Monday, April 18, 2011

The Wailers vs. The Sonics--- Battle of the Bands!

I had the headline locked in and was gearing up to write this when the news that Kent Morrill of The Fabulous Wailers had left this mortal coil.  Normally, I am not one to glorify artists beyond what they deserve and I hope this doesn't sound like one of those 'boy, he was swell' after-the-fact pieces, but it will be hard for me to hold back the enthusiasm.  You see, I saw Kent perform one night at the Albany Guard Armory, The Wailers double-billed with The Sonics.

Today, one might think that the armory would have been overflowing with overly exuberant teens ready to kill for a seat, but you have to understand that when anyone played the armory circuit they were playing dances and not concerts.  You also have to understand that The Sonics were not then the Rock Gods that they have since become.  They had records, sure, and received a lot of airplay on numerous stations in the Willamette Valley and that did translate into teen admiration, but stars were who you saw on TV or played the Portland Coliseum and not the bands who carted equipment up and down I-5 to satisfy the results of hormones that floated like pollen on a warm Spring day.  Pacific Northwest musicians like Morrill and Gerry Roslie and Jimmy Hanna and even Mark Lindsay spent a portion of their time packing and unpacking vans and hearses and pickups in order to hock their musical wares and sell a few records.

Yeah, I saw Kent Morrill.  Man, I saw The Wailers!  When I close my eyes, I can see them still, spread out across a stage three platforms wide and drumming the crowd into a fury--- okay, more like providing music for teen gyrations.  See what I mean?  I get carried away.  But it is hard not to when you're sixteen or seventeen and you fall in love with every girl you see and have as background music some of the best rock to ever come out of the Pac NW.  Practically impossible.  Man, I had the car too!  That's right.  Dad let me drive the car two towns over  (a good 30 miles!) and handed me a twenty to boot.  In my world, it didn't get any better than that.

The Armory-----

I drove past the armory just the other day and it's still there, right where I left it.  Unlike many of the other armory buildings which were little more than glorified quonset huts, the Albany armory is a two-story building which could have been a bank building in earlier times, if it had had more windows anyway. Constructed of stone and brick, it seemed huge back in the day.  As I passed in my car, I was surprised to see this square gray structure which may have had a dance floor to accommodate 300 comfortably, 500 if you packed them in like sardines.  The entrance is offset toward the southeast side of the building with two steps leading from the sidewalk to the ticket window.  The door, directly to the left is average size.

As a teen, though, it looked formidable and the guy who took tickets could have been a bad guy from a James Bond movie.  The line was short--- it was a good hour before the music--- and it was still light outside.  I bought my ticket and whoever it was who went with me that night bought theirs as well.  A few steps and a torn ticket later, we were inside.

The stage was there, lit mainly from behind though there was a semblance of overhead lighting.  The chrome on the various guitars and amps were star shells from a distance and the drum set anchored them all.  Kids were already beginning to break into groups and a line formed at the snack bar, tables set up along the back wall.  Needless to say, I wasn't there for the girls, though I certainly enjoyed looking because there were girls from schools outside of my domain and  that was always intoxicating.  I was there for the music.  And judging from the equipment, there was going to be some music, for sure.

Pegged pants, crewcuts, ratted hair and short skirts (some even above the k nee!) were the fashion of the day.  One hundred, maybe two hundred teens gathered in groups of two, three or four, chattering away like one does in such settings.  I guess.  I was too enamored of the amps and guitars to pay much attention.

The Sonics-----

Paul Revere & the Raiders had gone national, The Wailers struggled to have hits (though Out of Our Tree had done very well for them, thank you).  Don & the Goodtimes were turning into a Raiders farm club (Jim Valley and Charlie Coe  were two Goodtimes to make the jump), The Live Five (not to be confused with The Liverpool Five) could not get to the next level in spite of an outstanding pair of regional hits (Yes You're Mine and Hunose) and The Viceroys were on the cusp of heading to the Bay Area for rejuvenation.  The Sonics drove through the hole created by the chaos and built on the amazing radio success of The Witch and Psycho to become the new regional favorite.

When they took the stage, the kids were scattered, many hanging around the snack bar visiting with friends and acquaintances.  The thump of drum and honk of guitar, typical tune-up noises, had them looking stageward and slowly they moved that direction.  Before they could gather, the race was on.  A few plunks and bangs were all The Sonics needed before filling the armory with a powerful, muddied sound.  No mikes on the drums, no mikes anywhere except onstage in front of Roslie.  You didn't make music with a PA system.  You made it with amps and power.  The PA just upped the ante.

I can't remember the order of songs.  There were a couple of instrumentals and a lot of what are now considered classic Sonics tracks:  The Witch, Psycho, Strychnine, Boss Hoss.  It didn't matter.  What mattered was the booming sound and the pounding rhythm.  When these guys played, it was hard not to move.  They blasted through a 45 minute set, maybe, giving the kids little chance to change dance partners between songs.  Pegged pants strained and ratted hair bobbed and weaved and legs stomped.  It was a glorious sight--- hormones on speed dial.  Standing directly in front of the stage toward the right side was just short of painful, the sound loud and brash and at times alternating staccato and whatever the opposite of that is.  The four University speakers on the two PA stands could barely handle Roslie's shrieks and screams and when they tore into Boss Hoss and Strychnine, I remember a chill down my spine.  I expected this--- at least this--- and the whole scene scribbled itself onto my psyche in indelible ink.

All too soon it was over, like the aftermath of an explosion.  Two roadies hit the stage--- the one for The Sonics scrambling to get mike stands and equipment off the stage, the one for The Wailers shifting the instruments and amps from the back of the stage where they had been stacked to the front.  A half hour passed, maybe more.  Then the moment arrived.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Wailers...

I have no idea who introduced them.  Maybe a disc jockey or maybe Ed Dougherty himself, the king of Willamette Valley showcases.  Under the guise of EJD Enterprises, Dougherty had been bringing bands to the teen masses since the advent of the armory circuit.  He worked out of Salem where he was rumored to be a high school teacher,  but we didn't care.  All we cared about were the bands he brought.  Now that I think about it, Dougherty may not have been involved with this at all, but it seems unlikely.  He owned the Willamette Valley when it came to concerts.  But I do seem to remember Etiquette having its own production and booking wing around this time.  Don't quote me.

But I digress.  The point is, The Wailers were introduced in fine fashion and, man, I was floored!  I had just seen one of the better bands I'd ever seen tear the roof off of the place.  Five seconds in, I was seeing a band to raze city blocks!  Hard to tell what the difference was.  The experience.  The confidence.  The years of sharing stages.  Whatever it was, it was definitely on a different level.  You could hear it.  You could see it.  More than that, you could feel it!  And the kids responded.

As the evening progressed, some quit dancing to watch the band, some danced harder--- they all sweated more.  Set list?  Hell, they blew through so many songs so fast, I could barely remember after the dance let alone 40+ years later.  There was a hellacious rendering of Dirty Robber that fried my brain, and the obligatory Tall Cool One.  Of course, Louie Louie (The Wailers' version was the first I'd ever heard, even before The Raiders' and Kingsmen's--- On the single, Rockin' Robin Roberts putting his classic voice over what was one of the sparsest versions ever recorded).

The songs ran together as the night progressed until, finally, they ripped into Out of Our Tree and everyone hit the dance floor.  I even danced, though I never took my eyes off the stage. I mean, The Wailers were wild!   Dave Roland was a monster on the drums, pounding and hammering and almost slashing his way through the song (After the set, I saw Roland backstage leaning against a National Guard truck taping his blistered and swollen knuckles with masking tape, attempting to stop the bleeding).  The rest of the guys were all over the place, stomping and dancing and squeezing as much music as they could out of their voices and instruments.

But Morrill!  Kent Morrill stole the show!  He played a huge Sunn organ with this strange leg system which looked like car exhaust pipes woven together, and he hammered it mercilessly.  Bouncing from side to side in time with the beat, the longer hair on his right side alternately flared out from his head before slapping back and he was smiling and even laughing at times.  He kept the roadie busy just keeping the keyboard on the stage, his incessant pounding causing it to skitter forward with every chord until it was ready to slide into the dancing mass.  More than once, the roadie got there just in time, grabbing it and pushing it back onto the stage, Morrill not missing a beat.

The Aftermath.....

I stayed for awhile after the dance.  I wanted to watch them bag the equipment and load up for the long drive to their next gig.  To say it was anticlimactic is understatement.  My ears rang from the now quelled music, the only sounds muffled because of it (I could barely hear people speak).  I watched the various Wailers pack up their gear, talking little and moving quickly.  They were obviously sweaty and tired and not looking forward to the long ride ahead.  They talked with people who approached them, but they had tunnel vision.  They wanted to go home.  The gig was over.

I looked back at Dave Roland as I turned to exit.  He was peeling the shreds of masking tape off of his now swollen knuckles, tossing the bloody pieces onto the floor.  I noticed he was having trouble making the tape stick when he retaped because of the blood.  His hands looked like he had been in a bare-knuckle fist fight with someone whose head was rough granite.  It was painful to watch.  I decided not to.

I wish I could be sure that that was what actually happened that night.  I can't be sure.  Too many dead brain cells and re-imagined scenes, maybe.  Then again, that's how I remember it.  Man, I dig The Sonics and always have.  They put sounds on record no one else did.  They were great.  But that night, The Wailers were kings!  If Morrill were alive today, I would tell him that.  You guys were kings.....

An aside:  While I have no idea who took the picture of The Wailers used in this piece, I do know that the Sonics photo was taken by Jini Dellaccio, who took pictures of many of the Pac NW bands of that time.  If anyone knows who took the others, please let me know and I will adjust the credits accordingly.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Zoe Muth Live at the Axe & Fiddle, Rusty Willoughby Live in the Studio

Listening to Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers is not unlike sliding into a hot jacuzzi after a good workout.  There is something in the music--- the texture of the voice, the shuffling brushstroke of the rhythm, the relaxed cohesion of the musicians--- which puts me at my ease while making me smile.  It doesn't hurt when the venue is Cottage Grove's Axe & Fiddle, a restaurant/bar which is a bit more than a restaurant/bar.  I saw Zoe and band there last summer and the return last Saturday (April 9th) was a bit of a return home. 

Zoe had contacted me regarding her newly minted album, Starlight Hotel, and mentioned casually that they were playing the Axe & Fiddle should I be interested.  Of course, I was more than interested.  Their show last year, played to a crowd mostly ignorant of the band and their music, was the kind of show I embrace (I also like sitting in a theater all alone watching somewhat unknown or unpopular movies).  That was a good night and I talked with Dave Harmonson and Greg Nies as well as Zoe before and after the gig, trying to get their take on the bar and the music biz.  It was their first tour and, of course, everything was new and exciting.  Even playing to a small audience which on the whole had no idea who they were.  (Read my review here)

They knew who they were on the 9th.  A number of people showed up specifically for the band, grabbing seats and chowing down on the food long before showtime.  I ordered a Reuben sandwich (grilled to perfection, I might add) and headed upstairs, hoping that one of the two tables on the rail would be empty.  One was.  I sat down.  Someone approached and said something which I missed.  I looked up and saw Zoe herself and heard the hellos of the rest of the band, settled in at a table on the other side of the room.  And we talked.

We talked about the music business and her new label, Signature Sounds, and the Doe Bay Music Festival they had played last summer, directly after the Axe & Fiddle gig.  We talked about money and how hard it is to survive in music these days and how much fun it was in the studio working on Starlight Hotel.  We talked about audience response and the differences between good and bad venues and how you really never knew unless you had played them before.  We talked about a number of things, music and otherwise, and they brought her food and then they brought mine and before I knew it, we were done eating and it was time for the band to gather.  Hear me here:  I am a positive guy who believes that the new music business paradigm is exponentially better than the old one and I try to show that.  But when a band the caliber of The High Rollers is faced with a gig in a small bar in an out of the way town playing for peanuts, though, I find it hard to support that stand.  Don't get me wrong.  I love the Axe & Fiddle.  The brews are excellent, the service is topnotch and the food is great.  It is a wonderful place to see live music.  But The High Rollers should be playing bigger venues in bigger cities to bigger crowds.  They should be breaking out of Nashville or Austin.  They should be gaining the attention of major media.  They are that good.   So I talked between sighs and bemoaned the fact that the band isn't a household word among media pundits and spewed my frustration to Zoe, who surely had frustrations of her own, and I probably bummed her out to a degree.  Yeah, I know.  Good job, Frank.  Headslap.  I'm hoping that she and the band realize that my frustrations have to do with a business I have not quite been able to unravel yet, a business in chaos and with no easy answers.  A business which should have welcomed them with arms wide open, knowing what they are.

Well, after a set by a Eugene group called Apropos (pronounced Apper-poe) who came off as close to the old Up With People of the sixties as I've heard in some time, Zoe and crew took the stage and turned on my musical jacuzzi.  The opening track was the lead-off track on their first album, You Only Believe Me When I'm Lyin', and by the end of the song, the sound man was getting it down and it was gravy from there on out.  They worked their way through tracks off of the new album (Let's Just Be Friends For Tonight, If I Can't Trust You With a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart) and the outstanding Starlight Hotel), a number of songs from their first (Not You, Middle Of Nowhere, Such True Love and Hey Little Darlin') and Zoe gave the band a short break while she performed, solo, one of my favorite tracks from the new album, New Mexico.  By the end of the set, only a handful had left (it was Saturday night and when you're young, hormones dictate your moves) and the crowd demanded an encore.  The band provided it and the evening, as it were, was over.

The sound was excellent, though the PA system could have handled the vocals a bit better.  The band played with the ease of professionals, Greg Nies and Mike McDermott laying down excellent rhythms, Ethan Lawton weaving his mandolin in and out while looking at the stars it seemed, and Dave Harmonson pedaled his steel with elan when he wasn't working wonders with an outfit he called the SDG Vintage, a guitar/amp system which spewed sounds you seldom hear from even the best.

I left after thumbs-upping the band for a job well done, shaking hands with the sound man (no ringing in my ears this night, thanks to him) and flipping a few dollars on the bar counter on the way out (did I mention that the service was excellent?).  In the car, I slipped Starlight Hotel into the CD player and listened to it all the way home.  It's a killer, as was their first.

It is hard to be negative about music after something like that.  The really good ones float to the top, right?  Well, Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers are better than really good.  They have that something that many of the stars don't have.  If I could figure out what that is, I'd bottle it and make a fortune.

I give you this video because, alas, I could find no live video of exceptional quality.  There are some good ones out there, but after a buildup like I gave the band, good just won't do it.

Rusty Willoughby--- Where have you been hiding?

Two days ago, my buddy Howie posted a video on my Facebook page, asking if I'd seen it yet.  Not only had I not seen it, I had barely heard of the artist--- one Rusty Willoughby.  Evidently, he was in a band out of Seattle called Pure Joy, a name I knew only in passing.  After watching the video, I wondered how I'd missed it.  Someone should have brought it to my attention.  Well, Howie did, but a bit after the fact.  If you don't know this guy, I suggest you scope him out.  Another musician who deserves more attention than he's getting.

Mariana Bell--- Charlottesville's Queen of Pop

Mariana Bell is another of those Charlottevillains you hear me rave about now and again.  She's a generation down from the likes of Danny Schmidt, Devon Sproule, Paul Curreri, Keith Morris, Shannon Worrell and the seemingly unending line of outstanding musicians who call C-ville home and she's a different weave of cloth (Mariana is a true Pop maven, swimming in a pool of melody, harmony and full-on production a la--- ahem, who was that lady who sang Perfect Day?).  Her new album is called Push and it is stunning.  The more I hear it, the more I love it.  I will be reviewing it on my site, Rock & Reprise, soon, but in the meantime, here is a video of the making of the album.

A Reminder---

Research Turtles  will be making their single available for free download starting May 3rd.  It's a bit smoother than their hard-edged tracks on their excellent self-titled album, but it is more great pop nonetheless.  The album will be available for sale at the end of May.  Check them out!  Bob Segarini said that if he was 20, he would kill to be in this band!  What's that, Bob?  Gotta Have Pop?

Liz Pappademus & The Level----

Here's something you might want to check out.  Liz Pappademus recently released an album titled Television City, which she put up on bandcamp for download.  At $5, it's a steal.  A concept album revolving around TV and its penchant for game shows, it tells a story I find intriguing.  About time someone turned the tables on the media clowns and looked into their workings, for a change.  Stop by and take a listen.

Lots of new things to go over on the next installment.  Lots of links to new releases and the odder side of the business.  Stay tuned!