Viola Smith rocks the drums with her girl band in 1939:
And then there is studio bassist Carol Kaye, who has played on 10,000 tracks over the years, including those by the Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, and Nancy Sinatra. Here’s a clip from a proposed documentary:
One thing led to another and I found myself on YouTube, watching old music videos from the 80s and 90s. It was surprisingly fun: the quaint plotlines, the campy acting, the decent cinematography. For example, watching the bearded, burly members of ZZ Top come to the rescue of a geeky young beauty in Legs. But they come as ghosts, flickering in and out, as if the tooth fairy dressed up like beaming Hell’s Angels with a wholesome message:
And then there is Cyndi Lauper, all dolled up and lovingly giving her parents a hard time in Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. She raises girly squeaks and eye-rolls to an adorable art form:
Or what about Michael Jackson in Beat It? He’s so young and un-freaky looking as he urges his peers to all get along–while showcasing his double-jointed dance moves. I especially love the guys climbing out of the manhole. No wait; I love the whole thing: the cafe, the smoky streets, the choreographed dance scene.
I don’t think of the 80s and 90s as an innocent time, but there’s a sweetness in these videos that I wasn’t expecting to find. Maybe it’s just the flavor of nostalgia; but I think there’s more to it than that. We’re in a time of such rapid change that living memory is, in some ways, also the distant past. For those of us who were alive then, these videos conjure up the expanding distance between that world and this one–and for a moment, make the gap a little smaller.
I just discovered this gem of a video featuring the incomparable John Prine. Enjoy, it’s the Happy Enchilada:
This is a sweet moment–kitchen table music back when Prine was young–and also a sweet little piece of editing as well; whoever made this left in the casual chit-chat at the beginning, and cuts away to footage of other events in a way that is really heartwarming. It’s the kind of tribute the guy deserves. A friend recently called his music “delightfully depressing,” but I’ve never found him so. The effect I feel is more like he stretches my heartstrings tight between the bookends of “uplifting” and “melancholy,” and then plays a beautiful tune on them.
I’m excited for the upcoming album from Aboriginal-Australian country singer Roger Knox that has been making a buzz around certain corners of the internet. He has a deep, sweet voice with all of the most addictive elements of classic country: the twang, the warble, the yodel. But just to mix up your expectations, the “Koori king” uses the country formula to sing unabashedly of Australia: the kangaroos, emus, and blue gum trees of the bush. Here’s a Soundcloud sampler for you to check out:
The beefy man at the next table was really excited for the show. It was his sixth time seeing Carolyn Wonderland, but I couldn’t share his anticipation – I’d come with friends, trusting their word but never having heard her. Never having heard of her, truth be told. I figured it would be a decent but unremarkable show.
Then she began to play, and my jaw hit the floor. I can’t remember the last time I heard such raw, unabashed rock and roll – especially from a young(ish) female performer. She came out with both guns blazing. Pedal to the floor. Whatever analogy you want to use: her head was back, veins showing in her neck, back teeth visible. As she belted out the song her leg was pumping and her fingers were flying up and down the guitar neck. And she was good. I felt the ghost of Janis Joplin in the room.
The next song was the perfect counterpart: melodic and delicate, it showed off the band’s range. It reassured me that she wasn’t going to go off the rails with all that energy she unleashed in the first tune. And the show stayed between those two points of reference for the rest of the evening. Wonderland rocked the entire time, sometimes hard, sometimes gently. She was down to earth in her between-song patter, making fun of herself and talking with the audience that had packed into Yoshi’s Oakland, a great turnout for a Thursday night.
Wonderland isn’t a one-woman show, and the two other members of her band are also delightful, and great counterpoints to the singer. Keyboardist Cole El-Saleh looks like a stoned jazz musician with round dark glasses, long curly hair and an unflappable demeanor. While Wonderland is rocking all over the place, he’s sitting back in his chair, keeping up with her using one hand and a cool half-smile. On the other side of the stage, drummer Rob Hooper makes the singer look calm: sweating and smiling and whapping out some fine beats. He even plays the maracas with gusto.
My ear snagged on an above-average tune while listening through this years SXSW promo compilation. A crisp beat interwoven with funky, soaring vocals. The song, “King of Diamonds” by Motopony, is both groovy and upbeat. It has a backbeat of optimism and a whiff of melancholy. Like a warm spring day. Like an open road. So I’ve been listening to this Seattle-based band’s other stuff, which also turns out to be solid – refreshing in an era plagued by one-hit wonders.
“We’re not place specific, but I do think our music is born out of eight months of rain in a year and the love of nature because it’s so damn green. There are lots of open spaces. I really love our place, and I think that shows up in what I’m trying to do,” writes one of the band’s co-founders, Daniel Blue. And it’s true – there is a lot of open space in this music. And every song could be a soundtrack to a nature video.
Mixtape-worthy shows, coming soon in the SF Bay Area!
Jonathan Richman: December 12, Great American Music Hall
Jeff Tweedy: December 12, The Fillmore
BeauSoleil: December 15, Yoshis Oakland
Andrew Bird: December 16 & 17, Congregation Sherith Israel
Christmas Jug Band: December 20 & 21, The Sweetwater
Los Lobos/Zigaboo Modeliste and the New Aahkesstra: Dec. 21, The Fillmore
Nikki Bluhm & The Gramblers: Dec. 22, Lafayette Town Hall Theater
Dave Alvin: Dec. 22, The Sweetwater
Chuck Prophet: December 28, The Hopmonk
The Generationals: December 31, Bottom of the Hill
Volcano Choir: January 21, The Fillmore
Josh Ritter, January 23, The Fillmore
Jake Bugg: January 24, The Fox Theater
The Dustbowl Revival: January 24, Cafe Du Nord
Ramblin' Jack Elliott: January 30, The Sweetwater
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: February 14, The Fillmore
Lord Huron: February 25, The Fillmore
Dr. Dog: March 1, The Warfield
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: July 1, The Warfield
Our parent radio station has a lot of great shows. Check out a KWMR schedule, archives, or stream the live programming here.
Some dynamite albums
A great song is a treat but a great album is a banquet. Here are some recommendations of albums that are solid all the way through. All vintages considered: both new goodies and old standbys.
Shovels & Rope: O' Be Joyful
The Birds of Chicago (Self Titled)
J. Roddy Walston & The Business (Self Titled)
The Tallest Man on Earth: Shallow Grave/The Wild Hunt
Gillian Welch: The Harrow and The Harvest
The Cave Singers: Welcome Joy
Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses: Junky Star
Hoots and Hellmouth: Holy Open Secret
Josh Ritter: The Animal Years
John Prine: The Missing Years
Teddy Thompson: Up Front & Down Low
The Arcade Fire: Funeral
The Arcade Fire: Suburbs
Here are links to some dynamite songs, made available by the artists (no piracy here, folks!)