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Tuesday Reviewsday: Mike Watt, Leah Paul and Jefferson Street Parade Band

Jefferson St. Parade Band 2015 album release show.  Shot at Blockhouse in Bloomington, IN.
Jefferson St. Parade Band 2015 album release show. Shot at Blockhouse in Bloomington, IN.
Blockhouse Bloomington (via YouTube)

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If you love music, but don't have the time to keep up with what's new, you should listen to Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our critics join our hosts in the studio to talk about what you should be listening to, in one short segment. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez.

We’ve been through a lot of emotions this past week. With that in mind, today we have music to reflect some of that: First a bit of powerful independent spirit, then some contemplative calm — and finally a parade. Pretty much sums it up.

Artist: Mike Watt
Album: "Ring Spiel Tour ’95"
Songs: "Against the ‘70s," "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing"

If there was a band on tour that featured both Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl you would have known, right? It would have been huge! As hot a ticket as you’d find. Well, there was such a band and such a tour, in 1995, when Vedder was at his peak of fame with Pearl Jam and Grohl was readying the launch of his new band, Foo Fighters, after Nirvana was shattered by the suicide of Kurt Cobain. It didn’t play arenas, but rather clubs. And that hot ticket? Well, the one for a May 6 show at the Metro in Chicago was but a thrifty $18.

A photo of a ticket from that show is on the inside cover of the new CD capturing that concert with revelatory vibrance. The name on the ticket, and on the album cover, is not Vedder or Grohl. It’s Mike Watt. And Mike Watt may have been the only one for whom these guys would serve as sidemen, Vedder playing guitar, Grohl drums and some guitar, both singing a little.

Watt was, and remains, a hero and mentor to rockers with a true indie spirit. He showed the way when he came up to Hollywood from San Pedro in the heady early days of L.A. ‘80s punk with the Minutemen — a trio also shattered by the death, in a car accident, of its dynamic leader D. Boon, but still cherished for its combo of artistry and integrity, its vibrant array of spirited social critiques and commentaries, as visceral as they were poetic.

In subsequent years and bands his leadership, always humble and by example, loomed large over many, even if his own fame was limited. And when in ’95 he made his first solo album, "Ball-Hog or Tugboat," and went on tour to support it, a few of them eagerly joined him. The album was great, eccentric, personal and powerful in the best ways. The tour, as anyone (including this writer) who saw any shows knows, was exhilarating and magnetic, entirely about community and not celebrity. Even when Vedder took the co-lead vocals on the rockin’ "Against the ‘70s," it didn’t seem a star-spotlight turn, but a delightful bit of affectionate teamwork at its best. It was almost as if Watt was intent on sharing the glory, but the others kept pushing the focus on him. It was pretty sweet, really.

Even for us who were there, the album is a glorious epiphany, belated as it may be. Bassist and singer-spieler (the tour’s name commemorated his semi-spoken and sometimes totally spoken approach to vocals) Watt never sounds like anyone other than Watt, a plain-spoken, down-to-earth guy bursting with ideas. Oh, and also a brilliant, forceful bass player. That has continued with several projects, including the Secondmen, a wild, organ-centric alternate, and having held down the bass spot when Iggy Pop reconvened the Stooges. Here he supplements some of the "Ball-hog" material — much of it depicting his own Pedro world — with a few older pieces (the Minutemen’s "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing") and some nicely chosen covers, including Blue Oyster Cult’s "The Red and the Black" followed immediately by Madonna’s "Secret Garden" (both played appreciatively and irony-free).

"Political Song" is one of the album’s emotional centers, a boisterous performance of a core song to him, dedicated to Boon. Ditto for "Drove Up From Pedro," the tale of the Minutemen’s journey. The real core, though, is "Piss-Bottle Man," his tribute to his truck-driving dad, a rousingly affectionate nod to a working man from his working-man son.

Artist: Leah Paul
Album: "We Will Do the Worrying"
Songs: "This One’s Coming True," "The First Move"

There’s probably a great business opportunity for someone who could figure out how to do our worrying for us. L.A. flutist-singer Leah Paul maybe can’t accomplish that feat, but on her new album she offers a little respite from worry. Not that the calm of this music is shallow. Not at all. There’s a sense of probing, exploring of emotions and perspectives throughout the album, embodied in the dreamy float of her and lead singer Afton Hefley’s layered vocals.

Besides, you’d think she’d have plenty worries of her own, what with trying to achieve a deft balance of classical, jazz and art-song aesthetics in her music. But she has done it with such seeming ease that it’s hard to find the seams. The chiming vibes that mark opener "This One’s Coming True" (played by Nick Mancini, lend a jazz atmosphere, but meld into with the chamber-music ensemble that soon joins in, setting the approach that will carry through the album. She manages to avoid the pitfalls often besetting hybrids — there’s no shoehorning of styles, no self-satisfied sense of achievement merely from bringing things together. Rather it’s a natural flow from an artist who seemingly has never considered that there are different styles, but that music is music.

And the ultimate impression is one of open optimism, implicit in the sounds and explicit in many of the titles: "This One’s Coming True," "Beginnings," "Walking Through Light," "The First Move." The last three present the album’s closing sequence, Paul consciously or otherwise concluding on the sense that this is just one little step into new worlds to be tackled. Scary? Nah. No worries.

Artist: Jefferson Street Parade Band
Album: "Viral"
Songs: "Most Annoying Song Ever, Gone Viral," "Austin City Unlimited"

Check out the most annoying song ever. Oh, wait. That’s the title of the song, "The Most Annoying Song Ever, Gone Viral." And it’s not really annoying at all. Sounds more like a circus parade band gone funky. Or a funky parade band gone circusy, which is kind of what this is, this being the Jefferson Street Parade Band. Hailing from that well-known party town of Bloomington, Indiana, JSPB has brought together various brass parade band sounds on its new album, drawing on Jamaican reggae, Latin American festival styles, a little Eastern European blast and, of course, some New Orleans Mardi Gras madness.  

The group, 18-members strong under the direction of drummer and sax player Ben Fowler, has become a regional staple at everything from jazz clubs, festivals, tailgate parties and, yes, parades — the latter even with their electric guitar and bass, the amps fitted on the players’ backs, in the "Ghostbusters" mode, they say. Two past albums have shown a range reaching to music from Guinea and Brazil, the new one supplementing its originals with a smooth version of Jamaican production innovator King Tubby’s "Easy Dub" and the traditional Mexican piece "El Cascabel."

But that’s all part of putting a distinct stamp on the very concept of a marching band, and in fact they are set to play during Mardi Gras in New Orleans for the third time in February. With that in mind, the album opens with its most New Orleans-sounding track, even if it’s named for another city, the roiling "Austin City Unlimited." Everybody still loves a parade, right?