musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Orlando’

Soul Singer Supreme: Teddy Pendergrass

There were many great vocalists to come along during the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up. I was a middle-class white kid but I always felt a special affinity for the black singers of that period, great soulful male voices such as Otis Redding, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of the Temptations (not to mention their solo stuff), Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Aaron Neville, Barry White, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, Lou Rawls, and yes even the young Michael Jackson. I could venture further into deep soul territory and mention guys like Major Lance, Walter Jackson, General Johnson of the Chairman of the Board, George Jackson, James Carr, Sam Dees, Joe Simon, Syl Johnson, Lenny Williams from Tower of Power, Donny Hathaway, and Otis Clay. No doubt I’m leaving off many other deserving male soul singers from those years, but you get the idea: there were truly a bunch of great voices that emerged from those magical decades. And I barely touched on the many classic male vocal groups from that era such as the Spinners, O’Jays, Dramatics, Stylistics, and so many more. I’ll say it again; what a great era for music.

I recently read an online list of the “Greatest Singers” of that period and one noticeable omission was the late Teddy Pendergrass. What a great, great voice! Strong and passionate, full of fire and soul, and also capable of singing sweet love songs. Versatile and memorable. Teddy first gained fame as the lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Philadelphia International vocal group that were one of the more successful of the Gamble & Huff production projects of the 1970s. Songs such as “The Love I Lost”, “Bad Luck”, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, and “Wake Up Everybody” were stone soul classics that still sound vibrant today.

But after that string of big hits Teddy bolted from the comfort of the Blue Notes and went solo, releasing his self-titled debut album, Teddy Pendergrass, in 1977. That album, and 1978’s Life is a Song Worth Singing were full of more great songs, but they didn’t enjoy the same crossover pop success that he had enjoyed with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Nevertheless, Teddy continued his solo career, always charting high and racking up hits on the R&B charts, even if major Top 40 success proved elusive.

And then came the tragic accident. In early 1982, while driving home late one night in Philadelphia, Teddy lost control of his car, hitting a guard rail and two trees. He was trapped inside the car for nearly an hour. He suffered spinal cord injuries in the crash and was paralyzed from the waist down. That could have signaled the end of his singing career, but Teddy persevered, undergoing physical therapy (although he would never walk again), signing to a new label, and releasing several more studio albums in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Sadly, he died of respiratory failure at the still young age of 59 in 2010.

When I was in Kuala Lumpur last month, I picked up a very good collection of his music, titled The Real … Teddy Pendergrass, a 3-CD set (issued by Sony Music) that includes material from his time with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes plus wonderful tracks from his early solo albums for Philadelphia International. But that’s only one of many fine collections that feature his music. Any of them are worth owning if you are a fan of soul or R&B music. Soul deep indeed!

And I have a personal Teddy Pendergrass story to add, although I never met the great singer. I was working at a record store in Orlando, Florida back in the late 1970s and his third solo album, simply called Teddy, had been released. The record company sent us a life-sized cardboard standup display of Teddy to promote the album (note: this was indeed a vinyl record, well before the advent of CDs, downloads, and streaming). The manager of my shop at that time was a young black guy named Jimmy (a really cool guy who turned me onto some great music) who bore a very slight resemblance to Teddy. Well, Jimmy did something to piss off the owner and was fired one day. The owner, a grumpy old character named Nate, called me up the next morning and asked me to meet him at the shop so he could give me a set of keys. Upon arrival we walked up to the shop and Nate peered into the dark interior. “Jimmy! What the hell are you doing in there?  Open up!” Well, it wasn’t Jimmy inside the shop; it was that darned Teddy Pendergrass cardboard stand-up. I refrained from laughing right then and there, but that story became a classic among us record store workers for many years afterwards!

Amazing Rhythm Aces & Russell Smith

I suppose it’s inevitable, given my own advancing age and the passage of time, but it seems as if every week I notice another musician that I like has passed away. Last week we lost Russell Smith, the lead singer of the Amazing Rhythm Aces. He was 70 years old

If you are one of those people of a certain age, like me, who cut their musical teeth in the 1960s and 1970s, you will recall the Amazing Rhythm Aces, especially their bit hit “Third Rate Romance.” But in addition to that tune the band had plenty of other great songs, and many fine albums too. Stacked Deck, the album that contained “Third Rate Romance”, was their best selling one, but my favorite was the follow-up effort, Too Stuffed To Jump, a terrific album that contained my very favorite song by the band, the majestic “The End is Not in Sight.” And my soul cries out for rest … and the end is not in sight. Beautiful stuff.

The description of the Amazing Rhythm Aces found on Wikipedia is an apt one:

“The band’s music is distinguished by its eclectic scope, literate and often quirky lyrics, and distinctive vocals by lead singer and songwriter Russell Smith.”

 

And eclectic they were. The band was often labeled as “Southern Rock” or “Country Rock”, but they effortlessly blended country with generous dollops of blues and soul, as well as touches of gospel and even reggae. And it all worked. Great musicians, and as noted in other reviews, Russell Smith was a helluva good singer. Not to mention an outstanding songwriter. After the breakup of the band he enjoyed many years of success writing hits for various other country acts. After the Aces called it quits (for the first time; they later reunited) in the early 1980s, Smith went solo and released several good albums, although in my opinion none of them captured the magic of the Amazing Rhythm Aces.

I had the privilege of seeing the Amazing Rhythm Aces in concert at the Great Southern Music Hall in Orlando, Florida back in the late 1970s. Man, they put on a fabulous and very energetic show. Smith himself was very personable and charming onstage. Honestly, I don’t think he and the band ever got the proper respect and attention they deserved. They were certainly much more than one-hit wonders.

 

After the breakup of the Aces, Smith also released another interesting side project in the early 1990s, called Run C&W (a tongue-in-cheek poke at the popular rap group Run DMC). Dubbed by one reviewer as a “parody bluegrass” group, Run C&W’s two albums, Into the Twangy-First Century  and Row vs. Wade, gloriously blended county/bluegrass and vintage soul music, covering (mostly) classic Motown songs such as “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”, “My Girl” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” Good fun!

Yes, once again, we have lost another great songwriter and musician. In recent months Dr. John and another New Orleans legend, Dave Bartholomew (who was 100!) also passed away. Gone but never forgotten.

Twenty Years Gone: Finding a New Life in Thailand

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This month marks a big anniversary for me: it was exactly twenty years ago, in March of 1996, that I left my home in Orlando, Florida and moved to Bangkok, Thailand. Starting a new life in a new country, surrounded by new sights, sounds, and smells. I’d gone from the plastic environs of Disney World and neighborhoods infested by mosquitoes and churches, to a chaotic but vibrant city packed with Buddhist temples, go-go bars, mangy soi dogs, and 7-Eleven branches on every street (actually, it’s sometimes now three or four of those convenience stores per block in Bangkok). Some people might think that moving halfway around the world to a foreign country where English is not the native language, and where the culture is very different, would be intimidating or uncomfortable, but I’ve found that hasn’t been the case for me at all. I’ve adapted, I’ve learned, and I’ve thrived.

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I was getting my hair cut today by a vivacious Thai woman named Pin. She wasn’t the very first person to cut my hair when I moved to Bangkok, but she was probably the second one, and for nearly the entire twenty years that I’ve lived here I’ve let nobody else cut my receding hairline. Happy Anniversary Pin … and Happy Anniversary Thailand! I have never regretted my decision to leave the relative comforts — not to mention the spiraling crime — of the USA and settle in a so-called “backwards” third world country. Hell, if Thailand is considered backwards, let it drop further! Moving to Thailand has given me a new perspective on life, new inspiration, and additional energy. If I was back in the states, I’d be edging towards retirement age and wondering how I was going to survive for the next decade or two, but over here it feels like I’m just getting started and have a lot of life to look forward to living.

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For most of these past twenty years I’ve lived in Bangkok, subtracting only the two years that I moved to Cambodia and ran a bookshop in Siem Reap. It’s not like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses. Thailand is far from a perfect place and I see things on a daily basis that drive me crazy, but when I think about the prospect of moving back to the United States I break out into a cold sweat … nd that’s not a funky James Brown sort of groove filled with positive vibes, but a most definite fear of being thrust back into an increasingly disturbing, dysfunctional, and dangerous society. I just sit back and watch the current political soap opera that is unfolding (imploding?) in the USA and thank my lucky San Miguel bottles that I don’t have to be surrounded by all that American nonsense.

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Okay, it’s not perfect over here either, and I admit that there are things that annoy me greatly about Thailand (don’t get me started about the current political situation!), but putting it all into perspective I’d still MUCH rather be living here in the kooky kingdom than back in the United States of Amnesia. Admittedly, there ARE some things that I miss about the United States and my hometown. I miss seeing some of my friends and I miss certain restaurants (oh, that amazing Cuban food in Florida!), but I don’t miss the family dramas, the high cost of living, or the cruelty ingrained in the culture. And I certainly don’t miss all the creepy Christians or the conservative rednecks who think the Civil War is still being fought and that racist jokes are funny. Uh, no thanks. And yet another thing: since I left Florida I haven’t owned or driven a car (or any motorized vehicle) for the past twenty years. I don’t miss the driving, the parking, the car maintenance, or all those insurance payments either. Honestly, it’s a relief to be free from all of that crap.

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Living in Thailand is only part of the equation. Using Bangkok as the hub, it makes for relatively quick flights (one to two hours) to neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Myanmar. I continued tt be dazzled, and comforted, by these amazing places and the kind people who live there. And I still haven’t visited other nearby countries in the regions such as Vietnam, Indonesia (and Bali), Nepal, and the Philippines. Maybe I’ll go to these places someday. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the fascinating culture and friendly hospitality of Thailand and the other countries in the region. I’m here to stay!

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30 Years Ago … a Murmur

Thirty years ago R.E.M. released their first full album, a collection of alluring, jangly, mesmerizing songs titled Murmur. The band made many other fine albums during their multi-decade career, but to my ears nothing else they recorded (except perhaps their following album, the equally excellent Reckoning) boasted as much musical magic as Murmur.

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Smitten by that album, thirty years ago this week, in October 1983, I opened my first retail shop, Murmur Records, in Orlando, Florida. The location where I operated the first three years was a relatively small space, but I packed it with tons of records (most of them bought on consignment from my D.J. friend, Mike Cooper, in Atlanta) and cool posters covering the old walls, along with plenty of enthusiasm and — needless to say — lots of great music playing each day. I took risks, I listened to requests, and I worked long hours (open to close every day, no days off for the first two years), and was lucky to develop a loyal base of customers. Eventually I outgrew the first space and moved to a larger location (with working air conditioning) a few blocks away. Once I had enough money to able to hire people to work for me, I was rewarded to have quality folks like Jim Leatherman, Eddie Foeller, Tim Skinner, Beth Ann Sparks, Quan Nguyen, De De Branham, and so many others (off the top of my foggy head; hello to April, Julian, Kareem, Cory, Paul, Sovanna, Michael, Mitchell, and the other Jim) who were valuable additions to the crew. Those Sunday softball games with friends and customers were a lot of fun too.

To inaugurate the record shop when it opened in 1983, we had an in-store concert by Love Tractor, a band that I knew from Athens, Georgia. Nine years later, when I decided to change the name of the shop and add books to the mix, Love Tractor also returned for a final show in the back of the store, along with an amazing performance by opening act Billy “The Human Jukebox” Taylor. In between those dates Love Tractor also played a special Fifth Anniversary birthday party that we threw in a downtown Orlando club. As it happened, Love Tractor was in the middle of a tour with the B-52’s that month, and a couple of members of the B’s (including Fred Schneider) dropped by the club and sat in on a few songs. I wish I had a recording of that show; Fred singing versions of “Born to Be Wild” and “We Are Family” tore the roof off the sucker.

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In addition to Love Tractor, I booked a few other bands to play in local clubs and halls, including the Swimming Pool Q’s, Replacements (that show at a VFW Hall ended up getting raided by the local police!), and True West. We were also lucky to have in-store appearances from The Ramones, John Wesley Harding (also a novelist known by his real name, Wesley Stace), The Ocean Blue, the Silos and many other national and regional bands.

I operated the record shop (more of a CD shop after the first three years) until 1992 when I had the “brilliant” idea of revamping the entire concept. I added new and used books to the mix, stopped stocking louder and more “abrasive” music, and changed the name of the shop to Alobar Books & Music, convinced that the growing number of grunge rockers was ruining the atmosphere of the shop, or at least making it much less fun than it had been. Unfortunately, the more “mature” mix of music and books that I stocked didn’t attract as many customers as the old “alternative” blend of music that I specialized in. Plus, the advent of deep-discount chains like Best Buy was putting a hit on the CD business. But that didn’t matter so much in the grand scheme of things; I was still having fun and enjoying the camaraderie of cool customers and employees. The “end” came in 1996 when I moved to Thailand. But the store still didn’t die. I sold the shop to Quan, one of my longtime employees, and he brought back the Murmur name one more time.

Nowadays, I live in Thailand and sell used books instead of used records. Instead of returning to visit the Sunshine State I’m more likely to be found wandering around monasteries in Myanmar’s Shan State. But I remain an incorrigible music addict and still try to keep up with any noteworthy music that’s being released, and digging deeper in the archives of stuff that’s been released in previous decades. I continue to be amazed, and pleased, with the music I’m discovering this late in life. I’m also one of the declining numbers of people who still purchase real CDs. A downloader I’m not.

But this week I’ll be breaking out the beer and toasting all those amazing employees, customers, relatives, and musicians who helped make Murmur Records such a success, and played such an important part in my life. I think I’ll also be play R.E.M.’s Murmur a few more times too!

 

Live in Bangkok!

I used to be a diehard concertgoer when I lived in Florida. If the show I wanted to see wasn’t held in my hometown of Orlando I wouldn’t hesitate to drive up the highway to Lakeland, Tampa, or even Jacksonville to see the band. Going to Atlanta, about a 7-hour road trip, was not out of the question either. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s I saw hundreds of shows. But after I moved to Bangkok in 1996 my concert-going days evaporated. Certainly there are far fewer recording acts that pass through Bangkok compared to major cities in the US. We get the occasional superstar act like Santana, Eric Clapton, Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Elton John appearing, and once in a while an upcoming act like The Drums or Owl City, but for the most part the interesting artists are few and far between. And frankly, it would take someone really, really amazing for me to come out of hibernation and pay to see a show again.

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Looking at the lineup up acts that are scheduled to appear in Bangkok in the coming months doesn’t exactly make me quiver with excitement: Jason Mraz, Placebo, Ash, Japandroids, Sarah Brightman, and Justin Bieber being the biggest international names, along with Thai acts such as Palmy and Blackhead. But then I saw a huge ad in the Bangkok Post yesterday announcing possibly the biggest concert event of the year: Barbie Live!

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Yes, the doll. Barbie does Bangkok. Sounds like fodder for a new porn film. Curious that there was no mention of an appearance by Ken in the ad. Perhaps they had a bad falling out, or rumors of Ken as a cross-dresser are true and Barbie dumped him for good after she caught him wearing her high heels. The Barbie show in Bangkok is a four-day appearance at the Impact Exhibition Hall in Muang Thong Thani (a suburb of Bangkok). The ad describes this as an “All-New Barbie Musical” but other than that, what exactly does this event entail? Will it be animated? Will there be real people dressed up as dolls? Will they all be lip-synching? I’m curious, but not curious enough to shell out money for a ticket. And a front row seat will cost you 2,000 baht.

As bad as this event sounds, at least it’s different from the usual “live” events that occur so often in Bangkok, those being appearances by famous Self-Help gurus and Get-Rich-Quick authors/hucksters, all promising to show you the secrets to wealth and happiness.

Swimming Pool Q’s

It was back in 1978 and a new punk-looking British band, The Police, was making their first US tour. I was there on the front row at the Great Southern Music Hall in Orlando, waiting for Sting, Andy, and Stewart to take the stage, but first, we had to listen to this “other” band, the Swimming Pool Q’s, play a set. The Pool Q’s perfectly fit the new wave mold at the time; lots of short, fast songs (“Rat Bait” … “The A-Bomb Woke Me Up” … “Big Fat Tractor”) and an energetic performance that ranged from weird to exhilarating. They made a good first impression.

 

The Swimming Pool Q’s may have started their life as a quirky new wave act, but in the decade to follow they morphed into a polished and multi-faceted recording act, one of the better, yet woefully unsung, bands in the US during the 1980s. But, unlike some bands that disbanded after stardom didn’t come knocking, the Pool Q’s kept on a-chooglin’ and are still playing shows to this day.

 

The Pool Q’s have recorded many excellent songs over the years, but they particularly shined on stage, dazzling audiences with their well-crafted songs and front man Jeff Calder’s flair for the theatrical. I always loved the band’s sound; a rousing pop-rock cocktail that combined Anne Richmond Boston’s comfortably warm vocals and Jeff Calder’s crafty lyrics (which could range from witty and whacky to poetic and profound) with Bob Elsey’s blistering guitar licks, and a rock-solid rhythm section. Other critics seemed to agree. “Visionary pop eccentrics from Atlanta,” noted Melody Maker. “Some of the most compelling rock sounds in all of America … lofty architectural style distinguished by the elegant and muscular guitar duets between Jeff Calder and Bob Elsey and [Anne] Boston’s rhapsodic alto phrasings,” said The Village Voice. In Rolling Stone, Kurt Loder wrote, “Overlaid with Calder’s unusually literate songwriting sensibility, this musical mélange is one of the freshest sounds coming out of the South.”

 

The band released a “comeback” studio album, Royal Academy of Reality, in 2003, a collection of songs that many reviewers hailed as their best yet. All Music Guide said, “The striking scale and superb craft of this album are impressive by any standard.” David Fricke in Rolling Stone likened the album to “Abbey Road wrapped in kudzu.” Ed Ward in Wire U.K described it as “flat-out astonishing” and “overflowing with musical and intellectual ideas.” Yes folks, it really was that good. But despite the rave reviews and a devoted cult of fans, as far as most of the world is concerned, the Swimming Pool Q’s remain a “quirky band” — if they are known at all.

 

Over the years, I’ve seen the Pool Q’s in concert dozens of times; in and around their home base of Atlanta, and in my hometown of Orlando. In fact, I booked a few of their shows myself and became good friends with the band members. I recently got e-mails from both Anne Richmond Boston and Jeff Calder, telling me about a new project — a “Kickstarter Campaign” — that aims to fund the re-release of two of their best albums, The Swimming Pool Q’s (1984) and Blue Tomorrow (1986), as deluxe CD editions. I didn’t have a clue as to what a “Kickstarter Campaign” entails, so I’ll let the band tell you all about it:

 

This project realizes years of dedication—remastering, research, flights to nowhere—so we’ve taken great care assembling a variety of additional rewards, many available exclusively to Kickstarter backers:

  • A CD of demos, outtakes, alternate versions and remixes from the period, including a country version of “The Bells Ring”.
  • “Fire Makes Us Diamonds”, Jeff Calder’s historical notes examining The Swimming Pool Q’s in the years 1983–1987; accompanying the text will be many never-before-seen photos from The Q’s archive and Anne Richmond Boston’s personal collection.
  • A DVD, created by our drummer Bill Burton, which captures us in a variety of compromising situations: The 930 Club in Washington DC in early 1985; various teenbeat cable television shows; a stirring clip of The Q’s psych-folk interpretation of “Little Drummer Boy”; a promotional video created for A&M Records’ 1984 annual meeting, plus a visit by the band to the record company’s legendary Hollywood lot; and more.
  • Signed photographs from sessions surrounding both albums, plus reproductions of the luxurious 24” x 36” posters that accompanied the reissue of The Deep End (1981/2001) and the release of Royal Academy of Reality (2003).
  • A disc of new material including tracks like “System of Love” and “Science Moon”.
  • Two CDs from The Swimming Pool Q’s catalog, The Deep End and Royal Academy of Reality, along with our debut 7” single from 1979 “Rat Bait” b/w “The A-Woke Woke Me Up” on Chlorinated Records.
  • Archival flyers from many Swimming Pool Q’s performances, reproduced on original Xerox machines, when possible.
  • A full-course dinner at your nearest Olive Garden, hosted by the group.
  • A private live show at which we’ll play selections from The Swimming Pool Q’s and Blue Tomorrow plus bonus tracks

A couple of folks have asked for some more detail on what the fundraising is going toward. This is it in a nutshell: mastering, manufacturing, designing, printing, and assembling as many of the reissue packages as we can afford to make, plus the extra CD and DVD. Producing each of these elements is painstaking and costly, and we’ve invested much time and money already to make this project a reality – and to do it at the highest possible level of quality and creativity. It’s been nearly 30 years in the making – so we want to do it right! As we move along, we will share the details of the process with you to keep you in the loop, since you now have a vested interest.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/swimmingpoolqs/the-swimming-pool-qs-double-album-reissue-project

http://www.swimmingpoolqs.com/

 

Horslips at Home

Horse Lips? No, Horslips! The pronunciation is the same either way, and it still sounds like a silly name to some, but the music of Horslips is nothing to snicker about. During their relatively brief recording career, this Irish band produced some vital, influential music.

 

Horslips were one of the very first bands to combine traditional Irish folk music with contemporary rock sounds. Imagine the Chieftains meeting Thin Lizzy, with perhaps some Byrds and Jethro Tull thrown in for good measure. They were that eclectic, that different. Horslips utilized guitar, flute, keyboards, fiddle, and drums to produce a unique, thrilling sound. Studio albums, such as The Book of Invasions, Aliens, Dancehall Sweethearts, and Happy to Meet … Sorry to Part were wonderful examples of this heady fusion of musical styles. By the late 70s, when they released The Man who Built America, Horslips had shed most of their folk trappings and were veering towards a more rock style, albeit with their Irish roots still showing.

 

The band’s last studio album, Short Stories/Tall Tales, was released in 1979, and followed by the live album The Belfast Gigs in 1980. And after that … nothing. After ten years together, Horslips had broken up. A strangely quiet end to a most wonderful band. They got back together temporarily in 2004 to release a new studio album, Roll Back, but rather than recording new compositions, the album was comprised of acoustic “reworkings” of some of their more popular songs. But then in 2009, after a nearly 30 year hiatus, Horslips reformed for a series of concerts.

A live recording of some of those shows, Live at the O2, was released in 2010. I recently bought a copy of that live album, a 2-CD set, and have been enjoying it for the past month. This is a musical feast for Horslips fans to savor and appreciate; a Celtic hoedown with all the trimmings. The band members are all now in their sixties, but on this live recording they sound absolutely on top of their game, spinning reels and jigs with rock and roll fervor. Most all of the old favorites are included here: “Mad Pat” … “Power and the Glory” … “The Man Who Built America” … “I’ll Be Waiting” … “Sword of Light” … “Trouble with a Capitol T” … “Sideways to the Sun” …. “Ghosts” … “High Reel” … and many more. They end the album with a rousing version of “Shakin’ All Over,” I’m sure that after hearing this tremendous concert document, many Horslips fans felt the same bliss that I did. You can’t help but be very impressed. They are still a great band!

 

I was lucky to have seen Horslips in concert one time, during their 1980 US tour at the Great Southern Music Hall in Orlando. We had front row seats, but few of were sitting during the wildly energetic show, cheering on the band as they dished out an incredible variety of musical fireworks. Great, great show by a great, great band. If you want to know what all the fuss was about, and why so many listeners still adore them, listening to live recordings such as Live at the O2 or The Belfast Gigs would be a good way to discover the magic.

http://www.horslips.ie/

 

Soul Train Connection

The music world lost another great one this week with the death of Don Cornelius, the originator of the TV show Soul Train. Although he was not a recording artist, as a DJ and later as host of Soul Train, Cornelius was hugely influential in exposing Black recording artists to the masses in the United States.

As noted in many of the tributes to Don Cornelius, Soul Train was a groundbreaking TV show in the 1970s, giving Black America a coveted spot in the TV limelight alongside similar “dance and music” shows like American Bandstand that appealed more to white audiences. But Soul Train was also important for young white kids like me, serving as a musical bridge to a different style of music and culture. Watching those Saturday morning Soul Train programs was both an eye and ear-opening experience for me and other suburban white youth. Great music and great dancing, and oh those outfits! They certainly didn’t dress like that on the more mainstream American Bandstand!

By the time I became a regular Soul Train viewer in 1974, I was already a big fan of soul artists such as Al Green, Spinners, the O’Jays, Barry White, and Billy Preston. But Soul Train also turned me on to the less mainstream, funkier acts in the business such as the Ohio Players, Mandrill, and James Brown. Musically, this was a revelation, exposing me to exciting new music, but the show also opened my mind to the fact that “minorities” were not people to be scared of …  or to look down upon. I grew up in a typical white American neighborhood, and during my first five years of elementary school the students were also white. I was living in a comfortable white cocoon, but that certainly was representative of the real world. It wasn’t until I entered junior high school that I was finally exposed to black students. There was a natural curiosity, if not fear, of what “those people” would be like. But I quickly realized that they weren’t much different than me, except of course for the color of their skin. And that music; oh, that amazing music! By the time I entered high school I was much more comfortable around Black people and actually had something in common with many of them because of my music interests.

I remember one guy in particular: Raymond Butler. Raymond was a senior, and a star of the school’s football team. Cool guy on campus, very tall with a huge afro and an even bigger smile. I was a lowly sophomore, a skinny white kid who wore eyeglasses and ugly bellbottoms. Raymond and I seemingly had nothing in common, but we both had a Speech class together, with a great teacher named Miss Romigh, and we ended up sitting next to one another. I’m not sure how the subject came up, but we eventually started talking about music and made a connection. You like the Ohio Players? Yeah, man! Skin Tight! Jive Turkey! Fire! Love Rollercoaster! And on and on it went.

Music connects people. It always has and always will. And because of Don Cornelius and Soul Train I think the world is a more racially harmonic place than it used to be. Cornelius’ famous closing line was: “Love, Peace, and Soul” — still an appropriate and beautiful message.

Crack the Sky

In one of the early chapters in Anne Tyler’s delightful novel Noah’s Compass, the main character, a man in his 60s named Liam, is in the hospital, recuperating from a concussion, when his ex-wife drops by to visit. Sitting in bed, Liam thinks back to the days when they were a young couple. Although his wife had a “stodgy school-librarian job,” Liam recalls that she had a fondness for rock music and “used to dance like a woman possessed, pumping the air with her soft white fists and sending her bobby pins flying in every direction.”

“Do you still like Crack the Sky?” Liam asked her.

“What?” she said. “Oh, mercy, I haven’t listened to Crack the Sky in ages! I’m sixty-two years old. Put your clothes on, will you?

Now hold that thought. Why do people make inane comments like that; as if getting older, or “growing up,” somehow disqualifies a person from listening to music, especially the music of their youth? Why should getting older stop you from listening to music of any kind? Many people still watch football and baseball games when they are “senior citizens”, and that’s not considered odd, so what’s the big deal about continuing to be a fan of rock music as you age? Is it immature to like the Rolling Stones or Cheap Trick just because you are over forty? That’s an absurd notion!

That diatribe aside, I got a kick out of seeing Crack the Sky mentioned in Anne Tyler’s novel. It makes me wonder if Anne Tyler herself was/is a Crack the Sky fan. I’m almost certain she at least listened to the band back in the 1970s. Thanks to massive airplay on local radio stations, Crack the Sky was immensely popular in the Baltimore area, which is where Tyler lives and where most of her novels are set, so it wouldn’t be a complete shock if that was the case.

I was lucky to have been exposed to the music of Crack the Sky back when their excellent debut album, Crack the Sky, was released in 1975, thanks to airplay it received on WORJ, the great progressive FM radio station in my hometown of Orlando. Crack the Sky followed that first album with one that was arguably even better, the weird and wonderful Animal Notes. Man, I loved those first two albums, and the ones that followed weren’t too shabby either. The quirky songs were full of intricate guitar parts, Beatles-like harmonies, and delightfully witty lyrics. Crack the Sky’s synthesis of lush keyboards and sizzling electric guitars appealed to progressive rock fans, but they weren’t so far out in left field that their appeal escaped the ears of more mainstream listeners.

Crack the Sky had all the ingredients to be a monster band, but for the usual reasons (lack of airplay and most notably, a label that couldn’t get their albums distributed properly) that success never came calling. Shortly after Animal Notes was released in 1977, lead singer John Palumbo left the band to start a solo career. He was replaced by Gary Lee Chappell, who seamlessly handled lead vocals on the next album, Safety in Numbers, another very strong batch of songs. Citing difficulties with their label, the group broke up — for the first time — in 1979. In the meantime Palumbo’s solo album tanked and he ended up rejoining the “reformed” band the following year to record the edgy White Music.

Last year, I bought a copy of Crack the Sky’s Alive and Kickin’ Ass album. Despite the lame title, this is an outstanding concert recording from tour dates in 1978 that finally saw release in 2006. This was during the period when Palumbo had left the band to pursue a solo career, but Chappell more than holds his own on vocals and the rest of the band indeed kicks ass, playing with the energy and imagination that were always hallmarks of their live shows. I saw them in concert the same year when they played at a small club called Friar Tuck’s in Casselberry, an Orlando suburb. It was like seeing a show in your living room; up close and intimate, not a bad seat in the house. And the band didn’t disappoint, delivering a scorching set of songs, not unlike what I heard on Alive and Kickin’ Ass, complete with an encore of the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus.”

Since their 70s prime, Crack the Sky has continued to break up and reform, and thankfully record more albums and play more concerts. In 2009 they released a new collection of songs, Machine. Judging from the positive reviews I’ve read, it’s yet another album I will need to purchase in the near future.

http://www.crackthesky.com/

Memories of R.E.M.

I first heard the news in an e-mail from a friend in Florida yesterday: after 31 years together, R.E.M. had broken up. Damn, that’s sad news, and it certainly signifies the end of an era, at least for people like me who followed the band throughout their entire career. R.E.M. was a great band, one of my favorites of all time, but if they felt they had nothing left in the tank after all these years, all you can say is; “Thanks for all the great music, guys!”

But 31 years? That’s mind boggling. All I can do is shake my head and wonder where all these years have gone. In my mind R.E.M. still represents the “new” breed of rock bands, not the rock dinosaurs from the 60s and 70s that I grew up with. I remember hearing a very catchy, propulsive guitar-driven song played at the 688 Club in Atlanta one night back in 1981. After hearing it for the second time that night, I asked the guy standing next to me: “Who is this?” The answer: “R.E.M.” The song in question was “Radio Free Europe,” a single the band had recently released on Johnny Hibbert’s locally produced Hib-Tone Records. I found a copy at Mark Methe’s Wuxtry Records in Decatur that weekend and played it to death when I got back to Orlando. “Radio Free Europe” was a fantastic song, and the flip side of the single, “Sitting Still,” was nearly as good. Like many music fans, my appetite now whet, I wanted to hear more.

That wish soon came true. In seemingly no time at all, R.E.M. was the hottest band in the region, thanks to touring, airplay, and word of mouth. Remember kids, this was well before the Internet. Tweeting was something only birds did. The band signed to IRS Records and released the enticing Chronic Town, an excellent 5-song EP in 1982. They followed that with their first album, the classic Murmur in 1983. I was such a fan of that album and so inspired by the spirit of the music that when I opened my own record store in Orlando in October 1983 I called it: Murmur Records. Another Athens band, Love Tractor (R.E.M.’s drummer Bill Berry had once been a member), performed a concert in our back room the following month. An Orlando band named themselves Stumble after one of the tracks on Chronic Town. Another local band took the name 7,000 Gifts, after yet another R.E.M. song. Like the band, we were on a roll. R.E.M. was our good luck charm.

Earlier that same year, just before they released Murmur, R.E.M. came to Orlando for a show at a local disco that held a weekly “New Wave” night called “Spit.” As expected, the band put on an electric show and took the time to talk to some of us fans afterwards. Guitarist Peter Buck was especially personable and full of tales. The next year, after Murmur had turned our heads around, I saw R.E.M. again in concert, this time at a free Spring Break show in Daytona Beach, opening for the English Beat. Thanks to the efforts of a mutual friend, I was able to coerce Michael Stipe, the band’s shy singer, into doing an interview at a bar after the show. I realized later that doing interviews wasn’t something that he was very comfortable doing, so I was grateful that he took the time to talk with me that day.

R.E.M. kept up their hot streak of consistently great albums the rest of the decade with Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant, and Document. In the eyes of their fans, this was a band that could do no wrong. But then they switched labels in 1988, signing for big bucks with Warner Brothers and released the uneven Green album. It sold well, but many longtime fans like me were very disappointed. To the delight of many pessimists, however, the band bounced back with two of their most popular albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, punctuated by great songs such as “Drive”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming”, Losing My Religion”, “Near Wild Heaven” and “Shiny Happy People.” Their music took on a harder edge with the next album, 1994’s disappointing Monster. By that time, the band seemed to have lost the magical spark that had separated them from other bands of the era. Nevertheless, I kept buying each and every album when they were released. Every three or four years R.E.M. would record a new album; some good to great songs, some lackluster stuff, but just nothing nearly as amazing as those 80s albums. Their two most recent albums, Accelerate and this year’s Collapse Into Now, were especially strong collections, refreshing bursts of energy after a few too many lethargic albums the previous decade.

No matter which albums are your favorites by R.E.M. — and mine are still those early masterpieces on IRS — you can safely say that R.E.M. stuck true to their ideals (musically, socially, and politically) and always treated their fans like gold. To say that they will be missed is an understatement, but at least they went out on their own terms; no messy breakup with nasty accusations or bitter fighting, just a group of musicians who realized the time was right to call it a night.

In the last couple of years, the band has released 25th Anniversary editions of Murmur and Reckoning. Both are now available as 2-CD sets; the original album plus an extra CD with live concert material. In the case of Murmur, the album was completely remastered. Such sonic improvement is usually considered a good thing, but fans of the original “murky” sounding Murmur were more than a bit distressed to hear that their beloved album was being tinkered with. And so, I put off buying it for the longest time, until I finally took the plunge when I found a copy in the sale bin of a B2S branch in Bangkok earlier this year. I was relieved to find that the remastered version was not as dramatically different sounding as I had been led to believe. Then again, I’m no audiophile. If everything was still in mono I wouldn’t be distressed. The bottom line is the quality of the songs and the depth of the music, and that hasn’t changed a bit. It’s still a classic. As is Reckoning. That was an awesome one-two punch that the band never really topped, although they came close with Fables and Life’s Rich Pageant, both of which are also now available as deluxe 25th Anniversary editions. There have been a lot of articles in the media this past month about the anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind album and the impact that it had on so many music fans. But for me, Nirvana never really mattered that much, or at least they never had the impact on my life the way that R.E.M. did. That’s not to dismiss the influence that Nirvana and their album had on many people — every generation has its touchstones — but for me, R.E.M. was the band that truly changed things.

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