The EMP POP Conference: Sunday, April 13, 2008
By Chris Estey
There are always artists and records that we miss. You can try your best to hear all the best music that is out there, and thankfully with the Internet and independent press and stations like KEXP, it is far easier to check out sounds that have been eluding you due to financial or otherwise circumstantial reasons.
I took a job working at a local record label a couple of years ago because I wasn’t an expert on everything they released -- this was my way of learning more about it -- and while I was there we helped distribute a wonderful two-CD set by a drummer named Tony Allen. Until really enjoying that anthology, I hadn’t heard anything like Afrobeat since all of us post-punk kids heard sounds similar to it released in the States in the 80s.
So today, walking late into the third paper of the first two final panels of the 2008 Pop Conference, written by Banning Eyre but given by emergency presenter (and KEXP DJ) Jon Kertzer called “Fela’s Children: A Legacy of Groove and Grit,” I was distressed, as I had only known Fela Kuti from occasional songs played on the radio. I had friends (and bosses) who had his records, but remained silent in my ignorance for fear of appearing to be a Philistine. Jon delivered the Fela story for Banning with as much gusto as it had obviously taken the Afropop website editor and NPR commentator to write it, and it is a fiery story indeed. Adeptly describing how the African icon “mastered the Afrobeat beat sound” as “thick layers of interlocked guitars and keyboards hi-hat sizzling like bacon in a pan,” Eyre did one of the things that the Pop Con does at its very best -- get my ass to a record store and start digging in. Fela’s music proved as irresistible as the story of a musician who challenged the corrupt political system around him to its very core -- which led to his mother being thrown to death from her home -- and himself being arrested and flogged by it. The government and its cowardly supporters insisted that music was simply to entertain, dismissing his intense, joy-inducing combination of Western and true roots grooves as “old, crazy music” -- but the kids these days ain’t having that. Especially his own kids, Femi and Seun (the latter still playing out with Fela’s original group), who continue and evolve the Afrobeat tradition to this day.
I was elated that we got to the Conference in time to catch the “headliner,” Greil Marcus, who did not disappoint. My wife commented later, “I couldn’t imagine calling what someone had written about Bob Dylan’s music poetry, but that’s what it was.” Like Nick Hornby described his own relationship to the artist, I’m one of those guys who never jumps to describe himself as a Dylan fan, but then I turn around and I have forty of his freaking records. And I never tire reading or hearing Greil Marcus write about them.
Marcus confused some who hadn’t been paying attention closely enough by describing the concert that happened around the time of the release of Todd Haynes’ movie “I’m Not There”; his wonderfully engaging description of that gig had little to do with the abstracted biopic. That’s right, a righteous show review, something old rock magazine fans grew up on, and which has relit the best (and worst) aspects of current blogs. Wetting my whistle by describing a Calexico-backed Mark Lanegan version of “Man In The Long Black Coat” -- from Dylan’s underrated “Oh Mercy” album, which Marcus described as an attempt to reinvent the spirit of early folk and blues songs he just ended up covering on the next few releases -- and laughing and weeping with us through an assessment of some rather mediocre performances of great songs (made even more great by the juxtaposition): “They sang the songs as if people liked them ... as if they were afraid of them.” Ouch!
But then there was The Roots taking on “Masters of War,” “probably the most self-righteous song ever recorded,” Marcus said, and one of the reasons I have found it somewhat resistible. The band dropped the original European “Lord Randall My Son” melody and adapted it to “The Star Spangled Banner,” combining a dramatic vocal with a vicious irony and truly gut-punching music (especially when the song actually kicks in to its near-original form). It was the Best Song of the Pop Con. Aw, don’t take my word for it:
We jaunted over to the Learning Labs one final time to catch Mary Greitzer’s superbly written and performed approach to rape and molestation in songs by Tori Amos and Lydia Lunch. We were not prepared for how powerful this presentation was going to be. If Greitzer hadn’t played samples of her source material -- even the wounding Lunch spoken word piece about her father forcing her to have sex, and by responding to it she became deviant and a predator herself -- it still would have hit hard, due to her eloquence and restraint. Contrasting the two singers’ approaches, Greitzer walked us through the narratives of the songs like an expert analyst and critic. This was not clean catharsis, actually; her observations best summed up the “conflict” of the Pop Con in the most intimately human way. Devastating.
The final paper of the day I would like to mention would be Charles Hughes’ “Sam Cooke: Pioneering R&B Hero” -- Charles is a repeat performer at the Pop Con as well, and for very good reason: If you want good meat on great music, he serves it up like one of the best. Describing the political climate of Cooke’s short but incredibly inspiring existence as a time when “eye rape” (the way a black man could be accused of looking at a white woman) could actually get a black man lynched, the progressive efforts as a masterful soul man, the boss of the first independent black owned record label, and record producer, seem all the more brave and stunning. But as Hughes noted, no matter what Cooke accomplished socially, or the controversy regarding his death, the music of “Keep On Movin’” and “Change Is Gonna Come” still fire the spirit of people to liberate themselves and others.
As the Pop Con ended this year, with groggy and encouraged and exhausted and satiated people leaving and saying goodbye again, or making sure to return again after their first transformative experience with it, I remembered some things I wished I’d put in earlier:
- I can’t believe that I did not mention Soul Sides guru and professor Oliver Wang’s phenomenal paper on “Back to Black?: Race and Retro-Soul” given on Saturday morning. Another case of proficient scholarship entertainingly given, with a perfect visual and audio accompaniment; truly exceptional and puts any criticisms that the Conference isn’t tied in or exciting to shame. If I had to boil down this year’s Conference to a “Best Of” this would have easily been one of the three or four papers I would have used. The histories of “retro-soul” (for want of a better term) artists like Sharon Jones, Gabriel Roth (The Dap-Kings), Nicole Willis, and of course Amy Winehouse and the controversies thereof was possibly the one paper I would recommend any music fan to check out during the Conference, due to its contemporary importance and Wang’s seemingly effortless presentation style. So why did I forget to list it in the first place? Because, like a couple others I could only say a little more than, ‘Wow!’ about (I think you can tell which ones), I was too enraptured to make many notes. In Wang’s case, it was like seeing Sharon Jones, and who’s going to pick up pen and paper then?
- Papers I REALLY wish I would have caught, Part Two:
“Freedom Highway,” Mike McGonical’s one on the Staple Singers -- how I allowed myself to miss this, I do not know. Mike is the publisher of the great YETI book-zine (available in Seattle at Sonic Boom and Easy Street), probably one of the best art journal-slash-music writing-slash-literary magazines ever printed. Not only did Mike forgive me for missing his panel, but he gave me his new publication, a lovely collection of art by celebrated Portland musician etc. Tara Jane O’Neil titled “Wings. Strings. Meridians. A blighted bestiary.” Worth it for the CD alone.
Georgia Christgau: “Just Like A Woman: The Rock Criticism of Ellen Willis.” To be honest, I still haven’t processed losing Willis yet. I don’t want to believe she passed away. She was one of my very favorite writers and human beings and I don’t want to think of her in the past tense. Emo, I know, but there you go.
- I missed the very intriguing Feminist Work Group, All Ages Panel, and others due to wanting to eat lunch instead and have a few minutes of quiet before plunging back into the fray. But if I could turn back time (thanks, Cher) I would have gone to the Feminist Working group anyways to see Daphne Carr and others work it out.
- Greil Marcus has a new edition of “Mystery Train” out. Why this has to do with the Pop Con, besides his support and presence and talented contributions to the event, is that this is the fantastic book about rock music that initiated artistic dialogues that continue to this day. It actually inspired The Clash’s London Calling album after Joe and Mick read it (one of the greatest rock albums), which inspired the movie Mystery Train by Jim Jarmusch (arguably one of the best rock movies ever, and inarguably very influential on the best Hollywood and indie films of the past few years), and humbly I’ll mention even got me to do The Clash comics with David Lasky that Fantagraphics has published in their Hotwire anthologies. Bravo, sir, you didn’t even mention it to sell a few copies -- even though all the added notes are so damned good. Don’t let anyone tell you music journalism can’t change the world.