Posts Tagged ‘1998’

In celebration of the 23rd anniversary of The Old Grey Cat (sans the hiatus of about seven – or was it eight? – years), here’s a post from the original website. Just as I do on this blog at year’s end, I recapped one aspect of 1998 once December rolled around…

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DECEMBER 14th– This time of year, magazines, newspapers and the broadcast/cable networks look back at the year that was. And why not? It’s a cheap, easy way to fill space. Of course, few new insights are proffered; instead, we’re served clipped headlines and predictable analysis. For instance, 1998 is already being called “The Year of Monica.”

Uh, excuse me? As far as I’m concerned, 1998 was “The Year of Lucinda.”

Aside from being an instant classic, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Dirt Road was the best album of the year, hands down. In years to come, folks will write about it with the same reverence that they share for such albums as Gram Parson’s Grievous Angel or the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a genre-busting effort that is more than the sum of its parts. In a live setting, backed by a powerhouse band featuring the likes of guitar slinger Kenny Vaughn and vocalist extraordinaire Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda offered a stew of sublime, superb and incredible songs, tasty morsels all.

1) Lucinda Williams – June 26th – Philly/TLA – The circumstances were suspect, at best. Due to thunderstorms, Lucinda’s plane was detoured to NYC; she took a train south, and didn’t hit the stage until 10:30 p.m. Add to that the fact that she’d had two hours sleep the night before…but, to quote Stephen Stills, it’s “No matter. No distance. It’s the ride.” And what a ride this night was! She and her band were right in time; and we, the audience, were left moaning at the ceiling… especially on the extended guitar jam that brought bliss to “Joy.”

2) Steve Earle & the Dukes – Feb. 7th – Philly/TLA – The term “ragged glory” must have been invented to describe a Steve Earle show. After opening with the timely “Christmas in Washington,” Steve led the audience on a two-hour, 20-minute tour of society’s “other side”… “Taneytown,” “Copperhead Road” and Fort Worth were just a few of the stops. Others: “Guitar Town,” New York City and … the soul. This was a night of glorious, guts-first music that rocked the soul even as it connected with the intellect. I was lucky enough to see Steve twice this year, four months apart. The main difference? The band. Here, he was buttressed by Buddy Miller on guitar and Brady Blades on drums (half of Spyboy, in other words). Small wonder that, after Steve and the Dukes left the stage, the Philly crowd took up the chorus of the night’s closing song, “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” and brought him back for more.

3) CPR – July 1st – Philly/TLA – A sparsely attended show, but you’d never know it from the way Crosby, Pevar and Raymond played. Same goes for the magical opening act, Anastasia & John. An incredible, magical night. CPR remind me of Steely Dan, but minus (what to me is) the Dan’s smarminess. Crosby was in exc. voice, and the new songs are among his strongest. That’s not to say the old songs weren’t appreciated… don’t pass on seeing CPR, if given the chance. These guys rock (and Pevar’s guitar playing blows the mind).

4) Maria McKee – Dec. 6th – Philly/Tin Angel – This year, the Absolutely Sweet Maria undertook a brief tour billed as “A Close Encounter with …” At the Tin Angel, those words are oh-so-true. It’s a small venue, fitting no more than 125. Despite suffering from a cold and “airplane throat,” Maria took hold of the audience for a good 75 minutes… yeah, 75 minutes. Too short, to say the least, yet it was a riveting show. Suffice it to say, she is not collecting dust. She opened with “Life is Sweet,” played a hand-full of new songs and just a few of her older classics. “Panic Beach,” for example, tho’ these ears missed “Breathe.” The night’s highlight: An intense “I’m Not Listening.”

5) Steve Earle – July 15th – Philly/TLA – Minus Buddy Miller and Brady Blades, but still damn good. “Won’t get far on 37 dollars and a Jap guitar… WANNA BET!” See him, buy his albums, help him pay off that 16,000 pound phone bill he racked up in London last year… I could go on, but why?

Years long ago, with the old website, I routinely received requests to review new releases from independent artists and bands. The emails arrived in my inbox (the same Yahoo Mail account I use today, believe it or not), contained links to low-quality song snippets, and if interested I replied with my address. A week or so later, a CD would show up in my mailbox.

I usually ignored such enquiries.

In late 1997, however, I received a request from an Arizona-based band called Permission to Breathe, who thought that their song “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul” was a natural fit for my site. As astute Internet historians should know, the original Old Grey Cat site leaned on Neil Young-related content to attract hundreds of visitors a day. I figured what the hell, and told them to send a CD my way.

A few months later, on February 8th, 1998, I posted the below essay, which used the “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul” song as a launching pad for something more than a straight review; I’m sure it wasn’t what the band wanted, but c’est la vie. (I have edited the piece for clarity, excised a few digressions of digressions – back then I subscribed to a stream-of-consciousness approach I now find abhorrent – and added the YouTube clips.)

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That’s me in 1972 or ’73, above.

Yeah, even then I was something of a hippie, an outsider, a rebel, ready, willing and able to sneak off with a buddy for a smoke – of tobacco. The smoke seduced and corrupted our young lungs, with the coughs erupting from within us little more than echoes of our fading innocence.

Music was a known entity to me: My mom and dad liked “the anti-Neil,” Neil Diamond, and me, I thrived on Johnny Horton. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s a shame: In the late ’50s, he hit the charts with a variety of historical-based novelty songs -“The Battle of New Orleans,” “Sink the Bismarck,” “Jim Bridger” and “Johnny Freedom” – to name but a few. I played his Greatest Hits album on my portable record player, listened to the music and memorized the words.

I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but he was a “Honky Tonk Man” who mined the rich veins of hillbilly music, a pioneer who helped pave the way for Buck Owens and, later, Dwight Yoakam. “Guitars, Cadillacs and hillbilly music/it’s the only thing that keeps me hanging on,” Dwight sang on his first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., capturing on vinyl (or cassette, in my case) the reflection of his – and mine, and yours – soul. It’s an undeniably great album. If you don’t have it, get it, and crank it up. Hell, yes, it’s hillbilly music. It’s real. Authentic.

Certain songs, certain albums stay with you for the long haul. They take you back to a time, a place, a street like a lot of other streets in a town like a lot of other towns – and, yes, I more or less copped those last lines from the final episode of The Wonder Years. But great music does more than just take you back: It speaks for you in the present, too. We change, it changes.

Neil Young’s music is like that. “Down by the River” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere) means many things, few of which are actually articulated in the lyrics. It’s the guitar rising, falling, swirling in space like a Deadhead twirling, each time ’round different from the last. It speaks volumes – especially when played loud.

Another album, another year: Neil’s Old Ways in 1985. Not a great album by any means, but “Bound for Glory,” a duet with Waylon Jennings, is sublime. Came out the year before Dwight’s LP and another landmark, must-buy album, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town. In that same time frame came yet another genre-busting effort: Lone Justice’s debut, which featured the absolutely sweet Maria McKee’s mercurial vocals on such songs as “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling),” “Ways to Be Wicked” and “You Are the Light.” 

If you don’t have Lone Justice’s debut, hunt it down. I recommend investing in – at the least – Maria McKee’s entire catalogue; whether live or on album, she sends shivers up the spine with just about every song she sings. That’s a cliché, I know, but that’s what happens when you write about music: you find yourself groping for words and phrases that accurately sum up what it is the music makes you feel. ‘Cause in the end, that’s what great music does: It makes you feel.

It doesn’t matter if it’s new or old; the best songs and albums, like great literature, communicate in the moment, not the past. I wasn’t at Woodstock; I don’t remember Kent State. When I was five, I met then-Vice President Spiro Agnew and was thrilled to shake his hand. I knew nothing of hippies or the anti-war movement, of his or President Nixon’s crimes. But I was in the stands in Atlantic City when Neil Young dedicated “Ohio” to the students slain in China.

That song – although about a specific time and place – transcends its origin. For good and ill, Kent State has entered the lexicon as a metaphor. And, to paraphrase David Crosby, metaphors are the driving force behind great songs.

“My heart wants to be unbroken/my dreams rattle here unspoken/my days have all got a number/I need a good song so I don’t feel so wrong/so I’m leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul/I’m leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul…”

Those lyrics are from a recent find which came the Old Grey Cat’s way quite by chance. There, in my mailbox last December, was an invite from an Arizona-based band called Permission to Breathe: Review us, they said. They’d just released a song they thought I might appreciate: “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul.” It’s a sentiment, obviously, that captured my imagination.

The first time I heard their self-titled CD, I said to Diane, “They’re going far.” It was neither an affirmation of the music nor a condemnation, just a recognition that they possess all of the ingredients necessary to storm the charts.

I’ve lived with the disc for just over a month and can honestly say I like the Neil Young song: “You say I’ll never be forgiven/your way is taking no giving/that my role is that of a sinner/I need a strong song/that rockin’ free world song/I find myself…leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul.”

It rocks and, as importantly, it captures in “feel” that part of us that turns to certain songs for inspiration. There are other moments of clarity as well, including “Crooked by Design” (“This life of mine, tangled in twine/May not be pretty, but it suits me/Rebel inside, just won’t hide…”) and “Nothing Now,” which documents a relationship’s dying days. 

I don’t know how or where Permission to Breathe and/or “Leanin’ on Neil Young’s Soul” will rank in the pantheon of music that makes up the soundtrack of my – or your – life. But, that’s the thing about music. You meet a song, you embrace and it’s with you for the long haul unless and until, for reasons best left unsaid, you leave it stranded on the roadside. “Leanin’ on Neil Young’s Soul,” that one is in the “probable” stage right now. It’s great on a tape right before…you got it: “Down by the River.”

As many an artist can attest, following one’s muse doesn’t always result in success. Such was the case for Maria McKee.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Little Diva, as she’s sometimes called, I can’t say that I’m surprised. In the 1980s, she fronted Lone Justice, a so-called “cowpunk” band from L.A. that never broke as big as they should have. Their best known song is likely the gospel-infused “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling),” written by Maria, Little Steven Van Zandt and Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers):

“Shelter,” from their second and final album, is another gem.

By 1993, she seemed destined to break big yet again, this time on the strength of her second solo album, You Gotta Sin to Get Saved. Such songs as “I’m Gonna Soothe You” –

– received airplay on radio stations that featured the then-hot alternative-country format, which was essentially the previous decade’s “cowpunk” filed under a cooler name. She headlined and sold out the TLA in Philly, which at the time held around a thousand.

Looking back, that album and tour may well have been the pinnacle of her success…and the cause of the death spiral that her career soon entered. One of her bandmates is said to have given her a mixtape he’d made of David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and other glam and glitter acts of the early ‘70s. Whether that’s true, I don’t know, but this part is undisputed: She released the love-it-or-hate-it, glam-infested Life Is Sweet in 1996.

The title track is the most mainstream thing on it:

That song isn’t indicative of the album as a whole, in other words. That would likely be “Absolutely Barking Stars” –

Some fans, such as myself, found it a moody, mercurial and eccentric set, akin to a Flannery O’Connor novel put to music. A Southern (California) Gothic album, if you will. I loved it then and love it now, as this Essentials piece shows. Other folks, however…not so much. Within two years, the album was out of print and she was without a record company.

This night, the fourth stop on a five-city tour, was a way to test out new material for a forthcoming album (which would take 4 1/2 years to materialize) and, no doubt, make a little money. And I do mean little. Capacity at the Tin Angel is, at most, 125. It’s basically a long, thin hall fronted by a tiny stage; tables take up the bulk of the room, though stools dot one of the long walls. Diane and I, however, were not along the wall, but the table directly in front of Maria – maybe five feet away.

I wrote about it at the time for my former Old Grey Cat website, as well as Da Boot!, and provide a slightly tweaked version of that summary here:

Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she opened with the plaintive “Life Is Sweet,” a testament to life’s bittersweet truths. The potent “Promised Land,” one of six new songs she showcased, followed; and although a bassist and keyboard player joined her, the audience’s eyes remained riveted on her. “Something Similar,” another new one, was hypnotic.

One of the night’s memorable moments came early. At the piano, she bashed out the thick, angry chords of Life Is Sweet’s “I’m Not Listening” and possessed the sparse lyrics like a mad woman.

After “Am I the Only One,” she explained that the red-hot Dixie Chicks cover the song on their hit Wide Open Spaces CD, wishing them nothing but success. “It means I can make a record and do whatever I want,” she declared. In short, she’s a prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll. She’s also a renegade from a record label – Geffen – that buried her best album. They wanted more of the same, for her to continue to mine a country-rock vein; she wanted to explore new terrain, to dig up skeletons and put them to rest, to lay it out in song.

It’s music for the psyche that she’s after; it’s music of and for the soul. It’s “Worrybirds,” the night’s encore, about nagging self-doubt:

In Philadelphia, if only for a night, Maria McKee exorcised her demons; I’m grateful to have been a witness.