“the world (is going up in flames)” – charles bradley & menahan street band (2007)

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Soul music has been a big part of my life for a long time.  Growing up, I loved listening to old Motown CDs.  I learned all the big hits early on.  As I got older, my tastes became a little more eclectic and refined.  When I started hosting and producing a soul radio show for my college radio station, that is where I started to cut my teeth in the world of independent soul music.  With every new show, I strayed further away from the classics we all love and took chances on niche releases from labels like Daptone and Numero Group.  These labels and their artists were new to me and the college town in Kentucky where I broadcasted from, but their influence, popularity, and significance would only grow from there.

On Saturday, the world lost Charles Bradley.  Affectionately known as the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Charles Bradley was a soul music darling coming from Dunham and Daptone Records.  In his early 60s, he was releasing his first studio albums in front of adoring fans over the world.  However, the popularity and fame he acquired late in his life wouldn’t last long.  He died of stomach cancer at the age of 68.  The golden age of his career would only span six years from 2011 through 2017, but he will be missed and his legacy will only grow.

The first time I heard Charles Bradley was in 2007.  That year, 100 Days, 100 Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings came out.  I bought a digipak copy of the album that came with a bonus CD that featured a heavily stylized faux radio show called Ghettofunkpowerhour hosted by Daptone regular Binky Griptite.   Just shy of an hour long, Ghettofunkpowerhour featured a compilation of Daptone singles and releases up to that point.  Extended snippets of over 20 songs were included in the compilation and featured Daptone stalwarts such as Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, the Sugarman 3, the Budos Band, Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, and, of course, Charles Bradley.  Bradley, in fact, had three songs on the compilation which included “Take It as It Come” (with Sugarman & Co.), “This Love Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us” (with the Bullets), and “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” (with Menahan Street Band).  I played Ghettofunkpowerhour on repeat because not only is it a great compilation, but it is also a fantastic introduction to Daptone.  Their catalogue has expanded and grown in recognition over the last decade, but they were already solid when I first heard them.

Other than those few singles from Ghettofunkpowerhour, Charles Bradley pretty much stayed off my radar.  Unlike Sharon Jones and his Daptone contemporaries, he wasn’t putting out full-length albums.  That changed in 2011.  To promote his first studio release No Time for Dreaming, he went out on tour.  While the album was backed by Menahan Street Band, Bradley assembled his own crew under the name the Extraordinaires.

Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires were scheduled to play Subterranean.  The show was in July.  I had just recently moved to the city that February and I found that going to shows were a great way to explore the city.  Plus, I loved what I had heard from Bradley before.

I am known for my punctuality and being early, so I was one of the first people to show up for the gig.  This worked for me because the club is kind of small and I wanted to planet myself front and center.  And how glad I am that I did!  Bradley put on such an excellent performance.  He was 62 at the time, but performed with the energy and vigor of a man half that age.  This was someone pouring their heart and soul in bringing the best show to the people and he accomplished that.

Bradley’s excellent stage performance shouldn’t have shocked me.  He was someone who worked for years to perfect his stagecraft.  Part of Daptone’s revivalist approach is to channel the energetic exuberance of funk and soul music from the 1960s and 70s.   Bradley fit right in with that spending 20 years earning extra money between odd jobs doing James Brown performances.  A pivotal moment in his life came when his sister took him to see James Brown perform at the Apollo Theatre in 1962.  Bradley, after that, would impersonate Brown around the house. He modeled his stage performances after the hardest working man in show business to the degree that he effectively a spiritual successor.

Bradley lived a hard life.  At 14, he ran away from to escape a poverty-stricken household only to live on the streets for two years.  When he was old enough, he enlisted in the Job Corps and worked as a cook for ten years.  After that, Bradley decided to hitchhike around the country finding work wherever he could.  When he overcame his stage fright and channeled the excitement he saw at the James Brown performance, his talents were shown and recognized by the right people.

Bradley’s career got as big as a soul revivalist performance could get.  He released three studio albums, performed in festivals all around the world, and was even the subject of a documentary called Soul of America that premiered at South by Southwest in 2012.  This was a man who had worked hard and lived harder, and it was finally all paying off.

His life experiences were reflected in his songs.  In December 2010, he rereleased the single “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” for the release of his first studio album No Time for Dreaming which was released 2011 (the single initially came out in 2007).  In it, Bradley sings about a world engulfed in flames where no one has any accountability.  He laments about the hardship he has lived through and that no one can tell him what to do if they’ve never felt the same pain he does.  It is a heart wrenching soulful song filled with the emotional authenticity from a man who knows what he’s talking about.  He’s weathered the harshest storms and still has the hope that we can make a better world.

Bradley is a shining example of how we can all choose to live our lives.  Times will always be hard.  Sometimes, things will be less hard.  Other times, you’ll encounter life’s most difficult experiences.  The key is to just move forward and live your life the best way you can.  Things will get better even if they get worst first.  However, that is no reason to give up.  Even if it takes decades, your dream is never worth giving up.  Bradley never gave up and his final years were his most fulfilling.  What an inspiration.

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“be your bro” – those darlins (2011)

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Musician deaths can be shocking for many of us for many distinct reasons.  The language of music is universal and impacts each of us.  Various genres, bands, or songs give us unspoken meanings that can change as quickly as the weather or become an unmoving representation for our lives.  That fluidity music possesses to affect people different at any given time is what gives it power.  Music becomes the backdrop for singular moments or whole uprooting changes and gives reference point for who we are at any given time.

Last week, Jessi Zazu passed away at the age of 28 from a public battle with cervical cancer.  Zazu was the leader singer of Those Darlins, a female alternative rock band from Nashville, Tennessee.  Those Darlins wanted were hard-hitting and wanted to show the world that music coming out of Nashville could have edge and be hip.  As early as 2011, the band was absolutely exemplifying that and even being featured by organizations such as NPR.  This was an exciting group of young 20-something women who were set to light the music world on fire.

Unfortunately, the band would disband in 2015.  And at the end of 2016, Zazu publicly shared her diagnosis.  Her cervical cancer was caused by HPV.  In the same rebellious spirit in which she led Those Darlins, Zazu shaved her hair off in a bold embrace of a new chapter of her life.  Music would have to take a backseat as Zazu pursued chemotherapy and radiation treatments to fight the cancer.  Despite putting up a brave and courageous fight, she passed away on September 13th.

When I heard the news about Zazu’s death, it did impact me.  The band was based in Nashville and I was travelling to Nashville frequently in 2009 and 2010 for work.  I wasn’t aware of the band at that time, but I understood their desire to shake of the city’s country image.  Nashville is full to the brim with exciting musical talent and legendary venues.  It is a music lover’s paradise, but it struggles with the perception many outsiders have due to the overwhelming pervasiveness of country music there.  However, underneath all the cowboy hats and snakeskin boots, Nashville has a punk heart.

Occupying the same city at the same time doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things.  However, what affected me more was that Those Darlins was the first band I had seen in Chicago.   It was 2011.  All in the last week of February, I flew from Alaska into Nashville, drove to Chicago to find an apartment, drove back to Kentucky to pack in one day, and then move everything to start a new life.

Once I got everything organized and settled, it was time to figure out the city.  I love live music and sought opportunities to see bands that never come to Alaska and who I would miss in Nashville.  Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears were scheduled to play Double Door on April 2nd.  Tickets weren’t that expensive and I really wanted to see this band.  I had played cuts off their first studio album all the time on the college radio station where I volunteered.  I knew they would be a good live show and I wanted to hear cuts I loved and new tracks from the album they had just released.

While Black Joe Lewis would be the first concert ticket I bought since moving to Chicago, they wouldn’t be the first live act.  Nope.  That honor would go to their opener.  And that opener was Those Darlins.

I was a few feet from the front of the stage and blown away by the performance.  The band packed in so much energy and ferocity.  It was like they played as if their lives depended on it; as if this was the last chance to prove they had what it took to succeed.  It is disappointing when you a see a band, especially a band that is new to you, just phone it in.  But, that wasn’t the case here.  This was great raw music that told me that I had made the right choice moving to Chicago and that I would never tire of exploring what it had to offer.

I don’t remember the exact set list, but I do know they were promoting their new album Screws Get Loose.  While I cannot remember every song they played, I do remember highlights that ar3e forever burned into my memory.  “Be Your Bro,” one of my favorites from that album, I remember was performed with an awe-inspiring intensity.  The song is about a girl wanting to befriend a boy, but the boy only wants from her what young boy wants.  Zazu sings about playing in the mud with this boy, but he is too distracted in his quest to get into her pants.  The song is great on the album, but it was a special thrill to see it live.  The timeless tale of girl tired of boys’ shit was delivered with fire and fury and looked as though performing the song on stage was a cathartic experience for the band.  And I’m sure it was.  This was a badass group of hard-rocking women and they wanted to be heard.  They wanted their share and no one to tell them no.

Sadly, the was the only time I ever saw Those Darlins live.  I had other opportunities, but passed them up because of life’s various obstacles and obligations.  Given the band’s disbandment and Zazu’s proceeding death, I wished I made the time.  Of course, nothing could touch that initial performance I saw. As my first live band in Chicago, that is a significant memory.  And while seeing additional shows would be fun, they wouldn’t carry the same emotional impact as that first time when I was in my early 20s, fresh-faced in a new city, and ready for anything.

“cool disc jockey” – boyd bennett and his rockets (1959)

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The Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP Radio) started their fall fundraising campaign this week.  To do my part, I have set up a fundraising campaign and have begun to solicit donations from friends, family, and colleagues to contribute.  I’m doing this because CHIRP Radio has been a big part of my life in Chicago.  I believe in CHIRP Radio.  And as I was setting up my donation page and crafting personal messages to people to request donations, I spent a lot of time thinking about my personal connection with CHIRP; my story of how I discovered and became involved with such a great radio station.

I moved to Chicago at the end of February in 2011.  When I moved here, I had never been to Chicago before, didn’t have a job lined up, and didn’t know a single person in this city.  I travelled across the country from Alaska to start brand new without the aid of school, family, friends, a job, or any other of the institutions available to make difficult transitions easier.  It was as fresh of a start as you can possibly get.

No one can ever accuse me of being lazy because I am an extremely motivated person.  A lot of this has to do with ambition.  I seek new challenges and find ways to succeed at them to gain some personal satisfaction.  Plenty of good things come that like meeting people or gaining professional experience.  Getting your hands dirty and trying new things, I find, make an exciting life.  Plus, there is also the practical thing that motivation and ambition can generate income.  And being brand new in a city with no prior resources or connections can drain the bank account quickly, so finding work quickly means being resourceful and proactive.

Priority number one was to find stable employment that allowed me to live alone comfortably.  However, I also had to stay grounded and remind myself that I needed to have fun.  I was in Chicago after all!  Moving here was an exciting new adventure.  I had a few months where I could enjoy not having responsibilities before hitting the grindstone at the ol’ 9-to-5.  This is when I needed have a completely open mind and enjoy what this city had to offer.

I’ve talked about my transition to Chicago several times and this post isn’t about that.  It is about reflecting on a period of my life when I discovered CHIRP Radio.  Everything else is just exposition.

During this time, I was living in Rogers Park by the lake as my first neighborhood.   When I wasn’t exploring the Northside along the redline, I was venturing into Evanston because I was just so close to it.  Right off the Dempster purple line stop, there was this great used record store called Second Hand Tunes (it isn’t there anymore).   That was my primary record store.  I had developed a decent CD collection over the years, but I had start collecting vinyl.  Second Hand Tunes was where I bought a lot of the first records I would own.

It was also the first place where I had heard about CHIRP Radio.  There was a bulletin board in the corner on the right as soon as you walked in.  It had the standard fare; bands looking for members, ads for Evanston businesses, and info about upcoming shows and festivals.  On that board, there was a sign that was visually different than everything else on the board.  It was larger, printed on a thicker stock, and quite colorful.  It contained an illustration of a gramophone and featured a little bird.  The poster advertised an upcoming record fair and one that had been an annual event for several years already.  Everything about this from the quality of the poster to the longevity of the event told me this was a great place to be involved with.  That image of that poster is burned in my mind as my first introduction to CHIRP Radio.

Sadly, I did not go to the record fair despite that impressive poster.  I was still relatively jobless and the thought of being surrounded by thousands of great records made my wallet hurt.  So, I kept it in the back of my mind.

By that summer, I got a job which meant money and the security that comes with that.  I was now taking in the sites at the many street festivals this city has to offer.  One summer day, I was touring Edge Fest (in the Edgewater neighborhood) with some friends.  We got food and drinks and listened to music; all the standard street fest stuff.

It was at Edge Fest that I first saw CHIRP Radio in person.  They had a tent set up with a couple people sitting below it with a table full of goodies.  These were the first people from Chirp I had met and we talked for a few minutes.  I spent most of my time talking with a guy named “Steve” who told me about what I was like volunteering with CHIRP.  I had some knowledge of how radio volunteering worked after doing that for four years at my college radio station.  However, I knew being involved with CHIRP would be different.  This was a much larger city than my college town, was more involved with the local community, and it wasn’t entirely staffed with college students.  Talking with Steve was great and I knew that I wanted to be involved with CHIRP as soon as possible.

That was the summer of 2011.  It wouldn’t be until January 2014 when I would start volunteering.  The excitement over the job I just got quickly faded as it became a real nightmare.  I’ve talked about the experience before, but its relevancy to my involvement with CHIRP was that my employer made me sign a document preventing me from volunteering anywhere.  Looking back, I really don’t think that was legal.  Regardless, I didn’t have time to volunteer because I was working so much.  Until I got the opportunity to volunteer, I would just listen to their online in the meantime.

I was an active listener for almost three years before getting the opportunity to join CHIRP which didn’t happen until I parted ways with my employer.  I was patient and I really wanted this.  So, I was going to give this volunteer gig my absolute best effort.  I had some other things going on in my life, so I started doing what I could.  I tabled a lot of events because I enjoyed getting out there and talking about community radio.  My first time seeing CHIRP was at a street fest and that was where I wanted to be; talking with the people about great music and art.

As time went on and life situations settled, I knew I wanted to have more responsibility.  So, I signed up for a leadership position.  I wanted to do a job that involved organizing, public outreach, and would be beneficial to my professional development by looking good on my resume.  So, I became their new Partnerships Coordinator.  Specifically working within the realm of fine arts, I took my involvement with CHIRP to the next level by strategically developing partnerships and sponsorships with local non-profits and organizations to raise awareness for CHIRP’s brand and provide exposure for our partners.  With that work, I’ve been able to support community organizations and businesses.  The work was (and still is) satisfying and makes me feel great.

I have been in CHIRP for almost four years.  And it is a station that I absolutely love and has done so much for me. I really respect their engagement with the community and building up the people within it.  And I feel proud to have been involved with that.

The 501(c)(3) status was established a decade ago with the online streaming component starting seven years ago.  For seven years, CHIRP had broadcast exclusively online but managed to build a considerable hometown following.  And that is due to their strong focus on public outreach and community engagement.  Through the hard work of hundreds of volunteers committing thousands of hours over the years to creating an independent voice for Chicago, CHIRP has not become a cultural institution in Chicago.  It was that focus on community engagement that attracted me to something that would become a valuable part of my life.

A decade after its inception, the station is taking a huge step.  A broadcast license had been obtained and the funds collected to install a transmitter.  On October 21 at noon, CHIRP Radio will start broadcasting live to radios in your car and home.  This is an incredibly big accomplishment for any low-power station and another element that keeps the station focused on building a better community through art and people.

I’ve been listening to a lot of great songs about radio stations and disc jockeys to celebrate the occasion.  In 2006, Bob Dylan premiered his radio show Theme Time Radio Hour on XM Satellite Radio.  Each episode would be centered on a theme and Dylan would play tracks relating to that theme.  None of the show’s themes were vague or overplayed concepts like love or whatever.  Instead, episodes were devoted to more concrete themes like shoes, weather, Tennessee, or coffee.

On August 30, 2006, the “radio” episode premiered and featured a great collection of songs about the radio by artists like the Clash, Lord Melody, and Van Morrison.  It had been years since I listened to this show and I’ve enjoyed the radio-themed episode especially lately.

One of my favorite tracks from the episode is “Cool Disc Jockey” by Boyd Bennett and his Rockets.  Released as a single in 1959 on King Records, “Cool Disc Jockey” is a fun, swinging rockabilly tune that is pure fun and celebrates the iconic figure that brings us the best music around.  And frankly, CHIRP does have some pretty cool disc jockeys.  And CHIRP Radio has the coolest tunes in town.

CHIRP has been going strong for a solid decade.  I am proud to have been involved with the last four years.  However, I’m looking forward to being a part of something special as it enters its second decade.

“the pink room” – angelo badalamenti (1992)

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Last night, I finished watching the latest season of Twin Peaks.  For nearly four months, the world settled uncomfortably into David Lynch’s world to see how the show’s beloved characters adjusted and changed since the death of Laura Palmer 25 years earlier.  Lynch, the cast, and Showtime were extremely hush hush about what the return of Twin Peaks would look and feel like.  Expectations for the cult classic were high as no one knew quite what to expect.

I had previously written about the new season for this blog series at the halfway point.  Specifically, I discussed the use of music in the series as a narrative device.  Angelo Badalamenti’s score in the original series was so prevalent that it can be interpreted as a character in of itself.  For the new series, Badalamenti’s score took a backseat to make way for an increased presence of contemporary pop and rock music in the form of bands performing at the Roadhouse.

Music was still an integral part of the storytelling and moodscape, but it took on a new role that was vaguely familiar but completely different.  And that best describes the experience of watching this latest series of Twin Peaks.  The characters, scenery, and situations we all cherished from the original series were still there, but time managed to distort our perception of these things.  Everything seemed so incredibly familiar.  However, our relationships to these things has changed.

Before the new series preimiered, I was admittedly skeptical.  I am very vocal about my dislike for nostalgia and for good reason.  While it is totally fine to enjoy artifacts and documents of the past for their own merit as a representation of that period, it is another thing when culture is stagnated to accommodate old ideas that are long past their prime.

People are absolutely addicted to nostalgia because of the comfort it brings.  The familiar is nice for that reason.  However, when you have endless reboots, sequels, and rehashes of well-established or dated intellectual properties that mimic their predecessor as much as possible, the cultural landscape of artistic media becomes stagnated.  It makes it harder for new ideas to get the attention they deserve.  Instead of these new ideas depicting and representing the present as it is, they fade away or never even materialize.  It is a very regressive state that represses our ability to challenge the limits of our imagination and the need to push society forward culturally and artistically.

When I started the latest season of Twin Peaks, what I didn’t want to see, after 25 years, was more quirky dialogue, melodramatic acting, and constant references to damn good pie.  I wanted something that reflected the maturity and growth that comes with time.  And, fortunately, I got that.

It is funny for me to admit that this last season of Twin Peaks left me with even more questions than before I started watching.  I have never had the experience of watching something and getting less closure as the show continued.  And that is an entirely thrilling concept.  Lynch, since the original Twin Peaks series in the early 1990s, has shaped his film legacy by releasing films that are challenging, open to endless interpretation, and leave you with endless unanswerable questions.  For many, I imagine that causes quite a bit of frustration.  For me, I find it fascinating and a bit funny because I laugh it off that Lynch is playing a joke on everyone to see how far he can get away with.  And when I think that way about a major release that generated a lot of buzz, it gives me a lot of hope for the future of art.  This new Twin Peaks season didn’t give the audience what they wanted or expected and it still managed to be one of the hottest shows of the year.  That is what we need more of to combat the ever-increasing presence of copycat nostalgia cash-ins.

As I mentioned earlier, our relationship to this world had changed.  I find it incredibly brave to take those ideas and situations from 25 years earlier and change their meaning.  I attempted to watch the first two seasons of Twin Peaks back in 2011.  I had four episodes left when I just quit.  I felt satisfied that I didn’t need to continue.  Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed and knowing that the show was cancelled abruptly after season two finished leaving no opportunity to pick things back up for a third season, I didn’t feel invested to finish watching.  The concept of the Black Lodge and Special Agent Dale Cooper’s possession by Bob didn’t mean anything to me other than unfinished and unrealized ideas.

I didn’t even feel the need to watch the 1992 film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.  When the series was cancelled, Lynch felt that he could continue and expand the story through a series of films.  The film was considerably darker than the television series and performed poorly at the box office.  This meant that Lynch couldn’t continue exploring the world of Twin Peaks.

A few years ago, rumors started surfacing that Lynch was trying to get a new season made.  At the time, I felt that it was a useless gesture; a nostalgia trip from a guy who hadn’t made a movie since 2006’s Inland Empire.  I wasn’t excited about a new series when I wanted to Lynch to make a new film.

As time went on, the series return finally saw the greenlight.  Even then, I wasn’t quite on board.  It wasn’t until January of this year that I finally took an interest.  So many friends were buzzing about the show’s return.  And I knew I would watch it too even though I was in denial. So, I watched the first two seasons (finally finishing it this time), watched the film prequel, and even read The Secret History of Twin Peaks by series co-creator Mark Frost to get a deeper understanding of some of the themes.

When the series returned in May, I was ready.  Or, at least I thought I was.  I had no idea what to expect at this point and nothing was made much clearer with each new episode.  However, I loved what I saw.  For one, I was thrilled by this new season was a departure from its earlier form taking on themes and style of a thoroughly modern Lynch.  Secondly, Lynch didn’t give the audience what they wanted and instead downplayed key characters an altogether minimizing once prominent roles. And, finally, I was no closer to understanding the scope of what Twin Peaks had to offer than before.  In other words, this was how you handle the stigma of nostalgia the right way.

Angelo Badalamenti did such an amazing job scoring the new series.  It was subtle early in the return, but gained steam as we neared the finish.  Old scores and themes associated with certain characters and ideas were withheld appropriately.  I remember when rewatching the original series, the music was everywhere and often themes during in episode.  That wasn’t the case in this new series.  As mentioned before, Badalamenti’s music as a character changed over the years making way for new ways to express itself as a narrative device.

The new series had a lot of throwbacks to the 1992 film.  Whole scenes in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me had their meaning changed when viewing this new series; throwing nostalgia out the window and that our old ideas or ways of thinking are not as precious as we thought.

Since many scenes and characters from the film were referenced or connected to the new series, I decided to revisit the film’s soundtrack.  The score for the original series is stellar on its own and contains many of the iconic scores we know and love.  However, I feel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is Angelo Badalamenti’s strongest contribution to the music of this world.

“The Pink Room” is a heavy, dark bluesy track from the film soundtrack.  The title of the track references a room at the infamous Roadhouse.  There, Laura Palmer meets her drug connections and has sex with strange friend.  She is joined with her friend Ronette Pulaski.  This scene is important because it serves as a key connection between Laura Palmer’s descent and the events following her death.  The scene itself is also unnerving as we see Palmer gyrate and grind with the men who would be involved with her rape and murder.  Light flash and drugs are plenty as the score enhances the seedy and depraved mood of the scene in an already dark film.

The finale of the return of Twin Peaks left a lot of questions unanswered and opened the doors for further exploration of the increasingly obscured world of Lynch’s vision.  I don’t know if another season will be made.  Part of me doubts it and a bigger part of me actually doesn’t want it.  I don’t want answers.  I was left with questions at the end of season two and with even more questions at the end of this latest season.  For me, it has become clear that the world of Twin Peaks is not something we are meant to understand.  Instead, all we can do is sit back and observe and let the characters, story, and especially the music take us on a journey.