Mavis Staples, my my my.

Her music goes deep. So soulful, so uplifting. I just can’t get enough.

Mavis Staples is a gospel goddess, and an under-celebrated female icon in the struggle for civil rights. She sang with Dr King as child, when she would travel with her father and sisters as the Staples Singers. When I saw her perform last summer at the Blues Fest, she told the story of how King would always ask them to do “Why Am I Treated So Bad” – it was his favorite song. Can you imagine? I, then a 28-year old, was standing in the presence of this woman who used to open the set, so to speak, for Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. What a huge privilege that I’m still alive to see her. It’s hard to comprehend, but especially as a history teacher, that moment was hugely significant for me. Every moment, we are all part of something much, much bigger than we usually realize.

I read that Mavis just performed at a ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act being passed into law. Presidents Bush (43), Carter, Clinton, and Obama were all there in Austin at the LBJ library. I will be sad when she goes, and am very grateful she still has her health. She’s 74, and last year performed with a cane, but seemed as fiesty as ever. “Next time I see you I’ll have both my hips working” she said with a laugh.

I didn’t intend this to sound like eulogy. I’m just beyond humbled to still be able to see and hear and learn from this incredible woman.

Best Songs of 2014 So Far

Paste just released this incredible list, and I was happy to see that it featured a few songs I have come to love this year as well. It’s always nice when your own interest in high quality music is substantiated by an outside source! There are only a couple of songs on their list didn’t trigger the pleasure centers of my brain (*ahem* Beck and Conor Oberst) but the rest are seriously good. They did 27, I think I have 11. Here are mine, ranging from Americana to mainstream pop to Muscle Shoals soul to indie rock, folk, and punk. I’ll put them approximately in chronological order of their release date. A Spotify playlist follows.

The Willowz – Repetition

This one and the one that follows it came from Super Bowl ads. This one’s from Mountain Dew. This may not be the most critically revered method of finding and falling in love with music, but as rarely as I actually watch TV, I like listening for the sounds behind the glitzy screen action and then listening to them as independent creations. I also discovered Chappo that way, through a Sears commercial that I still find funny. The Willowz remind me a lot of Jet and they get my blood pumping.

U2 – Ordinary Love

I have to confess that I completely bought into to the 24-hours-only gimmick and downloaded the free version of this the day after the Super Bowl. Maybe it helped fight AIDS. Maybe not, but the song is classic U2 – positive/inspirational lyrics, silky smooth vocals and bouncy pop catchiness that keeps me coming back.

Damien Rice – Silver Timothy

This is mellow folk with a gentle brightness. In the past I’ve thought that Damien Rice kind of blended into the wallpaper but this track stands out nicely. It won’t follow me through the summer but I have to include here for how it impressed me early in the year.

Against Me! – Black Me Out

Mmm, the passion, the personal vulnerability, the buildup to crashing guitars and just the intense power of this song (along with the whole album) gets me fired up and kind of blissed out at the same time. Really good pop-punk can get a person agitated but in a hopeful, happy way. I would very much like to go to an Against Me! show if I thought I wouldn’t get too tuckered out (at the ripe old age of 29 – ha). There’s always been a special place in my heart for Against Me! and I could easily choose almost any other song on the Transgender Dysphoria Blues album. Every single one needs to be heard.

Broken Bells – Holding on for Life

This was my jam for pretty much all of January and February. I would scan the radio dial until it came on, would queue it up any time of day, and it helped get me through the dreary winter months. It has sugary synth qualities but also a pensive disco depth (take that phrase to the bank) that makes it one of those tunes I still expect to have in my rotation come December.

St. Vincent – Birth in Reverse 

There’s nothing conventional about St Vincent, neither the music or the character.  It’s at time atonal, asymmetric in lyrical structure, but always a satisfying guitar-heavy bouncing sound.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones – I’m Torn Up

Good night, does this guy have a voice! Think the powerhouse vocals of Alabama Shakes and Janis Joplin fusing with Joe Cocker and James Brown. Really. When I watch him perform on video I feel like I’m in a movie, or outside of time, or something. It’s just stunning. Absolutely obsessed with this band.

Hurray for the Riff Raff – End of the Line

Warm, warm nostalgic feelings of home. My personal heaven will have a fiddle, accordion, harmonica, and a Delta dame romancing about hot days, flowing rivers and bucolic life in the South. This one is very Levon-esque and my favorite cut among many from Small Town Heroes.

Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits

Man, is it the year of female singers with powerhouse vocals, or what? Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, St. Vincent, and now Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive. There’s so much nuance, so much emotion, and brash ambition in her pipes. I love the strength of her voice, the clever structure of the lyrics, the ad libs, everything. Cannot get enough Lake Street Dive.

Nickel Creek – Hayloft

I’m putting this on here because it definitely raised an eyebrow or two at our listen party, and it’s like nothing else Nickel Creek has ever done. I love that. It’s the only track on the album like it – and why shouldn’t  it be there? I respect a legendary “newgrass” group that decides to squeeze in a bombastic drum-and-bass-almost-dance-club song about young lovers getting caught in the act by the girl’s gun-toting farmer dad – yes, in a hayloft.

Jack White – Lazaretto

I just heard this today and it made it right on the list. Wow. It seems like more and more, Jack White is sounding like early Rage Against the Machine, which I LOVE. He’s got his signature, increasingly high-pitched, acerbic voice and a punishing guitar riff that I can’t even really make sense of right now. So excited for the new release this June.

What songs have you loved this year?

The ’90s Roots of Today’s Indie Craze

Before there was the moody, guitar-crunch DIY music we associate today with the gargantuan indie rock acts of Jack White, Savages, or Queens of the Stone Age, those trails were blazed by the Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Soundgarden, Radiohead and the Deftones. In many ways their distinctive, quirky-yet-epic sounds from the 90s have been often imitated, but never duplicated. (How strange that that 90s music will be considered “classic rock” to my kids! I wonder what Boston, Journey, and Queen – the “classic rock” of my childhood – will become for them.) Here’s an attempt to connect a few historical threads, song for song, from some mid to early 90s bands to the sounds we hear today in mid 2010s.

The Deftones’ “My Own Summer” —> The Savages’ “I Am Here” — It’s all about the ethereal, ghoulish vocals in a distortion-heavy guitar atmosphere.

 


 


 
Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade” —> Jack White’s  “Freedom at 21” — That riff! So similar. I think the swagger of Jack White’s sound owes a lot to Tom Morello and the Rage crew. Vocals are similar as well.
 

 

 
Stone Temple Pilot’s “Lounge Fly” –>  Queens of the Stone Age “I Sat by the Ocean” — The Queens’ structure is a little more straightforward than STP’s, but you can’t mistake the high looping lead guitar and the vocal grit.
 

 

 
Weezer’s “You Gave Your Love To Me Softly” –> Japandroids’ “The House That Heaven Built” — This is Weezer’s biggest rocker, and it’s not hard to hear its influence in this Japandroids instant-classic twenty years later. The emotion is there, and the guitar lines just whip through your consciousness like a lasso.
 

 

 

Cherub Rock for your Mundane Monday

When I got to work this morning, it seemed like anything petty and tedious that could come up did come up, and I needed to overcome it somehow. Eye-rolling and dramatic face-palming was only getting me so far. An hour later I found myself humming “Cherub Rock” (Let me out!) and something about honey. Sometimes you just need some vintage Pumpkins. Never seen this video before I looked it up today, but it’s pretty trippy, complete with 90s bright pink and neon strobe lights.

Waterfront Blues Fest Just Got A Lot More Awesome

 

I am really excited about the Waterfront Bluesfest this year, even though I thought I wouldn’t be. Three reasons – Gregg Allman, Los Lonely Boys, and now, none other than the Tuareg guitar legend Bombino.

He has been compared to Jimi Hendrix for his intensity and fiery chops, and his debut record last year was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. I love the record, have since last summer, and as soon as  I heard it, I thought “This guy would be perfect for blues fest.”

Honestly I didn’t think the festival organizers would be able to snag such a hot commodity. He majorly turned heads last year at Newport Folk and I just didn’t know if the Portland doers were with-it enough to get him. So I am impressed and excited.

There’s also this great Daytrotter session with Los Lonely Boys from back in January. I downloaded it during Lent but didn’t listen to it. I’m glad I saved it. I love their driving, funky Santana-like guitars, Blues Traveler upward energy and well-blended harmonies. Can’t wait to hear them live – I’ve heard that’s how they’re best experienced.

And in case you missed my first gushing about Blues Fest and their decision to have Gregg Allman headline sensational Sunday this year, check it out here.

We’re blues-ward bound!

Wagon Wheel – Against Me!

I’m celebrating that Lent is over by looking up all the bands I couldn’t listen to for six weeks and trying to find something new or fresh from their catalog. This would definitely fit. I’ve loved “Wagon Wheel” for years, but never expected Against Me! to do a version of it, or that it would actually be pretty darn good. This is from 2008, so several years before the Darius Rucker madness, when the song became a “thing.” And, pray, don’t forget that it’s Old Crow Medicine Show who did the original, the building blocks of which came from a Dylan basement tape recording on a B-side for the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack. Truly a legendary song with decades of history, this time done by a modern indie punk mover/shaker.

Josh Ritter, You Can’t Be Serious

Josh Ritter, You Can’t Be Serious

So, um. This is happening. I was reading this boring press release about Oregon Zoo concerts this summer featuring Huey Lewis, Pat Benatar, and some other ok-but-not-worth-spending-money-on acts, and then at the very end of it they kind of almost forgot to mention that FREAKING JOSH RITTER is coming BACK to Portland WITH Lake Street Dive this summer at the zoo. Dang!

This pretty much equals and probably surpasses my awestruck wonder at the Todd Snider, Hayes Carll,  Sarah Jarosz, Shawn Mullins zoo announcement from around this time last year. I can’t quite catch my breath. It’s real. We’re going. My kids can go. Incredible. Just have to hold out until next Friday until I can get on the “promo” list for earlier tickets. Wow.