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J. Herman "The Critic" RSS Feed (Atlanta, GA United States)

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Still on the Levee
Still on the Levee
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4.0 out of 5 stars Another Way to Find Chris, February 11, 2015
This review is from: Still on the Levee (Audio CD)
Chris Smither caught the back end of the 60's folk revival, received a modest push during the singer-songwriter early-70's, slipped into a decade-long alcoholic miasma, came back clean in the mid-80's, and has been a well-loved figure on the pumpkin bread circuit ever since. Now in his sixth decade of performing, Smither has by necessity reinvented himself ever-so-slightly, in ways that diehard fans tend not to notice and that critics usually ignore. Put simply, as age and periodic tendinitis have dinged his manual dexterity, Smither is now bypassing his Chuck Berry rave-ups and fleet finger-picking scrambles, and instead accentuating his wry, bluesy shuffles and soulful ballads (which were already a huge part of his repertoire anyway). The result is a somewhat more subtle, more pensive Smither, with the same shuddering voice that complements his wiry guitar lines perfectly.

"Still on the Levee" is, for lack of a better way to put, Smither's tribute to himself, i.e., a collection of songs from different stages in his career, some of which he hasn't really played out in years, all intelligently rearranged and recast, with a smart troupe of accompanying musicians. The "new" versions are never less than intriguing -- like adding a harmonica to "Another Way to Find You" and channeling Sonny and Brownie, or spinning "Leave the Light On" as a country-ish duet," though I'm not sure any of these actually improve on earlier versions, mainly because it's pretty hard to improve on perfection. And for some listeners, present company included, what we really want to hear is just Chris and his guitar and his feet keeping time, and so I find myself often trying to listen past the "other stuff," no matter how artistically or thoughtfully mounted, and just sitting back in wait for his pure solo renditions, like "Can't Shake these Blues" or "Song for Susan" (despite his omitting the second part of the latter). So on balance, great stuff, but not quite the two-dozen versions that Smither fans might want most.

The Mayor of MacDougal Street [2013 edition]: A Memoir
The Mayor of MacDougal Street [2013 edition]: A Memoir
by Dave Van Ronk
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.35
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Last Song from an Ageing Child, February 20, 2014
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Dave Van Ronk radiated a larger-than-life persona and, while he never achieved anything approaching stardom, certainly carved out a significant niche for himself in the folk/blues world for a good 30-plus years. This book was originally conceived as a multi-layered oral history of Greenwich Village's "Great Folk Scare" (i.e., the late 50's, early 60's folk revival), but various circumstances (including an unexpected reversal of health) turned it into a partial autobiography, which is just as well. The book works far better as a way of getting inside Dave Van Ronk than reconstructing the folk scene. Yes, his memories are honest and instructive, but they really only work for those who already know something about most of the characters who show up. Otherwise, comments about things like Peter Stampfel's enigmatic genius, Phil Och's ability to write a bridge, and Bob Gibson's "Vegas-Tahoe thing" probably won't have much resonance.

The book is never less than great fun, again, for those who are already familiar with the man and the scene. Van Ronk comes off as a combination of street-smart and buffoonish, wildly opinionated, and sometimes just an ordinary working-class musician who somehow managed to make a good living. The book also captures Van Ronk's dark, ironic, cranky sense of humor, though it's not always clear whether we're getting unalloyed Van Ronk, or snippets of co-author Elijah Wald's snarky and smug voice seeping in. Still, even if it's 80% Van Ronk, it's well worth it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 1, 2014 5:46 AM PST

County Down
County Down
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Earthy and Seductive, February 3, 2014
This review is from: County Down (Vinyl)
Eerie, creative harmonies from the erstwhile pride of Deer Isle, Maine. A really extraordinary debut album that came out of the blue.

Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman (Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life)
Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman (Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life)
by Mark Cohen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.01
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Overwrought Simplification, January 4, 2014
Allan Sherman was a TV game-show back-bencher who, fifty-plus years ago, unexpectedly grabbed (and held) the spotlight with his Jewish-flavored song parodies, before sabotaging both his career and physical health through a decade of intemperance. Mark Cohen takes tremendous pains to get all the details of Sherman's story, by reconstructing his chaotic and dysfunctional childhood, interviewing dozens of important people in Sherman's social and professional orbits, and unearthing a treasure trove of relevant published (and unpublished) materials. This is certainly the most comprehensive study of Sherman ever.

Unfortunately, the author has a penchant for taking material out of context, interjecting his own moral and aesthetic judgments as though they were established facts, and, most damagingly, trying to plug every aspect of Sherman's life and career into sort of a "grand narrative" on negotiating American Jewish identity and struggling with the wounds of childhood trauma, which leads him to draw sweeping conclusions that are simply not justified by the data he presents. As a result, this splendidly researched book often reads like a mix of armchair psychology and celebrity gossip masquerading as real scholarship, sometimes to the point of unintentional self-parody. Here's one example: "The takeaway lesson was that success depended upon leaving Jewish ethnicity behind. That was a message Sherman had been fighting all his life, and his Broadway parodies were his battle plan. They peeled off the Christian camouflage worn by Broadway's Jewish creators, expelled them from the Eden of being assimilated Americans, and led them back into the exile of Jewishness, which for Sherman was a place of refuge and comfort."

The author is so invested in this particular mythos, that he occasionally mis-hears key song lyrics and gets other supporting data wrong. Discerning readers can tease out enough of the real story to make the book worthwhile, but it will certainly require an effort to ignore the heavy-handed interpretive voice.

Folksingers of the 60's
Folksingers of the 60's
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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ghosts of the Past, November 13, 2013
This review is from: Folksingers of the 60's (Audio CD)
Very few people are old enough to remember the "Folk Revival" that took the country by storm in the late 50's and early 60's, and most people who do know something about it can't tick off many more names than Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. This CD captures one little slice of that magic moment, with a little something for true believers, acoustic dilettantes, and folk archaeologists alike. Half the CD is a "best of" compilation of Elektra performers -- Richard and Mimi Farina, Phil Ochs, Mississippi John Hurt, Eric Andersen, and so on -- but the real prize is the lightning-in-a-bottle glimpse of the Newport Folk Festival, featuring truly rare performances like a cobbled together duet with Theodore Bikel (Worf's father, on Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Judy Collins, the short-lived Chicago duo Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp, and Dylan leading the entire world in "Blowin' in the Wind." Not every track will be for everybody: you may not care for Buffy Saint-Marie's screeching tremolo or find Tommy Makem a little too faux-Irish, but this was a pretty profound collection forty years ago, and it holds up remarkably well today.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 28, 2014 9:13 AM PDT

Go Ride the Music and West Pole
Go Ride the Music and West Pole
DVD ~ Various Artists
Price: $24.98
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4.0 out of 5 stars Lightning in a Bottle, September 6, 2013
When PBS aired "Go Ride the Music" more than 40 years ago, it was indeed a pretty big deal. Most television accounts of San Francisco musicians at that time portrayed them as little more than a flower-child freak show. But here was earthy, close-up footage of two of the original psychedelic bands, perhaps not quite when they were young and hungry, but still well before they imploded completely. And remember, most of the 1970 TV audience knew nothing about the Airplane beyond their top-40 hits, and only those tuned in to the more "underground" music scene had even heard of Quicksilver. For hipsters, tripsters, and real cool chicksters, this special provided a rare glimpse into the last breaths of San Francisco's golden music days.

The Airplane songs, all concert standards for them at the time, include "We Can Be Together," "Volunteers," "Wooden Ships," "Plastic Fantastic Lover," "Somebody to Love," "Mexico," and "Emergency." Though the emerging Starship and Hot Tuna wings had pushed Marty Balin into the background by this point, you'd never know it, as Balin appears to be running the show, vocally at least, on all but Grace Slick's two solo pieces. The singing is enthusiastic, albeit ragged, though you'll keep watching it mainly for Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady's jams, which are spot on.

The four Quicksilver songs capture a rare transitional moment for the band, after Dino Valenti had taken over, but before John Cipollina, David Freiberg, or Nicky Hopkins took off, so the performances excel despite Dino's attempts to sabotage them. In fact, there are some real treats, like their seldom-heard version of "Warm Red Wine," extended solos on "Subway" (including a brief one by Hopkins), and a memorable "Mona." Yes, it's not quite up to their 1967-68 rave-ups of "Smokestack Lightning" and "Back Door Man," but it's literally the oldest and best extant footage of this moribund ensemble.

As for West Pole, it's a product of its time, an amateurish -- amateurish, in the sense of doing something out of love -- do-it-yourself tribute crafted by an intelligent and important music critic who wanted to let the rest of the world know that something truly exciting was happening in San Francisco. Of course, it's marred by the dependance on album tracks and contrived psychedelic effects, but it's really worth it if only for the performances by the Ace of Cups.

If you like the Airplane and Quicksilver, "Go Ride" is a real treat. If you think that Haight-Ashbury's psychedelic era represented one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time or anywhere in the world, then both discs are any absolute must. If you don't think either, then pass these by.

rosehip string band LP
rosehip string band LP
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Forgetten Gem, August 6, 2013
This review is from: rosehip string band LP (Vinyl)
Creative debut from this short-lived midwest folk-acoustic band. Swirling strings (guitars, autoharps, dulcimers, fiddles) and a pair of sweet voices. Too bad they've been assigned to the dustbin of acoustic history.

East River Consort
East River Consort
Price: $14.40
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4.0 out of 5 stars Early New Acoustic Music, August 1, 2013
This review is from: East River Consort (Audio CD)
Strong debut from this Yale-based band, weaving together a creative hybrid of folk, jazz, and what was then called "new acoustic" influences. Some of the cuts are standouts ("The Sphinx in Her Stable," "Twilight Barking," "Sarah Vail") with brilliant interplay of guitars, violin, and flute, while others overplay basic modal themes or drift into narrative dead ends. Still, a literate, articulate, and original contribution.

Vernon Dent: Stooge Heavy
Vernon Dent: Stooge Heavy
by Bill Cassara
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.96
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Heart in the Right Place, July 16, 2013
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In some ways, this book is an excellent piece of work. It painstakingly chronicles the twists and turns of Dent's prolific career as a comic foil, occasionally supporting the narrative with bits of interesting memorabilia. But on the other hand, the scarcity of legitimate source material -- e.g., written correspondence, family photos, recollections from people who actually knew him, etc. -- makes it so the man himself remains kind of a distant cipher, and his hundreds of films never come to life beyond cast lists and plot synopses. Certainly well intentioned, but ultimately decades too late and documents short.

Price: $13.06
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Burst of Cipollina, June 20, 2013
This review is from: Copperhead (Audio CD)
Released a few years after John Cipollina (as well as David Freiberg and Nicky Hopkins) relinquished control of Quicksilver Messenger to Dino Valenti, this album chronicles Cipollina's first brief attempt to assemble his own new San Francisco band. It sure surprised the critics, who were expecting Cipollina to reclaim the psychedelic legacy that QMS had abandoned, but instead found an album of punk-ish songs with grinding guitars and goofy lyrics, mostly penned by guitarist Gary Phillipet (later of the Greg Kihn Band) and pianist Jim McPherson. Still, somehow it all worked, as the silly ditties provided a perfect foundation for JC to mount his quivering guitar leads, which probably never sounded brighter or sharper than they do on this album.

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