Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: Louis Armstrong biography

What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years
By Ricky Riccardi. Pantheon Books. 369 pp.
Article written by Tom Wilmeth
For JazzTimes – Wilmeth Wyvern on-line column
February 13, 2012

I was born in 1955. Like most of my generation, I had little awareness of Louis Armstrong. Although alive and very aware of popular culture in Armstrong’s final years, I don’t recall his Sunday evening visits to Ed Sullivan, any of his television commercials, or his guest spots on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. My main point of interest with this musician had to do with a Beatles-related fact -- how his “Hello Dolly” had knocked the Fabs out of the #1 spot on the Billboard pop chart early in 1964.

The first time I heard any true discussion of Louis Armstrong was when I was working backstage at a jazz concert in St. Paul in 1981. A few of the older musicians were relaxing between sets and at one point the conversation turned biblical. One horn player mentioned how much he was looking forward to someday hearing Gabriel play his trumpet. Another musician immediately countered, “Gabriel? You’ve already heard him. He’s been here! His name is Louie Armstrong!” And as if on cue, the men in the room all nodded their heads as one and mumbled in agreement that this pronouncement was accurate. I waited for the punch line, but nobody laughed. No one even smiled. These guys were serious – Armstrong was heaven sent.

The strength and sincerity of this collective devotion stayed with me for many years. Later, other positive assessments occasionally came forth. I heard a radio interview with Tony Bennett where the singer archly defended Armstrong against various negative attitudes which had hounded the late trumpeter for decades – attitudes accusingly hurled by the interviewer himself concerning Armstrong’s demeaning racial image. Bennett was also the first person I ever heard who distinctly pronounced Armstrong’s first name as Louis, not Louie.

In fact, I think it was Bennett’s repeated use of the word Louis that made me purchase my first Armstrong LP. The album cover caught my eye, perhaps, because of the single word LOUIS boldly spelled out in white against a photograph of an older Armstrong, trumpet engaged. Upon closer inspection, the words “Chicago Concert” appeared at the bottom of the sleeve. I had next to no Armstrong at this time – just a random track on a compilation album here and there – and so I took the record home. It was a double album recorded on a single night in 1956. I had always heard that the early studio material was his best, but I figured this album would fill a gap in my collection even if I didn’t play it a lot.

Man, was I wrong. Oh, it filled a gap all right. But as to not playing it much . . . I played it all the time! I couldn’t not play it. Sometimes I thought I just needed to hear a single tune – as a pick-me-up. The side would invariably track through to the end. Here was the rare record on which a needle could be placed on any spot of its 4 long sides and the music would be great. Tune after tune after tune. I especially loved the numbers I had no idea Armstrong recorded, such as “The Gypsy,” a song I knew from an obscure Willie Nelson album.

Every part of the set list offered high points -- “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” into “Basin Street Blues” into “Black and Blue” into “West End Blues.” It just killed. And it was a tape from one night’s performance – the kind of live album I always appreciated because it shows what an artist could do in a single concert – not a cobbled together amalgam of good takes from a whole tour.

On the strength of my long held love for that 1956 Louis Armstrong recording, I took great interest in Ricky Riccardi’s recent project, a biography of Armstrong that focuses on his later years. This is the era when Armstrong had been negatively labeled as various things – a caricature, an embarrassment to his race, formerly relevant, a living shadow of his lost talent. And these are just some of the printable complaints that were often leveled at him.

Most of all, this book is convincing! It is a work of love and devotion but never becomes a valentine to the artist. The author is clear-eyed as to why the decades-long criticisms existed and were held unflinchingly in place. But Riccardi is just as methodically dogmatic in disemboweling each of the attacks. The research is excellent and the writing is usually very good. There are a few times when clarity falters, especially near the end, and some redundancy creeps in. A discography of Riccardi’s recommended Armstrong releases would have made for a welcome Appendix, as would a selective list of worthwhile unreleased recordings from this era. But these are inconsequential concerns when this extremely readable and engaging book is taken as a whole.

When someone tries to rescue a diminished hero or offer a career re-evaluation, the author’s voice can become shrill and defensive. This does not happen with What a Wonderful World. Riccardi is even-handed throughout in his assessments and insights. The author is able to make numerous important points by utilizing original source materials which have been closed to previous biographers, including private documents and a voluminous number of audio recordings made and catalogued by Armstrong himself.

Not long after the book’s narrative began, I was convinced that Louis Armstrong had been robbed of his deserved reputation – in his later life and in death. Near the book’s conclusion, as Riccardi described several of Armstrong’s albums released during the 1960s, I began to realize just how slighted this artist has been on so many different levels. The 2nd edition of the respected All Music Guide to Jazz does not even list (much less review) many of these later Armstrong albums, including Louis and the Good Book, Louis and the Angels, Ambassador Satch, Country & Western, and I Will Wait for You.

The fact that so many original albums (not compilations) can be ignored by the very resource which calls Armstrong “the most important and influential musician in jazz history” is telling. It tells us that, true to Riccardi’s premise, even standard reference works are guilty of wanting to acknowledge only this artist’s early years. Thankfully, Ricky Riccardi has a far more comprehensive view of Louis Armstrong’s lifetime of talent, and in this book he shares it with us!

Concert Review: Dark Star Orchestra in Milwaukee

The Dark Star Orchestra
February 3, 2012
Pabst Theatre; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Article written by Tom Wilmeth

I had been hearing good things about The Dark Star Orchestra for several years. They were a Grateful Dead cover band, I was told, but much more. Fans raved that this group took the tribute band concept to a new level -- how the Dark Star Orchestra would take an actual set list of songs from the group’s touring days and re-create a complete Grateful Dead concert. I heard how the band was way into attention to detail – the physical setting of the stage, the actual instruments, even the number of people in the band, depending on which era of the Dead was being replicated on a given night.

Having seen the real Grateful Dead six times during their actual run, I initially had no interest in an imitation, no matter how authentic or heartfelt. But last Friday night there I was – front row of the balcony at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee, waiting for The Dark Star Orchestra to hit the stage. I just hoped that the set list they chose would be from the early or middle part of the Grateful Dead’s career.

The band came out and set the mood for the evening with “Let the Good Times Roll.” Fun, good opener. If band membership were a clue to the date, the version of The Grateful Dead being presented here had two drummers and no female singer. Fine by me. I had seen the Dead twice during the Keith & Donna Godchaux era, and I didn’t feel that Donna was a needed presence. I never went to Grateful Dead shows to hear vocals. Nobody did.

But speaking of vocals, I was immediately impressed by the similarities of the lead guitarist Jeff Mattson’s singing voice to that of Jerry Garcia. Rob Eaton, clearly the on-stage group coordinator and the man playing the role of the Dead’s rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, also had a vocal timbre very close to that of Weir. Neither has an especially good voice, but they sound just like Weir and Garcia! Attention to detail, indeed.

Both of these performers had their respective instrumental parts extremely well covered. Eaton stayed on rhythm guitar throughout both sets, except for solo breaks on two tunes late in the evening. This is similar to Weir’s role with the original band, letting Garcia stretch the lead lines. And speaking of the Garcia guitar chair, Mattson played wonderful Garcia styled solos all night. Fluid and clear.

Concerning the equipment used by the Dark Star Orchestra, I liked the fact that everybody stayed on their single instrument throughout the evening – not continually switching from a rack of guitars for different sounds and alternate tunings. I was initially surprised that bassist Kevin Rosen played a 6-string electric, but I would guess that this too is authentic to the night in question. The Dead’s bassist Phil Lesh was into electronics pretty early.

The first set lasted 75 minutes and was all pretty enjoyable. They really hit their stride in the latter part of this set, however, with “It Must Have Been the Roses,” followed by Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” which was one of the peaks of the entire evening. Then the first set wrapped with powerful takes on “Ramble on Rose” and “Let It Grow.”

I knew that my son Dylan had a tentative attitude about this show, so I was pleased when he was not even considering leaving at intermission. We talked about high points, watched the audience, which had now sold out the hall, and got ready for round two. There had been a free beer tasting event prior to the concert. As such, many of the attendees were pretty well oiled. Good move on somebody’s part. Maybe.

Also during intermission Dylan ran into a college friend who told us that the lead guitarist was a fairly recent addition to the Dark Star Orchestra – within the last year – and that their previous guitarist had joined Furthur, one of the bands that had a surviving member of the Dead in it. I really can’t keep all of the post Garcia bands straight – Furthur, the Dead (not the true Grateful Dead), Bob Weir’s Ratdog, Phil Lesh & Friends. Gotta get a score card.

There were the usual concert distractions during both sets. Because this was a general admission event, the crowd was more fluid than at a reserved seat affair. Some young people sat beside us for a few minutes and talked, but soon left. Good. The people immediately around us were pretty focused on the music. Also good. I was increasingly glad that we had the front row balcony seats. The main floor had turned into a large dance floor. And those who were not dancing were standing. To be seated would mean you would see nothing. Even in the balcony many people were standing. And as I looked to the high upper balcony of this beautiful 1895 concert hall, I noticed a lot of hard partying going on up there – dancing and jumping. It was a long show – I was happy to sit. The second set alone was a full two hours before the encore.

Early in the second set, both of the group’s famous rain songs showed-up – “Box of Rain” and “Looks like Rain,” numbers I like a lot. Maybe it had been a rainy night when The Grateful Dead originally played this show. There were other songs I was less familiar with – things like “Victim of the Crime” and “Foolish Heart” – but all were enjoyable enough and very well performed.

As with any real Grateful Dead concert, there were slow spots in both of these sets. The Dark Star Orchestra’s take on “He’s Gone” seemed to go on forever. However, when it finally mutated into a very odd and interesting instrumental section, all was forgiven. The nadir of the evening, perhaps predictably, was the obligatory “Drums” feature. I have no problem with drum solos, but this could not even be called such. Rob Koritz and Dino English both became involved with sound boards and electronics instead of percussion, tweaking computer controls more often than playing any instrument. As my son said, “They completely lost their way.” Or as my Junior High band director often told us: “Practice at home!”

But as the rest of the band returned to the stage, the last three numbers of the night really saw the Dark Star Orchestra regain momentum and again catch fire. “I Need a Miracle” went into the unexpected Spencer Davis hit “Gimme Some Lovin’,” featuring organist Rob Barraco. This eventually morphed into a beautiful and stately “Morning Dew,” which closed the main part of the concert.

One of the things I found most impressive was the band’s ability to burn hard at slow speeds. This was never more evident than when the fragile vocal of “Morning Dew” gave way to a slowly building and majestic instrumental section of this song. Being able to smoke at fast speeds is somewhat expected for professional rock bands, but to be able to bring urgency and intensity to a slow tempo takes even greater skill.

I remember a night long ago when Mike Michalicek, one of my most important music teachers, spoke about a local band that performed “Stairway to Heaven” as a set closer. “They’re good,” said Michael, “but note that they play the last part of that tune in double-time. If they were really good, they could make that tune smoke without speeding-up, like it is on the record.” Oh yes!

By the end of the night the crowd was getting pretty rowdy. The ballad “Morning Dew” had elicited a bevy of howls and whistles, most occurring at the song’s quietest parts. Why? I don’t know, but people were digging it and wanted the band to know it, I guess. I would have preferred audience silence on this number, but that wasn’t happening.

Were there disappointments during the night? Very few. I do wish that lead guitarist Mattson had faced the audience a bit more. Most of the time he was playing profile, looking straight into second guitarist Eaton. That’s fine for musical interplay; I just like to see the guitarist’s fingers dance over the fret board. Dylan was so impressed, he later proclaimed that the lead guitarist “carried the band.” I won’t go that far, but I loved every note Mattson played – all night long. He was reading music off a stand for a couple of numbers. This bugged some people, I was told. But I thought it showed more attention to detail and a desire for accuracy. And remember, the number of songs this band has to be able to play is huge. Cut the new guy some slack. I was glad to see that he could read music!

I looked at the band’s web site the next day. This is where I found the date of the set they replicated. I compared this with some of their other sets from the past weeks. I think we attended one of the better recent shows; I certainly was not disappointed, anyway. Dylan asked me how the Dark Star Orchestra compared with real Grateful Dead. I dodged the direct comparison, instead repeating that in addition to the authoritative set list, the vocals and instrumentation were all remarkably attentive to detail. And I stressed that I would go back to see them again.

And just which night from the band’s history was The Dark Star Orchestra replicating last Friday night in Milwaukee? It was a surprisingly late show – a September 1988 date at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Whenever I put on Grateful Dead recordings, I never pull from that late in their repertoire. And I’m glad, actually, that I did not know the original date of the set – I’m sure it would have prejudiced me.

As we drove home after this great night of music, slipping out before the drunks started lunging towards the exits, Dylan and I talked about what songs we would have liked to hear which they failed to play. I said “Love Light” and he mentioned “Friend of the Devil.” I thought of “Truckin’” and he wanted “Uncle John’s Band.” I said “El Paso” and he called for “Wharf Rat” (just because he likes the name). This trade off continued until we stopped ourselves and said, “Hell, that would have been an entire third set!” We agreed that we were both surprisingly satisfied with the generous evening of music just as it was. And we bid them good night.

#30# 1,774 words

Tom Wilmeth
Grafton, Wisconsin
Former Home of the Paramount Records label

(262) 243-4218