Oh yes he did. The Human Riff turned 70 today. And what a ride it’s been. For his body, for music, and for all of us. Happy Birthday Keith.
His use of silence/space, the 5-string open G Tele, playing milliseconds behind or ahead of the beat, the multitude and breadth of styles he could inhabit, the infectious grooves he could create, the heart and ‘tude he’s brought to the table all these years.
Oh, this rain it will continue
Through the morning as I’m listening
To the bells of the cathedral
I am thinking of your voice…
And of the midnight picnic
Once upon a time
Before the rain began…
And I finish up my coffee
And it’s time to catch the train.
-Suzanne Vega, “Tom’s Diner”
Talk-sing-whispers. Suzanne Vega burst onto the scene in 1985 with her eponymous debut on A & M Records. My friend Giles turned me onto it over the holiday break that year while we were visiting family and friends in Pittsburgh. It was a refreshing change-up at the time for acoustic music fans, and indeed the public at large, to hear something like “Marlene On The Wall” on the radio. Amidst a musical landscape dominated by synth pop, hair ‘metal’, modern R and B, a burgeoning alternative rock and post-punk scene, rap and more, came a record of quiet observations and introspective verse delivered in a half whispery singing style atop a finger-picked acoustic guitar. Qu’elle difference! A sparse but sharp set of backing musicians fleshed out the arrangements with a modern feel, mixing in atmospheric electric guitar and keyboards.
Her smash followup, 1987’s “Solitude Standing”, featured “Luka”, “Tom’s Diner” and a bevy of great songs including “Wooden Horse (Kasper Hauser song)”, “Ironbound/Poultry Parts” and the Homeric references of “Calypso”, presented live below from a July 2011 performance:
Now he’s even singing along with his guitar, ala George Benson. In the middle of a Dylan medley, no less. If this kid keeps coming up with new ideas and playing slide guitar like that, he’s definitely gonna make a name for himself.
Here’s Mick Taylor, March 7, 2013, in Madrid scattin’ and sliding through “Blind Willie McTell”, leaning into “All Along the Watchtower” and then taking it home. Wonderfully provided by jorjunkel:
Peter Gabriel has been challenging and rewarding listeners for forty-five years now. In his earliest days, as Genesis’ co-founder and front-person (1967-1975), he combined elements of theater, performance art, story-telling and the bizarre into his live shows. He has been just as wide-ranging, cutting-edge and surprising since then in his over three decades-long solo career. Through studio releases, world music projects, film soundtracks, music videos, causes and benefit concerts, he has been one of the most respected and influential artists of our time.
In the dizzying and ever-churning realm of disposable pop culture, much of what the public-at-large knows of Peter Gabriel begins and ends with his 1986 cd “So”, which produced the songs In Your Eyes, Don’t Give Up and, of course, the “Sledgehammer” single and music video. But 1986 was also the year that he began his long-standing public association with Amnesty International.
And to those that would dig deeper, Gabriel offers a wealth of varied music projects and public works to explore. He has contributed to the existence of W.O.M.A.D., the Witness project, the ‘gated’ drum sound and the early fusion of electronic synthesis with tribal rhythms on his benchmark third solo album, the revolutionizing of the music video, several notable soundtracks (“Birdy” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”), the fashionable ‘reverse mohawk’ of the 1973 tour and more; while also being the recipient of several international humanitarian awards over the years. And to think that the man behind all that started his music career as a frustrated drummer, handling the vocal chores for an unknown British art rock quintet while wearing a fox head mask and a dress.
After spending much of 2010-2012 touring with an orchestra-and-voices ensemble, which saw him re-inventing his classics in an acoustic format alongside several cover songs from the New Blood cd, he still found time to regroup and launch an entirely different tour before the year’s end.
Experimental artist Laurie Anderson has broken and blurred all sorts of boundaries, ‘rules’ and perceptions of what music, art, technology, narrative, performer and audience are. Almost forty years after her groundbreaking entry into, for lack of a better term, multimedia performance art and storytelling, she continues to explore and evoke and create. And communicate.
In late May 2012, she gave the commencement address to the (lucky) graduating students of The School of Visual Arts at Radio City Music Hall. Here are a few of her thoughts from that commencement ceremony address.
“I think there should be an artist-in-residence in Congress, an artist-in-residence in the White House, an artist-in-residence in the Supreme Court. Artists have a unique point of view, and why isn’t that a part of the bigger picture in our country?”
She added, “Meanwhile, here’s something to keep in mind. No one will ever ask you to do the thing you really want to do. You’ve got to take my word on this; do not, do not wait for this to happen. It will never happen. Things will happen to you, but this will never happen. So just think of what you’d like to do, what you dream of doing, and then just start doing it.”
The video starts at the 14:40 mark, but there are little jewels sprinkled throughout for artists of any age, any nationality, any level of achievement, any discipline. If you have the inclination to check out the whole thing, it’s a wonderful talk, replete with her characteristic succinct and witty observations, as well as a little mini-performance at the end. If you’re pressed for time, just watch the first few minutes from where the video is cued up to and then jump ahead to 29:35 where she talks of redefining what it means to be an artist, makes note of how in a world of rapid change that nowadays one career or one path is no longer the norm or even possible, and offers some tips for artists and non-artists alike to keep in mind as they journey through life.
Laurie Anderson 2012; still inspiring, still exploring.
I’ve always liked the image that cartoonists and writers have used to signify a new idea or inspired solution; the thought bubble with the lightbulb aglow. I wonder how the cartoonists handled it before Edison. Maybe they used imagery like a match lighting or the ‘ding-ding’ of a bell or a prospector striking gold.
Something occurs to us all of the sudden, whether it’s regarding a musical impasse we’ve been puzzling over recently or an unfinished Great Idea that’s been lying dormant for a few years. We have our “Eureka!” moment and finally get to write the ending to our unfinished lyric or story, find the perfect bridge for the middle of a song, come up with a great idea for a new business or invention, or stumble upon an untried approach to a pressing societal need.
Even finding creative “A-ha!”s for more everyday matters such as how to remodel the living room, think outside the box on a work assignment, or combine the pantry contents into an imaginative improvised meal, creativity and those moments of inspiration can strike at any time in tasks both large and small. Where do the ideas come from? How does the brain navigate through the possibilities and then select the one that seems most appropriate? What makes a good idea and what happens in the brain during those lightbulb moments? Here’s author Steven Johnson’s entertaining animated take on it:
It’s an interesting notion; what do we do with all this technology, all this information, all these shiny objects? Electronic and technological capabilities have far outpaced our progress in social, emotional, spiritual and environmental matters, and we’ve been working at those for millennia longer than we’ve even had lightbulbs, cars and computers.
Today’s post features two videos; both mind-blowing and alarmingly trivial at the same time. The first is one of several robots-playing-acoustic guitars videos found on the web, the second is a relatively new look at the Leap interface for large non-tablet screens that’s gotten 5 million views in just 10 days. They are both truly impressive works of engineering, skill and labor. But …
You don’t have to have awesome cutting-edge gear to make interesting sounds. Nor do you have to settle with calling up some preset from a tone bank or soundcard. Sometimes common everyday acoustic instruments can help you approximate a sound/texture that you’re after; and for many musicians, soundmakers and writers, coming up with stuff is half of the fun.
Back when I was making the transition from recording-only, sound collage maker guy to futurist space-folk performer, I was looking for a way to maximize the sounds I could make with the smallest ammount of extra gear to lug along to coffeehouses. In addition to the core elements of guitar, slide and voice, I settled on two items: my two-second Digitech delay/looper and a harmonica.
I tracked down some Hohners and one of those neckholder contraptions at the big music store downtown at Mass Ave and Newbury St, and set about the task of learning to play them while strumming the guitar. I’d messed around with kazoos and wooden flutes and harmonicas before in my recording exploits, but usually just as non-melodic sonic ephemera put through guitar effects units, and never while trying to simultaneously play the guitar.
After I got the hang of it, I started incorporating my noisemaking era’s techniques of vowel-shaping, talking and adding undertones by humming notes through the harp that were different from the notes I was playing on it. The harmonica was transformed into a kind of poorman’s acoustic vocoder/talkbox and it immediately got used in one of my sci-fi folk numbers called ‘Visited A Farm’, opening and closing the retro-future tale like a robot narrator trying to speak.
Almost fourteen years after the mighty guitar band Swervedriver was put ‘up on the blocks’, here they were again in 2012; plying their stomp-box enabled brand of space travel rock and roll, debuting a new song, digging deep into their catalogue for some live rarities, and actually even appearing on national television.
It seems that more of the world is finally finding out about, and acknowledging, this great undiscovered treasure of the 1990’s a full two decades after their Creation Records debut. As formulaic rock and machine-generated beats continue their dominance of the airwaves, and ‘professional’ entertainment and contest shows (along with rock schools and “Glee”) reduce the performing arts to confident calesthenics and TV-ready sanitized deliveries, it’s nice to be reminded how potent a force untrammeled guitar rock is for your inner under-nourished soul.
As noted in the intro to this series, there are a plethora of ways to tackle an impasse in the writing and recording process. I tend to advocate for an experimental solution rather than a ‘standard’ (read: boring and safe) solution. Try something that you or your band haven’t tried; not for the sake of novelty, but for the things you can run into during the discovery process.
The benefit of thinking outside the box is exactly just that; you learn to approach problems and solutions from a different angle. And with the pace of today’s technological advancements, there seem to be an infinite number of options at your fingertips. Getting used to considering all the possibilities on how to finish that song or find that one neat sound that makes the record come to life can help you overcome musical impasses more quickly in the future the more you get used to doing it.
Once you’ve allowed yourself to be open to all the directions that that song or sound search could go in though, there also arises the conundrum of sifting through the myriad of choices you’ve dutifully considered. How do you select the best idea out of a hundred? It can be overwhelming if you’ve really done your homework and truly considered all the options available. So my first rule of action when confronting these kinds of problems has always been the one that almost seems counter-intuitive (at first): use limits.