Archive for October, 2009

New Books


Title:  The Cool Gent: The Nine Lives of Radio Legend Herb Kent

Author:  Herb Kent and David Smallwood

Publisher: Lawrence Hill Books

ISBN: 978-1-55652-774-6

Date:  February 2009

We’re happy to promote this new autobiography by pioneering radio deejay Herb Kent “the Cool Gent,” a.k.a. the Black Dick Clark. Beginning his career in 1944 at the age of sixteen, Kent was a fixture on Chicago radio for several decades, most notably on WVON-AM, the most powerful black station in the country.  Though perhaps better known for spinning older R&B records on his “dusty” shows, he is also legendary for creating the first “Punk Out” show on black radio in the early ‘80s.   As Kent tells it,

“I remember being at a club , and they were playing “Whip It” by Devo. The black teens there were just jumping up and down and going nuts over it. I said, “Hmmm, let me play that on the show.” I did, and it turned out to be one of my hottest shows. So I started playing a lot of white New Wave and rock artists- Pat Benatar, the B-52′s, Depeche Mode, the Vapors, the Tubes – and there was the black group, the BusBoys.” On the air I called this Punk Out music, and, man, it was as hot as any show I’ve ever had anywhere.”

Regrettably, the Punk Out show is only mentioned in passing, but no doubt it was extremely influential in terms of exposing Kent’s African American audience to the punk rock scene, and may have even inspired some young musicians to play rock.

Overall, the book presents a fine overview of Kent’s  career as well as the history of black radio and the music industry, told in a manner one would expect from the Cool Gent.  There is even a forward from Da Mayor himself, Richard M. Daley, citing Kents many accolades, from the “Mayor of Bronzeville” to his induction into the Radio Hall of Fame (the first African American deejay to receive this honor).  Kent’s story makes for a good read and, since its one of the few books chronicling black radio, should certainly be considered by both university and public libraries.

Title: I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone

Author: Jeff Kaliss

Publisher:  Backbeat

ISBN: 0879309849

Date:  Revised edition; October 2009

Sly & the Family Stone was one of the first fully integrated funk/rock/R&B groups—with black, white, male and female band members playing an equal role.  Kaliss’ book makes for enjoyable reading and highlights a number of areas of Sly’s career that I was not previously aware of, such as his time spent hosting a radio show (if anyone has airchecks, please drop me a line!).  Originally published last year, there is already a revised second edition of I Want to Take You Higher. According to the author, the new edition updates the story in “A Year in the Life” format, following Sly and various band members, among others, from the time of the last interview for the first edition (February 2008) up to the most recent interview with Sly this past February.  In addition, several mistakes in the main part of the text have been corrected.  If you haven’t already picked up a copy of the original, I highly recommend adding this new paperback edition to your book list.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review October 30th, 2009

Faith

Title: Faith

Artist: Crown of Thorns

Label: Lost Cathedral Records

Catalog No.: 884977176902 (UPC)

Release Date: June 9, 2009

If the music world is like a wheel, then Jean Beauvoir would be a good candidate for its hub, due to the number of artists he has collaborated with. Beauvoir began playing drums as a child and switched to bass when he was a teenager.  At the age of 13 he became musical director for Gary “U.S.” Bonds, a rock ‘n’ roll singer known for his early ‘60s hit songs “New Orleans” and “Quarter to Three.”  Bonds would later collaborate with Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, while Van Zandt went on to establish a close working relationship with Beauvoir.

Following his stint with Bonds, Beauvoir briefly joined the famed doo-wop group The Flamingos as lead singer, then moved on to New York—all before turning 16.  In 1980 he joined The Plasmatics, serving as the punk group’s bass and keyboard player until 1984. The Plasmatics were well known for the outrageous stage antics of lead singer Wendy O. Williams which included the destruction of guitars with chainsaws, blowing up speakers, and smashing television sets with sledgehammers. It was also during this time that Beauvoir began sporting his trademark blond Mohawk.

Beauvoir went on to join Steven Van Zandt’s group, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, but left after two albums to start his solo career. He scored a minor hit with “Feel the Heat” after it was used as the theme for the Sylvester Stallone film Cobra, and produced a couple of albums that were moderately successful in the United States, but overall Beauvoir has achieved greater success overseas. Over the years he has been involved with many other artists, including the Pretenders, the Ramones, the Who, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Nona Hendryx, and Tina Turner, among others, and also released one album (The Awakening Vol. 1, 1989) with his short lived heavy metal band Voodoo X.

Beauvoir’s current musical project is a multi-racial rock band called Crown of Thorns, formed around 1996.  Faith appears to be their 10th album, and the first to be released in the U.S. on Steven Van Zandt’s new label Lost Cathedral.  Following is a brief promo video:

Firmly rooted in the rock of the ’70s and ‘80s, the album’s guitar runs are reminiscent of Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, and others whose playing style was bleached of the blues. The mellotrons and synthesizers sound dated on a few tracks.  For example, when the mellotron plays the strings, they tend to sound very schmaltzy and can make one a little self-conscious about the music. Also, Beauvoir’s voice works best when the guitar is a little distorted, otherwise the energy goes completely out of the song. Though the first three songs run together somewhat, the fourth track, “The One,” is a nice change of pace and contains an interesting piano figure as well as a great guitar sound. “Rock Ready” features chugging, metallic guitars and drumming with a deep pocket, with a sound more akin to Living Colour than Led Zeppelin. The cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild,” however, falls a little flat.

Though Faith fails to say anything new and interesting musically, the band definitely plays very well. Perhaps listening to the Crown of Thorns’ earlier records, along with Beauvoir’s solo efforts, would better serve someone interested in Beauvoir’s career. He certainly deserves to be better known in the States, and to stand alongside other influential black rockers.  Maybe the new collaboration with Steven Van Zandt will help this come to pass.

Following is another brief clip from a live performance in NYC in June 2009, featuring the song “Living in the Shadows” from Faith:

Reviewed by Andrew Crowley

View review October 30th, 2009

Is It Love or Desire

Title: Is It Love or Desire

Artist: Betty Davis

Label:  Light in the Attic

Catalog No.: LITA 047

Release Date: 2009 (previously unreleased)

The central question of Betty Davis’ career can be summarized, without too much over-generalization, as “What’s a nasty gal to do?”  From her eponymous 1973 debut, through her two follow-ups They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal (also just reissued by Light in the Attic), it’s the theme Davis returned to time and again, even as the NAACP, record producers, and other “advisors” pleaded with her to tone down the “hot mama” angle and present herself in a more commercial (i.e. demure) light.

The question itself is not trivial.  Even today, 33 years after the 1976 recording of Davis’ great “lost” album Is It Love or Desire, American culture struggles with its portrayal of, and reaction to, women who refuse to view their sexuality as merely a necessary prelude to the holy grail of motherhood, or to soften it under the socially-acceptable veneers of “monogamy” or “committed relationships.”  Unsatisfied housewives are “desperate;” older women who date younger men are predators (“cougars”).  Modern American life is about women “having it all” – yes, you too can have a career as a high-powered fashion designer, bring your 6-month-old to work and bounce him on your knee as you look over the fall clothing lineup, and run home in time to cook a 3-course meal for your well-coiffed hubby, all while having your period! – but what happens when what a woman really wants is night after night of sweaty sex?  And, if there is a price to pay, might it not be worth it?

Davis’ opening salvo captures a braggadocio more commonly associated with male blues performers (and their rock ‘n’ roll offspring), while at the same time acknowledging the risk of heartbreak and abandonment inherent in the exploration of her sexual identity: “Lover of many men, I’m too hot to handle, I’m too cold to freeze.”  This is a theme Davis returns to throughout the album in songs like “Let’s Get Personal” and, less successfully, “Whorey Angel.”  The former includes a great, almost absurdist, come-on: “I want you to loosen up and think foolish things, because if you can think them you can have them. And by the way, what is your name?,” while “Angel” explores similar territory less creatively.  Indeed, Davis’ bravado fails to conceal the sense of loneliness that pervades Is It Love.  Surely it’s no accident that the original title was to have been Crashin’ From Passion: “We did it on a bed of roses, and now the daylight comes, and I got the I-don’t-know blues, ‘cuz, uh, crashin’ from passion.”

On Is It Love, Davis is accompanied by her band Funk House, a tight ensemble comprised primarily of musicians from Davis’ native North Carolina who had supported Davis live and in the studio starting with 1975′s Nasty Gal.  What Funk House may lack in name recognition (compared to, say, the heavyweights who played on her debut album), they more than make up for in groove and punch.  Clavinet, wah-wah guitar, and thumb-popping bass lines creep in and out of the mix, and the band shifts easily from the throbbing funk stew of the opening track to the guitar-driven rock-funk jam of “It’s So Good.”  More importantly, though, the band and Davis are also capable of surprising range and delicacy.  “When Romance Says Goodbye” is a stunning portrait of the end of a love affair, with a minimalist bass pulse supporting an acoustic guitar filigree that would not be out of place in a Cassandra Wilson or Norah Jones song.  When Davis sings, “There’s so many things in life he has to deal with. I say to him, ‘I try to be a woman.’  He answers back ‘You’re a woman I can’t sleep with.’  It’s strange the way two people change,” the heartbreak is deep, true, and overwhelming.  “Bar Hoppin’” is another departure from the rock-funk groove, a swinging, boozy paean to hard-drinking and hard-living (“Drink it up, drink it down, bar hoppin’, can’t stop it”) that includes a nice interlude of walking bass and jazzy ride cymbal.  There’s even room for a little psychedelia in “For My Man,” which blends together chicken-scratch guitar; spinning, burbling synth lines; and reverb-laden fiddle from (of all people) Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and somehow makes it all fit.

Exactly why Is It Love languished for over 30 years is something of a mystery.  The recording was finished and mastered (the original masters are used for this release), but the tapes never made it to Island Records, Davis’ label, apparently the result of a brouhaha between Davis and the record company.  Davis was clearly fed up with the music industry by this time – “Stars Starve, You Know” is a ridiculously funky rant against Island, the music industry, and anyone else who tries to tone down the Nasty Gal (“They said if I wanted to make some money I’d have to clean up my act.  So I called Miles Davis.  He said, ‘That’s ‘cause you’re a fine black bitch, that’s all of that’”) – and Light In The Attic has done funk fans everywhere a great service by bringing this album back from its undeserved obscurity.  Kudos to the label, too, for including detailed notes and song lyrics (although the librarian in me wishes for a little closer proofreading).  Is It Love or Desire is no throwaway or abandoned, half-finished project.  It’s an album that should have been released 30 years ago, and the missing link in Davis’ discography.

Reviewed by Terry Simpkins

View review October 30th, 2009

Darkest Light

Title:  Darkest Light: The Best of Lafayette Afro-Rock Band

Artist:  Lafayette Afro-Rock Band

Label:  Strut Records

Catalog No.: STRUT042CD

Release Date:  2009

Darkest Light: The Best of Lafayette Afro-Rock Band is a compilation of 15 tracks illustrating the best of the band’s infectious grooves from the ‘70s.  Formed on Long Island, the band relocated in 1971 to Paris, where elements of African music gradually began to influence their funk-heavy sounds. This compilation represents the full gamut of the band’s existence in the industry. First known as Ice before adopting the name Lafayette Afro-Rock Band in 1973, they were also variously known as Crispy and Company and Captain Dax (the latter were pseudonyms for the band in the Japanese market).  Under these names, they recorded a total of six studio albums and three singles.

The tracks featured on Darkest Light derive primarily from the albums Soul Makossa (1974), Each Man Makes His Own Destiny (1972, as Ice), Voodounon (1974), and Malik (1975). Though the Lafayette Afro-Rock Band was not as popular in the ‘70s as many of its contemporaries, the group is now experiencing a resurgence of interest from scholars, artists, and listeners, due to the sampling of their music by major hip hop artists.  Most notably, tracks such as “Hihache” and “Darkest Light” have been sampled by the likes of Wreckx-N-Effect, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Biz Markie, Digital Underground and Jay Z, among others.

Within the tight, and sometimes loose, grooves of Darkest Light, the listener can identify the source material for beats of countless hip hop artists, as well as a spectrum of raw textures and styles that define the Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s sound.  For instance, “Racubah,” which they recorded as Ice, is an Afro-Cuban funk jam complete with clave rhythms interwoven in a hardcore two and four drive with a Hammond B3 and an overdriven guitar riffing harmonies along with punchy horn lines.  This track stimulates the full sonic experience, as it creates an aural image of eclectic timbres connected from low- to high-end frequencies.  It is a quintessential example of an Africanized conceptual approach to creativity, in which various textures and tones co-exist to form a unified whole.

Another example of this approach that reflects Lafayette Afro-Rock Band’s definitive sound is “Scorpion Flower,” which they recorded under the moniker Crispy and Company.  “Scorpion Flower” is a mid-tempo groove that is laid back yet full of momentum, as the instruments are played with multiple melodic, harmonic and rhythmic functions in mind.  For example, the guitar is used as a percussive, counter-melodic, and improvisational vehicle that shifts between artistic assignments during various musical moments.  This kind of creativity is also evident in the synth and percussion parts, exemplifying a distinct way of music-making inherent to the African Diaspora.

It is no surprise that hip hop artists have gravitated to the Lafayette Afro-Rock Band as a source for their groove foundations, because both possess a full spectrum of sounds that redefine and transform conventional Western approaches to creativity and instrumentation.  From the Lafayette Afro Rock Bands of the ‘70s to the Lil’ Waynes of today, a musical connection is evident.  Darkest Light is a must for those who might suggest that hip hop is not linked to the past while it progresses into the future.  It simply speaks for itself!

Reviewed by Tyron Cooper

View review October 30th, 2009

The Astronette Sessions


Title:  The Astronette Sessions

Artist:  Ava Cherry

Label:  Black Barbarella Records

Catalog No.:  Bbarbcd001

Release Date:  2009

Like Betty Davis and Grace Jones, Ava Cherry was a stunning model-turned-singer who rose to fame in the ‘70s, hung with an A-list crowd of artists and musicians, and blazed a trail as a fashionista whose style melded glam rock with futuristic punk overtones. Not surprising, since Cherry was mentored by David Bowie, whom she met shortly after his Ziggy Stardust period.

Cherry performed with Bowie from 1974-1978 as one of his Astronettes-the trio of back-up singers/dancers that included Cherry, Geoffrey MacCormack, Jason Guess-and later a young Luther Vandross. They performed on his Young American album, noteworthy for signaling the shift from glitter rock to “plastic soul,” a term coined by Bowie to explain the mashup of avant pop with Philly soul that he explored for a couple of years.  During this period Bowie was even invited to perform his funk-laden hit songs “Fame” and “Golden Years” on Soul Train, one of the few white artists to receive that distinction (clips on YouTube seem to confirm that he also had some chemical dependency issues).

The tracks comprising the Astronette Sessions were recorded in December 1973 in London and January 1974 in New York.  Produced by Bowie, the album is a rather curious artifact of the era-an assemblage of covers ranging from Frank Zappa’s “How Could I Be Such a Fool” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Spirit in the Night” to an up-tempo arrangement of the jazz standard “I’m in the Mood for Love” that has an unidentified male vocalist scatting over and around her solo (talk about mashups . . .). The bulk of the album features songs written by Bowie, such as “Iamalaser,” “People from Bad Homes,” and “Onlyme.”

Backing up Cherry were several Bowie regulars, including Mark Carr Pritchard on guitar, Mike Garson (from the Ziggy Stardust tour) on keyboards, Herbie Flowers (who later worked with Elton John and Lou Reed) on bass guitar, and Aynsley Dunbar on drums (Dunbar was “almost” hired as Hendrix’ original drummer and was a long-time member of Zappa’s band). Unfortunately, back-up singers are unidentified, and the liner notes by Paul Trynka are somewhat sketchy.

Due to Bowie’s legal and financial issues with his current manager, Cherry’s Astronette project was shelved for 22 years, not to be resurrected until 1995 when it was briefly released with the uninspiring title People from Bad Homes (a Bowie song and the title track).  In 2008 the album was remastered in London and reissued as The Astronette Sessions on Cherry’s own Black Barbarella label. Included is the bonus track “I am Divine,” a disco-leaning funk anthem sung by an unidentified male singer, possibly Jason Guess.

Cherry went on to release several more albums during the 1980s to little acclaim. Her attempt to record rock songs for Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label was rejected, and like other black artists during that era, she was encouraged to “convert” to soul and disco. She eventually ditched her solo career and joined Luther Vandross as a backup singer and dancer, touring with him for 10 years. Though information on Cherry’s recent activities is scarce, according to her website a full-length album is ready for release as soon as a distributor is found. Let’s hope that comes to pass.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review October 30th, 2009

White Lies for Dark Times

Title: White Lies for Dark Times

Artist: Ben Harper and Relentless7

Label: Virgin

Format: CD

Catalog Number: 5099 2 64786 2 3

Release Date: May 5, 2009


With a title like White Lies for Dark Times, I have to admit I was expecting this to be an overtly political album, hopefully containing some hard-hitting tell-it-like-it-is commentary on race relations, poverty, class, and the economy. You won’t find any of that here. What you will find is a gritty, passionate, and eminently solid blues-rock album that chooses its battles but never pulls its punches. The “dark times” here aren’t the external forces of politics, but the inner struggles of the heart and soul, both internally and within intimate relationships.

Leaving his usual backing band, the Innocent Criminals, Ben Harper has teamed up with the Austin-based trio Relentless7 for this recording. Together, they create an unabashed rock album, but one that wears it heritage of blues, soul, and funk on its sleeve. The effect is something that would sound at home in a southern roadhouse, a Chicago blues club, or an outdoor rock festival. At times, Harper and Relentless7 seem to be channeling the spirit of Jimi Hendrix (or at least Lenny Kravitz), but they never come off as blindly imitative or derivative. Harder-hitting songs such as “Number with No Name,” “Lay There & Hate Me,” and “Why Must You Always Dress in Black” explode with wailing guitars, churning bass, and thumping drums. The album’s slow acoustic ballads, notably the understated “Skin Thin” and the softly hopeful closing track “Faithfully Remain,” are remarkably tender and delicate, while still grounded in the rock texture. The mid-tempo “Up to You Now” has the roughness of the faster tracks, but the lead guitar and Harper’s soul-laced tenor wail (somehow reminiscent here of Curtis Mayfield) both ring out sharply over the drums and bass like neon lights flashing in the dark. Following is the official video for the single “Shimmer and Shine” from the album:

Most of the songs take a bitter and wearied look at faded relationships and personal despair. In “Up to You Now,” Harper sings “You wrote a list / with all of your demands / and you nailed it to both of my hands.” He expands on the theme of an entrapping, soured relationship in “Lay There & Hate Me”:

You gave me an eight-page letter
Front and back
Written in your favorite colors
Blood and black
Choose your words so careful
As you’d choose your own grave stone
Lay there and hate me
Better than being alone

Harper has a way with lyrics, however, and a sense of black humor that forces its way out even in such dark times. “Why Must You Always Dress in Black” opens with the quip “You may be a cheap date / but my therapy’s expensive as hell,” while “Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)” finds Harper musing, “I’m not sure what worries me more / the fact that I’m talking to a wall / or that the wall keeps answering me.”

Lyrically, this is pretty bleak stuff, and if the lyrics were the driving force of this album, I don’t know that I could make it through the whole thing more than twice. But as deft and cathartic as the lyrics are, it’s the driving rock and roll energy of the music that carries the work and gives it a sense of exuberance in the face of its dark topical themes. Harper and Relentless7 have put together an album that sounds cohesive and classic from the first listen, without any filler or loss of momentum, and the overall effect is powerful. If these are white lies, don’t bother giving me the truth.

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Reviewed by Ann Shaffer

View review October 30th, 2009

After Robots


Title: After Robots

Artist: BLK JKS

Label: Secretly Canadian

Catalog No.: SC 197

Date: September 2009

Driving distorted guitar riffs backed by complex polyrhythmic drumming and a warped dub-style bass provide a darkly dense foundation for the haunting vocals and brassy overtones that combine to give the South African band BLK JKS a unique genre-breaking sound. While paying homage to many widely familiar styles of African and African diasporic popular music such as afro-pop, reggae, hip-hop, afro-beat and highlife, the band cleverly blend and disguise these styles with a new harder edge. Although often labeled as indie, psychedelic, or progrock and compared to bands such as TV on the Radio and Vampire Weekend, these four musicians from Johannesburg have created a distinctive sound of their own. While plugged into the global media, influenced by such bands as Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, and the Doors, BLK JKS are well aware of their local African heritage, and use its musical palette to create a refreshing, vibrant, and relevant style of afro-rock fusion that is unlike anything presently coming out of Africa or any other corner of the globe.

Following is a short concert-documentary from Afropop Worldwide:

BLK JKS was formed in the wake of South Africa’s oppressive Apartheid era, in a city (Johannesburg) that was at the epicenter of this racially motivated set of policies that plagued this country for several decades. Today, Johannesburg remains a dangerous, crime-ridden, politically charged environment, with racial tensions that still brew beneath the veneer of new integrative policies. The sharp economic disparities and class divisions that exist within its littered streets offer a fertile landscape where artists such as BLK JKS draw inspiration. The band has described their performances as a “sonic exorcism,” which addresses the negative social forces that remain active in their hometown. The aggressive, mangled guitar crunches combined with a rhythmical flurry of percussive crashes on their album After Robots seem to express the anger and frustration that many Black South Africans may harbor in regards to their past and continued mistreatment in their own nation. Sung in a ghostly reverberant legato, themes of racism, recovery, and reconciliation echo through their socially conscious lyrics. In this way, BLK JKS’ music offers a rebelliously youthful catharsis for individuals in, and outside of, South Africa who continue to wrestle with racist stereotypes, economic hardships, and many other ills of modernity. Conversely, their innovative use of a diverse range of musical elements breaks down social and sonic barriers, pointing the direction forward by forging a path lined with new artistic possibilities. Thus, while accounting for the darkness in their nation’s past, BLK JKS also offers hope and optimism for a better future, voicing this message in both English and Zulu.

Founders Mpumi Mcata and Lindani Buthelezi, who grew up on the same street in “Joburg,” began experimenting with rock music from an early age, and later officially formed BLK JKS in 1999. Primarily self-taught, these teenage rockers developed a unique sound that attracted more established local South African artists such as bassist Molefi Makananise and drummer Tshepang Ramoba who were originally hired only as session musicians, but quickly became permanent fixtures in the group. After nearly a decade of struggling for nightly gigs in Joburg, their sound grabbed the attention of an American DJ known as Diplo, whose connections led to the recording of BLK JKS’ 2008 EP Mystery. This album was well received by the underground club and indie rock scenes in New York and eventually spread throughout the U.S., helping the quartet snag a record deal from Secretly Canadian (an indie rock label based in Bloomington, Indiana). The ensemble traveled to Indiana to record its first full-length album in the winter of 2008. After Robots was released in September of 2009 to a fanfare of industry buzz and critical acclaim from the likes of NPR and Rollingstone (to name a few). The group had previously gained recognition this past summer as a featured act at the popular South by South West festival in Austin, Texas. BLK JKS are currently on tour in the U.S. and will soon head to Europe.

In all, while this band, whose sound is often characterized as a chaotic yet controlled, complex, wash of individual solos, may not be for those seeking another soothing afro-pop serenade, BLK JKS’ After Robots offers an inventive energetic soundscape that will challenge listeners to re-imagine African popular music.

For more information check out the band’s official website: www.blkjks.com

Posted by Paul Schauert

View review October 30th, 2009

The Chair in the Doorway


Title:  The Chair in the Doorway

Artist:  Living Colour

Label: MegaForce Records

Catalog No.: 020286137924

Release Date: September 15, 2009


Living Colour has just released its fifth CD project, The Chair in the Doorway, which highlights a plethora of musical styles that the band has mastered over the last three decades. This New York-based band, formed in 1983 by guitarist Vernon Reid, garnished industry attention in 1988 with their hit “Cult of Personality” from their debut album, Vivid.  Since then, Living Colour has experienced a broad range of interest as a result of national and international touring, subsequent CD releases and their association with the Black Rock Coalition, a national organization devoted to complete creative freedom of Black artists, of which Vernon Reid was one of its founders.

The eleven tracks on The Chair in the Doorway highlight why Living Colour continues to be in demand by musicians and music lovers who defy the notion of artistic boundaries.  While the lyrical content seems dark upon first listen, it is couched in a spectrum of expressions that warrants attention.  For instance, “DecaDance” presents the story of moral decay as one climbs the ladder of success governed by a never-ending desire for more.  This track has a typical rock sound, with power chords holding down the harmonic and rhythmic drive while a screaming guitar solo paints the image of corrosion amidst shallow abundance. “Method” creates a two-fold picture, seen from the perspective of one coming down from a drug high, as well as from one who evaluates the reality of social forces that conjure up chaos, yet also exist as an organic, rational, and expected dimension of life itself.  The track flows like a hypnotic merry-go-round both lyrically and instrumentally, with its evasive yet committed rhythmic and melodic loops.

Following is a clip of Living Colour performing “DecaDance” at Leverkusen Jazztage Nov. 3, 2008:

“Bless Those” is a straightforward bluesy funk that plays on sacred/secular fluidity both in lyrical and musical structures. The climactic phrase “those that can go either way” in the hook positions “Bless Those” (or those blessed) within the parameters of human experience, wherein a constant identity struggle occurs.  The hybrid structure of funk, blues, and rock in this track exemplifies such conflict and, ultimately, its resolution in musical terms.  While “Bless Those” highlights the two-sided coin of human existence, the track also represents the totality of The Chair in the Doorway: at any given time, most, if not all, of us become manifestations of obstacles and entry points into the societal hierarchy that produces haves and have-nots, as well as the emotional baggage that comes with every status level.  This project may not be for those on the edge, as it might push them over.  It is, however, for those who recognize the inconsistencies, tribulations, and triumphs that are germane to life itself, and who wish to have a musical soundtrack that spells it all out.

Reviewed by Tyron Cooper

View review October 30th, 2009

Fire in the Dark


Title: Boldaslove.us Presents: Fire In The Dark

Artist: Various

Label: Boldaslove.us

Format:  MP3 (available for free download)

Release Date: September 19, 2009

Since early 2007, Rob Fields has been championing the existence and worth of Black rock at his blog, Bold as Love.   No stranger to the Black rock scene, Fields was the PR director for the Black Rock Coalition in the early 1990s, and later managed alternative Black musicians such as Josh Roseman, Graham Haynes, and Remileku.  He has described Black rock as “an invitation to break the frame of things we take for granted-what we listen to out of course, avenues through which we can express ourselves, even notions of what it means to be authentically black.”  With his marketing background, Fields is profoundly interested in how to attract an audience, particularly a Black audience, for Black rock music, and how Black rock music can positively influence Black culture.  In Bold as Love, he explores these ideas through thoughtful essays, as well as posting responses (both positive and negative) to pop cultural occurrences related to Black rock, and interviewing prominent figures in Black rock on his podcast BoldasRadio.  He also promotes Black rock-related events and performances through the blog’s related event series, BoldasLIVE.

Fields has just released a new compilation, Boldaslove.us Presents: Fire In The Dark, which he describes as “songs from the new Black imagination.” Featured are 17 tracks from some of the hottest black rock artists on the scene today.  Highlights include “Ocean” by Tamar-kali, “Freedom is Over” by Sophia Ramos, “The Ballad of Fletcher Reede” by The Smyrk, “Never Goin’ Home Again” by Honeychild Coleman, and “Blak Girls” by Shelley Nicole’s Blakbushe. Many thanks to Rob for making this compilation available to black rock fans free of charge!

(Both Fields and Tamar-kali will also be participating in the upcoming conference Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music)

Reviewed by Ann Shaffer

View review October 30th, 2009

White Lies, Black Sheep


Title: White Lies, Black Sheep

Artist:  James Spooner (director)

Label: Renew Media

Catalog No.: N/A (no commercial DVD release)

Date: 2007

White Lies, Black Sheep is the work of James Spooner, a modern day Renaissance man. In addition to being an independent filmmaker and producer, Spooner has sculpted, promoted records, built custom-made bicycles, danced in an iPod commercial, founded the Afro-Punk Festival in Brooklyn, and co-founded the Freedom Rides-an organized bicycle ride supporting black community building in Los Angeles. His most recent projects include tattoo art and fatherhood.

Spooner’s own experiences with alienation and negotiating multiple identities have served as the motivation behind both of his films. Although Spooner has spent most of his post-toddler days living on the West and East Coasts of America, he was born in the Caribbean nation of Saint Lucia to a black father and a white mother. In an interview with Konstantin from Defkon City Presents, Spooner describes how he had always thought of Saint Lucia as home until he returned there for a visit. Initially immune to the exclusionary forces he faced as one of the only black people in a predominantly white punk scene, Spooner found this visit to be a life-altering experience. He quickly discovered that he knew little about life and culture in Saint Lucia and that there his biracial identity caused people to label him as a white outsider.

Spooner’s desire to fit in caused him not only to re-evaluate his racial identity, but to question how he could be so involved and politically active in a predominantly white punk world without addressing its glaring racial issues. This new racial consciousness inspired his creation of the film Afro-Punk, which Spooner used to open communication among black members of the punk community. The film soon developed a cult following and served as the driving force behind the first Afro-Punk Festival in 2005.

After the success of his documentary film Afro-Punk, Spooner has released his first narrative film. Promoted as a semi-autobiographical tale or a pseudo-documentary, White Lies, Black Sheep closely parallels Spooner’s own experiences. The main character, Ajamu “AJ” Talib, is a concert promoter for the underground rock scene in Brooklyn, New York. Much like Spooner, the seed for AJ’s awakening is planted by a visit home-although in this case the visit is to his father’s apartment as opposed to his home country. During his train trip to the apartment, AJ is clearly uncomfortable as he tries to blend in with other black community members. He even goes so far as to hide his punk hairstyle when the other passengers heckle his appearance and accuse him of thinking that he’s white. Once at the apartment, AJ’s father confronts him over his involvement in the punk scene and his need to educate himself about black issues.

Throughout the film, AJ receives pressure from both his white friends and members of various black communities to conform to black social norms. People criticize his clothing and hair (when he doesn’t hide it) and his best friend encourages him to adopt an afro hairstyle, listen to R&B, read Malcolm X, and date black women.

After two failed attempts to start a relationship, AJ’s internal crisis goes into overdrive and he gradually begins to give in under social pressure to conform. He starts to explore black social venues and to study the lives and works of Fela Kuti and Malcolm X. When AJ starts getting too close to his best friend’s black girlfriend and attempts to incorporate black dancers into the shows he promotes, the racist backlash from his friends and the club owner severely shakes his devotion to the rock scene.

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the film is the integration of Spooner himself into the film. Playing the role of a documentary cameraman, Spooner refuses to remain a detached observer. He almost plays the role of the film’s antagonist as he forcibly documents the darkest moments of AJ’s downward spiral of self-destruction. By not allowing him to turn away from his own inner turmoil, the camera serves as a catalyst for AJs final crisis. Whether Spooner is ultimately a demon tearing AJ’s life away or an angel facilitating his rebirth by forcing him to recognize and let go of the things that are hurting him, however, is a matter of perspective.

Unfortunately, White Lies, Black Sheep doesn’t appear to be available to the general consumer market as of yet (although you can purchase educational copies through the Afro-Punk website for around $300-extremely reasonable as far as educational sales go). If you’re local to Bloomington, however, you can catch the film for free at 7:00 PM on Friday, 6 Nov. 2009 as part of the City Lights & Underground film series. More details on the screening are available on the City Lights & Underground website.

As part of the Reclaiming the Right to Rock conference on Friday, 13 Nov. 2009, Spooner will participate in a Q&A session following a free screening of Afro-Punk. See the official conference website for details.

Official trailer for White Lies, Black Sheep, courtesy of James Spooner:

Posted by Ronda L. Sewald

View review October 30th, 2009

Electric Purgatory


Title: Electric Purgatory

Director: Raymond Gayle

Format:  DVD, NTSC (85 min.); also available as View-on-Demand

Label: Cinetic

Catalog No.: 83629 68138

Release Date: November 26, 2008

Black musicians have held a very peculiar position in rock ‘n’ roll music even though the genre is rooted in the African American musical continuum. Outside of the grand successes of Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard and a few others, black rock-n-rollers have been categorically marginalized in a genre that their culture helped create. Raymond Gayle’s Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker (2008) details the historic struggles of black rock musicians as they navigate the intersections of music, industry, and race. Part history and part conversation, Electric Purgatory includes commentary from a number of notable black musicians including Angelo Moore of Fishbone, Doug Pinnick of Kings X, and Cody Chesnutt.

The film’s first half is a history of African American participation in rock ‘n’ roll. Featuring archival footage and supporting commentary, this section explores the ways in which artists such as Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Rick James and others have occupied both foundational and marginal spaces within rock music. Particularly intriguing were the discussions of Little Richard’s influence and Spacey T’s (Fishbone) comments about late P-Funk guitarist Eddie Hazel, who is often left out of the pantheon of guitar heroes. The second half focuses on the relationship between black rock musicians and a music industry that has often limited their opportunities for advancement. The almost heartbreaking sentiments from Angelo Moore within this section are by far the film’s most captivating moments.

The only complaints one could make about this film is that a lacks background information on featured artists and there is not enough discussion of the reception of black rock by black audiences. Outside of those minor issues, Electric Purgatory covers a lot of ground in roughly seventy minutes. Gayle does an excellent job of balancing the rich history of black rock music with discussion of the issues that have plagued it since the beginning. Therefore, the film never seems overly romantic or too dispirited. If one is looking for a thorough examination of what it means to be a black rock musician, Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker is definitely the way to go.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review October 30th, 2009

Welcome to the October/November Issue


JLyons
Welcome to the October/November issue of Black Grooves.  In celebration of our upcoming conference, Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music, which will be hosted on the IU-Bloomington campus on November 13-14, 2009, we’re devoting the entire issue to black rock. Featured are two recent films, Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker (dir. by Raymond Gayle) and White Lies, Black Sheep (dir. by James Spooner, best known for his film Afro-punk).  We’re also covering new releases by Living Colour, BLK JKS, Ben Harper, and Crown of Thorns (led by Jean Beauvoir).  Among the reissues are Ava Cherry’s The Astronette Sessions and the Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s Darkest Light, as well as a previously unreleased album by our favorite funk rock diva Betty Davis.  Finally, you won’t want to miss the new free compilation from Boldaslove.us featuring 17 tracks from some of the hottest black rock artists on the scene today.

View review October 30th, 2009

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