Sunday, September 29, 2013

Music Review: Tony Joe White, 'Hoodoo'

In 1969, Washington D.C.-based Monument Records released Cajun-blues inspired Tony Joe White's first single - "Polk Salad Annie" - a delectable blend of swamp rock and funky Mississippi Delta Blues, that was immediately likable and addictive, and unlike any other Top 40 record of the era. After 9 months of circulation, the single never broke into the popular charts and was deemed a failure and written off by the record company.

Yet requests for the single trickled in from remote Southern U.S. locales, where White had toured, and a few visionary disc jockeys, recognizing the excellence and hit potential of the record, continued to play it. The unlikely hit single that sang of "poke sallet", a food product of the pokeweed plant known to Southern culture, started to nudge up the charts and didn't stop its ascension until it reached #8 on Billboard's Hot 100.

Here's hoping it doesn't take blues music fans as long to find Tony Joe White's new album, Hoodoo (Yep Roc Records), as long as it took record fans to find "Polk Salad Annie". At 70 years old, the songwriter of one of the most beloved blues songs to ever hit the popular charts - "Rainy Night in Georgia" - has released a low-key and stunning guitar driven blues record featuring a low and thumping bass line sure to fondle the beat of your blues hungry heart and shake the beer in your glass.

The blend of instruments - guitars, thumping bass, a touch of harmonica and keyboards - have such an organic and impromptu sound it is no wonder White boasts that much of the record was recorded live to tape on first takes. It sounds like a flawless live performance. White's fluid sliding guitars merges seamlessly with Steve Forrest's bottom-feeding bass and Bryan Owen's steady percussion, to create a simple but atmospheric and seductive blues music.

The autobiographical songs of hungry life in the rural South are heartfelt testimonies from a master of Blues philosophy. "Alligator, Mississippi", with its chugging chainsaw guitar, has all the muscle and drive of an alligator wrestling its dinner. "Gypsy Epilogue" fuses the dying embers of a gypsy campfire with a reverberating slide guitar adorning the sentimental philosophy - "can't eavesdrop on the future, can't dance with the past".

The most striking songs are eyewitness accounts of natural disasters so familiar to the people of the deeply southern U.S. The cyclic familial narrative of "Storm's Comin'" invokes a warm bond as White's patriarchal, controlled voice sings with just a measure of desperation - "Kids get up, get your clothes on, storm's comin'". The catastrophic 2010 Nashville floods are documented in "The Flood", where a higher ground vantage point reveals an unrecognizable Nashville with "guitars floating down the river and drum sets washed up on the road". These storm-themed songs come from a voice that has experienced and a respect for the ravages of nature.

Listening to White is like listening to the elder father at the family supper table, who holds you spellbound with tales of storms, lovers and family bonds. He grips the listener in a warm cocoon of fascination while never abandoning a rich and rowdy blues spirit. Hoodoo is a splendid blues album, maybe the best we'll hear all year.

this article was first published by the author at:

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Book Review: 'Roger Waters, The Man Behind The Wall' by Dave Thompson

This biography, by renowned rock 'n roll scribe Dave Thompson, (frequent Rolling Stone magazine writer and author of the Kurt Cobain bio Never Fade Away) says as much about Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, as it does about his flagship rock band. It paints a cheery if psychedelic picture of the burgeoning progressive rock music scene of 1960s England, and examines, with blissful scrutiny, the in-studio and behind-the-scenes history of Pink Floyd's legendary albums and concerts.

The late and tragic Syd Barrett, one-time leader and co-founder of Pink Floyd, is given just enough biographical detail to emerge as a genuine human being and artist, as opposed to the impossible mythological demigod history has made of him.

While encompassing decades of the ascent of rock 'n roll as a true art form,  and name-checking nearly every major musician of the era, the book is still an expose on Roger Waters, the quiet musician and writer who rose through the ranks of Pink Floyd to become its unlikely leader and spokesperson following the exile of Syd Barrett. It traces his subsequent divorce from his band mates, (and his wives) and his confident attempt to be recognized as a solo artist, while the mammoth dinosaur Pink Floyd lay in broken bones around him.

The book is a treasure trove for a Floydian, the musical equivalent of a Trekkie.  While Thompson writes at an arm's length away from his subject, with no one-on-one interviews or correspondence with Waters, his insight into the music of Floyd, and his exhaustive research of the era including interviews with those closest to Waters, makes for a thoroughly engaging and often amusing read. When the famous Pink Floyd prop, a giant inflatable pig for the promotion of the Animals album, escaped from its mooring and floated off into the sky, Thomspson assumes the point of view of an pub patron stepping out the door, looking up to the sky, and seeing a giant pig floating by.

Pink Floyd's opus The Wall, a monumental album that crowned Pink Floyd's tremendous body of work late in their career, and forced The Grammy Awards people to nominate a progressive and unlikely rock music for Album of The Year,  is the theme the book revolves around. It covers the album's transfiguration into a movie version (a colossal dud I thought), it's impact on popular culture (The Berlin Wall came tumbling down), and Waters' seemingly endless live touring of The Wall which has been making the rounds of the globe for the last three years.

But it's the more detailed and intricate nuggets of Pink Floyd history that makes this book one of the finest rock 'n roll bios I have ever read. While Waters is no more "in the flesh" than he ever was after reading this, I have a deeper appreciation for his life and work. Specifically, the Wall-related loss of his father in WWII, before he was born, and the influence it had on his art. And I won't soon forget Thompson's description of a drugged-up, wild-eyed Syd Barrett playing his last gig with Pink Floyd at dawn in an English park.

And now I have an insatiable urge to listen to The Dark Side of The Moon for the millionth time.

this article was first published by the author at:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Movie Review - 'Blackfish'

The orca that killed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010 before a packed horrified audience was an aggressive individual that had killed twice before and would likely kill again. So says the documentary Blackfish, a movie that examines the danger involved with domesticating orcas for circus-like entertainment at places like SeaWorld.

We all remember the tragic incident in Orlando. Initial reports stated trainer Brancheau was pulled by the whale or fell into the water when the aquatic matinee star, the killer whale Tilikum, dragged her under effectively drowning her. SeaWorld claimed Brancheau's pony-tail style hair was to blame, having gotten caught in the whale's teeth, an explanation echoed by local law enforcement. The whale was simply playing and unintentionally drowned her.

Blackfish disputes that explanation and rightfully so. SeaWorld's passive denunciation of the tragedy, modified several times since, is in bold denial of the facts. Brancheau's autopsy revealed she was attacked, thrashed about, and scalped. Her left arm was torn off. Witnesses say it was eaten by the whale. She suffered a lacerated liver and broken ribs. If not for the outcry of the unfortunate viewing public who witnessed the matinee show at SeaWorld, we may still be believing a whale of a tale.

Tilikum had killed twice before. In 1991 trainer Keltie Byrne was killed at Sealand of The Pacific in British Columbia when she entered the whale pool, and was tossed from mouth to mouth by Tilikum and two other trained whales. The official cause of death was drowning. Witnesses described a horrible death. The negative publicity from the tragedy forced Sealand, which was more a roadside attraction than an amusement park, to close. They sold Tilikum to SeaWorld who intended to use him as a breeding male.

In 1999 27 year-old David P. Dukes sneaked into Tilikum's pool and was found naked and dead the next morning draped to the whale's back. He had wounds and bite marks on his body and his genitals were bitten or pulled off.  Details of this incident are unclear with accusations that SeaWorld must have video surveillance of this attack which they claim they do not. SeaWorld's public spin on this tragedy suggested it looked like the whale had tried to save Dukes from drowning by putting him on its back. Believe!

Tilikum still performs at SeaWorld in Orlando to this day, although he now swims alone. While the documentary attempts to depict him as an aggressive individual who is spawning countless dangerous baby killer whales - a rather alarmist sci-fi notion - one suspects it is the breed itself and not some individuals who are a threat to their trainers. Director Gabriella Cowperthwaite notes there is not a single documented case of a killer whale killing a human in the wild. These tragedies occur only in captivity.

The film conveys the absurdity of capturing and training these magnificent beasts and then joining them in the water as if they are an air blown aquatic toy to be ridden on like a horse. Grainy video from old TV news reports, and colorful vistas from SeaWorld's promotional advertising, that depicts parents playfully placing their child on the head of the orca, are coupled with the very dark edited footage of the tragic events. The most compelling footage is the near death of trainer Ken Peters, who was dragged down by his foot to the bottom of the whale tank, held underwater, brought back to the surface and dragged down again. The entire incident, well known and immortalized on YouTube, lasted nine heart pounding minutes.

The movie is an aggressive and impelling argument against the capturing and compounding of killer whales. SeaWorld is depicted as an uncaring contemptuous multi-million corporation hiding behind a veil of ecological righteousness in their claim of promoting awareness and activism of marine wildlife. As a result of the death of Dawn Brancheau, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has made it mandatory that a physical barrier must be placed between the trainers and the killer whales. SeaWorld is appealing that decision.

Blackfish, which is a native-American word for killer whale, made its premier at The Sundance Film Festival and is currently in mass distribution by Magnolia Pictures.

this article was first published by the author at

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Music Review: Sly and The Family Stone, "Higher!"

When record executives pressured Sly Stone into producing a hit single in 1968, mainstream audiences were rewarded with a new infusion of pop music - psychedelic soul. This new rock-infused genre of music, bending the beats of the old Motown sound with its reverberating guitar, druggy sound effects, and socially conscious lyrics, would become the blueprint many soul music acts would follow after Sly and The Family Stone's sudden popularity.

Sly and The Family Stone already had one critically acclaimed but low selling album under its belt -  1967's A Whole New Thing, but Epic Records, and particularly legendary company president Clive Davis, knew that composer and multi-instrumentalist Sly Stone was capable of much more.  Reluctantly Sly Stone went into the studio with his band of family and friends and did exactly what was asked. He produced a single that would appeal to the mass record-buying public.

Although the band wasn't particularly proud or happy with the recording, "Dance To The Music" rose to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a big global hit record. Strictly designed for public consumption, the record was still a delicious blast of infectious drum beats, blazing trumpets, hot guitar licks, and a bass line so low and deep, it threatened to blow the batteries out of the tiny transistor radios it played on. Horn player Cynthia Robinson's raw and demanding vocal to "Get up and dance to the music!" lent an electrifying radical edge.

There was a collective dropped jaw as Sly and The Family Stone then showed up on American TV and viewers witnessed the first multi-racial, multi-gender popular recording act. They looked as if they had just beamed in from another planet. Sly Stone, wearing psychedelic sunglasses in a shirtless vest with gold chains and a towering Afro haircut, and Rose Stone, sporting a remarkably unnatural platinum blonde wig, were just a few of the fashion and cultural statements Sly and Family revealed as they crashed into American living rooms.

With the release of Higher! a 77-track 4-CD package that chronicles the history of the band, listeners can trace the evolution of black popular music from '60s Motown (The Supremes, The Temptations) to the emergence of funk (Parliament/Funkadelic), which opened the door to a host of expressionist styles of music including Afro-punk. Sly and Family's hit records ushered James Brown's "funk" into the popular record charts.

The CDs offer 17 previously unreleased tracks, two of which - live versions of "Stand!" and "You Can Make It If You Try" - unfortunately sacrifice the original studio versions. Also missing is the deep funk meditation of "Africa Talks To You" from There's A Riot Going On, an essential track in my opinion. This major fan would have loved to see the Sly Stone-produced Little Sister records included here, but I suppose record executives would remind us you can't have everything in one package. There is still a bounty of music here including several early Sly Stone solo recordings.

The hits are wonderful to hear again -  "Hot Fun In The Summertime", "Everyday People", "Family Affair" "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" - all possess a timeless immediacy,  sounding as fresh as the day they were released. The early less commercial recordings reveals a gritty, urban sound that certainly inspired Marvin Gaye to evolve from a crooner to a visionary.

Higher! comes with a 104 page booklet with rare photos and other memorabilia. is offering an exclusive 8 LP - 1 CD version of the release.

this article was first published by me at