BettySoo – Never the Show-Off
When one attends a concert of Americana music in Central Texas and the local performer has a name like Betty Soo, pre-show expectations for the uninitiated can be stereotypically narrow. The mental image of a tall blonde woman clad in ruffles and gingham is quashed, however, when BettySoo takes the stage. Her 5-foot frame and petite Asian features speak to her Korean heritage. And, yes, Soo really is her middle name, having been passed down from her father.
In concert, BettySoo is a charismatic and engaging performer. Her voice, clear and true, rings with sincerity. The songs she performs are primarily ballads rooted in folk and rock, and are complemented by her acoustic guitar accompaniment. With four full-length albums to her credit (three solo and one duo recording), BettySoo has accumulated a loyal fan following as well as critical praise.
The self-deprecating humor, often on full display during BettySoo’s concerts, is not an act put conveniently on for the benefit of an audience. This fact became abundantly clear during a late-afternoon interview conducted in a North Austin bake shop. Over cookies and bottled water, BettySoo discussed her career, her life, and her plans for future recordings. Although BettySoo is deeply serious about expressing herself musically, the occasional joke at her own expense demonstrated that she doesn’t take herself too seriously.
BettySoo grew up in Spring, Texas, near Houston, and is the third of four daughters. Her parents, who emigrated to the United States from Korea, are both doctors. They operate a small Medicare / Medicaid clinic and their commitment of hard work was an example for the four sisters. BettySoo remembers her father’s words. “My dad was one of those, he would always say to the point where it made you crazy, ‘early to bed, early to rise… It’s all about discipline’,” she recalled.
Discipline and the pursuit of excellence were constants for young BettySoo and her sisters. She recounted without complaint the system of study and schoolwork that her father instilled. It dictated that the student study the current lesson, review the previous lesson, and prepare for the next lesson, simultaneously. “So you’re always doing three stages of learning at any given point,” she explained.
As youngsters, BettySoo and her sisters were taught that, “if you were to work three times as hard, you would be three times more successful. And I can’t say I was really good at that as a kid,” she confessed. With a laugh, she added, “It’s kind of become a sickness in adulthood. I think somehow, internally, I must hold myself to that standard, even though it’s kind of an impossible standard.”
From an early age, BettySoo sang in church and with her sisters. “I always sang. My whole family is really pretty musical,” she said, and reminisced about her first professional job. “My first singing gig was actually when I was, like, 10 years old. I sang in a little children’s group that recorded children’s songs for the text book companies. They would make the records and send them to the elementary schools,” she said.
BettySoo attended the University of Texas at Austin with aspirations far different than that of becoming a singer-songwriter. “I thought I was going to be a teacher. I thought I would teach creative writing in high school or something like that,” she said. However, “When I went to go and student-teach, I did a semester at Austin High and was in a bunch of English classes and also a creative writing class. I loved the kids and I loved working with them but,” she said regretfully, “I realized it wasn’t for me.”
The reasons BettySoo sites for changing her career path away from teaching have little to do with educating young people. “There were just so many administrative hoops. And you had to teach the test so much,” she said. “And the way that kids are placed in classes, it just didn’t make any sense. There were just so many kids that didn’t belong in the classes they were in, either because it was too challenging or too easy. And there was nothing you could do about it. Your hands were really tied because it was so political,” she said with disappointment. “I just couldn’t see myself facing that day after day.”
Once she had decided against teaching, BettySoo needed to find a career. After trying her hand at administrative work in several law offices, she began performing her own songs and eventually became a musician full time. Her parents’ reaction to her career choice was not one of surprise, as might be expected, but of support. “They always knew music was a huge part of who I was… So, in a sense I don’t think they were shocked,” she said.
“One of the things that my parents faced when they first moved to the States in the ‘70’s was that they faced a lot of discrimination,” BettySoo explained. “And, I think one of the things that they really wanted for us was to have careers. Not necessarily to get paid a lot, but where you couldn’t be discriminated against easily,” she said. “It wasn’t about making the big bucks. It was just that you had a licensable job. You have some kind of credential that makes it harder for people to discriminate against you,” she said, with understanding and respect. Suddenly, BettySoo’s face split into a smile, “and then, of course, I became a musician,” she exclaimed. “Talk about subjective!”
A career in music is not for the faint of heart and BettySoo, having made the commitment to try, knew that she needed to develop her skills in order to be successful. “It wasn’t until I really decided that I wanted to sing and start writing songs that I realized I needed to get better on the guitar to accompany myself and to get my musical ideas across,” she explained. In addition, “After I started performing, I knew that I could be better, and so I did take some (voice) lessons from a friend of mine who lives here in Austin… I have definitely tried to improve on technique and breathing and that kind of thing, to be a better singer.”
Even with her music career off the ground and her confidence validated by fans and critics alike, BettySoo admitted to some persistent feelings of inner conflict. “I’ve always loved performing,” she began. “It’s kind of funny because I think, within the Asian-American culture there’s kind of this weird contradiction where, on the one hand you’re really taught to be very modest and be very humble and to not show off and all that kind of stuff, and be really humble about any strengths that you have, or talents. And I think my parents were kind of more that way than a lot of people.” She continued, “On the other hand, parents show off their kids a lot in that culture. They kind of want something to brag about. So we were constantly hearing about other kids… You’re constantly told about other people’s talents and they’re kind of being shown off. And at the same time, we didn’t really feel like we should show off.”
“I think I still kind of have that conflict inside of me,” revealed BettySoo, “where, there’s a part of me that really loves doing what I do well, and being able to get up in front of people and go, ‘this is what I do. And I really enjoy it. And it makes me happy that it makes other people happy.’ But then there’s a part of me, there’s that little voice in the back of my head that says, ‘Don’t be a show-off!’”
As she spoke, she considered all sides of the issue. “When people pay to see a show they kind of want you to show off. They want to get the full value of their ticket. They want to see the limit of what you can do,” she said. “But there’s also a part of me that, if I do a song and I feel like I really nailed it and really do a great, great performance on it, right afterwards, I’m almost real uncomfortable with it,” she confessed. Grasping for a better explanation, she persisted, “I love doing it, and I love the moment of it, and I love pushing for that performance. But then, as soon as it’s over, I kind of want to go… ‘Ok, can we just move on now? Let’s go to the next song.’… I guess it’s kind of the stage version of not being good at taking a compliment,” she concluded.
When comparing the writing, performing, and recording aspects of being a singer-songwriter, BettySoo observed, “They’re all really easy, and they’re all really hard, if that makes sense.” She clarified her point by using an interesting analogy. “I kind of see them as, like, cross-training. One of them is weight lifting and one of them is cardio and one of them is diet, or something, where you’ve kinda got to keep them all in shape. And they’ll help each other a little bit, but not a lot,” she said. Noting that each component is demanding in its own way, she said, “If you really neglect one it’ll suffer no matter how much you’re on top of the other things.”
BettySoo married shortly before the release of her debut album, “Let Me Love You”. Although her husband is not a full time musician, he does appear on her recordings. “He’s my drummer,” she said. “And occasionally we’ve travelled together.” However, she explained, “He doesn’t like touring quite as much as I do. He likes to be a little more grounded and have more of a home life.” While his involvement in her career may not always be visible to outsiders, BettySoo added she is grateful for his input and respects his opinion. “Most of the time when I write a new song, he’s the first one to hear it. I run a lot of things by him, and he helps me a ton.”
Bluesy, and with more grit than her previous recordings, 2009’s“Heat Sin Water Skin” was BettySoo’s most well received album to date. Following its release, she might have taken the safe route and released another, similar recording. Rather than play safe, however, she teamed up with veteran Canadian Dobro guitarist Doug Cox and released an album of cover songs in 2011. While the two are often thought of as an unlikely pair, according to BettySoo their partnership makes perfect sense.
“Doug and I met in Alaska,” explained BettySoo. “We were both teaching in a guitar camp last summer (2010). We really hit it off,” she said, adding, “Doug and I, musically, kind of heard a lot of things the same.” Several months after their initial meeting, Cox was asked to accompany BettySoo on a West Coast tour and, she says, “we figured out, beyond just guitar camp world, we really, really enjoyed playing together and we’re excited about a lot of the same kinds of songs.” Suddenly, recording an album together made perfect sense.
Choosing songs for their duo record, “Across the Borderline: Lie to Me”, became difficult for Cox and BettySoo only when the amount of available studio time collided with the vast number of songs the pair had listed as possibilities. “We intentionally, on that album, wanted to include some Canadian writers and wanted to include some Texas too,” said BettySoo. The album’s many highlights bear that out. “Louis Riel” by Doug Sahm, “You Don’t Need” by Jane Siberry, and Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” all help to demonstrate the wealth of songwriting talent both North and West.
Although critics praised the recording, BettySoo admitted, “It’s actually done quite well outside of the US… It’s done quite well in Canada. It’s done quite well in the UK. It’s been pretty well received in continental Europe.” In fact, she added, “there’s a Dutch label that was so excited about it that they wanted to release it for us, but we had already done distribution in Europe. So they said, ‘well, make another one!’”
As a result, BettySoo and Doug Cox’ second duo recording is slated for release in spring / summer 2012. While the album won’t be officially released in the US, fans will be able to order it through the artist’s web sites.
Plans for BettySoo in 2012 also include a solo album of original material. “I have a bunch of new songs of my own,” she said. “It’s been a couple years since I put out an album (and) I’m planning to start recording this year as well.”
Looking a bit farther ahead, BettySoo’s mind seems to never stop turning over new ideas for projects, songs to write, and material to explore. She expressed a keen interest in taking a supporting role in a music project, although no arrangements have been made. “I’d love to do more collaboration. I love working with other artists. I love singing harmony with people and it not being my show. I love that,” she said emphatically. “There’s just something different that you experience collaborating on somebody else’s material that I actually, a lot of times, enjoy more than playing my own material.”
BettySoo’s attention shifted and, in the context of collaboration, her earlier remarks about conflict rose once more to the surface. “I never really thought about it until this conversation, but maybe it kind of solves that dilemma for me of doing what you do really, really well and not feeling like you’re the center of attention or showing off afterwards,” she concluded.
Clearly, BettySoo still enjoys the comfort of an occasional supporting role and the sharing atmosphere of collaboration. Whether challenging herself, and by extension her listeners, by producing thoughtful and moving solo performances, or combining her talents with other artists, BettySoo is certain to continue creating enduring music and winning fans.
“Across the Borderline: Lie to Me” (duo release with Doug Cox 2011)
“Heat Sin Water Skin” (2009)
“Never the Pretty Girl” (4-song EP 2007)
“Tiny Little Secrets” (2007)
“Let Me Love You” (2005)
** Copyright © 2012 – Annette “Ace” Eshleman **
David Amram – A Conversation
When a life spans more than eight decades, there can be a tendency to focus so much on the past that the present and future are obscured, or neglected altogether. Living day to day, secure in the familiar tried-and-true, it’s easy to resist change and shun challenge. For 81-year-old David Amram, his past, present and future are all components in a wondrous journey. While people half his age pine for the good old days, Amram is busy exploring, learning, and sharing his love of music and life with everyone around him. And each new experience or lesson learned travels with him to the next destination.
David Amram’s personal history is the stuff of creative and artistic legend. His accomplishments read like a dog-eared musicology textbook. He has composed over a hundred orchestral and chamber music works, written an opera about the Holocaust called “The Final Ingredient”, conducted the New York Chamber Orchestra and many other orchestras, composed film scores including “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Splendor in the Grass”, pioneered the French horn as a jazz instrument, and authored three books. He studied and learned the music of a multitude of cultures before World Music was even a term. Amram’s performing credentials are no less impressive. The short list of artists he has performed and worked with includes Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Odetta, Jack Kerouac, Leonard Bernstein, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Willie Nelson.
Amram grew up on a farm in Feasterville, Pennsylvania, a small rural town near Philadelphia. His fondest childhood memories are of milking cows, planting corn, and other farm chores. He played his first musical notes on a Boy Scout bugle at the age of six, and began trumpet and piano lessons shortly thereafter. In time, the family sold the farm and moved to Washington, DC where Amram spent his teen years. During high school, he began learning to play the French horn, an instrument whose tone inspired and enchanted him. Following high school and a few years of college, Amram enlisted in the Army, continued to study music and saw Europe for the first time. His journey had begun.
Recently, Amram spent a very busy week in Austin, Texas. While there at the invitation of the Austin Jewish Film Festival to screen a documentary about his life, he also worked with local musicians and performed two concerts. During an interview graciously squeezed in between time slots with the director of the Austin Civic Orchestra and a San Antonio radio personality, he shared his wisdom, opinions, and insight on a number of topics near and dear to his heart.
Meeting and talking with David Amram was, for this interviewer, a deeply rewarding experience. He was gracious and humble, and demonstrated a natural politeness and good humor which was never forced or forgotten. Most significant was his effortless celebration of ‘the other’. The other musician, other artist, or other person in his company, received his accolades and positive recognition. While pragmatic about the harsher aspects of life, Amram directs much of his energy, talent, and emphasis toward the positive. By focusing on the gifts that others have to offer, Amram lifts himself up in the process and his creativity flows as a result.
From a very early age, Amram fostered a deep respect for the music of other cultures. He attributes his appreciation for and interest in diversity to the influence of his uncle. “My uncle was a merchant seaman,” he recalled of his father’s brother. “He acquainted me, as a little boy, with the fact that Columbus was right, that the world wasn’t flat and that you could go to different places and instead of falling off the edge into an abyss, you could fall into something beautiful and worthwhile, educational and spiritually enriching,” Amram said.
To a boy, stories of faraway lands and exotic cultures must have seemed like fantasy, but another uncle who was “brought up with American Indian people,” instilled in young Amram the importance of recognizing his country, while not losing sight of his own Jewish culture. Amram was reminded to, “think about who was here before us, and realize we were people who came from another place and were living in a special place… If we learned about that,” he continued, “then we could check out our own heritage and the heritages of everybody else as well, all who were living in this great Indian Country.”
The encouragement to explore and learn tapped into Amram’s innate curiosity. However, he clarified, “It was more (about) being open-minded and trying to relate to something that touched my heart. If something really moved me, I said, ‘boy, I’ve gotta get close to that’.” Most times, in an effort to get close to the things which touched his heart, Amram simply asked. “Anybody can really do anything if you devote yourself and humble yourself to being with those who know more than you, and can help you to continue to improve,” he asserted. “And the great thing about music is you never get it right. So that, in itself, keeps you hopping trying to learn how to do it while you’re still here.”
Having knowledge of other cultures and musical traditions was just the beginning for Amram. When his skill at playing a newly learned piece of music improved, his creativity and imagination took the music a step further. “As a classical composer over the years, I realized I could honor what was essentially a gift to me from other people,” Amram elaborated. “If I used even one note of anything traditional, I put in the score who taught it to me, where I learned it from, and what it was about, just as a thank you for a gift, rather than stealing something. And secondly,” he added, “to use that as a source for inspiration, to take it from there and go someplace else, and to kind of share it.”
Examples of traditional music can be found throughout Amram’s classical work. His “Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie” alone includes elements of traditional Native American, Mexican, and Cuban music, among others. “Part of my thank you is to try to share what I do know about (cultural music) with other people as a way, kind of like the principle of organic farming, of putting something back into that soil from which you get your nourishment,” he said.
During a recent concert performance billed as world music, Amram and his band took the audience on a musical journey which traversed more than a dozen disparate cultures. Alongside the Chinese, Egyptian, and Native American sounds which were heard that evening, Amram also featured his own culture by including several traditional Jewish pieces. He later explained his motivation for sharing that part of himself. “It wasn’t, ‘here’s some guy doing music from 19 cultures, but he’s avoiding the culture he was born into’,” Amram said flatly. “By necessity, I think, you have to include that to have any validity to dare to think you can represent anybody else.”
“Part of the problem, until recently, in this country was,” Amram continued, “almost everyone had to have a self-denial of where they came from as they moved up the ladder… Here, you can do anything, be anything, change your name, have 24 identities. It’s wonderful having that freedom. But,” he asserted, “if you forget your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents, or where you came from, you don’t have much of a place to go to. So, part of that is to honor your own family and your own heritage or heritages, even if you find others that you like more, not to give up on those.”
The conversation shifted to the topic of Amram’s non-classical recordings and he recalled his early days in New York when he was beginning to play jazz in the Greenwich Village clubs. “When I first came to New York and I met people born in New York City that were really, really nice, I said, if they can be born in such a tough environment and be that wonderful and warm, I gotta hang out with them, because they’ve really got a vast knowledge of the street smarts and the soulfulness.”
It was that combination of street smarts and soulfulness, Amram said, which inspired his album, “At Home / Around the World”. “That’s kind of what I really gathered, that once you have that in your heart, you can literally be at home anywhere. And if you were brought up to think that you’re an outsider or a misfit and you don’t really belong anywhere, you belong everywhere. Because everybody’s just in the same situation of being born and saying, ‘What do I do now? Where do I go?’ Everybody is in pretty much that same situation.”
Amram linked his family history to another of his recordings, the 1999 album, “Southern Stories”. According to Amram, around 1850, his great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather came to America, “as immigrants, and landed in the Port of Savannah (Georgia)… My great-grandfather was drafted into the War Between the States, or the Civil War, as it’s called, and was in the Georgia Rifles.” Although Amram’s great-grandfather later moved north to Philadelphia, and the next three generations of his family would be born there, his Southern roots run deep.
The spirit of the songs on “Southern Stories”, in particular “Deep South Evening Light,” and “Down Home Sunday in the South,” demonstrate Amram’s affinity for the region and its people. “I still go back to Savannah and see all my relatives there. I love the south,” Amram declared, beaming with undisguised admiration. “And every time I go back there they say, ‘Welcome home, son!’.”
Family relationships are extremely important to Amram, as evidenced by his enthusiasm when discussing his children. Amram and his former wife raised their son and two daughters on the small farm in Putnam Valley, New York where he still lives. “I thought they would rebel against me and become brain surgeons or stock brokers,” he said with a wry smile. “And they all decided to go into music on their own. When they’re not doing their music, they all have different jobs that they do. They have a good work ethic, being brought up on a little farm and seeing me doing the farm work. They’re used to seeing me put in a good day’s old fashioned work. So, having that background, I think that was beneficial to them to survive in today’s world.”
All three Amram children grew up surrounded by music and, according to Amram, it helped to make their bond with him even stronger. The family occasionally performs together like other musical families such as Arlo Guthrie, his son Abe, and grandson Krishna. Amram contends that these performances provide a respite not only for the artists, but for the audience as well. “It’s such a nice feeling. And it’s nice for people to see that. It kinda decentralizes the horrors of modern technology. And it shows the beneficial healing effects of music, that you make a family closer,” he said. “As opposed to the industrial super-star death wish bad vibes, trying to make the performing artist into some kind of a demi-god or psychopathic creep, which might have a certain entertainment value, but mostly, it is just demeaning to the art of music,” Amram exclaimed, as his voice trailed off and his face split slowly into a wide smile.
Having realized he had strayed off-topic, Amram caught himself, laughed hard, and finished his thought on industrial music. “If people enjoy it, God bless ‘em,” he said. “But that’s not for me. There’s too much beauty out there that’s still untouched that I’d like to learn about before I die, and also to share with other people.”
With the topic of performing still on his mind, Amram continued, undeterred, “I loved that show on VH1, “Where Are They Now”. They show somebody working in a gas station, and then playing in a stadium, and kind of lost and ‘what happened’?’” he said, explaining the premise of the popular documentary series which ran from 1999-2002, and examined the present-day lives of former celebrities.
“The reality is,” Amram discovered, “you never have to play in a stadium in the first place. I’ve played the stadiums, with Farm Aid and Willie (Nelson). And I played the Montreal Jazz Festival where they had over 100,000 people. It was thrilling. But by the law of averages, at least seven people are gonna dig what you’re doing,” and the rest, he concluded, may not. Whether playing for dozens or playing for thousands, Amram observed with a laugh, “It’s exactly the same thing, just less people.”
With six-plus decades experience as a musician, composer, and author, Amram is often invited by colleges, universities, and other groups to speak to young people. When it comes to creativity, his advice to them is simple and direct. “Whatever you do to pay your rent has no bearing on your value as an artist or as a person. Paying your rent simply means that you’re meeting your responsibilities to survive. And if you have a family, make sure that your kids get enough to eat, clothes to wear, go to school,” he continued, “but that’s just one thing that is important. What you do and what you dream of doing has no bearing on anything to do with how much you get paid for it. It just has to do with how well you can do it,” he said, again emphasizing the desire and the effort to create. “Wanting to do anything like that is in itself enormously valuable because you’re upgrading society just by even dreaming about it.”
Another piece of advice Amram often shares during his speaking engagements has to do with advice itself. He tells his young audiences that, “If they’re told by career counselors or advisors that whatever they want to do is a waste of time, unrealistic, adolescent, a fantasy, and they should give up because they’re not qualified to do anything, they should respect those people’s opinion because they’re probably very well educated, perhaps love them and might even be members of their own family. But after absorbing all that,” he declared, “Hang Out With Somebody Else!"
As Amram’s laughter at his last statement diminished, he turned very serious. “Maybe they can look at it a different way and think, instead of building a career, try to build a life,” he said, thoughtfully. “And that’s not some new age hot air philosophy. It’s just common sense. Most people that think of it in that way are surprisingly happy. That’s what’s interesting,” he asserted.
A few years ago, Amram’s friend Lawrence Kraman approached him with an idea. Kraman had just purchased a video camera and wanted his first film to document Amram’s life. The two men knew one another through Kraman’s record company Newport Classic of Newport, Rhode Island. The company was founded by Kraman and his wife, and has released more than 200 albums of classical music, including several titles by Amram.
Amram’s response to his friend’s request was immediate. “I said, ‘Larry, if you’re doing it, let’s do it.’ I didn’t give it a second thought because I knew he was a great dreamer,” Amram said, of Kraman. “I knew, whatever he did, it would be good because he’s that kind of person. So for two years he followed me around to all different kinds of places.”
As the film “David Amram: The First 80 Years” began to take shape, Kraman enlisted the help of a skeleton crew of advisors and professionals, including a film editor and a music critic. Amram preferred to keep an arm’s length from the production, explaining, “I realized that since I’ve written music for a lot of film and been in quite a few documentaries, (and) since I was the subject of this, I’d better stay out of the way and not wreck it with any ego attacks. And possibly other people could see what would paint a better picture of music than I could.”
The result is a film which not only chronicles Amram’s life; it also emphasizes his positive attitude, work ethic, and creativity. “So it turned out to really be something I’m proud of, something that Larry is proud of. And,” Amram continued, “it’s a blessing for me because hopefully it can encourage other people who see it to hang in there and be creative themselves, which, I think, makes it much more worthwhile.”
“My hope is for young people to say, ‘there’s a guy, 80 years old, still grateful to be here and grateful to be able to do what he loves to do’,” Amram said. He added that he also hopes the film will serve as a reminder that “we have an obligation… to foster that in young people coming up, to work hard and be creative.” And, he concluded of the film, “It’s as much about that as it is about me, and that’s fine as far as I’m concerned, because that’s what I’ve been trying to do all my life.”
“David Amram: The First 80 Years” was released in April, 2011. The 90-minute documentary is making the rounds at film festivals and special screenings, and is often accompanied by question and answer sessions with Amram and Kraman. While the film’s limited availability makes it difficult for the general public to experience, Kraman is currently seeking distribution and a wider release.
In addition to maintaining his travel and performance schedule, Amram will soon begin writing his fourth book, a companion to the film, to be titled, “David Amram: The First 80 Years”. He is also currently finishing work on an original composition intended for young classical players of viola, violin, piano, and cello.
Over the course of a 90-minute conversation, a multitude of topics were discussed, too numerous to completely cover here. While Amram’s past, present, and future were all on the agenda, one subject that never came up was that of slowing down or retirement. The idea seems to have never crossed his mind. Instead, Amram looks to the future with his typical optimistic excitement and desire to learn, create, and share.
A note from the author:
Handshakes and ‘good-byes’ were exchanged as the interview with David Amram drew to a close. My attempt to express my gratitude for the opportunity was feeble at best. As ineffective words tumbled from my mouth, Amram broke in and put me at ease. “Thank you!” he said enthusiastically. “If I had to pay a psychiatrist for this, it would cost a fortune!” His laughter resonated with a genuine sense of fun, as he refilled his coffee cup and prepared for his next interview.
Words of wisdom from David Amram : Although the few quotes below didn’t make it into the interview portion of this article, they help to demonstrate the depth of David Amram’s wisdom and deserve to be shared…
- On composing for a symphony: “You think, as a composer, after you write everything down really specifically, ultimately you hope that the people playing that (music) will feel something themselves and project that feeling of excitement and commitment into their instruments, which then will somehow be transported into the hearts of the people listening.”
- Advice to young people: “I always tell kids, being a selfish, disrespectful, abusive creep is an over-crowded field in a non-growth industry.”
- On performing: “Essentially, you’re just playing for one person at a time, and for the people you’re playing with, and to honor those whose music you’re playing. And that’s what it’s all about.”
- On creativity: “By making the effort and doing something creative with and for other people, you’re doing about the best anybody can do in this lifetime.”
David Amram’s Web site:
Books by David Amram:
“Vibrations – The Adventures and Musical Times of David Amram” (first edition – 1968)
“Offbeat – Collaborating with Kerouac” (first edition – 2002)
“Upbeat – Nine Lives of a Musical Cat” (first edition – 2008)
Selected Recordings by David Amram:
“Songs of the Soul” (2004)
“Southern Stories” (1999)
“Triple Concerto” (1998)
“At Home / Around the World” (1978, reissued 1996)
You Tube Video Selections:
David Amram – The First 80 Years – Movie Trailer:
David Amram with Dizzy Gillespie:
David Amram’s Triple Concerto:
David Amram – Splendor in the Grass:
** Copyright © 2012 – Annette “Ace” Eshleman **
Glen Campbell’s Long Goodbye
Concert Report – Glen Campbell, Live at Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, TX – September 9, 2012
Seated before a lunch tray nibbling from a slightly wilted salad, it was difficult to ignore the blaring television sets hung at intervals throughout the restaurant. Generally, I try to avoid TV. However, as there wasn’t much enjoyment to be found on my plate, perhaps the distraction it provided would be welcome.
On a screen four feet above the table, Ellen DeGeneres was addressing her talk show audience. Between absent-minded bites of arugula and shredded carrots, a familiar face appeared on the TV. It was Glen Campbell, much older now than the 1970’s-era memory of him but still handsome and easy-going, with his unforced charisma intact. Sitting beside Campbell was his wife of 30 years, Kim, and it was she who answered the majority of DeGeneres’ questions.
By the time the 76-year-old Campbell appeared on the talk show, his Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis had been public knowledge for about six months, and his farewell concert tour already underway. It was not so much Campbell’s interview, what was said or not said, which was remarkable. Although his presence on the program was courageous and extraordinary, it was his performance of the 1968, hit song “Wichita Lineman” which captivated studio audience and restaurant patrons alike. Supported by a band which included three of his grown children, Campbell rolled back the years and sang with poise and confidence.
Although my lunch was largely forgettable, the memory of that brief television appearance lingered. Weeks later, when a local concert date for Glen Campbell’s Goodbye Tour was announced, tickets were purchased without hesitation. And during the month leading up to the concert, Google, You Tube, and the local used record store were all pressed into service in an effort to get reacquainted with a long-neglected and nearly forgotten wealth of music and talent.
With a 50-year career in the music business, 70-plus recordings, 27 top-10 country songs, and a popular TV show to his credit, Glen Campbell has amassed a legion of fans the world over. Many of those fans have remained loyal to Campbell through years of ups and downs that included drug abuse, alcoholism, and tumultuous love affairs. No matter what the frailty, his fans always found a way to look past it to the music beyond.
Having given a public face to Alzheimer’s since announcing his diagnosis with the disease in 2011, Campbell will undoubtedly turn to his fans for understanding once more as his final tour progresses. As missteps, forgotten lyrics, and occasional confusion begin to intrude on his performances, the support of his fans will comfort and sustain.
On the evening of Campbell’s Austin, Texas concert, fans took their seats amid a pall of nervous excitement. Questions too intrusive, too personal, or too frightening to ask mingled with the anticipation of what was to come.
The show opened with a brief performance of original songs by Victoria Ghost, a duo comprised of Campbell’s son Shannon (guitar), and daughter Ashley (banjo, mandolin). The brother and sister team began their set alone but were soon joined on stage by the rest of Campbell’s band, which included another brother, Cal (drums). Their music was as difficult to neatly categorize as that of their father. With equal parts acoustic and electric, they performed a mix of contemporary folk, Americana, and country, which could have been as at home in Nashville as in New York City.
At last the agonizing build-up was over and the house lights were extinguished. Guided by a small flash light; Glen Campbell took his place at center stage. As the eager audience realized it was Campbell himself standing before the microphone in the darkness, row upon row stood to applaud and cheer. When the lights came up Campbell and his band launched into a high-powered version of “Gentle on My Mind”. Throughout the entire show, the energy level never abated.
Next came “Galveston”, and then “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, both composed by songwriter Jimmy Webb. Scarcely have a composer and performer been so inextricably linked as Campbell and Webb. Campbell’s interpretations of Webb’s songs have not only become hits, but have become standards of American popular music.
Campbell’s command of Webb’s material was never more apparent than when all of the band members left the stage with the exception of T.J. Kuenster, Campbell’s long-time music director and keyboardist. Campbell’s performance of Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”, accompanied only by Kuenster’s piano, was striking in its simplicity and arrangement. Equally powerful was the song which followed, another Webb composition called “No Signs of Age”, which Campbell had reportedly not performed live in 6-7 years.
The two most prominent elements of Campbell’s performance were his vocals and his guitar playing. From the yodeling during “Love Sick Blues”, to trading leads with daughter Ashley on “Dueling Banjos”, the question persisted… Is this man really 76 years old? His performance was relaxed, confident, and filled with vigor and vitality.
In addition to featuring new songs from the 2011 album “Ghost on the Canvas”, the country standard “I Cant Stop Loving You”, and several others, the balance of Campbell’s show consisted of his biggest hits. “Wichita Lineman”, “Rhinestone Cowboy”, and “Southern Nights”, were each followed by a standing ovation from the audience. He ended the show, sans encore, with “A Better Place”, also from “Ghost on the Canvas”.
A more fitting closer is not to be found in Campbell’s entire repertoire than “A Better Place”. The song talks of facing the future, not with fear, but with faith. As Campbell and his band linked arms to take their final bow, his was not the only face beaming with a look of defiant determination.
As for the unasked questions mentioned previously… Yes, Campbell missed a few lyrics. Yes, there was a brief moment of mild confusion when he appeared to look to his daughter for confidence. Yes, the tele-prompters were most helpful. And, no, none of that mattered a bit.
For the time being, Campbell is doing what he loves. As his disease progresses, the precious memories of his life will begin to dissolve. Campbell will eventually leave the stage behind to confront his new reality with the help and support of his family. As his own memories fade, the memories he generously gave to his fans during the Goodbye Tour will remain an enduring part of his legacy, to be cherished for years to come.
Glen Campbell’s Website: http://www.glencampbell.com/
Glen Campbell Selected Recordings:
Ghost on the Canvas – 2011
Greatest Hits – 2009
Meet Glen Campbell – 2009
Rhinestone Cowboy – 1975
Galveston – 1969 (reissued 2001)
Wichita Lineman – 1968 (reissued 2001)
By the Time I Get to Phoenix – 1967 (reissued 2001)
Gentle on My Mind – 1967 (reissued 2001)
Todd Rundgren – Live in Austin, Texas
A light rain fell as the line of Todd Rundgren fans waiting to enter La Zona Rosa grew steadily longer. Some of the faithful donned jackets and opened umbrellas, while others simply ignored the weather. Fortunately, the storm which threatened never materialized and when the front gate of the night club finally opened, Rundgren’s fans streamed eagerly inside. Standing room directly in front of the stage filled up quickly. And although the 1200-capacity venue wasn’t completely sold out, it was packed.
From the opening notes of the opening song, “Real Man”, it was clear that Rundgren was battling a nasty cold. His voice, typically smooth and wide-ranging, sounded harsh and raspy. The biggest losers of Rundgren’s vocal struggle were the songs “Lucky Guy” and “Hawking”, both dependent upon melodic leaps and bounds that he simply couldn’t attain. Long regarded as uncompromising where music is concerned, Rundgren was obviously bothered by the impact it made on his show.
At age 63, cold or no cold, Rundgren demonstrated his signature musicianship and professionalism. His voice may not have been what his fans have become accustomed to but his performance, and that of his band, never faltered. Throughout the two-hour show, Rundgren seemed unable to stand still. Even the handful of songs he performed while perched on a chair at center stage were filled with excitement and movement (at one point, gesturing to the extent that the chair looked as though it might give way beneath him). Backed by Jesse Gress on lead guitar, John Ferenzick on keyboards, Prairie Prince on drums, and long-time bassist and former Utopia band mate Kasim Sulton, highlights of the show were many.
Early in the evening, Rundgren performed a cover of the Robert Johnson song “Kindhearted Woman Blues”. The song is from Rundgren’s tribute album to the great bluesman and was a simmering combination of blues and rock which helped bridge the gap between Rundgren’s early influences and his original material. “Determination” fell flat vocally, but the guitar artistry of both Rundgren and Gress more than made up for it. The Utopia song, “Love is the Answer”, an anthem with a message which never grows old, got the entire audience singing.
Although Rundgren continued to struggle with his voice (a struggle which was, at times, painful to watch), he never lost his sense of humor and even made an off-hand joke about the possible need for a karaoke machine. One song later, after coughing and blowing his nose into a large towel, he again mentioned karaoke, adding that he really wasn’t kidding. Suddenly, Rundgren pulled a fan from the audience to join him on stage.
After a false start, a gentleman wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a very wide grin, took the stage and stood beside Rundgren who motioned with his foot to a set list taped to the floor. The band began to play while the audience moved closer to the stage en masse and held its collective breath. And a man who introduced himself only as ‘Keith’ lived out the fantasy of nearly every person in the room. He sang Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby” without a hitch as Rundgren, who occasionally provided lyrical assistance, looked on approvingly.
Soon a second, and eventually a third, fan was plucked from the audience to sing a song in Rundgren’s place. Each, in turn, nailed his respective performance and the audience reaction rivaled that received by Rundgren himself. The third guest vocalist, ‘Randy’, appeared the most comfortable of the three on stage. He sang Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”, a difficult song to begin with, yet he knew every word. Nearing the end of the song, Sulton leaned away from his bass guitar to whisper something into Randy’s ear. And as Sulton and Rundgren began high-kicking in unison, Randy fell into perfect step with them. The audience responded wildly and Rundgren himself clearly loved it, exclaiming that he has the best fans in the world.
The show ended most appropriately, with an encore of “Hello It’s Me”. The song is Rundgren’s most well-known and his fans in attendance, many of whom count their support of him in decades rather than mere years, wanted to hear it. In spite of his obvious illness, or perhaps because of the inspiration provided by the guest vocalists, Rundgren pulled possibly his best singing performance of the evening out of his hat. He gave all he had and was completely spent as he and the band finally left the stage.
Selected Todd Rundgren solo albums:
Something / Anything – (1972)
Initiation – (1975)
Faithful – (1976)
Hermit of Mink Hollow – (1978)
Nearly Human – (1989)
Todd Rundgren’s Johnson – (2011)
Todd Rundgren and Utopia:
Utopia – Oops! Wrong Planet – (1977)
** Copyright © 2012 – Annette “Ace” Eshleman **