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JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
After one of the producers stumbled across some outlandish deprecation I’d made about Eric Clapton on Facebook, I was asked by a radio station in Glasgow, Scotland, home of the ancestors (some of them, anyway), this week to name my five favorite guitarists. The request was cruel. Five? Impossible. Here are 10, in order of relative genius–and that still leaves a lot of blood and blisters on the floor.
1. Robert Johnson: 32-20 Blues.
The font from which all else flows, though perhaps not as urgently.
2. Jimi Hendrix: Red House (Live in San Diego).
Hendrix transcended the limitations of the instrument and none of his disciples, armed with phase-shifters, octavers, flangers, distortion pedals, modulators, MIDI interfaces, loopers, envelope shapers, synths or time-shifters, have ever come close to capturing his sound and none ever will.
3. Wes Montgomery: Unit 7 (Live at the Half Note.)
Naptown’s own. Wes made the guitar sing and swing.
4. Freddie King: Hideaway.
The King of the all the Kings.
5. John McLaughlin: In a Silent Way (with Joe Zawinul)
It’s not just about the speed….
6. Sonny Sharrock: Stupid Fuck.
What Hendrix might have sounded like if he’d lived long enough to improvise with Miles Davis.
7. James Blood Ulmer: Are You Glad to be in America?
What Ornette Coleman might have sounded like if he’d played guitar.
8. Mike Bloomfield: One Way Out.
The only white blues guitar player who really did much of anything for me. If Bob Dylan had allowed Bloomfield to play on Blood on the Tracks, as originally intended, it would have been a much different and less monotonous record. Recall that when Dylan went “electric” at Newport on July 25, 1965, it was Bloomfield who provided most of the wattage.
9. Marvin Tarplin: Tracks of My Tears (with Smokey Robinson)
Smokey Robinson confessed to me, Daisy Cockburn and Alexander Cockburn (along with about 10,000 others at JazzFest) that Marv Tarplin was the secret to the success of The Miracles and other Motown bands. Who am I to argue?
10. Tony Iommi: Paranoid (with Black Sabbath)
Sold his soul for power chords. Forty-five years later no apparent regrets.
Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, once played two-chord guitar in a Naptown garage band called The Empty Suits. His latest book, Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (co-edited with Kevin Alexander Gray and JoAnn Wypijewski) will be released in June by CounterPunch Books.
Levon Helm, Dirt Farmer (Vanguard Records, 2007)
Levon Helm, Electric Dirt (Vanguard Records, 2009)
The story of The Band is a tragic one. Rick Danko died of a heart attack at age 56. Richard Manuel committed suicide at 42. A longtime smoker, Levon Helm fell victim to cancer two years ago at 71. Garth Hudson is still kicking and so too is Robbie Robertson, the man who essentially undercut his mates by assigning all The Band’s publishing rights to himself. Robertson’s greedy gesture left the rest of The Band, who always shared writing credits, with deep economic hardships. This past week, after persistent prodding by Jeffrey, I finally sat down and watched Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm, which documents the making of Dirt Farmer, Helm’s first solo work since 1982. While the film is certainly a must-watch, Dirt Farmer serves as redemption for Helm and is every bit as good as anything Neil Young has put out in the past twenty years (quality over quantity?). It’s complex, dense, soulful yet light-hearted and whimsical. Dirt Farmer went on to win a much-deserved Grammy for best Traditional Folk album of 2007. Following Dirt Farmer, Helm would go on to score another Grammy in 2009 for his fabulous record Electric Dirt - which channels a younger, folksy Grateful Dead – with a shimmering rendition of a rambling Tennessee Jed. While the music industry and Robbie Robertson may have abandoned him, Helm never gave up on his art – had he been in it for his health, he probably would have.
Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch. He lives in the LBC.
Mark Lanegan: Has God Seen My Shadow? An Anthology 1989-2011 (Light in the Attic Records, 2013)
Mark Lanegan: Imitations (Vagrant, 2013)
Last week, I received a package in the mail from Seattle. Lo, it was an autographed copy of Mark Lanegan’s latest album, Imitations. “Hey Kristin – All the best, Mark” is, I’m sure, code for let’s meet under a mosquito net in Havana when you’re feeling better.
“He’s a crooner,” said my friend Alethea when we saw him in Portland a few years ago. And with his these two new releases, she proves she’s correct. Imitations is a collection of covers of Neil Sedaka, Nick Cave (with whom he just toured), John Cale, Kurt Weill, and others. But my favorites lean toward his typical dirges, like the song, “Flatlands.”
Just after the release of Imitations, I was overjoyed to receive a three-record vinyl anthology of this solo work, including one whole disc of previously unreleased songs. This time, he errs too much on the crooning. The hard albums he’s created with full bands are his best. His collaborations with Queens of the Stone Age are brutal – certainly the song, “Hanging Tree,” should make the cut. But some songs from this best album, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, are there. And I wish some of his projects with Kurt Cobain had made it. He does include, “Come to Me” a sexy duet with P.J. Harvey. It’s not the anthology I would’ve made, but well worth it for all the new songs included – a place to start, or an essential for the obsessive fan.
Kristin Kolb writes the Daydream Nation column for CounterPunch magazine.
The nation’s top grassroots citizen eco-activist Mike Roselle (currently in Day 20 of a hunger fast protesting the abomination of blowing up mountains for coal/sickening entire communities with toxic dust) once looked over my CD collection looking for one to put on. He noted, “I hate these hippies. They wear their hair the same way they did 30 years ago; they wear the same clothes they wore 30 years ago and they listen to the same damn music they did 30 years ago.” (He settled on Willie Nelson’s 16 Biggest Hits.)
Roselle had a point. Most of my music is from the 60s and 70s. I tend to like music with a message. But I’ve been into some great new stuff lately…stuff with a message I support.
Medicine is a group of young musicians fronted by Nahko Bear, an Oregon native with Apache, Filipino and Puerto Rican DNA who was adopted into an American family. He writes and sings most of their songs. Other band members also have Native roots. My good friend Hope Medford is the percussionist – she is also on the board of Honor the Earth – the Indigenous Women’s Environmental Network started by Winona LaDuke and activist/musicians The Indigo Girls.
Medicine has a loyal and growing following (some of their YouTube videos have been viewed over two million times!) I’ll go so far as to say they are movement builders - a movement based on Peace, Love and respect for and defense of Gaia.
It’s a young movement. I attended one of their sold-out shows and I had to be the oldest person there — a shame, as young activists like Medicine for the People remind me of the days when Jackson Browne, Jesse Colin Young, Bonnie Raitt, John Trudell/Quiltman, Mark Farner, Wavy Gravy , Willie Nelson and other activist musicians helped jump-start the environmental /anti-nuke movement when we were all their age.
As to the message: they remind me a lot of Bob Marley in message. “we need more Peace and Love”…and, sans the usual rose-colored glasses…” and, this injustice is why we need more…” “this positive communitarian effort is one we should support…”
The band members are all part of various collaborative efforts in music and in community-building projects all around the planet – protection of Gaia being their spiritual and ethical touchstone.
Purify by Hope Medford
Hope also collaborates with a group of women musicians called SheBeats and she put out her first album called Back to the Mother in 2011. Hope’s new CD Purify is a hypnotic mix of reggae, street beats and even some Marvin Gaye-esque R & B. She puts out some beautiful music videos.
Solo Acoustic Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 by Jackson Browne
Speaking of Jackson Browne, I cannot get enough of his two solo acoustic CDs. One of my friends commented recently, “As to singer-songwriters, Bob Dylan took it so far and then there’s Jackson.” (For the record: Jackson and Joni top my list of singer/songwriters. Though, I try to keep in mind what my homeboy John Sinclair says about musical preferences: “There is no best of anything. Just good stuff you like and other good stuff you don’t.”)
Jackson, of course, is one of the top activist/musicians out there and has inspired many other artists to join him in supporting the movement for a better planet – “Peace, Love and Granola,” as Wavy would say – the same movement that Medicine for the People currently provide the soundtrack for. Jackson risked his career taking on Ronnie Reagan over Central America. He not only stood/stands strong against nuclear pollution, he has raised millions doing benefits for worthy environmental causes and for entities like the LA Women’s Cancer Research Center thru the years and continues to do so.
Much of Jackson’s work has had a lot of California pop in it – not a bad thing given the skill of the musicians involved; hard to find anyone who has had such a great sidekick as David Lindley. But, these albums strip it down to the essentials and allow for greater appreciation of the lyrical content of the songs.
Through the Dust by John Trudell and Kwest
Jackson’s old roommate (and Jackson and Wavy’s cellmate re: Diablo Canyon) John Trudell’s latest collaboration is with young Swiss producer Kwest. One of the great activists/truth-tellers of our generation, John has been “discovered” by conscious youth around the planet. Tracks like Keeping Dry Tomorrow and Becomes Apparent speak direct to all generations, especially the youth who are bearing the brunt of eco-degradation and the rise of corporate dominance.
Any of John’s CDS with Quiltman together as Tribal Voice; others, with the late, great Jesse Ed Davis; or the many with Quiltman and the excellent band Bad Dog are worthy of a place in anyone’s collection of activist music.
MICHAEL DONNELLY is an environmental activist in Oregon.
The Trinity Sessions—Cowboy Junkies.
This remains my favorite disc from the Cowboy Junkies. Margo Timmins voice is angelically haunting. The band’s subdued take on the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” remains the best version not sung by Lou Reed. Two other songs—the band-composed “Misguided Angel” and James Gordon’s heartbreakingly beautiful indictment of gold mining in South Africa, “Mining for Gold,” take the listener’s breath away. Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and a remake of “Blue Moon” redefine country music , keeping the honky-tonk while cloaking it in a dreamy sound from another dimension where the whippoorwill’s cries are the universal language.
Quartet Pours la fin du temps–Olivier Messaien.
Novelist Richard Powers published a book titled Orfeo in the past year. The novel is the story of a retired, slightly eccentric, music professor who has taken up biogenetic research in his waning years. During a visit from the local police regarding his dog, an officer notices the professor’s laboratory and reports its existence to the department of Homeland Security. The professor goes on the run—just because. What follows is a tale of the chase and a series of reflections about life in the new post-911 world, marriage and love, and music. This quartet by Messaien has fascinated me since I first heard when I was in junior high. Powers’ musing on its creation and its meaning are the best segment of his novel. Nothing written or said describes and creates the imagined end of time like this piece. Nothing.
Ron Jacobs’ book on the Seventies, Daydream Sunset, will published by CounterPunch this summer.
Handel, Coronation Anthems performed by The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers
As you’ll find out in my column this week, I’ve been thinking about Queen Anne’s death three hundred years ago today and the hype surrounding Prince George’s recent first birthday. This juxtaposition then led me to ruminate on the German roots of the current British monarchs and the greatest musical buttress to the their durability: the heavy guns of Handel’s coronation anthems. These mighty beasts have been recorded countless times before, but the well-trained nuance and ecstatic energy of Christophers’ troops surpass all previous efforts. Republicans should listen to this euphoric assault on democratic ideals with extreme caution. After facing the jubilant oncoming colors of this multi-pronged and relentlessly uplifting attack you could find yourself hoisting the white flag of surrender and declaring yourself a royalist through and through.
David Yearsley, author of “Bach’s Feet,” once played the world’s oldest piano and didn’t damage it … much.
Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth: Mecca and the Soul Brother
Joe Diffie: Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album
Bruce Peninsula: Open Flames
Lee Ballinger co-edits Rock and Rap Confidential and writes about music and politics for CounterPunch.