Uncle Jesse… no, not that one… not that one either…

You can keep your heartthrob John Stamos from “Full House”

You can have the proud elder statesman of the Duke family on “Dukes of Hazzard”

And I’ll stick the Jesse Malin, the glam/punk rock/singer/songwriter/poet, the pint-sized dynamo who has been entertaining audiences with his music since he was 12 years old, and continues to perform with the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager at the age of 50.

I’ve seen Jesse Malin live in concert four times now, and each of those shows has had two things in common:

  1. An enthusiastic, entertaining, uplifting, energizing performance from Jesse
  2. A sparse crowd

This past Saturday night, I saw him at a tiny club in Columbus (yes, I drove 100 miles to see him, well worth it), giving it his all for an audience that was 50 people strong at best. He even joked from the stage about at least having more folks in attendance at that night’s show than at the Last Supper.

The lack of a crowd just doesn’t make sense. His music is brilliant, and runs the gamut from introspective songwriter tunes to garage rock to punk rock. His stage performance is as high energy as anyone I’ve ever seen, including Springsteen. He’ll crack jokes, tell great stories, hop into the crowd, whatever it takes to make the performance memorable. This past Saturday, that included dancing on the bar while singing a cover of the Clash’s “Rudie Can’t Fail.”

And Jesse has friends in high places, too. Ryan Adams produced his first solo album. Springsteen sang a duet with him on his 2007 release. He was in a side project with the members of Green Day in 2010. By all accounts, he should be packing theaters instead of playing dives. I think he does better in Europe, and closer to his home base of NYC, but he really deserves a better fate commercially. Just check out this song, the one he opened up with this weekend, a sizzling slice of Stones swagger:

But instead of worrying about the size of the crowd or the Billboard charts, I should just channel my inner Jesse. He clearly doesn’t let it get him down, and I respect the fact that he gives it his all every single night. He does what he does with passion, and unleashes his creativity into the world… what the world chooses to do with it after that is out of his control.

Keep rockin’, Jesse, and I’ll keep listening and watching and appreciating.

Music and Magic

Would you want to run into this guy in a dimly lit bar at 11 o’clock at night?

If you like great rock and roll music, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

His name is Tim Showalter, and he and his fantastic band perform under the name Strand of Oaks. I saw them last night, in a free 10 p.m. show at MOTR Pub near downtown Cincinnati. It was well past my usual bedtime by the time they hit the stage, but I can always catch up on sleep, and I’ll probably never see a show quite like last night’s. The band was fantastic, sure, but there’s more to it than that.

And halfway through the show, they introduced a guy whom they had just met. A local singer/songwriter who had emailed Tim earlier in the day. He has a tumor in his chest that needs to be removed, but there’s a 50/50 chance that the surgery might damage his vocal cords. So in “Make a Wish” fashion he wanted to play on stage with Strand of Oaks, as it might be his last singing performance. Heavy stuff.

Strand of Oaks not only brought him up on stage to play one of his songs, but also had learned another song of his prior to the show and served as the backing band on it. 

The moment was truly moving…I’ve been to hundreds of shows in my life and never experienced anything like it. It also shows what a big heart that Tim Showalter has. He may look like he belongs in a biker gang, but he’s a music lover, not a fighter. Here are a couple of quotes from recent articles that prove it:

I’m giving hugs and shaking hands and sweating with everyone at our shows. I love making records and writing songs, and I’m already writing for the next record now, but what I love most are the concerts — getting to hang out with cool people, sing, play for my friends, have some good drinks and stay up late. I’m a simple guy, and whatever size the show is doesn’t matter, as long as my guitar works.”

[Read more here.]

We’re not living in the day and age where you can sell 5 million records, but there are still people hungry for it and that is the best thing about it. You can never duplicate the experience of what it’s like to go to a concert. [emphasis mine] That’s priceless currency in this world. You can never take that away. It’s my favorite thing to do.

[Read more here.]

Strand of Oaks latest album is called Hard Love. Check it out.


Attaboy, Billy!

Billy Bragg has always been one of my favorite folkies. (Or as I heard him describe himself in concert once: “a quasi-political punk-rock folk singer.”) His new song “The Sleep of Reason” is a great example of why I love him so. Check out the bitingly insightful lyrics.

And in the end, the greatest threat faced by democracy/isn’t fascism, or fanaticism, but our own complacency. 

Wednesday the 14th, Part VI: Jason Lives

Do yourself a favor and carve out 40 minutes and 17 seconds today to listen to the new album from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, called The Nashville Sound.

Jason’s been on a roll for the past few years, chronicling his sobriety, falling in love, becoming a dad… and doing it all with a unique perspective that comes from the crossroads of the Literary South and the country backroads of northern Alabama. The closest comparison I can make is he’s a male version of Lucinda Williams, and I adore Lu so that’s high praise in my book. His sound could probably be classified as “country” but his writing goes so much deeper than the truck tailgates and cutoff jeans of the “bro-country” set that you can’t even put them in the same category.

In the 1946 book “Confessions of a Story Writer” Paul Gallico wrote: 2

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.

Jason’s been bleeding onto the page for years now… with fantastic musical accompaniment… and it’s music to my ears. His sixth studio album is another stellar offering.

Here he is rocking out:

… and here’s his softer side:

Watch the entire session to appreciate the full spectrum of Jason and the 400 Unit:


I just wanna stop… but I can’t quit Gino

I did a bit more Senior-Discount-Sunday crate-digging through the LPs at my local St. Vincent de Paul, and I’ve got a bit of sad news: the biggest Gino Vannelli fan in the Cincinnati area has moved on…

Six, count ’em, six albums from Gino’s heyday were available for four bits each. I’m not sure if the Gino fan has moved on to other soft rock stars of the 70s (we’ll have to check the iTunes sales numbers for Seals & Crofts) or to the Great Beyond. Either way, it’s a sad day.

My favorite GV album cover has to be the one from the ’75 release Storm at Sunup:

A poodle-permed Gino stares forlornly at the camera, satin shirt open to reveal his hirsute chest and his “lack-pack” (i.e. lack of a two-, four- or six-pack). A scantily clad woman is in the background, clearly disappointed with her choices in life.

But there is good news for Gino fans (and really, aren’t we all Gino fans?):

a. He’s still alive

b. He’s still touring

c. His hair is still amazing.

And now, a short-distance dedication from Gino to the Cincinnati area person who dumped him at the Mt. Washington St. Vincent de Paul:

If you like Piña Coladas…

Sunday is Senior Discount Day at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop near my house. While I’m not a full-fledged, card-carrying, early-buffet-eating member of AARP just yet, the discount applies for anyone 50 or older. (“Fifty is nifty!”) And I can’t resist a 25% discount, especially when my vinyl crate-digging unearthed this gem:

Yes, the masterpiece of Rupert Holmes oeuvre, the seminal Partners in Crime album, featuring the earworm entitled “Escape” but better known and loved by millions as “The Piña Colada Song.”

Don’t act like you don’t know it. Don’t act like you don’t like it. Don’t pretend that you’re not hearing it in your head right now, and singing along at the top of your inner-voice lungs.

It may not be the best song ever put to acetate, but it has its own unique charm. And it is, hands down, the single most unrealistic song about a relationship ever. Let’s recap it, shall we?

In the days before Tinder, when newspapers were still a thing, folks would use the “personals” section of the classified ads to find love. But wait, our Escape protagonist already has a lady. She’s sleeping right next to him… and he’s perusing the personals. Yet somehow he manages to absolve himself of any guilt or shame in the first couplet:

I was tired of my lady, we’d been together too long/Like a worn-out recording, of a favorite song

Ergo, ennui is justification for cheating on your significant other. Who knew? So he sees a personal ad that piques his interest. Perhaps it’s a shared predilection for piña coladas and/or getting caught in the rain and/or intimate encounters in sand dunes. Or a mutual hatred of yoga/health food. So while his current “lady” is sleeping, he channels his inner Robert Browning and writes a reply, suggesting a rendezvous at an Irish bar (because those are the best kind of rendezvous – sidebar, the word “rendezvous” is plural – those wacky French!)

When the woman arrives at the appointed place and time – plot twist ahead – it’s his current paramour (a.k.a. “my own lovely lady”). And both of them laugh off the fact that they were trying to cheat on each other. Yes, that’s correct, in this song, there’s no righteous indignation, no hurt feelings, no screaming/yelling/divorce-attorney-calling. They laugh it off, presumably have a drink or three (when in O’Malleys…) and in all likelihood head to the Cape for an assignation. It’s not really a song so much as it is a fairy tale.

So when I saw the album in the thrift shop, I had to have it. Especially because it had held up rather well considering its 1979 release date. It still had the poly wrapping, it still had the record sleeve with liner notes, it even had the original receipt from the purchase:

Guess it wasn’t Senior Discount Day at Music World back in the summer of 1980. They paid $5.75 but I got the album for 37 cents. Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me (and The Village People) to introduce the world’s favorite non-philanderer, the inimitable Rupert Holmes:


I’m your (second) biggest fan

Regular blog readers (all three of you) know about my love for the Boston band called Buffalo Tom. (Yes, they’re from Boston and they have “Buffalo” in their name… might help explain why 99% of America has never heard of them.) BT (that’s what we hardcore fans call them) had their moment in the sun back in the early 90s. (OK, it wasn’t exactly a moment in the sun, maybe more like a moment under mostly sunny skies.) Now they still get together to make music occasionally — a new fan-backed album is due out soon — but also have day jobs. The lead singer is a real estate agent – if you’re looking for a mid-century modern in the Boston ‘burbs, Bill Janovitz is your go-to dude.

Bill Janovitz has also been involved in a Boston sports charity for many years, called Foundation To Be Named Later. It was started by former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein (hence the wacky baseball-related name) and his twin brother Paul. Each year they do a “Hot Stove, Cool Music” benefit concert in Boston, and Bill is an organizer of that concert as well as a participant. Now that Theo is the President of the Chicago Cubs, the charity has expanded to Chicago as well.

At this year’s Boston gig a couple of weeks ago, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder played a Buffalo Tom tune called “Taillights Fade,” trading verses with Bill Janovitz. Listen to the first 20 seconds to hear Eddie pay tribute to Buffalo Tom.

“Taillights Fade” is from Buffalo Tom’s 1992 album Let Me Come Over, which is my all-time favorite album.

The cover of Let Me Come Over

They’re putting out a 25th anniversary edition as a double LP/CD with a 1992 concert included.  It’s also worth noting that Bill has a heart of gold – he called out ticket resellers who were marking up tickets to the Boston charity concert.

And a co-worker of mine tipped me to a blog called “One Week/One Band” where:

Every week, one trusted music aficionado showcases a band or artist they feel particularly passionate about. Any artist from any country or decade will do — no rules and no canon. Some of those bands you might know very well; some of them you might have never heard of.

Week #1 was The Replacements, one of my favorite bands. Week #2 was….(drumroll please)…. Buffalo Tom! The writer, Andrew Necci, talks about BT’s song “Birdbrain” which is another favorite of mine. If I were a major league baseball player, “Birdbrain” would be my walk-up song.

Obviously I’m not a MLB player (still working on that knuckleball), just a big fan of Buffalo Tom. It’s nice to know that their music had such a big impact on other folks too. Eddie Vedder and I are practically brothers. OK, at least we’re friends.


Music notes in the key of D(ubbatrubba)

A few concert-going odds and ends from the past couple of weeks:

I saw Joan Shelley open up for Richard Thompson two Fridays ago.

Hearing her voice in that setting, it’s easy to make comparisons to the late great Sandy Denny, with whom Richard played eons ago in Fairport Convention.

I know that’s high praise for folkies, but Joan deserves it. NPR is streaming her new album (produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco) – spend some time with it.

This past Saturday I saw Cincinnati’s own Wussy at the Woodward Theater. They were a bit rusty (they’re taking a break from touring to record), but amazing as always. The sandpaper & silk combination of Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker on vocals is, in a word, beautiful.

Wussy had two local bands opening up. Note to all local bands: if you’d like to attract more fans, maybe try a volume other than “eardrum-piercing.” Seriously, my friend Dave and I could only last 30 seconds with the first band before we retreated outside. You win the volume contest, local band… but ironically you lose a chance to be heard by more people. Wouldn’t you rather have folks up by the stage rather than rushing for the exits or cowering in a corner? TURN IT DOWN! WAY DOWN! (See, you don’t like it when I turn up the volume either, do you? Now you know how the audience feels.)

Thank goodness I had my Earpeace earplugs. If you go to concerts, do your ears a favor and get a pair. A mere $20 will get you the HD version, and they come with their own handy carrying case.

I spent years using those disposable foam factory/construction site earplugs, which muffle all sounds. Earpeace plugs actually filter the sound, so you can enjoy the bands without killing your hearing.

On Monday I saw a great double bill, again at the Woodward. Ron Gallo opened up for Hurray for the Riff Raff. Both were fantastic. Ron’s songwriting and guitar skills are as impressive as his hairdo, and that’s saying something:


Hurray for the Riff Raff is fronted by Alynda Lee Segarra, a self-proclaimed “New Yorican” (i.e. New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent) and pint-sized dynamo. Her new album is The Navigator, and it’s great. The band sounds fantastic in concert too, and Alynda isn’t afraid to speak her mind about all sorts of socio-political topics. She introduce a couple of tunes by saying “this is an immigrant song.” Here’s their performance at SXSW last month.

Ron Gallo and his two other band members even joined Hurray for the Riff Raff on stage for a couple of songs, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “Living in the City” (here’s a brief clip)…

…and a raucous encore version of a John Lennon tune, “Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)” (another snippet):



Aaaaand finally (I know, tl:dr)….

NPR is also streaming an album where artists from Dolly Parton to Pearl Jam cover Brandi Carlile’s The Story. It’s called “Cover Stories” and it’s for a good cause:

The musicians on Cover Stories joined the project, in part, because they believe in the cause Cover Stories benefits – all proceeds go to War Child UK, a non-governmental organization supporting children affected by conflict

Peace out.

Happy Earth Day to You

Hey, it’s Earth Day, the one day out of 365 (or 366) that we actually give a damn about the planet we all share. Each year is the hottest on record. Smog is getting smoggier. Rains are turning to floods. Earthquakes are a fracking nightmare. A 94-year-old engineer may be our last hope.

OK, maybe I’m being overly dramatic. But I’m also being overly Dramarama…

What Are We Gonna Do? – Dramarama from Damian John Spooner – Upton on Vimeo.

What are we gonna do? Here are some ideas.

Happy Birthday, Planet Earth!

Bye Bye David Dye

David Dye, longtime host of NPR’s wonderful music program World Cafe, signed off a couple of Fridays ago after a quarter century of spinning a ton of great tunes.

My musical tastes veer away from the mainstream, to singer-songwriters and indie rockers and “legacy” artists who still push the boundaries. I could always count on World Cafe for two hours of music that was right in my wheelhouse – check out David Dye’s list of 25 albums from the 25 years he hosted the show for a taste. Better still, the show also featured interviews and live performances from the artists. It was appointment listening for many years for me, on the local affiliate WNKU-FM. Now David is gone, and WNKU is soon to follow.

But when one door closes, another opens. My wife got me an Amazon Echo Dot for Christmas, and all I have to do is say “Alexa, play radio station KEXP-Seattle” and I’m immediately tuned in to what is, in my humble opinion, the best station going.

It’s not the same as having a local connection, but I’ll take what I can get. Gotta keep rockin’.