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Doc at the Radar Station

Even during busy months, I try to absorb at least some new music. This May, I barely had time to keep up with obituaries, and will admit to getting all Righteous Brothers over the band possibilities in Rock and Roll Heaven. If they had ever played together, I’m convinced the combined talents of Doc Watson, Chuck Brown and Adam Yauch would have been…well, the most ill-conceived trio in the history of popular music, but don’t let that stop you from loving any of their music. Really, if any of you discover a deep bond among these three that doesn’t involve Doc Watson’s alleged involvement in the 1979 movie Disco Godfather, you’re trying too hard.

The first time I saw Doc Watson play live would have been pretty impressive for most guitarists, but I suspected something was missing. The second time I saw him, and sadly the last, was a solo show at a much smaller venue. I’d rank that one as the second or third-greatest showcase of guitar virtuosity I’ve ever witnessed (right after Andres Segovia, and in a virtual dead heat with Richard Thompson at the top of his game). Doc was meticulous as a flatpicker, storyteller, and singer. As a lifelong city guy, I got a great reminder that any sophistication and flair I could muster would likely seem backward in comparison to the pride of Deep Gap, North Carolina. Doc had a warmth and grace that made it easy to forget the skill it must have taken to pull off those dizzying runs on his guitar.

The range of material Doc liked to perform went well beyond the sort of old-timey traditional bluegrass that most probably associate with him. I think he cared much less about preserving “authenticity,” or defining his role in the musical world, than many of the folk music revivalists who helped bring his music to a worldwide audience. In an interesting biography of Doc Watson’s life and work, flatpicking scholar Dan Miller explains that in the early sixties, musicologist Ralph Rinzler had to persuade Doc to borrow an acoustic guitar for use in recording sessions, because Doc had been playing an electric model. Doc found inspiration in all kinds of places–old-timey or modern, black or white, city or country–using his fast fingers as a radar.

Doc’s only serious flatpicking competition may have come from his own son Merle, who broadened Doc’s range and deepened his love for the blues before his death in a 1985 tractor accident. Doc honored his son’s memory by starting the annual Merlefest. When he mentioned his son at the shows I saw, you could see the love and loss etched into the lines on his face.

Doc Watson, Blues Medley (“Deep River Blues,” “St.James Hospital,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Daniel Prayed,” “Mountain Dew”)

Doc Watson and Merle Watson, “Don’t Think Twice,” “Make Me a Pallet”

Vel’ d’Hiv: Springtime for Hitler (and Bicycles)

A few weeks ago, I started pulling together a bicycle-themed playlist. I’d hoped it would motivate me to train for a late-April metric century bike ride in Chico, California, which due to some feat of bike snobbery or hippie irony is known as the Mildflower.

The ride was terrific. Unfortunately, my playlist never got past a zippy little Yves Montand number called “Vel’ d’Hiv.” The song is named after a Parisian sports stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, used for indoor bicycle track racing until its demolition in 1959. Just to prove they were really in Paris, the stadium’s final night featured Salvador Dali exploding a miniature Eiffel Tower.

“Vel’ d’Hiv,” while not as well-known as Montand’s “A Bicyclette,” is a fine little bike song. But my bicycle playlist ground to a halt when I found out Montand recorded the song in May 1948. That’s less than six years after the same bicycle stadium was the site of one of the most horrifying episodes in French history, the Vel’d’Hiv Roundup. On July 16 and 17, 1942, French police arrested more than 13,000 Jewish men, women and children. Most of those arrested were held in the Vélodrome d’Hiver. The victims remained there for five days with no open bathrooms and almost no food or water. Then it got much worse. Under orders of the Vichy government, the detainees were handed over to the Nazis, who sent them to their demise at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

Long-hidden details of the roundup are featured in a recent novel and film, Sarah’s Key, and a moving documentary, La Rafle. The Vichy government’s secretary-general of the police, René Bousquet, personally refused to spare children from the roundup. He managed to avoid major legal consequences after the war, and later became a friend and financial supporter of a prominent French politician. Someone from the LePen family, perhaps? Surprise, it was actually Francois Mitterand.

Back to music: a fascinating site called Music and the Holocaust has an intriguing section on the “double life” of jazz during Vichy France. Performers often used “Frenchified” American titles and substituted French names for those of American composers (Louis Armstrong’s songs, for example, were attributed to Jean Sablon). This dubious makeover, which seemed to bring jazz closer to French nationalism, may also have helped keep the music alive and under the political radar during the war.

Others couldn’t conceal themselves so easily. It took a “miracle” for Gypsy innovator Django Reinhart to survive the war. He actually was captured, and escaped only because the commander happened to be a fan.

Yves Montand, “Vel’ d’Hiv”

To Be Or Not To Be, That Is The Playlist

To Be or Not to Be/ The Bee Gees
Jazz Hands/ Thea Gilmore
Shakespeare’s Sister/ The Smiths
Killer Queen/ Queen
(Just Like) Romeo And Juliet/ Scott Kempner
Wet Blanket/ Metric
Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide/ Marvin Gaye
Sleep to Dream/ Bettye LaVette
Paperback Writer/ The Beatles
The Modern World/ Jam
Where Is My Mind?/ Pixies
Rolling in the Deep/ Adele
The Motorcycle Song/ Arlo Guthrie
I Heard It Through The Grapevine/ Marvin Gaye
Seeing Hands/ Dengue Fever
30 Century Man/ Scott Walker
Evil Librarian/ Melvil Dewey
Head Rolls Off/ Frightened Rabbit
Dignified & Old/ The Modern Lovers
Pearle/ Trip Shakespeare
Omaha/ Moby Grape
Peel Me A Grape/ Anita O’Day
Brush Up Your Shakespeare/ Cole Porter (Kiss Me Kate)
Trap Door/ T Bone Burnett

Bee Gees, “To Be Or Not To Be”

Smiths, “Shakespeare’s Sister”

Moby Grape, “Omaha”

The Business of America is Bizness

We end up around the mountain that I climb to lose you
I said, I said give me the business that business could work through,
I say, Ask me but all my wisdom departed
Tell me but all my wisdom departed
But help please at least answer me this,
Answer me, answer me

What’s the business, yeah
Don’t take my life away
Don’t take my life away

Merrill Garbus
Tune-Yards, Bizness

Tesla Man

This’ll get your Maker nerd and guitar geek wheels cranking – ArcAttack performs a Tesla Coil version of Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” The guitar player is using an iron guitar while wearing a faraday suit, which causes half a million volts of electricity arc’ing from the Tesla coil to circle his body without harming the wearer.

The MIDI signal from the guitar is routed through a fiber optic cable to control the Tesla coils.

About ArcAttack:

Creators of the original Singing Tesla Coils, the crew of ArcAttack uses their high tech wizardry to generate a truly ‘electrifying’ performance. Two custom engineered hand built Tesla Coils throw out electrical arcs up to twelve feet long, each one acting as an instrument with a sound reminiscent of the early days of the synthesizer. A robotic drum set accompanies the spectacle, it’s high power LED’s flashing bright colors with the stroke of each mechanically actuated stick, while ArcAttack’s six members churn out rhythmic instrumental melodies. Live instruments meet drum loops and samples to produce rock, electronica and indie with a splash of punk and a dash of metal served with a side of pop. During the show, the MC engages both the crowd and the Tesla Coils by walking through ½ Million Volt sparks wearing the relatively thin layer of his chain mail Faraday suit.

Years

Years is a modified turntable created by artist Bartholomäus Traubeck, that uses light to play a slab of tree trunk rather than dragging a needle through vinyl, translating growth patterns into haunting piano music. Lovely concept – Brian Eno would be proud.

YEARS from Bartholomäus Traubeck on Vimeo.

A tree’s year rings are analysed for their strength, thickness and rate of growth. This data serves as basis for a generative process that outputs piano music. It is mapped to a scale which is again defined by the overall appearance of the wood (ranging from dark to light and from strong texture to light texture). The foundation for the music is certainly found in the defined ruleset of programming and hardware setup, but the data acquired from every tree interprets this ruleset very differently.

Touch the Sound

Evelyn Glennie has been profoundly (not completely) deaf since the age of 12, but tours the world as a master percussionist, speaker, improviser, and living embodiment of the act of hearing – not with the ears, but with the whole body. Contending that deafness is largely misunderstood by the public, Glennie creates and absorbs vibration with a level of nuance that few hearing people can reach. And yet she communicates about the aura of sound so beautifully, so effectively, that no hearing person can come away from her presentations unchanged.

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Out of Limits: A Halloween Playlist

Cafe Tacuba, “Rarotonga”
The Marketts, “Out of Limits”
The Who, “Boris the Spider”
Screamin Jay Hawkins, “Little Demon”
The Cramps, “Human Fly”
Napoleon XIV”, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Ha”
Kraftwerk, “The Robots”
Strangeloves, “I Want Candy”
Boogalox, “Chez les Ye Ye”
Weird Sisters, “Do the Hippogriff”
Roky Erickson, “Night of the Vampire”
Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, “Frankenstein Ska”
The Sonics, “The Witch”
Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”
Whodini, “Haunted House of Rock”
Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man”
Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)”
B52’s, “Planet Claire”
Bob Mould, “See a Little Light”

Cafe Tacuba, “Rarotonga”

Esperanza Spalding at the Paramount

Crystal clear, warm night at the classic Paramount Theater in Oakland – a venue every bit as classy and surprising as Esperanza Spalding and the Chamber Music Society, who we were there to see during San Francisco Jazz Festival.

Instead of a standard review, decided to try and tell the story through Storify, capturing other people’s impressions and images (both from tonight’s performance and of Spalding in general) via social media, interwoven with some of my own commentary. Not sure this works – what do you think?
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Poor Poor Pitiful Me: A Reasonable Guide to Horribly Depressing Songs

As a native Chicagoan who grew up listening to men in black walking the line and grizzled bluesmen wearing their hearts on their throats, I have a pretty high tolerance for moving music that some might consider unpleasant. But even I have my limits. Following up on my Joy Division post, I’ll descend even further into the abyss by listing a few of the most depressing songs that have kidnapped my imagination. The title pays homage to a Lester Bangs essay, A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise, and to Warren Zevon’s boo-hoo ode to boo-hoo singer-songwriters, which improbably got Linda Ronstadt to record a Top 40 hit about tying her head to the railroad tracks. Woe is me!

• Samuel Barber, “Adagio for Strings” (According to Alex Ross, “whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber’s Adagio plays on the radio.”)
• The Who, “Pictures of Lily” (Boy sees girl of his dreams and discovers she’s been dead for four decades.)
• Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Tears of a Clown” (When clowns aren’t creepy, they’re liars, or worse, opera fans.)
• Richard Thompson, “End of the Rainbow” (The author of ditties like “The Wall of Death” sings to a baby, claiming there’s nothing at the end of the rainbow. Thanks, Dad.)
• Nina Simone, “Little Girl Blue” (Bored, sad girl counts the raindrops and discovers evaporation.)
• Marty Robbins, “Streets of Laredo” (The singing gunslinger gets shot to death in “El Paso,” but that’s mild compared to this cowboy variation on the ancient “Unfortunate Rake” story.)
• Billie Holiday, “Gloomy Sunday” (The darkest version I’ve heard of the Hungarian Suicide Song. The composer later committed suicide.)
• Louvin Brothers, “Knoxville Girl” (The most violent song on the cherub-voiced death-gospel duo’s aptly named Tragic Songs of Life, reworking the English “Wexford Girl” murder ballad.)
• Big Star, “Holocaust” (Power pop drained of any power, words drained of any meaning, Beach Boys melodies sinking into quicksand.)
• Hüsker Dü, “Too Far Down”/ “Hardly Getting Over It” (The titans of melodic noise at their greyest, not seeing even a little light.)
• The Antlers, “Bear” (Heartbreaking ode to premature senility and the animal inside.)
• Etta James, “I’d Rather Go Blind” (Passive-agressive romantic obsession turns the lights out and entertains us.)
• Carter Family, “Engine 143” (Lots of songs are metaphorical train wrecks. This one’s the real deal.)
• Graham Parker, “You Can’t Be Too Strong” (“The doctor gets nervous completing the service, he’s all rubber gloves and no head.”)
• Pernice Brothers, “Chicken Wire” (Garage clutter, exhaust fumes, and no redeeming sentiments.)
• George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (Why? Because he’s dead, that’s why.)

That playlist could keep you in therapy for years. But none of them outdo the real King of Pain, Skip James. Blues was never bluer. On “Devil Got My Woman,” Skip out-depresses the whole field by declaring that he’d rather be the devil.

Skip James, “Devil Got My Woman”

Big Star, “Holocaust”

Nina Simone, “Little Girl Blue”