Stevie Wonder in Hartford

By Johnny Memphis

About two hours into his over-stuffed, at-times-glorious “Songs in the Key of Life Performance” concert at the Hartford XL Center, Stevie Wonder broke away from his 34-piece orchestra and started to play solo, tapping his fingers on a small stringed instrument that looked like a rectangular dulcimer. The instrument is called a harpejji (invented in 2007) and it sounds like a cross between an acoustic guitar and a keyboard. Stevie has been playing the harpejji for three years and he has got it down. In Hartford, even more than when he played keyboards or harmonica, Stevie was in the happy zone on harpejji, totally focused, making exquisite music, familiar but fresh. It is Stevie’s new toy and he was smiling, and waving his head from side to side when he played it.

When Stevie was a baby his father, gave him bongos that Stevie played constantly in the crib, according to Mark Ribowsky’s candid 2010 biography Signed, Sealed and Delivered, The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder. Stevie’s father Calvin Judkins was a nasty piece of work who pimped Stevie’s mother Lula Mae on the streets of Saginaw and Detroit until she finally got rid of him. At least his father gave Stevie some drums, which piqued Stevie’s unquenchable curiosity about all things musical. “I got the thirst for wanting to know. ‘What is that? What is it made of? I know how it sounds, but how does it look? Can I touch it?” Stevie said in an interview with Billboard magazine.

When Stevie was toiling as a teenager in the Motown hit factory he used a clavinet on “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Ba-Day” in 1968, making him the first pop musician to use this hybrid electric keyboard that sounded like a mutated electric guitar. The springy, clangy sound of the clavinet became a key part of Stevie’s sonic vocabulary, and he later utilized it to devastating effects on songs like “Superstition.” When Stevie turned 21 and took over total production of his records, he discovered the capabilities of synthesizers, which helped create the magnificent aural soundscapes of his genius records of the early to mid ‘70s. His childhood friend John Glover said, “Stevie was looking for ways to make the beat sexy, not necessarily by what the lyrics would say but the sound, what the sound would say. It was like what he said later in ‘Sir Duke’- ‘You can feel it all over.’” In the end, like Duke Ellington, the whole band became Stevie’s instrument.

In order to do justice to the re-creation of the “Songs in the Key of Life” album, Stevie brought a band to Hartford that was more than twice the size of Duke Ellington’s. Joining Stevie on stage was a six-piece horn section, eight back-up singers, an eight-person rhythm section, an extra harmonica whiz, and a ten-piece string section with a sexy female conductor who could really dance. All the women in the band were knock-outs because as Stevie said in Hartford, “The blind gotta have fine.” You get the impression that Stevie is quite the ladies’ man, which is corroborated by Ribowsky’s biography.

The concert began with the album’s first cut, “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” featuring the string section and Stevie’s opening lines, “Good morn or evening friends, Here’s your friendly announcer, I have serious news to pass on, to everybody.” Dressed in a black dashiki choir robe with white piping, Stevie was in great voice and the string section taut. This was an auspicious beginning but unfortunately, it was followed by “Have a Talk with God,” which is when I have seriously bad news to pass on to everybody. Somebody needed to Have a Talk with the Soundman. When the band kicked in, the bass was too loud. I mean WAY TOO LOUD. SO MUCH BASS IT OVERSHADOWED EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE BAND. MY PANTS WERE VIBRATING. What is the point of bringing Stevie Wonder and 32 other world-class musicians to town if you are going to bury their music with too much bass? Eye, eye, eye.

The first set peaked early with the back-to-back, dancing-in-the-aisle hits “Sir Duke” and “I Wish.” There was nowhere to go but down from there and we did. Hampered by the bad sound, we slogged through the many tuneful, but overlong and ultimately boring songs that fill out the album. When you are playing in a sports arena (16,000 seats, mostly filled) it is better to stick to the hits. The extended album cuts that transport listeners in their living rooms don’t translate in a big barn. The second set began well with Stevie announcing that his daughter Aisha was due to give birth to Stevie’s second grandchild later in the month. “Just don’t call me Grand-dad,” quipped Stevie, 65, who then launched into the song he wrote when Aisha was born, “Isn’t She Lovely.” For the first time all evening Stevie got out his chromatic harmonica, which he played with relentless virtuosity over the coda. This man may be the most expressive harmonica player ever, as well as our planet’s best soul singer.

Along with dutifully working his way through Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie had some fun and went off script. He improvised a melodic line that the string section learned on the fly. He whipped up a Parisian double harmonica melody that evolved into a blues jam with saxophonists running to get their instruments. In the encore Stevie became DJ Tick Tick Boom and spun modern day hits like “Can’t Feel My Face” before stringing together a medley of his own that included a rocking “Living for the City,” a surprisingly moving “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and the final coup-de-grace, “Superstition.” Throughout the night Stevie repeated his theme of love and unity saying, “All lives matter, of course,” and remarked on how distressed he was by all the terrible news that comes our way. “I’m glad I’m blind so I don’t have to see that stuff.”

In the end the concert was sprawling like the album, exhaustive and exhausting with wonderful moments. Before the encore began Stevie asked the audience rhetorically, “Do you want to go home?” While my interior voice was saying, “Well, yeah, Stevie, actually, I would be glad to wrap it up,” my external voice was shouting, “No!!!” I feel equally ambivalent about the concert as a whole. The show was too long, at times boring, but also fantastic. And late in the show, when Stevie slid over to his new instrument, the harpejji, time stopped. It was like hearing the music of his mind. He got a groove going and started into Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and then switched to a heart-breakingly beautiful “People Get Ready.” When a man has this much talent he doesn’t need a giant band. He doesn’t need a massive album to recreate. All he needs is a good song. The older black dude sitting behind me said, “That’s my song, there.” Mine, too.

Postscript: Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life Performance” show at the Harford XL Center (formerly the Civic Center) on October 11, 2015 was the fifth stop in a twenty-city North American tour that will culminate with a show at Madison Square Garden on November 24, 2015. Here are some of the other songs that Stevie included in the four shows prior to Hartford: Take the A Train (Duke Ellington,) Imagine (John Lennon,) Waiting in Vain (Bob Marley,) Boogie on Reggae Woman, Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing, Uptown Funk (Bruno Mars,) Family Reunion (O’Jays,) Besame Mucho, Hold On (En Vogue.) Milord (Edith Piaf,) Night Time is the Right Time (Ray Charles,) Who’s Lovin’ You (The Miracles,) Michelle (The Beatles,) Tequila (The Champs.)

Bluegrass Ballet

By Johnny Memphis

Let’s just say, right off the banjo, that there are a lot of shrill, piercing sounds in bluegrass. You just have to get used to it. Along with the incessant plucking of the banjos you’ve got the crazed scraping of the fiddles and the high-pitched chattering of the mandolins, not to mention the insanely nasal singing style that was handed down from the summit by the stern-faced godfather of the genre, Bill Monroe. Thank the lord, at least there’s a doghouse bass and an acoustic guitar to tether all that treble.

Take Del McCoury, for example, who I saw at the FreshGrass Festival on Sunday at Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA. Del is a bluegrass avatar. He is the man, not just because of his excellent music, but also because he is an elder statesman, the new Bill Monroe. Years ago he played in Monroe’s band as did Peter Rowan who also played at FreshGrass Sunday. At one point during the concert the charming, disarming Del was talking about Bill Monroe and he said, “I guess if Peter or I had stayed in the band we might have taken over the business.” In a way, he did take it over. Del eventually inherited the mantle from Monroe and he wears it well in his conservative suit singing those pinched vocals with Appalachian elan.

Del has an ace band that features his son Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo, the great Jason Carter on fiddle and bass player Alan Bartram who delivered a soaring “Kentucky Waltz” when he got a lead vocal turn. The white-haired Del, 75, was bubbly and chatty on stage, making a lot of self-deprecating remarks about his forgetfulness, but you could see his two sons smile wanly when Del forgot song lyrics or the name of a songwriter he introduced as “my great friend.” The two brothers already have a legacy band called the Traveling McCourys that hits the road when dad needs a rest.

My brother Dan was the reason I was at FreshGrass watching the McCourys. Now, I like bluegrass, but Dan is crazy about it. He is a certified bluegrass nut. He listens to bluegrass internet radio all day long and orders obscure bluegrass cds from websites, the older the recording the better. Dan owns a boatload of Del McCoury cds and has more coming in the mail. I think Dan reveres Del for his pure bluegrass style and perhaps because our family grew up in Harrisburg, PA, which is right next door to York, PA where Del was born and lived for fifty years until the McCoury family moved to Nashville in 1992. So even though brother Dan, 71, is on oxygen now and walks with a rollator (walker with wheels) we have made the pilgrimage to Mass MoCA. Gotta see Del.

We arrived at FreshGrass and set up camp up on the hill overlooking the main stage. It was a crisp and sunny, end-of-summer September afternoon in the low 70s, with a bright blue sky over the green Berkshire mountains and red brick factory buildings of Mass MoCA. On stage Peter Rowan was delivering a low-key Sunday afternoon set with just him on acoustic guitar and a discreet accompanist on hollow-bodied electric. As we settled in the music seemed quiet, too quiet at first. But then gradually Rowan started to weave his magic and you could see the wisdom in his approach. Just go with the mellow vibe of a 12:30 Sunday set on the third day of a three-day festival.

Peter Rowan is a crucial figure in bluegrass and he knows about mellow vibes. After performing in Bill Monroe’s band he was the lead singer for the rock bands Earth Opera (with David Grisman) and Seatrain. In 1973 and ’74 he and Grisman formed the bluegrass band Old and in the Way that included Jerry Garcia on banjo. Their debut live album came out in 1975 and Jerry’s banjo playing attracted rock and roll fans (like me) who discovered that they really liked this bluegrass thing. I would argue that album along with the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album (1972) and the soundtrack to Deliverance (1973) closed the generation and culture gap that separated the Boomers from bluegrass. After hearing the David Grisman quintet in 1977, I bought a mandolin.

Old and in the Way’s soundman was Owsley Stanley, the infamous LSD purveyor for the Grateful Dead and their friends. I interviewed Peter Rowan on WRSI radio one time and he told a great story about Owsley. “Owsley was well into it. I remember one night we were playing in a little club out there called the Keystone and we were having terrible sound problems, howling feedback. The sound control room was above the stage in the back of the hall. Garcia came over and nudged me and said, “Hey, man, look up there.” You could see Owsley in this green light from the sound equipment with all these cables in his teeth and around his neck and his eyes kind of dancing, full of creative power. Garcia said, “Hey man, look at that. Owsley really digs his job.”

Wearing a giant cowboy hat with a brim the size of a patio umbrella, Peter Rowan was doing a good job pulling the FreshGrass audience into his tales of buckaroo dharma. He somehow blended “Freight Train” with his famous “Panama Red” (popularized by the New Riders of the Purple Sage) and tagged his “Land of the Navaho” with some lovely sagebrush ululations. Rowan played “Midnight Moonlight” so tenderly I realized the song was actually about praying in the Alamo Mission, not having a late night party. At the end of his set Peter Rowan graciously invited some talented young players to join him on stage and while he was tuning up, chatting into the mike, Jerry Douglas off-stage said, “Keep tuning till it sounds expensive.”

Jerry Douglas is one of the greatest musicians I have ever heard. Douglas plays the dobro, a kind of slide guitar that you play parallel to the ground, slung around your neck like you were a cigarette girl in a nightclub. Douglas plays dobro like Charlie Parker played saxophone, or Jimi Hendrix played guitar. Really well. Beyond category. With boundless skill and creativity, taste and soul. Everyone in these bluegrass bands is a master instrumentalist, but Jerry Douglas is on a whole ‘nother level. Douglas has formed a super-group tribute band called the Earls of Leicester that celebrates the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. In their retro Kentucky ties and black suits the Earls of Leicester delivered a kick-butt, classic bluegrass set in the mid-afternoon sun at Freshgrass.

Passing the torch and remembering the elders is part of the bluegrass way. Walking around the FreshGrass campus between sets I kept seeing it. Willie Watson paying respect to the folk-singer tradition, Peter Rowan sitting in on a small stage with some up-and-coming players, a band of young kids on a little stage with no p.a. playing a sweet version of “Freight Train.” Even the way the musicians miked their music showed it. Except for the bass, the players in these classic bluegrass bands did not use pick-ups on their instruments. They played and sang into a few shared microphones that captured a wide radius of sound. In order to do that effectively the musicians moved in and out of proximity to the mikes depending on their centrality to that moment in the song. Some songs were like bluegrass ballet with pas de duets and vocal quartet pairings weaving in and out. There was something self-effacing about the performances even when they were virtuosic. It felt like they were stepping up to play that banjo lead on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with the knowledge that someday when they went to bluegrass heaven there would be some other picker to do that part. They had their moment near the mike and then they stepped back into the mix.

Rubber Soul Realizations


By Johnny Memphis

The Beatles may have been known as “The Mop Tops,” but when I looked down at the crowd from my seat at the Rubber Soul lecture, all I could think was, “I have never seen so much male pattern balding in all my life.” It should have come as no surprise since it was exactly 50 years ago this fall the Beatles came off tour and went in to record the Rubber Soul album. Still, seeing the clean pate club last night at the Amherst Cinema was like going to a school reunion and realizing, “Wow, I am the same age as these people.”

I was eight years old lying on my the carpet of my family’s living room in Harrisburg, PA when I watched The Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. I am sixty now. My hair is receding and graying. The Rubber Soul lecturer, Scott Freiman (“Fryman”) is a bit younger than I am and still has a pretty robust head of hair and glasses. He is a Beatles nerd par excellence. This guy knows everything about how the Fab Four recorded Rubber Soul.

I remember when my college-age sister Louise showed up with the album when she came home for Christmas vacation from B. U. in 1965. In my memory we are lying on the living room rug playing the board game Risk when Louise arrives with Rubber Soul. I seem to have spent a lot of time on the carpet as a child. Chairs were for adults. All of us Risk-players were huge Beatles fans: me, my other sister B.Z., my cousins, in fact, everyone kid I knew loved The Beatles. We could tell Rubber Soul was different, but we didn’t care. Looking back I can say things like, “It is less teeny-bopper pop, more interior.” Whatever. It was still great, still catchy, still the Beatles. We loved it. The song “Yesterday” had already been a big hit in the fall of ’65 so we were accustomed to The Beatles throwing us acoustic curveballs.

Scott Freiman’s Rubber Soul lecture was essentially a power-point presentation that went day by day through the making of the album. Freiman used audio clips, video performances, interviews and isolated recording tracks to pull back the curtain on the process. He kicked it off the show with a quiz about people names in Beatles songs. Q. “Captain Marvel” A. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” It is unbelievable how many people in the audience knew the answers. I thought I knew The Beatles, but the lecture got me thinking about them in new ways.

The British albums are very different. I was aware of this but I never fully appreciated it. For various financial reasons, Capitol Records put out altered, truncated U.S. versions of the actual albums the Beatles made and released in the U.K. Because I so totally absorbed the U.S. Rubber Soul into my being it is shocking how different the British version is. How could it not be with the addition of powerhouse songs like “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work it Out”? The U.K. side one starts with the rocking “Drive My Car” and the U.S. side one starts with the acoustic “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Neither song is on the other country’s version. I need to pick up the British version, preferably in mono, to see what the Beatles really intended.

Rubber Soul was written and recorded in a hurry.

 Most of these songs were written or finished during 30 days of recording, from the middle of October to the middle of November 1965. Along with songs for the album there were TV appearances, a Christmas recording for the fan club and mixing and mastering to be completed in time for a holiday release on December 4.

Recording technology was crude.

 They used big reel-to-reel tape recorders with essentially only four tracks. On Rubber Soul they were just starting to bounce tracks, which enabled them to eventually add more tracks on albums like Revolver and later lps. Tape was expensive and re-used so that many things got taped over and erased. They had no headphones.

The Beatles incorporated their musical influences.

The Beatles were great at “nicking” musical ideas from people and putting them into their songs. “Michelle” takes Nina Simone’s “I love you, I love you, I love you” from her “I’ve Got a Spell on You” recording. “Drive My Car” borrows the bass-line from Otis Redding’s “Respect.” “If I Needed Someone” takes the guitar sound from The Byrds “Bells of Rhymney.”

Rubber Soul was a turning point.

John Lennon said “In My Life” was the first song I wrote as an adult.” Paul McCartney said, “Rubber Soul was the beginning of my adult life.” At the Amherst Cinema I sat in the audience with a lot of adults who grew up on Rubber Soul. “There are places I remember, all my life, though some have changed…”

Here is a link to Scott Freiman’s website:

Rickie and the Flash Pan

Ricki and the Flash – Pan

By Johnny Memphis


There is nothing worse than a feel-good movie that doesn’t get you there. Take Ricki and the Flash, a piece of Hollywood sausage featuring Meryl Streep hamming it up as two-bit singer who abandons her family to chase her rock and roll dreams and then reunites with everybody at her son’s wedding playing an obscure Springsteen cover. Really? When the screen flashed “The End” I was perplexed at the multiplex. That’s it? That’s the ending to the movie? Everyone dancing joyously like a scene from Beach Blanket Bingo? A movie starring the great Meryl Streep directed by the esteemed Jonathon Demme is this shallow, this manipulative? Granted there are a few funny lines and good scenes, but the movie is riddled with enough contrivances and false notes to sink a battleship.

As the movie starts Ricki and the Flash onstage are rocking out on Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” In preparation for her role, Meryl Streep learned how to play well enough to be a convincing rhythm guitarist and she has the voice and personality to be a real front-woman. The band sounds good, no surprise considering it includes actual musicians like pop heart-throb Rick Springfield on guitar and legendary keyboardist Bernie Worrell of P-Funk fame. This opening scene captures some of the combustion and headlong energy that can make playing in a rock and roll band such fun. So far, so good. Not for long.

At the end of the song, the whole audience in this homey, rinky-dink L.A. club goes bonkers with applause, cheering like the war had just ended or Eric Clapton had just played “Layla.” Granted it was a good song played by a good band, but local bar crowds are not that enthusiastic. Not everybody in the bar. Not for a band that obviously plays there on a regular basis. You might get some people loving the song, but there are always people more interested in the ballgame or the cute thing next door or their glass of whiskey. They might look up or even applaud, but they won’t go crazy. As Dana Carvey’s George Bush would say, “Not gonna happen.”

It just felt like Act I, Scene 1 of the outline for the movie- “Band rocks out in bar.” According to screenwriting guides every scene in a movie should change emotional charge, from positive to negative or negative to positive. After this jubilant opener you know it’s time for a bummer. Soon after the song ends Meryl/Rickie makes an awkward, emasculating remark on mike about her boyfriend/guitarist Rick Springfield. Oh well, down the road we go. Even Meryl Streep in blue eye-shadow and a leather jacket can’t save a blue plate special like this turkey. This phony opening scene is just an indication of more ersatz moments to come. I really expected more from the Streep-Demme combo.

On the Road: Going to the Garden

The new Boston Garden opened in 1995 and for ten years it was dubbed the FleetCenter, commonly called the “FleeceCenter” after Fleet Bank’s bait and switch credit card scandal. In 2004 Fleet was swallowed by Bank of America and now the building is officially titled the TD Garden, but nobody calls it that. TD Bank bought the naming rights for 6 million dollars a year, but they aren’t local. TD Bank is a subsidiary of Toronto-Dominion Bank, the largest bank in Canada. The building is actually owned by Delaware North, the food concession group headquartered in Buffalo. Delaware North also owns the Bruins, who share the Garden with the Celtics. So Boston’s major sports arena is owned by people from Buffalo and named after a bank from Toronto. Let’s just call it the Garden in memory of the funky original building that housed Bill Russell and Bobby Orr and stood 9 inches away from this new concrete bunker, until the old hall of memories was torn down in 1998.

“Welcome to TD Garden,” said a friendly young man in uniform as we entered the building. He directed us to our escalator and said in a genuinely hospitable voice, “Enjoy the game.” We did. Our seats were incredible. I haven’t sat this close to a basketball game since I was an usher at the Palestra in Philadelphia in the ‘70s. Just watching the warm-ups was a thrill. Evan Turner was working on his shot, moving around the perimeter sinking an uncanny number of jumpers. TV announcers Mike Gorman and Jackie MacMullan were preparing for their courtside, pre-game segment. We were looking at each other like, “Can you believe we are this close?”


NBA games can look routine on TV. The point guard brings up the ball, the center sets a pick, a really good basketball player takes a jump shot, the ball swishes through the net and then other team takes the ball out of bounds. Repeat and rinse, back and forth, up and down. TV time-out. Especially during the regular season the players appear to be just traveling professionals doing their jobs. Most of the time viewers at home have the same middle-distance viewpoint looking down on the action like bored eagles.

When you are courtside the game looks fierce, a raging battle of supremely athletic behemoths. The setting of picks is like an alley fight. Defenders fly around trying to stay with their man as opponents position themselves like brick walls blocking their way. Arms grab, bodies collide, players ricochet. The refs make no call. Huge guys are diving like maniacs for loose balls, speed merchants are stealing your dribble, sure lay-ups are blocked from out of nowhere. The quickness is unreal, especially considering the size.

When the starting players walked out for the opening tip-off, 6’3” Pistons guard Reggie Jackson bounded over to the hoop nearest us, jumped up, grabbed the rim and then flung himself higher to slap the backboard with two hands. It was a sign that Reggie was in the house, a place he played as a star for Boston College. Reggie had been buried behind Russell Westbrook at Oklahoma City until a month ago when he was traded to Detroit. He looked like a man on a mission.

At halftime the Celtics led 47-41. My son Chris turned to me and said, “Dad, I see a guy from Northampton sitting over there.” Sure enough there was my buddy Bill with his bushy gray sideburns sitting behind the basket. I venture over to say hi to Bill and his friend Taylor. I can remember bumping into Bill at Fenway in the ‘80s. When I tell Bill about Chris’s comment, Bill says, “I’m sure I stick out, like on the big video screen it would say underneath ‘Guy from Northampton.’” We talk about the game and Taylor says, “It’s a really good match-up.” which is a great point. The best games are always about the match-up, whether it is Bird-Magic or your kids rec team against their biggest rival. The Celtics and the Pistons are both struggling squads with young talent and losing records. The Celtics are on the upswing and battling for a playoff spot, but they are missing three of their best players: Jared Sullinger (fractured foot,) Isaiah Thomas (bruised back) and Marcus Smart (one game suspension for a flagrant foul.)

In the second half Boston held a slim edge but the Pistons closed the gap. Rangey veteran Tayshaun Prince, a Celtic a month ago, hit a pair of threes for Detroit.  The C’s had no answer for Andre Drummond, the Piston’s robust, 7’0”, 280 pound center who ended up with 22 rebounds. At one point Drummond backed over Tyler Zeller, Boston’s skinny center like he wasn’t even there, got the bucket and a foul shot and then lifted his arms to show his mighty muscles. Boos rained down on the villain.

In the last minute Reggie Jackson up-faked the big men and scored inside to make it 88-88. The Celtics had the ball with 13 seconds left. Time for the perfect ending. Turner had the ball, drove right, got pressured by Jackson, lost the handle and we went to OT.  Overtime was a disaster- Boston turnovers, a Detroit tip-in and a three pointer from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (aka KCP) who ended up with 27. Turner led Boston with 21 points on 10 for 21 shooting. Final score Detroit 105, Boston 97.

In spite of the ending we walked out with a smile on our faces. The kids had a ball, as did I. The game was exciting and the Garden experience was immensely entertaining on many levels. For one thing, the place was a visual fiesta. Encircling bands of video screens all lit up at once with colorful messages that bathed the arena in a gorgeous glow. There was hilarious fan dancing on the giant video chandelier as ordinary citizens became dancing fools in hopes of being projected 20 feet high. There was a cool, soul-jazz national anthem played on solo sax and a touching moment to honor a hockey player who had been paralyzed twice. There were foxy dancers, buff acrobats and schlumpy contestants attempting shots from half-court.

The excitement peaked when tee shirts were tossed into the stands and dropped via parachute from the rafters.  It is amazing how people go plum crazy in hopes of catching a free tee shirt. You don’t even know what the tee shirts look like, but there you are on your feet timing your jump. Humans become like golden retrievers going after a tennis ball, trying to claim it for our own. I got this rebound.

Celtics-Pistons – March 22, 2015 – Boston Garden

The Music Post: Junior Brown at the Iron Horse

First song: home run. Second song: home run. Third song: another home run. Fourth song: I swear to god, another home run. The game was over in the first inning. Junior Brown was smoking it right out of the box.

I was sitting with my brother Dan and my brother-in-law Eric at the Iron Horse on a frozen January night. The first tune was “Broke Down South of Dallas.” This is an early Junior Brown classic, a perfectly constructed, truck-driving shuffle complete with Junior’s low E string bending “buh-buh-buh-bow-wow” fills and his matching drop-down baritone-to-bass voice. It is a simple country tune with lyrics so musical and rich, you could eat them with a spoon. Listen to Junior, an unlucky trucker singing about how he is faithful to his suspicious wife: “I’m the king of the road/ She’s the queen of the house/ And it may not be a palace/ But it sure beats a load/ By the side of the road/ Broke down south of Dallas.” Just say those lines out loud. You can almost hear the truck slowing down as it pulls over into the breakdown lane.

Junior’s backing band at the Iron Horse consisted of his actual wife, Tanya Rae Brown, on acoustic rhythm guitar, long, tall Jase Rathman on Fender bass guitar, and young James Gwyn on snare and cymbal. I’ve seen Junior four or five times in the last 20 years and this was his best sounding band yet, especially drummer Gwyn who was spot-on playing that little kit. The whole set-up and presentation was spare and to the point. Junior was dressed, as always, circa 1962 in his white shirt, black coat, black tie and white 10-gallon hat. If the presentation was elegantly simple, Junior’s guitartistry was spectacular. Junior’s trademark double-neck guit-steel sat in a special stand that allowed him to rapidly switch back and forth between electric guitar and pedal steel. (The design of the instrument came to him in a dream.) At the Iron Horse Junior leaned sideways over the guit-steel like he was the Hunchback of Austin, Texas. As he soloed with virtuosic abandon, he made intense, contorted faces in response to his own playing. He seemed more into the music than ever.

The second song was the superb “Party Lights” from the breakthrough album “Guit With It” (1993.) “There’s another kind of party lights that I can’t stand to see/ When there’s a man in that patrol car/ And he don’t want to party with me.” Nobody writes about the police and the American highway like Junior Brown, who looks like he could be a state trooper himself. He later played “Highway Patrol” (cue guitar sirens) and “Hang Up and Drive” a recent one (2012) about drivers and their cellphones. “Party Lights” was followed by one of my all-time favorites, the lesser-known “Lifeguard Larry.” This song is a slight but wonderful ditty about a handsome lifeguard who often performs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on girls at the beach. Junior’s sure, wry touch transforms this juvenile topic. “He’s the expert at pullin’ a girl out of the sea/ He’s doin’ his level best/ She’s breathin’ heavy from her chest/ And she don’t look like she’s hurt too bad to me.”

If “Lifeguard Larry” was a charming party-trick, the next song, “Hung it Up” was a sonic tour-de-force. Brief, rapid-fire verses were interspersed with dazzling, ferocious fretwork. Junior is a dyed-in-the-wool country guitarist, but he has big ears for all kinds of music. Well-known for throwing Hendrix quotes into his guitar solos, during “Hung it Up” he magically incorporated Miles Davis’s beautiful melody “Four.” (I had to ask Junior after the show to identify the tune.) Later Junior paid tribute to Albert King with a scorching instrumental blues. Throughout the show Junior demonstrated his delight in making cool sounds with an electric guitar. He strewed homemade confetti full of string-bending, chicken-scratching, wow-wow-swirling, harmonics-ringing, and beyond-the-nut plinking in and around his songs. He used no effects boxes. The way he made his guitar sound like a car horn was a masterpiece of mimickry. You could have sworn somebody was honking at you.

After this amazing start, the concert evened out, which was just as well. I was worn out from Junior’s intensity, plus the sound was too loud and piercing. I had to put napkins in my ears. Later highlights included the jaunty “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” about an old girlfriend who shows up unexpectedly. Between lines like ”It’s good to see you, baby, it’s been a long, long while,” he inserted dapper fills on the lap steel with astounding dexterity. One of the most poignant song was the more recent “Phantom of the Opry.” It is a minor-key lament from the point of view of an out-moded country artist who lives in the basement of the Grand Ole Opry. At one point the singer mentions a dream in which he was discovered in the basement “just like some episode from Scooby Doo. “ Leave it to Junior to work a goofy kids’s cartoon into one of his most personal and forlorn songs. “Am I the phantom of the opry/ Just a relic from another time?” he wonders. Junior Brown’s songwriting, singing and presentation is a relic from another time, the era of people like Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson and all the country greats who followed in the footsteps of Hank Williams. At the same time nobody else has ever, wailed on a double-necked, guit-steel guitar in a style that integrates country licks with surf, psychedelia, Chicago blues and bebop. He is the one and only and no relic, not by a long shot.

During the encore he covered “Better Call Saul,” which the band was going to perform for the Hollywood premiere of a TV show by the same name. The song had faux-Junior Brown lyrics that were funny-ish but lacked his light touch. After a quick “Sugarfoot Rag” Junior waved goodbye and threw guitar picks into the audience. Then as he walked off-stage, he pretended to throw the guit-steel into the audience. Don’t ever do that, Junior.

After the show Junior Brown stood by the front door, taking pictures with fans and talking with anyone who was interested. I told him it was the best show I’d ever seen him do. He said, “I appreciate that.”

January 21, 2015 – Iron Horse Music Hall – Northampton, MA