The Day The Music Died… yet again

Local radio station WNKU signed off for good a couple of nights ago. It was the only local station worth a damn, and now it’s gone. They started as a bluegrass and folk station in 1985, but over the years had morphed into a “Triple A” (Adult Album Alternative) format, and recently had shifted more toward modern rock/indie rock, a format very similar to 97X, a now-defunct station where I worked as a DJ back in the mid-90s. In fact, WNKU had even added Matt Sledge — one of my co-workers at 97X — to their on-air staff a couple of years ago.

That’s the real gut punch – I feel like WNKU was just hitting their stride and picking up momentum when the rug was pulled out from under them by their owner, Northern Kentucky University. I get it, there’s a budget crunch in higher education, and especially in Kentucky, where Governor Matt Bevin cut funding for all state schools by 4.5% in 2016. So the university had to get out of the radio business… especially when the format favored outlier artists over the pop pablum, bro country and other lame formats favored by the (m)asses. WNKU broadcast on a few frequencies around the area – two were sold to a Christian broadcasting company, and another signal went to a local country station.

It’s a big loss for music in the area. WNKU supported local artists by playing at least one track from a local band every hour. And they helped draw national acts to the area. This past winter I hosted a house concert by Craig Finn, lead singer of The Hold Steady. That never would’ve happened without WNKU, because Craig scheduled his house concert tour around in-studio appearances at radio stations, promoting his new solo album. He was on the air with Liz Felix in the afternoon, doing an interview and playing an acoustic set. Liz even came to the house concert that night. No WNKU = no more Craig Finn visits = no more amazing house concerts at my place.

For indie music fans of a certain age in the Cincinnati area, it’s reliving a nightmare. 97X signed off in 2004 and left a similar void in their lives. There aren’t many folks who are into the artists who are weirdos, rebels, up-and-comers, but those fans are as passionate as you’ll find, and losing a beloved radio station is like the death of a family member – for listeners and staff alike, as you’ll see in this video from the Cincinnati Enquirer:

The Enquirer story is here.

Sure, it’s a bluetooth, wi-fi, satellite radio world. We can stream Spotify or Pandora or Google Music or Sirius/XM or whatever is out there in the ether. But it’s not the same. It’s not as personal, and it never will be, because those folks (or more fittingly these days, those algorithms) don’t live here, they don’t know us and get us like a local radio station does.

Aaron Sharpe wrapped up with a great Talking Heads song. I’d like to add a couple more to the swan song playlist. One is a local band, This Pine Box. Guitarist Joe Tellmann is the son of my friend Dave, who worked at 97X for more than a decade. This band should be on every station in America, not just a tiny station that no longer exists.

And here’s the song I heard on WNKU more than any other tune, it was played nearly every Friday morning during the request show, and it’s a beautiful song about death from a brilliant artist ignored by the mainstream. Seems rather fitting.

 

 

 

 

There’s no replacement for The Replacements

The Replacements are one of my all-time favorite bands. They definitely had a Mae West attitude toward performing:

They’re almost as famous for their crazy, drink-and-drug-fueled, self-destructive antics as they are for their music. But in February of 1986, they played a legendary show at the now-defunct Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. 29 songs… for the 30 people in attendance… in what would wind up being one of the final performances for lead guitarist Bob Stinson, who was summarily sacked by a band that included his kid brother.

L to R: 19-year-old bassist Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars on drums, lead singer Paul Westerberg and lead guitarist Bob Stinson.

Luckily a 24-track mobile studio was recording the whole shebang. The master tapes sat collecting dust for 30 years, but are finally going to see the light of day on October 6th.

You can check out five of the tracks via the links here. (Side note: I think it’s pretty cool that Rhino sprinkled the tracks across different music blog and music sites… smart marketing too.) If you only have time for one link, the Consequence of Sound article features 10 fun facts about the release from Replacements biographer Bob Mehr.

Once you listen, you’ll understand why the ‘mats were such a great rock and roll band. Can’t hardly wait ’til October 6th.

 

The Dü, finally getting their due… but losing Hart

In the late 70s and early 80s, the frozen tundra of Minneapolis was a hotbed of musical innovation. The Replacements brought the raucous rock, Prince brought the funk, and Hüsker Dü brought the punk.

Now, hot on the heels of the release of a remastered box set of Hüsker Dü’s early recordings comes word that drummer Grant Hart has passed away at the age of 56.

Jon Wurster, the drummer for Superchunk who also mans the drum kit for The Mountain Goats and former Dü member Bob Mould, wrote a great tribute to Grant on Rolling Stone’s website.

And at the center of the sonic hurricane was Grant Hart, arms flailing, feet flying, laying waste to every drum and cymbal in his path. 

His drumming alone is enough to secure Grant Hart a place in the alt-rock history books, but that’s only part of his story. Grant was a top-shelf songwriter, penning and handling lead vocals on Hüsker Dü classics like “Terms of Psychic Warfare,” “Diane,” “Green Eyes” and “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill.” 

And what a voice. His was arguably the best to come out of the post-punk/hardcore/alternative scene: sweet and angelic one minute, menacing the next. Grant also handled much of the band’s visual side, designing Hüsker Dü’s album covers and helping other bands with theirs, most notably the Replacements’ 1983 LP, Hootenanny.

My favorite Grant Hart tune is the lead track off his first post-Dü release, “2541”… and I’m not alone. This Minneapolis writer feels the same way.

R.I.P. Grant, and thanks for the great music.

Unanswered prayers

Saw this poor critter while waiting for the bus last week:

Looks like his prayers went unanswered, unless his request was to die on the streets of downtown Cincinnati.

Naturally I immediately thought of Don Dixon’s song “Praying Mantis.” You’ve likely never heard the song, and perhaps you’ve never even heard of Don Dixon. All he did was co-produce Murmur and Reckoning by R.E.M., as well as albums by The Smithereens, Marshall Crenshaw and Guadalcanal Diary. Jangle pop wouldn’t exist without him.

Please look beyond the bad hairstyle and appreciate the tune.

Since 1988, Don has been married to the equally talented and equally underappreciated Marti Jones. They live in Canton, Ohio and still tour occasionally. Here’s a nice interview with them.

 

 

When did pop songs become clown cars?

I know I run the risk of sounding like Grandpa Simpson or SNL’s “Grumpy Old Man”….

… but when did every pop song become a clown car, where you cram in as many artists as you can? “Back in my day” there were solo artists (we miss you John Denver), bands (hello Pablo Cruise) and the occasional duet (Kenny/Dolly or Kenny/Sheena or Kenny/Kim, whichever you prefer). But now it seems like there is some sort of rule (actually “formula” might be more apropos) that a single can’t be released unless it has at least three of the following:

  1. A DJ
  2. A rapper
  3. a pop singer known more for their looks than their pipes
  4. A Disney/Nickelodeon kid show star
  5. Rihanna

Ryan Seacrest must get laryngitis every week just announcing the names of the Top 40. It’s like a music version of The Love Boat.

I think Rihanna just lives in some giant recording studio complex – she steps into Studio A, sings a hook, moves on to Studio B, then C, D, and E… and by the time she gets back to Studio A there’s another disposable band in place working on a song that she can “feature” on. (And I’m using the term “band” very loosely. Most times it’s probably a 22-year old with a laptop.)

More doesn’t always equal better, and the sum is not always greater than the parts. I don’t know how bands and artists can establish any sort of staying power when their identity is based mostly on a Lazy Susan of condiment guest stars. (DJ Khaled, you’re the spicy mustard. Lil’ Wayne, you’re the Dave’s Insanity hot sauce. Biebs, you’re the fat-free mayo.)

Maybe instead of breaking up, the Beatles could’ve just become Lennon & McCartney with George Harrison and Ringo Starr, featuring Yoko Ono and Billy Preston. And they could’ve done the theme song for Matlock. That’s music to my ears.

 

You can’t improve on perfection… so please don’t try

Why, Ben Gibbard, why?

Why would you even attempt to cover Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept”? It’s a heaping helping of pure pop perfection, from their brilliant 1991 album Bandwagonesque. That album was so good that Spin magazine named it album of the year, which means it beat out an obscure album called Nevermind by some trio called Nirvana. (You can – and should – listen to the entire album here.)

“The Concept” is the lead track from that album, and just one of several amazing tunes on the release.

Teenage Fanclub was (and is – they put out an album last year and still tour) the rightful heir to the Big Star crown, and like Big Star they don’t get the credit they deserve. But being underappreciated just comes with the territory when you’re a Scottish band (looking your way, Frightened Rabbit, CHVRCHES, We Were Promised Jetpacks and the inappropriately named Texas).

And now, Mr. Gibbard, you have the temerity to cover the entire album? Don’t get me wrong, I know your intentions are pure.

In a press release, Gibbard explained why he chose the particular record: “Bandwagonesque is my favorite record by my favorite band of all time.” He continued, “It came along at a pivotal time in my musical life and I’ve loved it for over 25 years. It’s been such a blast taking these songs apart to see how they work and then putting them back together again.”  (Source: Pitchfork article)

I like your band Death Cab for Cutie, and even your side project The Postal Service.  But if you can’t bring something new to the cover song, or make it completely your own, then don’t do it. And you’ve taken a great song and turned it into a bit of a dirge. Which is weird, because when Iron & Wine slowed down your Postal Service song “Such Great Heights” it worked great.

But for your treatment of “The Concept”? Not so much.

However, there is a silver lining, BG. Maybe by covering the entire album, you’ll induct a few members of this generation into the Teenage Fanclub fanclub (no, I didn’t stutter).

That’s a brilliant idea! And if the band is on board, then I am too.

Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake is also happy with the result: “I was thrilled and extremely flattered when I heard that Ben Gibbard had decided to cover Bandwagonesque in its entirety. Needless to say that the reimagining of the album by this very talented fella is both inventive and deftly executed. Thanks Ben.”

 

 

 

 

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.