Rock and Roll Still Not Dead

My faith in rock was renewed once again just now as I was walking home from teaching my class. Some college students were sitting on a front porch with guitars and playing “Wild Thing” by the Troggs. It occurred to me that when my high school band played that song way back in the 1980s, it was already 25 years old. It was fun to play because it was easy and catchy and it made people dance. So on one hand, maybe it isn’t surprising that it has lasted into the current generation of musicians. But then again, that means the song is now more than 50 years old, and kids are still playing it.

When I was a teenage rocker, songs that were 50 years old were not even on my radar. Sure, these days I regularly perform songs from the 1920s. And though I may have heard some songs from that era on Looney Toons cartoons, it would never have occurred to me to sit on the porch and play them on the guitar with my friends gathered around. Rock and roll was all there was to me then, and the form had been around only 30 years. Songs that were ancient to me then were mere babes in the woods, younger then than I am now. Those same songs are now qualified for Social Security benefits.

Other music forms sometimes come more into popular focus–hip hop, neo-folk, and alt-country come to mind. But rock always sticks around, always comes back. Long may it prosper.

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Up in the Clouds

I’m in the process of uploading some old demos and lo-fi oddities onto Soundcloud for posterity. Here’s my page. Keep checking back as I add more stuff to the page.

The older pieces in this bunch were recorded on an analog Fostex 4-track cassette recorder. In retrospect, I’m surprised at how much I got out of that thing. The newer pieces were done with various digital multi-trackers. And of course, the PopCanon and Exes fragments were done in a professional studio, engineered by the great Mike Rotolante.

I’ll be posting a few selections on my Facebook fan page here and there.

More Songs About Trains and Food

I met George Mostoller almost exactly 20 years ago, in the summer of 1992. He and Tym Cornell were running an open mic at Frankie’s Underground in Five Points every Wednesday, and I soon became a regular performer. Soon after, I joined their band, but this is not a story about that. This is about George.

That first night I heard him play a few of his songs, and I was instantly fascinated. Performing solo with just voice and acoustic guitar, there were elements of Dylan-esque country/folk with the surreal lyrical sensibilities of Robyn Hitchcock. That was the obvious part. On faster numbers, George strums in syncopated patterns, and on the slower ones, he picks in a folksy manner with lumbering bass lines and bright sterile harmonies. He croons with a slight vibrato about space travel, malaise, food, and sex. His voice is as solid and splintery as a hickory log.

But then in some songs, George would go into this sort of free improvisation, which even with just acoustic guitar sounded almost like some of the more outward experiments of Sonic Youth. When Tym joined in on electric guitar, things got even more strange. What struck me most about it was that George was writing essentially pretty simple but catchy tunes, but he was also open to this noisy psychedelic chaos.

I learned later that he was an unrepentant Deadhead (and I never could get him to repent), but his method of improvisation was always much more in the vein of free jazz like Sun Ra and not so much jamming the way the jam bands jam. It was George that introduced me to the music of Sun Ra. Also the Fugs. Also Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. This is George’s range, and you can hear all of this in his songs.

Over the past two years, George has been playing in the studio, recording an album that reflects all of this influence. His session musicians are some of the best (and weirdest) in the business. A few weeks ago, I posted a video from what I still think is the stand-out song on the new album,
Nothing Good.” I think this one song encompasses all the things I like most about George’s songwriting and about his vision of what the songs would sound like under ideal conditions.

Those ideal conditions are really what this album is about. Because our old bandmate Tym Cornell now runs Wild Honey Studios in Birmingham, George had virtually unlimited access to a professional studio with a very talented engineer and producer. And because of his many years of involvement in the Birmingham music scene, he also had access to some incredible musicians, including guitar virtuoso Davey Williams, Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge, saxophonist Marshall Allen from Sun Ra’s Arkestra, as well as some of the best session musicians around Birmingham like Jason Bailey and Matt Slocum.

Fans of Colonel Bruce Hampton and Widespread Panic will enjoy the country fried psychedelia, but folks who don’t get into noodling solos or cacophonous jazz noise should not fear this record. Fans of Robyn Hitchcock will admire the absurd sense of wordplay in the lyrics. Anyone who appreciates smart, hummable songs should give this a listen. You will be hooked from the first track.

My only complaint is that it doesn’t include Ride the Beard.

And now, a track-by-track (p)review.

01 Devil in a Bottle – This first track is a catchy, funny folk tune about the struggle with the bottle, which features hot mandolin solos throughout by Birmingham newgrass hero Jason Baily. Pretty simple and straightforward, but totally addictive like that devil in the bottle itself. The hand claps at the end give it an epic quality.

02 I Remember – Here George takes a song that could be a poetic and pretty but not especially noteworthy ballad and twists it into pieces by having Davey Williams and Marshall Allen flit around the melody like insane dragonflies. The slightly-off stereo vocals add to the haunting and disturbed sense of nostaligia that the lyrics invoke.

03 Oh Megan – This jaunty country-ish tune cuts a middle path between the first two tracks. It would sound like something straight off of Workingman’s Dead if it weren’t for some freaky deaky guitar work from Davey Williams and Scott Grant.

04 The Weasle of Bad Axe Magee – The musicians credited on this track are the group “The Bad Axe Magees.” It’s clearly an improv piece, George (and his two songs Edward and Franklin) messing around in the studio. But it’s interesting to see the curious angles he takes when performing off the cuff. Beefheart fans won’t flinch.

05 If You Were an Elephant – A waltz with Davey Williams playing slide guitar. The first line “If you were an elephant, I’d love you a ton” gives you the general idea. The lyrics are silly but clever, a love song that declares that his love would not fade even if you were a monkey, a skunk, or a pop song. The shock surprise ending is heart warming.

06 The Train – A deceptively straightforward song about a train in trouble. It’s not a standout track, but it’s catchy, and I’m a sucker for a train song.

07 Nothing Good – A surprisingly funky, soulful slow tune featuring Davey Williams, Oteil Burbridge, Marshall Allen, and Matt Slocum. The lineup would be enough to make this my favorite. To call out the clever wordplay of the lyrics seems almost redundant–all of George’s songs have that, but this song is George doing what George does at his best as a lyricist. Since I happen to have heard some of the original tracks, I also know Tym pulled off a near miracle in mixing this one.

08 Marty’s Two-Step – A twangy, dance-able ode to one of Birmingham’s most revered after hours hangouts. The song itself is reminiscent of George’s old band Partial to Mable, a band that was a staple at Marty’s in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The arrangement sounds so much like a Grateful Dead song that the reference to “Hey Another Saturday Night” floats by almost unnoticed.

09 Some Kind of Pelican – Another studio improv. Cute, but about twice as long as it needs to be. George’s characteristic giggle at the end says it all.

10 Can You Tell Me – Much like “Oh Megan,” this could be a Dead song, if it weren’t for Davey’s guitar. More Grateful Dead references in the lyrics. It is a nice tune though with lovely solos by Jason Bailey and Matt Slocum. It has an easy loping pace. Makes me want a margarita.

11 The Road to Laredo – Totally oddball. Totally George. “I was on the road to Laredo / looking for a baked potato / when I saw a real tomato.”

Birmingham Free Press Presents

ImageOur erstwhile alternative to the alternative newspapers, the Birmingham Free Press, has not printed a broadsheet edition since December due to budgetary restraints. We have a few advertisements in the paper, but not enough to cover our print bill. To address this setback, we are introducing a series of fundraising shows. And yours truly will be the host.

The first of these is tonight, March 29, at Bottletree, featuring Voices in the Trees, the High Fidelics, Ghost Herd, Red Mountain Family Band, and Opera Sextronique. The bands start at 8pm (despite what the graphic to the left says), and the cover is $7.

The second show is at the Nick on Wednesday, April 4. That show will feature Jerolyn, Devour by Infection, Throng of Shoggoths, Thothamon, and Braineaters.

On April 14, we will be hosting a show at Metro Bar with Mile Marker Seven, John Elrod, and other acts TBA.

If these shows go well, we will probably continue the series. Some shows may be fundraisers. Others may just be regular shows that we curate. Still others might just be themed parties or mixers for people in the Birmingham music industry. Our inimitable all-things-BFP-Music guy Lee Waites has many ideas about directions this series might go.

My Night at Gip’s

I used to be really into the blues. Like really, really into it. If you remember Ralph Macchio’s character in Crossroads, I was very much like that when I was fifteen, right down to the mullet haircut and cheap fedora. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson. I couldn’t get enough of that stuff. But then, somewhere along the way, I did have enough.

It was probably partly because the more I learned as a musician, the more the potential of blues became limited for me. It was also because I was never comfortable with the idea that privileged white people like myself had what it takes to really play the blues. I got tired of trying to fit into that mold, and I got extremely tired of watching and listening to other middle class white musicians playing Clapton-like solos over a 12-bar blues progression and singing about how hard life is, then going back to their day jobs as attorneys. The blues for my white suburban experience became garage and punk rock, and I left the blues far behind.

You see, the old blues masters earned it. These were blue collar guys, or often even lower on the socioeconomic scale than that—itinerant farm hands who were just barely not homeless. Life for them actually was hard. But on a Saturday night, they could put their resources together, get some cheap whisky and some old guitars, and they’d let loose.

Gip Gipson is that kind of a blues man.

At Gip’s Place in Bessemer, ten miles down County Road 18 from my neighborhood in Birmingham, on any given Saturday night, there is an old style blues party going on—working class people drinking cheap beer or hooch and living it up because it’s Saturday night, and that’s just what folks do around here. I felt a little like a tourist or a voyeur at times, but there were a lot of other tourists there like me too. Many of the performers there are the same white baby boomers that drove me away from blues music in the first place. They are, most of them, well trained, expert, and experienced musicians. I can appreciate watching them play for sure, and I was having a good time. It was pretty much what I expected.

What I didn’t expect was what happened after the headlining act was done. Gip himself comes out, helped onto the stage by an assistant. Gip is 90 if he’s a day. His Facebook page says he’s a gravedigger by profession. They have to help him into his chair, hand him his guitar, adjust the microphone for him. He has a little paper shot glass, and the assistant pours something from a mason jar into it. Gip downs it, and then launches into his first song.

He plays a very old style of blues guitar, a straight off the farm kind of finger picking where he drones a simple bass pattern with his thumb while plucking out a rough melody on the higher strings. The melody of his vocal line matches the melody he’s playing on the guitar. There’s no “blues scale” or “12 bar blues chord progression” for Gip. He plays one chord until he feels like moving to the next one, and I’d bet he doesn’t know or care what that chord is called by studied musicians. He has at least two strings out of tune, and he’s foggy from drink, inconsistent with his tempo, but it’s still somehow amazingly listenable. It’s because he has earned it.

And because he is there, still alive despite everything, against all odds, he represents so much that is today extremely rare to find. And it’s Saturday night, and that’s just what he does on Saturday night. He is selling transcendence at $10 a head. It’s a bargain. I’ll never be a blues man, but I’ve rediscovered what I initially loved about this music.

After a couple of songs, he looks longingly at his empty shot glass. My friend Ian goes up the stage with his flask, pours a little whisky in the cup, and now Gip is his best friend.

Ian asked Mr. Gip how he learned to play the blues. He said that he had been travelling with Robert Johnson (yes, that Robert Johnson), and they were in New York. He was talking to a woman and said he was from Perry County, Alabama. At that, the women slapped him. “That was the moment,” Gip said, “when I decided to become a blues musician.” It’s possible that none of this is true. It doesn’t matter much.

At two in the morning, all the other musicians have packed up and gone home. Gip is back on the stage, and there are five of us still sitting there in awe. He’s still doing shots of whisky. He’s selling us on Jesus between songs. He will make it to church on Sunday morning. He never misses it.

This should be a once in a lifetime experience, but somehow it happens every Saturday night. For now. The way Gip looks, this might not last much longer. And it’s just one more thing about Alabama that is full of mysteries and wonders.

Nothing Good

I’ll take a short break from shameless self-promotion here to promote the product of a great friend, George Mostoller. This is one of my favorite tracks from his new album, Cooking with Dynamite, recorded under the name Hawk Tubley and the Airtight Chiefs.

George and I were in a band together called the Freeloaders in 1993-94, along with Tym Cornell and Don Thomas. We have written many many songs together, and I still perform one or two of his songs once in a while with Ghost Herd.

Tym produced this album at Wild Honey Studios.

This track also happens to feature some of my all-time favorite performers: Davey Williams, Oteil Burbridge, and Marshall Allen.

Classic Hornbuckle: Quentin’s Bridge (1991)

Here’s something from deep within the M. David Hornbuckle archives:

Started in 1991, Quentin’s Bridge was my first serious band after high school. Far too serious for our own good, actually. I’d later go too far in the other direction, and I think I still have trouble balancing the intellectual and the goofy. The band was named after an incident in The Sound and the Fury, where one of the main characters drowns himself in the Charles River during his first year at Harvard. We’d first called ourselves The Dismembers, but we soon realized we weren’t metal enough for a name like that.

We recorded a couple of demos tapes but never made an album. We were pretty sure we were about to become rock stars.

Some samples:

Salome’s Last Dance

Shooting for Irony

State of the Universe

Telephone

Whoa

Midsummer

Can’t Escape

Waiting in the Walls

Peace