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Lost in Music: An Oral History of Disco

The Dancing Machine: An Oral History
Rock & Roll Quarterly, Summer 1993

GLORIA GAYNOR: I started out singing jazz, singing top 40 in clubs, and between sets, disc jockeys would come in to play and I knew that was the next storm coming; I saw that we were going to be phased out. We saw disco coming and decided we were going to furnish music for that.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: Disco was the greatest time ever, and I am happy that I experienced it. When they went out, they went out with one thing in mind, and that was to party. Today it seems like there’s always a lot of fights. People had no hard­ness or no bad thinking on their mind, and everything was free. And it seemed like the peak to me.

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BARRY WHITE: The ’70s was very glamor­ous — the very first time I ever saw regular jeans go from $5 to $250. The consumers dressed up like they were the stars.

FELIPE ROSE: Disco was like a sense of youthfulness and decadent innocence that the era had. It was just a hot, hot, hot time.

KATHY SLEDGE: I honestly saw it happening but I wasn’t allowed to go out dancing. We were minors at that time period.

BARRY WHITE: It was a freedom time­ — more people experienced things and tried new things, whether it was drugs or whatev­er. It wasn’t about sex but love and sensual­ity, communicating, relating. There’s a world of difference between making love and having sex, and the ’70s was ap­proached as if it was a woman being ro­manced and made love to.

FELIPE ROSE: You wanted to look your hottest, and damn if you forgot your tam­bourine when you got that hit of acid. (I stole that from David Hodo who says it in the show.) You were going to meet fabulous people and you were going to party not just for that night, you were going to party for days.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco snowballed the way it did because it got to be not just music, it got to be peoples’ social lives. People got to be stars and shine on their own.

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FELIPE ROSE: Every night was a different club, one after another, and there were real­ly no barriers in the clubs. There were blacks and whites, gays and straights — it was really more a harmonic thing. You never felt threatened when you went to a club. It’s not like today when you have to wonder who’s carrying a gun or something.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were very fond of disco because every artist needs some sort of movement to make them larger than they really are, and disco did that for us. It sort of gave us a niche, if you will, and a place in history. Some radio stations were calling us Dr. Buzzard’s Original Disco Band, and we never had a problem with that because we were all disco children. We used to hang out at Studio 54 so much that we should have been paying rent.

KATHY SLEDGE: When our song “He’s the Greatest Dancer” came out, it was after the Saturday Night Fever trend and everybody thought they were the greatest dancer. We literally had people come backstage and say, “I am the person you’re singing about.” They were definitely not introverts.

RAY CAVIANO: With disco, you were not an observer, you were a participant. You weren’t going to the party, you were the party.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: In a word? Drama.

RICHIE RIVERA: Party.

AUGUST DARNELL: I’d describe it as pas­sion or, better, neopassion — a passion for the modern times.

BARRY WHITE: Explosive, mystical, magi­cal. Disco brought a lot of smiles to peo­ples’ faces and I saw it everywhere in the world.

RAY CAVIANO: A disco record doesn’t let you dance, it makes you dance.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: The producers, like Norman Harris, took the music and stressed it in the studio; when they started playing they never stopped. When I put down the vocals on “Hit and Run,” they told me to come back the next day and just work out on the break and I thought, This is the longest song I ever sang in my life. The music just went on and on.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco music to me was musical elation. I think people forgot who they were for a minute: it had a way of lifting you, making you forget about your worries or your problems — almost like mesmerizing you. It was another way of reaching out and feeling like you’re a part of or belonging to the crowd.

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AUGUST DARNELL: Hurrah’s was one of the first clubs I went to, but I frequented Danceteria, the Mudd Club, Studio 54, the Continental Baths, Electric Circus — and there were at least a dozen after-hours places that  we used to hang out at. I’d have to look into my diaries to find out their names.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The first club I ever went to was in downtown Brooklyn, called COCP; it was all black and I snuck out there on the weekends. I was like 16. Then there was Salvation, Sanctuary, Tarot across from Max’s, and Max’s for a minute. The Loft, 12 West, Flamingo once or twice. The Gallery, the Garage, Better Days, Infinity, Le Jardin, Studio 54, but those were work-related — the other places I lived at. I was a Loft baby.

RAY CAVIANO: The first club I can remember going to was the Firehouse, early in the ’70s. It was the first place where gay people could get together in an uninhibited way away from the bar scene.

RICHIE RIVERA: The first club I played at was the GAA Firehouse, on Wooster Street. Then Footsteps, Buttermilk Bottom, the Anvil, the Sandpiper on Fire Island, Fla­mingo, the Cock Ring, the Underground, 12 West (which became the River Club after the Saint opened), Studio 54, and back to the Cock Ring.

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FELIPE ROSE: We were like G.I. Joe action dolls under the strobe lights. The intensity back then was stronger, the volume was bigger. We were one of the only groups to go live with a band into the clubs, and when we appeared in stadiums, we brought motorcycles, a tepee, a Jeep, and Portosans — for the construction worker — on stage.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were a band with a mission — to bring dance music back to the world — and we felt like the crowds almost lived by a credo that dance is everything. In England now they have all these rave par­ties, but when people say there’s nothing like a rave, I say I saw all this in 1976 at Studio 54. Studio 54 was like ritual escap­ism to the max.

RAY CAVIANO: There was no question about it: the DJ was in full control — almost mind control — of the dance floor, and he had the capacity to take you on a trip. In some cases people felt it was a religious experience of sorts. It was almost a physical thing too — quasi-sexual. The DJ was ma­nipulating the dance floor through a whole steeplechase of sounds. I wanna take you higher.

RICHIE RIVERA: People got to trust me and we bounced off one another. I had a feel for what they might like so I’d go two or three degrees further, and they usually went along.

DAVID MANCUSO: Rule number one: Don’t let the music stop.

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RICHIE RIVERA: It was difficult for me to accept [Donna Summer’s] “Last Dance” when it came out. It was such a drastic change. For years, everybody had been refining their style so the music flowed non­stop. And all of a sudden here came a song where it stopped — and people needed that. They’d been dancing nonstop for years at that point.

RAY CAVIANO: Never speak to a DJ when he’s got the earphones on and mixing. Know when to talk to the DJ, not to inter­rupt his artistic flow. You’re talking to him during his performance.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: A DJ should always pay attention to his dance floor and entertain­ — that’s his job, to read the audience and react to what they want. Make them scream when they’re good and punish them when they’re bad.

DAVID MANCUSO: A night at the Loft was like three bardos. There was the coming together, calmness. In the first two hours, it starts out very smoothly, gathering. Second bardo would be like the circus: music, lights going, the balloons. Third bardo would be the reentry — going back to where you came from, maybe not the same person, but you land back on your feet gently, a little wiser and a little more sociable.

RAY CAVIANO: Every club was different. At Flamingo the DJ was like the Svengali of the dance floor, the maestro. Funhouse was a little more casual; Jellybean was looser.

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RICHIE RIVERA: At Flamingo, it was like Moses in a scene from The Ten Command­ments. At the Anvil, the booth was right in the middle of everything and people’s faces were like three or four feet away from me, so it was really like being in the heart of the whole proceedings.

RAY CAVIANO: The most famous booth in the industry was at the Paradise Garage. It was literally a who’s who of the music business in New York — from Frankie Crocker to any number of record company promo people. If a hot new record got played, word would spread like a bullet from that booth and within 48 hours you’d have a hit.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: At the Garage, I was the godmother of the booth. As the evening progressed from midnight on, there was a pattern as to who showed up. Early on, it was members of the music industry who came to promote their records but not necessarily to dance. They’d try to set up the DJ, Larry Levan, with a test pressing. After two, those people would disappear and the serious record people would show up. That’s when the party would start. After four or five, the booth would be void of anybody who wasn’t there to seriously dance or listen to music, and those people stayed until closing, sometimes until noon the next day.

RAY CAVIANO: The Infinity booth was famous for DJ groupies. The booth was high above the floor at one end of the room and Jim Burgess ruled. But the groupies had a certain amount of influence; they could get the records they liked played when some promo person didn’t have a chance.

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AUGUST DARNELL: I’d have to say my favorite club was Studio 54, it was so deca­dent and so exciting in that period to be part of something you knew was a world movement. It was a bit magical and the music was devastatingly loud. I was never into the alcohol or the drugs, so the appeal of the club was different for me from its appeal to other members of Savannah Band who will go nameless here. I went primarily for the glamor of it — so many beautiful women hanging out in one place. Steve Rubell did make it ridiculous after a while. He could stagger around higher than any­one I ever saw and still be coherent.

RICHIE RIVERA: In the course of a night, the tempo would generally curve downward, but sometimes the manager thought it was too gradual. People needed a remind­er when it was time to take the downs. They told me, You’ve got to do something to make them realize it’s time to start com­ing down — something dramatic. Some peo­ple showed up at four because they wanted to hear all that down stuff, what came to be known as sleaze music. They didn’t blend in with the earlier crowd, who were like Saturday Night Fever and just wanted to take speed and fly.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Leaving the club, we’d hit the streets looking terribly ugly because we were all very worn out and soiled and everybody out there was fresh. We’d go out to breakfast and talk over the records, the show, the dish of the night, then go home and try to sleep. Come Sunday night, you were fried but not ready to call it a week­end, so Better Days was the dessert when Larry Levan had been the appetizer and dinner.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: I was working this gay club, right? And I talk a lot before I start to sing. And I said I want a lady to come up onstage that don’t mind being a bitch. I told her to look around for whatev­er man she wanted and I’d bring him up. And then I brought a guy — he was gay — up and instructed him to call up whoever he wanted and put his tongue way down their throat. He looked around for a minute and then grabbed me and turned me way over — you know how you do — and kissed me! The audience went crazy, but I never did that again.

FELIPE ROSE: In different clubs they would throw different things on the stage. Girls would throw bras, and guys would jump on stage and take off their shirts and flex for “Macho Man.”

KATHY SLEDGE: We did the club circuit in New York, and during the Son of Sam period, I learned how much people looked forward to going out at night and when they couldn’t how much they missed it. I re­member so clearly Disco Sally was at one of our shows. I saw her in the bathroom with this long brown fall on. They said Son of Sam was preying on women with long brown hair, and when I told her that, she just whipped it off and put it in her bag.

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BARRY WHITE:  I loved the people, the attitude of the people. The consumer participated not only listening to the music but dressing to the music.

GLORIA GAYNOR: I kind of liked trendy and funky clothes. I don’t like women showing more of their body than is really necessary, but I like fun clothes — sparkle blouses and all.

AUGUST DARNELL: The thing about the style of disco, in retrospect it was quite ridiculous and laughable. To be quite hon­est, I didn’t think much of the clothing, but the Beautiful People who came to 54, they did have style. The good thing was it gave people a reason to say “Let’s get dressed up and go out.”

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The downside was monotony — how a certain style of music I would be totally driven into the ground before a change would come. Like the whole Eurodisco thing: no change, no growth.

RICHIE. RIVERA: It did get a little repetitious. It became so “in” that everybody did it, or thought they could. I mean, Ethel Merman doing a disco album?

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KATHY SLEDGE: There was less pressure then. People came out to dance and have a good time, but it was kind of a double­-edged sword. Especially when the hustle came out, you could feel the cohesiveness on the dance floor, but it was also a lonely time. Like the place would be crowded with people, but a lot of them would be dancing alone.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: My best memory is standing in the middle of Paradise Garage in the early evening before the club filled up. Larry Levan was playing the O’Jays’ “I Love Music” and I was totally straight and just about totally alone and dancing by my­self and actually got lost in the music, trav­eled with the music and within the sound system — just me and the club.

DAVID MANCUSO: The night of the black­out, people stayed over all night. We had candles and played radios and people were sleeping over, camping out. It was very peaceful, a little Woodstockish. The party still went on.

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GLORIA GAYNOR: Disco started out as a sound and unfortunately evolved into a lifestyle that Middle America found dis­tasteful — and that was the demise of disco. It got into sex and drugs that really had nothing to do with the music but that was the lifestyle that identified with disco.

AUGUST DARNELL: The most decadent I got was dancing with two girls simulta­neously, but the decadence of it was great to observe. In the bowels of Studio 54, there was a higher high. But I was like an observer more than a participant. I was like a journalist witnessing a national event.

DAVID MANCUSO: If people were using drugs, they were mild and recreational, where today it’s all about economics. But three-quarters was purely spontaneous energy.

RAY CAVIANO: In hindsight, the experience was exhausting and the lifestyle was obvi­ously way beyond the call of duty. We were going to have a good time even if it was going to kill us. We wanted to take the trip as far as we could take it.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: What killed disco? The people behind the desks. They do what they wanna do. They changed disco into dance and they changed dance into house. But when you listen to it, it’s still all the same.

AUGUST DARNELL: I would imagine what happened is the same thing that will kill every innovative form: greed — people who don’t have the heart and soul of the music but just want to cash in on it. They think they have the formula without realizing that disco was much more than that at the beginning.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Disco killed disco. The word disco killed disco. Like pop will eat itself, disco ate itself. Anything that be­comes too popular is apt to be destroyed by the same people who gave it the name.

AUGUST DARNELL: The music today — I call it disco part five.

BARRY WHITE: Disco was a sexy smooth era, very chic era. Now things are mechani­cal, more raw, closer to the streets. The attitude in America is distrust and disillu­sion. Now it’s time to rip, take the money and run, sell the country, sell your mother.

AUGUST DARNELL: It was a good period to go through because it was exaggerated and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you find your balance eventually. ♦

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THE PLAYERS

RAY CAVIANO: Parlayed his success as disco’s most persuasive promo man into a high-powered but short-lived deal for his own RFC label at Warner Bros. Al­though cocaine abuse left him broke and in jail (and landed him on the cover of the Voice in 1986), he bounced back to become a perennial promotion man of the year, most recently with MicMac, the New York freestyle indie, which let him go in March. Since then, Caviano’s dropped from sight.

AUGUST DARNELL: Cofounder of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, lead­er of Kid Creole & the Coconuts, whose 1992 album, You Shoulda Told Me You Were… was their last for Columbia; since being dropped by the label, the group’s been without a deal. Darnell spends much of his time these days in Manchester, England “playing daddy” to two children, Ashley and Dario.

GLORIA GAYNOR: Crowned the first Queen of Disco after “Honeybee” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Gaynor orig­inated one of the most imitated disco formulas but faded from the American scene after “I Will Survive.” Her recent work has been in Italy (where her Gloria Gaynor ’90 album went gold), the Middle East, and Asia, but she says,”I think I’m ready to come home.”

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: One of the clubs’ fiercest ruling divas with “Hit and Run” and her Dan Hartman duet “Re­light My Fire.” She still rules, both as sampled wail and featured vocalist, most famously on Marky Mark’s “Good Vi­brations.” She’s currently preparing a second single for the Select label, due early fall.

DAVID MANCUSO: Mancuso turned his lower Broadway loft into a balloon-filled private party once a week in 1973, play­ing both DJ and host. One of the earliest New York membership clubs, the Loft has moved twice and shut down periodi­cally since then but remains a fixture, with Mancuso in full effect.

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RICHIE RIVERA: One of New York’s most popular and powerful DJs during the disco boom, Rivera last played at a club in 1983. He’s currently working in the chart department at HMV’s Upper West Side branch.

FELIPE ROSE: Discovered dancing on platforms in New York clubs by French producer Jacques Morali, Rose, a Puerto Rican Native American, was recruited to play the Indian in the Village People. Still wearing a feathered headdress, still singing “Macho Man,” he’s among the original People celebrating the group’s 16th anniversary this year.

KATHY SLEDGE: Thirteen when Sister Sledge was formed, Sledge “grew up in the business.” “We Are Family” remains the group’s anthem, but Kathy, now mar­ried with children, went solo last year with the album Heart.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The cofounder of New York’s influential For the Record DJ pool in 1978, Weinstein is partners with DJ/remixer/producer David Mo­rales in Def Mix Productions which rep­resents Frankie Knuckles and Danny Madden.

BARRY WHITE: His “Love’s Theme” was the first disco single to top the pop charts in 1974. White continues his reign as king-size pillow talker with a retrospective boxed set on the market to be joined by a new album, Love Is the Icon, in September.

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Matthew E. White

The guitarist-founder of Richmond, Virginia, slipstream jazz combo Fight the Big Bull has morphed into a ’70s channeling blue-eyed soul singer—a bearish, white Barry White, if you will. His solo debut was one of last year’s best, and his nine-piece group stirs together gospel, reggae, and yacht rock into a sweet haze. Ecuador-born Roberto Lange’s solo project Helado Negro delivers distant and rather abstract electronics con vocals.

Mon., May 13, 9 p.m., 2013

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GENTLE GIANT

The newfound gravitas that permeates John Darnielle’s anxious and elegant new Mountain Goats album, Transcendental Youth, arrives courtesy of horns arranger Matthew E. White. The guitarist-founder of Richmond, Virginia, slipstream jazz combo Fight the Big Bull, White is also a ’70s-channeling blue-eyed soul singer—a bearish, white Barry White, if you will. He has a terrific solo debut titled Big Inner (get it?), and his nine-piece group will open for the Goats during the bands’ two-venue, four-day NYC visit this week. White’s slow, sexy, funky outfit breezed through Big Inner like a warm summer wind at the Mercury Lounge a couple of months ago, stirring together gospel, reggae, and yacht rock into a sweet mellow haze. Don’t be surprised if it billows and swells with even more authority this time around when he opens for the Mountain Goats.

Sat., Oct. 13, 9 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 14, 9 p.m., 2012

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Jamey Johnson Sprawls Out

Here are some things you’ll find on Jamey Johnson’s new album: Three songs (“Lonely at the Top,” “Poor Man Blues,” “Can’t Cash My Checks”) explicitly addressing class differences, the last one featuring a verse about harvesting marijuana even more redolent of Weeds than the one on Dierks Bentley’s latest. Two songs (“California Riots,” “Even the Skies Are Blue”) that warn that the world’s real bad and getting worse. Two songs (new single “Playing the Part,” “California Riots” again) about faking it in L.A. while wishing you were back in Alabama, and they just happen to be the most ’70s-Cali-soft-rock-catchy-singer-songwriter things on the record. Three songs (“That’s How I Don’t Love You,” “Good Morning Sunrise,” “My Way to You”) that employ alcohol and other poisons for post-breakup self-medication. Two songs in a row with the phrase “good times” in their titles (“Good Times Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “For the Good Times”). And songs sung from the points of view of God (half of “I Remember You”), two pawnshop guitars (title-track novelty “The Guitar Song”), and “Heartache,” which tallies famous folks foiled by said malady throughout history, from cavemen to Antony ‘n’ Cleopatra to Charles ‘n’ Diana. (You know, à la “Sympathy for the Devil.” Or Motörhead’s “Orgasmatron.”)

In case you want to pinpoint where this onetime Marine Reserves E-4 mortarman fits on the historical timeline himself, Johnson also interprets oldies by Ray Price, Mel Tillis, alcohol casualty Keith Whitley, and Vern Gosdin (the latter on “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” a 1988 country No. 1 about repeatedly putting Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You” on the jukebox). Which roster, incidentally, shakes out at least as much “countrypolitan” as “outlaw”; “The Guitar Song” itself name-drops Merle, Lefty, Johnny, and Marty Robbins, but Johnson’s duet partner is 72-year-old “Whispering Bill” Anderson, who, three decades ago, made a Barry White–influenced country-disco makeout album—and who is, in turn, mentioned in the very next number, which pays generous tribute to Music City’s songwriters and shouts out to a few, including the late Hank Cochran. But just in case that backdates Johnson too much, there’s also a fairy-tale verse about princes scaring dragons away and saving princesses, concluding a music-box-embellished lullaby apparently directed at his six-year-old daughter—which, who knows, just might be an awkward attempt to keep up with Taylor Swift. And speaking of child-rearing tips, the song that recommends not sparing the rod (“By the Seat of Your Pants”) rivals any such pro-spanking gross-out by Montgomery Gentry. So Johnson has got all his bases covered.

The Guitar Song spreads 25 songs (five of them over five minutes long, one over seven) onto two discs, labeled “Black” and “White,” since the former has marginally darker themes and sonics. (There might also be a White vs. Nonwhite split when Johnson asks, “Where you gonna be when half of California riots?” but he unhelpfully never specifies which half.) The music, at its liveliest, successfully reinvents for studio consumption the tight-but-loose jamming of a working roadhouse band: Johnson’s own Kent Hardly Playboys, in this case, though credits suggest occasional pinch-hitting on the drum stool. Piano and Hammond B-3 set the standard; the only time the guitars get real Dixie-rock distorted is on “Macon,” as in “Macon love all night,” a humid Muscle Shoals–style groover about driving home to Georgia to get laid. And there’s still some of the cavernous gloom-metal atmosphere that bled out the pores of Johnson’s previous album, maybe most noticeably this time in “Heartache,” which echoes and groans like an abandoned asylum deep in the holler, or amid the spacious empty-tavern drift of “My Way to You.” For a country album—country being the one musical genre that never much succumbed to ridiculous CD-era album lengths before the bum digital economy brought economy back—this whole project is way beyond ambitious.

It’s also a case of a self-conscious artist—an Alabama-fan-turned-renegade who co-wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” but whose increasingly serial-murderer-scary mountain-goatee serves as an apt metaphor for his aesthetic re-definition—taking advantage of the situation at hand while he can get away with it. Johnson’s 2008 That Lonesome Song—originally written in backstory-enabling hermit seclusion (beard growth + self-imposed solitude after life-changing breakup + Christgau Dud status = Bon Iver, only good!), then self-released online, then picked up by Mercury in slightly altered form—commercially outdid its considerably more clean-cut 2006 BNA predecessor The Dollar despite being concocted with limited biz-suit oversight. The Guitar Song‘s sprawl alone suggests Mercury gave Johnson something close to free rein. It’s got a few clunkers and slow spots, and, especially given the depressive tempos Johnson’s so fond of, it’s inadvisable to ingest in one sitting. But surprisingly—even without a single track half as monumental or emotionally inescapable as Lonesome‘s “High Cost of Living,” wherein Johnson’s marriage and the GNP fell apart in equally inexorable coke-and-whore measure (in a Southern Baptist parking lot no less, and sobriety proved just one more prison)—Guitar is packed at least as solid as his last set, and it’s less conventional to boot.

For one thing, it doesn’t resort to mere high-grade country-popcorn as often. And for another, Johnson is managing more motion in his hungover doomsday baritone: He’s downplaying his sluggish mid-’70s Waylon Jennings fixation (responsible for two more-or-less-expendable cover versions and one humorous tribute tune last time), a step in the right direction. Which is saying a lot, given that Lonesome was my favorite album of 2008 (it drags more for me recently, but still), not to mention the only album (sorry, TV on the Radio and Lil Wayne!) to finish that year on three of four year-end top 10 lists (Chinen, Pareles, Caramanica) at respected hillbilly circular the New York Times. Lonesome also dominated 2008’s nationwide country critics’ poll at Nashville Scene—No. 1 album, single, male singer, songwriter—and wound up long-tailing in the gold range, sales-wise. Got Grammy-nominated, too. This time out, the sky’s the limit. Unless, as a couple of Guitar Song songs anticipate, the sky falls first.

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Please Stop Belittling Toby Keith

If recent research into Voice readers’ country-music listening patterns (conducted by demographic analyst Alan Jackson) is any indication, I’m guessing you pretty much just think of Toby Keith as “that doofus who did that song after 9/11 about how putting boots in asses is the American way.” Maybe you’ve also heard that he tours battle zones and doesn’t play well with the Dixie Chicks. Beyond that, admit it: You’re kinda clueless, right?

Well, at least he has a public image beyond Nashville, which is more than Bucky Covington or Jason Aldean can say. And Toby’s image is clearly his own fault: When he made the Statue of Liberty shake her fist in 2002’s outrageously rousing “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” (awesome karaoke song, btw), Toby defined himself despite himself, and the self-proclaimed conservative Democrat has been trying to live it down ever since. Except when he hasn’t: He’s currently making a movie somehow based on “Beer for My Horses,” the even more despicable ode to lynching (of “gangsters”) that he sang with Willie Nelson around the same time. Add his camel-jockey cartoon, “The Taliban Song” (“Ahab the Arab” updated for the age when “Turkmenistan” is a very rhythmic word), his obligatory “American Soldier” (about how freedom isn’t free), and his soggy dishrag “Ain’t No Right Way” (implicitly anti-choice and explicitly pro–prayer in public schools), and it looks like we’ve got ourselves some Neanderthal species of nationalist numbskull.

But here’s the thing: That handful of songs (a couple of which appeared on a surprisingly funky 2003 album entitled Shock’n Y’All, har har) is pretty much where Toby’s editorializing ends, at least on record. His output is no more limited by his war-machine anthem than Merle Haggard’s was by the comparably opportunistic “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” when Nixon was president. And not many country artists since Merle have managed a creative streak like Toby’s these past few years—in fact, to my ears, his ’00s output (six albums plus change, including half of 2006’s Broken Bridges soundtrack and a few spare tracks collected on his new 35 Biggest Hits) just might stand up to anybody else’s this decade, in any musical genre.

Go ahead and attribute my fandom partly to biographical coincidence: Toby was born in July 1961, a half-year after me; we both have three kids; we’re both straight white guys who’ve done time in inland suburbia. Then again, I’ve never personally worked an oil field or a semi-pro football field, my grandma didn’t run a supper club, I’m not six-foot-four and 240 pounds, I don’t own a bar and grill in Oklahoma, and I don’t do Ford commercials. But we both apparently cut our teeth on the same Bob Seger and John Cougar LPs, so I’m a sucker for the chili-dog-outside-the-Tastee-Freez heartland-rock riffs he stuck in four songs on last year’s Big Dog Daddy, the first album he produced himself. And where I come from, “water-tower poet class of ’73” is a right pithy depiction of hip-hop’s fourth element, and calling your most ZZ-worthy boogie “Zig Zag Stomp” is a darn clever pun.

It also helps that the big lug isn’t afraid to make fun of himself—for being a bumbling husband, say, or for being a boyfriend who likes his girlfriend but loves his local bar, or for his aging-athlete body not working as well as it used to. His class resentment (in “Get Drunk and Be Somebody” and “High Maintenance Woman,” say) is totally good-natured as well. But where Toby most manifestly trounces the competition is with his singing (and, frequently, talking), which only gets smarter and warmer and more conversational—richer in both his high and low registers—as his career goes on. The song that first made me take notice, 1999’s “How Do You Like Me Now,” had him bellowing like Billy Ray Cyrus in Meat Loaf mode, but since then he’s figured out how to communicate a masculine vulnerability with an easy-as-Sunday-morning soul phrasing equal to Ronnie Milsap or T. Graham Brown, if not quite Charlie Rich (listen to “That’s Not How It Is” or “Your Smile”); his latest move is a Barry White cover with power forward turned jazz bassist Wayman Tisdale. On his best album, 2006’s White Trash With Money, Toby jumped ship from DreamWorks to his own Show Dog Nashville imprint, where green-eyed country-soul convert Lari White surrounded him with Tex-Mex accordions, Western swing saxes, Dusty in Memphis orchestrations, and Dixieland kazoos, coaxing laid-back nuances and big, blue notes out of him that made perfect sense alongside the same year’s Collector’s Choice reissue of Dean Martin’s 1955 Swingin’ Down Yonder.

So Toby’s a bit of a late bloomer: He had six regular-issue albums and a handful of country Top 10s under his belt before his ass-boot woke up the world beyond CMT. The chronological 35 Biggest Hits, for its part, starts off as cautiously (but as competently) as any good Alan Jackson retrospective—the hit about the 18-year-old getting her first upstairs apartment downtown kills me, seeing how I just helped my daughter move to Brooklyn, and “Who’s That Man” and “A Woman’s Touch” employ open space in a ghostly way. And though I hope Mercury canned whoever thought a Sting duet was a marketable concept, even that song makes for a decent divorced-dad depiction. But Toby qua Toby doesn’t really bust out until “Dream Walkin’ “/”Getcha Some”/”How Do You Like Me Now,” beginning 14 tracks in; after that, there’s no looking back. If you’re new to the guy, start with disc two, then check out a few ’00s albums before you shift back to disc one.

Getting loud—even a bit blowhard—was the first step. But for years now, Toby’s sincere ballad side has been catching up with his funny rocking side. Even in a genre where vocal aptitude is a prerequisite for career longevity, masterful voices and discernible personalities (especially personalities with hot beefcake sex and a sense of humor and a chip on their shoulder attached) don’t always coincide: Shooter Jennings might match Toby in a war of wits, but he can barely sing a lick, while Toby out-sings squeaky-clean goody-goodies from Travis to Jackson to Strait. And on top of that, though he’s been known to borrow winners from wooden-voiced wordsmiths like Paul Thorn or Fred Eaglesmith on occasion, Toby’s also the rare Nashville star who seems to do most of his own writing.

And again, dude can write. I admire his move-over-small-dog-a-big-dog-daddy’s-movin’-in shtick, and how he does way more songs celebrating one-night stands than somebody married 24 years should be able to get away with—and how they don’t come with angst or a moral attached. He’s the kind of burly old teddy bear who’ll stash his sleeping bag (and dog bowl?) behind your couch and finally remember your early-November birthday in December, when he shows up with a ribbon tied around your present—”Brand New Bow” beat “Dick in a Box” by eight 2006 months. And if he’s playing wing man for a night, he’ll take one for the team, even if it means sleeping with the fat girl.

OK, that one, “Runnin’ Block” (great football metaphor, huh?), is indefensible—or it would be, anyway, if its chorus melody wasn’t so amazing. Like “The Taliban Song,” it’s one of the “bus songs” that Toby sometimes tacks on at the end of albums—a disingenuous escape hatch he uses when he feels like pulling your chain. Not surprisingly, they’re usually among his livelier tracks. So when do we get a whole disc of those? Soon, I hope, unless the r&b album comes first.

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Please Stop Belittling Toby Keith

If recent research into Voice readers’ country-music listening patterns (conducted by demographic analyst Alan Jackson) is any indication, I’m guessing you pretty much just think of Toby Keith as “that doofus who did that song after 9/11 about how putting boots in asses is the American way.” Maybe you’ve also heard that he tours battle zones and doesn’t play well with the Dixie Chicks. Beyond that, admit it: You’re kinda clueless, right?

Well, at least he has a public image beyond Nashville, which is more than Bucky Covington or Jason Aldean can say. And Toby’s image is clearly his own fault: When he made the Statue of Liberty shake her fist in 2002’s outrageously rousing “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” (awesome karaoke song, btw), Toby defined himself despite himself, and the self-proclaimed conservative Democrat has been trying to live it down ever since. Except when he hasn’t: He’s currently making a movie somehow based on “Beer for My Horses,” the even more despicable ode to lynching (of “gangsters”) that he sang with Willie Nelson around the same time. Add his camel-jockey cartoon, “The Taliban Song” (“Ahab the Arab” updated for the age when “Turkmenistan” is a very rhythmic word), his obligatory “American Soldier” (about how freedom isn’t free), and his soggy dishrag “Ain’t No Right Way” (implicitly anti-choice and explicitly pro–prayer in public schools), and it looks like we’ve got ourselves some Neanderthal species of nationalist numbskull.

But here’s the thing: That handful of songs (a couple of which appeared on a surprisingly funky 2003 album entitled Shock’n Y’All, har har) is pretty much where Toby’s editorializing ends, at least on record. His output is no more limited by his war-machine anthem than Merle Haggard’s was by the comparably opportunistic “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” when Nixon was president. And not many country artists since Merle have managed a creative streak like Toby’s these past few years—in fact, to my ears, his ’00s output (six albums plus change, including half of 2006’s Broken Bridges soundtrack and a few spare tracks collected on his new 35 Biggest Hits) just might stand up to anybody else’s this decade, in any musical genre.

Go ahead and attribute my fandom partly to biographical coincidence: Toby was born in July 1961, a half-year after me; we both have three kids; we’re both straight white guys who’ve done time in inland suburbia. Then again, I’ve never personally worked an oil field or a semi-pro football field, my grandma didn’t run a supper club, I’m not six-foot-four and 240 pounds, I don’t own a bar and grill in Oklahoma, and I don’t do Ford commercials. But we both apparently cut our teeth on the same Bob Seger and John Cougar LPs, so I’m a sucker for the chili-dog-outside-the-Tastee-Freez heartland-rock riffs he stuck in four songs on last year’s Big Dog Daddy, the first album he produced himself. And where I come from, “water-tower poet class of ’73” is a right pithy depiction of hip-hop’s fourth element, and calling your most ZZ-worthy boogie “Zig Zag Stomp” is a darn clever pun.

It also helps that the big lug isn’t afraid to make fun of himself—for being a bumbling husband, say, or for being a boyfriend who likes his girlfriend but loves his local bar, or for his aging-athlete body not working as well as it used to. His class resentment (in “Get Drunk and Be Somebody” and “High Maintenance Woman,” say) is totally good-natured as well. But where Toby most manifestly trounces the competition is with his singing (and, frequently, talking), which only gets smarter and warmer and more conversational—richer in both his high and low registers—as his career goes on. The song that first made me take notice, 1999’s “How Do You Like Me Now,” had him bellowing like Billy Ray Cyrus in Meat Loaf mode, but since then he’s figured out how to communicate a masculine vulnerability with an easy-as-Sunday-morning soul phrasing equal to Ronnie Milsap or T. Graham Brown, if not quite Charlie Rich (listen to “That’s Not How It Is” or “Your Smile”); his latest move is a Barry White cover with power forward turned jazz bassist Wayman Tisdale. On his best album, 2006’s White Trash With Money, Toby jumped ship from DreamWorks to his own Show Dog Nashville imprint, where green-eyed country-soul convert Lari White surrounded him with Tex-Mex accordions, Western swing saxes, Dusty in Memphis orchestrations, and Dixieland kazoos, coaxing laid-back nuances and big, blue notes out of him that made perfect sense alongside the same year’s Collector’s Choice reissue of Dean Martin’s 1955 Swingin’ Down Yonder.

So Toby’s a bit of a late bloomer: He had six regular-issue albums and a handful of country Top 10s under his belt before his ass-boot woke up the world beyond CMT. The chronological 35 Biggest Hits, for its part, starts off as cautiously (but as competently) as any good Alan Jackson retrospective—the hit about the 18-year-old getting her first upstairs apartment downtown kills me, seeing how I just helped my daughter move to Brooklyn, and “Who’s That Man” and “A Woman’s Touch” employ open space in a ghostly way. And though I hope Mercury canned whoever thought a Sting duet was a marketable concept, even that song makes for a decent divorced-dad depiction. But Toby qua Toby doesn’t really bust out until “Dream Walkin’ “/”Getcha Some”/”How Do You Like Me Now,” beginning 14 tracks in; after that, there’s no looking back. If you’re new to the guy, start with disc two, then check out a few ’00s albums before you shift back to disc one.

Getting loud—even a bit blowhard—was the first step. But for years now, Toby’s sincere ballad side has been catching up with his funny rocking side. Even in a genre where vocal aptitude is a prerequisite for career longevity, masterful voices and discernible personalities (especially personalities with hot beefcake sex and a sense of humor and a chip on their shoulder attached) don’t always coincide: Shooter Jennings might match Toby in a war of wits, but he can barely sing a lick, while Toby out-sings squeaky-clean goody-goodies from Travis to Jackson to Strait. And on top of that, though he’s been known to borrow winners from wooden-voiced wordsmiths like Paul Thorn or Fred Eaglesmith on occasion, Toby’s also the rare Nashville star who seems to do most of his own writing.

And again, dude can write. I admire his move-over-small-dog- a-big-dog-daddy’s-movin’-in shtick, and how he does way more songs celebrating one-night stands than somebody married 24 years should be able to get away with—and how they don’t come with angst or a moral attached. He’s the kind of burly old teddy bear who’ll stash his sleeping bag (and dog bowl?) behind your couch and finally remember your early-November birthday in December, when he shows up with a ribbon tied around your present—”Brand New Bow” beat “Dick in a Box” by eight 2006 months. And if he’s playing wing man for a night, he’ll take one for the team, even if it means sleeping with the fat girl.

OK, that one, “Runnin’ Block” (great football metaphor, huh?), is indefensible—or it would be, anyway, if its chorus melody wasn’t so amazing. Like “The Taliban Song,” it’s one of the “bus songs” that Toby sometimes tacks on at the end of albums—a disingenuous escape hatch he uses when he feels like pulling your chain. Not surprisingly, they’re usually among his livelier tracks. So when do we get a whole disc of those? Soon, I hope, unless the r&b album comes first.

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Call the Porn-Rap Lover Scum at Your Own Self-Revealing Risk

Ying Yang Twins’ whispered-in-your-ear “Wait,” for better or worse, is a crass flirt mistaken for a date rape anthem by people who have no sympathy for lechers or just miss the key-for-me “Naw I’m jus playin’ less ya say I can/And I’m known to be a real nasty man.” I preferred it more as a Web-only toss-off rarity—like some Redd Foxx album kids are playing when their parents aren’t home—than as the First Song off Our New Album boomed out of cars with a “classy” video. But either it’s defensible or it ain’t; with “bitch” up to debate, I’m gonna go with “is.” You’re welcome to never want to hear it—just call the listener scum at your own self-revealing risk.

The follow-up “Pull My Hair” removes the unconsummated confessional element, adds a submissive but vocally enthusiastic participant, and winds up as flat-out male-dom porn: See? My dick. Her consent arguably makes the track less offensive-as-assaultive (anybody saying the dialogue is unrealistically fantastical is naive), but weaker hooks than “Wait” reduce the appeal to erotic content and nothing more. Ironic as it may seem, I’d assume the audience for “Pull My Hair” just might be women—it’s BangBus Barry White. But then I’ve never understood it when they cut to the dude’s oh-face.

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Where Is the Love

On this holiest of Hallmark holidays, we envision more than a few of you sitting on that ass and hoping some bodega-bought rose offering or an extra pack of smokes will get you off the hook till next year. Oh, if only. Many dread Valentine’s Day, everyone partakes-lest venomous hellfire reign down from your gentle-lover-turned-wildebeest. To ease things along, we’ve conjured up a couple of possible options for the night.

Best of luck, hustler.

1. For the horny wine-guzzler: L.E.S. wine bar Punch & Judy serves a four-course dinner with a carafe of vino and a glass of champagne. Serious lushes can order up a few $16 flights of choice red or white vintages and partake of those plush velvet booths in the back.

2. For the shameless exhibitionist: Boudoir-inspired lounge Duvet will be strewing their mattresses with rose petals and offering a six-course meal, with the option of wine or champagne. With prices running from $100 to $300 per person, you better make some real use of that bed, stud.

3. For the by-the-book romantic: Oak Room at the Algonquin hosts a performance by jazz vocalist Jack Donahue, who we imagine will be forced into more than one version of “My Funny Valentine”. It’s $50, plus a $20 drink minimum.

4. For the resolute smoker: If they love you, they’ll let you inhale (well, maybe not). Fifteen dollars at blue-blood boite Lexington Bar & Books scores you a performance by a live jazz trio and a complementary cigar to smoke indoors, worry-free.

5. For those who hope to catch a celebrity “mid-slow jam”: At A-list favorite Sway, Gabby Gab in association with Retail Mafia will present “Always and Forever,” a party with seductive love songs from Barry White and other famous sex crooners. Lindsey Love and Adult Language of Negroclash, P. Jones, and Scratch Famous from Deadly Dragon will DJ. Red Stripe open bar from 10 to 11 p.m.

6. For the el cheapo: Baby, your love is worth a $2.50 Beast. Throwing down shots at East Village dive International Bar might scream “deal breaker” to some, but your honey bunny knows they’re just going to have to be a little patient till that seminal zydeco/thrash EP of yours takes flight. ‘Nother Rheingold?

7. For those who want to escape till February 15: We suggest 169 Bar, tucked far enough over on East Broadway to avoid the celebrating crowds. They’ll be dropping a couple hundred while you and your single friends knock down inexpensive shots many, many blocks away. Happy Valentine’s Day, indeed.

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Master essayist Geoffrey O’Brien tunes in to Radio Nabokov

Sociable title notwithstanding, Sonata for Jukebox is closer to an all-night DJ’s labyrinthine monologue, a stream-of-memory fugue for headphones. In the dreamtime spirit of his Borges-gone-Blade Runner cine-mosaic The Phantom Empire, O’Brien evokes music’s expanding infiltration of the world—a planet of lonely surfers floating in their own individually sealed soundtracks. Even with an ecstatic crowd of revelers, a tight circle of friends, or that ideal, true-blue listening companion, musical gut experiences remain profoundly solitary things. Epiphanies may be like fingerprints, yet encountering unsettling songs and talismanic performances for the first or the thousandth time, we meet the Unknowable and It is us.

Meanwhile, there are still those damn childhood jingles we’ll never get out of our heads (even if we can no longer remember the track listings to Out of Our Heads) and those lush box sets stuffed with history’s outtakes. There is the way certain sounds reverberating in certain rooms become entwined with personal history (O’Brien’s grandfather being a very small-time bandleader, dad a hotshot radio personality: platter familia), until every snatch of closely harmonized melody, orchestral tumult, hipster sax, or folk sincerity becomes a piece of lost time trapped in amber (or tar, as the dinosauric case may be). As it approaches the present, Sonata begins to feel more emotionally diffuse, pro forma, or just understandably reticent: a sense of loss using familiar signposts like the Beach Boys to annul itself. (A “Dear Rhonda” letter is a weightlessly self-conscious conceit that pales into a “long tidal sigh”; any chapter called “The Years of Overthrowal” is contractually obligated to appear rehashed.) No matter: Kick back, cue up a Steinski megamix, lose yourself in a voice like Barry White reciting Nabokov, tour the James Masonic temple of bygone pop openings, and twist again to the big beat’s intimations of sweet mortality.

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Music

Passion Flour

What’s the difference between a footnote and a headline? Well, judging by the welcome afforded Gary Wilson at Joe’s Pub last Wednesday, about 25 years. An uber-obscure home recordist whose magnum opus, You Think You Really Know Me, made nary a ripple when it was first released in the late ’70s, Wilson never had a genuine cult to go with his cult-hero status—but the photographers and ticket scalpers (!) thronging the club seemed to indicate that a leave of absence from that porn-shop gig might await the fiftyish oddball yet.

Incommunicado for most of the past two decades, the upstate native—since relocated to San Diego—picked up pretty much where he left off, tossing off smooth-yet-quirky ditties with vague tinges of Steely Dan jazziness and a hefty dose of obsessive-compulsive emotional damage. Wilson spent much of the set lying on the stage, serenading—and lasciviously fondling—one of the passel of mannequins that festooned the cramped performance area. As his Barry White-via-Jad Fair entreaties reached fever pitch on a bug-eyed version of “Chromium Bitch,” the special effects kicked in. Translation: One of Wilson’s cronies meandered over and began pelting him with handfuls of flour.

Most of Wilson’s songs float along in the murky waters that separate first sexual awakening from first sexual experience. In other words, they’re packed with kisses, make-out parties, and dreams of living happily ever after—but not much acknowledgment of rounding second base, much less scoring. That might sound like the recipe for a bubblegum confection, but Wilson’s middle-age anguish over memories of Cindy, Lisa, Karen, and other ghosts of unrequited love past—and the creepy lounge-synth bounce underpinning songs like “6.4 = Make-out”—create an altogether more sinister air.

In keeping with the new-wave spirit, Wilson started the show late and ended early, sauntering into the wings after about 40 minutes as his band played him off, James Brown-style. The fact that he was covered in flour rather than a flowing cape didn’t make him seem any less regal. —David Sprague


Sound Librarians

Bertrand Burgalat wandered offstage halfway through his sold-out set at the Mercury Lounge last Wednesday, and stayed off for about 20 minutes. He wasn’t stopping the music, just pointing out that he didn’t need to be present for it to be his show. A songwriter, producer, and remixer for the likes of April March (Chrominance Decoder was all his), Nick Cave, Ladytron, and Air, Burgalat also runs the Tricatel label that puts out his inner circle’s records. His basic aesthetic position is that the pinnacle of French pop was “sound library” music circa 1970, when easy-listening lushness, psychedelic rock, and funky backbeats carried on a casual ménage à trois. Whether he was up there noodling on his synthesizer or not, he was clearly the auteur.

When his five-piece backing band A.S Dragon revved up the wah-wah guitar and wordless harmonies, Burgalat originals like “Ma Rencontre” could’ve been background music for the scenes in old European art flicks where the longhaired students rush home from their demonstration, tear off their clothes, and leap into a wriggling pile. At times, though, like a draggy version of “Tears of a Clown” featuring Toby Dammit sitting in on tambourine (guest tambourine players are never a good sign), they congealed into Vanilla Fudge, and weedy-voiced Burgalat had to get over on his dapper but goofy attitude alone.

Every Svengali needs a protégée, and Burgalat’s spot behind the microphone was filled in his absence by his new one, the single-named Natasha, who has the chiseled mien, fashion sense, and barbed gaze of Mick Jagger in Performance. (She can’t really sing, which didn’t hinder her spot-on cover of ’70s soul freak Betty Davis’s “Dedicated to the Press.”) Even so, she seemed less a frontwoman than another part of her producer’s Swinging Paris master plan. —Douglas Wolk


Musos Meet the Multitudes

Summer in the City means urine smells and German kids, but it also means lots of free outdoor concerts. Marginally employed aesthetes are already planning their picnics for SummerStage, Lincoln Center, Prospect and Fort Greene parks, and of course downtown, where sitting outside will never be the same. Maybe it’s perverse to miss it, but in the last few years the World Trade Center plaza really came into its own as a venue, with a schedule as good as any in town. Were you at Glenn Branca? Los Lobos and Los Van Van? Odetta or Spalding Gray? The Box Tops, the Troggs, Ray Davies? The light was weird between the towers, and the fountain was loud, but it was a kick just to be sitting there in the middle of Man’s greatest monument to Himself, in the capital of the world, watching the musos mingle with the multitudes.

The other regular downtown series will still be happening—the Castle Clinton Concerts for People Who Have Nothing Better to Do Than Wait in Line All Day, the Wagner Park noodly-jazz sunset moments, the Seaport hit factory—and in the spirit of rebirth, they’ve joined forces as the “River to River Festival.” (You can find a daily calendar at www.rivertorivernyc.org.) But wherever you’re sitting, there will be too much sky, and you’ll be able to see the giant kliegs at what is already a construction site, and you’ll feel funny about enjoying it. On the other hand, where else are you gonna see Randy Newman (June 12), Lea Delaria (June 19), Vernon Reid and James Blood Ulmer (July 24), Neko Case (August 1), Cass Wilson (September 2), and Jones/Zane (September 20) for free? —Josh Goldfein