movie: Muscle Shoals

muscle shoalsFollowing up on The Secret to a Happy Ending that we watched the other night, I finally found the time to watch this 2013 documentary, too. I’ve been hearing about it for the last two years and knew I needed to see it, and now I’m passing it on: go see this film now.

Muscle Shoals is about the town in Alabama of the same name, a small place, a backwater, where some of the greatest American music ever has been recorded. It’s full of beautiful cinematography portraying the natural beauty of the place, and full of impressive musicians talking about the special magic made there. The list of contributors is formidable: Gregg Allman, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Rick Hall, David Hood (Patterson Hood’s dad), Mick Jagger, Alicia Keys, Ed King, Spooner Oldham, Keith Richards, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton… and that’s a who’s who of who is in the movie, not who recorded there. That list is longer and more impressive. There are also video footage and audio tracks from back when history was being made at FAME Studio and later at Muscle Shoals Sound. The whole thing is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. You can view clips here; but really, you want to go find the whole thing.

The morning after, I ran out to my local record store and bought albums by Etta James, Wilson Pickett, the Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. What will you buy?

Rating: 9 tragedies in Rick Hall’s life, whew.

movie: The Secret to a Happy Ending

From the band’s website:

This is a film about the redemptive power of rock and roll; it’s about the American South, where rock was born; it’s about a band straddling the borders of rock, punk and country; it’s about making art, making love and making a living; it’s about the Drive-By Truckers. This film documents the band and their fans as they explore tales of human weakness and redemption. With unparalleled access, this documentary encompasses three critical years of touring and recording as the band struggles to overcome trauma and survives a near breakup, in a persistent search for a happy ending.

secret to a happy endingThe Drive-by Truckers are one of my favorite bands and one that has had an impact on my life and how I look at my world. It is a love I share with the Husband. We saw this movie in a theatre when it came out to town, back in Houston. We bought a copy of it on DVD, too, and now I am in this writing class and working on a long essay about the Truckers and what they mean to me; so as research, we watched the movie again at home.

Obviously and basically, I love the movie because it is a distillation of the band. The filmmaker was lucky to have the Truckers’ cooperation, and followed them to several shows, recording live footage; and interviewed all the band members repeatedly, as well as some of their families. Cultural authorities like a university professor (and obvious DBT fan) and music writer get screen time as well. This is a fan’s documentary, and I think fans can’t help but be pleased by it. Non-fans are liable to become fans… but then, I’m biased.

I like that the movie captures a moment in the life span of this long-lived band, reviewing the early years (including the band Adam’s House Cat, where the two lead men, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, originally played together) and then getting into a few difficult years, when bassist Shonna Tucker and guitarist/singer/songwriter Jason Isbell divorced, and Isbell left the band. (He’s had an impressive solo career since. Look him up.) One of the things I’ve come to love about DBT is how many layers there are to love, investigate, and appreciate – like the people involved. The story of Shonna and Isbell breaking up is maybe none of my business; but you can bet all the band’s fans followed it and had feelings about it, nonetheless. For the record, I blame no one and wish them both the best.

It’s a hell of a good movie, and even if you’re not a Truckers fan, I think it’s a fine documentary about rock-and-roll (and other things too). It pulls my heartstrings.

Rating: 9 songs.

I hope this is not too off topic, but I want to share a short piece that didn’t make it into my longer essay about the Truckers and their impact on me.

I have a large tattoo covering my right arm and shoulder: a tree and its surroundings and inhabitants: fallen logs, grasses and flowers and mushrooms, a bunny rabbit, a snake, a squirrel, a turtle, a weasel, a fat yellow songbird. On the front of my shoulder, the tree’s branches part around a Cooley bird. Around the back of my shoulder, wrapping onto my back, a black owl with red eyes flies away, departing. It’s the same owl that my husband Chris has tattooed on his left bicep, flying above a leafless tree on a burnt yellow desert and under a spooky moon that looks down with knowing eyes and a slight smirk.

These tattoos borrow images from Wes Freed, a Virginia-based artist who has drawn all the art for all the Drive-by Truckers’ albums, posters, website art, promotional material, backdrops, and etc. since time immemorial (or at least the Southern Rock Opera album of 2004). He is the band’s brand. In a documentary about the Truckers called The Secret to a Happy Ending (whose cover art he also created), he says: “It’s always about the music. The music is the most important thing. But there’s so much going on with the records. It’s cool to be able to have the opportunity to illustrate the songs. That’s cool.” Wes Freed. I love that his named is a sentence: Wes Freed; or else a description: Wes, Freed. And the songs are themselves filled with dark and toothsome images. I did my own (very poor) copy of Freed’s illustration of “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” a song based on true current events in which a Tennessee preacher’s wife kills her husband: in court, her lawyers then displayed “them high-heeled shoes and that wig he made her wear,” as evidence of how abused she had been before she just snapped. Freed portrays a woman in a see-through negligee and high-heeled pumps, blue hair piled and stacked high, holding a shotgun whose smoke swirls around to caress her against an enormous yellow moon. A monkey in a fez cavorts behind her. I’ve looked and looked for Freed’s illustration of this song on the internet, but it seems to have disappeared; all I have is my poor imitation.

Thanks for reading.

a few more photos: Drive-by Truckers in Nashville

Following up on my earlier Walk About Town post, Husband has graciously shared with us a few pictures he took with his magicphone. Thanks, Husband!

John Neff on the guitar

left to right: Brad Morgan on drums; Patterson Hood on vocals/guitar; Mike Cooley "the stroker ace" on vocals/guitar; and David Barbe on bass, recently replacing Shonna Tucker who we miss very much.

Neff on steel guitar


Lovely pictures, Husband. Thanks for sharing!

A Walk About Town: Nashville

A Walk About Town is hosted by Natalie over at Coffee and a Book Chick.

Y’all, I had the *BEST* time last weekend! Husband and I flew to Nashville on Friday afternoon to catch not one, but two back-to-back concerts by our favorite band, the Drive-by Truckers. And not only were the shows great, but we found the city to be very pleasant and attractive (although cold), and with some neat things to see, too.

For example: did you know that Nashville is “the Athens of the South”? I didn’t. We visited Centennial Park, the setting for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897 (the state’s 100th anniversary was actually in 1896, but it took them a little while to get the fairgrounds together!) – think Chicago World Fair (of the same time period) but on a statewide scale. They had a great many exhibits, including an Indian Village and a Chinese Village, etc. which would not pass PC-muster in modern times; and the park is still lovely today. But the real draw for me was the Parthenon. That’s right, Nashville boasts the world’s only full-size replica of the Parthenon of Athens.

Nashville's Parthenon in Centennial Park

After the Exposition, it was allowed to crumble and decay, ivy crawling up its walls, but they later restored it and just in the last 15 years built their full-size replica of the 43-foot-tall statue of Athena that resides within, making it a still more faithful copy. Also within are replicas (also full-size) of the fragments of the pediments of Athens’ Parthenon; the originals now reside at the British Museum. I am a fan of Ancient Greece, and this was an absolute treat for me. Husband was patient with me and even found it a little bit interesting himself I think!

the western pediment depicts Athena battling Poseidon for the right to patronage of this new city. (guess who won)

the eastern pediment depicts Athena's birth - you recall, she sprang fully-clothed and arms from the head of her father, Zeus.

the statue of Athena. they are careful to explain that the gaudy face paint and gold leaf is believed to be historically accurate.

And finally, the rest of the park was a nice outdoor space but not so pleasant while we were there at just-below-freezing temperatures and a biting wind. The Canadian geese (accompanied by mallards in the scenic waterway) did not mind so much.

Canadian geese - they let us get very close. quite tame, of course. I'm sure they're fed by a lot of tourists

can I show you one more picture of the Parthenon?

From Centennial Park we moved on to Antique Archeology. If the Parthenon was my choice, this one was Husband’s; he’s a fan of the show American Pickers, and this is one of several (I think) of their stores where they sell the goods they “pick.” It was funny to see the scene; what presumably used to be an antique shops or good-junk shop is now kind of a theme park for fans of the show. One whole wall is t-shirts. It was packed (on a Saturday – of course) and we didn’t stay long but Husband got a souvenir koozie and we had a nice chat with an employee. Here is Husband’s arty shot of the window sign:

just don't look if it hurts your face

The building it was in was really cool.

Marathon Automobiles houses Antique Archeology

From there we needed a break, so hit up Blackstone Brewery, where we had several good beers and a great lunch. Our bartender, Chris, was very friendly, and I do appreciate a chatty bartender as Husband can attest. It was a perfect way to warm up and while away our afternoon before napping and heading out for live music. Look, they even have a little library nook!

lovely! no actually we sat at the bar.

I did get around to reviewing the pub on Beer Advocate, where I’ve gotten lazy and done less reviewing in recent years. I don’t know if you can still view reviews there without logging in, though. It’s free to set up an account, but not everyone will want to. Try here and let me know. If you’re looking around, I’m texashammer and mine will presumably be the most recent Blackstone review at least for a little while.

But what of the live music, you say? That was our whole original reason for being there! I don’t really have too many pictures to share from that part of the weekend, for one thing, but I’ll tell you the story (and save the best picture for last).

We saw both shows at the Cannery Ballroom, which despite getting mixed reviews we found a great place all around. Beers are waaay cheaper than at the House of Blues in Houston where the Truckers have been playing every time they’ve been to town in recent years. (Boo hiss HOB.) The sound was good. (I finally remembered my ear-plugs on the second night!) Friday night’s opening act, Nikki Lane, was great – a country singer-songwriter with a gender-equal band and kind of a loungey feel to her twang. Saturday night’s opener was The Bobby Keys Band, and they were rad, too. The Truckers absolutely killed it; these were two of the better shows I’ve seen despite Cooley being (ahem) a little buzzed on Friday night. Both nights they played us an encore that must have been 30 minutes long – a real treat. My only complaint is the 9 or 10 songs I counted that we heard both nights. This is a band with too much material – even having lost bassist and songwriter Shonna Tucker recently (sob!) – to give us repeat material. But they’re all good songs. (If you want to hear about the night from someone with better rock-show vocabulary than I have, there’s a pretty good article here.)

And here is the highlight: both nights I hung around after and got to talk to steel guitarist Johnny Neff, and he was so nice! People, I tell you I’ve been milling about after these shows for years, and this was my first reward. On Saturday night he even let me take a picture with him!

me with steel guitarist John Neff!

Johnny! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Keep up the good work!

Sorry for the long post but what a super great weekend I had. Thanks for the Valentine’s Day present, darlin! We love Nashville and I can’t wait to go back. Anybody else get up to anything cool this week?

A Walk About D-Town

A Walk About Town is a brand-new meme hosted by Natalie over at Coffee and a Book Chick. I liked the idea the first time I saw it, but wasn’t sure my life would be exciting enough to warrant a weekly post! This week I do have something to share, and Natalie, I love the idea. I’ll do my best to be exciting enough to keep up. :)

Last weekend I took a road trip with one of my very oldest, best friends, Barrett. You might recall that I am still recovering from knee surgery; when we left on Saturday, I was 8 days into recovery. So we took a borrowed wheelchair with us, and Barrett used that as an excuse to rent us a big ol’ Cadillac for the drive! (I wasn’t ready to drive my car yet, and it’s too difficult to drive for me to wish it on Barrett; and he drives a Vespa.) On Friday night we had been to see another friend play in Sunward, a band from Dallas. It was their very first Houston gig, and a bunch of old friends turned up for it. So we dragged a little bit on Saturday morning, but did get off, in the Cadillac, with the wheelchair, headed (by coincidence) for Dallas.

We had an uneventful drive and hooked up with another friend Jimmy for an evening that started with sushi and sake (SO good) and then took us on to the Polyphonic Spree Christmas Extravaganza. This awesome and totally unique (one might even say weird) band, complete with choir on risers and often staging as many as 30+ members, hadn’t put on a Christmas show in 3-4 years, so it was a neat reunion for us. The first set is Christmas music for the youngsters – and this was preceded by We’re Not Guys, a band made up of four girls, three maybe middle-school age and one I feel sure was in grade school! They weren’t terribly complicated musically but it was impressive as hell. Anyway, then came the Spree’s Christmas set, then the Syncopated Ladies performed – this is a group of ladies of a certain age who do a dance routine. And then we got the Spree rock set – and I have to admit, I was getting stiff and uncomfortable in my wheelchair by then, and maybe didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have. But they do put on a show, with lots of positive energy, and I love watching ALL those musicians rocking their various instruments, and singing along. It was a neat thing to experience again, as it’s been several years since I’ve seen the Spree live.

From there we let Jimmy take us on to a dive bar whose name I’m not sure I ever caught – I think it started with an A – where I got a way comfier seat, and could elevate my knee; Jimmy brought me all the cans of Lone Star my heart desired, and a local classic-country band called the King Bucks was rocking out. And strangely – considering that the Spree had been the point of the trip – that was my favorite part of the evening.

The three of us stayed up too late catching up, and then started our day on Sunday with brunch and (for me) mimosas, then on to a decent beer bar in Jimmy’s neighborhood for the final moments of catch-up time with Jimmy. (Barrett and I had a 5-hour car ride together still to come.) It was action-packed – I never got Husband on the phone the whole weekend til we were halfway home! – but so good. I’m just sorry Jerko wasn’t able to join us in his own town (he had another gig Saturday night). I can’t wait to do it again. Thanks Barrett for driving and Jimmy for hosting; good times! I did find just one picture, only because I shamelessly stole from Barrett who hopefully will not sue me. This is Tim Delaughter (formerly of Tripping Daisy), the lead for the Spree, amid the confetti:

Thanks Natalie for the idea for today’s post. And what have you, lovely readers, done lately that’s interesting?

Percussion Ensemble Chamber Concert, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University

Rice University here in Houston is a very prestigious school in itself; its Shepherd School of Music is one of the top music schools in the country. They put on a bunch of free concerts, and I recently (Oct. 16) went with a friend to see a percussion concert in the Alice Pratt Brown Hall:

(photo credit due to the structural engineering company that designed the building)

It was an amazing set of performances. There was a lovely diversity of instruments and styles. Now, I’m no musical scholar, so these are my amateur’s impressions…

The first piece was “Varied Trio” by Lou Harrison (three parts: Bowl Bells, Gending, and Dance). Two percussionists switched around between playing bowls, xylophone and marimba, accompanied by a violin. I was really there for the xylophone and marimba; I love the clear, pure, resonant tones they make. And the bowls were very interesting, too. I liked how the violin was mostly plucked rather than played with the bow; it behaved more like a percussion instrument that way.

Next two young ladies performed Marcel Tournier’s “Promenade a l’Automne” on marimba and cello. This was a truly amazing and beautiful piece of music and far too short! I wanted much more of them!

Bela Bartok’s “Duets for Two Violins” (Pillow Dance, Ruthenian Dance, Arabian Dance) was performed by one violin and a marimba, and the marimba stands in beautifully for the second violin, as far as I can tell. I liked that each movement had its own sound to it. While a violin makes lovely music I really love what the marimba brings. The notes it creates are like liquid or glass, so round and perfect.

John Cage’s “Credo in US” was the evening’s total departure. I would call this piece avant-garde, although I’m not sure of the technical correctness of the term – I’m no music student. It involved a piano, two percussionists playing a bunch of what seemed to be plain old tin cans, and a fourth student playing samples of recorded FM radio. Most odd and cacophonous; my immediate thought here was while Husband would not necessarily have enjoyed the earlier pieces – not enough metal – HERE was the metal; he’d be fine! It was a really, really fascinating and interesting piece. It was suspenseful; I was certainly not sure what was coming next and I’m not sure I would have noticed if one of the musicians had made a mistake. :) It reminded me somehow of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Make of that what you will. But I mean all of it in the most positive way!

Next came a young lady on the marimba (or xylophone? I’m not sure I recall) accompanied by a French horn, and this was just so lovely! They played Verne Reynolds’s “Hornvibes” in three movements: Fantasy, Riffs, and Elegy. The first and third played with harmonics; my buddy Justin (my date for the evening, and a musician, so we’ll listen to him) said the timing was based on the intervals of the harmonics. The waves of sound were almost tactile; it was amazing.

“Birdsong” by Scott R. Harding was performed on marimba and alto sax, and was enjoyable and kind of jazzy (maybe that’s just the sax getting to me) but I think I was distracted by trying to find the titles of the three movements (Bird of a Feather, Flock Together; Kill Two Birds with One Stone; Early Bird Gets the Worm) in the music, which I couldn’t. Maybe I was being too literal.

Bernhard Heiden’s “Four Fancies” (in three movements, confusingly: Ostinato, Dialogue, and Coda) finished up the night with a xylophone, a marimba, and an electric bass, which was an interesting touch. I’m pretty familiar with the concept of the bass as a percussion instrument; this involved three instruments that are both percussive and melodic. I love that kind of playing around with the definitions.

My favorites pieces of the night were “Promenade a l’Automne” and “Hornvibes.” It was a very special evening; I need more music like this in my life. Best of all, these performances are free, you don’t have to dress up unless you want to :), and just showing up helps local musical talent by showing support (and giving them an audience to practice any stage fright upon). Thanks Justin for accompanying me. I’ll be back for more!

Broadway presents Chicago

Mom and I went to see the Broadway production of Chicago play here in Houston a few weeks ago. She had seen it before, in London, and we had each seen the movie; I have the soundtrack and love it. It was neat to see a show that was so very familiar to me. I think this was a unique experience for me in a Broadway show; I guess seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream is comparable (in my familiarity), but not much else. Certainly, if I were to see RENT again… This had me tempted to sing along, but I refrained for the good of those seated nearby. :) These performers are too great for me to, ahem, help them out.

John O'Hurley as Billy Flynn

Do you know the story? Roxie Hart has been cheating on her boring husband Amos in 1920’s Chicago, when her boyfriend threatens to leave her. Not able to take this final rejection, after years of trying to make it in vaudeville, she shoots him in her rage. While imprisoned, she meets the famed vaudeville star Velma Kelly, awaiting trial for killing her sister (and partner on the stage) and her husband when she caught the two of them together. Popular culture, entertainment and stardom are mixed up with criminal infamy in Jazz-Age Chicago, and Roxie wants to be just like Velma. Step one is securing the same top-shelf lawyer, Billy Flynn, who makes a name for Roxie while getting her off on the murder rap.

But like most Broadway musical theatre, the story is secondary. This is a great story, a strong plot with hilarious characters – one of the better stories you’ll find – but still, the song and dance is the main point. I was so thrilled to see live performances of my favorite numbers, like the Cell Block Tango, When You’re Good to Mama, Mister Cellophane, and Razzle Dazzle.

Tracy Shayne as Roxie Hart

This is a great show, and I have to agree with all the promotional hype that says if you’re going to see just one, or your first, Broadway show, this is an excellent choice.

I will also say, though, that I loved the movie. For me, Roxie Hart IS Renee Zellwegger; Billy Flynn is Richard Gere, Velma Kelly is Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Mama is most definitely Queen Latifah. The woman who played Mama in Houston has an amazing voice, but Queen Latifah gave her more sass.

It was a great time all the same, and I recommend Chicago in any and all its forms – however you can get it. Thanks Pops for another great time!


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