Sunday, June 22, 2008

Warren Haynes cuts new album

Guitarist Warren Haynes has a new solo album on the way, an exciting project recorded with New Orleans musicians. Haynes went to Willie Nelson's studio in Texas to record with New Orleanians George Porter, Jr. on bass, Ivan Neville on keys and
Raymond Weber on drums. Porter has played with Haynes on the Deep End project and is a great foil for Warren's soulful playing. This is definitely a record to keep an ear out for.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dr. John in New York

New Orleans piano giant Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John has been getting some of the most high profile exposure of his career since the release of his latest album City That Care Forgot. Tuesday he appeared on the David Letterman show and played to a packed house in New York's Highline Ballroom. The atmosphere was far different from a New Orleans throwdown from Mac -- for one thing the audience was seated at tables, making dancing a difficult proposition. But Mac had something to say, and the New York crowd listened attentively.
Though there were seven players in his band, Mac continues to call the group "the Lower 9 11," something he's been doing for at least six years now. The reference is to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and there may well have been 11 members at some point. The connection to how the world has changed since 9/11 is hard to miss, and the celebration of the neighborhood where Dr. John rambled back in the day and where many of his musician friends come from is eerily prescient now that it has been completely destroyed "like it was hit wit' an H Bomb" as he told the crowd. New York and New Orleans share a sorrowful wartime bond dealing with the scars of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the wholesale destruction of New Orleans by the post-Katrina federal flood, which made it seem like the war was being waged by the government against its own people. Other towns in the country are currently suffering through similar unrecoverable disasters, and it certainly doesn't look like anyone has any intention of doing anything about it. Accordingly Mac isn't buying any of the political bromides being offered in an election year, an appropriate stance for someone who watched Ray Nagin appear to almost purposefully bungle the recovery effort in New Orleans despite his campaign promises to make New Orleans "Chocolate City" once again.
"The road to the White House is paved with lies," Mac sang tartly.
Unlike a lot of the narcissistic angst and kneejerk punk rabble rousing that passes for political discourse from the latest generation of white rock stars, Mac's political observations don't shy from establishing motive and pinning specific blame on the bad guys. The motive: "Black Gold," an anti-Big Oil polemic from the album delivered early on in the set. The bad guys: "Cheney and Haliburton." When Mac spit out those names it was as if he had invoked evil spirits. A palpable shiver ran through the audience.
The New York Times recently ran a piece which claimed that Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" has become the anthem of post-Katrina New Orleans music. The writer Geoffrey Hymes witnessed an extraordinary performance by the great New Orleans vocalist John Boutte at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in which Boutte made the song his own, adding new lyrics about the destruction of the lower ninth ward. It was a career defining performance, and Hymes wrote a moving profile of Boutte for OffBeat magazine based on it. But his enthusiasm to project the song onto the rest of the city's performers was misplaced.
There is indeed a post-Katrina anthem in New Orleans music, a song written several generations ago in reaction to the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged New Orleans but still resonates in the wake of a flood that left so many mourning members of their families. The song is "St. James Infirmary" and Dr. John chose it to open his set, playing it in an eerie, dirge-like mambo.
After the show Dr. John entertained a handful of guests in his dressing room. The rigors of an intense touring schedule and his Ancient Mariner's determination to tell his story before it's too late have taken a toll on this road warrior and he admitted to being tired. But when I told him I wrote for OffBeat his eyes brightened.
"You the guy who wrote dat review of the album," he said with an approving smile. "Man, you really got it!"

Here's that review:

Dr. John
City That Care Forgot
By John Swenson

Dr. John has always been a superior songwriter. A master conceptualist, he envisions lyrics and music as part of an overall vision. He is one of the very few denizens of the fertile New Orleans R&B scene of the 1950s to translate the miniaturist art of the three-minute hit into the longplayer ethos of funk and rock. His conceptual power travels further into his interpretations of other writers’ songs. Unlike most New Orleans groups who use cover material as simple fodder for jamming grooves with little regard for the original song structure, Mac Rebennack translates everything he touches into Dr. John material.

Aside from his apocalyptic glimpse at the chaos of late-1960s American culture on his second album, Babylon, Rebennack has rarely ventured into topical material. In fact, many of his lyrics make up a kind of secret language corresponding to the sound of his music. But he has been politicized by what he views as a wholesale governmental betrayal of New Orleans before and after Katrina, beginning with the shoddy construction of the levees that failed in the storm surge and continuing through the corruption and deceit of the recovery effort. He’s written about this for the Voices of the Wetlands, but now he’s devoted nearly an entire album to the subject, City That Care Forgot.

This subject matter is so important to Dr. John that he has enlisted several writers to help him put his point across, including a trusted old friend, Bobby Charles, the author of “Walking to New Orleans.” The trademark Dr. John delivery, relaxed and offhanded, still comes across in large part, but it’s spiked with the unmistakable catch-in-the-throat sound of an angry man. It’s a startling transition for those who’ve followed him over the years, and it gets your attention.

There are several cameo pieces here—the inspirational “You Might Be Surprised,” the environmental anthem “Save Our Wetlands,” and a great song about the city’s controversial campaign to stamp out second line celebrations, “My People Need a Second Line” with a terrific guest shot from Trombone Shorty.

Over the course of the rest of the record, Rebennack outlines the framework of an epic American tragedy in point-by-point observations, drawing on what some might call urban myths to paint a powerful picture of systemic betrayal and genocide.

In “Keep on Going,” he references the Hansel and Gretel story of being lost in a forest to describe those driven from their homes by the storm. They left that trail of bread crumbs, but it was washed away, and now “the only home you got is your own self.” He mythologizes himself as “a samurai of the Holy Lost Cause,” and asserts that the levees were blown “with intention.” He attributes motivation to that intention in “Land Grab,” accusing the politicians and their corporate backers of trying to run the people of the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard off their homes in “the biggest land grab since Columbus.”

Everywhere he turns, he sees evil in the world—trigger-happy Blackwater private security forces who used deadly force without legal restraint in the chaotic days after the storm, much needed resources wasted in Iraq, and behind it all Bush, Cheney and Halliburton. But alongside the anger is a deep wellspring of sorrow. In “We’re Getting’ There,” he writes of people he knows losing the battle to rebuild their homes and giving up. “Ask anybody if they knew a friend that died from suicide,” he notes coldly.

That sorrow reaches its apotheosis as a motivating factor in Rebennack’s world on “Stripped Away,” a loving remembrance of New Orleans before the storm.

Few people have done a better job of codifying the spirit of New Orleans over the years, offering tributes to its musical forefathers and participating directly in nearly a half century of its most important music. On City That Care Forgot he may have fashioned its most elegant obituary.

Friday, June 13, 2008

John Swenson receives three nominations for New Orleans Press Club awards

John Swenson has been nominated for awards in three categories by the New Orleans Press Club for articles published in OffBeat magazine during 2007.
The nominations are in the Feature category for "The Blue Room Blues"; in the Entertainment category for "Every Accordionist a King"; and in the Critical Review category for "Songs of Innocence and Experience."

Here are links to the stories:

Every Accordionist A King

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Blue Room Blues

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Everybody knew... but Jerry Lee

Jerry Lee Lewis
Town Hall, New York City
The two guys standing outside Town Hall holding their $100 tickets
could have been refugees from a Neil Simon play. "Jerry Lee Lewis,"
said the one with the black strands of his combover anointing his
dome like so much grease paint. "What's he gonna do, play 'Great
Balls of Fire?'"
Inside the house lights dazzled as they reflected off the highly
polished pates of the seniors on hand, but there was as much of a
buzz in the hall as at any big rock show at Madison Square Garden.
After all these oldtimers were on hand to see a man who, despite
being the oldest guy in the house, promised to deliver them back to
rock's golden age.
"Anybody in the house remember the 50s?" local DJ Broadway Bill asked
rhetorically by way of introducing Jerry Lee's backing band, a two
guitar quartet led by guitarist Ken Lovelace, who joined 41 years ago
when Jerry Lee made his then-controversial "switch" to country music.
The fact is that even in his rockabilly prime Jerry Lee was pure
country, and the distinction has virtually disappeared in the ensuing
By the end of the night the entire crowd was standing and singing
along to "Great Balls of Fire," urging the "last man standing" on as
he wrapped up a near-perfect set delivered with the elan and self
assurance of a master craftsman. Jerry Lee didn't pound wildly on the
keys or strike them with the heels of his black patent leather high
heel boots as he once did -- in fact he was slightly hunched over and
appeared to have trouble walking -- but his hands still flew across
the keyboard with precision, urgency and flair. The most remarkable
thing about Lewis, though, is his voice. Strong and clear, completely
unchallenged by the most difficult notes, Lewis' voice is a treasure
of Americana, still fully adept at delivering dry rockabilly classics
and arguably one of the greatest instruments in the history of
country music, as his wry but heartbreaking rendition of Hank
Williams' "You Win Again" ("everybody knew... but Jerry Lee") proved.
When you hear what sounds like echoes of Bob Dylan's phrasing in
"Drinking Wine Spo Dee Oh Dee" or the sonorous held note on "End of
the Road" that recalls Willie Nelson you realize that these icons
were influenced by Lewis, not the other way around. Think about it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Nick Zito, Giant Killer

A generation ago trainer Allen Jerkins saddled a horse named Onion to beat Triple Crown champion Secretariat and earned the nickname "The Giant Killer."
Today there's a new giant killer on the New York racing circuit. Trainer Nick Zito has earned the title after sending out horses to foil Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes twice in the last four years.
Zito put across Da' Tara, the longest shot in the race at 38-1, to win the 140th Belmont Saturday, four years after he spoiled
the "Smarty Party" when Smarty Jones made his bid for the Triple Crown in the Belmont only to be run down in the final yards by the Zito-trained 36-1 longsahot Birdstone. This time the drama was over long before Da' Tara crossed the wire ahead of Denis of Cork by five and a quarter lengths. Zito told jockey Alan Garcia "Just put him on the lead, he's getting better and better," and Da'Tara led
every step of the way.
Garcia set a measured pace through a half mile in :48.30 and six furlongs in 1:12.90 with Tale of Ekati and Big Brown tracking him closely. As Da' Tara approached the stretch jockey Kent Desormeaux pulled Big Brown up and suddenly Da'Tara had an enormous lead heading down the stretch as the field broke up behind him. Da'
Tara bore out through the stretch but was so far clear of the rest none of them had a shot at catching him.
After Zito won the Belmont in 2004 he apologized to the connections of Smarty Jones for ruining their party. This time aroundb Zito took his victory in stride, kissing the trophy in the winner's circle.
"I've been second six times in this race and third a bunch of times," said Zito. "We have a history in the race."
Not only did Zito win the Belmont with the longest shot in the race, Da' Tara, he also saddled the second-longest shot in the Belmont, Anak Nakal, to finish third in a dead heat at 34-1.
Zito was characteristically gracious in his post race remarks, taking nothing away from Big Brown.
"If Big Brown was himself he would have been tough to beat," said Zito. "He wasn't and that's why they play the game."
Zito knows what it's like to have the favorite fail to live up to expectations. He had his own Triple Crown hopeful this year with Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner War Pass, who was sidelined by injury and didn't compete in the Triple Crown.
But he knew he had an ace in the hole.
"Da' Tara was one of Nick's favorite horses from the very beginning," said owner Robert LaPenta.
Zito suggested that LaPenta name the horse after "Zatara," the nickname of the hero of Alexandre Dumas' novel "The Count of Monte Cristo."
"I bought this horse at Saratoga," said Zito. "It was an absolutely spectacular looking horse."
Da' Tara's victory is one of the most dramatic reversals in recent racing history. He was beaten more than 23 lengths by Big Brown this past March in the Florida Derby.
Zito noted that his horse was improving, but he was more than willing to admit that the result was just as unexpected as Birdstone's was over Smarty Jones.
"They both are surprising and both gratifying," he said. "They're longshots. (Big Brown) wasn't himself today. We took advantage of that."
Spoken like a true giant killer.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Bongo Johnny Likes Big Brown

Somewhere between four and five in the afternoon every day at Smith's Bar on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn the action picks up steam. The mail jockeys down the block like to stop in for the $1.50 mugs of Bud. This old time four corners bar, a Brooklyn fixture since the Ninth street trolley took the dock workers down to Red Hook back in the glory days after prohibition, is the last of the local watering holes that hasn't turned into a theme pub for upscale newcomers moving into luxury condos at a million a pop or a private club for the widow of the guy who opened it up after he returned home from World War II.
Bongo Johnny gestures at the TV, where the horse channel showed the post parade for the second race at Hollywood Park. "C'mon, get your dollars on the bar," says Bongo Johnny. "I'll take the 5 horse."
Bongo Johnny works the crowd until he had a pile of singles in front of him. Popeye the bartender gives him the look. Popeye is old school and believes that all of his regulars deserve a nickname. Most of them like it and it's an easy way to remember who everyone is, even if you haven't seen him for years. One guy is John Wayne, another Mayor Kotch, somebody else is Sinbad. The young fireman who tends bar on the weekends is Jason Giambi. "Don't he look like Jason Giambi?" Popeye asks everyone at the bar. They all agree, even if he doesn't look that much like Jason Giambi, because they enjoy the alternate reality. Once they walk into Smith's they shed the skin of the dog's life of grinding it out in post-9/11 New York City. A couple of shots of "Palooka juice" as Popeye refers to the beer and these guys are all denizens of a mythic "Palookaville," where the idea that "I could've been a contender" is viewed as an optimistic statement.
Bongo Johnny is one of the few that came by his nickname because of something he did instead of how he looked. A salsa fan, Johnny sometimes used to play in front of the Bodega that is now a pizza joint masquerading as an Italian restaurant on third street. One day at the Fifth Avenue street fair years ago Popeye saw him in action and from then on it was Bongo Johnny. Johnny likes being remembered as a musician instead of a mail carrier.
But for now Bongo Johnny is on the 5 horse at Hollywood Park.
"Look at him go!" he shouts as the horse moves to the lead in the stretch. Bongo Johnny chugs his Bud. "Go, go, go!" He yells at the screen. The 5 wins by a nose but is disqualified by the stewards. "No," yells Bongo Johnny. "no, no, no."
Bongo Johnny downs another glass of Palooka juice. "I actually won that," he tells his buddy from the post office, handing over the cash. "The stewards screwed me.
"But that's OK," says Bongo Johnny. "Saturday I'm a winner. I'm betting Big Brown in the Belmont stakes."
Popeye places another frosted mug of Palooka juice on the bar and says "But Bongo Johnny, Big Brown is 2-5."
"That's OK with me," says Johnny. "When he crosses that finish line with my money on his back I'll be hollering like I had my whole paycheck on him."

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Roots of rap in Bo Diddley, too

When Bo Diddley sings "You can't judge a book by looking at the cover" you know he means it. This is elementary rock AND roll, the drums sweeping it up in true primitive Legba utterance, Diddley a griot delivering the story line in parables, local farmyard observations, homilies ("you can't judge one by looking at the other") but mostly self mythologization, to wit: "I look like a farmer but... Im a lover." Meanwhile his guitar is a rumbling mufferless road hog of a single chord played sideways, insistently. At the climax he hits a truly sick chord, so out of tune as to be monstrous, monumenetal, unmistakable. I AM BO DIDDLEY MOFO I PLAY IT YOU LIKE IT. In the realm of the magician there are no wrong notes. Elsewhere, like in "Say, Man," Bo Diddley tells more stories and holds verbal jousts with his maracas player Jerome. Jerome asks Bo a question, a taunt meant to catch Bo in its trap. Bo answers flatly as the beat drones on: "Whut?" Jerome delivers some grisly insult about Bo or his family. "Whut?" becomes a question followed by a pause followed by the Diddley retort. "I already figured out what you is..." Jerome's voice goes up a half pitch for his almost fearful "whassat?" Bo says, slyly : "You that thing I throw peanuts at."
Many have claimed to have invented rap, men from James Brown to Ike Turner. Bo Diddley didn't have to. There were too many other imitators ahead of the rappers he had to get rid of first. Diddley was always a little pissed off that so many rock bands made a fortune off the beat he believed he invented. Set aside that Bo heard it somewhere else himself, because he codified it in a way that made it easy for everybody from the Rolling Stones and the Animals; the Who and U2; Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen; and the grunge rock bands of the 1990s to use it to create their own music. The Ramones may have launched a million bands with the idea that if they could do it anybody could, but Bo Diddley literally taught the rest of the world how to play rock and roll.
The spontaneous celebrations of Diddley's influence are no doubt going on somewhere even as you read this. Last Monday as news of his death spread The Radiators finished off a show in New York with a lengthy meditation on the Rolling Stones' Diddlified "Not Fade Away" and Bo's "Mona."

Big Brown carries heavy impost

If you want a sure sign of how deeply the recession is cutting around these parts watch the New York Racing Association's preparations for what may well be one of the biggest days in its history Saturday. The cash strapped institution, faced with the potential elimination of its very franchise to conduct thoroughbred horseracing in New York, is running Big Brown's Triple Crown bid on a shoestring. The comparison with the last attempt to sweep racing's greatest challenge by Smarty Jones in 2004 is sobering. The relentless promotions and lavish galas that surrounded what was expected to be a "Smarty Party" have devolved into arguments about steroids, animal cruelty and whether Big Brown's trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. should be more respectful of the competition.
I was unprepared for my reaction in 2004 when Birdstone surged past Smarty Jones in the final yards of the 2004 race. Tears of joy unexpectedly welled in my eyes. The horses had decided the outcome when it came down to the running of the race, not the thousands of pundits that had declared it "no contest" before they even went around the track. Seeing conventional wisdom and the supposed infallibilty of the people who view horses' performances only in terms of numbers flouted so irretrievably was a moment of spiritual clarity that only those who work hands on with these magnificent animals day in and day out usually get to experience.
The predictions are more guarded this time around, but Big Brown just has that look about him, the champion's demeanor. He faces a field in the Belmont that includes several horses with a realistic chance to improve enough to win the race, but the fact remains that the only race in which Big Brown has ever had to reach inside himself for something extra was the Kentucky Derby. He projects the sense that we might not have seen his best race yet. At a time when the game itself is under siege a great horse emerging to win the Triple Crown would go a long way toward reestablishing some semblence of horse racing's glory days. It's a good thing the horse doesn't know how much more than his own ability to conquer Belmont's mile and a half is riding on his back this Saturday.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Crawfish fiesta!

Michael Arnone's 19th annual New Jersey Crawfish bash was the best renewal of this event I've attended over the years. The weather cooperated as the only rain came after the funky Meters closed out the outdoor stage on Saturday. Saturday night Tab Benoit tore it up for the campers in the after hours show with Mitch Woods sitting in on piano. Fans of Rosie Ledet were disappointed that she didn't make her scheduled appearances Sunday on the main stage and the dancehall but Leroy Thomas did a good job filling in for her.

Little Freddie King, who is enjoying a high point of popularity with a cover story on this month's OffBeat magazine, played a hard hitting set of electric blues. After Bonerama's outstanding performance, which featured a topical new song, "Hard Times," the Nappy Brown Orchestra might have felt like the Blues Brothers band waiting for Jake and Ellwood to show because Nappy was nowhere in sight. Eleven songs into what was a fine fill-in set Nappy's limo finally pulled up to the stage, but the aged R&B giant was so ill he couldn't even stand up once he got on stage. He sang the first song literally lying down on the stage, and amazingly his voice was strong and clear even as he appeared to be in severe physical distress. The band started to go into another tune but Brown told his band leader to play "Worried Life Blues" instead. Brown's rendition of this song about accepting the peace of death after a hard life was one of the most powerfully moving blues performances I've ever witnessed. It took everything out of him, because Brown was unable to make it through the next song, his set-closing signature tune "Nightime is the Right Time." Brown had to be helped off the stage by his band and was attended to by EMS personnel in full view of the audience before being whisked of to the hospital for treatment. His attempt to go on with the show was a supremely heroic gesture and we can only thank him for the ultimate sacrifice and pray for his recovery.

Meanwhile Railroad Earth put on an enjoyable show for the large number of fans who came to see them on the main stage. Railroad Earth demonstrated its connection to the music of Louisiana when violinist Tim Carbone joined Allen Toussaint's New Orleans R&B group for a spirited jam. Toussaint suggested that Carbone could join his group after they finished.