Wednesday, March 30, 2011

CD Review: Leeann Atherton – Heart Traveled Road

Leeann Atherton is in fine form on this 2009 release produced by her long-time collaborator Rich Brotherton. This album showcases Leeann’s voice and songwriting, and covers a vast musical landscape from Acoustic Blues to Blues Rock, Country Rock, Gospel, a little Jazz, and Folk. If you’ve heard Leeann, particularly in her live shows, you know that she projects the image of a very strong woman who knows her own mind. That comes through in this collection of songs, but there is also the counterpoint of at least playing the more traditional female role, or perhaps, more accurately, playing off that stereotype. Leeann has strong Southern roots, having grown up in South Carolina, spent time in Nashville, and about 25 years in Austin.

Leeann’s voice is a powerful instrument. I saw her perform recently and she really sunk her teeth into Janis’ Piece of My Heart. But she can also sing a sweet and soulful ballad and there are moments of tender vulnerability, such as in I Believe where she sings: “What I’m trying to say/If I’m still not clear/My heart is on the table/I’m standing naked here.” The standout tracks are Looking for a Rainbow, a gospel tune about keeping your focus through the storms of life, Change of Heart a blues song about the battle of the sexes with a nice twist, and Soul Song, a perfect little folk-infused love song marked by beautiful interplay between the finger-picked guitar and the violin.

Remember Me is a little old-time Jazz shuffle, that lets the mind wander back to old movies and is also a very sly brush off song. Kiss is solid Country rock and starts off with a bang: “Got me dizzy, got me spinnin’, /got me wantin’ it again/ your kiss. /I’m drunk on the moon, /don’t you leave me so soon, /not like this.” There are quite a few breakup or brush off songs in the set and the men in these stories seem to come out on the short end more often than not. Not sure if that is fresh autobiography or just good songwriting.

Rich Brotherton’s production, arranging, and playing (acoustic and electric guitar, bass, mandolin, mandola, cittern, and harmonium) is impeccable throughout. Rich has played with and produced records for a who’s who of Austin and Texas songwriters and singers over the last two decades. He’s worked with Robert Earl Keen, Eliza Gilkyson and many others. He even played Mandolin, Acoustic Guitar and Bass on a track of mine back in 1990. And Leeann helped me out with backing vocals on a couple of tunes in 1992. So perhaps I’m biased, but I think this is a very good record that will find a place in your heart.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Just Back from a Weekend in Austin

We flew out to Austin last Thursday to spend a little time with some friends and hang out doing Austin things. Cynthia and Bill have a great house in Lost Creek and since the temperature in DC was hovering in the 40's, it was great to be in the 80's for a few days.

We had a leisurely breakfast on Friday, then took a walk on the Town Lake Hike and Bike trail, doing the loop from MoPac to the Lamar Foot Bridge. We were amazed at all the changes in the downtown skyline and all the new residential construction downtown. At least the trail was still more or less the same. After the walk we had a late lunch at Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Blvd. I had a heaping bowl of black beans with avocado and pico de gallo and a cornbread pancake on the side. Great Austin comfort food.

Friday evening we drove down to South Lamar for the Happy Hour/Dinner at Maria's Taco Xpress. An old acquaintance of mine, Leeann Atherton, was performing there outdoors on the deck with a band. She was singing and playing guitar, with Juliann Banks on bass, Sonny Coleman on lead guitar and Bill the Buddha on drums. They played a mix of covers and original tunes, mostly high energy rock and blues. Leeann can belt it out with the best of them and she did a fine Janis impression on Piece of my Heart. After the show we drove up Lamar to a "new" place, a Greek wine/beer bar called Opa's in an Old House with a great patio area in front underneath a pair of gorgeous Live Oak trees. That was a great finish to the evening.

On Saturday, we drove over to Manchaca & Stassney and had breakfast at the Bakehouse. Cynthia told a funny story about a column that John Kelso had written about them and calling them out for their pretentions at trying to be an "International" restaurant in South Austin. They have pictures of International destinations on the walls and lamp covers in the booths which are globe maps.

After breakfast, Laura and I drove around a bit, taking William Cannon over to 290 near where we used to live and then took 290 up to MoPac and drove around downtown, mostly taking 5th Street east past I-35 and then 6th Street back across town. We stopped at Waterloo Records and I looked around, while Laura did a little shopping at Chico's. Then we drove across the river and stopped for a couple of drinks at Chuy's on Barton Springs. Inevitably, we talked about our own retirement plans and how maybe we ought to put Austin on our short list. The major drawback is whether we could handle the summer heat again.

That night we had a belated "Retirement" Party for Cynthia at their place. A lot of good friends were there: Mita, Cindy & Gemma, Anne & Dan, our friend Danielle, and a couple of others. There were fresh squeezed lime Margaritas; chicken, beef, and pork margaritas with lots of fixins; plenty of beer and wine; and, ice cream to top it off. Definitely off our diets. I played a few songs as the night wound down.

Sunday, Bill and I drove out near Bee Caves and played golf at Falconhead Golf Course. It was overcast and much cooler, which was good for the golf. The round started out pretty well, but unravelled a bit as it went on, but it was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. That night we drove down to the Saxon Pub to hear the Resentments. Laura and I hadn't heard them since 2008, so we hadn't seen them since Stephen Bruton died. John Dee Graham had also gone his own way, so, for us at least, it was a fairly new lineup. You had Bruce Hughes on Bass, Jud Newcomb on electric and acoustic guitars, Miles Zuniga on acoustic guitar, Jeff Plankenhorn on pedal steel, mandolin, and guitar and Johnny Morocco on Drums. I think that Jeff might have been with them the last time we saw them, but he was more just a backup player at that point. This time he was a full member of the ensemble and some of his songs were among the highlights of the evening. They are really fantastic and have great energy. They mix country, folk, blues, rock and even a little jazz (mostly Bruce Hughes on the jazz). A great evening and a great end to the weekend.

Monday we were up early to catch a flight back to DC and our lingering cold spell. Too bad we couldn't just quit our jobs and move back...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Nobody Died at Three Mile Island (Tsunami edition)

Also posted at Smirking

It came as no surprise really that Nuclear Power has been pitching itself for a comeback against a backdrop of Global Warming, Wall Street greed and an oil slick disaster of epic proportions. Indeed, many people have recently been pitching Nuclear as a green energy option. But now Godzilla and Mothra have joined the conversation in the wake of a deadly tsunami and the smoking ruins of Fukushima Dai Ichi. So, here we are again debating Nuclear safety, technological hubris and our overall ability to manage dangerous materials in perpetuity.

Of course, Nuclear’s really more like some crazed zombie returned from Dawn of the Dead. In the late 70’s and early 80’s I was pretty well versed in nuclear power plant economics and environmental concerns. It was a hobby of mine, but I was relieved and quite happy to move onto other things as it appeared to die as a viable option (ironically, as much because of cheap Saudi oil as anything else).

These days, even before this latest issue, I was very ambivalent about the technology and its problems, although willing to grant it a sort of grudging “support”, along the lines sketched out by James Lovelock. In essence, the argument in favor of allowing a nuclear renaissance boils down to: we’re all screwed anyway, so why not? I mean, it’s not like the species (particularly Homo Americanus) has shown great judgment or ecological vision or compassion. We’ve pretty much had an uninterrupted celebration of greed, selfishness and stupidity in high and low places, at least since the late 70’s (well OK, since we crawled out of the premordial slime).

Last year, I dusted off a song I wrote back in the 80’s about the nuclear industry, added a new verse about the Oil Spill (How soon we forget…), and took it out to play for awhile. And now there’s a new verse about the misadventures of the Nuclear Industry and the Tsunami. As I mentioned, I was a bit of a geek about Nuclear issues back in the day. Before Three Mile Island, there was a 1975 accident at a power plant at Browns Ferry in Alabama. A fire started by a candle that wound up doing something like $100 million of damage. As Wikipedia puts it: “the March 22, 1975 fire started when a worker using a candle to search for air leaks accidentally set a temporary cable seal on fire. The fire spread through the wall from the temporary seal.”

At the time that I was contemplating writing a song about TMI, I was thumbing through a book of old folk songs and came across the “Brown’s Ferry Blues”. It seemed like a perfect frame for the story I wanted to tell, though, aside from the tag line “Lord, lord I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry Blues,” there wasn’t a whole lot of the song that I could actually re-use. I did re-use half of a verse, which fits nicely with the overall flavor of the work. Just the other day, it was pointed out to me that the song is by the Delmore Brothers (or may be, there is some controversy on its origins) and may be copyrighted.

I revised the song again after Chernobyl, but since that time it has been gathering dust. Anyway, the words follow and I should be posting a recording of it soon. Let me know what you think and if you have verses to add, feel free to contribute. Unfortunately, I’m sure I’ll have reason to update it again in the not too distant future…

Brown’s Ferry Blues

Fire in the morning, fire at night
When the reactor goes there won’t be no light
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
Put on you coat, get on down the road
Don’t want to be around when it shoots it’s load
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

Early to bed and early to rise
And your woman goes out with the other guys
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
She doesn’t want your contaminated fingers
After it’s over radiation lingers
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

Nobody died at Three Mile Island
Chernobyl was just a few commies fryin
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
Got a two headed mule and a three headed calf
I go out to the barn when I need a good laugh
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

Deepwater oil bearing down on the coast
As Global Warming slowly turns us all into toast
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
GE Lobbyists wading into the fray
Nuclear Power’s gonna save the day
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

Earthquakes and tsunami on a distant shore
Fukushima Dai ichi’s burning down to the core
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
No time to panic, keep your eye on the bottom line
The future looks bright, things’ll be just fine
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

Fire in the morning, fire at night
When the reactor goes there won’t be no light
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
One of these days it’ll be all over
We’ll sleep together in a field of clover
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

(c) 2011. Jim Heald. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Playing at Epicure Cafe tonight, Friday 3/4

I'll be performing at the Epicure Cafe in Fairfax tonight from 8-11 pm. For more information and directions check out

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

We've Lost our Minds (or maybe just our Souls)

All I can say is that I can’t believe what’s going on in this country right now. We (okay, not all of us) seem to have lost our collective f%#king minds. As we bow down at the base of the golden calf and ignore the fact that it was Wall Street crooks that crashed our economy (and none have paid any price whatsoever for it), but now we want to “solve” our financial crisis by taking it out on teachers and street sweepers and janitors and “overpaid” public employees. I mean, sure, they all have private planes and vacation homes in St. Barts, so clearly they make too much money. And by God, they have actual pension plans and decent medical insurance packages, so we’ve got to make sure that we take that away from them. We don’t want them having something that we (whoever WE are) don’t have…

Listen, I understand that unions aren’t perfect, and that it is too difficult to fire bad employees in union shops, but guess what? The reason that some of you still take home a decent wage and some of you still have decent health benefits (even if you have to pay something for them) is because of the unions and the struggles of working people in the early part of the last century. That’s why you have Social Security and Medicare too, but heck, those programs are too expensive and need to be trimmed back too. We all pay too much in taxes that we’ll never see again, right? Well, just remember that if we didn’t have them, each of us would be shelling out to support our parents and grandparents in their old age instead of them living reasonably healthy, independent lives. And that would cost each of US a heck of a lot more than the taxes we pay out to keep the programs running.

Feel free to bow down and kiss the feet of the gazillionaires and keep cutting their taxes, if you think that’s what it’s all about to be a FREE American. But don’t be surprised when they kick you in the teeth, climb over your prostrate body, and swipe your wallet as they run off to devise next Ponzi scheme or cash in on a good business opportunity (probably in some down and out country where they can pay workers pennies a day). The rich aren’t better or smarter than the rest of us, although many of them have absorbed the management and get rich tips of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. In other words, they know that there’s a war going on and they finally see the opportunity to roll back the 20th Century that was just a glimmer in Saint Ronnie’s eyes 30 years ago.

Unions, even in their withered state in this country, set the floor or the foundation for the wages and benefits for the rest of us. Take that away and we’ll be nickeled and dimed by the Millionaires and Billionaires every day for the rest of our lives. Our pensions and our salaries and our health benefits will disappear and our houses will get foreclosed on and sooner or later Bangladesh (or some Chinese sweatshop) will start looking like Paradise to us fools.

Realize that most of our current financial crisis WAS NOT caused by greedy unions and Social Security checks going to seniors or Medicare. It was greedy banks and mortgage companies and the pursuit of empire in the Middle East that was much of the cause of the current crisis. Restoring the Clinton-era tax rates would take care of most of the problem. Getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan would help tremendously. Scaling back on our more than 700 military installations around the world would help put us back on the road to full scale solvency.

You may not like unions. But when the Governors of Wisconsin and Ohio strip workers of their collective bargaining rights and get their first round of concessions on wages and benefits, they won’t stop there. They’ll be coming after what’s left of your pension and wages and benefits next. Maybe not this year or next, but it’s coming.