Friday, February 24, 2012

YouGrail: craw live in 1996

I've been reading an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan—you can find it in the excellent Pulphead—about caves in the South that contain wondrous Native American paintings and artifacts, so old and disconnected from recorded history that no one really has any idea what they mean. Not to get dramatic, but I find myself thinking about the video above, a 1996 performance by the now-defunct Cleveland band craw [sic], as a similarly momentous find.

For a long time, I've relied on oral history—or more accurately, my own rambling recollections and paeans—to transmit my feelings about this band, and how hard they smacked my teenage consciousness, crater-ing deeper than any other art that bombarded me during that extremely impressionable time. I've bored countless friends (not to mention my wife) with the minute details, the descriptions, even pantomime of the band members' stage movements. Folks have listened patiently, humored me, to a degree. "You don't understand," I would say, shaking my head, "how good they were." (Prior to this, there were craw videos on YouTube, but not of "classic" vintage.)

That's not to say that after watching the above video, the level of my devotion to this musical entity will seem any more clear. It's just YouTube; it's just some old clip; it's just five guys on a stage, seen and heard through the veil of 16 years, during which heavy underground rock music has changed immeasurably, though, I would argue, evolved maybe not that much at all. But at least I can say, "There they are. That is more or less what I witnessed, standing a foot away, as a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old. That is what consumed me and made me so impossibly happy," in the way that only a deep connection with a marvelous human creation can. That is what I spent hours puzzling over. That is what made me say, "This is the benchmark. Anything else that comes along will have to reckon with it."

I have no idea how it will appear or sound to you. Maybe you'll be intrigued. If so, I implore you to track down the record that features this song. It's called Lost Nation Road, and it is my favorite record, full stop. If not, I don't begrudge you. It's just a YouTube clip. It isn't, objectively, some momentous excavation, something awe-inspiring dredged up from the dirt, some link to a lost civilization. To me, though, it's a big deal.

My friend Dave (the guitarist you see on the left in the video) e-mailed me a link to this video and another one from the same show, and I clicked on them while I was at the office today. I watched for a few seconds, but I knew I had to turn them off, wait till I could really engage. I felt this weird rush of something, nostalgia, I guess. I felt hyperactive, like I wanted to tell everyone I knew, but worried, also, that my enthusiasm wouldn't be matched. In the end, that is the reason for this blog you're reading, so I can enthuse and enthuse and not bore my friends and loved ones.

So anyway, the video is above. If you're interested in hearing more about craw, I'll be happy to talk (or e-mail) your ear off any day of the week. If it doesn't grab you, I totally understand. But in my tiny corner of the internet, this is some holy-grail shit.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"There Comes a Time," over time

I didn't know what to make of Tony Williams's "There Comes a Time" when I first heard it, on a used copy of the 1971 Ego LP that I picked up in college. The raw, gnashing instrumentals on Emergency! were much closer to what I was seeking from Williams's Lifetime band, and the presence of vocals on that record and on Ego baffled and even bugged me. I don't feel that way anymore. When I reexamined Emergency! last year, Williams's dreamy recitation on the track "Where" ("Wheeeeere are you going? Wheeeeere do you come frooooom?") really struck me. A psychedelia time capsule, sure, but also an effective interlude on a loud, brash album. (I'll admit that I still have trouble sitting through the monologue on "Beyond Games.")

The key Williams vocal performance, though, is "There Comes a Time." What a strange, strange song… It's built around this swelling, snowballing odd-time swing vamp (I think it's technically 5/4, but I find it easier to count as ten beats). On the original Ego version, the organ of Larry Young (billed as Khalid Yasin) adds a glimmering haze to the steady, ominous march of Ron Carter's bass line, while Ted Dunbar layers juicy guitar twang on top. Williams works up to a bashing cymbal froth, and around the 3:00 mark, the vocals finally emerge:

There comes a time when you want to be older
There comes a time when you want to be bolder
I love you more when it's over

It's a cryptic, vaguely unsettling sentiment, which takes on added menace in the next verse:

There comes a time when you're helpful
There comes a time when you're doubtful
I love you more when you're spiteful

That "spiteful" gets me every time. One word that encapsulates this entire weird, creeping shadow of a song.

The critical consensus seems to be that Williams's vocals are a nuisance. (Think of Ornette's equally maligned work on violin and trumpet.) "Unfortunately, both of those tracks ['There Comes a Time' and another Ego song 'Lonesome Wells (Gwendy Trio)'] are bogged down by vocals (by Williams and Jack Bruce, respectively) singing Williams' own earnest and not terribly inspired verse," Stewart Mason asserts at AllMusic.

I would side with the ever-broad-minded Gil Evans (recall his Hendrix tributes), who elevated the song to something like standard status on his 1976 album There Comes a Time, and then later performed it with Sting. It's something of a shock to hear the Police-man state, "This is a song by Tony Williams" in the clip below (almost as though he were shouting out Cole Porter or some other well-known Great American Songbooker), but he does a great job with the piece.

Here's the original "There Comes a Time," from Ego:

Here's the Ego incarnation of Lifetime performing the track live in ’71:

Here's the Gil Evans Orchestra's 1976 interpretation [Billy Harper on gut-busting tenor]:

Here's a take by a later Lifetime lineup (’79, I think) ["There Comes a Time" starts at 20:53]:

Here's a version, strangely retitled "Lawra," from Williams's elusive 1980 trio album, Play or Die [Tony's voice still sounds great]:

And here's Sting's "There Comes a Time," with the Evans Orchestra (’87) [I believe that's George Adams on backing vox and tenor]:


Anyone know of any additional versions of this underrated Williams classic? You'd think that Sting's performance would've inspired other singers to give it a shot.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Brute/skittering: Tony Williams in the ’70s

Sometimes I get hung up on the details. Right now, it's the intro to "Fred," from the Tony Williams Lifetime's Believe It (1975). Six staggered bass-drum/crash-cymbal thumps, then a switch to the open hi-hat for one last washy punctuation mark. So sparse and so complete.

And Tony's performance on the piece itself: The pinnacle of "fusion" drumming, to my ears. That airy, syncopated groove on the opening theme, then the tension-building shift to the ride cymbal at 1:08 and the whitewater full-band accents / solo spots starting at 1:14. I love the muscle and the drive of this passage, the way Tony is just bashing, owning these breaks, knowing how badass he is. But I also love how he comes right back down to earth afterward: He resumes the opening groove (1:28), yet quickly thinks better of it, opting instead for a brisk, thrilling little cymbal swell.

Tony Williams in the ’60s (with Miles, and on Blue Note, with Sam Rivers, Jackie McLean, Grachan Moncur, Andrew Hill and others) was one of the sounds that initially sold me on jazz. I checked out his early work with Lifetime in college and then had a real moment with it last year. For whatever reason, though, I hadn't followed the thread further until pretty recently. Believe It is my latest Williams obsession, and I feel as strongly about it as I do re: any of his work. If there is such a thing as jazz-rock drumming (something I've been pondering in my Heavy Metal Bebop series, i.e., is it possible for one player to excel at both of these styles, either independently or simultaneously, given their disparate demands?), this is as good as it gets. You have true brute punch on one hand, and on the other, Williams's patented elasticity, a skittering nimbleness, like the aural equivalent of one of those basilisks sprinting over the surface of the water.

I've also been exploring Williams's sideman work from around this time. The performance below, with Stan Getz, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke (the same band on Captain Marvel) kills me. The dress, the sound, the attitude. I love how Williams sort of cocks his head to the side before he starts, like, "Are we ready to melt some faces? Okay then." Dig the extended close-up at 4:10.

And then this one, with Clarke again, and Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. (I think both of these clips are from ’72.) Check out the virtuosic pugilism around 3:10, and the way Tony eases the feel down to light swing at 3:30. It's one of those patented on-a-dime Williams transitions; he never seemed to require any significant amount of runway in order to smoothly land the 747.

For any Williams buffs reading this, what are your favorite Tony performances from the ’70s and beyond? Million Dollar Legs, the follow-up to Believe It, has a terrible reputation, but I'm looking forward to an in-depth firsthand study. Other records that intrigue me: Didier Lockwood's New World (recorded 1979), Michael Mantler's Movies (’77) and the super-rare 1980 Williams session Play or Die. I'm not well-versed in the later, more postboppish Blue Note period either. Would greatly appreciate any recommendations.

P.S. [After the fact] Another record that merits mention is Hal Galper's Now Hear This (recorded 1977). Williams goes tornado at the end of the title track.

P.P.S. There is also, of course, the Man Jazz meltdown that is Trio of Doom.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The grease in the gears: (Alex) Van Halen, 2012

A strong candidate for my favorite album of the year so far is A Different Kind of Truth, the new Van Halen record (as you've surely read, their first with David Lee Roth in close to 30 years).

I feel similarly about Truth as I did re: Worship Music, last year's Anthrax comeback record. As with Anthrax, Van Halen meant very little to me growing up. MTV saturated my childhood, so VH were unavoidable and, to me, unwelcome. I found them silly, the soundtrack in a party I didn't want to attend.

Since then, my feelings re: this sector of rock & roll have done a 180. Suddenly, a few years back, I found myself no longer taking the art and craft of what I'd always thought of as "good-time" rock (Zeppelin would be the biggie there) for granted. Maybe it had something to do with playing in a rock band and experiencing firsthand how hard it was to execute a simple groove with real feeling, real relaxation, and coming to understand that the real masters of this practice weren't the staunchly arty indie bands I'd grown up with (no disrespect, of course), but the gods of the arenas, the titans of classic-rock radio.

I started to sense that one day, I'd need to reckon with Van Halen. I knew that friends whose tastes I respected worshipped them. But I still wasn't quite ready. I had this fixed image of them as too happy, too hammy, David Lee Roth in a top hat, etc.

But man, this new record. The song that blew off my blinders is the one above, "China Town." The drumming on this song humbles and thrills me. In conjunction with my ever-ardent John Bonham obsession, I've developed a serious interest in Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice (I spent much of my "winter break" playing through The Ultimate Realistic Rock Drum Method), as well as his brother Vinnie, a member of the Dio-fronted Black Sabbath (later called Heaven and Hell). Before I heard "China Town," and thus really started to appreciate the talent of Alex Van Halen, I always thought of these men as a sort of school of three: to borrow a prehistoric comparison from my friend and colleague Steve Smith, the Brontosaurus School, a set of percussionists obsessed with wideness and grease, musical slipperiness, the paradox of a cumbersome mass dancing with marvelous agility.

Set aside for a minute the prog-metal meltdown of the guitar intro and just behold the drum entrance here. All you can think of is that album cover, pure locomotive motion, a gigantic machine racing forward. You hear Roth let out that orgasmic "Oh!" and you feel right where he's at. How can something so heavy move so fast, generate such lift and buoyance? And the thrilling shift from hi-hat to ride on the chorus (:51), where the whole song aspirates, opens its gills for a minute. And then the herky-jerk accents (1:00), straight out of the Zeppelin playbook, followed by the double-time singalong section, punctuated by massive dumps on the toms; that's all I can think to call them, "dumps." It's like laying down a huge stack of newspapers at the audience's feet. And then we jump back on the train, feeling the wind and marveling at the design, that girth which does not square with the aerodynamism.

I love this whole record, pretty much unreservedly (except for the borderline-crappy lead single and opening track "Tattoo"; god knows why they chose to spotlight it b/c just about everything else on here is stronger…), and I've even come to appreciate David Lee Roth's neovaudevillian hamminess, which, maybe not so surprisingly, seems a lot more convincing to me now that he's actually an old dude, rather than a young dude with a retro shtick. But what keeps magnetizing me is this shaggy Brontosaurus School swing, the kind that conjures visions of a friendly giant behind the drum kit, rendered with such a gracious, natural, unsanitized sound—just pure wideness and warmth and sloshing bulk. (Obviously my perspective is drum-centric; I'm sure the guitar nerds would write a similar kind of praise-song structured around Eddie's contributions.)

In the end, the goal is get you moving, to compel the hips, but what a mysterious science that is, to dance with the drums that way, and to infect the whole band with this breath and easyness and feather-light unperturbedness, which at the same time drops a huge thudding anchor down through the very heart of the music. It's just one instrument, but it's the key instrument, the one that serves as the WD-40, the grease in the gears. Alex Van Halen's drumming here and elsewhere on Truth (try "She's the Woman"—dear God, those hi-hats…) epitomizes the paradox of an entire style and school of rock-music-making: You do the heavy-lifting so that the listener can feel light. Art is the concealment of art, yes, but the art is there if you're looking, and the machinery is so very ingenious, a construction that aims right for your caveman mind, that makes you feel lighter, maybe even high, in the narcotic sense, but that you can also enjoy with both feet firmly planted. That is the self-effacing labor of great populist rock & roll, which I've rarely loved more dearly than on this big, gracious bear-hug of a record.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Live from New York, etc.

A review of Wednesday night's Tool show at the Izod Center, with pics by Laal.

I loved Tool in middle school, but I never really pegged them as a band that would hang around this long, and mean as much as they do to so many. Tool represents a substantial continuation of the prog tradition, and as demonstrated by the sold-out Izod show, their work also functions as great pop: metal-oriented but not necessarily -governed; there's just as much psychedelia and art rock, not to mention alt-rock, in there; and don't forget that Maynard is Joni Mitchell–obsessed. If all you know of them is "Sober," you owe it to yourself to hear Lateralus.


And a preview of tonight's Jozef Van Wissem/Jim Jarmusch show at Issue Project Room. I've loved Jarmusch almost as long as I've loved Tool, but until I heard Concerning the Entrance Into Eternity, his new record with Van Wissem, I never really thought of him as a musician. Re: Van Wissem, I've enjoyed his last few records a whole lot, but this one might be my favorite. Check out a track from Concerning at Brooklyn Vegan.


Lastly, Bill Ward's comment on the sorry state of the Black Sabbath reunion pains me. Somebody needs to fix this; Ward is not only a total gentleman, but one of rock's greatest drummers. I really hope that business nonsense doesn't get in the way of my only chance to see the original Sabbath onstage.