Music that just fries me
October 2006 installment
This is a new feature I'm inaugurating, to be repeated irregularly. In the last year or two I have made so many really thrilling musical discoveries, I'm about to explode. There are some people out there who are just so fucking good that it causes me physical pain to think that you might not have been hipped to them yet--for both your sake and theirs. There is so much junk music around these days, you need to hear about the good stuff, and it needs you to hear about it. I intend to give it as much time as I can spare, until the job is done, which hopeably will be never.
Let's get right to it. Here are, in no particular order, some musicmakers I'm afraid you might not have heard of already, who are so good it just isn't fair: some of the people I'll be listening to as I write my next novel VERY HARD CHOICES. Choosing among them is itself a very hard choice.
Todd Butler I think Todd is one of the most intelligent songwriters working, and any time he wants to be he's definitely the funniest, and he sings so well he'd have a career if all he could do was covers of other peoples' tunes...but that's not enough for this sumbitch. Oh no, he has to also be a guitar-player as versatile, as educated, as creative, and as diabolically fast, as David Bromberg or Adrian Legg. Thank God he's extremely ugly or he'd have to be killed.
We just became friends a few weeks ago after I introduced him on the mainstage of the 2006 Vancouver Island Musicfest, but I've been a fan of his work since his collaborations with my favorite dobro player Doug Cox, DOBRO AND GUITAR and LIVE BLUES. He spent 8 years in Vancouver, then came to his senses and moved to a farm on Vancouver Island, and he has just released a new CD so cool I keep playing it obsessively called IDLE CANADIAN--one of those where you can't even list standout tracks because every one is a standout.
Todd is smart and clever and wise, and angry and funny--and so damn fast, a Doppler effect sets in and his bluegrass gets redshifted into purplegrass. Don't miss his next CD, an instrumental tour de force called GUITAR FRAZZ, basically FolkRockJazz with a few other flavors thrown in. www.toddbutler.com
V.M. Bhatt If you've seen the DVD called A CONCERT FOR GEORGE--the party Eric Clapton threw at the Albert Hall one year after George Harrison had to go--then you've almost certainly noticed Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt already. The evening opens with a lovely piece called "Arpan," composed by Ravi Shankar and conducted by his brilliant daughter Anoushka (were you aware that Norah Jones is the less -talented, less -stunningly-beautiful sister? Sorry, Norah, but it's true), which involved dozens of Indian musicians and a few Western players. And there in the midst of the Indian musicians sits a man of such profound spiritual radiance that he would draw the eye even if he were not playing Indian classical music on what appears to be a slide guitar, played on his lap Jeff-Healey-style!
In fact it is not a slide guitar but an amazing and powerful instrument of his own invention based on one: the mohan veena. Fortunately whoever wrote the DVD liner notes was as ignorant as I, and listed Mohan Bhatt as playing a slide guitar--if it had been correctly identified I'd never have found his name when, fascinated, I looked for it.
I'm glad I did. How good is V.M. Bhatt? Put it this way: the day he met Ry Cooder, they chatted awhile, and then tuned up their instruments and spent the next several hours winning a Grammy together, for their stunning album MEETING BY THE RIVER.
He went on to record equally amazing CDs with Taj Mahal, and with Jerry Douglas, and one especially haunting one called TABULA RASA with Bela Fleck and Chinese erhu player Jie Bing Chen, which would be memorable even if it were not said to be the first time an Indian and a Chinese have ever recorded together.
Wonderful as these crosscultural pollinations are, and they are, I hope they will not keep you from sampling Pandit Bhatt's principal lick: Indian classical music. That's what we got at the Musicfest last month: straightahead raga by Mohan, and his equally gifted son Salil--playing his own ingenious mutant creation, the satvik veena--and Ramkumesh Mishra, a tabla player with both the speed and the infectious joy of Allah Rakha himself. Facing a crowd that had mostly come to hear blues, folk, bluegrass and country, they pulled off one of those cluster-orgasm deals where spontaneous ovation after spontaneous ovation finally brings the crowd roaring to its feet. Amazon.com lists numerous CDs; one especially nice one is called SAMADHI.
NEWS FLASH!!! October 2006, my good friend Doug Cox (the great dobro player who runs the superb Vancouver Island Music Festival mentioned above--which is where I met the Bhatts this summer) just completed recording a new album with Salil and Mohan, tentatively titled SLIDE TO FREEDOM...and it looks like they're going to be going out on tour together! I've heard the rough mixes, and in my opinion this album is even better than the one with Ry Cooder; Doug's style meshes a little better with Salil's and Mohan's. You can see a video of them in rehearsal on the YouTube site, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-YFtFbqXTI.
And please don't overlook Doug's own superb albums, including a couple with Todd Butler, which you can learn about at http://www.dougcox.org .
Watermelon Slim How come this guy is not world famous already I cannot imagine. Why it took me this long to stumble across him, I'll never know. Apparently he's spent most of his life pushing rig, gear-jamming--and that right there might just be the single most bitter complaint that can be made against the music industry of the late 20th century: that they could permit a talent like Watermelon Slim to go unrecorded for so long. Trust me when I say, Slim is just plain it. The Real Deal. The greatest living bluesman, black or white, no contest.
Or don't trust me; I probably wouldn't. Go to http://www.watermelonslim.com/multimedia.asp , and just download one of the video clips from his DVD RIPE FOR THE PICKING--either "Smokestack Lightning" for guitar, or "Little Girl" for mouth harp. That oughta do it.
Slim has a face like an aerial relief map of West Texas, or an ultracloseup on whatever is the oldest remaining piece of Highway 61. He plays slide guitar Mohan Bhatt-style, whacking away on it on his lap-- lefthanded . He blows harp like the real Sonny Boy Williamson. And he sings like...well, like every other blues singer wishes they sang.
A.J. Croce Okay, he's not a new discovery, even for me. But I just caught up with him, after a few years of inattention, and find that he has totally reinvented himself. He literally doesn't sound like the same guy--which has pissed off a few of his dumber fans.
He doesn't have a choice, dudes. He started out with a Tom Waits whiskey-and-cigarettes voice, a great one. And then three or four excellent albums in, he simply blew it out. One day his entire throat emerged, fell wetly to the studio floor, and slithered away before anyone could stop it. The cat had to literally teach himself to sing all over again with a totally different voice.
The good news is, he did it brilliantly, came up with a new voice which, while quite different, is as good...and happened to time it just as his already-superb songwriting suddenly took a quantum jump, and his piano skills peaked. He's now coming up with irresistible hooks and ingenious arrangements as effortlessly as Sir Paul. Look for CDs like CANTOES or TRANSIT. And then hunt down the old ones like A.J. CROCE or THAT'S ME IN THE BAR, with classic tunes like, "He's Got A Way With Women--And He Just Got Away With Mine." In either incarnation, I rate him higher than his late father Jim, of whom I was always a major fan. http://www.ajcroce.com/
Maria Rita I am very fond of Brazilian music, and have been since Stan Getz was kind enough to turn us all onto the genius of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto. But my latest discovery is just so good I can barely stand it: the great Maria Rita of Sao Paolo.
Her mother was Elis Regina, the most famous singer in Brazilian history, so famous a dozen of her albums are just called ELIS and nobody in Brazil has any trouble telling them apart. She died tragically young after some moron American introduced her to cocaine. Maria's father César Camargo Mariano is also hugely famous as a composer/arranger/keyboardist.
Maria released her first, self-titled album a few years ago--and it is so superb, it was nominated for 8 Latin Grammies: 3 for her, and 5 for her lover/mentor/arranger Tom Capone. On Grammy night, she won all three of hers....Tom lost all 5 of his....and on his way home that night alone on his motorcycle, he was T-boned by a drunk in a Camaro and killed.
Her second album, SEGUNDO, was released last year, and it is just too outstanding to describe in words. The first one comes with a DVD of Maria in performance...but SEGUNDO comes with a DVD of her actually recording those tracks , so you can watch the arrangements grow before your eyes.
How can I describe her? Her voice would give a deaf man an erection. Her face would make a blind man laugh aloud. Her body would make a quadriplegic get up and dance the boogaloo. Just take my word for it and check her out.
http://www.mariaritamariano.net/htdocs/home.asp may help you...if you speak or can puzzle out Portuguese. Like her mother Elis, Maria doesn't record in English. If you can't hack Portuguese, just google her up.