Tag Archives: The Band

This Wheel’s On Fire

Ironic that on a holiday celebrating American independence, I would be mesmerized by a book about a band that was four parts Canadian and one part deep Arkansas. (Sounds like the proportions of the cocktail I had in hand). But despite the lopsided genealogy, The Band might remain the quintessential American music group of the last fifty years. Inspiring the Americana and alternative country movements as deeply as anyone, they were and are a beacon of inspiration to everyone from Wilco to Mumford and Sons.

A few weeks back I bumped into an old friend, and Jamie and I were discussing books we were reading. When he mentioned This Wheel’s On Fire, I was certain that I had read it before, but his enthusiasm (and my love of the subject matter) caused me to dig out a copy. Sure enough, I had started the book at one point, but life or travel or whatever must have gotten in the way. Either that or my memory is much worse than I think it is.

Back in college, Lou, Dige and Cass used to commandeer the corner table in the campus pub and hold court. Clevelanders, they were inseparable but gregarious members of the theatre collective I was also a part of, and it was not unusual for all of us to huddle away in the corner and try to drain the keg while telling jokes and stories and singing songs. Way too much testosterone for Glee, but a similar fearless spirit to break into song, and for the Cleveland crew The Band was king, whether they were singing along with the jukebox or in spite of it. Sure, there were other songs (“You Know My Name” was a particular drunken favorite, Beatle fans) but there was a special passion when “Up on Cripple Creek” was howled, not sung, with coyote-like yodels accentuating the chorus.

The early catalogue got the workout – “King Harvest”, “The Weight”, “Shape I’m In”, and of course “Look Out Cleveland”. Their energy brought the band to life for me at a time when I was more focused on The Stones and The Kinks, and to this day I can’t listen to the band without thinking of the three of them. We lost Dige last year, Cass was lost to us in other ways many years ago, and although Lou and I wound up settling ten miles apart all these years later, it’s maybe one call a year. Life is not a carnival, believe it or not.

This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm’s wonderful book about how The Band got together and was pulled apart, is simply one of the best books one could ever read about the life of a musician. It’s a story of friendship and betrayal, of grinding out a path and doggedly following it to the rewards and the disasters, and how one man’s passion to make music despite any obstacles helped forge one of the greatest bands of the rock era. Helm writes with an honest ease, fair but uncompromising, and I came away from the story with a deep respect for the man (and the urge to pull out every Band record I own, as well as a guitar).

Written in 1993, with an afterword from 2000, it’s really a timeless story. Starting out backing the electric Ronnie Hawkins, encounters with Bob Dylan, how a hanger-on named Robbie Robertson eventually wormed into the group and eventually positioned himself as leader, and later, executioner. While Robertson does come off like a heel at the end – “it’s just business” – Helm does spend most of the book acknowledging his prodigious talent and leadership. Rick Danko was the solid supporter, Richard Manuel the fragile casualty, Garth Hudson the rock upon which this church was built. Together they forged a new element, a whole greater than the sum.

I need not prattle on about the quality of the music; The Band is timeless. So is this great book. If you haven’t read it, do so immediately.

Thanks, Jamie…what next?

Band of Brothers

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Twenty Years Without Doc Pomus…

But not without his songs.

Timeless. Classic. Doc died twenty years ago today but his legacy is vibrant.

Still fresh now, and just the quality of the material can lift an average band onto a new level. Hell, just a cursory glance at Wikipedia lists “A Teenager in Love”; “Save The Last Dance For Me”; “Hushabye”; “This Magic Moment”; “Turn Me Loose”; “Sweets For My Sweet”; “Go Jimmy Go”; “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”; “Little Sister”; “Suspicion”; “Surrender”; “Viva Las Vegas”; “(Marie’s the Name of) His Latest Flame”…just a smattering of the hits he wrote with Mort Shuman, Phil Spector and others.

That would have sealed the deal right there. But later in his life he was collaborating with people like Dr. John and Willy DeVille, giving life to stories about people on the fringe – the loners, the night walkers, characters that would fill a film noir casting session.

I love tribute albums and Till The Night Is Gone is one of my favorites. Of course, when your songs are covered by Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Dion, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Solomon Burke, John Hiatt, Shawn Colvin, Aaron Neville, Lou Reed, The Band, B. B. King, Los Lobos and Rosanne Cash…it’s hard to make a bad album.

Doc lives on in my heart and mind. But mostly in my ears.



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Blast From The Past: Sheryl Crow

Digging through albums while assembling candidates for end-of-the-year’s “Best Of” is always fun;because I invariably come across a forgotten treat. In this case, it was Sheryl Crow’s third album, The Globe Sessions.

WTF, Doc? She’s a mainstream success, a household word!

Yeah? So what? Her first album was launched on the backs of her songwriter circle collaborators – a cardinal sin – and lately she’s been so glammed up she makes Liz Phair look positively indie again. There’s a slew of people who love her regardless of what tripe whe shovels out (her cover of “The First Cut Is The Deepest” was brutal)…but there are also people who slag her simply because she’s successful…or has legs to die for. I prefer to consider the music above the rest.

I’m just saying that sometimes you need to be more open-minded. This was a good album – here’s my original review from TransAction Magazine.

Crow’s third record is a large leap forward, and she may have finally shaken the critical backlash shes been wallowing in ever since her initial success. Maybe its the freedom the label gave her, maybe its a natural maturation of a songwriter, or maybe she just doesnt give a shit about pleasing others anymore, but whatever crawled up her back and forced this out should be bottled and saved.

Amid the nods to Tom Petty, The Band and especially The Rolling Stones, Crow’s confessional songs about sour relationships, painful affairs and surviving the nineties are light years better than her previous work. She wrote most of the songs on bass to force a fresh approach and produced the record herself; songs like “My Favorite Mistake”, There Goes The Neighborhood”, “Anything But Down” and “Am I Getting Through” are much the better for it.

The instrumentation is diverse and well chosen, and her vocals have never been better. Bonus video of “My Favorite Mistake” for those playing the CD on their computer. Give this one a spin before you dismiss her; you might be very surprised at what you think afterwards.

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Buddha With A Badass Halo

A couple of weeks back I got a call from a long-time friend that a college buddy of ours was in critical condition and things looked grim; by the time I was able to pull the pieces together he was already gone. He was just slightly older than me, an age young enough that a death is still a shocking event, but that was chronological years. Dave lead a raucous and hard life and not only burned the candle at both ends but lit yours as well. As he got older this caused more serious consequences; hangovers and apologies became damaged relationships, damaged health and lots of pain, both mental and physical.

When I knew him in our younger days, often hanging with him was like a joyride in a stolen car – you knew it wasn’t going to end well, and you had a moment of clarity that said “I should leave”…but you went along for the ride. Other times it would be late night discussions about…well, just about anything, deep emotional and intellectual discussions that would end at daybreak with a man-hug and a cup of coffee in the cafeteria before you both slept through your 8:00 philosophy class. Hell, why not? You had just philosophised all night long!

There were a bunch of us in college who hung out like a pack of wolves (nice wolves, mind you) but after graduation, efforts to keep in touch generally faded as we moved, got married, got jobs, had kids. Without the wonder of cell phones and email it took more of an effort to stay in touch, and over time friendships became mostly warm memories. Several years back, when one of us was at death’s door, word spread and people reconnected – albeit  ultimately for a sad occasion. Reflecting on it soon afterwards we realized that one of Rich’s legacies was bringing us all back together; most of us have remained in touch since and have made several trips to get together.

It was through some of this networking that I would hear the occasional story about Dave over the years – another marriage, another binge, another moment of madness that was both hilarious and disconcerting. A man who was completely charming and gregarious with a big heart and a kind soul, yet if someone described him as “the biggest asshole I ever met” you would not bat an eye (obviously they met his dark side). His meter went from zero to one hundred and back like a pendulum. I’m sure there were others who thought he was the greatest guy they ever met, but you don’t hear that as much because those stories just aren’t as funny to tell.

And now he’s gone.  No more demons. No more pain or hurt, just peace. That picture above captures Dave perfectly – Buddha with a bad-ass halo.

These two are for you, Dige. You’ll know why.

The Band: “Don’t Do It

Steely Dan: “My Old School

Look out, God – you have your hands full now.

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T.G.I.F. – Ten Rockin’ Remakes

Hit Factory

Rock music has always drawn upon other influences; one could argue that it’s the perfect intersection between the influences of country, soul and r’n’b. And many of the biggest rock bands have repaid that influence by performing those influential songs on record and in concert. Sometimes those influences were from their peers.

When classic rock was starting to explode in the 60’s, Motown was right there with them on the charts. People often forget to list Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland in the same breath as Brian Wilson, Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon, Ray Davies, Jagger-Richard and other dominant songwriters. What an amazing amount of creative genius sharing the spotlight in the same short period of time.

So today I’d like to offer Ten Rockin’ Remakes of soul classics from some of my favorite rock bands. Proof positive that great music knows no color.

The Faces:   “I’m Losing You” – even hotter live than on record.

Humble Pie:   “I Don’t Need No Doctor” – Steve Marriott is The Man.

The Rolling Stones:   “Just My Imagination” – from a 2007 live show.

Mitch Ryder:   “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” – great Jimmy Ruffin tune.

Jeff Beck:   “People Get Ready” – when you say “Beck” I think of him first.

The J. Geils Band:   “Where Did Our Love Go?”  – from the 2009 reunion.

Herman Brood:   “My Girl” – Almost unrecognizable in this re-arrangement.

Credence Clearwater Revival:   “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” – I guess you’d classify this as swamp soul!

David Bowie:   “Knock On Wood” – from the underrated David Live album

The Band:   “Baby Don’t You Do It” – Marvin Gaye cover from The Last Waltz

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Under The Radar: The Donkeys

There are just too many records to sift through.

As a result, I sometimes miss a follow-up to an album that I really liked, even though I spend a while keeping my eyes peeled for their next one. But many times there is no next one, or the stars don’t align and I miss out on it when it drops. In a perfect world I will run across it again eventually thanks to my habitual late-night web browsing, but those gaps are getting longer and longer as time goes on.

So that’s my long-winded way of telling you that The Donkeys released Living On The Other Side in 2008, and I only realized that today. So while I’m off to get that one, let me pimp you on their self-titled effort from 2006, because there’s a chance that you might not have heard either one. And I can vouch that at least one of them is a real gem.

Here’s my 2006 review from Pop Culture Press…

I almost don’t know where to start in describing the collective sound. A pinch of Wilco, a dash of Beachwood Sparks, a whisper of the first Rod Stewart album but only if played in Gram Parsons’ living room on a Sunday morning. The Donkeys, as unassuming as their moniker, quietly serve up a gumbo of bottleneck country blues, sun-drenched folk and pensive basement soul that is solidly entertaining and occasionally mesmerizing.

Four musicians from San Diego who blend perfectly; percussion that never overplays, solid bass that yangs the drummer’s yin, guitar lines that fuzz, shine and shimmer, and what can only be described as impeccable choices from the keyboard player. Beyond the sounds, unusual, challenging and dark lyrics hover, adding an ever deeper dimension.

The oddball waltz of “Paisley Patterns” might be too off-putting for some (especially with the droning lyric of “All my friends are dead” haunting the melody) but just about everything else here is pure ear-worm material. “Try To Get By” is a two-minute arm-wresting match between Bob Dylan and Neil Young. “Black Cat” is The Band reincarnated as Built To Spill. “No Need For Oxygen” is six minutes of aural beauty juxtaposed with somber lyrics, but it could have gone on six more without a complaint.

This album could be the soundtrack of your Saturday night depression, your Sunday morning sunrise coffee, or your silent road trip home after “that” weekend…your dwindling cigarette pack on the passenger seat and your life in the balance. It sounds like a cop-out when you describe a record as sounding “organic”, but when ninety percent of what comes out of your speakers is too easily categorized, records that percolate their own energy deserve a bright floodlight. Go find this wonderful record and immerse yourself. 

The Donkeys on MySpace

Donkey Buzz

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Blast From The Past: The Jayhawks

And so will you when you listen to this album

And so will you when you listen to this album

With the surprising (but exciting!) announcement of The Jayhawks reunion and the release of their new anthology, I’m reminded of how much I love Smile, a work of sheer beauty that is aptly named because it always brings one to my face. Here’s my original review of this classic from May 2000 in Consumable Online…

jayhawks band

Brian Wilson fans, fear not. Despite the record’s title (and a track titled “Mr. Wilson”), The Jayhawks are not trying to usurp your leader or ride his coattails. And for god sakes, naming a record Smile is not blasphemous, although it may have taken balls to do so. Allow me to prescribe this simple task. Listen to the title track – the opening cut on this record – and get swept up in its irresistible, anthemic chorus. Smile? Try not to.

“I love what we used to be, but I’m interested in where else we can go”, Gary Louris is quoted in the band’s bio. And in fifteen years, the band has bent and turned and changed, but never so dramatically as when Mark Olson left the band and Louris’ vision led to the Big Star leanings of 1997’s Sound Of Lies. That baby step is now a confident gait, and if the last record warmed your heart, Smile is Chapter Two of the new direction.

You might be surprised to see Bob Ezrin listed as producer, as his reputation was built on bands like KISS and Alice Cooper. But Ezrin takes no job lightly, and his response to a tape of fifty possible tracks was a three page letter analyzing what each one needed. (Indeed, in an interview last year, Alice Cooper referred to Ezrin as the “sixth member of the band”). The result is a more rhythm-oriented disc, layered with guitars and drums and vocals, but still the essence of the band. “Somewhere In Ohio” starts out like a soft Spring breeze drifting through the window, but then the guitars slam in, and now we’re nose-to-nose with Wilco.

“What Led Me To This Town” and “A Break In The Clouds” find Louris and new keyboardist Jen Gunderman in a vocal duet that would make Gram and Emmylou fans…errr…smile. But “Life Goes By” has Ezrin steering them (and us) into psych-pop territory, more aggressively raucous; wah-wah guitars and percussion driving the song like the Gas Giants or Gin Blossoms might do. Then the brakes are slammed, “Broken Harpoon” centered on the acoustic guitar and the seamless harmony of four vocals fronted by Louris’ lilting lead.

“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is probably the first single, a hybrid of Ronnie Lane and latter-day Fleetwood Mac that might just leapfrog the boyband stranglehold on the airwaves. And if it doesn’t, that’s radio’s loss, not yours. Because ten tracks in, after the rocking “Pretty Thing”, The Jayhawks seal the deal with four killer tracks. “Mr. Wilson” is as lyrically thoughtful as it is musically stimulating, “In My Wildest Dreams” dabbles in folk psychedelia with great success, “Better Days” beautifully brings the spirit of The Band into the year 2000, and “Baby Baby Baby” forges energetic rock, great vocals and a harrowing story into an unforgettable brew that will have you arguing over the replay button and playing the whole damned thing through again start to finish.

Even if you fell on the other side of the fence after the Louris/Olson split, you have to admire this work on its own terms. Olson will no doubt continue to make good music. But The Jayhawks have just hit back-to-back home runs.

The Jayhawks page on Wikipedia

An interesting video for a live version of “Smile”

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