Saturday Night Music — Whitehorse performing “Sweet Disaster”

Wow.  If some of the licks sound familiar it’s because you remember them from The Zombies’ “Time of the Season.”  Whitehorse consists of husband and wife Canadian singer/songwriters Melissa McClelland and Luke Douset.  Since forming Whitehorse in 2011 they have pursued solo careers, but in their collaborative effort they have established a unique sound of southern and country-and-western influenced North American roots music that feels as if it could be out of a modern western road movie.  Their latest album, Leave No Bridge Unburned, has already garnered rave reviews, following on the heels of their critically acclaimed album The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss.  There is not a weak track on either offering.  Check them out.

Here is the official video release from Six Shooter Records.  You decide which version is better.

Sunday Early Morning Music — Steve Earle Performing “King of the Blues”

Originally a roots rocker from the mid-1980s Steve Earle has become an American treasure, singing songs that cross genres that include folk, protest, country, rockabilly, Americana, and roots music.  Born in Fort Monroe, Virginia, but raised outside of San Antonio, Texas, independent-minded and rebellious, Steve Earle has always followed his own musical vision.  Since the appearance of Guitar Town in 1986, he has produced one milestone album after another, many of them scorned and ignored when first released.  When I first heard his first album he seemed to possess a combination of the east coast attitude of Bruce Springsteen combined with the mid-west swagger and rebellion of John Mellencamp.  Then came the neo-traditional country that was reminiscent of the songs of Dwight Yoakum, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, and Randy Crowell.  Then from there he was off on his own and I have followed him and his muse ever since.

This should have been no surprise.  He met and was influenced early by Townes Van Zandt and, after moving to Nashville, was part of Guy Clark’s backup band in the 1970s.  He has since incorporated those influences and pushed the music forward, honoring the tradition, but incorporating new elements.

Steve Earle produces story-songs that trace and record the life of the common man and woman.  His songs embody the hopes, joys, sadness, disappointment, and sometimes anger that is part of American life.  His character role in the TV series Treme’, which itself was an artistic achievement that represents an archive and testimony of our own time: a view of early 21st century America as seen through the lives of the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the indifference, vicissitudes, day-to-day struggles, and political corruption they overcame in its wake.  His song “This City” still rings in my mind.  Aside from music and occasional acting, Earle also is a talented novelist.

His latest album, released last month, is entitled Terraplane.  The song that follows is “King of the Blues.”

Return to Blogging Music — Otis Taylor performing “Blue Rain in Africa”

There are few uniquely American forms of music most devalued in its own country than the blues, though many musicians outside its genre have not hesitated to co-opt its forms, often without attribution.  Otis Taylor was born in Chicago in 1948  but grew up in Denver.  His father wanted him to be a jazz musician but his first instrument of choice was the banjo.  When he learned that the banjo had been co-opted by white 19th century black-face minstrel shows playing bluegrass, he dropped the instrument in favor of guitar and harmonica, and later the mandolin.  In Denver he was inspired through the Denver Folklore Center, where he was influenced by the music of Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi John Hurt.  Hearing Etta James sing “All I Want to Do Is Make Love to You,” also was an inspiring moment in his life, drawing him closer to the blues.  I can understand the inspiration.

As a teenager and young man he started a couple of bands based in the blues.  He reached maturity in the ’60s, stayed in the U.K. for a period of time in order to close a deal for a stillborn record contract during the heyday of the British enthusiasm for American blues, and after a few more years of performing quit altogether to be an antique broker in 1976.  Fortunately for all of us that wasn’t the last word from Otis Taylor on music.  Prodded by bassist Kenny Passarelli, he returned to music in 1995, initially for a benefit concert, and continued to pursue his musical talent.

Taylor is not an artist to avoid hard topics, which elevates his music beyond its genre.  His early life was marred by violence and racism, and his family history included lynching and other humiliations that attended being black in mid-20th century America.  This experience is documented in his early music.  Since 1995 his music has evolved as society has evolved, focused on concerns of social and economic injustice, the invisible ties between America and Africa, the day-to-day struggles, hopes, joys, passions, and humiliations of everyday people.  As the core of his narrative has remained grounded in the blues folk form, his music has expanded to include jazz, rock, funk, and other instrumentation.  In this way he successfully reflects and epitomizes the history of American music itself–from the blues, to jazz, to rhythm & blues, to rock and roll.

As a student of history I am often perplexed by historical amnesia in modern society, especially when one considers the life experience of someone like Otis Taylor.  He rose out of a world in which white society was built on the neo-slave labor of Jim Crow in the American south and de facto segregation and redlining in the north; lived through the Civil Rights era as a member of that disenfranchised group, and witnessed the breaking down of de jure racism and segregation; experienced the backlash that attended “benign neglect” and the neo-Confederate Southern Strategy; and then lived through the slow process of acceptance through individual struggle.  It is clear that, as William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  As such, Otis Taylor’s music lives in the present but links us to the history that is an essential part of our collective memory on topics that are never comfortable.  He entertains but the entertainment always comes with a question, a thought, a reflection, a perspective.

In the album, “My World is Gone,” Taylor turns his attention to the experience of American indigenous people in modern American society.  Here he is with American Nakota Nation guitar wizard Mato Nanji of the band Indigenous on “Blue Rain in Africa.”  The birth of a White Buffalo has significance to the storyteller in the song, since it is a hopeful sign in Native American folklore, but he experiences the event via the medium of television: the incongruity of the mystical and the modern, connections unseen, and pondered.

This year Saharan dust traveled the ocean and fell to the ground in Florida drifting on the trade winds, as it has done for tens of thousands of years, if not longer, but at least since the Sahara became a desert.  It is all interconnected, though perhaps not in the metaphysical realm.

Saturday Music Interlude — Field Report performing “Home (Leave the Lights On)”

Anyone who leaves home for long periods of time for work or service can appreciate this song.  Field Report is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin band fronted by singer Chris Porterfield.  The band garnered almost universal critical acclaim on its initial self-titled debut in 2012.  Since that release the band has reduced its membership from a septet to a quartet.  They are WXPN’s band of the month to watch and have already garnered raves from fellow musicians as varied as Mark Eitzel and Richard Thompson.  Critics have compared their music to Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan and Nebraska-era Springsteen.  The music is organic and genuine.

Saturday Music Interlude — Hurray for the Riff Raff Performing Look Out Mama

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.