Bill Graham Took Care of Reality

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Many concert promoters keep a low profile. Theirs is mostly a backstage job, dealing with the mundane: contracts and equipment, schedules and security, advertising and accounting. Yet those tasks are essential to building any live music scene.

Bill Graham — the promoter who got started in hippie-era San Francisco, opened the Fillmore East in New York City in 1968 and went on to present concerts worldwide — was by no means self-effacing. He made himself America’s best-known rock promoter from the 1960s to the 1990s.

In the late 1980s, when Graham presented annual New Year’s Eve arena concerts by the Grateful Dead, he would take to center stage at midnight in costume. As a young man he had wanted to be an actor; he got bit parts in “Apocalypse Now” and “Bugsy,” typecast as an agent and a gangster. Graham carved himself such an outsize public role that after his death, in a helicopter accident after a concert in 1991, San Francisco renamed its Civic Auditorium arena after him.

His career provides ample material for “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution,” a fond multimedia exhibition — photos, videos, concert posters, instruments, costumes, even a light show — that opens on Feb. 14 at the New-York Historical Society.

A proximity-sensing audio guide orchestrates the show with vintage rock and soundtracks to the videos, including live performances from Graham’s “Day on the Green” concerts in Oakland and an excerpt from “The Last Waltz,” the 1976 farewell concert by the Band. The exhibition has plenty of artifacts to trigger boomer nostalgia, as well as reminders that the 1960s ended long ago.

Credit…John Olson; George Etheredge for The New York Times
Credit…Baron Wolman/Iconic Images

Graham was a brash, scrappy entrepreneur who made himself indispensable to spreading San Francisco’s emerging hippie culture. The actor Peter Coyote famously described Graham as “a cross between Mother Teresa and Al Capone,” though the exhibition shows little of the Al Capone side. There is a Fillmore West staff basketball team jersey with a feisty logo: a raised middle finger with “BG” on the knuckle. But there are no contracts or other glimpses of how he built Bill Graham Productions.

Yet in a San Francisco underground that was inventing itself out of whimsical Beat philosophies, psychedelic revelations, idealism and hedonism, Graham made it his business to transform all-night ballroom jams into sensible financial propositions and create stable outlets for music that was anything but. Working in the trippiest days of the 1960s, Graham recalls in one of the exhibition’s audio snippets: “I always felt that someone had to relate to reality. That was me.”

 

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Gil Scott-Heron’s Legacy Is a Work in Progress ~ NYT … “If you never knew his music, you should” … rŌbert … “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

 

A reimagining of his final album by the drummer and producer Makaya McCraven is another step toward a contemporary reckoning with his powerful oeuvre.

Credit…Echoes/Redferns

 

When the drummer and producer Makaya McCraven got a call inviting him to rework Gil Scott-Heron’s final record, he recognized the magnitude of the task. He knew a lot about the poet, novelist, musician and Black Arts Movement hero often called the “godfather of rap.”

But he had heard much less about the album, “I’m New Here,” which came out in 2010, a year before Scott-Heron’s death at 62.

When Mr. McCraven dug into the album, he was struck by a quandary. “This sounds like it’s already been remixed,” he said he remembered thinking, listening to the spare, heavily electronic LP.

“Just his voice is so powerful,” Mr. McCraven added, referring to the way Scott-Heron’s baritone can seem to quietly beckon, even when he’s delivering messages of political outrage or narrating struggles with addiction.

The string of brilliant recordings that Gil Scott-Heron made from the 1970s to the early ’80s represent one of the most important runs of resistance music created by any artist in modern history — the call-to-consciousness proto-rap anthem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”; the allegorical ballad “Winter in America.”Perhaps only Bob Marley rivals him, and Marley’s music was resistance of a different sort: less politically literate, dreamier.

“I’m New Here” was recorded in the late-aughts, in a series of trans-Atlantic sessions between Scott-Heron and Richard Russell, an executive at the record label XL, who is based in Britain. It was Scott-Heron’s first album in 40 years not to feature a full band; instead it centered on the spare, gunmetal beats that Mr. Russell draped around Scott-Heron’s voice, fostering a sense of both claustrophobia and remove.

Mr. McCraven let those electronic tracks go. “I wanted to support his voice, and then try to do something of my own along with it,” he said. So he went straight for Scott-Heron’s vocal stems, then brought in other young jazz musicians to record some live tracks with him. Using his trademark production approach, Mr. McCraven spliced up the music they’d laid down — mixing in some old recordings by his father, the drummer Stephen McCraven, and ending up with a bristling crosstown junction of hip-hop, Afrobeat, European folk music and jazz.

The resulting album, “We’re New Again,” which XL will release on Friday, doesn’t recreate the loose Caribbean funk sound of Scott-Heron’s classic bands. Mr. McCraven’s instrumentals are a cosmopolitan tangle — founded in samples and syncretism — that belongs firmly to the fast-advancing 21st century.

Credit…Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

 

But Mr. McCraven has done some restoration work. On the original “I’m New Here,” the flickering gloom of Mr. Russell’s production often made Scott-Heron sound cloistered and defeated, even as his poetry pulsed with its typical humor, self-effacement and vision. On “We’re New Again,” Mr. McCraven’s arrangements exhume a feeling of potential, a promise of communion — the things that were always at Scott-Heron’s creative core.

Scott-Heron is heard on both albums reading his poem “On Coming From a Broken Home,” which celebrates the women who raised him: “I came from what they called ‘a broken home,’ but if they’d ever really called at our house, they would have known how wrong they were.” On “We’re New Again,” Mr. McCraven has combined an old recording of his mother, Ágnes Zsigmondi, playing the flute while his father plays the kalimba with new tracks, including the young harpist Brandee Younger. As Scott-Heron speaks of communion with his own ancestry, the instrumentals bubble together and generations interlace.

When “I’m New Here” came out in 2010, Scott-Heron had not released a studio album in more than 15 years, and he was in the throes of a drug addiction that he would never fully outrun. In an interview with The New Yorker shortly after its release, Scott-Heron called the album “Richard’s CD,” saying that Mr. Russell’s enthusiasm had led to the collaboration: “All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”

Speaking from London this week, Mr. Russell said that Scott-Heron had first insisted that both of them should claim authorship of the album, but Mr. Russell had dismissed that idea.

So maybe it makes sense to think about “I’m New Here” and the smattering of follow-up materials that have trickled out over the past decade (mixtapes, outtakes collections, short documentaries) as Scott-Heron himself seems to have understood the album: not as his own last solo statement, but as a collaboration, initiated and largely carried through by Russell.

As the 10th anniversary of Scott-Heron’s death approaches, he deserves to be remembered for the impact he made upon his own time, and its resonance across eras. Everything he put out between 1974 and 1982 is effectively out of print, and unavailable on streaming services. His children, from different romantic relationships, have been at loggerheads since his death, creating a legal knot.

Still, his work is out there on YouTube, in used-record stores, and on the lips of everyone who uses the phrases he coined, whether they know it or not: “the revolution will not be televised,” “home is where the hatred is.”

As well as rap’s godfather, it would be wise to recall that Scott-Heron — whose work was anchored in Southern blues and the black literary canon — was the bard of the Black Power Movement. And as that movement’s push for equal access to political power remains unfinished, the insights of his poetry still bear heavily on today.

“The work is there,” said the scholar and critic Greg Tate, who had known Scott-Heron. “Anybody whose work has that depth — in terms of a contemporary reckoning, it’s just a matter of time. It’s inevitable.”

 

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A song for all those CDOT plow drivers

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‘Plow guy for the county’: Bozeman man’s snow plow song parody gains popularity

Justin Horak Plow Driver

Justin Horak, a plow driver for Gallatin County, sits in his plow at the end of a day of work Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020 in Four Corners.

 

When Justin Horak’s daughter, Kira, 6, saw the video of him singing about being a snow plow driver, she knew it would be a hit.

“She said, ‘You should post that to YouTube,’” Horak said.

Horak made a video of himself singing about his job with Gallatin County to the tune of Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” with original lyrics to share with his brother — who is also a plow driver — as a joke. He shared it with a few coworkers and posted it on Facebook, not thinking much of it.

Since it was posted last week, a number of radio stations around Montana have picked it up. Gallatin County also shared it on Facebook, and YouTube views of the song continue to climb.

“I never thought some silly little song would bring all of these people together and they would enjoy it,” Horak said.

 

The lyrics may be silly, but Horak’s voice is not. He said he grew up loving music and remembers singing with his dad on backpacking trips in the Bob Marshall wilderness. He studied music at both Montana State University and the University of Montana.

Horak now performs with the Bozeman Symphonic Choir and has had parts in a number of opera productions with Intermountain Opera Bozeman. He’s been rehearsing lately to audition for Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Horak’s professional training is obvious in his song about plowing.

The lyrics are not only a fun play on Campbell’s song, but offer some advice to drivers who encounter plows on the road. He sings about seeing people texting while driving, gesturing to him rudely and passing him on the wrong side of the road.

“Oh, I know you’re in a hurry. I’ve been late once or twice,” Horak sings. “So if you see me out plowing, please allow for more time.”

Horak started working for the county last spring and said some of his co-workers have been plowing Bozeman’s roads for years. He said those guys are the “real heroes.”

Even though Horak is shy about the popularity of the song and wishes he spent more time on the production of the video, he’s happy with the result.

“I’m glad I did it. It’s a fun way to do a public service announcement,” Horak said.

The Restorative Pause of Silent Record Week ~ The New Yorker

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In 1959, a group of undergraduates at the University of Detroit sneaked two records into a jukebox in the snack bar at the Student Activities Building: one was silent, and the other played a short beep every fifteen seconds. A pretty solid gag—until people started purposefully cueing up the records. They were played so often, in fact, that their surfaces wore down from overuse, and they had to be replaced by fresh pressings. A Billboard reporter attributed the unexpected success of the silent records to “an especially determined group of somber radicals,” but it mostly just seemed as if people were increasingly eager to secure a moment of peace. The students started their own label, the Hush Record Label Company, to meet the demand. “Other customers are willing to pay for sound, but here was a group willing to put nickels in the chute in return for nothing at all,” Billboard marvelled.

The following year, the same students declared the first week of January to be Silent Record Week and hosted a revue to celebrate. Performances included a theatre critic presenting “Famous Pauses from Great Drama,” a d.j. playing “Great Things Left Unsaid by Philosophers,” and a group of sixty-five vocalists “non-singing” a piece called “The Anvil Chorus,” accompanied by twenty anvils being gently tapped by rubber mallets. The timing felt deliberate: there is perhaps no other week on the calendar in which Americans are more desperate for a flash of quietude, a pause in which to take stock and collectively reconsider our life styles. January is the month most intimately linked with abstention: no more overindulging. We reorient our lives around a list of optimistic resolutions—self-betterment via denial.

Silence itself is often linked with piousness and a kind of dignified reserve. The monastic vow of silence is solemn and unforgiving; we linger in a moment of silence to commemorate grim events; we punish each other for transgressions by responding to earnest entreaties with stone-faced silence. But silence is also a balm; even the briefest retreat from the gnawing din of humanity can be spiritually and physiologically curative. Researchers have referred to pervasive sound pollution as a “modern plague.” A study from 2006 in the medical journal Heart found that silence was more effective at lowering heart rate and blood pressure than playing relaxing music. (The scientists discovered that people actually chilled out more during the inadvertent break between songs.) A study from 2013 in Brain Structure and Function discovered that two hours of silence each day led to the development of new cells in the hippocampus of mice, the region of the brain most firmly associated with memory, learning, and emotion.

Though it has been more than sixty years since the students in Detroit took over that jukebox, the idea of paying for a moment of silence still feels relevant. (Right now, within a few blocks of my Brooklyn apartment, there are opportunities to shell out a hundred and nine dollars to float in a sensory-deprivation tank for an hour or nine hundred and sixty dollars for a series of transcendental-meditation courses.) Much of modern wellness is concerned with escaping one’s self, but, at the same time, the self—as brand, as business—has become increasingly monetized. Every day, we are told to both cultivate and erase ourselves.

My own relationship to silence is complicated. Since the nineteen-eighties, when portable audio became readily available, it has been possible for anyone with a little disposable income to spend an entire day immersed in a bespoke audiosphere of one’s own design: to willfully curate exactly what you hear and exactly what you don’t. That this has become not just socially acceptable but perhaps even socially preferable is astounding—where I live, at least, it’s unusual to see people out for a run, or sitting on the subway, or standing in line at Duane Reade without headphones tucked into their ears. (I wrote about the ubiquity of headphone use back in 2016.) I’ve had to learn how to mediate the impulse in myself. Going for a walk while listening to music is fun for a lot of reasons, but, in part, because it casts the listener as the precise center of the universe, and everyone else as a bit player in that melodrama—your problems and your pleasures suddenly become beautiful and important, because they’re all that you can access. My resolution for 2020 was to resist perpetual sound: to nurture silence when I can, and when I can’t, to be more mindful of the natural sound of the world around me.

Perhaps the most famous instance of institutionalized “silence” is John Cage’s “4’ 33”,” a conceptual piece that he began working on in the late nineteen-forties. “4’ 33” ” is not silent, exactly, but is instead the sound of musicians in a room not playing their instruments—and the sound of a fidgeting audience, unsure of how to metabolize the musicians’ inaction. Since it was first performed, near Woodstock, New York, in 1952, “4’33” ” has confounded and occasionally titillated listeners, inspiring many (very good) volumes of scholarly analysis and meditations on the definition of music. No performance of the work is ever the same. Cage was frustrated by the mixed response that the piece received, which included heckles from the crowd. “There’s no such thing as silence,” Cage said, following the première. “What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

Ultimately, there’s a difference between accidental silence and the deliberate playing of a silent record or a piece like “4’33”.” These projects do the simple yet profound work of formally containing a few minutes—of demarcating time and calling attention to it. I like their certainty, and the way they offer a kind of sanctioned time-out, a small but serious protest against abundance. Suddenly, all sound is music, and all life is art—a corny idea, maybe, but also a powerful way of humanizing the world.

The Church of John Coltrane ~ The New Yorker

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The church offers weekly services, where scripture is interspersed between spirited jam sessions.

 

Franzo and Marina King had recently moved from the Midwest to San Francisco when they decided to celebrate their first wedding anniversary by going to hear John Coltrane play at the Jazz Workshop. It was 1965, and the saxophonist was in the midst of a radical transformation, infatuated with a style of playing that was rapturous and free. “When he walked out, the Holy Ghost walked out with him,” Marina remembered. The couple had a spiritual experience. At times, it was as though Coltrane was looking directly at them while he played. “In our minds, we felt like he knew who we were and what we were there for, even if we did not know ourselves.”

From the outside, the church looks like any other house of worship.

Archbishop Franzo King, who founded the church with his wife, Marina.

Wanika K. Stephens, Franzo and Marina’s daughter and a pastor in the church, hosts the jazz show “Uplift!” on KPOO 89.5 FM.

After that show, which they came to think of as their “sound baptism,” the Kings became obsessed with Coltrane. They had come to San Francisco to be closer to Franzo’s brother, but they were also in search of community, and one place they discovered it was in their regular listening sessions with friends, studying records by Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk. Eventually, they started a small jazz club. Coltrane’s death, in 1967, at the age of forty, devastated the music world. For one thing, he had seemed immortal, as though he had already merged with the cosmos. “I believe in all religions,” he famously said. He had become fascinated with the music and belief systems of Africa and Asia, exploring ways to capture the whole of existence in a string of notes. The music he was making at the end of his life was fiery and chaotic, in search of a transcendent beauty that few people yet recognized as such.

 

Bar Shiru, the Bay Area’s first hi-fi vinyl bar, is a haven for audiophiles ~ Berkeleyside NOSH

Aretha Biopic ‘Respect,’ ~ RollingStone

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RESPECT
It takes less than a minute for Jennifer Hudson to prove exactly why Aretha Franklin herself chose her to portray Franklin in the queen of soul’s upcoming biopic. The teaser emphasizes Hudson’s worthy vocals as she stands alone on stage singing “Respect!” In a shimmering gold gown, Hudson is illuminated by neon letters behind her that spell out the legendary demand. The short clip wraps up with an invitation for viewers to “find out what it means” in 2020, and we cannot wait to do so.

 

Courtney Barnett Covers Leonard Cohen On MTV Unplugged [Watch]


Australian indie darling Courtney Barnett performed an MTV Unplugged concert in Melbourne last week, treating fans to a cover of Leonard Cohen‘s “So Long, Marianne”.

The cover came at the end of a set of reworked originals that saw the singer-songwriter translate some of her heavier, fem-rock anthems into softer, more melodic displays of a different kind of raw emotion, including “Avant Gardner” and “Depreston”. The whole concert, available on YouTube, is very reminiscent of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, minus the candles and Meat Puppets covers.

But it was her cover of “So Long, Marianne”, from 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, that saw Barnett make the difficult decision of how to go about covering the late legend, figuring out how to emulate the understated-yet-intense emotion inherent in Cohen’s low growl. It’s actually a similar question that Barnett faced when reworking her own songs: what approach to take? Does one try and build the songs up even more with added emphasis on melody to fill the void of amplification, or strip everything down and let the pain and loneliness in one’s voice be the amplification? Barnett, just like with the rest of her Unplugged performance, went with the latter.

Related: Courtney Barnett Rocks Grateful Dead Cover On ‘The Tonight Show’ [Watch]

Courtney Barnett –  MTV Unplugged – “So Long, Marianne” [Leonard Cohen cover]

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Courtney Barnett – MTV Unplugged – Full Show Playlist

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Barnett is currently in the midst of an Australian tour, which keep her Down Under until she returns to the Northern hemisphere on January 18th to play at Wilco‘s Blue Sky Festival in Mexico. After that, she will depart on her first-ever solo run through the United States, which will see Barnett play 14 shows in less than three weeks across the country before closing out at the historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO. Tickets for that tour are available here.

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