May 3, 2010

All I know is I feel better when I sing (burdens are lifted from me)

rawlings welch

I’ll be traveling soon to California for the rest of this week, to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of my uncle who passed away this weekend. He had been sick for a while, but it still came as a shock.

Uncle Lew spent time in the Coast Guard when he was younger, on an ice-breaker ship up near Iceland. I remember the exotic excitement when he’d come home from a time at sea. One of my favorite pictures from when I was little is me standing in his giant boots with his blue sailor’s cap perched huge on my head. I’m laughing. The last time I saw Lew was this summer, when I returned from my own ocean voyage on a sailing ship. His eyes lit up as we talked about what it feels like out on the open seas. I saw in his eyes a vibrant spark that belied the man lying in the hospital bed. Even after all, tonight, I’m glad he’s free.

There’s a song I keep listening to these days. Last time I was in CA it was for happier circumstances, and I made it to Golden Gate Park to see these two harmonize in the sunshine under the eucalyptus trees.

David Rawlings and Gillian Welch were woven together musically somewhere before time began. This cover reinvents old (Neil Young) and new (Bright Eyes), from their recent Daytrotter session, and when Gillian’s harmonies come in, the effect is so bittersweet, warming up the edges of Conor Oberst’s sharp original to shades of sepia. All I know is I feel better when I sing.

Method Acting/Cortez The Killer – Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch

Method Acting – Bright Eyes

I’ll see Rawlings at Telluride Bluegrass Festival next month, and I have been hearing nothing but good things about his newest album A Friend of A Friend, where you can find a studio version of this same cover, as well as the song he co-write with Ryan Adams, “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High),” and wonderful new songs. It’s good thinking music, good ale-sippin’ music.

February 2, 2009

Ben Kweller covers Neil Young + plays some new songs


Although he still looks eternally (and preternaturally) adolescent, 27 year-old Ben Kweller has been making music for fifteen years now, from catchy pop to punk rock and all shades in between. Recently returned to his home state to settle in Austin, Kweller’s bright new country-inflected album Changing Horses is out this week  on ATO Records.

“I wear my Texas roots on my sleeve,” Ben says on this interview from the BBC a few weeks ago. He’s apparently been writing these Southwestern songs for years (some hints broke through notably on 2006′s superb self-titled album and more recently on his How Ya Lookin’, Southbound? EP), and squirreling away the twang for the perfect time to gather them all into a slide-guitar + dusty heartbreak tour de force.

Kweller is comfortable letting his roots show. “I grew up bass-fishing, playing in creeks, and shooting BB guns,” Kweller says. “Country music was the soundtrack to my life. It’s still a big part of who I am. When Garth Brooks or Alan Jackson come on the radio, somethin’ happens inside. Brings me back to the trees, back to pushin’ cars out of the mud. Reminds me of my hometown.”

BEN KWELLER – Live on BBC2 (Dec 13, 2008)
Intro/Chat I
Sawdust Man
Chat II
From Hank To Hendrix
(Neil Young cover)
Chat III
(from 2002′s Sha Sha)


And also — man. I love that Neil Young song he covers (from 1992′s Harvest Moon), and just like everything Kweller does, the way he sings it is here is so purely unaffected and honest:

Sometime it’s distorted
Not clear to you
Sometimes the beauty of love
Just comes ringin’ through

New glass in the window
New leaf on the tree
New distance between us
You and me

Can we get it together?
Can we still walk side by side?
Can we make it last
Like a musical ride?

Changing Horses is out February 3rd in the U.S. (today in Europe!), and there’s a sweeeet Daytrotter session recently posted as well.


September 11, 2008

Rogue Wave cover Neil Young’s “Birds”

When I posted the new Rogue Wave video at the beginning of the summer, a reader posted a comment looking for Rogue Wave‘s cover of the 1970 Neil Young song “Birds” that they’d just covered at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Intriguing.

Well, after months of fruitless searching, I finally was pointed in the direction of a superb-quality acoustic version from FNX Radio in Boston. Warm, sparkling, and heartfelt:

When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go
It’s over

Birds (Neil Young cover) – Rogue Wave

[pic up top taken by me at Outside Lands]

October 12, 2007

Guest post: Chris from North Carolina, redux

In August, I wrote about the fabulous reader Chris from NC who took the time to send me five mix CDs and liner notes, and I posted some of the tracks off the first rock-themed collection.

There were four more discs full of goodness that were left shivering outside the blog love, so I wanted to move on to the next offering for your distinct enjoyment.

On this Friday afternoon, I’ll share a little mini-mix of five excellent selections from mix disc #2, along with his comments, on today’s guest blog. Let me repeat how much I enjoy hearing songs through other people’s ears, filtered through their own experience. Dig these fresh tunes:

Lots of humble opinions, sad songs, and covers

We Will Become Silhouettes – The Shins
Love the Postal Service, but this one’s better

Brilliant Disguise – Elvis Costello
Not so much a fan of Bruce’s version, but I love the lyrics and EC’s delivery. In easily the most surreal conversation of my life, Westerberg once told me you can call him E, but never Declan (his real name). You’ve been warned.

I Figured You Out – Mary Lou Lord
An Elliott Smith song that I could never find him doing. I think I really like this song in no small part because I can hear him singing it in my head.

Only Love Can Break Your Heart – Saint Etienne
Imaginative re-working of the old Neil Young song

More Than I Can Do – Steve Earle
Stalker song sometimes mistaken for a love song, along the lines of “Every Breath You Take.” Only less played out.

March 18, 2007

Country feedback

I went on a girls’ weekend in the gorgeous mountains of Colorado (some of them; we have many) and I was happily tasked with being the mixmaster for the affair. It was an event rife with some possibly questionable choices in the name of fun on my part (Journey), but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But that was in the car and for the going out. This stunning gem was just mine, from a moment of solitude. Very early Saturday morning I couldn’t sleep for some horrid reason, so I got up and went out on the porch of the lodge for some sitting and music-listening and looking, a favorite hobby of mine when I have time for it. As the sun rose over the mountains, this perfect song (one of my favorites) came on and it was a near ten minutes of flawless, bittersweet perfection:

Country Feedback (live) – R.E.M.
(with Neil Young on second guitar, at Bridge School Benefit 1998, also released as fan club single)

Admittedly I have been on something of an R.E.M. kick lately, but this one just popped up on my iPod on random out of the 11,000. Michael Stipe says at the beginning that (out of all the fine offerings from their 20+ year career), this is his “particular favorite R.E.M. song” — it’s easy here to see why. Gorgeous. I love the opportunity that solitude affords to really *listen* to a song, and I couldn’t help but think as this one played (a few times on loop) how a song like this is a perfection example of Stipe’s cryptic lyricism; the juxtaposition of the seemingly meaningless alongside the profound.

This flower’s scorched
This film is on
On a maddening loop
These clothes,
These clothes don’t fit us right and I’m to blame
It’s all the same, it’s all the same

You come to me with a bone in your hand
You come to me with your hair curled tight
You come to me with positions
You come to me with excuses
Ducked out in a row
You wear me out, you wear me out

We’ve been through fake-a-breakdown
Self hurt, Plastics, collections
Self help, self pain,
EST, psychics, fuck all

I was central, I had control
I lost my head
I need this, I need this

A paper weight, junk garage
Winter rain, a honey pot
Crazy, all the lovers have been tagged

A hotline, wanted ad
It’s crazy what you could’ve had
It’s crazy what you could’ve had
It’s crazy what you could’ve had
I need this
I need this

Even the times when I don’t exactly know what Stipe is saying, I kind of know what he means.

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October 24, 2006

Bridge School Benefit love

In 1985, Pegi Young (Neil’s lady) helped to start a school in the San Francisco Bay Area for local children with severe physical and speech impairments (their son Ben is affected by cerebral palsy). The Bridge School helps to remove expressive barriers for these children through augmentative and alternative means of communication with the world around them.

The nice thing about being associated with a respected member of the musical community is that The Bridge School received the seed money needed to open, as well as ongoing financial support for the last 20 years, with an annual star-studded, quality benefit show organized by Neil & Pegi. The Bridge School Benefit has had some amazing artists over the past 20 years.

I’ve gone to as many of these shows as I could afford, and have seen more phenomenal acoustic performances than I can even remember. This year it was a happy & nostalgic coincidence that our family vacation to California to see family lined up with the 20th annual benefit show weekend. I was able to stay one extra night so that I could attend the Sunday night show after seeing the lineup this year: Devendra Banhart, Gillian Welch, Death Cab For Cutie, Trent Reznor, Foo Fighters, Brian Wilson, Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, and Neil Young.

There was not one artist going into this show that I didn’t want to see — we all know that often with festivals there are one or two duds that you could care less about, but for me I was curious to see everyone, so I spent the 15 minute set-change breaks running to get what I needed so I could get back to catch each artist’s performance. As I started the beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon at Shoreline I had a space on the lawn, then some kind and fantastic stranger walked up to me and gave me his single ticket in the seats for unknown reasons. So that was a huge bonus and one of those fine things that just reaffirms your faith in humanity. Thanks “Tom” (from your e-ticket)!!

After the usual 2-song opening dealie with Neil and Pegi Young, Devendra Banhart took the stage with his newly-christened band “The Bridge” (wonder how he came up with that?) which included Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch on guitar. Banhart was more rocking than some of his folksier and warbly works I’ve heard off his latest album Cripple Crow (“Quedate Luna,” “Luna de Margarita”). He seemed to channel a bit more rock, in the vein of The Black Crowes, and overall I liked him. He looked a bit overwhelmed with the massive crowd — I’d like to see him in a smaller setting.

Gillian Welch is a giant of the bluegrass/country/folk scene, and I get the feeling that she is very well-respected among her musician cohorts. Regrettably, I have not been super familiar with her work beyond her collaborations with Ryan Adams and her contributions to the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack (I do a mean lullaby rendition of “Go To Sleep Little Baby” from that collection, a song that she performed at the show with the help of longtime musical partner David Rawlings and Petra Haden). She was confident and rocking, with a gospel tune in the mix, as well as a handful of her own songs and I believe a Neil Young cover (maybe “Country Girl,” it’s hazy).

Death Cab For Cutie may have converted me from hesitantly standing on the sidelines into a full-contact player/supporter/fan. I thought their set was really lovely and sounded great. Their cover of Graham Nash’s “Military Madness” with Neil Young was fantastic, and Ben Gibbard started the show with a solo “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” which is an undeniably poignant & beautiful tune. Some of the other song choices may have been a little questionable (a note about the Bridge School shows: children from the school sit on the stage as a special audience), such as the “second most depressing song” in their catalog, “What Sarah Said” (“There’s no comfort in the waiting room, just nervous pacers bracing for bad news . . . who’s going to watch you die?”).

There was a bit of discomfort (or should I say, a sense of heightened awareness) listening to those lyrics being sung in that setting. Every year there is a conflict that I see of artistic freedom: the artists aren’t there to do a kiddie show, and yet there those little ones are, sitting there watching with their parents, ears and eyes wide open.

Speaking of that very conflict, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) was up next. And he summarily blew my mind, moreso than any artistic act I have seen in the last several years. I cannot express how transfixed I was. I have been an unabashed Nine Inch Nails fan since I discovered Pretty Hate Machine in the mid ’90s, a disc that I think still sounds fresh and innovative and lyrically honest (brutally so). I wasn’t sure how Reznor would possibly fit into this acoustic setting. But he gets major, major props from me for meeting the challenge and using the opportunity of the setting to try something new. Get this: he comes on stage with a string quartet and a piano. The only percussion is little egg shakers. He has arranged 5 of his songs into orchestral pieces, and it was freaking *#%!! amazing. (AUDIO HERE)

He started out at the piano with a reinvention of “Something I Can Never Have,” almost unrecognizable at the start but then those familiar lyrics kick in and all that raging earnestness and nihilism is there, floating atop gorgeous strings and various dischordant sounds from striking the inside of the piano. He stands in front of the mike for the second song, holding the shakers and kicks into a steady rhythm. Not sure where he’s heading and then he whispers the opening lines: “Hey pig…” Fantastic. He also completely nailed “The Fragile” and “Hurt” (little blurry video clip here that gives you the idea). Mr. Reznor goes down in my book as an absolute genius for that set and I wish he would do a full tour like that. Amen for continuing creativity and not being content with staying musically static.

I seriously could have just seen Reznor’s set and gone home happy, but luckily there was more to come. I’ve never seen the Foo Fighters live before but thought that their set was great. Dave Grohl is an affable frontman (“Don’t invite me to your party,” he warned, after “clumsy Dave!” tripped over a microphone cable). After starting with “Times Like These,” they performed a nice rarity that Dave wrote on the spot a few years ago during a BBC interview, “Skin and Bones.” Even though the set was acoustic, Grohl headbanged his way through some ferocious strumming on the acoustic guitar, and drummer Taylor Hawkins tightly bashed and banged his way along. I thought it was notable to see Pat Smear perform with them again (he’s a bit of a legend in my book) and Petra Haden was sizzling on the violin and mandolin.

The bittersweet version of closing song “Everlong” was riveting — I never really listened to the lyrics before but ouch, they’re good and really shine in that arrangement. Dave recounted the story of a few years back at the Bridge School Benefit when they performed “Everlong” for the first time in such a stripped setting and Dave returned to his trailer and cried like a baby after it was over.

Brian Wilson was a bit puzzling and disconcerting. I was greatly anticipating his set, hoping for some of that same acoustic creativity that Reznor displayed. I know he’s not in the best health (I believe he has suffered a stroke?), and the bright and loud performance tried its best to camouflage that through amped up backing vocals, a huge band, and lots of assists on his microphone. Wilson seemed to often get lost in space or stare off into the distance. He was wearing a long-sleeved baggy white t-shirt and blue running pants, looking as if he had just come in from a sedate jog, or maybe practicing tai-chi in the park. He just ran through the standards, which were fun and I admit I sang along to pretty much every word, but something was lacking overall in the energy of authenticity. Neil Young joined Wilson to play organ on “Good Vibrations” which was full and gorgeous.

Pearl Jam took the stage next for their 7th year performing at Bridge School, and it is always great to see them. Perhaps I am biased, but I love how they dig deep for a great set of eclectic tunes. They started with an impassioned cover of Dylan’s “Masters of War,” followed by a soaring acoustic version of “Gone” off the new album. I was mightily hoping for “Parachutes,” which they had busted out Saturday night but it was not to be. The full setlist was:

Masters of War
Around The Bend (hurrah! great song)
Thin Air (another hurrah! video @ end)
Lukin (ha)
Throw Your Hatred Down (with Neil Young, WATCH VIDEO)

Every time that Pearl Jam plays the Bridge School, they dedicate a special song to a Bridge student named Maricor who has become a friend of the band. She always looks so embarassed, yet overjoyed. Saturday night it was “Crazy Mary,” and the night I was there it was the sweet gem “Thin Air” (“and I know she’s reached my heart, in thin air“). PJ honored another song request from one of the male students who, as Ed said, “likes it a bit rougher.” He then aggressively launched into “Lukin,” a one-minute hard punk song from 1996′s No Code. I laughed. The closer with Neil Young (from their joint 1995 album Mirror Ball) was impassioned.

Dave Matthews Band bored me to tears. I’d say I am a DMB fan, in the sense that I have their albums and they’ve written some crackingly good tunes over the years. But I felt his performance was just so standard and a little too indulgently jam-heavy. It was like your average DMB concert, instead of taking advantage of the setting to bust out some rarities or other acoustic gems. The songs they picked were just the radio hits, “Crash,” “Everyday,” “Jimi Thing,” etc. Each was stretched into 10-15 minute jams, during which I found my mind wandering. If I could have handpicked a better set (presumptuous! I know!) I would have voted for things like: “Say Goodbye/#41″ “Pay For What you Get,” “Busted Stuff” or “Lie In Our Graves” and a few covers. Neil Young joined him at the end for an almost 30-minute version of “Down By The River.”

How was Neil Young‘s closing set? Rumored to be with Elton John? Donno. My parts were freezing (toes numb, nose cold) and I was exhausted so I actually bailed early. I’d seen Neil already several times during the day with the other artists and sleep beckoned to me mightily.

Here are a few select tunes from Bridge School years past (links re-upped 11/12/06):

2005: Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee – Jerry Lee Lewis

2004: Hey Jude – Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Eddie Vedder et al

2004: Harvest Moon – Neil Young with Eddie Vedder

2003: I Am Mine – Eddie Vedder
(the album version of this has been one of my favorite PJ songs lately)

2003: Teardrop (Massive Attack cover) – Incubus

2002: Dear Chicago – Ryan Adams, night 1

2002: La Cienega Just Smiled – Ryan Adams, night 2

2002: Street Spirit – Thom Yorke

2002: After The Gold Rush (Neil Young cover) – Thom Yorke

2001: All Along The Watchtower (Dylan cover) - Dave Matthews Band

2000: O Maria – Beck

2000: Nobody’s Fault But My Own – Beck

1999: Nothing As It Seems – Pearl Jam

1999: Stay (U2 cover) – Smashing Pumpkins

1999: God Only Knows – Brian Wilson

1998: I Shall Be Released (Dylan cover) – Neil Young, Sarah McLachlan & Phish

1994: Let Me Sleep – Pearl Jam

1993: Splendid Isolation – Warren Zevon

1992: I Am A Patriot (Steve Van Zandt cover) – Pearl Jam

How ’bout a zip? ALL THESE SONGS, ZIPPED

Some of the best news from the event was that in honor of the 20th anniversary, the Bridge School plans to offer a selections of songs from that last two decades for download on iTunes starting November 14. If they offer anything from Trent Reznor’s piece de resistance, I will download them as quick as lightning. It will be interesting to see what they select to make available, they have ample high-quality fodder.

Great music for a great cause, gorgeous day. Yay Neil & Pegi!

WATCH: PEARL JAM, THIN AIR (should work now)

September 11, 2006

“The church door’s thrown open, I can hear the organ’s song. But the congregation’s gone.”

Even though I didn’t personally know anyone affected by the attacks five years ago on September 11th, it was personal. I grieved that morning as I woke up early to a phone call and stared in disbelief at the TV, as if I knew each person killed or trapped, burning or jumping. I watched the first tower fall, then the second, and all I could think about was all the firefighters and police officers who had rushed in to save people they didn’t even know. As I watched the towers fall and the massive dust clouds rise, I felt like I was going to throw up in the face of such unabashed evil.

Ten days later all the major U.S. television networks aired the America: A Tribute To Heroes telethon to raise money for those left behind in the wake of the attacks. It had some stellar, simple, heartfelt musical performances that touched me, and today I wanted to share.

My City Of Ruins – Bruce Springsteen
This was the first song of the program, and for me it just cracked open wide all the emotions that many of us were feeling in the days following the event. As many times as I listen to this song, which Bruce penned in the year before 9/11 about the deterioration of Asbury Park, New Jersey but that fits unbelievably well in this context, it still gets me. There are few who can pen a lyric of loss like Springsteen. In addition to the haunting imagery of the words in the title of this post, there’s also this line, which comes after a wheezing, lonesome, wrenching harmonica solo: “Now there’s tears on the pillow, darlin’ where we slept. And you took my heart when you left . . . “ The simple chord progression there on the last six words is heartbreaking — how do I explain that? Just listen.

As Bruce performs this, he stares off into nothing as if seeing the images from the last week and a half play over in his mind. At times his lips curl in an angry defiance, a rebellion against the destruction. And I’ve always thought that the way he furiously sings “Come on, rise up” over and over almost seems as if he is willing the dead to come back, the towers to rise. It reminds me of the futility of the lyrics in the U2 song “Wake Up Dead Man.” As Bruce nears the end of the song, his determined pleas to rise up take on an air of resignation as he stares off into the blackness of the studio.

This song turned up the following year on Springsteen’s stunning disc The Rising, along with many other songs he penned about the losses on 9/11. Hands down the other track on there that is the most devastating is You’re Missing,” about a house and a family waiting for someone to come home (who will never come home). Lyrics like, “Coffee cup’s on the counter, jacket’s on the chair, paper’s on the doorstep, but you’re not there” and this, the clincher: “Morning is morning, the evening falls, I have / too much room in my bed, too many phone calls . . .”

Peace On Earth/Walk On – U2 (VIDEO)
I was deeply touched by the show of solidarity and understanding from Irish boys U2 to their American friends with this song. The whole All That You Can’t Leave Behind album makes me think of the period following 9/11, probably due in part to this performance. I just watched it again tonight on DVD and my eyes well up when the gospel salvation of the “Halle-halle-lujah, halle-halle-lujah” addition kicks in, and then the tears tend to spill over when Bono starts shouting, “See you when I get home! I’ll see you when I get home, sister!” I also appreciated Bono’s confidence in delivering the lyrics about what they can’t steal from us.

There Will Come A Day – Faith Hill (VIDEO)
Whether you like country or not, you have to listen to this because it ain’t country, it’s some gooood gospel. I love this song as Hill performs it, with a full, enthusiastic backing gospel choir. The video always strikes me moreso than listening because it is hard to stay blue when you see the choir wiggling and shaking their arms in unison, jumping on their tiptoes in anticipation as the song nears it’s moment: “Song will ring out down those golden streets, the voices of earth with the angels will sing (pause) – HALLELUJAH!” Chill-inducing.

Imagine – Neil Young (VIDEO)
Young sits in front of the grand piano with his cowboy hat and sets into Lennon’s chords that somehow always evoke this sense of sadness and a weight of longing in me. Even though I’ve always found the utopian/socialistic lyrics of this landmark tune to honestly be a bit stupid (if there’s nothing that you feel is worth dying for, then what of value do you really have?), that melody always gets me, and Young turns in an impassioned and delicate performance here.

The Long Road – Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready & Neil Young (VIDEO)
This is such a simple song, and so lovely, really. From Pearl Jam’s Merkinball EP (1995), I love the different melodies and harmonies that Vedder rotates each time he approaches the refrain “I have wished for so long, how I wish for you today.” Neil only comes in vocally on the final refrain and response, “We all walk the long road.”

Finally, two songs that were not on the telethon but that could have been if I were programming it:

My Blue Manhattan – Ryan Adams
(from Love Is Hell, check out rbally’s live R.A. post)

America The Beautiful – Ray Charles

Walk on.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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