Monday, October 31, 2011

Bill Bourne at The Pearl Company

It was a Saturday night, and I was home alone. The car accident I had been in the night before had left me a bit shaken. I only broke a fingernail, but I was having trouble settling. I thought about skipping out on the plans I had made to go to the Pearl Company to see Bill Bourne. It was starting to rain. Ah what the heck, I decided to go. A couple hours of live music could only help me feel better.
I made the right decision.
The Pearl Company is, just as it sounds, a gem in the middle of Hamilton. It's like a pearl, it doesn't sparkle diamondlike in the sun, but when the sun goes down the Pearl has an inner glow that warms the heart. Too bad more people don't take advantage of it.
While there are seats for almost 150 only a third of those were filled when Alberta's Bill Bourne took the stage Saturday night. He played an old blues on his battered Gibson. Then he called for the band, the Free Radio Band, to join him. Switching between the Gibson and a Martin (tuned to an open chord) he led the band through a career stretching journey. Moses and Brian on bass and drums comprised the solid rhythm section and Pa Joe (from Ghana by way of Toronto) played smooth jazzy guitar fills on his Stratocaster.

While the music was extraordinary, I really want to use this time to comment on the Pearl Company itself. As I walked up to the door Gary Santucci was on the street with a flashlight helping to park cars. Once inside Barbara Milne greeted me with, "Hi, David, it's been a long time!" How many venues provide this kind of personal service?
The merch table is right in front of you, with Bill Bourne sitting alongside playing his guitar warming up. A coffee pot brews on another table, which features tasty treats. Try the butter tarts! The walls are filled with art and photography. The performance area is behind a curtain. The seats are a collection of different chairs, a couple of couches, two banquettes...choose the most comfortable, the sightlines are all good, the sound is exquisite.
Barbara and Gary use the building for a variety of purposes. The first floor can be an art gallery, although Saturday night it looked like it was setup for a theatrical performance. The second floor is the concert hall. They live above that in a huge open space. It's called the Pearl Company because it used to be a factory where they made pearls. You can still see them ground into the wooden floors! But it will be the Pearl Company...the essential gem in Hamilton's treasure chest of entertainment. These people are committed to the arts, and to the city. If only the city was committed to them!
On Saturday night John Mellencamp was playing at Hamilton Place, Selena Gomez was at Copps Coliseum, Malawi singer guitarist Tony Bird was at Artword ArtBar, and the Pearl had Bill Bourne. Hamilton has a place in the cultural fabric of Southern Ontario, and The Pearl Company offers a gorgeous intimate venue that we should all use more often!
Here's the schedule for November!
November 4: Jazz w Andy Middleton Group
November 4: Art Bus
November 8: Jazz w Ernesto Cervini Quartet featuring Joel Frahm-
November 9: Emm Gryner & Colleen Brown
November 10: Rakish Angles
November 11: Art Bus
November 12: Kaleidoscope Brown: Brownman w Latin Jazz
November 17: Cam Penner
November 19: Ben Caplan w Charlotte Cornfield
November 22: Jenn Grant w Amelia Curran
November 24: Matthew Barber w Louise Burns
November 25: Jazz Connection Big Band w Paul Hoffert on Keyboards
November 26: Jon Brooks
November 27: Design Hope CD Launch

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Q. and A.: Ry Cooder on Woody Guthrie, Politics and a New Album

Ry Cooder’s been called a lot of things: A “musician’s musician” and a “musical archeologist;” a virtuoso of rock and blues guitar; and an explorer of international styles. But no one has ever labeled Mr. Cooder, 64, a folksinger. No one has accused him of singing protest songs and serving up social commentaries in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs or Bob Dylan. Mr. Cooder’s most recent album, Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down (Nonesuch), may change that perception.
It is an overtly political work rooted in his anger over the country’s financial collapse, the bailout of America’s big banks and what Mr. Cooder feels are senseless wars. Employing everything from Mexican country music to rock licks, he has written a series of scathing protest songs aimed at Wall Street bankers, Republican politicians, former President George W. Bush, anti-immigrant vigilantes and war profiteers.
The first track, “No Banker Left Behind” — a stomping old-time, jug-band tune — paints an image of bankers fleeing the country after “they robbed the nation blind.” Then Mr. Cooder sings a Mexican waltz-time ballad about Jesse James, in which the Missouri outlaw asks God for his gun back so he return to earth from heaven and take revenge on the bankers. “You lined your pockets well but I’ll see you all in hell,” Jesse James says before opening fire. Other tracks are political satire: in one growling blues tune, the devil is working as a political consultant for the Republican Party.
Mr. Cooder spoke by telephone recently from his home in Santa Monica, Calif., about his new album and how it came about. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation:
Why do you think more musicians aren’t writing protest songs these days?
I myself am not in touch with anybody, you know. I’m a hermit. I stay in my home pretty much you know and I sit in my chair and I do this because it’s what I like to do. There are a lot of people out there, playing instruments, more than ever before for sure, and they’ve got to be saying something. They must be. We may not get to hear them.
Is it risky for artists to take on such material?
I don’t know what risk it would be honestly. Risk of what? They can’t keep you off the radio because you’re not on the radio. You’re not going to be on the radio.
This album plays with some themes you developed in Chavez Ravine and My Name Is Buddy. But those were concept albums about times past, and this one is about current events.
What changed?
If you look at the Buddy record, the Buddy record could be about now. It was in the style of then, a more archaic style I suppose. Modest because it’s a cat speaking. We all know how cats think.
That album recalled the labor songs of the 1930s. Do you see parallels between the 1930s and today?
Well, sure. It’s only obvious, isn’t it? You can’t find solidarity in this country anymore and that was the saddest thing. It was what I had in that mind when I made that record. Especially with this voting business, about how they want to restrict voting and go back to Jim Crow time. That’s the most appalling thing of all. What else can you do but respond to this? Otherwise they paint you in the corner, you get angry and it’s very bad for your mental health.
There has been a nod to social justice in your work, going back to your 1970 debut album, when you covered Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi.” Does this sort of music hold a special place in your heart?
I always loved those songs. Woody Guthrie – I probably first heard him when I was 5. And those records and those photographs – the Farm Security Administration photographs – they made a big impact. I was intrigued by his voice. Of course, the guitar interested me. I was trying to learn them when I was a little kid. Somebody gave me a guitar. Gave me the Woody Guthrie records too. It was quite a package.
What do you hope people will take away from this album?
I’ve always said I’m just a guitar player from Santa Monica. I really believe that’s true. But I think that music has a contribution to make and if you ever saw Pete Seeger take a whole room and transform it into a collective mind, you know, where he could produce solidarity by making people sing with him, in four minutes, and it was a tremendous thing to witness. If you want to say do I think this is going to make an impact? I have no idea. I just do this because I like to do it.

By JAMES C. MCKINLEY JR. (originally published in Arts Beat, The New York Times)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ry Cooder, Los Angeles Stories (City Lights Noir, 2011)

Ry Cooder has written a book! Everybody’s go-to guy for bottleneck guitar has decided to write stories. He spent the first 20 years of his career navigating the history of American music. Then he worked for the movies. After that he helped the world rediscover Cuban music, he introduced us to the Okinawa sound, to the guitars of Timbuktu. More recently he wrote and performed a trilogy of albums about California. Chavez Ravine told the tragic tale of a community of Mexican-Americans, who were moved out of their neighbourhood to make room for Dodger Stadium. Then My Name Is Buddy presented us with a fable of a cat named Buddy in a Guthrie-esque odyssey through the Depression. This was followed by I, Flathead, which came packaged in a hardbound book which featured the lyrics to the songs, along with a novella to flesh out the stories. On a rare tour of Europe with son Joachim on drums and Nick Lowe on bass and vocals, the ‘merch counter’ offered t-shirts, posters and a hard cover book called Los Angeles Stories. The book came signed or unsigned. My copy was bought for me in Barcelona and mailed at great cost (the stamps covered the front of the envelope as well as the postage). Now two years later the book has been published in a popular trade paperback edition, by San Francisco’s City Lights Books.

There was certainly a sense of place and time in the tale of a door to door salesman who gets involved in a mystery by circumstance. It was a bit like a Raymond Chandler story. Maybe not as cleverly plotted, but rich in language, character and the essence of 1950's LA. Each tale has a title and a date, and early to mid-50s seems to be Cooder's oeuvre. Some of the stories echo each other as characters (or at least names) reappear. The links are tenuous except that they all take place in the City of Angels and all involve people involved in shadowy activities -- musicians, gun shop owners, pornographers, thieves, and all sorts of women.

Although it’s based on the kind of hard-boiled style of Chandler and the like, Cooder has his own voice, and if he had started writing sooner, might have made a bigger splash in the literary world. It might be too late for that. Bravo to City Lights for taking him on, and introducing him to a broader audience.
Who’s in that audience? Well, obviously, Ry Cooder fanatics will have to get a copy. Fans of hard-boiled fiction might want to give it a try, and anyone interested in the city itself, will find much to savour. The limited edition hardcover is all gone but the paperback edition is available anywhere books are sold.

This review has been updated from a review of the hardcover edition which appeared in Green Man Review.