Wednesday, July 27, 2011

RIP, Bill Morrissey

Mourning the passing of one of the great American folk singer/songwriters of the generation lodged between legends like Bob Dylan and young bucks like M. Ward and Sam Beam.

Photo circa 2005 from by Herve Oudet

Last night I learned that New England folksinger Bill Morrissey died a few days ago in a hotel room in Georgia. Only 59 years old, the Grammy-nominated folksinger reportedly succumbed to heart failure, but he left a legacy of potent, straight-from-the-heart-through-the-bottle-and-spit-out-with-a-laugh songs of life, love, hope and regret. Real lives, real people.

I was fortunate enough to interview Bill in 1989, when – riding the success of his Standing Eight LP, he was on the cusp of making the jump from the local coffeehouses and bars he’d been playing for nearly two decades to the small theaters and halls he was able to command for a few years during his commercial peak. Shortly after our talk, I saw him alone in front of a crowded room of 40 or so people at a church basement coffeehouse in Burlington, Mass. A few years later, I was in the balcony of Cary Hall in nearby (but really worlds away) Lexington, watching him front a full band that featured fiddle player extraordinaire Johnny Cunningham (previously of Silly Wizard and The Raindogs). It was haunting and transcendent.

I have no way of knowing, but I bet Bill and Johnny made quite a pair, sharing an ample and wry sense of humor as they did. Now, I bet they're both joking like naughty smart-asses behind the angels’ backs in a far corner of Heaven.

Our interview was a lengthy phone conversation. Bill was cooking dinner at home in New Hampshire when I called. He kindly put the skillet aside and proceeded to talk enthusiastically and at length, not so much about himself, but about his love for music and songcraft, as well as the current folk music milieu and his place in it – or not, as the case may have been.

“I don’t want to just play for the terminally hip,” he said, seeking to separate himself from the “precious folk music” with which he was sometimes reluctantly cast.

His music was anything but precious. It was melancholic, haunting, drink-drenched, narratively nuanced, or witty and clever. He was equally adept and at ease with it all, and this wide range of themes lived comfortably side by side in his repertoire.

We shared our enthusiasm for Bob Dylan and he was eloquent in his defense of the Old Bard’s singing voice, punching holes in the typical criticisms. Having a unique singing voice himself, perhaps he was attuned to the under-recognized value of such an attribute, noting that despite his raspy oddities, Zimmy “still hit the right notes.”

“This is no b.s. kind of music,” he said of his kind of folk. “You get up there and tell a story. ... You don’t have to be loud to make a point.”

There are depressingly few video clips of Bill Morrissey on YouTube.
This is a good tune and one I’d consider including even it wasn’t
nearly the only choice. Wish I could find “She’s That Kind of Mystery”
or “Everybody Warned Me.”

Bill’s deep, rich-toned, never-overly-busy, finger-picking and his speak-sing vocals – often punctuated with a raspy growl – were fitting conduits for his lyrical tales of romantic misconnects, proud-but-worn-down working people and hardscrabble life in forgotten old mill towns. Morrissey literary leanings transcended well-penned lyrics in the late 1990s, when he published a novel, Edson, about a New England folkisnger (not autobiographical, he assured, explaining that he just wanted a context that he knew well).

And while he played acoustic folk music throughout his career – he recruited talented friends – Suzanne Vega, Patty Larkin, Shawn Colvin, John Gorka and later Dave Alvin – to add powerful nuance and embellishment to his trademark sound. He also dabbled in the primal folk blues of Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and others as his career progressed.

“I was never good enough to copy others,” he said back in 1989, already reflecting on many years on the road and a quiver full of his own compositions. He was sounding a familiar refrain of those who truly forge their own path. But, today, there’s little doubt that he was good enough to set a course that will inspire other true troubadours for years to come.

Whether it was humor or heartbreak – and he was adept at both – Bill seemed to do what he did because it was important, vital, genuine and timeless.

Here is a nice tribute from New Hampshire Public Radio’s website. Bill Morrissey was a long-time (albeit on and off) resident of New Hampshire, and his early music is deeply routed in the people, history and environs of the Granite State.

• Bill’s obituary in yesterday’s Boston Globe.

• He left a rich legacy of recordings. I highly recommend checking out any of them, but my favorites remain: Standing Eight (1989), Inside (1992) and his eponymous debut, Bill Morrissey (1984), all on Philo/Rounder.

Monday, July 25, 2011

B Sharp in B Flat

My musically savvy teenager forwarded me this link, which seems to be getting some viral attention these days.

It’s quite amazing what you can do by simply mixing a dozen or so unrelated meandering melodies on different instruments that are all in the same key; in this case, B flat. Not only does dropping instruments in and out of the mix – simply by clicking on or off the respective YouTube videos collected on the page – create a unique listening experience, but every time you do so it’s different, based on the instruments selected and the timing of when each is started and stopped within the overall sequence of the “song.” And it always seems to sound reasonably good, now matter how you mix it up.

Check out the “In Bb Experience” for yourself right here.

Pakistani Jazz Jam

I learned about the Sachal Orchestra on Public Radio International’s The World program on the way home tonight and was quite stunned at how good, accessible and appealing this unknown ensemble of struggling Pakistani musicians is – to me and, apparently, many others. Their new release has quietly become a digital download sensation on iTunes.

Despite this video being a cover of a well-known Dave Brubeck tune, it doesn’t sound remotely jazz-ish to me. No matter though, it’s awesome! And, frankly I’m a bigger world, blues and classical music fan, which this has more in common with, than I am a jazz fan. It certainly conjures up memories of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page’s 1995 world tour which featured a traditional Middle Eastern orchestra, The Egyptian Pharoahs, from Cairo.

The percussionist is a finger-frenzied maniac, while the sitar sounds like what Jimi Hendrix might’ve played had he really learned the instrument a la George Harrison. And those violins given it a majestic flourish. I love this! I’ll be joining the legions downloading it for sure.

It’s nice for us Westerns to get a taste of some the rich and vibrant artistic culture from this part of the world, especially in juxtaposition to the debacle and dysfunction of our usual reference points.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

3M Fascination: A Malian Music Movie

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of music from West Africa, and Mali in particular. There’s something about the strong, resonant, string-driven, yet characteristically rhythmic African music that is clearly a wellspring for the Delta blues of the American southern, but also retains something uniquely distinct – even today, despite the infiltration of technology and cultural influences from the U.S., France and the Caribbean.

So it was with this perspective that I was delighted and intrigued to stumble across mention of this new movie-in-the-works about the music and musicians of Mali: Music in Mali: Life Is Hard, Music Is Good.

I didn’t learn about it through one of the typical music sources. No, I learned about it through reports on social media and unique approaches to fund raising; in this case,

The video trailer above was part of the filmmakers’ effort to solicit a few bucks – from potential future viewers and otherwise good music-loving doobies like you and me – to help them cover the expenses of finishing off their film – eight years in the making. Not knowing a whole lot about Kanaga System Krush Records or this project, I can’t vouch for it’s veracity, but from I’ve read it appears to be legit. KickStarter has a good rep, too – as far as I know. And, how can you not be drawn in by the edgy, primal electric dessert melodies and vibrant imagery of hard life made joyous by music.

It seems that the filmmakers have already surpassed (at least in pledges) their goal of $20k by this weekend, but it’s still worth a look and consideration. The sneak peak above suggests they have something original and needed (on several levels) in the works. I can’t wait to see it on the big screen at an art house cinema one of these years.

• Click these links for more information about the Music in Mali: Life Is Hard, Music Is Good project. and KickStarter.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Way That Gillian Goes

Gillian Welch’s new album, The Harrow & The Harvest, has been out for just a few weeks and it’s already one of my favorites of 2011. Like 2001’s epic Time the Revelator, this new release stunningly portrays that melancholy, old-timey, country-folk-bluegrass vibe in a way that no one else has since The Band. It’s amazing how Gillian and long-time music and life partner David Rawlings can write original new tracks that sound like authentic Civil War-era songs rather than mere mimicry or nods to the past.

And as if the songwriting and Gillian’s stark warble were not enough, Rawlings emotive picking on that ancient mini-acoustic guitar brands the duo’s sound as uniquely their own. Gotta love that gee-tar playin’!

This is one of several standout songs on the new CD, as recently performed by the pair on Conan:

I last saw Gillian and David playing 8 years ago, can’t wait to see them again when their lengthy nationwide tour returns to the Northeast this fall.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Last Gasp

Thanks to my handy “This Day in Led Zeppelin” iPhone app, I’m reminded that today is the 31st anniversary of the last concert the band ever performed – just under 3 months before Bonzo died. Oh, what might’ve been, then again ... as far as the legacy and legend goes, maybe it was for the best. God knows, The Who would’ve been better off had they called it a day.

The mighty Zep finished their final performance at Eissporthalle in West Berlin with a 17-minute version of “Whole Lotta Love.”

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

These Boys’ Speed Endures

I’ve recently been revisiting the recordings of a little-known, but brilliant, local bar band that I discovered by chance about 30 years ago. I never saw them live, but I sure listened to their two LPs a lot back in the day. Listening to their limited catalog now for the first time in quite a while, I’m reminded of why I liked them so much.

Hailing from the Lancaster, Pa.-area, The Speedboys perched precociously on that big musical hinge between the music of the 1950s and the early 1980s. Traditionalists at heart, the ’boys added a sardonic attitude and modern edge to the vintage R & B, soul and boogie that dominated the ’70s. With solid musicianship and song craft, they appealed to those of us who relished the better sounds of those days gone by, but also yearned for continued evolution as we crossed the threshold of the ’80s. Yes, they treaded similar terrain as Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe and Graham Parker, with occasional touches of Dylan and the early Stones, but they also added a dash of Big Star and a pinch of Albert King. Garnish all that with early ’80s sensibilities and, well, you get the picture.

On top of all that, everyone in the band was named Bobby something – you know, just like The Ramones were all brothers! The singer was, of course, Robert Bobby. His sparring partners were Bobby Kinsley on guitar and vocals; Bobby Lowry on keyboards, vibes, harmonica and vocals; Bobby Blue Blake on slide and lead guitar; Bobby Lawson on bass; and Bobby Schmidt on drums.

Despite the gimmick though, these guys had the chops. Even today, I’m impressed with how the simple but precise guitar lines weave in, out and around the boogie-woogie piano riffs (often the driving force of the tunes), bolstered by taut-shuffling drums, soulful harmonica and robust vocal harmonies. Bobby’s (Robert, that is) lead vocals have an endearing bluesy falsetto hiccup that also manages to conjure the celtic soul warbling of early Van the Man.

That’s What I Like  (see a better version on YouTube)
What’s most impressive and lingers with me about this band, though, is how equally adept musically (from songwriting and arranging to playing) they were at doing tongue-in-cheek vintage rockers on the one hand and super-sensitive heartfelt ballads of emotional pain and desperation on the other. Not a dichotomy that many bands manage with such aplomb.

There’s the pseudo reggae of “I Want You,” with the punchline conclusion to the title (“... to be like me!”) enumerated in a number of humorous ways; the utterly un-PC (and morally degenerate, but totally rockin’) “Girls, Girls, Girls”; and the upbeat, boppin’ blues rock of “Talkin’ About My Baby.” Then you have the plaintive pop love song, “Secret of the Heart,” and the aching melancholy of “Little Bit Nasty, Little Bit Nice.” Somewhere in between these two extremes lie the ahead-of-its-time – though somewhat dated now given a few lyrical references – ode to steroids, “Anna”; and the post-Three-Mile-Island love song, “Hearts Like Atoms Split.”

Secret of the Heart  (see better version on YouTube)
The opening track of The Speedboys’ first LP represents the more subtle, romantic side of the band.

Not that all that isn’t enough, but – for me – there’s a bit more to the story. How did I, a teen at the time in New Jersey, ever come across this obscure Central Pa. band with just two albums on the microscopic “I Like Mike” record label?

Well, the bass player’s father was one of my math teachers in high school. Somehow, through him, I obtained a poorly recorded cassette tape of their first LP (which even then was out of print). A while later I managed to get a vinyl copy of their second album (by writing directly to the record label, I seem to recall). Fortunately, both albums are now again available on CDBaby. They’re both recommended, but the first one is stellar.

Much of Robert Bobby’s subsequent solo material (yes, he has retained the stage name), some of it very good and a worthy successor in it’s own right, is available there, too. His newer stuff plays the folk singer-songwriter card more pronouncedly and is more Dylanish/Steve Earlesque in style compared to his former band’s R & B leanings. 

Girls, Girls, Girls   (see better version on YouTube)
As un-PC as this is by today’s standards, this tongue-in-cheek re-write of “Louie, Louie” is at once raunchy and innocent – as rock used to be. Some tasty guitar licks, too.

Miss My Baby’s Cakes  (see better version on YouTube)
“I said, ‘Woh!’ ...” Another standout Speedboys’ track, this time featuring lead guitarist Peter Kinsley taking the lead vocal role.

•  Check out The Speedboys’ two fine LPS, 1981’s  That’s What I Like and 1983’s Look What Love’s Done to Me Now at

•  Check out Robert Bobby’s website and his catalog on CDBaby.