TOP TEN: March 2014

A personal chart of current listening, reading, viewing and thinking

1• Unfathomable City

If you like maps and music, you’ll love this. Edited by New Orleanian filmmaker Rebecca Snedeker and California-based environmental author Rebecca Solnit, Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas is a collection of essays on different aspects of Louisiana’s geography and culture, each illustrated with a beautifully rendered map. Subjects range from the region’s deadly industries (petroleum, sugar) to its boundless capacity for pleasure. One map shows New Orleans’ various carnival parade routes. Another - labelled Hot and Steamy: Selling Seafood, Selling Sex - traces the historical retail outlets of two different commodities. And to illustrate a conversation with the great New Orleans bass player George Porter Jr. of the Meters, there is a map showing where the city’s different bass sounds can be heard, from foghorns to tuba players. Some beautiful writing, and an altogether elegant publication.

2• Womad highlights

Chairing eight one-hour Artists In Conversation sessions over Womad New Plymouth’s two-and-a half days meant I didn’t catch nearly as many sets as I would have liked. But among those I saw were Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca with a West African kora player and magnificent drummer; the intense Afro-flamenco of Buika (what was the amber fluid she kept sipping between songs?), the mysterious left-foot dance of Shanren (with Genghis Khan lookalike on bass), a swinging set from Pokey LaFarge (see pic on right, courtesy of Kathy McRae), and up-and-coming British folk innovator Sam Lee, who was a bit like the Incredible String Band without the drugs. And had conversations with Femi Kuti, Ane Brun, Emel Mathlouthi, Airileke and others, which I hope will turn up on Radio New Zealand at a later date.

3• The Archeologist of African Vinyl

Vinyl collectors may be a particular brand of lunatic, but they occasionally do some good. If German DJ Frank Gossner (pictured right, with protective face mask and recently discovered treasures) had not been prepared to brave mold spores and nesting insects as he waded through “a tsunami of vinyl” six feet deep in a Nigerian basement, we might never have heard The Psychedelic Aliens or Los Issifu and His Moslems, just a couple of his great rediscoveries. A few of his finds - mostly obscure African funk from the 70s - have now been reissued on CD; others stream on his blog, which also features entertaining accounts of his field trips, great record sleeves and audio playlists. There’s also a story about him here

 4• Critics on critics

Music criticism. Is it getting worse? Jazz authority Ted Gioia seems to think so, and vented his spleen in a recent piece for The Daily Beast (read here). Jody Rosen responded in Vulture with a far more positive, reasoned and, I think, better piece (it’s here). I’ve been working on my own theory of what makes a good pop critic, which you can read here.

 5•Octogenarian’s debut

Leo Welch, age 81, former lumber worker of Bruce, Mississippi, has just made his first album and I like it a lot. Welch plays guitar and sings gospel in the style of earlier blues preachers, and while he is neither as refined as the celebrated Fred McDowell (1904-1972) or ferocious as the under-recognised Boyd Rivers (1935-1983), his album Sabougla Voices (on the Big Legal Mess label) is a personal and varyingly paced set. And for the time being you can listen to the whole thing here

6• Eminent Hipsters

Steely Dan founder and frontman Donald Fagen has written a book, Eminent Hipsters, and it is a bit of a mishmash: some columns he wrote in the 80s for film magazine Premiere, some snatches of memoir, and a diary from a recent tour with fellow veterans Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. Yet in spite of its patchwork structure, it’s an entertaining read. As anyone who has listened to Steely Dan lyrics or studied their liner notes (ghost-written by Fagen and his co-conspirator Walter Becker) will know, Fagen is a cynical wit. “The crowd at the Orpheum was the oldest yet. They must have bused in people from nursing homes. There were people on slabs, decomposing, people in mummy cases…” He also writes entertainingly on the development of science fiction, the music of the Boswell Sisters and his first LSD trip.

 7• Johnny Shines in Vienna

Johnny Shines’ fame, such as it is, rests largely on his association with Robert Johnson, with whom he travelled and played. That’s hardly fair, as he was a powerful singer and guitarist in his own right. After Johnson’s death in 1938, Shines wanted to go to Africa but wound up in Chicago, working in construction. Decades later when he began playing professionally again, interest inevitably focussed on how much his playing resembled that of the now-legendary Johnson (and his band recordings do give a good idea of how Johnson might have sounded, had he ever lived to go electric.) But Shines had great ideas of his own, too. Listen to the wonderful ‘I Will Be Kind’ – his imagining of how the blues might have sounded before it left the African continent. Or watch ‪Kurt Hriczucsah’s primitive but fascinating home movie (silent 8mm footage cued up to acetate recordings), made during the bluesman’s 1975 visit to Vienna. Philosopher that he was, I like to imagine Shines felt curiously at home in the birthplace of Wittgenstein. 

8• The Haden Triplets

Bass virtuoso Charlie Haden pioneered free jazz with Ornette Coleman and folk jazz with the Liberation Music Orchestra, but his roots are in country music; at age five he was Cowboy Charlie, singing on Iowa radio with his family’s country band. His daughters, Petra, Tanya and Rachel, who have played in rock groups like Foo Fighters and Sun O))), pay homage to those roots on their first album as a trio. Their combined voices, which sound eerily like a single voice singing harmony with itself, are perfect for Kentucky hill songs like Bill Monroe’s exquisite ‘Voice From On High’. Ry Cooder plays guitar. I’m happy.

 9• Other people’s Top Tens (an occasional series):

Rosanne Cash’s Top 10 Road Trip Songs

 Nik Cohn’s Top Ten rock’n’roll Books

 … and I can’t find much to argue about in this list (actually a top 12):

Essential New Orleans Music Fan Albums

 10• Where the groove lies

…and lastly, a few words from noted philosopher and ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons (2012): “It’s a real uphill challenge to battle the white-guyness. White people get nervous and speed things up. You don’t have to be in a hurry because you ain’t got nothing to gain and you ain’t got nothin’ to lose. And that’s where the groove lies. Consider that as a mental concept for a second. I’m speaking not about seriousness — you can be way serious, but there’s no advantage in getting hasty.” 

Tags: bookszz topsteely dan

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