Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Steve Forbert Forges Ahead

How much of this past stuff are we gonna talk about? asks Steve Forbert with a mixture of weariness and wariness after being debriefed about his early days as a singer/songwriter. It’s fun, but it was 30 years ago. Even though his career has 13 albums and three and a half decades of history behind it, Forbert is all about looking forward, especially since album number 14, Over With You, has just been unveiled. Unfortunately for the antsy songsmith, you can’t tell a story by leaving out the first chapter, and Forbert’s entry into the music business makes for a rather fast and furious tale.

Before he made his way to New York in 1976 to establish his troubadour credentials, Forbert had led a different musical life in Meridian, Miss. I played in rock & roll bands for several years and I just began to get more and more interested in songwriting, he says. I realized I was probably not going to be able to remain as part of a band. Where to go and what to do, there weren’t many options in Mississippi. I went on the train by myself to New York, so I was pretty much in that mindset, I wasn’t looking to start another band. (more…)

Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Mark Eitzel Won't Be a Stranger

Mark Eitzel is almost pathologically disinclined to talk shit. Even in situations where it might be in his best interest to offer up some sort of self-serving statement, he seems practically honor-bound to push a pin into the balloon. For instance, in analyzing his upcoming release, Don’t Be a Stranger, the erstwhile American Music Club singer/songwriter admits his affection for the record but immediately follows up by observing that he usually hates his own albums. It’s hard to be subjective about the things you make, he explains. Actually, if I was a real rock person I’d say ˜No, it’s fucking great, it fucking rules, it’s the best thing the world has ever fucking seen!’ That’s what I should be saying. ˜This turd I just took is the best thing I’ve ever done.’ I respect people like that; we need them. No, we don’t, he recants, they become Presidential candidates.

So it’s no great surprise to venture into Don’t Be a Stranger and encounter songs like Oh Mercy, containing the wry lines I’ve got party talk for all your party guests/my topics include facism and rising crime/and when I outline the coming doom of the USA, well that’ll insure everyone’s good time. Despite having earned enough critical plaudits for his songwriting to fill a grain silo, Eitzel is similarly unsparing of himself in looking back at 2009’s limited-edition Klamath. I didn’t want it to be [a small pressing], he says, but I could only afford to make, like, 500 of them. The album’s genesis was me at a friend’s place in Happy Camp [Calif.], and it was so beautiful up there. The first piece I wrote was an electronic piece, to the absolute horror of my fans, but I really love electronic music, even though I’m no good at it. I wrote this electronic piece about a tree, and it started from there. At the mention of his earlier electronic-oriented album, 2001’s The Invisible Man, Eitzel says, That was another mistake. I’ve done a lot of electronic music but I stopped because the people who buy my records hate it with every fiber of their being. But I still make it for myself. I’m a songwriter, you knowI get booked at Americana festivals [laughs].”


Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Searching For Sugar Man With Rodriguez Documentary Director

In the late ˜60s and early ˜70s, you could scarcely swing a Gibson acoustic without hitting a great singer/songwriter whose work went unappreciated by all but a tiny cult following. Some of them got a second shot at fame in the ˜90s and ˜00s through reissues and revivals of interest”Terry Callier, Vashti Bunyan, and Gary Higgins are among those that come to mind”but no underground balladeer has been aided in their comeback by a high-profile documentary film. Until now, that is.

In 1970 and ’71, the Detroit-based songwriter who went only by his surname, Rodriguez, released the albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, respectively, on the Sussex label, which was probably most famous for the classic catalog of another streetwise ˜70s troubadour, Bill Withers. Like Withers, Rodriguez served up a sonic cocktail of folk and soul, but with a pinch of post-psychedelic rock flavoring. Rodriguez’s songs also mirrored Withers’ early work in their mixture of sociopolitical and personal themes. But the Mexican-American artist born Sixto Diaz Rodriguez didn’t achieve the renown of his labelmate, or any renown at all, at least not as far as he knew at the time. Like so many talented contemporaries, Rodriguez wasn’t able to work the game in his favor despite being a gifted artist, and his records basically gathered dust. 1971’s Coming From Reality would be his last recording.


Indie Rocker Brae Rocks His Way To Ernie Ball Grand Prize

Ladies and Gentlemen, let us introduce Brae. This Michigan indie rocker spent the better part of twenty years honing his chops on the drums in various Detroit outfits and, in a most Dave Grohl – esque fashion, left the kit behind to pursue the singer/songwriter role. He recently climbed atop the charts in January’s Ernie Ball Indie Rock Competition with his track Planks and Haystacks. Ernie Ball thought it worthy of their most awesome Grand Prize and decided to award Brae a year’s supply of free strings and accessories. Well done, friend. To see what all the fuss is about, check out Brae’s winning track and more in the playlist at the bottom of the post. To see him perform the song with his fresh new strings, check back to the OurStage blog in the coming weeks.


Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Sifting Through The Paul Simon Story

There was a lot of action in the Paul Simon world in 2011. In and of itself, that statement might not automatically signify much, since Simon’s album releases tend to be few and far between, and he’s generally more inclined to labor lovingly over his work than to flood the marketplace in a flurry of activity. Nevertheless, the past year has seen a steady flow of Simon-centered news regarding projects brand new, archival and curatorial. It all began with a bang back in April, when Simon unleashed his latest batch of songs, So Beautiful Or So What, his first new album in five years. These days, no one expects Simon’s albums”or anyone else’s, for that matter to”be doing Graceland-like business, so it was no huge shock when the album’s aesthetic excellence wasn’t quite matched by its (nonetheless respectable) sales figures. The important thing was that we had Paul Simon back in our collective bosom; here he was playing the snaky, sardonic “Rewrite” on late-night TV, there he was taking his band out on the road to greet audiences with Simon songs old and new. All along, it was lost on few pundits that the quintessential boomer troubadour, who mused “How terribly strange to be 70” back in 1968 would be achieving septuagenarian status this very October.

Whether the impetus was the big birthday, the new album or simply a certain shift in the psycho-sonic continuum, the folks at Sony decided that no one would leave 2011without the opportunity to immerse themselves in Simon’s solo catalog, kicking off an ambitious reissue campaign of deluxe re-releases encompassing everything from Simon’s self-titled 1972 album through 1990’s Brazilian-flavored Rhythm of the Saints. To top it all off, there’s also the Songwriter anthology, a double-CD affair whose first disc is occupied mostly by hits and signature songs, but whose second half focuses on the less-traveled pathways in the Simon catalog, concentrating on tunes that are mostly known only to hardcore Simon mavens.


Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Paul Kelly Knows His ABC's

In the US, Australian songsmith Paul Kelly‘s cult-hero status was cemented by a pair of late-˜80s A&M releases”Gossip and Under The Sun. Kelly’s concise, cutting lyrics and no-nonsense tunes suggested sort of an Aussie answer to Graham Parker, with the sharp, sympathetic backing of The Messengers revving things up in a rather Rumour-like way. Leaving The Messengers in the early ˜90s after two more albums, Kelly ultimately embraced his folk and country influences and pursued the rootsy, acoustic-based singer/songwriter path he treads to this day, having slowly but steadily expanded his American audience over the years.

In his homeland, however, Kelly is a national hero regarded with an almost Springsteen-level reverence, earning just about every honor and award the Australian music industry has in its power to bestow. But with the current ramping-up of Kelly activity stateside, it may finally be time for America to begin playing catch-up. Not only has he got a new eight-CD box set, he’s written a book as the box’s companion piece (also available separately), and there’s a comprehensive, two-disc anthology getting its first US release.

The box, The A-Z Recordings, had its genesis in a series of specially configured live shows. I started doing these A-Z shows about seven years ago, Kelly explains, where I do 100 songs in alphabetical order by title, over four nights, twenty-five songs a night. It’s a sort of theatrical show, with the letters up [on a big easel onstage] and storytelling, and intermission. I found that audiences really liked the idea. I started doing them once or twice a year and recorded the shows as I went. That led to the idea of putting out the recordings. We ended up making it an eight-CD set so we could match the nights evenly, four nights, two halves each night.