Friday, September 5, 2014

A 50-50 Chance of Good Music

We’re calling it a belated 50th birthday bash in the 50th Ward, but it’s really just an excuse for two not-so-young-anymore guys to play some music on a Saturday night in one of our favorite local pubs.

On Saturday, September 20, when I regroup with my Tele-slinging pal Steve Doyle at McKellin’s Pub, he and I will both be 50 years old. (Stevie turns 50 later this month; I crossed -- okay, stumbled across -- that bridge at the end of July.) To celebrate our collective century of service, we’ll serve up three hours of rock-‘n-roll and honky-tonk classics for the assembled West Rogers Park masses.

Given our advanced ages and high co-pays, Stevie and I will likely scale back a lot of the trademark choreography that put us on the pop culture map when we were in our mid-40s. And bathroom breaks that once took place between sets may now take place between songs, or (heaven help us) between verses.

Other than that, you’ll be treated to the same type of high-octane -- but possibly Low T -- performance that we’ve been delivering at bars and bar mitzvahs across the city for years. If you’ve never seen Mr. Doyle play the guitar, you’re in for a treat. He’s one of the best in Chicago.

We'll do our best to honor your musical requests (although it is getting harder to remember lyrics and chord changes), and we fully expect to be joined throughout the evening by a number of special musical guests.

Hope to see you at McKellin’s Pub, 2800 W. Touhy Avenue, on Saturday, September 20. All the fun starts at 8 p.m. There’s no cover charge and parking is a snap.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Eighteen Hours and Counting . . .

I'm an old guy, so most of the music I own takes up space on my basement shelves, not on clouds or hard drives. But I'm no Luddite, and over time I've managed to load plenty of CDs onto my computer, so I can then enjoy that music on a portable listening device while commuting, exercising, or tuning out my kids.

I'm also no stranger to assembling playlists, having wasted a lot of my high school and college years carefully piecing together countless mix tapes. But my mix tapes generally maxed out at 90 minutes, and most of my digital playlists these days run no longer than two or three hours.

Then I started re-reading Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles by David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren.

I bought the book about ten years ago, largely on the strength of the authors' previous work for the now-defunct No Depression magazine, and I return to it at least once a year, if only to resolve a pressing music trivia issue.

The authors plow through roughly 80 years of recorded music and make a case -- in the form of 500 mini-essays -- for ranking 500 country singles, while acknowledging at the outset the inherent subjectivity and arbitrariness involved in any such undertaking. (Spoiler alert: the authors give top billing to Sammi Smith's 1970 recording of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night.") Their larger goal is to dig into and discuss 500 significant songs, their singers, and the musical backdrop against which those records were made.

Country "purists" may wonder why a list of great country singles includes recordings by Tony Bennett, Bruce Springsteen, Slim Harpo, and Gladys Knight & the Pips, but the authors aren't genre purists and they offer sound explanations for each choice.

I grabbed Heartaches off my bookshelf last week to look up some information about a classic Stanley Brothers record -- "Rank Stranger" (#9) -- and then, after finding my answer, I kept turning the pages. I started thinking that I probably owned most of the music discussed in the book and had likely already loaded a good chunk of it onto my computer.

As it turns out, I do own a lot the music discussed in the book, but I'd only loaded about one-third of it onto my computer. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that second key fact until I'd already decided to assemble a Heartaches playlist.

I've not yet finished the list, but I've made a reasonably thorough pass through my CD collection and cobbled together nearly 400 of the 500 songs. It took some effort, given the stacks and stacks of discs in my basement. I know I'll never get back the 15 minutes I spent sifting through piles of CDs for Moon Mullican's recording of "I'll Sail My Ship Alone," but I knew the disc was still in my house, and I'm nothing if not persistent.

A lot of the fun I had assembling this playlist came from digging out some superb records that I don't listen to often enough. A few that come to mind are "Begging to You" by Marty Robbins (#98), "Stratosphere Boogie" (#206) by Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, and Swamp Dogg's version of Joe South's "These Are Not My People" (#410).

I have no plans to acquire the songs that aren't in my collection. Some of them aren't my cup of tea (Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine"); others seem too obscure to hunt down (Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live").

But the tunes I have assembled make for a country playlist on steroids. Clocking in at just over 18 hours, this compilation will keep me entertained for some time.

And I owe it all to a good book.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

That's What I Like About the South

It’s not what I’d call a holiday tradition -- it’s more like an end-of-the-year ritual for me -- but it’s definitely something I look forward to doing every December.

That’s when I dig into Oxford American’s Annual Southern Music Issue.

If you’re a music geek or you’re looking for a last-minute gift for the music geek in your life, hustle over to your local newsstand and pick up a copy. Thirteen bucks gets you a lot of great writing and plenty of top-shelf music.

This year’s theme is the “The Music of Tennessee,” and the tie that binds the essays and recordings this time around appears to be the zip codes of recording studios, not the birthplaces of the artists who cut at them. (Folks like B.B. King, Charlie Rich, Al Green, Otis Redding, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Ann Peebles waxed some classic sides in Tennessee, but they weren’t born in the Volunteer State.)

If you’d enjoy pumping quarters into a jukebox that allows you to jump from Isaac Hayes to Connie Smith to Big Maybelle to Big Star, you’ll enjoy the 2-CD set that comes with the magazine.

As for the writing, Oxford American always keeps the bar high. Whether it’s prose penned by music writers like Joe Nick Patoski and Robert Gordon or by music makers like Rosanne Cash and Jim Dickinson, you’ll read and re-read a lot of these pieces. (I keep back issues of OA’s Southern Music Issue on one of my bookshelves, and I regularly return to that musical well.)

Thirteen bucks not only gets you fifty songs, it gets you session bassist Norbert Putnam’s account of playing on a sham 1970 recording session that Elvis Presley set up to fool his wife, Priscilla.

Elvis may be dead, but print isn’t and neither are CDs. Go buy the issue.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving . . .

For damn near each of the last fifteen years, I've spent the night before Thanksgiving making music with friends in any number of watering holes around town.

This year will be no exception.

On Wednesday, November 27, my buddy Steve Doyle and I will once again set up shop at McKellin's Pub in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood for (at least) three hours of old-time rock-n-roll and honky-tonk classics. We fully expect to be joined by any number of special musical guests.

All the fun starts at 6:30 p.m., parking is a snap, and there's no cover charge. Hope to see you at McKellin's, 2800 W. Touhy, as we kick off the long holiday weekend among friends.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Takin' It to the Streets

It was an easy decision for me.

First, the Bears don't play on Sunday, October 13.

Second, I'm not running the 2013 Chicago Marathon, which also takes place that day. Truth be told, I swore off marathon running at age 8, after watching an impostor steal Frank Shorter's thunder at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

So when a friend recently asked me to play music on October 13 in conjunction with "Art Round Trip," a Sunday afternoon tour of Rogers Park studios, galleries and exhibitions, I signed on.

But I did so only after enlisting an actual artist, my friend Brian Wilkie, to play this "arts" event with me. ("Art Round Trip" is sponsored by the Rogers Park Arts Alliance.)

Brian's one of Chicago's in-demand, A-list guitar players and it's always a treat -- and a learning experience -- for me to play music with him. Over the years, the man's shared stages with musical heavyweights from A (Alison Krauss) to Z (Zoot Sims). In his younger days, he worked professionally in Nashville with folks like Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan.

In any event, Brian and I will set up shop on the street in front of Xoro, a gallery located at 1228 W. Loyola Avenue, near the Loyola El stop. Should the weather look dicey that day, we'll play inside Xoro.

We'll be rockin' and rollin' from noon until 2 p.m. There's no cover charge. We may have some special musical guests, and we certainly hope to see you out and about.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Voice I No Longer Hear

I've got a pretty good ear for voices. Ten seconds into a recording, I can usually tell you that we’re listening to Faron Young or Carla Thomas or Jimmy Witherspoon or Shirley Horn.

In fact, just by typing those names, I can instantly conjure up the sounds of their singing (and, in some cases, speaking) voices.

But I realized today that I'm having a hard time remembering what my dad's voice sounded like.

Carla Thomas? I last heard her voice -- on record, mind you -- probably a month ago. My dad's voice? I haven't heard it since the morning of September 25, 1978.

Unlike Carla, my dad wasn't a recording artist, so I can't pull a CD off my shelf when I want to hear his baritone. And YouTube is no help because my dad died before we became a nation that videotaped everything.

I can't remember what we said to each other on that warm September morning, but I'm sure we had some rushed conversation while he got ready for work and I got ready for school. Had you told me then that it was going to be the last time I got to talk with him, rest assured I'd remember our exchange 35 years later.

I am still able to revisit many of the conversations that we had over the years; it's just the distinct tonal qualities of his voice I'm struggling to recall.

Johnny Hartman? I can hear his voice in my head in a split second. My own dad? That's a different story.

Luckily, though, I still remember tooling around Alsip, Illinois with him on a Saturday morning back in 1972. We were listening to the AM radio in our white 1965 Ford Galaxie 500. I was in the front seat (no seat belt) singing along with Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now." When the song ended, my dad gently told me, "Matt, it's 'I can see all obstacles in my way.' It’s not 'all popsicles in my way.'" That, of course, launched him into an entertaining talk on oft-misunderstood lyrics in pop music.

I remember being 9 or 10 years old and sitting with him on a Saturday morning in a booth at a diner in Burlington, Iowa. He explained the pick-and-roll to me using salt and pepper shakers and a ketchup bottle. Our waitress walked by the table several times and seemed to have no idea what my dad was doing.

I also remember talking to him a year or so later while we drove home from a Hy-Vee grocery store in Burlington. My then-unemployed dad explained to me why he had just paid for our family's groceries using something called "food stamps."

That stuck with me -- the same way I hope a similar conversation I had 7 or 8 years ago with my now 21-year-old daughter sticks with her. She and I were discussing the need for certain government programs that had recently been in the headlines. Until that particular conversation, she'd had no idea that she was a public aid baby. Neither her mother nor I had health insurance -- or even incomes -- when she was born. I wanted to provide my teenage daughter (by then, the child of two practicing lawyers) with some perspective. Did it sink in? Time will tell.

Back to my dad. I remember sitting with him at our kitchen table in Villa Park, Illinois in 1977 or early 1978. We were eating breakfast and somehow we started talking about death. (This was just a random conversation. My dad wasn't sick, and his fatal heart attack months later at age 39 came out of the blue.) During our conversation he mentioned two books that I eventually got around to reading years after his death. One was Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One"; the other was Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death."

What I remember most about that conversation was my dad telling me that the funeral industry was a racket. Salesmen, he said, pushed people into making the third biggest purchase of their lives (behind houses and cars) at a point when buyers were least able to make rational consumer decisions.

He told me he wanted no part of that. "Put me in a pine box," he said.

Fast-forward to September 26 or 27, 1978. While my newly-widowed 37-year-old mom scrambled to find matching white shirts for each of her five boys to wear to the funeral later that week, I babbled to her about Jessica Mitford, pine boxes, and that relatively recent breakfast conversation I'd had with my dad.

I must have been a pain in the ass at 14.

Back when I could still remember the sound of my dad's voice.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Raise Your Hand

It's not often I get to combine two of my passions -- music and the fight for quality public schools -- but on Tuesday, February 21, the planets are going to line up to allow me that opportunity.

The good folks at Raise Your Hand, a grass-roots group of parents, educators and concerned citizens dedicated to ensuring their voices are heard on issues relating to public education, are hosting a fundraiser at Revolution Brewing, 2323 N. Milwaukee Avenue. (Disclosure: I recently -- and happily -- agreed to join RYH's Board of Directors, largely because I've been so impressed by the group's work in Chicago and Springfield.)

My guitar-slinging pal Steve Doyle and I are going to play music at the RYH event, and we hope to be joined that night by a couple of special guests -- Chicago harp guru James Conway and bassist Mark Blade, who many of us still remember from his work with the Crown Royals.

Guitar ace Steve Doyle always classes up my act.

Tickets for the event are $40 in advance and $50 at the door. You'll get drinks, appetizers and great conversation from 7-9 p.m., but our makeshift combo will continue to play music until 10 p.m. Reserve your tickets here.

I'll be shocked if I ever learn that RYH's founders dug through their record collections before deciding to name their group Raise Your Hand, but rest assured that it's almost impossible to keep me from doing what I can to help any group that's named after a classic tune by Stax soul man Eddie Floyd.

Hope to see you at Revolution Brewing on February 21

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Meet The Electric Rebel Monkeys

Like most financially strapped Chicago public schools, my youngest daughter's grade school is always trying to raise money. A few months ago, as part of a silent auction, I offered to conduct a songwriting/recording workshop for two small groups of kids.

The first group, now known as The Electric Rebel Monkeys, just completed their original song, "Stop Driving Us Crazy." The Monkeys are three CPS students (2nd grade, 3rd grade, and 6th grade) whom I had never met until they showed up at my house one day last spring.

Before they ever got around to christening themselves The Electric Rebel Monkeys, the kids spent a couple of Saturday mornings talking with me about songs, poems, and rock-n-roll. We listened to old records and talked about song structure. Most of all, we had fun.

Eventually, the kids put pen to paper and knocked out their song, telling their parents (in jest, of course) to get off their backs. As you can see from the video, these kids rock, and they had a ball rocking out.

Every time the Monkeys came to my house, I was reminded why we need to make sure we have music and art in our public schools. All kids should have the chance to sit around a table and brainstorm about song ideas. Not because they need to become musicians or songwriters, but just because it's a great way for kids to learn about teamwork, effective communication, storytelling, and constructive criticism.

Along the way, the Monkeys also needed to reach deep inside themselves to tap into vocal abilities they weren't sure they had at the start of this project. There's certainly something to be said for getting the opportunity to take those kinds of risks in a safe environment.

Finally, the kids learned that it's simply a lot of fun to create something from nothing. That's why "Stop Driving Us Crazy" by The Electric Rebel Monkeys is this week's "pick to click."


Stop driving us crazy
We're doing our best
Quit saying were lazy
Just give it a rest

You give me spinach every night
To make me big and strong
I don't want another bite
The taste is so wrong


You make me study every day
Until my brain is gonna burst
But all I wanna do is play
'Cause homework is the worst


You throw me in the bath
To get me squeaky clean
I start to feel your wrath
Do you have to be so mean?


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Forgive Them, Levi, For They Know Not What They Do

I spend very little time listening to music on commercial radio, and that's been the case for years. Yesterday afternoon I was again reminded why I avoid this (generally) pre-programmed dreck at all costs.

Around 2:00 p.m., I found myself stuck in someone else's car for a mercifully short ride, listening to Chicago's WLS-FM, which is now an oldies station. After a few commercials and a station identification break, the instantly recognizable intro to "Bernadette" by The Four Tops blasted through the Mazda's speakers.

I was pumped.

Few singers can match the power and emotion of the late Levi Stubbs, and I consider his performance of "Bernadette" to be one of the most powerful three-minute songs ever committed to vinyl.

Levi's passion and desperation build throughout the recording, until the song hits its climax at about the 2:38 mark.

That's when time stops.

There's silence.

Levi then lets loose a final anguished cry for his woman, after which the band (led by James Jamerson's driving bass) and the background singers bring it all home during the record's last twenty seconds.

I've listened to this record hundreds of times over the years, and every time I hear it, I anxiously await that pause, that final roar, and that outro.

Lord only knows who was turning the knobs yesterday at WLS-FM, but just as Levi dug deep for his last plea to Bernadette, the radio guy abruptly faded out the song at about the 2:40 mark.

But this guy wasn't content just to paint his own musical mustache on a Motown "Mona Lisa"; he added insult to injury by hurriedly halting Levi's masterwork simply to get to the next record.

Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Memphis In The Meantime

About five years ago, I was killing part of an evening in the Columbus, Ohio airport. Typical business trip. Suit and tie, brief case, bad airport food -- the whole deal. I'd just finished taking the deposition of a hydrogeologist, who had spent the better part of eight hours trying to duck and dodge my questions. My brain was fried, and I was looking forward to napping on the plane ride home.

Just before boarding, I got a phone call from Mark Morse. Mark is one of my youngest brother's buddies, and (like me) he's a music geek and a hack guitar player. He was calling to tell me that he was heading down to Memphis the following week to produce a record by Rockin' Billy & The Wild Coyotes, a top-shelf Chicago rockabilly band.

Mark had already blocked out studio time at the historic Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, and he now wanted to know whether I'd be interested in coming down there with a couple of my friends to check out the session. He knew that geeks like us consider Sam Phillips Recording Service to be sacred ground. He also asked whether I could coax my old Missouri-based horn section, The St. Louis Horns, into making the trip south down I-55, so that Rockin' Billy could put some horns on a couple of his tunes.

The Yardbirds, John Prine, Charlie Rich, and Sam the Sham all cut here.

Mark didn't need to ask twice. The next week we were all there.

We hung out at the studio by day and had a ball. Since a few of the guys had never before been to Memphis, we also made it a point to hit some of the city's hotspots: Sun Studio, the Stax Museum, Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, etc.

I learned a lot about recording by watching Rockin' Billy and his boys cut a whole slew of great sides. And at some point, when their band was taking a break, my friends and I got behind the microphones and did our own quick take on an Eddie Cochran classic, which, thanks to the YouTube link below, is finally seeing the light of day. Rockin' Billy was even a good enough sport to play electric guitar on the track for us.

Did I mention that the man behind the glass working the faders while we recorded was none other than Roland Janes?

I sit in awe of the great Roland Janes.

Mr. Janes is a rock-n-roll legend, having played guitar on most of the 100+ sides that Jerry Lee Lewis cut for Sun Records. It was a real treat to meet him and to talk with him about music.

But he wasn't the only heavy-hitter at the studio that week. We also got to spend some quality time with the late Dale Hawkins (whose "Susie-Q" has been a radio staple for fifty years).

Mark Morse, Dale Hawkins, and I mug for TMZ.

In addition, we got to listen to and learn from Hayden Thompson, another of the original Sun rockabilly cats.

Hangin' with Hayden Thompson.

It was one of those strange, unplanned adventures that keeps life interesting.