Author Archives: Alex Rawls

Levon Helm: Geeking Out

Levon Helm‘s label released a statement earlier today that said simply, “Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon. He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul.”

I’ve always loved Helm as a drummer, and have listened to the version of “Back to Memphis” two or three times in a row, fascinated by his light work on the cymbals. At 2:29 in this video, you can see the chopsticks he played with.

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A Levon drumming story: Before Katrina, the TapeOp Conference brought producers and recording engineers to New Orleans, but it moved to Tucson, Arizona after the storm. Each year, it ended with a panel on the records that made producers want to produce, and in 2006, one producer—I wish I could remember who to give credit—gave a bravura talk on the Band’s version of “Don’t Do It” from Rock of Ages. He traced the history of the song from its roots as a minor Marvin Gaye track, and he told stories including the story behind Allen Toussaint‘s horn charts. (Legend has it that Toussaint was given a tape of the songs, but his reel-to-reel ran slightly slow, so all the charts were a step flat. The night before the show, the Band and the horn section rehearsed the whole show a step flat, then Toussaint transposed the charts to the proper keys in time for the show.)

As great as the talk was, the chilling moment came at 3:06 in the video—the drum fill coming out of the solo section. A room full of producers and engineers who had worked on albums by major artists all knew that fill and involuntarily geeked out, playing air drums along with Levon. It’s a moment that typifies the greatness of the Band as each strike in this stutter-stepped fill corresponds to a syllable Helm sings, and it propels the performance into the last minute with the kind of momentum some bands never generate in their lifetimes. It’s remarkable, and made 16-year-old fanboys out of everybody present.

Fest Focus: Ziggy Marley and Bruce Springsteen

Bruce SpringsteenJazz Fest artists in the news:

— recently ran a passage on the growth of Bruce Springsteen‘s (Apr. 29, Acura Stage, 4:30 p.m.) political voice from an upcoming book by Eric Alterman. In it, Alterman writes:

The shock of such success led Springsteen to pull back again and inspired a long period of fitful personal growth and therapy, marriage, divorce and a second marriage; breaking up his band and then reconstituting it, moving to Los Angeles and then back again to New Jersey. During this period he would occasionally emerge with musical statements that sometimes spoke to the country’s cultural/political moment and sometimes stood outside it. He took part in a worldwide tour for Amnesty International. When Springsteen wrote and sang “Streets of Philadelphia,” he became the first prominent male singer to explicitly adopt the voice of a gay man. His largely acoustic 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, was a self-conscious re-creation of John Steinbeck’s (and John Ford’s) proletarian masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, with songs drawn directly from stories in the newspapers. With its descriptions of railroad transients, people around a fire under a bridge, homeless people waiting in line for shelter and families sleeping in their car, the album was an implicit rebuke to the corporate-friendly politics of “triangulation” practiced by Bill Clinton at the time. Appropriately, Springsteen chose as his next cause that of legalizing (and honoring) Latino immigration, fighting against a proposed extremely punitive California law—Proposition 187—which united him with farmworkers, home workers and others who had hitherto been merely the subject of his songs.

After a nearly fourteen-year break, Springsteen reconstituted the E Street Band in 1999 for a reunion tour and premiered the song “American Skin (41 Shots),” a pointed racial commentary in the aftermath of the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant, and the acquittal of four police officers who had fired at him forty-one times. The song angered some fans, particularly policemen, and once again he was roundly misinterpreted. The lyrics were actually sympathetic to the officers, but their representatives denounced Springsteen, and quite a few beat cops booed the song when he performed it in concert. It was his first taste of a fan backlash, but he held his ground. (Springsteen played it on night one in Philadelphia after explaining, “This is for Trayvon.”)

— Ziggy Marley (May 4, Congo Square Stage, 5:35 p.m.) recently spoke about politics and Marley, the documentary on his father that will show in New Orleans this weekend at the Prytania Sunday night at 9:

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Follow the Leader?

I’m never prepared for Noel Gallagher to be the voice of reason, but sometimes …

The consumer has become all powerful now, and the consumer is king.  So the consumer gets what he wants.  But as I understand it, the consumer didn’t fucking want Jimi Hendrix, but they got him, and it changed the world.  And the consumer didn’t want Sgt. Pepper’s, but they got it, and they didn’t want the Sex Pistols, but they got it.

And now there’s an attitude in the music business where it’s like ‘let’s keep the consumer happy because that’s what keeps the music business going around.

Digital Music News pulled this quote from an interview Gallagher gave this past weekend at Coachella. He was talking about the degree to which the record industry has become market- rather than artist-driven, but it’s worth considering in most endeavors these days. Nobody knew they wanted fast food until Ray Kroc provided it. Reality television was first considered the stuff of PBS until Survivor helped make it a mainstream staple. On the other hand, CDs, DVDs and videogames made in imitation of popular albums, movies and games lie unwanted in secondhand bins around the country.

What We Lose…

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Look Out Mama…with digital music files: Cover art. Like the best cover art, that of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Look Out Mama, released today, has a life of its own. Gregory Good’s cover art invites people to consider the relationship between the phrase and the photo of a young GI in Vietnam. It’s tempting to read the title as a warning, but he doesn’t look malicious. Is he about to rock some woman’s world? Maybe, but the machine gun counteracts any come-on in his eyes. The title and the band’s name appear to be written on masking tape affixed to the photo, as if they constitute homemade cutlines or captions – someone’s private joke or not-that-funny wisecrack.

I look at the title and hear Bob Dylan’s “Tell Me, Momma” in my head, and the phrase itself is from the first line of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger”: ”Look out mama, there’s a white boat comin’ up the river.” The photo resonates with that song and its story of a young man defending the family with his daddy’s gun, but the photo fleshes out Young’s narrative. He sings, “I just turned 22 / I was wondering what to do / and the closer they got / the more those feelings grew,” and the Hurray for the Riff Raff cover could depict the narrator 24 hours earlier. He’s manly, confident and in control when facing a camera.

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Because he’s looking at the camera, he’s looking at you on the cover, and you have to engage his militariness. He’s in uniform and holding a gun. It’s at rest, but it’s there. It’s a part of him in the shot. There’s no flinching from it, no hint of uncertainty or distance. He looks friendly, but he’s a friendly soldier with a gun. The photo doesn’t reduce to his eyes or his smile because his weapon is so present.

On the back cover, singer Alynda Lee Segarra writes that the man is her father somewhere between 19 and 22 (the narrator in “Powderfinger” is 22). Her notes are a call for peace, and the title track sketches in in blues tropes the story of someone shellshocked by sorrow. The song’s narrator might be him, but Segarra wisely doesn’t pin the thought down with rigorous finality. It speaks as she intends about war, fighting and humanity, and the dialogue between the component parts—including the music on the album—is as complex as it is in real life.


French Quarter Festival Estimates More Than 550,000 Attendees

This afternoon, the French Quarter Festival announced that approximately 574,000 people attended the four-day festival, which this year included an expanded “Lagniappe Thursday.” This ritual of releasing the festival’s attendance estimates has always been an odd one because to anyone who attends the festival, two things are clear: 1) That it’s exceedingly unlikely that there is a legitimate method for determining an attendance figure with any accuracy, and 2) That there are so many people at the festival that it is an unquestionable success, regardless of the number.


The crowd looks about right.

The number’s up from last year’s estimated 533,000 people, but no matter what the figure, there were people everywhere, from a family tailgating in front of the ferry entrance to people hanging out on Elysian Fields. Decatur Street was a pedestrian mall and the Moon Walk was a test of patience. Businesses that need hard numbers to rationalize sponsoring the festival place too much belief in the stability of numbers and miss the big picture—that a broad cross-section of the city’s population passed through the Quarter this weekend and were exposed to the sponsors. The festival was certainly a musical success, and it’s hard to imagine a measure whereby it wasn’t a business success.

Hurray for the Riff Raff Tonight on Liveset

Hurray for the Riff Raff

For those of you who can’t make the French Quarter Fest or want something different, we’re pleased to partner with and CANO to present Hurray for the Riff Raff tonight at 6 p.m. CST on Liveset.

For those who last checked in on the band in its Dust Bowl days, Alynda Lee Segarra and the current lineup have a clearer direction and a stronger presence. As the new Look Out Mama album, available everywhere April 17, demonstrates, Segarra’s interest in American roots music is broader than before, and her vocal and lyrical ability to pull those influences into something personal and distinctive is impressive.

See you online at the show; here’s a preview.

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Not Quite Eddie Vedder News, But …

Who's Bad Michael Jackson Tribute…this physical malady thing seems to be going around. Saturday night’s “Who’s Bad” Michael Jackson tribute show at the House of Blues is going to be short a Michael according a press release. The show normally has two Michaels, but one, Joseph Bell, has been sidelined. Here’s his story:

Hello! How are you? It’s me! Joseph! …but you can call me JOBEL! I just wanted to say hi to all of you out there! All of my Who’s Bad fans, friends and family!

I bet you are wondering where I’ve been. What happened. Why the absence.

Well, anyone that knows me knows I have had this fear of doctors, drugs and hospitals for a long time…. BUT THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I GOT!

In the beginning of January I was not feeling well, but I had to do 3 gigs with Who’s Bad in Aspen and Denver, which are low-oxygen environments. I got even sicker, and the long air travel did not help me either. I returned home and got a serious fever, ended up in the hospital for pneumonia and then surprisingly ended up having to do chemo for skin cancer–but I am having a great recovery. Talk about changes!

So that’s what happened.

My mother, Kathryn, is taking very good care of me and and I am taking good nutrition keeping my vocals and good looks in check!

Will I be back with Who’s Bad? I don’t see why not.

Fact is that Who’s Bad is EXPANDING! No telling where you will see me or hear me! So stay tuned. I’ll be back sooner than you think.

Thank you for your prayers and good thoughts and love out there. I miss you.

But most of all… I miss singing for Michael. I do want to help keep his music, his sound and spirit alive. It’s in me. It’s in my heart.

I hope that answers some questions for you.

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If I Were a Kid …

… I would live for Bracket Town. Bracket Town is the NCAA’s fan center in the Convention Center, and while there was less there for me as an adult than I expected or hoped – an awkward video Q&A session with former Arkansas Razorbacks’ coach Nolan Richardson, for example – it is the best Celebration Station. It’s part of the NCAA’s efforts to turn the Final Four into an event that engages a city and not just the fans going to the games today and Monday, along with the Big Dance Concert Series at Woldenberg Park, and both events are more or less spot on. The NFL’s efforts to achieve similar results have generally been sadly tone-deaf by comparison.

For the most part, Bracket Town is a series of skills challenges, my favorite being a row of lowered baskets on which kids with average-at-best hops could dunk. If it wouldn’t have been embarrassing, I would have tried this. The set-up, like most of the games at Bracket Town, looks built to last not only the weekend but the month if it had to. There are also games for fans of other sports. There’s a football agility drill, a passing precision drill, and a lacrosse goal that players can shoot at. For adults, the LD pavilion showing off its appliances had open dryers that adults could competitively throw laundry into.

Obviously, there’s a whole corporate dimension to Bracket Town as well. At a computerized drink dispenser beside the Coca Cola court, a woman faced with the choice of all the soft drink’s flavor choices opted for Dasani’s water. But the shilling wasn’t aggressive. You could spend a day with a kid in a lot of worse ways.

Buku Preview: Free Music from Skrillex’s Label

SkrillexSunday night, Skrillex closes The Buku Project at Mardi Gras World. His label, OWSLA, this week made available for free download Free Treats: Vol. 2. Here’s the download link.

Buku Preview: Big K.R.I.T. Speaks

Big K.R.I.T. plays The Buku Project Sunday at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World. He is the subject of a very friendly interview this week for The Village Voice. This might be the highlight:

Why do you think people love “Country Shit” so much, even up top in NYC?

“Country Shit” is… well, it’s like if you ain’t in the city, you in the country. It may be the suburbs, but if it ain’t the city it’s pretty much country. Most of America is country, so I think that’s why people like that song nationwide. Plus, even without the lyrics the beat is just strong.

See the rest for yourself and find out what his grandmother means to him.