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Random Shuffle – 02/19/07

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“Embraceable You” – Billie Holiday
From The Complete Commodore Recordings

I often say that Montgomery, Alabama, a place where I lived for a number of years, is the buckle of the Bible Belt. It is, to put it kindly, a very conservative place with about two churches on every corner. While there, I met a beautiful young lady named Melanie, through my friend Jamison, whilst enjoying a scrumptious Tropical Sno-Cone.

During our dalliance with the delectable treats, Melanie proceeded to tell me that she had seen me and some friends perform the previous fall. That particular piece was a bit of performance art that we had had a small run with, and that I was quite proud of. It is impossible to describe but involved music from Jello Biafro, Pink Floyd, Richard Strauss, lots of black lights, and a juggling giant.

It was Melanie’s opinion that our performance was a danger to society, decidedly un-Christian and should never have been allowed public performance. We had a nice long debate on it, and I left thinking she was a bit nutty and that we’d never speak again.

Turns out she became quite the good friend, and I spent many an afternoon with her and her friends that year. At one point, me and a few of my fellow Y chromosomes concocted a means in which to have a bit of romance with these lovely ladies. My friend, you see, had quite the crush on Melanie’s friend, Honey (yes, her real name.) Honey happened to have a boyfriend who lived far away in Georgia. It was my friend’s plan to sweep her off her feat, but to do so in a manner in which not allow her to know he was doing so, until it was too late.

The plan then was to ask Melanie and her friends to allow us boys to take them to a fancy dinner, where they could teach us uncouth boys some manners. The ladies were all genteel and Southern, thus having the most uncommon and impeccable manners. Each of us would have a “date” with a singular lady – my friend’s date would, of course, be Honey.

The girls loved the idea, but the plan quickly backfired for Honey refused to ride in my friend’s vehicle, and instead rode along with me and Melanie. It was a lovely evening though, even without any romantic entanglements.

Along the way, I popped in a Billie Holiday record, and the girls had a great laugh at my expense due to an apparent line in the film Clueless having to do with Ms. Holiday and a romantic drive.

“Reuben and Cerise” – Yonder Mountain String Band
From Yonder Plays Jerry

I first caught the Yonder Mountain String Band in Indianapolis a few years back. They were part of the JamGrass festival playing with the likes of David Grisman, Sam Bush, Tony Rice and Peter Rowan – they had a lot to prove.

The festival was being held at the Murat Centre, which has two separate stages. In order to facilitate a smoother schedule, each consecutive act played in the opposite theatre. Between performances, this was a mass exodus of people running up and down the stairs, jockeying for seats. It was kind of fun because for each set, you were situated in a different spot, viewing each show from somewhere else. Yonder Mountain played in the Egyptian room, which had a smaller club atmosphere and was standing room only.

In terms of technical prowess, or musical genius, these young guys from Colorado were no match for the other, legendary pickers, but in terms of sheer, unadulterated exuberance, Yonder Mountain took home the trophy. The entire crowd seemed to just bounce throughout the performance.

In honor of Elvis’ birthday they covered “Suspicious Minds.” They knocked the roof off the mutha with that. Let’s just say that in the perpetual Elvis versus the Beatles debate, I was looking towards Memphis that night.

This is off a fan compilation of live Yonder Mountain songs that have also been played by the late Jerry Garcia. It is full of the same exuberance I found on that night. “Rueben and Cerise” is from Jerry’s solo work, and is honestly, not a song I’ve listened to often. It contains some marvelous Robert Hunter lyrics in that it is a love song, but fairly ambiguous and rather sad.

“Jenny Jenkins” – Jerry Garcia and David Grisman

Not For Kids Only

My wife and I, though completely childless, have a great deal children’s materials. Our bookshelves are stocked full of Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak and Curious George. We have children’s albums from Pete Seeger and Shel Silverstein. Then there is the entire selection of Pixar movie collection as well as a large quantity of Walt Disney’s earlier works. And an attic full of old toys just waiting on a wee little Brewster.

You could say we both are quite ready for children, or in my wife’s case you could say she’s busting at the seams, but for various reasons we have yet to have any.

If, for unknown reasons, we never do have little ones, I shant feel a bit of regret for filling our home with so much designed for children. So much, it seems to me, works perfectly well for adults, too. Or maybe I am, as they say, a perpetual child. But you know, I love Toy Story, and sit enchanted by it’s design, it’s humor, and it’s quality. The same goes for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Where the Wild Things Are, and dozens of other kids things.

Garcia and Grisman knew this, too, and aptly titled this album Not For Kids Only. Like Pete Seeger before them, they had an understanding that the best music is for people of all ages. “Jenny Jenkins” starts the album off with a silly song about a girl who refuses to wear clothes. And while kids will laugh at the simple rhymes and silly words, adults can enjoy the fine craftsmanship of master musicians.

“Lady With a Fan” – David West
From Pickin' On The Grateful Dead

If you have browsed through the record bins over the last few years, you’ve probably noticed more than one of your favorite classic rock recording artist has been “Picked” on. A gaggle of session players have created cover versions of nearly every classic song, in an instrumental bluegrass style.

You might scoff, but it’s not too bad, actually. By no means would I recommend this as a place to start for any band, nor as a replacement version, but at least on this Dead version, the playing is pretty good.

It is especially interesting on a song like “Lady With a Fan” which is part of the Dead behemoth, “Terrapin Station Suite.” In the studio the song became an enormous production with strings, and multiple parts, and was the biggest musical undertaking the Dead ever managed. Live, it was another beast entirely filled with snarly, raging guitars and a growl that would shake the crowd like nothing else. Here, David West and company have cut the song down to its core, picking out the simpler melody and showcasing Garcia’s songwriting strengths. It’s a bit like what Unplugged did to Nirvana, though certainly not quite up to the perfection created from those boys.

“She Loves You” – 101 Strings
From 101 Strings Plays the Beatles

While in theory, this instrumental string version of classic Beatles hits may sound similar to the Pickin’ series, in completion it is another thing entirely. I loathe this disk, and have to explain that it comes from my wife, and not myself, for I’d hate to have that sitting over my head.

What, you may rightly ask, is the difference then? I mean both albums are essentially session musicians generically covering classic songs instrumentally. I’m not sure I can fully explain without having you over and actually listening to them.

Mostly, bluegrass lends itself to odd cover versions. Bluegrass musicians are known for their ability to transport a number of styles and genres into their own making. Many of the Grateful Dead themselves started out as pickers, and a number of Dead songs were performed in that style (see “Friend of the Devil for an example of this). Likewise, the musicians on Pickin’ On The Grateful Dead seem to have a better understanding of the music they are covering.

A full-on string ensemble doesn’t exactly scream pop music, either. Certainly pop musicians, among them the Beatles, use strings in many songs, but without the crunching guitars and booming bass, string pieces tend to seem more classical, than classic rock.

The Dead songs are also more complex in structure, as well, than the songs of the Beatles, as covered here. And don’t get me wrong, I love the Beatles, and some of their greatness lies in their ability to take a pretty simple chord structure and make it fresh and incredible. But as with “Lady With a Fan” the bluegrass sessions take what is ultimately a pretty complex song and melt it down to its essence. The strings take a simple song and make it sound like your walking the mall.

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