Music

Friday Music Break

Back to Basics
Since Tuesday was May Day, I thought I'd give you a little Billy Bragg, with "World Turned Upside Down" from 1985. It sounds like he's singing about Occupy Wall Street, but the song is actually about a seventeenth-century agrarian socialist movement in England, which I'm guessing wasn't embraced by the economic leaders of that day, either.

Friday Music Break

Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea
For today's edition of Gentle Flowing Tunes Layering Multiple Time Signatures, we have Poi Dog Pondering, with "Thanksgiving." Mmmm...

Levon Helm's Last Waltz

Where does rock and roll stand after the death of the great Band drummer?

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Except, possibly, to his onetime musical cohort Robbie Robertson—who may be glumly realizing that people will be unlikely to get this choked up when he passes—the outpouring of online love for ex-Band drummer Levon Helm, who died last Thursday after a 14-year battle with cancer, was no surprise. Even so, I'd have bet anything my own mourning would stay on the remote side. Live and learn. Calling myself only a very occasional fan of the Band would be an understatement. True, they were one of the first acts I saw live back in the Pleistocene era—with Aerosmith opening for them, in hindsight the night's most piquant joke. But they were never renowned for fireworks in concert, and their show was pretty dull. I still think the one and only Greil Marcus should have pumped up Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Grateful Dead instead of the Band in Mystery Train. Among that landmark book's four major topics—Elvis, Sly Stone, and Randy Newman were Marcus's other "inheritors"—there can't be...

Friday Music Break

The Last Waltz
I realize I posted a couple of Levon Helm clips yesterday on the occasion of his passing, but for this week's Friday Music Break I have to give you one more song from The Last Waltz . Here's Van Morrison with The Band, doing "Caravan" in an outfit that in no way screams '70s. Turn on your electric light!

Levon Helm, 1940-2012

Levon Helm, from "The Last Waltz."
When I was a junior in high school, somebody gave me a videotape of The Last Waltz , Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary about The Band. It was revelatory—not only hadn't I ever heard The Band before, it was the first time I heard many of the other artists who appeared in the film, like Van Morrison and the Staples Singers. It changed the way I looked at music forever. If you haven't seen it, you should. As soon as you can. Seriously. Today, Levon Helm died at age 71. He was The Band's drummer and lead singer, a soulful musician and by all accounts a real nice guy. Here's a clip from The Last Waltz of Helm doing "Ophelia": And here's a clip of Helm doing the same song just this February. Stricken with cancer and obviously frail, Helm could still pick up the sticks and deliver the goods. Rest in peace. Watch Quick Hits: Levon Helm Performs "Ophelia" on PBS. See more from Sound Tracks.

Friday Music Break

"Warren Zevon" (1976)
For today's edition of Just Because It's Awesome, we have a terrific 1976 performance of the sadly departed Warren Zevon doing "Mohammed's Radio" with some help from Jackson Browne. Just because it's awesome.

To Thine Own Self Be Hip

A critic learns to stop worrying and love the music.

(Flickr/Highline Ballroom)
Nostalgia for my bygone days as CBGB and Max's Kansas City plankton definitely isn't my thing. Some people just don't do youth very well, and it turns out I'm much better suited to mimicking Polonius—"to thine own self be hip," more or less, which is wiser advice than it sounds like—for the benefit of bohemian ragamuffins half my age in the Marigny quarter of New Orleans, where my wife and I now live. But what the hell. The weather was fine, the show was free and a 20-minute walk from our house, so why not? Despite having been a passionate fan in the '80s (she was the perfect age for it), my wife had somehow never seen Blondie live before. I hadn't seen them since, oh, 1978, shortly before the multiplatinum-selling Parallel Lines turned them from a likable semi-spoof that nose-in-the-air scenesters didn't take seriously (Talking Heads, man—now, that was art, and David Byrne wasn't about to let you forget it) into the hottest band in the world for a while. Reviewing that shimmering...

A Life Without Compromise

(Flickr/Zoran Veselinovic)
Thanks to a nasty bug last week, I'm still emptying my South by Southwest notebook. A documentary about a musician's fall is sure to be particularly powerful stuff at a festival known largely for launching bands to stardom. Perhaps that's part of what made Beware of Mr. Baker such a favorite at South by Southwest, where it won the coveted Grand Jury Award. The documentary, after all, tells the tale of talented, rakish drummer Ginger Baker, who has finally become old, sitting at home in South Africa, low on cash, short on friends, and far removed from his heyday. The documentary is in many ways a straightforward, chronological narrative of Baker's life, largely based around interviews with those who have known or been influenced by the drummer. For those of us lacking in a strong background of rock history, the film does an excellent job establishing Baker's unique talent in a context. Jay Bulger, the movie's director and writer, seemed to have found just about every famous drummer in...

Woody Guthrie at 100—at SXSW

(Flickr/Karen Apricot New Orleans)
If there was one song I didn't expect to hear during the hipster-convention that is the South by Southwest Music Festival, it was "This Land Is Your Land." And while I didn't expect to hear it, I sure as hell didn't expect to sing. Let alone sing it twice on the same day. But then again, I'd forgotten that this year would have marked Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday. The SXSW organizers had not—and the folk legend's memory was in the air for quite a bit of the festival. The twangy Okie and migrant worker who chronicled fights for social and economic justice died in 1967, but he influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to Joe Strummer to Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen, it turned out, was keynoting the festival Thursday, and prior to his address, a Guthrie tribute was in order. Eliza Gilkyson and Jimmy LeFave took the stage to sing Guthrie standards. Joining them for the second half of their set was Colombian pop star Juanes. Juanes, who rarely sings in English, spoke of his own love for the...

Whitney's Public, Private Struggle

It's a lot harder for mega-celebrities to manage their public and private personas.

(AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File) In this Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009, file photo, Artist Whitney Houston performs onstage at the 37th Annual American Music Awards in Los Angeles. Houston died Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, she was 48. I hadn’t thought of Whitney Houston in years but, about a month ago, her name actually came up in conversation. My boyfriend and I were talking about the lyrics to “Whatta Man,” the Salt-n-Pepa/En Vogue song, and he singled out “And he knows that my name is not Susan” as a particularly clunky line in an otherwise smooth pop song. “Oh, it’s a reference to a Whitney Houston song called ‘My Name Is Not Susan,’” I reminded him. That’s how famous Houston was in the early 1990s—rappers could drop a reference to one of her lesser-known songs, which only peaked at number 20, and still count on audiences knowing it. The “My Name Is Not Susan” name-check captures Houston’s place in the pop pantheon: Ubiquitous for a time but unable to extend her moment of glory. The news of her...

A Super Bowl for the People

Led by Madonna’s halftime act, this year’s telecast included something for everyone.

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Somehow Madonna pulled off an amazing feat during the Super Bowl: bringing gay culture and aggressive female sexuality into the heart of masculinity’s holiest of days without anyone seeming to care. While the cheerleading segment was embarrassingly silly, I otherwise have to disagree with Tom Carson’s assessment that the Super Bowl’s narrative was Clint Eastwood versus Madonna, with Clint winning. I’m more in the camp of Tom’s friend who said, “It was Clint AND Madonna.” Madonna was hauled onto the field by an army of half-naked men in gladiator costumes and then sang “Vogue,” a song about a dance style invented and nourished in gay nightclubs. Madonna even rolled out “Like A Prayer”, a number that used to bait conservatives with its provocative blend of sexual and religious themes. Yet, the only offended response from the guardians of moral purity the Monday after the show was half-hearted complaining that hip-hop performer M.I.A., who joined Madonna and rapper Nicky Minaj onstage,...

I Fought PBS and PBS Won

Downton Abbey gives the network a bona fide guilty pleasure.

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
Maybe I should have heeded Joe Strummer's obscene warning back in 1980. "He who fucks nuns/Will later join the church," the Clash's front man sang biliously on London Calling— and here I am 32 years later, watching Downton Abbey. I guess Joe had my number all along. No doubt, this betrayal of my Jacobin youth won't seem excessively poignant to too many of you. That's not least because you're probably hooked on Downton Abbey yourself, but indulge me. When I was starting out as a TV reviewer—lured, like so many bright-eyed naifs, by the promise of groupies, big bucks, and high living— Village Voice readers soon got used to my heartlessness about PBS: "Off with those three little heads!" I once merrily wrote. More than anything else, public broadcasting's wan mania for importing high-toned Brit taradiddle got my goat, a prejudice dating back to my restless puberty. The original Forsyte Saga, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Brideshead Revisited —the PBS versions of the Rosetta Stone, in...

99 Problems But This Ain't One

The special treatment Beyoncé received when she gave birth may have made the headlines, but real economic injustice gets noticed far less often.

Judging when to use tabloid stories as teaching moments on issues regarding race, gender, and class isn’t always easy. Sometimes the connection is clear, as when bloggers and activists used the Chris Brown/Rihanna blowup to raise awareness about domestic violence. Other times, a point can’t be found, no matter how hard one may try. The scandal surrounding Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s baby, recently born at at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, is a classic example of this sort of overreach. For those who may not know, soon after Beyoncé gave birth to Blue Ivy Carter, there was a rush of tabloid and then mainstream-media stories quoting parents who were furious about the security measures the hospital took, which included clearing out the wing the couple stayed in, covering cameras, and dispatching guards for their protection. The parents’ complaints—which were given wide airing at sites like Jezebel and The Huffington Post —mostly centered around the attention the celebrity couple received...

Yes We Camelot

What cultural artifacts will come to embody the current presidential administration?

F eel free to try this at home, but I guarantee you won't get anything out of it except a migraine. Imagine you've been a bit prematurely asked to fill a time capsule with telltale cultural artifacts of the Age of Obama—the evocative movies, TV shows, hit tunes, and other creative whatnots that will someday exemplify the ineffable atmosphere of our 44th president's first term. Realizing nobody has called these times "The Age of Obama" since early 2009 should be your first clue that this is no easy job. Try to persevere, though. Um—J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot, maybe? Obama's partisans and detractors alike do dig comparing him to Mr. Spock. TV's Glee and Modern Family? Hey, how about post – everything pop diva Lady Gaga? That's the best I can do off the top of my head, and they're all a bit of a stretch. The multiculti on steroids—OK, asteroids—of James Cameron's Avatar may be less of one. Yet the movie's conception predated not only Obama's presidency but George W. Bush's. Anyway,...

Death Rattle

A new musical movement turns Mexican drug violence into catchy sing-alongs.

Movimiento Alterado has taken traditional narcocorridos to a new extreme.
GerardoOrtiz.net Gerardo Ortiz, whose latest CD both celebrates and questions the culture of drug violence I n 2010, the collective of Mexican musicians known as Movimiento Alterado released a rousing carousel blitz of tubas, accordions, and snare rolls it called “Sanguinarios del M1.” The song’s title roughly translates as “The Bloodthirsty Killers of El M1”—M1 is the nickname for Manuel Torres Félix, an infamous member of the Sinaloa drug cartel. (He also goes by El Ondeado , “The Off One” or “The Crazy One.”) His long rap sheet includes a 2008 “message murder” in which he left three decapitated bodies with severed legs in the trunk of a car with a signed note and a decapitated snake. “Sanguinarios” begins with the sound of semiautomatic gunfire, and then a rotating cast of singers role-plays as AK-47- and bazooka-toting M1 mercenaries. “We are crazy bloodthirsty guys,” the singers declare. “We like to kill.” They brag about their kidnapping, beheading, and torture skills and...

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