Something different today, before regular Radio Nowhere service finally resumes…
People travel for a lot of fairly obvious reasons – to eat, drink, see the sights, visit friends, and so on. Me? I mainly travel so I’ll have a good excuse for repeatedly missing blog deadlines, and also because there’s a part of me that’s forever making up for lost time.
Growing up, I suffered for my isolation. Suffered as only an otherwise comfortable teenager could. If there was a bright center to the musical universe, then Christchurch was the city that was farthest from it. At least that’s how I felt. There were the albums I could never find, imports I could never afford, and magazines that were always three months old, at best. And gigs? Well, there would probably have been more if my tastes hadn’t been so limited, but still, I could only look in wonder at the advertising in Kerrang!, plotting out what I’d see on Tuesday night if I lived in London. Basically, stuff was happening, I knew it wouldn’t keep happening forever, and I hated that I was missing it.
Of course, it wasn’t that bad in hindsight, but I’ve retained a sort of nostalgic wanderlust all these years. It’s probably not surprising that much of the travelling I’ve done as an adult has been about getting myself to those places I always wanted to be. That’s how I spent September – a whirlwind trip across America that saw me touching down in a number of cities that have been instrumental in shaping the history of music. Cities where stuff happened.
First stop was Honolulu. Not a musically auspicious beginning, unless your tastes extended to the hearing the ukulele in its natural environment. However it did give me the opportunity to enjoy one of life’s simple pleasures – walking along the beach at sunset, listening to Ritual de lo Habitual. I was even there long enough to learn that Joni Mitchell’s Hejira is an excellent follow-up listen in such circumstances. As different as they may be, there’s a certain moodiness to those two profoundly Californian albums that complements a solitary sunset on the beach perfectly.
Next stop was Seattle – a more obvious musical destination for someone of my vintage. To be honest though, I didn’t have any particular hopes for my visit, musically speaking. Seattle’s not a music city in the way that massive places like LA or New York can be. Nor is music at the core of its identity the way it is for Nashville or New Orleans. Instead, it’s famous for coffee, Boeing, and being the place Jimi Hendrix departed from to find fame. Oh, and for that brief period in the late 80s/early 90s when the Pacific Northwest was in fact the bright center of the universe. But that was twenty-five years ago and I couldn’t really imagine there was much left to see or experience of such a fleeting period in the city’s history.
Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised that while grunge the cathartic musical expression is long gone, grunge the marketing phenomenon lives on.
It’s right there at the airport in the form of a Sub-Pop store, and it was two hundred yards from my hotel too, at the EMP museum. EMP – formerly the Experience Music Project – is a museum dedicated to popular culture in all its forms. Its centerpiece during my visit was a display of Star Wars costumes, but it was an exhibition built around Nirvana that was the selling point for me. It was surprisingly comprehensive, providing an overview of the whole Pacific Northwest and wider American independent scenes of the 80s. Better still, as well as the expected Nirvana memorabilia, it also provided opportunities to listen to dozens of tracks by bands from Mad Season to Skin Yard, Tad and the Beat Happenings.
Had that been it, I’d have been satisfied. Seattle knew why I was there and it had given me all I could reasonably expect in 2015 – a snapshot of its former glories. But fortune shone on me in the form of a surprise show by Shawn Smith, singer for Stone Gossard’s Brad, his own band Satchel, and even, for a one-night reunion, Mother Love Bone.
A youtube clip of the show probably wouldn’t look like much, just a guy and his keyboard casually working through some tunes in a small bar. But it was good, Smith was an affable guy, it felt like a community affair, and there were people there who had been, you know, ‘there’. And when he busted out Mother Love Bone’s Crown of Thorns, I felt like I’d well and truly had my Seattle moment.
Next stop was Nashville. A city that seems equal parts fetishized and disdained in the country music I listen to. A soulless, corporate shell according to its critics. Hollywood South.
But for all its sins, Nashville has always been a music city in a way Seattle never could be. So, while it may not be what it once was, and while Music Row turned out to be nothing more than a street lined with placards proclaiming some very dubious (albeit lucrative) song writing achievements, it remains a fun place to visit. There’s a band in every bar, and while some of them weren’t up to much, others were fantastic. There’s something satisfying about being in a place where everybody is looking to see and hear some live music – even if that means five different renditions of Friends In Low Places on any given evening. Actually, that’s not even such a bad song when the band performing it sound like the Drive-By Truckers.
Three hours down the road, Memphis has its own rich musical heritage, but much like the rest of the city, this aspect of it is a little faded, worn down by hard times. Beale Street is an island, feeling more like a theme park than a musical hub these days, and there’s little sense of the opportunity or excitement there must once have been there. But, like Seattle, Memphis knows its history.
On a previous visit I was able to stand in Sun Studios and grasp the microphone once used by Elvis, Jerry Lee and Johnny Cash, and on this trip I made it to the fantastic Stax museum. It’s a little off the beaten path – a museum and school in the middle of not much else, but it’s a truly fantastic institution, and well worth a visit for those with even a passing interest in southern soul. And so, content that I’d seen what I needed, I drove out of town listening to Mavis Staples, and got on the road to New Orleans (although sadly, not in Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac).
Like Nashville, New Orleans remains a music city in the truest sense. Also like Nashville it probably isn’t once what it was. However, perhaps because jazz never became the commercial behemoth that country did, New Orleans has retained a greater degree of its original identity. Or, at least, it retains a greater degree of its identity, as I understand it from watching Treme.
Whatever the case, New Orleans remains a fantastic city in its post-Katrina form. I can’t recommend it enough. The food, the history, and the feel of the place are unlike anything else in North America, but it’s still the music that makes it. The bars of Frenchmen Street deliver great performers for next to nothing, and I happily spent several afternoons scoping out a seemingly endless supply of street musicians – from weathered old-timers to banjo toting hipsters and all points in between. I didn’t see anything life changing I guess. There were no old legends at the corner bars, no famous faces in the crowd, no real links to the past, but I heard great music every night and almost literally tripped over it during the day.
Then just when I thought I couldn’t face another street rendition of When the Saints, I got Trombone Shorty ripping through it with a band in Jackson Square. So maybe there was no Jelly-Roll Morton, or Doctor John waiting for me in New Orleans but I got a Treme moment at least.
And finally, I stopped in San Francisco on my way home. Like Seattle writ-large, San Francisco has at various points been an important place in the history of American music – from the summer of love to the thrash and punk scenes that came to international attention 80s and 90s. And at its heart has always been the historic Fillmore Auditorium.
The Fillmore is still a working venue, but it felt a little like a museum, from the greeters on the door, to the chandeliers and the walls of concert posters. On my visit I was lucky enough to see the Mavis Staples and her amazing band, with the unexpectedly good Joan Osbourne supporting and, in a guest slot that had me grinning, the slide guitar of Bonnie Raitt – exactly the sort of superstar surprise appearance I’d always read about and lamented never getting to see as a kid.
And that was that. A credit card crushing four weeks brought to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. I went, I ate, I drank, I saw where stuff had happened and I saw some pretty cool stuff happen too.
That should quell the wanderlust for, well, weeks at least.
Radio Nowhere is a new initiative here at Off The Tracks – a fortnightly guest column by Michael Ross. Record-collection reflection and other stray thoughts associated with music purchasing, collecting and listening.