The Caramoor American Roots Festival is Back! And Jazz on Saturday.

The Caramoor American Roots Music Festival 2021, in collaboration with City Winery, was an in-person event. And that’s a blessing. Caramoor on Zoom is missing a key ingredient—that incredible sylvan glade.

Kat Wright with Josh Weinstein on bass and Bob Wagner on guitar. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The event, on July 24, was virtually unchanged from its usual format, albeit with a reduced number of bands (and fewer food trucks). But there was plenty of useful variety anyway. Let’s take it chronologically.

The Brooklyn-based RT’s were already playing when we arrived. It was possible to set up in the shade, and still be pretty close to this enhanced singer-songwriter outfit. Enhanced in the sense that they had a horn section—trumpet and baritone saxophone. It was pleasant pop with a brassy oomph. The baritone guy had serious chops. I usually blanche at descriptions of bands that mix “punk rock energy, horn-drenched soul & precise musicianship,” but the RT’s went down easy. Their songs could be more distinctive. They later played an acoustic set.

Hubby Jenkins is a one-man roots band. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Female-led Upstate met at SUNY-New Paltz in 2011. I liked their harmonies but, alas, found their generic folk-rock songs on the bland side. Though I agree with the idea of doing a song about friendship. There indeed aren’t enough songs about friends, though didn’t Elton John have a song?

Martha Redbone was solo in the beautiful Sunken Garden—just voice. That didn’t work so well, but she sounded much better on the Friends Stage with a guitar and keyboard behind her. Redbone has a powerful voice, and tells stories that are interesting but go on too long. William Blake songs sound great set to music—why don’t more performers take a crack at it?

Upstate excelled at harmonies. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Reggie Harris is straight out of Pete Seeger, and none the worse for that. He’s no longer performing in a duo with ex-wife Kim, but manages to make a rousing noise and tell an epic story. In this case, about the path taken by the woman who became Harriet Tubman. He was perfect for the East Lawn, where the audience contained many children. A pair of five-year-olds danced in front of the stage, and I’m sure that was Harris (and Seeger) approved.

Reggie Harris: chasing Pete Seeger and Harriet Tubman. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A considerable highlight of the day for me was Hubby Jenkins’ solo slot at Friends Field. Formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and then in Rhiannon Giddens’ band, Jenkins is (like Bruce Molsky, Mike Seeger, Jackson Lynch, Taj Mahal, Dom Flemons, Dirk Powell and a few others) excellent solo.

He says he’s going to inform the audience about “black people,” and he does, offering useful history lessons in a cadence so fast his words tend to overlap. And then he shows what he means on his guitar (slide a specialty) and banjo, adding in a strong tenor voice. Jenkins not only did songs form Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell, but also performed “Little Log Cabin in the Lane,” an old song that he pointed out was written by a white man (William S. Hays, 1871) from the point of view of a former slave who misses slavery.

Jenkins also talked about the deep weirdness necessary for acclaimed African-American performers such as Bert Williams (1874-1922) to perform in black face. As best I can tell, this was to give audiences the comforting illusion that they weren’t actually watching a black performer.

Jenkins needs more recordings. He has one self-titled album and an EP, The Fourth Day, as a solo performer.

I loved Kat Wright, who played both on the big Venetian Theater stage and in the Sunken Garden. On record she uses a larger band, but at Caramoor she brought a tight trio with bass (Josh Weinstein) and guitar (Bob Wagner). Her music is Americana with a bit of horn-led swagger, but more intimate in stripped-down form—especially in the garden setting.

In another era, Wright would be a torch singer, tearing up the Great American Songbook. She has the vocal chops for that. Evidently, Bonnie Raitt was a big influence, and one critic dubbed her “young Bonnie Raitt meets Amy Winehouse,” but the latter only comes from those cats-eye eyeliner flips. Back in the day it might have been Billie Holiday. Did I mention that her songs are darn good? One she identified as having been written by guitarist Wagner, was also fine (if downbeat), and I captured it on video:

The headliners were The War and Treaty, a husband-and-wife modern country act. They both have big voices and strongly commercial songs that place them in the mainstream of country today. It’s interesting that they win folk awards—folk, they ain’t.

Next Saturday, the equally worthwhile Caramoor Jazz Festival, featuring Sean Jones’ Dizzy Spellz, Endea Owens & The Cookout, Charles Turner & Uptown Swing, Alexa Tarantino Quartet, Brandon Goldberg Trio, Godwin Louis & Jonathan Barber; Jeremy Bosch & Friends: Salsa Meets Jazz, Nicole Glover & Daniel Duke, Christina Carminucci & Leonid Morozov-Vintskevich and the Summer Camargo Trio.

The Red Wing Roots Festival: A Stunning Return

“You can dance in a hurricane/But only if you stay in the eye.” That was a lyric from one of the songs Red Wing Roots Festival organizers Steel Wheels sang (with special guests) in their opening set. It was great hearing them, especially with some excited students, as a reintroduction to live music after the one-year-plus of COVID 19.

The actual chimneys!

The festival launched in 2013, and it’s back bigger than ever. After it was over, Steel Wheels emailed, “What an amazing way to return to live music. You all, you who make up the Red Wing and Steel Wheels community, have kept us going through a long two years since we were last able to do this.”

There was pent-up demand. The festival was packed, with campers spread all over Natural Chimneys State Park in Augusta County, Virginia. One of the stages—there were five of them—was in fact right under the awesome chimneys.

Bill and the Belles.

The festival is awesomely programmed, and I heard a tremendous amount of good, new music. Here they are, in chronological order. Bill and the Belles I’ve written about extensively, and they were in fine form for two sets at Red Wing. They have a new album called Happy Again (an ironic title; it’s about a divorce—though it sounds upbeat) and songs that showcase their fascinating parade through the back pages of American music. Previous albums logged into Bing Crosby-style crooning, but this one has its ear on the girl groups of the 50s, among other things. We sat next to banjoist Aidan VanSuetendael’s parents—the first time they’d seen her with Bill and the Belles. Fiddle player Kalia Yeagle was also on fire, especially on “Johnson City Rag.”

The Chatham Rabbits.

My big find of the festival was the Chatham Rabbits, Sarah and Austin McCombie, a husband-and-wife duo from North Carolina. They perform original songs about the basic things in life, and get directly to the heart. They’re fine as a duo (Sarah tells funny stories, one about an elderly relative who didn’t like being told she couldn’t collect roadkill when she was over 100). But the two albums I’ve heard add some welcome elements. “My songs are about getting old or stressed out,” Sarah said. Yes, but more than that.

Anna Tivel and Adam Wolcott Smith.

Anna Tivel was wonderful to hear. I’d just gotten her very quiet album as a download. She’s a great lyricist (“…a fusebox sparking in the summer grass”), and she knows that’s not enough—the songs twist the hooks into your gut. At Red Wing, she was hugely aided by guitar support from one Adam Wolcott Smith, a Brooklynite. What he played had a metal edge and shouldn’t have worked—it could have been overwhelming, but instead it was hugely enhancing. His work created audioscapes that made it sound like there was an orchestra behind the curtain.

Tivel is out of the singer-songwriter tradition. Her songs tend to the mordant. “My sister, who knows me best, challenged me to write a love song where nobody dies,” she said.

I caught the tail end of David Wax Museum, also performing as a duo. They’re building a home stage with online funding—a great COVID solution, don’t you think? Hiss Golden Messenger seemed to be chasing the Dead, and why not—there’s a void there.

The one act I saw at the festival that didn’t ring any bells for me was a singer-songwriter named Erin Lunsford. Good singer, not good songs. Her cover of “A Case of You” was the highlight of the set.

Miss Tess brought an awesome band.

Another artist I’ve raved about before is Miss Tess, and she was absolutely sparking at Red Wing with a super band led by Thomas Bryan Eaton on electric guitar and pedal steel. (The pair of them also just made an album called Parlor Sounds). Comparisons to Eilen Jewell and her band would not go amiss. The band channels the best of rockabilly and Americana. Eaton is an excellent guitarist (like Jewell’s Jerry Miller) and Miss Tess is handy on the instrument, too.

The Jacob Joliff Band played fast, virtuoso bluegrass. Joliff is ex-Yonder Mountain String Band, and I kept expecting them to get into the jam band thing, but they fortunately never did. A favorite instrumental was called “Large Garbage Barge.” On flashy guitar and singing a few numbers was “Stash” Wyslouch from Bruce Molsky’s Mountain Drifters band.

I only heard a bit of Sierra Ferrell (five stages, remember?) but she sounded super-competent and crowd-pleasing. The next Allison Krauss or Mary Chapin Carpenter? Her set was mobbed.

The Fernandez Sisters.

Another fond discovery at Red Wing: The Fernandez Sisters from Durham, North Carolina. All three of them are strong players and singers (on guitar, mandolin and fiddle). They’re still very young, but have been playing at Red Wing for years, and as a band since 2011.

Danny Nicely (right) with Cheik Diabate in white.

Completely unexpected was a band featuring Cheik Hamala Diabaté from Mali on kora, guitar and banjo and Danny Nicely on mandolin (and occasional bass). He’s a first cousin of koramaster Toumani Diabate. The western players in the band have all absorbed the Mali tradition, but applied it to unusual material, such as the trad country tune “Little Satchel.” The guitarist was fabulous, and wouldn’t have been out of place with New York’s 75 Dollar Bill. Bass legend Mark Schatz was, well, on bass (except when he played the banjo).

LA Edwards (at right).

I enjoyed a brothers act named LA Edwards. The lead brother, Californian Luke Andrew Edwards, has a compelling singing style and is a good songwriter, too. Sarah Jarosz was fine. Her best moments were covering a John Prine song in tribute to him, and essaying a very sweet “Little Satchel” (yes, the same songs the African guys did).

Tim O’Brien brought his fine band.

And finally, ending things on a high note for me, was the Tim O’Brien Band. Maybe he’s been cooped up for long, but he was like a horse out of a gate. O’Brien is one of our contemporary masters of old-time music, but he’s an excellent songwriter, too. Much of the material was from his great new album, He Walked On. All the players were standouts, so the band will hopefully stay together. Finally, let me say that the festival was extremely well organized, with water stations, food availability, a shade area, excellent sound, schedules that started on time, and well-coordinated ticketing and parking. There were plenty of volunteers to help out. I can’t think of one criticism, other than that the Hill Stage was, unfortunately, up a very long hill. Maybe only four stages next year? I will be back next year.

Music Festivals are Back: Check out Red Wing Roots

Live music is coming back. I dipped my toe back in with a house concert featuring Bruce Molsky and Tony Trischka here in Connecticut, but next week I’m hitting the road for the Red Wing Roots Festival (July 9, 10 & 11 in Mount Solon, Virginia).

Steel Wheels, your hosts at Red Wing.

The festival, one I’ve missed, is hosted by the Steel Wheels band. On WPKN I interviewed Trent Wagler, the group’s leader, and he said the aim was to create a roots festival for the Shenandoah Valley. Working with their friends Michael Weaver and Jeremiah Jenkins, they made it happen in Natural Chimneys Park and Campground in 2013. I’m not a camper, but it looks like a great place or that option.

On stage at Red Wing.

Here’s just some of the lineup: The Steel Wheels, The Mavericks, Sarah Jarosz, Hiss Golden Messenger, Bettye Lavette, Tim O’Brien Band. Peter Rowan’s Free Mexican Air Force, Dustbowl Revival, Hawktail, Town Mountain, Bill and the Belles, Miss Tess and many more. I like that there are groups I never heard of that sound wonderful, such as the Chatham Rabbits. With a name like that, c’mon, they’re going to be stupendous. I talked to Kris Truelsen of Bill and the Belles, and the group is excited to be finally getting on the road this summer.

Bill and the Belles, with Kris Truelsen third from left.

There’s really no substitute for live music. I like Zoom as a tool, and I even promoted a couple of Zoom music festivals, but the medium pales after a while. Jazz musician David Friedman told me, “It’s live or I’m staying home!”

The Chatham Rabbits. With a name like that, how could they not be great?

Typically, I go to five or six festivals per season. Obviously, that didn’t happen in 2020. But so far in 2021, it looks like I can also attend these live events: Rhythm & Roots in Rhode Island, Green River in Massachusetts, and the Baltimore Old Time Music Festival.

Good music, great setting.

One of the great advantages of these events for people still cautious about COVID. They’re outside! The closest thing to indoors is the porta-potties.

Miss Tess.

It’s going to be about a seven-hour drive to Red Wing. It’s more than worth it for three days of great live music.

WPKN’s Own Chris Frantz Presents the Lockdown Festival March 13

Chris Frantz, drummer for Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club and a WPKN disc jockey for a decade, is presenting a virtual day of music, The Lockdown Festival, on March 13. Frantz lives in Westport, Connecticut, and the festival will be hosted at the town library’s new Verso Studios. Tickets at $25 are available at https://westportlibrary.org/lockdown-music-festival, and the event will benefit Neighborhood Studios of Fairfield County, a nonprofit promoting art, music, theater and dance. A $40 contribution scores a ticket and the concert poster.

Performing during the event, which starts at 7 p.m., are soul-funk band Deep Banana Blackout; Tom Tom Club veteran Mystic Bowie and his Talking Dreads with reggae, ska and lovers rock; multi-instrumentalist Plastic Ivy (a/k/a Lira Marie Landes); electronica from Xeno & Oaklander; the all-hockey Zambonis; poet Sadie Dupuis; and husband-and-wife rock group Du-Rites/Lulu Lewis. 

“Many of the groups are from Connecticut, but the Du-Rites are from Brooklyn and the new-and-wild Plastic Ivy is from Philadelphia,” said Frantz, who along with the other Talking Heads was just awarded a 2021 Grammy Special Merit award. “All these groups have an artistry to what they do—they don’t chase the trends. Sadie Dupuis has a band called Speedy Ortiz, but she’s also a published poet and for Westport she’s going to be reading from her work. Xeno & Oaklander are a synth duo, but they also sing beautifully.”

Curator Frantz will serve as master of ceremonies. “I may or may not be introducing the bands live,” he said. “We’re working that out.”

“Westport is very fortunate to have someone of Chris’s talent and generosity living in our community,” said Westport Library Executive Director Bill Harmer. “He’s an extraordinary musician who has inspired so many artists over his long career. When we brought up the idea of having a concert to showcase our new audio and video production studios, he was all in! The talent he has assembled for this show is nothing short of remarkable.”

Harmer continued, “The funds we raise from the concert will enable us to bring the young people from the Neighborhood Studios in Bridgeport to the library to experience a fully functioning commercial recording studio. We’re thrilled to provide this educational opportunity.”

Frantz’ WPKN radio show is called “Chris Frantz the Talking Head,” and over the years his guests have included Debbie Harry from Blondie, Richard Lloyd of Television, Cindy Wilson of the B-52s and producer Mike Thorne (Soft Cell, Laurie Anderson, John Cale).

Frantz guesses it was around 2010 that he and wife Tina Weymouth (bassist in both of Frantz’ bands) were approached at an arts fundraiser in Norwalk by then-WPKN Station Manager Peter Bochan and asked if they’d be interested in being on the air at the station.

“Tina said, ‘You don’t want me, you want him,’” Frantz said. “We have both listened to the station over many years and had visited to promote our projects. We agreed to do it because we enjoy the vibe, and the fact that WPKN is community- and listener-supported and fiercely independent in its programming. We’ve visited thousands of radio stations on tour over the years, but none were quite like WPKN.”

Frantz is excited about WPKN’s impending move this spring to 277 Fairfield Avenue in downtown Bridgeport. “It’s a great idea,” he said. “Clearly, WPKN needs to be in a place that has a bar [at the Bijou Theatre] downstairs. It’s a new day for WPKN, and a step in the right direction.” The station is currently raising funds for the move, which is expected to cost around $300,000.

Steve di Costanzo, WPKN’s current general manager, added that moving to downtown Bridgeport will add a heightened level of community engagement to the station. It will also give the operation much greater visibility with community partners, non-profits and the downtown creative community.

Dazed and Confused: The Oral History

Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (Harper) by Mellissa Maerz

The template for successful oral histories was set by Jean Stein’s Edie: American Girl, about the doomed Warhol superstar Edie Sedgewick. Norman Mailer said at the time it was released in 1982, “This is the book of the ‘60s that we have been waiting for.”

It’s tempting to say, then, that Alright, Alright, Alright is the book about the ‘70s that we’ve all been waiting for—but that’s not quite it. This is the book that tells the story of the movie that best defines that era, or at least a small part of it. Dazed and Confused was set on the last day of high school, 1976, in a Texas town. The kids get high, they hook up, they bond, they say goodbye. It’s a microcosm, but one with broad application to other towns, and other years.

There’s a formula to making oral history work, and Maerz put the right chemicals together. Alright is a work that’s full of emotion, as these stories always are, but it’s built on a very sturdy and methodically planned base. We get the prelude to the movie (filmmaker Richard Linkater maxing out his credit cards to make his debut, Slacker, with a bunch of misfits in his beloved Austin), the financing (via Universal, a step up to studio filmmaking), the casting (including a bunch of future stars—Renée Zellweger, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey), the filming (bonding ensued), the sad parting, the editing and music rights (replete with studio interference), the release (Dazed bombed initially), the reunion, and even a section on the film attaining cult status and the significance of it all.

There are sidebars, there are lists, there are (black and white) photographs, there are “where they are now” epilogues. If that’s an Entertainment Weekly approach to writing books, I don’t see an issue.

A few things stand out. One is Linklater’s iron determination to make the movie he was unspooling in his head. He wanted to keep it true to his own 1970s Texas high school experience, and he largely succeeded. Sure, some great material had to be cut, but what’s on the screen is mostly what the filmmaker—a football star for a time—actually experienced or saw around him at Huntsville High School. Even the names are preserved (which led to a lawsuit later). Ricky “Pink” Floyd really existed.

The film has a large, ensemble cast, and Linklater encouraged his actors to bond, and to create new scenes for their characters. Those who took advantage of that freedom—principally Posey and McConaughey—ended up with larger roles in the finished film and a boost for their careers. That iconic “alright, alright, alright” was McConaghey quoting The Doors’ Jim Morrison from the Boston Arena in 1970, though it could have come from “Cat’s Squirrel” on the first Cream album.

Those who didn’t get into the proper spirit, with the full-of-himself actor Shawn Andrews being the most glaring example, not only saw their screen time cut to almost nothing, but went nowhere later.

The great thing about Alright, Alright, Alright—and the oral history format—is that it gives you everything that happened in the making of Dazed from multiple points of view. (No, I’m not going to invoke Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashamon.) Cast and crew contradict each other, argue it out, and try to arrive at what actually happened during the 1992 shoot.

The author got great material from her subjects, and just about everyone (no Jovovich or Andrews) gave interviews. McConaghey plays an older guy still hanging around the high school parking lot. “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man,” he tells his buddies. “I get older; they stay the same age.” Looking at that today, the actor muses, “Who not only thinks that, but believes that? That’s this guy’s DNA….It’s a mantra. It’s a philosophy.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Most of the people involved went on to other projects, but few had experiences that were more affirming and life-changing. “There is no movie that has affected me more, or stayed with me longer, or shaped me as a filmmaker more,” says Affleck. “It’s my favorite movie I’ve ever worked on,” says Anthony Rapp.

It would be possible to do a book like this on almost any movie, but Dazed and Confused is a perfect choice. Actors sometimes barely remember film shoots—it was just six weeks out of their lives. But nobody ever forgot working on Dazed and Confused. Melissa Maerz does right by the film—and the people who made it.

The Air Felt Like Heaven

Saturday dawned with unseasonable warmth and bright sunshine. A still unsettled Presidential election, too. Votes were being counted in Pennsylvania. The New York Times was unsettling, as it often is these days.

Exit 46 rocks the neighborhood. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I do better when I’m busy. The leaves were nice and dry so I filled six bags with them, then looked up and noticed how many more were still to come down. I went for my morning bike ride. I love my Pedego.

It was 11:25 a.m. when Biden won the Keystone State and the Associated Press called the election for him. My wife got the notification a minute later (I’d turned mine off as too unnerving) and within moments I heard the first car horn. A traffic jam? No. The horns were soon answered and swelled into a chorus with happy shouts from front yards and porches. It really took me a minute or two to get what was going on.

My friend Ron was across the street at his son’s house, and he came out and we did distanced fist bumps. A heavy weight had been removed from his chest, it seemed. One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Erin McKeown, posted about this moment:

on saturday morning, i was walking slowly on one of the dirt roads near my house. i think i was listening to the new david sedaris collection. all of a sudden my phone started blowing up. every text chain i am part of. folks i hadn’t heard from in awhile. you know what had just happened. at that moment, a cyclist whizzed by me. i spontaneously whooped and raised my fists, and they returned my whoop and shouted “i just heard.” it was a surreal and strange moment. and of course, i immediately started to feel better. the malaise i felt this week was trump leaving my body.

It so happened that Saturday coincided with the semi-regular Shop & Stroll event in our Stratfield neighborhood. People sold crafts, jewelry, coffee and hot chocolate in their driveways. My friend Ari and other lens people displayed their photographs. You could buy cider doughnuts.

Exit 46 has an array of strong vocalists. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I grabbed a $2 hot chocolate, and was reminded of why I don’t drink sugary drinks anymore. Sipping it, I walked down the street and there on the corner, in front of a house whose dog hates my dog, the band Exit 46 was set up. I met the band through dog walking, actually. There’s a high level of canine ownership in the band, which was originally called Josh and the Dogwalkers.

Exit 46 has been on my radio show—right before the COVID shutdown—and I’ve played their cover songs on the air. There are three women lead singers, and two male. The sax man rocks out, and there are also strong players holding down the guitar, bass (a psychiatrist!), keyboard and drum chairs.

Exit 46 (our stop on the Merritt Parkway) does mostly covers, some with subtly altered lyrics. They love Fleetwood Mac—the later period, not the blues band led by Peter Green. They’re not political—it’s not like this was a rally celebrating the ouster of Trump.

But it felt like that.

Wordsworth wrote, celebrating the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” They said the very air felt electric. And didn’t they set the calendar back to zero? I’m exaggerating, but it felt a little like that long-gone time.

Exit 46 went through some old favorites. The aforementioned Josh had a strong lead on Creedence’s “Down on the Corner.” He also joined the women on a mostly acapella version of “Seven Bridges Road” by Steve Young. I love that song. They did “Wagon Wheel,” which doesn’t sound like a Dylan song, but at least partly is—it was finished by a member of Old Crow Medicine Show from a fragment Dylan had left over from the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sessions.

Sorry for the digression, but “Wagon Wheel” has become so popular in Americana circles that it’s been banned in certain locations. John Cranford of Swampfire Records put up signs at the Swampfire Sessions proclaiming, “Absolutely No ‘Wagon Wheel.’” The New England Americana Festival sold a t-shirt with the image of a crossed-out wagon wheel. I don’t care—I still like it, even though it is the folk “Free Bird.”

But back to that day and that place. The sun shone down, making it almost too warm. Crazy to think it snowed the week before, but now I was worried about sunburn.

The band did “Quit Dragging My Heart Around,” and a bunch of songs I didn’t know—probably because I’ve ignore the pop charts for decades. The audience kept growing. The band swung into a version of the late John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” sung very well indeed by another Ari, owner of the house and that dog that hates my dog. Out of Prine’s vast repertoire, why does that song from his first album get covered so much more than any other one? Dunno. Maybe because Bonnie Raitt covered it. Here’s a video snippet of that:

The Shop & Stroll ended, the sun went down, the band packed up. There were complications. The President said, “I WON. BY A LOT.” But we had that shining moment.

PRESCRIPT: Before election day, we had another moment: Halloween. Most of the block was dark, including my house, but my neighbor Dan always goes above and beyond, and this year he had a fun COVID-friendly chute to deliver candy to the people who have long seen our neighborhood as a central gathering point. Here’s what that looked like:

Dan’s distanced domicile.

The Long Night of John Martyn

Back in 2006, I interviewed the great producer Joe Boyd about his book White Bicycles, detailing his work with some of England’s most storied new folk musicians, including Nick Drake, Martin Carthy, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and more.

John Martyn, in his prime.

He was generous about all of them—until we came to John Martyn, one of the more interesting musicians in that stable. Boyd’s Witchseason represented John and Beverley Martyn during the period they recorded their fine Stormbringer! and Road to Ruin albums. To my surprise, Boyd had nothing good to say about Martyn—a virtuoso guitarist, brilliant songwriter and vocalist of no small ability—and got us off the subject as quickly as possible.

Now, having read Graeme Thomson’s Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn (Omnibus Press) I see why. Martyn, who died in 2009, was a musician at war with himself. Although he wrote songs of incredible sensitivity and delicacy, he fancied himself a pub roughneck, was terrible to women, and sabotaged a promising career.

He didn’t start out that way. Thomson’s book explains that, growing up in Glasgow, Martyn was a bookish lad who failed at sports and found himself with the guitar—which he practiced incessantly. His show-biz parents split up early, and he rarely saw them afterwards, being raised mostly by his grandmother. This was the period of some very talented guitarists on the UK folk scene—Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn. He left Scotland for England in 1967, and was soon sharing stages with his idols. The balladeer Ralph McTell (“Streets of London”) describes him then as bubbly and full of fun, “in awe of the power of music.”

Martyn’s first two solo albums, London Conversation (1967) and The Tumbler (1968), aren’t very good. He was just getting started as a songwriter, and was caught up in the fey tradition of British musicians writing about fairies and elves and magic toadstools. Ugh. He might have been better off sticking to blues and traditional English material, but that was never his way.

Martyn in those days was also generous, playing magical second guitar on his friend Bridget St. John’s John Peel-produced Ask Me No Questions, for instance. On my radio show recently, St. John (who now lives in New York) had only good things to say about their friendship. When John met Beverley in 1968 she was the more established musician, having released a string of commercially oriented singles. Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins played on them, and Boyd suggested taking her to America to record an album.

Martyn worshipped American musicians and loved The Band—he wasn’t going to stay home while she went to Woodstock and recorded with them. So off they both went, and he basically hijacked the sessions that became Stormbringer! (which features Levon Helm on drums and my friend Harvey Brooks on bass). They later recorded Road to Ruin in England, and you can hear Beverley receding. But these are still very good folk-rock LPs.

Beverley Martyn didn’t record an album of her own until No Frills (1998), recorded after they broke up. Once the couple had kids he apparently expected her to stay home and take care of them. The same pattern basically obtains with the other women in his life, some of whom left promising careers to be at his side. Drugs also entered the picture—heavily—and dealers and gangsters became regular callers. As they say, it ain’t a pretty picture.

John Martyn with his great foil, bassist Danny Thompson.

As a solo artist, Martyn had a brief run of fantastic albums, beginning with Bless the Weather and continuing through Solid Air, Inside Out and Sunday’s Child (1971-1975). He had been inspired by jazz, particularly Pharoah Sanders’ Karma, and that influence is reflected in his increasingly experimental guitar playing and singing. He displayed a fantastic range and an ability to slur vocal notes but still keep the songs eminently coherent.  

Martyn’s most famous song, which he professed to hate.

As a listener, I began to get alarmed around the time of One World (1977). He hated his pretty voice, and wanted to sound like a tough guy. I thought the music was both brutish (his voice deliberately made ugly) and fairly atonal—one song sounded like the next. I tuned out for a succession of albums, Grace and Danger (OK, one of the better ones), Glorious Fool, Well-Kept Secret, Sapphire, Piece by Piece, Cooltide, The Apprentice, No Little Boy, The Church With One Bell (a decent covers record), and Glasgow Walker. Between them, there’s maybe a halfway good double album.

Other musicians have coarsened their music, to both positive and negative effect. Tim Buckley, after making the sublime Happy/Sad (and also being influenced by both jazz and hard drugs), sunk into unlistenable “experimental” shrieking. Tom Waits’ later singing is difficult to listen to–he apparently wants to escape his early LA/Eagles/Asylum recording artist pop singer image. But his songwriting gift is intact.

What happened to John Martyn is a shame. He could have made good music. He could have been a good man. He could have been a good husband. He wasn’t. The second part of the book is pretty dispiriting, one bad gig, bender and ruined recording session after another. I read a late-period interview in Mojo magazine (after he lost his leg), and he seemed preoccupied with pub brawls. Paradoxically, once he was in a wheelchair he couldn’t make it to the bars and his on-stage performances improved. But really, don’t bother with his later career. But that run of wonderful early albums remains.

There’s a quite good documentary on Martyn, Johnny Too Bad (2004), that’s on Youtube in three parts. Here’s Part 1; you can easily find the rest of it:

Thomson’s book is recommended. I intend to check out another of his books, about Kate Bush. My guess is that it’s more uplifting.

Live Music in a Pandemic

My wife and I got the calendar out and we tried to figure out when we last heard live music. Keep in mind that our summers generally include as many as six Americana/folk festivals, including Green River, Green Mountain, Rhythm and Roots, Old Tone, Brooklyn Folk Festival, Clearwater, and others. But we went all the way back to January and came up dry.

But in the last couple of weeks I’ve been to two outdoor events, with mostly good results. Since it hasn’t gotten (really) cold yet, this is a good time to sample some (relatively) safe entertainment.

Liz McNicholl performing on a golden afternoon in Connecticut. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On an absolutely golden day a couple of weeks ago, I went up the Merritt Parkway to the home of my good friend Liz McNicholl, the Ireland-born Americana artist. I’ve known and loved Liz’ music for more than 20 years, and have seen her fine band many times at places like the Gaelic American Club and hosted her often on WPKN.

Liz has been hosting weekend shows poolside at her Connecticut home, and this was to be the last one for a while. Even though on the COVID paranoia scale I’m probably an 8 out of 10, I couldn’t not go. I didn’t want to not go.

Peter Blossom, Liz McNicholl, John Hurley. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The band (John Hurley and Pete Blossom were on guitars) played covers like Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (Liz) and “Simple Twist of Fate” (John). I love their version of “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” written by–of all people–Paul Anka. Here they are with Pat Alger’s “Once in a Blue Moon,” made famous by Nancy Griffith:

I arrived as the band was starting, and obliviously chose what turned out to be a less-than-ideal viewing spot between some large group “pods.” I should have gotten there earlier, because Liz had an ideal safe location for me all picked out–but what could she do with the band already on “stage”?

Liz is really careful about this stuff. She limits attendance, and works out what amounts to a seating chart–like preparing for a wedding, she says. You can’t put Cousin Bob next to Uncle John.

I made it through the first set with a big smile on my face, but not wanting to mingle on the patio at intermission, I retreated for a walk around the block. The sun was moving, and when I came back the folks in front of me had moved their chairs closer to get some shade. Can’t blame ’em, but uh-oh. Why am I such a worry wart?

Really, it was just fine. A beautiful afternoon out, and Liz and her husband Aaron couldn’t have done more to make the people there comfortable. She couldn’t have taken any more precautions–the music was magical, the show was outside, the people were distanced. But there’s just no way to wind everything back to carefree pre-COVID times.

My friend Valerie Denn, who books Americana shows, just posted to Facebook about the huge losses we’ve suffered in live music. And someone commented, “Just through a show with no masks. It is your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The government has taken all three from us by making everyone wear masks and not gather in larger groups. Liberty means to live your life free of restrictions and regulation set upon your life.”

I think that’s nuts. Do we want to say goodbye to live music forever? And how could you think it’s your right to infect other people?

The Better Half at Applausi. From left, Mugrage, Packham, Seem. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The second show featured my friend guitarist Greg Packham–playing drums. Or in this case, drum. We were at Applausi, an Italian restaurant in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. The food was delicious, and it was nippy but not yet cold.

The band, called The Better Half, featured a former member of Orleans, Michael Mugrage, on guitar and vocals and Jenny Seem, who took most of the leads on a string of pop hits (including “Dance With Me” by Orleans). It was fun to see confirmed progressive jazz guitarist Packham not only banging the skins, but doing so on a Carpenters hit. Seem is a fine singer, especially on a record they gave me called Pie in the Sky.

Mugrage is a gifted songwriter, as the demonstrated by the few originals the group performed. He has quite a resume, producing music for Monday Night Football, writing a theme song for Good Morning America, and acting as Ronnie Spector’s music director. He wrote songs for Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan, The Average White Band, Tommie Roe and Richie Havens. He seemed to be having a good time, and praised the Applausi chefs.

Again, it was quite nice to be hearing music again. The evening was properly distanced. I’d go again, and next time I hope they turn on all the patio heaters.

Testing the Hasselblad

I take a lot of music photos, including for this blog. I think I can call myself a photo journalist, but I’m not a camera person. I don’t speak the lingo, pore over photo magazines buy multiple cameras. I mostly use small Panasonic cameras with nice Leica lenses. Portability is key with me, and the Panasonics fit into my pocket.

My tried and true Lumix goes everywhere, in my pocket. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But I was offered a test of a very high-end Swedish Hasselblad, a camera that held sway in the salad days of the professional photographer. I hired photographers in the 1980s and ‘90s, and they bought Hasselblads if they could afford them. They were versatile, allowing for the use of different backs, with 35-millimeter film and Polaroids for quick tests.

Hasselblad has made a great effort, in the modern age, to reduce the once-lofty price of its cameras, and the X1DII digital camera I tested was $5,750 with a 45-millimeter f3.5 lens that sells for $2,695. So a big investment at $8,445.

The camera came with a strap, a 110-volt recharger, and a 32-gigabyte SD card (plugging into one of two SD slots, a useful feature). For someone used to pocket cameras, it’s fairly heavy at 1.69 pounds without the lens. I took some photos using the RAW format, but found I lack both the computer and the software to handle such huge files. But the Hasselblad will also shoot in JPEG, or JPEG + RAW.

The photos looked good. Here’s one I took of my Saab:

I thought the Hasselblad was beautiful and beautifully made, but it’s way over my pay grade. I’m no camera expert, but I have friends who are. Tod Bryant of Norwalk, Connecticut took pictures for me at E/The Environmental Magazine, did corporate work for annual reports, brochures and advertising, and has taught photography for 30 years at the Parsons division of the New School University in New York City. His current interest is architectural history and preservation.

With Tod, I tested the Hasselblad against Tod’s Nikon D850, a $2,996.95 camera with a $1,951.95 17-35 millimeter f2.8 lens ($4,948.90 total). That one is fairly heavy, too.

Hasselblad and Nikon. (Tod Bryant photo)

Tod’s conclusion: “I was amazed that there was almost no difference [in photo quality]. I tested both cameras indoors with window light at ISO 25,600 in program mode and the RAW files were virtually indistinguishable at 100 percent. The ‘Blad held more clean detail in some shadow areas. The Nikon’s JPEGs were very close to its raw files, but the jpegs from the X1DII were noticeably darker and they had a strong blue cast.”

For a second opinion I went to the comments section at B&H in New York, which sells the Hasselblad.

Dac Minh: “This Hasselblad is designed for those who love and enjoy the art of photography, old school if you will. If you came from film photography, you will like this. I find this camera connects to me like no other. When I held this in my hand, it makes me want to go out and take pictures. The camera somehow makes a boring looking landscape better in picture. There is an intangible thing that cannot be measured. You just have to experienced it and see for yourself. For the longest time, I hesitate buying the X1DII because of the price, no more. This camera is a keeper. It will go down in history as one of the classics.”

Joseph: “Such a beautiful camera. You could buy it just as a work of art, frame it and put it on the wall! But, I’d recommend using it instead to take some remarkably high quality photos instead. This is my third medium format camera and to be clear to anyone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of medium format, this is a crop medium format sensor. Still larger than a DSLR sensor but not as large as a true Digital MF Sensor like you find on an H6-100 or PhaseOne 100 or 150mp digital back. That being said, you still get much higher quality resolution from this than you do on a typical DSLR.”

Here are two images taken with the Hasselblad and Nikon, hand-held at 25,600 ISO. Tod’s conclusion: “The X1DII is definitely sharper and cleaner, but not enough to justify the price difference for most photographers. Some pros might need the Hasselblad for certain specialized uses.”

First the Hasselblad:

A Hasselblad test photo.

And now the Nikon:

A Nikon test photo.

If you’re a photographer like Dac Minh or Joseph, you can probably see the difference here.Me? I think the Hasselblad shot is slightly better and more evenly lit. But for my purposes, I’ll probably keep the Panasonic until it breaks, and after that I probably don’t need a camera at all. My iPhone 11 takes excellent pictures.

Now More Than Ever: It Never Entered My Mind

Despite music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart and book by Joshua Logan (who also directed), the 1940 musical comedy Higher and Higher played for only 84 performances at the Shubert Theater on Broadway (there was a brief return engagement that summer).

rodgers and hart

Rodgers and Hart. Yes, they probably did write the song around the piano, wearing coats and ties.

June Allyson was in the original cast, as was Jack Haley, who also starred in the film released in 1943.  Maybe you don’t remember “A Barking Baby Never Bites” or “Disgustingly Rich,” but one song from the musical is well known to everyone who treasures the Great American Songbook: From Act Two, “It Never Entered My Mind.”

It’s simply a gorgeous song, and unbelievably tender. The singer—of either sex—describes living a new solitary life, the contours of which are wholly new.

“Once I laughed when I heard you saying/That I’d be playing solitaire/Uneasy in my easy chair/It never entered my mind.”

There are literally hundreds of versions of this song, evenly distributed between vocal and instrumental takes. It’s been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Johnny Hartman, Carol Sloane, Cybil Shepherd, Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Jeri Southern, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Chet Baker, Anita O’Day, Chris Connor, Rosemary Clooney, June Christy, Jackie McLean, Suzanne McCorkle, Linda Ronstadt, Hugh Masakela and Mark Murphy.

And, of course, Miles Davis. I was reminded of the version that appears on the Prestige album Workin’, released in ’59, when I heard it in the new documentary Birth of the Cool (reviewed by me for New York City Jazz Record). Miles had recorded the song earlier, in ’54, with Art Blakey for Blue Note, but this is the version that gets me every time.

Although John Coltrane appears right at the end, the take is primarily Miles’ trumpet, Red Garland’s piano and Paul Chambers’ bass. The group wouldn’t last long after this recording. Miles would defect to Columbia Records, and fire both Coltrane and drummer Philly Joe Jones over their drug addiction. But here they caught lightning in a bottle.

This is from The Music Aficionado blog:

I find the classic quintet recording more mature and delicate [than the earlier version], and a large part of the credit goes to Red Garland who shines on this tune, playing a repeated four-note pattern over Chambers’s pedal-point bass during the muted trumpet melody. Garland also gets the only solo, a masterful showcase of ballad playing in which he sticks in a 10-second quote from Country Gardens at 3:58. The ending is unique with the same pattern played in double-time, a bowed bass and Coltrane’s only contribution to the song—the last two notes.

I listened to Miles’ version of this song over and over, maybe a dozen times. I played it for wife Mary Ann, and she fell for it, too. And she still hadn’t heard the lyrics.

“And once you told me I was mistaken/That I’d wake up with the sun/And order orange juice for one/It never entered my mind/You had what I lack, myself/Now I even have to scratch my back myself.”

That night, Mary Ann and asked Alexa (our Amazon Echo) to play some vocal versions of “It Never Entered My Mind.” We sampled Carol Sloane, Linda Ronstadt, Stacey Kent, Johnny Hartman, Helen Merrill, Johnny Hartman and Peggy Lee. The last two inhabited the lyrics most completely, and had the greatest emotional resonance. (I know Ms. Lee could be difficult, but when she sang she was without peer.) the definitive Hartman version is on his album The Voice That Is! on Impulse, but here he is doing it live, on TV with Sammy Davis Jr. You have to fast-forward through Sammy’s surprisingly good jazz vibraphone playing:

We can’t read COVID-19 “Alerts” 24-7. We need escapes, places of refuge. And right now, “It Never Entered My Mind” is ours.

Once you warned me that if you scorned me/I’d say a lonely prayer again/And wish that you were there again/To get into my hair again/It never entered my mind.”