In 4th grade or so in the mid-1960s, I found myself in the YMCA Gra-Y youth program, having graduated from the Indian Guides, which of course has, fortunately, lost the “Indian” since. My Gra-Y group at the Santa Barbara Y was the Pythons. Our shirts had a white or gray coiled snake on forest green fabric. Yes, forrest green. That was, for some reason, discussed and emphasized to the point that I still remember.
Our main activity, or the one that sticks with me, was flag football, played on Saturdays on the field behind the Y, in a league with the other Gra-Y groups also based there. I don’t remember any of their names. Or colors. Somehow I was our team’s lone All-Star selection at the end of the season. I was small, wiry and quick enough that on defense I could dart through the offensive line and grab the streamer Velcroed to the belt of the opponent with the ball and slam it to the ground — a tackle in that low-contact version of the sport — for a loss of yards. Now and then I used the same skills on offense to take a handoff and weave through the opponent’s defense for a gain, and even a touchdown here and there. This, sadly, stands as the sole sports success of my life. Well, at least I have one.
I also have a clear memory of a Gra-Y motto, unless it was from Indian Guides, in which case it’s a not-quite-as-clear memory. The motto, emblazoned on patches we could buy and affix to our clothes, was:
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Today I find that it is derived from a passage about chains of intellectual reasoning in a 1786 essay by English writer Thomas Reid. I also see, from Wiktionary, that it may have been a reworking of a Basque aphorism:
A thread usually breaks where it is thinnest.
Regardless, the truism made a big impression on me. Thinking about it through my life I found many places in which to apply it. But I also came to realize that maybe I mis-applied it. Or, more accurately, misinterpreted it.
In Gra-Y (or Whatever-Y) it was used to instruct us on how individuals form a chain of a group, or a community, or by extension, a society. It made sense. I see now that it really was an admonishment to not be a weak link, to take responsibility for your part in things, to not let everyone else down. Sure. That seems important.
It was something else for me, though, maybe the opposite. There was something just too John Wayne about the shaming of someone who has weakness. And there was something really coming to my, and many others’ consciousness: that weakness is not always the “weak” one’s fault. Weakness — and I’m going to stop using that term as it is meant to shame — can come from a variety of directions, be they cultural, economic, socio-political, physical, or whatever. Some people don’t have advantages others have. Some people are struggling. Some people are hurting. It’s as simple as that.
And if some are struggling, some are hurting, then we all who make up that chain are too. And it follows, with nary a thought to it, that when this is the case, it is all of our responsibility to step in and help. It raises up the individual and the chain, all at once.
This became and remains my political philosophy, such as I have one. And now I think that perhaps it is others who have misinterpreted that saying.
Bill Frisell paused briefly as he sought the right words for his feelings about the electric guitar duos he’d been playing with Julian Lage at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thursday. He gave up quickly.
“Whatever this is,” he concluded with a sheepish shrug.
Frankly, he couldn’t have said it better.
Watching these two masters play together, it was as impossible to fully comprehend what they were doing, as much as it was impossible to comprehend that what they were doing was on just 12 strings, played by just four hands, the harmonic complexities of the combination often defying musical physics. At times it seemed even they were as mystified not just by what it was, but how it even could be. You could see it in their faces, especially on the face of Frisell, 68, whose sweetness and kindness matches his huge talents, marveling at what Lage, a veteran at just 31, was wringing from the neck of his Telecaster. Sometimes Frisell sat out and just watched his young partner, beaming with a broad grin.
For us in the audience it was a grin-fest as well. The adventurous virtuosity (a word that seems inadequate for this meshing of their artistry) was spiked at all times by both parties’ playfulness. Lage in particular would head off into dazzling displays that brought both squeals of astonishment and peals of delighted laughter, Frisell parrying with his own spritely, if more genteel, sparkle.
This was there no matter what they were playing, be it some 12-bar blues or idiosyncratic Monk (is there any other kind?). Threading it all together were various standards, including “All the Things You Are,” in homage to Jim Hall, whose spirit both of them hold, and an idyllic stroll through “Shenandoah,” something of a Frisell signature, here given a fresh skip from Lage’s shining sense of wonder.
Strolling, for that matter, makes a good descriptive for their approach to it all. They went on strolls together.
“We’re going to find our way to another song,” Lage said, introducing “Shenandoah.” (And now you’ve read nearly everything that they spoke in the course of the show).
Usually one of them would begin solo, sometimes after a chuckle-bringing Alphonse and Gaston moment(“You start.” “No, you start.” “No, please, YOU start.”). Improvising, they would move from dissonant (though never discordant) to melodic (though never mawkish) without a seeming care, as if those are just different aspects of the same thing. And in their loving care they are.
There was one frustration, though visual, not musical, as it was impossible (there’s that word again) to watch both players at once. Any time you’d look at one of their hands, the other was certain to do something incredible. So then you’d switch to him, and the other would do something unbelievable. For the whole show. Oh well, such is the price.
And you gotta love a duo that with the encore, after a transfixing 90 minutes of probing, prodding and teasing into new musical spaces of expression, sends the audience out humming the Snow White classic “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
A joy to whatever this is, indeed.
For a sense of what this is, here’s a video of a complete 2018 show by the pair:
A little bell rings and our guide, Lybert, says, “Let’s go!” The carousel begins to turn, counterclockwise, the horses that are free to do so start to rise and fall.
There’s music, evoking a fair. And Piaf’s voice: “Mon Manège à Moi” — “My carousel is you.”
We don’t know the words or their meaning, or how perfect they are. But we know it’s Piaf, of course. We would have known even if Lybert had not told us already.
Tu mais fais tournez la tête, sings the Little Sparrow. You make my head spin.
Lybert sings along for one spin, then lets Piaf take over.
We spin and laugh. We try to hold hands but it’s hard as we alternate the ups and downs. Upsan Downs. Sounds like a horse track.
There is, in fact, a horse race here, a mechanical game about 20 feet wide, at which a dozen or so players roll balls into holes that move their respective steeds forward a step or two or three until one crosses the finish line. There’s another here as well, but with French waiters carrying trays instead of horses. We play them both, with much excitement.
This is Le Musée des Arts Forains, its Belle Époque and Venetian delights housed in the old brick complex of warehouses that was originally a wine distribution center, Les Pavilions des Bercy, just up from the Seine’s Rive Droit. If you’ve seen Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” you’ve seen it. The party scene with Gil/Owen Wilson doing the Charleston? That’s the carousel. And then he and Adriana/Marion Cotillard go see another carousel, one with bicycles pedaled into a centrifugal frenzy?
The group with which we are touring the museum would be on that one soon, the young son of a couple from China crying and struggling to free himself from his mother’s grip as we turn, clockwise now — those on “bikes” pedalling furiously while those of us on “carts” hang on for dear life and desperately seeking fixed points on which to focus. That’s what spinning skaters do, right? When it stops we’re equally dizzied and relieved that somehow, miraculously, the kid didn’t fly off.
It’s not just carousels. There’s much more here:
A “re-creation” of a Venetian ball with animatronic figures perched in balconies around the room.
Magnificent and massive music boxes.
Feathery costumes on elegant figures.
But now we’re riding the horses around and around.
My head is swimming. A lot swirling inside it.
I pat my right front pants pocket to make sure the two little slips of paper have not fallen out. I’d moved them over from my more crowded left pocket a few minutes ago. I’d moved them to that pocket from my passport in a pouch around my neck, where I’d squirreled them earlier in the day. I want them safe, but handy.
“Make some noise!” Lybert says, as the carousel slows.
He says that a lot, whether singling out one of us on the tour who has answered a question he’s posed correctly, or looking for enthusiasm from us regarding one of the attractions. He seemed a bit much at first, but by now we’ve come to like him a lot. He has dramatic flair. Susan asks him if he’s performed opera, he says yes, that’s what he does! But there’s no way he hasn’t played the MC in a production or two of “Cabaret.” Absolutely no way.
He takes us to the next room.
My head spins.
Another calliope, fed with a perforated paper roll a la a player piano, causing horns to blow, tines to tinkle, drums to beat.
A slow-turning carousel from Venice, simulating a ride on the canals — we sit in a swan. We laugh. We kiss.
I’m in a blur.
We come to the end of the tour, Lybert wraps it up as he began it, in full cheerlead mode. Our ad hoc group disperses toward the gate: The mother and her two young daughters from Santa Monica, right around the corner from us! The couple from England. The young woman from Philadelphia. The Chinese family, having averted disaster.
“Sit with me for a minute,” I say to Susan.
I’d noted the display of three carousel horses mounted in a wooden platform along the entryway when we were first let in. It would do.
She looks puzzled, but sits.
Lybert, though stands holding the gate, 20 feet away.
“Is it alright if we just sit here a little?” I ask,
“No,” he says. “Sorry. I have to lock up and we have no security.”
I can’t explain to him my reason for wanting to linger, and reluctantly motion to Susan that we have to leave, uncertain of what to do now.
We walk out to the street, a semi-industrial neighborhood, not a lot of traffic. The sun is brighter for us having been inside. I look around and notice just as we turn right that the outer wall of the building has a set of false arches recessed into the brick. At the first one I motion to the ledge at the bottom of the arch and say, again, “Sit with me for a minute.”
It’s a little dirty. Three Corona bottles are strewn at its base in various states of repose.
She sits, uncertain, on the right side of the ledge. I sit next to her, and turn to her, taking the slips of paper from my pocket.
“I want to read you something,” I say.
“Okay,” she replies, drawing the word out with quizzical doubt.
I look at the top one of the two slips, on which I’d scribbled the words, copied that morning from notes on my computer. I’d planned this days ago, back in Santa Monica, and meant to print it out, but forgot. So at our apartment in the 6th a few hours before, unable to find “real” paper, I wrote them out on these receipts, deliberately defying my historically poor penmanship to make them legible.
“First in French,” I say, launching into the best pronunciation I can dredge up from my grade-school classes of words rendered en Français by Google Translate. Maybe not as poetic as it could be, but it sufficed.
Aujourd’hui, tout ce que tu veux
Je jure que tout se réalisera
Aujourd’hui, je réalise combien
Je suis amoureux de vous
Avec vous debout ici
Je pourrais dire au monde
Qu’est-ce que cela signifie d’aimer
Pour continuer d’ici
Je ne peux pas utiliser de mots
Ils ne disent pas assez
I shuffle the slips and bring the other to the top.
“Now in English…”
Today, everything you want
I swear it will all come true
Today, I realize how much
I’m in love with you
With you standing here
I could tell the world
What it means to love
To go on from here
I can’t use words
They don’t say enough
Without pausing at the last word, I add:
Susan Elizabeth Hayden, will you marry me?
Her eyes widen. First shock, then a smile.
“Yes!” she says, brightly. And then,
Then,quickly, “WAIT! Did you just ask me to marry you?”
“I did. You know what that was, right?”
She looks at me blankly.
“‘Today.’ Jefferson Airplane.”
It’s one of “our” songs, a key one in our early courtship, if you can call it that, a crucial discovery of something we shared.
“Really?” she says, startled. “You read it like it was Walt Whitman or something! Read it again!”
I read it again. As I did the first time. Deliberately, word by word, trying to hold my composure.
Her eyes water luminously as I get to the end of the English part, those last lines. But before I can re-pose the question, she says, firmly:
“Get on your knee!”
I do as she requests.
Susan Elizabeth Hayden, will you marry me?
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,” she says.
A burst of laughter radiates from her, with beams of light, so it seems. And her shoulders give a shuddering bounce, as they sometimes do following a sweet kiss.
I rise from my knee and give her a sweet kiss.
She laughs and shudders again. We laugh together.
And kiss again.
Tu mais fais tournez la tête.
“Let’s go to the Marais and get falafel!”
She wants falafel, she gets falafel. I want it too. As one does at such a time.
Taxi drops us off at the start of the cobbled street along which contempo boutiques crowd in against Judaica in various forms, many winding down the day as the sunset bringing the Sabbath is coming in a few hours.
Among the many falafel dealers, we choose L’as du Falafel, with its hard-to-miss green-and-yellow front and celeb endorsements (“Recommended by Lenny Kravitz!”). There’s a line 10 deep at the takeaway window and a steady stream of people going in and out from the inside seated area. We feel badly for the other place with basically the same menu right across the walk, which has nearly no business at all, but we go in anyway.
Good choice. Djokovic beating Bautista at Wimbledon is on the TV on the wall. A delicious falafel-in-pita each later, 20 minutes or so, we head back out to stroll.
After just a few steps, we’re approached by a rather chipper young Hassid in full black-suit-black-hat-white-shirt dress, though only a relatively light, short beard.
“Are you Jewish?” he asks.
Slight hesitation before I answer, “Yes.”
“I’m from Australia.” There is a trace of an accent.
He holds his hand out.
“Do you know the Tefillin?”
“Yes,” I say, warily eyeing the black cube and leather straps he proffers.
“Would you like to put on these bad boys?”
Only slightly thrown by “bad boys,” I shake my head no, stopping just short of saying, “Clearly you have mistaken me for some other Jew.”
We keep walking. So does he alongside us, pleasant but persistent.
“May I give you some candles for the Sabbath?”
I’m waiting for the ask for cash, which he anticipates.
“They’re free,” he says, sincerely seeming not to expect or even want a donation for his chabad.
And with that he hands me two candles, those little tea lights in the short tin casings, just a half an inch deep. The kind that are commonly arrayed on votive stands in Catholic churches. Or inside jackolanterns.
“The man prays,” he says, expansively. “And the woman lights the candles and spreads the light.”
I turn to her, the light-spreader. And smile.
He holds out his hand, offering nothing but a congenial shake and smile, which I take and return.
The dusty, rusted pickup pulled up alongside the beanfield. One rather round guy got out on the passenger side. Another, by appearances the other’s brother, from behind the wheel. They nodded and half-smiled at Joanie and Rob, who were busying themselves in front of their small trailer/home with preparations for the Independence Day gathering they were hosting. Bags of chips were being emptied into plastic bowls. Jars of salsa opened without the formality of decanting. Beers and sodas iced in a tub.
Doug, the anthro professor with whom several of us were spending the summer up here in Northern New Mexico on an archaeological dig, studied the charcoal he’d been arranging in a dented barbecue kettle. It had to be just right so that, as would the spray of lighter fluid coming soon, so that a single match touched in the one perfect spot would bring about the even distribution of heat in consideration of the hot dogs, burgers and, marinating in ziplocs, some chicken which awaited.
The apparent brothers, along with many others in this area, were perhaps descended from the people who in the early 1500s, before Europeans had made it up this way, had abandoned the long-buried and largely undisturbed-to-now site at which we were digging on the mesa right above two-lane Highway 285. Not sure if these two had rolled up from the San Juan Pueblo down river, or maybe from one of the sparse communities spread out among the hills. They circled to the truck’s bed, and each reached in retrieved a beat-up guitar case. There were a dozen or so folding chairs around. They took two, set them a few feet apart, halfway between their truck and the trailer, took their guitars from the cases, sat down and started to strum.
C… G… F… C… G… F… C… G… F…
They ran through that a few times and then started to sing, in unison:
Crossin’ the highway late last night
He shoulda looked left and he shoulda looked right
He didn’t see the station wagon car
The skunk got smashed and there you are.
Dead skunk in the middle of the road
Dead skunk in the middle of the road
Dead skunk in the middle of the road
Stinkin’ to high heaven.
And then, doing their best to get Loudon Wainwright III’s wry delivery of the original, they waited the appropriate few beats before somberly intoning in tandem the tag:
Then they cracked up.
No one seemed to be paying attention aside from me. I had my guitar too, the nylon-string starter model I’d bought nearly 10 years before with Bar Mitzvah money. Maybe we’d have a hootenanny.
I went to get it, found a third free chair and sat down with them. They smiled and resumed strumming.
C… G… F… C… G… F… C… G… F…
They sang it over again.
And they cracked up again.
I plucked a clumsy solo for an instrumental chorus, then they resumed singing, though I don’t think they knew any of the other verses so they just repeated the first one a few times before cracking up again at the end.
I tentatively played some chords to something else, “Cowgirl in the Sand,” or perhaps I tried to show off a little with the intro lick to “Sugar Magnolia.”
They paid no mind, looked at each other and started once more.
And that’s pretty much how it went, except that after a couple of starts and stops of the song there were no more stops. For 45 minutes. I am not exaggerating. Three-quarters of an hour. It was the “Dark Star” of “Dead Skunks,” and some acid might have helped. People would wander over, hear the song, maybe even join in on a chorus, and then wander away. Some came back, rolled their eyes, and left again. No one acted as if there was anything abnormal here.
Every couple of minutes – they’d sing “stinkin’ to high heaven,” put on the most sober faces they could manage, look each other in the eye and command:
It was hypnotizing. The song’s only got those three chords, played over and over. It’s trance music worthy of the Gnawa brotherhoods of Morocco, if they were singing about Pepe LePew roadkill. I was powerless to do anything but stay and play.
As the afternoon wore on, people trickled in to the party, having crossed the river in their cars as we had in Doug’s vintage VW camper van. The fixings for the barbecue mounted with each arrival, along with the armory of fireworks, mostly legal, purchased down in Española. The Big Indian (that’s what he called himself, and he was, a 6’5″ Apache from the midwest) and his family brought some jambalaya and cornbread (his wife was Cajun). Joanie was setting up some tables while Rob and their four-year-old son cleared the ground of what was to be the staging spot for the display, testing out a few bottle rockets, launched from a folding chair and pointed over the field, away from the small trailer, all set on a small patch of dry ground between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Rio Grande – the tributary here just a middling flow working its way down the Rockies to its ultimate role as the famed border and then the Gulf.
It was certainly a different vibe this year. Last summer we were somewhat outsiders, fighting suspicion that comes naturally in these small, isolated communities. That year it was Jim and Jeff (both still undergrads) and just-graduated me joining Doug for the inaugural dig. For about half of the six weeks Doug’s two young daughters, just four and six years old, joined us. The adults slept in tents at the ex-KOA (it had lost its affiliation a few years back), the girls in Doug’s old and mechanically uncertain green VW camper van.
The Big Indian managed the campground that first summer with his wife and two teen daughters. But before the ’79 return session they’d lost that gig entirely due to some sort of feud with the owner. So this summer, we were staying across the road in a little motor court, which was something of luxury accommodations comparatively.
The motor court and the campground were the only choices in Ojo Caliente in those days, the town consisting pretty much of nothing else but a post office (barely), a few scattered houses and the near-derelict “spa” built at the hot springs that gave the village its name. This is the kind of place where the young adult culture seemed to revolve around the guy who’d gotten his hand caught in a wood chipper and pulled down a resultant insurance settlement – which he used mostly to by pot and malt liquor and, of course, gas for his Firebird. That’s about as good as kids who stayed here could aspire to in those days, I guess.
The small general store just down the road was officially outside of town, as was the Mexican restaurant (and its perilous sanitary practices that got each of us at one time or another) about the same short distance north. Española, a booming metropolis relatively speaking (it had a Dairy Queen!) lies 25 miles south, cosmopolitan Santa Fe another 25 further south and Albuquerque (practically New York-like with its university and airport) another 50 miles. This is the southern Rocky Mountains, the northern Rio Grande valley, Georgia O’Keefe country and locale of John Nichols’ “The Milagro Beanfield War.” Our Independence Day celebration site wasn’t the same beanfield, but if you’ve read the book, you’d recognize the setting, not to mention the people. And maybe the magic realism infusing Nichols’ tales, which locals would simply call “realism.”
This summer, Doug’s students were all women, and with a limited budget the three of them – Julia, who had been my Platonic apartment mate in L.A. for a bit, gregarious Kristin and meek Liz – were kind enough to accept me as co-tenant in our cozy room. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor and it all worked out surprisingly well in terms of privacy and personal space, except for that one time when Kristin passed out in the middle of the night in the bathroom (that Mexican restaurant again) and I was the only one to hear her fall, finding her unconscious on the floor before I could rouse the others to attend to her. She was fine, though embarrassed.
With Doug joined for part of the time this year not only by his daughters but his wife Carol, he and I were the only males in the gang, and the tone was a bit different than the boys club of ‘78. Rather than shooting at, and missing, prairie dogs when we visited the Big Indian and his family, now those social occasions involved excessive amounts of stew and cornbread and sitting around the kitchen table listening to their cassette of Cajun comic Justin Wilson, I garrrr-an-tee you – this was before he was a national phenom for his PBS cooking show or before anyone outside of southwest Louisiana even really knew what a Cajun was. His shaggy catfish story — the ultimate tall tale of the one that not only got away but toyed with him like a, well, cat with a mouse — put the Big Indian and family in stitches even though they’re heard it hundreds of times.
For me it was a time of transition. I had just learned that I’d been accepted into the Anthropology Film Center, a small, intensive hands-on documentary film production and theory program in Santa Fe. So in a couple of weeks I’d be driving my little blue Opel wagon back to L.A., clearing out my apartment, packing as much as I could into the car and heading back to New Mexico to find a place to live and starting a new life, more or less.
That was all out of my mind as we settled in that afternoon. We sat and gabbed – Rob, small but tough, talked about the several seasons in the last few years they’d worked as migrant fruit pickers, heading up into Colorado. They were just Okies, he explained. Maybe they’d have to move back home. Things hadn’t been going too well. But they’d be okay.
“You know that song, ‘Little Bit o’ Soul’?” Rob asked me.
“The Music Explosion,” I answered. I’d coincidentally just heard that ‘60s hit on the radio a couple of days before, but I knew it anyway.
“Guess who the drummer was.”
“I have no idea.”
“You’re lookin’ at her.” He turned toward Joanie.
“Yeah,” she said. “I was living in San Francisco then, and dating the drummer. I was supposed to meet him at the studio, but he didn’t show up. He’d taught me the drum part to that song, so they asked me to do it.”
“That’s not an easy part,” I said. “And it really is what makes the song.”
She Mona-Lisa-smiled. Is the story true? Who knows? She was even smaller than Rob, couldn’t have been more than 5’1” and 95 pounds. Hard to imagine her beating the skins with the force heard on that garage-rocker. Da-da-da-da … THUMP! Da-da-da-da … THUMP! But it’s a great story and I have no reason not to believe it, no matter what the credits on the record say.
Sundown came around 8:15, though the official fireworks portion started while it was still just twilight, which was fireworks enough on its own up here at 7,000 feet in the high desert – shifting streams of blue, purple and orange dancing over the hills. Once it was dark, it became a full-on barrage: Roman candles, pinwheels, flares, bottle rockets and more bottle rockets, some very loud and concussive explosives that I’m pretty sure were not all that legal. But it remained safe and, relatively, sane. Bit-by-bit people started to peel away, headed home or to other parties, all smiles and satisfaction. Some I’d never see again.
A few of them I did see during the nine months I lived in Santa Fe before returning to California. A couple of times I went up to visit, hang out. Doug I saw a few times back in L.A., but after a year or so he got another job at another college in another city. Julia moved to Mexico, got married, had a kid, turned up a couple of times in visits with various other friends around here. The Big Indian is certainly no longer with us – he was close to 60 then and having health problems. Somehow I figure the guy with the wood-chippered arm probably is still around, maybe he got another settlement for some other accident, bought another muscle car, wrecked it a couple of times but got away with just some bruises and is still the guy around an increasingly young crowd of waste-os gathers to smoke weed and chug malt liquor and suffer his bitter rants.
The hot springs, though, has been upgraded to a modern spa, a “resort” at least relatively speaking. A new age resort. With a wine bar and paleo/keto/whatever entrees on its restaurant menu.
And the two brothers? Pretty much anything could have happened to them. Maybe they became respected tribal elders, negotiating mineral rights with the BIA. Maybe they remained just guys, living with their kids and grandkids at the pueblo. Maybe they moved to cities seeking work.
Or they’re still strumming: C… G… F… C… G… F… C… G… F…
Open arms. A welcoming spirit. That was the thread that stood out in the process of assembling a Top 10 albums list for 2018. It’s explicitly there, connected to and driven by the border conflicts and crossings of our times, in several of these albums: There’s “Refugee,” a song by Moira Smiley inspired by and featuring people she’d met while working in a refugee encampment in France. There’s “Dreamers,” the album bringing together Mexican-born singer Magos Herrera and NYC string quartet Brooklyn Rider, mixing songs of oppression written by various Latin American musicians and poets with the anger vs. hope conflicts now happening in this country over our border policies. And there’s “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,” a Blind Willie Johnson song from the 1920s, pointedly made a centerpiece of Ry Cooder’s “The Prodigal Son.”
It’s also there in other ways through all of the choices, albums that resonated and astonished on many levels, both artistic and emotional: Angelique Kidjo’s reimagining of Talking Heads’ landmark “Remain in Light,” Kamasi Washington’s ever-expansive, ever-expanding jazz universe bridging “Heaven and Earth,” the War and Treaty’s connubial joy as spark for us all to surf a “Healing Tide,” Julia Holter’s stunningly unclassifiable flights in “Aviary,” the “Vanished Gardens” meeting of the spirits of jazz master Charles Lloyd and roots-poet Lucinda Williams, the poetry of love and exploration of Mitski with her breakthrough “Be the Cowboy,” the exuberant strut through ages of traditions and into the future of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian troupe Cha Wa on “Spyboy.”
Choosing one as the year’s top album proved impossible and, perhaps, pointless. The range they cover, the joy they bring, defies ranking. So here they are, randomly ordered. Take them with open arms and a welcoming spirit.
It’s a bracingly wide-ranging set of original songs drawing on everything from her experience in chorale work to explorations of Eastern European folk music to her time as a touring singer and percussionist with boisterous pop experimentalists Tune-Yards. Tying it all together are with two traditional American songs from the repertoire of blues singer Sidney Hemphill Carter, as recorded in 1959 by folklorist Alan Lomax.
She also enlisted an impressive roster of other voices for Unzip: Leah and Chloe Smith from Rising Appalachia, English neo-traditionalist Sam Lee, folk-and-more duo Anna & Elizabeth, Seamus Egan of the Irish-American band Solas, banjo innovator Jayme Stone, and participants from the Calais Sessions — a recording project with international musicians working with refugees, many of them unaccompanied children, living in hardship of the Calais “jungle,” a makeshift encampment in France.
And then there’s Tune-Yards’ life-force, Merrill Garbus, partnering on the rhythm-forward “Bellow,” which serves somewhat as the album’s mission statement: “Please don’t give up. Please don’t hide your voice. So many people did not have that choice.”
It’s a love story through and through, evidenced in song titles alone: “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow” (the album’s foot-stomping gospel invocation), “Are You Ready to Love Me?,” (swampy Southern soul), “Here Is Where the Loving Is” (fiddles and guitars and Emmylou Harris!) among them. And a belief that love is contagious, that it can repair the world — the boisterous title song (a bit of Ike and Tina and a lot of Delaney & Bonnie, perhaps), the steamed-windows twinkle of “Jeep Cherokee Laredo.” And in “One and the Same” they have given us unity anthem for the ages. All of the ages. And in album-closing “Little New Bern,” Michael wrote a vivid ode to Tanya’s large, loving family and the former plantation land where it began and at which all the cousins still gather with her grandparents (73 years of marriage!) every summer.
Most of singer Magos Herrera’s new album, a collaboration with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, draws on words and music written decades ago by Latin American poets and composers who spoke out against oppression, at the risk of their freedom and, in some cases, their lives. These are complemented by the haunting folk song “La Llarona,” already a staple of the Mexican canon but now globally known via its prominent place in the animated movie Coco.
But [this] is also very much of the moment, in the moment, tied to circumstances of the here and now, pointedly so. This is music with immediacy, with a purpose.“I think these days we don’t have the luxury not to have a purpose,” says Herrera. The title of her album gives that purpose shape: Dreamers.
“It’s the spirit of our times, at least to me, after some time of confusion, showing how we got into these times, not only for what happens in America but in the world,” she says. “It was in invitation to ground in the reason why we make music and the purpose of our artistry and our music. And also because one of the first reasons I moved to New York 11 years ago was for all the opposite virtues of what we see — democracy, conversation, interaction, etc. The long story short is [the album] is really a response to what happens to the spirit of our times, beyond complaining.”
Julia Holter, in the course of the last decade or so, has emerged as one of the most ambitious and accomplished artists in L.A., and beyond. And with her new album, “Aviary,” she reaches even further than ever. While not really sounding like any of them, this does call to mind of some things from Bjork, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Laurie Anderson and such ostensibly contemporary classical composers as Missy Mazzoli, Julia Wolfe and David Lang, the latter two having won Pulitzer Prizes.
Over the course of the album there are mixes of impressionism and expressionism, her group sort of a chamber ensemble with strings mixed with electric instruments, some digital experiments with voice and sounds alternately soothing and jarring. One element she draws on heavily is words and some melodies from the European troubadours of the 13th and 14th centuries. So that really cinches this album for me. One song that uses that, as well as a quote from Dante,is “I Shall Love,” a lush, sensual proclamation of pure elation and beauty.
It’s not simply a remake of the Talking Heads’ 1980 landmark, but a stunning reimagining by the visionary Benin-born artist Kidjo. She doesn’t merely repatriate (er, rematriate) the African influences that fueled TH’s revolutionary stream-of-consciousness masterpiece — which opened the door for many to discover the wealth of those inspirations — she considers and explores the worlds that have emerged in African music in the time since, all brought together via her singular talents and sensibilities.
And in doing so, she didn’t merely extract the burbling rhythms and elastically elliptical lines and reshape them as Afrobeat or highlife. She applied her own depth of vision to the material, her own cultural roots, and her embrace of many musical streams to make something distinctly hers, in some places blending in the traditional tunes she grew up with in Benin, in others broadening the perspective to what might be called Afro-Global. Crucially, she locked into the often-perplexing, arty off-kilter lyrics and invested them with her complex, incisive worldview, adding new words here in there, sometimes in Fon, the language of her father. “Remain in Light” was arguably the album of the year for ’80, and so it may be again for ’18.
Cooder’s career has taken us on a musical journey around the globe (producing Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, a duo album with Mali’s Ali Farka Touré, among many projects). In recent years he’s told tales of Southern California’s colorful history, including “Chavez Ravine” about the displacement of a community to make way for Dodger Stadium. Now he turns, well, home, as the title “The Prodigal Son” suggests.
This is a return dive into the American folk and blues of the early 20th century, marked by Cooder’s distinctive and informed perspective and his supreme guitar and slide playing. Blind Willie Johnson, Alfred Reed, Carter Stanley and the good ol’ “Traditional” are all represented here. And, in the prodigal mode, it’s illuminated by lessons learned along the way, as encapsulated in the title song, a traditional tune arranged vibrantly by Cooder and his co-producer, percussionist son Joachim.
As the title also suggests, there’s a lot of the Bible here, gospel songs explicitly evoking Jesus, God and the promise of heaven. But for him, it’s not a matter of religion but reverence. It’s also a matter of relevance. In “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,” learned from Blind Willie Johnson’s recording, Ry makes specific references to the immigrant issues of right now.
Charles Lloyd and the Marvels + Lucinda Williams, “Vanished Gardens”
Excerpted from my liner notes for the album:
When Lucinda Williams joined Charles Lloyd & The Marvels at UCLA’s Royce Hall in April 2017, the musicians beamed with unbridled joy. Same for the fans fortunate to witness, to share the depths of the artistry and exploration happening on stage. There were tears, too, as Williams reached inside herself for expressions of love, longing and loss in equal measures. But the image that remains strongest from this remarkable night is of Lloyd, radiant and enchanted, at times not even playing, just taking in the wonders of this grouping that had come together around him.
That same energy and elation buzzed through the compact sessions in a Los Angeles studio that brought us the luminescent music heard on this album, Lloyd and Williams with the singular set of talents that comprise the Marvels: Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on steel, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums — musicians who just as Lloyd and Williams have done have set their own courses, found their own ways of expression and exploration, while thriving most profoundly in sparks-filled collaborative settings.
Unlock, the word that later in the album starts the song “Unsuffer Me,” a deep exposition of vulnerable, fought-for hope, describes it perfectly. Unlock my love. The state of the music, the state of these musicians, is open. Opening. Active. Seeking, expanding, exploring. Being and becoming. Williams draws power and strength from it, infusing that into her delivery, giving life to the hope, as well as the hurt, of the words. And in turn, the musicians become the words that Williams sings, extending beyond the words into the pure expression, stretching the song to nearly a dozen breathtaking minutes.
This album comes as Lloyd celebrates his 80th birthday and almost seven decades as a working musician. You can draw a line to this new music from his very first gigs at age 12 in his hometown of Memphis when he played alongside Roscoe Gordon, Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, or Johnny Ace, and when pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. was his early music mentor and trumpeter Booker Little was his childhood best friend. Not a straight line, not by any means, but a strong one, marked by his resolute vision.
The collective inspiration and provocation, in the most positive sense of that word, courses through every song here, every note. No two pieces here are shaped the same, nor do any of them hold to any predictable shape. The country air breathed on I Long to See You breezes through “Ballad of The Sad Young Men,” embodied in Leisz’s pedal steel. New colors emerge from Williams’ romantic road-trip “Ventura.”
And listen how Lloyd’s solemn sax intro seeds the fervent determination of Williams’ new, gospel-informed, “We Have Come Too Far to Turn Around,” or how his playful flute skips in tandem with Frisell’s guitar through “Blues for Langston and LaRue,” or the muted conversation the two of them have (Lloyd back on sax) on Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood.” That, in turn, leads to Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” with Williams’ full-hearted interpretation closing the album on a note of benediction. If “Defiant” starts Vanished Gardens with a call to action, “Angel” ends it with a perfect prayer for peace.
Kamasi Washington, “Heaven and Earth”
Even more so than his prodigious talents, ambitions and vision, “Heaven and Earth” affirms that saxophonist/composer Kamasi Washington’s most notable attribute may be his generosity. And that’s not just a matter of musical quantity, though that is notable as well — between this album and his 2015 breakthrough “The Epic” there’s more than five hours combined of spectacular and instantly appealing modern jazz, not even counting the 38-minute bonus disc sealed inside the packaging of this release. What’s really impressive is how giving he is to his musical cohorts, a community that he was key in assembling, going back to the days when some of them were schoolmates at L.A,’s Alexander Hamilton High in the ‘90s.
Sure, it’s his show — he is the only person on the front cover (walking on water, no less), and it’s mostly his compositions. But throughout he often takes a background role and lets others take their turn leading. Pianist Cameron Graves, bassist Miles Mosley, trombonist Ryan Porter and drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., for that matter, have all released albums in recent years with variations of this same core lineup, including Washington himself. In that regard, Washington’s nominal releases are merely part of a larger communal whole.
Though there really is no “merely” about “Heaven and Earth.” As was the case with “The Epic,” this is BIG in every way: bold horns, powerful rhythms, a full orchestra (including 19 strings players), not to mention a roster of four lead singers and a baker’s-dozen-strong choir massed in soaring melodies, some with lyrics and some just with glorious sounds. And glorious it all is, right from the opening interpretation of the tense Bruce Lee movie theme “Fists of Fury” through the taught funk of “Street Fighter Mas” (a different vibe than anything on “The Epic,” perhaps reflecting his work in Mosley’s West Coast Get Down, the ensemble from which Washington’s aggregate evolved) through the joyous release of the version of the Five Stairsteps’ 1970 hit “Ooh Child” which closes the bonus disc.
Mitski, “Be the Cowboy”
Life in the view of 28-year-old Mitski Miyawaki is a constant ballet of emotional ropes entwining and fraying, of forces attracting and repelling, of minds obsessing and deflecting, imploring and ignoring. Not that she’s the first artist of any form, of any age, by any means, to try to connect those poles and dissect or define the space between.
But she does so in much more direct fashion than most have managed, both in the the brevity of expression — 14 songs here in 33 efficient, yet distinctively and creatively crafted musical minutes — and the sharp, jagged points of her words, aimed outward and inward at once. As in: “ ‘Cause nobody butters me up like you, And nobody fucks me like me…” from the song “Lonesome Love.” Yikes.
Sure, sometimes she can seem a prisoner of her own head, a characteristic shaped perhaps by a childhood of frequent moves to new locales around the globe. But on her fifth album overall, second on a “real” label, she smooths some previously barbed points, sometimes merely with a confidently cooing tone, an almost matter-of-fact delivery that bespeaks her growing strength. Which only makes the cracks in the mirror more dramatic.
Cha Wa, “Spyboy”
Hearing the debut and lone album by the Wild Tchoupitoulas in the late ‘70s, with its vibrant New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian chants featuring Big Chief George Landry backed by a band involving his nephews, which would soon evolve into the Neville Brothers, was an epiphany. Going to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time in ’91 and seeing various “tribes” in action, with their rainbow of feathers and beads and powerful performances, even more so. And finally making it for Super Sunday, the gathering of the tribes parading and then challenging each other via costumes (“You’re the prettiest!”) and songs — as opposed to the more violent means of storied but tragic past — in spring of this last year even more more more so. This is one of this country’s most distinct and rich cultural phenomena, not merely a tradition but a living tradition, constantly evolving.
Cha Wa, a young tribe, is bursting with that life, and in turn breathing new life into it. The outfit’s second album is a constant joy, rooted in and deeply honoring generations’ worth of legacy, while moving it forward with a powerful, exuberant strut. No wonder it’s nominated both for the Regional American Roots Grammy Award and the best funk band honor in New Orleans magazine Offbeat’s Best of the Beat honors.
There was a lot of love on stage when Vicki Peterson joined the Dream Syndicate at the Roxy recently for an encore of “Hero Takes a Fall,” a song her band, the Bangles, had done on its 1984 debut album “All Over the Place.” There was a lot of fun, too, clearly, as you can see in the video from that performance. Now, keep in mind that the song, about someone getting a bit of a swollen head, may just have been about … well… don’t ask them. They ain’t talkin’!
A healthy dose of humor and some tongue in cheek is fitting, as this performance previews the Nov. 23 Record Store Day Black Friday release of “3×4: The Bangles, The Three O’Clock, The Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade,” an album on which those bands, four key members of the early ’80s Los Angeles community dubbed the Paisley Underground, pay loving tribute to the era by covering each others’ songs. (The album will have full release in January.)
The name Paisley Underground started kind of as a joke, noting the common ‘60s pop and rock influences of these bands. But as is often the case, the term doesn’t fully fit, as the scene, such as it was, covered a lot of ground, from sunny power-pop to dark, distorted ruminations. All that is here, with each act giving their own takes on the others’ songs, with great respect and artistry. Among the other highlights: The Rain Parade doing the Bangles’ poppy “Real World” and the Three O’Clock turning up the psychedelia with the Rain Parade’s “What She’d Done To Your Mind.”
And then there’s the Bangles charging through the Three O’Clock’s “Jet Fighter,” as if it had been written for them. A lot of love.
If the term Paisley Underground didn’t quite capture the scene, no term could sum up the work of Julia Holter, who in the course of the last decade or so, has emerged as one of the most ambitious and accomplished artists in L.A., and beyond. And with her new album, “Aviary,” she reaches even further than ever.
While not really sounding like any of them, does put me in mind of some things from Bjork, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Laurie Anderson and such ostensibly contemporary classical composers as Missy Mazzoli, Julia Wolfe and David Lang, the latter two having won Pulitzer Prizes. Honestly, if Holter lived in New York like Lang, I think this album could be a real candidate for that kind of honor. Sorry, a little L.A. underdog chip on my shoulder here.
But how would you really describe the music of “Words I Heard?”
Over the course of the album there are mixes of impressionism and expressionism, her band serving as a versatile chamber ensemble with strings mixed with electric instruments, some digital experiments with voice and sounds alternately soothing and jarring. One element she draws on heavily is words and some melodies from the European troubadours of the 13th and 14th centuries — music that happens to be an obsession of this critic going back, oh, 35 years. So that really clinches this album for me. One song that uses that, as well as a quote from Dante,is “I Shall Love,” a lush, sensual proclamation of pure elation and beauty. But these two songs only give a hint at the range and accomplishment presented in the 90 minutes of the album, raising great anticipation of seeing Holter present this live, which she will be doing worldwide starting in Europe in November and then ending in L.A. at the Lodge Room on March 9.
And continuing the theme, another declaration of love, in new song, “Fight for Love,” by Divine Weeks, an L.A. band with a history spanning three decades, starting out under the wing of Steve Wynn and the Dream Syndicate, for that matter. The band had some buzz in the ‘80s, with two really sharp albums and dynamic live performances before splitting. Singer Bill See and guitarist Raj Makwana reformed the band a few years ago for some shows and a new album and now has made another,“We’re All We Have,” which they are saying will be the group’s last.
For that matter, four of the 11 songs here have “Love” in the title, another is “Too Much Beauty” — an ode to OCD sufferers — and another “Darkness Brings Out the Light in Me.” The thread through it all is about fighting through the madness of the world with love, holding on to love in rough times. It was what powered the band in the ‘80s and seems even more so now.
Idealism via the power of love and the power of music have always been at the core of the band, starting in the Reagan-Bush era. Today it seems harder than ever to maintain, but more needed than ever. So it’s encouraging and inspiring that optimism, hope and love can survive, even thrive in the current climate. Maybe some lessons for us here. Bill See clearly wants us to connect with the message, whatever our differences.
For KPCC Take Two’s Tuesday Reviewsday this week we go from a collaboration of international L.A.-based artists to the streets of Kinshasa (via Paris) to a trip underneath our city. Listen to my chat with show host A. Martinez and read my more detailed written reviews, all right here.
The group’s name pretty much gives it away. Opium Moon‘sdebut album is the soundtrack to an exotic, hazy, languorous dream, a sensual/spiritual trip into the mystic. “Drunk With the Great Starry Void,” a line from a Pablo Neruda poem used as the title of one of the songs, sums it up nicely.
But it’s not just that. Opium Moon, the album title as well as the group’s name, is a deep and involving meeting of distinctive great talents involving several rich cultural/musical traditions:
Violinist Lili Haydn is a Los Angeleno whose virtuosity and exploratory nature have been tapped by a vast array of artists from Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (she was featured on their “UnLEDded” project) to George Clinton’s P-Funk Allstars to Herbie Hancock to Josh Groban, not to mention countless movie and TV scores and her own wide-ranging projects. Bassist and electronicist Itai Disreali was raised on an Israeli kibbutz founded by his grandfather near Nazareth and in L.A. has developed his own compelling mix of Middle Eastern influences and jazz in the trio Maetar among many projects. Tehran native Hamid Saeidi is a master of the santoor, the ancient Persian hammered zither, and has crossed between Persian classical and modern styles. And percussionist MB Gordy has credits from Frank Zappa to Neil Diamond to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and dozens of film and TV sessions as well.
The Persian-Israeli alliance is at the core of these long, slowly unfolding pieces, original group compositions/improvisations inspired by both folk and classical traditions of the region, the modal dastgāh systems, explicitly evoking the Sufi mysticism and its central poet, Rumi.
“How Can I Pray When All I See Is the Beloved” has Haydn peeling off some almost casual romantic Viennese classical licks that somehow complement Saiedi’s brittle santoor perfectly. A video for the song “Caravan” (not the Duke Ellington jazz-exotica classic) shows the interactions in detail. But that’s even more dynamic in concert, as you have a chance to see on Sunday at the Ann & Jerry Moss Theater of the New Roads School in Santa Monica, where they will be joined by Iran-born singer and multi-media performer Sussan Deyhim, a challenging and dynamic artist herself.
If Opium Moon is all dream state, come to the small Frogtown club Zebulon tomorrow (Wednesday 7/11) for a jolt of high-octane, central African musical caffeine from Jupiter & Okwess. Originating in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but living in Paris in exile from the civil war-torn country, Jupiter Bokondji and band proved one of the big hits of this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s celebration of the city’s tricentennial and all the cultures that have fed into its vibrant musical life.
Frantic and frenetic are two words that come to mind with the performances, both live and on the new album “Kin Sonic,” and also fun — Bokondji, who has been creating intriguing takes on the sounds for more than 30 years, is an engagingly dynamic figure and the rest of the band seems constantly on the move, including the drummer Montana Kinunu, who wears one of several lucha libre masks while playing. But this is music tied to strife and exile, and speaks to those issues as it provides escape. A video for the song “Nzele Momi” shows that mix of joy and struggle.
It’s that mix that has attracted such collaborators as Blur’s Damon Albarn, who plays some keyboards on this album, and violinist Warren Ellis from Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds. And those guests in turn help give the music a bit more of a slick sound than what we hear in concert, the settings on the album crafted by French producer Marc-Antoine Moreau (who has worked with various African-originated acts). And through it, Bokondji’s ties to the Kinshasa scene that spawned the distortion-heavy Congotronics and the up-from-the-streets triumphs of Staff Benda Bilili (a band created in the community of disabled homeless people) remain strong. (A 2006 documentary, “Jupiter’s Dance,” spotlights his key roles there.) Whether in Paris or New Orleans or Frogtown, the spirit still connects to Kinshasa.
The New York subways have inspired songs through the years. The L.A. subways, not so much. So how about…. oh, never mind. Maybe “Crying on the Subway” isn’t exactly the ode to the Red Line the Metro folks might choose for a promotional campaign. The song, by singer-songwriter-musician Hana Vu, is set on a ride from the Valley to Downtown, subterranean run from that she has described as “purgatorial.”
Apart from that, even many in the transportation department might appreciate it. It’s a rather sophisticated song on several levels, the pay-off of someone who has been working hard on her craft for five years. Which means she started when she was 12 — she’s just 17 now. But the level of creativity and expression is impressive for any age, and worth noting that she created all the music, playing and singing every part, in her bedroom.
Whatever her age, there’s considerable a great maturity in this. But she also allows herself to be a teen, expressing concerns of youth, though the case can be made that these too figure in any age — isolation and inner turmoil in a fight for meaning and connection, wondering what it all adds up to. The EP title, “How Many Times Have You Driven By,” speaks of obsession with a tone of annoyance. And the in set’s most upbeat song, “Shallow,” she runs screaming from fear of getting caught in “wrong turns,” but seems to know that those turns can prove right. Shallow? That’s one thing she is definitely not.
It was a debut farewell and a farewell farewell Saturday at McCabe’s.
The former was the first, and only, concert by Action Skulls, the trio of Vicki Peterson (the Bangles), John Cowsill (the Beach Boys and, of course, the Cowsills) and Bill Mumy (Barnes & Barnes and a lot of other things, musical and otherwise, including… well, you know.) They’re busy people. Doing more shows would be problematic. So this one, celebrating the recent release of their album, “Angels Hear,” will be it.
The latter was the last show put on there by the venerable venue for its long-time booker and producer Lincoln Myerson.
It was Myerson who made the “debut farewell” quip as he introduced the band while standing, as has been his custom, on the steps leading up to the side of the stage. And re his own leave-taking, off to New Zealand with his fiancée for new adventures, he got ever-so-slightly misty as for one last time he gave his admonishment to the fans to turn off their phones and fully enjoy the music and instructed us all that should there be any emergency we should grab a guitar from the wall and head out the back exit.
“If we like the guitar, we’ll find you,” he said.
Both of these goodbyes get asterisks, though, at the very lease. Let’s just go on record here: Action Skulls will be back. And so will Myerson. His return is a given. He’s planning to be back in town for a stretch in four months, and will continue in a key role, even long-distance, as McCabe’s will be doing various shows throughout the year to celebrate its 60th anniversary. There will be continuity and a smooth handoff to Brian Rodriguez and Koko Peterson, both of whom have worked alongside Myerson for a while now and will take over the duties. Just as it was when Myerson took over from Zacharia Love, who succeeded John Chelew, who stepped up for his original McCabe’s concerts boss Nancy Covey.
As for the Skulls, they and the audience were having so much fun, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t be doing this again. Sometime. Somewhere. They all but said so. With each reference to this being the only show, to mentions of their busy schedules — drummer Cowsill’s in particular, with the Beach Boys seemingly on the road all the time — there was a less-and-less-subtle wink-wink.
This is clearly a labor of love (well, Peterson and Cowsill are a delightfully wedded couple with rare occasion to work together) and friendship, a mutual admiration society. Cowsill noted on stage that he’d long been a fan of Mumy’s music, which reminds him of his late brother Barry. The band, such as it is, grew organically out of a spontaneous session around the piano at a Christmas party hosted by Mumy’s “Lost In Space” TV sister, Angela Cartwright, a few years back. Sharing love and roots in ‘60s sounds, Mumy recounted at McCabe’s, they played songs they knew, songs they didn’t, and as the session stretched long into the night-morning, and the spirits (not, specifically, the holiday kind) took increasing hold, the selections became both sentimental and sad.
The spirit (if not spirits) of that marked the show Saturday. There was banter galore — teasing, false starts, sideways glances, shoutouts to people in the audience — and a real looseness (the good kind) that powered the music too, mostly the songs from the album, mostly written by Mumy. (Cowsill marveled at his prolificness, while joking that they have much blackmail material in the nearly daily iPhone video demos Mumy, usually in a bathrobe, would send them.) Lead vocal duties were shared, Cowsill, with a very winning voice, naturally sweet and sturdy, taking the larger portion. But not surprisingly the highlights had them singing together, a perfect balance of Mumy’s somewhat gruffer tones blending with his compadres. Bassist Robbie Scharff and keyboardist Greg “Harpo” Hilfman filled out the arrangements , which echoed the ‘60s without even being slavishly retro, from the Byrds-via-the Mamas and the Papas “Mainstream” to the Buck Owens-via-Beatles “Feed My Hungry Heart” (see video below). Even when they veered psychedelic on “The Beast and the Best” — Peterson singing lead and Hilfman given room to stretch on a “freaky” solo — it never got hokey hippie.
As casual as the project may have been, the songwriting is anything but. The best of the bunch have some levels to then, explorations of love and meaning. “Faith Waltz,” Mumy explained, is an admiringly curious look at the earnest, heartfelt beliefs many hold, even if he doesn’t share them. “Standing on the Mountain,” one of two songs with all three getting writing credit, had them trading verses about being in different places, but seeking connection.
And threading through the show there were other farewells, these without asterisks. Loss of various kinds was a running theme of the night. Peterson’s “Map of the World” pays tribute to her late father. “If I See You In Another World” — well, the title tells the tale. And in a mid-show acoustic session, they reprised one of the songs that they had done late in the original Christmas party session, the Everly Brothers’ “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)” and then honored mutual hero Tom Petty — who Peterson said that she had the thrill of singing with last year — with the departed rocker’s tender ode to his adopted state, “California,” the three of them fashioning luminescent harmonies.
A big farewell was saved for the encore. Rick Rosas — “Rick the Bass Player,” as he was known far and wide — was the fourth member of Action Skulls through most of the album’s making a few years ago, but died unexpectedly in Nov. 2014 at age 65. Rosas, best known for his decades of work with Neil Young and Joe Walsh, has the distinction of being the only bassist to play with Buffalo Springfield (the reunion shows of 2011), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and in Young’s Crazy Horse (he’d taken over for an ailing Billy Talbot for a 2014 tour). Wistfully talking about how much they’d loved having him as part of the band, and how much he’d enjoyed playing with them, the Skulls paid perfect tribute to him with a version of Young’s “Helpless.”
Helpless. A feeling of saying goodbye. A real goodbye.
It was family night at McCabe’s on Sunday. Joachim Cooder sat center stage at the Santa Monica landmark amid an arsenal of electro-acoustic tuned percussion devices and various wired effects gadgets. To his left, seated behind a keyboard console, was Juliette Commagere, to whom he is married. With her — well, in her — was their gestating son, about six weeks from his ETA, and given the name (for now, at least) “Snack Pack” by their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Joachim informed us. Juliette’s brother, singer-songwriter Robert Francis, had opened the show with a solo set of tales both tender and tough, full of musings both mirthful and melancholy.
Oh, and to Joachim’s right, making his concert debut, was a bass player named Ry Cooder, Joachim’s dad. That is, his debut as a bass player. He is, of course, one of the premiere guitarists in a vast range of styles, a treasure of the strings and a living, breathing music library. But he’d never played bass in public before and it presented a challenge — one note at a time, he quipped, so “it had better be right.”
All of these clan members had played with each other for ages in various settings. Joachim has been a key figure on many of his dad’s recordings, including some with the Cuban musicians of the Buena Vista All Stars, and Joachim and Juliette having had a series of bands together over the last couple of decades, some of them also featuring brother Robert. Saxophonist Sam Gendel, to Juliette’s left this night, was the only one playing who was not a blood and/or marriage relative to anyone else involved on the bill.
So maybe it was no surprise that the songs showcased by Joachim and crew were largely marked by a sense of familial domesticity. In a conversational voice and a stream-of-consciousness manner — a friend afterwards related it to Mose Allison’s patter-poetry style, though maybe with a hippie flow rather than Mose’s bebop Beatnik clip — he sang of idyllic bliss and lovingly amusing home-life. “Calm My Mind” celebrated supportive coupledom. “Gaviota Drive” wistfully recalled early mornings in the seaside home of Commager’s grandmother as he held then-baby daughter Paloma, just the two of them and the sounds of waves lapping the shore. “Elevated Boy” riffed sweetly on something Paloma came up with regarding a mouse doll of hers. And “Fuchsia Machu Picchu,” the title song from Joachim’s new EP, is an ode to the first bit of flora they planted in the yard after moving in to their Highland Park home. When Commagere joined in on harmonies it was truly, well, harmonious. In multiple senses.
But if he was singing hyper-locally, he was playing expansive-globally. Let’s call the predominant style electro-Congo-Bali blues. At the center of this sonic universe was an electric mbira, a thistle of chiming tines custom-made by San Diego’s Array Instruments. For most of the songs, Cooder started by creating a looped pattern from this, kind of an instant one-man celestial gamelan, sometimes richened with the deeper, earthier tones coaxed from another Array invention, their “organ,” an architecturally arranged forrest of thick nails, each precisely set to produce a specific note in a gorgeously melodious scale.
To this, Cooder père added steady yet fluid bass patterns (the notes were, in fact, right), while Cooder fils and Commager filled some of the rhythms with various hand percussion items. And over it, Gendel blew breathy, understated sax lines, often running his instrument through a tone-splitter to create sort-of animal choruses, clearly evoking the work of inventive trumpeter Jon Hassell, whose ‘70s and ‘80s “Fourth World” music collaborations with Brian Eno seemed to be the primary touchstone for Joachim’s sound-world here. (Hassell guested on Joachim’s 2012 electronics-centric “Love Is a Real Train” album.)
Even the closing song, a version of influential Appalachian banjo/folk song master Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues,” first recorded by the Virginian a full 90 years ago, gained vibrance from this approach, though the downcast desolation and despair of the song’s narrator made for a stark contrast to the rest of Cooder’s set. Maybe it’s a way for Cooder to remind himself of how good he’s got it. Or maybe it’s just a great song for a family music night, which is plenty good enough.
A little coda: Another member of the extended Cooder family was on the minds of many Sunday, as soul single Terry Evans, who had been a core member of many of Ry Cooder’s bands and recordings since the mid-‘70s, passed away at age 80 earlier that day. Evans had recently taken part on sessions for Francis’ new “Indian Summer” album, and Francis paid tribute, dedicating both his opening and closing songs to the singer.
Only a few years ago, Evans did a concert on this same McCabe’s stage, his combination of sweetness and power as strong as ever — as seen and heard here in this song, video made by Wayne Griffith and Sam Epstein:
“This is a theme from our past that we’re making up on the spot.”
So said guitarist Nels Cline to introduce one piece in Saturday night’s duo show with his twin brother, drummer Alex, presented by the Jazz Bakery at the New Roads School’s Moss Theater.
And then they did this.
That little bit was mere prologue. Soon the piece transmuted into something else. And then it transmuted into a series of transmutations, flowing and shifting, passages of power, of delicacy, of fury, of silence … and always of incandescence. And as Nels suggested, wittingly or otherwise, it brought together all of their shared lifetime, expressed vibrantly in the moment. Well, watch and listen. This next video clip is long, yes. You might not stick it out, or you might skip from point to point. But you might not be able to help yourself and wind up watching it through.
For all the spontaneity, this is really live composition. It’s what what these two did through the whole concert, working from themes of various sources — a couple from the works of late jazz drummer Paul Motian, a few from Nels own work, including a gorgeously rich variation on “You Noticed,” from his most recent album, “Lovers.” And it’s what they’ve done through their whole lives, from when they were kids growing up just a mile or so from this very spot, which Nels amusedly recalled used to be a hot tub dealer.
No matter what they’ve done on their own (Nels, most famously, in the band Wilco for the last decade-plus), they’ve had bands together and contributed to each others’ projects with regularity. When Nels did a concert at Royce Hall last year, Alex was in the band, though so were 17 other musicians. And Nels is among the featured players in Alex’s Flower Garland Orchestra, heard on last year’s stellar “Ocean of Vows” album.
Remarkably, the show Saturday — in part celebrating their 62nd birthday a couple of weeks ago — was only the fourth time in more than 50 years of performing together that they’ve ever done a public concert with just the two of them on stage. They seemed as perplexed by that as anyone in the room.
Each of them made full use of their considerable respective command of their instruments, Alex moving between chiming bells and gongs and thundering drums and cymbals, Nels enhancing and manipulating his nonpareil fretboard skills with a variety of effects both electronic and mechanic. But most profound was the meshing of their playing, the natural complementary dynamics that we tritely but probably truly can credit to their shared genetics, not to mention those decades of working together.
For all the musical wonders with which they’ve been involved, this will stand as a highlight for all on hand to witness it, and hopefully for the two of them who performed it. That won’t be lost even if they make this a more regular occurrence. And let’s hope they do.