A Celebration: King Crimson in Chicago, 10 September 2019

King Crimson’s timeless and titanic debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was released in October 1969. The current “Seven-Headed Beast” incarnation of the band have been marking the record’s 50th anniversary with an audacious 50-concert Celebration Tour, which rolled into Chicago’s Auditorium Theater last night. The last time the Crims played Chicago in June 2017, the group (rightly) deemed the performance to be so stellar that they reworked their planned release dates for the year to get Live in Chicago into the hands of those who could not be in the Court that evening. While Marcia and I lived mere blocks from that show’s venue (the venerable Chicago Theater) at the time, the Scheduling Fates had us in the Netherlands that week, so we just experienced the show after the fact via CD, before catching a later date on the same tour in Milwaukee.

And now we live in Des Moines, but this year, the Scheduling Fates actually smiled upon us: I was in Chicago for work this week, and Marcia flew over to join me for the show. This is our third time seeing the Beast, twice with seven heads, once with eight; sadly, keyboardist Bill Rieflin’s wife Francesa Sundsten (who also created the modern Crims’ wonderful art work) passed away after a long illness in August, and he has been unable to tour with the group this year. Marcia and I also saw the fractal incarnation ProjeKCt Two together back in Albany in 1998, and I caught the five-piece 2007 version of the band in New York City. So on one hand, we theoretically know what to expect at a King Crimson show, but on the other hand, part of the magic of a King Crimson show is that if you leave your expectations at the door when you arrive, you’re likely to have a more magical, perhaps even spiritual, experience in the presence of music that transcends its creators.

King Crimson and its management company, Discipline Global Mobile (DGM), are exceptionally attuned to the sweet spots where audience and artist come together to create unique moments that cannot exist one without the other. One aspect of this culture manifests itself in strict prohibitions against photography during performances, flying hard yet consistently in the face of modern social media culture where audience members are often more obsessed with capturing the perfect Instagram shot or getting wobbly clips up on Youtube tomorrow than they are with being in the moment with the music today. Having been to countless shows marred by idiot audients in this way, I cannot tell you how refreshing a King Crimson concert feels with the gadgets put away until curtain time. It is Crim Policy that after all the music that is to be played has actually been played, bassist Tony Levin raises his camera to snap the audience, and we in a spirit of good faith and reciprocity can snap the band as they take their bows as well. I wish this practice would spread.

Another facet of DGM’s audience engagement is their “royal package” approach to the traditional VIP experience. Rather than some seedy backstage grip and grin photo opportunity where ticket holders are shoved through a rope line for a few seconds of reflected, resented glory with their heroes, DGM actually acquires the best seats in the house directly, and invites those who wish to purchase them to a nearly hour-long pre-show conversation with band members and management. We heard, at some length, from Crimson founder, composer, guitarist and visionary Robert Fripp, bassist Tony Levin, and manager David Singleton. And after the pre-show conversations, but before the concert, we enjoyed our complementary signed programs and other high quality merch from our amazing seats in the front row, on the right center aisle. It’s an exceptionally decent and dignified approach to audience engagement, and I applaud it.

I especially appreciated, as I always do, hearing from Robert Fripp, either speaking in person or sharing his thoughtful written words. (For example, over breakfast today, he summarized a portion of his remarks last night thusly). He’s one of a very small number of people in my life who have actively shaped my understanding and appreciation of music not only through what they write and play onstage or in the studio, but also in the ways in which they frame their work and practice, and place their artistry within a context beyond commerce. (Pere Ubu’s David Thomas also comes to mind on this front). Fripp is deeply thoughtful about what he does, and why he does it, and what it means. And he has been deeply committed for decades to sharing the perspectives he’s gleaned from those experiences and reflections, and I find that thought-provoking and inspiring. He’s also very funny, and he loves his wife very much and is never afraid to tell people that, and I hold those traits in the highest regard too. He moves me, at bottom line. I’m glad to spend time with him.

And then we get to the music: two sets, starting at 8pm sharp, wrapping at 11pm sharp, with a sharp 20-minute intermission that began, sharply as promised in the taped welcome from the band, immediately after the first set, and concluded immediately before the second set. After five years together on the road, the Seven-Headed Beast is truly monstrous at this point, making sounds unthinkable in their complexity with brilliant, pointillist precision,  tone and timbre and texture deployed in the full service of the music, which is almost always audibly King Crimson, but which almost never sounds the same, from moment to moment to moment, as the concert careens onward.

Since the Crims’ reboot/relaunch in 2014, I’ve often encountered eye-rolling about the very existence of the band’s triple-drummer front line (Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto, and Jeremy Stacey, the latter most ably doubling on keyboards, often in the same song), which somehow seems to trigger certain critical types into exegeses on excess and essays grounded in stale musical verities from four decades ago. All I can say on that point to the disbelievers is that until you’ve seen and heard it in concert, it’s hard to comprehend how perfect and powerful it is, both in the context of supporting the four back line musicians (Mel Collins on woodwinds, Tony Levin on basses, Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk on guitar, with the later on lead vocals as well), and as an exercise in its own right in high-wire, seat-of-the-pants technical expertise that’s simply dazzling in how incomprehensibly impossible much of it looks and sounds.

Both sets opened with the drummers drumming, and it was delightful to peek up at the top riser every so often and see how much the non-drummers also seemed to enjoy watching their percussive pals playing. The technical wizardry and auditory audacity continued unabated in the early going of the first set, as the gnarly and knotty “Pictures of A City” and “Neurotica” offered a pair of peeks (written over a decade apart) into the perils of big city living, with “Suitable Grounds For the Blues” following as a most apt third element, here in the hometown of electric urban blues. A mid-set block of “Red,” “Moonchild” (with improvised cadenzae from Fripp, Stacey and Levin), and “Epitaph” felt spacious and soaring after the claustrophobic density of what which came before it, though it was no less technical, just less frenetic. Marcia and I got to hear the quirky “Cat Food” (which earned the Crims an improbable lip-synching spot on Top of the Pops in 1970) live for the first time later in the set, which ultimately wrapped up with the electrifying “Elektrik” and the title track from In the Court of the Crimson King, still as haunting and evocative as ever, even with digital Mellotrons.

The second set’s opening drum fest segued into the gamelan-like “Frame By Frame,” which found Levin and Jakszyk harmonizing the vocals sweetly, as Stacey and Harrison created circular marimba tones around them. After a swarming installment from the five-part “Larks Tongue in Aspic” suite, the sweetness resumed with the utterly lovely title track of the Islands album, an almost jazz chamber music number that allowed Collins to shine most brightly as the music swayed and swelled inexorably like the sea against some lonely summer shore. The epic “Easy Money” is featuring new lyrics this year, carrying the themes of economic malfeasance that shaped the original forward into these most venal of populist times; Jakszyk’s wordless ululations through the swelling bridge section gave the song a sense of passion and fire and perhaps even despair in the face of market evils, then and/or now. A potent instrumental pairing of the final “Larks Tongue” segment with a chunky cut from the contemporary “Radical Action” suite returned the band to the knotted instrumental complexity that opened the show. Then an inspirational “Starless” (with its memorable theme, powerful vocals, and that epic building bass bridge that got the audience whooping well before it had run its way back to the final verse and chorus) and a thunderous “Indiscipline” (featuring more of the Drumsons’ incredible “pass the beat” collaborations) carried us into the second interim.

While King Crimson set lists are written by Fripp and presented to the band the day of each concert, always tailored to the moment, never stock repetition of the prior day’s glories, it was a reasonably safe bet that we would receive “21st Century Schizoid Man” as an encore last night, having not yet heard it, and that’s indeed how we ended the evening. Whenever I hear this song — live or at home — I never cease to marvel that (a) it’s half a century old now, (b) it opened a then-unknown band’s debut album, and (c) it was written by a quintet of very young musicians without much academic or technical training between them at the time when they created it.  The song is so titanic, so sophisticated, and so iconic that it simply boggles the mind to ponder the fact that it even exists, never mind the fact that it can actually be played, and then never mind the fact that when it is, it’s as if it’s the most current, most present, most right here right now musical moment imaginable. Everywhere. Always.

I’m not often awed by audio, but that song gets me there, and it was the perfect capstone to a concert that was filled with jaw-dropping moments beyond count. This review is already probably longer than it needs to be, and I could append paragraph after paragraph describing each of the seven players’ performances, but I think it’s sufficient to summarize by saying that their deepest collective strength is how well they work as an ensemble, every one of them using their most formidable technical skills to support the whole, solos (when they occur) appearing less as acts of creative onanism than crucial elements in catapulting the canon forward, upward, onward. As the sole member who has appeared at every occasion when King Crimson has manifested itself live, Robert Fripp often consumes much of the media’s attention and focus, but in concert, he’s the consummate team player, content to create quiet textures from his back corner perch just as often as he called attention to himself with fire and flash, allowing Jakszyk to spin off as many guitar solos as he did over the fully packed course of the evening. It worked. It works. It’s wonderful.

A moving and powerful evening, at bottom line, with some notable elegiac elements for me and Marcia: with our move to Des Moines earlier this year and my retirement from TREE Fund in October, this is the last planned concert of our wonderful years together in Chicago, and the date also marked the 17th anniversary of my father’s death. We remember. We celebrate. Life happens, change changes, and music matters, most especially if we open ourselves to its ministrations, and let it move us as it may.

End of concert photo time. Bravo to all!!!

And here is the post-show view of the sold-out room taken from the stage, courtesy Tony Levin. Click to enlarge, and spot the happiest couple in the front row.

Five Songs You Need to Hear (Slight Return)

About a decade ago, I had a recurring feature here called “Five Songs You Need to Hear.” The premise was to offer a peek into what happened to be rocking my world at the moment, with a focus on things that might be slightly off the beaten track for most folks. I was spinning an older favorite cut this morning, and would have shared it enthusiastically on social media if I still used social media, so I have decided instead to return to this occasional blog featurette about “gotta share” songs of the right now, right here. So with no further ado, here’s another edition of Five Songs You Need to Hear!

“Bleeding” by One King Down: Crunchy, riff-fueled hardcore from the Albany/Troy quintet’s 1995 Absolve EP, with original singer Bill Brown on the mic, before the law chased him out of town. OKD went on to achieve some national notoriety in Straight Edge circle in the years that followed with Brown’s replacement, Rob Fusco, doing the jumping and shouting parts, but this one song, for me, stands as their most titanic moment, and is perhaps my favorite hard-music cut from all of my years as a critic of record for the Albany region’s phenomenal hardcore and metal scenes of the 1990s. The song maintains a stately pace, with a six minute run time, giving itself far more room to grow and swell than most tracks by similar genre bands, with an absolutely killer breakdown for the time in which we must do the circle dancing. (Note that the image on the video is from the cover of a later album, the CD of which included Absolve as bonus tracks).

“The Creator Has a Master Plan (Peace)” by Leon Thomas: Pharoah Sanders’ 1969 album Karma dedicates its entire first side to the 19-minute  “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” one of the most astounding and electrifying recorded freakouts in the history of jazz, if not music as a whole. It’s one of those songs that I occasionally and literally plan to spin, as it requires full attention, and once you start it, you can’t stop it. That is not allowed! Co-writer and vocalist Leon Thomas offered another version of that titanic cut on his own ’69 album Spirits Known and Unknown, preserving the beautiful core melody and sentiment, but in a more readily digestible four minute arrangement. Lovely!

“I, John” by Elvis Presley: My grandfather had Elvis’ three great gospel albums on eight track tapes, and he played them incessantly at his house in Piedmont Cackalacky, when he wasn’t watching Hee Haw. I know and love them all dearly accordingly, and this is probably my favorite track from the three, a weird apocalyptic counting song with a beat than you can darn near dance to. The King is in fine voice and fettle here, and it’s worth noting that this was released in 1972, the same year as his last great pop hit, “Burning Love.” That’s about as good of an absolute “spirit vs flesh” creative dichotomy as I can come up with in a single year from a major artist’s catalog, Prince possibly notwithstanding.

“Long Island Iced Tea, Neat” by The Coup, feat. Japanther: Boots Riley’s incredible 2018 flick, Sorry to Bother You, had a long and complicated creative gestation. The first public glimmers of the project emerged with a 2012 album of the same name by Riley’s group, The Coup. It’s a bangin’ record, soup to nuts, and the 2018 soundtrack to the film provided a perfect second act of new music to help in telling this craziest of crazy stories. This cut is my favorite from the first album, and it features the late lamented Japanther, a deliriously eclectic duo who made the most exciting and trippy noises with their drums and guitars and voices. It was a match made in heaven. I wish they’d both “feat.-ed” each other more often!

“Heaven and Hell” by William Onyeabor: In my remembrance for Johnny Clegg after his passing a couple of months back, I wrote a bit about what a chore it was to find records and tapes by African artists in the pre-World Music and pre-Internet eras. William Onyeabor was a popular Nigerian musician, label owner and record producer who issued an incredible string of albums in his native country in the late 1970s and early 1980s, thought it was damned hard to get your hands on his stuff States-side. After his 1985 album, Anything You Sow, Onyeabor abruptly ceased recording and refused to speak of his musical career, having undergone a profound religious conversion experience. This cut is from his 1977 debut album, Crashes in Love, though you can more readily find it these days via the Luaka Bop compilation Who Is William Onyeabor? (2013), which annoyingly is now the type of thing that populates the checkout racks at your local Starbucks. Grumble. The lyrics make it clear that William, who passed away in 2017, was already thinking about his eternal soul, long before he walked away from music to protect it.

A Most Atypical Song (Or Ten)

I have a fond spot for The Police’s 1983 album Synchronicity, having first played it (many, many times) right after its release, on a Sony Walkman while out in the North Atlantic for a couple of months on an epic sailing adventure. It was a great soundtrack for laying atop the ketch’s pilot house at night, gazing up at the incredible offshore stars, singing along to “King of Pain” and “O My God” and being angst-ridden like nobody’s business. (Yeah, The Police were still borderline edgy when that album first came out, kids, as Sting had not quite yet become STING!).

I occasionally load Synchronicity up onto my iPods for nostalgia’s sake, and yesterday the randomizer queued up its fourth track, “Mother.” I would bet very good money that this song is the most skipped/least played of any track released on any Police studio album, hands down, no question, end of argument. Why? Well, if you don’t aren’t familiar with it, give it a spin:

Long way from “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and “Every Breath You Take,” huh? That’s guitarist Andy Summers singing, and he wrote the thing too, where Sting obviously composed and sang the lion’s share of the Police canon. (Drummer Stewart Copeland also chipped in on occasion, but his voice and compositional styles were close enough to Sting’s that I don’t think casual listeners would even notice the difference). “Mother,” on the other hand, sounds nothing like the rest of the group’s catalog, standing as a true, weird, “what were they thinking?” outlier on an otherwise hugely popular album.

I should note here for the record that I actually love Summers’ mutant blues ode to his maternal frustrations, whereas I suspect that most Police fans most emphatically do not. This got me to thinking about other groups whose catalogs contain such one-of-a-kind, what-the-hell-is-this numbers that somehow made the cut for release, and have likely been ignored (at best) or hated (more likely) ever since listeners first spun them, and then never did so again. There are some fairly obvious cases where some big names did some big experimental things (e.g The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” or Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”), but I kinda sorta think in those cases that the artists in question knew they were doing something that nobody really wanted to hear, for their own edification. More interesting (to me, anyway) are cases where artists put out cuts within their main studio album catalogs that were nominally song based and listenable, but which diverged so radically from their creators’ “normal” sound that they have mostly ended up being known (if at all) as the songs that the artists’ fans most love to hate.

I scrolled through my music library this morning and found ten fine examples of these most atypical songs, which I share below. Probably not surprisingly, if you know me and my weird tastes, I’m actually fairly fond of a lot of them, though a few are such transgressions that they even rub me the wrong way. I provide some brief statements of context on what makes each of them so anomalous, and a summary judgment on how I feel about the cut in question. Git to listening!

Genesis, “Who Dunnit?”: So let’s make one thing clear right up front: I am not a Phil Collins hater, by any stretch of the imagination. Phil is great. He really is. He just tries too hard sometimes, and we can’t gig him for that now, can we? (You don’t need to answer that). I regularly listen to the Philisis era albums Wind and Wuthering (1976), . . . And Then There Were Three (1978), Duke (1980), and Abacab (1981) more than I do any of the Peter Gabriel-fronted records. “Who Dunnit?” is from Abacab, which I consider to be the last great Genesis studio album. It’s one of two anomalous songs on the disc: “No Reply At All” features the Earth, Wind and Fire horns — but by the time it came out, people had already heard Phil sing with brass, so it wasn’t that much of a departure — and then there is this thing, a goofy, noisy Prophet V-fueled New Wave sort of number with ridiculous lyrics being delivered ridiculously, years after New Wave stopped being fun. Amazingly enough, they actually played this one live for a (short) while, with bassist-guitarist Mike Rutherford playing drums while Phil mugged about in the way that probably makes most Phil-haters hate Phil the most. My verdict: I like the studio version well enough, but the live version (see it in all of its terribly glory here) is too much even for me.

Black Sabbath, “It’s Alright”: This track comes from the unfairly maligned 1976 album Technical Ecstasy, and it was written and sung by drummer Bill Ward. It features absolutely none of the ’70s-era Sabs trademarks: no Ozzy howling, no Tony power chords, no scary Geezer lyrics. While subsequent history demonstrated that Black Sabbath could function reasonably well without at least two of those things (most especially when the late lamented Ronnie James Dio was penning and keening the words), nothing else in the catalog gave any inkling of a hint that the band could have made a go as sweet middle-of-the-road balladeers. Had this one gotten single release, it might could have followed Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed” onto the short list of shocking rockers impressing the adult contemporary crowd, lucratively.  My verdict: I love it. It’s a stone cold classic cut.

The Grateful Dead, “France”: When I considered the Dead’s formidable catalog, the anomalous studio songs that immediately popped to mind were Donna Jean Godchaux’s compositions and solo spotlights “From The Heart of Me” and “Sunrise,” just because it’s unusual to hear her on her own given the group’s normal sausage party mix on the vocal front line. But those songs did get some live workouts, and when you hear them that way, with the usual noodling and doodling, it’s clear it’s the Dead you’re dealing with. So for me, the biggest outlier in their canon ends up being “France,” a cut from 1978’s Shakedown Street that was so very ennnnggghhhh from the git-go that the group never once bothered to take it to the stage. Never! The song also bears the very unusual writing credit of Hart-Hunter-Weir, and it seems that those three formidable composers somehow sort of neutralized each other when they put their chops in one place at one time. The Dead were collaborating with Lowell George and his friend, Cocaine, at this stage in their development, and “France” sounds like (at best) some deep album cut by George’s Little Feat, or (probably more approximately) like something you might hear at a Margaritaville happy hour, on a Monday night. My verdict: I don’t hate it, because it’s too harmless to inspire that level of emotion, and I don’t know if I would skip it if it came up on the stereo, because I haven’t been able to get past the studio “Good Lovin'” that opens Shakedown since about 1980. The most memorable thing about “France” is its forgetability . . . one hour after I type this paragraph, I will not be able to remember how it goes.

Steely Dan, “Dallas”: Before their smash hit debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972), Steely Dan released a single with the Walter Becker/Donald Fagen composition “Dallas” on the A-side, backed with their “Sail the Waterway.” It was definitely pressed, it was definitely released to radio . . . and then it vanished. Becker and Fagen disavowed it from their catalog, on the only other quasi-official re-release that it ever received under the band’s name was on a four-song bargain EP called (sensibly) Four Tracks From Steely Dan, which ABC Records released for reasons mysterious in the Royal Scam to Aja era. That’s where I heard it the first time. It’s a sweet, sweet country song with lead vocals by Jim Hodder, who also sang the stellar “Midnight Cruiser” on Thrill, and was the first member of the original band to get the big heave-ho a year or so later. So atypical-Dan is “Dallas” in its style and structure that MOR country rockers Poco even managed a credible cover of it in 1975. My verdict: I love, love, love it. Hodder did some session work after the Dan, then died in a swimming pool. Based on this cut and “Midnight Cruiser” alone, he’s one of my favorite singers.

Captain Beefheart, “Captain’s Holiday”: A good number of songs on this list (e.g. “Mother” and “Who Dunnit?”) earn their spots because they’re far more abrasive and offputting than their creators’ usual fare. This is the opposite case. “Captain’s Holiday” is from Captain Beefheart’s widely loathed (and not without reason) 1974 album Bluejeans & Moonbeams. The core of his original Magic Band had bailed on him after their prior album, Unconditionally Guaranteed, and the group of largely anonymous sessioneers assembled to replace them have come to be known as “The Tragic Band” for their work on the notably unremarkable Bluejeans. Although he later denied it, the general critical consensus is that Beefheart was trying to offset years of penury by crafting a radio-ready, easy-to-digest record. While a couple of tracks bear the lyrical or vocal quirks that define the man, most of this record is pap, with “Captain’s Holiday” standing as the most egregious of the lot, as the song’s title pretty much tells you exactly what it is: Captain Beefheart did not write it, he barely appears on it (possibly only tootling a little harmonica), while lead vocals are by a group of women, singing such lines as “Oooh Captain, Captain, play your magic note.” That’s quite a step backwards from (say) “Her little head clinking like a barrel of red velvet balls, full past noise, treats filled her eyes, turning them yellow like enamel coated tacks, soft like butter hard not to pour.” (“Pena,” from 1969’s epic Trout Mask Replica). My verdict: This is a terrible song. Truly the worst anomaly in the Beefheart canon.

The Fall, “Pumpkin Soup and Mashed Potatoes”: I’m sticking with the esoteric side of things here, noting that the late Mark E. Smith’s long-running Fall group arguably took significant inspiration from Captain Beefheart’s catalog (they once covered his “Beatle Bones ‘n’ Smokin’ Stones” on one of their many Peel Sessions), though not likely from Bluejeans & Moonbeams. The Fall covered a lot of sonic turf over the years, and Mark E. Smith’s voice is so very distinctive that the easiest way to pick an epic Fall anomaly might seem to be to focus on one of the small number of tracks sung by other members of the group. But I’m going to take a different tack, and pick this jazzbo number from 2000’s The Unutterable album. Yep, that’s definitely Mark singing, no doubt about it. But is that a jazz flute accompanying him? Or worse yet, a synth jazz flute? And did that irascible Northern poet really just sing about how pumpkin soup and mashed potatoes keep his bowels regular? I think it was, and I think he did. And I think most Fall fans tend to avert their gazes and pretend they didn’t hear what you said when you mention it to them. A later incarnation of the band returned to vaguely jazz-informed stylings more successfully, to these ears, with 2008’s “Alton Towers,” a weirder and wiggier beast, and therefore far more popular with the Falloisie, of course. But “Pumpkin Soup” still stands alone, and mostly despised. My verdict: I like it, and it’s always nice to hear Mark and company seeming to have fun. It’s catchy and it makes me smile, and that should be good enough on some plane, right?

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, “T-Bone”: And on the subject of mashed potatoes: Mark E. Smith is happy to have them; Neil Young, not so much. Neil has covered so much stylistic ground over the years that a lot of songs in his catalog could qualify for biggest “Huh?” factor in his collection (I was also thinking about “We R In Control” from Trans, for example), but I think this greasy slab from 1981’s re-ac-tor album is the one most likely to raise hackles, and the most likely to invoke the “skip” button when it comes on. If it comes on. I doubt it does very often. The skuzzy riff is pure Crazy Horse, sure, and it’s got one of Neil’s trademark one-finger/one-string guitar solos, so nothing out of line there (except that re-ac-tor is recorded with such a teeth-grindingly brittle sound that is almost hurts at high volume), but the lyrics and the length of the song are what truly try the patience of the folks who might be hoping for a little “Harvest Moon” when they see Neil pop up on the playlist. Here’s the complete lyric sheet: “Got mashed potatoes. Ain’t got no t-bone.” Now repeat. For over nine minutes. My verdict: I distinctly remember the very first time I heard this song, after walking into a record store in the Jacksonville (North Carolina) Mall when the record was new. It stopped me in my tracks, and I stood there by the cash register waiting for it to run its course, which got increasingly awkward for me and the cashier alike as it went on and on and on. I loved it then, and I love it now, and re-ac-tor is the very best of all possible Neil Young albums. There. I said it. Let’s fight.

Joni Mitchell, “The Jungle Line”: Joni Mitchell’s 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns opens with “In France They Kiss On Main Street,” which wouldn’t have felt stylistically out of place on Court and Spark, her prior, most commercially-successful studio album. I’m sure many, many fans of her work just loved “France” when they spun Hissing for the first time, happy that they were gonna get another fine collection of Joni’s sweet folk-rock magic. And then “The Jungle Line” happens: four-plus minutes of Burundi drums, Moog synth squiggles, and Joni singing a melody line with a tonal structure that might have pleased Arnold Schoenberg, but not likely many fans of “A Free Man in Paris.” Joni pushed her jazz chops ever-harder after Hissing with varying degrees of success over her next three studio albums (Hejira in 1976, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter in 1977, and Mingus in 1979) before returning to more pop-flavored fare with 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast. Despite a wide variety of wild and weird throughout her jazz period, the majority of the music is all recognizably part of the jazz canon, or the pop canon, or the folk canon, or some combination of the three. “The Jungle Line” stands alone, and there’s not much of anything, anywhere, that sounds quite like it, for better or for worse. My verdict: I like the concept and the forward-looking experimental vision better than I like the execution. I’ll usually get all the way through it when it spins, but not always. Which is weird, because I love African drums, and I love Moogs, and I love atonality, and I love Joni . . . but the disparate pieces just don’t quite hold together in any meaningful way for me.

The Pogues, “Lorelei”: The Pogues were a true force of nature when they blasted out of London with their shambolic Celtic Punk debut album Red Roses for Me in 1984. They moved from strength to strength over the next five years, both onstage and in the studio, but by 1989, singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan’s punishing drinking regimen had begun to take its toll on his creativity and performing capabilities, and other members of the band stepped up to try to fill the gaps that their snaggle-toothed frontman opened for them. Most of the tunes penned by other band members on 1989’s Peace and Love and 1990’s Hell’s Ditch were recognizably Poguey, and MacGowan was still singing the lion’s share of them. By 1993, though, MacGowan had withdrawn, and penny-whistle player Spider Stacy took over as lead vocalist on Waiting for Herb, offering a similar slurry, shouty style, on mostly similar slurry, shouty Irish-infused post-punk songs. The group pushed on without MacGowan and a few other founding/long-term members through 1996, but the shtick got old, and the band members went their separate ways soon thereafter. But right in that cusp between the original inspired piss and vinegar days and the tired post-MacGowan afterlife, guitarist Philip Chevron (since deceased) penned and sang lead vocals on “Lorelei,” a big-sounding, guitar-stoked, plaintive rock ballad, recorded with nary a tin whistle nor cittern nor banjo nor accordion to let you know that it had any conceptual ties to the rest of the Pogues’ catalog. Guaranteed to make a casual, first-time listener wonder if the CD player didn’t somehow auto-skip to the next record during that Pogues playlist. My verdict: An utterly killer song that I never grow tired of, one of the most played in our family playlists since I started keeping track of such things over a decade ago. But I almost think of it as a Chevron solo song, so far removed it is from everything else that this group did and stood for.

Paul McCartney, “Temporary Secretary”: I opened this by noting that I am on Team Phil, and I close by noting that Paul is my favorite Beatle, and that I love Wings and listen to them more than I spin the Beatles anymore, and that I see some goodness in just about everything that Paul does musically, always. Classic case in point: “Silly Love Songs,” which seems to make a lot of folks apoplectic for its lyrical content and lite disco beats, but Jeezum Krow, listen to that bass!! That’s a six-minute “Here’s how you do it” clinic for the kids with the four-string guitars. That said, there are certainly a lot of eye-rolling moments in Paul’s catalog, especially in the early Wings days with things like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Bip Bop” and “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” and suchlike. But they’re all obviously Paul (and Linda), and they obviously bear the usual guitar, bass, drum, and/or piano-based arrangements of his work at the time. And most of the time before and since. In 1981, though, after Paul’s weed arrest in Japan put Wings to sleep for the last time, Paul issued McCartney II, marketed in title (if not really in reality) as his second solo disc. Paul plays and sings everything on it, bar some incidental vocals from Linda. A good friend of mine bought this when it came out, spun it once, and told I didn’t have to buy my own copy, because I could have his, so terrible was it. It’s heavily electronic, has but one marginal hit, “Coming Up,” which was actually released in a live format featuring Wings to make it more palatable, and it has a lot of dogdy lyrics and wanky instrumental bits. If there’s one song that Macca fans know well from it, and usually hate, it’s “Temporary Secretary.” With nasal singing, misogynistic lyrics, and sequenced backing tracks, it’s about as far from “Yesterday” or “Hey Jude” as one can get. It’s also a sound that Paul’s never revisited, hence me picking it as this great artist’s greatest anomaly. My verdict: I love it, of course. Duh.

So there you go, ten truly atypical songs, most of which I like in varying degrees. Because me. Hit me with other weirdo suggestions in the comment section. I’ll listen to them all. And probably like them as well.

Simple Things: Johnny Clegg (1953-2019)

Johnny Clegg died of pancreatic cancer today at the age of 66. He was an accomplished and inspirational musician, social anthropologist, songwriter and activist. His multi-racial bands Juluka (founded with Zulu migrant worker Sipho Mchunu in the early 1970s) and Savuka (formed in the mid-1980s after Mchunu retired and returned to his family’s farm) provided a pointed, potent cultural spearhead through the final years of South Africa’s apartheid era and beyond.

The vast majority of his musical output touched on the sociopolitical and personal realities of life in South Africa, with two songs in particular capturing the world’s fancy: “Scatterlings of Africa” (Juluka, 1982) was a global pop hit, telling the story of the dispossessed and dislocated people of his home continent; and “Asimbonanga” (Savuka, 1987) was an open cry for the release of Nelson Mandela from his prison cell at Robben Island. A 1999 video of Clegg performing “Asimbonanga” with his band, joined by a very special guest dancer — no longer a prisoner, but instead the duly elected President of his people — is one of the most joyful things on the Internet to these ears and eyes:

I can’t write an obituary that would do Johnny Clegg the honor and justice he’s due. NPR has a nice one here and France 24’s obituary provides a more European perspective on his life. It’s also worth reading Clegg’s Wikipedia page, if you are unfamiliar with his life and career, and the numerous honors and awards that have been bestowed upon him over the years. I can, however, share some stories about how special he was to me in my own musical, cultural, and personal development, by way of explaining why his death touches me so.

While at the Naval Academy in the early ’80s, I made a decision to focus my political science major on African politics. My motivations were not entirely altruistic: I found that it was easier to wait until the last minute to work on papers and projects because so few books about Africa ever got checked out of the Academy’s library, while the Soviet or European or Chinese shelves would be picked clean most of the time. Score one for the lazy man with a keen eye for an angle.

Initial motivations notwithstanding, I actually really got into my African studies, and in parallel, I got deeply interested in African music, and spent much of my paper-writing, reading and studying time listening to it. In those pre-Internet (and pre-“World Music” CDs at the Starbucks check-out counter) days, records from Africa were still relatively hard to find, and information about all but the most high-profile artists (e.g. Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango, Miriam Makeba, King Sunny Ade, etc.) was scarce. I had an odd hodge-podge of tapes and albums from all over the continent that I played to death for a couple of years, but the popularity of “Scatterlings of Africa” (the album it came from was even reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin) opened up new interest in African music, politics and culture that made it easier to access some true gems of the era and beyond, on and on for me up to this day. (Case in point: the brand new album from Kinshasa’s KOKOKO!, which you should hear!)

While UK artists like The Specials (“Free Nelson Mandela,” 1984), or Peter Gabriel (“Biko,” 1980) helped raise awareness of the cultural price of Apartheid, and Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986) brought Township music a wider global audience than it had ever had, Clegg’s work always seemed to me to be somehow less manipulative, and more honest, than its European and American counterparts. It was a whole lot easier for the Westerners to bring African musical concepts into their (safe) European homes than it was for Clegg to learn Zulu language and dance, gain the trust of KwaZulu’s musicians and activists, and then merge his own Celtic and folk musical influences with native South African styles and themes, in an environment that was decidedly not safe for such cultural cross-pollination.

There was nothing of the debutante about Johnny Clegg from where I sat as a fan and follower, whereas the appropriated cross-cultural works by the likes of Simon and David Byrne always left me feeling vaguely icky after I listened to them.  (Heck, when you get right down to it, Neil Diamond beat both of those guys to the punch by more than a decade with his “African Suite” from 1970, but he’s not considered cool enough to get due credit for that, now, is he? He deserves it, though, and I commend Tap Root Manuscript to you as well).

Anyway: Juluka and later Savuka were regular, nearly constant, spins on my stereo for years, and you’d likely be amazed at how much isiZulu I can sing phonetically, having those sounds and words deeply burned into my brain through repetition, repetition, repetition. Fast forward to 1987, when Marcia and I are both working at Naval Reactors, hanging out with the same group of friends, but not dating, not quite yet. We did a lot of stuff with various permutations of our social group, but things just did not work out so that it was only the two of us doing something together, no matter how hard I worked to make that happen. After some months and many missed opportunities, a Savuka concert at the legendary 930 Club (the original one, at the deeply scuzzy 930 F Street, not the shiny new, big, trendy, popular, safe one that came later) finally became the thing that got us out on the town together, just she and I, doing and seeing something really, really cool, together. Wow! Fireworks! Wow! That one night made it easier to do other things together, just the two of us, and a few months later, we were couple, inseparable for over three decades since.

So Johnny Clegg was a part of our own story that night, as was Dudu Zulu, Clegg’s dancing partner onstage with Savuka, their traditional jumps and thrusts and leaps and kicks taking the music up to a whole ‘nother level of mind-blowing and ass-kicking. After that tour, and after a few more tours and records beyond that, Dudu Zulu was gunned down near his home in KwaZuluNatal in 1992. That was the end of the line for Savuka, with yet another tragic loss added to the list that Clegg had written and sang about for so many years.

Clegg played on after that as a solo act, and on, and on, and on, and he kept the memories of Zulu and Biko and Aggett and Mxenge and Mandela and the causes they fought for in front of his audiences, lest we forget their importance and their lessons. I learned a lot about the real issues facing South Africa through Johnny Clegg’s music, beyond what the textbooks could tell me. And I learned a lot about how to speak truth to power, and how to use simple language to express complex sentiments, and how to build bigger, better, more innovative things by working with diverse communities, rather than sulking in a silo of social homogeneity.

Fast forward yet again, lots of years, to our first summer in Chicago, 2015. After four years in relatively sleepy Des Moines, it was huge for Marcia and I to have so many options to see so many cool things, right within walking distance of our new condo. As fate would have it, one of the first gigs we spotted and scored tickets for was Johnny Clegg playing at City Winery, with his son, Jesse, opening the show. It was an awe-inspiring evening, and an amazing way to mark the opening of a new phase of our life, just as that Savuka show in 1987 had been a milestone for us all those years before. We loved it! We sang along! We danced! We talked about it and marveled at how wonderful he remained, and how powerfully his songs still spoke to us! Yay, him! Yay, us!

And then soon after that, we learned that Johnny Clegg had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and then after 2017, there were no more tours and no more records to follow. Clegg fought that awful disease, but it got him in the end, as it almost always does. He was too young to leave us, but golly, what he life he lived, what a legacy he left behind, and how important he was to me, in so many ways, over so many years.

As we are subjected to racist hate-speak emerging from the maw-hole of our nation’s malefic President this week, it’s shocking, but important, to consider and focus on just how important Johnny Clegg’s messages remain, everywhere, all the time, whenever we are faced with institutional or individual racism and discrimination. No, the Republic of South Africa may not be ruled by a racist oligarchy anymore, more power to it and its people, but us? I’m not so sure . . . if we aren’t there already, we’re in danger of getting there soon, and we need to stand up and join hands and sing songs and tell stories and act in ways that cast light on and denigrate the shrill, shallow, petty evil of racism and its proponents and apologists. Johnny Clegg showed us how to do that. May others emulate him, right here, right now, and tomorrow, and in all the years that follow even after that.

As many people do, when they learn that a beloved artist has passed, we tend to fill up the listening spaces in our lives with the departed one’s music, a phenomenon that Marcia has dubbed “I Hear Dead People,” given how often I do it hereabouts, as the stars of our youth age out and pass on to some great reward. I will note, somewhat sadly, that because I knew Johnny Clegg has been deeply ill, I actually got a head-start on that process over the past year or so, and we’ve been spinning him regularly for a long time, loving his songs, loving his language, loving his stories.

I’m glad we were thinking about him while he was still fighting his final battle, and not just after he flew away from us. That listening will be continuing in the weeks and months ahead, likely with a larger playlist, since I’ve got plenty of his stuff. I close this post with the song I chose to title it, probably my personal favorite from Clegg’s canon. This one was co-written by Sipho Mchunu from the 1982 Scatterlings album. Its bottom line message — “Simple things are all we have left to trust” — resonates with me, in a tumultuous personal and political world, where the little, dear, personal things are really the ones that sustain me, the constant anchors in the noisy rushing flow of life around all of us.

Bless you, Johnny Clegg, for the gifts you gave to so many. You truly made a difference.

Best Albums of 2019 (First Half)

It’s been six months and 10 days since I posted my “Best Albums of 2018” report, so per my slightly forward-skewed rubric, that means it’s now time to see how the first half of 2019 is shaking out for new music. There have been lots of new (to me) artists thus far, along with some welcome returns to form by old favorites, so I’ve appreciated having a nice blend of high-quality tunes spinning from a variety of genres through the winter and (apparently never-ending) spring. I don’t bother with long form reviews at this point in the year, and the albums cited are just presented alphabetically by artist with no qualitative hierarchies, since I know this list will evolve significantly before I do the full 2019 year in review, and I will lock them all in then. That said, if you’re looking for good new music, and you know and trust my judgment (or don’t, I guess), then I highly recommend you explore any of this baker’s dozen of very good discs via the embedded links, as some of these are already knocking around in my head as potential “Album of the Year” honorees come November/December, and they’re well worth enjoying now. Happy listening, as always!

Clinic, Wheeltappers and Shunters

F-DORM, COMMUNE

Focus, Focus 11

Imperial Wax, Gastwerk Saboteurs

Malibu Ken, Malibu Ken

Mekons, Deserted

Alice Merton, Mint

Piroshka, Brickbat

Sacred Paws, Run Around the Sun

The Specials, Encore

Tronos, Celestial Mechanics

White Denim, Side Effects

Xiu Xiu, Girl With Basket of Fruit

One of a few serious early contenders for “Album of the Year 2019.”

“Gastwerk Saboteurs” by Imperial Wax

It’s been 16 months since legendary Mancunian musical genius and cancer victim Mark E. Smith stubbed out his last cigarette and shuffled off this mortal coil, at the sadly premature age of 61. Seven months before he flew away, he released New Facts Emerge, the final album by The Fall, the group which he had fronted through four decades of brilliant studio releases, storming live concerts, and a series of ongoing lineup changes that had long become a music critic cliche by the time he last took a stage before an audience.

That final studio document of his life’s work found Smith supported by his longest-lasting and most stalwart musical crew, guitarist Peter Greenway, bassist Dave Spurr, and drummer Keiron Melling. The instrumental trio had worked together with Smith for eleven continuous years by the time of The Fall’s final bow, most of that time spent with Smith’s wife Eleni Poulou on keyboards and backing vocals, though she was absent for the muscular all-lads New Facts Emerge, having re-emigrated to Germany, where she is now recording excellent droney noise with NOHE NOSHE.

Greenway, Spurr and Melling were left in England to handle the obligatory interviews, and my admiration for them (already high based on their no-nonsense musical chops) increased several orders of magnitude as they gracefully, graciously handled the press in ways that honored and humanized the easily-caricatured Smith, without clutching the spotlight closely in any self-aggrandizing or self-promotional ways. They made it crystal clear that The Fall had died with Mark E. Smith, while also resolutely and accurately noting that they’d become a formidable group over a decade together, and that they had more to say in their own rights. Other key tenets of the last years’ worth of interviews with the trio tended to focus on four key themes: (1) Mark E. Smith was their friend, (2) He was funny, and they had fun with him, (3) He instilled a tough work ethic in them, and (4) They had a process for making music, and it worked with and for Smith, and they believed it could work for them without him.

Based on the audio and video evidence of their new debut album, Gastwerk Saboteurs, Imperial Wax (as the group are now known, invoking the 2008 Fall album, Imperial Wax Solvent, where they first worked together) still hew to that tough work ethic, with a proven process for producing noisy, clattering rock and roll built on titanic riffs with abrasive, creative soundscaping, and they’re having fun still, both as old friends, and with a new colleague, singer-guitarist Sam Curran of post-punk garage rockers Black Pudding. You can certainly hear the sonic connections to the punchy, muscular and weird New Facts Emerge (most clearly in Greenway’s amped up psycho spaghetti western guitar stylings and the Motörhead crunch of the Melling-Spurr rhythm section), but Curran’s strong voice and the heft of the twin-guitar attack clearly mark Imperial Wax as a different sort of beast than its forebears, to everyone’s benefit.

Album opener “The Art of Projection” (which has a dugga dugga dugga Wire vibe about it) and lead single “No Man’s Land” have been floating around online for awhile before the rest of the album’s release, and they provide a fine introduction to the new group’s charms, as evidenced by their entertaining videos, linked herein. Imperial Wax would have been ill-served in recruiting a Mark E. Smith mimic (if one could be found) to handle microphone duties, and Curran shines as a front man, not only just as a different type of singer, but also as a strong and confident vocalist in his own right, with a fresh approach and a range that allows him to deliver shouts and croons as and where needed, with aplomb. He’s got a different lyrical style, too, and Gastwerk Saboteurs is a word-rich album as a result, engaging and direct in the spaces where Smith was often verbally obtuse and elliptical, (wherein lied many of his own unique and irreplaceable charms, of course).

Gastwerk Saboteurs features another ten songs beyond those two teaser tracks, with a pair of short jammy instrumentals (“Wax On” and “Wax Off”) serving as previews of an unexpected album closer, the wordless nine-minute epic “Night of the Meek,” which builds and stomps with the sorts of mecanik precision and power in which Fall-inspirations CAN once specialized. Another long highlight is “Rammy Taxi Illuminati,” a wonderfully weird two-parter that opens with a storming, shouting roots rock rave, then pivots into a lugubrious, syrupy, effects-drenched groove that would have done Hairway to Steven-era Butthole Surfers proud. (Interestingly, Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus forged the link that got Imperial Wax signed to the Texas-based Saustex Records label; they’ve been doing a great job with early marketing of the disc, so it seems a sound connection).

“Turncoat” and “More Fool Me” turn the tempos down a bit, but not the grooves, and they both merge memorable rock riffing with unusual and unexpected production approaches that pop sonic surprises into unexpected crevices. “Plant the Seed” is a classic chugger, and “Barely Getting By” is an inverted blues lamentation anchored in a timely and recognizable sociopolitical setting, rife with dismay and disappointment, delivered with demon intensity. Group backing vocals and processed guitars and keyboards (?) are prevalent throughout, adding density and variety to the record’s sound, which is spacious and warm and invites, nay, demands loud plays on the family hifi, on repeat.

All in all, a wonderful and exciting debut record from a new band forged in the crucible of an old one. It’s not The Fall, not at all, and much credit to its creators for recognizing that the best way to honor their fallen Chief is by forging forward, with the new album, if not the next album after that, standing as the one that excites them most. Bless them for sharing that excitement with us, and kudos for a job well done, under circumstances where most others would have faltered and failed.

Listen/Purchase Here: Gastwerk Saboteurs by Imperial Wax

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