Monthly Archives: June 2011

Songs About America: “Old Old Woodstock” – Van Morrison

For decades Woodstock, New York has been something of  a safe haven for many musicians.  Famous residents have included Jimi Hendrix, Theonius Monk, and David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and The Band. It’s a secluded area, yet only a two-hour drive to the city.

Away from the busy lifestyle the city breeds, creativity was reaching new heights. The sounds coming out of Woodstock reflected the easy-going lifestyle.  Bob Dylan and The Band’s home-recordings were loose and fun. The Band became equally inspired, and their debut became one of the cornerstones of what would later be called Alt-Country. New life was breathed into American music through this small town and the nature surrounding it.

For these musicians, work and domesticity were one and the same in Woodstock. No one knew this better than Van Morrison who retreated there in the early 1970s.

He was recently married, and enjoying his new bride and young daughter.  The songs he wrote during his time reflected a happiness not normally found in Morrison’s works. It was a time of joy and inspiration.

Like his contemporaries in this upstate hamlet, Morrison looked to the past for musical inspiration. His mix of soul and Irish mysticism has been dubbed “Celtic Soul.”  His lyrics may state closer to his Irish roots, but his voice was more like a white Sam Cooke.  At Woodstock, Morrison adopted country and folk to his already wide ranges of influences.  His original idea was to record an album full of country and western songs that was eventually scrapped.

As a result, Tupelo Honey ends up being one of Morrison’s most relaxed affairs. Gone are the sonic Impressionistic styles of Astral Weeks.  Gone are the grand statements like “Into the Mystic” found on Moondance. Instead, Tupelo Honey is the soundtrack to happiness in the simple life, with touches of country, jazz and soul.

“Old Old Woodstock” is the song that best exemplifies the sounds of upstate New York and Morrison’s carefree attitude with its gentle piano and jazzy rhythms. It starts off slow and unassuming – just like Woodstock itself.  Yet the song pulls you in with its cymbal washes and light snare by Connie Kay. “Feel the breeze blowing through your coat,” Morrison croons.  His voice opens up like trail leading into the forest.

It’s Morrison’s voice that truly makes the song.  His voice is powerful, but restrained.  It’s full of joy, but never lazy.  He whispers through the verses, slowly building in the chorus when he announces that he will “give my child a squeeze”.   His voice is full of love and simplicity.  Nothing else matters in that moment, except this embrace, and the natural surrounding.  He’s found a new beginning both creatively and personally. “Going down to old, old Woodstock,” Morrison sings in the chorus.  “Feel the cool night breeze.”  The musical past of America is conjured up as the bridge opens up to a lengthy jazz-inspired piano break.   Halfway through Morrison lets out an exuberant shout.  His “Hey!” is off the cuff, but is commanding.  If you haven’t listened earlier, you should.  “Listen,” He sings at the beginning of the next verse, which is a repeat of the first verse reinforcing his love for his child.

“Old Old Woodstock” can easily be overlooked as a small ditty.  But like Woodstock itself, the song captures a lifestyle at ease.  Work isn’t a chore when inspiration is right outside your doorstep.

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Songs About America: This Land Is Your Land

I’ve decided to go back to weekly themes.  It seems I do my best writing when I have a specific topic.  So with July 4th around the corner, I thought I’d pick song about America.  Enjoy.

In grade school, I seemed to be in a pageant every month.  They were mostly historical and Biblical fluff (I went to a Christian school) aimed at entertaining parents and friends, rather proving any intellectual value.  Every once in a while we had a patriotic theme.  My fellow classmates dressed up as iconic American heroes such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  Naturally, Washington did not tell lies and Lincoln lived in a log cabin.

As for the songs, they were standard patriotic fare – “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful”  -to the applause of the audience.Interestingly, during one pageant we sang, “This Land is Your Land”.

Yes, Woody Guthrie’s anthem was performed by a group of school children.  “From California to the New York Island” seemed perfectly innocent, and evoked an image of The American Dream. As far as I can recall, we only sang the first verse and the chorus.   The verses where the narrator wanders through “heat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling” were left out.  We sang it with no sense of irony or contempt.  Our rendition of “This Land is Your Land” was as straight an arrow.

As a 5th grader, I didn’t know the song was written by Woody Guthrie and was written as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”.  Even if I had known those facts, I’m sure the concept would have been lost on my feeble mind.  The song seemed just as cheesy as any of the others songs we were forced to sing, and not worth my time.

Years later while listening to The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues, I discovered the familiar chorus on the last track on the album.   Why the hell are they covering this piece of shit?  I wondered.  The Waterboys had sunk to a new low.  When I dubbed the album to a cassette, I purposely left it off.   The “proper” ending to the album was “The Stolen Child”, not the little ditty that came off as Celtic campfire song.

“You realize this is a Woody Guthrie song?” My older brother asked me once when the song came on.

“Who’s Woody Guthrie?” I asked.  “I thought it was a traditional song.”

He was shocked.  “No, no,” He replied, with a hint of disgust.  “He was a singer in the 1940s.  Big influence on Bob Dylan.”

“Oh ok,” I nodded, not really understanding what he meant.   I still hadn’t discovered Bob Dylan, so this connection was hardly revelatory.  Besides, any type of music made before rock and roll, had nothing to offer me.

It wasn’t until I went to protest the Iraq War that I discovered the true meaning of the song.  Thousands of people were gathered in the cold streets of Pittsburgh.  It was snowing lightly, but no one seemed to mind.  Their minds were elsewhere.  As local artists and activists shouted their position from a nearby stage, the crowds cheered loudly.  By the time the Pittsburgh punk band Anti-Flag took the stage, the crowd seemed ready for action.  Surely this band would get the momentum going.  Surprisingly, they came on stage with an acoustic guitar.  “This is a song that I’m sure all of you know,” leader singer Justin Sane announced, launching into “This Land is Your Land”.   Suddenly, its lyrics made sense.  It wasn’t quite the flag-waving anthem I had previously thought it to be.  It was an attack on a Capitalist society, and an out of touch government.  “This land is your land, this land is my land” was hardly an invitation.  It was a call to arms.  This land belongs us, and we will take it back if necessary.  As thousands of people sang Guthrie’s words, my attendance in the protest never felt more secure and right.  If we didn’t take control and voice our opposition, who would?

Though Guthrie’s song isn’t what most Americans consider to “be patriotic”, for me, it means more than “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America”.  It offers hope, and possibility.   It’s not idealistic and naïve, but rather a rallying cry for those who might not otherwise have a voice.  Guthrie is an American icon, because he was able to express his views in song form, even if it wasn’t popular.  And if that’s not American, I don’t know what is.

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My Mother’s First Rock Concert: U2 in Baltimore

 

Over the years, I’ve gone to see U2 a total of four times.  Each show was special for different reasons.   In 2001, I saw them for the first time after years of trying.  Four years later when I saw them perform in Washington DC, they busted out the rarely played “Out of Control”.

I knew U2’s show in Baltimore would be a special one, too.  As a Christmas present, my older brother and I bought my mother a ticket. Not only would this be her first time seeing U2, it would also be her first rock concert.  After years of watching her sons go to the band’s concerts without her, my mother would finally get to see Bono and company in the flesh.

She’s listened to U2 for almost 25 years, mostly because my older siblings exposed her to them.   She’s always enjoyed The Joshua Tree; though it took her fifteen years to declare Achtung Baby is “one of their best”.  It’s hard to listen to “Bad” without thinking back to Friday afternoons when she made pizza in the kitchen.

When the day of the show finally came, my mother was nervous about the large crowds and the stage show.  She became concerned about the band’s moving catwalks after hearing about them on the radio.  I was a bit apprehensive about going to a concert with my mother.   After all, this was a new experience for me, too.

Naturally, I wondered if it would be too loud for her.  Maybe the giant video screen and flashing lights would be a bit much for her.  Bono’s politicizing is sometimes off-putting for even faithful fans of U2.  What would she think if he gave the audience a lecture on Africa?

On our way to the concert, my fears began to subside.  As we made our way into the stadium, my mother seemed less nervous and more excited.  She had even brought a pair of earplugs, on my friend’s suggestion.  “What’s the name of the song about Bono’s father?” She asked as we weaved our way around the hundreds of people inside the stadium.   “I like that one.”

“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” I said.  “Though I don’t think they play that one on this tour.”

After walking half way around the stadium and climbing to the upper-deck, we finally made it to our seats.  U2’s elaborate stage with its massive spider-like claws stretching into the air, circular video screen, and giant antenna took up much of the field.  “It’s crazy isn’t it?” my brother asked.  “It’s wonderful,” she replied in awe.  She might have been referring to the stage, but it was also much more significant.  She had finally made it, and enjoying the company of her two sons.

When U2 appeared on stage – Bono appearing last – my mother let out an enthusiastic whoop.   The earplugs were no where to be found.  From the very beginning, it was clear that I had no need to worry.  After every single song – even the ones she didn’t know – she cheered so loudly that it put the audience members around us to shame.

She was amazed at how The Edge could play so well, as the catwalk beneath his feet moved over heads of the audience.  Bono kept his political talk to a minimum, and instead offered kind words and praises of thanks.  “It’s nice to hear him have such a positive view of the world,” She said after the show.

The set-list was divided between greatest hits and deep-cuts.  While I prefer the latter, I could have dealt with an entire nights of worth of well-known songs for the look on my mother’s face when “Pride”, “One” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” were played.

U2 is the biggest band in the world not because they put on great shows.  Their songs speak universal truths and offer hope in a world full of confusion.  Songs even my mother, who is almost 20 years older than Bono, can relate to.

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Clarence Clemons: A Tribute

I’ve written a lot about how Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band captures the sounds of summer.  Much of this really has to do with Clarence Clemon’s instantly identifiable saxophone playing.  Clemons elevated Springsteen’s most classic songs into anthems of warmth and comfort perfect for afternoon sing-alongs even if the subject matter was a little bleak (see “Badlands”).  Clemons offered a fun and soulful side to the band – a perfect foil to Springsteen’s earnestness an sincerity.  The cover of Born to Run says it all – these two musicians were bonded in brotherhood and music.

“Well, I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk,” Springsteen declares mid-way through “Thunder Road”.   Even back in 1975, no one believed in the power of rock and roll like Bruce Springsteen and Clemons breaks into his famous sax solo at the end of the song, it’s the perfect embodiment of that idea.  Rock and roll can mean something.  The ending to that song is so perfect, that if the rest of the album weren’t so damn good, you’d be inclined to never listen to the rest of the album.

Without a doubt Clemons was the most famous saxophone player in rock and roll.  Who else is there?  He had no contemporaries – maybe Bobby Keys (who played saxophone on many of The Rolling Stones songs from their classic era) – because in a way, for many Clarence Clemons was the saxophone.  When you picture the instrument, you automatically envision Clemons with his lips pressed to the horn ready to wail.  To the public, he seemed to live for music.  There was always a joy in his eyes in interviews when talking about playing.  Even recent health issues couldn’t keep him from playing on the last couple of E-Street Band Tours.

I came to Springsteen late in life.  I had a few of his albums but never really “got” him until I heard the Live at the Hammersmith Odeon ’75CD.  It was the performance of “Spirit in the Night” that truly made me a Springsteen fan.   It was a wild, and chaotic treatment of the song – nearly veering out of control. (I’ve heard many version of the song played from that era, and none of them are as commanding as this one.)  Springsteen can barely contain himself as he spits out the lyrics – a song about drinking and summer love turns into something erotic and and sinister – the chanting of “all night” becomes “all damn night”.  Amidst all this chaos, Clemons playing remains grounded – holding the song together.  When it comes times for the instrumental break, Springsteen shouts, “Big Man! Woooow!” – as if there is no other option, but for Clemons to take control of the song and bring it back to some sense of normalcy.    It’s one of those performances that almost feels unreal.  How can a band be this amazing?

E-Street will never be the same without Clemons.  While Clemons was surely Springsteen’s brother in music and life, he also felt like ours as well.  Rest in peace, Big Man.  Heaven surely got a lot cooler with your saxophone playing.

 

 

 

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RIP Clarence Clemons

Rest in peace, Big Man.

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Adult Swim “Country Club” Playlist, Also Known As “What’s On Matt’s Ipod”

My girlfriend and I have recently started swimming at the public pool on the weekends.  Since the pool is usually crowded during the afternoons, we decided to go in the early morning when there’s less people there.  The staff refers to this time as “country club hour” as it’s adult swim.  Usually, this consists of us and a bunch of old men.  Most of them don’t actually swim, they just hang out and talk.  To liven the experience, the staff plays old school R&B an soul music.  

Being the big fan of this that I am, I know most of the words to these songs to the surprise of many of the old men.  After Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and James Brown were played my girlfriend pointed out that it was like listening to my Ipod.  Indeed, when I was recently given an Itunes gift card my purchases included The Phil Spector Collection (the best collection of girl groups you can find) and a whole lot of James Brown.  Overall, I paid about $25 for about 70 songs.  

The whole experience at the pool kind of made me wish that I was young when all this music was new.  Of course if that was the case, then at the current moment I might be one of those old men at the pool.  

I just wish they had played the full version of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” instead of the single edit.  

 

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Vinyl Love!

I’m a big fan of vinyl.  Even in the age of digital convenience, I still prefer the pops and hisses that only vinyl can provide.  There’s also a warmth and depth to the sound that is lost.  I’ve been collecting records for about 5 or 6 years now and have managed to find quite a few of my favorite albums either in record stores or by chance in thrift stores.  Some others have also been give to me by siblings an friends.  For special selections which I must have, I go to Baltimore’s Soundgarden and pick up re-issues of classic albums.

As my collection has grown I’ve ended up with about 60 records in total.  Many of them are personal favorites (Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, U2, Johnny Cash), but others are just odd and random selections (German Beer Hall Music, Eastern European Gypsy Music, the soundtrack for The Sting).

A few months back, my girlfriend and I started what we like to call Record Night, which funnily enough was inspired by a scene from the movie Easy A.   Every Wednesday night we sit down, pick a record and sit down and listen to it.  Since a lot of music listening is in the background for many listeners (in the car, on the subway, running etc) it’s refreshing to actually to be able to just listen and digest the art for what it is.

Here’s what we’ve listened to so far.

The Sounds of SilenceSimon & Garfunkel

Irish Favorites – The Best of the Mummers – “Aqua String Band

Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits

This is Johnny Cash

No Jacket RequiredPhil Collins

High NoonTex Ritter;  Smash HitsThe Jimi Hendrix Experience

She’s So UnusualCyndi Lauper

Get Happy!! – Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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