Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
1ST SET. The Mighty Mike Schermer Band. Fine Dog Records. I first heard Mike Schermer late last year, when he played along side vocalist Shana Morrison at a show in San Francisco. Immediately, I was taken with Schermer and the sound that he was able to create, spellbound by the way he sucked the sweet milk of music from the bent neck of his guitar — lost in this great dark resonating sea of tone. Even as Shana Morrison’s voice struck down like a sweet-edged hammer, it was Schermer’s fingers that were at the center of every song; he simply stole the show.
After witnessing that wonderful performance, I remained anxious to digest more of Mike Schermer’s sound, and this record provides a great chance to fully discover his work. 1st Set, Schermer’s most recent solo effort, is quite a break through among guitar music. Schermer, widely known for his work with the likes of Maria Muldaur and Charlie Musslewhite, demonstrates through this album that he’s quite accomplished at writing and singing his own songs.
What you’ll hear here is a fine and varied sampling of boiled hard blues — traditional in nature, yet cut with Schermer’s indelible brand of picking. By the time “Annabelle” (second cut) comes on, Schermer has stolen your attention. This song — a ripe and smoky roadhouse Blues number — showcases Schermer’s immense talent, mixing the wicked feel of Big Joe Williams with the nasty whine of John Lee Hooker, stirring the dark sexiness of Willie Dixon into the balls-out shineof Mike Bloomfield. It’s the memory of classic playing — yet still so new and brisk, infused with the high energy of young and creative hands (“Annabelle Annabelle/You so fine…/Annabelle Annabelle/Loving you baby/Gonna get/Me killed.”). 1st Set bulges with ripe moments, and high-water marks abound, but “Kiss and Make Up” (with Angela Strehli) is truly memorable — a smoldering dark-rippled blues that rides the spine of Schermer’s guitar to an ass-grinding finish (note the way June Core’s drumming punctuates the layers of every verse, line after line awash in the shadowy textures of Dylan’s 1978 classic “New Pony”). As the record churns forward (from “Lonesome Whistle Blues” through “Mopina”), compare the traditional Blues pieces you hear against Schermer’s original compositions – in the end, it’s the originals that end up the tastier: crisp and clear, focused and edged, coming from a songwriter confident in himself and in his material.
Even though Schermer’s been a side man for many bands through the years, this record is a statement that he’s ready to emerge – a solo act of depth and vitality howling out at the moon: “Annabelle Annabelle/You so fine…/Annabelle Annabelle/Loving you baby/Gonna get/Me killed.”
Hooker would have no doubt stood up to proudly sing along.
BEAT AVENUE. Eric Andersen. Appleseed Records. Eric Andersen was part of the emergence of the “singer-songwriter” in the 1960s and, along with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, John Stewart and Ramblin Jack Elliot, Andersen’s work has not only withstood the test of time but has grown more alluring.
Andersen’s music –like that of the aforementioned writers– is deeply poetic, rooted in folk, blues and mid-sixties rock and roll. With Beat Avenue, Andersen presents his strongest record in years, expanding on the themes he first began chronicling over 40 years ago. Beat features an all-star band, including Eric Bazilian on guitar, Shawn Pelton on drums and Garth Hudson (formerly of The Band) on sax, accordion and keyboards. Beat is rich with many wonderful songs (especially the searching “Song For You and Me” which comes on like a storm, its sorrow born in the hollow ache of changing love). Also notable are “Rains Are Gonna Come,” “Salt On Your Skin” and “Under The Shadows” (as each of these 14 pieces build into each other like the separate scenes of a movie, building and growing, until we have drawn a full picture of this song-poet on his journey through our times).
Still, the best cut on the record remains the title track — a 26 minute epic that recounts the events of November 22, 1963: the day President John Kennedy was gunned down. Andersen, only 20 years old at the time, was holed up in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s house in San Francisco, socializing with Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and David Meltzer following a Ginsberg reading earlier that evening. “Beat Avenue,” which took Andersen 15 years to write, is a testament to how deeply Kennedy’s death affected a generation: In the hollow orange flicker of a bullet hope dissolved into despair and the path of a nation was permanently changed. And “Beat Avenue” captures it all — holding the listener spellbound for nearly half an hour as we go back in time to re-examine ourselves and the state of our own lives.
Eric Andersen is a magnificent songwriter whose work defies all labels and categories. Moreover, Beat Avenue shows that Andersen is a survivor: a man who has withstood the impact of social and artistic change and emerged even more inspired. In the end, this record should serve as a model for all other singer-songwriters trying to “break in.”
Yeah, to a degree I’d say that. During my younger years I read a lot of Russian literature, and also the French Symbolists like Baudlaire and Rimbaud. You might say I had a Russian soul and a French Symbolist mind. (laughing) The friends I was hanging out with in high school were reading the same kinds of books as I was. We loved both music and writing. We were reading Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and singing Weavers’ songs. But I was actually “discovered” by Tom Paxton, and through him I learned about music and met a lot of people in the music business. That was in late 1963, early ‘64…
Wow ….. that’s a great compliment…… (Pauses) I think he [Dylan] was the first one on the scene in terms of writing songs in a certain kind of poetic way. But my biggest influence in terms of the craft of writing a song was Tom Paxton. Dylan opened things up in terms of theme and poetics but Paxton opened things up in terms of craft. I heard more of Tom’s stuff early on than I did of anybody else’s music.
I see him whenever he’s in Norway. I usually see him whenever he’s here — he loves to talk shop. He loves to talk songwriting and music. Actually, we’ve been talking about working together on a few things, including the record I’m currently in the studio recording [tentatively titled “The Street Was Always There” — due for a late summer release].
Well, I wrote a long open letter to him after his death called “Good-Bye Rick.” [see http://www.ericandersen.com/letter]. Actually that letter is worth more than a thousand pictures. It explains how I feel. But when Rick died — that was a terribly rough and painful time. Losing Rick …was very sad. Like losing Caruso. The world will never hear a voice like that again, now it’s only preserved on the records. It will never be replaced. It’s a great loss and I miss him terribly. But that’s all part of this life: we come and then we depart. It’s all on borrowed time.
What a question…..It may sound strange, but I don’t think about things that way. In my consciousness, when you’re close to somebody and you lose them, it’s like somebody shot you through the crosshairs of your heart. I mean — you thought you knew their souls, and then they’re just gone. It’s a terrible thing. Like a chunk of you peels off. Like losing a hand or arm. But some of those people are still standing: John Sebastian. Bob Dylan. Tom Paxton. But in the end, we have the sound of their voices [referring now to Danko and Ginsberg]. That was their ‘instrument’ and they wanted us to know them on that level. It was about getting their music and message out.
Well, it’s important to remember that when [those events] happened I wasn’t actually writing anything, I wasexperiencing it. Durng the night that would become the antecedent for “Beat Avenue” I wasn’t reading or writing a poem. I was just experiencing the things that were happening. In “Beat Avenue” I am recapturing the night when Kennedy was killed. I started the piece in ‘85 or ‘86 as one of the cinematic narratives that I like to do. Also I had been reading James Joyce and exploring the idea of how a whole book could take place in one day. Joyce made me want to look at that concept more closely, and “Beat Avenue” grew from that. And after I finished the song I had to look for a place to put it. It’s a hard song because of its length [close to 30 minutes]. I see “Beat Avenue” not as a jewel, but rather as a whole necklace, a real jewelry ensemble.
Great! Ferlinghetti really liked it, and I think I was able to capture a lot of what was going on at that moment with us.
We’re currently at work recording a new album. [“The Street Was Always There”]. It’s being produced by Robert Aaron and we’ve already cut 19 songs. The record is comprised of covers and two originals. I’m singing the songs of people I knew on the street — Phil Ochs, Dylan, Paxton, Fred Neil, Peter La Farge. I really think La Farge was the unrecognized genius of the group, and in many ways, he could have been the best. (pauses) This was ground zero. The birth of the singer-songwriter. The record’s not about going down memory road or making a museum piece, but about radiating the vitality of the writers. It’s very fresh and powerful. And I think it will have a lot of meaning for a lot of people, because it’s not a tribute album, but music with a very personal approach.
Yes, The record is eerie — like there’s an echo in the room (laughing). The songs resonate with what’s going on — both “yesterday” and today. Looking back, it’s unbelievable to see how rich some of this stuff was. Personally, I never thought I could sing a Phil Och’s song or a Dylan song or a David Blue piece. There’s some amazing pieces of work on this record, and it’s a fascinating situation for a singer to go into — going into the soul of a song and trying to express it. Dylan was the hardest to do. SO many words! So much language. And so much attitude — twisting and turning. But then there was Fred Neil: in Fred’s work a word is like a thousand pictures. But in the end, it’s about the writers and how redolent these songs are. A lot of feeling comes out of this record, and in the course of that, it sounds like something completely new.