Staff Picks: Music
While The Black Keys have had a committed fan base since the release of their first album in 2002, The Big Come Up, it wasn’t until the success of their 2010 release of Brothers that the band really took off. Three Grammys later, and over 847,000 albums sold, “The Keys” are back to release what is perhaps their most awaited album yet, El Camino.
The album’s hype may be entirely new to the band, but the music found within it is strongly rooted in sounds The Black Keys have been creating since the beginning. El Camino is drenched in the tones of raw, overdriven guitars, and hard-pounding drums. This is a very “earthy” sort of blues-rock.
Yet, the album also remains incredibly soulful. Dan Auerbach’s vocals are routinely backed up with a choir of harmonies on choruses, and no song is ever too far removed from the next great organ accompaniment. It’s the use of these small, subtle sound arrangements that give El Camino its style and keep the listener coming back for repeat plays.
Some fans of early Keys material have complained that the album sounds too slick and overproduced, possibly as a result of working with legendary producer Danger Mouse. However, the core of what makes The Black Keys sound is definitely still intact on El Camino, even if the production has evolved somewhat from their humble beginnings. Think of it as a fresh, new coat of paint on an otherwise old and changeless factory building, sitting somewhere near the rough side of town.
Let’s hope The Black Keys are a structure that will remain standing for a very long time.
Check out “Lonely Boy,” “Gold on the Ceiling,” “Little Black Submarines,” or “Run Right Back” if you’re ready to get the jams started!
El camino [sound recording]
The music world lost another blues guitar legend this week with the passing of Hubert Sumlin. Born in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1931, Sumlin played and recorded with some of the best, and gained great acclaim as the guitarist behind the mighty Howlin’ Wolf during the 1950s and ‘60s. Guitarist Bob Margolin writes in his biography of Sumlin, “Listen to ‘Built For Comfort,’ ‘Shake For Me,’ ‘300 Pounds of Joy,’ ‘Louise,’ ‘Goin’ Down Slow,’ ‘Killing Floor,’ and ‘Wang Dang Doodle.’ How did this grinning genius come up with these original, emotional, Hell-to-Heaven guitar parts? Fortunately, we don’t need to know to enjoy them.”
In 2008, Hubert was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame by The Blues Foundation, and was the winner of The Blues Music Award for Best Tradition Artist of the Year.
My good buddy Bill LaValley was backstage with Hubert before a show here at the State Theater a few years ago and fondly remembers him... Hubert wasn’t feeling well at all that evening, he could hardly walk. But according to Bill, when it came time to take the stage, it was as if a dark cloak had been lifted. Sumlin stood up and headed for the stage with a spring in his step and the blues in his heart. He played that night (and always) as if his life depended on it.
Hubert so loved his music and contributed much—he’s another who will be sorely missed.
Here’s a great clip of “Little Hubert” tearin’ it up with Sunnyland Slim in 1964. That’s Willie Dixon on bass and Clifton James on drums. Sonny Boy Williamson introduces them...
I Know You
I've discovered some of my favorite music and artists from watching television. When songs play in the background or at the start or end of a show, I often search for the lyrics online to find the name of the song and the performing artist. This has served me well. House and Fringe (as well as various commercials) have provided insight to artists and performers such as Massive Attack, Damien Rice, Editors, Langhorne Slim, and Ryan Adams.
When watching a recent episode of NCIS, Cote de Pablo's character, Ziva David, was singing Temptation--a Tom Waits creation. So, in true form, I went online to search for it to see where I could find a version of her singing it (beautiful rendition!). And, that is when I found that NCIS has two soundtracks available. I was able to easily check these two CDs out through our MeL interlibrary loan system.
While I recognized artists such as Jakob Dylan, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Keaton Simmons, Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones, I was able to add artists such as Oasis, Blue October, and Sharon Little to my list of new folks to investigate.
NCIS: The Official TV Soundtrack
If you lived in Kalamazoo during the 1970s and listened to WIDR (WMU campus radio) you undoubtedly heard a lot of Gil Scott-Heron – like others I’m sure, that was my first exposure to this highly influential musician and poet. Scott-Heron is often described as “the godfather of rap” for his sharply pointed spoken word infused jazz and soul. In his 1970 single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” his deep soulful voice—accompanied only by a steady drum beat—brought life the hot-button issue of racial inequality; not as a radical street preacher but as an articulate street-smart professor (he held a master’s degree in creative writing). His words were riveting and immediate. “The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions. The revolution will not give you sex appeal. The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.”
He collaborated with many of the jazz heavyweights of his time – Brian Jackson, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws to name a few and his influence is acknowledged by a generation of artists, from Kanye West and Public Enemy to Eminem. His work touched on a variety of social and political issues, including addiction (“The Bottle” - 1974), slavery (“Rivers of My Fathers” - 1973) and racial oppression (“Johannesburg” - 1976). In 1979, he joined other high profile artists in Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) and contributed “We Almost Lost Detroit,” a poignant reminder of a close-by nuclear near-disaster in 1972.
In 2010, Scott-Heron released his fifteenth studio album, I’m New Here, to great critical acclaim. A track called “Where Did The Night Go” is highlighted here. Gil Scott-Heron passed away last Friday in New York after a brief illness. He was 62.
It’s amazing how some artists are able to reveal their true selves on stage, while others simply go through the motions.
Back about 1978 or so, Phoebe Snow performed at WMU’s East Ballroom (today’s Bernhard Center) in what appeared to be another case of a big time star giving an obligatory concert in a smallish market. She was singing, but that was about it. It was clear that she just wasn’t feeling it.
Phoebe’s career was still riding high at that point... she had a HUGE hit with Poetry Man in 1974 and a cover story in Rolling Stone magazine a year later. I assumed that she could probably care less about Kalamazoo… get in, get through it, and get back to the real world on the East Coast.
After plodding through a couple of songs, Phoebe stopped and apologized to the audience for her lack of enthusiasm. It seems her best friend was in the hospital back East at that very moment having a baby. Phoebe admitted that her body was on stage in Kalamazoo but her mind was clearly with her friend far away. Well, at least she was being honest. The show continued.
During the middle of the very next song, a stage hand came out and whispered something in her ear. Phoebe stopped the song immediately and jumped and screamed, “It’s a girl!”
With that, the veil was lifted and a very different Ms. Snow took the stage. Expressive, exuberant, entertaining; the mundane became magnificent! I had yet to see (and have seldom since seen) a performer so genuinely reveal her true “self” to an audience.
I will always remember that show… and appreciate how Phoebe allowed a small audience in Kalamazoo to be part of a very special moment in her life. And that, I guess, created a very special moment in ours.
Phoebe Snow passed away Tuesday in Edison, New Jersey, due to complications caused by a brain hemorrhage she suffered a year ago. She was 60.
I am certain that friends, colleagues, and assuredly my own family have grown tired of my consistent response when the conversation turns to music and the inevitable “what are you listening to” question pops up. My answer, since its early May release, has been that I can’t get enough of the latest by the Akron, Ohio blues rock duo The Black Keys. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a real fan of the band and I have loved and continue to listen to everything that they have put out, but their latest record Brothers is just so good that I have found myself listening to it almost daily. The Black Keys music continues to be a perfect mix of the elemental power of traditional guitar blues with cool indie rock sensibilities and, on Brothers, bits of soul thrown in for good measure. From my perspective the band, six albums in, has matured in all the right ways, adding a bit more production and instrumentation on its last two records, Brothers and 2008’s Danger Mouse produced Attack & Release, and singer Dan Auerbach tests out a falsetto on a couple tracks on Brothers, including the great Everlasting Light - great live version posted below, that I never saw coming and weirdly comes close to sounding Antony and the Johnsons like, but the band never takes this experimentation too far, always keeping the song structure tight and holding firm to what makes them such a great band in the first place.
Be sure to catch the Blue Moon Blues Band in an intimate “unplugged” performance on Wednesday, October 21st, at Central Library, as part of KPL’s ongoing Live Music series.
We have it on very good authority that this should be quite a unique and memorable event, including a rare opportunity to hear some of Mr. Carambula’s smokin’ acoustic(!) guitar work, and some brand new music they’ve never played in public before!
Blue Moon’s library appearance will also be one of the band’s final public performances - after nine years and four CDs, they’re moving on to new and different opportunities, so stay tuned! Don’t you dare miss this chance to see one of the final (and perhaps finest) performances by one of Kalamazoo’s most revered musical institutions.
Here’s Blue Moon, recorded live at Clydes Side Door in Battle Creek on March 21, 2009.
Blue Moon Blues Band
The Malian duo Amadou & Mariam have been in nearly constant rotation on my ipod and home stereo since I became aware of their music with the 2005 release of Dimanche a Bamako. I knew little of the couple’s inspiring story then, but responded immediately to the music they create. Singer Mariam Doumbia and guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayokothan, who are both blind, met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, 30 years ago and have been making amazing and infectious music ever since. Already huge stars in West Africa and Europe; in recent years Amadou & Mariam have gained a large following in the indie rock world where they have become a show stealing staple at large festivals, which has helped spread their popularity across the glode. The duo’s latest title, Welcome to Mali, has received almost universal, and I would say very well deserved, critical acclaim and I can't stop listening to it. Even without the faintest clue as to what the lyrics of the songs are saying (the couple sings primarily in French), it is easy to hear why the global spread of Amadou & Mariam's hypnotic sound cannot be stopped.
Welcome to Mali
Fusing jazz, classical and blues music together like no one before nor after her, Nina Simone was a one-of-a-kind artist whose artistic achievements and life-long support of civil rights places her firmly within the pantheon of twentieth century greats. Her long-time battle with bipolar disorder, her tumultuous relationship with the music industry and her self-imposed exile are also part of her rich narrative as the “High Priestess of Soul” but it is the plaintive beauty, ferocious spirit, immovable anger, and affirming force of her music that makes Simone so vital. One need only listen to her eulogy for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Why? The King of Love is Dead to grasp the depth of character her music embodied.
To be free [sound recording] : the Nina Simone story
To say that music lost another of its heroes today seems a shallow understatement. But a visit to the Gibson guitar company’s website says it best, where a page-wide banner proclaims, “In loving memory of Les Paul, the world’s most influential, innovative guitar player and inventor.” Les Paul passed away on August 13th at the age of 94.
Les Paul had strong connection with Kalamazoo - or at least with one of Kalamazoo’s more famous manufacturers, the Gibson guitar company. Together, Les Paul and Gibson profoundly altered the face of popular music.
Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Les was already a professional performer by the age of 13. His guitar playing technique became second-to-none, but it’s said that a music critic changed the course of his life by suggesting to Les that his guitar should be louder.
During the 1930s, Paul worked up an electric prototype (affectionately called the “Log,” actually a pine board with homemade electric pickups!) and in 1941, presented it to the Gibson company in Kalamazoo. This first attempt was a miserable failure—Gibson laughed at him—but he never looked back. “I took the Log to Gibson and I spent 10 years trying to convince them that this was the way to go,” said Paul. By 1950, Gibson’s management sensed growing competition and according to Paul, said, “Go find the kid with the broomstick and the pickups on it!”
Eventually, Les Paul formed a partnership with Gibson that not only affected his own career, but dramatically changed the face of the entire music industry. Alongside the Fender Stratocaster, Gibson’s Les Paul model is perhaps the most widely known, highly acclaimed and best loved electric guitar ever made. Period.
“The men up at Kalamazoo are working overtime to fill all the orders…”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 1951
But Les Paul’s talent for invention wasn’t limited to the guitar alone. During his career, Paul pioneered such cutting edge technology as multi-track recording and overdubbing, plus commonly used sound effects like reverb and echo.
After cutting his teeth on the radio in the 1930s, Paul’s performance career skyrocketed during the 40s and 50s with partner Mary Ford. He produced his own television show in the 1950s, and did more recording during the 60s. In 1976, he released the highly acclaimed Chester and Lester, a country and jazz fusion album with Chet Atkins. Though his hands were nearly crippled by arthritis, Paul performed actively right up until the end.
A 2007 film, Chasing Sound, celebrates Les Paul’s 90th birthday by documenting some of his final performances and highlighting his incredible contributions.
According to Gibson, Les Paul is the only individual to share membership into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He was also an honorary member of the Audio Engineering Society.
“He put the tools in our hands,” says Keith Richards. According to B.B. King, “...he’s the Boss!”
Les Paul (Associated Press photo)