After the rousing success of our first breakdown here on the kibbitzer, we have doubled down on the form. Here we will be exploring two incidences of stage banter by musicians captured on live albums. We will look at Matthew Houck from Phosphorescent introducing his band, and Dean Wareham from Luna riffing with a French audience. Phosphorescent and Luna are two of our most beloved bands, and the proto-thesis of this piece is that through their stage banter we can see into the core of what makes Matthew and Dean who they are as artists and entertainers, and in so doing discover anew what makes them great. Stage banter, in short, may be the royal road to stylistic explication.
That all sounds pretty good, though we aren’t actually going to start with stage banter. Instead, we will take a quick stroll through the archives, back to 2009 when we published a little piece on our first blog, Classical Sympathies called “Curtis John Tucker Had a Lot to Do With It.” Around this time, I was interested in artistic communities, artistic communes really, I guess. My Dinner with Andre was a huge influence.
Around that time I was also listening to a bit of Giant Sand. Giant Sand is an ever-evolving group of musicians around the enigmatic Howe Gelb, a shape-shifting Southwest troubadour who makes a lot of music, some of which is really good. On the record Cover Magazine, the Sand covers a Kris Kristofferson song called “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33)“. It is this song that the Curtis John Tucker piece took up.
The themes that occupy a Gemini through life, though certainly never stable, do have a certain macro-coherence. Such is it with stage banter—our current focus calls back to this little piece on Giant Sand. What follows then is a re-write of the original piece as an introduction to our main topic.
Re-write of “Curtis John Tucker Had a Lot to Do With It;” original version July, 2009.
On Nothing Left to Lose, a Kris Kristofferson tribute album, and later collected on Giant Sand’s Cover Magazine Howe Gelb covers the song “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33).” 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.
Yeah, you know the one.
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 Dylan a Bobby Neuwirth, every Gelb a Curtis John Tucker. In 2009 I wrote that “this thought fills me with a little jealously and a little sadness; I’m not at all sure that such communities of practice are as common as they once were; (there is) something about the atomisation of human affairs in the first world in the 21st century means that the idea of an artistic community where minor but still vital players such as Norman Norbert is no longer viable.” Today, although this statement still rings somewhat true, things appear rather different to me. It seems that at least two things are occurring: first the internet has evolved such that any artistically minded person can find a niche community(s) that fits their style, and live with a foot in this community. The second is that an apparently opposite, and actually concomitant, vitalisation of local community is underway all over the world, and a vitalised local community by necessity contains a vitalised local artistic scene.
Whatever the case, 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 Phosphorescent by Matthew Houck between the songs “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues” and “Los Angeles,” from 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. Read more