Sharon Jones (1956-2016): From a prison guard singing to inmates to her own kind of glory

 

 

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Soul singer Sharon Jones. May 4, 1956 – November, 18, 2016. Courtesy assets.rollingstone.com

Due to large looming deadlines, this appreciation must be brief but I can’t let the passing of the wondrous Sharon Jones pass without notice. Jones, a Hillary Clinton supporter, had reportedly suffered a stroke while watching the 2016 election returns. But she had long struggled with pancreatic cancer.

Sharon Jones, 61, exemplified what a woman can do, despite all the glass ceilings she had to fight through in this still male-chauvinistic American life. To that point, witness the latest election, in which a historically white male-centric-contrived system, The Electoral College, has allowed a seemingly misogynistic and race-bating candidate to be named “president-elect,” despite the American people having voted to elect Hillary Clinton, by a still-widening popular vote victory.

But just as Clinton was born to be a public servant, this woman was born to serve the public soul, as an anecdote from a New York Times unpublished interview indicates:

“Before she was discovered, she worked as an armoured car attendant and a prison guard at Rikers Island in New York City, often singing Whitney Houston ballads to lonely inmates.” 1

Part of Jones’ challenge was that she decided to become a professional soul singer at middle-age and without having the proper singer-diva physical package (think, Whitney Houston…) being a short, pudgy, ordinary looking African-American woman. After she formed a band, Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings,  music industry executives and marketers rebuffed her repeatedly.

So she finally went her own independent way and her persistence, fortitude and talent won out, with a fairly successful if all-too-short career. Like many others, I recall the immense feeling of first hearing her music, which rekindled the fire, passion and love of life in all its peculiar colors, in the tradition of ’50s, ’60s and ’70s rhythm-and-blues soul singing.

Her singing carried deep grit but also a phrasing instinct that almost invariably curved upwards toward an impervious radiance and joy that no disease or social affliction or oppression could suppress. That was Sharon’s gift to us, to show that a black everywoman could drink deeply from the the fountain of creative youth and glory, and share the light with us, even in seemingly dark times.

It’s a style without the over-the-top glamour-posturing and glitz that seems de rigeur for most pop singing these days.

Neo-soul music is generally enjoying a resurgence but Jones was one of the very few women driving that wave and riding its crest. And she was fast embraced by her peers as this wonderful video indicates:

 

Thanks to Harvey Taylor for alerting me to this video.

The duet appearance with Susan Tedeschi in 2015 occured shortly before Sharon Jones’ group joined the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s tour this last summer. Both singers draw deeply from the R&B tradition, as is evident from their delicious renderings of Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me.” and Etta James’ “Tell Mama.”

If you have troubles or the blues these days, you can tell this soul mama, even though her body has passed on, by turning on one of her records and letting her commiserate and lift you back up. For the holidays, she also has a bracingly lovely rendition of “Silent Night” following the two Tedeschi duets on Youtube.

But don’t just youtube her. If you haven’t yet, buy her records, for the sake of her band and legacy, for an investment in what her music means to be sustained, rather than freely exploited.

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Remembering Sharon Jones: An Unpublished Interview

 

 

 

Listening to the “deluxe edition” bonus disc of Tedeschi Trucks’ “Let Me Get By”

 

The cover of the box-set 2-disc deluxe edition of “Let Me Get By” mimics a vintage guitar amplifier. amazon.com

The bonus deluxe edition of the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s latest album Let Me Get By further demonstrates how you can turn a stylistic assessment of this remarkable band into a parlor game. Try pigeon-holing them — short of a six or seven-hyphen phrase —  and they’ll invariably squirm free, or break the bindings. That’s another of the metaphorical meanings of the album’s eloquently powerful cover image of a Mongolian eagle, flying free from his master’s binding.

The cover of their bonus disc is a photo portrait of the same eagle perched on the leather-sheathed hand of the ornately outfitted eagle hunter who, though unnamed, appears Mongolian himself, with his thickly fur-lined hat, and long coat reaching to the tops of his tall boots, which can ford deep snow drifts.

So it’s a pan-cultural nod to the Eastern influences that make this a group defy even the multi-various vernaculars of American roots music.

I said in my first blog review of the basic album Let Me Get By (here: http://kevernacular.com/?p=7331) we’ve never seen anything quite like this band before. I stand by that, however their precursors are three personnel-related groups — Derek and the Dominoes, Delaney and Bonnie, and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen. So Eric (“Derek”) Clapton is a visionary forefather. 1 Yet TTB has encompassed influences beyond what any of those groups ever did, by standing on their shoulders. Plus, they’re already longer lived than any of those, with no signs of slowing down.

All the styles, solos and 12 performers might sound messy in terms of musical structure and arrangements and, at times in the past it has been, but mainly in close listening as the power of their grooves usually carries along loose ends.

The success of the new album reflects the fact the band spent more time in the studio than in any recording project before, according to album annotator Ashley Kahn. It helps that their Swamp Raga Studios are in the Jacksonville, Florida home of Susan Tedeshi and spouse Derek Trucks, and that the group functions almost as an extended family.

The overall musical quality of the ensemble also seems upgraded since jazz bassist Tim LeFebvre came aboard last year. Lefebrve’s credits include jazzers Donny McCaslin, Wayne Krantz, Chuck Loeb, and jazz-contemporary classical’s Uri Ciane. Also he recorded  with the late David Bowie on his already now-celebrated last album Blackstar, which also includes McCaslin and several other top jazzers. LeFebvre co-wrote three songs on Let Me Get By, and actually flew between Bowie’s New York studio and Jacksonville during those albums’ overlapping dates. LeFebvre clearly facilitates the band’s inclusion of the 1971 Bowie  song “Oh! You Pretty Things,” which they cover on the deluxe album second disc, and which I’ll address below.

The fluency of several complex, stirring ensemble passages on both discs heightens the collective groove and may betray the arranging and playing skills of LeFebvre.

Along with three alternate takes of the new album’s songs and the Bowie cover, the deluxe-set disc includes a  quirky quintet studio instrumental “Satie Groove,”  and a three-song update on the band’s celebrated live-concert prowess — one song from the new album and two covers, recorded at New York’s Beacon Theater.

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The first of the three alternate takes is a LMGB song I haven’t commented on previously: “Hear Me.” It opens like a long dusty trek, but it calls to a lover who may or may not be left behind forever. TTB seems very strong conveying that welter of feelings on the verge of break-up or post break-up, when life both shrinks and one imagines so much is possible, for better and worse.

Their lyrics’ deft rhetorical ambiguity allow such songs to resonate for many losses and failures in life. Reminding the loved one “we were one in a million years” speaks to the profundity, grandiosity and cavernous sense of loss in shattered romance. Here Derek Trucks shows his lyrical side, drawing from The Allmans’ singing guitar style of Dickey Betts, specifically his alternating oblique note bends, which mimic a pedal steel.

The live version of “In Every Heart” is slower more burdened and stripped down, but Trucks’ animated solo almost sounds like a conversation with his own heart, recalling Clapton’s buzzing blues style, perfected on Derek and the Dominoes classic album Layla.

Bowie’s “Oh, You Pretty Things,” fits this group’s POV, as a challenging but stirring appraisal of the human race that finally advises: Look at your children/ see their faces in the golden rays/ don’t kid yourself/ They’re the start of a coming race.

The “Just as Strange” alternate take is, surprisingly a 2 ½ minute instrumental jam on that LMGB song, with Trucks and the rhythm section and co-composer Doyle Bramhall II on bass.

Another short hornless instrumental, “Satie’s Groove,” rides Tim Lefebvre’s fat and funky bass guitar in a satisfying descending progression that may allude to piece by 18th century French composer Erik Satie, a sort of proto-minimalist. In fact, much of these first five bonus tracks may appeal to those who prefer an unadorned approach. For sure, they provide a little breathing room from the often heart-pulsing intensity of much of the basic Let Me Get By album.

But that also sets us up for the bonus disc’s last three cuts, live performances of TTB with all guns blazing and, on the last song, a great hired gun. These astonishingly potent performances from New York’s Beacon Theater make the deluxe edition worth the extra money, to me (this was no free reviewer’s copy)

By then, late in their odyssey-like 2015 tour, Susan Tedeschi’s voice had become somewhat raw, and here she sounds a lot like another influence, Janis Joplin. Her pained-tiger growl on these tracks conveys as much raw powerful and emotion as any singer working today. That’s especially remarkable because she never tries to stretch beyond her natural contralto range, unlike so many pop-rock-soul singers and would-be American Idol divas, to varying degrees of success.

I described “Laugh About It”  in the LMGB review post and this version has Tedeschi’s voice rough-riding the infectious but tricky guitar figure the song’s built on.

I’m glad they included their cover of “I Pity the Fool,” which I heard them do in Madison during that tour. It’s an old R&B song done memorably by Bobby “Blue” Bland and Paul Butterfield. This song of bitterness and pity — for the fool who falls for with the narrators ex-lover — shows that TTB can get down in the darkest of emotions, despite their generally uplifting music and lifestyle ethos.

Derek Trucks (left) and David Hidalgo (right) of Los Lobos do some fancy jamming on “Keep on Growing” in this shot from the performance included in the deluxe edition of “Let Me Get By.” Photo by Dino Perrucci photography.blogspot.com.

The last song is another final statement as apt as “In Every Heart” is for the main LMGB album. That song is the exhilarating “Keep on Growing,” by Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock, from Derek and the Dominos’ classic Layla album.

Nominal message aside, the nine-plus-minute version really shows them hoisting the Southern jam band aesthetic to a fresh peak. Part of their current tour includes a number of dates with Los Lobos, and in 2015 that band’s superb lead guitarist David Hidalgo teamed up with Trucks on the song’s two-guitar jam, which bristles with riffing fire, contrapuntal wit and invention that compares to the Allman Brothers in their prime (Trucks was, of, course the Allman Brothers’ last lead guitarist). Characteristic of the Allmans’ longer jams, they slow down the tempo at one point, and then end in a whisper, so it becomes almost suite-like (which ultimately hearkens to the formal rock instrumental sense pioneered by Butterfield’s “East-West”).

Amusingly, from a video of the song performance, it’s evident that Hidalgo knew not much more than the song’s chord changes. And when he stepped to a mike to sing a few lyrics he’d picked up from the first chorus, Tedeschi turned and began mouthing lyrics to him, because who wouldn’t want Hildalgo’s marvelous tenor singing harmony? That is only partially successful, however when the two guitarists jam, Hidalgo’s eyes stay riveted on Trucks’ fretboard, and it works splendidly, a fine example of courageously performing on the fly. 2

I hope something like this happens when I see Los Lobos and Tedesci Trucks Band on the same concert bill this summer.

I’m not sure why Susan Tedeschi doesn’t try such improvisational interplay with her husband at times. She can play the rhythm guitar of a groove like the aforementioned, but perhaps she’s never done much plecteral jamming. Although hardly in Derek’s league technically, she’s a gritty blues guitar soloist, as she shows on “I Pity the Fool.”

The deluxe set also includes lots of cool pix and a brief insider comment on the bonus-disc selections by the band’s resident scribe Mike Mattison.

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  1. I don’t know for a fact, but it’s a fair bet that Derek Trucks was named after the mythical Derek of the Dominoes.
  2. As the video of The Beacon Theater’s “Keep On Growing” is evidently a bootleg, and TTB doesn’t allow bootleg recording like most major concerts, I’m not re-posting it. But its not hard to find online.
  3. Back cover of deluxe LMGB box with song titles courtesy amazon.com

Tedeschi Trucks articulates their full voice and vision on “Let Me Get By”

Susan Tedeschi’s soul-stirring voice soars and dips more majestically than ever, on an eagle’s wing. Listen to “Anyhow.” It’s a broken heart with tenacious muscles. Time after time, Derek Trucks’ slide guitar solos, searing and catchy, nail a song’s heart. Kofi Burbridge’s sinuously gleaming flute emerges periodically like a spectral angel. The band’s a glorious monster, like we’ve never quite experienced before. Yet there’s more, much more.

We’ve watched The Tedeschi Trucks Band grow before our eyes into the 12-musician offspring of the most blessed musical couple in American music. I’m hardly alone in thinking they’re the best performing band we have today. It’s also amazing how they become so great so fast, even while still coalescing. Their collective and individual talents have slashed through and absorbed thickets of influences, up the mountain to the roots-rock summit. Then, they reach out to pull you up with them. Their path betrays the sheer toil of inspired dedication, performing on the road for more than 200 days for the fifth straight year in 2015 — and they’re currently on another summer-long tour.

On Let Me Get By, their third studio recording,  they articulate overarching purpose and meaning more clearly than ever. That statement is quite evident on the basic album, as it should be. But it becomes more fully realized in the album’s two-disc deluxe edition, which includes eight bonus tracks, three of them live concert performances, and a David Bowie cover. I’ll address the bonus material in a second post, to try getting a handle on a great collective group finding its fullest self. Remember, TTB’s reputation remains foremost as a live band, despite their Grammy for their 2011 debut studio album Revelator.

Cover of the two CD deluxe box of “Let Me Get By.” amazon.com

The new album title and cover say something like “unchain your heart!” A Mongolian golden eagle has broken free from its master’s glove, and seems bound for new heights — bound for glory, as the band put it, on a great song from Revelator.

“’Let Me Get By’ actually refers to a lot of things,” says Trucks in their website profile, “like the band becoming more self-reliant than ever before—writing our own songs and producing our own music in our own studio. It’s about moving on to a new recording label (Fantasy/Concord) with a deal that gives us more freedom.

“It definitely took time for us to get here. I think the connections we have in this band and among the crew and extended family are the real reason why.”

His spouse and band co-leader, singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi comments, “Derek hears everything from a big picture stance. Not just track-by-track but the album as a whole.”

Adds Trucks: It’s a bunch of different true stories meshed into one.”

So much feel-good P.R. talk? Listen closely, after you’ve felt the music, and judge for yourself. The road-tested communal feeling Trucks speaks of feeds into the band’s ethical worldview, which seems more clearly crystallized on Let Me Get By. Lyricist and background singer Mike Mattison’s emergence speaks plenty about the band’s step forward. He gets his first two lead-vocal spotlights on a TTB album (on “Crying Over You” and “Right On Time”), and his increasing mastery as a lyricist and songwriter is more central than ever to the band’s vision. Despite their prodigious musicianship and Trucks “guitar hero” status, they funnel those powers into the songs, and a sense that the collective sound fuels human aspirations.

Even vocalist Tedeschi, like her spouse, seems lacking in typical leader ego. She started a kind of joke about her joy and gratitude, Trucks says. “After shows, she started to say to everyone, ‘Thanks for letting me be in your band’ and we’d all laugh. Now we all say it.”

Joy and gratitude ooze from Let Me Get By, amid more complex emotions, and as qualities that might help heal and make a difference in a deeply injured earth and troubled society.

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi at Red Rocks Amphitheater in 2015. Courtesy iwebradio.fm/Kell Yeah Photography

Hear the clarion call of Tedeschi bracing opening note of “Anyhow” signaling the “wreckage in my soul”: Running from a bitter taste/took a rest from all the chase/feeling something anchored in my soul./ played the game by all the/learning lessons no one gets to choose. The song continues about a personal relationship, but that first verse can speak to anyone in the economic 99% feeling betrayed by the game and its rules — the rigged system — whether you lean left or right. The song goes on to speak of cold-hearted desperation among the unemployed and even working poor, and invokes Biblical myth: “Cain and Abel lit the flame/we can never go that way again.” This clearly references brother-on-brother crime, whether it is inner-city shootings, police brutality/homicide, or white-collar financial betrayal.

Yet “Anyhow” is an absolute soul-stirrer — not a downer. And TTB doesn’t preach, they understand the philosophic pause and the medicine of laughter, in the ensuing “Laugh About It.” This band’s ethically-driven sort of communal political synergy resonates from the rapturous gospel choruses right into the groundswell roar of the Bernie Sanders political movement, a sense of empowerment and transformation.

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Here is The Tedeschi Trucks Band in a NPR Tiny Desk Concert, performing “Just as Strange,” “Don’t Know What it Means,” and “Anyhow” from the album “Let Me Get By”:

http://www.npr.org/2016/03/24/471725403/tedeschi-trucks-band-tiny-desk-concert

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The instrumental break in “Laugh About It” shows how tight and rich their grooves and arrangements have become, with Truck’s guitar quick-stepping through horn and rhythm counter-punches. You can dance along to it or your music head can marvel. And Susan does laugh about it at the end.

“Don’t Know What It Means” shows this band reaching new heights in its pop appeal, in the power of call-and-response. The refrain glows with as much warm infectiousness as a vintage Sly and the Family Stone song, another collective-oriented stylistic precursor. That refrain melody descends like the slowing last yards of an exhilarating roller coaster ride, and the rhythmic hand-clapping helps turn that dynamic into a Juneteenth Day gospel-infused parade.

The lyric continues the previous song’s laugh-it-off wound-licking: If the story feels exactly like a dream/ don’t know what it means… And you can’t just turn the page and let it go/ things that you’ve been told/ deep down in your soul.”

Rather, it’s time to strategize: “Don’t make your move too early” or you may “surely lose your way.” And the shyster or con man may be poised to snooker the unwittingly earnest. Yet TTB believes self-empowerment perseveres: Now don’t look down in the dirt/ just to find out what you’re worth… To work hard and do it right/ learn to speak up and fight/ the truth is gonna beat them down the line.”

If that sounds preachy to some, it’s hardly fire-and-brimstone browbeating. Rather, it the sort of uplift that even the ostensibly angry American black writer James Baldwin articulated in the voice of his preacher father-figure in his transformative 1962 novel Another Country. The black minister’s own son had committed suicide, yet the father counselled his congregation, all grieving his own son’s death: “Don’t lose heart, dear ones, don’t let it make you bitter, try to understand. The world’s already bitter enough. We got to try to be better than the world ‘…Except for someone — a man weeping in the front row — there was silence all over the chapel…” 1

You find no comparable moments of low-key compassion on this recording, as this band has achieved on their brilliant story-song “Midnight in Harlem.” But the new “bunch of different true stories” now mesh into a bramble-strewn path rising toward sunlight.

“Learn to speak up and fight” can mean collective song as much as righteous chants. A group of remarkably persevering protest singers in Madison, WI have assembled every noon each weekday at The Capitol building for five years — over 1,300 consecutive weekdays — to sing. The Solidarity Sing Along sustains the spirit of the original massive protests of Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining-busting, anti-education Act 10 “repair bill” — which has helped decimate and polarize my home state. The Sing Along’s 60-plus song repertoire ranges from Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” to adapted country blues classics and a Ramones song, to originals by participants. The Act 10 bill and its 100,000 protesters helped inspire Occupy Wall Street and now the Bernie Sanders “revolution.” 2

TTB’s solidarity stresses human commonality, via a collective gathering of cultural tribes, from Tedeschi’s ex-gospel choir singer-cum-blues mama roots to Trucks’ voraciously wide-ranging “big picture stance.” Trucks rose from country-blues bottleneck guitar to Allman Brothers’ band trademarks – gutsy singing, swampy blues, pealing guitar riffs for modal flights. And his Coltrane/Shankar micro-tonalities help summon this band’s patented “swamp ragas.” That simmering instrumental vocabulary facilitates exquisitely meditative introductions or segues, which help embrace a more worldly cultural vision.

Flutist-keyboardist Kofi Burbridge highlights “Swamp Raga for Holzapfel, Flute and Harmonium” on “Let Me Get By.” Courtesy Wikipedia.com

And all the band members seem attuned to the wellsprings of the blues, ‘60s-‘70s gospel and R& B, free and funk-jazz, and modern pop-rock, epitomized, of course, by the Beatles.

Which leads me to album’s next song, the slightly tipsy rollick of “Right on Time,” Mattison’s vocal seems to channel John Lennon’s gentle side, “What is it that you lack? What is it that you seek?” Then, the gently bouncing harmonized refrain: “Does a smile come alive when you share the wine..?” and a “Hey!” refrain, with woozy dance-hall horns. The whole effect, the George Martin-esque arrangement, could’ve fit right into Magical Mystery Tour or even The White Album. Heresy? So sue me.

Lyricist and backup singer Mike Mattison of Tedeschi Trucks Band gets two lead vocal spotlights on “Let Me Get By.” Courtesy pghintune.wordpress.com 

For blues-rock buffs who fear they’re getting too cute, the title song is another full-throated empowerment barn burner. “Let me get by/cuz time won’t wait!” And then, they pause again, for a reality check. “Just as Strange,” co-written by Doyle Bramhall II, is a stripped-down Robert Johnson-like wail about abject craving for sex or drugs, as pure  bedevilment.

Mattison’s fervent lead vocal on “Crying Over You” with the deliciously cheesy line “I caught you snooping ‘round swimming pool” segues to a lovely, haunting swamp-raga. The album’s last few songs tread in lost-romance/relationship territory, but very convincingly.

However, the final song (of the non-deluxe album), “In Every Heart,” resounds like a thematic recapitulation, blending reality and inspiration. Mellifluous horn harmonies, the ever-ready background singers, and an easy, reflective groove cue Tedeschi’s voice, honoring a warm primary influence, Bonnie Raitt. Yet “Heart” is TTB’s own statement: “In every heart there’s a name/under the perfume and the blame.” It’s about coming to terms with your true identity and your “story,” admittedly no easy task. “In every heart, there’s a song/ turning the pages… In every song, there’s a psalm/ coming to find you to sing along.”

With a surrogate family like the Tedeschi Trucks gang, one need not be alone. They deliver the power of the song. Perhaps some existentialists will call that mere sop. Me, I’d rather not stand in the rain of my spiritual solitude.

PART 2. I’ll consider the deluxe bonus disc of Let Me Get By and that 2-disc total package in another post, coming shortly.

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  1. James Baldwin, Another Country, Vintage International, 1993, 121

2. Scott Walker, who survived a re-call election driven by the Act 10 protests, later declared, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” in reference to defeating the terrorist group ISIS. The spurious analogy may have marked the beginning of the end of Walker’s short-lived presidential nomination bid. Meanwhile, he’s back in Wisconsin working his same far-right agenda and the singers continue, as they say, “until Wisconsin gets better,” as one of their mottos declares.The Solidarity Sing Along is open to anyone each weekday starting at noon at the Capitol. Their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SolidaritySingAlong. At times, noted musicians have joined the participants, including Woody Guthrie’s famous son Arlo and Billy Bragg, who wrote music for and recorded unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics in his Mermaid Avenue project with Wilco.

For the full story on the Wisconsin protests, see John Nichols’ book Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street.

“Let Me Get By” album cover at top, courtesy zumic.com