Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Music Critic

A recent op-ed piece in The Boston Globe, “Love Music, Hold the Criticism,” by longtime Boston journalist Steve Almond prompted a wave of thoughts. Almond’s column dealt with the futility, and even misguidedness, of music criticism. While I don’t agree with everything he wrote, I do agree with some of his points.

Like Almond, I’ve done a fair amount of writing about music, both professionally and personally, over the last 26 years. Unlike Almond (at least in his early years, according to his piece), I’ve never viewed the music critic’s purpose to be one of tossing stinging barbs of superior sensibility or self-indulgent displays of verbal flourish, though evidence suggests that is certainly some scribes’ intent.

Trite as it might sound, I’ve always leaned toward the old ethic: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” That doesn’t mean ignoring the atrocious or fabricating nice things just to meet a word count. But if I don’t like an artist’s music before even going in to a concert or reviewing an album, what’s the point in my writing about it – unless I have some kind of profound conversion experience (itself then possibly a worthy topic)? There’s enough crap around, aren’t we all better served by dedicating our limited time and attention toward the positively remarkable and the truly sublime?

The one notable exception to this in my experience goes all the way back to 1984 or ’85 when I was assigned to review a Joan Jett concert. This was around the peak of her career and the performance was something of a big event for the small city I was living in at the time. Few national rock tours ever came to town.

But I was no fan of Joan Jett. While I love gritty, straight-ahead rock and roll as much as the next person, I saw her as a low-brow, kitschy, MTV-fueled, rock poseur. I went to review the show because I had to, not because I wanted to.

Yet even then, as a 20-something novice music writer, I had enough scruples to know that I had to give her a fair shake. And I did. While I’m sure I did hurl a few amateurish barbs of overly verbose critical élan, the main gist of my review was that the show was better than I had expected – just not really my cup of tea. I went on to describe how Joan undeniably had stage presence and her band was more Rolling Stones-ish (or perhaps Dead Boys mixed with Mott the Hoople) than I had expected – both good things.

For the most part, however, I’ve always figured that my time and, more importantly, my readers’ time and the available editorial space is better spent shining the light on something truly inspiring, and then aiming to shed light on why it’s praiseworthy – for the edification of the uninitiated, the affirmation of the already converted, and even for argumentation with those of opposing view.

Of course, sometimes it is the critic’s role to flag the crud so the rest of us can steer clear of it. But this is most applicable when something is grossly over-hyped and so lacking merit that the shortcomings must be highlighted and explained.

As for Almond’s other comment that criticism of live music can’t begin to capture or explain the “feeling” an audience experiences, I agree – to an extent. The impossibility of wholly capturing in words the etherial magic of music in the moment doesn’t mean one can’t depict some of the spirit, energy and vibe of the occasion. No, there is no substitute for being there, feeling the experience in the interstitial spaces of your being. But when you can’t be there, a trusted critic’s rendering of the experience can stimulate your intuition and imagination – maybe even motivate you to make sure you are there the next time around.

With nearly an unlimited amount of music out there these days, we all need some guideposts and frames of reference – whether they are peer opinions posted on or more professional critiques. The key is to find those guides that resonate with your own sensibilities, so you can rely on their judgment and comments.

In the end, the best criticism – positive or negative – provides context, insight and food for thought; piquing interest and curiosity. I know not everyone shares my tastes and opinions, but if I adequately perform the critic’s role (as I see it), then people can decide for themselves whether or not to give my words credence ... and those who do will find some value in that.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Strummin’ in the Wind

I got this hand-me-down from my father-in-law eight or nine years ago and managed to repair it back to playability. He bought the guitar in pre-Castro era Cuba while stationed there in the Navy. This is the same model guitar that Bob Dylan used at his first Newport Folk Festival appearance in 1963.

1956 Martin 00-17
(Guitars I Have Known #10 – Photo by Rowena Lindsay)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Beck’s Redos and Mash-Ups

I’m probably little more than a middling fan of Beck Hansen’s music. I really like some of his material; other parts I could take or leave. But I’ve become a big a fan of Beck’s website. It’s one of the more interesting and creative official sites for a modern pop musician. I first got drawn into regular visits late last spring after reading music press references to Beck’s new Record Club project, which garnered considerable attention as soon as it was announced.

The way the Record Club works is Beck and various musician pals (including some fairly noteworthy names) get together at his Southern California studio for a day-long impromptu session in which they tackle a slightly off-the-beaten path classic album and re-record it in its entirety. They also shoot video of the proceedings. The results are then fine-tuned and presented on the site as free streaming audio and video. Following the original sequence of the album, one song is added each week. What’s most interesting, besides the various combinations of musicians, is that there is little regard paid to reproducing the songs as they were done back in the day. Instead, the emphasis is on interpretation. The project is less about historical reverence than the gathered artists having fun with the material and each other. The results are modern-sounding productions with an unmistakable Beckian stamp.

Given the volume of material (usually 10 or 12 songs) and the tightness of the timeframe, the quality is impressive. Beck and his buds clearly know their way around many instruments and the ins and outs of the recording studio. The video accompaniments, while given some effect treatments here and there, are closer to home-video affairs.

So far, the Club has tackled the Warholian heroin chic of The Velvet Underground with Nico (featuring classics such as “Run, Run, Run”; “All Tomorrow’s Parties”; “There She Goes Again”; “Waiting for My Man” and “Femme Fatale”), the poetic romance of The Songs of Leonard Cohen (including greats such as “Suzanne”; “Sisters of Mercy” and “So Long, Marianne”), the crazed, psychedelic folk of OAR by ex-Moby-Graper Skip Spence, and INXS’ 1987 blockbuster Kick. Featured artists joining Beck on these endeavors have included Fiest, Wilco (including Jeff Tweedy’s 15-year-old son), Devandra Banhart, Nigel Godrich, James Gadson and members of Wolfmother, MGMT and the noted Brazilian band Os Mutantes, among others. Beck himself takes the lead on many tracks, but does not necessarily dominate the sessions.

Digging into Beck’s website a little further – beneath the standard musician’s web fare of news, music videos and CD tracks; past the quirky videos from Japanese Television; beyond the artist’s interviews with other noted musicians and actors; and aside from the spotlights on various lesser-known visual artists – I stumbled across the section I’ve come to enjoy the most of all: Planned Obsolescence. There I discovered a half-dozen delightfully entertaining mash-ups. Apparently, this is what Beck does in his spare time.

For each of the 15- to 30-minute-long mixes (true, professionally-produced mash-ups, not simply sequenced playlists), he seamlessly interweaves dozens of songs ranging from 1920s’ delta blues and ’70s’ soul to modern European dance tracks and a few recognizable pop and rock hits. This deep musical mining and sonic foundry is compelling: alternately ironic, humorous and even, legitimately funky. If you’re at all musically adventurous, check it out. Mash-ups Nos. 12 - 17 are currently on the site – presumably, the “plan” is for the older (“obsolete”) ones to disappear as new ones are added.

Whether the guy is creating some of the most musical, white-boy crossover rap/hip-hop since the Beastie Boys, playing introspective acoustic folk music (a la Sea Change), tapping the chicano gestalt of L.A. or doing some amalgamation of all of the above, the one-time wunderkind remains a stand-out in music today. And to think, controversial Scientology associations aside, he started out a decade and half ago as just a “Loser.”

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reflections on Resolution and Reverence

I’m a hobbyist musician whose musical ideas often exceed my technical knowledge and abilities. Nevertheless, I dabble and, every once in a while, I come with ... uh, something ... that is reasonably satisfying – to me at least.

I’m in a similar position when it comes to computer technology. I’m far from a code geek, but I’m probably a little more tech savvy than the average Joe (although living in the Boston area with all these MIT grads around, I say that with some reservation). Over the years, I’ve managed to become fairly competent with an array of sound and design technology that is useful in my amateur musical endeavors.

This is why I’ve subscribed to Electronic Musician magazine for the last decade or so. Much of the content is way over my head technically (and often musically, too), yet I find enough of the publication useful, inspiring or thought-provoking to keep me renewing it each year. One of things I always read is Nathaniel Kunkel’s monthly column on modern sound production trends and issues. Kunkel is a Grammy Award-winning producer and engineer who also happens to be a decent writer with interesting and thoughtful things to say.

Kunkel’s most recent column (“Avatar This,” March 2010) addresses the increased cheapening of music today, especially when compared to the film and video industry (with its emphasis on large screens, hi-def, 3D, etc.). Kunkel notes that as music has become more disposable (with the proliferation of low-resolution MP3 files that are dissociated from any meaningful context in their presentation, as well as any focused commitment on the part of the listener), it has become little more than sonic wallpaper. It is ubiquitous, almost always in the background, rarely the focus of attention and, thus, of little value. No wonder the industry is struggling.

Yet, Kunkel points to a small but allegedly growing cadre of consumers who are looking for and finding value in their listening experiences. These are the folks behind the apparent resurgence of the vinyl records market. I’ve seen
the vinyl section increasing at my local music retailer (Newbury Comics) in recent years and, as Kunkel notes, even Best Buy is stocking vinyl now.

Obviously, part of the value and appeal is the packaging (the tangible physicality of it, the large artwork, readable liner notes, etc.). Then there’s the renewed attention to the order and contiguity of the songs – things that still hold meaning to some artists. But perhaps most important, Kunkel says, is the higher resolution of music preserved on vinyl – hence, the “warmer” sound routinely cited by audiophiles.

To me, the first critical step in renewing the satisfaction of good music in our lives is to give it a bit more of our focused attention – even if that still means just popping a CD in the player or selecting a choice iTunes playlist rather than digging the old vinyl collection out the back of the closet. And, despite his valid points on the importance of packaging and resolution, Kunkel seems to agree. “Maybe,” he concludes, citing the committed effort that goes into spinning a vinyl disc, “people hear more out of vinyl because it’s the only time they are really listening that closely.”

Whatever it takes, it would be nice to see a return to real reverence for good music – however you choose to define it. Indeed, “Tear down the wall(paper)!”

Monday, March 22, 2010

Time Is Right

The title of a new Feelies’ song (much on my mind since last Friday’s outstanding concert) seems an apropos entré to this brief shout out to Time magazine’s recent special issue highlighting “10 Ideas For the Next 10 Years.”

In 10 brief essays by leading thinkers, researchers and analysts (many from the New America Foundation), Time offers a fascinating overview of how America stands with one foot over the threshold of the new century, as well as some prognosis for the coming years. Overall, it’s a thought-provoking, remarkably optimistic and reasonably centrist (well, just left-0f-center, it is Time, after all) analysis of the United States’ evolving place in the world economically, politically, culturally and militarily. It holds a mirror to our recent history, and highlights key impulses already at play in our society or now percolating just beneath the surface.

The introductory essay, in particular, “The Next American Century,” by Andres Martinez, puts a surprisingly positive spin on our current national sense of society going to hell in a hand basket. It’s followed by thoughtful pieces on “Remapping the World” (bad borders and realistic means to minimize their ongoing detriment in light of current and future challenges), “Bandwidth Is the New Black Gold” (revealing how bandwidth issues will soon affect us all), “The Dropout Economy” (the future of work, education and social constructs in light of the growing libertarian impulse in America), as well as essays on U.S.-China relations, growing “white anxiety” in our increasingly diverse nation, and what it means to live in the “post-trust” era.

All worthwhile reads. Whether you go old school and pick up a copy at the newsstand or read them all online, spend 20 minutes with this Time.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Feelin’ It

The Feelies at The Middle East, 3/19/10 (Photo by Frank Lauder)

The recently reunited Feelies put on one of the better performances I’ve ever seen at Cambridge’s Middle East club last night. I’ve seen a few dozen shows there over the years, but I can’t remember one as subtly spirited and sonically pleasing as this one.

With The Feelies, it’s all about understated energy. Songs begin with a subtle pulsation, build in intensity and, eventually, explode in a frenetic cavalcade of jangling guitars and rapid-fire percussion – the potent melodies alternately lurking in the background or soaring to the fore throughout.

For me, the New Jersey quintet have always been one of those bands about which I say, “Yeah, I like them; they’re pretty good.” Then I go through a spell of delving into their catalog, or I happen to see them in concert, and I say, “Wow! These guys (and gal) are really something!” In between these revelations, I tend to forget quite how good they are (attributable, perhaps, to the band’s 17-year hiatus from the music scene). Whether they’re playing their own melodic originals or remarkably interesting interpretations of well-selected covers by the likes of The Beatles, Neil Young or The Velvet Underground, they’re a genuine listening pleasure. And they’ve been hugely influential on three decades of melodic garage rock bands.

One of the challenges of The Feelies’ music is that there is a surface-level sameness to their songs. This is a result of their material universally having a distinctive sonic signature (in the same way that early Talking Heads and R.E.M. did) – not to mention a subtlety to their compositions that becomes more apparent only with familiarity. It’s further complicated by their tendency to use lyrical phrases in songs that are actually the titles of other songs of theirs. This makes it a bit more challenging to fully appreciate their catalog. Once you’ve acclimated to this, however, it almost becomes an endearing idiosyncrasy.

Despite the heavy Velvet Underground influence, The Feelies are just as likely to sound like Neil Young on speed. Yet they clearly have their own sound: fast-paced, but always melodic and sometimes even poppy. It has aptly been described as “manic,” “jittery” and “skittish.” Propulsive rhythms and deft embellishments underlie hyper-strummed chords that joust with scorching-yet-melodic leads juxtaposed against Reedian vocals and ebullient harmonies. It’s stunning how much they can make out of just three chords.

Their sonic palette makes sense given that they are peers of seminal art punksters such as Television, Patti Smith and Talking Heads. Subsequently, they’ve also proven to be an obvious influence on early R.E.M., Sonic Youth and others. At times, some similarities to Echo and the Bunnymen and even Big Country and The Wedding Present are evident, too.

While main songwriter Glenn Mercer may not be a great singer, his vocals more than fit the bill for the Velvets-influenced sound, and his lead guitar playing is spot on: highly melodic and somewhat aggressive without ever devolving into six-string wanking. Meanwhile, fellow band leader and rhythm guitarist Bill Million is a perfect foil, building the foundation of the songs with staccato strumming and the well-placed arpeggios. The interplay of percussionist Dave Weckerman and drummer Stanley Demeski is an integral part of what makes The Feelies much more than just another jangly guitar band. Meanwhile, Brenda Sauter adds adept bass accompaniment and vital vocal harmonies.

The Middle East show was billed as “An Evening with The Feelies,” so there was no support act and we got a bigger dose of the band than on the previous two occasions I’ve seen them (October 2008 at The Roxy in Boston and November 1986 at the Felt Forum in New York). Friday night, the first set started out slowly, with the band easing through a few of their slower and mid-tempo originals (highlights being “The High Road”; “On the Roof,” which recalls Reckoning-era R.E.M.; and several catchy, newer, unreleased songs) before finishing with an upbeat version of Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues” and The Beatles’ “She Said She Said.” By that point, the crowd was well-primed for more.

After about a 40-minute break, the band sauntered back onto the small stage and launched into a second set that was blistering right from the get go. Beginning with a one-two punch of “Deep Fascination” and “Higher Ground” (both from 1988’s Only Life L.P.), they worked their way through other standout tracks, including the Bunnymen-ish “Waiting,” “Away,” “Slipping (Into Something)” and “Time Is Right,” an impressive as-yet-unreleased song they’ve been performing since reuniting two years ago.

Playing with the intense look of mad scientists, the band’s stage presence is somewhat dour. It’s a good thing they convey such joie vivre through their music, because you’d never know whether or not they were enjoying themselves based on their expressions. They move around enough, often in sudden bursts of action, but their facial countenance is consistently deadpan. Nevertheless, they rip into songs with verve and, at times, abandon.

As the night progressed, Mercer freely cut loose on lead lines, lurching away from the mic stand to engage in crazy melodic runs on his Telecaster, and Million provided the rhythmic foundation with a deft touch. Meanwhile, Weckerman’s steady assault on the woodblock, various shakers and percussive instruments became even more maniacal.

The band wrapped up the second set with “Crazy Rhythms” off their 1980 debut release, but they were far from done. Six encores later – including covers of R.E.M.’s “Boxcars (Carnival of Sorts)” and a surprising rendition of The Door’s “Take It As It Comes,” as well as their own gems “Sooner or Later” and “Fa Cé-La” – they said a final farewell.

Rumor has it that the reunited, re-energized band has a new record in the works. Given the quality of the handful of unreleased songs they’ve been playing live for the last year or two, that’s reason for optimistic anticipation. Indeed, the “Time Is Right” ... now.

COMPLETE SET LIST (35 songs; six encores!)

First Set: When Company Comes / Sunday Morning (Velvet Underground cover) / instrumental / The Undertow / Holding On / Away / Nobody Knows / The High Road / On the Roof / Let’s Go / For Now / Barstool Blues (Neil Young cover) / She Said She Said (Beatles cover)

Second Set: Deep Fascination / Higher Ground / Waiting / The Final Word / Away / Doin’ It Again / Original Love / Slipping (Into Something) / Time Is Right / Too Far Gone / Raised Eyebrows / Crazy Rhythms

Encores: Boxcars (Carnival of Sorts) (R.E.M. cover) / Sooner or Later / Moscow Nights / I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms (Modern Lovers cover) / Take It As It Comes (Doors cover) / Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey (Beatles cover) / We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together (Velvet Underground cover) / Fa Cé-La / Outdoor Miner (Wire cover) / Paint It Black (Stones cover)

* * *

And, For Your Added Enjoyment ...

A recent live clip of the reunited band.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Rock Doc Stax Up

Every once is a while I weigh in on one of the many music documentaries in circulation these days. There are a lot of them out there, and I have an increasingly crowded DVD closet bursting with them. It’s a far cry from when I was a teenager and the only way you could see concert films or documentaries on your favorite artists was to go to a rare midnight showing at a local cinema or catch Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert on TV.

This week, I was enriched by Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story. It’s a fascinating tale of the little independent record company out of Memphis that defied all odds to become an unprecedented cross-cultural stew, resulting in the unique and powerful “Memphis soul” sound of the 1960s before eventually succumbing to tragedy, greed and racism in the early 1970s.

Not only does the film remind us of some truly remarkable music of a bygone era, it also serves as a civics lesson. If there was ever any doubt about the power of music to build bridges and unite people, then the Stax story (at least the early part of it) makes the case. In the early ’60s, Memphis was one of the most racially divided cities in America. Blacks and whites couldn’t eat together, share a swimming pool or stay in the same hotels. Yet, in the midst of this, Stax Records grew, nourished by the astounding music that came out of here-to-fore unthinkable collaborations between black and white musicians, proving that not only could they make incredible music, but also run a successful business and happily socialize together.

Nowhere was this creative camaraderie more in evidence than in the phenomenally talented, half-black, half-white quartet Booker T. and the M.G.s, who served as the label’s house band backing all of the Stax artists as well as having several noteworthy hits of their own.

Besides the social significance of the Stax story, the documentary explores the rivalry between the upstart Stax and Detroit’s well-established Motown Records – both out to capture the emergent black-white crossover market. While Motown had the lock on the polished smooth sounds of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes, Stax had the funkier, soulful groove of Otis Redding, the father-daughter team of Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Sam and Dave, the Staples Singers and Isaac Hayes.

Started by Jim Steward and his sister Estelle Axton in 1959 as Satellite Records (before adapting the conjoined surnames as the company’s moniker in 1961), the fledgling label quickly tapped into the upbeat, “soul” of its surroundings and distinguished itself from the slower, traditional blues sounds of the previous decades – in effect updating the popular R&B genre for a younger, and wider, crossover audience.

For cultural reasons, as well as sonic ones, the Stax sound is clearly stamped with trademarks of the era, yet the pure, gospel-infused soulfulness of so much of the music gives it timeless appeal. I defy anyone to listen to instrumental Booker T. and the M.G. gems, such as “Green Onions,” “Time Is Tight” or “My Sweet Potato,” and not find them as resonant today as ever. And, that’s not even considering the impact of the group’s work backing Otis Redding on classics such as “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.”

Despite the label’s impressive array of talent, it was Redding who most represented Stax, almost-single-handedly building its stature way beyond its humble origins.

Like most fans of 1960s’ music who didn’t actually live through the ’60s (well, I did but I wasn’t yet grooving to the sounds of Memphis soul!), I never fully appreciated the magnitude of Otis Redding’s fame and impact. Sure, I knew he wrote “Respect” and had a string of impressive hits, such as “Dock of the Bay,” “These Arms of Mine,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),” “Pain in My Heart” and “Shake.” I knew that he was a big influence on the early Stones (they covered several of his tunes and he returned the favor with an energetic cover of “Satisfaction”). And I was aware that he made a big crossover impact at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. But I wasn’t really aware of the star power to which he was ascending. With some notable help from Booker T. and the boys and, later, the Bar-Kays, Otis essentially made Stax records. Not only did he sell a lot of records, he wowed audiences from California to Boston and all across Europe, where he was ecstatically embraced headlining concerts featuring Stax artists.

But in riding Redding’s fame to business success, the label was dealt its first knock-down blow in December 1967 when Otis’ tour plane crashed in Wisconsin, extinguishing his incendiary career at only 26 years of age. The technical knockout came a few months later in April 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in Memphis to show support for the local sanitation workers’ strike, was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, where the Stax folks often hung out. This deflated the sense of racial harmony that Stax had fostered. In some ways, it was the beginning of the end for the company, though that would take another half-decade to play out.

Over time, the Stax execs learned the hard way that the distribution deal they’d cut with Atlantic Records, giving the little label clout well beyond its means, ultimately proved to be an exploitative relationship (according to this film, at least) to Stax’s detriment.

The extent of Isaac Hayes’ early and evolving role at the label was a revelation to me. Like most people, I knew Hayes as the 1970’s soul-stirrer most famous for the Shaft movie theme. I didn’t know that he and writing partner David Porter had been a mini hit factory for Stax through the 1960s and that, in his own way, Isaac was nearly as important to the label’s sound and success as Booker T. and the M.G.s.

By the turn of the decade, Hayes had emerged as a star in his own right. The film frankly details the changing dynamic and growing internal discord this introduced at the label as, in the wake of King’s assassination, they embraced the Black Power movement, held the huge “WATTSTAX” concert in L.A., began to dabble in film production and comedy (most notably early Richard Pryor albums), nearly purchased the Memphis Tams A.B.A. basketball team, embarked on an ill-fated partnership with CBS Records and, eventually – amid allegations of greed, financial shenanigans and bank foreclosure – went bankrupt.

The Stax journey had been a decade-long shooting star with a brilliant rainbow tail.

One huge oversight in the film, however, is the almost complete lack of mention of Albert King. The big Flying-V-playing bluesman was a hitmaker for Stax and had played a key role in bringing soulful blues (sharp, biting blues guitar licks coupled with swinging horns) to the hippie masses. In so doing, he became a favorite on the late-’60s Fillmore concert circuit. The far-reaching influence of his playing is plainly evident in the guitar chops of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Cream-era Clapton. I have to wonder whether King’s estate simply refused to cooperate with the filmmakers.

Nevertheless, as Chuck D. notes in the film’s final, celebrity tribute-filled moments, the sign on the marquee of the record company reading “Soulsville U.S.A.” really said it all.


• In addition to the aforementioned DVD, the following Stax sampler CDs provide concise overviews of the label’s impressive catalog: Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration [Box Set] and The Stax Story [Box Set].

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Telecasting: This Ain’t Fishing!

While the regal Gibson Les Paul may be the King of Electric Guitars, the Fender Telecaster is the wise old Zen Master who pilgrims seek out atop the mountain.

1971 Fender Telecaster
(Guitars I Have Known #8 – Photo by Bill Lindsay)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bill’s Top 10 Beers

Lindsay’s Library of Beloved Brews

“Beer, beer, glorious beer! Fill yourself right up to here.”

– Eugene O’Neill, The Hairy Ape

I like to drink good beer. But I’m not quite a beer snob. And I haven’t ever purchased a slew of expensive equipment in pursuit of the wishful alchemy of home-brewing. No, as an unofficial beer connoisseur, I’d rather leave the brewing to the pros and focus on the joys of imbibing.

I certainly have my share of favorites – subject to change, of course. But I also like to mix them up so as not to get too dependent … ahh, accustomed to … any one brand. It’s important to have a varied line-up (and a pinch-hitter or two) on the beer team.

The favorites listed here are not seasonal specialties, but rather ones that you can get all year long (that is, if your local “packy” carries them at all). Hoppy beer hunting!

1. Ipswich Nut Brown Ale, Mercury Brewing Co., Ipswich, Mass. – All five of their varieties are well-crafted treats, but this slightly malty brown ale is definitely my favorite. In fact, this has been my single favorite beer for several years. It’s not too extreme in any regard, but it has a great overall, full-bodied taste that never seems to get old. [5.5% alcohol by volume (ABV)]

2. Guinness Stout, Guinness Brewing Co., Dublin, Ireland – Predictable? Perhaps, but you can’t beat this old standby. “Guinness is good for you,” indeed! The draught stout is king, though I sheepishly admit to still liking the old-style bottled Foreign Extra Stout, too – even though it’s an entirely different brew to the draught (much higher octane too at 7.5% ABV). I guess it’s a nostalgic thing for me. As for the draught, it is one of life’s true pleasures watching that famed Guinness cascade, anticipating the imminent rich creamy stout satisfaction. An added bonus: if you’re short on food, Guinness is essentially a meal. “Guinness for strength” has always worked for me. [4% ABV]

3. Sawtooth Ale, Left Hand Brewing Co., Longmont, Colo. – This is one of my more recent discoveries and it has quickly cut to near the top of the list. Left Hand Brewing makes a number of other good beers (Jackman’s Pale Ale, Milk Stout and a surprisingly good JuJu Ginger Beer), but the Sawtooth is my favorite. It’s one of the least hoppy of the hoppy ales on this list. It has a smooth taste with only the subtlest hint of bitterness. Somewhat comparable to Harpoon and Sam Adams’ Boston Ale, but better than both. [4.48% ABV]

4. Hoptical Illusion India Pale Ale, Blue Point Brewing Co., Long Island (Patchogue, N.Y.) – A fairly hoppy I.P.A., though not as much so as Dogfish or Hop Devil. It’s smoother and less bitter than many of the other hoppy beers, yet it is well-carbonated and has a fairly bold full-bodied taste with the slightest hint of citrus. [6.8% ABV]

5. Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra I.P.A., Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, Calif. – I’ve liked the regular Sierra Nevada Pale Ale well enough for many years, but this new addition to the hip, hoppy-I.P.A. ranks is remarkable. Hints of the familiar Sierra taste are complemented by the addition of a notable hoppy flavor and dryness (not to mention hints of citrus and pine, according to the company’s website). It’s a tasty shot of hops that is less bitter and potent (hop-wise) than some of the other members of the currently trendy hop fest. It’s also worth noting that Sierra Nevada Stout is quite good, too. [7.3% ABV]

6. Dogfish Head 60 Minute I.P.A., Dogfish Head Brewing Co., Milton, Del. – A step more hoppy than Sierra’s Torpedo, this is a full-bodied, strongly hop-flavored brew with just a hint of citrus. The strong flavor can get a little overwhelming after a while, but the first few go down smoothly and are very tasty. [6.0% ABV]

7. Hop Devil, Victory Brewing Company, Downingtown, Pa. – The hoppiest of them all? Surely not, but it is among the hoppiest of the favorites here on my list. It has a little more pronounced malt-flavor along with the strong hop component, as well as a surprisingly sweet (relatively speaking, at least) after taste. As the label says, “this devil makes a great companion.” [6.7% ABV]

8. Long Trail Ale, Bridgewater Corners, Vt. – I’ve enjoyed Long Trail since discovering it while in Vermont 15-plus years ago. The signature ale is a smooth, refreshing and tasty German altbier style brew. The brewery’s stronger, year-round Double Bag Ale and the seasonal Harvest (brown ale) and Hibernator (Scottish ale) are also very tasty choices. [4.6% ABV]

9. Harpoon I.P.A., Harpoon Brewery, Boston, Mass. – A little overly heady at times, the company’s flagship I.P.A. is one of the most carbonated brews on this list. But it’s still a fine, fresh-tasting choice and, to my buds at least, much better than the ales of crosstown rival Sam Adams. Another plus is the fact that it’s one of the most widely available beers on this list. Harpoon also makes an excellent – though very hard-to-find – (alcohol-free) root beer. The seasonal Oktoberfest is quite good, too. [5.9% ABV]

10. Bass Pale Ale, Bass Brewers Ltd., England – This is an old classic, long-time favorite that I still enjoy on occasion. Admittedly, it’s on here primarily out of nostalgia, as it was my top beer of choice throughout much of the 1980s and early 1990s. Sadly, it’s not the beer that it was when it was brewed in Burton-Upon-Trent (it’s now owned by the international mega- corporation InBev), but it is one of the smoothest beers on this list. It retains a unique taste, even if not a particularly strong one or one as good as it once was. An old English-style ale with a malty, caramel flavor, the taste is a bit more watery than most and much less heady and with less bite than the other I.P.A.s here. Nevertheless, I do still enjoy a six pack every few months. [5% ABV]

A Few Honorable Mentions

Here are a few I throw into the regular mix every once in a while: Stone Brewing Co.’s Ruination I.P.A. and also their Arrogant Bastard Ale are tasty, very hop-heavy (not to mention unbeatably named) brews; New Belgium Brewing Co.’s Fat Tire Amber Ale is another good brew out of Colorado; and Abita Restoration Pale Ale, though harder to find in these parts, always brings back pleasant memories of fun times in New Orleans. And, while I’m not a huge fan of wheat beer, I do enjoy a Blue Moon Belgian White or a Julius Echter Hef-Weissbier on occasion in the warm weather. Speaking of those hot summer days when a full-bodied, hoppy beer is not necessarily what the palate desires, I’ll always take a Corona Extra or a Red Stripe Lager (my “lite” beers).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Pertinent Question ...

Once you look past the rather uninspired artistry of this early ’90s’ music video, it’s not too difficult to appreciate the song as a quintessential example of what pop music could (and should) be: upbeat and buoyant, while also meaningful and thought-provoking. In fact, this is “spiritual” music no matter what perspective you hear it from. Besides being an obvious fan of The Beatles, World Party principal Karl Wallinger is one of the under-appreciated stand-out musical forces of my generation – this being just one of his many memorable tunes. (I recently learned that he suffered an aneurysm about a decade ago and has done only limited musical work since.)

Above was one of two official video releases for “Is It Like Today?” – the better of the two, in fact!  But this is a live-in-the-studio rendition from 1993 that, though a bit bare, is still powerful nonetheless:

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Sublime Guitar Hero

I have a new guitar hero. After seeing Bill Frisell at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River last night, I’m totally smitten with the jazzy maestro’s understated, soul-stirring guitar mastery.

I’m not really a jazz guy. As much as I confidently claim rock and blues aficionado cred, I make no such pretense in the jazz realm. My jazz likes are sporadic and idiosyncratic. And, though Frisell is generally considered to be a jazz guitarist, I don’t think that really captures the essence of his playing. Sure there are moments of straight jazz modal playing, bebop-ish jaunts, precise arrangements and remarkably synchronized interplay with his fellow musicians. And, very occasionally, there’s even a lickety-split, jazzy lead guitar run. But, for the most part, what Frisell plays seems to me to be something else – something different, otherworldly. Cosmic, country, folk, surf, rockabilly with jazz tinges.

Suffice to say, an open-minded guitar player in the 21st century can’t help but channel the panoply of musical influences in the air for the last half-century or so. And Frisell is no exception – except that he renders the alchemical amalgamation of styles and influences so extraordinarily and with such exquisite taste. He’s an unpretentious sonic architect who sure knows how to pluck those strings!

Frisell refrains from the guitar histrionics of flashy, semi-spastic, fingers flying, single-note guitar leads and riffs – standard fare for our favorite rock guitar slingers (as well as amateur hackers like me!). He plays mostly understated arpeggios, yet still drives his bandmates and provides compelling listening. And, in his concentrated but unassuming way, he makes it look effortless.

In the past, Frisell’s repertoire has featured emotive, slow-building, cyclical takes on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and”Shenandoah,” often laced with wild, swirling sonic effects suggestive of some of Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew or Arto Lindsay’s guitar palettes. The effects were much less in evidence last night.

Perhaps this is because the current lineup of Frisell’s trio affords ample opportunity for melodic interaction and invention. Comprising drummer Rudy Royston and violinist Eyvind Kang (needless to say, both exceptional musicians), the trio delivered controlled combustion and flights of sonic fancy.

At times it was even evocative of jazz greats Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s fantastic interplay in France in the 1930s and 1940s – not so much in the specific sound or style, but in the feel of the tandem guitar-violin dialog.

Most of the songs start out quiet, jazzy and/or understated and build momentum and urgency, ultimately to climax as something else. Along the way, a broad smile inevitably traverses the guitarist’s face as he locks in with his fellow musicians.

I have to admit, for me to enjoy a 90-plus minutes of purely instrumental music and only be able to identify one of the tunes by name (the old folk standard “Sunnyside of the Street”), the musicians have to deliver quite a compelling performance … and they certainly did! In fact, it was sublime.

This was the second time I’ve seen Frisell, now 59, perform with his trio. The first time was in 2005 at a small jazz club in Cambridge. We were so close to the stage, that we literally had to worry about him knocking our drinks off the table with headstock of his guitar when he turned to cast a glance at his musical compadres. (Charlie Watts was in the audience that night as the Stones were in the midst of their three-night run at Fenway Park). That night, Frisell had a more traditional jazz trio line-up of upright bass and drums (very loud drums from our vantage point). He also relied heavily on his many effects to add to the sonic swirl and avant garde flavorings.

Yet, despite how much I enjoyed, that evening’s listening five years ago, I wasn’t expecting what I heard last night. If I had known that it was going to be as good as it was, I would’ve twisted every friendly arm within 50 miles join me.

Final Note: Narrow Name, Broad Appeal

I’ve seen a dozen or more shows at The Narrows Center for the Arts over the last five or six years and it has to be one of eastern Massachusetts’ best-kept secrets. In the forgotten city of Fall River (straddling the R.I./Mass. border), in the shadow of a vintage World War II battleship tourist attraction, sits this old three-story brick warehouse, the top floor of which has been transformed in an art gallery, working artists’ studios and an open, informal and welcoming performance space. Run by volunteers, tickets are reasonably priced and the bring-your-own beverage policy and reclaimed church pews seating make for a welcoming, low-key venue. And, while the feel is coffeehouse-like, I’ve seen some fiery, inspired performances there (Graham Parker, The Mekons, et al).


• The brief Bill Frisell biography on his official website paints a vivid picture of the breadth of his work and the esteem in which he is held in musical circles.