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January 17th, 2016

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio

A High Point for the Concept Album—Procul Harum’s “A Salty Dog”

Rock music of the late ’60s and early ’70s may’ve been the Golden Age of the concept album—The Kinks’ “Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire),” The Who’s “Tommy,” and David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Amid so much amazing music, one of my favorites from the period was Procul Harum’s “A Salty Dog,” with a theme drawn from the Age of Sail when English ships plied the seas, filled with songs like “The Milk of Human Kindness,” The Wreck of the Hesperus,” and the eponymous “A Salty Dog,” songs about mariners and ships. I just listened to it again last night, and it still sounds great. I found someone had put it up on youtube, so if it’s new to you or an old fave, I hope you enjoy listening to it here!

 

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December 31st, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Personal history, Family, Friends

New Year’s Tribute to Mr Stress, Jan 1 1943-May 18 2015, RIP to a Great Bluesman

As a New Year’s gift to all my fabulous friends, readers and Internet acquaintances, I’m glad to share memories, an essay, and a few links about Cleveland’s Bill Miller—aka Mr Stress—a great blues harmonica player, singer, and leader of bands who died this past year, on May 18. I followed him avidly from 1972, when I turned 18, old enough to go to bars, to 1985 when I moved to NY. I think of him today, not only because his passing came this year, but because he was the first baby born in Cleveland in 1943, a bare minute after midnight. He was feted on the front page of the next day’s newspaper as the city’s first firstborn—a fitting birth for a bluesman when you consider Muddy Waters singing about the fabled blues character ‘born on the 7th son of a 7th mother on the 7th day.’ Clearly, Mr. Stress had an auspicious pedigree for a bluesman. He would’ve been 73 when the clock & calendar turn tonight. In 2012, I contributed an essay about Stress for the book Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, linked to here. Happily, I reconnected with him after I published the essay. Also, here’s Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Chuck Yarborough‘s appreciation of him, published two days after his passing; and tributes by Cleveland musician Alex Bevan; and audio of Stress in performance (one and two). 

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December 24th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Media, Blogging, Internet; Music, Bands & Radio

The Ravishing Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Good for the Holidays and all Through the Year

My wife and I don’t listen to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) only during Christmas season, though this is a particularly good time to do so, since a great deal of his output is connected to the annual fest. In fact, on Dec 25th 2013, I shared about the British composer in this appreciative post. Over a prodigiously productive career that included nine symphonies, RVW discovered and wrote a banquet of ravishing choral music, folksong cycles, smaller chamber and symphonic works, and more, lots of it in the idiom of British folk melodies, much of which he gathered and notated in the field from nonprofessional musicians and singers, while also traveling with early recording equipment, which he used to gather direct sound.

In the early decades of the twentieth century there were other song collectors doing similar work in Britain (Cecil Sharp and others) and in North America (Alan Lomax, John Cohen). And, twentieth century composers in other lands were also fascinated with borrowing from indigenous musics, like Sibelius did in Finland, Smetana in Hungary, Copland in America, etc. I’ve always been most fond of RVW among this ilk because—though my ethnic roots are all in Eastern Europe—I’m a never-closeted Anglophile, a fan of Gaelic cultures and lover of the highlands and the North, regardless of country and continent. Vaughan Williams also composed modernist, often challenging music, like his Sixth Symphony which includes a passage for saxophone, so to me he never became saccharine or merely stuck in the past. I have many precious LPs of RVW’s, several vinyl sides of which I bought secondhand on my first visit to Britain in 1980 (one of which is pictured here), but this year our turntable is on the fritz, so I’ve gone searching for his music on youtube, and thankfully, I’ve found a very productive rabbit hole over there, just using the search term ‘Ralph Vaughan Williams songs voice‘. One piece in particular that we adore is “Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus,'” from a New Testament source, which I’ve found in an orchestral version and a version sung by Maddy Prior, longtime member of the British folk revival group of the 1970s, still going strong, Steeleye Span. In the sung version, I appreciate the combination of lyrics oriented toward the sacred, and those about meat and drink and other earthly pleasures. At this link, you may listen to the orchestral version and prepare to have your ears caressed for 13 minutes, and follow the suspense of the biblical tale in the sung version.

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November 1st, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Urban Life & New York City

Discovering The Pines at Mercury Lounge, Opening for Israel Nash

I delighted in that most welcome of live music-going experiences on Oct 22. Going to hear roots rocker Israel Nash for the first time—an artist whose recordings I’d heard and enjoyed for several months—I encountered an opening act whose sound instantly captivated me, which I immediately adored. They are called The Pines. I urge you to listen to them, and go hear them live if they’re playing in your area on their current tour, which will take them to Winnipeg, Canada, as well as to North Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Iowa, the latter two being their home states. I was fortunate to arrive an hour early for Nash’s set, and so walked in to the Mercury Lounge just as The Pines were beginning their first song. Playing keys, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar, the trio had a gentle and disarming stage presence that was somehow emphasized by the fact they were all seated. My ears quickened to a lush and ravishing interplay of voices and instruments. I was evidently not the only stunned listener, nor the only person new to their sound, as, unusual at this venue, no one in the darkened music room spoke while they performed. It was easily the most hushed and attentive crowd I’ve ever been a part of at this usually noisy club. Their songs sounded as if they were either traditional ballads reworked by them, or originals that sounded like they emerged from the soil of the upper Midwest. One song, “Are You Ready for the Fair?”, reminded me of Greg Brown, a folksinger I’ve enjoyed for years.  Later, I got a copy of their CD “Pasture” and saw that that song is indeed written by Brown. And on The Pines’ website, I see that Benson Ramsey, who often takes lead vocals, while playing lead and slide guitar, and Alex Ramsey, who plays piano and organ, are sons of Bo Ramsey, Brown’s longtime producer and sideman. Greg Brown, it should be noted, is married to the great country singer Iris Dement.

Click here to see a video of their song “Cry, Cry, Crow” from their album “Dark So Gold.”

After The Pines finished their set, and before Israel Nash and his band took the stage, I introduced myself to Benson Ramsey, and his bandmate Dave Huckfelt. I told them how much I’d enjoyed discovering their music, and that I would be eager to write about them, and let others know of their music. Here are pictures from the show, including some of Israel Nash, who also played a great set, and who I appreciated for having invited The Pines to open for him. I was glad I had the chance to hear both of these bands, and that I had a meet up at Mercury Lounge with a new friend, Garrett Johnson, a Canadian music lover who like me is a member of the CBCRadio 3 music community. I’m glad he was in town and could join me to hear Israel Nash.

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June 2nd, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio

Jean Ritchie, Great American Folksinger, RIP

Below is a video with a bit more than a minute of the great folksinger Jean Ritchie talking about her songs and how she learned them. Such an impressive woman. She died recently at age 92, as reported in today’s NY Times obit. She was born in Kentucky in 1922, heard songs all her life there, then moved to New York City in the 1950s, where she became a mainstay of the budding folk song movement. She played fretted dulcimer and knew hundreds of songs from the Appalachians and the British Isles. I heard her perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the late 1970s/early ’80s. Ritchie’s 1955 book—”Singing Family of the Cumberlands”—featured songs she grew up singing at home in Kentucky, with illustrations, surprisingly enough, by Maurice Sendak! The book is still in print, from University of Kentucky Press. 

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May 8th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Music, Bands & Radio

Excited I’ll be Attending the CBC Music Festival in Toronto, May 23

This should be lots of fun—an all-day outdoor music festival in Toronto sponsored by CBC Music, with some great acts. Tickets are available via this link

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May 3rd, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Urban Life & New York City

Only a Rare Radio Talent Could’ve Done What Vin Scelsa Did for 47 Years

Please click headline for post & picture.

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May 2nd, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio

Tom Russell’s “The Rose of Roscrae,” a Rich Evocation Braiding Ireland & the American West

The renaissance man of Americana presents an ambitious folk opera set in the American west of the 1880s

A few weeks ago, this article in the Guardian caught my eye: Tom Russell: The Rose of Roscrae, A Ballad of the West review – a brave and original epic

I’d seen country singer Tom Russell once, in the 90s at the old Rodeo Bar on Third Ave at 28th St. Last night I had the privilege of hearing him again at a Chelsea venue called Midtown Live, which is booking some great acts these days. These many years later, Russell—cowboy singer, songwriter, renaissance man of the modern West—was playing songs from his new folk opera, recently released in a two-disc CD, “The Rose of Roscrae,” a capacious 52-track assemblage that charts the life journey of a historical figure named Johnny Dutton—and Russell’s imaginative extension of the character, “Johnny Behind the Deuce.” Based on what I read in the book that accompanies the CD, at sixteen, in 1880, Dutton fled Ireland after his girlfriend’s father forbade his courting her. The incident prompts this stanza in the title song, after which Johnny heads for the American West,

Now I can feel her father’s fists/As he knocked me ‘cross the stable floor/And I left my blood and tears behind me/As I walked all night from Roscrae to Templemore 

The Guardian piece has more details, and the video in the post below this one shows an actual rehearsal of “The Rose of Roscrae.”  They make it quite a proper revue, with dance movements, fancy rope tricks, and multiple-part harmonies.

“The Rose of Roscrae” makes a fair bid to be an historical epic, sketched in the green hues of Ireland and the dusty tones of cowboy country, with great musicianship and vocals. I was really pleased to discover that apart from the many songs that Russell wrote—performed here with a large and illustrious ensemble—has also found much precious archival sound that fits the theme: decades-old songs performed by Lead Belly, Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, Johnny Cash, and Jack Hardy.There’s even scratchy sound of a near-contemporary of Walt Whitman reading the bard’s poem “America.” Russell shows his folklorist/song and sound collector side to great effect. Other songs include the voices of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Guy Clark, Ian Tyson, Eliza Gilkyson, and Bonnie Dobson. The package also includes an illuminating 82-page book with the libretto, bios of the players, and Russell’s notes on the songs, which I read late last night, long after the concert ended.IMG_3075

Readers of my blogs may recall my affinity for Marc Berger’s concept album “Ride,” a kind of cousin to this work by Russell. In 2013 I wrote about Berger’s work here. I’m sure both writers have been inspired by Edward Abbey, a kind of Beat figure of the mid-century American West. Relatedly, I see a connection to some great movies, 1) “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” which I wrote about here; and 2) the 1962 Kirk Douglas film, “Lonely Are the Brave,” where he plays a latter day cowboy unable to live in or with modern society. It was based on  Brave Cowboy, a novel by A.B. Guthrie, who of course wrote the great modern western The Big Sky, about mountain man Boone Caudill. Kirk Douglas also played the lead role in the 1952 adaptation of The Big Sky.

 

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