Posts Tagged ‘1989’

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

In some respects, for those of us who came of age during them, the 1980s were akin to the 1960s with the 6 closed off. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, last-gasp baby boomers and first-wave Gen Xers navigated an oddly dispirited land due to a forever-faltering economy, incompetent leadership and a moribund pop culture that mythologized the Summer of Love and Woodstock and dismissed everything else; the new wave coming was, by and large, ignored by rock radio.

But, to quote a Paul Simon lyric, “every generation sends a hero up the pop charts” – MTV, which debuted on August 1st, 1981, saw to that. A new wave, a slew of New Romantics, college rock, hip-hop, country-pop and lightweight metal battled for airplay both terrestrial and cable, with the latter seemingly more important than the former. 

By decade’s end, the long-deposed old order was older still and the new order that had supplanted it was growing stale. (It’s the way of the world, after all.) Yet, even as that was occurring, a quiet revolution was taking place, fueled in large part by the folk and folk-rock sounds of Suzanne Vega, 10,000 Maniacs and Tracy Chapman, not to mention R.E.M. 

The Indigo Girls’ self-titled set, released on February 28, 1989, is another piece of that puzzle.

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers first met in elementary school in Decatur, Ga., but – being a grade apart – didn’t become friendly until high school, when they began performing together. College interrupted their musical journey, however, as Saliers left for Tulane University in Louisiana and, a year later, Ray chose to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville. But, in time, both became homesick for their native Georgia and transferred to Emory University in Atlanta, where they reunited their partnership. They released a single, an EP and an album, Strange Fire, prior to being signed by Epic Records (which, after the success of Indigo Girls, released a reconfigured Strange Fire).

Indigo Girls, the album, isn’t a five-star set, yet its importance can’t be underestimated: It’s a crucial step in the resurgence of acoustic and folk-styled music, though the undertow of rock ’n’ roll is present in the songs, too. I first heard it not long after its release; I was 23 and managing the CD departments at two video-chain stores, and had free rein to open and play what I wanted. And I have to say: It was a hit not just with me, but with most of the (overwhelmingly male) clientele as well as co-workers at both locales. Although it topped off in the charts at No. 22, it was – easily – in the Top 10 of my stores for several weeks that late winter and early spring.

“Closer to Fine,” the catchy lead single, opens the album with aplomb. Due to the demands of my convoluted work schedule and social life, I rarely watched TV – let alone MTV or VH1 – at the time, so wasn’t aware that a video for it existed until this morning.

Emily’s vocals are, like her hair, light; Amy’s are, like hers, dark. Together, however, they mesh into a sonically seductive whole that overcomes the occasionally iffy lyrics, which can conjure the pretentious poems shared in first-year poetry classes. (God knows, I wrote my share.) Yet, at the same time, there’s something gloriously exhilarating about the same. They mean what they sing and sing what they mean.

One of my favorite tunes is the brooding “Kid Fears,” which features vocal support from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe:

Another highlight is the Byrdsian “Tried to Be True,” in which they’re backed by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry.

“Land of Canaan,” which they also recorded on Strange Fire, is another favorite. This video, another that I just discovered today, shows the power of their live performance. I saw them live three times that year (once opening for Neil Young and twice when they headlined the TLA in Philadelphia); they were charismatic and their songs incredibly infectious.

In short, the history of popular music is littered with artists and acts that came and went with little or no impact. With this album, the Indigo Girls did the opposite. Even when lyrics shade lilac (aka prose colored purple) to make a rhyme, the performances are guaranteed to pull you in. It’s an intense, fitful and fanciful album. It’s a must. It’s a part of us.

As Emily sings in “The History of Us,” “So we must love while these moments are still called today/Take part in the pain of this passion play/Stretched our youth as we must, until we are ashes to dust/Until time makes history of us.”

The track list:

 

I came across this CDR tucked in a box in our basement – a copy of another CDR that I received while a member of a Maria McKee email discussion group sometime in the…late ‘90s, I believe. It came with cover art created by whoever initiated the “CD tree”; you can see his (or her) original on this 45worlds.com page. I don’t believe it was ever a store-sold bootleg, just a fan-generated creation. He (or she), or a friend, snuck a tape recorder into this specific show, which is from the Bayou Theater in Washington, D.C., in 1989.

As I said, though, this particular CDR is my copy of the original, and dates to the early 2000s. In those pre-iPod days, I frequently made CDRs for the car and, for a time, also created the covers for them. Sometimes, just as whoever created the original artwork for the set, I snagged a picture off the ‘net and added the track list, such as with the Juliana comp I blogged about a while back. Other times, though, I used Paint Shop Pro to tinker with the image and/or create collages – it was a fun thing to do. And, too, as in this case, I powered up Poser and Bryce, 3D-image creation programs that I played around with at the time, and tried to develop something totally unique.

Of note, my image includes a picture lifted from a Kiss the Stone bootleg titled Breathe, which preserved a 1994 concert from somewhere in Europe, that I used on my old website for a time. I scanned the cover, loaded it into Paint Shop Pro and splashed color here, there and everywhere, and then cut out a picture scanned from one of Maria’s CD singles. I created a wall in Bryce, tiled the image and placed a reflective surface “water” in front, then positioned the cutout. The final image took hours to render. And I do mean hours. Reflections always added a wait-and-pray (that the computer doesn’t crash) drama to the process, given that mine was underpowered for the task. (You can see the original Breathe cover here.)

All of which leads to this: I also encoded the versions of “Shelter,” “Breathe” and “Into the Mystic” from the performance onto my computer’s 20-gig hard drive as “high” bit-rate MP3s: 192kbps. Maria’s rendition of all three were spellbinding.

My hope had been to feature five tracks from the show itself, but since only two are (apparently) on YouTube, I’ve expanded the theme to include all of 1989.

1) “Into the Mystic” – From the Bayou Theater in Washington, D.C.

2) “Over Me” – Another from the Bayou.

3) “Am I the Only One” –

4) “To Miss Someone” –

5) “Breathe” –

And two bonuses in one:

6) Maria with Van Dyke Parks and Stevie Ray Vaughan on Night Music performing “Troubled Waters” and “Sailin’ Shoes.”

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Oct. 25, 1989: Rows of folding metal chairs lined the floor of the Chestnut Cabaret this Wednesday night, a fair autumn evening if ever there was one – after a high of 77, temperatures plummeted into the 40s overnight. Two weeks before, we’d caught Lenny Kravitz’s Philadelphia debut at this same West Philly club; and a week later we’d see Syd Straw (with Dave Alvin on guitar) open for Camper Van Beethoven there, too. For those concerts, we were situated on one of the raised sides, where tables and spotty service could sometimes be had. Tonight, however, we were down in the valley (so to speak) – and in the front row.

The headliner: Texas-bred singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith.

James McMurtry, then known primarily as the son of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, opened with a solid set drawn from his stellar debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, which was one of my favorite albums that year. He was backed by a crack band; I remember the drummer pounded those skins like his life depended on it.

nanci_stormsAt the time, Nanci Griffith was riding high – and winning a smattering of new fans – thanks to her sublime Storms album, which embraced a slightly sleeker pop sound than her previous country-folk works. Produced by Glyn Johns, it featured guest turns from Phil Everly, Bernie Leadon and Albert Lee and such songs as “Listen to the Radio,” “If Wishes Were Changes,” “Drive-In Movies and Dashboard Lights,” the title track and “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go.” To my ears (then and now), Storms is a stone-cold classic.

Although I already liked her music, I’d never seen her live, so I was psyched; and her 90-minute set didn’t disappoint. I believe she opened with the charming “Love at the Five and Dime,” complete with the sweet story that leads into it…

…but I could be wrong. The night’s songs are something of a jumble. I remember she played a wondrous rendition of “If Wishes Were Changes,” one of my favorite songs by her…

…and “There’s a Light Beyond These Words (Mary Margaret).”

“Listen to the Radio,” complete with a wonderful run on the keys by James Hooker, was another highlight.

And, of course, “It’s a Hard Life,” a song I’ve probably heard her sing dozens of times in the years since.

Okay, so dozens is a tad hyperbolic, but in the decades since that autumn evening, Diane and I have seen Nanci more times than either of us can count – basically, whenever she’s played the Philadelphia area. We’ve seen her at the Chestnut Cabaret, Penn’s Landing, TLA, Keswick, Tower Theater, World Cafe Live, even the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del., where she was accompanied by the Crickets (as in, Buddy Holly’s Crickets).

Anyway, here’s the Philadelphia Inquirer’s review of the same concert: Cogitation, Country-style, at the Chestnut.

1989 was a year for the history books: Tiny cracks in the Iron Curtain grew into a chasm that brought down the Berlin Wall; a pro-democracy movement in China, known now as the Tiananmen Square protests, ended in bloodshed; and, closer to home, the mercurial-tempered Ron Hextall of the Philadelphia Flyers became the first goalie in history to score a goal in the playoffs. Oh, and I saw Neil Young for the first time.

The date: June 10, 1989. The place: Bally’s Grandstand Under the Stars in Atlantic City. As I remember it – and I was only there two or three times – the open-air venue consisted of very steep bleachers placed in front of a stage. The Atlantic Ocean served as the backdrop.

The Indigo Girls opened with a concise set that, despite the dreaded opening-act slot, was quite good. Folks flowed into the makeshift coliseum, their shoes and boots clanging on the metal steps (or maybe that’s my memory playing tricks on me), while Amy Ray and Emily Saliers sang with confidence. Their voices carried like Aimee Mann’s with ’Til Tuesday, sweet and spot-on from the opening “Closer to Fine” to the closing “Strange Fire.” Amy Ray, as I remember it, hit home runs with “Secure Yourself” and “Kid Fears.”

Neil_Young_FreedomBy nine, or thereabouts, the sun had set and Neil, wearing a Chinese worker’s cap, strolled out. It was basically a solo acoustic show, though he was joined by Ben Keith and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro for a few songs.

After closing the ‘70s on the back-to-back high notes of Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust, Neil embarked on a decade-long journey that veered from hard rock to techno to rockabilly to country to horn-driven R&B; and that had left him, for many (though not me), an afterthought. Along the way, he was sued by his new record company, Geffen Records, for not sounding like himself. It was a surreal time to be him, to be sure, and no more surreal than the year before when, after returning to the Reprise label, he scored a surprise hit – his first of the decade – with the satirical “This Note’s for You.”

Anyway, by the time my friends and I had clomped up the bleachers to our seats that late-spring night, Neil was back to being Neil – not that he’d stopped, of course, but he was mining a more familiar terrain.

Forget the fact that the show was “acoustic”; it was as electric a set as I’ve seen. Neil prowled the stage with a handless microphone strapped to his face, his guitar a shield and a weapon at the same time. He opened with a sterling “Hey Hey My My (Out of the Blue)” and followed with a fierce “Rockin’ in the Free World,” turning the satirical knife he’d wielded on “This Note’s for You” on George H.W. Bush’s “kinder, gentler nation.” His guitar on “Crime in the City” was like a machete, the chords chopping at one’s knees, while the harmonica worked like a blackjack and blunted the back of one’s head. Other highlights included an unsentimental presentation of “Sugar Mountain”; the one-two punch of “The Needle & the Damage Done” and “No More”; and a heart-thumping “Ohio” that he dedicated to the students slain in China’s Tiananmen Square less than a week before – everyone was on their feet, fists in the air and lungs as one while we shouted the lyrics. Incredible, that’s how I remember it. Just incredible. A second stab at “Rockin’ in the Free World” was followed by the night’s final number, ““Powderfinger.” “Red means run, son,” takes on a new meaning in the context of Tiananmen Square, if you think about it.

The Philadelphia Inquirer carried a review of the show here.

Neil Young: My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)/Rockin’ in the Free World/Comes a Time/Sugar Mountain/Pocahontas/Helpless/Crime in the City/For the Turnstiles/This Old House/Roll Another Number/Too Far Gone/This Note’s for You/The Needle and the Damage Done/No More/After the Gold Rush/Heart Of Gold/Ohio/Rockin’ in the Free World//Powderfinger

Indigo Girls: Closer to Fine/Secure Yourself/Love’s Recovery/Kid Fears/Land of Canaan/Prince of Darkness/Strange Fire