Sunday, December 30, 2001

Pop music

Something old, something new, something blue(grass)

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        What a long, strange year it's been. Bluegrass is booming, while teen pop hits the skids. The flagging economy and the brutal trauma of Sept. 11 left the music world alternately slumping and busily producing benefit concerts and CDs. Locally, 9-11 added to downtown's woes, after the April riots crippled the club and concert scene.

        But it wasn't all bad. Rock made a huge comeback. R&B got a big dose of organic soul, courtesy of Jill Scott (the hit of the 2001 Coors Light Festival), Alicia Keys, Maxwell, Angie Stone, Bilal, India.Arie, Res and others.

        Here, in no particular order, are 10 of the top music stories of 2001.

1. The Isley Brothers' first comeback of the 21st century.

        Lincoln Heights' favorite R&B sons made history again. The group, which, starting in the 1950s, has scored hit records in every succeeding decade, really hit it big in 2001. Or make that really Biggs, as in Mr. Biggs, singer Ronald Isley's musical alter ego. Eternal, featuring guests from R. Kelly to Jill Scott, gave the Isleys their first platinum album of the new millennium.

2. A bad year for guitarists.

        The most famous lead guitarist in rock and pop; country's best-known star guitarist, sideman and producer; a true Delta blues legend; and one of the most revered and influential jazz guitarists all died in 2001.

        R.I.P, George Harold Harrison, the Quiet Beatle, Feb. 25, 1943-Nov. 29, 2001; Chester Burton Atkins, the Country Gentleman, June 20, 1924-June 30 2001; John Lee Hooker, the Boogie King, Aug. 22, 1917-June 21, 2001; and the Tristate's own Calvin Cecil Collins, the Country Squire of Jazz, May 5, 1933-Aug. 27, 2001.

3. Cincinnati gets its own resident rock star.

        He moved here in 2000, but it was in 2001 that singer/guitarist Peter Frampton made himself at home in Cincinnati. He hosted the Michael W. Bany Lifetime Achievement Award segment of the 2001 Cammy Awards, played Riverbend and took part in various benefits, culminating in the Dec. 9 9-11 benefit at the Taft, which he helped organize. Year's end found him at Counterpart Studios in Erlanger, recording Freddie King's “Hide Away” for a King Records tribute CD, fronting a band that includes local legend Philip Paul, who drummed on the original.

4. A bad year for downtown music.

        April riots brought May cancellations, as Pepsi Jammin' on Main fell victim to boycott threats and the aftermath of downtown violence. Long after the violence was over, fear kept the crowds away, resulting in a devastating year for downtown clubs. Next year's forecast looks brighter, as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has announced it will produce Jammin' in 2002. But the question remains: Will the Main Street clubs and Jammin' finally call a truce and form an alliance to make the event as big as it should be, promoting downtown and maximizing crowds?

5. A new hip-hop hero.

        DJ Hi-Tek (a k a Tony Cottrell) proudly wore his Cincinnati Reds colors on the national stage in 2001, bursting on the scene with his acclaimed solo debut, Hi-Teknology. His creative, socially conscious approach with his partner in rhyme, Talib Kweli, earned the duo the “Sleeper” prize in the V2001 Awards in the January 2002 issue of Vibe. The accompanying article calls Hi-Tek “the most underrated beat maker in music today ... a budding musical mastermind.”

6. Meaningful box sets.

        Just when it seemed as though every decent subject of a box set had already been enshrined in cardboard, 2001 saw the release of world-class boxes by the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, Los Lobos, Little Feat, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Kiss. For jazz-vocal fans it was a banner year, with Mosaic's four-star The Complete Columbia Mildred Bailey Sessions and Columbia/Legacy's Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944).

7. Comings and goings

        One of Cincinnati's best alt-rock bands, the Afghan Whigs, called it quits, coincidentally before world events would have garnered the group's name some notoriety. Word is that frontman Greg Dulli's next Twilight Singers project will revive some of the Whigs' rocking sound.

        One of Cincinnati's best pop-rock bands, the Bears, reunited for a great album, Car Caught Fire, and some live dates in 2002.

8. Great local CDs.

        Along with the Bears, two other familiar rock names from the late '80s and early '90s were back with superb albums in 2001. Over The Rhine tightened its sound for Films for Radio, a Virgin Records/Backporch set both sensual and rocking. The Ass Ponys came up with Lohio, an album that blended Chuck Cleaver's unique songwriting with a bluegrass edge courtesy of guest instrumentalist Ed Cunningham.

        Other standouts this year: the Simpletons' Method for Passion, the Greenhornes' The Greenhornes, the Stapletons' Spirit of '76, Katie Reider's I Am Ready, Fairmount Girls' Tender Trap and in the genre-bending jazz/country/boogie/bluegrass category, guitarist Scotty Anderson's jaw-dropping Triple Stop.

9. Bluegrass booms.

        The O Brother Where Art Thou? phenomenon was just part of the story. The 3 million-selling soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film topped the country album charts for months and won three CMA Awards, including album of the year, creating a mini-industry that included the Down From the Mountain documentary and CD.

        But there was also the Del McCoury Band, drawing sellout crowds all over the country; Alison Krauss selling out the Taft Theatre; and the teen-grass trio Nickel Creek hitting the country charts and selling out at Miami University Hamilton weeks in advance. The roots craze hit mainstream country with singer Patty Loveless, who released her powerful bluegrass album Mountain Soul. The bluegrass youth movement included jam-grass band the Yonder Mountain String Band.

        The phenomenon looks to grow in 2002. Jan. 25, the stellar double bill of the Del McCoury Band and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, plays the Taft.

        Sadly, as bluegrass became hipper than ever before, the music lost one of the men who first made it cool back in the '70s. Singer/songwriter/banjoist/fiddler/riverboat pilot John Hartford died of cancer on June 4. Today would have been his 64th birthday.

10. Bob Dylan

        What can you say? The guy almost dies of a heart virus in 1997 shortly after releasing a dark, brooding, Grammy-winning album that sounds like goodbye. He survives it all and, in 2001, turns 60 and wins an Oscar for the equally dark “Things Have Changed.”

        Instead of retiring, in September,he released the loose, rocking, masterful Love & Theft. To rave reviews, he and his red-hot road band hit the road for a good-time, roots-rocking tour that played the new Cintas Center in November.

        It seems the Isley Brothers don't have a monopoly on the Fountain of Youth.


GELFAND: Classical music
MCGURK: Best movies of 2001
- NAGER: Pop music
Anime artist to speak at CAC
Warm reward for those who brave cold
KENDRICK: Alive and well
Rhino's baby steps are huge
Tuned in to Taz
New year puts new wines on my palate
No-frills steak old hat at Maury's, F&N
The Best Tastes of 2001
Get to it