Ravings

Missing Col. Bruce Hampton

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”Without a warning you broke my heart, takin’ it baby, tore it apart, and you left me standin’ in the dark.”

I dreamed about Col. Bruce Hampton for years before we ever met in person. The man had a way of making a profound impression, etching himself into one’s consciousness so swiftly and surely that the world felt slightly altered after each encounter. And he could produce this effect from a distance. Case in point, the first time I saw the Aquarium Rescue Unit on the 1992 H.O.R.D.E. Tour, all robes and detuned instruments shaped and shattered by a Southern shaman with a grin that spoke of deep, fierce knowledge most of us weren’t privy to and never would be. That face, that man, lived on in my subconscious for a decade before I came to be face to face with him backstage at a festival.

“You’ve been in my head for years,” were the first words I spoke. Hampton smiled and said, “I get that a lot.” I asked if it would be okay if I told him about a recurring dream that starred him. He said, “I’d be offended if you didn’t tell me.” The dream opens late night at a massive music festival like a Woodstock or Bonnaroo, and into a main stage crowd appears Col. Bruce, stark naked and riding a unicorn. He hops off, points at his ride, and exclaims in a prophetic roar, “It’s real.” The dream always ends right there.

Bruce’s eyes widened slightly, he shook my hand, and said, “I believe we’re going to be friends,” and then proceeded to guess my birthday down to the year and day along with a fairly insightful astrological map of the time of my arrival. It was a freaky circus trick Col. Bruce pulled with a lot of people, especially when he first met them, and his batting average was eerie enough that one wondered where he was getting his info on complete strangers. More of that deep knowledge one supposes.

Hampton’s willingness to engage, to peel back layers, to find the connecting sinew and creaking disunity of things was ever-present, a warm current one could swim in as long as time and one’s constitution allowed. To have his ear, to feel his attention, and bask in the way his jittery-brilliant mind zoomed history, music, and the universe into freshly angled focus was a gift. It might only be a minute or two or it might be hours but it never felt anything less than special to be in Col. Bruce’s presence, and I’m certain this feeling is shared by nearly everyone fortunate enough to meet him and even more so those who shared a friendship or creative relationship, even if at times it could be maddening to follow the thread of his roaming imagination and always-askew perspective.

A friend who also knew Hampton remarked this morning that his sudden death last night after collapsing at the end of his 70th Birthday Celebration concert was the “most Col. Bruce way to go out.” Making music, surrounded by many of his closest pals and allies, a theatre packed with loving, adoring fans, and then shuffling off to the great by & by. It’s goddamn poetic in a sad but not tragic way. It’s the kind of bold punctuation a grand, expressly strange life like Hampton lived should have. For a man more subdued than many might expect it’s a touch extravagant but utterly unintentional, an accident with reverberating significance, which befits the Colonel’s philosophy.

Thing is he’s not gone. Not really. Not where we can’t feel him and act on what he stirs in us. Like the space dust from the Big Bang, Col. Bruce Hampton was a catalyst for evolution, a mischievous spark with a killer moustache that turned kindling into a blaze. A quick perusal of the musicians who view him as a sonic sensei alone tells the truth of his enzymatic energy but there are also the countless lives like mine he touched in some way and helped shift towards a better, bolder path.

Virtually everyone who met him, everyone who counted him a friend, has a Col. Bruce story or maybe a hundred. I’ll share one of my own as a hopeful blow against the darkness of a world without Bruce in it in the hope it triggers your own remembrances to share – endless curious tales to further embiggen a well-deserved mythology.

For three years running I got to spend extended time with the Colonel on Jam Cruise. I was covering the floating festival for JamBase and had to write up the previous day early the next morning to be posted online. From the first day I sat on the pool deck, bleary from my long night of amped up merrymaking, Bruce would join me. I never asked him but he just showed up that first morning. He called our table we always sat at our office, and we’d receive visitors and talk about our adventures, politics, mathematics or whatever seemed right in the moment. The whole time I’d peck away at my reports but haltingly, happily drawn in by the ceaseless array of folks who wanted a minute with Hampton. They weren’t there to see me and that was fine because my perch gave me a front row seat for all Col. Bruce imparted to others – sly advice on a musical bridge, relationship advice, helpful insights from old gods, tales from his rich years on earth (and there were always a bunch you’d never heard before like the time he impersonated Howlin’ Wolf with a particularly gullible public radio DJ).

It was during these morning writing-chat sessions that I started calling him “Cosmic Bluesman,” a descriptor he seemed to like. His take on the blues made think he’d learned on the banks of rivers in Asgard rather than Mississippi despite all his licks and moans being legit as hell. He just seemed tapped into a tributary only he knew how to find. In telling him this I started quoting the “Wondrous Boat Ride” speech from Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory and he stopped me to ask, “Do you know the whole speech?” I told him I did and he said it would come in handy later. As with many things Bruce said, I had no idea what he meant but trusted he was right.

Two nights later he was the ringleader for the Jam Room, where musicians take over a ship’s bar and roam where they like for as long as the vibe is strong. Late in the proceedings, sunrise not far off, during a heavy, blues-basted jam that had me drifting hard with my eyes closed right next to the stage, I felt a hand rouse me and opened my eyes to find Bruce inches from my face.

“Time for you to take us on that boat ride.”

Let’s be clear, I’m the guy skulking in the shadows taking notes about what people do onstage. I have almost zero urge to even be on a stage unless it’s to get a close up view of the players from the soundboard. Col. Bruce was well aware of my performance phobia but saying no to him was very hard and always felt like the wrong move despite how awkward or out-of-norm what he was asking me to do. So, I took the mic in hand and delivered my best rendition of Gene Wilder’s nautical monologue.

“There’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going. There’s no knowing where we’re rowing or which way the river’s flowing.”

Instead of being a fearful, out of body/watching yourself do something experience it turned into a rite of incarnation, a realization I could do this thing if I willed it and trusted in the people around me. It was maybe two minutes in the material world but the impact of him calling me up, calling something within me out into the light, was special in bolstering, lingering ways. He had this way of seeing parts of others that even they’d missed in all their introspection and striving. He’d reach out with that mighty palm at the end of his mind – a phrase from Wallace Stevens I was delighted to introduce him to (one was always delighted to bring Bruce a shiny thing he’d not encountered before) – and pull these hitherto unknown elements out of us. And if I close my eyes, I can still feel him reaching out, pulling us towards people and places we’d never find without him. We honor him and his life by continuing to let him shake us up in the best of ways.

”Turn on your love light let it shine on me. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

Albums of the Week

Chris Velan - Glow

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Maturity can be cool. The years etch us with wisdom lines, and if we’re lucky carve us into a more refined, smarter, stronger, more honest human being. This is the arc of Chris Velan’s catalog, music of slowly mounting maturity and hard won life lessons, especially in matters of the heart. With an even-hand and open eyes, Velan peels back the layers on the good and bad in how people connect (or disconnect). What’s revealed is tenderizing, moving, and a catalyst for loving others and ourselves.

“All your life you waited for the right wind to blow you/ You can’t decide/ So you lay down with the stars to show you/ If I’m wrong, I’m wrong/ If I’m right I will never say that I told you/ If I lose, I lose/ And if I win I will blow all my winnings on great new beginnings.”

Velan’s sixth studio effort, Glow, is what I wish greeted me every time I switched on the radio, a melodically and lyrically sharp sound that’s simpatico with the compelling craftsmanship of Neil Finn, Paul Simon, and Nick Lowe. This is stylistically varied pop-rock that moves so seemingly effortlessly that it’s easy to miss just how tied together everything is, one of those albums one can throw on anytime they need good songs gracefully delivered in a voice that could charm birds off a tree.

Glow weaves Velan’s rock with colorful strands of reggae, chugging blues, Dylan-like balladry and hopping power-pop. Each has surfaced on earlier releases but Glow offers the most organic synthesis thus far and it does so in service of tunes filled with lovers holding up what’s really going on between them to the light and speaking truthfully about what’s revealed. A few songs stretch this personal dynamic to larger issues, which feels particularly prescient given the steady shit show of 2016. Velan delves into the general zeitgeist of our times gently, his own contemplation sending out beams to others experiencing a similar need to connect somehow, someway.

“I made a million friends so I’ll never be alone/ I had my mouth turned into a microphone/ Now I share every thought ‘cause I guess I’m not unafraid to be unknown/ And I wish I could connect but I’m not hearing you/ The feeling is correct but something’s not getting through/ I’m too busy to wait/ I’m already late/ I’ve got too much I need to do.”

After the Elliott Smith worthy emotional bloodletting of Velan’s previous album, The Long Goodbye, it’s encouraging to find him opening up and seizing possibilities, even down to an appetite for some bad behavior, which is essential to a fully formed life. Because Velan doesn’t pull his punches, sometimes even stabbing the “beast” in the belly in self-defense, the moments when the sun comes out after the rain inside feel genuine, earned, true. Verisimilitude in pop isn’t common but we know it when it’s there, and it’s this music that can truly inform and inspire our own long journeys searching for companionship, fulfillment, and a few kicks. Chris Velan makes this kind of music, and anyone seeking a spot of maturity in an increasingly infantile era one would do well to acquaint themselves with Glow and the chapters that lead up to it.

Chris Velan Website

Albums of the Week

Will Courtney - Planning Escapes

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“The world is on my heart again.”

Will Courtney taps into the grand ennui of modern existence, the general malaise broken up by a smile, a good tune that recalls the “thrilling way guitarists play a riff,” or simply someone who’s got your back and is willing to try when so many others just sit it out in quiet defeat.

Planning Escapes is a tableau of everyday ache and bittersweet yearning, where the beauty and pain of small things – kind moments and cruel cuts – is illuminated and the nuances of interaction and memory are sifted with careful hands and humanity. There’s a healthy measure of 70s singer-songwriter mojo to Planning Escapes, which resonates with Jackson Browne and Gene Clark, as well as kindred contemporary Neal Casal. Wrapped in weathered corduroy and pedal steel accents, the album isn’t a throwback so much as a full-bodied descendent, Courtney the kind of guy they’d have welcomed in Topanga Canyon and Big Sur back in the day.

However, Planning Escapes has a feisty side that brings to mind Big Star’s Chris Bell and his posthumously released masterpiece I Am The Cosmos. When Courtney plugs in, there’s a righteous crackle. If they allowed naughty words on the radio “The Days When Bands Could Make You Cry” would be a hit, a bite-the-hand-that-feeds corker in the vein of Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio.” In electric mode, the album brings to mind Neil Young in his Gold Rush days with a similar judicious use of power and volume amidst the record’s steady flow. “It’s In Your Mind” could be a chapter from a Gnostic gospel to the Grateful Dead Songbook, a weary-but-still-standing sing-a-long that would’ve suited Garcia well.

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At the center of the varying moods is Courtney’s emotion-drenched singing. While Will looks like Grizzly Adams’ cousin, when he sings it stirs one like Elliott Smith, all the feels surfacing fast and frequently as familiar words hum with fresh impact upon his tongue. His voice is saturated with worldly wisdom, each verse infused by too many hours thinking about all the things he’s seen and heard, the callousness and disregard many exhibit getting at him but also fueling a resilient belief in the goodness of the few and the greater power love and connection possesses, this idea reaching its pinnacle on Planning Escapes’s “The Pain,” an homage to late Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, and the subsequent track “The Killer.”

At a base level, Courtney conveys compassion for others that doesn’t ignore the evil that men do. This makes his catalog of joys hiding in jagged places all the more believably meaningful. When he reaches out his hand he does so knowingly, willingly, which stirs one to rise from one’s own brokenness and do some reaching out of one’s own.

Pick up the album HERE, and spring the extra few bucks for the deluxe edition to get the entire album performed live-in-studio by Will Courtney on acoustic guitar and pedal steel champ Ricky Ray Jackson. It’s lovely and laid bare in the best of ways, adding a pleasing perspective to the layered studio version.

Albums of the Week

The New Up - Tiny Mirrors

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The Bay Area album release show for Tiny Mirrors takes place Saturday, November 12th at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. Purchase tickets here

Obsessively listenable, whip-smart, and seductive as a nibble on the ear in a darkened room, Tiny Mirrors, the long-awaited culmination of some deep wood-shedding (including stints in actual forests) from San Francisco’s The New Up, is future-forward in an age where pop is looking back to 1989 and earlier to manically milk nostalgia’s teats.

Tiny Mirrors mixes pop and politics in a winning way that recalls U2’s Achtung Baby, Prince’s Sign of the Times, and Gang of Four’s Entertainment! Like these contemporary touchstones, The New Up have crafted music very much of their age and slightly out of time, a groovy dislocation in a richly layered landscape that feels ever-present, a unique envelopment where every detail is warm and well placed, the production and playing on-point throughout, captivating voices whipping through the air like birds in conversation.

“Months turning into years, river filling up with tears,” the much-discussed apocalypse looms, the eerie opening statement from George Orwell making that abundantly clear, but also clear is the way forward is a matter of personal choices, thousands and thousands of them, down to the smallest motion towards positivity of a single bright thought. In this Year of Trump, this song cycle is eerily timely, peeling back the layers of today’s pervasive victimhood and eager outrage that drives so many, positing hope in self-reflection and active dreaming, a vision of real freedom delivered through conscious, empathetic action. Tiny Mirrors is filled with star-like flickers in the void, the expanse of what humanity is up against faced with clear, shining eyes and a fierce groove to drive us onward and upward.

Follow The New Up on Spotify and receive a free download of “Future Is Now.”

The New Up Facebook Page

The New Up Twitter Page

Albums of the Week

Greg Loiacono - Songs From A Golden Dream

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“The image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy.” – Ezra Pound

Songs From A Golden Dream, the solo debut from The Mother Hips’ Greg Loiacono is a melodically rich poem, a series of thoughtful, gorgeously carved passages that interweave even as each section stands squarely on its own. Rock & roll is rarely so nakedly philosophical or delicately revealing, yet the whole album moves with limber, graceful elegance, each wave delivering one to a new shore in a shared landscape where a sort of Gnostic sensuality rules, the body served by throbbing rhythms but always dancing with holy spirits and capricious gods, a sense of purposeful, introspective movement inescapable as one travels through “doors of ancient verse” and over choppy seas until the world without is reflected within – and vice-versa.

Far from some challenging listening experience, Loiacono’s first album under his own name after 25 years as a pillar in the Hips is a colorful, engaging snapshot of his creative urges that’s a pleasure to wander inside. The depths of Golden Dream emerge over time, the way verses in one song call back to another or how cultural tendrils dart out to literature, art, and history to shape and reshape a passage over time. Enjoyable as is, the album is filled with value-added elements for listeners willing to spelunk its strata, but being smart and warmly accessible is just how Loiacono rolls and this album neatly ties together elements of power pop, Americana, and experimental rock.

Captured with fully formed feel by Loiacono and co-producer-engineer David Simon-Baker (ALO, Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, Los Lobos), Golden Dream is best experienced by immersion through headphones or a strong set of speakers with at least a semblance of focus. There’s plenty of lifestyle accessory music out there and this is life philosophy music that marries personal tales with the greater mythologies humanity shares. That something so seemingly highfalutin struts like a freshly fucked young buck is one of the more charming contradictions afoot here.

Loiacono’s voice has never been more flexible or charismatic than this set, where he shows off a range fueled by fierce emotion that lets him soar in positively gospel ways even as his gutbucket bite remains sharp and well placed. And as enjoyable as his guitar pairing with Tim Bluhm in the Hips is, here he explores the full range of his playing, where slow hand deftness undulates with spark throwing turns offering echoes of ancestors as diverse as Eric Clapton and Bill Frisell. The rhythm team of drummer Todd Roper (Cake, Chuck Prophet) and bassist Scott Thunes (Frank Zappa, The Mother Hips, Fear) provide a winning foundation for Loiacono to shine while adding their own intriguing accents. Again, repeat spins reveal the true level of care and intuitive skill involved in this project. Guest turns from Jackie Greene on keys and Lefty Knight on sitar and pedal steel further flesh out the sound.

Ultimately, Songs From A Golden Dream is akin to a walking meditation, where the world glides past us as we focus on clearing the mind so what truly is may be revealed. “Let it flow, let it flow, there’s nothing more to know/ Let the music shatter the illusion of control,” incites Loiacono as the journey begins, and if one happily surrenders to the current it’s certain this dream will lead one to revealing new vistas.

Purchase Songs From A Golden Dream HERE

Greg Loiacono Website

Albums of the Week

Jerry Joseph - By The Time Your Rocket Gets To Mars

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By The Time Your Rocket Gets To Mars (released April 15 on Cosmo Sex School/Voodoo Doughnut Recordings) is that rarest of rares, an album that puts the lie to all our shouting and disunity by finding the underlying ties that bind and wrapping them in melodies that slip past one’s defenses, fired-up yet tender rock with purpose and higher calling that suggests Van Morrison having a late night jam session with Crazy Horse and Joe Strummer. It’s a call to tenderize ourselves enough to feel what’s happening in the world and then do what we can to generate some positivity and basic kindness. This collection is timely to an almost painful degree, an outstretched hand and open heart to battle back all the fence building and the black tide of Trump’s ugly America eroding the earth beneath us.

This is the work of true professionals, musical lifers serving the material with judicious power and keenly placed touches steered by musician’s musician Dave Schools (Hard Working Americans, Widespread Panic). Captured at the cozy clubhouse of Bob Weir’s TRI Studios in Marin, CA, By The Time Your Rocket Gets To Mars hums with intent, a clarion cry to look up from the ground, stop replaying the past’s stories, and welcome in fresh horizons and truths unseen. The muscle pumping this journey out of the dark lands is the choice personnel producer Schools assembled for this set, which includes Joseph’s regular touring partners Steve Drizos (drums), Steven James Wright (bass) and Jeff Crosby (guitar) alongside guests keyboardists Jason Crosby & Mookie Siegel and guitarists Scott Law & Steve Kimock. The builds in these songs are exhilarating, simmering seductions that explode beautifully with effective timing, the hard and soft elements well balanced and playfully mingled. The sucker sounds great, too, but mixer Jim Scott (Ryan Bingham, Wilco, Neal Casal) has a long history of nailing just the right vibe. Some tracks like “Fog of War” and “Istanbul” were captured in heady one takes, and the whole album possesses a forward rush, varied elements locking in as the album travels through today’s gunfire and hard rain.

God is here, too, surveying the fires and shouting, crossing her fingers that love and the realization that all we really have is right now will ultimately win the battle for humanity’s soul. On his latest collection, Jerry Joseph reminds us of the many forms the divine can take and the myriad ways we can get lost and found in our seeking of a ground of reality beyond paychecks, wars, and countless disappointing tangents. Hope is hard won in the 21st century and By The Time Your Rocket Gets To Mars is a sharp plough for cutting fertile furrows where hope may grow from a mustard seed to a sprout and maybe even something tall and green one day.

Pick up the album here

Jerry Joseph Website

Albums of the Week

Nathan Moore - Goodbye America

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Precarious times demand special songs to navigate an unstable landscape with a cloudy horizon. The multilayered experience of music allows truth and comfort to ease past the natural hardening that occurs with even slightly sensitive souls in such eras, the mixture of words, melody and sound finding where one is cracked and aching, open and exposed in true reality. It’s a help that hurts but like building muscle or learning new skills, the end result makes one appreciate and perhaps even crave substantive distress. Nathan Moore’s latest patriotic salvo Goodbye America is this sort of positive pressure, a balm that stings a little but might just get you back on your feet dancing in the bucket brigade as Rome blazes away.

Looking down Main Street (and Wall Street too), Moore begins by observing, “Nobody’s plotting the revolution/ Nobody’s dancing to the Great Heartbeat/ Except You and I.” He’s reaching out to his brothers and sisters (while reminding us we are ALL brothers and sisters), consciously bridging the widening gulf between human beings to remind us in the midst of friction filled upheaval and nasty shouting that not everything is scorched earth and clenched fists. Like spiritual ancestor Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, there’s a mad skip and wild grin threading through Moore’s examination of Modern Man’s survivalist mentality that notes “a hero is just a man in his underwear.” This song cycle is a battle cry to lay one’s self bare and embrace vulnerability, to accept our inherent fragility and impermanence instead of throwing up walls against our fears. Time and tide will have their way but we can choose how we spend our days instead of just going along for the ride.

Instead of choosing sides, Goodbye America says, “We’re all in this together. So what do we do now?” While Moore resists being programmatic, he uses his keen observational skills and prestidigitator’s dexterity to gently usher one through today’s weariness and rage towards bemusement over the nonsense and conflict and ultimately to a place where love is valued far above gold and power. In this way, it’s a most American and even Christian album without all the trappings of politics and religion, the better essence of these two powerful philosophical tracks distilled. That he does so with his most subtly pleasingly, judiciously fleshed-out musical settings thus far in his career is an added bonus. Moore’s sound is moving closer to Crowded House/Neil Finn and Rufus Wainwright territory than his folkie past. He’s a troubadour in the same vein as Tim Buckley, Fred Neil, and Richard Thompson, where the production adds interesting texture to barrelhouse bones.

Goodbye America is an invitation to step past our loathing and self-loathing to avoid a collective fate where “it only takes one to blow it all away.” Alone, disconnected, and terribly, terribly frightened is how too many people live in 2016. Those feelings aren’t false but there’s another way to see the world and Moore’s latest offering points us in that direction in an hour where we need all the positive navigation and potluck thinking we can get.

Mix Tape

Twang Thursday - Already Have The Key Edition

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A goodbye to dear, wonderfully eloquent Guy Clark and then into the essence of what this weekly burst of country and Americana is all about. Get out there and do some living, children.

Twang Thursday (Already Have The Key Edition) from dirtyimpound on 8tracks Radio.

If stream doesn’t work you can listen to this mix over HERE.

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track listing