Category Archives: 1999

Today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant

Life. It’s sweet. Every day is a gift, every moment a treasure, despite the pain and misery we sometimes endure. Those are cliches, I know, but I believe them – especially while listening to The Natalie Merchant Collection, which I’m doing as I write. The set, for the uninitiated, features her seven studio albums alongside one disc of new and old songs performed with a string quartet, and another disc of, as the press release states, “rare and previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1998 and 2017.” It’s due out on July 14th, but those of us who preordered received it early.

Much has and will be written about the collection, I’m sure, and I plan to write about it myself this weekend, after I’ve had time to digest the new material and contemplate what the set, writ large, means in the scheme of things. I will say, however, that if you had told me back in 1986, when I first heard Natalie with the 10,000 Maniacs, that I’d still be listening to her all these years later…well, I’m not sure how I would have responded. But I’m glad she’s still making music, and glad to still be a fan.

Anyway, for now, here’s today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant. Not necessarily her greatest songs (though some are), but great songs and performances, nonetheless.

1) “Carnival.” (From Tigerlily.)

2) “Life Is Sweet.” (From Ophelia.)

3) “Break Your Heart.” (From Ophelia.)

4) “I’m Not Gonna Beg.” (From Motherland.)

5) “Space Oddity.” (From 1999’s Live in Concert, which isn’t included in the collection.)

And three bonus tracks:

6) “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.” (From Leave Your Sleep,)

7) “Ladybird.” (From Natalie Merchant.)

8) “Frozen Charlotte.” (From Butterfly, the collection’s disc of new and old material recorded with a string quartet.)

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Today’s Top 5: January-February 1999 (via Da Boot!)

IMG_5395Da Boot! was an excellent idea: a fanzine devoted primarily to collector CDs, which were all the rage in the 1990s. Just as I reviewed bootleg CDs on my old website, we aimed to do the same in print, vowing to separate the wheat from the chaff. Myself and the two other principles, plus my wife Diane, leveraged my website, which attracted more than 100 eyeballs every day, and what might best be called pre-social media (i.e., mailing lists, for anyone who remembers them), and pushed our subscribers from none to 100 or so  – at $11.25 for six issues – within a few months. (Old copies sometimes appear, alone or in bunches, on Ebay, believe it or not. Here’s a recent example.)

IMG_5406Most folks likely signed on because of our initial inducement, which promised the first 60 subscribers true collector CDs – radio shows, such as King Biscuit Flower Hour or Reeiin’ in the Years. International CD, which was run by the CD-store barker I wrote about in Juliana Hatfield’s Bed, Unmade, provided the radio shows in exchange for a few full-page ads. It was a bargain, to say the least – for us, not him. He basically invested, in the abstract, $600. (Legitimate radio shows, back then, routinely sold for anywhere from $10 to $20 a disc, though he likely bought them for a few bucks a pop.)

What initially doomed the venture: the company we worked for was sold, depriving us of our printing press. I.e., we had no overhead beyond buying the CDs we reviewed because we used the company’s color printer and ink. What would have doomed us, anyway: the tectonic forces of CD burners and file-sharing sites, aka Napster and its clones, which reshaped the landscape of the music industry legitimate and illicit. Why buy a $30 bootleg when you can download the same for free? (And sound quality becomes a non-issue, then. If it sucks, so be it; it’s not like you lost money.) Or, better, join a mailing-list “tree” that cost you the price of a CDR and postage. You received a CDR in the mail, made a copy and sent it on to the next person on the list.

What would have doomed it, for me, in the long run: bootlegs were beginning to bore me. That’s grist for another post, though.

Anyway, today’s Top 5 is drawn from the January-February issue of Da Boot!. It sports a cover story on Bruce Springsteen; although we were a bootleg-centric ‘zine, our focus also included legitimate releases, concerts and books – anything collectors that were interested in, basically.

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1) Bruce Springsteen – “Frankie.” Diane’s cover story on Bruce goes in-depth into Tracks, the then-recent Songs tome, upcoming reunion tour with the E Street Band, and his soon-to-be induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Diane writes: “Vis-a-vis the thorny issue of the Hall of Fame inducting only Bruce Springsteen sans the E Streeters, I am of a mixed mindset. On one hand, I don’t think the E Streeters would have been thought of as Hall of Famers sans Bruce. However, having sat through four tortuous shows during the Human Touch/Lucky Town tour, I realize how very badly Bruce needed them. Chills still run down my body, a body that becomes very clammy whenever I think of Crystal Taliaferro’s sax solos on ‘Born to Run.’ When Joseph Conrad writes ‘The horror, the horror,” I am sure he is referring to the Heart of Darkness that was that tour.”

IMG_54002) Lucinda Williams – “Joy.” My Album of the Year for 1998 was Lucinda’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Small surprise, I suppose, but it also lead this article, which recaps the Top 5 Albums of 1998 as chosen by me and a few others. I wrote: “In years to come, folks will write about Car Wheels with the same reverence that they do for such genre-busting albums as the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo or Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road—it’s that good, if not better. Delivering a platter of sensual confessions (“Right in Time”) and sinewy, guitar-driven jousts (“Joy”), Lucinda offers a stew of sublime, superb and incredible songs, tasty morsels all. This isn’t just the best album of the year—it’s one of the best albums of the decade, period.”

3) Emmylou Harris – “Prayer in Open D.” Emmy’s live Spyboy was a runner-up for Album of the Year honors, as the article above shows. I wrote: “Her voice shimmers across a foggy lake, a virtual beacon for lost souls to follow. Emmylou flies high on this deft collection of songs spanning her career, from ‘My Songbird’  to ‘Where Will I Be,” the keynote track off 1996’s atmospheric studio foray Wrecking Ball.” “Prayer in Open D” is one of my favorites by her. It hails from her overlooked 1993 Cowgirl’s Prayer album, but she played it with the Spyboy band, too, and it’s on the Spyboy album. It’s a classic.

IMG_54014) Maria McKee – “Breathe.” The Little Diva’s 1998 stop in Philly is one of the first concerts that comes to mind when I think back on the many shows I’ve attended. Diane and I were literally an arm’s length away from her; and it was, suffice it to say, an absolutely stunning show. Anyway, I reviewed it in this issue. “It’s music for the psyche that she’s after,” I wrote. “It’s music of and for the soul.” I’d quote from it a bit more, but I mined this review for a semi-recent Of Concerts Past post. This song, which she performed that night, dates to her solo debut in 1989 and the clip comes the same basic time frame, when she appeared on USA’s Night Flight show.

IMG_54055) Steve Earle – “Fort Worth Blues” & “I Feel Alright.” I reviewed two Steve Earle bootlegs: Come Back Woody Guthrie, on Copperhead Records, and Do Not Try This at Home!, on Doberman. Of the former, I wrote “[T]he guitars are mixed too low. Those thud-thick, Crazy Horse-like chords of ‘Taneytown,’ for instance, come off tinny and thin.’ Of the latter, I wrote: “Sourced from a crystal-clear audience tape, the guitars are blunt instruments bashing out ominous, yet addictive, chords.” Later, I spotlighted the set’s heart: “There’s perhaps not a more chilling moment on either boot—or on the tour, period—than the coupling of ‘Fort Worth Blues’ and ‘I Feel Alright.’ Written for the late Townes Van Zandt, ‘Fort Worth Blues’ chronicles the travails of a hardcore troubadour who comes across signs that remind him of a lost friend. And while Steve’s singing for Townes, he—you, me—knows the song could just as easily have been written for and about him. It’s no accident, then, that ‘I Feel Alright’ follows. There’s not a better, brasher declaration of survival: “I’ve been through hell but now I’m back again.”

And, one bonus…

IMG_54086) Bruce Springsteen – “The Promise.” Diane digs into the three-CD Deep Down in the Vaults bootleg. “When Jeff said that there were actually bootlegs created to accompany Tracks, I was somewhat skeptical. But having experienced Deep Down in the Vaults, I am a convinced woman.” She closes with: “[It] doesn’t have the omissions that critics bemoaned in Tracks. It includes ‘The Promise,’ and ‘Missing.’ Even so, I prefer Tracks, the ultimate non-bootleg boot.” (“The Promise” eventually surfaced on the one-CD 18 Tracks, released in 1999, and again on the 2010 Darkness on the Edge of Town companion album The Promise, which gathered alternate versions and unreleased songs from the Darkness sessions.)

Of Concerts Past: Neil Young @ the Tower Theater, 4/24/1999

Here’s something from the archives: one of my rambling cover stories from Da Boot, a short-lived, bootleg-centric—and very cool—fanzine that I was involved with in the late ‘90s.

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It was a concert for the ages: A two-and-a-half-hour set that mixed a healthy dose of new songs with older numbers reshaped and refashioned for the occasion. The show resonated with a power palpable to all but the tone deaf.

No, I’m not talking Neil Young here.

I’m talking Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, who played the Theatre of the Living Arts in Philadelphia on March 15th, 1999, in support of Earle’s bluegrass album, The Mountain. About the only thing missing? Iris DeMent, whose duet with Steve on “I’m Still in Love with You” is—to my ears, at least—the album’s piece de resistance. Nevertheless, it was one of “those” shows. Weaving in and out from the stage’s lone microphone (essentially mixing themselves), the six-piece unit conjured a magical evening of grace and grit. One highlight: Earle’s solo rendition of the mournful ”Goodbye,” which left the audience stoned on its vibe. Another: the McCoury Band-backed “Copperhead Road.” Transformed from a “heavy-metal bluegrass” number into an out-and-out bluegrass romp, it was intoxicating: “My name’s John Lee Pettimore … same as my daddy and his daddy before …” I’m reminded of that night whenever I listen to The Mountain. There’s no drums, no electric guitar, no electric instruments at all. There’s no need. The juice is in the performances themselves.

Along those lines, the juice is in the music of Steve’s sister Stacey, too, who crafts heartfelt songs and sings ‘em as if her life depended upon it. Same goes for Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, both of whom performed at a benefit May 2nd at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby (a ‘burb outside of Philadelphia). As usual for a Philly crowd, the fans were boisterous, screaming out requests for old favorites between songs. At one point during Jackson’s set, for example, he approached the mike with his guitar in hand. “Late for the Sky” came a lone voice from the back row. The applause rolled through the room like a wave in from the ocean and splashed him in the face. What to do? Jackson smiled, set the guitar down and eased behind the electric piano, and then let loose an impassioned rendition of that classic. Giving the fans what they want? To an extent, yes. Still, he managed to include quite a few of his latter-day songs during his shortened set. As for Bonnie, her warmth shone from the stage whether alone, with bassist Hutch Hutchinson or when Jackson joined her for a duet of “Angel from Montgomery.” It was a fabulous, fun evening; you felt as if they’d invited you into their parlor.

Why mention all that in this, a review of Neil Young’s solo show at the same Tower Theater on April 24th? It’s important, on occasion, to step back and survey the larger music scene. Thanks to the Internet, these days it’s easy to zero in on one artist and essentially blank everyone else out. You know the deal: One trade leads to another which, in turn, leads to another. Soon enough you’re collecting every show you can get your hands on, whether it’s a crappy-sounding (but great!) set from the ’73 Tonight’s the Night tour or a great-sounding (but otherwise grueling) date from Neil & the Horse’s ’97 HORDE excursion. In there somewhere, maybe during an audience recording of that god-awful TTN set, you hear the reason why you do what you do: “Tonight’s the night… tonight’s the ni-hi-hight…” It’s nirvana. Right? Yeah, sure, you listen to other artists—in between listening to the latest additions to your Neil collection.

Do I sound peevish? Damn straight.

Yes, Neil laid down a very good, two-hour performance before a typical Philly crowd. “Shut up, you asshole,” he snapped to one overzealous fan who demanded he cut short a semi-humorous story in favor of a song. While I understood Neil’s outburst, I also understood the fan’s. To be blunt, the show wasn’t just overpriced—it was out-and-out highway robbery. Ticket prices ranged from $51 to $151; an uninformed (i.e., not on the ‘net) concert-goer may have feared that the more Neil talked, the less songs he’d play. I know, I know: No one forced that fan to buy his ticket. No one forced me, either, yet there I was, sitting 26 rows back and staring at slowpoke Neil, nodding my head and grinning at the start of “Tell Me Why” and tapping my feet to “War of Man,” then all-but-hypnotized by the stark “Out of Control,” which featured a melody reminiscent of his Trans-era tunes. The rest of the set seemed somewhat perfunctory, marred primarily by the throwaway placed at its end: the sleight “Daddy Went a-Walkin’.”

The second set was better, accented by the rambling, Dylanesque “Last Trip to Tulsa” and “Southern Pacific,” a gem from the overlooked re*ac*tor. “Long May You Run” continued the mood unabated: At the pump organ, Neil offered a mournful meditation on a car gone wrong. The rest of the set remained at that same stellar level, with a brilliant “After the Gold Rush” that found Neil starting the song at the piano before adjourning to the pump organ and bridging the transition with a brilliant harmonica solo. By the end of the night? I raved to Diane that the concert was hypnotic, mesmerizing, overpriced—and not the best solo Neil performance I’ve seen. That would have been in ’89. Back then, of course, he was a hungry, near-has-been seeking redemption from a decade-long slump. Stalking the stage with his acoustic guitar strapped to his stomach, he strummed killer chords to such then-unreleased songs as “Crime in the City,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “No More.” Here we have … “Daddy Went a-Walkin’”?!

Granted, that’s a cheap shot; as with “Out of Control,” the middle song of the first encore (“Railroad Song”?) was a potent promise of what next Neil may have in store for his fans, either on the CSNY reunion disc (now said to be scheduled for August) or on next year’s solo effort. But, then, Neil’s left himself open to such shots. This tour, he’s sold-out—literally and figuratively. Me, next time he comes to town charging those kind of prices—

I’ll be there, damning both him—and me. ‘Cause, baby, let me tell ya … there’s this tape of him and the Santa Monica Flyers from Chicago ’73 that features a 35-minute version of “Tonight’s the Night” that’s just plain, insanely great. Thirty-five minutes! Now where’d the hell I put it….

Ah, fuck it. The Mountain will do.

Steve Earle & The Del McCoury Band at the TLA, 3/16/99:

Steve & McCoury Band: Texas Eagle/Yours Forever Blue/My Old Friend the Blues/Graveyard Shift/Outlaw’s Honeymoon/Dixieland/Connemara Breakdown/Harlan Man/The Mountain/I Still Carry You Around//Del McCoury Band: Far Cry From Va./Don’t You Think It’s Time to Go/Red Eyes on a Mad Dog/I Feel the Blues Movin’ In/She’s Left Me Again/50-50 Chance/Backslidin’ Blues/Pike County Breakdown/Nashville Cats/Get Down on Your Knees and Pray/Love Is a Long Road//Steve Solo: No.29/Now She’s Gone/Angry Young Man/South Nashville Blues/Valentine’s Day/So Different Blues/Limo Blues/Goodbye/Ellis Unit One//Steve & McCoury Band: Mystery Train Pt.2/Leroy’s Dustbowl Blues/Ain’t No Liquor in This Town/Hometown Blues/Lonesome Highway Blues/I’m Looking Through You/Ben McCulloch/ Tom Ames’ Prayer/Carrie Brown/Copperhead Road//Lonesome Road/Hillbilly Highway/Down the Road

Neil Young at the Tower Theatre, 4/24/99:

Tell Me Why/Looking Forward/War of Man/Out of Control/Alberquerque/World on a String/ Don’t Let It Bring You Down/Philadelphia/Love Is a Rose/Daddy Went a Walkin’//Distant Camera/ Last Trip to Tulsa/Southern Pacific/Old Man/Long May You Run/Harvest Moon/Slowpoke/Needle & the Damage Done/After the Gold Rush//Good to See You/Railroad Town/Sugar Mountain///Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere