Composer Erik Satie had a “special” relationship with animals, and this rendition of his famous music aligns with that eccentricity

At Culture Currents we promise to explore the “common and the uncommon” of our culture. Today, we pause to appreciate something uncommon, and even a little highbrow, or as high as a cow’s brow can raise. This is for both lovers of Eric Satie’s fairly sublime piano pieces “Trios Gympnopedes” (which were a staple of classical radio in Milwaukee, at least on the former WFMR.)…Pregnant pause. You noticed the “both” in the last sentence…and for, um, animal lovers. And here the twains shall meet, ready or not.

The performance below is not for classical music purists, however it certainly attracted my calico cat Chloe who hopped up on the desk see what all the luv-ly harmonizing was about.

The choir group is called “Cats & friends Choir.” What would Erik Satie (1866-1925) have thought of this? Like Chloe the cat did, this question leaps to mind. Well, Satie was a bit eccentric, animal-wise, and otherwise.

The composer reportedly once walked a lobster in Paris. There’s an image for you to savor, with perhaps the long shadow of the Eiffel Tower falling across the crustacean’s path. Because of Satie’s apparent special regard for critters, I suspect that he’d somehow appreciate this moooving rendition of his pieces. Yes, there are cows, who supply the bass notes, but throughout it is felines who star in this chorus. Naturally, as cats are the smartest (and most self-important) of domestic pets.

Composer Erik Satie. Wikipedia

Amazingly, you hear pretty much all the piece’s harmonies and striking modulations. It’s not really dumbed down. When somebody organizes, or “conducts” these miscellaneous species, hear what happens! This performance was shared by my friend Frank Stemper, an accomplished “serious” 1 composer in his own right, and a jazz pianist of note, based in Milwaukee.

The piece was originally posted by a musical mischief-maker named Florent Gyse, who is a bassist and composer and videographer, though perhaps he had help in the latter department, including producer Doug Perkins. Thanks Florent! His channel is available here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwfw6NcrTgFTLJiZGpKq3VQ

This “Cats & friends” version is followed by a superb straight rendering of the Satie pieces, performed by the pianist Olga Scheps (directly linked at top), who plays the first two pieces in a video performance. There’s another noteworthy straight interpretation of the pieces online, by Anne Queffélec (sound recording only) of all three pieces. That YouTube performance illustrated (see below the animal choir) by a painting titled “Moonlight on the Sound” by the great American Impressionist Frederick Childe Hassam.

With these pianists you hear why these three pieces are sublime, in their apparently almost artless simplicity. But they’re more than they appear to be, though ultimately it’s their spare and slightly astringent beauty that stands the test of time.

The furry choir members certainly would agree, and they weren’t born yesterday! But they’re not that old either. I rest my case, with them. However, for more insight on Satie and “Trios Gympnopedes,” proceed below the YouTube link here…

jessiemelodyworld K,” an online YouTube video channel host, posted the following extended comments with Queffélec’s piano rendition of Satie’s three famous pieces: (Jeez, all these fancy-dancy video-showoffs make a mere wordsmith like me feel like I’m puttering along in the slow lane. Oh, well. I’ll work on my pizzazz. At least I can gussy my words up with some visual borrowings.)

Watch Olga play the first two, right after the “choir,” (or watch Olga first) but here’s a direct link to that second recording by Queffélec, along with jessie’s comments below:

 

“* The Gymnopédies, published in Paris starting in 1888, are three piano compositions written by French composer and pianist Erik Satie. These short, atmospheric pieces are written in 3/4 time, with each sharing a common theme and structure.

“Collectively, the Gymnopédies are regarded as an important precursor to modern ambient music — gentle yet somewhat eccentric pieces which, when composed, defied the classical tradition.[citation needed] For instance, the first few bars of Gymnopédie No. 1 consist of an alternating progression of two major seventh chords, the first on the subdominant, G, and the second on the tonic, D.

“The melodies of the pieces use deliberate, but mild, dissonances against the harmony, producing a piquant, melancholy effect that matches the performance instructions, which are to play each piece “painfully”, “sadly” or “gravely”.

“From the second half of the 20th century on, the Gymnopédies were often erroneously described as part of Satie’s body of furniture music, perhaps because of John Cage’s interpretation of them. * Éric Alfred Leslie Satie (pronounced: [eʁik sati]) (signed his name Erik Satie after 1884) (17 May 1866, Honfleur — 1 July 1925, Paris) was a French composer and pianist. Satie was a colourful figure in the early 20th century Parisian avant-garde.

“His work was a precursor to later artistic movements such as minimalism, repetitive music, and the Theatre of the Absurd. An eccentric, Satie was introduced as a “gymnopedist” in 1887, shortly before writing his most famous compositions, the Gymnopédies. Later, he also referred to himself as a “phonometrician” (meaning “someone who measures sounds”) preferring this designation to that of a “musician”, after having been called “a clumsy but subtle technician” in a book on contemporary French composers published in 1911.

“In addition to his body of music, Satie also left a remarkable set of writings, having contributed work for a range of publications, from the dadaist 391 to the American culture chronicle Vanity Fair. Although in later life he prided himself on always publishing his work under his own name, in the late nineteenth century he appears to have used pseudonyms such as Virginie Lebeau and François de Paule in some of his published writings.”

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1 All seriousness aside, that “serious” adjective seems in serious jeopardy, Professor Stemper.

Special thanks to jessiemelodyworld k. You can reach his channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzSqtRPV-tXhow2kIqtRcMQhttp://

Dylan offers an evocative, expansive ballad for JFK: “Murder Most Foul”

Ghosts can drag on our psychic heels interminably – that’s why they’re called haunting. Damn hard to shake. So Bob Dylan was utterly apt in titling his new 17-minute opus “Murder Most Foul.” He’s quoting perhaps the most famous haunter in literature, Hamlet’s father — murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, who then marries the prince’s mother and gains the Danish crown. At one point, the ghostly father whispers, “Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul, strange and unnatural.”

The ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father in the Kenneth Branaugh film adaptation of “Hamlet.” Courtesy Kristlinglistics

Dylan was apparently among the countless of both the so-called “greatest generation” and the baby-boomers who could never quite let go of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And have we really, as a nation? Ever since that fateful day in Dallas, America has indulged a weakness for conspiracy theories. It’s hard to not argue that Kennedy assassination isn’t the primary impetus for a collective national neurosis — the Warren Report be damned. I have an intelligent friend with a license plate that reads simply: “JFK,” and who eagerly unfurls intriguing conspiracy tentacles on the subject. I’ll admit I wrote one of the first poems of my young life, and then read a whole book, about the assassination back in the day. 1

So, we struggled mightily with the tragedy of it, the insanity of it, the mystery, skulduggery and intrigue. It brought this barrel-chested nation crashing to its knees and wringing its hands, after Kennedy had lifted us up with a noble challenge, the dream of the moon, and hope for a greater America – not in xenophobic isolation like our current president – but through the Peace Corps, and diplomacy, in service to the world. Even in largely outmaneuvering The Soviets in the Cold War, though that almost went awry.

What a different world ours might be had Kennedy (and M. L. King and RFK) lived to fulfill their promise and vision. Instead, we soon got the “Reagan Revolution,” neo-liberalism, and now, Donald Trump and his white-nationalist primary policy-maker, our currents state of affairs.

Rolling Stone is straightforward in striving for the song’s currency, certainly at an emotional level: “All across the country at this very moment, people are lost, scared, and grieving. The coronavirus crisis has transformed American life with shocking speed — and Bob Dylan wants you to know that he feels your pain,” asserts Simon Vozick- Levinson. 2

For sure, by transporting us with such skilled empathy, Dylan transfers our neurological focus away from our pain, in a similar way that certain tried-and-true medications, such as medical marijuana, work for countless people suffering chronic physical pain.

Dylan releasing this now also might help explain why, after becoming the unofficial protest spokesman of the ‘60s generation, he abdicated the role increasingly in the few years after Kennedy’s death in November 1963. He clearly cares that people hear it now, as if finally unburdening himself.  2

The summer of 1964 brought Another Side of Bob Dylan which stepped back from the heavy protest of The Times They Are a’ Changin’, with the exception of the magnificent “Chimes of Freedom,” a sort of farewell hosanna to justice. And by 1965’s rootsier, more personal and romantic Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s also beginning to plug in, and he chain-anchors the album with the long, searingly bleak “It’s All Right Ma (I’m only Bleeding)” which remains it’s very own surreal rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. Yet, in retrospect, it’s chant-like manner and lyrics might also resonate as a conceptual trial run for “Murder Most Foul.” Consider the earlier song’s: “Disillusioned words like bullets bark/ As human gods aim for their mark/ made everything from toy guns that spark/ to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/ It’s easy to see without looking too far/ that not much is really sacred.

While preachers preach of evil fates/ teachers teach that knowledge waits/ can lead to hundred-dollar plates/ Goodness hides behind its gates/ but even the President of the United States/ sometimes must have to stand naked.”

This new piece won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; Dylan doesn’t even sing a single melody. It’s more like a minister’s funeral sermon. Yet, his voice is richly nuanced, by turns, ironic, quizzical, tender and garrulous. At the very least, let’s agree his bard’s technique remains peerless, including his uncannily effortlessness at rhyming couplets, which keep our mind almost helplessly hooked at his words’ rhythmic resonance.

Dylan contemplates what we lost by paraphrasing Kennedy’s most famous aphorism: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you…” and soon follows by yoking bluesman Robert Johnson with Shakespeare, ”I’m going down to the crossroads try to flag a ride/ the place where faith, hope and charity die…“What is the truth, where did it go? Ask Oswald and Ruby they oughta know. Business is business and it’s a murder most foul.”

Jackie Kennedy reacts to her husband being shot. Courtesy The Conversation

Arriving at the decisive moment, Dylan pulls a masterful trick by inhabiting JFK:

Riding in the backseat next to my wife
Heading straight on into the afterlife
I’m leaning to the left; got my head in her lap
Hold on, I’ve been led into some kind of a trap.

The songwriter, creator of many unforgettable characters who’d be nobodies if not for him, learned long ago the power of rhetorical illusionism. Of the assassination itself he comments, “The greatest magic trick under the sun/ perfectly executed, skillfully done.”

A simulation of the gun sight of JFK’s assassin. Courtesy The Guardian 

The Abraham Zapruder film, now replayed in slow motion, remains shockingly violent:

It’s a strangely compelling phenomenon – hearing the man who refused to speak for his generation doing what he can’t help but doing. Speaking for perhaps all generations, then and since, who cherish gifted, inspiring leaders. We feel we, too, must stand naked when they’re torn from us, as Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy’s brother Robert soon would be too. No wonder Dylan thought it was all too much for even him, or perhaps anyone, to fully grapple with then. Even now, he drolly disavows any special role: “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline.”

Nevertheless, his insight arises in several ways, including by changing points of view, so we look at life with a prismatic perspective. And it’s perhaps most powerful as emotional insight, well-honed empathy, a way of understanding the old rawness that remains, like heavy, rotting branches from our heart. Time heals, but somewhere beneath our psychic scars, many of us still carry a cross for our martyr, who carried an almost Christ-like aura, even if we knew his human weaknesses. Dylan curtly references the famous temptress who allegedly led two Kennedy brothers astray.

The instrumental accompaniment is also inspired, in its welling empathy and its softly buoyant restraint — from the most eloquent of instruments, the cello, and bowed bass, and piano. Lightly struck cymbals.

Yes, this feels like Dylan delivering the ghost of a beloved and blood-spattered leader into the existential consciousness of generations (Though Hamlet’s maker did as well, would that the poor prince been so successful):

“We’re right down the street, from the street where you live.

They mutilated his body/ they took out his brain

what more could they do?/ They piled on the pain.

But his soul is not there where it was supposed to be at

For the last 50 years they’ve been searching for that

Freedom, oh freedom, freedom from me

I hate to tell you mister, but only dead men are free…

Note the deftly swift switching of points-of-view here, as the author refuses to let us forget the horrid, cold-blooded nature of the deed:

Throw the gun in the gutter and walk on by…

Got blood in my eye, got blood in my ear

I’m never gonna make it to the new frontier.

The Zapruder film I’ve seen the night before.

Seen it thirty-three times maybe more.

Its foul and deceitful and vile and mean/ ugliest thing that you ever have seen

They killed him once, they killed him twice/, killed him like a human sacrifice.”

(Incredibly, Secret Service agent Clint Hill, on the Kennedy car’s trunk by then, reports that Jackie Kennedy climbed onto the hood not to flee, but to retrieve parts of her husband’s skull and brain matter.) 3

The Kennedy limousine in Dallas. Photo courtesy Getty Gallery

Dylan’s consolation is intermittent, almost as if only the innocent have earned it, by default: ”Hush little children you’ll understand/ the Beatles are coming, they’ll hold your hand.”

This nifty pop cultural reference preludes Dylan’s most inspired leap, an extended petitioning for grace even non-believers can understand. He invokes the period’s colorful, big-talking disc jockey Wolfman Jack, who hardly carries the gravitas of a Walter Cronkite. But Jack lets us down easier, we hope, in music’s healing waters. So hear Dylan, himself a disk jockey of note, riding his imploring waves, for the ghost’s sake and ours:

Wolfman Jack he’s speaking in tongues

He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs

Play me a song Mister Wolfman Jack

play it for my long Cadillac

play it that only the good die young,

take us to the place where Tom Dooley was hung…

Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe.

Play please don’t let me be misunderstood

play it for the First Lady she ain’t feeling so good…

Play “Mystery Train” for Mister Mystery

for the man who fell down like a rootless tree…

Play Oscar Peterson, play Stan Getz, play “Blue Sky” play Dickey Betts.

Play Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk

play Charlie Parker and all that junk.

All that junk and all that jazz

play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz.

play Buster Keaton play Harold Loyd

play Bugsy Seigel play Pretty Boy Floyd…

play Nat King Cole play Nature Boy”

Play “Down in the Boondocks” for Terry Malloy…

Don’t worry Mister President help’s on the way

your brothers are coming

there’ll be hell to pay.

Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell?…

Was a hard act to follow second to none

They’ll killed him on the altar of the rising sun…”

Marlon Brando as dock laborer Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s classic film “On the Waterfront.” Courtesy MarlonBrando.com

The riffing’s cumulative effect is stunning, deeply gratifying, as the songwriter/poet/disc jockey neatly ties it together at the end, like a spiritual tourniquet, that increasingly eases the pain built up over half a century.

Yet Dylan challenges us to reconsider, give this tragedy its full due, once more. How can we, as a nation and people, do better? At times, like now, our leaders need to lead. And yet, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” John F. Kennedy’s ghost might quote John Lennon: “Come together, right now, over me.”

But this work also feels healing, the work of a kind of doctor, a pop culture witch doctor perhaps, or a shaman, posing as a mere patsy.

We all know how Patsy Cline went to pieces. By doing so, she began to help us pick up our pieces.

And so, this patsy-priest helps us to walk, with that ghost, away from the altar, to our own rising sun.

_________________

  1. My “JFK” friend, a deeply involved aficionado of the assassination subculture,  comments about official explanations: “An elaborate disinformation campaign by the CIA has led people astray at a Freudian level.”
  2. Here’s a Twitter message Dylan posted with the song’s release:
Bob Dylan Twitter
@bobdylan

Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you. — Bob Dylan

March 27, 2020[1]

3. This video, narrated by SS agent Clint Hill, recounts the event with startling efficacy:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jazz pianist Lynne Arriale’s “Chimes of Freedom” testifies to forsaken humanity

Pianist-composer Lynne Arriale

The Lynne Arriale Trio will perform live at The Jazz Showcase in Chicago, on April 29, and at The Dunsmore Room, May 1, in Minneapolis. 

Review: Lynne Arriale Trio Chimes of Freedom (Challenge)

Milwaukee-born pianist-composer Lynne Arriale’s career roughly parallels her fellow Wisconsin Conservatory of Music graduate and recent Grammy-winner Brian Lynch’s. Yet, while internationally acclaimed, her profile remains lower than Lynch’s. Her 15th album demonstrates she’s as accomplished, in her way, as the trumpeter. Arriale has dedicated herself to the jazz piano trio form, and hers draws comparisons to preeminent trios led by Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. Yet I hear her primary piano influence is McCoy Tyner, especially in her resounding lyricism and deep-register comping for dramatic effect.

And artful drama abounds in this eloquent concept album that declares its seriousness right from the plangent opening minor chord of the classic gospel song “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Then, Arriale’s original “The Dreamers” urgently evokes the uncertain longing of millions of young American Latinx in political limbo.

Similarly, “Three Million Steps” radiates the resolution of thousands of Southerly refugees fleeing for hopes of freedom at our border. Arriale’s ballad “Lady Liberty” traces the mythical French patriot’s footsteps as freedom’s fighter and messenger, perhaps right to the White House.

By contrast, “Reunion” bubbles with buoyant Caribbean-style celebration, of separated family members together again. Here we feel the propulsive punch of drummer E.J Strickland, a disciple of Tyner’s famous John Coltrane band mate Elvin Jones. Yet Strickland speaks in his own jubilant voice here.

The Lynne Arriale Trio (L-R)” E.J. Strickland, drums; Arriale; Jasper Somsen, bass, producer. All photos courtesy Challenge Records

As Lynch did with “best large ensemble jazz album,” The Omni-American Book Club,  Arriale has unleashed her full social-consciousness in her art. Duos aside, the piano trio is ostensibly the quietest of classic jazz trio combos. Nevertheless, Chimes of Freedom might be a trojan horse in the shadows, poised to storm the gates of Grammy at year’s end.

The title song, by Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon’s “American Song,” both sung by K.J. Denhert, tenderly render portraits of humanity – Dylan’s magnificent, gritty story-song, tolling “for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail”… and for “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe/ and we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”

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This review was first published in slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express.

McCoy yelled out, “take it Jack!” Jack Grassel remembers McCoy Tyner first hand

Please contact Charles Seton before ANY use.

The interior of the Amazingrace nightclub in Evanston Il. during the 1980s. Photo by Charles Seton

Editor’s note: In response to my blog about celebrated pianist McCoy Tyner’s recent passing, I received from guitarist Jack Grassel this remembrance of an extraordinary experience we had when we attended a Tyner concert in the mid-1970s. Here is Jack’s remembrance, slightly edited.– Kevernacular

When I heard that McCoy Tyner was going to play at Amazingrace in Evanston, I called my friend Kevin Lynch to go with me.  I said “I’m going to play with McCoy Tyner tonight. Kevin just said. “OK”.  Rather than leave the guitar in the car, I had it in a gig bag on my back.  When we paid the cover charge at the door, the grouchy bouncer said, “why do have the guitar?”

I replied, “I’m going to play with McCoy Tyner tonight.”  He laughed sarcastically.  We went in and sat in the front row in front of the piano.  All the instruments were onstage.

Kevin said, “Jack, why don’t you write a note of introduction and have it sent back to him?”  I did exactly that. Then we went down to the cafeteria to get a bite to eat and McCoy was sitting at a table eating ice cream next to some empty chairs.  I introduced myself and said “I’m the guy who sent the note.”  McCoy said, “have a seat.”  We sat down and had a great, long conversation about music.  Then his manager came to tell him it was time to play. I said, “May I play with you tonight?”  He replied, “Get your amp and put it near the front of the stage, we’ll play a tune and if everything is cool, I’ll motion for you to come onstage”.  So I got my amp and set it on the floor next to the stage.  The band had drummer Eric Gravatt, three horn players and a bassist.  The big grand piano was pushed up next to the wall on its left side. The band started to play and it was burnin’.  When they started the second tune, McCoy motioned for me to come onstage and play.

The McCoy Tyner Quartet with drummer Eric Gravatt, saxophonist Gary Bartz, and bassist Gerald Cannon. Jack Grassel played with a Tyner-led sexet that included Gravatt and tenor saxophonist George Adams. Youtube.com

zThere wasn’t much room onstage. so I had to squeeze between the horn players to put my amp behind them next to the piano.  I couldn’t find an outlet to plug the amp into, so I got down on hands and knees to crawl under the piano to get to the outlet on the wall.  That was amazing to be under the piano with McCoy pounding violently on it.  Thinking everything was cool after plugging in my amp, I crawled out from under the piano to locate my guitar.

Three big, strong bouncers including the grouchy guy at the door lifted me up into the air and carried me off stage and held me against a wall with my feet off the ground.  I looked down at the bouncer in front of me demanding what I was up to.  I said, “he said I could play with him”. Then I pleaded to the stage hand to get these guys to let me down. He got McCoy’s attention and pointed to me. McCoy motioned for them to let go.

I walked out onstage and Kevin had gotten my guitar out of the case and handed it up to me. All this time, I had not listened to the song they were playing.  All three horn players had already soloed while this battle with the stage hands had been going on.  So I wasn’t prepared when I had just turned the amp on, plugged in the guitar when McCoy yelled out, “take it Jack!”
Guitarist Jack Grassel in 1979. a few years after playing with McCoy Tyner. Courtesy Pickclick.com
I started to play, using my perfect pitch to identify each chord McCoy dealt me. After a few choruses I had figured out the song form, all this while I was soloing.  I played the best I could and when the song was over. McCoy didn’t tell me to leave the stage.  I finished the set with them giving me solos.  When the set was over, everyone went back to the dressing room.  McCoy had the money and paid each guy a hundred dollars.  Everyone complimented me on my playing.  Mr. Tyner told me to send him a cassette of my playing. I thanked them for letting me play. I walked out onstage to pack up my guitar. I had my back to the audience and a crowd had formed behind me.  When I turned around people were saying things like “Who are you?  Got any records out?  are you in the band?”  I felt like a star for a moment. Kevin and I went out to the car and drove home having had our minds blown by this adventure.
This happened at a time when I was trying to find my own voice on the instrument and before I recorded my first record Magic Cereal. I never had any recording that I felt was good enough to send him. And then a year later he came out with a record where he played duets with a bunch of guitar players. I also realized that perhaps I didn’t play the right instrument to pierce the dense wall of sound that Tyner was creating.  I also didn’t feel like going on the road. I like being at home, getting a good night sleep, exercising and eating what I want to eat and practicing all day which are things that are not possible being on the road with a band.
A few years after this event, I was talking to pianist Buddy Montgomery who was playing at a little corner bar in the ghetto of Milwaukee, playing to three people besides me.  I said, “Buddy what are you doing playing in this dump for four people?”  He replied,”It’s about the music.  Did you hear what we just played?  That was some great music. I’m very happy.”  So these were among the many lessons I’ve learned, that it’s about the music, not the money, not the adulation, not the fame.  It’s about the music.
— Jack Grassel

McCoy Tyner Quartet live performing “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit”

Blog friends

I recently posted an obit tribute to the recently departed piano giant McCoy Tyner but with no live links. Today, I came across this extended performance of his quartet doing “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit,” first documented on the live album Enlightenment.

Buckle up. It’s a major performance and worth your while to get a sense of Tyner in his astonishing prime. Tyner on piano, Azar Lawrence on saxophone, Juney Booth on bass and Alphonse Mouzon on drums. Recorded at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival.  Courtesy the Jazz Video Guy.

As the theme of “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” took over my backdrop today, having played this whole video through a handful of times, something registered with me. Tyner, in such work, doesn’t abide by the bebop or Tin Pan Alley requisites of chord changes per a certain amount of bars, despite the theme’s very slight modal modulations. This aesthetic eschews a melody’s urge to engage a more harmonic story. He’s doing his thought-diving into deep and even primal waters. He’s striving, in his theme’s repetition,for the power of the incantatory, something very old, profound and timeless in music, as deeply explored by Ted Gioia in his extraordinary new book, Music, A Subversive History.

I hope to offer more on that book in the near future. Meanwhile, keep McCoy in your thoughts and speakers and earbuds. You might be surprised how much he can do for your tattered spirit.

“Once Were Brothers” traces the mythical saga of The Band, through Robbie Robertson’s lens

“We few, we proud, we band of brothers.” — Shakespeare, Henry V

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, a documentary film by Daniel Roher, plays at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, at the Oriental Theater, 2230 N. Farwell Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53202 (414) 276-5140

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This story needed to be told again, on Robbie Robertson’s terms, even as it needs telling from all five. Three are gone, so Robbie the wordsmith stands best to speak here, anew and anon. And The Band started with him; it’s roots arose when he converged with Levon Helm and Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. But this needed to be told because the Band lasted too short a time for the America it embraced and re-imagined, the nation that needed a band like this, to remind us who and what America was, and is, and might be.

For perhaps no other American vernacular band compressed more talent into one entity, like pages of a tattered book filled with dried and pressed leaves, shadows and light, and music of American spheres. It was a great North American band, comprising four Canadians and one Arkansan, who embodied “Canadian driftwood, gypsy tailwind,” as they regaled us on one of their late, great saga-songs.

We need this story because, well, as the venerable roots purveyor Taj Mahal asserts here, they are the closest we have to the American Beatles. Daniel Roher’s film provides classic and never-published photos and film footage of their life in Woodstock. N.Y. and at the house called Big Pink, on the road, and reflections from most band members, but mainly Robertson’s and those of his wife Dominique, their road manager and some celebrated others.

But Mahal’s claim begs examination, because the band’s peak years lasted less than the Beatles. Both bands emerged from, and remained rooted in, rhythm and blues, and rockabilly, blues, and country. Like their counterparts, the North Americans drew from British Isle folk sources as well. Stylistically where they diverged was when the Beatles embraced psychedelia. The Band arrived right about that time, but driven by older forces, and enamored of the rustic weirdness, oily charm, verve, wit and tragedy that would come to be called Americana, a genre they forged as much as anyone. As Robertson points out, “The rock generation revolted against their parents but we loved our parents.” They had a sprawling family portrait taken during the Basement Tapes sessions.

And yet their extraordinary quintet synergy also made for some of the bitterness that would ultimately arise, perhaps justified (more on that later).

“It was such a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful that it went up in flames,” Robertson reflects.

More on the Beatles comparison. Both had magnificent and glorious songwriting, though the Beatles were more diverse with three gifted writers, which may be their greatest claim, aside from the phenomenal impact they had on our culture. The Band had primarily Robertson writing songs, but they had that three-part harmony, probably the most fulsome and profoundly textured of any popular group, because these were also “three of the greatest white rhythm-and-blues singers in the world at the time,” as Eric Clapton comments.

“They have voices that you’d never heard before, and yet they sound like they’ve always been there,” rhapsodizes Bruce Springsteen.

Here, The Band has a leg up on the more famous British band, whose third and fourth singers were only serviceable, though George and Ringo had their moments.

The Band was also instrumentally superior, again, to almost almost any rock ’n’ roll band, especially in ensemble, given their kaleidoscopic versatility. Bassist-singer Rick Danko was capable with several horns and string instruments. Classically-trained Garth Hudson played organ, synthesizer, accordion, saxophones, brass, and piccolo. Drummer-singer Hudson also played mandolin.

Guitarist Robertson developed a style that startled and even intimidated many guitarists, even if he wasn’t the typical virtuoso pealing off chorus after dazzling chorus. Few pickers had a sharper rhythmic flair, or could make a guitar bite, sear, and jump for joy, almost at once. Richard Manuel played piano, clavinet and drums, and sang with the most soul-haunting voice of any of them. I’m probably forgetting a few axes. Clapton was so moved — “they changed my life” — that he forsook his two fellows of the psychedelic-blues-rock trio Cream at its peak, in hopes he could join The Band. “Maybe they’d need a rhythm guitar,” he says.

The band performs in the concert film “The Last Waltz.” (Left to right) Richard Manuel, piano and vocals; Garth Hudson, accordion, keyboards and saxes; Rick Danko, bass and vocals; Robbie Robertson, guitar; Levon Helm, drums; Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, vocals.

As for style, their playing and singing blended looseness and precision, defiant resolve and abandon, high humor and pooling sadness. They fully inhabited the characters dwelling in Robertson’s songs of American archetypes — dirt farmers, varmints, vagabonds, drunkards, Dixie fighters. “Virgil Cain is my name and I worked on the Danville train,” Helm sings on the forlorn, feisty epic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” “They reminded me of 19th century American literature, of Melville’s stories of searchers,” film director Martin Scorsese ponders.

Barney Hoskyns, biographer of The Band, has a similar reflection, by way of quoting the great American critic Greil Marcus: “…their music gave us a sure sense that the country was richer than we had guessed.’” Hoskyns adds: “If there was any band that could get to the heart of the mystery that pervaded rural life in America, then The Band was it. Nathaniel Hawthorne may have been right when he wrote of Americans that ‘we have so much country that we have really no country at all’,’ but The Band managed to create a sense of its adopted land that was at once precise and mythical.” 1

Courtesy Nebraska Furniture Mart

The Band’s first two albums, Music from Big Pink and The Band, and Northern Lights-Southern Cross compare well to any Beatles album, as does, in its rough, eccentric ways The Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan. Stage Fright and Cahoots are right in the ballpark. Rock of Ages is a masterful live recording achievement, and Scorsese’s The Last Waltz remains arguably the finest concert documentary ever made, studded with stars, and The Band’s last-ever live performance at Winterland in San Francisco, in its original incarnation, here sweaty and transcendent.

I saw them once, at Summerfest, on their last 1974 tour, and the power and glory remained, though the poisons that killed it all festered beneath the surface.

Robertson recounts his prodigious rise when, at 15, he wrote two songs recorded by Canadian rock ‘n’ roll star Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. “That band was my own personal Big Bang,” Robertson says. He soon joined the Hawks, and they reformed as Levon Helm and the Hawks.

Aside from his musical and literary genius, Bob Dylan is an astute aficionado and observer of American musical talent. When he heard The Band he knew they had to be his. He approached them and they invited to their basement studios in their communal Woodstock home “Big Pink.” Dylan was dubious at first of recording there, as they only had a small reel-to-reel, but once they got down to it, things began flowing. Dylan clacked away song lyrics on his typewriter and they rehearsed.

The Basement Tapes is among the most mythical informal recordings in pop music history, largely Dylan songs, nut immensely enhanced by The Band. Before long they were touring, yet this was early in Dylan’s plugged-in phase. His still-faithful-to-folk-roots fans consistently booed the electric music, for all its quality. This rejection eventually wore on Helm, who was beginning to sink into drugs and alcohol, as were several others, especially Manuel, a sensitive soul, who struggled with depression. In time, disillusioned Helm quit the group to become an oil rigger in the Gulf of Mexico.

Robertson soldiered on with the group though somewhat devastated by the loss of his soul brother and best friend. He addresses the nature of creativity, saying it’s often a matter of “trying to surprise yourself. For example, if you look inside the sounding hole of a Martin guitar you see imprinted” made in Nazareth, PA.” One day I saw that and thought, ‘I pulled into Nazareth, was a feeling about half-past dead.’ Then I heard these voices, ‘Take a load off Fanny,’” and “The Weight” was born.

The Band performs “The Weight” with The Staple Singers, in “The Last Waltz.” YouTube

The Band’s Robbie Robertson (right) is interviewed about the new film “Once Were Brothers.” Courtesy The Toronto Star. 

Enter producer entrepreneur extraordinaire David Geffen. He convinced Robertson to move to Malibu, CA, and a oceanfront property, and before long he’d lured the band members out there which replenished them. The result was the 1976 album Northern Lights-Southern Cross considered by many their best album since their second. It included three classic new songs “Acadian Driftwood,” “It Makes No Difference,” and “Ophelia” and no clunkers.

Robertson treads too lightly on the feud that developed between him and Helm. “Bitterness was setting in with Levon.” he muses. It had to do with the band members beginning to indulge in heroin. Robertson fortunately did not have an addictive makeup and was not chemically affected. But he does gloss Helms point of view which deeply resented all the royalties that Robertson received for their original music. Although Robertson wrote the majority of the songs, few bands could better fit the adage: The sum is greater than their parts. So there was a strong argument for all members sharing in some royalties.

Nor does Robertson address Richard Manuel’s devastating suicide. So, it’s worth referring to Barney Hoskyns book Across the Great Divide: The Band in America, to give the subject some due. “The band had played capacity crowds for two shows which went well, despite the fact that Rick had complained to Richard about his drink. ‘We played a good show for good intelligent people,’ Rick said. ‘Talk was of the next show. That’s what we were all living for.’

 

After leaving the club, Richard headed back to the nearby Quality Inn and stopped by Levon’s room en route to his own. To Levon, he did not seem especially depressed. ‘I don’t know what got crosswise in his mind between leaving the foot of my bed and going into his bathroom.’ Once in the room Richard finished off a bottle of Grand Marnier and his last scrapings of coke. Sometime between 3 and 3:30 AM on Tuesday 4, March, he went into the bathroom…

Richard Manuel. Courtesy Live for Live Music

Rick Danko was in shock, and denial. “I cannot believe in a million years that wasn’t a goddamn silly accident,’ he said

“It seems much more likely that loneliness and a profound sense of failure combined to convince him of the futility of life,” Hoskyns writes.

The opening words of his prologue also address the fated artist. “Richard Manuel’s is the first voice you hear in the the first Band album Music from Big Pink (1968)…His aching baritone launches into the first reproachful line of “Tears of Rage.” As it arches over ‘arms,’ you can’t help thinking of Ray Charles, the singer who more than any other shaped this unlikely white soul voice from Stratford, Ontario… A month shy of his 43rd birthday, he could see nothing ahead but these depressing one-nighters, rehashing ‘the old magic’ in a continuing, fruitless struggle to moderate his intake of alcohol and cocaine.”

On that Tuesday morning in 1986, “he tied one end of a plain black belt around her neck, the other end around the shower curtain and hanged himself. The distance between ‘Tears of Rage’ and Richard Manuel’s lonely death at the Winter Park Quality Inn was the journey The Band traveled in their rise and fall as one of the greatest rock bands in America.” 2

Levon Helm drums and sings, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in “The Last Waltz.”

Once Were Brothers — an engrossing, touching and well-crafted film — understandably climaxes with two generous clips from The Last Waltz. The Band’s radiant final hurrah was on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, and includes Dylan, Clapton, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dr. John, The Staple Singers, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Hawkins, and a brass ensemble.

“Time is the most mysterious word of all,” Norman Mailer once wrote. The Band somehow traversed and encapsulated the mysteries of our time, as an “Unfaithful Servant” and as “Life is a Carnival.”

_____________

1 Barney Hoskyns, Across the Great Divide: The Band in America, Hyperion, 1993 Quote of Greil Marcus from his book Mystery Train, 3-4 .

2 Hoskyns, Across the Great Divide, 384-85

 

McCoy Tyner, another jazz giant passes, flying with the wind

McCoy Tyner (1938-2020) Photo by Marc Norberg DownBeat

McCoy Tyner’s Quartet performs an extended piece first documented on the live recording “Enlightenment,” with Tyner on piano, Azar Lawrence on saxophone, Juney Booth on bass and Alphonse Mouzon on drums. Courtesy the Jazz Video Guy.

Autumn comes sooner every year, and old man winter howls right ’round the corner. But no, I’m talking now more about the chill down my back and the shudder of a kind of love lost. I’m talking about feeling distraught because I’ve lost more than just a kind of friend. We also lost a god. As well as I knew this artist, I could never touch him, even if I once shook his hand. I’m talking about the titantic pianist McCoy Tyner, who passed away Friday, March 6 at the age of 81.

On the other hand, I recall vividly being a Chicago nightclub, where he kindly autographed an album of mine, Sahara, one of the very few times in my journalistic career when I succumbed to the need for some idolizing. I also recall him letting the Milwaukee guitarist Jack Grassel sit in with his band at another Chicago club, from his generous sense that earnest Jack could really play, which he really could, even if McCoy had never heard him.

I call him a friend not because it was mutual, only because I knew him like the back of my hand.

I call him a god because I dearly recall him playing the piano with his uncanny authority and beauty. I always return to one night, when I first heard McCoy break through nocturne into thundering infinity.

I was in college, still living at home, and cocooned in my third-floor bedroom, listening to “The Dark Side,” the all-night radio program of legendary Milwaukee jazz disk jockey Ron Cuzner. Laying on my bed, I felt something in my chest and heart, a swelling that felt the closest I knew to levitation. My small table radio seemed magnified as well. The music was Tyner’s “Ebony Queen,” from his extraordinary new 1972 album Sahara. A stirring, declamatory rhythmic melody rang forth from his piano, and explosive chords erupted from the depths, as his right hand showered sinuous lines of cascading energy, urgency and passion. Soprano saxophonist Sonny Fortune echoed it and added his own bracing solo.

I had never heard anything like this from a piano, such vaulting power and sternly gorgeous soaring, the stuff of eagles on the high seas of atmosphere. Drummer Alphonze Mouzon drove a highly athletic style that fit perfectly, as did bassist Calvin Hill.

McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane Facebook.com

And I was all the more astonished because I knew Tyner well, from his years with the classic John Coltrane Quartet. He’d been brilliant before, but not dueling with titans on their own turf. Of course, Coltrane was a titan but you always knew he was The One. Now his intensely humble pianist was, as well. He had also been an innovator in his adoption of the eastern modal style but also built on his use of the interval of  fourth, all of which set him apart, and had pianists copping him like mad.

“A Prayer for My Family” revealed his long affinity for majestic lyricism. And “Valley of Life” showed him an Eastern searcher, by playing the koto, a Japanese folk string instrument, along with Fortune’s lovely flute.

Sahara‘s centerpiece is the 23-minute title tune — more expansive, eloquent and dynamically ranging, with more head-spinning piano pyrotechnics, a monstrously thunderous left hand, a broad impression of the vast African desert, a world unto itself. Not only had Tyner clearly wood-shedded like a fiend, he now seem endowed with near superhuman powers, extending to his compositions.

When I bought Sahara, my respect for Tyner increased further, because of the understated beauty of the cover. He sat on a wooden box in the middle of a junkyard with an overcast cityscape, holding the Japanese koto in his lap.

Critical praise followed, a Grammy nomination and five stars from Down Beat magazine. There, Michael Bourne raved, “An awesome and visionary artist…’Sahara’ is brilliant… (and Tyner is) one of the most-deserving-to-be-experienced creators in America.”

Yes he’d changed the cultural landscape, and many triumphs would follow, the similar glories of Sama Layuca, and Song for My Lady, the jazz orchestra album Song for the New World, and the muscular exhilaration of the double album Enlightenment, which captured a live quartet concert with imposing power.

He even managed commercial success with the title tune of an album with sap-free string arrangements, Fly with the Wind. Big band and Latin albums would follow and impressive small-combo albums, like the 2-CD all-star Supertrios, and a variety of bands with many artists where he often demonstrated his ability to swing like a mother.

Tyner’s “with-strings” album “Fly With the Wind,” a commercial success. Courtesy dusty groove.

I saw Tyner variously, the early Chicago nightclub dates, and at The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, where I was so impressed I penned these words in my introduction to the anthology of press coverage for that important Midwestern jazz venue:

“It felt like an intelligent life-force carrying meaningful form, beauty, drama, wit, and mystery. At times the effect challenged my mind and emotions; other times the music exhilarated me.”

I also added that, in a June 1981 interview before his first Milwaukee club date since the 1960s, he told me, “It’s a good feeling to know you contributed something to the world. I’ve had guys back from Vietnam come up to me and say, ‘you helped me through the war.’ Others say,’ you helped me make it through college.’ ” That had to do with the musical and spiritual power of McCoy’s music, and of many who played at the Gallery.

I’ll also cherish a quintet concert in Madison, and a memorable Tyner big band concert at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Here I had a chance to photograph him, and captured visually some of his passion and quiet geniality, (see accompanying photos)

McCoy Tyner at the 2003 Chicago Jazz Festival, leading and conducting his big band which included, in the bottom photo, lead tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, (far left). All fest photos by Kevin Lynch

It was a great period for modern, straight-head jazz, even though the art form struggled during the disco era and always with the commercial dominance of rock. But it retains its artistic power and cultural authenticity with artists like Tyner, and deeply influenced many musical forms, including rock, and became more than ever an international world music.

Yet we also witnessed Tyner’s inevitable physical decline, which revealed his humanity all the more.

So this news was hardly a shock, though powerfully saddening. Of course, we’ll always have the music. What a blessing and inspiration.

It’s also a splendid feeling, how much easier it is to imagine McCoy Tyner flying with the wind.

_________

 

Why Elizabeth Warren may still catch and ride the big wave, if Bernie slips

Illustration by Ricardo Santos; photographs by T.J. Kirkpatrick, Jordan Gale, Demetrius Freeman, and Allison Farrand for The New York Times.

Want some political meat to chew on, as you decide what Democratic candidate is most palatable and digestible in November?

Here are three articles that address why one Democratic candidate remains in the lead pack, but needs more spotlighting of her quality and viability as a winning candidate, and as a the best president for America, right now. Yes, I’m talking about Elizabeth Warren, who has really taken fewer arrows than any other candidate in the current Democratic infighting. Partly that’s because she’s not the targeted front-runner. But it’s also because few have much of substance to complain about her as a flawed candidate. She’s clearly the best equipped, almost comparable to Hillary Clinton in terms of serious credentials and leadership chops. But she’s a better candidate than Clinton to ride out the long test. Warren is behind Bernie but still capable of catching the same big wave he rides without the baggage, real or perceived, that sank Clinton in the final inside maneuvering of the Electoral College.

One of The New York Times’ most prominent liberal opinion columnists, Michelle Goldberg, makes a sterling new case for Warren as the best can-do president to fix what ails America and its economic system, here:https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/opinion/sunday/elizabeth-warren-2020.html

Note that Goldberg addresses how Warren has the most compelling personal success story of any presidential candidate, one which should speak to ordinary Americans struggling to get by. People need to pay attention to her, to realize what an inspiring candidate she could be in the general election..

This leads me to the other two articles, by political scientist Melanye Price. The first, from January, address the perceived “electability” factor which has assumed out-sized focus in this crucial election. The first article shows how Warren foiled Bernie Sanders on the alleged “woman can’t be elected president” trope. Sadly there’s substance to the reality of American sexism, especially in presidential politics. But If Warren can continue to fend off that notion smartly, as she did in the January debate, she can alter perceptions in the various corners of the worrying electorate who are afraid to support her. Here’s that piece: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/15/opinion/warren-sanders-debate.htmlhttp://

The other article by Price, from November, 2019, took a larger view of the current electorate, and still seems to still hold up as an analysis of the dominant dynamic in this race, and a projection of how things could play out. Her big-picture argument about the youth vote clearly buoys Bernie Sanders at this point. But is he really more electable than Warren in a general election? Wait till Trump starts piling on the easy “socialist radical” albatross which may be signified, in effect, by Bernie’s shoulder hunch. Ram-rod erect Warren has much of the same vision, but less ideologically and more pragmatically, with her cleansing-and-reinventing capitalism depth of planning and credibility. And she’s long been a superb debater, who recently demonstrated how she can deliver combination punches and body blows in debate, while having a natural affinity for the high road, and thus coming out looking good.

Is this enough to break the stubborn-but-clearly-aging “glass ceiling” of American misogyny?

Price makes it quite plausible. And here’s where both her recent “electability” article and her bigger-picture take can read as one whole scenario. Warren has plenty of work to do to become the nominee, but she still holds strong potential. Price’s combined arguments help explain why Warren remains the relatively unscathed Dem candidate “waiting in the wings.”

To my pleasant surprise, her persuasive analysis from last November ends up seizing on the two presidential candidates at the time, whom I think would be the best Democratic ticket for coalescing a strong, broad, diverse coalition: Warren (as president in my book) and Julian Castro (my choice for her running mate). That team is already in the cards as Castro, since dropping out of the presidential race, has become a primary surrogate for Warren and an obvious bridge builder to the growing Latinx and minority electorate. These Seven Million Young People Can Beat Trump

Because Warren clearly needs help these are also reasons why now’s the time for those who do and can believe in all she brings to the table need to step up as citizens in the election and actively supporting her. That’s what I’m doing.

The primary race might feel like Bernie’s to lose right now, but could he lose? I mean really lose? I think he’s a much more viable November candidate than a similar lefty — and doomed — darling, George McGovern, was in 1972. Times have changed in plenty of ways since then, but history always holds echoes for us to perk an ear to, and reconsider in the light of the present.

These are reasons why my mantra, left over from the 2016 campaign, now takes on new meaning: “Run, Liz, run!”

Read up these pieces and see what you think.

Anticipating fascism, DuBois addressed the issue of mixed blood, with his head and his soul

CELEBRATE BLACK HISTORY MONTH IN FEBRUARY

W.E.B. DuBois (February 23, 1869-August 27, 1963) Courtesy Poetry Foundation

Among the most vexing fears of some people on the right feeds into a visceral racism — their perception of miscegenation, the largely pejorative term for the mixing of racial bloods.

This fear stood on display perhaps no more nakedly than at the white supremacist march in Charlottesville in August 2017, where, among the chants was “blood and soil.” This is a Nazi slogan which asserted that ethnicity is based solely on blood descent and the territory one maintains.

The clash of two rally groups ended in a white supremacist killing an anti-Confederacy monument protester and seriously wounding 19 others, by driving a car into a crowd of protesters.

President Trump infamously declared that there were “good people on both sides,” clearly willing to cast his lot with the white supremacists who support him. White male working-class economic anxiety over potential competition from variously colored “others” seems to feed into this blood bias, which demagogue Trump regularly preys upon.

Today, February 23, the birthday of W.E.B. DuBois – the pioneering sociologist, civil rights leader, thinker and writer – offers time for historical reflection on this still-divisive issue of degrees of racial purity, because DuBois himself addressed it in an essay titled, with bold directness, “Miscegenation,” written in 1934.

At the time, the term was still the operative word for blood mixing through coupling of differing races. Du Bois wrote the essay for an Encyclopedia Sexualis, assembled by Victor Robinson, MD, of Atlanta University. Robinson requested the essay from DuBois, who sent it to him on January 10, 1934.

For reasons unknown, it went unpublished. It was finally published in 1985, in the collection of Du Bois work, Against Racism: Unpublished Essays, Papers, Addresses, 1887–1961.

DuBois’s “Against Racism” collection. Courtesy Amazon/ University of Massachusetts Press

DuBois’s “Miscegenation” is copiously researched, citing the work of many anthropologists and social scientists of the time. And urgency was rising to tackle the issue of mixed-blood society. In a few years, Hitler and the Nazis would begin their genocidal extermination of Jews, and their blitzkrieg of continental war. Many, except the most isolationist Americans, realized the Nazis posed a grave threat to freedom and democracy here and in Europe, but especially to any persons not deemed sufficiently pure-blooded Aryan by the Third Reich. This was a race war.

But what that purity instinct really meant vs. reality — its ignorance of a non-white’s humanity and radical rationalization against Jews — was little known to the general public, though DuBois was gathering fairly extensive ongoing research that would’ve reached a larger public in the encyclopedia.

Might the essay, if published, have spurred a spirited international debate and raised consciousness on the issue — affected public response to Fascism in Germany itself, and beyond?

Even now, the Against Racism collection isn’t very well known.

DuBois, a light-skinned black man clearly of mixed blood (his father was French-American and his mother Dutch, African and English), had natural interest in the subject. But he also earned two bachelor’s degrees, the second in history from Harvard and in 1895 became the first African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard. He became a controversial figure over his career for taking progressive political positions, including socialism, and especially in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of black compliance to white privilege.

Courtesy Boston Review

Like many brilliant men, DuBois was just ahead of his time. His value system appraising African-American blood stood on the foundation previously laid in his 1924 book The Gift of Black Folk: The Negro in the Making of America, stating that the black folks’ gift to the world was “uniquely more moral and spiritual than that exemplified by any other of the groups. It was the gift of soul. Black folk had an unfailing faith in the world, ‘an unfaltering hope for betterment and a wide patience and tolerance for opposition and hatred.’ DuBois contended that it was black people who…made emancipation inevitable and made the modern world at least consider, if not only wholly accept, the idea of a democracy including men of all races and colors,” as David Levering Lewis explains in his biography W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality in the American Century, 1819-1963. 1.

Yet the black people’s “gift of soul” was somewhat known and felt, especially in their music by then, if too-infrequently articulated or acknowledged.

So, hard facts of life might be more to the point. In DuBois’ early masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk — which I taught to a fairly receptive cultural journalism class at Edgewood College in the late 2000s — he propounded his idea of black people’s every-waking-moment “double-consciousness” of their “otherness.”

In The Souls he also sums up from many specific examples, and understands how “people easily are misled from facts.” Note, in the extended quote here, DuBois’ striving for objectivity, despite his passion, even acknowledging the black folks “crimes,” while striving further to explain their meaning:

“We seldom study the condition of the Negro today honestly and carefully. It is so much easier to assume that we know it all. Or perhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loath to have them disturbed by facts. And yet how little we really know of these millions,— of their daily lives and longings, of their homely joys and sorrows, of their real shortcomings and the meaning of their crimes! All this we can only learn by intimate contact with the masses, and not by wholesale arguments covering millions separate in time and space, and differing widely in training and culture. Today, then, my reader, let us turn our faces to the Black Belt of Georgia and seek simply to know the condition of the black farm–laborers of one county there.” 2

Are their failings, and their triumphs, a matter of blood?

Now, think of our current environment of pervasive disinformation and “post-truth” conditions.

In DuBois’s 1934 essay “Miscegenation,” we learn of the latest research on the blood flowing to the brains and hearts of such descendants of slaves. He quotes from a book on mulattoes:

“…Ever since the existing human species diverged into its four or five existing varieties or sub-species, there has been been a constant opposite movement to unify the type. Whites have returned southward and mingled with Australoid, Australoid have united with, and produced Melanesians, and Papuans; and these, again, have mixed with proto-Caucasians, or with Mongols to form the Polynesian.The earliest types of white man have mingled with the primitive Mongol, or directly with the primitive Negro.”

There’s evidence of ancient Negroid strains, “in the features of mixed descendants at the present day, the fact is attested by skulls, skeletons and works of art of more or less great antiquity in France, Italy, etc…’ 3

DuBois’s essay is full of such citations with a modicum of his own comment or rhetoric. But he does anticipate the Nazi counter-narrative, which drew from E. H. Hankins, who “almost alone among current anthropologists tries to prove that physical differences mean mental differences.” That counter-intuitive theory never stood up under critical scrutiny.

“…race mixture among the Romans was more frequent in earlier history than later…The decline of Rome was certainly social and economic, rather than racial. Indeed, it is a tenable thesis to declare with Schneider, that at least some race mixture is a prerequisite to the German cultural development. Egypt, Babylon, and Western Asia show great race mixture.”

(Felix) Von Luscan says: “We all know that a certain mixture of blood has always been of great advantage to  a nation. England France and Germany are equally distinguished for the variety of their racial elements.” 4

DuBois eventually gets to the deeply unsettled nation of Germany of 1934:

“If the great gift made by Jews to German culture (including Einstein, Mahler, and Kafka — whose novel The Trial presaged Fascism coming in the 1920s — though the latter two were born in Austria, like Hitler)  there is absolutely no dispute. 5 On the other hand, it was also indisputable that present economic rivalry and racial jealousy give Hitler and his followers a whip today to drive the German people in clannish and cruel opposition to their Jewish fellow citizens.” 6

Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” as audiobook. Courtesy https://audiobookstore.com/

DuBois soon brings the argument around to the United States:

“The greater our ignorance of the facts, the more intense has been the dogmatism of the discussion. . indeed, the question of the extent to which whites and blacks in the United States have mingled their blood, and the results of this intermingling, past, present and future, is in many respects the crux of the so-called Negro problem in the United States. …most thinking Americans do not hate Negroes, or wish to retards their advance. They are glad slavery has disappeared; but their hesitation now is to how far complete social freedom and fill economic opportunity for the Negro is going to result in such racial amalgamation as to make America octoroon in blood. It is the real fear of this result and inherited resentment at its very possibility that keeps the race problem in America so terribly alive.” 7

Note my italics above, and then reflect. DuBois wrote in 1934.

Twenty years later, the seemingly irrational anxiety over American identity was analyzed by Richard Hofstadter in his influential essay “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt — 1954”:

“What other country finds it so necessary to to create institutional rituals for the sole purpose of guaranteeing our nationality? Does the Frenchman or the Englishman or the Italian find it necessary to speak of himself as “one-hundred-percent” English, French or Italian?…When they disagree with one another over national policies, do they find it necessary to call one another un-English, un-French, un-Italian?” 8

Today, America’s always evolving and commingling nation of immigrants is inevitably much the closer to a predominantly octoroon society. And yet we still deal with the last stand of the angry, fearful white man, as embodied by the pseudo-Conservative white man in the White House.

______________

  1. David Levering Lewis, E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality in the American Century, 1819-1963. Henry Holt, 96
  2. E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Dover Thrift Editions, Ch. 8, 84
  3. DuBois, Against Racism: Unpublished Essays, Papers, Addresses, 1887–1961, ed. Herbert Aptheker, University of Massachusetts Press, 91
  4. DuBois, ibid, 93
  5. The kangaroo court trial of Josef K. in The Trial brings to mind the willfully dysfunctional, undemocratic Senate impeachment “trial” of Donald Trump (sans evidence or witnesses) but with reverse outcome. Trump is “acquitted.” Josef K. is killed “like a dog.” The “justice” of the powerful vs. the powerless. Franz Kafka earned a law degree, but worked most of his life for an insurance company. In The Trial, there are “unaccountable functionaries, no juries, no hints of democratic government, not even a trial as the common law world thinks of it.”as Darryl Brown notes in “What Can The Trial Tell Us about the American Criminal System?” http://texaslawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Brown-93-2.pdf
  6. DuBois, Against Racism, 95
  7. DuBois, ibid, 96
  8. Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Vintage, 59

“Milwaukee Rock and Roll” is a time machine, Part 2

A poster and an advertisement for the Midwest Rock Festival at Wisconsin State Fair Park, which preceded Woodstock by three weeks.in 1969. Courtesy onmilwaukee.com

Part 2

Everything was changing, once again. San Francisco’s Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and Quicksilver Messenger Service intoxicated the new audiences, as did the British Second Invasion bands, like the Eric Clapton spear-headed British power blues-rock trio Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Traffic, with Stevie Winwood, and progressive-rock groups like Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes. Meanwhile, Milwaukee DJ Bob Reitman, on his free-form programs, “also educated, with his ‘Dear Doctor’ segment with a local physician addressing the drug scene in Milwaukee (and its risks).”

The West Coast musical tsunami rose, and hit Milwaukee with uncommon force, following the wildly successful 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, with its breakout performances by Hendrix, Joplin, Otis Redding and Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.

Perhaps the most accomplished Milwaukee band to embrace the psychedelic style and modern jazz was The Corporation, which recorded a self-titled 1969 debut album for Capitol, with a 19-minute take on Coltrane’s “India,” riding an “East-West”-like bass vamp, trippy Blues Project-like flute, and Larry Young-influenced organ. The Milwaukee power trio Ox (see photo below) took off on Cream’s blues-jamming style, with singer-bassist Jon Paris, who followed with a national solo career, which included recording with Johnny Winter and Bob Dylan. Another early local psychedelic band was Bloomsbury People, formed by multi-instrumentalist Sigmund Snopek III, which incorporated classical music and literary influences.

The real explosion occurred at the Midwest Rock Festival at State Fair Park on July 25, 26 and 27, 1969. The ambitious event preceded Woodstock by about one month. I attended all three days and recall birdlike fliers floating around, airily trumpeting something called “Three Days of Peace, Love & Music” in Woodstock, New York. Such glowing idealism filled the air those days. The Milwaukee festival had no sprawling countryside to luxuriate in funky au naturale digs. No “breakfast in bed for 300,000.”

But the lineup of talent on a flatbed truck on the State Fair racetrack proved extraordinary, and perhaps unprecedented in this city. The biggest name acts didn’t disappoint, including the sexy, blues-drenched Led Zeppelin (with brilliantly imaginative, and resourceful raga-like explorations by guitarist Jimmy Page), and the more exalted supergroup experiment Blind Faith, with former Cream members Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker, and singer-keyboardist Stevie Winwood from Traffic, striving for some spiritual uplift “In the Presence of the Lord.”

Here’s a partial recording of Led Zeppelin’s set at the Midwest Rock Fest in 1969. Courtesy Misty Mountain Bootlegs

Yet Johnny Winter stuck to hard-driving blues as a new six-string gunslinger trying to cut the British guitar titans present, Clapton, Page and Jeff Beck, as did upstart Irish guitarist-singer-songwriter Rory Gallagher, of Taste, who hardly anyone had heard of. Was Gallagher’s star born in Milwaukee? He swiftly became a mighty Gaelic wind, and was soon universally respected by peers. Clapton credited Gallagher with “getting me back into the blues,” The Rolling Stones tried to get him to replace Mick Taylor.

Amid several more famous guitarists, Irish guitarist-singer-songwriter Rory Gallagher (pictured in a 1971 concert) was a surprise hit with his band Taste, at the Milwaukee Rock Fest in 1969. Photo courtesy Rory Gallagher website.

Then, The First Edition with future superstar Kenny Rogers, “Just Dropped In” the fest with their hit song. Some of the most bracing music arrived from Detroit: the still-young and rocking Bob Seger System and the deliciously outrageous proto-punk band MC5.

The Milwaukee rock fest also had breathing space for soulful, folk-oriented music, like Buffy Sainte-Marie and the gospel-inflected Delaney and Bonnie, who so impressed Clapton that he hired them in his historic next venture, with guitarist Duane Allman, the album Layla, arguably Clapton’s career pinnacle. Alas, “blind faith” didn’t prevent Mother Nature from carping on Sunday, about what? All the unholy noise? Rain hit this festival hard, presaging water-logged Woodstock, and forcing cancellation of guitar-whiz Beck and Jethro Tull, with flute-toodling showman Ian Anderson.

“They tried to cover the stage with clear plastic sheeting to protect the performers,” recalled Mark Mueller of Sunday in the new book. “It did to a point, Joe Cocker came on and was outstanding, but the water build-up burst right over his head.” And in a one-fell splat! began the not so “dry run” for Cocker’s shaggy-dog, singin’ in the rain style, which he’d make truly famous the next month, amid Woodstock’s downpours.

Naylor recounts how the idea of a communal outdoor experience continued with the “Alternate Site,” first at Water Tower Park, on Lake and North Avenue. But clashes with police in 1970 led Ald. Vel Phillips and Mayor Henry Maier to find an alternative location, west of Lincoln Memorial Drive across from McKinley Beach. “It’s a gas to play for these people,” said Sam Friedman of the Hound Dog Band, at the time. “And it’s good exposure. We got nothing else to do on Sunday and we get a wider group of people here, not like playing in a club.” Sunday concerts averaged about 5,000 people during the early 1970s. But the volatile relationship between crowds and police forced another site relocation and eventually crowds dwindled, but the alt-concerts did continue into the 1990s.

Milwaukee power rock trio Ox (Jon Paris, vocals & bass; Brad Seip, drums; and Bob Metzger, guitar) put plenty of Cream in their coffee at the Alternate Site, across from McKinley Beach on Lincoln Memorial Drive in 1972. Photo by Rich Zimmerman www.richzimmermann.com

Night clubs remained a place to always hear live music, and the city that made beer famous had a strong tradition for this, especially local crime boss Frank Balistrieri, who “had a passion for managing bar-side entertainment in many of his theater district establishments,” writes Rob Lewis. “Frank used out-of-town connection, and his experience in booking” to turn the first floor of now-razed Hotel Antlers into the city’s first world-class showcase nightclub for rock-oriented music, called The Scene, in 1965.

With an encircling balcony, it offered an intimate concert experience. Along with top local bands, it hosted Chuck Berry and Ray Charles (each for five nights), Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Paul Butterfield, Miles Davis, and the original Allman Brothers, in September 1970, shortly before Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley died. I witnessed that soulfully-virtuosic show, marking the rise of Southern rock.

The folksy-cozy east-side Avant Garde offered local and touring folk-rock, blues and experimental music, and poetry readings, a legacy perhaps best documented by great Chicago blues man Magic Sam’s sweaty, searing album Live at the Avant Garde, a 1968 performance released by Delmark Record in 2013. (See review in Shepherd Express.) The club helped cultivate the emergence of mighty Milwaukee harmonica player Jim Liban, who teamed up with another bandleader, Junior Brantley and guitarist-singer Sam McCue for a powerhouse band called Knu Bluze. After McCue left, they went to San Francisco, with ace Milwaukee organist Howard Wales. Renamed as A.B. Skhy, they recorded two fiery, swinging albums for MGM. Jimi Hendrix facilitated that record contract after hearing and jamming with them. This band evolved into Short Stuff, a name ironically carrying long staying power.

Milwaukee’s Short Stuff — a blues/R&B/rock band led by Junior Brantley (left), and Jim Liban (right) — stole the show opening for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1972. 

It’s a measure of this ensemble’s potency to consider a concert the book only acknowledges with a photo and caption (above). At the Whitefish Bay High School auditorium in 1972, Short Stuff opened for Big Brother and the Holding Company, admittedly weakened by the loss of grit-to-the-core singer Janis Joplin. Short Stuff’s wiry Jim Liban channeled his inner Mick Jagger, prowling up and down a stage runway, blowing rhythmic, wailing harp sorties, whipping the crowd into a lather. By the time he and the funky band ceased, the ensuing Big Brother stood reduced to little brother. It was close to the best opening act I’ve ever seen, certainly by a local band. 4

Local fan Jim Pendergast claims he overheard, at Humpin’ Hanna’s nightclub,  harmonica titan Paul Butterfield tell Liban: “James, you are the second best blues harmonica player in the world.”

Speaking of legendary performances, Milwaukee preempted rock history again by a few weeks in October 1975, an extraordinary event surprisingly overlooked in this book. Bruce Springsteen changed everything in rock again, almost by himself. And he stood on the cusp of superstardom on an electrifying night in Milwaukee rock history. A phoned-in bomb scare forced emcee Bob Reitman to ask the packed house to leave the Uptown Theater, shortly into Springsteen’s set, at least until midnight. Bruce vowed to finish when the coast was clear. At midnight, it appeared almost all 1,800 of us concertgoers had returned, with Springsteen and the E-Street Band, and with a vengeance.

Time had stood still, for fate. Springsteen and his band had hung out at the Pfister Hotel bar, “drinking our skulls out,” he told the crowd. His sweat and soul flew across the jubilant crowd until 2 a.m., one of the earliest of The Boss’s legend-making performances. 5  Later that month, TIME and Newsweek plastered him simultaneously on their covers. Here’s a link to a recording of the Springsteen Uptown concert with Piet Levy’s 2015 Journal-Sentinel article about it.

I’ve focused largely on the late ‘60s and early ‘70s because they were crucial years for rock’s transformative cultural and political roles and, regarding live music, perhaps no more significantly than the popularization of large outdoor festivals. 6 But the book impressively forges on to 2000. An in-depth chapter on Milwaukee blues is authored by Sonia Khatchadourian (also a popular “Blues Drive” DJ on WMSE radio). She covers, among others, the careers of Liban, Brantley, Jeff Dagenhardt, Steve Cohen, Jon Paris, Kenny Arnold and James Solberg, of Dynamite Duck fame recordings on  Motown and Alligator records), and whose James Solberg Band won two W.C. Handy Awards for best blues band in 1996 and 1997.

The Dynamite Duck blues band at Ma Fischer’s on Milwaukee’s east side. (l-r) Jon Paris, James Solberg, Mark Lillis, Danny Shmitt. Photo by Tom Hayes

Rose Trupiano relates the emergence of Milwaukee rock women, starting with the groundbreaking GTOs (or “Girls Take Over”) formed in 1960.

One artist’s account is quite notable, the extraordinary and tragic story of Milwaukee’s first hard-rock female sex symbol. 1969 marked the local arrival of Constance Mierzwiak, an Ohio-born, high-school drop-out. She dubbed herself Ruby Jones and the Ruby Jones Band’s 1971 debut album included an attention-grabbing single covering The Young Rascals’ “You Better Run,” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Stone Junkie.” In 1972, Jim “Dandy” Magrum, lead singer of Black Oak Arkansas, heard Ruby sing and convinced her to join his band as a back-up singer. Her breakout as a lead singer came on an acclaimed West Coast stint with the Florida band Blackfoot.

Singer Ruby Starr at Humpin’ Hannah’s nightclub in 1975. Photo by Rich Zimmermann

Now dubbed Ruby Starr, and sporting a flaming mountain of red hair, she began touring with the Wisconsin band Grey Ghost. By 1976, her second solo LP covered Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which the band performed on the national TV show Midnight Special. Her next band incarnation, Grey-Star, delivered the 1983 album Telephone Sex, pulsing with savvy covers and originals. The act began winning Wisconsin Area Music Industry awards and toured, opening for Van Halen, The Allman Brothers and Cheap Trick, which led to opening for The Who in the celebrated British quartet’s local debut at the Milwaukee Arena, which included Starr’s power-packed cover of Joplin’s “Piece of my Heart.”

That palpable heartbreak song, performed on December 7, 1982, the “day of infamy,” was perhaps a harbinger of doom. Ruby pushed her hard-driving career until severe headaches struck her down. Her old friend Mudslide took her to a doctor who diagnosed her with lung cancer and a brain tumor – and six months to live. Ruby died a year later, at 45. In 1995, she became the first woman inducted into the WAMI Hall of Fame.

Lead singer Jill Kossoris (center) and the Shivvers perform their power pop/punk music in the 1970s. Courtesy Jill Kossoris. 

Another notable woman-fronted Milwaukee band, the Shivvers with Jill Kossoris, was characterized by local critic Bobby Tanzilo as “part Blondie, part Raspberries,” power-pop plus. They missed out on a national record contract despite considerable support from Raspberries front man Eric Carmen. Trupiano sums them up: “Although it took decades for the Shivvers’ songs to be released, their music and lyrics are timeless and just as original and captivating today…”

Also highlighted among women rockers are Julie Brandenburg, Ronnie Nyles, Michelle Anthony, and the powerhouse blues-rocking singer-songwriter and guitarist, Sue DaBaco.

Dave Luhrssen and Evan Rytlewski cover Milwaukee punk and post-punk era with masterful authority, which I can’t do justice to here without this review running on. However, Mark “Black Dog” Shurilla’s The Black Holes was perhaps the quintessential Milwaukee punk/new wave band, especially with “Warren Spahn,” their 1979 local chart best-seller. “The band lip-synched their record before 20,000 baseball fans in County Stadium as Spahn (arguably baseball’s greatest left-handed pitcher) circled the field, waving to the stands.” Shurilla was another young-at-heart Milwaukee rocker who died before his time. But he’s not forgotten. Here’s a video of

The Black Holes singing “Warren Spahn” at Milwaukee County Stadium, in 1979, with Spahn throwing pitches to catcher Bob Uecker.

In this chapter we also learn the fabled story of the folk-punk Violent Femmes’ improbable rise from street-corner busking to becoming the city’s most famous rock band, and Jerry Harrison’s with the Talking Heads, of The BoDeans, Die Kreuzen, The Haskels, Oil Tasters and many more.

Because there are multiple authors, there’s no attempt to build an overarching Milwaukee rock culture theme, which may be yet to be told. But the book does invite us to connect some of its many resonant dots. Sam “The Fountainhead” McCue might provide a mythic story arc for “the gathering place by the waters,” as the Native American word “Milwaukee” translates. Perhaps, were this a warm weather city, the outdoor events might’ve mushroomed further, year-round. The big music fest idealism suffered a blow with the tragic killing of an audience member right beneath the stage at the Altamont Free Concert during a Rolling Stones performance, in December 1969.

Nevertheless, important large and smaller outdoor concerts do continue here (eg. “the world’s largest” music event, Summerfest, the 25th Farm Aid at Miller Park in 2010, among many neighborhood events, Bay View’s exemplary “Chill on the Hill,” and numerous ethnic fests). So the communal value lives on variously. Local bands and artists really struggled through the disco era, and now compete with many home and personal entertainment alternatives.

Before such abstracting devices fully transform us into walking cocoons, the many values of live music – from the powerful to the nuanced, and to the stimulus of regional economy – ought to be discussed, argued and advanced through private and municipal resources, proportionate to scale, as much as Chicago does with its music festivals. The nightclub experience remains a lifeline to rock vernaculars, to human vitality, fellowship and creative wellsprings.

Further still, the large outdoor gatherings, amid the elements, may be the only cultural activity that rivals big sports events for fortifying community spirit and helping to counter the tribalism plaguing us today. 

“Milwaukee Rock and Roll” co-editor Phillip Naylor interviews Paul Cebar, a remarkably voracious absorber and synthesizer of musical styles, from American to world musics, “a sonic explorer.” Photo by Dan Johnson. Courtesy MU Press.

Milwaukee Rock and Roll ends with an ingenious twist, a chapter on three “Milwaukee Sonic Explorers,” who often strayed far beyond rock conventions. Gary Huckleberry, Sigmund Snopek III, and Paul Cebar sound nothing at all like each other. All are ingenious and intelligent receptacles of many influences – comparable to the first local-scene “fountainhead” Sam McCue – who give so much back, in their own hybrid vernacular voices. They reveal how a Midwest city can become its own sort of crossroads for music. Too often, among cultural arbiters, everybody pass us by, to paraphrase blues legend Robert Johnson. With this book, that may begin to change.

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The photo of Rory Gallagher and the links to the Led Zeppelin live recording and The Black Holes video are not from Milwaukee Rock and Roll. All other photos in this part of the review are from the book.

NOTES

1 Les Paul is put in his historical context in the impressive recent book by Ian S. Port, The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll

 2 I detail the extraordinary on-air radio station experience of announcing Marvin Gaye’s death to a “contemporary urban music” audience in my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. I also co-hosted (rotating weeks with Paul Cebar and Steve Cohen) an eclectic music program on WMSE in the late-1980s. 

3 In a comment not in the book, Clapton critiqued the Led Zeppelin set, led by his fellow former Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page. “They were very loud,” Clapton later remembers. “I thought it was unnecessarily loud. I liked some of it; I really did like some of it. But a lot of it was just too much. They overemphasized whatever point they were making, I thought.” Reliquary http://yup-yup-mark.blogspot.com/

4 Steve Cohen is perhaps the only other Milwaukee harmonica player comparable to Liban. A deeply knowledgeable past-master also of chromatic harmonica, a singer and guitarist, Cohen is best known as co-leader of Leroy Airmaster, with guitarist Bill Stone, with whom he’s played with since high school. Cohen has also recorded and worked with the city’s greatest rock guitar virtuoso, Greg Koch. Cohen also maintains a excellent country-blues duo with Peter Roller.

5 The police “tore the theater apart,” security chief Terry Cullen  told the Journal-Sentinel 40 years later. No bomb was found.

6. After having attend two concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado, I would concur with much popular opinion that it’s the best outdoor venue for a large rock or pop concert in America. Even going to the physical site, high in the mountains, is a bit of a pilgrimage, suggesting the sharing of something significant with a huge “faithful,” lovers of rock and other vernacular musics, not to mention classical. Note in the Rolling Stone survey here, historic Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, WI — a mecca for jam band fans (of The Grateful Dead, Phish etc.) — is ranked the 6th best venue: 

The Best Amphitheaters in America