Category Archives: 2017

Today’s Top 5: And That’s the Way It Is

Sometimes I listen to music in the car. Other days, however, I tune in KYW-1060AM, the Delaware Valley’s all-news channel. It provides local and national headlines, breaking news, traffic reports, business updates, weather and sports, and at 6:30pm – if I’ve left work late or am just stuck in traffic – a simulcast of the CBS Evening News. I also read/subscribe to the digital edition of the Washington Post, and check out the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer from time to time – aka the “fake news” outlets so labeled because they report actual facts, not the partisan propaganda our dear leader prefers.

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: And That’s the Way It Is.

1) Neil Young – “Ambulance Blues.” This song percolates through my synapses pretty much every time America’s answer to Erdogan speaks. The line “I never knew a man who told so many lies” may have been inspired by Nixon, but it describes him, too.

2) Juliana Hatfield – “When You’re a Star.” I came to the conclusion, long ago, that Juliana is basically Generation X’s Neil Young. Think about it: She started her career in an influential, but commercially under-appreciated group; she’s at home on acoustic and electric guitar, solo or with a band; and has a distinctly idiosyncratic outlook on life. And no one can write her songs but her. This week, after the sordid news from Hollywood broke, she tweeted a link to this song, which was inspired by both the lecher-in-chief and a former Jell-O salesman. It’s from her Pussycat album.

3) Bob Dylan – “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues.” Originally slated for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but yanked by Columbia due to lawsuit concerns, this classic satire of political paranoia remains relevant today. The dear leader and his minions, after all, see enemies everywhere.

4) First Aid Kit – “This Land Is Your Land.” Diane and I watched the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory a few weeks back. Great movie. It got me to thinking that that era, more than any other, is the era Trump and the GOP want America to return to – where some have plenty, but most nothing at all. First Aid Kit’s cover of the song includes the two “radical” verses that speak to the song’s message that America is for all its people, not just the rich and well-off. (See the Wikipedia entry for more.)

5) The Long Ryders – “Masters of War.” The Ryders’ cover of Dylan’s classic, about old men sending young men to their deaths, still rings true today. (The pulpit’s bully is itching for war, after all.)

And two bonuses…

6) Grant Hart – “Now That You Know Me.” During the winter of 1989-90, I played Hart’s Intolerance CD more than most – and this song wound up on many a mixtape. I won’t lie and claim to have kept up with Hart’s career in the years since, but the news of his passing in September shook me all the same. Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and New Day Rising were monumental albums in my life.

7) Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “Peace in L.A.” The L.A. riots of 1992, sadly, weren’t the last riots spurred by racial injustice. One of Petty’s best yet lesser known singles, this call for peace was recorded mere days after the figurative fires were put out; and was on the radio a day later. “Stay cool. Don’t be a fool.”

 

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When Worlds Collide: Juliana Hatfield at the Ardmore Music Hall, 10/12/17

Three weeks back, trumpets blared, timpani rumbled, clouds parted, and an angel came forth to announce that Philadelphia’s favorite Brit wordsmith (or, at least, one of them), Wesley Stace – aka the artist formerly known as John Wesley Harding – and his band, the English UK, were to play the Ardmore Music Hall…on the same night as a Philadelphia Eagles matchup against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football. With him: Juliana Hatfield.

Was he opening? Was she? The social-media advertisements, as well as the poster outside the venue, never quite made it clear. Their names were in equal-sized type; and hers was preceded by a plus sign. Was she solo or with the Three, as at the Boot & Saddle earlier this year? (The brutal grace of that night will stay with me forever.) The Juliana Hatfield Three Facebook page was advertising the show, after all. Those questions of a thousand dreams haunted my nights and days – well, not really. We had our tickets and, either/or, it was a guaranteed good time.

But in football-crazed Philadelphia, unless one is Springsteen, Joel or similar stadium-name headliner, scheduling a last-minute show against the Eagles – especially when they’re doing well, which they are – is asking for a sparse turnout.

Which, this night, it was.

Stace and the English UK started the night with a taut 45-minute set that mixed new and old songs, including “Making Love to Bob Dylan,” the wondrous “Canterbury Kiss” and selections from his recent Jayhawks-backed Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding album. He also offered humorous anecdotes and explained (as had the bartender when we arrived) that he and the band would join Juliana after her solo set. The show came about, he said, a few weeks earlier while he was walking in the Philly neighborhood of Fishtown. It dawned on him that, with a day off between two of his Cabinet of Wonders shows, they might as well make use of it. He texted the Ardmore booker, who texted back, and voila! A gig was born.

Juliana took to the stage at about 9:15 and, once her electric guitar was plugged in, began her solo set with “Butterflies” and “If I Wanted Troubles.” She hit a speed bump in “Parking Lots,” first messing up the lyrics and then singing out of tune. After one more attempt, she cut it short and moved on. “Slow Motion,” the song I most hoped to hear, was absolutely sublime:

After that song, she switched to acoustic and…in what’s fast becoming my favorite overused phrase, “wow. Just wow.” On electric, especially at first, she seemed a little off – almost as if she was waiting for a band to kick in. And, too, there were moments near the end of songs when she’d stop, applause would start, and then she’d strum a few more bars. On acoustic, there was none of that. “Choose Drugs” was, in a word, mesmerizing, and “I Want to Be Your Disease” simply venomous.

And then the English UK joined her for “Shining On” and then Stace returned…can I say “wow” again? The band ably accented Juliana’s material. “Somebody Is Waiting for Me” was beyond any and all superlatives I can think of.

And “Wonder Why,” one of the stellar tracks from this year’s Pussycat, just rocked.

At that stage, I would’ve been happy if Juliana and Stace said their farewells – it was a great show, already. But what followed put it in the stratosphere: Juliana played two songs from her forthcoming album…an Olivia Newton-John tribute album (!) tentatively titled Hopelessly Devoted to Liv.

While I’m sure that Wesley Stace never once imagined himself singing the immortal lyrics of “let me hear your body talk” prior to this night, hey, all I can say is this: shivers reverberated up and down my spine. I found the performances phenomenal and fun.

Diane, on the other hand, says they were “interesting”; and, tongue hopefully in cheek, blames me for the turn of events. Way back in 2012, in a “20 Questions” for the covers album, I posed a wordy question to Juliana that (for brevity’s sake) I trimmed for the published Q&A. The full exchange read:

Me: In your book, you write about liking ONJ as a kid. If you were to cover one of her songs, which would it be? (I can hear you singing – and having a hit with –  “A Little More Love” or “Deeper Than the Night.” Not that that should influence the song selection for your current covers project).

Juliana: I don’t think I could do any of her songs. I thought about [it] for this covers album but nothing feels authentic when I try to do it. She had such a sweet voice and a personality and could bring to life songs that I wouldn’t be able to bring to life. And some of her songs are really goofy.

Aside from the hard-hearted, anyone who came of age in the late ‘70s and/or early ‘80s can likely attest to the powerful charm of Olivia’s songs and albums (one of which is a future Essentials pick) of that era. True, those tunes primarily dealt with matters of the heart. Sometimes they were sweet, sometimes goofy, but they were rarely saccharine. And when I hear them today? They take me back – in a good way.

That Juliana is paying tribute to ONJ and those songs – it’s cool.

Here’s the set in full:

Solo Electric:

  1. Butterflies
  2. If I Wanted Troubles
  3. Parking Lots (cut short)
  4. June 6th
  5. Everybody Loves Me But You
  6. I Picked you Up
  7. Slow Motion

Solo Acoustic:

  1. Christmas Cactus
  2. Choose Drugs
  3. I Want to Be Your Disease
  4. Evan

Juliana & English UK:

  1. Shining On
  2. Somebody Is Waiting for Me
  3. Wonder Why
  4. Have You Never Been Mellow
  5. Physical
  6. My Sister

Give Me the Beat, Boys (Paul Weller @ the TLA in Philly, 10/4/2017)

Sunday, Diane and I made our way to the Electric Factory on North 7th Street in Philly to see Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul. The general admission/standing-room only concert hall first opened its doors in 1994, yet it was my first time on its cement floor.

Steven and his 15-piece band, which includes a horn section and three backup singers, came on at 8:30pm and played for about two hours, delivering a solid 22-song set that worked best with the uptempo songs. The slower numbers, such as the doo-wop “City Weeps Tonight” and funky “Down and Out in New York City,” drowned beneath the din reverberating from the bar. It didn’t help that – as the picture below shows – we were far back from the stage. Also, the sound was trebly and dense, akin to sparkly sludge.

Still, it was a good show and night, though by the time I collapsed into bed it was technically early Monday morning. I slept through my 5:50am alarm, rolled out of bed about two hours later and hit the road minutes after that – which was when I learned of the mass shooting at the country music festival in Las Vegas.

Since 1983, I’ve attended concerts large and small, in hallowed halls and cruddy clubs, and there are literally only a handful that I wish I’d skipped – the Singer Who Must Not Be Named springs to mind, especially. That is to say, I rarely leave a show unhappy with anything other than the drive home. Diane’s cut from the same cloth.

We see concerts. It’s what we, in part, do.

Don’t get me wrong. We’re not out and about every night, week or even month, though sometimes it may seem that way; and spinning an LP, cranking a CD, or clicking play on the Pono Player or Apple Music can be just as wondrous an experience. As Tom Petty has been quoted as saying, “Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.”

Music may not be salvation, but it is God’s gift. No matter the style or genre, be it rock, pop, country, hip-hop, R&B, soul or blues, or any of the many sub-genres therein, whether it’s critically acclaimed or not, it serves a purpose larger than itself. It feeds the spirit. That such a secular communion was bloodied by someone with a gun? It breaks my heart.

And then the news of Tom Petty’s death came. I’ve been a fan – though not a hardcore fan – since “Refugee” and Damn the Torpedoes, and saw him and the Heartbreakers in concert at the Spectrum in 1990. (Look for an Of Concerts Past entry about it in the near future.) I’ve actually contemplated seeing him in the years since, but for one reason or another – usually venue – decided “next time.”

Perhaps because of all that, a show that I’d been anticipating for months – Paul Weller with Lucy Rose at the TLA on South Street (aka “the hippest street in town”) on Wednesday, October 4th, proved even better than expected. Paul Weller, of course, is a longtime favorite; Lucy Rose entered my life earlier this year by way of the Staves, and has quickly become someone whose music I adore. When she was added to the bill, months after I’d purchased our tickets, I knew a great night was going to be even greater. (At least, I hoped that.)

Now, the TLA has been around forever and a day, primarily as a movie theater but also as a playhouse; it wasn’t until 1988 that it began life as a concert venue. My first time there, I think, was in late 1982 to see Ciao! Manhattan – though it could have been earlier that year to see another esoteric film. The first time I saw a concert at the locale, however, came seven years later, when I took in the Indigo Girls on back-to-back nights. Back then, the venue was stellar, as it retained movie-style seats – you sat back, and the music washed over you. Somewhere along the way, however, the powers-that-be realized more money could be made by removing said seats, as bodies could be packed in, and it became primarily a standing room-only venue. Eventually, in the mid or late ‘90s, a balcony was added and…off the top of my head, the last show I remember seeing there was Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band in 1999.

Anyway, this night, we were in what’s called the “Crow’s Nest” – a VIP (more expensive) section that I imagine was added at some point in the 2000s or 2010s. It features a great view of the stage and, too, there are seats, which – given that I was still dragging from Sunday’s late night – were a necessity.

Lucy Rose, for her part, overcame a sea of indifferent Weller fans to deliver a sublime (if too-short) set of her stirring songs – as I tweeted her after she left the stage, she really needs to play a venue more geared toward singer-songwriters, such as the World Cafe Live.

Paul Weller hit the stage at 9pm and, over the course of 135 minutes and 30 songs, exemplified all things mod, rock and soul. Among the treats: two Jam classics (“Monday” and “Start!” from Sound Affects), three Style Council favorites (“My Ever Changing Moods,” “Have You Ever Had It Blue” and “Shout to the Top”), plenty from his solo years, such as the hypnotic “Above the Clouds” and “Wild Wood,” plus seven from his recent A Kind Revolution album, including the aching “Long Long Road” and contagious “Woo Sé Mama.”

After the main set, he and the band returned for five acoustic numbers that I assumed – given the time of night – would cap the concert. I was wrong. They then switched back to electric and…whoa! “These City Streets” from Saturns Pattern, “Peacock Suit” from Heavy Soul, the Jam’s “Start!,” “The Cranes Are Back” from A Kind Revolution and “The Changingman” from Wild Wood ended the night in tremendous fashion.

Here are three highlights:

In short, it was a great, great concert. Weller delivered blistering guitar solo after solo and raucous piano runs, his dual drummers pounded out propulsive rhythms, and the band as a whole – wow. Just wow. There were a few songs that I wasn’t familiar with in the moment, but it didn’t matter. The show washed away the heartache and heartbreak from a bad week, and renewed my spirit. He and his crack band gave us the beat and freed our souls…if only for a night.

And thank God for that.