Thursday, October 21, 2010

Old friends, new discoveries, sweet melodies

One of the pure pleasures of collecting and adding songs to my iPod is rediscovering the music of our past ~ and of my past ~ and realizing that a certain body of songs, some which were originally written and recorded as much as 50 years ago, not only maintain their relevance today, but also sound pretty good, too.

I like to call this "musical serendipity," the art of making fortunate discoveries by accident.  This applies to songs both in their original form as well as covers by other artists.

This month, musical serendipity found me on several occasions, including the discovery of some poetic chestnuts by Elvis Costello and Cowboy Junkies as well as a cover of one of my all-time favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs.  Plus, I "discovered" a beautiful duet sung by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss that was a cover of a song made popular by the Everly Brothers 50 years ago.  Finally, I made the self-discovery that Belle and Sebastian is my new favorite indie group.  Added up, it's made me thankful and my iPod richer for the experience.

Now to the backstory of my most recent musical serendipity:

Elvis Costello and the Sugarcubes
peforming at the 2010 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival
in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
(Photo: Michael Dickens, 2010.)

* As a songwriter and performer, Elvis Costello is comfortable in every imaginable music genre, and his breadth and knowledge as a musicologist continually amazes me.  Earlier this month, I saw him headline the free, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Playing alongside with him were the Sugarcubes, a group of excellent country and bluegrass musicians, whom Costello surrounded himself with and recorded last year's Secret, Profane and Sugarcane album.

During Costello's 15-song, 65-minute set, which included several tunes from his upcoming release, National Ransom (due out Nov. 2), the set list included a lovely acoustic medley of "New Amsterdam," penned for the 1980 album Get Happy!!, which Costello nicely segued with the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away."  It's a medley that he has performed often, and on this afternoon, it was warmly received by the tens of thousands of festival goers crowding the Star Stage on the Lindley Meadow grounds.

While I'm familiar with the Beatles' version of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," a ballad originally sung by John Lennon, which was written for the movie Help!, and added Costello's cover version to my iPod over the summer, I must admit: The waltz-tempo of "New Amsterdam" was a fresh, new discovery for me, even though Costello wrote and recorded the song 30 years ago.  Simply put, "New Amsterdam" is two minutes of melodic brilliance and a welcome addition to my Morning Becomes Eclectic playlist.  As a postscript, I read that the ever-versatile Costello played all of the instruments during the studio recording of "New Amsterdam," which was the name given to the 17th-century Dutch colonial settlement that later became New York City.

* "Powderfinger," by the Canadian alt-country band Cowboy Junkies, is a beautiful 1990 cover of an anti-war song written by fellow Canadian Neil Young that is wonderfully interpreted and sung by lead vocalist Margo Timmins.  I'm a softy for mandolins and accordions, and this version, which appeared on the Cowboy Junkies' 1990 album The Caution Horsesnicely incorporates both with a touch of acoustic guitar.

* Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, he of mega Led Zeppelin fame and she of mega bluegrass fame, combined their amazing vocal and harmonizing talents in the 2007 Grammy Award-winning album Raising Sand.  Recently, I became acquainted with their interpretation of the Mel Tillis ballad "Stick With Me Baby" while listening to the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" music program via  Originally recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1960, the updated version sung by Plant and Krauss is such a subtle-but-sweet melody, and it's very gratifying to listen to (again and again).

* "America," sweetly performed by Lucy Wainwright Roche, is a cover of the Paul Simon tune about the metaphorical journey of two companions who are in search of the true meaning of America that first appeared on Simon and Garfunkel's 1968 album Bookends.  Wainwright Roche, whose half-sibling is Rufus Wainwright, performs "America" with a gifted and refreshingly gorgeous voice.  Hear for yourself:

* Finally, the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian is enjoying a lot of great and deserved acclaim for its current album Write About Love, released earlier this month ~ and I've been listening often to many of the album's songs.  "Read the Blessed Pages" (which you can listen to at: is poignantly sung by the group's lead singer and songwriter, Stuart Murdoch, and reflects his interest in faith:

Love is like a novel
Read the blessed pages
Did I do my best dear?
That is all you ask.

May you find your own musical serendipity.

Happy listening!

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