Yes, I know it’s been a minute since I’ve posted here, especially anything in the music category. But after seeing all the end of year list of best albums and best songs, I decided to go a different direction and list the best concerts I attended (and didn’t attend) in 2015.
My taste is not your taste, so deal with it. But this is what I saw and loved in the past 12 months.
Dawes at ACM@UCO in Bricktown – I have to admit, I knew just a little about this group. Thought they were some sort of hipster/slacker band and they weren’t in my streaming rotation. Then, on my way back from Kansas City (I think), I heard an interview with Dawes front man Taylor Goldsmith on Sirius XM, which I was only listening to because it came with my wife’s new ride. And the songs they played along with the interview sounded more country than shoe gazing. So I filed that away. As fate would have it, I got an e-mail just a few days after that announcing that Dawes would be playing in OKC and for only $20 with John Moreland, a headliner in his own right, opening! Dragging my butt there on a school night and having to stand up all night (not good), I was greeted by a band that was much more energetic than their studio recordings and much more musically talented than I imagined -plus the added bonus of legacy guitarist Duane Betts being added to the band for the tour. Every song was dynamic, Goldsmith was an exquisite showman, and the crowd was in fever pitch all night. Afterward, I declared Dawes the best current American band. And they are.
Steve Earleand the Dukes – Why he chose this venue to make his first Oklahoma City appearance since 1988 is a mystery to me, but there was no way I would miss it. The Wormy Dog is probably my second least favorite place to see a show, with the Diamond Ballroom ranking below. But I swallowed my pride and plunked down a very reasonable sum for what turned out to be an epic show. His backing band, the Dukes, were as tight as any unit around and Earle wheeled from song to song with very little banter and machine precision. The sweat was pouring from stage and crowd, but no one cared and when the show reached two hours, then two and a half, it looked like Earle was going to outlast his audience. It was well past midnight when he put the finishing touches on the last of eight encore songs, coming from left field with his own interpretation of the Troggs “Wild Thing”. Thirty-three songs after it began, the mesmerizing night of music turned into day with hopes that it wouldn’t be another 27 years before he came to town again.
Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson – Even though I had been a big fan of the Drive By Truckers for some time (more on that later), I hadn’t really latched on to Jason Isbell’s solo efforts until a few months before. And I initially resisted Sturgill Simpson’s status as the next big weird hip thing – until I listened to his second album. And again, finding out that both of these headliners would be on the same stage was mind blowing. I was already mad that I had missed Isbell’s impromptu show at the Bricktown Events Center the previous summer when the Zoo Amp concert with Willie Nelson had been rained out. I refused to pay top dollar for that, since I figure Isbell would only get about 30 minutes as third fiddle on that bill and I wanted to remember Willie the way he was back in his Red Headed Stranger heyday. Very few people bought tickets to that show, and only a handful were lucky enough to get invited downtown for the “free show”, which lasted over two hours. Soooo, when the Winstar show with Isbell and Simpson was announced, no way was I going to miss being in that number this time. I do not enjoy the drive to Winstar and I don’t gamble, so I won’t go there unless it is something really special (or free, as in the case of an Alice In Chains show I attended there a year previously). Also, I don’t want to go unless I am able to get in the VIP seating, which makes it worth the drive. Fortunately, I happen to have some connections down there, and am able to secure said VIP seats, even though this time I had to pay. Seventy-five dollars was worth it. Three hundred dollars would have been worth it. Simpson blistered through a 15 song set that featured his compositions wrapped around some bluegrass and country favorites, featuring his Estonian guitarist Laur Joamets, who has the fastest guitar licks this side of Albert Lee. Simpson mixed in a little T Rex “Bang a Gong” in the finale, which was not lost on me but was a mystery to the majority of the 20-something audience. Then came Isbell, working through his immaculate “Southeastern” album, interspersed with his Drive By Truckers signature song “Decoration Day” and an old Candi Staton tune. There were only a dozen songs, but they were extended and crafted exquisitely, displaying a passion that opened up some of the understated delivery of his recorded work. Isbell displayed his perfect phrasing and surprised with his masterful guitar playing as well. All in all, a diverse show with two different types of front men who are unique in their own way.
May 15 marks the fifth anniversary of the death of one of the greatest human beings to ever walk the earth. We lost Wayman Tisdale far too early at the age of 44, but his spirit and love for life stays with us today.
I first met Wayman when he was an awkward teenager at Booker T. Washington High School, yet to develop all the gifts he had been granted. What a pleasure it was to be able to have a front row seat as he developed into one of the best basketball players in the history of college basketball and as he became one of the greatest ambassadors the state of Oklahoma could have. His musical talents, which actually were far more developed in his youth than his basketball skills, also became a primary part of his professional life.
Although he didn’t have the type of NBA success he may have wanted, Wayman took another road and became a well-respected and much loved jazz musician, working with some of the top performers in the industry. His smile remained as broad as the ocean and his handshake as strong as his love for his family, his state and his music.
The last time I had a chance to visit in depth with Wayman came just a year before his passing. He had survived cancer’s first attack and had not yet seen the relapse that was to come. As always, his spirit was infectious and his grace was immeasurable.
There haven’t been too many bumps in the road for Oklahoma basketball all-time scoring leader Wayman Tisdale. Since he was a freshman in high school, Tisdale has traveled a fairy tale path – from prep superstar at Tulsa Washington to three-time All-American at Oklahoma, the Olympic team, a decade long pro career and into a post-retirement career as a top-selling jazz musician.
But this past spring, Tisdale experienced one of the few setbacks in his life. Last may, he fell down a flight of stairs in his home and while doctors were doing X-Rays to determine the damage to his knee, they found a cancerous cyst in his fibula. Following removal of the cyst, Tisdale had to cancel his music tour and start chemotherapy to treat the cancer. Once again, it appears Wonderful Wayman has come out on top.
“Everything is great. I’m pretty much done with the treatments and back out on the road,” said Tisdale. “So I’m feeling great and everything is pretty much behind us. I had to curtail my touring most of the summer but I was able to go back out this winter.”
Tisdale just completed a Christmas Jazz Cruise in January to Aruba and Curacao and his latest CD, Way Up, debuted at #1 and spent 30 weeks in the top 10 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz charts.
He still has the infectious smile, the outgoing personality and the easy going nature that made him a fan favorite in Norman while he was becoming the most decorated player in Sooner history and helping to build a budding dynasty for coach Billy Tubbs. Tisdale was the first player to be named first team All-American as a freshman, sophomore and junior and he holds virtually all of the Oklahoma scoring records.
“It was a long shot when I first went there. I had a lot of people trying to tell me not to go to Oklahoma, but that didn’t matter to me,” Tisdale said. “What mattered is that I was going to get to play as a freshman and pretty much get the program handed over to me and you just can’t find that anywhere else.”
It was instant stardom for Tisdale, who averaged 24.5 points as a freshman and 25.6 for his three year career. He led the Sooners within a game of the Final Four on two occasions and built the foundation for Tubbs’ teams that would later on make it to the NCAA championship game. And he was the leading rebounder for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Gold Medal basketball team coached by Bob Knight.
From there, Tisdale became the number two overall pick in the NBA draft behind Patrick Ewing and went on to a 12 year career with the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns that saw him average over 15 points a game and score almost 13,000 points. In the latter stages of his career, Tisdale released his first musical effort, Power Forward, and showed his teammates and the world that he was serious about a career in jazz after basketball.
He had played the bass in his father’s Tulsa church as a youngster, but when he began to grow and basketball became his calling, Tisdale put music on the back burner. He still played from time to time, with many people considering it a hobby or a novelty. However, Tisdale was just as serious about music as he was about basketball.
“Ninth grade, I started sort of excelling in basketball and had to put the bass down then. Never really put it down completely,” said Tisdale. “I just never really did practice as hard on the bass until maybe my eighth or ninth year in the league, I really got serious about it.”
“I got harassed a lot by (my teammates), you know. But I knew what I wanted to do, I was focused and didn’t let a lot of people deter me in what I wanted to do. Sometimes I went overboard because I was spending so much time doing it, but other than that, it was all out of the love.”
The big lefthander released two CDs that were critically acclaimed before he decided to retire after the 1997 season. Now, Tisdale was making the transition from basketball star that happened to play music to full-time musician. How was he perceived in his new world?
“Pretty much from day one, they really embraced me on the music side,” said Tisdale. “I guess my sound is so different and so new that it kind of took off right away when they heard my playing. It just been a blessing to come from one world into another and be pretty much successful, so I don’t take that for granted at all.”
“I always wanted to do it and always aspired to do it, and I knew what kind of work it was going to take after being successful at basketball, knew that I was going to have to work just as hard or harder to make it in music, so why can’t I? That was the theory I used and it just came about.”
“It took lots of discipline. I listened a lot, too. I listened to a lot of advice. I bumped my head a lot of times, too, but even though I bumped my head I still took the advice and kind of just went from there and things just started to fall in place after a while. There’s no substitute for hard work and that’s what I’ve been taught and done the whole time.”
Tisdale has released seven solo albums to date. In 2002, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and received the Legacy Tribute Award. He was also nominated by the NAACP as “Outstanding Jazz Artist” for its 2004 Image Awards.
He has also kept a connection to his home state, commuting from his farm home near Tulsa to his business interests in Los Angeles. Tisdale and his wife, Regina, have four children and his Tulsa home includes a stocked pond so he can indulge in another passion – fishing – while helping in the garden and horseback riding with his son. Outside of the home, Tisdale regularly takes Tae Bo with Billy Blanks, calling it his new addiction and the best workout since playing in the NBA.
“We’re back home and enjoying the farm life and I’m traveling probably more now than ever,” noted Tisdale. “Things are just moving right along.”
For a couple of years, Tisdale returned to OU to do color commentary on Sooner basketball television broadcasts, but his music success forced him to give up that job. He still takes a keen interest in the program.
“My schedule is just really busy, pretty much all year round now, so I wasn’t able to do it. I really enjoyed doing that. I loved that,” said Tisdale. “The program is kind of rebuilding now and it’s getting to where it needs to be. It still has a long way to go, but it’s a good start and they’ve got some good foundation to do it with.”
A big part of that foundation is freshman center Blake Griffin, who some are touting as the second coming of Tisdale. Even though Tisdale was the first OU player to have his number retired, he agreed to allow his number 23 to be reinstated so that Griffin could wear it this year. Griffin is off to a great start, but still has a long way to go to reach the numbers that Tisdale compiled, even though Tisdale hopes the 6-10 youngster can reach those heights.
“I’d rather that he be better than me. I know that he’s gonna be a great player and I’m going to be wishing him all the best”, said Tisdale. “We need to get him to average about 10 or 15 more as a freshman. But he’ll be alright.”
And while Tisdale is doing just fine in his latest career, he still would like to stay involved in the sport that gave him a chance to reach a national audience and he took the opportunity to lobby for yet another job.
“You know, I’m interested if the Sonics come to Oklahoma City, I’m definitely interested in working in some capacity”, Tisdale said. “Not as a coach or anything but front office work. Community relations. I think I’d be good at that. My face would look good on that.”
It’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years since the smiling youngster from Tulsa showed up on OU campus and put Sooner basketball on the map. Tisdale plans to keep moving and putting a smile on the face of everyone he touches. As far as he’s concerned, that’s just part of the plan.
“I think everybody’s life is orchestrated. We’ve just got to follow the blueprint”, said Tisdale. “I feel that I’ve been dealt a pretty great blueprint and it’s just been a blur for me. It hasn’t stopped going since before I got to OU.”
Sadly, there would be no storybook ending to Wayman’s story. Shortly after this interview, the cancer returned with a ferocity that required the amputation of his leg. Still, Wayman battled back through rehabilitation, but the signs were there that this was a battle he would not win. Eventually, he succumbed to the disease.
His memory lives on with the Wayman Tisdale Award, given to the top NCAA freshman each year. And his wife Regina battles on, still cherishing her husband’s memory and struggling to deal with such an enormous void. We share her memories and we, too, still can’t believe that he’s gone.
Tuesday night, I was able to scratch another item off what I refer to as the “catch up” list. I detest the overused term “bucket list”. To me, making up for lost opportunities is catching up and that’s what I did in seeing one of this country’s musical treasures, Geoff Muldaur, for the first time in the intimate setting of the Blue Door.
He isn’t a household name outside of music aficionados like me, but rather ‘famous by association’. His sister is the actress Diana Muldaur, who still turns up on the odd “Murder She Wrote” rerun and played Dr. Pulaski on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. His ex-wife and ex-bandmate, Maria Muldaur, became an ‘80s FM radio darling with her big hit “Midnight at the Oasis” and the salacious cover of the Swallows “It Ain’t The Meat, It’s The Motion”. He was part of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in the ‘60s and Paul Butterfield’s Better Days in the ‘70s.
After recording a couple of solo albums in the ‘80s, he ‘disappeared’ for 17 years, but was really hiding in plain sight. While on a working sabbatical, Muldaur scored music for movies and TV, played on other people’s albums and joined the corporate world. Returning in the late ‘90s, he began a path of helping audiences rediscover blues and jazz music from the depression era through his contemporary interpretations and he’s now combining his infrequent public appearances with creating arrangements for an orchestra in the Netherlands. Refreshingly, at 70, Muldaur plays because he wants to and not because he has to.
Which brings us to his Blue Door show. Through the years, Muldaur’s trips to Oklahoma City have been fraught with weather issues. In 1999, he was scheduled on the evening the tornado struck Moore. In 2008, he had to delay his Blue Door appearance for one night because an ice storm made it impossible for him to get out of the hotel parking lot. But this time, he missed the freak April snow flurry by one day and followed the night of the blood moon with a flawless two-hour solo performance in front of a whopping crowd of 28 – which eclipsed his previous two climate hampered appearances.
Don’t feel bad for Geoff. These were people who were really into his music, some coming all the way from the Far East, where as the saying goes he is ‘big in Japan’. He was able to weave some time-tested stories on the background of songs from Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie Johnson and Vera Hall, as well as late bandmate and tour partner Bobby Charles, into a pastiche of blues, folk and classical tunes. It was like a fireside chat with the curator of these musical genres. And even though he is more of an interpreter or arranger of ‘other folks music’, rather than a lyricist, one of the highlights of the show is his own composition “Got To Find Blind Lemon, (Parts 1 and 2)” about the search for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s grave in East Texas. Enjoy it here from a performance a couple of years back.
Getting set to do some recording next month, Muldaur has also taken several Tennessee Williams poems and set them to traditional music with startling effect. It’s part of his continued reimagining and reengineering of musical forms that make what is old new again.
I surprised Muldaur during the introduction of his version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” when he asked if anyone had ever heard of Philippe Wynne. I answered in the affirmative and added that Wynne was the lead singer of the Spinners (Rubberband Man, Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, you know). Astonished, he said I was the first person at any of his shows that had known who Wynne was. That established my bona fides and allowed me to have a private discussion with him following the show.
It seemed to me that a great part of his show was spent educating audiences on the origin of many of the tunes he performed, sort of a college of musical knowledge.
“I don’t know if I’m trying to educate, maybe I’m a ham,” said Muldaur. “I like to talk about this stuff, I’ll tell you why. It’s because I’m talking about worlds that don’t exist anymore. And it was so yesterday for me. All of a sudden it’s a whole other sack of potatoes, man. To tell any of these stories, it means so much to me.”
Muldaur and Kweskin kicked around the Northeast in the early 1960s, discovering old 78RPM records of the ‘20s and ‘30s blues men (and women) to learn their chops. Back then, about all you had were the John Lomax field recordings, and the American rediscovery of the later blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, among others, was just beginning. You had to scour the record stores to find obscure recordings and felt like Columbus when you did. This often caused people to miss entire genres of music while they were just learning the first one. While Muldaur was in the jug band and folk explosion, something else was happening in another part of the country.
“I didn’t even get around to Motown until it was almost over and then I fell in love with James Jamerson, Benny Benjamin and then I went berserk” Muldaur admitted. “ But I had to go through all the blues and all my jazz thing and then all of sudden, I said ‘wait a minute’. The words didn’t do it for me, but man did these players do it, so I got into that. It’s just sort of endless and the whole gospel thing produced probably the greatest singers we ever had.”
Rather than complain about golden eras of music being smothered by the musical morass that confronts the public these days, Muldaur says to find the abundance of good music being made today and embrace it, even though it will never replace the special talents that have come before.
“When I started playing country blues guitar, the young white guy in 1960-1961, we don’t think there were more than 120 guys in the United States that did that. That’s high,” Muldaur said.” Now there are 120,000 easy. There’s this incredible proliferation of all styles, all techniques.”
“Let me give you an example. How many flat-pickers since Doc Watson came up, how many have played phenomenal, fast, flat picking?How many have whipped that guy? Not one,” said Muldaur. “There were these people and the thing that you can’t put your finger on, other than a few technical things, the genius and the magic of these people and you can’t repeat it. It becomes a classical exercise. Music is a very magical and mysterious thing.”
Another reason that Muldaur plays a handful of shows in the U.S. and Japan each year, along with special collaborations with The Kweskin Jug band and former Better Days partner guitarist Amos Garrett, is to remind the audience of the vast body of tremendous music that has been created during the past century. And that, sadly, its creators have almost all passed.
“Everyone who invented all this music is gone. I mean, B.B. King is what, 88? The last inventor of a blues style,” Muldaur said. “I’m not a curmudgeon about it, it’s just these things happen when they happen. I was very lucky to catch the last third of the zeitgeist. So we caught a few of these guys. I wasn’t hanging out in Harlem in the Big Band era. Right now, I’m steeped in classical music. That’s not going away, you’re never going to run out of that.”
He doesn’t decry the age of Spotify and Rdio, where people can stream millions of songs without purchasing them, to the detriment of music sales, but instead, he is happy that there is a new audience for many of these recordings and a new way to learn the history of what came before.
“We’re all lucky when we get to hear special music. And these days, we’re not in a golden age, but we have billions more notes being played on a daily basis, but you have to be discerning and keep an open mind,” said Muldaur. “You find this person and you say ‘oh my God, that person really has the real stuff right there’. And you never know when it’s going to happen so you have to be open.”
There is a downside to the proliferation of music seemingly available everywhere. Each day, we’re bombarded by YouTube videos of eight-year old guitar shredders and pint-sized vocalists who are note and pitch perfect. But often they just seem to be mimicking what they’ve heard and not really feeling the notes. Something akin to soulless robots. That is something that has also caught Muldaur’s attention.
“Everyone can go on the Internet now and get anything by anybody,” he says. “How come they don’t get the spirit of it when they play it? “
When his Oklahoma City show was announced, I was fearful that age might have stripped Muldaur of his vocal range and styling. I even asked Blue Door owner Greg Johnson a few months back “what’s he sound like, what kind of shape is he in.” And when Muldaur arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see that he looked like a marathon runner and much younger than his age. Then when he started singing, it was obvious that he had lost nothing and might even sound purer than some of his old recordings.
He admits that 17 years of not grinding through one-nighters and club dates preserved his voice, something that those who continued with life on the road can’t say.
“It’s just a technical reality. I wasn’t out there beatin’ the boards for 17 years, so my voice held up. I can still sing. I’m not getting any younger, but I can sing,” said Muldaur. “That’s why I can’t make disparaging remarks about people – and you probably know some of who I’m referring to – that are out there croaking, but I’m telling you, they got there because they put out for a lot of people over many years and I took a lot of time off. I also spent a lot of time in the gym and hiking and bird watching. Well, after those years with Butterfield I had to.”
And then he regaled me with a few stories of Bobby Charles, Reverend Ether (Ronnie Barron) and life on the road. Preserving the history and keeping the music alive. That’s important to Geoff Muldaur and it’s important to me. Thanks, Geoff.