Wednesday, CB’s Gallery. They’re selling Daniel Johnston art, $50 for a color print, $25 for black-and-white, all the size of typing paper, images guaranteed haunted, generally filled with severed limbs and heads and his favorite self- image, the big-eyed monster. Plus dialogue. A sample: “How strange it all is!” “Well, it’s more than weird. If you knew why— Satan will die.” “You are a failure Satan!” His last attempt at a concert, during CMJ last fall, ended disastrously, and this is the first of four sets in three nights, so everyone is nervous; the middle act makes Johnston feel welcome by leading a sing-along to “Funeral Home,” his rewrite of Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch.” It works. Daniel comes on, looking far older than 38, round bellied, with a cheap guitar and a loose-leaf of handwritten lyrics. His voice is way more hoarse and scratchy than on the fabled cassettes— he’s turned into one of those wheezy character actors in a noir or western. A guitar string breaks. He goes on anyway, flipping one direction in the loose-leaf, skipping past tunes aplenty but still muttering, “I’m running out of songs,” when he gets to the far right. Is it all a crock? Not the melody and pacing of the old tune that starts, “Talk about a lousy weekend.”
Friday, Knitting Factory. The final set— he survived! He’s cheered for fixing his guitar strap; his pants slip down. He still looks nervous, in front of the mike, peering hard at the lyrics, which all produces a tremulousness familiar from the home recordings. Again a lot of new stuff, presumably from Rejected, the Tim/Kerr album that was supposed to come out January 19, only it hasn’t yet. Then a band comes on— Marc Ribot on guitar, J. D. Foster on bass, David Licht drumming. The musicians aren’t smiling as much as the crowd; they’ve got to find a place within Johnston’s rhythms, an off-kilter clump. But everyone laughs during “Live and Let Die” when he starts improvising lines like “I must warn you I’m a living time bomb.” Does Daniel Johnston like himself? He’s telling jokes by the end. “I had a dream where a guy was sentenced to death for attempting suicide. I was in the dream and I was going, ‘No, that’s not fair!’ And the guy looked just like me.” — Eric Weisbard
Loser Takes All
He was sampled by the Beastie Boys. Aside from a pathetic ploy to grab your attention— hey, people older than you have ignored David Bromberg reviews for years, in publications with smaller circulations than this one— that fact also holds a historical parallel. Maybe the Beasties just liked the funky clank of the guitar riff to Bromberg’s “Sharon,” which opens their “Johnny Ryall.” Or maybe, as products of 1970s New York, they knew from hearing him on the radio that he’d had a similar outsider’s approach to earlier eras of black music, one that was both scholarly and clownish.
Bromberg formally retired in 1993, and on Sunday, the third of his shows celebrating the Bottom Line’s 25 years, he kidded a lot about how unrehearsed his bunch of over-50 improvisers were. He warned that his voice was tired, and joked that it had never been very energetic to begin with. A student of American roots music, he’s fascinated by mythos, but his Delta-accented nasal New York warble can’t threaten violence convincingly. So he played Bo Diddley’s bragging “Who Do You Love,” and blues tales full of knives, the devil, cheating women, and dead mules, just like in the rural South, but sang with a loser’s comic persona. “I’ll take you back,” he cracked to howls from the faithful, “when Monica gets a new hat, and pussy’s just a cat.” In “The Hold Up,” cowritten with George Harrison and once a staple of local FM radio, he sang, “Wealth is disease and I am the cure” in the voice of a marauding highwayman, like Cormac McCarthy with a graduate degree in borscht belt.
He played guitar, mandolin, and fiddle with flair, covered Gary White and Willie McTell, tossed in some Celtic jigs and folk standards like “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” and handed out 16-bar solos to the horn section and string players like candy. A hulking man, he loomed over the stage like an aging Jeff Goldblum, gleaming with ungainly poise, charm, and confidence. When the adoring crowd— full of gray ponytails, heavily tattooed, chesty guys in Jagermeister caps, and hand-dancing women in thin dresses— yelled song titles, he scoffed, “If you request it, it won’t happen— you know that, right?” Just like a surly old bluesman would. — Rob Tannenbaum
“I want to see ass-shakin’,” declared Zulu Nation chief Afrika Bambaataa before last Saturday’s show at the Cooler, his first Downtown appearance in years. Bam got his wish.
The legend of Bambaataa was what drew in the mostly vanilla crowd. Crafting hip-hop and rap in the late ’70s with spare funk and syncopated voices, Bambaataa then created electro-funk symphonies in a slew of early-’80s singles like “Looking for the Perfect Beat” and “Planet Rock.” The ’90s have been less glamorous, but the next few months promise a new album, a Leftfield collaboration, and a United DJs of America release.
For a deity who got his look and theology from Sun Ra and Dr. Funkenstein, Bam appeared subdued Saturday night, sporting a dark sweater, cap, and medallion, moving around only to dig out records from his crates. Not one rap or pronouncement from his mouth as he stood in the back. That duty went to his Zulu brothers T.C. Izlam, Stikee, Mighty K.G., and DJ Power, who all worked the crowd with nothing more than “Somebody say ‘Oh yeah!’, ” “Clap your hands to the beat,” “Bass!,” and “Word up!”
With some help from DJs Stikee and Hektek, Bam’s journey took us through his beloved electro-groove, jungle, ragamuffin, go-go, and salsa, with snatches from his hits, along with “Rescue Me,” “Sex Machine,” “The Rockafeller Skank,” “Walk This Way,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Flash Light,” “Jungle Boogie,” and to end it all, Sly’s “Thank You.” Bam’s hectic pace drove the crowd wild for three hours, winding down only for technical difficulties and some slow reggae grooves. Otherwise, the Zulus gladly gave it up twice to break-dancing exhibitions that cleared the floor ’cause “it’s all about dancing.”
Words to take to heart. When Bam and the Zulus return to the Cooler later this month, be there and shake your ass all over the funking place. — Jason Gross
A pocket of fans hollered for “Honey (Open That Door)” last Friday night at Irving Plaza, but like Ricky Skaggs told ’em, he sold a bus, some amps, and a few other things to make the shift back to bluegrass, so those country hits ain’t part of the current program. If this switcheroo sounds like the kind of maneuver that takes place when the hits just don’t keep on coming, it is . . . kinda. Over the last six or seven years Skaggs’s vibrant neotraditionalism— which helped buttress country both aesthetically and commercially in the ’80s— has been plowed aside by the pop-conscious strains of Garth and Shania. But while bluegrass may be a corner the singer has retreated to, it’s also an old stone fireplace he’s been waiting to stoke.
Though his nasal tenor displayed its usual power, Skaggs claimed his throat was hurting. A Cambridge audience had evidently tried to outsing him on the Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley chestnuts the night before, so Friday his Kentucky Thunder group got extra room to display its pickin’ prowess. The seven-piece string band approaches its breakdowns as earnestly as Metallica does its thud. There were moments in “Boston Boy” and “Whiskey Before Breakfast” where the simple tempos swirled vehemently enough to belie the style’s austerity. Chalk it up to a purist’s ardor. Skaggs is a mandolin virtuoso who worked with his heroes as a teen— he doesn’t doubt the music’s power for a second.
Nor does he trifle with its texts. A wry snippet of Lester Flat singing K.C.’s “That’s the Way I Like It” was as modern as Skaggs got. He calls his new disc Ancient Tones, and from “Toy Heart” to “Pig in a Pen” to “Rank Stranger,” the gig flagged his preservationist persona— don’t expect Mutt Lange to add any digital hosannas to that gospel record Ricky the Baptist is cutting in March. Maybe the purist ardor is fortuitous. The blazing instrumental he closed with is up for a Grammy. His Ceili Music label split from Rounder last year, taking Del McCoury with it. Keeping the contemporary at bay for two hours, Skaggs confirmed retrenchment as revitalization, a canny pop ruse no matter how rootsy you make it. — Jim Macnie
Gwen Guthrie 19501999
Gwen Guthrie, introduced as “the first lady of Paradise Garage” at the club’s closing party, really belonged to her crowd. She delivered her defining club hits— “Padlock,” “Seventh Heaven,” and “It Should Have Been You” among them— in a style that was intimate and sometimes frisky but never salacious or overpowering. Gwen, who died last Wednesday, was not about diva affectation but rather about mother wit, empathy, and pure bliss.
A native of Newark, Guthrie was a grade-school teacher when her first background vocal session (Aretha Franklin’s 1974 “I’m in Love”) kicked off a career that combined studio vocals, jingle singing, and songwriting. She penned a series of well-crafted r&b/pop hits, including Ben E. King’s “Supernatural Thing”; “Love Don’t Go Through No Changes on Me,” one of six she cowrote for the first Sister Sledge album; the wry, truthful “God Don’t Like Ugly” for Roberta Flack; and an exquisite pop standard, “This Time I’ll Be Sweeter,” which always seemed to sing itself beautifully, whether covered by Flack, Linda Lewis, Isaac Hayes, Angela Bofill, or Marlena Shaw.
Guthrie’s frequent work with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare resulted in two accomplished Island albums, Gwen Guthrie and Portrait. Leaving Island to gain the right of self-production in 1986, she immediately wrote and produced a massive international hit, “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin On but the Rent.” Despite lines like “No romance without finance” and “You gotta have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me,” heard by some as provocative, this was really just one more of Guthrie’s sly, savvy, and sensible takes on relationships. The week of her passing, the song was on the number one album in the country, Foxy Brown’s Chyna Doll.
From her backup sessions to her songwriting, solo records, and production, there wasn’t a J-O-B in music at which Gwen Guthrie did not excel. She is survived by a brother and two daughters.
— Brian Chin And Jim Feldman