Thursday, February 23, 2023

Tales under lights

At the front of the stage Margo Price brings plenty of backstory
DOWN AT THE ROCK AND ROLL CLUB—Since her debut album Midwest Farmer's Daughter appeared in 2016, Margo Price has perfected an appealing blend of twang, Americana, and pop. Don't be fooled by the smooth sound of her last two records, That's How Rumors Get Started (2020) and Strays (2023): beneath the tastefully restrained playing and commercial sheen there's a stubborn knot of emotional complications. That's what I find appealing in Price's songs: that blend of tunefulness, tradition, and personal and social messes.

I caught Price and her great band Tuesday night at The Vic in Chicago, a stop on her Till The Wheels Drop Off tour, and they delivered a well-paced set spanning Price's four albums. Highlights included the slow-burn opener "Been to the Mountain," with its "Gloria"-like momentum, the R&B thump of "Four Years of Chances," "County Road," where the Springsteen tone and evocations gained dimension in the venue, and the sexy and cannabis-punning "Light Me Up." Wille Nelson songs featured prominently over the PA before Price and her band hit the stage, and in interviews and on her more recent albums she's been happily open about influences that throw elbows at safe, traditional country music: she reveres the late great John Prine, directly addresses Tom Petty in one tune (the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell has played with Price onstage and in the studio), and she channels Stevie Nicks on "That's How Rumors Get Started," a complexly arranged, emotionally rich song that played really well.

Price's Nashville-based band is superb. She's backed by Jamie Davies and Alex Munoz on guitars, Kevin Black on bass, Dillon Napier on drums, Micah Hulscher on keyboards, and her husband and songwriting partner Jeremy Ivey on guitars. They've been playing and recording together for years now, and at this point in the tour they're locked-in yet open to surprises inside of any song, especially the ones they pull apart and elongate, allow to take shape, bar by bar. Judging by Setlist, the songs' sequencing is fairly standard on the tour, yet the musicians are seasoned, and leavened with the joys of playing together in such a way that most of the numbers in the show felt as they could hardily withstand a surprising curve or two. (I wished that they were more of them.) I was especially taken with Davies, who for most of the evening stood stage right playing a Gibson SG, a choice that surprised me given the lightness of sound on Price's newer material but which I gladly welcomed. Davies's playing benefited on this night from a particularly fabulous sound at The Vic—the folks at the boards deserved our applause, too—and was fluid, loose, but also strikingly, yet still melodically, harsh, and loudly thick. He added muscle and flash. Late in the set he played a mournful slide on a couple of songs; when he switched instruments and left his guitar slide behind, his evocative twang still hung in the air, coloring everything that followed. 
Price's choice of covers was striking. After the rousing statement-of-purpose "Radio" from Strays, Price leapt behind a second drum kit as her band strutted through Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" (Black's grin while grooving the bass line is indelible) and she ended the night with an ecstatic take on Paul McCartney's "Let Me Roll It," a tune tailor-made for her to find some winking, playful joy inside of. (She's also played Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me" and Sleater-Kinney's "Turn It On" during this tour.) Early in the set, led by Napier 's expressive snare march, the band hauled out Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," a choice that might surprise an onlooker who assumes Price's only debt is to Nashville. In the band's hands the song built menacingly in its still-startling way, moving the show into something more dimensional and fuller of possibilities than it had been. Clearly grooving with the vibe and the crowd's knowing participation, Price chose to have fun with the song, the flip side to her darker and more complex stuff (and a like-spirited theme song of sorts to the Women In Weed info booth at the front of the venue).


I recently read Price's memoir Maybe We'll Make It and was startled to learn that in the early aughts, before she split for Music Row, Price was a student at Northern Illinois University, where I teach. (She was born and raised in a small farm town in Illinois.) She briefly studied Communications, right down the hall from the English Department, yet I don’t remember ever having her as a student. Judging from her candid memories about her time in DeKalb she probably wouldn’t have made it to class all that often. Price is unsparingly honest in Maybe We'll Make It, which was published by Texas last year on the eve of Strays. She writes about her fitful adolescence, alcohol abuse, a brief prison stint, years of brutal hangovers, and the tragedy of losing an infant son (the twin survived; she also has a young daughter). Her courtship with and marriage to Ivey are narrated in all of its glory, though the seams show: there are doubts, infidelities, some meanness, epic money problems, long, shitty nights given to menial jobs, drinking and drugging, graphic career disappointments. Price and Ivey separated briefly; she carried on an affair with a fellow local musician in broad daylight. She ultimately quits her corrosive drinking. She smokes grass and trips on shrooms with the zeal of an evangelist. 

It's all in the memoir, which is heavily narrative—she's got a van full of great stories to tell—complemented by insightful moments of self-reflection. But not too many. Price keeps her lens focussed on her carefully-crafted if reckless trajectory from small-town Midwestern girl and struggling, alcoholic Nashville-transplant to a California-sober mother of two and Jack White-blessed Next Big Thing singing and recording at the Grand Ole Opry.

So as Price and Ivey hit the stage at The Vic, they are already larger-than-life characters from a book. If fans have read Maybe We'll Make It, what expectations or biases, or desires, do they bring with them and willfully or unconsciously project onto the stage? Price's and Ivey's glances at each other, the intimate asides, and the few moments of playing face-to-face are rich with backstory, and everyone in the room—and it was a packed room in Chicago—knows it, knows them in close-up, the stage lights paradoxically highlighting and obscuring the couple's personal dramas. "We were writing about cheating on each other for a long time before I ever admitted it out loud," Price confessed in her memoir.

It's a striking tableau, another level of story that settles on the stage like a transparency. During the show Ivey rocked a Neil Young look with bandana-festooned hat, and he looked tired, though that might've been exaggerated by his hound dog face and large, soulful eyes. He didn't do much on stage besides play guitar, and an occasional poorly-mic'd harmonica, and slyly grin once or three times as Price, ever the performer, danced onstage in stiletto-heeled sandals and a blue Nudie suit, and later a pink, fringed unitard, working the stage and the crowd tirelessly. 
If road burn is creeping into the band, Price herself didn't betray it for a moment. I guess the B-12 IV drips the group received a couple of weeks back and which she celebrated on Instagram are doing their Rock Star thing. Price seems on the cusp of making it big, which of course means something different now in the ever-shifting currents of popular music than it did when Price was growing up. (She turns forty this year.) At the Vic several official photographers worked the pit during the opening numbers; whether they were employed by Price or the venue was unclear, but it had the trappings of Next Level Success. I can't predict the number of albums Price will sell or the size of her future crowds. She self-promotes heavily—and confessionally—on social media, and makes clear in her memoir that a hungry, fiercely committed drive for success is as embedded in her DNA as any other trait. I'm hopeful that she songs she will write, on her own and with her husband, will continue to mine soil for the stubborn weeds and choking rocks as well as the blooms and the sweet scents. That's where she lives, and loves.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Dancing in the street?

"It started just a little bit north of Detroit," but for The Fabulous Pack it stayed there 

Sometimes, a backing group can become this year's model. The Fabulous Pack were left behind in Flint, Michigan when their lead singer, songwriter, and megalomaniac visionary Terry Knight departed for New York City and a production and solo career. Terry Knight and The Pack were thus abbreviated to The Pack, and then in a last-ditch bid for excitement, to the Fabulous Pack. Their first single, a cover of "Harlem Shuffle," was enthusiastically hailed in the June 3, 1967 Billboard as a "wild, wailing rock number" that was "loaded with teen appeal."

Alas, the single didn't ignite the charts, so to bolster their commercial potential for their follow-up, the Fab Pack enlisted the writing services of local luminary Dick Wagner (soon to form The Frost, which in 1970 would issue one of my favorite criminally-obscure songs of the era, "Fifteen Hundred Miles (Through the Eye of a Beatle)"). For the Fab Pack, Wagner penned a tune optimistically aligned with a venerable local institution: the automobile industry. In the late 1960s, Pontiac was heavily promoting the catch phrase "wide tracking," alluding to the extra five-inch width of its cars, the better to balance the vehicle on the road. According to Gary Johnson in Michigan Rock and Roll Legends, Wagner wrote "Wide Trackin'" in the hopes of landing it in Pontiac car commercial, a coup that would guarantee instant Midwestern cachet and ramp up the chances for national distribution for the single and higher visibility for the band; other sources suggest that the song was simply inspired by the ad campaign. Either way, the Fab Pack certainly hoped that the single would cruise up the charts, screeching to a halt at the top. Billboard was again hopeful, predicting in September that "Wide Trackin'" would land in the Top 100.

In 1967 even square songs could groove a little bit. Though releasing a "dance craze" single was more than a bit passé in the Summer of Love, the Fab Pack give it their hopeful best. If you vaguely recognize the singer's voice, you'll be forgiven if you had to add a little more hair and strip off his shirt for him to come into clearer focus. That is indeed Mark Farner inviting you to dance the Wide Track. After the Fab Pack's implosion following the commercial thud of their third and final single, a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," Farner and drummer Don Brewer enlisted bassist Mel Schacher from ? and The Mysterians and formed Grand Funk Railroad, to be railroaded—that is, managed—by a returning Terry Knight. 

All joking aside about the competent drum work of Don Brewer, "Wide Trackin'" kicks off with a nice groove, guitarist Curt Johnson laying down a fuzz line on top, then settling into a syncopation with organist Bobby Caldwell and later some mildly propulsive horns. Instantly danceable, if overly cordial. The harmony in the title phrase is bright and terrific, but the lyrics are standard issue for a dance record hoping to be in vogue "from New York to L.A.", with a few Motor City tweaks: the dance is "custom-made for every boy and girl," you'll find yourself "dancing in the street." Farner drops a cool, minor-shaded "yea-ah" at the end of each chorus, but the diminishing returns of the desperate "dance, dance, dance!" command prove too much for this politely-played and -produced record to overcome. Producer Jerry Tuttle and engineer Wayne Moss fail to open the throttle on this one.

In An American Band: The Story of Grand Funk Railroad, Billy James notes that the picture sleeve for "Wide Trackin'" (above) shows the band gamely playing while standing on Wide Track Boulevard in downtown Pontiac, Michigan, clearly an attempt to align the song with the automobile manufacturer. One has to stretch to see a connection between Wagner's lyrics and mild tune and the Pontiac "wide track" ad campaign, as chassis width doesn't exactly scream, Hey kids, get up and dance! In the event, Pontiac, still hopeful to attract a young and sporty demographic, went with commercials like this one:

"Let's you and me go wide tracking, near and far!" I don't see how that jolly invitation is any improvement over Wagner's. Pontiac preferred this robot spokesman, the very essence of anti-fun, over The Fabulous Pack's call to the dance floor? Don't trust anyone over 30, man. 

"Wide Trackin'"'s ultimate obscurity only deepens its melancholy for me. Against the cheery teen-dance beat is the failure of the song to gain any traction, with Pontiac or with record or auto buyers. "The beat is spreading farther every day," Farner warbles, barely believing the line himself. The Fabulous Pack and Lucky Eleven can't be knocked for trying to make some coin, for hoping to round the bend with the help of a mega corporation. Dance, dance, dance.

Burned by The Fabulous Pack's failed attempt to court the automobile industry, Grand Funk would opt to shill for groupies instead.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Can I borrow some?

In his demos, Billie Joe Armstrong moves from personal to private and back again
Demo recordings often feel and sound like back-of-the-book footnotes or discarded film on the editing room floor. Although they're sometimes revealing, I usually don't find them very fun to listen to. Many fans like demos, as the recordings allow a glimpse into an intimate process begun as a private experience, some "I'm in the room with 'em!" action. They can range from slivers of song to fully-realized constructions. Pete Townshend, whose backlog of home demo recordings nearly rivaled in size the Who's officially released cannon, often produced demos so complete that all his band had to do was show up.

But occasionally demos can storyboard the artistic process. In the early 1990s I bought a Beatles bootleg that gathered all of the available fragments of John Lennon's home demo tapes for "Strawberry Fields Forever." His early, fumbling scraps on acoustic guitar with hesitant vocals gave the impression of a pre-song in a dark tunnel. "Piecing the song together...[Lennon] seems to have lost and rediscovered his artistic voice," Ian MacDonald wrote in Revolution in the Head, "passing through an interim phase of creative inarticulacy reflected in the halting, childlike quality of his lyric...moving uncertainly through thoughts and tones like a momentarily blinded man feeling for something familiar." I listened obsessively, and afterward played the Beatles' final, released version, the band's two studio recordings stitched together, staring out the window of our fourteen-sided home in the outskirts of Athens, Ohio as the song coalesced over a long afternoon. Contact high, indeed.


Billie Joe Armstrong is a classicist songwriter. He's tied to tradition even as his and his band's approach is, or was, to buck tradition in gnarly punk rock fashion. Green Day roared up the charts and into arenas with short-fast, often angry songs, but the tunes were usually pretty traditional (though not temperamentally or politically conservative)—rock and roll disguised as punk. Check Armstrong's record collection: there's as much mid-60s AM radio and late-70s power pop as there are Replacements and Hüsker Dü, to name only two of his chief influences who were also loud pop bands at heart. His favorite musician? Joey Ramone, who worshipped the Who and the Ronettes equally. Armstrong's pop-punk songs never stray into the avant-garde, and so there are bound to be fewer discoveries unearthed in his demos than in those of other artists more inclined toward shoot-in-the-dark experimentation. I'm sure that Armstrong often surprises himself as he composes his songs, but as a formalist his revelations arrive in a controlled environment.

The new Nimrod boxset is a blast, containing the original album, some demos, including takes on Elvis Costello's "Allison" and the Ramones' "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and a stomping, warts-and-all live set recorded at The Electric Factory in '97. The sprawling Nimrod was, as it turns out, a fairly experimental album for Green Day, as they stretched out a bit genre-wise. There's some folk, some ska punk, some surf, the string-laden ballad "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)." "This is a record we've been thinking about for the past six years," Armstrong reamarked at the time of the album's release, adding, "The record's about vulnerability in a lot of ways—throwing yourself out there."

Among the demos, I was immediately drawn to "Black Eyeliner." Recorded solo by Armstrong on electric guitar with a bit of reverb and an overdubbed, scratchily yearning EBow, the song mines sexual territory, gender-blending cut with desperation. A boy asks a girl if he can borrow her eyeliner, "To make my eyes look just like yours." He hopes the gesture will be reciprocal, so that later, if she'll deign to kiss him again,

Can I apply your black eyeliner one more time
to make your eyes look just like mine?

He's half asleep and half awake ("sleepwalking eyes open wide") and—and where are they? Her bedroom? A bathroom at a club? A street?—hopeful, I guess, that if she says yes he'll awaken to something fuller. The phrase "bloodshot deadbeat" hovers in the air above the two of them, but we don't know who it describes. Yet mascara's running down her face, "leaving traces of mistakes." Again: her mistakes, or his? Either way, the vagueness feels emotionally true to me, those hoped-for moments between a couple, exhausted pleas at midnight, defenses down. Armstrong's performance of all of this is aggressively unguarded, his voice catching the pitch of vulnerability and fear even as he strums like mad. I like the song a lot. It ended up on the floor.

Three years later, there it is again. Now the desperation's inside of something quite different. I wrote about "Church On Sunday," from Green Day's Warning album, a decade ago, and the song still matters. A plea for compromise from the singer to his partner, long assumed to be Armstrong and his wife Adrienne Nesser, the song imports the bleeding mascara, sleeplessness, and mistakes from "Black Eyeliner," but, more mature now, it names things, too. The mistakes belong to the singer, who's probably also the deadbeat: her makeup's running now because of him. The problem? He's a liar from whom the word trust is a profanity, though he swears to tell the truth to her from now on. He'll earn her respect, too, if she can muster some faith in him, and he'll do that by promising to go to church with her and their family—if she'll go out with him on Friday night.

All compromises are two-headed beasts. This one's a battle between weekend excesses and Sunday redemptions. Sounds like life to me. "Church On Sunday" is one of Green Day's unheralded pre-American Idiot songs. Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool play their parts, grinningly amping up the urgency, and the overall feeling is exalted. Armstrong trusted his songwriting instincts in resurrecting and then deconstructing "Black Eyeliner," fashioning part of its lyric as a pre-chorus in "Church On Sunday." (Perhaps in the back of his mind he heard Ray Davies: "If after two weeks you still can’t write your middle-eight, the best course of action is to see a psychiatrist." In the event, Armstrong would use "Black Eyeliner"'s changes and melody eighteen years later in "Kill Your Friends," a tune for his side band the Longshot. It seems that he couldn't shake the song.) What's fascinating is how the intimacies shift between the demo and "Church On Sunday." It's fun to imagine that the kids in "Black Eyeliner" are the grown-ups in "Church On Sunday." They were really just playing makeup the first time around. Things felt compelling and intense, sure, but no one was around to tell them just how intense things would get in the future: marriage, family, lies, trusts broken, healing forged. 


Here's Pete Townshend, one of Armstrong's heroes, in a recent interview in Guitar Tricks Insider: "I don't feel the need to celebrate adolescence anymore. I'm starting to get bored with writing about it. It's starting to become a semi-middle aged attitude." He continued, 
I don't feel at all ill at ease with where I am. I don't feel I'm suffering from maturity. I'm quoting myself there. I said that in an interview with Melody Maker—the best thing I ever said—that somebody suffers from maturity. A lot of people walk around acting like adults. It's got nothing to do with morality or dignity. I mean you can be free or you can act stupidly, but you can still be dignified. Sometimes you can still be within the law.
Armstrong gets it. In "Black Eyeliner," the singer wants to get closer emotionally to his partner by looking the same as her, two like-spirited outsiders clasping hands and snarling at the world in their DIY makeup. In "Church On Sunday," all he sees is just how impossibly far he is from her now. All grown up.

"Black Eyeliner" ca. 1997, demos, Nimrod box set (2023)

"Church On Sunday," Warning (2000)

Photo of Armstrong via Pinterest

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Following the sound

Commercial irrelevance doesn't always end the life of a songDamnation of Adam Blessing was a mystery to me when I picked up their 1970 single "Back To The River" a couple of months ago, yet another band that had yet to materialize from out of my blind spot. I subsequently learned that they were Big In Cleveland in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and poised to break out nationally on the the strength of three solid albums with United Artists and coast-to-coast tours on bills with, variously, the Faces, Grand Funk, Derek & The Dominos, Alice Cooper, the MC5, Iggy & The Stooges, Leon Russell, and other high-profile bands. Then their story stalled and took an all-too-common turn: Damnation of Adam Blessing were fated to be yet another band with a loaded arsenal that ended up shooting blanks commercially. (Guitarist Jim Quinn tells the band's story—including where they got that fantastic name—here. Their albums have been reissued a couple of times.) 

Such market oblivion is all the more remarkable given "Back To The River" which, had the planets aligned, might've become a smash hit, a radio and compilation staple for decades, destined to be rediscovered in Mom and Dad's record or CD collection by later generations of kids. In the event, the single hung around for a while on the charts, appearing in Billboard first as a hopeful "Regional Breakout," and then in a struggle to get its head above the Hot 100, peaking at 106.

An old story: such fortune requires that you redefine what success means. "Back To The River" has been coursing through my brain and heart since my first spin, and has been in high-rotation in my internal Top 40. I'm astonished that this song didn't break big, but then such shock is childish and naive (and boring, too). No one can fully quantify why one band sold records and another didn't, why one indelible melody sticks and another doesn't. And the one-hit wonder is a mystery unto itself. Billboard tells only one story (and a suspect one at that); the final and most important narrative tells the tale of who's listening to a song now, maybe decades after it vanished, moved beyond words as they sit in their home or are out on a walk, the song having buzzed in the air above all of our heads without us really noticing until it lands in a thrift store, a used record bin, Discogs, YouTube. Then the top of someone else's head comes off, and the story's picked up again.


"Back To The River" is credited to the five members of the band. It begins as a mid-paced, Credence-like march, drummer Bill Schwark and bassist Ray Benich interlocking fluidly as either Jim Quinn or Bob Kalamasz bathes the groove with wah-wah guitar washes, the mood in the opening twenty seconds buoyant and curious, aloft on churning, alert rhythms. Then Adam Blessing—aka Bill Constable—arrives to sing. His voice is immediately likable, and placeable: it's the sound from a million hit records, from old late-night TV commercials hawking Time Life compilations of Vietnam-era songs. If a voice can be good-looking, Constable's is. Assured yet unguarded, the vocal says that this song will be heard. Just try turning it off after the first line—Yes I knew it was wrong when I came here. The singer's addressing his words to someone—there's a "you" other than the listener—but ultimately this song is about a turning away toward that river, back to the river, actually. 
There was love, there was hope, there was me somewhere
And I had to try to see
So I walked through the miles of the hate and the war
'Till I almost lost my dream
The river is where his home is, and where he can be free. The clichés are just around the bend, of course: getting back to nature, the liberty promised there, the timelessness of currents and rural life. But the band risks the  triteness, or trusts the profundity of it all through the haze, and the melody that gets Constable there is simple, three or four notes, tops, and he rides it like a straight, familiar line to truths that exist before platitudes ruin them. Anyway, fuck banality says the chorus, which kicks the song in the ass with a bolting bass line, waves of crashing cymbals, righteous power chords, and stirring harmonies, sounding a bit like the MC5 might have at the exhausted end of a weed-heavy rehearsal. "Now I'm going home!" bellows someone, and it's both a declaration and a thrilling invitation. 

The second verse resumes the wandering, the dark an illusion where the singer could feel but not touch:
So I looked for a line in your dark world
Like a blind man follows sound
But the world ain't round and there is no sound...

The third verse entwines two melodies, braiding the first verse with new lines denouncing hate and announcing a long walk ahead, dryly confident, or anyway hopeful, in the face of setbacks. "Back To The River" can be read as an anti-Vietnam War song (Quinn and other band members were drafted and served in South Asia). The lyrics, from one angle, support that—the dissent and desire are tangible, yet the imagery in those lyrics, many phrases of which could've been said, or sung, by anyone in history standing along or ambling toward a river, and the gently-ascending verse melodies crashing against the onslaught of the chorus feel larger than a time- and date-stamped protest. I'd love to hear a band take on this song now; the right singer with the right band on the right night would step right into Constable's roving silhouette and find that they fit, the date on their birth certificate immaterial. 

"Back To The River" is a pop song that is of its era, and a pop song that transcends its era. It's the kind of paradox that I love to turn up. Which is in part why I haven't shaken the song, and hope never to. 


Photo of Damnation of Adam Blessing by George Shuba