Soundtrack of the Week

20 01 2014

The Grateful Dead didn’t need much if any rest after a high-powered trek through Europe in the few months before the band wandered into Portland, OR, to play two nights at the Paramount Theatre in late July 1972. The second night found the band storming through a then-typically lengthy, bright night that’s also alternately lazy and ridiculously muscular. Unknown

The soundboard is marred by shoving the vocals too near the fore, occasionally swamping the drums and piano. Owsley was at the tape deck that night, manning it for one of the last times. Pigpen is noticeably absent for mid ’72. He’d played his last show ever only a few weeks before. The flaws  however only highlight how energetic and pleased the band had become with itself. Performances like this only lend more credence to believing this was the best band’s best year among the flurry of best years surrounding it. Listen to the show here.longislandsound

Seventeen years later, the Dead had lost the abandon but not the sense of purpose. However, the Jerry Garcia Band shows from ’89 often transcended the Dead that year. The Sept. 6 and 7 shows in Hartford, CT, and Uniondale, NY, are newly remastered and worth hearing. Bob Weir does himself plenty of favors as the opener by bringing Rob Wasserman with him to play rubbery and imaginative bass lines that wrap lovingly around the songs. Covers dominate the Jerry Band setlist, many of the same songs he played solo for years. The repetition is masked by the adventurous soloing. He made it sound all so easy, which only makes it sound better.

Sam Cook can be heard for only about 10 seconds in the splendid American Experience installment 1964. But it’s 10 gripping seconds as A Change is Gonna Come floats over footage of riots, assassinations and war in Southeast Asia. He took a ferocious year and humanized it with soul. He’s gone, sadly, and those years, gladly, are too. 1964_film_landing-nodate

Another song arrives from the good Lorde that sounds pretty darn good. Plenty of air circulates as the production doesn’t smother the mix like every other over amped and over compressed radio hit. She stands out because she’s on radio, but not of it. An oasis of good taste and crafty songwriting.

While listening back to decades-old music that manages to still sound pretty good, the president says the  NSA got ahead of itself. It’s painful sometimes living in the present because it’s too darn close to the future.nsa-spy-cartoon-4

It’s All a Blur

21 04 2013

Though he’s been at it for about 25 years, Steven Wilson is still at the forefront of the modern face of prog.  His sense of the music’s grandeur and its uncanny ability to absorb styles such as murder ballads and metal, coupled with a highly productive work ethic, is what keeps his work fascinating.SW

Wilson cares deeply about sound, issuing his recordings on Blu-ray for maximum audio firepower with 5.1 mixing. It’s a perfectionist’s work and one to applaud. Recent recordings such as Storm Corrosion, Grace for Drowning, and The Raven That Refused to Sing are a pleasure to absorb in a far-flung, highly detailed and beautifully imagined surround-sound audio field, all mixed by his own hand.

He’s done the same for others. The famously detail-oriented Robert Fripp oversaw Wilson’s 5.1 mixes of King Crimson classics like Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, In the Court of the Crimson King, and Red. Fripp was well pleased with the results. Wilson’s vision is to not entirely re-imagine the feel of the original recordings but to pursue the original artist’s audio goals. The results make previously great recordings sound even better, something that can’t be said for a lot of remixes.

Wilson’s no stranger to touring America, but he’s not a frequent visitor. That made a recent appearance at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse, with capacity at under 1,000, a treat. A small venue wired for quadrophonic sound, a little talked about facet of Wilson’s current tour but one that can’t be stressed too much, is highly unusual and at the same time long overdue. Wilson’s crew added speakers to the rear of the theater, both downstairs and up in the balcony, then remixed the live performance on the fly. Brilliant. The surround sound played up the best parts of a floor-rattling band and provided a highly detailed sound field that shifted depending where you stood in the venue.

What’s old and cliche still works for Wilson: his mellotron sound brought back pleasant memories of classic prog from the late ’60s and early ’70s. He’s managed to make the mellotron meaningful again, decades after punk managed to kill it. For that alone, prog fans should be grateful. And around the world, they are.gra9900094

Remixing and re-imagining classic performance is a tight-rope walk. Wilson does it seemingly with ease. So does Jeffrey Norman for the Grateful Dead. He’s been upgrading Grateful Dead concert soundboards now for a few years and he also manages to take a great performance and juice the less than perfect original recording into something that isn’t afraid of some volume, a subwoofer, and a bolstered sound field. His HDCD reworkings of the Dead’s Europe ’72 tapes is a marvel. What was once slightly murky and certainly hissy sound quality was issued in 2011 as a dazzling package of a legendary run of shows. He’s doing the same for the Dave’s Picks series, which has a new release in May. It’s another instance of what’s old is not only new but it’s worth hearing … again.

The Bryan Ferry Orchestra loves the past, worships at the altar of the 78 rpm disc and the jumping sound of ’20s jazz. Ferry’s latest recording has no vocals, we don’t hear him sing a note, but he’s there in every re-imagining of songs from Roxy Music and his own solo career. It works in unexpected ways. The songs don’t always sound like the originals but somewhere along the line there’s a hook or chorus that serves as a reminder of the original. Click here for the band’s recent performance in Zermat, Switzerland, with Ferry crowning the performance with a distinctive vocal.packshot

There’s already plenty reason to give CNN a hard time. John King didn’t help the network much the other day. He would have done better with more evolved editing skills, but he’s only as good as his sources. He didn’t have to use the information passed on to him by an anonymous source. But he’s only quoting someone else. He’s the messenger who gets killed while the source is hidden. High-velocity news coverage has to be smarter and learn that no matter how right it can be, it should pay to keep quiet and allow more thought instead of breathless speculation and misinformation.

Slower news cycles won’t come back, like the imperfect old days. The newest imagining of news clearly goes faster than old media can properly handle.

Owsley > Nixon

10 06 2012

You don’t need the new Big Brother & the Holding Company if you’re looking for the great live performance from the band. That will always be Cheap Thrills.

But if you’re interested in a high-powered 1968 Big Brother performance at the Carousel Ballroom, then listen to this new release from Owsley Stanley’s vault of unreleased recordings, a mostly mythical place awash wonderment and curiosity for those who have listened in awe to some of his previous recordings by the Grateful Dead, Gram Parsons, and the Allman Brothers.

The fashion of recording, reproducing sound to fit this year’s ears, has no place in his world. He reproduced sound to suit his ears only and assumed everyone else would like it the way he heard it — immediate and full. His best recordings conjure a band playing live onstage. It’s not balanced in the way most live recordings are; it’s a uniquely of-the-moment spitball of sound.

Owsley used omni directional mics, a quirk for rock but the norm for recording orchestras in large halls. Live rock recordings are typically cleaned up by sound engineers putting all the instruments into neat spaces where they can’t compete with each other. It’s a very defined way to introduce live performance into stereo. It works well and that’s why the practice has thrived in the past 50 years. For Owlsey, the step into a dirtier recording, by not targeting instruments and instead targeting the mass of sound a band produces, was clearly the correct choice. He was a product of the relatively small ballrooms of San Francisco during the ’60s and he obviously liked the noise they housed. It’s completely counterintuitive and of course that’s the way Owsley thought.

When he left the United States for the Australian bush in a typically Owsley-esque zag when everyone expected a zig, he held outdoor parties with sound powered by large speakers clustered together. Speakers are typically spaced as far apart as possible to enhance stereo. But Owsley’s clusters were designed to be faithful to his original, omni-directional recordings by focusing on the mass of sound. Those recordings, from his personal library, are becoming public, now several years since his death. The Big Brother recording follows the same eccentric path: Push your speakers together to play this 1968 Carousel Ballroom show. Not clustering them to hear this would be like watching a 3D movie without the glasses.

Sit back and enjoy an enormously entertaining slice of Bay Area music.

The newest  in the Grateful Dead’s current concert release series, Dave’s Picks, is 7-31-74 an outdoor show representative of a year of marathon shows chock full of improvisation. Owsley was in part responsible for how audiences heard these shows. He was one of the designers of The Wall of Sound, a 641-speaker, 24,600 watt, 3-story, custom-designed sound system. The Wall was carted around the country at great expense to the band and to the great luck of the audiences in ’73 and ’74. It was an enormous tip of the hat to quality live sound reproduction, but ultimately so cumbersome that even Owsley had to admit it was too much trouble to maintain.

The soundboard recordings from the Wall of Sound shows sometimes don’t mirror what the audience heard. Here’s an audience recording from that same date. Give it a listen and you’ll get an idea of what the Wall of Sound could do. 

The joy in the audience on this recording never comes completely through on the official live recordings. It’s nearly as much fun to listen to as the band. Drummer Mickey Hart summed it up in a recent Rolling Stone interview:

“The Grateful Dead were very kind. It was Santa Claus. It did good things. It allowed other people to benefit. The benefits that we played were enormous, and we played free. So you’ve got a band that loves to play free, and that was a wonderful thing. We played free so beautifully because we didn’t owe the people anything, so we just played out of our heads, and we just played whatever came into our heads and into our soul. There were very little restrictions. People didn’t blame anybody for making a mistake. There was no such thing. No one got yelled at when they got off the stage. Most of the time we never even talked about the music. We’d get into the van and we were talking about anything, but not normally the music. That’s magic, and it’s really hard to talk about something that’s invisible. And music is invisible. You can’t see it. You can’t touch it. You can hear it and you can feel it – you can be touched by it.”

Read more:

This dwelling on the late ’60s and early ’70s always pushes memories, and Richard Nixon returns to be kicked around some more. He too always seems relevant and he’s always ready to stun from beyond the grave. The latest comes from Woodward & Bernstein, who appear to have gotten the band back together again. Was the political snakepit of that White House as bad as we remember? Nope. Forty years on from Watergate, these guys say it was worse not only than we remember but than we knew.

Here’s an excerpt of this larger article, which is worth reading in its entirety:

On June 17, 1971 — exactly one year before the Watergate break-in — Nixon met in the Oval Office with his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, and national security adviser Henry Kissinger. At issue was a file about former president Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the 1968 bombing halt in Vietnam.

“You can blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing,” Haldeman said, according to the tape of the meeting.

“Yeah,” Kissinger said, “but Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together for three years.” They wanted the complete story of Johnson’s actions.

“Huston swears to God there’s a file on it at Brookings,” Haldeman said.

“Bob,” Nixon said, “now you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it. . . . I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. God damn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

Nixon would not let the matter drop. Thirteen days later, according to another taped discussion with Haldeman and Kissinger, the president said: “Break in and take it out. You understand?”

The next morning, Nixon said: “Bob, get on the Brookings thing right away. I’ve got to get that safe cracked over there.” And later that morning, he persisted, “Who’s gonna break in the Brookings Institution?”

For reasons that have never been made clear, the break-in apparently was not carried out.

Dragging Lyndon Johnson into this makes the mess messier. Robert Caro is one of the greatest American journalists and the fourth volume in his magisterial biography of Johnson is out a mere 10 years since the third volume came out. These are massive books but they are riveting. Caro believes that the public’s extreme cynicism of American government began on LBJ’s watch, as he told the Guardian this weekend:

“That’s a product of the 60s,” says Caro. “If you look at America on 22 November 1963 [the day of Kennedy’s assassination] it’s a very different place than the America you’re describing. That’s when Johnson becomes president. Five years later he leaves the presidency. America has changed into basically what you are talking about. Everyone thinks that distrust of government started under Nixon. But that’s not true. It started under Johnson. It started with Vietnam and the ‘credibility gap’. There used to be this feeling under Eisenhower and Kennedy and Roosevelt and Truman that government was a solution. Trust in the presidency fell precipitously under Johnson – real lows. And it’s never come back. It’s a trend that, if you’re liberal, is really discouraging.”

The result was a counterculture that started post World War II as a fringe bohemian group and grew into a sprawling youth movement that didn’t wanted to get sent to Vietnam and didn’t care for what they saw at the White House. The entertainment was the Grateful Dead, Owsley, and Big Brother.

Freedom to Improvise

4 07 2011

Phish is completing its ninth Super Ball, a multi-day gathering in Watkins Glen, NY, by latching onto the key component of jazz, improvisation, and holding an audience in the tens of thousands spellbound with its power to tell a story musically.

That improvisation, an ancient musical art, can be so popular with a youthful following remains in itself both surprising and reassuring. John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, critical influences on the Grateful Dead during the early ’60s, would be right at home at the Super Ball. Phish and the Dead share the gene of rock and will always be linked no matter how dissimilar their approaches. But improvisation will always be their great connection.

Believer magazine interviews Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio about the crucial ingredient in the band’s music.

BLVR: Who were the important improvisers for you?

TA: I liked Clapton, Jimmy Page. But there was this one year that changed me. It was when I saw Pat Metheny. He came to Richardson Auditorium, and he was playing with a jazz, harmonic vocabulary but with a pop sensibility. I saw King Crimson around that time, too. Robert Fripp was playing these crazy mathematical patterns. He’d be playing in a time signature of 7/4 while the other guy, Adrian Belew, played in 5/4, and they’d meet up thirty-five notes later. This kind of thing. But you have to put yourself in 1978. I was born in ’64. So I was fourteen. I saw Stanley Jordan in that same place. And Wynton Marsalis. All those concerts were in one year, and that’s the year I got into improvisation.

Here are some great postwar improvisers at work. This progressive and adventurous strand  of music is a fabulous way to celebrate freedom this Fourth of July.

Live Fripp: ’74 & ’10

17 05 2011

When music cost more it seemed there was less of it. Now that music is often free, there’s a glut. More is good but more is a lot to wade through.

Prog loves this glut and it’s a pleasure to sip from the fire hose.

Robert Fripp’s recent performance in a very public space in New York playing his version of ambient jazz is available to listen to any time for free here and here. Free music that’s actually worth paying for … but why bother. Thank you, seriously, WNYC Radio, for actually creating programming in the public interest, at no direct charge, with an interview that is not over-the-top fawning. Archived too? There is nothing to not like and that’s a compliment for the stale loaf of bread that’s become American radio.

The context of this show’s broadcast fits into the progressive mold: a live recording, strictly by the station for its listeners. This practice fled from album-oriented rock radio’s demands for low budgets in the mid to late ’70s. A live broadcast from a local venue, usually a small one, was a treat for those who couldn’t get a ticket. Grateful Dead on KSAN formed the mold.

Fripp that costs is available too.  Toronto ’74, with all the beautifically jagged edges Fripp owned at the time. Bill Bruford’s hollow-with-a-solid-bottom drumming, the heady pull of the dark bass, and the sheets of steel guitar. DGM makes the show available by mail order as the most recent release in the King Crimson Collectors Club series that dates back to the late ’90s.

Pay the guy; he deserves it. No one should have received the bad treatment Fripp’s been meted out by the music business, and he’s only one of tens of thousands to realize he had to be part businessman in addition to avant garde musician. Evolve or die, eh?

Both performances are progressive, a foot in the past and one in the future. Put each in context with its time and it’s clear they’re an accurate mirror of our time, then and now. Those who listened closely, and those who still do, are still present for a feast of audio.

Plus, it’s a Robert Fripp audio feast. He’s easy to underrate and tough to overrate.

Prog should be rewarding in this way. It’s not a drive-by  experience. It’s meant to resonate and both these Fripp performances will bounce pleasantly around the room and your head for a while after you’ve heard them.