God’s Gonna Cut You Down

God's Gonna Cut You Down
I had the honor of doing the cover for the great Frank Catalano’s new cd, God’s Gonna Cut You Down.  He is joined by the great Jimmy Chamberlin.  These are “essential sides.”

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Published in: on February 24, 2015 at 1:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bird For the Green Stars (for Bobby Keys) Here You Go Neko

birdforthegreenstars
If you’d ever seen Bobby Keys, you’d never forget him; big body, face like a canned ham, sandy-grey hair, and a smile as big as Texas. He was from that part of the country where you swear there is something in the water that makes musicians–Lubbock County, which gave the world everyone from Buddy Holly to Delbert McClinton. Bobby was from Slaton Texas , a stone’s throw from the county seat in Lubbock.

I don’t know how many times and in how many incarnations I saw Bobby Keys. Of course I saw him with the Stones, his biggest platform in rock and roll. But I also got to see him with Joe Ely at the Fitzgeralds American Music Festival, playing the kind of music he was born to play and playing with musicians who shared the same hard-scrabble geography of childhood that he did.

Over the years I’d seen him play with Lloyd Maynes, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and all manner of Texas troubadours and he was never less than a force of nature. His sound was as distinct as that of big Lee Allen; like a sonic fingerprint. He also had the Bobby Keys mythology following him around– the only guy to get kicked out of the Stones for a while after drinking a bath-tub full of Dom Perignon. There was talk that he drank it while he and two French hookers had cavorted in it, but Bobby often said he’d already drank it by the time the hookers arrived, saying “I’ve got too much respect for Dom Perignon, than to BRUISE it in such a way.”

Whenever I listen to John Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Through the Night, I always think it is the kind of song he should have written more of. All throughout this joyful stomp is Bobby Keys, off the leash and running amok and it is the aural picture of a good time. Or when I hear the Stones’ Can’t You Hear Me Knockin‘, it is Bobby’s horn playing that low, rhythmic, dirty mind kind of horn that seems to crawl up from the depths and reach into your pants. His horn provided a great percentage of the Stones suggestive and transgressive funk, grease, and dirt and I, for one, am going to miss him.

Published in: on December 12, 2014 at 4:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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Dust Radio

Dust RadioIn his lifetime, the Texas-born guitarist and songwriter, Chris Whitley was, from time to time, criticized for the surreal turns his lyrics would take.  His initial audience here in America thought he was a blues-folk rocker when they heard Living with the Law, his freshman effort for Columbia records.  It would not have been a bad assumption.  There was plenty of Robert Johnson and Texas radio kinds of sounds on that record; lots of dobro and grit, gravel and tumbleweed. . .it was a record of austere and American loneliness.  It is one of my favorite records of all time for the very reasons some find it oblique.  There is nothing easy about it.  Songs that sound poised on the edge of roadhouse electric blues take odd and surreal turns:

Walk it with the spirit
Talk it with the spine
Mama sing “Open up yourself when worlds align”
My secret Jesus
The Good Red Road
On Blood antenna
and dust radio. . .

These lyrics might, indeed, sound odd unless you’ve been here at the end of the string.
They are oddly biblical and apocalyptic; a reminder that somebody’s world ends every single day.

Living with the Law has a few moments like this, otherworldly and common as dirt at the same time.  Tt was part of Whitley’s singular gift.

He would never make the same record twice.  He was just as inspired by Albert Camus and Chet Baker as he was by Texas R&B, and in the following records (most impressively, Terra Incognita), sometimes he got all of the lightning from these influences into the same bottle.  If it was not a completely successful record, it was not for want of trying.  Give Whitley his due.  He did not ever try anything easy and he never, ever, sounded like anyone else but himself.

I met him in the early ’90s and was struck by the rail-thin man with huge eyes.  He was handsome in that Chet Baker kind of way, kind of sad and hungry looking.  He was quiet and gracious, but uncomfortable in a crowd, which I thought odd for a guy who made a living as a musician.  From the beginning, one could tell that he’d be a nightmare for record company types to sell.  He was a shape shifter and he defied type.  There was no category for Chris Whitley and no convenient box to throw him into.  Chris was living proof that real artists search and evolve and they move forward or they cease to exist.

The Chris Whitley catalog is not a long one, so get these records and enjoy them.  Even his flawed work is better than what passes for success among lesser artists.  Start with Living with the Law; this is where we met him.  It is lovely elegiac, electric, gritty and as true as a Raymond Carver story.

Last year on my road trip out west, I treated myself to the whole Whitley output on my iPod.  I’d forgotten what a reflexive improvisational talent he was.  His command of the dobro was an utterly shamanistic exercise that channeled everything from Miles Davis’ jazz to Hank Williams plaintive yodel.  I saw him here in Chicago at the Double Door one night and he was on fire.  It was a ferocious performance with windmill flourishes and almost no songs from previous records, which pissed off the roots-rock crowd.  I remember liking the feeling that he was only concerned with what he was playing at that moment and that he was improvising as he went along. . .that performing had not become some rote activity for him.  He seemed to me far more a jazz kind of player than a rocker.  My impressions of Chris Whitley change damn near every time I hear him.  In this way, he keeps beginning.

When I started my hobo pieces 2 years ago, I revisited Chris’ music a lot.  Living with the Law seemed as perfect a soundtrack for these lost, searching Americans as Woody Guthrie or Steve Earle did.

Chris died of lung cancer in November of 2005 and not a day goes by where I am not grateful for his “otherness.”  I believe he channeled everything he ever heard, and all musical idioms American, and we are better for it.

Published in: on May 26, 2011 at 9:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Gray Angel

The Gray AngelHey–

My dear friend Steve Earle’s new record Townes was released today.  It is a gorgeous recording of Townes Van Zandt‘s songs done by Steve.  It is also a meditation on their friendship and the mortality of both men, and it is also very much a Steve Earle record.

There have been other “tribute” records, but they pale in comparison.  They were certainly worthwhile efforts,  but at best, they were watery approximations of who Townes was and what he did.  Steve’s record is the raw ether of the real thing and it resonates like no other.  I heard this record in its first incarnation in November and it was like an icicle had touched my spine.  It was almost impossible for me to discern where Townes ends and Steve begins.  It is a melding of kindred spirits as deep and murky and radiant as the ocean.

I started thinking about Townes  after i heard the record again the other day; how naturally he fits in to this narrative of hobos and scarecrows.  I didn’t know him at all,  but hearing Steve’s accounts of funny stories and anecdotes and hearing those lovely, plaintive and searching American songs, a picture emerges; one sad and lonely and more beautiful for being both things in an odd way.

For me, Townes is one of those scarecrow figures in American music. . .one of those fence posts or mile markers.  He set the bar way high and few have ever matched it.  This record is by one of those who did.  Buy this CD.  If you don’t like, it I’ll reimburse you and give it to someone with some taste.

There is a great picture of Townes and Steve in the CD package and Townes is tall, lanky and gaunt as a scarecrow.   He looks like a cowboy; a gray angel of American songwriting.

This one is for him.

Published in: on May 13, 2009 at 1:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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