Natalie Merchant

From the moment she started singing at the Bowl Saturday night, you knew Natalie Merchant still had one of the greatest, if not the greatest, female voices in rock (not that she admits to being a rock singer). With the power of a foghorn, the timbre of an oboe, her voice is a musical instrument; and the inclusion of a string quartet in the second half of her program reflected her own recognition of that comparison. (Her scheduled appearance with actual symphony orchestras on a 2011 tour, including a performance I was scheduled to see in Minneapolis until a lockout canceled the Minnesota Orchestra season, was even greater evidence.)

Unfortunately, her personal appearance and performance, like that of an orchestra cellist, didn’t add much to the sound. No longer young or sexy or waiflike, she dressed like a librarian and her moves, mostly twirling around, made me think she thought she was Stevie Nicks, but she wasn’t.

Her song selection was mostly pleasant, only occasionally stirring, and could have used more 10,000 Maniacs material, which is what the crowd was anticipating. On too many songs there were long bridges between vocals, which left us to watch her wandering around, instrument-less, onstage. In addition, she had a self-described “summer cold,” and the sight of her snorting nasal spray between songs was a bit of buzzkill. Spontaneous joy was in short supply, provided mainly by her guitarist, Gabriel.

In sum, the show was a good listen, but I never found myself caught up in the crowd’s enthusiasm.

[Santa Barbara Bowl, July 15, 2017]

Hall of Fame?

Although not averse to visiting should I get to Cleveland, I have never considered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to be a meaningful institution. The only “hall of fame” that means much to me is Major League Baseball’s, the oldest and by far the hardest to get into. Although imprecise, there are also established criteria by which candidates are judged: the number of wins for a pitcher, home runs or batting average for a hitter, etc. How do you rate musical performers? Popularity? Originality? Influence? Musical ability? Longevity? Equally mysterious, at least to the layman, is the identity, or qualifications, of the 600 “rock experts” who decide who is inducted. Almost every year someone is inducted who befuddles me, and this year, no exception, it is Joan Baez. She’s a wonderful singer, an admirable political activist and, see my review, a delightful performer. But did she have, as the judges supposedly require, “influence and significance to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll”? Come on!

To begin with, Joan Baez is not a rock’n’roller, which she admitted following yesterday’s announcement. She is a folk singer. Her principal pop music credits are cover versions of songs by Bob Dylan and The Band. So much for her “influence.” Is she the least qualified member of the RAFHOF? I think so, although a glance at the list of Hall members suggests some competition, mainly from Bobby Darin (1990), who, after the very minor pop classic “Splish Splash,” never sang another rock ‘n’ roll song in his life.

Very few performers can or ever will live up to the inaugural Hall class (1986) of Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, James Brown and, although we’re already slipping a little, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis. The following year saw the entry of clearly second-tier, but still very influential, performers like Bo Diddley and Bill Haley; but the inclusion of Eddie Cochran established that a singer need not have more than one “hit” to reach the Hall. Sam and Dave had two hits, but they made the grade in 1992. Janis Joplin must have been chosen in ’95 for her persona, as her music, take away “A Little Piece of My Heart,” is hardly memorable and barely listenable (my conclusion after seeing the movie “Blue”). The Young Rascals (1997) were a fine pop group in the late ’60s, but their songs hardly stand out from the work of a dozen other bands. 1999 saw the induction of both Del Shannon and Bruce Springsteen. If I were Bruce I would’ve felt insulted. Bonnie Raitt (2000) is a hard-working industry favorite but not much of a rock ‘n’ roller or commercial success. Ditto for Laura Nyro (2012) and Bill Withers (2015). In fact, those are three singers who routinely prompt me to change the channel. Leonard Cohen (2008) fits in the Joan Baez wing of the Hall, although he at least wrote his own music, and a lot of it. When you examine the output, however, of Ritchie Valens (2001) – “La Bamba” and “Donna,” that’s it – you suspect the voters are weighing diversity as a criterion.

The Sex Pistols (2006) refused to attend their induction ceremony, calling the Hall a “piss stain,” which of course fits their character like Dylan’s snubbing the Nobel proceedings, but I won’t argue. How much the Hall of Fame has now become a commercial product, with a need to have acts justifying the HBO telecast, I don’t know. This year’s other winners – and I’m thinking of Yes, ELO, and Journey, not Pearl Jam – had a signature song and a couple good records each, but it’s hard to distinguish them from, or rate them above, the ones that didn’t make it: the Cars, Zombies, J. Geils Band and Steppenwolf. All of them are a far cry from past inductees who would constitute a meaningful Hall of Fame: the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, John Mellencamp, the Four Seasons, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Eric Clapton. Then again, it’s possible that this year Tim Raines will get into the real Hall of Fame.

Joan Baez

What a privilege to spend 90 minutes listening to Joan Baez from the second row of the Arlington Theater (thank you, UCSB Arts & Lectures)! With appropriate song and still-beautiful voice and brief but intimate introductions, she took us back to 1959 coffee houses in Harvard Square and before, up through the draft-resistance and anti-war movement and into the present with her black T-shirt that read “Nasty Woman” on the front and “No DAPL” [Dakota Access Pipeline] on the back. The musical itinerary covered Paul Robeson and a Marian Anderson spiritual; Pete Seeger and a Woody Guthrie anthem relevant today (“Deportees”); her own Prison Trilogy and Diamonds and Rust, both also still relevant; nods to modern songwriters Tom Waits, Richard Thompson and, less successful, Josh Ritter; classics she has made her own, House of the Rising Sun and The Boxer; and never far away, Bob Dylan, here in It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, With God on Our Side and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. Just imagine all we have seen and all she has lived through, a person of principle never far from the action, injecting grace and art into sordidness, not least the campaign season we are suffering through.

In person she was charming, with her good looks aging but attractive, her trademark-sexy pixie haircut in place and, despite 75 years, the ability to stand and sing with nary a break and only an occasional sip of tea. Her retinue could not have been more down-home and honest: her “co-singer” was her personal assistant, short and heavy, underdressed; her roadie was a young woman in flats and a complementary white “Nasty Woman” T; her band, the “Bad Hombres,” consisted of her middle-aged son Gabe on percussion and a wizard instrumentalist who played banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, accordion and piano with equal virtuosity. He also happened to be the stepson of Joan Hartman, who is running for 3rd District Supervisor in Santa Barbara County; his request for our votes made the political subtext of the concert that much more real.

Baez’s voice has inevitably lost range from the days of her early ballads, but she knows better than to push it. She left guitar theatrics to her sideman but handled her own accompaniment, starting with the opening Love Is a Four-Letter Word, with remarkable ease. She was always comfortable with what she was singing and she made us comfortable, and more.

Top Ten Songs

In my Top 100, each artist is limited, fairly or not, to one entry. In partial compensation I herewith list my favorite ten songs for my favorite artists – a deep dive, if you will, into the music I like.

Bruce Springsteen

  • Jungleland
  • Glory Days
  • The Rising
  • Born to Run
  • Darkness on the Edge of Town
  • Badlands
  • Dancing in the Dark
  • Wrecking Ball
  • Blinded by the Light
  • Billie Jean

Elvis Presley

  • Don’t Be Cruel
  • I Want You, I Need You, I Love You
  • Don’t
  • Love Me
  • (Marie’s the Name Of) His Latest Flame
  • A Fool Such As I
  • In the Ghetto
  • Can’t Help Falling In Love
  • If I Can Dream
  • The Wonder of You

Jimmy Buffett

  • Boat Drinks
  • Changes in Latitudes
  • Fins
  • Cheeseburger in Paradise
  • Margaritaville
  • Fruitcakes
  • Unpopular Poet
  • The Captain and the Kid
  • The Weather is Here
  • Come Monday

John Mellencamp

  • The Authority Song
  • Jack and Diane
  • Hurt So Good
  • Cherry Bomb
  • Your Life Is Now
  • Minutes to Memories
  • Check It Out
  • Hand to Hold Onto
  • R.O.C.K. in the USA

The Moody Blues

  • Question
  • Emily’s Song
  • The Story in Your Eyes
  • Nights in White Satin
  • Your Wildest Dreams
  • I Know You’re Out There Somewhere
  • Lazy Day
  • Floating
  • The Balance

Jackson Browne

  • For A Dancer
  • Late For The Sky
  • The Load-Out/Stay
  • Running On Empty
  • Sing My Songs to Me/For Everyman
  • Just Say Yeah
  • A Child in These Hills
  • Somebody’s Baby
  • Song for Adam
  • My Opening Farewell

Bob Dylan

  • Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
  • Blowin’ In the Wind
  • Just Like A Woman
  • Like A Rolling Stone
  • Mr. Tambourine Man
  • You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
  • It Ain’t Me, Babe
  • Tangled Up in Blue
  • You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
  • My Back Pages

Bob Seger

  • Night Moves
  • Like A Rock
  • We’ve Got Tonite
  • Against the Wind
  • American Storm
  • The Fire Inside
  • Even Now
  • Hollywood Nights
  • Till It Shines
  • The Famous Final Scene

Billy Joel

  • Piano Man
  • The Longest Time
  • Only the Good Die Young
  • It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me
  • She’s Always a Woman
  • Why Judy Why
  • Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
  • The Entertainer
  • I’ve Seen the Lights Go out on Broadway
  • A Matter of Trust
  • Captain Jack

Ryan Adams v. Weezer

Back-to-back nights at the Bowl brought us shows headlined by Ryan Adams (Thursday) and Weezer (Friday). The first was perfect, the latter a disappointment. I only knew about a third of Adams’s songs, but I enjoyed every one. Scoring a walk-up seat in the center of the sixth row made Adams’s exchanges with the raucous crowd that much more enjoyable. He hardly looks the rock star, with unkempt hair falling over his eyes like a shaggy dog and wearing a Pretenders T-shirt; his music, which he writes, and his guitar playing say it all. I thought I had heard that he could be off-putting in performance, but he was down-to-earth, casual and quite funny. His ballads were warm and soulful and his rockers rocked. Then there were jams, which rolled along like the Grateful Dead. The Independent review today said Adams is playing the best rock in America, and I felt lucky to be there.

I knew more, and expected more, of Weezer, but their music simply didn’t translate to an arena setting. Their tunes are simple, flat ahead, and words are important. Their sound system overwhelmed them, with a humongous woofer shaking the Bowl, and it was hard to hear what they were saying. Their stage presence was static and the visuals behind them trivial. (Ryan Adams, by contrast, used colors and shapes that emphasized his music – above all, “Blue” – whereas Weezer’s pictures distracted.) Not once did I feel transported, and I left the four-hour concert well before it finished and before they played “Buddy Holly.”

Three tall, good-looking women called Nice As Fuck opened for Adams and played an enjoyable set, although much smaller than their headliner. Panic! at the Disco opened for Weezer, and it seemed their fans were more vociferous, if not more numerous. (Weezer attracted a lot of parent-age, memory-laden fans, who were more restrained.) Other than a pitch-perfect rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, their songs were full of energy but devoid of hooks or much in the way of melody. Far more preferable, to my mind, was the neglected show-opener, Andrew McMahon, who played the best songs of the night.

Arlo & Friends

Arlo Guthrie’s show at the Lobero on Thursday (4/8/16) was billed as part of his Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour. The tour is spanning three years, which may be testament to his advanced age (my own) or his commercial needs but also encompasses the three years that elapsed between the “massacree” in Stockbridge, MA on Thanksgiving 1965 and the record’s debut in 1967, about the time I was worrying about my own draft prospects. Arlo did a creditable rendition – “If I’d known then I’d still be singing the song 50 years later I would’ve made it a lot shorter” – with clips from Arthur Penn’s movie version playing on a screen behind him. As it has been a Marshall family tradition to tune in every Thanksgiving at noon, I was honored to finally acknowledge Arlo and his classic in person.

More than Alice’s Restaurant, though, the show was about Arlo’s family and friends. Best of all was Sarah Lee Guthrie, Arlo’s attractive 37-year-old daughter, who opened the show. She has a beautiful voice and charming stage presence and sang songs by grandfather Woody and friends of her father’s, notably Phil Ochs. Arlo, too, had a personal connection with each song, with nods to Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Leadbelly. As many others have recently, he mined leftover Woody lyrics for a “new” anthemic song. He explained how he got “City of New Orleans,” my favorite, from Steve Goodman in Chicago. Most moving was “Highway in the Wind,” written for his wife before he had met her, and dedicated to her memory as family scrapbook photos of her played behind. Seeing what she looked like when young explained Sarah Lee’s looks. Arlo’s shaggy looks, on the other hand, better matched those of his son, playing keyboard in the backup band. Wrapping up the family angle, Sarah Lee brought her husband and two young daughters on stage – it was a school night, but since they live in Santa Barbara…

The Rest of the Top 100


  • Aerosmith, Dream On
  • Lee Andrews & Hearts, Teardrops
  • The Band, The Weight
  • Bee Gees, I Can’t See Nobody
  • David Bowie, Changes
  • Laura Branigan, Gloria
  • Garth Brooks, Callin’ Baton Rouge
  • Jackson Browne, The Load-Out/Stay
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter, He Thinks He’ll Keep Her
  • Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah
  • Sam Cooke, You Send Me
  • Elvis Costello, Allison
  • Jim Croce, Operator
  • Counting Crows, Rain King
  • The Cure, Friday I’m In Love
  • Dawes, A Little Bit Of Everything
  • Del Vikings, Come Go With Me
  • Five Discs, I Remember
  • Five Satins, In the Still of the Night
  • Dan Fogelberg, Leader Of The Band
  • Four Seasons, Dawn
  • Norman Fox & Rob Roys, Tell Me Why
  • Michael Franti & Spearhead, Say Hey (I Love You)
  • Dean Friedman, Ariel
  • Norman Fox & RobRoys, Tell Me Why
  • Gear Daddies, Stupid Boy
  • Don Henley, The Heart of the Matter
  • Jesters, The Wind
  • Bill Joel, Piano Man
  • Alison Kraus, When You Say Nothing At All
  • Cyndi Lauper, Time After Time
  • Gordon Lightfoot, If You Could Read My Mind
  • Lovin’ Spoonful, Do You Believe In Magic?
  • Frankie Lymon & Teenagers, Why Do Fools Fall In Love?
  • John Mellencamp, The Authority Song
  • Mello Kings, Tonite Tonite
  • Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now
  • Moody Blues, Question
  • Moonglows, Sincerely
  • Old Crow Medicine Show, Wagon Wheel
  • Peter, Paul & Mary, Blowin’ In the Wind
  • Prince, Raspberry Beret
  • REM, It’s the End of the World As We Know It
  • Righteous Brothers, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling
  • Ronettes, Be My Baby
  • Skyliners, Since I Don’t Have You
  • Todd Snider, Alright Guy
  • Soul Asylum, Runaway Train
  • Cat Stevens, Father And Son
  • Survivor, The Search Is Over
  • Randy Travis, Deeper Than The Holler
  • USA For Africa, We Are The World
  • Van Halen, Jump
  • Jerry Jeff Walker, Mr. Bojangles
  • Weezer, Buddy Holly
  • Dar Williams, The Christians and the Pagans
  • Trisha Yearwood, She’s In Love With The Boy
  • Warren Zevon, Werewolves of London



A shout-out to the #1 Song of the Year on Sirius XM’s Spectrum station: S,O.B. by Nathaniel Ratefliff and the Night Sweats. Although the title is abbreviated, the song’s principal lyric is “son of a bitch,” sung in a raucously infectious style. How long ago was it that “son of a bitch” would not have been allowed on the air? Then there is the other lyric, “Gimme a God-damn drink.” Not to mention the apparent subject, desperate alcoholism. More significantly, no one seems to notice or care. I should add that the song is highly original, damn good and well deserving of its #1 ranking.

Florence & the Machine

If Joan of Arc were reincarnated today, she could do worse than finding herself in the person of Florence Welch, British rocker and star of Florence & the Machine, who performed at the Bowl last night (10/20/15). With barefoot purity, strong voice, handsome face and flowing red mane, Florence overflowed with charisma and could have led her adoring and mostly female audience happily on a crusade. She beseeched with her hands, expressive and politely tattooed, and flew back and forth across the stage and even into the crowd, with a skipping stride that glided weightlessly. Her slightly Gothic spirituality recalled Stevie Nicks in her prime, especially when she pirouetted, but Florence had more substance, both in body and in song. Her eleven backup singers and musicians were all uniformed in black; with a sky blue blouse and scarf that matched her eyes and a white silk vest suit, Florence stood out even more. She wasn’t just a lead singer; she was the show.

Her songs are heavy and generally avoid easy characterization: chanting, soaring, recitative then thunderous. She hit us with her best new song, Ship to Wreck, early in the set, which ended with her biggest hit, Dog Days Are Over. What Kind of Man was the lead encore. I didn’t know most of the others, but they were easy to follow, as most were anthemic and repeated themselves over and over. Her energy never flagged; she looked more beautiful and more powerful as the night went on and her communion with her fans grew. Like Jackson Browne and unlike Jimmy Buffett, to take two recent examples, you felt you were getting much more in the live performance than was communicated on record. If last night marked the end of my concertgoing for 2015, I can give out awards: Best Songs – Jackson Browne; Best Sound – Lord Huron; Best Performer – Florence Welch.

Buffett at the Bowl

[fusion_text]It doesn’t seem fair or nice to describe a Jimmy Buffett concert as “ho-hum,” but that is the word that comes to mind as I look back on his appearance at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Thursday night (10/15/15). Jimmy is so ebullient and appears to be having such a good time, you can’t help but sing, and when appropriate dance, along. As a longtime Buffett fan and regular listener to Radio Margaritaville on Sirius-XM, though, I felt I had heard the concert many times before – as, indeed, I had. It was not just that the songs were familiar, it was the arrangements, too. Whereas Jackson Browne made his old songs sound new, Jimmy’s old songs sounded the same.

It’s not his fault: most concertgoers would feel cheated if they didn’t hear Come Monday and Margaritaville. There were also plenty of adherents of A Pirate Looks at Forty and One Particular Harbor, although I am sort of tired of the latter. Five of my top ten Buffett songs were omitted, although I’m not sure how much difference The Weather is Here and Boat Drinks would have made. I suppose each of us could prepare our ideal Jimmy Buffett set, but I suspect Jimmy knows how to please the most people most of the time. New songs aren’t the answer. Workin’ n Playin’, his latest, and Blue Guitar, from 2002, were the only two I didn’t know, and neither had the magic of Fins, Cheeseburger in Paradise or Last Mango in Paris.

I should add that the video accompanying the concert was far and away the best I’ve seen. Three huge screens showed closeups of the performers and the audience that let me put away my opera glasses. Best of all were the shots of lapping waves and boats cruising the harbor that provided the perfect island feel for Jimmy’s songs. We could almost taste the Caribbean trip we’re taking in January. There were also a few shots of Santa Barbara which, along with Jimmy’s local references between songs, made the evening more personal.

In short, I love Jimmy’s persona and I love his music; it’s just that I didn’t love any of it any more after the concert than I did before.