Asleep at the Wheel keeps it rolling along Route 66 for Museum Club show

Talk about one of the great band names in music history, Asleep at the Wheel is a national institution. The country music group from Paw Paw, West Virginia has been in perpetual motion since 1970, right as country rock was taking off for the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Even though they were a part of the hippie counter-culture at the time, touring as an opener for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna and earning the praise of Van Morrison, they kept to the retro side of the country scene, doing authentic songs with an eccentric audacity, respecting a tradition that, at the time, didn't know it was an endangered species.

But now after 50 years they are one of the holdouts of the country traditions, recently releasing an album decided to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, a legendary group from the 1960s known for pioneering western swing and conjuring images of raucous nights playing music behind chicken fence wire in dusty pool halls and small town honky tonks.

However, in recent decades, Asleep at the Wheel, since it is a national cultural institution, is more likely to play the swankier fine arts venues, such as the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale, or, the Dell E. Webb Center for Performing Arts in Wickenburg, the Heritage Hall in Paris, Texas.

Band leader Ray Benson says even though the band has frequently been to Flagstaff, it's been a long time since they played at the Museum Club. The Route 66 connection and the history of Flagstaff's roadhouse venue is enormously important to the band, Benson says during a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Texas.
"The reason we are playing at the Museum Club is it's a nostalgic show," he says. "We haven't played there in 30 years ... With eight players it will be amazing if we all fit on the stage."

There is something ubiquitous about Asleep at the Wheel. They have been around for so long, doing shows year-round, they always seem to be a permanent marker on the upcoming concert horizon, and if you miss them now there's no doubt they'll be back again soon. In the imagination, they are that travelling troupe pouring out of the tour bus to have a bite to eat somewhere around Route 66. And this week, they will be driving several days from Decatur, Illinois, generally taking the direction of Route 66 from the Midwest to the Southwest.

"We will be doing sections of Route 66," he says. "This trip is going to take us a long way in the few days."

The group is racking up remarkable numbers. Benson says they are currently on their seventh tour bus, and even though the current model is equipped with internet, GPS and satellite TV, "They still break down from time to time." In addition to that, he says 90 different players have been in the band over the years, and with the exception of Benson, all of the current players are 30 years old or younger.

The band has won nine Grammy Awards and placed 20 singles on the Billboard country charts, including their highest-charting single, including "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read," which went to number 10 in 1975. It's a tune that needs to be heard on an old juke box.

The band went through a lot of challenges in its second decade, but emerged late in the 1980s even stronger after Benson took over as the band's leader. The albums "10" and "Western Standard Time" started a comeback for the group.

"That was the third incarnation of Asleep at the Wheel," he says of those years. "We had three female singers but I decided to take over as lead singer, since I was developing as a songwriter and producer. We had a hot band and a great idea and we put it together with 'House of Blue Lights.' "

The song sounds like a kind of mission statement, as Benson sings:

Lace up your boots and we'll broom on down
To a knocked out shack on the edge of town
There's an eight beat combo that just won't quit
Keep walkin' 'til you see a blue light lit
Fall in there and we'll see some sights
At the house of blue lights
There's fryers and broilers and Detroit barbecue ribs
But the treat of the treats 
Is when they serve you all those fine eight beats

By the 1990s they had found a groove and had become permanently recognized as traditionalist mainstays of country swing. In 20 years Asleep at the Wheel had gone from irreverent upstarts to being the keepers of the flame. That reputation was consolidated when, in honor of the 66th anniversary of Route 66, did a tour all along the remaining elements of the Mother Road, and their tributes to the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys won them two more Grammys. They kept touring in support of a second Bob Wills tribute album, "Ride with Bob." 

A play based on the life of Wills, with Benson, playing himself and meeting the spirit of the legendary country swing icon, was performed around the country, including the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Yet another Wills tribute, "Still the King," continues to cement Asleep at the Wheel to the very ground floor of the country swing tradition.

"Its been an amazing ride," Benson stated recently. "From Paw Paw to San Francisco to Austin, we've seen it all. But, rest assured, there's still many exciting projects in the works. The Wheel keeps rolling!"


Fight for the Future: Seun Kuti of Egypt 80 finds the sweet spot for reinventing the liberal revolution

Talk about being at the wrong place at the right time. Just as the crumbling vibe of liberal democracy was revealing itself the week after the election of Donald Trump as president-elect, Seun Kuti, the youngest son of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, had armed himself with a new single, "Gimme My Vote Back." Anticipating events, or at least picking up on the signals of the truly disturbing election year in America in 2016, Kuti and his large band entourage arrived in the country in San Francisco and headed into the Southwest for the first time, finding himself with a willing receiver of a political rant over the telephone as his tour bus crossed the desert for a show in Phoenix.

"Yeah man," he laughs. "I'm the middle of nowhere."

Asked about his impression of the states during his first days here, he needed little more than a simple question about how it felt for him to be in the U.S. just as history had been made. On the phone he was more than ready to answer the bell of global activism Egypt 80 is known for.

"We liberals need to look at ourselves, not complain about the results," he says. "The democratic establishment was not able to inspire the people's will. With a progressive candidate we wouldn't be where we are today. We are no longer revolutionary. We are reactionary, and we have to stop that. The liberals have to fight. We have to stand for something."

The single "Gimme My Vote Back" was influenced by Kuti's observance of the political season.

"The hate speech. The lack of trust. Once there was civility. In Africa we have had bad rulers, but we always knew where America was coming from," he says. "With this song I saw this relationship, but the goal of it was more than just about the election. When we vote for a candidate we give them our destiny. But now we need to take it back and give it to the people."

Such talk is in keeping the with message and music of Egypt 80. Seun Kuti became the lead singer for the group after his father died in 1997, taking on the mantle of human rights activist and charismatic performer just as his father had, at the age of 14, as if he were a young royal.

"I played with the band when I was eight years old," he says. "By the time my dad died, the band Egypt 80 had become a musical institution. Most of them had been in this band longer than I was alive. We all believed in the message and the music we made, and that's why we kept on doing it. It was a love with what we do."

An Egypt 80 concert is a relentless celebration, with long-distance pieces running into the double figures in minutes, beginning with extended intros as Kuti whirls around the stage, or unleashes spine-tingling jazz riffs on sax, always the center of attention, and the evolution of the Yoruban tradition with each completely aerobic action launching the audience into a dancing frenzy. Then comes the call and response of the background singers, two females in somewhat modernized traditional outfits, shaking it, and the rest of the song constantly punctuated by an apocalyptic horn section.

Shows consist of new material and older material dating back to the days his father led the band. Many of those older dancing raves have had a larger impact on Western rock than many people might realize, especially progressive rock as it moved out of the classical, renaissance and Elizabethan folk of the early 1970s into a kind of pan-African appropriation, much in the same way the blues had invigorated pop in England a decade before. It was the music of Fela Kuti going back the 1970s, who also inspired the Broadway show, "Fela," that impacted such art rock bands as the Talking Heads, Roxy Music and the reformed King Crimson. During that time, Peter Gabriel stated Fela Kuti was one of the most progressive rockers he'd ever heard. Such albums as the Talking Heads "Remain in Light" and King Crimson's "Discipline" showed how Kuti's Afrobeat sound had brought new energy to post-prog rock, and it would be hard to imagine Gabriel finding his voice in the 1980s without adopting Africa's humanistic world music appeal.

Most of the current Egypt 80 lineup played with Fela Kuti and still carry the scars of years of persecution, having been arrested and harassed by governments in Nigeria.

One example of the kind of tribulations band members experienced occurred in 1977, after Kuti had created a commune called the Kalakuta Republic with his dozens of wives, family members and followers of the singer's mystical brand of Yoruban religion. According to Wikipedia, "In 1977, Fela and the Afrika '70 released the album 'Zombie,' a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of the Nigerian military. The album was a smash hit and infuriated the government, setting off a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic, during which one thousand soldiers attacked (Kuti's) commune. Fela was severely beaten, and his elderly mother (whose house was located opposite the commune) was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Fela's studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Fela claimed that he would have been killed had it not been for the intervention of a commanding officer as he was being beaten. Fela's response to the attack was to deliver his mother's coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo's residence, and to write two songs, 'Coffin for Head of State' and 'Unknown Soldier', referencing the official inquiry that claimed the commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier."
Seun Kuti's politically charged new three-song EP, “Struggle Sounds,” stays on the revolutionary road first paved by his father. It includes the explosive song “Gimme My Vote Back (C.P.C.D.)” (short for Corporate Public Control Department).

“More than ever we are convinced of our mission and the purpose of our music,” Seun recently stated. “The ‘Struggle Sounds’ EP is a true reflection of my social and political beliefs. I give honor to my parents and every revolutionary who made this possible even before I was born.”

On the song he sings "“Every few years politicians come. They come from the left and come from the right ... They come with their party and their media. With their same lies and promises … they come with their politics of hate and them take and divide us.”

As the interview neared its end, with Kuti barely taking a breath, he still barely needed any questions to keep on going.

"We are more than just what we do," he says. "I am a father, a son, a musician. So I want to be relevant as a musician. We want everyone to have a good opportunity. Which was what the elite doesn't understand because they are so greedy.

"Sometimes it makes me so crazy in the world, you just need to speak out. Changes are taking too long. What Africa needs is a different situation. By 2060 sixty-five percent of my country will be under the age of 35. Youth will be a part of the world's natural resource. So we need to sacrifice now so the children can enjoy the future."


And now for a few notes from an eastbound train ...

Kansas City, the color of barbecue sauce, as the red lights of the tall buildings indicate at 7:30 a.m. as I step off the train after more than 24 hours after Flagstaff, Arizona, on the Southwest Chief. Why write this? All of the keeping track. Over the years the notebooks have piled up. All of it rarely rendered into anything anybody can read.
     But here I am, and the performance is on again, as I re-acquaint myself with the hand-spacing of the keyboard, very light to my touch, which must be more fragile than even I am willing to admit. But hey, I'm the connoisseur of chaos, and this doesn't feel like disaster to me. This feels like a re-awakening. Got just enough caffeine and nicotine in the pre-dawn light on the Kansas City train to this point to get me to firing up the old computer and getting me back to the words, the words, the words ... I have a sense that stream of consciousness isn't in style anymore. Political hacks keep it simple for the masses. I am no man for the masses ... crossing the Mississippi now,

     I am a solitary figure. Things I say to strangers must seem odd to them, since I can't get much of a response. Like when I got off the train in the early morning light and I said, with a bearded Mennonite man in front of me, facing his back, "Hmmm, Kansas City, must be,since everything looks like barbecue sauce." He didn't laugh. Maybe he got scared of hearing something so odd so early in his day. Definitely not my target market, Mennonites. But he's my people, my ancestors, who worshiped lightning or some shit in colonial Pennsylvania. Someone not of this world, separate. But I feel fully in this world, and the light of rebirth is no trick. Just can't be overwhelmed by it, the rush.
     The first half of the trip has been a visitation of ghosts. Triggers I did not expect. In New Mexico, as the train moved slowly through the mountains between Albuquerque and Las Vegas, New Mexico, and then northward to Raton Pass, into Colorado to Trinidad, all of the memories of the last time I had covered that ground sent me into moodiness, despair, sadness. Not sure how to explain it. Six years before the recession had just begun and we were flying across the arid lands of creosotes and buttes and hobbled sorta adobe homesteads, in both directions over the course of what might have been more than a year, optimistic one way and desperate going back, finally breaking down in Las Vegas, what seemed like a quiet little hippie-fied ranching town, as J. decided she needed to be institutionalized. I remember her slumped in the seat of the moving van. We, enlisted in the U-haul Army criss-crossing America in those days of desolation and economic depression, came to a sad halt on the rolling brown plains of northwestern New Mexico, on the flatland side of the nation.

     She slumped in her seat. Shapely but shaken. Almost unable to speak anymore, she muttered that she needed to go in for an immediate psych evaluation. So we pulled into Las Vegas, like it might be our final destination, and had her in the state mental institution there by late afternoon and I stayed in a motel, trying to keep the expenses in check as the meter ran by the day for the van, for what nest egg we had left from her mother's inheritance after she had committed suicide earlier that year, as the winds blew hard and once a sign blew off the motel signage up front and I ducked before it took my head off. Trying negotiate an escape for J., who decided she didn't like being institutionalized, while at the same time going around Las Vegas, which was in itself in the midst of a re-birth or a decline in uneven distributions, going buy on granola and sell on beef, I suppose, and me going around collecting business cards and meeting with a local radical, Lee Einer, who gave me an earful about the social and political battles going on there.

     The liberal insurgency in the age of Obama and me going around the world, wondering where everybody went, as if my industry, journalism, had been hit by a neutron bomb, with the buildings all still there but the people vaporized.


James McMurtry casts a literary eye on life on the road

To listen to a song by James McMurtry is to follow a miniature novel. It's the way he looks at people. They pass through his life and he constructs a narrative based on a bit of speech, a street-tough setting, and with an hornery, razor-sharp wit he brings them alive. He finds the smaller corners of American life and paints a poem. Life on the road is what does it. That's where many of McMurtry, singer, songwriter and storyteller, finds his songs. He's a consumate observer, a fly on the wall as he travels.

"With the character sketches I start with a couple of lines and I melody and I think, 'Who said that?' " he says during a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Texas. "I live a somewhat transient lifestyle and so I'm kind of a little bit on the outside ... it's a good place to write from."

McMurtry has made a name for himself as a songwriter of literary merit. His vignettes seem to come from the off-the-track communities, from the neon streets to the corners of desperation in the rural areas. He's a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to Walmart and in general sings about the larger forces challenging the everyman.

"That's the common theme for everybody," he says. "David versus Goliath is just one of we always sing about. I sing about relationships and carrying on in the cage of staleness. I like to use occasional bits of anachronistic speech so that the language doesn't disappear."

His lyrics are loaded with concrete details and a protest singer's venom. In 2005 he got some attention for the political quality of "We Can't Make It Here," a tune that after more than 10 years still rings true:

That big ol' building was the textile mill
It fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can't make it here anymore

See all those pallets piled up on the loading dock
They're just gonna set there till they rot
'Cause there's nothing to ship, nothing to pack
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks
Empty storefronts around the square
There's a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere
You don't come down here 'less you're looking to score
We can't make it here anymore

McMurtry says people thought the song was about President George W. Bush, but really he started writing it during the Bill Clinton administration in the late 1980s. The lyrics evolved with the passage of time. He has managed to avoid writing a song specifically about the current election year, despite the attraction of writing about Donald Trump. The closest he came, he says, was writing a song about despots. But in this case it was about the World War II era Spanish dictator, Generalissmo Francisco Franco.

"I wrote one protest song ("Can't Make it Here")and it got a lot of attention," he says. "You tend to get branded for what you get noticed for."

One of the mandatory songs he does during his performances, "Choctaw Bingo," had an interesting history. The song rolls along like Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues" or Elvis Costello's "Tokyo Storm Warning," hitting the listener's ears with a torrent of images.

"There was a bingo parlor in Oklahoma and I decided to use it as a writing exercise," he says. "I put it upon myself to include everything I could take in and put it in a song. Within a year of writing that almost everything I had written in the song had disappeared, and so I wrote about other stuff that took place there. They had something called Red River Rehab and so I wrote about that, gave it a new verse. In the time since then I've written another new verse. Now it's 13 minutes long."

McMurtry was destined to be someone of literary merit. He is the son of Larry McMurtry, author of "Lonesome Dove" and "Breakback Mountain," and his mother is a professor of English (now retired). She taught her son the rudiments of guitar at the age of seven, but didn't really consider music as a profession until he was studying English at the University of Arizona, getting into the local club scene during an age of new wave and punk. His first paying gig was in Benson, Arizona, playing "old time fiddle tunes" in a movie theater and at the local golf club.

"My mother taught me three chords and the rest I just stole as I went along. I learned everything by ear or by watching people," he says.

After spending much of the 1980s doing odd jobs and moving around the country, including a spell in Alaska, he entered a songwriting contest at the Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival, and was one of six to win. His connections with his father's film projects led him to meeting John Mellencamp, who co-produced his first album. That landed him right in the heartland sound of the late 1980s, with ringing guitars washing over country-folk, just as what's now known as Americana was gathering force. The 1989 debut, "Too Long in the Wasteland" provided enough notoriety that he joined a super group for a short time, called the Buzzin' Cousins, which included Mellencamp, John Prine, Joe Ely, and Dwight Yoakam.

He now tours with his own band, the Heartless Bastards, and also does numerous strictly acoustic shows.

In more recent years, his recording pace has slowed, but the critical acclaim has not. "Complicated Game," released last year, was his first studio release in six years, but followed a period where he won numerous awards, winning album of the year at the 5th Annual Americana Music Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2006. His 2008 release, "Just Us Kids," gained the highest Billboard 200 chart position in his career, topping the Americana Music Radio list for six weeks.

He says the whole business of making albums has changed. When he started out, the release of a CD would eventually lead to a tour if it was successful. But now the tour is what sells the records. The days of "mailbox" money, in terms of royalties in the age of internet downloads, are long gone.
"I probably will have to start to work on one pretty soon," he says. "All of the money comes off the road nowadays."

McMurtry is a keen documentarian of the changes that have taken place in the country over the past several decades. In the song "Fuller Brush Man," he laments the passing of the door-to-door salesmen that, like the honky tonks of old, have come and gone. Like his songs, he interprets all of this without sentimentality.

"I don't know if those things need to exist anymore," he says.


David Bromberg resurfaces after two decades to sound better than ever and has new album packed with blues

If a star quarterback returns after retiring over twenty years ago, there aren't many who would bet on his success. If a world champion prize fighter took to the ring again after two decades, better have the ambulance ready. If Jesus came back from the dead, he might have a lot of catching up to do before he was ready for prime time. But if you found a Stradivarius violin in the attic, chances are it would sound pretty good.

David Bromberg is like one of those fine instruments. As his friend Jerry Jeff Walker stated about him, "The reason man created stringed instruments. David touched them with a lover’s fingers and they moaned that true love right back at him. Wood and wire and flesh spoke.”

So how does one explain the re-emergence of Bromberg? After 11 albums (a new one out this week, "The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing But the Blues") and constant touring during the 1970s and 1980s with a lot of humor and instrumental verve, this noted master of guitar, fiddle, dobro, mandolin, pedal steel guitar decided he was burned out on the whole business, broke up his band, and retreated into a life of relative obscurity. But alas, that's a media-generated idea: that someone disappears when they aren't in the public life. He was simply off the public radar. But now, at age 70, he's back on the road.

"I was really doing well," he says of that time during the late 1980s when he broke up the band. "I was working too much without a break. I toured for two years straight and never went home. I realized that when I got off the road I was burnt out, but I didn't realize that until later. I came to the conclusion that I wasn't a musician anymore. When I wasn't performing, I wasn't writing, I wasn't playing on my own. I realized I was I-don't-know-what."

There were some studio credits along the way, as he appeared on other people's records here and there. But he says he wasn't really pursuing life as a musician for some time.

"I didn't play much guitar," he says. "The performing I did was very sporadic. I took 22 years off and I didn't realize I could step back in."

What he did instead was learn how to make violins. First, he enrolled in the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making in Chicago. But he wasn't as interested in knowing how to make violins as he was in trying to identify them. Especially violins made in the United States. Something just clicked in his archival mind about these instruments. He became an avid collector and known expert on violins. He now has a collection of 263 violins made in America, which he has offered to the Library of Congress. And when someone had a violin they needed to identify, Bromberg became the go-to guy.

"How do you tell what they are is what fascinated me," he says. "I started looking at violins, learning how to identify the makers, gaining the knowledge of the different makers. Now, in one small area of the violin world, American-made violins, I'm considered something of an expert."

After moving to Wilmington, Delaware, he opened a retail store and repair shop for violins and other instruments, David Bromberg Fine Violins. The business was part of a revitalization of that part of Wilmington, but it also became a place where Bromberg himself became revitalized.

By the next year, after the mayor of Wilmington had mentioned live music had once been a common offering in that part of town, Bromberg was leading what he called a regular "jam session." As it turned out, he didn't have to travel to play. He just stayed home, and people came to him.
"Some very good musicians started to show up, some of them from a long way away," he says.
Thus began the musical re-education of David Bromberg.

"I learned a whole bunch about singing," he says. "Phoebe Snow gave me some very good advice about singing. During the period I wasn't performing, I took some voice lessons. Now I sing a lot better than I did in the 1970s. I don't have the speed on the guitar that I used to have. That part is gone."

Within five years of moving to Wilmington, and after getting encouragement from the likes of bluegrass players Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson, he was ready to start recording again. He formed the David Bromberg Quintet and returned to the recording world with the 2007 release called, naturally, "Try Me One More Time."

It was nominated for a Grammy.

That was followed by a recording project that started with some playing for fun with John Hiatt, but became a concept Bromberg called "Use Me." He invited a wide variety of artists -- Hiatt, Levon Helm, Los Lobos, Tim O'Brien, Vince Gil, Keb' Mo, Linda Ronstadt -- to suggest songs they wrote for him to cover, and then Bromberg would perform and record them. Then came an opportunity to record with producer Larry Campbell, a longtime friend and former producer and player for Levon Helm and Bob Dylan. The David Bromberg Band emerged with "Only Slightly Mad," which Bromberg says "is an old-time David Bromberg record" since it jumps around from Chicago-style blues to bluegrass, gospel and English drinking songs.

That ability to create shows and records with "too many different styles," as he put it, is why in the past decade Bromberg has earned the nickname "The Godfather of Americana."

"I did not make it (the nickname) up," he laughs. "When I was originally performing, there was no such thing as Americana. Commercial record stores couldn't figure out where to put me. Was I in the rock section, the blues section, the folk section, all the stuff I do. Now all of that is just called Americana, and that's what I was doing for all of those years."

Bromberg is from the generation born at the end of World War II (in 1945 in Philadelphia, later raised in Tarrytown, New York) that was just waiting to discover rock'n'roll by the time he was a teen in the late 1950s. However, he was more attracted to roots music than the mainstream Elvi of his day. He discovered Peter Seeger and the Weavers, and was especially drawn to the blues. A fan of Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters, he discovered a now lesser known blind blues player by the name of Reverend Gary Davis, who he asked to teach him to play guitar while living in Greenwhich Village in New York,

He says he enrolled in Columbia University with the intention of becoming a musicology major, but he never got far enough along in his studies to actually study "musicology."

"I never got to the point where that actually happened," he says.

Nevertheless, he says the exposure to the lively Village music scene in the mid-1960s was essentially a study in numerous kinds of music that he was interested in. Now, in later years, his exposure to all forms of folk, blues, country, jazz and so on has led him to being just as undefinable. How does he remember that fabled time scrambling to make a living as a musician in the Village?

"Even when I got to the Village, people were saying it was not the same as it used to be, and they are still saying it now," he says. "What I remember is the joy that we all got when playing that music. We loved that music and we loved each other."

After a time playing for tips, he became a sought-after studio musician and backing musician for Tom Paxton, Jerry Jeff Walker and Rosalie Sorrels. Then he began to flourish as a hired hand for recording sessions, including for Bob Dylan's "New Morning" and "Self Portrait" LPs.

For the next decade or more, Bromberg played with a who's who of musicians. He got his first record deal in 1970 after getting a chance to play as a stand-in at the Isle of Wight Festival. The performance was so well received that Columbia Records offered him a recording contract. In 1971 his debut album included the song "The Holdup," the product of a collaboration with former Beatle George Harrison. Then he met members of the Grateful Dead, and they played on his next two albums.

At that point, his music was deep into the blues and folk, and his nasally voice (somewhat in the timbre of a jazzy Neil Young) wasn't great but it was laced with a lot of irony and sarcasm. That style, featuring horns and all kinds of other instruments with an increasingly large ensemble, developed a hit with a seven-minute version of "Mr. Bojangles," which interwove stories about traveling with the song's writer, Jerry Jeff Walker.

His humor is a trademark. For example, on "Only Slightly Mad," there's a song about how he'll take a lover back when, among other impossibilities, "they find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." Even his liner notes on the CD are self-deprecating. He describes the song "Strongest Man Alive," about surviving all kinds of challenges where others have not, as "an old English drinking song that I wrote. Well, I wrote it and it sounds like an old English drinking song."

His shows are now like eclectic journeys into his encyclopedic mind, and the songs he chooses are as eccentric as he is.

"What I like in humorists," he says, "are people who take their subjects very seriously, but don't take themselves very seriously."


Dave Mason keeps his iconic position in rock'n'roll history rolling with 'Traffic Jam'

Try to remember what you were doing 50 years ago. Playing big black flat circular play devices called albums, that's what. If you are old enough to have memories a half-century old, that is, and if you are, chances are good you don't have those records anymore. But Dave Mason, one of the original members of the folksy, bluesy and jazzy British experimental rock band Traffic, can remember pretty well ... well enough to keep on touring to keep the flame of those seminal years of rock'n'roll alive, and he's stuck around long enough for those old LPs to become fashionable again.

He is one of those few people still on the circuit with direct connections to the British Invasion and classic rock. Other than his early Traffic years, he played with Jimi Hendrix on the "Electric Ladyland" sessions, jammed with the Rolling Stones on the "Beggar's Banquet" album, and was on hand for George Harrison's bountiful "All Things Must Pass" triple-decker record. In the 1990s, he was yet another member of a reformed Fleetwood Mac. He was even with Derek and the Dominoes originally, playing at the band's first gig featuring Eric Clapton, but left before "Layla" had scorched the radio landscape in 1972.

And at the age of 68, he's still working in the guitar-rock tradition. For example, he released a new album this year, "Future's Past," which kicks off with a version of the Traffic hit "Dear Mr. Fantasy" that includes a new set of chords, moving it from a minor to a major key, with Mason singing the lead instead of Steve Winwood, with vigor.

He says his current act, Dave Mason's Traffic Jam, a fully electric rock show, follows the long trail of his career. That journey began with the early inspirational days when Traffic retreated into a cottage in the Berkshires of England in 1967 to develop material for what would become "Mr. Fantasy." After that, a long string of solo albums throughout the 1970s, when he was one of the darlings of album-oriented rock radio on the FM dial with such songs as "Only You Know and I Know," "Shouldn't Have Took More Than You Gave" and a more mid-tempo ballad recorded by many others, "We Just Disagree."

Traffic, inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, was always a kind of evolving entity with a revolving door, in terms of the players, Mason recalls.

"I was there for the beginning of the first two bands," he says of the early incarnations of Traffic. "So Dave Mason's Traffic Jam is a journey of my musical history from then to now."

And he makes sure the interviewer knows that you can't trust that musical history by reading Wikipedia.org.

"The stuff about me on the Wikipedia page is ... I don't go in for it much," he says.

For example, Mason says it's true he met Steve Winwood while working as a roadie for little 15-year-old Stevie's band, The Spencer Davis Group. And it's true Mason and Jim Capaldi, a long-time member of Traffic who gave the band its name while standing on a street corner, were friends in a band called the Hellions prior to that. And it's also true that Mason was a frequent on-again, off-again member of the band, more a member of its 1967-1970 heyday than of the band that would later reach the height of its popularity with such extended jazz-folk-rock adventures as "John Barleycorn Must Die" and "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," which was also notable for its die-cut cover in 1971.

Indeed, Mason, even as the band's most prolific songwriter, was a mercurial element in the group that launched him professionally just as much as he launched it.

"After the first album, I was so young, 19 years old, and being in the band was too much to deal with," he says. "The second time I went into the studio (with Traffic), I wrote half that album," including the song "Feelin' Alright," one of the more frequently covered songs of the era, including a version by Three Dog Night, and then, Joe Cocker, who made hits out of it as well. Does Mason remember the inspiration for that one?

"I don't know," he laughs. "It's probably just another failed relationship song."
One more note on the Wikipedia history: It's completely untrue that when Mason, a sought-out studio musician as a solo artist, played acoustic guitar on Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower," he did not need 27 takes to get it right.

"We went into the studio and we did a few takes," he says. "I don't think we had to do it 27 times, but sometimes you will spend a whole day in the studio on one song." Did he have a sense of premonition that "All Along the Watchtower," which he still plays live today, would become a monument in rock history? "It was already an important (Bob Dylan) song when we recorded it," he responds.

And how did it feel to have others make hits in the U.S. of his early Traffic songs? Mason says he loved it. It only seemed fair.

"We took everything we could find from America and made it our own: jazz, gospel, the blues," he says. "I just drank it in."

The Dave Mason of 2014 is reverential of those moments of Traffic when he was there, as opposed to when he was not. The set list for the Traffic Jam shows includes "Feelin' Alright," "40,000 Headmen," "You Can All Join In," as well as a reconfigured "Dear Mr. Fantasy." Added to that are several songs from a prolific solo career, a period that could be remembered as the great age of the vinyl album, beginning with his 1970s release, "Alone Together," which he says could have very easily fit in as material for a Traffic album, "but that's the way it is."

To this day, Mason remains a believer in the AOR rock ethos, keeping tight with his musical origins as well as social causes and charities, including work for organizations that provide music appreciation instruction for children.

"I really don't follow what's going on in music too much," he says. "I'm so busy with my own stuff, and I'm really not paying attention. There are still talented people out there, but I don't think albums really matter any more. It has gone back to singles, which is the way it was when we got started. In that way, everything has changed. There's no real FM radio anymore. But otherwise, it's the same as always. You need a song and you need a performance."


Weaponized Music from Within the Walls of Jericho

Hello, my name is ... and I confess I have been a repeat stereophonic offender. As instructed, I have a hearing headset attached over my ears to keep my music private, until the revolution comes round again, that is. Oh, back in the day, in those rock'n'roll explosions of teenage angst, we built speakers big as obelisks. Sure, I'd started out on the soft stuff. But that universe was shaped by the Beatles. Then it was Beethoven, on eight-track cassette, and the family's 70s style Sears sound system. Then on to harder stuff, John Denver. Three Dog Night. And then, Elton John. But it was Bachman Turner Overdrive, then Kiss, oh Jesus, the best hoax in the history of rock. But not Led Zeppelin. That was too loud, too dangerous, too long-haired for the home censors. I kept Led Zeppelin in reserve. Pink Floyd on the dark side of the moon, For the day of the big breakout.

The inspiration for all of this was the day the next door neighbor in north Scottsdale played Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog." My father and I were sitting on the back porch and we just looked at each other like, "What the hell?"

So what followed was inevitable.

That time came when we built four-foot-tall speakers in a custom cabinet, that, despite our best efforts, rattled and hummed with too much bass because of the over-sized woofer, mid-range and tweeter. From that point on the family home was a living being of pulsing, vibrating rebellion sound. My parents were amazingly reserved, under the circumstances. But when left to my own devices, it was a house shaker, profoundly disturbing enough to generate true hatred from the neighbors, despite my emerging good music tastes.

And then there was the day the maid ran out the door.

But it wasn't led Zeppelin who ran her away (OK, I'm not going into why we had a maid, other than to say my mom was always sick, OK?). It was Jon and Vangelis. Featuring Jon Anderson of Yes, hardly from the branch of the demon rock tree. But his voice is pretty otherworldly, so I could see someone easily getting spooked. But with Vangelis, a lightweight electronic composer? Hardly the stuff to set off earthquake alarms. Anyway, the maid was from San Salvador, and may have had some PTSD symptoms. We were blasting some soaring pre-electronica track and she flew away from the ghost in the machine of sound and never came back. She ran out the door claiming she'd heard the devil.

Now the important thing to know at this point is all along, I was simply sharing music. To the max. Just pure enthusiasm. But now that I'm older and wiser, having gone through multiple instances in which I truly believed loudly playing, say, the newest U2 album, might do the world some good, I have now rethought those years, making some sad conclusions about the role of popular music in our society in the process.

Basically, goes like this: Not everybody's antenna is willing to tune in. Or even capable of tuning in, getting the vibe, whatever. No matter how good the tunes are, when that bass-burping automobile goes rumbling, with the bass and drum audible for a city block, it's no more effective of a persuader than any religious witness pounding on your door.

Beyond a doubt one of the most incendiary noise bombs in the history of classic rock is
"21st Century Schizoid Man," by King Crimson in 1969. It's a Vietnam Era shock and awe of mustard gas guitars, the harsh distortion of the voice. Tis the volume that was the anti-matter, so to speak.

Here are a few more factoids I can think of regarding sound and violence. First of all, I cannot compete in an apartment complex. I am on the weak side of detente with next-door folks who have sound systems that can vibrate the walls. They played the Talking Heads' "This is not my beautiful house" song so loud, I knew I couldn't compete with my computer desk speakers, which are only as big as small bricks.

Other facts in rock history: Pink Floyd once killed a lake of fish playing too loud in the 1960s,
And governments do this kind of thing all of the time. They point sophisticated sound systems at crowds, bass disrupters to the belly, punk bass drone strike. These are the types of technologies cities invest in when they get a big boost federal cash for convention security. The main symptom is a sickness to the stomach.

During the Reagan Administration, U.S. military forces in pursuit of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega used heavy metal played on huge speakers to try convince him to resign and turn himself in. In Iraq, music has been used as a psychological weapon, For example, in torture. But in a broader sense, more like you would think of as Wagner is played during the "cavalry" helicopter attack in "Apocalypse Now." They kept the Branch Dividians in Waco, Texas up all night with it: endless blasts of Van Halen and Ozzie Osborne and Metallica, basically making the cult's point, that the horns are blowing at last.

Today my speakers are small as stones, monuments to the day the music died. Polishing the psychic arrows now through the headset contraption, where most of us are cut off from the well, I'm a loser in a war against the Jericho walls of the mundane world.


Guard Duty

The National Park Service's centennial reflects a legacy of conservation
in defense mode

The sanctity of the National Park system is taken for granted in its protection of America's natural wonders. After a century of administration by the U.S. Department of the Interior, there is an assumption of permanence. Yet even if it has taken billions of years for nature to form the areas designated as national parks, such acts of preservation are a new idea in human consciousness. On the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service, to put it in perspective, the agency is barely a decade younger than the official formation of Major League Baseball and only five years older than the National Football League.

On the centennial of the National Park Service, the concept of preserving national parks faces challenges on many fronts. The agency turned 100 on Aug. 25, celebrating the signing of the National Park Service Organic Act in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. From that point areas designated as national parks were to be managed by a single system. But that legal declaration came after many years of failures, coming after conservationists lost a nationwide campaign to prevent a dam to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.

When the 1916 Organic Act was passed, it was controversial after a tough legislative fight with the powerful timber, mining and business lobby. However, a lifetime of work by naturalist John Muir found a voice and movement ratified by law with the act to preserve lands for the national benefit. But this idea of the sacredness of lands is made tenuous by the voices of exploitation that called Muir and his supporters "nature lovers and fakers." For example, Yellowstone National Park was designated by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, but a dam was proposed for it in the 1930s. A proposal to dam Grand Canyon National Park, established in 1919, was defeated in the 1950s.

Preserved areas are only as permanent as the administration upholding their defense. After the French Revolution of 1789, thousands of acres of private forest groves kept intact by a system of nobles for hundreds of years were de-forested within a decade of the monarch's beheading and the anarchy that followed. The intellectual class of industrialized England, facing the future shock of what William Blake called "the dark satanic mills," fostered the concept of the need to get away from it all. Those poets of that age planted the seeds of a romance with nature. The so-called "Lake Poets" of England, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, reflected Enlightenment attitudes regarding appreciation of the wilds as a human right. Wordsworth described the Lake District in northwest England as a "sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy."

But that was a contrary view. Since the emergence of democratic institutions, private property interests have pushed preservation efforts into the citadel mode, with the fortress under government control.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed an act of Congress giving the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California. The stipulation was that the areas would be forever public, but booming America's belief in the sacredness of "progress" always questioned whether any state or federal body had authority to create parks.

Yet mutual interests merged together in on man: Stephen Tyng Mather. The first director of the National Parks Service was a millionaire industrialist who made a fortune as owner of the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company, but then became a conservationist who led a publicity campaign to form a federal agency to oversee the national treasures. The man who organized the original NPS is what Mather Point, on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, is named after.

Although it was President Wilson who signed the National Park Service into law, it was President Teddy Roosevelt who led Americans to codify the preservation of natural wonders into a national plan. But Congress resisted Roosevelt's efforts to turn the Grand Canyon into a national park for a decade. He succeeded in proclaiming it as the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve in 1906, and into a national monument in 1908. But only by executive action. Bills to name the Grand Canyon as a national park were defeated in Congress in 1910 and 1911, and it wasn't until 1919 that it became a national park.

Roosevelt, on the importance of the national park, stated, in explaining his use of executive power to preserve it, "In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."

Obviously, his pleas have been only mostly observed. Hotels and other amenities were built and roadways were cut for access as our wonders waver between pristine settings and a more Disneyfied interpretation of the word "park." To powerful sectors of the economy, and to the sheer necessities required for millions of visitors, that balance posed by Roosevelt is always in a state of amorphous compromise.

Indeed, permanence is only as real as people who struggle successfully to keep it so.


Boys of Summer

The Donkeys just have that sound
to make you think of California

The soundtrack for the film "The Endless Summer," released in 1966, has an important place in the hearts of the members of the Southern California band, The Donkeys. First of all, the musical group The Sandals, who did the surf theme for the movie, came from the same place The Donkeys did, Dana Point, California. When the original four members of the indie pop-rockers The Donkeys were growing up, the oceanside city between San Diego and Los Angeles was an idyllic place where you could surf, or just hang out on the beach and breathe in the sea breezes, while their families could live there at a reasonable price. But like so many musicians of their generation living in Southern California, their artistic cravings were fueled by the restlessness of being young in the 'burbs.

The film "The Endless Summer" was about a group of surfers, finding California beaches inhospitable during the cold currents of winter, seeking out warmer climates around the world in order to do what they love around the year, thus making it sunny and wavy wherever they went. It's a kind of gypsy idea, reinforced for the 20th century by Jack Kerouac and his novel about life on the move, "On the Road." Fledgling rock bands, therefore, are perfect extensions of this Kerouac idea: of roving minstrels, of easy riders, of boardmen moving with the currents. Touring musicians perfect the surf-and-travel ethic by getting paid something, anything in order to do so. Indeed, traveling bands are the nuclear families of endless summer.

Captured for a comment for a cell phone interview while negotiating traffic in a van moving north from New York for a show in Canada, The Donkeys are living the dream. They love touring but have families and need to strike a balance. In the tour bus were band members Timothy DeNardo, Anthony Lukens, Sam Sprague, and Steve Selvidge, a stand-in member of the tour who also plays with the band Hold Steady. Asked about why The Donkeys recently released a cover of the theme song for "The Endless Summer," the band's drummer and occasional vocalist, Sprague, says the Sandals' original was a seminal moment in surf music and the California sound.

"The record label was asking us for a cover and the Sandals were from Dana Point, and we wanted to pay homage to that," Sprague says. "We recorded it in Anthony's garage and we didn't get too far out with it. It's hard to compete (with the original). It was a masterpiece."

The Donkeys are most commonly categorized by critics as being a new form of hippiefied beach crew, mostly because of their San Diego performance base. They often feature the vocal oohs and ahhs of the breezy Pacific ease of the Beach Boys, as well as the extended jam techniques of the Grateful Dead. They also share an affinity for another California band, Pavement. But in an interview a few years ago, guitarist Lukens denied any sort of strict Left-Coast musical alignment, stating they could have just as easily come from Iowa. Listening to the instrumentation for any of their four albums and a recent EP, "Midnight Palms," you can easily hear the jangle-rock remnants of a legendary East Coast band, The Velvet Underground.

"I love Pavement, but I really don't feel like we sound like them," Sprague says. "A huge influence was the Velvet Underground, a very big influence."

Their first self-titled album, "The Donkeys" came out in 2004, and was followed by "Living on the Other Side" in 2008, "Born with Stripes" in 2011, and "Ride the Black Wave" in 2014. By the time they had released "Born With Stripes," they were getting raves for being one of San Diego's favorite emerging acts and won a nod from the San Diego Music Awards for best rock band in 2012.

They got a taste from mainstream culture in an odd sort of way. A producer for the TV show "Lost" had heard their music, and wanted to use it on the show. Sections of their music have been used throughout the series. The show created characters for a fictional band called Geronimo Jackson and used a tailored version of The Donkeys' song, "Excelsior Lady." This was done by having the fake band lip-sync the real-band recording. Proceeds from the song's usage on TV helped to pay the cost for another Donkeys album. Lukens recently quipped that the fake band, Geronimo Jackson, was actually more famous than the Donkeys.

Sprague isn't sure about any acclaim to fame for being the players behind a pseudonym.
"We are probably still waiting for that big break," he says.

Unlike the Velvet Underground, The Donkeys don't go much into the harsh light of crunching dissonance. Their recordings are clean, with all members of the band sharing the vocals much as the same way as another immaculate California band, the Eagles. They peruse the pop idiom of relationship songs. Storm and stress is kept at a minimum. As Sprague says, "Writing songs about girls is the classic thing. We are a romantic bunch. Who doesn't like love songs?"

The first song on the new EP, "Hurt Somebody," is an uptempo tune with tinklings of keyboards very reminiscent of Bob Dylan when he moved from folk to rock, and includes the highly affirmative chorus, "It will be all right." It sounds like many neo-classic alt-country bands who themselves were inspired by the Byrds. "Down the Line" could have been a hit on FM radio in the 1970s, with its happy message and simple "do-dit-do-do-does." They honor Grateful Dead stylings with "Hold on to You," a rocker with youthful exuberance. "Day by Day" recalls the solo efforts of John Lennon from say, "The Double Fantasy" period. Then comes "Star Bird," even more dreamy with a live-in-the-studio feel, layers of keyboards, airy background vocals, a sweetly skeletal guitar chime and a soothing melody. It's the standout piece of the EP.

"Born with Stripes," their next-to-last full-length album, is ear candy with bright keyboards harking back to some time way back, not sure when. The track "I Like the Way That You Walk" sounds like bands such as The Feelies, who themselves were inspired by the Velvet Underground, but the sweetness of the lyric, in praise of the feminine subject, is feel-good pop. Other songs on the record sound as if they were inspired by long drives across the California central desert. Their use of farfiza and Rhodes organ sounds, and a simplified sort of rock, really makes you think this music was recorded in the 1960s. Especially when they use the sitar. "Ride the Black Wave," from their last full-length effort, makes one think of another Californian, Chris Isaak, except spacier.

"It's great that it sounds nostalgic, we just don't want to be the Beach Boys reincarnated," Sprague says. "Hopefully, it doesn't sound derivative."

Sprague is the youngest member of the band at 37, so The Donkeys aren't fresh-faced folkies trying to reinvent the wheel with obtuse vocalizations or otherwise tuneless, baroque melodies. And if people think of the Dead due to the unified brilliance of their live shows, that's because the members of the band have been playing together in different bands since high school. The band's hive-mind sound really came together after a previous tour where they performed for 32 straight nights.

"We have been playing together, after being in various bands together, for a solid straight eight years," Sprague says. "Nowadays we are more focused so when we get into the studio we can get it done in a day or two. That tour playing 32 days in a row was really rough ... but we are definitely tight as hell. That's the greatest feeling."


Gordon Lightfoot
A North American national resource

During the days of the 70s when FM radio ruled as the central output for whatever was going on in music, when story-telling Jim Croce had his big bad Leroy Brown, Harry Chapin his cats in a cradle, and James Taylor his fire and rain, Gordon Lightfoot was right alongside them with such hits as "Sundown," "Rainy Day People," "Carefee Highway," "If You Could Read My Mind," and by far the best maritime disaster song of all time, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." They call it easy listening now, many of those FM radio hits that were ballads, but many of the best, in Lightfoot's case, were drawn from gut-wrenching heartbreak and a general appetite for tragedy. Basically, some pretty dark stuff.

In a telephone interview from his home in Toronto, Canada, Lightfoot, now 77, was almost as good at telling the stories of his most famous songs as he is at singing the songs himself.

For example, he says "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," about the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, started out as a song when, a few weeks before the disaster happened, he remembered a melody from childhood.

"It was an Irish dirge I heard when I was three," he says of the original melody for the song. "It kind of sprung itself all of the sudden."

The details for the "Edmund Fitzgerald" were realized for Lightfoot when he read a story in Newsweek magazine about the 29 crew members who were lost during the severe November storm.
"I remembered that night because there was a very strong wind in Toronto, and I was wondering how my sailboat was doing that night," he says. "After I read the Newsweek article a few weeks later, the melody was already there and I wrote the song."

Last year was the 40-year-anniversary of the tragedy, and Lightfoot has kept in touch with the families of the victims over the years. A year ago he was throwing himself behind a preservation effort for the old church in Detroit referred to in the song. "I had to take care of that," he says.
Lightfoot and Bob Dylan have had a mutual admiration society for decades, going back to when Lightfoot would occasionally visit Dylan at his songwriting office in New York, after Lightfoot got a management deal with Albert Grossman, who also represented Dylan.

"I can remember watching (Dylan) work on the typewriter," Lightfoot says. "He was really large for me. He's the main influence. I got into how he did it. How he got it done."

He laughed about the week of Woodstock and how there were all of these stories about Dylan performing at the show in upstate New York, while Lightfoot knew all of the time he was at the Isle of Wight festival in England. Lightfoot says he was invited to go to Woodstock, to watch, that is, but he didn't go. Playing such a gig was discouraged by his manager, Grossman, who didn't like the idea of his clients playing for free.

"He'd say 'keep it for the concerts, keep your mystique together,' " he says.

Lightfoot grew up as a performing child prodigy, singing in public for the first time in the fourth grade, and he became quite used to being in front of audiences by the age of 10. He loved Bing Crosby and songs by the 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster, who wrote "Camptown Ladies," among other American standards.

"I don't know if I plagiarized him or not," he jokes of Foster's influence.

He got his career start in music in the late 1950s and early 1960s hosting shows featuring country music, first in Canada, then in England on the BBC, and by around 1964 his songs were being recorded by such artists as Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins and Peter, Paul and Mary. His first big American hit was "If You Can Read My Mind" in 1970. From that point on, Lightfoot was a heavyweight on the radio playlists.

"There was always competition," he says. "There was always the Beatles or David Bowie in your face."

He says it was during his early years that he'd found a way to write songs: finding solitude by asking people with empty homes or apartments in Toronto if he could go inside and play there for a while. With families, kids, all kinds of people in those coffeehouse folk days of Pete Seeger wannabees around him, it was the best way to get quiet and find the folkways going on in his head.

"I found an empty condo fine. You have to just completely remove yourself from everything," Lightfoot says. "I had an odd thing about working in empty houses. They (the owners) would go outside and have a smoke, and by the time they were done I'd have a song," he says.

By the late 1970s Lightfoot was a huge success in Canada and the U.S. with such singles as "Sundown" and "Carefree Highway," the latter inspired when, on tour in Arizona, he came across a highway sign, literally, "Carefree Highway." He wrote the two words down and threw the piece of paper into a suitcase, only to discover it later when he was in the spirit to write. The song is purported to be about a carefree life on the road, but Lightfoot loaded it with its main story about loss and longing. Equally edgy, from a relationship-song standpoint, is "Sundown," about a man suspicious about his lover, a song that cuts so deep Lightfoot has to remind people that, hey, it's only a song.

"I crossed paths with one guy who was totally convinced 'Sundown' was about him," Lightfoot says. "He was so worried about it, I had to stand there and ease his fears."


Sludge, American style

For Melvins' leader Buzz Osborne,
normal is a state of someone else's mind

     The Melvins have a flare for the dramatic, as well as for the bizarre, most certainly in a Frank Zappa sorta way, especially for a band with album titles like "The Maggot," "Hostile Ambient Takeover" and "Everybody Loves Sausages." Appropriately, the masters of sludge rock, longtime members Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover, are celebrating the month of August by appearing as animated characters in the Cartoon Network series "Uncle Grandpa." You could argue that Osborne's potted-plant hairstyle also inspired another cartoon character, the Simpsons' "Sideshow Bob."

     Living in the sub-cult village of American pedal-to-the-metal, they are irreverent, funny, and, occasionally, exceedingly ambitious.

     For example, the group that usually performs as a power trio once played every night for 51 straight days in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia. The 2012 tour started in Anchorage, Alaska and ended up in Honolulu, Hawaii.

     Band leader and guitarist Osborne says the Herculean effort would have been written up in the Guinness Book of World Records, "but you have to pay for that."
     As far as the weirdness goes, Osborne makes no apologies. Being anti-social, most certainly non-commercial, is a an artistic statement opposing the overculture.

     "We're a lot of long-haired kooks, that's kind of the deal," he says in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "There are enough bands already doing the normal stuff."

     Other notable oddities in the history of the Melvins is that in 2011 they were touring in Christchurch, New Zealand at the time of a major earthquake, and then were in Tokyo, Japan for an earthquake and tsunami. He adds they were in Los Angeles for another temblor, but adds he finds no special coincidence regarding these events, even considering the fact that the Melvins play loud and hard enough to set off earthquake alarms.

     What else? Oh yeah, this: The Melvins challenge Neil Young for the title, "Godfather of Grunge." They have also been referred to as "the Gods of sludge." They are most certainly the godfathers of gut-pounding something.

    "One-hundred percent, no question," he says. "Most people give us props for that, for what it's worth."

     The grunge pioneer connection began with Osborne growing up around Aberdeen, Washington, and attending the same high school as Curt Cobain.

     "We did know each other to some degree," Osborne says. "We were all interested in music. (Cobain) had a talent for chord progressions that were good to listen to ... But everything that happened with the way he died replaced all of that."

     When he introduced Cobain and Krist Novoselic to Dave Grohl, Nirvana was born. Now a member of the Foo Fighters, Novoselic recently proposed to Osborne that he and the Melvins join together for a series of shows performing Nirvana songs, but the idea fell through.

     Nevertheless, they will be always connected to the birth of grunge and the fabled "Seattle sound," even though they have been based in Southern California for more than 20 years. The band's first album "Gluey Porch Treatments" in 1987 led to a few more independent releases and then, just as Nirvana was taking off, the Melvins were signed to Atlantic Records to produce "Houdini." But in the time since the group has spun out of the "grunge" universe, creating a ferocious, disassembling hodge-podge style fusing Black Sabbath to the furies of all forms of guitar noise.

     The Melvins are touring after releasing two albums this year.

     The first, "Three Men and a Baby," is a project that originally began in the late 1990s, but was abandoned when the drummer had to be fired "due to extracurricular activities, if you know I mean," Osborne says. After he returned, they completed the record.

     "I had put that (project) completely out of my mind," he says. "I completely forgot what they sounded like. He came back we finished it and now I'm really proud of it."

     The main focus of the band, though, is to promote "Basses Loaded," which includes a rambunctious cover of the Beatles' "I Want to Tell You," as well as an eclectic mix of buzzing guitar, jazzy interludes, off-color joke tunes, a cover of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," and more than one track calling back to the early days of grunge. The record features six different bass players (hence the album title), including Novoselic, Jeff Pinkus of the Butthole Surfers, Mr. Bungle bass player Trevor Dunn, Jared Warren of Big Business, and Steve McDonald of Redd Kross, who is the bassist on the current Melvins' tour.

     Osborne says the use of so many bassists was due to a feeling of complete insecurity about how many band members have come and gone over the years. He is the lone original member.

     "It's so discouraging to have all of my musical hope pinned on one guy," he says. "So I use a lot of people. Every version of the band (on the album) is different sounding. We hadn't done anything like this and it seemed like a good idea."

     At the end of it all, the Melvins are the avant garde masters of the unconventional.

     "I don't think it sounds odd," he says. "There's not much I can do about what people think is experimental or odd. It sounds normal to me. All things are relative."

     If you like posts by Douglas McDaniel and Mythville, or simply like this post, contribute to the writer's Tip Jar at http://www.patreon.com/douglasmcdaniel


Thievery Corporation: 
Two Decades of Downtempo
  At the nadir of the alternative scene of the 1990s, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton were looking for something different. Based in Washington, D.C., they had met in 1995 at a popular lounge co-owned by Hilton, an entrepreneurial sort who had been producing parties for the hotspot known as the Eighteenth Street Lounge, which was located in an old mansion with three floors renovated for DJ-driven music events. The duo decided to use the venue, drawing from the musicians it attracted, to create a collective entity that has been known for 20 years as Thievery Corporation. 

    What they were looking for back then, recalled Garza during a telephone interview from his home of seven years in San Francisco, was something new to inject into the electronic dance music scene. New hip-hop acts and ultra-hip sampling processors such as Fat Boy Slim and the Chemical Brothers were replacing the heroes of Pearl-Jam-landia. Digital drums jumped to the front like mighty hammers, smashing the primacy of grunge and noodling guitar solos to bits. The appropriation of beats and found sounds was all the rage, and Garza and Hilton, after rummaging through the record stores in Baltimore, bought old bossa nova albums, dub records and soundtrack music, and began incoropating those inspirational elements into recordings made at Hilton's studio.

     Garza says it got to the point that they realized their love for Brazilian bossa nova from 30 years before might be updated with the new production values and the trance-like electronic vibe of the emerging age.

     The duo drew attention with their first two 12-inch offerings, "Shaolin Satellite," a dark, intense, bass-driven and danceable electronic track, and "2001: a Spliff Odyssey," where dub meets a kind of spacey, atmospheric jazz. With their 1997 debut LP, "Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi," the duo showed a desire to break into more and more of what had at that point been known as world music.

    "In '95 we were really just doing it for the fun of it, but then people really responded to the music," Garza says. "After the first two singles, people from all over were into us. It was at that point that we decided to create a business that was sustainable. The music we were creating had a trippy quality where you couldn't be sure if it was from the future or the past."

     What they were doing has since been labeled "lounge" or "downtempo," but Garza says at the time the easy listening labels of those early years were just fads. What they wanted to do was put some old roots music on steroids, borrowing from Bollywood to Buenas Aires, especially from the bossa nova movement in Brazil in the 1960s, "and get a different take of some of this different music," Garza says.

     Those early efforts were basic experiments. In the years since Moby's "Play" became a permanent monument on the radio and television landscape, beyond the go-go internet days of 2000, electronic dance music has taken over the night club scene in urban America. The recordings of this century by Thievery Corporation have shown the willingness to move into undefinable directions of sound accompanied by the voices of many nations. And more than having fun with samples, which got them into the game to begin with, their music has taken on themes of political and social immediacy on a world-wide scale.

     Playing dub, acid jazz, space rock to the chill side of Pink Floyd, as well as a fusion of reggae, Indian classical, and Middle Eastern styles, all to the predominant, insistent beat of hip-hop, Thievery Corporation is a politically progressive act intent on opening listeners' minds to foreign sounds so they no longer feel foreign. Remarkably during their career, they have created songs with lyrics in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Persian, Portuguese, Romanian and Hindi. Ranging from a kind of romantic elegance to dark and perilous tracks full of intricate details caught in a minimalist web, each album is a kind of urgent trek across many musical horizons, often to a dub or bass beat, then jumping into reggae or a cosmic jazz suite: music that can be played at low volumes but still make you feel like you are living on the edge.

     "Having music that is coming from a global perspective opens people's minds, gives them a broader view of the world," Garza says. "It makes you think a little bit. I don't think our music is necessarily political. It is inspired by music from bands like Public Enemy, Fugazi, the punk stuff, bands like the Clash. There's something liberating about being able to say anything."

     If recent records have contained, from track to track, multiple styles of music, the most recent album, "Saudade," released in 2014, sticks to the Brazilian and bossa nova side of things. Garza says it was a way of going full circle after 20 years.

     "For us, we have always been influenced by Brazilian music and for that record, rather than jumping from style to style, we would take a break, choose one particular form," he says. "With the next album we are going to release later this year, we recorded it at Point Antonio in Jamaica. There's a Jamaican theme throughout and we are very excited about it."

     Of course, to keep all of those musical influences under one band's roof, Thievery Corporation has grown beyond Garza and Hilton into a larger band of supporting musicians including Rob Myers, Loulou Ghelichkhani, Natalia Clavier, Frank "Booty Lock" Mitchell, Mr. Lif, Jeff Franca and Ashish Vyas.

     "We have great musicians from all over the country, people from Argentina, Iran and Jamaica," Garza says. "It really feels like a circus with a great cast of characters."

     But don't ever think it's chill or downtempo or lounge music, he adds, if you come to see it live.
     "I hope people see it as Thievery Corporation music," Garza says. "A lot of songs might seem chilled out when you play them at home, but get it pumping into a live sound system, really gets the heart going."

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A lifetime of walking down
 Edward Abbey's road

    The first time I met Ed Abbey, he monkeywrenched a perfectly good draft beer, a Heineken, by taking the light and dark versions and pouring the two bottles into one glass. In my view, one of the more unnecessary acts of eccentricity I'd ever seen him perform ... and it's a long list. I had met him in Tucson, Arizona, for an interview for the UofA campus newspaper, The Arizona Daily Wildcat, where I was a reporter who preferred to ditch a class than miss a story. Abbey's included. We met at The Big A, an off-campus burger joint that he always used for interviews. A strange fact by itself, in many ways, since it was a sports bar and he thought football was a pox on the earth (but then, what wasn't a pox on the earth, as far as Abbey was concerned?). Yes, he'd done many, many interviews at The Big A, and I can't tell you how many times I cringed whenever the next reporter described Abbey's iconoclastic persona with the following observation: mixing light and dark drafts of Heinekens.

     I had just discovered Abbey's "The Monkeywrench Gang," a fictional story about a group of misfit sabateurs operating in the Four Corner's region, while working the previous summer at the El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon Village. I read many chapters with my feet hanging over the edge of a cliff while I drank boda bags of wine. I had already read "Desert Solitaire" and made a habit of bringing a notebook with me on hiking trips.

     The second time I saw Abbey was on the first night of class at the University of Arizona in 1982. The creative writing department at the UofA had snagged the writer to teach his wannabe writer fans how to write non-fiction. A few years after I graduated from the University of Arizona, I asked Abbey about his teaching methods, and his was pretty self-deprecating about the whole topic.

     "It's gotten worse," he said. "I still feel I'm a lousy teacher, but I make the students work hard, so I don't know if they have time to realize how bad I am. I'm a little dubious about this whole creative writing business as something to be taught in college. I'm not sure whether it does more harm than good."

     On that first night in Abbey's non-fiction writing class in the Language Arts Building, he taught me one of the only things I can remember about so many of such classes. Well, actually, three.
They are, as he wrote on the chalk board that first night after being about 10 minutes late: "1) Write right; 2) Write wrong; 3) Write on."

     Short and sweet, it was, and the same could be said for that first night a la Abbey. A few minutes later the grizzled, jeans-clad author was distracted, as we all were, by something going on at the plaza. He rushed over to the second floor window of the classroom, and after seeing a bunch of anti-nuke protesters go by with candles, exclaimed, "Hey, I gotta go see that!" And with that, he rushed out the door and did not return. We wannabe monkeywrenching writers sat there at our desks for just a short, stunned moment.  We were all probably wondering if perhaps a lesson on how to write about cactus and coyotes might be included on the syllabus. But he was in the classroom only a moment, and then was gone.

     We caught up with him at the candlelight vigil in front of the old ROTC building at the center of the University. He was singing with the anti-nuke protesters. That was Abbey, the spontaneous one, holding a candle, and I can still see the light flickering on his beard and in his eyes. He was performing, for us, for his students, for those who had not known he was the latest new campus celebrity. Certainly, no foe to publicity of any kind, Abbey well understood the necessity of being an outlandish personality. His greeting card was his frequent call at public gatherings to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam. But that was just part of the performance.

    I believe he took an interest in me. Once we were given an assignment to write something on the "wild side." Everybody else assumed that meant practice writing about cactus and coyotes and the call of the lone wolf student writer. Always one to color outside the lines, I decided to write about downtown Phoenix as viewed from a general walk around the Greyhound Bus station. In the course of my study of the terrain, I went by the Phoenix Convention Center and discovered a couple who had slipped away into some bushes to have sex. This, of course, was too good to be true, considering my idea for the assignment, and I turned it in as a metaphor about Eden and life in the city.

     Nobody in the class believed that it happened, though. My classmates, during another one of those awful round table critiques (always to be taken with a grain of salt), told me it was non-fiction we were supposed to be writing, not fiction. But Abbey believed me. He even came to my defense, saying, "This is all just an exercise. All of this is."

     There was, in fact, one item distributed at his second class in mimeographed form that proved to be a great boon. The Edward Abbey reading list: Barry Lopez, John McPhee, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Two nature-loving Luddites, a city slicker, and the patron saint of the New Journalism. But there was one other name that took me years to appreciate: 16th century author Michel de Montaigne. The French writer was one of the first to try to express himself, via highly literary means, by writing about himself, and it was he who popularized the term essayer, as in essay. It means "to try."

     In hindsight, remembering those classes with clarity, still, after 30 years, I'd have to say Abbey was a better teacher than he knew. The benefit of being his student wasn't just getting a chance to rub elbows with a literary legend at regular intervals. He was a true authentic. And it was more than the after-class get togethers at the local pubs, or the parties at his home. He was, in fact, a rigorous critic when it came to grading the essays written for the class. In that regard, he was as tough of a teacher as they come. I can remember one particular essay I'd written as a kind of imitation of Abbey, about a hike down Hermit Trail, in which the teacher had eviscerated my copy with red ink. Indeed, he wanted students to write like themselves, not their hero. He frequently made all kinds of interesting comments on assignments that were turned in. Once, I wrote an essay about how the right wing and the left wing could come together on the political spectrum, and he had penciled in, "Hey, I believe that, too!" But another essay on the anniversary of the death of John Lennon was ripped apart for its sentimentality. His classes were a mix of vindication and shame. He wanted people to be real, just like he was. His favorite student, I recall, was a man who lived part-time in a cave who wrote with a rugged honesty.

     The last time I saw Abbey was in Prescott, where I was a reporter for The Courier. The novelist had been invited to read from his upcoming novel, which would eventually be published as "The Fool's Progress." Reading from his opening chapter, Abbey set the packed house at the Hassayampa Inn into roaring laughter with his incredibly honest tale about breaking up with a girl and, in anger, shooting his refrigerator with a shotgun. Afterward, someone called the reading "portrait of an artist as a dirty old man."

     Just a few years before his death in 1989, Abbey was still game for making outrageous statements. Among American authors he, like Norman Mailer, knew the importance of being a notorious character in real life, keeping his name out there. By then, perhaps, he had mellowed. For example, during that trip to Prescott, I saw him tell a little old lady that he was sorry about his legendary threat to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam because people might get hurt by the act. Then, he said, "All environmentalism is a defensive action."

     And one might wonder how he might fit in with today's political divisions. Perhaps his beliefs these days would be called libertarian. To call him a bleeding heart liberal would be a mistake.
At our last meeting, he said, "On many issues I'm on the same side as [Arizona Governor] Evan Mecham and Sam Steiger [a conservative Arizona congressman], I suppose.That puts me in some pretty unpleasant company. But I never felt I joined any particular group or faction. If they [the right wingers] started welcoming me with open arms or inviting me to conventions, I might get a little worried. I might think, 'God, maybe I have gone too far the wrong way.' "

     In the time since his death Abbey's legend has only grown and the appreciation of his writing has blossomed. In the time since his death, I can't count the number of times I've met people in the Southwest who had met him and remember him well. By my own evidence collected as a student, I would have to say he wasn't all that comfortable in the university laboratory of civilization.

     “The best thing about graduating from the university was that I finally had time to sit on a log and read a good book,” he once said. But I'd also say the best thing about having a class with Abbey was the profound memories that linger. Many times over the years, especially in terms of where and how I have decided to work and live, I have asked myself, "What would Edward Abbey do?" There are teachers and then there are those who teach. Abbey was the latter. Who knows how many people have dangled their legs off a cliff with a notebook in hand because of him. Considering this has led me to realize how so many of us are walking on Abbey's road.

      If you like posts by Douglas McDaniel and Mythville, or simply like this post, contribute to the writer's Tip Jar at http://www.patreon.com/douglasmcdaniel