HIGH FREQUENCIES: Playin’ to win
Darryl Rhoades isn’t bluffing anymore
With so much division in the United States — and in the world — these days, with so many people angry at each other, so many battle lines being drawn, you wouldn’t know it listening to much of the music being released. I guess taking a stand, one way or the other, is bad for business in today’s marketplace. It’s hard enough to get music listeners to buy music when they can download it for free, much less buy something by someone with whom the listener is ideologically opposed.
It’s too bad. Good music has always come out of anger, just as it has come out of love.
Darryl Rhoades’ songs have never seemed to come out of either emotion.
Mockery. Parody. Satire. Lampoon. Ridicule. Rhoades’ material has been stoked by these accelerants, fans laughing with him as he pokes hot metal rods in the eyes of the monsters hiding under his bed. And, as we all know, the best way to protect yourself from monsters is to pull the bedsheets up over your head, as Rhoades has done, time and time again, finding safety in the funny, rather than turning the lights on to see there’s nothing to be afraid of, after all.
In the ‘70s, a time before”political correctness” was a rally cry, Rhoades was celebrated for his take on a society and culture that seemed run amok after the hedonistic ‘60s. He led the Hahavishnu Orchestra, a rag-tag stageful of Atlanta musicians and singers, through nights of farce and contempt at places like the Bistro and the Great Southeast Music Hall, before taking the show on the road nationally. The 45 “Burgers From Heaven,” a doo-wop paean to simpler times and romance at the malt shop, backed with “Surfin’ Shark,” a Beach Boys parody playing off the worst fears of a post-Jaws world, were the invitation first heard by many to his zany, madcap world.
Quick to use satire and his clever ability to play on words as a drawing card, the Atlanta singer/songwriter/comedian sometimes seemed to be hiding behind them, just as he’s hid behind the dark sunglasses that have framed his face all his years in the public spotlight. It’s a safety mechanism we all sometimes use, if something is done for a laugh, and it fails, it doesn’t matter. It was just a joke.
With his new album, The Last Goodbye, Rhoades may not have done away with his trademark sunglasses, but he has turned on the light to what he’s about. Gone are the cheap shots and the schoolyard derision of the past, replaced more empathetic looks at the subjects of his songs, not only through a more detailed narrative, but by also serving notice that he is, one, trying to understand what makes his subjects tick, and, two, attempting to discern their place in society and why they’ve been maligned.
Musically, The Last Goodbye is just as focused. There are still borrowed references here and there, but the music compliments the lyrics, rather than fighting for attention, as has been Rhoades’ style. Once the musician regaled the listener with his knowledge of pop music’s past, serving up a musical smorgasbord of styles and influences — albeit with quirky and camp reinterpretations — but things have changed. With a solid bedrock of rock, R&B, country, and bluegrass, much of what might have been tedious on his 12th album sounds fresh. Such a stylistic change offers much credence to the term “songwriter” when applied to Rhoades, making not only for better songs, but better insight into his view of the world.
With 17 songs, The Last Goodbye also succeeds by Rhoades not singing them all. Using other vocalists allows some of the material to stand on its own, rather than be propelled by the nod and a wink characteristic in so many of his vocals. The use of Steve Barker (“You’ve Missed Your Last Goodbye” and “The Not So Incredible Shrinking Man”) and Martina Albano (“When You Feel Blue,” “Rain And Stone”) add a depth to the songs that might otherwise have been lost. Nonetheless, “When The Blues Was Just A Color” and “Between Forgotten & Unknown,” two of the songs Rhoades sings, find the songwriter at a creative peak.
The material is strengthened, too, by Rhoades’ choice of musicians. A drummer himself — his ‘60s cover band, the Celestial Voluptuous Banana, was as groovy as anything in an Austin Powers movie — he’s joined by guitarist Tommy Strain, multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Martin Kearns (whose Down In Deep Studios is where the album was recorded), sax player Jeff Crompton, Rev. Jeff Mosier on banjo, and a number of other musicians and background vocalists who offer an attitude and ability as straightforward as many of the songs.
This time out, Rhoades has kept his comedy and his songwriting separate. Maybe his stand-up routine (he usually works about 40 weeks out of the year) has provided the needed outlet for him to fire off his one-liners. Maybe he decided it was time for him to stop, look around, and reflect on subjects he’d only joked about in the past. Maybe he decided that, in this day and age, things just aren’t that funny anymore. He has said he thinks this is his best work yet. That’s one thing on which we can both agree.
Radio in motion dept. … While Britain has the BBC, Germany has it’s own public-run radio stations, WDR. Perhaps not as popular as the Beeb is outside it’s own country, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German Broadcasting Corporation) is just as dedicated to diverse and unique programming. For years CDs and DVDS of WDR’s “Live at Rockpalast” series have been making their way into the U.S., but, now, it seems the broadcast company is making a concerted effort for their releases to find a wider market in America. While the CDs and corresponding DVDs (with region-free “0” coding) have been released individually in the past, both mediums are being released together in the smaller, CD-type packaging.
One of the first titles introduced to the U.S. market this year is the Richard Thompson Band, Live at Rockpalast, a 3-CD/2-DVD set that captures the band in Hamburg’s Markthalle, December, 10, 1983 and in a broadcast from Midem, in Cannes, France, January 26, 1984. Touring in support of the then-just released Hand Of Kindness, the set also features songs from the previous year’s Shoot Out The Lights, all of which come to life in the concert setting, Thompson’s guitar prowess exhibiting why many consider him to be one of England’s greatest guitarists. It’s beautiful and moving stuff for fans of the one-time Fairport Convention founding member. With artists as diverse as Thompson, John Cale, Joe Bonamassa. Ian Dury, Robben Ford, Bob Marley & the Wailers, Public Image Ltd., and others having already had recordings released, the new CD/DVD packages at reasonable prices are something to look forward to.
Around town dept. … Friday night (Dec. 8) at the Northside Tavern promises to be quite an exciting night. Bill Sheffield returns, bringing with him guitarist Spencer Kirkpatrick for a raucous night of R&B, soul, rock ’n’ roll and whatever the two buddies since high school have cooked up. Kirkpatrick, perhaps best known for his work with Hydra, has a long history playing in Atlanta. At 14 years of age, as lead guitarist for the Atlanta Vibrations, he opened for the Beatles at the Atlanta Stadium, playing “Pipeline,” “Walk Don’t Run,” and an instrumental take of the Beatles’ own “This Boy.” No word on whether he and Sheffield will reprise any of the instrumentals, but one can only hope they do Don Nix’s “Goin’ Down,” a song Hydra made their own many times over.