Monday, April 30, 2012

"When the Roses Bloom Again:" Revisiting Old Favorites

Editorial Note:

Before I get into my post for the night, I'd like to talk a little about last week's post from Heather on N.C.'s Amendment One.  Both Heather and I always welcome whatever comments people leave.  At the same time, it's a little tough to see so many comments from someone who, in many ways, reminds us of our own Fundamentalist upbringing.  Thankfully, both of us had parents who were very open-minded and taught us to respect everyone for their opinions and beliefs, regardless of how different they might be from our own.  When you write about controversial issues you expect to field lots of controversial comments.  It's foolish to think that you can change people's minds, and ultimately, that's not the goal.  The goal is to speak openly about how people are going to be affected by a given situation, and Heather did a great job on that front.  Lots of people speak with emotion, but fewer speak with a conviction borne of intelligence and experience.  When you're dealing with such a topic, there are going to be plenty of those who live within a sheltered, deep-rooted Fundamentalist bubble who won't have the willingness, proficiency or wherewithal to adequately conceive of how to justly deal with people or situations who exist outside of that bubble.  It's times like this that I'm very thankful for my parents, the experiences good and bad that I've knowingly or unknowingly stumbled into, and the complete, simple logic of accepting that everyone deserves to be treated with a modicum of respect, even when their opinions or lifestyles are vastly different than my own.  Now, on to tonight's music post.

     Every few years you get the chance to go back and revisit art that impacted you in the past.  Sometimes the works don't age well with you, and lose some of their initial luster, but sometimes they seem to only increase their relevance within yourself.  Case in point with the things I'll talk about in this particular post.

     I'll start with the Allman Brothers Band, a group who impacted me greatly in my formative years of guitar playing.  What sparked my return to listening to this group was a video of them accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys.  One Friday night after that I found myself listening to some of their old records, and it was almost like I was hearing them for the first time.  Most people with some knowledge of rock (and Southern rock) history know the significance of their Allman Brothers at Fillmore East live masterpiece, but I think many people write them off as being a simple Southern Rock band, which diminishes their importance.  Unlike a group like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allmans weren't always about crafting simple blues based songs, though they are widely seen as a glorified blues band.  While songs like It's Not My Cross to Bear and Whipping Post draw heavily on blues themes (musically and lyrically), other songs like In Memory of Elizabeth Reed and Dreams suggest that this band was also focused on learning about and adding jazz elements to their sound.  Those jazz elements have only increased in recent years, particularly with the addition of able jazz playing in the form of newer members Derek Trucks and Oteil Burbridge.  It's also worth mentioning the Allmans role in breaking down social and racial norms.  Unlike just about every other Southern band of the sixties and seventies, the Allmans were to first to include non-white members.  Since their inception they've only added to that fact, which makes them a band of both musical and cultural importance.

     Last week music lost one of its most unique voices when Levon Helm passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer.  I use the word 'voices' here not only in relation to his singing voice, but also his overall musicianship.  Most of you probably know Levon best as the lead vocalist on songs like The Weight, Up On Cripple Creek and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, but his drumming on songs he didn't sing was as relevant to the overall sound of The Band as any of the songs he featured on as a vocalist.  Be it the R&B of King Harvest, the New Orleans back line of Time to Kill, or the syncopation of The Shape I'm In, Levon always played to fit the song, and always exhibited adept skill at knowing when less could be more, when space was needed, and when to let loose on the ride cymbal.  Levon was always one of my favorite drummers, always one of my favorite singers, and when it was clear he was approaching his end, I relished the chance to celebrate his music by listening closely to his records.  He's one of those guys I knew I'd regret seeing live, and I'm very thankful I had a chance to see him a few years ago.  Thin and weak-voiced, he still commanded the full attention of everyone in that venue.  If you haven't listened to any of The Band's records, they are among the finest you'll find in the history of rock and roll, and are a veritable master's course on the history of rock, and how country, blues, bluegrass, jazz and R&B all melted together to create it.  It's worth checking out his later solo efforts, too.  There's an earnestness in albums like Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt that only comes with living a life in music. 

     It's nice to know that even when being bombarded with reminders that the world is still full of people who use religion and dogma as ways of justifying bigotry and prejudice, that things like soul and art and beauty are always equally present.  The Allmans broke down so many barriers for musicians in the South to start looking beyond skin color and start seeing that soul exists equally no matter what you look like.  And Levon Helm, may he rest in peace.  Nobody sang or played with such purity of conviction, and I'm positive that if Heaven exists he's up there playing in some angel band.

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