Reverend Horton Heat/Fishbone 09/30/17—The Cotillion Ballroom, Wichita, KS

You could make a lot of assumptions about the city of Wichita, KS. You could assume it’s a flyover state hellhole devoid of any culture or art, but you’d be (mostly) wrong. You could assume it’s a city full of hayseeds and rednecks who don’t take kindly to outsiders, but you’d be (mostly) wrong. You could assume there aren’t a lot of options for live music outside of country concerts…and you’d be almost right on the button.

There are others, however, who perform in our fair city time and time again—the dogged road warriors who tour relentlessly and build their following the old fashioned way, before YouTube hits made someone a celebrity without leaving their bedroom. When I think of who has played Wichita (country acts notwithstanding) more than anyone else, two names come to mind: rapper Tech N9ne from Kansas City (which practically makes him a local), and Dallas rockabilly legend Reverend Horton Heat.

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L-R: RJ Contreras, Jim Heath, Jimbo Wallace

RHH has played Wichita maybe six or eight times over the past decade. That may not sound like much, but as someone who’s spent the last ten years in the sunflower state pining for the old days when I could drive to LA or Las Vegas to see any concert under the sun, six or eight times in ten years is a lot. As for me, I’ve personally seen RHH at least eight times now in three different states, with three different drummers, but that hardly matters. No matter the circumstances, The Rev always puts on a fantastic show, and Saturday night at The Cotillion was no exception.

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Jimbo Wallace

One of the things I’ve always liked about Reverend Horton Heat is that, as with a lot of bands who tour exhaustively, they end up playing with just about everyone, which makes for some especially eclectic shows. Over the years, RHH has played with everyone from traditional rockabilly and country acts to White Zombie and Motörhead. Which is to say it should’ve come as no surprise when RHH hit the road with ska/funk/punk heroes Fishbone.

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Angelo Moore

Some may remember Fishbone from their early 90’s commercial peak with the release of The Reality of My Surroundings, featuring their only two singles to make the charts, Everyday Sunshine and Sunless Saturday. Some may also wonder what happened to them since then. It turns out Fishbone is doing just fine, thank you very much.

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L-R: Paul Hampton, Angelo Moore, Walter Kibby

Fronted by original vocalist/saxophonist Angelo Moore (one of three original members still playing with the band), Fishbone took a somewhat lukewarm crowd and had them eating out of the palms of their hands by the end of their almost hour-long set. Opening with the aforementioned Sunless Saturday, Moore and company set the bar high for the energy level they had to sustain for the rest of the set—a bar they had no problem clearing, and then some. Moore is as entertaining and energetic a frontman as you’re likely to find. His exaggerated facial expressions and grandiose, frenetic body language was fun to watch and a blast to photograph.

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Angelo Moore

With occasional help from a trusty roadie, Angelo switched from vocals to one of a myriad of different saxes with ease, even placing and re-placing the mic stand for his horn on cue every time. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say the band sounded incredible. I spent the majority of the set planted in front of bassist and fellow original member Norwood Fisher, who laid down incredible grooves on an array of beautiful basses. By the end of closer Party at Ground Zero, the crowd was hyped and ready to testify.

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L-R: Walter Kibby, Norwood Fisher

 

Reverend Horton Heat, aka Jim Heath, has been cranking out his brand of rockabilly/punkabilly/psychobilly/whatever you want to put in front of “billy” since 1985, and has hardly let up since. Heath and his loyal sidekick/bass player Jim “Jimbo” Wallace were in the midst of recording a new album when previous drummer Scott Churilla decided to go his own way, leaving the band in a tight spot. Luckily, fate intervened in the form of fellow Texan Arjuna “RJ” Contreras, formerly of the terrific-yet-vastly-under-appreciated polka band (yes, that’s right) Brave Combo. He stepped in to record his parts for the album and was on the road touring before he knew what hit him. So would the new drummer change Reverend Horton Heat’s sound? Yes and no.

That’s because many of the songs in RHH’s set were classics and fan favorites. It would take some truly radical drumming to change the sound of set-opening instrumental Big Sky, or the dynamic push and pull of The Devil’s Chasin’ Me, but Contreras definitely has his own style, tinkering with certain drum parts and making them his own. Personally, I think RJ is a great fit for the band and I hope he has a permanent gig with the guys.

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RJ Contreras

The Cotillion Ballroom is probably my favorite venue in Wichita, and possibly the Reverend’s too, as he proudly declared how happy he was to be “in Wichita, Kansas at The Cotillion on Friday night!” despite it being Saturday. He may have been joking (he repeatedly said it was Friday, possibly just to mess with the inebriated), but if he was really confused, it’s easy to forgive—this was their 23rd show in 29 days. I’m impressed he even knew what city he was in, but then, when you’re the hardest working man in rockabilly, I assume touring with nary a day off becomes old hat.

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Jim Heath, RJ Contreras

As it turned out, the show at The Cotillion marked the end of their month-long tour with Fishbone and Los Kung Fu Monkeys (the tour’s other support act, Strung Out, bowed out the night before in Peoria, Illinois), and they commemorated the end of the tour by having a huge jam session on stage with members of all three bands. At one point during Fishbone’s set, I even caught the Reverend himself standing three feet from me, taking pictures of the band on his cell phone. It was a great show, and the best part is that with a band that works as hard as they do, I can count on them coming back to town soon.

Side note: if you don’t believe the “hardest working man in rockabilly” claim, check out RHH’s Facebook page—they already have tour dates up for the entire month of October, featuring some shows with country swing and doo wop master Big Sandy, and the entire month of December, those shows being an amazing triple bill featuring roots rock legends The Blasters and country guitar virtuoso Junior Brown. If they’re coming to your town, I highly recommend checking them out. If not, don’t worry—there’s a good chance eventually the Rev will come to you.

 

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Chaos with a Smile: Andrew W.K.’s The Power of Partying Tour

In  the pantheon of great motivational speakers, certain people come to mind:images-2

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One of these things is not like the other.

Saturday night, thanks to an overwhelming sense of curiosity and a girlfriend who’s always up for something new, saw me at a venue normally associated with rock performances, hosting a rock singer. This, however, was different. It was a spoken word appearance by self-proclaimed King of Partying Andrew W.K., as part of his 50 state The Power of Partying tour.

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What I knew going in: I knew of Andrew W.K., as I suppose a lot of people might, from the 2001 hit single “Party Hard” (which, along with some other singles, has popped up in various video games) and from the now-iconic album cover featuring W.K. with one doozy of a bloody nose. Beyond that, all I knew was that Andrew had parlayed the party lifestyle he’d become famous for into serious motivational speaking gigs framed by his own rock ‘n’ roll viewpoint. He had some material prepared, but a large chunk of the evening would be open to Q & A from the audience.

Side note regarding the venue: I can’t believe it took me over a decade to finally go to Barleycorn’s. The place was cleaner, nicer, and smaller than I expected. Over the course of the night I must’ve remarked at least three different times “I really like this place.” I can’t wait to go back and see some bands, as with a capacity of only around 250 people there is literally not a bad seat in the house.

What I found upon arrival: Free pizza? Are you kidding me? Okay, the guy knows how to start a party—music, pizza, and alcohol. We got settled into one of the few remaining seats with our party accoutrements, and not a moment too soon—the show uncharacteristically (for a typical rock show, anyway) started right on time.

Andrew began the show by getting what I would’ve called in my prime pro wresting watching days “a cheap pop”—pandering to the home crowd for some easy applause. And yet, right off the bat I felt a vibe coming off W.K., in all his white jeans/plain white t-shirt wearing glory: the dude was completely genuine. There was no pandering, he was actually happy and excited to be there in Wichita, KS.

He spoke about the rigors of a 50 state tour, and how if he’d taken any time to think about it before committing he may have reconsidered. Before long, he got to the topic at hand—what it means to party in Andrew W.K.’s world.

So, what does “party” mean to man who’s practically made a career out of the word? A lot of things, actually. Positivity—being upbeat, finding the silver lining, etc. He spoke of having feelings of melancholy since he was a little boy, and how music helped him (then and now) weather the storm of negativity and gloom that would seemingly invade his thoughts.

One thing that really resonated with me was this (paraphrasing slightly): “Some of the biggest sparks of inspiration can come from the lowest of places. If you know how to acknowledge that bad feeling and roll with it, you can create something incredible.” I know exactly what he meant, as I’ve had a lot of bad things to draw inspiration from in the last year or so.

Although he didn’t use the term, a lot of what he touched on related to the concept of mindfulness. I’m nowhere near knowledgeable to go into detail about it, but if I had to try and sum it up in a sentence, it involves learning to acknowledge feelings and sensations as they happen without judgement (plus an awful lot more—again, I’m no expert). A major part of mindfulness is meditation, and while certain aspects appear to be easier to grasp than others, it seems incredibly beneficial to your mental and physical well-being if you can get a handle on it. You can learn more about mindfulness (highly recommended) by clicking here.

Upon opening the floor to questions, I was surprised how many people wanted to ask Andrew about coping with depression. I expected more rock ‘n’ roll stories from the road, or meeting celebrities, that sort of thing. (One guy asked about his high-energy live shows and W.K. described it as “chaos with a smile”, with raging mosh pits that would stop everything to help someone look for their glasses.)

My favorite exchange of the night was when a young woman asked him how she could help a friend who suffered from chronic depression and sometimes had suicidal thoughts. Without a moment’s hesitation he said, “Love them.” He went on to elaborate on that, but I (along with everyone else in the venue) was struck by the touching simplicity of his answer.

After the Q & A session, W.K. invited anyone who still wanted to talk or take pictures to come see him in the back of the bar by his merch table. Almost everyone in the room got in line to talk to him, or so it seemed. I was positioned to be able to see him with just a slight turn of my head, and I admit I enjoyed watching him interact with his fans, for a couple reasons.

First, just the act of hanging out like that to meet people and talk to them is a cool thing to do. He didn’t have to do that. It took upwards of 90 minutes for him to talk to everyone, shake every hand, take every picture. Second, he wasn’t just going through the motions. He was there, in the moment, with everyone who came before him. Eyes locked on theirs, listening intently to whatever it was they had to say to him. That really spoke volumes about the kind of guy he is, and I have to say it left me pretty impressed. That’s not to say he didn’t make a bee line out of there once the line was gone, but still. Just an awesome guy.

What I learned:  I learned that even guys who seemingly never have a bad day still struggle with their own demons. In the case of Andrew W.K., those don’t seem to be the typical rock ‘n’ roll demons of drugs and alcohol (I don’t think he even had a drink after the show, even though I’m sure people would’ve lined up to buy him one), but much more common ones: depression, self-worth, seizing the day, etc. It was nice reinforcement to know a fellow death metal loving oddball goes through it too.

W.K. mentioned he was about 1/3 through his 50 state tour, if he comes to your town I highly recommend catching him. He’s a good guy with a good message, and given the year I (and the nation) have had, you really can’t have enough people like that. Here’s a link to his remaining tour dates, check him out.

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I almost forgot, he also created a political party, The Party Party (naturally). I don’t know about any of you, but I’d sure vote for the guy.

So It Goes; Russian Circles

So, August turned out to be a pretty shit month for me and a lot of people I know. I try not to be one to complain, but…just wow.

Talking about it here, in a (relatively) public forum, may seem to some people like I’m oversharing or not keeping something private that others may not want made public more than it already has been. Not talking about it could imply a rather nonchalant reaction to a terrible situation, which is absolutely not the case.

Ultimately, I’ve decided not to go into it, at least not yet. Maybe someday, I don’t know. Either you know what I’m talking about or you don’t—if we’re friends (virtually, real-life, or otherwise) and you have no idea what I’m talking about, I apologize for being so vague, but feel free to message me on Facebook Messenger or send me an email through the website and I can fill you in. Otherwise, you’ll just have to wait.

In the meantime, I’m going to attempt a return to normalcy the only way I know how. The following post was nearly completed a few weeks ago, before everything went to hell on me. I added a little to it and voila. Enjoy.

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I had a post about 80% done that dealt with my disdain for nostalgia. In fact, it was titled “Death to Sentimentality,” and I railed against all the band reunions that have been happening, and all the reboots/remakes/re-imaginings dominating the airwaves—and that was before I saw the abhorrent mess that is Greatest Hits on ABC.

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When I think of Arsenio’s Dog Pound now, “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan plays in my head.
But I couldn’t finish it.

For one thing, it was a little hypocritical. While I’m not a huge fan of nostalgia, I have to admit that a lot of the music I listen to (in the car especially) is music from my youth—and no, I’m not so old as to predate recorded music, you assholes. Plus, the most anticipated show for me personally to get around to watching is Stranger Things, which capitalizes precisely on that nostalgia to capture some of its magic (seriously, I’ve heard not a single bad thing about it and cannot wait to see it).

Second, the whole notion of complaining about something like that just seemed so…grouchy. So old. So Clint Eastwood from Grand Torino. 

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Or just Clint Eastwood in general.

I don’t want this to be a place where I just bitch and moan—this should be a happy place. My  happy place, and if I’m any good at this, a happy place for you, too. Unless you only come here to read my posts and talk shit about them. Then again, doing that would still make you happy, albeit in a really sick, messed up way…I guess either way, if you read it, we both win.

My point is, rather than piss and moan about what I don’t like, I’m going to talk about new things I find that excite me. Not necessarily brand new per se, but at least new to me, like a 2004 Honda Civic with low mileage, previously owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays.

First up: instrumental rock band Russian Circles.

I’ve never been too keen on instrumental rock music, and I’ve come to realize it was because I held a pretty big misconception about it. By that I mean that for the most part I was largely ignorant to what kind of instrumental bands were out there.

The phrase “instrumental rock” brought to mind 60’s acts like Booker T. & The MGs, surf rock like Dick Dale and The Ventures, and the modern-day heirs to the instrumental surf rock throne, Los Straighjackets and The Ghastly Ones. I’m only vaguely familiar with Texas’ Explosions in the Sky, and at the height of my Kids in the Hall fever I even bought a CD by the Canadian instrumentalists Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. But in the last six weeks or so my eyes have been opened, and I have seen the light.

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Before this, I would’ve guessed Russian Circles was some kind of sex act on UrbanDictionary.com
Russian Circles are a trio from Chicago, currently promoting their just-released sixth album, Guidance. Their brand of music is what is often described as ‘post-rock’ or ‘post-metal’. All that really means to me is that it’s got clear rock and metal influences but isn’t afraid to dip into other genres, or play with dynamics in ways traditional rock bands might not.

Some bands have one or two of what I would consider to be the magical elements: Stellar musicianship, excellent songwriting, killer production. Sometimes just having one of those ingredients is enough to create something really special. Russian Circles has all three. They are clearly near virtuoso-level masters of their respective instruments, they write songs (sans lyrics, no less) that keep from getting pretentious or boring, and their sound is absolutely incredible. The mix is just about perfect—nothing is muddled; each instrument can be heard clearly and easily, and when you’re listening to musicians this talented, you want to be able to hear every note.

A somewhat related tangent (bear with me here): I am really into food and cooking shows (mental note: why have I never blogged about food?). I don’t watch them as much as I used to, but I love Top Chef, MasterChef, Chopped, etc. Watching those shows as much as I have has ingrained in me the following: If you’re going to do something simple, the execution has to be flawless. Doing something simple perfectly takes as much skill as doing something complex, if not more. Russian Circles gets this (see, I told you it was related).

Case in point: the song Vorel, technically the second song off the new album, although the first song is really just an extended intro. Vorel is a lesson in the building and release of tension, and all that tension builds up to a classic metal riff so simple it’s almost hard to believe. But the execution is absolutely perfect, so it actually sounds fresh and new, even though it’s a variation of a fairly standard riff almost as old as metal itself.

Despite being a trio, Russian Circles’ sound is massive, due in part to a few things: the excellent production value, the fact that the guitarist multi-tracks on some songs (which he impressively pulls off live by sampling his guitar parts), and the occasional use of the distorted THUNDER SLUDGE bass tone (the term THUNDER SLUDGE © 2016, used with permission from BooksOfJobe Enterprises, LLC). The bass sounds terrific throughout, but once the distortion is added it takes the entire sound of the band to another level.

I’ve been listening to Guidance practically daily since discovering these guys on KEXP out of Seattle (which, if you’re in the mood for something different, give them a listen—any station that can fit Dead Kennedys and De La Soul in the same set of music gets my respect), but I’ve yet to give much of their first five albums a listen. I have a feeling I won’t be disappointed.

Well, there you have it. I eschewed negativity in favor of raving about something new I’ve found (and I almost forgot the equally impressive and heavy instrumental band Pelican), and I’ve provided you with ten—count ’em, ten!—different links to songs by every band I mentioned, plus the link to the KEXP website, where you can stream the station. So do yourself a favor and click a link or two. Check out something you haven’t heard before, or listen to a band you already know. Just listen to some music. It’s good for the soul, and dammit, you’re worth it.

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The Grammy Awards: Your Uncool Uncle

“The Grammys is the one award that doesn’t matter to anyone until they win one.”

For 15-20 years, I dismissed the Grammys as utter crap. It all started back in 1989, when they decided to branch out and recognize heavy metal and hard rock with its own category/award. And in a year when Metallica’s …And Justice For All ruled the rock/metal world (and, in my opinion, were still good and relevant), who was awarded the Grammy? Jethro Tull.

I repeat: Jethro Freaking Tull. A band with a flautist. How metal.

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It was an insult, a joke, and the moment I quit caring about the Grammys. And why should I? The music that mattered to me wasn’t even getting radio airplay most of the time, let alone being recognized by the industry. If a band I liked would’ve won a Grammy back then, I would’ve expected them to either not show up to receive it or give a vulgar and disparaging acceptance speech, detailing the ways the award was a joke and meant nothing to them. Breaking it on the stage would have been a plus.

In the early 2000’s I started watching the Grammys again, mostly out of morbid curiosity. There were some interesting wins here and there, some I agreed with and a lot I didn’t. There were interesting performances, some memorable and some miserable. But what became more and more clear is that for every tragic misfire there would usually also be a step in the right direction.

A prime example: in 2007 and 2008, Slayer won back-to-back Grammys. Slayer, one of the least commercial bands in the history of rock music, and one of my favorite bands. And all I could think to myself was, “It’s about damn time.” Suddenly the Grammys mattered, because a band I liked won one. And they humbly and graciously accepted the award, despite my wishes a decade earlier that any band I liked that won demolish the award immediately.

Now, I don’t always agree so wholeheartedly with who wins the Grammys (although I really don’t lose any sleep over any of it), but over the last few years I’ve come to view the Grammys as an uncool uncle you only see once a year—he isn’t as cool as he tries to be; he can sometimes be downright embarrassing; but, above all else he’s trying, and that counts for something.

Looking at this year’s rock nominees is a pretty good example: a handful of newer, and in my opinion more relevant artists mixed in with the likes of Black Sabbath, Neil Young, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin, for God’s sake. It seems to me more young acts should be nominated to keep interest in the awards, or else each new generation is going to write the Grammys off  as a bunch of geezers giving each other awards—although hopefully we never see another Jethro Tull-style goof up.

I had thought about doing a write up of the Grammys fully expecting it to be a snarky, sarcastic, excessively negative piece about the worthlessness of the awards. And while I still don’t think any band should care that much about winning one, it would be naive to say they don’t matter at all. The truth is, the Grammy is the biggest music award on the planet, and who wouldn’t like to be told their work is good enough to get one? The fact that they also give them to some of the worst songs/performers every year in the pop categories is another matter, and I’ll leave that issue to someone else.

I also have to admit that I’ve quite enjoyed the actual Grammy telecast the last few years; they really appear to be pulling out all the stops to make the show itself memorable, even if you don’t care about the actual awards. And with that, I’ll be the first to admit I’ll be watching Sunday night anxious to see who/what people are going to be talking about on Monday. Will you be watching?

How Do You Find New Music?

I would generally consider the ’90s to be my musical peak. Not only in terms of writing/performing (although it certainly was that), but also in terms of just listening to music. I still love music, and I still listen to music as much as I can, but it doesn’t compare to the way I went through music back then. I consumed music. Devoured it.

During that time, I remember a handful of old guys (and by old I mean they were older than the twenty year old me, so I’m probably the age now they were then) who made me kind of sad. They seemed to be stuck in decades past, musically speaking. They refused to acknowledge that any good music had been made in twenty years. They thought good music ceased with the last Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin albums. In a way, I felt bad for them. Pitied them, even. Because I knew how much awesome music there was out there to be had, and they just wouldn’t allow themselves to enjoy it. I’m never going to be like that, I told myself. I took comfort in knowing I was cool enough to recognize good music never stops being made, you just might have to do a little work to find it.

So now, jump twenty years to the present. I go to put some music on, and look through my iTunes library for something that will move me. Tens of thousands of songs to choose from, and what do I do? The vast majority of the time, I put on the music I was listening to in the ’90s. Not necessarily music that was made in the ’90s so much as the music I listened to during the decade. I’m afraid I’m turning into one of those old curmudgeons who ends up walking around muttering about how everything was better back in the old days.

I don’t know if it’s just my advancing age or if it has anything to do with how the music industry and the act of discovering new music has changed over the last twenty years. For instance, does anyone still listen to terrestrial radio anymore? The radio stations in my town are a pathetic joke – the only difference between the “Rock” station and the “Classic Rock” station is that the former will play maybe one song an hour from the turn of the millennium; otherwise, they’re pretty much interchangeable. I know in bigger cities that’s probably not as much of a problem, as I do remember being turned on to new bands on the radio when I lived close enough to L.A. to have an actual selection of stations to choose from.

But even when I put on Pandora, I set it to help me discover new music only to skip the new stuff because I don’t like it or I ignore it until something I already know comes on. So the question remains, how do I find new music (that I actually like)?

I’ve found myself going through the guide on my TV for the week, seeing who’s scheduled to perform on the week’s late night talk shows. I’ve found a couple of new favorites that way. One of the biggest finds in the past couple years for me and my tastes actually came courtesy of Last Call with Carson Daly. Yes, that Carson Daly. He takes a lot of guff, but I like the guy. I never gave a crap about TRL and I don’t watch The Voice, but throughout his career he’s always tried to introduce new music via his late-late night show, and I respect that. Thanks to him I discovered the band OFF!, fronted by the legendary Keith Morris (Circle Jerks, Black Flag), which ironically sounds a bit like a ’90s punk band.

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The other “new” artist I found (and can’t resist mentioning) is Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. I saw her on a late night show too, but it was a different TV appearance that hooked me. She had a set on Austin City Limits that I’m pretty sure left smoke wafting from my TV by the time it was over. If you have even an ounce of a liking for funk, soul, R & B, or even if you don’t – check them out. She has the voice of a funky angel, and The Dap-Kings are as tight as they come.

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There have been the occasional recommendations from Facebook friends, which are always much appreciated. Thanks to good lookin’ out from my friends I’ve been turned on to the spacey, trippy, indie rock of Alt-J (∆), the massive downtuned riffage of  The Sword, and what I’m listening to as I write this, the  rock beast that is Red Fang. I appreciate it all, and when I find something I like I eat it up, but the thing is…it’s not enough. I know there’s so much more out there, but somehow I’m missing it; this is just the tip of the iceberg.

So what recommendations do you all have? How do you find new artists? From TV shows? Movie trailers? Car commercials? College radio (is that still a thing?)? YouTube? Satellite radio? Has Pandora turned you on to new artists? Somebody clue me in.

As a tooting-my-own-horn kind of a side note, I logged on today to the news that I had reached 1,000 followers here on the blog. I know a lot of people have reached that number a lot faster, but I’m still floored that I’ve reached it at all. Now, I’ll be the first to tell you “followers” of the blog does not necessarily equal “readers” of the blog, as my stats can attest, but the fact remains that I am in awe that so many people have taken the time to click that ‘follow’ button, and for that I thank you.

Now, back to the topic at hand. Give me your advice for finding new music, stat! Who are some of the new bands/artists you’ve discovered, and how did you find them?

Van Halen – How One of The World’s Biggest Rock Bands Ruined Junior High For Me

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1984 by Van Halen was the first album (tape) I ever bought with my own money. I was 11 years old, and I don’t remember how I got the money (by honest means, I assure you), but I knew that was what I wanted.

I was raised on rock music. I remember as a kid listening to 94.7 KMET out of L.A. It wasn’t called classic rock yet, because the music wasn’t that old; the oldest stuff they played was from the late ’60’s. Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Stones, Jimi, all that stuff.

Then 1984 came out. It got heavy airplay, and I just loved it. Panama, Jump, and my favorite, Hot For Teacher. I bought that tape and damn near wore it out.

By 1986, two things happened: My family moved to a new town, where I realized that as the dorky new kid I was not instantly popular, and Van Halen made a video for Hot For Teacher.

If you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to go into much detail about most of it. Van Halen, girls, yadda yadda. What caused me so much grief was the little intro to the video.

The intro featured a young man, appropriately named “Waldo”, being groomed by his mother for his first day at a new school. He’s worried about being picked on by the other kids, but mother assures him everything will be fine.

The bus comes to pick him up, with kids on it being loud and throwing paper airplanes. The doors to the bus open, and David Lee Roth is the bus driver. Waldo is terrified to get on the bus, but steps on.

Bus Driver Roth looks the young nerd in the eye and calls,

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“SIT DOWN, WALDO!”

The video continues, showing how mortified poor Waldo is at his wild, raucous new school.

Surely you can see where this is headed.

New kid, dorky, glasses…

Getting on the bus in the morning – “Sit down, Waldo!”

Getting off the bus in the afternoon – “Sit down, Waldo!”

For a while it expanded to the hallways and the classroom, but it died down soon enough.

I’d like to make it clear I’m not looking for any sympathy here. Bullying is a huge issue, and kids are (and were back then) bullied way worse than me. Fact is, a little name-calling aside, my life was pretty great. And by high school things went back to normal, and I wasn’t the new kid anymore.

I just couldn’t get over the irony that a band I absolutely loved was causing me so much grief.

Now that I think about it, the second album I ever bought with my own money was Licensed To Ill by the Beastie Boys. Their video for (You Gotta)Fight For Your Right (To Party) had nerds in it, too, but I never had any crazy guys showing up at my house to party with beer and hot chicks. What a gyp.

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Morphine – My Appreciation Of A Criminally Under-appreciated Band

 

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I still remember the first time I heard Morphine. It was the summer of 1998. My girlfriend put on their CD, Like Swimming.

Like Swimming

It instantly grabbed my attention, and never let go. I was stunned by it. I play guitar, and found myself fascinated by this power trio that didn’t even have a guitarist. At the time I worked in a music store, selling CD’s all day long. I was pretty conscious of all different types of music, but I had never heard of these guys. When I went to work the day after hearing them, I went to the rock/pop/soul section and started searching the M’s. Sure enough, there it was. We had one copy. Their older stuff was on an indie label, and we didn’t carry it. I special ordered their back catalog and soon was neck deep in their music. I wondered where this band had been all my life—no one (then or since) sounded like them.

Ah, the sound.

How to describe Morphine to the uninitiated? As I mentioned, there is no guitar. The lead instrument is actually saxophone, usually baritone, played by the incredible Dana Colley. Some songs had two saxes playing simultaneously, which may not pose a problem in the recording studio, but Mr. Colley pulled the songs off live by playing two saxophones at the same time.

For most of their career, Billy Conway handled the percussive duties, with Jerome Dupree behind the drums for their early records.

Then there’s Mark Sandman. He basically was Morphine. He was the bassist and vocalist, but the way he handled both was what made the music so unique. He took the typical 4-string bass and turned it on its head. He removed two of the strings, tuned the two he had unconventionally, and played with a slide instead of his fingers. The result is kind of hard to put into words. Which sucks, because it was my bright idea to write about them.

Then there’s his voice. A natural baritone, his voice, combined with the slide bass and baritone sax made for one of the most unique harmonies I’ve ever heard. And I thought I’d heard it all.

There are a lot of reasons I like Morphine so much. For one, despite the seeming limitations that you might think they would face because of their setup, they had an incredible range. They could play bluesy grooves all day long, turn it up to all-out rock, or play tender, soft songs with ease. Essentially, they were fearless. You got the sense they were playing what they wanted to play, and if people happened to like it, that was great. And no matter what type of song they play, you know who you’re listening to as soon as you hear it. They managed to have a distinct, signature sound without having every song sound exactly the same.

The other big thing I found when I got into Morphine was that I loved the lyrics. Now, I’m a child of rock, punk, and metal, and lyrics are often an afterthought—mostly meaningless and unintelligible. Honestly, I don’t have much problem with that. I lived my whole life without really caring too much about lyrics. But when I listen to Morphine, not only can I understand the vocals, they actually mean something. They tell stories, and they make sense. Morphine was the first band that made me actually appreciate lyrics, and see what an extra impact good lyrics could have on a song.

Sadly, Mark Sandman died on stage of a heart attack in 1999, during a show in Italy. So right after I discovered them, it became impossible to see them live. That was a difficult reality to face. Luckily, there are clips of them on youtube to give you a sense of what their live shows were like.

As far as their catalog, you really can’t go wrong with any of their work, but my recommendation would be the album they had just wrapped up before heading out on that ill-fated tour in 1999, The Night. It’s my personal favorite, and shows their range. Start there and work your way back through their albums, or start at the beginning with Good, and see how they evolved over the years. Or just go on Pandora and start a Morphine-themed station. Just do yourself a favor, and check ’em out. You won’t be sorry.

sandman
Mark Sandman (1952-1999)