Concert Highlights: Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox at Radio City Music Hall, 10/7/2016

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(Credit: Concord Music Group)

It was one of those nights where I wondered where I’d been all my life.

I’d never even heard of Scott Bradlee, let alone his Postmodern Jukebox Orchestra [PMJ]. But turn down a pair of tickets to Radio City? Never!

And that’s why I felt so stupid. After seeing the posters slapped on to the plywood surrounding a building site for PMJ’s Oct. 7 show, I hastily YouTubed them to see what I’d been missing—which is a whole lot. Turns out pianist/arranger Bradlee founded his ensemble (at Radio City, it comprised piano, upright bass, drums, three-piece horn section, a vivacious tap dancer and 20 or so stellar vocalists) in 2009, then began shooting YouTube videos of contemporary pop, rock and R&B hits in swing era, doo-wop, ragtime and Motown settings. He’s since accrued over 450 million views and over two million subscribers; when he came out toward the end and related how he started it all in a small basement apartment in Queens, he marveled at how he’s now brought PMJ to four continents and 30 countries.

Like I said, where have I been all my life? The show reminded me of Kid Creole and the Coconuts at their peak, i.e., the Coati Mundi Years: camp but highest quality original songs and performances, and while Bradlee’s PMJ songs aren’t original, their arrangements and performances most certainly are.

At Radio City, the set included songs from the just-released PMJ album Essentials, among them “Hey Ya!” (sung by Sara Niemietz), “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (Casey Abrams), “Seven Nation Army” (Haley Reinhart), “My Heart Will Go On” (Mykal Kilgore with Maiya Sykes and Aubrey Logan) and “Creep” (Reinhart again, with everyone in the hall waving their lit up cellphones the way they used to do with Bic lighters).

Reinhart, incidentally, finished third on Season 10 of American Idol and released a debut album for Interscope the following year (2012). Musical theater/pop vocalist Kilgore also stood out as the troupe’s terrific emcee, and while it’s not on the new album, I particularly enjoyed Logan’s “Bad Blood,” as it answered a burning question in my mind: What would a Taylor Swift song sound like if sung by a grownup with a grownup arrangement? The answer, at least in the case of Logan and Postmodern Jukebox, is great.

Bradlee recalled how at the beginning he played solo piano gigs at restaurants in Queens in front of a dozen or so people, but he made exceedingly good use of them. He clearly learned how to play most anything, any time, and demonstrated such by asking the audience to shout out names of artists, whom he then strung together in an impromptu piano piece of Prince, Bruno Mars, Queen (when he got to the “Mama mia” bit in “Bohemian Rhapsody” everyone sang it out) and even Super Mario Bros.

He also summed up the evening, and his brilliant Postmodern Jukebox Orchestra concept, thusly: “You guys decided real music and real talent is something that’s important to you–and I promise to keep doing my part.”

Artistic risk and Gene Sculatti’s Binary Theory of rock ‘n’ roll

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Usually I write something it’s pretty much over, unless I’m on the elliptical and my mind wanders, like the other day at the gym. For some reason I thought back to my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame piece from May. And then I was reflecting further on the definition of rock ‘n’ roll, and what “makes it so great.”

To recap, the RockHall, in responding to Steve Miller’s criticisms during his post-induction press conference, stated that what makes rock ‘n’ roll so great is that it can “ignite many opinions”–a characterization that I ignited as one big crock of shit.

I then took issue with Ice Cube, who said, also in his acceptance speech, that rock ‘n’ roll is neither instrument nor style of music, but “a spirit that’s been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop.” I didn’t care much for this definition, either, especially since he pointedly left out country, not to mention polka.

Like I said, not many country stars are in the RockHall, with Johnny Cash the only one coming quickly to mind outside of Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers-both inducted as “Early Influences.” Seymour Stein always argued for Conway Twitty, whose career began in the 1950s with the rock ‘n’ roll chart success of hits like “It’s Only Make Believe.” I’ll always remember my late, great friend Dave Nives, who held various marketing and a&r indie label gigs and correctly ascertained, after I brought him a CD by polka legend Eddie Blazonczyk, “This is real rock ‘n’ roll.”

What is real rock ‘n’ roll, then, or what we have called since the l970s, “rock”? I have little idea from looking at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, I thought, as I realized, with deep disappointment and mounting bitterness, that I’d only been on the machine for three minutes.

Then I drifted further into considering one of the main tenets of rock ‘n’ roll criticism, which these mostly old boys likely lifted from art criticism as a whole, that the rock ‘n’ roll artist must always take risks. As in crossing the street without looking? I wondered. As in throwing a pass from the one-yard-line on first-and-goal?

This is why I was never part of that old boys club. I never wanted my favorite artists to take risks. The Beatles could do it, for sure, but who else, besides, say Kenny Rogers?

Did I just say Kenny Rogers? Yes! By risk-taking criteria, Kenny Rogers is arguably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll artist of all time! The chronology: Houston native Rogers learned guitar and fiddle and played in a rockabilly recording band, The Scholars, in high school. He also recorded solo singles and performed on American Bandstand. Dropping out of the U. of Texas, he played bass in jazz combo the Bobby Doyle Three, and played bass on country star Mickey Gilley’s 1960s single “Is It Wrong.” He joined the Kirby Stone Four vocal group, then released a few unsuccessful solo singles before joining the successful New Christy Minstrels folk group–out of which the First Edition formed.

With the First Edition, Rogers scored the No. 5 pop-psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” hit in 1968 and others including “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,”
“Something’s Burning” and the distinctly country-flavored “Ruben James”–the band now billed as Kenny Rogers & the First Edition. Leaving the group, he then built a superstar country music career in the late 1970s and ’80s following the Grammy and Country Music Award-winning success of his No. 1 country hit “Lucille” in 1977; when it reached No. 5 on the pop charts, it also ushered in a remarkable country-crossover career generating a pair of pop chart-toppers in “Lady,” which was written and produced by Lionel Richie, and “Islands In The Stream,” his duet with Dolly Parton that was written and produced by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. He also worked with The Beatles’ George Martin and mainstream pop producer David Foster. Besides Parton–who also recorded Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man”–Rogers had hit duets with Dottie West, Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton, Carnes and James Ingram, Nickie Ryder, Ronnie Milsap, Anne Murray, Wynonna, Alison Krauss and Billy Dean, and Whitney Duncan. He’s been represented on the charts in one way or other the last six decades, while spinning off a successful acting career–most notably his series of TV movies based on his Grammy-winning 1978 hit “The Gambler.”

Really, the guy’s done everything any critic could ask for and way, way more.

But otherwise, lets look at The Ramones, for example. Sure I like the Spector-produced End of the Century as much as the next guy–that is, if the next guy likes it–and I always loved Road to Ruin‘s country-flavored “Don’t Come Close.” And don’t forget, I wrote the fist book on The Ramones (Ramones-An American Band, if I remember correct)! But really, I and you really just want to hear “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Beat on the Brat.”

Or Elvis Costello: Sure I love the country album Almost Blue produced in Nashville by Billy Sherrill, or The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet and Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach, or any number of other artistic excursions beyond “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives.” But I always hope that when he performs with the band in concert, he goes back heavy on his second album, This Year’s Model, his first with The Attractions, and far and away his most intense rock record.

Which brings me, circuitously-and I’m off the elliptical and back home now-to Gene Sculatti and the Binary Theory of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Gene Sculatti, truly one of rock’s great theorists, is credited by U.K. author Jon Savage, in 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, as one of the writers for the seminal rock magaine Crawdaddy who actually began using the word ‘rock’ to describe the new mid-‘60s experimental rock forms manifest on albums like The Beatles’ Revolver and Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. But what brings us to him here is his most brilliant Binary Theory.

Right up there with gravity, relativity and evolution, the Binary Theory—and I hereby admit that I’m pretty much a layman here, in terms of understanding such scholarly rock stuff—addresses the deceptively simple elemental principle that a rock artist initially does whatever he, she or it does (roots-rock, let’s say) and becomes successful doing so. They keep doing it the first few albums and tours, and then the success wanes. So they announce with great fanfare a new direction (dance music, let’s say), and enlist the top songwriters and producers in the field—but the ensuing record stiffs. So they announce a return to form (in our example, back to roots-rock) with even more fanfare (a.k.a. hooey), either admitting to the mistake of the failed new direction or more likely, blaming the record company and/or just-fired management.

“That’s the riff, yeah,” says Sculatti, taking a moment out of deep study in his ivory tower to talk down to a relative ignoramus.

“It’s important to distinguish the binary move, though, from such things as organic progressions like The Who evolving from lean, mean mods to arena-ready pomp-rockers, or mere trend-hopping, like the Beach Boys doing a 10-minute disco version of ‘Here Comes the Night’ off of Wild Honey, or the Grateful Dead doing disco on Shakedown Street. And it’s different from polymaths like Prince or Bowie, who could slip into new and different musical togs monthly and always wear them well.

“Then there’s the Stones, who pulled the binary as a canny, if brief, career move: ‘Oh, you think you know us only as noisy young rowdies? We’ll show you!’ Hence ‘As Tears Go By,’ ‘Lady Jane,’ maybe even ‘Play with Fire.’ And Elton, who starts as an earnest Band follower, all Americana’d up–but eventually realizes what a cul-de-sac that is and lightens up into the pop guy he really always wa,s i.e. ‘Crocodile Rock,’ ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,’ ‘Island Girl.’”

But “the real blatant binary cats are Kiss,” contends Sculatti, “who snag their biggest hit ever by momentarily abandoning bludgeon-rock for the reflective ‘Beth,’ and Alice Cooper. He starts out as a good solid rocker, gains some rep emphasizing the horror-show bit, but then–I’m almost sure pointed in this direction by management, who knew that songs about nightmares and dead babies wouldn’t get him into the Top 40–suddenly makes a complete U-turn and starts doing, and succeeding with, housewife-friendly ballads like ‘Only Women Bleed’ and ‘I Never Cry.’ I’m pretty sure I remember an interview with him later when he’d semi-retired and was doing the golf bit with Groucho: He said he could never go back to doing the immature shock-rock he’d become known for. Then, lo and behold, a few years later–and continuing well into the present day–he’s out there with the guillotine and all, right back where he started from.”

Sculatti kindly recaps.

“The binary is most often done by the act that dead-ends with whatever it first came to prominence with, so someone decides an about-face is the only rational move. Maybe it’s like Eno’s ‘oblique strategies’: Stuck for inspiration in the studio? Leave, go outside and stand on your head for 10 minutes or play hopscotch with the neighborhood kids–just do something different and your muse will return!”

Meanwhile, Sculatti, who’s also written for Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Creem, Billboard, Mojo and other publications while authoring books including The Catalog of Cool, San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip, Too Cool and the Kindle book Dark Stars and Anti-Matter: 40 Years of Loving, Leaving and Making Up with the Music of the Grateful Dead, is issuing Tryin’ to Tell a Stranger ’bout Rock and Roll: Selected Writings 1966-2016, in both paperback and Kindle editions on Sept 21. The book collects more than 60 pieces from his prolific career. He’s also a featured participant in the just-released documentary Ticket to Write: The Golden Age of Rock Music Journalism.

Concert Highlights–Nice as F**k at Bowery Ballroom, 8/1/2016

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(Photo: Chalkie Davies)

If they were just a flash in the pan, Nice as Fuck, or Nice as F**k, or NAF was a blinding flash in an intimate pan, based on the trio’s two rapid-fire 30-minute sets Monday night at the Bowery Ballroom, following two similar ones at the Deep End Club closing party Friday night.

NAF acutally formed earlier this year at Tennessee Thomas’s East Village boutique/community center, which the former Like drummer launched three years ago. Fronted by Jenny Lewis, NAF is a girl supergroup of sorts, with Thomas on drums and Au Revoir Simone’s Erika Forster on bass. Sharing the shop owner’s activism on behalf of progressive causes (it grew out of her involvement in the Occupy movement and became the home for activities concerning other issues like women’s rights and fracking), the band debuted at Bern NY Bern, an April fundraiser for Bernie Sanders at New York club Flash Factory. Thomas had supported Sanders mightily in the media—even including an interview on BBC Newsnight–and at her store.

“It’s hard to sustain a business on Peace & Love alone,” Thomas wrote on her Facebook page when announcing the Deep End Club’s closing concert. “For 3 magical years we’ve used [it] to promote peace & love. [It] has been our clubhouse & birthed NICE AS FUCK! The band has taken the message on tour, & what a beautiful note to end our east village experience on!”

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Deep End Club closing concert (Photo: Jim Bessman)

Indeed, it was in the store window that NAF wrote and rehearsed the songs on their self-titled nine-song EP, which Lewis released in June on her Love’s Way label. According to Thomas’s father Pete Thomas—better recognized as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer behind Elvis Costello—the EP was cut in some guy’s bedroom in one week at a cost of $1,000.

Tennessee noted the “very sad” news of the shop closing when called upon by Lewis to explain the NAF song “Cookie Lips” during the band’s Bowery Ballroom sets.

“It’s about getting ‘crumbs of affection,’” she said, “when you get crumbs of affection—like texting—and want the whole cookie!” Such a thing is sometimes possible, she exclaimed, citing “the good news” of Forster being six months pregnant.

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(Photo: Jim Bessman)

NAF had come out following a great mix of ‘60s and ‘70s records from Alix Brown, like Tennessee a great DJ, musician, activist and Deep End Club habitue. She was stationed at the back of the Bowery Ballroom stage, hidden by a throng of attendees on stage, too, and a big balloon “tree” tying in with the closing night Deep End Club decor; NAF, then, was set up in the middle of the floor, in about as small a space as the Deep End Club window, their gear placed before a big peace sign light fixture and sealed off by velvet ropes until just before the gals came out, so that when they did, there was no separation between populist band and adoring populace.

Tennessee played what was essentially a practice kit intended for Costello tour rehearsals, Pete said—a Sanders t-shirt covering the snare. It was small enough to fit in the Deep End Club window, and featured a bass drum head painted a light blue, red and white target by handyman Pete to match the store colors.

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(Photo: Sarah Tate)

NAF wore their customary green army fatigues, black berets, and “Nice As Fuck” t-shirts–as did many of the like-age young women surrounding them, some also wearing shirts emblazoned with the NAF motto “Give A Damn,” and all knowing all the band’s lyrics and singing along. Lewis, who contributed spare phrases and effects on a little keyboard, sang to everyone circling her and the others, even embracing one while singing. Especially on “Higher,” she resembled Patti Smith–otherwise it was a minimalist drum-and-bass sound, though quite a groovy one thanks to Tennessee and Forster. Pete rightly likened the overall sensation, visually and sonically, to that of an amphitheater.

Going through the entire EP in real time, NAF reminded me of Danny Fields and how he told me that a major reason he signed The Ramones (whom Brown played during her warmup) to management was that their sets clocked in at under 20 minutes. Even at a good 10 minutes longer, I’m sure he’d have loved NAF, who closed strong with the Ramones-like “Door” and “Guns” (its “I don’t wanna be afraid/Put your guns away” couplet made for an easy, committed singalong), and the thrice-repeated “NAF Theme”: “We’re Nice…as Fuck! Wish you…good luck!”—maybe their generation’s “Fish Cheer.”

And with that they smiled, flashed two-handed peace signs, and were gone—maybe for good. Forster’s having a baby, Tennessee’s taking time off, and Lewis “is going back to being Jenny Lewis,” said Pete. Of the show—especially the second set—he commented: “very inspiring.”

But Pete’s friend Joe Blaney, whose engineering credits range from The Clash to Prince, felt that NAF could still pick up where they left off at any time, and as Tennessee wrote in her Facebook announcement of her shop’s closing, “The Deep End Club will definitely re-emerge in another form in the future.. But thedeependclub.com in the meantime! Here’s to PEACE AND LOVE!”

Bessman Sideshow: J.Lo’s ‘Billboard Icon Award’

I could never understand the Billboard Music Awards.

I mean, it’s all sales, airplay and downloads chart performance-related, right? So if you’re already No. 1, why are you getting an award for being No. 1?

And if there’s more to it, I never even watched the show, and I sure never paid any attention to the charts—which now that I think of it, kind of begs the question, Why did Billboard keep me there well over 20 years as a contributor to begin with?

I’ll answer that in another section on this site at some point. For now I want to note that the Billboard Music Awards has gone off-the-charts in inanity, what with the announcement that Jennifer Lopez will be honored with what Billboard calls “the prestigious Icon Award” May 18 at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards in—where else?—the world’s music capital of Las Vegas.

Say what? Icon Award? Prestigious?

Like I said, I never liked the BMAs—rhymes with VMAs and CMAs, by the way—to begin with. That includes the Billboard Century Award—“the magazine’s highest honor for creative achievement,” according to Wikipedia, and named for Billboard‘s centennial in 1994. Yes, I had to look it up on Wikipedia, but it sounds like something Timothy White said, and I’m pretty sure that Tim came up with it.

Tim, of course, was the acclaimed rock journalist/author, famed for his Bob Marley biography Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, who became Billboard editor in 1991 and pretty much gave me free reign. He appointed me to the posts of Special Correspondent–the first in the trade magazine’s history–and Music Publishing Editor.

I always say that when Tim died in 2002, he took me with him. I was gradually stripped of my titles and unceremoniously dumped. At the end I couldn’t even get the album review editor to return an email. In the immortal words of Red Buttons, I never got a dinner.

But no, this isn’t sour grapes. I never liked the Billboard Music Awards to begin with. It seemed like such a blatant ruse to exploit the Billboard brand, not so much in support of the trade, which would have been legitimate, but at the expense of it.

As for the Century Award, it was a nice enough gesture, but again, designed to elevate the brand with a self-important title tying in with superstars who, while certainly credible, were also entirely predictable. During Tim’s lifetime they naturally reflected his tastes: George Harrison came first, in 1992, and was followed by Buddy Guy, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, Chet Atkins, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Randy Newman and John Mellencamp. Like them or not, it’s hard to argue with their merits, same with those who came after Tim–Annie Lennox, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty and Tony Bennett, up through 2006.

No Century Award was given from 2007 to 2010. The award was renamed the Icon Award in 2011—says Wikipedia—and according to a May 5 Billboard story on its website, is the Billboard Music Awards’ (they expand the acronym to BBMAs)—“ultimate honor.”

“The accolade recognizes lifetime achievement and an artist’s remarkable and enduring contribution to popular music,” the story said. “Lopez becomes just the fourth artist and the first woman, joining past winners include [sic] Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder and Prince.”

I’m sorry BBMAs, but grammar aside, that last line reads like a word relationship question on an aptitude test: “Which of these names doesn’t belong with the other three?”

“Jennifer Lopez is one of the most iconic performers of her generation,” commented Larry Klein, producer of the Billboard Music Awards, in the piece. “We are thrilled to honor her historic career with the 2014 Icon Award and will be on the edge of our seats lik [sic] everyone else when she takes the stage.”

Okay, we haven’t met, Larry—if I may call you Larry—and I’m sure you have no idea who I am—make that, was. But I contributed to Billboard every week for well over 20 years and I’m telling you now that I, for one, will not be on the edge of my seat “lik everyone else” when J.Lo takes the stage. I ain’t even gonna be watchin’! And I say this knowing full well—having read the article—that she’ll “grace the stage to perform with one of the night’s finalists Pitbull to premiere the official anthem of this year’s FIFA World Cup, ‘We Are One (Ole Ola)’ [and] give another debut performance on [sic] the night with a rendition of ‘First Love,’ a single lifted from her new studio album A.K.A., which is set for release on June 17.”

Please, people! I understand that these shows are all about ratings, and in the case of music awards shows, promotion. But like I always say about the Grammys, there’s plenty of other artists out there that are equally as good, if not better than, the ones they promote.

And no, this isn’t sour grapes, and I don’t mean to discount J.Lo’s huge commercial success–the elephant in the room–and maybe I’d still be at Billboard had  I cared more about that sort of thing. But iconic? On par with Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder and Prince? Please, Billboard!