Tucson sounds: Memento Mori
Remembering rock legends Don Everly and Charlie Watts as well as Tucson's Cliff Gabbard
It's been a rough few days to be a rock and roll fan, with the passing of a couple of bona fide legends and some losses and setbacks that hit a little bit closer to home.
Don Everly, the younger of the two Everly brothers, died on Saturday, leaving behind a legacy of exquisitely hummable roots-infused pop songcraft without which rock and roll as we know it might not exist at all.
For all that Elvis Presley gets the most credit for influencing a generation of Brits and American rockers to pick up guitars and form their own bands, the more nuanced, melodic pop hooks of musicians like Buddy Holly and the Everlys helped those DIY players learn and perfect their craft. With their complex, heavenly harmonies and homespun, hometown folk pop hooks, the Everlys set a template followed by most of the rock and roll canon that followed, from Springsteen to the Shangri Las, the Who to the Grateful Dead. And most influentially of all, the Beatles. If there had been no Everly Brothers, there would not have been a Fab Four as we know them, as Paul and John would have been the first to say.
But as if that blow weren't enough, Tuesday brought the news that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts (the "most dapper man in rock" according to Bisbee's Exbats) had shuffled off this mortal coil. In contrast to the wild, untamed and untethered style of drumming legends like John Bonham or Keith Moon, Watts brought the understatement, precision and finesse of jazz to rock drumming. On some Stones tracks, Watts' drumming is almost deceptively understated, a subliminal but rhythmic anchor tying the rest of the symphony to the mast while the band flies off into uncharted territory. A steady pulse through moments of rock and roll debauchery. A train on its tracks, carrying along languorous blues licks and countrified slide guitar. A stately march beneath the raw loveliness of the band's piano ballads and more baroque, Brian Jones-era tunes.
The loss of these two men is bittersweet, if not exactly tragic. Watts died at the ripe old age of 80, while Everly was an impressive 84. Both men lived long, distinguished lives with success in their chosen field and the acknowledgement of their influence on a wide spectrum of future musicians and bands. That's something many of their peers did not live to see and that some equally talented folks may never have the chance to achieve.
And of course we'll all move on and create more rock and roll history. And in a few years, another crop of music elders will fade into their sunset years. Garage and glam and funk and punk and even disco legends will have their day. And the faces will begin to include fewer "old white dudes" playing "old white dude" rock and roll. And each and every one of them will have left their mark on what comes after. And that's the way it ought to be.
But for now, we raise a glass or a tip of the hat to these guys, because both of them changed the game for the better. By mastering their respective crafts and weaving elements of outside genres (Everly's American roots and Watts' jazz sensibilities) into the tapestry that is modern popular music, they helped define and refine the weapons in rock and pop player's arsenals. They gave us tools that no one else had yet brought to the holy cause. And that's something worth celebrating no matter what lies ahead.
While the whole of the world mourns the loss of the rock icons I just mentioned, folks in the tight-knit Tucson music community have some more personal grief to contend with in the loss of Cliff Gabbard. The father of late Tucson indie music wunderkind Noah Gabbard, of Bombs For the Bored, and a skilled guitarist in his own right, Cliff knew many folks in the local music community by way of his son's band or as a fixture at local music shows. Many more knew Cliff as a regular at Saint Charles Tavern where he held court as a sort of modern-day Bukowski figure, cutting a striking figure with his swanky hat, biker beard and animated eyes as he dispensed deep-cut musical knowledge or complex armchair philosophy while slowly turbo charging the jukebox with one choice selection after the next. The double gut-punch of losing Noah in 2018 and his younger son, Kyle, in 2020 clearly weighed heavily on Cliff Gabbard's heart. There's a bit of comfort to be had in the idea that he won't have to miss them any more. But Tucson will miss Cliff Gabbard something fierce, all the same.
Meanwhile, as we mourn the folks we've lost, it's also important to rejoice in those we still have in our midst. Among those many treasures is legendary Tucson roots rocker Al Foul. Al's had a rough time of things this past year. A diagnosis of throat cancer sidelined the local rockabilly icon and some time one-man band. And the timing of the ordeal, in the midst of a pandemic, added a further challenge, including putting a crimp in our sideburned hero's wedding plans with long time girlfriend (and KXCI DJ extraordinaire) Hannah Levin.
Through all of this, however, Al Foul's musical brethren, both here in Southern Arizona and as far away as Europe showered love and support on Foul and Levin, donating to a successful GoFundMe campaign and sharing tributes to the songwriter known for his signature blend of traditional sounds and sly, witty lyrical bent. Al and Hannah also finally managed to tie the knot, in a smaller ceremony than originally planned but, judging by the photos the pair shared afterwards, a beautiful and meaningful event all the same. And, recently, the rocker celebrated his 50th birthday, surrounded by the inarguable knowledge that he is both well-loved and well-respected in his chosen profession.
All of that is good news. Great news in fact. The kind of joy we can all hope to know in our lifetimes. But as in all things, joy is often balanced with bittersweetness. Al's cancer has spread to his lungs and chest and may well be incurable. And while this announcement is pretty heartbreaking, Foul's outlook on the future is pretty hopeful and, honestly, one we could all stand to echo, at least a little bit. Via Facebook, Al recently announced upcoming plans to book some gigs (short ones, but live ones) and do some recording, post future livestream gigs and, above all "take it easy and make as much as I can of the time I have." Here's hoping that time is longer than expected, but more importantly that it's full of joy and love and laughter. A lifetime's worth. Tucson loves you, Al.
The Townes and the Country
While all of this is happy news, of a sort, it's a tad bittersweet as the future remains uncertain at best.
And now for some less maudlin content, though it's a bit mindlessly self-indulgent on the part of your humble scribe.
See, there's one tried and true method to win the heart of your favorite local music columnist. And that's to record a cover of one of her favorite songwriters and do it well.
Bowie, the Velvet Underground, Elvis Costello, early R.E.M. or Unforgettable Fire-era U2 are all good bets, and there's a Nico cover that Hank Topless sometimes does live that absolutely slays me every time. But if you really want to win me over, play me some Uncle Tupelo or some Townes Van Zandt. Former Tucson resident Gabi Montoya, for instance, first grabbed my attention with a spirited recording of Van Zandt's "Waiting Round To Die." Not too long after that, local duo Febbo Fuentes won my affections with a gorgeous rendition of the Townes classic "Pancho and Lefty." And a little futher back in time, my friend and former bandmate James Few (currently a member of the local band Slowtruck) took on a challenge from yours truly to learn and perform a truly twangy and heartfelt version of the Tupelo classic "Life Worth Living" though, alas, no video evidence of this exists on the interwebs.
So it is with fiendish delight that I unveil not one, but two current local music and local music adjacent tributes to my favorite alt-country icons.
First sometime Tucsonan (by way of France and England) Marianne Dissard released a Townes Van Zandt cover, "If I Needed You," a duet with musician Raphael Mann featuring strings, rich orchestration and gorgeous guitar work by Tucson's own Matt Mitchell. Then, not to be outdone, local duo Barnaby Butcher, a new project of Loveland bandmates and collaborators Damon Barnaby and Joshua Butcher, released video of a post-gig spontaneous living room performance of Uncle Tupelo's "I Got Drunk" via Facebook.
Dissard's cover is delicate, torchy and wistful. While stylistically a far cry from the folky alt-country of the original ballad, this version more than gets the sentiment right, as legend has it that Van Zandt composed the lyrics in a dream and recited them to his (long since remarried) ex-wife on the phone the following morning. In contrast, Butcher and Barnaby's take on the Jay Farrar/Jeff Tweedy classic is nothing if not reverent Americana, pairing Butcher's clear and powerful vocal delivery and driving acoustic rhythm guitar with Barnaby's masterful blues riffs and Spanish guitar motifs
If this reporter were in charge of cover versions of things, she would demand these musicians follow up with dual takes of a single cover song. The song I'd ask for? "These Days" which was written for Nico's "Chelsea Girls" album by a young Jackson Browne. Based solely on these Townes covers, I'm predicting that Marianne's version would be a spot on tribute to Nico, and Barnaby Butcher's rendition would be a ringer for Browne's pure voiced, earnestly folky 1969 demo track.
While Madame Marianne is an ocean away for the time being, Barnaby and Butcher are right here in our own backyard. The duo will be showing off their live act at a KMKR Presents show at Steinfeld Warehouse this coming weekend, with more shows soon to follow.
Delayed Release Capsules
One continuing phenomenon in the strange mid-pandemic limbo we're all living in is that long-delayed album releases are finally happening. As I've mentioned recently, new stuff is on the way from the Exbats and the Resonars, with the added bonus of a limited-edition split by the Resonars, "Gold to Blue/Little Green Men" available from Hypnotic Bridge Records. Katie Haverly's 2020 release "Matter" gets its in-person debut this weekend at Club Congress, and the venue will also host release parties for Freddy Parish's new EP "A Cold Day in July" and Leigh Lesho and the Night Weather's "Circles" next week. Rumor has it the long awaited debut album by Miss Olivia and the Interlopers should debut sometime this fall as well, and till then we have the new single "Red Chevrolet" to tide is over. Christmas may be a long way a way but "New Music-mas" is in season.
We interrupt this column for an important announcement. Sheila E. AND Chaka Khan will be playing at Casino Del Sol next Friday night. That's Chaka Khan AND Sheila E. If you can't make it (like I can't make it) then, well...I feel for you.
While I'm not in charge of other bands' covers, thank goodness, I am in charge of letting you know about their gigs. But as a Tucsonan, I'm also pretty concerned about my friends in the local music and arts community. So, before I unveil a list of upcoming live shows and local events, it's time for some real talk about live music in year two of the COVID contagion.
A couple of months ago, live events started coming back in earnest and along with them came weepy hug fests and joyous meetings as bandmates and collaborators, old friends and longtime fans, performers and the unofficial Tucson music volunteer photo corps all started to converge to rekindle the spark of our dormant but waiting local music community. And these organic, impromptu reunions were enough to melt even the coldest-hearted among us. Seeing each other, not to mention hearing each other, in person after so long in solation opened the floodgates for many of us. As if our lives had been on pause and we'd been holding our breath for months on end, only to let out a single collective sigh.
And then came the Delta variant.
The good news is that it appears that the vaccines so many of us got in the spring are doing their job and keeping the inoculated among us safe from more serious COVID-19 complications. The bad news is that that, despite our aching need for a break from pandemic fatigue, vaccines are not a magic bullet and they won't stop the spread of new variants indefinitely. Already some of the vaccinated folks I know have gotten mild cases of COVID, which is not only a bummer for those suffering, but a danger to those folks still out there who can't or won't get the vaccine and to folks with children too young to be vaccinated. We're at a crossroads again and while we're a little bit safer than we were this time last year, we're not out of the woods by a long shot.
While many venues are re-instituting mask mandates and some, such as 191 Toole and the Rialto Theatre, are requiring proof of either vaccination or a current negative COVID test for show entry, other spaces are wary of placing restrictions on newly returned customers after a year and a half of lockdowns and business interruptions. Meanwhile, the comfort of sitting with friends, breathing fresh air and having a cocktail "just like normal" can make it tempting to pretend that nothing's amiss and ignore safety precautions.
We have a chance to save live music as we know it if we can all be smart about it. So let's all try to take care of each other the best that we can.
Stay safe when you go out and thank the venues that are making it easier to do so. Mask up. Stay home if you think you're sick or if you feel like you might be at risk - we'll miss you, but we'll understand and if a band is worth their salt there will almost always be a next time. Second nature as it may be, skip the bear hugs and go back to fist bumps and handshakes for a little bit longer. Get tested every so often, even if you're fully vaccinated. Stick to outdoor shows when you can, or venues large enough that you can keep a few feet between you and the next guy.
Quarantine your space if you're a venue owner or gig promoter and there's a positive test in your ranks. This columnist knows of a couple local events that were postponed for that very recent of late and by the grace of God, tested negative for the virus herself after a recent workplace near-exposure. But I also recall the cautionary tales of last summer, such as when a certain heavy metal cover band that never really gave up gigging had to cancel about a month's worth of the shows that were their bread and butter as the virus spread from one band member to the next, not to mention their fan base.
And, for the love of all that is holy, if you haven't gotten vaccinated yet and can safely do so, get your shots post-haste!
I love you, Tucson music comrades, and I'm so happy to see your smiling eyes again and to hear the brilliant compositions you wrote when we were all in lock down. And I want to keep seeing you and hearing you for a long time to come. But first, we've got to keep each other safe. So I'll see you out there...from a safe and loving distance.
Each week this column compiles a choice selection of socially distanced 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, Aug 28
- - KMKR Presents: Little Cloud with Barnaby and the Butcher - 7 p.m. Steinfeld Warehouse Arts Rear Courtyard
- - Katie Haverly "Matter" album release party - 7:30 p.m. Club Congress
- - Katastro - 7:30 p.m. 191 Toole
Sunday, Aug 29
- Kevin Pakulis - 2 p.m. Borderlands
- Congress Cookout with Paul Green and Midnight Blue - 4 p.m. Hotel Congress Plaza
- Mammoth WHV - 8 p.m. 191 Toole
Tuesday, Aug 31
- Freddy Parish "A Cold Day in July" album release party - 7:30 p.m. Hotel Congress Plaza
Friday, Sep 3
- Chaka Khan with Sheila E. - 8 p.m. Anselmo Valencia Tori Amphitheatre
- Malaynah - 8 p.m. 191 Toole
- Night Weather with Dirt Friends - 8:00 p.m. Club Congress
Saturday, Sep 4
- SubSpace Art Walk with live music by BreakingGlass and Brenna Mirae - 5 p.m. Steinfeld Warehouse ArtsWeekend Lovers, Abe's Bones, Bug Club - 7 p.m. Steinfeld Warehouse Arts Rear Courtyard
- Gogol Bordello - 8 p.m. Rialto Theatre
- Together Pangea - 8 p.m. 191 Toole
Sunday, Sep 5
- James McMurtry - 7:30 p.m. Hotel Congress Plaza