Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tangled Roots in the Urban Hothouse

“I wouldn't live in New York City if they gave me the whole dang town
Talk about a bummer it's the biggest one around
Sodom and Gomorrah was tame to what I found…” Buck Owens

“Goin' to New York, get on the New York quiz show
Gotta win myself some all o' that dough
I'm goin' to New York, I'm goin' to New York
I'm goin' to New York, I'm goin' if I have to walk…” Jimmy Reed

“New York City, You’re a part of my life in every which way
New York City, Everything I ever meant - everything I say
New York City, I cant break loose…” Al Kooper

New York City is many things for many people--financial capitol, international crossroads, cultural dynamo, concrete jungle, a city in a hurry but never so much it won’t pause to admire itself in a glassy skyscraper or bodega window. Thirty-six percent of New Yorkers are foreign-born; 170 languages are spoken in the city of hoagies and fuggeddaboudit. Musical culture in New York is particularly rich, reflecting massive waves of immigrants over the centuries as well as acting as magnet to American musicians and an apt metaphor for romance, temptation, and dissolution.

The pressures of daily life and the mix of cultural resources make for a unique creative soil in the urban hothouse. Irish immigrants and their descendants have sustained vital Celtic-based music around the boroughs; Eastern European Jews brought klezmer music in the great migrations of 1880-1920, and the revival of klezmer in the last 40 years has not just been due to their descendants but to the appeal the improvisational and rhythmic energy and bluesy tonalities holds for many American musicians; the Italian immigrants brought their mandolins and luthier traditions that heated up the fermenting music of ragtime and early jazz orchestras and gave New York its greatest guitar makers in John D’Angelico, Jimmy D’Aquisto, and Robert Benedetto.

New York is not the first city to come to mind when discussing blues music, but the large African-American population has been a crucial market for blues and R&B musicians with shows at the Apollo among the landmark recordings for many stars. Jimmy Reed’s 1961 album at Live at Carnegie Hall (actually a studio recreation of the concert), the Modern Jazz Quartet’s 1966 album Blues at Carnegie Hall, a Son House Carnegie show during the revival of his career in the 1960’s, were just part of a long tradition at that concert venue dating back to 1882 with soprano Sissieretta Jones’ Carnegie debut; W.C. Handy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Joe Turner, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Leadbelly, Ike & Tina Turner, Big Bill Broonzy all shook the rafters at Carnegie Hall.

I moved to New York City in 1990 to study creative writing and to teach English; music was a passion informing my poems, playing guitar something I did when alone. I loved blues and jazz, folk and folk-rock, knew next to nothing about primitive country music, Appalachian ballads, or even mainstream country music aside from a few hits too big to avoid and country-rock hybrids that blossomed in the late 1960s. By 1994 or so, I was starting to learn about a growing interest in banjo music, string band music, and traditional ballads working its way through younger musicians in the city. They were seeking out elders from the 1950s/60s folk revival such as Peter Stampfel and the late Dave Van Ronk for lessons, listening to Dock Boggs and Dave Macon and Clarence Ashley, and applying what they’d learned from a youth spent on 3-4 chord rock and punk songs to material that was one of the sources of those louder, faster pop musics.

Just as the folk revival was partly a response to pop-culture blandness of the 1950s, rock and roll a response to folkie purists in the 1960s, and punk a response to bloated corporate rock of the 1970s, what has become a second blooming of folk revivalism took root in the 1990s as an alternative to the prevailing sounds of commercial music. Such a dialectic is one means by which music stays vital and relevant; hybridization, the combining of forms and styles to yield new paths to aural delight, is another. Today in New York, on any night of the week you can go hear (or play with in various jams) bluegrass bands, old-time string bands, primitive banjo and fiddle players, classic country and country-rock bands, country blues, urban blues, and artists who mix any and all of these sounds up for whatever their personal muses demand of them.

Since forming my own performing group, American String Conspiracy, in 2003, I’ve been working the community garden of the New York folk-roots-country scene, playing shows with my band and working as a sideman in other bands, going to jams, listening to musicians I admire and stealing whatever I can glean from their fingers. I am in a music-lover’s paradise, and I didn’t have to die to get there. Like the tourist who asked Arthur Rubenstein (or Jascha Heifitz in one early version) for directions to Carnegie Hall, all I had to do was practice.

Three of my fellow practitioners of American music have been sources of great delight and inspiration during my labors: Will Scott, Joe Cassady, and D.B. Reilly. I know them all, have played with them or shared stages with them, and I have no intention of pretending to write about their music from any “objective” or “unbiased” point of view. On the other hand, none of them can afford to add me to their payrolls, and they play great shows to packed audiences and record wonderful albums without my help. I’m just in my own bloggy fashion trying to sow the seeds of musical charms where I can, an aural Johnny Appleseed if you will.

Will Scott is one of my oldest and dearest friends in music. After a decade in New York, Will recently moved to Philadelphia, but he performs regularly in NYC. We both studied slide guitar with a great teacher and musical mentor, Preacher Boy Watkins, and I first met Will at a birthday show/jam for Preach. Will sang one of his signature songs at the event, “Louisiana Lullaby”, and that was all it took to make me a fan. It’s a mournful, nostalgic ballad to an old lover and a landscape left behind, a highpoint on his terrific 2009 cd Gnawbone (Weather Tone Records WTR0032). I would not call Will a prolific composer, but rather a meticulous craftsman who puts an enormous amount of care into each word and measure of music. He spent a lot of time and gigs developing the material on Gnawbone, and the result is one of the best cds I’ve heard in many years. I’m used to seeing Will play solo shows, or backed by an acoustic bass or a drummer. Watch Will and drummer Wylie Wirth performing the title cut Gnawbone at 55 Jay St. in Brooklyn. Here's a solo performance of the tune for the TV show Cooking for Bachelors, which really seems to be about Drinking with Cute If A Tad Scruffy Musician, at least in this episode. Still, Will’s slashing slide guitar work is well documented, and he has steadily garnered praise for his playing. He spent his Midwestern youth playing electric lead guitar in blues bands and not singing at all, but his decision to get deeper into country blues and his own voice was a wise one. He’s a true soul singer.

The cd presents his songs and singing in a fuller context, with expert production and guitar support from Preacher Boy (who adds keys, mandolin and percussion as well), Joe Magistro on drums and Jim Whitney on bass, for a sinuous, near-psychedelic blues band sound. The opening cut, “Jack’s Defeat Creek”, sets the tone with shimmering vibrato guitar and plenty of backbeat and bass. “Come on sunshine/ I’m on my last dime,” pleads Will, sounding like the dime won’t outlast the rain. The song is not a blues by structure, but the good Lord or the Devil or both decided that Will would never escape the blues no matter what the song might be. “Gnawbone” is even better on the album, with a rolling Afro-Latin accent over the 4/4 drums and more great guitar work from Preach. Command of rhythm is one of Will’s not-so-secret ingredients, live or in the studio, in both his singing and guitar work. He’s spent a lot of time with the music of Son House, Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough and the rough and tumble “Mississippi hill country” sound. His covers of Preachin’ the Blues and other classics are stunning live, but the real payoff is how he brings that desperately blue feeling to his original songs.

The best example of this might be his song “Stain Lifter” which along with the title cut are the key songs on Gnawbone. A quiet, finger picked meditation on mortality and the tentative grip on spirit every body holds, “Stain Lifter” is transfixing, even frightening, in the same way Johnny Shines has described Robert Johnson singing “Come On In My Kitchen”--devastating beyond the measure of any applause. Here is a solo live version from a California show in 2009. But be forewarned: Will Scott can deliver chills at any moment, with any song. for more proof of same.

Joe Cassady takes a more laid-back approach to the classic three chord American song, favoring a country-rock musical palette and understated approach to singing. He runs Avenue A Records with some fellow musicians, has several fine cds with his band The West End Sound (I own What’s Your Sign from 2006 and The Chymical Vegas Wedding from 2010). As you might guess from just the two cd titles, Joe can work contemporary vernacular and stranger poetics into his songs with equal skill. His everyman twang invites close listening without forcing the issue--he’s one of the friendliest singers I’ve heard, befitting his generous personality. The invitation, however pleasantly voiced, is not for the faint-hearted or the escapist. The opening song on The Chymical Vegas Wedding (of Joe Cassady and the West End Sound) is “Broken Down”, an easy country shuffle with vibrato guitar and banjo that surveys decay in a town, a bar, and too many hearts, a litany and lament for the inevitable losses in life. “He had something he needed to say/ but every time he tried, words got in the way/ She just smiled and said, ‘It’s okay, it’s just broken down, broken down‘…” is typical of Joe’s direct lyricism that honors sadness with plainspoken dignity. Check out this live version from a tour of Scotland.

Joe can get odder but no less tuneful, and “Van Gogh’s Ear” poses such rhetorical questions as “What if Oedipus killed his mother/’cause he really wanted his father?/ What if Jesus had killed Pilate/ bloodied his hands in the twilight?” and proceeds to question the ridiculous and the sublime, the Itsy Bitsy Spider and Shakespeare, while Aaron Gardner’s bass and Robert Bonhomme’s drums bounce out a light country funk and maestro Shu Nakamura throws in acoustic guitar fills. A funny song about the awful absurdity of life--”Let’s light up and just move along.” The uncertainty principle of the space/time continuum needs more such songs.

“Holy Hell” is a crowd pleaser on stage and no less rocking on the cd, with biting slide guitar and stuttering banjo from Nakamura and a joyously blasphemous chorus. Like many of Joe’s best songs, the lyrics embrace the comic and tragic, the ordeal of marriage as a holy hell celebrated without apology. “Rorshach of Love” is another take on the ironies in relationships, an musical update of the classic “Six Days on the Road” with a surreal tale of a lover as inkblot--”This must be what it was like when Rorshach fell in love.”

While Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, and Guy Clark all inform the songs, Bob Dylan’s influence emerges in the final song “Living Ghosts,” a hymn to regrets, losses, people and memories that won’t die. Like Dylan, Joe Cassady embraces love and friendship as balm to life’s tragic wounds, as well as music itself. Profound feelings wrapped in simple, elegant songs--it all sounds so easy, and while it is easy to enjoy, it is rather more difficult to offer with the grace and wit Joe Cassady summons. for his catalogue and concert dates

Love Potions and Snake Oil, D.B. Reilly’s cd (2009 on Shut Up and Play! Records), is a case of truth in advertising: “Instantaneous Cure For All Afflictions: Contains 10 Songs” reads the tin-box cover, and after repeated listens and sharing several stages with D.B., I’m here to testify that I’ve never succumbed to pellagra, the grippe, the chilblains, or even lumbago while listening to these 10, yes 10, songs. Originally from Virginia, at some point in the past D.B. brought his Cajun accordion, his banjo and guitar, and his sardonic drawl to New York City, how or when I don’t care, and he isn’t prone to telling. He is prone to mixing up Cajun/zydeco beats, Hank Williams-inspired honky-tonking, and a tender ballad style into an infectious and irresistible sonic tonic. D.B. is an American Romantic, like Hank Williams himself, with more than a streak of mischief--Tom Sawyer all grown up and ready to rock after all the girls are kissed. “One of These Days (You‘re Gonna Realize)” kicks off the album with an accordion-driven romp, but he follows with two lovely ballads, “Don’t Give Up On Me” and the exquisite “Save All Your Kisses” where comparison to Jackson Browne at his finest seems appropriate. The jubilant “I Got A Girlfriend” features more accordion and Hiro Suzuki’s perfect lead guitar, and by this time D.B.’s album title has been more than justified. He sings and writes like a man who has learned more than a few lessons in love, at what cost I tremble to imagine, and he’s determined to set those lessons to music. Men, do not leave your women alone with this cd or with D.B. Reilly and his band in the flesh. Enjoy this video montage set to “One of These Days” with all the whiplash wit of his between song patter.

Like many musicians struggling to find reasons to make a joyful noise in our pre-apocalyptic age, D.B. embraces the contradictions with no hesitation and plenty of swing. “We’re All Going Straight To Hell” confronts fundamentalist doom and gloom with a another kind of gospel. “Now he said, “We’re all going straight to hell,“ and maybe that’s true/ But the pleasure in his voice and his hand in my pocket/ makes me think that he’s coming, too…Now when I arrive at the pearly gates/on my dying day/ if they tell me that preacher was right/ This is what I’ll say: /You can all go kiss my ass/ You can all kiss my ass/if that’s what heaven’s like, I’ll think I’ll pass/You can kiss my ass.” He gets a lot of Amens in concert for this one.

The cd concludes with another love potion, “Love Me Today.” As much as his songs can be savagely satiric, the disarming sincerity--the complete lack of superficial irony--of his love songs are the most impressive achievement on Love Potions and Snake Oil. Like many a clever salesman, D.B. saves the best for last, a heart-melting acoustic guitar/accordion arrangement behind his plea, “Daylight is losing, like it always does/ to the night-time world and dreams of love/ Don’t fill my head with ideas, and those pretty things you say/ Don’t promise to love me forever/ just love me today.” Piano drifts in like a midnight mist, djembe and conga keep the beat soft and seductive, for a stunning finale. Good for whatever ails a heart. if you dare.

So this is my modest near-spring harvest from the fertile concrete fields of New York City. It's a hard land to plough, but the fruit can be extra sweet for the sweat involved. All this listening to songmiths has got me thinking about songs and songsters, the musicians who carried folk music from the 19th to 20th centuries, from the head, hands and heart to the wax cylinder and shellac disc. I've got some listening and reading to do. I couldn't be happier about that.