Lucky By Chance
A four-year-old free CD that I had got with Relix magazine popped out from somewhere a couple of weeks ago when I was moving back into my renovated apartment after a dislocated and weird existence of four months in a rented temp place. Weird because, besides being laid out in the manner of a kitschy 1970s Bollywood film set, it was an apartment where I could not play any music on my sttereo system for those four months because the equipment was all packed and sealed in storage.
Now, it’s not as if I am able to blast my music whenever I want in my own place—there are differences in tastes and sensibilities between me and my cohabitants—and a large part of the music I listen to has to be piped in through earphones or headphones. Still, I like it when my music system is all in place, offering a choice of listening to stuff in the good old fashioned way: pop a CD in, twiddle with the equalizer knobs, play around with the volume level and so on.
But as I was saying, I was back at my own abode and my music system was up when this CD was discovered. It had come with the July 2006 issue of Relix, a magazine originally launched as a fanzine of the Grateful Dead in 1974 but now a fairly broad-based publication that covers (usually) non-mainstream kinds of music. I popped it in. There were 12 songs on the CD, beginning with Michael Franti & Spearhead doing Light Up Ya Lighter. Franti is an incredible singer who blends funk, jazz, rock, reggae and hip-hop and sings overtly about his support for many social and political issues. He’s also a kind of a melting pot, claiming his descent from African, Native American, Irish, German and French lineages.
If you haven’t tried Franti and his band, Spearhead, I’d recommend going for Stay Human (2003), which is like a concept album—songs interspersed with fictional radio segments that focus on the wrongful incarceration of a fictional activist, Sister Fatima, and her eventual execution. As one critic called it, it is a great example of using an entire album as “a direct action platform”.
Besides the track by Franti, the Relix CD had songs by a number of other bands but the one that struck me most was by Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise. The song, taken from a live album, was called Once Upon A Time and it invoked the big influences that other musicians had on Bradley, a blind singer who spent decades singing on the streets of Detroit. That’s the track on the Relix CD that made me reach for the repeat button. It’s a delightful track that is a sort of sung history of funk, soul and rock and roll. Bradley names Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and even Jerry Garcia as influences. But the lyrics are just a part of what made the track enjoyable. It is Bradley’s rough and rugged, street-seasoned vocals that make it endearing.
I went and got a full album, What About That: New Year’s Eve in Bloomington (2006), a live album with 22 songs by Bradley and his band. Many of the tracks are written by him but he also does a couple of classics, such as Joe South’s Games People Play and Elmore James’s Something Inside Me but the real treasure is to be found in his own songs. Listen to For the Night, a beautifully urgent love song, or the simple Comin’ Down (“Just ’cause the sun is shining/that don’t mean the rain ain’t comin’ on down/ Just cause the sun is shining/ that don’t mean the rain ain’t comin’ on down”).
After listening to the 22 live tracks, I went and bought another Robert Bradley and the Blackwater Surprise issue, this time the studio album, Out of The Wilderness (2008). There are fewer musicians on this album (the live one has a huge crew) but Bradley’s voice has the same magic. Bradley’s not young. He’s a street-scarred, wizened veteran of 60 but his music has energy that is at once earthy and electric. I’m hoping he’ll release more albums soon.
Three to Tango:
- Fresh Maggots: Acid folk from a teenage British duo. This album’s from 1971.
- Treats: A track from this album by Sleigh Bells, another duo, but one that playes contemporary dance punk
- Music & Technology: Louis J. Battaglia, the editor of Pop Matters concludes a series on this fascinating subject. Read it all.