News-watching can get a bit dispiriting at times. So it’s always good to remember that the same species responsible for robocalls, cluster bombs and The Bachelorette also spawned the treble clef and the Fender Telecaster. If there’s anything that gives me hope for the hairless monkey, it’s not politics, but art. Music in particular.
Three shows stood out for me this summer. I missed the Vancouver appearance of the young R&B singer/songwriter Janelle Monáe, but managed to catch her at the Montreal jazz fest. After bringing the house down with an a capella version of Nat King Cole’s jazz standard “Smile,” the pint-sized Monáe belted out her science fiction-themed songs with the pipes of Whitney Houston and the moves of James Brown. She had the audience in the palm of her hand the entire time.
The second stunning performance was courtesy of Dead Can Dance, kicking off their August world tour at the Orpheum. Australian Lisa Gerrard and Irishman Brendan Perry, signed to the British shoegazer 4AD label back in the ’80s, have mastered a singular form of world music that sounds both ancient and futuristic. Perry performed a mesmerizing solo version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” but it’s Gerrard’s otherworldly vocals that stole the show. The seraphic singer nodded politely at marriage proposals shouted by men and women in the audience. “You’re amazing,” she softly told her lovesick fans, blowing them a kiss after the band’s third encore.
The third big act involved former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. With his omnipresent shades and corkscrew hair, the British expat rocked furiously during a thunderous gig last week at the Aladdin Theatre in Portland, Oregon. He and his Rant Band hammered out classic tunes like “All The Way From Memphis” and “All the Young Dudes,” along with selections from his outstanding new album When I’m President.
The uptempo title track is a POV fantasy of a common man entering the Oval Office with a tongue-in-cheek intent to get his “ugly mug on Mount Rushmore” after bringing down the legislative sledgehammer: “I’m gonna lean on the one per cent/When I’m President/I want a 28th Amendment.” But the lyrics give way to a stark assessment of Beltway realpolitik: “You hold those truths to be self-evident/When you become president/But somethin’ happens to you up on the hill/It’s business as usual/How do you want to buck the system?/Welcome to the Pit and the Pendulum.”
One standout track on When I’m President is the slowly chugging “Ta Shunka Witco (Crazy Horse),” sung from the perspective of the Lokata leader stranded in a buffalo-stripped wasteland. “Paid for the rich to steal from the poor/There ain’t no honour in ya…. well, that great white father down in Washington/I’ve got a knife between my teeth for the fork in his tongue.”
Janelle Monáe is 26. Gerrard and Perry are in their early 50s. Hunter is an age-defying 73, and was mostly AWOL from the music scene for two decades before a four-album winning streak beginning in 2001. I asked the singer/songwriter about his late-life creative renaissance and if a line from British art critic Cyril Connolly applies: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”
“The ‘pram in the hall’ couldn’t be truer,” Hunter replied on his website forum. “If there’s been any kind of ‘renaissance’ it’s because I forgot myself and then remembered myself when M.R. passed.” (That’s his close friend and creative foil Mick Ronson.)
Ronson, who died of liver cancer in 1993, is hardly a household name although his instantly recognizable guitar lines are scattered across the airwaves like diamonds. I have little doubt that Ronson’s brilliant arrangements and stratospheric riffs—still heard in early songs by Ian Hunter, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Morrissey, Mellencamp, and others—will continue to outlast the schemes of the privileged and powerful.
Good music has staying power. The music of Salzburg composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is all over today’s albums, films and classical radio, yet the 19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire that followed his death has long been a footnote in history books.
Music can outlive empires, and that gives me a peculiar kind of hope.