Posts Tagged ‘Levon Helm’

‘My Love’s Got No Season . . .’

October 16, 2014

As far as I know, the first time I ran into the very good song “Even A Fool Would Let Go” was in February of 1990, when I happened upon a copy of Levon Helm’s self-titled 1982 album in Anoka, Minnesota. The album didn’t entirely impress me – I think it’s one of Levon’s lesser efforts, which is kind of a mystery, given the presence of the Muscle Shoals crew and Steve Cropper and production by Duck Dunn – but the song, the third track on the album, grabbed me:

And as Levon’s version came to my attention in the past few days, I thought I’d dig around a little bit. The song, written by Kerry Chater and Tom Snow, was first recorded by Gayle McCormick, the former lead singer for Smith, for her 1974 album One More Hour.

There are more covers beyond Levon’s, of course, although not as many as I thought there would be. But my attention is flagging this morning, and the painters are here. I’ll get back to “Even A Fool Would Let Go” in one of the next few days.

Saturday Single No. 407

August 16, 2014

There’s been kind of a slow-motion Levon Helm festival going on here for the past few months. A while back, I picked up a CD/DVD combination pack titled Love for Levon: A Benefit to Save the Barn, documenting an October 2012 concert aimed at raising funds to preserve the Woodstock recording studio and performance venue of the late musician, who passed on earlier that year.

The line-up for the show was pretty impressive. Along with the Levon Helm band, which counts as one of its members Levon’s daughter, Amy Helm, those who performed included Roger Waters, Mavis Staples, Garth Hudson, Marc Cohn, Gregg Allman, John Mayer, Ray LaMontagne, Dierks Bentley, John Hiatt, Jakob Dylan, Jorma Kaukonen, Grace Potter and quite a few more.

It took me a couple days to get through the concert, as I generally do my DVD watching for an hour or so late in the evening after the Texas Gal has retired for the night. And of course, tracks from the CDs of the show occasionally popped up randomly before, during and since the time I finished the film. My favorite performances? Three of them stand out: Marc Cohn’s “Listening to Levon,” which comes from his 2007 album Join The Parade; Mavis Staples’ take on “Move Along Train,” a 1966 Staple Singers’ track covered by Levon on his final album, 2009’s Electric Dirt; and Grace Potter’s rendition of “I Shall Be Released,” which The Band recorded for its 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink.

Another DVD I’ve been taking in even more slowly is the 2011 release titled Ramble At The Ryman, chronicling a 2008 performance by Levon and his band – with a few guests – at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, the one-time home of the Grand Old Opry. As does Love For Levon, the Ramble At The Ryman draws significantly on the catalog of The Band as well as wide swaths of American folk and country music. I’m not sure why I’m going more slowly on viewing Ramble At The Ryman; perhaps it’s because I had the CD of the performance long before I got the DVD, and there are no real surprises. (Conversely, I got Love For Levon as a CD/DVD package, so most performances on the DVD were new as I watched.)

But there was a third portion to the Levonfest this week. Digging in the catalog of the local Great River Regional Library, I found the DVD Ain’t In It For My Health, a film by Jacob Hatley that shows Levon at home in Woodstock and on the road in early 2008 as Levon is recording Electric Dirt. During the film’s shooting, Levon learns that The Band will be given a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and that his 2007 album Dirt Farmer was nominated for (and won) a Grammy for best traditional folk album. He dismisses the lifetime achievement award as – I think I have the quote correct – “something for the folks in the suits,” but he’s clearly delighted near the end of the film to hear the news about the Grammy for Dirt Farmer.

Beyond those bits, two portions of Ain’t In It For My Health stick with me: There is a sequence showing Levon with some of his farming neighbors, and at one point, Levon drives one of their tractors around a field with a huge grin on his face. And several times during the shooting, we see Levon and Larry Campbell of the Levon Helm Band working on an unfinished Hank Williams song called “You’ll Never Again Be Mine.”

The unfinished lyrics were among those found by a janitor for Sony/ATV Music Publishing in 2006. After some legal wrangling, Sony sent the lyrics to Bob Dylan, asking him to complete the songs. Levon was one of those invited to take part in the project, along with Alan Jackson, Norah Jones, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell and others. Ain’t In It For My Health shows several brief scenes of Levon and Campbell crafting a melody and filling in lyrics for the song’s bridge.

And in the last portions of the film, we see other members of Levon’s band laying down their parts for the track. Near the end of the film, Levon, with his voice diminished by age and ravaged by illness but still vital, adds the lead vocal.

Here’s how “You’ll Never Again Be Mine” turned out on the 2011 album The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams. It’s today’s Saturday Single.

‘White’

January 31, 2014

And so, after several delays, we land on “White,” the last of nine chapters in Floyd’s Prism, looking at songs whose titles feature the seven colors of the spectrum plus black and white.

As with nearly all of the previous entries, when we sort the tracks in the RealPlayer, we get a total of 766. That’s many more than we need, but many of them, we cannot use. Some show up, as I noted the other day, because they’re tagged with the notation, “Ripped from vinyl by whiteray.” But others, equally unuseable, show up for other reasons.

Some have words in their titles that are close to “white,” including eleven versions of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” And we’ll also pass on “Whitestone Bridge,” a 1973 tune from the Irish band Tír na nÓg; “Whitewash,” a 1976 outing by the Gin Blossoms; and two versions of Curtis Mayfield’s 1971 offering, “Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey).”

Out goes everything by the Average White Band, Tony Joe White, country singer Joy Lynn White, vintage singers Bukka White, Josh White and Georgia White, harp legend Charlie Musselwhite, Edgar Winter’s White Trash, current performer Jack White and country singer Lari White. We also dismiss the great “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead, a few vintage tracks by Paul Whitehead & His Orchestra and two tracks from Lavelle White, one on Duke from 1958 and the other from her 2003 album, Into the Mystic. And we pass by every track in the collection by Barry White; we could have kept his “Rhapsody in White,” but we decided against it.

What else? Three albums titled Black & White, by the BoDeans, the Pointer Sisters and the previously mentioned Tony Joe White, fall by the wayside, as do Shawn Phillips’ 1973 album Bright White (we posted the title tune here the other week), Michael Omartian’s 1974 effort White Horse, most of David Gray’s 200 album White Ladder and Gene Clark’s 1971 offering White Light. We also pass by the Cowboy Junkies’ 1986 album Whites Off Earth Now!! and numerous singles on the White Whale label.

So we take what’s left, which turns out to be plenty for our purposes this morning.

I mentioned David Gray’s 2000 album White Ladder above. It’s a CD that’s truly not strayed far from our player during the years since it came out, a tuneful and literate album. The best-known track on the record is no doubt “Babylon,” which made seven different Billboard charts, reaching No. 57 on the Hot 100 and No. 8 on the Adult Top 40. While the title track is nowhere near as well-known (and doesn’t have nearly as great a hook as “Babylon,” to be honest), “White Ladder” is still a good track from an artist whose body of work has sometimes been uneven (and sometimes gets a little repetitive, to be honest).

Nearly seven years ago, during the first weeks of this blog’s existence, I told the tale of my grandfather and his buying a birthday present for my sister, a 45 rpm record that turned out to be the tales of the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood written by Steve Allen and then told by Al “Jazzbo” Collins in early 1950s jazz and hipster lingo. The 1953 record was an unlikely hit, and it spun off more such performances. Today’s selection is “Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs” as told by Collins later that same year. The story came from the pen of Douglas Jones, whose ear for the hipster argot was, to my own ears, not as sharp as was Allen’s. Still, it’s a fun trip through the woods to the dwarves’ rib shack.

There’s not a lot more for me to say about the late Levon Helm. Today’s sorting brought up Helm’s take on the Carter Stanley tune “White Dove,” from Helm’s 2009 album, Electric Dirt. The album went to No. 36 on the Billboard 200 and was awarded a Grammy as the Best Americana Album in 2010.

From 2009 we drop back sixty-eight years to what is certainly the most sentimental song in this set of six. But then, wartime can do that, and “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” is one of the quintessential songs of World War II. Written in 1941 by Walter Kent and Nat Burton, the tune reflects the unease of Britons facing Nazi Germany alone and expresses hope for a return to normal life after the war. Though other versions might have become better known on this side of the Atlantic, especially the version by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the version by Vera Lynn – the original, I believe – is the one that the Brits loved, despite the sad fact that bluebirds are not indigenous to the British Isles and have never flown over the tall white cliffs. Lyricist Burton, notes Wikipedia, was an American who seemingly didn’t know any better, but no matter: Since 1941, “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” anyway.

Chad Mitchell was, as his name reminds us, the founder of the Chad Mitchell Trio, a folk group that placed eight albums in the Billboard 200 between 1962 and 1965 (the last two charting after Mitchell left and the group was renamed just the Mitchell Trio (and included among its members at that time John Denver). Mitchell at that point embarked on a solo career, and one of the artifacts of that rather unsuccessful effort is the 1969 album Chad. The album, writes Richie Unterberger at All Music Guide, was “an odd match of Mitchell’s crooning folk vocals with covers of then-recent folk-rock-ish songs by Joni Mitchell (‘Both Sides Now’), Dino Valente (‘Let’s Get Together’), and far more obscure titles like Tim Buckley’s ‘Goodbye & Hello,’ H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The White Ship,’ Jim & Jean’s ‘What’s That Got to Do with Me,’ and the Association’s ‘Bus Song’.” It’s the Lovecraft tune that draws us in this morning. The album-opener, “The White Ship” is, in its weird and unmarketable (but oddly compelling) way, 1969 summed up in three minutes and thirty-eight seconds.

From 1969’s folk-rock self-indulgence, we head to 1957 and a concise country anthem, “A White Sport Coat & A Pink Carnation” by Marty Robbins. The tale of the young fellow all spiffed up for the dance only to have his gal waltz off with someone else was No. 1 on the Billboard country charts for five weeks in mid-1957. It was one of a remarkable eighty-three records Robbins placed in the country Top 40; the record also went to No. 2 on the Hot 100, where Robbins had thirty-six records in or near the chart over the years.

‘Violet’

November 13, 2013

As promised yesterday, we’ll continue today with the next installment of Floyd’s Prism, and when we search in the mp3 stacks for tunes with “violet” in their titles, we get a minimal result: only thirty-six titles.

And most of them have to be discarded, as is generally the case. First off the pile are a couple of singer-songwriter albums: Madison Violet’s Americana-tinged 2009 album, No Fool For Trying, and Sarah Alden’s 2012 effort, Fists Of Violets, which is more difficult to characterize.

Then, we lose some individuals tracks whose titles come close: “Violetta” from the 1962 album A Taste of Honey by exotica master Martin Denny; “Goodbye To the War; Goodbye To the Violets” from the 1973 album Weltschmerzen by the People’s Victory Orchestra & Chorus; “Violets for Your Furs” from Frank Sinatra’s 1954 album, Songs for Young Lovers; U2’s “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” from the 1992 album, Achtung Baby; and versions of Eric Andersen’s “Violets of Dawn” from the Robbs (1967), Rick Nelson (1969), Mary Chapin Carpenter (2009) and Andersen himself (1966, as noted here yesterday).

That leaves us with six tracks, which was our target. So on we go.

The British-based folk rock band Eclection recorded only one album during its two-year (1967-69) existence, but the self-titled album, released in 1968, is pretty good and not as Brit-centered as one might expect. In the liner notes for the 2001 reissue of the album, Richie Unterberger wrote, “The combination of male-female harmonies, optimistic lyrics with shades of romantic psychedelia, folk-rock melodies, acoustic-electric six- and twelve-string guitar combinations, and stratospheric orchestration couldn’t help but bring to mind similar Californian folk-pop-rock of the mid-to-late 1960s.” The track “Violet Dew” doesn’t quite cover all of those bases, but it covers a lot of them. Perhaps the most noticeable thing as I listen this morning is the remarkable voice of singer Kerrilee Male, who left the band later in 1968 to go home to Australia and seemingly, from anything I can find online this morning, never recorded again.

Shawn  Phillips’ work from the early 1970s has shown up frequently in this space (though perhaps not for a while), but his later work not so much. That’s unfortunate, as Phillips’ later work is worth hearing. The difference, I suppose, is that his work from the latter portion of the 1970s does not carry the same time-and-place weight for me as does his earlier stuff; I didn’t hear much of the later work at the time it came out. Still, nearly every time something pops up from his late 1970s albums, I’m glad it did so. Today, it’s “Lady in Violet” from his 1978 album Transcendence, about which I said in 2007: “It’s a pretty good album, of a piece with the rest of his work, although the lyrics don’t seem to stand up as well . . . . Musically, it’s enjoyable with a breath-taking moment or two.” Whether any of those moments show up in “Lady in Violet” is your call, I guess. I think they do.

Without doubt, the finest offering among the six surviving “Violet” tracks is “Violet Eyes” by Levon Helm. Found on his 1980 album, American Son, the track offers harmonies and an overall feeling that echo the best albums of The Band. According to All Music Guide, the track was recorded in Nashville: “While recording a few songs for the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, in which he played Loretta Lynn’s father, Levon Helm and friends just kept the tape rolling.” And as I listen this morning, I wonder why no solo tracks from Helm showed up on my long-ago Ultimate Jukebox. So, in what I imagine could be – perhaps should be – the last instance of Jukebox Regrets, I’ll acknowledge that “Violet Eyes” and “Even A Fool Would Let Go” (from Helm’s 1982 self-titled album) should have been part of the Ultimate Jukebox.

Maybe it doesn’t happen so much anymore (or maybe I just don’t see it), but a few years ago the simple mention of Coldplay at a forum or bulletin board – during a time when that band was perhaps the most popular band in the world – would spark arguments, dismissive comments and utter vitriol aimed at Chris Martin and his mates. I never understood that. I don’t count Coldplay among my favorites, but I don’t find the group’s music unlistenable. And I do like very much several tracks from the group, including “Violet Hill” from the 2008 album Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends.

To label something as “glossy Americana” might be a contradiction, but that’s what I hear when I listen to the 2011 CD Barton Hollow by the duo called the Civil Wars. The album by Joy Williams and John Paul White offers mostly rootsy ballads that seem to have been worked over until they shine, which is not an awful idea, but some part of me wants a few unsanded and unvarnished bits in my folk music. Still, I find Barton Hollow enjoyable, and that holds true for the instrumental “The Violet Hour” this morning.

I’m not sure how I got hold of Jeremy Messersmith’s 2010 album, The Reluctant Graveyard. There are a number of public relations firms that email me regularly, offering CDs or downloads, so I’m assuming that’s how I heard of Messersmith, who is based in Minneapolis. And having done some digging and some closer listening this morning, I have to add Messersmith – who’s gained a lot of critical acclaim in the past few years – to that long list of musicians to whom I should pay greater attention. As to this morning’s task, “Violet!” is one of the better tracks on The Reluctant Graveyard. Here’s the (rather quirky) official video:

Saturday Single No. 287

April 21, 2012

The news, as I would guess most readers here will know by now, came from the family of Levon Helm last Tuesday, April 17:

Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey . . .

Thank you, fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration . . . he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage . . .

And Thursday, April 19, there was a simple message at Helm’s website, under a picture of a smiling Levon posed at the edge of a cornfield, a portrait taken during the photo session for his 2007 album, Dirt Farmer. The message read: 

Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon. He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul.

Since then, I’ve read fifteen, maybe twenty tributes to the man and accounts of his life. I can no longer separate my thoughts about Levon Helm from those I’ve garnered from everything I’ve read this week. (The best of those pieces is by Charles P. Pierce at the website of Esquire magazine; my pal jb at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ pointed me there.) So I fear repetition or, worse yet, thievery as I write this morning.

I was lucky enough to see Levon perform three times: The first time, in 1989, found him one of the members of Ringo’s first All-Starr Band; he and fellow Band-mate Rick Danko did a superlative performance of “The Weight” with solos from Dr. John  on piano and Clarence Clemons on saxophone. Twice, then, during the 1990s, I saw the latter version of The Band – Levon, Rick and Garth Hudson fleshed out with Richard Bell, Randy Ciarlante and Jim Weider – at the Cabooze in Minneapolis.

Given those memories, and given my long-time affection for the music Levon made with The Band and on his own, his passing this week touched me in a manner that, among musicians, only the passing of John Lennon in 1980 and Clarence Clemons last year had done. Thursday evening’s red-eyed soundtrack here in my study came from Levon Helm, with and without The Band.

Many posts ago, I noted here that The Band was recording and performing the music we now call Americana long before anyone appended that label to the music. That holds true for all of Levon’s music, of course, and every time he played and sang, he reminded us of who we are in this land, and he reminded us of our connection to that land and to each other, things we seem to have forgotten.

Here’s Levon, joined by his daughter Amy, with the final track from Dirt Farmer, “Wide River To Cross.” It’s today’s Saturday Single.

A Baker’s Dozen Of Moons

June 12, 2011

Originally posted February 20, 2008

I must have been about seven, which would put it sometime during the winter of 1960-61, when my dad showed me the darkened and red moon.

I’d been in bed a few hours, I imagine, with bedtime for a seven-year-old being about eight o’clock back then. But Dad woke me and had me look to the south, out the bathroom window. Floating above the trees, there rode the Moon, looking larger than usual, its normally pale white face colored a dusky red.

“It’s a total eclipse of the moon,” he told me. “The Earth comes between the Sun and the moon, and we can see the Earth’s shadow on the moon.” We looked for a while. I asked why the moon was red. He said he thought it had to do with the atmosphere, with the weather. (He was right.)

We looked at the moon for a little while longer and then went back to bed. It’s been nearly fifty years since Dad showed me the red moon. I imagine other total eclipses have come and gone, maybe many times, since then. There’s another one tonight, visible in most of North America. Starting at 7:43 Central Time, the Earth’s shadow will fall across the Moon. From 9:01 to 9:51, according to NASA, the eclipse will be total.

I hope lots of dads show their kids the darkened moon tonight.

A Baker’s Dozen of Moons
“Under the Darkest Moon” by Boo Hewerdine and Darden Smith from Evidence, 1989

“Moon River” by Henry Mancini from the soundtrack to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961

“Neon Moon” by Brooks & Dunn from Brand New Man, 1991

“Love on the Moon” by the Sutherland Brothers & Quiver from Reach For The Sky, 1975

“Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck, Private Stock single 45,036, 1976

“Blue Moon” by Elvis Presley , RCA single 47-6640, 1956

“All Around The Sun And Moon” by Joy of Cooking from Castles, 1972

“Copper Kettle (Pale Moonlight)” by Bob Dylan from Self Portrait, 1970

“Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Levon Helm, from Coal Miner’s Daughter soundtrack, 1980

“Desert Moon” by Dennis DeYoung, A&M single 2666, 1984

“Yellow Moon” by the Neville Brothers from Yellow Moon, 1989

“Underneath the Harlem Moon” by Randy Newman from 12 Songs, 1970

“Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fantasy single 622, 1969

A few notes:

“Under the Darkest Moon” comes from one of my favorite albums, one I shared here a while back. When I found it, I began to follow the solo careers of the two artists. In the past few years, though, I’ve pretty much quit following Hewerdine while continuing to track Smith, whose music continues to inhabit the intersection of rock, country and folk. (He’s issued nothing since 2005’s Field of Crows, so I’m waiting patiently.) Why did I quit following Hewerdine? His melodies are artful, sometimes beautiful, and his words are often eloquent, but, to me, the more I listened, there was a lightness in his work that was unrelieved; they needed a little more weight.

When I was working at the newspaper in Eden Prairie in the early 1990s, one of my colleagues, an ad man, was a country music fan, though he liked oldies as well. On his recommendation, I ordered through my music club one of Brooks & Dunn’s albums. I listened to it a couple of times, shrugged, and passed it on to Alan. Since the Texas Gal came into my life eight years ago this month, I’ve listened more to country music than I ever had before, and Brooks & Dunn are quite likely my favorite country performers. (Whenever they pop up on the RealPlayer, the little message box tells me that the only recording duo that has sold more records than Brooks & Dunn is Simon & Garfunkel. If that’s true, and I have no reason to doubt it, that’s an astounding fact.)

For most of the summer of 1976, the Starbuck tune was as inescapable as it is catchy. It spent fourteen weeks in the Top 40, beginning in mid-May, going as high as No. 3. It has to be one of the few Top 40 hits with a marimba solo. (I think it’s a marimba.)

When it was released in 1970, Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait was greeted with confused stares and derision. Among other things, critic Greil Marcus wrote, “I once said I’d buy an album of Dylan breathing hard. But I’d never said I’d buy an album of Dylan breathing softly.” “Copper Kettle (Pale Moonlight)” has been one of the few tracks that, over the years, has been given some respect. Wikipedia reports that it was written by “Alfred Frank Beddoe (who was ‘discovered’ by Pete Seeger after applying for work at People’s Songs, Inc. in 1946).” (Exactly who was doing the applying there is unclear, but never mind.) To me, “Copper Kettle (Pale Moonlight)” is not just the best track on the album, but one of Dylan’s best tracks ever.

I was never a Styx fan, but I found I enjoyed 1984’s Desert Moon, the first solo album by the band’s keyboard player and vocalist, Dennis DeYoung. Part of that was no doubt familiarity with the title track, as the song’s video was in heavy rotation on MTV that year, the first year I had cable. It’s still a nice song, but it sounds a little bit slight after twenty-four years.

‘You Just Call On Me, Brother . . .’

June 11, 2011

Originally posted February 5, 2008

When Robbie Robertson of The Band decided to call it quits for the group in 1976 – a decision that wasn’t fully embraced by all members of The Band, from what I’ve read – the five members of the group split in different directions for a time, following different muses. Probably the most interesting post-Band career of any of the five of them has been that of Levon Helm.

The only U.S.-born member of The Band, Helm headed into acting, his Arkansas/Delta drawl and his craggy looks bringing him his first major part in 1980, as country singer Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter. During the filming, Helm was in the studio when actor Sissy Spacek recorded Lynn’s songs for use in the movie – she actually did a pretty good job – and Helm recorded a sterling version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” that wound up being used in the film and released on the soundtrack as well.

Along with acting, Helm began a solo recording career, releasing a star-studded album called Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars in 1977, self-titled albums in 1978 and 1982, and the great American Son in 1980. And just last year, when he regained his voice following treatment for throat cancer, Helm resumed his solo recording career with Dirt Farmer. Filled with songs remembered from Helm’s Arkansas childhood, it’s an album that sounds like a Saturday night spent not far from the levee on the Mississippi River, with music as rough-edged and natural as the life in the Delta that the songs recall. Helms’ voice is a little strained at time, but given his health, it’s a miracle that he’s singing at all.

The role in Coal Miner’s Daughter was just the first for Helm. While his acting career hasn’t been a constant, he’s accumulated sixteen more acting credits since that 1980 film, according to the Internet Movie Database, with the most recent being the role of Confederate General John Bell Hood in the film In The Electric Mist (based on the James Lee Burke novel, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead). That film, according to IMBd, is scheduled for release this year.

Along the way, just as he did for Coal Miner’s Daughter, Helm has added his musical talents to several soundtracks. I don’t have a complete list of them, but the one I’m thinking about today is Staying Together, a 1989 film coming of age film set in the South. As well as acting in a supporting role in the film, Helm recorded three songs for the soundtrack: “Hotel Buick,” written by Tim Drummond, legendary guitarist Lonnie Mack and Stan Szelest, a keyboard player who was part of the 1990s version of The Band; “Big Love In A Small Town,” written by Helm and Szelest with several others, including Randy Ciarlante and Jim Weider, also members of the later version of The Band; and “Lean On Me,” the classic song written and first recorded in 1972 by Bill Withers. The first two are good performances of good songs; the recording of “Lean On Me” is a great performance of a classic song.

A large number of performers have recorded “Lean On Me” since Withers had a No. 1 hit with his performance in 1972. All-Music Guide lists 344 CDs on which the song is available. Some of the names are familiar, if sometimes surprising: Debbie Allen, Harry Belafonte, Michael Bolton, Glen Campbell, Club Nouveau (a 1987 version that went to No. 1), Georgie Fame, Aretha Franklin, Crystal Gayle, Al Green, Al Jarreau, Melba Moore, Tracy Nelson, Harry Nilsson, Rascal Flatts, Ike & Tina Turner and Grover Washington, to list only a few.

Other names on the list are less known or less expected (and some induce a wince). Those include the Angry String Orchestra, the California Raisins, Tonga Coleman, the Countdown Kids, Tompall Glaser, Peggy Lee, Ellen McIlwaine (I’ll have to find that one), Mud, the Persuasions, B.B. Seaton, Bonnie Tyler and more.

I’ve heard some of those, not all, and many of those I’ve heard are nicely done. Some of the rest are no doubt fine recordings, too. But of all the cover versions of Bill Withers’ classic song, Helm’s remains my favorite.

Levon Helm – “Lean On Me” [1989]

A Baker’s Dozen From 1980

April 26, 2011

Originally posted July 18, 2007

When the year 1980 comes along as I’m thinking about music, my train of thought is an express, heading to only one destination.

It was a Monday, December 8 was. It was the second Monday of the month, which meant that I spent the bulk of the evening at Monticello City Hall, listening to the city council debate whatever issues were on its agenda. It sounds deadly dull, but I actually enjoyed covering city government; the ebb and flow of politics and policies over a nearly six-year period gave me insight as to how a city grows.

I don’t recall any of the topics on the agenda, but the meeting was over fairly early. I’d guess it was around 9:30 when the gavel fell and I walked out of the building into the chilly night, headed for my car and my home about two miles out of town. The woman who was then my wife was there, probably involved in some craft project, and there was a football game on television, Miami and New England.

And so I was seated in my easy chair, probably dipping into a bowl of popcorn, when Howard Cosell interrupted the game.

“This, we have to say it, is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” Cosell said. “An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all the Beatles, shot five times in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead … on … arrival.”

I stared at the screen, football forgotten. I recall trying to wrap my head around the weight Cosell’s words carried, not quite grasping it, the news too stunning and too fresh for comprehension or sorrow. Not long after the game ended, the result unnoticed, we retired for the night, and I lay there, still shocked. “Do you think it will be on Nightline?” she asked me.

“I can’t imagine they’d cover anything else.”

“Then go watch it. He was yours.”

I went to the living room. In a short marriage in which both of us so often got so many things so wrong about each other, that was one that she got right about me, and I am still grateful. I watched as Ted Koppel and his reporters and guests sorted through what was known and what was supposed. Then they began the first of thousands of assessments of what John Lennon and the Beatles had meant to us.

That’s a topic worthy of several volumes – what John Lennon and the Beatles had meant to us – and not all of the answers can be put into words. The next day was a busy one at work, as Tuesdays always were, but I managed to get home for thirty minutes for lunch. One of the Twin Cities classic rock stations, KQRS, was playing the Beatles’ catalog alphabetically, and as I ate my sandwich, I heard “In My Life.”

As I listened, I finally understood how those folks a few years older than I had felt during the summer of 1977 when they got the news that Elvis had died. Bent over my dining room table, I wept for John; for Yoko, Sean and Julian; for John’s three bandmates; and I wept for all of us who loved the man through his music.

Here’s a random Baker’s Dozen from 1980:

“Sequel” by Harry Chapin, Boardwalk single 5700

“Middle Man” by Boz Scaggs from Middle Man

“Boulevard” by Jackson Browne from Hold Out

“Gaucho” by Steely Dan from Gaucho

“Crush On You” by Bruce Springsteen from The River

“Saving Grace” by Bob Dylan from Saved

“Wildwood Boys” by Jim Keach from The Long Riders soundtrack

“The Last To Know” by Dan Fogelberg from Phoenix

“Every Night” by Richie Havens from Connections

“High Walls” by Levon Helm from The Legend Of Jesse James

“Woman” by John Lennon, Geffen single 49644

“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, Chrysalis single 2464

“Cocaine” by Eric Clapton, RSO single 1039

A few notes on some of the songs:

For many people, there is no middle ground when it comes to Harry Chapin: They either love him and his works, or detest him. “Taxi,” especially, seems to draw either scorn or rapture. If it were better known, I’d imagine the same response would apply to “Sequel,” in which, backed by almost the same music as eight years earlier, Harry returns to San Francisco and has “eight hours to kill before the show.” We know where he goes, and of course, he takes a taxi, and he tells us (almost) all about it. Overblown? Yes. Beloved? Yes, that, too. Chapin was a storyteller, and one of the ancillary regrets I have about his death in 1981 is that we never got to hear the end of the tale, which I can only assume he would have called “Finale.”

Jackson Browne’s Hold Out has aged better than I thought it would. Coming after his first four studio albums and the live triumph of Running On Empty, it seemed slight and lightweight – especially in its lyrics; the music was pretty well done – when it came out in 1980. Now, twenty-seven years later, most of the album fares better. But “Boulevard,” which seemed to be the slightest song on the record in 1980, still sounds trite.

Springsteen’s “Crush On You” is one of the most direct and powerful songs from The River, an album stacked with direct and powerful tunes that are balanced by a few of the loveliest ballads the Boss has ever done. I’m not sure being so direct with the object of one’s passion would work in real life, but Bruce and the boys are strong enough here to make the listener think it might.

“Saving Grace” comes from Saved, the second of Bob Dylan’s three so-called Christian albums. It was also the least successful musically, if not commercially, of the three. It’s an album that I would guess that few Dylan fans listen to very often; the Bard of Hibbing is one of my favorite performers and I don’t think I’ve played the record more than twice, maybe. But even mediocre Dylan can hold some interest in performance, and the lyrics have one of two turns of phrase that show that he put some work into it.

I chuckled when songs from both the soundtrack to The Long Riders – a film that told the story of Jesse James – and the LP The Legend of Jesse James popped up during the random play. It was evidently a good year for the original James Gang, 1980 was. Of the two albums, I prefer The Long Riders. Even though the vocal on “Wildwood Boys” is by Jim Keach, the song, and the soundtrack, belong to Ry Cooder, who wrote much of the original material and arranged the rest, some of it traditional, some of it written for the film. The LP The Legend of Jesse James, which I can only call a country-rock opera, is a not-awful attempt to tell the same story through song that Walter Hill told on the screen. The main roles are sung by Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Charlie Daniels; other prominent names on the record include Albert Lee and Jesse Ed Davis on guitar and Bernie Leadon on banjo. Written and produced by Paul Kennerly, the record sounds good in concept but unhappily doesn’t seem to pull together to be as compelling as one would like it to be.

Some Lasting Concert Memories

April 23, 2011

Originally posted June 22, 2007

Some time ago, I set down a few words about the concerts I used to go to at St. Cloud State, starting when I was in high school and continuing through my college years. I came to the judgment that the Chicago concert in the spring of 1970 was the best I’d ever heard there.

That got me to thinking about sorting through memories of all the pop and rock concerts I’d ever attended and deciding on one best show. Kind of a tough task, as I was certain I’d forget a show or two here or there. And I might. But the best shows do tend to stand out, even after – in many cases – more than thirty years.

Now, I’ve never been one to go to a lot of concerts. Compared to some of my contemporaries, I hardly went to concerts at all. I knew people in college who hit the Twin Cities for shows nearly every weekend and then doubled that rate during the summers. That left me wondering how they kept track of them: To me, memory is a large part of the concert experience, the ability to sit back and re-experience, as it were, a moment that moved you but that may have taken place years before.

And that got me to thinking. Which moments stand out for me? When I look back at the concerts I’ve been to, what do I recall most clearly?

5.) In the spring of 1972, Elton John basked in the applause as his concert at St. Cloud State neared the two-hour point. Sitting at his piano after one of his quieter ballads, he raised his hands, thanked the crowd and mopped his brow. “We’re gonna have some fun now,” he said, leaving me and my date wondering what we’d been having up to then. He stood up and kicked the bench away from the piano. “I love this song,” he said. Then he bent over the keyboard and ripped into a kick-ass rendition of “Take Me To The Pilot.”

4.) All night long in the summer of 1974, the members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had traded off being the center of attention, fading into the background as each of the others sang lead on the group’s songs or performed material from solo albums, taking turns adding guitar solos to the performances and generally being very well-controlled. Near the end of the show, all four strapped on electric guitars to perform “Ohio.” As they headed into a long jam, the four of them formed a box on stage, all facing each other, backs to the rest of us in the arena. And it was like a switch was flipped: Suddenly it was the four of them – David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young – and the rest of us could just as well have not been there, as they traded lick after lick for what seemed like a very long time, embracing themselves and their music and giving the 17,000 of us in the audience the privilege of listening in.

3.) The Rolling Stones performed in a small arena when they played Århus, Denmark, in October 1973, doing two shows in a space that, in memory, seems no larger than maybe four basketball courts. I saw the second show with my Danish brother, Ejvind, and we had the best seats I’ve ever had for a concert: fifth row up, no more than sixty feet from the stage. The two images that stay with me from the show are of perspiration: Sax player Bobby Keys, already having shed water during the first show and dripping under the lights as he tore through his solo during the second show’s opener, “Brown Sugar,” and Mick Jagger mopping sweat from his brow midway through the show as he danced through the middle section of “Midnight Rambler.”

2.) In July of 1989, Ringo Starr brought his first All-Starr band to St. Paul’s Harriet Island for an outdoor show. About 20,000 folks came out to see the ex-Beatle, who’d brought along with him folks like Levon Helm and Rick Danko from The Band; Dr. John; Joe Walsh; Billy Preston; Nils Lofgren and Clarence Clemons from the E Street Band; session drummer extraordinaire Jim Keltner; and his own drummer son Zak. There were a number of wonderful moments: Helm and Danko teaming up to perform The Band’s classic song, “The Weight,” and Ringo closing the show as Billy Shears doing “With A Little Help From My Friends” were just two. But the best moment for me came during “Yellow Submarine.” During one of the choruses, Clemons leaned into his microphone and contributed the antiphonal spoken word portions that on the record were done, I think, by John Lennon. As he did so, he beckoned to the crowd to join him. And we did: “So we sailed (So we sailed) . . . into the sun (into the sun) . . . ’til we found (’til we found) . . . the sea of green (the sea of green.)” And so on. But at the end of the chorus, Clemons was silent after “yellow submarine,” leaving the 20,000 of us in the audience to replicate in unison Lennon’s manic “A-ha!”

1.) The best single moment I’ve ever had at a concert took place in September 2002, when the Texas Gal scored tickets for us to see Paul McCartney at the Xcel Center in St. Paul. It started as a good concert and then began to turn magical when McCartney encouraged our ovation for John Lennon before he performed “Here Today,” his tribute to John from Tug of War. He followed that by picking up a ukulele for a performance of George Harrison’s “Something,” which was lovely. And then, as the applause died down, there came from the speakers the sound of an airliner revving up. “Ohmigod, yes!” I hollered as McCartney and his sidemen (who were remarkably good) leaped into “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” quite likely my favorite Beatles’ song of all time. I couldn’t stop grinning, and the memory still makes me grin. I think it will for a long, long time.

So what do I share for a post about my best concert moments? Well, logic would call for McCartney’s Back In The U.S., a two-disc collection recorded during that 2002 tour. Two things helped me decide against it. First, it’s still in print, still easily available. Second, quite a few of the performances on it aren’t as good as the ones we heard in St. Paul that night. Although I enjoy the CD, I don’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would when I got it.

But the 1990 release Ringo Starr And His All-Starr Band, now, that’s a different story! I was surprised to find that it’s out of print here in the U.S. (Used copies are easily available online.) And, to my ears, it provides an accurate and very enjoyable listen, with the performances – recorded during the tour finale at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles – being faithful to the sound of the show I saw during the tour’s early weeks. The only disappointments are the absences – for clearance reasons, I assume – of the Lennon-McCartney tunes, “Yellow Submarine” and “With A Little Help From My Friends.”

Live albums can be a crapshoot, of course. Many of them – and some of these are legendary – have so many studio overdubs added to repair concert deficiencies that they might as well be studio albums. I don’t think that’s the case here. At least, I’ve never read anything about it, as I have in the cases of other prominent rockers and their live albums. It’s a fun album to listen to on its own, and as an audio souvenir of a hot evening in July 1989, it really can’t be beat. (A-ha!)

Here’s the track listing:
It Don’t Come Easy
The No-No Song
Iko Iko
The Weight
Shine Silently
Honey Don’t
You’re Sixteen
Quarter To Three
Raining In My Heart
Will It Go Round In Circles
Life In The Fast Lane
Photograph

Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band [1990]

Early Posts Without Much Comment

April 20, 2011

In the first month that Echoes In The Wind was online, I shared albums and a few singles from several performers without much commentary of my own, relying heavily on quotes from other sources. Here is a list of those performers and albums:

Mystics – “Pain” [1969]
Posted January 3, 2007

Bobby Whitlock – Bobby Whitlock [1972]
Posted January 3, 2007

Toni Childs – Union [1988]
Probably posted January 5, 2007

Levon Helm – American Son [1980]
Posted January 5, 2007

Levon Helm – Levon Helm [1978]
Posted January 11, 2007

Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars – Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars [1977]
Posted January 13, 2007

Levon Helm – Levon Helm [1982]
Posted January 16, 2007

Dion – “Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” [1968]
Posted January 16, 2007

Cate Brothers – Cate Bros [1975]
Posted January 19, 2007