Don’t worry, I’m not here to whine about the Beck/Beyoncé thing. I’m pretty sure I’d achieve more asking my computer printer for a car loan than I would blog-complaining about who won the Album of the Year Grammy. It’s the ceremony in general I can’t stop thinking about today. Parts were OK — I liked the heartfelt tributes to victims of police violence, and I thought Sia’s Kristen Wiig assist was imaginative and fun — but so much of the show felt like it was devised and executed by people who’d been orbiting the planet for the last year. Like organizers had been observing the music made on Earth from a distance. The awkward pairings. The myopic focus in the major categories (seemed worse than usual). The relentless and often stilted use of the word “friend” when celebrities were introducing each other. Just really, really strange.
You know what else is strange? Life. I’m not being facetious — it is.
A while back, maybe six months ago, I spotted an album cover on the wall at Steady Sounds, and the image totally invaded my consciousness:
A head, either disembodied or perched atop a person who’d been buried up to the neck… an afro… dirt… straw… screaming…
Seriously creepy stuff. Not unseeable. I was struck by its brutality, but also by the fact that it seemed mysteriously important, like it was glowing in some barely perceptible way. (Does that ever happen to you? Don’t certain covers just seem to vibrate with significance?) I was intrigued, but I didn’t know anything about it, certainly not enough to justify buying the thing, so I left it there. Looking creepy. Glowing slightly.
Fast forward to present day, and I’m seriously pissed at myself for not buying Maggot Brain when I had the chance.
I have a confession to make. Promise you won’t be mad if I tell you? Pinkie swear? OK, here goes… I’ve been holding out on you. I’ve been to some amazing concerts — 3, to be exact — that I’ve yet to tell you about. Uh oh, you look furious. C’mon, you said you wouldn’t be ma… oh, you just have to sneeze? Gesundheit!
To fix this grave injustice, I’m declaring a Concert Catch-Up Week. Over the next 5 days week or so, I’ll be offering quick recaps of the wonders these eyes have beheld in the last few weeks, starting with Todd Snider — the second of two acts that opened up for Justin Townes Earle on May 22 at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, VA. With all due respect to Jeff Tweedy, whose cantankerous-cuddly routine made his show at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville a few years back one of the best and funniest shows I’ve ever seen, Snider’s set was fucking hysterical.
The role of the record producer has always been somewhat mysterious to me. I mean, I think I have a pretty good idea of what they do — recruit backing musicians; oversee tracking, mixing and mastering; provide general creative direction, yadda, yadda, yadda — but when I was younger, I pictured the producer as a suit-wearing, arms-crossing grump who hung out in the control room, called people “baby” and yelled things like “You tell that sonofabitch that I’ll rip his head off and shit down his throat!” into a Zack Morris cell phone. Crazy, right? And I realize now that the linchpin that held this warped mental image together was the assumption that the producer was older, wiser and more powerful than the musicians.
Two recent albums have helped sweep away the few remaining shards of this ridiculous image, in large part because their producers are a whole generation younger than the artists they’re advising, and because the artists are already legends in the recording industry. The first of the albums was Mavis Staples’ You Are Not Alone, on which Jeff Tweedy of Wilco — 28 years her junior — has the producer’s credit (he wrote a few songs and played some guitar as well). In a way, it felt like he was curating as much as he was producing and participating, given Staples’ place in the soul canon and the reverence that Tweedy showed in all the interviews that accompanied the album’s release. The whole project had a wonderfully positive feeling to it, and the album itself is fantastic (I wrote a short post about it last May).
I’ve always considered this blog a safe place to share even the most embarrassing stories/insights/confessions, and today I’d like to share a noteworthy and useful discovery that is shrouded in a fairly thick layer of moral ambiguity. [takes deep breath] OK, here goes…
(Editor’s note: Wow, What the Hell Just Happened Week certainly dragged on, didn’t it? The idea was to recap all the amazing music I saw between 9/21 and 9/25, openers and headliners alike, and though travels prevented me from finishing this last chapter in a timely fashion, they also gave me plenty of time to mull it over. Without further ado, here’s the final installment (complete with eyeball-friendly left justification and paragraphs!).
What the Hell Just Happened?!? Week: Day 5 — Wilco
It’s hard to write about your favorite band in the whole wide world, and I can say with conviction that Wilco has earned that distinction for me.
Despite that conviction about my favorite band, I can’t tell you what my favorite song in the world is. The same is true with albums. I think it’s because the answer changes so often. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? Songs don’t change. They can be remixed, covered, sampled and chopped up to fit into a 15-second commercial, but the original text stays the same (Can Let It Be Naked be the one exception? Can we all pretend that’s the real one?).
Bands, on the other hand, evolve. Bands venture in new musical directions, add members, find religion, go to rehab, change labels, become political, release concept albums, go back into rehab… they’re as dynamic as the people that comprise them. Such is certainly the case with Wilco, a group that’s undergone a lineup change after almost every record, the exceptions being their latest two efforts. So why is it so easy for me to say that Wilco is my favorite band? Why hasn’t that changed? Their show at Merriweather Post Pavilion on September 25 gave me the perfect opportunity to figure that out, but not for the reason I expected.
It’s a collaboration celebration! Sometimes they work, sometimes they’re strange, but collaborations are almost always entertaining, and can be a great way to find music you were destined to love. My first introduction to Mavis Staples was the result of another collaboration – the Staples Singers performing with The Band in The Last Waltz – but I hadn’t sought out her solo music until Jeff Tweedy came into the picture. The Wilco frontman produced her latest album, You Are Not Alone, and even wrote two of the songs. It’s outstanding from start to finish, full of tenderness, soul, joy and a heaping helping of Jesus. Who knows if I would have given the album a chance without Mr. Tweedy’s involvement, but I’m deeply thankful these two got together. Check out title track “You Are Not Alone” below, and brace yourself for a heartwarming listening experience.