“Almost”: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fable To Celebrate The 20th Anniversary Of “Almost Famous”

“Almost” originally appeared in The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables And Sonic Storytelling (HarperCollins, 2007) by MAGNET’s Mitch Myers. Cameron Crowe’s rock ‘n’ roll fable Almost Famous was released Sept. 15, 2000.

Did I ever tell you about my young friend Danny Whitehouse? Danny was a teen-aged rock obsessive who listened to all the current music until he saw that movie Almost Famous, and it changed his life. Danny really loved Almost Famous, and after watching it about a dozen times, he began buying old vinyl albums from the ’70s, specifically records by the artists he found on the Almost Famous soundtrack.  

Danny was a methodical music fanatic, and he started out by getting every old album he could find by the Allman Brothers Band. He loved Greg Allman’s voice and the way Duane Allman’s slide guitar burned its way around Dickey Bett’s stinging leads. From there, Danny moved directly into the Southern-rock stylings of Lynyrd Skynyrd and their infamous three-guitar attack. Skynyrd weren’t quite the improvisers that the Allmans were, but Danny thought they rocked a lot harder and wrote some truly meaningful tunes. 

It wasn’t long before Danny was scouring the used record bins for albums by Led Zeppelin and the Who. Almost Famous used an instrumental from the Who’s rock opera, Tommy, and while the tune featured familiar riffs from Pete Townsend’s amplified acoustic guitar, it was John Entwhistle’s thundering bass that captured Danny’s imagination. And although Zeppelin’s dynamic, blues-based music was completely exhilarating, Danny actually preferred the softer, romantic side of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

Danny really began picking up speed in his collecting as he found countless albums by Simon & Garfunkel and Cat Stevens. While he treasured Tea For The Tillerman, Danny found Cat’s later recordings far less interesting. The same went for his short-lived passion for Elton John and Rod Stewart. He cherished the early stuff but decided that they had become caricatures of themselves and lost the artistic significance they once commanded.

Then Danny became immersed in the arty eclecticism of Todd Rundgren and the lighter-than-air-psychedelia of mid-period Beach Boys. He loved the fact that Rundgren played all the instruments on his own in the studio. He was equally fascinated with landmark Beach Boys albums like Holland and Surf’s Up. Danny was convinced that Brian Wilson’s orchestral-pop harmonies and acid-tinged sound production were the work of absolute genius.  

From there Danny went on to the prog rock of Yes and the punk-glam-androgyny of David Bowie. Danny imagined that the Yes-men had studied classical music before forming their rock band and that Bowie had gotten a lot of mileage out of imitating Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. Danny also got deeply into psychedelic garage rock and eventually spent a big chunk of change on a pristine copy of the original Nuggets collection.

I was impressed when Danny pursued the seductive R&B of great blind soul singer Clarence Carter. Carter’s yearning version of “Slip Away” was also used in the film Wonder Boys, and I thought for sure that Danny would begin another acquisition process based on that film’s retro soundtrack. Ironically, Danny never even bothered to see that movie. He did, however, go to extreme lengths to purchase a copy of a Thunderclap Newman album and paid a real premium because the record had original cover art and was produced by Pete Townsend.  

But there was one tune on Almost Famous that turned Danny’s world upside down. Stillwater’s “Fever Dog” begins with a bone-crushing rock riff and a hearty wail from the group’s lead singer. With the song’s sinuous bass line, stratospheric guitar and Cro-Magnon drum beats echoing in his ears, Danny was eager to purchase any and all full-length albums by Stillwater, but it was not to be.

You can imagine his disappointment (and humiliation) when a clerk at the used record store told Danny that Stillwater was just an imaginary band made up expressly for the purposes of Almost Famous. At first, Danny couldn’t believe it. “But ‘Fever Dog’ sounds so great,” he cried. “If their music is totally contrived, what does that say about all of these other records that I’ve been buying? They don’t sound all that much better than Stillwater!” 

So that was it for Danny and his record-buying obsession. As a matter of fact, he immediately sold off all of the old albums he’d been collecting. The funny thing is, Danny took the money and bought himself an electric guitar. Nowadays, he leads a ’70s cover band and plays gigs every once in a while at a club downtown. 

Perhaps you’ve heard of Danny’s band—they’re called the Cameron Crowes.

[Hey, what about the Oliver Stones? —ed.]

MAGNET Television: Q&A With Matthew Logan Vasquez (Delta Spirit)

Delta Spirit took an extended break following 2014’s Into The Wide and all the touring and promotion that comes after releasing an album. Sometimes, it ain’t easy being in a rock ‘n’ roll band and you need time away from each other to hit the reset button. For the five members of Delta Spirit (who are now spread out across North America), that meant pursuing musical projects away from their main gig. But the quintet—vocalist/guitarist Matthew Logan Vasquez, multi-instrumentalist Kelly Winrich, guitarist Will McLaren, bassist Jonathan Jameson and drummer Brandon Young—came back refreshed and ready to make fifth album What Is There (New West). Produced by the band, mixed by studio guru Tchad Blake (check your record collection) and dedicated to the late, great Richard Swift, What Is There is Delta Spirit’s most ambitious LP yet.

Isolation Drills: Kingsley Ibeneche

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Ibeneche: Everything has stood still in this time. You can see dust particles moving in free formations. Have you ever heard a noise so loud that you hear nothing at all? That has been quarantine for me as a Nigerian-American artist in the U.S.

So much to care about, so much to learn about and so much teach about ourselves. Makes one wonder how black people have any time for self-healing or, on a smaller scale, just plain relaxation.

In this tumultuous time, I haven’t been able to relax. Though there has been beautiful moments of discovery within my art and myself. Though I have had the chance to learn new hobbies and cook/eat foods I wouldn’t normally. All these nuances have been done under a microscope.

In some ways, I have been feeling guilty for enjoying time off. It’s been a constant mental fight with myself. Naturally, I’m an over-thinker, so I don’t know if everyone deals with these pulsating thoughts. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for anyone.

One thing I did learn in this time is that one must chose a side. Not a side of black or white, or Democratic vs. Republican, or even rich or poor. One must chose if they are going exist in this world or exist for the infinite spirit (spirit of all people/god).

Essential New Music: Sally Anne Morgan’s “Thread”

Thread introduces Sally Anne Morgan as a solo artist who understands the task of being a folk musician in the 21st century. Anyone familiar with Morgan’s prior—and, quite likely, future—work as a fiddler with the Black Twig Pickers and as half of vocal/instrumental duo House And Land already knows that she can play the old songs with infectious passion and sing them like they’re real. But on Thread, she uses stories from the past to invite us to think about the present, adding some stories of her own. 

The album is book-ended by songs you might already know by Fairport Convention, Shirley Collins, Nic Jones and Mary Black. “Polly On The Shore” relates the dying regrets of a young buccaneer who’s pining for the love he left behind as he bleeds out; “Annachie Gordon” relates the death of another young woman, whose demise saves her from consummating her arranged marriage to a much older man. Of course, blood and sex have been the stuff of song since time immemorial. But just what was that young guy doing plundering the West Indies anyway? Why was that woman designated to marry a guy she didn’t pick? Pull the thread tight, and you’ll see these circumstances are drawn together by the pitiless engines of colonialism and capitalism, which turn anyone who lacks status and means into so much cannon fodder. If Morgan’s selection of covers thinks globally, her originals propose more locally attainable countermeasures. “Garden Song,” for example, extolls the pleasure and empowerment of living close to the earth, making sure that you know it’s her garden, no one else’s.

Morgan’s instrumentals also serve to bridge tradition and the present. “Sheep Shaped” (an original) and “Sugar In The Gourd” (a traditional tune that turns up a lot at fiddle competitions) are played with a strategically ragged edge and unerring timing; you can be sure that the arm pulling the bow is guided by deep knowledge of how to get folks to kick up some sawdust. But on “Ellemwood Meditation,” Morgan overdubs fiddle and piano to come up with a Blue Ridge mountaineer’s answer to Eno’s Music For Airports. Thread opens up several avenues for further exploration, leaving one curious where Morgan will go next. 

—Bill Meyer

Do Look Back: A Brief History Of Silkworm, One Of ’90s Indie Rock’s Most Underrated Bands—Essential Playlist Included

A decade and a half after the tragic and senseless death of drummer Michael Dahlquist, MAGNET’s Andrew Earles reflects on the savage beauty of Silkworm and picks 20 must-hear tracks from one of the best indie-rock bands of the ’90s

It’s been 15 years since a suicidal woman deliberately crashed her car into three strangers—Douglas Meis, John Glick and Michael Dahlquist—as their vehicle sat waiting at the intersection of Dempster Street and Niles Center Road in Skokie, Ill. She suffered minor injuries. All three friends—coworkers at Shure Inc. (they were returning from their lunch break) and musicians—died. The gas pedal had literally bent around her foot when she struck Dahlquist’s car at 90 mph, thus proving it was floored upon impact.

Over the months leading up to this 2005 tragedy that ended Silkworm, for which Dahlquist had been the unmistakable drummer since 1990, the band’s body of work (or a lot of it, at least) had started to enter a personal canon of bands/artists whose work will forever move me in intellectual, emotional and recreational capacities in frequent perpetuity. Perhaps that’s why the short news/obit piece I wrote at the time for Paste just made me cringe so intensely upon revisitation that I literally had to walk it off.

The same thing happened five years ago when I revisited it last while working on a longform Silkworm piece for Pitchfork’s “The Pitch.” That never saw the light of day because I’ll overthink a glass of water and I believe my excuses were something like, “Everything’s already been said and said better,” or, “This band is really hard for me to write about for some reason,” though I stopped short of the unprofessional, embarrassing (if not inaccurate) notion that my own relationship to the music made journalistic objectivity or plain readability impossible. 

I used to consider my relationship to Silkworm as the definition of an acquired taste. I would refrain from pushing the band on folks until we really got to know each other. If someone were to claim indifference, dislike or disagree about the musical quality and importance of a band such as Mission Of Burma, the Groundhogs, N.W.A, Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Funkadelic or Sonic Youth, I would not trust that person to walk from one side of an unfurnished room to the other.

Conversely, I would hand out passes to those who didn’t like or understand Silkworm. But that line of thinking is no longer totally valid, and after years of devoting an unhealthy, possibly insane, amount of cognitive energy to contextualizing this band’s output and exactly what it means to me as opposed to what it could mean to the unfamiliar but curious. This invariably influenced the content and order of the playlist to which this intro will eventually give way. 

As of this day in 2020, there are probably as many documentaries about overlooked, underrated or previously unknown bands, clubs or scenes from the ’90s as there are dudes (and they are dudes) my age and older who say, “You know, this was before the internet and smart phones,” in those documentaries. Either despite or because of the fact that I was there for at least half of the era in question, the majority leave me feeling nothing or questioning their appeal outside of the direct participants.

Like Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero or It’s Gonna Blow: San Diego’s Music Underground 1986-1996, I can objectively state the exact opposite about Seth Pomeroy’s excellent Couldn’t You Wait?: The Story Of Silkworm from 2013. It’s well-worth the $5 entrance fee. It follows a traditional format (no animated spiral notebooks here) to simultaneously tell a deeply human story of the band and the historical subplot of the OG indie-rock world that offered varying degrees of support throughout Silkworm’s run. More importantly, fandom is not a prerequisite and may not even be an outcome. But if you love music and appreciate a strong example of the rock-doc art form, enjoyment will be. Plus, I suppose it goes without stating that Couldn’t You Wait? will do a much better job of historically and contextually unpacking the Silkworm legacy than what you’re reading. 

But some potentially helpful facts: Silkworm’s active discography spanned 1990 to 2004 in a consistent, hiatus-free manner and is comprised of nine proper full-lengths, a live album of covers as the Crust Brothers (a side-project featuring Stephen Malkmus backed by Silkworm), a double-CD compilation of rare/unreleased fare and 12 or 13 titles that fall into the single or EP categories.

Starting out as teenagers in Missoula, Mont., who entered the ranks of a local post-punk collective called Ein Heit, founding members Tim Midyett (bass, vocals), Andy Cohen (guitar, vocals) and Joel R.L. Phelps (guitar, vocals) relocated to Seattle as the three principle songwriters in the newly christened Silkworm and, in 1990, took on Dahlquist as their drummer. Beginning in 1993, Steve Albini would record most of Silkworm’s body of work and evolve into a close friend and confidant.

Also kicking off around 1993 was Silkworm’s barn-storming campaign of spending around eight months of each year on the road, which resulted in Phelps’ departure from the band. Subsequently, Silkworm was an often-powerful power trio, among many other subtle progressions, for the next 10 years. Some time after Silkworm concluded its exhausting aforementioned road-dogging run, the members relocated to Chicago and got day jobs so as not to compromise their primary endeavor. During its lifetime, the band spent time on three main labels—C/Z (1992-1994), Matador (1995-1997) and Touch And Go (1998-2004)—and popped up on some smaller affairs.

That’s the Reader’s Digest ultra-condensed version of the story.

Continue reading “Do Look Back: A Brief History Of Silkworm, One Of ’90s Indie Rock’s Most Underrated Bands—Essential Playlist Included”

Isolation Drills: Rozes

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Elizabeth Mencel (a.k.a. Rozes): This pandemic has been an interesting time for me. My life, which is usually lived out of suitcases and airplanes, is now something that consists of routine and, dare I say, normalcy. I heard someone say, “We are in the same storm but in different boats,” and I don’t think this pandemic could be put more perfectly than that. I miss touring, in-person writing sessions, traveling and going out, but in the grand scheme of things, I am quite lucky. I am able to work from home and still do what I love: write and play music, while not worrying about mine or my loved ones’ safety.

While Zoom sessions are the reality of right now, I have a growing affinity for them. Typically, when going into writing sessions, I am pulling up to a place I have never been before to share vulnerable pieces of myself to people I have never met. Now I get to do this from the comfort of my home, which I think has made my art even more honest. I am able to focus on my craft without the background noise and anxiety of the unknown. This has granted me more space to be myself and show up ready to create.

So, how have I been impacted by COVID-19? A little and a lot at the same time. I see my family more now than I have ever been able to while chasing my dream of music. This is the most consecutive time I have spent with my boyfriend in our home, and that gift is not lost on me. I’ve woken up in my bed every morning for the last six months. I have clothes in my drawers. I am home to make dinner and actually sit down and eat it. I have been able to work with people in other countries via Zoom instead of having to coordinate our trips to L.A. I feel I have been given the gift of time. 

However, I honestly feel uncomfortable talking about the gifts I am experiencing and how COVID-19 has impacted my life. The aftermath is surprisingly positive, when I know it hasn’t been for the majority. I am grounded in gratitude that such a tragic global crisis could positively affect my personal and professional life. This experience has highlighted the privileges I have always been aware of. I have never had to worry about losing my home, my job or my health.

This awareness is constantly on my mind, and it is influencing how I show up, as well as the focus of my art as I recognize the weight of my voice. I feel I have a responsibility to highlight the domestic and global differences of each of our stories right now. I am hopeful that as a society we do not continue to ignore the differences in each other’s “boats” but instead learn how to work together so we can close the gap so that these privileges become basic universal experiences.

MAGNET Television: Q&A With John Herndon (A Grape Dope, Tortoise, Isotope 217)

John Herndon is best known as the co-founder and drummer of Tortoise, the highly influential and technically savvy band that not only made “post-rock” a vocabulary staple of all the ’90s indie kids but also was their gateway drug to sounds of the dub, minimalist, krautrock, electronic and, eventually, jazz persuasion. While Tortoise now releases albums at a snail’s pace, Herndon stays busy as a visual artist, with work ranging from painting and illustration to tattoos and T-shirts. He’s also into collage, both visual and aural. Herndon explores the latter under the moniker A Grape Dope, which just released debut LP Arthur King Presents A Grape Dope: Backyard Banger (Dangerbird). It’s a 32-minute, cut-and-paste collection of rhythms, resolutions and clusters. Inviting and exciting, it’s highly recommended—and not just for the brave and the bold.

Isolation Drills: Sheena & Thee Nosebleeds

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Sheena Powell (vocals): Since COVID-19, my world has been a bit overwhelming, to say the least. I’ve spent most of the pandemic working, and whatever time I had left, writing poetry and getting as much rest as possible. Right now, I am working on a book of short stories and poems about my life. Hopefully, I’m able to release it sometime in early 2021.

Another project that I’m hoping to get finished in the early months of 2021 is the SATNB sophomore album. I was really looking forward to us releasing it this year, but like many things, COVID canceled those plans. I’m optimistic about the future despite of all the “drama” 2020 has put all of us through. I know SATNB has a bright future ahead, and there’s nowhere to go but up!

Kermit Lyman (guitar): The months preceding COVID lockdown were particularly difficult for me on a personal level, so being furloughed and quarantined was just the icing on a cake of divorce and dead friends. With nothing to do but get high, play the guitar, listen to records and hang out with my cat, I’ve made the best of a situation that could have gone very badly.

I was inspired to assemble an EP of solo material as well as to engage in a number of collaborations, including a proggy death-metal demo and drum instructional video with Jon Kois (RunHideFight). Doc and I worked out a tune called “Summer Of Shove” with proceeds benefiting the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter. SATNB contributed a track to Fuel The Fight, a Philadelphia-based compilation benefitting essential workers. Music from an unreleased split seven-inch featuring all three Nosebleeds also finally found its way into the digital realm after nearly eight years. Better late than never, I suppose.

I have been fixing the hell out of my gear. I’d amassed a large quantity of nonfunctioning musical equipment over the last few decades, so now I have an abundance of working items in my possession. I was able to help out at Red Planet Sound And Rehearsal as they prepared to reconfigure for a post-pandemic world. I have also assisted friends in endeavors that are technically outside the approval of law, but shouldn’t be. Being at least a little productive every day definitely helps me maintain my sanity, and even if it’s not musical, it can still be meaningful.

At the moment, a daunting task is dismantling our rehearsal space. I am leaving my spot of more than 15 years and our base of sonic operations for the last 10 must go with it. There’s lots of wiring, but even more memories. Better things lie ahead, no question.

Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to finishing the record we tracked in February, and I can’t wait to make noise in the same room with my closest friends again, but I’m gonna keep making noise regardless. I more eagerly anticipate November 3, where we can all work together to cure another very real and deadly disease. Please vote.

Kevin James Cooper (bass): When I was about 19 or so, I learned how to play bass by joining band that had a month-and-half tour booked and their bass player just quit. It didn’t matter so much that I barely knew the rudiments of the instrument. “It’s a punk band—just jump around and hit the notes,” was what I was told. 25 years later, I’m still doing the same. Most of them with my brother, Kermit.

During this time, I learned a trade: painting. The eventual goal of working for myself was achieved. I started working for myself and was able to earn a living and, most importantly, not have a boss. During this time, my life hasn’t really changed. I wake up, put paint on things, go home. Repeat. What I found and still find hard to deal with during this is not being able to make loud sounds with my friends. The one thing that was/is a release to the stresses of life. This problem is bullshit compared to what others go through daily.

Chris “Doc” Kulp (drums): With all the isolation brought on by COVID-19, there’s no doubt our realities have taken great shifts. I do work on my own music from time to time, mainly instrumental pieces here and there, but rarely do I get time to put together a finished product that can be shared. In truth, I’ve been spending most of my time developing lessons and videos for all my music students in the fall. This means a lot of time is spent away from the drumset, and more time on other instruments.

I miss the ability to truly let it all out behind the drum set with SATNB. We had some really great shows in 2019, and who knows how long it will be until we get back to that world. But in the meantime, I know we are looking for a virtual means of collaboration. I am looking forward to how that pans out, because there was an artistic and emotional outlet in those performances, even if it was just a practice in Kit’s attic. It was something to look forward to. Also, we were in the midst of finishing a new album, and I am looking forward to hearing that finished product.

Normal History Vol. 599: The Art Of David Lester

Every week, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 36-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

“If it’s a radical subject you are dealing with, you want to take a radical approach to the drawing.” —David Lester

I Went Away For A While” from Janis Zeppelin (Smarten Up!, 2003) (download):

MAGNET Television: Q&A With Wes Miles (Ra Ra Riot)

Ra Ra Riot has released the digital-only The Orchard (10th Anniversary Edition) (Barsuk), which celebrates its sophomore LP hitting the decade mark. While the seven bonus tracks (including a cover of Sparks’ “Saccharin And The War,” which got two thumbs up from the Mael brothers) are a great addition to the original album, there’s also the new stand-alone Live In Kyoto 2010. The dozen-track concert LP was recorded in Japan a couple months before The Orchard was released and features early live versions of Orchard standouts “Boy” and “Too Dramatic.” There’s a Ra Ra Riot going on, kids. Make it a Ra Ra Riot of your own.