Soul Serenade: Aaron Neville, “Tell It Like It Is”

In April, we lost Charles Neville to pancreatic cancer. Charles was an integral part of one of the finest family bands that this country ever produced. But ten years before there was a Neville Brothers Band, there was Aaron Neville who had a smash hit on his own in 1966.

Neville, like his brothers, was born in New Orleans of mixed heritage including African-American, Caucasian, and Native American bloodlines. He originally recorded for the Minut record label and had a little bit of success with the single “Over You.” in 1960. It took six years and a move to the New Orleans-based Par-Lo label for Neville to have his biggest hit.

“Tell It Like It Is” was released in November 1966 and it raced up the charts until it reached the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. The only thing that kept Neville’s single out of the top spot was the Monkees hit cover fo the Neil Diamond song “I’m a Believer.” There was no such obstacle on the R&B chart and “Tell It Like It Is” attained the top spot and stayed there for five weeks. The song was written by George Davis who also arranged it and played baritone sax on the recording, and Lee Diamond. The session band also included trumpeter Emory Thomas, guitarist Deacon John, tenor sax player Alvin “Red” Tyler, pianist Willie Tee, and drummer June Gardner.

Aaron Neville

Aaron Neville went on to have a sterling career on his own and with his brothers. The Neville Brothers Band formed in 1976. In addition to Aaron and Charles, who played saxophone, the band included keyboard player Art Neville and percussionist Cyril Neville. The band entertained audiences worldwide for nearly three decades while releasing several successful albums in that time. Art Neville’s health issues slowed them down in the ’90s but they came back with a new album, Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life, in 2004.

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans the following year, both Aaron and Cyril left the city. It seemed that the Neville Brothers Band would be no more but the brothers reunited to play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2008. The formal end of the band was announced in 2012 but even then there was a farewell concert in New Orleans three years later.

Meanwhile, Aaron Neville was forging an impressive career on his own. Among the highlights were his Grammy-winning duets “All My Life” and “Don’t Know Much” with Linda Ronstadt that appeared on her 1989 album Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. Neville’s own hit singles included “Hercules” in 1973, his cover of the Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool” in 1991, and “Don’t Take Away My Heaven” in 1993. He has also had four platinum albums. His most recent album, My True Story, a tribute to the doo-wop songs of his youth, was released in 2013.

The song “Tell It Like It Is” had more success via a hit cover version by Heart in 1980, and another by Billie Joe Royal in 1988.

Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll #17: I Got the Six


Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned.

May – June 2017

Here’s the thing about Roscoe’s Basement, for me: It’s not just a band, or a peer group, or an opportunity for socialization or creative expression — it’s a protracted exercise in spiritual improvement. Left on my own, I tend toward passivity — ignoring problems in hopes they’ll go away. And Roscoe’s Basement has a problem that cannot be ignored.

In the wake of Mike’s departure, we all agree that we should soldier on rather than breaking up the band. And after assessing our setlist, it’s plain that continuing as a five-piece is not an option — not without retooling our repertoire from the ground up. So we will look for a new guitarist, to replace the irreplaceable. And because this band constitutes for me a self-improvement program, I proclaim that I will take the lead in the search. It will be a good exercise, I think.

What I do not know is that the process will take three solid months and I will hate every goddam stinking tooth-pulling moments of it.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Figuring to stick with a proven winner, I write up an ad for Craigslist:Wouldn't you?

While we’re waiting for Craigslist to work its magic, we ease in to the search, starting close to home with someone we know. Well, someone our drummer knows. Metal Todd is an acquaintance of Tom’s from work. He’s got a taste for the heavy stuff, and some decent gear, but he hasn’t played in a ton of bands.

Part of the challenge will be finding a player who has a distinctive voice on the instrument but doesn’t feel the need to be the boss; the democratic setup we have now suits us all fine. In this, Metal Todd’s relative inexperience is a point in his favor. When we meet to jam, he’s very pleasant and obliging.

He is also, to put it bluntly, in way over his head. Metal Todd proves to have virtually no musical touchstones in common with the rest of us. He’s never heard a Ramones song, let alone played one. Even the Rolling Stones rate only the faintest glimmer of recognition. It’s as if we’re speaking different languages, mutually unintelligible.

Metal Todd’s inexperience in a band setting is a liability, too. He can keep time pretty well, but his tone bespeaks hours of playing along with records while wearing headphones. It’s got no punch, no thickness — certainly not enough to cut through the racket of three other musicians. I’m standing closest to him, and despite repeatedly encouraging him to turn up, I register his guitar primarily as a thin, angry buzz, like a bumblebee caught in a baby-food jar.

Metal Todd is a nice dude, but in the end the prospective learning curve is simply too impossibly steep to even warrant serious consideration.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Not long after Metal Todd’s audition, our ad starts running on Craigslist — to the sound of crickets. I decide to reach out in other ways, and quickly create accounts on both Bandmix and Sonicbids. I also start searching Soundcloud for other Rochester-based musicians, and reaching out via the platform’s messaging system.

After a few false starts — which I’ll cover in a future column — it becomes plain to me that we’d have an easier time finding someone if we were doing the standard bar-band list. The Roscoe’s Basement aesthetic isn’t hard to explain, but it seems unconscionably risky — or too much like work — to too many players.

I don’t get it, I honestly don’t. Do these guys actually get any satisfaction out of playing “Mustang Sally” week in, week out? Do the audiences get any joy out of hearing it? Or is it simply safer to do the standard repertoire, to be a known and pre-sold quality?

Or is it just easier? After all, if you’re playing songs the audience has likely heard a thousand times already, it seems likely that they’ll be able to fill in the blanks as long as you nail the general contours of the song. If you’re going to do a relative obscurity like “Starry Eyes,” you’d damned well better know how to play it, or why even bother? But three chords and an attitude will get you a long way with the standard bar-band canon. The bar for a recognizable version of, say, “Ramblin’ Man” or “Taking Care of Business” is pretty low.

This thought is heavy on my mind a few weeks into the process, when we audition our first serious prospect. Shawshank is a rock ‘n’ roll lifer — a biker with the requisite look and swagger, long hair and tatts and that handlebar mustache you apparently get at the Harley dealership with your 50,000 mile checkup. He’s got a good tone on his Les Paul, and he’s properly loud — he’s been kicking around in bands forever like the rest of us, so he’s not intimidated — which makes it easier to evaluate his playing.

We let Shawshank call the tunes for the first hour, and he’s not shy. We play the Who and the Stones and Creedence, and even dig back into our archives for “Road House Blues,” which we haven’t played since our first gig — almost a year ago. Shawshank blasts through them all, playing fluid, gutsy solos. Then we call a few, and he gamely bluffs through “Surrender” and a couple of Ramones tunes. We chat a while — Shawshank talks mostly about gear — say our goodnights, and then the five of us sit down to talk things over.

Tom is ready to sign Shawshank up right away; Deanna thinks he’s got promise; Chuck and Craig don’t have strong feelings either way — not that they’re saying out loud, anyway — and so it falls to me to be Captain Buzzkill, and to put into words the uneasy feeling in my gut.

Given free reign, I point out, Shawshank’s musical choices didn’t extend much past approximately 1974. And while classic rock is definitely part of what we do, it’s not the end of it. How far out onto the ledge will he be prepared to follow us and our crazy skinny-tie music? And when we asked him what kind of cover material he might bring to the band, he didn’t really have an answer, which suggested to me that he didn’t have any firm handle on our vibe.

And for all his solo chops, Shawshank was half-assing a lot. He knew the songs, but he didn’t know the songs. F’rinstance: We did T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” — a song with one of the most iconic rhythm guitar parts in all of rock — and Shawshank just sort of played through the chords in an undifferentiated strum, with no accents. When he played “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” he had the progression down, but he wasn’t playing the licks, wasn’t playing the song — just a rough approximation.

Now, that’s just how a lot of bands play — but not us. Not to blow smoke here, but what we do is hard work, and it can be unforgiving; the drive to be note-perfect is part of what killed the joy of it for Mike. But when it all comes together, we are pretty spectacular. We need someone who’s going to do the work, and I don’t know if Shawshank is that guy. What I’ve heard tonight makes me think that when the crunch comes, he’s likely to say, “Eh, good enough.”

(Also it set my teeth on edge the way Shawshank barely acknowledged Deanna’s presence all night, and casually referred to women as “chicks” throughout the evening. The little things, sometimes they give you a feeling.)

I try (and mostly fail) to express all this in the moment. In the end, we compromise rather than cut Shawshank outright, we put him on standby, thanking him for the audition and keeping him as an option for a callback, still hoping for someone more obviously suited to the gig.

And I keep looking.

Oh boy, do I keep looking.

Next: Dog and Pony Show

Popdose Exclusive Song Premiere: Julie Nathanson, “Wise Up”

Once again, Popdose strives to bring you different artists on the pop spectrum.  This time, we present Julie Nathanson, a name you may be familiar with in the world of voice overs, performing her version of Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up”. Ms. Nathanson infuses into her singing the same sparkling energy, versatility, and intelligence she brings to her animation and video game characters. She sings in a wide range of styles and tones, from wispy emotional indie/folk to resonant operatic to the clear brightness of a Disney character. With a strong belief that we are all many things, Julie finds joy in allowing all of these voices to shine. Originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Julie began her classical training at the Bryn Mawr Conservatory of Music, and later studied privately at the New England Conservatory of Music. Since moving to Los Angeles, she has worked with acclaimed teachers David Romano and Clark Harris.

About her decision to record “Wise Up”:  “It caught hold of my heart from the moment I heard it in the film, ‘Magnolia,’ and it has echoed through my mind in the years since. The original, to me, is an offer of perspective, empathy, and yes, wisdom to someone struggling with substance addiction. In my cover version, I wanted to shift the point of view to introspection. A look in the mirror, a nod to the powerfully complex relationships and thoughts and feelings to which we can also become addicted, and the intersection of giving up and acceptance.”

Let us know what you think!

What’s THAT Supposed to Mean?: Sloan, “Underwhelmed”

There’s a formula for power-pop success that simply isn’t used as often as it should be:

  1. Have a killer hook, simple and memorable, suitable for jamming and mixing things up, with multiple guitars dropping in and out to add some variety to the verses.
  2. Sing in harmony.
  3. Drum fills, drum fills, drum fills.
  4. Clever lyrics that reward the repeat listener.

The optional No. 5: Be Canadian.

Sloan hit this formula early in their career with a rousing garage-rock hook underpinning the timeless but uniquely told tale of a nerdy school-age kid and a not-quite-requited crush.

The lyrics paint an amusing picture. We have a pedantic protagonist who studies hard, doesn’t smoke or drink, and is falling between his twin obsessions — a fun-loving classmate and his grammar fanaticism.

They get right to the point with an opening verse set over a droning F-sharp, joined by a crescendo of power chords.

She was underwhelmed, if that’s a word
I know it’s not ’cause I looked it up
That’s one of those skills that I learned in my school

I was overwhelmed, and I’m sure of that one
‘Cause I learned it back in grade school

When I was young

Then a cascade of drums takes us into their first interaction …

She said, “You is funny”; I said, “You are funny”
She said, “Thank you,” and I said, “Never mind”

She rolled her eyes, her beautiful eyes

The verses are riddled with wordplay. The “beautiful eyes” line sets up a parallel construction with a later verse in which she rolls her Rs, her beautiful Rs — a double or maybe triple meaning depending on whether you buy the discussion at SongMeanings that the young woman in question is French-speaking (it’s Canada, after all) or possibly Latina.

Her grammar and spelling — “I told her ‘affection’ has two Fs, especially when you’re dealing with me” — must be driven by speaking multiple languages. She’s not stupid. The protagonist laments, “She skips her classes and gets good grades … she’s passing her classes while I attend mine.

So our protagonist clearly realizes deep down that he has blown a chance at high school or college romance because he can’t roll with the occasional linguistic misstep.

I usually notice all the little things
One time I was proud of it, she says it’s annoying

And the line repeated several times at the end: “I miss the point.

Yeah, you did.

And if you had a rep (deserved or not) as a smart kid, you’ve been there, too. We nerds have a tough time resisting any opportunity to demonstrate that we know something someone else does not. I still get caught up in it on Twitter far too often. Fortunately, I’m happily married, so it only costs me Twitter followers and maybe freelance gigs rather than prospective partners.

What really wraps this tale into a nice package is the nearly chaotic arrangement. The meter is already odd — a line that has nine syllables in one verse might cram in 13 on the next verse. Then after the basic statement of the riff, we hear it a couple of different ways — once with a guitar lightly playing around with it, then a verse that’s basically bass. And everyone drops out to emphasize a line about the guilt of not being a vegetarian.

You can just sense the protagonist’s precocious awkwardness. His brain is a tossed salad of hormones and homophones.

Maybe one day, he’ll stop missing the point. If an obnoxious nerd like me can be happily married a couple of decades later, then there’s hope for him, too.

Album Review: Midge Ure, “Orchestrated”

Under normal circumstances, an artist re-recording songs from their past with an orchestra is a ‘last refuge of the scoundrel’ sort of move, a cynical attempt at giving the fans something “new” while barely lifting a finger. In the case of Midge Ure, Ultravox frontman and co-writer of Saint Bob Geldof’s Band Aid benefit single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” the idea of an orchestral album isn’t a question of when, but rather why it took this long for it to happen. Ultravox’s music drips with melancholy – hell, they had a violinist in the band – making his entire catalog fair game for an orchestral album. The question then comes down to, “Well, shit, which songs do we choose?”

It would have been very easy for Ure to take the easy way out with Orchestrated, but one glance at the track listing shows that he wants this album to matter, damn it. Several Ultravox standards are forsaken in favor of deep cuts, and Ure closes the album not with an Ultravox song, but rather the title track of his most recent solo album Fragile. For the unfamiliar, this is a brilliant move.

Another smart move is the willingness to break away from the original arrangement, or at least the tempo. “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” is slowed down and stripped of its driving rhythm section, while “Lament” is likewise slightly slowed down but given an upgraded drum track. The song that bears the closest resemblance to its original self, to the surprise of no one, is “Vienna.” And give Ure credit: while he has to try a lot harder to hit those high notes, he can still hit them.

He even wrote a new song for the album. See? Much more than barely lifting a finger.

In nearly every instance, Ure’s judgment when it comes to choosing the hit or the deep cut is spot-on. Rage in Eden’s “Death in the Afternoon” works far better in an orchestral setting than that album’s lead single “The Thin Wall” would have, and the inclusion of Lament track “Man of Two Worlds” is a nice surprise as well. The one where we’d like a do-over is the decision to include “Reap the Wild Wind.” It is surely here because it is the highest-charting song Ure or Ultravox had in the States, but “Visions in Blue” should have been a no-brainer for this album. Piano, synth strings, and that massive build-up after the third verse? Come on now.

Ure clearly understands that at this point in his career, he’s preaching to the converted, which is why Orchestrated works as well as it does. In an alternate universe, one in which Ure is still trying to become a household name, there is a positively unthinkable version of this album, with square pegs like “All Stood Still” crammed into round orchestral holes. Pity the people in that universe.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Sixty-Eight

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode Sixty Eight

Time flies, the week goes by and life keeps moving.  Thus, this episode of Radio City finds Jon and Rob intensely discussing joyful, sad and angering topics; there’s also the usual amount of humor to help ease the sobering moments and, as per usual, there’s no lack of intelligence and thoughfulness.  Among the items on this week’s agenda are the shocking deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade – and the impact of suicide that’s easily overlooked; the Washington Capitals win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup; the brand new single from Paul Weller, “Aspects”; the passing of St. Louis Cardinals legend Red Schoendist, a tribute moment to Jeff Beck and, of course, a warming “In Our Heads”.

So tune in and listen – you’ll find solace, laughs and things to thing about from a fresh, objective point of view.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode Sixty Eight

The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.

Popdose Choice Video: Paige Calico, “Arm Candy”

Popdose is happy to introduce you to someone new – Paige Calico – and to share her latest video, “Arm Candy” – yet another of our “choice picks”!

To give you a quick glimpse into her story, she’s been described as “nostalgia in its sweetest form.” Her songs are a haunting blend of self-searching and wry wit in the face of life’s peaks and troughs. Ms. Calico grew up on a lake in rural New Jersey and eventually moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. While there, she began her stint as one half of folk duo, The Dwells. They self-released two records and spent a year touring across the country in a Chevy Coachman. Eventually, they parted ways, and simultaneously she began working alongside iconic music photographer Henry Diltz, leading to her move to the golden state of California, where she now calls home.   Her sultry, smoky voice demonstrates a maturity and ease, swirling around shimmering guitars and vintage synths. Her lyrics are humble and human, examining powerful notions of life, love and uncertainty.  That eternal search has lead Paige Calico here, and from this place her journey truly begins.

Of this new track/video, Ms. Calico states, “Our society can very easily pigeonhole women into feeling like they have a certain role to play and if you choose to sway from it there will be ridicule… or you’ll end up a cat lady alone forever. But there is nothing wrong with going off the beaten path (& cats are rad) and solitude is healthy, not a state of doom. It’s about staying true to you and if a little weed and whiskey helps, go for it.”

As always, we’d like to know what you think!

Soul Serenade: Brighter Side of Darkness, “Love Jones”

Do you think boy bands began with groups like NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys? Think again. There were boy bands decades ago. The Jackson 5 was just one example. The 5 Stairsteps were another. In addition to being boy bands, both of those groups were also family bands. Around the same time and from the same city as the Stairsteps was a group called Brighter Side of Darkness. They are only remembered for one single, but what a single it was.

Brighter Side coalesced while the members were attending Calumet High School in Chicago. The original lineup included Ralph Eskridge, Randolph Murph, and Larry Washington. The group’s lead singer was 12-year-old Darryl Lamont. Their career as a group lasted less than three years but left behind that one indelible single.

It was 1971 when Brighter Side got together on the South Side of Chicago. They had a manager by the name of Anna Preston who was serving as a mentor for the young Lamont. When she added him to the Brighter Side lineup, that’s when the magic began to unfold. At the end of 1972, they released the single “Love Jones” which was co-written by Murph, Eskridge, and Clarence Johnson who also produced the record. That’s Murph who is building the drama by talking through the song’s verses. But where the song really explodes is on the choruses that find Lamont wailing. The end result is a record that brings to mind the symphonic soul of groups like the Delfonics and the Dramatics but also adds a touch of psychedelia to the mix.

Brighter Side of Darkness

“Love Jones” was released on 20th Century Records and made it to #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #3 on the Hot Soul Singles chart. It was a million-seller and earned Brighter Side of Darkness a gold record from the RIAA. But apparently, something happened when the group was on their way to a Soul Train appearance. The dispute led 20th Century to fire everyone except Lamont from the group.

The single was also included on an album by the same name. Unfortunately, the follow up single, “I Owe You Love,” and two other singles failed to find any success and 20th Century dropped the group.

Inevitably the case ended up in court where Johnson and the record company took on the original members of the group and prevailed. Johnson hired three new members; Jesse Harvey, Nate Pringle, and Arthur Scales to sing behind Lamont. They recorded one single for Johnson’s Starve label but it went nowhere. Soon, Lamont was gone too and Tyrone Stewart joined the three Johnson-hires and 20th Century re-signed the group but changed their name to the Imaginations. They made two albums and several singles for the label but had no chart success.

By the end of the ’70s, even the owners of the name Brighter Side of Darkness didn’t care and there was no fuss when Lamont and Murph reformed the group. They made one last single in 1978 for the Magic Touch label called “He Made You Mine” but it failed to chart.

Perhaps imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but what do we make of parody? In 1973, Cheech & Chong released a single called “Basketball Jones” that was clearly a parody of the Brighter Side of Darkness hit. Their single featured luminaries Carole King and George Harrison and it reached #15 on the pop chart, one spot higher than the record that inspired it.

Album Review: Various Artists, “Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul”

Once again, historian/author/film producer and Memphian Robert Gordon delivers a book about the music of his hometown; a musical spectrum that spans wide and deep. Along with that book, Memphis Rent Party, comes its soundtrack companion piece of the same name. For those who don’t know, a rent party is when people come together and either share/perform music, dance, and make contributions to help someone in need.

The album, Memphis Rent Party, soundtrack is via Fat Possum Records and includes artists (many of whom are in the book), such as Jerry McGill, Junior Kimbrough, Furry Lewis and many others of note.  This compilation clearly definer the broadly eclectic spectrum of the Bluff City’s music.  Memphis has always been about originality, audaciousness, excitement and not trying to sound of “one city”.  And on this album, you get just that – an array of (just some of!) the flavors Memphis has to offer.

Instead of listening to the CD in running order, I decided to mix it up.  So starting with the raw, tinny, live performance of Junior Kimbrough doing “All Night Long”, it teems with excitement and tension.  Never mind the ramshackle, crude recording – it’s vibrant and sparkling.  Luther Dickinson and Sharde Thomas deliver “Chevrolet” and that silky slide guitar will elicit shivers; Jerry Lee Lewis’ performance of “Harbor Lights” has The Killer still on form with a top flight rave-up and the voodoo/tango-esque feel of The Panther Burns’ “Drop Your Mask” is simply brilliant.  Charlie Feathers’ “Defrost Your Heart” is sweet, pure country; “Johnny Too Bad” gets a sympathetic reading from Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson’s blues-pastiche, “I’d Love To Be A Hippie” is a hoot.

Twelve tracks, all diverse, all tasty and all fun – which is how any rent party should be.  And in Memphis, it’s essential to have a good time.  It’s also a great musical history lesson, when you think about it.


Memphis Rent Party is currently available