Thursday, August 23, 2012

'Blur 21': The Best of the Rarities

Originally published by PopMatters on August 22, 2012

Calling the new Blur box set (named Blur 21, honoring the 21 years since their first official release) a treasure trove is, if not a bit hyperbolic, certainly not inaccurate. If, like many of my fellow music nerds, you’ve all but abandoned the compact disc in favor of the tried and true vinyl option, there’s a version of the box set just right for you. While including all seven of the band’s studio albums in thick vinyl cut from oak trees (probably), the collection is lacking many of the bonuses which made the CD version too tempting to resist.

Each of Blur’s albums—from 1991’s Leisure to 2003’s Think Tank—is given the double-disc treatment in the CD set, with most of the associated b-sides and non-album singles chronologically placed, allowing the listener to effectively trace the development of one of England’s greatest bands, one which transcended its assigned genre (Britpop) to become something greater, even while celebrating its own inherent Englishness. The CD box set also includes a handsome hardbound book featuring recording information and what one hopes is merely an abridged version of a much longer and more comprehensive oral history. There are three DVD’s included as well, rounding out the promo clips for anyone who already has Blur: The Best Of, and featuring a live performance from the “Singles Night” tour in 1999, a brief run through of 13-era songs from earlier that year and Showtime, a 1994 performance at Alexandra Palace previously only available on VHS. For completists, there’s also a one-sided vinyl single recorded in 1989 when the band was still called Seymour.
But really, the most compelling reason to opt for the CD version of the box set (assuming you’re not simply downloading everything off of torrent sites) is the inclusion of four rarities discs covering the span of the group’s history, from the Seymour-era right up through their 2010 Record Store Day single “Fools Day” and “Under the Westway”, one of two songs recorded in anticipation of Blur’s headline performance in London’s Hyde Park last weekend, a show in celebration of the Olympics and British music of the non-Spice Girls variety.

The rarities discs, arranged like the rest of the box set in chronological order, are fascinating, with many demos and alternate versions of familiar songs, jam sessions, and unfinished thoughts (including the unfortunately-titled “Sir Elton John’s Cock”, a too-brief bit of piano-led melancholy which sadly never developed into anything more). It’s moments like those which make the set like Blur’s career since reuniting with guitarist Graham Coxon (absent from Think Tank, except on the gorgeous “Battery in Your Leg”) in 2009 so goddamned frustrating; Blur should record a new album and tour the entire world, and their inability to commit to anything beyond brief joyful blasts like their handful of Hyde Park warmup dates across England (and a pair of festival appearances in Denmark and Sweden) is difficult for anyone not in Blur (and maybe a couple of the guys actually in Blur, too) to fathom.

It’s partly why my girlfriend—fiancé, now, because I put a ring on her finger in Hyde Park a little over a week ago and she said yes—and I made the trip over in the middle of the Olympics. Yes, we had a wonderful time in my favorite city other than New York, and we spent time with friends and hit museums and record shops and regretted not having arranged for tickets to see any Olympic event. But what we also did was take a two-hour train trip to Margate for the first of the warmup shows at the Winter Gardens, an old music hall which hosted the Beatles nearly 40 years ago. Because I’m still almost completely incapable of conveying what the night meant to me, I’ll say in brief that it was one of the greatest gigs I’ve ever seen. The band was all smiles, and even when they messed up “Trimm Trabb” or “Sing”, or Damon Albarn couldn’t remember which line came where in “Coffee and TV” it was absolutely a celebration. Sure, Graham teetered on the verge of inconsolability when his amp wilted in the oppressive heat, but a hug and kiss from his old friend Damon set it all straight.

And maybe we’re meant to enjoy these moments as they come and file them away and not long for more, but with all the joy on that stage that night, it’s natural to want them to do it all over again, but in New York this time (or wherever you happen to be from). If they never play again, I will be satisfied because I shared this moment with Blur and around 2,000 of their fans. It’s a version of a mantra I’ve repeated again and again as a fan of Blur: If they never release another song again, I’ll still be happy. If they never play another show together, I’ll still be happy. If Alex James continues devoting his energies to cheese-making and having interestingly-named children rather than picking up a bass guitar, I’ll be happy. I love Blur, probably as much as but in a different way to my other favorite bands, the Beatles and the Clash. I’m grateful Damon and Graham have both continued making music outside of Blur that I genuinely enjoy, but even if I thought they totally sucked I’d still be just as happy with what they’ve done in Blur. Fandom is confusing sometimes.

A cynic might consider Blur’s pulling out the stops when compiling their setlists for the recent shows as a craven attempt to illustrate how deep their back catalog is. “Young & Lovely”, a b-side to 1993 single “Chemical World” has always been a beautiful, Beatlesque gem, but they’d never played it live before. At Margate, Albarn self-consciously noted that it would have felt too corny to air it on stage before, but now that most of them have kids of their own it felt right. “Caramel”, a lengthy, atmospheric track from the William Orbit-produced 13 (released in 1999), is another song which was played live for the first time this year. But the cynics can go fuck themselves, because what Blur has proven is that their singles, while unbelievably catchy and wonderful, are not all that the band is about. The knees-up Englishness of “Sunday Sunday” and “Country House” are a key element to Blur’s sound, but so are sonic blasts of weirdness like “Trimm Trabb” and “Bugman” .

And so the rarities, four discs of material predictably varying in quality which, depending upon your perspective, may or may not be essential listening. “Red Necks”, a b-side to 1994’s “End of the Century”, is bad enough on its own, so the addition of two alternate takes seems a waste. And while Damon has all but dismissed Blur’s first album Leisure, the demos included show the band was on the right track with the finished product. “Wear Me Down”, for example, is a bit sludgy and slow in demo form, but its crunchy guitars and harmonies are partly whyLeisure is much more valid than Damon gives it credit for being. Remove the bad feelings Blur had about record company interference around that time (which included forcing the band to come up with “Bang”, a single they’ve tried desperately to forget in spite of it not being all that bad; and the removal of “Sing”, one of the band’s best early tracks, from the initial US release).

There are other missteps, though even if they don’t wind up in circulation on your iPod (purchasing any of the reissues and box sets comes with a download code), they’re still worth a listen. Modern Life Is Rubbish, released in 1993, has become something of a tentpole for Britpop fans, signaling a culture shift for Blur into a celebration of British music inspired by the over-Americanization of English society and the popularity of grunge. The album was produced by a number of people, including Stephen Street, who would go on to work with the band on their next three full lengths, but they had actually previously recorded some material with XTC’s Andy Partridge. Three of the songs from those sessions are included here, and while the early version of “Sunday Sunday” (called “Sunday Sleep” here) is an interesting listen, there’s nothing to suggest they hadn’t made the right decision in moving on.
But for all the tracks one might spin a few times for the sake of curiosity, there are some genuinely thrilling moments among the rarities.

Compiling lists is rarely a good idea, because no matter how strongly I might feel about a song or a band, it’s unlikely anyone will entirely agree with me. That can lead to some intriguing debate, but ultimately whether a Blur fan finds anything (or everything) on the rarities discs indispensable is up to that Blur fan. That said, I’ve made a list!

Those are by no means the only songs worth seeking out over the four discs of rarities, and even with the fairly hefty price tag, Blur 21 is worth picking up for fans. And maybe if more of us buy it, Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave will feel inspired to hit the studio and the road next year. Maybe . . .

1. “Death of a Party (Demo)”

“Death of a Party” turned up as a spooky organ-fuelled, full-band performance on Blur’s eponymous 1997 album, but the demo version of the song (recorded in 1992) was given to fans who subscribed to Blurb, the official fanzine, in 1996. The song was fairly complete in demo form, an acoustic run through with chilling harmonies, but it wasn’t until their post-Britpop comedown that the time was right to unleash the finished product.

2. “Far Out (Electric Version)”

Alex James’ spacy Syd Barrett-pastiche appeared in abbreviated form on 1994’s Parklife, but here the guitars and energy are turned up. It’s not necessarily a better version, but is every bit as intriguing.

3. “1”

Of the two tracks recorded in 2000 with Bill Laswell included on the box set, “1” is the most fully-formed, full of weird noises and chimes, and a laconic vocal from Albarn. It bears the sense of dread which pervades much of Blur’s later work, but in the best possible way.

4. “Dizzy”

One could argue which of the band’s earliest recordings best typifies what they were like when they were still called Seymour, but my money is on “Dizzy”, a song alternating between gently picked passages and spasms of kinetic energy. While Britain was in thrall to the Stone Roses and the Madchester scene, Seymour seemed completely oblivious (though later they’d adopt a few shuffle-beats in a half-hearted effort to latch on, their songs were never fully immersed in the ubiquitous sound of the day.)

5. “Seven Days”

Of the three songs here from the Andy Partridge sessions, “Seven Days” is the only one the band never re-recorded and re-released. It’s a testament to the strength of their material at the time that they could leave what could have at least been a quality album track or b-side with harmonies and a chorus which builds upon itself bit-by-bit from beginning to end.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Cold Day in Springtime... Damon Albarn Is My Hero

Originally published by PopMatters on April 20, 2010

Credibility is apparently a big deal in the music journo biz. I get that, at least in theory. I mean, I know why I’m supposed to take shit at face value and not let myself fall in love. But the whole reason I got into this mess in the first place was because I’m a fan and I get all emotional about music, and then I get all verbose and that just leads to trouble.

I love Damon Albarn.

There, I said it. It feels kind of good to get it out there, like therapy. Or exorcism.

I know it’s uncool or whatever to admit to having a musical crush on someone, but screw it. I love Damon Albarn. I love his vocals, both languid and falsetto, his enthusiasm for music of all shapes and sizes. I love that ridiculous gold tooth.

It started as most love stories do, with a blur. Only this was Blur, Albarn’s first exhilarating whiff of success, both as a songwriter and musician. I was an avid reader of the NME then, having first taken the plunge in college as I kept up with all the various Madchester groups and looked for wide-legged jeans in thrift shops. Blur came along with boasts that they were going to kill off baggy, but the first couple of tracks I heard retained the genre’s “Funky Drummer” beat.

But of course there was something else there, some link to either a past or future not even the Stone Roses could envision or hope to navigate. And if they didn’t actually kill off baggy, Blur outlived it. They outlived shoegaze, though songs like “Oily Water” off their second album, Modern Life is Rubbish, and later b-side “Bustin’ + Dronin’” traipsed through its effects-rich fields. They outlived for years each new scene cooked up weekly by the British music press. And, most fittingly, they outlived BritPop, a movement they spearheaded, one which utterly destroyed their chief rivals, Oasis, who hid behind gargantuan egos and refried Beatle-riffs and stadium-shaking concerts for 15 more years, before finally going out with a whimper, unable to ever achieve the same level of dominance they’d shown during the scene’s all-too-brief run.

Blur themselves nearly succumbed, releasing a critically inferior follow-up to Britpop’s celebrated masterstroke, Parklife. It’s not that The Great Escape wasn’t any good. But in a world that moved impossibly fast, Blur didn’t move quickly enough to shed their skin and re-emerge dressed in some other finery. That would come later, but their misstep nearly cost them their credibility, and more significantly, their guitarist, Graham Coxon, a legendary partier who made the tabloids by being hit by a car and living to tell the tale. His decision to not bail on Blur in spite of his clear discomfort in their chart-annihilating “Country House” video would save the band, not just allowing them to reinvigorate The Great Escapeby giving it untold texture while touring the shit out of the album, but also pointing them in their new direction with his fondness for American indie rock.

References were made to Pavement, though the self-titled Blur really only shared a distant kinship with the Stockton, California band’s music in its comparative refusal to smooth out the edges with a glossy production sheen. Still, the album was a triumph, finally breaking the band in America with the “WooHoo”-heavy “Song 2”, thus putting the band alongside everyone from the Ramones to Gary Glitter in becoming clipped sports arena staples. There was much more to Blur than the album’s first frenetic salvo. “Death of a Party” and “I’m Just a Killer for Your Love”, for example, still retained the band’s songwriting skills, but the tunes were also kinda weird. The follow-up, 13, was both more experimental and romantic, teaming lush ballads to love longing and love lost with often impenetrable exercises in artistic tomfoolery.

Blur released one more album in 2003, the underrated Think Tank, which incorporated elements of Albarn’s now-complete transformation into the world music-touting Sting it was okay to admit liking. The album, at least back then, also marked what felt like the permanent departure of Coxon. The guitarist, who himself had turned his love of the lo-fi indie aesthetic into a series of fine solo albums, appeared on just one track on Think Tank, peeling off a guitar line in the already mournful “Battery in Your Leg” that channeled all the pain and tension and heartache they must all have been feeling as they said goodbye.

On the surface, Albarn seemed alright with the split. After touring Think Tank, he focused his attention on a host of other musical projects, releasing a second collaborative album under the Gorillaz umbrella, joining forces with Clash bass guitarist Paul Simonon and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen in the Good, the Bad and the Queen and touring An Honest Jon’s Chop Up with a host of artists on the venerable London-based record label he helped kick-start. Blur was gone, and I told myself I was alright with it as long as Albarn and Coxon kept on releasing good music. And they really did.

See, here’s the thing about Albarn – It sounds ridiculous saying it in my own head, so I’ve no doubt it’ll sound completely insane to naysayers and pooh-poohers alike, but Damon Albarn is the closest thing we’ve got to a renaissance man. Not everything he touches is the purest of gold. There have been duds, for sure. But if a guy can put a song like Gorillaz’ lush “Hong Kong” on a benefit compilation instead of as the centerpiece of his own album, well that’s pretty special. The majestic “Sunset Coming On” closed out the Honest Jon’s shows in splendid fashion, and it was buried on the little-heard Mali Music album.

And then Blur weren’t dead after all, performing a handful of shows, both small and massive, including a pair of headline gigs in London’s Hyde Park last July, the latter of which I’d bought a ticket to, yet regrettably could not attend. And then they were gone again, with members of the band sounding as though they’d have liked to see more of the same and maybe some new material too, why not? But Albarn killed that hope, instead pushing a third Gorillaz album, which finally dropped over a month ago to great hype and acclaim

Make no mistake, because everyone’s a critic; Plastic Beach may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially those who’d hoped it would more closely echo Gorillaz’ sophomore effort, Demon Days. But while the album did share its predecessor’s grand thematic drive and collaborative esprit de corps, it’s something altogether different. The first full track features Snoop Dogg in George Clinton mode, giving “Welcome to the Plastic Beach” its “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” smooth. And it rolls on from there, with everyone from Lou Reed to Mark E. Smith to, once again, De La Soul all jumping on board.

On the surface, Gorillaz is a cartoon band, with an elaborately expanding story arc to cover its four characters. But while that piece of the puzzle might appeal to some, what really makes Gorillaz special is Albarn, not only in his grand musical vision and melting pot approach to making it happen, but also his canny understanding of how and when to keep his massive ego in check because the music really is the message.

It’s true, my musical hero doesn’t lack in confidence. People I know who’ve met him have described everything from a sweetheart to a Scrooge, and there’s footage all over the internet to support all points between the two extremes. Maybe Albarn is a real asshole. But so are a lot of geniuses, and if we can’t separate what art from the artist, we’re left with nothing but a pile of dreary detritus, and that’s not a whole lot of fun to listen to at full volume soaring down the motorway with the windows open. “Stylo”, the first single from the futuristic/apocalypticPlastic Beach, on the other hand, is perfect for such road-based outings, and its video sure sells that point nicely.

And as I listened to “Rhinestone Eyes” and “White Flag” and – especially – “Empire Ants” for the millionth time, I knew I had my summer soundtrack, felt the warmth of the pavement breaking through the bitter, fleeting cold of winter. And then came the news that Blur maybe weren’t really dead after all.

It started as a rumor, or at least appeared to be. Did Blur suddenly get together in a studio to record a track for a very limited run 7-inch single in celebration of Record Store Day, the annual event designed to keep the little guy from getting dragged into oblivion by the murky undertow of technological progress. Was Blur really about to release its first single with Coxon back in the fold since 2000’s “Music is My Radar”? Thankfully, yes. That’s exactly what happened, and after the 1,000 copies of the single sold out on Saturday, the band put the thing up for free on their official website as a download. And, yeah, I’ve crippled my objectivity by falling prostrate at Albarn’s well-heeled feet, but gee whiz, “Fool’s Day” is really, really good.

It’s hard to know what goes on in a man’s head. Did Blur reunite last year because they felt like they had unfinished business? Was it the promise of truckloads of cash being dumped at their front doors? Was their bond with each other and their fans so strong that the pull proved to be too difficult to ignore? It was probably a bit of each, with a dash of whatever enigmatic folderol Albarn had coursing through his veins on that particular day.

But when it was all over, when the tents were folded up and the footage for the documentary and concert film shot, why didn’t Blur just let goodbye be goodbye? The answer, or at least part of it, might be found in the lyrics to “Fool’s Day.”

It’s a day in the life for Albarn, as he covers what happens from the moment he wakes, interspersing mundane images like eating breakfast and dropping his kid off at school with marginally existential side roads thrown in. And part of this day’s journey, April 1, 2010, is a trip to the recording studio, and most gloriously for Blur fans, “A love of all sweet music. We just can’t let go.” Whether this is a new beginning or the end through an admission that these four men mean more to one another than they knew is unclear. If this really, REALLY is the end, it’s a beautiful goodbye.

That lyrical itinerary recalls “Busy Doin’ Nothin’”, a song on the Beach Boys’ 1968 album Friends. The album comes in at just under 30 minutes, and was almost forgotten upon arrival. But I’ve always really loved it, in part because it’s got a warmth and intimacy and, well, friendliness. It was probably therapeutic for Brian Wilson to work on albums like Friendsand its predecessor Wild Honey after the whole SMiLE/Smiley Smilefiasco sent him over the edge. And while I appreciate that gentle vibe, there’s one song that just takes the comfort level a bit too far. “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” is essentially a list of shit Brian’s planning to do that day. And it’s a boring day, too. But the Beach Boys, like Blur, somehow manage to make it sound way more interesting than our own boring days.

And so on to the music. Dave Rowntree is as solid as ever on drums, and Alex James’ bass seems to have shelved its debt to Duran Duran’s John Taylor for the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” by way of Simonon. And the harmonies… and the guitar… Much as I convinced myself that Think Tank was alright without more than a brief Coxon cameo, his guitar on “Fool’s Day”, especially that riff as the song fades, with hints of sweeping harmonies in its wake. This is what always made Blur so brilliant, all of it together.

Albarn’s other band, Gorillaz, closed Coachella on Sunday, bereft of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who were grounded by volcanic death dust. If the water cooler disappointment on the festival’s official message board is any indication, there was too little cartoons, too little energy, too little when a festival closing slot needed much too much. I wouldn’t know. I spent the night with the Blur: Live at Hyde Park film, comforting myself over missing one Albarn concert by watching another one I’d missed. Such is often the way with fandom; the missed opportunities so often pile up toward the sky while the good stuff can fit in a tiny box on your dresser. But it’s those moments, and the music what it does to us that makes it all so meaningful.

Lost on Me: One Man's Attempt to Survive the 'Lost' Finale

Originally published by PopMatters on May 24, 2010

Like millions of other television junkies, I bought the hype; I was reeled in by the ruthlessly compelling commercials and well-placed print ads, and on September 22, 2004, I tuned in for the premiere episode of Lost.

, with its water-cooler plot-twists and world’s sexiest flight manifest quickly became a pop culture phenomenon, burning up internet chat rooms (when they were still around), blogs (they’re still around, right?) and even the print media (which at least the time of this writing is still around.)

I remember saying to myself as the pilot unfolded, “I think I’m hooked.” It happened right around the time the plane crashed, as terrifyingly visceral a scene as I’ve ever seen on the small screen, in spite of my already knowing it was coming. I wondered what would become of the survivors, how they’d turn coconuts into wine, how they’d get along or not get along. I wondered who might take off their shirt first.

And then, well before the final credits sped by, I changed the channel. Something inside me aggressively spurned the show like I’d rejected a baboon heart. It wasn’t snob’s natural aversion to the cultural zeitgeist, because even if I’d instinctively known that was coming, I’m okay with that sort of thing… most of the time, anyway. Yes, I’ve recoiled against hype before, turned my nose up at everything from 
No Country for Old Men to Radiohead to Pinkberry. But this was different, as I hadn’t yet been inundated with an avalanche of “OMG!!!” praise for Lost when I bailed. That would come later, of course. But when I decided to watch almost anything else, it was just me and my remote and a storyline and cast which failed to keep my attention. Not when there’s probably a cake battle on the Food Network, Lost. Not by a long shot.

So, I got my ass off the island much quicker, apparently, than anyone else who’d either starred in or watched 
Lost. Because like the pull that island seems to have had on those poor schmucks, so too did that show have a pull on pretty much everyone I know, pretty much everyone you know and pretty much everyone else with even the most tenuous connection to network television.

I stayed away, too, sinking my TV teeth into less befuddling fare like
Psych and Flight of the Conchords and The Biggest Loser. But with the finale upon us this week, I thought I ought to give Lost one more shot.

My research such as it was consisted of years of ignoring Facebook status updates friends made about the show, loud commercials I’d managed to tune out and the last 45 minutes or so of ABC’s two hour pre-game celebration before last night’s final episode. I must also confess to having not entirely paid attention to the latter, as there was a 
Sex & the City II cake challenge on the Food Network, and while I have also managed to avoid that particular cultural phenomenon (with much more bile), a cake-off if a cake-off, and that means Kerry Vincent is gonna be bitchy from beneath her Ren-Faire headband.

I guess a bit of 
Lost sunk in over the years, in spite of my efforts to keep it out. I’d heard of Locke, for example. And also something happened to that guy who used to be a Hobbit, right? What I’ve heard most aboutLost since it premiered nearly six years ago was how good it was. And what I heard second-most was how goddamn confusing it was. Given I knew almost nothing about Lost, I figured I was in the right frame of mind to catch the finale. Boy, was I wrong.

Even if I hadn’t caught a bit about the alternate worlds stuff, I’d have probably worked it out pretty quickly. I might have assumed one of the two threads was some sort of dream, though once the touchy feely déjà vu flashes began happening, I’d have seen the light. (I just found out producer Damon Lindelof calls these plot devices “flash-sideways” – Thanks, Wikipedia!)

I don’t believe in a lot of things, but I do believe in duct tape

Because I haven’t actually watched the series unfold, the questions I have are fairly mundane, and for all I know they were answered ages ago. How come none of the dudes on the island have crazy hermit beards instead of seductive stubble? And while some of the castaways had sufficiently unkempt hair, most looked salon-friendly. And, at the risk of sounding indelicate, why didn’t the fat dude who says “Dude” all the time lose a little weight?

So, I watched the finale. Not all at once, of course, because like I did nearly six years ago with the pilot episode, I petered out before the finale did. I stuck it out, though, finishing it on Hulu this morning. And admittedly I’m probably a bit more confused than your average fan. Didn’t the guy from 
Party of Five (another show I never watched) open the series looking up from a jungle floor? Nice one!

Despite the soundtrack trying to force me into action, I didn’t feel the tension on the edge of the cliff the way a regular viewer might have. I also didn’t shed any tears when characters who’d hooked up on the island had flash-sideways walks of shame in hospitals, alleys or piano-heavy benefit concerts. But those of you who’d watched every second of every episode and are now wondering what the heck you’re gonna do with yourselves on whatever night the show regularly aired, maybe you bawled like babies. Maybe your couches are still moist with tears and sadness snot at this moment. And that is ultimately how I closed out
Lost; not by hoping for loose ends to be tied up in a satisfying way, but by wondering if that’s how the fans felt about it.
Some beloved TV shows end on a sour note (I’m looking at you, 
Seinfeld and The Sopranos). Others, like The Shield, manage to make the inevitable seem revelatory. Still more, such as Arrested Development, fall somewhere in between, unable to say goodbye because those involved in making the show are as bewildered as those who watched it.

How was Lost for you? If you loved the show, did that bit in the church seem less mawkish than it did to a cynic like me? Did you find the tying up of loose ends satisfying and natural or rushed and convenient? Are you bummed there’s no Drive Shaft tour on the cards?

Because of all the mythological hokum, the smoke monster poppycock and the supernatural rigmarole woven through the fabric of 
Lost, it was already likely bound to become a televised sci-fi tent pole for years to come. The romance and intrigue and – at least what I’ve been told – humanity of the characters helped it cross out of what is often perceived as the narrow scope of that genre and into the mainstream. Lost was hugely successful, and not in retrospect like the original Star Trek series, either. Lost was a phenomenon in its present, and that’s not likely to change. And I guess I can say I was there at the beginning and end of it all, even if the middle is something of a blur.

I wanted to come away from the finale having realized the folly of having had such an itchy remote finger all those years ago. I thought I might feel inclined to start 
Lost from the beginning, something I could do for free on Hulu, apparently. I thought I’d want to dissect the pilot and see if there were any clues more than 100 episodes ago to point to what happened last night. Instead, I think I’m as finished with Lost as it is with the rest of us. What happened on that fictional island is no more my concern than what led those four wretched Sex & the City shrews to Morocco for their new flick. I’m free of Lost, a show which never really had me to begin with.

Hey, Hey, etc... Why I Love the Monkees

Originally published by PopMatters on March 9, 2010

I’m used to catching grief from friends for some of the quirky stuff I listen to, so whenever the Monkees come up in conversation, I’m always prepared for a lively debate. I’m not naive enough to pretend they were one of rock’s great bands, though I do feel as though their music has been a bit shortchanged by history.

Their groundbreaking series lasted just two seasons, and was followed by a delicious stream-of-consciousness feature film (Head) and an even more bizarre TV special (33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee), which had the lousy fortune of airing opposite the Academy Awards. By this point, of course, the Monkees were hellbent on blowing themselves up from within. Scornful of the ridicule they faced from much of the “serious” rock cognoscenti, the pre-Fab Four made every attempt to shed their bubblegum image and strike out on their own.
It began somewhere around the time they recorded their third album. After playing sparingly on tunes for the first two Monkees’ records, the band took over for themselves. With the assistance of Chip Douglas on bass, the Monkees turned into a semi-actual band on Headquarters. It wasn’t a virtuoso collection by any means, especially when compared to many of other rock albums released in 1967. Never mind the Beatles’Sgt. Pepper; that year also saw seminal works drop from Love (Forever Changes), Captain Beefheart (Safe As Milk), the Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground & Nico), Pink Floyd (Piper at the Gates of Dawn), 13th Floor Elevators (Easter Everywhere), the Doors (The Doors) and the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Are You Experienced?).

Still, Headquarters is the work of a pretty alright garage rock band, one with a keen interest in experimentation. That thread would follow on the band’s second album of the year, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., which featured forays into country rock, vaudeville pop and psychedelia, the latter including what has often been regarded as among the first uses of the Moog synthesizer on a rock song (both on “Daily Nightly” and “Star Collector”).

1968’s Head may be the Monkees’ creative zenith, both on film and vinyl. The script, such as it was, was written over a drug-fuelled weekend in a cabin in the woods with Jack Nicholson. Yes, THAT Jack Nicholson. Nicholson makes a brief cameo in the film as does Dennis Hopper (the two worked together on Easy Rider the following year, a film financed, in part, on Monkee money), Frank Zappa, a very young Teri Garr, a very puffy Sonny Liston, Annette Funicello, Victor Mature, Carol Doda, Toni Basil and American football great Ray Nitschke.

Opening with Micky Dolenz jumping from a bridge to certain doom, the movie sunk like a stone in limited theatrical release, but went on to become something of a cult classic.

The soundtrack features just a handful of original Monkees’ material, but what’s there is among the very best music they ever recorded. “Porpoise Song” is a swirling epic, and “As We Go Along” (with guitar by Neil Young), is a love song of fragile beauty. The oft-marginalized Peter Tork has two songs on the album, including the Indian-influenced “Can You Dig It?” (with vocals by Dolenz) and the sprawling stomp of “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” Even the sometimes schmaltzy Davy Jones is in fine form, on the Harry Nillson-penned “Daddy’s Song”. Nicholson compiled the album, gluing the songs together with dialogue and sound effects from the film. The only misstep—replacing the incendiary live version of Mike Nesmith’s “Circle Sky” shown in the film with a flaccid studio recording—was undone when Rhino Records remasted the album for CD release over a decade ago.

Following the disastrous results for 33 1/3…,Tork wriggled his way out of his contract and split. As a trio, the Monkees released two more albums in 1969, much of which included songs recorded as early as 1966 that had just been sitting in a Colgems vault collecting dust. Nesmith’s “Listen to the Band” (originally given a psychedelic freak-out paint job with Tork still on board for 33 1/3…) was the last great Monkees song. The last “musician” in the band, Nesmith left to form his own country rock pioneering outfit, the First National Band. Dolenz and Jones put out one last album under the Monkees’ name before finally pulling the plug.

There’s no question the Monkees were fabricated. But so was the cast of your favorite film, and they made great art together. And when the Byrds or the Beach Boys used studio musicians on some of their now-classic tracks, no one blinked an eye.

While stuffy critics like Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner have always pooh-poohed the musical relevance of the Monkees, perhaps their greatest detractors of all have been themselves. Both Nesmith and Dolenz have frequently said in inteviews they didn’t think much of their music, with the former especially dismissive.

However, because they actually sorta gave a crap at the time, it’s impossible to objectively lump the Monkees in with other teenybopper acts of the day. Even if one doesn’t think much of them, they’ve got to at least fall somewhere in the chasm between the era’s rock and pop rather than at one end or the other.

I love the Monkees. Not just because I enjoy watching them on DVD with my eight-year old daughter (her fave rave is Nesmith, though she’s got bobblehead dolls of the whole group), but because I actually do enjoy their music. Some of it is simple to the point of hardly being there at all. And a few of their attempts to create art flamed out when they tried to fly too close to the sun, like Dolenz’ “Shorty Blackwell” (which is a total mess) and Nesmith’s “Writing Wrongs” (which is also a mess, but a curiously satisfying one). Yet there are gems to be unearthed far beyond the confines of a hits compilation. You may even find it’s worth doing a bit of exploring.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Resident Punk (Work in Progress)

For a little over a year, I worked with Legs McNeil, co-author of Please Kill Me and legendary writer who was part of the New York City punk scene in the '70s. I've known Legs since I was a teenager, though it wasn't until I'd written a birthday message to him on PopMatters in early 2011 that we cooked up the idea of working together on a project. That project, Resident Punk, was Legs' autobiography, combining his own writing about his life with my biographical passages. The project is currently on hold, though I'm hopeful we'll pick it up again soon.

Shortly after we took a break from working on Resident Punk, I debuted an excerpt from my portion of the sample chapter at a reading of the Greenpoint Writers Group. The reading, on May 5, 2012 at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn (located at the end of my block, conveniently), was the culmination of a months'-long intensive session where I joined other talented local writers in offering critique of works-in-progress while drinking booze. I'm currently at the beginning of my fourth GWG intensive, working on my novel this time, as I've found the process and camaraderie absolutely invaluable.

The sample chapter was about Legs' relationship with the late Norman Mailer, and the draft from which I read was the culmination of months of interviews, research, writing and exhilarating back-and-forth edits with Legs via e-mail and in person in his home office. The excerpt below is what I read at WORD, and it was enthusiastically received by the crowd. The excerpt opens at the tail end of a party in 1979 following Mailer’s first up-close experience with the punk scene, a benefit for bullet-proof vests for the NYPD. Held at CBGB’s, the show was headlined by the Ramones and also featured Shrapnel, the band Legs was managing at the time.

“We were so drunk we were huddled together on some chairs or the bed, kind of swaying because the room was about to start spinning,” Legs remembered. “Norman finally said, ‘You have to interview me, you have to interview me…’”         
            Norman might have indeed been drunk that night, but he really had meant for Legs to interview him, clearing time the following day to make it work.
            Legs didn’t show up.
            “Norman’s office called Martha Thomases and said, ‘Where’s Legs?’” Legs remembered. “I thought, ‘I didn’t think Norman wanted to really have me interview him, I thought he was just saying that to be nice...’”
            Legs got it together and made it out to Mailer’s nautically-themed Brooklyn Heights apartment the next day.
            “I was really hung over,” Legs said. “And Norman wanted me to climb around in his big apartment, he had all these catwalks to get to the third floor, and you know me and heights. And I was like, ‘No, fuck that, no! I need a drink!’ And Norman got me like gin or vodka, and I was like, ‘No I need beer!’
            With the drink order settled, the pair retreated to Mailer’s tiny office at the end of the hall and turned on the tape recorder.
            The interview covered a lot of territory, including Mailer’s thoughts on the Ramones and Shrapnel show, his distaste for television (“I think the American disease is TV”), existential paranoia and regret. The transcript shows the pair veering wildly and perhaps politically incorrectly into murky waters like gay rights and the Battle of the Sexes.
            “I was railing against gays,” Legs said. “I was young and cute and they were all hitting on me. This was a time when you’d walk down Christopher Street and there’d be hundreds of gays along the sidewalk, three or four deep, dressed in the most outrageous clothing, making catcalls and snide remarks as you passed. Basically they were sexually harassing me, ha, ha, ha!”
            The Norman Mailer interview was published in the September 1979 issue of High Times.
            “High Times was offering me more money,” Legs remembered, “Doing it for Punk Magazine, it just seemed like it would never come out.”
            Though Roberta Bayley took the official photographs for the High Times piece, author Victor Bockris was also on hand to shoot the pair.
            “When I did the photo session for them, there was clearly a real affection from Mailer to Legs,” Bockris said. “Mailer would like a guy like Legs. He loves anti-heroes. And Legs was kind of like an anti-hero. It makes a lot of sense.”
            Legs soon became a fairly regular fixture in the Mailer household. According to Mary V. Dearborn’s book Mailer: A Biography, Legs made an impression on Mailer’s sons.
            “Shrapnel and Legs McNeil were big hits with fourteen-year old Michael and twelve-year old Stephen Mailer,” wrote Dearborn. “When Legs told them to watch Gilligan’s Island, a show he much admired, they did, over and over. The two boys began talking like Legs and parroting his enthusiasms.”
           With Legs entrenched in the inner circle, Shrapnel began playing at parties thrown by Mailer; one was covered in the Random Notes section of the April 17, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.
            “It figures that author Norman Mailer would go for Shrapnel, a New York punk band whose act is derived from endless reruns of the old Combat series,” reads the opening of the Rolling Stone blurb, written by Kurt Loder. Legs brought him to the party, along with Alice Cooper guitarist Glen Buxton, Tom Hearn, Arturo Vega, and his girlfriend, Lori K.
            Shrapnel began life as Heart Attack before meeting Legs at CBGB’s. According to guitarist Daniel Rey, it took several months and countless beers before the idea of Legs managing the band was even considered. Devising a collective persona based on military games they used to play in the hinterlands of New Jersey, Heart Attack donned modified army uniforms and morphed into Shrapnel.
            “We thought we needed a shtick and were really into Alice Cooper and the stage show,” Rey said. “We were sort of anti-hippie. Hippies were peace and love, and we were like, ‘Screw that! Let’s blow shit up!’ So I guess in that way we were political, though it wasn’t anything more than comic book politics.”
            Those comic book politics extended to their stage show, which often featured a character called “the Gook.”
            “You’ve got to remember, this was a long time ago and political correctness was not on anyone’s mind,” said Peter “Ropeburns” Russell, another Cheshire friend of Legs, who played the Gook. “It was basically an anti-communist rant which had a lot of good features to it but also had a lot of really heavy racist elements.”
            “I was very interested in using all the slang terms from Viet Nam and World War II,” Legs explained, “And re-defining them. I was very influenced by Arturo Vega’s day-glo swastika paintings that were hung in the Ramones loft. I think we thought we could use all that old propaganda and imagery and give it new meaning. And, of course, rightly so, everyone thought we were racists, but we were actually a bunch of white liberals, ha, ha, ha! ”
            “I would write appropriate political slogans on my chest,” Ropeburns recalled, “I remember ‘Thanks for the Canal’ because Jimmy Carter had just signed away the Panama Canal.”
            Punk’s reputation for being aggressively user friendly meant Shrapnel’s live shows were frequently a harrowing experience.
            “Sometimes the crowd got a hold of me and that would get ugly because I couldn’t see anything out of the damn Gook mask,” Ropeburns remembered. “If I got too close to the edge of the stage they’d seize me and pull me into the crowd. Look a lot of drugs were being taken back then and a couple of times I got beaten up pretty badly. But because of the mask thing, my head was okay.”
            Shrapnel arrived early in Brooklyn Heights for the party covered by Rolling Stone, giving them their first look at Mailer’s place. 
            “It was wacky,” said Rey. “The apartment looked like a big ship with all these rope ladders. We had to climb up in this loft and set up our amps.”
           Ropeburns remembered Mailer working on a giant Lego model of a future city. The complex cityscape had appeared on the cover of a paperback edition of Mailer’s 1966 collection of essays, Cannibals and Christians. By 1980, the utopian construction had fallen into disrepair, covered in dust and left to ruin.
            “He was going to order everybody’s life with it, which was a little strange considering how his was,” Ropeburns said. “The different colors were all like different sectors. It was all very kind of ‘50s modern. He and I talked a lot about that, and we were both drinking pretty heavily.”
            Among the party guests that night were Woody Allen, Shelly Winters, Kurt Vonnegut and former light heavyweight fighter José Torres. Shrapnel was unmoved by the heavy dose of celebrity.
            “Woody Allen hid in the bathroom all night,” Legs remembered, “And people keep knocking on the door because they had to pee or do coke or whatever, but Woody wouldn’t open the door. Finally, he opened the door a little and peeked out, and Arturo Vega opened the bathroom door all the way and said to Woody, ‘Boy, you really are shy, aren’t you?’ Then Arturo closed the bathroom door on him, in disgust.”
             The punks weren’t just unimpressed with Woody Allen’s fame, but also their host’s.
            “We were pretty young, so we weren’t starstruck by this famous author,” said Rey. “He was just this cool old guy who could hold his liquor, was pretty funny and had a hot young wife. It was the kind of thing we’d mention to our parents and they’d go, ‘WHAT?!?!?’ We’d be like, ‘Yeah, but David Johansen was there too,’ and they’d say, ‘Who…?’”
            Hearn remembers being far more starstruck at the time by Alice Cooper lead guitarist, Glen Buxton, than he was by Mailer.
            “That to me was really cooler than Norman Mailer, you know?” Hearn said. “We rode around in Glen Buxton’s Trans Am with the t-top off, and he was flying down, whatever downtown avenue it is, going to the Mudd Club, when you get all green lights. ‘Wow, now this is fun!’”
            According to Rey, a wrestling match between Legs and Mailer mentioned by Rolling Stone actually began as a scrap between Legs and Glen Buxton.
            “Norman couldn’t just stand by and watch someone wrestling in his house without getting involved,” Rey remembered. “He grabbed Legs and they went flying over and Glen Buxton went flying on the ground. Someone was bleeding, but it was all in good fun.”
            Legs remembered opening up a cut on Mailer’s ear, though he believed it had recently been lanced in a doctor’s office and there was a fresh scab which came off while they grappled. Hearn recalled the fight getting a bit more serious once the blood began flowing.
            “Legs was getting the worst of it because Norman was way bigger,” Hearn said. “But they’re both about equally drunk, I would say. Legs is very slippery, and at the time, well, we were in our 20’s, so he must have had 25 or 30 years on Norman. But, yeah, he was getting the worst of it. No question. And that was standard. When Legs was in a fight, Legs was losing a fight: That’s all there was to that.”
            Shrapnel singer Dave Wyndorf remembered the party getting even weirder as it wound down.
            “We started to mingle, and I’m getting drunk and the crowd is melting away,” Wyndorf said in a 2012 interview with Tom Scharpling of Low Times, “And finally it was just Norman – Mr. Mailer – and us-- the people that would never leave.”
            According to Wyndorf, Mailer decided to impart some existential cake-based wisdom on his young guests, returning from the refrigerator with a cheesecake. 
            “‘I’m gonna teach you how to eat cheesecake,’” Wyndorf remembered Mailer saying. “‘It’s important to eat cheesecake and fuck. You eat cheesecake, you fuck a little…’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, who can we fuck? There’s no one here!’”
            Glen Buxton might have gotten off relatively easy in the wrestling match earlier, but that was about to change.
            “Buxton is looking around and he sees a picture of Norris Church, Mailer’s wife,” said Wyndorf. “And he says, ‘Man, who’s what girl? She’s fucking hot! I’d like to fuck her!’ And Norman goes, ‘It’s my wife!’ and headbutts him like a goat, like a billy goat. Knocks him out.”
            The Rolling Stone report mentioned Mailer giving the guys in Shrapnel the rest of the booze from the party, but Rey said it didn’t leave with them.
            “We drank beer at that time, you know, so we didn’t know what to do with it all,” Rey said. “Glen Buxton took it all home.”

Popblerd's bLISTerd Presents: The 100 Best Albums of the Eighties

Originally published by Popblerd in June 2012 in the series bLISTerd Presents: The 100 Best Albums of the Eighties

I was asked by my friend Big Money at Popblerd to contribute to a list of the best albums of the decade of my lean teen years, the '80s. If there's one thing us music nerds love it's making lists, discussing lists, obsessing over lists, and revising lists until we can scarcely remember what we were listing in the first place. After the votes were tallied, I was given the chance to write about five of the albums form the final cut. I'd included all five in my initial list, and below you'll find my blurbs as well as where the album fell when the votes were counted.

#58: The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses
Though its initial reach in the United States was largely contained to college dormitories, in the United Kingdom, the Stone Roses’ eponymous debut signaled a youth revolution. Masterfully weaving classic rock guitars with an acid house sensibility, The Stone Roses was about so much more than bellbottoms and bucket hats.
The Stone Roses is deceptively DIY; Ian Brown’s vocal range is indeed something of a musical liability in a live setting, though on album it works perfectly. But he’s also the coolest motherfucker on the planet. In John Squire, the Roses had their own guitar hero, and in Reni the greatest drummer since…well, since anyone, and with Mani’s soulful bass guitar, the band had a rhythm section for the ages.
But without the songs – those songs, my God… – The Stone Roses would have been a flash in the pan. The soaring chorus of “Made of Stone” (“Sometimes I fantasize when the streets are cold and lonely, and the cars they burn below me”) still sends shivers down the spine, and the 8-minute-plus closer, “I Am the Resurrection”, with its dismissive lyrics (“I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do”) and churning instrumental section is an exhaustively perfect finish to one of rock’s few perfect albums.

#21: Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation

Having already established themselves as indie’s premiere downtown art-rockers, Sonic Youth’s fifth album,
Daydream Nation, saw the group consistently hit what for some has been their greatest strength: Superior songwriting buried under an avalanche of sound.
It’s fitting that on their first double album Sonic Youth would include a song called “The Sprawl,” a Kim Gordon-sung epic with lyrics (“Are you for sale? Does ‘fuck you’ sound simple enough?”) to match the fury of the guitars. “Teen Age Riot” opens the proceedings with more than a minute of gentle guitars and hypnotic singing from Gordon before everything explodes.
Bassist Gordon and guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo share vocal duties throughout, with the latter pair’s standout tracks “Teen Age Riot” and “Eric’s Trip” respectively. Even Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE, the Stooges) gets in on the vocal action on “Providence” (though his contribution is through a pair of answering machine messages). The album closes with “Trilogy,” a three-part journey which predictably ends in measured chaos and unbridled energy.
Daydream Nation convinced the music industry that Sonic Youth was ready to destroy the world, and despite a subsequent move to a major label, they never shed their commitment to experimentation and sonic songwriting perfected here.

#19: Talking Heads - Speaking in Tongues

If not exactly famous, the Talking Heads were certainly well-known by 1983. With four terrific albums under their belt, the New York punk scene’s most artistically enduring act was about to enter the upper reaches of the pop charts. The album’s lead single, “Burning Down the House” hit #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and thanks to a quirky video that matched the band’s quirky sensibility, Talking Heads were everywhere.

Thanks to the hypnotic rhythms, a greater reliance on synthesizers, collaborators like Parliament-Funkadelic co-founder Bernie Worrell, David Byrne’s spazzy art school vocals, Jerry Harrison’s understated guitars and the criminally underrated bass guitar of Tina Weymouth and drums of Chris Frantz, everything seemed to come together at just the right time on Speaking in Tongues.
Songs like “Burning Down the House,” “Making Flippy Floppy” and “Girlfriend is Better” still move butts on the dance floor, but for truly lasting brilliance one must turn to “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”. Byrne’s description of the album’s second single made it sound like something of a reluctant love song, though “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” certainly feels unabashedly and genuinely romantic. It’s a love song even a cynic could love.

#6: Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Released in 1988, a year when the world was in thrall to the likes of Phil Collins’ “A Groovy Kind of Love” and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” Public Enemy’s second album hit like an atom bomb-propelled freight train.

Socially-conscious hip-hop was nothing new by the late ‘80s thanks to pioneers of the form like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But with the syncopated steps of the S1W and the bombastic beats of the Bomb Squad, the stage was set for the group’s celebrated vocalists to unfurl calls to action not heard since the early ‘70s heyday of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. Chuck D was Public Enemy’s intellectual center, a gruff storyteller balanced by his comedic foil, Flavor Flav. In 2012, with the reality shows and the failed business ventures in our collective consciousness, it might be difficult to believe there was a time when Flavor Flav was an absolute essential piece of the puzzle, but one listen to “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor” or any other track on which he emerges from the furor should help set the record straight.
Even its sleeve – with Chuck D and Flavor Flav behind bars – is provocative, and coupled with classic songs of anarchic angst like “Bring the Noise” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back isn’t just one of the finest hip-hop albums of the ‘80s, but is one of the best albums by anyone in any genre of any era. Public Enemy nearly matched it in quality with their next album, Fear of a Black Planet, but they never had so much shocking power as on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

#5: Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique

If the Clash’s
 London Calling had the power to singlehandedly destroy everything lame from the entire decade that preceded it in 1979, then perhaps the same can be said of Paul’s Boutique. Released in the summer of 1989, the Beastie Boys’ sophomore album may not have fully abandoned the sophomoric wordplay of Licensed to Ill (“I stay up all night, I go to sleep watching Dragnet/Never sleep alone because jimmy is a magnet”), but there was an undeniable maturity in its meticulously constructed grooves.
Paul’s Boutique is as compelling a case for the art of the sample as anything ever recorded, with easily recognizable sounds (Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” on “Egg Man”) effortlessly mixed with decidedly less so (the beat from “Egg Man” was lifted from Lightnin’ Rod’s “Sport”). Many of the album’s backing tracks had already been built by the Dust Brothers before the Beastie Boys found them, but together the collaboration – along with co-producer Mario Caldato, Jr. – created a masterpiece.
Though one might feel compelled to attach a sense of the maudlin to the music of the Beastie Boys with the recent passing of Adam “MCA” Yauch, all these years later it is impossible to listen to Paul’s Boutique without being overcome with joy. They would go on to record more classic material, but the Beastie Boys were never better than on Paul’s Boutique, an album which perfectly captures the curious comfort of the musical schizophrenia of city life.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mountain Jam: May 31 - June 3

Originally published by PopMatters on July 13, 2012, with photographs by Mike Katz

It’s been called “little Bonnaroo” and with some of the key acts heading off from upstate New York to rural Tennessee the following week, it’s not an entirely unfair claim. But while the pair share a hazy hippie vibe and even – I learned later – some of the same food vendors, Mountain Jam is an entity all its own.

This year’s incarnation of the annual Mountain Jam festival was the eighth. The first Mountain Jam was a one-day concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of WDST, a Woodstock-based independent radio station whose eclectic format is indicative of what the festival eventually became. Govt. Mule headlined the inaugural Mountain Jam and they’ve been the sole musical constant ever since. Warren Haynes, Govt. Mule’s guitarist and leader, co-produces the festival with WDST, and his considerable fanbase comprises much of the several thousand in attendance. So dedicated to Govt. Mule are these fans that they dutifully stood in a torrential downpour on Friday night; their slick ponchos glowing in the night with each flash of light from the stage.
If Govt. Mule is an annual constant for Mountain Jam, rain (or the threat of rain) was a constant for the four days of the 2012 festival. The threat was there through most of Friday, though it didn’t really come down until that night, just prior to Govt. Mule’s four hour set on the East Stage. James Murphy, former lynchpin of LCD Soundsystem and one of Mountain Jam’s most intriguing bookings, carried on with his late night DJ set on the West Stage that evening, though the rain kept many of the revelers cowering in their tents while hoping they wouldn’t slide down the mountain and into the tiny village surrounding the ski resort.

The Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, is one of the country’s most renowned open-air concert settings. The gorgeous scenery and natural acoustics provide a unique experience for those wishing to commune with nature while they have their synapses shredded by music. Hunter Mountain during Mountain Jam should also be mentioned in that conversation. With the two primary stages (the larger East and smaller West) sitting side-by-side at the bottom of a verdant stretch of peaks, the natural setting carries the sound up the hillside and, presumably, into the heavens above. I learned this while on a long ride up the ski lift, one of the best ways to really get a sense of the surroundings as it carries riders over the crowd and beyond the RV and premier campsites, halfway up the mountain to the base camp of a zip line. I also learned it as I eventually got tired of being cold and wet during Murphy’s set and listened to the second hour shivering in a tent I feared would be obliterated by the volume and awesomeness of the beats.

The longer the weekend went on, the muddier the hill became, and even with the best efforts of the festival’s organizers by laying down shitloads of hay, people still slipped and fell in the mud. Of course the longer the weekend went on, the less people actually seemed to care whether they were covered in mud anyway. Yes, there were showers (three narrow stalls per gender for $5 a wash) but their lines never matched the length of the lines for coffee in the morning.

Mountain Jam is billed as a child-friendly festival, and I suppose if you’re cool with your kid inhaling lots of pot smoke, it’s not the worst place in the world. There was face-painting and a couple of kid-specific tents for kid-specific activities. Even some of the music was geared towards kids: Ratboy Jr., a local act in the wry tradition of They Might Be Giants who drop the Jr. when they play for grownups, was one of the musical highlights on the small stage in the Awareness Village, playing late-morning sets on Saturday and Sunday. I also saw four kids that were maybe in the 5th or 6th grade in the tall grass halfway up the mountain, perhaps bent on escape or on a hopeful Stand By Me-style search for adventure.

Did you go to college at any time between 1968 and…well, now, I guess? Picture the hippies. I’ll do it too: I was in college in the early ‘90s and I played drums in a funk band. A lot of the kids who came to see us play were contemporary hippies with long flowing robes and matted blonde dreadlocks. They wore hemp necklaces and corduroy pants with long quilted panels running down the sides. If that sounds familiar to you, guess what? They still look like that! Mountain Jam in many ways felt like college, though fortunately the comparison ended there and I wasn’t subsisting exclusively on ramen noodles so I could spend what little money I had on records, pot, and beer.
Though the name smacks of jam bands, Mountain Jam’s lineup is considerably more eclectic. Not that one shouldn’t expect lengthy guitar solos over meandering musical passages, because there is plenty. But this year also featured a stellar performance by the Roots, a band who, while not uncomfortable with the concept of jamming, are decidedly crisper and on point than the term “jam” might indicate. The Roots were one of the weekend’s highlights, a blast of electric energy just before the rains came down on Friday night. How they do what they do – house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, jetting off to destinations unknown for weekend gigs, ?uestlove’s weekly DJ set at Brooklyn Bowl, and steady stream of Twitter commentary nearly every minute of every day – is a mystery. Keeping up with their itinerary is exhausting enough, so imagine what it must be like to actually be in the Roots. But none of that matters once they hit the stage, because it’s pure bliss. The Roots even found the time to work in tributes to the recently departed, opening with a go-go-infused take on the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere”, simultaneously honoring Adam Yauch and Chuck Brown.

Mountain Jam also paid tribute as a whole to Levon Helm, a friend of the festival and a musical legend with deep roots in the area; Helm passed away earlier this year, and renditions of his solo material and songs made famous by the Band were heard (with encouragement by producers) from many of the artists during the weekend. Govt. Mule brought out the surviving members of the Levon Helm Band for the second half of their Saturday night set for an emotional, celebratory performance.
Mountain Jam was also the first official reunion show of the Ben Folds Five, who ran through their greatest hits in front of fans who’d traveled far and wide to see it happen. Folds was in predictably gregarious form, regaling the crowd with wry stories between even wryer songs from the group’s staggeringly catchy back catalogue. While the North Carolina-bred band is in the midst of recording a new album, they stuck strictly to the classics, only letting up long enough for Folds to throw his stool at his piano - a decidedly punk move for a guy who used to earn a paycheck as a judge on an NBC singing competition show. Of course, if you haven’t heard “Army” or “Song for the Dumped”, you might not know he had it in him.

One of the festival’s breakout acts, Gary Clark, Jr., had already lain waste to the kids at Coachella, and was one week away from doing the same at Bonnaroo when he unleashed his guitar fury at Mountain Jam. Clark, who grew up in Austin, Texas, has already made a name for himself in the blues community, but has lately expanded his reach thanks to incendiary live sets like the one on Friday afternoon at Mountain Jam. If he’s uncomfortable with the comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, Clark sure isn’t showing it, as evidenced by his blistering instrumental run through “Third Stone from the Sun”.
Another breakout performance came from Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, a Daptone Records-affiliated soul outfit and one of the all-time feel-good stories in the history of music. Bradley, a singer in his mid-‘60s with a heartbreaking-but-triumphant life story, was discovered singing as a James Brown impersonator named Black Velvet by Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth. Bradley, a.k.a. the Screaming Eagle of Soul, has since recorded a debut of all-original material, which he showcased at Mountain Jam along with crowd-wowing dance moves possibly honed during his Black Velvet days. Bradley’s sincerity and humility are as genuine as his absolute love of performing, and his voice – and his band – killer. Even if you ignore how totally fucking gratifying it is to be able to celebrate Bradley’s rise, the guy is just dynamite.

The festival’s final headline slot went to Steve Winwood, a dynamic performer since his teen years in the Spencer Davis Group. Though his performance came at the end of a lengthy stateside tour, Winwood was in fine voice and spirit, running through classic material spanning his long history, up to and including cuts from Nine Lives, his 2008 album. Winwood brought out Haynes for “Gimme Some Lovin’” – a singular highlight from an exceptional festival-closing set.

Despite often dismal weather and an abundance of exceedingly over-patchouli’d patrons, Mountain Jam was a pretty terrific festival. In its eighth year, it shows no signs of faltering. With a clear dedication to offering a wide range of musical options to its audience, one can only hope it carries on for many years to come. With great local acts like blues of the Connor Kennedy Band, hotly-tipped indie artists like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Simone Felice Band, genre-defying outfits like Break Science and EOTO, and jam legends like the Tedeschi Trucks Band, there really is something for everyone at Mountain Jam. Now, about all that rain…