Was Not Jam

As with the talk radio shows that preceded them, successful podcasts come in two general types: those that draw listeners due to a robust guest list, and those that draw listeners due to the charisma of and chemistry created by the host(s). You tune into the first one because it has Taylor Swift on this week, and you just love Taylor and everything about her. You tune into the second one because you think the host is funny or insightful, and you understand that the format calls for guest interviews but just wish it would get back to the action of the show itself. Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast is the first sort of podcast, and I wish he didn’t have such a good guest list.

Maron is the Larry King of the podcast world. I don’t really mean that as a compliment, although it does attest to a certain accomplishment of volume and recognition of relative status. The comparison arises out of the apparent fact that neither do much preparation prior to interviewing their subjects. Standing alone, it’s at least an academically interesting approach, but, as with many such approaches, it can fall apart under practical application, especially when coupled with proclivity for interrupting the subject. For Maron, the interview organization almost always takes the form of a chronological, biographical framework, and the result often essentially is a guest haltingly reciting his or her Wikipedia page. As a means of introducing a subject to an unfamiliar audience, I suppose one could do worse. The point of podcasts in general, I’d thought, and podcasts like Maron’s, I’d assumed, though, was to do more than that, to go deeper than that. Maybe not. Maybe the point of podcasts is to sell underwear and postage stamps. The point: if you aren’t going to do much prep, let the thing breathe. It’s ok if you don’t quite know what you’re talking about, but it might be better to acknowledge that and let the person who does do the talking.

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Don Was has to be one of the coolest guys around. The Detroit native is an instrumentalist, bandleader, movie director, and Grammy-winning producer whose list of credits nearly is as long as it is prestigious. He also serves as the president of Blue Note Records. Was should make an excellent interview subject. Maron’s handling of him revealed little in the way of beneath-the-surface insights, however; the host seemed more intent on having his guest drop as many famous names as possible than delving into interesting stories.

One very small nugget that managed to leak out from the smothering, Chris-Farley-Show-without-the-laughs treatment, though, was an early musical memory Was recalled with some detail, “a really important thing that happened to me when I was about fourteen.” While waiting in the car for his mother, he heard a Joe Henderson song called “Mode For Joe” and described Henderson’s saxophone solo as “howling with anguish through the horn. He was speaking to me. I was stunned to hear this.” (Maron cuts in, confusing “anguish” with “anger,” and things move on from there.)

Because Was seems like the kind of guy who has musical recommendations up on which you actually ought to follow, this week’s Jam is “Mode For Joe,” a Memorial Day weekend offering to the fallen memory of the potential of an engaging Don Was podcast interview:

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Continuing Education Jam

Before lunch yesterday, I learned two things. The second was that former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith, one of the most talented and popular players in MLB history, began his career in San Diego. Smith made his major-league debut with the Padres in 1978 and spent four seasons with them before they traded him to the Cardinals following the strike-shortened 1981 season. (In digging into this news-to-me, I also discovered that the Detroit Tigers were the first team to draft Smith, but he didn’t sign with them after they picked him in the seventh round in 1976. San Diego picked him in the fourth round the following year and he signed.)

The first thing I learned yesterday morning was that Dolly Parton is the author of the Whitney Houston hit “I Will Always Love You.” Parton’s original version is this week’s Jam:

Salty Jam

I really backed into this one, folks. Last week, chasing down a rumor that sprung from an Instagram meme about Bob Weir and the Grateful Dead (because this is 2018, I guess), I found a rabbit hole of a Dead blog that eventually led me to a historical chart of the band’s live performances of its original songs that plots every performance of each such song along a timeline. If there are two uncontested facts about the Dead, they are that they played for a long time and had a voluminous song catalog. One of the data points caught my eye for three reasons: (1) it indicated that the band played the song only once; (2) that performance came in 1995, the final year of the band’s active life; and (3) its title, “Salt Lake City,” was unfamiliar to me. In fact, besides “Unbroken Chain,” a famously un(der)peformed Dead song, “Salt Lake City” was the last original song the band debuted in concert.

As it turns out, SLC’s origins trace to 1977, when it appeared on Weir’s second solo album, Heaven Help the Fool. Like many Weir songs, John Perry Barlow collaborated on the lyrics, which discuss the Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City and read like a more buttoned-up version of the traditional “New Minglewood Blues” that Weir often sang with the Grateful Dead.

gd slc 95

On February 21, 1995, at Salt Lake City’s Delta Center, the band opened with “Salt Lake City,” the first and last time they ever played it live. The twenty-first was the Dead’s last of three straight nights in SLC. While that stretch wasn’t the Dead’s first appearance in the city, it was their first time back since 1981 (opener: “Alabama Getaway”), which was the only other time they played there since the release of Heaven Help the Fool (unless you count September 4, 1983 and August 20, 1987 in Park City). Perhaps the Dead saw it as a bit of a novelty, or an easy nod to a locale infrequently visited. Reviews of the night carry a generally positive tone, though many qualify or limit encouraging notes to the context of a mid-90s era regarded as low in energy, inspiration, and musical quality. Few reviews remark on the appearance of “Salt Lake City,” most preferring to mention the very good cover of Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” that emerges out of a second-set “Space,” which both surges due to and is pock-marked by the almost cartoonish synthesizer of Vince Welnick, who was celebrating his forty-fourth birthday that day.

Technically, the Dead had played “Salt Lake City” live once prior, at a soundcheck in Atlanta in 1978. What follows and serves as this week’s Jam is the only acknowledged (and possibly the only recorded) performance, however, from 1995, less than five months before the band’s final concert:

Bag it Jam

After Phish released its St. Louis ’93 box set, which chronicles two separate concerts four months apart in that city’s American Theater, I had the idea that I would write a two-part review of the release. In the first part, I would explain how the recording of the April 13 performance fit nicely between the raw, excitable energy exhibited on the At the Roxy box set, which captured three nights at the former Roxy Theater in Atlanta in 1992, and their breakout in 1994 (most widely distributed in the form of the two-disc release entitled A Live One).

That’s about as far as I got, because I came up with the idea after listening to the April concert, but I hopefully anticipated that, after listening to the August 16 performance, I’d be able to note something about the band’s noticeable growth over a short but very dynamic period in the group’s history.

As those of you who read this website with due care already know, I wrote neither of those reviews. That happened (or didn’t) in not-insignificant part because I don’t think the second night demonstrated the sort of growth, coalescence, or development I had believed it might. Top to bottom, the first night clearly is better, in my opinion, and I have returned to it more often than the second.

It wasn’t a mistake to include the August performance, though. The theme of the set wouldn’t make much sense, or really even exist at all, without it, of course, and if the plan simply was to release one night from 1993, maybe there were better options even than the April date in St. Louis. I don’t know. More than mere marketing logic, however, the August concert belongs because of its peaks. For example, the second set Mike’s Groove opener is solid, and the “Rocky Top” encore finisher is fun.

The real highlight, though, and what I suspect was a major factor in the decision to do this release at all, is the first-set “Reba.” Listen for yourself, and have a sublime weekend.

Ashes Jam

John Perry Barlow, an advocate for an internet free of government regulation and longtime Bob Weir friend and songwriting collaborator died this week. I don’t know for sure where Barlow is right now, but if he’s on his way to Hell in a bucket, I at least am reasonably confident he enjoyed the ride thus far.

Learning to Jam

Screenshot-2017-10-3 Traveling Wilburys - End Of The Line - YouTube.png

Another empty rocking chair in the Wilbury household this week, sadly, as Charlie T. rode the late train out of town to join Lefty and Nelson at the end of the line.

Tom Petty was a hitmaker on the volume scale of Motown’s song factories, and the “was” in this sentence is doing a lot of grim work, because, in contrast to some other mourned celebrity passings, Petty, at sixty-six, remained an active and strong performer. We saw him in concert just this spring, my first time, and he was just as good and strong as I hoped. There’s a real loss here.

A 2009 Wall Street Journal article published in conjunction with the release of Petty’s career-retrospective Live Anthology memorably made the case that Petty’s slightly lower situation in the proverbial Rock Pantheon was due, in my reading, to the irony that his songs were too popular. It’s funny because it’s true, but it says more about the fans than the artist. We hold Springsteen, to borrow the foil from that WSJ piece, in higher regard because he had fewer hits? I don’t know why, or if that’s how it really works, but at some point it misses the mark to parse the greats like this.

It also misses the mark on Petty, who always seemed to belie his deep catalogue of radio-friendly tunes with his ability to wink at that great big world of entertainment with a sly smile worn by one who could take or leave the trappings of celebrity that pop stardom can offer. As he told the Journal in ’09, “We were never really Boy Scouts, you know. My vision of a rock and roll band wasn’t one that cuddled up to politicians, or went down the red carpet. That kind of thing you see so much of today. I felt like once that stuff starts happening your audience doesn’t know whether to trust you or not.” That article continues:

Mr. Petty set himself apart in other ways. While Dylan and the Stones have licensed their music to advertisers, Mr. Petty says, what for? “We don’t really need the dough that bad.” The singer has sought keep his concert tickets affordable. And unlike, say, Mr. Costello, who has collaborated with string quartets, Mr. Petty says he’s satisfied with being a workaday auteur: “To write a good song is enough. That was the loftiest ambition I had: to write a song that would endure.”

Or you could just take a look at his perfect initial interaction opposite Kevin Costner in 1997’s The Postman. Or his appearance as the Mad Hatter, forever my envisage of that character, in his own music video:

While we’re here, let’s do a few more: