HIGH FREQUENCIES: Testing, one-two. One! Two! Is the microphone on?
Former CL Editor Tony Paris' weekly music rumination is back from the grave
I’ve been away from Creative Loafing as long as I was a writer here. A lot has changed. Nothing has changed. People still go out to see live music. That experience, that interaction between musicians and an audience, can’t be replaced. It’s a communal event. Indeed, the musicians onstage offer a sacrament of sorts to those who genuflect at their altar.
People still listen to music, too, albeit through many media, different than in the past. The sharing of files, downloads and streaming has made it harder than ever for a working musician to make money. Unless you’re a pop star, but even they rely on touring more than album sales to make a buck. Pop stars win popularity contests voted on by pre-pubescents and those with raging hormones in their teen years. Musicians and songwriters play on your emotions. They go for your heart. And soul. The best music retains a place in our lives, recalling a specific time and place, and taking us back to that moment whenever we hear it.
The B-52s played two sold-out shows at Symphony Hall last week, backed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The current tour marks the 40th anniversary of the band, and has them pairing with local symphonies in cities across the U.S. I’m sure when the “tacky, little dance band from Athens, GA” started out, they had no dreams of playing with renowned symphony orchestras, much less lasting 40 years. No, after playing a couple of parties in that college town, they had “made it” when they loaded up the station wagon and headed to New York City to play Max’s Kansas City.
Success wasn’t easy for the band, though they may have made it seem so, inspiring many others in Athens, GA, to form bands. Pylon, Love Tractor, the Method Actors, the Side Effects and R.E.M. followed in their wake, each adding to the mythology and lure of the nascent music scene some 58 miles north of Atlanta.
The band hasn’t been without its setbacks, most importantly the loss of founding guitarist Ricky Wilson in 1985. Wilson, brother of vocalist Cindy Wilson, shocked musicians and upset guitarists when the band first started, playing his Mosrite guitar not only with alternate tunings, but sometimes with only four or five strings. After his AIDS-related death, the band soldiered on, with drummer Keith Strickland picking up the guitar and the band — which didn’t even have a bass player for many years — augmented onstage with touring musicians.
What relaunched the band’s career — and propelled them into the pop culture mainstream — was their 5th album, Cosmic Thing. A combination of six songs produced by Nile Rodgers and four produced by Don Was, the former gave them their funk and sway while the latter crystallized their sultry, Southern idiosyncrasies. Their record label wanted hits, and by calling in the heavy-hitting producers, they got ‘em. Of course, that radio, then challenged by MTV, was also broadening its playlists, didn’t hurt. And the country as a whole was less uptight, more open. Celebrities were coming out. A then unknown RuPaul’s appearance in the “Love Shack” video weren’t met with whispers, but screams.
Strickland’s departure from touring with the band in 2012 could have been the final blow, but as the remaining members of the B-52s — vocalists/instrumentalists Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson — learned, their fans liked to “dance this mess around” and, the B-52’s gave them the soundtrack to do just that.
I used to go to B-52’s shows knowing most everyone in attendance. I could even name all “52 Girls.” That’s not the case anymore. While the B’s might as well have been from “Planet Claire” when they first landed on stages four decades ago, today they’re as American as hot dogs and apple pie. Whether on a public stage on tour, or at a private, corporate gig for a Fortune 500 company, the scene is much like it was the two nights at Symphony Hall: men in sequined suits, women in bouffant wigs and Day-Glo outfits, everyone dancing crazy like it was their first keg party ... for B-52s fans, it’s not that graduation never happened, but more life with the B-52s is a “party out of bounds.” I thought the floor of Symphony Hall was going to buckle under from the dancing and gyrations of the crowd. That the pairing of the band with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra didn’t really work — the sound mix left you straining to hear the orchestra, and when you did, the ASO seemed out of sync with the band — didn’t really matter to those in the audience bouncing off satellites with the B-52’s onstage before returning to their cubicles the next day. Their inhibitions were lost! Gone! Nowhere to be found!
Familiar faces showed up each night at Symphony Hall, the first finding Danny Beard, who released the B’s first single, “Rock Lobster,” on his then-fledgling DB Recs label, and Grant Henry, owner of Sister Louisa’s Church Of The Living Room And Ping Pong Emporium, who certainly gained some divine inspiration from the B-52’s’ “thrift store chic.” The second night, Dana Downs, currently of Cosmo Jr, but a fixture on the Athens scene for years with her work in Vietnam, the Tone Tones, Go Van Go and others. John Underwood, who sold many early, independent releases at his Chapter 3 record shop back in the day, was there, as was Dan Matthews, who covered much of the Athens scene for Tasty World magazine.
Before there was punk rock — or it’s more commercially-viable stepchild, new wave, where the B-52s fit comfortably for those who didn’t know how to otherwise categorize them — there was the Allman Brothers Band. I say this in the context that only someone who grew up in the South in the late ’60s/early ’70s might understand.
After rock music in its many incarnations claimed its role as the cultural tour de force of the late ‘60s, with the music being used to define a generation, the Allman Brothers Band emerged. They weren’t just another rock band. They were a Southern rock band, by God, their music steeped in the blues that flowed from Chicago and spread wider than the Mississippi Delta. Growing up in Atlanta, the emergence of such a powerful band from Middle Georgia by way of Florida, was a source of pride. Not prejudice. The Allman Brothers Band didn’t raise the rebel flag, nor carry a cross. They were brothers united in music. They took the blues, infused it with jazz improvisation, and created a sound, majestic and passionate, that was all their own.
With a story of tragedy and despair in its early years befitting the best Southern Gothic tale, the Allman Brothers Band, too, survived the death of a founding member, guitarist Duane Allman, and bassist Berry Oakley, to establish itself as the preeminent blues rock band. Even after years of resurrecting and reinvigorating the Allman Brothers Band, there was always a redemptive quality to the music, a sense echoed in Allman’s vocals that he — indeed, they — were constantly fighting for survival. With every new hurdle overcome, they were stronger and more forceful, victorious in the face of adversity.
Perhaps that’s why I find Southern Blood, Allman’s final musical testament, recorded in the last year of his life, so maudlin and morose. It’s a well-recorded album, done so at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with his then-touring band and producer Don Was. Again, when you want to make a statement, you call in Don Was. But Southern Blood is not the work of a man coming to terms with his pending death, and fighting it until his very last breath. No, this is the work of a man who has nothing left to give, in the throes of not only his greatest struggle, but, resignedly, his last.
There are great songs on Southern Blood, Bob Dylan’s “Going, Going Gone,” Lowell George’s “Willin’,” Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was,” Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s “Black Muddy River” ... every one of the songs is worthy of Allman’s, and the listener’s, attention. But together, one after the other, they paint a ghostly picture, one that, for me, offers no hope, and certainly, no salvation, something I always found at the heart of Allman’s music.
Allman sounds his best, his most convincing, on three songs. The first, the album’s opener, “My Only True Friend,” is a paean to the road so well travelled by Allman since he first started playing music. It’s the only song on the album Allman had a hand in writing. Of the rest, all covers, two stand out. The fire burns deepest in his interpretation of Jack Avery’s “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,” a song recorded by one-time label mate Johnny Jenkins for the R&B singer’s 1970 Capricorn debut, Ton Ton Macoute! The album’s closer, the Jackson Browne-penned “Song For Adam,” which Allman first attempted in 1974, reaches fruition here, achieving what the other covers on Southern Blood lack, a poignancy and sense of longing for a future not to be realized.
A Sound Guy Dept .... Chances are, if you bought an album on the Macon-based Capricorn Records label in the ’70s, you recognize the name Johnny Sandlin. A producer, an engineer, a drummer, Sandlin laid down the rhythm for Gregg and Duane Allman in their group Hourglass before going to work at Capricorn Studios. There, he made records that defined the scope of Southern Rock, including Jenkins’ Ton Ton Macoute!, Hydra’s self-titled debut, and, of course, the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East, Eat A Peach, Brothers And Sisters and Win, Lose or Draw. A down-to-earth, no-nonsense guy, Sandlin was a master at the board. And, a helluva a guy. He succumbed to cancer at 72, back home in Decatur, Alabama.
Around Town Dept .... Wed., Sept. 20, David Ryan Harris, who cut his teeth at the White Dot with Follow For Now before embarking on a solo career and collaborating with the likes of Dionne Farris, Guy Sebastian and John Mayer, plays Eddie’s Attic. He’ll be playing cuts off his 7th solo release, Songs For Other People, as well as digging deep into his back-catalogue for the hometown crowd.... Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics offer props to the artists of Stax Records at a 60th Anniversary Tribute to the R&B label Friday, Sept. 22, at the Vista Room. Sept. 23, finds three long-time stalwarts of the Atlanta music scene performing together, in the round, at Eddie’s Attic. Caroline Aiken, Dede Vogt and Michelle Malone will be trading stories, trading licks and offering a glimpse into the creative process that has established each of them as formidable songwriters with long careers .... If you want more rock with your roll, the Western Sizzlers play the Avondale Towne Cinema Saturday night. Primarily a vehicle for lead singer Kevin Jennings to get his ya-ya’s out, the Sizzlers also feature some fine guitar playing by Rick Richards and the ever-rawkous Nicky Ford. You’ll hear more than a few covers, along with hits from their CD, 1-4-5 Go! Get yer Quo on .... Sunday, it’s a vinyl lover’s dream when the Atlanta Record Show takes place at the Atlanta Marriott Century Center, I-85 at Clairmont Road. Doors open at 10 a.m., admission is $3, but early birds can pay ten bucks and start digging through crates of records at 6 a.m. …. Mon., Sept. 25, Mudcat returns to Blind Willie’s in Virginia-Highland for a solo show, not to be confused with his usual weekend big band blow-outs at the Northside Tavern.
You can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise, I’ll be at the bar.
Tony Paris started work at Creative Loafing as its music editor in 1980, having covered the Atlanta music scene for years in other newspapers and magazines. In 1993, he became CL’s managing editor, leaving in 1998 to pursue broader interests. Writing on music, art and politics, his work has appeared in publications national and international. His recent CL feature, the comprehensive tribute, “Fixin’ to die: Col. Bruce Hampton 1947-2017,” reminded him he still has more to say about his hometown scene, one he first started writing about in his high school newspaper. He’s been missing deadlines ever since.