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Entries in music (9)


A Rare Bird Indeed

Last Sunday, we saw perhaps the best concert I’ve ever been to.

Now, I’m not the world’s most experienced concert-goer, so that praise might mean less than it seems it should. But both Gwen and I were highly impressive by both the musicianship and showmanship of Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. The setup is straight out of vaudeville, with Steve doing the “egomaniacial but blissfully unaware front man” shtick between the numbers, and the band playing the straight man. It’s clearly an act — and a very well-done at that — because during the songs the entire group had a tremendous sense of ensemble.

I’ve been listening to their album Rare Bird Alert quite a bit over the last year, and I was happy see a mix of songs from that and other material. The Rangers also took the stage alone for a pair of beautiful songs from their new album. They closed the show with a tremendous version of Orange Blossom Special, complete with fiddle interpolations of over a dozen songs, including “Norwegian Wood”, selections from The Nutcracker, and the theme from The Simpsons.

The highlight of the show for me, however, came when Steve gave the band a break and played “The Great Remember”. His introduction, in which he explained the difference between Scruggs style and clawhammer playing, made clear his deep love for and understanding of bluegrass music — and called to mind an appreciation of the late Earl Scruggs he wrote just a few months before the legendary banjo player’s death. And as he sat there on the stool, alone on stage with his banjo, I could see the straight line from his teenage years working at Knott’s Berry Farm through the arc entire arc of his career and leading to that night. And it all made sense.


A Parallel World

The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain has a cover of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” that I’m kind of obsessed with right now.

This is yet another song in the chain of musically simple pieces of that have a far greater hold on me than they should. Part of that is the narrative: The improviser in me loves the triumph of the low-status protagonist, and high school-aged me relates to it — not to the Iron Maiden part, but to the crush from afar part.

A bigger part of it, thought, is the effect of re-contextualization. My theory of humor has a lot to do with violating expectations — but just a little bit and in a coherent way. So it’s odd to hear a group of ukelele players fronted by a female vocalist perform a piece about teenage angst — and even more so to hear “Lives on my block / Drives an Iroc” in a British accent. But it’s a farce played straight, as the Ukes never let on that they’re in on the joke. It has that in common with my favorite Monty Python sketches, like The Killer Joke, Nudge Nudge, or the Cheese Shop. They’re not completely absurd; there’s an inner logic to them that makes you think there’s a world in which they’re completely normal — it’s just that that reality is slightly adjacent to our own.


Perhaps Not So Inexplicable

I’ve written before about songs I find inexplicably perfect. Crooked Still’s “Orphan Girl” is another one of them.

Perhaps some of it can be explained by the band’s curious combination of style and instrumentation. Depending on who you ask, Crooked Still is a progressive bluegrass band, a folk ensemble, or a string band. This particular track’s lyrics and prominent banjo certainly would incline one towards that type of assessment, and lead singer Aoife O’Donovan’s vocal style always puts me in mind of Alison Krauss. Not a lot of bluegrass bands have a cellist, however, and at the time Hop High — the album “Orphan Girl” is from — was recorded, the group didn’t have a fiddler. So there’s certainly a sense of the exotic about it.

The song itself is not particularly remarkable. Its lyrics are simple and fairly repetitive. The chord progression is very close — if not identical — to Pacabel’s Canon, which means I occasionally try to sing the lyrics to Green Day’s “Basket Case” over it. Then again, I’m a blues fan, which means that I don’t demand a huge amount of structural variety from my listening.

And I think that’s where the real answer lies. I’ve talked before how I love to see performers take something and make it their own, and my collection of cover songs bears that out. One of the things about a simple musical and lyrical structure is that it leaves so much room for personal expression — and in fact that’s often all you have to work with. You can’t hide behind cleverness or artifice. I can’t help but be drawn to that kind of purity of expression.

Which applies equal well to the Leo Kottke cover of “Corrina, Corrina” that just started playing here.


I Can't Think of Christmas Without These


O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight!
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of Might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud, and majesty, and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.


The boar’s head in hand bear I,
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.
I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio.
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which, on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio.
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino


Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung;
It came, a flow’ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ‘twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind,
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind;
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When halfspent was the night.

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispel with glorious splendour
The darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God,
From Sin and death now save us,
And share our every load.

Merry Christmas, everyone.


Hallelujah (And More)

This weekend we got the tree. Sunday was the holiday beer tasting at the Merc. But tonight is my favorite Christmastime tradition: the “Messiah” Sing-along.

I have always loved to sing, and I did a ton of it growing up. Since college, though, I haven’t done much of it. I certainly haven’t done enough of it for my taste. Every so often I think about finding a group to be be part of, or learning piano or guitar so I could strike out on my own. I know that would take rearranging my priorities, and I haven’t quite made the commitment to do that yet.

So, one Tuesday evening every December, I pick up my score, head over to First Presbyterian, and hope that this is the year we finally pull off “Worthy Is The Lamb.”