My Top 10 for 2011.
1. Occupy Philly: God bless these folks. I spent a fair amount of time wandering around Dilworth Plaza during lunch breaks etc. Saw some pretty wild stuff. For instance,a posterboard with one day's activities that read, "2PM: Lecture on Anarchism 3PM: Methods of Non-violent protest 4PM: Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches." I swear. That's the kind of agenda I can get behind. Toward the end, I was disturbed by the presence of American flags. I mean, isn't that the ultimate symbol of oppression? And they had this thing called a "human microphone" that felt a little too close to organized religion for this drugstore cowboy. And, of course, Butch Hancock told me many years ago that the real war is the one between your own two ears. Undoubtedly true. Still, someone's gotta fight the war against economic terrorism and my hat's off to the Occupiers for bravely doing so.
2. There But For Fortune: Kweder, Jodi, and I caught this documentary about Phil Ochs out in Bryn Mawr. A very moving film that somehow only showed once. Ochs used to play down the street at the Main Point. You mighta thought more than a single screening was warranted. Anyway, I didn't need any reminding about Phil's relevance. Christ, John Train is named after him. But it was cool to see him get his due on the silver screen and they really unearthed some amazing footage. My favorite bit was him playing "Jim Dean of Indiana" solo on the piano. Phil woulda been out there with the Occupiers.
3. The Spinning Songbook: I was lucky enough to catch EC and the Impostors on the Revolver Tour six times: once in Philly, once in DC, twice in NY, and twice in Red Bank. Too many highlights to enumerate. One moment in Red Bank kinda did me in, tho. It was towards the end of the evening and EC did a solo version of Nick Lowe's "I'm a Mess." He flubbed it and wasn't helped by two assholes sitting next to me who somehow thought this was a good moment for an arhythmic clap-along. Anyway, after this tune, Steve Nieve came out for a piano/vocal duet of "My Three Sons." I found this song slight (maybe even cloying) when I first heard it on "Momofuku" a few years back. But in live performance, it was another thing altogether. I was real close to the stage and it looked, to me anyway, that Elvis' face transformed during the song: from the rather young and healthy appearance he's lately had into something ancient, profound, and full of death. After the last note rang out, he hastily dropped the mic and rushed off the stage. I thought he might be crying. I later learned that his pop was very ill and the Count Basie show and several others were nearly cancelled on this basis. Ross MacManus passed away last month. Sometimes I am so awed by EC that I forget he's a human being ("sometimes I almost feel just like a human being ...").
4. Wonder and Pray: John Train finally made it back into the recording studio this year. We cut one of my new songs called "Wonder and Pray" with John Anthony engineering in his wonderful and welcoming Maja/Audiopost studio. I hadn't been in a proper studio in several years. It's rough, you know. You work hard on your music only to have people come up to you after a gig and tell you how much they like the band and they'll be sure to check you out on you-tube! Jeez. Thanks alot. It makes you wonder what the fucking point is. But, anyway, there is a point: you do it 'cause you love it and 'cause you have to. We'll be back over to Maja for some more recording soon and hope to have a record out next Fall. It'll be called "No More." You can check it out on you-tube!
5. Bill Callahan: My pal Jolles is always busting my chops for not listening to any music made by people younger than me (I was born in '68). I mean, truly, must I listen to fucking Sanford and Sons? But Callahan gets in having arrived in '66. Plus he's a Maryland homeboy like me (Silver Springs vs. Rockville). Not to mention the fact that he's the ultimate Indie Rock Stud having squired both Cat Power and Joanna Newsom. Lord! Anyway, I'm glad I checked BC out a couple years ago when he put out "I wish we were an Eagle." An album worth owning for the title alone. This year, he released "Apocalpyse." On "Eagle", BC was singing about it being time to "put God away." On this one, he mostly ruminates on driving cattle and even gives Mickey Newbury a shout out. I love this guy. His stuff is loud by being soft. A lesson that is lost on most indie rock noise/newsmakers.
6. Melancholia: Speaking of Apocalpyses, have you seen Lars Van Trier's latest. It lacks the shock value of "The Antichrist" where Charlotte Gainsbourg clips her genitals with lawn shears. But this film goes real deep just the same. My favorite line is when Kirsten Dunst says, "There is only life on earth." LVT has a pretty dim view of just about everything: life, marriage, work etc. But, in the end, he sees the LIGHT.
7. The Rum Diary: The flick slipped out of the theaters before I could see it, so I read the book instead. I've always been a HST fan but this one towers over everything else of his I've read (including Fear and Loathing). Not much happens in the Rum Diary. It's the tone that makes it worthwhile. On almost every page: a paper cup, a chunk of ice, and rum, rum, rum. Hey, Jodi, see you in San Juan!
8. Greg Brown: You mighta seen my earlier tribute to Bill Morrissey who passed away this year. "Booze killed him" said his old friend, Greg Brown. Greg and Bill used to tour (and fish) together. They did a duet record called "Friend of Mine" on Rounder in the 90s. Anyway, Greg Brown's another songwriting hero and, fortunately, still alive. I caught up with him at the World Cafe Live where he sang a bluesy set mostly comprised of new(ish) material. His daughter, Pieta, opened up and she was great too. When Greg got to that line in "If you don't get it at Home" where he sings "It ain't in the bottom of a jug," I couldn't help but think of Bill. Again.
9. Deception Pass: Jodi and I made it out to the Pacific Northwest this summer. It's one of those places where you get to wondering if you'll ever slip these mid-Atlantic blues. DP connects Whidby Island to the San Juan chain. Worth seeing if yr. over in that direction.
10. The Royal Family: I know I've been blathering on about William T. Vollman for years. He's one of these guys that you could literally spend a lifetime reading. Such is the breadth, quantity, and quality of his work. The Royal Family takes place in SF's Tenderloin District in the early 90s. Vollman re-tells the story of Cain and Abel. It took me about three months to make it through this tome but I'm glad I did. I'm working up a song about Capp Street and the Mark of Cain. Look out!