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Tucson sounds: Bats to the future

Soul Love

The other day, while perusing the apps on my smartphone, I realized that a certain music streaming service (ok, it was YouTube Music) was a abbreviated as "YT Music." And then I thought about my actual playlists on the app and felt a bit called out, because a good deal of my playlists were indeed "white music."

The Clash, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Wire, Big Star... unless you count David Bowie's backing band (the insanely fantastic D.A.M. rhythm trio with Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray who played with Bowie from 1976 to 1980 - don't ask me about them because once started on the topic I'll never shut up) and a couple of tracks by Love, Betty Davis and Poly Styrene, my recent listening history had been a sea of pale, pale Anglo-Saxony blandness. A whiter shade of pale, if you will.

The irony in this is that most of the artists of the garage and art rock and punk and post-punk and power pop canon that have sustained me since teenhood were themselves reared on record collections that were way less pasty than mine.

There would be no Brit punk without reggae, no British New Wave without Motown, no Elvis Costello and the Attractions without Stax Records, no swaggering Jagger without old blues guys to worship and Tina Turner to cop stage moves from. And that's before you even bring up Prince and Jimi Hendrix and Arthur Lee. 

It was time to decolonize my listening habits. 

As fate would have it, I got a great primer in remembering a huge swath of artists who OUGHT to be on my vintage listening radar when I sat down to watch the recently released documentary "Summer of Soul." But enriching one's music collection is the least of reasons this film is a must watch. It's a film about the social and emotional impact of music, the act of reclaiming history and the power of a community coming to gather in shared celebration, grief, relief, wonder, pride, revolution, joy and hope. A hope that's still worth carrying on, even though many of the struggles of that era remain today.

Back in 1969, around the time Woodstock was being organized, there was a different kind of free festival happening in Harlem, with arguably a much more impressive lineup of artists, but very little mainstream fanfare. And for the folks attending, things were probably better that way. Questlove's documentary weaves together long forgotten and never before seen archival footage from this event, which was filmed for television but was never released, sitting on shelves gathering dust for decades.

Unlike Woodstock, the Harlem Cultural Festival was an urban event and working folks could easily attend. It took place every weekend from late June through August in the summer of 1969 at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. The festival featured artists ranging from church choirs to girl groups to soul greats to jazz and funk combos to straight up rock and roll and included such legends in their own time as  B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, Earth, Wind and Fire, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight, the Fifth Dimension and countless other amazing folks, some well known and some not, all treated with utter reverence and rapt crowd enthusiasm.

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One of the more show-stopping moments is a mind-blowing set by the Stevie Wonder, who was just beginning to come into his full power as a musician and bandleader, not to mention his emerging voice as an activist. Check out not-so-little Stevie on the drum kit! 'Tis a thing of beauty. In another section of the film, Nina Simone, addresses the crowd intimately and honestly in a way that probably wouldn't have been possible in any other setting. The resulting performance is haunting, soul-wrenching, righteously angry and beautiful and sad and utterly unearthly.

At one point in the film, reporters from a nightly newscast interview festival goers about that day's historic Moon landing and the answers are pretty much uniform in their sentiment that, while it's great that mankind is reaching for the stars, that money could be helping so many more people in so many ways in Harlem and beyond. Cue Gil Scott Heron's "Whitey on the Moon."

And then, there's the scene where an impossibly young Jesse Jackson recounts the final words of Martin Luther King, addressed to himself and band leader Ben Branch. 

"Jesse, you don't even have a tie on for dinner. Ben, make sure you play 'Take My Hand Precious Lord.' Play it real pretty" remembers Jackson. And then Branch begins to lead a choir in song. THAT song. And it's a lot more than "real pretty."

It's a breathtaking, powerful, indescribable moment, especially poignant given that that this performance took place only a year after King's assassination. And it's a rare and raw glimpse of shared communion and grief and hope, expressed through music. 

And there's not a single fuzzed-out Woodstock jam that could ever compare to the power of that moment. Not even the Jimi's "Star Spangled Banner."

Bats to the future 

 I've mentioned in this space before, the last live show I saw before lockdown was a Wooden Tooth record release party for the Exbats, with support from Stripes and 'Bats bassist Bobby Carlson's band, The Wanda Junes. When the show began, the band was in good spirits, with a scheduled SXSW showcase on the horizon and a deal with well-known indie labor Burger Records. 

Of course we all know what followed. The eventual pandemic prompted cancellation of SXSW, which we learned of that same night. That was followed a couple months later by the cancellation of Burger Records itself as a number of problematic Burger-associated bands, promoters and artists were called to account and the label ceased operations. 

And, of course, all of this happened as the band endured quarantine in their home base of Bisbee, where Exbats drummer vocalist Inez McClain turned 21 in lockdown and served as a frontline worker, serving noodles to sometimes mask averse tourists. Meanwhile, guitarist/main writer Ken McClain, a kindergarten teacher, was tasked with reassuring his young charges through the scary and unfamiliar new frontier of online learning .

A lesser band would be forgiven for taking a well-deserved break amid the chaos. But the Exbats are no lesser band.

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The only quarantine travel the band did last year was for recording sessions at Tucson's Midtown Island Studio, laying down an album's worth of tracks in semi-rapid succession and then nonchalantly scoring a new label to put out the results, Memphis-based Goner Records. The Exbats are also set to play this year's Gonerfest, an OK consolation prize for missing out on Austin glory last year.

And the new songs? Well, they aren't public yet, so I'm not quite at liberty to talk about the songs track by track (I've only heard the mixes, not the final cut!) but if you dug the whip-smart lyrics, pop hooks and Hollies/Nesmithy Monkees melodies of last year's "Hits, Kicks and Fits," prepare for a deeper (and even better) dive into the same territory with forthcoming Exbats album "Now Where Were We." 

It's a mature, nuanced album from a midcareer band  (in addition to nods to the Hollies, you can almost hear some Everlys and early Byrds in the mix and maybe even a touch of the less navel-gazey sort of CSNY.) But it's still as modern and relevant as any Gen Z pop album out there (Taylor Swift's "Folklore" can eat its pretty heart out.) And, above all, it's FUN. That's something that has never changed about this band. You'll laugh, you'll cry. You'll wonder if they're really singing about Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine. Most assuredly they are. We wouldn't expect any less.  

While there won't be a long wait for the new release, you can get a jump start on learning the words to your new favorite songs at a live Exbats show, either on August 13 at Bisbee's St. Elmo's, or else this Friday night, August 6 at a benefit for KMKR Radio. The show takes place at 7 p.m. at the Scott Kerr Memorial Stage at Steinfeld Warehouse. The show lineup also includes the Female Gaze, Freezing Hands, and, yep, the Wanda Junes. Because things like this tend to come full circle sometimes. 

Keep Tucson Arki

With Downtown landmarks giving way to mid-rise apartments and the years rolling by, Tucson's original epoch of underground rock and rollers are well aware that they're no longer the young upstart punks they once were.  But that doesn't mean it gets any easier when yet another leather-jacketed elder statesman checks out a long time before they ought to.  

Walter Paul "Arki" Wolff died on July 17 after a brief illness and was laid to rest last week in his native Kentucky. He was 68.

A musician, music promoter, entrepreneur and instigator of good hearted mischief, Arki was one of those guys you "had to meet" if you were part of a certain crowd in a certain era in Tucson. He was a walking catalog of rock music knowledge and a talented musician who played in bands that included Z City Dragons and the Watch, and served as producer and manager for Tucson alt-metal band Fall From Grace in the early 1990s. 

But Wolff was probably best known as the co-founder and proprietor, along with "English Cathy" Harris, of legendary Fourth Avenue rock and punk venue the Pink Cadillac. 

Beyond that, many simply knew him as an all around good dude, famous for broadening folks' musical horizons, introducing them to some of their favorite bands, and advocating for a world that welcomes all of its beloved weirdos. May we all go and do likewise.

Check your local listings

Each week this column compiles a choice selection of live gigs in and around Tucson with the help of good venue and band event announcements and other resources. If you've got a gig coming up and you'd like your event listed in this space (or if your local band has a major announcement or a new release) drop me a line at arts@tucsonsentinel.com.

Friday, Aug 6 

  • KMKR Presents Midtown Island Showcase (Exbats/Female Gaze/Freezing Hands/Wanda Junes) - 7 p.m. Scott J Kerr Memorial Stage (Seinfeld Warehouse Arts)
  • Borderlands Ensemble - 6p.m. Saint Charles Tavern
  • Little House of Funk - 6 p.m. Salud at Star Pass
  • The Amosphere - 7 p.m. Saint Phillips Plaza
  • High Frequency Friday (DJs) 5 p.m. Hotel McCoy
  • Tamborato - 10 p.m. Hotel Congress Plaza

Saturday, Aug 7 

  • Tonight's Sunshine at Subspace Artwalk - 5 p.m. Steinfeld Warehouse
  • Pelican Museum - 8:30 p.m. Brother John's BBQ
  • Mike Tanzello - 7 p.m. Downtown Clifton
  • The Coolers - 7 p.m. Monterey Court
  • Billy Shaw Jr. Band - 9 p.m. The Maverick

Sunday, Aug 8 

  • Febbo Fuentes - 10 a.m. Monterey Court
  • Congress Cookout w/ Bad News Blues Band - 5 p.m. Hotel Congress Plaza
  • DJ Mark Beef - 9 p.m. Saint Charles Tavern
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courtesy the Exbats via Facebook

The tentative cover of new Exbats album 'Now Where Were We?'

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