Monday, September 28, 2009

The Rose Hotel by Robert Earl Keen

I have been listening to an advance copy of this album for the last month. After many, many spins, I can say with conviction that this is the best album of Robert Earl Keen's celebrated career.

The record really displays Robert's impressive songwriting talent. With each new album, it becomes more apparent that Robert is keeping alive the tradition of great Texas songwriters. The torch has now been passed from Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver to Robert Earl Keen. There are very few modern writers who consistently turn out songs of this quality.

These original songs, which include Rose Hotel, Something I Do, Throwin' Rocks, Village Inn and Wireless in Heaven are all good examples of the clever song pictures that come from the mind of REK. A number of different influences are found in his songs. There is a mix of traditional country themes, Robert's twisted humor and a dash of the darkness of Cormac McCarthy combined in his personal view of the world. Robert is able to take common events and turn them into songs that say a lot about the world we inhabit. He is able to avoid the cliches that are found in most modern country songs being written in Nashville these days.

With the release of Farm Fresh Onions in 2003, Robert began to break somewhat with his singer songwriter past. On that album, his band got more involved in the record. Although the more alt-country sound was a little hard and edgy and certainly puzzled some of his frat boy fans at the time, I think the album holds up very well today. His 2005 release What I Really Mean continued this process of growing his music into more of an ensemble sound. Once again, the band played a bigger role on the record. The banjo by Danny Barnes added a lot and was hint of what was coming on The Rose Hotel.

Having been familiar with most of the original songs on the album in earlier acoustic versions, it was exciting to hear them with the backing of the band. If you have seen Robert's live show, you know that the players in his band are very talented. Rich Brotherton (guitar) and Bill Whitbeck (bass) are fans and students of great music and their playing reflects it. Marty Muse has great touch on the steel guitar. Tom Van Schaik always lays down a solid foundation with the drums. Their inspired playing at the live shows has finally been captured on an album.

Here are some of my impressions of the new songs. The album opens with Rose Hotel, which contains some vintage REK story telling. In this song, I see a picture of the hotel along the border in No Country for Old Men. I really like the chorus of Sometimes you run/Sometimes you fall/stall. An insightful Keen comment on the ups and downs of life. There is some nice work from the band, particularly the transition on the break from Rich (lead) to Marty (steel guitar). A good choice to open the disk.

Robert has always great taste when it comes to choosing songs to cover on his albums. His versions of James McMurtry's Levelland and Out Here in the Middle and Dave Alvin's Fourth of July have been high points on previous albums. I know Robert has a great affinity for the work of Townes Van Zandt. It is a treat to hear another Townes' song on one of his albums. Flyin' Shoes really fits his voice and the playing of the band. Bill's bass kicks it off and the band drives the song along. One of my favorites from the Van Zandt song book and well covered here. Compare this cut to the Steve Earle's covers on Townes and Earle's work is exposed for the boring crap that it is. Well done!

Thowin' Rocks sounds like it could have been on Farm Fresh Onions. The song has great keyboards and backup singing. The band really gets into this one. I am looking forward to hearing it live.

I have heard Something I Do several times in the acoustic version. The band adds a lot to these sweet lyrics. A nice example of Robert's whimsical songwriting and great work from the background singer. I especially like when she sings back: He kinda likes doing nothing. I also like the Beatles reference and the accordion at the end.

The Man Behind the Drums. What's not to like about REK singing about Levon Helm? This song was inspired by Robert playing at Levon's Midnight Ramble in Sept of 2008. I was at the show in New York City and had planned to go to The Ramble the next night. Unfortunately, I didn't end up going. That was a bad choice. This is a great song.

Village Inn is a beautiful little song. It is probably the best song ever written about a motel. Another example of Robert's ability to take everyday life and turn it into a song. It has a very pretty melody that reminds me of Road To Nowhere/Carolina on Walking Distance. I love the verse that starts: Midnight thunder storms/Blowing into town/Wind is kicking up/Rain is falling down. It might be my favorite song on the whole disk.

The album closes with a nice piece of REK wit, Wireless in Heaven. Can't have an REK album without a few laughs. After all, this is the man who wrote Merry Christmas from the Family, which is the definitive dysfunctional Christmas song. I love the verse:

The pretty little cashier girl looks up and smiles at me.
She says it is an honor. She knows who I am.
Her Grandpa plays the guitar and he's my biggest fan.

Once again, the band really shines on this cut. Marty rocks on his steel guitar. I really like the country rave up before the last verse.

If you are already a Robert Earl Keen fan, you are going to love this album. If you are not familiar with his music, this is a good place to start. Available on iTunes or from Amazon.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I Shall be Released and Richard Manuel

I have been overwhelmed by the response to my last post on Richard Manuel. Evidently, there are a lot of music fans who have the same strong feelings for The Band and the singing of Richard Manuel that I do.

Enjoy this clip from the movie of the Festival Express tour. It was a 1970 train tour across Canada that included The Band, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and others. The film is available from Amazon and is worth checking out.

Richard's singing on this song is really beautiful. It is nice to hear him in his prime.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Poor Richard: Thoughts on the Life of Richard Manuel

The first time I saw The Band live in May of 1969, I was mesmerized by Richard Manuel. At the time, part of the uniqueness of The Band was that there was no lead singer. Although that was true on their records where everyone contributed on vocals except for Garth, when The Band played live it was a different story. Richard was definitely the lead singer.

At the live show, there was a lot to like visually about The Band. My eye keep jumping between Levon looking like a cracker with a scruffy beard behind his vintage drum kit; Robbie with his conservative look and flashy guitar work; Danko rocking forward with the bass blowing out his cheeks; Garth looking like a big old bear behind his Lowrey Festival organ and Richard. For me, the sight of Richard on his piano was the focal point. Some combination of his wild hair, the hawk-like nose, and that wonderful high piercing voice made him the highlight of the stage show. He also sang lead on the two best songs from the show that night: Tears of Rage and I Shall Be Released.

Richard's contribution to the music of The Band was never more evident than on Music From Big Pink. The album opens with Tears of Rage, which he co-wrote with Bob Dylan. Richard's plaintive, soaring vocals on this song were the world's first hint of the distinctive sound of The Band. Never ones to follow convention, The Band choose this mournful ballad to open their first album. It wasn't a song for AM radio.

Three other Manuel songs were included on the record. On We Can Talk, the group's ensemble vocals are on display as the singers take turns and Richard sings: One voice for all/Echoing around the hall. In A Station, which begins with beautiful keyboards, showcases Richard's dreamy lyrics and his falsetto. Lonesome Suzie, a haunting portrait of loneliness, fits Richard's falsetto like a glove. You can feel his own pain in the vocals backed by Robbie's subtle guitar licks and the organ. The album closes with the Dylan classic from the Basement, I Shall Be Released, which Richard makes his own. It is still one of my favorite songs of all time.

Although his songwriting talent was drying up, Richard again played a key role in the music of the next album. Once again, his lead vocals open the album on Across the Great Divide. He also handles the lead on Rockin' Chair, Whispering Pines, and Jawbone, which he co-wrote with Robbie. Each of these songs is well suited to his voice. His unique and wonderful drumming can also be heard on Rag Mama Rag and Jemima Surrender

He also sings lead on the masterpiece of the album King Harvest (Has Surely Come). Richard's vocals combine with Robbie's beautiful guitar to tell this moving story of the American farmer. A wonderful song and perhaps The Band's finest moment on record.

As The Band's fame grew from the success of first two albums, Richard's appetite for booze and drugs was growing as well. The combination of fame and the temptations of the rock and roll lifestyle in Woodstock, began having a major effect on the harmony of the band. By the time The Band started recording Stage Fright, the guys were going in different directions and there was much less of an ensemble feel to the record.

Although Stage Fright was not of the same impossibly high quality as the first two records, it does contain some great music. Richard's contribution of the beautiful Sleeping is certainly one of the high spots of the album. He also sings Whistle Stop and the very appropriate The Shape I'm In, which probably said a lot about his condition at the time. His singing on the ensemble vocals on The Rumor is excellent as well.

Although The Band would continue to make albums and tour until The Last Waltz in November of 1976, Richard's health and fragile mental state began to be more and more of a problem. By 1975, he was reportedly drinking eight bottles of Grand Marnier a day as well as using an assortment of dangerous drugs. He also was involved in a car accident and later a boating accident in Austin, Texas, which forced the cancellation of several dates on their last tour.

Listen to these tracks from a show at the Carter Baron Amphitheatre recorded on July 17, 1976. This show was recorded 4 months before The Last Waltz. Although the music is excellent, it sounds like the weight of the world is on Richard's shoulders when it is his time to sing. It is almost painful to hear his voice strain to hit the notes in these classic Band songs.


I never saw The Band live after the 1974 tour with Dylan. Although they played many great shows through the mid-70's, I'm just as glad I never saw them again. After attending two shows when they were in their prime (The Electric Factory in May 1969 and Tufts University in November 1970), it might have been better for me to stop with those memories. I can still remember vividly sitting on the floor in Cousens Gymnasium as The Band played their hearts out a few feet in front of me. What a night.

The idea of seeing the reconstituted Band playing their greatest hits at down market venues never sat well with me. It just seemed so sad that musicians of this caliber would be reduced to playing that kind of a tour.

Richard's suicide in 1986 at the Winter Park Quality Inn after a show at the Cheek To Cheek Lounge brought this all home to me. It is hard to imagine that this wonderfully talented musician could have fallen to such a low and lonely place. I was shocked when I heard the news.

As The Band's music continues to be enjoyed and analyzed, I think that the appreciation of the contribution of Richard Manuel will only continue to grow. He played a key role in the creation of some of the best music of a generation.

If you do not have the albums mentioned above, you have a hole in your iPod. All are available in remastered format from iTunes and Amazon.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Ellie Greenwich died on August 26th. She was a very talented songwriter who played a key role in what later became known as the Brill Building Sound.

Named after the building located at 1619 Broadway in New York City, these songs was written by a talented group that included Ellie and Jeff Barry, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Carol King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharat and Hall David and Phil Spector.

Collectively they were responsible for much of the music that was played on AM radio in the early 60's. Before the Beatles and the British Invasion in 1964, most of the top ten hits of the day had their songwriting origins in this building.

Ellie wrote or co-wrote her share of 60's hits including Be My Baby (The Ronettes), Da Do Ron Ron (The Crystals), Leader of the Pack (The Shangri-Las) , Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (Darleen Love), Do Wah Diddy (Manfred Mann) and River Deep, Mountain High (Ike and Tina Turner).

I was a perfect age for this music in the early 60's. I was just getting my feet wet with an AM radio. How lucky to be hearing songs of this quality. One of her songs that I remember well from those days was Be My Baby which went to #2 on the Pop charts for The Ronettes. Produced by Phil Spector, it was one of the early examples of his Wall of Sound. Have a listen:

Ellie co-wrote two great hits for the Crystals. One was Da Do Ron Ron which was a big hit at The Hill School and went to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Another was Then He Kissed Me which Ellie also wrote with Jeff Barry and Spector.

It is amazing to think that so many classic songs could have come from one group of writers in such a short time period. A lot of talent was on display at a very key time for modern music.

In a curious connection to music that I grew to love later, Al Kooper was also in the mix at the Brill Building at the same time. In fact, he wrote This Diamond Ring which was a #1 hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys in 1965. Kooper went on to play on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited sessions and is credited with making up the signature organ riff on Like a Rolling Stone. See my post on Kooper from August 27, 2008.

Ellie Greenwich and all of these songwriters played a very important part in our musical heritage. Check out their songs when you can.