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Clip: The Working Poor is rooted in classic American music

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  • Carl Zimring
    The Post-Gazette also reports that Rosebud is suddenly closing its doors this weekend. The news isn t too much of a surprise, but I ll miss a venue that
    Message 1 of 6 , Jan 31, 2004
      The Post-Gazette also reports that Rosebud is suddenly closing its doors
      this weekend. The news isn't too much of a surprise, but I'll miss a venue
      that brought a lot of fine acts (from Warren Zevon to Richard Buckner to
      the Mary Janes to, well, Twangburgh back in 1998) to Pittsburgh over the
      years.

      Carl Z.

      ***

      <http://post-gazette.com/ae/20040130poor0130fnp4.asp>

      The Working Poor is rooted in classic American music

      Friday, January 30, 2004

      By Ed Masley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

      With the old-school country charm and twang of "Door to Door," a darkly
      comic drifter's alibi ushered in with the sound of a passing train, the
      Working Poor's new seven-song EP, "New Wealth," establishes a mood -- and
      sound -- that couldn't be more out of step with anything and everything
      that's selling at the moment.

      In a good way.

      And it holds that mood -- and sound -- for seven songs, all rooted in such
      timeless American wells of inspiration as Hank Williams, '30s jazz, the
      Carter Family and the Velvet Underground.

      Now, you don't necessarily hear that last one, but bandleader Alan
      Lewandowski, who writes the material, swears it's in there.

      "I guess when I say the Velvet Underground," he says, "I mean more the
      spirit of things. We just try to always be inventive, to never be stale."

      In 1997, when the Working Poor first came together as a trio, the sound was
      edgier, more punk, but very sparse.

      "It's changed a lot," says Lewandowski. "It was kind of a primitive sound.
      It's hard to really describe it. More like Royal Trux or something like
      that. I wouldn't say it sounded like them, but it was edgier like that."

      He also cites The Birthday Party and The Fall as having inspired the band
      in those formative days when he and upright bassist Brian Dean Richmond hit
      the local underground with Terry Carroll of the Johnsons Big Band and the
      Dirty Faces on the drums.

      But even as they've changed, he says, they haven't lost that early
      punk-inspired attitude.

      "I think when people see us live," he says, "it always comes through that
      that's where we're coming from, from art-rock or the Velvet Underground,
      something like that. Even when we do traditional songs, it seems to have a
      quirk to it."

      Those early days were captured on their first CD, a seven-song recording of
      their first show.

      "It got bootlegged a lot," Lewandowski explains, "and we just decided to
      press it because a lot of people already had it on cassette. But something
      about the inception had a special energy. We were a three-piece, so the
      show was very stripped-down. And goofy. And drunken."

      A second EP -- this one with four songs -- was released in 2001.

      "Sam Pace of the Johnsons recorded us at Brian's house," Lewandowski
      recalls. "We recorded about 12 songs, then picked the four best songs and
      put those out. The people from Third Termite Press made hand-printed covers
      that were really impressive-looking. That helped that CD a lot, the covers.
      That's another collaboration with friends. Friends' artwork."

      The sound of that second recording, he says, was closer to hard
      boogie-woogie.

      The sound of the new recording came to Lewandowski in late 2001 and early
      2002 while the band was on a break and he was back in Albuquerque, where
      he'd lived with Tiny Little Help, a group of Pittsburgh transplants, in the
      '90s. This time, Lewandowski listened to a lot of border music and was
      lectured by a guy who told him that the Bee Gees had "the formula you need"
      to entertain.

      "That's when I had the idea that we should sing together in our band," he
      says. "I went away for a year and when we got back together, we kind of set
      out to make something like ['New Wealth'], for sure. We wanted to feature
      the vocals with just very humble instrumentation, one take on things. But I
      think we've always been into American music, though. I really went through
      a heavy phase where all I listened to was Dock Boggs. We've also played a
      ton of Leadbelly songs. And even people who aren't American. Nick Cave is
      always dredging up American roots. Musically, we're digging up the same
      roots and trying to put our own spin on it."

      The new approach fell into place without much effort at practice and shows,
      but in the studio, it took some work. And Lewandowski credits Andy Wright
      at Plus/Minus for helping them capture the old-timey feel of the record
      (although it should be noted that the train was captured,
      field-recording-style, by Richmond, who was listening to an early version
      of the album when a train went past the Panther Hollow house where he was
      staying at the time).

      "Andy tried a lot of different microphones," says Lewandowski, "a lot of
      different setups and recorded in a lot of different ways to try to get what
      we were after."

      But he definitely got it.

      "New Wealth" has the magic of a great lost field recording from a time when
      rock 'n' roll was just another way of saying sex.

      A good deal of that magic hinges on the way Lee Smookler's harmonies offset
      and underscore the ache in Lewandowski's vocals as he wraps his best Hank
      Williams twang around such classic turns of phrase as "Maybe you'll call
      but I won't be anywhere near a phone until the fall/And it's the middle of
      July/Maybe you wrote/But I don't know how I'd ever get the note/So you see,
      at least I have an alibi."

      He wrote those lyrics on the road. Or in the woods, to be specific, near a
      campground in Washington state, on San Juan Island.

      "I was thinking of Lee," he says. "And Louis Armstrong. And this crazy song
      came out. It's kind of a taunting song. There was a lot of early morning
      mating among the crows there. I don't know, I guess it is a story. It's a
      joke too. Kind of a sick joke. Most of our songs are. A lot of people think
      we're very sincere but from where we stand, we have a lot of laughs at it
      all. A lot of dirty jokes, but we try to hide them pretty well. We're
      usually the only ones laughing."

      More often than not, he says, he comes up with a lyrical idea first.

      "I'll be walking," he says. "Or listening to WJAS and some little tune will
      just start coming. Or just one line of poetry. It's like whatever, a rapper
      or something. But I hear music. I hear melodies. They're already written in
      my head before I go to the guitar. Then Lee does a lot of rewriting. He's
      guided me musically for a while. And he's good at editing, making
      arrangement choices. Same with Brian. They give their own life to the song
      and we work it out together. But they usually pop in pretty complete to my
      head and then the band makes them their own."

      He and Smookler had sung together for a long time, Lewandowski says, "But
      it was only for this album that we decided to put it to our own original
      material. We always had the tension where I was heavily influenced by
      country and folk and he was always very influenced by '30s jazz and swing
      music. So we sang a lot of those songs together and got into the Carter
      Family. And somehow those two styles kind of united us."

      They also sang a lot of early rock 'n' roll. Even doo wop.

      "We used to sing doo wop together," he says, "just hanging out at parties.
      You know the big song, 'What's Your Name'? We used to go to a bar and sing
      it to strangers, just on a lark, while we were playing pool or something.
      So those are our influences, spanning American music, I'd say. '30s Jazz.
      The Carter Family is definitely one of our favorites. We went through a
      phase where we could have done a whole album of Carter Family songs because
      we couldn't do enough of them. We were just so entranced with their vocal
      styles and their odd guitar work. Also, the early jazz that has more of a
      blues influence."

      All that source material colliding has resulted in an EP with a sound all
      its own that could speak to fans of "American Beauty"-era Grateful Dead and
      those who share Lewandowski's appreciation of WJAS alike.

      "Often, our friends' parents like our band," he says.

      It wouldn't be completely unexpected for the Working Poor to do a Carter
      Family cover or a '30s jazz song Saturday at Gooski's as they celebrate the
      new release. But given their history of cover choices, from the Ronettes to
      Pere Ubu's Peter Laughner, there's not much that truly qualifies as
      unexpected.

      Hell, they even cover other local artists, including the Viragos' Gary
      Anderson.

      As Lewandowski says, "We like to do all kinds of music. We like songs. We
      like our friends. In a way, we're as much influenced by our friends as
      anything."

      Together with Anderson and the Johnsons Big Band, who open the show at
      Gooski's, Lewandowski and the other members of the Working Poor have been
      part of the Rickety scene for years. The new album, in fact, is being
      released on the Rickety label.

      "I think when we all first met in the mid-'90s," Lewandowski says, "we were
      all just really refreshed to see that there were people taking a really
      interesting bent on songwriting and arrangements."

      If the Johnsons have taken a radically different approach to music than the
      Working Poor of late, it's lost on Lewandowski.

      "I don't really see our influences as being that far apart," he says. "And
      I think people who see the show on Saturday will realize that we have more
      in common than might be readily apparent. The influences overlap very
      thoroughly. Chris Cannon played piano on our last EP on one song. Terry was
      in our band. Brian, who's our bass player, plays trombone and timpani for
      the Johnsons. It's a big family and we're all fighting to see this spectrum
      of Pittsburgh music represented to the world. We're in it together, pretty
      heartily. And that includes people like Gary Anderson, the Pay Toilets, Jim
      Lingo. The music might not sound alike, but we feel like we're in it
      together."

      That sense of the local community coming together was carried over last
      year to an extremely off-Broadway production called "The Transmogrification
      of the Working Poor." A rock 'n' roll circus conceived and brought to life
      by Mr. Funky at the 31st Street Pub, it cast the band as needing divine
      intervention to get the recognition they clearly deserve.

      "We played a Dark Night Cabaret where Mr. Funky was the emcee," Lewandowski
      says. "We warmed up in the parking lot and I just think it had a nice
      sound. There was no amplification at all. So Mr. Funky's kids really liked
      it. And he decided if there was a band that he and his kids both liked,
      there must be something about it. It was really Mr. Funky's brainchild. We
      did it for camaraderie. It really seems like a good idea to me for people
      to collaborate. And be game."

      But in the end, he says, the "Transmogrification" project "pointed up a lot
      of our weaknesses, which I like. We don't really have a commercial bent and
      they made lots of fun of that."

      Then, with a shrug you can hear through the phone, he adds, "It was silly
      and we got free pictures."
    • Justin Hopper
      Just got Terry Allen s new album in the mail - poppin it in right now. Got me thinkin : Anyone know if he EVER tours these days? Every time I see him with gig
      Message 2 of 6 , Feb 2, 2004
        Just got Terry Allen's new album in the mail - poppin' it in right now.

        Got me thinkin': Anyone know if he EVER tours these days? Every time I see
        him with gig dates, it's weekends or, more likely, one off's...

        he's a freakin genius.

        Justin Hopper
        Music Editor
        Pittsburgh City Paper
        650 Smithfield St., Ste. 2200
        Pittsburgh, PA 15222
        www.pghcitypaper.com
        phone: 412-316-3342 x165
        fax: 412-316-3388
        jhopper@...

        "This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a
        period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission,
        will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it.
        Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted
        to do." -- Woody Guthrie
      • Steve Gardner
        ... He IS a fucking genius. He does one-off gigs here and there, but that s about it. He s near the top of my list for underappreciated musicians. The new
        Message 3 of 6 , Feb 2, 2004
          > Just got Terry Allen's new album in the mail - poppin' it in right now.
          >
          > Got me thinkin': Anyone know if he EVER tours these days? Every time I see
          > him with gig dates, it's weekends or, more likely, one off's...
          >
          > he's a freakin genius.

          He IS a fucking genius. He does one-off gigs here and there, but that's
          about it.

          He's near the top of my list for underappreciated musicians. The new
          reissue, Juarez, is amazing. Salivation is also genius. So is Lubbock On
          Everything and on and on.

          By the way, I work for Sugar Hill, but I'm a music fan first and Terry is
          really worth hearing if you haven't heard him already.

          steve
        • Justin Hopper
          Oooops! My bad - didn t realize it was a reissue; not one I had before. Just got overly psyched when I saw the disc! ;) Justin Hopper Music Editor Pittsburgh
          Message 4 of 6 , Feb 2, 2004
            Oooops! My bad - didn't realize it was a reissue; not one I had before.

            Just got overly psyched when I saw the disc! ;)

            Justin Hopper
            Music Editor
            Pittsburgh City Paper
            650 Smithfield St., Ste. 2200
            Pittsburgh, PA 15222
            www.pghcitypaper.com
            phone: 412-316-3342 x165
            fax: 412-316-3388
            jhopper@...

            "This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a
            period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission,
            will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it.
            Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted
            to do." -- Woody Guthrie

            -----Original Message-----
            From: Steve Gardner [mailto:steve@...]
            Sent: Monday, February 02, 2004 5:39 PM
            To: fearnwhiskey@yahoogroups.com
            Subject: Re: [fearnwhiskey] Terry Allen



            > Just got Terry Allen's new album in the mail - poppin' it in right now.
            >
            > Got me thinkin': Anyone know if he EVER tours these days? Every time I see
            > him with gig dates, it's weekends or, more likely, one off's...
            >
            > he's a freakin genius.

            He IS a fucking genius. He does one-off gigs here and there, but that's
            about it.

            He's near the top of my list for underappreciated musicians. The new
            reissue, Juarez, is amazing. Salivation is also genius. So is Lubbock On
            Everything and on and on.

            By the way, I work for Sugar Hill, but I'm a music fan first and Terry is
            really worth hearing if you haven't heard him already.

            steve




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          • Bob Soron
            ... Allen s one of the handful of people I ve flown places to see. The first time I saw him was at Boston s Museum of Fine Arts in conjunction with a show of
            Message 5 of 6 , Feb 2, 2004
              On Mon, 2 Feb 2004 4:51pm, Steve Gardner wrote:
              >
              >> Just got Terry Allen's new album in the mail - poppin' it in right
              >> now.
              >>
              >> Got me thinkin': Anyone know if he EVER tours these days? Every time
              >> I see
              >> him with gig dates, it's weekends or, more likely, one off's...
              >>
              >> he's a freakin genius.
              >
              > He IS a fucking genius. He does one-off gigs here and there, but that's
              > about it.
              >
              > He's near the top of my list for underappreciated musicians. The new
              > reissue, Juarez, is amazing. Salivation is also genius. So is Lubbock
              > On
              > Everything and on and on.
              >
              > By the way, I work for Sugar Hill, but I'm a music fan first and Terry
              > is
              > really worth hearing if you haven't heard him already.

              Allen's one of the handful of people I've flown places to see. The first
              time I saw him was at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in conjunction with a
              show of his installations -- '88 or '89 -- and I was stunned to see how
              huge a crowd he drew. He and the Panhandle Mystery Band also performed
              Juarez at a tiny theater in Harvard Square in the mid-'90s, and I saw
              Chippy both in Philadelphia and NYC. I really, really would love to see
              him more... all of his albums are always on my iPod. (I do have a radio
              show he did, at least.)

              Bob
            • Perfect Sound Forever
              ... Good that this is out again but I m kind of bummed to hear that there s no new album. I d seen Terry do a show at SXSW a few years ago (with David Byrne
              Message 6 of 6 , Feb 3, 2004
                > Date: Mon, 2 Feb 2004 18:21:52 -0500
                > From: "Justin Hopper" <jhopper@...>
                >
                >Oooops! My bad - didn't realize it was a reissue; not one I had before.
                >Just got overly psyched when I saw the disc! ;)

                Good that this is out again but I'm kind of bummed to hear that there's no
                new album. I'd seen Terry do a show at SXSW a few years ago (with David
                Byrne joining him for an encore). He's a lot of fun live and as such, it's
                a shame that he doesn't tour more. I suspect that this is probably because
                he likes to dive into big multi-media projects (like YOUTH IN ASIA) instead
                of solely concentrating on a career as a recording artist.

                Bloodlines and Salivation are great records but my sentimental fave is
                Lubbock (On Everything), probably because that was the first TA record I owned.

                Great quote from him about using anti-social folks as subject matter for
                his songs: "I don't believe that there isn't anybody that isn't kind of an
                outcast. We wear our masks and our costumes to pretend that we're certain
                things but I think we're all pretty scramble-headed when it comes right
                down to it. All of us are pretty desperate in certain ways."

                Best,
                Jason

                Perfect Sound Forever
                online music magazine with warped perspectives since 1993
                http://www.perfectsoundforever.com
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