Saturday, May 22, 2010

Welcome, Summer

When does summer begin? In New Jersey, where I live, it was 86 degrees today. But we topped that in March, so that’s not the answer. The ancient Celts marked the beginning of summer with the festival of Beltane. They observed the blooming of certain trees, and Beltane marked the end of the planting season and the beginning of the growing season. This occurs somewhere around May 1, but it moves depending on the weather. This year, it was early. Today, summer begins when school gets out. So, for kids, it is still spring, but my wife is an adult learner, and she got out last week. So, by many measures, summer is here, and I thought it was time to acknowledge it.

Richard Thompson: Sumer is Icumen In


The title of this song translates into modern English as “Summer is Coming In”, so I know it fits. The song dates from about 1260, so the language of the rest of the lyrics would require a translation that I do not have. It certainly feels right. I always feel a burst of excitement at the arrival of summer, and this song has that.

Herbie Hancock (with Joni Mitchell): Summertime


Of course, this post had to have a version of the Gershwin classic Summertime. The only problem was, I didn’t have one. But I found something wonderful. I hadn’t known that Joni Mitchell had worked with Herbie Hancock before the River album. If anything, this performance may top the version of The Tea Leaf Prophecy from that album. Joni nails the soulfulness of this song, and Hancock’s playing is brilliant, as always.

John Cougar Mellencamp: Hotdogs and Hamburgers


Here is a classic set up for a summer romance song. The guy gets the girl to get in his car and go for a ride. You can imagine the top down, and the wind blowing their hair around. But John Mellencamp takes it someplace unexpected. His later work has been overtly political, but Hotdogs and Hamburgers was from The Lonesome Jubilee. Mellencamp, at this point, was still doing everyman rock anthems, and this feels like it will be one of them. The Authority Song is certainly rousing, but it has no particular issue in mind. Hotdogs and Hamburgers does. Mellencamp’s protagonist gets to know this girl, and what he learns and how he reacts take both him and us by surprise. My friend Boyhowdy says that Mellencamp is a very underrated songwriter. On this evidence, I must agree.

Joni Mitchell: Harry‘s House - Centerpiece


For me, Harry’s House - Centerpiece is centered on one image: “Her body oiled and shining, at the public swimming pool”. Harry, a traveling businessman, thinks back on what his marriage was compared to what it is, and that image is the transition point in his reflections. It’s a very powerful one. Unlike with John Mellencamp, I don’t have to tell anyone what a fine songwriter Joni Mitchell is. But here’s more proof.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

The Buskers: Spank That Tambourine


Growing up, I used to make trips by bus into New York City with my best friend every summer. One of my favorite thing about these trips was stopping to listen to the street musicians, or buskers. I heard some truly amazing music that way. Now there is a trio from Vermont called the Buskers. In my mind, that’s quite a name to have to live up to. The Buskers manage it beautifully.

Spank That Tambourine, the album, is a wonderfully varied collection. There are folk rock numbers, like the title track. There are some bluesier numbers, including a cover of the Taj Mahal classic, She Caught the Katy. And there are some instrumentals that remind me of the work of David Grisman. The Buskers make it all work, and Spank That Tambourine also works as a coherent album. Spank That Tambourine, the song, is an ode to buskers. It is delivered with the good cheer that a busker must have no matter how they actually feel at the time. Enjoy the song, and don’t forget to drop some coins, or even a bill, in their case.


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