Cleveland, Ohio, September 20-29
From September 20-29 "Hard Travelin'," a series of events dealing with "The
Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," was held in Cleveland, concluding with a
concert at Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra -- the most
prestigious music venue in town. Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie,
Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Billy Bragg, Joe Ely, Ani DiFranco, Country Joe
McDonald, the Indigo Girls, Syd Straw, and others appeared. Tim Robbins emceed.
On the previous night, Alejandro Escovedo, John Wesley Harding, Jimmy LaFave,
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Paul Metsa, Straw and McDonald had appeared at a
hootenanny at a local club.
Over the ten days, an exhibition of Guthrie's photographs hung at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institution heavily involved in the entire celebration, and the films Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie: Hard Travelin', and A Vision Shared: A Tribute To Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly were shown. Other major organizers included Guthrie's daughter, Nora, head of the new Woody Guthrie Archives in New York (which received a portion of the income generated by the events), and Case Western Reserve University.
The overwhelming majority of those attending were white and middle class; most appeared affluent. You didn't have to look far to spot the blue-haired ladies. The working class and people of color that Guthrie championed did not appear in strength -- in fact they were rare as hen's teeth. In the Forties and Fifties, very few people of any kind were aware of Guthrie, as Harold Leventhal, his manager, stated during a panel discussion. The working class bought the records of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Rosemary Clooney, Nat Cole, and Chuck Berry. The Weavers, before being blacklisted, ironically did have a large popular following because, despite their laudable idealism and controversial views, they offered rather bland, slick music that appealed to a mass audience. Unlike Guthrie, they did not have strong regional accents and their singing wasn't grainy. They weren't folk artists; just popularizers of folk music. Though later inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and having had his songs performed by Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris, Guthrie didn't even have much of a following among country music fans. His lyrics went over their heads, his melodies seemed too old-fashioned, and his politics offended them. Guthrie was a man of the people, but the people knew nothing about him. He became popular only when those he'd influenced began making it big -- i.e., Bob Dylan.
Some events were held on the Case Western Reserve campus, including panel discussions. One, "Woody's Influence on American Music," seems particularly worthy of mention. Moderating was Charles McGovern, curator of 20th century popular culture at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Panelists included Anthony DeCurtis, former Rolling Stone editor, Robert Cantwell, Adjunct Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina, and Fred Hellerman, an original Weaver and later, a writer of film and TV music.
The subject of the discussion, Guthrie's music, lyrics, and their influence, was barely touched upon; the panelists ignored their mandate. Instead, DeCurtis, Cantwell, and McGovern ran through a litany of clichés intended to solidify Guthrie's status as an icon. Terms like "post-industrialism and "post-modernism" were tossed around as they emphasized the political, social, and even mythological rather than the artistic. The aptly named Cantwell referred to Guthrie as a "Druidic figure... who tapped into subconscious racial memories." If the panelists had any knowledge of, or interest in, harmony, melody, or rhythm it wasn't evident. Maybe they think music isn't important enough to discuss as an end in itself.
Provocative moments were provided by Hellerman. An audible gasp could be heard from the audience after he remarked that Guthrie's music, as opposed to his great lyrics, was not of great interest, that in this area he hadn't advanced beyond the Carter family. Hellerman implied that Guthrie's knowledge of harmony was rudimentary. He praised the Dust Bowl ballads, but suggested stuff he wrote later wasn't particularly interesting from a purely musical standpoint. Due to Hellerman's impeccable folkie credentials, he wasn't lynched on the spot, although audience members asked him some pretty pointed questions at their first opportunity.
The Severance Hall concert contained a lot of good music, which was what the conference was mainly about (they got that right!). For me the stars were the Indigo Girls, DiFranco and Bragg. The latter wrote a couple of melodies for lyrics found in Guthrie's papers. Springsteen did a nice set, highlighted by his "Across the Border," dealing with the problems of illegal aliens. Then came Arlo Guthrie, an intelligent, witty guy who, though brought up in New York City, has been talking English with a rustic accent for at least 30 years, and deliberately makes grammatical mistakes. (His sister, Nora, sounds like the Eastern intellectual she is.) Finally, Pete Seeger jumped on stage to lead the obligatory sing-along section, ending with, you guessed it, "This Land is Your Land."
After the concert, a select few were allowed backstage for wine and cheese. Here, I was particularly impressed with Maurice B., a small, elderly, cheerful waiter with a discolored shirt, who encouraged people to eat and generally was quite helpful. He was one of the few working men in evidence that night, and seemed like Guthrie's kind of guy. -- Harvey Pekar
Liberty Lunch, October 14
There were one or two problems. Shocked's guitar completely cut out during "I've Come a Long Way" and she had to steal one from her band to make it through "If Love Was a Train." Then she tried to work out the beginning of "Cotton Eyed Joe" a couple of times ("That sounds like shit," said Shocked), stopping to let the audience know that there was a groove somewhere and if we could all find it, things would begin to sound just fine. Whoa, whoops! Maybe you ought to use that capo there, Michelle, and get in the same key as the rest of the guys. That might help the sound. Actually there were a few other problems, some technical, some not. (Most notably, perhaps, was the crowd, which at only a couple of hundred was a noticeable drop-off from Shocked's packed local shows of a few years ago.) After a lethargic version of "Homestead," Shocked figured she was better off just winging it, blowing off the set list and, launching into "Cold Comfort" despite the fact that her horn section didn't have sheet music for it and didn't come up with the dynamite improvs for which she'd hoped. Nevertheless, Shocked played longer than what many artists try to pass off as a headliner-length set, so her capitulating to her own frustration and subsequent aborting of the show brought the night not to a premature end, but an oddly abrupt one. She gave one more song, some disco dance lessons, and then left. No encore. Can you argue with the performer when she flat-out says that it's just not her night? Well, that's the real problem. None of the little problems were terribly annoying and the cumulative effect of them gave the players an unassuming badge of perseverance. What may have pissed off the performer was generally lost on or overlooked by the audience, which put a weird spin on what was otherwise a completely adequate show. Maybe Shocked should have stopped trying to fix what wasn't terribly broken, letting the people enjoy what they could -- her voice. At least she asked for forgiveness in advance before leaving the stage. -- Michael Bertin
WOMEN IN JAZZ
Live Oak Theatre, October 11-12
Okay, so it wasn't Carnegie Hall. Neither was it Jazz at the Lincoln Center.
Elephant Room? Nope. In fact, to some, this annual two-night showcasing of
Austin's "Women in Jazz" might not have even been real jazz -- which is
ultimately what made it so totally and completely Austin. This being the case,
it would be only too easy to concentrate on the negatives: both nights' opening
sets, 20 minutes by LaMonica Lewis on Friday and Sheila Sanders on Saturday,
were too short for either singer to get settled; Tina Marsh, minus her
fearless Arkestra (John Mills notwithstanding), was declawed; Mady Kaye could
have been singing for tips in any hotel bar while Friday's headliner, Carmen
Bradford, belonged at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe, and Saturday's mid-set anchor,
Karen Chavis, had obviously mistaken the Live Oak for some joint in Vegas.
Willie Nicholson and Connie Kirk closed Saturday night with powerhouse sets --
too bad they belonged at Antone's on a hot and sweaty night. There. A total of
eight shitty hours, right? Not quite. On the real jazz side there was
Hope Morgan, delivering her 30-minute set as if she were every great jazz diva
rolled into one; Pamela Hart evoking Billie Holiday with her pure, sweet
vulnerability; the piano playing of James Polk on Friday and Fredrick Sanders
on Saturday; even the emcee, Doc Burns from KAJZ, made the quick transitions
between acts (six ladies each evening) even quicker. Oh, so it was a mixed bag,
eh? Not quite. Not so black-and-white. Take for example Mady Kaye's set, which
could just as easily been written up as a modern extension of Rosemary Clooney.
Or Karen Chavis, who might have come off as too That's Entertainment for
some (me), yet garnered one of the best audience responses (several hundred
each night) over both nights. And what about Willie Nicholson, built for
comfort not speed, with her rich, spacious voice that went Aretha-goes-revival
on the raucous "Million Dollar Secret"? Or Connie Kirk, more Redd Foxx than
Ella Fitzgerald, and she still taught every woman there what it is to be a jazz
singer. And what exactly is a jazz singer? There isn't one set definition. It's
an all-encompassing style defined mostly by improvisation and pure soul. And in
that definition, not only was 1996's "Women in Jazz" concert pure Austin, it
was also Carnegie Hall, Jazz at the Lincoln Center, and especially the
Elephant Room. -- Raoul Hernandez
Mayfair Ballroom, Portland, Oregon, October 17
Every music festival must have a super-secret all-star jam -- think Golden Smog at South by Southwest a couple years ago or the surprise Trent-Reznor-and-friends convergence at CMJ this year. North by Northwest was no exception. Brought to you by the makers of SXSW, this fledging festival in its second year wasn't hush-hushing this show, however. Hell, no. This was an event. Not one that guitarist Mike McCready from Pearl Jam could be bothered to show up for, nor one where you might encounter Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, but an event nonetheless. And the only reason for mentioning these two gentleman is because they're in Tuatara -- along with Peter Buck from R.E.M., Barrett Martin from Screaming Trees, Luna bassist Justin Harwood, and saxitarist Skerrick Walton from Critters Buggin'. "Ethnic, acoustic, soundtrack-record type" music is what Buck termed it in Rolling Stone recently. You mean lounge music? Why, yes! Only with a tropical twist! Tiki music. As Hawaiian as Don Ho, exotic as Carmen Miranda, or swinging as Jackie Gleason. The real deal! Carefree and light-hearted like the Fifties. No wonder Epic is releasing their album in February. The music's just too important, nevermind who's in the band. Nevermind that I missed the Friends of Dean Martinez to see three-quarters of the Gits backing another screamer in Speed Queen (brutal). Nevermind recent Warner Bros. signees Sky Cries Mary, whose Dead Can Dance as alternative rock roar was enthralling. Nevermind John Cale. Nevermind every baby band that mattered. "The main reason I'm in this band is because I wasn't afraid to make a fool of myself," said Buck valiantly in RS. No, Peter, you sure weren't. Wish I'd caught Eddie Vedder's wife's band, Hovercraft, instead. -- Raoul Hernandez
WOOKIE, BO BUD GREEN, PILTDOWNS, SQUID VICIOUS
Blondie's, October 19
What do you do if you're broke and want to hear some live guitar rock? Easy. Raid your laundry lucre cache, grab some beverages, and head down to Blondie's on Saturdays for free music. Blondie's has moved its skate gear and snow board accoutrements shop from their previous walk-in closet location on Guadalupe to its current industrial incarnation between Fifth and Sixth. The new digs have breathing room -- so much so that Blondie's was able to add a stage, giving local bands another venue to hone their skills. And hone they do. While it was obvious that Squid Vicious were suffering a case of butterflies, their basement brand of Tarantino surf was well worth a listen, even though the difference in playing demeanors between the guitarist and the rhythm section undercut the music itself; the guitarist seemed literally to play to the beat of a different drummer (a drummer that was a few steps behind). The result: Royale with Melted Cream Cheese instead of Dick Dale on a snowboard. Even after seeing Piltdowns I don't know why they named themselves after a skull used in an elaborate anthropological fraud. It's not that they were trying to pull a musical fast one, but then again it didn't seem as though they were convincing themselves very well either. When they were on they vaguely brought to mind old Dinosaur Jr., but then again that might have been the Theme from Barney I heard. Bo Bud Greene, a facsimile of a quasi-Nirvana cover band sans spark, drew a decent number of folks at the start of their set, but I'm at a loss to know why. So here comes Wookie to save the gig. They demonstrated their rightful place as headliners, producing the most interesting music in the house. This is not to say they broke the trend of wearing influences on their sleeve, they were just the least cliché of the four bands. Perhaps it was an extra guitarist/vocalist who added more texture to the well-trodden alternative song format. The audience? Well, the crowd showed their appreciation for all four bands in their own unique way (if you can't visualize this given the venue and bands playing, I refer you to the crowd in the "Homerpallooza" episode of The Simpsons). Yes, the Nirvana Poltergeist was in the house, but there were some strains to break free of it and for that I have hope for the future. -- David Lynch