preservation, baby.


I’ve only been to New Orleans once, when I was 6 or 7 years old. We stopped there for a few days in the middle of one of those interminable family vacations: three weeks in the station wagon, Disney World, the beach, stops to see family and friends. This trip took us from Columbus to Florida, to Alabama, to Texas and then back home.

New Orleans was kind of an afterthought for me, in between the kidly wonderlands of Florida and the promise of a day in Mexico before we headed home. And yet, the best memory I have of that vacation is going to Preservation Hall with my dad.

I remember liking New Orleans a lot more than I thought I would. The cemeteries, with their crypts stacked above the moist bayou soil, were perfect for sparking the darker corners in the imagination of a young boy. Compared with the Scioto River in Columbus, the Mississippi River looked more like an ocean to me. I remember eating in deep courtyards dripping with vines and Spanish moss, which made the tiny area impervious to the clinging heat. I even remember, as I walked with my family down Bourbon Street, a vague sense that New Orleans might me a special kind of fun place to visit when I was older. Not sure what that said about me as a 6-year-old, but it was there.

But mostly I remember Preservation Hall. It’s in the French Quarter, but not in the midst of the craziness of Bourbon Street. I remember it looking and feeling old, even then. There was an iron gate thrown open wide, revealing a crowd inside the room. And at the front of the hall, illuminated by amber lights, were a group of musicians, ancient men, mostly black, all wearing jackets, shirts and ties, as impervious to the heat as the courtyard where I ate my lunch that afternoon.

It was all foreign to me, except the music, which I had been listening to for my entire life. My dad’s record collection was filled with dixieland jazz, just as collection in my grandparents’ house had been. As the band started and the trumpet and clarinet and trombone blended to form the night’s first melody, Dad hoisted me up on his shoulders so I could see — and though I was a thousand miles away from Ohio, I was home.

* * *

I still haven’t been back to New Orleans, and for much of the last seven months I have wondered if I would ever get the chance. I knew that the French Quarter fared pretty well through two hurricanes and the subsequent floods, but the people — who have as much to do with making New Orleans what it is as the European architecture or the spanish moss or the Mississippi River — were no longer there. I wasn’t sure it would ever be the same.

For me, there was one additional concern: Preservation Hall was closed. From what I could gather, the closure was less an issue of flood damage than one of finding people to play; as was the case with many of the city’s musicians, the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band lost their homes. Many moved, and haven’t moved back, because there’s nothing to move back to: No homes, no jobs, no bands.

And since September, no Preservation Hall.

Preservation Hall, as an institution, dates back 45 years, but the music it was intended to preserve is nearly a century old. And it’s important, boys and girls — it’s not an exaggeration to say that American Music was born in New Orleans, with the syncopation created and perfected by Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet and Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong and a host of others whose names we’ll never know. New Orleans music has had a hand in everything — everything — we listen to today. And since September, music in New Orleans has almost died.

* * *

The organizers of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival were determined that that this year’s show would go on as planned. And the Jaffe family saw the presence of extra tourists last weekend and next as a good time to try to get Preservation Hall running again. Last Thursday, the night before this year’s jazz fest got started, there was a private party in honor of Gibson, the guitar builders, who donated instruments to New Orleans musicians who lost them in the floods. And on Friday, preceded by a parade of the house band’s members through the French Quarter, Preservation Hall opened its doors to the public for the first time since last fall.

Of all the stories of rebirth in New Orleans this spring, that’s my favorite. But it’s not done. The hall and the musicians who fill it with music will still struggle once the jazz fest tourists go home. In the past, Preservation Hall had been open seven nights a week; the owners are going to try weekends only for a while, to see if they can make it. And that says nothing of the musicians and their families, not only those in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band but all those players who make New Orleans the most unique musical destination in the country.

I’m sure many of you have already given donations to the Red Cross or through churches or other groups to help the folks in New Orleans. And they need it. But here’s my challenge for you. If you have a decent-sized record store nearby, go take a look at the jazz section. Dial up Amazon and search for “Preservation Hall.” Better still, go directly to the hall’s web page and hit their store. You get to help, but you get something in return. Buy a CD, just one. I own most of the CDs that are available at the hall’s site, and they’re all good. Even if you’re not someone normally inclined to listen to jazz of any kind, I promise — I guarantee — you’ll find something to like on any of those discs.

For about 16 bucks, you get a shot of cool music. You get to give a little help to some musicians who need it and to an institution that’s dedicated to preserving their place in the world. And you get to do something no less than help keep history alive. In my book, that’s a bargain.

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no static at all.


For months now I’ve been meaning to write something about how cool I think XM Radio is. The satellite radio service came with our new car, and when the free trial was up in January, I not only subscribed but bought a second receiver for our other car.

If I had written this even a month ago, the review would have been glowing, despite a couple of customer-service gripes I had. Dozens of commercial-free music channels, Tony Kornheiser’s radio show from D.C., full-time ESPN radio — which means I never have to hear Mark Madden’s voice on the Pittsburgh affiliate ever again — interesting talk radio — including Air America — every Major League baseball game, Big Ten football and basketball radio broadcasts, traffic and weather conditions specific to Pittsburgh. What’s not to like?

Do I listen to everything available? Nope. But the dozen presets I have programmed in my car all get regular listens, and the Music Lab was chief among the music stations. That’s where XM featured its jam bands, and that’s where I spent most of my time, if I wasn’t listening to Kornheiser.

That’s what I would have said a month ago. Today, three days after XM yanked the Music Lab from its lineup, I’m finding that there isn’t as much to be happy about.

XM does a nice job of organizing its music channels by genre. There are stops for classic rock, classic alternative (what I call 80s music), acoustic rock, college rock, punk, metal, etc. And while you’ll find the odd Grateful Dead or Allman Brothers song on one of the classic rock channels, the Music Lab is like one-stop shopping for lovers of hippie music. And they got deep into the catalogue, boys and girls, playing stuff that has never and will never see the light of day on over-the-air radio.

And now it’s gone. OK, not exactly gone — it’s been relegated to XM’s online service, which makes it difficult for me to listen unless I buy a laptop and haul it around in my car.

From what I understand, here’s why the change occurred. As part of an agreement that XM has with Clear Channel, which was a big investor in XM at the service’s outset, a number of XM’s music channels must be programmed by Clear Channel, the conglomerate that owns nearly every radio station in the country, and according to an arbitrator’s ruling last year, those starions also must also carry commercials sold by Clear Channel.

I’ve said this before: Clear Channel = Pure Evil.

So XM is now duplicating some of the formats carried on the CC channels, in order to continue offering more commercial-free music channels than Sirius, its only competitor. And with limited bandwidth — jesus, don’t even ask me to explain how that works — XM has dumped some of the programming that offered a real alternative to terrestrial radio (programmed largely by Clear Channel drones) in favor of … say it with me, kids … the same kind of crap I can find on regular radio.

Examples? With the recent change, XM now offers five channels that play today’s hits; in other words, five stations that play what I can already hear on way too many regular stations in Pittsburgh or any other city in the United States. On XM, I can also now hear five stations that play contemporary country. And, living up to the fantasy of any good Yinzer, XM has three classic rock channels, because one station playing Styx and Boston just isn’t enough.

So where do I go when I want to listen to moe., Phish, Umphrey’s McGee, Galactic, Ben Harper, Robert Randolph, String Cheese Incident or Keller Williams? I won’t find my bands on commercial radio, with the occasional exception on WYEP, which isn’t commercial radio, here in Pittsburgh. I guess I have to start carrying CDs in my car again.

The change also makes little sense from a programming standpoint. If you take a cruise through a recent copy of Relix magazine, you’ll find a huge, diverse group of bands and musicians, and ton of people who are interested in them. Putting a jam-band station on the air would be practically brainless, and it doesn’t need to eat up any more bandwidth than XM was using already.

Ask the folks at Sirius — they still have a hippie music channel.

The whole idea behind satellite radio is to be different, to provide an alternative to what I can get for free. If no real alternatives exist, then what is the value of a subscription radio service?

The topper has nothing to do with XM, but it doesn’t help the situation. Kornheiser’s radio show ends next week, as Mr. Tony starts to rest up for his Monday Night Football gig starting in the fall. With no Kornheiser, and no hippie music, the question, albeit couched in a different context, is worth repeating: What exactly does XM offer that makes it a worthwhile investment for me?

I’m not the only one who has a problem with this. Look here, at an MSNBC column written a few days ago, about why this sucks. In the meantime, I’m still waiting for a response to an email I sent to them two days ago. I asked them the same question I just posed here; they seem to have no answers for me.

ready. go.

Sorry. Getting caught up with work, dealing with hangovers, taking care of business, just being lazy. Cooking. Eating. Rocking. Rolling. Zigging. Zagging. Sleeping. Waking. Baking.

And now I’m back.

While Uncle Crappy was away:

* Winter ended. That’s been part of my alarming lack of focus since I last posted. No more college football, and no skiing to take its place. College basketball just isn’t picking up the slack, and the Penguins and Blue Jackets both suck. Pray for snow. Soon.

* I’ve been delving deeper into the soundtracks of the Warren Miller films I own — and some I don’t — via iTunes. Pretty cool stuff. But it doesn’t make the skiing jones any easier to deal with.

* Did I mention college football? We’ve already discussed the Fiesta Bowl, of course. Sugar Bowl? Happy that WVU won, especially since The Coochie Doctor’s new husband has been so supportive of our cause, and he deserves a BCS win for his boys. Orange Bowl? Happy with the outcome, but just an ugly freaking game. And I couldn’t help but think Ohio State would have kicked the shit out of Penn State if we had played in January. Rose Bowl? Wow. Vince Young? He’s good, and coming out to the NFL now is the right decision for him.

* Some of you are aware of the Groundhog thing. Info is coming soon. I promise. Keep the first weekend in February open. Spread the word.

* Remember my mention of the kick-ass chef’s knife I got for Christmas? I finally put it to use yesterday, while I prepped to make a Thai stir-fry kind of thing for dinner. The recipe wasn’t as good as I had hoped, but using a knife that feels that good in your hand is pure pleasure.

* Really. I meant it about the knife.

* I just got the XM Radio unit I got The Wife for Christmas up and running. I’ll never be without satellite radio again, boys and girls. If you haven’t tried it for yourself, Uncle Crappy gives it his highest recommendation.

* Work? Getting caught up. Dead bodies. Municipal-level bickering. Pretty much the same as it was last year.

* My picks in this year’s office Dead Pool: Ariel Sharon, Lady Bird Johnson, Patrica Kennedy Lawford, Ronnie Biggs and Karl Malden. Wish me luck.

* Via several friends, we’re about to be overrun by new babies. Uncle Crappy is available for light playing, babytalk and singing the occasional Grateful Dead song. But don’t look for me to change any diapers. It just ain’t happening.

* This year? There’s changes coming. I’m cautiously optimistic.

OK. We’re ready to go.

different.

On Friday night, The Wife and I attended a class reunion of sorts. We didn’t really know anyone there. But we still knew everybody pretty well.

For about a month, I have been holding tickets to a WXXP-FM reunion show at the Rex Theater on the South Side. The Wife had always raved about the Double X, an alternative station on the air in Pittsburgh for just a couple of years in the late 1980s, and the folks who worked there – as well as people from the local bands who got their first and best exposure on the station – had been working for almost a full year to put together a reunion concert this weekend.

The really big deal for The Wife was the promise of an hour-long set from the Affordable Floors, a Pittsburgh band that teetered on the precipice of stardom into the early 1990s before it all blew up. For as long as we’ve known each other, I’ve had standing orders to buy Drumming on the Walls, their second album, if I ever came across it in a store or online. She had only seen them once, at some kind of free show at Point State Park, but had heard them a bunch – on the Double X, as you might imagine.

I was hoping to keep this a surprise until we walked up to the Rex Friday night, but I knew she would see stuff about the shows in the PG or the City Paper the day before. She found out, just like I thought, but wasn’t any less excited.

I was impressed by the Floors, who sound like REM with a new-wavey twist. The Wife tried to be cool for a song or two, but was soon standing in front of the stage, pogoing along to the music. After the Floors were done, a all-star group of musicians who played in local bands of that era re-created the XXP playlist on stage. Covers of Depeche Mode, Madness, The Smiths, Siouxsie, B-52s, New Order … stuff that I didn’t listen to much at the time, but have come to appreciate since … And they played and played and played …
This station was a huge deal in Pittsburgh, because the big FM station in town, WDVE, never played local bands, and almost never played anything but the kind of classic rock you find on the big FM station in any decent-sized city in the country. Back then, Pittsburgh was (and still is) a Led Zeppelin town … but there were still plenty of people looking for something different.

In fact, that was the station’s tagline: It “Dared to be Different.”

XXP was it. A college-radio format on commercial radio. They never got the numbers – which is part of the reason they were on the air for about two years — but they sold out every show they promoted, and they found plenty of people who were looking for something different.

And I think every one of those folks showed up at the Rex on Friday. The Wife and I weren’t the oldest people there, but if you think about the target audience of a college-radio format in the late 1980s … and then you do the math … you can imagine a theater full of 40-year-olds trying to dance for four hours. Yeah. By the time we left, around 12:30, the crowd was looking as thin as some of the hairlines onstage. And there was The Wife, griping about her aching knees…

No matter. A celebration of what was probably the last era of truly original music. A high-school reunion in a room full of strangers. My real high-school reunions tend to serve as reminders of my advancing age. This one made me feel like I was 21 again.

bovine.

The beauty of a bar band is that on any given night, you can walk in, grab a seat in the back and for a cost of a few bottles of beer, you can see a performance that will change your life, the kind of thing that caused Jon Landau to start raving when he found a guy named Springsteen playing in clubs in New Jersey in the early 1970s.

Or you can go to the Greenville Inn in Chagrin Falls and see Skinny Moo.

Friday was the first chance The Wife and I had to see DD’s cover band, in part because we wanted to see them at the Greenville, a classic dive bar not actually in Chagrin Falls. Putting a bar like the Greenville in Chagrin would be like opening a salvage yard in UA: “Hm. We don’t approve of that kind of thing around here…”

DD plays the keyboards. The lead singer is Jay, who is as adept as Juan at making up lyrics on the fly. The guitarist seems like a quiet guy, belying the fact that, from what I understand, he has played in every single metal band in the history of Northeast Ohio. The bass player took prodigious grief because he had been hit on by a guy at a recent gig. And then there’s the drummer, Chaz, who was delighted by the surprise birthday party held for him before the show began. I’m told he turned 67 on Friday, although he doesn’t look a day over, say, 43. And maybe not even that.

Skinny Moo sells themselves with the tagline “funk ‘n stuff.” And that’s about as dead-on a description as anything I could come up with. A good bunch of old funk — Sly and the Family Stone showed up in the set list a couple of times, I think – some Stevie Ray Vaughn, some Motown tunes, a few more recent things. But the really cool thing is that the Moo isn’t content to play covers — they like to fuck around with arrangements and segues, coming up with some bizarre combinations that actually work. My favorite was using an AC/DC song – “Hell’s Bells,” I think — as a segue into, say, a Sly song.

Look — I can’t get into a ton of specifics because Friday night was a little hazy. But here’s the truth about all that fucking around: It takes good musicians — and a good band — to pull it off, and Skinny Moo pulled it off all night.

And then there was the drinking. My night didn’t start off with dinner, despite the fact that I was pretty hungry when we arrived at the bar. Instead, it started off with a shot of Jagermeister, while HP and friends drank an assortment of shots: lemon drops, straight Jager, Jager bombs, cherry bombs… The Wife seemed to be the only one to forgo the liquor, instead settling for a steady diet of Dortmunder Gold, which was in abundant supply. That first shot was my only, but I kept up with the beer until it became clear that I was going to be driving the HP’s truck home from Chagrin.

But not before the table dancing — my first since an ugly night at my one and only sorority formal in Nelsonville. I was having Hanger Five flashbacks all night long.

We stopped at White Castle on the way back to Lakewood, and ate dinner on the HP/DD front porch at 4 a.m. The ladies went to bed first, while DD and I stayed up until about 5 just talkin’ shit. The four of us had a killer breakfast at The Place To Be and while HP left for more drinking at Kamp Krusty and DD melted into the couch, The Wife and I took a spin around Lakewood’s arts festival and then headed home.

Actually we headed back to Chagrin for a stop at Chuck’s, a beer and wine shop we found last summer. We stocked up, got back on the turnpike in time to see an ugly-looking cloud that could have been in the area of the nuclear power plant a few minutes west of where I work, but was instead a fire at a magnesium-processing plant near New Castle. (Kind of a bummer for the folks directly involved, but later on it seemed to produce the coolest sunset we’ve noticed all summer…) Since we didn’t have to worry about a holocaust in western Pennsylvania, we settled down with some fancy beer on our porch. We didn’t hurt ourselves too badly this weekend — not like we did when DD and HP visited Pittsburgh, at any rate — and Uncle Crappy can confidently give his stamp of approval to Skinny Moo.

big city blinking.

There are plenty of reasons why Pittsburgh is a cool town in the summertime, not the least of which is the ridiculous amount of really good free music. Allegheny County Parks hosts free shows at two parks every Friday and Sunday, and the Three Rivers Arts Festival hosts an unbelievable lineup for the duration of the two-week show.

Which brings me to the Wilco show I saw last night at the Point. I discovered Uncle Tupelo late, after the band was done, and I immediately aligned myself with the Jay Farrar camp — I found Son Volt to be closer to whatever Ideal I had in mind. I don’t regret that; the first two Son Volt records are classics and the third has a ton of just staggering moments … Even Farrar’s solo records, though more challenging, include plenty of stuff to dig into.

After discovering Uncle Tupelo, I also bought copies of Wilco’s AM and Being There. Cool records both, but I found Wilco — and Jeff Tweedy — to be a little bit too pop for my tastes. I never heard more than a song or two from Summerteeth, and while I loved the Mermaid Avenue records, I didn’t think they were especially representative of what Wilco was about.

Even after reading everything about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I didn’t bother to pick up a copy until about a week ago, to prepare for this show. That’s when I first had an inkling: I could have been horribly wrong about this.

And then last night, Tweedy might just as well have kicked me in the head when Wilco came on stage: “Pay attention. We’re going to take everything you think you know, run it through a lap steel and a fuzztone guitar and leave you crying like a baby.”

And he would have been right.

The pop sensibilities are still there. After hearing a couple of the tunes from the upcoming A Ghost is Born, the wife turned to me and asked if I was hearing the Beatles as well. Yep. Bouncy piano, nicely layered, two guitar thickness … these could be Sgt. Pepper outtakes.

But that’s just a tiny portion of the repertoire. Ten songs from Ghost, and most share, at least on stage, the sound of YHF: Distortion, the aforementioned fuzztone, feedback that reminds me of the Sonic Youth show I saw at the Point a year ago and big hairy monster riffs that seem to propel each tune to a life of its own. The hooks are still there, but they’re not easy to find sometimes.

That makes the reward that much sweeter.

Since last night, I’ve been stuck on the song “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” from YHF. On the record, the buildup is cleaner, fading in, alarm clocks ala Dark Side of the Moon, looking for the melody and then finding it, suddenly, as Tweedy starts to sing… Live, it starts to build in the same way, but it keeps building, past the subtlety of the studio version … huge noise, without sacrificing beauty, concerned parents looking around. It came up in the setlist right after “Heavy Metal Drummer,” the poppiest song on YHF, and provided a nice counterpoint to the closest thing to a singalong all night.

Here’s a setlist; thanks to the folks posting at ViaChicago, the band’s online community page:

Company in my Back/Hummingbird/Ashes of American Flags/Heavy Metal Drummer/I Am Trying to Break Your Heart/War on War/I’m Always in Love/Shot in the Arm/Hell is Chrome/Theologians/At Least That’s What You Said/Muzzle of Bees/Poor Places/I’m the Man Who Loves You/The Late Greats

encore one: When the Roses Bloom Again/One by One/Sunken Treasure/Handshake Drugs/California Stars

encore two: Spiders (kidsmoke)/I’m a Wheel

Wilco’s a great band. They’re even better live (and a live album would bear this out…). As soon as I’m done with this, I’ll be sending an email to Jay, a taper who said he’d get me copies when he got the chance. Not-very-patiently waiting, for those, and for Ghost, which is released two weeks from tomorrow.

Anyone know to get that ringing fuzztone out of your head?