Friday, July 5, 2019


Text by Nancy Neon Foster / FFanzeen, 1986
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #14, dated 1986. It was written by the effervescent North Carolinian native Nancy Foster, now better known as Nancy Neon.

To be honest, I still am pretty unfamiliar with this Georgia-based band. They were mostly around for the period of 1981 through 1989, but have reunited on and off over the years. Often, they are compared to the scene that gave us quirky college rock bands like R.E.M., Pylon and Let’s Active. In total they produced one EP, four studio albums, nine singles, and a later live album. – RBF, 2019

Guadalcanal Diary has been lumped in with the Athens and Southeast scene. Yet, they are really a Marietta, GA, band with diverse influences that come together to make an arresting, hybrid. Some connect them with the Byrds-like jingle/jangle magic of R.E.M., others try to pigeon-hole them with the so-called country punk of Jason and the Scorchers and Rank and File.

Yet, Guadalcanal Diary defies categorization. Just as the Athens / Atlanta / Marietta axis is a crossroads where lots of transient influences and ideas meet, so is Guadalcanal Diary a blend of several styles. Whereas some bands sound like a variety show, jumping from one genre to another, they diversify without being incoherent; they’re stylized without being static or predictable.

I love the way they put the headbangers off guard with startling versions of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” a decidedly non-headbanging, esoteric version of “Johnny B. Goode,” and a scathing, sarcastic rendering of Syndicate of Sound’s “Hey Little Girl.”

It is, however, their original material that really bewilders. Murray Attaway, the lead singer / guitarist’s command post is the eye of the storm. He stands at attention in the middle of the twin cyclones of Jeff Wallis and Rhett Crowe, who whirl dervish-like on either side.

They set up a scenario that is both musically and visually thrilling. Before their show, we had been talking about how someone who had been talking about how the dBs fail to push the audience past a certain point of excitement. I was coming out against histrionics and spoon-fed hysteria. They agreed, but they said that they, themselves, did not put an emphasis on entertainment. However, the spontaneous combustion that takes place onstage ignites because of their love for, and dedication to, their music. This isn’t choreography or rock star flexing, or self-parody.

We talked about how certain acts like Billy Idol had been reduced to a set of conventional poses, i.e., the pout and the fist. What you’re seeing with Guadalcanal Diary isn’t showbiz, it’s pure joy.

The band expresses some concern that their New York City Christmas Holiday ’84 debut had not ben auspicious. Yet, it was so inspiring to see them gradually win over the Peppermint Lounge Saturday night crowd, many of whom resembled “Dance Fever” outtakes as opposed to music lovers. Despite that obstacle, they bombarded the audience with their high-quality material. Pure Pop for Now People was “Pillow Talk.” Rhett Crowe was so powerful on bass, and despite what some myopic critics say about kudzu-covered confederate bodies, she is definitely female. Her grass skirt with t-shirt, lei, and cowboy boots was the fashion statement of the year. It’s the perfect embodiment of their cross-cultural pollination. It's what you wear to a “Watusi Rodeo.”

Being in a changing environment, experiencing the class of Old World Southern values and the modernization of cities like Atlanta is part of what establishes the tension in their music. When I asked whether being from the South brought a certain romantic and mystical element to their music, Rhett agreed. Religion is a big theme with songs like “Walking in the Shadows of the Big Man” (“Big Man” meaning God) and “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” The latter is highly reminiscent of fellow Southerners from Memphis, Big Star, circa 1974 [Big Star’s singer, Alex Chilton, sang “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby with the Box Tops – NF, 1986].

When asked if something about the water in Athens area makes great pop with a twist, the guys confided that once the B-52s made it, “lots of bands came out of the woodwork.” They are, as I am, amazed how every band with a Rickenbacker is called “Post-R.E.M.”

Other than their home state, they also share a producer with R.E.M., Don Dixon of Chapel Hill, NC. Dixon was suggested by their rec rod company, DB. They have played dates with the Psychedelic Furs, Beat Rodeo, the Bongos, R.E.M., etc. They get some of their best reactions in Rome, GA, Louisville, KY, Richmond, VA, etc.

One of the most unusual places they played was Greensboro, NC’s Secret Garden, which had a garden in front of the stage. Back to the show: the groovy Georgia quartet gradually won over the basically stoic audience. Enlightenment is usually a gradual process. Yet when Guadalcanal Diary moved in for the kill on “Trail of Tears,” it was musical cataclysm. Murray Attaway was especially moved and moving on this one. Maybe it was my own mist, but he looked misty-eyed.

Guadalcanal Diary accomplished a lot on their second New York City gig, especially for a band on an indie label with little exposure. Rave reviews of the album, heavy airplay for “Watusi Rodeo” and a push on their video is remedying that fast!

“Watusi Rodeo” was the rave-up of the night. Their Western influences (they did Johnny Horton, George Jones, etc.) showed on this hilarious portrait of a rodeo star doing his thing on a rhino, much to the dismay of African natives. Is this an exaggerated analogy of being a hardcore Southerner in the wilds of the North? It is culture shock for both parties.

As Jeff and Rhett said, “You can be wild in New York City and have no one give you a second glance. But once they hear a Southern accent, you’re an instant curio item.”

When I said that I thought it was a healthy trend for bands like R.E.M., Let’s Active, and themselves to stay in their hometowns instead of automatically moving to New York because of the changes it could cause in their perspective and the music, Rhett said, “I couldn’t live in New York City. It gives me claustrophobia. I think Southerners are very close to the land; very territorial. Like, my father lived his whole life in Smyrna (Georgia),” and they really want to keep the influences and change out. They would build a wall, if they could.

This was intriguing me. It was all becoming clearer: the world is changing so fast and vales are changing, too. In this modern world, the Old South seems like an ancient culture. It’s solid and secure. People like the music and are intrigued with the perspective because it’s exotic – all those snake handlers and faith healers. The Southern world seems as far away from cosmopolitan New York City as Hong Kong.

Guadalcanal Diary invites you on a trip into another world full of beauty, soul and mysticism.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Review: Woody Guthrie All-Star Tribute Concert 1970

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

Woody Guthrie All-Star Tribute Concert 1970
Directed by Jim Brown
Hereditary Disease Foundation / Jim Brown Foundation / MVD Visual
51 minutes, 1970 / 2019

Excuse the way I am phrasing this, if you must, but Woody Guthrie was punk as fuck. Perhaps not in volume or electricity, but certainly in message. For example, he quite famously had written on his guitar, in big letters, “This machine kills Fascists.” Woody also had a strong influence on other proto-punk folkers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.

Most people I know who came to punk got there through the loud guitars of bands like the MC5, the Velvet Underground, or even KISS. For me, I grew up on folk (Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul & Mary, Ochs, and others; Dylan would come later for me, after the Ramones in 1975). For example, my very first concert was Melanie (Safka) at Carnegie Hall in early February of 1973.

Over the next few years, before I became obsessed with the bands at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, I had the opportunity to see a lot of the musicians that are on this DVD (an asterisk will appear next to the names in the Song List below, of those I saw).

The purpose of this tribute concert was to not only honor Woody, and rightfully so, but as a benefit for a charity to fight the disease that killed him in 1967 by robbing him of his movement, his voice and then his life: Huntington’s Disease.

Filmed at the Hollywood Bowl, this is the first official release of the film. I do remember there were showings of it in 16mm at local churches along St. Mark’s Place (between Second Ave and Tompkins Square Park), but this is my first time seeing it.

If you read through the song list, you will most likely see lots that you may have heard before, especially if you’re an older camper like me, though done by other artists. His songs were carried forth by his fans (i.e., musicians) so it makes total sense for the rhythm to continue.

First up is a huge line-up for his song about a post-death heaven-bound train, “This Train is Bound for Glory” (which Peter Paul & Mary did so well with as “This Train”). Each musician takes a turn at a stanza; like the Traveling Wilburies, where Roy Orbison’s voice outshines the rest, there is some of that here too, with Odetta being the fiercest and certain Joan Baez being the highest pitched.

Between songs, there are narrations read from Woody’s words, by Will Geer (Grandpa from “The Waltons”; d. 1978) and Peter Fonda. These lead into the next song. For example, when the notes read are about Woody’s Oklahoma upbringing, they slide into Arlo singing “Oklahoma Hills.”
I am not going to discuss every song (which are listed below), but I would like to highlight certain points and show how prescient Woody could be beyond the grave. For example, Baez and Seeger sing the dust bowl cry, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.” This song is actually bogged down, in my opinion, by the catchiness of the chorus (same as title), so most people don’t know it beyond that. But it may be a song for modern times as well, as climate change is severely affecting weather patterns to where it may occur again; last time was natural, this time it may be induced by some governmental policies. For example, where I’m living in the Prairies now, it’s been an overtly dry spring.

This was understandably a large focus of Woody’s music from this period, and the troupe here follows through with his “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” and Arlo provides a musically updated and rocking “Do Re Mi.”

The dustbowl created a migrant class both from the US and below the border, for which Woody addressed with the extremely powerful “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee).” I first learned the song from Seeger, but it is worth checking out the devastating version elsewhere by Washington DC-based acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock (who I’ve seen on more than one occasion). Here, Baez picks it up and gives a sincerely expressive version that is just beautiful. In these times of locking kids in cages and mass deportations, it’s worth a listen because things have definitely come in a sad and scary circle.

Odetta’s solo “Ramblin’ Round” shows something I have felt for a long time. She essentially had a one-hit-wonder with “John Henry,” but her voice is amazing, and she should have been bigger and more popular. Her sound is to folk what Aretha was to R&B: unique and powerful. Similarly, Richie Havens steals the scene with his “900 Miles,” as he had one of the more unique guitar playing styles and a voice that is incredibly different than any other artist here. He was a regular at the Bottom Line in New York, as well as some of the Greenwich Village haunts.

For “Woman at Home,” Country Joe seems to be physically trying to channel Jim Morrison, but his vocal tones remind me more of Johnny Thunders.

Of course, for the finale, they all gather together to perform Woody’s arguably most well known song (well, the first verse and chorus is etched in the general psyche), “This Land is Your Land,” in a beautifully shared and joyful rendition that includes all the verses.

The nearly 13-minute extra is worth the watch. Within the backstage footage and thoughts by Arlo and Ramblin’ Jack, there are some additional songs, namely “1913 Massacre” by Ramblin' Jack, “John Hardy” by Odetta, and Baez covers the powerful “Pastures of Plenty.”

My only nit-picking issue is that I would liked to have the option of playing just music without the talking, so I can just use it like an album. The talking is fascinating, but not something I need to listen to numerous times, unlike the music.

One last thought, while most of the musicians mentioned above play their own instruments (yes, guitars), they are backed up by a stellar band which really enhances the sound.

I think my favorite thing is that this is not just a tribute of playing songs, but rather each performer gives the songs the power and concentration they deserve. There are a couple of numbers where they read the lyrics of a sheet, but other than that, it’s an enjoyable albeit intense presentation. So good.

Song List:
·       This Train Is Bound for Glory: Arlo Guthrie*; Joan Baez; Odetta* (d. 2008); Pete Seeger* (d. 2014); Country Joe McDonald; Richie Havens (d. 2013); Ramblin' Jack Elliott; Earl Robinson (d. 1991)
·       Oklahoma Hills: Arlo Guthrie*
·       Pretty Boy Floyd: Country Joe McDonald
·       So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh: Joan Baez; Pete Seeger -
·       Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad: Country Joe McDonald, Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Pete Seeger
·       I Ain't Got No Home: Pete Seeger; Arlo Guthrie
·       Do Re Mi: Arlo Guthrie
·       Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee): Joan Baez
·       Ramblin' Round: Odetta
·       Roll on Columbia: Pete Seeger; Earl Robinson
·       Nine Hundred Miles: Richie Havens
·       Woman at Home: Country Joe McDonald
·       The Sinking of the Reuben James: Pete Seeger
·       I've Got to Know: Arlo Guthrie; Joan Baez; Odetta; Pete Seeger; Country Joe McDonald; Richie Havens; Ramblin' Jack Elliott; Earl Robinson
·       This Land Is Your Land: Arlo Guthrie; Joan Baez; Odetta; Pete Seeger; Country Joe McDonald; Richie Havens; Ramblin' Jack Elliott; Earl Robinson

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP: Hoosier Hysteria [1982]

Text by Cary Baker / FFanzeen, 1982
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

This interview was published in FFanzeen, issue #9, dated 1982, by then-Chicago-based writer, Cary Baker.

When this was first printed, he was just John Cougar, and Jack and Diane were still in his future. While I’ve never been a Mellenhead, and always considered him a depressive Springsteen wanna-be (to me, both are overrated, but see below), I respect the work he’s done, considering he rose from the ranks of the MainMan label splitting record sides with the likes of Cindy Bullens, to the small Hoosier label Gulcher, and then onto an international stage. – Robert Barry Francos, 2019
* * *

We catch up with John Cougar in the environment we’re told he feels most at home – among hundreds of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. We browse through a Harley dealer, located on the fringes of a massive car dealership row that could be one of thousands of such stretches between Van Nuys and Norfolk. But John has selected his dream toy: a black beauty listing for $7,000 to add to his present menagerie of bikes.

“I’m gonna get me one of these and put new jammer parts on it, and paint over that emblem. You know it’s a Harley – you don’t have to advertise it.”

From the street we hear a deafening VAROOM!

“Hear that?” he asks. “That’s a Harley. I don’t even have to look. It ain’t like a Suzuki, which goes RRINGG. That’s not thrilling. It’s like, if you had the chance to see Gene Vincent or Bobby Rydell, who would you go see?”

John Cougar takes his ride as seriously as his rock. And with his unequivocal small-town veneer – a rube’s voice that presumes him sooner a native of Raleigh then Seymour, Indiana – we don’t doubt the rough and tumble nature of his songs come from real-life experience. In that sense, he’s a true rock populist, a neo-Buddy Holly whose side of the Mason-Dixon Line is at first uncertain. But Cougar, who speaks with an emphatic drawl and in often too-emphatic language, will be the first to point out he’s no different than any other self-respecting Harley rider. His self-image appears to be one of a sated Hoosier, the one-in-a-million who clicked.

“I’m no songwriter,” he says. “When you say writer, you’re assuming you’ve got something to say. What did “I Need a Lover Who Won’t Drive Me Crazy” say? It didn’t say shit. Now Tennessee Williams was a writer. Let’s give credit where credit is due.

“I string some words together. Kids and people my age might like it, but what I’m really doing is communicating. There’s nothing wrong with communicating, but it’s a whole different thing from writing.

“I write about very insignificant parts of life. I ain’t got nothing to say that you don’t already know. I may refresh your memory; but some of these cats are heavy fuckin’ writers and I don’t want that responsibility on my shoulders.”

We mention Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and Cougar is reticent to acknowledge their place in rock’s annals, save for some early Dylan perhaps. He stops to consider our suggestion that after five years of Fabianism, Meet the Beatles was easily on par with A Streetcar Named Desire.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he acknowledges, “but I mean, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’? If somebody wrote that song now, we’d probably never hear it!”

John Cougar, nee John Mellencamp, is a youthful 30. His styled, not-exactly-punkish black hair reveals sprigs of silver. The eyes are oceanic blue and intense. The perennial 5:00 shadow is in full-bloom at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon. Within two minutes of sitting down with him at McDonald’s across the street from the bike dealer, there’s no mistaking him for an urbanite. Even a few years of ripening in Europe and the dubious tutelage of David Bowie’s ex-manager haven’t changed his headstrong outlook.

John Cougar, you might recall, started out as a hype. He’d straggled into Tony DeFries’ MainMan Productions around 1975, “where everyone looked like Bowie.” DeFries was about to lose his paramount client and it wouldn’t have hurt to prove he could do it again. Enter the then-23-year-old Mellencamp of Seymour, and soon there was an album on MCA that displayed little more integrity than More of the Monkees.

“I had a year’s unemployment coming, right?” he shrugs. So why not use it to become a star? MainMan even staged a “Johnny Cougar Day” one nippy October afternoon in Seymour, Indiana [2 hours west of Cincinnati, OH – RBF, 2019], and wondered why half of Soho didn’t turn out.

But Johnny Cougar, MainMan and the MCA deal weren't terribly long-lived. Not exactly crushed, Mellencamp headed for London where he spent two years. Eventually, he teamed with producer John Punter, a Roxy Music alumnus, and cut “I Need a Lover Who Won’t Drive Me Crazy.” The song caught fire, so he returned to these shores, inked with the Riva division of PolyGram and cut an album around his hit. He also shed his pristine “next-Bowie” image, adding that, “what you’re seeing now is the way I’ve been from the start.” What then? “I got lazy.” But by that time, the real starmaker machinery was in motion and “I Need” was safe in bed with AOR.

The next Riva album may not have panned out to be the smash its predecessor was, but well-espoused the philosophy of John Cougar. It’s title: Nothing Maters and What If It Did?

“I’ve learned it’s not really important that everyone likes John Cougar. People’s opinions aren’t that important, not even mine. The good news, though, is that the music’s still gotta be good for people to buy it.”

We cite Christopher Cross as an example to the contrary.

“I don’t like him either and if I hear that ‘Arthur’ record again, I’m gonna puke. But there are 35-year-old women out there and I’m not gonna be the one to tell ‘em they’re crazy for liking Christopher Cross ‘cause they ain’t.”

Cougar’s populist image becomes intensified or deflated, depending on how one views populism, when Cougar insists his songs are written for him alone.

“I don’t write songs for the people. They’re for me. I don’t really think about them being hits. I could be a hit by selling cocaine. You and me could be rich and famous much quicker and with more leisure than this job!”

What, we query, would happen if Riva Records one day decided, “Sorry, John-boy, you’re too personal and esoteric for today’s marketplace?”

“I couldn’t leave the record company now,” he says. “I already tried and they said, ‘That will cost you $5-1/2 million’.”

But what happens – God forbid – when obsolesces does rear its ugly head and John’s washed up? [Note: He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, the ASCAP Founders Award in 2016, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018, among many others – RBF, 2019.]

“Oh, I’ve got job security,” he chimes. “When I get tired of makin’ records, I have another job I can do. I know this business inside and out.”

He points to the PolyGram promotion rep.

“I know what he should be doing. I know what his boss should be doing, and when they’re screwed up. I met this Atlanta guy who’s the man if you wanna get on the radio – and let’s face it, you’re nowhere if you’re not on the radio. If I’d met this guy five years ago, I’d’ve quit the business.”

He does a mocking imitation of a radio programming mogul.

“’You mess with him and your records won’t be on the radio.’ But I’m at a point where I mess with him and get away with it.”

John Cougar, his “old lady” and the “the kids” presently reside in Bloomington, Indiana, “The Gulch” – quieter then New York or London, but “not as embarrassing as living in Seymour.” A college city with a music scene that now and again dents the national consciousness, Cougar claims the locals know him and accept him as a burgher.

“”They see me so much there that they say, ‘Oh, there’s that guy who makes records.’ They all know I live there so it’s not any big deal,” he says.

A typical off-the-road day for John Cougar might begin with “a few business phone calls to check in. then I might smoke some cigarettes, sit around for a bit, talk to the old lady, play with the kids and ride my Harley to the lake and back.”

Cougar probably loves his Harley as much as he does music or the aforesaid old lady [second wife Victoria Granucci at the time, but he’s been married more times since, and linked to a few others, including Meg Ryan – RBF, 2019].

“I ain’t one of these guys carryin’ guns, rapin’ women and shit like that. There are some who ride to heaven – or to hell, whichever they choose – and back. For me, it’s just a hobby outside music.”

We ask what kind of music he does listen to at home, only to elicit a rather surprising response.

“I’m into Paul Rodgers [lead singer for Bad Company and Free – CB, 1982]. I went into a record store to buy a Free tape last week; I’ve had the record for 15 years. I told the guy at the counter, “It tested out; telephone response has been great over the last ten years, so I’m buying it.” Another jab at radio.

Cougar is hardly considered villainous to New Wavers, but he personally deplores trendiness – a category, which by his standards, includes Bruce Springsteen, a singer with whom he’s been exhaustively compared. “He does have a little integrity left,” he shrugs. “I wonder how long that’ll last [try getting a Springsteen on Broadway ticket in 2018, ‘nuff said – RBF, 2019].

“But I make a point out of not being hip. I’m not into Bow Wow Wow. But don’t get me wrong – that’s only my opinion. If the kids are into it, great for the kids. If the song is good, I could care if they have mohawks. I had one once when I was a freshman in high school as an initiation. And I cut it all off the next day. Mohawks ain’t new to me – I had one for one day in 1967!”

His comment is silenced by the thunderclap of a bike pulling into the dealer’s parking lot.

“You know,” he says, “All the guys who ride Harleys even look alike. It’s a little like punk rock…”

Cougar obviously hasn’t seen the customer – squat, brawny, balding, faded denim jacket, chains, like a Hell’s Angel 12 years after Altamont.

Savoring the $7,000 bike he’s decided he’ll eventually own, Cougar gives a sheepish grin.

“Well, maybe we don’t all look alike.”

Sunday, May 5, 2019

MAD ORPHANS / LOVELIES: Music with Style [1988]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1988
Introduction/live photo © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Other images from the Internet

This interview with Cynthia Sley was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #15, dated 1988. It was conducted and written by FFanzeen Manager Editor, Julia Masi.
The Mad Orphans quickly morphed into the Lovelies, and recorded an album titled Mad Orphan in 1988. I had the opportunity to hang out with then-married Cynthia Sley (of the Bush Tetras) and Ivan Julian (previously in the Voidoids) during a taping of cable access show Videowave around the time of this interview. They are talented Art Rock musicians who deserve more recognition than they have received. Cynthia, meanwhile, has been back in a revitalized version of the Bush Tetras and Ivan continues to write a produce his and others’ music at his recording studio, NY HED. – Robert Barry Francos, 2019
Ivan and Cynthia, Videowave (pic by RBF)
“You can have so much fun with images,” sighs Cynthia Sley, as she sips champagne and bananas, and recalls the night she and her band, the Mad Orphans, played a gig dressed as priests.

It was during a period where New York City clubs were experiencing such rapid personnel changes that that whoever hired a band to play was long gone by the night of the gig, and his predecessor would go out of his way to swindle the band. “I thought it would be really great if we dressed like priests, as a real intimidating force coming in. We did really well and a lot of people came. So, I felt like I blessed the gig,” she quips.

Cynthia is a native of Cleveland, Ohio, who initially came to New York to be a fashion designer. She did work in fashion for a while. But while out in New York clubs with musicians she knew from her hometown, she was persuaded to join the band the Bush Tetras [see FFanzeen article about the Bush Tetras HERE – RBF, 2019]. They became successful very quickly and Cynthia suddenly found herself with a new career as a singer.

The way she sees it, music and fashion are closely related and often influence each other. “It’s easier to see in a place like London. You can tell by the magazines. All the magazines are being taken over by fashion. I live in the East Village [which is] like the heart of it. I see Yuppies dressing like real hipsters by night. Totally decked out! There are all these people walking around with the right clothes. They [the clothes] look great but they [the people] look so uncomfortable in their clothes. I try to figure out why they’ve got on what they’ve got on. It’s really weird. I notice it all the time.”

And she experiments with fashion all the time.

Cynthia spends hours conjuring up outrageous outfits for herself and the band to wear onstage. She admits that she tries to coordinate their outfits to the atmosphere of the club that they’re playing in, but it’s obvious that other influences, perhaps even National Geographic, work their way into her costumes. There have been nights when she has wrapped at least 20 things around her head, including a flashlight, to make a turban. “I gradually take things off and I go absolutely out of my mind. At the end of the gig when we do this Led Zeppelin song, ‘Communication Breakdown,’ I completely bug out. I start out really controlled, then I gradually freak out. If I wear something that I think is really outrageous, then it spurs me on to be really out of my mind.

“I think that’s how you have fun. I think that’s how most people do it. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’re all dispassionate about it. If you’re gonna go up there and do it, you might as well go all the way. It’s like having sex.”

Musically, as well as visually, the band likes to pull out all the stops. Ivan Julian writes all of the music. Cynthia frequently contributes lyrics for new songs. The Mad Orphans’ repertoire also includes some of the songs Ivan has written with previous bands, including Shriekback and the Lovelies.

Their songs, such as “Men so Brave,” “You Don’t Know,” and “Overflow,” lean toward illustrative lyrics loaded with personal politics. They show a vibrant curiosity and sympathetic flair for people trying to find their niche or express their individuality. Musically, Cynthia sees them as “rock, but funk rock.” But most of their fans would probably prefer to simply label them a good live band.

One of the band’s primary goals is to be able to write songs comfortably for a long period of time. “It’s great when you start a band and you write these songs. But, you want to get it to a point beyond that, where you keep writing because you have this chemistry that you’re building. It’s hard to find. That’s what we’ve been working on, keeping the chemistry going.

“But you have to wait for something to happen. You have to keep yourself alive until then. I’m pretty practical. I know what it takes to get a record deal. At least Ivan and I have some kind of reputation.”

Sometimes Cynthia waxes nostalgic about the old days when she was growing up in Ohio, studying art, mostly on scholarships, and going to see bands. “I would see a band every week. My old bass player [in the Bush Tetras, Laura Kennedy; d. 2011 – RBF, 2019] and I used to go out every Thursday night, or whatever it was, to see a band. And they were great bands.”

She recalls seeing David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour, the Dead Boys, the Waitresses and Pere Ubu. “I realize now that there was this huge scene there. But we were the only ones who danced. We would get dressed up – really ridiculous – put the streak in our hair or something. It was really hard to be a punk there. The music was always really great.”

Her early days in New York were also happy ones until the old club scene fizzled out. “I used to think it was gradual. Everything kind of turned towards money, especially in New York. I think it’s really money-oriented now, where it used to be experimental. But, in a way, that’s good in itself: experimental music will become lucrative now because people will really want it soon. There are so many drum machines and so much of this certain thing that’s happening. I listen to the radio very day, and most of the Top 40 all sounds the same. But there are some good things coming out. It’s a gradual change. I don’t know… things go like that… in waves.

“Like in the ‘70s, it’s really wild. There are a lot of really great things out there. I think it’s gonna be a really big turnaround over the next couple of years, where fashion won’t really have as much influence on music. Things will get more experimental. They have to. It’s more passionate.”

She sees music going further into the dance scene and hopes that the Mad Orphans “get a little wilder. I think having Ivan play guitar makes it pretty wild. It gives a difference to it. I’ve never really played with someone like him. I’ve played with great guitar players but there’s something that seems more commercial about his playing, to me.”

And, of course, with Cynthia’s artistic background, the band looks forward to working in video. “There’s so much to do with it. It’s a great thing. I want to make a low budget, really wild video, like The Mr. Bill Show. I like things that are really off the wall.”

Presently, however, the band has one pressing thing on their minds: “All we have to do is make a record.” Well, Cynthia, your fans hope you do it soon.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review: k.d. lang: Ingénue Redux, Live from the Majestic Theatre

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

k.d. lang: Ingénue Redux, Live from the Majestic Theatre
Directed by Daniel E. Catullo III
City Drive Group / Landmarks Live / MVD Video
103 minutes / 2019

I had seen k.d. lang perform live once, at Radio City Music Hall probably at least 20 years ago now. Her voice was as pure then as it was when she first released her infamous Ingénue album that made her a worldwide superstar. Now it’s trendy to go back and do your breakthrough LP from start to finish before an audience. The Stooges and the Heartbreakers (what’s left of both those bands with new recruits) did the same thing. But lang’s voice is still smooth as buttah, and perfectly in tone; her voice seems ageless.

This was recorded at the grand Majestic Theater in San Antonio, Texas. It’s one of those beautiful old showcases with a huge stage, and there is lang in bare feet and her trademark pants suit over a white shirt. This was recorded in 2017, which is the 25th Anniversary of the album, having been released in 1992 (for those who don’t want to do the math).

The broad curtains open and lang starts right in with “Save Me.” No need for introductions, we all know why we are here. She begins with the trappings of country, relying on the bridge of the steel pedal because that’s her roots, but lang manages to transcend that sound with lyrics that are full of emotion.

She does not merely present the songs, she emotes them, continuing to give them life. This is why she is such a strong performer more than a quarter of a century on in her fame. With no idle banter between songs, she slides into the jazzier “Mind of Love.” This song, as is most on the album, is full of longing and desire that touched a nerve, no matter what the gender.

Next up is arguably one of her biggest hits that still get airplay all this time later, “Miss Chatelaine.” With a Quebec French rhythm thanks to an accordion, our big boned girl shows a more playful side by dancing across the stage to the rhythm. The first view we get of the audience is them giving a standing ovation for the song, and I would say her onstage performance, as well. It’s also the first time she addresses the audience as she catches her breath. She describes Ingénue as a “meditative record on romance.”

This makes sense with the slow ballad of “Wash Me Clean,” as desire coils ever tighter until it nearly explodes. Rather than loosening up the reins, our Albertan cowgirl of the Prairies tightens her grip even stronger with “So It Shall Be,” bringing back the steel pedal for emphasis. With some Latin jazz tones, she keeps the pressure up with “Still Thrives This Love,” adding an element of what I can only describe as “pebble” lighting across the wide stage.

“Reason of Hollow Soul” brings it back to a slow ballad, comparing love to a dying tree and its living descendants. It leads into a beautiful piano soliloquy that bridges the song with “Outside Myself,” and gives lang a chance to rest her voice. “OM” is more of a throwback torch song with a hint of different styles flowing through it, but without the group of musicians, I could imagine someone singing it laying on a piano. She just as smoothly slides into the lovely “Tears of Lover’s Recall,” which branches into to another instrumental extravaganza with a piano focus.

It’s not a huge ensemble, but we do get to see them showing their individual chops, including the bass, piano, two guitars, drums, a pair of background vocalists, and of course that steel pedal. Often lang interacts with the musicians directly. The lighting is almost part of the show as well, focusing often on primary colors red, yellow and especially blue. It certainly adds to the mood of the songs and is well chosen.

Of course the key part of the concert ends (pre-encore) with possibly her biggest hit, “Constant Cravings,” which I still often hear over supermarket and store PA systems. I don’t know what else to add about this song whose chorus has been an ear worm to so many, but it is such a schmaltzy sound (meant as a compliment). The bridge is given a nice rocked out sound, which actually works quite well.

As the end of the program proper, lang introduces the band with some obviously pre-written bander about each member. Most of it is pretty amusing, although it does go on a bit long.

As a first encore (though she never leaves the stage), lang also dives into “Honey and Smoke,” which has a mild ‘60s pop feel to it, probably due to the influences of her co-writers, including Nekko Case. For “I Dream of Spring,” being from Alberta, it’s not hard to imagine what is the thought behind the song (which is actually written by her bassist). It is noteworthy that this is the first and only time that lang picks up an instrument herself – an acoustic guitar – and plays along with the band.

She finishes off the set with covers by three Canadian songwriters, by moving to Joni Mitchell’s amazing “Help Me.” It’s truly hard to do justice to this song, which seems to be such a good fit for Mitchell’s staccato yodel, but lang emotes so well to it. With Neil Young’s “Helpless,” she does more of a job by remaking it in her own smooth style; Young is great, but no one would call his music smooth.

For the last of the trio, of course there’s Leonard Cohen’s monster, “Hallelujah,” which she also had a hit with, and rightfully so. I’d go as far as to say that other than Cohen, hers is the definitive version; this song has been covered by so many people so that’s saying a lot.

When lang and the band return to an obvious loud round of applause, she does the uplifting “Sing It Loud,” and the sleepy, schmaltzy (again, a compliment) and romantic “Sleeping Alone.”

The HD is quite amazing. Crystal clear images, especially near the end where the camera is behind lang and faces the standing audience. You can practically see the nostril hairs on someone in the back row. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but what you can see quite clearly is the blue glows of the cell phones as audience members record the show.

The one extra (other than stereo choice and chapters) is a 30-minute interview with lang by James Reed. He asks her some wonderfully insightful questions about her relationship to the music after all these years, what it’s like to perform them, why the Majestic Theater, and especially about her sexuality. This album was released about the time of her coming out, and I certainly remember the “is she?” / “isn’t she?” topic was big around the time this was originally released, thanks in part of a picture of her sensually being shaved by supermodel Cindy Crawford.

Anyway, this is a glorious show on many levels, be it musically, visually, and topically.

Song List from Ingénue:
Save Me
Mind of Love
Miss Chatelaine
Wash Me Clean
So It Shall Be
Still Thrives This Love
Reason of Hollow Soul
Outside Myself
Tears of Lover’s Recall
Constant Craving
Encore 1:
Honey and Smoke
I Dream of Spring
Help Me
Encore 2:
Sing it Loud
Sleeping Alone