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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article)

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)

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article with others)

California Stars: A Song To Make Better A Cold And Icy Day

Well, here I am at my writing post on the afternoon of the Ides of March. That’s a date that proved to be a real bad one for  Julius Caesar but hopefully will be benign for yours truly. It’s cold outside, as in 23°F, and my suburban community is weighed down with billions of tons of icy snow that fell from the heavens yesterday. This white stuff is so dense it won’t be going away anytime soon. There’s nothing like a late winter storm to disrupt gleeful thoughts of approaching springtime. Yippee-yi-o-ki-yay, baby.

Earlier today I published one of the oddball stories that, if I had any degree of fame, I would be famous for. Or maybe infamous. Anyway, it partly was about the dilemmas that confront me and surely a fair number of other scribes when it comes to figuring out what in the world to write about. Happily, I am not conflicted about the direction that the present essay shall take. After I kicked around several bushels-worth of slippery notions, things fairly quickly coalesced. Meaning, I have decided to spend some words on a song that is good for cold, ice-laden days such as today. This tune is good for any day, really. It is among my fave recordings of all time, and I think it will elevate my mood as I press forward with this narrative. The song of which I speak is California Stars, a joint production of Billy Bragg, the band Wilco and the late singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie. A better companion I could not hope for. Here it is:

California Stars came out in 1998 on the Bragg/Wilco album titled Mermaid Avenue. Mermaid Avenue is the result of a project that Nora Guthrie (Woody Guthrie’s daughter and Arlo’s sister) put into motion. Her father, who bid adieu to Planet Earth in 1967, had left behind scads of completed lyrics that he hadn’t gotten around to recording. Their accompanying music might have existed in Woody’s head, but those melodies and harmonies never will be known, as Woody was unable to notate music. Nora asked Billy Bragg, a British singer-songwriter, to sift through the lyrics, pick those that wowed him and put them to music. Bragg brought the Wilco fellows aboard to help with the composing, playing and recording processes.

Now, the entirety of Mermaid Avenue is great. I was left kind of breathless when I first spun the CD soon after its release. But one song in particular of its 15 went straight to my heart. California Stars, of course. And I tell the truth when I say that every time I’ve heard California Stars since then, and that’s probably close to 100 times, its effect has been the same.

To me it is a perfect creation. Woody’s lyrics are sweet and simple. In two verses they tell the tale of a discontented someone, likely Woody, who pines for a more idyllic life with his female mate. The California stars of which he writes are the beautiful things that, along with her touch, might help soften his woes. Here’s the second verse:

I’d like to dream my troubles all away
On a bed of California stars.
Jump up from my star bed and make another day
Underneath my California stars.
They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers glass like friendly wine.
So, I’d give this world just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars.

Gorgeous, Woody, gorgeous. But to be honest, I’m certain that Mr. G would have been unable to put his words to music as lovely and endearing as that composed by two of the Wilco boys, Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett (he passed away in 2009). Clearly captivated by Guthrie’s images, they found the essential combination of notes to encase the lyrics in. Seductively childlike, their work allows Woody’s poem to rise into the clouds and beyond.

And that’s where the song takes me whenever I pay it a visit. A short while ago, in the name of research for this piece, I listened five times to California Stars. Talk about multiple pleasures. And, as if the lyrics and music aren’t fine enough, I began to think that the song’s arrangement and instrumentation and Jeff Tweedy’s lead vocals are the keys to its star power. That’s a discussion that undoubtedly would go on for days, maybe eternally, among the song’s devotees.

I mean, Jeff Tweedy was born to sing this song. He’s a salt of the Earth kind of guy who quietly burrows inside lyrics, finding their core — loneliness or optimism or whatever the case may be. He does this straightforwardly, unaffectedly, an approach that in his hands is right on target. In California Stars, loneliness and optimism are entwined in Guthrie’s vision. Tweedy does the words proud.

Looking down at my star bed this afternoon I flowed with Tweedy’s calm voice. And I rode the gentle waves formed by a yearning and shimmering lap steel guitar, a grinning piano and a bobbing electric bass guitar. And when a fiddle started fiddling joyfully for a few seconds after the second stating of the second verse, I drifted even higher. Miraculously, those instruments touch the skies more than they might have. The elemental drumming pattern that Ken Coomer sagely locked himself into saw to that — a steady and unbroken string of thud-thuds never sounded so good. Sometimes things come together in mysteriously ideal ways. That is the story with California Stars.

Whenever California Stars draws to its close, as it inevitably must, it takes me a few moments to gather myself. I open my eyes (they’d been shut, you dig, the better to float) and begin my return to what passes for reality. And as this story too now nears its conclusion I’ll add another thought about endings: When I’m on my way out, breathing my last, I’d like to be serenaded with California Stars. The Mermaid Avenue version, needless to say, as there have been others in its wake. That’s the way to go.

 

(Notes: Wilco has seen musicians come and go over the years. Of its six current members, only two remain from the Mermaid Avenue days — Jeff Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt. As for Billy Bragg, his career is going strong. Ditto for Wilco’s.)

Guilty As Charged!

It’s rough out here in the blogging world. I tell you, it’s rough. After what happened to me this past Friday I think I might have had enough. Possibly this will be the last story I compose for quite a while. I can’t say for sure. But this I do know: My nerves are badly shaken. Yours would be too if you had been rigorously reprimanded and questioned, as I was, by the president of BAFFF (Blogging Ain’t For Fools, Fool).

Friday began quietly and propitiously before turning nasty. After breakfast I retired to the living room where, deep in dreamland on the sofa, I made the most of the next several hours. I was ridding The States of zombies and vampires when suddenly I was awakened at 11:30 AM by a series of powerful, rapid knocks on the front door. “Open up, Neil, at once! This is Mal Practiss, president of BAFFF. I’m here to give you a good talking to.”

I opened the door and let Mal in. As a card-carrying member of BAFFF I had no choice but to do so. Silently, I took his coat and led him to the dining room table. There, we took seats.

“Neil,” Mal said, looking straight into my eyes, “I’m certain you realize that, as a blogger, you are expected to meet stringent standards. One of BAFFF’s purposes is to monitor all of America’s bloggers, making sure they write when they should be writing and that they are telling the stories that cyberspace needs to be filled with.”

“Neil, it has come to my attention that twice — I say twice — in the past two weeks you failed to pen articles that would have fit your blog’s pages like the finest of gloves. Like most of your output, they would have described somewhat accurately your barely second-rate mini-adventures in life. First, you and your wife Sandy went to Philadelphia to see the movie 20th Century Women and followed it up with dinner at Panorama, an acclaimed restaurant located in a part of town that dates back to when Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson strode manfully through the streets. Wasn’t there a story in all of that?”

“And nine days later you and Sandy went to a house concert in Media, Pennsylvania to hear Ben Vaughn and his group. Ben Vaughn is a talented songwriter and musician who has been doing his offbeat thing for decades, and house concerts are intimate gatherings that the majority of your handful of readers probably don’t know a thing about. Neil, as with the first instance, it is unacceptable that you failed to commit a blog piece to that night out. Sir, and I use that term loosely, you better have good reasons for your neglect. If not, your blogging privileges are in jeopardy.”

“Humma, humma, humma,” I stammered admirably. A few moments later I finally was able to ask the obvious questions. “Mal,” I said, “how in the world do you know about all of this? Are you related to Kreskin?”

“Kreskin? Are you kidding? The evidence was there for me to see. I know you saw 20th Century Women because the photos you took at the theater are up on the iCloud, which needless to say I have full access to. And my access extends to OpenTable’s database, on which your Panorama reservation resides. As for The Ben Vaughn Quintet’s concert, luckily somebody videotaped the first number they performed that night and put it on FaceBook. The back of your goofy head, three feet away from the accordion player’s left elbow, is unmistakable in that video. Are my answers sufficient?”

I reluctantly nodded my goofy head yes.

“Good,” said Mal Practiss. “Now, explain yourself.”

I gathered my thoughts as best I could and took a deep breath. “Mal,” I then said, “I fully expected to write about the movie and dinner. But 20th Century Women disappointed me so much. I was sure I was going to like it, but uh-uh. It was slow and seemed almost like a hodgepodge of scenes sewn together. And I couldn’t have cared less about any of the five main characters. They were dull. Anyway, when the movie ended I didn’t see the point of writing about it.”

“Yeah, maybe I should have written a report about Panorama,” I went on. “It’s a real good restaurant. The food tastes and looks terrific. But it’s a given that any blog story about a restaurant should be stuffed with photos, and Panorama isn’t the kind of place where you whip out your phone and snap pictures of each dish. I’d have felt like an idiot doing that. What can I say?”

Mal nodded his head in sympathy, or so I thought. Then he said, “That’s unacceptable, Neil. A good story was there for you to mold, and you left it lying on the table. Let’s move on. Talk about Ben Vaughn.”

“Mal,” I said softly, “this is a different situation. I had no intention to write about that show. I’d have felt stupid sitting there jotting down notes on the music and taking photos. I mean, house concerts are special affairs — a small crowd pays to see a show in someone’s home, for crying out loud — and I didn’t want to disturb anyone sitting around me.”

“But, Mal, I’ll say this. The Ben Vaughn Quintet was really good. Vaughn’s songs are wry and understated. The band played maybe 25 tunes, including nearly every one from their new album, Pièce De Résistance, which is a winner. Ben’s a good singer and guitar picker. And how many rock bands include both a saxophonist and an accordion player? Hardly any, that’s for sure. The band was cool.”

There was little more I could add. Fortunately, a few seconds after my speech ended Sandy entered the room. Mal’s expression softened when he saw her. “Mal, Sandy. Sandy, Mal,” I brilliantly stated.

Mal sent a subdued but warm smile Sandy’s way. “Sandy,” he said, “as I imagine you know, your husband’s judgment leaves, shall we say, much to be desired. He doesn’t seem to understand the basics of blogging protocol. But I’m a reasonable man. I came here expecting to put a temporary or permanent stop to Neil’s blog. But I won’t. As long as he wises up in the future, that is. Neil, do you agree that you insulted the standards of the blogging community with your recent inactions?”

“Mal, I’m guilty as charged.”

“Yes, you are. This has been an unpleasant meeting for you and me. And it’s almost time for me to leave. Before I do, though, let me remind you that your BAFFF membership is due for renewal. It’s $500 for the upcoming 12 months, as you know. And worth every penny of it. Get your checkbook. I’ll wait.”

 

Click here for Panorama’s website.

Click here to watch The Ben Vaughn Quintet perform at the house concert.

Click here for Concerts At Sixth Street’s website.

Click here for Ben Vaughn’s website.

You can listen to The Ben Vaughn Quintet’s new album by hitting the Play button below:

 

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article with others)

Philadelphia, Here We Come Again

Some days begin badly and then turn out fine and dandy. A week ago Friday, for instance, I spent several hours pouting and moping after realizing that there weren’t any fresh blueberries in the house to dump into my breakfast bowl of Wheaties. I’m certain I’m not alone when I say that Wheaties sans blueberries ain’t no Breakfast Of Champions. I might have continued bemoaning my fate until who knows when were it not for the deserved and perfectly aimed slap upside my head that my wife Sandy administered. “Snap out of it, you fool!” she urged me for the umpteenth time this young year, adding “let’s go to Philadelphia and have some fun.” Right as rain once again, I looked through the arts and entertainment listings in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s weekend section and assembled a plan. Before long we found ourselves on a train heading from the burbs into the big city. Arriving in Philadelphia’s central section around 3 PM, we embarked on our expedition of discovery.

Now, Philadelphia’s a cool place in a lot of ways. For starters, it’s swimming with good restaurants and swell arts establishments and nifty Colonial era streets and gorgeous public parks. You can walk for miles and miles taking in the sights. Or, as Sandy and I did on the Friday in question, you can confine yourself to a small chunk of territory and do just fine. Everything we did took place between two blocks on the east-west axis (11th to 13th Streets), and four blocks on the perpendicular plane (Arch to Sansom Streets). We spent five hours within that rectangle before hopping a train back home.

img_1464It was a Friday defined by art, music and food and drink. My kind of day, in other words. First stop was Fabric Workshop And Museum, a non-profit arts institution that has been on the scene since 1977. I’ve been aware of FWM for nearly all of its life, but didn’t get around to scratching it off my to-be-visited list until the other day. Mister Right-On-Top-Of-Things strikes again!

img_1423img_1435FWM is a busy organization, with various arts-making and educational programs going on behind the scenes (click here to find the official website). Its more public face is the galleries where changing exhibits of, natch, art are displayed throughout the year. The items in the first floor gallery didn’t grab me. But I got big kicks from the handmade textiles that set the huge, warehouse-like eighth floor space aflame with colors. There, mounted side by side in four long rows, were large and beautiful silkscreened fabrics produced over the last few years by teens and young adults in FWM’s Apprentice Training Program. Half of the works stuck strictly to blacks and whites, while the rest went crazy with other members of the palette. Black and white . . . multi-colored . . . I couldn’t decide which family I liked best. Hell, why bother deciding? Both approaches were A-OK.

img_1451img_1455Bright, jubilant  colors, though, were destined to take precedence over their more dignified siblings as the afternoon segued into evening. From Fabric Workshop And Museum, Sandy and I ducked into a neighboring building and rode the elevator up to Fleischer/Ollman Gallery where we spent 20 minutes getting drenched by rocking blues, reds, yellows, you name it. Man, I started feeling dizzy from the wild vibes at FOG, and I liked that. “Yo,” I almost said to Sandy, “it’s time to add some life to our frigging living room. I’m going to buy that one and that one.” By which I meant Marc Zajack’s loopily loveable oil titled Stoned Bust and Nadine Beauhamois’ Circus Escapee, a plaster/wire/papier mâché beast in eye-popping hues. But I didn’t take out my wallet. I think I should have. And maybe I yet will.

img_1472On we marched, our final destination to be Fergie’s Pub, a two story joint where you go when you’re in the mood for bohemian funkiness and friendliness. The air outside was incredibly warm for a February 24, about 72° F, which enhanced Sandy’s and my good spirits. It also resulted in an unusual sight — slews of jacketless diners chowing down at sidewalk tables strung all along a stretch of 13th Street, one of The Little Apple’s restaurant rows. Cool. I mean, warm.

 

 

img_1475img_1478Ah, yes, Fergie’s Pub, a spot that totally agrees with me. Sandy and I had been there four or five times before, but not in the past two years. It’s a good place. The food is straightforward, tasty and fresh. The beers flow like wine, and vice versa. And on some Fridays, starting at 6 PM, a tight and soothingly rocking country-and-folk-flavored band that goes by the unlikely name John Train holds sway (click here if you’d like to be directed to JT’s website). John Train played two sets, each about 45 minutes in length, and had the jam-packed second floor room eating out of the palms of its sweaty hands. The group delivered a bunch of original tunes and some by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and the like (click here to watch a John Train performance at Fergie’s from earlier this year). The repertoire was powered by drummer Mark Schreiber’s low key but insistent beats and flourishes, and sent soaring by the wistful sounds flowing from Mark Tucker’s steel guitar and guest member Jay Ansill’s fiddle.

John Train is led by lead vocalist Jon Houlon, who sounds like a cross between Jerry Garcia and Arlo Guthrie, and who can banter with and throw goofy barbs at audience members like nobody’s business. The guy is a natural riot. He told a joke that I feel obligated to pass on to my readers. Between songs near the end of the second set, as Sandy and I finished up our turkey burgers, suds and vino, Jon Houlon said this to the audience: “You know The Rolling Stones song Get Off Of My Cloud?  . . . ‘Hey! You! Get off of my cloud’ . . . Well, did you ever hear the Scottish version? . . . ‘Hey! McCloud! Get off of my ewe.'” In my book, that’s a very good one.

You know, I’ve been dancing and prancing in Philadelphia for over four decades, which is most of my adult life, and I’ve yet to get tired of the routine. The day may come when I will, but I’ll worry about it then.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article with others. Or about signing up to follow this blog. Thanks.)

(If you click on any photo a larger image will open in a separate window)

Almost (A Musical Story)

A couple of weeks ago my brother Richard sent me an email about music. A friend of his had burned a copy of an album for him, a record that Richie never had listened to before. “Have you ever heard David Crosby’s album If I Could Only Remember My Name? It’s excellent,” Richie wrote. Well, my memories of this Crosby opus, which came out in 1971, were beyond fuzzy. I wrote back to Richie: “I think I knew the Crosby album a long time ago. Is that the one with Almost Cut My Hair? I hated that song.” Concluding this magnificently scintillating exchange of questions and observations, Richie wrote back: “Almost Cut My Hair isn’t on it.”

Outer cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name
Outer cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name

I then put Almost Cut My Hair out of mind, where it belonged. But, lo and behold, three days later the highly unexpected happened. I was out doing errands, the car radio tuned to The Loft, a channel on SiriusXM satellite radio. As I pulled into my bank’s parking lot to take out a few bucks from its ATM, the infamous Crosby song, which I hadn’t heard in who knows how long, began to play (click here to listen). I couldn’t believe my ears. And you know what? My opinion about it hadn’t changed. I hated it. Fifteen seconds into the tune Crosby began singing some of the dumbest lyrics around.

Almost cut my hair.
Happened just the other day.
It’s gettin’ kind of long.
I could’ve said it was in my way.

Oy vey! I know that Crosby intended Almost Cut My Hair to be a statement of defiance, a paean to personal freedom. But it’s hard to relate to words so clunky and lame. David Crosby, a legendary talent whose resume famously includes membership in The Byrds; Crosby, Stills & Nash; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was having a very off day when the words to Almost Cut My Hair spilled from his brain. I forgive him. After all, anybody who composed Guinnevere (click here to listen) and Long Time Gone (click here), which Crosby did, is more than A-OK in my book. And he could (and still can) sing like an angel, though gruff was the order of the day for Almost Cut My Hair.

Nevertheless, I was taken aback by Almost’s reentering my life less than 75 hours after my brother’s email had loosened from the dusty corners of my cranium the fact that the song even existed. I examined the situation from all angles and, illogical and prone to belief in fantasy as I am,  easily concluded that there had to be a reason for the occurrence. But what was the reason? Why, it could only be one thing: I was meant to write a piece about song lyrics that always have made me cringe, lyrics that suck big time shall we say. Such as those of Almost Cut My Hair, of course, and especially of A Horse With No Name (click here). The words to the latter strike me as the absolute worst I’ve ever encountered, especially this line: ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain — Yo, what the f**k? That loser, and plenty of others in the song, give me pain. As if the bottom-of-the-barrel wordsmanship mattered in the least to the band America, one of whose members (Dewey Bunnell) wrote the song. America, as we all know, had a mega-hit with the nameless horse in 1971. And its popularity on the airwaves remains considerable to this day. America has been laughing all the way to the bank for a long time.

As we can see, my idea for a piece about terrible lyrics looked promising. If I had continued to think about it I’m sure I’d have come up with several more numbers whose lyrics can sit proudly beside those of Almost Cut My Hair and of A Horse With No Name. However, that article is going to have to wait awhile and will need a measure of readjustment. And that’s because, shortly before I sat down to begin writing, I clicked my way over to YouTube to give Almost Cut My Hair another listen, aiming to pinpoint all the reasons I can’t stand it. Holy crap! All of a sudden I found myself listening to the song with a refreshed set of ears. Sure, the lyrics still stunk — that hadn’t changed — and Crosby’s angry vocal stance rang as false as a cracked bell. But the instrumental work on the track . . . somehow I’d never really paid attention to it before, and it rocked very righteously. I was smacked in the face by roaring guitars, seething keyboards and pounding drums. I shrugged off Almost’s dopey lyrics and overblown vocals and gave myself over to its mighty, surging roar. By the time the song ended I had changed my tune. That’s fine. In fact, I was glad about it. Hell, being open and flexible often is what life’s all about.

I now am nearing the end of this wee tale. Before I lay down my weary head I should mention a couple of items that will help tighten some loose knots. First, Almost Cut My Hair comes from Déjà Vu, the 1970 disc by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young that spawned several big hits, including Teach Your Children (click here) and Our House (click here). Somewhat oddly, Crosby is the sole singer on Almost. His bandmates, each in possession of unique and striking pipes, sat this one out vocally. But they powered the song majestically with their instruments.

Second, a trip to my basement, where I store the many vinyl albums I bought decades ago, confirmed what I suspected might be true. Namely, that I own a copy of If I Could Only Remember My Name. The last time I’d given it a spin most likely was a year or two after its release. Conscientious journalist that I am, I went upstairs to the living room, pulled the platter from its housing and placed it on my music system’s turntable. And then I listened to both sides. As already noted, my brother Richie thinks that If I Could Only is excellent. I’d rate it almost that high. Trippy and shape-shifting, the songs on the album take you on a complex ride. Good job, David. Good job.

Inner cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name. Crosby is at bottom right corner.
Inner cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name. Crosby is at bottom right corner.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story with others. Thanks a lot)

Driving In My Car (A Musical Story)

Music, music, music. Since I was 10 or so years old — back in the days when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel — music has given me kicks, highs and peace of mind way beyond any of my other interests. The hours I’ve spent listening to music, reading about music and thinking and yapping about music are so enormous in number I don’t know how I found the time to hold down a job, let alone get married and maintain that union. Miracles sometimes do happen.

But, you know, I’m nowhere near the music freak that I used to be. Haven’t been for the last 10 or more years. I still go to clubs and auditoriums to catch concerts, but only one fourth as often as in my youthful prime. And at home, where once I played albums and CDs to death, listening to them and radio stations with the laserlike intensity of a neurosurgeon, I now half-listen more often than not, usually not reaching even that degree of concentration.

Yup, it took nearly forever to happen, but my obsession with music, drawing inspiration from my hairline, has been receding fast. Hell, keeping up that relentless pace began to seem nutty. “There’s more to life than music,” I must have said to myself at some point. “You need to find new hobbies, pal, like giving nifty new names each week to your pet hamsters and gerbils. Or organizing the garments in your closets and drawers alphabetically by brand name.”

Yet, despite my slackened involvement chez moi and at music venues, there’s still one place where I really love to listen to tunes, lapping them up greedily, paying attention to the lyrics of those with lyrics, and grooving like a hippie in training: In my car, almost needless to say. Maybe it has something to do with the sound waves bouncing around gleefully in a small, enclosed space. Or the distraction that songs provide from the stop-and-go misery that 90% of my driving entails. Whatever, good songs in my car raise my spirits rocket-quick.

And here’s another part of the reason why: My car is equipped with SiriusXM satellite radio, which I adore. So many channels, so many musical genres. When I climb in the car I can barely wait to start tapping the radio’s touchscreen buttons. And very often my destination is channel number 30, The Loft, where anything goes, though the concentration is on singer-songwriter and rock music veins.

It’s not as though I smile and clap at everything The Loft plays, however. Hardly. Lots of times I’m not impressed, and so begin racing madly from one channel to another in search of a tune or artist that I can relate to. But often there are occasions when The Loft, or another spot on the Sirius dial, seems to be reading my mind and my inner needs, sending out songs that caress me just right.

img_1348img_1354That’s what happened on Wednesday morning of last week when out I headed on what would prove to be a slow, slow journey. As seemingly always, I got caught by the red of the first traffic light I reached when attempting to exit my neighborhood, unable to make my desired right turn because of the non-turning hunk of junk in front of me. At last the light flipped colors. I made the right and then crawled 200 feet to where all traffic was stopped due to the gates being down at the local railroad tracks. It figured. Choo choo, motherf***er! But what did I care? For I was listening to The Loft, and by the time I reached my destination, a supermarket half a mile from my house, I’d heard two songs, back to back, that sent me aloft: Elliott Smith’s I Figured You Out and Late by Ben Folds. And half an hour later, on my way back home from the store, The Loft played another fine tune, Kyle Morton’s Survivalist Fantasy. I’d hit the trifecta!

What I liked about the three songs, beyond the way they made me go all mushy inside, is that I’d never heard them before. I’m always on the prowl for new goods. I Figured You Out, which Smith wrote years ago for Mary Lou Lord, who recorded it for one of her albums, is a knowing look at a broken relationship sung from the female’s perspective. Smith, an acclaimed singer-songwriter, never included I Figured You Out on any of his own albums. What I heard on The Loft is Smith’s original demo of the song. It was unearthed and released recently. The relaxed pace, Smith’s typically hushed voice, and more than anything the chiming melody really got to me. It’s one of those songs that can get stuck in your head. Very sadly there probably isn’t much more unreleased Smith material in the vaults. The poor guy left us in 2000, likely a suicide. The coroner, though, wasn’t fully able to confirm the cause of death.

Ben Folds, like Elliott Smith a singer-songwriter, never has been one of my favorites. His voice strikes me as vanilla, and his piano playing, loaded with loud, broad chords, seems scripted. Who knows, then, why I took to Late. I liked the melody, that’s for sure, and Folds’ loud, broad piano chords rubbed me the right way for a change. And I dug the lyrics, which flowed like the sentences of a good short story. Two days later, doing a few smidgeons of research for this article, I found out that Folds and Smith had been buddies and that Late is Folds’ tribute to his friend. Leave it to The Loft’s crack curators to know about the Smith/Folds friendship and to follow an obscure Smith tune with an homage.

Batting third in the lineup is Kyle Morton. He’s one of the multitudes of musicians who entered the marketplace within the past 20 years about whom I know next to nothing. But a few days ago I learned a few things. Morton’s main claim to fame is as lead singer of the indie tock band Typhoon, and Survivalist Fantasy comes from his brand new, and first, solo album What Will Destroy You. Also, he has suffered from Lyme disease since childhood. His physical woes have colored many of the songs he writes with a dark tint. But, like just about every other songwriter, he can’t ignore love. Survivalist Fantasy is a quietly lilting and beckoning track about love in the ruins.

Parking in front of my house I hauled the grocery bags out of the car. An obvious point had been made. Namely, this is a great time to be alive when it comes to music. Most of the worthy stuff from the past is available to hear, and the avalanches of good, new material are unending. Praise the musical gods,  whose prime mission is to oversee the soothing of the savage human soul.

 

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Thanks.)

If (A Musical Story)

a2z_logo_final_social-620x324If, if, if. If only WXPN, a supremo radio station in Philadelphia, hadn’t come up with the idea to play almost 6,000 songs in strict alphabetical order, based on their titles, then I’d never have been flailing around helplessly in the monstrously deep rabbit holes that abound within my cranium. But XPN did, starting at 6:00 AM on November 30 with The Jackson Five’s smash hit ABC (click here to listen), and proceeding around the clock for what seemed like forever. The station finally closed the lid on the affair mid-day on December 17 after airing a song that just about nobody knows, ZZ Top Goes To Egypt (click here), by a band that just about nobody knows, Camper Van Beethoven. A tune with a title that begins with a double Z . . . who’d have thought that an animal like that exists? Leave it to the music worshippers slash obsessives at WXPN to come up with a stunning conclusion to the marathon.

And talk about obsessives. Me, I thought I was done with being one of them. Over the last few decades I’d shed a good ninety percent of my excessive tendencies. Still, backtracking happens, and I found myself being swallowed whole by what XPN was up to. Yeah, I got so involved with the A-to-Z my bodily systems started backfiring. For days I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. Even worse, I didn’t watch my favorite episodes of Duck Dynasty and The Real Housewives Of Atlanta over and over on demand. And not just because I was hopelessly involved in listening to that avalanche of music. Uh-uh. I also had been captured by letters, words, the whole alphabet thing. I was beaming in hard on alphabetic considerations of song titles. Pathetic, man.

I’d never before given more than a cursory thought to the words that song titles begin with or to the patterns that the titles form. Who knew that tons of titles begin with Just, for example? Or that there might be any titles starting with X (such as X Offender, by Blondie). Or that some letters (e.g. T, S and I) are the first letters of an astounding number of song names. Or that one artist (David Bowie) might show up with back-to-back songs (Fascination and Fashion), so tightly are their names alphabetically related.

“What’s going to follow Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot?” I frantically wondered during December 3rd’s early moments, unable to come up with the fairly obvious answer that soon hit the air: Dancing Days by Led Zeppelin. And I frantically wondered about countless other minutia throughout the A-to-Z, following along online as XPN posted each addition to its playlist (click here to see the playlist). Letters! Words! Sequences! My geeky and anal ponderings were getting the best of me. I needed relief, blessed relief. Who or what might be my savior?

“Snap out of it, you fool!” my wife Sandy commanded me, eight days into XPN’s extravaganza, as she dumped a pitcher of cold water onto my head. I was seated on the living room sofa, ears glued to the radio. “Thanks, Sandy, I needed that,” I said as the refreshing liquid ran lovingly from my head to my toes. I rose, gave Sandy a well-deserved hug and walked across the floor to turn off the radio. Over the following days I continued to listen to XPN, but in reasonable servings.

I guzzled many hundreds of the thousands of songs that spewed from WXPN’s studios during the festival. Great music abounded, yet one song more than any other brought me up short and went straight to my heart. It’s an oldie that most folks know. And, for reasons unknown, I heard it — no, felt it — much more powerfully than ever I had before.

Many sublime songs (Love Train; I Love Music . . . ) flowed from the minds and pens of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but did any equal or surpass If You Don’t Know Me By Now? No way. Gamble and Huff, two of the progenitors of The Sound Of Philadelphia that soulfully and majestically conquered the world in the 1970s, surely realized that they had created a diamond when the writing sessions for that number reached their end. What a song, its finest version being the 1972 original by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. It’s a manifesto about the need for trust and honesty and, more than anything, a declaration of true love. You quiver when Teddy Pendergrass, lead singer for HM&TBN, unleashes pleas robed in frustration. When the rest of the group fills in all the blanks with angelic vocals that cushion and counterbalance Teddy’s hot emotions, you levitate and maybe find a few tears drizzling down your cheeks.

Sandy doesn’t know this yet, but one evening soon I’m going to dial up If You Don’t Know Me By Now’s number, turn the volume to a gentle but firm level and swirl with her around our living room. The song is in waltz time, and even a four-left-footed sloth like me can handle a waltz. Here, then, is the best song I know of whose name begins with If.

The Final Curtain . . . Oy Vey

finalcurtain-hqdefaultMortality, one of the less-than-fun subjects to ponder, has been on my mind a tad more than usual of late, and I’ve been dealing with it like the well-adjusted adult that I fantasize being. I know why my gaze has moved slightly in that direction, and I’ll get to that shortly. Luckily, though, I normally don’t give the topic a whole lot of thought, which I suspect is the case for nearly all of us. Most days I subconsciously shrug my shoulders in the face of the inevitable and continue performing my clumsy dance through life. There’s nothing we can do about the final curtain, so why sweat it? It’s out there. We know that. And one of these days it’s going to drop . . . Hey, wait a minute. That’s really true, isn’t it? One of these days it is going to drop. On little ol’ me. Me, who never hurt more than a few thousand flies in his life. Me, who makes it a point to help the elderly cross the street whether they want my assistance or not. It’s not fair, I tell you! It’s not fair! Holy crap, I’m bumming myself out. I need to walk away from my computer’s keyboard and try to calm down before I resume work on this depressing essay. A beer, that’ll help. Let’s make it a six pack. Better yet, a full case. I’ll be back at some point, unless that f**king curtain falls sooner than I expect it to.

(Three days later). As promised, I’ve returned. And I’m in fighting shape once again. It’s time to continue. I recall a conversation I had six or seven years ago with a childhood friend. I was in my early 60s at the time and recently had celebrated a birthday. “You know, I’m not getting any younger,” or something similarly clichéd I said to her. “Neil, you’re not old. To me you’re youthful,” she more or less said to me. What? Was she kidding? All I could think of was an indisputable fact: Even if I were to live for another 30 years, I was a whole lot closer to the end than to the beginning. And today, as I barrel down the track towards age 70, which is a mere 10 months away, that’s far truer than it was then. Oy vey, what’s a poor boy to do?

Aging. Closing in on the finish line. They are mystifying phenomena. And when you’re truly getting up there in years they can be hard to wrap your head around. My mother, for example, couldn’t believe it when she turned 70. She laughed and laughed when talking to me about the dubious milestone she had reached. 70? Hah! She probably thought of herself as being 45 or 50, and those numbers pretty well reflect the way I think about myself today. But time marches on unconcernedly, despite what’s going on in our imaginations. My mom, a wonderful person whose health problems were considerable and heartbreaking, is long gone. The grains of sand in her hourglass’s upper section emptied pretty quickly after her 70th spin around the Sun.

Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/SoundSpike
Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/SoundSpike

And now it’s time to mention the reason I’m writing this story, which for sure is not of the fluffy and puffy sorts that I usually populate cyberspace with. Yes, philosophy fans, once in a blue moon I cautiously reach into my mental library of deep thoughts and pull out a couple. Problem is, my supply is incredibly limited, so I have to ration them carefully. Right, I still haven’t mentioned the reason. Well, Sharon Jones is the reason. Sharon Jones, the gritty and splendid soul/funk singer. Sharon Jones, who didn’t find musical success until firmly in her middle age and probably was all the more appreciative of it for that. Sharon Jones, who a couple of weeks ago joined the long list of notable musicians (Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, Leonard Cohen, et al.) whose tenures on Planet Earth ceased in 2016. She made it to only age 60.

When I heard about Sharon’s death I felt sad. Quite sad. And not because I was a devout fan of hers. I wasn’t, though probably I should have been, as she was really, really good. Instead, her passing brought me up short because of something that I suspected to be very true. Namely, that undoubtedly she was a lovely person, someone whom I’d have been lucky to know and be pals with. I came away with those observations five years ago when my wife Sandy and I went with a group of friends to see Sharon perform in Philadelphia. As always, she was with The Dap-Kings, a horn-heavy, swaggering band she’d hooked up with in 2002, and found acclaim with over the succeeding years.

Sharon and The Dap-Kings’ performance was part of a weeks-long arts celebration that Philadelphia put on in the spring of 2011. On April 30 of that year she and her bandmates climbed the outdoor stage set up in the heart of town. They were the final act of that day’s street fair. The stage sat in the middle of Broad Street, Philadelphia’s main thoroughfare, and all around it were oceans of human bodies. I don’t know how, but Sandy and I and our friends found a few feet of open space pretty close to stage right. I was pumped. I knew that Sharon and company would be good, but had no idea they’d be fantastically good. And Sharon led the way. For an hour and a half or so she absolutely commanded the stage, shimmying and strutting and testifying and propelling songs to the skies with her powerful vocal cords. My God, she and The Dap-Kings rocked the city to its knees.

I was entranced. Not only that, I could tell that Sharon Jones was beyond ordinary in more than musical ways. That became obvious when she invited a group of little kids, who had been dancing their hearts out a few feet in front of her, to join her onstage. Sharon went wild with them, and the crowd roared. And they also roared, during the group’s signature song (100 Days, 100 Nights), when, with a “Come on, baby,” she motioned to a young man in the audience, Thomas, to climb up and party madly with her. She and Thomas made an exuberant couple. Here is the video of Sharon Jones, The Dap-Kings and Thomas:

What can I say? Beautiful people, those who are open and joyful, behave as Sharon did that afternoon. By that I mean that Sharon was a beautiful person. Which is why many in this world will miss her. It’s a sorrowful day when a bright light goes out.

 

(Don’t be shy about sharing this story or about adding your comments. Or about signing up to follow this blog)