Playing for Change – Reimaging a World Connected by Music

The other day, I came across an amazing video clip featuring Robbie Robertson and a bunch of well-known and to me unknown, yet pretty talented other musicians from all over the world, playing The Weight, one of my favorite tunes by The Band. At first, I only paid attention to their great version of the iconic song and ignored the chiron at the beginning and the end of the clip that notes “Playing for Change.” Then, I noticed other video clips on YouTube, which were also put together by Playing for Change. Finally, I got curious. Who or what is Playing for Change?

It didn’t take long to find their website, which describes their story as follows: Playing For Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music… Playing For Change was born in 2002 as a shared vision between co-founders, Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke, to hit the streets of America with a mobile recording studio and cameras in search of inspiration and the heartbeat of the people. This musical journey resulted in the award-winning documentary, “A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians.”

PFC Co-Founders
PFC co-founders Mark Johnson & Whitney Kroenke

In 2005, Mark Johnson was walking in Santa Monica, California, when he heard the voice of Roger Ridley singing “Stand By Me.” Roger had so much soul and conviction in his voice, and Mark approached him about performing “Stand By Me” as a Song Around the World. Roger agreed, and when Mark returned with recording equipment and cameras he asked Roger, “With a voice like yours, why are you singing on the streets?” Roger replied, “Man I’m in the Joy business, I come out to be with the people.” Ever since that day the Playing For Change crew has traveled the world recording and filming musicians, creating Songs Around the World, and building a global family.

Creating Songs Around the World inspired us to unite many of the greatest musicians we met throughout our journey and form the Playing For Change Band. These musicians come from many different countries and cultures, but through music they speak the same language. Songs Around The World The PFC Band is now touring the world and spreading the message of love and hope to audiences everywhere.

I realize the above may embellish things a bit; still, PFC sounds like an intriguing concept. They also created the Playing for Change Foundation, a separate nonprofit organization that is funded through donations and supports arts and music programs for children around the world. Based on the foundation’s website, it looks like a legitimate organization. That being said, this isn’t an endorsement. Let’s get back to what originally brought me here – recorded musicians all over the world performing the same song and everything being neatly put together in pretty compelling video clips. Before getting to the above mentioned Robbie Roberson clip, let’s take a look at some of PFC’s other videos.

Walking Blues (Son House)

Walking Blues was written and first recorded by delta blues musician Son House in 1930. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and other blues musicians recorded their own versions. This clip features Kevin Roosevelt Moore, aka Keb’ Mo’, along with other musicians from Argentina, South Africa, Spain and Morocco. Apparently, the clip was put together in honor of Johnson’s birthday. Check it out!

Soul Rebel (Bob Marley)

Written by Bob Marley, Soul Rebel is the opener to Soul Rebels, the second studio album by Bob Marley and the Wailers, which appeared in December 1970. This clip features Bunny Wailer, an original member of the Wailers, French guitarist Manu Chao and Jamaican reggae singer Bushman, along with other musicians from Jamaica, Spain, Morocco, Cuba, Argentina and the U.S. Feel free to groove along!

Listen to the Music (Tom Johnston)

Listen to the Music is a classic by The Doobie Brothers from their second studio album Toulouse Street released in July 1972. It was written by guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston, one of the band’s founding members. Apart from Johnston and fellow Doobies Patrick Simmons and John McFee, the clip features other musicians from Venezuela, India, Brazil, Lebanon, Japan, Argentina, Senegal, Congo, South Africa and the U.S., including a gospel choir from Mississippi. This is just a joy to watch!

All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)

While perhaps best known by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, All Along the Watchtower was written by Bob Dylan. He first recorded it for John Wesley Harding, his eighth studio album from December 1967. Check out this riveting take featuring Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers, John Densmore of The Doors and Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule, along with other musicians from Italy, Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Niger, Ghana, India, Japan, Mali and the U.S. The latter include singers and dancers from the Lakota, a native American tribe that is part of the Great Sioux Nation. This is just mind-boggling to watch!

The Weight (Robbie Robertson)

And finally, here comes the crown jewel that inspired the post: The Weight written by Robbie Robertson, and first recorded for the debut album by The Band, Music From Big Pink, released in July 1968. This clip was co-produced by PFC co-founder Mark Johnson and Robbie’s son Sebastian Johnson to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song. And it’s quite a star-studded affair: In addition to Robertson, the clip features Ringo Starr, blues guitarist Marcus King, roots rockers Larkin Poe and country-rock guitarist Lucas Nelson, along with other musicians from Italy, Japan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kingdom of Bahrain, Spain, Argentina, Nepal and Jamaica – what a beautiful tribute to this great tune. Just watch the smile on Robertson’s face at the end. He knows how figgin’ awesome this came out – priceless!

PFC clearly has their go-to musicians in each country, and they’re not hobby musicians. Based on PFC’s website, all musicians are professionals who appear to be recognized within their countries. While as such one could argue PFC doesn’t seem to use amateur/ hobby musicians, it doesn’t take away anything of the concept’s beauty, in my view. Most of their videos capture songs performed by individual artists from different countries or by the PFC band. But it’s the song-around-the-world videos I find most impressive. You can watch all of PFC’s clips on their YouTube channel.

Sources: Wikipedia; Playing For Change website; Playing for Change Foundation website; YouTube

My Playlist: Bonnie Raitt

While I previously wrote about an amazing Bonnie Raitt show I saw in 2016 and included her in a few other posts, it occurred to me I haven’t done anything related to her recorded music. Considering how highly I think of this lady as a musician and songwriter, this feels like a big miss that is overdue to be corrected.

First a bit of history. Bonnie Lynn Raitt was born on November 8, 1949 in Burbank, Calif. She grew up in a musical family. Her dad was John Raitt, an actor and acclaimed Broadway singer. Bonnie’s mom, Marjorie Haydock, was a pianist and John’s first wife. According to her online bio, Raitt was raised in LA “in a climate of respect for the arts, Quaker traditions, and a commitment to social activism,” all important influences that shaped her future life.

Raitt got into the guitar at the age of eight, after receiving a Stella as a Christmas present. According to an AP story in a local paper, she taught the instrument herself by listening to blues records – yet another example of a self-taught musician who turned out to be exceptional!

Bonnie Raitt 1969

In the late ’60s, Raitt moved to Cambridge, Mass. and started studying Social Relations and African Studies at Harvard/Radcliffe. She also began her lifetime involvement as a political activist. “I couldn’t wait to get back to where there were folkies and the antiwar and civil rights movements,” she notes in her online bio. “There were so many great music and political scenes going on in the late ’60s in Cambridge.”

Three years after entering college, Raitt decided to drop out to pursue music full-time. She already had become a frequent performer on the local coffeehouse scene, exploring slide guitar blues and other styles. Soon thereafter, she opened shows for surviving blues legends, such as Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, Son House, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Word spread about her great talent, which led to her first record contract with Warner Bros.

Bonnie Raitt_Bonnie Raitt

Since her 1971 eponymous debut, Raitt has released 16 additional studio albums, three compilations and one live record. Over her now 45-year-plus career, she has received 10 Grammy Awards. She is also listed at no. 50 and no. 89 in Rolling Stone’s lists of 100 Greatest Singers Of All Time and 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time, respectively.

Like many artists, Raitt’s life wasn’t all easy peasy. She struggled with alcohol and drug abuse but became sober in 1987. “I thought I had to live that partying lifestyle in order to be authentic, but in fact if you keep it up too long, all you’re going to be is sloppy or dead,” Raitt told Parade magazine in April 2012, adding, “I was one of the lucky ones.” Yep – time to get to some music!

Mighty Tight Woman is from Raitt’s 1971 debut record – just love that tune, which was penned by Sippie Wallace and recorded in 1929.

In September 1974, Raitt released her fourth studio album Streetlights. One of the gems on that record and frankly Raitt’s entire catalog is Angel From Montgomery, a country tune written and first recorded by John Prine.

Among the early ’60s pop songs I’ve always dug is Runaway by Del Shannon, a tune he co-wrote with keyboarder Max Crook for his 1961 debut Runaway With Del Shannon. Raitt’s version of the tune, which is included on her sixth studio album Sweet Forgiveness from 1977, is a brilliant cover with a cool bluesy soul touch. Here’s a great live performance, which apparently was captured at the time the album came out.

In addition to recording songs from other artists, Raitt also writes her own music. Here is Standin’ By The Same Old Love from 1979’s The Glow, which prominently features Raitt seductive electric slide guitar work.

Can’t Get Enough just about sums up how I oftentimes feel about Raitt’s music. Co-written by her and keyboarder Walt Richmond, the track appears on Raitt’s 1982 record Green Light. I just love the cool reggae style groove of this track and the saxophone accents.

Raitt’s 10th studio album Nick Of Time perhaps is the equivalent to Carole King’s Tapestry. In fact, even though King’s music is quite different and unlike Raitt she’s a full-blown singer-songwriter, Raitt does remind me of King in another aspect. Like King, she has that warm and timeless quality to her music, a rare gift. While better known for its title track and Thing Called Love, Nick Of Time includes another track that is one of my favorites from Raitt: Love Letter. The tune was written by another Bonnie, Bonnie Hayes, who according to Wikipedia is an American singer-songwriter, musician and record producer.

Oh, and did I mention Raitt also knows how to perform beautiful ballads? Here’s I Can’t Make You Love Me from 1991’s Luck Of The Draw. The tune was co-penned by country music artist Mike Reid and country songwriter Allen Shamblin. Following is what appears to be the official music video.

Another powerful ballad Raitt recorded for her 13th studio album Fundamental from 1998 is Lover’s Will. This tune is from John Hiatt, one of Raitt’s favorite writers. He recorded and released it as a mid-tempo track in 1983 on his studio album Riding With The King. It’s beautiful how Raitt slowed it down, making it her own, similar to Runaway!

Used To Rule The World is from Slipstream, which appeared in April 2012. Widely acclaimed, Raitt’s 16th studio release became her highest charting album in 18 years, climbing to no. 6 on the U.S. Billboard 200, and hitting no. 1 on both the Top Rock Albums and Top Blues Albums charts. The tune, which is another great example of Raitt’s feel for groove, was written by Randall Bramblett, a singer-songwriter, session keyboarder and touring musician. Here’s a nice live performance.

When it comes to an artist like Raitt with so many great tunes and such a long career, it’s hard to keep a playlist to ten tunes, but that’s the maximum I’m setting myself. I’d like to conclude with Gypsy In Me from Raitt’s most recent studio album Dig In Deep, which appeared in February 2016. The song is a co-write by Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick, two Nashville-based songwriters and musicians.

While I haven’t seen any hints about a new album, it looks like 2018 is going to be a busy year for Raitt. Her tour schedule lists a steady stream of U.S. gigs from mid-March to the beginning of July, immediately followed by various concerts in Europe. Among the highlights are an opening/special guest appearance for James Taylor & His All-Star Band during his U.S. tour from May to the beginning of July, and Paul Simon’s farewell concert in London’s Hyde Park on July 15.

Sources: Wikipedia; Bonnie Raitt official website; Bonnie Raitt discovers her roots in Scotland (AP/Lawrence Journal-World, Jul 14, 1991); Parade; YouTube