Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Too Late to Stop Now (Part 3)

I've been pondering the futility of trying to convey in a few paragraphs the richness of hundreds of music-going experiences over the course of 50 years. Trying to hit the highlights just leaves a long list of "not-mentioneds" as other memories surface--for example, I failed to include the powerhouse Gil Evans Orchestra conquering a club in Copenhagen, and the transcendental experience of Bill Evans curled over the keyboard, his fingers barely flicking the keys yet creating cathedrals of beauty. (Seen at the basement club where Miles Davis, Bill's Kind of Blue employer, held forth as well.)

And what of Classical Music? I spent several years with full-series tickets, attending concerts by the Seattle Symphony and guests, both before and during Gerard Schwarz's fabled tenure, as well as many chamber music events heard from here to Edinburgh and Salzburg--the grandest of those with Yo Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and a young violinist powering through Dvorak's rollicking Dumky Piano Trio. And on a different Edinburgh visit, I dreamed through Mahler's heaven-scaling Symphony No.2, the splendid orchestra that day (was it the London Philharmonic?) led by Klaus Tennstedt--though even that experience was dwarfed by the Mahler Second conducted by Leonard Bernstein, filmed in an English or Scottish cathedral, that I only ever saw on television, but that still can raise my spirits and the hairs on my neck whenever I simply think about it...

Country Music too has figured in my life all along, whether I was listening to the car radio or seeking out some "Outlaw" favorite up close and personal: Waylon Jennings (and beautiful wife Jesse), Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, all of them seen back in their prime of age and performance, as was mandolin-man extraordinaire and Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe, still splendidly indomitable and proud--not to mention the many lesser hitmakers who came and went, county fair to covered dome, from John Anderson (my cousin Joe Spivey played fiddle with John for decades) to Winona Judd and her lovely Mom when they were slimmer and straight out of the chute, so to speak; wandering backstage at one performance, I nearly collided with Naomi as she stepped out of her dressing room, charmingly arrayed in a wrapper and haircurlers!

But the country woman who pushed all my buttons, and still does... Emmy Lou Harris, of course. I missed her arrival on the scene as Gram Parson's harmony-duets pal, but have been to her ever-new shows many times over the years since, whether backed by Rodney Crowell or Ricky Skaggs or Albert Lee, whether by solid bluegrass players or the alt.country Buddy Miller/Spyboys. She can do no wrong, I say, dancing, singing, or just smiling out at the always-adoring crowd. (And a word here for brilliant quirky producer Daniel Lanois, who at different times revitalized recordings by Emmy Lou, Dylan, the Nevilles, and others... not forgetting his work on U2's all-time best The Joshua Tree.)

Mention of the Neville Brothers brings back the life-affirming concert I saw by those Big Easy giants around the time of the Yellow Moon album. Wow! and wow again--Meters funk, Aaron's angelic tenor, second-line showmanship, they had it all (and likely still do). The second time I caught up to them, at New Orleans Jazz Fest, wasn't quite as stunning, but decidedly danceable fun.

Jazz Fest... only got there once, in the pre-Katrina days, but it was amazing, especially the unknown-to-me NOLA gospel groups and funk groovers and traditional Jazzsters. (By a great twisted coincidence, our lodging was a fest-time-only, not-quite-b&b run by Gram Parson's stepmother Bonnie.) I've already blogged about some major rock festivals, but I owe a big thanks to Seattle's own massive event, every Labor Day weekend, called Bumbershoot. Back in the earlier days, a weekend pass cost less than $20, and you could see scores of major and minor acts, blues giants and aging soul masters, singer-songwriters and pop stars of the moment, ranging from the Eurhythmics to Steve Earle, Ray Charles to Clifton Chenier, Joan Jett to Joe Jackson, Smokey Robinson to Bonnie Raitt, the Police to the Pogues.

I haven't been to Bumbershoot lately--too pricey, too ultra-hip and mass-crowded to suit these aging bones and ears, and now offering fewer of the older music greats--but I recommend it still to any reader of this three-chapter catalog of music's grand parade. Any given year, there will be a dozen acts worth seeing.

My idea to wind down this long parade requires revisiting three memorable events in particular--the first back in 1975 when I saw Bruce Springsteen for the first time, maybe a week after his twin covers on both Time and Newsweek, "I'm just a prisoner of rock 'n roll," "too late to stop now" (borrowed maybe from Van Morrison), and other shouted phrases still echoing in my head, along with visions of Bruce running the aisles, climbing atop the amps, leaping into space playing his electric, and collapsing against Clarence Clemons just for a breath or two... A couple of days later I made up buttons with the "prisoner" quote on them that I gave away to friends! Yes, I too saw the future of rock 'n roll that night and have been a confirmed "Brooooce" fan ever since, even if the greatest concert moments now are often just Springsteen and his guitar as he delivers some heartbreaking, quietly political ballads.

Back in the later Eighties, I finally managed to get to a Dr. John gig for the first time, though hooked years before that by--rather than the voodoo gris-gris hokum--his Gumbo album of New Orleans oldies plus follow-up LP with the Meters. That night he was elegant and funky both, street-cred clever and musical to his toe-tips, and always stylish (seen over the years since) with hat and cane handy. An amazing life, that of Mac Rebennack, proving to all that a white boy could fit in perfectly with the mixed-color bag of New Orleans music, could for 50 years thrive and often take the lead and these days help resurrect. (Didn't his old hit "Storm Warning" prove too right?)

So I prize the two items I have that Dr. John autographed: my copy of Gumbo plus his spacey autobiography--the LP and book both graced by wild and woolly, and way lengthy, verbal riffs on whatever-the-hell Mac felt like writing at that moment, whole pages of rambling poetic prose (sort of his own Deep South, "Dew Drop Inn" version of Jim Morrison's drugged attempts at spontaneous poetry maybe).

Which could be said of my own musical reminiscences I guess. So let's wrap it... The four recent club sessions I enjoyed most were these: Chris Hillman, ex- of the Byrds and Burritos and Desert Rose Band, together with his lifelong friend Herb Pedersen doing their patented country/rock/gospel harmonizing; saxmaster James Carter blowing his sidemen off the stage and us audience every which way but loose; the mighty big band of composer-conductor Maria Schneider filling Jazz Alley with sounds sweet and blue, borne aloft by clouds of brass; and just weeks ago, a ticket (courtesy of friend Tom Wasserman) to see the inimitable Richard Thompson, which proved to be the third landmark event I want to convey.

Someone reading this may recall that during the summer I flew to England for the latest Cropredy Festival, this year featuring the 40th Anniversary celebration of Fairport Convention's classic Liege & Lief album. Acknowledged guitar-god and ace songwriter Thompson was the linchpin of all those events just as he was in Fairport's fairest early days. But his recent concert here in Seattle dwarfed those festive sets--the band was tighter and more spirited, and RT full of grit and fun as well as his patented doom and gloom, whether lambasting the U.S. mistakes in Iraq or rocking the fate of some ill-mannered lover. And his guitar work alternately caressed and metal-shredded even the tenderest song, with one lengthy solo showering chunks of most all he'd picked up in 40 years of playing, bits of Link Wray and Dick Dale, Blind Willie Whichever and Shadow Hank Marvin, avant-garde Henry Kaiser and homegrown Davy Graham, plus John Coltrane sheets of sound and eerie Chinese-sounding scales.

RT rules; remember that. And see him whenever the opportunity arises. I'll likely be there too... can't stop the music.

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