Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Happy Birthday Elmore James

Elmore James was born on this date 91 years ago in Holmes County, Mississippi. Elmo is, arguably, the second most influential post War (II) blues artist, behind only Muddy Waters. Far more than the one trick pony some make him out to be, his innovative slide work influenced generations of guitarists and his home-made electronics propelled to new levels the nascent role of the electric guitar in Chicago blues. Musicians and historians tend to concentrate their study on Elmo's guitar work, but his song writing ability and his powerful, gravely voice were every bit as important. Enjoy a clip of his original, Done Somebody Wrong for his birthday. 

Monday, January 26, 2009

Song of the Week: "The Streets of Bakersfield", Buck Owens & the Buckeroos

A couple of years ago I found myself bar-hopping on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee with a friend of mine named Jeff. It's a pretty cool experience as bar after bar has a band playing and rarely is there ever a cover. Truth be told, however, most of the music is pretty bland. It quickly became difficult to distinguish one Wrangler Jeans wearing, nasally-voiced, soft edged country singer from the next. Then, somewhere around the 8th bar we entered that night, we found a band that was a little different. Inside Robert's Western, Ike Johnson and the Roadhouse Rangers were tearing through a set of honky tonk numbers that proved a twangy guitar and pedal steel still had a place in Nashville. Five dollars in their tip jar will get you pretty much any song you want to hear. I had $5 and I had a hankering to hear a little something from Buck Owens and the Buckeroos as Buck had just died a few weeks earlier. Without hesitation the band broke into a Buck number. Two Bud Light Swilling cowboys began booing and yelled out "that ain't country" as the song was finished. Ike Johnson retorted with a, and I paraphrase, "if Buck ain't country, then nothing is."

Buck Owens and the Buckeroos were very much country. But, as my story illustrates, they weren't ever part of the Nashville machine that produced increasingly clinically clean music. The Buckeroos were the leaders of a very different sound. A honky tonk sound that brought in rock-n-roll and pop elements with flawless two-part harmonies, stunningly catchy melodies, and jaw-dropping Telecaster work. The country sound they created became known as the Bakersfield Sound, so named for the dirty California town the Buckeroos called home. And that sound (also preached by fellow Bakersfield musician, Merle Haggard) would become wildly popular despite it's arm's-length distance from Nashville. Starting in 1963, the Buckeroos  reached the #1 spot on the country charts with Act Naturally, (do click on that link just to see the heavy lady eating chicken during the song!) a song The Beatles would cover just the next year. Before it was all done, the band would go on to have an impressive 20 #1 hits on the country charts. Buck's clean and  compelling voice had a lot to do with that success. But the band had a lot to do with it as well. Buck Owens and the Buckeroos were a singular cohesive unit until 1971, when bassist and vocalist Doyle Holly departed. Tom Brumley laid down some juicy pedal steel. And no real music fan, or guitarist, would forget to mention the powerful work of Buckeroo guitarist Don Rich. Rich was just important to the Buckeroos as was Buck. Rich's guitar work is nothing less than groundbreaking with deep, fast, melodic Telecaster work that would come to signify the Bakersfield sound more than anything else. And his vocal ability rivaled Buck's and complimented Buck's as this video of him taking the lead on Wham Bam demonstrates. In fact the two built a musical synergy that made each other greater. The brilliant guitarist, Buck Owens often demurring to the guitar work of Don Rich and the more than capable vocalist, Rich, complimenting Owens' lead vocals with his own falsetto vocals. To point, the two musicians were so integral to the total sound that the two shared center stage at all time, often sharing the same microphone. All this can be seen in this great live performance of My Heart Skips A Beat as introduced by Jimmy Dean.

Don Rich passed away in 1974 in an auto accident and the Buckeroos were never the same. Our Song of the Week is one of the last song's Rich ever recorded with the Buckeroos. The song, written by Homer Joy in 1972 is about life in the dirty cattle and oil town of Bakersfield California. The Song is The Streets of Bakersfield.  In it Rich beautifully compliments Owens' vocals with pitch-perfect harmonies. The pianist lays down a great bass-heavy backbone to the song (listen at 1:27 as the piano moves to the fore) and Brumley decorates the song with beautiful fills. But the real beauty of the song is Rich's Spanish influenced guitar riff (doubled by Brumley) which gives the song it's distinctive, south of the border feel. I hope you enjoy Buck Owens and the Buckeroo's Streets of Bakersfield. If you like it, there are about 50 more of their songs that you will like just as much.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Original Song Project: Jack Hayden, Screwed Tight

Here's an instrumental I recorded a while back. It's an open tuning (DADF#AD) played on a Martin OM-21. Basically I liked the opening phrasing and thought I might improvise off it, recorded it once and forgot about it. Later, it stood out as a decent recording ....

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Flip-Side Original Song Project: "The Last Dance at Ipatiev" by Morgan Young

In the spirit of "never ask someone to do something you yourself are not willing to do," I'll be the first to post an original song. The song is an instrumental entitled The Last Dance at Ipatiev,
and, in addition to my "musicianship", features a one-word contribution from my daughter, Olivia. It includes two guitar tracks, one piano track and one triangle track. (Yep, a whole track for my son's toy triangle.) The guitar is a 1999 Gibson SJ200 and the piano is an 1800's era piano that came with our house. She's out-of-tune, but I kinda like it that way. I hope you enjoy. Bonus points for anyone who can decipher the title.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Flip-Side Original Song Project!

Send us your songs. It can be a one track recording of you and your magic flute or it can be a professionally produced, multi-track song of your whole band. Or anywhere in-between. The only MUSTS are that it is you, and it can NOT be published or under copyright in any way. If you can host the song on your server, we can point the link to it. If not, just email me the MP3 and we will take care of it for you. Write up a nice little description of your song and send us a picture to go along with it.

Send songs to morganyoungideas[at]gmail[dot]com.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Song of the Week: "Country Blues", The Tarbox Ramblers

Happy Martin Luther King day flip-siders. Me and the whole flip-side clan spent the day skiing and returned home to 65 degree temperatures...meaning lots of guitar, cigars and beer in the backyard. You thought I might forget about you today, didn't you? Never. Without further wait, on to our Song of the Week.

A number of years ago, when I was living the BlackBerry life in Washington DC, I found myself waking from a 6-hour sleep I chiseled out for myself on the way home from a 24-hour biz trip that took me to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I landed at National Airport at about 10:30p on a Friday, wide awake and knowing my family would be sound asleep. "So", I say to myself, "let's see what's happening down at Iota", one of DC's best intimate music venues. I dropped $10 for a band I had never heard of before and headed for Iota's well stocked bar. About 90 minutes later I got through some crap-ass gloom and doom Emo bands and was starting to think to myself, "maybe it's time to call it a night and head home." But the equipment on stage had my interest piqued. There were two Supro guitars -- both with Montgomery Wards' Airline badge plates -- and a behemoth of a Silvertone twin twelve amp (I can't remember if Valco or Danelectro made these, but they are crispy-tasty).

About this time the headline band took the stage. They were, that night at least, a 5-piece band from Boston calling themselves the Tarbox Ramblers. The band lined up behind their instruments: a stand-up bass (always a good sign!) a minimal drum kit (again, another good sign), a fiddle player, a guest guitarist who looked like he was impersonating Dana Carvey impersonating Gary Busey impersonating Buddy Holly (you still with me?) and the owner of those Airlines, singer and guitarist, Michael Tarbox. The follicle challenged Tarbox sat down with a glass of whiskey in his hand, adjusted his red tartan flannel hunter's shirt and peered out from underneath his horned rimmed glasses. If ever someone was the living embodiment of a 1950's Truman Capote serial killer from the midwest, Michael Tarbox was it. The floor tom beat and the bassist tapped on a tambourine. The Buddy Holly dude took up the maracas and the band opened with a five-part harmony gut bucket version of Stewball that had me knowing the wait was worth it. Tarbox's deep, gravely voice scraped across the aural sandpaper as the band was already breaking a sweat at two minutes into the show. But it got even better. Once Tarbox took the open-tuned Airline's for a run with deft finger picking and effortless slide play, I knew I was...in love. There. I said it. (please don't hate me for it). There are a number of great slide players out there today -- Kelly Joe Phelps or Alvin Youngblood Hart leap to mind -- but Michael Tarbox plays with a grit that the others seem to lack. He oozes a primal passion for the music that makes every performance feel as fresh as a load of laundry done with two doses of Snuggles Brand fabric softener (and that is some mad, crazy Spring Fresh!).

Since that first spur of the moment night, I have probably seen the Tarbox Ramblers 15 times (though, sadly never here in Boulder, Colorado). I have NEVER been disappointed at one of their shows. Impassioned and well performed, they are a revolving cast of characters centered around Tarbox's ample original work and his bottomless song-well of traditional blues, gospel and hillbilly songs.

Picking just ONE of their songs is tough but today's Song of the Week is the third song on the Tarbox Ramblers second (of 2) album, A Fix Back East. The song is an old Dock Boggs number called Country Blues which the bottom-heavy Ramblers inject with a dose of caffeine and take it to blistering heights. I hope you enjoy. And I hope you get a chance to see The Tarbox Ramblers soon. And if you're real nice, they may even update the website with some new news and tour dates and even a new, ahem, album.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Busker Days: Cocaine Blues

It had been a rather steady task for some time: log out, elevator down, hit the street, turn left, walk down Post to Montgomery BART, slide my ticket through the turnstile, get on the right train, get off at the right station, call home, then get on my bike and get on home.

One day it all changed when Johnny Cash was playing at my station. No joke!

OK, it wasn’t exactly the man in black, but to my ears it didn’t matter. This was the real deal, as if Johnny himself anointed this rough and tumble busker every day to play it right. The whole catalogue was at hand, so it seemed, from Sun to American, and he was quite a regular performer too, this prolific, pink-haired punker. I’d say two days a week I could count on him … and have to pony up. For a year and a half and more he played the hits, but he also played songs I didn’t know, so I began to wonder. Put him to the request test I thought, something a little less known. I plopped a buck in his case and asked him if he could do Train of Love, an early Cash-penned song I had been learning on my own time. No pause at all and he nails it!

One day I introduce myself and ask him - Jesse Morris is his name it turns out - for recording privileges, to which he kindly obliges. Listen here to Jesse’s kick-ass version of Cocaine Blues, a song made famous by Johnny on his At Folsom Prison live album released in May, 1968, which, Jesse kindly informed me, was written and recorded by one T.J. Arnall in 1947.

Although I haven’t seen Jesse too much lately (this was my first busker recording, by the way) and when I have seen him he is just as likely to be playing punk as he is Cash, I would be happy to make a request for you (and perhaps make a recording). What’s your request?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Song of the Week: "Rope Stretchin' Blues", Blind Blake

Very little is known about our Song of the Week artist. He recorded under the name of Blind Blake and was probably born as Arthur Blake, though some claim his name was Arthur Phelps. Where he was born, when he was born (late 1800's is all we know) and where and when he died are all a matter of vagueness. The only fact known for sure about Blind Blake is that he recorded 79 songs for Paramount Records between 1926 and 1932. Further, we can confirm the one and only known photograph of a nattily dressed Blind Blake was taken at his first 1926 session when he recorded Early Morning Blues and West Coast Blues for the regional label.

Beyond that, here is what is known about our hero: Blind Blake was one of, if not the best darn purveyor of Piedmont Blues ever. The only man or woman whom I can think of to challenge for the mythical "Piedmont King Crown" would be the Reverend Gary Davis. Now, what is Piedmont Blues you ask? Good question, I'm glad you asked. The Piedmont Blues is a style of finger-picking blues that closely approximates or is deeply influenced by the pre-jazz ragtime piano work of people like Scott Joplin. Generally upbeat, fast and complex, it incorporates at it's soul, an alternating bass line played with the thumb while the melody is played on the top three strings with one or more fingers. The I-IV-V blues structure that is the norm today, is not adhered to in any way. Piedmont Blues gained favor on the Eastern Seaboard south from Washington, DC to Orlando, Florida in the early 20th Century and is named after the soil rich Piedmont Plateau which stretches along the Eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains through the same area. The music was rendered obsolete by the time World War II ended and remained an obscurity played by only a handful of men and women until the early 1960's when folklorist such as John Lomax, and his son, Alan Lomax, began recording finger-pickers such as the aforementioned Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Elizabeth Cotten.

Back to Blind Blake and onto the conjecture and rumors that fill out a vague profile. There are enough nuggets of information to suggest that Blind Blake may have been from one of the the Sea Islands off of the South Carolina or Georgia coast where a Creole-like culture known alternately as Geechee or Gullah flourished replete with it's own language. Blake makes a reference to late night Geechee dances and music and even briefly sings in the Geechee language in his song, Southern Rag. Further, his accent on such words as "dance" and "match", suggests a Creole-like drawl. Geographically, Blake makes numerous references to Georgia in his songs and in one song names two streets (and one address) that are both located in the port town of Savannah, Georgia. We know that he went to Chicago and Detroit for a while and the prevailing wisdom is that he returned to the South (hear his Georgia Bound for clues on this) where he died in the 1930's. People who knew him, Such as fellow blind itinerant bluesman, Reverend Gary Davis, have said that Blake had an insatiable appetite for liquor and some have suggested that this was likely the cause of his early death.

And to our Song of the Week, Blind Blake's Rope Strething Blues. I was turned onto this song not long ago by a friend of mine who used to play this often. Ironically, the song is not terribly reflective of Blind Blake's other work. It's slower and musically less complex than other of his songs such as Police Dog Blues, Diddie Wa Diddie, or Skeedle Loo Doo Blues. As a result Rope Stretching Blues stands out from the others. Most notably because of his dramatic use of minor chords, trills and relatively minimal flourishes. It's the tale of a man who catches a backdoor man speaking sweet nothings to his woman, kills the man, lays "him out cold with his heels in a tub", gets arrested by the Sheriff and is now contemplating "...if a women worth it now." The song reaches it's dramatic pinnacle, not with words, but with, at 1:09, the A-minor to E7 trills that release into the beautiful guitar break in C-major. "Mmmmm, Rope Stretchin' all day long. And just a few more days, I'm gonna be able to sing my song."

I hope you can get past the scratchiness of the 80 year old 78rpm record, and enjoy the music beneath the pops and hisses. I think it's worth it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Song of the Week: The Undertones - Teenage Kicks

Woo Hoo! The first Song of the Week for 2009! And what a doozy it is. Today we find ourselves on a cold, rainy day standing under the awning of the front door of Austin's Department store at #2, Diamond Street in Derry (aka Londonderry), Ireland. It's 1978 and a sparkly Swedish band called Abba controls the number one slot at the music counter with a song called Take A Chance on Me. The sound of disco is ubiquitous, even here in this dark provincial town that straddles a divided country. The girl behind the record counter wears bell bottoms, a tartan scarf that tips her allegiance to the Bay City Rollers and make-up which paints a contrived happy-face in these dark, bloody days of the IRA and the UDA.

As you scan the bins you note to yourself that the music today, like the girl behind the counter, is as plastic as the crappy eight track cases their music comes in. These manufactured bands now make their debut on "Top of the Pops", not in back alley pubs serving pints to frustrated teenagers. Then you see it. A record by a local group of kids. Heck, you may even kinda know that slightly built bass player. Didn't he used to chum around with some lads you used to know. The Undertones?You look closer. "Is that Feargal Sharkey second from the right? Nah, can't be. That fay little eunuch from the church choir back in elementary school?"

You hold the 7" EP between your fingers as you look it over. You give a quick look at the plasticine girl behind the counter dressed up like a clown. You quickly re-fix your gaze back at the record. These boys look like Derry boys. They dress like you. They have your haircut. You even have those same Doc Martens boots. You take the record over to the listening booth and slip on the headphones, put the needle at the far right of the 45 and listen to the crackle of the vinyl. Boo-dum boo-dum. The drums snap the band to attention and the guitars lay down a cool -- not too rushed -- melody. It's not a melody. That's a groove. Yeah. "Holy crap. That voice. That is that Feargal freak singing! Still sounds like a eunuch, he does."

You get it. And you get it immediately. This isn't some rubbish about some bloke named "Fernando." This isn't about dreams weavers or cakes being left out in the rain...whatever that stupid song is about anyway. This is about Derry. This is about you. This is the universal truth: "Are teenage dreams so hard to beat? Everytime she walks down the street. Another girl in the neighborhood. Wish she was mine, she looks so good. I wanna hold her, wanna hold her tight. Get teenage kicks right through the night." Yes! Yes! Yes!

Just 2:26 seconds later you turn and walk out of the listening booth and cut for the counter like a man with a plan. You don't quite look at that girl and you plonk a few schillings on the counter. "The Undertones! I know these blokes. They're real cool. My brother is friends with the drummer." She self consciously giggles and lets out a snort as she does. She turns red and looks down with embarrassment. You suddenly look up and look right at her. The words are running in your head. "I need excitement and I need it bad. And it's the best I ever had." You find yourself saying something not quite true. "Yeah, me and the boys are real good friends. We go way back, we do. Played football wit 'em." The lyrics return to your head: "I'm gonna call her on the telephone. Have her over 'cause I'm all alone." A wave of blustery courage comes over you. She's not that bad, she ain't. In fact, she's kinda cute if you think about it. "I'm going to see 'em this weekend down at Spinners. You wanna, maybe, go wit me?" "Um, uh, yeah", she says in a diminishing tone. "Yeah, might be fun for some kicks."

You wanna hold her. Wanna hold her tight. Them Teenage Kicks are going to get you through the night. Oh Yeah!