The Boys in Blu

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Music that combines country and hip-hop calls to mind that old Reese’s commercial where a guy walking down the sidewalk eating a candy bar collided with a guy walking down the street eating out of an open jar of peanut butter.

Do not ask why a guy would down the street eating out of an open jar of peanut butter. It’s just what everybody did back then, you young whippersnappers.

The people in those commercials always decided by the end that they loved the combo, but that isn’t always how country-rap is received.

Just ask Dusty “Tex” Dahlgren, one-half of the duo known as Moonshine Bandits.

The Moonshine Bandits performs at Brandt’s Harley Davidson in Warsaw on July 2.

In a phone interview, Dahlgren said the band’s early performances could be contentious.

“Oh man,” he said. “ I can remember our first few shows. We were booed. We were booed off the stage. They would listen to the sound and wait ‘til it was over and then, all of a sudden, they’re first in line asking for autographs. That really did happen. Obviously, there were a lot of obstacles we lived through.”

In truth, Dahlgren isn’t too fond of the country-rap label either. And he is even less fond of “hick-hop,” that possibly prerogative tag that was undoubtedly cooked up by a music industry executive or music journalist….back when we had music industry executives and music journalists…and a music industry.

Dahlgren said he grew up listening to west coast rap and his main bandmate, Brett “Bird” Brooks, grew up singing in church and they both grew up loving country.

Despite the fact that they have successfully combined all those influences into a confident sound, however, Dahlgren said that he doesn’t want the Moonshine Bandits to be pigeonholed.

Tex and Bird have, therefore, come up with their own term for the music they perform: Blucore.

“It stands for ‘blue collar rebel music,’” Dahlgren said.

You may intensely dislike one or both of the genres that mainly make up “blucore,” but you can’t deny that Tex and Bird’s music is a lot of fun.

Every effort the Moonshine Bandits has made on its own behalf since forming in 2003 has been of the grass-roots variety and one of the more delectable fruits of those labors ripened last year.

The duo was able to purchase a tour bus.

“It was huge for us,” Dahlgren said. “We started off touring in a Ford 150 pickup across America. All of our merchandise is in the back and, at night, you have to load all of the merchandise into the hotel room just so it doesn’t get stolen and then load it back into the truck in the morning. We went from that to a 1982 van all the way up the ladder.”

Dahlgren said the band’s bus has “12 bunks, a flat screen, a PlayStation – everything you can think of.”

“Unfortunately, “ he said, “it just broke down on us in Arizona. The problem with owning a bus is that it’s worse than owning a boat.”

Dahlgren said the band’s fans, called Shiners, are passionate. Sometimes bewilderingly passionate.

There’s a mugshot floating around the web of a guy with a black eye and a Moonshine Bandits tattoo on his forehead.

A Shiner with a shiner.

“It is crazy what happens,” Dahlgren said, laughing. “It’s hard to explain.”

Dahlgren said the band thinks of its fans as family.

“We call them family because they’re the reason why we’re going up the ladder,” he said. ‘When we go out after the show, we pride ourselves on meeting the family. We don’t stay on our bus. We go out there and we hear their stories. Because that’s inspiring for our songwriting.”

Asked about the future of the band, Dahlgren goes far-flung. He said he thinks about legacy.

“When we’re gone and this thing really takes off for some of the younger guys,” he said, “I would just like to be recognized as, you know, ‘Hey, these are one of the guys from the West Coast that started this movement and it’s still around.’”

 

 

 

 

 

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Weirded In: The Masterful Career of Shrewd Al Yankovic

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It all began with an accordion.

There aren’t many tales of the rich and famous that begin that way. But in the case of Alfred Matthew “Weird Al” Yankovic, it’s a fact.

Native Californian Yankovic took accordion lessons as a kid and then stunned audiences at open mike nights with his renditions of such hits as “Theme from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’”

A big break in the career he didn’t know he was pursuing happened when radio host Dr. Demento visited his high school.

Yankovic slipped him a cassette tape of his parody songs and Demento featured one of them on his popular show immediately.

Reached by email, the 75-year-old Demento wrote that he “had no idea in 1976 that (Yankovic) would go on to achieve as much as he has.”

“His career developed in a series of gradual stages,” Demento wrote. “When ‘Eat It’ hit in 1984, people thought he was an overnight success. But he’d been quietly building a career for eight years by that point – step by step, getting a little better and more popular each year. He has always been in it for the long haul, working very hard at his craft all along…and every year it seems he discovers something else that he can do, and does it brilliantly.”

These days, Yankovic qualifies as a “superstar musical parodist.” There may be more improbable things for a person to be in 2016, but it’s hard to think of what they are.

Yankovic performs on Sunday, June 26, at the Foellinger Theatre.

In a phone interview, Yankovic admitted that his current success was not something he envisioned or even strove for in the late ‘70s.

“Certainly nobody, including myself, thought that I would have a 30-year career doing this,” he said. “I had more faith in myself than the record labels did. Early on, they all said, ‘Oh, you’re really clever. This is brilliant stuff. But, you know, this is novelty music. You’ll be lucky to have one hit and then we’ll never hear from you again.’

“As a result, nobody wanted to sign me,” Yankovic said. “They said, ‘We want to sign artists that are going to have long careers.’ So my career is sort of the ultimate irony. I’ve lasted a lot longer than most of the people they were signing back in the eighties.”

Writing song parodies the way Yankovic has done it for three decades is no walk in the park or piece of cake or walk in the park while eating a piece of cake.

Yankovic doesn’t just write great parodies, according to Texas A&M professor Salvatore Attardo, who is editor-in-chief of Humor, the journal for the International Society of Humor Research. Yankovic is also an astute reader of the cultural zeitgeist.

“He’s also very good at spotting the trend,” Attardo said. “You can literally do a history of contemporary pop music by looking at what Weird Al parodies.”

For example, Attardo said, Yankovic’s parody of Nirvana became a hit just as grunge was being defined and embraced nationally as a new musical genre.

“That’s why I think his success has been prolonged,” he said. “He keeps being ahead of the curve.”

Yankovic confirmed that writing parodies has never been as easy as just riffing off whatever songs he fancies. He has always had to try to choose songs that people won’t be thoroughly sick of in any form by the time his albums come out.

“That was always a tough trick to pull off,” Yankovic said. “I would have to think, ‘Well, will people be OK hearing the parody of this 6 months from now?’”

In a sense, the parody has to sound almost as fresh to listeners’ ears as the original song once did.

Further complicating matters has been Yankovic’s insistence that every parody he creates is approved beforehand by the original songwriter.

Yankovic said there are both personal and professional reasons for this.

“Ethically, I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I like to respect the wishes of the original songwriters and I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to hang around the business as long as I have. I don’t burn bridges. I don’t step on toes. I want to make sure that these people – these creative people; my peers – are treated with as much respect as possible.

“The more practical side of it is the fact that we live in a very litigious society,” Yankovic said. “Even though, by all rights, I should be able to do whatever I like parody-wise, anybody can sue anybody for any reason at any time in this country. I just don’t want to be the object of somebody’s rage in court.”

Yankovic has a reputation as a nice guy, but he also has a reputation as a savvy businessman. The goofiness of his songs belies his drive and determination.

He made a decision several decades ago that some might have considered counterintuitive: He put together the best touring band he could find.

Most musical parodists tour in troubadour fashion, and no one would have batted an eye if Yankovic had decided to keep things in concert as simple as an accordion and backing tracks.

But Yankovic never wanted to go that route.

“Having a live, high-energy show has always been part of what I’ve done,” he said. “I don’t know how important it is to other people. It’s always been important to me.”

Yankovic said his band has “amazing chops,” which isn’t surprising when one considers how many genres it has to cover.

“It makes me sad sometimes when people say things like, ‘Oh, they’re a comedy band’ like they’re denigrating them,” he said. “As if that means they don’t have killer talent when, in fact, the opposite is true.”

Yankovic recently left Sony Music Entertainment and its many labels for the great, self-directed unknown and he said he is still exploring all the resultant possibilities.

“What I’m excited about is the fact that I’m not beholden to anybody,” he said. “I don’t owe anybody anything. My record label has always been very nice to me over the years and, with only a few exceptions, they never forced me to do anything. But I always kind of felt like I had like a 30-year mortgage.”

Yankovic appreciates the fact that he no longer has to ask for permission when we wants to collaborate with somebody and those collaboration offers have been numerous in recent years.

Yankovic tends to pop up in all the hippest places: “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” “The Brak Show,” “Yo Gabba Gabba!” “The Aquabats! Super Show!” and “Comedy Bang! Bang!” among them.

He has become something of a comedic elder statesmen and that fact tickles him immensely.

“It’s really wonderful for me, because for the first decade or two of my career, I kind of felt like I wasn’t getting a lot of respect from my peers and my community,” Yankovic said. “But now, I’ve become sort of this person that a lot of people have grown up with including a lot of comedians and a lot of executives and a lot of people running studios. All of a sudden, they’re giving me the opportunity to do things that I wasn’t given the opportunity to do when I started out, so it’s really nice. A whole generation has grown up, they rule the world and they’re bringing me along for the ride.”

Not all artists who had corporate help achieving their fame thrive after they decide to go it alone, but it’s hard not to feel confident about Yankovic’s chances.

Yankovic may be a “mere” writer and performer of novelty songs, but the way he has gone about things has been nothing less than visionary. Arrardo describes Yankovic as the first Internet comedian, even though his first big successes predated the Internet by more than a decade.

“He’s really sort of the ancestor of now,” he said. “You have these little videos, most of them with elements of parody, that are done with very cheap production. You can say that he invented the genre.”

Yankovic said he’s not really sure what he’ll be doing after the current tour wraps up and he doesn’t seemed at all worried about it.

“I’d like to continue doing everything I’ve done in the past and do it better,” he said. “I’d like to keep doing more music and more videos. I’d like to do more TV and more movies, if possible. I’ve been toying with the idea of possibly writing or collaborating on a Broadway musical. That’s on my list of things I’d love to do.

“It’s sort of the big question mark,” he said. “After this tour, there’s a big open spot on my calendar. It might mean me being busy with some other project or it might be me just enjoying quality time with my family. We’ll see what happens.”

 

 

 

 

Thanking Our Lucky Starr

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Popular local drummer and drumming instructor Todd Harrold said his young students care about exactly two bands that had their heydays in the 1960s and 1970s: Led Zeppelin and the Beatles.

The Rolling Stones no longer register for some reason, he said.

The music of Led Zeppelin and the Beatles will live on indefinitely, of course. But Led Zeppelin has no “face” at present, Harrold said.

“There’s nobody playing those songs, really,” he said. “But there’s still Ringo (Starr) and (Paul) McCartney out there doing Beatles stuff and I think that’s incredible.”

Harrold said Starr and McCartney are two of the last representatives of an artistic renaissance that started in the 1960s and ended in the late 1970s. He believes that we have not seen their like since and we may never see their like again. So it is important for young people to see them live while they still can.

Young people and other people will get their chance (or one of those chances) when Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band performs at the Foellinger Theatre on June 21.

Starr has been joined on this tour by Todd Rundgren, Santana’s Gregg Rolie, Toto’s Steve Lukather and Mr. Mister’s Richard Page.

Starr’s first visit to Indiana came in 1964 when the Beatles performed at the Indiana State Fair.

Freelance writer and photographer David Humphrey released a book about that concert in 2014 called “All Those Years Ago: Fifty Years Later, Beatles Fans Still Remember.”

By email, Humphrey shared with me a story about one of insomniac Starr’s nocturnal adventures.

The Beatles returned to the Speedway Hotel after the show, Humphrey wrote, and Starr could not sleep so he “began talking with Indiana State Trooper Jack Marks, who offered Ringo a ride in his state trooper car.”

They drove to Marks’ farmhouse in Noblesville and, at some point in the evening, “Marks let Ringo behind the wheel,” he wrote.

“As the story goes, a state trooper passed Ringo and Marks, and noticed that a civilian was driving a state police vehicle,” Humphrey wrote. “Apparently, Ringo drove down an alley and hid there while the other cop was trying to find them.”

Starr and George Harrison also got to ride around the Indianapolis 500 track during their visit, he wrote.

A half-century has passed, yet the 75-year-old Starr (thanks, no doubt, to a combination of good genes, good living and good hair dye) looks very much the same.

To this day, Starr is dogged by accusations that he isn’t a very good drummer, but Harrold and fellow Fort Wayne drummer Jamie Simon say that such critiques don’t hold water.

While it is indeed true, Harrold said, that Starr is no master technician on that instrument, he repeatedly proved capable of the brilliance that McCartney and Lennon required of him.

“The thing about Ringo is that there was no map for what they were doing,” he said. “When John Lennon brings you ‘I Am The Walrus,’ what do you play on drums? When he brings you ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ what do you play on drums? What do you do? He gets massive points from me for just being so inventive.”

Simon said Starr had the taste and prudence not to get in the way of the music.

“I always looked at the drummer’s position in a band as similar to that of an offensive lineman on a football team,” he said. “Or the whole offense line, I should say. If a football team has a good offensive line, the quarterback looks like a star because he’s able to stand up and throw the ball. If the offensive line is terrible, the quarterback looks horrible because he’s lying on the ground the whole time.

“In a band situation,” Simon said, “you’ve got drummers who can do that, who will go in and just lay time and play super solid. None of them get the credit. It takes a lot to play simple and be disciplined and just make the music work.”

There were a number of flashier rock drummers than Starr in the 1960s, he said, but their flash wouldn’t have worked in the Beatles.

“Can you imagine what the Beatles would have been if Ginger Baker or Keith Moon would have been their drummer?” Simon said. “I really think they would have sunk the ship.”

Harrold said music history is awash in timeless drumming from musicians who were not master technicians.

“Ringo is kind of the same thing as the old Chess recordings with Odie Payne and Fred Below,” he said, “the old Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters recordings. If you go back and listen to those, they still sound great. If you listen to ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’ by Muddy Waters – that came out, I think, in the late forties. It was recorded in Chicago with a drummer named Fred Below and it still feels awesome. My god, it feels awesome.

“Or Bobby Blue Bland’s ‘Further Up the Road’ with Jabo Starks, who later played with James Brown,” Harrold said. “Those still feel awesome. Those (drummers) were not technicians. That didn’t come along for a while. But (the songs) still feel great.”

Harrold said Starr’s drum work on “I Am the Walrus” has the same staying power.

“The way that Ringo and McCartney worked together was really stunning,” he said. “Like I say, there was no map. Their music didn’t sound like (Bob) Dylan’s music. Dylan’s music came out of the blues and there was a map for that.

“(The Beatles) sort of invented their own thing,” Harrold said. “I don’t want to overstate my case, but I think it’s pretty obvious they came up with their own hybrid. That’s what makes them so great. There’s nothing like ‘Sgt. Pepper’s.’ There’s nothing like ‘Revolver.’ There’s nothing like ‘The White Album.’ Astounding! And the ‘Abbey Road’ drum solo is really hard to play, just so you know.”

Simon said Starr’s playing on “Come Together” is both simple and perfect.

“It’s so simple that almost nobody would think to do,” he said. “It’s absolutely perfect for the tune. When you hear a drummer not do it that way, it just sounds weird.”

If you want evidence of the high esteem in which Starr is held by his fellow icons, Harrold said, look no further than the people he has been touring with since the late 1980s.

Starr has spent the last three decades fronting bands composed of some of the biggest names in rock music and Harrold believes that only Starr could have assembled them.

“Think about who is in that band right now,” he said. “Do you think Todd Rundgren would be a sideman for anyone else? Do you think Steve Lukather from Toto would be a sideman for anyone else?”

Reviews for the current tour have been effusive and it is because Starr knows how to entertain, Simon said.

“People don’t dance to polyrhythms,” Simon said.

Whatever all those women are screaming about on live Beatles recordings, Simon said, it sure isn’t polyrhythms.

 

 

 

Changing Horses Mid-River: Styx’s Second Act

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When one of the biggest rock bands in history comes to you and asks you to be its new lead vocalist, you say, “Yes.”

Without hesitation.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.

But when the members of Styx made that proposal to Canadian rocker Lawrence Gowan in 1999, he needed some time to think.

Gowan had achieved unequivocal solo success in Canada and England (gold records, Canuck Grammys, command performances, etc.) and he wasn’t sure he wanted to hitch his wagon to Styx’s star.

“When I speak of it in the United States,” Gowan said in a phone interview, “it seems almost irrelevant. My records were never released here and so the assumption is: ‘Are you kidding? When a band like Styx asks you to join, you don’t give it a second thought! There’s nothing to think about!’ Well, there was something to think about.”

Fortunately for Styx, an English publicist had gifted Gowan with a reality check.

“She had this crystal ball that proved pretty accurate,” she said. “She said, ‘Look, you just turned 40 years of age. Looking at the way the music industry is going, the most likely scenario for you is that you’re going to wind up joining a band.”

Ultimately, Gowan decided to disregard whatever misgivings he had and go with his gut.

“At a certain point, you have to think, ‘Stars are sort of aligning in a way that they’re trying to tell me something,’” he said. “I don’t think it’s a bad way to go. You can buck against that all your life, but it might end with you saying, ‘Well, at least I stuck to my guns and my principles and it led me straight to the gutter.’”

It’s impossible to say where Gowan would be now if he’d turned down Styx’s offer. But we saw what happened to the music industry in the years after he accepted it: It ceased to exist as we knew it.

Styx performs June 18 at the Foellinger Theatre.

When lead vocalists depart major rock bands, the remaining members have to decide whether to recruit a soundalike or to go off in a bolder, more precarious, direction.

Gowan said he has never attempted an impersonation of Dennis DeYoung, Styx’s founding vocalist, and no one in the band has ever asked him to do one.

Gowan was long ago embraced by much of the band’s fanbase, but there remain a few stragglers who say they can never fully accept Styx without DeYoung.

That doesn’t offend Gowan.

“There’s a paradigm I’ve tried to hold onto whenever anyone says, ‘I can’t accept this band,’” He said. “I think, ‘You know something? You’re absolutely entitled to that feeling.’ Because it’s a subjective thing. If your musical life is entirely connected to that specific lineup and that specific time, you’ll never accept that.”

Gowan recalled experiencing similar emotions after Phil Collins succeeded Peter Gabriel as lead vocalist of Genesis.

“I remember Phil Collins stepping up to the mike and I am thinking, ‘This is wrong,’” he said. “And preparing myself to go, ‘I’m not going to like this.’ And there I am, 15 minutes later, going, ‘Holy (expletive)! That was great!’

“They both kind of had the same spirit,” Gowan said. “There was something in the spirit that was intact.”

Gowan and Styx also share the same spirit.

For Gowan, both incarnations of Genesis are important and he loves it when fans say the same thing about both incarnations of Styx.

“The greatest compliment I hear,” he said, “is when someone says, ‘I saw the band in 1981 and I saw the band tonight and you are just as good as ever.”

In the years when the bottom was dropping out of the music business, a lot of formerly well-paid musicians worried that the bottom was about to drop out of their livelihoods.

It was during this tumultuous time, Gowan said, that Styx came up with a mantra, of sorts: flexible and adaptive.

“J.Y. (Young) used that phrase so often,” he said. “Whenever anything was a challenge to him or was a challenge to his sensibility, he would use that phrase: ‘Flexibility and adaptability! We must adapt to move on.’

“That credo is what got me into the band in the first place,” Gowan said. “Every time we fell back on that phrase, it led us another step forward.”

Gowan recalled how one aspect of the digital revolution dawned on the band.

“We started seeing these little video cameras at shows,” he said. “It wasn’t quite the smart phone era yet. And it was like, ‘Should we stop that or let it go?’ Sometimes they’d stop it and other times, someone would say, ‘I saw that they put that on the internet the next day and thousands of people were saying, ‘I love this. I want to see Styx.’ So, maybe this is good.’”

In the 20th century, bands made their money from recordings. In the 21st century, music was freed from sellable discs and fewer people were willing to pay coffer-lining fees for it. So bands were forced to hit the road harder than they may have been naturally inclined to hit it.

This made life more difficult for bands, but Gowan said he sees one improvement over the former business model.

In the late 20th century, there were many musical acts that couldn’t come close to matching the quality of their recordings in the live setting.

Now, most of them have no choice.

In a world where musicians’ livelihoods depend on their ability to perform live, Styx excels.

Gowan said he believes a rock show is the best entertainment there is.

“To feel this thing that happens at a rock show…” he said. “We still can’t explain what it is. It’s the best form of entertainment I have come across as far as long-lasting effects afterwards.

“There are fantastic movies, fantastic plays,” Gowan said. “But a rock show is an experience that will stay with you. That’s a wonderful thing to be connected to every day.”

The state of the music business these days depresses some folks who got a taste of the gilded age.

But Gowan said the members of Styx have never been anything but grateful.

“It comes up in the dressing room,” he said. “It honestly does: ‘You know how lucky we are to still be doing this? And have people who are, like, one half our age comprising one half of the audience out there screaming and singing along?’ That’s a pretty fantastic thing.”