This post takes up the subject of stage banter with the hopes of gaining a window into what makes a great artist great. Before we get to stage banter, however, I want to look at Howe Gelb’s spoken introduction to Giant Sand’s cover of “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33).” Stage banter and spoken introductions are, clearly, related animals.
Gelb is the lead singer of the band Giant Sand, and the cover in question first appeared on Nothing Left to Lose, a Kris Kristofferson tribute album. The song was later collected on Giant Sand’s album Cover Magazine. You may know the song–it goes:
he’s a poet/ he’s a picker/ he’s a prophet/ he’s a pusher/ he’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned/ he’s a walking contradiction/ partly fact and partly fiction/ taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
It’s a good song, and Gelb turns in a sound version. But it’s his spoken introduction that really peaks my interest. On Kristofferson’s original he name-checks a number of folks who “had something to do with” the genesis of the song. Gelb repeats the original name-checks, slightly out of order, before listing a set of artists that he, Gelb, learned the song for:
Well, I guess when Kris wrote this song he wrote it for Chris Gantry-he started out doing it though by-ended up writing it for Dennis Hopper, Johnny Cash, Norman Norbert, Funky Donny Fritts, Billy Swan, Paul Seibel, Bobby Neuwirth, Jerry Jeff Walker. Ramblin’ Jack Eliot had a lot to do with it. Me I ended up learning this song for Vic Chesnutt, Jason Lytle, Evan Dando, Polly Jean, Paula Jean, Patsy Jean, Juliana, Victoria, Bobby Neuwirth, Bobby Plant. Curtis John Tucker had a lot to do with it.
The alliterative Bobbys and the matching of Ramblin’ Jack Eliot and Curtis John Tucker make this speech into a mini-poem of sorts, and we know many of the protagonists. Hopper and Cash of course; Jerry Jeff Walker and Ramblin’ Jack Eliot are folk singers, older than Kristofferson; Bobby Neuwirth is a folk singer, multimedia artist, and Dylan confidant in Don’t Look Back. Funky Donny Fritts is a session keyboardist, and I believe Norman Norbert and Billy Swan were session musicians as well. Paul Seibel was also a folksinger-I don’t know him; maybe you do. Kris’ meaning is pretty clear-a song like The Pilgrim doesn’t come from nowhere, and the folksingers he learned from are portals back in time to an earlier tradition to which he generously pays tribute.
Not being myself a 70’s session musician completist I did have to look up a few of the names. The Gelb names are more familiar, expect one. Vic Chesnutt, Jason Lytle and Victoria (Williams) are folk singers (or were, as sadly Chesnutt has passed). Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, and P.J. Harvey are/were alt-rock superstars. Bobby Plant would be Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame, Bobby Neuwirth is Bobby Neuwirth.
But here’s the point, after listening to Kristofferson and Gelb name-check Funky Donny and Curtis John, I feel an affinity for them-were I to bump into Funky Donny in an airport bar or lounge his presence would resonate with an essential familiarity. Even if I didn’t know precisely that it was he, I would recognize immediately that he was indeed funky, not to mention a serious problem when he’s stoned. And Curtis John Tucker, well, his role is still opaque to me, but he clearly had a lot to do with it.
What both singers hint at in their evocation of the circumstances surrounding the creation of a song is the presence of community behind the music. Behind or beside every Kristofferson is a Norman Norbert, behind every an a Bobby Neuwirth, every Gelb a Curtis John Tucker.
The humanity and camaraderie inherent in the spoken introductions to The Pilgrim remind us that artistic communities are vital in the creation of lasting artistic production–Neuwirth may not have been essential to Dylan’s art in the mid-60’s, but he was instrumental to its vitality; Kristofferson wrote “The Pilgrim” but it wouldn’t have been as good without Paul Seibel. And as for Curtis John Tucker, well he had a lot to do with it.
On the Spoken Introduction of the Band Members of Phosphorescent by Matthew Houck on Live at the Music Hall
On side two of Phosphorescent’s majestic 2015 live album Live from the Music Hall, the band plays a song from their 2005 album Aw Come Aw Wry, called “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues.” Houck’s early Phosphorescent albums are interesting–they are more ambient and keening than his mature work and some of the songs are really long. Joe Tex is one of the better early songs, and Houck puts a little something special into the first couple lines on the live version:
Is it ever gonna not be so hard to see you around/ or am I really really really really gonna have to really gonna have to really have to leave town
Houck is a master at harnessing the power of repetition—here each “really” takes on its own character and valance. The band gives an excellent performance, which goes for about 4 minutes. It is apparently the second last song of the night, because at the end of the song Houck moves to introduce the band. Here he goes, as the band chugs on behind him:
Brooklyn, that’s Scott Stapleton playing that piano right there…
The first “Brooklyn” is loaded with import–Houck is going to drop some wisdom on the folks tonight. Stapleton plays a few understatedly beautiful lilting keys and…
Brooklyn, that’s David Torch playing that percussion right there…
Torch gives a little maracas shake, right on time, as Houck establishes the rhythm and flow of the introductions. The basic elements include a “Brooklyn,” which shifts in valance a little each time, and the band member playing “that (instrument),” “right there.”
Brooklyn, this is Rustin Bragaw playing that bass guitar right there…
A slight shift in the pattern–probably Rustin is standing next to Houck. Bragaw drops a couple of notes on his funky bass and on we go–naturally, the bassist gets the lowest key introduction.
Brooklyn, Christopher Showtime Marine playing those drums right there…
Houck reaches for a higher register here, both on the slightly more breathless and rushed “Brooklyn” and an uptone delivery of Marine’s nickname. Another shift in the pattern–Marine has a moniker. Showtime delivers a healthy drum piece and…
Brooklyn, the trigger finger Ricky…Ray…Jackson playing that guitar and that pedal steel right there, come on…
We’re getting there. The crowd is excited for this one; the pedal steel player is clearly a star. Houck pauses a beat on each name, “Ricky…Ray…Jackson, come on,” and the come on is both an entreaty to the crowd and also a general “come on can you believe this guy!” from the lead singer. Pedal steel is no joke. Also, Ricky Ray’s nickname comes before the name–he is in fact the trigger finger here tonight, his birth name is just data.
The trigger finger plays a couple of high notes and…
Brooklyn, last but certainly not least, the best looking one in the group, Joe Help, playing those keyboards right there, come on.
No fuss around the two-syllable “Joe Help,” which Houck delivers as if it was one word. Joe Help and Joe Tex, good looking guys that’s all.
I can’t tell you what a pleasure this has been y’all. Thank you for being here. Hope you come back again. We’re going to play one more song; thank you guys so much again. This is a song called Los Angeles; this is how it goes.
And the band plays a stunning closer.
So what’s going on here? On the one hand, Houck is just introducing the band like any other bandleader might. However there are layers to what he is doing that are really interesting. First, the introductions take up a good 2 minutes 20 seconds, more than a third of the 6:13 running time of the track. Second, the whole thing is a mini-performance in and of itself. It has an introduction, momentum, a high point at “the trigger finger Ricky Ray Jackson,” and a come down in the clipped, humorous Joe Help introduction. Houck is doing a little “bit,” where each introduction, although seemingly quite similar, is actually it’s own piece, with his own special kind of appreciation for each band member.
In case it’s not clear, I love Houck’s stage banter here. My theory is that Houck is a great bandleader. Now, he may be difficult in many ways and probably is, however when putting on a show not only does he rely on and need his band, he knows they are excellent, is humble about having them aboard, and his spoken introduction shows that he loves them. Band members come and go; a great band like the 2015 version of Phosphorescent may only hang together for a single tour. This is one of the reasons why it is important to see live music–you can never step into the same river twice. In the immortal words of David Berman, “why not see a legend while its still being made?”
On Dean Wareham’s Between Song Banter on Luna Live
Luna Live is a showcase record from 2005 from the greatest band ever, Luna. It basically serves as a greatest hits pre-Rendevous (their final album and my personal favorite), and features killer renditions of a number of classics, including “Chinatown,” (their poppiest tune); “Friendly Advice,” (guitar on the original by Sterling Morrison); “23 Minutes in Brussels” (Luna’s “Marquee Moon,” and somehow their most popular song); and, epically, “4th of July,” originally a Galaxie 500 song.
4th of July, from Galaxie 500’s last album This is Our Music, is relevant here as it firmly established Wareham as a comedian. The inter-band dynamic of Galaxie 500 is interesting, suffice it to say here that the sonic and lyrical nature of the band did not obviously lend itself to comedy, although comedy was there in Wareham, the beating heart of the band, all along. In his awesome memoir Black Postcards, Wareham calls This is Our Music the band’s weakest record, and Wareham at the time was in the process of leaving the band. Wareham’s has reasons for his opinion about the final Galaxie record, however 4th of July is the seminal Galaxie song, with “Don’t Let Our Youth go to Waste,” as its only real competition. Here’s how it opens, deadpan, almost spoken:
I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit/ but your dog refused to look at it/ so I got drunk and looked at the Empire State building/ it was no bigger than a nickel
And if it don’t improve/ then I’ll have to move/ I never thought that’s I’d end up here/ maybe I should just change my style/ but I feel alright when you smile
I stayed inside on the 4th of July/ and pulled the shades so I wouldn’t have to see the sky/ I decided to have a bed-in/ but I forget to invite anybody
“I decided to have a bed-in/ but I forget to invite anybody” is one of the most hysterical and loaded one-liners ever penned. Given that his band mate Naomi Yang was heavily influenced by Yoko Ono, that Dean was trying to get out of Galexie and change his style but having a hard time getting up the nerve to make the break, that the song comes from 1991, the beginning of the “slacker” era, and that Wareham himself describes himself as “lazy” on numerous occasions in his memoir, there is no finer kiss-off to the idea of a visibly politically engaged artist than this line. (Of course Wareham was a big Lennon fan, and his cover of Jealous Guy on The Best of Luna is sweet and cool.) 4th of July also blows Oasis’ “start a revolution from my bed” from the water. Oasis doesn’t come within a million miles of Dean Wareham.
After quitting Galaxie, Wareham founded Luna and released an EP and an LP in short order. The LP, Lunapark, is solid, and parts of it are almost fully formed. Specifically, the guitar on “Slash Your Tires,” and the lyric of “Anesthesia” hold up really well. On the 14 song Luna Live, the band would include only Anesthesia from Lunapark.
I see you waking up/ and now the day is upon ya/ the party’s over now/ you’re talking over and over/ you know I tried to please ya/ you’re under anesthesia
The original version introduces some future Luna staple elements–it has the wooziness, the VU toned fuzz, but gentle-like, has just a hint of doo-wop or 50s’ pop somewhere. It follows on from Galaxie 500, but takes a new step as well. The live version is really good; it’s a bit quicker and crisper than the original, and by this time Luna has Sean Eden, the Scottie Pippen to Wareham’s Jordan, the Bosewell to his Johnson. The parts about Eden laboring to write original songs in Black Postcards are hilarious.
By the end of the Rendevous sessions, Bryce had come up with a new way to produce Sean. “Sean,” he said. “You can come in at eleven tomorrow morning and play your twenty guitar solos, and figure out which one you like. Adam will record you. I don’t need to be here for that. “Sean is a brilliant guitarist,” Bryce told me. “But he is one of these people who equates the music-making process with a great deal of pain.”
Anyway, Eden is brilliant and when he joined Luna, the band took a giant leap forward.
As Anesthesia winds down, the crowd starts calling for songs. There are a lot of voices on the track, however a consensus seems to develop around Tiger Lily, one of the great tracks from Luna’s (semi)-breakthrough 1994 album Bewitched. The band is tuning and Wareham starts to banter with the crowd:
Are you guys French?
Indistinct shouts of “ces’t vrais” (the French seem to love this particular phrase).
Not you, I know you’re not French
More shouting. Guitar tuning.
What is it, Bastille Day? Is it Bastille Day
Wareham offers what sounds like a legitimate query (when you are on the road it is easy to lose track of a lot of things), but it’s also possible he’s making a kind of joke. A distinct male voice, very close to the mic intones again…”oui, ces’t vrais”.
Whatever, I don’t know (chatter), alright, ok, it was a long time ago (Wareham laughing)
This is the pivot of the bit. Wareham couldn’t care less about Bastille Day. Couldn’t care less about Bastille. He is on the road barely making a living as a critically heralded but under-appreciated singer who never got his big break and is lucky to get his own hotel room after a gig. This is the reality of the working artist that fans often don’t realize. Wareham and Luna barely made any money and had to go on the road for months just to get by.
Dean’s shrugging off the French high holy day recalls his bed-in line and indicates a politically non-visible artist. Now, this is a simplification, obviously, and not meant to categorize or pigeon-hole him. Paul Westerberg comes to mind here–to my mind his most underrated song (alongside the stunning “Once Around the Weekend” of course) is “Someone Take the Wheel,” from All Shook Down. By 1990, the Replacements were running out of gas, Westerberg was at low ebb–by his own admissions near-suicidal–and they made the bleakest, quietest, album of their storied career, which would also be their last. Needless to say, All Shook Down is also my favorite Replacements album, and it’s not even close. The bad vibes of Middle Eastern wars were all over the airwaves in 1990 and Someone Take the Wheel sees the band driving from gig to gig, directionless, leaderless. Westerberg is direct about the situation; the song’s refrain leaves nothing to imagination: “someone take the wheel/ and I don’t know where we’re going.” Then, at the 55 second mark, comes this:
The windows are dirty/ let’s hope it rains/ and another newspaper/ something to do with my change/ I see we’re fighting again/ in some f*****g land/ ahh thrown in another tape man
Westerberg and Wareham are in the same headspace, it’s just that Wareham pulls it off with a smile.
Back to the Luna banter, and we hear a guttural male voice and guitar noodling. Wareham, perhaps sensing a slightly stunned crowd, attempts a minor-correction. Listening to the track, he seems to be doing his very best to keep a straight face.
I support the French Revolution, I do.
The band is ready to go; the deep voiced male says “yeess” and a female voice in the crowd rises above the rest:
You’re a funny guy
The band kicks into Tiger Lily, one of my top five Luna songs about an awkward cute girl in the corner–about as non-political a theme as you can imagine, and also a timeless one.
Tiger Lily girl, sitting cross-eyed in the corner/ Tiger Lily girl, sitting tongue-tied in the corner
It’s a great version.