Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Quality time with A Tribe Called Quest, R.I.P. Phife

I listen to music constantly - anything and everything I can get my ears on. I'm an unabashed music glutton probably in need of some kind of therapy. It's safe to say because of this insatiable, uncontrollable urge - let's call it a disease - no artist is on heavy rotation in any device that injects this art form into my soul. Not Johnny Cash, not Brian Wilson, not The Cure, not Morrissey - my favorites. This is all the more reason I just had a WTF moment when I learned that the great Phife Dawg passed away at 45.

Phife, Q-Tip and their hip-hop group, A Tribe Called Quest, spent a better part of the last few months unmercifully bruising my ear drums with their sick beats and indomitable lyrics. After a one-off reunion performance on The Tonight Show to celebrate the 25th anniversary and reissue of their masterpiece debut LP "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm," I couldn't get enough of them.

Part nostalgia-part getting to know an old friend better, I have been binging on all-things-Tribe since that November performance. I had a few Tribe and Q-Tip solo songs here and there, and, of course, the Tribe's "The Low End Theory," which was the hip-hop soundtrack of my high school days, but there was plenty I had not heard. I bought all of their albums and went through their entire catalogue. I watched their award-winning documentary. And I even ordered myself A Tribe Called Quest T-shirt, which I just so happened to throw on this morning, before I learned of Phife's passing. If there were Tribe action figures and lunch boxes, who knows, I may have bought 'em also. Feels like I just got to know a long-lost uncle really well, and he gets hit by a bus. WTF, indeed.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let me be a hypocrite and ask you to do something I wouldn't do myself: put the Tribe on heavy rotation. With Phife, they delivered the best three-punch combo in the history of rap: "People's Instinctive Travels...," "The Low End Theory," and "Midnight Marauders." Phife and Q-Tip's lyrical barrage over Ali Shaheed Muhammad's jazzy beats and genius samples (few can get away with sampling Lou Reed AND French national anthem, "La Marseillaise") will be well worth the price of (my) admission.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Celebrating George Harrison's 73rd Birthday

Musicians of all flavors and eras, including Brian Wilson, Perry Farrell, The Flaming Lips, "Weird" Al Yankovic, and Norah Jones, gathered at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles one - otherwise unceremonious - evening in September 2014 to perform the music of George Harrison. Music and video from that evening, dubbed "George Fest: A Night to Celebrate the Music of George Harrison," will be released February 26, 2016, the day after what would have been his 73rd birthday.

Harrison, the so-called quiet Beatle, was anything but, when it came to artistic expression. Even in the shadow of the towering Lennon-McCartney songwriting monoduolith, Harrison gave us some of The Beatles' most gorgeous songs, including "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," with a little help from Eric Clapton and released in 1968's "White Album." And the very next year, Harrison gave us "Something" off "Abbey Road."

But arguably, the full spectrum of Harrison's glimmering songwriting and guitar chops didn't come into focus until The Beatles' break up in April 1970. As if to say, I'm done being the quite one, he dropped the critically acclaimed, commercially successful, and very ambitious triple album "All Things Must Pass" on November 27, 1970 - just eight months after the break up. It included songs The Beatles had previously passed on, including the title track. It also included his masterpiece, "My Sweet Lord." If this doesn't give you chills, check your pulse.

His solo music career continued to thrive for many years, but not before Harrison the Activist reached another career pinnacle in 1971, when he spearheaded the Concert for Bangladesh to raise international awareness and funds for refugees from Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. It became the model for future massive, social-awareness, benefit concerts, including Live Aid and Farm Aid.

In 1988, Harrison formed one of the most remarkable A-list supergroups ever. Along with Jeff Lynne, the group consisted of music giants Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty.

Given his place in the pantheon of music, revisiting his catalogue through the interpretation of some of his greatest fans, who also happen to be great musicians, seems appropriate. Harrison wrote The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," also off "Abbey Road." In the Fab Four's incomparable repertoire, which includes some of the greatest rock 'n' roll pop songs ever recorded, "Here Comes the Sun" might just be among their finest and most revered songs. This is one of the many covers that will be available in the upcoming "George Fest" release. This rendition features Farrell on vocals, the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne on guitar, Norah Jones on back vocals, with several other musicians, including George's boy Dhani, playing and singing along.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Brian Wilson flattered (and elated)

By Brian Wilson's admission, he essentially worshipped Phil Spector and his famed wall of sound - complex, layered arrangements of music that left no dead air within songs. Wilson particularly loved The Ronettes' "Be My Baby." Though a little far-fetched, some music insiders even speculated Wilson's masterpiece "Pet Sounds" had the same initials as Spector as a nod to him.

But by most accounts, Spector was never very gracious to Brian's adulation. And when Brian wrote the gorgeous doo-wop, Motown-sounding ballad "Don't Worry Baby" with the intention of the Ronettes recording it, Spector was dismissive - he passed on it. The Beach Boys ended up recording a fine version.

I was surprised to learn that in 1999 Ronnie Spector, ex-wife of Phil Spector, and lead vocalist of the Ronettes finally recorded Brian's "Don't Worry Baby." Brian's reaction - when KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer tells him this on the air - is pure gold.