Feeling creative on this Billboard Music Awards weekend!
Music fans have known for some time now that something special is brewing in Alabama. In 2012, we were introduced to Brittany Howard when Alabama Shakes released their debut album Boys & Girls. Up until now, it seemed that the sheer raw power heard in Brittany Howard’s vocals, teamed with her Rock & Blues riffs on guitar, were unrivaled. But now, a new challenger has entered the ring to vie for the title of Alabama’s best belter. His name is Paul Janeway and the band is called St. Paul & the Broken Bones.
Half the City, St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ debut album, is a lyrical scrapbook filled with pictures of lovers, cut up with scissors and taped back together. In it there are memories of past relationships that could not be forgotten. Page after page, song after song, the pain caused by the love that could not be saved is displayed for anyone curious enough to know the story. And whether or not the apostle Paul of the Bible is the intended namesake, Paul Janeway on Half the City proclaims himself as the undisputed apostle of the resurgent gospel of Soul music. Janeway’s howling and screaming in songs like Dixie Rothko and Broken Bones & Pocket Change last longer than the apostle Paul’s all night sermons. You know, like the one that caused Eutychus to fall asleep and fall to his death from off a windowsill in the book of Acts? The apostle Paul made it up to him by promptly resurrecting Eutychus. Talk about broken bones! Or maybe it’s the broken bones the apostle Paul suffered from all of those beatings at the hands of Roman persecution. Could it be that Janeway is recalling the pain of bad break-ups through the imagery of Nero, the Coliseum and imprisonment? Broken bones!
If Janeway’s bones are in danger of being broken, he has himself to blame on songs like the slow winding, droning I’m Torn Up where he asks his sweetheart,
Is he standing right next to you,
Listening to this sweet song?
Could you please tell him,
That you did him wrong?
Yep, the proverbial “thorn in the side” of Paul in this case is a woman-a woman who belongs to another man. This adulterous affair continues on the dangerously sentimental Let It Be So where he sings,
I will love you until the end of time,
But our love ain’t right,
Please old lady let me lay with you,
I know he ain’t here tonight.
And it’s gonna take more than a blinding light from Jesus to stop this sin evident by Janeway’s confession that,
We can’t stop what the Lord has made,
Though the devil may try,
I ain’t holy, but I’m whole with you…
Things pick up a bit tempo-wise, but not for long, on the carrousel like Don’t Mean a Thing. The horns rise and fall lead by Allen Branstetter on trumpet and Ben Griner on trombone. Like horses on a merry-go-round, the beat goes up and down, it speeds up and then slows down, and Janeway finds himself like a knight sworn to protect the king, upon his steed, riding helplessly in circles as he watches his “kingdom fall” to yet another failed relationship. If it’s any comfort, though his castle of love is destroyed, the bridge helped constructed by Andrew Lee on drums, Jesse Philips on bass, Al Gamble on organ, and Browan Lollar on guitar can provide safe passage for he and his horse to return-but “not until the morning sun.” Andrew Lee’s drumming on the vamp that transitions Don’t Mean a Thing out into a sustained sigh and final exhale is especially noteworthy.
Only the phrase “sweet misery” can describe the self inflicted torture that Janeway expresses in the Rock and rolling Like a Mighty River. Or perhaps masochism is a better fit. He wrestles with his spirituality as he assesses his relationship with his lover, weeping:
She is just a pure girl,
And I am just a dirty boy,
And we’re just tryin’ to work it through.
But there ain’t no words that cut me,
Like the ones she use.
And then further examines his soul when on Grass is Greener he notes:
We put on our Sunday best,
We live our quiet mess,
But we’ll never be married.
Janeway succumbs to desperation in Call Me, a mid tempo groove with rhythm guitar reminiscent of Isaac Hayes’ Soul Man, performed by Sam & Dave, and played by Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Janeway pleads:
You got your limit,
Baby I’ve got mine,
You got to call me baby.
All is lost on the lamentably Broken Bones & Pocket Change. In this melodic ode which blurs the lines between a woman and music, Janeway waxes poetic:
Broken bones and pocket change,
This heart is all she left me with,
I got it bad, baby,
I got it oh so bad this poor disease,
And I’m down, oh I’m down,
On my knees,
Music died and let me go,
Said goodbye to my poor soul,
Melody, Melody, Melody,
Why have you forsaken, forsaken me?
Janeway can’t close the show without keeping true to form in the personage of St. Paul. Despite the dark cloud from under which he finds himself in throughout Half the City, he reaffirms his faith in the redemptive power of God on the spiritual It’s Midnight. If it weren’t for the saloon style piano playing in the background, you might think it was sung in a church. Be that as it may, whisky rather than wine is more appropriate at the close of this album – as are quiet, lonely nights and sliding patio doors. So open your door halfway and let the gentle breeze soothe your soul as you spin this CD over and over again. The music gets better each time it‘s replayed. Don’t skip around from track to track. Just as you would a favorite book, read it from beginning to end, cover to cover. Listen to it in its element, like a story being told, with every detail included. Don’t miss a thing!
If you look up the word human in the dictionary, you’ll get a fairly nonspecific definition: of, belonging to, or typical of mankind [the human race]. My Webster’s New World Dictionary, in an attempt to further clarify the meaning of the word human, adds the following two entries: 1. consisting of or produced by men [human society] 2. having or showing qualities characteristic of people [human values]. These definitions leave much to be desired in the way of understanding what it means to be human. Perhaps, the best way to understand what it means to be human, is to experience it. So, in the interest of humanity, last night I went to see Jon Batiste and Stay Human perform in concert at the Rinker Playhouse in West Palm Beach, FL.
I first heard about Jon Batiste and Stay Human at Barnes & Noble’s music department, where I work part time. A couple of months ago, we received their new album titled Social Music for our in-store play. After weeks of listening to Social Music, I realized that Jon Batiste and Stay Human had achieved what all recording artists hope to do, when in my apartment, I began to hum some of the melodies I had been hearing on the CD. This new jazz band’s music, which Anthony DeCurtis quoted Jon Batiste describing as “…a montage of many different music traditions,” and reflecting “that spirit of advancement, collaboration and connectivity while still remaining human” in an age of technology, had slowly infiltrated my subconscious.
Some time after that, I checked out a film titled Red Hook Summer directed by Spike Lee. It’s a film about a young boy from Atlanta who spends a summer in New York with his preacher grandfather. To my surprise, Jon Batiste was cast as the organist for the preacher’s church. I then found out that Jon Batiste and Stay Human would be in concert at the Rinker. I thought this might be an opportunity to catch a glimpse at what could become one of the legendary jazz movements, and jazz artists of the 21st century.
Imagine being able to go back in time and see Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five play Heebie Jeebies in front of a live audience for the first time. What if you could clumsily trip into a time warp, and come out on the other side in time, to catch Thelonious Monk, debuting his trademark, trans-like dance along side his piano. Or catch John Coltrane at the start of Avant-garde jazz, and hear him play standards free of standard conventionality. Although Jon Batiste is no novice to the jazz world (the HBO series Treme is in part based on his New Orleans family musical legacy), he and Stay Human are currently on their first tour. Strike up the band!
The show opened with a short montage projected onto a screen above the bandstand. Images of iconic entertainers, primarily from the African-American community, were repeatedly flashed at an intense rate, only appearing for milliseconds: Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Beyonce, Wynton Marsalis, etc. As the collage of iconography was interwoven, Jon Batiste’s voice could be heard explaining the motivation for creating a new jazz movement. He talked about how he wanted his music to “bring people together from all walks of life,” and because of that, he and his band chose to name their new album Social Music. After a few moments, the screen went blank and the whole theater darkened. The silhouettes of Jon Batiste (Piano/Vocals), Eddie Barbash (Alto Saxophone), Jamison Ross (Percussion), Ibanda Ruhumbika (Tuba/Trombone), Joe Saylor (Drums), and Barry Stephenson (Bass) floated onto the stage, like wraiths. The screen then came alive with color (throughout the show the band’s technician displayed vibrant red, blue and green backdrops) and the spotlight beamed on Jon Batiste.
From the outset, it was evident that quite a bit of thought was put into the organization of the show. There was a scholarly tone to the performance, led off with the lecture hall style introduction of the projection screen welcome. Jon Batiste, as well as several other members of Stay Human are Julliard graduates. Batiste is a lecturer as well as a musician. Step by step, Batiste and Stay Human presented various facets of New Orleans style musical performance. This included Batiste playing at the piano alone, and then joined by Joe Saylor on snare drum, using both brushes and feet as accompaniment. It also included Barry Stephenson trading in his six string bass guitar for his upright bass. Stephenson then joined Batiste and Saylor in an improvised trio with a single drumstick and wine bottle. The band then would revert to a traditional set with Saylor going back to his full drum set, only to then pick up his tambourine, and anchor the band, in a single file line into the middle of the stage. There they played and danced jubilantly.
Jon Batiste’s musical versatility shined through as he played in vast musical styles including ragtime, blues, gospel, classical, and jazz. His personality was equally as brilliant as he playfully toyed with, and teased the audience, using dramatic pauses between piano chords. He transformed the Rinker Playhouse into a New Orleans style night club or music hall. People in the audience began to actively participate in the show, shouting out “c’mon boy,” and “have fun with it!” in encouragement. A chorus of call and response rang out during Batiste and Stay Human’s rendition of On the Sunny Side of the Street. At one point an overly boisterous audience member finished the song lyric before Batiste could sing it, prompting an infectious laugh from Batiste, that spread throughout the theater.
It wasn’t long before Batiste abandoned his Steinway and Sons piano and picked up his melodica. The melodica is an instrument which is part trumpet, part keyboard, and part harmonica. Batiste led the band in a cover of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly With His Song. He cleverly incorporated Wyclef Jean’s exclaim of “One time!…two times!” in the chorus, reminiscent of The Fugees’ version of the song on their album titled The Score. Batiste’s superb execution of vibrato on the melodica at times caused the instrument to sound more like an accordion than harmonica. With melodica in hand, he led the band off stage and into the audience where he sought out couples. Batiste then began to offer serenades much like an accordionist might do on the streets of Paris. Only this serenade included a parade, New Orleans style, made so with the generous, melodious vibrations of Ibanda Ruhumbika’s tuba.
Batiste and Stay Human stayed true to their name by adding a human touch to the show, when they came into the audience, sat down in vacant seats, shook hands with people, and invited people to sing along with them as they continued to play. They became the accompaniment for the audience, and allowed a communal experience to take place. When finally they stopped playing, Batiste thanked the crowd and told everyone that he loved them. As Batiste and Stay Human exited the Rinker Playhouse, the crowd applauded and began begging for more. Batiste and Stay Human obliged the audience, by marching back into the theater to the tune of Just a Closer Walk With Thee. A religious, spiritual mood filled the place, and the band and audience swayed back and forth in harmony, singing, humming, moaning and crying out together.
There were other moments in the show when the human factor arose in a not so desired fashion. Like when Eddie Barbash struggled to get through a vocal solo, proving that he was much more of an exceptional (and exceptional he was!) saxophonist than crooner. Or when Barry Stephenson had to do a high wire act on the stage, upon a cargo net of amplifier wires, just to make his way to Joe Saylor’s drum set. And there was also a moment when Batiste passed the microphone to Jamison Ross in an ill-timed exchange, and Ross flubbed his lyric on Sunny Side of the Street.
But the energy of Jon Batiste and Stay Human made the few human errors forgivable. These were people performing, not computers. The ergonomics can be worked out later. Everyone knows Batiste is the lead vocalist, so who really cares if he lets someone else in the band sing a song. In fact, all of the band members were called on to sing. The little mistakes, unedited by audio and video software, for me, are what give certain musical performances character. For example, I love hearing the squeaking of John “Jabo” Starks’ high hat pedal on some of James Brown’s recordings with the J.B.’s. It reminds me that there was a human being behind all of those incredible drum grooves, that were later sampled over and over again, in loops, for hip-hop records (coincidentally, James Brown’s music played in the theater’s audio sound system between sets). And when it comes down to it, that’s what it’s all about-being human. We’re all human, right?
After the show, Jon Batiste and Stay Human met the audience outside of the theater. They sat at a table and signed autographs for people who bought their CD. They took pictures with fans. They were very down to earth and approachable for anyone who wanted to meet them. I walked out, looking at the smiles on the faces of people who seemed genuinely touched by what they had just seen, heard and felt. I then felt an appreciation for what Anthony DeCurtis quoted Jon Batiste as saying in the playbill: “And Stay Human, then, is a reminder of what connects us all. It’s our mantra. With so many ways to communicate at our disposal, we must not forget the transformative power of a live music experience and genuine human exchange.” I guess being human isn’t such a bad thing after all.
A surfer wiping out. A guy falling off a bull. These are just a couple of reasons why making my latest music video was so much fun to do. The video is called “Love Notes.” It sort of pays homage to some of my favorite places and people. I used a Vivitar Vivicam 7020 to record the video, and Windows Movie Maker to edit the video. I played all the instruments on the song (Rogue Acoustic guitar, CB Drums), and used a Dynamic Microphone DM-30, and MAGIX Music Studio to record the music.
This is an instrumental song I recorded using MAGIX Music Studio, and a DM-30 Dynamic Microphone. I used a Rogue acoustic guitar, a CB drum set, and Aspire congas in this recording.
This is an instrumental song I recorded using MAGIX Music Studio, and a DM-30 Dynamic Microphone. I used a Rogue acoustic guitar, a CB drum set, and Aspire congas in this recording. It is dedicated to the movement to change the name of the Washington Redskins mascot. We are Native Americans…not Redskins!
This is my most recent music video project to date. The title of the song is August. The concept is based on sights and scenes that I’ve taken in, over the course of this summer. The song does not have any lyrics, but does feature some really beautiful, melodic vocals sung by none other than Marilyn Cole (My mom). I played all the instruments on the recording, and I’m most proud of the guitar solo at the end, which is the very first guitar solo I’ve ever written and performed. Learning guitar has been a very slow process, but it has been very rewarding. The video features some of my favorite landmarks in Columbus, OH, skylines, rooftop views, nature, and a wine glass that keeps popping up in front of the camera. I recorded the music with MAGIX Music Studio software, and used my digital ViviCam 7020 to record the video. Please enjoy!
Comedown Machine is the fifth studio album released by The Strokes, and the third I have purchased. When The Strokes released their critically acclaimed first album titled Is This It in 2001, I missed it. In fact, I still have not heard it. Why? Because…well, I don’t really have a good answer for that question. In fact, it’s pretty much a musical anomaly that I would even be interested in The Strokes given that: a. I was not allowed to listen to any type of music other than gospel music when I was a kid, and b. when I finally did begin to listen to secular music, I was drawn to r&b and hip-hop. Later, I got interested in the sampled music that rappers and singers were incorporating into their music, which lead me to caches of jazz and soul catalogues. Put quite simply, I had yet to cultivate an ear for rock music by the beginning of the last decade.
Sometime in 2003, a feeling of restlessness overcame me. Every time I went into a music store to rummage through vinyl crates and CD bins, I found myself repeating the mantra encapsulated in The Strokes’ debut album title: “Is this it?” I needed to get out of the monotony of listening to the same music over and over again. So I turned to MTV and started paying attention to all of the videos that, before, I would have normally dismissed with the click of a remote either because the artist didn’t look like me, or wasn’t rapping/singing over a melodic, hypnotic head-nod commanding beat. Yes that’s right, I started watching rock videos.
One day, during my strange journey through all things contemporary rock, a band managed to catch my attention. Here were these 5 guys, with this sort of nonchalant attitude that said “we’re cool without trying to be cool.” The lead singer’s voice was equally reserved, collected and placid. Their name was The Strokes and their latest album was titled Room on Fire. I went out and bought it. The rest is history. Well, sort of.
After skipping out on 2006’s First Impressions of Earth, I caught up again with The Strokes in 2011 for their fourth album Angles, a delightful patchwork of upbeat, and mid-tempo songs that are rock at the core, but with elements of soul (and I guess what could be considered techno) slightly detectable below the surface.
Comedown Machine pushes back against the pervasive pressure applied to artists, by management and fans alike, to churn out spotless melodious widgets. The second song on the album titled All The Time, is capped off with 30 seconds of pianissimo intermittent guitar strokes and background noise. At 3 minutes and 28 seconds into the accordion parodied effect and distorted break infused song 80s Comedown Machine, fidgety rustlings of what could be door keys or coins piled in an ashtray bleed through the recording for a full 25 seconds. After 4 minutes and 5 seconds into Slow Animals, the song concludes with an explosion from a geyser of guffaws. Were The strokes prematurely laughing at their critics, (most of whom wrote less than favorable reviews of this album) or just having a blast making music? Either way, this worked for me.
Julian Casablancas’ creamy falsetto on One Way Trigger succeeds with bursts of 3 syllable exhortations:
Find a job
Find a friend
Find a home
Find a dog
Out of town
Find a dream
Shut it down
He then goes on to curiously ask “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?” in the Nikolai Fraiture bouncy bass line driven Welcome To Japan. Casablancas’ questioning of societal practices always seems to sneak up on you, when you least expect it, like on the last song on Angles titled Life Is Simple In The Moonlight when he sings:
Making fools out of the best of us
Making robots of the rest of us
Innocence itself in America today
Is a crime just like Cornel West would say
On Call It Fate, Call It Karma, Casablancas’ falsetto returns as an echo of Billie Holiday’s shrill, haunting vibrato that sort of dangled off the edge of a cliff until it succumbed to the next measure, when he asks, “Can I waste all your time here on the sidewalk?”.
On the self assured song 50/50 Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. compliment each other with searing, steadfast guitar riffs. And drummer Fab Moretti’s rolling tom-tom work on Partners In Crime heralds a midi-like background vocal overlay like a medieval ambassador would a wizard. Prepare to be enchanted!
When you open the CD booklet for Comedown Machine, don’t expect credits or lyrics. Instead, all that is printed are the silhouettes of the 5 band members against a red backdrop. In the internet age, you can always go online to get lyrics. Hell, you can go online and get the music. But then you miss out on some of the creativity that the artists wish to pass on to you by hand. The personality of Comedown Machine retains the same attractiveness as The Strokes possessed when I first encountered them in 2003. Their music hasn’t changed, but it has grown. In fact, taking Comedown Machine into consideration, perhaps the proper word is flourished.
The story of Rodriguez, the folk musician from Detroit, Michigan, whose music in America laid dormant for 4 decades, continues to amaze me. If you’re a music fan like me, you already know the story of how his albums released in the 1970’s sold poorly and he subsequently vanished into the unassuming life of a construction worker in the “Motor City.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, and while he was going about his life after music, unbeknownst to him, thousands of miles away in South Africa, his music was being celebrated.
His fans in South Africa reportedly sang his songs with the same fervor as any Elvis or Beatles enthusiast. A persistent rumor circulated amongst his fans that Rodriguez had committed suicide. But after a while his fans managed to track him down and disprove the rumor, and what happened next would seem like pure folklore if it wasn’t true. The obscure American folk musician whose music was largely ignored in his own country became a living legend and his career was resurrected.
The documentary Searching For Sugar Man released in 2012 chronicles this modern day legend. The movie was shown in select theaters around the country and I did not get a chance to see it. However, I have plans to watch it on DVD very soon. In the mean time, I’ve read several articles about it and caught the 60 Minutes broadcast in which Rodriguez was featured. I also caught Rodriguez’s performance on the Later…With Jools Holland program.
Every time I watch video of Rodriguez walking around his inner-city Detroit neighborhood, I can’t help but envision him as some sort of musical superhero, merely wearing the disguise of an everyday Joe. If Rodriguez walked by you, you wouldn’t think he was capable of superhuman feats, sort of like if Clark Kent or Bruce Banner happened to stroll by you on the sidewalk. But instead of being able to fly or lift automobiles over his head with his bare hands, Rodriguez does the impossible with an acoustic guitar; he inspires the poor who are victims of economic injustice and gives a voice to the voiceless in the presence of deafening tyranny.
I purchased a copy of the soundtrack to the Searching For Sugar Man documentary, and I love how on the back of the CD it says: “Rodriguez receives royalties from the sale of this release.” It feels good to see an artist of Rodriguez’s stature finally get his just due.
The CD includes 14 of Rodriguez’s songs, heavy anti oppression anthems rich with imagery and metaphors. In the song titled Cause, Rodriguez sings,
Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas
And I talked to Jesus at the sewer
And the Pope said it was none of his God-damned business
While the rain drank champagne…
Rodriguez’s songs like this, the ones that call in to question everything I learned about religion, cause me to think about the world today. It makes me think about Pope Benedict XVI retiring and the news about fresh scandals in the church. It makes me think about unemployment and the millions of people who live in poverty in America – the wealthiest nation on earth. It makes me wonder how these songs could have been written 4 decades ago and yet sound like they were inspired by today’s newspaper headlines.
It is thrilling to be a part of a generation in America that is just now getting acquainted with the music of Rodriguez. A story like this doesn’t come along all that often. We’re a little bit late on this as Americans, but as the old saying goes, better late than never.
Have you seen Searching For Sugar Man or listened to the soundtrack? If so what did you think?