September 26, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

I apologize for the lack of substantive writing on Sun Ra Sundays of late. Honestly, I’ve been taking a little bit of a break. Moreover, I’ve been working on a different kind of Sun Ra project the past few weeks: My friends, Scott and Rose, are getting married next week and they asked me to come up with some “Happy Ra” for the wedding reception. What an amazingly cool idea! Here’s what I came up with:

Disc 1:
1. Dreaming (The Cosmic Rays) (from The Singles) (Saturn/Evidence)
2. Stranger in Paradise (Nu Sounds) (from Spaceship Lullaby) (Atavistic)
3. ‘Round Midnight (from Sound Sun Pleasure!!) (Saturn/Evidence)
4. You Never Told Me That You Care (from Sound Sun Pleasure!!) (Saturn/Evidence)
5. Hour of Parting (from Sound Sun Pleasure!!) (Saturn/Evidence)
6. Back In Our Own Backyard (from Sound Sun Pleasure!!) (Saturn/Evidence)
7. Enlightenment (from Sound Sun Pleasure!!) (Saturn/Evidence)
8. I Could Have Danced All Night (from Sound Sun Pleasure!!) (Saturn/Evidence)
9. But Not For Me (from Holiday for Soul Dance) (Saturn/Evidence)
10. Day By Day (from Holiday for Soul Dance) (Saturn/Evidence)
11. Holiday for Strings (from Holiday for Soul Dance) (Saturn/Evidence)
12. Dorothy’s Dance (from Holiday for Soul Dance) (Saturn/Evidence)
13. Early Autumn (from Holiday for Soul Dance) (Saturn/Evidence)
14. I Loves You, Porgy (from Holiday for Soul Dance) (Saturn/Evidence)
15. Body and Soul (from Holiday for Soul Dance) (Saturn/Evidence)
16. Keep Your Sunny Side Up (from Holiday for Soul Dance) (Saturn/Evidence)
17. Paradise (from Sound of Joy) (Delmark)
18. Dreams Come True (from Sound of Joy) (Delmark)
19. Sometimes I’m Happy (from Nuclear War) (Saturn/Atavistic)
20. Tapestry from an Asteroid (from The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra) (Savoy)

The first disc was a no-brainer, consisting of Sun Sound Pleasure!! and Holiday for Soul Dance in their entirety. These albums find Sun Ra and his Arkestra at their most straight ahead and easy to digest, including some romantic crooning that should fit the mood. Of course, this being Sun Ra, the arrangements are sometimes a little strange and already in the 1950s Sonny was exploring electronic keyboards to interesting effect. I also had to include a couple of love-sick doo-wop tracks just for fun along with some otherwise stylistically congruent tracks from Sound of Joy and Nuclear War. Finally, “Tapestry from an Asteroid” (from The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra) is so pretty, I couldn’t help but tack it on at the end.

Disc 2:
1. Lullaby for Realville (from Sun Song) (Delmark)
2. Fate in a Pleasant Mood (from Fate In a Pleasant Mood) (Saturn/Evidence)
3. Ankhnaton (from Fate In a Pleasant Mood) (Saturn/Evidence)
4. Reflections In Blue (from Visits Planet Earth) (Saturn/Evidence)
5. Planet Earth (from Visits Planet Earth) (Saturn/Evidence)
6. Interstellar Low Ways (from Interstellar Low Ways) (Saturn/Evidence)
7. Plutonian Nights (from Angels and Demons at Play) (Saturn/Evidence)
8. Rocket #9 (from The Singles) (Saturn/Evidence)
9. Love In Outer Space (from The Singles) (Saturn/Evidence)
10. Island In the Sun (from Janus) (1201 Music)
11. Sun-Earth Rock (from Night of the Purple Moon) (Saturn/Atavistic)
12. Dance of the Living Image (from Night of the Purple Moon) (Saturn/Atavistic)
13. Otherness Blue (from My Brother the Wind, Vol. II) (Saturn/Evidence)
14. Walking On the Moon (from My Brother the Wind, Vol. II) (Saturn/Evidence)
15. Drop Me Off In Harlem (from Nuclear War) (Saturn/Atavistic)
16. Celestial Love (from Nuclear War) (Saturn/Atavistic)

Disc two was a little more complicated, with lots of strong contenders which just didn’t make the cut. I tried keep the mood light (but not too jumpy) and rejected any tracks that suffered from especially poor sound quality or just got a little too weird, while still capturing some of the magical qualities of Ra’s music in the Sixties and Seventies. No easy task! I’m listening to the disc as I write this, and I think it works pretty well, moving as it does from late-Fifties rocking and riffing to floating space rhumbas to Rocksichord boogaloos—and, of course, there is a heaping heaping of Sun Ra’s patented space-age barbeque organ thrown on top to boot. Maybe that will get people up and dancing.

Disc 3:
1. Song No.1 (from Antique Blacks) (Saturn/Art Yard)
2. Where Pathways Meet (from Lanquidity) (Saturn/Evidence)
3. That’s How I Feel (from Lanquidity) (Saturn/Evidence)
4. Twin Stars of Thence (from Lanquidity) (Saturn/Evidence)
5. On Jupiter (from On Jupiter) (Saturn/Art Yard)
6. UFO (from On Jupiter) (Saturn/Art Yard)
7. Door of the Cosmos (from Sleeping Beauty) (Saturn/Art Yard)
8. Sleeping Beauty (from Sleeping Beauty) (Saturn/Art Yard)

If that doesn’t work, then disc three ought to get the booty shaking, gathering plum tracks from Ra’s “disco” albums, Lanquidity, On Jupiter, and Sleeping Beauty, while opening with the extended groove-fest, “Song No.1,” from the otherwise disturbingly polemical Antique Blacks. Then again, perhaps this stuff really is too “out there” for most people. We’ll see how it goes over. In any event, it’s been a lot of fun to put this all together and I’m pretty sure the bride and groom will enjoy it—and that is what counts.

(Thanks (as usual) to Sam Byrd for his invaluable input on this project!)

September 25, 2010

Playlist Week of 9-25-10

* Buxtehude: Sonatas, Op.1 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)†
* Corelli: Trio Sonatas (Pinnock, et al.) (Archiv Prod. CD)
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Italiano (Archiv Prod. CD)
* Cage: The 25th-Year Retrospective Concert (Town Hall, NYC 5-15-58) (Wergo 3CD)
* Miles Davis: The Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel (d.7) (Columbia 8CD)
* Miles Davis: Quintet 1965-1968 (Columbia 6CD)
* Miles Davis Quintet: Oriental Theatre, Portland, OR 5-21-66 (FM 2CDR)
* Miles Davis Quintet: Harmon Gymnasium, U.C. Berkeley, CA 4-07-67 (FM CDR)
* Sun Ra: On Jupiter (Saturn/Art Yard CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (GTM) 2006 (d.3-4) (Important 4CD)
* Anthony Braxton Ensemble: Keuda House, Kerava, Finland 6-10-06 (FM CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Sextet: Anfiteatro ao Ar Libre, Lisboa, Portugal 8-12-06 (AUD CDR)
* Björkenheim/Parker/Drake: Old Customs Hall, Tampere, Finland 11-01-09 (FM CDR)
* Isaac Hayes: Shaft (Original Soundtrack) (Enterprise 2LP)
* Van Morrison: A Night in San Francisco (Polydor 2CD)
* Grateful Dead: Dane Co. Coliseum, Madison, WI 2-15-73 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.3, No.4: Penn State-Cornell ‘80 (GDP/Rhino 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City, MO 7-07-81 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Led Zeppelin: III (Atlantic CD)
* Led Zeppelin: IV (a/k/a Zoso) (Atlantic CD)
* King Crimson: The Great Deceiver: Live 1973-1974 (d.4) (DGM 3CD)
* King Crimson: Discipline (DGM CD)
* Big Star: Keep An Eye On the Sky (d.3) (Ardent/Rhino 4CD)
* Robyn Hitchcock: Black Snake Diamond Role (Yep Rock CD)
* Robert Pollard: From a Compound Eye (Merge 2LP)
* Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs (Matador CD)
* Spiritualized: “Feel So Sad” (Dedicated—UK CDEP)
* Spiritualized: “Run”/”I Want You” (Dedicated—UK CDEP)
* Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (R&S—UK CD)‡
* Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II (d.1) (Sire 2CD)

†= iPod
‡= car


Along with the Warlocks box set, the Grateful Dead has also released another volume of the quarterly Road Trips series, this time focusing on two back-to-back concerts at Penn State and Cornell University on May 6 and 7, 1980. The Dead go Ivy League! Although their most recent album, Go to Heaven, went nowhere, colleges and universities were still breeding grounds for newly-minted young Deadheads—particularly on the east coast—and the band was invited to play their gymnasiums and field houses on a fairly regular basis during the early-Eighties. Every school had a subculture of Deadheads and going to a show was a rite of passage for many students. The band obliged their fans with a relentless touring schedule of almost two-hundred shows a year, with at least at least several dozen around the northeastern corridor throughout the school-year. The band may have seemed irrelevant to the mainstream culture, eclipsed by rapidly evolving trends like disco, New Wave, punk rock and nascent Hip-Hop, but for some the siren call of Jerry Garcia’s guitar continued to beckon. And so the band played on. “New guy”, Brent Mydland, had settled in as keyboardist over the past year and even contributed a couple of OK songs to the new album. While some Deadheads despise the “tinkly” sound of his (heavily modified) Fender Rhodes electric piano, I love it—probably because I was myself falling in love with the band in the spring of 1980. The sound of these tapes brings back fond memories and this period of the band’s music will always remain a favorite of mine, no matter what the cognoscenti say.

This edition of Road Trips sensibly expands to three CDs and foregoes the annoying “bonus disc.” Hooray! The first disc is a composite “first set” while discs two and three present the complete second sets (sans encores) from each show respectively. Nicely done. The music is typical of the period with no big surprises but the playing is sharp and the singing respectable. Jerry Garcia’s voice still retains some of its youthful sweetness and Mydland’s high tenor blends well with the ensemble, unlike Donna Godchaux’s sometimes wayward wail. The repertoire combines the new songs like “Althea”, “Feel Like a Stranger” and “Lost Sailor>Saint of Circumstance” with old favorites like “China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider”, “Loser” and “He’s Gone”, offering a sense of the band’s history and their vast stylistic range. Disc three presents perhaps the most compelling sequence, opening with a long, funky “Shakedown Street” that smoothly segues into a bouncy “Bertha” and a “Playing in the Band” sandwich containing a stately “Terrapin Station” and a moving “Black Peter” before concluding with the good-time grooving of “Good Lovin’.” Incidentally, “Saint of Circumstance” makes its first stand-alone appearance here, incongruously coming out of a dissonant and abstract “Space”, a curious bit of trivia for the statisticians.

Recorded onto a lowly cassette tape from the live soundboard feed by front-of-house mixer, Dan Healy, the sound quality is good but not great (though much better than the circulating versions of these shows). Presenting a mirror image of what was coming out of the PA, the drums sound distant while the vocals are way up front, making for a peculiarly unbalanced audio picture of how the band actually sounded on these nights. That said, these tapes don’t sound too bad, except they run about 3% slow, making the pitch ever-so-noticeably flat and the high end sound dulled. It is disappointing that this common anomaly of cassette recording was not fixed in the digital domain as it could have been easily corrected. Oh well—but I quibble; the early-Eighties are woefully underrepresented in the official discography and therefore this is a most welcome addition. But if you don’t already have Go to Nassau (GD/Arista, 2002), which was beautifully recorded to multi-track for the King Biscuit Flour Hour, start there for a much better-sounding example of the Grateful Dead in the spring of 1980. This volume of Road Trips is a step in the right direction, but still too flawed and weird to make it wholeheartedly recommendable to anyone except a hardcore ‘Head like me who came of age in the early-Eighties. Your mileage may vary.


The playlist may appear somewhat short this week, but take note that I listened to all six discs of the Miles Davis Quintet 1965-1968 box set. Good lord, what amazing music! I might have to listen to it again before moving on to the Complete In a Silent Way Sessions. I’ve also dipped my toe into the various verité recordings (as Bob Beldon calls ‘em in his liner notes). I might have to listen to them all! Great, great stuff.

September 19, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday


The displaced years
Memory calls them that
They were never were then;
Memory scans the void
And from the future
Comes the wave of the greater void
A pulsating vibration
Sound span…..bridge to other ways and
Other planes of there…..

-- Sun Ra

September 18, 2010

Playlist Week of 9-18-10

* Hesperion XXI (Savall): La Folia 1490-1701 (Alia Vox SACD)
* Hesperion XXI (Savall): Altre Follie 1500-1750 (Alia Vox SACD)
* Schmelzer: Violin Sonatas (Romanesca) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Biber: Harmonia Artificiosa (Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel) (Archiv Prod. 2CD)†
* J.S. Bach: A Musical Offering (Moroney, et al.) (Harmonia Mundi CD)†
* Satie: L’Orchestre de Satie (Orchestra de Concerts Lamoureaux/Sado) (Erato CD)
* Stravinsky: Petrouchka (NY Philharmonic/Boulez) (Sony Classical CD)
* Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez) (Sony Classical CD)
* Miles Davis: The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (d.3-6) (Columbia 8CD)
* Sun Ra: Sound Sun Pleasure! (Saturn/Evidence CD)
* Sun Ra: Holiday for Soul Dance (Saturn/Evidence CD)
* Sun Ra: Janus (1201 Music CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (GTM) 2006 (d.2) (Important 4CD)
* Bill Laswell: Oscillations (remixes) (Sub Rosa CD)‡
* Bill Laswell: City of Light (Sub Rosa CD)
* Aftermathematics (Bill Laswell): Instrumentals: Rhythm and Recurrence (Sub Rosa CD)‡
* Bill Laswell: lo. def pressure (Quartermass CD)‡
* Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (Motown/MFSL SACD)
* Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin (Atlantic CD)
* Led Zeppelin: II (Atlantic CD)
* Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship: Blows Against the Empire (RCA-Victor LP)
* Paul Kantner & Grace Slick: Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun (Grunt/RCA LP)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips, Vol.3, No.4: Penn State-Cornell ‘80 (d.1-2) (GDP/Rhino 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 5-12-80 (d.1) (SBD 2CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Zoo Amphitheatre, Oklahoma City, OK 7-5-81 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Crimson, White, and Indigo (7-7-89) (d.2) (GDP/Rhino 3CD+DVD)
* Grateful Dead: Formerly The Warlocks: Hampton, VA 10-8 & 9-89 (GDP/Rhino 6CD)
* Grateful Dead: Nightfall of Diamonds (10-16-89) (d.2) (GDP/Arista 2CD)
* Big Star: Keep An Eye On the Sky (d.1-2) (Ardent/Rhino 4CD)
* Circus Devils: Mother Skinny (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Boston Spaceships: Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Beck: Sea Change (Geffen/MFSL 2LP)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind (Domino CDEP)
* Animal Collective & Danny Perez: Oddsac (Swiss Dots/Plexifilm DVD)



Well, it’s about time.

The Grateful Dead’s notorious “stealth” concerts at the Hampton Coliseum have been legendary amongst Deadheads ever since their performance October 8-9, 1989. Announced only week in advance and cleverly billed as “Formerly the Warlocks,” the band, the venue, and the local authorities were hoping to avoid the increasingly unwieldy scene that had built up around the band’s tours as result of “Touch of Grey” shockingly going Top Ten in 1987[1]. If the sub rosa aspects weren’t enough to get a well-connected Deadhead tweaked, a new album was imminent and rumors abounded that the band had actually rehearsed prior to heading out on the ‘89 Fall Tour. Wow! That was pretty much simply unheard of by this time in their career. And as if on cue, the Dead brought back a number of old favorites at these two shows, including the epic “Help On the Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower” trilogy (unheard since 1985); the psychedelic magnum opus “Dark Star” (missing since 1984); the gut-wrenching blues “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” (jettisoned from the repertoire in way back in 1970); the redemptive ballad “Attics of My Life” (a rare song to begin with, it was last played in 1972); and the a cappella calypso-gospel encore “We Bid You Goodnight” (performed just once between 1978 and 1989). Oh yeah, the boys pulled out all the stops on these two nights!

But it’s not just the spectacular set-lists that make these shows so special. Ever since Jerry Garcia’s Lazarus-like recovery from a diabetic coma in 1986, the band had benefited from a renewed focus and energy on the part of their ever-reluctant leader. While Garcia never really recovered 100% of his pre-coma facility on the guitar, he was quite obviously healthier than he had been in ages and this resulted in some of the most thoughtful and incisive playing of his career. In the Dark casually became one of their most enjoyable studio efforts and the unexpected success of “Touch of Grey” buoyed the band’s spirits as well as their bank accounts. All this sparked a renewed interest in songwriting, resulting in a batch of respectably ambitious songs, including Garcia/Hunter’s winkingly ironic “Foolish Heart” and Weir/Barlow’s angular and dissonant “Victim or the Crime.” Both songs had the potential to open up into areas of exploratory jamming, an element that had been in somewhat short supply over the past couple of years as Garcia slowly regained his chops[2]. By 1989, the Grateful Dead were about as tight and polished (yet as loose and improvisational) as they had ever been, evidenced by the numerous official releases from this period including Truckin’ Up to Buffalo (7-4-89), Crimson, White and Indigo (7-7-89), and Dozin’ at the Knick (3-90). These are all good shows and abundantly manifest the remarkable professionalism of this era. But taken on their own, they do not convey that ineffable sense that anything was possible, that the ordinary could be transubstantiated into the extraordinary, given the right circumstances[3]. This is what excited Deadheads the most. And these two nights in Hampton, Virginia were one of those rare instances where the stars aligned and what was ordinarily just very good became extraordinarily great. Each song is performed with intensity and conviction—and when they stumble, they gracefully recover[4]. So when they deign to revive the old repertoire they don’t just play it, they inhabit it; they are transported along with the audience on an adventure of (re)discovery and in-the-moment bliss. The elusive “X-factor,” that cosmic mind-meld of band and audience is clearly audible on these discs. Of course, any recording is necessarily mediated and third-hand (particularly a clinically close-mic’d multitrack recording like this one), but if you listen carefully, you can hear the almost two-minutes of delerious cheering that greeted the return of “Dark Star.” And in return, the band delivers a rare (even in the 1970s) “full version” containing both verses and then proceeds to take it out—way out—before giving way to the drums solo. These concerts are full of incredible music—heck, even “I Need a Miracle” is unusually compelling as Garcia simply shreds on the introduction out of “Space.” For mid-late-period Grateful Dead, this is about as good as it gets[5].

Of course, if you’re a Deadhead worthy of the name, you already have the soundboard tapes of both of these shows, recorded (and freely disseminated) by front-of-house genius, Dan Healy, and I admit they do sound very good. And then there are several fine sounding audience recordings available at which will give you that “you are there” experience (at the expense of instrumental definition). So you’re probably wondering, why should I buy this expensive box set? The answer lies in the fact that these shows were recorded to 24-track tape, providing pinpoint isolation and the ability to meticulously fine-tune and balance the mix ex post facto. The result sounds vastly different from any of the circulating tapes. Furthermore, Michael McGinn’s mix[6] is in-your-face aggressive, drum-heavy and worlds away from the more polite (yet heavily processed) mixes of Jeffrey Norman[7]. It also sounds much better than his previous effort, Crimson, White & Indigo, recorded just three months earlier (but that may be because the band as a whole sounds better). Even so, I wish there was a wider stereo soundstage and greater dynamic range—it sounds a little squashed to me. But it’s not the worst compression-job I ever heard and the sound really blooms at loud volumes; this is not an “ear-bleeder” by any means. Given the historical importance of these concerts, I will probably hold on to my “bootleg” soundboard recordings—but I will definitely be listening to these “official” CDs much more often. The clarity and balance of instruments and vocals allows the music to stand on its own instead of being blurred by on-the-fly mixing and cavernous acoustics. Does it sound like it did in the hall? No, of course not[8]. But you can hear the precise articulation of every individual note and drum-stroke and that is a perspective you could never have in the arena, certainly not at the microscopic level that multitrack tape affords. So while every recording is necessarily artificial, this one is at least detailed enough to warrant attention, even if you think you know what these shows sound like[9].

In keeping with the specialness of the music, the packaging of this box set is extravagantly lavish: The six CDs are housed in paper sleeves within a wooden “cigar-box”, complete with faux pyrography and sealed with a cleverly-designed “two-show” tax stamp, obviously referencing not only Virginia’s tobacco-laden history but other smoking-related proclivities of the band and its fans (“mellow yet mindblowing,” it says). There is also a touching and informative essay from Garcia biographer Blair Jackson (printed on the back of an accordion foldout of photographs from the shows) along with a bunch of related ephemera, including reproductions of the original tickets, postcards of the venue, the mailer sent to fans to try to quell the out-of-control “scene” in the parking lot, a home-made Halloween-themed "skull & roses" button, and a full-size facsimile of an article from the Charlotte Observer presenting a contemporaneous and fair-minded account of these shows and the fans who traveled far and wide to get there. As an object d’art, it is supremely well done and, as such, it is more-than-fairly priced. But at eighty bucks it is nevertheless quite expensive[10] and will necessarily limit its appeal to the already-obsessed and sufficiently well-heeled (or recklessly impecunious). Too bad as this is the Grateful Dead at their very best, providing an inkling of what made a Dead show something more than a rock concert. Maybe it’s too late anyway—you either get it or you don’t. I guess that’s fine. But this box set might be just the thing to convert the agnostic, creating a whole new generation of Deadheads fifteen years after Garcia’s untimely death. Therefore, Formerly the Warlocks is most highly recommended even to the merely curious—despite its high price-tag. Trust me, it’s worth every penny.


[1] The tactic sort of worked. But they only tried it on a couple other occasions in the Spring of 1990 before giving in to the reality of having to play only the largest arenas and football stadiums while periodically entreating their fans to behave themselves. Truthfully, Deadheads are, for the most part, a mellow bunch; but the sheer size of the “ticketless hordes” that had no interest in the music and only came to party in the parking lot continued to grow as the years went on. Some communities tolerated the temporary anarchy in return for a massive influx of cash into the local economy; others banned the Dead outright. The band returned to Hampton for two-shows in March of 1992, but that was it.
[2] Furthermore, both Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir had begun experimenting with MIDI technology in 1989, introducing a vast new range of sounds and textures to the music by triggering synthesizers and samplers from their guitars. One Usenet wag dismissed these efforts at the time as “Grandpa gets on AOL.” I'll admit that is a pretty darn funny quip; but I find the expansive sonic palette to be, for the most part, tastefully and appropriately deployed and, moreover, it is clear they were inspired by the cornucopia of sounds now available to them, contributing to the rejuvenated gestalt of this era.
[3] Nightfall of Diamonds, recorded a week later at the Meadowlands Arena on 10-16-89 is an exception; but as news of the hi-jinks in Hampton quickly spread north, the New York/New Jersey crowd expected to get their due, making the otherwise sublime second set seem a little bit perfunctory, coming as it does at the end of a rather routine six-night run. See also footnote 5.
[4] See, e.g. “Candyman” from 10-8. Hey, you try to keep upwards of a hundred songs in your head for instant recall at a moment’s notice! Let’s also acknowledge that the two-drum-set combo had a tendency to rush the beat when they got excited and sometimes the tension between the drummers and Phil Lesh’s bass threatens to unmoor the music (as for instance on “Row Jimmy” from 10-9). But this tension is part of what makes the Dead’s rhythm section so interesting. Besides, when you’re dancing, you hardly notice these fluctuations in tempo, the body just responds accordingly.
[5] Examples abound: Besides the aforementioned breakouts and various new songs which are performed with alacrity and élan, there is also a transcendent fourteen-minute “Bird Song,” a galloping, elongated “Eyes of the World,” and a monumental “Morning Dew” to be found on 10-8 while 10-9 features a super-funky “Feel Like a Stranger,” a joyously raucous “Ramble On Rose” and Brent Mydland’s soulful take on the “Dear Mr. Fantasy/Hey Jude” combo. Seriously, even Weir’s obligatory cowboy songs and Dylan covers sound inspired—a rare feat indeed. On these nights, the Grateful Dead bring it on!
[6] Michael McGinn is the long-time live soundman for Bob Weir’s Ratdog.
[7] C.f. Nightfall of Diamonds, which contains lovely renditions of “Dark Star,” “Attics of My Life,” and “We Bid You Goodnight.” Norman achieves a more spacious soundstage and retains a broader dynamic range but it lacks the ultra-vivid Technicolor presentation of the Warlocks set. While each approach might be less than my personal ideal, they have their own charms and both releases sound fantastic. Excellent sound quality has always been a hallmark of the Grateful Dead experience, both live and on record; I only quibble because I am so spoiled.
[8] NB: I was not at these concerts.
[9] For yet another sonic perspective, “Feel Like a Stranger” appears on Without a Net, mixed by none other than Phil Lesh himself (with recordist John Cutler). Further, substantial portions of “Dark Star” and “Space” appear on Bob Bralove’s experimental sound collage, Infrared Roses.
[10] It should be noted that the price-per-disc is in line with the previous box sets in the series (Winterland November 1973 and Winterland June 1977) while the packaging and production is significantly more elaborate, making Formerly the Warlocks a relative bargain, in my estimation.


I apologize for the way Blogger formatted the (admittedly extraneous) footnotes created in the original MS-Word document. Obviously, I need to research how to make this work if I wish to continue to pursue such frippery.

September 13, 2010

Happy Birthday, Arnold Schoenberg!

Arnold Schoenberg (13 September 1874 – 13 July 1951)

I've been spending a lot of time with Schoenberg the past few weeks, listening to many of his major works and reading his Letters, Style and Idea, and The Schoenberg Reader. I've even been toying around with Op.19 on the piano. Next, I plan to dive into his mammoth harmony textbook cum polemic, Harmonielehre (in English, of course). Most people find his music to be horribly ugly, but I love it. And his writings are fascinating glimpses into the mind of a true genius. Let's all sprechstimme a chorus of "Happy Birthday" to Mr. Schoenberg, the father of Modern-with-a-capital-M music.

September 12, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday


When there is confusion
Chaos reigns with multi-dimensional song
Where like some bird
Sound ecstatic
To fly around the crossroads
Whence dimensions meet
And wind their way
Of circular paths spiral outwardly.

-- Sun Ra

September 11, 2010

Playlist Week of 9-11-10

* Biber: Mensa Sonora (Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel) (Archiv Prod. CD)†
* J.S. Bach: Kaffee-Kantate, etc. (Concentus Musicus Wien/Harnoncourt) (Telefunken LP)
* J.S. Bach: Organ Works I (side 1) (ABC/Seon 2LP)
* J.S. Bach: Suites for Violoncello (ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* J.S. Bach: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (d.1) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Viol da Gamba (Pandolfo/Alessandrini) (Harmonia Mundi CD)†
* J.S. Bach: Trio Sonatas (London Baroque/Medlam) (Harmonia Mundi CD)†
* Corelli: Trio Sonatas (Pinnock, et al.) (Archiv Prod. CD)
* Corelli: Sonatas, Op.5 (Manze/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD†
* Stravinsky: Ebony Concerto/Dumbarton Oaks, etc. (Ens. InterContemporain/Boulez) (DG LP)
* Gershwin: Rhapsody In Blue, etc. (Pittsburgh Symphony/Previn) (Philips CD)
* Schwantner: Aftertones of Infinity (Eastman Philharmonic/Effron) (Mercury LP)
* Lutoslawski: Livres pour Orchestre (Eastman Philharmonic/Effron) (Mercury LP)
* John Coltrane: The Ultimate Blue Train (Blue Note CD)
* John Coltrane: Coltrane Time (Blue Note CD)
* Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Studio Recordings (d.4) (Columbia 6CD)
* Miles Davis: Seven Steps: The Complete Recordings 1963-1964 (d.3-7) (Columbia 7CD)
* Wayne Shorter Quartet: Vienna 6-29-10 (FM CDR)
* Miles Davis: Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (d.1-2b) (Columbia 8CD)
* Sun Ra: Cosmos (Spalax CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (GTM) 2006 (d.1) (Important 4CD)
* Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone: Prairies (Lucky Kitchen CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: Pat Metheny Group (ECM LP)
* Pat Metheny: New Chautauqua (ECM LP)
* Bill Laswell: Oscillations (Sub Rosa CD)‡
* Bill Laswell: Oscillations 2: Advanced Drums'n'bass (Sub Rosa CD)‡
* Marvin Gaye: Let’s Get It On (Motown/MFSL SACD)
* Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (Columbia 2LP)
* Van Morrison: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (Polydor CD)
* Van Morrison: Poetic Champions Compose (Polydor CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.3, No.3 (5-15-70) (bonus) (GD/Rhino 3+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.2, No.3: Wall of Sound (d.1) (GD/Rhino 2+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, IL 5-17-78 (SBD 2CDR)‡
* Pink Floyd: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Deluxe Edition) (d.1, 3) (EMI 3CD)
* Soft Machine: The Soft Machine (ABC/Probe/Sundazed LP)
* Soft Machine: Volume Two (ABC/Probe/Sundazed LP)
* Soft Machine: Third (Columbia 2LP)
* Soft Machine: De Doelen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands 1-16-70 (FM CDR)
* Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Atco/Classic 2LP)
* Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA DVD-A)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador 2LP)
* The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots 5.1 (stereo) (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Robert Pollard: Moses On a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Boston Spaceships: Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (GBV, Inc. LP/CDR)



I’ve really been enjoying Soft Machine’s first two albums which were recently re-issued on the Sundazed label, listening to them at least once a week since I picked them up less than a month ago. Mastered from the original analog tapes and pressed on “high-definition” 180-gram virgin vinyl, these late-Sixties classics have never sounded better (not that they sounded all that great to begin with, but still...). The eponymous first LP was recorded in a hectic four-day session at the Record Plant in 1968 while on a U.S. tour with Jimi Hendrix (with whom they shared management) and produced by the legendary Chas Chandler and Tom Wilson. Supposedly compiled from impossibly brilliant first-takes, the music crackles with zany invention and expert musicianship that transcends the somewhat murky recording. What makes these early Soft Machine albums so interesting is the absence of guitar: instead of the usual six-string heroics a la Hendrix, Mike Ratledge’s piano and organ playing drove the band in a neo-classical direction, away from the more typical blues-based jamming of the time and into extended formal structure and experimentalist improvisation. “Prog Rock” starts here! Meanwhile, Robert Wyatt’s seemingly ramshackle yet supremely musical drumming keeps things aloft (even in the oddest meters) while his plaintive, wistful singing adds an endearing Pop Art veneer that sounds both irrevocably of its time and fresh and convincing today. This album is a perfect combination of catchy songsmith-ing and vertiginous improvisation wherein time stops and the music becomes a portal into a parallel dimension in the space-time continuum. Indeed, The Soft Machine is a neglected psychedelic masterpiece and Sundazed has restored it to its original vinyl glory. No, they didn’t reproduce the original die-cut cover with the spinning-wheel insert; to have done so would have no doubt been prohibitively expensive. However, a paper reproduction of the spinning-wheel’s trippy collage is included, which is nice.

Despite these triumphs, their wonderfully melodic bassist, Kevin Ayers, suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after this grueling tour and made a hasty departure from the band. In 1969, friend and sometimes roadie Hugh Hopper was brought in as a replacement and his massive fuzz-tone dominates the band’s second album, appropriately titled, Volume Two. While hinting at the instrumental jazz-fusion the band would later wholly embrace, Wyatt’s mischievous voice and Dadaistic songwriting still carries the day, reciting the alphabet one minute (forward and backwards) and scatting doggerel the next. Organized as two side-long suites, there are nevertheless moments of pure pop gorgeousness that arise from the relentlessly evolving instrumental textures, as on the fragmentary “Thank You Pierrot Lunaire” on side one (dig the Schoenberg reference!) or the unadorned acoustic pastoral of “Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening” on side two. Overdubbed horns (played by Ratledge, Hopper and his brother, Brian) contribute a more overtly jazzy feel on segments like “Hibou, Anemone and Bear” and “Orange Skin Food” and bring to mind Frank Zappa’s work with the Mothers of Invention during this period (in fact, Absolutely Free was an admitted inspiration for these sessions). Volume Two is perhaps not as mind-blowing as their nearly-perfect debut, but it is still a stimulating listen. It is a transitional album, with the band moving rapidly away from baroque psychedelia and into the kind of slick jazz-rock that would define the band in the 1970s. Indeed, Wyatt would be forced out after their sprawling (and at times dull and self-indulgent) Third album and things would never be the same. It is interesting to speculate about how they might have sounded if they had tried to save their marriage of quirkily melodious songcraft and expansive instrumentalism evidenced on these first two albums. Perhaps the tensions inherent in such an undertaking were irreconcilable. In any event, these records continue to inspire after more than forty years.

In this day and age of thirty-to-fifty-dollar “audiophile” re-issues, Sundazed should be commended for making these classic all analog LPs available at such a reasonable price. Packaged in beautifully printed, heavy gatefold jackets, the vinyl is flat and quiet and well worth the $17.99 each I paid for them at Grimey’s New and Pre-Loved Music. I’ve heard some complaints in some quarters about Sundazed’s pressing quality, but I have never had any big problems—and I have a bunch of ‘em. Are they perfect? Not always. But minty originals of the first two Soft Machine albums are nearly impossible to find and these sound very, very good to my ears. How could you go wrong? Way recommended!


Special thanks to Sam Byrd, whose tireless advocacy (and impeccable taste) finally convinced me of the genius of Soft Machine (and particularly Robert Wyatt). Thanks, Sam!

September 5, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

"A Space warning from Sun Ra to the Planet Earth" via Pat Griffiths in Friends (London), February 2, 1971. (Click to enlarge)

September 4, 2010

Playlist Week of 9-04-10

* J.S. Bach: Mass in B minor (Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque/Gardiner) (Archiv Prod. 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: The Works for Lute (Kirchhof) (Sony Classical 2CD)
* Pachelbel: Canons and Gigues (London Baroque) (Harmonia Mundi CD)†
* Handel: Solo Sonatas, Op.1 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Handel: Trio Sonatas, Op.2 & Op.5 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Vivaldi: “Manchester” Sonatas (Romanesca) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics 2CD)†
* Geminiani: Cello Sonatas, Op.5 (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics CD)†
* Schoenberg: Ewartung, Op.17 (BBC Symphony Orch./Martin/Boulez) (Sony Classical CD)
* Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21 (InterContemporain/Minton/Boulez) (Sony Classical CD)
* Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings (d.6) (Columbia 6CD)
* Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Studio Recordings (d.1-3) (Columbia 6CD)
* Miles Davis: In Person at the Blackhawk (Columbia 4CD)
* Miles Davis: At Carnegie Hall (Columbia 2 CD)
* Miles Davis: Seven Steps: The Complete Recordings 1963-1964 (d.1-2) (Columbia 7CD)
* Sun Ra: The Mystery Board (live Nov. 2 or 3, 1972) (SBD/boot 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: The Shadows Took Shape (Lost Reel Collection, Vol.3) (Transparency 2CD)
* Muhal Richard Abrams/George Lewis/Roscoe Mitchell: Streaming (Pi CD)
* Anthony Braxton: 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (d.9) (Firehouse 12 9CD+DVD)
* Mary Halvorson Trio: Willisau 8-25-10 (FM CDR)
* Pat Metheny Group: Still Life (Talking) (Geffen CD)†
* Pat Metheny Group: Letter From Home (Geffen CD)†
* Pat Metheny Group: We Live Here (Geffen CD)†
* Bill Frisell: Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch CD)†
* Ekstasis: Wake Up and Dream (CyberOctave CD)‡
* Bill Laswell: Dub Chamber 3 (ROIR CD)‡
* Bill Laswell: Version 2 Version: A Dub Transmission (ROIR CD)‡
* Deltron 3030: The Instrumentals (ARK CD)‡
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips, Vol.3 No.3 (Fillmore E. 5-15-70) (d.1-3) (GD/Rhino 3+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack (Oct. 1974) (d.1) (GD 5CD)‡
* Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks, Vol.3 (Pembroke Pines, FL 5-22-77) (GD 2CD)‡
* Grateful Dead: Onadaga Co. Civic Center, Syracuse, NY 4-08-82 (set 2) (SBD 2CDR)‡
* Los Lobos: This Time (Hollywood/MFSL SACD)
* Robert Pollard: Moses On a Snail (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Boston Spaceships: Brown Submarine (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Boston Spaceships: The Planets Are Blasted (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Boston Spaceships: Zero to 99 (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Boston Spaceships: Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Boston Spaceships: “Headache Revolution” (side B) (HJRR 7”EP)
* Boston Spaceships: Camera Found the Raygun (Jackpot 7”EP)
* Boston Spaceships: Licking Stamps and Drinking Shitty Coffee: Live in Atlanta (APC 2LP)
* Animal Collective: “Peacebone” (Domino CDEP)
* Animal Collective: Water Curses (Domino CDEP)
* Panda Bear: Person Pitch (Paw Tracks CD)



This big news on the Robert Pollard front is, of course, the reunion of the so-called “classic line-up” of Guided By Voices for an extended tour this fall. If I were twenty years younger (or even ten), I would definitely be making travel arrangements to see Bob rock out with his old bandmates. But I am an old fart who would rather stay home and listen to records. And, of course, there is the distinct possibility this reunion will go the way of many other such ventures and be something of a disappointment. Pollard explicitly abandoned the road at the end of 2004 when he ceremoniously disbanded GBV (vividly captured on The Electrifying Conclusion DVD) and has only sporadically performed live ever since. Even so, I love the idea of these guys enjoying a victory lap, whatever its artistic merits.

All that is not to say Pollard is resting on his laurels—god, no. Barely two months after the release of a particularly strong solo album, Moses On a Snail, Pollard’s semi-real band, Boston Spaceships, has just released their fourth album in three years weirdly entitled, Our Cubehouse Still Rocks, and it’s easily their most satisfying outing yet. This one makes good on the promise of last year’s Zero to 99, which was a merely half-great record. Here Pollard has penned some of his most fully developed and downright catchiest songs in years and he sings them with the kind of intensity and conviction that has been for the most part absent on the ad hoc Spaceships’s previous albums. Rather than tossing off a bunch of half-baked songs and phoning them in long distance, Pollard sounds confident and committed, delivering a spectacular vocal performance that brings to mind the glory days of GBV. I know I tend to blindly praise everything Pollard puts out, but, take my word for it: Our Cubehouse Still Rocks is an outstanding effort which should not be overlooked in all the brouhaha surrounding the big reunion tour. 1990s nostalgia is one thing, but the truth is: Pollard remains a vital creative force in 2010. If that was ever in doubt, just have a listen.