Posts Tagged ‘Folk Show’

When was it? Fall of ’85? Spring of ’86? Difficult to say, but I suspect it was sometime in the spring that I first heard 10,000 Maniacs. They were one of several of the era’s new folk-flavored acts that I discovered while deejaying the weekend Folk Show on Penn State’s studio-run radio station at the time, WPSU. (It’s now a professionally-run station, with WKPS filling the void for students.)

I’ve written about those times before, but for those who haven’t seen those posts: It was a two- or sometimes three-times a month gig, depending on the schedule laid out by Folk Show overlord (and friendly grad student) Jerry, and – aside from the occasional 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. slot – usually meant I had to be in studio by 6 a.m. On a Saturday. Or Sunday. After a night of…well,  I won’t say debauchery, but it was college…and State College, the home of the Penn State mothership, is nicknamed “Happy Valley” for a reason. But me waking at 5:30 a.m. and hiking across campus while bleary-eyed was a rarity. I (usually) got a good night’s sleep beforehand.

I also prepared. During the week prior to a shift, I stopped in the station and flipped through the LPs in the massive library, mapping out my playlist. I generally focused the first hours on folk-rock old (Byrds) and new (Long Ryders) before, around 8 a.m., trading in that palette for one that mixed more stereotypical fare (Joan Baez, Holly Near, Pete Seeger) with up-and-comers (Nanci Griffith, Suzanne Vega).

At some point, too, I began bringing in treasures from my own collection; and also became adept at tossing aside my planned platters and programming on the fly. I’d queue up Side 1 of a Fast Folk Musical Magazine sampler, introduce the first track and then slip out of the booth and into the library for 5 or 10 minutes in search of something, though I usually didn’t know what that something was. That was how I stumbled upon The Wishing Chair, the major-label debut of 10,000 Maniacs, in fact. Someone may have mentioned it at a staff meeting, which was how I discovered Suzanne Vega, or I may have recognized it from this review in Record magazine. I decided to give it a whirl. I can’t say for sure, but I likely went with the first song on Side 1, “Can’t Ignore the Train.”

In some ways, Natalie Merchant’s years with 10,000 Maniacs equate to a somewhat lengthy college career – though those of us who became fans at the time didn’t recognize it as such. As this Rolling Stone article (which I spotlight here) recounts, she joined the group as a shy 16-year-old girl, often singing with her back to the audience, and left as a confident woman.

The 10-CD Natalie Merchant Collection skips all of it. Which is fair.

Looking back, however, I think it’s obvious that many of us started a journey together during that pre-history era. Whether we date our fandom to the early-‘80s indie days, rocked in The Wishing Chair, hopped aboard the “Peace Train” or traveled to “Eden,” and traded tapes on the pre-Internet boards of Prodigy or AOL, doesn’t much matter, anymore. We were young.

We graduated to adulthood and, now, middle-age together. That, in essence, is what the collection charts. It features her seven studio albums, beginning with Tigerlily and ending with Paradise Is There (bookends, in a way); a disc of new songs alongside older ones redone with a string quartet; and another disc of rare and previously unreleased tracks. There’s also a CD-sized booklet that contains lyrics, song personnel and plenty of pictures, though no laudatory essay chronicling her artistic journey – the latter is somewhat customary for such box sets, but isn’t missed.

We can hear the trek for ourselves – and relive our life’s journey, for that matter – in the grooves. Those albums include two of my Albums of the Year in Tigerily and Motherland; runners-up in Leave Your Sleep and Natalie Merchant; and others that I enjoyed, though thought flawed. (Live in Concert, my top pick for 1999, is curiously absent; one hopes that plans are afoot to release an expanded edition in the future.)

The one album that I most misjudged was Ophelia. On my old website, I wrote that “while an admirable concept, the album’s overarching theme (the many facets of womanhood) weighs on the individual songs to the point that, save for a few, one can’t tell them apart.” I singled out “Break My Heart” as its best track and dubbed “Kind and Generous,” which I now thoroughly love (especially in a live setting), “simple-minded mishmash.”

And “Life Is Sweet,” which I now rank with her best songs? I only mentioned it in a months-later addendum, and then just to say that, while I’d come to like it, it paled in comparison to Maria McKee’s similarly themed song of the same name.

I’d call them equals, now.

Of course, a collection that features so much of the old – all things most longtime fans will (or should) already have – does make one question the necessity of it. But the two discs of new and new-to-us material are well worth the price of admission.

The ninth disc, titled Butterfly, includes three new-to-us songs set beside seven older ones, and features Natalie accompanied by a string quartet. The title track wafts like a breeze on a late-spring day while, lyrically, a smart metaphor about fate and chance flutters like a spider’s web billowing in the wind. There’s a foreboding in many of the lyrics, such as “Baby Mine”: “There’re so many things you’ve got to fear/It’s making me ache to see so clear/So many things you’ve got to know/It’s making me ache/You’ve got to grow.”

The redone older songs are Paradise Is There, Part Two, in a sense, but come off somewhat better due to their dispersed sources – three from Ophelia; two from Leave Your Sleep; and one from Motherland. Though it may be new to some, to my knowledge the Ophelia outtake “She Devil” first appeared on the two-CD edition of 2005’s Retrospective.

The 10th disc, Rarities, is a sheer delight. True, some of the tracks have been available on various compilations, such as her cover of Buddy Holly’s “Learning the Game”…

…and “The Gulf of Araby” is from the aforementioned Live in Concert album, but – all in all – the disc is a five-star alternate history.

Among the nuggets: her takes on the Kinks’ “The Village Green Preservation Society” and the spiritual “Sit Down, Sister.” (She needs to release an album of spirituals. Just sayin’.)

My only other observation: I wish that an additional disc of rarities had been included, if only to have everything in one place. And, too, I’d hate to think that her many Tigerlily-era bonus tracks, such as Joni’s “All I Want,” the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Irma Thomas’ “Take a Look” and the Aretha-Dusty medley of “Baby I Love You”-“Son of a Preacher Man,” have been lost to time…

…or copyright issues, given the way videos come and go from YouTube.

Anyway, the set is inexpensive – $50 for 10 discs. For young fans, honestly, it’s a no-brainer. Order it and the 10,000 Maniacs’ 2-CD Campfire Songs compilation. For longtime fans hesitant to re-purchase much, if not all, of what they already own, I’d say that…hey, it’s $50. A cool package. Nice booklet. Great music. The songs you know will take you back; Butterfly will make you think; and Rarities will make you smile.

IMG_5111“Arete is the Aristotelian word which translates into ‘virtue,’ ‘goodness,’ or ‘excellence’ in any field. For Aristotle, Arete had many associations: intellectual, social, as well as defining a person’s moral nature. A more contemporary definition of Arete is the aggregate of qualities that comprise good character. In the context of this magazine, it means a forum for thought and reflection.” So reads the editor’s note inside this, the fourth issue of the short-lived Arete: Forum for Thought.

It was a bimonthly West Coast-based magazine that never made it East – or, if it did, it never made it to the magazine racks of the suburban Philly bookstores I frequented. I discovered it, I think, in mid-1988 via Writer’s Digest magazine, which mentioned its need of articles and reviews. I submitted some album reviews; the editor(s) bought a few (at $25 a pop) and printed one in the second issue – my take on Brian Wilson’s 1988 eponymous album. I submitted more; they bought a few and printed one in this, the January/February 1989 issue – my thoughts on Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road. I submitted more; they bought a few and…I don’t know. Free copies stopped arriving in my mailbox, so I have no idea what, if anything, they printed.

Anyway, by the time this issue reached me, I was leading a work life led by many a former English major: retail. The year before, I signed on with West Coast Video, which was attempting to expand into the CD market, and managed the CD department at a store in Philly’s Andorra shopping center, across the street from the apartment complex where my grandparents once lived. It was a thankless job in just about every respect, but I did well enough in it that, in early ’89, the division head expanded my responsibilities to include the Bala Cynwyd store.

It was in Bala, one Saturday afternoon in late February, that a cute brunette walked in, slammed her purse on the counter and said – no, demanded, “Where the hell are the Nanci Griffith CDs I ordered?” I’m exaggerating, of course, but that was how Diane and I met. She was impressed that I not only knew who Nanci Griffith was, but was familiar with her music. (I discovered her during my Folk Show days via a Folkways compilation – this one, in fact.) I, in turn, was pleased that she liked the Flying Burrito Brothers, whose new best-of I recommended to her.

So, today’s Top 5: January/February 1989 – as in, things I was listening to at the time.

nanci_one_fair1) Nanci Griffith – “More Than a Whisper.” Nanci, for those unfamiliar with her, is a Texas-bred singer-songwriter who learned her craft in large part – as so many of her generation did – from Townes Van Zandt. The live One Fair Summer Evening, released in late 1988, is a wonderful summary of the first phase of her career; and this song, originally released on her 1986 Last of the True Believers album, was (and remains) one of my favorites by her.

IMG_51162) Steve Earle – “Copperhead Road.” I’ve always liked good setups. I tried to create one with this review, though – reading it now – it didn’t quite succeed: “On his previous two albums, Steve Earle sounded cocky, occasionally substituting attitude for substance. He came across as a country-punk revel, a good ol’ boy who admitted he was an angry young man at heart. The songs themselves were rough-edged wonders, though a few were cliche-ridden creations that seemed like last-minute studio stitch-togethers. On his last album especially, it appeared Earle was traveling down Hank Williams Jr. Boulevard, that stretch of highway where talent’s just as likely to get chucked out the window as an empty beer bottle.” Next paragraph: “But on Copperhead Road, Earle proves himself capable of creating first-rate country-cum-rock. Simply put, it’s one of the best albums of the past year.”

(Despite it not working the way I’d hoped, I was proud of the Hank Jr. reference, as I was a once-huge fan – and still am of his late ’70s/early ’80s output – but that’s a post for another day.)

3) R.E.M. – “Orange Crush.” There, in the review next to mine, is Holly Gleason’s perceptive take on Green, R.E.M.’s major-label debut: “No doubt, cries of ‘sell out’ have already begun from those begrudging the band’s ever-growing audience.” I remember those cries well; and, in fact, they’re still there, in some corners of the Internet. Green may not have been R.E.M.’s finest work, but it was damn good.

4) Indigo Girls – “Secure Yourself.” I was, for a time, a huge Indigo Girls fan, and saw them not once, but three times this year – opening for Neil Young in June and twice in August, when they headlined at the TLA on back-to-back nights. The last two were good, if somewhat short, shows – very distinct voices that blended well together, and their occasional lyrical preciousness was disarmed by their sense of humor and smart choices of cover songs. One highlight: Amy played part of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Another: they sang an Elton John song – “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters,” I believe, but I could be confusing it with another Elton song. But then…I don’t know. It’s kind of what I wrote about Pat Benatar in the last Top 5; I moved on.

5) Ciccone Youth – “Into the Groovey.” Another band I liked for a time: Sonic Youth. They released a few albums that I enjoyed leading up to this twisted side-project, a tribute (or something) to Madonna and the music of the ‘80s.

Sandy_DennySome days I contemplate weighing in on politics or the news of the day and whipping up a metaphoric hornet’s nest of debate on these pages. But when it comes time to put words to paper I find myself, instead, contemplating matters that mean more to me than the latest, greatest outrage.

Like music. And fandom. At the end of the day, at least as I’ve lived it, being a fan is about faith, second chances and redemption, about buying the next album regardless of whether I liked the last. It’s sticking with Neil Young after Landing on Water and Bruce Springsteen through the Human TouchLucky Town debacle. It’s about loving a sound that drowns our sorrow and fuels our joy, and that lifts us into orbit for mere minutes at a time. It’s about moments such as the piano version of Juliana Hatfield’s “I Got No Idols,” when she murmurs a meaning so deep and primal into the verses that we can’t help but to hit repeat again and again.

In fact, that’s the song and performance that turned me from a casual fan into a hardcore Hatfield fanatic. And even if you don’t hear what I hear in it? Odds are, if you’re a music fan, you can still relate to my experience.

Such may or may not be the case with my latest obsession, Sandy Denny (1947-78) – a 27-year gap fell between my initial inclination to investigate her music and now, when I find myself hitting replay on certain songs and albums. I first heard her in the fall of 1985, not long after signing on as a deejay for the Folk Show on WPSU, Penn State’s (at the time) student-run radio station. I won’t recount again how or why I wound up spinning folkie laments (interested parties will find that story here), but it’s safe to say that at the start I was ignorant about the form and most of its practitioners. I yanked LPs at random from the folk section of the station’s music library, took suggestions from fellow folk deejays (a few of whom were similarly out of their depths) at our monthly meetings and read, when possible, about the genre. Of course, there were also the listeners. Callers never shied away from sharing their opinions and/or requesting their favorites.

It was through one of those avenues that I stumbled across Fairport Convention, an influential British folk-rock group whose members included, for a time, Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson. Thompson I was slightly familiar with – earlier that year, on the strength of a Rolling Stone review, I bought his Across the Crowded Room album. I thoroughly enjoyed his stiletto-sharp guitar solos and barbed lyrics. But Denny? She was new to me.

As I discovered, however, her dusky alto possessed a clarion, comforting quality, and the songs she wrote and sang were often majestic. The lyrics to the prescient “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,” for instance, lilted like a centuries-old poem atop a melody that would have been at home in any age.

“Listen, Listen,” a track from her 1972 solo album Sandy, was equally poetic.

I wish I could say that my piqued interest led me to pursue all things Denny, but the everyday vagaries of college life generally require that tough choices and sacrifices be made, and such it was for me. (Back then, of course, to investigate an artist’s canon meant spending time and money; now, more often than not, it’s simply a matter of time – a precious commodity, to be sure, but one that’s easier to budget.) So while I always found room for Fairport and Denny in my Folk Show sets, following up was pushed to some indefinite time in the future.

The far, far future, as it turned out. During my conversation with Susanna Hoffs last year about her Someday album, I asked if her Under the Cover sets with Matthew Sweet influenced the collection, which possesses a distinct ‘60s vibe.

It was the end of a long day of interviews for her, she was tired and rambling. She cited – from Volume I – their version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,” commenting that they’d chosen the Fairport Convention version as their model and not Sandy’s own, before launching into similar mini-analyses of several of the other selections. And in that instant the memory of queuing up that song on a decades-old, worn copy of Fairport’s Unhalfbricking LP for the first time in 1985 flashed through my mind.

I still don’t have Unhalfbricking – it’s on my list of things to get. But I have picked up the excellent two-CD compilation No More Sad Refrains, the 1972 Sandy album and what turned out to be Denny’s last, Rendezvous from 1977, as well as a live set from her final tour. (She died of a brain hemorrhage in 1978.) “Wow” is about all I can say. Her vocals on “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,” are exactly as I remembered, but the lyrics have deepened in meaning – growing old(er) has assured of that, I suppose. To think that she was 19 or 20 when she composed it? It blows my mind.

At some point in the distant future, when we’re dust and our children’s children’s children roam the virtual aisles of their virtual stores, the political battles of the present will be long forgotten and our political leaders mere paragraphs (if that) in history textbooks. Select singers, poets, playwrights and authors, however, will still capture and fuel the public’s imagination, such as Shakespeare, Coleridge and Whitman. Many of my favorites will undoubtedly be swept aside; Sandy Denny, however, will not.

Neil_AmericanaIn 1985, after two years of commuter college life at Penn State’s Abington campus, I headed to the Motherland – University Park in State College – to finish my studies. Among the first things I did: sign up to deejay on the student-run college radio station, which at the time was WPSU-FM. The slots for the shows that most interested me (rock and oldies) were already filled by returning talent, so I took what I could get: the Folk Show, which aired from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. The hours were broken into shifts – 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. or 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. – and the music …

It’s not that I didn’t like folk music. I was ignorant about it. Though I’d seen (and briefly met) Peter, Paul & Mary at a Walter Mondale rally the year before, my notion of the form basically began with Bob Dylan and the folk-rock boom of the 1960s and ended with the singer-songwriters of the early ‘70s, many of whom got their start on the coffeehouse/folk-club circuit. So I learned as I went, immersing myself in the various folk styles, from the expected (Woody Guthrie) to the urban (Suzanne Vega) to bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, Appalachian and more. Of course, I also played folk-rock past (Buffalo Springfield) and present (Long Ryders), and threw in esoteric non-folk fare that, at least to my ears, fit with the proceedings – Elvis Costello’s rendition of “ A Good Year for the Roses” and Neil Young’s take on “Home on the Range” are two examples.

I also made my share of gaffes and mistakes. The funniest: I introduced Dylan’s “Lay, Lady Lay” from his 1976 Hard Rain live album, left the studio for a bathroom break only to return to find the song skipping at what must have been the 50-second mark: “Lay, lady…” SKIP … “Lay, lady…” SKIP. I grabbed the next LP from the stack, plopped it on the second turntable and dropped the needle, not even looking at the song – and Pete Seeger’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome” kicked in!

Talk about your serendipitous moments.

I thought of those years this past week while enjoying Americana, the first Neil Young and Crazy Horse album since 2003. At first glance, the concept seems somewhat bizarre – nine time-worn folk songs, plus the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” and the traditional “God Save the Queen” redone in the classic Crazy Horse style. That means, on some songs, heavy bass and drums laying down thud-thick grooves while Young’s guitar jukes and jabs, the collective stretching the melodies until they’re about to break then snapping them back into place. “Oh Susannah” and “Jesus’ Chariot (She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain)” are good examples of that. I would have played the songs on my show without a second thought.

But how would the listeners react? I wasn’t playing music into a void, after all. On the early shift, which I generally worked, they were a mix of Deadheads who’d yet to turn in from the night before, actual non-student adults easing into their day and, by about 8:30 a.m., hardcore folkies who – laidback stereotype aside – could be rather mean. Once, a woman called to complain (in rather uncivil language) about the Joni Mitchell song I’d just introduced. I placated her with “It Could Have Been Me” by Holly Near, which was next on my pre-planned playlist, anyway. But for every one like her, there were two or three who requested songs I’d played the last time I was on. (Not that the phone rang off the hook – it was more like one call an hour, and more often than not from one of the aforementioned Deadheads who wanted to hear a tune from Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty.)

As a result, I’m fairly certain the Deadheads and non-student adults would have embraced the songs with open ears, if not open hearts. As for the folk aficionados? Some would undoubtedly have been turned off by the ominous rumblings that underscore much of the music while others would appreciate the way Young and the Horse inject new life into the moribund songs many of us sang in kindergarten and camp. It’s for the latter reason, in fact, that I heartily recommend it to one and all.