Anyone who is a fan of the Conan O’Brien TV show (link for original show here) is familiar with trombone player Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg. You may not know about his history before the show. He got started as a member of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. The Jukes were part of the New Jersey scene that included Bruce Springsteen (who gave La Bamba his nickname). In fact, E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt was a member of the Jukes in the early days. That also explains how La Bamba knew E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, who recruited him for the Conan O’Brien Show band.
Below is a link for the Jukes’ song When You Dance, written by Springsteen and Van Zandt, which first appeared on the 1977 album This Time It’s For Real. This shows that La Bamba had a flair for comedy 35 years ago. At the beginning of the song the band is chanting “La Bamba, La Bamba, …” while La Bamba does a crazed elephant impersonation on his trombone. It’s hilarious and it’s a great song; give it a listen:
I went to a lot of concerts in the 70s and 80s. That covers the time from when I started college (actually fall 1969) through the time my wife and I became parents in 1987. Suddenly the logistics were more complicated and there were more things going on, so we haven’t gone to as many since that time.
When I think back over all the concerts I’ve gone to, there are two performances that stand out for me as the coolest things I’ve seen. There were others concerts I enjoyed more overall, but these two performances were amazing.
I saw the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble during my freshman year in college, so this was during the 1969-70 school year. Their performance of the Chuck Berry classic Roll Over Beethoven blew me away. The band was started by students at the Juilliard School (link to school website), so they were of course outstanding at classical music. They sat down as a string quartet (2 violins, viola and cello) and started a Beethoven piece. Then, one of them picked up an electric guitar and played the Chuck Berry riff that starts the rock song, and they all switched instruments and became a rock band. They went back to the string quartet for the bridge, then back to the rock band to finish the song. The playing, in both formats, was very impressive. For me it focused on how musicianship can make rock music more enjoyable to listen to — it’s more than just getting your hair and your attitude right. There was an energy that made their performance special. When I listened to their records later, their playing seemed to restrained by comparison, that energy was missing.
At a Weather Report concert in the early 1980s at Merriweather Post Pavillion in Columbia, Maryland, I saw bass player Jaco Pastorius play Jimi Hendrix‘ Purple Haze as a bass duet — WITH HIMSELF. He set two speakers facing each other with a guitar stand in between. With the first bass he played the repeating notes (octaves?) that start the song (click here to refresh your memory). He set the bass between the speakers so that the notes repeated in a loop. Then he picked up a second bass and played the lead of the song. I found it mind-boggling that not only could he play it on a bass but that it sounded just like the Hendrix original. I don’t think he sang, and I don’t remember anything about the end of the song. It was that WHAM moment at the beginning of the song that stuck with me.
In addition to being awesome performances, another thing they have in common — unfortunately, in this case — is that there doesn’t seem to be video available. At least not that I could find. So all I have to share with you is the memory. I hope you have also experienced a magical in-concert moment like these.
My favorite singer is the answer to an interesting bit of trivia — In all of the Led Zeppelin albums, there is only one song that has a vocalist from outside the band. The singer is Sandy Denny and the song is The Battle of Evermore. As I stated in my Introduction to this blog, I listen to the voice as an instrument, and I think Sandy Denny’s voice is just beautiful. Listen to her duet with Robert Plant:
Sandy Denny was best known as the lead singer for the folk rock band Fairport Convention (she was a member of the band from 1968-70 and 1974-75). Fairport Convention are, according to their Wikipedia biography, “widely regarded as the most important single group in the English folk rock movement. Their seminal album Liege and Lief is generally considered to have launched the electric folk or English folk rock movement, which provided a distinctively English identity to rock music and helped awaken much wider interest in traditional music in general.”
Here are videos for two traditional folk songs from Liege and Lief that showcase her wonderful singing. The first is English folk ballad Matty Groves, about an adulterous affair that ends badly:
Tam Lin is a Scottish ballad about a man who is a captive of the faeries and the woman who rescues him:
Sandy Denny was also an accomplished songwriter and musician. Best known of her compositions is Who Knows Where the Time Goes, which was a hit for Judy Collins and has been covered by many others. Here’s a video of Sandy performing her song:
I didn’t find a lot of live footage of her, but I did find this clip of her performing 3 songs while accompanying herself on piano and guitar — North Star Grassman and the Ravens, Crazy Lady Blues and Late November. The first song is the title of one of her solo albums.
Sadly, she died young, at 30. She left behind an impressive body of work, and that wonderful voice that we can listen to.
NRBQ was a band that could play a little bit of everything, from rockabilly to Beatles-influenced pop to jazz and blues. They were what I think of as a musician’s band — no great commercial success but popular with other musicians (Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney were fans). They were famous for taking requests from the audience and playing ANY song that was requested. In my opinion, the best bar band ever. They flirted with widespread recognition on several occasions, but never quite got there. Get That Gasoline Blues reached #70 on the Billboard charts in 1974, their only appearance in the Hot 100.
NRBQ stood for New Rhythm and Blues Quartet during most of the band’s existence, but the “Q” originally stood for Quintet, since they started out in 1967 as a 5-piece band. A handy abbreviation I would say. From 1974 to 1994 the band members were Terry Adams (keyboards), Joey Spampinato (bass), Al Anderson (guitar), and Tom Ardolino (drums).
The following video of them performing the rockabilly classic I Got a Rocket in My Pocket/ shows some of their strong points. You can see them careening back and forth between order and chaos. Terry Adams demonstrates that the piano can be a percussion instrument.
The song Me and the Boys was one of their most popular. It was covered by Dave Edmunds, Bonnie Raitt, Thin Lizzy and Twisted Sister, among others, and the Dave Edmunds version was used in the movie Spring Break. Here’s a video of NRBQ with the Whole Wheat Horns (who doubled as the band’s roadies). Donn Adams (Terry’s brother) on trombone does a fine impression of a car taking off at the end.
This next song, Ridin’ in My Car, should have been a hit. It’s a terrific song that has all the ingredients for a great pop song. Here’s the video:
One more great pop song — Magnet — which is one of my favorite songs ever. I love the lyric “You’re like a magnet, I’m like a piece of steel, the way you break my will”. This is the only video I could find with NRBQ’s version of the song:
My wife and I have found a number of bands over the years by taking a chance — we’ll read a favorable review and say “let’s try them”. (We’ve also ended up with a few ‘I can’t believe I bought that one’ albums.) That’s how we stumbled upon the Meat Puppets. Pre-Internet, it wasn’t easy to check out bands before buying, so you had to plunk down your money and hope for the best. My wife decided that good review + weird name = let’s buy it, so we got our first Meat Puppets album in the mid-80s. It turns out that they’re a great band that has produced a lot of terrific music.
The band was formed in 1980 in Arizona, by brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood (with Curt on guitar and vocals and Cris on bass) and drummer Derrick Bostrom. They started out as a hardcore punk band, and later added psychedelic rock and country elements to the mix. They have disbanded a couple of times and then re-formed. They are currently together (as of January 2012), and released the album Lollipop in April 2011.
Curt Kirkwood is one of the best guitarists I’ve heard, and that, more than anything, is why I’ve followed their career and bought several of their albums. I think that their taste for the bizarre and macabre in song lyrics and images in their videos is the main reason why they remain relatively obscure. In a previous post, I talked about how, for me, the lyrical content of a song isn’t very important as long as the music sounds good. The Meat Puppets are a good example of a band where this comes into play. If lyrics matter a lot to you, or if you’re looking for an emotional lift from a song, you probably won’t think too much of the Meat Puppets. I love them because their music sounds so good. As an example, here’s a video for the song Orange from last year’s Lollipop album:
One of their best-known songs from the early days was the title track of their third album, Up on the Sun. Here’s a video that includes some of Kirk’s improvisation:
The band reached their peak of prominence in the early 90′s. The members of Nirvana were big fans, and they invited the Kirkwood brothers to appear with them on their legendary 1993 appearance on MTV Unplugged, where they did three Meat Puppets songs in their set. The Meat Puppets’ next album, Too High to Die, released in 1994, was their most successful, and the single Backwater made it onto the charts. Here’s a video of them playing Backwater:
Here’s another great song with huh? lyrics, Scum, from their 1995 album No Joke (“Under the stone, we find the scum”):
To conclude, here’s one more video, for the song Vile from 2011′s Lollipop album, which I want to include just because it’s a damn good song: