Video Fridays: Dead & Company

mayer-weirI haven’t written about one of my favorite bands of all time, the Grateful Dead, in a while, having published my last post on the topic back in July, but today it’s definitely time.

When I heard in August that three of the “core four” remaining members of the Dead — Bob Weir, Billy Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart — were going to do some shows under the name of ‘Dead & Company’, with the ‘company’ consisting of Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge, Jeff Chimenti, from Weir’s band Ratdog, on keyboards, and John Mayer on lead guitar, I was not surprised, but I was skeptical.

Not surprised, because earlier in the year, in February, Bob Weir was a guest on CBS’a The Late Late Show, guest-hosted by John Mayer, and they performed two very nicely done Dead tunes (see below), and during the interview segment Mayer professed his love of the Grateful Dead.

Skeptical for two reasons:

1. While I very much enjoyed Mayer’s work on the two songs I saw him play, and though I don’t believe that any guitar player stepping into Jerry Garcia’s vacant shoes needs to imitate Jerry’s tone and technique, Mayer did not at all emulate Jerry, which is fine when it’s Weir sitting in with Mayer’s band, but it won’t work for most Deadheads when Mayer sits in with the Dead.

2. In the Rolling Stone article announcing the Dead & Company shows, John Mayer said this (my emphasis added in bold):

“They take their time, sometimes too much. This free expressive sort of spirit – I listen and I want to find a mix of that openness. I kind of want to go to that show, if it still existed. But I wish that there were tunes that I was more familiar with. I wish that I could be the singer. I wish I could have harmonies. And I wish that I could make it seven minutes instead of 13 minutes. Now I’ll get the opportunity to kind of try that.”

I read that and thought, “Um, John, you wouldn’t actually dream of messing with one of the quintessentials of the Grateful Dead, would you? Really?! I mean, you do know that taking 13 minutes to play a 7-minute song was pretty much the whole point of the Grateful Dead, right?”

Well, what a difference a few months make!

According to Relix, Mayer has spent the time since then working 4-5 hours a day, learning the songs and rehearsing with the band in what he refers to as ‘Grateful Dead University’. In several articles I’ve read about his preparations, he sounded incredibly sincere and respectful, deeply invested in honoring the Dead’s and Jerry Garcia’s immense legacies.

And, last night was the first Dead & Company show, and right out of the gate they opened with a wonderful 15-minute version of Playing In The Band, one of the tunes that the Dead was most noted for stretching out on, sometimes as long as a half-hour, and Mayer not only nailed Jerry’s tone and technique, without sounding like a simple copycat, but he relaxed into the extended jam and fit in beautifully with the band.

For this week’s Video Fridays installment, then, let’s look at his transformation, first with Mayer being Mayer and decidedly not Jerry on The Late Late Show back in February, followed by Mayer channeling Jerry last night in Albany, New York.

Well done, John, and Happy Weekend, everyone!

Video Fridays: Happy Birthday, John Lennon!

lennonSo, John Lennon would have turned 75-years old today if some lunatic with a gun hadn’t taken him down nearly 35 years ago.

Don’t get me started again on guns.

Lennon was a polarizing figure for sure, a flawed human being like everyone else, but there’s no question that his is one of the greatest stories in music history, and I’ve got to say that he’s been a huge influence on me, musically and otherwise.

John Lennon, the Beatle, seemed to have everything: superstardom, adoring fans, a critically acclaimed body of work, a loving wife, and a beautiful son. He could have coasted the rest of his life on that wave, but he chose to evolve as a musician and a human being, gradually drifting from the relatively clean-cut guy who wrote Please Please Me, to psychedelic poster child, to hippie activist, and beyond, never looking back.

He alienated his fans, he alienated his songwriting partner, he left his wife and son, and he left the greatest band the world has ever seen.

Like I said, one helluva story.

I’ve never been one to argue who the best Beatle was, as is common amongst fans, and I never disliked any of them, though I’ve not always liked all over their post-Beatles material.

And yet, there’s no doubt that John was my favorite. I’ve always, on the whole, loved his music more than the work of the others, ever so slightly more in some cases, and yet it was his emergence as a peacenik activist in the late 1960s that won me over completely. That he was willing grow out his hair and beard in the face of stifling and oppressive conservatism, that he was willing to leverage his massive celebrity to promote love and peace at a particularly volatile period of history, moved and influenced me deeply.

Yes, you were not and still are not the only dreamer, John.

But like I said, he was no angel. He was part hippie and part raunchy Rock&Roller, kinda like me!

And so, for this Video Fridays installment, I thought I’d show both sides of John Lennon, starting with his first overtly peacenik song, All You Need Is Love, a song that, in it’s message, however naive some may call it, still makes my eyes drip; and followed by one of my all-time favorite live performances, the White Album track Yer Blues, performed with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Mitch Mitchell at the 1968 Rolling Stone’s Rock & Roll Circus.

Happy Birthday, John, and Happy Weekend, everyone!

Video Fridays: Happy 50th Birthday, Highway 61 Revisited!

highway61This is quite the week for masterpiece Rock & Roll album anniversaries!

Tuesday, as I mentioned in that day’s post, was the 40th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run.

And this coming Sunday, August 30th, is the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan‘s Highway 61 Revisited.

Both albums blew me away when I first heard them, and both remain deeply embedded in my psyche and soul. It could be said that Born To Run propelled me out of New Jersey, even while I was still living there, and Highway 61 Revisited provided a route along which I’d eventually encounter the many mysteries and contradictions, the grandeur and grotesquerie, the heroes and villains of America.

As with my Born To Run post on Tuesday, I could go on and on about how much I love Bob Dylan, and Highway 61 Revisited in particular; how every time I hear that snare drum crack kickoff to Like A Rolling Stone I get chills, seriously, I do; or how Dylan’s voice on this record, no matter how cryptic the lyrics might seem, sounds to me like the purest, most honest, uncompromising, risk-taking voice in music history; or how, to me, Dylan’s choice to, with this album, fully commit to electric Rock & Roll music, despite the backlash from folk music purists, was one of the bravest artistic commitments in music history; but I don’t think I could really do Highway 61 Revisited justice anywhere near as well as Rob Sheffield does in an article at today.

It’s an inspired piece of writing, a true homage, laced with deftly placed lyric references, fully capturing the depth and majesty of Dylan’s masterpiece.

I mean, check out this small sample:

It’s an album that begins with a warning to pawn your diamond ring and save your dimes and keep track of all the people you fucked over yesterday, because they’re the same people you’ll be begging for hand-outs tomorrow. But it’s also an album that ends with a man signing off a letter telling you that he’s seen too much depravity in the city to read any more of your letters from home. (“When you asked how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?”) The album begins by laughing at a stuck-up young kid who never thought she’d wind up on Desolation Row; it ends with a no-longer-young kid who’s given up hope he’ll ever get out. The album begins by mourning all the two-bit friends you met in the big city who ripped you off for drugs and sex and money, the “beautiful strangers” who turned out to be Not Your Friends; the album ends by cheerfully promising that you can’t go back home to your old friends or family either.


Of course, a post about a classic Rock & Roll album wouldn’t be complete without some actual music, so here’s a precious jewel of a video clip, the Highway 61 Revisited title track performed with The Band, four years and a day after the album’s release, at the legendary 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, and in classic Dylan fashion, with a totally different arrangement than the original, and a gloriously gritty and raucous arrangement it is.

Enjoy, and Happy Weekend, everyone!

Happy Born To Run 40th Anniversary Day!

Born-to-RunForty years ago today, Bruce Springsteen‘s third album, Born To Run, was released, an epic masterpiece born of desperation.

As a piece out today at The Week recounts, Columbia Records had given Bruce one last chance to make it, and the intensity of what was at stake for him can be viscerally felt in the opening lines of the first song recorded for the album, the eventual title track:

In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9
Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected and steppin’ out over the line
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run

I could go on and on about my love for Springsteen and Born To Run in particular, but, the thing is, I’ve already done so, in June 2011, on the occasion of the sad loss of E-Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

And so, here’s that post in it’s entirety:

When I learned on Saturday of the passing of Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, the great saxophonist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, I was filled with deep sadness.

As I wrote in November 2010:

You can’t grow up in New Jersey, like I did, when I did, and not have a strong connection to Bruce Springsteen. Oh, you might not be the biggest fan, you might even hate the guy and his music, but he’s a New Jersey icon, the airwaves were saturated with him, and in the summer before I entered high school, Carol Miller, a DJ at WPLJ in New York City, waged a campaign to make Springsteen’s Born To Run the official state song of New Jersey.

Born To Run was one of the very first albums I ever owned, and I can, without doubt or second guessing, credit that record for having inspired in me a deep passion for music, to the point where music became as important to me as food, water, even air. Springsteen’s songs were my window on the real world outside my fake suburban wasteland of a hometown; a world full of terrible and beautiful things, scary things, adventurous things, romantic things, tragic things.

And Clarence, well, his tenor sax was like the icing on the cake of one of the greatest bands in Rock & Roll history. Guitar-centric groups were a dime a dozen, but the E Street Band had its own direct connection to John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon and Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins; Clarence evoked the deep New York City Jazz and Rhythm & Blues traditions.

And you know, the warmth of the friendship between Bruce and The Big Man — a friendship made mythic by the wonderfully embellished stories of their meeting, stories that Bruce would tell with drama and humor during concerts — modeled for me interracial harmony without ever framing it as such, as it should be, as if it is the most natural thing in the world for a white man and a black man to be close.

When another longtime E Street Band member, keyboardist Danny Federici, died three years ago, it was sad, and it took a while to accept that Springsteen had to replace him and carry on.

And yet it is nearly impossible to imagine an E Street Band without Clarence.

Whether Bruce will keep the band together, reinvent it, or form an all-new band remains to be seen. In the meantime, it feels like the only fitting way to end this post is with Springsteen’s touching public statement on the loss of his friend, and a video of a song that contains Clarence’s most notable solo, a nearly 3-minute, achingly beautiful melody in the operatic closer to Born To Run: Jungleland.

Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.

Video Fridays: Patti Smith

pattiI’m on a real women-in-music kick these days.

Last week’s Video Fridays installment was on the late-great Nina Simone, inspired by having watched the wonderful documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?.

This week, I’m inspired to feature Patti Smith after having read her amazing autobiography Just Kids.

If you go into reading the book having only heard of Patti the musician, you will either experience disappointment or revelation; disappointment, because music, while woven throughout the story, is by no means the primary focus; revelation, because Patti the poet, Patti the visual artist, Patti the muse of her longtime companion-then-friend, the groundbreaking artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, comes to vivid life in the reading, along with the explosive New York City art scene of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Patti, being a poet and musician, writes her autobiography with such lyricism, such raw emotional presence, and there were many times when I’d re-read lines, and sometimes whole paragraphs, because they were rendered so beautifully, so movingly. She has an incredible eye and ear for small details that add so much depth to the story, peppering her narrative with mention of items collected or exchanged, often cheap trinkets or handmade gestures, brief interactions with legends like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, things that, out of context, would be seemingly trivial, and yet in the very mentioning and describing of these things you learn how meaningful these smallest of details were to Patti.

I was particularly touched by her relationship with Mapplethorpe, a relationship that weathered the extreme poverty and struggle of their early years together, the emerging awareness of his homosexuality, the transition to a radically accepting, loving, loyal friendship, and through it all the powerful support they gave each other in the pursuit of their art. A relationship Patti describes thusly:

We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of and there was splendor we only partially imagined. No one could speak for these two young people nor tell with any truth of their days and nights together.

It wasn’t easy choosing a video to include with this post, because, as Patti has endured, losing none of her potency as an artist and performer over the years, I could have selected some of her more recent work, such as the amazing 2005 Live at Montreux concert, available, at least for now, in it’s entirety on YouTube, rather than what I have here for you now, a precious document from her 1976 European tour, featuring songs from her classic debut, Horses, as well as cuts that would soon appear on her sophomore album, Radio Ethiopia.

Observe her total, unapologetic commitment, as she bravely claims her place in Rock&Roll, despite how male-dominated it has always been. Observe and enjoy and check out Just Kids when you have a chance. You won’t regret it.

Happy Weekend, everyone!

Video Fridays: Nina Simone

nina simoneIf you, dear readers, have not yet seen the wonderful documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, available on Netflix, I encourage you to check it out.

You must be prepared, however, as Nina Simone‘s story is a very, very sad tale. Even if you already know her story, the film will still be gut wrenching.

And yet, it’s the least we can do, to be witness to how racism and sexism pounded Nina, for despite those horrendous forces, she blessed us with the gift of her music, generations to come get to enjoy her music, all thanks to her monumental courage and perseverance.

Nina was not a perfect person, she was not a perfect mother, but she was a phenomenally talented musician and she pushed the boundaries of music and of what it means to be a musician, what it means to be a female musician, what it means to be a black female musician, and pushing the boundaries is rarely easy.

For today’s installment of Video Fridays, then, here’s a performance I’d not seen until I saw What Happened, Miss Simone?, and it completely blew me away. Nina’s Ain’t Got No, I Got Life, a medley of two songs from the musical Hair, is a powerful expression of the adversity Nina faced and the longing for freedom from that adversity.

Happy Weekend, everyone!

Video Fridays: Ayron Jones & The Way

AyronJones_02-ACOne of the joys of summers here in Bellingham, Washington is the abundance of live outdoor music. From concerts in the park to concerts in the street, from harborside venues to, of all places, the top, uncovered level of the downtown parking garage, when we finally get reliably sunny and dry weather people go absolutely nuts and flock to the music, all adding up to a very fun, festive vibe.

One of my favorite concert series is Downtown Sounds, which takes place on five consecutive Wednesdays from 5:30 to 9:30 pm on a block of Bay Street that is temporarily blocked from car traffic. It’s free, it’s all-ages (though there is a 21+ beer garden), there’s food and other vendors, and there’s a state of the art stage where bands from around the region and beyond put on consistently great shows to large, appreciative crowds.

The band that headlined this past Wednesday, Seattle’s Ayron Jones & The Way, was a timely gift. I’d been getting burned out on the proliferation of R&B/Soul/Funk bands, locally as well as bands passing through, and so it was incredibly refreshing to see a young, edgy, raw power trio, simply electric guitar, bass, drums.

I had more fun, by magnitudes, headbanging in the crowd of headbangers in front of the stage than I have had watching/listening/dancing to the latest in a seemingly endless stream of dance-oriented bands I’ve seen these past few years.

Ayron’s music is described on his website thusly:

[Infuses] the raw energy of punk with the inner-city attitude of Hip-Hop. The result is a soulful reincarnation of that iconic Seattle sound. Think, Stevie Ray Vaughan meets Nirvana.

Those seem like odd juxtapositions, but it works. The band is young and rough around the edges, mostly in a good way, but Ayron is a monster guitar player, loaded with confidence, and to my eyes and ears his future is very, very bright.

Oh, and he can also play his guitar with a drumstick.

Which is awesome.

So, without further ado, here’s this week’s Video Fridays installment, by Ayron Jones & The Way.

Enjoy, and Happy Weekend, everyone!