The Girl and I got a special treat last week, we got to see one of our favorite artists perform at the Madison Theatre in Covington. The Tallest Man on Earth, the stage name of Swedish folkster Kristian Matsson, writes deliciously Dylonesque songs about love and loss. He’s a delightful poet and an incredibly fun stage performer. I was just gonna share a clip but his show from just the beginning of May in St Paul was live streamed. So here you go, this is pretty much what we saw.
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It’s March, spring is in the air and 47 years ago Jethro Tull birthed into the world the epic album Thick as a Brick. Ian Anderson was actually kind off miffed that the bands previous venture, Tull’s most recognizable album Aqualung was described as a “concept album”. Anderson hadn’t planned it that way at all and felt that it detracted from the individual songwriting, some of his most ambitious to date. So in response he crafted Thick as a Brick to be a parody of the whole idea of concept albums.
Then he wrote Passion Play and almost made Warchild into a Quadrophenia style music movie and then made Thick as a Brick Two and an entire rock opera about the bands namesake so I guess he made peace with the idea.
The Schmoo, my musical theatre obsessed NB-Teen has been taking lessons at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. One of the numbers that they will be doing a solo in at the end of the session will be from the Broadway adaptation of 9 to 5. This tickles me pink because I love the original Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlion and Jane Fonda film, the movie that kicked off the 80’s workplace comedy boom, as well as the album of the same title. So I get to share both with them!
If I had to pick one Jethro Tull album for my desert island this would be it. So I thought I’d throw it up there to celebrate almost a month of the new blog. And yes I know it’s late.
Things are actually proceeding pretty much as I planned. After an initial burst of enthusiasm I’ve managed to miss a few dailies, but that’s OK. Getting this thing up and running was always going to be a process, an experiment in getting me writing with more regularity and confidence. I’m not a natural writer, typing is slow and hard for me and unless I’m in one of the unpredictable hyper-focus periods of my ADHD it’s exhausting to concentrate on one task for too long. But I’m gonna keep plugging along.
I really wish I’d been able to see them live in this era…
Sometimes it’s lonely being the only country music listener at the table. During a lull in last nights D&D game we indulged in a philosophical digression whilst the DM scanned the module we were battling, like you do. We were discussing religion, specifically the more toxic forms of Christianity and their doctrine of Hell. And I pointed out that my favorite liberal Christian blogger Fred Clarke had a great blog post about how he doesn’t believe in that kind of hell, and explained it using the classic tune Pancho and Lefty, the signature song of late but legendary songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
But still there was a stretch of several hours there where, willingly or not, I found myself thinking about the lyrics of “Pancho and Lefty” and especially about the lyrics of the final verse, the only one I remembered well: The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old
This verse suggests something of the scandal of grace. The singer is willing to extend that grace to Lefty, to forgive him his greed, cowardice and betrayal. But what gives the singer the right to do this? It was Pancho who was betrayed, after all, so it seems that only Pancho should have the right to forgive that betrayal. By usurping that right, the singer seems to be claiming something like the divine prerogative. This is, after all, what God is like. God is willing to forgive our enemies for wrongs they have committed against us, to extend mercy where we are unwilling or unable to grant it. That hardly seems fair. Not only that, but God is always going on about how we have to be willing to join in this prodigal grace, to join in the party for our prodigal brothers, to join the Ninevites in celebrating that the capital of Babylon itself can be spared. And if we insist on simple justice and responsibly refuse to join in this wanton confetti-showering of forgiveness, God has the nerve to suggest that we’re cutting ourselves off from that very same grace. Some people, of course, don’t think that this is an accurate picture of what God is like. They believe that God is not as merciful as Townes Van Zandt. That seems to me to be a theologically precarious proposition, which is, I guess, my point here: If there is a God, then God must be, by definition, bigger and more merciful than Townes Van Zandt.
When I got to the end of the anecdote I was surrounded by quizzical faces looking at me as if I had begun speaking in tongues. They’d never heard one of my favorite songs. We do this a lot, my friends and I. Despite having so many crossover’s in our various cultural tastes, there are acres of territory where we are still strangers in the other’s landscape.
I do think Fred makes a very good point. As an ex-Catholic it’s a take on God that is too generous by far. In Dante’s Inferno betrayal is the worst of sins. The wretched souls condemned to the 9th circle of Hell are trapped in the frozen lake Cocytus, forever bound as far from Gods love as can be. One can certainly see the appeal of a God who welcomes even Lefty into his grace in the end.
I don’t remember where I first heard sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, better known as the Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit. It may have been on NPR’s All Songs Considered, way back in 2011. But I know that this song from their 2012 album Lion’s Roar is the one that cemented their place in my collection.
But wait there’s more… here they are singing my favorite Emmylou Harris song, the title track to 2001’s Red Dirt Girl…
“You mean you used to listen to this un-ironically?”
Abby Doench, 13, with the Sickest Burn of 2019 so far….
Yes child… yes I did…
So as a vinyl collector I subscribe to a service that texts me deals on new records I might like. And when a sweet 200 gram remaster of Rush‘s 1977 release A Farewell to Kings just after the holidays… well it kinda just jumped into my queue. And so had I’ve “Closer to the Heart” stuck in my head all week. Which led to the sick burn of the year above, uttered as I assaulted the family with Dad Rock on a shopping g trip. And yes I STILL listen to Rush un-ironically, though not with quite the same enthusiasm as in my substance fueled twenties. I gotta admit that the Canadian trio hasn’t quite aged quite as well as some of my other Prog Rock faves.
The music still moves me, the amazing drumming of Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson’s wondrously inventive guitar work, and Geddy Lee’s unique aggressive falsetto combine to make sonic masterpieces. And I absolutely admire the gusto that band throws into sprawling eleven minute sagas like .”Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage. But I have to admit that Peart’s songwriting chops are still in infancy at this stage of their evolution. The subject matter is ambitious, but Peart wields his lyrics like blunt instruments, as if he missed the classes on metaphor and simile in English class. The end result can seem kind of corny… as this Family Guy clip lampoons…
A lifelong Jethro Tull fan develops a thick skin though, so while the sick burn stung, the scars will heal. So here’s an unapologetic 13 minute live performance of a song about a FREAKING BLACK HOLE to chew on…
As I have meandered down the road we all tred towards rigor mortis, I find myself trying, within the bounds of reason, to be less judgmental about the music I don’t like. I’ve even taken a second look at stuff that younger me hated and learned to like it.
But sometimes something is shit, and I’m here today to tell you that while Astronomy by Blue Öyster Cult is one of my favorite songs of all time…
…this cover of Astronomy by heavy metal legends Metallica is terrible…
Now if you have known me a long time you know that I have never been a fan of Metallica. I still remember the look on brothers face when it was revealed that Jethro Tull’s Crest of a Knave had won the very first Grammy for Best Metal Performance over Metallica’s …And Justice for All. But I’m not gonna be obtuse about it, they appear to be really good at what they do well. And as you can hear, they appear to be very bad at anything else.
Astronomy first appeared on BÖC’s third studio album, 1974’s Secret Treaties, and was revived as a piece of their 11th (and final major label) album, the sweeping mystical concept album Imaginos. Both Eric Bloom on the original and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser on Imaginos bring just the right amount of spookiness to the lead vocals to echo the Bouchard brothers poetry, and the band supplies an eerie backdrop, supporting the lyrics wonderfully until Buck’s virtuoso guitar leaps out of the mist at you.
Compare and contrast to Metallica’s version. Included on their 1998 Garage Inc. album of cover tunes, you can easily imagine Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield spinning some Cult as kids as they learned to shred. But they are just completely out of place covering this song. Hetfield’s lusty growl, which made Enter Sandman an iconic hit, grates against Bouchard’s lyrics like an old transmission grinding gears. I’m pretty tone deaf, but I’m not sure that he’s staying in key the whole time either. And he adds a bunch of “YEAHS!” and other metal grunts that detract from the mood. The Schmoo couldn’t understand what he was singing at all and I nodded because I only knew because I know the lyrics.
And as for the music? I guess they did their best, but by the time they get to the main guitar solo the song has lost all of it’s mysticism, the subtle interplay of lyric and sound brutally squashed under what feels like “generic Metallica grinding guitars.” What we end up with is a product that just exposes all of Metallica’s weaknesses without highlighting any of their strengths. And that’s the sad part because there are plenty of BÖC songs that would sound great in Metallica’s style. The high speed attack of 7 Screaming Dizbusters, the crunchy goofiness of Godzilla, or the classic metal licks of Career of Evil (written by Patti Smith of all people.) It’s like they picked one of the least “Metallica” songs they could to cover.
I guess I came out ahead though. Due to the chaos caused by the creation of Imaginos and the conflict it opened in the band they had dropped Astronomy from their touring set for years. The only time I’ve ever had the chance to see them live, with Blum, Lanier and Buck Dharma at Annies down on Kellogg Avenue. And lucky for me, because Metallica had released their cover earlier that year they had put it back in. So thanks got Metallica I got to hear my favorite Cult song live.
2018 may have been a bit of a crap year, but I picked up some great music anyways. Here are my three favorites of 2018…
Last Man Standing, Willie Nelson
I grew up with country music. Dad was the news director at WUBE and our radio was always tuned to 105 FM. So even though it’s never been cool, I will always have a soft spot for the kind of smart ass honkey tonk vibe that Willie taps into here. The title track sets the mood for a romp through the country legend’s life as the 85 year old watches his fellow outlaws shuffle off the stage, wondering who’s next and will he be ready when his time comes up.
Love in Wartime, Birds of Chicago
We discovered Birds of Chicago at the first Nowhere Else Festival, a yearly shindig at a farm that Linford and Karin of Over the Rhine have turned into a musical Mecca of sorts. They just blew me away with an energetic mixture of roots, soul, gospel and rock. Love in Wartime continues to please the ears and feed the soul.
All that Reckoning, Cowboy Junkies
On All that Reckoning, Alan Anton and the Timmins clan; Margo Micheal and Peter, manage to craft an album that calls your mind back to 90’s college radio crackling through the ether to the stereo of your 5th hand car as you pick your way home in the dead of night down lonesome roads past quiet farms and abandoned quarries with the windows down to clear the heavy hot summer air as you pray the fumes in your tank get you home before the sun comes up… Seriously… that’s what it’s like.