Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Colin Meloy on Gillian Welch

YESTERDAY I had this story on country/folk duo Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who perform in LA Thursday night.

One thing I did not have room for that in that article was a long quote given to me by Colin Meloy, who employed the two on The King is Dead, his latest record by the Decemberists. Meloy turns out to be a longtime fan -- here's his entire thought. Thanks to Meloy, whose last Decemberists show for several years we caught in Portland a few weeks back.

I was introduced to Gillian at Rockin' Rudy's, a very fine record store in Missoula, MT. I think a friend turned me on to her first record right after it came out. I was immediately smitten. It happens that I also spent the summer of '97 working in the vineyards of the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the song "One More Dollar" felt particularly auspicious.

Tucker Martine and I were wanting to create a kind of vibe on The King is Dead that we had always loved in old country records -- the idea of pairing a male and female vocal really hot in the mix, like every song was a duet. I'd always loved Neil Young's record, Comes a Time, and was really taken by the fact that the late, great Nicolette Larson sang on nearly every song, lending a tone and tenor to the record that just wouldn't exist without her voice. We wanted to do something similar with The King is Dead.

Gill and Dave very clearly work in a completely different way than many people I know. I get the feeling for all their love of simplicity and clarity comes from a kind of insanely finicky place. Which is funny; so many of her songs feel so off the cuff, so underthought. But there's a lot of thinking that goes on, I think, to get to that place.

Like all great artists and musicians, she and Dave, as far as I can tell, are just great lovers of music -- of all sorts. Their collective voice tends toward the Americana/country side of things, but their hearts don't necessarily hew to just one thing. And it all makes perfect sense to me -- they are the bridge between Robyn Hitchcock and the Louvin Brothers. And if you think about it, that bridge isn't necessarily that long.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Refracting the Tradition with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings

I DON'T think I've been this starstruck since I interviewed Martin Scorsese a few years back. Meeting Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings -- two of most distinctive and harmonically complex figures in the new acoustic movement -- was one of the thrills of the summer.

My story on the duo -- and recent years and a solo album have shown how important Rawlings contribution is -- runs today in the LA Times. (It precedes their show Thursday at the Henry Fonda Music Box.)

Part of what intrigues me about the two is the way they take the tradition of pre-rock Appalachian brother bands -- the Louvin Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers -- and cross them with a more modern harmonic language. It's all over the new record, The Harrow and the Harvest.

Rawlings, who is emerging one of the most individual guitarists of his generation, is steeped in old-time mountain music but is also informed by Gang of Four’s spiky post-punk, Johnny Marr's weeping riffs and Richard Thompson’s otherworldly chime. (Check out his recent LP, A Friend of a Friend, as Dave Rawlings Machine. The song "Ruby" and the cover of Neil Young's Cortez the Killer are good places to start.) His 1935 Epiphone archtop, often played with the capo us as high as the 9th or 10th fret, has lately become one of my favorite things to hear.

“If I could compare it sonically to ‘Time (The Revelator),’ ” he said abour Harrow, which he produced, “I’d say this record comes forward out of the speakers, and creates the atmosphere more in the space you’re in,” as opposed to what he calls the shy and “retiring” quality of the earlier album. “This record is more intimately recorded – we’re sitting around and gently playing the songs. The way we play when we’re not recording.”

Welch, who grew up on LA's Westside in the Reagan years and not in 1930s Appalachia, is sensitive about the issue of her authenticity.

In one key way, in fact, she had a pre-modern upbringing: While she grew up singing classic folk and country music, she never heard recordings of them: She knew the songs only through an oral tradition. Years later, she attended UC Santa Cruz, and was at first a bit lost, personally and musically – she sang briefly in front of a psychedelic surf band – but was exposed to old recordings by a bluegrass deejay housemate. 

“And I have this complete, strange epiphany,” she recalls. “I’m hearing these sounds I’ve never heard before, but they’re the songs I’ve known since I was as kid.” The experience turned her head around. “And then presto, we’re done. And then I’m just like every other person who just needed a record player, these records and a door that locked.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus

THE other day I was lucky enough to speak to Sonny Rollins, the tenor saxophone legend who performs at UCLA's Royce Hall tonight, Thursday, and at Segerstrom Hall in Orange County on Sunday.

These days, the once-brash, mohawk-rocking Rollins is 81, and, he's many decades from authoritative, agenda-setting records like Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West.

But the Rollins I spoke to was easy to speak to, boyishly enthusiastic, and sort of innocent in his love of other musicians, like composer Jerome Kern, who he called his favorite, and saxophonist Don Byas, who he called "One of my first idols and I prided myself that I could play a little bit like him." (He spoke specifically about falling for a '40s recording of "How High the Moon" Byas made with Jimmy Jones on piano.)

In thinking about what he and other jazz musicians really do when they are improvising, he came back to another saxophonist's description of telling a story. "I think Lester Young put it succinctly -- it's about logic. You can't just play anything. When I take a solo, the music has to make sense. I just happened to be one of the guys, along with John Coltrane, who stated playing long solos. Back then, everything was geared to shorter records."

And while Rollins' records have not matched his '50s classics, as a live performer he has reached another peak, says jazz critic Gary Giddins. My full interview with Sonny Rollins HERE. See you at Royce Hall.

UPDATE: Here is the set list from last night's very potent show. Especially pleased with guitarist Peter Bernstein, wielding an old-school archtop.
1.       Patan jail
2.       Serenade
3.       Blue Gardenia
4.       Nice Lady
5.       They Say It’s Wonderful
6.       Nishi
7.       Don’t Stop the Carnival

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pacific Standard Time's Life and Times

WE'RE getting close to the launch of a gargantuan art blowout -- much bigger than an exhibit, not as cheesy as a "celebration" -- called Pacific Standard Time: Art in Los Angeles 1945 to 1980. This will be a six month initiative involving museums and galleries from Santa Barbara to San Diego, Santa Monica to Palm Springs.

For Sunday's LA Times I put together a timeline intended to be helpful in orienting interested parties. I hope it's a good read too and tells part of the story of this remarkable state. The chronology -- HERE -- tracks things from the work of Salvador Dali's (right) with Hitchcock, through Ed Ruscha and the Ferus Gallery and the Watts Towers (above), up to the presidential election of Ronald Reagan.

I'll be writing more about Pacific Standard Time: Please stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Violinist Ray Chen Nods to Elvis

Ray Chen is a young classical violinist who's got both a golden tone and the kind of catholic taste I find all too infrequently in conservatory trained musicians.

Chen is the latest subject of my Influences column: Here he talks about his love of J.S. Bach, Yo-Yo Ma and Elvis Presley.

The Taiwan native also wrote to me about his love of friends and family, food and drink, and exercise. For a touring musician, especially one who plays repetitive motions on an instrument like a violin, it's serious business. He told me had just gotten back from the gym.

I love keeping myself healthy and in shape, especially if it means that you can eat more! But on a more serious note, exercising is a great way to provide stress relief, keep one's endurance on the road, and also prevent common problems that musicians can get, like carpal tunnel syndrome and other muscle-related injuries.  My goal is to still be playing violin when I'm 85 years old - like my former teacher Aaron Rosand who can still give me a run for my money when he takes out his violin!

Chen plays tonight here in SoCal at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

Photo courtesy Ray Chen.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Pres. Obama and the Plight of the Middle Class

FOLKS, I'll be appearing on KCRW's To the Point with Warren Olney, which will broadcast today at noon on 89.9 FM in Los Angeles and later, presumably, elsewhere around the country on the PRI network.

We'll be talking about Obama's jobs speech and the larger issue of the middle class during the economic downturn. I'm there to discuss my experience as a laid off newspaper reporter who's struggled with the collapsed economy.

One bit of Obama's speech was especially resonant for me: 

These men and women grew up with faith in an America where hard work and responsibility paid off. They believed in a country where everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share -- where if you stepped up, did your job, and were loyal to your company, that loyalty would be rewarded with a decent salary and good benefits; maybe a raise once in a while. If you did the right thing, you could make it. Anybody could make it in America.

Anyway, we'll be discussing this and more shortly.

Update: With the show now up and broadcasting from KCRW, I want to recommend a very intelligent discussion in which your humble blogger was just okay.

One point: Chicago small business owner Jay Goltz, who wrote a smart piece for the New York Times about hiring, took issue with something I said about taxes and the rich. He made the point that someone making $250,000 is in very different shape than a billionaire hedge fund guy. I did not have time to respond, but I agree completely. (We need more small business owners like him and fewer too-big-to-fail corporations.)

Finally, this matter connects to a larger point which I did not get time to make, but: The most affluent 400 people in this country hold as much wealth as the bottom 150 million. So to even talk about the middle class is a bit of a nostalgic fiction, at least in the way we used to discuss it as a robust center of American life.

These days, politics dances to the tune of the top 1 percent, not the middle class. There is class warfare in this country: It's that very richest tier against the rest of us -- and they're winning. Bigtime.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Struggle Over Middlebrow

I JUST finished a very intriguing Louis Menand piece on culture critic Dwight Macdonald and the notion of middlebrow. (For those Easterners snorting that I am getting to the story so tardily, let me quote my friend and fellow Angeleno Manohla Dargis, who says that most weeks we get the New Yorker so late it seems to've been delivered by pony express.)

The notion of cultural hierarchy -- which works are good, which are "good for" us, and so on -- has fascinated me for a long time and had shaped a lot of my cultural journalism. I engaged with the highbrow-middlebow-lowbrow question in a reported essay for the LA Times that I expected no one would read. Instead, I heard more from it than almost anything I've written.

HERE is the piece, which begins in a discussion of Macdonald's writings on middlebrow and Clement Greenberg's "Avant Garde and Kitsch." (The pugnacious but also supportive relationship between the Ivy League-ish anarchist Macdonald and Jewish art critic Greenberg is a big part of Menand's piece.)

This is the kind of piece that I consider the beginning (or continuation) of the discussion -- it's hard to have the last word on anything as complex and ever changing as culture and what it does to us.