"Free your mind ... and your ass will follow" -- so goes an oft-quoted Funkadelic lyric from 1971, the year of my birth. In keeping with this song's spirit, I always believed freedom was inherent in music, that music is love. I am not sure when my belief changed. I do know that when I finally saw part of Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown last night, his persistent attempts at rosy, liberal American fabulism via pop irritated me beyond belief. Per our recent cover story on rock cinema, I am one of the nay-sayers regarding the fairytale Almost Famous. And catching Crowe flexing that muscle in Elizabethtown's sequences of My Morning Jacket's gratuitous performance of Skynyrd's "Freebird" at a memorial service and Orlando Bloom road-tripping per the whims and mix CD of obligatory disembodied muse Kirsten Dunst -- cue U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" when Bloom's character visits Memphis' Lorraine Motel -- buoyed my dislike.
America's musical traditions (which particularly emanate from the South) may be our greatest strength, but can the disparate essences and complexities of this land be reduced to historical and celluloid sound bites conveniently scored by the neon glow of a would-be mythmaker's personal jukebox? And in my equivalent rockcrit zeal to proselytize on behalf of the given era's foremost minstrels, am I guilty of similar reductive moves?
Recent weeks spent as one of many witnesses to the awesome spirit of some music veterans has reminded me of the fickleness and fragility of our American culture. The might on display also served to counter my bitterness and restore a measure of the notion that the popular music of the postwar period does retain healing, transcendental, liberatory power.
If actual freedom remains tantalizingly just beyond the horizon, then at least the strength and perseverance of an artist like Bettye LaVette can inspire one to greater heights. LaVette's NYC show last month was a testament to the bona fide soul singer's having outlasted many trends and the waxing/waning nature of her career -- she first hit at 16 and is now 61, riding high still on the triumphant release of I've Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti). Lithe and beautiful in clinging black, brazenly twisting on stiletto heels, LaVette surveyed the decades of her career with songs including "He Made a Woman out of Me" and, best of all, the Anti female-penned tracks like Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" and show closer, Fiona Apple's "Sleep To Dream." The raw grit of LaVette's pipes wrapped 'round such hard lyrics made plain that, despite the current vogue for barely post-pubescent soul divas-in-training (Joss Stone, Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, Corinne Bailey Rae, et al), it definitely takes a grown-ass woman to deliver music of the utmost use.
Speaking of: the new Nonesuch release, A Tribute to Joni Mitchell, is better than you'd think. I have long been impatient with the Sexy Blonde Songbird iconization of Mitchell which my Boomer counterparts and their fellow male stokers of "the star-maker machinery" are guilty of. What I have retained from my preadolescent Saul-ette moment on the road between Monterey Pop and Woodstock is a respect for Mitchell's voice, thorny turns of phrase and odd tunings. The Nonesuch collection ably ranges from the hip, edgy and freak folk-friendly (Sufjan Stevens, Björk, Caetano Veloso) to womanist heroines (Sarah McLachlan, Annie Lennox) to closing with Mitchell's old Laurel Canyon/singer-songwriter peer, James Taylor. Best of all, A Tribute includes an Elvis Costello performance I can love ("Edith and the Kingpin"), k.d. lang breezing through my most beloved Mitchell composition ("Help Me") and a timely reminder of the brilliance that is Prince. His erstwhile Purple Badness thrills simply with "A Case of You" rendered as piano ballad, the coda running straight back to church and bringing one of Prince's most amazing syntheses of the sacred feminine to the Mountaintop.
Finally, I spent a swathe of the past four weeks stalking the legendary producer Joe Boyd between Austin and Manhattan. At Austin's SXSW, Princeton-bred expat Boyd was interviewed and sat on a panel primarily centered on his early days amidst the mid-20th century folk boom and his famous work as Nick Drake's producer. In NYC readings at Joe's Pub and on Prince Street, Boyd read more sizable excerpts from his great memoir of '60s music-making, White Bicycles (Serpent's Tail), which is just now to be released stateside. In certain circles, the players' fables have a will to fix me as someone whose sonic faith spurred them to travel overmuch on the trail of particular southern bands. However, my true heroes have always been producers (Sly Stone! Allen Toussaint! Jimmy Miller!). Joe Boyd has been a great hero of mine since I was quite young, and there at Joe's Pub (no relation) is where you'd have seen me cast in the giddiness of groupiedom. Boyd had his rich anecdotes punctuated by illustrative performances from his old friend Geoff Muldaur, David Mansfield, Geoff's daughter Jenni doing a fine version of Sandy Denny's "The Sea" and a surprisingly wonderful turn by Robyn Hitchcock on Drake's "River Man." That was truly an evening for the sublime. And I started to recall why from plantation days to the pre-war blues era through the 1990s with bruhs selling bangers out of the boots of their rides music could equal a means of transcending class, body and spatial imperatives. There's freedom left in them ole blue notes yet.