“amazing grace” – aretha franklin (1972)

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I received news over social media that Aretha Franklin was in hospice care a little over a week ago.  The new was frankly stunning.  For one, I didn’t know she was ill.   It wasn’t as if she was keeping a low profile over the last few years.  She had actively toured within recent memory.  I would never have guessed she was in ill health.

When she did pass away a few days after the news of her being in hospice broke out, it turns out she had pancreatic cancer.  I don’t know how long she had it, but it must’ve developed rapidly.  I wasn’t just stunned by the suddenness of such an announcement.  I was a fan of Aretha’s music and the impact she had on soul/R&B, pop, and female performers that came after her inspired by her talent, character, and attitude.

Aretha’s music had always been with me.  By the time I was born, her career had gone through so many changes.  The hits we all know were so ingrained in popular culture that they were presented as wallpaper music in most contexts; a score over a popular movie or playing over tinny grocery store speakers.  We all knew the hits because they were part of the lexicon of American popular music.  You didn’t seek them out.  They were already there surrounding you.

During the second semester of my freshman year of college, I started my own genre-specific show at my college radio station.  That station was unique.  We were a completely student-driven station, all volunteer, live 24/7, and with specific programming guidelines.  Many college radio stations had one or a combination of those qualities, but very few did all that.  However, from 10 PM to midnight every night, a specialty show got to go off-format and do their own thing.  It was a privilege to have a specialty show; two hours where you call the shots.  These slots were given to volunteers who applied with well-defined ideas and who had proven they were responsible.  My show was called “Soul Food.”

I had always loved soul music and “Soul Food” was going to reflect that.  However, just turning 19 and still within my first year, I still had a lot to learn about the genre.  The first year or two of the show were rocky due to its predictability and lack of a unique voice.  This was because I played a lot of soul/R&B standards with a few deep cuts from those artists sprinkled throughout.  I would often get jokes about the music I played.  I didn’t mind because I liked that music, but I was still finding my voice.

As time went on and I continued to develop “Soul Food,” I was making musical discoveries all the time.  Through Internet research, outreach to independent labels, conversations with the local record store owner, and reading through specialty trade magazines, I was able to find new, independent, and never-heard-before artists that would give my show a unique sound that wouldn’t have been heard anywhere else in town and probably the state as well.

This drive was how I discovered artists like Sharon Jones, revivalist labels like Numero Group, and so much more.  I couldn’t believe in what I was hearing.  Whether it was recently recorded music or reissues of material long forgotten or never heard, there was a market for a specific type of soul music that wasn’t the pop you heard on Top 40 at the time.

I was met with skepticism and incredulousness by my fellow college radio DJs when I talked about all this great music.  I was often told that soul music was no longer relevant.  Nevermind that Amy Winehouse was making big waves and Duffy and Adele were right around the corner, I was often dismissed and that no one cared about soul music.  Under the direction of an out-of-touch station manager, our station became more focused on playing obscure artists inspired by barely recognizable synthpop one-hit wonders of the 1980s.  I knew soul was still alive.  I tried in vain to get our station to book Sharon Jones for events before she got too big.  They didn’t think that would ever happened.

Before my discovery of all this, my knowledge and love for soul music was rather stagnant.  I knew the hits.  However, finding that niche that Sharon Jones and Numero Group were filling, it added fuel to the fire.   I think a big part of why was because they sounded like direct descendants of what Aretha pioneered.  I knew her work and now I was learning what people today were doing with it.  To me, this wasn’t wallpaper music.  This was life.

I have now come to realize that I just wasn’t in the right place to have my interests and passion encouraged.  I wasn’t surrounded by the right people.  It took me a long time and moving to a new city to find a group of people who are open to new music, new ideas, and approach the musical landscape with an open, and somewhat, academic mindset.

When Aretha passed away, I didn’t’ immediately listen to her music.  I went to the stuff that was inspired by her; the music I had discovered during my college radio days.  I didn’t realize exactly why until a few days later.  It was because there was no one doing what Aretha did before that.  Before Aretha, there were no women of color that could match the critical and commercial success of Aretha.  Certainly, many of these women were extremely talented but unfortunately were not recognized.  Aretha changed all of that and set a standard that is still being followed five decades later.

Listening to Aretha also opened the doors to gospel for me.  Admittedly, gospel isn’t an area I know that much about.  I am ware of key figures and do listen to some on occasion.  However, as compared with my knowledge and love of soul, my knowledge of gospel is lacking.

That’s why, when I was diving into my soul records and anything having to do with Aretha, I was pleased with Sound Opinion’s tribute episode to Aretha.  Jim and Greg talked about her early days at Columbia, the success she had at Atlantic, and highlight from her career since then.  However, they talked very extensively about one particular gospel record.

Amazing Grace was a 1972 live gospel album by Aretha and became her biggest-selling album to date.  Recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, it is a testament to Aretha’s massive talent.  Sure, you may have known she was talented because her most famous singles illustrate that, but they cannot match the quality of exceptionalism captured live for Amazing Grace.

I listened to the album a few times over the weekend and I am amazed by its energy and passion.  Every track breathes life.  Rumor has it that Mick Jagger was in the audience and the album inspired the sound of Exile on Main Street.  It is gritty, sweaty, and unapologetically full of life.  While many of these tracks are remarkable, I wanted to highlight her rendition of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”  With a run-time of nearly 11 minutes, this track represents Aretha in pure form.  This is Aretha will no filter and nobody stopping her as she exposes her true essence in a way very few artists can.

The performance was recorded by Sydney Pollack for a concert film he planned to direct.  Originally scheduled for released in 1972, the film could not be completed due to sound synchronization issues.  It was the shelved for 38 years until producer Alan Elliott resolved the sound issue.  The goal was to premiere the film in 2011, until Aretha sued to not have the film screened citing rights over her likeness being used.  Aretha stated “Justice, respect and what is right prevailed and one’s right to own their own self-image.”  Despite the fact the original contract stated her likeness could be used, Aretha secured an emergency injunction.

This story thrills me.  This is Aretha exhibiting full control and power over herself and is indicative of the way she has managed her career; no one tells Aretha how to do Aretha but Aretha.  As much as I would love to see this footage, it likely doesn’t do the original album justice.  I’d rather have that and leave the rest to my own mind and imagination.

“out of the wilderness” – the como mamas (2014)

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Daptone Records came into my life a decade ago when I was in college.  I obtained my undergrad at a state school in southwestern Kentucky just an hour north of Nashville in a city called Bowling Green.  Bowling Green is a sizable city as far as Midwestern cities go.  It is the third largest city in Kentucky and coincidentally home to the third largest state university.  For its size, it still has a small town feel because of the university’s presence.  Bowling Green is a nice, quiet place to attend school or raise a family.

Bowling Green, however, is not a cultural hotbed.  The city is tucked between Nashville and Louisville which get more events and programs.  Though, there are elements that promote that value.  The university there strives to bring in more international students and increase its scope broadly through exchange and study abroad programs.  Cage the Elephant, which as seen a considerable amount of success recently, originated there.  And Corvettes, the classic American sports car, is manufactured there and maintaining its image as a homegrown icon.  Despite having a lot to offer, Bowling Green can leave a lot to be desired for someone looking for things below everyone’s radar.

That’s how I felt when I picked up my first Daptone Records release in 2007 from a small record store in Bowling Green.  It was 100 Days, 100 Nights, the third studio release from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. It instantly became one of my favorite albums and I could not stop singing the praises of Sharon Jones or Daptone to my friends.

That album dropped at the beginning of my sophomore year of college and really defined the sound of my college years.  At that time, I was entering the second semester of my radio show Soul Food that aired on my college’s student radio station.  I love soul music and Soul Food was an outlet for me to express that.  The first semester went alright, but it had trouble finding its footing in terms of sound.  I ended up playing a lot of classics and threw in some songs that sounded awkward on a progressive college station.  But when I got into Daptone, I got the sound I was looking for and the connections to find similar record labels and artists.

Though I did expand to other independent soul labels like Numero Group, Daptone was my musical epicenter in those days.  I had all the early releases from Sharon Jones, the Sugarman 3, the Budos Band, and Antibalas.  No one else had these albums.  This was exciting stuff and I had to make sure everyone knew about.

I was an early adopter for Daptone and there were challenges associated with that.  I had fans of the show and some colleagues at my college radio station became really into what I was playing.  However, I did get a lot of resistance whenever I tried to speak the gospel of Daptone.

The strangest criticism I had about playing Daptone’s music, or any soul music, was that I could not be taken seriously because I was white.  I got this a lot from colleagues at the radio station a lot in the form of jokes and snide comments.  Just the fact I was white made my show somehow subpar or worthy of ridicule because the idea of me playing music by predominantly black artists was ridiculous to them.  Despite having a solid fan base and high performance evaluations from our quality assurance department, this was something I never managed to evade.

While producing this show, I was also on the stations Board of Directors.  We planned two charity concerts events during the year and strategized on artists, ways to promote, and the overall design and theme of the event.  I would also push really hard that we book Sharon Jones.  The response to this was typically lukewarm.  This issue, to them, was that they felt soul music was no longer relevant and that an act like Sharon Jones wouldn’t draw much of a crowd.  I would protest this.  Not only because we never had soul acts on the bill, but that Sharon Jones would become too big to book within a next year or two.  I had seen her perform live and her records were amazing.  The only way to go was up.  This suggestion would always get dismissed and the station would instead book acts like Freezepop (became the band appeared on the video game Rock Band which was popular at the time) or one-hit wonder Stacey Q to talk for a little bit on a Halloween-themed radio show.  Such a waste of money.

As I was nearing completing my undergrad, I just grew further away from that station.  I was more focused on my video production capstone, internship at Country Music Television in Nashville, and listening to music that I would make an impact.  It was also during the last year of my undergrad that my radio show Soul Food was no longer renewed.  The reasoning was that people didn’t care about soul music.  I didn’t care anymore.  I had dismissed the people around me at the station as idiots who couldn’t see that there was a larger world out there.  I was emotionally checking out.  I wanted to graduate, move, get a job, and surround myself with people I knew who got it.

As I was checking out and doing my own thing until graduation, Sharon Jones did indeed blow up the way I knew she would.  With the 2010 release of her album I Learned the Hard Way, her career was skyrocketing.  She was making appearances on shows like The Colbert Report and performing at massive festivals like Bonnaroo.  When the college station got the album, it was like pulling teeth to get the music director to put a track in rotation.  Eventually, they would just so I would get off their back.

Over the years, Daptone and its repertoire of artists only continued to grow in popularity.  Sharon Jones was the crown jewel of the label, but they also supported some of the hardest working and most entertaining artists on an independent label.  Charles Bradley, the Screaming Eagle of Soul, earned his way and ultimately finding happiness and success after a hard life.  The Budos Band and Antibalas brought their own aggressive form of funk to larger venues and festivals.  Daptone music started appearing in commercials, film, and television shows (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings even performed in a Martin Scorsese movie).  Daptone was unstoppable.

Last week, I attended the opening night screening of the 9th annual Chicago International Movies and Music Festival (CIMMFest).  The featured documentary kicking off CIMMFest was the Chicago premiere of Living on Soul.  In the spirit of great music revue concert films like The Last Waltz and Monterey Pop, Living on Soul was a Daptone showcase piece.

The film featured performance recorded during a three-night revue at the Apollo Theater that was held in December 2014 to celebrate Daptone’s 20th anniversary.  This was an incredibly big deal.  No one had played a multi-night residency at the Apollo since James Brown in the 1970s.  Coming from their humbling beginnings in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Daptone had worked for two decades to get to this point.  And they deserved it.

The residency featured over 40 different musicians including performances from Daptone stalwarts such as Charles Bradley, the Budos Band, Antibalas, the Menahan Street Band, Saun & Starr, and Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens.  The film featured a performance form each band as well as behind-the-scene footage and interviews with them preparing at the Apollo or working at the Daptone studio.

Sharon Jones, the leading lady of Daptone, had two performances in the documentary kicking off the festivities as well as brining everything to a satisfying close.  At the time of the filming, she had just beaten cancer.  At the closing, she performed “Get Up and Get Out” from her latest album at the time Give the People What They Want.  She announced that the arrangement was changed from the studio release to give it some Tina Turner flair.  She performed the song spectacularly with the lively stage presence she was known for.  During the performance, she was shouting not unlike a southern preacher about her journey beating cancer and the joy she felt performing that evening at the Apollo.  It was an emotionally driven performance that filled me with absolute joy and brought tears to my eyes.

The film was emotional on a lot of levels.  First, it was great to see these incredibly talented musicians talk about their lives and their struggle to get to this point.  Secondly, both Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones passed away in the last year.  Both had found success very late in their lives after having difficult experiences.  Bradley spent a lot of his time on screen talking about never giving up on your dreams no matter how hard it gets.

Lastly, it was emotional for me personally because I had been a fan of Daptone for a decade.  Admittedly, I have strayed away a bit since my initial discovery.  Over the years, you discover new interests or get busy with jobs, relationships, or anything else life throws at your way.  Still, Daptone had been a big part of my life during formative years and still are one of the best record labels around.  Daptone consists of a group of people that struggled to get the success they absolutely deserved.  And I feel some pride in being an early fan of theirs (though they had technically been around for 13 years, they were still quite small in 2007).  I loved Daptone and I was passionate about them because I wanted to support and elevate these talented artists.  I’m not bitter about the resistance or ridicule I received early on about this.  It is merely just a part of my history with Daptone.  Besides, I ended up being right.  Daptone and artists like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley became huge.  I’m not bitter, but I do feel validated.

While Sharon Jones’ closing performance was the highlight of the documentary, one performance continues to stick with me.  One of the first few performances in Living on Soul featured the Como Mamas.  The Como Mamas are a trio of a Capella gospel singers from the small town of Como, Mississippi.  Ester Mae Smith is powerful and raspy, Angela Taylor provides a deep soothing voice, and Della Daniels is the energetic voice of the group.  Together, they bring their story and experiences to gospel music and breathe new life into it.

The song they performed was “Out of the Wilderness,” a traditional gospel tune.  Their performance on Living on Soul was a Capella, but the recorded versions have a backing track.  It was initially released as a 45 single in 2014, but would appear on their second studio album Move Upstairs in 2017 with a whole new arrangement.  Before going into the song, the group projected pure energy and joy about their excitement performing at the historical and acclaimed Apollo Theatre.  They absolutely loved coming all the way from Mississippi to bring the people of Harlem to church.

Before their performance, there was footage of them backstage hanging with Sharon Jones.  They sung spirituals and offered their praises to Jesus for the opportunity to be a part of something truly special.  Much like the Sharon Jones’ and Charles Bradley’s history I can’t imagine that the women of the Como Mamas had an easy life.  However, they take every opportunity they can to feel joy and I find that so remarkable.

The provided an introduction in the film to “Out of Wilderness.”  Whether you were going through a divorce, illness, or other calamity, you must get through those trials because there is joy and relief when you overcome adversity.  When you emerge out of the wilderness, there is satisfaction and a love for life because you survived.  I really gravitated towards that message because it is something I forget sometimes.  I am here because I have survived and I didn’t quit.  And that means I need to take stock of the good things around me and appreciate them.  That’s the best thing anyone can do for themselves.

 

“come down easy” – spacemen 3 (1987)

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Sometimes the line between reality and surreality cannot be seen.  That is even assuming you have clearly defined the difference between them.  You also have to consider the idea that both concepts are abstract and relative.  Could one argue and prove that what is real and what is beyond reality differs greatly from person to person? Does reality, in any form, adhere to a universal standard that is clearly defined? Perhaps one can suggest that reality is a spectrum and people can exist on any point of that spectrum, or that even individuals can fluctuate from one end towards the other.

How does all of this translate to music?  I believe music embodies qualities that can confirm realism while also having the potential to heighten experience and transfer it to the realm of the surreal.  And that can be accomplished in many different ways; production aesthetics that convey a lazy river of dreams, an abstract sequence of words that make lyrics seem like poetry on a higher plane, or reimagining a firm tradition to the point of unfamiliarity.  With the case of “Come Down Easy” by Spacemen 3, it certainly is a cosmic blend of all, um, three.

Concerning its aural aesthetics, “Come Down Easy” is a dreamy, psychedelic trip down from a tumultuous, chaotic high.  It is the drifting downward from the stratosphere of cosmic realities, a realm of properties that differ greatly from the grounded principles and laws of nature of Earth.  Spacemen 3 borrows from the traditions of acid rock and skews its identity with their own blend of alternative malaise.

While their acid rock forefathers praised the era of free love, Spacemen 3 represent the potential of what reality can become.  There is always another side of the coin and with every peace sign, there are nightmares and coming down easy becomes an existential journey of survival.  The music is a drug-induced reimaging of “In My Time of Dying,” a gospel staple.  Within the framework of a song rich in formality and tradition, Spacemen 3 expose the central theme to make the idea of coming down from a high a religious experience.  In the backing track, the band stays true to form by making the song’s guitar rhythm the signature piece of the song.  It strums along with some grasp of its origin; a seemingly recognizable face among a crowd of blurred, obscured faces.   Are we in the middle of a gospel sermon or on display naked and exposed to an unidentifiable audience?  The musical arrangement is accentuated with another guitar drifting through the background, tambourines, a steady drum beat, and a descending bass line that is walking you down from this high.

While the music is rich with its reimagining of tradition, the song marks its own paths with the lyrics drenched in the sweat of deep spirituality.  Jason Pierce’s vocals convey a distant remembrance of his journey to his spiritual center.  He is on his way to the Holy Land aided by his shepherd and the intravenous, snorted, and smoked disciples.  His path to internal peace and enlightenment shines through as an authentic spiritual and religious experience.  He has seen the light and knows the way to righteousness.  He yearns for a flock to follow him and experience a centered, universal oneness that only comes with a congregation deeply rooted in unquestionable faith.  Through the sunlit holy mountain and through the dark, shadowy valley of death, you are protected.  You will come down easy.

Spacemen 3 is a remarkable, trippy alternative band that both understands and reinvents tradition.  With a sound that recalls King Crimson and the 13th Floor Elevators, they still create their own unique blend of psychedelic and post-punk alternative rock.  “Come Down Easy” is a real treat on several different levels.  What better ways to express the distortion of reality through drug abuse than dissecting and rebuilding a form of music that takes pride in their adherence to tradition and formality.  “Come Down Easy” perfectly exemplifies just how small the distinction between reality and surreality actually is.