hard time in this world. It does not have to be the belief in the white robe bearded God. It can be whatever but you can’t live in this world and not realize that something is going on, that something happening that is not you and is not me.

    “My friend Hal is an astrophysicist. He said to me once, ‘If I gave you a box with all the molecules you needed you still could not build a tree.’ In that sense you’d be a fool not to have faith of some sort. So much of what happens in our lives and what goes into our lives is necessarily unseen. When they smash atoms in the collider, you don’t actually see the electron, you just see the passing of the electron. With love, friendship, fidelity, loyalty, you don’t see it, you just see it pass through your life. That’s why we need faith.”

    The music business today

    Graham’s youngest son, William, is a singer-songwriter who has a new album (“Jakes”) coming out this month. I’ve seen William open for his dad at the Continental Club. The apple, as they say…

    “He’s an amazing, amazing songwriter. He’s the real thing. I feel so bad for him because there’s no infrastructure anymore in music. At least I got in on the tail end. As the empire was crumbling, I still got to walk through the streets of Rome, and it’s helped me in my career to at least have gotten that initial push. If I was starting out again, if I were in William’s shoes right now, I don’t know what I’d really do.

    “There used to be artist development. Record labels really didn’t expect to make their money back for the first three records because artists were encouraged and allowed to grow? Who on earth would give Tom Waits a record deal today, or for that matter, Neil Young? These were artists who were nurtured and allowed to move forward in ways that are just actually impossible now. Even if someone wanted to do it, they couldn’t.

    “I don’t think I’d still be doing this if what I was doing wasn’t up to par, and I think with William it will work the same way. But the old paradigm is dead and no one knows what the new one is yet. How is any musician supposed to make money, other than touring, when you can pay a subscription fee to Amazon Prime and get any song for free?

    “My oldest son, Roy, who is 25, his generation looks me in the eye and says music should be free, in the same sense that beauty should be free. What about the people who have to execute it? What about the people who have to make it? I hope William and his generation figure out how to save music. Between people staying home and not going out as much, and the stranglehold that streaming music has put on all of us, I don’t know how we’re supposed to make it.

    “I’m not one of those people who is bitter about it, or pines for the old days. There were a lot of problems with the major labels. Every friend I know who had a major label deal has a horror story to tell. It’s to varying degrees, but they all have horror stories.

    “What I do miss is that music used to mean more to people. I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t still. How many times do you hear a song on the radio and go back instantly to where you were when you heard the song the first time. There’s so much value in that. I just don’t think people feel the same way anymore. … Music has become very disposable.”

    Wrapping it up…

    At the end of the conversation, Graham tells a funny yet profane story. He refers again to his friend Hal, the astrophysicist.

    “One of my favorite stories he’s told me pretty much sums up what we’re talking about here. He said that with the best observatories we had that astrophysicists came up with pretty clear mathematical layouts and descriptions of how things worked in the universe.

    “Hal said, ‘Then we set the Hubble (telescope) up and we all looked at each other and went, ‘Fuck. We were wrong.’ So we set up a new lens and a new mirror and lens so we could see further. And then we said, ‘Fuck. We were wrong again.’

    At this point, Graham laughs.

    “So the further you see, the more you realize how wrong you were. It made me realize, ‘Well, hold on Frances, take a few steps back. You don’t know everything yet.’ I’m still teachable after all these years.”

    This feature also was posted to Americana Highways. You can see it here.

  • Pearl Jam Meets Isbell at Innings Festival

    This story is about the night Pearl Jam's lead singer went Americana, singing a cover of a Jason Isbell song. And how, despite the odds, my wife and I were there to see it.

    On Sunday, closing out the Innings Festival in Tempe, Arizona, Eddie Vedder broke into "Maybe It's Time," the song Isbell wrote for Bradley Cooper's character to sing in "A Star is Born."

    I was walking back to the spot Jill had saved for us while I shot the first three songs of Vedder's set. After we purchased VIP tickets to see the festival's second day, I sought a photo pass to shoot and write about it. My pitch, which the festival's PR team graciously accepted, was an essay on how seeing Eddie Vedder live was a bucket list item for my wife of almost 23 years.

    We traveled from our home just outside Washington, D.C., to Tempe to attend the festival, now in its second year. Our purpose was to hear someone whose voice and songwriting my wife appreciates as much as Isbell, a performer we saw live in several venues last year.

    Little did we know what was about to happen.

    Released in late 1994, Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" was a multiplatinum behemoth that completed a trilogy that started with "Ten" and continued with "Vs."

    The album included several hit singles. But no song was bigger or has had a more lasting impact than "Better Man," an album-only track never released as a 45.

    The story of a woman trying to get out of an abusive (physical, emotional or both is not specified) relationship, the song's protagonist fears she'll never be able to leave her partner. Vedder wrote the song in high school and later pitched it to the other Pearl Jam members, but the band initially refused to record it, feeling that it was too accessible for the style of music they were making.

    Shortly after Jill and I met, "Better Man" started receiving airplay on the stations we listened to from nearby Greensboro and Raleigh. Trapped at the time in a cyclical relationship with no end in sight, "Better Man" particularly resonated with her during what is described most succinctly as a difficult time.

    Fortunately, unlike the song's protagonist, Jill finally got the courage to terminate the relationship. It wasn't too long after that we married and had three children within the span of a year.

    Flash forward a decade. Vedder has written the songs for 2007’s "Into the Wild," a soundtrack that is an unlikely — though deserved — hit. Although our fandom doesn't come close to matching that of Pearl Jam's most ardent admirers, my wife always has had great admiration for Vedder's playing and voice, especially solo. "Into the Wild" sealed it for her, and for me too.

    Then, in 2009, Pearl Jam released "Just Breathe," one of the three most beautiful love songs we know. (The other two are Isbell's "Cover Me Up" and "If We Were Vampires, further completing the circle.) After hearing "Just Breathe," Jill tells me Vedder is someone she's like to see live.

    Trouble is, between kids and busy work schedules, plus scant availability for any Pearl Jam show that plays within reasonable distance, we couldn't seem to make it work.

    Enter the Innings Festival.

    In 2018, organizers took advantage of Arizona's springtime climate — or what we call May in the rest of the world — and the start of baseball's spring training to throw a music festival at a park overlooking Tempe Town Lake.

    When I saw Vedder would headline the second day of the festival this year, I moved quickly (for once) to snap up tickets. With the kids grown and out of the house, we have downsized and are working to check items off the bucket list when time and opportunities allow.

    Like other events of this nature, the Innings Festival draws a diverse range of acts as well as a few baseball legends. Last year, for example, the Avett Brothers and Chris Stapleton were headliners along with Queens of the Stone Age, Phosphorescent and The Decemberists.

    This year's lineup included Sheryl Crow, Cake and Incubus on Saturday. Sunday's lineup was an eclectic mix as well, with performances by The Record Company (a helluva opener), G. Love and Special Sauce, Jimmy Eat World, Shakey Graves, Liz Phair (strong), St. Paul & the Broken Bones (good in spots but not on their A game), Mat Kearney and Band of Horses (our favorites other than Vedder).

    When we arrived Sunday so I could pick up the photo pass, Vedder's soundcheck was coming through the PA. Although he was not singing, he was playing "Better Man." Jill squeezed my hand. She had been waiting to hear this song live for almost 25 years, a sort of closure for something that dominated her life almost half a lifetime ago.

    What I like about Vedder's solo shows, based on bootlegs and videos from his sporadic acoustic tours over the past decade, are the variety of covers he chooses to play.

    His loose, free flowing Innings Festival set featured, in addition to various Pearl Jam and solo pieces, covers of songs by Warren Zevon, U2, Tom Petty, and The Beatles. He shredded the ukulele on a cover of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," followed by Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night."

    Nothing, not even the appearance by Chicago Cubs manager Joe Madden (one of Vedder's closest friends) and several Cubs players "singing" back up on the "Hard Sun" closer, prepared us for "Maybe It's Time."

    Vedder's sublime rendering of Isbell's song, a huge headline in music circles on Monday, makes sense. Cooper mannered parts of his "A Star is Born" role, who was from Arizona, on Vedder and met with the singer while developing the character.

    But, as Isbell tweeted later, "Holy shit."

    Having shot the start of the set, I was making my way back to Jill when the song started and pushed my way through the massive crowd to reach her for the last two-thirds.

    There we stood, amid thousands of Vedder and Pearl Jam fans, lost in our thoughts and alone together.

    That moment eased the sting a bit when Vedder, for whatever reason, ended his set without playing "Better Man." As I mentioned to my wife, his cover of a song by a writer we so appreciate may be the gateway to the next chapter, allowing us to put those long-ago memories behind us.

    "Maybe it's time to let the old ways die..."

    This essay, along with more photos from the festival, was posted on the Americana Highways website. For more photos from the various acts, check out my Concert Photography page soon. You also can find photos on my Instagram (@glenncookphotography) and on my Facebook photography page.

  • Encore: Jon Dee Graham

    Three weeks ago, Jill and I were in Austin, and I convinced her to see Jon Dee Graham with me at the Continental Club. She enjoyed the show, so much so that she agreed to see Graham again with me on Tuesday night in a solo outing at Hill Country Barbecue in D.C.

    An encore appearance with one of my musicians, twice in three weeks no less, is a first in our 19 years of marriage, so that’s saying something… But it also is deeply gratifying, given that our music tastes often differ. 

    Like many musicians I enjoy, Graham does not draw huge crowds (their loss) and his fans are ones who come to listen and experience the music. At a couple of different points, clusters of 20 somethings dressed in corporate suits and ties were shushed and shooed away because they were more interested in their conversations being heard over the music.

    Despite the rude nature of some in the crowd, what impressed me most is that Graham provides the same quality show and songcraft whether he’s playing for 15, 50, 150, 500, or 1,000, solo acoustic or with his band the Fighting Cocks. That’s the mark of a true pro, and something others would do well to heed.

    Go to “Fathers, Family, & Austin” to read my blog entry on last month's trip.

  • Tides of Memories & Writing

    Pat Conroy’s death last week brought back a tide of strong memories. The first was when I read the “Lords of Discipline” in high school, and the second was when I saw Conroy at a talk/book signing in Greensboro almost two decades later.

    Like “The Great Santini,” perhaps the book he is best known for along with “The Prince of Tides,” Conroy’s “Lords of Discipline” draws upon the author’s struggles with the military’s hardness, born of traditions that encouraged prejudice and misogyny in the Vietnam-era South.

    Published in 1980, the book was being made into a film a couple of years after “Taps,” another fictionalized drama about a military school. As I’ve often done, hearing about a movie based on a novel makes me want to read the book before seeing the film, so I picked it up.

    What “Lords of Discipline” taught me was how hard it must be to do a novel justice on the big screen. Even though the film was OK, there was no way it could capture the depth of Conroy’s work, or the (occasional) pulp of his prose. The book captured a South I had long heard of, but never wanted to be part of, in such a way that I became determined never to experience it.

    ••••••

    This has been a terrible winter for artists, and the world of classic rock-era music has been particularly hard hit. Add to that list author Harper Lee and actor Alan Richman, and it has been seemingly a never-ending roll call.

    In the first three months of 2016, we’ve lost Beatles producer George Martin, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Dan Hicks, Vanity, Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer, Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson of Jefferson Airplane.

    In some ways, the deaths of most of those who passed away should not come as a shock, given the hard living that many of those musicians lived during the substance-fueled 1960s, 70s and 80s. Bowie, still working until right before his death, was the exception, even though he had been battling (quietly except to those closest to him) cancer for 18 months.

    The reason, I think, that the long list of deaths surprises and gives me pause is because each of these artists was popular during my childhood. And with each passing, that childhood recedes further into my life’s rear view.

    One singer’s illness, in the midst of everything, caught my attention. Joey Feek of the country duo Joey+Rory, whose public battle with cervical cancer was chronicled every step of the way by her husband, died this month at the young age of 40.

    I didn’t know much about the couple or their music. In fact, I’ve heard only a few of their songs, which are pretty enough (especially their cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”), but not cutting edge or truly memorable. What caught my attention was their openness about the illness, the way Rory Feek wrote about and cared for his wife and young daughter as Joey moved into hospice care.

    There is something wrong about a person having to suffer in such a way, especially just a couple of years after having a child with Down’s Syndrome. But the grace and dignity they showed throughout is both commendable and memorable, and will outlive the songs they leave behind.

    ••••••

    Pat Conroy wrote about life, death, family, dysfunction, mental illness and life as a military brat in the South. He too was open about all of his family’s foibles, so much so that many of his relatives would no longer speak to him.

    He joked about this at the speech and book signing I saw him at in Greensboro, when he was promoting “Beach Music.” I had the chance to see him when Sarah Bullock, one of Jill’s co-workers and a second mother to her in many ways, invited me to come along.

    Conroy’s sense of humor, always bubbling under the surface despite his lifelong struggles with depression, was in fine form as he told stories about his father meeting Barbra Streisand, and writing. When I mentioned, during the book signing, that I had worked as a newspaper editor before moving into communications, he complemented me on “escaping my career choice.” He then signed my copy of The Lords of Discipline — a hardback I bought that day, with the phrase, “For the love of words and books.”

    Seeing Conroy was a highlight of my seven-plus years in North Carolina, and it’s rare that Sarah or I fail to mention it when we see or speak to each other. I still have the book, and last Christmas, Sarah sent me Conroy’s last work — “The Death of Santini.”

    May he — and the others — rest in peace.

  • Haggard, Springsteen & Times of Change

    My grandfather liked to say he was an “Okie from Muskogee,” having lived in the Oklahoma town for a period before moving to East Texas with my grandmother. I remember him telling me this numerous times, especially when Merle Haggard’s signature song came on the radio.

    Haggard, who died last week at age 79, wrote “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969 after he became frustrated with anti-military, pro-sex and drugs protests that helped define the Vietnam era. The song, released three weeks after Woodstock, became a Number One hit as angry, proud conservatives embraced and latched on to its lyrics.

    I’m not a huge Haggard fan, although I greatly admire his body of work and his ability to write about a hard scrabble life that included a stint at San Quentin, five wives, alcohol, drugs, bad business decisions, and battles with the IRS. Reading the many tributes written in the wake of his death, what I find most interesting is how he constantly evolved in his stances while tapping into the frustration of conservative whites piqued by changing morals and values.

    Interestingly, Haggard’s death came just a couple of days before Bruce Springsteen decided to cancel a concert in Greensboro, N.C., to protest the state’s passage of HB2 – or the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. The law, passed during a hastily scheduled legislative session by an increasingly conservative General Assembly, discriminates against transgender people and the LGBT community.

    "To my mind, it's an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress," Springsteen said in a statement announcing the cancellation. "No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden."

    Driving through North Carolina earlier this week in a truck that had only AM radio, I heard “Okie from Muskogee” in tribute to Haggard and wondered what he would have thought of the state’s latest legal action. After all, U.S. politics are the most strident they’ve been since Vietnam, and Haggard already had come too close to the flames of controversy more than once.

    “I write from common knowledge, current knowledge, collective intelligence,” Haggard told author R.J. Smith about “Okie from Muskogee” in 2000. “At the time I wrote that song, I was just about as intelligent as the American public was. And they was about as dumb as a rock.”

    I wish everyone could evolve like that over time…

    The photos above are of my grandparents around the time "Okie from Muskogee" was released. The video below is of my favorite Haggard song, a duet with Willie Nelson on "Poncho & Lefty." (Seeing Townes Van Zandt, who wrote the song, in the video is a nice touch.)

  • RIP, Scotty Moore

    "Elvis Presley wouldn't have been Elvis Presley without Scotty Moore."

    Of all the musicians who've died this year, this may be the toughest one yet. Scotty Moore, who played lead guitar on all of Presley’s biggest hits of the 1950s and early 1960s, died yesterday In Nashville at age 84.

    Moore and bassist Bill Black were part of Presley’s original band that started on Sun Records and moved over to RCA in 1956 after cutting a string of singles that are now considered the foundation of rock and roll. Even though the two left in a money dispute in 1958, Moore returned after Presley’s Army stint ended in 1960 and continued to play for him all the way through to Elvis’ comeback special in 1968.

    The following year, Presley (without Moore) recorded “From Elvis in Memphis” and started touring again regularly for the first time in almost a decade. Ironically, his “From Elvis in Memphis” producer, Chips Moman, also died earlier this year.

    The list of musicians that Moore influenced and the genre he helped develop is staggering. Among the guitarists who cite him as a direct influence: Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, and the White Stripes’ Jack White.

    Take a moment and watch Presley perform “Trying to Get to You” with Moore in this clip from the 68 Comeback Special. Presley started off acoustic, then traded guitars with Moore and lit the place on fire.

  • Feature: Cold War & '80s Music

    I’ve always admired and appreciated X, the L.A.-based band that straddled the world between punk and country and remains incredibly relevant. They were part of the great Sire Records roster in the 1980s that also included Lou Reed, Talking Heads, The Replacements, The Blasters, and Los Lobos, among others, and X’s first four albums are considered classics.

    As much as I enjoy those albums, which featured the original lineup, I’ve always had a soft spot for “See How We Are,” the 1987 album that includes Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July” and the terrific title track. In the wake of the election, “See How We Are” has become my earworm.

    Recently, on Facebook, I decided to ask my friends which hit song best describes the Cold War flashbacks we’ve been having since January 20. My suggestions were R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” but they came up with a fascinating playlist that includes:

    • Sting: “Russians”

    • Billy Joel: “You May Be Right” and “Big Shot”

    • Gary Jules: “Mad World”

    • Gus Black: “Today is Not the Day to F--- With Me”

    • Eurythmics: “Sex Crime”

    • The Clash: “Rock the Casbah”

    • Nena: “99 Red Balloons”

    • Tears for Fears: “Everbody Wants to Rule the World”

    • David Bowie: “This is Not America”

    • Talking Heads: “Life During Wartime”

    The more I thought about it, I realized X had another appropriately titled song — “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.”

  • Another RIP: Guy Clark

    Guy Clark leads an all-star cast in a performance of his "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" on the Letterman show. Clark, the de facto songwriting leader of so many people I like, died Tuesday following a long illness.

    And the world just got a little smaller ... again.

  • Remembering David Bowie

    As tributes pour in about the death of David Bowie, a recurring theme resonates about this boundary pushing and genre-bending artist: He was always living in the moment and looking to the next.

    At the same time, Bowie seemed to enjoy revisiting his past, especially over the past few years. Whether it was a calculated business move, an ongoing assessment of his place in popular culture, or a combination of both, it has been an fascinating journey.

    Bowie’s back catalog has been recycled and repackaged so frequently that even his earliest box set (“Sound & Vision”) has been remastered and re-released on two different labels. Over the past two years alone, we’ve seen more best-of sets and a massive 12-disc look at his first five (very heady years) on RCA.

    This repackaging is typical for someone approaching 70 who had not performed live in almost a decade. But Bowie was far from done.

    Two days before his death at age 69, Bowie released his most recent CD, “Blackstar,” which long-time producer Tony Visconti called a “gift” about his approaching mortality to his fans. “Lazarus,” an Off-Broadway continuation of "The Man Who Fell To Earth" featuring old and new music from Bowie, has been one of the hottest tickets in New York since it opened in December. In terms of buzz, it is almost as hot as “Hamilton,” another genre-bending musical currently in New York.

    Context Matters

    Putting music, or any art for that matter, into the context of its time and place has been a lifelong fascination. I want to know about the musicians the artists are working with, who the artists are influenced by, and what makes their creative juices flow. In the end, for me at least, context matters as much as the words, rhythms and beats.

    With Bowie and his mentor, Lou Reed, the leap for readers stops at the doorstep of Alejandro Escovedo, who has worked with Visconti on his last several CDs and cites both as giant influences on his career. The reason I like Escovedo and admire the work of Reed and Bowie so much is that they always are looking to try something new with little regard for the genre. Regardless of whether you enjoy the result, you have to appreciate their restless and boundless approach to creativity and art.

    It is ironic that both Reed and Bowie likely died from liver cancer, an end result of decades of hard living that both had overcome. Escovedo has dealt with the health effects of Hepatitis C that were caused by years of heavy drinking.

    Fortunately, Escovedo is mostly healthy and taking care of himself, based on all available reports. But you just never know.

    Starting with a Memory

    I started to work on this tribute, as most of these things begin, working from a memory. Not of seeing Bowie live, which I did in Houston on the 1988 “Glass Spider” tour, but of a museum exhibit.

    Last Christmas Eve, my wife and I were fortunate to see the “David Bowie is Now” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the only U.S. venue to host the show that has traveled the world since 2013. We were in Chicago with the rest of our family to see our son perform in a show, so getting a ticket was an unexpected treat.

    If anyone deserved a museum exhibition devoted to his style alone, it was Bowie, but this was much more, proving to be a multimedia feast for the eyes and ears. It also was a fascinating history lesson, showcasing his artistry and chameleon-like nature while providing excellent, thought-provoking insight into his career. Afterward, I found myself reaching yet again for one of those retrospectives to see what I had missed.

    True context.

    My only wish is that I could have taken pictures, but they were strictly verboten, and security was tight. I understand why, and wondered at the time if I could have done it justice, given how difficult it is at times to get good images in museums. At the same time, I’m sure copyright and intellectual property were not the only reasons Bowie refused to allow photography. If anything, he was always the one in control of his ever-shifting image, right until the end. 

    Another icon gone too soon. Sigh…

  • Seeing The Replacements ... Again?


    After missing them repeatedly for years, I saw The Replacements live for the second time in nine months on Friday night. A crowd of around 3,000 stood in the jammed Echostage in Washington, D.C., to catch a glimpse of a band that shapes my life as much today as it did during its 1980s heyday.

    Jill went with me to the concert, which was loud, fun, and slightly frustrating because it was tough to see the band play as it tore through its catalogue during the two-hour show. However, I have to agree with Mike Snider’s assessment in USAToday, especially this part:

    “The Replacements rekindled the mixture of punk ferocity and melodic musicianship that, two decades ago, brought them a die-hard following and, eventually, major-label acceptance. Noticeably absent was the messiness of the past when the band would sabotage live performances, especially important gigs…”

    I didn’t take photos this go-round, but you can see my pictures from the band’s Forest Hills, N.Y., show here and read an earlier essay on why the band means so much to me here.

  • Chris Stapleton & 'Fire Away'

    I recoiled the first time I saw the video of Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away.”

    One of the best songs off of one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, the video tells the story of a couple who becomes entangled in the throes of the woman’s mental illness. It ends, as do too many of these stories, tragically, leaving the survivors to cope with unspeakable grief.

    “The song is about loving someone unconditionally through not so easy times. The concept of the video came to me as that would be the hardest possible space in which to love somebody,” Stapleton says in an interview on the Campaign to Change Direction website.

    Stapleton’s debut album, “Traveller,” has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. It won two Grammys and drew attention for its mix of old-school country and Southern rock. The video for “Fire Away” has been viewed almost 15 million times, creating awareness around an issue — mental illness — that is too rarely mentioned or not seen at all.

    Until it’s too late.

    ••••••

    I’m a lucky man.

    I’ve known two people — one a close friend; the other the daughter of family friends — who have died by suicide. I have a daughter who is ADHD/bipolar and struggles to maintain her equilibrium at times. An uncle and an aunt also have suffered from severe mental illness.

    Their experiences have helped shape me as a person and as a father. I feel fortunate to have known these people, and lucky to have a daughter as kind at heart as Kate is. And I’m committed to sharing our family’s struggles in an effort to draw some attention to mental health issues. 

    Hearing that Stapleton would be performing in D.C., I noted the show was scheduled during an intense period of travel and was unsure if I could make it on a Sunday night after returning from a second trip to Pittsburgh in two weeks. Then, when I went to buy a ticket, all that was left was a single seat in the upper nosebleed section.

    Jill had a dinner to attend that night, so she told me to go ahead. The cause is the right one, and that’s what’s most important.

    The Campaign to Change Direction is a national initiative designed “change the culture of mental health in America.” Its goal is to get people to learn and share the five signs of emotional suffering — change in personality; agitation; withdrawal; decline in personal care; and hopelessness — so that we can prevent tragedies and help others to heal.

    When Stapleton had the idea for the video, he didn’t work with a specific charity on mental health issues. Actor Ben Foster, who is in the video, suggested the campaign, which has received the support of Prince William, First Lady Michelle Obama, and actor Richard Gere, among others.

    Stapleton agreed to work with the organization, although he had no idea about the video’s potential impact on his audience. He also had to get his record company to buy into the project, noting that label executives “looked at me like I had three heads” when he told them the idea.

    “I didn’t want to be in the video. I wanted to make it with these actors because it felt more artful and meaningful,” Stapleton says. “It was just a notion, but then we made it and it became real and useful and something that hopefully can make the world a better place. … That notion became a good thing.”

    ••••••

    The DAR Constitution Hall is a great place to hear a show, but a tough venue to maneuver. The lines are long. The bathrooms are in inconvenient places. The seats, especially in the upper reaches, have extremely limited legroom.

    Having driven more than 500 miles over the previous two days, I had to get up midway through the show and walk around a bit, so I went down to the restroom and saw an usher I had talked to while waiting in line earlier. Listening to the music, we made momentary small talk about the show and I mentioned my connections to the cause, then told him I had to go back up. I didn’t want to miss “Fire Away.”

    At that point, the usher opened the door and said, “Go on in,” pointing me to an empty seat in the orchestra section. “Wait a few minutes,” this random stranger said, “and I’ll take you up a little further if I can.”

    After standing in the back of the orchestra for a few minutes — by this point no one was sitting — the usher tapped me on the arm and escorted me up toward the front, just five rows from the stage. “Stand here,” he said. “You won’t have a problem.”

    And then he left without a trace. Two minutes later, Stapleton started playing “Fire Away,” just in time for me to pull out my phone and record it. At the end, he asked the boisterous crowd to repeat the last chorus, holding up their phones to shine a light on issues that are underreported and often unseen.

    The audience complied. Here is the video I took of the performance.

    Last month marked the 12th anniversary of Brian’s suicide. Next Monday marks the sixth anniversary of Lindsay’s. That time has passed so quickly is sobering in and of itself.

    On Saturday, Lindsay’s family will participate — as they do every year — in one of the Out of the Darkness walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you would like to help, go to the team page here.

    Pay it forward. It's the least we can do.

  • Review: Steve Earle 2017

    Steve Earle is one of three performers — Dave Alvin and John Hiatt are the others — I’ve seen live more than a dozen times in various configurations over the past 30 years. All three rarely disappoint because they are outstanding musicians and storytellers.

    Last night’s show, featuring Earle and his band The Dukes at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., was no exception. It was, as usual, a goulash of various genres that ranged from pedal steel country to hard rock, all serving to promote Earle’s latest album, “So You Wannabe an Outlaw,” which was released last month. It also was the first time Earle, who is outspoken in his political views, has performed with his band in the D.C. area since the 2016 presidential election.

    Politics were part of the equation — how could they not be? — but Earle’s canvas was broad, nostalgic and even melancholy at times. He spoke of being an a romantic in the widest possible sense, noting that he hasn’t done as well in the personal department (seven marriages, including a recent divorce from singer-songwriter Allison Moorer). Now 62, he talked being an optimist, largely because of his 7-year-old son with Moorer, who has autism.

    Earle’s mentors and mortality also were recurring themes. “Outlaw” is inspired by Waylon Jennings’ 1973 album “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and its closing number, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” is dedicated to Guy Clark, who died last year. He spoke of performing at Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July picnic for the first time this year, having attended the first one as an 18-year-old and others since.

    After more than two hours, Earle’s encore closed with “This Land is Your Land,” and “Christmas in Washington,” which namechecks Woody Guthrie and serves as a call for unity in a fractured world. It was a fitting end to a lovely night.

    End notes:

    • The talent of the musicians in Earle’s band is outstanding, although there were some sound issues last night. Earle has worked with bass player Kelly Looney since 1988 and with guitarist Chris Masterson and fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore since 2010. Two new members, drummer Brad Pemberton and pedal steel player Ricky Ray Jackson, also were terrific.

    • Masterson and Whitmore, who are married and perform separately as “The Mastersons,” again are the openers for the tour. They showcased songs from their third album, the recently released (and excellent) “Transient Lullaby.” Having seen them now four times, the first time at a Joe’s Pub release party for Moorer’s 2010 album “Crows,” I’m a true fan.

    • Both Earle and Whitmore astound me with their versatility. Earle played eight different instruments and Whitmore four last night.

    • I love The Birchmere, my go-to club for music since we moved here in 2001. It’s nice to be in a venue where folks sit and listen to the music, and it’s great to be able to take photos without issues with something other than a phone. The $8 charge for a beer came as a shock though.

    • I got lucky. Not sure whether I’d be able to go to the show until the last minute, I went to the box office and was told it was sold out. Fortunately, a man was sitting in the lobby trying to sell an extra ticket, which I got at face value. Then, getting into the general admission area late (some folks had been there since noon), I managed to score a seat with members of The U-Liners, a DC-area Americana and roots-rock band with many shared musical interests. They were great; I hope to see their next show in DC in August. Check them out at www.uliners.com.

    • Interesting trivia only to me: Earle and I share the same birthday — January 17 — 10 years apart.

    • Additional musicians I would like to add to my 10-plus list: Moorer, who will be at The Birchmere next month with her sister, Shelby Lynne, behind a new album; Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, who I saw for the second time last month at Merriweather Post Pavilion; and Chris Stapleton, who I’m seeing at Jiffy Lube Pavilion this weekend. Good summer for shows.