Fishbone: Teach a Band to Fish…

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From punk to funk, ska to hard rock, Fishbone is a band defined by its diversity. While their genre-jumping would go on to influence countless bands– many of whom would go on to superstardom– it became a self-induced curse for them as pioneers. The lack of a centralized sound eventually grew unappealing to record companies. And that’s when things started to go wrong.

Shown explicitly in the 2011 documentary, Everyday Sunshine, the Laurence Fishburne narrated film comes complete with tip-of-the-hat respect from big names, but in the end, the movie is about struggle and perseverance. Following the band through its mile highs and tragic woes, the struggle to “break through” is only compounded by power struggles and the constant departure of band members.

Members came and went—and some even come back again—but only founding members Angelo Moore and John “Norwood” Fisher stayed with the band through the entire journey.

Pursuing a multitude of sounds with satire, a social consciousness and a reputation for being one of the best live acts of all time, Fishbone weren’t the most marketable of bands, but they remain one of the most respected, and they continue to play to this day.

I was lucky to catch up with “Norwood” over the phone from his Long Beach home as he prepared for his upcoming US tour. The following interview is unedited, and the photos and video clips are exclusive and taken from their March 3, 2013 show at the Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts just a few weeks after our chat. Enjoy!

Hello, is Norwood there?

Yeah, that’s me.

Hey this is Nolan. How are you doing?

I’m doing great.

So when does the tour get under way?

Ultimately on Friday.

Did you have to cancel part of the European tour?

Yeah. That was last year. We had to cancel last year’s tour because of Angelo’s unfortunate staff infection situation.

So, I watched the documentary “Everyday Sunshine” last week and I though it was very well done. I was curious what your thoughts were on the final product?

Ultimately, I think it is honest. That was my initial reaction. It’s honest and accurate to the stories as they were told. It didn’t seem to me like added anything. They got things as they happened and went with them. It’s something I can stand by.

There were some big name fans and friends interviewed to help tell the story. Were those all people that you guys knew well and considered friends and longtime supporters?

That was the intention. There were a lot more interviews with a lot more people, but the ones that they actually chose, most of them, were people that we actually had relationships with and were pivotal at some point in our career. At some point these people were actually considered friends… almost all of them.

You guys went through a lot of ups and downs, but did Fishbone ever officially split up?

No, the band has always been continuing on. The band never stopped. For better or worse, we figured out a way to keep it rolling. Many times it was bad, but more times than not, it was pretty cool.

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Do you have any person specific highlights from over the years that you hold dear to you?

There are a LOT. There is a long, long list of those, but really some of the things like our first club date. Our first club date where we got paid $25. That was an unexpected moment for me. I got called into the office and somebody was giving me money for what we had just did. That wasn’t the part I was thinking about that day. And I was like “Whoa”. You couldn’t do much with that $25, but it was like ‘damn, we got paid for that’. And actually, that place was Madame Wong’s Chinatown, a place that nurtured punk rock. It was like CBGB’s West. That was what it meant for LA punk rock. So, yeah, there’s times like that, and then there are times rolling with different bands. I like to think about the time in the early 90’s when Fishbone and Primus were touring. We were in a stripclub in Atlanta with Les Claypool, right, [laughs] and we went to this black club and all these black dancers were ALL over Les Claypool, right [laughs]… I mean that happened and it was an amazing moment. Girls come in high heels and stripper garb for the time and they take off their shoes and actually sweat. It was amazing. Black strippers LOVED Les Claypool.

Do you see any cohesive scene in punk rock anymore– specifically LA punk rock. Is LA even a place where underground punk rock, or music with a message is possible anymore? Or is there less of a time and place for that now.

I’ll tell you what man—we, as a nation, as a culture– by in large, I think that those days have passed. What the new emerging paradigm is, I don’t know. You know, punk rock was the last thing that was really scary and bands with a political statement… it’s been so long… because I think the generation that went to go fight in Afghanistan and Iraq missed those opportunities to make those political statements. Those statements were made by people that were too old to have the same stake. People who are 16, 17, 18, 20 years old were not the ones writing the protest songs. When Green Day started doing their political thing, they were out of that age ring. And I appreciate everything they had to say, but there were bands I was looking for it from. They were the ones who, if they didn’t go to the front lines, their friends were—their high school buddies, their uncles, their aunts, their brothers, sister, parents, whoever– were the ones doing it. And they didn’t by and large speak of their concerns. It may have been the climate around 9/11 where you’re either with us or against us. That kinda drew a line in the sand, you know. When I think about it, the very first people that I saw stand up and say– whether you believe it or not– but they did suppose the question that they think it was an inside job, was the Black Eyed Peas. I was like, ‘Whoa’. A lot of people we thinking it, but no one was saying it. That’s where it came from. Not the 18 year olds who could have been in that war—they were out of that age ring. So, anyway… I think that that time will come again, but right now there is something happening politically that is pretty amazing. The Right is out of step with the majority of the population. And there’s a lot of conversation about that Right and about the GOP knowing where the fit. I’m one of those people who feel that you DO need both sides. You need that and you need MORE. You need a lot of ideas and I don’t need to agree with everyFUCKINGbody. But again, we live in a time where it would be pretty cool if there were a lot of young people expressing themselves. Like, I don’t with everything Obama says and does, but I like the guy. I like him like I like Bill Clinton. I liked Bill Clinton. It’s the same kind of “like”. I’m not looking to follow anybody or for anyone to express my feelings. But I think it’s great to have a guy who connects and you can tell your kid, ‘hey you can be like that, dude’. Because he’s intelligent. Bill Clinton was like that and Obama’s got the same kind of thing—it’s different, but I like that part of it. I think it would be nice to have some 18-year-olds who can say, ‘hey, my interests are possibly being overlooked,” in a song.

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So there’s a part in the movie where your former manager, Roger Perry suggests, “Had Fishbone been less of a democracy, they might have been a more successful band. But had they been less of a democracy, they wouldn’t have been Fishbone.” Do you agree with that statement?

Yeah, I absolutely believe that statement. There is a point where not everybody in a democracy is speaking about the best interests as a whole. You have some people who are making decisions based on personal feelings. I guess yeah, in a way, we turned into a band that that whoever was screaming the loudest… well, you know… the squeaky wheel was getting the oil. And as I saw it happening, I saw what it was, but I didn’t know how to stop it. I didn’t have the tools to distinguish it exactly for what it is and reason with everybody and say ‘Hey!” We reached that point and that was when… you know. And sometimes in hindsight it all wasn’t bad, you know. Sometimes it was really bad.

Can you talk about the initial struggle of people leaving the band and the strain it put on the band. And did that ever make you question if you wanted to leave, or for the band to breakup?

Yep! Absolutely, because my respect for the original members was so strong that I didn’t actually honestly think there could be a Fishbone without those original six guys. And the fact that we continued on without them was me breaking a promise to myself. I made a promise to myself that if any of those original six guys ever left, I would break the band up. Well, I broke that promise. And right now, I’m glad I did. I’m glad I broke that promise because it brings us… I got to see that it’s not the same and every change and every band member who left and every band member who replaced them made it different. But, hundreds of thousands of happy faces in the audiences later blessed it.

Do you keep up with the former members, or at least some of them?

Yeah. Absolutely. If they were all available I would talk to them all.

Did you and Kendall ever reconcile the whole lawsuit situation officially after you rescued him from a religious cult?

Well it wasn’t a lawsuit, right. It was a trial—a criminal trial where me, his fiancée, his brother and one more person were all facing 9 to 11 years of a prison sentence [for kidnapping]. Personally, me… the fact that I didn’t spend a day in prison for it. We got a full acquittal for it. Was that really Kendall? No, that wasn’t the guy that I know who did that. It just drove his, brainwashing, or whatever. I don’t really know what it was. But it allows me to forgive. However I was feeling, I knew that wasn’t the same guy. It allows me to know that whenever I see that guy, the person who I grew up with, I can get right with that person.

What would you say Fishbone’s legacy is and will be, and to what do you owe the band’s longevity?

The longevity is really that we were in a very unusual position of having artistic license and full creative expression. That is our legacy. We are the band that opened the door for more people to do that on a larger scale. And as actual people, in the landscape of rock n roll, we made it a little more colorful—in a physical and ethnic way as well as the musical tapestry, so that people could wear their influences on their sleeves freely.

In the movie it seems that everyone is interviewed separately and by themselves, and some people seem like they have so much animosity that they can’t even be in the same room as the others. Is that just the interviewing style or is their some truth to it?

Nah, it’s a stylistic thing. You might be forgetting at this point that they captured a couple of connections that were made during the making of that movie. Me, Kendall and Chris were actually in the same room—and that’s something that hadn’t happened in 15 years. And it was an awesome moment; it wasn’t a setup. Me and Kendall actually connect for the first time. You know what I mean? I’ll tell you what, everybody else was cool. That was the only thing that couldn’t happen. But it happened and you get to see it happen. You see Kendall and Chris see each other. I had seen Kendall and Chris each separately. But I think when Kendall and Chris saw each other it was the first time they’d seen each other since 1992. [Laughs]

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At the end of the movie it shows you and Angelo expressing your issues with one another, but trying to find ways to meet half way and fix your dynamic. How is that going? And are you guys planning on making more music?

You know what? It’s ROUGH. It ain’t easy right. We recorded five songs which we agreed upon to release an EP and then beginning to work on a full-length record. And right now, I’m ready to release those songs and Angelo’s saying he doesn’t want to release them. So I have to sit down with him and ask him why. He agreed to do these things and at one point… more than one point… he said he really liked these songs. So, he’s having a power struggle within his own head, you know. I’m not struggling with him, so it’s like if you don’t want to release the songs then they don’t get released. I’m not going to whine and cry about it. It’s unfortunate, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll see what happens. Other than that it’s been a slow process getting the songs together for the next full-length. I knew that that would be the case, so that’s why I wanted to put together the EP and put something out before working on the full-length. I wanted to take a little time, because as a producer I want it to be EPIC. I want it to speak our future into existence. Right now there is something with Angelo and I in our relationship that is making it difficult. I don’t know what’s going on in Angelo’s head right now. I just want to sit down me and him and talk about and figure out where he’s at. It ain’t easy.

 

I’m assuming playing live is more what defines Fishbone than the recordings.

Yeah, like really. I actually like all of it. I like recording, I like…LOVE… live. In the past few years, actually, I’ve been producing records more than any other time in my life. I love being in the studio. I’m going to the studio as soon as I put down this phone! I’m doing this project with members of Mars Volta, P-Funk and Eric Burdon of the Animals. We’re doing a project together and I’m headed to the studio to lay down a bass line and record some rough mixes. I love it all. The thing is, with Fishbone, there’s nothing like impacting the audience and looking people in the eye and seeing the joy and seeing the dancefloor do what you imagine it could be. There’s a moshpit, people skankin’, girls winding it up… it’s all lovely.

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The Dirty Three: Some of the Greatest Stories Are Told Without Words

In their 20 years as a band, the Dirty Three have grown from a Melbourne trio to three separate respected entities spread across the globe, pursuing various other projects. Guitarist Mick Turner still lives in Melbourne, painting, performing solo and running the record label, Anchor and Hope. Jim White is in New York and is one of indie-rock’s go-to drummers for hire, touring with Cat Power and Bill Callahan. But it’s Warren Ellis that seems to be the busiest. As Nick Cave’s right hand man, Ellis is the violinist for the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, and also collaborates with Cave on soundtracks. On the recent and critically acclaimed, Lawless, the two not only provide the score to the movie, but also record under the moniker, the Bootleggers, backing up guest vocalists Mark Lanegan, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley and Willie Nelson.

Scheduling and distance can take a toll, but when the stars align and time allots, they form one of the most important, intense, instrumental acts of all time. Combining cinematic rock music with the sensibilities and spontaneity of jazz, the Dirty Three are known for their tumultuous ebbs and sprawling flows. With Mick Turner’s signature pluck-and-drone guitar stylings, Jim White’s tender percussive brush strokes and Ellis’ possessed and passionate attempts to tame his wild violin, the Dirty Three venture through stormy crescendos and devastating comedowns as if they were weathering a storm in some seafaring tempest. While their records and live shows have become less frequent, any opportunity to witness the Dirty Three’s live experience should not be missed. Check out the following exclusive video to find out why. Notice the leg kicks, the laying down, the sway, the plucks and his comical interludes which grace the introduction to each song.

The following interview with Warren Ellis was done over the phone from his home in Paris and the exclusive photos and videos were taken a week later at the Ukrainian Federation in Montreal, Canada in a rare and recent eastern North American Tour last month.

So, you haven’t toured with the Dirty Three for about three years or so at this point?

I think the last time we played was in New York. I think it was 2009 or something like that.

Since you have all of these other projects like the Bad Seeds, Grinderman and soundtrack work, have your priorities with the Dirty Three changed over the years?

Well, I never really had a plan at the start. My plan was just that I liked making music, and when we formed Dirty Three, I realized I met three people that would be good to create a language with. Then other things came along. For me it’s always been about creating a language and continuing my involvement in music. I didn’t really have a plan as such. I don’t approach things in a different way. I don’t have priorities and nothing ranks above anything else. Historically, the Dirty Three will always be the most significant thing because I’ve been at it the longest. I started it and didn’t come in half way through the story, so to speak. There’s something quite different about that, but that aside, I see everything I do in music as something of an ongoing involvement in the story. If I think otherwise, you start not working to your full potential and you start undermining the work that you do. If I’m doing something, I go into it with the same energy. I know in order to stay in it, I need to continue to be challenged, and I know things need to change for me. Certainly making a new Dirty Three record is as big of a challenge as to make soundtrack for a film in it’s own way. Each thing presents a new home for me. But it’s hard to juggle everything at the same time.

The Dirty Three are based out of three continents at this point as well, right?

Yep. I mean every band I work with is in three different continents. I don’t actually live near anybody I play with. The closest person I live near is Nick [Cave], and he lives a couple of hundred of miles away. He’s a train ride or a boat away. I don’t know if that’s indicative of my character or what it is. I don’t actually live in the same city as anyone I play with. It just means that when I get together with them, we have to go for it. There’s a foot in every country. The internet has changed things like that completely. I can work for a theater company in Iceland and send them material. With the Lawless movie, I overdubbed a Willie Nelson track in my back shed and sent it off. You couldn’t have done that that easily ten years ago.

So the Dirty Three have always remained a band and it’s just assumed it would get back together every few years to record and tour?

It’s always been ongoing. At any given time, one of us is doing something else. Jim is doing other things and Mick does other things and paints and things like that. I think we realized in the 1990’s that if we spent any extended periods of time, like most groups, you’d just land up killing each other. We realized after the first five years of touring non-stop that we had to have a break from it. Any longevity is directly attributed to the fact that we have so many other things going on. Like anything we do, we take this time and when it happens it generally seems to be a good thing that we had space in between. The good thing about the Dirty Three is that we all go away and do other things and we all come back and bring new things from those experiences and that informs what you’re going to do next. It feels like a very great place to be in.

The newest record starts out much more abrasively than other Dirty Three records. Is there a reason behind that?

Well, to be honest, we had problems trying to make this record. Every time we tried, it was so familiar to our previous work that it was depressing. I think early on we realized the reality of our limitations of being a three-piece group and instrumental. You learn very quickly about what you can and what you can’t do. You realize that when you know you’re doing something familiar that’s what you shouldn’t be doing. Rather than augment the group over the years, we’ve added overdubs and keep the basic spirit of it as a three-piece and see how far we can go with it– instead of becoming a 7-piece band– because that’s the only way you can change the sound and ideas. And that’s always been a challenge. And it was especially a challenge with this last one because I was so busy with Grinderman and the Bad Seeds and the film stuff. That was taking up more of my time, and Jim was out with Cat Power a lot. It just meant that everytime we did find a space to get together we weren’t necessarily working out and we were playing stuff that was familiar. When we would play live, though, it still felt like we had something to say and there was something urgent. When we looked and listened to the live show, we realized we should approach recording that way and get to the studio and get into the writing process. We tried to structure it more and more with the most recent records. The first couple of tracks with the new record for this session felt like we had gotten back into it. They are there as a statement of intent and they got us excited again. It’s been a struggle to make this record. Not like a struggle to cure cancer, but you know what I mean. I wondered if we had said as much as we had to say, but we made something that we feel real good about.

Does everyone bring something to the table in the Dirty Three, or are you the main ideas man?

People will bring in different ideas, but the Dirty Three has always been about the sum of the kind of characters. It’s really driven by the three of us and that’s what determines what happens. Even if someone comes in with a specific idea, it changes pretty quickly when the three of us start playing together. It’s taken over by the group if you will. Nothing is done individually. We are very much a group in the purest sense. It’s like the way Neil Young sounds with Crazy Horse, and the way Crazy Horse brings something else to the music. I’m not saying we’re anything like Crazy Horse. I mean that we are really a group and they are a group and they do what they do. Like some of the great jazz combinations, the Dirty Three is a sum of its parts and if you take away anyone from it, the group is going to change dramatically. We’ve always known with the Dirty Three that if someone wants to pull the plug on it, then it’s the end of the group. I wouldn’t see the point in continuing on if any of us left.

Does improvisation figure into recording and/or live shows?

Yeah, it does. Recording and live. If you know our songs, you’ll be able to recognize it. There’s always room for us to take certain liberties– whether it’s with dynamics or with speed or melodically. That was always the idea with Dirty 3—that we didn’t get stuck in that routine of playing. The thrilling thing about Dirty 3 in the beginning was that there was always supposed to be a certain liberty taken on everyone’s part. It’s very much about listening to what everyone else is doing. We don’t have the chops of a jazz band for instance, but we also aren’t stuck in the same ways that the traditional rock band might be. It’s certainly not fusion, but we wanted to have the sensibilities of the way jazz people play so it’s engaging to us. Otherwise we’d get bored.

You’re very vocal onstage in between songs, but your songs are instrumental. Have you ever had to restrain yourself from trying to sing or write lyrics?

No, I don’t really have anything to say. I don’t feel an urge to express myself lyrically, nor do I know how to write lyrics. This way I’m not misunderstood. The group is not misunderstood. You take it how you want to. I’ve always liked poetry when I was a younger guy and I used to like writing it back then. I’ve always been a person who follows lyrics occasionally. But it didn’t matter that I didn’t know what the words were to a song like “Brown Sugar”. When I did figure out what was going on it seemed even more incredible than what I though it was. But it didn’t bother me that I didn’t know what was going on. It made it a little more fantastic and even more magical. I’ve always found that when I engage in something in a more linear way that I’m less interested in it. I’ve never felt a desire to do that.

Do you feel there’s anything thematically linked or visually generated in the new record?

With us it’s different. I work in bands that have lyrics. With Grinderman I can see that there’s a narrative in there and I see that it happens to us as an instrumental band. We put down a bunch of songs and as they begin to consolidate and begin to form a bunch of songs, you begin to get an album where a narrative seems to run through them. It seems to be really important, but when you start grouping things, things just start to take on a world of their own. I’ve seen this with lyrics and without. I guess that’s just the way it works. A lot of times I’ll go in to the studio… some of the time… most of the time… all of the time actually,,, you don’t know if you’re going to get anything or not. You don’t know if you’re going to get an album or a couple of songs or whatever. So it’s all very much about discovery. It happens with the soundtrack work as well. The thing I like about that is that is means you’re open to change.

How does the soundtrack stuff happen? Do they show you parts and you work from that or do you just see the script and work on it without any visuals?

Generally what has happened is we read the script and we have discussions about what we want it to sound like. Each time I work on the soundtracks with Nick [Cave]. It has to be determined what we can play between us and certain sounds might be suggested. Then we watch parts of the film, some sort of first edit. It’s kind of different for each thing. For Jesse James we were meant to get a cut and we didn’t, so we had 15 seconds of Brad Pitt trying to fire a gun and we kept going “does this work?… does this work?” We’d already booked the studio and we didn’t have the liberty of a lot of time so if we’ve penciled in a date and we don’t have anything, we still have to do something. I think many of the major things were made without us seeing much at all. We recorded them and Andrew landed up using the rough mixes we made in the film. That’s the great thing about soundtracks actually– if it works, it works. Sometimes it seems like it’s taylor-made, but it’s not.

Nick did the screenplay for Lawless, right? That must have helped in doing the sound for that film.

Well it does and it doesn’t. He did the Proposition too, and I think he had certain ideas. But with the songs in Lawless, there are songs and a score. When he was writing the script we had discussions about dropping Ralph Stanley’s voice on top of these ramshackle versions of songs. Things always change and things don’t always work out. There’s a continuing discussion all the time and the great thing is if you leave it open anything can happen and always does. The greatest things are the surprises. The great thing about Lawless are the tracks that Ralph Stanley is on that he would have never done before. It’s kind of an accident actually the way that happened. We couldn’t get him to even sing in the key we played in, let alone the 4/4. He just wouldn’t do it. He did the song in a certain way. We had a Skype conference with him in Nashville and it was one of the most surreal and memorable moments I’ll ever have in my life. It was just unbelievable. The result of Hal Willner being involved enabled us to get some of the most incredible covers ever, certainly one of the greatest Velvet Underground covers I’ve ever heard—and one of the hardest songs to cover. I think historically what came out in respect with the Link Wray song and taking songs back to where there came from is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if you’ve heard them, but I think they’re extraordinary. I was sort of relieved to hear that Neil Young Americana record and it seemed like one of the first times someone has done one of those records looking back… and not just banged it out the same old way where you play with an acoustic guitar and that’s good enough. It was so fantastic to hear that and you could feel that. And you could hear Crazy Horse in there and the great thing about Crazy Horse with Neil young and the influence of them and those songs in there, I just thought it was fantastic and such a relief after all of these banged out things that people think you should do at a certain point in your career. And I think for me, those Ralph Stanley songs that he did [for Lawless] were just mind-boggling. To see him at work and for me to be told by a bloke that he likes his version better…to be told by Ralph Stanley [imitating Ralph Stanley] “Oh I like my version better.” It’s like, “you totally have a point” [Laughs]. It’s brilliant. It’s nice to get smacked around the ears.

Is there a new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds record on the way?

Well, I can’t talk about that.

It’s been a pleasure to talk to you…

You too. I’m looking forward to the shows. Have you seen the film? You have the soundtrack? What did you think about it?

I think it’s great.

I think there are aspects that have just never been done before. It was interesting because Lou Reed came in and had a listen to the Ralph Stanley version [of White Light/White Heat] and there’s no band that has had a bigger effect on me than the Velvet Underground—and to see his reaction, the guy who wrote the song– was unforgettable. You realize then that you have really seen something and something really happened in a great kind of way. I think that Ralph Stanley stuff is just incredible.

You said you did a Willie Nelson song from your shed. Was most of the other stuff also from afar or did you all meet in the studio?

The soundtrack was done in LA. All of the scoring stuff was done in LA. There was about 40 minutes of score. But we only put the songs on the soundtrack. The Willie Nelson song is something Harvey Weinstein should take credit for. He really made it happen. I can’t really take credit for it. I just had to throw some things onto it that kept it more in line with the rest of the music because it basically sounded like boot-scooter music when I got a hold of it. It’s just one of those things where when you have a bunch of people involved in something… and you’re like fucking hell, you know. The other tracks were done in Brighton, like the stuff Mark Lanegan did. Then the Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley songs were done in Nashville and Hal Willner went there and he’s amazing at working with people. And he’s basically the only reason the Ralph Stanely stuff was possible… because people trust him, you know. He’s fantastic the way he can coax things out of people. He went out there and sort of took the ball in his own court, so to say. The Mark stuff was done in LA. The originals were originally for Ralph Stanley, but that wasn’t possible, so we needed a plan B. So we had versions that he sent to us to show how he sang them. He didn’t even listen to what we sent him. The great thing about that is that its so daunting to do something outside of your comfort zone and I can’t imagine how threatening it must feel for an 85 year old guy to get “White Light/White Heat” thrown at him. And to his credit, he took it to where he understood it and he took it back to a place where it could have come from… Fire and Brimstone… you know, he made it into a waltz.

Again, it was a great pleasure. Thank you for your generous time. Safe travels to you, and I look forward to your shows.

My pleasure Nolan.

Jim James & Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket) and Craig Finn (Hold Steady) @ Gotta Vote Concert for Obama

Monday, October 1, 2012

Colonial Theater, Keene, New Hampshire

The announcement came just a few days before, but the news was truly exciting and entered my Inbox just in time. Two of America’s greatest songwriters, Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and Craig Finn (of the Hold Steady) were headed to the small college town of Keene, New Hampshire to support Obama and urge people to vote in the upcoming election.

Jim has long been an Obama advocate, performing several shows during the last election, and even being asked to play the President’s Tree Lighting Ceremony two years back.

Obama wasn’t in attendence tonight, but the music had a mission and the setting and songs were perfect for the eager crowd. The songwriters urged people to vote, and let them know their pick, but weren’t preachy or condemning of any particular candidate. The message was if you learn the facts, you’ll see the clear choice.

Not a far drive from Boston, I hit the road and headed northwest to Keene, New Hampshire, braving the dark and winding roads to get to the theater where my free ticket didn’t even guarantee admission. Luckily, I got in with no problem, and despite being late, I was just in time for Craig Finn’s opening set.

The wordy, academic voice of the gutter and those who strayed from the narrow path, Finn and the Hold Steady are the most prolific and poet storytellers of the darkside of temptation. They speak of the interesting characters of excess who make life all the more interesting, scary and shady.

Playing solo tonight, Finn focused on songs from last year’s solo record, Clear Heart Full Eyes. Known mostly as the dancing and animated frontman, tonight he seemed a bit more serious and somber with just an acoustic guitar by his side. The audience seemed quite familiar with his work and followed every word and note like they were biblical passages.

Jim James was up next. Joined by My Morning Jacket comrade and guitarist, Carl Broemel, the two turned a quiet set into a beautiful execution of spot-on harmonies with pedal steel and acoustic guitars merging in beautiful unison.

With a set spanning most of their discography, they began with “Tonight I Want to Celebrate With You”, a deep cut from their debut record Tennessee Fire, and a song Jim has gone on to redefine by showcasing his Omnichord as the main instrumentation.

Running through some of their more acoustic highlights, the band performed “Wonderful” and “Bermuda Highway” and “Hopefully” taking the listener through true delights of rare stripped down masterpieces.

When they went into “Look at You”, you couldn’t help but realize the song’s special significance tonight. Look at You/Such a Fine Citizen/Look at you, you/ such a glowing example/Of peace and glory, glory, glory/Of peace and glory, glory, glory/And let me follow you/We believe in your power to lead without fear/Not above, in some tower/But here right down here with us in this world. Up until this moment I had never seen the song as political, but in this setting, how could you not?

From there it was back to more classics from older records as the band went on to “The Way That He Sings”,  “Wonderful Man” and “I Will be There When You Die”.

A true special highlight came during the Jim’s rendition of “Golden” where Craig Finn appeared mid-song to take on a verse and chorus. Seeing the two in their first ever duet, with such separate singing styles is surely something to be seen. And you can right now.

From Broemel’s bowing of his guitar, the soft scream of his pedal steel coupled with Jim’s kind words and magical, humbled and grounded view of politics and the future, the two expounded a sedate strength, hope and positivity in their songs that made the night a true and meaningful experience. Granted most of the people in the audience already knew whom they would vote for, perhaps the show encouraged a view people to register to vote, or maybe feel the power of their own voice.

Newport Folk Festival 2012: Photos and Video from the Historic Rhode Island Music Festival

Saturday’s festival began with the anxious lull of miles and hours of traffic and ended with chaotic torrential downpour, flash flooding and a lightning storm that would cut My Morning Jacket’s headlining set a few songs short. This however, made the experience all the more memorable.

With four stages of music overlapping in simultaneous performances, it would be impossible to witness everything, but nevertheless, one could try. The previously mentioned traffic made just about every commuter late, we had sadly just missed the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but we strolled in just in time to catch bits of Deer Tick and more importantly, the Alabama Shakes. Heavy-hearted and soulful, the band delivered a spirited set for a massive audience posted up on the lawn of the main stage. Luckily this wouldn’t be last we’d see of the Shakes.

Seeking a bit of space, we headed over to the Quad to see Sharon Van Etten. Unfortunately, while her sultry croon was spot on, the experience as a whole became a little off-put with her awkward banter. Consistently asking why she was even performing at a folk fest, the comments seemed more disrespectful and snide than appreciative and flattered.

Iron and Wine followed Van Etten, and did so with a bit more poise. Despite a full-band that included an eclectic array of instruments including a clarinet and a pump-harmonium, Sam Beam and company’s set remained at a pleasant hush. Hitting on elements from their whole catalogue, the band even went into a unique rendition of the often covered “Long Black Veil”, first recorded by Lefty Frizzell.

The crowd on the usually spacious Quad had tripled in size for I&W, and it seemed that this year’s Sold Out festival brought a much bigger audience than previous years. Even the amount of vendors in the area had multiplied. Packing up our blanket, we headed to the Harbor Stage to catch the remaining minutes of First Aid Kit. The Swedish sisters who broke through the US market with the help of Conor Oberst, the band seemed to be right at home purveying their foreign folkish selections that, if you were wondering, were in English.

About this time, we had a quick bite and took our place in a lengthening queue to watch My Morning Jacket from the side of the stage. Finding a place in line with the lovely Laura Jean, who had spent the previous night making the band intricate boutonnieres with medallions and ribbon, we were overjoyed to see the band take stage wearing the beautiful arrangements. Patrick Hallahan even drummed the entire set in his specially made floral lei.

The Jacket’s set was, as we had assumed, a true highlight of the festival, and the reason we had come in the first place. Despite the fact that they are known primarily as one of the greatest and intense live rock bands of modern day, Jim’s roots could easily be deemed folkish– and he explored the softer side of his catalogue early in the set to prove it. Beginning with their newest number, “Welcome Home”, from their 2011 Christmas record, the band dove into the “Golden”, “The Way That He Sings”, “It Beats for You” and “Wonderful” which featured Ben Soille on cello and Laura Veirs singing backup. It would be the first of many songs in a set filled with special guest appearances.

Will Johnson of Centro-matic, New Multitudes and Monsters of Folk joined the band for their next selection, a devestating rendition of the always beautiful “Bermuda Highway”.

From there things became a bit more whimsical, and how do you say it… FUN. With Jim rocking a cape, the band broke into “Victory Dance”, the opening track from their latest full-length, Circuital. Imagine Dylan being persecuted for playing electric guitar at this same festival in the 1960’s and think about how strange it is that Jim James is now wearing a cape and sampler around his neck. My how times have changed. A once traditional and hard-nosed genre of music has come been blurred a bit in definition, but has grown exponentially with its tolerrance to change.

 

From fun to serious, the band segued into “Dondante”, a heavy-hearted and spacious tale about a fallen friend. Following the extended saxophone solo that ended the song, the band paid tribute to another fallen friend, Levon Helm, who was no stranger to headlining the Newport Folk Festival himself. Playing an emotional cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference”, the Jacket was joined by Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes on backup vocals and Clint Maegden of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on saxophone.

Levon must have been impressed, because as soon as the song ended, the heavens opened and the rain began. Plastic wrap was quickly draped over equipment and guitar pedals as the stage crew scrambled behind the scenes to keep the show going. Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes joined the band for “Smoking From Shooting”, standing on a chair, yelling spirited backups and headbanging to the beat.

Just two more songs and the set would be cut short. The brass section from Preservation Hall was set to take the stage to join in what the set list referred to as “Carnival Time”, but do to the lightning, the players were escorted to safety, and we in the crowd were soon to follow.

Those of us with press and all-access passes were lucky enough to take cover in the fort while thousands of others began heading to the crowded parking lots drenched and up to their ankles in flash flooding. After waiting for even the smallest sign of letting up, we rolled up our pants, took off our shoes and made a break for it. During a disheartening wait in heavy parking lot congestion, we got word of an impromptu set back at the tent in the Quad and hurried back through the gates. Originally set up to be an after-hours electric set, the generator had failed and all hopes of amplification had gone out the window with the rain. Nevertheless, a handful of people took the stage with guitars, banjo and cello. Sarah Lee Guthrie took charge, eventually joined by a number of others, passing around the guitar and playing traditionals and sing-a-longs for the 50 or so lucky and patient people who stuck around waiting to see something special. THIS was folk. THIS is the spirit that inspired the movement, and here IT was happening, in a secret, unscripted and joyous manner and a pickup setting just like the early days of the genre.

While the rain continued, a quiet Jim James was recognized in the shadows and invited on stage. Always sincere, witty and unpredictable, James followed up the traditional hootenanny with a cover of INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”. Stripping down the song and removing any sort of irony, the selection was a far cry from the standards that the others were playing, but with Jim singing it, at that particular moment, the song could be seen at its core for what it was originally intended to be… a really beautiful and simple love song.

Here it is. See for yourself.

Newport Folk Fest: Sunday

After returning to Boston to avoid hotel inflation, I arrived back in Newport only to get stuck traffic of the same stress level. An hour drive became 3 hours by the time I parked. Luckily I was just in time for New Multitudes. A Woody Guthrie tribute band consisting of Jim James, Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo), Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron) and Will Johnson (Centro-matic, Monsters of Folk, South San Gabriel), the foursome took unreleased Woody Guthrie songs from his archive and released them earlier this year in honor of Guthrie’s 100th birthday.

Just like the record, the set was beautifully planned with each member alternating lead vocals and the others singing backup. Ending with the powerful “New Multitudes”, the band seemed to provide the same hope and change through music that Woody Guthrie insisted upon through his life’s work.

Woody Guthrie was and is American Folk Music. He gave purpose to the song, a message to the melody, and without him, there probably wouldn’t even be a Newport Folk Festival.

From here it was onto see Charles Bradley. A tragic life story of survival and persistence, Bradley, despite his love of music, didn’t release any music until the age of 51. Inspired by James Brown, Otis Redding and sounding like 60’s soul without being a revivalist, I caught the last moments of Bradley’s set and a striking renditon of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”.

The next time slot may have been the toughest of the festival. People would have to choose between Tune-Yards. Conor Oberst, or Carl Broemel. For me the choice was simple. As My Morning Jacket’s guitarist, Carl Broemel’s solo shows are rare. Mostly because he has no time. But with a great solo record released last year, I wanted to see how the performance carried out live.

Performing and recording primarily as a one-man band, Broemel loops lyrics, guitars and pedal steel culminating in meticulous vocal harmonies and instrumental layers. After a handful of songs, Bo Koster of MMJ joined him on keys and Ben Sollee on cello. Still when Broemel was alone, he filled the room as if he were backed by a full band. Ending whimsically with a  cheeky-yet-respectful version of “Lollipop”, the rains came again. It seemed like a good time for me to leave. Instead of watching Jackson Browne, I chose to write this until 8am.