Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sounds of Yearning: Coachella Music Festival

Before “Kandi” captivated me a few months ago, I had never heard of One EskimO, British indie-rockers who’ve been on the scene for six years. The four-minute song is a cut from their eponymous 2009 album woven around a much older number by Candi Staton that’s actually titled “He Called Me Baby.” My affection for the tune includes what I’ve since learned about her life story: From an Alabama farming family, as a child she picked cotton and sang in church before forming a gospel group with a sister in the 1950s. A decade later, her genre was soul, followed by disco in the mid-1970s and eventually what’s now known as Christian music. Along the way, there were about two dozen albums, four husbands (some of them abusive), five children and a bout with alcoholism.

“He Called Me Baby” began life in 1961 as “She Called Me Baby,” in both instances a lovelorn tale penned by a prolific country songwriter named Harlan Howard. Shortly before her 1963 death in a plane crash, Patsy Cline (who’d had success with Howard’s “I Fall to Pieces”) changed the gender on “Baby” and recorded it using drearily sentimental orchestration.

Some misguided producer added an intrusive horn section at the last minute to Staton’s 1970 version, but her voice is so lovely and emotionally subtle that distractions kind of recede. She tosses in an extra “baby” here and there compared to the original: “He called me baby, baby, baby all night long/ Yes, he did/ Kissed my tears away when things went wrong...”

One EskimO reconfigures the whole thing for guitar accompaniment, more effective than previous instrumentation, and samples just the chorus from Staton’s release. That allows 28-year-old lead vocalist Kristian Leontiou to create a haunting duet with her, as she becomes an almost ghostly presence. He also changes the narrative to reflect a romantic triangle, in which a man pines for a woman who’s busy pining for a lost inamorato: “Why? Why? Why did you need him?/ Where was I?...”

Candi Staton
Dude, you had yet to be conceived. Leontiou was in the womb or, at the very least, a newborn when Staton took “Suspicious Minds” up the UK charts in 1982. She had already been an icon there for seven years with danceable hits such as “Young Hearts Run Free.” Contemporary young hearts are sure to be to running free at California’s Coachella Music Festival (April 16-18), where One EskimO is scheduled to perform. Although my tolerance for large crowds and ear-blasting volumes is long gone, maybe I could try to overcome those inhibitions if Staton, now 70, is planning to join them. To my knowledge, she’s not.

But the extravaganza also features some extremely interesting, risky choices among the more than 130 acts on tap: Gil Scott-Heron, dubbed the Godfather of Rap and perhaps best remembered for 1971’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and Sly Stone and the Family Stone, whose “I Want to Take You Higher” certainly did just that for me back in 1969. Unfortunately, both Scott-Heron and Sly Stone eventually got hooked on being higher than is healthy for any human being. Their respective addictions to cocaine landed the former artist in prison on several occasions, while the latter has exhibited a pattern of professional irresponsibility. Will he even show up at Coachella?

Vestiges of sixties nostalgia might extend to a few of the fest’s younger musicians:

* The Big Pink, a London electro-rock duo, was named in honor of The Band’s landmark 1968 album with a title referencing their abode at the time, Music From Big Pink. The place in question was an ugly suburban split-level house, but the English lads have excellent taste, methinks.

* Old Crow Medicine Show, a six-piece folkie string ensemble from Nashville, harkens back to a New Jersey counterculture pop-country sensation, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show (“On the Cover of the Rolling Stone”).

* Charlotte Gainsbourg is the spawn of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, who shocked the world beyond France with their orgasmic “Je t’aime...moi non plus” in 1969.

* The White Rabbits reportedly did not have Grace Slick in mind when they got together to play “honky-tonk calypso.” These six guys from Missouri have since moved to Brooklyn.

Speaking of that New York City borough, another good reason to catch Coachella would be the Avett Brothers, a South Carolina folk-rock trio. I don’t really understand the full meaning of their stunningly beautiful “I and Love and You” but the lyrics seem to incorporate a geographical tribute: “Ah Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in/ Are you aware the shape I’m in?/ My hands they shake/ My head it spins/ Ah Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in.” In matters of the broken heart, this melody’s message is right up there with “He called me baby, baby, baby all night long.”

--Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author, with Randee Dawn, of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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