Commitment: West of Memphis and the Promise of the Real (CD Reviews)
It’s the day after Super Sunday and along with the coma inducing deep fried snacks, there was the equally (spiritually) unhealthy half time musical entertainment to contend with. Whatever the value for artists in terms of exposure, Super Sunday half time is an unforgiving time slot, and over the years bands as seasoned as The Rolling Stones and Prince have done their best to give a little oomph to such a commercialized mainstream event with mixed results. With so many viewers, it’s not a place to take risks or even emphasize music. More often than not, artists have opted for extended cheerleading extravaganzas (Madonna) and this year’s Beyonce segment was no exception. Sure, she can dance, but man, she’s sure no Aretha when it comes to the music. Where is the soul in her songs? I know she’s got ‘It’ to burn, but the fire was smothered beneath the choreography. I love all kinds of music from reggae to funk and way deep into electronica, so it’s not like I’m narrow minded, but after watching such a meticulously planned extravaganza, I felt slightly nauseous and adrift. I was in need of rescue and real music was the only remedy. Driving home from the game, I listened again to the excellent new West of Memphis Soundtrack and Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real’s ‘Live Endings.’ Equilibrium restored.
Movies and music have collaborated with each other since the early days of the silent film. A good soundtrack can make a movie more memorable and emotionally powerful, but how many times have you actually gone out and purchased one? And, if you have, how often do you listen to it? Speaking for myself, I can only think of a few soundtracks that have crossed over into consistently enjoyable home listening experiences – ‘The Harder They Come’, ‘The Wonder Boys’, ‘Let’s Get Lost’ and ‘The Mission’ come to mind, but I’m hard pressed to think of any more. (My daughter thinks I should list ‘The Breakfast Club’ and ‘Pretty in Pink’, but I’ll leave it up to you to fill in your own list) It’s often the case that songs that work well when sequenced in a movie don’t always stand up when listened to at home without the story and images to give them context. The new ‘West of Memphis’ soundtrack is a very powerful exception to this, and I’ve been listening to it constantly.
‘West of Memphis’ is a new documentary directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson that recounts the injustices suffered by Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly who were still teenagers when they were wrongfully convicted of the murder of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. They spent 18 years in prison before they were finally freed in 2011. They are still awaiting proper compensation.
During their incarceration many people fought for their acquittal, including Patti Smith, Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, Marilyn Manson and The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Mains – who are all featured on the soundtrack CD. The actual film apparently only features certain elements of these songs, with most of the instrumental soundtrack composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Aspects of these instrumentals can be heard in the spoken word ‘Damien Echols Death Row Letter Year 9’ and ‘West of Memphis Score Suite’, but these ambient, slow burning tracks offer brief moments of calm in an otherwise blistering and uncompromising set of songs. From the nasty pleading paranoia of Natalie Maines and Ben Harper’s take of Pink Floyd’s ‘Mother’ to Camp Freddy’s raunchy revisit of David Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’, the ‘West of Memphis’ soundtrack goes for the throat and doesn’t pull its punches. I can’t decide whether it’s the surprisingly right on version of Carly Simon’s ‘You’re so Vain’ as happily destroyed by Marilyn Manson or the raw, metallic new recording of Lucinda Williams’ ‘Joy’ that I like best on the soundtrack because it’s not the individual songs that make it such a pleasure to listen to. The whole soundtrack captures a perfect storytelling arc with slower, more introspective songs such as Eddie Vedder’s ‘Satellite’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Ring Them Bells’ punctuating the screeching vitriolic attacks and providing much needed space for reflection and recovery. A rough, tentative, live version of Patti Smith’s ‘Wing’ closes the soundtrack, leaving listeners with the final line ‘yet I was free’ echoing in their ears.
Live Endings – Promise of the Real
Four years into their journey, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real have become a live act to contend with. If you’ve been wondering where all the good jam bands have gone and you’ve been missing music that can boogie hard and fast while holding onto its integrity, there’s no need to look any further. Over the past few years, Lukas Nelson has grown into one of the best hard rocking guitarists playing on the road today. Booking thousands of miles of travel while clocking in over two hundred dates a year has really paid off for this band. Promise of the Real has become a really tight unit , and the confidence and familiarity with each other that playing so often has created allows them to stretch way out into their songs. Most of the selections from this set are live versions of tracks from ‘Wasted’, POTR’s second full-length album, and almost without exception they sound far more engaging and vital than their studio counterparts. Tracks like ‘Old Familiar Pain’, ‘Peaceful Solution’ and ‘Wasted’ really encourage the band members to trust their intuitions, let go and soar into uncharted territory. It’s thrilling to hear them find fresh things to express in songs they’ve played hundreds of times before.
‘Live Endings’ offers a perfect snapshot of Promise of the Real in early 2013. Perhaps more importantly, it allows the group some time to consider its next move. Over the past few years, Lukas has earned a reputation as one of the hardest working young men in the music business. Aside from playing live dates, he writes music constantly, (sometimes a song a day he’s told me) while he continues to record with his father and jam with other artists such as Furthur and Neil Young. It’s an enviable position to be in, to be sure, and it would be easy for Lukas to continue in this vein. He’d keep on making great music, but at the same time, Lukas has never presented to me as someone who is content to rest or be satisfied with the creative space he’s in, so I think that’s pretty unlikely. Listening to the live album, it’s possible to hear signs of strain as if all of the musicians are pushing to get into new musical territory. There are so many rhythmic ideas underlying Anthony Logerfo’s powerhouse drumming that I would love to see explored more deeply in the future. It would be wonderful to hear he and Tato, the group’s percussionist, create musical settings for the rest of the band to follow. There are huge untapped riches in the band’s backbeat that could make for some very challenging compositions. Lukas’ guitar playing can veer into very experimental territory, and it would be interesting to hear him pursue that aspect of his work a little more deeply. POTR have proven they can dive right into the cosmic soup to channel Crazy Horse’s emotional range with amazing results. Perhaps it’s time that they slow it down a little, get soulful and explore their own ‘Band of Gypsies’ sound and see where that takes them.
‘Live Endings’ is a perfect bookend to the first phase of Promise of the Real’s journey. Whether the next chapter engages Nelson’s singer-songwriter side, further explorations into the jam band universe, or reflects something completely new, the group’s remarkable unfolding is a thrill and a pleasure to witness and take part in.
This posting originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com