After a day packed with gay pride events on June 29, I came home to what could best be described as an unexpected surprise. Parked in front of my apartment building was a friendly and scruffy crew of vaguely odd sounding young men and women with an assortment of video cameras, guitars and babies. It turned out I stumbled into a video shoot for the Dutch band Brothers Moving.
The band, ( Esben Knoblauch, Aske Knoblauch, Nils Sorensen and Collin DeJoseph ) grabbed the concept of Joe Cocker and his Mad Dog and Englishmen Tour from 1970, and brought it up to date by jumping in a van, barnstorming the States, playing a gig in a different city each day, and recording it for a documentary. ( I lucked out because the gig that they had set for the art gallery on the first floor of my building fell through. ) So we walked over to nearby Harrison Park in west Pilsen with babies and guitars in tow, and they went right ahead and threw a concert.
What I heard was an entirely engaging mix of U.S. blues, acoustic hard-edged soul, a ragged and all the more appealing blend of harmonies, and an undeniable joy that we rarely hear in music anymore. Plopped down in the middle of a vacant park with the Sunday sun going down, Brothers Moving was all about heart and passion, which did not prepare me for what I got when I went home and played the band's CD.
As a band that clearly loves to perform to the point that it's built a career ( and videography ) out of playing in public spaces, particularly Union Square in New York ( having taken the concept of busking to a whole new level ), Brothers Moving is really about celebrating the joy the band fells toward U.S. music ( specifically jazz, soul, be-bop, folk, roots rock, doo-wop and Tin Pan Alley ), and infusing it with an explosive feeling. The sight of frontman Esben Knoblauch scatting through Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" or bouncing through a de-reggae-fied version of The Police's "Roxanne" pretty much gives the gig away. But this band isn't merely a bunch of mimics or clinical students of U.S. musicit's found a way to digest, romance, and remodel it into something wholly original and flavorful.
Sure, "Sorte Sigojner" sounds like Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima got into some ripe peyote and "Mad Within Reason" sounds like a long lost Tom Waites' valentine. "You" is the kind of pleading blues drenched lament that would confound a soul master like Otis Redding while "Train" is something that you wished you'd never heard. Between Esben's spontaneous vocal, a swaggering punchy melody, those patented harmonies, and an effortlessly catchy hook, "Train" is a purely addictive pleasure that bops right into your skull and won't leave. The record is maddening, irresistible, and sheer perfection and it would be hard not to imagine the Everly Brothers not coveting it.
Back in 1976, when Boz Scaggs's "Lowdown" was lodged at number one for weeks on end, programmers, A&R men, cynics,and critics called it disco, which was a bit of an insult to the man and the format. "Lowdown" was an uncanny mix of blues and soul with a veneer of rock polish and Scaggs' tremulous vocals gliding on top. Sure, it was great to dance to but, really, it was far better to be seduced by it.
Scaggs hasn't been able to turn a trick as unique or blatantly seductive as "Lowdown" since, and though he wisely hasn't tried, neither has anyone else. The album that "Lowdown" came from, Silk Degrees ( CBS Records, 1976 ) may have been his one in a million breakthrough ( the album spawned four more hit singles including the uber-ballad "We're All Alone" which is probably still padding his bank account with residuals ) and he has been working in fits and starts, but steadily for decades whether you noticed or not.
This brings us to his new Memphis ( 429 Records ), which is ( aaagggrrrrrrhhhh... ) largely a covers album and ( YEEEAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH... ) some of the best music that this legend has ever made. The punchline, of course, is really understanding just WHO Boz Scaggs really is. After scrapping around his native Texas playing the blues, he found himself as the vocalist for Steve Miller's original band ( long before Miller decided he could sing and fooled the rest of the world with fumbling AM rock like "The Joker" and "Abracadabra" ). Skaggs lucked onto a seductive blues-fueled slow groove with the highly sexual ( for the time ) "Slow Dancer," affording him a hit and us, the record-buying public, a breath of stylistic fresh air in the murk of the 1970s. "Lowdown" and Silk Degrees rewrote the game ( nobody, and I mean NO-BODY was as smooth as Boz ) and the hits kept coming. But in 1980 he took time off to chill and deal with the rest of his life for six months ... which turned into a decade.
The albums still come out, but Memphis is the true definition of who this man really is. Where "cover albums" are generally knocked off as inexpensive money-grabbers ( with Natalie Cole's Unforgettale hardly as meaningful now as it was when it came out 20 years ago ), Memphis is so genuine, pure and heartfelt that it may even redefine what a 'cover" really is.
I could gush, but between the album and his recent concert at the Venue at the Horseshoe Casino I will try ( I said, "try" ) to contain myself. The late Mink DeVille's "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl" sounds like a velvet glove slipping onto a precision made hand and Scaggs sings it like he wrote the song from a tinged reminiscence. The killers on the album are his take on "Rainy Night in Georgia" ( more on that later ) and a subtle, patient and un-dramatic take of The Stylistics' overwrought '70s hit "I Found Love On a Two Way Street ( and Lost it on a Lonely Highway )." Where the original was smacked up on over vocalized histrionics and neediness Scaggs takes the song at a much lower, slower and patient pace. The original actually made you wonder why the lost femme fatale would bother with such a man in the first place with all that high-pitched emotion, Scaggs gets to the heart of his loss and the heart of the sorrow. In his hands he makes all that drama sound like a quiet tragedy. And as the song winds into its second verse you feel the man imploding from the inside out as Scaggs makes "I Found Love..." an exquisite though biting internal tragedy worthy of Keats.
Memphis did not get the attention it deserved in his show in Indiana, but what was there haunted the night. Looking comfortable and dapper without slickness, Scaggs hit an early high note by sliding into "Rainy Night in Georgia" with finesse. His take on the song downplayed the blues and wafted into the sublime in such a lilting way that what came after couldn't make you forget it.
What came after was a pile-up of the hits with a number of surprises. "Lowdown" came barreling out as an extended jam which gave his crack band the chance to break out and shine. That the over-50 crowd couldn't help but get up and shake their asses was an understatement since Scaggs had found a way to turn that one hit wonder into a free flowing spectacle. When he asked in that melodic refrain, "I wonder wonder wonder wonder who-ooo...got you thinkin' like that BOY-Ahhh" that song addressed our current age of bing culture and the desperation of financial filthy wealth in all of its ugly connotiations. Fuck 1976: "Lowdown" was revealed as a classic for the ages.
Unfortunately, the second half of his set was padded with the predictable. "Jojo" ( the weakest and most deplorable song from Middle Man, his 1980 album that was far better then Silk Degrees ), "Lido Shuffle," "Georgia" and "Miss. Sun" came tumbling out but what really capped the evening were the two songs that headed his two encores. ( No, this crowd would not let him leave the stage. ). Silk Degrees' opener, "What Can I Say?"which is what forced me to buy Silk Degrees when I was 16was full of punch and brio and was a shocking reminder of what it was like to be sucked into romance not only then but now as well. The corker was an epic slow blues burn through "Loan Me A Dime," the song that opened the door for Scaggs back in 1969.
This time out, the air of desperation had a new meaning as it has become inescapable that fewer of us can claim romantic and financial security as a reality. In the song Boz needs a dime to call his baby to let her know that he made a mistake and still loves her. In 2014, who can say that a phone call or such sincerity could convey the same message? The realities of our times may betray it, but Scaggs is a powerful reminder of where the heart really is.