Rock Cantatas

I don’t know what a “cantata” is, or what other term to use, but hearing “Jungleland” twice in one day on E Street Radio made me think of all the long-form rock songs that define an artist and elevate the genre. Many have a key change and/or tempo change or maybe seem to but are just long. They are not just a melody but a journey. They demand to be listened, not danced, to. (In fact, a defining criterion is you can’t dance to them.) I will list them in no particular order, giving me a place to come back to when another one comes on the radio and augments this category.

“Jungleland,” Bruce Springsteen
“Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” Billy Joel
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen
“Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf
“Taxi,” Harry Chapin
“Low Spark of High-heeled Boys,” Traffic
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Crosby, Stills & Nash
“American Pie,” Don McLean
“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” The Who
“Magic Carpet Ride,” Steppenwolf
“Question,” The Moody Blues
“More Than A Feeling,” Boston
“Come Sail Away,” Styx

Cowboy Junkies

Kudos to the Cowboy Junkies for staying together for 35 years, putting out records consistently along the way. Their sound hasn’t changed, a credit to Margo Timmins’s 62-year-old voice. As expected, their live show featured more up-tempo and louder songs than their best records, which can mellow you almost to sleep. They may be a cult taste, in which case much of their cult was in attendance at the Lobero. A pleasant evening, nothing sensational.

Graham Nash

Graham Nash brought two hours of musical memories to the Lobero Theater last night, from “Bus Stop” with the Hollies to “Better Life” from his 2023 release, Now. I give great credit to an 81-year-old who is performing five nights a week on a tour through the U.S. and the U.K., hitting the high notes and performing as rock star, not a nostalgia act. (And his new record is not at all bad.) But it was nostalgia that carried the night. With two exceptions, however, the songs were never my favorites. In fact, one of the crowd-pleasing highlights, which also lifted my spirits in comparison, was Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With,” which I hated at the time for its cynical message. One common thread of Nash’s own songs, which I had not noticed, was their narrative nature. They told a story or had a message–no “moon/June” or breakup tears. A highlight of the evening was Nash’s introductions, telling stories about how he came to write each song. As for the two numbers that count among my favorites, “Wasted on the Way,” a 1982 CSN hit, was damaged by the over-amplified or poorly mixed sound system. Instead of the clear voices and fine harmonies one expected, the first half of the concert, especially, was raucous and muddy. When called back for a second encore, Nash and his two backups did a sweet a cappella rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Every Day” and then, as I wished and predicted, ended with “Teach Your Children” from 1970.  More exactly, they let the audience end the evening by singing the final lines, “And know they love you.”
July 17, 2023

Diana Ross

At 79 her voice is still clear, crisp, loud and silky smooth. Diana Ross’s “Legacy Tour” was truly devoted to her legacy, with videos of her earlier career and Motown contemporaries filling the screen in place of any shots of her current self performing. Diana was in the full diva mode she rose to within the Supremes, then leaving them behind, as we were treated to four costume changes in the course of the 1:45 performance. I was never a fan of her post-Supremes music, but most of the sold-out Santa Barbara Bowl clearly was, singing along with The Boss, Endless Love and the equally endless Upside Down. For the wife and me, the first set made the evening worthwhile: Baby Love, Where Did Our Love Go, Stop! In the Name of Love, You Can’t Hurry Love and Love Child (note a theme here?) sounded better live than on the radio, a demand to dance, which we did. Her new album, Thank You, is not bad, at least in the non-disco numbers, and the title track served as a memorable encore, something I hummed all the way to our car. You have to respect what she has accomplished as a Black woman in the music business, and we glimpsed her human side when she brought seven of her eight grandchildren onto the stage, which made us think this concert was special for her too.

Dylan’s Philosophy

If it weren’t already trademarked, copyrighted and patented, Bob Dylan’s new book could have been titled, Riffs by Bob, for that’s what The Philosophy of Modern Song is–in spades. He takes 65 songs–not greatest hits or his own favorites, just 65 songs–and riffs on a subject in, or suggested by, the lyrics. For example, “I Got A Woman” by Ray Charles opens with the line, “I got a woman, way across town, she’s good to me.” Dylan picks up on “way across town” and riffs on that long ride, the hassle of traffic, the hot afternoon sun, the thoughts going through the man’s head, the way excitement has given way to routine. “It’s not like he was gonna be great company either after driving way over town.” And the final kicker: “Desire fades but traffic goes on forever.”

After he riffs, for many of the songs but not all, he offers a history lesson, or an essay in musicology. And these flabbergasted me. I’m not surprised that Bob Dylan is a student of music, especially early blues and other influential sources, but even so the range is overwhelming. The most songs are from the 1950s, when Dylan was learning his craft, but he also writes about three songs from the 1920s. And in addition to blues, he covers doo-wop, pop, country, soul, punk, barbershop, Broadway and every blade of Americana. And by “cover” I mean he gives the inside story, something I’d never heard before, something I don’t know where he got it. But that’s nothing. Beyond music he puts songs in their context: what else was going on in America. Open any page and you come across a subject someone had to research: what drugs truck drivers were taking in the ’50s to stay awake; the travails of the Santee Dakota Indians; the myth of lemmings perpetrated by a Disney nature film. Maybe Dylan had a bunch of interns doing the research for him. I can’t see how anyone could write this book without working on it full-time for years–yet Dylan, all the time, is writing and recording songs, endlessly touring, and even painting.

The book is a tour-de-force, but I’m not sure it’s much more. I know a lot of songs, but I didn’t know a third of Dylan’s selections, and if you don’t know the song his riff isn’t all that interesting. In fact, the riffs are so similar–maybe written by ChatBot?–that you don’t want to read more than one or two at a time. Nor is the song selection terribly interesting. I mean, “Ball of Confusion,” by the Temptations? “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” by Cher? “Viva Las Vegas” by Elvis? My biggest complaint, though, concerns the illustrations, period photographs and posters. They are fantastic and evocative, but there are no captions, and the only photo credits are crammed microscopically onto one spread at the back of the book. How can Bob Dylan, a consummate artist, be so dismissive, so cavalier, about the intellectual property creations of other artists? When was the last time a book jacket’s back cover flap was blank? And I don’t even know who’s pictured on the book’s cover!

Cat Power

A sonic assault is how I’d describe Cat Power’s powerful indeed show at the Lobero. Singing in the dark, spotlight-free, and with two mics in hand, she scorched her songs, backed by a three-person band that sounded like ten. Touring in support of her “Covers” album, she deconstructed familiar songs by the Rolling Stones, Byrds, Jackson Browne, Frank Sinatra (“New York, New York”) and probably others I didn’t recognize, eliminating any obvious melody but building a tune just above a drone.  Liking something to hum along with, I wondered at first what I was doing there; but the mood took over and the sound reached inside me. I can’t imagine that any of this would sound good on a record, but in person the performance was hypnotic and I enjoyed myself. Maybe not as much as the dedicated fans around me, but it was another good Santa Barbara experience.  (9/9/22)

The Head and the Heart

I was expecting a battle of the bands when one of my favorites, Dawes, opened for The Head and the Heart at the Santa Barbara Bowl on August 18, 2022. Both bands were formed in 2009; Dawes has released eight albums (including Misadventures of Doomscroller last month) and H&H five (including Every Shade of Blue in April). But Dawes’s hits (defined by airplay on the Spectrum channel) came early in their career, while H&H’s successes have been building, which likely accounted for their order on the bill.

In the event, it wasn’t much of a contest: Dawes came across as the kids on the block, while H&H were the real thing. For starters, Dawes’s new songs (including “Ghost in The Machine,” “Someone Else’s Cafe” and “Comes in Waves”) were a letdown. The storytelling was a bit labored and the melodies dragged. They segued into “Time Spent in Los Angeles” for their second number and pleased me with other hits, including “Things Happen,” “When My Time Comes” and”All Your Favorite Bands” (with help from H&H members), but I missed their classic, “A Little Bit of Everything,” that I had heard them perform both in Minneapolis and at the Lobero. Beyond the choice of music, Dawes’s appearance was unimpressive. There was little interaction among the five members, who stood randomly onstage; the bass player looked a stranger to the group, and lead singer Taylor Goldsmith bounced around goofily. And while I don’t expect hip rockers to emulate the uniforms of Rod Stewart, Dawes’s bland T-shirts stood in contrast to the collared shirts sported by all members of H&H.

When The Head and the Heart took the stage, after an inexplicable 50-minute intermission, the level of professionalism soared. The six members lined up in two rows of three and appeared purposefully engaged. An ever bigger difference was the sound. Somehow – was there a synthesizer or other electronic enhancement? – the Bowl was suddenly full of sound, and it never let up. I was worried that the mellow songs of H&H wouldn’t translate to an arena, but the energy and volume easily carried the day, even on my favorite, “Let’s Be Still.” I didn’t realize how much of H&H’s catalogue I knew, but everything they played in their 90-minute set had a familiar feel, and everything sounded good.

Movie Musicals

The emotional high point of our three-week trip to Verona, Venice and Florence came when I (re-)watched Jersey Boys on the airplane flight home. Seeing Christopher Walken do his old-man dance during the credits finale was as good as anticipated, the characters were individually memorable, and each Four Seasons song packed the power of personal nostalgia from its opening downbeat. And the experience inspired me to think, as I have before, what are my favorite movie musicals of all time? Note that I define this list as “favorite,” not “best.” My choices have little in common with the Best Movie Musicals lists you will find with a Google search. It is also impossible to rate them against each other, as they are mostly on my list for different reasons. Also, although I pretend there is a category of “movie musicals,” they represent entirely different genres. Some are film versions of stage musicals; some are documentaries about musicians. In some, songs are presented as songs; in others we have to suspend disbelief and pretend that characters break into song to express their feelings. But all of the following struck a personal chord.

Rocky Horror Picture Show Not just the only musical, but the only movie I have watched a half-dozen times (as well as seeing it on stage in London), its appeal has been long-lasting as well as personal. The actors are delicious (Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Meat Loaf!), the plot outrageous, and the cult around it empowering, but its lasting strength is the music: Richard O’Brien’s score is the only soundtrack, not counting HMS Pinafore, that I keep on my iPod, and there’s not a dud in the mix.

Nashville This has been my favorite film of the ’70s (and maybe more), forget the musicals category. Unlike RHPS, the songs here are all integral to the plot as songs, greatly facilitated by the Nashville setting. Robert Altman was the film director of the ’70s zeitgeist, and this is his masterpiece. That the pale imitation La La Land almost won an Oscar is a reminder of how great was this wholly original ensemble piece.

Wizard of Oz This is the Citizen Kane of musicals, a universally acknowledged treasure that contends as the best movie ever, certainly the one most loved and remembered. The wicked witch, the flying monkeys, the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man, the Munchkins, the “wizard” behind the curtain and, of course, Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” are all a part of America’s collective consciousness. “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Bohemian Rhapsody I was not a fan of Queen, but this all-out, hard-living story made me appreciate their appeal. Every film cliche was here: misfit kid makes good, boys buck the industry for success on their own terms, success brings drugs and division, hero hits rock bottom, then whoof!, one of the great reunion concerts of all time.

Jersey Boys The movie was just as good as the Broadway show (unlike, say, Mamma Mia!). The fact that the Four Seasons were my favorite ’60s group (forget the Beatles) undoubtedly colored my response. The characters were differentiated and all given meaningful roles and we got to see how the music was made. The story arc was formulaic (see Bohemian Rhapsody), but there’s a reason it’s a formula: it works!

Once A simply charming romance that came from nowhere, with unknown, average-looking actors in a low-budget vehicle and a heartrending song, “Falling Slowly.” Here the normal path was reversed, as the suprise hit movie moved to the stage. I’ve give Once the nod here over the equally compelling Rent, only because the latter started, and was better, onstage.

End of the Century/No One Said It Would Be Easy/I Am Trying to Break Your Heart Documentaries about rock groups are as good as the groups they document, so it’s not fair to single one out as a movie, per se. No One Said introduced me in a big way to Cloud Cult; Break Your Heart memorialized the unconventional Wilco mid-career; Century was more a postmortem of the Ramones. For all three, it was their music that mattered.

This Is Spinal Tap

The Harder They Come I barely understood a word anyone was saying, but this not only introduced me to reggae music, it turned me into a lifelong fan. Its authenticity had a power that was hard to shake, and its songs have remained staples.

My Fair Lady I will let this stand in, also, for Guys and Dolls and Music Man, faithful translations of classic Broadway musicals to film, and not just because MFL is my favorite stage musical. Audrey Hepburn is a wonderful addition to the cast (even if Marni Nixon does her singing), and the ambiguous ending keeps my memory guessing. Rex Harrison, Robert Preston, Marlon Brando are three commanding presences, but Lady‘s songs are a notch above.

The Seventies

I had been reflecting on eulogizing the 1970s as the greatest decade for music in the Rock Era, or perhaps the last century, when I heard the very modern musician who records as St. Vincent tell James Corden that the inspiration for her new album was the period from 1970 to ’75.  Looking more closely at the decade’s discography, I realized that she was more astute than I. 

Until 1968 I collected singles on my Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was the spring of my senior year in college that a record-club offer lured me into purchasing my first three albums: Buffalo Springfield, Bee Gees’ First and The Percy Sledge Way. Then I was off to North Africa with the Peace Corps for two years. When I returned, there had been a revolution, not least in popular music, where FM stations with diverse playlists had superseded AM Top 40. Following Bob Dylan’s breakthrough example, songs could be any length, about any subject, sung by any voice. The music scene was about to explode with creativity, and I was ready to start buying records. Which I did.
When we moved from Minnesota in 2013 I donated my entire record collection, first to my friend Mike Bennes from the museum and the leftovers to the Deephaven Library, but the memory of each album cover lingers fondly. In the essay that follows I will focus on records I once owned, each listed in boldface followed by a favorite cut. Maybe it’s just a reflection of my taste, or that I was going to law school and had the time and need for music; but look at the names that follow and try to tell me that the early ‘70s wasn’t a Golden Age, if not the Golden Age, of rock’n’roll.

I don’t know when I bought The Circle Game (’68) by Tom Rush, whether it was before or after Africa, but it was the perfect transition from the Cambridge coffee-house folk scene of the Sixties to the Singer/Songwriter Era of the Seventies. On it, Rush sang three songs by Joni Mitchell, including the classic title number, two by James Taylor, one by Jackson Browne and two by Rush himself, including the haunting “No Regrets.” Although Rush never reached the same heights as a songwriter, the others soon came to define an era.

In fact, I could end any debate about the significance of the early ‘70s before it begins by simply listing the long-running artists who came to prominence then, notably Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Elton John, Neil Young, David Bowie, Van Morrison, James Taylor. Their styles and songs differed, but they all had in common that they wrote their own songs. The Tin Pan Alley era was over; the songwriting teams of Goffin/King, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Leiber/Stoller were passé. Dylan’s example prevailed: you wrote your own songs and sang them yourself.

Billy Joel’s Piano Man was released in ’73 and remains his masterpiece. In addition to the title track, “Captain Jack” and “Ballad of Billy the Kid” were instant classics. My love of this album caused me to look back and find Joel’s initial album, Cold Spring Harbor (’71 “She’s Got A Way”), which, in its innocence, was almost as good.

Jackson Browne was a precocious songwriter, known first to me as the co-writer, with Glenn Frey, of the Eagles’ first hit, “Take It Easy” (’72). I fell in love with his debut album, Jackson Browne [a/k/a Saturate Before Using](’72, “Doctor, My Eyes”), and have followed his work with pleasure ever since. For Everyman (’73 “These Days”) was a slight letdown, although it provides great concert material, but Late For the Sky (’74 “For A Dancer”) remains one of the all-time great records.

I knew Neil Young, vaguely, as a member of Buffalo Springfield, but his solo singer/songwriter career launched for good with After the Gold Rush (’70 “Southern Man”) and solidified with Harvest (’72 “Heart of Gold”). More than 40 albums later it’s still going.

I admit to not being a James Taylor groupie, but he was of a piece with the sensitive singer/songwriters of the day: Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, David Crosby, et al. I was introduced to Sweet Baby James (’70) in Beirut and did buy One Man Dog (’72) and Walking Man (’74).

Gordon Lightfoot was already a singer/songwriter in the Sixties, but he hit his peak in the Seventies with three lovely albums: Sit Down, Young Stranger (’70 “If You Could Read My Mind”); Don Quixote (’72 “The Patriot’s Dream”) and Sundown (’74 “Carefree Highway”).

Because his career has gone on so long, it’s hard to think of Bruce Springsteen in this cohort. Also, for many fans their appreciation began with Born to Run and the simultaneous Time and Newsweek covers in 1975. I was, however, immediately taken with Greetings from Asbury Park (’73 “Blinded By the Light”), when the rock press, incidentally, was hailing him as “the next Bob Dylan,” presumably because of his jumbling lyrics.

And while Dylan himself made his name in the Sixties, he released seven records from ’70 to ’75, including New Morning (’70 “If Not for You”) and Blood On the Tracks (’75 “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”), which I have often considered my all-time favorite album.

The Brits
From my perch in North Africa I could tune in British radio and, consequently, caught singles by both Elton John (“Border Song”) and David Bowie (“Space Oddity”) probably before either was big in the States. When I got home I snapped up every Elton John album as they came out, more than one per year. Elton John (’70 “Your Song), Madman Across the Water (’71 “Tiny Dancer”) and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (’73 “Candle in the Wind”) were favorites.

David Bowie’s Hunky Dory (’71 “Changes”) so wowed me that I went to Carnegie Hall the next year when he toured Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (’72 “Starman”). Bowie had great songs in years that followed, but never as good an album.

I didn’t connect with early Van Morrison (specifically his critically acclaimed Astral Weeks), but still consider Moondance (’70 “Crazy Love”) one of the five best albums ever made. None of the five albums that followed in the next three years approached that height, but I spent time with His Band and the Street Choir (’71 “Domino”) and St. Dominic’s Preview (’72).

In contrast, I was mesmerized by everything put out by Cat Stevens in these years, and there was a lot. Mona Bone Jakon (’70 “Lady D’Arbanville”) was followed by the great Tea for the Tillerman (’70 “Father and Son”), then Teaser and the Firecat (’71 “Moonshadow”).

Single Disc-ers
While the above artists had multiple discs in my collection, others spoke to me through only one record.

Lou Reed’s Transformer (’72) was his most (only?) accessible album and featured his signature song, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Don McLean’s Tapestry (’70 “Castles in the Air”) was sweet and soulful, preceding “American Pie.” After departing CSN&Y, Graham Nash brought out Songs for Beginners (’71 “Military Madness”). In a different genre, although just as much a singer/songwriter, Stevie Wonder hooked me with Innervisions (’73 “Living for the City”).

A subset of Singer/Songwriters for an obvious, or maybe no obvious, reason:

Joni Mitchell’s Blue (’71 “Carey”) is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest albums of all time. Carole King’s Tapestry (’71 “It’s Too Late”) ranks not far behind. In that same year Carly Simon released Anticipation (’71), a year before her classic “You’re So Vain.” Much later and very different but at the edge of this era, Patti Smith’s Horses (’75) blew me away on record and in person at Lincoln Center.

Progressive Rock
Picking up, perhaps, from Sgt. Pepper’s “A Day in the Life,” British groups explored symphony backing, extended tracks and general studio grandiloquence. The Moody Blues, my favorites, broke through with A Question of Balance (’70) and peaked in Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (’71 “The Story in Your Eyes”). Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick (’72) filled both record sides with one continuous piece of music. The Yes Album (’71 “I’ve Seen All Good People”) was made up of songs that could go on forever. John Barleycorn Must Die (’70) by Traffic was a prelude to The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (’71) with its almost 12-minute title cut. The culmination of the genre, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (’73 “Us and Them”), famously and deservedly spent 736 weeks on the Billboard chart.

Rock Groups
While individual artists were putting their stamp on the era, there were still the more traditional ensembles of guitars, drums and keyboard that, while not unique, gave depth to this era of rock.

Let’s start with Who’s Next (’71) by the Who, which featured two of the all-time great rock anthems: “Won’t Be Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley.” The Eagles established country rock with their first two albums: Eagles (’72 “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) and Desperado (’73 “Tequila Sunrise”). In the same genre, New Riders of the Purple Sage recounted The Adventures of Panama Red (’73 “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy”). Fleetwood Mac came on the scene with Bare Trees (’72 “Sentimental Lady). The Kinks charmed me with their idiosyncratic numbers, from Lola Versus the Powerman (‘70 “Strangers”) to Everybody’s In Show-Biz (’72 “Celluloid Heroes”) and Preservation Act I (’73). The Morning After (’71 “Looking For A Love”) introduced me to the J. Geils Band.

What I Missed
Despite buying a lot of records and having pretty broad taste, there were important albums I didn’t collect that should be mentioned in evaluating the greatness of this musical period. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (’71) is the most recent Greatest Album in Rolling Stone’s decennial poll. Led Zeppelin IV (’71) featured “Stairway to Heaven,” arguably the greatest rock song. The same year saw Sly & the Family Stone’s “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” (’71 “Family Affair”). The Rolling Stones put out their highest-rated album, “Exile on Main St.” (’72 “Tumbling Dice”). The title track of John Lennon’s “Imagine” (’71) is one of the greatest songs ever. And who knows what else I missed or am missing.

In Conclusion
It’s not just that so many powerful, lyrical, memorable voices came to public attention in these pivotal years (1970-73, in particular). For the most part, these voices, while they continued putting out records, never reached the same heights. Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Elton John, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens and these others seem timeless in retrospect, but in fact their magic all stems from around 1971. Fifty years later, I feel I was there when they arrived, and we’ve been companions ever since.

Top Ten Albums
Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan
Moondance, Van Morrison
Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen
Piano Man, Billy Joel
Late for the Sky, Jackson Browne
Blue, Joni Mitchell
Who’s Next, The Who
Horses, Patti Smith
Tea for the Tillerman, Cat Stevens
Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd


John Craigie/Chris Pureka

I took a flyer on two artists I had not heard of, based on the Lobero’s description and my faith in the Lobero’s scheduler. Indeed, John Craigie has a dedicated fan base that filled the auditorium; and although most were likely unfamiliar with the opener, also from Portland, they provided the best music of the evening. If I had to describe their respective styles, I would say Pureka was a direct descendant of Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers character played by Oscar Isaac back in 20013, and Craigie reminded me of Todd Snider, with songs that had just as much bite if a bit less musicality. Craigie’s website is subtitled, “Humorous storytelling, serious folk,” and certainly more minutes were spent doing stand-up generally and talking about the genesis of the next song than it took to actually play it. His manner was engaging and you laughed even when he wasn’t terribly funny or original. It was a good time. He deprecated his music and his guitar-playing, and afterward it was hard to think of anything I wanted to add to my Apple library. He didn’t play my favorite song from his most recent album, “Nomads.”
Pureka had a strong voice, catchy melodies and worked nice harmonies with Andy, their guitar accompanist. We could have been in Laurel Canyon in the mid-70s and fit right in. I tried to place Pukela’s voice, which was sharp but sweet, and seemed a notch or two above tenor but below alto. It wasn’t until Craigie referred to Pureka as “she” that I had any suspicion I hadn’t been watching a man. Wikipedia later informed me that Pureka “identifies as genderqueer,” a new term to me, but it certainly captures the non-gender-identity that they are apparently seeking. Whether man, woman or genderqueer, they played lovely throwback music of the moment.