"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, May 27, 2004

In your ear - Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, Doc and Merle Watson,

In Your Ear

By Kevin Wood/Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Jerry Garcia and David Grisman
Been All Around This World
Vivid, 2,625 yen

When people talk about Jerry Garcia it is usually in the context of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene and his long strange trip with the Grateful Dead. He's probably more famous as a countercultural icon than as a musician. But forget everything you think you know about Garcia and lend an ear to Been All Around This World and you will hear a master folk singer and acoustic guitar picker par excellence.

The king of the 20-minute psychedelic electric guitar solo got his start playing the squarest of traditional folk and bluegrass songs on banjo and guitar in the very early 1960s and never really left it behind, working on and off over the years with his longtime partner in acoustic wizardry, mandolin virtuoso David Grisman.

In the end it's Grisman we have to thank for Been All Around This World. The creator of the bluegrass-jazz fusion dubbed "dawg music" had the presence of mind to insist on recording hours of his informal jams with Garcia in the early '90s, resulting in a number of brilliant collaborative albums that include So What, Shady Grove and The Pizza Tapes (with guitarist Tony Rice). Grisman hints in the liner notes that Been All Around This World is likely to be the last in the series, but it is hardly the bottom of the barrel.

The disc leans heavily on country and bluegrass repertoire with songs by Merle Travis, Mel Tillis, George Jones, and Jimmie Rogers, with a few odd digressions--notably Jimmie Cliff's "Sitting Here in Limbo" and James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy." The performances are built around Garcia's heartfelt, rough-hewn tenor and Grisman's expressive mandolin breaks and fills. The tempos are mostly relaxed, and the two talented players stretch out for long, melodic solos that lack the demonic intensity of some of their other duets, but are no less tasty for the laid-back, sunny, Sunday afternoon feel. The sessions were some of Garcia's last, and while he strains to pull off the vocals on the aforementioned James Brown number, he's at his plaintive best on "Limbo" and Travis's "Dark as a Dungeon."

All in all an excellent introduction for those new to bluegrass and the acoustic phenomenon of Garcia and Grisman.

Doc and Merle Watson
Sittin' Here Pickin' the Blues
Rounder, 2,519 yen

A remastered reissue of Doc and Merle's 1985 album Pickin' the Blues with an additional eight tracks from their early '80s recordings for Flying Fish Records. Arthel "Doc" Watson and Merle Watson were undeniably the finest father-son team in music--bluegrass or otherwise. Doc's high-speed flatpicking and unadorned, warm baritone paired with son Merle's fluid slide and finger-style guitar were a potent combination unmatched since Merle's 1985 death in a tractor accident.

Even for folk and bluegrass, this music is so down-from-the-mountains square it has corners. However, even as cornpone as some of the songs may be, these performances by two monster guitarists render them indisputably hip. Merle's slide playing on "Taking to Casey" will make any rock fan forget Duane Allman's name.

In addition to the guitar pyrotechnics, the other real joy on this album is Doc Watson's simple, straightahead singing. His cover of "Stormy Weather" is the perfect antidote for the stale vocal gymnastics of the so-called pop divas, and his "How Long Blues" and "Honey Babe Blues" prove that a white man can sing the blues without trying to sound black and still have plenty of soul. Guest appearances by the likes of star blues harp player Charlie Musselwhite and bluegrass stringman Sam Bush provide the last unneeded push into the stratosphere of must-have recordings.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Bad boy novel rings true

The Very Man
By Chris Binchy
Pan MacMillan
361 Pages

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Chris Binchy's sharply written story of a young man on a downward spiral in Dublin on some level has the same appeal as those trash television programs with titles like "America's Most Horrific Power Tool Accidents" and "Grizzly Bear Attacks Caught On Video." You know something bloody and awful is going to happen to someone, but you just can't look away.

In Binchy's perceptive first novel, we see everything through the eyes of Rory, a 30-year-old who has clawed his way up the advertising ladder in New York over the last half-dozen years and has now returned to his native Dublin to attend his mother's funeral. Reacquainting himself with friends and family underscores the emptiness of his New York life, and he decides to stay.

The flash New York job has left him with the money for a fancy apartment in the city's Temple Bar neighborhood and the credentials to land a good job in his field at the height of the Celtic Tiger economic boom. His new girlfriend moves in with him a few months later and it looks like Rory has the world by the tail.

But looks can be deceiving. Rory's center cannot hold and things fall apart. Rory can't seem to decide if he loves or hates Dublin for not being like New York. Sure the pace is slower, the people more genuine and the city has become more modern, but after working in Manhattan, the Dublin advertising scene seems like the bush leagues to him and the restaurants and clubs are painfully out of style. Alternately cocky and insecure, Rory leads himself astray through an inability to be satisfied with his life. He drinks too much, lies too much, starts to cheat on his girlfriend and deceive his boss. It bring to mind the scene in every cheesy, gory slasher movie where one of the minor characters hears a noise and tells his friends to wait while goes to investigate.

The reader watches while Rory loads the gun, cocks it, aims it at his foot, pulls the trigger and then blames everyone around him for the results. We want to tell Rory to get out of the way of the train of consequences that is rushing down the track of his selfish irresponsibility. His lack of empathy, his self-centeredness and his utter inability to take responsibility for his actions should make Rory an unsympathetic character, but aside from wanting to give him swift kick, ultimately we feel sorry him as he loses his job, his girlfriend, his apartment, and finally his dignity.

Binchy has been likened by more than one critic to Nick Hornby, but a more apt comparison might be Tony Parsons. Like Parsons' Man and Boy, and its sequel Man and Wife, The Very Man has the confessional, moralistic ring of a cautionary tale. This mini-genre seems to be intended to warn men that it's time to grow up and learn to appreciate what you have, and that living out your fantasy of picking up that hot young thing in the bar will only screw up your life and turn your happy home into a smoking crater.

Though the ending seems a bit abrupt, The Very Man is a promising piece of writing from a new author with a flair for realistic dialogue and a clear, flowing style.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Vote early and vote often

"A mongoose, not a wombat"