Tag Archives: Sam Cooke

Is The Live Album Dead?

I love live albums. There’s something about hearing the roar of the crowd from the speakers, an the artist reacting to it. A good live album is a good indicator of an artist. They either push themselves to the limit, or fall or their feet. The best live albums not only capture the energy of magic of the live experience, but can also change your perception of artist.

Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club shows Cooke racing through classics such as “Twisting the Night Away” and “Chain Gang” with an energy and reckless abandon that is not apparent on his studio work. The Who’s Live at Leeds is a tour e force of hard rock. Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypseys finds Hendrix exploring jazz elements, and perhaps the finest performance of an electric guitar with “Machine Gun”.  Peter Frampton has spent his entire career trying to live up to the success of the massive Frampton Comes Alive!  Nirvana’s Unplugged showed that the band that changed the world with their punk anthems could turn it down and still retain their power.

These are albums that add to the story of legends.

Unfortunately, most of the live albums that have had any impact were released years ago. Live albums are no considered to be part of an artist catalog, but rather an asterisk. They still exist but they are almost always tacked onto another set, whether its the infamous Live DVD or a re-issue of an older album. Seldom do you see a newer band release a single live album as its own entity. And those artist that release live albums exclusively – like Pearl Jam and Dave Matthew Band – seemingly release every single show they’ve ever recorded.

U2 – a band who I love – is one of the worst offenders in this area. The band remains one of the best live acts around, but they haven’t released a “proper” live album since 1983 instead opting for a live video for every single tour. And the  “live bonus CD” while nice, too often seems like an afterthought and a cash-grab for re-issues. Thankfully, Elvis Costello reversed this trend by releasing proper Live Albums of live tracks he had been sticking on re-issues for years.

Itunes also shares some of the blame for the decline of the live album as well. If you ever log onto iTunes the front page is loaded with artists who record exclusive “Live EPs” for the digital store. While I can appreciate it as a fan of live music, I also can’t help the feeling that these bands are contractually obligated with iTunes to play these shows and then have them released.

The good news for fans is that more live music is probably being released than ever before. But if artists see their live show as their bread and butter as albums sales decline, perhaps they should give its release the same reverence.

 

 

 

 

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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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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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Music To Listen To This Summer

Each season has their own soundtrack and summer is no exception.  There are numerous albums I listen to in the summer, and find perfect for days when you just can’t seem to cool off.  So here’s my selection of albums to listen to and kick back to.  (Note: I exclude some obvious choices such as Springsteen.)

Elvis CostelloGet Happy!!

Though King of America and Imperial Bedroom might be better albums, Get Happy!! is Costello’s most listenable album from front to back filled with R&B and soul styled songs with a punk twist.  The songs move along at breakneck speed (as do some of the songs) leaving the listener with barely any time to soak in the subtleties. Even when the songs are mean-spirited, the music is sheer fun.  What comes across though is Costello’s melodies and flawless songwriting, making it the perfect soundtrack for a summer day.

Outkast – Speakerboxxx

When Outkast’s double album first came out, most of the press focused on Andre 3000’s half, The Love Below.  As it turns out, Speakerboxxx turns out to be the better of the two, as Big Boi flirts with fast-paced beats, swing and jazz influences and George Clinton-style funk.  And like the rest of the albums on this list, there’s no filler – it’s genre -hopping music that’s perfect for nights with intense heat that never seems to let up.

The Gourds – Blood of the Ram

If you’re outside grilling, and drinking a beer, Blood on the Ram should be an essential addition.  It’s a combination of bluegrass, Band-style Americana, and alt-country.  Each song is a masterpiece in Southern Boogie and sing-alongs.  Songs such as “Do 4 U”,  “Lower 48” and “Cracklins” are designed to get you off your chair and dance.  And if you don’t feel that way, your humanity might come into question.  Plus where else can you sing every single state in the lower 48?

Creedence Clearwater RevivalChronicle

For a long time, I resisted getting this collection because practically every single on this collection is burned into the consciousness of every fan of classic rock.  But song for song, you can’t really ask for a better greatest hits collection.  With a a mix of down home rock and memorable songs, Chronicle feels like a lazy summer day.  And if it’s really hot, let CCR do the hard-work and sweat for you as they tear through their classics.

Al GreenThe Absolute Best

For me, Al Green has the best soul voice anybody’s side of Sam Cooke, and this collection as the title suggests, offers nothing but his best.  There’s straight-up soul classics – “So You’re Leaving”, “Strong as Death (Sweet as Love)”, funk-rock – “I’m a Ram”, “Driving Wheel”, and soul-jam classics – “Look What You For Me”.  Perfect for relaxing, with a strong drink in your hand as the day winds down.

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Goodbye Borders

Not that it really comes as a surprise, but Borders announced its Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and plans to close 30% of its stores.  The digital age has already taken its toll on the record industry, and now bookstores are beginning to feel the heat as well, since e-books the literary equivalent of an Ipod.

Before I moving to Baltimore, Borders was essentially the only place where there was a large selection of CDS.  It was either that or Best Buy.  But Best Buy didn’t have the back catalogues of most of their artists, and they also only displayed artists with track records of moving copies.  It was also one of the few places that I was allowed to drive to by myself when I was in high school.

I would spend hours at a time just browsing through the CDs making mental notes of which artists I needed to eventually check out.  Borders was also one of the first places I remember that had a listening station for new CDs.  Usually the description of the album was off-base, but at least you were able to actually hear what you were about to purchase.  Many of my favorite albums were purchased from Borders – London Calling, Sticky FingersZiggy StardustRaw Power, several Pearl Jam bootlegs, etc.  The bargain bin (selected albums were $7.99) was also my first introduction to Sam Cooke and Ray Charles.

When I wasn’t looking at the CDs, I would wander off to the music book section and read through many of the rock encyclopedias, and memoirs.  If you’re ever wondering where most of my knowledge of artists comes from – it’s a direct result of that.  At the time, I desperately wanted to be a rock critic (still do actually) and I figured the best way to do that would be to study up on the subject.  Before I listened to Iggy Pop, I knew of his affection for peanut-butter on stage.  It was in a Borders’ chair that I first learned about the legend of Robert Johnson making a deal with the Devil at the crossroads.

Because I was there so often, many of the cashiers knew me.  When I went to purchase a copy of The Velvet Undeground & Nico , the girl at the counter seemed genuinely interested – she had never heard of them before. When I explained to her what they sounded like – shocker – she didn’t seem as interested in anymore.

Since moving to Baltimore, I hardly ever go to Borders – Soundgarden is about two miles away from my apartment – but whenever I go back to visit my parents I almost always stop by.  The last few times I’ve been have been extremely depressing.  The CD section has all but been taken away.  There are no more back catalogues of artists – shit, even Target has a better selection of artists and albums these days.

I haven’t listened to it in a while, but perhaps I’ll break out my copy of Quadrophenia tonight.  It was one of the first albums I purchased at Borders.

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Summer Songs, Friday: “Summertime”

“Summertime” is a perennial favorite.  Originally written by George Gershwin, the song has become something of an American standard and classic.  Even though it was written for the opera Porgy & Bess, remarkably it sounds like a folk song that has since become part of the American consciousness.  Wikipedia states that are over 15,000 different versions of the song recorded to date.

The song is perhaps most notable for its opening lines, “Summertime and the living is easy”.   Whether or not that is true for everyone, I personally think it’s a life that many Americans seek.  (Until researching for this post, I had no idea that it was originally sung as a lullaby in Porgy & Bess.  Bess sings it to Clara’s baby.)

There are several different versions of this song, which I love.  My favorite version is Sam Cooke’s (almost anything Sam Cooke did was better than anyone else’s – except for his version of “Blowin’ in the Wind”.)

Billie Holiday also does a great version as well:

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Best Live Albums

U2 is planning on releasing a DVD of their current 360 tour.  U2 is one of the greatest live bands ever, yet they insist on releasing live DVDs of all their tours.  As more and more bands put out live DVDs instead of live albums (and sometimes a live CD is included as a bonus disc to the live DVD) the live album is quickly becoming a thing of the past.  As such, I’ve decided to include a list of my favorite live albums.

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964 – Concert at Philharmonic Hall

While the “Royal Albert Hall” show might be more historically significant, I prefer this one.  Recorded on Halloween Night 1964, it shows the two sides of Bob Dylan in the mid 1960s.  There’s the political folk of “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “With God On Our Side”  alongside the surrealism of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.   Dylan is evidently stoned delivering some of his funniest stage banter.  There’s also a hilarious introduction to “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” where Dylan clearly forgets the first verse and asks audience how it begins.  For anyone who thinks that Dylan is always serious, this is worth checking out.

Sam Cooke – One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

If anyone thinks that Sam Cooke is just easy listening, one listen to this album will put you straight.  Cooke tears through a tight set of classics (“Cupid”, “Chain Gang” “Bring it On Home”) as if his life depended on it.  This is the sound of a performer clearly in command of his audience.  At the end of “Sentimental Reasons” when he shouts out “everybody!” –  clearly wanting the crowd to sing along – Sam Cooke is wanting everybody in the world to be united in the power of music.  Live at the Harlem Square Club is the sound of everyone “Havin’ a party”.

Van Morrison  – It’s Too Late To Stop Now

It’s Too Late To Stop Now, might be my favorite live album of all time.  Unlike a lot of other live albums I love, It’s Too Late To Stop Now is clean and precise.  Van Morrison isn’t so much a performer here, but more of a conductor of an eleven piece band (including a string section).  It’s a fantastic mix of celtic folk, jazz, soul, r&b and roll are rolled into one fantastic document.  The highlight of the album is “Cypress Avenue”.  Where the album version was a haunting jazz number, on this live album Van Morrison transforms into a 10 minute tour de force including several false endings.  Clearly the stuff of legend.

Bruce Springsteen –Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75

Someone told me recently that Springsteen was too cheesy.  I agree, sometimes he can be.  But not here.  This album is the sound of a man who knows he’s got the world’s greatest rock band behind him and is ready to take on anyone who thinks otherwise.  The solo piano version of “Thunder Road” makes a song that has been overplayed (though still great) sound new and refreshing.  “Spirit in the Night” (always a great live song) is played with such intensity that when Bruce dramatically breathes hard during the bridge you wonder if he’s actually serious.  And this is only in the first three songs.  The version of “Born to Run” here is the closest that Springsteen would ever come to punk.  And just to prove that he could still have fun the second half contains the famous “Detroit Medley” a medley of old soul hits.

The ClashLive at Shea Stadium

Better known as the live album where The Clash blew the Who off the stage.  Even though it’s not the classic Clash line-up (drummer Topper Headon is not on drums) this live album is better than the earlier live compilation From Here To Eternity for a number of reasons.  First of all the song selection is far superior.  No Clash live album is complete without “Clampdown” or “Tommy Gun”.  Since they were opening for the Who, Joe Strummer knows he’s got his work cut out for him and forces the audience to listen to them.  “Everybody please stop talking in the back,” He snarls at one point.  “It’s too loud.  It’s putting us off the song.  Stop yakking!”  They close the show with a furious version of “I Fought the Law”.  Too bad The Clash imploded not too long after this, and The Who decided to keep touring for decades.

Those are some of my favorites.  What are yours?

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