Just what the world needs...another blog!
12/07/2014-WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS LANGUAGE THAT WILL—AND SHOULD—OFFEND ANY SANE READER.
When I was growing up, this type of behavior was just called “teasing,” whereas it’s now labeled as “bullying.” Sadly, I think the latter is more accurate. Almost never does a week pass without a kid bringing a gun to school and opening fire on their tormentors, usually before turning the gun on themselves. Then again, there are those who see no light at the end of the tunnel that is adolescence and choose to take their own lives.
So, with this horrible epidemic in mind, I wrote a song called “The Fat Kid.” I plan to donate a portion of the paid purchases of the song to a worthy cause, but I’m still trying to decide which cause will do the most good (hint- I’ve pretty much ruled out the NRA). In the meantime, I feel that the message is more important than the money, so I’m giving away free downloads for a limited time. For a free download, please go to www.StephenDavidAustin.com. At the bottom of the page is a music player, which is displayed as a red line. The large arrow lets you stream full songs and the small arrows let you scroll through songs. You can get your free download by hitting the “free” button.
Consider yourself warned: The song is over seven minutes long and the lyrics may be disturbing to people who prefer to keep their heads buried in the sand. Still, I think it’s a story that needs to be told, so please feel free to share it.
In his brief time on Earth, Gram Parsons played a major role in bridging the cultural and musical gaps between country and rock. His work with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, as well as his brilliant solo albums, helped start a movement whose acolytes included Emmylou Harris (first and foremost), Poco, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and too many others to think of off the top of my head. His influence even spread to the Rolling Stones, and is reflected in such gems as "Wild Horses", Dead Flowers", and "Sweet Virginia." For those of you old enough to remember, there was once a wide chasm between rock and country audiences. The animosity between the two audiences was palpable, to the point of a cultural divide only rivaled by the Republicans and Democrats in today's Congress. Those were days when you could tell what kind of music a person liked by the way they dressed and wore their hair. Gram helped bring these two audiences together with what he referred to as "Cosmic American Music", blending rock music with such American Roots genres as country and soul. Like so many great musicians, he died young through self-medication. Although his body of work was small, his influence has spread exponentially. There is currently a petition to have Gram Parsons inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. To sign the petition, please go to http://gramparsonspetition.com/. In my humble opinion, it's the right thing to do.
04/23/2014- Hootenanny Leaves White Trash in the Dark
I just read that this year's Hootenanny festival, a celebration of all things I love about trailer park and white trash culture, has been cancelled.
Well, that really sucks. Aside from some of my favorite bluegrass festivals, this is the only Southern California festival I look forward to every year. There's a real audience for this kind of festival -- especially in Orange County -- and a big underground audience for the music.
I enjoyed the first couple of Stagecoach festivals -- although I spent very little time at the main stage (the place to get Nashville's "flavor of the month" shoved down your throat, with the occasional appearance of truly classic headliners like John Fogerty and the Eagles) but it's gotten too damn expensive to go there. It's hard for 2 people to spend the weekend and get away for much less than a grand, particularly if you camp and eat there. Stagecoach still books some great indie American Roots and classic country acts, but that will probably dry up due to the lack of attendance at those stages. When I saw the Eagles at Stagecoach, it was like watching them from over the fence at a drive-in theater across town, knowing they were filming live somewhere in the same zip code. On the upside, the first act to play at one Stagecoach Festival I attended was L.A.'s own David Serby, and this year, one of my favorite local acts, I SEE HAWKS IN L.A.., will be performing. Both acts would fit right in at Hootenanny.
Remember when you could turn on the AM Radio and hear a set that included Nancy Sinatra, the Doors, Roger Miller, the Seeds, and the Beatles -- without even a hint of irony? I miss the days when good music was just that. Good music. Nothing more, nothing less.
I hope Hootenanny comes back. It sucks when we're robbed of the opportunity to enjoy music we like in a live setting because we don't fit into an easily categorized demographic.
03/10/2014- Time for a New Album
After an extended period of writers' block, and spinning my wheels musically, the songs are starting to come to me again. For several months, I've only been able to jot down an idea, a title, or maybe a decent line or two. I've come to the conclusion that I am--first and foremost--a writer.
I'm an adequate singer and a mediocre to fair instrumentalist, but I need the talents of my studio team to present my songs in the best light possible. Thankfully, the making of "A Bakersfield Dozen" allowed me to put together a group of musicians who understand what I'm trying to do and have the talents to take my songs to a higher level.
Trying to keep a performing band together and hustle gigs has made me lose my focus and turned my passion for music into a job I'm paying dearly to keep. Lately, I've experienced a palpable sense of the joy of music leaving my soul. The Tortured Artists are a great bunch of guys, and an even greater bunch of musicians. Each and every one will no doubt do well with whatever musical endeavors they choose. Maybe we'll even play some more shows together somewhere down the line. Whatever happens, I'm proud to have shared the stage with them on the few occasions we played out.
Now it's time for me to finish the fragmented songs, get some scratch tracks recorded, and get back where I feel best -- in the studio. For many years, I really got a rush out of performing live. Maybe some new material and some water under the bridge will give me a new perspective and renew the joy of performing. But for now, I need to validate my sense of belonging in the musical community. That means I need to write new songs. I've still got some tales to tell.
01/27/2014- Big Music's Big Weekend
Yesterday I had a full dose of what the music industry is and is not about (at least through my eyes). I went to NAMM and then watched the GRAMMYs on TV. This was my first year of being a voting member of the Recording Academy and my first NAMM show.
First- the GRAMMYS: I received a ton of "for your consideration" e-mails post cards, and even a few CDs from indie artists spending their life savings, fighting against the machine that is the recording academy. Some were good, some didn't move me to the point of listening all the way through the song submission. I was bombarded with full-page slick ads, e-mail links, and entire voting guides from the major labels with the scratch to put out mega-campaigns and -- surprise! -- the omni-powers took home most of the trophies. The major labels' submissions were generally polished to the point of artifice, even from the artists the industry is marketing as "rebels" and "outsiders". In the cases where I found the indie music to be at least as good as the commercial stuff, the very few indie submissions who made it all the way to nomination got my vote based purely on their work ethic and the guts to take on the big machine. For the most part, I only voted in the categories I actually listen to, as it wouldn't be fair to put in an uneducated vote that might cause a more talented or dedicated artist in that genre to lose by a vote from someone who doesn't even understand their style of music. I voted in the genres I listen to -- Americana, American Roots, Bluegrass, etc, but just couldn't bring myself to vote in the "Country" category, as it all sounds like bad 80's rock to me. Lest this post sound too negative, there were some truly great performances on the GRAMMYs, and they made the show worth watching. And I agree with the adage that music -- or art of any type -- is not a competition. Artists need to support each other rather than view another act as a competition. The more friends we have, the less consequential the enemies become.
The NAMM show was nothing short of overwhelming, and I had a great time talking music with the thousands of vendors, musicians, and every occupation peripheral to the music industry. I saw some truly amazing shows from some great up-and-coming musicians, many of whom I hope can break out and someday accept a GRAMMY. One act that particularly caught my eyes and ears was a 15-year-old singer/songwriter named Olivia Rox. Her band was great, her songs were timely, smart, dynamic, and catchy. And she has an incredible stage presence with keyboard talents and a vocal range and chops to match. She plays contemporary pop, which isn't normally my cup of tea, but when it's good, it's good. If this girl doesn't become a star, there is no justice. I just hope the industry doesn't eat her up in trying to cultivate her into another "flavor of the month". The crowd ran the spectrum of musicians from young kids with the standard Keith Urban haircut to guys even older than me that someone needs to gently counsel on the age at which a man should stop wearing spandex, skinny jeans, and dying his hair. Some people can pull it off, but most can't. There were also a lot of heavy hitters and killer session cats playing at the demo booths, and I was truly humbled by the amount of talent in 4 floors of the Anaheim Convention Center, especially knowing this was a small sampling of the great players who are out there playing all around the world, every day and every night.
One thing that particularly struck me an NAMM was the number of Chinese / Asian vendors with displays of high-quality instruments and gear. I'd say this group made up about half the vendor spaces. This isn't racism, it's reality, folks. The Chinese are making far more than just the cheap crap that we've come to expect when we see a "Made in China" label. Given that I've always coveted American-made instruments and gear as among the best in the world, I'm afraid that we may be losing one of our last remaining economic strongholds and sources of pride in American craftsmanship. In conclusion, I saw a few old friends and made some new friends -- and business contacts -- at NAMM. I'll go again next year, as I found it to be more of a chance to talk music with like-minded folks than to be pitched a bunch of stuff I wasn't interested in. The vendors are knowledgeable and seem more interested in building customer relationships than going for the quick sale.
Next year, I may try to do 2 or 3 days at NAMM, as it's a lot to absorb in one day. As for the GRAMMYS, I will probably always watch for the few performances by artists that interest me, but won't go out of my way to catch the show. The program -- despite my misgivings about the political and monetary selection process -- frequently showcases the best of the best, and that calls for respect.
I would be remiss if I neglected to mention two things about the GRAMMYs that were sadly reflective of the times in which we live:
1)- Macklemore and Ryan Lewis winning three Rap GRAMMYs. It just bugs the hell out of me when a particular idiom -- in this case, rap --- cultivated by African Americans, only gets into the mainstream when it's presented by non-threatening white people (Remember when Bill Haley and Elvis made rock and roll palatable to white kids?). I rarely listen to rap, so I didn't vote in the category. Again, I think it's unfair to vote in a category with which you're unfamiliar. To cast a vote against an artist who may well deserve the award, especially when I'm unfamiliar with the intricacies of their particular genre, isn't fair to the artists or the fans of that music. I don't think the Macklemore / Lewis win is necessarily reflective of racism on the part of the Academy, as there are voting members who represent all ethnic groups. I think it's reflective of the industry, which spends millions of dollars telling the public what they like.
2)- Madonna. She must have a full-time crew looking for opportunities to be "controversial". When she came out to perform the mass wedding for Macklemore's "Same Love", she looked like Matt Damon as Liberace's live-in "boy toy" on that HBO movie. First, as a social Libertarian, I have absolutely no problems with giving gay people the right to marry. If gay marriage were to become legal in all 50 states, I don't believe that heterosexual people would turn gay, nor do I think gay people would set up recruitment centers outside of elementary schools or go around the neighborhood doing drive-by redecoratings. There are still the matters of the physical and romantic qualities of the gender to which a person is attracted, and I don't foresee many people going to the extreme of faking those issues just to get on someone's insurance policy. Although I'm happily married to a wonderful woman, I have left behind a long line of failed relationships and one failed marriage -- all with women. If my current marriage were to fail, I would no doubt seek out another woman to make miserable with my "artistic temperament". It's just the way I'm wired -- I can't envision myself in a relationship with another man. I'm pretty sure most gay people feel the same way about romantic relationships with the opposite sex. It ain't a choice, folks. And to me, it's a non-issue. I think Madonna is as guilty as Rick Santorum in keeping this issue controversial. Let's take a brief look back at Madonna's capitalization on controversy: Her passionate kiss with Britney Spears on national TV (I think it was on the GRAMMYs); videos featuring such "hot-button" issues as interracial relationships; self-crucifixion; giving birth out of wedlock; and the recent MDNA tour (a weak play on MDMA, the young folks' party drug of choice). All these issues were / are timely and divisive, so she manages to capitalize on the controversy and contribute to the social and moral divisiveness that's strangling our country. So, in short, she's a marketing genius. And she still manages to manipulate controversy in order to give the appearance of maintaining continued relevance in pop culture.
10/29/2013- In Memory of Lou Reed
Every group needs a voice. As poet / singer / songwriters go, Lou Reed was to city dwelling junkies, hustlers, and misfits what Merle Haggard is to rural working people. Very few albums have ever hit me on a more visceral level than Lou's "Rock and Roll Animal".
I was lucky enough to see Mr. Reed several times during and after the pinnacle of his commercial popularity. (This was the time frame in which David Bowie had taken it upon himself to simultaneously promote artists like Lou, Iggy, the New Your Dolls, etc., while usurping their individual and collective talents to formulate his own made-for-media "Ziggy Stardust" character.)
For me, the most memorable show was at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. I believe he was touring to support "Sally Can't Dance".
In the middle of "Heroin", the entire hall went black, except for a white-hot spotlight on Lou, whose skin was as pale as an albino's ashes in an ivory urn. The drum roll started, softly at first, as he used his microphone cord to tie off his arm in a ritual every junkie knows all too well. The drum roll swelled...louder....louder....
As the music built to a crescendo, filling the room with an energy that could not be ignored, every fiber of Lou's being was RIGHT THERE, in the moment...
"Wow, that heroin is in my blood
And the blood is in my head
Yeah, thank God that I'm good as dead
Ooohhh, thank your God that I'm not aware
And thank God that I just don't care
And I guess I just don't know
And I guess I just don't know"
Rest in peace, Lou. You gave an air of dignity to the low life.
08/17/2013- Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls...TODAY is the DAY! The great Tehachapi Mountain Festival is going on all weekend at downtown's somewhat ironically named Philip Marx Central Park. (Contrary to legend, residents of the area have never been commonly referred to as "Marxists", so tread lightly when inquiring about the origins of the park's name. For the most part, "Marxists" are frowned upon in this city of industrious individuals.) SEE people of all ages and from all walks of life enjoying a real-life SMALL TOWN (just like on TV), where folks of all political and socioeconomic backgrounds peacefully coexist at their own free will, with only minimally invasive armed guards and security cameras.
TOUCH living grass and trees, providing nature's own canopy against the sun. Summer temperatures average 10 to 20 or more degrees lower than those in Bakersfield or Los Angeles.
FEEL the cool, rejuvenating breeze of what the locals call "fresh mountain air", which is produced naturally through a process called "photosynthesis". The area's "fresh air" has baffled big-city scientists for years, most notably for its complete lack of color, odor, or taste. Visitors to Tehachapi are welcome to breath as much of this miracle gas at NO COST, with no tanks, bottles, or other litter to pollute the environment. Fresh air is available at no charge 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in Tehachapi.
TASTE a wide variety of local foods provided by itinerant vendors and local restauranteurs, guaranteed to please even the most discriminating palate. There's even a Beer Garden, where thirsty festival-goers can quench their thirst and rub elbows with the colorful locals. (NOTE: "Rubbing elbows" is used here in the metaphorical sense only. Actual rubbing of elbows may imply membership in a secret society that...well...just don't do it, that's all).
Finally, you can HEAR sounds you'll rarely hear in the city. At first, the sound of children laughing and strangers engaged in friendly conversation may seem strange to you, but after a little while, you'll forget all about the city's wails of despair, screeching of brakes, sirens, and the squeak of schizophrenics' shopping carts as they go about their daily routine of profane shouting matches with the voices in their heads. Tehachapi is also known for its origins as a railroad town, so you can see the actual rails ridden by the likes of Merle Haggard, Woody Guthrie, Haywire Hawkins, and "Rotten Teeth" Ray Rawlins.
There will be music and entertainment all day Saturday and Sunday, wit Stephen David Austin closing out the Saturday entertainment with their cheerful, good-time songs about prison, death, bad decisions, cheating spouses, drugs, alcohol, and...trains. Stephen David Austin and the Tortured Artists (Howard Weisbrot, Dave "the Grooover" Grover, and Charlie Peterson) take the main stage -- next to the gazebo from 3:30 to 5p.
If you get a chance, come give 'em a listen and say "hi". Stephen likes to be called Steve when he's not being referred to in print or on the radio, where he thinks "Stephen" makes him sound more important. Groover likes to be called "Grooover", so just pronounce it as you normally would but find a way to acknowledge the third "o". Don't make any sudden moves around Howard, and try to avoid bringing up the subject of barn owls to Charlie. You'll just have to trust me on those two bits of advice.
See you there!
I See Hawks in L.A.—Live and Never Learn
Reviewed by Stephen David Austin
For weeks now, I’ve been searching for a way to describe I SEE HAWKS IN L.A. to the uninitiated listener. Here are a couple that have crossed my mind: Imagine Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters doing the Acid Tests 30 years later—in Bakersfield. I See Hawks in L.A. could be the house band. Or maybe Terry Melcher producing the Grateful Dead in Victorville. Take your pick. If you don’t get the picture, I can’t say I didn’t try. There’s plenty of room on the bus if you’re willing to take the Hawks’ trip.
To grasp the musical vision of I See Hawks in L.A., it’s helpful to invoke a willing suspension of disbelief. By that, I’m talking about a perspective borne—at least in part—of chemical induction. More specifically, the agricultural and pharmaceutical cornucopia from which adventurous Baby Boomers have partaken since the Kennedys’ vision of Camelot. Prior to discovering I See Hawks in L.A., I thought I may have wasted years of my life seeking chemical enlightenment. Fortunately, a misspent youth was, in fact, preparation for writing this review. (Disclaimer: This is a music review, and in no way an endorsement of illegal substances, deviant behavior, or subversive thoughts. Consider yourselves warned, hopheads!)
I See Hawks in L.A. are carrying on a psychedelic folk-rock tradition tapped from the wellspring of L.A.’s fabled Laurel Canyon, while proudly flying the freak flag of the Grateful Dead’s seminal (and, to my mind, best) albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. It’s a musical genre that has survived the ebbs and flows of popularity in the ensuing 50-plus years, now relegated—in Southern California, anyhow—to satellite, Internet, and college stations. I See Hawks in L.A. set themselves apart from the current pack of Americana artists with sometimes unpredictable song structures and lyrics that go from deep introspection to downright hilarious and all points in between, sometimes in the same song.
Aside from the aforementioned influences, these Hawks have a lot of Byrds in their background (sorry, the pun was just too damn easy). Choral harmonies, folksy melodies filled with drug references (some subliminal, some painfully obvious), and instrumentation that flows seamlessly between traditional, experimental, and “where the hell did that come from?” Paul Lacques' guitar playing draws undeniable influence Clarence White, with occasional flourishes of Doc Watson, Roy Nichols, and James Burton. Still, he’s accomplished enough to have drawn from all these players without sounding exactly like anyone except Paul Lacques. Bassist Paul Marshall has been a regular on the L.A. rock/country/roots music scene since old Shep was a pup, and his background, fro The Strawberry Alarm Clock to the likes of Hank Thompson and Wanda Jackson, makes for the stylistic balance that holds down the Hawks’ bottom end. He and new drummer Victoria Jacobs work together to form a tight rhythm section. Pedal steel player Dave Zirbel even invokes the ghost of "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow from time to time. In a musical style traditionally fronted by tenors, lead singer Rob Waller sings in a baritone that might be described as a cross between Tennessee Ernie Ford and Country Dick Montana, employing occasional vocal gymnastics unique to his timbre, and he makes it work. Sonically, they’re just greasy enough to set a groove reminiscent of THE BAND and just clean enough to show off their instrumental and vocal prowess.
Live and Never Learn, the Hawks’ eighth album, finds them soaring above familiar terrain. In addition to new drummer Victoria Jacobs (who also provides lead vocals on “Spinning” and the hilarious “My Parka Saved Me”) guest musicians Richie Lawrence (accordion, piano), Dave Markowitz (fiddle), Danny McGough (organ, synth) and Dave Zirbel (pedal steel), provide fresh musical seasoning to favorite Hawks themes of environmental awareness, social commentary, marijuana, and the incongruity of straddling the line where the urban sprawl of Los Angeles encroaches upon the surrounding wilderness. The foothills of the Angeles National Forest are where modern development meets nature’s wild domain, where black bears nonchalantly stroll through neighborhoods at night, rifling through trash cans in search of an easy meal. As the band’s name implies, hawks are commonly seen perched on telephone poles or soaring above open fields, scanning for prey. While many species of hawk call Southern California home, the Red-tail is the most common. Ironically, the Red-tail hawk is among the most likely species to steal prey from other raptors. This may explain their dominance among the birds of prey in the Hollywood Hills, where showbiz and Darwinism collide.
Today’s commercial country music is style over substance. Strategically torn jeans, tight-fitting t-shirts, spray tans, and trucker hats. Like Def Leppard with a fiddle, it sounds like beer commercials meant to be played between beer commercials. Every damn night, every damn singer, every damn song is a beer commercial, based on algorithms and formulas designed to appeal to the “youth market.” Whereas today’s country radio conglomerates force this insipid pabulum into the shiny black pick-up trucks of wannabe good ol’ boys and gals, the listening public needs to search a little farther out of their comfort zone to find I See Hawks in L.A.. Upon discovery, some people just won’t get it. The Hawks play for those who do.
The album’s opening song, “Ballad for the Trees,” gives insight into what makes I See Hawks in L.A. special to their fans, while making it abundantly clear why you’ll never hear them on a Clear Channel station: they make you think. The track begins with a digital skip that hints at a defective CD, but in a few seconds falls into a loping, good-timey rhythm that belies the lyrical depth. As Waller ruminates on the isolation of a life and time where we collect friends we never see on the Internet and ingest news intended to divide and conquer the masses, we are reminded that there is still a world out there where trees provide oxygen, bees make honey, and planet Earth does just fine without us. There’s a difference between loneliness and being alone, and sometimes solitude provides a much-needed break from a mental diet` devoid of nutritional value. The title track reminds us that it’s good to call upon our own better angels, but in the long run, we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be. Still, we live and…you know.
By the time you get to “Stoned with Melissa,” well, you might feel like getting stoned. Once your buzz sets in, you’ll get to my favorite track, “My Parka Saved Me.” This song takes the humor of the GEICO commercial featuring Boyz II Men a step further, with the Hawks providing choral response to Victoria Jacobs’ tale about breaking up with a boyfriend. He becomes a born-again Christian, and she gets stoned and goes for a drive. As she tells the story, the singers gradually hijack the narrative until she’s struggling to keep the story accurate. After laughing your ass off throughout the song, the ending is actually quite touching.
For long-time fans of the band, Live and Never Learn is like a conversation with an old friend. For listeners to whom Live and Never Learn is a gateway album, it’s a good idea to shut your pie-hole and listen to the songs. To really appreciate the band, see them live.
You can pre-order Live and Never Learn at www.ISeeHawks.com, where you can also find upcoming shows.