Category Archives: McClatchy-Tribune

Josh Ritter Has Recorded American Music’s Most Upbeat Divorce Record

Josh Ritter

Island Packet — Some artists spend their whole careers deflecting explanations about what they’ve written, preferring to leave such details up to the adaptable whims of the listener or the perpetual appeal of mystery. In announcing his new record — the sterling, stop-reading-this-and-go-buy-it-already “The Beast In Its Tracks” — Josh Ritter dragged the explanation on stage and threw a spotlight on it.

“I wrote and recorded this record in the 18 months after my marriage had fallen apart,” he said in the album announcement/message to fans. “All heartbreak is awful — my broken heart wasn’t unique. But writing these songs was helping me get through the night, and I didn’t have the strength to care or question.” And thus was born what the media/Internet christened Josh Ritter’s Divorce Record.

But if you’ve been following Ritter’s career — if you haven’t, you should immediately seek out his 2002 debut “The Golden Age of Radio” and listen onward through 2007’s “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” — you know that the Idaho-born singer is not one for self-immolation, or even allowing himself too much time on the dark side of town.


George Carlin: An inadequate appreciation

I’m a little too young to have been around for George Carlin’s body-switch from straight-man nightclub comic playing for crowds of businessmen to the black-clad ponytailed firebreather who turned in the Seven Dirty Words routine; that happened a few years before I was born, meaning I could only hear about it and experience it in the past tense, like some sort of bizarre history lesson.

By the time I got around to Carlin (via cassettes given to me by my parents, which was kind of awesome), I’d say, the terrifying-of-the-establishment bit he’d pulled off to such world-changing acclaim in the early 1970s was part of the comic past rather than the comic now, something that, it seemed to me, had achieved a post-mortem approval from the very people he set out to shock. That didn’t bother me, as that’s the nature of shock value: first it’s novel, then scary, then people write letters to the editor and try to plug their kids’ ears, and then a few minutes later that same person is either forgotten or trying in vain to top himself while forgetting what brought him there in the first place. Not so with Carlin.

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Interview: Jake Shimabukuro, the maestro

Island Packet — The thing about viral video is that it can make you a star while you’re not even looking.

Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele whiz kid from Hawaii, was going about his daily business two years ago, when over the course of a week he began getting a unusual number of e-mails from friends and family.

“Like 30 in a week,” he said, “All saying, ‘Hey, did you know about this video clip of you going around on the Internet?’ ”

Generally speaking, this is not something you want to hear. Ever.



But in Shimabukuro’s case, the clip in question was his performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which by then was well on its way to becoming a YouTube sensation that helped secure his position as quite possibly the country’s biggest ukulele virtuoso. “To this day I don’t know how it got on the Internet. But I’m not complaining — it’s been a great way to introduce people to my music, and I’m a big fan now of those sites because they’ve got some amazing musicians on there.”

Shimabukuro says this all with the effortlessly chilled, musical cadence you’d expect from a Hawaiian native, one whose life has been music since the age of 4. Now 30, and thanks to his effortless virtuosity, some luck and a the nation’s lively army of Parrotheads, Shimabukuro has visited almost as many destinations as his video, and will see plenty more on a solo tour that brings him to Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday.

The tour is Shimabukuro’s first solo jaunt in a while. He’s spent the past two years visiting various latitudes with Jimmy Buffett, who tapped him to add a little authentic island vibe to his Coral Reefer Band (and open each show with a brilliant uke-based take on “The Star-Spangled Banner”). The two met, rather satisfyingly, at a surf shop.

“I was scheduled to do a radio show in Waikiki, and apparently a few hours before Jimmy was in. So when I walked in, the manager said, ‘Hey, you’re not gonna believe this, but Jimmy Buffett left a note for you,” Shimabukuro said.

The note asked Shimabukuro to not only come to Buffett’s show in Hawaii, but to sit in as well. “Soundcheck was the first time I met him, and he explained what he wanted to do,” Shimabukuro said. “I guess he liked it, because he invited me to tour with him for the next couple of years.” Shimabukuro added that he’ll appear with Buffett on a handful of dates this year as well.

The Buffett connection manifested itself also in Shimabukuro’s latest record, “Gently Weeps” (which includes a studio version of the Beatles cover). It was produced in Nashville by Coral Reefer guitarist/vocalist Mac McAnally, who urged Shimabukuro to strip away his rhythm section and extra instrumentation, and record what is in essence a solo album. “I was like, ‘What do you mean, solo?’ I guess I always feared (recording by myself), but he was really encouraging, and said it would be a good way to introduce the instrument to people and play up its subtleties.”

Recording in this manner also helped Shimabukuro to serve as an ambassador, both for his birthplace — he’s active in Hawaii-based outreach and civics programs — but for the ukulele as an instrument. Shimabukuro said it wasn’t until high school that he started playing around with the instrument’s potential, coming up with his own techniques. “I found I could execute these (rock and jazz) pieces in a way that didn’t sound corny. Sometimes (the uke) will have a certain sound that people will hear and say, like, ‘Oh, that’s cute, playing a rock tune on the ukulele.’ I wanted to go beyond that. If I’m playing a jazz fusion piece or a rock tune, I want it to come across like, “Oh, that’s a really unique arrangement, I’ve never heard that piece played that way before.’ ”

Interview: Mose Allison is still cryin’ mercy

mose-allison-for-web Island Packet – In addition to cultivating a 57-year career in music, producing countless albums, having his songs recorded by Van Morrison, the Clash and Pete Townshend and generally being regarded as a walking jazz legend, Mose Allison has also totally made up a word: spime.

“It means space-time,” the singer and pianist said from the Hilton Head Island home he shares with his wife, Audre. “I read a lot of science books, and I always run across the ‘space-time continuum.’ So I figured, look, you need a word for that, just one word, and that’s spime.”

Spime is less of a thing, though, and more of a place. “Getting into the spime is when you’re totally into the music,” he said, in what can only be described as an satisfyingly jazzy speaking voice. “You can’t prepare for it. There’s no formula.” (Tragically, the term appears to function in the jazz world only: “I’ve never been able to get many scientists interested in that,” Allison laughs.)

Allison can invent words, because he’s a Mississippi-born old-school jazzman and such people live their lives inventing things on the spot, and because his expansive legacy lets him do more or less what he wants these days. Now in his 57th year of making music, the lively Allison performs at the Jazz Corner today and Saturday with Ben Tucker (“You can’t do much better than that,” he says of playing with the Savannah-based bassist).

But even at the age of 77, Allison says his work ethic remains unchanged: “Try to get a job and get to it. It’s the same challenge as it was when I first started playing in nightclubs in Lake Charles, La., in 1950.”



‘Kidding on the square’

In addition to his effortlessly stylish piano and vocal work, Allison is revered as a songwriter who swung a mighty satirical sword long before such a thing became quite so regular (“I’ve been doin’ some thinkin’, about the nature of the universe/Found out things are gettin’ better, it’s people that are gettin’ worse,” he intones rather sweetly on “I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinkin’ ”).

Such humor is “probably genetic,” he says, attributing it to an aunt who introduced him to the pleasures of irony. But a childhood spent in a hard land played a role, too. “The Mississippi Delta during the Depression … I picked up a lot of stuff there. No one says anything straight out there. They always exaggerate or understate or say the opposite of what they mean.”

They also were masters of  the concept of “kidding on the square,” which Allison says is often the key to his songwriting (so much so, that he has a song with that title). “That’s when you’re kidding on the surface, but underneath there’s an idea you’re not getting,” he said — hence, songs like “Your Mind’s on Vacation and Your Mouth’s Working Overtime” and “Everybody’s Crying Mercy,” ostensibly a clever smack on the head to warmongers (“A bad enough situation/Is sure enough getting worse/Everybody’s crying justice/Just as long as there’s business first”).

To be fair, that’s just a guess about intent — Allison isn’t a big fan of explaining his songs too much, as it tends to deprive them of a little of their magic. But the ideals he does write seem to stand the test of the years. “I’m doing tunes now that I wrote 30 years ago, and people say to me, ‘Did you just write that?’ And I say, ‘Man, I’ve been writing that for 40 years!’ ”

These days, Allison keeps up a startlingly lively schedule of about 125 shows a year, most with a different ensemble he’ll pick up wherever his travels take him.

“I have top players all over,” he said. “Forty years ago I was trying to carry a trio around, and it got to be a pain — all the money goes to rent-a-cars and airplanes and hotels. And I realized that there’s good players in the cities I visit, so I’m able to assemble a bass player and drummer — and sometimes a guitar player or tenor man — everywhere I go.”

It’s a lot of work, but the idea of retirement doesn’t seem to cross his mind. “(Music is) what I’ve always done. I’ve never been able to figure it out — no jazz player ever has. But I get satisfaction out of it every night.”


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