Tag Archives: Michelle Shocked

Not Short, but Definitely Sharp, Shocked

Every Sunday, I listen to Meg Banta’s “Sunday Morning Unplugged” on KPRI (you must not forget KPRI, Best Beloved.) This past Sunday, I was dismayed to hear that Michelle Shocked was appearing at the BellyUp Tavern in Solana Beach; dismayed, because there was no way I could make the 500-mile drive in time to see her.

Not only does Michelle have a reputation for spectacular live performances, but the BellyUp is a marvelous venue, with lots of wood and curved surfaces nurturing and bouncing the music around the room ’til it lands in your ears.

As I lay on the floor in the fetal position bemoaning this tragedy, my own Best Beloved read from her Sunday paper, “Thursday night at Harlow’s in Sacramento: Michelle Shocked.” And my own Best Beloved took me to see her.

The Hackensaw Boys, who opened the show, were a hoot. Bluegrass run riot, in fact. I’d drive a ways to see them again. (One word to the management of Harlow’s: chairs. Cheap folding chairs, even. There were huge expanses of open space, and very few places to sit. So we didn’t.)

When Shel walked onstage with nothing but an acoustic guitar, I wondered how her more aggressive works would take to being stripped down like that.

They took just fine.

my autographed copy of 'Short Sharp Shocked'Having just re-released “Short Sharp Shocked” (a much extended version, by the way) she was dedicated to playing most of the tunes from the album. In fact, she covered every tune from the original release except “Black Widow” (wonder why?), and most of the extras from the second CD of the new release. Rockers like “If Love Was A Train” (now, where have I heard that name before?), “Gladewater”, and even the bizarre-but-lovable “When I Grow Up” seemed right at home with their treatment. Being limited to an acoustic guitar and voice doesn’t limit Michelle’s range or genre. She jazzed; she rocked; she swung. And, yes, she played straight folk, a traditional Irish tune, and a bit of blues.

“Grafitti Limbo”, with its ending reference to ‘that midnight special line’ flowed easily into “Midnight Special.” By now, inhibitions forgotten, the audience was chatting with the performer, singing along, and generally becoming participants instead of spectators. And somehow I knew, when she started “Anchorage” (to a standing ovation during the opening notes) that when she got to the reference to ‘that love song you played’, she’d finally tell us what it was. And she did.

 The water is wide, I cannot get o'er  Neither have I wings to fly  Give me a boat that can carry two  And both shall row, my love and I 

“The Water is Wide” bears a strong resemblance to “Carrickfergus”; not unusual in traditional songs.

Michelle has long known the value of audience contact. The between-song storytelling and reminiscences are as endearing as the music itself—which is mighty indeed.

After the show, she came out to sign albums or shirts or bald heads, and contrary to my usual reticence in public, I managed to be the first to talk to her.

 Me: "Last time I heard a single acoustic guitar sound that big, it was Michael Hedges." Herself, lowering my half-signed CD and shaking my hand: "Now, that's a real compliment, especially since I haven't played acoustic much in the past ten years and I'm a little rusty!" Me: "Oh, you did just fine. Like Nanci Griffith says, if the songs work stripped down like this, they work."

I try to act like normal people, but it just isn’t me.

She didn’t seem to mind.

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It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

Woke up this morning to the strangest sound; like living next to a major freeway, but more of a rumble. It woke me up, starting suddenly and rolling and rumbling like distant thunder. After a couple minutes, I got up to look out into the dark to see if I could make out what it was. The closest freeway is a mile away, and not busy at night. I couldn’t see anything that looked like a sudden LA-sized influx of traffic.

Suddenly it hit me. One of the joys of living on the north side of Sacramento is that most of these small towns were built around the railroads. I was hearing a sound I hadn’t heard like this in years—a passing freight train.

When I was a kid, my brother and I used to spend some time each summer with our grandmother. One of her houses (she seems to have moved more than most grandmothers) was right across a narrow street from railroad tracks. I remember that when we’d first arrive, each passing train would awaken me as it growled past. But by the second night, it was just a comforting background sound like the ticking and quailing and cuckooing of the huge German clock in the hallway.

Trains seem to inspire musical feelings; I know they do in me. I started making a list of train songs, and I hope to come back and spend a bit of time riding each one. For now, I’ll just spit out a stream-of-consciousness blurb for each. Let me know if you have any favorites, or if there are some I’ve missed.

If Love Was A Train (Michelle Shocked)
Why Michelle ‘Shocked’ Johnston didn’t become a major star is beyond me. Brother Max (The Gourds) is benefitting from the same near-anonimity. Guess it’s better than watching ZZ Top go from serious blues influence to slithery pop gunk.

Midnight Special (Credence Clearwater Revival)
My dad bought ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’ because it had this tune and ‘Cotton Fields.’ Since his death, I hadn’t heard the album until I got it again two weeks ago. It’s hard to laugh with joy and cry in pain at the same time.

Driving the Last Spike (Genesis)
Phil Collins accidently lets us get another glimpse of genious. Phil, Phil, Phil; come back to us and leave the trivial pop nonsense. This deserves a movie to be made of it. Collins actually did research before writing the song.

Canadian Railroad Trilogy (Gordon Lightfoot)
Gord knows how good this is; it shows up on more of his albums than any other tune I can think of. I know Lightfoot haters who say, “But that railroad song; I can listen to that.” I want to go to Canada and ride the railroads for as long as my money lasts.

Steel Rail Blues (Gordon Lightfoot)
Yeah, Canadians get trains better than USicans do. From his first album, it’s the kind of tune my Dad and his brothers would have taken to if it hadn’t been so quietly obscure.

Honky Tonk Train Time (Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis)
This one shows up in two different arrangements on the Smithsonian Jazz Collection; once on the piano set, once on the band set. (If you know someone who has these CDs, I’ll take out a bank loan to buy them. Call me; write me; send up smoke signals. I want these classics.) Kieth Emerson covered it as well. It rolls.

Hellbound Train (Savoy Brown)
How sad it was to see Foghat live in ’98. Right up until the nostalgic bit in the middle where ‘Lonesome’ Dave Peverett took the lead guitar and did some Savoy Brown. No, they didn’t do “Doin’ Right” or any of the great stuff from “Hellbound Train” but they did justice to “It Hurts Me Too.” Buy “Hellbound Train”, but don’t listen to the title track. Some clown decided the re-issue should have a fade-out ending instead of the jarring vaporisation of the original. So, buy the “Savoy Brown Collection” as well; you’ll get the original unbastardized version of “Hellbound Train” plus more rockin’ blues than you can shake a pick at.

Aww. Just took a look for some info, and found out Lonesome Dave died from complications of kidney cancer in February of 2000. What a huge loss to blues.

Southern Pacific (Neil Young)
Neil’s ‘re*ac*tor’ is one of his very best albums. Huge crunchy tunes which repeat the fact that he invented grunge and is still its master; goofball stuff like “Get Back On It” and “Motor City”:

My army jeep is still alive
Got locking hubs and four wheel drive
Ain’t got no radio
Ain’t got no mag wheels
Ain’t got no digital clock
(ain’t got no clo-o-o-o-o-o-ck)

and ending with the driving, gut-wrenching “Shots.” No one, no one, rocks like Neil Young.

Oh, and how ’bout the track I stole this title from, or Harry Nilsson’s “Nobody Loves the Railroads Anymore”?

Man there’s a lot of train songs. Maybe I’ll start a whole new site.

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