241: John Sebastian, ‘Welcome Back’

Posted by jeff on Jul 15, 2016 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Father and SonWelcome Back Kotter, opening credits

Big week coming up for me. Bigger than winning a million dollars in the lottery. Bigger than flying to the moon. Bigger than anything.

My son’s coming back home.

After seven years abroad, on various other sides of the world, N is coming back to the country where he was born, where his great-grandmother was born, where about a hundred generations ago all of his ancestors were born. Where we’ve all been waiting for him. Him and his wonderful wife (daughter in so much more than law) and his five wonderful children, each one of them bearing my grandfather’s name. Well, kind of, but that’s another Ellis Island story.

He’s going to be living 100 km away. Rather than 10,000. Two fucking zeros, in one fell swoop. There’s nothing in the world that could make me happier.

I think that’s cause for celebration. And since I don’t drink champagne on a Friday morning, I’m gonna share a song with you.

Kobi Nahmias: “Now Daddy will always be on my heart.”

Kobi Nahmias: “Now Daddy will always be on my heart.”

N’s motives for returning aren’t completely clear. He keeps his cards close to his chest. He had a great job out there in the diaspora, and he’s coming to a much-coveted one here. But that’s the vehicle, not the tenor. He chose to leave a situation devoutly to be desired by most sane people, in exchange for a cubbyhole in a crazy little corner of the craziest neighborhood in a patently crazy world.

I’m not quite clear just why he’s coming back. To tell the truth, I don’t think he is either. But since he’s never gotten around to explaining his motive (don’t look a gift son in the mouth), I guess I’m free to invent one for him:

Just to be near his dad.

I’m reminded of Kobi Nahmias, who played left midfielder for a 3rd division football club nearby. Kobi had his father’s portrait tattooed right on his left breast. It was the least he could do.

Ok, maybe I don’t expect my kid to go quite that far. You know, Leviticus 19:28 and all that.

But there are other models, musical ones.

Model I: To me he is ev’rything strong; no he can’t do wrong, my dad.

Donna_Reed_Show_1103Take, for example, Paul Peterson (b. 1945). Paul started out as a Mouseketeer, appeared in the 1958 film “Houseboat” as the son of Cary Grant and Sophia Loren (that’s some pair of genes!), then went on to find fame, fortune and family as Jeff (no relation) in eight seasons and decades of reruns in 1950s idyllic “Donna Reed Show”. He also shared the upstairs bathroom with his ‘sister’ Mary, Shelly Fabares, she who invented the tight cashmere sweater.

Following the success of TV turning Ozzie and Harriet’s son Ricky (Nelson) into a teenage singing idol, Donna’s real-life husband/producer of the show Tony Owen convinced both Shelly and Paul that they could sing. They were terrified, but he insisted. The result? Shelly’s #1 hit ‘Johnny Angel’, and Paul’s ‘She Can’t Find Her Keys’ and the iconic anthem of filial devotion, ‘My Dad’.

Model II: Just drop by when it’s convenient to, but be sure and call before you do.


I engendered in my son a predilection for orange juice, a Van Dyke beard, and an appreciation of Randy Newman’s first album. His favorite? ‘So Long, Dad’:

Come and see us, Poppa, when you can
There’ll always be a place for my old man.
Just drop by when it’s convenient to
Be sure and call before you do.

Okay, it’s not Koby Nahmias, but he invited me to come whenever I want, didn’t he?

Model III: Welcome back to that same old place that you laughed about

A lot of energy has been invested over the years by those who know and love N speculating on his motives (not to mention his whereabouts). It’s a fruitless labor. He remains a sweet, eccentric, unique enigma.

hqdefaultPerhaps I’ll just resort to my internal data base’s default  Coming Home song, John Sebastian’s ‘Welcome Back’. It may not tell the whole story, but it sure reflects one aspect of my feelings and thoughts.

John (b. 1944) was of course the founder and leading force of The Lovin’ Spoonful (‘Do You Believe in Magic’, ‘Daydream’, ‘Summer in the City’, as well as another score of stunning pop poems). He’s always been one of my favorite artists. He was a pioneer of American rock (see SoTW 052, ‘Girl, Beautiful Girl’) and a major force in the rock world (he turned down an invitation to join Crosby, Stills, Nash and Sebastian). He’s one of the wittiest lyricists to come out of the world of rock (‘I could feel I could say what I want, I could nudge her and call her my confidante’). He’s an artist of sensitivity, depth and wisdom (see SoTW 098, ‘Younger Generation’).

He’s also a real mensch. At least his persona in his music is, and I’ve never heard anything to the contrary about him as a person.

imagesSebastian left The Spoonful in 1968, made a memorable spontaneous appearance at Woodstock in 1969, and released an uneven solo debut album in 1970, with help from friends and a few great songs (‘She’s a Lady’, ‘You’re a Big Boy Now’, ‘How Have You Been’).  But he got mired in contractual disputes, and his solo career has been one long downward spiral commercially. Fear not, John made a nice living investing in real estate, and seems to have followed a path of playing the kind of Jug Band and New Acoustic music that he loves.

In 1975, ABC was making a new sitcom tentatively entitled “Kotter”, about a former Sweathog (the remedial class in a lower-class Brooklyn high school) who returns to teach at the selfsame school, trying to try to rehabilitate the current class of idiots, led by Horshack, Boom Boom Washington, Juan Epstein, and Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta’s breakout role).

armed-forces-ticke_1667099iSebastian was invited to write a theme song, and the producers liked it so much they renamed the show “Welcome Back Kotter”. The single went to #1. It was Sebastian’s swan song, but has occupied a warm and tender spot in my heart and that of many a nostalg, as only a Sebastian song can do.

The song even inspired a rap version. And while I’m here, I’m happy to have the opportunity to give a shout for the one other fine song in the album, ‘She’s Funny’, a charming, disarming paean to his lady’s sense of humor.

Every week for five seasons “Welcome Back, Kotter” had a happy ending. But life, Virginia, isn’t a sitcom. Coming back now after seeing The Big World (I mean that literally—the tales of N’s hair-raising and exotic odysseys may someday be told), I know the lad’s going to have a reality bath back in the old neighborhood. I do hope it’s a warm one.

Time will tell. Life, with its inevitable twists and turns, is never as simple as a Hollywood sitcom. But one thing I do know: when they tumble off that plane, all seven of them, they’re going to be welcomed back with the warmest embrace in this whole wide world.

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240: The Staves, ‘No Me, No You, No More’

Posted by jeff on Jul 8, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

web_thestaves_p9a7383-1No Me, No You, No More


For several weeks now I’ve been listening to and watching little other than The Staves. My wife corrects me – doing little else.

Three young sisters from Watford, Hertfordshire. At first glance, they’re a folkie trio, three pleasant girls warbling. Oh, but they’re so much more.

They’re young. They’re funny and funky, sexy and sincere, prolific and precise. They warm up in the corridor backstage in stunning, genetically-matching perfect harmony – beer bottle in hand. They sing lyrics likeYou were right, and I’ve been wrong/To tarry here for far too long/Pick me up, wish me luck/Fare thee well/I don’t give a fuck anymore.” ‘Tarry’ and ‘give a fuck’ in the same verse. And they carry it off. This ain’t The Kingston Trio.

the-staves-eventThe Staves covering Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’, oh, so convincingly.

For three weeks I’ve been going at them, and I still haven’t encompassed or grasped it all. They have a veritable myriad of material – thirty or so songs, with countless fine video performances – festival performances, taking refuge from the rain on a Cornwall beach, walking in the woods, in hotel rooms, radio and TV studios, soundtracks for video art, acting in mini- drama clips.

IMG_0656Three gems from the first album, home candids (in the finest sense):

Facing West

In the Long Run


A couple of video art ventures, also from the first album:

Tongue Behind My Teeth’, a High Noon spoof in which The Girls wreak Revenge on The Bad Guy

Winter Trees’—an animated fairy tale

thestavesAnd a few from the second album:

Steady’ – even good girls have dark dreams

Blood I Bled’, a parable of something. Please, explain it to me.

Black & White’—in which a 1960’s newscaster couple’s relationship disintegrates on air

Nature/nurture. What happens when you have both? Not only a blending of timbre. A blending of blood, of eyes and ears and mouths and throats. And minds. And life experience.

337698_1They can sing together perfectly. But they have enough trust and confidence in each other and in themselves to go beyond blend.

Want to see them singing perfection?

Want to see them soulful?

Want to see them being artistically bold?

I happened to see recently a clip of the very young Everly Brothers. Don and Phil match. They’ve vocally Siamese twins from Kentucky.

The Everly Bros face each other, careful to match perfectly. The Staves face outwards, having each other’s backs, if you will, each projecting her own unique persona. Three young women who come from the same place. Literally.

I first tripped over The Staves backing Bon Iver in their new performances. Hey, any friend of Justin Vernon is a friend of mine.

maxresdefaultI just gotta digress here (that might be a fitting epitaph for my gravestone: “He Digressed”). A few months ago I wrote a posting about Bon Iver, Justin Vernon’s band, especially their performance on Austin City Limits. I’ve been watching that show over and over and over, and you know what? My appreciation just keeps growing.

These millenials are weird. Just as Justin Vernon’s band got really popular, he took a hiatus of performing for three years. I guess he had better stuff to do. As if there’s something more important than fame and fortune. Pshaw.

The-Staves-by-Graham-Tolbert-1“I became familiar with The Staves [in 2012] from an EP that was given to me by a friend. I asked them to support us on a tour and when I heard them singing it’s really like physiological; their sisterhood and their relation. The combination of their voices is unlike anything I’ve ever heard.”

Bon Iver recently returned to activity. Just a couple of shows, with The Staves in support.  I’m watching closely. And there’s this new ‘Heavenly Father’—the five band members with The Staves, standing in a circle around one mike, facing each other rather than playing to the audience – no matter that it’s not Vernon’s finest achievement musically. Bon Iver, with three lovely young women, singing a cappella? I’m hooked, lined and sinkered.

At the time, The Staves, sisters Emily (lighter hair), Jessica (black hair and guitar) and Camilla (long hair) Staveley-Taylor, had one really fine album under their belts, “Dead & Born & Grown & Live”, including songs like ‘Mexico’, ‘Eagle Song’, ‘Wisely and Slow’.

In-ear monitor + 2 earrings

In-ear monitor + 2 earrings

The sisters grew up on their parents’ American records – Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell. We’re talking second or even third generation children of The Woodstock Generation. There’ll be one child born to carry on. Hell, three children. Every time the keyboard on my cellphone gets too small, I remind myself: They’re still singing our music. It’s no nostalgia trip. They’re talented young, vibrant DIY artists standing on the shoulders of us when we were young. And they ain’t heavy, they’re our legacy and our future.

Listen to the very young Staves do a very respectable live cover of ‘Helplessly Hoping’.

But wait.

Listen to them warming up backstage in 2015 on Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’. Could CS&N have done it better, even back then?

And if you want to glimpse the outer limits of Nostalgia meets Aesthetic Beauty meets Existential Validation – remember 15-year old Little Peggy March’s #1 hit from 1963, ‘I Will Follow Him’? Check out the Staveley-Taylor sisters warming up on it. Those smiles aren’t for the cameras. They’re for the utter beauty of the moment they’re creating. Magic, just pure magic.

Vernon, 2015: “Because I care about them so much, I wanted to invite them here [to his hideaway studio in Wisconsin] which seems like such a safe place to them, to sprawl out all their ideas, give them the runway and tools and watch them grow into making a record. It’s undeniable, when you hear those voices… That comes from a well of family, and history and something that you just can’t get. That is the magic of The Staves.”

In Justin Vernon's studio

In Justin Vernon’s studio

He encamped them in his hideaway, together with core members of his gang of musical cronies, resulting in their second album, “If I Was”, including ‘Horizons’, ‘Teeth White’, and our SoTW, ‘No Me, No You, No More’.

Jessica: “It’s very much an album that’s been born from being away from home a lot and being on tour. We wanted the first album to be an honest representation of what we were on stage, but since then I think ideas and ambitions have grown. This feels like the most natural and honest we’ve been able to be in front of a microphone. So I think we feel like this is us, at the moment at least.”

Here’s ‘Make It Holy’, right from the studio, illustrating just that. And beautiful it is.

She also says, “I’m so lucky, to be touring with my family.”

Ukelele and bottle

Ukelele and bottle

If you care to really delve into The Staves, I recommend their performance at Glastonbury in 2015. I think that’s the definitive performance of where they are today.

Are they really that laid-back? Or is that a look, an attitude, a veneer, a cool? For two whole weeks I’ve been to grasp if their homey image is before or beyond the sheen of stardom. I’ve been knocking my head against that question for several weeks now, so I guess it’s a secret locked securely in the nether depths of the female psche, a Xanadu I’m resigned never to see.

After excessively long deliberations, we picked a Song of The Week to represent these very talented young ladies. We went for a slow, introspective song of unrequited love featuring their stunning vocal harmonies, ‘No Me, No You, No More’.

There are imperfections here in the Glastonbury version which you don’t hear in the studio version. This is as it should be. In the studio, the fine tuning of the blend is a goal. That’s their choice—they strive for, and achieve, perfect accord. But they also go out there, where it’s dangerous. With the wind and the rain and the mud and the real world. Where they need guts, not just vocal cords.

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070: Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

Posted by jeff on Jun 29, 2016 in Personal, Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Last week’s SoTW aroused so many responses from dormant Deadheads out there that we thought we’d continue that string and share with you the story about the night I sang with The Dead. Yes, boys and girls, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh on acoustic guitars and backing vocals behind lead singer Jeff Meshel.

The Infamous Bathtub Brothers: Mitty, Bill, Rod (photo), Mike, Jeff

It was 1969, good old 1969—”There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air,” as Dylan put it in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. Bill and Mike and Me (aka The Infamous Bathtub Brothers) were very active in the nascent underground hippie scene in reactionary Cincinnati. Bill had recently moved out, leaving me alone in the MacMillan apartment building with 89-year old Mrs. Alice(“I shore wouldn’t want to be one of them Rolling Stones”) Wilson. Bill moved into a bizarre 3-floor, unnumerably-roomed home. To get to it, you turned into an alleyway, drove through several blocks of hard-core slum, into a forest, and then walked down a hill 50 steps to get to the back door. The front door was accessible by climbing several hundred steps from some other street, but in those years I knew no one who had the energy to try that. Bill was living there with his Great Pyrenees Mitty and a very long string of transient female friends. So when The Dead came to town to play a gig at the university, it was only logical that they stay at his place.

While you’re reading, here’s the great Buddy Holly original hit:

And here’s Buddy’s first, inferior version of the song:

And here he is singing it live.

Understand that ‘The Dead coming to town’ in those days meant the band and their various roadsters and courtiers, as well as a traveling circus of bestowers of good times, the Merry Pranksters. They traveled the land sowing LSD much as Johnny

Not Bill’s House–Too Many Intact Windows

Appleseed had done his apple seeds. I don’t know what kind of music Johnny liked, maybe Stephen Foster, but The Pranksters were the original Deadheads.


So, they all crashed at Bill’s Place, and a weekend-long good time ensued. A long time has passed, so that must be the reason my memories are a bit spotty. I do remember driving Jerry Garcia and the guys downtown to buy guitar strings in Maybelline, my VERY small Triumph Herald. I vaguely remember watching the concert from inside the PA system. Yes, actually sitting inside one of the very loud-speakers. But I very clearly remember one of the jam sessions, when Messrs Garcia, Weir and Lesh were sitting in one of Bill’s many living rooms, playing their acoustic guitars, just having a good time.

At one pause, I guess I felt comfortable enough with them to suggest a song. “How about ‘That’ll Be the Day’?” I asked.

“Oh, cool,” said Jerry.

“Cool,” said Bob.

Jerry Garcia (Photo by Rod Pennington)

“Cool,” said Phil.

“But I don’t know the words,” said Jerry, looking at Bob.

“I don’t know the words,” said Bob. “Do you?” he asked Phil.

“I don’t know the words either,” said Phil.


“I know the words,” said I.

And then ensued the legendary jam session, me singing lead, JerryBobandPhil accompanying me and singing backup. Well, it may be stretching the term ‘legendary’ a bit. I don’t know, can you have your own personal legends?

Yours Truly (Photo: Rod Pennington)

Unfortunately, this was before the day when everything the Dead played was pirated, so there’s no extant recording of this musical landmark. Just in my mind, my memory, and my heart. I’m fortunate enough to have one picture of Cherry Jerry from that weekend, courtesy of Rod Pennington. I can offer you one version of me performing it alone, but I sure would have preferred to have some former Warlocks playing guitar.

What was this song that Les Dead were so happy to play?

In June, 1956, 20-year old country-blues guitarist/singer Buddy Holly and his drummer friend Jerry Allison drove up from their native Lubbock, Texas, to Nashville to make some demo recordings. They recorded 5 tracks, one of which was a song Buddy and Jerry had written, ‘That’ll Be the Day’. The producer and the recording engineer called it ‘the worst song of the bunch, one of the worst they had ever heard.’ In the alley outside the studio, Buddy and Jerry cornered the kid who had been sweeping up the studio and asked him what he thought. He said ‘That’ll Be the Day’ was the best of the lot. But even Buddy realized that the recording session hadn’t gone too well. In June, 1957, they went to Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico to give the song another shot. Petty wanted a demo to take to New York, to try to interest The Suits in this new sound, to cash in on the burgeoning hillbilly/rhythm&blues amalgam making waves by such artists as Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. It was soon dubbed rock&roll.

Petty did just two takes of the song, and took it to New York. The demo recording caught fire, and in the summer of 1957, ‘That’ll Be the Day’ became Buddy Holly’s first hit, a #1 million-seller.

The song itself is one of the first and one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time. The title came from the cynical catch-phrase of John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards in the John Ford epic Western, “The Searchers”. It’s a movie I watch every few years, and it never fails to move me. It’s searing, terrifying, and profound, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Here’s Scorcese and Speilberg talking about what that movie has meant to them. But it really doesn’t have anything to do with the song, which Rolling Stone magazine ranked as #39 on its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. According to Jerry Allison, Buddy’s musical conception and playing on this cut was greatly inspired by a song by Lonnie Johnson (b. 1899), a prolific, brilliant, seminal bluesman, ‘Jelly Roll Baker‘. Indeed the impact is audible. While we’re here, here’s another really neat live clip of Mr Johnson.

Over the next year and a half until his death in a plane crash on February 3, 1959 (“the day the music died”), Buddy Holly recorded a string of hits that made him a pop star. They also comprise an oeuvre which over the next half century earned him the reputation as one of the finest artists ever to operate in the popular music idiom.

Buddy Holly’s reputation has never faded. He was a star in his lifetime and widely mourned at his death. In SoTW 002 (‘Learning the Game’, the undubbed acoustic version), I wrote “He’s a musician’s musician. Keith Richards credits him with inspiring the Stones to create original material. Bruce Springsteen said, ‘I play Buddy Holly every night before I go on–it keeps me honest!’ Paul McCartney made an excellent, adulatory documentary movie about him.”

The Quarrymen

The year after Buddy Holly died, two Liverpudlian kids named John Lennon and Paul McCartney took their band, The Quarrymen, into a recording studio to make their very first record. They understood that you learn your craft by copying the masters. Their recording of ‘That’ll Be the Day’ is an attempt at a note-by-note copy of the original. In 1979, Sir Paul bought the publishing rights to the Buddy Holly catalogue from Norman Petty.

Throughout the many 1960s, the Golden Age of rock&roll and rock music, Buddy Holly’s reputation continued to grow, albeit slowly. And it has continued to grow even more since then, exponentially.

But when I met The Dead, even though there were already a number of Holly covers floating around, he had not yet achieved panatheonic status, so I guess my suggestion was pretty cool for its day. The Beatles recorded ‘Words of Love’ in a carbon copy of Buddy’s original. Here’s the 1964-vintage Rolling Stones in an incredibly intense clip of the Holly rocker ‘Not Fade Away’, their first hit. You don’t want to miss this one, I promise you. Oh, and here’s Buddy’s sterling original.

It was only later that The Dead adopted ‘Not Fade Away’ into their permanent repertoire. They performed “Not Fade Away” 530 times over the course of their career, making it their seventh most-performed song. The song also appears on eight of their official live recording releases.

Here’s a recording of The Dead playing ‘Not Fade Away’ in 1973. It’s the earliest version of theirs I could find, and I’m not responsible for the visuals.

Here’s the very lovely Linda Ronstadt singing her hit version of ‘That’ll Be the Day’ live in 1978. I’ll tell you one thing—no matter what you say about her music, she’s a whole lot better looking than Buddy Holly, Mick Jagger and Jerry Garcia put together.

A sour postscript to this story. I once happened upon a discussion on a local radio show of two snotty Ma’arach-voting Dead experts. They had scoured the many data bases on the subject and were discussing how many Buddy Holly songs had been performed by The Dead. I called in and said, “You missed one,” and told them the story with which I began this epistle. Their response was, “Yeah, so?”

I guess maybe one’s private legends should be kept private. Still, maybe someone out there found this story entertaining or at least informative. For me, I’m just tickled to spend my Friday morning writing about Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be the Day,’ paying homage to it, 53 years after it was recorded. And I sure am grateful that 41 years ago I had taken the trouble to learn the words to that song by heart:

Well, that’ll be the day – when you say goodbye;
Yeah, that’ll be the day – when you make me cry.
You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie,
‘Cause that’ll be the day when I die.

Well, you gave me all your loving and all your turtledoving,
All your hugs and kisses and your money, too.
You say you love me, baby, and still you tell me maybe
That someday, well I’ll be through.

Well, that’ll be the day – when you say goodbye;
Yeah, that’ll be the day – when you make me cry.
You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie,
‘Cause that’ll be the day when I die.

When cupid shot his dart he shot it at your heart,
So if we’ll ever part then I’ll leave you.
You say you’ll hold me, and you tell me boldly
That some day well I’ll be through.

Well, that’ll be the day – when you say goodbye;
Yeah, that’ll be the day – when you make me cry.
You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie,
‘Cause that’ll be the day when I die.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

002: Buddy Holly, ‘Learning the Game’

046: James Taylor, ‘Never Die Young’

003: Garcia/Grisman, ‘So What’

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239: Ben Howard, ‘Keep Your Head Up’

Posted by jeff on Jun 3, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

Ben Howard, ‘Keep Your Head Up’

Ben Howard, ‘Only Love’

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 20: Portrait of English singer-songwriter Ben Howard, taken on March 20, 2013. (Photo by Joby Sessions/Total Guitar Magazine via Getty Images)

(Photo by Joby Sessions/Total Guitar Magazine via Getty Images)

If you’re not a Baby Boomer, read this paragraph (but not the next one) –

Oh, you Millenials are such a cool generation. You have all this cool music. And attitude. And snarkiness. You’ve transcended meaning, caring and commitment. You’ve achieved utter apathy. Let’s go shoot shots.

If you’re a Baby Boomer, read this paragraph (but not the previous one) –

You and I know that we were blessed to achieve consciousness during the ‘60s and ‘70s. We patiently lived through people younger than us (that’s almost everyone now) waving Bic lighters for U2, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Brittney Spears, Taylor Swift and Eminem. We’d sneak a look at each other and roll our eyes heavenwards.

Today we’re content to sit in our rockers on the front porch, corncob pipe in our mouths, watching the sun set and replaying in our minds The Beatles, Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson.

We know on which side of the millennium our bread was buttered.

But there’s hope

My 16-year old granddaughter, on whom the sun rises and sets, recently told me that she spent an hour cleaning up her room (dayenu – miraculous enough in itself). She did it listening to a record tape cassette CD DoK YouTube Spotify link some music I gave her of James Taylor.

My buddy Becca’s son makes electronica inspired by The Mamas and The Papas. My friend Mel teaches college courses on 60s rock. Ben Howard listens to John Martyn.

Ben Howard, ‘Old Pine’:

Who is this kid?

Ben (b. 1987) grew up in the county of Devon, the southwestern tip of England, the surfing capitol of the UK (seriously) – listening to his mother’s record collection (she would read the second paragraph above), his musical landscape formed by the seminal artists mentioned there, as well as soulful acoustic singer-songwriters such as Van Morrison, Nick Drake, Richie Havens, Donovan, Al Stewart, and especially John Martyn.

ben_howard_latitude_festival_201101_website_image_gallery_standardNow you’re talking.
Remember John?  Intense, evocative, poetic, drunk, pounding the acoustic guitar, shouting his passion and his pain?

Well, this youngster Ben picked right up where John left off. Kind of.

British Surf Soul

Ben spent his youth making up songs on a bunch of different instruments and surfing. Eventually he studied journalism, getting credit for working on a surf magazine (snicker). But in between studying/writing (snicker again) and catching waves, he’d sit on the beach and develop his intense, charismatic acoustic style, with lots of alternate tuning and percussive slapping and knocking, even holding the guitar in his lap. Hats off to Mr Martyn.

It got so the fellow surfers urged him to stay on land and keep playing. Which turned into local gigs in the scene. Which grew into a cult following. Which turned into headlining gigs throughout Europe, a recording deal with a major company and a US tour. He’s recorded two hit LPs, a handful of EPs, lots of prizes and performances. A superstar, in Indie terms.

Ben Howard makes music

His music is DIY incarnate – Ben on percussive acoustic guitar and vocals, a girl supplying cello, keyboards, ukulele, bass and vocals and percussion; a guy playing guitars, bass, double bass, drums, percussion, keyboards and accordion, another on drums.

The songs are aimed at the heart and the gut – mantric, rhythmic, heartfelt, passionate, at their best even inspiring and uplifting. Think “Astral Weeks”, think Richie Havens. Think John Martyn.

The boy’s got a voice, in both senses— a straining, expressive baritone; and a unique, distinct personality and sound.

There’s nothing life-changing, but life can’t always be life-changing. Sometimes even I want to give my brain a rest. That doesn’t necessarily mean stupid. It can also mean music, going back to the basics of pure abstract affectiveness (a newly favorite work of mine). Arousing emotions, moods, even unspecified thoughts without weighing them down in denotative correlatives. Direct, unadulterated, unfettered feeling.

ben-howard-burgh-islandThink Elton John. Does anyone begrudge him not being a life-changer? He makes intelligent, effective music, what Shakespeare called the “moody food/Of us that trade in love.” Moody food. Good one, Will.

Ok, Ben Howard isn’t into breaking barriers. He’s into making music. A lot of barrierbreakers could use a refresher course in the cardinal rule of the implicit musician-listener contract: to affect us, to arouse emotion, to speak to us, to converse with us.

Some of my best friends (and favorite artists these days) are Millenials. Maybe as a generation they don’t give a hoot about anything, but somehow they have enough of the milk of human passion to produce some fine young artists. Ones who just happen to have been suckled to the soundtrack of Mom’s old vinyls. Jacob Collier stands on Brian Wilson‘s shoulders, Justin Vernon covers Bonnie Raitt. Chefs of ‘moody food’. Now there’s a fine young man, that Ben Howard.


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