Archive for the ‘In Concert’ Category

Of Rabbit Holes and Bubbles   Leave a comment

July 1, 2017

      I enjoy the internet. I make use of the internet. I don’t worship it and I’m reasonably certain I could live without it. Well, much of it. As the music industry changed in the 1980s and 1990s, I was within that business, allthewhile observing as technology and the internet began driving ever more  change. And much of it was unnerving to those of us who made a living helping unknown recording artists become successes, and successful artists become superstars. By the time I moved to New York in 1990 the change was even more pronounced, and within that decade a newly-formed company was getting attention.

MP3.com was a 1997 startup that drove record labels crazy, and record store owners even crazier by selling music directly to consumers, bypassing much of the established music-business order. Happily for me, at that moment I had already moved from business to academia to complete my BA and go on to graduate school. While teaching college students about music and the music business (to help pay for my own college and grad courses) I tested the changing and turbulent business waters by purchasing a new album as a download from MP3.com. (I also chose to get a CD copy as well.) The group was Red Delicious and the motivation was a song titled “Casualties”. I loved the recording but I was also learning the power of the internet to interrupt the status quo.

While MP3.com was an exciting startup, nervous recording industry leaders were aghast. Their place as gatekeepers of new music in the century-old music business had reached a moment of truth. With the approaching millennium change was more than inevitable; for some record label people it seemed like a non-stop runaway freight train was headed straight for their wallets. MP3.com, Napster, and the iPod would signal how the “new” music industry would evolve. Marketing people400px-Down_the_Rabbit_Hole copy would figure out which pieces of the business to embrace and exploit, and they would make their choices hand-in-hand with the new technology in a post-millennium internet age.

One of those emerging tech companies was YouTube. Founded in 2005 it was acquired by Google in 2006, assuring its future and making YouTube’s founding multi-millionaires even wealthier. The new company seemed perfectly fit for America’s ever increasingly narcissistic predilection. A regular feature on host David Lettermen’s Late Show on CBS, “Stupid Pet Tricks”, was about to give way to an infinitely larger audience. For example, with YouTube, cats (and their lesser intellectual support system, i.e., humans) had an infinitely larger venue to display both the cute behavior (cats) and the idiocy (humans), all to create a nano-measure of fame. And yet, this month I found myself caught up in my own YouTube moment. To get there, I had to jump into a rabbit hole. Just in case you are unfamiliar with the current application of the phrase, it is strictly metaphorical. Here are the basics. You look at something—almost anything—on the internet and are then presented with serial distractions. Kathryn Schulz described the phenomenon far more eloquently in a 2015 column in The New Yorker:

“Those online rabbit holes, while wildly variable in content, take recognizable forms. One is iterative: you’re settling down to work when you suddenly remember that you meant to look up that flannel shirt you saw in a store but couldn’t find in your size, and the next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you have scrutinized two hundred and forty-five flannel shirts. Another is exhaustive: you go in search of a particular fact—say, when Shamu debuted at SeaWorld—and soon enough you are well on your way to compiling a definitive account of captive killer whales. A third is associative: you look up one thing, which leads to looking up something distantly related, which leads to looking up something even further afield, which—hey, cool Flickr set of Moroccan sheep.”

STINGEDDYBENJENrev (1)     So I found myself on YouTube looking for a piece of music because a friend of mine, knowing my taste, had suggested I hear a particular performance. Having found the artist I listened to 8-10 tracks, including her performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”. Terrific version. But then, it got me thinking that I’d like to hear other cover versions of Springsteen songs. Click. Click. Click. Click. Suddenly I found myself watching a string of clips from the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. There was Sting singing “The Rising”; followed by Eddie Vedder performing “My City of Ruins”; and then a duet of “I’m On Fire” featuring Ben Harper and Jennifer Nettles. These three clips are stunning in the arrangements, production values, and sheer delivery. Stunning. But there was more.

The Kennedy Center Honorees that December were, in addition to Springsteen, Grace Bumbry, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, and Robert De Niro, and all five were clearly deserving of the honor. But there were a couple of other images that caught my attention. Sharing the box in the Kennedy Center that evening with the five honorees were two other people worth mentioning. Earlier this year they completed an extraordinary performance of their own. Michelle+Obama+Dresses+Skirts+Strapless+Dress+g84EM1pX9TZxNot a performance, rather, a journey. From impossible, to highly improbable, to might just happen, to reality. They succeeded.  And on January 20, 2017, their life changed again as they moved from public housing to a private residence.

Seeing the images of the Obamas from a December evening almost a decade ago was an emotional moment. It made me come to grips with just what a bubble we’ve been living in for the past eight years. It was not one of those ‘clueless’ bubbles, but rather a bubble that a majority of Americans gladly embraced. It was a good thing. The bubble that enveloped us was with an American president and his wife who spent eight years bringing dignity, humor, grace, pride, and ideas to Washington, D.C. There were successes and mistakes. But unlike most other presidents of the past half century, there were no scandals, no crazy behavior, no new wars. And let’s not forget that Barack and Michelle Obama arrived in 2009 to assess the almost total collapse of the American economy they inherited and nurture it back from the brink. The current occupant of that same unit of public housing that the Obamas left behind makes it clear how much things have changed. And not for the better. Perhaps going down a rabbit hole from time to time isn’t such a bad idea after all.

David Steffen

© 2017 David Steffen

 

Advertisements

Van Gogh and Van Zandt: Art & Art   Leave a comment

The Personal and Lasting Nature of Art

March 1, 2017

I like art of all kinds. Music, films, graphic art, paintings (oils, watercolors, acrylics, etc), and I like to visit art museums. It’s not like I spend enormous amounts of time or money these days driving from one museum to the next. Rather it’s my long-held interest in exploring as I’ve traveled. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to visit The Louvre and Jeu de Paume, MOMA, Chicago’s Art Institute, and many others. Sometimes the attraction to the art and artist is by chance, and sometimes by design. I recall standing in front of Rembrandt’s 1642 masterpiece The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht) at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and feeling drawn into that scene from three and a half centuries ago, like I am standing among the burghers. But Amsterdam is also home to the Van Gogh Museum, and there are few things to leave as lasting an impression on a visitor as being immersed into the works of Van Gogh. The artist was born 164 years ago this month (March 30, 1853).

593px-van_gogh_self-portrait_with_straw_hat_1887-detroitAmsterdam’s original Van Gogh Museum building had a mezzanine, where you could walk the long, somewhat narrow pathway, with the art hanging on the wall, and a railing
 behind you overlooking the main gallery. The exhibit space enabled one to see an abbreviated progression of the artist’s works. Regardless of the brilliance of his art, hanging and viewing an original or reprint of any number of Van Gogh’s images may be a bit disconcerting. There were many self portraits, and a few years before he died he painted Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1887). The intensity of the eyes speaks volumes of the intensity of the artist. In spite of, or because of his artistic intensity, Van Gogh died July 27, 1890, three days after shooting himself with a 7mm Lefaucheux revolver. He was 37. Obviously his brilliant art has survived and thrived for more than a century since his passing.

Music, as regular readers of my column know, has been a passion for most of my life. I sometimes write about musicians I’ve seen, or heard, or met, or all three. One of those musicians was a somewhat soft-spoken troubadour named Townes van Zandt. Before I even met Townes, I knew he was something special. His songwriting was soulful, introspective and speculative. I just happened to ‘discover’ his music while working first, at a college radio station, then a commercial station, and later promoting releases from RCA Records, the big label which happened to distribute the independent Poppy Records label, whose creative owner Kevin Eggers signed a relatively unknown guy named Townes to a recording contract and began releasing new albums. Did you follow that?

It’s best to hear the melody that accompanies the lyrics he wrote, but even without the music, the lyrics alone will provide a little insight into what I’m talking about. Townes’ songs would often quietly break through almost any objective listener’s wall of suspicion and become embedded in their psyche. “Kathleen”, from Our Mother The Mountain, reflects the epitome of a song you could get in your head and have difficulty removing:

“It’s plain to see, the sun won’t shine today
But I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway
Maybe I’ll go insane
I got to stop the pain
Or maybe I’ll go down to see Kathleen.”

Regardless of whom she represented for the singer (girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, lover, prostitute) Kathleen was therapy of one kind or another. Recorded in a slightly more energetic delivery is “Come Tomorrow” from Delta Momma Blues. Some fans and critics dislike the recorder and the small string accompaniment to “Come Tomorrow”. Those same critics probably don’t like the accompaniment to “Kathleen” either. These are superficial critiques. As always the underlying song is the central element.

“Well, it’s strange how many tortured mornings, Fell upon us with no warning, Lookin’ for a smile to beg and borrow, It’s over now, there is no returning, A thousand bridges sadly burning, And light the way I have to walk alone, Come tomorrow.”

Many of van Zandt’s other songs were also in the tortured soul subset.

Each songwriter works within the confines of their own inherent or self-imposed comfort zone. Perhaps all of his boundaries were defined within the confines of soulful lament, regardless of tempo. Nevertheless, Townes was able to reach people with his music. Other musicians knew the value of his writing, as when Emmylou Harris included “If I Needed You” on her Duets album (in this case singing along with Don Williams.) The first verse is quintessential Townes:

If I needed you would you come to me
Would you come to me for to ease my pain
If you needed me I would come to you
I would swim the seas for to ease your pain

Clearly his best known song is the story of “Pancho & Lefty”. Perhaps Townes was knowingly or subliminally channeling the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or maybe this was just a wistful dream from his childhood in Texas. I loved Townes’ recording, but to be honest, I loved the version by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard even more. The song is wonderful, colorful, daring and sad. And that, unfortunately, could also describe his too short life. Townes died at age 52, January 1, 1997. A year after his death, writer Michael Hall wrote in Texas Monthly:

late-great-tvz-0001Townes never released an album on a major label. He was never a music business professional and was never much concerned with his career. He was never concerned with much of anything, in fact, but writing, touring, and hanging out with friends and family. He loved paradox—living it and spreading it. Born into comfort, he preferred the company of the poor and desperate and sometimes gambled away what money he had. He was a lighthearted prankster who wrote some of the saddest songs of the century.

I never met van Gogh, but I did meet van Zandt. These two artistic supernovae—creative minds, from two different times, and two different worlds—died a century apart. Yet art can transcend borders, languages, cultures, and time. We should not dwell on how they lived or how they died. Instead, focus on the fact that long after their passing, both continue to touch so many people with their passion, their art.

David Steffen

 

 

Note: In March 1970 Townes was passing through Milwaukee on a performance and promotion tour, arriving near his birthday (March 7). To help promote his new album and celebrate his 26th birthday I organized a dinner. Looking back on that evening I recognize that celebrating with Townes was more img-1serendipitous than a matter of brilliant planning. The dinner party, seen in this photograph included (l-r) Townes’ road manager Vin Scelsa, local radio host Bob Reitman, me, radio host John Houghton, Townes, radio programmer Steve Stevens, and RCA Records promotion manager John Hager.

© David Steffen 2017

Honey, It’s Always About The Sax   Leave a comment

Back on Baker Street

September 1, 2016

I’m a passable musician, which means I play just well enough these days to be acceptable, i.e. sufficiently proficient to pass myself off as a musician. This is not meant to be some self-deprecating, aw shucks sort of evaluation. As the character of SFPD detective ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan once stated, “a man’s just got to know his limitations”. Don’t get me wrong. My days of playing guitar, electric bass, and piano were thoroughly enjoyable, but surrounded by so many talented musicians over the last thirty-plus years I’ve chosen to spend more time listening to others, and less time applying my talents to any instrument.

Over the years I’ve picked up other’s instruments as often as my own, usually to help a friend move his stuff from apartment ‘a‘ to apartment ‘b’. Although having never taken a saxophone lesson or attempted to play the sax in some random moment, just picking up a friend’s alto sax provided a bit of an epiphany. The design, the aesthetics, the mechanical features ooze an obvious sensuality. One’s eye can unexpectedly travel from the mouthpiece, down the neck to the bow and up to the bell. Between the beginning and the end of that journey there exists a landscape with reeds, keys, screws, pins, tone holes, guards, and probably a myriad of other components I didn’t know were there. And when the saxophone is played by someone who knows what they’re doing, the sound that comes out of that bell hits you. It’s like a massage, where a qualified individual plays various parts of your back to make your senses come to life. Music can have that effect. It reaches into your being without coming in physical contact. And certain recordings or live performances can pass through the dermis and take up residence, even if just for five or ten minutes at a time.

The saxophone is certainly not the only instrument that can evoke feelings, including those of an erotic nature but it is, perhaps, more likely than other instruments to strike a nerve. With all due respect to my friends who are fabulous on the guitar, or the piano, or the bass, or the drums, or any other instrument, it ain’t about your musicianship. I was fortunate enough to see the late Clarence Clemons perform with the E Street Band on four occasions, and still appreciate hearing him wail on Springsteen’s catalog of recordings. But seeing him on stage you know this man and the saxophone were one complete

candy-dulfer

Candy Dulfer

expression of great music. The Dutch jazz musician Candy Dulfer is another player who can speak through her instrument, creating a perfect mood as exemplified in the title track from the film score for Lily Was Here (1989). Or Tim Cappello stepping out on “We Don’t Need Another Hero”, Tina Turner’s hit from the film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). These players may not be in the same stratosphere as John Coltrane, but Coltrane wasn’t like these players either. Clearly the artistry in A Love Supreme resides in another realm from tracks like “Born To Run” or “Lily Was Here” or “We Don’t Need Another Hero”. Yet music, happily, is not a zero-sum game. We’re allowed to like a variety of styles, multiple genres, many musicians, and so on.

As 1973 began, A&M Records looked like it was starting the year off right. One of the first A&M singles released that year was “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel, the UK duo of  Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty. The track was a worldwide hit. Here in the States the single debuted at #86 in Billboard on March 3, 1973, peaking at #6 on May 12. The band never repeated that success, and reportedly spent the next three years fighting about records, royalties, creative differences—you know, just another day in the music business. But one-half of the band hit it big almost five years to the day later with the release of the single “Baker Street”. Gerry Rafferty’s solo recording peaked at #2 on June 24, 1978 and stayed there for six weeks. To be sure, #2 wasn’t bad, but still the single deserved better. Unfortunately it was the dawn of the dance/disco age, and Rafferty got stuck behind a #1 hit by Andy Gibb. Gibb’s brothers had a band you may have heard of: The Bee Gees, and the Bee Gees were on a hot streak due primarily to the success of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. Nevertheless brother Andy’s totally forgettable hit “Shadow Dancing” kept “Baker Street” from reaching number one for those six weeks, and Billboard Magazine and the American public should be forever embarrased by that bit of music history.

“Baker Street” was a moment in time. Rafferty (who died in 2011) had penned a terrific song. The message of the song included common themes many of us have experienced, as reflected in the lyrics (below). But the recording is memorable for more than the lyrics, the rich guitar, the

286249-gerry

Gerry Rafferty

synthesizer, and the other rhythmic elements. What got everyone to pay attention was the saxophone. As the track begins, the instrumentation is almost ethereal for 20 seconds or so, and then that alto sax lights up the experience for another 30-40 seconds. Rafferty doesn’t begin singing until we’re one minute into the track; after a minute of Rafferty, the alto once again opens up. And that’s the basic rotation of the six minutes of music:

Instrumental•vocal•instrumental•vocal•instrumental•instrumental •instrumental.

You get the drift. Rafferty is the recording artist and the songwriter, and the driving force behind the project. Yet the real star of “Baker Street” is Raphael Ravenscroft (1954-2014), the then 23-year old saxophonist, hired as a studio musician. During the recording

Ravenscroft530c5e568e184129630f6a706700eb04

Raphael Ravenscroft

session Ravenscroft “only” created the riff that almost 40 years later continues to instantly identify the recording as “Baker Street”. He earned union scale of about $50 (£27) for the session, and yet it is his sax solo that provides instant recognition when we hear “Baker Street”. The recording would be significantly less without Ravenscroft.

If the saxophone has been heretofore a bit under-appreciated in your world, expand your horizons. Consider what this instrument brings to the performance, to the recording. Whether it’s Clarence Clemons, Candy Dulfer, Tim Cappello, or Raphael Ravenscroft, without their contributions, these recordings—at the very least—would have been less than they are. Like chocolate ice cream or lobster tail, a Chevy Camaro or BMW, or a glass of Coca Cola or wine at sunset on the Mendocino Coast, we know the good stuff when we taste it, drink it, drive it, savor it or hear it. Enjoy it now. Go back and listen once again, or discover a recording you should know. There’s no time like the present and few recordings are as durable and as wonderful as “Baker Street”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

He’s got this dream about buyin’ some land

He’s gonna give up the booze and the one night stands

And then he’ll settle down, it’s a quiet little town

And forget about everything

But you know he’ll always keep moving

You know he’s never gonna stop moving

‘Cause he’s rollin’, He’s the rolling stone

And when you wake up it’s a new morning

The sun is shining, it’s a new morning

And you’re going, you’re going home

Ice Cream and Idiocracy   Leave a comment

Turbulent Times and Irrationality

July 1, 2016

    The Fourth of July is one of those holidays I can’t ignore. Like Christmas, the 4th was always a special day when I was growing up, and to some degree it remains special. I remember the parades—both watching and marching, although the latter was more of a walk along with other kids from my elementary school. But I did appreciate the little ice cream cup we were all given as we arrived in the park, and of course, on more than one Independence Day, my small group of friends would race back to the groups still marching and join them just to receive another ice cream cup. Ah, petty-crime in Milwaukee.

As I began working in the music industry (1970), I had no idea it would become a career. I promoted new records released by the RCA Records label (and others), and my timing couldn’t have been much better. RCA was enjoying a renaissance with Elvis Presley’s return to making hit records, Jose Feliciano had become a star with a remake of the Doors’ “Light My Fire”, the Friends of Distinction were on the charts with “Grazing In The Grass”, Guess Who was about to release American Woman,  and the Jefferson Airplane continued to soar. Even Perry Como was back on the charts with an appropriately titled hit single: “It’s Impossible”.  Of the artists I worked with in those early years, Jose Feliciano remains a favorite. He was talented, pleasant, smart, articulate, and friendly.

His 1968 breakthrough hit cover of the Doors’ classic peaked at #2. As almost always happened following a hit single, opportunities arose for the twenty-three year old Feliciano to parlay his success with “Light My Fire” into something greater. Publicists often consider every opportunity to put their artist in the spotlight . . . any spotlight. And one of those publicity moments was presented to the star. Based on the suggestion of Detroit sportscaster Ernie Harwell, Feliciano was offered the chance to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a baseball game. And not just any game. There were 53,000 fans at Tiger Stadium for game 5 of the 1968 World Series; and millions watching or listening around the world. It was Detroit vs. Saint Louis. For the record, the pitchers were Mickey Lolich of the Tigers, who earned the win—final score was 5-3—and Joe Hoerneas of the Cardinals, who was handed the loss. In almost every respect it was a publicist’s dream. I said “almost”. Feliciano sang the anthem as he sang almost everything, with an honest, genuine, heartfelt soul. And that’s where the trouble began.

Anyone following American politics since 1994 knows what polarization is, and in 1968 those who heard Feliciano sing were polarized. Half of the people loved Feliciano’s performance, and half hated it. To take advantage of the half-public who loved the performance, RCA Records released a 45-RPM single. It may have been the first time in recorded music history that the National Anthem was on the Billboard charts. The downside of this publicity opportunity was the half-public who hated the performance. According to the New York Times, (October 8, 1968), when asked about the moment, the blind, Puerto Rican born American said “America is young now, and I thought maybe the anthem could be revived now. This country has given me so many opportunities. I owe everything I have to this country. I wanted to contribute something to this country, express my gratification for what it has done for me.” Baseball great Tony Kubek liked it: “I think he did one heckuva job”. A Tigers fan had a different take: “It was a disgrace. An Insult.” She said she would be writing her senator.

Two weeks later the RCA Records single arrived at radio stations and in record stores. Radio stations followed the public divide. Many stations played it. However, many others, like Milwaukee’s WOKY did not. That station’s Program Director George Wilson told me a couple of years later that he believed “the performance was inappropriate and unacceptable.”

As a college student and programmer at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s WUWM radio station at the time, everyone would agree that 1968 was a most turbulent time. Consider some of the events of the year: • January: North Korea captured the patrol boat USS Pueblo. • The Tet Offensive was launched. • February: Richard Nixon began his political comeback. • The American  military in Vietnam declared that it had destroyed a town in order to save it. A phrase that cannot be erased from our memories. • Walter Cronkite, anchor of the CBS Evening News, and dubbed “the most trusted man in America”, urged President Johnson to throw in the towel in Vietnam. • March: Senator Eugene McCarthy came within 230 votes of beating a sitting president in the New Hampshire primary. • Senator Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race. • The U.S. Army’s Charlie Company rampaged through the Vietnamese village of My Lai. • Martin Luther King led a march through Memphis. • April: Lyndon Johnson announced his decision to not stand for reelection. Martin Luther King was assassinated. • May: Peace Talks were begun between the U.S. and Vietnam. •  June: Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. • August: The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. • The Democratic National Convention in Chicago, helped along by the Chicago Police, turned into a riot—a disaster for the Democrats, but fascinating viewing on television. • September: Senator Hubert Humphrey received the Democratic nomination for president. There was so much more that fateful year, but time and space is limited.

And what of Jose Feliciano? After the release of “The Star Spangled Banner” and its five weeks on the Billboard chart, Feliciano continued to record and tour. His 1970 Christmas album, Feliz Navidad is considered a classic of the genre. He even returned to Detroit in May 2010 to reprise his 1968 performance in honor of Ernie Harwell, who died that week. No one contacted their senator, governor, or anyone else to complain. I guess forty-two years was a sufficient amount of time for America’s haters of 1968 to get over Feliciano’s original performance, or maybe they just died with a grudge.

The Fourth of July is always worth time to reflect. Whether it’s the memories of ice cream as a child, of a parade, or a unique and memorable performance, or a performer with whom we connected—literally, personally, emotionally, or even viscerally. Politics today is, as some say, not for sissies or wimps. You’ve got to have a belief system that will overcome any idiocy, or worse, an idiocracy.

Joel Stein wrote in May 2016’s Time Magazine, that “[America has] Become an Idiocracy . . . And it only took two-and-a-half centuries. Eight years ago, with the publication of Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, our country had a debate about whether its citizens were becoming less intelligent. This year, we had a debate about how big Donald Trump’s penis is. While we have not resolved the latter, we have answered the former. Former means first, and latter means second.”

From bitching about a wonderful, authentic, performance of the song set to Francis Scott Key’s poem, we have arrived at July 4, 2016. The election isn’t until November 7th. May God have mercy on our souls. And by the way, Thank You Jose. If you get to Mendonoma, I’ll be there. I’ll probably even have some ice cream for you.

Harrison Goldberg: Inspired By Music, Baseball, Art, And Life On The Coast   Leave a comment

June 6, 2016

Musicians of all kinds can be impressive but it’s clear I’m a sucker for the Saxophone. In the 1970s and 80s I worked with a long list of marvelous musicians in pop, Americana, R&B, AC (adult contemporary), jazz, classical and more. And I collected vinyl records and CDs for years. But like music lovers of all genres, I had my real favorites and surprisingly (to me) I had a respectable jazz collection of a couple of hundred titles. The appreciation for jazz began with a visit to a record store in Chicago’s Old Town and the random purchase of a used vinyl gem: Jazz Workshop Revisited, a live album by saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on the Riverside label. Some weeks or months later there was the purchase of the new John Coltrane album, A Love Supreme.

Music is at once both personal and social, harrisonhat3_rand finding common ground as listeners or as performer and audience, plays on our emotional component. Moving to a the coast I’ve made any number of new friends. And one of them is a particularly impressive musician.

On first glance, Harrison Goldberg appears to be like so many of us. On the Mendocino Coast we are all influenced by the environment, and I’m not just talking weather here. There’s an effort to enjoy the coastal life: work, creativity, romance, intellect, and so on. In short, living. That being said,
on closer inspection and getting to know Harrison, you can see that he savors life here and incorporates the influences into his creative gifts. Most obvious are his musical gifts. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, but the heart of his music is about the sax. He doesn’t just perform. He writes, he records, he pushes himself to continue the creative journey.

There he was, on stage, during a recent performance at Point Arena’s intimate pub 215 Main. As he started playing “Take Five” I wondered at first just why he’d elect to perform one of the most recognized songs on the planet. As he played, the familiarity was there, yet to his credit he made it sound fresh, and not clichéd.

Harrison Goldberg was much like other impressive players I’ve known and heard. But it was, after all, a trio. Seeing him on stage, there appears to be a distinction between the extrovert composer-musician as a performer, and his slightly more understated role as emcee. Between songs he tends to defer intros Thelonious Smile copy 2and outros to those performing with him, making certain they each receive sufficient attention, before introducing himself with a bit less volume. Harrison has the chops, yet he doesn’t work at making himself the single center of attention. For example, Goldberg placed a noted emphasis on the vocals and piano work of Rob Ellis, and bassist Joel Kruzic. And deservedly so. The result is that you listen to the whole, ultimately forming your own opinion as to which part of the performance, which one of the three musicians spoke most directly to you. This approach—at least as viewed through my observations at a recent show—makes the performance far more enjoyable.

A surprising side of Harrison’s creative output is his painting, which includes a gallery opening at Red Shoes Gallery, 1040 North Dutton Avenue, Santa Rosa this month. His use of color, texture, and inspiration are compelling and worth seeing in person. Samples of his art are on his website—www.harrisongoldbergarts.com. Opening receptions on Friday and Saturday June 24 and 25. The paintings will be on display through mid-July.
HG-1

Photo by Michael Waldie

Recently Goldberg has been developing a project he’s titled “Imagine If Jazz Were Like Baseball”, and before you jump to any conclusions, this isn’t a casual (or trivial) take on jazz and jazz musicians. And the work is certainly not meant to be a transposition of, for example, earlier cleverness like the 1910 baseball poem by Franklin Pierce Adams, “Tinker to Evers to Chance”. Rather this is Goldberg flexing his creative muscle and offering a thoughtful, enjoyable, and highly listenable experience as he talks through his imagined game, supported with an appropriately-flavored jazz rhythm section.

Like professional athletes across multiple sports, jazz musicians have long had nicknames. Digging deep we might find that one or two were perhaps a little less than organic (created by a musician as a self indulgent sobriquet). But the vast majority were gifts from other players or fans or family members. Louis Armstrong, for example, was reportedly called Satchelmouth early on, some say due to his large mouth. Apparently even Satchelmouth needed a nickname, hence the abbreviated Satchmo. In addition to Armstrong, Goldberg brings numerous familiar nicknames to the project. Names like “Bird” (Charlie Parker), “Trane” ( John Coltrane), “Cannonball” (Julian Adderley), “Count” (William James Basie), “Duke” (Edward Kennedy Ellington), and so on. Although you need the soft musical backdrop to fully appreciate the effort, here’s a brief passage from “Imagine If Jazz Were Like Baseball”:

“It’s bases loaded with two outs
in the bottom of the ninth
Three to two count on the batter and the game is all tied up.
Then back up to the plate he steps, Cannonball Adderley, his fearsome alto Brushing a wide chest.
The crowd yells ‘Mercy, Mercy!’ And you can hear that horn man blowing loud and steady, Swinging mightily with his sax.”

Goldberg’s imagery is playful, thoughtful, evocative. In this brief excerpt from his creation we can easily see Adderley standing in the batter’s box with his saxophone, not a bat. And the baseball-loving crowd knew immediately that “Mercy, Mercy!” was the perfect cheer. With luck this new creative work will find its way to a recording in the near future so that we can all savor it at home, without requiring a drive to the ballpark. After all, music and the images it conjures up are to be enjoyed wherever we are most comfortable. But Harrison knew that from the first moment he started creating “Imagine If Jazz Were Like Baseball”. Catch Harrison Goldberg at one of his regular performances on or near the Mendocino coast. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, it might be the cure for what ails you.

David Steffen

©2016 David Steffen

Of Music’s Gods, Background Singers, and Unsung Heros: Review   1 comment

The Beat Goes On, Sort Of….

October 1, 2015

I spent most of my adult life working in the music industry, but my appreciation for the value of music is not unique. Three documentaries (two films and an audio series) have been released during the past few years and for fans of music or those interested in the music business, all three are worth exploring in a theater, on television, DVD, or streaming, and in one case on radio or audio stream.

The Wrecking Crew, a recently released film, is from a nickname drummer Hal Blaine gave to a group of very talented studio musicians. These recording session “hired guns” were so talented and worked so well together, they became an institution within the Southern California music community. The New York Times review offered this: “For a stretch in the 1960s, those faces beaming from album covers were lying to you: The music inside was often played by others. Those others were usually members of the Wrecking Crew, a loose cabal of versatile Los Angeles session musicians fluent in rock, soul, country and getting out of the way.”  In a way, this was the Milli Vanilli business model, only thirty years earlier.

In a warm and friendly way, this film documents the glory days of the “crew’s” studio work, and although most of the members are still unknown to the general public, The Wrecking Crew gives us a glimpse at the key players. WreckingCrewLogoFor example, bassist Carol Kaye’s clear mastery of her instrument comes through as she tells the story of playing on Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” session. What we learn is Kaye’s not insignificant creation of a simple bass-line, a riff for “The Beat Goes On” which was destined to become as iconic in pop music as Keith Richards’ opening riff for the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”. And she’s emblematic of what these unsung musicians contributed to many of our favorite songs, including hits by The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, The Crystals, Jan & Dean, Mamas & Papas, The Monkees, Elvis Presley, The Righteous Brothers, Frank Sinatra, and so many more.

Director Denny Tedesco’s 2015* film drifts from straight storytelling to an homage to his father—guitarist and Wrecking Crew member Tommy Tedesco. His devotion is touching but unnecessary in the final cut of the film. Nevertheless, the strength shown by Kaye, Blaine, Tedesco and the other musicians—James Burton, Glen Campbell, Jim Keltner, Barney Kessel, Larry Knechtel, Jack Nitzsche, Earl Palmer, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Julius Wechter, and so many more—becomes obvious. Their stories come through loud and clear in The Wrecking Crew, and always in the proper key.

Another recent production is 20 Feet From Stardom, a 2013 release from director Morgan Neville. The obvious story of these vocalists is about the anonymity of their recording life, but it also touches on some of the classic racism and sexism within the American recording industry of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. 20 Feet From Stardom is a look underneath the successes made possible, in tumblr_mzita5pAb01sn7wjto1_500part, by these singers. What we are witness to is the heartfelt story of a group of performers, who under other circumstances, would be living a bit more comfortably today, yet there remains a joyful tone as each knows just who they are. New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott described it this way:

“20 Feet From Stardom is a chronicle of exploitation and appropriation — in other words, the music business — and also a series of tales of professional commitment and artistic triumph. The picture it paints is gratifyingly complicated.”

Performers like Darlene Love (nee Darlene Wright) and Merry Clayton give us a glimpse into the agony and the ecstasy of the work. Love recorded as a member of the Crystals and the Blossoms, and also under her own name. She reinvented her career years later in part by legally and morally challenging the producers and record labels for unpaid royalties, and then reentered the spotlight of concerts and recording. Clayton lived through much of the same oblivion, but without a late-career spotlight to enjoy. Her background performance (actually as foreground as a background singer can get) on the Rolling Stones’ 1969 recording “Gimme Shelter” was more than memorable. It was a classic. Don Snowden wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “Merry Clayton’s spine-chilling vocal on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ is one of the most famed in ’60s rock.” Her own 1970 album Gimme Shelter offered a new all-Clayton version of the song that remains solidly on my list of all-time favorites.

I highly recommend 20 Feet From Stardom as a tour-de-force in the lives of these and other little known, unknown, and/or forgotten talents. They deserved better, and this small tribute is something of a rich first step. Besides, the music is memorable, the conversations are personal and introspective, and their gifts may be gifts from God, but also—and as importantly—they are gifts to us.**

Finally, I want to mention an audio project you may never hear. Robert Harris produced a five-part series titled Twilight of the Gods. Created for the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Twilight of the Gods was launched in 2012, and was recently rebroadcast on the CBC-1’s Sirius/XM Satellite feed where I had the pleasure of hearing it once more. As an introduction (or perhaps a warning), Harris offered this:

“It’s hard to imagine how rich, decadent and some would say corrupt, the record business was in the 80s. Then again, ‘Morning in America’, the slogan that got Ronald Reagan [re]elected President in 1984 might have been ‘Party Night in America.’ This was the era of Wall Street gazillionaires, cocaine, Madonna and hair metal bands. And the record business symbolized it all, with its immense profits, private jets, trashed hotel rooms, and overall scandalous behaviour. At its height, the business was selling a hundred million dollars worth of product, worldwide – every day. There was no end to the ride. Until there was.”

Harris gives us a highly entertaining look at the recording industry, with a North American perspective and a slight Canadian flavor. If you are at all interested in the history of the music business, his series is worth your time. One problem. Twilight of the Gods is unavailable for streaming or by way of podcast in the United States. When you go to the link on the CBC site, you’re presented with a message that reads: “This Content is Licensed for Canadian Audiences Only.” Until things change you can [a] drive to Canada and download the podcast, [b] listen to the CBC online and pray for a replay, or [c] contact a friend in Canada and ask your friend to podcast the series and send it to you on a thumb drive marked “The Great Speeches of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper”. It will be ignored by customs officials on both sides of the border. And only you will be the wiser.

David Steffen

* Released in 2015, the film was reportedly completed in 2008 but getting all of the necessary legal clearances took additional years to complete.

** My long time friend, the late Gil Friesen, was the producer of 20 Feet From Stardom and drove this project from idea to completion. He died just before the film was awarded an Oscar© for Best Documentary, Features at the Academy Awards in 2014.

Note: an edited version of this essay appears at www.lighthousepeddler.net.

© 2015 David Steffen

Remembering Steve Backer   Leave a comment

A Letter To Steve

May 1, 2014

Dear Steve.

It’s been more than a year since we last spoke on the phone. That’s my fault. Last time you called me and after a lengthy conversation I then promised to call you. But I let working hard in California (and my distaste for email) leave a silence all this time. I apologize for that. You have been an important part of my life for thirty years. And you still are.

Last time we spoke we did some reminiscing about how we became friends through the music. During the 1980s I was with A&M records managing sales and distribution from Los Angeles, and as part of that responsibility I was the liaison with Windham Hill, which is how we met.  You were helping Windham Hill Records develop some new artists, and together we found that our musical tastes weren’t too dissimilar. After Windham Hill, you worked with RCA Records, creating the Novus series, and we reunited when I joined BMG in 1990 and moved to the east coast, working (like you) in New York City.  Besides, it wasn’t like we didn’t speak during our individual transitions as our friendship was way beyond a business association. And I was pleased that we’d be working together, again.

l-r: David Steffen, Carmen McRae, Steve Backer

Post Concert with Carmen McRae, ca. 1993 New York City. David Steffen (l), Steve Backer (r)

When I moved, in 1996, to Universal Music to manage GRP/Impulse Records, we once again shared ideas on projects, artists, musicians, and writers, where you contributed as a consultant and independent producer. It was you who directed me toward Impulse recording artist Michael Brecker, a musician whose music and reputation I knew, but a musician I had not yet had the pleasure of meeting. We had a mutual respect for other artists on the label, including Eric Reed, Diana Krall, Danilo Perez, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, and so many more. Your relationship with independent producer Michael Cuscuna and members of John Coltrane’s family contributed to some of our most amazing reissues and as importantly, our most amazing dinner conversations. The Live at Smalls project, though I’m sorry to say not embraced by some at GRP/Impulse, was a wonderful example of your ability to generate ideas on working with new, young talent. Your friendship eased my first days, weeks, and months at GRP/Impulse, helping me get to know the artists, and transitioning into my new job in New York. You told me to trust people like Hollis King whose creative touch helped redefine the artwork for the Impulse, GRP, Commodore (and other) recordings we released. You, knowingly or not, provided the imprimatur that helped make the difficult job of turning GRP around a little easier.

Away from the office you have always been a rational sounding board to help clarify (or properly identify) the wheat and the chaff. You never suffered fools from those within the music industry or in daily life itself and your clarity was welcome. Our shared lunches, dinners, bottles of wine, (oh those bottles of wine) and concert performances we enjoyed together are vivid memories. A favorite photograph I’ve kept since it was taken more than 20 years ago shows us backstage after a performance by Carmen McRae.

The accolades you’ve received over the years have been the perfect musical bed to drown out the noise from the occasional “colleague” with whom you could, would, and did disagree. Shortcuts and corner-cutting were never strategic options for you. Each artist you signed, each recording you made, each reissue you helped bring back to the public was treated with respect and dignity. For you, quality on all fronts wasn’t a sometimes thing. It was a necessary component of the process. Artistry has been an all-encompassing concept, and part of your mantra. The dignity of the artist is not to be lost in the process as long as you are in charge.

I received an email from Gail Boyd recently alerting me to an article about you in the New York Times. The article was titled, somewhat mysteriously, “Steve Backer, a Force for Jazz at Major Labels, Dies at 76”.  Why would they profile your wonderful career and then apply that title to the piece? The Times has been wrong before and I can only assume that some other guy named Steve Backer died and they didn’t check the facts. You may or may not know this or acknowledge this but you’re a legend in our music community. Our lives have traveled somewhat parallel paths (although I’m not legendary), as we spent a decade or more working at other companies before finally meeting in the 1980s. I’m just glad our lives did, in fact, cross. The music has been as central to your life as it has been to mine.

Let’s clear this other thing up. You’re not dead. Your here, with all of us right now. Your music continues to play on. And what you’ve contributed to all of the lives you’ve touched is not some amorphous, ephemeral thing. It’s tangible, real, valuable, and not to be casually discarded. You’ve made a difference and I’m pissed off that anyone could actually think you’ve gone and died. Until I see you again, consider suing the Times; then once this dead thing is straightened out, let’s meet for a great bottle of wine, at one of our favorite spots in Manhattan. We’ll reminisce, laugh, shed a tear or two, and toast the music.

Love you.

David

© David Steffen 2014

 

%d bloggers like this: