- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 04 May 2012
Various Artists "Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974" Light In The Attic Records
I've always been fascinated by revolutionary political movements. Maybe I'm drawn to the theatricality of it as I have absolutely no personal frame of reference for what it feels like to take extreme political action. Or to be pushed to the point of doing so. I've lived a mostly lily white existence in a relatively docile political climate compared to what was happening prior to my birth in 1974. To that end, I may be the perfect target audience for "Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power, 1967-1974." After all, the need for a Black Power movement may have been averted entirely with a little more listening which may have produced a lot less ignorance which is probably the real root of all evil. It's hard to speak to these topics without oversimplifying them and, in my case, wading into the shallow waters of pop psychology. I don't have any training in this field, and my white middle class upbringing certainly doesn't afford me the best vantage point from which to view the Black Experience in America. So I need books and historical knowledge and cultural signposts to point me in a direction if I'm going to have a chance at even catching a glimpse of what it must be like to make one's way in this land as an oppressed minority. Luckily, "Listen, Whitey!" is a "soundtrack" to a companion book of the same name. I haven't dug into it yet. But I will.
The Black Power movement was complex and involved a diverse mixture of participants and ideologies which is reflected in the material on this double record set. The Shahid Quintet's "Invitation To Black Power (Parts 1 and 2)" is groovy with some quiet jazz as a pillow for some spoken word knowledge regarding non-violent Black Nationalism. Stokely Carmichael's "Free Huey" speech utilizes no music at all and is the opposite of pillowy. Bob Dylan's acoustic version of "George Jackson," recorded immediately following Jackson's death and released a mere two weeks later, is included on the set as is John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Angela" supporting Angela Davis who was accused of supplying guns that were used by Jackson's younger brother in a Marin County courthouse shootout. Complex times with a diverse mixture of participants, indeed. Comic genius Dick Gregory's "Black Power" stand-up catches him riffing on the connotations associated with the word "black" in America while white folk singer Roy Harper turns in "I Hate The White Man." His quote in the liners pretty much sums it all up saying that he was going to play the song in America "knowing that probably someone in the audience will get up and aim a gun at my head but, unless you can put your blood on the streets, you're not worth what you're saying." And if you don't believe him, you can ask Amiri Baraka or the Original Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron. The gang's all her.
Light In The Attic Records took this considerable project on and they made the most of it. Two heavy, quiet discs housed in a sturdy gatefold with extensive liners and photos. The cover image of a buff Huey P. Newton holding Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" encapsulates the richness of the experience perfectly. Some of the selections on "Listen" are anything but listenable, but they stand out and they make you take notice. It might not be the most comfortable sonic adventure you'll take, but it might be the most educational. And that, I think, was the goal all along.
Dr. John "Locked Down" Nonesuch
Remember that girl you had a crush on in eighth grade, but you couldn't get her to pay any attention to you until the final two weeks of the year? Remember how tortured you were waiting to get to see her again after a summer away? You didn't know if the spark was still gonna be there when you got back, but you hoped it would be just like you hoped your voice would drop an octave before you spoke to her again. (If you're a female or if you prefer the company of men, just insert whatever imagery conjures up that level of desire for you. If I knew the imagery to conjure it on my own I wouldn't have waited until the last two weeks of school to make my move. Work with me on this one, please.) Let's go back, now. Remember the anticipation that made every summer day twice as long? The weekend before the first day of class that had you so nervous you couldn't eat? That's how I felt waiting for "Locked Down." Dr. John has just made a house call, y'all, and school is back in session.
I've known about this collaboration between one of my all time musical heroes and one of my more recent ones since around June of 2011. That's when the Doctor and Dan Auerbach performed together at Bonnaroo, a Tennessee music festival named after one of the Doctor's '70's records. I wasn't there, but I've thought about it every day since, and now I know why. It's hard to over deliver on a promise this big, but they've crushed every expectation in the most delicious ways. This one's tougher than alligator ass and sweeter than a crawfish beignet. Auerbach's slide is all over and around the chanting, breathing, honking-ass band that he assembled for the sessions, and the Doctor's keyboard work is right where it's always been. He's one of the all time greats, and he's made a statement with "Locked Down." The anger that he's worn like a Mardi Gras headdress since Hurricane Katrina is still in the mix, but he's tempered it with conciliatory songs to his estranged children ("My Children, My Angels") and an ode to God ("God's Sure Good"). And all that's cool, but those tunes might lack some gravitas if you couldn't hold them up next to the hoodoo funk of the title track or the farfisa fire of "Revolution." This is not Dr. John's best album in years, and it's not a return to form. Those descriptions don't crack the nut. This album is something entirely different, but somehow familiar. Something for your spirit and something for your hind quarters. Spiritual gumbo. If there's any justice in this world, you'll see the Doctor making his three-legged walk up to a podium on the TV early next year, collecting all his trophies and rapping about nothing we can understand. And Auerbach should be behind him with a wheelbarrow to help him tote them all home.
And if all that weren't enough, this is a Nonesuch release. That means the record is heavy, the packaging tasty, and the pressing clean. There's nothing in the format to stand in the way of the music, and you get a CD for the car or for the kids or for a coaster. The vinyl sounds like the hereafter, and the cover artwork carries the weight of the work found within. And that's heavy. Like the first day of class when you've got love on your mind. Get it.
Futurebirds "Seney-Stovall" SFP Worldwide
Imagining myself walking into a record store without making an impulse buy is like imagining the Queen of England accepting my spur of the moment invitation to check out the new "Avengers" movie. It's theoretically within the realm of possibility, but light years from probable. Especially on Record Store Day. I was in the checkout line (nay, the check out trenches) when the artwork for the Futurebirds release caught my eye. It's called "Seney-Stovall," after the chapel where it was recorded live, and it was unveiled specifically for this most special of all days. These guys are blowing up in and around Athens, Georgia, but prior to hearing this, the only info I had on them was that they played on the Patterson Hood "After It's Gone" single, and that they've shared the stage with Widespread Panic. I felt safe throwing this one on the pile with references like that, and I'm sure glad I did.
It's tough to get an accurate reading on what was happening on the night of this recording. There were some guys on stage rocking adequately for their fans. I know that much. But how many fans were there to witness this rocking? It could have been fifty or five hundred. Judging by the recording's texture, Seney-Stovall Chapel is made of wood. Judging by the dialogue preceding the opening track, "Dirty D," the chapel's power is suspect, and this resulted in a PA power outage. Judging by the fact that the band covers Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" and Stevie Nicks' "Wild Heart," they have eclectic taste in tunes and maybe a sense of humor too. One thing's for certain: Futurebirds brings a lot of energy in a live setting. They have a pedal steel player that is featured more prominently than most are. Multiple band members are capable of carrying a tune, and sometimes they do so simultaneously. They employ a pleasing mix of acoustic and electric instrumentation, and they can go from coffee house mellow to Crazy Horse rowdy in the time it takes to pick your hat up off the floor. They like it rough and so do their fans. And so do I. "Seney-Stovall" feels a bit like standing on the corner of Avett Bros Avenue and Blonde on Blonde Boulevard while drinking a beer and talking to a girl half your age. Provided you're over forty. All of that is fun (depending on the girl) which is about as good a description of the recording as I can come up with. Sounds like a big time was had by all. I hope ear plugs were available before the show, and taxis were after.
I don't know how much money these guys have to throw at a vinyl release, but I'm glad they made it happen. That said, the quality of the vinyl itself is a little wanting. Sounds a little like a cat scratching around in a litter box at times. But we're having fun here, right? Let that kitty do her thing. Hoist another one, and don't sit at the front of the class tomorrow lest the professor smell the night's fun on your breath. Activate your digital download card and pass the word around on this one. Maybe the band will cover that Timbuk3 tune about bright futures and shades. It may have been written just for them, and they seem to have a thing for wacky '80's covers. I bet they could pull it off...
Widespread Panic "Live Wood" Widespread Records
Record Store Day came and went this year without leaving nearly the mark on me or my wallet that it has in years past. It's still the coolest day since last year's Record Store Day, and the proverbial cat is out of the bag with regards to the event in general so that's good news. I got to my local independent retailer at 8:30am for a 10:30 opening, and I was still a block away from the entrance by the time I found the end of the line. I felt pretty good about my chances even from that distance as I wasn't after any of the really hot ticket titles by the Grateful Dead, Sigur Ros, or Metallica. (Beach House had a buzz around their 7" too and the White Stripes single didn't last long either.) My modest list included a Bill Evans 10" (I got number 11 out of 1500) and a 10" supplement to the "New Multitudes" record by Jay Farrar, Yim Yames, Will Johnson, and Anders Parker (amazing). I grabbed the Shuggie Otis 7" (number 36 out of 1500) and the split 7" singles by Run DMC/Carolina Chocolate Drops ("You Be Illin'") and MC5/Afrika Bambaataa ("Kick Out The Jams"). I got Patterson Hood's "After It's Gone" single, a song protesting Wal-Mart's proposed takeover of downtown Athens, GA, and the 12" we're gonna look at a little more closely now, Widespread Panic's "Live Wood." A rousing success, I'd say, even without an explosive exclusive like last year's Big Star "Third" release.
Now then: I used to follow Widespread Panic around like fog follows a warm day in San Francisco. I did this for many years and I covered many miles. Then, I stopped doing drugs and they stopped writing rockers. To me, their most compelling recent releases have been recordings of former live glories. Jimmy Herring can play more notes in less time than most anyone living, but to me he's never sounded like an integrated part of the band since he took over on lead guitar. More like a raisin in a bun than a wave in the ocean. Until now. "Live Wood" is a snapshot in seven (long) songs of their recent first-ever acoustic tour so everyone's the new guy at this party, and the freshness somehow equals cohesion. The instruments blend together on "Live Wood" like granola and honey while John Bell sings with more controlled power than I've heard from him ever. Especially on "Many Rivers To Cross." Over half of the songs are covers, and all of those are comparatively recent set list additions. Nowadays, I think it's more original to play a straight take on a Beatles song than it is to come up with your own contrived version, and Panic pulls off a nice one here on "Ballad of John and Yoko." Their interpretation of Howlin' Wolf's "Tail Dragger" is close to gnarly even without electricity or distortion while they display some surprising vocal harmony chops on Vic Chesnutt's "Degenerate." Blend it all up and you've got yourself a fun little keepsake from Record Store Day 2012 especially once you get a look at the Coke bottle clear record and realize that you've gotten one of only 2010. (Why not 2012, I wonder?) These are still pretty reasonable on eBay so now's the time if you're a fan. You don't want to have to find out just how tall you are by jumping in the middle of a bidding war ten years on, I'm sure.
Alabama Shakes "Boys and Girls" ATO Records
If we had published this review a couple of months ago, you may not have heard of the Alabama Shakes yet. If you haven't by now, you're late. My guy in Nashville was first in the pool in my circle. He sent me a link to their rookie website on September 16, 2011, but I couldn't quite find the magic through my laptop speakers. Now, the magic has found me. And Tom. And Dick. And Harry. I've never seen a band's star rise faster through sheer word of mouth. If they're getting radio play, I don't know it. But their shows are sold out in New York and Nashville and Berlin and Brussels, and they were before their debut "Boys and Girls" was even released.
Here's the deal: Brittany Howard is a screamer. She has the energy of Janis Joplin and the soul of Alabama's own Eddie Hinton. The difference is that Howard's voice is infinitely easier on the ears than Joplin's, and her band is actually going to attain the recognition that Hinton should have. That's because they're wicked. I could see them morphing into the most in-demand backing group going if they ever slow down long enough to venture outside their own clique. That's not to suggest that they should. I wouldn't. I'd keep doing what I'm doing, and I'd wait for the world to come to me. And if the world likes what it's heard to this point, the world is gonna freak out in just a minute. The song it seems like the band's pushing the most is the album opener "Hold On." It's really good, and it's probably the most pedestrian tune on "Boys and Girls." If that one grabs you, "Hang Loose" will kill you. It's slinky smart-ass guitar riff makes for the most fun on the record, and you'll have damn near sweat yourself to exhaustion by the time "Be Mine" and "I Ain't The Same" start winding things down on side two. I have a 7" of a live "Be Mine" from Third Man Records that will make your hair fall out. I hear these folks kill it on stage. I tried to find out for myself in San Francisco, but the show was sold out. The good part is that they've produced their debut in a way that seems pretty live. Many have tried, but few succeed. This gang is like a rock 'n' roll Dap-Kings. Their record sits on my shelf between Against Me! and Al Green, and that's about perfect, really. Every song on "Boys and Girls" may have been my favorite before all's said and done. I haven't been so juiced about a debut since I found Hacienda. And I love Hacienda.
ATO Records did a pretty fine job of giving this debut its due. The record's heavy with deep sonic blacks even if the visuals aren't all they could be. You get printed lyrics on the inner sleeve and the set comes with a download coupon. You also get a bonus 7" with a couple of blazers on it that may have sounded out of place on the official release. In other words, they did this thing right. So get the vinyl, get on the wagon, and get your tickets early. That's my advice. The world is ready for the Alabama Shakes. Don't get left behind like I almost did. Thanks for circling back for me, Brittany.