Tributes, reissues evoke golden age of Colorado songs

“Would you like to go to Colorado


Heaven’s there I’m told in Colorado

Well, I’m leaving in the morning and I’d like to take you with me

I feel that Colorado is a place we could be happy

In the mountains . . . Rocky Mountains.”

With songs like that on their minds — Hoyt Axton’s glorious “On the Natural” from 1969 — hordes of young people arrived in Colorado following neither gold nor coal but the sounds of pop music.

They had visions of a hip, mellow, wildflowers-in-your-hair utopia, a world away from the hard, hot, even at times bloodstained streets of urban America in those years.

In Colorado, the times they were a-changin’ — but in a more earthy way.

Defining all those changes was the golden era of Colorado song. It was certainly as big as a fourteener in its heyday.

At the same time as Denver’s rise, Dave Loggins had a Top 40 hit in 1974 with the romantic plea “Please Come to Boston,” its verse about “Please come to Denver with the snowfall . . .” being its most memorable.

The purity of Coloradan Judy Collins’ soprano voice on her best-selling folk-pop albums like “Wildflowers” was compared to the clean, clear air of the state she loved.

With those songs, a new Colorado emerged, a place where the radically eccentric Hunter S. Thompson almost got elected sheriff of Pitkin County on a Freak Power ticket that called for decriminalization of drugs; where communes inspired by the visionary Drop City near Trinidad were cropping up statewide; where music enthusiasts clogged winding mountain roads to reach the new Telluride Bluegrass Festival; and where a recent arrival to Denver like activist lawyer Gary Hart could get elected to the U.S. Senate at age 37 and be received like a superstar.

Fast-forward to today. Colorado has continued to grow, but the era of that kind of West-worshiping music from disaffected youths topping the charts has passed.

Yet several timely events — an upcoming John Denver tribute concert at Red Rocks, a new Steve Earle album in tribute to songwriter Townes Van Zandt, the CD release of Axton’s album containing “On the Natural” — illuminate that time when Colorado beckoned the youthful and idealistic through contemporary music.

On Saturday, public-television station KBDI sponsors “John Denver — The Tribute” at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, featuring a Denver-like singer, Roy Rivers of Hot Springs, Ark., performing with Denver’s lead guitarist, Steve Weisberg, and a six-piece band. It marks the 20th anniversary of Denver’s last concert at Red Rocks.

Van Zandt’s adopted state

Some of the best golden-era Colorado anthems came from the late Townes Van Zandt, whose spare, largely acoustic recordings have only recently built a sizable national following. He was a Texas troubadour and Colorado devotee whose introspective, often-pining compositions like “If I Needed You” and “Waiting Round to Die” serve as the archetype for today’s Americana (or alternative-country) music.

This spring, Earle — today a bard of contemporary Americana himself — released a tribute album called “Townes.” On it, Earle covers Van Zandt’s 1969 “Colorado Girl.” Van Zandt briefly attended the University of Colorado at Boulder in the 1960s, and during the 1970s he spent summers in the state, writing such other songs about it as “Snowin’ on Raton,” “Our Mother the Mountain” and “My Proud Mountains.”

“Townes used to say there are two kinds of music — blues and zip-a- dee-doo-dah, and a lot of songs written about Colorado tend to be zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” Earle says. “But Townes’ stuff is not that.”

Earle was a teenager in Texas, just beginning to play music in public, when he first met the older Van Zandt. Van Zandt heckled him; improbably, they became lifelong friends. (Van Zandt had a lifelong alcohol-abuse problem; Earle too went through periods of substance abuse.)

“Colorado was a huge part of who he was,” Earle says. “He had a horse he kept in a stable in Aspen, and he’d pick the horse up and ride across the mountain to Crested Butte every year. Sometimes the trip didn’t get completed, and I think he had to be rescued one year, but it was one of the places where he felt as close to home as he ever felt.

“He felt like Colorado was a cleansing thing for him, beginning of the cycle where he renewed himself.”

But Van Zandt also knew Colorado — and the cleansing it provided — would never last, which gave his songs such a bluesy presence, Earle says.

Axton’s natural high

That search for a “Rocky Mountain High” as an antidote for substance abuse propels another early Colorado song, the late Axton’s “On the Natural” from 1969. The long-out- of-print album containing it, “My Griffin Is Gone,” was released on CD recently through Omni Recording Corp.

In the song, Axton (who later wrote Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World”) romanticizes escape to the mountains — Crested Butte, specifically — as an antidote for “little blue pills.”

The liner notes explain the reference was to Stelazine, a drug prescribed for an urban friend with a mental problem whom Axton wanted to help.

Songs of yore

There were plenty of songs about Colorado before the golden era: CU-Boulder’s library names such early-20th-century compositions as 1924’s “Where Rails End and Trails Begin,” 1926’s “Happy Colorado,” 1930’s “Colorado Midgets Waltz” and 1953’s “Colorado Skies.”

The latter was co-written by Judy Collins’ father, Chuck, shortly after moving to the state with his family. “Even though my father was blind, he said, ‘I’ve never seen a place so beautiful,’ ” Collins says.

“So he and Eddy Rogers wrote that together. It was a beautiful song about Colorado.” And then she sings it over the phone.

There have been songs about Colorado written after the golden era — Collins considers her great Colorado song to be “The Blizzard (The Colorado Song),” written in 1989. Warren Zevon’s goofy “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” even inspired a movie by the same name. And the healthy bluegrass scene continually spawns songs name-checking the state.

But still, given Colorado’s growth in population since the 1970s, as well as the “green” movement, one would figure there would be more such huge hits today. But there aren’t.

Leland Rucker, a Colorado music historian, blames that on the changing nature of how we listen to music. “We were all listening to the same thing back then — we all listened to the same songs. Today, a teenager doesn’t just listen to one kind of music; they make playlists on iTunes. We don’t have the kind of world where very many songs rise up to the top like then.”

But there may also be a reason today’s Colorado musicians are reluctant to attempt a Colorado anthem.

“Those (older) songs are still from our era of rock/pop/rhythm-and- blues modern music,” says Robert Schneider, who as a Coloradan founded the indie-rock band the Apples in Stereo. (He now lives in Lexington, Ky.)

“So in a way you’re ripping them off.”


Art Shook Up: Elvis has entered the art gallery with new Paul Laffoley exhibit


JULY 29, 2014

The strange ways we remember Elvis Presley are best summed up by the lyrics of the late Warren Zevon’s “Jesus Mentioned,” in which he imagines traveling to Memphis to see the dead King: “He went walking on the water … with his pills.”

Zevon thus concisely explains how our culture both deifies Presley, who died in 1977, and views his life’s course as sadly, perhaps pathetically, tragic.

Paul Laffoley’s artwork The Life and Death of Elvis Presley: A Suite could someday have the same kind of impact. It is a lot more complex that Zevon’s sparse and simple song, but it covers the same sort of dichotomous territory. It’s also very strange in itself — surrealist even.

It’s at the Carl Solway Gallery in the West End through Sept. 6 for its first public showing ever. And how it got to Solway is equally strange.

One might call it visionary art — it has that kind of obsessive detailing. But its mystical intellectualism and its carefully ordered achievement marks the ambitious vision of a well-trained artist.

The Elvis Suite gets a whole gallery at Solway and needs it. On one wall are the eight paintings that comprise the work. On the other is the photocopied correspondence from Laffoley to Russ Barnard, the collector who commissioned the work in 1988.

Each painting is 55-by-35-inches and is jam-packed (that might be an understatement) with pictures and meticulously lettered text related to Presley’s life. Each also has a brass rod and velvet drape — the colors vary — that can be drawn to cover it up. There are six paintings whose central images depict Presley at step-by-step seven-year life stages (he died at age 42).

“Son of ‘Sattnin’” comes first, followed by “Captain Marvel the Third,” “Frankenpelvis,” “The Prime Elvis,” “The Comeback Kid” and “The Remains of the Voice.” (That first title refers to the way Presley as a child pronounced the word “satin,” because his mother worked as a seamstress.)

The actual portraits of Presley are moodily black and white with his irises a startling blue. He passes from a sweet child to the puffy, bloated, downright monstrous Presley of his last year.

Dropping down below the portraits, in color-compatible columns crammed with enough information to seemingly fill an encyclopedia, are important events during the years covered. And below those are horizontal strips with smaller images — precious miniatures — pertaining to Presley’s life and the greater world around him.

You might recognize the source material of some — “The Narc — Nixon” relates to his famous visit and photograph with President Nixon. But how Laffoley gets from, say, “Hitler in Berlin” to “Elvis Sees a UFO” is mysterious.

The first and last paintings in Elvis Suite are more like multi-bordered mandalas or horoscopic charts. One is titled “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has entered the world” and the other, fittingly, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the world.”

The overall information included is incredible — including discussion of Presley being cryogenically frozen.
“I think I’ve done the definitive work on Elvis,” Laffoley says in a phone interview.

Laffoley, 73, has an impressive resume and a website that’s very entertaining to read. Here’s a taste: (In the 1960s), “Laffoley began to organize his ideas in a format related to eastern mandalas, partially inspired by the late night patterns he watched for Warhol on sixties late night television.”

He studied classics at Brown University and architecture at Harvard, and decided to focus on painting in the Boston-Cambridge area after a spell in New York. Since 1971, his studio has been known as Boston Visionary Cell.

Michael Solway, Carl’s son and the gallery director, has a long relationship with Laffoley. He’s also a music lover, so the subject appealed to him.

“I’ve been a long fan of art that deals with issues of mysticism and spirituality — psychedelic art,” he says.

Elvis Suite was completed in 1995, yet this is its first showing. Owner Russ Barnard has kept it stored in crates.

He’d like to see important visitors, such as museum curators, view it for possible institutional display and/or sale, in the process establishing value. He also said Laffoley referred him to Solway.

Barnard commissioned Elvis Suite when he published a New York-based magazine called Country Music. He had already hired Laffoley to do a portrait of Hank Williams to accompany a well-received article by the art critic Dave Hickey. Barnard was a Country music fan who first saw Presley perform in Amarillo, Texas, in 1955.

He and an associate noticed magazine readers were placing ads for Presley memorabilia, and he thought a magazine-commissioned artwork might appeal to them. Perhaps it could be sold as a limited-edition print portfolio.

“Something classy rather than the crap people were advertising in the magazine,” Barnard says. But soon he thought of Laffoley and knew that wouldn’t work.

“I realized it was much too serious for that idea,” he says. “It had to stand alone as a one-time work of art.”

And the long letter Laffoley soon sent him reinforced that. A copy is on the wall at Solway — the gallery will provide magnifying glasses — and it’s fascinating. It reveals Laffoley wasn’t especially a Presley fan — he tells his patron he has so far heard 192 of his songs and is “beginning to really appreciate his operatic voice.”

He also explains he will be trying to “take calendar art and turn it into a meditation series in which the fans attempt to recreate Elvis’ existence as a thought-form or a tulpa (from the Hindu concept).”

Barnard, who sold the magazine in 1999, has thought off-and-on about what to do with the crated Elvis Suite. “I deliberately decided not to put these on sale until I could get a proper exhibition in a fine-art environment, because there is so much crap associated with Elvis,” he says.

“I’m glad it’s being shown,” Laffoley says. “I love people to see my work.”

(Note: Paul Laffoley died in 2015.)

Mavis Staples: Good Fortune after Personal Loss



Mavis Staples acknowledges she’s had a run of good fortune since recovering from the saddest period in her life — the death in 2000 of her father, Staple Singers patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples. And her achievements are continuing with the release of her newest album, You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy at Chicago’s The Loft, his band’s studio.

While Staples — who has one of the strongest, clearest and most empathetic voices in the history of gospel-infused soul music — had been recording occasional solo albums during her career, her heart, soul and identity were wrapped up in being a member of the family gospel/soul group started by her father. She’d been singing with them for 50 years, since a girl, when he died at age 84. So she felt lost and depressed.

But Staples rebounded by signing with Anti-, a label with a keen talent for reviving the careers of older “legacy” artists. And her 2007 We’ll Never Turn Back, in which she and producer Ry Cooder revisited the Civil Rights Era spiritual/protest songs of the Staple Singers, brought her renewed attention. A related follow-up, Live: Hope at the Hideout, earned the 71-year-old Staples her first Grammy nomination.

Now comes You Are Not Alone. Staples didn’t know Tweedy until he showed up at her show being recorded at Chicago’s Hideout and introduced himself. Soon after, he sent word he wanted to produce her next album. She acquainted herself with his material and was impressed. Wilco reminded her of the Band, whose “The Weight” the Staple Singers memorably performed (with the Band) in The Last Waltz.

“He said, ‘Mavis, I listen to you all the time and I’m really grateful to be producing you,’” Staples explains, during a telephone interview. “And I said, ‘Well, Tweedy, you don’t know how blessed you make me feel at my age and at this time in my career that a young man like Jeff Tweedy’ ” — here she interjects an aside, “a genius, I know he’s one,” and then continues — ‘ ” would want to work with me.’

“I just rejoice, I feel like the Lord sends people to you if you are worthy,” she explains. “I’ve been good, I treat everybody right, treat my neighbors right, even the tramp on the street I have time to talk to. So if the Lord has tested me, he has seen I’m worthy of whatever gifts he’s sending to me.”

For the album, Tweedy compiled a list of material he thought perfect for Staples. Those included two written by her father (“You Don’t Knock” and “Downward Road”), two uplifting blues tunes (Rev. Gary Davis’ “I Belong to the Band” and Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It”), three songs by premier contemporary composers (Randy Newman’s “Losing You,” Allen Toussaint’s “Last Train” and John Fogerty’s “Wrote A Song For Everyone,” reminiscent of “The Weight”) plus some traditional gospel selections.

And he wrote two songs for Staples – the funky “Only the Lord Knows” and the quietly soulful and compassionate title song, meant to console about recovering from difficult times. While Staples’ band recorded with her, Tweedy played some acoustic guitar and bass, and Wilco’s Patrick Sansone added keyboards and vibes. On the a cappella “Wonderful Savior,” singers Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor and Donny Gerrard joined in.

In press notes, Tweedy explains his motivation in producing Staples. “Mavis is the walking embodiment of undaunted spirit and courage. She’s an ever-forward looking, positive example for all human beings. And she sounds like she’s in the prime of her life.”

For the inspirational title song, Tweedy saved writing it until last. He composed the music first, one night giving Staples a disc to hear the melody, and promised he’d have lyrics written the next day when she returned to the studio.

“So when we got back there the next day, he had these beautiful lyrics,” Staples recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is the most beautiful song I have ever sang.’ I actually had to fight back tears, because when I’m singing the song it’s like a little movie in my head. I could see who needed to hear it and what time it is in their lives. We’re living in trying times, and with a song like this, anyone who hears it will say, ‘She’s singing that song just for me.’ Hopefully, that will lift them up, because the song comforts you.”


Great Music Festivals Revisited: Nelsonville 2013


AN ANTIDOTE FOR WHATEVER AILS YA: The 2013 Nelsonville Music Fest

Gracing the stage was everyone from heritage acts like John Prine, Wilco, Jonathan Richman and Lee Fields to contemporary buzz artists like Calexico, Tift Merritt, Sharon Van Etten and Lucius, and the musical yield—even after a meandering, forgettable set from the ever-inscrutable Cat Power—was bountiful. The Nelsonville Music Festival took place May 30 through June 2 in Nelsonville, Ohio.


A friend of mine, a well-traveled music aficionado, was explaining – as we were waiting for Calexico to follow Sharon Van Etten on stage at this year’s Nelsonville Music Festival – why this has become his favorite fest. “They don’t blow you out with loudness. And it’s carefully curated.”

That’s so true. For every act that performed, from sound-design sophisticates like Wilco to acoustic minimalist Jonathan Richman, you could hear every word they sang. At bigger festivals (at Nelsonville, on the grounds of Hocking College, the main stage faces an open field that can only hold several thousand) the rock acts tend to crank up the volume to such a painful level you wait for the birds flying overhead to land and surrender.

And yet, at the same time, Nelsonville isn’t a predictable roots-music fest full of alt-country troubadours and/or polite bluegrass/folk bands. It has them, true, but it is idiosyncratically programmed with a sharp eye. It leans to the “organic” side of alt-rock (no EDM acts) with a couple headlining legends, but is full of surprises.

And it can rock out – Shilpa Ray proved that at about 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, howling and screaming (with precise diction and that unusual twist of bittersweet vocal warmth that makes her so engaging) her post-punk blues mantras into the cool night air while she played harmonium and her accompanists provided musical heat.

Nelsonville also is a pleasant, semi-rural environment in a part of the country – southeastern Ohio, near the college town of Athens – that seems to be a haven for well-preserved older hippies and younger folk who respect their elders’ musical values taste in hair styles and colorful clothing, including brightly patterned sundresses and wry t-shirts like “Bad Spellers Untie!”

The fest also has its mysteries. For a few acts, signers for the hearing-impaired stand to the side of the stage and provide a translation of lyrics as they’re being sung. It was often a dancing commentary – the signers used a lot of body language. Who exactly they were signing for was a mystery. It’s possible they were Hocking College students on assignment, but nobody I asked had any idea.

All this local flavor may be why it not only can attract acts that seem a little too big for the festival’s scale, but also why the musicians seem to praise it so highly from the stage.

I caught three of festival’s four days, missing opening-night (Thursday) headliner Gogol Bordello. Of those I watched, only a couple were disappointing, for reasons not entirely the artists’ fault.

Cat Power – who had to follow a long rain delay on Friday night – gave a somewhat meandering set as her voice and wandering stage presence didn’t seem up to her ensemble’s strong playing and back-up singing on numbers from her last album, Sun.

 And after a long Saturday-night rain delay interrupted her set, Mavis Staples elected to not continue. “God told Mavis she needs to sit down,” the emcee intoned from the stage. It was a shame because Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy had just joined her onstage for “You Are Not Alone” – the title song from the 2011 album he produced for her – before the storm struck. She also had done a strong, tantalizing version of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” from the upcoming, Tweedy-produced One True Vine album. Everyone wanted more.

After that Saturday storm, Wilco played the night’s centerpiece set. Over the years – decades – Tweedy has put together a distinctive sound, a creative amalgam of his favorite strains of rock. On many of the set’s songs, he started out on acoustic guitar with his shaky voice perfect for straightforward Americana music, where the words are more important than the technical perfection of the vocals.

But as the band would kick in to expand the sound with orchestral grandeur, the hooks and choruses emerged and revealed the selections as pop songs, or at least commercially oriented sing-along alt-rock songs. And then Wilco’s showcase guitarist (and secret weapon), Nels Cline, would take over for a blisteringly transcendent lead with avant-garde overtones that echo fusion-jazz and No Wave. Each song was a veritable mix tape.

Wilco’s enthusiastic set, which Calexico – which had played earlier – joined toward the end, featured a long encore that left everyone satiated. It also left me to wonder what the heck Wilco is doing playing back-up to Bob Dylan (and even My Morning Jacket) on the upcoming Americanarama tour.

The fest, which is run by (and raises funds for) the 135-year-old Stuart’s Opera House in downtown Nelsonville, showed its prescience about the pop side of alt-rock with numerous bookings. One especially successful one was the five-member – three men, two women – Brooklyn band Lucius, whose first album isn’t yet out.

Outfitted a bit like Devo with their matching black tops and green pants/leggings (and the women had pretzel-twist hair styles), they were capable of a poundingly irresistible multi-rhythmic attack. On one number, “Genevieve,” four members played percussion instruments, including a wooden block, at once. But they also had a fine sense of melody, with catchy and arrestingly songs that emanated joy.

And as an example of Nelsonville’s prescience in booking rising folk-rock singer-songwriters, there was Joe Pug’s involving set. The blossoming Chicago troubadour’s heartfelt songs delicately straddled melancholy, until his guitar and harmonica let them soar forward. He seemed inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s intimate, introspective side (“Atlantic City”), and could be a successor. Playing with two accompanists on a secondary stage, he showcased excellent compositions like “Speak Plainly, Diana” and “Hymn 105.” He also championed an unknown writer named Harvey Thomas Young by singing his “Deep Dark Wells,” originally written as a poem to a brother in prison. The set left many talking about his potential for stardom.

Another folk-rock singer-songwriter who wowed the crowd was the more established Tift Merritt, the former North Carolinian making her first visit to Nelsonville. The surprise during her Sunday afternoon set was just how hot – how rockin’ – a stage presence she is. With her trio providing rousing support, she would swing her guitar and let her auburn hair flow, moving like a rockabilly savior cutting loose. Or she would play keyboards like she was leading a stomping garage-rock band onward. Besides her own songs like “Mixtape,” “Traveling Alone” and “Spring, ” she chose some potent and not overly familiar covers – James Carr’s “Your Love Made a U-Turn” and Tom Waits’ “Ain’t No Train.” She left the stage leaving many thinking she’s Emmylou’s heir apparent – or Wanda Jackson’s.

Jonathan Richman’s set on Saturday afternoon didn’t have the biggest crowd of the fest, but he had some of the most devoted attendees. They are acolytes and they get as close to him as possible.

It was just him, wearing a long-sleeve shirt in the heat, on acoustic guitar with drummer Tommy Larkins. The songs were relatively familiar, too – a snatch of “That Summer Feeling,” “Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild,” “Let Her Go Into the Darkness…” But as someone who has been catching Richman since seeing him in Boston in the early 1970s, I’ve noticed he has gradually changed. Where once the lure of his act was the naïf-like goofiness, the child-like innocence, of his persona (especially after he appeared in There’s Something About Mary), now what stands out is how he lives by his humane principles. He stands for following your artistic sensibilities and making a living out of it, being generous on stage, and maybe even imparting some wisdom in his off-handedly digressive and seemingly spontaneous way.

During a version of “When We Refuse to Suffer,” his protest against anti-depressants and the dulling of senses he believes they cause, he sang that (with the drugs) “Porno is possible/But not Michelangelo.”  Then, as an aside to the crowd, he added, jokingly but pointedly, “Incidentally, you want the second.” As my observant friend said, Richman has become a sage.

There were several “developing” acts – for lack of a better term – whose sets impressed at Nelsonville. Sharon Van Etten showed she’s nicely evolving from a performing songwriter to a rock act, growing comfortable with a band, electric guitar and an increasingly effective, forceful vocal range on her hypnotic mid-tempo songs like “Don’t Do It” and “Peace Signs.”

Wussy, the scrappy and highly praised Cincinnati quartet (augmented at Nelsonville with a pedal-steel guitarist) whose songs’ lyrics can be hauntingly poetic, played a blisteringly defiant Saturday-night set, on a secondary stage opposite Wilco. There was just a determined scattering of fans there, despite co-singer/guitar Lisa Walker’s plea for fans to text friends at the Wilco set to come over. The band deserved better than this Wussy-Wilco showdown where the underdogs never had a chance.

Lee Fields, a classic-soul singer just finding a wide audience at age 60+, killed with his band the Expressions and a repertoire of  contemporary songs that mixed Wilson Pickett-ish raw deep soul with a hint of the disco-Caribbean lilt of 1970s-era TK Records. And on workouts like “Faithful Man” and “Wish You Were Here,” James Brown was probably smiling from above. If there is an above.

But for great soul music, even Fields couldn’t trump the Sunday afternoon set by the large gospel ensemble (singers and band) Flying Clouds of South Carolina. They turned a religious number that sounded a lot like the Valentinos’ classic “Lookin’ For a Love” into an almost-half-hour ecstatic reverie that featured their trim, energetic white-haired co-lead singer leaping and jumping, as if trying to launch into that heavenly “above” from a trampoline. It was a revelation.

But so, too, in a different way was festival-closer John Prine. Debonairly dressed in sport coat, dress shirt and bolo, with lead guitarist Jason Wilber and bassist David Jacques equally well-attired, his presence gave the event’s closing hour the aura of a formal party – a commencement address. Prine has had his health problems, and he looks like he’s had, but (and maybe this is the reason for the clothes) he also looks like he’s faced it with dignity, resolve and respect for life. Yet all that went uncommented-upon during his set. Instead, he thrilled the crowd with persuasively sung and played versions of his material. The arrangements were tight yet never pro-forma; his own guitar work was rousing. And what a great, deep catalogue he has.

The funny songs had a singular kind of eccentrically winsome folk wisdom  (“Spanish Pipedream,” “Fish and Whistle,” “Don’t Bury Me”); the story songs had the depth and nuance of novels (“Donald and Lydia,” “Sam Stone”); and the straightforward observational songs about relationships were heartrending and wise (“You Got Gold,” “Storm Windows” and the monumentally magnificent “All the Best” with its couplet “Then your heart gets bored with your mind and it changes you”).

Prine isn’t maybe as widely heralded in pop culture as an influential elder singer-songwriter on a par with Dylan or Leonard Cohen. But he has a following that reveres him. At Nelsonville, the audience knew and sang along with virtually every song and called out for more. Some of Prine’s tunes people liked because they were witty, others (as in the early composition about elderly loneliness, “Hello in There”) because he saw a sad universal truth way early (and expressed it openly and sweetly). People seemed not just to like Prine, but to need him as an antidote to whatever malaise, physical or spiritual, ailed them.

And Prine knew he was connecting. He joshed and extended the show – it was an almost 1½-hour set. There were two encores, and everyone left spent.

When Prine departed, he left as a giant. And he left Nelsonville 2013 a memorable triumph.

There were other strong acts I saw that I just can’t describe in depth even for a reasonably long feature like this. So, forgive me Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, Calexico, Michael Hurley, Cotton Jones, Catherine MacLellan, and He’s My Brother She’s My Sister (with their crowd-pleasing, tap-dancing, fashion-plate drummer Lauren Brown). Your sets all were strong. Come back next year. I will.

Rocker’s a role Bill Nighy can love, actually


Nighy has a blast playing a boorish, aging pop star in Richard Curtis’ new romantic comedy.

November 03, 2003|Steven Rosen | Special to The Los Angeles Times
“The bad granddad of rock ‘n’ roll? Yeah, that’s me, I guess,” Bill Nighy says, laughing at the thought of his late-blooming screen persona.
In Richard Curtis’ romantic comedy “Love Actually,” Nighy’s Billy Mack — a devil-may-care, foulmouthed aging British rock star — is given the “bad granddad” moniker by a DJ. He has recorded and is promoting a loathsome (to him) version of the 1960s hit “Love Is All Around,” with lyrics altered for Christmas. (The film opens Friday.) His dubious publicity tactics include impertinent and often-salacious remarks on interview shows. With his “stray cat blues” of a scratchy and growling voice, he gleefully cackles and snorts through his outrageous remarks. Whether or not he’s too old to rock and roll, he’s certainly too old to be polite. The record stinks, he says, so please buy it. He’s having a blast — as is Nighy in the part.

This is Nighy’s second turn as an aging rocker. In 1998’s “Still Crazy,” another comedy, he played the fumblingly insecure, frightened and wife-dependent lead singer of a 1970s-era British band attempting a comeback tour. It was “This Is Spinal Tap” humor, but undercut with melancholy and pathos. His character anticipated the Ozzy Osbourne we came to know on “The Osbournes.”


“We have rock ‘n’ roll pioneers now — they’re my generation or slightly older than me,” says Nighy, 53, sipping a Coke with lime on a restaurant patio. “We never had middle-aged rock ‘n’ rollers before because there was never rock ‘n’ roll before. So this is a new breed of survivor. And I seem to have the legs for it, apparently. In the 1970s, you had to have legs so thin you could get into those skin-tight pants.”

Indeed he does. Tall and slender, wearing a blazer over a blue sports shirt with his long legs packed into crisply pressed slacks, the British actor has a casually proper look far removed from his visually loud on-screen rockers. His thick black glasses tucked in a pocket so his blue eyes are unobscured, thinning brown hair gently brushed back, he exudes quiet politesse. If he were a British rock star, he’d be shyly debonair and erudite like Bryan Ferry. He even greets the arrival of his Coke with a liltingly delivered “lovely, smashing” compliment to the waiter.

This is only his second time in Los Angeles. The first was when “Still Crazy” received several Golden Globe nominations (but lost). “I’m terrible. I had never been to America until ‘Still Crazy’ came out,” he says. “My only excuse is that all actors get out of the habit of going places unless it’s part of their work. The idea is that if you leave, the phone will ring. And if you’re like me, you spend a lot of time without money in the early days so you didn’t go anywhere.”

Nighy is like this in conversation, almost apologetic in responding to questions. He has a self-deprecating manner, along with a wry sense of wordplay, that makes him seem embarrassed about his career, even though he clearly is proud of his work.

“I have a kind of recognizably average British career,” he says, without irony, before listing some enviable highlights. “I worked with David Hare a great deal, Tom Stoppard, Trevor Nunn. I’ve done world premieres of plays that I would suggest will be performed 200 years from now.” During one of those productions, of Hare’s “A Map of the World” at London’s National Theatre, he met his wife, actress Diana Quick. They have a 19-year-old daughter.

In the 1980s, Nighy also started appearing on British television — he most recently played a newspaper editor in the miniseries “State of Play.” And he also made the odd movie. “And then I got to be in ‘Still Crazy,’ which meant I could play principal roles in the movies,” he says. “And I’ve been in a number of independent British movies since.”

“Love Actually” is actually his fourth film to reach American theaters this year, following British indies “Lawless Heart” and “I Capture the Castle” and the wide-release horror film “Underworld.” In “Love Actually,” Nighy could be called a scene stealer, no easy feat in an ensemble-cast film featuring Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton and others. Curtis, the writer of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill,” wrote and directed this bittersweet look at love and friendship in contemporary Britain. The characters range from the idealistic new prime minister (Grant) to the shameless sellout entertainer (Nighy). Not all the characters know each other, but there are degrees of connection among them.

“I got the script through the mail and was terribly grateful because he [Curtis] is the heavyweight champion of this kind of comedy,” Nighy says. “But I got the script just to do an open reading, to see which bits worked. And then we had to all go into this high-powered reading where if a bomb dropped on the building, British show biz would have been in serious trouble. No pressure, like, really,” he says, punctuating that observation with one of his quick snorts of humor. “But it went quite well and I got the job.”

He may also get a hit record out of it. Universal confirms that “Billy Mack’s” version of “Christmas Is All Around” will be released as a single in Britain on Dec. 15. On the same day, a new Christmas single by the actual boy band Blue — with whom Nighy’s Billy Mack is battling for the top spot on the pop charts in “Love Actually” — also will be released.

“Love Is All Around” previously was featured in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” which resulted in a massive British hit by Wet Wet Wet. The original version was by the Troggs of “Wild Thing” fame and was a hit in Britain and the U.S. in late 1967-early 1968.

Nighy was born in Croydon, just south of London, where his father operated an auto garage and his mother was a psychiatric nurse.

The family lived in a house that came with the job, and he likes to say he was born in a gas station. He loved rock, especially the Rolling Stones; he also was shy with girls and enjoyed being by himself. “I’ve never gotten over the sound Keith Richards and Charlie Watts make — it’s my kind of thing,” he says. “As a 14-year-old male, I did throw a few shapes in front of the bathroom mirror with a view to maybe one day being selected by the great god of rock ‘n’ roll. But I became an actor instead,” he says, again with that telltale hint of apology in his voice.

After a youthful flirtation with a writing career that led to Paris and back, he decided to audition for the Guildford School of Dance and Drama. Nighy recalls it as a lark, prompted by a girlfriend, that ended in disaster when he inadvertently chose two female parts for his tryout. One was intentional, but he didn’t realize “Twelfth Night’s” Cesario was Viola in disguise. “I made a complete fool of myself,” he says.

By his second attempt, he decided he really wanted to be an actor. And he gave it all he was worth. One speech, as required, was from Shakespeare. The other, his choice, was from a 1965 Dennis Potter teleplay called “Stand Up, Nigel Barton.”

“I was amazed when I got in,” he says. “But I did all right.”

Billy Mack represents the latest one of Nighy’s screen portrayals — in comedies and dramas — of men behaving badly during midlife crisis. In “Lawless Heart,” he was a farmer scared to discover he was drawn toward adultery; in “Castle,” he was a blocked writer protected from the harsh world by his wife and daughters. “If you get to my age and you’re lucky enough to be working, the guys you’re playing are going to have a midlife crisis,” he says.

An exception, it should be noted, is Nighy’s portrayal of a vampire in “Underworld” — “He had a midlife crisis in the 14th century,” he jokes. Nevertheless, in his north London neighborhood, that’s the role currently getting him the most attention. It’s the first time one of his movies registered on box-office charts — even if he was under six hours’ worth of makeup.

“I’m quite famous now with the kids around my way,” he says. “I’ve always slightly worried the kids who play football around my house. They know I’m an actor, but felt slightly sorry for me because they’d never seen anything I’ve done.”

(Photo from Los Angeles Times)


Kenny Vance’s Acapella Album Lovingly Revisits 1950s Music


A couple years back, when I interviewed Donald Fagen for his Dukes of September tour — he, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald took turns singing favorite oldies — I asked if he might be doing any Jay & the Americans songs.

It was kind of a cheeky question. While Fagen and Walter Becker got their start arranging horn and string parts for Jay & the Americans, they went in a vastly different — most would say more sophisticated — musical direction with Steely Dan.

While Fagen said he would not, he also advised me to take a good listen to the work of Kenny Vance, one of Jay & the Americans’ founders. “He’s done some interesting stuff,” he said. (Vance had first hired the two, thus giving them their start.)

That was good advice. Since Jay & the Americans, the New York-based Vance — who is now 69 — has been searching for the dreamy romantic honesty, the origins, behind the schmaltz of the late-1960s pop vocal groups. While not a big name to the public, he has held varied, interesting music jobs. He booked bands during “Saturday Night Live’s” early years, even appearing once as the musical guest. and wrote the music (and provided Armand Assante’s singing voice) for the 1999 movie about a singing group, Looking for an Echo.

And he put together the Planotones to revive the unadorned harmonies and delicate, almost-ghostly vocals of 1950s-era urban, street-corner doo-wop music. He’s carved out a niche career doing so, the highlight of which has been his lovely modern doo-wop song “Looking for an Echo.” But “Acapella” deserves to bring him wider attention

Vocal pop music today, in the wake of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, is a vastly different beast from doo-wop. Derived from both gospel and rock and soul power-ballad singing, its mission is to impress us into submission with its extended, heavy-duty locomotive-breath swoops and sustains. But when the singer is forcing it, as many do, it’s often exhausting and charmless.

So reviving comparatively gentle a capella doo-wop is clearly an offbeat, against-the-grain project, just as it was when the Belmonts released their now-classic throwback “Cigars Acapella Candy” album in 1972.

Yet just like that Belmonts’ record, this proves that a capella doo-wop is timeless. Vance and Planotones’ music director and vocal arranger Johnny Gale share the lead parts. (Gale produced, arranged and mixed the disc.) Their voices glide and caress the material airily, if not quite with total youthful élan then still mercifully without any of the raggedness that can challenge older vocal harmony groups.

Vance’s falsetto parts are exceptionally pure, be they harmony (“Mio Amore”) or lead (“Twilight”). The other Planotones, all of whom sound sensitively in tune, are Chip Degaard, Tony Galino, Jimmy Bense and Kurt “Frenchy” Yahjian.

Aaron Neville also has released a recent tribute to older vocal music, “My True Story.” It’s neither a capella nor pure doo wop, covering as it does a lot of the earlier, harder-edged and more adult-oriented and arranged R&B of the 1950s and 1960s, like “Money Honey,” “Ruby Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” “Work With Me Annie” and more.

Fine songs those, but this is the deeper and more emotional musical experience. It explores the innocence at the heart of classic doo wop, without succumbing to a post-modern dissection of it. That’s hard to do, like bouncing on a spider web, and it’s amazing how well Vance’s Planotones pull it off. Not just the singing parts, but the way they supply stomping percussion (the Stereos’ “I Really Love You”) and finger-snapping (the Cadillacs’ “Zoom”).

The ballads and mid-tempo tunes are sublime, like “Twilight” (originally by the Paragons), “Jeannie” (the Unique Teens), “Diamonds and Pearls” (the Paradons) and “Please Be My Love Tonight” (the Charades).

Each of those groups’ names is, indeed, a diamond or a pearl – like a little imagist poem or haiku. And that brings up my one complaint. This record, like Vance’s recent Christmas CD, is self-released and presumably done on a tight budget. While the liner notes are sufficient, listing the songs and writers, they don’t mention the songs’ histories, or why Vance chose them. If you like the music, you’ll long for that while you’re listening.

But what sweet listening it is.

Kenny Vance and the Planotones
LaPlano Records (

This first appeared on For other writings by Steven Rosen, visit

‘A Lot of Sorrow’ Is Headed Contemporary Arts Center’s Way





As Steven Matijcio, curator of the Contemporary Arts Center, puts it about the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, “Boy, he’s really taking Ohio venue by venue these days!”

That’s true — indeed, Kjartansson, not yet 40, has become one of the hottest contemporary artists, period. He’s a performance artist, a musician, a creator of fine-art videos that use music and musicians, and a painter. And his work is especially being embraced by Ohioans.

Starting Wednesday and continuing through March 20, one of his most acclaimed video creations, last year’s A Lot of Sorrow, will be screening during regular gallery hours in the CAC’s Black Box Theater. It is here in connection with the MusicNOW Festival, which starts Wednesday and runs through Sunday at Music Hall, Memorial Hall and Woodward Theater.

A Lot of Sorrow consists of the band The National, most of them dressed in black suits with white shirts, performing their three-and-a-half-minute song “Sorrow” — from their 2010 High Violet album — for six hours straight. Kjartansson used up to six cameras to record the 2013 performance at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 branch and showed it at the New York gallery Luhring Augustine Bushwick last September.

MusicNOW was founded by Bryce Dessner — guitarist with The National and, like the other members, a Cincinnati native. The band is playing live on Friday with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at Music Hall as part of the festival. And Dessner wanted A Lot of Sorrow here.

I only have seen a 12-minute clip on Vimeo, and it was great, but Roberta Smith of The New York Times saw the whole thing and was deeply moved. “The delicate cooperation of The National’s members with one another to fill the space with sounds that gratify both themselves and the audience is perhaps both the subject and content of the piece,” she wrote. “Another subject, of course, is time, the way music changes and measures it, as well as the trancelike state the repetitions can induce.”

This Cincinnati debut of A Lot of Sorrow is occurring at the same time that another of Kjartansson’s videos, 2012’s The Visitors, is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art through May 24.

This is the prolific Kjartansson’s most well known work. A nine-channel video and audio installation, named after a 1981 ABBA album, it lasts just over an hour and chronicles eight performers — including Kjartansson — making music in separate rooms of an old country mansion while listening to each other through headphones. Museumgoers can move among the monitors that display the individual performers.

Actually, Kenyon College’s Graham Gund Gallery in Gambier, Ohio, already showed The Visitors from July 2013 through January 2014. In an unusual arrangement, Gund — a Kenyon graduate — purchased one of six official copies of the work (with another, The Man), and donated it in three equal shares to Kenyon, the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

“We were the first U.S. museum to exhibit The Visitors,” says Natalie Marsh, Gund Gallery director, via email. It is loaning the piece to Cleveland. (It has also shown at the ICA and Guggenheim Bilbao.)

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Museum of Art is preparing to show the high-definition DVD documenting Kjartansson’s 2011 Song, a live performance project at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art.

Truth be told, I’m a little worried that A Lot of Sorrow is going to get overlooked in its brief Cincinnati stint.

The CAC is busy with its own activities. On Friday night it has a members-only unveiling of its newly renovated lobby and related new art installations. And on March 20 from 7-11 p.m., the CAC is opening two new exhibitions — Albano Afonso’s Self-Portrait as Light and Daniel Arsham’s Remember the Future.

Since Kjartansson’s video runs during regular gallery hours, it will not be playing during the lobby reopening this Friday night. But since the March 20 opening of new exhibitions is for the public, A Lot of Sorrow will show that evening but be shut off from 7-8 p.m. for Arsham’s talk in the Black Box.

There could be more Kjartansson in our future. “We’re having ongoing discussions with Ragnar and his studio about an exhibition of one of the multi-channel works in 2016 or 2017,” Matijcio says via email. “We’re hopeful that Icelandic song of some sort will be ringing through the building in the near future. Ideally one of the videos would be paired with a new performance work to be premiered in Cincy.”

Visit for more information