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The Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival could book Nickelback from 2017 until the end of time, and I would forgive them, because in 2013 they booked Ralph Stanley, and I got to see him sing, and to shake his hand and fawn over him.

He was frail already, but it was still one of the finest concerts I have ever seen. That voice will not come again.

“Ralph Stanley is not immortal. In spite of refrains — at least half a dozen at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival alone — of his status as a “living legend,” Stanley is 86 years old and frail. One half of the first-generation-of-bluegrass duo The Stanley Brothers, as well as a solo artist in his own right, Stanley might have just a few years left in him. He already can’t play his famous clawhammer-style banjo. On Saturday, his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, gave Stanley a lyrics sheet so he could remember the words to “Angel Band”, a song which someone in the crowd requested. A song he must have sung hundreds of times.”

Read the rest.

I know Andrew Kirell from his former tenure as Mediaite’s Ed in Chief, and now for the Daily Beast. I also know him to be refreshingly scornful of politics and the worst people in media. I also know him as that guy I met twice, and wish I could hang out with more because he’s pretty legit.

I heard whispers for several years that Kirell had musical yearnings and talents, and I was curious to hear what he sounded like. If you talk to someone a lot, but you don’t know their musical self, it feels mysterious. They could be a secret Bowie or Britney Spears or Paul Simon. You just don’t know.

A few weeks ago, Kirell had me listen to his song “On My Own” and it was completely not what I had expected, in a fun way. I knew Kirell had great taste in music — Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan and all — but I didn’t expect him to sound like the alt country Ian Curtis. He does. He sounds like the alt country Ian Curtis, and it is awesome. Go have a listen over at his Bandcamp page. I’m excited to hear what he does next.

charlieparrCharlie Parr at Club Cafe — March 10

A correction for

October post, Charlie Parr

is able to smile.

 

Willie Watson (with Wood Brothers) at Rex Theatre — April 8

Bros sing Gus Cannon

Drunk. A rare Venn Diagram

is Willie Watson

 

Off-brand Avett Bros.

Maybe bit of Grateful Dead

Needed more Watson

 

Pokey LaFarge at Rex Theatre — April 30

No one with that face

could sing different music,

still pull off “Pokey.”

 

Richard Thompson at Pittsburgh Arts Fest — June 12

Here’s the second time

I’ve seen half Richard Thompson’s

set. Worth twice the bus.

 

Neko Case at Pittsburgh Arts Fest– June 13

Sometimes I wish she

weren’t so dreamy in tempo.

But what a goddess.

 

Mischief Brew at Roboto Project — July 24

Old mosh pit story

Risk life and limb to feel life.

(Still not a commie)

Old Time Etc. With DJ Jesse Walker The DJ 1-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

Old Time Etc. With DJ Jesse Walker 2-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

Old Time Etc. Pairs Show 1-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

Old Time Etc. Pairs Show 2-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

I'm the worst professor in history!The most infuriating thing about the 2012 Christian film God is Not Dead is not that it’s an email forward of a film. Nor is it that I am not a Christian, and therefore this movie isn’t for me. No, it’s simply that this doesn’t have to be so appalling, no matter the yay-Jesus sentiment.

There are numerous dodgy side plots including a Muslim girl who wants to find Jesus (and who wears short sleeves and a sloppy hijab, which I suppose is possible, but sure didn’t look like anything I’ve seen), a woman with cancer (and an I <3 Evolution bumper sticker, which sure seems like a Real Thing a Secular Human Would Have) and various other tedious cardboard cutouts in vaguely human shape. The main event, however, is the battle between painfully clean cut college student Josh and his villainous, atheist, philosophy professor played by Kevin Sorbo, who is both the best actor and the least believable person in the movie.

Professor Hercules isn’t content to simply teach philosophy, no, he demands that each member of his class write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and then sign it in order to pass the class. Josh objects to this because he loves Jesus. The thing is, this is a horrible, bullshit assignment particularly in a philosophy class. Atheist boyfriend who was watching the film for camp value said he wouldn’t do such an assignment. I agreed. There’s an obvious principle at stake (and I will grant that some public schools might complete it because they’re wusses, but enough of them wouldn’t.)

This kind of activity would make you a bad teacher, especially in a setting where it’s not about factually right or wrong answers. This is a cheap, plastic way of making the prof the villain. Instead of making the debate truly rhetorical and religious, the menacing secularism has to be browbeaten into everyone. And maybe it’s some kind of metaphor for the world at large, but within a classroom setting, it’s terrible and false.

In short, this makes even the staunchest atheist want to root for Josh for contrarianism’s sake. (I also want him to call Fox News, Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh and become a national news story, because that would totally work). So, the young, earnest lad decides to fight his professor and debate in front of the class. He’s much too good at it, yet it’s also completely muddled and nonsensical. His metaphor-for-Christians-who-don’t-want-to-make-waves-in-the-secular-world girlfriend is pissed off and dumps him. But Josh soldiers on.

Oh, and professor has a beautiful, Christian girlfriend. She frowns a lot because he’s such an atheist.

The end — spoilers — is the worst. First of all, Josh appears to have converted almost his entire class to Christianity at the end of his final debate. This is, ironically for such an anti-secular movie, pure Hollywood claptrap. Wouldn’t it be more fitting if after class, one shy student came up to him and asked him for more info about Jesus? Then Christians would know that this wasn’t some fairytale confirming all that they believe, but that bringing people over to the Lord takes some work. The film appears to be telling Christians that if they just stand up for God in class, they’ll convert heathens by the dozens. A little humbleness about the state of this here fallen world seems more appropriate and better then this wish-fulfillment.

(I could, and may, write another rant on the difficulties of message movies and making them not Godawful. This relates to libertarian feelings and the several other terrible Christian movies I have watched out of curiosity.)

Prof Hercules had his own reasons to disbelieve in God. However, at the end, to the sounds of the Newsboys’ Christian rock jamz, he gets run over by a car conveniently next to these pastor and his friend who had had car trouble in the earlier film. It was meant to be, see. Hercules comes home to Jesus as he dies in the street. Yep. He converts, thanks to the pastor, but he still dies. And presumably directly in front of his bloodied corpses, the pastor stands in the rainy streets smiling because at least Prof is home now, and someone has even texted him “God’s not dead.” (“God’s not dead — but you are” more accurately.) The pastors or pastor and friend (I forget/who cares) then exchange a line about how “what happened tonight is a cause for celebration. Pain yes, but only for a few minutes. Then, think of the joy of heaven.” Okay, but can you not smile so wide directly in front of the dead man smeared across the street? Can we not immediately be quite so delighted?

The final scenes involve Josh, every other minor character, and someone from Duck Dynasty rocking out to the Newsboys while celebrating his victory over the professor — which, considering that he’s dead, seems a little like adding insult to injury. (Plus, the final scene encourages texting during a concert, which is definitely the work of Satan.)

Horrible, robotic inhuman attitudes permeate this movie, and this ending is the capper. There is no sadness that a man who was just coming around to the Lord, and you know, was a human being in addition to that, is dead. They’re all happy about it. This is one reason why the non-religious find religion — and religious films such as this — cold. How about a little respect for this life, not just pleasure in leveling up to Jesus?

When we’re talking about Jesus, songs are so much different than movies. Suburban Christian rock songs may not be. But painful country music can be beautiful, human, and accessible to the non-Christian just because of the depth of feeling (or even the wrath, if you have the Johnny Cash voice to match God cutting us all down sentiments).

Perhaps because Professor Hercules losing his mother is what made him lose his faith, and this tune is about the very same tragedy, I found myself thinking about “Can The Circle Be Unbroken” after watching God is Not Dead.

First recorded by The Carter Family in 1927, the song has been played many times by many people, but that trio’s version is it for me, because it’s just so brutal. Often in later covers the song is played more as a cheerful, hopeful gospel number. The circle will be unbroken by and by. Everything will be alright.

The Carter Family were not so sure.

AP Carter rewrote a hymn that seems to be a lot more chipper, like the later covers have been. But the Carters’ “Can the Circle be Unbroken” is not joyful or certain, but pleading. The strange, flat Virginia harmonies of Maybelle and Sara Carter make the tale of a mother dying eerie and heartfelt. And in a line that has made me tear up more than once, they sing “Lord I told the undertaker/Undertaker please drive slow/for that body you are hauling/Lord I hate to see her go.”

Maybe — maybe “by and by” they’ll all be together again in heaven. They do believe that. But that doesn’t stop their pain now. It doesn’t even stop the dreadful grief of wanting to keep the body of the loved one. The body is just a vessel, right? The soul is gone to heaven. And they still hate to see what’s left of her go.

That sort of religious feeling — that sort of spreading of a message that says, yes, we’ll probably be in heaven later, but it sure is awful now — is worlds away from the self-satisfaction of God is Not Dead. Religion is supposed to fill those holes in your heart that appear when, oh, say your dear mother dies. I fail to see the good in it if it morbidly cheers the death of someone — even someone who has finally found Jesus.

large_WaynesTopTenLUCY: According to Spotify, the song I listened to most this year was “Golden State” by John Doe. I also accomplished my goal of listening to the entire Anthology of American Folk Music without shuffling or skipping (twice). Mostly, though, even with the shamefully easy benefits of music streaming, I don’t go for the whole, new albums the year they came out. I probably didn’t listen to ten entire albums that were from this year. So, I definitely didn’t have ten albums to pick from a wide list. I have never been culturally timely. Not when I was a Beatles-crazed 9-year-old, not now when my favorite band technically hadn’t broken up yet.

Knowing that, I attempted to make a top ten list of the best 2014 tracks. It is still skewed towards the country side of things, and yeah, one pick is a reissue, but it is a feeble attempt to be as diverse as possible, while only picking songs that I listened to numerous times and actually enjoyed.

After more qualifications than any human being needs, here they are. No order, except for the top three, which should surprise nobody.

Honorable mentions:

“Golden State” by John Doe: I started off cheating hardcore! A compilation is arguably more of a cheat than even a reissue, but dammit, The Best of John Doe This Far was released in June, and I heard the song for the first time this year. It became my number one Spotify jam and earworm, so yes, it almost counts. Beautiful, basic song with love and pain metaphors sounds really good sung by John Doe — at heartfelt level of 11 — and Kathleen Edwards, who has one of those rare voice that isn’t nauseating for all of its excessive sweetness.

“Warbirds Over Hickory” by Endless Mike and the Beagle Club: Side B is a collection of orphan tracks, with this being the subtle, yet undeniable skewering of bullshit news, and bullshit War on Terror shenanigans. (Oh, Mike Miller, why don’t you turn your talents towards how much Obama sucks, since you were my circa 2006 “fuck Bush, man” kind of guy?) Endless Mike and the Beagle Club asks the question: what if the painfully earnest punk playing on the out of tune acoustic guitar in the dirty punk kitchen was really talented and hooky? And also he had a kick-ass rotating punk band, and a surprising number of tambourine and shaker players? And also, that band was everything when you hated college, hated George Bush, and sat in a lot of living rooms with a lot of beers? Side B ain’t the gem that is We Are Still at War, or my all time favorite of The Husky Tenor, but like just about everything Miller does, it has some seriously worthwhile tracks.

“Arcadian Coast” by Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua: A bootleg from like 1998 counts just as much as a compilation. Shut up. I do what I want. It was new to me!

Oh, and Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Dawn Landes covering Bob Dylan’s “Dark Eyes” was really good. And if it had come out in 2014, not 2013, I would pick the bootleg version of Bob Dylan singing “When I Paint My Masterpiece” because holy shit, it is perfect and I listened to it a LOT this year.

I just wasn’t made for end of year top ten lists, children. It is not my nature to be on time. Anway. Let’s proceed.

10) “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift: Here’s my nod to popularity. “Shake it Off” is Godawful, what with the sing-talk breakdown, and the disturbing kinship with “Hey Mickey!” “Out of the Wood” wants to be epic, and is anticlimactic each time. “Black Space” is weird, lyrical, fun, and catchy enough for three songs, instead of one to a half like the aforementioned Swift jams. I am not sure about techno-beat Taylor as a general rule, but I do like this one and its hilarious video. This is also the one song pick on the list from an album I haven’t heard in its entirely. See what happens when you drop Spotify, T-Swift?!

9) “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” by Against Me!: Oh, hey, Laura Jane Grace, turns out an an angry, confident punk album about struggling with being trans is awesome — lyrically and otherwise — in a way that “we signed to a major label/and now I am totally conflicted!” and even “let me be lyrically sodden about my hatred for George W. Bush” isn’t. Not since Against Me! were dirty, hard-traveling punks who wanted to be “a band that plays loud and hard every night/ and doesn’t care how many people counted at the door” have they sounded this good, and this punk.

8)  “Next Sunday” by The Secret Sisters: A fresh, retro, harmony-filled lament about a long week before a lover can be seen again. Superior to the fun, but just a little too close to “Not Fade Away”-sounding single “Rattle My Bones.”

7)  “Waltzing Will Trilogy” by Lavender Country: In a desperate stab for originality, I won’t pick the amazing and FCC-horrifying “Crying These Cock-Suckin’ Tears.” But most of this 1973 gay country album is good. It’s funny, and it’s sad — especially this track, which includes some blistering lines about forcible “fixing” of homosexuality — and it’s real music, even if the country aspect is laid on thick. Its mix of down home affectation and sincerity works bizarrely well. It’s a fascinating piece of history, and it’s also easily listenable today in shiny reissue form.

6) “Dust, Bones, Juice, and Hair” by Martha: Extremely British Belle and Sebastian/This Bike is a Pipebomb-ish/tweeish/pop-punk jam. Over just as it’s getting fun.

5) “Sweet Misery” by Mischief Brew:  It starts acoustic simple, then goes all growling symphonic in its lyrics about a masochistic love affair. Erik Petersen can sing or snarl whatever he likes at me. Let’s say this one is tied with “O Pennsylytucky” and its lines about Three-Miles Island and “Filthadelphia.”

4)  “Life of Sin” by Sturgill Simpson: It was all about Simpson’s trippy “Turtles All the Way Down” for a lot of list-makers. And that’s a solid song, and a great title. But I have to go with this other drugged-up country number. It’s paint by numbers hard livin’ turned into undeniably catchy goodness.

3) “Mexican Cowboy” by Willie Watson: Holy Jesus, Willie Watson went back in time when he parted ways with Old Crow. And that has translated to a ton of seriously stunning live performances, which can be found on Youtube. This song is basically Roscoe Holcomb’s version of the 19th century folk song, but more beautiful. Watson has officially crossed over into Ralph Stanley and Charlie Parr territory in terms of vocals that combine sweetness and an undercurrent of bagpipe-like, gut punching power.

2) “Coping Mechanism” by Shovels and Rope: Shovels and Rope at their best. Piano, drums, guitar: a blistering, raucous, magical duet about doing bad things.

1)  “The Warden” by Old Crow Medicine Show: For all the country-gloss (relatively speaking, this is still Old Crow) put on the first album sans WW, it all ends with a stunning, beautiful, reserved ballad. I don’t just adore this song because it made me cry while writing about a Florida prisoner being murdered by guards (allegedly, I guess), but the strange appropriateness of it at that moment sure helped.

Gil Landry sings lead, with the other gents singing harmony. Some simple guitar  and some basic questions sung in Landry’s deep voice with a whisper of a prison work song rhythm: “Well, the warden stands tall as he walks down the hall/puts all our lives on a shelf/holding the keys/to our misery/how does he live with himself?” A modern, folk classic, and a perfect capper to the album which began with an arguably overly light song about sexy times in prison. “The Warden” is so pure, it elevates everything that came before it on the album. It’s full to bursting with that Johnny Cash spirit of prison abolitionism, and it’s divine.


JOE: Much like the US embargo against Cuba, 2014 saw the end of my own personal embargo against “new” music. In the last ten years (or s0) I’ve purchased a total of one album: Muse’s “The Resistance”. But thanks to Spotify, I finally ran out of excuses. No longer could I casually put down artists I’d never really listened to solely based upon their popularity amongst hipsters and indie kids (I once compared Ryan Adams to the Clarks). I grudgingly combed through the “best of” lists of Spin, NME, Rolling Stone and *shudder* Pitchfork, downloading everything. I even listened to the new U2 album. And as much as I wanted to hate everything, I was pleasantly surprised by the breadth of excellent artists still operating. Rock may be mostly dead, but there’s enough pop, country, hip-hop, and R&B sprinkled throughout the world that I found myself struggling to contain my list to just 10 songs.

Also receiving votes: Marry Me, Archie” by Alvvays, “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, “You Are All That I Am Not” by Band of Skulls, “Down it Goes” by White Lung, “She Looks So Perfect” by 5 Seconds of Summer, “Champions of Red Wine” by New Pornographers, “Congregation” by Foo Fighters, “So Far So Good” by Sloan, “Head Underwater” by Jenny Lewis, “Fever” by the Black Keys, “Ten Tonne Skeleton” by Royal Blood.

Honorable mentions:

“Eulogy for a Rock Band” by Weezer: Once great, Weezer’s output over the last 12 years was, in a word, bad. Yet, here we are in 2014 and I am praising not only a song from their album “Everything Will Turn Out Alright in the End” but *spoiler alert* it made my top 25 of 2014. Now, as far as “Eulogy for a Rock Band” goes, it’s a twin-guitar throwback to a better time, a time before they released an album with that guy from Lost on the cover and we all hated it. Back are Rivers’ slightly flat delivery, big choruses, and twin-attack guitars. Even the production sounds more like Blue Album Weezer than Make Believe Weezer. Tell Rivers to postpone the eulogy, Weezer’s not dead yet. (But get the shovel ready in case they release another Raditude.)

“Bring Me Your Loves” by St. Vincent: Possibly the weirdest track on St. Vincent’s excellent eponymous album — and that’s saying something. The song lurches forward; St. Vincent’s robotic guitar playing trading off verses with her chanting vocals until it explodes into a chorus of huge synths. Stops. Repeats the progression. Builds. And finally throws all the elements together in a glorious cacophony of noise.

“Body of my Own” by Charli XCX: A good old fashioned ode to self-love wrapped up in an 80’s throwback. It’s catchy, bouncy and about sex, everything pop music should be.

“Telepathy” by Crosses †††: The side project of Chino Moreno (of Deftones fame), Crosses gets the benefit of being a side project. Telepathy takes the Deftones formula, ups the dreamy synth quotient, and unleashes a truly funktacular chorus. All while maintaining the ominous feel of a David Fincher movie.

10) “California (There is No End to Love)” by U2: Rolling Stone putting “Songs of Innocence” as their album of the year ended up being only marginally less controversial than their collapsed UVA rape expose. The truth is, it’s a pretty decent album and number 10 on my list. “California (There is No End to Love)” is U2 at all their bombastic best (I mean look at that title). The song finds the band venturing into new territory with the Beach Boys-inspired opening choral of “Ba-ba-bar-bara, Santa Bar-bar-a,” before launching into “peak” U2, which despite the haters, has and always will be exquisite. When the “woaah-a-oh-a-oh” begins the break into the chorus, you’ll know Bono and co. have worn down your aural defense like the breaking of so many waves on the sandy beaches of California. Just go with the flow, man.

9) “Memories of You” by Avi Buffalo: Avi Zahner-Isenberg‘s lyrics are either unabashedly explicit, or just so filled with sexual innuendos, that in the end it almost doesn’t even matter what he’s  singing about. His voice conjures memories of Wheatus (you know, “Teenage Dirtbag”), which makes the lyrical content even more disconcerting. This lurid tale is infectiously catchy, and boasts — at the “climax” of the song, natch — one of the most impressive, original guitar solos in years.

8) “High Road” by Mastodon: The riff of the year, by far. Mastodon’s “High Road” is a Mastodon song, which should paint a pretty accurate picture of what it sounds like. But their usual mixture of bludgeoning RIFFS followed by MORE RIFFS and then a bridge of RIFFS is tempered ever so slightly by the presence of alt-rock producer extraordinaire Nick Raskulinecz. The monster riffs of the verse lead to a chorus which pulls off the impressive task of being crushingly menacing and massively catchy. It’s a pop song for the Mad Max set.

7) “Pretty When I Cry” by Lana Del Rey: A funeral dirge to love, sung by a drugged out Disney Princess. Lana coos and flutters as the music builds ominously throughout the song. Finally breaking into glorious release as she goes supersonic against the backdrop of a thunderous guitar solo.

6) “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” by Against Me!: Lyrics notwithstanding, you’d have a killer punk song. But the sleek production and uptempo beat belie the obvious heavy emotional content promised in the title. When Laura Jane Grace sings “You want them to notice/The ragged ends of your summer dress/You want them to see you/Like they see every other girl/They just see a faggot/They’ll hold their breath not to catch the sick” the song’s brutal honesty knocks you back. It’s a credit to Grace that the song resonates so strongly, even  though most listeners will never have to face the same prejudices.

5) “Himalayan” by Band of Skulls: “Himalayan” is a strutting foot-stomper that throws out wave and wave of groovy riffs, glam beats, and the allure of the male/female vocal dynamic. There’s nothing too revolutionary or transcendent here, it’s just a really good rock song, and sometimes that’s enough.

4) “Lost Domain” by Tim Wheeler: Tim Wheeler of Ash (the best band you’ve never listened to) goes solo in a tribute to his father who passed away after a battle with Alzheimer’s. It’s a emotional powerhouse, packed to the brim with synths, an urgent, driving beat and the requisite “Tim Wheeler chorus”™ (i.e. anthemic). It wouldn’t feel out of place in an ’80s Cusack movie montage. But Wheeler, who has never sounded better, deftly takes the influences and molds them to his style, instead of shamelessly repackaging them. It’s a new direction for Wheeler, but he pulls if off with aplomb; more than a fitting tribute to his father.

3) “Gimme Something Good” by Ryan Adams: The perfect song. Every chord, every note, every word is exactly where it should be. In the future, the chorus will be used in thousands of movie trailers.

2) “Red is White” by Death From Above 1979: All it takes is bass and drums to drive this tale of young love gone bad. Dominated by Jesse F. Keeler’s massive bass sound, the song is immersed in a sense of foreboding that recalls the best of Queens of the Stone Age. You’ll see the tragic end coming a mile away, but with the song’s shifting dynamics and changing moods, its still one hell of a ride.

1) “Red Eyes” by The War on Drugs: As if there was any doubt. “Red Eyes” got to me early (I actually listened to the track when the album was released, not a week before I made this list,) and never let go. A deft combination of Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, and Bruce Springsteen, but packaged in a decidedly modern wrapper. Hints of songs and influences from the past well up, but the band is careful not let them dominate the proceedings. The spirit of the band is fully ensconced in the now. And the song is just really good. Classic, cruising out of town, leaving it all behind good. From the opening notes the urgency of the beat never falters as guitars, snyths and horns cut in and out around Adam Granduciel damaged croon. It’s beautiful revelatory stuff. A song for people who want to remember the past, but not relive it.