R.I.P., J.P.

Below is a blog post I wrote in 2018, when John Prine’s most recent album came out. We lost him to COVID-19 10 days ago. It was a massive loss not just to the music community, but to literature, and humanity. Because he had a way with words like few others, and he was by all accounts a kind, funny, caring, gracious, humble person. We could use a few more cats like that.

I’ve got another blog for most of my music musings, but John’s bigger than that. Check out the post below, and I’ve added a YouTube video of a house concert he did in 2018. Well worth a look and listen.

Blog post from April 2018:

John Prine has a new album out tomorrow.

Friday the 13th is our lucky day, because the new album is fantastic. Which is par for the course for Mr. Prine, a living legend who ranks right up there with Dylan and Townes Van Zandt in the songwriting pantheon. If the old adage about the Velvet Underground is true — they only sold 1,000 copies of their albums, but every person who bought one started a band — then for John Prine, every person who bought one of his albums became a songwriter. His music can best be described as “Americana” but really HE is Americana. A boy from the ‘burbs of Chicago, an Army vet, a former mailman, a cancer survivor, a folkie whose music is both timely and timeless.

You can stream the entire album on NPR.

You should stream the entire album on NPR.

You must stream the entire album on NPR.

It’s good for your heart and good for your soul.

(Or if you’re a lazy bum, you can just check out this song from the new release, featuring background vocals from Brandi Carlile.)

God bless John Prine.

House concert from 2018:

So close, and yet so-cially distant.

In case you missed it (and there’s a 99.9% chance you did miss it), the podcast that I co-host is yesterday’s news! Er, I mean, it was in yesterday’s Cincinnati Enquirer. What do you mean you don’t subscribe to a newspaper? What do you mean you don’t even know what a ‘newspaper’ is?

“Daddy, this iPad is broken…”

Luann Gibbs wrote a “Top 10 ways to practice social distancing” article, and there we were, right at the top of the list. OK, eight spots away from the top of the list. But still, we got some ink!

Full disclosure: Luann Gibbs used to work at 97X, the station that is the focus of our podcast. But neither Dave nor I knew that she was going to mention us.

“Extra, extra… two old guys talk about a radio station that died a decade ago!”

It was our “the new phone book’s here” moment.

Actually, Dave and I don’t harbor any delusions of grandeur. (Occasionally, we do have delusions of adequacy, but we lie down until those go away.) Our podcast is extremely niche. Some podcasts have thousands of regular listeners, some have hundreds… we have “tens” of listeners. As I often say, “we’ve made about 50 people very happy” by bringing back fond memories of a small-but-mighty and much-beloved indie rock radio station. But it’s always nice to get a bit of recognition for the hard work you’ve done.

And now that we’re all under house arrest, there’s never been a better time to check out some new podcasts.

Bill Janovitz saved my life last night.

Back in my Catholic grade school days, the nuns talked about the Corporal Works of Mercy, one of which is “feed the hungry.”

William Shakespeare said “if music be the food of love, play on!”

Bill Janovitz, the lead singer of my favorite band, Buffalo Tom, hosted a “Virtual Happy Hour” yesterday afternoon, via the band’s Facebook page. After mixing himself a martini in his kitchen, he headed down to the basement to play songs from throughout his career, usually on acoustic guitar, occasionally on piano. It was like manna from heaven. A feast for the music-starved masses.

I’ve seen Buffalo Tom several times — in Cincinnati, in New York, L.A., Chicago — and have loved every second of every show. But last night’s solo gig was not just something I wanted to see, it something I desperately needed after a long, long week of work and worry and weirdness. And it wasn’t just me that needed this catharsis — a thousand folks tuned in from around the world. Australia, Italy, England, Abu Dhabi…

I’m not big on the FaceGrams and the InstaTweet and the other social mediums, but yesterday, it sure came in handy as a way to bond with like-minded fans. It provided a true sense of close connection in a social distancing world.

Bill was in his basement, sipping a martini and playing his songs. 800 miles away, I was in my basement, singing along at the top of my lungs (something I’d never do at a regular Buffalo Tom concert – I respect the other fans too much to torture them with my off-key warbling) and crying in my beer at the sad songs. It was more than music, it was magic.

In addition to being a fabulous songwriter and performer, Bill is also a caring dude. He’s heavily involved in the Hot Stove Cool Music fundraisers that provide scholarships for kids and families in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Boston. Yesterday’s gig raised more than $4,000 (via Venmo and PayPal “tip jars”) for local venues, promoters and musicians who are out of work during the coronavirus lockdown.

Bill’s already booked another “Virtual Happy Hour” gig for this Saturday, March 28th, at 4:30 EDT. Grab a beverage and belly up to the basement bar for some musical salvation. And tip generously.

Until then, why not use a bit of your “house arrest” free time to check out Buffalo Tom’s most recent album Quiet and Peace. It’ll be good for what ails you.

Favorite albums of 2019

Yes, I realize that it’s nearly March of 2020. And yes, I realize that I have another site that’s dedicated to musical musings. But one-fourth of Leap Day really belongs to 2019, so I’m sneaking this one in today.

Below are my favorite albums of last year. Not that you asked… and you probably don’t care. But I do. Music is my happy place, and these albums took me to the mountaintop.

Please note that these are listed as my “favorites” and not the “best albums of 2019” for 2 reasons:

  1. I don’t claim to be a music guru.
  2. Music is a very personal medium – just because I love a particular album or artist doesn’t mean you will, and that’s fine.

And now let’s get back to the countdown…

The National – I Am Easy To Find

Gotta give some props to the Cincy boys (even though they didn’t really coalesce as a band until they regrouped in Brooklyn).

Ex Hex – It’s Real

A girl power power trio (no, I didn’t stutter) from D.C., these women really rock.

Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel

In this case, “D.C.” means “Dublin City” and this punk band from Ireland has a great sound.

Bob Mould – Sunshine Rock

Bob’s been around the block a few times – first with Hüsker Dü, and later Sugar, and he’s been putting out solo albums since 1989, but he hasn’t lost any speed off his fastball. Check out this sweaty, glasses-fogged solo performance of the title track.

Pernice Brothers – Share the Feeling

After a long layoff, Joe Pernice (and his brother Bob and friends) come back with another pop masterpiece. The album is tough to track down (I bought the digital version on Bandcamp) but well worth the effort.

Purple Mountains – self-titled

David Berman also returned from a long layoff with a brilliant release… sadly, he passed away shortly after the album came out.

Charly Bliss – Young Enough

This one is more poppy than most of my musical leanings, but it’s so darn good. I also saw Charly Bliss live at a small club with a tiny crowd… easily my favorite concert of 2019. This KEXP live session captures their blissful, youthful energy.

Caroline Spence – Mint Condition

Speaking of concerts at small clubs with tiny crowds… Caroline and her band played for less than 20 people (yours truly included) at a small room in the Cincy area and absolutely tore it up. Great voice, fantastic lyrics.

Bleached – Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough

Led by sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin, this band can go from girl-group harmonies to all-out rockers. Well worth a listen.

Jay Som – Anak Ko

Melina Mae Duterte, the California daughter of Filipino immigrants, goes by the stage name of Jay Som. She describes her style as “headphone music” and her album is dreamy, ethereal… magical.

Black Belt Eagle Scout – At the Party With My Brown Friends

From the artist’s website:

My name is Katherine Paul and I am Black Belt Eagle Scout.   

I grew up on the Swinomish Indian Reservation in NW Washington state, learning to play piano, guitar and drums in my adolescent years. The very first form of music that I can remember experiencing was the sound of my dad singing native chants to coo me to sleep as a baby. I grew up around powwows and the songs my grandfather and grandmother sang with my family in their drum group. This is what shapes how I create music: with passion and from the heart. 

Jesse Malin – Sunset Kids

Jesse Malin is one of my favorite under-the-radar artists. Sadly, he’s been “under the radar” for more than 20 years. This album, produced by Lucinda Williams, showcases Jesse’s amazing range of song styles.

Better Oblivion Community Center – self-titled

Phoebe Bridgers teamed up with Conor Oberst for this surprise release, and it’s an absolute gem from start to finish. I just can’t stop listening to it. (The ad-hoc band also features Griffin Goldsmith from Dawes on drums!)

I’m usually not fond of fan-shot videos, but this is my favorite song on the album.

There you have it, my top picks to click for the year that was. Happy Leap Day!

Music: a heavy influence on my life

We have a digital scale in our bathroom.

Each morning when I step onto it, a couple of things happen:

  1. I get depressed that my weight hasn’t gone down since the day before… so depressed that a tear rolls down my cheek, mixing with the Spicy Nacho Dorito dust that’s still around my mouth from yesterday’s late night snack.
  2. I see the brand name of the scale, Tanita, and immediately think of a song that I used to play on 97X when I was a part-time DJ there waaay back in 1988.

Seriously, I can’t NOT think of Tanita Tikaram, who was merely a blip on the modern rock radar more than 30 years ago. That’s just how my brain works – it’s wired for music and minutia, and “Tanita” is the perfect marriage of the two.

“Twist in My Sobriety” was from Tanita’s debut album, released when she was just 19 (say, that reminds me of this song… .

… and co-produced by Rod Argent, formerly of the band Argent (say, that reminds me of this song…

… and down the musical rabbit hole we go!

My scale’s debut album… er, I mean Tanita’s debut album, Ancient Heart, actually did pretty well, making it to #3 in the UK, and #59 in the US (back when people still bought albums), and “Twist in My Sobriety” and another tune “Good Tradition” both cracked the Top 10 singles chart in England.

Of course, there are no second acts in American lives… and they rarely happen for German-born, UK-raised pop/folk singers either.

A quick succession of albums for WEA – The Sweet Keeper (1990), Everybody’s Angel (1991), and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1992) – did not achieve the same commercial success,[1] with each album selling fewer than the previous one.[citation needed] Her 1992 album Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which was the first Tikaram fully produced herself, did not chart at all.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanita_Tikaram

After several years away from the music biz, she put out a new album in 2005, then another in 2012, and one in 2016.

Her voice still sounds great. But a huge portion of success in the music industry is out of the artist’s control. And how we define “success” isn’t always the best barometer of a career. If Tanita Tikaram is still writing and recording music that she’s passionate about, that’s great. I just wish she could get royalties for the songs that spin in my head.

Neil was the real deal

This is devastating news to music nerds and nerdy musicians everywhere. Neil Peart, the drummer for Rush, passed away this week. He redefined rock drumming, but he didn’t let drumming define him. A voracious reader, an author of seven books, an avid cyclist and motorcyclist, a lifelong learner… just an all-around interesting dude. Check out his website for more of his musings.

“The Professor”… photo from NeilPeart.net

The first concert I ever saw was in 1982: Rush at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, Arkansas. The band I’ve seen in concert more than any other band? Rush! They absolutely crushed it live for 40+ years.

Despite an iconoclastic nature, Peart found musical, and personal, brotherhood with bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson. The trio’s bond came alive during performances, which were immersive musical marathons that doubled as communal, spiritual experiences. Shows — of course — featured an extended Peart drum solo, performed with the precision of a surgeon and the creative freedom of a surrealist. But while highly technical, Peart’s playing was always joyous: As any Rush fan will share, air-drumming to 1981’s “Tom Sawyer” can be one of life’s greatest pleasures.

From this NPR tribute by Annie Zaleski

Neil wasn’t just the best rock drummer ever, he also was Rush’s lyricist. Lots of obituaries for him are latching onto the Ayn Rand/sci-fi angle. That’s not a complete picture. Yes, Neil did dedicate Rush’s 2112 album “to the genius of Ayn Rand” but he later said that he’d outgrown that influence. And yes, many of Rush’s song lyrics read like science fiction. But tunes like “Losing It” and “Red Sector A” were a nod to Neil’s love of literature and history. Songs like “Entre Nous” and “Afterimage” have nothing to do with dystopian societies, and everything to do with personal connections and the human condition.

While his drumming spoke volumes, he rarely gave interviews, preferring to let his work stand on its own. As a shy high schooler, Neil’s lyrics spoke to me. As a bookish old man, they still speak to me.

“He was in many ways like an outsider — the guy who was often different from everyone else,” Halper says. “But that was okay with him. He didn’t want to be like everyone else. He just wanted to be Neil.”

From this NPR tribute by Annie Zaleski

Rush’s final studio album was a concept album (no shock there… they had a few). The lyrics on the final song “The Garden” are Neil’s parting words to us.

R.I.P. Neil. Much love and respect.

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