Category Archives: Music

Albums, DVDs, concerts, songs of special note

Everything shimmering and golden and all that incredible soft light

Laurie Anderson wrote a loving, joyful letter to the local paper this week, offering an intimate glimpse of Lou Reed in his final days and moments; the rich companionship they shared sparkles from these words.  Sounds like a near-perfect death: immersed in natural beauty, in the company of his loving partner, reaching into and through the moment in the practice of his spiritual discipline.  Wonderful.

LaurieLouWEBTo our neighbors:

What a beautiful fall! Everything shimmering and golden and all that incredible soft light. Water surrounding us.

Lou and I have spent a lot of time here in the past few years, and even though we’re city people this is our spiritual home. Last week I promised Lou to get him out of the hospital and come home to Springs. And we made it!

Lou was a tai chi master and spent his last days here being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature. He died on Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of tai chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.

Lou was a prince and a fighter and I know his songs of the pain and beauty in the world will fill many people with the incredible joy he felt for life. Long live the beauty that comes down and through and onto all of us.

– Laurie Anderson
his loving wife and eternal friend

PS: Laurie later wrote a longer, incredibly beautiful piece for Rolling Stone; don’t miss it!  Here’s a little taste:

We tried to understand and apply things our teacher Mingyur Rinpoche said – especially hard ones like, “You need to try to master the ability to feel sad without actually being sad.”

As meditators, we had prepared for this – how to move the energy up from the belly and into the heart and out through the head. I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou’s as he died.

Telling the earth how you feel

This really inspires me; what a powerful act!  Em Strang shares a deep moment at this year’s Uncivilisation gathering in the UK:

One of the highlights of the weekend for me was Tom Hirons’ rites of passage workshop. After talking about his own experience of a wilderness rite of passage and introducing the ideas behind it, Tom sent us off into the woods for half an hour. We were asked to choose between two ‘tasks’: either to walk through the woods praying (silently or out loud) or to dig a hole the size and shape of your face, about 6 inches deep in the earth; to lie down with your face in the hole and scream. ‘Whichever of the tasks is more challenging to you,’ he said, ‘choose that one.’ I chose the hole. What a strange, ridiculous, hilarious, powerful, emotionally overwhelming thing to do! It took me a while to lie down. I felt self-conscious and daft. Someone had followed me into the thicket. I spent a few minutes making the hole a ‘more perfect’ shape. But when I lay down on the earth and screamed into the hole I’d made, I almost immediately ‘lost’ my sense of self. All around me in the woods, other men and women were howling and screaming into small, earthy holes. More than anything else, I wished that everyone in the world would give themselves permission to do this, to let go, to express themselves at a most fundamental level. It sounds unlikely, downright odd even, but screaming into the earth opened in me a profound sense of compassion. After a while, I realised I wasn’t screaming but making a kind of whale-song and my lungs seemed to have quadrupled their capacity; I could hold a sound for what seemed like minutes.

Anyone who hasn’t done this, or something similarly wild and strange, might be tempted to reject it as hippie nonsense. All I’d say is, try it for yourself and see; or better still, sign up to one of Tom’s workshops. I heard that one man had scribbled a sign on a piece of paper and laid it next to him while he howled: ‘I’m OK!’

For more about the weekend: Charlotte Du Cann shares a richly woven “postcard from the woods” about the festival, and here’s a recollection with images from Jeppe. Below, an image by Jeppe, Funeral for a Species:


Elton rocks it at 60

I’ve been slack about filling out the BBB category of “rock elders late-career DVDs.”  But tonight I’m back on the case after getting a bit of an Elton jones after seeing Brandi Carlile and her really good (and a bit crazy) band last night – Brandi’s worked with Paul Buckmaster, you see; and whatayaknow, Elton encouraged her, and Stills, too!

Elton 60So, anyway, this DVD been on my shelf waiting to be written up for awhile now.  In 2007, Elton celebrated his 60th birthday by playing his 60th show at Madison Square Garden.  But this wasn’t a typical Elton concert, and certainly not the show he’s settled into in his residency in Vegas. The three-hour extravaganza dug deep into his early catalog, with only 8 of the 33 songs originating after 1975 (and 17 from Don’t Shoot Me and earlier), making this a great treat for those of us who love the classic Elton-and-Bernie years, but haven’t found much use for the later Elton (but note: The Captain and the Kid is worth a listen, and this electro remix album with Pnau, sampling from his whole career, hit #1 in the UK this summer).  

The band features his old mates Nigel Olsson on drums (“Nigel! Outasight!”) and Davey Johnstone on guitars and mandolin; the arrangements are laced with cello from Martin Tillman, along with a huge youth choir.  Elton’s vocal commitment and intensity shines throughout (though his range has definitely shifted lower since his heyday), and his playing is rich and rollicking.  Rarely performed old gems include Where to Now St. Peter, Ballad of a Well-known Gun (“we haven’t played this one for maybe 30 years…”), High Flying Bird, and (yes!) his beautiful ode to New York in the early 70’s, Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters. Here’s a taste, picking up in the climax of Holiday Inn, with maybe my favorite jam of the show: cello, mando, piano (sorry, Flash-less tablet viewers; YouTube’s time-stamp embed doesn’t work with their html5 code; skip to 1:50!):

  Other highlights include the great revolutionary anthem Burn Down the Mission (by turns majestic, angry, longing, and determined) and a nice guitar/piano/cello jam at the end of Levon.  

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The Horse is loosed upon the land

Crazyhorse with logo

Four guys.  Full on.  With a tale to tell, in a language all their own. Well, I suppose the language isn’t unique – bass, drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar in 4/4 time – and truth be told, it’s a pretty darn simple set of phonemes.  In the hands of Neil and Crazy Horse, though, the playful, propulsive thrash of garage band chaos opens into a mythic tunnel of glorious noise, a Primal Rock and Roll Orchestra.

On Friday night under a star-spangled sky laced with moon-glowing clouds, a few thousand New Mexicans were lucky enough to be at the unveiling of This Year’s Model—or call it This Decade’s Model, their first time on stage together since 2004.  The show commenced with several minutes of roiling, pounding, searing jam (jump on in, the water’s fine!), then Neil swung to the mic, his voice layered atop the instrumental waves, the story beginning to be told:

Long ago in the book of old
Before the chapter where dreams unfold
A battle raged on the open page
Love was the winner there, overcoming hate
Like a little girl who couldn’t wait
Love and only love will endure….

CrazyHorse 1  320ish pxYowsa! What an opener! And on higher:

Spirit come back to me
Give me strength and set me free
Let me hear the magic in my heart

Love and only love will endure
Hate is everything you think it is
Love and only love will break it down

After settling us down just a mite with his enigmatic Powderfinger, a classic for any of us who’ve ever found ourselves in a bit over our heads (it’s the tale of a younger brother left home while dad and big bro were out and about, whose fate it was to futilely face down some mysterious gunship on the river), Neil then proceeded to toss a slew of brand new songs at us, each one a gem:

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Spotify Summer Gems

I’m beginning to wonder how I even managed to delve into new music before Spotify came along.  Oh, sure, the radio can tease you with a song or few from a new album, friends made tapes or shared their latest LPs, yeah, but there’s nothing like cueing up an entire album to really sink into all the fresh goodness within!  Thanks to Spotify, when I read an enticing review or hear something on the radio or NPR that catches my ear, it’s right there ready to hear.  Sure does add a bounce to my step while I do the dishes and sweep the floor!

BowerbirdsA few recent highlights of my 2012 playlist:

Caetano Veloso and David ByrneLive at Carnegie Hall.  Veloso’s gentle Brazilian guitar and vocals make for a classy and warm match for Byrne.  Seven Veloso songs are followed by six of Byrnes, then a few back and forth to complete the show.

Jerry Douglas, Traveler.  The dobro master weaves his typical blend of mostly instrumental tunes leavened with a handful of songs sung by vocal stars, this time including Eric Clapton, Mumford and Sons, Keb’ Mo’, and Marc Cohn. (For some weirder Jerry, check out last year’s re-release of 1995’s Bourbon and Rosewater, a trio date with Edgar Meyer and east Indian slide guitar player VM Bhatt.)

Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball; Ani Difranco, Which Side Are You OnAmy Ray, The Lung of LovePatti Smith, Banga.  I especially appreciate being able to hear the latest from old faves, without having to add to already extensive sections of my CD closet.  I’m really appreciating the “ephemeralization” of my music jones: no longer do I need to buy actual physical “stuff”, not even a few megabytes of hard drive space…I’m starting to get over not holding it in my hands.  Mostly. (I still buy CDs, but mostly things not available in the cloud, so I can see that ending eventually.)  Of this batch, I’ve been especially enjoying Amy Ray’s new one – this and her previous one, MVP Live, have finally lifted her solo work right up there for me beside the Indigos; Amy’s created a body of work over the past thirty years that really does have a place in the modern rock and songwriter pantheon.  I’m also continuing to revel in Patti Smith’s most recent decade; her clear strong heart continues to cut to the bone (if you missed Trampin’ go listen right now!).

This time’s “Perfect for Spotify” selection is Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Friends, a two-disc compilation of their many collaborations with other artists through the years, from Paul Simon to Emmylou Harris, Lou Rawls, Betty Griffin, Andreas Vollenweider (yup!), and many others.  Just the kind of album that’s great to hear once or twice, but may not be a necessary addition to your CD collection.  While leaning toward easy listening African music, there’s a new Angelique Kidjo live album, Spirit Rising, that’s well worth checking out.

A more adventurous world excursion is found in the Trio Chemirani‘s Invite, wherein the Persian percussion masters join forces with a diverse crew of string players, including Ballake Sissoko on kora, Sylvain Luc on guitar, Ross Daly on lyra, and Titi Robin on bouzouki.  Way fun!

And to conclude, in keeping with an overall mellow vibe here, two young songwriting founts worth delving into are Bowerbirds The Clearing, a soulful blend of voice and strings that kind of reminds me of local faves Round Mountain, and Anais Mitchell’s Young Man in America, from a quirky and compellingly ambitious songwriter who I’m just tuning into, a decade into her career.

Spotify’s February Gems


As anyone who’s visited me over the past few months can attest, I’m a total Spotify fanboy. Spotifty is the highest profile of today’s streaming music services, a massively well-stocked digital jukebox in the sky!  Unlike radio services such as Pandora, Spotify (and some other similar services, including Rhapsody and Mog) lets you pick the album and the track(s) that you want to hear. Users build an iTunes-like library of music, with playlists for different genres or or however else you want to organize, which is then ready for a simple click and play whenever you feel like hearing something again.

I’ve been loving Spotify for new music discovery, keeping current with recent releases, and simply being being able to hear an album or artist that I see or hear mentioned with a simple search and play (this week, First Aid Kit). In what will become a recurring feature on Bright Blue Ball, today I’m going to highlight a few of the things that have made me bow down before the wonder of Spotify in the past few days and weeks. (Note: Spotify is deeply entwined in Facebook’s “share everything you do with all your friends” approach to life, but you can join and listen without using or linking to Facebook….you just have to make an effort to do so!)

Chimes of freedomWEB

This month’s “Perfect for Spotify” new title is Amnesty International’s Chimes of Freedom, 73(!) Dylan covers from a crazily diverse array of artists. It’s something I’m really glad to be able to hear and even re-hear perhaps once or twice, but there was no way I would’ve felt the need to buy the 4 disc set. In the last couple months of 2011, I had the same delighted response when I found a couple of insanely comprehensive archival releases: the Beach Boys long-lost Smile and The Who’s Quadrophenia, both of which featured a disc or two worth of raw material, outtakes, studio snippets, and the like which shed interesting light on these classic albums, but surely don’t need to fill space in my CD closet.   Rave on Buddy Holly, with covers from Nick Lowe, Patti Smith, My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse, Lou Reed, John Doe, and many others was also a real blast!  (BTW, all these links go to a page that will let you add the titles or playlists to your Spotify account if you’re already a member….)

My “New Releases” playlist becomes the focus for much of my listening, and is currently stocked with January titles, including the Dylan one, a double disc retrospective from Ladysmith Black Mambazo featuring collaborations with other artists, the new Leonard Cohen disk, a recent Afropop Worldwide recommendation, by Novalima, and Guitar Passions, an album of duets from classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, featuring a wide array of collaborators including Stanley Jordan, Steve Morris, Steve Vai, and others.

Over the past few months, Spotify has helped me begin to explore 20th century classical music, fill in some embarrassing gaps in my rock diet over the past three decades (including my first real immersions into REM,  Pearl Jam,  Derek Trucks, and Wilco),  and discover new and old jazz, singersongwriters, and world artists (check out Balake Sisoko and Vincent Segal’s Chamber Music: kora and cello!).   Of course, this being music and all, everyone’s faves will be different—share some of your highlights below!

Neil Young’s ode to veterans

Csny dejavuposter WEBmed

Ah, another real surprise from my Netflix streaming queue!  Tonight, I clicked on CSNY Deja Vu, Neil Young’s movie of the 2006 tour that came together in the wake of Neil’s album, Living With War, expecting to find a concert film with a few topical touches around the edges.  Woah, Nellie, was I off base!  Instead, the four old hippies play supporting actor roles for a slew of Iraq and Vietnam war veterans and family members in a pean to the hearts and souls of those who’ve followed their leaders into battles that, in the end, just didn’t make sense. Neil even got Mike Cerra, a CNN reporter who spent three tours with a unit in Iraq, to “embed” with the tour and provide a documentary-within-the-movie about how people reacted to the tour, in the midst of that heated “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” period in America.

I suppose this shouldn’t have been such a shock.  While Neil’s album got the most attention for two rousing anthems, Let’s Impeach the President, and Looking For a Leader (presaging the 2008 primaries: “…maybe it’s a woman, or a black man after all…”), at its heart were five moving songs honoring the sacrifices and eternal burdens of our men and women in uniform.  One was a sung from the point of view of a soldier who didn’t return, wishing he could be with his family (clip on YouTube); the title track sang for the internal and external wounds, “I’m living with war….every day…in my heart… my mind; I take a holy vow, to never kill again, to never kill again…” (clip on YouTube; also not available for embed)

With the movie, Neil took this theme and moved it front and center, creating a moving portrait of the costs, and the folly, of war, and celebrating anti-war veterans from the 60’s and the 90’s.  The songs become interludes, a thematic backdrop to the human story; we generally hear just a verse or two of most of the tunes, both new and old.  At the movie’s climax, “Find the Cost of Freedom” is transformed from a hymn of resistance into a requiem for every soldier killed in Iraq up til then, vets singing along, moms in tears….and as on the album, the encore during the fade-out is David, Stephen, Graham, and Neil bringing their celestial harmonies to bear on “America the Beautiful.”  These old songsters remind us, and the younger generation, that the hippie vision was always about the deep, true heart of the dream of what American can, and should, be.

Wowser. Nicely done, Bernard Shakey.

Bright Eyes: leaping onto my Top 10 Concerts list with a bullet!

This fall, I was psyched to go with Rosa to see Conor Oberst with his long-time main band, Bright Eyes.  I got turned on to him thanks to an NPR online concert, and he became a common musical ground for Rosa and I, a good and rare thing for an 18 and 54 year old pair of music lovers.

But little did I know how amazing it would be!  By the time it was over, this show had popped into the Top 10 Concerts of All (my) Time list, not something that happens very often any more (three of my Top 10 have come in the new millennium).

Conor’s an intense and inspired songwriter, exploring with a voracious honesty the dark corners of experience (his, those he encounters, all of ours), as well as casting light on our hopes (ragged as they may be these days), always coming from a place of raw and exposed heart and soul, reaching deep.  A totally charismatic stage presence, as well, by far the most compelling front man I’ve ever seen up close in a small club.  Add Mike Mogis, who’s been his guitar-slinging sidekick for over a decade, and a way-tight-yet-explosive band of two keyboards, two drummers, bass, and occasional trumpet, and you’ve got a recipe for a good time! I don’t know nearly his whole catalog, but got easily caught up even in totally unknown songs whose words I could only catch snatches of: a riveting couplet would reach out and grab me while my body was carried along by the churning band and then sent soaring by a burst of grand rock’n’roll cacophony.

Though scouring YouTube to try to recreate something remotely representative of being there in the midst of it all is a fool’s errand (count me as foolish for the past couple of hours or so), I managed to come up with a solid hour-long video playlist that gives a decent sense of why I feel really lucky to have caught this band in what’s said to be their final tour.  There’s a good chance Conor and Mike will continue to do things together; Mogis was the non-singing “fourth man” and producer for the supergroup Monsters of Folk, which brought together three of the top 30-something songwriters into the CSN of their generation; check Conor, Jim James, and M Ward out on this Austin City Limits show. (oops; expires on Christmas! Bah humbug. Here’s a 3-song NPR session.)

Okay, on with the show!

We’ll dive right in at maximum impact, with the final song of most of the shows on this tour, and the final song on Bright Eyes’ final album, The People’s Key.  One for You, One for Me:

And a taste of his gentler songwriting, in Bowl of Oranges:

For a bunch more, click on through!

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Tom Russell: mining a mighty rich vein

In my music review days, I’d sampled one of Tom Russell’s albums, a twisted and heartfelt immersion in the beat era called Hotwalker. It was like nothing I’d ever heard (featuring “vocals” from Bukowski, Kerouac, Bruce, Abbey, and even pulling in Dave Van Ronk to play guitar, wrapped in folk/story tales); it ended up filed on my CD closet shelf that’s labeled “Oddball/Strange Tales.”  So when I saw a few months back that he was coming to town, I snapped up a ticket with very little sense of what to expect; not surprisingly, Hotwalker was way out on the edge of Tom’s catalog, but my compass was tuned in for sure.  A true songwriting genius, Tom sings the lives of all sorts of folks, in riveting and heart-wrenching directness. A night with Tom Russell is an American history lesson of the highest order.

‘Nuff said by me.  Catch him if you can!  And here’s a few introductory earfulls:

From his newest album, the title track, honoring a young Hibbing boy and their shared lodestars:

This video from a rooftop in Dublin features Thad Beckman, the same guitarist he had with him in Santa Fe, an excellent duo, doing a fantastic song about Tom’s ’60’s stint in Africa, called East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam:

For a bunch more of Tom’s many facets, click on through

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