Tag Archives: Funk

Don’t Stop Making Sense

Embed from Getty Images

One of the most surprising, exhilarating concerts I ever attended was way back on December 6, 1983, at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium at the height of the “new wave” music movement. On that night, my roommate Irene and I arrived to find that the stage area of the cavernous concert hall was nearly empty. The Civic was and still is a hollow concrete shell, built originally to hold 7,000 patrons as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. On this night, there was a stage riser, but only plywood where normally there would be black flooring. A wooden ladder leaned against the dirty white wall stage right, along with a few racks seemingly bereft of gear. There were no lights, no curtains and no equipment save for a single microphone on its stand at center stage. We asked an usher what the hell was going on, and were told to just take our seats.

After some time waiting and wondering what was about to happen, the house lights dimmed, and the man of the evening, David Byrne came strolling onto the stage platform, a cassette tape player in one hand, acoustic guitar strung over his shoulders. He said “I gotta tape I want to play…” and clicked the Play button on the boom box. Then begins a pre-recorded backbeat to an acoustic version of the first Talking Heads hit “Psycho Killer.” As anyone can imagine, particularly if you’ve seen the outstanding Jonathan Demme film Stop Making Sense (1984), which was filmed over three nights in Los Angeles just a week after the San Francisco date, we were in for a one-of-a-kind art-rock performance.

Talking Heads In Concert
HOLLYWOOD, CA – CIRCA 1980s: (From L to R) Jerry Harrison, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads perform at a concert circa the early-1980s in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

We expected the Talking Heads to be avant-garde, to present something unique and different, but accounts of their previous shows all the way back to their first, supporting The Ramones in 1975 at New York’s dank CBGB club suggested to us that the show’s staging would be minimal. What we did hear is that the band would be wound tight, that singer, guitarist and principal composer David Byrne was an eccentric, that he could dance TalkingHeads_CBGB_72dpiand sing while somehow keeping his head straight, or bobbing or moving in some other unnatural way to accentuate the Reagan-era angst of their rock ‘n’ funk songs. We had no idea how far he had developed these skills, that he could truly hold an audience enraptured with every move, and play so effectively off the other musicians, each of whom were accomplished in their own right, dancing together or apart, songs building into manic eruptions of jubilant, rhythmic new wave music.

TalkingHeads_SMSPoster_72dpiWhat we saw that night has remained seared in my memory forever, repeatable to an extent by viewing the film. After the opener, accomplished bassist Tina Weymouth joined Byrne for the song “Heaven.” As she took the stage, road crew members, clad in black, wheeled out a riser for her gear, plugged her into the sound system and exited quietly. During this track the team wheeled out another riser packed with drums, shortly to be occupied by the Heads’ rock-steady drummer, Tina’s husband Chris Frantz. Next up, the fourth member of the core band, Jerry Harrison (guitars, keys) joined in for “Found a Job,” one of the really infectious early Heads tracks. From this point on, additional musicians including guitarist (Alex Weir), keyboards player (Bernie Worrell, of Parliament/Funkadelic), percussionist (Steve Scales) and backup singers (Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt) joined in succession until the entire band was assembled for then hit “Burning Down The House,” from their album Speaking in Tongues (1983). Now assembled, this expanded band drove through a perfect set list that included “Life During Wartime” and “Once in a Lifetime” along with several from the new album, while the rest of the stage was completed with colored lights, video projection screens, and black matting for every exposed part of the stage. The movie does as good a job as possible of giving viewers an idea of what it was like to have a complete stage built out during such an event, but the necessity of focusing on the musicians precludes the ability to capture the nuanced impact of seeing all the rigging happen before our eyes – literally cabling, matting, lights, screens, everything it took to create a modern day concert was erected by the crew while we watched. It was an absolutely fascinating thing behold. It also ruined the band.

TalkingHeads_SITCover_72dpiAfter the experience of staging this massively creative show, the Talking Heads never toured again, despite the fact they went on to record three more albums before officially breaking up, the last including guest guitarist Johnny Marr from The Smiths. The daunting thought of topping the 1983 tour wasn’t the only issue. The band was growing apart, each member working on other projects. Chris and Tina continued on with the Tom Tom Club. David Byrne launched a long solo career. In fact, besides The Smiths’ Morrissey/Marr split, the demise of the Talking Heads was one of the most unfortunate “divorces” of the 1980s.

I was reminded of all this recently, when our art theater The Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco screened a print of Stop Making Sense on one of their Monday concert film nights. The effusive sellout crowd led to a second showing, after all these years. It was a potent reminder of the popularity of the Heads and this angular music in general, as we were, midway through the reign of the punk/goth/new wave 80s.

Stop Making Sense (1983) © Talking Heads Films 1984, 1.78:1, 84 minutes

PrintThis is justly considered one of the greatest concert films ever made. The spectacle of the stagecraft, along with leader David Byrne’s jubilant performance, is emotionally impactful, filling attentive viewers with the lust for life he and the band exhibit. After a theatrical release, the movie was originally made available on home video tape in an extended version that included three additional songs from the actual show that had not appeared in the theatrical release. These tracks “Cities,” “I Zimbra,” and “Big Business” are available as extras on the extended “special edition” DVD which also includes audio commentary, promotional trailer, and other features.

p.s. There is also film of the Talking Heads on the prior tour in Rome, December 18, 1980 taken under bright white lights, when the core band was joined by Adrian Belew (guitar), Busta Jones (bass), Steven Scales (percussion), Dollette MacDonald (vocals) and Bernie Worrell (keys). It’s reasonably good footage of the band at this key point in time, before they took three years off prior to their final tour. The show is also captured in B&W footage from the Capital Theater, New Jersey on November 4th, 1980. Both films will be of interest to fans and collectors, particularly as the lineup at the time included guitar wizard Belew, who added his trademark distorted guitar noise, and who also harmonized with Bryne perfectly given their very similar voices.

 

 

David Bowie’s Legacy

BowieDavid_Live1_72dpiI can’t imagine what popular music would have been like had there not been a David Bowie. He was a musician, actor, artist and fashionista with such an innate ability to anticipate cultural trends that he remained relevant for over four decades. Somehow Bowie always seemed young and fresh, in large part due to his uncanny way of reinventing himself regularly, collecting personalities, going from crooner to glam-rock star, to the dispassionate “thin white duke,” and the art-rock inventor of the progressive “Berlin trilogy” and beyond. He was, according to one commentator upon his passing, “of the time, at every time.” He remains one of the most recognized personalities in the world, and he is already missed greatly.

While the second stage of his career as Ziggy Stardust, king of glam rock was not my favorite era, I knew other teenagers who lived for this music particularly those on the Hollywood side of the Santa Monica Mountains. Many of these friends never felt they fit in, never believed that anyone understood or spoke for them before Bowie stepped onto the scene with his shocking hair, makeup, dress and confident androgynous manner. If the man never recorded a thing after 1974 he would still be canonized today, yet he continued to change and influence generations. After the Ziggy Stardust tour and movie, Bowie retired that persona, and recorded his last mostly glam album, Diamond Dogs, in 1974. Next up, Young Americans found Bowie delving into American funk and “plastic soul.”

BowieDavid_StationtoStation3CD_72dpiBut for this writer, it’s the next album, the 1976 classic Station to Station that really galvanized my interest. The record found Bowie experimenting with synthesizers and the kind of metronomic beat found in German Krautrock. The balance of ice and passion is clear as the title track begins with the ominous sound of trains and minor tones then building to a resolve that emerges into the jubilant final third, beginning with the exclamation, “It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love!” Funk and soul tracks like the hits “Golden Years” and “TVC 15” are upbeat, while “Stay” is a grittier boogie, driven forward by an irresistibly funky guitar riff. The beautiful romantic ballad “Wild is the Wind,” the sole cover, must be Bowie’s most spectacular, inspirational vocal performance on record. It’s a tremendous album that represents a bridge between the prior work Young Americans, and the colder ambient classic Low to come.

BowieDavid_StationToStationLiveCover_72dpiBowie’s persona for Station to Station was called the “thin white duke” clad in white shirt, black pants and waistcoat, and passionate dispassion. One writer described Bowie’s new alter ego as a “hollow man who sang songs of romance with an agonized intensity… ice masquerading as fire.” The tour supporting Station to Station stopped at the LA Forum for three nights in February that same year, putting the man and his new myth on display. Bowie reportedly took the stage, sang sixteen songs and left the building stoically. It was a rehearsed, perfunctory yet riveting experience according to those I knew who were able to attend, and as documented in a bootleg film of the rehearsals for the concert tour, and a recording captured one month later at the Nassau Coliseum in New Jersey. That complete live set was released in 2010 on two CDs included as part of a special three CD edition of Station to Station that also came with a booklet, some photos and other extras.

BowieDavid_StageCDCover_72dpiBowie’s recorded output became even more interesting during the next phase of his career, the so-called “Berlin Trilogy,” working with progressive artists Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Iggy Pop and producer Tony Visconti among others. The resulting albums Low and “Heroes” (1977), and Lodger (1979) are inventive, varied and always surprising. The world tour for Low and “Heroes” found Bowie is perfect voice and brimming with energy, playing with a supporting band of luminaries that included Adrian Belew and Carlos Alomar on guitars, George Murray on bass, Dennis Davis on drums, Roger Powell and Sean Mayes on keys, and Simon House on violin. Recordings from the tour were assembled for the double live album Stage, released in 1978. That album in its original form garnered some complaints due to tinkering with the song order, and other issues. More recently the album was remastered and rereleased on CD with those complaints addressed, the complete set of songs in their original order presented in a compelling stereo mix.

ON FILM

BowieDavid_ZiggyDVDCover_72dpiThe best official film of David Bowie’s career in the 1970s is the 1973 movie Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – The Motion Picture. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, this is a rare chance to see Bowie during his glam period, taking the stage wrapped in his most influential alter ego. Fifteen songs from the set list are presented, along with a few behind the scenes shots of Bowie back stage. It’s not a polished product; the sound is flawed, sometimes brash, and lots of shots are blurry. But the 1.33:1 framing exposing extra grain and grit seems somehow representative of the early years of the Glam movement. The film played in movie theaters in the early 1970s for a brief time, and was later screened frequently as a cult classic.

BowieDavid_Live3_72dpi
The next official Bowie film would not be released until the Serious Moonlight tour of 1983 was captured for the home video market. It means that there is no officially released video to document several key concert tours in the intervening years from 1974 to 1982. Possibly the best film that was made captured a jubilant, well-groomed Bowie performing at the NHK Hall in Budokan Japan on December 12, 1978 on the last night of the Low and “Heroes” tour. Bowie himself is a revelation, leading his all-star band surrounded by pulsating fluorescent light tubes through a show that clearly influenced a host of new wave artists who followed. An hour of this fabulous concert was broadcast on Japanese television including a thirteen-minute rendition of the title track from Station to Station, with an intro that, courtesy of Adrian Belew’s wall of guitar distortion and accompanying keyboards, winds down imaginary train tracks for more than five minutes before Bowie appears and the melody kicks in. The film is well preserved and available on YouTube or via an unofficial DVD release from heavymetalweb.net

BowieDavid_Live5_72dpiThere were other televised performances during this time that are also of value. About forty minutes of a live performance at the Beat Club were captured for the German music program Musikladen. Six songs at the Dallas Convention Center and four on Saturday Night Live were broadcast in the U.S. Apparently, performances at Earls Court in London were also filmed, with excerpts shown on the tube there, but this footage has also not been released. It’s a shame that all of this concert footage, particularly the NHK Hall content, has not been expanded, remastered and released officially, rather than on bootlegs and low-res copies on YouTube. Yes, we can enjoy the official audio on the double-album Stage, but we are lacking important video content of this very visual artist. Maybe now with our hero sadly departed, as we gain perspective on the overall arc of his massively successful career, the remaining proof of his mastery will surface.

BowieDavid_Live4_72dpi

Tokyo Film Setlist:

  1. Warszawa
  2. Heroes
  3. Fame
  4. Beauty and the Beast
  5. Five years
  6. Soul Love
  7. Star
  8. Hang on to yourself
  9. Ziggy Stardust
  10. Suffragette city
  11. Station to Station
  12. TVC 15

Station to Station, 1978

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDXBeu3198c

Complete Tokyo concert:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaKpJl4D8bc

Live at Beat Club Musikladen 1978

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClDO1_dH0DU

 

 

 

Stevie Wonder Sings in the Key of Love

stevie2Stevie Wonder played at the Oakland Arena Friday December 5, 2014 performing his 1976 masterwork, Songs In The Key of Life. He arrived amidst a series of tense protests in Oakland and across the country over the grand jury verdict that declined to indict a white New York cop over the choke-hold death of Eric Garner, a black man who was stopped by police for selling loose cigarettes earlier this year. While protesters took to the streets just blocks away from the concert venue, and even shut down highway 880 outside, Stevie took the stage to urge love and harmony for all people, acknowledging that there is still far to go with race relations, before launching into the entire 22 song suite for a show that lasted more than three rapturous hours.

stevie5The “Songs in the Key of Life” album is one of Stevie’s most accomplished, and certainly includes many of his most meaningful, touching lyrics. Some speak to race relations, but more reflect the positive experiences of his childhood, and praise God and love eternal. These messages were perfectly suited for the evening, and as he went through the set, key songs were introduced with stories and short statements. The album was presented in it’s entirety, beginning after a lengthy introduction and welcome, followed by a beautiful rendition of the first song, “Love’s In Need of Love Today” clearly articulating it’s sentiments in his undiminished tone:

stevie4Love’s in need of love today
Don’t delay
Send yours in right away
Hate’s goin’ round
Breaking many hearts
Stop it please
Before it’s gone too far

stevie_historiaEach song was presented as it’s own work of musical art, some with just Stevie and one or two accompanists, others with up to thirty backup musicians and singers, some part of the main band, some guests. The entire album was delivered at the highest level of excellence of any show I’ve seen. Stevie was in perfect voice, demonstrating his immense skills as a vocalist, and player of harmonica, piano, synthesizer, and other instruments. The music travels a wide range including R&B, soul, funk, gospel, fusion, and a dash of rock and it seemed perfectly fitting for such a substantial entourage to reproduce them. For the second track, Stevie brought India Ari to the fore singing “Have a Talk With God.” stevie_passtimeThe next track, “Village Ghetto Land” was performed by Stevie with just his ten-piece orchestra – a heartbreaking story of poverty and despair in the inner city. The six-piece horn section punctuated celebratory tracks “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” just as one would dare to hope. Bass from original collaborator Nathan Watts, along with three keyboard players, three guitarists, and as many drummers pumped up funky tracks like “Contusion” and “Black Man.” Backup singers included Stevie’s daughter, Aisha, herself introduced for the song “Isn’t She Lovely” written for her almost 40 years ago. All the performers rose to the occasion, surely realizing they were not just playing a normal concert, but performing one of the greatest albums of our time, with one of our greatest artists.

steve_harmonicaThe highlight for this witness were the last few songs, each a different ode to love. First, a wonderful version of “If It’s Magic” – Stevie singing along with a recording of original harpist Dorthy Ashby encouraging the crowd that “we must become more of a united people of these United States” with the lyrics,

If it’s magic
Why can’t we make it everlasting
Like the lifetime of the sun
It will leave no heart undone
For there’s enough for everyone

stevie_bandThis was followed by the one-two punch of “As” and “Another Star” the latter’s salsa beat punctuated by Oakland native’s Sheila E.’s raucous percussion at which point more than thirty performers covered the stage in praise and celebration. There were generous encores and fun after the main set, but I could have left then, feeling as full of joy as after any concert I’ve seen. Stevie took us to church that night, reminding us it’s possible to live in harmony, that there is more to do in our lives, more people to touch, and more to give. Until the day that is the day we are no more. Love, in.

Hot Night for Neo-Soul Queen Erykah Badu

Erykah at the Winery
Erykah at the Winery

Erykah Badu brought her slow jam funk & soul show to the Mountain Winery last night and proved her command of the form under on a hot summers eve.  Starting the show her band displayed their chops on a version of “Amerykah Promise”, after which Erykah led us through a short list of twelve tracks, no encore, for just over an hour.  The set list ranged from older selections like “On and On” and “Apple Tree” from her 1997 album “Baduizm” through to her last studio release “New Amerykah Part Two” from 2010, from which my favorite track “Me” was included.  As there were a number of slower grooves during the first 45 minutes of the set, it took awhile for the majority of the crowd to get to their feet and dance.  But Erykah reaches out to her audience on a deeper, more soulful level as well, speaking her philosophies via her poetic lyrics, and honest delivery.  A warm introduction – highly recommended.

Black Dub Blues

Been a bit tardy in writing up reviews for the first part of 2011, due in no small part to the fact that I’ve taken on the role of CIO at Splunk, and having a great time focusing on all that entails. The other factor is that we have not been fortunate to catch many great shows since the new year. However, one of the best was seeing Black Dub on January 31, 2011, at the Independent in San Francisco. As they are coming back to the Fillmore on May 29, here is a recommendation.

Black Dub is a collaboration between Daniel Lanois (guitar, vocals), Trixie Whitley (vocals, drums, etc.) Brian Blade (drums) and Daryl Johnson (bass, vocals) resulting in a concoction of smoky blues and rhythm directly descended from the original form. Trixie is the daughter of the late guitarist Chris Whitley, and she is a revelation – a powerhouse vocalist, drummer, and overall multi-instrumentalist. For anyone not familiar, Daniel Lanois is the famed producer for Peter Gabriel, U2, Bob Dylan, and many other imaginative artists, and as a solo artist, he has released several stunning albums, most notably his first two releases and the soundtrack for the movie “Sling Blade.”  Lanois music traverses rock, jazz, soul and most often Cajun blues. His first recording, 1989’s Acadie, is a masterwork that should be in every music fan’s library.

As the leader of Black Dub, Daniel’s role is more as an equal member of the band.  Trixie is the perfect foil for him, pulling both into a darker angrier blues, and then back to happy, almost joyous tracks, while keeping the unit from drifting off into excess. Brian and Daryl are accomplished musicians in their own right, and together establish a propulsive foundation for the inventive soundscapes. The extremes make the overall work very dynamic, and best heard live. The band was incredibly tight throughout, and covered two standout solo tracks from Lanois’ first two solo albums. Daniel played a third track as a solo on pedal steel guitar – an unearthly, and beautiful ambient piece from 2005’s Grammy nominated Belladonna.

If this sort of blues makes you happy, or maybe just a bit sad, you’ll want to experience this stellar band live.