Alligator Records is an American, Chicago-based independent blues record label founded by Bruce Iglauer in 1971. Iglauer was also one of the founders of the Living Blues magazine in Chicago in 1970.


July 17, 20219

Scott Simon speaks to Bruce Iglauer about the legendary blues label Alligator Records, which began 50 years ago.

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Panama Red, Peter Rowan and many friends

A great album and unbelievable performance at Telluride Blue Grass Fest

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by Glenn Alexander

There Records 008

Peter Rowan could just as easily been a preacher. He’s got the whole
fire and brimstone attitude on stage, he’s got heaps of tales of
triumph, morality, and revelations, he has visions (of Elvis), and
he’s met the Creator (Bill Monroe, folks). He preaches from his pulpit
ceaselessly, and without fail manages to keep the faith, whether or
not his sermons are speaking to the masses. With this release of a
show from over 10 years ago, wherein six fellow devotees merge behind a
righteous cause (music), Peter Rowan and gang release the devil
and make a deal with righteousness. 

With Telluride elder statesman Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas (who has to be
on the all-time list of performers most responsible for excessive
drooling and oggling), and the eminent upright bassist Victor Krauss
backing him up (with Larry Atamanuik and Kester Smith on skins), there
is certainly no shortage of talent here. Let’s just get this out in
the open. Hell or high water, these boys burn the shit out of these
tunes. Rowan hasn’t released anything this combustible since,
wellever. Yes, I am a fan of his music. I appreciate his history with
Bill Monroe, his Old and In The Way, his Bluegrass Boy, the
lyrical and melodic brilliance of Dust Bowl Children, and his
work with the boys of Two High String Band down in Texas and beyond. 

I can even appreciate him at least taking a stab at mixing reggae and
country, which not even fellow weed-wielder Willie Nelson seems to be
able to do with any real success. Maybe someday the two idioms will
have a serendipitous moment in the studio, but I’m afraid we’re still
waiting. Live, on the other hand, Rowan has actually made his
Reggaebilly sound relevant, if not damn near revelatory at times.
Sometimes, when the meeting of minds coalesce into one thing on stage,
boundaries and labels seem to disappear into the air, if the air is
magic on that particular night or day. When he sticks with what he
does best, he’s a force of nature a dazzling, idiosyncratic shaman
of the lonesome sound. He can be an astute purist or a side-stepper
branching into new waters with varying effectiveness. Within his own
musical cosmos, he is the jack of all trades, the master of destiny.
At times, it takes good company to really shine. In Telluride,
Colorado in 1994 at a music festival in the mountains Peter Rowan and
his compadres proved not only masters of their world, but of the air
in which their sound traveled on that festival night. 

The “Deal With The Devil” that opens up is a Charlie Daniels Band-like
romp that showcases Bush’s fiddle work, Rowan’s tireless and precise
finger picking talent, and those good ol’ rock-solid country drums,
just chugging along. It makes for a great opener, introducing us to the Rowan his fans know him best for:
country-tinged earnestness, wailing vocals, high-lonesome lyrics and
being thoroughly possessed by some unseen force. The Latin-tinged
“Panama Red” is the album’s jamming zenith. Every member shines on
this number, none more than Jerry Douglas, whose solo towards the end
rivals any acoustic solo for shear explosiveness and dexterity this
author has laid ears on in some time. Rowan yodels, hollers, takes an
earnest stab at his old Martin come solo time and Bush proves once
again why he is the mainstay that he is at the festival, dazzling the
crowd with rapid fire attacks and inflammatory inflections. After its
over, in the left speaker you hear Bush proclaim across the stage,
“That’s the way ya do it!”. Indeed it is. 

“Rainmaker” is prefaced by a
rather amusing tale about a vision quest, wherein the author meets
Elvis standing on top of a building in a parking lot declaring that
Rowan is to write a rainmakin’ song, “no neo-shamanistic jingle'”, he
says. Duly noted. What follows is a sure-fire honky tonk take on this
Rowan classic that epitomizes ‘crucial country’. It’s country the way
that it too often is not played these days, with attitude and honesty,
and more importantly — with a seriously driving rhythm section. The
Marley-penned “No Woman No Cry” incites not only the crowd to sing the
chorus, but rouses the band into playing reggaebilly the way it was
supposed to be heard — a merging of styles into a seamless and unique
idiomatic experience. It’s light and airy like the original, with the
added pleasure of bluegrass instruments to add a little flavor.
Douglas crests and climbs with his slide work, gliding and moving the
song along beautifully. 

Audibly, it sounds rich and layered. Everything thing is there, in
crisp detail. Good thing for us, because this one is a keeper. If
anyone has ever doubted Rowan’s position among the great performers of
acoustic music, then this release reaffirms once again why he played
with Bill Monroe and Jerry Garcia, and why he continues to perform
around the country. This is the one his fans have been waiting for.
Come and get it.



Van Morrison with Pee Wee Ellis ~ Tupelo Honey, Live



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Thursday afternoon music with Robert Earl Keen

Another great singer/songwriter in the Texas tradition … If you’ve not heard his music listen, if you haven’t gone to one of his gatherings you might try it. rŌbert


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Gringo Honeymoon    

We were standing on a mountain top
Where the cactus flowers grow
I was wishing that the world would stop
When you said we’d better go

We took a rowboat across the Rio Grande
Captain Pablo was our guide
For two dollars and a weathered hand
He rowed us to the other side

And we were dreamin like
The end was not in site
And we dreamed all afternoon
We asked the world to wait
So we could celebrate
A gringo honeymoon

We stepped out on to the golden sand
The sun was high and burning down
Rented donkeys from an old blind man
Saddled up and rode to town

Tied the donkeys to an iron wood tree
On the street where children played
We went in the first place we could see
Servin cold beer in the shade

And we were drinkin like
The end was not in site
And we drank all afternoon
We asked the world to wait
So we could celebrate
A gringo honeymoon

Met a cowboy who said that he
Was running from the DEA
He left his home and wife and family
When he made his getaway

We followed him on down a street of dust
To his one room run down shack
He blew a smoke ring and he smiled at us
I ain’t never goin back

And we were flyin like
The end was not in site
And we soared that afternoon
We asked the world to wait
So we could celebrate
A gringo honeymoon

He said there is one last place that you should go
He took us to the towns best bar
He know a crusty (?) caballero
Who played an old gut string guitar

And he sang like Marty Robbins could
Played like no one I have known
For a while we knoew that life was good
And it was ours to take back home

And we were singin like
The end was not in site
And we sang all afternoon
We asked the world to wait
So we could celebrate
A gringo honeymoon

We were standing on a mountain top
Where the cactus flowers grow
I was wishing that the world would stop
When you said we’d better go


This is what real music sounds like.  Robert Earl Keen is referring to Boquillas Mexico. If you ever go to Big Bend Tx. take the boat ride!


With his raspy voice and truth-forward songs, Robert Earl Keen has amassed a passionate following among country and Americana fans. David Simchock/ZUMA

Raspy-voiced Texas songwriter has endeared himself to George Strait, Lyle Lovett and countless fans with his irreverent style

Robert Earl Keen ought to be sick of Christmas. He hasn’t had a break from the holiday for the past 24 years, thanks to “Merry Christmas From the Family,” a wildly irreverent song that’s taken on such a life of its own that he has trouble sticking to his rule of playing it only after Labor Day. But you won’t hear Keen complaining about it.

Robert Earl Keen Talks Breaking the Bluegrass Law

“Nobody has ever told me what to do,” says the Texas singer-songwriter about his unorthodox new album ‘Happy Prisoner’

“I’m not going to get out of here alive without playing the Christmas song, so I might as well make it bigger,” says Keen, as he relaxes on a bench outside a practice space in Austin, Texas. His red cheeks are framed by a bushy, pepper-gray beard and a beret that he wears cocked and turned backwards on his head. “I feel lucky enough to write songs and have people request the songs I write. Why would I want to turn my back on that?”

Keen, who lives on a ranch near Kerrville in the Texas Hill Country, made the two-hour trek into town on this November day with his daughter Clara to rehearse for his Fam-O-Lee Back to the Country Jamboree. The annual holiday tour, first held in 2012, is the latest spinoff of “Merry Christmas From the Family,” joining a sequel song, a coffee-table book, and numerous covers that came before it. Montgomery Gentry earned a Top 40 country hit with their version in 2001.

“I live for hearing his Christmas song. I never go through the Christmas season without listening to it at least once,” says Nanci Griffith of Keen’s 1994 original, a Clark W. Griswold-worthy satire of family dysfunction and drunken, intolerant in-laws. “It’s just funny and you can relate to it personally because it’s like, ‘Oh no, we’re all stuck here together.’”

Each holiday tour features a different theme. The 2017 run saw Keen’s band members, most of whom have been with him for 15 years or more – the longest serving, guitarist Rich Brotherton, has logged nearly a quarter century – play Christmas-costume dress-up to sing covers of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Dwight Yoakam. Kitschy props that reference lyrics from “Merry Christmas From the Family” adorned the stage, like the “box of tampons” that evokes an awkward sing-along and a pack of Salem Lights.

“It escalated to where we could play as much in December as we wanted to. But it was always strange because it wasn’t like a regular show. Pretty much all the people were waiting for that one song,” says Keen. “After a while, we got to thinking: ‘We got to do something more than this. We got to have more fun ourselves.’”

But Keen is far from some novelty holiday act. While he’s not a well-known figure, he has amassed a passionate fan base of rednecks, hippies, frat boys and country scholars who swoon over his real-life lyrics and give-no-shits attitude. George Strait is a fan and has tapped him to open some of his Las Vegas concerts. He’s also cut Keen’s tracks, as have the Dixie Chicks, the Highwaymen and Joe Ely, among many others. To Keen’s fans, his songs “The Road Goes on Forever,” “Gringo Honeymoon” and “The Front Porch Song” are American classics, helping make him arguably the most important figure to the formation of Red Dirt music as we know it. Still, for all the acclaim and influence, he’s never quite fit into the country music ecosystem.

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His updated version of an old-timey approach enhanced recordings by everyone from Bill Monroe to the Rolling Stones.

Byron Berline in performance with the Flying Burrito Brothers in Amsterdam in 1972. He wove elements of pop, jazz, blues and rock into an old-timey approach on the fiddle.
Byron Berline in performance with the Flying Burrito Brothers in Amsterdam in 1972. He wove elements of pop, jazz, blues and rock into an old-timey approach on the fiddle.Credit…Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns, via Getty Images

By Bill Friskics-Warren

July 12, 2021

Byron Berline, the acclaimed bluegrass fiddle player who expanded the vocabulary of his instrument while also establishing it as an integral voice in country-rock on recordings by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and others, died on Saturday in Oklahoma City. He was 77.

His death, in a rehabilitation hospital after a series of strokes, was confirmed by his nephew Barry Patton.

Mr. Berline first distinguished himself as a recording artist when he was 21 on “Pickin’ and Fiddlin’,” an album of old-time fiddle tunes set to contemporary bluegrass arrangements by the innovative acoustic quartet the Dillards. The album features Mr. Berline’s heavily syncopated playing, along with long bow strokes that incorporate more than one note at the same time.

Later in the decade, Mr. Berline’s lyrical phrasing was heard on pioneering recordings by country-rock luminaries like the Flying Burrito Brothers and the duo Dillard & Clark, featuring the Dillards banjoist Doug Dillard and the singer-songwriter Gene Clark, late of the Byrds. He also recorded with Elton John, Rod Stewart and Lucinda Williams, among many others.

Weaving elements of pop, jazz, blues and rock into an old-timey approach to his instrument, Mr. Berline contributed instrumental selections to Bob Dylan’s soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 anti-western, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” He also overdubbed Nova Scotia-style fiddle on the Band’s 1976 single “Acadian Driftwood” and played on the albums “GP” (1973) and “Grievous Angel” (1974) by Gram Parsons, the country-rock progenitor and founding member of the Burrito Brothers.

Mr. Parsons recommended Mr. Berline for what would become undoubtedly his most famous session appearance: the freewheeling fiddle part he added to “Country Honk,” the Rolling Stones’ down-home take on their 1969 pop smash “Honky Tonk Women.” Recorded in Los Angeles, the song was included on “Let It Bleed,” the group’s landmark album released that December.

“I went in and listened to the track and started playing to it,” Mr. Berline said of his experience with the Stones in a 1991 interview with The Los Angeles Times.

When he was summoned to the control booth, he recalled, he feared the band was unhappy with his work. Instead, they invited him to recreate his performance on the sidewalk along Sunset Boulevard, where the Elektra studio, where they were recording the track, was located. Hence the car horns and other ambient street sounds captured on the session.

“There was a bulldozer out there moving dirt,” Mr. Berline said. “Mick Jagger went out himself and stopped the guy.”

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[DISCLAIMER: This episode o tells an extremely disturbing story. This is not suitable content for children or anyone who shouldn’t read a graphic and detailed account of murder.]


Spade Cooley came to California in the early 1930s, as poor as everyone else who did the exact same thing at the exact same time. Only, Spade became a millionaire. And all he needed to accomplish that was a fiddle, a smile and a strong work ethic. If it sounds like the American Dream, stick around to hear how it became an American nightmare of substance abuse, mental illness and, eventually murder.

Meet Spade

The first 45 years or so of Spade Cooley’s life went more than alright.

Born 1910 in Grand, Oklahoma, with the name of Donnell Clyde Cooley, the official story is that Spade was one-quarter Cherokee. That’s backed up by his attendance at Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, where his family moved when Spade was 4 years old.

Spade’s father played fiddle at local dances and he hoped his son would one day find success as a classical cellist or violinist, a dream that Spade shared as a child and he took his lessons accordingly. Though his classical training did not lead to a classical career, it did eventually lead to paying jobs playing fiddle at local dances, just like his dad.

Spade Cooley studio

Performing music and doing a bit of amateur boxing seems to have occupied Spade’s time until he was around 18 years old, which is when he eloped with Anne, a full-blooded Inuk from school and soon-to-be mother of their son, John. A year deep into what is now known as The Great Depression, this young family would arrive in California with nothing but, and I’m quoting Spade here, “a fiddle under one arm and a nickel in [his] pocket.” The year was 1930 and, as it turns out, he didn’t have much to worry over…

Spade Cooley was always the kinda guy to make you feel like his best friend. He called every man he met “son.” He’d put his hand on your shoulder and a smile in your face. When he showed up for a job, he was there to work hard and make sure it got done right. Knowing his way around the fiddle like he did and the ability to sight read sheet music was enough to place Cooley at the top of several call lists for short-notice, pickup gigs. That “down home” good ol’ boy routine helped him move up the ranks of the Los Angeles music scene fast, which is how he came to play with the Jimmy Wakely Trio, Riders of the Purple Sage and Sons of the Pioneers.

Unless you go add it after listening to this, you won’t find Spade Cooley’s name on the Sons of the Pioneer’s Wikipedia page. To be fair, that legendary group is a bigger part of Spade’s story than he is a part of theirs. By the time Cooley came around, they’d already had their signature hit with “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and the group’s breakout star, Roy Rogers, had mostly moved on to work in major motion pictures. But Roy would still come around every now and then. Someone pointed out that Spade Cooley bore a passing resemblance to Roy Rogers. Before you know it, Spade was bringing down some extra cash by serving as a stand-in for Roy on movie sets during the day, while still playing pickup gigs with multiple bands on the L.A. dancehall circuit at night. With one foot firmly planted in each of Southern California’s most desirable professions, Spade was about to find himself a very rich and very famous man.

King of Western Swing (Warner Bros. short)


Who Is Spade Cooley?

Every country music fan with more than a passing interest in Western Swing knows the name Spade Cooley.

It’s like a little bit of trivia for the genre.

There are two facts we associate with that name. One – Spade Cooley was “The King of Western Swing” long before that title was transferred to Bob Wills. Two – Spade Cooley murdered his wife.

Spade Cooley murder newspaper clipping

But there’s a lot of story hiding in those two facts.

“The King of Western Swing” was more than just a cool nickname. For most of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Spade kicked as much ass as it was possible for a musician in Los Angeles to kick. It would be difficult to exaggerate his professional success. Not only does Spade Cooley have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but at the height of his television show’s popularity it’s estimated that 75% of L.A. viewers were tuning in on any given night. Put it this way. In 1951, Frank Sinatra already had over 20 Top Ten singles to his name but his career wasn’t doing so hot anymore. He needed a comeback and part of his plan for that was a singing appearance on Spade Cooley’s hit TV show.

Looking back on it now, we can see things ended up working out pretty well for Frank Sinatra.

Spade Cooley, not so much. Because of that second little piece of trivia.

Now, I don’t know how so many people are comfortable using a simple word like “murder” to sum up Spade Cooley’s actions on the day of his wife’s killing. This was not a domestic argument that got out of hand. Not an accident with a dangerous weapon. Not a so-called crime of passion. This wasn’t even an isolated incident. It was a savage and deliberate execution which many people had to have seen coming.

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How Sun Ra Taught Us to Believe in the Impossible ~ The New Yorker


When the aliens came for Sun Ra, they explained that he had been selected for his “perfect discipline.” Not every human was fit for space travel, but he, with his expert control over his mind and body, could survive the journey. According to Ra, this encounter happened in the nineteen-thirties, when he was enrolled in a teachers’-training course at a college in Huntsville, Alabama. The aliens, who had little antennas growing above their eyes and on their ears, recognized in Ra a kindred spirit. They beamed him to Saturn and told him that a more meaningful path than teaching awaited him. They shared knowledge with him that freed him from the limits of the human imagination. They instructed him to wait until life on Earth seemed most hopeless; then he could finally speak, imparting to the world the “equations” for transcending human reality.

This instruction guided Ra for the rest of his life as a musician and a thinker. By the fifties, the signs of hopelessness were everywhere: racism, the threat of nuclear war, social movements that sought political freedom but not cosmic enlightenment. In response, during the next four decades—until his death, in 1993—Ra released more than a hundred albums of visionary jazz. Some consisted of anarchic, noisy “space music.” Others featured lush, whimsical takes on Gershwin or Disney classics. All were intended as dance music, even if few people knew the steps.

Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, to a supportive, religious family. He was named after Black Herman, a magician who claimed to be from the “dark jungles of Africa” and who infused his death-defying escape acts with hoodoo mysticism. Early on, Ra showed a prodigious talent for piano playing and music composition. After his purported alien visitation, he left college and eventually moved to Chicago, where he played in strip clubs, accompanied local blues singers, and found a place in a big band.

During Ra’s childhood, archeologists had discovered the intact tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. The news inspired many African Americans to draw pride from the Egyptian roots of human civilization. Chicago exposed Ra to new interpretations of Scripture by Black Muslims and Black Israelites, as well as to suppressed histories of Black struggle and works of science fiction. These influences soon permeated his playing. In 1952, he changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra—Sun Ra for short—after the Egyptian god of the sun. On Chicago’s South Side, he circulated mimeographed broadsheets with titles like the bible was not written for negroes!!!!!!!”

Ra formed a band, later known as the Arkestra, which featured the saxophonists Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, and Pat Patrick. Rather than employing tight swings and ostentatious solos, they played in a ragged, exploratory style, with squiggles of electronic keyboard and off-kilter horns. In the early sixties, Ra and his bandmates moved to New York, and became known for wearing elaborate, colorful costumes that felt both ancient and futuristic.

In his album notes and interviews, Ra began sketching out an “Astro-Black mythology,” a way of aligning the history of ancient Egypt with a vision of a future human exodus “beyond the stars.” The specifics of Ra’s vision remained hazy, but he seemed to believe that the traumas of history—most notably of American slavery—had made life on Earth untenable. Humanity needed to break from it and travel to a technological paradise light-years away. “It’s after the end of the world / Don’t you know that yet?” the singer June Tyson asks in the 1974 film “Space Is the Place.” Ra referred to his teachings as “myths”—they were stories about the future, meant to guide us.

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The music star’s directorial début, a documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, knits a wealth of unseen footage into a joyous whole.

By Anthony Lane

June 25, 2021

Summer of Soul

Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson’s film celebrates a forgotten music festival.Illustration by Ricardo Santos; Source photographs courtesy Searchlight Pictures © 2021 20th Century Studios

Halfway through a heavy year, the best movie so far—the one most likely to ease the load and lift you up—is “Summer of Soul.” It’s a documentary, directed by Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson, a drummer, a d.j., a record producer, and a founder of the Roots, best known as the house band for Jimmy Fallon. You may have spotted Thompson behind the decks at the Academy Awards, in April, where he seemed to be just about the only person, amid the scores of participants and the millions of television viewers, who was demonstrably having a good time. Now, adding one more arrow to his quiver, he has made his first film, in which pretty much everybody has a good time.

“Summer of Soul” is about the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969. If you haven’t heard of it, that may be because it was—tellingly, if not deliberately—erased from public consciousness. The festival took place outdoors, in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), and it was filmed, under lighting generously provided by the sun. The tapes then sat in a basement, largely unseen, for half a century. At last, they have been unearthed and, in the hands of Thompson and his editor, Joshua L. Pearson, given new life and shape.

Among the skills required of any documentarian is a croupier’s cunning, and you have to be quick to notice the way in which Thompson, holding a full deck of footage, shuffles and deals. The festival consisted of six separate events, held on a bunch of Sundays, beginning on June 29th and concluding on August 24th. But we glimpse that schedule only once, in passing, and the rest of the film makes no distinction between the different days, splicing the acts together and leaving us with the impression that the crowds that mustered in the park—some three hundred thousand strong, in total—were treated to one big rolling jubilee of sweet sounds. As far as I can tell, we get no clips from the final event, listed as “Miss Harlem Beauty Pageant and Local Talent.” Probably a wise move.

The festival’s producer, and the host of the proceedings, was Tony Lawrence, who is lauded in the film as “a hustler, in the best sense.” The outcome of his hustling was a lineup so absurdly rich, and so river-wide in its range of genres, that you want to laugh: Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B. B. King, Hugh Masekela, David Ruffin—as thin as a barber’s pole, in a pink bow tie, with a falsetto sent from God—and Gladys Knight and the Pips. Especially the Pips. Their curveting dance routines, around a single microphone, are a thing of calibrated beauty. (We long to know more, and Thompson, an ace of the educative cutaway, obliges by bringing in Knight. She credits the band’s choreographer, Cholly Atkins, who schooled them for ten or eleven hours a day.) Then, there’s the gleeful confession of Ray Barretto, bespectacled and busy at his drums: “In my blood I got Black—and white—red—Puerto Rican—Indian. I’m all messed up!”

To claim that the stage was occupied exclusively by people of color, though, would be inaccurate. For one thing, we see Lawrence bid welcome to the mayor of New York, John V. Lindsay, and introduce him as “our blue-eyed soul brother.” (For any viewers who are baffled by the film’s description of Lindsay as a “liberal Republican,” it should be explained that this refers to a once flourishing species, tough of hide but strangely peaceable in demeanor, that now verges on total extinction, like the Sumatran rhino.) Also visible, during a phenomenal set by Sly and the Family Stone, and easy to pick out in leopard-skin bell-bottoms, is Greg Errico. In the words of a man named Darryl Lewis, who was there that day, “The white guy is the drummer! You know, he’s not supposed to be able to do that.”

Lewis, a fount of geniality, is one of many attendees who are interviewed for the film. Their memories are, without exception, deliciously fresh. Dorinda Drake, who was nineteen at the time, says, “That’s the summer we became free”—pause—“of our parents.” Musa Jackson recalls the aroma in the park as if it were incense: “It smelled like Afro Sheen and chicken.” He was a little kid at the festival, though not so little that he didn’t lose his heart to Marilyn McCoo, a singer with the 5th Dimension. “I didn’t want to leave,” he says. Then, being a gentleman, he corrects himself: “I didn’t want to leave her.”

The 5th Dimension are seen performing their version of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”—which is almost as merry as the lip-synched version at the end of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005)—wearing yellow, red, and orange. “You remember Creamsicles?” Jackson says, needing to nail the orange down. At the risk of blasphemy, I reckon that the clothes in “Summer of Soul” are very nearly as entertaining as the music. The cravats! The fringes! The hectic ruffs! Lawrence, as befits the master of ceremonies, sports an ever-changing cycle of outfits, including a white lace top with a carmine vest, and a shiny shirt that looks like an explosion in a host of golden daffodils. Imagine the envious glances he would have drawn at the court of Louis XIV.

“Summer of Soul” is one of those rare films from which you emerge saying, “My favorite part was that bit. No, that bit. Wait, how about that bit?” Personally, I’m torn between Stevie Wonder’s keyboard solo on “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da Day,” in which he plays like a man possessed, and “Everyday People” from Sly and the Family Stone, with its captivating chorus—“Different strokes, for different folks, / And so on and so on and scooby-dooby-doo.” Has there ever been a neater précis of the Bill of Rights? And I haven’t even mentioned the beatific array of gospel performers, including Pops Staples and the Staple Singers, or the Edwin Hawkins Singers, vivid in lime green, swaying in unison to “Oh Happy Day.”

But something else is happening here. There’s no lack of great concert movies, so how to account for the urgent thrill of this one? Because of all the unhappy days. Because the whole of the Harlem Cultural Festival was, as someone remarks of Nina Simone’s imperious set, “like a rose coming through cement.” Because “Summer of Soul” has a subtitle that presents its political credentials: “Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.” The buzz of the occasion (even as the end credits die, you hear the hum of the throng) arose against a backdrop of profound unrest, in the African-American community above all. A year earlier, on April 4, 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harlem had suffered riots and hours of looting, and, as Darryl Lewis suggests, “New York was trying not to have a repeat of that, in ’69.” Hence the brief but vital images of white policemen, standing calmly in the midst of Black festivalgoers, and neither making trouble nor seeking to rein it in. Who knows, maybe they felt the groove inside.

What we are witnessing, in short, is not a state of bliss but a precious, precarious interlude of release and relief, before the pressures of an unequal society kicked back in. History chose to commemorate Woodstock, which unfolded a hundred miles or so away, in the heat of the same summer. But history, as so often, went to the wrong gig.

Clearly inspired by Montaigne, who added to his “Essays” in the course of many years, the makers of the “Fast & Furious” franchise have deemed it behoovely, by God’s grace, to enlarge upon that which they have wrought. The first movie, “The Fast and the Furious,” came out in 2001, and scholars have focussed on its emblematic scene, in which Vin Diesel’s character took his seat underthe hood of a hot rod, in the space where an engine would normally be. No fit was ever snugger. Thenceforth, we could no longer tell where the motor ended and the man began, and, for twenty years, that exquisite confusion has endured.

The character’s name is Dom Toretto. (“Dom,” alas, is an abbreviated “Dominic,” rather than an ecclesiastical honorific.) He is back for “F9: The Fast Saga,” the ninth chapter of this multitudinous epic, joined by a selection of family members. In fiery flashback, we meet his father, Jack (J. D. Parto). In the present, we have Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and, new to the game, his naughty brother, Jakob (John Cena). The tiniest Toretto is Brian (Isaac and Immanuel Holtane), Dom’s son, whom he tucks into bed at the start of the film, neglects, and then retrieves more than two hours later. Where’s the sitter? Is there a Grandma Toretto somewhere, with her Prius and her knitting?

The director is Justin Lin. The stunts have an elastic implausibility that, though well suited to a Road Runner cartoon, seem embarrassing when transposed into live action. The locations include Tokyo, London, Cologne, Edinburgh, Tbilisi, and, in a booster thrust of desperation, outer space. The acting is of a soaring ineptitude; the deeper Diesel emotes, the more he resembles a man who dabbed too much wasabi on his tuna roll. The most imposing performance is that of Corona—not the virus but the beer, whose labels face the camera with pride. Drink enough of the stuff before you see the movie, and you might just have a blast. ♦

50 years, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ … NYT


Just before embarking on the pivotal intercontinental voyage that would inspire much of her peerless 1971 album, “Blue” — released 50 years ago this week — Joni Mitchell considered her grandmothers. One “was a frustrated poet and musician, she kicked the kitchen door off of the hinges on the farm,” Mitchell recalled in a 2003 documentary. The other “wept for the last time in her life at 14 behind some barn because she wanted a piano and said, ‘Dry your eyes, you silly girl, you’ll never have a piano.’”

“And I thought,” Mitchell continued, “maybe I am the one that got the gene that has to make it happen for these two women.” If she stayed put, she might end up kicking the door off the hinges, too. “It’s like, I’d better not,” she concluded.

And so she left the loving comfort of her domestic life with fellow musician Graham Nash in Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood, booked a single plane ticket abroad and plunged into the uncharted blue — the cerulean melancholy of the album’s title track, the aquamarine shimmer of “Carey,” the frozen-over lazuline of “River” — all the while staining her hands with the indigo ink of poetic observation and relentless self-examination.

Half a century later, Mitchell’s “Blue” exists in that rarefied space beyond the influential or even the canonical. It is archetypal: The heroine’s journey that Joseph Campbell forgot to map out. It is the story of a restless young woman questioning everything — love, sex, happiness, independence, drugs, America, idealism, motherhood, rock ’n’ roll — accompanied by the rootless and idiosyncratically tuned sounds she so aptly called her “chords of inquiry.”

Though she was just 27 when it came out, Mitchell had already done more than enough living to know how much suffering and sacrifice is required for a woman to rip up the traditional script and pursue freedom on her own terms. She knew about sleepless, second-guessed yearnings for domesticity, and she knew about grandmothers kicking the doors off the hinges. She knew, too, that motherhood would have been too difficult to balance with her artist’s life, nakedly chronicling her decision to put her daughter up for adoption on the heart-stopping “Little Green.”

But the flip side of such pathos was that the woman born Roberta Joan Anderson and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, got to experience the sorts of things confined to most other people’s dreams. She got to learn what it felt like to fly.

Perhaps because of its title, “Blue” has an unearned reputation for being morose or even depressive. It’s not. From the opening moments of “All I Want” — composed on an Appalachian dulcimer, which she carried on her European travels because it was more portable than a guitar — Mitchell is as fleet-footed and kinetic as one of Eadweard Muybridge’s horses. “Alive, alive, I wanna get up and jive,” she declares, her dancing feet rarely touching ground. “Blue” is a coming-of-age travelogue. Across this album she laughs with freaks and soldiers, and parties with fellow countercultural expats in Spain, France and Greece. All the while, as one does on even the most exciting vacations, she will wonder somewhere in the back of her mind what’s going on at home.

By 1971, Mitchell’s restlessness manifested in more than just her lyrics. She felt confined by the fishbowl of celebrity — “I’m gonna make a lot of money, then I’m gonna quit this crazy scene” — but also by the formal structures of folk music, an art form she was beginning to consider too simplistic for her prismatic talents. “Blue” and its follow-up, “For the Roses,” would mark Mitchell’s last stop before her full immersion in jazz, a kind of music that allowed her, later in her career, the true freedom she always desired. Part of the power of “Blue,” though, is that it sounds ill at ease with genre, transitional in every sense of the word — “only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away,” as she puts it on “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” an album closer that rings out with the inconclusiveness of an ellipsis.

One tried and true way to diminish the power of a song, especially when it’s written by a woman, is to focus too finely on who it is “about.” And while Mitchell never tried to disguise the handful of famous ex-lovers and musicians who populate “Blue,” the context surrounding the album is merely a surface concern, distracting from the achievement of its song-craft and the oceanic force of its emotions. As James Taylor — romantically involved with Mitchell during parts of this album’s composition, and a guitarist on four “Blue” songs — told me over the phone, songs “sort of follow their own truth, which can be bent.”

Taylor said he knows better than to think of songs being “about” someone: “The song is about itself, really.” A few minutes later, though, he vividly recalled the impulsive Boston-to-Los Angeles plane ride that he believes inspired Mitchell to write “This Flight Tonight,” leaving him alone on the East Coast and uncertain of their future. Universality and hyper-specific autobiography coexists on this record — one does not cancel the other out. “Blue” is vast enough to hold multiple truths.

“I was demanding of myself a deeper and greater honesty,” Mitchell said in the documentary, the kind that enters people’s lives and “makes light bulbs go off in their head, and makes them feel.” That kind of work “strikes against the very nerves of their life,” she said, “and in order to do that, you have to strike against the very nerves of your own.”

For the past five decades, “Blue” has been passed down like a ceremonial rite, a family heirloom, a holistic balm for the rawest kind of heartbreak. To mark its 50th anniversary, The New York Times asked 25 artists and writers to speak about its enduring power. These are edited excerpts from the conversations. — Lindsay Zoladz

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