Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Why Neil Young is so Great

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

Neil Young is an acquired taste. His unique voice, his chimerical persona and odd occasional success make him someone that most people acknowledge as a seminal figure in rock and roll, but not necessarily someone they enjoy. Like a more interesting and challenging Eric Clapton, people know he’s a major figure, but they don’t necessarily know why.

That Voice

First off, let’s talk about Neil’s voice. It’s strangely wavering, kind of screechy, and expressive. It’s not pretty in the slightest – he’s no meadowlark. It resembles nothing so much as the high notes on a harmonica that make you kind of wince just a little.

But, if you get over the initial cringe, it’s the heart of why you will love Neil Young. It’s kind of like a teenager’s strange facial piercing – repulsive at first glance, but then, if you surrender your internal repulsion and get to know the person, it becomes a part of who they are and a badge of their uniqueness. And, just like a teenager’s piercing, there’s an element of “FU if you don’t like it!” attitude conveyed in Neil Young’s voice. Take him on his own terms, or don’t – but you have to accept him as he is if you want to appreciate Neil Young.

Neil Young’s voice democratizes his music. It’s not like listening to some songbird put down a crystalline version of perfection to admire and never touch. Neil Young songs invite you in to sing a verse or two. They’re not museum pieces, they’re sing alongs with soul. I defy anyone to drink three good beers, crank “Down by the River” and not join in. Breathes there a man with soul so dead?

The Songs

It’s impossible to make blanket statements about Neil Young’s music without opening yourself up to contradiction. He’s been performing for 40+ years, ranging from folk-inspired to inspiring punk. He’s written about history, drugs, divorce, love, war, and environmentalism. There’s no pigeonhole big enough.

But, for me, the thing about great Neil Young songs is that they create a mood. They don’t teach you anything, they don’t argue a point of view. They just bring you somewhere and you feel something powerful.

For me, the seminal Neil Young song is “Helpless” (though I could argue for “Cowgirl in the Sand”, “Cortez the Killer”, “Tonight’s the Night”, “Cinnamon Girl”, “Harvest Moon”, “Words (Between the Lines of Age)”, “Comes a Time”, “Southern Man” or any one of dozens of others. I’m not a big fan of his two biggest hits – “After the Goldrush” strikes me as awkward and pretentious, and “Heart of Gold” has no depth.

But back to “Helpless” – in it, he has evocative lyrics that expand the plaintive sound of his voice.

There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.

Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.

I suppose you either get that or you don’t but he sings it slowly and powerfully and then you’re feeling as scared and adrift as the artist. It’s a mood, created by words, music and a voice, and he doesn’t resolve it or tie it up in an understandable knot. Neil Young, at his best, doesn’t lend himself to paraphrase. It just is what it is, and that’s enough.

Neil Young Live, from 1968

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

I know Neil Young is an acquired taste that many haven’t gotten around to acquiring. His distinctive voice, challenging lyrics and all-around quirkiness are kind of like mother of pearl – the same material that makes the ugly shell somehow becomes the thing of beauty.

Someday I will do an homage to him that will help the indifferent understand why, exactly, Neil Young deserves a prominent spot among the truly greats. But today, I’ll toss the pearls before swine, and direct music lovers to listen for free to an entire live album by Neil Young from 1968, when he was 22 years old and shocked to sell out a concert hall.

This is the Story of Johnny Rotten . . .

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Johnny Rotten is doing a butter commercial in Great Britain:

As the wise people at Sadly, No! point out, this may be the most awesome punk moment of all time.

I’m listening to “Never Mind the Bullocks”, delighted that I still have the capacity to be shocked. Thank you, Johnny Rotten. I am furious that you sold out. Thank you, Johnny Rotten. I have lost all respect for you. You are the greatest punk of all time.

Want to Support KCMSD Success?

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

You probably don’t know the name Ron Martz, or understand his role in the formation of some of the Kansas City Metropolitan School District’s best and brightest youths. No, he’s not one of the bickering School Board members, nor one of the superintendents who have come and gone.

He’s just a band teacher.

But, in his role as the band teacher at Lincoln Prep, Ron Martz has brought discipline and practice and talent to life in children who are at that crucial age when they start either abandoning dreams of greatness or fitting them into their deepest self-images. Through music, he reaches into kids’ dreams and offers a score for their success. I don’t know how many professional musicians he has taught (though I’m sure there have been a few), but I know for a fact that he has taught kids whose self-confidence, bolstered by their demonstrated ability to master a musical instrument, has walked with them on college campuses from Harvard to Penn Valley, and helped them achieve far more than the newspapers and civic talk would allow them to dream.

Yes, I’m a little emotional on this topic, because I’ve seen him take groups of kids and transform them from unruly, surly mini-gangs into polished orchestras and bands.


Two years ago, two Lincoln students submitted their audition tapes to Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Wind Ensemble competition – and both were selected! The Carnegie Hall staff said they couldn’t recall a time when 2 high school students were selected from the same school in the same year. So last year, four more students submitted audition tapes (these are audio—it’s a “blind” audition) and were selected to be part of this National Youth Wind Ensemble this year. The artistic director of Carnegie Hall contacted Ron Martz, the director of Lincoln’s band program, and basically invited Martz to bring the entire Wind Ensemble to New York. High school bands and choirs from around the country travel to New York for this program each year, but they are overwhelmingly suburban schools. Most urban schools just can’t pull together the resources, even if they have the talent to be invited.


The budget for the trip – bus, hotels, fees, meals, insurance, all that stuff – is about $75,000, and they already have $30,000.

Are you setting up a Holiday Party for your office? How about arranging a few of these students to entertain, and making a contribution to the trip? Do you have a hard-to-shop-for relative? How about making a donation on his or her behalf? If you are fortunate enough to be in a position to donate all or a substantial portion of the $45,000, you could get the kids back into the practice room instead of out with their parents working the concession stands at the Sprint Center and Arrowhead or selling $1 donuts and candy bars. Here is a link to the web page that tells you how to make a donation.

Even if you don’t have a nickel to offer, though, come out to the Winter Concert on Wednesday, Dec. 17, at 7 p.m. at Lincoln College Prep High School, 2111 Woodland Avenue. Offer your applause and appreciation for some great young musicians and their outstanding leader.

They deserve it.

The Cardinals and Ryan Adams Postponed

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

I was really looking forward to the show tonight.

They have the flu.

And their website claims “Tonights show in Kansas is postponed because multiple members of the band and crew have been taken ill with the flu. More details soon.” It was going to be at the Uptown, most definitely in Missouri.

Sebelius Dances Those Non-Veep Blues Away

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

As I wrote yesterday, this year’s debates are becoming something of a hot social event, with parties and gatherings taking place all over. Of these, though, the biggest one was the sole vice-presidential debate, where we were treated to a blustery senator versus a talented Tina Fey impersonator. Who could miss that? Every politico I know was glued to the screen. Or so I thought.

It turns out that none other than veep shortlister Kathleen Sebelius avoided the debate. Instead, she went to Knuckleheads to catch some musical blues, where my favorite librarian blogger noticed her and even got her to pose for a picture. Sounds like it was a good show and it’s probably wiser for her to get out and listen to Tab Benoit than to sit at home in the Governor’s Mansion watching the debate and thinking about how it “woulda, coulda, shoulda” been her in Biden’s place.

Neil Young, Breast Cancer, and Trout Fishing

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

This is a cool, cool project. American Laundromat Records has put together a compilation of women performing covers of Neil Young songs, and the proceeds are going to support Casting for Recovery, a charity which hosts retreats for breast cancer survivors where “the sport of fly-fishing is used to promote physical, emotional, and spiritual healing.” The CD has already raised over $22,000.

The founder of the label lost his mother to breast cancer in 2005 after a 6 year battle with breast cancer. I lost my mother to breast cancer this past summer after a mercifully short battle. I’m blessed, though, with many great breast cancer survivors in my life, including one who is going through treatment as I write this. These great women need and deserve support in their healing.

Even if it weren’t a fantastic cause, this CD sounds great on its own merits. Here’s a track listing, including songs I love covered by artists some of whom I know and some of whom I’ve never heard:

Disk 1
1. Heart Of Gold – Tanya Donelly
2. I Am A Child – Britta Phillips (Luna)
3. Comes A Time – Kate York
4. The Needle And The Damage Done – Lori McKenna
5. Down By The River – Jill Sobule with John Doe
6. Burned – Veruca Salt
7. Cowgirl In The Sand – Josie Cotton
8. A Man Needs A Maid – Dala
9. Ohio – Darcie Miner
10. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – Carmen Townsend

Disk 2
1. Cinnamon Girl – Euro Trash Girl
2. I Believe In You – Julie Peel
3. Tell Me Why – Luff
4. Ohio – Dala
5. Helpless – Elk City
6. Only Love Can Break Your Heart – Amilia K. Spicer
7. Sugar Mountain – Louise Post
8. Powderfinger – The Watson Twins
9. Like A Hurricane – Kristin Hersh
10. Old Man – Cindy Wheeler (Caulfield Sisters)
11. Walk On – Heidi Gluck (Some Girls)

If you like Neil Young, if you like women artists, if you like survivors of breast cancer, if you like fly-fishing for trout, if you like conservation, to buy the CD for $15 (free shipping), or download it from iTunes.

Hold on tight, stay up all night ’cause Rosie I’m comin’ on strong

Monday, August 25th, 2008

A while back, I pondered whether it would be worth it to blow a thousand bucks on last night’s Springsteen concert. Back when it looked like I would need to resort to a ticket broker, I pondered

Do you blow a grand on a single show? What if he has an off night? What if the people in front of me are tall? Can one show really be worth that kind of money? Would I walk out of the Sprint Center thinking “Great show, but . . .”?

I don’t know. Maybe. Springsteen shows are legendary. Seeing a great artist live is a totally different experience than listening to the music itself. What is the proper price of a lasting memory?

All my worries were for baseless. A friend helped me out, and I wound up with 4 fantastic seats at face value. Sam, my music-savvy son, came home from New York for the show, so Sam, Robin, Ancillary Adams and I took the convertible down to the Crossroads, grabbed a great dinner and better beer at Grinder’s, and then strolled to the Sprint Center for 3 hours of hard-working rock and roll the likes of which I’ve never seen before.

Here’s a setlist Sam found on a fan sight, with tour premiers in all-caps:
2. Cynthia
3. Radio Nowhere
4. No Surrender
5. Out in the Street
6. Hungry Heart
7. Spirit in the Night
(Boys, as sung by Max, by request) – we’ll clarify this tomorrow [this was based on an audience request - "let max sing" - and it's a shirelles cover, the first song that ringo ever sang for the beatles)
8. Cadillac Ranch
9. Workin' on the Highway
11. Candy's Room
12. Gypsy Biker
13. Youngstown
14. The Promised Land
15. Livin' in the Future
16. Mary's Place
17. DEVILS AND DUST (solo acoustic)
18. The Rising
19. Last to Die
20. Long Walk Home
21. Badlands

22. 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
23. 10th Avenue Freeze-out
24. Born to Run
25. Rosalita
26. American Land

28. Dancing in the Dark
30.????????????????? [some irish drinking-y song]

If you’re a Springsteen fan, that’s a hell of a show. But now for the overwhelming question – would it have been worth a grand for my wife and I to see it?

Shockingly (to a skinflint like me), yes, it definitely would have been worth it. Springsteen plays every song like it’s his once chance to get on stage and bust out the rock and roll star that we all wish we could be. His performances are great live versions of fantastic songs, but they’re live in the best sense of the word – not slavish studio reproductions. Instead, they’re improvised, enhanced, made more evocative by his guitar slashing and clowning with Steve Van Zandt. He brought a young girl on stage to dance with him to “Dancing in the Dark”, and she carped the diem. The fans were adoring and knowledgeable (with the exception of a couple twits behind me wearing UMB lanyards who gabbed loudly during Bruce’s only hushed moments). For just under 200 minutes, he gave Kansas City a rock and roll performance with intensity, integrity and power unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. When Bruce shouts “One, Two, Three”, you’d better be ready to get your fist in the air.

The Sprint Center itself looked great. Plenty of room in the concourses, comfortable seating (not that I used mine much), and pretty good acoustics for a concrete bowl. Ushers and security were effective but not obtrusive.

A thoroughly excellent show. A hoped-for spectacular that lived up to crazy expectations. Yeah, it was all that.

Praise for

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

A couple years ago, I lamented the fact that my music choices were becoming calcified – I saw myself receding “into a world where, I fear, I won’t hear anything recorded less than a decade ago, unless it’s put down by Neil Young, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Dylan.”

An anonymous commenter recommended, and the recommendation was seconded by Chris, the criminally under-appreciated creative force behind the816, and “thirded” by no less an authority than musical polymath Happy in Bag.

So, finally, more than two years later, I gave it a try. It’s been spectacular. Go there, create a free account (just an email address and password), and it’s off to the races. You enter the name of an artist you like, and it goes out and finds others you might enjoy. You won’t believe the connections it makes . . .

(As an aside, though, do NOT, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, admit that you like Dwight Yoakam. Pandora will treat you like a half-witted hick until you convince it that you were just kidding . . .)

You can have multiple stations – I’m using Pandora to expand my knowledge of jazz, leaning more toward Dave Brubeck than smooth jazz crap or inaccessible fusion noise.

I’ve also heard great things about, so I’ll be giving that a try over the next few days.

To Bruce or Not to Bruce?

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

It’s official that Bruce Springsteen is coming to my hometown on August 24. Despite years of fandom, despite 1978-82 in New York state (a long but doable car-ride from New Jersey), despite seeing variants on his theme, such as Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes – I’ve never seen Springsteen live.

Unfortunately, I’m going to be otherwise occupied when the tickets go on sale. That means if I want to see the show looking up instead of looking down, I’m probably going to have to come up with several hundred dollars. This site has tickets I’d really like already on sale for a little under $500 each . . . Parking, dinner, a beer or two at the show – let’s round it off at a grand. Or, if that offends you, and you think nosebleed seats should suffice, let’s round if off to $400.

What’s a person of moderate means to do?

For a fraction of the cost, I could buy an iPod and download every Springsteen song available on iTunes, and still have money available to catch dozens of up-and-coming shows at smaller venues. I could max out campaign contributions to some worthy local candidates. I could change lives with donations to some of my favorite charities. I could investigate that concept called “retirement savings” that I’ve heard some people mentioning.

Do you blow a grand on a single show? What if he has an off night? What if the people in front of me are tall? Can one show really be worth that kind of money? Would I walk out of the Sprint Center thinking “Great show, but . . .”?

I don’t know. Maybe. Springsteen shows are legendary. Seeing a great artist live is a totally different experience than listening to the music itself. What is the proper price of a lasting memory? How much would you pay to see your “best concert ever”?