Category Archives: Tower of Song

If You Could Perform Yoga to Iron Maiden …

Roderick Romero, co-frontman of Seattle’s Sky Cries Mary has braids Willie Nelson would covet and a disheveled suit worthy of the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. His voice is the occasionally ferocious yin to his wife Anisa’s ethereal yang. Together they carve slices out of the sky and serve them to the audience, like lovers who brush the silverware off the table, finger-feeding each other the last bite of tiramisu.

Last night Bellingham experienced Sky Cries Mary— what Roderick coyly called his band’s style of “space rock.” Their music is so much cooler than two words can describe— or even this entry’s 514. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then this blog has no chance of pinning down the essence of their music. And that may be OK: nobody ever danced to pin anything down.

Last night I danced like I hoped to pluck out my own pins. The opener, “Elephant Song,” like virtually all of SCM’s music, seems to have remained largely under the radar for the past decade or three. With enough commercial appeal to grace three Hollywood films (including Higher Learning and the delightful Tank Girl), I suspect SCM’s sound is too mysterious, too rich, deep, and powerful to grab hold of the deep-pocketed, drive-thru masses that radio stations and CD hawkers are after.

[By the way, at lunch in Seattle the other day, I was telling Rivers that the film Harvest (in which SCM’s “Elephant Song” appeared), managed to triumph despite its theme of a man hunting down the people who stole his kidney. Its success for me was sprung from the relentlessly brooding mood it conjured (largely helped by the texture and angst of one of SCM’s most towering, climactic songs) along with some excellent sex scenes.]

Last night’s show had the added bonus of Manooghi Hi setting the stage. The band’s leader, lithe headbanging BombaRock diva Mehnaz Hoosein is the sort of nymph who could lure men to drop their own babies and march into mortal battle. Mortal battle, that is, of the sort that involves joyous dancing and raucous prog-rock riffs, amid unfettered cheerful enthusiasm. If you could do yoga to Iron Maiden in a Bollywood movie, Manooghi Hi might be the soundtrack.

To round out this review, Bellingham’s Wild Buffalo was the perfect intimate scene for the psychedelic transformations of SCM and Manooghi Hi. Both bands have a stage presence and wall of sound massive enough to fill stadiums, but it’s when you get up close that you see the pure passion they pour into their performances. There is even a billiards room above and behind the stage, complete with make-out couches. They don’t serve food, but you can bring in your own. The bouncer recommended the $7 (now $9) pulled pork from the Bayou Bar next door and all three of us concurred: it was a damn good sandwich sauced with plenty of fire.

SCM is playing Neumo’s in Seattle tonight. Tomorrow they play my beloved Dante’s in Portland, near the original Voodoo Doughnut. Manooghi Hi will again be providing the opening workout: don’t be late.

Thanks for reading. Cheers,


Photos by Sky Cries Mary & Manooghi Hi

Boogie-Shoe Anthropology

Once upon a time we students of humanity, a.k.a. anthros, imagined we could pin down others from an entirely objective viewpoint. We thought this was hard science and there were strict laws about presenting the specific beauties of a people. Laws and beauty: not exactly bedfellows, right? This approach was doomed.

The backlash was an awfully nice, but not exactly helpful “I’m OK, you’re OK” philosophy. One angle was politely called relativism. In 1991 Robert Pirsig trashed such overreactions:

What many were trying to do, evidently, was get out of all these metaphysical quarrels by condemning all theory, by agreeing not even to talk about such theoretical reductionist things as what savages do in general. They restricted themselves to what their particular savage happened to do on Wednesday. That was scientifically safe all right— and scientifically useless. … If you can’t generalize from the data there’s nothing else you can do with it either. … A science without generalization is no science at all. Imagine someone telling Einstein, “you can’t say ‘E=mc2.’  It’s too general, too reductionist. We just want the facts of physics, not all this high-flown theory.” Cuckoo. … Data without generalization is just gossip. (Lila, p. 62)

Nowadays we seek a middle path, where our biases as observers are present and acknowledged, but hopefully not overly imposed on the subject we’re studying. Thus real people take center stage without ignoring the fact that the cameras are rolling. Ethnography (a fancy term for the attempt to capture some of a culture’s essence in language) is a stage, a dramatization.

In that sense, cultural anthropology starts to feel a lot like storytelling, and the film Throw Down Your Heart is a marvelous example of its potential. This is the story of one of the world’s greatest banjo players visiting the homeland of his chosen instrument. The experience Sascha Paladino’s film creates is like a music video to Night at the Museum: displays step out from behind glass to jam with the audience. This is the new ethnography, off the pages and into your boogie shoes.

The beauty, anthropologically, of what Béla Fleck achieved in his tour of Africa is that he provided a foil for the local cultures to shine. He’s no trained scientist. He is a quiet man who connects with people in the language most familiar to him. The diva Oumou Sangare says: “Béla is somebody who might have a hard time expressing himself with his mouth, but who can express himself perfectly with his fingers.” Mali’s biggest pop star, she says this with passionate, emphatic gestures. Then they jam together, the music swells, and damn if thousands of copies of the local Mali yellow pages don’t all flutter at the thought of Béla’s fingers doing the walking.

He’s an amazing performer— as are the locals he encounters— and somehow the film is really just about that. How refreshing that a project like this doesn’t have to be a study or some sort of mission with a message, but simply an experience. Ironically it succeeds as both a study and message because people doing what they love have a way of creating wisdom and inspiration naturally.

I fell in love with Béla Fleck’s music through his live performances. He’s a master of collaborating with other musicians who, like Béla, deliver a highly memorable stage presence. When I see performances like this, I realize that every generation should embrace the greatest performers of their time. There’s nothing wrong with revering the timeless greats, but there is much to be gained from participation in the now of music.

Headbanger's delight
Maiden in Denver: another item checked off my bucket-list.

Luckily there is an awful lot of music being created live at any given moment on this planet, from Uganda’s bouncing 12-foot wooden marimba (featured in the film) to Iron Maiden last Monday amid a sea of my fellow headbanging fans.

My simple recommendation for this film? Throw down your heart, put on your boogie shoes, and see it.

Thanks for reading. Cheers,


Photos: Béla pickin’ in Africa © Argot Pictures 2006, all rights reserved. The other one’s by me: it’s Iron Maiden performing 6/14/10 at the Denver venue with a name that’s as fun as flossing, Comfort Dental Amphitheatre.

Where Can I Get a Robot that Plays Herbie Mann?

“Where can I get a robot that plays Herbie Mann?” —from Kurt Catlin, written on my Facebook wall

Thank you for that little catapult ride back to my youth, Kurt. Ten words, like smells from grandma’s kitchen, like the feel of that favorite flannel, like a man on oxygen performing under a Jazz Fest tent in 2003 … The past is not as far off as we think. All it takes is a whiff or a riff.

Back when Kurt and I lived on Coachman Drive, I received a gift from my mom the teacher: 2-XL. It was an educational toy, a plastic robot that played 8-track tapes with multiple-choice adventures. I discovered it would play music as well and purchased my first-ever recording from a garage sale: Herbie Mann’s Turtle Bay.

Flash forward to Jazz Fest 2003 and you would find me leaving the rest of my buddies at the Widespread show (don’t hate me) to see Herbie Mann on the jazz stage. I walked into the tent decades the younger of everyone else already seated. Herbie made his way onstage with help, toting an oxygen tank and teetering his way precariously to a barstool centerstage. For the next hour or so I found myself near tears, so caught up in a solid performance that belied Herbie’s few remaining days on earth.

They say smell has the most powerful ability of all the other senses to transport us back to experiences of our past. But music packs an emotional punch that goes way beyond nostalgia or recollection. I sat there and realized I had listened to Turtle Bay thousands of times. It was my only music until a second garage sale turned up the soundtrack to The Wiz (complete with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson on “Ease on Down the Road”) and I loved every track. I would get sent to my room (not deliberately, I swear— and no, mom, I wasn’t being picky about dinner: I was being discerning) and there was 2-XL, Herbie Mann, and a few roundtrips through all 8 tracks, boogying to the funky jazz flute sounds of 1973.

My love for that flute, those perky rhythms, that complex musical experimentation made me a guaranteed fan the first time my brother played Jethro Tull. Another flautist, this time in a progressive rock band, and I was hooked. Luckily Ian Anderson of Tull is not on oxygen yet and I have seen him perform live ten times. I am also decades younger than the average Tull fan. But I digress.

Soaking in that Herbie Mann sound under the shaded jazz tent of pre-Katrina New Orleans, it all went in one ear and— for once— not out the other one. I saw the foundation of my musical preferences, I became living proof of the enduring power of music, and I saw how art can bridge generations. I even saw how it can cheat death. Herbie never performed again and died just two months after that performance, but I have since sought out vinyl— then, later, MP3s— of “Turtle Bay” and I continue to find “discerning” ways to get sent to my room.

Ain’t it funny how a melody can bring back a memory?
—Clint Black, “State of Mind” 1993

By the way, Kurt Catlin is a funkified musician himself. Next time you’re in Seoul, git ya Somah Dat. Thanks for reading. Cheers,

Photos by Tom Marcello (2)