Category Archives: Maria McKee

Today’s Top 5: Songs XPN Should Play

After investing in a refurbished Iomega external CD burner in 2001, or thereabouts, for my low-budget DIY computer, I stopped relying on the radio for my on-the-go music needs. Instead, I made CD copies of favorite albums, created cool compilations and best-ofs, and (generally) only turned on the radio to check traffic or the weather via all-news KYW-1060AM – a routine I’ve mostly maintained, though the CDRs were eventually replaced by my iPod, iPhone, Pono Player and, now, Apple Music via my iPhone.

Prior, however, my go-to radio station was WXPN, a listener-supported AAA station in Philadelphia. They played a good-to-great mix of new and old, singer-songwriters and alternative country, plus non-alternative rock. They went deep on albums, routinely playing more than just one cut, and generally avoided the tried-and-true tracks found elsewhere on the dial. I liked it enough that Diane and I became members at some point, and renewed every year until…

…the summer of 1996, when we found ourselves – thanks to an acquaintance who owned a CD store – at a Penn’s Landing luncheon for businesses that supported the station. When the station’s program director, whose name I’ve long forgotten, stopped at our table, I mentioned my surprise that they weren’t playing anything from Maria McKee’s recent Life Is Sweet album – my favorite of the moment. My memory, and it may be exaggerated by time, is that he glared at me, shook his head and said “never” and “not on my watch” (or words to that effect), and made haste for the next table.

Granted, the glam-infested Life Is Sweet was a dramatic departure from the country-rock stylings of 1993’s You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, which XPN had featured a fair bit, but the title track wasn’t. It should’ve been played. The (perceived) rudeness of the program director annoyed me even more, however. I let our membership lapse.

Anyway, through the 2000s and first half of the 2010s, the only time I listened to XPN was when Diane was with me and, for whatever reason, requested it. And for a time, whenever we tuned in it seemed a Steely Dan song was playing. Odd, that. Then, in 2015, First Aid Kit was booked for the station’s annual three-day XPoNential Festival and members paid less for a ticket, so – sound basically unheard for umpteen years – I rejoined.

I assumed, because they played First Aid Kit (and, according to their searchable playlist, they did – “My Silver Lining” on and off for six months, then “Stay Gold” pretty much ever since) that the rest of what they programmed would be similar. I began listening – and was quickly disappointed. They rarely play more than one song from a new release, instead going the FAK route – one song for months, then maybe replacing it with another – and seemed more a descendent of the long-gone WDRE, a modern-rock station that never quite gained traction during the mid-‘90s, and WMMR, a mainstream rock station, than the XPN of yore. Maybe it had to do with when I tuned in – mornings on the way to work, and late afternoons on the way home – but…

I let my membership lapse again.

But still, sometimes, I find myself listening – it’s easier, and safer, than tapping on my iPhone while driving, so when an album ends I sometimes switch to XPN. Once in a while, I hear something and think, “wow, who is that?” Then they play ZZ Top, the Moody Blues or any of a number of “classic” acts that leave me flipping to KYW or, of late, WOGL, an oldies station that is enjoyable in small doses.

All of which leads to today’s Top 5: Songs XPN Should Play…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Near You.” In April of this year, I asked – via a tweet – why they weren’t playing anything from Courtney’s Honest Life album, which was released last October. Back in the day, they would have been all over it, playing “Put the Fire Out,” “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” and “Irene,” plus the title track and “Table for One.” One of their deejays liked my tweet, in fact…but, nothing. Nada. Zip. Months later, however, and a search of their playlist shows that they have played “Irene” a handful of times.

They should followup by placing this track, a new recording of an older song that she’s releasing on September 15th, in frequent rotation. It’s a powerful, moving tune.

2) Lucy Rose – “No Good at All.” I reviewed Lucy Rose’s recent Something’s Changing album yesterday, and included this clip. It’s a wondrous, addictive number that, according to XPN’s playlist search, has been played exactly once, three days after the album’s release.

3) Paul Weller – “Long Long Road.” They’ve played Paul Weller – a man without whom “modern rock” would not exist – exactly 14 times this year. Think about that. He’s scheduled to play the TLA in October, however, so the time is ripe to up those numbers. This is a standout track from his recent A Kind Revolution album.

4) Garland Jeffreys – “14 Steps to Harlem.” Here’s another artist without whom “modern rock” would not exist; and, to XPN’s credit, they do play him from time to time. But instead of dipping into his past catalog, why not feature something new? This, the title track to Garland’s latest album, is a beaut.

5) Karrie – “I Don’t Hear You.” The Irish singer-songwriter’s summer single is utterly addictive.

And two bonuses:

6) Courney Marie Andrews – “How Quickly Your Heart Mends.” And, just because, here’s one of those Honest Life songs XPN should be playing at least once a day. This is from a recent appearance on Swedish TV…

7) Maria McKee – “Life Is Sweet/After Life.” Finally, the song that obstinate program director refused to discuss in 1996 should have the digital dust blown off the CD and played. It a true lost classic.

Advertisements

Today’s Top 5: Maria McKee in 1989

I came across this CDR tucked in a box in our basement – a copy of another CDR that I received while a member of a Maria McKee email discussion group sometime in the…late ‘90s, I believe. It came with cover art created by whoever initiated the “CD tree”; you can see his (or her) original on this 45worlds.com page. I don’t believe it was ever a store-sold bootleg, just a fan-generated creation. He (or she), or a friend, snuck a tape recorder into this specific show, which is from the Bayou Theater in Washington, D.C., in 1989.

As I said, though, this particular CDR is my copy of the original, and dates to the early 2000s. In those pre-iPod days, I frequently made CDRs for the car and, for a time, also created the covers for them. Sometimes, just as whoever created the original artwork for the set, I snagged a picture off the ‘net and added the track list, such as with the Juliana comp I blogged about a while back. Other times, though, I used Paint Shop Pro to tinker with the image and/or create collages – it was a fun thing to do. And, too, as in this case, I powered up Poser and Bryce, 3D-image creation programs that I played around with at the time, and tried to develop something totally unique.

Of note, my image includes a picture lifted from a Kiss the Stone bootleg titled Breathe, which preserved a 1994 concert from somewhere in Europe, that I used on my old website for a time. I scanned the cover, loaded it into Paint Shop Pro and splashed color here, there and everywhere, and then cut out a picture scanned from one of Maria’s CD singles. I created a wall in Bryce, tiled the image and placed a reflective surface “water” in front, then positioned the cutout. The final image took hours to render. And I do mean hours. Reflections always added a wait-and-pray (that the computer doesn’t crash) drama to the process, given that mine was underpowered for the task. (You can see the original Breathe cover here.)

All of which leads to this: I also encoded the versions of “Shelter,” “Breathe” and “Into the Mystic” from the performance onto my computer’s 20-gig hard drive as “high” bit-rate MP3s: 192kbps. Maria’s rendition of all three were spellbinding.

My hope had been to feature five tracks from the show itself, but since only two are (apparently) on YouTube, I’ve expanded the theme to include all of 1989.

1) “Into the Mystic” – From the Bayou Theater in Washington, D.C.

2) “Over Me” – Another from the Bayou.

3) “Am I the Only One” –

4) “To Miss Someone” –

5) “Breathe” –

And two bonuses in one:

6) Maria with Van Dyke Parks and Stevie Ray Vaughan on Night Music performing “Troubled Waters” and “Sailin’ Shoes.”

Of Concerts Past: Maria McKee in Philadelphia, 6/10/2003

Our stop at the Boot & Saddle to see Juliana Hatfield two weeks back reminded me of the North Star Bar, where I saw the Absolutely Sweet Maria McKee on her much-anticipated (by me, at least) High Dive tour. The Boot & Saddle, for those who’ve never been there, is your basic bar with a sizable backroom and stage; and the North Star, which closed in October 2015, was your basic bar with a sizable side room and stage. Both fit about the same number of bodies, I think: 150, maybe 200 if the fire marshal’s not looking. The main difference: at the North Star, at least on this night, the sound from the bar bled into the music room.

At the time, the Little Diva and her band were on tour in support of High Dive, her first release since her genre-bending 1996 album Life Is Sweet. Gone, still, was the country-rock overtones of her early days; instead, the CD tempered the glam and glitter of Life with elements of baroque and operatic rock. To quote (and lightly edit) the review I left on Amazon in 2006: “The tracks, in total and apart, have a narcotic-like effect; one listen and you’ll be hooked. ‘In Your Constellation’ has a Neil Young-like vibe, a la ‘Like a Hurricane,’ that sends me flying into the stratosphere and higher; ‘Be My Joy’ is, well, just plain intoxicating; and the dramatic ‘Non Religious Building’ is as potent as songs come. I was hesitant about the remake of ‘Life Is Sweet’/‘Afterlife’ … but, ya know what? It’s as good as the original – and the backing vocals are to die for, both there and elsewhere. My album of the year for 2003.”

As Diane can attest, I played it the way I play most albums I fall for – over and over again. In the month and a half between its April 22nd release and this show…did I listen to anything else? Of my own accord, no. With Diane? Yes. (Such sacrifices are what sustain a marriage, after all.) By the night of the show, I was primed. Bouncing-off-the-walls primed. Maybe Maria’s career hadn’t taken flight in the way she’d hoped since Life Is Sweet, but the new music she was making meant (and still means) as much to me as the alt.country prototype she built with Lone Justice and on her first two solo albums.

Anyway, of the show: Certain memories survive. I remember her guitar soaring through “Absolutely Barking Stars” along with her voice, which – I swear – felt like a ghost inhabiting my body. It was deliciously intense, in other words. Here she is playing it a few months later in Hamburg (from the 2004 Live in Hamburg CD):

“High Dive,” as on album, was brilliant:

“Shelter,” one of my all-time favorite songs, was another highlight. Here she is from a few years later performing it:

“Breathe,” too, was mesmerizing – but when is it not? It was sparse and dramatic, similar to this performance from 10 years earlier…

“In Your Constellation” was simply phenomenal; it swirled like the cosmos through the room. Afterwards, she talked about Bruce Springsteen and his influence on her music, singing a snippet of… “Rosalita,” says Diane…before launching into a dramatic reading of his “Candy’s Room.”

The philosophical “Something Similar” closed the main portion of her set.

Unlike the Boot & Saddle, where the entrance to the stage is basically through the audience, the North Star Bar had stairs with a slight overhang leading off the stage. As Maria and band were leaving, she hit her head – a loud thwack followed by her “ow!” echoed through the room. She returned a few moments later – and sang a song so good she recorded it twice: “Life Is Sweet.” She then left the stage, no doubt making sure to duck before descending the steps.

The (possible) set:

  1. I Can’t Make It Alone
  2. Absolutely Barking Stars
  3. From Our TV Teens to the Tombs
  4. High Dive
  5. Be My Joy
  6. To the Open Spaces
  7. Shelter
  8. Dixie Storms
  9. Breathe
  10. Non Religious Building
  11. I’m Awake
  12. In Your Constellation
  13. Candy’s Room
  14. Something Similar
  15. (Encore) Life Is Sweet