Music Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry, Panic in Babylon

Unrighteousness, go backward. Unholiness, go backward. The 70-year-old voice of Lee “Scratch” Perry goes straight to the spirit-jugular. One of reggae’s pioneer artist-producers, Perry helped invent not only reggae itself, but also its dub subgenre, in which vocals became peripheral or absent while studio tricks, samples, and effects both limned and exploded reggae’s hypnotic off-beat.

This new CD is an album of reggae songs, with no pure dubs, but the arrangements have a fundamentally dub sound: deep and wide, spicy and spacey, and also funny. “Have a Perry salad, for this is Perry ballad,” invites the master. But he’s already treated us to a pointillistic autobiography in the title track. Perhaps no other artist can convey such generosity of spirit in so few words. It doesn’t matter if he’s claiming to be “Doctor Dick” or the “King of Africa” – “I will set you free with my music key” doesn’t feel like an idle boast in Perry’s voice.

Especially in “Purity Rock” and “Voodoo,” Perry and his musicians distill this style of music to its perfect essence. Perry’s discography is extensive, and I’m no expert in his career or his music. All I know is I haven’t been able to stop listening to this CD for three days.

Although the disc ends with a live version of the classic “Devil Dead,” with its celebration of ganja, the new tracks are evidence that – as Perry has found – it wasn’t the weed that endowed this now clean-living survivor with his genius. Who can blame Perry for this appropriate celebration of ganja? After all, the first time I listened to this song I was researching how to make shatter. It certainly was a very fitting song!

A bonus disc contains a painfully noisy remix of “Panic in Babylon” by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio and two remixes of “Purity Rock” by New York public-radio darling DJ Spooky. These would probably work well in a dance hall, but only the “Purity Rock” instrumental interested my ears, as an example of how the raw and the slick can harmonize when good material passes through the hands of a good mixmaster. It’s also a reminder of what dub, strictly speaking, is all about.

Panic in Babylon is a treat for the ears, a tease of the funnybone, and a festival for all four chambers of the heart. (I’d wager it would beat CD101 for seduction purposes, too. Let me know if you try it.) Rating: four puffs out of four.

Available at

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Dec. 28 2006 – Best of 2006

Once again it’s time to look back over the past year and try – and fail – to think of a clever or original way to introduce a best-of list.


Presenting Indie Round-up‘s Best of 2006.

The Artist of the Year for 2006 is Mofro, who, conveniently for my critical credibility, was just signed to the prestigious blues label Alligator Records. Lead vocalist JJ Grey and his band evoke all at once the gritty funk of James Brown (RIP), the blue-eyed soul of Beck and Leon Russell, the bayou twinkle of Dr. John, and the shamanistic stage presence of Jim Morrison. The latest CD is a good one, but in-concert is the only way to fully appreciate the spell woven by Grey, guitarist Daryl Hance, and whoever else happens to be on their stage at the moment.

Album of the Year goes to Gregg Swann‘s sparkling Everybody’s Got To Be Somewhere, a spot-on power-pop set without an ounce of filler. The artist himself seems to be somewhat reclusive – the gigs page at his minimalist website is empty as of this writing, and his Myspace page – where you can hear three full tracks (go there now) – has been little visited. Swann emailed me a thank-you note when I published my review, so, fortunately for fans of exceptional songwriting, it appears that he does exist.

International Album of the Year goes to Kobotown‘s Independence. Look for this Toronto-based, Caribbean-rooted band-with-a-message on festival stages in 2007.

Two releases share Instrumental Album of the Year honors: guitar wiz Vicki Genfan’s Up Close disc from her two-CD set Up Close and Personal (reviewed here), and the newly honored Grand Master of the shakuhachi Elizabeth Reian Bennett’s Song of the True Hand, which I covered here. In very different ways, these two releases exemplify the way a single individual with a musical instrument can wordlessly conjure the human spirit out of thin air.

Acoustic Song of the Year: Melissa Ivey, “No Ties to Break”
Mainstream Pop or Country Song of the Year: Laura Vecchione, “Fool’s Gold”
Guitar/Hard Rock song of the Year: Burden Brothers, “Still”
Cover Song of the Year: Joe Rohan, “Ring of Fire”
Best Song Featuring a Tuba: The Animators, “The Senator Goes to Hell”
Stupidest Band Name: Hinder (what is that, a butt? a verb? either way, lame, lame, lame.)

And that’s it. If you didn’t win this year, better luck next time. By the way, I like dark chocolate.

Of Virgin Births and Virgil Goode

As we approach Christmas – a celebration of a singular instance of human parthenogenesis – George W. Bush is threatening to start World War III (if he hasn’t already). This confluence is producing a series of strange and portentous events. First, an otherworldly fog has enveloped the UK and induced a komodo dragon in a British zoo to conceive offspring without male contact. Also in England, a woman with two wombs has given birth to two babies from one womb and a third baby from the other – apparently the first such instance ever observed.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, has gone topsy-turvy. Students in Iran are protesting against their hardline President because they want more freedom of speech, while presumed US presidential candidate John McCain wants to stamp out blogging as we know it (although he’s done it himself when it helps to make him look good). Meanwhile a Virginia congresscritter with the unlikely name of Virgil H. Goode, Jr. (perhaps himself a product of parthenogenesis?) has come clean with his views on religious freedom in the US. (Hint: he’s against it. The Huffington Post’s take is direct and to the point.)

What would Jesus do? I wasn’t sure, but the Deciderer knows. “I encourage you all,” he said during his news conference yesterday, “to go shopping more.” Caveat emptor!

Best Indie Artist and CD for 2006

The editors of Blogcritics have asked me for a 200-word description of my Best-Of (artist and/or CD) for 2006. Here they are, freshly minted.

Indie Round-Up‘s Artist of the Year for 2006 is Mofro, who, conveniently for my critical credibility, was just signed to the prestigious blues label Alligator Records. Lead vocalist JJ Grey and his band evoke all at once the gritty funk of James Brown, the blue-eyed soul of Beck or Leon Russell, the bayou twinkle of Dr. John, and the shamanistic stage presence of Jim Morrison. The latest CD is a good one, but in-concert is the only way to fully appreciate the spell woven by Grey, guitarist Daryl Hance, and whoever else happens to be on their stage at the moment.

Album of the year goes to Gregg Swann‘s sparkling Everybody’s Got To Be Somewhere, a spot-on power-pop set without an ounce of filler. The artist himself seems to be somewhat reclusive – the gigs page at his minimalist website is empty as of this writing, and his Myspace page – where you can hear three full tracks (go there now) – has been little visited. Swann emailed me a thank-you note when I published my review, so, fortunately for fans of exceptional songwriting, it appears that he does exist.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up Focus on Fionn Ò Lochlainn – Spawn of the Beast, and live at Joe’s Pub

Versatility. It comes in handy in many walks of life, but may be most essential of all in the performing arts.

It’s easy to laugh at actors straining to become singers and models desperately trying to become actresses. But they do such things not for our ironic amusement, and not (though it often seems this way) out of pure vanity, but because they want lasting careers in a field where popularity is fleeting. It’s not easy.

For the independent musician, versatility is just as important. Burning cooler, he’s less likely to flame out quickly, but he pays for his store of potential energy by not making much money. Versatility for him means being able to front his own band today and work as a sideman tomorrow; to perform solo, to write, to play covers or traditional music, and to play multiple instruments – all while self-marketing and hustling. It’s not easy.

Yet a performer, whether star or journeyman, needs to make it look easy. The singer, songwriter and virtuoso string player Fionn Ò Lochlainn and his acoustic ensemble did just that last night at Joe’s Pub, celebrating the release of Fionn’s first solo CD, Spawn of the Beast. A fine artist on guitar, mandolin, piano and vocals, and with a batch of powerful original songs, he will be touring with Billy Bragg in the coming year. Right now, settled in New York, he’s promoting his new disc with a January residency at Rockwood Music Hall, which in its brief existence has become New York musicians’ favorite small room to play.

Fionn O'Lochlainn at Joe's Pub 12/13/2006 pic2

For the CD release party, a bigger venue was needed, hence last night’s packed show at Joe’s Pub. Fionn is one of those wholegrain performers whose work and presence can’t be separated. Celtic soul, singer-songwriter acoustica, and Frampton-esque rock star magnetism fuse in his stage persona, a mix that’s surprisingly well captured on the CD.

In concert, Fionn’s piping rock tenor occasionally plays second fiddle (so to speak) to his zooming handiwork on guitar and mandolin when the latter requires him to look down and away from the microphone. But his generosity as a performer makes you root for him no matter what. Able to masterfully steer a tight band that, amazingly, has only rehearsed once, while at the same time pulling in an audience much of which doesn’t know his music, Fionn makes a virtue of multitasking.

Happily, Fionn’s songwriting and interpretive ability can keep up with his devilish musicianship. The CD opens with three of his best originals: the dramatic “Walk My Way,” the lovely “Waterside,” and the insistent “Racing Against the Time,” the last of which in concert became a mesmerizing, accelerating train ride. Drummer Cindy Blackman (of Lenny Kravitz fame) and bassist Orlando Le Fleming (Jane Monheit) propelled the more rhythmic songs, while a powerful string quartet that included fiery cellist Natalie Haas and her violinist sister Brittany (who played on Danny Barnes’s Get Myself Together CD, which I reviewed last year here) provided added shots of soulful, sinewy musicality.

Fionn played a couple of songs by himself, including an a capella version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” which is becoming a signature tune for him. Other non-originals included a delicate version of Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother” and the exquisite “Green of the Grass,” written by Fionn’s father, Ruan Ò Lochlainn (who worked with Roxy Music, Ronnie Lane, and Jethro Tull among others). Fionn’s large talent enables him to make a big, rock-influenced sound and an equally substantial artistic statement using only traditional, acoustic instruments and keening, crystalline vocals. His original music leaps off the stage, and the CD reflects that energy as well as a studio recording can be expected to. He plays traditional Irish music around town as well, and plans to host a variety of guests at the upcoming Rockwood residency, Thursdays in January.

Song samples are available here; the CD is available at shows, and online here.

Weblog Award Nominations

Blogcritics, the online magazine where I cross-publish nearly all of the articles you see here, has been nominated for several Weblog Awards, including in the Best Music Blog category. As one of the regular music contributors, I’d just like to say that I couldn’t have done it without all the little people.

Voting starts tonight, and you can vote once a day for ten days.

Congratulations will be accepted at any of the upcoming Whisperado gigs, including tonight at Banjo Jim’s.

Book Review: Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend by Scott Reynolds Nelson

Not long ago, the fake-news rag The Onion cleverly updated an Industrial Age tale for the Digital Era: “Modern-Day John Henry Dies Trying To Out-Spreadsheet Excel 11.0.”

Fitting the tale of a nerdy number-cruncher into the framework of a mythically strong folk hero, the Onion made at least one reader laugh uncontrollably. When he had recovered his breath, that reader – OK, I – recognized that the story was so funny precisely because the parallel was so apt. The original, legendary John Henry had also died in a battle of man vs. machine.

I first heard the story of John Henry in a book of folk songs my parents kept by the piano and sang from often. “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was actually the biggest family favorite. I never made the connection that the two songs came out of the same historical experience, and in any case I imagined such songs to be mere fanciful stories, no more “real” than the hole in the bottom of the sea or poor Charlie who could get never get off the subway for want of a nickel. (If his wife could pass him a sandwich through the train window, couldn’t she just as easily pass him the darn coin?) These songs were about tall tales and humor, not logic and reality.

Later I learned how the American folk song collections I’d grown up with in the 60s and 70s owed their existence to the socialistic, unionizing movement that came out of the Great Depression. “Working on the Railroad” referred to actually working on the railroad; it was the working man, not the rich man, who was hurt by subway fare increases; and John Henry symbolized the worker for whom hard labor meant a life cut short.

But John Henry himself, of course, was a myth, a made-up person, a symbol, like Paul Bunyan, or Superman.

Funny thing, though: turns out there really was a steel-drivin’ man named John Henry, a convict at the Virginia State Penitentiary who was conscripted to help dig the railroad tunnels that would connect the South with the West. He and his fellow workers did drive steel by hand alongside newfangled steam drills; he, with many others, died on the job, and was buried, just as the song says, in the sand by a “white house.”

Scott Reynolds Nelson, a history professor at the College of William and Mary, used cultural clues and dogged research to track down this real-life John Henry, and tells the story in this fascinating new book. A well-balanced combination of scholarship and popular history, the first part of the book vividly, if swiftly, re-creates life in the Virginias during and immediately after Reconstruction.

Blacks, freed after the Civil War, remained subject to a separate justice system. When convicted of minor crimes they received disproportionate sentences. John William Henry, far from the mythological giant, was a short New Jersey teenager who became Prisoner 497 after he stole something from a grocery store outside Petersburg, Virginia in 1866. The prison needed to support itself. The railroads needed strong workers who couldn’t strike for higher wages. Though seen by some reformers as a way to transfer prisoners out of terrible prison conditions and into healthy outdoor work, the resultant convict lease system turned out to be a death sentence for whole populations of inmates.

The invention of dynamite had made it feasible to tunnel through the hard, ancient rock of the Allegheny Mountains. But men still had to drill the holes for the explosives. In the early 1870s, railroad contractors were testing unreliable new steam drills alongside their teams of powerful, steel-driving men. Apparently, competition occurred. A legend was born.

Along with a concise history of Southern railroads and Reconstruction justice, Nelson traces the musical forms out of which different versions of the John Henry song evolved, explaining how songs and chants – often misinterpreted by whites as indicating high spirits – were really tools to prevent injury while working in teams. The new stream drills, for their part,

lacked the flexibility found in the skilled two-man hammer teams that had been tunneling through mountains for centuries. The hammer man swung a sledgehammer down onto the chisel. The shaker shifted the drill [the chisel] between blows to improve the drill’s bite… Song coordinated the movements… humorous songs, sad songs, religious songs, all rhythm and meter and intonation but without an obvious melody – phrases, really… Theirs was a finely tuned instrument that a manufactured steam drill could not match. [C&O Railroad mogul Collis Porter] Huntington imagined that a steam drill could replace the skilled labor of miners, that he could work without their rock and roll. He was wrong.

So, the next time Grandpa complains that “kids’ music these days” is all beat and no tune, remind him that “rock and roll” got its backbeat, and its very name, from the motions and songs of black railroad diggers who toiled in the mountains long before he and Grandma were jitterbugging to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

Nelson’s evidence for identifying John William Henry, Prisoner 497, as the source of the “John Henry” legend is inconclusive, though tantalizing. Biographical information on Nelson’s John Henry is, and probably will remain, too skimpy for certainty. The song “John Henry,” however, probably is, as Nelson claims, the most recorded American folk song. There are more, probably many more, than 200 versions. (It appears on two recordings discussed in my Indie Round-up column just in the past six months: the Big Bill Broonzy Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953, and Hillstomp‘s 2004 debut CD.) It exists in many versions and has taken on many meanings. “Among trackliners who lived by their strength, [it] found its home as a story of heroism, one tinged with anxiety about the future,” Nelson says. Though the story of John Henry’s death may have originally been told in the form of a relatively tuneless “hammer song,” it

“was carefully folded into the familiar and disturbing horrors of the ballad tradition. Coal miners, black and white, made John Henry one of their own…a Moses who gave the South the Promised Land of the West, but could not live to see it. For prisoners, the song suggested the questions about loved ones: Would they be true, and would prisoners ever live to see them again?

Nelson seems ambivalent about the “English professors and sociologists” through whose agency the song was transformed from a “complex and unsettling story” to “a fabulous, impossible legend” that had, by the twentieth century, come to serve as “a historical commentary, its performance carefully calibrated to recall a bygone era.” He seems to lament a loss of purity, while recognizing that songs belong to the people and are forever developing and mutating. Placing “John Henry” in context at the nexus of what became American blues, folk, and country music, he closes with a section that includes a description of how the song spread after its “rediscovery” early in the twentieth century, from earliest recordings to popular interpretations by white artists – among them Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Drive-By Truckers, and Bruce Springsteen – and black artists such as Harry Belafonte, Mississippi John Hurt, and Cephas and Wiggins (though he does not mention all of these).

Nelson’s focus on the development of American musical forms through the lens of “John Henry” will prove enlightening to musicians and to fans of roots music. He does, however, fly quickly through this history, and some of his declarations seem a little pat. Was Carl Sandburg really the “first American folk singer?” Did Fiddlin’ John Carson “invent” country music? The book contains occasional inconsistencies and editorial or factual errors. No German or American city had a population in the “tens of millions” during the years 1871 to 1921 (or ever), and that’s a 50-year span, not 40. The band They Might Be Giants titled an album John Henry but did not record the song.

Equally important was the use of John Henry’s image and story by the labor movement. There were plays about John Henry, children’s books about John Henry (I remember one of those), and comic book heroes like Superman who evolved (in Nelson’s analysis) from the John Henry strongman character as depicted by artists of the early twentieth century. Several examples of that impressive John Henry artwork are reproduced in the book.

Few things are more interesting than when folklore and history dovetail. This book is a valuable contribution to both studies, and a fascinating read. It’s not flawless. The writing is occasionally awkward, and some errors have slipped through the editorial process. There are extensive notes, but an appendix pointing the reader to at least some of the recordings mentioned in the book would have been welcome. And Nelson, while an acknowledged railroad expert and a credible folklorist, is not a musicologist. Nevertheless he is well-qualified to tell this story, and it’s a good one.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics