How Weird Is Frank Black? That Weird, And I Love It!
About three-quarters through his half-smoldering, half-mourning set, Frank
Black said: "We're gonna play for two more hours, if that's all right with
everyone," to which the crowd at Portland, Oregon's mid-sized Wonder Ballroom
roared and hollered.
"Nah, you don't want us to do that," he continued shaking his shiny bald
head."Then things might get really weird."
And all I could think to myself was: Get really weird? As if everything
weren't already really weird?
First off, it's you, Frank Black, Black
Francis, Charles Thompson, the weirdest (and most brilliant) musician of all
time, in my lifetime anyway. Second, you're alternating between blistering,
manic punk rock (Frank Black-style, for which there is no other descriptor)
and crooning, tears-in-my-beers country ballads and that's just weird.
Third, you're drinking, ho hum, water. I know, it's not your fault, it
happens (getting older, and country tends to accompany it) but it's making
me feel old and nostalgic and uncomfortable and, well, weird.
Not that all the weirdness is bad, because it's not. It's fitting, actually.
You've made me feel weird since the first time I heard you about 15 years
ago. And I'm sure that's why I liked (and like) you so much. I was never
sure exactly what was going on in your, um, unusual and mind-blowing Pixies
songs, but I picked up on some things: Sex, violence, awkwardness,
surrealism, science fiction, atypical time signatures and genius oddball
arrangements that only a mind not restricted to four-count measures could
And it was still all there at the Wonder Ballroom, desecrating the clean,
smoke-free venue with complex guitar crunching that took sudden left turns,
fervent, sweat-drenched screams toward the heavens, a band who, at times,
couldn't keep up with the smart and strange changes in your songs and the
sad, warbled country laments about dying and going six feet under.
In fact, many of the warm, trotting country songs filling the gaps between
early solo tracks like "Places Named After Numbers" from your self-titled
solo debut, "Headache," Teenager of the Year and a cover of Bryan
Ferry's "Remake/Remodel" seemed to echo death, yet with a wink.
the end of the set, I began to think, Frank/Francis/Charles, throughout your
lifetime, no matter what role you've played science fiction reader, college
kid, Pixies' main man, solo artist, country purveyor you've forever been
fascinated with the otherworldly, with the other side, the dark side, the
way pain makes you feel human and always, always with the outright weird.
And it's your genuine and brilliant weirdness (unrehearsed, perhaps
unwanted) that makes your presence so valued, so wanted, at any age, on any
stage, playing anything. Jenny Tatone [Tuesday, November 21, 2006 ]
How The Hold Steady Really Feel
Certainly, you've heard a lot about the Hold Steady by now, maybe too much.
You've seen them in big-time magazines and on Web sites like these. You've
read words like barroom, Springsteen, Midwest, drugs and religion so many
times you're not even sure what they mean.
You've probably also heard something about big riffs and literary lyricism,
but has anyone shown you just how good these guys really are? Because
a band this great deserves more than a bunch of articles spitting the same
descriptors Catholicism, addiction, recreational medicine for hype's
sake, without ever attempting to explain just why these five fellows are so
darn good at what they do.
Five Dudes With Beer Cans
"We're just five dudes drinking cans of beer in a shitty practice space,"
guitarist Tad Kubler claimed recently by phone.
There's a lot more to the Hold Steady than that. Maybe it's their
humility and untainted sense of purpose. And the fact that they just really
love making music, and have little interest in much else. That they care,
above all else, about the music, writing music that means something to them,
that means something to their listeners, that they enjoy playing and that
their fans enjoy listening to. Indifferent to trends, to styles, to anything
that they or their music might stand for, the Hold Steady's music comes out
honest and strong, free from the confines of starry-eyed self-consciousness.
The Brooklyn-based band has had the press fidgeting since its phenomenal sophomore album, Separation Sunday, a couple of years back. Their newest release, Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant), has
the Hold Steady splashed across a slew of glossies and e-zines. Which is
kind of funny, because the group, mostly native
Minnesotans, is an unlikely candidate for such widespread hype. Band members
are gasp mostly 30-something (nearing ancient in the music biz), their
clothes aren't flashy, their hair isn't spiky, and their songs aren't
fashionable. That they came to garner so much attention, especially in the
mainstream and against all odds, is a sign of real accomplishment, of
But with one article seemingly regurgitating the last, it seems no one has
cared to capture just what makes this band so good without having to fall
back on what everyone else is saying. The Hold Steady are one of the best
bands out there right now and, perhaps if the press could get it right, more
people would understand this. Very few bands hold that special unspeakable
high-impact thing that results in great no, incredible music.
Spewing fiery, classic rock 'n' roll, witty lyricism and odes to their
heroes (Springsteen, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Thin Lizzy), the Hold Steady are among the lucky few.
Oliver Stone vs. Ang Lee
I fell hard for Separation Sunday. So much so, I was unusually
nervous to hear Boys and Girls in America; God forbid I be let down
and lose faith.
Separation Sunday is a hard act to follow. Violently
powerful and superbly worded, the album sucks you into tales of falling into
drugs and being born again, floods your arteries with intense emotion, and
has you coming back for more, turning you into as much of an addict as vocalist/guitarist Craig Finn's recurring characters Charlemagne or Holly. It's a listening experience so engrossing it could be neither repeated nor trumped.
Boys and Girls doesn't trump Separation Sunday, but it doesn't
pale next to it either. Where Separation Sunday clubbed you over the
head and pulled you into its cave almost instantaneously, Boys and
Girls hangs in the corner, luring you a little closer with each listen.
I've listened to it maybe 42 times now and it just keeps getting better.
"Separation Sunday is like an Oliver Stone movie and (Boys and
Girls) is more like an Ang Lee movie," Finn
recently said by phone. "Separation Sunday was meant to be epic and
huge and cinematic, and that's what we achieved. The new one is as deep and
heavy, but more subtle. It's more for people to think about, rather than just
The Hold Steady were adamant about trying something new. They realized they'd achieved something special with Separation Sunday, but they're not fools they would never attempt to exploit something that was only meant to work the first time around. "We never want to make the same record twice,"
Kubler said. "Certainly we aren't going to do a fucking electronica record,
but we always want to get better."
Boys and Girls shows the band doing some things better: the
production is better and the musicianship is tighter, but I wouldn't say the
album is better. I would simply say it's as good (meaning exceptionally
great), just different.
If Separation Sunday was a crucifixion,
Boys and Girls is a resurrection. While the first talked about being
down and out at bloody parties, the latter talks of falling in love at
massive parties. And both communicate with sheer conviction and unmistakable
soul the sort of real energy that can't be ignored. It doesn't matter if you
prefer grit or sheen, it's still the Hold Steady. Cleaned up or dressed
down, it's still five guys kicking out big jams, showing you how a
resurrection really feels, leaving you high as hell, shivering and smashed.
Inspired by Jack Kerouac's On the Road, or, rather, plain coming-of-age love relationships, Boys and Girls is, fittingly, more pop Hold Steady pop, meaning it still rocks in classic air-guitar-playing
fashion. It's just cleaned up, and not quite as rough and upset as
Separation Sunday. Maybe because it's free from druggy
disillusionment, free to celebrate party pits, massive nights and young,
awkward love. Both albums reflect on youth and self-discovery through
relationships, but Boys and Girls looks back on bygone times, not
bleary-eyed, but with a smile, as if to say: "The drugs may have fucked us
up a bit, but we had one hell of a time falling in love."
Music to Relate To
"There's a theme, one boy and one girl, love relationships," Finn said,
"which is not new to writing, not new to rock 'n' roll. But there are
specific universal themes that everyone can relate to everyone has
experienced these things."
Indeed, yet it doesn't seem to matter what Finn writes about. The Hold
Steady have a way of making music to relate to. They share their sentiment
(cynical, serious or otherwise) in such a way that anyone can draw a line
from their life to the Hold Steady's it's what makes their music so
powerful and strong. "When you can convey words to musical passage, that's
when you're doing something right," Finn said.
Chief songwriters Finn and Kubler have an indescribable kind of chemistry
that allows for the perfect melding of lyrics and music. You wouldn't ask
which came first the words or the riffs because it feels as if they were born together, as if one couldn't exist without the other. When Finn sneers
a line like "She's got blue-black ink/ And it's scratched into her lower
back/ Says damn right he'll rise again / Yeah damn right you'll rise again,"
just before riffs rush in, chilling your spine, lifting you into a strange
mix of sadness and euphoria, you know they've hit on something special.
While songs like "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" and "Multitude of Casualties"
(from Separation Sunday) expelled vicious emotion as if to release
old demons, the Hold Steady's new songs ruminate with less urgency on what
it means to be young, in love, and a little wasted all the while: "How
I'm supposed to know that you're high if you won't let me touch you," Finn
sings (something he does a lot more of on Boys and Girls) on "Chips
Ahoy!" The new lighthearted demeanor is matched aptly with polished, crisp
production and choruses that beg for repeat listens.
"I didn't want to just challenge the listener this time, but make something
that was more palatable," Finn said. "I made a conscious effort to make
things shorter, to get away from the six-minute epics and have more pop
Such an admission could have hipster snobs calling Finn a sellout. The best
part is that Finn and company wouldn't care. It's the band's apathy towards
image that makes them who they are: Five dudes drinking cans of beer in a
shitty practice space. Oh, and five dudes who unbridled by phony ideals
make magic sharing the same room, or stage; who create something
unspeakable, something inexplicable, something to love.
In addition to leaning towards more pop-oriented songwriting, Boys and
Girls features a couple of firsts for the band. It was the first time
they worked with a producer John Agnello, who's known for his
work with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., The Breeders and many others and the
first time they wrote songs with the piano player Franz Nicolay, meaning the
piano parts stand out more than on previous albums.
"One of the criticisms I had about Separation Sunday is that it
didn't always sound like five guys playing music," Finn said.
"Recording-wise, we wanted to hear the whole band playing, and wanted it to
sound more live."
A good goal, given that the Hold Steady's live set is not to be taken for
granted. A feat in itself, it's the sort of balls-out
concert-going experience that lingers, rattling around your brain for days
following the event, convincing you that you must find a way to travel to
their next show because they might not be back to your town for another year a
heartbreaking thought after a night spent with the band, their killer guitar
playing, scorching rhythm section, intense chemistry, witty banter, and
obvious love for playing live.
Just as Separation Sunday sounded more sonically accomplished than
their full-length debut Almost Killed Me (released in 2004), Boys
and Girls shows progression over its predecessor, not outdoing it, but showing growth; it shows expansion, and it shows a band
willing to take risks and still come out ahead. It shows what a group of
guys who never try too hard do, how a group like this respects what they've
got going, loves what they do, refuses to exploit and instead commits to
share it; understands that, without a crowd of people touching people they
don't even know, they couldn't do it.
"There's a lot on there that will reward repeat listens," Finn said.
"Lyrically, there are hopefully rewards on the 35th listen."
Hey, I'm up to my 46th listen now and I'm still being rewarded.
"We always said someday we'd grab our ladies, some bottles of wine, be the
Woodstock band and just go make music," Kubler said, "and, in a way, we kind
of did that.
"It was easily the most fun time I had making a record."
If you are interested in what Tad Kubler listens to, check out his MOG page.
The Hold Steady are currently on tour; find tour dates here. Jenny
Tatone [Tuesday, October 24, 2006]
Considering Those Classic Dylan Interviews
Lately I've begun to think that Bob Dylan does not exist. That the boy who
made him up might still be dreaming. And we are all inside his dream.
It's said the man we now know as "Bob Dylan," born Robert Allen Zimmerman in
Duluth, Minnesota on May 24, 1941, was raised in the nearby mining town of Hibbing,
the elder of two sons of Jewish parents, Abraham and Beatrice.
Hibbing was right up on the Canadian border and very cold; the boy liked
listening a lot to the radio at night: Hank Williams' country, Muddy Waters'
blues, Presley, Holly, the birth of rock 'n' roll.
This feeling for the magic of radio, for the transport of music, probably
explains Dylan's recent decision to do a program for XM Satellite Radio,
running with a theme for each show: "The Rain," "Fatherhood" and "Weddings"
thus far inspiring song choices from his personal record collection.
Unexpected career moves like this, along with last year's four-hour Martin
Scorsese documentary "No Direction Home" and the 2004 publication of
Chronicles Volume 1, a fragmentary memoir told in free-flowing Kerouac-like
reveries, have contributed to a reassertion of one of the greatest artistic
careers of this past century.
That Dylan's last two albums, Time Out of Mind (1997) and Love and Theft
(2001), have been two of his best the former acclaimed by critics as the
first masterpiece of rock 'n' roll through an old man's eyes has only
intensified this renaissance. The arrival of Modern Times (see review) completes what Dylan apparently regards as a trilogy of
recordings, sending this latest "Dylanfest" into overdrive.
And yet through it all Dylan remains as enigmatic as ever. As fellow
songwriter Tom Waits once observed, "With Dylan, so much has been said about
him, it's difficult to say anything about him that hasn't already been said,
and say it better. Suffice to say Dylan is a planet to be explored... His
journey as a songwriter is the stuff of myth, because he lives within the
ether of the songs."
Hundreds of books have nonetheless been written about Dylan, thousands of
articles. One of Dylan's favored masks has been that of the put-on artist
and barbed surrealist, particularly in younger days when journalists must
have quaked at meeting him head-on. Change, evasion, contrarianism,
aimlessness, and prodigal return these have become "Dylanesque" traits,
from his folkie beginnings to the rock 'n' roll dandy of Blonde on Blonde
(1966) to the Rimbaud of rock who produced Blood on the Tracks (1975), to
the born-again Christian of the early 1980s, to his startling comeback in
recent years as a latter-day Wyatt Earp of wisdom and regret.
Mapping this elusive and mobile persona across such a vast canvas is no easy
task. But in Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews (Warner Books) editor
and longtime Rolling Stone contributor Jonathan Cott does an admirable
through a well-chosen array of interviews that charts Dylan's career from
whoa to go and then some. Where many such collections feel Googled-up and
bagged together, The Essential Interviews excels for quality, chronological
pace and genuine rarity, as well as contrast and insight. If you're a fan, it
really is an "essential' buy.
The book's multifaceted nature and the fact that it is predominantly
made up of Dylan's own words give a surprising feeling for who Dylan might
be. Even his attachment to the French poet Rimbaud's dictum "I is
another" takes a fascinating turn as he tells his most obsessed fan and
interviewer, A.J. Weberman (famous for trawling through Dylan's garbage),
"I'm not Dylan, you're Dylan."
In what is perhaps the most famous interview of them all, Nat Hentoff's 1966
Playboy article, Dylan responds to a question about jazz music and its
fading appeal to young people with typically obtuse fire, as well as the
kind of Beat-inherited rapping style that energized his music, and indeed
his entire life, and the cultural dreaming he himself propelled when an
entire generation called "the '60s" found its finest voice:
"I mean what would some parent say to his kid if the kid came home with a
glass eye, a Charlie Mingus record and a pocketful of feathers? He'd say,
'Who are you following?' And the poor kid would have to stand there with
water in his shoes, a bow tie on his ear and soot pouring out of his belly
button and say, 'Jazz. Father, I've been following jazz.' And his father
would say, 'Get a broom and clean up all that soot before you go to sleep.'
Then the kid's mother would tell her friends, 'Our little Donald, he's part
of the younger generation you know.'" Mark Mordue [Monday, October 16, 2006]
Beautiful Ambient Pop From Mojave 3
It makes sense that Mojave 3's live set would be simple. After all, British group's latest release, Puzzles Like You, collects the simplest songs of Neil Halstead's career.
Ever since he started making music (in 1994, with his first band, Slowdive), singer/guitarist Halstead has spent each year moving further from ambient and closer to pop, trading experimentation with sound for obsession with song.
And, playing live onstage at Portland's Aladdin Theatre Tuesday night (September 26), his musical gravitation makes sense: In person, it's obvious he's most at home in the comfy realms of sweet simplicity.
Strumming at an acoustic guitar that sat high on his body and appeared almost
oversized for his thin frame, a half-smiling Halstead gently plucked the catchy
and cooed words of heartbreak and life, backed by his band's hazy, lazy arrangements.
Unfortunately, guitarist Rachel Goswell, who helped found Mojave 3 about a decade
ago and has played music with Halstead since Slowdive,
According to her blog on
MySpace, she is suffering from a rare inner-ear infection; it's causing hearing
loss, affecting her balance and weakening her immune system.
While Mojave 3 felt incomplete without her, the band's relaxed, lackadaisical presence made for a tranquil and intimate setting. Alan Forrester provided warm, rich organ from a Hammond C3, while barefoot guitarist Kevin Hendrick carved out riffs and walked gently about, his ankles exposed by rolled-up jeans. Drummer Ian McCutcheon filled in the mid-tempo country-pop cuts with dense layers of softly-hit beats, while Halstead crooned such lines as "Lay your love on me," "You were beautiful, I was happy to fall," "I don't love you anymore, I'm just keeping score" and "I was drunk when I met you, I was drunk when I walked out the door."
There's nothing especially complex or attention-grabbing about Mojave 3's music
or, specifically, their live set. Yet it's strikingly beautiful, escaping the
Aladdin's antiquated stage, washed in a mix of yellow, white and red light. The
theatre was about full, but it was easy to forget the other people
there. Immersed in the band's gently textured, Neil Young-influenced songs, it
was easier to sink in your chair and get lost in your own thoughts, serenaded
by a dozen or so unobtrusive, simple pop songs, a countrified twang and a big
Openers Brightblack Morning Light were equally impressive. Out-of-the-norm slow
and quiet like Low, the Alabama folk trio's arrangement of harmonies, harp, acoustic
guitar and keys was so gentle and hushed that clearing your throat in the room
might have caused offense.
Mojave 3 continue their U.S. tour through October, followed by a handful of dates in the UK and France in early November. For a complete listing, see dates on mojave3online.com Jenny Tatone [Thursday, September 28, 2006]
Ramblin' Jack Elliott:
Always A Traveler, Never A Tourist
Ramblin' Jack Elliott's best stories and he's got a bunch of them all seem to involve the road, whether they're about heading west with Woody Guthrie and $25 in his pocket or riding the Rolling Thunder bus with Bob Dylan or pulling his guitar down from the train overhead in Franco's 1950s Spain to introduce the locals to the blues. Now, at 75, he's slowed down a bit, sticking closer to his Bay Area home than he used to, though still making occasional forays to Nashville and West Virginia to play his axe. But even today, he's got a traveler's contempt for tourists, a distaste that almost made its way into the title for his first album in seven years.
The album that became I Stand Alone began, he said with a conversation with his daughter Aiyana Elliott, a documentary filmmaker who had, in 2000, produced "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," a biographical film about, according to Elliott, "what it's like to be the daughter of a no-account guitar picker.
"See, she asked me if I had some songs that she never heard me sing, some old songs that I don't do in my shows anymore," Elliott remembered. "So I came up with a few and I sang them. And she thought that was cute, and she liked this one and she liked that one, and she said, 'Why don't you sing them in your shows?' And I said, 'Well, they're not for the tourists.'" So originally, the album was supposed to be called Not for the Tourists, but cooler, more commercially-minded heads prevailed at Anti- and it became I Stand Alone.
It's a curious title for an album that borrows little-known covers from many of traditional country, blues and pop's best-loved artists Cisco Houston, the Carter Family, Leadbelly, Hoagy Carmichael and others and enlists current stars like Lucinda Williams, Flea, David Hidalgo and Corin Tucker to flesh out his songs. But while Elliott will admit to picking the songs, he says he knows next to nothing about his collaborating artists. "Well, I don't know any of them," he said. "The record company down in Los Angeles picked them."
Lucinda Williams, for instance, harmonizes with him on the rollicking "Drivin' Nails in My Coffin," but the two have never been in the same room together. "It's pretty good the way she harmonizes with me, but I've never even seen her or met her," Elliott admitted. "I'd like to meet her some time. Send her a thank-you note."
A Lifetime in Music
I Stand Alone contains 15 well-chosen covers and a single recorded monologue ("Woody's Last Ride"), reflecting Elliott's lifetime of traveling, playing and learning songs along the way. Yet while he knew Alan Lomax, and considered him a father figure when he first traveled to England in the 1950s, Elliott made it plain that his song collecting was a far more casual thing than Lomax's. "I'm not a musicologist, at least I don't think so, though I did come up with some songs as I was traveling around," he said. "I'd meet other musicians and hear a song I liked and fall in love with it and I'd learn it. And I've read a few books about folk music and stuff like that, but I don't consider myself a musicologist."
Born in Brooklyn in 1931, Elliott was the son of a doctor, expected by his parents to follow in his father's conventionally successful footsteps. That all came to a screeching halt, however, when Elliott ran away, at 15, to join the rodeo. "One of the clowns on the rodeo played the guitar and banjo and sang cowboy songs, and he would entertain us. He would go up into the stands between the afternoon and the evening performance of the rodeo and we'd put a quarter in his hat and he would sing songs and tell stories. I was fascinated by that," he recalled. "When I returned home after that trip, I started listening to hillbilly music on the radio."
A cheap acoustic guitar was dragged from a closet and Elliott laboriously learned
to play. "It was a really bad guitar. The strings were about an inch above the
fingerboard, so it really hurt my fingers to play on it," he added. "But after
hearing that cowboy playing, I was so enthusiastic about it, and I was going
on 16 years old. I practiced five hours a day on that rotten old guitar."
A few years later, Elliott befriended Woody Guthrie, then the reigning king of American folk music. "I went to see Woody Guthrie in 1951 after speaking to him a few times on the phone," he said. "He was not feeling well. In fact, he was very sick with appendicitis and had to go right to the hospital, soon after I talked to him. I went and visited the hospital a couple of times but he was still so doped up from the operation that he couldn't make a lot of sense."
From his hospital bed, Guthrie told Elliott to go across the street and visit his then-wife Marjorie and children. Elliott stayed with the family for a short period, then drove to the West Coast with a friend. When he returned to New York a few months later, he called Guthrie again. "Woody invited me to meet him at a party where he was going to sing," he said. "I met him over there and I sang with him, and he gave me a ride back over in his car. And we ended up going straight to his house. We started rehearsing the next morning. And I lived at the Guthrie house there for about a year and a half."
The two became close, and in fact, I Stand Alone's final track commemorates a cross-country trip that Guthrie and Elliott took, driving from New York to Florida to California and back again. Elliott stayed in California, though, smitten by an actress who later became his wife. The two played folk music at Topanga Canyon joint called Will Geer's Theater, where they first heard bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters. From there, they were off to Europe, to busk their way through the UK and the continent from 1955 to 1961.
In the mid-1950s, England was abuzz about Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line," and skiffle clubs were sprouting up everywhere. American blues players who languished in obscurity in the U.S. found themselves famous in the UK, and even little-known folk musicians could make a living. "I was working six nights a week in pubs and skiffle clubs and folk clubs, performing with people like Ewan McColl and A. L. Lloyd and Stan Kelley," he remembered warmly.
Still, an accomplished musician like Elliott could see very little to like in the skiffle craze. "Skiffle was mostly a lot of amateur musicians who just bought a guitar last week and they could play one or two chords, and they were earning a living playing in these cafés," he remarked. "A lot of young people over there were itching for some means of getting together and tapping their feet and drinking coffee in these coffee houses."
From there, he and his wife headed to continental Europe, where they were among the first U.S. citizens to travel through Franco's Spain. "You could stay in a pensione for $1 a night, if you were a poor artista with a guitar," he remembered. "They would try to charge you three or four dollars, but if you argued with them, then you could get them down to a buck a night."
Elliott learned to respect, but never to play the traditional flamenco styles
of Spain, though he fondly recalled exchanging musical ideas with local musicians. "On
trains, people very politely would see the guitar in the overhead rack. They'd
point to it and say 'Es suyo, es suyo!' And they'd coax me into getting it down
and playing a song for them, and I'd sing them 'The Muleskinner's Blues' and
a couple of other hot numbers and they'd clap politely," he said.
A song was often worth a bit of bread and cheese, which Spanish travelers would share freely with whoever was in the train compartment with them. "Then one of them would ask if he could play the guitar and sure enough, there was always somebody who could play the guitar," he added. "They'd play some flamenco on the guitar, which was... they could play it on any kind of guitar. But it's not the same sort of neck and strings."
Elliott came back from Europe in 1961, again finding Guthrie in the hospital, this time with a young folk musician named Bob Dylan paying his respects. "He was just starting out. He was 19 years old and I was 29," said Elliott. And what about his music? "I liked it. It was little rough at first. He wasn't a very, very good guitar player and his singing was sort of out of control, but he had something there... a certain drive. An energy that was very focused."
Years later, Elliott would tour with Dylan on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, which he describes as "like a circus of poets and musicians." It included not just Dylan but Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Roger McGuinn. Dylan and his compadres were big stars, well enough known that the next stop on the tour was always secret until they got there. "They didn't want to cause accidents on the highway, you know," said Elliott. "It was a security precaution."
Always a musician's musician, Elliott also opened once for the Grateful Dead, whose Jerry Garcia was a longtime admirer. "It was the worst concert I've ever played," he said. "I was the opening act, and it was very noisy. They were extremely noisy and rude. I was looking at a lot of backs and I got disgusted after about five songs and left the stage early." As he stomped off stage, he saw Jerry Garcia grinning sidelong at him from the wings.
Garcia urged him to play a few more songs, and Elliott snapped "Nobody's listening." But Garcia replied, "I'm listening," so Elliott went back out onto the stage. "I was trying very hard to appear cool and collected and Mr. Nonchalant, but I can hear it on the tape that I wasn't fooling anybody," Elliott said. "I wasn't concealing my desire to murder the whole batch of them."
As I spoke to him, Elliott, still the traveler, was getting ready to hit the road again for a pair of shows in the Southeast. Asked if he had expected to be journeying this late in life, he answered, "No, I didn't, and I really don't like it, but I've got to do it I guess.
"I like performing. I love performing. I just hate airports," he added. "Changing planes with a guitar is extremely dangerous. Because they want to take the guitar and break it. Not all of them. Every once in a while. It only happens to me about once every three or four years. I'll get someone who says that there's no room on the plane and I have to check it for baggage, and that's where they have to take it and break it."
You can catch him this fall if you're lucky his guitar will still be intact at
a series of shows in California and a few other places. For complete dates and
other Ramblin' Jack news, visit his Web site at http://www.ramblinjack.com. Jennifer
Kelly [Thursday, September 21, 2006]
Parts & Labor's Manic Anthems
So far, no one has captured post-millennial angst better than Brooklyn's
Parts & Labor, whose latest album, Stay Afraid, now out on
Jagjaguwar, blends the headbanging release of hardcore punk with the
soaring song structures of arena rock. With "A Great Divide," the album
kicks off half a minute of pummeling guitar-and-drum assault, a wall of
frantic noise, aggression and chaos that breaks, unexpectedly, into
"Rock music has always been about finding ways to combine melody with
something threatening, and we aren't even that threatening," said Parts & Labor's Dan Friel, when asked about the band's balancing act in a recent email
interview. "Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü both did a little of that, with
Sonic Youth always leaning more noise and Hüsker Dü always leaning more big
rock. We're also big fans of bands who combine noisy rock sonics with folk
musics, like The Ex, Amps for Christ, and Boredoms. We borrow a lot from
all three of those as well."
The new album is the culmination of a punk-rock experiment that started in
2002, when keyboard/guitarist Friel and bass player BJ Warshaw met at the
Knitting Factory, where both worked. With drummer Jim Sykes, they made
their first album, the noise-inflected, all-instrumental Groundswell,
in 2003. "Groundswell was also originally intended to have vocals,
but we had hardly any experience writing lyrics and singing. Personally, I
was scared to death of it," Friel said. In fact Groundswell ended
up as an entirely instrumental record, partly because, with Sykes moving to
Chicago, Friel and Warshaw wanted to document their first lineup, even if
they weren't ready to pick up the mic yet.
A new drummer, Joel Saladino, joined the band later that year, and the
Parts & Labor continued to work on incorporating lyrics. Rise Rise
Rise, a split with Tyondai Braxton, came out in 2004. It had singing
on two cuts. Then in 2005, current drummer Christopher R. Weingarten
joined, as Saladino left to found Narchitect (he's also in Knife
Skills). About this time, the band began working on Stay Afraid, an
album conceptually united by its dark, politically-tinged
lyrics. "It's been a deliberate and slow progression,"
Warshaw said. "With Stay Afraid we just finally bit the bullet, so to
speak, and focused harder than we ever have on our lyrics and our singing."
A Cohesive Statement
Lyrics on Stay Afraid are dark, ominous and reflective of the band's
uneasiness with post-9/11 America. For example, the words to "A Great
Divide" came to Warshaw during the run-up to the 2004 elections. "It
started just from thinking about the whole 'red state/blue state' thing,"
he explained. "That we're led to believe that we're a country divided into
two diametrically opposed groups. It's such a gross oversimplification, in
no small part due to the stranglehold the 'two party system' has on
politics in this country.
"So then the verses are kind of thinking about the divisions between
people, some very real divisons: the class divide, the urban versus the
rural, the religious versus the secular," he added. "But the conclusion of
the song alludes to how inept this line of thinking can be, that we're all
related, and that there may not be so clear-cut a distinction between the
supposedly big choices we make."
Similarly, the title track, "Stay Afraid," draws uneasy resonance from the
government's manipulation of our fears. "It's more [a song] about
questioning people who encourage a sustained state of fear, because they
are probably using it as a distraction," Friel said, adding, "Mostly I
just like the absurdity of the phrase. You want to hear something
empowering, like stay strong, stay black, but nobody in their right mind
proudly encourages fear. The song is mostly a meditation on the patriotic
and paranoid mood around the country in the last five years, the mentality
of 'America Is Stronger Than Ever, But Don't Trust Anyone!' You just can't
Lyrics, plus a consistently raucous punk-anthemic sound, unite Stay
Afraid into a pummeling whole, not quite a concept album but
certainly a cohesive statement. "We were definitely seeking to make a
record that was more than just a collection of songs, where the lyrics and
the sounds were cohesive, that you could listen to all the way through and
enjoy it as a whole," Warshaw said. "We also wanted it big and noisy and
loud as hell."
Knob-twiddling and Straightforward Bashing
As the third drummer in three albums, Weingarten also puts his mark on
Stay Afraid, providing a solid foundation for the band's wild,
experimental style. "Chris is extremely loud, which has made us extremely
loud," Friel said. "He's more straight-ahead than Joel was, which will
probably force me and BJ to get progressively weirder."
"I'm more of a straightforward basher than their previous drummers,"
Weingarten agreed. "Since so much of the songs are based on the
unscientific twisting of knobs, unpredictable bursts of feedback and
completely unmanageable billows of distortion, I tend to think of my drums
as the thing that tethers the band to the familiar. That being said, the
band constantly pushes me to find unique patterns. Plus, I love to play
until I reach a threshold of physical pain, so my fills usually end up
being as fast or hard as I can physically play them."
Weingarten added that he had originally wondered whether a more
straightforward drumming style would work with Parts & Labor's
music. "They had just started writing their more melodic, vocal-oriented
stuff when I was trying out. I honestly thought they would laugh me out of
the audition, since their last two drummers were really busy and skittery,"
he remembered. "So I played some of their new stuff with some relatively
straight-ahead smashing and pummeling and said, 'That's not really what
you're looking for, huh?' And they essentially replied, 'No, that's exactly
what we've been looking for.'"
The new album, recorded with Scott Norton at Williamsburg's Headgear
studios in nine days, is drawing comparison to a whole raft of melodic punk
influences, but the one that sticks the most is Hüsker Dü. It's a point of
reference, Friel explains, that's anything but accidental. "We listened to
a ton of the Hüskers leading up to this record," he said. "When we were
starting to write this record I began listening to Zen Arcade a lot,
and BJ started listening to New Day Rising a lot, and well, now we
have a new record."
Warshaw agreed. "I remember hearing Land Speed Record early on in
high school, and just kind of having my mind blown." He added, "Definitely
an influence, both melodically and in their push to be as explosive and
full-sounding as a trio possibly could."
Stay Afraid is explosive and a close approximation of Parts &
Labor's live show. The band is known for intense, revelatory
performances that combine pure guitar heroics with complex electronic
experimentation. "There's only a tiny handful of overdubs on the record
that we're not capable of playing live," Warshaw said. "Dan and I have
both grown adept at juggling our electronics and guitars, so the vast
majority of noises and details you hear on the record you'll hear at the
live show as well."
Parts & Labor will be taking their frenetic show on the road through the
summer, with dates the U.S., Canada and the UK. (See their Web site for a list of shows.) "Other than that, I'll be working on new songs, planning for the new record, and
watching ugly high-rise luxury condominiums invade the Williamsburg
waterfront from my apartment window," Warshaw said. And, one assumes,
occasionally cranking out the kind of tuneful noise-pop that will make the
band's Brooklyn neighbors very, very afraid. Jennifer Kelly [Friday, June 30, 2006]