I first heard about Jon Wirtz’s music a few moons ago, and since then his album Tourist has turned many a morning of mine into a spirit rave up that lasted all day. Shades of Ahmad Jamal are thrown in juxtaposition to minimalist hues full of positive energy and catharsis. The piano is the center of it all, but to label Tourist piano music is misleading. This is music music, and from my interview with him it is clear that Wirtz is a musician’s musician.
The following interview was conducted via email. . .
David Paul Kleinman: How did the song Gratitude come to be?
Jon Wirtz: That was a fun song to watch from its infant to final stages. Originally it was just a simple instrumental gospel groove that I wrote, although I knew I wanted some female vocals in there. After hearing it, it seemed empty without some sort of lyrics, so I asked Stephen Malloy Brackett (Brer Rabbit from the Flobots) to put some words to it. My only instruction to him was that it was a “simple gospel feel, titled Gratitude.” He’s so talented I knew he’d be fine, and I certainly didn’t want to dictate or inhibit his skills as a writer. He killed it. The song was originally twice as long, time-wise, but his verse fit so perfectly that we just chopped out the piano solo which originally followed.
If you want me or any other critic worth their salt to take you seriously, then you can’t rely on the same tired ad hominem tropes that have been trotted out for twenty years by folks who are attempting to justify their frustration over something being successful that they don’t like. I love vitriol, and when it is practiced by folks like The Onion, it can elevate our discourse. But you are quite literally copy-pasting an OJ Simpson “the glove doesn’t fit” joke twenty years after it was first made. How on Earth can you find that funny or clever?
Here’s the thing you don’t understand: there are plenty of valid and salient ways to criticize Phish or any other band. I could spend days poking fun at the sniveling hipsters you find at Wilco, Yo La Tengo or xx shows. Talk about low-hanging fruit. But why? Would it be funny, clever, or original? Or would it put me in line with 12-year-old Facebook bully working out self esteem issues on an effeminate classmate? If that’s what you want to do, if that’s the level you want to be on, then you are “entitled to your own opinion.” But I fail to see how someone who claims to enjoy music would want to communicate about music with all the substance of Sean Hannity.
A harlequinade is a form of pantomime wherein the clowns are center stage. It is a play in which fakeness is the thing. Criticizing a harlequinade for lacking substance is like accusing McDonald’s of not being a very good vegetarian restaurant. Criticizing the blues for being fake, well that borders on sacrilege, but it’s exactly what Wilson T King has been doing for some time. During our hour-long Facebook chat he tells me “The blues is very close to being stuck in karaoke quicksand. It could become a quaint antiquity.” Without having heard his second album, The Last of the Analogues, you might dismiss his views as irreverent for the sake of attention, but after you listen to the album ten times in a week to feel the feral lines punch you in your primal spine, you take him at his word. He says “When I solo it’s literally pure madness. If you saw me cutting solos you would call a psychiatrist.”
King draws from influences outside the world of music. The track Born into This is a nod to Charles Bukowski’s famous poem, Dinosauria, We. King says “The song is about the continuing historical loop we find the world in, and our ability to break that if we so wish. As Bill Hicks said, ‘It’s time to evolve folks.’ You have to dig deep and find light in the shadows to experience anything in life. The tune is me channeling Bukowski, Band Of Gypsys and grunge.” Like Bukowski, King is breathing new life into an old form. Like Bukowski, King doesn’t give a fuck what the keepers of the form think. Like Bukowski, King pulls his art from the darkest depths and does not see the need to make it pretty.
On a recent episode of The Office, Broccoli Rob (played by Stephen Colbert) yells “Why don’t you ask Trey Anastasio about my pipes?” A response is still forthcoming, but while we’re at it, let’s ask him how he has spawned so many amazing duos. The latest is Soule Monde, a band comprised of a couple TABers from the way back: Russ Lawton and Ray hard-to-spell-his-last-name Paczkowski. Their band name sounds like an exotic sex position, but it’s actually Lawton’s middle name combined with the lopped off end of Paczkowski’s first.
Like the Billy Martin and Wil Blades’ release Shimmy, Soule Monde features two locked-in players who start, end and center each other’s musical sentences. Lawton provides reactive, always in the pocket drums, and Paczkowski unearths a repository of moves heretofore only foreshadowed in his work as a sideman. Paczkowski demonstrates a thorough understanding of players like Jimmy McGriff, Art Neville, Jimmy Smith and Herbie Hancock. The grammy-nominated Lawton’s beats and fills push the melodies along a tightrope. Each tune started as an improvisation but was developed into a full composition: a recipe that can lead to some self-indulgent stinkers. But there’s nothing thrown together or haphazard or indulgent about this album. It’s a fully risen soufflé for the body and the mind.
Stevie Wonder @ Scope Arena – November 5
I will die happy because I have boogied down fifteen feet from Stevie Wonder. I have studied the rips and tears in his clavinet. I have seen his tech guy’s afro shake in the lights as he polished Stevie’s harmonica. I have heard Stevie tear into the wah-wah glory of Higher Ground, then jokingly switch to the syrupy synth of Celine Dion albums, then push the Scope Arena–which opened a year later than nearby Hampton Coliseum–into the Troposphere. I have felt the B-section of Sir Duke snake down onto the floor harder than Zeppelin, fiercer than Rage and crisper than a thousand DJs with a thousand Macbooks. I’ve seen the 62-year-old soul man almost break down and cry before changing gears and rocking the packed hockey arena out into the streets.
[Photo by Sarah Kleinman]
This election eve campaign concert had the feel of a New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden. With Wonder not touring right now, the thousands upon thousands of people waiting outside in the cold knew they were in for something special. Walking up I heard a jammed out version of Signed, Sealed, Delivered. At first I thought organizers had hired a tight-as-hell Stevie cover band to warm up the crowd, but this was the soundcheck from inside. Speakers were placed around the outside of the arena, and screens were put up later for the countless who didn’t get into the free show. During the soundcheck Stevie allowed his guitarist to open the hose a bit, which didn’t happen during the show. However, Wonder’s band for this one-off gig was as tight as any he has assembled–nay, as tight as any band any mortal has ever assembled.
The main obstacle to time travel is not physical. It’s philosophical: If I could go back in time, then I could kill my grandfather or my father or my mother. If I did that I would cease to be and could never have gone back in time in the first place, so how is time travel possible? Electric Shepherd doesn’t give a shit about any of that because they solved a decades-old problem facing psychedelic musicians: How do you sound like you first experienced psychedelia at a free concert in 1961 and not at an un-tss un-tss rave in 1996, or worse yet, at a wub wub dubstep show in 2010? When I first heard their eponymous first album I thought someone had mislabeled some tracks from a late-60s psychokinetic band that didn’t make it onto any of the Nuggets releases. Was there a Strawbs album left in someone’s basement? Perhaps Curved Air had found some dusty reels in an attic? Maybe Premiata Forneria Marconi had meant for Per un amico to be a double album and this was the long lost second half?
No, these time travelers are real; their drummer, Sonny Pearce, was born in 1988. (For the record, that is the same year as Milli Vanilli’s debut album, All or Nothing.) Pearce tells me, “Our band derives its name from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” which was turned into Ridley Scott’s cinematic freak out, Blade Runner. He continues: “I’d say more of the visual aspects of writers like PKD (as opposed to his obvious sci-fi influences) affect the music. We like to map out landscapes lyrically and musically that echo influences from writers and various time periods–i.e. ’60s/’70s. We’re big fans of Dead Meadow, who sound like a ’60s/’70s heavy psych band, but make it new.” Indeed, if Electric Shepherd have traveled back in time to the early-70s San Francisco scene, Dead Meadow have traveled back to the harder, bluesier, Black Sabbathier scene from the same period.