Swing Sweet; Jimmy Cobb, and Miles Davis

During the February meet up of the Mountain Music Club (reported in the March 5 Gazette, if you’re scoring at home), we talked some about Miles Davis but never got around to watching the PBS “American Masters” profile, whose release had prompted the conversation in the first place.

The death of Jimmy Cobb, last surviving member of Miles’ late-50s Kind of Blue band, and Miles’s birthday May 26, reminded me again that Miles was a giant who walked our earth and marked it. 

Miles is the most common name on my record shelves: 45-plus albums; and I’ve spent more time listening to him and discussing him than any other artist. I’ve listened to “Kind of Blue” at least once a month for 40 years. I wore out two vinyl copies, despite carefully observing the once-a-day maximum listening limit to avoid vinyl fatigue, an effect audiophiles call the “buttering over” effect. But I digress.

Years ago, when one of our Zak’s friends, then in high school, took up the fad of swing dancing, I was fascinated to see how this opened the door to jazz for him. One day, he came into our record room, the vinyl- and CD-clogged “Temple of Music,” as my late friend Harvey Bornfield called it. He walked over to the jazz department of the album shelves, eyed the spine copy for artist and album titles, then asked, “Who’s Miles Davis?” I jumped up and hugged him and shanghai’ed his evening to play many Miles sides.

Brandishing album after album and playing many, I raved to (at) him that Miles may be the most diversely powerful figure in jazz, but also one of its most divisive. He’s the chameleon giant who hit after Louis and Duke and attained comparable stature by running wild in all directions rather than mapping out and following a particular style as they did. Miles’ albums comprise a condensed education in jazz history from 1950 through his death in 1991 at just 65. Everybody in the Mountain Music Club is older than Miles.

In our family, “Kind of Blue” isn’t just the Greatest Hit in the Temple of Music; it’s purposeful, too, by custom and convention a healing tool. When I was wheeled into the “Cath lab” at Ellis Hospital after an episode that might or might not have been a heart attack, I was in a soaringly optimistic mood, which I held through the procedure by bringing in “Kind of Blue” to play there. The docs and techs liked it. When one of us catches a cold or flu, we listen to “Kind of Blue” and we feel healed, or at least on the way there.

When I saw the PBS Miles bio, I thought about Miles in that framework and recalled the two Miles shows I saw.

When I got out of the Navy in Seattle in the warm fall of 1970, I fell in with a friendly crew of hippies living in a big Victorian next door to a daycare center and across 50thStreet from the Woodland Park Zoo. One was the younger brother of Jimmy Fred Bowman, a fellow Navy-in-Japan vet. Jimmy Fred was our ticket into the place, via introductions to Ed. Jimmy Fred drove a VW bug so ancient its turn signals were arms that levered up from the door-posts; its rear bumper was a 4 x 4 painted green and with holes spelling “Thunderclap” drilled into it. Always parked in front was a yellow-tan International Harvester Army ambulance converted into a camper by its owner, dubbed Tuna, who dubbed the truck “Grasshopper.”

In three months there – I left when winter came, wet and drab – I saw some cool shows, including the second or third version of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, with Flo and Eddie (from the Turtles) singing; Jamie Brocket opened, singing about the Titanic. And I saw Miles lead the Bitches Brew band, the electric rock-and-rolling crew he put together after watching Sly Stone make SO much money.

The show was in the same big oval sports arena where the Supersonics played; saw THOSE guys there, too; I remember how dominant Bob Rule was in that game. Miles’ show was full of 1950s and 60s fans, dads in suits mostly. They were surprised to find Miles in electric shiny hippie clothes, fronting a big, very noisy, high funk band: Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, keyboards; Jack DeJohnette, drums; Harvey Brooks, electric bass; John McLaughlin, electric guitar; Dave Liebman, saxophone.

They were WAY more than the jazz dads ever expected – loud, complex, driving, powerful, rock and roll, but supercharged. They looked left and right, sharing outrage, cultural disorientation and sonic overload. They expected “Kind of Blue” or “Birth of the Cool” and they got a funky thunderstorm. Many left, grumbling,  shaking their heads.

I loved it. It was SO intense, so fresh, so fun – so wonderfully uncomfortable for those guys. The music had splendor, muscle, a beautiful arrogant insistence that this was the coolest, and hottest, thing happening on earth at that moment. 

Years later, I saw a somewhat lesser example of the same thing happen at the Union College Memorial Chapel in Schenectady on Homecoming Weekend. Saxophonist Charles Lloyd brought his new quartet to play before a mixed audience of students and parents. Now, the old quartet was about as cozily conventional and traditional as Miles’ Kind of Blue band (John Coltrane, tenor sax; Cannonball Adderley, alto sax; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Wynton Kelly or Bill Evans, piano; and Jimmy Cobb, drums). Lloyd had made mellow hippie late-60s jazz including “Forest Flower” and “Love-In” and played rock and roll dance halls in San Francisco including the Fillmore and the Avalon. His quartet was powerful but smooth: DeJohnette and Jarrett, with bassist Ron McClure. 

In late 1967, I  got to see that band purely through the power of the camera as ticket. When my photographer friend Jock Sturges and I went to see Lloyd in a cozy theater at San Jose State College, we found the place sold out. Sturges said, “Here, quick; put this on,” handing me one of his cameras. We got to the door looking like photographers, and the students doing “security” let us in without tickets, for a blazing show.

Charles Lloyd at San Jose State College, 1968, by Jock Sturges

The same thing happened at Williams College when they presented Stevie Wonder in its gym. The students took one look and waved me in, then assigned one of their number to guide me to the stage, ducking under the girders supporting the bleachers along the side of the gym. We popped out behind the stage and he waved me toward the stairs, turned and left. I climbed up onto the stage and found myself five feet from Steve Wonder. But I digress.

Stevie Wonder at Williams College gym, May 1973, by Michael Hochanadel

The new Charles Lloyd Quartet that brought such delicious culture shock to the Union College Memorial Chapel featured feisty, assertive youngbloods: Blackbird McKnight, Hendrix-y guitar; Celestial Songhouse, electric bass; Transcending Son Ship, drums.

And they brought the same sort of reaction as Miles inspired/detonated in Seattle. The dads (and moms) glanced around in growing alarm, seeking affirmation from fellow adults that this was as weird as they feared. They looked to the door, hoping to draw their kids out with them. Some parents literally tugged their kids from the room; others left them there and fled; the students digging it and digging it.

I loved it. I loved seeing music having such a profound effect.

I didn’t love the last time I saw Miles – in Boston, at Paul’s Mall or the Jazz Workshop. The two clubs were in the same building; I don’t recall which was upstairs, first floor; or in the basement below the other. And I don’t recall who played in the band; it was nondescript, loud and electric. So was Miles; and he didn’t connect with the crowd any more than with the music, or the band. He faced them, not us; he played most of the show with his back turned. Disconnected as it was, it still had something. It had the gravity and force of Miles; but it felt mythic more than musical.

I loved the place, though; I saw several of the shows promoted in posters collected in a FaceBook page, including the Miles show just aforementioned; and a Larry Coryell show that I thought was pretty cool but Coryell didn’t like. He led the same band as on the epic “A Call to the Higher Consciousness” on his “Barefoot Boy” album, which I used to listen to almost as much as “Kind of Blue” in the 70s. Chick Corea’s parents sat at a front table through Coryell’s set; afterward, the band scattered without the brotherly residue of warmth that lingers after a good show. Coryell clearly thought this was the other kind. He shook his head as he came off the bandstand, sat down with the Coreas and said, “You guys were right: I never should have left Gary Burton’s band!” But I digress, 

Years after Miles passed in 1991, I got a phone interview with Maynard Ferguson, a contemporary of Miles. For all his eminence, Maynard was humble, but careful about pronouncing his name correctly: “MAY-nahrd.” As we talked about composing and improvising, he sometimes moved from the general to the specific, recalling sessions and gigs. He brought up a twin-bill at Birdland in New York in the mid-50s. Without boasting, he noted he was top-billed; the marquee read “Maynard and Miles.” The two trumpeters hung out, they talked on their breaks. I asked about the stereotypical comparison between them: Maynard, the polite rumpled looking white Canadian who mastered the whole horn and could play way up high; Miles, the angry black rebel, lean as a blade, who didn’t: Miles played in the middle register and so fans of high-note fireworks considered him the lesser talent. Ferguson wasn’t having it. He defended Miles. He said Miles played in the middle range of his horn because that’s where his hearing was most acute and precise; where he could be most expressive.

Maynard also explained, in Miles’ own words, his willingness to challenge his audience with the bold “Bitches Brew” music in Seattle, to play with his back turned to us in Boston. Maynard said Miles told him how he felt about the audience. “He said, ‘Never give them a fucking thing.’”

In this, Miles failed.

He gave us everything that music could give.

Jimmy Cobb gave us much more than the tasty, swinging mostly brush work beats on “Kind of Blue.” That album arguably type-cast him as much as the character of Eddie Haskell in “Leave It to Beaver” did actor Ken Osmond, who died May 18 at 76, a week before Cobb died on May 24, Bob Dylan’s birthday, at 91. His playing is so soft, so subtle, so closely welded to the relaxed ease of the groove, that we feel more than hear it. 

Cobb played on eight other Miles albums, on hundreds of others as a sideman with John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, both Adderley brothers and too many more to list here; and he made 17 albums as a leader.

Surviving his fellow Kind of Blue alums by nearly 30 years, he returned to that album in a 2011 tour that played The Egg. As I reported in the Gazette, Cobb faithfully kept its flame.

            ALBANY – Jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band filled big shoes at The Egg’s (smaller) Swyer Theatre stage on Thursday. Now 82, Cobb is the last survivor of the Miles Davis band that recorded the iconic “Kind of Blue” album and the keeper of its flame. Named for the album’s lead track, the band celebrated the music he helped make on just two spring days in 1959.

            Jazz-fans nearly filled the Swyer to hear Cobb and company reconstitute “Kind of Blue,” each bringing questions or expectations. Would trumpeter Jeremy Pelt replicate Miles’ simple phrasing and the buzz of his Harmon mute on the ballads? Would Javon Jackson (tenor) and Vincent Herring (alto) weave their saxes into and across each other like John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley? Would bassist Buster Williams play as unobtrusively as Paul Chambers? Would pianist Larry Willis lean toward Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly? – both soft-spoken, sweet players. How many steps has Cobb lost in 50-plus years? None, it turned out, but it really boiled down to: How much would Cobb and the newcomers echo the originals? And, how much of their own personalities would they dare or manage to bring to this iconic music? Both questions turned into a big “so what” when they started.

            The heads of the “Kind of Blue” songs may sound simple to play, but the So What guys made the tougher task of improvising on them with personality seem easy. They could have played like a reel-to-reel tape-deck, replicating the original renditions every jazz fan knows by heart. Instead they played like the E-Type Jag of tribute/legacy bands. They played this music – ahead of its time in 1959 – with elegance at any speed, fast enough when they wanted and without any nods to nostalgia.

“So What” seemed a bit ragged until its familiar cadence kicked in; Pelt playing busier and with more vibrato than Miles, Cobb switching his snare stick from tip to butt, Jackson starting slow then building up steam and Herring matching him for force and grace – setting the pattern for the whole show.

            Cobb pushed “Freddie Freeloader” into funkier neighborhoods than Miles did, Williams’s bass walking low and slow and Herring echoing Cannonball’s phrasing as closely as Pelt did in following Miles’ roadmap through “Blue in Green” that followed. Pelt started “All Blues” muted but his open solo hit strong and high. “Flamenco Sketches” featured Willis in his most Bill Evans-like solo all night: otherwise he often echoed McCoy Tyner.

            After wrapping up “Kind of Blue” with “Sketches,” they breezed through “The Theme,” Miles’ longtime break song – a brisk hard-bop number in which Cobb played his only solo all night. This two minute burst of full-on energy was punctuated by fan shout-outs, but he was impressive in quieter ways throughout; the way he pushed “Flamenco Sketches” with just one hand, Blastix on the ride cymbal; the way he stiffened the spine of “Freddie Freeloader.”

An impromptu encore everyone knew as well as “Kind of Blue,” “On Green Dolphin Street” brought the players together at their swinging best.

– 30 – N.B. That’s newspaper-ese for “end of the story.”

Decades before his Egg show (early 70s), I first saw Cobb play with the Last Poets at the old SUNY Albany gym. Precursors of rap, the Last Poets were vividly confrontational spoken word agit-prop artists. Gil Scott-Heron wouldn’t have been possible without their searing example; nor would hip-hop as we know it today. 

At SUNYA, they brought the fire, Cobb brought the funk.

Unlike his self-effacing supporting role in Miles’ band, here Cobb pushed and pumped the music hard. At one point, he lifted his snare in one hand and hit it as hard as he could, swinging his stick in arms-length arcs, ending in forceful blasts.

The sheer aggressiveness of his playing was worlds away from “Kind of Blue” – more like black and blue. It hit me like a revelation, that Cobb carried other worlds within him, different from the music we always associate with him. All other musicians, too?

Caffe Lena Lives, Breathes

How fun to see Caffe Lena celebrate both its heritage and future. This story first appeared in Nippertown and I want everyone to see it.

Caffe Lena will mark its 60 anniversary Thursday with “concerts” in the streets and online. The Caffe at 47 Phila St. in Saratoga Springs deserves this two-part soiree for sheer persistence among the cultural capitols of our region and the folk music world – actually enduring longer since founder Lena Spencer’s 1989 passing than those vivid, often turbulent years she ran it, from 1960 to her death.

The taking-it-to-the-streets, movable feast mobile portion of the celebration puts gypsy jazz group Hot Club of Saratoga, Gospel-soul singer Garland Nelson and indie rockers Let’s Be Leonard aboard flat-bed trucks roaming downtown Saratoga Springs from noon to 1 p.m.  “We’re inviting people to park along the parade route and enjoy the music as the trucks roll by,” said Caffe Executive Director (since Feb.1995) Sarah Craig in a prepared statement. “Decorated cars would be very welcome!”

Fittingly, Bonacio Construction is providing trucks for this musical fleet. Bonacio partnered with the Caffe in its 2016 renovation that provided access for fans with handicapping conditions, improved the kitchen, dressing room and office space and enlarged the listening space from 85 to 110 seats.

Those seats will be empty for the streaming portion of the Caffe’s celebration Thursday, with only the production team of Grammy-winning record producer Joel Moss and video production manager Reese Fulmer present to engineer an online evening program. Broadcast on the Caffè’s YouTube channel and at www.caffelena.orgstarting at 7 p.m. it will combine stories, songs and historic photos exploring each of the Caffe’s six decades of presenting mostly folk music but also jazz, rock, blues, and storytelling. Performers include humorist-singer-baton twirler Christine Lavin (who waited tables at the Caffe before “graduating” to its stage); the Vermont troubadour duo Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen; Chatham blues guitarist Rory Block; former Saratoga resident singer-songwriter Don Armstrong, now an Arizona resident; and Colorado folksinger John Winn, who played the Caffe in its first season. 

While performers come and go, those that last in the business return to the Caffe whenever they can. Jack Landron played there opening night (as Jackie Washington) and many times since, including the Caffe’s 50thanniversary, then most recently in 2013. Famously, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Rosalie Sorrels, Utah Phillips and Don McLean are among its perennials. Some have played fundraisers for the Caffe, some in times so lean that Lena slept there, on a couch too short even for her.

Moss and Fulmer are able to present Thursday’s streaming component of the celebration since the State of New York designated the Caffe as essential on April 20, allowing the launch of “Stay Home Sessions.” During these nearly-nightly, professionally-produced three-camera live-streaming shows, viewers donate online tips to musicians; contributions to date total more than $25,000.

As with the “Stay Home Sessions,” fans viewing Thursday’s streaming sets can contribute to the Caffe, which is launching the Lena Legacy Society as an ongoing endowment.

“We have 60 years behind us and countless decades ahead,” said Craig in the Caffe news release announcing Thurday’s celebrations. “We’ve seen that crisis can come anytime, and an endowment ensures that the music will never die.” 

“Everyone is hungry for happy occasions right now,” said Board President Jim Mastrianni about the celebration, also in the Caffe release. “For Caffè Lena to have not only survived against the odds for sixty years, but to be actually delivering music in the midst of this pandemic, is something Saratoga can be proud of.”

Everyone who’s climbed the Caffe’s steep stairs has stories, even mostly-rock writing me. Artists and fans have loved and fought there, formed groups and split up. A bagpiper once stationed himself behind a romantic rival for a fierce blast on what he assured his target were “war pipes.” 

My own first visit came in high school, with classmates who are still friends and the first woman I was ever crazy about. We didn’t have tickets, it was sold out, but before being ushered gently back out onto Phila Street, I caught a few minutes of mesmerizing blues by Mississippi John Hurt. The deepest and most intense music I’d heard to that point in my music-crazed life, it remained unmatched until I caught Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins at Austin’s Vulcan Gas Company years later.

Years after that, I took my then-girlfriend Jane to see Dave Van Ronk at the Caffe, after hearing the late, great Jackie Alper play his records on her radio show.

After Van Ronk finished his show – gruff, authentic, tuneful and a little raw at times – Jane and I ventured into his dressing room. Van Ronk sat there with Lena herself and with a sidekick; there’s no better word for this guy, a hairy fire-plug with even more beard than Van Ronk. They looked like pirates, ashore to seek trouble. The three were talking, laughing and passing a joint, but the place went quiet when Jane and I walked in. Well, actually when gorgeous dancer Jane walked in, as I became invisible. Van Ronk gawked unashamedly and the sidekick guy leered and nearly drowned on his own saliva. We all five spoke a bit, then Van Ronk said to me, “I want this wench and will offer you ten golden guineas, cash on the barrel head.” I declined and Jane laughed.

– 30 –

Bonnaroo and Bonnie

In a previous post, we talked about Delaney and Bonnie & Friends’ Accept No Substitutes. Fast forward 44 years to a surprise encounter with Bonnie on a visit to my brother Jim in Nashville— one of those trips when music started happening as soon as I got there.

A cab carried me from the airport to SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals) in an industrial zone of boxy, anonymous buildings. No sign announced the artists working there that day. But dropping the right names at the reception desk directed me to a large room filled almost end to end with a stage full of players and singers – lights, monitors, front of house PA and teleprompters. It looked just like a show, and held preparations for one. 

I was an audience of one at a rehearsal of John Oates (Daryl Hall And…) and Jim James (My Morning Jacket) All Star Rock & Soul Super Jam Dance Party – a big name for a big band. When I walked in on them they were prepping to play Bonnaroo two days later. Up front Oates, James and Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket) played guitars. But eclipsing them in presence and power, singer Brittany Howard (then with Alabama Shakes) was destroying the place, killing the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” I couldn’t see past her as she filled the room completely. Only when she finished did I recognize drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste (the Meters) and jazz percussionist Cyro Baptista; and I didn’t meet the rest of the Revue until a break: keyboardist Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton’s band), bassist Steve Mackey (hundreds of Nashville sessions); singers Bilal (Robert Glasper and many NYC jazz & hip-hop projects), Lee Fields (the Expressions), Bekka Bramlett (vocals; daughter of Delaney & Bonnie, onetime member of Fleetwood Mac, and a firecracker) and Wendy Moten (session singer deluxe). In the back stage-right corner stood the Preservation Hall Jazz Band horns (sousaphone or baritone horn [a scaled down tuba with the range of a trombone but a darker, fuller sound], trombone, trumpet and tenor sax). Leading them was my brother Jim who arranged the horn parts and was the only horn player (on alto) who’d get a solo in the show; he also played a harmonica solo.  The mood was workmanlike/laid-back and nobody questioned me, or even noticed me much, as I walked around behind my Nikon.

As I watched, Bonnie Bramlett came in to see daughter Bekka sing, sitting next to me on a couch before the stage. The cover photo of “Accept No Substitutes” shows Delaney & Bonnie with two young kids: Bekka is the baby in the photo. As Bekka and Wendy worked out a harmony, I leaned toward Bonnie and suggested they needed her to help shape and sing their parts. Bonnie laughed, told me she considers herself retired from music and related some good-riddance stories about the business. She said she still loves to sing and wanted to form an a cappella crew of women singers to busk on street corners. I’d never seen the Original Delaney and Bonnie & Friends except in TV clips, so I was delighted, awed, to meet her. She was friendly, relaxed and happy to be acknowledged, at peace with her legacy.

Wendy Moten, Bekka Bramlett, John Oates and Bonnie Bramlett at SIR. Photo (c) Michael Hochanadel

When Oates spotted Bonnie there at SIR, he stopped the rehearsal, ran down and greeted her with glad reverence. During this lull, my brother Jim launched trad.-jazz numbers for fun and the Preservation Hall guys lit up and jumped in. Trombone player Ronell Johnson was especially good on these impromptu numbers and happy to take those rides. He comes from a big New Orleans musical family, though not as big as saxophonist-clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, then 80 and one of 20 children, all musicians. Jim was delighted to meet up with Charlie on Saturday before the show and talk old-time music and musicians. The Preservation Hall guys play what everybody else calls Dixieland but New Orleanians (who hate that term) call traditional jazz— the first music that Jim and I both loved, and still like.

On a break, Jim and I met up with Ziggy Modeliste at the coffee stand. We told him we admired his playing, and he replied, “When I play, I try to speak English” – and maybe no drummer lays down a beat with the clarity he brings to the kit.

OK, that was Thursday.

Then, on Saturday, show day, the band van picked us (Jim, our sister Annie’s son Noah and me) up at Jim’s house and took us to a hotel, Bonnaroo HQ in Manchester, for another rehearsal in a ballroom with the same crew, plus bassist Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone). The other guest stars who’d sing cameos – Billy Idol and R. Kelly – never made the rehearsal, which revolved around Larry Graham’s booming bass. At one point, though, Bekka Bramlett noticed her fellow singer Bilal seemed to be hanging back, as if unsure of his place in the music. She reached around his waist, gave a smile and tugged him right into the song, and he smiled back, grateful and glad. 

Everybody felt upbeat after this last rehearsal, knowing the music was polished and strong, but not too polished. It breathed. It swung. It rocked. It had soul.

Then vans took us inside the festival to backstage at This Tent – Bonnaroo stuff is called What Stage, Which Stage, etc. We could see a ferris wheel lighting up in the dusk beyond This Tent; later, big-ass fireworks hit during intermissions. Jim and I went out front and watched from the photo pit as Beach House played and totally delighted the 12,000-15,000 fans packed into This Tent. When they came off, grinning their way backstage, singer-keyboardist Victoria Legrand looked fresh but partner Alex Scally and a drummer whose name I didn’t catch looked like they’d been playing in a car wash.

Backstage at Bonnaroo were various facilities for artists before and after they played. As Jim’s guest, I had all access— a rock and roll term of art that means freedom to go everywhere backstage. I remember brother Jim getting all excited when he realized who Charlie Gabriel is and that he could just go talk with him, ask him about making music in New Orleans. Now, New Orleans traditional jazz is the first music Jim and I loved as kids. We both still do. So Jim was super-excited to strike up a conversation with Charlie, a living, lucid repository of that music, a natty man with a long memory. Jim invited Charlie into a hospitality tent to get out of the hot sun. Charlie was in an elegantly cut dark suit, dress shirt and tie – like in this video. I considered joining them, but I held back. I wanted to just let Jim have the conversation – without me butting in to ask the sorta questions a non-musician would.

When Jim and I decided to go eat, security radio’ed a golf cart which picked us up and hustled us through the throngs to the Artist Hospitality area. There, our Artist wristbands admitted us into a tent complex with a giant buffet (GOOD food, too! – grilled salmon, tofu and T-bones; baked potatoes; cauliflower; broccoli; sweet potato fries; fresh rolls & bread), salad bar, juice bar, dessert bar, open drinks bar, picnic areas and a barbecue shack. The Lumineers were playing right beside us; very cool dinner music. Then the golf cart took us back to This Tent where the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was just about to go on. I was worried about how they’d go over, because they’re old guys in black suits playing antique music. But the same people who loved Beach House loved them, too, and that was really fun. Jim James came out and sang with them and the crowd went comprehensively bat-shit. 

Sound effects-comic Michael Winslow came onstage unannounced in Hendrix wig and clothes and uncannily imitated Hendrix’ Woodstock “Star Spangled Banner” with just mouth noises and effects-pedals = astounding! 

Then the Rock & Soul Super Jam hit it at 12:35 a.m. and it was joy supreme: old soul and rock songs, done right and with spirit by pros/fans. When they finished “Thank You Falettinme Be Myself” – Larry Graham led the big bunch of Sly songs – and went off, the crowd kept chanting the refrain for about 5 minutes, really together and really loud. Then the Super Jam crew came back onstage, introduced guest R. Kelly and they tore up “Change is Gonna Come” and “Bring It On Home to Me.” Kelly left and out came Billy Idol to sing “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” Neither Kelly nor Idol had ever showed up for rehearsal and nobody knew if they’d make it – but they both raced over after their own sets and threw themselves completely into the music, delighting the musicians. Brittany Howard roared through “Satisfaction,” Otis Redding-style, and Idol stuck around singing everything: When brother Jim raced down front from the horn section for his harp solo at Jim James’ vocal mic in “Take You Higher,” the last song, he bumped right into Idol and they both laughed. I was in the media pit between the stage and the crowd, with a dozen other photographers and a video crew through the whole show, and it was really thrilling to be that close to so much energy.

Then there was a big backstage hang with lots of drinks afterward: Everybody was in a great mood and really friendly backstage because they knew they had just destroyed the place and the crowd loved them and the songs. Most times when an artist wants the crowd to wave their hands, they get maybe 30 to 50 percent: when Larry Graham did it, he got about 300 percent. 

The band van wandered from musician’s place to musician’s place, dropping Bekka Bramlett at her converted school house in the country where she hugged everybody good bye. When Bekka Bramlett hugs, you stay hugged. We got back to Jim’s house on Nashville’s south side at 6 a.m., daylight was already poking around houses and across the neighborhood. I haven’t done a rock ‘n’ roll all-nighter in years and neither had Jim.

Chase this link to some video, backstage and onstage.

Rock in Peace, Little Richard

Late in Sean Rowe’s 80s-themed live-show-from-home Sunday afternoon, a lyric grabbed me by the throat. 

In his now-familiar dining room festooned with tiny hanging lights, he stepped to the mic right in front of the camera, strummed quiet chords on his Takamine acoustic six-string, decorated with bold bars of colorful duct tape and sang this:

“For seven years I could not cry, but that has left me now.”

Me, too.

I hadn’t wept since my parents passed, until last Saturday night when I sat next to my son, stream-watching “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and sipping the good stuff. Then, for no reason relating to the movie or the Woodford Reserve bourbon, I started thinking about Little Richard.

And the dam broke.

And I sat weeping, gasping, shattered.

There was no stopping this, no way to rationalize away the devastating sense of loss I felt. 

Sitting here now, trying to make sense of it, I reach back almost in vain for some predecessor moment that felt anything like this. 

The first time I mourned a star going out as a personal loss was Nat King Cole, who passed in 1965. But this had a delayed impact for me. In spring 1968, I sat by myself in a barracks on Goodfellow Air Force Base in west Texas, a closed SAC base where I was training in electronic intelligence. Gacked on Dexedrine smuggled from Ciudad Acuna, I wrote a fast blurt. I addressed it to Nat Cole’s spirit, telling him how I felt the world now had a huge, aching hole in it, left by his departure and the silencing of his elegant, polished music. 

Now, Nat’s smooth sound was anything but rock and roll.

He chose songs and sang them in such a restrained, mainstream, low-pressure way that our parents could dig him, and did.  

Yet there I sat, a year after Monterey, when music grew hair and mighty moral force to become a giant noise, and I mourned Nat Cole in words I wrote right to him.

No other loss hit me so hard, not Bob Marley, not John Lennon; not the holy trinity of the Iowa crash: Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. I was in Seattle when its neon native son Jimi Hendrix died, in the rainy sadness of a whole city in tears. I don’t recall where I was when Janis Joplin followed just a month later.

But I’ll always remember I was quarantined in my house by the trumpandemic when Little Richard died.

Is that it? I thought at first that maybe I felt his loss so acutely because of all the other loss we all feel and fear now.

But, no.

I realized it’s really all about him, the Georgia Peach, the self-proclaimed Architect of Rock and Roll. 

Where Nat Cole was slick and cool, Little Richard was hot, a human high explosive. He came onstage (or screen) with his eyes wild, wide in joy and mischief. You knew on sight that he was trouble of the most delicious, shocking-to-our-parents power. Just check the clothes. Nat wore tastefully narrow lapels, Richard’s reached out to grab you, to cut through the air and close the distance to your pleasure centers. Hair heaped high in a sculpture of challenging effrontery, he was more than bold. He was a walking, strutting, howling, piano-pounding outrage – exhilarating and uniquely empowering, whenever and however I saw or heard him. He was raw, a shout of possibility. He made me feel free, or at least free-er.

At first, I didn’t quite understand it; I knew how his music made me feel, but at some point I wanted to know why. Wikipedia reminded me the answer was New Orleans.

Little Richard’s father was both a deacon of his church and a bootlegger who owned a nightclub; so how could Little Richard have turned out any other way? 

He preached a gospel of forbidden fruit, of in-your-face-transgression that felt righteous because it was so inescapably real. He toggled between the uplift of the divine and the dive bar all this life. His was the church of raw exultation, his nightclub one where forgiveness lived. 

In an early 90s phone interview, Little Richard told me of his famous re-conversion to devout Christianity aboard a plane to Australia as if it had happened to him yesterday. He spoke of the joy of performing with the same immediacy, and I wish I’d known to ask him about meeting Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When she heard him singing her songs outside a Macon concert in 1947, she asked the 14-year-old singer to open her show. Little Richard said he’d decided to play piano after hearing Ike Turner play “Rocket 88;” so he learned from perhaps the two most influential pre-rock and roll giants of his time.

When Little Richard started recording, producer Bumps Blackwell saw him as a new Ray Charles, but Little Richard instead wanted to sound like Fats Domino. So Blackwell recorded him at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studios in New Orleans with drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen and others from Fats’ band. When I pilgrimaged there during Jazz Fest, I found the building was a laundromat, as shown in “Treme.” When those records didn’t hit, Little Richard wrote “Tutti Frutti” in the Dew Drop Inn, but Blackwell had to hire songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to clean up his sex-charged lyrics. In September 1955, Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” and cracked open the radio.

Of course, he went to New Orleans to make that music. 

I should have recognized its Fats-inspired rolling swing right away, but I thought of it then as fully Little Richard’s invention, totally original. I didn’t know for years that it came from South Rampart Street just outside the French Quarter. I just knew how it made me feel. For me, after “Tutti Frutti,” nothing was the same. It was the Big Bang that let that wild, raw, explosive, brash and beautiful man and his music out of the bag, loose into an uptight world where Elvis was just starting to make his mark. Little Richard’s stardom was even more startling, a blast of joy, at once engaging and confrontational.

Others could play his songs – even that whitest of white-bread imitators Pat Boone. But even his most ardent and talented admirers couldn’t sound like him.

I didn’t know until I read Charles White’s authorized biography that Little Richard was gay or, as he described himself, “omnisexual.”  But I wondered if ignoring conventional gender borders liberated him to become the person he invented. 

He arguably invented others, too. Paul McCartney learned his scream from Little Richard and the first song he ever sang in public was “Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard’s follow up to “Tutti Frutti.” As “No Direction Home” shows us, Bob Dylan wrote in his yearbook of his ambition: “to join Little Richard.”

However wide his influence has been, even in those years when McCartney was learning Little Richard’s scream and Bob Dylan was learning his fearlessness, we somehow knew we’d never see another one.

In a moment of humble self-awareness, Elvis once reflected that he’d been fortunate to come along when there was no trend. Little Richard came along when there was nothing like him, and there never will be.

Getting back to Sean Rowe for a moment, let’s give another original his due: the Troy-born troubadour of bottomless voice and spooky resonant guitar.

Rowe was doing house concerts long before quarantine time, so he moved easily into performing from his own dining room. These shows feel all the more human for those moments when he pauses to adjust something; using the clasp of a pen to clip a folded bill into his guitar strings, say; or visiting the bathroom.

As he wrote on his website:

“This is why I do house shows: I want to connect…I want to take you on an intimate musical journey that you and your friends will remember forever. Do I love club shows? Hell, YES. I love the vibe, the energy, the lights, the heat. I want to see you out there, too. But this is a different beast. Maybe a gentler, more homey beast.”

In his May 10 show, Mother’s Day, he sang 1980s pop and indie rock songs, and his own.

And the one that hit me with a vivid evocation of Little Richard – though Rowe writes and sings nothing like him – is “Flying.” Little Richard performed with big bands in matching outfits. A human trumpet himself, he surrounded himself with saxophones. In dark t-shirt and two-tone beard, Rowe is a bass, a cello; and he sounded glorious singing these tunes, familiar or not. He helpfully listed them for his listeners in an email after he put his guitar away.

Gone Daddy Gone (Violent Femmes)]

With You or Without You (U2)

Surprise

Wrong Side of the Bed

Lady in Red (Chris DeBurgh)

We’re Not the Same

I’ll Follow Your Trail

Squid Tattoo

Never Tear Us Apart (INXS)

You Don’t Have to Worry

A Forest (The Cure)

Psycho Killer

Tornado Head

It’s hard, if exhilarating, to imagine Little Richard singing in your house, in ANY house. 

As young confined Catholics, brother Jim and I would imagine a loud rock and roll takeover during mass. The Rolling Stones or the Mothers of Invention would burst onto the altar, elbow the priest aside and rock the joint, to the gaping horror of the pious multitude. 

Now, I believe that seeing prime and primal Little Richard do that would be even better. In clothes you could see from Vancouver, hair up to THERE, pounding the piano as if to demolish it, howling octave over octave, he’d give the congregation something to worship, all right.

In June 1995, Little Richard played here for the last time before retiring. A bit incongruously, he was on whatever SPAC’s Jazz Festival was called that year, a non-jazz box office classic-rocker added to the line-up to sell tickets to mainstream fans; like Chic this year before that Fest, like all fests, was canceled. Though he had to grab a band member’s hand for stability, Little Richard still climbed on top of the grand piano. He was still a force of nature. All the voice was still there – like the clothes, like the hair – and he seemed likely to pound the piano down through the stage. 

It wasn’t 1955, or even 1975, but it was “Tutti Frutti,” and it was glorious.

I didn’t know then that I’d never see Little Richard again.

And so, when the full, awful wrenching pain of that recognition hit me – beside my son on the couch in my quarantined house – I had no way to dance past the grief. 

There’s no hiding from our loss of Little Richard. There’s only gaudy, funny, fierce memories of his brilliantly engaging and noisy nonsense, blurred through tears.

A wop boppa looma, a wop bam boom.

Live (Sorta): Mark Emanation Duo @ Caffe Lena 5/6/2020

This story first appeared in Nippertown, my first story there in months, and I’m pleased to be back, again. Let me explain. The late, great Greg Haymes (“Sergeant Blotto” in Albany rock-comedy band Blotto) and his partner in life and creativity Sara Ayers published Nippertown for a decade until Greg passed last year. I wrote and photographed stories there when they didn’t fit the Gazette style or format and felt proud doing so: It was the hippest, best-curated view of music and other arts in the Albany area. It retains that mantle since Sara handed the keys to publisher Jim Gilbert late last year. A big shout-out to Jim for opening this door.

I miss the stairs, and much else about Caffe Lena – but we don’t have to miss the music entirely. 

Blues great Mississippi John Hurt was playing there, first time I climbed those stairs; and blues were on the menu when I went up the virtual stairs Wednesday as the Mark Emanation duo (with guitarist Tom Dolan) played to three cameras in a house empty but for host Sarah Craig, stage tech Ian Hamelin and camera-video/broadcast sound tech Joel Moss.

The venerable (60 years) Saratoga Springs coffeehouse presents live music nearly every night in its Stay Home Sessions, both live streams and archived shows; plus instructional sessions.

Accessing Wednesday’s show was easy via Youtube at www.caffelena.org, Choosing what virtual show to watch via Mac from my Schenectady home-office desk, less so. Shows streaming Wednesday included the peripatetic Erin Harkes from hereabouts, also Nashvillians I’ve met while visiting my brother Jim Hoke there: Joe Pisapia at my cellist-nephew Austin Hoke’s poker-dinner parties, John England leading the hardest-hitting hard country band on the neon-splashed lower Broadway bar strip from Roberts Western Wear. But I digress.

The blues seemed right for me Wednesday, though, in memory of both Mississippi John Hurt from my first Caffe visit and Emanation’s long association with Ernie Williams, whose ghost climbed the stairs with him and Dolan.

Emanation, hereafter MA, started by placing himself in the Caffe’s history, citing past shows there including benefits that burnish the bluesman’s long reputation with Williams, Folding Sky, current crew Soul Sky and almost uncounted others.

MA and TD have made music together since their early teens in Watervliet schools; and it showed Wednesday. At their best, they flowed smooth and easy. Handoffs and endings sometimes felt ragged, though, yet that seemed OK in these days when practicing seems problematic. They know what their best stuff is, so after warming up on two songs with more generic than specific messages, they hit an early peak by getting sadly real in “Watervliet Waltz.” Here they mourned change as loss, noting globalism as a zero-sum game our Rust-Belt towns are losing. 

The production was sharp, MA’s vocals and both guitars coming through clear. Three cameras caught the action (though both played seated), pivoting on the beat to catch TD’s solo in “What Am I Gonna Do,” then right back to MA for his break, for example. MA aimed his voice south in songs set there including the plaintive post-Katrina “Rain Keep Fallin’ Down,” pleading “Can we make it” in words that seem sadly apt today. Mourning marked the next number, too: “He Don’t Live Here Any More,” dedicated to departed fellow bluesman Tom Healey; but in this number and others with local settings, MA sang in a distinctly northeastern, Springsteen-echoing, Rust-Belt howl.

The mood shifted to anger in CSN&Y’s “Ohio,” intro’ed with MA’s recollection of protests announced in placards inserted in newspapers he delivered as an 8thgrader appalled by the Kent State National Guard murders. They nailed it, and held their mood of modulated outrage through “I Remember Bobby Sands” about the Irish hunger-strike hero. While TD riffed most of the hot solos – his break in “”Frozen” might have melted a glacier – MA’s coda in “Ohio” and fiery lead in “”Sands” sparkled just as bright. So did his slide solo driving the stoic shuffle “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Working Day.”

Late in the show, they riffled back through the Ernie Williams songbook, MA explaining how he and his band mates transmuted Williams’ road-trip stories and recollections into songs they’d write for their elder-leader to sing. MA’s humility in noting they’d had to grow into those songs spotlighted in powerful poignancy how the blues flow from generation to generation. 

Their best songs followed me down the Caffe’s virtual stairs as they wound down, reaped the applause from their audience of three; so did CSN&Y’s “Ohio,” written in a time as troubled as our own. I remembered, too, how Graham Nash told me in an interview how proud he was of “Ohio” – although it followed and eclipsed his own idyllic “Teach Your Children Well.” Nash recalled “Ohio” pushed “Teach” off the singles chart, but suggested it deserved to, that its message was that important. 

We don’t know what important angry, compassionate or even funny messages our  singers will sing about these times. But we can expect to hear many of them at the top of the stairs of Caffe Lena.

Live chat and a virtual tip jar to support the performers and the Caffe are available during streams.

From the Record Shelf: Accept No Substitutes

Son Zak suggested I grab and gab: pick out, listen to and talk about an album. So I picked a buried treasure, Accept No Substitutes, a half-forgotten masterpiece by Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. It’s a 1969 classic from the mid-south by way of LA, a record Jimi Hendrix described as “Call it spiritual, and leave it at that.” I’ve loved it since the summer of Woodstock.

Acceptmay be less well known than Motel Shot, a later effort whose bulging talent roster boasted British superstar Eric Clapton. “Slowhand”/God jumped the sinking ship of Blind Faith to sail instead on the soul-gospel-R&B wings of the loose crew of flyover-state pros Mississippian Delaney Bramlett recruited from LA’s Wrecking Crew studio gang. An elastic ensemble, Delaney and Bonnie’s “Friends” featured top talent including George Harrison, Duane and Gregg Allman, Dave Mason, King Curtis and more. Clapton once said Bramlett taught him how to sing. This album shows those lessons in Delaney’s confident soulful swagger. Then-wife Bonnie – likely the palest ever Ikette (background singer in Ike and Tina Turner’s Revue) – more than holds her own with power and subtlety. 

Like the Mad Dogs and Englishmen touring juggernaut he launched a few years later behind Joe Cocker, and with some of the same players, Leon Russell was the guiding principle shaping the Friends as keyboardist and arranger.  But here, the hit-record aim of LA studio cats animates the music more than the laid-back Tulsa shuffles that dominated his later music, while also miraculously retaining a proud regional tang.

Acceptis a glorious monster of deep soul. 

Only Dan Penn’s exhortation “Do Right Woman” stretches past five minutes and most tunes hit it and quit it in around three. They’re righteous radio-ready blasts of concise power. 

Like “Do Right,” many songs urge better behaviors, but without preaching or pretense. They deliver their wisdom from the neighboring barstool, not the pulpit. Huge sonic generosity confers a welcoming acceptance that renders the album title deliciously warm, un-ironic. 

There’s a dancefloor beat under nearly everything. Voices and horns mass into choirs with soloists standing up amid muscular harmonies. They shake out their robes and reach for the stars; most later became stars. The Friends on Acceptinclude future luminaries Jim Keltner, drums; Carl Radle, bass; trumpeter Jim Price, organist Bobby Whitlock and saxophonist Bobby Keys, guitarist Jerry McGee and singer Rita Coolidge. But the album is less about star-time than about speaking to us since these masters play with such low-key, well, human-ness and a well-oiled command of sounds that, like The Band’s music, predates commercial trends of the time. It helps that Keltner’s drum sound feels way clearer and cleaner than most percussion engineering of the time. 

The opening “Get Ourselves Together” enlists the listener in the vibe right out of the box. More than reminding us that we’re all in this together – a lesson compelling enough in these times – it announces that we’re doingthis together; active and energetic. Just try to listen passively to Accept– can’t be done.

Next, “Someday” revs the sonic-righteous force with a tempo shift in the middle that carries your pulse with it, inside it.

“Ghetto” is Delaney at his most powerfully plaintive, riding Russell’s choir-loft piano like sun sparkling on moving water, until women’s voices edge their way in, pushing him into falsetto, then shouts, as strings gang up on us for a minute.

A march beat chugs foursquare under “When the Battle Is Over,” Bonnie’s voice answering Delaney’s power in “Ghetto,” This time, stirring women’s voices lock to bluesy piano-and-guitar chords before Delaney knocks on the door, walks in, sings his piece (or peace?), both challenging and decorating Bonnie’s lead. On its face “Battle” may seem a simple, obvious report on the battle of the sexes – and Delaney and Bonnie divorced three years after this album hit. So the next three tunes – “Dirty Old Man,” “Love Me a Little Bit Longer” and “I Can’t Take it Much Longer” – deliver pleas powered by defiance more than desperation. In “Dirty Old Man,” Bonnie warns, “Darling, listen here” and growls strong in accusation.

If “Do Right Woman” is the album’s moral fulcrum, its last two tunes bear enough heft in exultant forgiveness to balance it. The pulsating “Soldiers of the Cross” waves the flag of united action, in humility, before breaking out into “This Little Light of Mine,” Bonnie leading in proud exhortation. After its up-and-down dynamic, you wipe sweat from your face and marvel that this great band drove us so hard in just a few breaths over three minutes.

Where to go from there but “Gift of Love” with its serene mid-tempo benediction reassuring us that “love is everywhere.”

As it fades, Bonnie’s voice rings in the choir behind Delaney’s comforting words.

Fast forward 44 years in a future post.