A Taste of Jones Country
“I’ve still got some hurtin’ left to do.”
- George Jones
I MISSED MY chance to see country singer George Jones for free this weekend at Saturday night’s main-stage performance at Taste of
Chicago, but then, I had seen George for free before.
It was back in the early Eighties, when my family lived in Nashville and newspapers regularly posted celebrity country singing events
to enlist audience members for their televised tapings. George Jones was taping an appearance for “Pop Goes the Country” with Tom T. Hall, and he had just hit it big with the tune “He Stopped Loving Her
Today,” a song bursting with mawkishness and death and longing and unrequited love – in other words, a song right up my alley.
So, my mother and I went. George seemed painfully shy when he walked out on-stage, and a worried little buzz went through the audience
of Nashville residents (“Does he look drunk?” “He’s sober, isn’t he?”) as though he were our own child performing at a school pageant, which, in a way he was. George Jones fans are fiercely loyal in the
face of the singer’s legendary bouts with alcoholism (the song “No Show Jones” recalls those times when he couldn’t be sobered up enough to perform). When you love George Jones, you take the good with the
bad, and you don’t complain if he misses a date. It’s like a dysfunctional relationship that way, and fans accept it, because when Jones is good, he’s sublime: the most authentically gut-wrenching,
living-the-pain-first-Country-music-with-a-capital-C performer alive. Only Merle Haggard could hold a cowboy hat to him – and maybe Vern Gosdin. And nobody (except maybe Hank Williams, Sr.) could wrestle more
syllables from a heartfelt phrase with more torment and resigned acceptance than him – and I include Billie Holliday in that.
I’m reminded of a performance of King Lear by Sir Laurence Olivier. At one point Lear, coming to terms with the death of his beloved
daughter Cordelia, says the word “Never” five times in a row. In lesser hands, the word becomes a monotonous litany. In Olivier’s hands, there’s rage (“Never!”) disbelief (“Never!”) pleading, with a
look skyward (“Never?”) monstrous grief (“Never…”) and final resolve and resignation, lips flat (“Never.”) Jones can do all that as naturally as a possum crossing the road – but there’s
danger there out on the road. Jones knows all about that, too.
We almost lost George Jones this past year, when he crashed his SUV against a bridge in Tennessee, an open vodka bottle in the front
seat. I can almost picture the fans that were present at that Nashville taping I saw long ago upon hearing the news. Typical of the comments would be, “I almost went off the road there myself – it’s a
terribly dangerous turn.” Enablers, every one, to use the parlance of psychotherapy. Love’s a lot like that.
So, instead of going out to wade elbow-to-elbow among the tank-topped throngs trying to balance slabs of ribs and turkey drumsticks on
flimsy paper plates while holding a three dollar bottle of water for a chance to hear a muffled P.A. system doing a gross injustice to Old George, I decided to go camping. I brought along some George Jones CDs. And
I played a three-chord version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” on my guitar. My dog Hank seemed to like it okay.~
©Mark Andel 2001
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Bad Vibes from Woodstock '99
"Whoopee, we're all gonna die!"
-Country Joe McDonald and the Fish, Woodstock 1969
IN THE AFTERMATH of Woodstock '99, event organizers dismissed the looting and burning that took place at the end of the long, hot
weekend as merely a handful of disgruntled kids upset about high-priced concessions. With no Viet Nam war to complain about, today's young activists were forced to gear their protests to other matters of great
worldly significance: three bucks for a bottle of Evian? Ridiculous! Thirty bucks for a sweatshirt? No way! The fire this time!
The world has changed all right. I recall the excitement and the energy generated by Woodstock in 1969, and it was fueled by a burning
desire among young people to change the political mess that the country was enmeshed in overseas, a universal hatred of all things Nixon (older people eventually caught on a few years later and jumped on that
particular bandwagon), and a belief that good things could happen on this green, beautiful earth if everyone simply cared for one another. That was the ideal, anyway, and maybe it was even achieved for a few moments
This year's event appeared to have some of the same trappings, but none of the goodwill, and not (to paraphrase Robert Plant) "a
whole lotta love." There may as well have been a corporate sponsor involved in this big-money happening in Rome, New York: "Ben & Jerry's Woodstock '99." It was a fairly bland party this
time around, capitalizing on a name that still has some sprinkles of magic dust on it, and it erupted into an all-too-typical ending for an American event attended by self-centered drunks: a woman-groping,
vendor-looting, and trailer-burning fiasco. A half-dozen rapes were reported, some of them right in the Mosh pit while Limp Bizkit played their set. That's about as far from "free love" as it gets.
Peggy Noonan once wrote about a "kinder, gentler nation," and she gave the words to her boss George Bush to say. The phrase
resonated with people somehow. It was what we wanted. It made us think about what gentle folk the hippies were, and it carried an optimism that was strictly retro. It was uttered at a time when the nation was at its
ugliest, and most money-grubbing. We all wanted to believe in the ideal, as long as we could still keep our cool stuff. It was out of these gadget-mongering days that Sharper Image came into its own - stores full of
techy items that no one needed but, wouldn't they be great to have?
The children of these large-living Eighties prototype big spenders also became imbued with the have-it-all mentality of their parents.
There were no consequences for extreme selfishness and indulging one's own id to the maximum. At the same time, these children were aware of a carryover from the halcyon days of the Sixties, seen in a golden haze of
pot smoke as "a beautiful time" by their mellowed-out parents.
When these worlds converge, the result can be monstrous. When children feel that they not only deserve everything they want, but have
no qualms about taking it, we find ourselves staring squarely into the heavy-lidded Clockwork Orange eyes of the future.
And at their hands, Rome burned as the music played.~
©Mark Andel 2001
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Grasslands Quintette Burns Down The House
When he was a student at Syracuse, Mike O'Connell (now the front man
for a gypsy jazz and swing-grass band called the Grasslands Quintette) was "knighted" by John Lennon.
It wasn't a broadsword that Lennon used, but an umbrella, at a
water-themed art exhibit that Yoko had probably dragged her famous ex-Beatle husband to. The two exchanged words about making the umbrella a part of the show. O'Connell still has it somewhere. Perhaps that knighting
bestowed a sprinkling of Lennon's quick-witted irreverence and ability to poke fun at pretension, while delivering excellent musicianship, because clearly O'Connell can deliver blisteringly paced finger-picking on a
curious array on instruments while making it seem so . . . effortless. He can play and chew gum at the same time – just like Lennon did, if you've ever witnessed that film clip of the Beatles doing "All
You Need Is Love."
It's fun to see a band in which the members appear to be enjoying
themselves while steering clear of that awful and often-displayed bugbear of "taking itself too seriously" evident in countless small Chicago bars on any given weekend. Music well played by people who know
what they are doing always forces ego to wait outside on the stoop. The music itself is what matters, after all.
And musically, any critic would be hard-pressed to find anything
that doesn’t ring absolutely true in the musical selections put together by the Grasslands Quintette – and just as hard-pressed attempting to categorize the musical genre. No pigeonholing means greater freedom
of musical expression, and this is a band that thrives on musical freedom and energetic virtuoso "turns" on the instrumental breaks. The give-and-take generosity of calling for breaks from band members
while the audience lauds the instrumental prowess is commendable. O'Connell's is clearly a guy who will give you the last onion off the grill.
Most recently, the Grasslands Quintette played to an enthusiastic
audience at The House in DeKalb on June 15, an upscale restaurant/café with the feel of a French bistro – an excellent setting for the generous helpings of Django Reinhardt tunes served up by the band. The
Quintette moves gracefully from the more obscure "Minor Swing" and "Djangology" to the more familiar "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "All of Me," somehow making even the most
ingrained and deeply lodged popular songs fresh and vital.
As for the instrumentation, it changes through the night from double
mandolins, fiddle, guitar, and bass to two Selmer-Macaferri style guitars (made famous by Django Reinhardt) or a mandola for situations calling for a throatier, lower-register growl than a mandolin delivers. Each
instrument is played with needle-drop virtuosity – a pleasure to listen to.
Apart from O'Connell, band members include Dale Ludewig, who not
only plays mandolin but who hand-crafts them with his own name on them, and they are gorgeous creations. His excellent tenor harmonies with O'Connell on the band's bluegrass numbers comes from having played together
in several band incarnations over the years. There is also Mike Church on guitar (and occasional vocals, as he belts out "T for Texas" with rockabilly authority and panache) whose fingers move so quickly
they appear ready to ignite at any moment. Fiddlin' Joe Wadz adds some swinging and soaring violin/fiddle work, and rounding out the Quintette at this appearance on doghouse bass was Tim Tyner, an imposing presence
who added soulful bass-thumping worthy of the late great Lum York.
Sporting jackets with tee shirts underneath, the band's appearance
suggests a certain duality – respectful treatment of classics (and an original tune thrown in on occasion) but also an informal breeziness and casual-seeming attitude that only the best of musicians can pull off.
The Grasslands Quintette will be appearing periodically at The House
in DeKalb (815-748-2880) and other Chicagoland venues this summer. They're worth looking for, especially for their ability to swing from the feel-good vitality of a classic gypsy jazz era to the poignancy and
heartbreak of a Peter Rowan tune from the singer-songwriter school called "Midnight Moonlight," which talks about "what might have been."
Is there a more powerful and evocative emotion than regret?
One can imagine Lennon himself puffing on a Gitane and digging it.
©Mark Andel 2002
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On Chicago’s Outskirts, the Grass is Blue
When the angels jam, maybe they play instruments other than harps.
Maybe there are mandolins, and banjos, and fiddles, and a doghouse bass among that starry seraphim, and they are playing bluegrass
music so beautiful and their voices are so heartbreakingly high and lovely that they make you cry and dab continually at your eyes with a corner of your pure white gown.
In Pastor Johnny Ashburn’s heaven, that might be the scenario anyway.
There was something of a preview of it this past weekend at Reverend
Johnny’s Assembly of God Church in Woodstock, a town that may be too far out to be considered a Chicago suburb, but a town still connected by a stretch of rail that goes on for seventy miles or so.
The first of a series of bluegrass shows called the Heartland Bluegrass Concert Series kicked off in the church Saturday night,
bringing some of the more earth-bound stars of bluegrass music together, and it proved to be an outstanding assemblage of talent. Leading off the evening were premier mandolin stylist Don Stiernberg and guitarist
John Parrott, Stiernberg is a gentle and generous presence, and his playing is flawless. Parrott, who studied with the great mandolin jazz artist Jethro Burns, added a jazzman’s sensibility and sense of humor to
the mix, especially when the pair played the theme from “The Odd Couple” and a Hoagy Carmichael number.
Headlining in this initial outing (two more concerts are scheduled for the fall) was the Lonesome River Band, a top-drawing bluegrass
act for many years. Vocalist Don Rigsby may not look too much like an angel, with his scruffy beard and a few extra pounds around his middle, but his singing is plaintive, clear, true, and honest. There are certain
singers who make you believe every syllable they sing: Rigsby is one of these, and the band is bang-on, musically.
In Woodstock, it’s the venerable old Opera House that people usually think about when it comes to bluegrass concerts. Ralph Stanley
still makes the cold trek out here every winter, and other folky soft rock acts like Don McClean make an occasional appearance. But the Heartland Series and Reverend Ashburn’s sanctuary, with its a
state-of-the-art sound system and talent-laden list of performers may give the old Opera House a run for its money.
Reverend Ashburn is an accomplished mandolin player himself, and on the first and third Friday evenings of every month, he hosts an
open bluegrass jam at the Assembly of God church that everyone is welcome to attend, regardless of skill level. And no one can make you feel more open-armed welcome than Johnny Ashburn.
And he may be on to something with this concert series. Woodstock fairly brims with people into music of one sort or another (well,
maybe not hip-hop), and judging by the warm audience response to Saturday’s show, it’s an idea that could take root, like a mustard seed and get people to revisit their religious contemplations.
Coming out to Woodstock from the city does not need to be a big production, either. Up the road a mere fourteen miles or so is Lake
Geneva, Wisconsin, weekend destination of Chicago dwellers wanting to leave the buzz of the city for a while. There are plenty of cheap motels in the area before you get to the pricey Lake Geneva (which, let’s
face it, in the summer is like a miniature version of urban Chicago, with its impatient, Starbucks-swilling clientele).
This is an opportunity to connect with something real and vital.
Maybe even spiritual.
Next up at the Assembly of God Church, 1201 N. Dean Street in Woodstock, is Mountain Heart, warmed up by the Chicago Bluegrass Band on
September 22, and on November 10, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver will be there, with the Running Fox Bluegrass Band. Tickets are $20 apiece. You can order them by phone at 847-726-0521, or send e-mail to
©Mark Andel 2001
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The Last Time I Saw Elvis
ALL OF US who have seen August 16, 1977 come and go, should take a moment and ask ourselves this hunka burnin’ question: what do we
need from Elvis now?
The anniversary of the day he died twenty-two years ago was met with the usual pilgrimages to Graceland, films on television, and news
clips of people talking about what Elvis meant to them. But through all the hype and blue haze, a true picture of the man himself got a little lost. No other entertainer has ever gotten such attention so long after
their death – and the movement will continue, no doubt.
What does it mean? We loved Elvis, to be sure, but we never got to show him how much, and now we’re afraid that he left us not
knowing how much we cared. We want to pull up that crypt near his Graceland swimming pool, peer in and say, “You were great, King. Thanks.”
We want him to be alive so badly that we dream up scenarios of him working at a Burger King outside Fort Wayne, Indiana. Imagine
that guttural voice coming through the drive-up speakers: “Uh, would you like to, uh, try a Value Meal today?” (Why we wish the Burger King thing on him I’ll never know.) One tabloid suggested that he pulled a
Marlon Brando: set himself up on a tropical island somewhere with a bevy of Polynesian women. That’s more like it. Here’s to you, pal. You’ve earned it.
Several months before Elvis died, I went to see him at the Chicago Stadium for what turned out to be his last appearance in the
Midwest. I took my mother because she had something of a history with Elvis, had been through it all with him, and besides, “Blue Suede Shoes” was number one on the charts the day I was born. I was rockin’ and
rollin’ to Elvis before I breathed air.
Though the voice of Elvis sounded muffled in the huge stadium, the voices of the fans around me were clear – and gave me a real
glimpse into the price of stardom, what fans expect and demand, and how quickly the people who supposedly love you can turn on you at the drop of a scarf.
Elvis was resplendent in one of those flared-out white jumpsuits, bedecked with rhinestones in some native American pattern, a cape
draped over his shoulder,, and looking larger than life, but not the bulging slob the press described. “He’s not fat at all!” I shouted at my mother, partly because I didn’t want him to be.
Every time Elvis tossed a glance our way, people around us would erupt into tremendous, lusty screams – men, too, though their
screams sounded more like, “Yeyheyhaaaaay!”
Somewhere into about the third song, a certain restlessness took hold. “HEY ELVIS!” One man shouted, “LOOK OVER HERE!” It was
still nice, but there was an edge creeping in, a vague redneck danger that was almost a threat.
Later, Elvis started passing out scarves to women in the front row. The people around me were too far away to receive one of the
diaphonous offerings, and felt cheated.
One man yelled, “WHAT ABOUT THESE TEN DOLLAR SEATS?” as if a scarf, hand-placed by Elvis himself, should be included in the
admission price. Ten dollars – and to think Mick Jagger and the Stones charge $150 for tickets. I suppose the man was desperate to get a scarf for his wife, driven by the impulse that drives carnival patrons to
invest heavily into shooting at plastic ducks for the chance to win a stuffed animal you might find on the shelves of a dollar store. A trophy is a trophy.
But Elvis was busy up there. He was doing the best he could. I truly believe that he was, and I was shocked by the turning of the tide
in seats around me. Finally I heard one man say, “He looks like a G-----n idiot.”
I couldn’t believe it.
We love him, remember? We waited in line four hours in the rain for tickets because that’s what Elvis fans do! Don’t be talking
about him like that!
I was getting mad.
What if Elvis heard him say that?
Then it hit me.
He’d suffered worse abuse, especially just starting out. People treated him like he was another species – a skinny kid all dressed
up in a gold sequined jacket and singing songs like nobody else ever had. He was made fun of, beaten up, and derided.
But he was never ignored.
He believed in himself from the beginning, and did the work that will always be with us.
Is Ricky Martin the next Elvis? Don’t make me laugh. Two words: “Rick Springfield.” Sure, on Halloween night Ricky Martin will
pack the United Center across from the old torn-down stadium on Madison Street where Elvis rocked the house. But twenty-two years from now people will still be flocking to Graceland for an August pilgrimage, and
Martin will be a rock ‘n roll footnote, like the New Kids on the Block or M.C. Hammer.
So rest now, King. We’ll let you, if we can. ~
©Mark Andel 2001
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