Posts Tagged ‘2009’

(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 late spring of 2009, the U.S. was roiled by a recession that was teetering on a depression due to a succession of ill-advised decisions made by leaders within the business, financial and political spheres. The previous decade had essentially seen segments of the economy built on the funhouse-mirror model and, by design, few indicators reflected reality. Clarity came crashing to the fore in the fall of 2008, however, when Lehman Brothers collapsed. Unemployment soon soared; through June 2009, when Bible Belt was released, some 744,000 jobs were being lost a month. Home foreclosures, which had been on the rise for some time due to ill-advised loans, saw a similar spike.

While there’s more grist to be milled from the meltdown, the main gist I wish to convey is this: Everyday people were being hurt: Two-income households became one; and one-income households became none. Belts were tightened, and the pocket change that once paid for impulse purchases was redirected to bills. Even those not directly impacted by the economic shift changed their spending habits.

Which leads me back to late spring of 2009 – mid-May, to be specific. One evening, after returning home from work, I found myself leafing through the most recent Rolling Stone, which I subscribed to. In those days, the first thing I did upon opening the magazine was to flip through the review section. One title that caught my eye: Bible Belt, which received three-and-a-half stars. The short review was fairly upbeat, referenced Elton John and the song “Ariel,” and made Diane Birch sound like someone whose music I should check out.

The problem: It was May, and the album wasn’t due until June. There were no sound samples on Amazon. There were no videos on YouTube. But she had a Facebook page, and on said page I found not one, not two, but four complete songs for folks like me to stream. I clicked on the first…

…and was instantly transported. The weight of the day – and, in those days, it was a heavy weight – dissipated, and I knew in that instant that her music would be a part of my life for the rest of my days. I clicked “like” on the page – the 201st person to do so – and then started the next song. “Who is that?” my Diane called in.

I should explain: In those days, my computer was in our apartment’s second bedroom, just off a short hall leading from the dining area to the master bedroom. “Second bedroom” is being a tad generous, however: Due to our packrat ways, by then – 19 years of living in the same space – it had become a glorified walk-in closet, filled with my computer desk and chair, sofa, another desk, three stuffed bookshelves and a half-dozen book-filled milk crates, a dresser, and hundreds upon hundreds (upon hundreds) of CDs scattered about, plus stacks of magazines and…did I mention books? Diane’s desk and computer were down the hall, just off the dining area. She heard what I played; and I heard what she played. 

So: “Who is that?” my Diane called in. “I love it!”

I explained how to find the songs on Facebook and, within minutes, she was Diane’s 202nd Facebook follower. I pre-ordered the CD and, once it came into our household, little else was played for the rest of the year. I should mention, we were both well into middle age by then – a time when most folks stop seeking out new sounds. That we found new music as magical as Bible Belt? It was nothing but a miracle…

As I wrote in this Top 5, the album sounds like a lost treasure from the 1970s. Think Carole King, Carly Simon and Laura Nyro, among others, as well as Elton John and Paul McCartney – the melodies are effortless and natural, in other words. At the same time, however, the songs are imbued with a gritty undertow and gospel flourishes, with her vocals coming straight from the church…the Church of Birch, to be specific. 

The cratering economy coupled with the myopic music industry, which had been sputtering all decade in response to the digital revolution, assured that she wouldn’t find the success she should have.

Artistic greatness doesn’t always equate with sales, of course, and “greatness” is an awfully big term to toss around. Yet when she played Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live Upstairs on July 19th of that year, said greatness was etched in stone – it was as sublime and sweet a show that we’ve witnessed, one that I still recall with wonder.

Here she is performing “Photograph,” as captured by our Canon digital camera, that very night:

In fact, the only downside to the concert was her failure to play one of my 13 favorite songs from Bible Belt, “Mirror Mirror.”

(That said, her mash-up of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and the Beatles’ “I Got a Feeling” was way cool. I wish I’d recorded it – and the entire show – instead of the song-and-a-half that I captured.)

To wrap up: To my ears, Bible Belt sounds as fresh and new today as it did in 2009, and Diane’s vocals throughout are a marvel. In my life, it’s more than an “essential” listen. It’s a must.

The track listing:

Humans have lived, longed, loved, lost and loved again, forged wars and fought peace, and argued about politics familial, social and cultural, since the dawn of time. Such is the grist of poetry and song, of course, and while many lyrical laments litter the byways of history, forgotten, much has stuck around – thanks to the advent of, first, paper; second, recordings; and, last, the resonance of the works themselves. Whether they come from the pen of Wallace Stevens or piano of Carole King, or the hills of Appalachia, expressions of the heart, soul and psyche have remained constant through the ages. It’s why music, like all art, doesn’t come with an expiration date. We, as a people, live, long, love, lose and love again, and argue amongst ourselves, forever and ever. Amen.

I mentioned in my last post that I sent my niece CDs for her 21st birthday. (A few more than I intended, actually, but the prices on two were obscenely low.) Three harken back to the 1970s and the others hail from the past few years. The lines that lead from those of yore to the present are right there, to be heard.

One thing that I did, and I have no idea if it worked as intended, was to turn Amazon’s free gift cards into short notes about each album. So, for today’s Top 5: Classics, Old & New, here are the picks with my notes (and a bit extra) included.

1) Carole King – “So Far Away” from Tapestry, 1971. King, of course, is one of the all-time greats; and this album is, too. I wrote in the note, “Blue, Rickie Lee’s debut and Tapestry are stone-cold classics that have influenced many, including Diane Birch, FAK & the Staves.“ In retrospect, I should have singled out Tapestry specifically, as it was the top-selling album for 15 weeks in a row during the winter and spring of ’71. Rolling Stone rates it the No. 35 Album of All Time.

2) Joni Mitchell – “River” from Blue, 1971. I wrote: “This is rightfully considered one of the greatest singer-songwriter albums of all time, and has influenced generations of artists. ‘River’ is amazing.” Rolling Stone rates it the No. 30 Album of All Time.

3) Rickie Lee Jones – “Chuck E.’s in Love” from Rickie Lee Jones, 1979. I wrote: “Rickie Lee’s debut was and remains a stunner, building upon the blueprints laid down by Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and Patti Smith, among others.” I’d add: Rickie Lee radiates utter coolness on everything she does, which is why she’s the Duchess of Coolsville. (Her most recent album was one of my favorites from last year, too, for what that’s worth.)

4) Diane Birch – “Nothing but a Miracle” from Bible Belt, 2009. I wrote, borrowing an observation from my Diane: “This album, in many ways, is a modern-day Tapestry.” That’s a tad over-the-top, granted, but there’s no denying the charm of this modern-day wonder. I remember reading the review of it in Rolling Stone a month or so before its street date; it sounded like something I’d like, so I looked her up on Facebook, where she’d posted four of the songs from the album. Within a few minutes, Diane called in: “Who is that? I really like her!” We’ve been fans ever since.

5) First Aid Kit – “Cedar Lane” from Stay Gold, 2014. I wrote: “This was my favorite album of 2014 – FAK are two sisters from Sweden who mine an Americana sound.” Notes, of course, can’t include hyperlinks, so I’ll include one here instead: my Albums of the Year, 2014 post.

6) The Staves – “Make It Holy” from If I Was. 2015. I wrote: “This album is a gem – my favorite from last year.” (Here’s that post.)

tickets_large_x2It was a meeting of old friends, of a sort, except that we didn’t meet for dinner or drinks at a restaurant or bar but, instead, an evening of stories and songs at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, Pa., on Friday, Feb. 6th, 2009. Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin shared the stage while Diane and I sat in fifth-row seats, tapped our feet and said “wow” to one another after many of the songs. Buddy Miller, who was also slated to be there, bowed out in order to rehearse for a Grammy appearance backing Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. In a nod to him, however, the three women placed a “buddy bear” in the chair where he would’ve sat.

On the outside looking in, as Buddy’s a guitarist’s guitarist, one might have expected that the all-acoustic gig lacked fret work. Patty and Shawn, however, are more than qualified – each has probably played thousands of solo gigs – and Emmy, while far from a guitar goddess, more than holds her own.

Highlights abounded, and included Emmy’s opening “Red Dirt Girl” and heartfelt “Strong Hand (Just One Miracle),” which she wrote for June Carter Cash the night of June’s passing,

Also: Patty’s fierce “Stay on the Ride” (from her 2007 Children Running Through album); and harmony-rich, to-die-for renditions of the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back” and Patty’s own “Mary.”

Shawn, as is her wont, served up a few oddballs: covers of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”

For me, though, the piece de resistance was Patty’s fiery “Truth No. 2,” which she wrote but most folks know as a Dixie Chicks song. (They sang it on their 2003 Home CD.) “You don’t like the sound of the truth coming from my mouth….”

As I recall, about the only negative was the song selection. Aside from “Stay on the Ride,” Patty veered away from Children Running Through, one of my top albums of 2007. “Trapeze,” a hypnotic ballad that features Emmy on harmony, seemed a natural fit; but it wasn’t to be. Likewise, “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” – my favorite song of hers – didn’t make the setlist.

And, not to be outdone, Shawn also sidestepped my favorite song of hers, “Shotgun Down the Avalanche,” even after promising to play it when a fan (not me!) shouted out a request for it.

Even missing those songs, however, it was a good show. In fact, it’s safe to say that it was the best round-robin concert I’ve witnessed. That’s not really saying much in and of itself, though, as round-robin shows – for me, at least – are often as frustrating as they are fun. If you’re a fan of one or two, but not all three, four or five artists on stage, you wind up slumping in your seat half the night. And if you’re a fan of each, you can’t help wishing that they had more time to shine. This night, for instance, despite the concert running a little longer than two hours, the format only allotted Emmy and Shawn seven songs each and Patty eight, plus one group sing-along on “I’ll Be Back.”

(Unfortunately, no videos from this particular concert are on YouTube; and none for the three singing “I’ll Be Back.” So you’ll have of trust me when I say it sounded like three of God’s messengers delivering the Word from above; and, of course, the Word was Love.)

 

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Sid, of course, is Matthew Sweet; and Susie is Susanna Hoffs. They began working together in the 1990s as 2/5s of the band Ming Tea, whose music was featured in the Austin Powers films – no doubt because one of the other members was Austin Powers himself, Michael Myers. The two apparently enjoyed the experience (and each other) so much that they kept on keeping on, eventually releasing the delightful, 1960s-themed Under the Covers, Volume 1 album in 2006 and Volume 2, which mined the music of the 1970s, three years later.

I wrote about both in my review of Volume 3, which navigates the 1980s, a few years back, but the short and sweet of that is this: I loved the first and liked the second. The former was a perfectly cut jewel; the latter was equally polished, yet not without its flaws.

Not flawed enough to stop us from getting tickets to see them in concert, mind you. That said, for whatever reason, we learned of the World Cafe Live show days (weeks?) after it went on sale and wound up stuck in what were, for us, not-so-good seats: at a table a fair distance away from the stage, adjacent to the soundboard.

Susanna, if I remember correctly, had flown into Philly that afternoon, having played with the Bangles the night before in Florida. They hadn’t rehearsed, and for much of the night she referenced lyric sheets – and still messed up the words from time to time, as this video of the night’s second song shows –

But come this night, at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, bad seats and no rehearsals didn’t much matter. Matthew was funny; and Susanna was charming. Their love for the music shone like diamonds, and the show was an absolute delight – even with the vocal intrusions of a rather intoxicated gent who kept yelling for Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” even after they performed it.

Anyway, as the above clip shows, it was just Sweet, Hoffs and guitarist Paul Chastain (of the power-pop band Velvet Crush) on stage.

Here are some more clips:

And what may have been my favorite moment of the night:

Other highlights included delectable renditions of “You’re So Vain” and “Different Drum.” I remember, though, when the show ended, being a bit bummed that they hadn’t attempted my favorite song from Volume 2, the download-only bonus cover of Blondie’s “Dreaming,” or the drop-dead gorgeous version of the Bee Gees’ “Run to Me” from Volume 1:

In any event, the set list (borrowed from a favorable City Paper review) was thus:

I’ve Seen All Good People/Your Move (Yes); Willin’ (Little Feat); Second Hand News (Fleetwood Mac); You’re So Vain (Carly Simon); (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding (Elvis Costello); Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young); Different Drum (Stone Poneys); Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Neil Young); She May Call You Up (The Left Banke); Hello It’s Me (Todd Rundgren); Couldn’t I Just Tell You (Todd Rundgren); All the Young Dudes (Mott The Hoople); And Your Bird Can Sing (The Beatles); Baby Blue (Badfinger); It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob Dylan); Maggie May (Rod Stewart); Back of a Car (Big Star); In the Long Run** (The Carrie Nations); To Sir With Love** (Lulu); In Your Room-Manic Monday** (The Bangles); I’ve Been Waiting** (Matthew Sweet)

(** = Encore)