OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: MUSIC REVIEWS & MUSINGS BY MARY LEARY
JOAN ARMATRADING, TALBOT TAGORA, & SOME GREAT BAM-BAMS
Sky Saxon, Richie Hayward, Ringo Starr, Mick Fleetwood
The 2010 Grammy Awards
Talbot Tagora: Lessons in the Woods or a City (Hardly Art)
Joan Armatrading: Steppin’ Out – Greatest Hits Live (Eagle Rock)
So I’m watching the Grammys and noticing that Ringo, while presenting, apparently hasn’t been asked to perform. Even with all the well-produced segments and talent, this strikes me as “off.” I mean, a Beatle is in the house and no one invites him to do “It Don’t Come Easy, ” perhaps with Lifetime Achievement honoree Honeyboy Edwards adding some country blues grit? Hmmm…
Since I’ve been trying to conjure new stuff for a poetry competition, I end up with this take on proceedings:
Exhausted by dripping, spinning-wet white girls;
Beyonce’s operatic war prance, Honeyboy snarls
and drops, clutching his award.
Incensed at being left out
of the spot, an unlit Ringo calls
his sponsor, gets brought
back to brown earth to stand
for 12 hard days, a Granny
Smith in each hand. Not long until
he grins, hallucinates side-shuffling with
three others in black bowlers now
bobbing through seaweed
with the caprices of a moon
a sweet beat.
So I’m still trying to come up with some decent poetry. But when Jeff Beck saluted Les Paul with an impressive swing through “How High the Moon,” I wondered why Ringo wasn’t onstage for that, or if Jeff Beck would have thought he should be – and then, almost immediately, felt oddly disloyal. Ringo’s one of my favorite rock drummers. While he may lack the technical wizardry of Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker, I respect players, especially drummers, who have the right-sized egos and sensitivity to hear what will best serve the material. To me this is at least as valuable as advanced technique, and I believe I’d get nods from thousands of musicians who’ve found creative fruition through involvement with good drummers (and bassists, the other too-often elusive element). I’m also in the “Ringo’s-drumming’s-often-underrated” club. Along with rocking like crazy, and meeting the challenge of odd time signatures (“Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Here Comes The Sun”) he’s often exhibited a beautiful restraint, some of which may have stemmed from the creativity and thoughtfulness involved in having to strive for ambidextrousity (he was born left-handed).
Nothing better illustrates Ringo’s fortitude than the Beatles’ first American tour stop (February, 1964). The following footage is nearly as funny as it is exciting, reminding me of the Lilliputian physical reality of the “Stonehenge” designed by Spinal Tap. Years after the Washington Coliseum show, it’s hard to imagine how the promoters thought a few nightclub-sized amps would hold up to thousands of screaming, stomping fans. On the other hand, everyone was taken aback by the tidal waves of enthusiasm that enveloped the Beatles’ U.S. debut.
Perched with his kit atop a shaking, flimsy platform, often straining to hear the others, Ringo gave the beating of a lifetime to drums that kept inching away from him.
I don’t know about you, but I could keep laughing and clapping along with Beatles videos indefinitely. However, there’s other business to be seen to. So back to the Grammys: As the list of deceased-in-2009 talent rolled, I waited and waited… in vain, for mention of Sky Saxon.
It was bad enough when his sudden passing was completely overshadowed by those of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett on June 25). As far as I’m concerned, Saxon and The Seeds are gods, and there should now be a national holiday in honor of them and all Garage Rock. The Grammy omission is seriously annoying. Since it’s impossible to combat decades of popular indoctrination and a ratings-driven news media, here’s some comfort: A lot of cool things kept happening for/around Sky, like working with the Flaming Lips, Billy Corgan, and many more. Week he died, I just kept running Seeds footage on social networks and being glad the band’s biggest hit, “Pushin’ Too Hard,” is widely credited, along with other smokin’ Garage tracks, with influencing the New Wave/Punk movements. The R&R Hall of Fame deems it “One of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
When the Seeds made an appearance on ‘60s sitcom The Mothers-in-Law, Sky threw down an impassioned performance in a ridiculous setting. While he wasn’t known for drumming, he also threw down some percussion.
As my pal Jack Skelley commented when I posted this elsewhere, “Sky Saxon tortures the maraca with the tambourine.” Which brings me to the other element missing from the Grammys: Humor – most of the performers were so intent on being fierce that camp didn’t know it was Camp (or missed the extra steps that could have taken it there). The fun factor was too often lost in action.
I know my editors get nervous about long installments, and this one’s gonna get seriously out of control. Well, that’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. Or, in this case, an exciting new (in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s) rockin’ Blues hybrid, which was perfectly complemented by the kind of percussionist most of us can only dream of working with – always knowing what to do, when to drop out, and how to drive a song beyond the limit. In this case, Mick Fleetwood’s relatively low-key (I’m still waiting for the smoking 1970 Boston Tea Party footage of “Oh, Well” to surface).
In the face of all this older-school splendor, it can be hard for many contemporary Indie/Alternative/Rock/Whatever units to hold my attention. One exception has joined Micachu in at least partly meeting my craving for the sadly defunct TFUL 282. That’s the happily chaotic “math” or “art” rock of Talbot Tagora, a Seattle trio that some liken to Polvo. I just said “Yes, yes, yes!” when I heard the band tear into “Mixed Signals through Miles of Pilgrimage” (from their July, ’09 release, Lessons in the Woods or a City). The group’s more Lord of the Flies-manic than either TFUL 282 or Micachu, and less harmonic and cathartic than either. Beat Happening and Velvet Monkeys/Sonic Youth ghosts occasionally make visitations.
While I giggle at paragraphs of fragments telegraphing Talbot’s intent (like scribbles from a grad. thesis written under the influence, or from a performance art proposal: “The living. Orgasm. The dead. Limit. Excess. Direction. Lady. Mind. Genitals. Man. Puzzle. Sugar. Drug. Bottle. Seed. Bling. Pet. Bondage. Decoration. Tunnel. Bridge. Land. Program. Window. Metaphor. Projector. Flag. Planet…” etc.), I’ll be up for hearing any new release (and if they ever land in San Diego – unfortunately, they’re among the artists who usually take a sharp left after the Frisco tour stop). A higher fidelity version of “Replacing the Northwest” can be found on Lessons.”
It’s impossible to imagine Talbot without drummer Ani Ricci, who sometimes wails so furiously, the other two have to haul-ass to catch her. I like her innovative approach to the project, the song structures, and her own strengths and limitations.
Richie Hayward came up in a recent OTBT installment that included Little Feat. Along with his LF role, Hayward has been one busy drummer – in this case, because he’s adaptable, creative, and technically amazing. Yup, he’s the type who can take his pick: His choices have included shows and/or recordings with John Cale, Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Buddy Guy, Nils Lofgren, Robert Plant, and Tom Waits. Hayward also lent his chops to Joan Armatrading, around when she was adding some Rock/New Wave punch and delivering some of her most exciting shows.
If a performer can quietly explode onto the scene, that’s what Armatrading did from 1975-1980. The woman was a phenomenon (still is, but that’s another document) by anyone’s standards. With an easy Caribbean grace (she moved from Saint Kitts to London when she was seven), she embodied women’s liberation, freedom and expression for women of African descent, obvious, unapologetic bisexuality (without a public statement or fanfare), and a unique hybrid of Folk/island/Blues/Rock sensibilities. She was a confident guitar stylist, sometimes playing her own leads. And she bore witness to the heady freedom women briefly enjoyed in the pre-AIDS ‘70s.
Many of her lyrics could stand alone as poetry: “Oh the feeling/When you’re reeling//You step lightly, thinking you’re number one //Down to zero with a word/Leaving… for another one”… “Brand new dandy/First class scene-stealer//Walks through the crowd and takes your man” (“Down To Zero”.)
With vocal swoops rivaling a yodeler’s, Armatrading occasionally lost pitch, and the high end of her vocals was sometimes weaker than the low. Her off-the-chart creativity – unique vocal/compositional/guitar rhythms, painting a parallel world, and unique style meldings—tended to eclipse any imperfections. Another remarkable trait was her ability to write song after song around “The I” and/or romance and to sustain interest in these themes by making them feel universal.
Before reviewing Steppin’ Out (available February 23) I thought of Armatrading as the dynamic, rather subdued coffeehouse player she appeared to be on her self-named album cover. Her 1980 Rockpalast concert gives the lie to that perception. She’s clearly in her element with a dream team of some of the era’s most collaboratively gifted players. Along with Hayward, there were bassist/songwriter/L.A. mover and shaker Bill Bodine, guitarist Richard Belke (also known for his work with The Tractors), Wet Willie alumni and Randy Newman/Gregg Allman/Bonnie Raitt supporter Rick Hirsch, and Eric Clapton band member Dick Sims on keyboards.
It’s hard to believe these guys had only two weeks to learn her idiosyncratic rhythms and (sometimes) odd tunings. What transpired was a show often dipping into the sublime, with many of the arrangements surpassing those on the original recordings. The audience was given every nuance of the poignant “Down To Zero,” the jaunty, New-Wave-influenced “Me Myself I,” the contagious “Love and Affection,” the offhand, poetic exuberance of “Kissin’ and a Huggin’,” and the intensity of “Tall in the Saddle” and “You Rope You Tie Me.” Topping these highlights is a beautiful realization of “Cool Blue Stole My Heart” (one of the handiest evocations of falling in love I’ve ever heard) to which Rick Hirsch contributes an elegant solo exemplifying everything wonderful about the ‘70s “mellow rock” upon which some reactionary punkers liked to spit. Adding a nice addendum is the after-show interview: trendy T-shirts and kerchiefs, and the spirited-while-respectful milieu provide a 1980 snapshot as well as the jubilant crowd that claps along with “Cool Blue.”
I was going to share the Ray Barretto CD that’s a current obsession. But I know even the most rabid music lovers need to go buy coffee beans or rake the cat box. So I’ll just close by sharing something I wish weren’t the case: This past August, Richie Hayward was diagnosed with liver cancer. As of the latest report, it’s still quite a battle. Partly because Hayward is in Canada, and has no health insurance, a web page has been made for friends, fans, and donations: http://www.littlefeat.net/index.php?page=news&n_id=615