(1) “Robert Johnson at 100,” Apollo Theater, New York (March 6). Charles Taylor reports from the scene: “The trick to feeling comfortable in Sunday clothes is to make sure that Sunday isn’t the only day you wear them. The famous 1930s picture of Robert Johnson looking sharp in his three-piece suit was projected over the stage for much of the centennial celebration, and the casual ease of everything about Johnson in that picture acted like a judgment on the parade of supplicants, posers, pretenders, and mediocrities who passed beneath. The ones who stood up to Johnson’s gaze were confident enough to sport their own style. Taj Mahal, walking out with the calm familiarity of a beefy working man approaching a job he long ago mastered, played and sang ‘Hell Hound on My Trail’ with a sound rooted to the earth while moving with the lightness of Jackie Gleason. Sam Moore’s high vocal was at first lost in ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ but the sweetness of his voice gradually drew you in like a beckoning finger. Elvis Costello, striking an unconscious echo of Johnson’s crossed-knee posture, performed a charming ‘From Four Until Late’ as if the evening’s honoree were George Formby, master of the English music hall. The Roots, who bend their knee to no one and do tradition the honor of never treating it as tradition, unleashed a staccato ‘Milkcow’s Calf Blues’ that was flabbergasting in its confidence. With ?uestlove’s drumming controlling singer-guitarist Kirk Douglas like a puppet master’s strings, the number grew into a duet recalling the unexpected and joyous rapport in Diner when Timothy Daly shakes up a lagging strip-club duo by taking over the empty piano, finding allies in the suddenly knife-sharp drummer and in the tired dancer out front, who responds as if she were once again the youngest girl on the bill. No one was more at home in his style than James Blood Ulmer, who followed Taj’s ‘Hell Hound’ with his own, never leaving his seat in the house band, using his voice and guitar to emit a series of yelps and moans and mutterings that could have been devil dogs at the crossroads, or the spirits of Stonehenge. The other ghost present, the faint smile on Ulmer’s face, suggested that the phantoms of the ages were all his familiars.”
(2) Mariee Sioux, Gift for the End (Almost Musique). Not as immediately arresting as Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” but mapping the same nowhere, and without the metallic smell of early death. That isn’t to say death is missing. Sioux, from the California Gold Rush country, sings softly, strums and picks, and you can’t get a fix on her in any way. Even as she seems to come right up to you, you sense a distance that can never be bridged. That may be because the eight songs here carry the feeling of Grimms’ fairy tales. “We’ve learned our lessons,” plead young girls, and you don’t want to know what schooled them. In her most uncanny moments, Sioux is less playing her songs than swimming through them: “No rest, no rest, no rest, no rest.”
(3) Jay Leeming, “Desolation Row,” from Miracle Atlas (Big Pencil Press). The whole place has been torn down and “replaced / by the new civic center, a gigantic white building / funded by a Norwegian greeting card company.” No one remembers all those strange characters who used to roam the place, “though now and then their names / turn up on the newspaper’s last pages: Doctor Filth / found strangled to death in the Brazilian jungle.”
(4) Werner Herzog, Hearsay of the Soul, video installation, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (through June 10). A highlight of the 2012 Biennial: in a separate room, in a five-channel, five-panel projection, landscapes of stone valleys and terraced stone mountains— manipulated seventeenth-century etchings by Hercules Seghers—frame the cellist Ernst Reijseger. Moonfaced, his head shaved, he plays hard, his mouth open like an electric guitarist writhing in the agonies of being moved by his own sounds, his eyes closed—when at the end he opens them, it’s a shock. The landscapes, at first all panorama, are slowly explored so that nearly infinite detail begins to emerge. Where once there was only landscape, now there are rocks; where there were only rocks, there are solitary human figures, who look as accidental as the rocks. To Herzog, the Biennial curator Elisabeth Sussman said, Seghers’s etchings are “the beginning of modernity”; with Reijseger, at the end of his piece sliding his fingers down the strings as if he’s playing slide cello, time slides off.
(5) ?uestlove, “Put the Needle on the Record,” EMP Pop Conference, New York University, New York (March 25). On his record collection, now reaching seventy-five thousand LPs, and the fetishism that goes with it: “I hated the orange Capitol label. I wouldn’t listen to anything with it. So I missed Pet Sounds and post–Rubber Soul Beatles.” He started as a child: “Album covers I was scared of, logos I was scared of, they’d go to the bottom of the collection.” “What was the first record you bought with your own money?” asked moderator Harry Weinger. “I had an adult’s knowledge of music at the age of five,” ?uestlove said, “but I didn’t have a job.” Then in 1979 “Rapper’s Delight” came out and he had to have it. “I had three hours in school to borrow a dime,” ?uestlove said, “—from thirty-seven people.” That, he said, was the first record he bought with his own money, “borrowed money.” “Did you pay everybody back?” Weinger asked. “No,” ?uestlove said, as if it still bothered him, a little bit
(6) Bruce Springsteen, “Wrecking Ball,” from Wrecking Ball (Columbia). “I don’t know how you write something so affecting from the point of view of a concrete bowl,” a friend said of this song about Meadowlands Stadium, “but there you go.”
(7) Penelope Houston, On Market Street (Devoted Ruins). When not touring with the Avengers, her reformed and still-fierce late-’70s San Francisco punk band, Houston makes quiet records; here, a smoothly keening organ leads her through tired San Francisco bars and ugly San Francisco streets. The small voice is all knowledge, with the fatigue of not believing tomorrow is going to be any different from today. The bill comes due with “On Market Street,” where three violins and a cello stop all the other stories cold. Houston sings like someone watching, not a singer at all, warbling about the human wreckage she passes on her way to work, composing a song in her head as she shows her ID to the guard, sits down at her desk, picks up a stack of papers, and hums.
(8) Bibliophilia: Collecting Black Books—The Archie Givens, Sr. Collection of African American Literature, Elmer L. Andersen Library, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (February 6–April 20). It’s displacing to come face to face with the tiny first editions of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the 1850 Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s privately published 1892 Oak and Ivy, or countless other treasures you might never have imagined you would ever actually see. Along with LeRoi Jones tapes, Kirby Puckett memorabilia, toys, children’s books, LPs, Black Panther newspapers, there are surprises everywhere you look: the blazing dust jacket of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1934 novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine, which seems to take its power not from the fervor of the gesticulating preacher but from the very few worshippers around him, as if they’re the first or the last of a cult about to vanish. And all this can fade against the September 7, 1937, letter from Clara E. Stokes, a Federal Writers’ Project administrator in Jackson, Mississippi, to Carrie Campbell, a field-worker about to conduct her first interviews with former slaves, and then three fragments of interview transcriptions on yellowed paper that look as if they’d crumble at the touch—the Dead Sea Scrolls of the New Deal. Two are in pencil, one in typescript, and while the edges of lines are folded or broken, the voice and the history it stands for come through: “She sure was good to us. And even so much as gave us a cow. If it hadn’t been for that KuKlux. Lord how they did scare us. They had a song [unreadable]”—and it breaks off. Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s seen this show has said the same thing: This has to travel.
(9) Tom Jones, “Evil” (Third Man). Howlin’ Wolf recorded this song in 1954. Jones sings it as if he’s calling 911.
(10) Dion, “Ride’s Blues (For Robert Johnson),” from Tank Full of Blues (Blue Horizon). Why wasn’t he at the Apollo? As he moves ever more surely into blues, the man who gave up his seat on Buddy Holly’s death plane has lost nothing of his voice, but his guitar speaks even more eloquently. This piece, coming after the three cool, expert, casual love-and-trouble numbers that open this superb album, is immediately elsewhere, a place where all is menace, and a queer, complete sense of fatalism settles over the trees.
“He told me on the way there / He was born in sin,” the man telling the story mutters. “Huh. What else is new?”
Taj Mahal, born 1942; Sam Moore, 1935; Elvis Costello, 1954; ?uestlove, 1971; Kirk Douglas, 1972; James Blood Ul-mer, 1942; Mariee Sioux, 1985; Jay Leeming, 1969; Werner Herzog, 1942; Hercules Seghers, circa 1589; Ernst Reijseger, 1954; Bruce Springsteen, 1949; Penelope Houston, 1958; Tom Jones, 1940; Dion, 1939.
Thanks to Steve Perry.