Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Mastersons Live at the Barrymore Theater: Give Them Half an Hour to Earn Your Love

Let's get one thing clear from the outset, I love this band!  I have been trying to write this review for a couple of weeks now but have not quite been able to pull the trigger.  No, it’s not a case of writer's block. I just cannot find anything to be critical about alt country's most talented duo. So with that as a disclaimer I throw objectivity and caution to the wind.
The venue is the Barrymore Theater, in Madison Wisconsin.  For the uninitiated, the Barrymore is a funky throwback to the late 60's, no pretentions, proudly not fancy.  Just a great place to see live music for a reasonable price with a nice selection of craft beers.  Although it is about an 8 hour drive for me roundtrip, a show at the Barrymore is well worth it and has quickly become one of my favorite venues to see music.
Taking the stage promptly at 8 PM, The Mastersons are introduced by the night's headliner, Steve Earle.  After pimping the meat loaf at the little place across the street and proclaiming his love for the venue, Mr. Earle expresses his admiration for the husband and wife duo that also make up one-half of his band the Dukes.  Wasting no time, the Mastersons tear into one of the gems off their latest cd, "Nobody Knows".   As much as I love the full band version on the disc and Chris Mastersons beautiful electric guitar work, Eleanor Whitmore's beautifully strong voice and perfect melodies with Mr. Masterson will soon have you forgetting about versions and instrumentation and just digging the music.  Between songs Eleanor explains they get only about half an hour to win us over before setting up the next number.  She dedicates "Cautionary Tale" to all the people she sees in restaurants and bars who are buried in their hand held devices and smart phones instead of paying attention to the person they are out with.  Being I was sitting fairly close to the stage holding two devices, one to take notes and the other to take pictures, she made me feel ridiculous and self-conscious, touché.
I would love to be able to report on the next several songs they performed but thanks to Eleanor's "Cautionary Tale" and her gravitas, I cannot read the cryptic notes I sneaked to peck into my iPod whenever she was looking the other way, resulting in unintelligible gibberish.  That and the fact that I have reached that stage in life where my medium term memory is not as good as it used to be, I am left with that corollary to the Rumsfeld Doctrine, "I Only Know What I Know". Consequently, what I do know is that Eleanor introduced their final number, the title track to their latest work, "Good Luck Charm" by explaining the inspiration for it came from Texas politics and the shenanigans that the party in power pulled a few years back (if I am not mistaken I believe the overreaching conduct was recently overturned by the courts) and by the reaction of the audience, something most Wisconsinites can relate to as well.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Gregg Allman and the Restorative Powers of Music

One of my most cherished bootlegs is a dub of the board tape from the Scorpion from the opening (and closing) night of the Nighthawks and special guest Gregg Allman tour.  I was waiting in line outside the Bayou in D.C. the next night, a line  that stretched all the way down the block and will never forget the bouncer coming out and telling everyone to go home as Gregg was a no show or as I like to say "he was doing a mean impression of No Show Jones".  

Gregg has more than made up for that disappointment over the years including most memorably the night after John Lennon was murdered.  It was December 9, 1980 and the Allman Brothers were playing the Met Center in Bloomington Minnesota and just like everybody in the audience that night, you could tell the band was hurting and confused.  But instead of wallowing in the hurt and pain of it all, that night the Allmans provided "musical healing" to paraphrase Marvin and got us through the day we truly thought the music had died.  (That same night in downtown Mpls Curtiss A and his band turned the night into a tribute to Lennon and has played a Lennon tribute show at First Ave every Dec. 9th since, again proving the healing powers of music.) 

And just to prove there was no hard feelings,  in 1986, some 8 years after walking off his tour with the Nighthawks, Gregg was a special guest at what was then thought to be the Nighthawks farewell show at the Carter Baron Amphitheater in D.C.  As it turned out, reports of the bands demise following the departure of Jimmy Thackery from the Hawks  had been greatly exaggerated.  The Hawks resurrected like a Phoenix and have been burning it up ever since.

Perhaps Gregg's greatest legacy is his resilience.  I cannot think of another musician who has suffered as much tragedy, personal setbacks and most recently health battles that would have sapped the  life out of most people, but he keeps coming back, coming back for more.  I gotta believe Gregg perseveres due in large part to the restorative powers of his music.  And for that I thank him.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Steve Earle & the Dukes Give Madison the Blues: Live at the Barrymore Theater, Madison, WI August 8, 2015

"Well did you ever wake up with that one woman on your mind? Sit there laughing, laughing just to keep from crying? "   William Harris knew it.  Steve Earle knew it more times than he would probably care to remember (6 to be precise, but hey, whose counting?)

Elmore James knew it too: "...ahh, you cats with your Madison shoes we do this thing we call the Madison Blues we do the Madison Blues ...we do the Madison Blues baby rock away your blues".

Returning to one of his "favorite places to play", the Barrymore Theater in Madison. WI, a jovial and truly inspired Steve Earle turned a night dedicated to the blues into a joyous occasion that will be forever cherished by all those in attendance.  No, Mr. Earle and company did not play the William Harris song popularized by Canned Heat/Gallagher/Thackery and a songwriter as gifted as Steve doesnt need to stoop to something as hackneyed as playing the great Elmore James song In a city named Madison, leave that to the amateur music critics. 

What America’s most interesting songwriter and his crack band consisting of long time rhythm section of Kelly Looney on upright and electric bass, Will Rigby on drums and the incredibly talented husband and wife duo of Eleanor Whitmore on vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, violin and keyboards and the country’s most versatile, tasteful, ensemble or lead playing guitar genius, Chris Masterson on vocals, acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars (aka the Mastersons) did do was over 3 hours (including the Mastersons shimmering beautiful opening set) of blues music showcasing Earle’s mastery of the genre from all periods of his career. 

Along the way a down right chatty Mr. Earle took the time to put his songs into context whether reminding audience members that this was not his first foray into the blues before playing an old chestnut like “My Old Friend the Blues” or how he knew exactly where he was when he wrote the next song because it was the first song he wrote sober.  There was acknowledgement of his recent divorce which served as the inspiration for doing a “blues” album but it was never mean or bitter just brutally honest, which is the hallmark of any songwriter who is worth a damn.
Of course he had to throw the obligatory Copperhead bone but for a change he did it fairly early in the show thus setting up the reference to that part of his fan base stuck in the past and the punch line, “this next one is for those of you who need to get home early because you’re on probation or electric home monitoring,  the rest of you stick around because we have a lot more to do”.

Another highlight for me was the ferocious version of the Chester Burnett classic “44 Blues” that had Steve channeling the Wolf both on vocals and with some nasty harmonica and Mr. Masterson playing slide like the great Lowell George.  Always the respectful one, Steve paid tribute to the late King of the Blues, B.B. before sequing into a rip snorting electric blues finale including a refreshing and interesting version of “Hey Joe” thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Masterson.  The encores were broken up with a beautiful instrumental that a fellow concert goer and the one kind enough to let me take a picture of the official set list, said was a Donovan cover which got me thinking if it was the same Donovan number referred to in the Mother Jones interview that got him kicked out of his first blues band at the age of 13?  

The crowd just wouldn’t let the band leave summoning them back for more.  This time we got a real treat, a brand new protest song that they played only for the second time and one they planned to release as a single this week:  Mississippi Take It Down.  Again proving why he is the best songwriter out there it is a great song telling the Governor and people of Mississippi that it is time to retire the Confederate Stars and Bars as part of their state flag.  In light of the debate set for this week in the Mississippi legislature, this one is sure to garner attention and sales.  Next up was the soon to be election year call to arms, the “Revolution Starts Now” before ending with the Troggs “Wild Thing” that had Will Rigby using 2 sticks in one hand bashing out the cymbals like Nick the Bruiser.
Donovan song?Mississippi Take It Down
Down the Road I go
The Revolution Starts Now
Wild Thing

This is the second time that my son and I have made what now can only be described as a pilgrimage from Minneapolis to Madison to see Steve & the Dukes with the Mastersons at the charmingly friendly and funky Barrymore Theater.  Because we had  been listening to Terraplane since it came out and read Steve’s published interviews including the excellent Steve Earle interview in Mother Jones (April 2015) by Jacob Blickenstaff  we knew this tour, like the album, was going to be about the blues.  The running joke this trip was “we were on a mission from God”.   

On our first trip almost two years ago to the day, we fell in love with Madison, a progressive jewel of a city in a state that, sadly, remains under the control of a failed regime and its despotic ruler.  While Wisconsin's weak chinned look-a-like to Syria's Assad hasn't resorted to dropping barrel bombs on his own citizens (at least not yet) he has fired off defamatory missives in Trump like fashion; most infamously equating his states hard working and underpaid public sector employees to Isis fighters.  Like Steve and the Dukes we share an admiration and respect for the oppressed working class citizens of Madison and the State of Wisconsin.  As anyone who read my review of the 2013 show knows, that show was held in such high regard, we thought it would be almost impossible to match so we had prepared ourselves for a letdown.  Little did we know that Steve and the Dukes had other plans.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Lakers Back in Mpls: Secret Stash Records Revue Takes Over First Ave

There’s a new juggernaut in town.  The Lakers dynasty is back in Minneapolis where it all started.  No, I’m not talking about that current bunch of bums also known as Kobe & Kompany.   No, I’m not even talking about the storied NBA franchise led by big George Mikan and Coach John Kundla that won 1 BAA, 1 NBL and 5 NBA titles in Minneapolis before moving to Los Angeles in 1961.   What I’m talkin’ ‘bout Willis is none other than Secret Stash Records Sonny Knight and the Lakers who along with their stable mates took over and then blew the roof off the house that Prince built, First Ave, in downtown Minneapolis last Knight. 

I had been a little depressed lately about the state of soul music in this country.  With the exception of the great Billy Price/Otis Clay cd project, “This Time for Real”, that came out in May things had been pretty bleak in the world of soul music.  Doesn’t seem like a week goes by that I don’t read of the passing of another one of my soul idols like most recently Don Covay and Mighty Sam McClain.  That’s what makes this story so sweet and why one Sonny Knight, a formerly obscure survivor of the Twin Cities little known soul and funk scene of the 60s and 70s, at the age of 67 and at the zenith of his career, the happiest man on earth.  Pops may have sang “…when you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you…” but last Knight Sonny had them believing and smiling.

But first a little of the back story:

Twin cities drummer Eric Goss,  who along with Cory Wong founded Secret Stash Records, is my new hero (sorry Jimmy, but Eric if you read this please give Mr. Litwin a call).  Move over Scott Bomar and the Bo-Keys there’s a new man (band) in town.  (That one’s for Mighty Sam.)

to be continued