Teeth And Gums And Music

“Yo, schmuck! Are you kidding me? You haven’t published a story in quite a while and the best idea that you can come up with now is a piece about dental health? Neil, you test my patience like no other of my writers. If you weren’t overpaying me for attending to your flimsy articles, I’d bounce you from my client list and send you into the deepest reaches of cyberspace, from which you’d never be heard from again!”

Those were the words that my editor, Edgar Reewright, flung at me over the phone three days ago when I told him about the essay I was planning to compose. Shit, I didn’t exactly appreciate his uncivil response. But what could I do? Fire him? No way. I mean, without his expert eye and guidance, my flimsy articles would be even worse: conceptually flawed, grammatically messy, stiff and awkward, etc., etc.

I need Edgar.

You know what though? I’m not going to let him critique this piece. I’ll mail him his weekly check, sure. But if he’s not interested in reading about a topic as important as dental health, he can shove his unreasonableness up his ever-widening ass. That’ll teach him!

My dental implements.

Dental health. For at least six months I’ve been tossing around the notion of writing a story about it. But I couldn’t quite figure out what angle to take, what points to make. Anyway, late night on October 30 I began to see the journalistic light while brushing and flossing, which are parts of the nightly ritual that I maintain to try and keep periodontal disease (which can lead to tooth loss and possibly worse, such as heart disease) and cavities away.

And I received the kick in the butt that I needed to set the story in motion when, on November 6, I read a real good essay about canine dental health (click here) by Cristina Crawford, a fellow blogger. “Hey!” I said to myself. “It’s not coincidental that Cristina’s article came on the heels of the light you saw last week. Sure, she wrote about her dog’s dental situations. But so what? Dental health is dental health, no matter what species is involved. The time is now, fella! Write your story!”

Okay, I shall.

My dental history was unremarkable until the mid-1990s. I’d been to various dentists somewhat regularly over the previous 40+ years and had had numerous cavities filled, but nobody ever had raised anything resembling a red flag. Circa 1995 though, my dentist-at-the-time (she is still my dentist) did. What she told me, basically, was that my gums and teeth were infected to an extent that she was unable to treat, that the gums had regressed significantly, that I’d had bone loss in the middle and lower sections of my teeth, and that I therefore needed the services — pronto! — of a periodontist. My conditions, I surmised, were the results of poor dental hygiene, because for many years I’d definitely not been the poster boy for proper oral care.

To a periodontist I went, and what resulted wasn’t a pretty scene. Osseous surgery sessions — scraping away of infected bone and gum tissue areas, and repositioning of my gums on tooth surfaces — took place over a number of months. The procedures hurt, and they made my mouth look like a bloody, sloppy mess. But everything in time healed. And the procedures worked, putting a halt to periodontal disease, which is fueled by bacterial buildups. Ever since then I’ve very diligently done my best to keep my gums and teeth clean: Brushing after meals with a regular toothbrush; inserting a small brush (a Proxabrush) between the teeth to push out food particles; flossing; and rinsing with mouthwash. I do all of this, in various permutations, several times each day.

There’s nothing unusual about my regimen. Pretty much everyone reading this article, I imagine, is more or less taking the same measures. In any case, I’ve been fortunate, because periodontal disease, knock on wood, has not returned.

So, how does the late night of October 30 figure into this story? Well, dental routines ain’t exactly emotionally or spiritually invigorating, right? To help while away the boredom as I work inside my mouth, I listen to music on an old portable radio.

I’m not the music geek that once I was, but a seeker of fine tunes I remain. In between brush strokes or floss movements I flip the radio’s dial, hoping to connect with one station or another’s offerings. Often I connect pleasantly, sometimes fabulously. On October 30 the latter took place, for three songs that I’m compelled to mention came at me during the first quarter of the eleven o’clock hour. As they played I couldn’t help but bust out my sad attempts at bopping and boogying, being careful of course not to trip and stab myself with my toothbrush as I shuffled around the bathroom.

In the order in which I heard them, the recordings were as follows: The Memphis Train, by Rufus Thomas. St. James Infirmary, by Cab Calloway and his orchestra. Pass The Gin, by The Meadowlarks. The tunes hit the market, respectively, in 1968, 1930 and 1954. Rufus and Cab were big stars in their lifetimes, I should note, and retain plenty of fame to this day. The Meadowlarks, though, were pretty obscure, and are beyond obscure in 2018. But little matter. Millions of top-notch recordings have faded away in music history’s scrapbook. I’m glad that Pass The Gin was resurrected while I had the radio on.

I totally dig The Memphis Train’s pounding drums, funky and kinky electric guitar, and Rufus’s wild whoops. Ditto for Cab’s dramatic singing in St. James Infirmary, and for the horn players who, with twinkles in their eyes, send out cascades of sashaying and strutting notes. As for Pass The Gin, how cool and tight are the vocals, and how nifty is the guitar solo halfway through the song? Very. Very. Very.

With that, the current proceedings are coming to a close. Sleep well tonight, readers. Treat your teeth and gums well, if you’re not already doing so. And, as Sly And The Family Stone advised, dance to the music!

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. Gracias.)

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Great Blue, Good Blue, Bad Blue: Thoughts About A Joni Mitchell Song

My well-worn copy of Blue the album.
My well-worn copy of Blue the album.

Probably it was inevitable that Joni Mitchell’s album Blue would find its way into one of my essays. That’s because it is one of my all-time favorite records. And I hardly stand alone. Blue, after all, appears high on the “greatest albums ever” lists of music critics galore. With good reason. It’s an awfully brilliant work. Joni’s naked emotions, from high to low, saturate Blue’s songs, all of which she wrote. By no means am I an expert on the Mitchell canon, but from what I hear when I listen to Blue, and from what I’ve read, Joni’s openness was at its acme during the writing and recording of Blue, which came out in 1971. As self-revealing as many other of her albums are, Blue walks away with the “Here’s What I’m All About” prize. If you aren’t familiar with Blue, you will add some wows to your day by tracking it down and giving it a whirl.

But you know what? I’m not going to write any further about Blue the album on this virtual sheet of paper. That’s just like me . . . erratic. I won’t stray too far off course, however, as I now turn my gaze to Blue the sad song. It is the final track on side one of Blue the album’s vinyl incarnation. Although I’ve heard this song more than 100 times, I’d guess, over the years, it wasn’t till last week that I paid devoted attention to its lyrics. That’s just like me, too, a guy who has had trouble figuring out the meaning of 99% of the tunes he’s listened to during his life, including Happy Birthday To You and My Ding-A-Ling (it was a Chuck Berry hit). As an aside I’ll mention that my poor levels of lyrical insight and understanding are predictable. Back in my freshman year at college I stunned my Introduction To English Literature professor with my denseness. He had to create a new grade for me. An F wasn’t low enough, so he gave me a G, which stood for Gawdawful. Miraculously, my interpretative powers have inched upward a bit since those days.

Blue the song is track five on side one.
Blue the song is track five on side one.

When I heard Blue the song last week, it struck some heavy chords with me, as it always does, and I began trying to figure out a way to work it into a story. I was all set to compare it to a couple of other sad tunes with blue in their titles. Such as Dinah Washington’s 1955 version of Blue Gardenia and Willie Nelson’s 1975 take on Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. But before I could do that I needed to examine Blue’s lyrics and attempt to decipher them. I looked at them and came away, I think, with a reasonable understanding. And that’s when an interesting thought entered my brain. Lyrically, Blue is so Joni-personal, and musically so shape-shifting, I wondered if anyone ever covered it. Nah, that’s pretty doubtful I decided. But oh so wrong I was, as some Googling revealed. Amazingly to me, lots of people have taken a crack at it, some more successfully than others. Wham! “There’s a story in there,” I said to myself. Probably many. However, we’ll save many for future days and keep the remainder of this analysis on the modest side.

There’s no better place to continue than with Blue’s words, which are relatively few. Here they are:

Blue, songs are like tattoos.
You know I’ve been to sea before.
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away.

Hey Blue, there is a song for you.
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin,
An empty space to fill in.

Well there’s so many sinking now,
You’ve got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves.
Acid, booze, and ass.
Needles, guns, and grass.
Lots of laughs, lots of laughs.

Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go.
Well I don’t think so
But I’m gonna take a look around it though.
Blue, I love you.

Blue, here is a shell for you.
Inside you’ll hear a sigh,
A foggy lullaby.
There is your song from me.

Those lyrics startle me. They rock, they roll, they roil. Delicately. They paint a picture of fragile love. And until last week I hadn’t realized that they are addressed to a specific person (James Taylor, Joni’s boyfriend during parts of 1970 and ’71, is many observers’ guess) whose identity she isn’t revealing but, for the song’s sake, she has nicknamed Blue. Joni loves Mr. Blue, but can’t quite reach him. There are more than a few degrees of disconnect. A head-over-heels-in-love song for him wouldn’t fit the nature of their relationship. The best she can do is to pen a foggy lullaby to help fill in an empty space. Ouch. Love hurts.

Joni Mitchell sings Blue fervently, her voice sometimes quivering, accompanied only by the piano whose keys she hits good and hard (click here to hear the song). Her vocal is forthright and drips with pain and uncertainty. She didn’t want additional instruments or voices to distract from her message. She aimed for simplicity in her rendition.

Joni’s Blue is pretty perfect, don’t you think? The world would be just fine with no version of the song but hers. I can understand, though, why others would approach it. For some artists, Blue might cut so deeply they are uncontrollably compelled to record it. For others, putting a different spin on singular Blue seemingly becomes a challenge they can’t resist undertaking.

Roughly 100 cover versions of Blue have been recorded. And I gave a listen to a dozen of them before I said to myself: “Yo, anal dude! Enough already.” But the 12 I visited comprised an ear-opening experience. And speaking of yo . . . Yo, Kevin Sandbloom! What the fu*k were you thinking? Kevin — your jumpy Blue is wrong, man, wrong. Haven’t you ever heard of subtlety? And what’s with your vocal undulations? They send the song on a nasty roller coaster ride. Joni should sue you, man. Driver, let me off! (Click here to listen)

On the other hand . . . Yo, Dubistry! I shuddered at first listening. But your version grew on me. Who’d have thunk that a reggae-clothed Blue would work? Those crashing drums and cymbals send shock waves. But, in the end, your Blue can handle them because you didn’t allow the spirit of Joni’s Blue to disappear. (Click here to listen)

Yeah, the spirit of Joni’s Blue. I guess that’s what I was looking for all along. And I found it in the Blues lofted to us by Cat Power and Sarah McLachlan. Picking one over the other is tough, but I’m going to go with Sarah’s, which you can listen to by clicking here. Sarah does Blue proud. She sings the song slowly, buoyed by quiet and well-placed electric bass notes, by shimmering electric keyboards, and dramatically by a multi-tracked heavenly female choir. Sarah’s Blue sounds better and better to me the more I return to it. It is ethereal, majestic. A week ago I’d never have believed I might say this, but the McLaughlin Blue equals and possibly outdoes Joni’s.

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Killer Joe: The Song That Gave Me Pause

You know, I’m not exactly the poster boy for being cool. I mean, the last time that a hot chick couldn’t keep her eyes off of me was . . . was . . . was . . . yeah, now I remember. I was about two years old, being pushed around in a baby carriage. “Oh, he’s absolutely adorable,” the girl cooed, bending down to get a better look and never taking her gaze from mine. Wow, that was the best!

But I’ll tell you something. I do know how to be cool once in awhile. Like when I hear a great tune on the radio, one so finger-snapping and head-bopping fine that I can’t contain myself. Just watch me as I rise from the sofa and strut across the living room, the dining room, the kitchen and back again. Fingers snapping. Head a-bopping. Cool, man, cool. It happens now and then.

Killer Joe. That’s the tune that got me off the couch one recent evening. As usual I was doing not much of anything, except half-listening to the radio and counting the number of Cheez-Its crumbs stuck to the sofa’s cushions. I had counted 87 of them when — POW! POW! — Quincy Jones’ version of Killer Joe came on the air. It sounded spectacular. Next thing I knew, I was stepping.

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Killer Joe, a jazz standard, was composed around 1959 by jazz saxophonist Benny Golson, who has written many other songs (I Remember Clifford, Whisper Not, Stablemates) covered by scads of jazzbos. And Benny’s 1960 recording of Killer Joe is absolutely ace (click here to listen). Benny put the tune on wax with The Jazztet, the group that he co-led with trumpeter Art Farmer, and it came out on their album Meet The Jazztet. But Quincy’s KJ is better. It’s just too, too much, though it took me awhile to settle permanently into that opinion (click here to listen). I like it more than The Jazztet’s version because it has more slinky sizzle. Quincy himself didn’t play on the tune, which is from his 1969 album Walking In Space. But he arranged and conducted it and hired some monster guys to send out the sounds. Ray Brown (bass), Hubert Laws (flute) and Grady Tate (drums), to name a few.

To me, Ray Brown’s confident, strutting upright bass is the key to Killer Joe. From the opening bass lines straight through to the song’s end, Ray Brown is walking the walk. He’s under control, yet swaggering. He’s keeping things tight and tense, but jaunty too. And Tate, his steady high-hat cymbal work somehow loose as a goose, ambles arm-in-arm with Brown. Beyond the purring Brown/Tate engine, I couldn’t get enough of the airy flute solo, the piercing trumpet interludes and the pleading voices of the female chorus. Man, my fingers were snapping big time as I did my household shuffle.

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It wasn’t till the next day, though, relistening to the song on YouTube, that I paid attention to the lyrics that the ladies sing. “Killer Joe, don’t you go/Hurt me slow, please Joe.” Whoa, what did that mean? Is this a song about physical abuse? Had I been slow-marching and bopping to a composition that contains a really nasty notion? It took me a good long while to grasp the meaning of the words. They don’t paint a pretty picture, but I believe that the hurt referred to is emotional, not physical. Killer Joe (the character, not the song) is a cad, a heel, a self-absorbed jivester whom some women just can’t resist. Smitten, they know it’s a certainty that he will leave them. And that their hearts face a sad destiny: to be broken. The ladies want to be let down easy, not hard.

Now, The Jazztet’s recorded version of KJ basically is an instrumental piece. It has no lyrics, though Benny Golson felt the need to open the proceedings with a spoken introduction to let the world know that KJ ain’t a swell guy. Nine years later, on Quincy’s version, lyrics, brief as they are, were added. Who wrote them? I’ve scoured the Web, coming up unsure as to the answer. Could have been Golson, could have been Jones, could have been both or neither of them. Regardless, Quincy’s 1969 take on the song expanded Golson’s equation. What had been an instrumental description of a me-first, ponies-playing ladies’ man became deeper, something to ponder. Quincy Jones’ Killer Joe is a swinging statement tempered with reminders about how doleful and strange and complicated life can be.

Speaking from my me-first perspective, it’s a good thing that Quincy’s KJ isn’t about women who like their bad boy to whup them. If it were, into the deep freeze it would go, never to be listened to again. I’d be a chump to support any tune that goes that far to the dark side, even if it grooves like a champ.

But all is well in my music world. Onward!

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Porchfest: A Very Good Idea

Good ideas . . . some people get ’em like crazy. Others, not so much. I’m near the bottom of the barrel of the latter grouping. I had a good idea about 50 years ago, when it dawned on me that grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches might be improved upon by adding a schmear of Gulden’s spicy brown mustard. Genius visited me that day, but hasn’t made an appearance since. Such, as we know, is life.

Which smoothly brings us to a remarkably good idea that some folks came up with nine years ago: a neighborhood outdoor music festival called Porchfest. When I first heard earlier this month about Porchfest’s existence I smacked myself on the forehead and said: “Yo, cowboy. This is so obvious. How come you never thought of it?” And then I remembered once again that, sadly, genius ain’t no friend of mine.

What’s a Porchfest? Well, it is a day of music played on some of the porches of a porch-heavy community. The shows are free to the public. What could be better? After all, porches, when you think about it, are small covered stages easy to get close to, making them perfect for intimate musical experiences. All that a Porchfest organizing committee need do is convince a bunch of homeowners in a neighborhood to allow musicians to play at their houses, and find a bigger bunch of musical acts to climb aboard. Then you set up a schedule so that audience members know the addresses of the porches, and encourage said listeners to roam from site to site, the better to get a big dose of vibrations.

The first Porchfest took place in 2007 in Ithaca, New York. Since then, musicians and music lovers throughout the USA, and in a few Canadian cities, have picked up on the notion and staged their own Porchfests. Each Porchchfest is independent of the others and, I’m pretty sure, is a low budget and DIY type of operation. But watch out! The power of Porchfests is undeniable and irresistible. As a few more years go by, I predict that Porchfests will cross the oceans and conquer the world!

Darlington at West Philly Porchfest.
Darlington at West Philly Porchfest.
Jon Veit at West Philly Porchfest.
Jon Veit at West Philly Porchfest.

Which even more smoothly brings us to a recent Saturday in a section of West Philadelphia (part of The City Of Brotherly Love) that contains scads of old and sturdy rowhouses and twins in possession of porches. As ideal a location for a Porchfest as any on our planet. And where, indeed, the first West Philly Porchfest took place, the baby of a group of organizers who recognized that the Porchfest idea was very worth pursuing. (Lots of info about West Philly Porchfest’s genesis and design may be discovered by clicking here and also here).

I Think Like Midnight.
I Think Like Midnight.
Emily Zeitlyn.
Emily Zeitlyn.

West Philly Porchfest’s boundaries were broad, about 12 blocks east to west and likewise north to south, encompassing much of what has come to be known as University City due to the area’s proximity to the University of Pennsylvania. Over 30 porches participated. The event began at noon on June 4 and ended at 6 PM. I was an attendee, taking in parts of six shows during a two-and-a-half-hour period. Man, I loved it. I heard an acoustic folky rock trio (Darlington); two singer-songwriters (Jon Veit and Emily Zeitlyn); a damn good jam session between, of all things, an African-drum percussionist, a fiddle player, an acoustic guitarist and a flugelhornist; a vocal-less rock band (I Think Like Midnight) that, to my ears, sounded like a cross between The Grateful Dead and Television; and a folky duo that smoked and crunched. I’m going to zero in on the duo, who go by the name Driftwood Soldier, because I liked them the best of the acts that I caught. I seemed not to be alone in that. They drew the biggest crowd, around 80 people, that I saw all day, and the loudest applause too.

Driftwood Soldier.
Driftwood Soldier.

Owen Lyman-Schmidt is Driftwood Soldier’s singer, mandolin strummer and songwriter. Bobby Szafranski is the band’s not-your-average electric bassist. Both guys pitch in to move the groove by banging on percussion instruments with their feet. I tell you, Driftwood Soldier has it. Owen sang, in a wild and wooly baritone, about underdogs, colorful characters, people who deserve better than they’ve got. He reminded me a lot of the late Dave Van Ronk. And Bobby sent the tunes aloft with bass lines that gleamed and grinned. I would not be surprised if Driftwood Soldier breaks through nationally one of these days, though to-date they are unknowns. They are that good. And they’ve got the work ethic that might lead to fame and glory, touring our fair nation with gusto. Thanks to the wondrousness of the Internet, you may watch Driftwood Soldier performing their song Rosalee by clicking right here.

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You know, I lived in University City during the 1970s and 80s on a beautiful, tree-filled block oh so close to a few of the shows I watched the other day. I liked the area mucho back then, and still do. I go back now and again. On the day of Porchfest it was fun walking the streets upon which I’ve trod so many times before. And it was equally swell strolling through Clark Park, a lovely place, a hub of peace and calm in University City. Kids were playing, food truck and farmers’ market vendors were vending, and teenagers and adults were milling around. The coolest sight I saw in the park was a little girl climbing all over the Charles Dickens statue. That’s right, Charles Dickens. It’s the only statue of him in the USA. And, apparently, one of only two in the world. The other, by the way, is in Australia, not Great Britain. A good idea would be for the Brits to commission and erect a Dickens statue too, since Dickens  — duh — was one of their own.

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Lindi Ortega Revisited

Last July I penned an essay about Ashes, a brilliant tune from the heartbreak canon that came out on Lindi Ortega’s 2015 album Faded Gloryville (if you’d like to read my words, click here). Lindi is a singer-songwriter in love with pensive ballads, country music in various varieties (gritty, rocking, bouncy), the blues and soul music. She has reached a modest level of success. My story, though, didn’t go into much detail about Lindi, a Canadian who relocated to Nashville five years ago, because I didn’t know all that much about her or her music (not that I’m an expert now). I concentrated on the song. In a nutshell, what I said was: “Ashes to me is perfection.”

Well, for reasons that probably always will remain unknown to me, my Ashes opus became pretty well read. Most of my stories are looked at for a few weeks at best, rarely to be discovered by any member of humanity after that. But the Ashes piece was different. Week after week, month after month, folks kept finding it. About three months ago its audience finally petered out.

Me, I didn’t forget about Lindi after I wrote the story. She and her great song became so stuck in my mind, I knew I had to see her in concert. A few months ago, voila! I noticed that Lindi and her band, who tour like mad around the USA and Canada, were on the schedule of MilkBoy Philly, a smallish and mostly rock-music club in the heart of Philadelphia. On May 22 I left my home in the burbs to take in that show.

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Was Lindi a let-down? Had my infatuation with Ashes set the bar of expectations way too high? Hell, no. I, who was familiar with not a one of the Ortega-composed songs performed at MilkBoy, other than Ashes, had a great time. Lindi and band were terrific, as I’d assumed they would be. And it was a gas hanging out in funky MilkBoy, where I squeezed close to the stage like a frigging fanboy, inches away from a gaggle of new-found, swaying and shimmying friends.

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Lindi, who is in her mid 30s, hit the stage at 9:05 PM and bid us adieu 75 minutes later. In between she sang her heart out, ripping it up on hard rockabilly and honky-tonk and bluesy numbers, pouring out her soul on the slower, more doleful part of her repertoire. She and her four-guys band knocked  each song (19 in all) out of the park. Lindi wrote or co-wrote 16 of them, and those 16 came from her four most recent studio albums. Most of the lyrics were finely wrought, sweet metaphors and similes abounding. Without a doubt, Lindi’s my kind of girl . . . a wordsmith.

Lindi Ortega sings about the subjects that have fueled country and blues and soulful songs since time almost immemorial. We’re talking loneliness, regret, broken hearts, drinking to drive the troubles away, lovers who can’t help but disappoint. Her voice and delivery might remind you of Dolly Parton and Lee Ann Womack at times, and of Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin at others. In her trademark red cowgirl boots at MilkBoy she leaned into her hand-held mic and told it like it is.

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Take one of the fast numbers, for example. The evening began with a Faded Gloryville song, Run Amuck. Wham, bam! It was a honky-tonking blues blasted into fourth gear by James Robertson’s red-hot Telecaster guitar and Noah Hungate’s precise, rip-roaring drum work. Robertson and Hungate threw out sparks for 45 seconds before Lindi sang the tune’s first lines. “Daddy, where you going?/Going out again?/You keep messing round town with your floozy little friends,” Lindi finally unloaded. And she didn’t quit unloading till the tune ended a few minutes later. Man, I was sold. And psyched.

And take one of the slow tunes. Near show’s end she broke my heart with Tin Star, from the album of the same name. Voice quivering, she sang sorrowful words: “Like an old tin star I’m beat up and rusty/Lost in the shining stars of Nashville Tennessee/Well I wrote this song for those who are like me/Lost in the shining stars, the shining stars.” She held that final stars fragilely, with a high note, and for only half a second before continuing Tin Star’s tale of a very struggling and conflicted musician. The song was gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

You get the idea. If Lindi and her band pass your way, plunk down a few bucks and catch them. In the interim, you can watch part of the MilkBoy concert courtesy of YouTube. Someone whom I didn’t notice, but who no doubt was standing near me, recorded and uploaded seven of the MilkBoy songs. If you click here you’ll see and hear Run Amuck. And if you do likewise right here, Tin Star will come your way.

I can’t leave without mentioning Ashes, which, sadly, the MilkBoy YouTuber didn’t post. I went half limp when, halfway through the show, I heard the chiming guitar riffs and the dirge-like drumming that introduced the song and gave it gripping power. And what might I say about Lindi’s shiver-inducing voice and the intelligence and sadness of the lyrics? Well, to repeat, Ashes to me is perfection. By clicking here, you will hear the album version of one of my all-time favorite songs.

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Three From The 70s

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the 1970s used to get a lot of bad press when it came to music. I’m talking about 70s music in general, not to overlook the extra helpings of guano that were hurled at disco and jazz fusion. I never bought into that, what with all the great material we got during that decade from Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye . . . the list is endless. The knocks ended ages ago. Hardly anyone gripes about 70s music anymore. I mean, more so than the tunes from any other decade, it has become the soundtrack to our lives. But what about those who used to parade with their “Disco Sucks” flags held high? Hey, put on Disco Inferno, by The Trammps, or the Stones’ Miss You, and I guarantee that they’ll be boogying on the dance floor like puppy monkey babies. And if you don’t know what a puppy monkey baby is, get with it and click here.

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Which brings us to my abode on a Sunday morning last month. A quiet morning. The neighborhood’s brigade of lawn mowers hadn’t approached the starting line yet, and nearby dogs, for reasons unknown, weren’t barking their f**king heads off. I was listening to WXPN, a radio station based in Philadelphia. It was in the midst of one of its one-off events: The Greatest 70s Music Ever Weekend. I listened for two hours and caught all 22 songs that they played during that span. My degree of awareness varied from song to song, though, depending on each number’s ability to penetrate a mind trying to unravel the secrets of the universe. As usual I didn’t get too far with that. Most of the songs I knew. Man, I hadn’t heard Steve Forbert’s It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way in at least five years. Hadn’t heard Tom Traubert’s Blues, by Tom Waits, in decades. And Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)? Well, anyone who’s a dial flipper like me is going to run across that one a whole lot. It’s probably being played on at least one station in the world at every moment of every day. As well it should be.

The bottom line was that nearly every song on WXPN sounded good or better than good. But three of them rang my bells more than the others. And of those three, one in particular unmoored my boat and sent me . . .

The three songs I liked best are on these albums.
The three songs I liked best are on these albums.

My faves from the morning were Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, David Bowie’s Wild Is The Wind, and El Condor Pasa (If I Could) by Simon and Garfunkel. Great recordings. Much of humanity is familiar with one or more of them. If I were asked to provide the briefest of descriptions of their essential natures, I’d say, in respective order: heartfelt, majestic, transporting.

I loved these three songs from the first moments that I heard them in the 1970s, which in each case was soon after their release on vinyl albums. Tupelo Honey is my number one song on the album of the same name from which it cometh, and the album is my number one among many primo efforts by Van The Man. Morrison was at the top of his game as a singer and songwriter when Tupelo Honey, the album, came out in 1971. I listened keenly last month as Tupelo Honey, the song, played on WXPN. My, my, my . . . how sweet it was, the languid pacing, each organ and guitar line issued oh so casually yet with a soulful caress, and Van’s voice wrapped tightly around the words, as if letting go would result in life’s lessening. “She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey/She’s an angel of the first degree/She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey/Just like honey, baby, from the bee.” This song is the best (click here to listen).

Yet, David Bowie’s version of Wild Is The Wind might be better. And, David the prolific songwriter, didn’t even pen the tune. It was the title song, written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, of a 1957 movie, Dimitri handling the notes and Ned the words. Wild Is The Wind fit like a glove among Bowie’s compositions on Station To Station, his soaring, riveting album from 1976. Wild Is The Wind is a mysterious ride. Guitars calmly anchor the production with repeating and chiming lines as Bowie’s vocals take flight. His singing is dramatic, touched with eeriness and loaded with falsetto leaps. I sat back on the couch last month and let the sounds wash over me. Wild Is The Wind is the best (click here to listen).

Yet, to me El Condor Pasa (If I Could) is better. Maybe because of its simplicity, its sweet melody that relaxes my knotted guts. And because of Simon’s and Garfunkel’s unaffectedly angelic vocals. And the flutes. No question, it’s the flutes that get to me more than anything.

El Condor Pasa was composed in 1913 by Daniel Alomia Robles, a Peruvian. Robles, the story goes, based his music on traditional Andean folk songs that date back who-knows-how-many-centuries, probably to the time of the Incas. And speaking of Incas, Simon apparently first heard the tune performed by the band Los Incas, with whom he toured a bit during his pre-Garfunkel days. He fell in love with the song. Some years later, Los Incas backed up S & G for the recording of El Condor during the sessions that resulted in a famous album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Simon added lyrics to Robles’ composition. The album came out in 1970 with El Condor as its second track.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for the pure, innocent high notes of Los Incas’ flutes. I heard El Condor on XPN at the beginning of my two hour session. I was still in bed. My eyes might have been open, but I closed them when the song came on the air. Up, up and away it took me. El Condor Pasa (If I Could) is the best. I mean it. Click here to listen.

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(Photo of albums by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on it, a larger image will open)

Me And My Muse

My muse.
My muse. Her dress might be from Saks.

The stage was set in its usual way this past Thursday evening. I sat in the library of my suburban Philadelphia home, clad in comfy pajama pants and a sporty smoking jacket, sipping a cup of piping hot chamomile tea laced with two shots of Kentucky bourbon. I was awaiting my weekly visitation from Erratica, my wondrous muse. Erratica, the little-known but essential Greek goddess, and sister of the nine muses who have gotten all the headlines since bursting on the scene about 3,000 years ago. Terpsichore, for instance, the inspiration for dancers, and Calliope, without whom Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and other authors’ epic poetry, would be stink-o for sure.

Yes, Erratica. She whose job through the millennia has been to aid countless amateur storytellers and scribes in need of a push, in need of direction, such as me.

My eyes were heavy and my mind was foggy due to the typically poor night’s sleep from which I had awoken that morning, not to overlook the spiked tea. In other words, I was in what for me passes as fighting shape. I was straining my brain, trying to come up with some story ideas for my blog, when a series of sharp jabs on my left shoulder got my attention. I looked behind me.

“Hello, Erratica,” I cheerfully said to the beautiful creature who had delivered the blows, eyeing her flowing robes. “You are right on time. I love your dress, by the way. Where’d you get it? At Saks?”

“I’m in a hurry, Neil,” Erratica answered, as she moved from behind my chair to face me properly. “You’re not the only pseudo-writer in need of help. Let’s skip the small talk.”

This girl gets right to the point. There’s nothing erratic about her. Instead, her name derives from the erratic creative talents of those whom she shepherds. “Okay,” I gulped. “Here’s the situation. A week ago, with your assistance, I got it together to write a piece about Willie Nile, and I published it yesterday. But now I’m stuck, really stuck. I can’t think of a single thing to write about. I’m constipated, for gawd’s sake! My handful of readers won’t know what to do if I don’t publish something next week. Please inspire me, Erratica. Please. I’m on bended knees.”

Erratica gave me one of those long, hard looks. I felt uneasy. I knew what was coming. “Neil,” she said. “You have been a big disappointment to me the last couple of months. Getting you to deliver stories once every week or so has been much too difficult. And now you say that you’re totally out of ideas? Are you kidding? Look at all the movies and other things you’ve seen that you haven’t written about. The world is your oyster, whatever that means, and you’re leaving so much of it on the table. There you were last month at the Philadelphia Flower Show, a world-famous exposition, and you wrote not one word about it. Three hundred thousand people went to that show, but it wasn’t good enough for you? What are you, some kind of elitist? And a couple of weeks ago you took in Hello, My Name Is Doris, a sweet movie with adorable Sally Field. Where’s your review, guy? And I could mention so much more. Neil, you’re frustrating me. Big time.”

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“Oh, Erratica. I know you’re right. You always are. But hear me out. Sure, I liked Hello, My Name Is Doris pretty well. I came close to writing about it. But the more I thought about the movie, the more I saw what I think is a gaping hole in its central logic. I said to myself, ‘Yo, schmuck. Why spend several hours analyzing a flick that’s kind of flabby in its design?’ What I’m saying, Erratica, is this: Doris is what, 65 years old? And she’s been a semi-wallflower pretty much all of her life. And then one day— presto! — she falls in with a bunch of hip millennials who practically adopt her into their tribe. I mean, c’mon. The odds of that happening are about as high as my winning the Powerball jackpot on the same day that NASA accepts me into its astronaut training program.”

Erratica gave me another of those long, hard looks. Obviously she wasn’t buying my explanation. Maybe I wasn’t either.

One of the Japanese displays.
One of the Japanese displays.
Part of Big Timber Lodge, which was the entrance to National Parks exhibits.
Part of Big Timber Lodge, which was the entrance to national parks exhibits.

“And here are my beefs about the Philadelphia Flower Show,” I continued. “Yeah, going in I was primed to write it up. But going out I was muttering ‘nah’ to myself. I mean, the show was okay. I liked some Japanese displays. And the themed exhibits representing various national parks were decent, but that’s all they were . . . representations. You could walk through and around them in seconds. All they really made me want to do was head to the great outdoors and explore the real parks. And don’t get me started on the juried flower exhibits. The flowers in my local supermarket’s flower department look as good, probably better, than what I saw at the show. Grouse and grouse some more, that’s mostly what I would have done if I’d written about the Flower Show. There’s no fun in that for me.”

 

Erratica snorted. Her patience clearly was exhausted. “I don’t know if I can take this anymore,” she said. “I have to have a talk with my father. His name is Zeus, in case you forgot. You amateurs have worn me out. For 3,000 years I’ve been dealing with marginally-talented, confused whiners. I deserve a new assignment. Calliope’s, for example. Amateurs . . . bah!”

And, just like that, Erratica was gone. Possibly forever. I don’t know how I will cope if she doesn’t return. But I do know this: Bereft of ideas, there’s little chance that I will publish anything this week.

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(Doris and flower show photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Great Fortune Smiled Upon Me When Willie Nile Came To Town

I had no doubt that something celestially-inspired was happening when my once-Greek-god-like hair began to move most unusually, each strand inching upward rapidly till they all pointed straight . . . straight . . . towards the stars! Yo, was anybody staring at me? I looked a mess. But at times like that, who gives a flying fig? This incredible occurrence meant only one thing: The stars had aligned themselves for me. I was in the right place at the right time. In Philadelphia. At funky, small and narrow Tin Angel, a music club where my wife Sandy and I sat 40 feet from the stage. Upon which Willie Nile and his band, only seconds into their set and ablaze from the first whack of the drum kit, were transporting me to — yeah man, as clichéd and dumb as this sounds, I’m gonna say it — rock and roll heaven. I was so jazzed I started to drop to my knees to kiss Tin Angel’s floor. Sandy held me back. “What, are you nuts!” she wisely exclaimed. “There’s a bacterial frat house party going on down there. Stay in your seat, young man.”

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And I did, as Willie and his pals commandeered the stage for nearly two hours. They took no prisoners, blasting out 20 holy crap-that’s-catchy songs (17 of them fully or co-authored by Willie), not even offering up a medium-paced number until halfway through the show. What they unleashed was unadulterated rock and roll. The kind of rock that any lover of  The Clash, The Pogues, The Ramones, Petty and Springsteen would go wild for. Rock propelled by Matt Hogan’s lean, soaring electric guitar and Alex Alexander’s huge drum poundings and Johnny Pisano’s electric bass lines that bobbed and bubbled. And what about Willie? Why, he led the way, packing his lead vocals with brio and strumming madly on his low-in-the-mix acoustic guitar. He showed off his ace songwriting skills, delivering righteous social anthems (such as Let’s All Come Together and One Guitar) and acutely-detailed observations about love (Beautiful You). And he owned the stage, because he’s one of those cool guys with way natural magnetism.

Man, how long had it been since I’d been rocked to the bones like this? Too long, partner, too long. And it wasn’t only the hooks and riffs and pounding drums and great songs and Willie’s lead singing that made the night special. The band possessed a secret weapon, one so astonishingly good my ears opened up like sink holes. We’re talking here about exuberant harmony vocals that deliriously dressed nearly every song’s chorus. The chorus of Forever Wild, for instance, the set’s opener. Leaning into their mics, Nile, Hogan and Pisano whooped and let loose: “Forever wild — uh-uh-uh uh-uh/uh-uh-uh uh-uh/Forever wild!” Throughout the set, like a bunch of half-drunk revelers, they sent the songs into outer space, Pisano reaching crazily-high notes almost out of the range of human hearing.

I should have kissed the floor.

In another lifetime maybe I’ll tackle writing Willie Nile’s biography. For now I’ll mention but a few things about him, starting with the obvious fact that he is one of the hordes of musicians whom the average Joe or Jen never heard of. He definitely has his fans though, quite a few, actually. But he deserves to have mucho more of them. And throughout his career, which began in the 1970s, he has been a darling of many music jounalists. They have loved his albums and his concerts. Still, that never has translated consistently into lots of gigs at good-sized venues, or into much airplay for his songs. Hell, Tin Angel can squeeze in maybe 140 bodies, and it was only half-filled when Sandy and I saw him there this month. As with much of life, I don’t get it. I mean, Willie should be a star.

Willie seems undaunted, though. He’s closing in on 70 and has been on a creative roll, churning out studio albums with little pause. His latest, World War Willie, just came out, and it’s his fifth since 2009. Willie and band played nearly all of it at Tin Angel, every song sounding fine as can be to my sink hole ears.

Left to right: Matt, Alex, Willie, Johnny.
Left to right: Matt, Alex, Willie, Johnny.

Flanked with cartoony murals that look like modern day caveman art, Tin Angel welcomed Willie and band in the right way. Meaning, a person with talent and good judgment was at the sound board. Isn’t often that you can make out more than 40% of the lyrics at a loud rock and roll show. The other night, the sound lady balanced everything just right and I deciphered most of the lyrics no problem. And they were cool. “Grandpa rocks, Grandpa rocks/He listens to the Stones on the waterfront docks,” Willie happily shouted on the set’s second song. And on the eighth he warned, “I’m a bad boy/I ain’t no good/When I was born they said ‘knock on wood’.” Those pithy rhymes came from songs on World War Willie whose titles are easily guessed.

Not only that, Tin Angel has the vibes and layout that full-frontal rock and roll needs in order to flower. It’s cramped. it’s sweaty, and it puts its audience in potential danger. Halfway through the show, Johnny Pisano sidled to the edge of stage left, his electric bass’s neck gleefully bopping around and sticking far out into the skinny corridor that leads to the bathrooms. A guy, fresh from relieving himself, sauntered from the loo and headed back to his seat. A collision awaited. Watch out, mate! You’re about to get whacked in the head!

I don’t think that Pisano ever saw him. But the guy nimbly ducked. And all was well.

(Click here to watch Willie and his band performing Grandpa Rocks one week before I saw him at Tin Angel)

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Ruthie Foster, Soulful Singer: Frigid Weather Couldn’t Keep Us Away

It was a dark and stormy night . . . hold on, that line sounds familiar. I think I may have lifted it from someone inadvertently. Wouldn’t want to do that. I’m going to put it into Google and see what gives. I’ll be right back.

Yes, indeed. The sentence was penned about 185 years ago by an English novelist whom nobody alive today ever heard of. In that sense he’s just like me. Let’s start over.

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. Well, it was dark, but it wasn’t stormy. In fact the sky was quite clear. But it was a bitterly cold Saturday night, no doubt about that. As in 12° F. My wife Sandy and I had just eaten dinner in a tavern we like in the Philly burbs. As we soldiered through the parking lot to our car, the night air laughed in my ear. “Man, you sure are a nitwit for going out in weather like this,” it mockingly said, keeping its voice low so that Sandy wouldn’t overhear. “Didn’t anyone tell you that it’s cold outside?” It’s surprising the things you learn as you get older — before that frigid evening a couple of weeks ago I never knew that the night air could talk, let alone be a sarcastic jerk. I kept my mouth shut, but next time I’ll be prepared with a snappy retort.

Ten minutes later Sandy and I arrived at our post-dinner destination, Montgomery County Community College. It’s located in the once-bucolic town of Blue Bell. Modest in size and scope, MCCC isn’t where one would expect to find a world-class performing arts series, but such is the case. Many times over the years, Sandy and I have seen top-of-the-line musicians and modern dance troupes in the series’ 400-seat auditorium.

It was good getting out of the cold. We settled into our seats at 7:45 PM and awaited the singer whom I’ve known about for a few years but never had seen in person. Ruthie Foster, she who drinks from the wells of blues, gospel, soul and folk music, and who is one of the prides of musically-rich Texas, USA. Ruthie, in her early 50s, is an in-demand artist. She regularly plays in the States, Canada, Europe and sometimes Australia. Let me mention one important point before I forget: Ruthie is a gifted vocalist with a gracious and likeable stage presence. If she passes through your area, and if you enjoy music of the sorts I mentioned above, you would do well to attend her concert.

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Showtime arrived. Ruthie Foster walked onstage with three musical compadres: Samantha Banks (drums and other percussion), Scottie Miller (piano and organ) and Larry Fulcher (electric bass). Electric guitar was not in the house. Ruthie strummed an amplified acoustic guitar, but she knew her limitations on the instrument and ventured not a solo during the show, leaving most of them to Scottie and a couple to Samantha and Larry. Would the band have gained from having an additional member, to wit a high-flying electric guitarist? No way. His or her absence kept things lean and uncluttered, and placed Ruthie’s vocals at the center of center stage.

The show began with a rendition of Patty Griffin’s When It Don’t Come Easy, a tune about love’s elusiveness. The tight machine that was Ruthie’s band set a perfect rhythm and constructed elastic boundaries over which Ruthie spoke the truth. Bap-bap-bap-bap went Samantha Banks, sure-footed and steady on the drums, as she was all evening long. Larry Fulcher’s bass lines floated here and then there but never lost their way. Scottie Miller pushed and probed on the piano, at the appropriate times sending out blasts of emotions. The band was aware, focused and nimble on this and every song that followed.

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A few words about Ruthie Foster’s singing voice. It is wonderful, as is the way she uses it. She sings cleanly and clearly, unstrained and vibrato-less, always in control. And she can move easily to a hush or to a soulful barrage of notes. The timbre of Ruthie’s voice often reminded me of Bonnie Raitt’s, but Ruthie’s is fuller and better — Bonnie I’m certain would agree. At concert’s end, 90 minutes from the starting gun, I was convinced that Ruthie is one of the big talents in her field. What’s more, she sings songs that contain real meaning. Songs about tolerance, equality and hope. Such as the concert’s hope-centric third tune, a recent Foster original titled Brand New Day. It dripped with gospel fervor. “Love heals and love lives/And time will reveal a brand new day,” Ruthie proclaimed as her three pals, playing their instruments all church-like, vocally urged her along with harmonized “uh-huh, hoo” after “uh-huh, hoo.” Uh-huh, I loved it.

Let me say a few more things before I hit the “publish” button to post this article. Ruthie has written quite a few songs over the years, but kept her set list heavy with compositions penned by others. She chose numbers, for instance, by June Carter Cash (Ring Of Fire) and Lucinda Williams (Fruits Of My Labor). And she closed the show with  Stephen Foster’s Oh! Susanna, an American chestnut from 1848. (Click here to watch her perform Oh! Susanna two years ago). For that final tune she was alone on stage for the only time during the show. She sang slowly, picking comfortable notes on the guitar. As the song progressed her voice soared effortlessly, poignantly. Oh! Susanna took on meanings that I’d never thought about before. She made a great song greater.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Tony Bennett Is A Wonder

I’m not an expert on the subject. However, if someone asked me to name the 20th century’s best singers of the so-called Great American Songbook, I’d reel off names such as Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire. My list is hardly complete or definitive. But it contains excellent talent without a doubt.

All the entertainers on my list were contemporaries, their careers overlapping one another’s during various decades. A sad note is that only one member of the list is still with us, Tony Bennett, whose professional musical life took hold in 1949 (1949!). Sixty-six years later he continues to go strong. The man is 89 years old now and in good voice. He records regularly and likewise tours the world. He, to me, is a phenomenon. A wonder.

Tony Bennett (left) and Bill Charlap. (Photo by RPM/Columbia Records)
Tony Bennett (left) and Bill Charlap. (Photo by RPM/Columbia Records)

A few weeks ago I caught a track on the radio from one of his albums. It was a melancholy song, beautifully sung. His accompaniment was only one instrument, a piano. I thought that the selection probably came from The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, a 1975 release pairing Bennett with the esteemed jazz pianist. That album has achieved iconic status over the years. But I was wrong. The song — and I can’t remember which one I heard — was a brand new recording from the lovely album by Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap titled The Silver Lining: The Songs Of Jerome Kern.

Recently I listened twice to The Silver Lining in its entirety. And I listened to a few cuts from the Bennett/Evans duet album too. These albums are separated by 40 years. And you know what? Tony’s voice is nearly as good now as it was then. It has lost a little power, strains a bit occasionally. But it remains quite great. I find this most incredible. Has there ever been another gifted vocalist whose pipes have held up so well in his or her very advanced years? I can’t think of anyone. Please let me know if you can.

Jerome Kern was a top composer during the first half of the 1900s. He wrote with a host of smart and classy lyricists, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields and Ira Gershwin among them. The Silver Lining presents some of Kern’s best-known, and best, compositions. For example, The Last Time I Saw Paris, All The Things You Are, I Won’t Dance.  There are 14 tracks on the record. Bennett sings on all of them. Bill Charlap, a refined and tasteful jazz piano player, is Tony’s sole partner on three. Charlap’s jazz pianist wife, Renee Rosnes, adds a second piano on four songs. On the remaining tracks, Charlap is joined by his longtime collaborators, Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington (no relation) on drums.

Overall I find this album to be sublime. The instrumentation is understated. Bennett’s vocalizing is poignant and incisive. He plumbs the depths of the tunes’ lyrics and adds some explosive high notes at the conclusions of a few songs to show that he still has it. If you’re a Tony fan, you should own The Silver Lining.

So, what’s the deal with Tony Bennett? How has he managed not only to survive, but to thrive? Well, genetics more than anything probably accounts for Tony’s long life. As for thriving, we all might learn from his outlook on and approach to life. Tony Bennett always has seemed to me to be a down-to-earth and nice guy, and also in possession of wisdom. There is a fine article about him in the December 2015 issue of DOWNBEAT magazine (the article is not online, so I can’t provide a link). Two quotes from the piece are very telling.  In one he says: “I can’t believe that I’m 89. I stay in shape. I take good care of myself. I got rid of all bad habits. When I was younger, I was pretty wild, doing a lot of foolish stuff. I stopped all of that and I got back to how to sing properly.” And in another he says: “I think life is a magnificent gift. We should all enjoy the fact that we’re living on an unbelievable planet that’s loaded with education and love and beauty.”

It’s not coincidental that the song Look For The Silver Lining concludes the Bennett/Charlap album. George “Buddy” DeSylva’s lyrics are fully in tune with Tony Bennett’s take on the human situation. Give a listen:

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