Monday, May 26, 2003

Update on our Memphis & Nashville trip.

First news: my wife did great on her triathlon. It was an Olympic size triathlon: swim a mile, bike 25 miles, run a 10K (6.2 miles). She did all of this in 3 hrs & 24 minutes. I'm married to a cool, bad-ass jock-girl!

Museum news: I had a lot of time to kill. My buddy Andy came over from Nashville, and we took in some of the sights in Memphis.

* The National Civil Rights Museum. There was a woman out front protesting the annex on the grounds that it cost $10 million, and added nothing, while neighborhoods in Memphis suffered in Third World conditions. She's right, but I'll get to that in a minute. The first part of the museum was built around and into the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. The information was prodigious. I did a ton of reading on the various stages of the Civil Rights Movement while working on my master's degree, and every little detail I could think of showed up in various forms: the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the NAACP in Birmingham and Montgomery, the Nashville Movement and the birth of SNCC, the Rev. James Lawson, the disorganization in Greensboro, the influx of white students from the North, the relative disregard for the role of women in the movement. Andy and I were there for 3 hours, and we rushed through the last part. Anyway, the first part of the museum culminates at the balcony where MLK was shot. There are hotel bedrooms (in disarray, as they would have been on that morning) behind glass on either side and a window looking out at the balcony, with a huge wreath marking the spot. The final statue exhibit shows the Memphis Sanitation Workers on strike, with signs that simply say "I AM A MAN" as they face down the police. A plaque mentions that the mayor of Memphis capitulated to their demands after the death of MLK, in an attempt to quell the riots across town. It doesn't mention that the Sanitation Workers were biracial, and or say much at all about the Poor People's Campaign that King launched right before he died. There is nothing about the Movement after King's death. It is as if the museum is saying that the sacrifice of King ended any racial issues in America. There is an exhibit about Gandhi, and then you may walk across the street to the protested annex. In this part, the room from which James Earl Ray allegedly shot King is preserved. There is a large exhibit afterwards mentioning that many people do not believe that Ray acted alone, and mentioning some other potential co-conspirators, including the Army, the FBI, and the Klan. The exhibit does not mention that King's family has endorsed this position. It is amazing and heartening that a taxpayer-sponsored museum in the South would mention the potential culpability of the military and the police in the death of this country's most prominent civil rights leader, however. I don't know if that's worth $10 million, but it might be, especially considering the unlikelihood that any of that money would have gone for social services or neighborhood-building.

* The Stax Museum of American Soul Music. We went directly to Stax from the National Civil Rights Museum. I recommend this approach to anyone visiting Memphis. The Stax Museum is in a poor black neighborhood in South Memphis. Right across the side street from the beautiful sign to the parking lot, for instance, is a two-story house looking as if it was only days from collapse. A couple of guys sat on the porch, watching the tourists and drinking beer. It was later in the day when we went into the museum, and they were trying to close by the time that we finished. Open for about a week when we went, the Stax Museum is a rebuilt replica of the original Stax studio & record store, which was located in a former movie theater. Pictures in the lobby show the theater falling apart and finally disappearing throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The most striking was a historical marker before an empty field saying that the legendary Stax studio had been located there. And yet there we stood, inside the building.

The first thing you do in the museum is watch a movie stressing the multi-racial Stax approach. Most of the people involved were still alive when the movie was shot (and, indeed, are still alive today), so we could hear firsthand from Steve Cropper and Rufus Thomas (since deceased) about the studio and what it meant to Memphians and to soul music fans at large. The museum next emphasizes the role of the church to soul singing, before going on to the numerous exhibits. Many are interactive, demonstrating how the Stax approach to soul was different from Detroit's or even Muscle Shoals's. There are some eye-popping examples of excess, such as Isaac Hayes's gold-plated, white-fur-lined Cadillac. There is the original studio space, a large room with a sloping floor reminding one that you are standing in a theater. After seeing that room, I don't know how the Stax sound was so crisp. It seems like a cavernous space with weird corners and all the musicians playing at once would lead to a murky sound. Instead, the house band (Booker T & the MGs, if you don't know) managed to get a sound so crisp that I can tell how many strings Steve Cropper hits on a typical upstroke. It was just amazing to see and read about the racial unity involved in the Stax sound, especially after being pummelled by the evils of crackers at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Andy and I went from Stax to find Hi Records (which gave Al Green his start, among many others), a few blocks away. We again had to journey through some sketchy areas, but found it. There are no plaques or anything there, just a sign that there is a recording studio inside this building.

We headed down to Graceland next, but it was closed. I'd been before. My wife went to a party there the next day, but I wasn't feeling so good and skipped it. We also found Sun Studios, which was also closed. I'd been there before, too. It wasn't far from the hotel, so my wife & I stopped in for a t-shirt on the way out of town two days later.

In Nash Vegas, Andy & his fiance Jean took us to:

* The Country Music Hall of Fame Museum. Again, wow. They had some incredible relics there, like guitars and boots and outfits from Jimmie Rodgers, Mother Maybelle Carter, Buck Owens, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and I could go on for days. They had Gram Parsons's pot leaf Nudie suit, Elvis Presley's gold-plated Cadillac (which wasn't near as flashy as Isaac Hayes's), and Webb Pierce's Nudie-designed "Silver Dollar" Cadillac, which featured pistols for the car handle, rifles as hood and trunk ornaments, a silver-dollar-encrusted saddle between the front seats, and fuzzy-cowhide and silver dollars just about everywhere. Very impressive, although the second floor, with its focus on country-rock and new country, was far less impressive.

Afterwards, Andy and I trekked up the street to the Ryman, but it was closed for a private recording session, and the too-cool-for-school Nash Vegas country guys wouldn't let us in to see it.

It was, all in all, a fantastic trip and a fantastic way to spend my birthday (which was the day we were in Nashville).

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Richard Thompson, The Old Kit Bag full review:

Within the context of his career, I'm giving it an A-/B+. There's only one standout song that I can see him playing in ten years ("Outside of the Inside"), but the overall songwriting is as solid as he usually musters. The sound is phenomenal, though: as dry and straightforward as Mock Tudor, with some of the most breathtaking guitar as has ever appeared on his studio efforts.

As always, the songcraft is at the heart of the album, but the remarkable effortless layers of guitar and stunning leads take a song like "Gethsemane" (which is basically a re-write of "Hand of Kindness" with more bitter, apocalyptic lyrics) into the realm of the Truly Inspired. There's a few Thompson-copywright miserable love songs, like "Jealous Words", which is most distinguishable by the Lindalike harmony vocals of Judith Owen, and "Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen", featuring Danny Thompson's bowed upright bass. The radio songs will be the poppy "I'll Tag Along" and "She Said It Was Destiny", both featuring very satisfying sudden major-to-minor chord changes. The true standout is "Outside of the Inside", which Thompson introduced in concert as a Taliban's-eye view of the Western world. This song has the feel of Thompson's legendary wrestling with his Muslim faith, and, while it's not "A Heart Needs A Home", it is a classic Thompson first-person narrative that steps away from bitter love to talk about the wide, bitter world.

Thematically, I don't know why Thompson's subtitled the album "Unguents, Fig Leaves, and Tourniquets for the Soul", nor split the album into two chapters, "The Haunted Keepsake" or "The Pilgim Fancy". Sure, the names sound like they mean something, but why this album? Why these songs? Obviously, this aspect is going to require more thought.

Anyway, this is not the best Richard Thompson album, nor is it even in the top five. It is, however, a new Richard Thompson album, and deserving of all the accompanying praise. I like the way that it sounds, and I like a number of these songs. I'm sure that the tour will be incredible, and that the rest of these songs will eventually catch in my ear. Why wait? Go get it, if you're so inclined.

Arbitrary ranking of the Richard Thompson albums, by my taste:

1. Shoot Out the Lights
2. I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight
3. Rumor and Sigh
4. Pour Down Like Silver
5. Mock Tudor (hey, I'm surprised it's this high, too)
6. Starring As Henry the Human Fly
7. Amnesia
8. Hokey Pokey
9. The Old Kit Bag (made the top ten!)
10. Across a Crowded Room
11. Hand of Kindness
12. Strict Tempo!
13. First Light
14. Daring Adventures
15. You? Me? Us?
16. Sunnyvista
17. Mirror Blue

That list could be more complicated with odd albums like Industry or Sweet Talker, or bootlegs, official and otherwise. But I left 'em off, for ease of ranking.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Picked up the new Richard Thompson (The Old Kit Bag) at lunch. Thus far (I'm on track 6), it's not as good as the last one, Mock Tudor, but better than the two previous, You? Me? Us? and Mirror Blue. I haven't yet heard any songs that he'll still be playing in ten years. The guitar playing is breathtaking, though, some of the best I've heard on any of his studio albums.

Just checked out the resume of the producer, John Chelew, who manages to get a refreshingly direct sound (like the one from the last album). He's mostly produced the likes of John Hiatt, Los Lobos, and Britfolkers like Bert Jansch & John Renbourn, but I love that there's a Saccharine Trust production credit on there.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

It's been half a month, and yet somehow I have nothing too intelligent to say.

Ah, the magic of the Internet.

Anyway, I hope to have more soon. In the meanwhile, be sure check out some of the blog links to find out what the other smart kids are saying.

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Cary, NC, United States
reachable at firstname lastname (all run together) at gmail dot com

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From Here To Obscurity, founded ca. 2003, population 1. The management wishes to emphasize that no promises vis-a-vis your entertainment have been guaranteed and for all intents and purposes, intimations of enlightenment fall under the legal definition of entertainment. No refunds shall be given nor will requests be honored. Although some may ask, we have no intention of beginning again.

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