Monday, 30 January 2012

With Or Without You

Between radio, restaurants, bars, sports venues, shopping malls and our friend's MP3 players we tend to get subjected to the same songs over and over and over and over and ...

I don't know about you, but some of the songs have worn out.  And some can't.  It's a personal thing, of course, but some songs grab me every time I hear them.

Some songs I tend to enjoy sometimes, and sometimes not so much.  It depends on the mood, I guess.

Some songs, well, they've just plain overstayed their welcome.  Played too many times.  You know, the first million times or so were OK, but after that  ...  So they've slipped from "love 'em" (or at least "like 'em") to "can't stand 'em".  Familiarity breeds, and all that.

So here's a sampling of my three lists:

Grabs Me Every Time
While My Guitar Gently Weeps, The Beatles
Running On Empty, Jackson Browne
Woodstock, CSNY
Black Dog, Led Zeppelin
With or Without You, U2

Sultans of Swing, Dire Straits
Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin
Smoke on the Water, Deep Purple
Won't Get Fooled Again, The Who
No Time, the Guess Who

No More, Please
American Woman, The Guess Who
Life In The Fast Lane, The Eagles
Light My Fire, The Doors
We Are The Champions, Queen
pretty much everything by April Wine

So, hey all you people voting for - and compiling - the long weekend "best ever" list, do us a favour and mix it up a bit next time.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Mojo's Still Working

A while back, I had the chance to see James Cotton live.

There aren't many living blues legends left, and it's always a special occasion when you can see one of them.  Check, hear one of them.

Even though he belongs to a younger generation, Cotton has a direct connection to many of the greats that influenced modern music:  Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Freddie King, Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B. King.  He played with 'em all.  He's also played with the generation of blues masters that followed:  Taj Mahal, Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop ...

Cotton has also played with the students of all those guys, the ones that directly defined the classic rock sound:  Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Steve Miller, Santana, Johnny Winter, The Grateful Dead ...

A sonic thread woven through blues rock, Memphis, Chicago and the Delta.  A great songwriter, and an inspired blues harp player.

What a great show!  He can barely walk, he can't really talk, but man can he wail!  Great songs, tight band, and one of the best to ever hold a harmonica over a microphone.

Cotton's special guest was Matt "Guitar" Murphy, who has played for Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Etta James and Chuck Berry.  He left the fancy, showy stuff to the two younger guitarists in the band, but I'd say he had the winning percentage of tastiest licks delivered that night.

Two blues greats, two living legends, two real-time music lessons for the price of one.  As thrilling as seeing a McCartney show?  No, of course not.  Value for money?  You bet!

A while back,

Friday, 27 January 2012

I'll Be With You Darling Soon

True confession:  one of the worst records I ever bought was Live Cream Volume II.  It was just not very good.  Not as bad as Woodstock Volume II, which was unmitigated garbage, but pretty bad.

This was especially disappointing, since the live sides on Wheels Of Fire and Goodbye Cream contain some of the most thrilling live music ever captured.

So I definitely had mixed feelings when I first watched to the Cream Reunion (2005) concert DVD.  On top of the morbid "they're-so-old-they-might-die-on-stage" feeling I always struggle with, I worried about which Cream would show up.  And, you know, could they still do it?  It had been over 35 years!

Well, time - and probably restraint from substance abuse - has been kind.  What a treat!

What really jumps out at me as I watch the video is the intuition each of them shows, the silent, subtle - almost ESP-like - way they communicate with one another.

Yes, Cream was famous for squabbling and large egos.  And yes, every song comes across like a big contest, a struggle for supremacy.  And that hallmark Cream sound really is the sound of three guys doing non-stop solos right through the song - right over top of the other two guys.


But even though that's all going on, you can see a level of co-operation that's uncanny.  Clapton is riffing away like mad, but he actually never wanders too far from the chords (or the base riff).  Instead of disconnected histrionics, he gives us theme-and-a-million-variations.  Jack Bruce almost never rests on the root of the chord, and seems determined to display more fireworks on the bass than Clapton is giving out on the guitar.  Yet Bruce never loses track of the chord, and in fact frequently fills in the empty space with chords.  Ginger Baker does the same with his drumming: going nuts but never getting lost.

It's the give and take between them that's so unbelievable.  Despite the contention for the spotlight, each of them pulls back, leaving a gap here and a space there for one of the others to jump in and grab the lead.  And one of them invariably does.

Oh, you're not ready for the change yet?  No problem.  Something told me to hold back half a beat, and so I didn't quite commit myself.  Whew!  Avoided that mistake!  Oh, you want to change now?  Yikes! Missed a beat a bit there, but caught up.

That's the magic.  Sure, they had the arm in the air to signal last time, the dramatic gesture, some eye contact  ...  all that usual stuff.  But they also used the music to signal intentions - a note here, a space there, a fill over there.  And where the signal was missed, they each have the uncanny knack of being able to instantaneously change course and avert disaster.

A contest, a competition, built over a co-operative spirit and unerring music sense.  Thrilling, dangerous - magical.

Monday, 23 January 2012

I Go Wild

Another great insight that comes out of the Keith Richards autobiography is this quote:  "Nothing's ever a straight major (chord).  It's an amalgamation, a mangling and a dangling and a tangling thing."

Again, right on, Keith.

While we all have a tendency to think in terms of straight chords, the best songs - and the best guitarists - deliberately mix things up.  Suspending a note hear, mixing two chords together there, jumping ahead with a note or two from the next chord, holding a note back from the last chord.  Letting a note from the melody sound like a blue note in the harmony.

We're not talking about the deliberate sophistication and complexity of jazz, with its brain-hurting 11th and 13th chords.  We're talking about simple major, minor and seventh chords supporting shuffles, suspensions and short runs.

We're talking mangling, dangling and tangling. 

Rock and roll is simple, 3 chord stuff.  It would get pretty boring pretty darn fast if we didn't deliberately mess it up.

And Keith should know.  He's the master of mess.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Baby Break It Down

I've just finished the Keith Richards autobiography.  I've always held Keef in high regard, and the book just elevates him further.

Nothing to do with his personal life - that's a whole other thing.  But the man is a student and music lover, and a real professional who provides some great insights.

One thing that really jumped out was his belief that guitarists should master their craft on the acoustic guitar before they tackle the electric.  He is bang on.

There is nowhere to hide on the acoustic.  You can't disguise things with distortion, volume or effects pedals.  You can't rely on power chords to carry the day.  You'd better hit every note and make every note count.  You need to use the spaces in between the notes too.

Nowhere to hide.  Right on, Keef.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Endless Groove

People tend to associate the groove with American R&B, but endless groove are everywhere.

You've got your Irish groove (U2, Bad), your American groove (John Lee Hooker, Boogie Chillun),  your Jamaican groove (Bob Marley, Get Up Stand Up), your English groove (The Cult, She Sells Sanctuary), your Guyanese groove (Eddy Grant, Electric Avenue), and your good old Canadian groove (April Wine, Say Hello).

You've got your classic soul groove (Aretha Franklin, Chain of Fools), your 80's New Wave R&B groove (The Fixx, One Thing Leads To Another), your low-down moanin' blues groove (John Lee Hooker, Tupelo), and your psychedelic boogie groove (Canned Heat, On The Road Again).

You've got your electrofunk groove (Marrs, Pump Up The Volume), your reggae groove (Bob Marley, Stir It Up), your folk groove (Donovan, Riki Tiki Tavi), your dance groove (k-os, Crabbukit), and your I-am-all-genres-at-once groove (Lenny Kravitz, Fly Away).

You wouldn't call Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix R&B guys, but they did it (All Along The Watchtower). Ditto Steve Miller (Wintertime), Bruce Cockburn (If A Tree Falls), and Collective Soul (December).

Maybe black people "own" the groove, 'cause they do dominate the list.  But white boys can definitely hold their own (Eric Burden, Spill The Wine; Van Morrison, Gloria; George Thorogood, Bad To The Bone; Warren Zevon, Werewolves Of London).

The groove is elemental.  It knows no boundaries.  It unites us all.

Groove on, people.

Monday, 16 January 2012

A Lovely Kind Of Groove

Q: what do Blur and Bo Diddley have in common?

No, it's not names that start with B or guitars.  It's the groove.

Song2 is built on a groove, just like Bo Diddley's Bo Diddley.  An incessantly repeated pattern.  Not just the foundation for the song like your garden variety hook, it is the song.

You've got your two chord groove (Joe Cocker, Feeling Alright), and your three chord groove (Steve Miller, Take The Money And Run).  Sometimes you even get a four chord groove (U2, With Or Without You) - even a five chord groove (Hendrix, Hey Joe).

Sometimes there's only one chord and the bass gives you the groove (War, Low Rider).  Or the drums (Beatles, Tomorrow Never Knows).  Or a guitar acting like drums (Bo Diddley, Who Do You Love?)  Maybe it's a guitar riff (Howlin' Wolf, Smokestack Lightnin').  Or two guitar riffs (Howlin' Wolf, Back Door Man).  Or a keyboard riff (Bill Withers, Lean On Me).  Maybe it's riff over chords (Springsteen, Born In The U.S.A.).  Or just the lyrics (Armand Van Heldon, Funk Phenomenon).  Sometimes it's "what's that chord anyway?" (Talking Heads, Once In A Lifetime).  Sometimes it's a bunch of instruments each jamming to its own groove (Bob Marley, Exodus).

Lots of different approaches, but they all feature endless repetition.  And the magic is that you don't get bored.  In fact, the reverse happens; you get drawn into the groove, hypnotized, transported.  You surrender to it.

Hmmmm.  This might go on a while.  Best make this a two parter...

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Put The Load Right On Me

Do you know what The Weight by The Band is about?

Me neither.

I mean, I know it's about a visit to Nazareth, PA where they make Martin guitars, and I know Robbie Robertson liked this Mexican filmmaker, and all that.  But what's the song really about?

Who is Carmen?  Male?  Female?  Hanging with The Devil?  Really?  How about Chester?  What's that about?  Luke?  Judgement Day?

Is this a religious song?  Apocalypse now (or soon)?  Is it just a trip?  I mean, a trip?  Is it, like so many nonsense songs of the time, about nothing at all?  Is it happy?  Sad?  Defiant?  Uplifting?  Humorous?  All the above?

No idea.

I do know this, though.  When I hear it, when I play it, I'm often (which is to say usually - OK almost always) inexplicably overcome by emotion.  Which emotion?  All of the above.

How can that be?  How can you have a strong reaction to a song when you don't even know what's going on?  When you can't really describe what the reaction is?

The song is 41 years old now, so lord knows how many times I've heard it.  And, since the reaction seems to intensify with age, maybe I've gradually projected thoughts, experiences and feelings onto the song.  A mixed up bundle of them, obviously.

Or maybe it's just magic.  After all, we're talking about music here.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Less Is More

Speaking of Guitar Heaven ...

Technical prowess is impressive, but musicality is something else.

Take the case(s) of three rock icons who are not typically thought of as guitar heroes:  John Fogerty, Pete Townshend and Neil Young.

All three are more known for their songwriting than their guitar prowess.  All three were constrained in what they could do because their instruments carried the song (and the band).  And all three excel(led) at simple.

Fogerty's songs aren't much more than campfire folk songs, but they feel more complicated.  Dead simple chords, but lyrics and melodies that keep things interesting.  And his guitar solos never stray too far from the chord - in fact, they often are the chord (we're pretending the aimless wandering on Suzie Q and Grapevine didn't happen here).

Townshend's best songs are a little more complicated, but not much.  And again, his best solos are chord based.

Maybe Neil Young is in another category, now that I'm writing this.  His acoustic playing is superb, and often intricate.  His electric work is simpler, though (and noisier).  His soloing is neither simple nor complicated - it's just, just  … just downright weird. 

Every time I listen to him solo I think "this is so bad, why does it work?"  He has this uncanny knack of not sounding good but still sounding right.  Like he's deliberately saying, "I'm not Santana, Clapton, Hendrix, Beck, Vai or Malmsteen.  So what?  Doesn't this fit the song?"

Different styles, to be sure, but all three are skilled guitarists.  And all three let the song do the work.  And that, kids, is alright.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Run For Cover

There are two basic approaches to doing a cover song:  you can try to be true to the original, paying homage to it by trying to replicate it.  The Beatles were masters at that, because - even though they went virtually note for note when they covered Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins - they still sounded like the Beatles.

A second strategy is to come up with a brand new interpretation, to take the song and re-invent it, to capture the magic of the old song yet make it fresh at the same time.  Not an easy thing to do, which is one of the reasons I admire Eric Clapton.  He is a master at re-interpreting other people's songs (OK, except maybe for I Shot the Sheriff).

In both cases you're trying to improve over the original (respectfully of course).  If that's not the goal, or if the song can't be improved (because it's already perfect), then what's the point?

Which brings us to Guitar Heaven, Sanata's recent recording.  Unfortunately, Carlos doesn't seem to be following either strategy.  Except maybe for While My Guitar Gently Weeps, he doesn't really seem to be trying anything particularly new (no, not even the rap vocals on Back In Black).  But he's not trying too hard to stick with the original either.

So, you recognize the songs, and you recognize Santana's guitar playing, but in the end it comes off like Carlos is just jamming along to songs he likes, and we all like.  But has he improved any of them?

Sorry, Carlos, but nope.

By the way, since when was Riders On The Storm a guitar song?

Sunday, 8 January 2012

It's Just A Kiss Away

Sometimes, it seems like great music is about taking little pieces and re-arranging them.

Take Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones, for example.

A one-chord verse, and a clever re-working of Dylan's/Hendrix's groove on All Along the Watchtower (substituting C# Major for C# Minor - and yes I know it sounds like Hendrix is playing C Minor, but he tuned his guitar down a half step).

Anyway, that's it: one chord held through the verse, and three chords repeated over and over during a relentless, driving chorus.  Throw in a simple melody sung by an iconic voice and - presto! you get one of the most powerful songs ever recorded.

Of course, it's not quite that simple.  The arrangement is pure genius.  The unnerving repetition of the scraper, the tentative way the guitar comes in (the tremelo adding to the hesitation), the mournful oohs as the song builds and first verse starts.  You know this is a song about fear and loathing way before Mick starts telling you he's at the mercy of forces beyond his control, that he's afraid he might fade away. 

Then the chorus kicks you in the gut.  We're on the edge.  It's not about Mick.  It's usWe might not make it.  And before you know it, you're thinking, "Hey!  Give
me shelter, man!  I'm in trouble."

Not convinced?  OK, let's make it personal.  This is not a song about bad weather.  And war is not a vague concept in some far off, distant land.  It's rape.  It's murder.  It's here.

Then, once you're stripped, lost and without hope:  Love is just a kiss away.  And just like that your emotion shifts from despair to hope.  To defiance.

Simple music, clever arrangement, powerful words:  a great recipe for an overwhelming emotional ride.

Oh, and you can dance to it, too.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Forever Young

Paul once said, "We used to say we could never be thirty year old Beatles.  But we will be, and not too many years from now."

Well, he was right the first time, because they broke up.  But, he was also wrong, because he has gone on, in his fifties and sixties, to be the perpetual Beatle.

He's alone, though.  Ringo, who is now over seventy, has gone on to be Ringo, something he and he alone can achieve.

John and George worked hard at being ex Beatles, not Beatles, something-other-than-Beatles.

And while Paul's ability to be a Beatle at age 69 is just short of miraculous, John has something Paul can never achieve.  Thanks to a murderer by the name of David Mark Chapman, John will be forever young.  Paul can amaze us by defying his age and acting young, but John can't get older - ever.

And while Paul can impress and make us think, "good on ya, man,"  John's memory is distilled into one or two images from his thirties and a dozen or so from his fresh faced, cheeky twenties.  That takes us back, and keeps us young.

John's been dead for thirty-one years now, and a healthy portion of the planet was not yet born then, but he'll be forever young, and he'll share that with all of us.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

It Took Me So Long To Find Out

I remember a class in college where the professor took us through why Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the perfect example of the genre.  He deconstructed it, showing how the melodies and their development, the harmony, the structure and the arrangement just epitomized everything about how a good symphony was supposed to work.

I don't know if it's the best example, but if you were looking for a candidate for the perfect Rock and Roll song, Day Tripper by The Beatles would have to be in the running.  An unforgetable hook, duplicated on guitar and bass, a driving beat, fabulous vocals featuring the patented Lennon/McCartney who's-singing-lead-and-who's-backup? harmony ... it's got it all.

The hook features a classic blues by-play between the major and minor third, keeping things fresh by adding a 2nd/9th over the otherwise standard pentatonic scale (well not so standard because of the major-minor third thing).  A nod back, a look to the future.  A cheeky "I'm both and I'm neither" attitude. 

The song is standard twelve bar blues/rock disguised by a few extra chords (2, 3 and 6).  Again a nod to tradition as we keep things fresh and surprising.  Then there is the classic 50's-early 60's harmonic build up at the end of the bridge/solo - again made fresh by featuring it in such a driving, bluesy song (no doo-wop stuff here, brother) - then pushed aside as the drums burst through at the end to clear the way for the main hook.

Of course, just like Beethoven didn't sit down and clinically approach writing what turned out to be both a masterpiece and the benchmark for the symphonic form, neither did the Beatles consciously design and manufacture the song.  It also comes from the heart as well as the head.  In the end, that's what makes it so darn good.

Like I said: I don't know if it's the best example, but I'll tell you one thing:  that's rock and roll, baby.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Stuck In The Middle With You

The previous post about Top 500 countdowns got me thinking about the predictability of mass culture, how we're all duped, but pretend we're not being duped  ...  about how we're trained to embrace the big ideas like they were actually new and exciting and cool even though at bottom it's just cynical manipulation.

Someone comes up with a radical idea to countdown the top 500 songs of all time, and it works.  So it's copied, becomes commonplace, and just enters the landscape.  Predictable, unnoticable, like so much background noise.

Someone creates a beer commercial with a bunch of fun loving goofs and lots of female eye candy, and now every beer commercial follows the formula.  Every  ...  single  ... one.

And so it goes.  If it works, it gets copied, blitzed, duplicated, replicated and mandated to the point where we're inundated, nauseated and sedated.

The worst, of course, is when we're told the really hip people, those who will not conform, only use such-and-such a product.  And amazingly, we often embrace the message, ignoring the fact that we're all actually conforming.

Funny people, we humans.  We like to conform, but also like to pretend we won't, under any circumstance, um, conform.

When this concept is taken to the marketing of, say, mayonnaise substitute, though, I just dunno.  Kinda makes you feel like maybe we're all being herded into a spot where individualism doesn't count?

By the way, Bohemian Rhapsody finished at number 9 this year.