Looking At Love: A Musical Story

It was about 8:30 on a recent Saturday morn. Breakfast having slid down my throat 15 minutes earlier, I was in position on the living room sofa where I was thumbing through the newspaper, absentmindedly twirling the handful of hairs on my head into poor facsimiles of ionic columns, and listening to the radio. In other words, per usual, I wasn’t doing much. But that’s the way I often like it.

The radio station generating tunes in my house was WXPN, the stellar music provider from Philadelphia that has sparked me to compose any number of stories since my blog’s inception in April 2015. I’ve given XPN a ton of free publicity on these pages, but that’s a-ok. They deserve it.

WXPN likes to keep things mellow on much of Saturday and Sunday mornings. Appropriately, they named the show that airs during those hours Sleepy Hollow. You ain’t going to hear anything by Albert Ayler or Public Enemy or The Sex Pistols on the Hollow. James Taylor and Billie Holiday and Conor Oberst you will. Nice and easy does it, as Frank Sinatra once sang.

And that’s fine with me. And with my wife Sandy. We’re of the sort who like to ease slowly into the day. Sleepy Hollow is the proper conduit for such.

There I was, then, having constructed two unstable ionic columns and working on a third, when a lovely song caught my attention. A few numbers later another beauty made my eardrums sigh. And, it being my lucky day, a third tune, sweet as it could be, soon entered my living room. I’d never heard the songs before. Right away I suspected that I was going to write about them.

The songs in question are Cold As Canada, Time Will Tell and Love Had To Follow. Paul Kelly, Gregory Alan Isakov and Ron Renninger, respectively, are their composers and singers. I’ve given each song repeated listenings on YouTube since that fateful Saturday morning and have not lowered my estimations of their qualities. They are real good works of art.

I think these songs grabbed hold of me because of their sonic similarities. Each is spare in instrumentation, and each singer handles his words gently. Plenty often that formula results in sappy drivel, but not in the case of the Kelly, Isakov and Renninger opuses. And what I realized, after first hearing them, is that they concern themselves with the most powerful and basic of human emotions, and the one that I’d guesstimate about 75% of the non-instrumental songs ever written either touch upon or are fully consumed with.

Sisters and brothers, we’re talking about love.

Yeah, love. I’m not exactly issuing any news bulletins when I say that love can be as present as air, as elusive as a yeti or as slippery as a shapeshifter. It might be hot, it might be tepid, it might barely register a reading on the Celsius or Fahrenheit scales. What can you say? . . . Love’s usually complicated.

We get three differing discussions of love in my Sleepy Hollow songs. Cold As Canada, tender and sorrowful, an ideal vessel for Paul Kelly’s nasal, Dylanesque voice, is about a gal whose love for her guy has faded a whole lot. Unhappily cold, she’s leaving him, knowing that, as Kelly writes, there’s “no good way to say goodbye.” There isn’t.

Cold As Canada, which comes from Kelly’s 2012 album Spring And Fall, is a straightforward and humble work, its melody clean and pure. Kelly, a gent of 62 with a four-decades-long career in place, is a major star in his native Australia and can rock vigorously. But rock he doesn’t on this song or on quite a few others in his large oeuvre.

Now, I’m a sucker for a waltz, especially one with an unusually beguiling melody. Which means that Time Will Tell doesn’t want to give up occupancy in my brain. If there’s a lovelier, more wistful tune out there, I’d eat my hat if I owned one. And you know what? A few days ago I almost rolled off my bed when I heard Time Will Tell in a Subaru television ad. Huh? How did Subaru come across this song? Whatever, I’m glad that what I imagine are decent bucks have landed in Isakov’s pockets. It’s a struggle for most musicians to pay the rent.

What we have in Time Will Tell is a lyric open to interpretation. The words are seductive and vivid, but somewhat cloudy at the same time. Blowing the clouds away, however, I’ve decided that the story concerns a couple, two good folks who have been together for a long time and, as good folks sometimes do, are wondering if their common path is separating. It might be, but not too seriously. Their love is destined to get back on track. “Time will tell, she’ll see us through.”

Time Will Tell, from 2013’s The Weatherman album, is not dissimilar to much of Isakov’s output. He’s a folkie at heart, a mystical one who has attracted a lot of fans and has sold a lot of tickets. At 38, he’s two decades into his career and seems to have found a good, solid path to mosey down.

What, then, of Love Had To Follow? This is an easy one to decipher, even for the likes of me who couldn’t get the gist of Horton Hears A Who and How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The song is all about love at first sight, a love that lasts forever. Really, it’s that simple. I promise.

Unlike Kelly and Isakov, I’d never heard of Renninger before the Hollow brought him my way. He’s one of those guys who has been around forever (his music career began in the mid-1960s) but has never come remotely close to becoming even a wisp of a household name. But he’s still at it. Love Had To Follow is found on The Man Who Became A Song, his album of one year ago. If I owned a hat, I’d tip it to Renninger’s perseverance and love of music.

Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands, probably several million good songs have been written about love. I imagine that hundreds more were composed while I penned this article. Love . . . it makes the world, and the music biz, go round.

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Before, During And After Lunch: Slices Of Life And Of Pizza

I’ve been thinking recently about the nature of this blog. Not a whole lot, but enough to see that my stories — when you look at their sometimes straight, sometimes wavering and sometimes loopy as hell strokes — paint a pretty good picture of what I’m about. I’m not one to reveal all. I’ll never write a word, for instance, about the time, 40 years ago, when I went undercover in Nepal to help bring down the notorious Himalayan gang of bank robbers that dressed themselves in highly-convincing yeti costumes. Or about my space-boot shopping spree with Neil Armstrong a few days before he blasted off for the Moon. But I reveal plenty, I think.

Basically I’m a simple guy who does simple things. Well, simple cum lopsided things often might be a more accurate description. And for the last two and a half years I’ve been writing about them. My articles peer at, for the most part, typical days for yours truly, show what my interests are and have been, and show who has accompanied me (and whom I’ve accompanied) on this journey through what we affectionately call life.

Slices of life. Yeah, that’s what I usually find myself describing. And now that I’ve expended nearly 200 words in trying to establish a degree of context for this current opus, I’ll turn my attention in that direction. “Yo, you better, pal,” I hear a few voices saying. “Our time is limited. We’re this close to closing out your article and checking out some YouTube videos of skateboarding kangaroos.”

Right, right, ye whose attention span is shorter than Donnie Trump’s fuse (but not shorter than his dick). Here we go.

Last Friday I found myself heading north from my suburban Philadelphia abode. My car, having a mind of its own, drove itself two and a half miles to an establishment that ranks high on my ladder of places where I like to grab a bite for lunch. In fact, it probably is my favorite lunchtime eatery in my neck of the woods. And that’s because, speaking of slices, I believe that the slices of pie that one purchases at Nino’s Pizzarama are damn good. A card-carrying fool for pizza, I down them there two or three times a month (and I go to other pizza joints throughout each month too).

I ordered a slice of regular pie and one of Sicilian. They hit the spot regally, though I was slightly disappointed in the regular’s crust. Too chewy. The pie needed to have been left in the oven for another 20 or 30 seconds to become as crispy as it itself was hoping to become. Such is the life of pie.

While munching away, I couldn’t get out of my head a song I’d heard on the radio during my northward trek. It’s a very beautiful recording, one that I instantly became attached to soon after its release in 1968: Hickory Wind, by The Byrds. As always, it sounded wonderful.

Hickory Wind comes from Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, a magnificent country-rock album. The Byrds, famed for earlier numbers such as the psychedelic nugget Eight Miles High and the folk-rock staple Turn, Turn, Turn, had undergone some significant stylistic and personnel shifts by the time it was waxed. Three of the five original members were gone and new guys, most notably the space cowboy Gram Parsons, who helped push the band partly into country-music territory, were on board. Parsons is one of rock and roll’s legendary names, not only for his big musical talents, but for his wild and wooly and troubled life. He died of a drug overdose in 1973.

Gram Parsons is credited with having written Hickory Wind in 1968 with his musical compadre Bob Buchanan. (There is a dispute over the song’s authorship, by the way. Some claim that a little-known folksinger named Sylvia Sammons composed it, and that Parsons stole it from her. The truth never will be known, it seems.) It has been recorded by many since then, but The Byrds put it out first.

What a song. Wistful and melancholy, it stands you up straight and makes you think about the times when loneliness and an aching heart might have ruled your days. That’s Gram singing lead. In the car I melted as I listened to his yearning voice and to the sad, sad notes coming from Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar. Man, you want to be in a happy mood when you’re eating pizza. But me, I sat at one of Nino’s tables in a contemplative frame of mind, not fully able to concentrate on the powers of sweet tomato sauce, excellent melted cheese and could-be-better crust.

There’s much to be said for contemplative, though. It’s a state that can be good for the inner being, helping us to put things in perspective and, if we’re lucky, softening our defenses. On the way home from Nino’s I turned on the radio and found myself on the receiving end of another helping of such as Horace Silver‘s Lonely Woman filled the car. Silver, whose rich 60-year career in the jazz world ended with his passing in 2014, composed and recorded Lonely Woman in 1963. It came out in 1965 on his most famous album, Song For My Father.

There’s little I need to say about the song. It is subdued and righteous and should be better known than it is. A trio (Horace on piano, Roy Brooks on drums, and Gene Taylor on bass) perform Lonely Woman, Horace having decided that the tune would benefit if saxophone and trumpet, which appear on the majority of his recordings, sat this one out. Less sometimes is more. What’s more, Horace plays straight through Lonely Woman’s seven-minute length, having further decided that neither a bass solo nor drum solo were appropriate. Hats off to that.

Slices of life. Slices of pizza. I’m sure a spot-on connection could be drawn between them, and that slice-y metaphors are out there ripe for the picking. Those with bulbs brighter than mine would have no trouble drawing and picking. Which is why I now shall quietly exit the stage, before long to return with another tale of the sublimely simple. Till then, amigos . . .

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One Of Al Green’s Songs Righted My Ship For A While

Mount Digitalium

If I were younger by about 30 years I’d buy a good pair of hiking boots and some mountaineering gear and then haul my ass up to the top of Mount Digitalium. Once at its summit I’d catch my breath before laying into the resident gods who control the performance of the internet and of computer hardware and software on Planet Earth. These titans are, needless to say, magnificently intelligent. They also are f*cking pains. And they seem to get a big kick out of being the latter.

“Yo!” I’d yell at them. “I can’t take it no more. It’s bad enough that my desktop computer has had a nasty case of the freezing-ups for the last year. And a worse case of the displaying-message-alerts-that-make-no-sense. But did you have to slip a bottomless bottle of vodka to the computer monitor two weeks ago? I can barely make out anything on it since then. It’s taken wobbly and blurry to Olympian heights.”

“And that’s not all,” I’d continue. “This morning my wife Sandy wanted to take a look at her most recent credit card statement, wobbly and blurry be damned. She signed into her account, and you know what? That’s a stupid question because of course you know what, seeing that you caused the problem in the first place. I’ll tell you anyway — the statements section of the website was empty. Nothing was available to examine or to print out!

I would be shaking like crazy at this point. And the gods undoubtedly would let me shake for nearly forever before one of them made a comment or two.

“Thanks for stopping by, Earthling,” the chief god, Malfunctional, finally would say. “Now, though, it’s time for you to be on your way. Suck it up, fella, and figure out what your next steps should be. And, by the way, nobody ever said that life was easy for humans.”

That’s true. Nobody in their right mind ever did.

Back to what passes for reality. Still shaking, I fled the house and left Sandy to figure out what were the appropriate next steps, as I needed to be somewhere soon. Namely, at a local supermarket where once a week I bag and then load bakery items, donated by the market, into my car. Sandy delivers these goods to the food pantry she volunteers at.

Naturally, the credit card website situation wouldn’t disappear from my cranium. Man, I need to hire a personal assistant to handle tech issues for me and Sandy. It’d be worth it. That would free up more time for other aspects of living to rattle my very rattle-able nerves.

As I pulled out of the driveway, though, relief arrived. It came in the form of music, as often is the case for me. My benefactor was SiriusXM satellite radio’s The Loft, a channel that plays all sorts of good music. And the tune that filled the car’s interior and my ears as my journey to the supermarket began was a superb number that I hadn’t heard for some time: Al Green’s Tired Of Being Alone.

You know, there are hundreds of recordings that, when I hear them, I say to myself that they are just about as good as any recording possibly could be. That’s exactly what I thought when Tired Of Being Alone shot into my blood vessels and set me vibrating. A few simple, clear and rolling notes from an electric guitar, a handful of piercing trumpet blasts, and drums that snap steadily and regally set the table for Al’s entry. And what a pleading, powerful entry he makes. His is one of the great voices of the last 50 years, vulnerable when it needs to be, strong and sure when it doesn’t.

Not to downplay Green’s singing even a little bit, but I have to mention that I’m in love with the late Al Jackson Jr.’s drum work on Tired Of Being Alone. It couldn’t be more alive, even at the 1:47 mark when, empathizing with Green’s meandering, uncertain thoughts, it softens into a clickety-clack pattern for a spell. But when the spell breaks, Jackson’s drums explode, truly explode, as Green’s voice moves into vivid mode and female backup singers kick in loftily.

It all ends shortly after this, the dials in the studio having been gently turned to fade out the song. Maybe I wish that a different choice had been made conclusion-wise. I’d be a happy boy to be able to listen to another minute or more of Al’s and the gals’ and the instrumentalists’ amazing ride.

Or maybe it’s better that the proceedings were cut off artificially. After all, I was left breathless, a very good way to be left.

Al Green wrote Tired Of Being Alone in 1968. For various unimportant reasons it didn’t come out until 1971, and has been a pop music staple ever since. It’s a song about love, as most songs are. Al loves a girl. He can’t stop thinking about her. But she has sent him packing, and Al wants her back. He knows, though, that she’s unlikely to change her mind. But a guy can fantasize, can’t he? And that’s what Al does, ruminating during the song’s middle section about the nature of lost love and what he might be able to do to re-win a heart. With these words Al describes what many of us have felt at one time or another:

I’ve been wanting to get next to you, baby,
Sometimes I fold my arms and I say,
Oh baby, yeah, needing you has proven to me,
To be my greatest dream, yeah.

Many folks have heard Al Green sing Tired Of Being Alone not only on record but on stage. But will anyone ever encounter a stage version again? Hard to say. About 40 years ago religion called Al, and he, for the most part, left the pop music scene (his most recent tour was in 2012). He is the pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis, Tennessee. In an interview last year he left the door open for a return to public performance (click here), but I’m not holding my breath.

Yes, Al is doing what he must. And as he does so his many hits live on. I was a lucky individual to hear one of them on my way to the supermarket. It steadied my jangly nerves for a while. Thanks, Al. I needed that.

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Three Songs Of Summer

Hooray, it’s summer in my section of Planet Earth! Hooray, day after day has been hotter than hell! Hooray, the humidity has been flaunting its energy-sapping powers majestically! Hooray, early last week I was sweating like a frigging pig and well on my way to heat-stroke territory while mowing the lawn under a ridiculously strong, early-evening sun!

Summer . . .   for the last 25 or more years I have placed it in the This Kind Of Sucks category.

When I was a kid and teen and young adult, though, summer was the best. I loved going to the beach, spreading out on the sands for hours atop a blanket and happily slathering Coppertone suntan oil on nearly every exposed inch of my body in the hopes that my pale white-guy skin would achieve at least a smidgeon of brownish tint. Yeah man, roasting under heat rays generously sent to us from 93,000,000 miles away was the way to go. Sunscreen? Fuggedaboutit. It hadn’t been invented yet and probably would have been laughed off the stage even if it had. Too bad that I, like all guys and girls back then, didn’t have Nostradamus-like abilities to gaze into the future and marvel at the many visits to dermatologists’ offices that awaited us.

Anyway, there I was at 10:00 AM, a few days after mowing the lawn, on a journey to my local supermarket. As I pulled out of my driveway I partly rolled down a couple of windows to let some of the suffocating heat escape. It was already 82° Fahrenheit outside and a hell of a lot hotter than that inside the car. Should I turn on the A/C, I wondered? Nah. The supermarket was only seven minutes away. Only a wuss would need cooled air for a trip of such short duration. Me, I’m not a wuss. I’m a man. More or less.

Seven minutes later, with sweat flowing off me faster than a mountain stream, I arrived at my destination. Good thing I’d had good company along the way. By which I mean I heard a great song on the radio, one that hadn’t crossed my path in ages. Summer Breeze it was, but not the 1972 original by Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, who authored the tune together and had a monster hit with it. The Seals & Crofts recording is a-ok, a gentle and calming invocation of warm summer nights. But the station I was listening to, SiriusXM satellite radio’s Soul Town, played the 1973 cover version by The Isley Brothers.

I’ve always preferred the way The Isleys handle the song to Seals & Crofts’ approach. The complexity of the arrangement, the Chinese-sounding entry into the song, those shimmering, impossibly high voices, the gorgeous electric guitar solo that starts shortly after the four-minute mark and keeps on going to song’s end two minutes later . . . I tell you, in the car I was carried away by Summer Breeze’s grace and power. Here it is:

I completed my rounds inside the supermarket in a semi-flash. On my way home I punched Soul Town’s button once again, usually a good idea. I love that channel. The station came on mid-song. And the song — Hot Fun In The Summertime — was one that nobody in his or her right mind ever will complain about. Sly And The Family Stone put it out in 1969, during their glory days. It’s a champ. Dig the pounding piano that never lets up, those exuberant vocals, the piercing trumpet. Hot Fun’s good vibes guided me back to my house.

Wow, two songs about summer had found me during the handful of minutes I’d been in my car. As a massive believer in the gods of the blogosphere, I had no doubt that a mighty message was directed my way. And that the message was this: “Yo, you who is wearing the incredibly sweat-stained Fred Flintstone tee shirt, listen up! It is your duty to fashion a story out of the first three uplifting summer-themed songs that you hear today. Yes, the songs must invoke summer’s good times, despite the fact that you no longer are a fan of the hot season.”

“And remember,” the message continued, “your story must focus on three songs, not merely two. There is something special about groups of three, such as the three strands of hair remaining on the crown of your head.”

Well, back at the ranch I turned on the stereo system and began flipping from one station to another. I did this on and off for several hours. I knew that a great number, such as The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer In The City or Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime soon would be heading my way. When it didn’t arrive I started to fidget and worry. I had been commanded to compose an opus, but there was only so much time I was willing to devote to the enterprise. Finally though, WRDV, the low-wattage radio station located not far from my home, delivered the goods at 3:15 PM. But my heart sank a little, for through the speakers came one of the summery songs I’ve never been thrilled about: Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days Of Summer, in this instance sung by the great Nat King Cole. Corny lyrics abound. I suppose that in some sense they seem charming, especially if you’ve tied one on and feel compelled to sing along with all your might. The blogging gods obviously are taken with the song, or otherwise they’d not have placed me in position to hear it. Who am I to argue? Okay then, here we go — a one, a two and a three — “Roll out those lazy, hazy crazy days of summer . . . ”

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Philadelphia To The Rescue

Two Saturday mornings ago I was in the kitchen of my suburban Philadelphia home, contemplating the whys and wherefores of the universe. My wife Sandy was fastened to the living room sofa, absentmindedly wandering around the web on our laptop computer. If somebody had painted our portraits that morning they could have done worse than to title each canvas Inertia. Now, inertia is a weirdly compelling phenomenon. I’m quite familiar with and knowledgeable about it, as I spend half my waking hours within its grasp. If I were able to bottle it I think I’d become crazily wealthy. I mean, people once spent millions upon millions of dollars on pet rocks, didn’t they?

Luckily for us, our great pal Gene dialed our number around 11:00 AM. Sandy picked up the phone and spoke with him for a few minutes. After hanging up she told me what Gene had to say.

“Gene and Cindy [his wife] went to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show yesterday. He says it’s very good. He recommends that we go.”

“Yo!” I exclaimed, just like most Philadelphia aficionados are prone to do. “Gene has the right idea. Let’s go into Philly to check out that show and then we’ll see where the city’s polluted winds carry us after that.”

Two hours later we closed our eyes, clicked our heels three times and thought magical thoughts. That formula always works. Within seconds we were at 18th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia’s central section. We crossed the street and walked into Rittenhouse Square, a gorgeous one-square block park that dates back to the late 1600s. From what I’ve read, in those days and for many ensuing years the park wasn’t looking all that good. In the early 1900s it was redesigned and infused with trees and shrubs in a pretty extraordinary manner, bringing it up to the high standards set by parks in Paris and other European cities.

Neither Sandy nor I had been to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show in at least 20 years. It’s an annual affair that began in 1928, making the most recent event the 90th consecutive one. That’s staying power. The show used to be an open-air display. That’s why I was surprised to see that most of the paintings and sculptures were under cover, housed within 143 tent-like booths ringing the perimeter of the park. Don’t know in what year the show’s organizers brought in the tents, but it was good thinking on their part. Now the show can go on even if it rains.

One hundred and forty-three booths holding the works of professional artists? Holy crap, that’s a big amount. And the total doesn’t include the 18 booths in the center of the park that were devoted to the output of student artists. Sandy and I looked at nearly every single booth’s contents, I think, though at the time I’d have guessed that I’d encountered maybe 60 or 70 booths. It was a couple of days later, when reading the show’s brochure, that I learned the true numbers at the park.

Well, what can I say? I’m an art lover, but in trying to catch a glimpse of everything I didn’t act like one, doing little more than to throw a glance at most of the offerings. I made super-quick judgments, deciding in a flash whether or not an artist’s oeuvre was worth my spending a bit of time with, and coming to the madly incorrect conclusion that most weren’t. That’s not the way I behave in museums, where I linger in front of and analyze the works. Oh well, clicking my heels must have set my limited-attention-span mechanism afire. Or perhaps I was just being my usual half-crazed self.

Still, now and then I did stop to smell the roses. For instance, I liked the stylish, black and white, Art Deco-ish drawings by Anastasia Alexandrin a lot. And the same went for the madcap animal sculptures by Scott Causey. And also for John Pompeo’s sturdy, excellently-balanced paintings of landscapes and barns.

Anastasia Alexandrin and her artworks
Scott Causey’s sculptures
John Pompeo and his paintings

And what I liked as much as or more than all the art works was the park itself. It felt great to be among trees and shrubbery and lawn areas exploding in myriad shades of green. And to walk the wide pathways of an elegantly symmetrical park that hordes of Philadelphia’s citizens and visitors love to be in. Rittenhouse Square is a winner, one of the city’s brightest spots.

The day wasn’t over. After taking a pause that refreshed, Sandy and I decided to make our way to West Philadelphia, an enormous swath of Philadelphia’s territory, where, in the area known as University City, the second annual West Philly Porchfest was in full swing. Porchfest is an idea that was born 10 years ago in Ithaca, New York. Since then it has turned into reality in quite a few towns and cities in the States and in a handful of locations outside the USA. I wrote about last year’s West Philly Porchfest, and you can read the article by clicking right here.

To hold a Porchfest, you need a lot of porches. And in University City porches reign. It was on those structures that musicians gathered to fill the air with song. I’d estimate that around 150 acts hit the stages (i.e., porches) throughout the day two Saturdays ago. I kind of fizzled at the art show, but I got my act together at Porchfest and let the vibes enter me in an intelligent manner.

Mountain music jam session
Ditto

Between 4:00 and 6:00 PM, Sandy and I wandered around, program schedules in our hands. We checked out eight or so acts. The quality of the music was hit or miss. What we ended up liking the best was a mountain music jam session taking place on a quiet, leafy block of Walton Avenue. Fifty or so folks were soaking in the sweet sounds on the sidewalks and in the street. Most musicians at Porchfest, which presents many genres of music, amplified their instruments. But the mountain music jammers didn’t. No matter at all. I crept nice and close to the porch and got swept away by the sometimes gritty, sometimes aching and lonesome notes spilling from the musicians’ mouths and instruments. They were as casual and unassuming a group of performers as ever you’ll see, no different than the players strumming, picking and singing at their homes in mountain hollows in the southern states where this soulful, addictive music was born many years ago. I thought that Cameron DeWhitt killed on the banjo, that Jordan Rast fiddled like a demon, in a good sense, and that Peter Oswald set a firm footing with his cello work (Yep, a cello. It’s not the typical mountain music instrument, but at Porchfest it fit in just fine). Applause, applause.

Audience at mountain music jam session

Come 6:00 PM, Sandy and I were getting hungry. Our dinner in a West Philadelphia hot spot (Dock Street Brewery) was good. But, as my mind is starting to wander and your eyes probably are getting tired from reading this story, I’ll skip the dinner write-up. I’d bid you all adieu right now had I not one more thing to add. Namely, at the train station in West Philadelphia where we boarded a choo-choo that took us back to the burbs, we were taken by a view of central Philadelphia, some of its tall towers beautifully aglow. The picture was too pretty a one not to snap. Snap it I did:

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Bruce Springsteen Made Me An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

Source: Jason Kempin/Getty Images North America

I’d always heard that, off-stage, Bruce Springsteen is a very normal sort of person. Meaning that the uninhibited, propulsive sides of his personality are reserved for those many moments when he stands beneath spotlights. Yes, everybody knows that in concert he rocks and rolls like few mortals ever have, sweating up storms of great magnitude while giving it all he has. And now I can attest to the truth of this paragraph’s first sentence too, because last week I met The Boss. At my house, no less. He’s a good guy. As is his buddy Steven Van Zandt, a guitar slinger who has been a member of Springsteen’s E Street Band for many years. I didn’t know that they were planning to visit me. I’d have put on something more flattering than a Donald Duck tee shirt and a pair of candy-striped shorts if I had. Whatever, as they say. The main thing is that it’s a good thing I was home when they knocked on my suburban Philadelphia front door yesterday afternoon.

“Hey, Neil, surprise!” said Stevie when I opened the door. “You’re not the best looking guy I’ve ever seen, but you’re nowhere near as ugly as I was expecting. Bruce and I drove all the way from northern New Jersey to meet you. We’re glad to be here. Nice shorts, by the way.”

“Holy crap!” I said. “Stevie? Bruce? What the hell’s going on? Is this a joke? Am I on Candid Camera?”

“Hi, Neil,” said Bruce, peeking out from behind his friend. “Believe it or not, we’re here on serious business. Well, maybe not all that serious. We’ll explain all. C’mon, man, can we come in? I’ve got to use your bathroom. Half an hour ago I emptied a two liter bottle of RC Cola in no time flat. Big mistake. My bladder is sending out an SOS.”

“Gentlemen, enter!” I said, bowing and sweeping my right hand in a dramatic, welcoming arc. Enter they did, Bruce quickly spotting the ground floor john and heading towards it pronto. Stevie and I shook hands and took seats in the living room. I stared at him in disbelief. He smiled that smile of his that’s wide as a canyon.

“Stevie, what do you want to drink?” I finally managed to ask.

“Got any seltzer? Bruce I’m sure would love some, too.”

“I’ve got gallons of it. I’ll be right back.”

Two minutes later I strode into the living room with a big tray that held glasses of fizzy water and bowls of pretzels and chips. I looked at Bruce, who had finished his business and taken a seat on the sofa, and at Stevie. We lifted the glasses to our lips and reached into the bowls.

“Guys,” I said, “nothing like this has ever happened to me. Woody Allen is the only star I ever met before. That was in 1973 when I was living in Manhattan. I accidentally knocked him over with a shopping cart in a Gristedes supermarket when I made a U- turn in the cereal aisle. He got up from the floor, glared at me and kept on shopping. Never said a word. More importantly, he didn’t sue.”

“Yeah, Woody’s the forgiving kind, so that doesn’t surprise me,” said Stevie. “Anyway, here’s why we’ve paid you a visit. It’s because of that story you wrote last week about your weakening obsession with music [click here to read it]. It found its way to one of the Springsteen-fan websites.” Bruce nodded in agreement. “And Brucie boy, having nothing better to do, checked out that site the other day. Your story jumped out at him like a wild animal. After reading it he knew that he had to take some action to try and help you out. So, he called me, told me what your article was about and explained everything he had in mind. I was on board just like that.” He snapped his fingers to emphasize the point. “Ergo, here we are. And don’t bother asking how we found out where you live. It’s a Google world, my man. The only person that nobody can find hasn’t been born yet.”

“Stevie, Bruce, I’m humbled. Please continue.”

“Neil, we’re all about the same age here. Not getting any younger, that’s for sure,” Bruce said. “But Stevie and I are having the times of our lives. Just like always. We haven’t gotten tired of rock and roll in the least. Man, the passion, the fire are still there. It broke my heart when I read in your article that you’re only one-fifth the music guy that you used to be. Neil, we have come to get you out of what I am convinced is a funk. We want to turn you back into the rock and roll animal that you once were. And you know how we’re going to do that? Hold onto the few strands of hair that you have left on your wrinkly head . . . Neil, we want you to become part of The E Street Band! You’ll have more excitement than you ever thought possible. You’ll travel all over the world. You’ll drown, like me and Stevie and the rest of the band, in audience applause. Man, you’re going to have the time of your life.”

Photo: Don Marshall

I swear, my jaw dropped through the living room floor and into the basement. Whose wouldn’t have? Quickly I pulled it back into place, slapped myself in the face and said, “Bruce, this is an offer only a fool would refuse. My life has been good till now, but I wouldn’t mind it becoming great. Only problem is, I’m unfit to be in your band. You guys are the best. Me, I can’t stay on pitch when I sing. And I have less talent on musical instruments than the average three year old.”

“Doesn’t matter, Neil,” said The Boss. “We’ll teach you to sing simple background harmonies. You’ll sound just fine. And as far as instruments go, I want you to play the triangle. Anybody can play the triangle. And on a few tunes maybe we’ll have you bang on some wood blocks. Some of my songs would be strengthened with some incisive wood block poundings, don’t you think, Stevie?” Steven gave the thumbs-up sign emphatically. “Thunder Road, for instance, and Born In The U.S.A. You will be able to handle this, Neil. I’m totally confident.”

At that moment Sandy, my wife, turned her key in the front door lock and entered our house. She had been out shopping for some Matisse-inspired toilet seat covers. Sadly, none were to be found. Bruce and Steven rose, fine gentlemen that they are, when she came into the living room. Not unexpectedly, her jaw dropped not only into the basement but through the basement floor itself.

Well, Bruce and Steven hung around Sandy’s and my house for a few more hours. We all got on famously. Like I said, they are good guys. Very good guys. Bruce and the band are taking a break from the road right now, but plans for the next round are in the works. Rehearsals and touring start early next year. Sandy will fly to be with me now and then, like when the band is in London and Amsterdam and Stockholm. I’m psyched about what’s ahead.

This is the damndest thing, isn’t it? Me, a schlub who gets yanked from behind a computer keyboard to become a cog in one of the most popular bands in the universe. You know, I’m awake, but pinch me anyway. I won’t mind in the least.

 

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My Obsessions (Ain’t What They Used To Be)

Art by ATELIER DAYNÈS; PHOTOGRAPH: S. ENTRESSANGLE

Friendship is one of the things I appreciate a lot at this point in my life. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I have more strong friendships now, in the way-past-my-prime years, than I did in my younger days, which were back when Neanderthals were disappearing fast from the face of the Earth. Ah, the Neanderthals. I was real, real sorry to see them go. They kept to themselves for the most part, sure, but they were good people. They had hearts of gold. I mean, they’d share their last hunk of fire-roasted, olive oil-infused wooly mammoth meat with you if you were hungry. Or give you pots of pigments, whatever colors you needed to finish your cave paintings. What the hell can you say? Times change.

Anyway, fast-forwarding through many millennia, I was at dinner recently with two of my great pals, Mike and Jeff, guys I used to work with. We hook up for meals, and sometimes for concerts and other stuff, on a regular basis. We get along swimmingly.

We were at a tavern in a tony section of Philadelphia, downing beers and pretty good food and yapping about the usual. Donald Trump, cute girls, movies, television, travel and sports, for instance. We detest the first subject on that list and plenty like all the others. The conversation turned to baseball. Aware that the local team had lost a ton of games recently, I genteelly said to Mike and Jeff: “What the f**k’s wrong with the Phillies this year? They’re f**king awful!”

“Right,” said Mike, “I was talking for an hour about exactly that with a group of guys this morning.”

But I couldn’t go into great detail about the Phillies’ situation, because I barely knew what was happening with the team. I had no idea which Phillies were stinking up the ball field and which, if any, were playing decently. That’s the way I am these days when it comes to sports. I keep up with certain athletics a bit in the newspaper, watch a few minutes of some games on the boob tube now and then . . . and that’s about it. I still like sports, sort of, but my interest is almost nothing compared to what it was in the 1960s and 70s and much of the 80s. In those years I ingested sports voraciously, in person, on television and by reading about them. And it wasn’t only the most popular games — baseball, football and basketball — that I followed. I was into tennis, golf, track and field, boxing, bowling . . . there wasn’t much I didn’t invest countless hours keeping up with.

But those days are long gone. Starting in the late 80s I began to experience déjà vu whenever tuning in to a game. “I’ve seen all of this before,” I would think to myself. “Like, eighty thousand times before.” Which was very, very true. And so my interest in sports started its what I imagine to be predestined decline. By the time I met Sandy, my wife, in 1990, I wasn’t all that big a sports fan anymore. That’s lucky for me because she’d have bid a quick adieu to anyone obsessed with sporting affairs. And I totally understand that viewpoint. These days I too don’t enjoy spending much time with anyone who is magnificently hung up on and consumed by sports. Or by any other subject, for that matter.

Such as music. Some people who have known me for years still think of me as a total music nut. Well, music is a big interest of mine, as the pages of this blog prove. But I’m one-fifth the music guy that once I was. Where I used to make a startling effort to follow what was going on in rock, jazz, blues, singer-songwriter, reggae, Americana and you-name-it genres of music, no longer do I behave that way. My effort these days is limited, not startling. And I’m much the happier for it. Now I have loads of time to spend on more important activities, such as trying to devise innovative afternoon-napping systems that will benefit mankind immeasurably by invigorating the human spirit as never before. Such work, I’m quite confident, will prove to be my most important and lasting legacy.

Still, music is wondrous. And, unlike sports, I couldn’t live without it. Or live without writing about it. And that’s what I’m about to do. You see, one morning last month I heard a song on WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania’s crackerjack radio station, that instantly blew me away. The song made my ears stand up, and then it carried me from the bathroom in which I was brushing my teeth to cosmic pastures. The date, I’m fairly sure, was April 24, two days after the band called The War On Drugs released Thinking Of A Place.

Now, I don’t know much about The War On Drugs, further proof of the enormous diminution of my once-obsession with music. I’ve never delved into their music. What I do know is that they are based in Philadelphia, the city I live near, and that they are a big name and also quite popular in the rock music world. Their most recent album, Lost In The Dream, came out in 2014. Thinking Of A Place, a sweeping, calming and improbably long (11 minutes and 12 seconds) song, is the first new material the band has released since then.

WXPN is pretty obsessed with Thinking Of A Place, and I am too. Despite its length, the station has been playing it once or more on most days. And though I don’t listen to XPN all that much, I seem to catch the tune half the times that I turn on the station. Which can’t be coincidental. Meaning, the music gods high above us have their gazes firmly fixed upon me. Without a doubt they want me to make known the existence of Thinking Of A Place to some good folks who likely haven’t heard it before.

Sit back, close your eyes and let The War On Drugs take you on a splendid ride. Thinking Of A Place is good for whatever might ail you. Here it is. Peace out, brothers and sisters.

A Wobbly Stroll

We all have those days, at least I do, when a wobbly stroll from one place to another is the best we can do. This is one of those days. Here then is a story formed from the tentative searchings of an unfocused mind, a tale that will touch upon technological miracles and upon lovely songs chosen almost at random, all partially obscured by the haze of cigarette smoke. Yes, it’s that kind of a story. I’m interested, myself, to see how it comes out.

To begin, awkwardly: My understanding of how most things work is at the sub-kindergarten level. Combustion engines? I have nary a clue. Harnessed electricity, which, it seems to me, is the driving force behind the modern world? Ditto. Radio and television and Internet transmissions that fly invisibly through the air or through cables and manifest themselves on billions of devices in the homes, businesses and hands of mankind? Ditto once again.

And, in my experience, I’m hardly alone in that lack of knowledge. Practically everybody, I’d guess, is more or less like me in that way. When we hit the power button on the TV or ask Siri a question or turn the key to start the car, we expect our machines to behave properly. And almost always they do. How they do what they do is something we rarely delve into. And that’s okay. Our brains are overloaded as it is.

Needless to say, therefore, I take my iPhone for granted, though it is nothing short of miraculous. Somehow I was living in the dark ages till a year and a half ago, which is when the iPhone entered my life. I could live without it, and pretty easily I believe, but hell, I wouldn’t want to. I love the frigging thing.

Part of its attraction to me, beyond its amazing capabilities, is that it’s about the same size as, and reminds me of, a pack of cigarettes. Man, did I love my cigarettes in my sinning days decades ago, the gratifying and comforting feelings I got from rolling around lit cigarettes in the fingers of my right hand, from casually knocking off the ashes and from sucking hardcore smoke deep into my lungs. But I loved the packs themselves almost as much as their contents. I’d feel fine whenever I pulled a pack of Winstons, my brand, from my shirt or jacket pocket, tapping it just so to force out the tip of my next cig. Holding the iPhone gently, practically caressing it, which I do, brings me back to those glory days.

More importantly, I find my way around the iPhone pretty decently. I’m not boasting, by the way. I’m fully aware that it was designed and programmed with nitwits like me in mind. Texting, telephoning, surfing the web, snapping photos and checking out tunes via Shazam . . . who’d believe that a five ounce contraption could handle all of that and far more? Incroyable, n’est-ce pas?

“What’s Shazam?” I heard someone in the corner table ask. Oh, it’s you, is it? Didn’t your parents ever tell you not to talk with food in your mouth? I’m going to wait till you swallow that load. Okay, that’s better. What’s Shazam? It’s the music-identifying app that gives you the answers within seconds when, to avoid plotzing like a whimpering fool, you have to know right away  the name of the song you’re listening to and/or who is singing it. Hold your Shazam-equipped smart phone in the vicinity of the speakers from which the number is pouring out and voila! — all the details will be revealed on the phone’s screen. As long as, that is, the same recording is stored within Shazam’s database. Otherwise, identification is impossible. There are millions of recordings in there, though, so disappointment isn’t frequent.

Ah yes, Shazam. I’ve been toying for a while with the idea of writing something or other about that bad boy, so taken am I with it. But, in my current wobbly frame of mind I’ll postpone any extensive examination of Shazam’s place in the world. Instead I’ll pursue a flimsy connection that I noticed when relentlessly scrolling up and down the list that the app maintains of my Shazamming history. What eventually jumped out at me was that many songs on the list contained one-word titles. Efficiency aficionado that I am, that aspect appealed to me. What’s more, three of the one-word-titled tunes began with the letter S. I was sold. That’s all I needed to proceed. Sure, the three songs have nothing much in common. What’s more, they amount to a nearly random selection. But what the hell? Randomness can add plenty of spice to life. Anyway, the songs are good, very good. Which, connection-wise, is more than enough.

Sleep. Steamboat. Stewball. Those are the songs, in alphabetical order. Their performers are, respectively: Azure Ray, a female duo (Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink) whose music is well-known in certain ambiant and indie pop music circles, though the lasses spend more time on hiatus than they do recording or touring together; The Drifters, rhythm and blues titans whose history of personnel changes during their golden era (mid-1950s to mid-1970s) is dizzying enough to send you to bed with a bad case of the jitters; and Eric von Schmidt, who was a medium-sized name in American folk music during the 1960s and 70s.

I’ve listened to Sleep three times on YouTube since deciding to jot down a few thoughts about it. The song is the first track on Azure Ray’s debut album, which Maria and Orenda presented to humanity in 2010. I’m in tune with the tune. I like its contrasts. Though it’s vocals are dreamy and gauzy, the incessant keyboard chords that initiate and anchor the song give little mercy. Those chords, to me, represent an agitated psyche. The Azure Ray girls are in the midst of love troubles. They can’t sleep.

Dreamy and gauzy are words that don’t apply in any manner to Steamboat. It’s a punchy, bluesy gas, powered by hard-hitting drumming and très cool boogie-woogie piano work. The vocals, lead (Bill Pinkney) and background, are superbly jaunty. The Drifters’ original and famous lead singer, Clyde McPhatter, had left the band a few months before Steamboat was put on wax in 1955, and Ben E. King, another leading star, wouldn’t arrive for a few more years. Hardly matters. Steamboat rocks like a motherf***er.

As for Stewball, well, it’s a song with a highly complicated history. I read the Wikipedia entries about it and came away way more confused than I like to be. The song, it seems, has its origins in 1700s England and has evolved over time, spawning various, differing versions. A lot of folks, including Lead Belly and The Hollies, have recorded one version or another. I think that Eric von Schmidt’s take is awfully fine. At first the song appears to be about Stewball, a talented racehorse. But the final set of lyrics turn everything around, leaving me with the impression that the song’s narrator is using Stewball in a metaphorical sense. What he really is singing about is his regret for the life that he has thrown away.

There we have it, folks. Three wildly different songs that prove, as if we needed proof, that we live in a musical wonderland. Tens of millions of tracks have been laid down in the past 100 or so years. A large percentage of them are out there in cyberspace at our beck and call. It’s a delicious situation to be in.

My wobbly stroll has concluded. Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece.

Here Come The Docs (Movies, That Is)

They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere! And I ain’t talkin’ about nail salons or Buffalo chicken wings or right-wing crazies.

Documentaries, that’s what I’m here to discuss. Docs are out there by the thousands, old ones and new ones. You can catch them on the small screen on HBO, SHOWTIME, PBS (NOVA and Independent Lens, are two of its documentary series), CBS (60 Minutes), etc., etc. Not to mention the oceans of docs you might peruse via Netflix.

Now, I’ve seen various documentaries on the tube over the last few years, but I’ve watched more on the silver screen than at home. That’s partly because I haven’t been partial to plopping myself in front of the magic box too much. On the other hand, my cinema attendance always has been robust. Another reason, the more important of the two, is that, starting in the early aughts, many documentaries have found their way into theaters around much of the globe. That’s very true in the Philadelphia region, which I call home. My wife Sandy and I, fans of the genre, approve.

Here’s a cool thing about documentaries, which tend to be low-cost affairs and never rake in dough à la, say, Logan or La La Land: Once in a while one of them will settle into the theatrical marketplace and take nearly forever to depart. In saying this, I have in mind a doc that Sandy and I saw with friends in Philadelphia last November.

The Eagle Huntress, the film to which I refer, opened in The States one month before we viewed it. Remarkably, it’s still in some theaters across this fair land and still in the Top 100 of money grossers, as measured by the fascinating website Box Office Mojo. That’s staying power, folks, that few movies of any sort possess.

A nice movie, The Eagle Huntress spins the tale of a young Mongolian girl who is drawn to the historically male-only endeavors of taming and bonding with eagles and training them to race and to hunt in specific ways. Its central Asian scenery is gorgeous (what’s not to like about deserts and glacial mountains?), and the story line is not your everyday fare. But, to me, the plot didn’t ring quite true. I’m convinced that the final test of the girl’s gifts — to have her eagle chase down and kill a fox on treacherous mountain slopes  — didn’t go as neatly and smoothly as the director hoped for. I believe he’d have stayed out in the wilderness, filming take after take, until the desired outcome was achieved. Otherwise the movie would not have had a clean and tidy ending.

Enough quibbles. On to the three docs that Sandy and I went out to see in the past month: Kedi; In Search Of Israeli Cuisine; and I Called Him Morgan. As with The Eagle Huntress, they are playing here and there in cinemas around the USA and other countries. And if they haven’t yet made their way to Netflix or the like, indubitably they fairly soon will.

In a nutshell, I recommend these movies highly. Kedi tells the tale of street cats (felines, not hipsters) in Istanbul that have developed beneficial relationships with various humans with whom they share space. In Search Of Israeli Cuisine is a flick for foodies and for travel buffs. The goods on display in this movie, and the rural and urban settings in which they are grown, cooked, and consumed, look great. As for I Called Him Morgan, well, it made my knees go weak, as it is about one of my jazz heroes, trumpeter Lee Morgan. It also is about Helen Morgan, Lee’s common-law wife who shot him to death in a Manhattan jazz club in 1972. When Lee passed, the world lost a magnificent talent. He could play like nobody’s business and penned irresistible songs, from the nimble and fleet to the panoramic.

It’s a funny thing about Kedi. Sandy, a cat lover, liked it, but not as much as I did. That’s saying something because I decidedly am not a cat person. You’d have to pay me a few thousand dollars weekly to house one in my abode. But Kedi put me under a spell. I suppose it was the cinematography, more than the story, that got to me. I don’t know where, other than in Kedi, you’re going to see the world from cats’ perspectives. What did the director do, train a coterie of cats to become cinematographers and to follow their feline buddies around town?  Wow, seeing Istanbul from inches above the ground was, I thought, the coolest. On the opposite hand, so were the aerial shots of the city, for which feline cameramen had no input. Those images served no particular purpose, as far as I could tell, other than to look amazing. And amazing they did look.

After viewing In Search Of Israeli Cuisine I started thinking about a movie that hasn’t been made but could be: In Search Of American Cuisine. That is, it’s not easy to define what a nation’s cuisine is. Or was, for that matter. As with most issues and subjects, things often are more complicated than you might at first assume. In the Israeli case, culinary traditions from many dozens of countries and cultures have been brought to, or already existed in, the land of Israel. There they have intermingled, evolved, and been experimented upon. I went into the movie thinking that there would be an emphasis on Eastern European Jewish cooking (brisket of beef, smoked meats, kugels, etc.), but in Israel those dishes are not dominant in the least. Today’s Israeli cuisine draws more from Middle Eastern and North African cultures than from any others. Fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and seafoods are what Israelis, as do many peoples the world over, place into their mouths. I left the movie hungry for grilled fish and for hummus, Israeli staples.

What can I say about Lee Morgan? I’ve been listening to his recordings for almost 50 years. I’ve been in the long-defunct, grubby jazz club, Slugs’, where he was murdered. And for years I’ve wondered about the circumstances that led to his death. Possibly I’m wrong, but it always seemed to me that not much information ever came out about his shooting. If it did, I don’t know where. But now, lo and behold, Kasper Collin, a Swedish director and jazz lover, has seized upon and told Lee Morgan’s story, its bright beginnings and sad ending. But not fully, because that ending does not fit itself into a tight package. It never will be completely understood.

Would you have to be a jazz fan to enjoy I Called Him Morgan? Well, I’m going to say that even the non-aficionado will go for this one. The movie has a brooding, moody quality, especially in the snow-filled wintery sequences leading up to and following Lee’s death. And, in marvelous film clips, it shows off his bristling musical chops. What got to me the most, though, was the telephone interview, captured on cassette tapes, that Helen Morgan gave to Larry Reni Thomas in North Carolina, where she lived after serving hard time in New York for her crime. Thomas, who has worked as a writer, teacher and radio host, conducted the interview in 1996, a few months before Helen’s death. The slow relating of her life story in her creaky voice and her explanations of why she came to pull the trigger were, I thought, the movie’s core and backbone. And maybe its heart. Without the interview there’d have been not much of a movie.

Lee Morgan, famed though he once was (his hard-bopping song The Sidewinder was a pop hit in 1965), has faded into semi-obscurity. I Called Him Morgan might help to reverse that truth a bit.

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Up, Up And Away (High As A Kite On Music)

As I barrel down the highway that before year’s end will bring me to the road marker labeled The Big 7-0, assuming that I don’t kick off before then, I mean it when I say that I consider myself a fortunate guy. I’ve got a couple of biggies to worry about — who doesn’t? But for the most part I’m rolling along pretty nicely, doing most of the sorts of things that gave me a bang years ago, and still getting a bang from them. Such as palling around with my wife Sandy and with other pals; poking around in the great outdoors and in cities that have zing and depth; downing good foods and beers in taverns and restaurants.

And listening to music, which I’ve left for last to give it the space it deserves. And that’s because music sometimes takes me to realms — excellent realms — that otherwise I wouldn’t be setting foot in. Music, like nothing else, can get me high as a kite. Well, pot can get me high as a kite too, but I haven’t smoked any in, what? . . . 30 years? It’s a habit I dropped that maybe, to tell you the truth, I’d be interested in picking up again. But that’s another story.

It’s not as if listening to music always is a transporting experience for me, though. At home I usually am struggling with a Sudoku puzzle or thrashing through the Web as tunes play on the stereo, so the musical vibes sink in only partially. And in the car I make a modest effort to keep my eyes on the road, even if a great song is trying to liberate me.

Nor does music always lift me to the skies at concerts. A week and a half ago, for example, Sandy and I went with friends to see Peter Mulvey, a solid singer-songwriter who put his palette of emotions on display in a small space in Philadelphia. I dug him, but I remained Earthbound. Here’s why:

Volume. I need a lot of volume for liftoff to occur, and the Mulvey concert, consisting of  Peter and his acoustic guitar, was merely in the middle of the decibel scale. And, usually, there’s got to be strong drumming. And, usually, long and soaring solos from an electric guitar, though their counterparts from a piano or saxophone also might do the trick.

Hallelujah! High volume, crashing drum strokes and gorgeous guitar work soon came my way, because Sandy and I headed to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 15 hours after the conclusion of the Mulvey show. There, in an arts center built on the grounds of the defunct Bethlehem Steel Corporation, day three of the three-day Blast Furnace Blues Festival was marching on. We stayed for five hours, catching three acts and gazing at the rusting Bethlehem blast furnaces through the music room’s huge windows, before taking to the roads once again.

The Lee Boys, Victor Wainwright, Ana Popovic . . . I wasn’t familiar with any of them before arriving in Bethlehem. If you like rip-roaring music, then these guys probably are for you. They all bring the noise, and then some, with skill and soul. And they all tour a lot, so they might show up in your corner of the world.

None of the acts plays straight-blues-all-the-way by any means, though their underpinnings are heavily molded from the blues. The Lee Boys mostly serve up gospel tunes, though you might have a hard time recognizing them as such, heavily wrapped in funky R&B drapery as they are. Victor Wainwright is a sweet-toned shouter who can put a little gravel in his voice, a suspendered showman who loves feeling close to his audience almost as much as he loves to pound out red hot boogie woogie licks on his keyboard. And Ana Popovic is, at heart, a rock and roller. She sings well, but it’s her string work that you go to see her for — she’s an electric guitar goddess.

Sandy and I took seats 25 feet from the stage. The place was mobbed. The audience was pumped. And when The Lee Boys, the first group we saw that day, tore into their opening number I tipped my hat to the guy twisting and sliding the sound board’s dials. He had the music pouring out loud, really loud, but not so utterly powerfully that my ears ever felt like they were in danger. I was bopping with the beats, pounding the heel of my left foot up and down like a piston. And then the magic carpet rides began when Roosevelt Collier slid into the first of his lengthy, involved pedal steel guitar solos. Dreamy at times, growling at others, stuttering and whooshing, his electric journey rushed inside me. Closing my eyes I became lost in the sounds, bouncing my head back and forth gently, uncontrollably, as they swept me along, swept me upward, seduced me. When his solos reached their ends in each Lee Boys tune, it took me a few moments to decompress.

I’m not sure why the same didn’t happen during Victor’s set. He and his band were on fire, and Pat Harrington, the electric guitarist, tore into his instrument like a demon. But for reasons unknown, my eyes remained open throughout the wild ride. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t groove madly. I did, but I didn’t levitate.

But I floated and communed once again when Ana and her gang took the stage. Ana’s electric guitar solos saw to that. This girl can play. Pulling on the guitar strings almost maniacally, she had them snarling, moaning, pleading, testifying. Ana took me to regions even loftier than those where Roosevelt Collier had wafted me. Amen.

Yeah, music can be a temporary cure for what ails us. Me, I love rising into the clouds, feeling gravity and neuroses slip away. Whenever it happens I’m grateful. And amazed that my body is able to latch onto and meld with invisible good vibrations. One of these days maybe I’ll figure out how to transfer some of what I feel when afloat into my regular daily regimen. Whatever, this I do believe: Get your kicks while you can, kids, because you never know when the final curtain will descend.

Here now are videos from the Blast Furnace Blues Festival:

 

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin)

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