Wednesday, August 20, 2008

North vs. South Music Festival

This weekend marks the 5th anniversary of The North vs. South Music Festival, held in Lawrence, KS for the last four years but moved to Kansas City for this go round.

Conceived by Mike McCoy, Hunter Darby, and Grant Johnson, three of the more prolific musicians operating along the IH-35 corridor (amongst other parts of the country), the idea originally was to take the best indie bands from the two notorious music cities at opposite ends of IH-35 (that's Austin and Minneapolis if you can't figure it out) and have them meet in the middle roughly on the anniversary of Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence, KS during The Civil War (look it up – I ain’t your history teacher). Not a competitive event at all, the philosophy was to bring together two very different and yet oddly similar musical scenes for the purposes of fun, networking, seeing a lot of great music one might not be exposed to, and getting shit faced drunk. It has been a smashing success the last four years, and there’s no reason to expect the fifth won’t be as well.

In the last five years the festival has expanded to include acts from all over the country and, this year, even an international act (Australia). If this isn’t a sign of expanding success I’d be hard pressed to say what is.

The point here is that this is a grown from the ground up, DIY music festival showcasing unsigned and indie acts. This kind of shit doesn’t happen anymore, and it’s a Goddamn shame it doesn’t. I’ve been accused of harping incessantly on the “good old days” of the music scene of the 1980’s and it’s probably true – that was the milieu in which I came up. At the same time, there was an entirely different culture and approach to underground music at that time that seems to have all but disappeared. A music festival like North vs. South, while still cool, wouldn’t have been such an anomaly back then, as such things were cropping up in towns and cities all over the nation. In Austin alone you had the Woodshock festivals, not to mention the staggering juggernaut that is South by Southwest which had equally such inauspicious beginnings. Houston hosted The Westheimer Arts Festival, which gave more than equal time to indie bands.

What’s missing here in the 00’s? A spirit of cooperation? An idea that we’re all in this together and, while there are only so many of us that will ever make a dime off playing music, we should be supporting one another and applauding those that break out rather than treating it as a cut throat competition that plays directly into the smarmy club owners and promoters hands? An inspiration to, if the clubs won’t come across, find some like minded artists and make your own venues wherever you can? Guerilla promotion? All these things, unless I’m just missing it. The internet seems an ideal, not mention inexpensive, way of accomplishing a lot of this, but every music “cooperative” I’ve found on line smacks of some kind of ponzi scheme whereby you, the artist, shell out for a “premium” package which ultimately buys you exactly nothing, and which is even less help for those that opt for the “free” services they offer. They also, through “top rated band” bullshit, engender that same sense of cutthroat competition that is strangling the indie scene.

There are a few exceptions I know of. While exclusive, the Orange 6 collective out of Athens, GA seems to be pretty effectively circumventing the powers that be, and God bless them for that. Nothing else comes to mind at the moment, but consider I’m sleep deprived, stressed out, clinically mentally ill, and have to get on an airplane in 18 hours when I absolutely detest flying (like, panic attack detest – I have to be sedated).

I’m really not one to talk. While I have organized and promoted indie shows with some degree of success (and am currently trying to put one together with extremely limited success so far), I’ve never gotten together some like minded people and attempted something on the scope of North vs. South. The idea has occurred to me, and even entered preliminary planning stages, but fallen apart due to lack of interest and the daunting amount of work and capital it would take to make it successful. That’s not to say it can’t be done. It’s just to say I’m kinda lazy.

I’m proud to be a charter member of North vs. South, having played all four previous festivals and playing this one this coming Saturday, even when, as last year, I had to pull something together at the last minute. It reminds me of the good old days of indie music, as sick as I’m sure you are at hearing that term.

It would do America’s ailing underground music scene a universe of good to see events like North vs. South cropping up around the country. It would certainly do my ailing faith in the vitality of underground music a universe of good - people doing it just because they love it, not because they want to be Conor Oberst. In the words of a Homestead Records era J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. (then simply Dinosaur), “I’ll just keep on hopin’.”

You can find info on North vs. South at

LeRoi Moore RIP

LeRoi Moore, saxophonist and co-composer for The Dave Matthews Band, died yesterday at the age of 46 from complications arising from an ATV accident June 30th. Talented motherfucker but honestly, with the exception that the loss of any human life is a tragedy, from a musical perspective I don't really give a shit. Dave Matthews is lowest common denominator pablum - music for the masses in the worst possible way. It's a shame to me that Moore chose such a vapid vehicle in which to express himself.

My opinion of Dave Matthews was not improved by the fact that the band went ahead and performed with the ringer who's been sitting in for Moore since his accident at The Staples Center last night, the night of Moore's death. Seems to me the death of a bandmate and, ostensibly, a friend would merit not a moment of silence, but an entire evening. Concerts can be rescheduled. Tribute shows can be planned. Dead bandmates aren't coming back. The lack of respect is reprehensible and certainly indicates where Dave Matthews priorities lie. It ain't with the music.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Isaac Hayes RIP

Soul music luminary Isaac Hayes died yesterday at the age of 65 due to causes yet unreleased. Hayes survived a stroke in January 2006, but seemed in good health – he recently finished work on the upcoming film Soul Men (co-starring with, in a somewhat chilling turn, comedian Bernie Mac) and was preparing to begin work on a new album.

Hayes began his professional career in 1964 as a session musician for Stax Records, recording most famously with Otis Redding, although that was by no means the extent of his experience. He hooked up with songwriter David Porter and collaborated on a number of songs, most notably the Sam and Dave hit “Soul Man”.

His career as a recording artist began in 1967 with the release of Presenting Isaac Hayes, but it wasn’t until 1969’s Hot Buttered Rhythm that he came to prominence. Superstardom deservedly came with 1971’s brilliant “Theme From Shaft”, a number one hit that snagged him an Academy Award.

Hayes was an iconoclast for his time, musically opting for a smooth, laid back delivery as opposed to the more frantic presentations of his contemporaries and, visually, eschewing the loud colors, flared pants and afros in style at the time for a shaved head and a whole, whole lot of gold. The beginnings of many of his songs on early records are spoken word and today considered one of the predecessors of the rap genre.

In addition to an up and down musical career Hayes starred in several films, was a noted philanthropist, provided to voice of Chef on Southpark, and, unfortunately, an outspoken advocate for Scientology.

Dubious religious affiliations aside, Isaac Hayes was a brilliant songwriter, a charismatic performer ahead of his time, and a prolific, more than passable actor. That’s a pretty respectable legacy to leave behind.

Man, I’m getting sick of typing RIP after people’s names.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bernie Mac RIP

I almost missed the news on poor Bernie. My wife and I are busy tearing our house apart to lay new floors and I decided to take one last stroll through the entertainment news before I dismantled the computer. I’m sure anyone reading this knows more than I do by now.

Bernie got his start as a comedian on Chicago’s South Side, putting on performances for his peers while he was only in high school. I don’t know many details (there are very few comedians whose careers I follow – I’m far too negative a person to enjoy most comedy), but from the brief bios I read his career took a steady upward trajectory from there. Possibly his proudest moment was his inclusion the The Kings of Comedy tour and, resultantly, his segment being included in Spike Lee’s 2000 film The Original Kings of Comedy documenting the tour. That was by no means a swan song – his output has remained steady and, according to everything I could find written on him since, of professional quality.

Bernie died yesterday from sarcoidosis complicated by pneumonia at the age of 50. I’ve got a feeling that, like many comedians performing timeless and quality material who predeceased him, he’s left a legacy that will far outlive the man. Nice job, Bernie – keep ‘em laughing on the other side.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn RIP

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a titan of Western literature, died yesterday at the age of 89. The author of the seminal and essential, stunning and horrifying 1973 trilogy Gulag Archipelago was very deservedly the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1970 for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and Cancer Ward, among others.

It’s a miracle the man lived to 89. He was arrested in 1946 for making what were considered seditious comments about Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend and spent roughly the next decade in the brutal Soviet penal system. His first novels, starkly realistic portraits of the abuses of Stalin, were published while Nikita Khrushchev was in power and anxious to erase any Stalinist legacy. Post Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn was continuously harassed by the KGB until he was finally exiled from The Soviet Union in 1974. His fame was likely the only thing that saved his life.

While intensely critical of the abuses of Stalin and “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, he was equally disgusted by the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism and, after 1994, voluntarily allowed himself to fade into obscurity.

Much like Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, Gulag Archipelago is an almost sickeningly detailed account of the evil perpetrated under a totalitarian regime and exposed to the world that Adolph Hitler wasn’t the only monster in human skin pulling strings in the 1930’s and 40’s, and that it’s impossible to say which one was taking a page from the other book. Ostensibly bitter enemies, they certainly shared a vision on how to dispose of threats real and imagined within their respective spheres of influence.

At least part of Solzhenitsyn’s legacy is this – the idea that “it can’t happen here” is profoundly naive and the result of allowing yourself to believe it can possibly aid in the creation of the kind of dystopian hell Solzhenitsyn’s novels describe. When Thomas Jefferson, for all his failings, said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” he wasn’t fucking around. I try to keep politics out of this blog to prevent it from decaying into an online slap fight about who’s right and who’s wrong, but I think it’s applicable here. I see a lot of bile being hurled back and forth out there, but a dearth of vigilance and a complete disregard for the idea that I may disagree with what you say, but will fight to the death for your right to say it. Patriotism is loving your country, not your government. Loving your government is called nationalism, and history has shown that, before too long, it generally leads to conditions described in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s work. Whoever you think is the better President, Congressman, Senator, or whatever, I think his novels can and should be taken as cautionary. End of political diatribe.

Another giant of Western literature is dead, and I’m wondering where the ones stepping up to take their place are. If I’m just missing them somebody let me know.