Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Hearing Mose Allison
A few months ago in The Boston Globe I enjoyed this interview with Mose Allison. He's always been an artist in the back of mind: what little I knew of him didn't make much of an impression. I knew he was a hep cat from "back in the day" and that Van Morrison dug him. I enjoyed Van's tribute to him, although I must confess it is lost in the clutter of my cassette collection, and there is no one song from it that sticks in my consciousness.
Anyway, I brought Mose up in conversation with a friend and turned out her father was a monstrous fan and she had grown up with his music, So a date to hear him at a local jazz club was set, and I purchased his new CD, The Way of the World. (His first work in roughly a decade.) It's produced by Joe Henry. He's a name almost as revered in the music business as T.Bone Burnett. I like him principally because of his collaboration with my hero, Loudon Wainwright III. So I was curious about what he'd do for Mose.
I enjoyed the album well enough. Its opening number-- "My Brain"--is a familiar folk melody with Mose's wry observations about his "cool little cluster" providing the humor for which he's known. (I'll never forget this line from one of his famous numbers: "Your mind is on vacation/but your mouth is workin' overtime".) The rest of the program is enhanced by Henry's gentle introduction of some extra instrumentation that livens up the presentation. But really, it's all pure Mose--songs that amuse, but that don't really stick in the noggin.
In tandem with the new album I took a 2002 double-CD set of Mose live in London out of the library. Good listening, I must admit: love his piano riffs and getting a sense of much of his catalog. But I was troubled by the fact that I heard hardly any patter between the songs. Nope--just a simple "Thank you" and then on to the next one.
So the day of the show arrives, and my wife and I and our friends are planted off in the corner of the jazz room. Lovely view of the Charles River out the window. Mose Allison hit the stage immediately with his trio and launched into his first number. Oh no! Turns out we're in the equivalent of a right-field box at Fenway! The angle is all wrong--we can't really see Mose (obscured by the bass player) and the drums (the closest instrument) is drowning out the vocals.
Still, looking around the room, I was impressed with how full it was, and what devotion Mose inspired. So I tried to catch that current. But as the set continued, it got more difficult.
Take away those funny lyrics that we couldn't hear, and Mose lay revealed to our eyes as nothing remarkable. It was amazing how much each song sounded the same. (This was later pointed out in a review of the show in The Globe.) Plus, as my wife Lisa noted, Mose failed to do the one thing that might have salvaged the experience for us: talk to the audience! We did not get any sense of his personality, just a "Thank You" after each 2 and a half minute number and a swift movement to the next song. (We were amused to observe how they were all neatly numbered in Mose's supporting players' binder of lead sheets.)
He completed a tidy 70-minute set, and shuffled off the raised stage/platform rather nimbly when you consider that he's 82. The man is spry and has obviously stuck to his agenda throughout his career. He looks great. But there was no spotaneity, and the trio didn't get to stretch once.
On one hand, I can completely understand why his albums have never sold well. I know this will seem unkind, but it some ways he is a terrible bore. Why does he attract such devotion?
But then, I thought about his lyrics. He's really funny, and he is excellent at creating an Everyman from song to song, and giving his sarcastic viewpoint. In a way, Mose was a "singer-songwriter" long before it was fashionable. He makes a connection with his fans the same way that Loudon Wainwright and Randy Newman and so many others have touched me.
I'm still listening to him in my car. My opinion is somewhere between adulation and the harsh assessment of the Steve Greenlee, the reviewer in The Globe.
One thing you can say for sure, though: there can only be one Mose Allison! His voice is awful, but it's his, flavored with a good Southern accent. It does stick in your mind--the tone of it. Plus there's that tart wit, which is always worth checking out.
Of his contemporaries, though, I still prefer Bob Dorough. (He's the fellow who wrote much of the music for Schoolhouse Rock.) He's a bit more puckish, and his subject matter cuts a wider swath.