Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: I Learned The Hard Way
[purchase the soundtrack to Miss Sharon Jones!]
Most of us would prefer to learn things the easy way, but life often doesn’t cooperate. As Tina Turner, a clear influence on Sharon Jones, memorably said in “Proud Mary,”
You see we never ever do nothing
Nice and easy
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, in our featured song, recognize that sometimes you end up learning important things the hard way. Jones and her band play music that is characterized as funk, or soul, or R&B, in a retro style that would not be out of place in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and they do it quite well. And “I Learned The Hard Way,” is a story as old as stories, about a woman learning about the hidden infidelity of her man. Some reviewers appreciate their talents and uncanny ability to evoke the sound of that era, while some others criticize them for supposedly lacking new ideas. But it is impossible to listen to their music without acknowledging its quality, the tightness of the band, and most of all, the powerhouse that is Sharon Jones.
Jones’ story is pretty well-known—Born in North Augusta, South Carolina to a mother who was acquainted with James Brown (who Jones would later be compared to because of the energy and power of her live shows), her family moved to Brooklyn when Sharon was a child. Jones, like my parents twenty years before, graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School, and like my father, attended Brooklyn College. A gospel singer from an early age, Jones performed and recorded secular music in the 1970s, with limited success, sang in wedding bands and worked as a Rikers Island corrections guard and armored car guard for Wells Fargo. Jones learned the hard way that major labels were not interested in her, not because of her singing, but because she was, as one executive reportedly informed her, "too fat, too black, too short and too old."
But she pressed on, and in 1996, she sang at a session for Lee Fields, run by Gabriel Roth and Phillip Lehman, who after recording Jones’ background vocals, recorded a couple of songs with Jones singing lead. These songs were later released on an album credited to the Soul Providers, members of which would ultimately comprise the Dap-Kings. Roth and Lehman went on to create Desco Records, which recorded and released more of Jones’ work, before the label shut, and its principals split. Roth then formed Daptone Records with musician Neal Sugarman.
At Daptone, Jones and the newly formed Dap-Kings, released two well-received albums, before her commercial breakthrough, the 2007 album 100 Days, 100 Nights, and its title track. I Learned The Hard Way, another critical and commercial success, followed in 2010 (in the interim, she worked with Lou Reed, David Byrne, Phish and Michael Bublé).
But then, just as the late-bloomer was at the peak of her career, and with a new album essentially ready to be released, in 2013, Jones was diagnosed with first bile duct cancer and then pancreatic cancer. Jones underwent surgery and chemotherapy, resulting in the usual sickness and hair loss.
During this time, legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple filmed a documentary about Jones and her fight against cancer, Miss Sharon Jones!, which premiered at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. My wife and I had a chance to see the film this summer as part of a music documentary series at the Jacob Burns Film Center, and it is really incredible (and we got to hear a Q&A with Koppel). Not only is Jones’ story amazing, and her strength and courage remarkable, the film addresses issues like the effect on the Dap-Kings, who were losing their main source of income while Jones fought her cancer. There’s a great scene where Roth recounts his difficulty in getting a mortgage because of the publicity about Jones not performing, and other members of the band discuss the effects on them. Included in the film are scenes that show Jones, at her peak, showing her dynamic stage presence, along with more somber scenes filmed during her treatment and recovery. The movie ends in triumph, with the new album, Give The People What They Want, released, and Jones, weak, but unwilling to concede much to her limitations, performing at New York’s Beacon Theater before a packed house of ecstatic fans.
The soundtrack to the film is filled with older songs, but there is a great autobiographical new song, “I’m Still Here,” which I have posted at the end of this piece, because if you listen to it, you really didn’t need to read most of what I wrote:
Unfortunately, though, that isn’t the end of the story. Jones learned, presumably the hard way, that her cancer has returned, and she is again undergoing chemotherapy, while continuing to perform and record as best as she can. She remains undaunted, saying, "I have this saying: I have cancer; cancer don't have me. I'm gonna keep on going. I'm gonna take this medicine, and it'll be alright."
We were excited to see Jones and the band at the 2013 Clearwater Festival, but the appearance was cancelled due to her illness, and for some reason, we passed on seeing them at the Tarrytown Music Hall in late 2015. I do hope that her health improves, and that I someday get a chance to experience her live show, not only because it would be a great experience, but because it would mean that Jones, once again, triumphed over her cancer.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Monday, September 19, 2016
purchase Supertramp [The Logical Song]
purchase Supertramp [School]
Ah! Supertramp! One of my mainstay musics in the 80s and 90s. <Breakfast in America> and more. Co-founders Roger Hodgson and Richard Davies no longer collaborate, but in the prime of Supertramp, all their songs were marked Davies/Hodgson - much like Lennon/McCartney. They didnt see the need to differentiate. Today, it's rather different.
Seems that Hodgson was particularly affected by the trials of his education (sadly, more often than it should be, it is a travail that one has to survive). Perhaps that is why so many of the the lyrics/themes of Supertramp songs include references to schools (and our themes of learn and teach). Sadly, school is a process of learn and pass (or fail)- a path strewn with adverseties (tests to pass, schoolmates with agendas, teachers guided by who knows what all ...)
Hodgson was affected enough that he picked up the guitar and a certain amount of keyboard skills as well. See below...
In examining the ills of educational systems, you can go back to the socio-political roots : a system that requires parents to work and are thus forced to send their kids somewhere during their working hours/ (ie: school) since they cannot care for them during those hours. You can look into the systems that describe the curriculum that your children are subjected to - from the spin on the history they learn to the scientific knowledge about global warming and evolution. Without advances in these areas, as Hogsden says, it equates to growing up just like the previous generation - a theme best put to word in The Logical Song (and apparently part of The Donald's platform: everything was better in the 50s).
Most of us spend 12 of our first 20 years in school - trying our best to learn. Outside school, we continue to do our best to learn from both our parents and society at large. Today's up-to-date educators espouse "life-long" learning as the successful path to a profitable future. Sadly - it's a fact - statistics show that all too few people read more than a book a year - and watching The Donald on TV doesnt count as education. no more than discounting global warnming or evolutionary theory - despite what your Texas textbook writes.
Thursday, September 15, 2016
purchase [Jethro Tull version of Teacher]
purchase [Victor Griffin's In-Graved]
Ian Anderson has said that Teacher is not one of his personal favorites. That it was written with the primary intention of generating a popular hit. He has also made it known that he never cared for the band's name: Jethro Tull (it was apparently laid upon them by their manager).
Things happen. Like in the story the lyrics tell. Unlike many popular songs, the story is a fairly straight-forward narrative: guy pays for a vacation travel for himself and a teacher, and the teacher has all the fun. I guess the narrator is left with a lesson or two: "jump up, look around, find yourself some fun ...", but in the end he admits "[I couldnt] ...find what [i] was looking for, got something on [my] mind...".
It being the 70s when the US release of Jethro Tull's Benefit album with Teacher on it came out, the lyrics may have referenced a different kind of trip - certainly for many listeners, it did. In yet another stretch of the meaning behind the lyrics, one could argue that both teaching and learning are trips in and of themselves: processes that take people from one place to another. And yes, both words of our theme this time around are included in the lyrics.
While Anderson struggles with health issues that severely limit his vocals, the group has found a way to work through it. However, Victor Griffin, previously of Pentagram, does the song like it was meant to be done.
Saturday, September 10, 2016
Friday, September 9, 2016
September is upon us and the Back-to-School commercials have been diluting our regularly scheduled football games for weeks. For those of us who don’t remember what visceral feelings the dread of the first day back to school manifests, we’re left with the occasional nightmare of being late to a class we can’t find or finishing an unending homework assignment while everyone we know watches us fail. That can’t be just me, can it?
A rock band from Long Island, New York, Brand New seemed to me to be one of the few bands at the time that had a combination of the same themes I loved from the older music I was listening to. They brought intelligent and understandable lyrics to a similar spectrum that spanned from hard rocking to gentle ballads all while channeling the sexiness of Mick in Miss You and the bedroom eyes of Kevin Cronin in Keep on Loving You. Brand New’s second album, Deja Entendu was their crowning achievement at the time and I still see that familiar astronaut from the album cover, whether it’s on the CD in my car or the thumbnail on my computer.
Admittedly a lyric guy, the most cerebral part of the song for me is that chorus, a tongue-in-cheek, self-congratulatory toast to the singer and his mourning friends: “And so three cheers for my morose and grieving pals/and now let’s hear it for the tears that I’ve welled up/we’ve come too far to have to give it all up now” The sentiment is possibly more relevant than ever now that media spends more time discussing which celebrities and politicians did or didn’t send their condolences after every death or tragedy than on the event itself.
Yes, those Searchers, 12-string wielding pop group from Liverpool, who, following in the merseybeat jet stream of the Beatles, were 2nd band from that city to have a hit in the U.S. (OK, 2nd equal, as the Hippy Hippy Shake by these guys also made the hot 100 that day in March 1964, but that was their sole hit and had nothing to do with nine or with september, this fortnights assignment.) So what had the Searchers to do with nine or September? Have patience and listen to this song, which doesn't, but was their 1963 debut single, a cover of an original by the Drifters, worth a listen if only to confirm the consistency of sound across the decades:
The remarkable thing about the Searchers is that, despite you, or your parents, only remembering their early 60s output, they are still going strong. Or, still going, anyway, and with sole first to last man standing, John McNally, plugging away on guitar and vocals OK, it is a while since their star was high in the firmament, but the cabaret and nostalgia circuits will still produce an audience, eager to revisit a youth, however distant.
Their heyday produced a glut of singles, all made distinctive by the harmonies and chiming electric 12-string guitar, widely attributed to the Rickenbacker model, and which preceded and arguably influenced Jim McGuinn, as he then was, of the Byrds and their sound. Intriguingly, as I prepared this piece, I discovered that, despite active promotion of this mythology, maybe that is what it was, certainly to begin with. Here is latter-day guitarist, 1969 onward, on the subject.
OK, to task, here is a song relevant to topic, number 3 in the US, their take on Lieber and Stollers chestnut, 'Love Potion Number 9':
OK, so not such a great song, or not one I am fond of, but it kept them in the charts, their run eventually dwindling as the 60s petered out. But then a remarkable situation took place a decade or so later, when Seymour Stein, a longterm anglophile music fan, signed them, in 1979, to his Sire label, possibly odd label mates alongside the Ramones and the Talking Heads. That was enough to jog my attention and I kept an ear open. Still the jangle, but now morphed into a new-wave sensibility, the choice and covers and image keel-hauled to have a more contemporary appeal. I bought into this, as the songs and sound were sturdy enough to hold muster against newer upstarts. I even bought their ever so nearly hit single, 'Hearts in Her Eyes', which has a pleasingly Dave Edmunds/Rockpile vibe. I bought the album too and commend it, from which my 2nd contrived link to this weeks subject arrives, another version of the song celebrated by Andy de la Raygun below.
After that? Sadly nothing. After 2 fairly well-received albums, on the verge of their 3rd, Sire got bought up and the Searchers were dropped back into the chicken-in-a-basket circuit, where they still plod on. I guess it's a living but the shame is immense. They were stars once, given the chance of being contenders again and it was shattered by the vicariousness of the biz. Pity. I wish 'em well.
Buy! You've got oldies or the goldies
Thursday, September 8, 2016
purchase [Hey Nineteen]
I have always liked Steely Dan. Becker and Fagan, whatever the critics say, have always hit the right spot with me: a mix of rock and jazz that is right down my alley - I think some folks call it jazz rock. Some be-little it.
Sure, I know the critique that their compositions can't be played live without lots of backup support, and, yes, that is an issue. Of limited import. Their compositions are primarily studio based. They've played with some of the best session musicians and produced so many classics that it really doesn't matter if the two of them (because that's all that Steely Dan really is) can't reproduce the identical album recordings on stage without assistance. So what?
Their hits are classic - they stick in your mind for decades (Yes, it has been decades) and ring true as memes for generations 30 plus years forward.
Here is an interesting piece about them that you might want to peruse - no point in my repeating/copying what someone else has eruditely scribbled.
But look at their lyrics: irreverent but relevant.
That's 'Retha Franklin
She don't remember
The Queen of Soul
irreverence: She don't remember what?
Relevance: she is the queen of soul
Big Star, September Gurls
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays: September Fifteenth
In 1980, after my junior year in college, I went to Europe with my two roommates, Jon, who was also a junior, and Neal, who had just graduated. We flew into Brussels and had open tickets home from London, and a Eurailpass. We had very little pre-planned, in the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era, so every day was an adventure as we had to figure out what we were going to do, where we were going to stay, where we were going to eat and how and where we were going to travel. As best I can recall, our major information source was a book called “Let’s Go: Europe,” which was at the time, considered to be the best source for student (read: “cheap”) travel, and we used it, despite its Harvard roots. (In researching this article, I found out that the Let’s Go organization was founded by Oliver Koppell, who became a well-known New York politician and lawyer, and an early business manager was Andrew Tobias, who became a prominent writer.)
This lack of planning and lack of options like Google and Yelp resulted in lots of serendipity. We stumbled upon a rustic street fair in Lucerne, fireworks in Paris, a free Gil Evans Orchestra concert in, I believe, Florence, and had many other adventures. We mostly stayed in cheap hotels, filled with other students who wanted a bit more privacy and flexibility than youth hostels, although we did stay in one very nice hostel in Switzerland.
Another vestige of the era was that wherever we went, there were actual record stores, and I would occasionally break away from my friends, who were not nearly as obsessed with music as I was, to paw through their wares, looking for things I couldn’t find in the U.S. I did bring back one LP, Sky’s debut, which somehow survived the trip. But one thing that was somewhat strange to me was that many record stores allowed you to listen to new records to sample them before, the store presumably hoped, you would buy them. I remember walking into a store, I think in Switzerland, and seeing the new Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays album, with the unusual title, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. I had no idea what to expect—I was familiar with Metheny’s solo work, and his great albums with the Pat Metheny Group, which featured Mays on keyboards—but why was this album credited only to the two of them?
Luckily, I was able to ask to hear the album. The title track is a long, side-length piece that was at times atmospheric, and at others it was filled with driving percussion—sort of a mix between jazz, rock, Latin and ambient music. Of course, I didn’t get to hear the whole thing—they skipped ahead to move things along. I don’t specifically recall my reaction to our featured song, "September Fifteenth," but I know that I got the album after I returned home from our trip (which was shortened by the air traffic controller’s strike that led to President Reagan destroying the union, and which forced us to scramble to get ourselves home), and I listened to it often. I got the chance to hear The Pat Metheny Group at Princeton later that year, and while I do not recall whether they played this song (they probably didn't, based on setlists from other shows from the same time), I do still remember being embarrassed by percussionist Nana Vasconcelos when I asked him a dumb question between sets.
"September Fifteenth" is, simply, a beautiful song. It is dedicated to Bill Evans, the great piano player, who died on that date while the album was being recorded. Evans, who cut his teeth playing with Miles Davis before beginning a distinguished career as a leader of his own groups, was an influence on both Metheny and Mays. For the most part, the song is a guitar and piano duet, with some synthesizer, mostly at the beginning. You can hear how Metheny and Mays pay tribute to Evans, if you compare "September Fifteenth" to Evans’ own work with guitarist Jim Hall, who was also a huge influence on (and ultimately a collaborator with) Metheny:
Pat Metheny is one of the biggest stars in jazz—he tours and records often, with various groups, exploring different styles of music, both inside and outside the jazz world. As I was writing this piece, I started to wonder, where the hell was Lyle Mays? And to be honest, it isn’t easy to find out much about his recent life. His last album with Metheny was released back in 2005 and his last solo album was released five years before that. The most recent thing that I was able to locate from Mays is this video from 2011, recorded at the TEDxCaltech conference.
It appears to be an attempt to meld three of Mays’ loves—music, technology and math. As Mays says in this article:
What do you get when the IT Department is the band? Jimmy Branly (drums) is a recording engineer. Andrew Pask (woodwinds) is a programmer who works for Cycling 74 (the company which makes the brilliant MAX software), Bob Rice (guitar and sounds) is a sound designer/engineer/synth programmer, Tom Warrington (bass) is a math wiz, Jon 9 (visualizations) designs, builds, and provides content for video installations, and Rich Breen could build (and nearly has built) recording studios MacGyver style. And what kind of music should one make when Stephen Hawking is in the audience at CalTech? Jazz alone doesn’t cut it.
Read the article if you want to know more, because I cannot even attempt to summarize what is going on. But the music still sounds good, and it is therefore a bit sad that Mays isn’t out there more, playing and recording music.