Monday, April 28, 2014

What Happens to the Clippers Now?

Right about now, Adam Silver has got to be wondering what he did to deserve this.  The NBA is in the midst of the greatest 1st round of playoff games in its history, and what could possibly turn out to be the single greatest round of playoffs of all time.  And then Donald Sterling has to go and drop a stink bomb on the whole thing.

One can make a strong argument that the NBA deserves it, for allowing Sterling to stink up the joint for upwards of three decades now.  I don't need to repeat what has been written in numerous other places, but you've got to wonder what was going through David Stern's head when he nixed the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers a couple of years back, which paved the road for Paul's trade to the Clippers.  Which turned the Clippers around, which paved the road for Doc Rivers to join the Clippers, which turned the Clippers into, for the first time in their history, a legitimate title contender.  And it's not as if Sterling was turning over a new leaf while all this was going on.

And if this first round has proven anything, it's that everyone (well, not Charlotte, and probably not Chicago) has at least a dreamer's chance to grab the trophy this year.

So what happens now?  Obviously, Sterling has to go.  But does the NBA have the ability to force him out?  That seems like a debatable and open question.  But for all intents and purposes, the Clippers ceased to be a viable entity the moment that the Sterling tape hit the airwaves.  The sponsors are bailing, the players are protesting (in their own way; I thought what they did yesterday with the inside-out warmup jerseys was simple and effective), the legends (both current and former) are calling for immediate action, and the President of the United States has weighed in.  One way or another, the Donald Sterling era is about to come to an end.

It'll be interesting to see what the NBA lawyers can come up with (and just why is the NBA constitution confidential, anyway?) in the way of leverage, but whatever it is it's not likely, in and of itself, to force Sterling out.  But come on - who is going to want to ever play for that team again under the current circumstances?  It'll be a minor miracle if this current Clippers team - the same Clippers team that blew out the Warriors by FORTY points the night before the tape hit the media, if you were paying attention - can suck it up and stay competitive in this round.  I know they want a title and that's the whole point of playing the game and what they've dedicated their lives to, but come on - this is a distraction unlike any other they've ever faced, or will ever face again.  It's not every day that your employer says something that makes it very clear that he views you as an inferior part of the human race.  I'd find that a little hard to overcome.

So will Magic prevail?  The Lakers legend owning the Clippers?  That would be entertaining, but I guess I have to ask out loud whether L.A. really needs two NBA teams.  I bet right now there are a lot of folks who would be very interested in seeing the Seattle Clippers set up shop.

What a disaster.  Here's hoping that Sterling just goes away.  Soon.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

LP of the Week - "Red Headed Stranger," Willie Nelson (1975)

Listening to this record feels like falling into a time warp.  To call it spare in its sound hardly does it justice; it's practically primitive.  On some songs all you hear is Willie singing, accompanied by his guitar.  On others, there is Bobbie Nelson's piano, and every now and then you get a snippet of bass and drums.  For all intents and purposes, it's an old field recording.  It's the kind of record that sounds good with a few snaps and pops every now and then.

It's hard to imagine today, but there was a time when Willie Nelson was one of the great unsung musical heroes of our time.  He'd penned some famous songs ("Crazy" by Patsy Cline, for example), but for the most part, no one had ever heard of the guy.  That was certainly true when this record came out in 1975, and it's probably no coincidence that within three years, Nelson was a bonafide superstar.

It's a short album, and the bulk of the songs are covers - "I Couldn't Believe It Was True" by Eddy Arnold, "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" by Fred Rose, "Can I Sleep In Your Arms" by Hank Cochran among them - but the concept is all Nelson's.  The late, great critic Paul Nelson called it "a phonographic western" evoking the works of John Ford and "Shane," and described the narrative as follows:
The album traces the life of a Montana cowboy who finds his true love with another man, kills both of them and later another woman, then drifts through Denver dance halls into old age, forever unable to cut his early loss but managing in the final years of his life a moving, believable synthesis of all he has missed.
Not exactly cheerful stuff, and even in its music, the album is mournful for most of its running length.  But it's brilliant throughout - quite likely the greatest work that Nelson has produced.

Drive-By Truckers visit Sacramento

I think I've finally figured out where to place Drive-By Truckers in my personal music pantheon.  DBT is a band that in this century, has put together a catalogue that can really stand with any other artist over that period - "Southern Rock Opera," "The Dirty South," "Decoration Day," "Brighter Than Creation's Dark," "The Big To-Do," "Go Go Boots," and now "English Oceans" - there isn't a bad album in that bunch, and I'd argue that at least two are pretty damn close to being masterpieces.

But it's also pretty evident that DBT are never going to become huge stars; their albums are not likely to threaten multi-platinum status.  They're pigeon-holed as a "southern rock band," although if one takes the time to listen to the music and read the lyrics a little more carefully, it seems pretty clear (at least to this listener) that they transcend that label.  Their sound is rooted in the south, and you can't argue with the fact that so many of their songs address the south, but to call them just another southern band doesn't really do them justice.

For me, they've filled the spot in my pantheon that Warren Zevon held for so long.  An artist that you listen to and think "how can it be that everyone doesn't love this guy/band/artist?"  "Why aren't they superstars?"  "What's wrong with you people?"  But that's OK - they've carved out a spot for themselves, and anyone who's ever been to one of their shows knows how fiercely loyal their fans are.  So if they go down in history as one of those semi-popular, great bands that never quite hit the mainstream, that's OK with me.

So I got the chance to see them Friday night, for the second time, in a small venue (Ace of Spades) that really isn't much more than a glorified bar.  Which, come to think of it, is the perfect place to see a band like DBT.  As evidenced by the picture above, I was able to work my way right up to the front of the stage, within about 8 feet by the end.  Standing for close to four hours (Shovels and Rope, the opening act, started right at 8 and DBT didn't close out until almost midnight) didn't do much for my 54-year old bones, but I wouldn't have traded the experience for anything.

Of course, it was a great show, with both Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley in top form.  Cooley is the real star of the new album, and he shone on Friday night with his new songs from "English Oceans," including "Shit Shots Count," "Primer Coat," "Made Up English Oceans," and "Hearing Jimmy Loud, as well as some of his golden oldies like "Pulaski," "Zip City" and "Women Without Whiskey."  Hood was awesome as well, and even though the band has gotten smaller with the departures of bassist Shonna Tucker (replaced by Matt Patton) and guitarist John Neff, they still pack a sizable punch.  It's more of a rock guitar oriented sound now, without Neff there to pitch in on steel every now and then.  And that's OK because keyboardist Jay Gonzalez, as it turns out, plays a pretty mean guitar himself, and on several songs managed to play both.

Another great show, and hopefully there were at least a couple of folks there who'd never heard them before and are now converts.  Because once you get there, trust me - you're never not going to be a DBT fan.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Boz Scaggs' "Memphis" - Score one for the old white guys

Once upon a time, Boz Scaggs recorded a song called "Loan Me a Dime" that featured a young, mostly unknown guitar player named Duane Allman.  The song is almost 13 minutes long, the epitome of a "slow burn" blues song.  It takes its time - the vocal doesn't even begin until after the two-minute mark - and lets the tension and intensity rise naturally until Allman cuts through it like a knife with an extended guitar solo that would have afforded him a spot in the annals of rock history, even if he'd never recorded another song.

A little less than a decade later, Scaggs hit on the formula that would land him on the cover of Rolling Stone, complete with an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot.  Silk Degrees wasn't really disco, but it was definitely "blue eyed soul," and a far cry from "Loan Me a Dime."  Which isn't to say it wasn't good; in fact, it was very good, and pushed Scaggs up the charts right around the time that Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles were taking turns at #1.

I saw Scaggs live in 1980, when he was touring with the band that in a couple of years would become Toto.  It was a great show, and while focused mostly on the latter-day hits, it demonstrated that Scaggs was an artist who, if not quite in the top tier of American artists, was certainly within shouting range of the top.

And that was pretty much it.  Yes, I know he continued to record and tour over the years, but as a presence, he more or less disappeared.  Which is why I was surprised, a year or so ago, how tempted I was to buy his newest album, Memphis.  At least half a dozen times, I picked it up and thought about it, only to put it back in its slot before heading to the register. 

Well, today I finally took the plunge, and I'm glad I did.  The album hasn't returned him to multi-platinum territory, but I was glad to see (thanks to Wikipedia) that it was his highest charting record in more than 30 years.  It's a very solid set, 10 covers and 2 originals, a set of songs designed to pay homage to the site (and sound) where many of those songs were recorded.  You've got some very familiar tunes, Brook Benton's "Rainy Night in Georgia," the Moments' "Love On a Two Way Street," along with others by notable artists like Al Green ("So Good to Be Here"), Mink DeVille ("Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl"), Steely Dan (the sublime "Pearl of the Quarter") and Jimmy Reed ("You Got Me Cryin'").  And there's even a lovely version of the traditional, "Corrina Corrina."  And you've got a pretty distinguished band, featuring Steve Jordan on drums, Willie Weeks on bass and even Ray Parker Jr. (!) on second guitar, plus guest spots from folks like Keb' Mo and Spooner Oldham.

And especially for a guy who's almost 70, Scaggs' voice still sounds great - he can't reach the high notes like he did back in the day, but at least on this record, he's not singing those types of songs.  That an artist like Boz Scaggs is still producing solid work at this late date is reason to never give up hope.  You just never know when someone might surprise you.

Friday, April 18, 2014

LP of the Week - "Boston" (1976)

There are memories associated with "Boston" that are so engrained in my mind that when I hear the songs in question, a sense of nostalgia overwhelms me to the point where I feel that I've been transported back to those very moments.

Memory #1:

In August 1976 (August 12, to be exact) I was hired to my first job - at McDonald's.  I would work there for four years (right up to when I left for Cal in September 1980) and eventually become the "grillman" training coordinator for two different stores, but for the first few months of that job I hated it unlike any other I've ever had.  Back in those days, the workforce at McDonald's was comprised almost entirely of high school and college students.  The managers weren't much older than the regular crew, and were usually promoted because they were good at their jobs, not because they had any particular talent at managing 16-18 year olds.  The expectations were high, the rules were strict, and even though I would come to appreciate everything that I learned there, for a while it was so bad that I'd have fantasies about the place burning down in the middle of the night (that actually happened in the mid nineties, but by then I was long gone - I swear!).

There are three songs that cause all of those emotions to rise up in me as if I had jumped in the wayback machine - Heart's "Magic Man," Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music," and "More than a Feeling" by Boston.  But for some reason, it's the latter song that does it the strongest.  The memory has never released itself from the song.

Memory #2:

From the time I was 7 years old until the year that I graduated from high school, I was in a bowling league.  For the last two years, the league bowled on Friday afternoons, and during that time I religiously stuck to a ritual.  When we were finished (my younger brothers were also in a league, but they usually took a little longer than the "older kids" did), we'd adjourn to the game room, I'd go to the jukebox, and play "Smokin'" by Boston.  After a while, it almost got to be a joke - but there was no way I was leaving that alley until I'd heard "Smokin'."

Memory #3:
We're now in the winter of 1977 - around the time of the beginning of the second semester of my junior year of high school.  By far, that was my roughest year in high school, mostly because of my distaste for two classes that plagued me at the time and which I wonder why I ever took in the first place (probably because they were required for an eventual college-bound student such as myself).

Every Friday night, I'd go to a basketball game with one or two of my friends - and seemingly every time, "Foreplay/Long Time" would come on the radio.

Memory #4:

Flash forward to the summer of 1977 - the summer of "Star Wars," and the summer of my first "serious" girlfriend (well, I was serious, but I'm not really sure she gave a sh*t).  By this time, I had figured the job out, and was actually beginning to enjoy it a bit.  We had a good crew at the time, and I was still one of the youngest ones.  When I think back on those times, it amazes me the amount of responsibility that this mostly crazy group of young kids was afforded - I mean, it was only a McDonald's, but holy cow, we were running the damn place, and there's no doubt in my mind that the lessons I learned there were just as (if not more) important to the person and worker I am today than anything I learned in school.

That summer, "Peace of Mind" was the song on the radio (usually, right after Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner").  The vision that comes to mind when I hear that song today is driving home from work in the gigantic Kingswood Estate, all the windows down, and the radio turned up (AM radio, of course) as LOUD as it would go.

Memory # 5:

Holiday season 1977, our crew holiday party.  By this time I'd come to my senses and split with the girlfriend (in all honesty she dumped me, but whatever), and decided to actually ask someone from the crew to be my date at the party.  I go pick her up, we go to the party, and since I'd been asked to provide the music (even back then, I was the master of music) I throw in a unlabeled mix-tape (I've always liked to be surprised at what might be coming next) and the first song on it is "Something About You," one of the few cuts from the album that was never released as a single.

So think about it for a moment - for almost 18 solid months, "Boston" pretty much dominated the airwaves.  If memory serves, it sold more than 10 million units, which isn't bad for a band that no one had ever heard of, pretty much right up to the moment when "More Than A Feeling" hit the airwaves in the late summer of 1976.

To these ears today, it still sounds like a great album - one of the greatest debut albums in the history of rock.  It's a throwback, no doubt - not just in the type of music that was being embraced by the critics of the day, but also for me personally in the development of my musical tastes.  Within two years of buying "Boston," I would also buy my first albums by the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Blondie, Ramones, Talking Heads, Pretenders, Gang of Four, English Beat, The Specials, Nick Lowe, and I'm sure a few others that I've forgotten.  Certainly in attitude but also in sound, this was a very different kind of music than what one heard on "Boston."

But after all these years, there's still a place for all of those bands in one record collection.  And I'll defend "Boston" just as much as I've had to defend Gang of Four's "Entertainment" over the years.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game...but please bring me back...

This will come as no surprise to even the most casual baseball fan - when the Yankees play the Red Sox, prepare yourself for a long evening (I say evening because it seems that at least one game from every series those two teams play is required to be shown on ESPN).

From Carl Bialik's "I Don't Care If I Ever Get Back - And I Might Not," from Nate Silver's (fairly) new site,

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sunday at the Masters

Even though I always enjoy rooting for Bubba Watson, there's no arguing the fact that the final round of The Masters was about as much fun as watching paint dry.

Now, that's a bit of an exaggeration, because it's nearly always fun to watch just to see the glorious holes that make up Augusta National.  Now that the green-jacketed members have relaxed a bit and let us see action on the front nine, we're becoming more familiar with those holes as well - but there's little doubt that if you call yourself a serious golf fan, then you really need to know the back nine as if it were the back of your hand.

Over the years I've had different favorites - 15 and 11, in particular - but now, I'm just about convinced that the 13th hole is the greatest golf hole in the world.  Or at least, the greatest parkland golf hole in the world.  It is the perfect combination of risk and reward for the great player - a hole where the difference between eagle and double bogey is inches.

So watching The Masters is always fun, I admit to that.  But Sunday afternoon held so much promise, when it appeared that we were in for one of those "duels for the ages" that people remember for decades.  But no, it was not to be.  In fact, no single player particularly distinguished themselves on the back nine on Sunday, and the back nine is what distinguishes a run-of-the-mill Masters from a great Masters.

So congratulations, Bubba Watson - perhaps the most unlikely winner of multiple majors since John Daly? (Discuss).  But it wasn't quite the show I was hoping for.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road at 40

Over the years I've come close to buying Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on CD, but never pulled the trigger until now, with the release of a special 40th anniversary addition.  The new double-CD extravaganza features a remastered version of the original album, a set of songs from the album covered by other artists (produced by Peter Asher), and part of a concert recording from 1973, when Elton was playing a lot of these songs for the first time.

We'll get to the packaging in a moment, but let's start with considering where the album falls in Elton's pantheon.  It came smack dab in the middle of his mid-seventies hot streak, when just about everything Elton touched turned to gold (or platinum).  It was a huge hit.  It featured three hit singles, including the one ("Bennie and the Jets") that got him invited to Soul Train.  It includes what is probably his best known (but certainly not best) song, "Candle in the Wind," in its original incarnation.  But even with all that, what really gives the album its identity are the lesser known, "album" cuts, several of which sound as good (if not better) today than they did back then.  I'm not prepared to say that it's his best album, but along with Honky Chateau (which came before) and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (which came after), it's certainly a contender for that title.

Back in the day, double albums were treated as an event, even if most of them were made "double" through the addition of material that probably should have stayed in the studio archives (in the CD era, nearly every release is the equivalent of a seventies era double album, which may explain why so many modern releases are candidates for track skipping).  But the material on Yellow Brick Road is consistently strong, and remarkably diverse.  The album begins on an odd note with an 11 minute twofer that begins with "Funeral for a Friend," a five minute dirge that seemed really cool in 1974 but really just obscures the strength of "Love Lies Bleeding," which certainly belongs on the list of least known great Elton John songs.  Also on that list would be "I've Seen That Movie Too" and "The Ballad of Danny Bailey," both of which showcase Elton's piano playing, but in different settings - the former a ballad that Frank Sinatra himself could have covered, and the latter being a melodramatic but effective tale of a Dillinger-era gangster.

In an album full of highlights, the high point just might be the 1-2-3 punch that begins with "All the Girls Love Alice," continues with the raucous rocker "Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock and Roll)" and concludes with "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," which is probably the best flat out "classic rock" song that Elton has ever recorded.  But you get the point - this is a really strong album, and while it might not be the best double album ever recorded (Exile on Main Street, London Calling and The River are all stronger, and that's just off the top of my head), but it deserves to be included in any conversation about the great double albums.

My only complaint?  In the packaging, they've deleted the lyrics and accompanying artwork (see picture above) that helped make the original release so compelling.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

LP of the Week - "I Just Can't Stop It," The English Beat

I failed to fully appreciate "I Just Can't Stop It" when it was released in the late spring of 1980.  Then, the song that stuck with me was the band's cover of "Tears of a Clown," which in retrospect was probably little more than a gimmick designed to grab attention and add to radio play/record sales.  Don't get me wrong; it's a great cover version of what I consider to be an iconic song - but it's hardly the best thing on the album.

Along with The Specials, The English Beat (simply "The Beat" in England, but christened "English" in the States because there was another (lesser) active band with that name at that time) was formed during a period of economic uncertainty and social unrest in the U.K., and was often aggressively political in its songs.  At the same time, they were a great dance band, and their songs have held up for more than three decades now.  Drop this album on the marketplace in 2014, and it would sound just as fresh and lively as it did way back in the dark ages.

Where it started to come together for me was when I saw them live, in October 1980 at Zellerbach Hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus.  They were opening for Talking Heads, and even though I've seen a lot of great artists play a lot of great shows since then, that show still ranks in my all-time Top 5.  You had Ranking Roger dancing around the stage, you had Saxa (still alive and presumably kicking at age 84) parked on a folding chair on the side of the stage, blowing his horn; and you had the rest of what was a great band playing like their lives depended on the outcome.  It was great, and I was sold.

Looking at the track listing now, it's amazing how many great songs are on there - songs that you still hear on the radio every now and then, or used in a film - "Mirror in the Bathroom," "Hands Off, She's Mine," "Twist and Crawl," "Click Click," "Ranking Full Stop," "Stand Down Margaret," "Best Friend" - and that's before you even notice that they've also covered "Can't Get Used to Losing You," an old Pomus/Shuman song made famous by Andy Williams, of all people.

It's all great, and all these years it makes one wonder what might have happened before the band split in two (becoming General Public and Fine Young Cannibals) before starting tours (that last to this day) under various incarnations using the word "Beat."  Before dissolving, they made three albums, and they're all great.  Could it have lasted longer?  Alas, it's questions like these that have no answers, but that's part of what makes it so much fun to be a music fan.  And who knows - in an alternate universe somewhere, the band just might be getting ready for its induction into the Hall of Fame.