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.

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.

What’s Old Is New Again with Garbage and Hiatus Kaiyote

Garbage released “Strange Little Birds” on June 10th. It’s the band’s first album since 2012 and only their second since 2005. “Empty” is the first track with an official video, and if you like Shirley Manson and the band’s original sound as much as I do you’ll really enjoy it.  To compare it to their earliest days, watch “Only Happy When it Rains” from their eponymous 1995 debut.  Fun fact to know and tell: one of the band’s founders is drummer Butch Vig, a record producer prior to forming the band best known for producing Nirvana’s “Nevermind” in 1991.

While Hiatus Kaiyote doesn’t have the 20-year history of Garbage, they go further back than that in gathering their musical influences. The Australian quartet formed in 2011 and draw on soul, R&B and jazz fusion. They’ve already been nominated twice for the Best R&B Performance Grammy. Here are those two nominated tracks: “Nakamarra” from their first album “Tawk Tomahawk” and “Breathing Underwater” from their second album, last year’s “Choose Your Weapon”.  Actually, the Grammy nominated version of “Nakamarra” included a verse by Tribe Called Quest co-founder Q-tip – you can hear it here at 2:30. Thanks for introducing me to the band, Victoria!

Red Hot Chili Peppers Are Back, And An Unreleased Track Surfaces

In mid-June the Red Hot Chili Peppers will release “The Getaway”, their first new album in almost five years.  Breaking a 25-year, 6-album string with uber-producer Rick Rubin, “The Getaway” is produced by uber-producer Danger Mouse.  “Dark Necessities” is the album’s first single, and it features Flea playing piano as well as bass (remember that Flea’s first instrument was the trumpet).

Dave Navarro played guitar for the band for five years in the mid-90’s, a tenure that by all reports featured a clash of musical sensibilities between Dave and the other band members.  Recently an unreleased track from that era surfaced, “Circle of the Noose”, which reveals Dave’s straight rock influence and little of the funk that had been the band’s hallmark. Give a listen to this piece of newly recovered history, and also to the Number 1 single “My Friends” from the only album Navarro recorded with the band, “One Hot Minute”.  Dave’s guitar work on “My Friends” is really special.

A Shredder Lost Before His Time – RIP Prince

We’ve recently had to face the shock of Rock and Roll royalty of the 60’s and 70’s, now in their 60’s and 70’s, leaving us in increasing numbers. David Bowie, Maurice White, Glen Frey, Keith Emerson and Paul Kantner – to name a few – have all received their homages and retrospectives in the first few months of this year.  Prince was of a slightly more recent vintage, though, and losing him at age 57 was an especially rude shock.

I can’t add anything to what’s been written in the past few days about his amazing talent and career, but I can share a few favorite videos recalling that when it came to playing guitar, “Baby there ain’t nobody better”.

First, his guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to George Harrison in 2004. The solo starts at about 3:30 and is worth the wait.

This next video tends to get pulled off YouTube quickly, so enjoy it while you can. It’s a performance Prince gave at a press conference in the run-up to his 2007 Superbowl halftime show. May be the purest rock guitar playing I’d ever seen from him, and I’d never seen anyone else play with his arm around a girl (5:30)!  Darn he made it look easy.

Finally, from an MTV Unplugged set, his acoustic playing was a rarely seen treat.