Billy Joe Shaver is one of those stories of a common man who overcomes many obstacles to achieve his potential. He was a working man who became a little known, but much respected, songwriter, and–after a few false starts–has since become a successful singer-songwriter in his own right. His songs, as those of any great folksinger, focus on the internal and external struggles, hopes, fears, and yearnings of everyday men and women.
I heard this song just last week on the radio. It’s one those songs meant for an introspective Saturday. Here he is performing it six years ago in concert arranged by AMSD.
Holiday preparations have caused a short hiatus from blogging on my latest topics. Watch for a new post at AITS.org soon, as well as further posts on project management and a follow up on the Materiality vs. Prescriptiveness controversy in auditing, and in public contracting and project management.
For now, however, is some music by Patty Griffin.
Oftentimes artistry comes from pain, and that is probably true in describing the start of Patty Griffin’s musical career. Her bio states that she was born in Old Town, Maine in 1964 and showed no interest in pursuing a musical career, though she learned to play the guitar and undoubtedly has a beautiful singing voice. Then came the breakup of her marriage in 1992. She began writing and performing songs in Boston coffeehouses and small clubs, where she had lived when her marriage ended. Her insightful lyrics and strong musical voice attracted other established artists, the likes of which were Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and the Dixie Chicks. They began covering her songs at about the same time that she was began releasing albums beginning in the late nineties, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Personally, I came to her music early with the release of the album Flaming Red, in 1998. It and the one that preceded it, Living with Ghosts, are considered essential albums in the singer-songwriter genre, though her following albums are just as accomplished and have won her many musical accolades, not only from her audience but also from other songwriters and musical artists.
I saw her perform in concert at the now defunct Thirsty Ear Music Festival at a venue that consisted of a movie western set outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2008. She paused her performance to remark about the colors of the hills to the east she was facing–awash in yellow ochre and shades of magenta and pink–which she viewed as she sang her songs. The landscape there has inspired many artists. Behind her the desert sun was low in the sky, about ready to set, illuminating from behind the thin plains of clouds hanging in the air, the colors of red, orange, yellow, and grey. Then she resumed and sang “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” and in that moment it seemed to me that if there was a voice that would come from the throat of a muse, this was it.
Her latest album is entitled Servant of Love. Her website describes this album as exploring all of the aspects of love: both its positive and negative aspects, its pleasure and pain, its fulfillment and its loneliness. In this way her music continues to record and explore the human experience. Here she is performing “250,000 Miles.”
The 2014 edition of the SXSW Festival showcased so much talent that it is hard to choose the standouts. Now we’re well into music festival season with the New Orleans Jazz Fest just concluded.
Music, as all of the arts, is a rough business. For every band that “makes” it with a modicum of fame, there are hundreds just as talented that operate just below the surface of popular culture. Having spent significant parts of my life in and around New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and other cities in the United States, for me it is those performers–just a step away from recognition–that stitch together the strands in the fabric of civilization. For it is these people who live for the art, for the love of the thing.
Having been a jazz enthusiast for virtually my entire life, I have listened to, watched, and met performers of the art of that uniquely American form of improvisational music dedicate themselves to excellence in their craft. Most of them are unknown to the great majority of the populace and their recordings have been heard by very few that have been fortunate enough to have had that opportunity. Yet they press on.
One day I met a saxophone player who was the featured musical artist at a poetry slam that combined poetry readings with improvisational jazz. During the break we talked about The Music and he told me about a time when he had the opportunity to play with the great Art Blakey at Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio. “I played the best music of my life in that set,” he said. “But then Rudy looked over at us and he realized that the recording equipment had malfunctioned and hadn’t recorded anything.” Though I was a stranger–a mere fan listening to the story of a malfunction many years removed–I felt distress for the man before me at hearing his story. “Weren’t you disheartened?” I asked. He smiled then. “No, because we weren’t doing it for the recording. We were doing it for the thing. When you do it for the recording, for others to hear you, then that’s just ego and that ain’t nothin’.”
I realized then that he was right, and that his admonition that when you pursue “just ego…that ain’t nothing” applied to other pursuits and not just to music.
Since that day when I walk down Frenchman Street in NOLA and come upon a group of young people in an ad hoc brass band I know–I feel–that they are doing it for “the thing.” When I go to Nashville and come upon artists plying their music at the local bar and at the street corners I know they are doing it for “the thing.” Walking down Venice Beach, in the clubs of San Francisco, in the neighborhoods of Philly, the boardwalk on the Jersey shore, outside Santa Fe with the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the distance, remembering the Hoboken of my youth, and the music I heard in Spanish Harlem and in the Cuban section of Miami, on the old Steel Pier in Atlantic City, in the jazz bars of Manhattan (or what’s left of them), I heard that same thing–that voice, that joy, that playfulness, that anger, that sadness, that blues, recording who and what we are; recording the human experience and human emotion in all of its hues in ways that only music can accomplish: “the thing.” Then, given this knowledge, when you find those artists that combine the heady admixture of originality, genuineness, and musicality, it is a transcendent experience.
All of this is simply preface to three very different talents that I’ve come upon and who stick in that part of my mind that says: “here is something.”
The first is Humming House and, full disclosure, I came upon them via WordPress when they responded to one of my previous musical posts. So I decided to check them out. What I found was a group of talented performers communicating absolute joy through their music. Working out of Nashville, Humming House is one of those bands that seem to open for every first rate act and whose music can be heard in many mediums while never quite breaking through. Their genre is American roots, folk, country and pop. They performed in Austin and the following is a SXSW Showcasing Video.
The next band also turned some heads at SXSW and the following video is from the Jam in the Van franchise. They are a rock and dirty blues outfit from San Diego, California consisting of two members: Celest “CC” Spina on drums, and Anthony “Tony” Catalano on guitar. On the following song “Superblues,” Catalano’s vocals are electric with Spina propelling the music forward using an idiosyncratic drumming style that still manages to work.
Finally, the last artist is from the U.K. but was mentioned as the standout first timer to the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Her name is Laura Mvula. Her voice is an impressive instrument that she manipulates to remind one of singers as different as Nina Simone and Sade. The performance that follows from a U.K. music program is simply electric.
This group has been around since 2007 but–as with most worthwhile endeavors–took some time to build up some stream, noting small but notable successes along the way. They caught the attention of Spin magazine at the beginning of the year and made a big splash at the latest SXSW Music Festival in Austin this past month. The band is led by Alynda Lee Segarra, a Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent who left home at the age of 17 and settled in New Orleans. Hearing her story alone caught my attention. Then I heard the music. It is folk, country, roots music. It is music from the heart and it is no surprise that Ms. Segarra’s journey took her to New Orleans, the city where the soul of America resides: beaten, abused, milked, and exploited but refusing to die, to lay down, to quit. This is America. This is who we are and where we came from. We are the mutts of the world, the ones no one wanted, the runts of the litter, the downtrodden and the poor, the cast offs, the survivors, the melting pot, (who if you cross us are a little dangerous), and we’ll not be defeated.
Adventures in collecting "modern jazz": the classical music of America from the Fifties and Sixties, and a little Seventies, on original vinyl, on a budget, from England. And writing about it, since 2011. Travelling a little more widely nowadays, and at lower cost