Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway – Review

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Freedom Highway

I am admittedly a sucker for female singers. Dusty Springfield, Adele, Annie Haslam, Laura Nyro, Sara Bareilles, Linda Ronstadt, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Annie Lenox, are just a few of the female voices that I can listen to all day. I am adding Rhiannon Giddens to this list right now. I am not a big fan of traditional country-blues old-time music, and the first time I had even heard of her was on her outstanding contribution to Lost On The River, The New Basement Tapes, and the song Spanish Mary.

I had read some reviews a few weeks ago about her latest solo release, Freedom Highway, and despite not sampling a single track I decided to blindly order it. I WAS NOT DISAPPOINTED.

Her wiki page shows her genres to be folk, bluegrass, country, gospel, blues, jazz, soul, R&B, and American. So, what could go wrong? Well, in this case ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

This release has an incredible range of sounds and styles, all integrated into a cohesive tracklist that ranges from sensual and emotional jazz to sharp and blazing R’n’B with a semi rapped verse in the middle of one of the songs. Some of the songs hit you right away, and others rely on an understated semi-acoustic approach that deftly showcase her impressive vocal skills. Not only are these songs great, they sneak up on you when you least expect it and get even better. From a content standpoint, she sings about the history of America’s fight against racism and her powerful songs here are based on vivid, true stories from the slavery era against classic blues, and civil rights songs from the 60s.

For me, the standout tracks are Birmingham Sunday (protest song written by Richard Farina), and the shuffle of Better Get It Right The First Time, a song about a young black man doing all the right things, going to college, etc, only to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (which includes a rap verse from her nephew). The aforementioned Birmingham Sunday, for me, is where this release hits a high note and just keeps going. Birmingham Sunday is a piano driven anthem that starts slowly, and just keeps building until it hits an emotional climax. The first time I heard it I had to play it again I was so moved, so impressed by the musical package that it is, and then I listened to it again. It is that good. In fact, this whole release is that good, and I highly recommend it.

Hello, It’s Me

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It’s been awhile.  I keep doing this.  I keep starting something I love, and then life gets in the way.  I can’t believe it has been over 2 years since I last posted here.  It’s amazing how life just keeps going, and we get so involved in so many other things.

John Lennon (who, by the way, is probably turning over in his grave right now) wrote Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.  This is so true.  In almost years our world has almost completed two laps around our son, we have experience all types of ups and downs, and all have had personal triumphs, tragedies, deaths, births, loss, elation, health issues, and all of the things that make up our lives.  In other words, life goes on, Obla Di, Obla Da.

Personally, the last two years could have been better, but they could have been alot worse.  Yes, there were deaths in the family that we are still reeling from, and I have been in more operating rooms being strapped to a table in the last two years than my entire life.  BUT, we move on, and we get to the other side.  The past is always behind us, always following us, and it is not smart to look back.  It’s always there, sometimes closer than we want, and looking forward and not back is healthier, and keeps our minds on track.

Professionally, I am still in IT, but now year 3 of my 7 year career transformation.  It’s an exciting time, and I am learning alot, but also working more hours than ever before.  It is still too early in the process to see any light at the end of the tunnel, but in the blink of the eye I will know I will get there.  The good news is I stopped circling the drain and did something I wanted to do, and I am now in the midst of working towards achieving my goal.

So, what’s next?  For starters, I wrote this, and I am hoping this is the catalyst for more things to come.  I have not been idle with my writing the last two years.  I have been, yes, circling the drain and collecting content, and just need to SPEND SOME TIME AND PUT IT TOGETHER. Some may call it procrastination, others may call it laziness, or even a failure to launch. Personally, I like circling the drain or analysis paralysis.  We all want to do things not just well but perfect.  I need to let that go and just do them.  That’s why I am back doing this.

The funny thing is, there I certainly have enough content.  Whether it is writing about some of the great music I have been listening to, or our current political situation, or the books I am reading, or anything else we are bombarded with each day, there is always something to write about.  I just need to spend more time doing it, even if it is not perfect.

I’m back……..   stay tuned, enjoy every sandwich, enjoy the ride, and move forward with me as we together see what is still to come.

Until next time, which I promise will be soon.

 

 

 

Whatever Happened To (or How Did We All Turn Out)

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The digital age has enabled us to stay connected with people much easier, or being able to re-connect with someone from your past.  In the dark ages (pre-digital), if you had a friend that moved away (especially as a kid) you probably never saw them again.  You might get a letter or two,  but after a while your life moved on and they began a new one.  In grade school I had a best friend and we swore we would always be friends.  One summer I went away to camp and when I returned found out his family had moved out of town.  That was it.  Friendship over.  The comet has left the solar system.

Today, if someone you know moves away,  or changes jobs, or if you are a kid and make a friend at camp, you can still make instant contact with that person anytime. You can stay in the orbits of each other’s lives, and thanks to social media can passively keep track of each other, wish each other happy birthdays, hook up at a concert, etc.  Basically, still be a part of the other person and their life.

Facebook is the great contributor to this new phenomenon.  Today, you don’t have to wonder about that old high-school friend and how they turned out.  You can check if the girl you had a crush on in 10th grade is still hot, or if the jock who bullied you got fat and now drives a truck.  Thanks to Facebook, you can be “friends” with people that you grew up with that you never thought you would see again.  And the irony of it now is that most of the people who didn’t like you or vice-versa, are actually pretty nice to be friends with.  You share stories online, comment on each other’s family pictures, wish each other happy birthday, etc., something that would have been unheard of when you were growing up.

Some mysteries have been solved, thanks to Facebook and other forms of communication in our digital age.  I may not actually SEE the people I grew up with, but we are now back within each other’s orbits and it has helped complete our lives.  Perhaps we will get together again, and actually witness in person how we all turned out.  Or maybe we will keep our distance, continuing with our current lives, content in the knowledge that not only did we turn out ok, but everyone else did as well.

It’s ok to look back, but don’t stare.  The past is always back there, keeping a step or two behind.

How We Listen To And Discover Music Has Changed

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Lately I have been reading a bit about the Grateful Dead final Fare Thee Well performances this summer in the Bay area and Chicago’s Soldier Field.  Rather than continue to fade away, they are ending with the remaining four members and help from some great friends.

I remember the first time I truly listened to their music and finally became a fan.  It was the fall of 1977, my freshman year at college, and I was partying with another guy down the hall and he played side four of their Skulls and Roses (informal name) album.  Warf Rat is first, which I thought was pretty cool, but then comes the Not Fade Away/Going Down The Road combo with the jam in the middle.  I was blown away.  I had never before heard such intricate guitar interplay and call and response work between Garcia and Weir,  and this converted me from a casual to a real fan of their music.

Thinking back to my high school and college days, it was easy to find other music geeks like myself just by keeping your ears open.  The size of your record (or tape) collection did matter in those days.  When you went into someone’s dorm room or apartment, you would immediately know if they were like you or not based on the number of albums they had.  You could search through someone’s collection and talk about different groups, liner notes, band evolutions, etc, because it was easy to find a common ground of communication.  And, instead of doing five other things at once, we actually sat down together and LISTENED to music without doing anything else.

Enter the digital age, and now everyone has a better music collection than the one I carefully and painstakingly cultivated and built over 40 years of listening to all kinds of amazing (and sometimes horrible) music.  The playing field is level now.   My music collection is no longer a badge of honor.  The good news is that you can find pretty much any selection of music ever made with a few clicks of a mouse or a few swipes on a phone.  The bad news is that we have lost a way of identifying ourselves by the music we listen to, and separating the music lovers from the casual listeners.  We have no way of recognizing one another because we all share the same generic easy to find music collection.  We cannot flip through a collection and instantly bond with the guy who lives down the hall from us.

The good news is that it is easy to find and discover new music.  The bad news is we have taken people out of the equation.  Sure, we can all write online reviews, and we can click to find “if you liked band x, check out band y” recommendations.  But who doesn’t remember the joy of telling a new friend “hey, check this out” while you put another record on the turntable or a tape in the player, and the two of you immediately bonded over the thrill of a musical introduction.

I am not sure which time of music collection and listening was better.  Sure, it is easy now, and connecting with others is still possible, but I think it is more sterile.  It is online, through screen names and user names, etc, and rarely do we ever meet in real life, and when we do those meetings are awkwardly uncomfortable as some people want to retreat back behind the safety of their keyboards and put their earbuds back on.  Consuming music has always been a central part of my being, and helped shape me to who I am today.   I very much enjoy the ability to quickly find music to listen to, and the portability of it is beyond the wildest dreams of anyone from 20 or 30 years ago, but I miss the old social aspect and personal touch of listening to and finding new music.  It may be easier to find and listen to music today, and easier to socially connect, but are these connections real or are they an illusion.  Time will tell.

In the meantime, love live rock.

Springsteen Nassau 1980 – The Little Brother All Grown Up

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As great at the Nassau show is, I always considered it the little brother to the great 1978 Darkness shows such as Passaic, Winterland, Agora, the Roxy, and  Atlanta (all radio broadcasts, well booted, and known to fans as Winterland Night, Passaic Night, Summertime Bruce, and Roxy Night).  For many of us, we can hear a moment in one of these and know exactly what show is being played. “Bootleggers, roll your tapes” is from Roxy, and “vomiting in your girl’s purse” was from the Agora show.  They are like old friends that never lose our love.

Springsteen Nassau

I never felt the same way about Nassau Night, the great 12/31/1980 show that many consider one of Springsteen’s greatest performances.  It’s an amazing show, 38 songs played in just under 4 hours.  While I always thought the Darkness shows were emotionally focused, intense, and tight, Nassau always seemed bigger and less intimate to me. I didn’t have the same emotional connection as I did the ’78 shows. The band had moved to arenas, the thematic pattern of the show had changed, the crowds were bigger, and the shows were longer and just bigger.  The performances are outstanding, but my connection to it was not the same.  Compared to the concise and focused Darkness shows, the River shows were a marathon collection of highs and lows, emotional mood swings, before finally ending with a frenzied encore set that left the fans and band exhausted.

With the release of 12/31/1980 Nassau show as part of his live concert series, I finally admit that this show is close to being an equal to those great 1978 shows. The band is well seasoned and running on all cylinders from start to finish.  Yes, it is a sprawl compared to the tightness of the Darkness shows.   Running almost 4 hours, Nassau contains most of The River, along with fan favorites from prior tours and a few covers.  The performances are outstanding, and the mix of old and new songs gives the listener time to really listen to what is being performed.  Only Springsteen would have a “mini-set” in the middle of the show that would be considered a “beer-run/bathroom break” today:  playing three slow songs in a row.  But, when Fade Away, The Price You Pay, and Wreck On The Highway are played here, the emotional intensity and intimacy with the audience is second to none at the time.

Compared to today, 1980 is almost the dark ages with the way information flows. Today, you get home from a show and within hours someone has already posted a recording online.  Back then bootlegs were purchased at flea markets and “underground” record stores.  Despite this, the crowd warmly receives Rendezvous (never released) and is already singing the first verse to Hungry Heart (prompted by Bruce).  I know it was his first “hit” single, but the song was only two months old from the time it was released. I remember being at one of the Landover MD shows the month before and people were singing the first verse already.

Bruce himself has said that “the best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with”.  His music has always been the soundtrack of my life, and shows like Nassau are moments in time that can never be replaced.  Springsteen and the E Street Band have been captivating me for over 40 years and I have no intention of ending this relationship with them and the music they present to me. This series of live releases give us the chance to go back, and dust off those cobwebs and remember the way our lives used to be, how much we have changed since then, and how much we are still the same.

“At the end of every hard day, people find some reason to believe”.

“Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive”.

Amen Bruce, Amen.

I Have Been Humbled

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I have been humbled.

 Yesterday was my first day of OT (yes, Occupational Therapy).   When I was in the hospital (12/9-11, 2014) to remove my cancerous prostate, my Ulnar Nerve received a trauma.  For those of you who may not know what the Ulnar Nerve is or what it does, I have stolen the following from Wikipedia:

The Ulnar nerve runs near the ulna bone. The nerve is the largest unprotected nerve in the human body (meaning unprotected by muscle or bone), so injury is common. This nerve is directly connected to the little finger, and the adjacent half of the ring finger, supplying the palmar side of these fingers, including both front and back of the tips.  One method of injuring the nerve is to strike the medial epicondyle of the humorous from posteriorly, or inferiorly with the elbow flexed. The ulnar nerve is trapped between the bone and the overlying skin at this point. This is commonly referred to as bumping one’s “funny bone”.  The Ulnar nerve also helps fire the muscles for the grip.

We are not sure exactly the injury occurred.  It may have been banged during or right after the surgery when they moved me. I may have banged it on the rail of the hospital bed, or I may have compressed the nerve while struggling to get myself up from a chair in the hospital room.  The cause does not matter, the result is irritating.

 I have constant pins and needles in my pinky and adjacent half of the ring finger in my right hand.  I cannot touch my pinky to my thumb.  My wrist/grip is weak because this nerve helps fire the muscles of the entire hand.  During my OT assessment, the grip in my dominant right hand was 70% LESS than my weaker left, and the pinching tests (finger to finger) in my right hand compared to my left had similar results. 

 I am having difficulty with many of the tasks I love.  I am having difficulty playing the piano, not just because of my weakness but because my right pinky can’t keep up with the rest of the hand and lags behind the instructions my brain is giving it.  I can’t bowl because while I can grip the ball, when I go to the release it falls off of my hand.  My horrible handwriting is now worse, and simple everyday activities such as handling a fork, typing, shaving and brushing my teeth are now a chore.

 My neurologist (yes, I have a neurologist now!) said that the nerve will heal and the symptoms should go away, IN A FEW MONTHS!!!!  In the meantime I am going to OT to help re-strengthen the muscles that are not getting the signals from the damaged nerve.

 So, I said humbling?  How about it took me 15 minutes this morning to try to button my shirt sleeve button on my left arm (I was stubborn, I wasn’t giving up!).  How about how difficult it was for me yesterday in OT to pick up toothpicks with my third and fourth fingers and thumb and press them into putty, or using a hand-held spring tensioned vice device to pick up 100 cotton balls and put them back into a box.  How about sitting at a table performing these therapies with three other people, all stroke survivors, who have it much worse off than I do.   I am doing OT just for one injury, they are doing OT as part of a regiment of therapies to recover from their injury.

 We all take many things for granted. The air we breathe, the food on our table,  etc.  We don’t even think about the countless things we do each day.  It’s easy to forget about these simple things (they are just there for us), until we lose some of that ability.  Like a fish out of water who can’t process oxygen, this simple injury has had a major impact on almost everything I do each day.  Even now, as I type this I am unable to use my pinky (I am a 10 fingered typist) and it has taken me twice as long to write this as it would have two months ago.  But then again, two months ago I wouldn’t have given a second thought to type this out quickly, or button my shirt, or pick up toothpicks, or touch my thumb to my pinky, all activities that require much more work  or are impossible right now to achieve.

 I have been humbled.

 

Music And Me

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There are few things more important than music in my life.  Breathing, health, family and friends will always be on the top of my list, but after that there is music.  Music is the very essence of who I am and I cannot ever live without it.

Music has been with me for as long as I remember.  I started playing the piano at the age of 5, and remember buying my first records at 11 or 12 years old.  I cannot imagine driving in my car, exercising, or performing any other passive function without listening to music.  As I write this article I am listening to music.  It is all around me, and I am always thinking about it.

Music is the way I express myself, and moves me in ways that I cannot accurately describe.   Without any warning, music can make me laugh or cry, lighten my mood, move me, it can remind me, and inspire me like nothing else.

The the right sound at the right time, in the right situation, affects me like almost nothing else in my life.  The other day How Can I Be Sure by The Rascals shuffled on my phone and the beauty of the song hit my emotional center with such force that I was close to tears, brought on by the beautiful lyrics and amazing instrumentation behind the words.  Similarly, while driving the other day I Don’t Want To Go Home by Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes came on and it lifted my spirit as I thought about summer, the beach, youth, and anything but the 18 degree temperature outside.

I am very open minded about music and listen to so many different genres that when someone asks me what type of music I like best I am unable to answer them.  Bruce Springsteen is my favorite artist (I have seen him over 60 times and am not ready to end that ride),  and if I had to make a list of other favorites the Beatles would be number two, but after that things get rather confusing.  For example the last 12 songs I have listened to on my iphone are:

 

  1. REM – Driver 8
  2. Grateful Dead – Big Railroad Blues
  3. Genesis – Ripples
  4. Rush – Subdivisions
  5. Springsteen – Streets Of Fire (Live ’78, Passaic)
  6. O.A.R – Shattered (Turn The Car Around)
  7. Bob Dylan – Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You
  8. The Band – Get Up Jake
  9. Pearl Jam – I Am Mine (Live)
  10. Phish – Ghost
  11. The Verve Pipe – Colorful
  12. Linkin Park – Bleed It Out

So, you can imagine my lack of surprise when some of my friends call me a music snob.  You can imagine how hard it is for me to make a mix CD for friends.  I like so much, and have so much material to draw from (close to 1000 cd’s, a few hundred albums sitting in a closet, and over 6000 tracks on my itunes library) that choosing the “right” songs for a mix is an impossible labor of love that totally depends on the mood I am in.

In a future article I will write about the social side of music, what that means to me, and how it has changed for me over the last 40 years.  I will talk about how in the old days your collection took up a wall in a room (and organizing it, if you did,, was a labor of love) and today it may fit into a hard drive the size of your hand.  I will talk about how I have shifted from an album oriented approach to listening to music to a track approach, how streaming makes exposure to  music much easier, and how all of this is good and sometimes limiting to how we share and listen to music.

Thank for listening.  If you love music as much as I do, I hope you found this article interesting.

And remember, it is possible to “learn more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school”.