What I’ve Been Listening To: David Crosby/Sky Trails

As somebody who considers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to be one of the best vocal harmony bands, you’d think I’d pay more attention to their individual members. With the exception of Neil Young, I guess I simply accepted that the sum is more than the parts. Even if that’s oftentimes true when it comes to top-notch bands, ignoring the parts can mean missing out on great music. Case in point: David Crosby and his album Sky Trails from September 2017, which is only his sixth solo record – pretty remarkable for an artist who released his solo debut in Feb 1971.

David Crosby

With David Crosby having been a founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Still & Nash (CSN), and CSN having been active on and off between 1968 and 2015 – sometimes with, most of the time without Neil Young – I think it’s fair to say most people associate Crosby with the aforementioned bands. But, as noted above, he has released various solo albums. Sky Trails recently popped up as a listening suggestion in my streaming music platform. I’ve since listened a few times to the album and have to say I really dig it. I was also surprised how jazzy it is. I guess I had expected something more folk rock-oriented.

Let’s get to some music and kick it off with the opener She’s Got To Be Somewhere. This Steely Dan style tune is my favorite on the album. It was written by James Raymond, who produced the record, played keyboards, and, it turns out, is Crosby’s son – one of his four kids, not counting the two children born to Melissa Etheridge via artificial insemination.  Commenting on the tune, Crosby says on his website, “We didn’t consciously do that. We just naturally go to a place where Donald [Fagen] goes. I loved Steely Dan right from the first notes I heard.” Well, the man has good taste!

The album’s dreamy title track was co-written by Crosby with American singer-songwriter and guitarist Becca Stevens. The tune reminds me a bit of music I’ve heard by Clannad. Admittedly, it’s been a long time I’ve listened to the Irish folk band, and it would probably be worthwhile revisiting them. The saxophone fill-ins add a dose of jazz to the tune. “She’s a stunning, amazing singer and a great writer,” Crosby says of Stevens. “I’d rather be in a band with her than almost anybody.”

Here It’s Almost Sunset is a track co-written by Crosby and Mai Agan, an Estonian bass player and composer. It’s another tune on the quieter side. Most tracks on the album are. Again, there are nice saxophone accents. Wikipedia lists three saxophonists who supported the recording, Chris Bullock, Jeff Coffin and Steve Tavaglione, but unfortunately does not reveal who played on which song. Neither do the YouTube clips, which only list the aforementioned core musicians.

Capitol is a protest song co-written by Crosby and Raymond, expressing their less than flattering opinion about legislators: …And you think to yourself/This is where it happens/They run the whole damn thing from here/Money just burns, filling up their pockets/Where no one can see/And no can hear… Sadly, these words seem to ring true more than ever in this country these days.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is called Curved Air. It’s another co-write by Crosby and Raymond. The flamenco guitar sounded was created by Raymond using keyboards. “Hell no, I can’t play like that,” Crosby comments on the track that examines life’s contradictions.  “It’s James on keyboard. So is the bass. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard anybody write singer/songwriter music with flamenco playing.”

In addition to Raymond, Agan and Tavaglione, the core musicians on the album include Jeff Pevar (guitar), British-born, Canadian-raised singer-songwriter Michelle Willis (keyboards, vocals) and Steve DiStanislao (drums). “All the people in the Sky Trails band are much younger than me, so I have to paddle faster to keep up,” Crosby says with a laugh. This was not the first time he had played with them. Between 1996 and 2004, Crosby performed with Raymond and Prevar in the jazz rock band CPR, or Crosby, Prevar & Raymond. DiStanislao and Tavaglione played on CPR albums as well.

David Crosby, who turned 78 years in August, is still going strong. His most recent studio album Here If You Listen appeared in October last year. With four of his seven solo albums having been released since 2014, it appears Crosby is on some sort of late-career surge. He also continues to tour. In fact, he’s currently on the road in the U.S., with confirmed dates until September 17. The tour schedule is here.

There is also a new documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name. Released on July 19, the film was directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe, who has known Crosby for many years. Based on the trailer, the film looks intriguing, and I’m going to watch it on Sunday evening at a movie theater in my area.

Sources: Wikipedia, David Crosby website, YouTube

Stars of Stax

Some of my favorite artists who recorded at the legendary Memphis record label

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Stax Records. I’ve always been impressed with the amazing array of artists who are associated with this record label: Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Kim Weston and The Staple Singers, to name some of them. I thought this would be a great theme for a list, but before I get to it, a bit of history is in order.

Stax Records was originally founded as Satellite Records in 1957 in Memphis, Tenn. by Jim Stewart, a banker who played the fiddle in a country band on the side. Initially operating in a garage, Stewart started out focusing on country, rockabilly and straight pop. In 1958, his sister Astelle Axton co-invested in the company by mortgaging her family home.

Jim Stewart & Estelle Axton

In 1959, Satellite set up a small recording studio in Brunswick, Tenn. and released its first record in the summer of  that year, Fool In Love, by R&B band The Veltones. Following the release of the record, Satellite moved back to Memphis and set up shop in an old movie theater. In the summer of 1960, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla became the first artists to record at the new facility. Their record Cause I Love You was nationally distributed by Atlantic Records, laying the foundation for an important yet fateful distribution partnership.

Stax Records Museum

Due to a legal dispute, Satellite Records changed its name to Stax in September 1961, using the first two letters from the siblings’ last name – Stewart and Axton. In addition to a recording studio in the movie theater’s former auditorium, the company also set up a record store in the cinema’s old foyer. The store carried records from many different labels and became a popular hangout for local teenagers, which gave the company valuable insights into what music was selling.

Stax also established a house band that backed up the company’s artists during recordings. Eventually, that band consisted of the members who formed Booker T. & the M.G.’s in 1962: Booker T. Jones (organ), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). They served as the session band during most recordings until 1970.

Booker T & the MGs

In 1962, Stax also signed Otis Redding, who would become its biggest star until his untimely death in 1967. By the mid ’60s, Stax had also signed other major artists, including Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes. Stax’s Booker T. & the M.G.’s and other ethnically integrated bands, along with a racially integrated team of staff and artists was unprecedented amid the civil rights-era racial strive and deep-seated tensions of the late ’50s and ’60s, especially in Memphis and the South.

In 1968, Stax ended its distribution deal with Atlantic Records and in the process lost the rights to all recordings Atlantic had distributed between 1960 and 1967. A new co-owner, Al Bell, stepped up and substantially expanded the label’s operations in an effort to better compete with its main rival Motown Records. In 1972, Bell got a distribution deal with CBS Records, but CBS lost interest in Stax, which eventually forced the label to close in 1975.

In 1977, Fantasy Records purchased the post-1968 Stax catalog and some of the pre-1968 recordings. In 1978, Stax under Fantasy’s ownership began signing new acts. But by the early ’80s, no new material appeared on Stax, and it became strictly a reissue label. In 2004, the Stax label was reactivated after Fantasy had been acquired by Concord Records. Today, Stax continues to be owned by Concord and issues both new recordings and its 1968-1975 catalog. Atlantic Records still owns most of the Stax material from 1959 to 1968.

Following is a selection of songs from some of my favorite artists whose records have been issued on Stax, old and new:

Booker T. & the M.G.’s/Green Onions (1962)

Otis Redding/I’ve Been Loving You For Too Long (1965)

Wilson Pickett/In the Midnight Hour (1965)

Sam & Dave/Soul Man (1967)

Isaac Hayes/Theme From Shaft (1971)

The Staple Singers/I’ll Take You There (1972)

Albert King/That’s What the Blues Is All About (1974)

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats/S.O.B. (2015)

Melissa Etheridge/Hold On I’m Coming (2016)

Southern Avenue/80 Miles From Memphis (2017)

Between its initial establishment and 1975, Stax has released more than 800 singles and nearly 300 LPs, winning eight Grammys and an Academy Award. The label has had 243 hits in the Top 100 R&B Charts and more than 167 hits in the top 100 Pop Charts. In April this year, Concord and Rhino Entertainment, which manages the Stax catalog owned by Atlantic Records, announced a joint campaign to celebrate the 60th anniversary with multiple albums, boxed sets and live performance releases throughout the year. Among others, this includes the Stax Classic Series, which consists of collection albums for each of the label’s 10 biggest stars, the Complete Stax Singles boxed set series, as well as a 4-CD anthology of Isaac Hayes to coincide what would have been his 75th birthday.

Sources: Wikipedia, Stax Records website, YouTube