April 15, 2013 § Leave a Comment
For every bit of news that hogs the headlines, like the death of Margaret Thatcher, you can usually find another, similar piece of news that is either more interesting or, frankly, more important, like the death of Annette Funicello.
Though some might challenge my assertion that Annette’s death is more important than Thatcher’s, I only offer the truth as I perceive it – Thatcher changed the world, but Annette made it a little bit better.
And that’s the best any of us can do, really. That’s the height of the human experience, doing your part to make things a little more bearable. From the reports that “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” is topping the charts in England, you can see what kind of impact Thatcher had on the world. I would suggest that there are very few politicians worth celebrating, anyhow. Those who achieve true greatness that is coupled with true humanity are few, and those that have existed are certainly long gone.
I wouldn’t be surprised, though, to find that rentals and sales of “Beach Blanket Bingo” were going through the roof either. And I can guarantee that the people who encounter the Beach movies for the first time – as well as their offshoots, like Ski Party and Pajama Party – will find themselves swimming in a giddy nirvana of goofy awfulness and unintentional subversion.
Salon featured this wonderful feminist look back at Annette’s career (salon.com/2013/04/09/ annette_funicello_beach_blanket_feminist/) which argues that by refusing to change her image to bad girl, by remaining Frankie’s property and never stooping to the level of, say, Donna Loren as gratuitous sex object, Annette transcends any anti-feminist sentiment in her films. I’d agree. I’d also add that tracking down some of Annette’s music, almost any of Annette’s music, will elevate the art of swingin’ warble so high in your musical estimation that it will be a challenge to find sounds more delightful once you absorb and accept them. Frankie is remembered for his “Don’t Stop Now” on screen, but it’s Annette’s recorded version that will seize your soul.
And that is why Annette’s death is more important than Thatcher’s. Her England is best captured in Shane Meadows’ 2006 film “This Is England,” a tale of youthful hopeless, poverty and racial hatred, all orchestrated by Thatcher’s cold-hearted approach to life.
The sad thing is that Meadows has followed that film up with three television series that do more important work in dissecting what Thatcher wrought. Jumping ahead by several years with each edition, it moves past the initial muck of Thatcher and shows her actions resulting in a long process of oppression and depression that promises no quick recovery for those stomped down by them. England turned brutal and the worst of the lot was their own leader.
Annette was at her peak when the world she represented was beginning to fade. The counter culture was moving in, Vietnam was becoming a full-fledged nightmare, the Civil Rights movement was demanding what any human should be allowed and the cloistered world of white privilege, the world that would allow their teens to laze about the beach all day with hardly a care in the world beyond snagging a boyfriend, would trickle on defensively, chipped away with each decade.
Thatcher, like Reagan, was one of the final warriors in attempting to see that world continued on far past its usefulness. Cynical, destructive, Thatcher was a last gasp of the awful.
Annette’s early image lives on as a reminder that the world Thatcher sought to save was not all horrible, but one that would have been better if it had allowed others to be a part of its joyful side. Inclusion to widen the happiness, not to keep it safe from intruders.
It’s telling that in Annette’s final screen appearance, she topped herself musically by sharing the stage with wild, African American ska funksters Fishbone. There had been some black faces in the beach movies, but not many. Here was Annette surrounded by group of black men, dancing, singing, delivering one of her best songs. It’s a sign of how times had changed and how some of us can make our joy inclusive, not exclusive.
March 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Pulling from the Balkans, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and farther, Balkan Beat Box creates music that blurs any lines between the cultures that influence it, and melts it all together into one global dance community.
Balkan Beat Box began as a studio project between Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat, both born in Israel, who met on a tour bus while playing in the band Firewater.
“After Ori heard some of the records I produced, he asked me to produce his solo record for the Knitting Factory,” Muskat said.
The two worked together on the 2004 album by J.U.F., which was a collaborative effort between them and Balkan punk band Gogol Bordello.
Next up was the first Balkan Beat Box album, which mixed together the ethnic music of their childhood and resulted in world dance grooves that pulled from the sounds they had grown up listening to. Kaplan and Muskat messed with the sounds enough to bring them into the modern world and make them fell alive again.
“Growing up in Israel you really get it all, from Mediterranean to eastern European,” said Muskat. “It was all there since we were kids. Later on in life, we got exposed to so much music, so it was natural to blend it in as well.”
“None of us were interested in making pure, traditional music, since it was only a part of what we liked and grew up on. Combined with the folklore music all of us liked modern music, electronica, punk rock, dub.”
Muskat credits their lives in New York City as the catalyst that pushed them even further to sculpt a new sound for the old music.
“It was a long search and it’s not over yet,” he said.
The band has recorded four albums, plus a collection of remixes, with Tomer Yosef coming onboard as permanent vocalist beginning with their second one.
Their most recent album, 2012′s “Give,” featured further experiments with instrumentation, including old analog synthesizers and children’s toys. It also heightened political content that Muskat says guided the sound that came out of those sessions, although that also worked the other way, and these changes in instrumentation have bled backward, revitalizing old material that they perform live.
“We started feeling like the album was becoming more and more about difficult issues, political, cultural,” Muskat said, “so maybe that led into using more hardcore sounds, electronics.”
“Since we work on songs in the studio, sometimes a good new sound, drum machine or whatever, will inspire us to come up with a beat that will lead into a song.”
The new album has also revitalized the band’s earlier work as they begin to present both on the stage in live shows.
“You can definitely hear the sound of ‘Give’ there now days,” said Muskat. “We rearranged old songs, remixed some of them, mainly to keep it fresh for ourselves.”
The album features one song, “Enemy in Economy,” that is a reaction to an incident that saw Yosef being detained by the TSA. The band expanded their concern from a personal and biographical account into a more wide-reaching one that lamented the experience of ordinary people trapped in the same situation.
“Tomer was suspected to be a terrorist for no reason whatsoever other than his look,” Muskat said. “Mainly the feeling I came out with is, what about people that are not artists, that don’t have a name and can’t get out of something like that in a few hours? They end up being locked away for years sometimes, definitely post 9/11.”
“We wrote a song about it, that was it, but think about these men and women who are profiled every day for the color of their skin, their accent, whatever it is. Maybe they don’t have a way to explain themselves so well, or the money for a good lawyer. That’s where it really gets to be sad.”
That song is not unusual in the band’s concerns and Muskat says politics has formed much of their music from the moment they embarked on the project in 2006. There was no way they could avoid it.
“Living in that part of the globe makes it into your DNA, you don’t think about it, it’s second nature,” he said. “We obviously got more and more aware over time, growing up and all, but Balkan Beat Box started with that tone of lyrics from the first album.”
“We don’t always write about those issues, politics, but ‘Give’ definitely was the pick of that, probably because the world becomes so violent and messed up.”
The political focus of “Give” was propelled by recent global protests, like the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the wide ranging Occupy movement. All these uprisings energized the band and moved them to add their voice to the worldwide chorus and do what they could to create awareness for the issues being addressed in those movements. Muskat sees it as part of their duty as artists.
“On this last album, we were clearer then ever with our opinions, regarding the use of power and violence by governments, calling people to get out and stand for what they think is right and good for them,” he said. “It’s so easy to sit and see life passing by, dictated by people that are motivated by money and power, slowly killing this planet. Don’t get me started.”
During the same period, the three core band members became fathers for the first time. This not only accentuated their political concerns, but highlighted the reasons they were required to address them in their music. Global horrors suddenly became more personal.
“Being fathers, you start to see the world from a different angle,” Muskat said. “What can you do to make this place better for that kid of yours?”
As the band moves forward, Muskat says that their only real plan is no plan at all. Since they have a precedent of embracing no one style, they feel no obligation to stick to any formula. The band will, as always, keep the journey loose, which will allow them to do what they love most musically — explore and mix things up with their own musical alchemy.
“We are over that genres thing,” Muskat said. “We are very much interested in new discoveries, mashing things up till you can’t pinpoint them anymore, and feel very comfortable doing lots of things, till it clicks and feels like BBB to us.”
“What is it? No one really knows. It’s a feeling, a pulse, and I feel like we are super lucky to share it as a group and agree on these moments.”
March 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Guitarist Mamie Minch carries the spirit of musicians like Mississippi John Hurt and Memphis Minnie in her playing and singing, but she’s not trying to replicate the music she loves — she just lets it flow through her and come out as her own thing.
Minch began playing music at age 12, spurred into interest by her guitar-playing dad. She didn’t take lessons, instead working to figure out songs from early blues records, like Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb.
“I guess I was a bit of an odd kid,” Minch said. “It’s not like there was a big early blues scene in Delaware — all three counties of it — in the mid ‘90s. All my friends were listening to hardcore and ska and punk, and I loved that sort of thing, too.”
Minch didn’t begin to perform until she was in her 20s, and her playing style reflected the focus of her musical loves — guitar-based blues from the early part of the 20th century, as interpreted through her own 1930s National guitar.
“I loved discovering these early recordings as a kid, Charley Patton, Memphis Minnie, tons of field recordings,” she said. “Shanachie and Yazoo records were my favorites. I guess I really sort of fell in love with the idea that you could hear someone actually killing it, singing and playing an instrument in 1928, you know? My imagination was captured. I am still caught by the way that a great tune is a great tune — no matter the fidelity of the recording equipment or the refinement of the singer’s diction.”
Minch’s musical career has seen her perform on her own and with groups like the Roulette Sisters, who revived women’s harmony styles, and performing alongside singers like Jolie Holland and Dayna Kurtz. Her musical pursuits also moved from just playing the music she heard and loved to creating her own. This presents its own challenges by walking a line between the music she loves and staying true to who she is, while at the same time not making it all sound like she’s forcing a style on the new songs.
“You need both magic and dogged work to get something good,” said Minch. “Most days I’m pretty hard on myself. I’m not trying to write in any particular style, for the most part — I might set up obstacles for myself to work around, but I don’t feel like I’m affecting a voice.”
And though her musical language was taught to her by the blues players of almost 100 years ago, Minch hasn’t shied away from change and moving forward with technology. She’s picked up further influences along the way, and for her next album is moving more toward band arrangements — she’s recently been playing exclusively with a rhythm section, Konrad Meissner and Nate Landau, who will share the stage with her at the Mass MoCA show.
“I’ve recently started to play an electric guitar,” Minch said. “That’s right, I’ve gone modern, fast-forwarded all the way to 1959, when my Gibson 225 was made. There are a new bag of influences, for sure, but I do still love good driving blues, full voice singing, and a well written story song.”
Minch’s background in working with her hands doesn’t end with playing guitar — it also includes working on them, as head of repair for Retrofret Vintage Guitars in Brooklyn, which gives her a whole other relationship with her instrument.
“It’s my full-time job, has been for five years,” she said. “I work pretty exclusively on vintage guitars — it’s a dream. I still love the way they smell. I’m sort of a guitar pervert.”
Minch went to school for printmaking, and is skilled at jewelry making and carpentry, so tactile pursuits are just as important to expressing herself as songwriting. Her debut CD was released as a limited edition handmade package. Minch says that one skill set is invaluable to teaching her about the other, and her DIY aesthetic is rooted in all her pursuits.
“Probably the biggest thing songwriting and guitar repair have in common is that they both require a great deal of patience,” said Minch. “I learn more about that everyday.”
Find Minch online at facebook.com/mamieminchmusic. Listen to her exclusive Spotify playlist, created by her especially for The Transcript arts blog, at blogs.thetranscript.com/arts/2013/03/05/playlist-mamie-minch.
February 15, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Spirit Family Reunion recalls the revival spirit of bands like The Carter Family and others, but with a secular presentation and a rowdy energy as reminiscent of a punk band than as a gospel band.
Band members include Nick Panken on vocals and acoustic guitar; Maggie Carson on vocals and five-string banjo; Stephen Weinheimer on vocals, bass drum, washboard and tambourine; Mat Davidson on fiddle and accordion; Ken Woodward on vocals and bass, and Peter Pezzimenti on vocals and drums.
The band has garnered a huge following, thanks to their energy and musical prowess, especially as witnessed through venues like “NPR Tiny Desk” and an appearance last year at the Newport Folk Festival.
Banjoist Carson began playing her instrument at the end of high school in New York City, at age 18, inspired by visits to her grandparents in Woods Hole.
“There was a pretty strong folk music scene out there when I was growing up,” she said. “Our neighbors had a hootenanny every year. That was my favorite day of the year, and there were always more banjo players than any guitarists or fiddlers or anything like that, so I wanted to make that day every day. Those were my role models, the people that played banjos over there.”
After high school, Carson was approached by two of her former school-mates, Panken and Weinheimer, who were looking for a banjo player for a band. At the same time, they recruited Davidson after catching his performance in Brooklyn.
“I think anybody who sees Mat play is drawn to him, so they asked him to come join us,” Carson said.
These were the core members of the first shows played as Spirit Family Reunion.
“There were all these other people there,” said Carson, “and musically, it was kind of like the changes were simple. We didn’t really practice, it was kind of sloppy, but there was definitely something good there. Every show there was a different line-up.”
Drummer Pezzimenti and bassist Woodward joined soon after, which upped the already noticeable energy of the band.
“Having bass and drums makes people want to dance, and really pushes the songs into a much more spirited place, a much more energetic place,” Carson said. “Pete and Ken bring their influences and passions. It’s so much fun to watch both of them play. It’s inspiring. I look at them play and I feel electricity.”
Rhythm is a huge component in the band’s fury, and Carson points to spoons and washboard player Weinheimer as being a real driving force in that realm.
“Stephen played in punk bands in high school, and I think he would say that’s his musical training,” she said. “It’s funny, when we were in the studio, we had a mic on him, and we would go into the control room and turn off everybody else and just listen to what he was doing, and it was insane just being able to hear him. It was so fun. And the lack of patterns, I don’t know if you could learn that from a teacher.”
The band’s early days were also filled with busking performances in subways and farmers markets that leant them a scrappy spontaneity, as well as access to and connection with crowds, thanks to their acoustic instruments, which freed them to play anywhere they wanted, at anytime.
“It’s so much fun playing and living in the city,” said Carson. “When we started out and didn’t have a van yet, it was just as simple as not having to travel around in our car with our instruments. We could make music anywhere, whether or not you have electricity.”
“It’s amazing to see all the different kinds of people that are drawn to it, that will stand and listen and give you a dollar or something, which is another wonderful thing about playing music in the city or doing anything in the city. I think it’s just trying to be as honest as you can with what you’re doing, and if you get to that place with people, it will touch them also.”
The band is looking strictly forward, formulating songs for a future record and continuing to perform in their own gospel-style party format. It’s important to them to bring the same raucous feelings that you could find in a spiritual revival meeting, while still keeping it non-specific and inclusive, a communion of people through sound.
“That’s pretty much what we try to do, part of it, or at least something that happens in doing what we do,” Carson said. “I never went to any church or synagogue, or any kind of religious place, on any kind of regular basis, but it’s the feeling I would imagine from what I have seen.”
“I think music is spiritual. I think being able to connect with people when you play, or you connect with them when they’re listening or dancing, there’s that connection and something profound and joyful and spiritual about it. It’s not about one deity for me.”
And that connection between band and audience usually results in the kind of intimacy that creates a rollicking scene, more often than not.
“The set that we’ll play does depend on the feeling in the room and the feeling that the audience is giving back, and it’s often a party,” Carson said.
January 25, 2013 § Leave a Comment
There is much outrage, tittering and more about the revelation that Beyonce lip-synched the National Anthem at the Obama inauguration.Taken on its own, it’s a wonderful symbol of our nation’s current existence. Right after she performed, my Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with adoring gushes that made it seem as though that was the most transcendent American moment ever, so the next day information that lip synching can now elicit deep emotional nationalistic feeling reveals just how shallow we’ve all become.
Does no one just put themselves out there anymore? Certainly not Yo Yo Ma who, it was pointed out, string-synched at the previous inauguration. I had forgotten about that, but upon being reminded, my first thought was, “that’s stupid.” And I’m sure no one felt stupider than Yo Yo Ma doing such a ridiculous thing.
So the argument has become about whether it is OK to be fake at the swearing in of our country’s leader, at least in regard to the entertainment. No one is questioning whether it’s okay for the president-elect to be fake, but they almost always are, right? It’s like going to one of those coming out balls down south, where the white debs cling to a world that is gone, gone, gone, but they can fool themselves for one night that there is something of actual substance going on.
There’s not, though. And there isn’t at a presidential inauguration. It’s all overblown pop stars phoning in a performance because it’s too cold.
Thankfully, you can’t escape the rigors of technology — they will always bring us back down to earth. This home video of one person’s experience at the inauguration (youtu.be/BYlKsWW6jz0) captures the metaphor better than any professional television cameras.
It’s footage of the Beyonce performance via Jumbotron, which is how most of us normal citizens get to see the inauguration, standing in a park, in the cold, using our actual live voices to converse and cheer and sing.
The Jumbotron experience makes everything better, though. Watch gleefully as the audio portion not only keeps dropping out, but returns again and again as some kind of distorted electronic weirdness.
So not only do we get to see the bottled joy of Beyonce’s national anthem performance, not only do we get to see someone who’s invited to celebrate the president and can’t sacrifice a moment of honesty in the freezing cold to just be an American, we get to see her chopped up into technological bits and spit out to the crowds.
There are chuckles after it’s all over. Isn’t that a little sad? The ascendancy of the first African American presidency into his second term has been reduced to a glitchy moment on a cheesy Dick Clark New Year’s show.
That’s the problem. We’re so focused on the spectacle of our joy and sadness, so determined to make sure that our national moments are pristine, perfect, calculated to make everyone feel, that we forget how extremely terrible we are at actually doing so. Spectacle reveals us for what we really are, announces to anyone who is paying attention why we don’t get anything done. Spectacle tells us that it’s not important to know and do, it’s just a matter of how we feel.
That’s certainly how the Republicans have held onto their confused rabble — they feel angry and that party is willing to create bogeymen for that rage. The Democrats, on the other hand, count on the rest of us to feel hopeful, regardless of what reality tells us.
The government, too, is Beyonce on a stage, pretending to sing in the freezing cold, with the gathered masses huddled outside listening, but hearing only technical glitches that pierce the illusion and threaten to force reality onto them.
Oh, wait, this guy on the Internet says she wasn’t lip synching (bit.ly/UkFd8t).
Never mind. We’re perfectly healthy as a nation.
January 25, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The Scottish band Simple Minds is largely remembered in the United States for one song and one song only: the theme to the ‘80s teen angst hit, “The Breakfast Club.” But as their new double release “5×5 Live” reminds us, these one-hit wonders had existed for seven years and had six albums under their belt before they hit the charts here. To make matters worse, the band didn’t even write “Don’t You Forget About Me” and its success marked the band’s implosion, from which it is only now creatively recovering.
The premise of “5×5 Live” is basic. Last year, the band took it upon themselves to revive material from the their first five albums in their live concerts as a way to not just revisit and update these songs, but also to take a look at what the band was now in contrast to its youthful heyday. Simple Minds never really left — founding members Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill stayed with it all along, with early drummer Mel Gaynor eventually returning to the fold — and though the work varies, they’ve never been a group to play dead, and recently have experienced a return to form that almost demanded they look back and take stock.
The hallmark of the band’s first five albums is the chameleon-like experimentation they embraced, from their debut as an energetic new wave band to flourishes into art dance, dark experimentalism, a electro prog-style minimalism and even dramatic bombast. This collection captures all those styles, mixing them up and filtering them through the wizened professionalism of the current line-up.
Downplayed are the new wave tendencies of the earlier work, but the melodies of the old days are so strong that, in some cases, the songs seem like they were tempered by the posturing of youth. In the hands of old guys, it’s all entirely celebratory, and even brooding weirdness like “The King In White And In The Crowd” seems like a joyous rediscovery of something we didn’t quite know about in the first place.
There are lots of high points — the frenetic update of “I Travel” transforms the automated older version, while the incredibly dated new wave raver “Wasteland” rebounds as something fresh and just the right amount of raw. “The American” is catchier than ever in the guise of a bouncy anthem.
Some of their creepier, even despairing songs comprise the most exciting of the updates, like “Room,” “Sons and Fascination” and “Fear of Gods,” transforming them into bursts of unexpected energy and engagement, some even creepily funky. What might have seemed like gloomy posture back in the day is revealed as joyous eclecticism in 2013. The band has stripped away any pretension they might have been accused of previously and revealed so much of the music as melodic.
“5×5 Live” comes together in a great monument that should not just please old fans, but translate the appeal of those old records to people who might not have heard them the first time around. The reinterpretations strip them of the context that might have weighted the songs down as of their time, and brings them forth in the 21st century to reveal a band that was in many ways far ahead of their contemporaries who managed to maintain their position on the sales charts with more surety and remind you of their legacy.
January 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In looking at the facts of the technological present, I can’t help but notice that land lines are on the decline, which is the one area where I am happily a grumpy old man.
It’s reported by the Center for Disease Control that 60 percent of all adults under 30 don’t even have a land line, relying on cell for everything (http://bit.ly/Vvl9xT). Across the board, it’s over a third of everyone, but it’s also worth noting that another 15 percent reports that although they have land lines, they don’t have any use for them. That adds up to half of Americans conducting 99 percent of the telephone business on a cell phone.
Don’t even get me started. I’ve long maintained we’ve raised a generation that’s come to accept high pricing for subpar service as a norm because of cell phones, not to mention that the general rudeness of taking a phone call when you have guests has now spilled out into every aspect of life and the ability to disconnect from your life and have a real vacation is non-existent for many. Phooey on all that.
Besides, cell phones have been one more way that people have decided to lay down and play dead in the wake of Big Brother, as reports earlier this year revealed that cell phone surveillance by feds is rising (http://huff.to/S5usbq), so much so that telecommunications have had to devote whole teams to handling the onslaught of requests.
But what can you say? We’re the type of people who spill all our info into Facebook and then complain when Facebook makes use of our information, but the government is usually above such concern. How else can the federal government be so ignored when they propose putting little black boxes in all cars from now on (http://bit.ly/W3aAjS)? “Event data recorders” are well known for their function on airplanes, and thought the impetus is on safety with these car versions, privacy advocates are worried about misuse.
Who can really blame them for considering worst-case scenarios? When it comes to spying on your own citizens, the federal government seems to be an never-ending worst-case scenario. The latest example of this is the recent report that reveals the FBI operated in collusion with the private financial sector for purposes of surveillance of the Occupy movement (http://bit.ly/YU3Bw4), branding it a possible terrorist threat. There were even informants to the FBI passing on names of Occupy participants in their local areas, and I bet they didn’t need any fancy technology like cell phones to work their spineless evil. I bet they could accomplish everything they wanted on a land line.
Outside of politics, though, I do take heart that the official proof is finally in: LPs are easily more awesome than CDs. We all knew it immediately back in 1989 when CDs were pushing records off the shelf.
Then we realized how easy it is to break those terrible CD plastic cases. And when a CD gets damaged, it just plays damaged. A record? Stick a damn penny on the needle and get some more life out of your scratched surface. The Economist reports that vinyl record sales are continuing to climb (http://econ.st/UnuKYc), almost doubling from two years ago, to nearly 5 million – and this does not include any records musicians sell directly. Meanwhile, CDs have plummeted by half and only make up about two-thirds of music sales, with the expectation it will just keep dropping and predictions that in a decade, vinyl might again be the biggest physical form to buy music in.
With that news also comes a chilling vision of a whole new kind of record (http://io9.com/5971712/). Released by the Swedish rock band the Shout Out Louds, we have now moved onto ice as a recorded medium.
The band made a limited edition of 10 kits for select journalists and fans to create their own playable ice records, and, as the video proves, it works. It sounds at least as good as most flexi-discs ever did, and the novelty gage goes much higher. You just have to be calm about the possibility of getting your turntable wet.
December 27, 2012 § Leave a Comment
For years I have been impressed by Ron Richardello’s “After Hours” album — which I picked up at the local Goodwill — and his visionary, exceptional accordion playing.
I knew little about Richardello until this summer, when his obituary appeared in the Transcript. Shortly after that, I got an email from Richardello’s son, Rick, in regard to a blog post I wrote about his father’s music.
Rick agreed to an interview about his dad, a good opportunity to find out more about Richardello’s work and introduce him to newer residents of the Northern Berkshires who had never heard of him.
Rick says that his dad started playing accordion when he was about seven, picked up from Richardello’s Uncle Alfred. He grew up in a volatile environment and found peace with his instrument.
“That was part of his reasoning for sticking with the instrument,” Rick said. “He could lock himself in his room and practice for eight hours.”
As Richardello continued, his parents sent him around for instruction. Once he would tap one teacher out of his expertise and knowledge, Richardello moved onto the next, and this required a lot of travel.
“He very obviously had a gift,” Rick told me. “He excelled at it. Almost prodigy type excel at it. Dad was doing classical pieces on the accordion. He didn’t have the have sheet music in front of him. He’d learn it and replay everything note for note, just from memory. He could visualize the music in his mind and that would translate to playing.”
Richardello began performing for audiences in his teens, in the late ‘50s. There was an appearance on Major Bowes Amateur Hour with an all-accordion band. He opened the Philharmonic Studio in 1958 and performed with the studio orchestras sometimes.
In an interview with the Transcript on March 29, 1962, Richardello told reporter Richard G. McGurk, “I want people to accept the accordion as a serious musical instrument, and take the music played upon it seriously.”
The early ‘60s saw him tour with Carmen Carrozza and his Accordion Symphony Orchestra, and study under Art Van Damme, but 1965 was the year that promised to change his life when actor/comedian George Jessel approached him to come on tour in Vietnam with the USO. Richardello taped an appearance on the brand new Dean Martin Show before leaving with Jessel.
During one flight in the tour, his jet was fired upon by the Viet Cong.
Richardello would go on nine trips to Vietnam with Jessel, a point of pride for Richardello that had a dark side.
In 1989, Richardello told Transcript reporter William Sweet, “I remember swimming with George, when a three- or four-year-old child came down with a grenade, the pin pulled out. Our security guard had to shoot him. I didn’t eat for three days.”
Richardello’s time with Jessel yielded lighter stories, too, with frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, and parties with the Hollywood elite. He played Tahoe with Sammy Davis, Jr., and met General Douglas MacArthur.
“He told me a story of when he was 18 years old and traveling with Jessel,” Rick said. “He was at a party in Beverly Hills with Jessel and Ann-Margret hit on him. He told me how scared to death he was. Ann-Margret was probably one of the hottest redheads who ever lived, and he said all he could do was stand there with his mouth on the floor. He couldn’t say anything, he couldn’t do anything.”
Richardello began suffering more from chronic back pain, related to scoliosis that he had lived with, and which had been made worse by heavy accordions played with no accordion stand.
“The problems would cause numbness in his hands and extreme pain,” said Rick. “He went through chronic pain from then until the day he died. He refused drugs, any kind of pain meds, and he would play through the pain. He was never the type to rely on prescription medications for anything. In his later years, he had no choice, his problems got so bad.”
In 1967 he fell down a flight of stairs and cracked a disc in his back, which set off an endless series of surgeries over the next couple decades. This was also the year his first album, “After Hours,” was released. Richardello was backed up by a 27-member band, including members of the Tonight Show Orchestra.
His second and last album, “Brand New Bag,” came out in 1969, and featured a stellar jazz line-up: bass player Milt Hinton, trumpeter Ernie Royal, trumpeter Snooky Young and tenor saxophonist Seldon Powell.
The same year, Richardello married Susan Spada.
In the early ‘70s, there was a brief stint living and touring Canada, with his band of North Adams musicians, Poor Richard, which existed in different configurations over the next 15 years.
Rick was born in North Adams shortly after that. Richardello made his living partly with a shop called New Photo and Camera on Eagle Street, and partly by playing music locally.
“Back then, there were quite a few venues for local jazz bands,” Rick told me. “Dad was out playing every weekend and did the photo shop during the week.”
During that period, around 1978, Richardello also had a band called Ma’s Chops, played gigs at the British Maid in Williamstown, at least once with Milt Hinton.
He also did studio sessions in New York City, including some for George Benson and Wes Montgomery.
“Dad did some recording for James Brown at one point and they became really good friends,” Rick said. “I remember being five or six years old and going to one of James’ shows in Albany. We would go back to James’ trailer and him and dad would sit there and talk for a couple hours, and James is bouncing me on his knee.”
Rick also met stars like Natalie Cole, Rod Stewart and Sting thanks to his dad and his studio work with his accordion synthesizers, the Cordovox and the humongous, MIDI-capable Synkord.
“He could play horns, he could play regular keyboard sounds,” Rick said. “He didn’t have to use the bellows, he could leave it shut and use it as an electronic keyboard.”
In the late ‘80s, Richardello worked for General Electric in Pittsfield, but layoffs in 1987 sent him to Tennessee for work, during which time he did not perform. After a divorce in 1989, he was eager to play music again. In December, Richardello returned to North Adams to play at the Mohawk Theater for a high school music program benefit. It was the first time Rick played on stage with his father.
In 1992, Richardello was arrested for assault with intent to murder against his mother. Rick says that the whole thing was a misunderstanding between his father, grandmother and police, but it was the beginning of a spiral from which Richardello never recovered.
“During that time period, my dad went through a lot,” Rick told me, “and going through what he went through, he made a lot of bad decisions and hurt people.”
Richardello got three-years probation and returned to Tennessee, hoping to get back into music. He announced a Nashville recording project with Rick that was to include former Elvis and Ricky Nelson guitarist James Burton, as well as a documentary about his own life. Neither of those ever happened.
“Years upon years of abusing his body playing accordion and the surgeries, it finally took its toll, it finally finished him at being able to perform,” Rick said. “He took some stabs at producing, he took some stabs at playing a regular keyboard, which he was very good at, but it was never the same for him. As time progressed, he was getting more and more crippled.”
By 2000, things looked bad for Richardello. Personal and family tensions saw him cut himself off from loved ones. Money problems hounded him, resulting in the loss of his home and a move to public housing in 2007. And the physical pain got worse.
Richardello had a heart attack in May of 2012, then further problems with arthritis. He died in July.
During his father’s demise, Rick carried on the family tradition in his own way as a keyboard player, guitarist and singer. Starting in the late ‘90s, he performed and recorded in the Christian music industry. He currently heads up the rock band Plan of Action, after leaving Christian music in 2008.
“My faith has always been there,” he said. “It’s one of those things where the Christian music industry is run just like the secular music industry, there is no difference. As a matter of fact, it’s probably more cutthroat, and I got fed up with it.”
Upon his father’s death, a pile of memorabilia was found in the house, and Rick and his sister are currently sifting through it all — photos, clippings, sheet music, records, even the master tapes for Richardello’s two albums. His plan is to try and digitize all the paper media and photos, but hopes that someone out there might be interested in his father’s seminal recordings as he tried to change the world’s perception of accordion forever.
Perhaps some small label somewhere is interested in preserving the positive side of his father’s legacy for current and future audiences.
“I look at all that stuff and then I think about the life my dad led from 1987 forward, and I think to myself, what the hell happened?” Rick said. “Was the divorce from my mom just so traumatic for him that it did this to him? I don’t think so.”
“He did a lot in his lifetime and he was a typical musician. Dad was eccentric. My mom has a joke. ‘Your dad thought he was eccentric. I just thought he was weird.’”
November 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The term punk persists, but I have my doubts whether it really exists anymore, at least in its pure, original form. One argument in favor of the flavor of 1977 as a modern existence is certainly The Lovely Eggs. This British band mixes girlie charm and young cheekiness with a mix of garage noise and chiming catchiness that hearkens back to the old days of British punk when they might have been screaming and pounding and sneering, but they wanted you to dance and laugh and have a good time. It was just as much about attitude as delivery.
The Lovely Eggs is the effort of husband and wife duo Holly Ross and David Blackwell — she plays guitar, he plays drums — and together they manage to punctuate their lyrical wit in musical terms to the listener’s delight.
There’s plenty of poison to choose from here as a favorite. The album opens with the girlish rocker “Allergy,” but the hilarious “Don’t Patent That Shoe” really sets the tone for what’s to come. “Scooter’s Got Itchy” is a rave-up that will have you jumping up and down, while “Food” opens with the immortal line “I want to masticate with you,” and it’s all great from that point on, with more funny noise rock, as well as unexpectedly amusing spoken word pieces like “Idiot Check.”
Highly recommended to those who like their noise clever. (www.thelovelyeggs.co.uk)