And everything under the sun is in tune. But the sun is eclipsed by the moon.
Surrounded by darkness, an explosion of colors pierced the air as if the northern lights were suddenly and fully ablaze from above. A mild hallucinogen might have enhanced the experience. It was no ordinary Eclipse. That natural phenomenon typically isn’t accompanied by any sounds short of ambient traffic noise or, if you’re lucky, the early evening chirping crickets confused by a sudden onset of dusk. Or perhaps the ever present chattering of locusts.
No. It was no ordinary Eclipse. This Eclipse would be repeated nightly for several weeks or even months. And it would be accompanied by virtually the same sounds each time. The wailing of voices. A steady beat of drums accentuated by an occasional cymbal crash. A rhythmic shrieking of electric guitars. The heavy thumping of a bass guitar, along with a sometimes lilting, sometimes bellowing Hammond organ.
This Eclipse emanated from a stage upon which stood four men and one woman among towering stacks of electronic boxes powered by massive watts of amplification. The colored lights from above were among the first of the laser light shows whose wondrous spectacle would only improve over time. A man made Eclipse to be sure. In many respects, no less stunning than the natural phenomenon itself. In both instances, holding a rapt audience in awe. Just as an Eclipse is supposed to do. Just as Pink Floyd intended it.
There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact it’s all dark.
With few exceptions, Sylvia and I among them, it’s all Irish eyes at Milwaukee’s Irish Fest this weekend. We accompanied my former Notre Dame classmate and Irish pal Frank to opening night . Thursday evening’s preview session stepped off with newcomers to the festival, Barrule, a trio from the Isle of Man comprised of bouzouki, fiddle and accordion. Their blend of Manx jigs, reels and songs provided a pleasant opening to this celebration of Celtic music and culture.
Another new band at the fest is Runa, in whose blend of traditional roots music and contemporary Irish folk songs we heard hints of bluegrass, jazz and blues. When They deftly wove verses of My Girl into a Gaelic song, the audience responded with even greater enthusiasm. We’ll definitely hear more from Runa as we seek out their extended performances over the weekend.
A longtime favorite, whose appearance marks their 20th anniversary on tour, is Solas. I first heard Solas on the radio some years ago. Their haunting cover of Jesse Colin Young’s Darkness, Darkness sent shivers down my spine and the rest of their preview performance last night exceeded my expectations, blending both traditional Celtic music and contemporary original compositions. I’ll be seeking out more Solas during the remaining days of the festival…
…and I’ll be keeping my eyes (and ears) peeled for more great performances like these.
It snowed in northern Wisconsin recently. A bit unusual for mid-May, but not entirely unheard of. I couldn’t help thinking those snowflakes, swirling in the chilly air, were dancing in tribute to yet another fallen artist. Isao Tomita was a Moog synthesizer virtuoso who died at the age of 84 on May 11, 2016. Forty-two years ago I was introduced to what became his most famous work.
Snowflakes Are Dancing was an album of Claude Debussy’s “tone paintings” interpreted by Tomita on the Moog. It wasn’t the first album of electronic music I’d heard. Just before graduating high school, I was flipping through the “Psychedelic” bin in the record section of a local department store one day, searching for some unconventional music. (I was already a fan of the Mothers of Invention.) A shiny, silver cover bearing the title Silver Apples grabbed my attention. It was recorded by a duo bearing that name and has since been cited as the first collection of experimental electronic music.
I plunked down a couple bucks and brought it home for a trial listen. At first I didn’t care much for the pulsating, sometimes discordant, driving beat of synthesized sounds. Nonetheless, I continued to play it occasionally just to hear something different. Until my freshman year in college. It was then the album was sold along with some others in what would be the first of several record purges over the next few years. How much I regret purging some of those albums is a story for another time.
Most of my college listening (and occasional performing) involved serious folk-rock music, much of which carried with it a message of protest. But a spark of interest in the strange and exotic sound of electronica was rekindled after college, fueled in part by movie soundtracks like A Clockwork Orange. The film featured works performed on the Moog synthesizer by Walter Carlos. (Later he became Wendy Carlos.) Carlos had already gained notoriety with his 1968 Grammy-winning album, Switched On Bach, a collection of music by Johann Sebastian Bach played on the Moog. He composed the electronic music for A Clockwork Orange three years later.
I picked up both albums and shortly after that acquisition, purloined one track from Switched On Bach to use as background music for a National Library Week promotional film I co-produced in the mid-seventies. It featured card catalog drawers opening and closing on their own, created with stop-action animation effects that appeared to be in sync with the music. The spot aired for a brief time on local cable television. I wish I knew whatever became of it.
In the meantime, on November 2, 1973, I attended my first Moog synthesizer concert, promoted as a “multimedia performance of light, film and synthesized music.” The soloist was Morton Subotnick, whose press kit highlighted his contribution of electronic effects for the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It turns out my expectations were fulfilled neither in sight nor sound. 2001: A Space Odyssey it definitely was not.
A few months after that concert, undaunted by my disappointment with Subotnick’s performance, I acquired Tomita’s Snowflakes Are Dancing album. The atmospheric interpretations of Debussy’s works blew me away. I loaned it to an amateur filmmaker friend who used it as the soundtrack to a short work he entered in an international film festival. He had cast me in the lead role, so it was the least I could do in return. After that, I played the LP until it wore out. For years I’d be reminded of Tomita upon hearing a Moog synth in prog rock music. Lucky Man, by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, for example.
Only recently did Snowflakes Are Dancing rejoin my playlist after noticing the recording among a listing of digital titles available online. Who would have thought the electronic music produced forty-two years ago is now downloaded electronically and paid for electronically as well? Far out!
Perhaps those late snowflakes in northern Wisconsin were dancing for Isao Tomita, who forever left his footprints in the snow and his fingerprints on the Moog.
I’m not what you’d call an avid country music fan. Nor would I consider myself to be an opera expert. The thing is, I like some country music. I mean real country music — George Jones, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson — not the pop music stuff that’s widely heard now. (I don’t believe Taylor Swift is a country singer.) I also enjoy some opera. I prefer what’s called “bel canto,” Italian for “beautiful singing.”
My uncle was the first person I knew with a high-quality component stereo system comprised of an Acoustic Research (AR) turntable, a pair of AR speakers and a Sherwood receiver. (I think it was a Sherwood.) He was, and still is, a classical music aficionado. Other than the occasional Maria Callas or Beverly Sills appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, my exposure to opera and classical music in general had been limited at best. My uncle Gaspare introduced me to the soaring dynamics of symphonic music and opera on that audio system.
But I was a mere teenager and my main musical interest gravitated to rock ‘n’ roll, thanks in part to a birthday present of a transistor radio that pulled in WLS in a scratchy-sounding way. Sometimes I’d hear a country and western song that sounded pretty good, but I’d never admit it to my friends. Likewise, I’d hear some version of Sabre Dance or Flight of the Bumble Bee and find out later it was really a classical music piece often used as background music by an acrobat or a juggler on TV.
One Merle Haggard song I recall hearing was performed by the Grateful Dead. It wasn’t until I read the song credits on their live “Skull and Roses” album that I learned Mama Tried was Merle’s song. That was when I first recognized “crossover” music — songs originating in one genre and becoming popular in another. Years before, I’d heard Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire on top-forty radio without making that crossover connection. With Merle Haggard’s recent death, I was reminded of his songs I liked, including Today I Started Loving You Again, Mama’s Hungry Eyes and Mama Tried.
What does this have to do with Mozart? The honest answer is — not much. Except, all songs tell a story. Stories of love, work and play, and of trials, gains and losses. Opera is no different. This past week, we attended a performance of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. It was sung in German, but there were projected English supertitles. A far cry from the simple poetry and three-chord progression of country and western music, the more complex orchestral score and voices ranging from a sonorous baritone to a lilting soprano portrayed the same sentimental stories of searching for love and other tribulations, just in a more flamboyant way.
How fantastic would it be to slip the song Today I Started Loving You Again into the plot of an opera like The Magic Flute? Or perhaps envision old Merle belting out Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen (A Girl or a Woman) during a set on the Ryman Auditorium stage? Yeah, I guess either scenario would be pretty much out of the question. But from a purely show biz perspective, a country singer with a black cowboy hat slung low toward his tinted glasses holding a guitar isn’t that far removed from an opera singer in a feathered headdress and mask holding a magic flute, is it?
A founding member of Jefferson Airplane made his final departure today. I was a high school junior when Somebody to Love and White Rabbit hit the airwaves. My band, the No Left Turns, never learned either song, probably because we harbored some deep-seated machismo over whether a guy could/should sing a tune sung by a girl. This, in spite of the fact we once tried learning Stop! In the Name of Love by the Supremes. We gave up on that one and likely swore off any further attempt to learn “girl group” songs. That was mistake number one. In the meantime, our rivals, the Jaywalkers, did a fine job on White Rabbit which made me quite envious. Their drummer sang it, a guy whose voice could reach notes several steps higher than mine.
Jefferson Airplane’s songs stuck with me through college. Some of their music, particularly their Volunteers album, was an inspiration to those of us who openly opposed the Vietnam War and the wholesale conscription of friends my age to fight it. Guess I was just one of those “effete college snobs” referred to by Spiro Agnew.
I had two chances to hear Jefferson Airplane perform in concert. The first was practically in my backyard at Beloit College in July 1967. My excuse for missing it? I have none that I can recall. It was a Sunday night show. What could I possibly have been doing otherwise on a Sunday night in Beloit? That was mistake number two.
The next time I had an opportunity to hear the Airplane live was sometime in the fog of my senior year in college when I thought better of joining a carload of friends planning a roadtrip to another state to see them. I use the term “planning” quite loosely here. I’d already experienced one of those loosely planned roadtrips to a rock festival in Wisconsin prior to that. So I had firsthand knowledge coupled with some practical experience concerning such roadtrips. I declined this invitation. Mistake number three? Perhaps.
It ends up that I never saw one of my favorite bands in concert. Just a couple of years ago I discovered my Jefferson Airplane vinyl albums were no longer playable. I replaced them with iTunes downloads and still listen to them to this day. In fact, I’m listening to Crown of Creation right now. Bon voyage, Paul Kantner. I hope you reached your final destination peacefully.
Every Thanksgiving we gather together, family and friends, to enjoy each other’s company, give thanks and share a traditional meal of roasted turkey with all the trimmings, maybe a green bean casserole, pumpkin pie and the Grateful Dead. Er, what?
Home from college for the 1970 Thanksgiving break, a friend (and former band mate) and I were discussing the benefits of various aids to digesting the previous day’s meal. Pondering our options, we concluded that drinking beer would be good, but a Grateful Dead concert would be a more entertaining alternative. More adventurous too, as the Dead were scheduled that night in the old Chicago Coliseum, renamed the Syndrome and now home to weekly rock concerts.
We took off in Mike’s VW Beetle, heading from Beloit to Chicago on the Northwest Tollway, then wound our way around some dark city streets to the decrepit, aging venue where our senses would soon be flooded by a barrage of music and lights. Upon locating some questionable street parking, we locked the VW and meandered to the box office, paid our admission and filed into the building, grabbing seats on the dirt floor with the other Deadheads. A few devoted fans, or perhaps they were members of the band’s road crew, stepped lightly through rows of crossed legs and tie-dyed shirts, distributing “party favors” among the enthusiastic audience.
At concert time, the house lights dimmed and an opening band, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, kicked it off with a country-folk sound that included pedal steel guitar, masterfully played by Jerry Garcia of the Dead. It was a mellow, easy-going noise that morphed into electric music with more Grateful Dead band members joining in. Their finale, and highlight of the NRPS set, was a country-laced cover of Honky Tonk Woman that had everyone up and dancing.
The metamorphosis completed itself with remaining Dead members plodding out to the stage, taking up their instruments and blasting out the opening chords to Casey Jones. For the next few hours, we were blown away with music ranging from deep rhythm and blues to soaring psychedelia. When the final strains of Turn On Your Lovelight reverberated through the hall, a thousand or more fans were on their feet, dancing and spinning to the music and lights. It was a psychedelic experience to be sure.
When the concert ended, I volunteered to drive home. That return journey would have been routine save for the VW’s brake pedal unexpectedly failing as the car hurtled toward a toll booth. Mike, sleeping soundly in the back seat, was of little help. Coasting through an open toll gate, it dawned on me to pull up on the hand brake. The Beetle came to rest about a hundred feet beyond the toll plaza. Reaching into my pocket, I counted out thirty-five cents in change, stumbled out of the car and trotted back to the booth. I handed the change to a puzzled toll collector, mumbled an apology for the brake failure and scooted back to the car. Hand brake and I became close friends the rest of the way home.
Every Friday after Thanksgiving, I commemorate that Grateful Dead concert by queuing up the album Live Dead, relaxing in my recliner with a set of headphones over my ears, and taking solace in the knowledge, grateful you might say, that I won’t be braking for toll booths after the record ends.
It’s been nearly fifty years since I heard the Byrds in concert. Their 1966 national tour included a performance in my hometown at the beautifully appointed and acoustically stunning Eaton Chapel of Beloit College. Not that I knew much about appointments or acoustics in 1966, but I do remember the Byrds sounded fantastic from where I sat just behind the balcony rail in that holy space.
A group of “folk singers” known as the Dillards opened the show. You might recognize them from television as the fictional “Darling” family of hillbilly bluegrass musicians appearing on the Andy Griffith Show a couple of years earlier. I sure didn’t. My first thought was to write them off as just another tired version of the New Christy Minstrels. Or, as my high school buddies joked, the “New Crusty Nostrils.”
A deftly-played, amplified banjo can be a wonderful sound. The Dillards embellished that with a mandolin, various guitars, a stand-up bass and full drum kit. To my surprise they created a pleasant noise that was unfamiliar to teen-age ears fed a regular diet of top-forty radio. When they covered the Beatles’ I’ve Just Seen a Face, I was won over and filed their performance away in the “remember this band” area of my brain.
Six years later while visiting friends in northern Wisconsin, our host placed a record album on the turntable. “You’ve gotta hear this,” Jimmy said as the stylus dropped into the leading groove. Amplified banjo picking, guitar strumming, mandolin, bass and drums. “This sounds familiar,” I mused while others settled into conversation, lit up joints or went to the refrigerator to grab beers. By the first chorus, “Redbone hound, come and get your belly up…,” I shouted to Jimmy, “Who is this?” He tossed me the album cover and my suspicions were confirmed. The Dillards were pictured on their new release, Roots and Branches. By the end of the week I’d bought my own copy at a local record shop.
When you loan an album to a friend, you begin to understand the adage, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” By 1985 my Roots and Branches record had vanished into the lend-o-sphere. For years I tried remembering to whom I’d lent it. I would have borrowed Jimmy’s copy, but we’d lost contact. So, I began looking for another one to buy. No luck. Only recently I learned there were no versions of Roots and Branches available in any format thanks to a dispute involving the short-lived company on whose label it had been released.
This past weekend, Sylvia and I visited our longtime friends Lynn and Bill in Rockford. On the way there we stopped at the Rockford Public Library East Branch. Inside that former Barnes & Noble bookstore building is housed not only a very busy library, but a unique enterprise, Kate’s Pie Shop Cafe & Records. Kate’s motto is “Cool Vinyl. Warm Pie.” The record store sells used, vinyl LPs and is managed by Stu. The collection is extensive and covers virtually all genres. The cafe, managed by Kate, offers fresh, homemade pies and coffee. It’s a fine combination, delicious to both the palate and the ear!
While perusing LPs, Sylvia asked if I was looking for anything specific. “Yes,” I muttered, already flipping through a section of Classic Rock. “If you see Roots and Branches by the Dillards, let me know.” Within seconds of those words passing my lips, I had shifted over to the Folk/Country bin. Two albums in, and there it was staring back at me! Thirty years of searching dusty old record stores had finally paid off. Not fully recognizing the magnitude of my discovery, Sylvia wandered to the pie counter and selected some tasty slices for our hosts. I hastily pulled five bucks out of my wallet and stepped to the cash register, fearing someone would wrest the album from my sweaty palms before I could pay for it.
That rare Dillards’ Roots and Branches album is now mine again, along with a medium slice of pecan-bourbon pie. Don’t count on me to give up either of them!
I’m not Irish. My friend Frank, on the other hand, is very much Irish. So when he came to visit all the way from Maine and to attend Milwaukee’s 35th annual Irish Fest last weekend, I agreed to accompany him. He offered to pick up the tab for both of us to hear four days of Celtic music and to drink beer. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse! I had never gone out of my way much to hear Celtic music, but it turned out to be an immensely entertaining experience and an educational one as well. I heard three songs in particular that connected with my past musically.
It would be a challenge to count how many times the song Whiskey in the Jar was performed at Irish Fest. Hearing it covered in various ways by different bands wasn’t unusual as it’s one of the most widely performed traditional Irish tunes. In general, the song is about a highwayman who is betrayed by his lover. (As Frank explained to me, eighty percent of traditional Irish songs end badly for one or more individuals involved.) While the precise origin of Whiskey in the Jar is unknown, sources suggest the song can be traced back to the 17th century. It’s been recorded by numerous artists since the 1950s. In addition to traditional versions by Irish folk groups like the Dubliners, for whom it became a signature song, and a beautiful acoustic rendition by the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, more amplified covers of Whiskey in the Jar have been successful hits for rock bands Thin Lizzy and Metallica. My favorite version at Irish Fest was performed by an innovative Celtic pop band, the Screaming Orphans, pictured here with Frank and me after their show.
More than forty years ago I picked up a Quicksilver Messenger Service album entitled Shady Grove. Quicksilver was a psychedelic rock band from San Francisco. Shady Grove was their second studio album and opened with a rocking version of the title song. At that time, I didn’t realize Shady Grove was an 18th-century American folk song with more than 300 variations in its lyrics. At Irish Fest I learned it’s a standard in the repertoires of folk, Celtic and bluegrass musicians all over the world. When a three-piece acoustic band, Socks in the Frying Pan, played that unmistakable melody in Milwaukee, I thought of the Quicksilver album from years ago.
In 1969 I would listen to a song called Dirty Old Town from Rod Stewart’s first solo record, released just after his stint as vocalist “extraordinaire” for blues-rock guitar icon, Jeff Beck. While I’ve always enjoyed the song even to this day, I didn’t know much about it. When I heard the Kilkennys perform it last week at Irish Fest, I wanted to know more. Dirty Old Town is a British song written by Ewan MacColl in 1949. It was popularized in the 60s by the Dubliners and has been recorded by artists of many other genres since, including Stewart in 1969 and Betty LaVette in 2012, another recording I have. Even a Celtic punk band, the Pogues, covered it in 1985. At Irish Fest, the Kilkennys, pictured here, nailed it in its native genre better than any other version I’ve heard.
I’ve been to Milwaukee’s Festa Italiana. That’s my heritage. While the Italian festivals are happy, colorful celebrations, filled with music, dancing and food, I confess to having had more fun at my first Irish Fest. Sláinte, mama mia! Grazie, Frank!
A few days ago I saw the new Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy. As I mentioned to my wife Sylvia after the film, and at the risk of sounding a bit too sentimental, I was misty-eyed during much of the movie. Maybe it’s an emotional attachment to the music of the Beach Boys in general, and Brian Wilson in particular. The attachment extends more specifically to the album Pet Sounds, the production of which was an integral part of the film story. Maybe I’m simply a fan.
When Pet Sounds was released in May 1966 I was finishing my sophomore year in high school, had just put together a garage band, and had landed my first full-time summer job as a private groundskeeper for a well-to-do retired businessman in my hometown. I’d always enjoyed the Beach Boys and their songs about summer, surfing, cars and girls. My cousin Mike and I even went to Chicago, driven there by my uncle, to hear the Beach Boys in concert at McCormick Place the previous year. Brian Wilson had stopped touring with the band by then which was a disappointment. However, his place on bass guitar and harmonies was capably filled by Glen Campbell.
Pet Sounds was a different Beach Boys record. It was more introspective and personal music. The songs on that record spoke to me in a way that’s difficult to describe. All day long during that summer I mowed acres of grass, reseeded several patches of lawn, and labored at other outdoor chores. All the while, each song from Pet Sounds played repeatedly in my head. I heard every nuance of every note played and every lyric sung. It helped pass the time while working and would be the equivalent today of wearing earbuds connected to an iPod. But it was all in my head. There was no external device.
As much as I liked that album, most of my friends did not. And I knew this was not music my garage band could play. So at each day’s end that summer, I’d go home and clean up for dinner, maybe have a few bandmates over to practice, and then go to my room to play some records or listen to WLS Radio, the “Big 89.” But the next working day it would usually be Pet Sounds in my head.
Summer ended, school reconvened, I bought a new bass guitar with the money I earned and continued to play gigs with my band. The Beatles released Revolver, the Beach Boys released Good Vibrations and life went on.
I heard the Beach Boys again in 1971 at Notre Dame, again sans Brian Wilson. Sylvia, Colin and I caught them one more time in LaCrosse around 1989, this time with neither Brian nor his brother Dennis Wilson who had died tragically a few year earlier.
At last in 2002, Sylvia and I were fortunate to be at the foot of the stage to hear Brian Wilson and his band at the House of Blues in Chicago. During intermission between sets, a stagehand picked up set lists off the floor and placed new ones. I could read one from where I stood. They would be playing Pet Sounds in its entirety. When the concert was over, they left the stage to thundering applause. Returning for their encores, I caught Brian Wilson’s eye as he walked to his electric piano. I can’t explain why, but he veered toward me and extended his hand to shake mine, which I gladly did. I expected him to shake a few more hands along the way, but he didn’t. Mine was the only one. Maybe he knew… I’m simply a fan.