Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Deep Blue

By Bill Friskics-Warren and Jim Ridley

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  The field of music journalism was diminished recently by the loss of one of its most distinct and contentious voices. On Nov. 20, historian, critic, essayist, and musician Robert Palmer died in New York of complications from liver disease. Palmer had suffered from chronic liver problems ever since he contracted a severe case of hepatitis in 1985. His wife, JoBeth Briton, was at his side as he listened to some of his favorite music. He was 52.

Born and educated in Little Rock, Ark., Palmer moved to New York in 1970. From 1976 to 1988, he was chief pop-music critic for The New York Times, and he was also a longtime contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He authored several books, including 1995's Rock & Roll: An Unruly History; he wrote and directed one documentary, The World According to John Coltrane, and appeared in another, a film based on his seminal blues study Deep Blues. But Palmer wasn't content just to write about music. He played clarinet and saxophone with various blues, rock, and jazz bands, among them The Insect Trust, and he produced several records.

Yet these facts can't begin to describe the impact of Palmer's work on music fans the world over--especially the impact of Deep Blues, his magnificent 1981 musical and cultural history of the Mississippi Delta. More than any other book of its time, Deep Blues introduced post-punk audiences to legendary bluesmen such as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters. It set a benchmark that hasn't been surpassed.

Palmer didn't just enumerate the people, places, and events of the Delta. He conveyed the characters, recordings, and worlds of the greatest blues singers more vividly than any writer of his generation. He recorded their journeys and immersed himself in their lives, without stealing away their hard-won dignity or their almost mystical sense of self. Most miraculous of all, he did so with the passion and energy of the best rock 'n' roll. The closing passage from Deep Blues could serve appropriately as Palmer's own epitaph:

"A literary and musical form...a fusion of music and poetry accomplished at a very high emotional temperature...these are different ways of describing the same thing. A gigantic field of feeling...that's a way of describing something enduring, something that could be limitless. How much thought can be hidden in a few short lines of poetry? How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string? The thought of generations, the history of every human being who's ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain."--Bill Friskics-Warren

Last winter, on Dec. 8, the anniversary of John Lennon's murder in 1980, a cross-section of Nashville's musical talent gathered at the Ace of Clubs to sing the late Beatle's songs and to raise money for Handgun Control, the nation's largest gun-control lobbying organization. A few of the performances were merely earnest. But when Rebecca Stout sang "Beautiful Boy" sweetly enough to hush the room, or when Joe, Marc's Brother crooned "Yes It Is" in a loving barbershop-quartet arrangement, or when Tommy Womack loosed a bloodcurdling primal scream at the climax of "Well Well Well," the event was anything but didactic. The more passionate the performances grew, the more Lennon's loss was felt--which only made the issue of handgun control that much more urgent.

The event had been started by guitarist/bandleader John Sieger and his wife Linsey several years ago in their hometown of Milwaukee. But when the Siegers moved to Nashville, they found plenty of friends who embraced the idea. This Monday, the third annual Imagine No Handguns benefit moves to the Exit/In, and once again an all-star lineup of singers, songwriters, bands, and musicians will join forces to celebrate Lennon's memory.

On hand will be Lucinda Williams, Duane Jarvis, The Delevantes, Joy Lynn White, Allison Moorer, SWAG (featuring members of Cheap Trick and The Mavericks), Shinola, the Luxury Liners, Greg Trooper, Steve Allen, Victor Mecyssne, Kristi Rose, Mark Winchester, Pat Gallagher, and surprise guests. Several of last year's best performers will also return, including Womack, Joe, Marc's Brother, Bill Lloyd, and Phil Lee. Sieger will lead the first-rate house band, which features Lloyd, Allen, Dave Jacques, Lorne Rall, Joan Besson, and Billy Block.

If the performances match the emotion, intensity, and abandon of last year's, this will be a show to remember and a holiday tradition in the making. Tickets are $7 at the door, and the doors open at 7:30 p.m.

Thanks to a nationwide network of oddity collectors, some underground records and videos have practically become urban folklore--the infamous Troggs session bootleg, for example, or the Tube Bar tapes of prank calls. Add to this list a flabbergasting LP called Astrology Songs, recorded about a decade ago by a macrobiotic California golfer named Harvey Sid Fisher.

Swinging singer
The incomparable Harvey Sid Fisher
The one word that aptly describes Astrology Songs is "unforgettable." To cash in on the astrology craze of the mid-1980s, Fisher wrote songs for every sign in the Zodiac and decided to warble them himself. The idea sounds crass enough to sell, especially to Californians. The album is a whole other story. On record, over backing tracks suitable for karaoke, Fisher resembles nothing so much as the lounge singer Bill Murray used to play on Saturday Night Live, socking across his swingin' tunes with the infernal perkiness of a cruise director.

Fisher's belief in the power of the stars may be questionable, but there's no doubting his sincerity on record, baby. "I am, I am, I am the Ram," belts the singer in solidarity with Aries. The showstopper, though, is Fisher's paean to Taurus the bull, whom he commemorates with a chipper, "Talkin' 'bout the bully-bull-bull!" When videos for the songs began airing in 1989 on public-access TV in Los Angeles, Astrology Songs became a cult sensation. Fisher's tapes even turned up on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, thus cementing his notoriety.

Now for the big surprise: Harvey Sid Fisher will perform his first-ever Nashville gig Thursday night at Lucy's Record Shop. (He's apparently passing through on his way from the World Championship Putting Contest in Orlando.) He'll be backed by a band consisting of Lambchop's John Delworth, Paul Niehaus, and Alex McManus and Thee Phantom 5ive's Todd Williams and Danny Sloan. To help Fisher perform songs off Battle of the Sexes, his new album of bickering duets with women, Delworth's fiance Dana Summarell will serve as all-purpose backing vocalist and duet partner.

As if the evening could get any stranger, David Cloud and his Gospel of Power will kick off the whole shebang at 8 p.m. Too bad Wesley Willis isn't in town, or this could be a real summit meeting. Tickets are $5 at the door; it's a small price to pay for a memory that'll last a lifetime.

The Spot, Nashville's flourishing hip-hop/R&B/open-mic poetry series, celebrates its 10th show and its last show of the year this Sunday night with a lineup that's diverse even by the show's eclectic standards. Fittingly, one featured performer is Iayaalis, the East Nashville rapper-songwriter-vocalist who's been courted by major labels of late; she sang at The Spot's very first gathering upstairs at Bongo Java in July. Also on the bill is Quentessence, a jazz combo led by trumpeter Quentin L. Ware Jr., whose credits include stints with Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, and Cab Calloway. "He just showed up one time and blew everybody away," says Christopher "cool.out" Davis, The Spot's ebullient emcee. As usual, free-styling MCs and poets can sign up an hour beforehand for the open-mic segment.

For the time being, the showcase has moved back to the Gibson Cafe (formerly Henry's Coffeehouse) on Lower Broadway. On Sunday, the works of visual artist Melvin "Hadji" Brown will be on display--another example of the multimedia cross-pollination that has made the concert series so lively. The Spot resumes in January after the holidays, and Davis says he's already fielding calls from touring artists who want to make the showcase a stopover on the road to Atlanta. Go Sunday, and say you used to go way back when. Tickets are $5, and doors open at 5:30 p.m.; get there by 6:30 if you want a seat.

Jazz vocalist April Barrows, whose album My Dream Is You won a Nashville Music Award last year for best independent record, has found a nifty way to warm up for her second release on Santa Fe-based Kokopelli Records. Through January, she'll perform every other Sunday night at F. Scott's with a small combo that includes producer David Hungate on guitar and trombone, Charles Dungey on upright bass, Denis Solee on sax and clarinet, and Beegie Adair on (what else?) piano. All shows are free and begin at 6:30 p.m.--Jim Ridley

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