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31 Favorite Important Performances

This is in no order, and each choice is driven by something in each performance, usually the vocal, with some exceptions, that over the last 50 years, has stopped me in my tracks. Speaking of tracks, yes, I know some stuff may have been overdubbed and might be the best of some chosen passes in the studio. So what? Still knocks me out. And look here, I don’t want to come off like some sort of Robert Christgau wannabe, as I believe critics kinda suck ass as a whole, so I’ll be giving opinions only on why these songs move me.

1) "Coyote” by Joni Mitchell - from Hejira  -

When I heard this story - yes I said story - I knew I had to do something songwriting-wise in my life. Note that it is her guitar, Bobbye Hall on percussion, Larry Carlton on very spare lead guitar, and Jaco Pastorius on bass (soon to make my Best Bass Player list - coming soon). No Drums. No. Drums. I realized at that moment of listening that I never wanted to ever go to another open mic where a singer songwriter had a percussionist and a bassist. Spoiled forever.

2) “Neon” by John Mayer - from Inside Wants Out - (here live in LA)

On the album you can hear him proceed to sit down on the squeaky studio stool. If you are not a believer in the “studio version”, check this live version out.- -. I heard this first as soundboard stuff when I played Eddies Attic early 2000. I went to John’s website and bought 5 copies of Inside Wants Out, and I attached a note saying how wonderful I thought he was and if he ever came to Boston I’d be happy to have him as an opener anywhere I might be, even Club Passim. He wrote me the nicest note back, white ink on black paper saying thanks for the offer and that he’d love that.
He never did get in touch.
And no, I don’t know what I did with the letter. Dumbass I am.

3) “Beeswing” by Richard Thompson - from Mirror Blue & various sources

Any time he plays it. Anywhere. Guitar, voice, story. Perfect. It was a toss-up between this and "1952 Vincent Black Lightning". Both are perfection. But these lines -

"And they say her flower is faded now, hard weather and hard booze
But maybe that's just the price you pay for the chains you refuse”.

Seriously? And he’s a nice supportive guy too?

4) "Just Like A Woman” - Roberta Flack - from Chapter 2

I grew up in Philly in an all-black neighborhood. I saw white people at Sears when we shopped, a few at school, and on T.V. I liked the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater, but Black pop and R&B was de rigeur, most of the time. By the time I got to college jazz was in my blood, but folk music was still “music done by white folks who’s names begin with 'J’ “ to my somewhat excuse-my-lack-of-exposure-mildly- musically-racist little ass... I despised Bob Dylan’s voice. Then I heard this. Then I bought Blood On The Tracks.

5) "For The Love Of You" - Isley Brothers - from The Heat Is On -

I lost my virginity to side 2 of The Heat Is On in early December of 1975 (xo Betsy). Ronald Isley's perfect, simple R&B singing was landmark for me. Note that this was transitional music to acoustic music for me thanks to Ernie Isley’s shameless use of 12 string guitars all over the side 2 of this album.

6) "Lover You Should Have Come Over” -  from Grace  -

A vocal and pop band tour de force. The song seems unwilling to end about 4 times, and he amps the vocals up a notch with each turn, yet manages to not be over the top. If ever there was a song as exorcism, this is it. Gone too soon for sure.

7) “Nessun Dorma” - Luciano Pavarotti -

Done and done. One of the 20th Century’s greatest voices, singing Puccini, whom I think of as the Beatles/Tom Waits of classical music.
While you’re at Youtube, Check out the fundraising stuff off to the right where Pavarotti sings with James Brown - Brave, crazy, odd, fantastic, collision of worlds.

8) "Could You Believe” - Al Jarreau - from Look To The Rainbow - Live In Europe


9) “King Of Rome” - June Tabor - from Aquaba

June Tabor : King Of Rome from Doug Lang on Vimeo.

These two are grouped together because my theft of each of them the formed the backbone of my acapella singing for years. The Al Jarreau tune crossed paths with me in 1978, on college break when my best friend Ken Ellner played this album in his living room. King Of Rome I heard while driving through Boston. I stopped the car entirely on a back street in Jamaica Plain and just cried in awe.

10) Shotgun Down The Avalanche - Shawn Colvin from Shawn Colvin Live -

I first heard this metaphor-filled masterpiece at The Old Vienna Kaffehause in 1989 and I decided then and there that I wanted to forever be a five-foot five inch white woman. Seriously, that night in March changed my life forever. I vowed from my seat 4 tables back that I’d do “this music” like that someday, maybe even meet Shawn Colvin.

A year and a half later I was opening the whole of her Fat City tour.

11) You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive - Darrell Scott -

I get annoyed by much formulaic country singing and writing. Darrell writes and sings and plays this like he doesn’t give a shit what I think. Who’s the wiser? I’m quite bitter that he has to do all three things so well. While you’re at it, go to the right on Youtube and check out Brad Paisley’s perfectly sung version.

12) “Did I Ever Know You” - Ellis Paul - from Translucent Soul -

Spend the dollar for the full version from my best friend ever. You’ll be very “undisappointed". Yes, people of our ilk can write and sing perfect songs and not yet be famous. I occasionally covered this song many moons ago.

13) "Angel In The House" - The Story - from Angel In The House -

I remember Jonatha playing this in my house after Thai food around the corner. She proclaimed that she could never let her mom hear it, much less anyone else. I was blown away. Plus she would re-tune my guitar so strangely when she played, took me 1/2 hour to get it back to standard tuning. I even covered this for a while.

14) “Castles Made Of Sand” - Jimi Hendrix - from Axis Bold As Love -

Beside the otherworldly guitar, there are three complete perfect snapshot stories told here. People often forget Jimi's crucial songwriting when reviewing his incendiary music and stage being.

15) “No Blues” - Wes Montgomery - From Smokin' at the Half Note -

It is all here. He makes a simple statement, then lightly solos like Charlie Christian, then mimics Count Basie’s band, then comes the octave soloing, then the chord soloing, then at one point he just stops as if to say “There. It’s all said.” Plus, you can hear him involve the whole of Wynton Kelly’s trio in synchronized hits as if he knows people are actually listening, he calls and responses with himself, goes outside like Trane. When Wynton Kelly comes in for the piano solo, there’s not much left to do. Ever present, Wes’ rhythm playing under Kelly’s solo is a lesson in itself.

16) "Hard Times" - David Fathead Newman - from Fathead - Ray Charles Presents David Fathead Newman -

I believe much of my jazz education came from this very song. Ensemble playing at it’s best with a solo over that, then each solo speaks. I learned to scat each and every solo by the time I was 10. This album is my jazz roots.

17) "Wait Till You See Him" - Ella Fitzgerald - from - The Rogers and Hart Songbook

One of my reasons for finally making a solo jazz album. Barney Kessel on guitar. What Tuck & Patti would have sounded like 60 years ago. What I have always strived to approach in my solo guitar/vocal playing.

18) "Looking For The Heart Of Saturday Night" - Tom Waits - from The Heart Of Saturday Night -

This was a life changing album for many of us singer songwriters. But this tune and his singing was so visual, never leaving my minds eye. Note the “drums” - someone playing their lap..!

19) "Every Little Bit" - Patty Griffin - from Living With Ghosts -

Solo singer songwriter material that reads and sounds like an exorcism. I believe her.

20) "She’s A Lady" - Kenny Rankin - from Silver Morning -

I tried to copy everything Kenny Rankin ever did. It’s as if he heard Ella - Barney Kessel's Wait Till You See Her and took his friend John Sebastian’s tune and mixed them in an acoustic salad bowl. . Here too should be mentioned his version of When Sunny Gets Blue which, aside from what you may hear as orchestrated schmaltz, was live, as was his vocal with this whole friggin orchestra. At some point on this album you can hear him shift on the stool (ala John Mayer) before starting to play and sing. Good God - can a brother get an overdub up in here? No? ok….

21) "Touch The Hem Of His Garment" - Sam Cooke -

Pete Kennedy of The Kennedys has more than once just found me at festivals and handed me mix cds of stuff he felt I should hear. This, and A Change Is Gonna Come, a stalwart in my set in recent years, was on one of those cds. Any Sam Cooke-ism you hear in Rod Stewart, Journey, the Isleys, anyone, started right here. Thanks Pete!

22) "Someday We’ll All Be Free" - Donny Hathaway - From Greatest Hits -

Occasionally confused, people think this is Stevie Wonder. I’ll stand on Stevie’s livingroom table and shout to the world that it is not. The change in time signature in the chorus was brave stuff for pop radio. That is indeed a young, hungry, and hurt-heart sounding David Sanborn on the alto solo.

23) "Tears Dry On Their Own" - Amy Winehouse - Back To Black -

This genius seemed to embody Chaka Khan and Billie Holiday all at once, fearlessly exploring her bottom register, writing searingly honest stuff, and swinging and improvising like no one her age should. When I heard this tune and this album, it was December and I actually quit doing music for about 2 weeks just to get my head back on straight. Ask Tom Eaton, it’s true.

24) “Wildflower" - Skylark (Donny Gerard)

Well, this defined the rock power ballad. I love interviews with Donny Gerard later where he proclaims that he ”...never understood the song and why it ended up such a big deal”. This vocal is pop perfection. Damn Black Canadian…..

25) "Cleanup Aisle Five" - Mo Pitney - from Live At the Grand Ol’ Opry -

A really fine musician friend gave me no ending rash of crap for liking this tune by this solid newcomer. He said it was everything he hated about country music. I guess we don’t have to agree on everything. The story is murderously good, his vocal and guitar so solid. That’s all it takes for me.

26) "Little Boy Blue" - Rufus featuring Chaka Khan - from the album Rufus

Again with the fun, hitchy time signature changes at the end of lines that Chaka effortlessly sings over. Tony Maidens guitar solo. Her exorcismic (yeah, I made that word up) vocal. The strings playing like sparrows synchronizedly (made up another word) following each other in improvised flight. The story of being lost. The false ending. Screw pop radio. Perfect.

27) "Rainy Night In Georgia" - Brooke Benton - from Where Do I Go From Here -

28) "Laughter In The Rain" - Neil Sedaka - from Sedaka’s Back

Yeah, I may be schmaltz king, but both of these perfectly written and sung tunes made me believe these men. One was so sad and homeless to me. In the rain. It always broke my heart. The other found joy and love. In the rain. I believed them both. I also learned that men could sing wonderfully high and low to great effect. Note Brooke Benton’s drop on the word “heavy”. Note Neil Sedaka’s shattered vocal line on the last “haaaand in mine”. It was covered in fur, and they kept it! And the last “with the one I love” on the outro is improv genius. The latter song has made the top of many folk’s "worst song of all time” list. I don’t care. Robert Christgau hated the only album of mine he ever reviewed. I’m still creating and working.

29) "Billy Austin” - Steve Earle - from Shut Up And Die Like an Aviator -

I first heard this song live at The Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. I was sitting in the grass and realized by the time the song was done I was in tears had pulled up handfuls of turf. Effective song, I’d say.

30) "A Place In The Sun" - Stevie Wonder -

This song used to spook my brother because he swore every time something monumental happened in our family. Another effective tune and delivery, enough to haunt 2 kids’ sleep.

31) "Can’t Hide Love" - Earth Wind & Fire -

Oh, did I ever slow dance to this. The double tracked Maurice White vocals that I could actually understand. Then Phillip Bailey’s soaring shadow vocals, also double tracked. Amazing that he hit those high notes perfectly more than once and matched them. “Can you find the time to listen?" indeed...