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Posted by on Jul 19, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews, Personal | 0 comments

100 Essential Albums: #100 — Black Moses by Isaac Hayes (1971)

 

 

“Man, what am I going to do to follow up the ‘Shaft’ LP?  I know — let’s try something badass!” 

— Isaac Hayes

 

Nearly a half-century after being released, Black Moses stands the test of time.  It’s a meandering mishmash of disjointed instrumentation and unanticipated musical influences somehow welded together by a singular prophetical artist then at the pinnacle of his power and creativity.

Isaac Hayes’ fifth studio album was so highly anticipated that it was probably doomed from the start upon its original release, given the record company’s lofty expectations combined with insurmountable public demands in the towering shadow of the epic and groundbreaking Shaft movie soundtrack, still climbing the charts, which had been released during the summer five months earlier.  Indeed, Shalf solidified Hayes’ presence as a musical monolith, netting him a well-deserved Oscar for its theme song, becoming the first Black Academy Award winner in history in a non-acting category.  As the seeds of what would become a funk classic were airing on transistor radios and spinning on turntables everywhere, Hayes re-entered Memphis’ Stax studio pressured to rush-record what would be his second double-album released in the late half of 1971.

Think about that for a moment — Isaac Hayes recorded and released two double albums within a five-month stretch.  That’s staggering.

A truly great album becomes transformative, ushering in a new sound reverberating into a vast cultural shockwave.  Black Moses was not that album.  It would be far more accurate to call it the third in Hayes’ soul trilogy, coming on the coattails of Shaft, which had followed up his breakout masterpiece album, Hot Buttered Soul, released in 1969.

Hot Buttered Soul had been that perfect storm of an album at the ideal time in urban contemporary recording history by a supremely self-confident artist fully prepared to swagger into the empty void left when Otis Redding died young.  Hayes grabbed the soul baton and ran into the studio with it determined to create a new sound which became a shared musical holy trinity among his co-contemporaries, Curtis Mayfield and Barry White.  But Hayes went beyond sound, morphing into both sytle and statement.  His sound and appearance were both daring and deeply introspective.  Ultimately, the fruit of Hayes’ three-album musical trifecta would become the soundtrack of the ’70s for millions of listeners, a creative amalgamation which inspired Soul Train (which debuted at precisely the same time of this album), enduring for another decade, and beyond.

Here’s a quick taste.  Listen to Hayes interpretation of “Part-Time Love,” which as was so often the case with Hayes, a marked improvement on the original track (hey, give it a listen with headphones while reading this retrospective):

The songs on Black Moses aren’t original.  Most of the 14 compositions running a total length of 96 minutes (averaging an unheard of 7 minutes per song, which undoubtedly hampered radio airplay and hurt sales on the singles market) were written and previously recorded by other artists.  Nearly a half-century later, what gives this album such an evergreen quality that’s lacking in other collections is the seemingly discordant soundtrack laced so perfectly together with Hayes’ trademark baritone voice and interpretive adventurism, combined with an impeccable sense of musical timing.

By reinterpreting what were once known as songs from the “easy-listening” bin, cut originally by Burt Bachrach (The Carpenters’ #1 hit “Close to You”), Diane Warwick (“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”), and Kris Kristofferson (“For the Good Times”) — Hayes risked his badass reputation among his most loyal urban base.  By doing his own thing, Hayes demonstrated just how cool risky musical genre crossover could become when performed with genuine affection and authenticity for the music and lyric.  Only Hayes could get away with singing song lyrics made famous by Karen Carpenter and still be looked upon as the hippest guy on the block.

Black Moses was accompanied by considerable behind-the-scenes conflict and public controversy that began even before its release.  The album title — “Black Moses” — was widely considered sacrilegious.  Hayes had been tagged with the religious and racially-tinged nickname in the racy headline of a Jet magazine feature article, and the name stuck.  Hayes, who was deeply religious, initially didn’t like it.  Gradually, Hayes began to embrace the nickname, not so much for his own aggrandizement, but rather for the message of power and pride it conveyed.  Years later, he said:

“Black men could finally stand up and be men because here’s Black Moses; he’s the epitome of black masculinity. Chains that once represented bondage and slavery now can be a sign of power and strength and sexuality and virility.”

If the album title raised eyebrows, then the cover design was downright scandalous.  Many called it outrageous.  Some fans who wore out copies of Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft refused to buy Black Moses.

We now forget that album covers were once bold statements, looked upon and works of art and pinnacles of photography.  Now, “album covers” barely fit into a tiny square the size of a downloadable thumbnail.  Liner notes all but disappeared.  Artistry is gone.  All the accessories that once made LP albums not merely something to be heard, but also to hold in your hands and fully absorb as a total sensory experience have been replaced by mouseclicks on iTunes.  This is what masquerades as progress.

Black Moses took cover art and album design to the very extreme.  On the cover, we see Hayes adorned in his Moses-like robe, his eyes shielded by Ray-Ban sunglasses, gazing up to the heavens.  Those who first unwrapped the album were in for an even bigger surprise.  The cover design opened into a shocking six-square inner fold which, when fully extended to four feet in length, transformed into the shape of a cross.

Not exactly subtle.

Then, there was the music.  The sound has since become fertile fodder for parody, which unfortunately has distorted what was (then and now) unique blend of voice, instrumentation, and rhythm.  Hayes performs all the lead vocals, frequently backed with a trio of female voices, a staple of late ’60’s R&B that came to define the Motown sound.  Hayes also plays all piano and keyboards, including a Hammond organ — which is heard throughout.

It’s as though Hayes never wanted to chase the musical record books.  He intentionally extended the lengths of his songs to unplayable lengths on commercial radio stations, going way beyond the conventional 3-minute hook designed to sell records.  Every selection on Black Moses clocks in at 5 minutes or more, with some tracks approaching 10 minutes in duration.  With Hayes, it was never about the money.  It was about the music, one reason he declared bankruptcy a few years after this album was released to lackluster reviews, despite this third in a stellar trilogy of creativity.

Black Moses was panned when it came out.  Rolling Stone trashed it (since then, they’ve regraded the album far more favorably).  In retrospect, we’ve come to recognize this album’s enduring musical and cultural legacy, with its shattering of conventional expectations during an era of intense change and upheaval.  It’s become a pillar of soul reflective of a coming out party for urban culture and ultimately an expression of self-identity.

Black Moses ranks among my top 100 essential albums of all time, although it’s a flawed masterpiece.  With each new album and interpretive take on a familiar song, we hear and see Hayes struggling to out-do himself from the one before.  Even for Isaac Hayes, in the recording studio or performing live, he was an impossible act to follow.

Here’s Hayes’ recording of The Carpenters’ classic, “Close to You.”

 

Note:  This is the first of a series of reviews and retrospectives of my 100 essential albums, expected to be posted here over the next year or so.  Countdown #100: “Black Moses” by Isaac Hayes

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Posted by on Mar 12, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

What Happened to Las Vegas Lounge Acts? Future Stars Given a Chance to Shine in Red Rock Casino Show

 

 

The audience was treated to a pleasant surprise at Red Rock’s free variety show on Sunday.

About 20 minutes into the monthly matinee “Brunch to Broadway,” the emcee ushered four local high school students onto the stage.  Two were young girls, aged 16 and 17.  The two other kids were a 14-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl.

Inviting minors onstage to join a live show at a casino seemed a bit unusual.

“Brunch to Broadway” is 75-minutes of music with a live band.  Years ago, these types of shows were quite popular.  They used to be called “lounge acts.”  Every big casino had one.  Lounge acts played both afternoons and nights, and sometimes even into the early morning.  Shows were free, although seeing the most popular entertainers often required a two-drink minimum, and getting a really good table usually mandated a generous tip to the Maitre’d.  Many popular singers and comedians of the past century began their careers as Las Vegas lounge acts.

Unfortunately, searching for a free lounge act on the Las Vegas Strip has become tougher than finding a casino that pays 2 to 1 on blackjack.  Lounge acts have pretty much disappeared.

However, there are some notable exceptions.  Several “locals” casinos — which means resorts catering mostly to local residents instead of out-of-town visitors — continue to offer this throwback to the past.  Red Rock (owned by Stations Casinos) and Suncoast (owned by Boyd Gaming) host regular variety shows in their showrooms.  Most are free.  As one might expect, the crowds in attendance skew a bit older.  But I’ve also seen many families and young people in the audiences.  It’s nice seeing shows featured that can be enjoyed by everyone.

Brunch to Broadway” is fun.  But it’s nothing out of the ordinary.  We’ve enjoyed this show on three occasions (there’s a different show each time).  The set list mostly includes show tunes and standards from the classic American songbook.  Performers rotate in and out from various shows around town.

Sunday’s show was special, however.  The two younger kids joined a four-piece band — which then became a six-piece band.  Instantly, a horn section was born.  The boy played the saxophone.  The girl played the trumpet.  The kids didn’t always hit every note perfectly.  But that didn’t seem to matter.  It was really cool to see the youngsters playing alongside professional musicians in a live show.  The kids appeared to be having the time of their lives.

The two teen girls each sang a solo.  Later, they sang together.  Both girls were excellent.  But, the audience could tell they were also a little nervous.  Again, none of this mattered.  Their songs were from Broadway show tunes.

A bit later, the other full-time performers continued the show.  Finally, the entire ensemble cast did a few songs together with the band.  It was all good fun.  The price (free) was certainly right.

The episode impressed me.  Bringing four youngsters onstage and giving them a chance to perform in front of a live audience added something really special to the performance.  Sure, it’s understandable that Strip casinos would never take a chance like this — inviting school-age children to play in a live show.  Visitors don’t pay $130 for a seat in the Bellagio showroom to see a 12-year-old trumpet player.  But locals’ casinos are different.  We have other expectations.

Indeed, locals’ casinos are very much part of our communities.  People in our neighborhoods often work there.  We go to movies at Red Rock and Suncoast (many locals casinos now have movie theaters).  We eat at restaurants there.  How nice to see a few casinos allowing youngsters to display their talents alongside full-time professional performers.  What a marvelous idea.

The best way to keep great music alive is making sure that children are exposed to it.  If they aren’t exposed to songs we grew to love, then gradually the music will fade away.  If young people don’t develop an appreciation for the classics, then some of the greatest music ever written will be forgotten.  Allowing local high schoolers the chance to perform music we enjoy and even mix in some of their own more contemporary stuff is a win-win arrangement for everyone.

After the show at the exit, the performers greeted members of the audience.  We remarked to each young entertainer how much we appreciated them for giving their time and talent.  See the photograph above of the two young ladies who performed in the Sunday show.

Sure, this was a small thing.  A few kids performed in a free Las Vegas show.  What’s the big deal?

Well, maybe this is a big deal.  If more high school kids are given the chance to sing and play  musical instruments at casinos, then perhaps free lounge acts will make a comeback, someday.  If kids are provided with a creative outlet and allowed to pursue their talents in songwriting and performing, perhaps not quite so many will become absorbed by e-games and techno-music.

What happened on Sunday afternoon made a positive impression on me.  Hence, I congratulate Red Rock casino management and the band for inviting these young stars of tomorrow up to the stage.  Hopefully, the seeds of great music have been planted for many more generations to come.

At least it’s a start.

 

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Posted by on Jun 18, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 1 comment

Are Great Pop Musicians Washed Up by Age 30?

 

 

Recently, I read an intriguing retrospective of the dreadful Paul McCartney solo studio album, Ram — released 46 years ago today:

[COUNTERBALANCE:  PAUL MCCARTNEY’S ‘RAM’]

Recorded in the spring of 1971, Ram was McCartney’s second post-Beatles musical overture.  At the time, the lackluster album was universally eviscerated by critics.  In one of the kinder and gentler reviews, Rolling Stone described Ram as “incredibly inconsequential” and “monumentally irrelevant.”  Spoiled by a steady assembly line of Lennon-McCartney classics from the preceding decade, the public didn’t care much for the new music either.

Aside from the stellar Band on the Run, released a few years later in late 1973, most of McCartney’s other solo projects consisted of mostly patchwork collections of erratic inconsistency, while engaging on occasion, far more often mere trinkets of Paul’s much-celebrated earlier works.

By 1982, when McCartney crossed his 40th birthday, he’d all but retreated from the cutting-edge cliff of innovation de facto morphing into the world’s highest-paid nostalgia act (albeit, still a remarkable live performer filled with boundless energy, even today at 75).  If pressed to tell the truth, most hard-core Paul fans would probably have a difficult time naming a truly great McCartney-composed song released within the past 35 years.  For whatever reason, Rock’s Mozart has become Muzak.

To be fair, McCartney’s post-Beatles stuff has always been unfairly judged against the gold standard of pop music genius.  Expected to continue the greatest creative run in recorded musical history indefinitely, when Liverpool’s Fab Four plugged in their prehistoric instruments (by today’s standards) and changed everything within the eye blink of seven-year stretch, most fans and critics looked to McCartney as arguably the most talented of the group, and therefor best suited to transition as a solo artist and simply pick up where he left off right after the painful band break up in 1970.  Yet despite some valiant solo efforts along the way, McCartney has failed to deliver anything remotely close to the catalog of masterpieces when the far more youthful icon — still in his 20’s — wrote (or co-wrote) an astonishing collection of more than 300 songs, many the soundtrack to a generation.

How could the same creative source of ingenuity who penned “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” (by age 24), followed up by “Hey Jude” and “Let it Be” (by age 27) fade into a has-been, creatively speaking?  Indeed, how does the same musical sage who composed so many classics later record and release so many utterly forgettable songs?

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Do great pop musicians run into creative gauntlet by age 30, and if so — why? [Note:  For purposes of discussion, I made “30” the creative cutoff.  But it could be 29, or 31, or 32 — the point being that musical creative talent diminishes perhaps over time]

The evidence does seem pretty convincing.  In my introduction, I picked on Paul McCartney because he’s one of the best-known musicians in history and his career is easier for us to judge over a longer stretch.  However, I could have said pretty much the same thing about the Rolling Stones or The Who — the two other legendary bands of the 1960’s trifecta.  I could also have plucked several other rock icons — including David Bowie, Elton John, Queen, U2, or Bruce Springsteen and made a similar argument that most of their creativity reached a peak prior to their 30th birthday.  Then there’s Bob Dylan, arguably the greatest songwriter in our lifetime, who pretty much peaked by age 34 with Blood on the Tracks.

Let’s take a closer look at the Stones.  While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have clearly stood the test of time (and then some), they haven’t written or recorded anything remotely close to the temblor of Beggar’s Banquet (1968) or Let it Bleed (1969), or Exile on Main Street (1972) in nearly four decades.  By the time the Rolling Stones had released their most memorable stuff, Jagger and Richards, the band’s primary songwriters, were both age 28.

The Who penned and recorded an astonishing burst of great music between 1965’s My Generation up through 1973’s Quadrophenia.  Then, Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend turned 30, and it’s been all downhill since, at least from a cutting edge creative standpoint (to be fair, Keith Moon, a seminal force, died in 1978 at age 32).

This discussion isn’t limited only to white males of a certain era.  It also applies to female songwriters and many soul and R&B artists, as well.

Consider Carole King, a monumental force of songwriting who — after spending years in the shadows penning hit songs for other artists — enjoyed her own personal breakthrough with Tapestry, released in 1971.  At the time, she was 29.  King remains a vibrant performer.  However, like McCartney and the Stones and the rest, she’s not written anything particularly memorable in the last 35 years.

Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy and a bombshell of musical creativity.  Wonder was one of the first R&B artists to seize full musical control of his material, intentionally choosing to write his own songs and experiment with new sounds when many Black artists remained under the thumb of record company executives.  The years between 1970 and 1977 for him were as fruitful any artist in history.  Wonder hit is creative peak in 1977 with the release of the epic album masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life.  At the time, Wonder was 27 years old.

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What explains such an apparent decline in musical creativity, at a relatively young age?

Other genres of popular expression don’t seem to suffer an age lapse at all.  Consider that over the years, many painters, writers, and comedians have produced their greatest works well into the 40’s and 50’s and beyond.

With writers, advancing age has been shown to be, not an inhibitor, but an elixir of creative inspiration.  Few writers make much of an impact while still in their 20’s.  But over time, as one masters the use of language and art of expression, (good) writers do tend to become better at their craft.  I’m not sure if it’s the same with architects or scientists, who must also call upon vast reservoirs of knowledge and experience.  However, it seems quite clear that virtually all artistic avenues crowded with older people doing better work now than yesterday, and destined to improve on their efforts tomorrow.

So, what makes music — or at least pop music — so much different?

Thoughts?

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Note 1:  Keep in mind, I’m strictly discussing musical creativity, not musical performance.  Many performers put on a great show well into their 50’s, and beyond.  However, very few write good music well into their 50’s, and beyond.

Note 2:  Consumers of pop music do tend to skew much younger than average.  This would explain why many of the most popular musical acts are teenagers and in their 20’s.  There’s simply more profit to be made catering to this younger audience.  Hence, younger and fresher artists get far more opportunities and perhaps even greater creative latitude than older more experienced artists.

Note 3:  Audiences could be as much to blame for the lapse in creativity as anything else.  Most audiences prefer to hear hit songs.  Most audiences don’t want to hear new (unfamiliar) music.  So, there’s pressure on older acts to deliver stale material and no longer push creative boundaries.

Note 4:  Finally, there’s obvious complacency which sets in once a musician is a multi-millionaire, earning royalties for the remainder of their lives.

 

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Posted by on Nov 13, 2016 in Blog, Music and Concert Reviews | 3 comments

Leon Russell, R.I.P.

 

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I first saw Leon Russell in 1972.  He appeared in a movie.

Just months before, ex-Beatle George Harrison had organized the first-ever rock n’ roll charity benefit concert.  The all-star gala was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City and featured a virtual “who’s who” of 1970’s pop scene.  George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, even Bob Dylan showed up after a long self-imposed hiatus, making his first live concert appearance in five years.

But the unlikely star of the evening, who ended up stealing a show, tuned out to be the pianist — a tall and lankly, stringy-haired, graveyard-voiced punch-the-time clock session player named Leon Russell.

Most of us had never heard the name Leon Russell until that epic concert.  Later, the Concert for Bangladesh was wrapped up and packaged into a 3-hour mega-movie and also released as a triple-album, unheard of in that time.  [The Concert for Bangladesh is a remarkable story in its own — read more HERE].

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Posted by on May 27, 2016 in Blog, Essays, Facing the Firing Squad, General Poker, Music and Concert Reviews, World Series of Poker | 1 comment

Facing the Firing Squad: Joe Giron

 

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MEET JOE GIRON

Joe Giron might be the hardest-working man in poker that few people ever see.  That’s because he’s always “behind the camera” — literally.

He’s been covering poker’s biggest events for more than a decade, spending night and day staking out the tables to find the perfect shot to capture that glorious moment of ecstasy or the agony of crushing disappointment.  Getting that perfect image within the frame of the lens might take minutes or hours to set up.  Like a hunter seeking its prey. Giron waits.  He waits as long as it takes.  Then, he pounces and snaps an image for posterity at just the right instant.

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