Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why The Grateful Dead Are So Important.

This is originally from thread on the Discussion Board of Golf Club Atlas.

I've heard every criticism in the book about the Grateful Dead.  I'm a huge Dead fan, no doubt.  Yet beyond my obvious emotional reasons for liking the Grateful Dead, I have several logical arguments for why the Grateful Dead were (and still are) one of the most important bands in rock n' roll.  Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide review of the Dead's Two From the Vault gives an overview of what made the Dead so fascinating as a live band:

The preserve of a huge, insular cult accustomed to rendering its very real aesthetic discriminations within a context so uncritical no outsider need pay them the slightest mind, the Dead's music has disappeared into the mythology it engendered. They were a great band. But trying to convince an unbeliever is like trying to tell a stranger about LSD. Great drummers were hard to come by in the hippie era, and the Dead were too discursive to want one anyway--Bill and Mickey rocked out by revving tempo and volume and letting Pigpen take it away. But often the Dead's ruminations have content--they listened more responsively than any other band of the era. And on solos of over a chorus or two, Jerry Garcia stands as the era's most inventive guitarist short of Hendrix and Page. God they were a trip.

     Christgau makes several good points about what makes the Dead so appealing.  The Dead functioned well as a unit, and it is fascinating to watch old videos of the band to see how they interact with one another.  Furthermore, I agree with Robert Christgau's review of the Dead.  I am a devotee of Christgau's writings.  While I don't agree with everything he says, he's mostly right here.  Yet there so many other reasons to appreciate the Grateful Dead.

     The Dead invented the jam-band genre.  When they started playing psychedelic music in San Francisco in 1965, nobody else was doing what they were doing.  There were jazz acts that were stretching out on songs, but all of the major rock acts were still playing compressed, radio-friendly songs.  Bands like the Beatles disdained improvisation (John Lennon called jazz "shit music.")  Yet after the Dead began playing and developed their sound, other bands followed in the jazz vein.  By the end of the 1960s, the typical rock n' roll concert was changed forever, and musicians were now improvising and exploring musical ground never before seen.  While this style went out of vogue in the late 1970s, partially because lesser musicians tried to copy bands like the Dead, Cream, and the Allmans, it has resurged in recent years.  Every single one of the jam bands on the scene now owes something to the Dead for taking rock and adding jazzy, jam elements to it.

     However, the Grateful Dead was so much more than a jam band with decent jazz chops.  Listening to the Grateful Dead is an education in American music.  Each of the original band members came from a different musical background.  Phil Lesh was a classically-trained bassist and trumpeter who was interested in electronic music.  Jerry Garcia and perennial Dead songwriter Robert Hunter were folk and bluegrass musicians.  Bill Kreutzmann had a jazz background, while fellow percussionist Mickey Hart was interested in world music.  Pigpen was a blues fanatic, and Bob Weir would carry on his blues voice after Pigpen's death.  While the Beatles inspired the Grateful Dead to become rock-oriented, the band would always bring the musical backgrounds of its individual members.  That, combined with the psychedelic culture of San Francisco, created a melting pot of all styles of American music.

     Not only did the Dead come from an American musical background, but they played music that came from every corner of the American musical scene.  Robert Hunter wrote folk and rock songs that evoke vivid images of Americana, particularly the allure and troubles of the American West.  The band also paid tribute to their American influences in their cover selections.  They covered Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Derek and the Dominos, Martha and the Vandellas, James Brown, the Reverend Gary Davis, and countless others.  They also paid tribute to British artists who were devoted to American music, including Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones.  If you hear a Dead show, you hear the best of American rock, folk, country, soul, and blues, all infused with jazzy improv work that only improved through time for the band.

     The Dead played the best American music, and they preserved it through relentless touring for thirty years and by attracting a devoted following of fans.  When other bands from the 1960s were breaking up or assimilate to the music of the late 70s and 80s, the Dead continued on in their same style.  Sure, the Grateful Dead's sound evolved, and three concerts from 1968, 1972, and 1980 will all sound very different.  Yet this evolution had nothing to do with external trends in music.  When punk rock raged in the late 70s, the band was setting off on long, mellow musical journeys on a nightly basis.  In fact, 1977, the height of the punk explosion, is often considered the Dead's finest year in concert.  The band spent its years exploring new ground, trying new types of music, and constantly trying to improve.

     All the while, the Grateful Dead's fan base remained strong.  No band in American history has a such a large, close-knit, thoroughly devoted group of fans.  The Dead were one of the first bands to play two sets, giving their fans more music for cheaper.  They also extended personal invitations for fans to stay in contact with the band, such as the mailing list request in the liner notes of the "Skull and Roses" album.  This status allowed the band to carry on with the same method for decades and preserve great American music while others were ignoring it.  Furthermore, with the band's unique policy that allowed fans to tape and distribute shows, all of their music and its history remains today for people to hear.  No band, not even the Stones, has had such longevity.

     Even after Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, the remaining members carry on the musical tradition of the Dead.  There are now scores of Deadheads that have never saw a show but still love the music.  Fans still follow groups like Dark Star Orchestra and Furthur from show to show, knowing that, on any given night, it is possible to hear something they've never heard before and won't again.  With the band's oldest member, Phil Lesh, reaching age 70 in 2010, the band members are still searching and refusing to play the same show twice.  Most importantly, the jam movement of the 1990s has reinvigorated enthusiasm for the Grateful Dead.  Jam bands like Phish, String Cheese Incident, and Widespread Panic will continue to be influenced by the Grateful Dead and carry the tradition into the future.  Bands outside the jam band scene, too, continue to learn from the Dead.  Animal Collective released an album in 2009 entitled "Merriweather Post Pavilion," as a tribute to the Columbia, Maryland venue where the Grateful Dead played many shows.  The improvised and psychedelic ethos of the Dead is important for music in any genre.

     The Grateful Dead changed the live rock concert forever while still playing classic American music.  Additionally, they were the first rock band to incorporate jazz music into a genre that had otherwise avoided jazz completely.  The band defined a generation while continuing to inspire fans to the present day.  The Grateful Dead belongs on the list of great live acts with The Who, Bruce, the Allmans, and the Stones.  Whether you love the Grateful Dead or not, you should realize how critical the band has been in the development of American music.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Tournament of Champions at Kapalua: Golf Does Not Need Tiger

There has been talk in many circles that golf is declining.  I, myself, have been an ardent critic of new fads in the game.  I abhor laser yardage guns, winter rules, and, above all, golf carts.  Yet despite economic and cultural signs that the game might be in decline, I constantly find reason to be optimistic about the game's future.

     One moment that always rejuvenates my interest in the game is the start of the PGA Tour season.  November and December are always down months for me as a golf fan.  Schoolwork sets in, the days shorten, and snow and ice begin to blanket my Northeastern home.  In past years, my constant drive for improvement in my own game kept my thirst for golf high.  However, now that I have relinquished my dreams of winning the Masters by 13 shots, golf fades away with the warm weather at year's end.  It is not until the PGA Tour season's beginning in Hawaii that I renew interest in the game of golf.  In what has become a tradition, the first tournament of the year is always the Tournament of Champions at the Kapalua Resort's Plantation Course in Maui.

     The tournament is very unique in that it has both a limited field (only the previous year's tournament winners are invited) and a limited gallery following play.  Furthermore, the Plantation Course, designed by modern golf architecture geniuses Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, is completely different from most PGA Tour courses.  The fairways are landing-strip wide to accommodate massive elevation changes and a harsh, ravine-filled landscape.  Players are challenged not by artificial water hazards and gaudy bunkers, but by low-profile sand hazards and vexing ground features.  While the course is not particularly taxing for the world's best, the most creative players will succeed around the Plantation.  Unlike the slog that takes place at many professional tournaments, rounds at the Plantation are a thrill, both for the players and the fans.  In his post-round interview, after missing a lead-tying putt at the 18th, reigning US Open champion Graeme McDowell called the course "great fun."  Unlike the fascist setups of many modern courses that force defensive golf, the Plantation Course wants golfers to be inventive.  In short, the Plantation Course asks golfers to play shots.

     And shots were played at Kapalua.  The highlight of the week was Bubba Watson's second shot into the 18th on Thursday.  From a downhill, ski-slope lie, the swashbuckling lefty hit a driver "off the deck," cutting the ball some fifty yards from right to left.  The ball curved around the ravine that fronts the long par five, caught the downslope short of the green, and chased to within ten feet of the flag.  Watson then drained the putt for an eagle three.  The treacherous trade winds that constantly buffer the Plantation Course forced players into crazy situations.  Many tour pros hit fairway woods into the par-four opening hole, only to hit irons into the 663-yard finishing hole.  Young gun Jason Day, who was six under on his second round through 12 holes, hit six inches behind the ball on his drive off number 13.  The drive finished less than 150 yards off the tee.  Unfazed, Day hit driver once again to some 50 yards short of the green, then got up and down for his par.  The real fireworks of the tournament came from Robert Garrigus.  On Friday, he holed his second shot for eagle on the par 16th.  The next day, after starting three over through four holes, he finished strong, culminating with an long eagle putt on the 18th that hit the back of the hole, bounced up, then dropped in.  Garrigus nearly did it again on the 18th on Sunday, chasing a five-wood to 15 feet, only to burn the edge on an eagle putt that would have won him the tournament.

     Unfortunately, Garrigus lost to Jonathan Byrd by missing a four-footer on the second playoff hole.  Garrigus' loss can be attributed partially to his utmost regard for fans.  After finishing regulation play, Garrigus had time to kill until Byrd finished his round and potentially forced a playoff.  Most tour pros would head to the range or the putting green for some last-minute practice.  Garrigus decided to spend time signing autographs for eager spectators and talking to his family.  When he went into the clubhouse before the playoff, he explained that he had to get more golf balls.  He had given away all of the golf balls in his bag to fans.

     Garrigus is the sort of fellow that makes golf the great game that it is.  He is a reformed alcoholic whose comeback is inspiring to many.  He plays the game with a youthful enthusiasm, and he isn't afraid to show the emotion and nerves that other players hide.  Above all, he is a gentleman who puts others first and never complains about his misfortunes on the course.  Garrigus was one of many class acts on the leaderboard, from the tournament champion Byrd to the hard-charging McDowell, who fired a course record-tying 62 only to fall one shot short of the playoff.  Every player  exuded incredible class in both victory and defeat down the stretch.  In addition, they played with a zeal that recalls what makes the game great.  It was hard to ask for a better week of golf.

     This week's Tournament of Champions was a great example of how golf should be played at the professional level.  Since it was so idyllic, it begs the question, "why does golf need Tiger Woods?"  Since Tiger's meltdown last winter, the competition in the pro game has been markedly different.  After Phil Mickelson's win in the Masters, three new faces, who are all great players, by the way, won the year's final three majors.  Tiger struggled on the course.  Not only did he play poorly, but he comported himself like a loser throughout the season.  While players like McDowell talk about having fun, Tiger looks like he's miserable.  He is playing in tournaments at courses where most golfers would give a limb to play, but he looks like he's standing trial for aggravated assault.

     Golf fans should shy away from Tiger mania and look at all the good that is going on in the game.  Tiger does not make the game "cool" anymore.  He certainly does not set a good example for young golfers.  And, most disturbingly, he looks like he hates golf more than ever.  Fans need to recognize that there is great golf to be had beyond Tiger Woods.  Golfers, young and old, will find more inspiration in a great tournament like Kapalua than a report on Tiger's latest transgressions.  Golf does not need Tiger.  Instead, the game's ruling bodies need to support the respectable Tour pros that continue to compete at the highest level while focusing on the problems that still exist, partially because of Tiger, in the game today.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Dave Matthews Band--Before These Crowded Streets

As many of my friends know, I have a longstanding disdain for Dave Matthews Band.  But after one of my buddies suggested, rather jokingly, I'm guessing, that I review DMB's 1998 album Before These Crowded Streets, I decided to take the challenge.  After all, I have not listened to a ton of Dave, and I figure it will be worth it for me to review music I don't love at first listen.  As you might expect, parts of Before These Crowded Streets were a pleasant surprise, but other parts recalled the reasons why I dislike DMB in the first place.

     One of my problems with Dave's music is that his songs often have a similar sound, with driving acoustic guitar punctuated with sax, fiddle and guitar lines.  Yet, to be fair, many of the best recording artists appeal because they have their own distinctive sound.  Therefore, it would be unfair of me to rip on Dave Matthews for developing his own musical voice.  Many of the tunes on Crowded Streets have this sound, and, after listening to the album, I found myself really enjoying it.  I got into the groove of his signature concert songs, especially the funky love song "Rapunzel," which, powered by an infectious guitar-sax-fiddle riff, gets the album off to a rip-roaring start.  Other highlights include the soul-filled "Stay (Wasting Time)," the sweet-sounding "Crush," and the album's slow syrupy closer, "Spoon," which includes a guest vocal by Alanis Morissette.  The stock Dave sound is not at all grating.  It is very pleasant, letting the listener relax and slide into a different world.  The brief opening track, "Pantala Naga Pampa," tells listeners to forget about the outside world and follow the music.  For much of the album, the listener can do just that.

     Matthews, while not a great musician on his own, surrounds himself with an excellent supporting cast.  The late LeRoi Moore is phenomenal on saxophone, with his "Rapunzel" solo being a particular highlight.  Violinist Tinsley, Electric Guitarist Reynolds, and Bassist Lessard all make great contributions on the album's jazz-inflected tunes.  Drummer Beauford, while somewhat repetitive in his playing and therefore a bit overrated, is nonetheless solid throughout.  The best tunes on Crowded Streets have lush instrumental arrangements that recall the "wall of sound" from great recordings like Springsteen's Born to Run or the Stones' Exile on Main St.  DMB also gets great guest appearances from musicians like Bela Fleck and Greg Howard, whose Chapman Stick makes "The Dreaming Tree" that much dreamier.  On much of the album, DMB makes the most of its prodigious musical ability.  It is easy to see from the album why the band has built its reputation on extended live improvisation.

     Yet despite all of the positives of Crowded Streets, the album falls well short of being a classic.  Again and again I think back to the request of the first track, "come and relax now, put your troubles down."  When listening to the album, there were parts when I could follow those instructions.  Yet, it was impossible to do throughout Crowded Streets, which is, in a word, uneven.  After the promise of "Rapunzel," four of the next five tracks descend into murky depths that are entirely unenjoyable.  Matthews tries to deviate from his typical style on this tracks, and he falls flat on his face.  "The Last Stop" sets off on an overbearing journey through India.  The next track is slightly better, but even Fleck's tasteful banjo work on "Don't Drink the Water" can't save the tune from catching cholera.  "Stay" provides a much-needed interlude before the album plunges back into the darkest depths of Daveism.  "Halloween" stands as the album's worst track, with a weird contribution from Kronos Quartet and Matthews' constant howling combining to create what can only be described as vampire music.  Mercifully, the band climbs back out of its satanic depths on "The Stone," which features a rapid-fire acoustic riff and furious fiddle work.  Nevertheless, the music remains foreboding, and it is not until the 30-second interlude at the end of the song, followed immediately by Lessard's "Crush" bassline, that the listener is saved from eternal musical damnation.

      After the two long, ethereal songs, "Crush" and "The Dreaming Tree," the listeners groans as DMB returns to darkness on "Pig."  This tune is not as irritating as the earlier hellish efforts, and it would work well if more of the album was truly transcendent.  However, seeing as Matthews has already rumbled through four tracks of darkness, "Pig" is an annoyance.  Fortunately, the band finishes on a high note with "Spoon," but it is not enough to keep the album from being musically schizophrenic.  Matthews leaves his mellow comfort zone on several tracks.  It sounds like Matthews took all sorts of worldly music and tried to stuff it into a few tracks.  There is nothing wrong with a musician drawing on outside sources of music, but he must do so subtly to avoid alienating listeners.  Matthews has no subtlety in his use of world music.  He simply slops it down in the middle of the album without any warning.  As a result, the album lacks a clear voice or pattern.  All great art involves risk, and Matthews took one with his heavy world sounds on Crowded Streets.  But a risk is only good if it is calculated and has an eventual payoff, and the risks on Crowded Streets are neither.  The result is simply a group of songs, some enjoyable, some not, cobbled together to create an album with no clear purpose.

      The lack of direction on Before These Crowded Streets is made even more intolerable due to Matthews' delivery of the material.  Unlike fellow mellow rockers Mraz and Mayer, Dave Matthews is not blessed with extraordinary vocal ability.  While his style is unique, his unusual vocal phrasing is overwrought and sometimes downright annoying.  It is passable and even catchy on his best tunes, but it is obnoxious on his worst tunes.  Furthermore, his vocals sound so calculated that they appear to be without much soul.  As a result, much of the album fails to be the spiritual experience that Matthews seeks.  Overall, the best vocals on the album come from female guests.  This makes it hard to trust Matthews to make great music for himself in other settings.

      Before These Crowded Streets is, at times, very successful.  Heavy instrumental tracks like "Rapunzel," "Crush," and "The Dreaming Tree" are beautiful, and they do a good job of capturing the live sound and feel that has made the band so famous.  DMB is not afraid to extend studio tracks over six minutes, and this lack of restraint is refreshing.  The album also tries to keep itself through a series of unique musical interludes between songs.  Yet for all of the good in BTCS, there is plenty of murk and muck to turn off non-fanatics.  Dave Matthews Band does very well within its own style, but they become insufferable when they veer off to darker musical themes.  Much of the music lifts you up, but other parts weigh the listener down like an anvil.  Ultimately, BTCS has its highlights, but it also has several songs that should be avoided at all costs.

Final Grade: B-

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Zac Brown Band--You Get What You Give

Over my winter break, I've been interning at my parents' firm.  The part-time gig helps me make some money to gear up for my final semester of college.  I tell myself that the work is interesting (sometimes it is) and that it will be of help to me down the road.  So it's one of those jobs where you are more excited for it on some days and less enthused on others.  Being a Monday after a long solid weekend, today was a less enthused day.  I woke up at 9:20--egregiously early for college winter break--took a quick shower, got dressed, grabbed an armful of things for work, and trudged out the door through the bitter Upstate New York cold to my car.  It wasn't a particularly inspiring beginning to the morning.  That was, of course, until I put the key in the ignition and remembered what was in my CD player: Zac Brown Band's You Get What You Give.

     YGWYG is one of those albums that picks you up when you're down.  That's something you figure out when you first open the album.  The liner notes include Brown's recipe for Campfire Chili.  He and his Dad ran a restaurant before his band started touring, and this appears to be one sample of their home cooking.  The intimacy continues with the album itself.  The first song is a rocking number instructing listeners to "Let It Go," forget about the outside world, and focus on the music.  While the album's lyrics explore topics that are both mournful and joyous, the music is uplifting throughout.  It's an album that gets your foot tapping like only the best music can do.  Zac Brown, a relatively new face on the country scene, specializes in that down-home combination of country and rock n' roll that comes straight from the American musical heart.  While his first album, The Foundation, is loaded with hits, this sophomore effort shifts the aim from hit-making to homegrown.  The results are phenomenal, and they are inspiring for casual country fans and serious music listeners alike.

     YGWYG demonstrates the broad spectrum from which Brown draws his musical influence.  Brown has some roots in popular country and soft rock, and he shows it here through duets with legends Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson.  The former collaboration, "Knee Deep," evokes the idyllic island paradise that Jimmy Buffett idolized in songs like "Cheeseburger in Paradise" and "Margaritaville."  The latter, "As She's Walking Away," is the album's lone major hit.  Both songs go beyond the usual depth for country and pop rock, and "As She's Walking Away" showcases brilliant vocals from veteran Jackson and Brown alike.  If you like either Jackson or Buffett (I admit, I enjoy both), these tunes will definitely be a high point of the album.

     The pop aspect of the band's music might turn off some listeners, who will dismiss Brown as just another country artist.  Yet there is so much more to Brown's music.  Brown brings in elements of New Orleans cajun ("Settle Me Down," which rips off the beat from the traditional "Iko Iko"), funk ("Keep Me In Mind"), and classic country ("Cold Hearted").  The rest of the album demonstrates that the Zac Brown Band has two major things going for it.  The first is the strong influence of the great southern rock bands like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.  The second is something most modern country acts don't have: an excellent collection of musicians that always play together.  The former gives the band a tougher sound that is comparable to nothing on today's mainstream music scene, and the latter gives the band's sound a consistency that is hard to find on popular radio.

     Let's talk about the southern rock influence first.  Brown and Company exercise the southern rock ethos on "Colder Weather," and songs like the raunchy and hell-raising "Whiskey's Gone" and the honky-tonk "Make This Day" show that Brown's music goes beyond the normal radio-friendly Nashville music of today.  ZBB has an edge to it that the 70s southern bands had and today's country acts usually don't.  The jamming southern music of the Allman Brothers Band is present on "I Play the Road," which recalls Dickey Betts' classic road songs like Ramblin' Man and Jessica.  Its open-ended middle section is just one example of the exceptional musical talent that exists within the band, and it brings listeners back to a time when musicianship was acceptable in rock music.  But the ultimate tribute to southern rock comes with "Who Knows."  This tune is extremely unusual for a country album in that it stretches 10 minutes and features extended fiddle and guitar solos.  The song is an exposition of the music of southern rock giants Skynyrd and Allman, as well as lesser-known heroes like Marshall Tucker Band, The Outlaws, and Molly Hatchet.  I was absolutely ecstatic when I heard "Who Knows" for the first time because of both the quality of its musical content and what the song does to show how great those Southern boogie bands were.

     "Who Knows" also serves as the best demonstration of ZBB's musical ability.  The fiddle solo comes courtesy of Jimmy De Martini, the band's brilliant violinist who dominates the band's instrumental sound.  De Martini is equal parts Charlie Daniels and Mahavishnu Orchestra.  If you want some of his best playing, try "No Hurry," which Brown co-authored with country star James Otto, or "Quiet Your Mind."  The band also includes a pair of multi-instrumentalists, Coy Bowles and former John Mayer collaborator Clay Cook.  Bowles and Cook combine for an immense amount of musical talent, meaning that no song is too complex for the band to pull off with flying colors.  Finally, Brown himself is brilliant, bringing a full, soulful voice to the table that is somewhere between Ronnie Van Zant and Brad Paisley.  Brown is also an exceptional guitar player.  Check out a live version of "Chicken Fried" for some of his furious acoustic picking.  Finally, Brown writes all of the band's songs, mostly in collaboration with Wyatt Durette, meaning that the band always has a unified source of new material.

     YGWYG is an phenomenal collection of songs that cover several styles of wholesome, down-home music.  Yet the song's purpose does not become clear until one of the last songs in the album: "Martin."  This tune is special for a few reasons.  It is the only song that Brown writes solo.  The song features a guest appearance by guitarist Tony Rice.  It also includes the album's title phrase, "you get what you give," and Brown includes all of the song's lyrics in the liner notes to the album.  "Martin" is not about a family member, an old mentor, or a respected family member.  No, it's a song about all three: Brown's beloved Martin guitar.  The song reveals the album's theme: it's the music that matters.  Music is a part of who you are, and it keeps you going through good times and bad.  Furthermore, you can only get from music what you give to it.  The more thought and emotion you put into music, the more it will affect you and help you through the day.

    This is what You Get What You Give is all about.  Music, says Brown, takes you out of your day-to-day activities, and it gives you an outlet for your emotions, thoughts, and desires.  This album calms our everyday cares and concerns and shows there is a way out of darkness.  In a sense, that is what all music is meant to do.  The Blues talks about the struggle between man and woman and then overcomes that struggle with brilliant and blistering playing.  Jam music takes us on a journey where we forget about the world around us.  Country music paints a picture of that idyllic life which is so much simpler and peaceful than the one we are all living in today.  YGWYG uses all three of these approaches and many more to show how powerful music can be.  It cleanses us of the mundane, trivial concerns of life and gets in touch with our core emotions.  To steal a line from Patrick Swayze in Point Break, "it's that place where you lose yourself and you find yourself."  You Get What You Give is more than a collection of music.  The Zac Brown Band intends it to be a spiritual and loving experience.  From the campfire chili directions in the liner notes to the campfire closeness of the music, the album achieves this goal.  It keeps you going, whether you're flying or stumbling.  YGWYG is as good of an album as you will find in modern music.  Quiet your mind and enjoy the ride.

Final Grade: A