A Band Is A Beast Unto Itself

When The Bearded Pigs landed in Memphis for the When Pigs Fly sessions last April, we were joined by a rather fascinating creature who called herself Dr. Gatha Snowmoss.  She claimed to be a peripatetic photojournalist who'd been intrigued enough by the rumors that she'd heard to arrange to spend some time with us.  Exotic she was, indeed, with enough contradictions in her backstory to raise several eyebrows, but she fit right in.  SG has finally posted her report, and it's pretty accurate -- as far as I can remember.

It's a bit poignant for me to read, since I'm still in mourning a bit from SG's decision to formally retire from the band.   I wasn't really surprised when the message came -- as he said in his note to us, he's been moving in other musical directions the last couple of years and that's where he wants to put his energy.   While he played brilliantly in Chicago, I could sense that shift.  I'm grateful that he made it a clean break -- it was a classy move. 

As it happens, he sent his note to the band on the same day that VH1 ran their Rock Honors special for The Who.    I watched it, thinking how appropriate it was to see these two old survivors, famous for their battles, still rocking as hard as the youngsters they shared the stage with, still being a part of something larger than themselves.  It was the tension between Daltrey and Townshend that made The Who something more than the component parts, that makes it possible for the band to still be a band, even with half of the original members long gone.

I used to half-joke that if we all lived in the same town and played out a couple of times a month, the musical tensions within The Bearded Pigs would have broken it up long ago.  SG and I were on opposite ends of the continuum -- I was happy with a big, sloppy, acoustic-based sound where the songs sounded different every time and were never the way anybody else played them.  If there were mistakes or trainwrecks, I didn't really care, as long as there was a lot of energy.  SG pulled us toward a crisp, much harder rocking sound, with clean lines and sharp tempos.  If I was looking in the direction of The Band and Steve Earle and Dylan, he was channeling Cream and the Allman Brothers.  The harder we tugged at each other, the more it became a band, and each of the other musicians was able to find their perfect and very individual spot within.

When I got the note from SG, my immediate thought was that we should pack it in.  How could it be The Bearded Pigs without him?    And yet, it actually is.  In Scotland, with Ringer Ruthven playing bass, it was The Bearded Pigs.  The North Carolina contingent has played a couple of gigs without me or Bruce or SG or TG and it's still the Pigs.   When TomCat, Bruce, TG and I played in London last February -- it was The Bearded Pigs.  SG wasn't with us in San Antonio, and it was still...

So on we go.  But I'm not done playing music with SG.  Somewhere, sometime, we're gonna play Landslide again..

But now I've got to find a new bass player for Hawaii, dammit!

Endless Variety of Music

I've been wanting to see The Roots for a long time, ever since hearing an interview with ?uestlove a few years ago that made it clear he was one of the most intelligent, creative and intriguing people working in music today.  Last night I got my chance, as they closed out the Miller stage on the first night of this year's City Stages festival.  They did not disappoint, starting out with Captain Kirk playing a twanged-out bluesy solo on a beautiful Les Paul, while the rest of the band slowly strolled out one by one, taking their places, the music building and rolling and rising down to the moment when Black Thought came out and picked up the mic.  Thrilling.  Watching Kirk and Tuba Gooding, Jr. prance joyfully around the stage with the sounds swirling as if they were channeling the whole heart and soul of all of American music wrapped up inside them somehow I could only have pity for people who'd hear they were a "hip-hop" band and derisively decide they couldn't possibly be worth watching and listening to.

That's the great thing about City Stages and it's a shame that some people only come to the festival when there's a "name" band that they want to see, or when they get here only go to hear the music that they're familiar with.  I'd walked over to see The Roots after spending some time on the other end of the grounds listening to the Old Crow Medicine Show.  I don't suppose there's a lot of overlap in the fan base of those two bands, but it seems to me that Old Crow were doing to bluegrass something akin to what The Roots were doing to soul and hip-hop.  I love American music.

In every issue of Rolling Stone there's somebody whining about the sad state of the music business.  Could be.  I'm not sure I'd want to have my livelihood depending on it.   But the  music itself is in great shape.

Every year I end up with a bunch of CDs  from people I've never heard of before (or since, in some cases) that I listen to over and over and that become a deep part of me.  The last couple of years we've stayed  at the Tutwiler Hotel, which is right outside the main gate.  It makes it easy to stroll over early in the afternoon when things are relaxed and it's easy to sample what's happening on the different stages.  That's when I come across some of my most remarkable finds.  And there's a great kids area where Josie and I will undoubtedly spend some time.

I have no idea what kind of music I'm going to hear this afternoon and this evening (although I'm hoping to catch a bit of Al Green, some Buddy Guy and some Ben Harper).  But I know that I'm going to have a wonderful time, and that I will be amazed.

City of Hogs

When Gatha Snowmoss, roving photojournalist, spent some time with the band in Memphis this spring, she showed her appreciation (no other reporter has been afforded the kind of no holds barred inside look at the Pigs that she got) by giving each of us a book -- a pig-related book, of course.  Each one perfectly tuned (or so it seemed to me) to our individual personalities.  I'm sure her ability to size her subjects up so quickly accounts for much of her recent success.

I'll leave the others to comment on their own books, but for me it was The Pig and the Skyscraper (Chicago: A history of our future) by Marco d'Eramo.  I've been reading it over the last couple of weeks and enjoying it tremendously.  D'Eramo is an Italian sociologist and the book was published in Italy in 1999 (translated into English in 2002).    So reading it is like eavesdropping on an Italian professor trying to explain America (through the lens focused on Chicago) to an Italian audience. 

I wonder, as I'm reading it, if Europeans, reading books about Europe written by Americans, have the same sort of reaction that I'm having -- some of it is wonderfully perceptive, but some of it just seems so bone-headedly wrong, like the anthropologist coming across a "primitive" culture and devising all sorts of esoteric explanations for what he or she sees, while the ostensible subjects are laughing behind their hands at the foolish scientists.  (Remember the Margaret Mead controversy of a couple of years ago?)

The fact that so much housing stock in the US is wood fascinates d'Eramo and he gives it great significance in explaining the American character -- in Europe wood is apparently seldom used.  He makes much of the American invention of the suburb, and exaggerates the social/cultural divides that occur in many parts of the States.  His description of race relations is extremely one-dimensional and diminishes the actual complexities that the country wrestles with.  In the America that he describes, Obama's ascendancy would simply not be possible.  There is always truth in his observations, and yet there is also a clear skewing of facts and interpretations in order to hammer home his rhetorical truths.  D'Eramo comes from a decidedly Marxist bent, and this lens opens up some wonderful observations, but also seems to blind him to some obvious contradictions between what he claims and what seems to me to be obviously the case.

At any rate, it is a great fun provocative and challenging read and perfect for these last few days before I spend a week in Chicago.  And it is another stark reminder that the way the rest of the world views us in the States is not necessarily the way that we see (or would like to see) ourselves.

Lightning Strikes Twice

"Wouldn't it be great if we could just rent a house for a weekend somewhere, set up all of the equipment and just play for a couple of days?  Work on those little details -- like starting and stopping songs all at the same time!"

That was me, in the fall of '06, talking with the rest of the band after playing a couple of sets for the joint chapter meeting in Atlanta.  As usual, we'd played with no more than fifteen minutes or so of rehearsal in the afternoon -- just enough to trade a couple of chords and settle on the first three or four songs that we might do.  Then we played our three hours and it was done and we weren't going to get another chance to get together until Durham and then Philadelphia the following May.  I was fantasizing about the luxury of having as much time as we wanted.

The man that we would later christen Memphis Slim was drinking whiskey with us.  He piped up, "Y'know, Sue and I've got that big house outside of Memphis.  The kids are grown and gone.  You'd be more than welcome to come by."  And damned if we weren't able to make it happen the following March.  We had a fantastic time and when Sunday came and we headed off in our separate directions, we agreed that it had been a once in a lifetime experience.  The odds of our ever again being able to arrange everyone's schedules to settle on one weekend were very definitely against us.

But in December we started talking again -- do you think....?  And wonder of wonders... On Thursday, the Bearded Pigs again gathered in Memphis -- BtheA flying in from London, Mister Tomcat from Boston, Duke, Russell & Cogman on the same flight from North Carolina.  SG drove down from Michigan with his car loaded up with amplifiers, and Tambourine Grrl and I drove up in a van loaded with guitars and the PA.  We picked up Duke at the Memphis Drum Shop and by 8:00 that evening we had everything set up in Slim's living room and were wailing away.

Over the years, I've had the pleasure of making music with a lot of different people, but there is a chemistry to this particular band of lunatics that I've rarely encountered.  It was evident in that very first set with BtheA, Duke & Russell back in Dallas that there was something special going on.  Back then, it was me doing my regular list, with the others settling in behind to find their places.  Now, it's really a band, with a dynamic and energy and intensity that is more than what each of us brings individually.  We let it carry us away and amazing things can happen.

It was, perhaps, most evident on Saturday evening, during the party (Slim invited the neighborhood to stop by), when we broke into the Doors' Roadhouse Blues.  Our general rule of thumb has been that if one person knows a particular song, we can usually make it work -- the person who knows it takes the lead and the rest of us find our places to fill in.  But none of us had ever played Roadhouse Blues before.  Slim had been playing the Doors' album earlier in the day, though, so the song was in the air.  SG picked up the bass line, and Russell found the chords to go with it.  Duke had the rhythm cold.  And before we knew it, we were off and running.  I could remember a few of the words, and I just made up the rest.  (Maybe I'll try to find a copy of the actual lyrics before we play it in Chicago).

I think that a large part of what makes it work so well is that we take a lot of risks.  We've all been in bands that couldn't get themselves out of the basement or out of the garage to play for people because they were too intent on "getting it right".  And we've all seen bands that were so over-rehearsed that, while the music was technically impeccable, the performance was, well, boring.  (We saw a couple of those during our fieldtrip to Bourbon Beale St. on Friday, in fact).  With our raggedy troupe, we know there's going to be mistakes and trainwrecks, so we don't have to worry about that part.  And the further we stretch and push ourselves, the better it gets.  I suppose there's a life metaphor in there somewhere.

I sometimes think that our annual performance at the MLA meeting could be billed as a CE course on work/life balance (always a popular topic).  There was a time, during my first marriage, when I went thirteen years without playing in front of people, and for the last five or six of those years, I rarely picked up the guitar at all.  I came to believe that making music had just been something that I'd done in college, and that I'd set aside when I put away the things of a child.  Then I picked up Ranger Dave's guitar at that fateful Venice Christmas party in '91 and music came back into my life.  Since then, it's been a matter of remembering not to get in my own way.  Making music is an even more important part of all that I am than it was when I was still forming myself as a teenager.  I remember, not long after that marriage broke up, saying to a loved one, "I'm trying to learn how to be a complete human being."  I'm still learning, and the music is a big part of it.

A passion for small stages

It's good to have a passion.  It's good for the soul to have a focus for something that you believe has some essential purpose in the world, and to feel that you have a unique role to play in bringing something wonderful about.

It's good for Birmingham that Keith's passion is finding ways to connect singer/songwriters with audiences that love them already or that might not otherwise find out about them.

We went to a few shows at the Moonlight Music Cafe, when he was still running that in Vestavia.  It was one of the best spaces to hear music that I've ever been in (and I have been in a lot of music rooms), and each show that we saw was superb.  We were saddened, but not, I'm sorry to say, surprised, when he finally closed.  Even on the nights when he packed the house (the superb Radney Foster acoustic show, for example) Lynn and I would drive home wondering how the hell he could possibly make ends meet.

Closing Moonlight didn't slow Keith down.  He took his passion and, with a core group of similarly minded maniacs, turned it into organizing the Small Stages series of house concerts.  We were finally able to get to our first last night -- Robinella w/ Jay Clark at the Matt Jones Gallery.  I'd seen Robinella last June at City Stages and was enchanted.  We've been listening to a couple of her CDs since, and I wanted Lynn to have a chance to see her live. 

There were about 200 of us gathered in the lush space that Matt Jones and his crew have put together.  It's a beautifully lit space, with a stage in one corner, and paintings all over the walls.  The Small Stages shows are BYOB&C, so by the time we got there the room was about half full of folding chairs with people milling about and opening their wine bottles or bottles of beer (I brought Laphroig, myself) and visiting with old friends or meeting new ones.  The atmosphere was utterly unlike even the nicest commercial venue -- more of a party with a shared feeling that this was something special and out of the ordinary.   The age range was pretty wide -- once we'd settled into our chairs I found myself talking to a delightful woman on my left who appeared to be in her early eighties and had found out about the concert when she'd been to the gallery sometime before to buy a painting for a friend.  To Lynn's right were a trio of 20-something women looking chic and sharing a bottle of sauvignon blanc.

I didn't know anything about Jay Clark, who opened, but I've got a couple of his CDs now, and I'll be listening to 'em later today.  In between songs he kept up a self-deprecating patter that had the woman next to me laughing out loud (my favorite line:  mentioning that he and his wife both had their PhD's, "I can't speak for her, but I am definitely educated beyond my level of intelligence").  His songs, most of them rooted in his experiences of life in the hills of eastern Tennessee, ranged from protests at misguided visions of progress to late-night mourning on the death of a friend to pledges to his wife to continue to try to be a better man.  Warm and funny with some serious songs but never taking himself too seriously.  I'd've been happy enough if he'd been the headliner, and I'll make sure that I get a chance to see him again.

But he took a break and after fifteen minutes or so, up came Robinella (playing a really pretty cutaway Gibson acoustic) and her band -- drummer and upright bass.  No ceremony to it -- looked to me like she just didn't feel like waiting anymore, brought her guys up and started to sing.  Keith rushed up quick to introduce her, and she just laughed.

But then, Robinella laughs a lot and made sure the audience did too, carrying on in between songs with improvised riffs about what it might be like in heaven on those days when you just felt like taking the day off ("I think I'll put off praisin' the Lord today and just stay in bed"), that had her bandmates just about dropping to the floor. 

Her voice is heavenly, soaring over her guitar and over the band, effortlessly.  Her delight in singing is apparent, whether it's her own marvelous songs or the covers that she does, ranging from some Merle Haggard tunes (no doubt that Hag would love the way she sings his songs) to a sweet rendition of "Georgia" to close the concert.  She brought Jay up (they're old friends) to do a few songs and their voices together are exceptional.  I was particularly impressed with their rendition of Frizell's "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma" where they not only traded verses, but traded the lead & harmony parts.  Beautiful stuff.  It was over all too soon.

Still, it was after 10:00 by the time we walked out to our car, bubbling about what a wonderful evening it was, how much we liked the atmosphere, and bringing your own stuff (much cheaper than paying by the drink at a bar!) and getting to talk to some old friends and meet a few new people.  And to walk away with some new CDs and some fine new tunes dancing away in the back of my head.

It's good to have a passion.  Thanks, Keith.

Ratliff on Coltrane

I don't even remember when Coltrane became a huge force in my life.    The only vinyl I have is A Love Supreme, so that gives me a bit of a point in time to refer to.  Mid-nineties, I suppose, is when I acquired most of the CDs.  I don't quite have everything that's commercially available, but I've got most of it.  There's certainly not a week goes by that I don't listen to some of it.

I've read all of the full-length biographies that are available and I've been disappointed by every one.  None of them brought me closer to the Coltrane that I hear.  Not well written, or carrying too much of an agenda, or, frankly, not dealing too well with the fact that Coltrane was a pretty boring guy without any particularly dramatic incidents in his life.   He was the furthest thing from a prodigy, so it wasn't until he was 30 that he began to be recognized as a player of the first rank.  He drank too much and was a junkie in his twenties, but so was just about every other jazz musician.  Then he went cold turkey and that was that.  His first marriage ended, and he married again.  Surely a personal story there with plenty of hurt and heartbreak in it, but whose life doesn't have plenty of that?  Lives in a nice house on Long Island, drives a Jaguar, makes a bunch of records and dies of liver cancer at forty.  Not very much for a biographer to work with.

Oh, and in the ten years of his prime, he created some of the most astonishing music that has ever sounded, transformed the world of jazz, and had a profound impact, by extension, on all of popular music & culture.   

When I saw that Ben Ratliff had a Coltrane book out, I was hopeful.   I've been reading his criticism in the New York Times for years and think very highly of it.  He's an excellent writer, very perceptive about many forms of music, seems to approach his work from the stance of an acute listener without any particular agenda to push.  Even if it turned out to be a disappointment as a book, I couldn't imagine that reading Ratliff at length on Coltrane could be less than enlightening and fun.

By the end of it, I was madly underlining passages and writing notes on the back pages -- "Yes, yes!  Exactly right!  Very perceptive on Branford's early response to Coltrane!  Yes, yes -- it's about the band!"

Ratliff makes it clear up front that he's not writing a book about the life.  He divides the book into two parts -- first is the biography of the music.  He traces the route that Coltrane took musically, from his very early derivative and unformed experiments, through the mastery of balladry, the shifting into modal forms, the interplay with the classic quartet, and the continuing search to go past formal boundaries to find out what's next.  He is particularly acute on discussing the nature and importance of Coltrane's sound and what that very word means within the context of jazz.

Ratliff is remarkable in his ability to describe, in very specific ways, what is going on technically with the music, without requiring the reader to have a detailed knowledge of music theory.  Surely, a little bit of theory helps, but I can't imagine that any passionate music lover wouldn't be able to follow Ratliff's description and argument.

The second half of the book is about Coltrane's influence, and this is where Ratliff's acumen, knowledge of contemporary music, and skill in weaving excellent sentences, really shine.  He's trying to sort out what Coltrane has meant to music and musicians in the forty years since he died and through very deft sketches and a fine arrangement of quotes & bits of interviews, he makes a very compelling case.  It doesn't matter whether or not I agreed precisely with every point he was trying to make or not -- it was a thrilling ride.

James Breslin's biography of Rothko (about whom I am as passionate as I am about Coltrane) is one of the finest books I've ever read, and I was thrilled to discover that when he moved on from Rothko he started researching a book about 'Trane.  Alas, he died too soon, and I was crushed to know that his book would never appear.

The perfect biography of Coltrane may be beyond anyone's grasp, but I'm pretty sure that I've just finished the finest book about his music.

Looking For That Beef Chow Mein

I don't remember why I added "Werewolves of London" to the Bearded Pigs set list years ago -- I know that I thought that watching a roomful of librarians howl like wolves would be pretty entertaining.  I was right, and it's been a staple for us ever since.

So Lynn and I were quite delighted, on our first afternoon in London, after we'd had lunch and were out walking somewhat aimlessly just so that we could get adjusted from jetlag, when Bruce suggestedLondon_010 taking us past Lee Ho Fook's.  A couple of weeks earlier, in Memphis, we'd finished playing the song and he laughed and said, "I was just at Lee Ho Fook's last week.  Ate the beef chow mein."  Silly me; it had never occurred to me that it was a real place.  They have a poster of Zevon in the window.

A review of a book by Zevon's wife in yesterday's NYT reminds me that there are a lot of other Zevon songs  I'd like to add to the list.    I've done "Mutineer" solo, although I don't think I've ever done it with the band.  I keep meaning to work up "My Ride's Here."   And once you start to get into his catalog, it's hard to stop. 

I was tremendously moved by the way he faced his own death.  I was reminded very much of my father, in fact, although two more different men would be hard to find.  There was an unflinchingness in both men that I greatly admired, and have tried to learn from.   But the book reminds one as well that Z. was a very difficult, very flawed person, who managed to be his own worst enemy and cause a lot of pain and distress to the people around him.   Much to be learned there as well, I suppose.  Despite our natural tendency to try to do so, people's lives can't be summed up neatly in a sentence or two.  And it was Aristotle who pointed out that you can't make a judgment on whether it's been a good life until it's finally over.

Getting Ready For The Spring Tour

Now that we're inching our way towards Memphis, the Brown Beverage Sessions, and the Chapel Hill and Philadelphia gigs beyond, I think I might try spending a little bit more time over on the Bearded Pigs blog and see if I can kick that thing into life.

After Merline died, Someone_is_in_big_trouble I spent some mourning time cleaning up the basement and re-doing my practice space.  I've got things set up now so that I can easily zip down for thirty or sixty minutes at a time.  I'm trying to put in at least a few every day.  There are so many new songs to learn!Josie_is_two_002

If you're going to be around Chapel Hill on May 8th, or Philadelphia on May 2o, by all means, stop by!  We are the world's first open-access international librarian rock band and we'd be thrilled to death if you showed up.

In Chapel  Hill, we're playing the banquet for the Evidence-Based Librarianship Conference and you do have to be a conference attendee for that one -- but it looks like it'll be a great conference, so you may as well come on over.

We're in Philadelphia for the MLA annual meeting on the 20th, but you don't need to be attending the meeting to join us for that.  We'll be at the downtown Marriott, we'll have a cash bar, and we'll run from about 8:00 to around 11:00.  Keep an eye on the website for the exact location.

Funding open access is tough, of course, and we're grateful to the members of the Thicket Society for making our MLA gigs possible.    You don't need to be an MLA member... or a librarian, for that matter... to join the Thicket Society.  For $40 you get a cool limited edition t-shirt, a souvenir button, and your name in the program.  Once our expenses are covered, everything else goes to the MLA scholarship fund -- last year we were able to send 'em $750. 

Think of it as an informal and unofficial professional development networking event -- with rock band.

Recording Music

More than a decade ago, through a convoluted series of coincidences, I found myself reunited with Liquid Prairie, playing out in front of the Birmingham Museum of Art.  I'd moved down here about six months before, and the museum was participating in an Art Car event.   There was a big contingent coming down from St. Louis, of course, and eventually it seemed natural to ask Liquid Prairie to perform for the event.  We had a fine time.

That evening, there was a fancy reception at a large house in one of the tonier suburbs of Birmingham.  The couple that lived there (he'd made his money in construction; she was a lawyer) had turned the house into a living museum of avant-garde art, so we felt right at home.  We did an impromptu acoustic set on the big staircase and the crowd was nicely appreciative.  A little later, we were standing in the buffet line, and a sweet and enthusiastic woman started babbling about how she had a good friend who was an executive with MCA Records (at the time the most important label in country music), and before she could get any further, Ferd, Ranger Dave and I turned to her and, in unison, said, "We are strictly a live act!"    We knew that whatever impact we had came from the energy and the showmanship of performance, and there didn't seem much likelihood that a recording would capture that.  Instead, it'd merely highlight the mistakes and lack of any sort of musical sophistication.  It'd be a disappointment.

That's pretty much the way that I felt when SG started talking about recording the Bearded Pigs in Phoenix last spring.  I was not very much in favor of the idea, but he stressed that he just wanted some kind of a  reference recording, not anything to distribute.  "Fine," I finally said.  "You want to set up some microphones that's fine with me.  I'm just not going to spend any energy on it."

I've listened to the recording a couple of times now, over the last few months, and I'm more impressed than I expected to be.  The quality is pretty lousy -- SG and Blind Lemon just set up two microphones in corners of the room, so the mix is terrible.  My voice is way out front, the drums and bass are barely there and I can't hear much of Bruce's lead guitar at all.  Some of TomCat & Tambourine Grrl's harmonies come through though, and despite myself I have to say that we don't sound too bad.

So as SG tries to figure out how to manage some recording when the Pigs gather in Memphis at the end of March (for what we're referring to as "the Brown Beverage Sessions") I'm warming to the idea a bit.   I still don't want to get distracted by the process of recording, but if he can get a few microphones well placed around the room and record everything, there ought to be something out of all of those hours that might be worth listening to.  It'd be fun to have a CD with a few tunes on it that we could give to Thicket Society members in Philadelphia.

After all, Liquid Prairie eventually did make a CD, and it turned out to be quite fine.

What The iPod Shuffled Up On My Walk This Morning

National Emblem March
Leonard Slatkin
American Portraits

Rock Of Your Love
John Hiatt
The Tiki Bar Is Open

Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor
Lost Jim
Sings & Plays Mississippi John Hurt

I Like To Fuss
Patti LuPone
Philadelphia Chickens

Straight To Your Head
Mutton Birds
Envy Of Angels

Chocolate Shake
Duke Ellington
The Blanton-Webster Band

Sunday Morning Comin' Down / Just Like A Bookstore
The Bearded Pigs
Live In Phoenix

Johnny Too Bad
The Slickers
The Harder They Come

New York - Parte Ii
Keith Jarrett
The Carnegie Hall Concert