Kandia Crazy Horse

Songs of flesh and faith



MUSIC Some cowboy angels have been crying into their beer for salvation; meantime, some of us singing cowgirls who are also in struggle push onward to save ourselves. Texan-in-exile Josh T. Pearson’s new Last of the Country Gentlemen (Mute) is very much the answer record for that divide, its harrowing, beautiful 60 minutes transmuting into a sonic angel and devil’s advocate for both sides.

On hearing the disc’s seven songs — or, as when seeing Pearson live a few weeks past at Brooklyn’s Bell House, where he opened with the one-two punch of “Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ” and “Thou Art Loosed” — you might be inclined to label the work mere post-breakup bittersweets, or worse, sexist. Yet you would be woefully wrong, akin to those scene-making hipsters at the Bell House who refused to pocket their cell phones and thus did not respect the artist or the hush required to truly hear the songs. You would not be awake to the fact that Brother Pearson’s preaching the (female) listener toward empowerment. He fled Sam the Sham, crossing the pond for refuge, solace, and space, but did not find old world streets paved with gold, and ultimately he was stalked by heartache, firewater, and despair. No one else can love you into wholeness. Reckon I don’t know if Jesus saves; down here, it appears nobody can save your soul but you — savior self.

In my recent long seasons of darkness, this is the hardest life lesson I was forced to learn. And so the acute sadness of Josh T. Pearson the artist — once weighted with the spoils and pressures of one anointed as sonic savior, courtesy of his prior trio Lift to Experience and its lone apocalyptic recording The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads (2001) — and his seven devastating accounts of love gone wrong, about the chains of dissipation and loss of mind and self, resonate with me in ways that cannot be reduced to printed matter nor speech. After a decade of inner turbulence and music’s collective loss of grace, here, at last, is a recording made by a grown-ass man.

With their length and delicate, unvarnished instrumentation — chiefly, Pearson’s voice and guitar, recorded over two days in Berlin with strings added a few months later — the songs of Last of the Country Gentlemen will doubtless cause some to resist, too cowardly to engage with pain. They need to recognize that Pearson is strong enough to balance (gallows) wit with generous depth and unflinching honesty. See “Honeymoon is Great, I Wish You Were Her,” or even the tortured meshes of “Sorry With A Song,” with its “Last time you left I got my drunk ass whupped in a fight/ My whole life’s been one clichéd country unfinished line after line after line after line.” On stage at the Bell House, he joked about expecting to see more beards in the Brooklyn crowd, and noted that the 10-year length of his own mirrored his “absence.” Awake, awake…know his embodiment of the divine.

The portrait Pearson is gentlemanly enough to present: a young Ugly American seeking detachment abroad, unraveling, and painstakingly slaying dragons to evolve and become a better human. Yes, there are ghost notes between his being the son of a Southern preacher man and myself being the granddaughter, niece, cousin of same; a shared lore of traditions and the Word communicates beneath the surface of this record (and I nigh passed out when he seamlessly recuperated the Melodians-minted “Rivers of Babylon” into his oeuvre live last week).

It matters not that Pearson focused on busking and drifting across western Europe and the isles, surfacing only once in the past decade with a (fitting) cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and continuing to sit on a trove of unreleased material. In fleeing the horrors of Bush America, he reconnected with the traditions of his own soil and kinfolk (as slyly/sadly limned on the single, “Country Dumb”) and went through them changes to fiercely mature as songcatcher and man. When he opens his record keening, crying that he is “off to save the world,” he may be earnest and he might be clowning himself. It could just be the bravado of wishful drinkin’, but it sho’nuff ain’t purty aesthetic insincerity. I am bone-weary of Pan’s musical sons capering in the glades, and the ever-cloning manchildren of indie-ana. Give me Brother Pearson’s testimony and its rare, precious ability to trigger the full spectrum of human feeling.

The inevitable forthcoming hooptedoodle that results from Pearson’s appearance at Austin’s annual South by Southwest festival next week will determine how much of his vault comes to light and whether or not the amorphous-but-fervent digital cult that enshrined Lift to Experience and has awaited any new music with bated breath expands to a mass. However, I neither require consensus nor further laurels determining its future reception to claim that Last of the Country Gentlemen is a masterpiece. Especially when it seems possible that Brother Pearson could well disappear into Texas, never to record again. Or feel beckoned anew by the boomtown Berlin of our master satirist Californian bard Stew, and Pearson’s fellow quester, the noted East Village African performance artist Krylon Superstar (a “breathaholic,” as we all should be). He could pull a Josephine-with-her-leopards rather than remain here to help rebuild America(na) from the ashes.

I, the Indian watching from the deep dark woods as the settlers clash and struggle to resurrect themselves and their ideals from the heaven/hell of Bush’s infinitely twisted New Jerusalem, am very grateful that Josh T. Pearson has boldly called himself out an American dreamer. He reminds me that I could be one, too, if I am brave enough to bleed. This is worth so much more than letter grades and lazy crit comparisons to this act or that, so expect none. Due to powers of inner vision and commitment, Pearson conjures the two other maverick artists who framed the past decade for me: my most-beloved white chocolate master, Lewis Taylor, from the United Kingdom, and still-undersung, Carolina-to-canyon folk visionary Jonathan Wilson. But he is virtually without peer. It takes a great deal now to summon me from the abyss. Truth alone.

Myself, still too blue to fly — yet there is great remedy and mystery to be gained from Josh the Revelator’s Wild West revolution of the mind. I know you have heard the sounds of red, white, and blue footsteps scrawling in fear. You know intimately the disintegration of this earth. If only you have the ears to hear both the low lonesome and glory of “Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ,” wherein Pearson wrenches out, through rippling guitar, “You don’t need a lover or a friend/ You need a savior/ And I am not him.” Don’t flinch when he sings from a land you’re stranger to. Do not escape into the sunset — the brother needs you to openly and humbly step up as his amen corner, and welcome holy breath. 

Josh T. Pearson will be making his solo debut at South by Southwest at three official performances — the first, Wed., March 16 at the Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Austin, should be the hot ticket

In the Whispering Pines


This is the year when your scribing cowgirl returns wholly to the barn — or at least the fabled Cabin-in-the-Ppines where folks used to pick, grin, and get up to no good throughout my father’s youth in southwest Georgia. And sho’nuff the Whispering Pines’ fine, self-released debut, Family Tree (self-released), will be in tow alongside the potbelly stove, vintage Akan gold weights, and patchwork spreads courtesy of my late great-aunt, the hedonistic quilter Kate.

Family Tree served as fitting accompaniment not just to holiday doldrums but also the tail end of sonic voting season — when the results of the Nashville Scene‘s ninth annual Country Music Critics Poll, which I contributed to, heralded the genre’s likely future. While I don’t disagree with anointing Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert for a soon-come twang Mount Rushmore, and would give my right pinky toe to cut a record with the great outlaw heir Jamey Johnson, the psychedelicized wing of cowboy music needs more recognition as its revival reaches its maturity. And it seems we ought not to wait a year or more to claim what’s worthy. So here’s stepping out in Topanga dirt at the ghost site of the ole Corral on behalf of the Whispering Pines’ efforts.

Family Tree, reaching back to twang’s glorious midcentury of pioneering fusions to fetch sounds for envisioning the near-future, is surely as much of an aesthetic atlas for country’s current progression as Brother Johnson’s stunning commingled pathos and mirth on “Mowin’ Down the Roses” or “Women.” Of course, the long-haired and denim-clad quintet of Brian Filosa (bass, vocals), Joe Bourdet (guitar, vocals), Dave Baine (keys, guitar, vocals), Joe Zabielski (drums, percussion), and David Burden (harmonica, percussion, vocals) abide and create in a vastly different space than Music Row or the plains and Rust Belt enclaves of Midwestern alt-country. This is reflected in the sunny clarity of their sound and sometimes mellower lyrical concerns. Silver Lake’s Whispering Pines is part of a loose, freewheeling confederacy of young SoCal-based solo artists and groups who purvey what some used to call “wooden music” and my friend Zach a.k.a. DJ Turquoise Wisdom has taken to terming “bootcut.”

This movement has bubbled under during recent years, yet has seemed to enjoy quite a spike recently. Over the last 18 months, several colleagues released histories of Laurel Canyon; maxi dresses (or “town gowns”) were deemed chic in downtown Manhattan and Los Angeles’ Echo Park; and Kamara Thomas’ Honky Tonk Happy Hour at assorted New York City venues reminded audiences that the East Coast has a rich stake in cosmic country, too. Likewise, Hair‘s ballyhooed Broadway run and Taking Woodstock reacquainted the fickle masses with festivals and freaky-deak; Neil Young dropped volume one of his storied Archives; SoHo sported a vintage store actually called Laurel Canyon, replete with embroidered western shirts, perfectly-scuffed boots, and Gunne Sax; my friend Henry Diltz’ iconic images of CSN and their friends crowned a blockbuster exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum; and Levon Helm just won a Grammy for Electric Dirt (Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard Records). This past month, New Jersey’s Wiser Time put out their strongest evidence of a northeastern-minted “Southern rock,” Beggars and Thieves (Wiser Time). A slate of Essra Mohawk reissues is in the wings.

The network for the emerging acts intent upon reinfusing the “western” part of what used to be country and western into their sounds stretches in an illusory but potent line from New York, where Filosa used to hold down the low end for the lovely Maplewood, to Northern California, where assorted Devendra Banhart boys hold sway. Indeed, I first became aware of Whispering Pines via its association with folk-rock magus Jonathan Wilson. Less than six degrees of separation from Wilson tends to yield artists with a deep host of ideas excavated from the lode overseen by beloved Gram Parsons and the Band’s Richard Manuel. Whispering Pines is definitely in the Cosmic Americana camp: deriving its name from Manuel’s fragile beauty; covering the likes of J.J. Cale (“Crazy Mama”); spinning as far out as Les Brers and their San Franciscan soul mates from the Grateful Dead on “Stars Above” and the rollicking boogie of “Grapevine Blues.” The band displays clear affection for Scott Boyer’s lost, lamented Capricorn label gem, Cowboy.

Maybe it’s just because I spent the entire fall in thrall to pre-Sufi Mighty Baby, but I can dig where Whispering Pines is comin’ from; there is a winning light in the chorusing of the four voices. Although neither hillbilly-tooled enough to compete with Trace Adkins nor polemical enough to address the amber waves’ current disarray, Family Tree is still a great record for 2010, militant in its mellow as corrective to the gray of our times. Early adopters and ecstatic praise for Family Tree have typically come from Europe, where they’re unafraid to unfetter their ears.

Back East and down the road from Nashvegas, Valerie June is also pointing a fierce way forward for country by looking even farther back. She harks back to the prewar mountains of the Carter Family and rural blues vainglory of Jessie Mae Hemphill and Elizabeth Cotten. Born in Jackson, Tenn., the Memphis-based Valerie June has been percolating on her local scene, with several forays to busk in California and make connections in the East, independently releasing collections of her “organic moonshine roots music” such as 2006’s The Way of the Weeping Willow and 2009’s Mountain of Rose Quartz along the way. It’s not that we haven’t seen such leanings before from assorted folk revivalists over the past two decades, but they almost never spring from the soul of a black woman in her 20s. Sistagirl’s womanist, unabashedly burlap manifesto “No Draws Blues” delineates these tensions.

While our brothers and sisters of European descent were riding the wave of Woodstock/Altamont’s 40th anniversaries last year, and the country establishment was wrapping its heads and resources around the chart- and Opry-bound breakouts of former Hootie Darius Rucker and Rissi Palmer, alternative black country artists were not really traveling the canyon circuit, even if they popped up at Merlefest or Bonnaroo. During his downtime from the Mayercraft, David Ryan Harris’ solo turns and the Soul of John Black’s great, underrated Black John (Eclecto Groove) showed new fire in the so-called soul-folk vein, even as Still Bill, Damani Baker and Alex Vlack’s stirring documentary on the genre’s grand master Bill Withers, made its way from SXSW ’09 to a theatrical run in Manhattan.

Several NYC-area events honoring the late folk titan Odetta provided another necessary spotlight for rising luminaries of the “black banjo movement,” like the legendary Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee’s son, Guy Davis. Bela Fleck’s Africa project Throw Down Your Heart traces from Western Sudan to the Southeast’s hollers. The sad passing of Jim Dickinson unleashed two cross-cultural celebrations on Memphis International of world boogie and twang reclamation from his elder son, Luther: the dirge catharsis with the Sons of Mudboy, Onward and Upward, and the South Memphis String Band’s deep tread into bluenotes via Home Sweet Home. Even John Legend has surprised with a riveting spin on Richie Havens’ chamber-rock rearrangement of “Motherless Child” at George Clooney’s Haiti telethon.

Considering this, when sister Valerie recently rode into NYC to play Mercury Lounge — with Clyde (her trusty six-string), Mose (her banjo), and them boys from Old Crow Medicine Show in tow — her real pretty renditions of “Wildwood Flower” and original songs all seemed part of an auspicious moment. It only remains for the two strains of independent roots music to truly have a reckoning some time this year. This would likely be even more hallowed if it goes down far from the thronged fields of Manchester, Tenn. in June. I’m scooting my boots now toward that distant point of power-light.

Son of the source


California my way: Pacifica in all her roaring glory; "Bluebird"; Gene Clark suffering for his art at the Troubadour; Arthur Lee perched atop Laurel Canyon as dark magus of the Sunset Strip; "Free Huey!"; George Hunter and the Charlatans giving birth to the ’60s in Frisco and Virginia City; redbones holding it down at Alcatraz; Barry White’s boudoir epics vs. War’s low rider country-funk; r.i.p. Nudie Cohn; surf-and-skate as spiritual practice and Third World coalition builder at street level; "We’ll Get By"; Mary Ellen Pleasants; Sly Stone’s pop hoodoo; "¡Viva Cesar Chavez!"; the Watts Towers as organic temple and pan-African signifier; Iron Eyes Cody; the impenetrable alien secrets of Joshua Tree; Citizen Kane; Country Joe McDonald in a helmet ripping "Section 43" at Monterey; Jack London’s and Charles Manson’s erudite racism; rebellions yielding the "black Woodstock," Wattstax; Skid Row tacos; alas, poor Ishi; is Mount Shasta really an Atlantean portal?; "Snakes on Everything"; RTX; a great big wave looming to wash away Neil Young and his spindly wood home from Topanga Canyon; Chet Helms, my hero; really tall red trees — and the glossy harmonies of the Mamas & the Papas, much beloved favorites of my mother before she left upon her starship. Their masterpiece "California Dreamin’" was on my mind as Indian summer gave way to autumn and the 40th anniversaries of polarized cosmic events such as the man on the moon, Woodstock, the Manson murders, the late Michael Jackson’s pop debut unfolded apace.

Harvey Kubernik, a keenly clued-in and cosmically sensitive Pisces born in Hollywood, just dropped this season’s key entry chronicling that era and its ever-lingering aftereffects: the fine Laurel Canyon study Canyon of Dreams (Sterling, 384 pages, $29.95). Much of what made California north and south such a prime destination to escape the limits and cruel lacunae of Manifest Destiny in the 1960s went down in the postwar boomtowns of San Francisco and Los Angeles and their ex-urban satellites. Kubernik focuses on the tall tales of L.A . He reveals how the creativity, social experimentation, and mystery yearning of the denizens of canyons on L.A.’s west side changed America as it was teleported on the airwaves and on the backs of freaky-deak human hosts. The elite and cult acts that largely power Kubernik’s fables — Gene Clark; Arthurly; Gram Parsons; Lowell George; John and Michelle Phillips; the magicians of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — have left towering sonic, sartorial, and spiritual legacies. Yet Kubernik is not mired in the misty mountain-hopping of yesteryear — he’s keen enough to close Canyon of Dreams with a portrait of one of that halcyon era’s most important heirs: Jonathan Wilson.

Y’all can ken whether Wilson deserves to be the coda of Kubernik’s book when his Emerald Triangle Tour featuring Jonathan Rice, Farmer Dave Scher, and local light Andy Cabic rolls into town. Yet the evidence is there in his extant albums — 1998’s The Ballad of Hope Nicholls (by his former band, North Carolina’s Muscadine); 2007’s Frankie Ray, and 2008’s Gentle Spirit — and his myriad contributions to the projects of friends. I can hear, see, and most important, feel some measure of all that makes California utopian, the South home, and America an ideal worth fighting for, despite their respective horrors, in Wilson’s music.

New York, N.Y., with its epic filth, noise, and madding crowds, was not so kind to Wilson when he made the inevitable leap from North Cackalack. Still, he excavated a great artifact of the artist-as-young-man from the experience: Frankie Ray. With the move to California, that recording’s odes to heartbreak and alienation gave way to shimmering hymns to nature arrayed across no less than four unreleased song cycles and counting. Gentle Spirit simply displays Wilson as revelation, but it was his cover of an innocuous Madonna hit (first offered to Michael Jackson) from the mid-1980s that truly convinced me of his indelible gifts. He transfigures "La Isla Bonita" beyond recognition — it starts out as an Allman Brothers outtake and slowly, steadily evolves into a 3-D spaghetti western, then a metallic, mountain-ringing treatise of electric guitar evangelism. His forthcoming covers album, I’m Covered, OK?, should make plain the wonders of his rare gift for interpretation.

To quote the once-mighty Pointer Sisters as they backed Wilson’s fellow underrated North Carolina maverick Betty Davis: "Y’all got to believe, believe in sumthin’ … Why not believe in me?" This grandbaby of a Southern Baptist preacher from southwest Georgia would never steer your ears or asses wrong. I was once accused by a former editor of dancing around my keyboard as I wrote (and what’s wrong with that?). I don’t; I have "spells" like Harriet Tubman, like Joseph Smith in the upstate New York woods, or Edgar Cayce’s automatic writing — as with this piece. Yes, I want to convert you, get you onboard the underground smellroad to Glory. I follow the Spirit and my black ass — and the loose booty’s hollerin’: make pilgrimage with Jonathan Wilson and ‘nem up the coast if you’re magical and mystical friends of the road.


Mon/2, 8 p.m. (doors at 7:30 p.m.), $15

The Independent

628 Divisadero, SF


Out of the blue



ESSAY This is the briar patch, the place from which all funky thangs flow. On the anniversary of the death of my Afro-Algonquin Southern (re)belle mother, my bare feet are planted in the dirt. Since it’s also the last days of Black Music Month, I am out of my head, thoughts swirling across the amber waves pondering the intersections of family, flesh, and funk, questing after new sounds and cultural concepts even as I journey into my sonic past. The last time it seems I was so enmeshed and empowered by cultural renaissance was just over 21 years ago, when Neil Young first heralded his now released Archives project, and I embraced the notion that Neil Young’s work is black music.

My late mother was a restless adventurer born in Virginia — and I perceive Neil Young as the same via osmosis from his maternal grandfather, Bill Ragland, a Virginian émigré to the Great North and scion of the Southern planter class from Petersburg. The Neil Young I love most is the direct heir of aspects of Daddy Ragland’s personal lore: he had the first radio and gramophone in Winnipeg, Canada; he fiercely retained his American citizenship while big pimpin’ in Manitoba (foreshadowing his grandson’s famous Canadian retentions despite residing in California).

Daddy Ragland boasted that his grandfather had freed the enslaved Africans on the family plantation. But he was also descended from the original British invaders who established Virginia Colony, destroying my people’s lifeways and ecology in process, setting precedents for America’s current crises around violence, resources, and the environment. The glories and tensions in Young’s family fables would appear to be the benefactor of much of his catalog’s leading lights: "Southern Man," "Cortez the Killer," "After the Gold Rush," "Country Girl," "Pocahontas," "Here We Are In the Years," "Alabama," "Broken Arrow," "Powderfinger," and "Down By the River."

Young’s internal narrative of ur-Americana (literally carried on the blood) is enacted again and again and refashioned throughout Reprise’s 10-disc Neil Young Archives — Vol. 1 (1963-1972), a collection that traces his odyssey from Ventures acolyte and early earnest folkie to embryonic trickster of eco-metal. The epic nature of Young’s work, akin to a late modern, machine age substitute for Greek myth — at least for the hippie, Coastopian jet-set — was once lost on me. The voice beaming over the radio waves in "Helpless" and "Sugar Mountain" was repellent to these ears, raised in the 1970s when Mother Nature was on the run and the last universally-recognized golden era of black music abounded with diverse male songbirds (Ronnie Dyson, Carl Anderson) and badass lovemen (Teddy Pendergrass, Eddie Levert). But one day, after yet another wearisome visit to a coffeehouse festooned with Harry Chapin songs and some showoff girl’s fey rendition of "Helpless," I encountered three Neil Young masterpieces that forever altered my hearing: "Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing," "Broken Arrow," and "Cinnamon Girl." I became a Buffalo Springfield devotee for life.

What also went down? Somehow, pre-Web and locked away in the wilds with limited resources, I discovered my favorite bit of rock trivia: Neil Young was in a band with Rick James signed to Motown for a seven-year deal, the Mynah Birds. Young’s engagements with psych, punk, and grunge are well-documented — even if most shirk the challenge of unpacking his electro output — but the lurking presence of the funk in his aesthetic is often ignored. Now, I ain’t saying ole Neil could come down to my former hood and swing with a Chocolate City go-go outfit (maybe he could trouble the funk?), but on "Go Ahead and Cry," the ringing of his unleashed 1970s guitar sound is already evident. The sublime meeting of Young’s thang with "The Sound of Young America" makes one lament how differently (black) rock history might have looked had the Mynah Birds triumphed at Hitsville.

My view is that Young couldn’t have written some of his best songs, like "Cinnamon Girl" and "Mr. Soul," plus freakery I dig such as "Sea of Madness," without that brief spell at Motown. (It’s interesting to imagine former auto-line worker Berry Gordy and car enthusiast Young rapping by chance). In a weird way, the shades of Young that appeared on the pop stage and relentlessly morphed between "Clancy" and "When You Dance I Can Really Love" seem to coexist with turn-of-the-’70s Motown mavericks who also flirted with polemics, space rock, and soul yodeling: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Kendricks.

The Mynah Birds are sadly absent from volume one of Archives, despite a fleeting citation in its chronological timeline. But a few months before the box set dropped I acquired my grail of Mynah Birds tracks, and the picture of Young as a potential R&B artist who brought some of the Motown sensibility to bear upon the aesthetics of his next band, the Buffalo Springfield, emerged tantalizingly. Alongside it was the turbulent back story of the striving front man Ricky James Matthews (a Mick Jagger acolyte who later renamed himself), who failed to gain support for his hybrid vision of black rock even as his old bandmate soared from the ashes of Woodstock Nation.

Aside from the future Super Freak, Young’s key ace boons on the funk express were Bruce Palmer (1946-2004) and Danny Whitten (1943-72) — besides Stephen Stills, the stars of this first set. Palmer, a native of Toronto who shared a deep spiritual bond with Young, had been in an all-black Canadian band led by Billy Clarkson even prior to his membership in the Mynah Birds. He subsequently brought his low-end theories to the Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (before being replaced by young Motown bassist Greg Reeves); and Young’s thwarted revolutionary electronic project Trans (Geffen, 1982). Palmer also reunited with Rick James after the Springfield’s implosion, producing the beautiful psych-jazz classic The Cycle Is Complete (Verve, 1971), a rival to Skip Spence’s Oar (Columbia, 1969).

Columbus, Ga.,-bred Whitten might still be Young’s most fabled collaborator. His premature death by heroin overdose inspired "The Needle and the Damage Done" (included amongst other Harvest tracks on disc eight of Vol. 1) and the dark and stark standout of the "Ditch Trilogy," Tonight’s the Night (Reprise, 1975), which will feature in the next Archives installment. Even before starting the Laurel Canyon-based Rockets (which became Crazy Horse), Whitten had been a live R&B dancer and seems to have restored some genuine Southern rock ‘n’ soul flava to the mix of his boy twice-removed from Dixie. Every time I hear the vainglorious funk bomb that is "Cinnamon Girl," I recognize that element is there and regret Whitten’s passing even more.

I first and foremost swear fealty to Buffalo Springfield. But for all his seemingly mercurial guises, the plaid-and-denim-clad Young who conjured Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Reprise, 1969) and the songs from the Ditch in company with Crazy Horse and other canyon pickers appears to be the most enduring direct influence on later generations. To try to make sense of Young’s legend, I consulted an amen corner: Harry Weinger, VP of A&R at Universal Motown; famed Harvest producer Elliot Mazer; and young J. Tillman.

I also saw my Alabama-bred friend Patterson Hood at the Bowery Ballroom, bringing an element of Stills and Young’s guitar duels and Young’s volume to the stage, backed by the Screwtopians. Brother Hood’s chief band, Drive-By Truckers, came to most folks’ attention with 2001’s Sept. 12 Soul Dump release Southern Rock Opera, a sprawling masterwork in two acts that dealt with — among other Southern myths — the complex relationship between Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd icon Ronnie Van Zant (see "Ronnie and Neil"). When we discussed the Archives before the gig, Patterson professed to be waiting on tenterhooks for the next volume, due to the Ditch releases: TTN, Time Fades Away (Reprise, 1973), and my favorite, On the Beach (Reprise, 1974).

Tillman — Pacific Northwest-dwelling solo artist and multi-instrumentalist member of Fleet Foxes — was illuminating on the subject of Young as artistic forebear. This year, the Foxes were summoned by Young to tour with him and perform at his annual Bridge School benefit, even as Tillman promoted Vacilando Territory Blues (Bella Union) and began to develop his next solo recording Year In the Kingdom. Kindly, he paused amid all this flurry to speak on Young’s influence when we crossed paths earlier this year:

"Neil is a figure to follow and not follow. Following him is kind of antithetical to the spirit of his music, but it’s hard to resist the mythology …

"Neil’s understanding of the technical side of the recording process, and his obsession with gear and tone, stands in total contrast to his completely intuitive approach to making records." he continued. "Each of his records has an environment that is as big a part of the record as the songs. Recording in a barn, an SIR storage space, doing honey-slides with Rusty Kershaw — he always positions himself for moments of magic."

Despite Young’s great capacity for harnessing magic, what Archives demonstrates beyond the master’s curatorial intent is the vast gulf between the violent-but-halcyon time that begat his earliest works and now, when ever more plastic reigns in our common culture. When I cited surprise at a sudden small surge in younger folk and country-rockin’ artists who profess overt adoration of and respect for Buffalo Springfield and Stills’ Manassas, Tillman voiced skepticism:

"Our generation has been told that we can buy authenticity. Advertising is so enmeshed in our thought life we’ve developed Stockholm syndrome. People buy the idea of the ’60s and ’70s like a product, like it’s something you can own by buying things, or conversely, by becoming a product fashioned in the style of the ’70s. There are plenty of people dying to make a buck off that. It’s sad how commodified music has become, how people just do it to be it, instead of doing it because they are it. Neil refused to be bought or sold or owned in his own time, like any of the greats."

As for Young followers on the blackhand side, they may not be legion but today — more than four decades after he was meant to produce Love’s masterpiece Forever Changes (Elektra, 1967) and long after his road dawgin’ with former Malibu neighbor Booker T. Jones — there are more than you might think. Richie Havens still cut what might rate as the best-ever Young cover: his desperate, electric, heavy metal "The Loner" on Mixed Bag II (Stormy Forest, 1974). The other week I attended a taping of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and after the show, when Roots’ guitarist Kirk Douglas spotted the behemoth Archives box I was toting, he ripped a few blazing riffs from "Cinnamon Girl."

Outlaws don’t always go out in a blaze of glory. Some, like Young, abide, too ornery for entropy to overtake them. I expect him to continue restlessly exploring where he and Sudanese bluenote sound intersect in the eye of the volt. As for the native rights supporter who came off like the inscrutable brave in Buffalo Springfield’s dynamic cowboy movie — but who totes a cigar store Indian onstage? The rebel in me that thrills to Young’s peculiarly suhthuhn quixotic qualities and access to American African’s obsession with freedom wants him to account for these lyrics about my ancestral sovereign Wahunsunacock’s martyred daughter, Matoaka:

I wish I was a trapper

I would give a thousand pelts

To sleep with Pocahontas

And find out how she felt

In the mornin’ on the fields of green

In the homeland we’ve never seen.

Hey now hey … my my my. Aren’t we both, the contested bodies, still looking for America?

Ain’t I a werewolf?


AFRO-SURREAL Stylistic rigor and as full an embrace of progressive technologies as budgets allow have made Underworld Trilogy (Sony Pictures DVD, $93.95) a pleasurable extension of epics from fang-face past. Yet perhaps the most significant aspect of Len Wiseman’s cycle about immortals warring for supremacy is an updated recognition of the post-1960s liberation strides of blacks and women in our society. It is reflected in the power and intellect of the first film’s heroine Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and her fellow vampiric rebels (like Robbie Gee’s tech-wizard Kahn) and lycan foes ("Razahir/Raze," played by Underworld concept engineer Kevin Grievoux). The last and best installment, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, is a virtual remix of my generation’s seminal televisual event, Roots. If that ain’t Afro-Surreal, then what is?

It was 30 years ago — not long after the historic airing of the adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots fundamentally changed public perceptions of America’s "peculiar institution" — that I moved to the Sahel and immediately became obsessed with Dogon lore about the Sirius star system and a family of deities including the trickster Pale Fox. Blood debates about antiquity and provenance continue to rage between disdainful classicists, denizens of the moribund field of Egyptology, and independent scholars of varying stripes devoted to Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987). My view supports linkages between the overlapping subcultures of the Dogon, Amazigh, "Egyptians," Zulu, and others, resulting in a kozmic fusion wherein the primordial werewolf (some would prefer jackal or werehyena) is a key deity from the dawn of civilization in the Motherland.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans finds the great Irish actor Michael Sheen’s "lycan" leader character Lucian subbing for Kunta Kinte. In the stark, nightmarish Eastern European fiefdom of vampire lord Viktor (Bill Nighy), the decadent, pale vampires are pampered aristocrats guarded and served by their dark, subhuman lycan slaves (hybrids of humans and wolves). Lucian changes from pet house nigger fettered by shackles of the flesh and mind — condescendingly deemed "a credit to his race" by Viktor — into an enlightened, empowered rebel leader who brings deliverance to lycan-kind by forging an alliance with despised animal spawn of William Corvinus in the wooded wilds.

Yet all is not Molotovs and roses — there are sadistic spectacles of whipping at the hands of cruel overseer Kosta, Nubian ally Razahir is forced to submit to lycanthropy, and Lucian suffers the ultimate price for miscegenation with Viktor’s daughter Sonja (the underrated Rhona Mitra). Rise of the Lycans may not be Blacula, but it is often a winking mash-up of Roots and the even more hardcore, honest Mandingo (1975). In a time when America has just elected its first (official) black president but open dialogues on slavery — and reparations for same — remain muted at best, it’s heartening to witness product straight out of Hollyweird somehow serving as an optic Trojan horse for the oft-forgotten and misrepresented radicalism of antebellum culture heroes like Nat Turner, Cinque, and the O.G. Black Moses herself, Harriet Tubman.

Rise of the Lycans has been roundly panned by fanboys and critics alike, which is hardly shocking considering America’s unwillingness to face the major episodes of its bloody past — the enslavement of Africans via the Triangular Trade, and the genocide of the First Nations. Yet to these eyes and ears, the film’s a first sign in the Age of Obama that a willingness to finally address the West’s hateful legacies can emanate from "low" culture, despite the will to bliss out in the opiated mass of post-racial utopia.

Electric gypsies



Tommy Weber ( Thomas Ejnar Arkner, 1938 — 2006) was a trickster, so I cannot help but love him.

Comin’ from where I’m from — three tribal peoples: Pamunkey, Scottish, mystery African — I have always adored the Afro-Kelt über alles, and been at least inchoately hip to the centrality of the trickster, whether Eshú Elegbara, the Diné Coyote, or the Danes’ own Loki and his spawn Fenrir the apocalyptic Wolf. Such figures surf the spaces between the rational world we animals feel duty-bound to shore up for civilization’s sake, and the great vast unconscious world beyond the reach of imposed order.

The disenfranchised, rejected Dane and deracinated Anglo-African Tommy Weber — the fatally charming and irrepressible antihero of Robert Greenfield’s new A Day In the Life — One Family, the Beautiful People, & the End of the ’60s (Da Capo) — seems a trickster by default. He was left to his own devices by his estranged parents to play among the excreta of Empire well before any 11th-hour attempts by his roguish grandfather, R. E. Weber, to finish him off as a proper, upper-crust, English gentleman. The man famously dubbed "Tommy the Tumbling Dice" by his pop doppelgängers Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg had an ingrained loathing for authority, yet the right accent to charm anyone in his relentlessly class-obsessed society.

I spent the 1980s back and forth between Africa, Europa (especially not-so fair Albion), and Ray-Gun Amerikkka, chased by those primordial Saharan tricksters Wepwawet and his altar-ego the Pale Fox Yurugu. One film my late Mamanne, sister, and I loved during that period was 1984’s Another Country, starring Rupert Everett as aristo U.K. spy-turned-Russian defector Guy Bennett (i.e., Guy Burgess). The character’s final line has stuck with me. Queried about whether or not he missed the Motherland, his response is, "I miss the cricket." This immortal bit of immortal dialogue is key for Tommy Weber, me, and anyone else brought up along the black Atlantic continuum. It sums up Tommy’s unconscious longing as a patchwork Englishman to rove to the British Empire’s far-flung, dusty, darker outposts. It applies to the cricket pitch desires of émigré "Indians" (from East and West). And I connect it to my early-1980s Anglophilia, stoked by Top of the Pops, Melody Maker, Smash Hits, and NME.

Having (perhaps foolishly) strived to find myself in those sonic fictions, I feel connected to a description of late-period Tommy by Spacemen 3’s Pete Bain: "He’d come staggering in, talk shit at you for an hour with garbled words like a radio that had to be tuned to a certain frequency, and then stagger out again like a drunk" We are all animals of the machine age, hoping to belong, struggling amid turbulent cultural waves. We navigate denatured empire (which yields ordered beauties like cricket, classical music, and the world-famous English gardens tended by such experts as Jake Weber’s aunt, Mary Keen) and the dirty, excreta-slathered murk of primordial tribal tradition (which yields transcendence).

Accompanied by a soul mate nicknamed Puss, Tommy the Tumbling Dice gambled on a folkway that would provide that transcendence — a Swinging London milieu of sex-drugs-rock ‘n’ roll wherein religious and social apostasy was de rigueur. When he crapped out, as a Trickster always does, what came next was relentless nihilism at the prick of a needle. Yet here’s the thing about tricksters: death often means rebirth for them — And Shine swam on, you dig?

Once upon a time, circa America’s bicentennial year, I chanced to view a strange, twisted, little film called Performance (1970) that was far too advanced for my innocence. Every summer in Virginia, my favorite pastime — even above slopping hogs and barn dancing — was handling the snakes. But lil’ ol’ me was yet unprepared for being ensnared in Anita Pallenberg’s chamber of smoke-and-mirrors.

My old soul arose like the fabled Kemetic Bennu bird of prehistory from that befuddling, dazzling screening, leaving me a lifelong devotee of the occultist, pirate triumvirate that is my beloved doom fox Pallenberg, interiors aesthete Christopher Gibbs, and the film’s auteur par excellence — the late, great Scot Donald Cammell. (Yes, Nicholas Roeg was essentially the technical director, but the film’s peculiar psychosexual tangle and audacious vision could come from no other brilliant cerebellum than Cammell’s.)

And so I was transfixed by the cover of Day In The Life. There stared a witch even more lovely and remote than my muse Anita. Looking inside, I discovered that she was Puss Weber, and that the young Fata Morgana boy from a Stones memorabilia photo that I’d long obsessed over was her eldest son, Jake. Alongside his bruh’ Charley, he had an inadvertent ringside seat to Mick and Keith’s maiden voyage into the rough black Atlantic. You can read all about it in this book, a great gift from the cosmos.

"Fantasy" by Earth, Wind, & Fire was the private, tacit anthem of my family’s feminine trio in the 1970s — which paralleled that of the Weber boys. Strange and beautiful it is that Jake, son of Tommy the Tumbling Dice, should find himself co-starring on a show called Medium, wherein his character, Joe DuBois, has a witchy-empowered wife he must support and nurture much as he once did his beloved mother Puss. As Marshall McLuhan proclaimed during the year of Jake’s birth (in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man): "The medium is the message." Although W.E.B. DuBois (no relation) famously said the problem of the 20th century of is that of the color line, it can now also be argued that the past century-plus has been marked more than almost anything else by the problems stemming from the interface of man and machine — spirituality vs. technology.

In this light, it seems no accident that Tommy Weber has become an antihero fit to rival his fellow Archer, Duane "Skyman" Allman, in my internal spiritual pantheon. I would hazard a guess that both of his sons are currently fulfilling what Tommy wrote to Jake in 1982: "There is a very important secret. Work is much more interesting than play and if you are lucky enough to be able to make your work your play and your play pay, well then you’re in clover."

One cannot claim "Tommy the Tumbling Dice" and his beautiful, free spirit wife Susan Ann Caroline "Puss" Coriat should not have had children, for their now grown sons are vital contributors to our black Atlantic culture and are fine human beings. Still, these rather tortured Swinging Londoners’ families rival the pathology often on display around the corners of my ‘hood in high Harlem.

I am far less enchanted by A Day in the Life‘s testimonials on Puss and Tommy’s pre-Stones circle in London than I am arrested by their families’ collective African history. Greenfield’s book aims to shoot an arrow straight into the heart of Boomerville, yet it also unwittingly works as a strong resource for the far opposite realm of postcolonial studies. In fact, with some tweaking, it could serve as one of that discipline’s core works — a testament to its riches.

One of my most cherished passages in Greenfield’s book deals with Tommy’s haphazard management of the pioneering Afro-rock band Osibisa. A crazy trip through northern Africa is bookended by him, Jake, and Charley enduring a harrowing stay in jail in Lagos. To a degree, Puss and Tommy were confined by being products of their class and times. Yet they cannot be judged now via the uptight lenses of today. On the strength of their private soul-gnosis and Herculean striving to escape the lot dealt them by the hands of cosmic fate, these extraordinary Webers are folk out of — no, beyond — time. We’ll still learn from them on the far side of 2012.

Sisters from another planet


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A few weekends back, I rose at the crack of dawn to see Allen Toussaint perform at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan for the venue’s 10th anniversary celebrations. Although it was Sunday morning and the show was free, nary any Negroes on site for the New Orleans master. However shameful this lack, the show was well worth it, especially for Toussaint’s mesmerizing extended version of "Southern Nights," replete with rich anecdotes about midcentury black life in Louisiana’s parishes. Right before this transcendent trip, a middle-aged lady fan down front cried out for him to perform the Labelle hit he produced, "Lady Marmalade." Toussaint obliged with a few lines before jokingly gesturing into the air before him, "Take it, Patti!"

Upon listening to the just-released Back to Now (Verve), I’m reminded of the trickster-ish spirit Toussaint reanimated around that song, as well as the reaffirmation of the quality of talent that’s always been summoned to work with the three titanesses of Labelle: Sarah Dash, Nona Hendryx, and Patti LaBelle. In the 30-plus years since the era’s premier woman rock trio disbanded, there has been a short list of female, or female-fronted, acts that could bring something sonically strong to the arena Labelle dominated in the early 1970s, but none could top them. Right now the only promising heiresses really worth discussing are Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Leela James, Nikka Costa, the Noisettes’ Shingai Shoniwa, Janelle Monáe, and Fantasia, but most of these have suffered the indifference of the public to a degree and, worse, been thwarted repeatedly by the industry. The merciful window of sonic vitality and relative aesthetic freedom Labelle once enjoyed during my childhood now seems like a chimera. Almost as if their hallowed career operates on a silver ship far out in parallel space — we can thus glean stardust of Labelle’s body of work, though their vessel is too many light years away to tilt this planet back on its rightful axis.

Talkin’ ’bout bold as love: the all-girl band’s new Back to Now — don’t call it a comeback, but a reconstruction — will hopefully serve as a beacon to light the way along the hard path young female artists are forced to tread. Kicking off with Hendryx in fine songwriting form on "Candlelight" — a twang ballad spurred to the brink of disco-country and ably handled from Lenny Kravitz’s production chair — this new disc contains no filler save the debut single. To these ears, Wyclef Jean’s "Roll Out" is the weak link — don’t want any Akon-sounding mess in my grown-woman funk, but I understand the biniss need to kowtow to Ringtone Nation. I am positively certain that when Gentleman Toussaint cut my favorite single, "What Can I Do for You," with Labelle in 1974, he never envisioned such a pass.

Fortunately, "Superlover" comes next to cleanse the palate, contemplative in its easing of the group’s patented sound in the direction of hallowed love testaments like "Isn’t It a Shame." Kravitz has finally met his match and found his métier while manning the knobs for this project. When I first learned of his presence the year before last, it seemed fitting that he should be summoned alongside Gamble and Huff, not merely because his best work owes a debt to classic Philly and Chi-Town soul, but because one figures correctly that his respect for icons of Labelle’s caliber would bring the best out of him. The sublime, delicately bouncy funk of Hendryx’s next superb shot, "System," could be the key to his ultimate discovery of his voice.

One knows Kravitz must have salivated over the unearthed 1970 track "Miss Otis Regrets," which includes the late Stones associate Nicky Hopkins on piano and Who drummer Keith Moon. It’s a magnificent album closer, but its back-to-the-future feedback loop in conversation with Hendryx’s own compositions only underscores the fact that she remains the great enigma of late 20th century vanguard pop and Afrofuturist rock, one of an elite few of the most undersung song-catchers way past overdue to be seriously studied by music and culture scholars. Should Labelle’s ever-loving vodun fail in the marketplace, Back to Now has more than justified their redrawing of their circle.

Great northern


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After the gold rush of her July residency at National Underground on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I recently sat in the sunny, sub-level kitchen of singer-songwriter Serena Jean Southam’s East Village flat, listening to Jerry Garcia, playing with cats, and admiring her father’s old Martin guitar as she proceeded to explain her band’s name:

"It came from Jimmy, our drummer," Southam said. "The Whiskey Trippers were the old bootleggers [in the South]. And both Gitano [Herrera, her lead guitarist and writing partner] and Jimmy love the NASCAR. Well, apparently the Whiskey Trippers were the fastest drivers ’cause they had to run all the booze, and outrun the cops. And so these gentlemen went on to found NASCAR…. You know this … were you testing me?"

This redneck Negress was not. Still, it was a delight to discover a host of linkages, sonic and otherwise, between the Winnipeg, Manitoba–born beauty and myself, a NASCAR- and twang-lovin’ southern gal. Not least of which are a shared obsession with Neil Young and Levon Helm, and a historic disdain for female singer-songwriters — Palo Alto–bred Stevie Nicks excluded. Going by Serena Jean and the Whiskey Trippers’ first, eponymous self-released EP — brimming with rich, autobiographical songs only six months into their collective career — it’s safe for me to rephrase Alfred Stieglitz on Georgia O’Keeffe: "At last, a woman on wax!"

Meditation on the private dark times and hard-won victories behind Southam’s songs "Moving On" and "Whiskey Led Me Down" occasioned our worshipful Nicks talk: "I was married to a guitar player … big mistake! There is so much to learn from Fleetwood Mac….

"So yeah, married to the lead guitar player, and I was in this jam band Hiway Freeker, and also in a band called the Bob Dylan Project," she continued. "We had two different bands: one where we would just cover Bob Dylan songs, and the other, which was originals. And we played in New York for a couple of years. Then it was time to start touring, and we didn’t want to pay the crazy rents here so we moved back up to Canada."

O, Canada. The singer-songwriter revival afoot seems to be garnering the most ecstatic attention since the movement’s early-1970s heyday, sprung from Southern California’s easy breezy attitude and wooden music aspirations at the Troubadour. However, inspired by Canada’s classic Laurel Canyon-meets-Woodstock twang gang, including the aforementioned Young, the Band, and Joni Mitchell, Southam is a genuine artist who will carry on 20 years forward and beyond — a brave individual of style for sticking to her aesthetic guns.

"On one hand," Southam offered, "I’m really excited because people have said to me, ‘Nobody’s making music like this in New York right now.’ And then sometimes I get really insecure, like, is that because nobody wants to hear music like this? But this is what I like, and want to listen to. This is my voice."


Scramble for Africa 3.0


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Africa is not a monolith. Africa is not even Africa: the outsider bastardization kicked off in earnest when the Roman misnomer of a finite North African region was allowed to stand for the entire continent. However, for the West’s millennial hipsters currently emuutf8g such early adopters of 30 years ago — the oft-cited David Byrne and Brian Eno/Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and the Police — the space formerly known as the Dark Continent has come to resemble the Golden Corral.

Vampire Weekend and other indie participants in the sonic Scramble for Africa 3.0 obviously see midcentury and postcolonial African pop culture as a cheap date, a provider of organic rock mystery where one can queue for heaping sides of hi-life, soukous, mbaqanga, mbalax, juju, rai, township jive, and Ténéré desert blues. La Présence Africaine is renewing rock ‘n’ roll — again. Striving ahead of the pale pack of black Yankee rockers is retired Nuer boy soldier Emmanuel Jal, justly a current press darling for his fine new second release, Warchild (Sonic 360).

Yet the acclaim for Jal has not outstripped the simultaneous giddiness and hand-wringing of a music press delighted by indie’s abrupt romance with African styles — hot on the heels of a new generation’s overlapping yen for English folk and Balkan gypsy sounds — but vaguely concerned about white exploitation of same, wagging fingers concerning musical "miscegenation." Race mixing yielded my family, cultural exchange has been the way of the world since antiquity, and as a critic whose mission involves exposing audiences to new sounds, I would never deny peoples’ enjoyment of genres seemingly beyond their ken. However, as Jal bitingly reminds us on Warchild‘s unabashed "Vagina," the rape of Africa — that blood-soaked project most essential to modernity — has gone down long enough.

Vampire Weekend, “A-Punk”

The problem with indie’s Karen Blixen close-up is that the transference of African mystery is going one-way — as usual. Vampire Weekend (XL) has sold 27,000 and counting and debuted on Billboard at no. 17, whereas, according to writer Robert Christgau in the New York Times, Sterns’ recent anthology encompassing the career of Congolese soukous master Tabu Ley Rochereau, The Voice of Lightness, has sold barely 9,000 copies.

Meanwhile, indie’s gone natives — including Mahjongg, the Dirty Projectors, Rafter, Yeasayer, and, from across the pond, Foals (Oxford), Courteeners (Manchester), and Suburban Kids with Biblical Names (Sweden) — seem to consider themselves smugly above postcolonial guilt (per DP’s Dave Longstreth) and the 1980s-vintage political correctness that plagued Simon and his apartheid-chic Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986). Vampire Weekend is good enough indie entertainment when you find Björk’s favorite Congolese likembé ensemble Konono No. 1 too repetitive and prefer songs about summertime splendor in the grass. But when Vampire Weekend’s unapologetically preppy white/white-ethnic musicians dub their music "Upper West Side Soweto" and seemingly aspire to come on like Brazzaville Beach Boyz — without any consciousness of such late 20th-century African titans or tyrants as Patrice Lumumba and Mobutu Sese Seko, respectively — it rankles this daughter of third world coalition builders raised in the ’70s and ’80s postcolonial era. Further, when Mahjongg’s Hunter Husar can tell Rhapsody’s Play blog that "to steal musically from another culture is to do a service to humanity," and "we don’t care about Africa any more than any other place," my everything-but-the-burden radar rings sharply.

Certainly there is energy around Africa on the independent music scene: black string band revivalists like Ebony Hillbillies have made the crossing back to West Africa in deep study of old-timey and country’s African ancestry. Funky Africa reissues are all the rage among crate-diggers: think Lagos Chop Up (Honest Jon’s, 2005), etc. And that Western-Kenyan summit Extra Golden was purposely omitted from the above indie roll call, for this multiracial quartet and their latest recording Hera Ma Nono (Thrill Jockey) suggest a way out of the cultural cul-de-sac their trendier fellows are already trapped in.

Further, the tug-of-war between disenfranchised folk of African descent who desired preservation of their mysteries and the white folks who possessed inchoate love for same has raged throughout modern times. As my friend Wendy Fonarow, author of Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music (Wesleyan, 2006), recently told the UK Guardian: "There are interesting theories as to why rock ‘n’ roll happened when it did. There’s evidence to suggest Christianity, which exists as a missionising religion, had run out of ‘exotic others’ to missionise after the fall of colonialism. Therefore it was in their interests to get adolescents to act like heathens, so they had a supply of unconverted people to convert. So what we did was produce a heathen in our own midst to act out all the same things we’d accused other societies of doing."

Extra Golden promo for “Hera Ma Nono”

By Fonarow’s reckoning it would seem what Longstreth and company are up to is a necessary will to neotribalism, their recorded work a reversal of the detrimental European separation of mind and body. I would counter that these groups’ appropriation of African sounds is a means to the end of escaping the internally imposed authenticity rules of indie rock, a refutation of the linear trip between Greg Ginn and Kurt Cobain when their monoculture reduced them to the last of their race. Then again, options are at the heart of white privilege, as is the agency to cherry-pick from the non-Western bounty. It remains utterly disappointing that millennial musicians can quote Africana without making reference to kwassa kwassa‘s source in the Congo, where millions people have died, young boys mercilessly conscripted and countless women raped as tool of war, while their own blessings of Ivy League degrees and the lack of a draft amid a resurgence of American imperialism permit them a guilt-free stance toward postcolonial upheaval and their gentrification of longtime black neighborhoods. Vampire Weekend’s Brooklynites apparently see no irony in their song "Walcott": "Hyannisport is a ghetto / … Lobster’s claw is sharp as knives / Evil feasts on human lives."

Evil definitely feasts on human lives in the Congo, but evildoers are also harvesting bones in New York City, where the 50 bullets martyring Sean Bell’s body are currently being reduced to mere accident. These white African prodigals don’t and will never suffer the psychic angst of being black and oppressed. Vampire Weekend can always go home again, but we’ve got no home.


June 22, 7 p.m., $15

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF


Flowers for Kathleen Edwards


Being of so-called American Indian and African descent, I have never believed in borders. These imperial lines have only wreaked havoc and sealed our fate. Still, I’m always amused by just how much Canadian roots rockers seem to out amber-wave many Americana acts in the Lower 48. From the Band’s part-Mohawk Robbie Robertson penning classic anthems about Southern history ("The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down"), to Neil Young’s prurient praise-songs, to my much-removed kinswoman "Pocahontas" and beyond, there’s an outsider quality shared with my outlaw peoples, a sense of being on the margins that triggers keen lyrical and sonic focus. Add to this lineage Young’s aspiring heiress, Kathleen Edwards: on tracks such as the barroom gothic "Goodnight, California," she certainly makes that skill plain.

Edwards has bubbled under since her 2003 debut Failer (Socan/Factor), widely celebrated by music cognoscenti with reliable ears. But her world-weary folkie moves reminded me of Lucinda Williams and other sepia-tone, anachronist comers of the period. With Asking for Flowers (Zoe/Rounder), her finest album to date, she has finally distinguished herself from much of alt-country’s fringe-fetish ghetto . A cinematic sweep and fine Los Angeles sessioneering frame its road songs ("Buffalo") and polemical tales from the heartland ("Oil Man’s War"). "O Canada" revisits themes of drugs and mayhem from Tonight’s the Night (Reprise, 1975), by Young and his famed, unvarnished backing band Crazy Horse. I reckon we’ll be dancing round the ole maple this spring, crowing "B is for bullshit" from Edwards’ "The Cheapest Key" as it abounds on the ever more absurd campaign trail. Other Edwards lyrics should be reserved for rocker girlfriends and women saddled with tired-ass boyfriends. "I’ve been on the road too long to sympathize / With what you think you’re owed."

Nowhere is Edwards’ inherited Great North gift of odd insight more evident than on the disc’s best song: "I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory." One could almost see Ellen Burstyn’s Alice singing, "You’re cool and cred like Fogerty, I’m Elvis Presley in the ’70s" to Kris Kristofferson in some meta-American vérité — that is, if much current US indie cinema wasn’t vastly inferior to films like Sarah Polley’s Oscar-nominated Away from Her (2006). Just as Polley kicked creative ass and Feist has been anointed the "New Joni" by worshipful black Atlantic male musicians, Edwards looks poised to be this year’s sweetheart of the rodeo — although nowhere nearer to Music Row than before. Happy trails, gal.


With the Last Town Chorus

Tues/20, 8 p.m., $18


628 Divisadero, SF

(415) 771-1422


Singing the cyber blues


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Afrofuturism began in earnest with those "20 odd Negroes" brought to Jamestown. Truly, long-ago Africans brought to New World shores invented modernity on the fly, animating poet John Masefield’s "The Passing Strange": "Out of the earth to rest or range / Perpetual in perpetual change / The unknown passing through the strange." It’s an Afrofuturist manifesto, along with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s oft-quoted "We wear the masks …" and misanthropic Afrohippie Arthur Lee’s newly reissued, twisted, beautiful suicide note Forever Changes (Rhino, 1967). The sons of Arthurly, black and white, have been legion, but now, as Lee’s masterpiece celebrates its 40th anniversary, a potent daughter steps forth in jitterbug pompadour and saddle shoes to reflect his jet rock sighs back across pop light years: Janelle Monaé.

Atlanta’s Monaé — by way of Wyandotte County, Kan. — seems like the freak of every week. She seems beyond space oddity, a quirkiness that has had her dubbed the "black Björk" — although not the new heir of Labelle or David Bowie protégé Ava and her space-glam Astronettes. Monaé restores the sacred feminine to the techno bush, wailing on viral single "Violet Stars Happy Hunting": "I-I-I-I I’m an alien from outer space / I’m a cyber girl without a face, a heart or mind / … see I’m a slave girl without a race / On the run cause they’re here to erase and chase out my kind … " Her EP, Metropolis Suite, arrives in June, and her debut, Metropolis (both on P Diddy’s Bad Boy/Atlantic imprint), co-executive produced by OutKast’s Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, drops in September, both primed to serve as the latest essential texts for all youngblood black rockers/rockettes who hope that Arthur Lee dying for their sins was enough to pay the original African, psychedelic Pied Piper: Dionysus.

Metropolis is powered by Monaé as faceless, limbless, cyber-blues mama: a sepia version of the golden droid Hel from Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopic Weimar classic Metropolis mashed up with self-willed modern savage Josephine Baker. Those calling Monaé a "black Björk" are missing the boat — and that boat would be the Amistad — and forgetting her less likely foremamas beyond the self-evident Baker, Nona Hendryx, and Grace Jones — such as Stevie Wonder’s late first wife, Syreeta Wright. Yet my recent retreat with Lady Syreeta’s first two Wonder-produced solo long-players has been something of a revelation: the limited edition reissue of Syreeta/Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta (Hip-O Select/Motown, 2006) shows Monaé’s preternatural shade dancing through Syreeta’s highly romantic, space-rock take on "She’s Leaving Home" with Wonder as deus ex Moog, and such strange gems as "Your Kiss Is Sweet," and its reprise, "Universal Sound of the World." Lovely ‘Reeta deserves reinvestigation as the Afro-baroque yin to Grace Jones’ Afro-punkette yang.

Speaking of vital ancestry, Maurice White’s crucial Afrofuturist black rock outfit received tribute with 2007’s Interpretations — Celebrating the Music of Earth, Wind & Fire (Stax). Par excellence, the current space-rock revivalists’ badass Matrix and musical version of MLK-meets-Malcolm 2.0, Me’Shell NdegeOcello, shows Monaé the way to love on "Fantasy," a cover surely approved by Cee-Lo. Opening with a fiery guitar lick fit to rival Lee’s "Alone Again Or" in menace and dread as well as a shout-out of love and understanding (in sound) to the brothers and sisters in Iraq’s killing fields, "Fantasy," NdegeOcello’s radical reconstruction, is a single-song masterpiece delivered in stentorian cyber-affect.

As Monaé’s Metropolis aspires, it builds an almost unscalable mountain for black rock artists to leap in a single bound. The She-droid summons black Atlantis, expressing the very crux of the "20 odd Negroes" and their American descendants’ existential crisis — the very reason why we all perpetually want to take a ride on that ship Fantasii — intoning in deadened tones, "Every man has a place," while fading to black. Even though Sahelian falsetto Phillip Bailey appears nowhere to hit That Note, an exhilarating soprano channeling Syreeta Wright steps into the breach for Hendrix’s sacrificed Stratocaster. Hi-ho niggaz! Now, that’s passing strange into the stratosphere, "where other kind that has been in search of you" await with healing alien embraces. Here be Dragons of Zynth and ATLien rock replicants from outta ouro-boroughs like the vainglorious Monaé in the relentlessly hybridizing black Atlantic, breaking microchips off the old block to highlight yet another way to blue — and effect a funky space reincarnation.

Outlaw representation


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I love Dick and I cannot lie. I am of course referring to my Chocolate City homeboy Richard Bruce Nugent — who was never called "Dick," but was outfitted with "Paul Arbian" and other choice names by his friend, rival, and fellow Harlem/Negro Renaissance leader Wallace Thurman. Nugent, who died impoverished but grand in 1987, has been one of my abiding heroes since childhood. But with the rediscovery and publication of Gentleman Jigger (Da Capo Press, 332 pages, $18), in which Nugent names and reclaims his uptown good and hard times from speakeasies to sidewalks, the youngest Harlem Renaissance genius truly ceases to be a cipher.

I first read about Nugent at age 10, in David Levering Lewis’s epic study When Harlem Was in Vogue (Penguin, 1989). A provocative iconoclast and bon vivant, Nugent — who’d had the nerve to live past 27 and even be a vital raconteur during his sunset-and-threadbare years — enjoyed a meteoric ascent into the flux of my prepubescent consciousness. My Nuge was clearly brilliant, and a proto–rock star due to the mere rumor of his gay lit landmark from 1926, the short story "Smoke, Lilies and Jade." Though raised sheltered in Washington, DC’s Adams-Morgan black bohemia of the 1980s, I inchoately got that the Harlem Renaissance was the official coming out of black queer radical subculture — a coming out linked to Nugent’s historic meet-cute with Langston Hughes at one of DC salon hostess Georgia Douglas Johnson’s "Saturday nighters."

Having followed a trajectory similar to Nugent’s leap from DC to NYC, I still find him inspiring. His Gentleman Jigger reads eerily, stunningly, as if it were written about a black blogospheric bohemia that continues to wrestle with the ish Hughes laid out in his famed 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Although Nugent appears to have been scooped (possibly ripped off) in defining le tout fashionable Harlem by his prematurely dead and duskier podnuh Thurman, he almost lived to witness the emergence of such latter-day inheritors of his vision as poet Essex Hemphill and cultural critic Ernest Hardy.

Editor Thomas Wirth, who maintains a Nugent Web site and worked on Duke University Press’s 2002 Nugent collection Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, has done us all a great service by unearthing and recolutf8g Nugent’s masterful roman á clef. It’s an intriguing, nudge-winky funhouse that holds a mirror to the New Negritude milieu circa 1927 while presenting a flipside to the Niggerati Manor events captured in Thurman’s 1932 Infants of the Spring (Northeastern). With its wit, passion, racial skullduggery, fearless self-analysis, and an arch framing of uptown/downtown creative types fit to rival Ann Douglass’s nonfiction ’20s Manhattan history Terrible Honesty (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Gentleman Jigger pulls off the shroud of dilettante-ism that obscured Nugent for decades. Twentieth-century sexual revolt was not always about a Revue Négre pickaninny and her bananas — or a notorious Englishman’s liver lips. It was also the province of dangerous minds with a will to political or social activism.

In Gentleman Jigger, at a soiree held by Serge Von Vertner, Nugent’s alter-ego Stuart Brennen holds forth: "Oh, I always sprawl," he declaims. "Sprawling is a Negro art. Else you might never know I was one. Appearances are so deceitful, and that would never do. So I merely flaunt a trademark."

If that ain’t a postmortem fit for the post-Basquiat, post-Gnarls, Black Renaissance 3.0 era, then I don’t know what is.

Alone again, or


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In memoriam: Ike Turner, Buddy Miles, Teo Macero, and Arthur Lee

"Music won’t have no race, only space…." — an eternal lyric sung by that titanic philosopher Marvin Gaye, echoing many other dusky voices, from that of pioneer Afronaut Estevanico the Black, whose exploits across the sixteenth century, proto–American West supersede words, to the United Kingdom’s newest alt-country composer Lightspeed Champion. This sensibility is at the core of the Afro-Baroque aesthetic currently being revived as Arthurian legend — King Arthur Lee, that is. From punk-haired black girls in East New York City digging his hybrid soul on the subway through their iPods, to the foremost articulators of the genre’s lush, neoclassical Afropean clash — his Los Angelean heir Stew and the Houston-born boy-king Devonte Hynes, aka Lightspeed Champion — the Arthurly is wrecked no mo’. And it’s way past prime time for the original Love man to be honored on the black-hand side.


The lure of fair Europa held sway over Arthur Lee’s next-gen singer-songwriter from Crenshaw-Adams in South Central Los Angeles: Stew. No more "California Dreamin’" or uneasy rock for this brer who eschewed his colored cloister for liberation abroad. Only Stew’s Negro Problem followed him to Western Europe and then to Gotham, where he’s brought it to the Great White Way in the format of Passing Strange (2007). What makes this choreo-poem Afro-Baroque is that at this play’s core it’s a conjure of sacrifice — lush and hybridized sonic bleeding for those Negro chillun who are nominally free but not weightless enough to swing a ride on ancient Kemet’s Ark of a Million Years.

Akin to Lightspeed Champion, Stew is the product of a God-fearing background and is prone to vanguard aesthetic allusions in parallel to his younger counterpart’s preoccupations with a blend of meditation, country, gospel, punk, Rocky Horror, French minimalist composer Alain Goraguer, and my friend Galt MacDermot’s Afro-fusionist musical score for Hair. The elder art-punk Stew can go head-to-head with the Afro-punk whippersnapper over Arthurly’s thorny crown, and nothing goes over so well during Passing Strange as the first act sequence when two costars, Daniel Breaker’s Youth and Eisa Davis’s Mother, enact their tense separation in homage to European avant-garde cinema.

Yass y’all, Passing Strange, which was incubated at the Berkeley Repertory Theater and Sundance Institute, is a bona fide masterpiece, yet not without flaw. On the structural tip, even with the move from downtown to midtown requiring a tightening up of the boho flow, the second "abroad" act still lacks a satisfying resolution and includes less of Stew’s meta-Pentecostal exhortations and fourth wall–smashing. And some aspects of the play are problematic, mostly on the score of gender politricks. On Broadway, Davis’s embodiment of her Mother role seems whittled down somehow — but I ain’t gon’ get into the thick of what goes on between black men and they mamas. Then there’s the grumbling from my historian sibling and others about the play’s valorizing of the second act’s European muses above the sacred black feminine. The title is derived from Shakespeare’s Othello, and after almost two decades of experience observing America’s black rock scene, it has struck me repeatedly the degree to which many black male rockers feel they can only truly rock by acquiring a baby mama who resembles Joni Mitchell circa 1970 or, nowadays, Feist. This, even when these black Atlantic boys believe Monika Danneman murdered their beloved Saint Jimi!

Still, Stew’s genius doesn’t make me want to put the hoodoo on him or Passing Strange. Rather, when he exhorts freedom from the podium with Arthur’s Little Red Book, Stew makes me wanna holler in Little Richard’s whoo-hoo! and reach back to my Baptist pastor granddaddy’s church in Georgia for my pious MLK Jr. hand fan with the wavy popsicle stick handle.

To wit: I have seen Passing Strange several times since being taken to see it for my birthday last spring at the Public Theatre (Mayday! Mayday!). While I applaud its leap to Broadway as a lifelong supporter of black difference and arts, my obsession with it is purely personal. Aside from Stevie Wonder at a distance, whose mother died a month before mine in 2006, no one feels my pain nor comes as close to articuutf8g the loss as Stew’s play. A mid-Atlantic chile from the opposite coast, I, like Stew, come from a restrictive Christian background — A.M.E. partisans on the maternal side and preaching as virtual family biniss on the paternal — that would condemn and cast me out for my atheism. Like me at an Allmans concert, Passing Strange is a spook in the Broadway buttermilk, probing the deep history of rock ‘n’ roll incubation and conservatism in the black church.

Although Stew’s a decade older than I, I also spent my youth in the ’70s plotting how to dance my way out of the constrictions of the black bourgeoisie horrorshow. And I loved punk and other subcultural provocations for the anarchic possibilities they presented in terms of society and style. Above all, I, too, long mistook songs for love — until now, when I’m in the grips of a hurt that music ultimately cannot heal. But while I appreciate my education abroad, I differ from Stew on the Europa-as-Utopia tip. Nothing breeds contempt like familiarity.


Stew’s alter-ego, Youth, comments that, "America can’t deal with freaky Negroes!" So there’s always been black in the Union Jack, leastways when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll — from Brian Jones’s ace boon Jimi Hendrix through to today’s new eccentric Lightspeed Champion. The UK has been perennially more hospitable to creative Africans who would be free, despite Ruth Owen of Mama Shamone’s faintly damning radio doc of last year, which took the pulse of the black rock orbit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lightspeed Champion reminds me less of this ‘n’ that name-checked Britpopper than Modesto’s recently retired armchair critic of freeway flight and exurban strip-mall anomie: Granddaddy’s Jason Lytle. Perhaps this cracked Americana element stole into the proceedings since Hynes recorded his solo debut in Omaha amongst the cabal of Bright Eyes’ Saddle Creek-dippers, but it seems such wry "from inside the scene looking out" songs as "Everyone I Know Is Listening to Crunk" suggest the subjectivity of a disaffected young man looking for a room of his own far from the urban, madding crowd of druggies, chavs, and black authenticity dealers that surround its narrator. Like Lytle’s renovation of country and western — with an emphasis on restoring the western part of the early twentieth century modern genre from the perspective of what happens when America’s run out of room for expansion — Lightspeed Champion’s brand of high lonesome is borne out of England’s dreaming during the insular nation’s nightmarish era of being "overrun" by immigrants, urban blight, and various forms of terrorism.

It is rather fascinating that Texas-born Hynes should have escaped parochial black American life due to his itinerant parents’ lifestyle only to seek out Omaha-as-omphalos for requisite head space to craft his new opus, Falling Off the Lavender Bridge (Domino). Why? Precisely because it’s his attaining maturity in England that permitted Hynes to become the swooning, anxious, vulnerable almost to the point of fey version of black manhood that pervades his finely wrought songs. His brand of Afro iconoclasm — which got him signed as a Test Icicle at 19 and now gets him fêted for sepia twang in his early 20s — would have encountered far more roadblocks on American shores where young black males are required to be consistently hard and never punks (catch the final season of The Wire). Plus ça change, eh, Josephine et Jimmy? Of course, Hynes’s will-to-flight was telegraphed from childhood when he penned a comic about a superhero from Planet Voltarz whose power derived from wielding mathematical equations. The superhero’s moniker? Lightspeed Champion, whose power in maturity will likely rest on "touring until I die."

When he performed at that East Village hip cloister Mercury Lounge before a small fawning audience sporting about — a record — six Negroes, the fur-helmeted Champion in David Ruffin’s black glasses, a self-willed superhero and Urkel-in-Little Richard’s hairpiece, seemed to be signaling that the secret power propelling him out of the dystopic urban milieu he described was not merely blowing up in America but striving to refine a hyperliterate and well-enunciated language to get his Romantic apologias across. And don’t let the widescreen alt-country symphony "Galaxy of the Lost" fool you — our Devonte’s still black enough for ya, with his disc being inspired by a lot of hip-hop and by closing his debut with an ode to his Mama: "No Surprise (For Wendela)." If Falling Off the Lavender Bridge does the biniss projected, this postmodern Professor Longhair is on his way. Watch his space.

Despite the decades of separation, Stew and his fellow black Atlantic jumper Lightspeed Champion are both still seeking newer sonic horizons, even as that campaigning purveyor of "Them Changes," B-rack Obama, is traveling electric miles to paint the White House black.

Freedom is a ’69 Dodge


When searching for recent signs of life in and recognition of country music’s biracial heritage beneath the rhinestone crust of NashVegas culture, I became an unwitting fan of Tupelo, Miss., singer-songwriter Paul Thorn via his "Mission Temple Fireworks Stand," as covered by Sawyer Brown with black sacred-steel whiz kid Robert Randolph. Then there were the good words passed on from Thorn’s participation last year at a Birmingham, Ala., medicine show for my friend Scott Boyer of Cowboy. Nor does it hurt that my all-time hero, Kris Kristofferson, has claimed, "Paul Thorn may be the best-kept secret in the music business. He and writing partner Billy Maddox turn out songs like a Mississippi Leiber and Stoller that put me in mind of Harry Crews’s creations — absolutely Southern, absolutely original." And when I finally caught up with this paragon last month at Manhattan’s Living Room, it was clear from the intimate set that Thorn lived up to the promise.

The goodwill extends to Thorn’s eighth album, A Long Way from Tupelo (on his Perpetual Obscurity imprint), although it gets off to an underwhelming start. Openers "Lucky 7 Ranch" and "Everybody Wishes" sound like subpar Bruce Springsteen — sans polemical stridency. Yet the slow-building, smoldering third cut gets to the heart of Thorn’s voice. "A Woman to Love" is an instant soul classic, and a great retro-nuevo standard for the postmodern South. His muse proceeds to get happy on the funky gospel of "I’m Still Here" and the passionate, torchy "Burnin’ Blue." Grammy darling and rockist hard-liver Amy Winehouse could make hay from "Crutches" — and should be encouraged to heed its message closely. And even soul twangmaster Travis Tritt’s recent The Storm (Category 5, 2007) could have been improved by including a cover of Thorn’s title track with its brimstone-full blues-rock power and tale of illicit romance. Thorn, raised by a preacher father in the Church of God, gets back to sanctified roots on "What Have You Done to Lift Somebody Up." Yass, y’all, the song comes quick with the holiness as it spreads a simple message of human kindness. Tupelo is an interesting case of an album getting stronger as it goes on, instead of kicking off with the expected fury. The later songs are suffused with soul and spirituality, as well as Thorn’s lyrical mix of home folks’ vernacular and trademark offbeat tragicomedy previously seen on beloved Thorn compositions like "Burn Down the Trailer Park." And the references to other artists demonstrate his creative possibilities and reach across roots-regarding genres. In this tricky transatlantic cultural moment, Thorn seems poised to emerge strong from his decade of steady toil at the margins of assorted scenes, including the Americana ghetto. Whereas in the past he has benefited from rich mentoring — friend and collaborator Delbert McClinton, Police manager Miles Copeland, late outsider artist the Rev. Howard Finster — Thorn may finally make it big purely on the strength of what’s unique to him. He charmingly makes his down-home allegiances plain by donning a Piggly Wiggly muscle T on Tupelo‘s back cover.

Thorn is prescient and fortunate enough to be releasing this effort amid what’s starting to look like another boom of magnificent Southern expression and genius — as demonstrated by a range of recent releases from Donnie, überATL-ien Janelle Monáe, Thorn’s homeboys the North Mississippi All-Stars, current toast Bettye LaVette, her producers the Drive-by Truckers, and Gnarls Barkley. Yes, such industry moves as appearances at South by Southwest and a Late Night with Conan O’Brien debut await Thorn this month, but what ultimately seems likely to put him across is the flexibility to open for and vibe with Toby Keith while reifying the wisdom of a black roadside Pentecostal preacher.

Right now, in their desperation, the music business and the scenes that orbit it seem more open to sounds beyond the overprocessed mainstream — even if the art boasts elements that tend to induce coastal prejudice like Thorn’s thick-as-molasses accent and his statement to Lone Star Music that "my music’s kind of like going to church with a six-pack." As for me, I’ll be down at the Piggly Wiggly preparing to tote a bouquet of pig’s feet and some RC Cola to this Renaissance man’s South by Southwest show.


March 25, 8 p.m., $15–$17

Little Fox Theatre

2215 Broadway, Redwood City

(650) 369-4119


Digging the new-old roots


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Yodeling is African? Well, one could certainly trace the practice from the Ituri of the Congolese rainforest, described as the first people by ancient Egyptian chroniclers, to country icons such as Jimmie Rodgers — who, incidentally, recorded with Louis Armstrong — but also to less-explored sonic shores like James Brown’s iconic scream or Marvin Gaye’s version limning his legendary 1970s LP cycle. However, if this is too far a leap for you to make, the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ appearance as part of the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival might be a bit of a head-scratcher. The Chocolate Drops — Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson — don’t straight-up yodel, but their harmonies and banjo-and-fiddle-anchored instrumentation reach back not only to the halcyon days when Africans in America entertained themselves at fiddle-scored frolics but all the way to the griot tradition of Western Sudan.

To be sure, the Durham, NC, band — yes, their moniker invokes the Tennessee Chocolate Drops and Mississippi Mud Steppers of yore — is neither superurban nor contemporary. Its members play strictly prewar African American string-band repertoire, as evidenced by their current release, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (Music Maker): see "Tom Dula," "Ol’ Corn Likker," and yep, the ever-contested "Dixie." Still, being young, hip children of the postdesegregation era, the trio have a musical expression and an aesthetic that are informed as much by the hybridity and daring of the 1960s and ’70s golden age of black rock and psychedelic soul as by classic country and western and ethnographic studies of the genre’s African antecedents. If only by pursuing their dusky twang muse in reaction to the deplorable, moribund state of today’s urban music, these Drops live in a world that differs from that of their 1920s and ’30s predecessors chiefly in that (a) the wages of desegregation include black audiences’ will to eschew arts reminiscent of their past of bondage and hard times and (b) the dominant society’s prevailing and most popular stereotype of blackness has an inner-city face — "Makes me wanna holler!" — that rejects any other ways of being or seeing.

Some of my colleagues — and doubtless myself — have been obliquely accused of holding up emerging progressive black artists on the rock scene and satellites such as the Drops as examples of uplift and enshrining their hard work beneath a welter of sociological wankery stretching back into the prewar mists of time to Talented Tenth big daddy W.E.B. DuBois. Yet if some of that giddiness at Afro-futurist striving is sloughed off, there remains the central, inescapable fact that in much of the West, rock is still seen as "black music played by white people" and country is this nation’s most racially separatist genre.

Much was made this past fall of Rissi Palmer’s Billboard debut with "Country Girl," since it was the first such charting by an African American in the two decades after the long-forgotten Dona Mason’s fleeting dent with "Green Eyes (Cryin’ Those Blue Tears)." Critics worked overtime to display color-blind bona fides, bending themselves over backward in the attempt to downplay the role of race in Palmer’s ascent and note the singularity of the event while also sugarcoating their general consensus on the disc’s mediocrity. Personally, I wish Sister Palmer much success and far better material plus production, but what struck me most was the cover of her eponymous release. Only a sliver of Palmer’s brown face is to be seen, the overabundance of russet curls perhaps meant as commerce-inducing allusion to the Great Reba. It’s certainly baffling that 42 years since Charley Pride’s debut was released sans artist photo, one still has to mince around difference.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops have more to overcome, seeing as they play an earlier, unplugged form of twang that’s light-years away from not only the patriotic-pandering, reheated Southern boogie and suburban soccer mom–and–sippy cup sentiments of mainstream Nashville but also the ambitious incursions of Palmer and Cowboy Troy and the recent bluegrass syncretism of Merle Haggard and Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. Now sharing management with fellow Carolinians the Avett Brothers, the Drops are garnering just acclaim from roots-friendly media and making fruitful incursions into important arenas, like the annual MerleFest. Yes, the trio are benefiting from both the breakdown of a music industry in turmoil that’s reliant on streams from independents and a more reflective moment among media and listeners who have come of age in an era of omnivorous multiculturalism. And let us not discount the Drops’ sheer talent and charm.

Nevertheless, as a mere Negress observer, this critic finds her attention inevitably straying to the lack of intraracial institutions to advocate for artists in the Drops’ vein — in addition to an infrastructure for developing and sustaining nonwhite audiences’ taste for the music. Since, y’know, they’re isolated from the rural. (Must Dona be retroactively screwed and chopped?) It would be nice to see the band embraced as part of a continuum by progressive audiences, just as there’s some energy around soul-folk as a viable trend. Will the Drops’ version of young fogydom garner as much breathless critical attention and community building as the so-called freak-folk scene does? Of course, cross-cultural exchange is possible: current Nashvegas superstar and Troy’s boy "Big" Kenny Alphin traveled to Sudan last October to do his bit for the struggle and got the country press to cover his contribution. Now if only the media would turn its attention to the best acolytes of medieval traditions created by Africans not abject but divinely inspired.


Feb. 7, 8 p.m., $18.50–<\d>$19.50

Freight and Salvage Coffee House

1111 Addison, Berk.

(510) 548-1761



The San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival runs Feb. 1–9. For information on other shows and events, go to www.sfbluegrass.org.

A shot from the Sahel


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Many moons ago, when I moved as a child to Africa, my mother, my sister, and I resided in the Sahel. To be precise: we lived in Bamako, the vibrant capital city of Mali — not to be confused with the medieval empire of the same name. To reside there as a Western black was strange; our Americanness placed us in the novel position of being regarded as de facto aristos, somewhere between such elevated classes as wealthy, regal descendents of the Keita clan and the dispossessed, which included Imazighen exiles. To see beautiful but abject so-called Tuareg women and girls begging in the dusty streets of Bamako from the windows of our funereal Lincoln Town Car — the incongruity of them huddled at roadsides and traffic stops in their indigo or floral clothes, their grace surpassed only by the Wolof women to the northwest in Senegal — was a mind-blowing experience that has stayed with me in the decades since.

The complexities of centuries of intraracial warfare and political mayhem derived from poisonous North African colonial legacies were largely beyond my eight-year-old mind’s grasp. As Madame l’Ambassadeur, my late mother was the one to travel up-country and beyond, nearer the heart of the Sahara, and she worked tirelessly to have any impact on the volatile situation in the country. I was restricted by the quotidian business of school and play, but my far-roving mind began a lifelong romance with Mali’s two most fabled folk of the Western Sudan, the Dogon and the Imazighen. The star-walking Dogon were remote and mysterious at the Bandiagara escarpment, but the grave injustices being done to the proud, rebel Imazighen were plain to see in Bamako rush-hour traffic.

When I listen to the music of Africa’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, Tinariwen (translated from Tamasheq, "the deserts"), from L’Adrar des Iforas, this baggage comes with me, weighted with shame at not following in the career footsteps of my selfless Africanist mother and fear that people of the West will never truly comprehend the vital importance of the many Africas to their own humanity. With or without Tinariwen’s great Amassakoul and current Aman Iman (both World Village; 2004, 2007) on my iPod as I ride the Manhattan subway, when I see disenfranchised people begging down the aisle I am always jolted back to the visceral yet illusory sensation of extending my thin, childish arm through the steel of the Lincoln to help a reddish-brown-skinned Amazigh girl in elegant rags, no different than me in that she was the child of parents who wanted to be free.

Whereas my parents’ generation of young black revolutionaries sought to forge strong pan-Africanist links all the way from DC to Dar es Salaam, and their cult-nat elements experimented in folk, soul, rock, and funk genres to express the hopes and fears of the 1960s era of deliverance from Jim Crow, there in Bamako, as a child at the turn of the ’80s, I was witnessing at a remove the rise of radical culture spawned by Kel Tamasheq ishumaren (unemployed) forced to abandon traditional nomadic ways by poverty and drought. These black folks’ rebel music, tishoumaren, has found its apotheosis in Tinariwen since the group first emerged from a Libyan military camp in 1985, moving from guns to guitars in the process of wresting messages of uplift from chaos. They weave a sound web linking traditional instrumentation (like the tehardant, or lute), Maghrebi music (think Nass el Ghiwane), James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and even rap ("Arawan" on Amassakoul) — superbad, indeed.

The droning, hallucinatory blues of the Blue Men of the Ténéré may have increasingly wowed exogamous audiences since the acclaim Tinariwen’s Kel Tamasheq musicians received from jamming with Robert Plant at the 2003 Festival in the Desert, but there lies a deep source of crisis beneath the band’s international success. Recorded in Bamako, Aman Iman‘s "Soixante Trois" captures guitarist-singer Ibrahim ag Alhabib recalling the brutally suppressed 1963 Imazighen rebellion against the government of newly independent Mali. Tinariwen’s spare sound brings great joy on purely aesthetic grounds, the masterful harnessing of rolling electricity and overlapping ululation indelibly making a mark on the diasporic continuum stretching from Mali’s Ali Farka Touré to Mississippi’s Otha Turner and back again.

Yet it must never be forgotten that the mysteries of Al Baraka, the hardships of desert life and the hardcore realities of war, inform these songs, and such has been the lot of the aboriginal peoples of Tamazgha from the time of Roman and Islamic imperial incursions onto the North African sands up through current attempts to further disenfranchise the Imazighen in order to appropriate their oil-rich ancestral lands. Aman Iman‘s very title — meaning "water is life" — refers not merely to the primal law of the desert but also to the very real, enduring crisis afflicting the region’s ecology and society. As you rightly enjoy Tinariwen on tour, please remember and act on the fact that for the headliners, the fight continues on every front. *


Sun/4, 7 p.m., $20–$55

Palace of Fine Arts theatre

3301 Lyon, SF



Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: Emmylou Harris


Emmylou Harris tends to overwhelm with her beauty in flesh and in voice, so it’s instructive to look to her new rarities collection, Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems (Rhino), for reminders of earthly frailty. From the get-go, the recording reveals that even she has feet of clay. Harris can be derivative — exhibit A: disc one’s "Clocks." This early song displays her in warbly thrush mode. She sounds like a Judy Collins also-ran, and this is a good thing. For the one negative that can be ascribed to Harris the icon is the way she has been saddled with the male-reified pose of tasteful, circumspect handmaiden to Saint Gram Parsons. Such a misstep, alongside the breadth of Harris’s myriad career highs, deflates the myth to human size. I love my Georgia homeboy Parsons and am well aware of the degree to which Harris’s torch bearing is self-appointed, but one still wonders how her progress might have looked were she not stifled by such a fantasy.

Apocrypha has acolyte Harris seeking advice from folkie god Pete Seeger on how to infuse her material with bite in the face of a relatively dulcet reality. While the voice was and remains undeniable in its beauty and harmonic gifts, this box reaffirms that Harris’s intersection with Parsons was the vital source of that infusion of grit and angst. This can be seen in their twangy gospel "The Old Country Baptizing," but her trail also leads in other fascinating directions, toward the hallucinatory spook of "Snake Song." Songbird‘s other boons are a swath of Harris’s fabled collaborations with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, as well as a rewind to a range of guests as diverse as the late Waylon Jennings, Beck, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, and her great band Spyboy. This is certainly a good example of curating a legacy — something to contemplate when the historied Harris takes the stage at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.


Sun/7, 5:45 p.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Banjo Stage


The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to www.strictlybluegrass.com.

Liege and grief


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FULL CIRCLE America is Rufus Wainwright’s scorned lover–<\d>cum–<\d>doomed horse-opera hero on his new opus, Release the Stars (Geffen), making Wainwright’s fifth album something of a postscript to the bipartite Want recordings (Dreamworks, 2003; Geffen, 2004). Departure comes as Wainwright turns his wry gaze beyond the cloister of his boudoir-proscenium to harness a polemical bent to his grandiose, lush, high-lonesome sound. This critic’s much-cherished Canadian singer-songwriter plays spook versus spy on Stars, bringing his hallmarks of sweeping arrangements and droll lyrics to an acute examination of America, the turbulent country that has fallen from grace — and lost the right to stroke up under his verdant lederhosen.

Herein, the Lower 48 equally fuels the male songbird’s romances and nightmares. MC Wainwright, the Queen of Hip-Popera, hits out this time with Neil Tennant as a suitably symbiotic and sympathetic producer for his Berlin record — not to mention the usual rogue’s gallery, including Teddy Thompson, Jenni Muldaur, and Joan Wasser, as well as Richard Thompson and actress Siân Phillips. Tennant somewhat tempers the proceedings’ opulence with rock and beat flourishes. Sure, Wainwright can be extravagant — and may well require an editor in years to come — but is this such a bad thang when his pimp hand is mighty mighty? The assured aesthetic with which Wainwright stepped into the arena in 1998, fully assembled, remains much in evidence, keeping real his cool pose as original glam gangsta and most legitimate pied piper of freak folk. Really, who’s more fantastical and anachronistic than he?

If the album art’s preoccupation with both the minutiae and monumental grandeur of German culture doesn’t make disaffection plain enough, then song titles such as "Rules and Regulations" and the lovelorn "Leaving for Paris No. 2" aptly sketch alienation from the new west. Nowhere among his extant oeuvre has Wainwright displayed such naked political sentiment as in "Going to a Town"’s lyrics: "I’m so tired of America<\!s>/ … I may just never see you again or might as well<\!s>/ You took advantage of a world that loved you well<\!s>/ I’m going to a town that has already been burned down<\!s>/ I’m so tired of you, America."

Not that our Rufus forgets the "I" in America. Check the gorgeous "Sanssouci," on which he claims, "I’m tired of writing elegies in general<\!s>/ I just want to be at Sanssouci tonight." Stars‘s highlights lie in the tension between the tattered utopian retreat of the titular Sanssouci and relatively universal songs like "Do I Disappoint You."

Wainwright is five for five with Stars, although only "Between My Legs" and the title track truly rival the Wants in their dizzying rigor. Ultimately, though Stars works from a jaded remove in not-so-fair Europa, Wainwright morphs into one of his strongest selves as a singing cowboy. He is the trickster western antihero lamenting the ruthless downward spiral of his formerly beloved range, spanning between 14th Street and Melrose.

Nobody’s off the hook, as the song title and lyric go, on this flickering silver screen composed of sounds — not Texan tyrants, not hotel room trysters nor Wainwright himself. And if it’s all a velvet bloodbath, rendered as one of the intensely homoerotic sequels to Sergio Corbucci’s Django, so be it. For don’t we all need a great big release in this land? This often explosive theme for an imaginary western definitely scores against that of Uncle Sam’s band.<\!s>*


With Sean Lennon and A Fine Frenzy

Fri/3, 7:30 p.m., $32.50–<\d>$42.50

Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium

1111 California, SF


Digital Venuses


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Call them the new British bitch pack: barefoot soul shouter Joss Stone and her ascendant sistren, skankin’ Lily Allen and torchy Amy Winehouse (Corinne Bailey Rae’s exempted due to being a queen of nice and hazy sentiment and, well, yes, color). The Pipettes also deliver Ronettes-Supremes paeans but have yet to splash large beyond the UK. It’s Stone and Winehouse who have made recent history on the US pop charts: the latter’s Back to Black (Republic) scored the highest ever debut for a British woman (number seven), and Stone’s Introducing Joss Stone (Virgin) followed a week later, debuting at number two.

The third release in this triumvirate, Allen’s Alright, Still (Capitol), is the least compelling, though it possesses the most diverse sonic palette: ska, Britpop jangle, punk, rocksteady, N’Awlinz funk, and English dancehall, courtesy of her fellow celebutot music maker, DJ and producer Mark Ronson. While "Friend of Mine" will doubtless prove a decent summer jam, the scattershot production speaks more to Ronson’s patented retro-soul ambition than to individuality on Allen’s part. I’m already over the stunt sampling of Professor Longhair and find Allen’s spin on jaded indie affect and lyrics powered by class snobbery grating.

The aforementioned artists are part of yet another wave of British acts working in black American musical idioms: James Hunter, James Morrison, Lady Sovereign, and Alice Russell. Call them the spawn of Dusty Springfield. Blue-eyed British soul diva Springfield’s 1969 classic Dusty in Memphis (Rhino/WEA) is the obvious grail for most of these new acolytes. They’ve also benefited from the successive layers of space opened by Blighty’s trends in Northern soul, acid jazz, trip-hop, and the Yankee stand taken for retro soul by the now-defunct Desco label (which split into Soul Fire and Daptone) with black vocalists such as Lee Fields. One wants to big up Allen, Winehouse, and Stone on the sisterhood empowerment tip for their brassy attitude and scathing kiss-offs to trifling men on these recordings. And it’s interesting that they’ve emerged at a time when their male counterparts, such as Morrison — and David Gray and Chris Martin — seem to have "bitched up." Yet this gender power–reversal is sadly trumped by glaring issues of race and authenticity.


Nowhere are these issues more clearly embodied than in Joss Stone, who’s about to hit the Yay Area. She’s been around for a minute, leading the cited alien invasion with her Miami Sound–assisted debut, The Soul Sessions (Virgin), in 2003. Missed in all the hype and scandal over Stone’s breakup with Motown scion Beau Dozier, her recent adoption of a faux-Yank accent, and the sacking of her handlers is the fact that her much-vaunted revamp has a precedent: Stone described her second CD — Mind, Body, and Soul (Virgin) — as her "real debut," and it contained a mix of Southern soul, urban swing, and hip-hop similar to the template codified by Lauryn Hill in the late 1990s.

The 19-year-old blond Venus actually coaxed Hill out of her fog to guest on "Music," but overall Introducing merely treads water instead of shifting any postmillennial soul paradigm. Stone remains trapped by the novelty factor of having been a 15-year-old girl from Devon who could mimic a middle-aged black American singer and has not figured out how to reconcile her West Country roots, accent, and affluence with the grit and honesty her ambitions require. She’s content to let producer Raphael Saadiq locate her brand-new thang somewhere between Aretha Franklin circa Sparkle and the early ’80s Isleys, with a soupçon of hip-hop flourishes — an approach that only really sparks on opener "Girl They Won’t Believe It" — when underage Stone really ought to be ashamed at her affair with 41-year-old Saadiq. The specter of Dallas Austin’s banging for beats screed rears its ugly head.

Stone may be styled in psychedelic body paint, flowers, and baubles as some lost wild child of Janis Joplin, but unlike that late bad-Jewish-girl-with-a-yen-for-the-blues icon, she lacks the ovaries and independence to instigate any sonic revolt, nor does she transcend her black influences. Although she too failed to flip the rock biz’s race politics, Joplin was an original. She was also perfecting a worthy form of hybridity, whereas Stone would still do best to apprentice behind a seasoned soul singer and grow into her voice. Meanwhile, she’s an immature artist trapped within the middle-class mythos and mass fantasies of the pop star system.


White artists’ love and theft of black expression, as ratified by the Elvis phenomenon, remains the primary cultural battleground in the aughties — don’t get it twisted. The phenomenon of white singers who sound black is as old as minstrelsy, of course. Vaginas trouble this aesthetic guerrilla warfare — with Stone and company entrenched in the valley of sound between Joplin, Springfield, Lydia Pense, and Teena Marie on the one side and Madonna, Taylor Dayne, Britney Spears, and Fergie on the other. Yet Stone and her sister purveyors of femme funk are not truly innocents with songs in their hearts and stars in their eyes. These daughters of Al Jolson, removing their Jewish foreignness by sonically and visually blacking up as he did in The Jazz Singer, are reaping the rewards this season from the West’s most vital industry: the consumption and export of essential blackness.

Whether fucking or channeling the likes of Dinah Washington and Ronnie Spector in the studio, Allen, Stone, and Winehouse are enjoying everything but the burden of blackness. These vocalists face the dilemma of the privileges of whiteness versus the comforts of being soulful, and this will continue to dog their careers if longevity’s next. Doubtless Stone, Allen, and Winehouse don’t want to be "nappy-headed hos" — thanks, Don Imus — but desire the erotic, exotic power of sistagirls without being the mules of the world. Yet why is the old "black joy, not black pain" truism surfacing now in the UK?

Look to recent cinema from across the pond: in The Queen, Elizabeth II, the paragon of English womanhood, is asked by Tony Blair to be feely and emotional to help heal the nation in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, to restore the heart Diana represented. But Elizabeth chafes, bound by old royal models of honor and duty. The crisis of Britannia is coded even more explicitly in Children of Men. In its dystopic vision, black women are despised yet also figures of salvation. As in the film, in which only a regenerative black female can save England, these new wave British soulsters labor to recuperate the distant and unreal of classic soul, despite its distinctly American set of societal preconditions. A post–Margaret Thatcher, post-Blair return to authenticity is what these singers represent, a late moment after Rod Stewart delivered fair Albion’s best-ever approximation of soul and empire has faded, leaving postcolonial turmoil and identity flux. Black female soul brings rebirth to this turbulent world via the vocalizing of Stone et al., placing them back at center of the world — at least aesthetically.


This activity meets its zenith in the petite, pinup-tatted, beehive-burdened, anorexic form of Winehouse. Unlike Stone, who’s at pains to elide her Englishness, Winehouse’s distinctly North London Jewish accent surfaces on her critically acclaimed Back to Black, but her extreme jazz-soul mummery remains paramount, even as white critics and listeners continue to adopt a white version of black culture at the expense of young black artists of the retro-nuevo soul or urban alternative persuasion. Winehouse has yet to be anointed with a universal ghetto pass and, like Stone and Allen, has bypassed the hood and proper apprenticeship for lucrative prime time at the nation’s premier venues this spring.

Throughout Back to Black, Winehouse gets away with borderline minstrelsy, carelessly mashing up a vocal cocktail of Washington, Billie Holiday, Carla Thomas, and Phil Spector’s girl-group surrogates while not being excoriated because her Pete Doherty–rivaling tabloid exploits with drunkenness, raunchy sexuality, and public belligerence fit her admirers’ view of authentic blackness. Behind Spanish Harlem drag, Motown cocktail dresses, and Cleopatra’s black eyeliner, Winehouse is the cunning poster girl of her mid-Atlantic milieu, permitted to get away with potentially offensive lyrics such as "side from Sammy you’re my best black Jew" ("Me and Mr. Jones"), showcasing a pair of cooning black backing vocalists and hipster-comforting insincerity.

"What kind of fuckery is this?" I’m sure to Winehouse’s equivalents across the color line — from fiftysomething Sharon Jones to 36-year-old failing freaky-deak diva Macy Gray and badass bitches in the wings such as Alice Smith — it seems like the demoralizing same old. These are black artists who, to varying degrees, can sang but whose efforts render them invisible in a field overwhelmed by white soul saviors. Why invest in these sistas’ development or even spotlight the neo–chitlin circuit movement afoot in the Southeast when the only blackness that really counts bears a stench of formaldehyde? *


Tues/15, 8 p.m., $35


982 Market, SF

(415) 775-7722

The nu sincerity


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James Taylor’s early-’70s status as the king of sensitive male vocalists is mere VH1 countdown fodder now. Yet in 2006, more than a few male artists seemed to have recollected being reared in Taylor’s soft rock FM heyday or at least had some of his sunny-voiced sincerity channeled down to them by sonic osmosis. I am no JT disciple — and the Isley Brothers did the best version of “Fire and Rain” (Free Ron!) — but these ears have been grateful for his example this twelvemonth because the “sensitive man” paradigm has yielded the first masterpiece of the digital age: Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere (Downtown).
To be sure, Justin Timberlake worked overtime this season to bring the sexy back, but other pop artists, as varied as the Coup’s Boots Riley, Chris Stills, and Ray LaMontagne, labored to achieve a semblance of organic authenticity in their work — King Solomon Burke went to Nashville, and even Hank III went straight to hell. While their female counterparts — go Natalie Maines, Bitch, Lily Allen, and posthumous Nina Our Lady of Myriad Reissues! — raised hell and exploited bad-girl tropes, many of the men (if not purely saccharine crooners) got raw via their interior landscapes rather than external provocation. From the Southland, see Centro-Matic’s Fort Recovery (Misra), Bobby Bare Jr.’s The Longest Meow (Bloodshot), and Sparklehorse’s Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (Astralwerks) for the wide-screen, psych-twang versions of this impulse. In this, the boys of ’06 heralded the arrival of another sensitive phase in pop music.
No pop star embodied the nu sincerity more than this year’s key Grammy winner, John Legend. Exploiting the goodwill fostered by the 2005 smash hit “Ordinary People,” Legend took to the woodshed with cream collaborators — including Californian producers Craig Street, Raphael Saadiq, and will.i.am — and the result was Once Again (Sony), the autumn’s most significant release. Onstage and in personal appearances, Legend worked his charm as a nice, discreet, well-groomed church boy made good. Meanwhile, the marrow of Once Again’s song cycle dealt with cuckoldry, lust, longing, and the sorrow of life in wartime — all riding on a complex sonic bed recombining classic soul, “easy rock,” AM pop, bossa via Burt Bacharach, and the myth of the era’s leading crooner icon, Jeff Buckley. From the Buckley homage “Show Me” to the yearning cries of “Where Did My Baby Go,” Legend waxed lyrically vulnerable and rendered himself the prime man for all our seasons of discontent.
All in all, it seems no accident that Legend’s hero Marvin Gaye got key DVD reissue treatment this year: Live in Belgium 1981 and The Real Thing: In Performance 1964-1981 (featuring a heartrending live version of “What’s Goin’ On”); is he not the ever-fruitful father of all late-modern, ambitious, sensitive popcraft? And another angsty politicized black man, the Dears’ Murray Lightburn from north of the border, dropped the fine, woeful Gang of Losers (Arts and Crafts). Lightburn appeared to walk a tightrope between Morrissey and metasoul prophet Seal on “Fear Made the World Go ’Round,” “I Fell Deep,” and “Bandwagoneers” — plus the wryly scathing “Whites Only Party.”
The great New Orleans Christian rock crossover quartet Mute Math seem to be after arena glory rather than the somewhat hermetically sealed cloister Lightburn’s music suggests, but these groups share a tacit commitment to revitalizing rock’s lyrical and sonic palette.
Jonny Lang did an effective reverse of Mute Math’s sonic journey, from blues and pop rock categories to inspirational, on the uneven but great Turn Around (A&M). Lang espouses the open, clean, lighthearted benefits of living the Christian life. Mercifully, the sermonizing and sentimental treacle are kept to a minimum. Featuring guests such as new grass master Sam Bush and yacht rock’s last crowned king of soulful sincerity, Michael McDonald, Turn Around kicks Timberlake’s narrow white-negro hips to the Amen Corner and back via blazing guitar licks and true Memphis grit. Lang also goes further than any other nice guy in this gallery by letting his wife play God on “Only a Man.”
Adopting an inevitable singer-songwriter vein, considering his country-rock-confessional-chansonnier heritage, Chris Stills’s album title said it all: When the Pain Dies Down — Live in Paris (V2). Referencing Buckley’s keening as well on “Landslide” and covering Americana’s most revered purveyors of sincere music, the Band, en Français on “Fanny (The Weight),” Stills strums his way simply and soulfully into the hearts of the Studio du Palais audience and any listeners tolerant enough to separate him from his famous parentage.
On the urban front, Robin Thicke transmuted Stills’s blue-eyed soul crooning in a less twangy and more radio-friendly direction. While Beyoncé was declaring a false state of independence this fall and assuming Diana Ross’s mantle with finality, Thicke was telling the fellas you don’t always have to be hard, that thug love has had its day, on The Evolution of Robin Thicke (Interscope). Besides the boilerplate sagas of escape from music biz demigods and monsters and an interesting cod-reggae interlude (“Shooter”), Thicke strove to bring the love back instead of the sexy. And the vulnerability on display in “Would That Make U Love Me” and “Everything I Can’t Have” versus the robotic rump-shaker “Wanna Love U Girl” seems to suggest that’s more disturbing.
Even 1970s and ’80s relic Ray Parker Jr. got in on the singer-songwriter act, dropping I’m Free (Raydio) independently and attempting to bum-rush a perhaps nonexistent market for a horndog sepia Jimmy Buffett. And, up to the moment, “freak folk” pied piper Devendra Banhart and his Hairy Fairy boyz posed in dresses for the New York Times Magazine, the black-and-white images meant to invoke both old-fashioned guileless authority bootlegged from the prewar era and the liberated power of hirsute girly men brave enough to transcend gender boundaries. These New White Savages might be too bohemian to actually cook and change a diaper — yet, as with their ’70s profem forebears, they’re unafraid to let their lady muse wear the mustache in the relationship and concoct weird sonic utopias of her own.
Utopias of any kind eluded the musician refugees dispossessed by Katrina: to wit, beautiful bleeding-heart releases like The New Orleans Social Club: Sing Me Back Home (Burgundy) and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s reprise of Gaye’s antiwar masterpiece What’s Goin’ On (Shout Factory). These discs are suffused with sincere calls for peace, love, understanding, and an end to greed and environmental destruction that no listener in 2006 could refute or afford to ignore.
What’s happening, brother? Gnarls Barkley’s landmark release of St. Elsewhere in the spring encapsulated the 2006 response to Gaye’s eternal query and signaled a subtle yet seismic shift in pop possibility. Sensitive singer-songwriter, soft rock poster boy, Hip-Hop Nation troubadour — Cee-Lo was all of these personae, armed with poetic confessional lyrics and complex, distinctive melodies. Soundwise, courtesy of brilliant Danger Mouse, St. Elsewhere is a very liberated recording, trumping ATLien superstars OutKast and their problematic Idlewild (La Face) in the act of aesthetic and racial revolt. Although enigmatic and evocative lyrics abound (especially moving are the title track, “The Boogie Monster,” “Online,” and of course, “Crazy”), my favorite song is “The Last Time.” What’s more sensitive and sincere than: “Under an endless sky/ Wish I can fly away forever/ And the poetry is so pure when we are on the floor together”? (Even if nothing rivals the Chi-Lites’ twangy begging throughout the classic “Oh Girl,” surely that’s in the wings for next year?)
With all its grating and grillz, hip-hop has reached its end point and become not a revolutionary social force but a genre full of sucka MCs I cannot relate to. Cee-Lo and Boots (via Pick a Bigger Weapon’s humorous sociopolitical commentary) have taken their stands at a very crucial moment. Above all, St. Elsewhere is a vital sign of the times.
That the war and a multitude of social ills have not frozen any of the artists cited above seems miraculous. That they foregrounded introspection and personal transformation in their work rather than simply abdicated as fugitives from the turmoil of these dark days is as close as any damsel in distress is likely to get to emotional rescue in 2006. Yes, with politicians masked and callow and other art forms muted by material glut, these knights in sonic armor are just about the only effective soothsayers for the way we live now. SFBG
•Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere (Downtown)
•Solomon Burke, Nashville (Shout Factory)
•John Legend, Once Again (Sony)
•Alejandro Escovedo, The Boxing Mirror (Back Porch)
•The Coup, Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph)
•Bobby Bare Jr.’s Young Criminals Starvation League, The Longest Meow (Bloodshot)
•Dears, Gang of Losers (Arts and Crafts)
•Karen Dalton, In My Own Time (Light in the Attic)
•Cassandra Wilson, Thunderbird (Blue Note)
•Centro-Matic, Fort Recovery (Misra)