Che Apalache, Forest Sun, Blue Water Highway,Bradford Loomis, Eileen Carey, Grace Potter, Vintage Truble

December 2019 Stocking Stuffers

Looking for some last-minute gifts for the holiday season? You can’t go wrong by giving the gift of music. Here are some things to check out.

OMG, I have a new band to add to my favorites list: Che Apalache. The name roughly translates “My Appalachian. In Spanish, che is an interjection and can mean different things but this American/Argentinian band definitely has the Appalachians in mind. It is a Buenos Aires-based string band consisting of Martín Bobrick (mandolin), Pau Barjan (banjo), Franco Martino (guitar), and Joe Troop (fiddle/lead vocals). Troop is a North Carolinian by birth and a guy whose voice immediately puts one in mind of the late Ralph Stanley. Che’s latest album Rearrange My Heart is meant to be taken literally. Troop leads Southern gospel call-and-response/four-part harmony songs that challenge Americans to live up to their ideals. “The Dreamer” tells the tale of Moises, a boy whose mother crossed the border illegally with him and his sisters in tow. He grows up as an “American” kid who loves games, baseball, dogs, church, and waving fields of corn–until the INS takes away his family. When Troop sings, Only when we take a stand/Can we heal our broken nation, all I could say was “Amen, brother.”  “The Wall” is about that wall. It is deeply inspiring and watch the linked video the whole way through to see how it brought down the house at a Colorado bluegrass festival. Che Apalache play some straight up bluegrass and have an affinity for standards, but you also hear them venture into Argentinian music, as on “24 de Marzo,” a mash of a waltz, tango music, and innovative meanderings the likes of which Béla Fleck favors. (It comes as little surprise that Fleck likes this band.) “New Journey” is another inventive piece. It begins as a fast-paced instrumental bluegrass breakdown, wanders into jazz-influenced spaces that spawned the term “newgrass,” and eventually segues into a quiet, simple song that is hopeful, though its subject is coming to the end of one’s days: My spirit soars/Basking in gratitude/Buoyantly floats in the wind. Give Che Apalache a serious listen and when you’re not sashaying about, you too will be shouting “amen.” ★★★★★

Brighter Day is the 11th album from progressive folk/Americana artist Forest Sun. He certainly sports a pretty amazing bio. He lives in San Francisco now, but hails from Glens Falls, New York. As a kid Sun learned to juggle from Wavy Gravy and entertained Rory Block with his 6-year-old songs. Before his mother met his father, she dated a member of the Chambers Brothers. Mom also heard Pete Seeger and Joan Baez sing in an uncle’s living room and made sure her son knew of folk royalty. Cool, but how does Sun sound on his own? Fabulous, which is why he’s opened for everyone from Bonnie Raitt and the Beach Boys to Steve Earle and Keb Mo. In my estimation, others will soon be opening for him. Brighter Day has a passel of relationship songs and is wide ranging in style. I absolutely adored “All This Freedom,” in which he asks what are you going to do with all this freedom. Sun’s strong voice echoes the accents of his guitar and is fleshed out by some slide guitar and backing female voices. The title track looks at matters of the heart from the honest standpoint of trying hard but knowing I can’t always take the high road. “Clarity” feels so familiar that maybe it’s universal: Clarity where have you been/At this late hour you come waltzing in… These three are more folk in nature, but “Hearts Beat and Take a Beating” and “When Will I See You Again” are acoustic country, “Morningbird” is reminiscent of an Appalachian trad with backwoods gospel influences, and “If Our Time is Over” and “Just Someone I Used to Know” owe a debt to blue-eyed soul. I’m also a fan of the little ditty “Little Mountain,” another that feels like a rediscovered traditional. You even get echoes of reggae in “Baby Don’t Worry.” And if you need some uplift, check out “One Candle.★★★★

Blue Water Highway is a working-class band from Texas that’s a mélange of rock, country, and Americana. It’s fronted by Zack Kibodeaux who, along with Greg Essington, and Catherine Clarke crank out some tight three-part harmonies and grooves on guitar, keyboards, bass (Kyle Smith), and percussion (Jared Wilson). Speaking of grooves, one of the songs on Heartbreak City (Stripped) is titled “Groovin,” a pop/rock song featuring hand jive-like percussion, soulful vocals, and Clarke’s texturing organ notes. Other recommended songs include “Best Friend,” the band’s first single; the moody jazz-influenced title track; the catchy hand clap “Believe the Light,” and “Rebel,” which has the feel of Neil Young done up as a soul singer. For me, the keys really add depth to the group. My favorite song is the tender-but-melancholy “North of LA,” a song about the one who got away. Clarke’s piano rains down the pain for Kibodeaux lyrics such as: If you’re ever north of Los Angeles/Tell me if you see her… ★★★★

Bradford Loomis titled his newest release Where the Light Ends an apt title. In quick succession, he lost his job in Seattle during the ’09 recession, then his home, and had to scrape to care for both his father (early onset Alzheimer’s) and his wife’s puzzling ailment (that turned out to be celiac disease). But, as he puts it, “There is such a thing as good grief.” As you can imagine, Loomis has stories to tell.” “Treading Water” is a song he calls “emotive angst” but like much of the album, it’s a come-out-on-the-other-side song with the hopeful line I’m not drowning, my love. Loomis often gets tagged as an Americana rocker, though that’s probably because he has a seriously big voice and now lives in Nashville. His new record falls into the singer/songwriter category as well as it lands anywhere. You’ll hear a pastiche of styles. “Righteous Kind” is a shuffle, “Rambling Man,” a gritty ramble in which he describes himself as “walking in another man’s shoes;” “Take a Swing,” a soulful exploration of the tension and anger that induces fear and paralysis; and “Wayward Son” a drone-like direct take on poverty, and a slanted commentary on how it globalizes: Blessed are the poor in spirit and makers of peace/All the refugees cry, but we’ve turned the other cheek/When the children make war with bitter scorn/For those whom they should seek… Did I mention that Loomis can turn a neat phrase? ★★★★

Because the music industry is saturated with buoyant young things hoping to make it big time, it’s a rare pleasure to encounter a mature woman with a grown-up voice. Eileen Carey once had a single titled “Good Bad Girl” and that’s a good way to describe  the content of a repertoire that’s a mélange of country, pop, and rock. She’s been a mom, has done video work, has crusaded for animal rights, and insists on playing music her way. In other words, she’s been around long enough to write her own script. Two songs from her EP The Lost Tapes tells us more about Carey. “That Town” is backed with grungy guitar, but the song itself has pop rock hooks throughout. Its content is about leaving a town you know you must put in the rearview mirror: That town’s got nothing on me now/If you look both ways I’m not there. Carey is originally from Ohio and now lives in Los Angeles. Contrast the previous song with “Hollywood,” which is bouncy, showy, and upbeat. The first song is suggestive or a middle finger waving bye-bye; the second a love letter filled with homage wordplay. The sheen of that one contrasts with the nasty breakup country pop “Anything That reminds Me of You,” which references tossing out clothing, destroying love letters, sweet valentines you can stick where the sun don’t shine, and a defiant promise to burn your memory out/I’m gonna curse your name all over this town. It is the flip-the-cover alternative to her hopeful “MeetMe Halfway,” which should not be confused with a song by Black-Eyed Peas.” If you don’t know Carey’s music, you should. She also has a new album titled Finally that I’ve not yet dipped into, so more on that one anon. ★★★★

Short Cuts

Grace Potter has come a long way since she was Waitsfield, Vermonter precocious teen with a voice that sounded as if it couldn’t possibly come from someone that young. These days she fronts killer bands and puts on slick shows, but thanks to Paste Studio session she did in September, we can hear some stripped-down material. “EveryHeartbeat” is a good one to hear some of her vocal ornaments, especially those unexpected catches in her throat that add depth and contrast. “Shout It Out”  is country music, but is much smokier and soulful than the usual humdrum. Potter’s acoustic guitar lulls us into a quiet place until she gives it a strong downbeat and airs out her voice on So shout it out/If you know this is the end/I don’t love you/Just ain’t the kind of thing you say under your breath…. If you’d prefer a softer landing, try “Love is Love.”

I’ve saved something really special for last. Vintage Trouble is an aptly named Los Angeles quartet (sometimes quintet) that takes us back to the days when rhythm and blues was raw and raunchy. I’ve seen reviews comparing VT to the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and Chuck Berry. Nah! Try Wilson Pickett. Vocalist Ty Taylor is a volcanic force of nature, and electric guitarist Nalle Colt is pretty damn good as well. Listen to Taylor cover “Rocket Man” and you might be tempted to trash your old Elton John albums. Taylor goes softer with a soulful weepie “My Whole World Stopped Without You.” But if you really want to hear (and see) what Taylor can do, watch the official video of “Pelvis Pusher.” Yeah, it’s a bit risqué and sexist but, Taylor is incredible. Check with a cardiologist before seeing these folks live!

Rob Weir


City Lights Not Chaplin's Best

City Lights (1931)
Written, produced, and directed by Charlie Chaplin
United Artists, 87 minutes, Not-rated.
★★ ½

Film buffs fall into two camps when it comes to championing films that directors think are their best work: those who feel the director’s vision should have primacy, and those who think directors need editors and are too close to their work to evaluate it objectively. This is a harder task with Charlie Chaplin, arguably Hollywood’s first superstar. Early on, Chaplin began to write, direct, and finance his own pictures, hence every frame you see is as Chaplin willed to appear. Was he always right? I don’t think so.  

It was his opinion that City Lights was his finest film; it is mine that there are numerous Chaplin films that are better and more important: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) spring to mind. Chaplin may have felt as he did because City Lights took so long to bring to the screen. He started it in 1927, but other films and circumstances occasioned numerous delays and it took four years before it was ready for release. Ah, but a lot can happen in four years, most notably the introduction of “talkies,” sound pictures that relegated silent flicks to the popular culture graveyard. In part because Chaplin originally envisioned City Lights as a pantomime, and in part because he was not yet confident in the new medium, City Lights was released with just a musical track and intertitles. Within four years, all Hollywood films featured at least some synchronized sound.

Chaplin’s love of City Lights can also be explained in that he saw it is a film of great humanity. Watching it today–and anyone serious about film should–begs the question of whether Chaplin confused humanity and sentimentality. Chaplin again donned the Little Tramp costume that is so universally familiar: baggy trousers, bowtie, a shabby and tight fitting vest jacket, bowler hat, greasepaint moustache, and cane. He wanders a nameless city in which he is either anonymous or the butt of pranks delivered even by lowly newsboys. Two subplots interweave, the first being his discovery of a beautiful blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) to whom he is kind, the second his on/off friendship with a quirky millionaire (Henry Myers) whose suicide he prevents. The problem with the second relationship is that the millionaire is a heavy drinker who showers the Tramp with kindness and gifts when drunk but doesn’t recognize him and has him tossed onto the sidewalk when sober. The Tramp parlays his foul-weather friend’s largess into helping the flower seller and her grandmother (Florence Lee), but at great personal peril.

There are several pieces of classic slapstick in City Lights–being nearly impaled by a statue’s sword, falling into a river, a bout with hiccups, and a decidedly unorthodox boxing match–but several gags don’t hold up well and overall there isn’t as much of the superb physicality that we associate with Chaplin. Virtually every sight gag in this film would be surpassed in spades in Modern Times–in my opinion Chaplin’s greatest film. I’d also argue that City Lights’ finest moment isn’t comedic at all; it’s the film’s deliciously ambiguous final scene.

The American Film Institute rates City Lights as # 76 on its list of the 100 greatest films of all time. Was the AFI unduly influenced by Chaplin’s own view of its importance? I don’t know that to be the case, though I’m sure I could come up with enough better movies to push City Lights out of the top 100. City Lights is diverting, sweet, and sentimental, but it is no masterpiece.

Rob Weir



Ancient Nubia Now the Brightest Star in the MFA Sky

Ancient Nubia Now (through January 20, 2020)
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

The ancient world poses a challenge for those who naively believe that history is linear and progressive. It’s simply not the case that things progress over time; the globe is replete with cultures whose glory days lay in the misty past, not the tangible present. Today, South Sudan has a distinction that no nation desires; its per capita income of $246/year makes it the world’s poorest country. And even though the Republic of the Sudan to its north has a yearly per capita income nearly 5 times that of the south, it is the 28th poorest nation on earth.

It’s hard to imagine that at one point in history, powerful and wealthy kingdoms flourished in the Sudanese desert. It was the Biblical Kush for you Old Testament readers and was long a rival to Egypt to the north–sometimes as a desired target of annexation and sometimes as Egypt’s sovereign. The Sudan, like Egypt, depends upon the Nile River to bring life to an otherwise parched land. It’s an important waterway, but also one with six cataracts (waterfalls and rapids) that acted as transportation barriers that had to be bypassed by traders and armies.

Perhaps you’ve barely heard of ancient Nubia. If so, Egypt is the reason why. Ancient Egypt has been extensively studied and the great civilizations it spawned so widely admired that almost all of the cultural flowering of northeast Africa is attributed to Egypt and its pharaohs. Whenever we see pictures of pyramids, golden jewelry, ancient deities, mummies, and sarcophagi, we immediately thinks of Egypt. When such things are found elsewhere, they were surely imported from Egypt, yes? Why would we assume this? Who is to say Egypt exported its culture rather than importing or blending it? Could race have anything to do with our misassumptions? Egyptians tended to be olive-skinned, whereas most Sudanese were of Negroid stock.

Of course race has been a factor! The Museum of Fine Art in Boston’s Ancient Nubia Now serves to draw attention back to the splendor that was once Nubia. The show is arranged thematically, but also focuses on the three capitals that corresponded with ancient Nubian historical development: Kerma (2100 BCE-1550 BCE), Napata (750 BCE-337 BCE), and Meroe (333 BCE-364 CE). In brief, the Kerman period was one in which Egypt and Nubia were on parallel path and separated by the first three Nile cataracts. Toward the end of the period, fear of Nubia’s rising might led Old Kingdom Egypt (2700 BCE-2180 BCE) to conquer northern Nubia. Kerma regained control after 2188 BCE, but declined over the next 300 years. Nubia was conquered again during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (1580 BCE-1090 BCE). As you can imagine, quite a bit of syncretism took place during Egyptian control.

Around 750 BCE, though, a reversal took place. Nubians from the new capital of Napata invaded Egypt and controlled it for nearly 400 years. Nubia also mastered Egypt for part of its Meriotic period, which lasted from 333 BCE to 364 of the Current Era (though direct Nubian control was much shorter). Plenty of Nubian art from periods of Egyptian control shows dominance from its northern neighbors, but when Nubia reigned, Egypt’s art became more Nubian–blacker if you will. This is more visibly evident in human figures which had looser poses and faces with Negroid features.

The who is influencing whom question is always a hard one for anthropologists to answer. Does one art form suggest another because that style was forced upon the subjugated, or does it look that way because of choice, homage, and syncretism? Nubian art and society underwent subsequent changes when others came and went: Persians, Romans, ancient Eritreans, Christians, and, after the 14th century, Muslims. Today the land of Kush struggles.

But here’s the secret to enjoying the exhibit: If you wish, you can forget the history lesson and simply revel in the beauty and fine craftsmanship of the various objects on display. The takeaway points are more important, the first being that “Black” Africa was not the proverbial “sticks.” Nubia (and many others elsewhere) gave rise to sophisticated kingdoms and artistic achievements of the first order. Nubian artists represented both themselves and their conquerors. (Tomb findings confirm that many of the fabulous and fanciful finds were fashioned by local hands.) There are also quite a few crossover cultural artifacts. You will see enough gold to make you don sunglasses and virtually everything you encounter will destroy notions of the adjective “primitive.”  

Ancient Nubia, like ancient Egypt, also challenges us to view those worlds through their worldviews, not our own. It helps to think of the pre-17th century CE world as one of kingdoms and empires rather than nation-states. Kingdoms tended to be regional rather than ethnic, and if those kingdoms became empires, ethnicities were blurred further. If your view of ancient Egypt is white, you have been the victim of bad teaching and ahistorical thinking. Ancient Egypt was also black and black Nubia was also white, Get over it.

A final note. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts expecting to be blown away by its exhibit on women artists. It is the case, however, that Ancient Nubia Now is the brightest star in the current MFA sky.

Rob Weir 

Note: Archaeologists use the terms BCE (Before Current Era) and CE the way Westerners use the terms BC and AD. They do so because many of the world’s cultures are not Judeo-Christian and often measure time differently.