About Sanjoy Narayan
July 17: Tipped off by a friend on Twitter that Wilco, the rock band fronted by Jeff Tweedy, had made a surprise release of their new album, Star Wars, as a free download on their website, I head there to do the needful – a quick download. For a couple of days after that, Star Wars is my playlist.
Something starry: Wilco's new album Star Wars shows they are much more than an alt-country rock band.
The 11 songs cut across genres – and belie the lazy label of an alt-country rock band that is sometimes accorded to the band. They’re far more than that. Good guitar rock is how I’d classify Star Wars and the songs on that album become an earworm for days.
Best tracks: The upbeat Random Name Generator; and the mellower, You Satellite.
July 20: I realise that I have 210 Grateful Dead albums (some incomplete; some complete; most bootlegs) in the cloud, on my iPad and the iPods. A hopeless obsession? Probably.
But for Monday morning, I choose an album full of rareties and old songs: it’s called Birth of the Dead. And it has the band in its early days performing songs such as Mindbender (Confusion’s Prince), Don’t Ease Me In (an instrumental version followed by the one with vocals). Pigpen is in full form through the two-disc collection.
Best tracks: A 1968 version of The Eleventh Jam of 15 minutes; and a Warner Brothers radio commercial exhorting people to buy Live/Dead (I kid you not!).
July 23: Midweek. I find Apple Music’s Beats 1 Live Radio difficult to outdo for a playlist. Didn’t check who was DJ-ing and from where (LA, NYC or London? Who knows?), but I got introduced to new artists such as Seinabo Sey, the Swedish (actually, she’s part Gambian) R&B singer. Her single Pretend, released this year, is guaranteed to aurally seduce you to check out more of her work.
Also watch: Seinabo Sey – Younger
The other highlight of the Beats1 listening session was another young R&B artist, the American, Miguel. His single Coffee will hook you.
Soulful swede: Seinabo Sey may be new on the block but this R&B singer seduces with her blues-y music.
Best tracks: Sey’s Hard Time; and Miguel’s cover of Elton John’s Bennie and the Jets.
July 24: I decide to take things back under my own control! And make a playlist. I take the easy way out: I take the three Little Feat albums that I have (Waiting for Columbus; Hoy-Hoy!; and their first studio album, Little Feat) and listen to them nonstop.
Also watch: Little Feat – Rainbow Theatre London 1977
The LA band’s frontman, the late Lowell George’s vocals, the band’s eclectic influences and excellent musicians, including co-founder Bill Payne on the keyboards, make for a compelling listen. Sadly, Little Feat in that form was short-lived. The band was formed in 1969. George died in 1979 (a year after he produced the Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street).
Best tracks: Dixie Chicken; Tripe Face Boogie; and Rocket in my Pocket. Preferably all three heard in a row.
July 25: Mellow, lo-fi stuff is what I go for. New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo with their vast catalogue of new, old and cover songs is it. Although Stuff Like That There, their new album will not be out before August end, they’ve been releasing a few songs, three till date.
Two to tengo: Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo, the band that's got the mellow in their music.
And I begin with their cover of The Cure’s Friday I’m in Love, acoustic-y and delightful. The others from the new album are Automatic Doom and Deeper Into Movies, which actually is a new interpretation of an old, more electric version of the song by the band (yes, they sometimes do those kind of covers too, re-tweaking their own compositions).
After the three, I go for their 1997 album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and 1990’s Fakebook, which has 11 cover songs, including Here Comes My Baby by Cat Stevens and Oklahoma U.S.A. by The Kinks, plus a few originals.
Best tracks: Friday I’m in Love; Yellow Sarong; and Upside-Down.
July 27: It’s a Sunday and I need to get ready for tomorrow’s inevitable blues. I go for the soundtrack to the movie Southpaw, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the boxer Billy Hope.
In the ring: Southpaw, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, has two standout tracks by Eminem.
Mainly hip-hop and rap, and produced by Eminem who has two standout tracks on it, Phenomenal, and Kings Never Die (on which Gwen Stefani joins in), it features many stars from hip-hop, R&B and rap – 50 Cent, Joey Bada$$, Slaughterhouse and The Notorious B.I.G. The soundtrack is super and makes me want to watch the film, which, considering that it was released only on July 24, I haven’t yet.
Best tracks: Phenomenal; R.N.S.; and Raw.
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My vinyl copies of two of John Mayall’s albums, The Turning Point and Empty Rooms, are long gone. I don’t remember how I lost them or who borrowed them and never returned them – a common enough way to lose albums in the 1980s when I still used to lend music to others (now I simply share files).
Both the albums came out in 1969 but I got to listen to them several years later. Mayall, the legendary English bluesman in whose band, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, big names such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green, John McVie and Jack Bruce cut their teeth in the 1960s, turned 81 in 2014. That’s the year he also released a new album, A Special Life. Listen to that album and you’ll see why he’s still the boss of British blues.
On A Special Life, Mayall sings a number of covers but his own song, World Gone Crazy, which is about the effects of religious intolerance, is the album’s must-listen track. Listening to it, I wanted to listen again to the two albums that I lost years ago. I have them in digital formats and in the cloud but it’s not the same thing. I heard them but missed the vinyls with their sleeves, album art and the text.
On The Turning Point (a live recording) and Empty Rooms (a studio album), Mayall had done away with loud electric guitars and drums and relied on horns, flutes, acoustic guitars and bass guitars that made the two albums sound spare but tight and intense.
Also watch: John Mayall 80th anniversary tour “full concert” – Marseille 2014
Turning Point has songs influenced by the zeitgeist of the 1960s – the politically charged The Laws Must Change and I’m Gonna Fight for You JB, a tribute to JB Lenoir, a black American bluesman who died in 1967 and whose songs dealt with issues of politics and racism.
On Empty Rooms also there are signs of the charged-up 1960s (Plan Your Revolution) but there are also several mellow love songs (Thinking of My Woman, To a Princess, Many Miles Apart) that strike a very intimate and personal note.
On Apple Music, I found Simla Beat '70, it has tracks from forgotten Indian rock bands.
I have heard quite a few Mayall albums (his discography is long; and his band line-ups have changed frequently) and his style of blues is quite heavily influenced by the Chicago blues sound – with themes dealing with city life (my reco on the leading exponents of the genre to explore: Muddy Waters, Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor but there are dozens of others). Like his compatriots, The Rolling Stones, Mayall’s music is highly influenced by the American blues but unlike the Stones, he stuck to the blues mainstream.
Re-hearing the two old albums, rekindled the blues bug and I spent hours trying to locate the 40th Anniversary Collection of Alligator Records CDs that I knew I’d bought a few years back. A renowned blues label, Alligator marked its 40th anniversary with the release of a 2-CD set with 38 songs.
As it happened, I couldn’t find it. I knew I had it. I knew I hadn’t lent it to anyone but yet I couldn’t find it. Then I remembered that I’d bought it just after it came out via Amazon back in 2011 and that my account in Amazon’s Music Storage in the cloud would have all the albums that I ever bought from the website plus all of what else I’d uploaded.
So, right now, as I write this, the Alligator album is streaming off the cloud. And exactly at this point, it’s Charlie Musselwhite, the phenomenally talented harmonica player doing Where Hwy 61 Runs.
Also watch: JJ Grey & Mofro – The Sun Is Shining Down
It’s a fine album, the 40th Anniv from Alligator Records. It’s got a mix of old blues musicians as well as the new. So you have Hound Dog and Buddy Guy and Albert Collins sharing an album with newer performers in the genre such as JJ Grey & Mofro, Janiva Magness (listen to her Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love) and Eric Lindell, a New Orleans-based bluesman whose guitar has a healthy proclivity to jam!
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
While I’m talking of streaming, cloud storage and so on, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’ve been trying out Apple Music, the new music streaming service.
First, it’s dirt cheap (Rs 120 per month for unlimited streaming after the three-month free trial); second, I get to hear a 24×7, always on radio (this morning at 7.30, Elton John was DJ-ing); and third, I can find almost anything I want to. Or at least that’s what I decided to challenge.
I looked for an ancient psych-rock band from my old hometown (then called Calcutta), Great Bear. They played gigs in the city way back in the early 1970s. I found them. Not only that, I found two albums, Simla Beat ’70 and Psych Rock from India. Both are crammed with tracks from forgotten old Indian rock bands. Worth checking out. In heaps.
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The late American singer Nina Simone’s voice was markedly distinctive. A contralto (the term used to describe female singers with the lowest musical pitch), when Simone sang, her voice seemed full of passion and character – a voice that you couldn’t not take note of.
In recent weeks, I’ve been listening to several of her albums: 1974’s It Is Finished, 1984’s Live at Ronnie Scott’s and the mega ‘Best of’ collection, Sugar In My Bowl, which, on two discs, has 40 songs spanning the early part of her career.
Nina Simone – The Pusher
Simone, a North Carolina preacher’s child, wanted to be a classical pianist but couldn’t get admission to a music school because she was black. She turned then to playing and singing in small venues and clubs, covering everything from jazz, gospel and blues to pop and R&B.
I Put a spell on you: The late American singer Nina Simone’s voice was markedly distinctive. During performances, she often blended dialogue with the audience. (Photos: Getty Images)
Many of her recordings are of songs written by others but covered by her in a style that is her own. On It Is Finished, she does a version of The Pusher, a song that was made famous by Steppenwolf but was written by Hoyt Axton.
Simone’s blues-soul version of what is originally a rock classic is unique. As is her cover of Mr. Bojangles, the country song that has been covered by dozens of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Arlo Guthrie.
Her own songs span an impressive range of themes. Mississippi Goddam, which became a civil activists’ anthem, was written after the bombing and killings of blacks in Mississippi and Alabama in the 1960s.
I Want A Little Sugar in My Bowl, a delightful blues song, was based on a composition with a similar title (Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl) by Bessie Smith, the early 20th century blues singer, but with Simone’s own tweak to the lyrics. But the one song that got her fame and became her first hit in America was George and Ira Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy.
I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl
Simone’s was not an easy life. Her early years as a performer were filled with long hours at small bars and clubs where she sang nightly. Her husband (a former New York cop) who also managed her career was abusive and violent (the marriage finally broke up).
And finally, after finding success as a prolific recording artist and performer, she had to live in exile in France for much of the latter part of her life because of taxes that she left unpaid in the US (as part of her protest against her country’s involvement in the Vietnam war).
I had read about Simone and her troubled life but last week when a film turned up, a biopic titled What Happened, Miss Simone?, with rare footage, interviews and narratives, it gave me a deeper insight into one of America’s finest musicians – as well as an inspiration to rediscover Simone’s music.
Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood: I had read about Simone and her troubled life. Last week, a film titled What Happened, Miss Simone? turned up – with rare footage, interviews and narratives.
The film has some footage of her performances, which were known for their magnetic nature and her powerful presence. She often blended dialogue with the audience or just self-spoken words into songs.
Simone died in France in 2003. She was 70. Her discography lives on, of course, with her music frequently used by others – from filmmakers to rap artists.
As I wrote this, I was listening, back-to-back, to her versions of three songs: Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne; The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun; and Bob Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. All three are classic songs. Without doubt, Simone’s versions must have made their composers proud.
Here Comes The Sun
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
I just managed to restrain the temptation to lead with this part of Download Central. Last Sunday at 8am, I used a combination of Airtel, Google Chromecast, my Internet browser, my laptop, my TV set, and (of course) my credit card, to watch in its entirety (three hours plus) the first concert of Grateful Dead’s last tour from Santa Clara in California.
Touch of grey: Last Sunday, I live streamed a Grateful Dead concert. It was superb.
I was, of course, in my bedroom. Trey Anastasio (lead guitar) joined the remaining members of the Dead (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) as did Bruce Hornsby (piano) and Jim Chimenti (keyboards).
The setlist was vintage Grateful Dead: think Truckin’, Alligator, Cryptical Envelopment, Dark Star, St. Stephen, Drums, The Other One and plenty, plenty more. Superb. The closest you could get to a Dead gig in Gurgaon.
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Last weekend in a curious case of serendipity, I found The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir, a documentary film by Mike Fleiss. The film is focused on the Grateful Dead’s co-founder, singer and rhythm guitarist but as expected, the spotlight is also on the late Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s legendary guitarist; on the band and its origins; on its cult-like followers; on the influence of drugs and psychedelics; on the 1960s; and all of the other things that any film on any aspect of the Grateful Dead can’t not cover.
The music never stopped: The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (film poster, below) is a documentary on the Grateful Dead’s co-founder (above) and on the late Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s legendary guitarist. (Photos: Getty Images)
If you’re not a fan of the band, it’s not a film for you — but if you are one, then it’s a must-watch. Weir who quit school at 16 to become the youngest member of the band in 1965 is at the centerpiece of the film and talks candidly about his experience; about Garcia; and about the pressures that fame had on the band members.
Also watch: Grateful Dead Final Concert 7-9-1995
And there’s rare footage that those familiar with the Dead will love to see – including one from the early 1990s of Garcia and Weir scuba diving at Maui, Hawaii, with one underwater sequence showing the former stroking the neck of what seems to be a giant eel with its head protruding from a cave, quite in line with what you’d expect Garcia to be doing underwater.
I mentioned serendipity in the beginning because this month happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead and all eyes are on its remaining members who have decided to go on one final tour with a number of concerts that start on June 27 in California and end on July 5 in Chicago.
The film poster of The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir.
The tickets for the actual concerts sold out in less than five minutes after they went on sale (scalpers will no doubt have a field day) and so have those for the several simulcasts that are planned in theaters across various cities in the US.
Although all the remaining members of the band (Garcia died in 1995) are aging – Weir is the youngest at 67, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are 69 and 71, respectively, and bassist Phil Lesh is 75 – the yet-to-be-staged final Dead tour is already a huge draw.
The Dead have been a touring act – by one estimate, between 1965 and 1995, they may have played more than 2,300 concerts and many of their die-hard fans may now be as or near about as old as the living band members are.
Then there was a story in the June 8 issue of The New Yorker magazine about how Weir was rehearsing with Phish’s Trey Anastasio in New York before the Fare Thee Well concerts begin because the phenomenally talented Phish lead guitarist will be filling in for Garcia at the concerts.
And the info that singer-pianist Bruce Hornsby has been enlisted to do duty on the keyboards, an instrument that has been an essential part of the Dead’s ensemble. Hornsby has played nearly 100 shows with the Grateful Dead in the early 1990s and is like an extended member of the band. Anastasio would probably need to rehearse more.
All of this information has re-created interest in the band for its fans, including probably the hundreds of mostly middle-aged fans in India, all of whom will likely have hoards of their music but few of whom will have had a chance to watch the Dead in the flesh.
Also watch: Grateful Dead – Estimated Prophet / Shakedown St. / Fire On The Mt / Sugar Magnolia
And then, in another serendipitous dose, to mark the 50th anniversary of the band, music website Aquarium Drunkard compiled all of its Dead Notes – in flysheet format – accompanied with zipped downloadable files of iconic performances of the band’s songs (mostly from gigs in the late 1960s and the ’70s), which together makes a great collectible for an old Deadhead (ask me, I know!). It was, altogether, a pleasant series of fortunate events to mark a landmark anniversary of a band that I loved.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
It hasn’t been two weeks yet since Ornette Coleman, jazz saxophonist, trumpeter and violinist, died on June 11. Coleman was known for his unconventional style that became a genre named ‘free jazz’ (that name came from Coleman’s 1960 album of the same name).
The shape of jazz to come: Songs in which Ornette Coleman (above) played with the Grateful Dead could be an entry point to jazz.
The blues influenced Coleman’s music but it was iconoclastic for its time – creating controversy in the jazz world of the 1960s – because of its free form structure and non-conformist improvisation. Later, he embraced electric sounds – guitars and keyboards mainly.
And here’s some more serendipity: on Coleman’s 1988 album, Virgin Beauty, Jerry Garcia played the guitar on three tracks; and, in 1993, Coleman got on stage while the Grateful Dead were playing to jam on at least five songs.
If you haven’t heard Coleman or jazz ain’t your thing, those could be the entry point to one of the genre’s greatest innovators.
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The Pixies are one of the pioneers of indie rock. And when you listen to the band, everything pales before their main man, Black Francis
I haven’t heard this band in such a long time,” said the voluble lady from Tampa, Florida, giddily, “that I’d nearly forgotten how they sound.”
We were taking a short breather outside the theatre that warm Tuesday night while the Pixies were still playing – they had just finished Isla de Encanta – Pixies and I’d stepped out for a bathroom break (a couple of Brooklyn Lagers can do that to you in your middle age) and enroute to my seat I’d bumped into a couple going out for a smoke and got talking.
Working Class Hero: If you saw Black Francis anywhere else, you could mistake him for an executive with a nine-to-five job. On stage, he’s rock’s venerated god. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Pixies were playing at New York’s Beacon Theater – their first show in the city in years – and giddy is one word to describe the crowd. The other could be nostalgic.
Isla de Encanta is almost entirely sung in Spanish and it’s a short (under two minutes) song that has a pulsating bass line delivered by Paz Lechantin, the band’s newish replacement for ex-bassist Kim Deal, fast-paced percussion from David Lovering and, of course, searing lead from Joey Santiago’s guitar.
Watch: Pixies – Full Performance
Those three things matter a lot but when you listen to the Pixies everything pales before their main man, leader, singer and bulwark of the band, Black Francis (aka Frank Black; birth-name Charles Thompson).
Francis turned 50 a month before the Beacon Concert and he looks it. If you didn’t know who he was and bumped into him anywhere other than see him on stage, in his baggy dad pants and shaven headed portly self, he could be a rush-hour executive holding a Styrofoam coffee cup negotiating the Manhattan grid to get to his nine-to-five job. On stage, he’s rock’s venerated god.
The Pixies were formed by Francis, Santiago, Deal and Lovering in the mid-1980s in Boston and it wouldn’t be incorrect to describe them as one of the pioneers of what has come to be known as alternative/indie rock.
Their limited commercial success is greatly overshadowed by their huge and profound influence on legions of rock bands, including venerable names such as Nirvana and Radiohead.
The Pixies broke up in 1993 but they re-formed in 2004. Then, sans Kim Deal, the band released a new album of fresh songs in 2013, Indie Cindy. If you weigh the impact that this band has had on rock music since the mid-eighties, the number of records (not counting the live albums, compilations and EPs) that they’ve released looks meagre – five.
Do it yourself: At a gig in New York, the Pixies seemed so engrossed in making music, it was as if they were playing for themselves. (Photo: Sanjoy Narayan)
At the gig that I went to, the setlist covered songs from all those albums, 1988’s debut album, Surfer Rosa to 2013’s Indie Cindy. And they did it matter-of-factly. Francis isn’t big when it comes to interacting with the audience but that didn’t seem to bother anyone.
They played 35 songs, including three encores, on that Tuesday night, getting on a darkened stage to start with, interestingly, a cover of In Heaven, a song from David Lynch’s surrealist film Eraserhead before doing the first from their own catalogue, Ana, from the Bossanova album. They then moved on to Pixies – Wave of Mutilation, Brick is Red, Break My Body, and Nimrod’s Son.
Watch: Pixies – Debaser live at T in the Park 2014
Most Pixies’ songs are short. They are like espresso shots of music that draw from genres that span a wide range and defy classification. Jagged edgy guitar work combines with melodic vocals and thudding basslines.
Francis (and occasionally Paz) sings about subjects that are often bizarre and always as wide-ranging as the music itself: incest, aliens, violence are just a few things that you may encounter in a Pixies song but there is more.
By the time the band was into Indie Cindy, the seventh song of the night, the audience in the art-deco theatre, already on its feet, went totally wild – in sharp contrast to the three men and a woman up on stage who seemed engrossed in making music as if they were playing for themselves.
That didn’t bother anyone and when, after playing their last two songs, Hey (Hey/Been trying to meet you/ Hey/ Must be a devil between us/ Or whores in my head/ Whores at my door/ Whores in my bed/ But hey/ Where have you been?) and Planet of Sound, the crowd screamed for more, the band came back to deliver Greens and Blues (off their newest album), the signature Where is My Mind? (off Surfer Rosa) and Vamos (with its English-Spanish lyrics).
Two days later, I was getting lost in the stacks of books (there are 18 miles of them) at New York’s Strand Bookstore when I came across The Good Inn, Black Francis’s debut novel (in collaboration with Pixies biographer Josh Frank, and artist Steven Appleby).
Set in France, the book’s protagonist is Soldier Boy who, recently discharged from the army, makes his adventurous way through France, replete with sex, art and the surreal. It’s in part a screenplay, in part a narrative, and in part a graphic novel. Also, it’s quirky as hell. Just as the Pixies’ music is.
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