First off, a quick heads-up: You may have heard about the Jed Davis/Reeves Gabrels show coming up this Saturday at Howlers. I just got word that the show's been postponed until December. Weird Paul, who was slated to open, will still be playing on Saturday.
Now then, a couple thoughts inspired by last night's Van Dyke Parks/Clare & the Reasons show, then I'll shut up about it. Though if you were there, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section!
- While things loosened up a little when VDP took the stage (as happens often when the headliner appears, that's why openers are expected to warm up the crowd), I was put off by how stoic the crowd was during Clare & the Reasons. To be fair, their quiet pop wasn't raucous stuff that encourages a lot of interaction, but the band members were charming, and told jokes, and asked questions, and got barely a peep from the audience. It was reminiscent of the show Baby Dee played a couple years ago at Frick Fine Arts: an artist is striving to engage, and is genuinely funny, but the crowd doesn't respond at all. Why? Was it because the crowd was, erm, slightly gray-er and maybe not accustomed to rock shows?
- One of the moments that stuck out to me from Van Dyke's set was when he took the opportunity -- without being pressed -- to expound a little on his adaptations of the Uncle Remus tales for his Jump! album (and related children's books). As he began the intro to the second song he played from Jump! he ad-libbed "No shame, no shame!" Afterward, he noted that he was against censorship in all forms, and that he thought that preserving the stories without the racial stereotyping used to contextualize the tales in the Joel Chandler Harris book (and in Disney's Song of the South).
- Van Dyke ended the set (pre-encore) with a rendition of "Heroes and Villians" accompanied by Clare & the Reasons; the arrangement wasn't overwhelming, but the whole situation -- especially the slowed-down mid-song verse reprise that starts "I've been in this town so long/ So long to the city" -- had a heart-pounding excitement to it. The charming little man has a stage presence that can't be denied.
Anyone out there who was at the show have thoughts?
We last caught up with (climbed?) The Incline, it was spring of 2009 and they were releasing their first album. The pair of brothers put out Road to Home, an eclectic mix of songs, and I noted that they pulled off a rapped breakdown "better than you might expect." They seem to have taken that to heart -- the single they're pushing on their forthcoming second album, "Parmesan," is a number that's rapped by Brad Schneider with guitar licks by Brian Jump. It's funky and silly now and then, with a shout-out to Chuck Noll -- and we can all get behind that.
As promised, here's part two of my talk with Van Dyke Parks. Here we talk about stuttering Moses, the public domain, torque and pop. Nestled at the end you'll find an MP3 of Van Dyke telling a funny little story about Pittsburgh party-crashing in the early '60s.
City Paper: A lot of the work you've done in recent years has been studio work. How does the way you interact with music change when you take it out on the road?
Van Dyke Parks: I don't have the finesse of a formularized legitimate musician. Each performance is so entirely different; I always feel like Moses before a speech. You know he was a stammerer. I feel ill-equipped, and I'll tell you why. Because I don't think you're paid to repeat yourself. I think you are rewarded if you have found something out. So each performance is different. This, what I'm doing now, is absolutely 180 degrees from a large string section or an orchestra. It is, to me, an absolute minimum. It is a frugal musical gourmet. It is a violin, a cello, and a bass. Of course, the violinist can play the French horn, the bassist can play a clarinet, they play various tuneful percussion. But we're basically just four people -- I am on a piano. And that miniature chamber situation is really athletic. It requires a lot of each of the musicians. And musicians they are, these people called Clare and the Reasons. The three gents, each of them has perfect pitch, I do not. They're greater musicians than I. But they're musical dweebs. Who needs that? [Laughs.] Who needs to be a dweeb?
But they're very precise in their play, their character is congenial, it's everything that's nice about seeing people work. But in an aerial ballet without a net, it requires a lot from everybody. We all work very hard, and try to maintain some control over the incendiary results. But yeah, it's different.
CP: You've been interested in folk tradition, in music and literature. I wonder what your take is on contemporary musicians using sampling vis a vis folk traditions – borrowing, quoting.
VDP: On my first record – the one on which I made all the mistakes you could possibly make on a record, it's called Song Cycle – included on that are two songs, one is called "Van Dyke Parks," and the other is called "Public Domain." I've been very interested in intellectual property rights, because this is the way people feed themselves, feed their families, pay the pharmacy bills. This is the way artists make a living. For people to forget that is beneath my consideration. I just want to pursue my obsession, my commitment to working. And pursuing the song form – that's what I'm doing. The song, because it is to me the epic musical challenge. In doing that, I do borrow from the past, as people now borrow from their contemporaries. I'd rather not do that.
I think that what I look at as the static of human experience now – it's a mile wide and an inch deep. Where do you want to find something beneath the cosmetic layers? It's basically in the retro mode. Reverse is the most powerful gear, in terms of torque. My curiosity is: how did I get here? And what should I carry forward? That has to do with kids of music. What should I take with me into the future? How can they migrate forward to another generation? The way I do that is to make a living as an arranger and an orchestrator, and that has helped me migrate to another generation. And in the process, I learn a lot and take satisfaction in bringing an analog sensibility and an orchestral palette to a new electronic age of anxiety which can use the leavening of some more traditional approaches.
There's a moment when the extemporaneous process and the premeditate process meet, and when they do, and both flourish without any sense of loss, then something wonderful happens. And I try to find that place in the work I do. And considering how limited my ability and how enormous my desire, I'm actually pretty content with the results so far. I just need to do better.
CP: Tell me about the new record that you're working on that you mentioned earlier.
VDP: No, I'm not going to. I'm not gonna tell you about the new record because I don't know about the new record! All I know is that I'm nearing ten songs; I want to get some more work done. But I'm pursuing both retrospection -- I wanna go back in music -- and I wanna go forward. Demonstrably. It's got an absolutely post-9/11 sensibility. Absolutely, real Modern-Millie thoughts in there about what's going on today as I try to vent my outrage about what we have done to the world. And one place called America.
CP: Your show coming up in Pittsburgh is at the Warhol Museum. Did you ever work or interact with Andy Warhol?
VDP: No -- aw, my dear, he was so much older than I! [Laughs.] He was older. And also that whole world was a little too staccato for me. But Andy Warhol -- let's talk about the Campbell's Soup can for a second. What he did, people like him and Liechtenstein and so forth, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, what they did was create kind of a cartoon consciousness -- almost a totemic redux, reduction, of a more complex reality. Something that would appeal to the magazine or scattered mentality that was developing. People don't pay attention. You look at something like the Campbell's Soup can and you get the idea of what pop is all about. I really think that I participated for a while in a musical equivalent to that. To tell you the truth, it's something I thought I could flourish in, and that's what I wanted to pursue. The cartoon consciousness.
As a musical populist, it's very interesting to me, the difference between canned music and live music. The first canned music I remember was from 1948, that's Spike Jones -- of course, two years earlier he had recorded Cocktails for Two; it's filled with tuneful percussion. So tuneful percussion become part of the arsenal for popular music -- for canned music. So I used a lot of that. You'll hear it in the cartoons of Warner Brothers -- Carl Stallings, masterful work. A highly anecdotal -- that is, short-lived musical ideas colliding with one another, almost what Edgar Varese once called musique concrete, a tape-to-tape sensibility -- it's that kind of schizophrenic, cartoon consciousness that I pursued in my first record. As pathetic as it was, I also thought it was no less humorous than a Buster Keaton picture -- a man in crisis. That was what the '60s were. Crisis.
So, I think I may have spent an enormous amount of time investigating recorded music. And every premeditated value it can have. And now it's my turn to think small.
Last week I had a chance to catch up with legendary arranger, producer and songwriter Van Dyke Parks, who plays at the Warhol next Tuesday, Sept. 28. Since space is at a premium in the newspaper, we could only run a short version of the interview -- but I tend to feel like you deserve to hear more when I think an interviewee has a lot to say, and Van Dyke definitely has plenty to say. I'm posting the less-abridged version of the interview here on FFW>> in two parts this week, and you'll get a little audio nugget as well before week's end. Here's part one!
Van Dyke Parks: What's up, doc?
City Paper: Well, we're hanging out here in Pittsburgh and you've got a show coming up here – and you spent some time living here in college, correct?
VDP: I went to Carnegie Tech for two and a half years. They called it Carnegie Tech then. I know Pittsburgh very well; my family, though I was born in Mississippi and my family spent most of their time in the South, my father spent almost a decade in the Pittsburgh area working at various hospitals as a doctor. Then I chose Carnegie Tech because I loved the school, and I loved the man who taught me, a professor by the name of Nelson Whitaker. What a great man, to realize that I was going back to the age of Beethoven and Czerny and the dynasty of teachers from whom he came. I was at a wonderful school.
CP: Would you say that your time at Carnegie had a profound effect on your career as a musician?
VDP: Well, yes, not in the ways it intended. They intended to make me legitimate but what they did was create an illegitimate man. By my own desire to get back into things like melody and the physicality that good ostinato rhythms can offer. I wanted to be a part of pop music, I wanted to be serious about un-serious music. That's been my distraction all my life. I've been in both worlds – the legitimate one, so-called legitimate, and also the illegitimate world. And it's interesting to me; I almost, in my work, try to combine those forces. As an arranger, if you look back, early, when I was arranging for people like Ry Cooder. He had a street sensibility, a blue-collar reality, that still, I think, benefitted from an orchestral arrangement. And we ghosted his works on mandolin and bottle-neck guitar with a large string section or something. I always try to keep the plain and the fancy in view.
And when I went to Carnegie Tech, basically all the music was atonal and polymetric, and all the music was beyond the reach of the audience. You'd come out of a room listening to some serious music at that time, and you had not one melody in your head. I know it doesn't sound like much right now, maybe it sounds like a very trivial thing, but serious music – which was basically serial music at that time – was abstract to the degree that it just alienated me from study. And when I got out to California in 1963 to play guitar in a coffeehouse, I was dreaming of things like the Beat poets and John Steinbeck and the California frontier welcomed me with that poetry and that illumination. THey called that generation "Beatniks," and the reason they called them "Beatniks," "-nik" is the operative syllable, was to brand them as Commies. It was to paint them pink. In fact they were people of inquiry and they were wonderful. They Beat generation was something that was dying when I first came out here. But to put it bluntly, the music at this time that we were playing, it was folk music, from all different languages and so forth, but it was music with a driving force. It was memorable, and you could come out of a room and you could remember it. At that time, I'd be playing a coffeehouse and I'd be following a steel band, or a gospel group, Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls. Had to follow these incredible musicians. Black and white and brown people all gathering in a wonderful place where the arts collided. I was influenced by all that and it became my heart's desire to one day be able, after a long time in a recording studio, to have the opportunity to go on tour, to be able to afford the time to do that. And just play. And that's what I'm coming to Pittsburgh to do.
CP: You're revisiting some stuff from Song Cycle that you wrote a good 40 years ago, and you're revising, revisiting some of that music. I'm curious as to how you interact with those songs at this point, and whether you've worked with them constantly since then, or if you took a break and are just revisiting them now?
VDP: Of course, I've had to support my family and put three kids into college in the meantime. I've done other things in the song form, it's not like I'm sitting here – this is a matter of open self-examination. It would not be true to say that I'm coming out to promote some songs that have past their expiration date. What's true is that I haven't played these songs [in a long time]; I want to, I consider them durable goods, and something that relates to our common human condition now in the present tense. I think that this is a process of inquiry for me, but it's also because I think that I will provide validation for this material. I don't think you have to Charleston or disco your way through life. I don't think you have to be branded generically to find relevance as a songwriter or a singer. And it's not that I only want to sing songs that I've written; I want to sing songs that others have written, or that I've written with others. I run the gamut in doing it, from absolute shock and awe to immediate contentment, but it's a test case to me to revisit the past, to be able to do that openly, stripped and bleeding, for the casual observer to maybe get some simple pleasure or realization from it.
Thomas Jefferson said that he was loath to unveil his true affections to the vulgar public gaze; and someone asked him why, and he said "If you show men your depth, they will ford your shallows." That is to point out – what Jefferson said I thought was wonderful – that's to point out that I think that it's a high risk area to reveal yourself in the song form, because you do show people your depth. You show people whether you care about it or not, whether you give a damn. Give a damn about the poor. Give a damn about ecological outrage. Give a damn about racism. Give a damn about war. People will know whether you give a damn when you write a song. I give a damn about those things. I want that urgency, that exhortation, to leap out of this creed for greed and its smug materialism. I think that whatever I can do in my work to jar people into another place. To agitate with my songs. To have them have a sense of purpose that is beyond myself. It's too late for me. I'm not a brunette. But it's not too late for what I observe.
And I want to be a friendly persuader. I want to be part of that friendly persuasion that insists that we do better toward each other. And quite frankly, I don't feel like a messiah, but I think I'm part of that necessary process of confirmation and encouragement in a cynical age.
There's so much to do, and the song form, to me, is epic, and there's nothing I like better than the song; it's the most portable piece of cultural goods. You don't have to tote a thing. I have such great respect for the song form. Now this is what I want to do with my life – this is my first excursion. I can't tell you right now the exact year I saw my last lightning bug. Or crocus breaking through the ground. I want to discover America. I wanna take a look. I want to be there and do that and get east of the Mississippi and this is all a great adventure for me. Isn't that funny?
Local band New Shouts is new, fresh and most importantly, this week's MP3 Monday!
New Shouts is made up of former members of Camera and Derek White & the Monophobics, who sought to put together more of a soul sound than their previous bands had. They have a few downloads available Bandcamp, but for now we've got "Answers on a Postcard" for you as this week's delectable download.
Singer Cor Allen says the tune is about a long-distance relationship, and the correspondence between two people who care about each other. It's a jaunty and energetic number with hints of '70s soul and Cali surf music, and on the whole pretty sweet.
The band's first show is October 8 at Brillobox with Mariage Blanc.
Hi blogreaders! It's Friday and that means it's time for a round-up. It's been a busy week here so I'm gonna make it quick.
Tonight (FRIDAY), famed CP cover-boys Centipede Eest play the Brillobox along with Tusk Lord. One Centipede member (leg?) is setting out for sunny California climes soon, so you won't be seeing much of them in the future. Check it out while you still can! At Altar Bar, The Toadies play tonight, proving once and for all that they do still exist. King Sickabilly plays a show that's being deemed "Pork-a-billy," whatever the hell that means, at Howlers along with locals Supercharged Suicide and Devilz in the Detailz. And speaking of suicide, if you're looking for something that might inspire you to slit your wrists, Nickelback plays the CONSOL Energy Center tonight. But we all know you like that pickle better.
Tomorrow (SATURDAY), I'll likely be hitting both WYEP's Rock the Block party at their studio and the New Yinzer-sponsored show at Brillobox featuring More Humans, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and The Mt. McKinleys.For a Pittsburghy rockin' good time, the Longtime Darlings play Moondog's in Blawnox. And over at Most-Wanted Fine Art, the headliner is Peace, Loving; the others are Brian S. Ellis, Tusk Lord, and Great Blue Heron.
Cool? Cool. Also, don't forget that El Ten Eleven is playing at Brillobox on Monday. I know, it's a Monday. But I checked those dudes out last time they came around and it was what I might call "bitchin' good."
Though Sodajerk has departed from Pittsburgh and moved south, the fond memories of this once-local band live on in this week’s MP3 Monday.
“Songs for the Empty Handed,” the title song from Sodajerk’s newest album, is an upbeat guitar heavy track with some slight hints of Southern rock and ‘90s radio pop-rock.
Since the band relocated to Atlanta in 2005, there aren’t any local shows coming up, but fans can check out Sodajerk's website to see what’s the band’s been up to since its departure.
Best known for his stint as the singer of Pittsburgh punk-pop band The Morning Light, Harrison Wargo has been keeping himself plenty busy since his parting of ways with that group.
Wargo spent the last year working in his home studio in Wexford on his first solo album, Speckled.
This week’s MP3
Monday Tuesday, "Simpler Times,” is pretty representative of Speckled as a whole. Wargo’s got a Ben Folds-like voice, singing to Ben Kweller-like music. The music is nice upbeat pop-rock, but Wargo’s obvious post-break up lyrics aren’t quite so friendly.
It's not necessarily a popular time to be called 28 North, but it's an okay time to be 28 North. The local rock band has a welcome-back show Saturday night at Thunderbird Cafe; singer Alex Stanton took some time last week to chat with me about the tour the band just undertook, and its plans for the future.
I know you guys have been in and out of town a lot – tell me about your summer tour. How long were you out on tour?
We just got back a couple days ago – we were basically out from July 14th or 15th until Sunday [August 22] – we drove in from Cleveland that morning. We did a bunch of other traveling and playing in June and early July, but it wasn't the tour part, where we're out the whole time.
This is presumably the most you guys have been out of town on tour before, right?
Last year and the year before we did a similar thing but we weren't out as long and we didn't play as much when we were – we literally played every night but three or four while we were out [this time]. And I think that was the key to why it felt so successful.
Did you have a booking agent routing your tour for you?
For some of them. A lot of places we were going were places we play regularly in New York, Cleveland, Philly. These places that we hit are easy to book, we play there all the time. Those were a no-brainer, then we did a lot of the stuff in the South – it was our first time down there, we did the Carolinas and Atlanta and New Orleans. Those were trickier to get. But we did most of that ourselves by calling and finding local bands there that could hook us up. We had a booking agent do a few gigs. The coolest one he got was when we opened for Afroman in Lexington, KY. It didn't make sense on paper, but when we got there it was cool. He had a total white college crowd there to see him. Not to say – black people generally love us, sometimes more than white people.
Were you satisfied with the venues you were able to book?
Yeah – we found a lot of great ones, like Smith's Old Bar in Atlanta, Nectar's in Burlington. These are places where, we'd never played in the city before, so it's great when you show up and think “Yeah, we're in the right place.” Sometimes you show up and just think “Well, we did the best we could as far as finding a venue.” But we definitely got lucky in a bunch of places.
Were there any surprises – maybe you didn't expect a good show and it turned out to be great, or --
Yeah. We knew what to expect in the places we go a lot, but if it's someplace new, we advertise it on Facebook, and we had a radio campaign going and our publicist was trying to get us listed, get things written about us, but you still don't know what to expect. So we were surprised that we did well in a lot of places we'd never been, especially on Sundays and Mondays and Tuesdays. We were playing every night of the week. But the Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays were great the whole tour.
I know a lot of bands are doing weekend trips and day trips since gas prices are higher than they used to be and it's harder to make money playing out – what made you decide to hit the pavement for a longer period instead of just sticking with that model?
As a day job the previous couple years, we've been driving school vans, and we're hoping this is the last year we do it – we think we're not going to do it this fall. All four of us had this job – which is great, we're on the same schedule, so during the school year it made more sense to do weekends and in the summer we planned this tour because we're totally available. We're thinking we might be able to jump to doing more tours like that and less weekend trips if we're not doing the day trips.
Do you all split time driving the tour van since you have experience driving vans?
Yeah. [Laughs.] It's a family operation, Mike's dad comes on tour with us and helps out, does a lot of the driving, wakes us in the morning, all that.
Good to have a band parent around. So you're looking to take it full time?
I think we're going to. We've started planning a two- or three-week tour in October; we're playing CMJ in New York, doing a SPIN Magazine-sponsored party. So we're going to be touring in October around that, and we're playing the Dewey Beach Music Conference in the beginning of October, in Delaware. We played that the last couple years, so we're probably just going to tour between those two things.
Beyond just good vibes and having fun, do you feel like there were good dividends from being out on the road – getting your name out, merch sales?
Absolutely. We were pretty good at – everyone we meet, give them something, whether it's a button or a card or whatever, and we did pretty well with CDs and stuff. We actually had a credit card machine going for our merch table. Because a lot of people go out to see music and their cash is for the bartender. Plus it's not real money if it's on a card.
Right, and you get to call them out if they try to say “Oh, I don't have any cash, sorry --” You say “Well, don't worry about it, look what I've got!” and they say “Oh, shit.”
Exactly. We also did a bunch of things between gigs – interviews, and little coffeehouse performances and if people like you have them follow you around the corner, turn it up.
The craziest section of the tour was halfway through, we had played in Boston and we were on the way down to New York City and the RV just crapped out in the tunnel in traffic, on the freeway – totally dead in the water, we had to get a tow. And we were tied up with it until 8:00 or something and we made it down to the gig and then at 3:00 in the morning we finally got in touch with Mike's dad, who was with the camper, and they'd finally fixed it. They kept fixing it, then they drove around the corner and it would break down again. So he came down and picked us up basically to take us to Philly – we were playing in Philly the next day at noon. We made it to all the gigs and slept about three hours.
What's up FFW>> READERRRRRS HEY-OHHHH IT'S A HOLIDAY WEEKEND!
Yeah, so there are some things going on, as usual, that didn't quite make the cut in the music section for one reason or another. I'm gonna tell you about them, and also, look out later today for a blog post featuring my interview with Alex Stanton of local rockers 28 North, who are having a coming-back-from-tour show tomorrow night at Thunderbird.
Tonight (Friday): Local rocker Dean Cercone, who isn't as young now as he was a few years ago but is still pretty young, celebrates a dual release: the reception for his solo art show and the release of his new LP, both occuring at Garfield Artworks; Gangwish and dev/null open. Gangwish, in case you didn't know, is Sam Pace of Centipede's project, and dev/null is seriously the craziest music I've ever seen live. Breakcore. Get into it. Elsewhere -- I'll be at Howlers for Action Camp's local show on their short tour with Elsinore; Donora and Weird Paul fill out a robust bill of locals. For the punks, the Rock Room in Polish Hill hosts Cast Out, Short Dark Strangers, Savage Pinkos and Free Clinic.
Tomorrow (Saturday), Young Widows headline at the 31st St. Pub; Armadillos release their new CD at Howlers with support from Now You See Them, Elliott Sussman and The Mon River Ramblers; and, if you're up north, the "From Brooklyn to Butler" show at the Butler Art Center features Christopher Paul Stelling, Alana Stewart, and local faves of mine Satin Gum.
And Monday, since it's technically part of the weekend this time around, there's only one game in town, but it's worth checking out: stoner legends Fu Manchu pull into Altar Bar with tourmates Black Tusk and It's Casual
Happy weekend! Enjoy the fruits and nuts of your labors!