Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) On To New Things

Hip hop artist and actor Yasiin Bey, whom most of us know by his long-time stage name Mos Def, announced last year that he was retiring from music and the screen at age 43.  For his final concerts he chose a three-night run this past New Year’s weekend at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center.  He promises to stay in the arts, and I hope someday he’ll head back to the recording studio.

His entertainment career began as a child actor, with small TV parts, and he’s since appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows. He was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his starring role in the HBO movie “Something the Lord Made”, based on the life of Vivien Thomas.

His music career took off with the release of “Mos Def and Talib Kwali Are Black Star” in 1998.  Bey’s brand of hip hop was often on the musical side of the genre’s spectrum, and his lyrics were socially conscious and most often playable in polite company.  Though not the most famous song from “Black Star”, “K.O.S. (Determination)” is my personal favorite.

A year later he released his major solo debut “Black on Both Sides”.   A personal favorite on this album is “Umi says”, any my taste has been validated on this one.  President Barack Obama included it on his 2015 summer playlist.

Of course Bey collaborated with many of his hip hop contemporaries, but his global reach may have been broader than many. Here is a nice track from the 2009 album “Soundtrack 2” by Japan’s DJ Deckstream.

The Milk Carton Kids

Last week’s post included a video from the movie “Another Day, Another Time”. Also performing in that movie was a group that somehow I’d overlooked all this time, the indie-folk duo The Milk Carton Kids.

Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan formed the group in 2011 and have released four albums, the third of which “The Ash & Clay” was nominated for a Grammy.  Here they are rehearsing for the movie, playing their song “Snake Eyes” from that Grammy-nominated album. Chris Thile, Marcus Mumford (who wrote a song of the same name) and T Bone Burnett look on appreciatively.  Ethan Coen tears up at the end.  They’ve been compared to Simon and Garfunkel by some, and they have some deadpan fun with that.

For you Pink Floyd fans, here is a cover of a classic – Kids-style.

You may have picked up that Pattengale is a crazy good guitar picker, and this track from their Austin City Limits concert puts any doubt to rest.

If you’d like to see and hear a bit more, check out their NPR Tiny Desk Concert performance; a perfect setting for The Kids.

An A Cappella Sampler

Though I’d considered it to be the exclusive province of college students lurking under stone archways, it seems that a cappella singing is engaging the talents of a much broader range of performers these days.

Pentatonix, the Texas based quintet leading the art form’s revival, has delivered a string of hits and interesting performances since winning “The Sing-Off” on NBC in 2011. Their recent Christmas album topped the Billboard charts, and this performance with Dolly Parton of her 1973 hit is up for Best Country Duo/Group Performance at this year’s Grammy’s.

In 2013, around the same time the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” went into wide release, an all star cast put on a concert to celebrate the film’s music. One of the songs from the movie performed at the concert was “The Auld Triangle”. The performance includes most of those on the movie soundtrack, including Chris Thile, other members of his Punch Brothers outfit, and Marcus Mumford – minus Justin Timberlake.

Professional musicians are contributing only a small fraction, it seems, of a cappella performances – as a cursory trip around YouTube suggests.  Indy Dang, an film student at the Rhode Island School of Design, has a YouTube channel with 15,000 subscribers checking out his expanding set of arrangements.   He’s not the only one making these covers of pop songs, but it’s hard to find anyone better.  Here’s his version of “Heathens” by Twenty One Pilots, a song from the soundtrack of the summer hit movie “Suicide Squad”.

No talk of a cappella singing is complete without mentioning The Persuasions. The group made it big after Frank Zappa heard them perform and booked them to open for the Mothers of Invention at Carnegie Hall in 1971. Here is their excellent version of “People Get Ready” written by Curtis Mayfield.

New Tracks from Van Morrison and Sting – and a String of Firsts

A bit more to clean up from late 2016: Sting and Van Morrison delivering new music and sounding as good as ever.

Sting released his 12th solo album “57th and 9th” in early November, and it features more rock and roll than we’ve heard from the legend in a long time.  The album title reportedly refers to an intersection he crossed daily on the way to the recording studio.  The first track released from the album was “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You”.    To recall his early rocking, listen to the first track from the first Police album.

Van Morrison released “Keep Me Singing” in September, 50 years after the release of his first album “Blowin’ Your Mind”.  That blows my mind.  Sir George Ivan Morrison has released a total of 36 studio albums in that span. That also blows my mind.  The first track released from the new album is “Every Time I See A River”, and the first track from the first album was the classic “Brown Eyed Girl”.  Dial in 18:34 on this excellent BBC Concert video to see the new song, and 59:50 to hear the classic.

And here is fun extra. Before going solo Van Morrison fronted the band Them. Perhaps their most memorable song was Van’s composition “Gloria”. Check out their live performance of that song, and then Patti Smith’s cover which was the first track on her first album.  The poetic lead in was Smith’s poem “Oath” and the lyrics owe a lot to the earlier cover by the Doors.

Let’s Start 2017 With a Trip to Motown to Visit Bob Babbitt

It is oddly prophetic that my last post, four months ago, covered the band Hiatus Kaiyote.  Hiatus indeed!  Well Happy New Year to all, and allow me to begin the year with a trip way back to the early 70’s.

A few months ago I watched the movie “Searching for Sugar Man” for the first time.  Hard to believe it took me so long to see the 2012 Academy Award winner – thanks for the DVD, Margaret!  It’s a great flick if you haven’t seen it, and one little snippet from the movie is the basis for this post.

It seems that on Sixto Rodriquez’s first album “Cold Fact”, which included the track “Sugar Man” from which the movie title was taken, his producer hired some top notch Motown session men to back Sixto’s vocals and guitar.  Among them was bassist Bob Babbitt.

Babbitt was part of The Funk Brothers, studio musicians who backed most of Motown’s hits from 1959 to 1972.   A little research on Babbitt reveals that he played some of the most recognizable bass tracks in history, including those on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” and “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations, “War” by Edwin Starr, “The Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye, and many more.  In all he played on more than 200 Top 40 hits including 25 gold and platinum records.

Below is more than my usual number of videos, but turn up the bass and appreciate  Babbitt’s genius.  You’ll wonder what these songs would be without him.

Babbitt passed away in 2012 at age 74, some years after winning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.  The 2002 documentary on The Funk Brothers, “Standing in the Shadow of Motown” is now on my “to watch” list.