Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Joan Baez at Herbst Theater

Joan Baez’s new CD Day After Tomorrow has been creating a bit of a stir lately. Produced by Steve Earle, with all-acoustic instrumentation and an all-star Nashville band—Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Viktor Krauss, Kenny Malone—the album is one of Joan’s best in many years and has even made Amazon’s Top Ten folk albums of 2008. But the recording pales in comparison to Joan’s live show and rockin’ new band: John Doyle on guitar and mandola; Dirk Powell on banjo, mandolin, accordion, and fiddle; and Todd Phillips on acoustic bass guitar.

I got to see them last week at the luxurious Herbst Theater in San Francisco. Joan sang some songs from the new CD (Steve Earle’s “God Is God,” Eliza Gilkyson’s “Rose of Sharon,” Elvis Costello’s “Scarlet Tide”) as well as many of her early folk classics (“The Lily of the West,” “Fennario,” “Joe Hill”) and some that she described as “what you came to hear” (“Farewell Angelina,” “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word,” “Love Song to a Stranger,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). Joan has a special affection for Steve Earle’s songs, which is perhaps not surprising considering their sympatico political leanings, and her versions of Earle’s “Christmas in Washington” and “Jerusalem” were highlights.

Joan onstage was charming. Though she looked a bit tired and frail (this is her 50th year as a performer), she pulled off the 90-minute show without faltering, injecting humor even at the end of a solo “Diamonds and Rust” (altering the final line “If you’re offering me diamonds and rust, I’ve already paid” to “If you’re offering me diamonds and rust, I got the Grammy”).

The new band was brilliant, creating a rich bed beneath Joan’s strong vocals, weaving punchy, spontaneous guitar and bass lines, colored by whatever instrument Powell had in his hand at the moment. Particularly nice were Powell’s Cajun fiddle on “Farewell Angelina” and Doyle’s solo guitar backup on “Christmas In Washington.” Joan and the band are continuing to tour this winter and spring. If you’ve ever had any affection for her singing and point of view and want to hear her with a great acoustic band, I’d recommend catching a show on this tour.

And oh yeah, I may be filling in for John Doyle on a few gigs this spring!!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Writing About Music, Pt. 2

I suppose that music is no less appropriate a subject for a writer than boating, flowers, suicide, marketing, teen pregnancy, vacation rentals, or any other subject that becomes a pretext for a writer’s self-examination/promotion. Often the accompanying photography (that accompanies writing-about-musician[s]) can be quite a bit more attractive. And I suppose that experts in any of these subjects may feel that writing-about-the-[subject of their expertise] is usually just as annoying and useless as I feel that writing-about-music is. But, still.

One problem with writing about music is that everybody has their own tastes in music, which may have been formed by actual listening but is more often simply the unconscious consensus of one’s post-pubescent social group. Much as political opinions/persuasions are often based on one’s parents opinions, musical taste is usually based on the tastes of one’s high school or college social scene. So any writer who writes about music that you would tend to even bother reading is probably going to have to be the kind of person you went to college with, or who went to the same sort of college you did, or who hung out at the same sort of bar/café/library/mall/salon/park/race track you and your friends did during the same general time period.

And because musical tastes are defined by a social group, most of whom are not musicians or musical experts of any sort, in writing-about-music there is no deference toward “experts”—musicians, etc., which is probably as it should be. I mean, it’s just music, right? Why let anybody (except, of course, your best friends in highschool/college) tell you what music to enjoy, anymore than you would let someone tell you what food to enjoy. Music is a sensual experience. But then, so is reading—at least for me. And there are literary experts, people whose taste you defer to simply because they can write better than you, or have read more than you, or have had some sort of literary honorific bestowed upon them. Now you aren’t going to necessarily agree with them, but if you stumble upon John Updike or Dave Eggers or Orhan Pamuk at a party, you’re going to ask them what they’re reading. And you’re probably going to go out and buy whatever it is they’re reading and try to read it yourself, if only so you can share to some extent in their world. But would you necessarily go out and buy the musical recommendation of someone like, I don’t know, Chris Potter or John Adams or Jenny Lewis or Mark Knopfler? Well, I probably would, in at least two of those cases, and yes you might too, which is why in some publications, including the newspaper of record, it is popular to have musicians write-about-music that they’re listening to, and . . . hmm, this isn’t going quite the way I’d intended.
--to be continued

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Writing About Music. Pt. 1

Writing-about-music is what I do, much of the time, especially when I need to make money and opportunities for playing music are slim, but it is a strange thing and rarely successful, except as a way for musicians and other overeducated liberal arts majors to make money. I hate to use the old “dancing about architecture” cliché, but it is, like many cliché’s, apt. Or rather perhaps, “dancing badly about architecture” is more appropriate. Because those people who do actually attempt to write about music--as opposed to those who manufacture writing-about-oneself-in-relation-to music or writing-about-the-lives-of-celebrity/musicians or writing-about-the-effect-of-a-celebrity/musician-and-his-activities-both-public-and-private-on-a-particular-social-aggregate, which is, of course, what most writing-about-music is or has become, at least, pop-culture-writing-about-music--will never really succeed. Writing-about-music will never convey or capture anything that music does; reading writing-about-music will never be more worth your time than listening to or playing music. Which may be why writers-who-write-about-music are probably better off not knowing much about music.

This pedantically begun screed is written in response to the receipt of a recent collection of music writing, published in book form by a music magazine that has recently succumbed to market pressures and “gone under,” surfacing a handful of months later as a website and book-a-zine (their word not mine). I would have normally have ignored such a book, but I was a sometime fan of this unnamed magazine, and was curious about its evolution. Not only that, but some of my friends were featured both on the cover and inside. I quickly grew despondent, however, as I scanned some of the articles, as I realized that none of this, though technically well-written, even approached the music that these people made, and inspiring me to attempt this even more ludicrous project: writing-about-writing-about-music.
--to be continued

Saturday, November 8, 2008

New Website

Since my old website became difficult to manage, I've switched to a wordpress site, and scottnyaard. com will soon point to it (I hope). I'll continue with this blog, and it will mostly be about "not me." The new website/blog will be about "me."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I Have a Dream

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

--Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963