Monday, July 31, 2006

One Day in Your Life: July 31, 1976

I have always thought of July 31 as the high point of the summer. 1976 was my favorite summer. And so that naturally leads to this:

July 31, 1976, is a Saturday. Elvis Presley, on his last tour, plays Hampton Roads, Virginia. Eric Clapton plays London. Jethro Tull plays Tampa, Florida. Barry Manilow plays Philadelphia, where health officials are struggling to figure out what mysterious disease sickened over 200 people and killed 34 during an American Legion bicentennial gathering a few days earlier. It's been nicknamed "legionnaire's disease." The Montreal Olympics are coming to an end, as an East German marathoner wins the gold in the final event of the games, and six athletes, five Romanians and a Russian, defect to Canada. The Green Bay Packers play the earliest preseason game in their history, losing to the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-16. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the first game in their history, losing to the Los Angeles Rams, 26-3. Future pro football player Marty Booker is born. In Colorado, a foot of rain falls in the mountains, causing a flood in Big Thompson Canyon that kills 150 people. NBC airs the first-season finale of its new weekend late-night show, NBC's Saturday Night, hosted by Kris Kristofferson. (His wife, Rita Coolidge, is the musical guest.) Sketches include "Samurai General Practitioner" and "Gynecologist Blind Date," with Kristofferson and Jane Curtin. Other TV programs on the air that night include the syndicated soap Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and The Invasion of Johnson County, a western starring Bill Bixby. NASA releases a photo taken by the Viking Mars probe before it landed on July 20. It seems to show a face on the Martian surface, but NASA says it's merely a rock formation and nothing mysterious. A UFO is sighted in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Louisiana adopts petrified palm wood as its official state fossil.

On the Billboard singles chart dated July 31, "Kiss and Say Goodbye" by the Manhattans is spending its second week at Number One; "Love Is Alive" by Gary Wright is Number Two; Starbuck's "Moonlight Feels Right" is at Number Three; Number Four is "Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Band. The Beatles and the Beach Boys are back-to-back at Numbers 7 and 8, with "Got to Get You Into My Life" and "Rock and Roll Music," the first time both bands have been in the Top 10 at the same time since 1967. New in the Top 40 are "Say You Love Me" by Fleetwood Mac, "Play That Funky Music" by Wild Cherry, "Who'd She Coo" by the Ohio Players, "Shake Your Booty" by KC and the Sunshine Band, and War's "Summer." Two versions of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" are bubbling under the Top 40--one is the 1967 original, the other is a new recording from the hit movie of the same name. New on the Hot 100 that week: "Still the One" by Orleans and "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult. George Benson's Breezin' tops the album chart.

And I probably drove my 1974 AMC Hornet somewhere that night, with the radio on, of course. It was a Saturday, after all.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Top 5: All the Roadrunning

We're back from vacation. After a couple of days in Philadelphia, we divided the next two between sightseeing and driving, and drove the last five-plus hours today. It was 1945 highway miles in all--or, to put it another way, something like 34 1/2 CDs. Here are five of them, in no particular order:

Live in Louisville 1974/Chicago. Chicago is just wrapping up a tour with Huey Lewis and the News (and if we'd timed it right, we could have seen them in the Pittsburgh area when we passed through last weekend). Starting next week, they're launching a tour celebrating the release of their 30th album. They plan to perform lots of classic-era songs, although caveat emptor: most of those hits were sung by Peter Cetera and Terry Kath, and they ain't in the band anymore. (Chicago's Madison venue is noting Cetera's absence on its web posting for the show.) When I heard the 1996 edition of Chicago, they were note-perfect. The Louisville bootleg is anything but--it's loose, ragged, and you can almost forget it's Chicago. Almost. Key tracks: "Dialogue," "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon."

The Folk Years: Blowin' in the Wind/Various Artists. Time-Life's The Folk Years casts a wide net--Blowin' in the Wind includes tracks by Sonny and Cher, Otis Redding, and Chad and Jeremy. It confirms what you already know--that the folkies of the 1960s produced some glorious music, such as "Both Sides Now" (Judy Collins), "Get Together" (Youngbloods), and "Turn Turn Turn" (Byrds). It also confirms what anthologies of this type often hide--that the folk era also produced some of the most painfully jive nonsense of the past 50 years, such as "Baby the Rain Must Fall" (Glenn Yarbrough)--which is docked points for the deadly earnestness of its lyric ("I do not love for silver/I do not love for gold/My heart is mine to give away/It never will be sold") and the manly earnestness with which Yarbrough declaims it; "Don't Let the Rain Come Down" (Serendipity Singers), which sounds like the kind of thing a bunch of single schoolteachers would have sung to sublimate their terminally unmet need to get laid; and "The Marvelous Toy" (Chad Mitchell Trio), which gives the lie to the idea that folk music in the early 60s was somehow "relevant" in a way that rock and roll was not.

Legendary Hall and Oates
/Daryl Hall and John Oates.
This is a three-disc Australian import covering almost all of H&O's career, from the mid 70s to the mid 90s. It proves that Hall and Oates had almost unlimited access to the Fountain of Hooks, but also that they tended to repeat themselves. All the hits are here, except, for some damn reason, "She's Gone." Some lesser-known favorites of mine include "Back Together Again" (1977), "How Does it Feel to Be Back" (1980) and two superb singles from 1990's Change of Season, "Don't Hold Back Your Love" and "Starting All Over Again."

All the Roadrunning/Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris. Many reviewers and listeners--including The Mrs.--have said the same thing: "I wouldn't think of these two together, but it works." Indeed it does. Dire Straits fans may find that it twangs a bit too much, but the chemistry between Knopfler and Harris more than makes up for it. It's great to hear love songs that sound like they're from the hearts of real adults instead of horny teenagers. Key tracks: "This Is Us," "Red Staggerwing," "Love and Happiness for You."

Party Doll and Other Favorites/Mary Chapin Carpenter. This 1999 best-of collection includes hits, live versions of several familiar tunes (including a version of "Down at the Twist and Shout" performed in New Orleans before the Packers' 1997 Super Bowl victory over New England), scattered tunes contributed to other projects, and some previously unreleased studio tracks. Two of the latter, "Wherever You Are" and "Almost Home," are on my short list of MCC essentials.

Any car trip I'm on, from a hop to the convenience store to a journey halfway across the country, is powered by music. This trip also included several volumes of Time-Life's Sounds of the Eighties and Rhino's Super Hits of the 70s, about half of Bruce Springsteen's Tracks anthology, plus albums by Rosanne Cash, Donald Fagen, Elton John, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Michael Franks (a CD we picked up on the trip), the Swingle Singers (The Mrs. is an acapella singer), and Iowa City's Big Wooden Radio. To name a few. We're glad to be back.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Greetings from Philadelphia, where The Mrs. and I are spending a couple of days of our vacation. Although we did the standard tourist bit today--Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Benjamin Franklin's grave--we could just as easily have visited some entirely different shrines just by going up some different streets.

Take, for example, Sigma Sound, the studio where Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff created the Sound of Philadelphia in the 1970s. If any site is ready for the museum treatment, like Sun and Stax in Memphis, this is it. It hasn't happened yet, however, and Sigma remains a working studio. The former HQ of Gamble and Huff's Philadelphia International record label, housed in an office building not far from Sigma, might be equally deserving, although I seem to recall that when John A. Jackson tried to visit the site while researching A House on Fire, his recent book on Philly soul, the building's owners wouldn't let him in, claiming to have no interest in the history of the place.

Philadelphia is also the birthplace of American Bandstand, which started as a local TV program in 1952. After original host Bob Horn was arrested for DUI in 1956 and dismissed from the TV station, young Dick Clark took over the show. Bandstand went national a year later, retitled American Bandstand, airing on ABC five days a week for 90 minutes a day. (ABC, a low-rent network in those days, had nothing else to run during those hours.) The show went weekly in 1963, and moved to Los Angeles shortly thereafter.

During the early years of Bandstand, one of the show's regular dancers was a 13-year-old South Philly kid named Jerry Blavat. In 1961, Blavat started a radio career. He became a raucous Top-40 shouter who called himself "The Geator With the Heater" and "The Boss With the Sauce." He's still on the air today, hosting a syndicated oldies show--and we walked right past his company office today.

Also in the heart of Center City Philadelphia is the site of the original offices of Cameo/Parkway Records. That label is best known for releasing Chubby Checker's monstrous early-60s hits, and for inflicting Bobby Rydell on an unsuspecting American public. It was famous locally as a label that would give almost any Philadelphia kid a chance to become a star.

Gamble, Huff, Clark, Blavat, Checker, Rydell, Cameo/Parkway founders Kal Mann and Dave Appell, and dozens of other Philadelphia music figures, are honored on the Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame. On our travels today, we walked past plaques honoring Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, John Coltrane, Bessie Smith, and plenty of others. The list of honorees is a good reminder for a guy from out of town that the Sound of Philadelphia is more than just 70s soul.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Top 5: Just a Song Before I Go

Tomorrow The Mrs. and I are leaving on a 9-day vacation. This will be our first really long trip in four years--usually our vacations are long weekends that don't require us to hire a cat-sitter. But on those rare occasions when we stay away longer, I'm always reminded of those family vacations we used to take back in the day.

The first one I can remember must have been in the late '60s or 1970--we visited Mark Twain's hometown, Hannibal, Missouri, where my mother bought a copy of Tom Sawyer. The sole memory I retain of that trip is of my brother and I lying in our motel bed each night while Mom read a chapter to us. The first trip I can date is the one in 1971. We went to Detroit to tour the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village--and as a newly-minted radio geek, I wanted to listen to the local stations. I even snagged a music survey from one of them. I know that we went to Mackinac Island one year--I want to say 1973. Another time, we went to the Black Hills of South Dakota. That may have been 1974. I remember I was amazed to discover a radio station in Rapid City, South Dakota, called KKLS, which used the same jingle package as WLS in Chicago, only they called themselves "Double-K-L-S." (That may have been the year our car broke down on the way home, somewhere in North Dakota.) But I also associate the Black Hills with the last family vacation all five of us took together, which would have been in 1977. That summer, I was a sullen 17-year-old who did not want to be on the trip one damn bit, because my girlfriend has just returned from a month in Europe only days before we left. I am guessing that my parents made me go because I had quit my summer job a few weeks before, and they didn't want me hanging around the house at loose ends by myself, particularly if my girlfriend was no longer safely across the Atlantic. So I got dragged along--and one afternoon on the way home, while listening to a Cubs game on the radio, we heard that Elvis had died.

I realized only years later how fortunate we were to take extended family vacations at all. My father was a dairy farmer, with cows that needed to be milked twice a day every day, 365 days a year. It's not easy to find somebody to milk cows for you, since most people who are capable of milking cows, or who want to milk cows, have cows of their own. Lots of dairy-farm families never got to take the sort of trips we took.

Since I've already gassed on at length here but still want to do a Top 5, let's keep it brief. Here are five memorable records from the end of July, 1977. I'm cheating a little, using a survey from Madison's WISM dated August 11, 1977, only because I had an actual hard copy of it back then.

I do not know what it means to be "easy like Sunday morning," but it doesn't matter. This was as good as it got for the Commodores.

"Handy Man"/James Taylor. I know it's uncool to prefer this to the 1960 original by Jimmy Jones, but I do. You can just tell that Taylor's sensitive-guy act is getting him laid. A lot.

"Whatcha Gonna Do"/Pablo Cruise.
I recall reading, maybe on liner notes, that the name "Pablo Cruise" was designed to symbolize "everyman commonality" and strong fluid motion. On "Whatcha Gonna Do," they got the fluid motion thing right.

"Da Doo Ron Ron"/Shaun Cassidy. Homercat posted this at Good Rockin' Tonight last Friday. He claims to have been cringing while he posted it, but no cringing is necessary. It's a trash classic, a superb radio song with one of the great intros you'll ever hear. Better hurry over while the link's still live.

"Smoke From a Distant Fire"/Sanford Townsend Band. My girlfriend and I exchanged frequent letters while she was in Europe, and in one of them, I told her about this record.

On this year's trip, I'm taking the laptop for e-mail and music, and that means there's the outside chance of a post appearing here during the week sometime, but if there's nothing new until the 30th or 31st, don't be surprised.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Limited, Compressed, and Amplitude Modulated

Does this sound like anyone you know?
I still I have a soft spot in my heart (or my head) for AM music radio, specifically stations that program music that was originally made to be played on AM (and jukeboxes) in the first place. Call me strange, or old fashioned (you wouldn’t be the first), but I sort of PREFER to hear old pop music on AM instead of FM, or in any digital rendering scenario. I often find it jarring to hear an old rock song I grew up with in hi-fi stereo on an FM oldies station. It just sounds wrong to me. I guess the hits in mono, as well as limited, compressed and modulated in an amplitude fashion. But I don’t experience them that way very often these days.
Sure, I could have written that, but I didn't. That's the Professor of WFMU's Beware of the Blog, whose specialty is surfing the radio dial for his series, "Adventures in Amplitude Modulation." Recently, he was in southeastern Michigan, where he found himself captivated by a small-town classic country station that's a throwback to the days before corporatization took over the world, before even the smallest stations became tightly programmed and slick. This sort of station can easily become hellishly bad--remind me to tell you some stories sometime about the single worst radio station I ever heard in my life--but this one, WCXI in Fenton, Michigan (which charmingly IDs as "Fenton/Flint/Detroit"), is either smarter than most or guarded by angels. (And the music is often extraordinary.) WCXI might be the same station you listened to from your hometown back in the day, even if you've never set foot in Michigan.

Elsewhere: Locust St. has a lengthy disquisition on the color orange. Any post that manages to name-check Led Zeppelin, the Elizabethan churchman Thomas Wolsey, and former Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley all at once is OK with me--and the tunes are good, too.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Coming and Going

The old Ben Casey TV show (1961-1966) used to open with the following narration: "Man, woman, birth, death, infinity." It is with that eternal circle in mind that we present July 17--a day on which many notable folk were born, and on which many others died.

Mandy Smith is 36. Notorious tailhound Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones (believed by one Stones biographer to have bedded over 2,000 different women during his years with the band) started dating Mandy in 1983, when she was 13. He was 47 at the time. They married six years later, and divorced three years after that. Later, Wyman's son dated Smith's mother.

And suddenly I am thinking of the old country song by Lonzo and Oscar, "I'm My Own Grandpa."

Phoebe Snow is 54. To most, she's a one-hit wonder for 1975's "Poetry Man," although she also collaborated with Paul Simon on his 1975 hit "Gone at Last," and sang in Donald Fagen's New York Rock and Soul Revue. You should seek out her 1978 album Against the Grain for fine covers of Paul McCartney's "Every Night" and "The Married Men," first performed by the Roches and also by Bette Midler.

Gale Garnett is 64. Best known for "We'll Sing in the Sunshine," a remarkably modern tale for 1964, in which Gale says she will neither love nor marry her man but will stay with him for a year of fun, and promises him he'll never forget it. Garnett has had a substantial post-music career as an actress and writer in her native New Zealand.

Spencer Davis is either 64, 65, or 68, depending on the source. He's perhaps the most famous example of a group leader who was outshone by one of his sidemen--in Davis' case, Steve Winwood. I'm trying to think of others. There was Harold Melvin, whose Blue Notes were anchored by lead singer Teddy Pendergrass. Can you think of any more?

Vince Guaraldi would be 78, had he not died in 1976. He composed and performed the music for the early Peanuts specials, including A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is so cool I may have to play it today.

Isaac Watts would be 332, had he not died in 1748. Watts is responsible for some great Protestant oldies, including "O God Our Help in Ages Past" (the first verse of which I can still remember from hearing it in childhood) and the lyrics to the Christmas carol "Joy to the World," set to a tune by Georg Friedrich Handel.

On this date in 1996, Chas Chandler died at age 57. He saw the music biz from both sides, bassist for the Animals and discoverer of Jimi Hendrix, as well as his manager and until mid-1968, producer. He reportedly urged Hendrix to try songwriting, and his personal library of science-fiction books is said to have inspired Hendrix' interest in cosmic themes.

On this date in 1971, Cliff Edwards, better known as Ukulele Ike, died at age 76. Ike was an enormous star of the 1920s, and I've mentioned him several times on this blog in its history, which is pretty weird, really. And now here he is again.

On this date in 1967, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane died at age 41. What I don't know about jazz dwarfs the little I do know, but I feel pretty safe in saying that Coltrane's influence on the language of jazz is right up there with that of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. Key track: Many. Start with the albums Giant Steps and Blue Train.

On this date in 1959, jazz singer Billie Holiday died at age 44. Her range was only a bit more than an octave, but no one in jazz did more with less. Key track: "Strange Fruit," an anti-lynching song so graphic--and a performance so stark--that it's hard to believe it was ever recorded at all, let alone in 1939.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Hooked on a Feeling

VH1 ran another edition of I Love the 70s this past week (and, if you missed it, the channel will likely be repeating it over the weekend and in weeks to come). The first edition focusing on the 1970s, three years ago, was a pretty satisfying retrospective of the decade's fun. It's clear after watching the new edition for a while that all the best moments of the 1970s were featured in the previous edition. Volume II, as it's known, has been a mix of good and bad. Here are three instances of each.

Good: Several of the better commentators from the first edition are back again, including Loni Love, Rachel Quaintance, and Bil Dwyer, who are billed as "actor/comedians," but whose primary gig seems to be commenting for VH1 specials like this. Unlike some of the commentators, none of them seem to be reading scripted lines--the little secret about this program and others like it is how highly scripted they are, so maybe Love, Quaintance and Dwyer are just better actors than the rest.

Bad: Michael Ian Black's schtick, which was hilarious in the first edition, has curdled into obviously scripted unpleasantness this time, and there's way, way too much Charo. Among the missing commentators from last time is Fox Sports' Jillian Barberie, whose enthusiasm for the gadgets, fads, and TV from the 1970s came across as utterly genuine and whose comments were surprisingly insightful, and Donal Logue from Grounded for Life, whose unhinged rants on the absurdity of 70s culture were funny in a "he said WHAT?" sort of way.

Good: This edition of the show has added a couple of "then-and-now" features. One shows photos of 70s celebrities as they look today, with snark provided by Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. Another features Christopher Knight, who crankily points out the difference between Brady Bunch characters and the real-life actors who played them. (That Knight plays as tired of being mistaken for his Brady Bunch character is a little odd, given that VH1 has built an entire reality series around him called My Fair Brady.)

The first edition of the show moved very quickly, but since 2003, VH1 has refined this sort of program, and now the speed of it is likely to give you a headache. Several recurring features in each episode ("It's Time for Burt Reynolds' Mustache," "Look Who's Got a Farrah Do," and "Bruce Lee and Evel Knievel in Stunt Fu") last no more than 15 seconds, and as such are largely pointless.

Bad: The series is a little less precise on chronology this time, often illustrating particular 70s artifacts with music several years removed in time, and occasionally blowing it completely. A feature on hit songs of 1974 mentioned "Hooked on a Feeling," but played the 1969 B. J. Thomas version instead of Blue Swede's 1974 monster. The same episode contained a feature on the Electric Light Orchestra--even though the band hit the Top 40 for the first time in 1973 and didn't return until 1975--and prominently featured their 1979 hit "Don't Bring Me Down."

Good: At least VH1 finally returned to the 70s, after doing two additional series of I Love the 80s and two of I Love the 90s. And if you watch the series in the spirit VH1 intends--with your brain pretty much on pause--it's entertaining. And if you can reactivate some memories that have undeservedly gone cold, so much the better.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Dirt Cheap

I saw a music blog post today noting that the plaque has been stolen again from Bon Scott's grave in Australia, and that the latest theft was discovered on Sunday, which would have been his 60th birthday. That got me to thinking about how AC/DC is one of my all-time most-hated performers.

As an adolescent, my tastes were shaped by AM radio. I didn't have any older siblings who might have exposed me to whatever was hip amongst the college crowd at the time. And, as I have chronicled here previously, my non-Top 40 music of choice was prog rock. So I never really got deeply into what we'll call, for lack of a more descriptive term, "hard rock," beyond whatever the Top 40 of the time could provide--BTO, Edgar Winter, the odd Zeppelin cut, etc.

At college, my first exposure to AC/DC was their 1979 album Highway to Hell. Our college station played the, uh, hell out of it, although the band seemed almost laughably incompetent to me. The next year came Back in Black. Nobody could have imagined at the time what a landmark Back in Black would turn out to be. Certainly not I, who hated it with a passion. Yes, Brian Johnson's nails-on-the-blackboard vocal screech made Scott sound like Frank Sinatra, but in my iconoclastic 20-year-old-asshole fashion, I hated it just as much because so many other people liked it.

When AC/DC's 1975 album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap got its first American release in early '81, Back in Black was still in heavy rotation, and suddenly the station seemed to become all AC/DC all the time. We could have played "Dirty Deeds," "Big Balls," "Back in Black," "You Shook Me All Night Long," "Hell's Bells," and "Shoot to Thrill" hourly and our audience wouldn't have complained much. Somebody--and I don't remember doing it, but it sounds like something I might have done in those days--eventually put a track-wide scratch across the decidedly R-rated "Big Balls" to keep it off the air. I do remember a loud argument with the music director at some point (I was program director at the time) in which I suggested I'd heard enough goddamn AC/DC and if it were up to me, we'd dump them entirely. He volunteered to replace them with Air Supply, but I apparently came to my senses before he could go through with it.

It goes without saying that at my college, the release of For Those About to Rock We Salute You in 1981 was a musical event on par with the release of Sgt. Pepper. And I was surprised to find that I hated the album a lot less than I expected to--although I didn't like to admit it. All I'd say--and I stand by this 25 years later--is that I'd like to hear "For Those About to Rock" performed by a competent vocalist. Fortunately for me, AC/DC pretty much dropped off the map after that. "You Shook Me All Night Long" occasionally turned up at places I programmed or worked, but that was it. They vexed me no longer.

Two postscripts, many years later. First, for a couple of years in the mid 90s, I hosted the all-request show on a classic rock station, and I had a no-AC/DC rule. I never mentioned it on the air, and jocks who would sit in for me were free to play the stuff if they wanted to, but I wouldn't.

Second: My youngest brother got married in 2001. At the reception, somehow, my mother ended up out on the dance floor while the DJ was playing "You Shook Me All Night Long." I said to my other brother, "Look out there . . . Mother is dancing to AC/DC." "Our mother?" That was the moment my 20-year hatred of AC/DC jumped the shark. It just didn't seem worth the effort anymore.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I'm Holdin' Onto This Card, Can't Seem to Get it in the Mail

(Edited to add Mars Needs Guitars link at the end.)

On this date in 2004, this blog was born. Looking back over two years and a little over 300 posts, I find that we've listened to plenty of tunes and a few old radio stations, dug up some trivia, had a debate or two--and a hell of a lot of fun. In case you've come late to the party, here is a guide to a few of my favorite posts so far.

The results of our recent web poll indicate that people who read this blog like to hear radio stories. Back toward the beginning, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the first format change I ever presided over as a program director. Other favorite radio-related posts are about the best summer job I ever had, the life of a minor local radio celebrity, my mildly dramatic adventures covering severe weather, and the high weirdness that can be found in an old file of radio job applications.

The history of radio as a medium intrigues us here now and then as well. We've checked into the history of NBC's old Monitor service, written about the living history that is Oklahoma City's legendary KOMA, and discussed the rise of the "jack" format.

The most important radio history tale of them all, at least to me, involves how I became a radio geek in the first place. That's the best example of another genre of post at this blog--the way music serves as a time machine, or mirror, or looking glass, back into our respective pasts. There have been many, many posts of this type here, most recently this one on the last day of school.

I used to do a Top 5 countdown on my radio shows, usually on Friday, and I resurrected that tradition here early on, although on the blog it's not always a countdown per se. I've also flipped through my collection of K-Tel compilations and catalogued the best air-keyboard moments.

We've praised bubblegum, discussed disco, and taken a second listen to our favorite albums from high school. We've touched on the history of dirty blues and a rock-and-roll tragedy that happened right here in Madison. We've listened to music that sucks: the worst records of the 1970s and Dan Fogelberg's most annoying hit. And we've chronicled our first steps into the world of downloaded music.

And, I notice, we have rather pompously begun using the editorial "we."

I think it's common among low-rent bloggers such as myself--people who started using this medium as a creative outlet without thinking much about the possibility that people would read it--to be surprised when it turns out there's actually an audience for their ramblings. Way back at the beginning, I warned you that sometimes, the content of this blog might be so personal that I'd be the only one who understood it. I'm sure that's been true now and then, but apparently it hasn't been true all the time. So thank you for your continual attention, and for your feedback. Please continue to use the comments or send me e-mail at the address in the right-hand column to respond to what you read here.

(For example, you might wish to weigh in on whether Southern rockers like the Marshall Tucker Band and Charlie Daniels still belong on classic rock radio, or whether they twang too much. If you'd like to hear some more Southern rock to help you decide, Mars Needs Guitars has a mess of it, so go and listen a spell.)

OK, now, who brought the cake?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Full Moon Fever

Around the music blogs today:

From somewhere in Canada, Homercat at Good Rockin' Tonight is going south for a couple of tunes from the Marshall Tucker Band. Although they were squarely in the AOR mix during the late 70s, I'm not sure they belong on classic rock radio today. Is it possible that the definition of "classic" or, as my radio station puts it, "timeless," can change? Listen and tell me what you think.

Anybody who remembers 70s TV can summon up the sound of Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton as Archie and Edith Bunker singing the All in the Family theme. But did you know they made a record of pop songs in 1973? The Record Robot has uncovered it. Whether that's a service to musical history or a crime against humanity is up to you to decide.

(Speaking of 70s artifacts, VH1 has finally gotten around to I Love the 70s Volume II, three years after Volume One. Episodes covering 1970 and 1971 air tonight from 7 to 9PM Central, and other years will be featured every night this week.)

I'm over a week late getting to the following two posts, but you shouldn't dawdle in getting to them yourself. At Take Em as They Come, Danny Alexander wrote about Bruce Springsteen and his Seeger Sessions album and tour as subversive of just about everything you'd expect Springsteen, and rock itself, to be. Meanwhile, He's a Whore posted on the career of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with capsule review/summaries of each of their albums through the early 90s, and this amazing trivia nugget: Petty's record company rejected Full Moon Fever at first, despite the inclusion of such now-classics as "I Won't Back Down" and "Free Fallin'." It took a regime change at the company to get it released.

Coming tomorrow: A brief and modest celebration of this blog's second anniversary.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Angular Banjos Sound Good to Me

As I wrote last week, it's hard to imagine summer in Wisconsin without Summerfest in Milwaukee--it's not just a music festival, it's a celebration of cheesehead culture. Grilled sausages with side orders of deep-fried everything float on an ocean of beer; hundreds of vendors demonstrate their wares in hopes of gulling holidaying customers to buy unnecessaries, the way people always buy fudge while they're on vacation in the Dells or Door County; and men and women who ought to know better display more flesh than they're qualified to.

And the music itself generally demonstrates the pageant of life up here, even amidst the annual complaints that there are too many blues bands and not enough hip-hop shows. Or at least it's supposed to. The strange thing about Summerfest the last two or three years is the amount of downtime on various stages. The organizers seem to have scheduled fewer bands further apart. Whether this is to maximize the possibilities for the vendors, keep traffic flowing in and out of the grounds, or what is unclear. The end result is that this year, our sixth straight year attending the Fest, we probably heard less music than in any other year. We'd sit down at a stage and the band would promptly wrap up, with a lengthy (and scheduled) delay before the next one. But after attending the Marcus Amphitheater show Friday night, featuring the self-christened Steelyard "Sugartooth" McDan (and the, we still felt like we'd gotten our money's worth at the end of the night.

Michael McDonald opened the show in fine voice. (The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reviewer described it as an "indefatigable and instantly recognizable falsetto with a low tone not unlike that of a shout in an oak barrel.") Now that he's recorded two CDs of Motown covers, his library of available tunes is even deeper than it was when he had only his previous solo work and Doobies tunes to draw from. And although the JS reviewer didn't care for the Motown stuff, I did--the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell twosome "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing" felt like a show-stopper to me.

About two minutes before Steely Dan came on, I guessed that they might open with "Bodhissatva," and I turned out to be right. But I'd have done poorly trying to guess the rest of the setlist. The band reached way back in time for some surprising choices, including changed-up versions of "Do It Again" and "Show Biz Kids," and perhaps the most surprising tune of all, "Any World That I'm Welcome To," from Katy Lied. The rest of the set featured exactly nothing from the band's recent albums, Everything Must Go and Two Against Nature, and nothing from Donald Fagen's current solo album. It relied heavily on songs from Aja, skipping only "Home at Last" and "Deacon Blues." Given that "Deacon Blues" was the emotional high-point of the Dan's 2000 show in Milwaukee, its absence was noticeable this time--but playing "Aja" and "Black Cow" this time made up for it a little.

The JS reviewer criticized "Aja" for its "super-relaxed and elongated pace" and suggested it needed a surge, which misses the point of "Aja" entirely--the languid pace adds to the power of the song, which is structured to give the soloists room to stretch out. Drummer Keith Carlock held up his end, doing justice to Steve Gadd's explosive performance on the recorded original. Sax player Walt Weiskopf wasn't as successful approaching Wayne Shorter's--but Shorter's shoes are big for almost everybody.

Donald Fagen was a lot more verbose on stage this time than last, even providing a humorous bit about the worm in a tequila bottle in the middle of "Hey Nineteen." It's pretty clear that he can't hit the high notes like he used to--not even like six years ago--but he got better as the night went on. Walter Becker let his guitar do the talking. He did get to introduce the band, but unlike the 2000 tour, he didn't sing. (Which, honesty compels me to report, is not necessarily a bad thing.)

McDonald came back out for the last three or four numbers, as expected--although I was surprised not to hear "Pretzel Logic," which was McDonald's spotlight number back in the day. He was onstage for the encores, "Reelin' in the Years" and the Dan's traditional closer, "My Old School," which featured a backing vocal group in excess of 20,000.

In the end, a fine time was had by all. While it's doubtful that Steelyard "Sugartooth" McDan really invented the blues, his 21st century descendents know how to throw a plush jazz-rock party.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Top 5: Dear Mr. Fantasy

One of the largest music festivals in the country happens not far from me each year, on the lakefront in Milwaukee. Summerfest, which opened a week ago today, continues through the weekend. If there's an event elsewhere that lasts as long and brings together as many different national acts as the Fest, I've never heard of it. And of course, because this is Wisconsin, there's lots of food involved. Mozzarella sticks from Saz's. Brownies from Hartter's. The salsa of the gods from Gus' Mexican Cantina. Et cetera. And beer. Most visitors swill Miller products, although more discriminating types can pay homage to Milwaukee's microbreweries, too.

There are Summerfest vets who will tell you it ain't as good as it used to be. It doesn't draw in excess of a million visitors like it used to, and in the last couple of years, since the departure of longtime director Bo Black, the quality and quantity of musical acts has dipped a bit. Henry Maier Festival Park itself is not exactly a verdant meadow--yes, it's right on Lake Michigan, but it's almost entirely paved and I-794 runs overhead. Parking ain't easy. Nevertheless, Summerfest remains an indispensable part of summer in Wisconsin. The Mrs. and I have attended every year since 2001, and here's a list of my Top 5 Summerfest performances:

5. Blue Olives, 2003. One of the criticisms leveled at the Fest is in any given year, there are too many cover bands on the bill. But they're a good choice because many Fest attendees are looking for something familiar. We'll let the Blue Olives stand for all the cover bands we've heard over the years, largely because they played Steely Dan's "Bodhissatva."

4. Bryan Lee and Terrance Simien, 2002.
With so many bands on so many stages, the best thing to do on many afternoons is known as "band hopping." Wander the grounds, watch girls, and keep your ears open. That's how we discovered Bryan Lee, a blues guitarist from New Orleans by way of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. We managed to snag a table at the stage where he was playing--steps away from the Sprecher Brewery beer stand--so after he was through, we stuck around for Simien, a zydeco performer we'd never heard, and who nearly burned the place down.

3. Ray Charles, 2002.
I've seen Paul McCartney play live; I saw Bob Marley play live. This might top both of them. Charles went on an hour late and moved pretty slowly, but the fire was still burning.

2. Steve Winwood, 2003.
On a damp and foggy night, on the stage closest to Lake Michigan, Winwood took care of business. He started the show with three straight songs from his then-new album, About Time, and he hardly spoke to the audience. He ignored his long string of solo hits almost entirely, but played "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys." Then he wrapped the show with an updated version of "Gimme Some Lovin'" and got back on the bus without an encore--which didn't matter because it felt like he'd said it all.

1. Mary Chapin Carpenter, 2001. Our first Summerfest headliner. I hadn't danced at a concert since the Doobie Brothers in 1979, but I was up for "Down at the Twist and Shout."

This list is subject to change, and probably within the next 48 hours. We're going to the Fest tomorrow for Steely Dan. It's our second Dan show--we saw them on the Two Against Nature tour in 2000--but with Donald Fagen promoting a solo album and former member Michael McDonald along on this trip, we're expecting a much different show this time. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has an interesting article on the many inspirations of Steely Dan here.