It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Hating on Christmas music is easy to do. After all, starting around Halloween through New Year’s it’s unavoidable and often quite horrible. But that doesn’t mean it’s universally all bad!

That’s where the happy elves at “tailgates and substitutes” come in. We’re here to guide you through the maze of holiday tunes to spend your time listening to only the very best.

Given the plethora of Christmas and holiday music out there, we know this is just scratching the surface. But it’s a damn fine start.

One of my favorite things about Christmas music is when a band takes a well-known and overdone song and makes it new again. No one did that better than Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, with their absolutely essential 2008 release “Jingle All the Way.” Nothing says Christmas like Tuvan throat singing, banjos and drumitars.

They toured to support the record, resulting in absolutely mind-blowing concerts. Here is a taste:


If throat singing doesn’t do it for you, how about Charlie Brown? While the song most associated with the downtrodden cartoon character isn’t technically a Christmas song, “Linus and Lucy” gets plenty of air time during this season because it debuted on the 1965 Christmas special.

Bela Fleck did a cover of it on the aforementioned Christmas record, as have numerous other artists over the years. This year, as part of a holiday revue tour with Nick Lowe, the Mexican-wrestling mask-wearing combo Los Straitjackets has been performing it as well. And they do a bang-up job. Give a listen:


Speaking of Nick Lowe, the 1970s singer-songwriter-producer perhaps best known for writing “What’s So Funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding?” put out a fantastic Christmas record last year called “Quality Street.” The standout song, and one that many of us can unfortunately relate to, is called “Christmas at the Airport.” Here is the equally delightful video:


No list of rock-related Christmas songs would be complete without one of the best of all time. That’s right, it’s the Kinks and “Father Christmas”:


A lesser-known, but beautiful, Christmas song comes to us from Rick Danko, bass player from The Band, with “Christmas Must be Tonight”:


One of the more clever Christmas songs, which still rings true today for all you Scrooges out there, is “Who Took the Mary Out of Christmas” from the Staple Singers.


This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of Christmas musical goodies. What’s missing?


Just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round


I don’t remember where I was when I found out John Lennon was shot.

I do remember how I felt.


Most Americans got the news that night, 34 years ago today on Dec. 8, 1980, while watching the Miami Dolphins take on the New England Patriots. Howard Cosell, who had welcomed Lennon to the Monday Night Football booth in 1974, delivered the unbelievable news of “an unspeakable tragedy.”

Listen to it again now, and try not to be moved:


As an 8-year-old Beatles fan that night, I was long asleep before Cosell spread the word. And I don’t remember exactly when it was I found.

It may have been that Tuesday morning, while watching Good Morning America. My mom always had that on in the mornings before I left for school. Or maybe I heard it on the rock station I listened to at the time _ WEBN in Cincinnati. I definitely remember sitting on my bed next to my clock radio, hearing them playing one Beatles song after another in dedication, and crying.

That’s what you were supposed to do.

Three years earlier, when Elvis died, I can remember my mom’s hairdresser talking about it and crying. I really had no idea what was going on then.

But Lennon’s death was different.

Some point that day after Lennon was gunned down, I cut out the article from the Cincinnati Enquirer and put it in my pocket. I kept it with me through school and into the night for a 3rd grade Christmas pageant. We were dressed up like space aliens, for some reason, to sing songs of the holiday season.

Or maybe we weren’t. There was a pageant, I know. I remember the feel of the newspaper article in my pocket. And I remember wondering if any other kid knew, or cared, about what had happened.

Lennon was killed just as my awareness of music, and the Beatles in particular, was starting to blossom. Thanks to my older brother, whose musical tastes were my guidepost early in my life, I got turned on to the Beatles and loved them instantly.

But I had only a passing understanding of what they had done and the impact they had both on music and the larger world. I knew nothing of Lennon’s solo work, other than I really liked his new songs that were just getting played, like “Starting Over” and “Watching the Wheels.”


Even now, more than three decades later, when I hear those Lennon songs I feel transported back to that time, lying under my Cowboy blanket tuning the dial on my clock radio to be transported to the larger musical world beyond my bedroom.

Seeing the images on TV in the days that followed, and through my own reading about the Beatles and learning more in the ensuing months and years, I came to understand how Lennon’s murder just two months after he turned 40 had so deeply affected so many people who grew up with his music.


Lennon was honest. That’s the thing. No bullshit. Whether you’re a musician, painter, stock broker, lawyer or custodian, that’s what people crave more than anything else _ honesty.

My love of the Beatles, and Lennon, deepened as I grew up and connected with their songs in more meaningful and personal ways. As a sign of respect to Lennon, one year in high school I orchestrated the posting of a banner in the school lunch room to recognize not the day of his death, but of his birthday.

Sadly, despite all the archival releases of previously unavailable Lennon songs and tidbits over the ensuing decades, we will never hear his take on middle age. John Lennon navigating a midlife crisis and his advancing age? That’s music I’d want to hear.

I don’t listen to Lennon or the Beatles much any more. I don’t need to. I can hear all the songs in my head. They are an integral part of my musical DNA, never to be taken away or replaced.

But sometimes, when the moment is right, I’ll pop in “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” for the kids or “Watching the Wheels” will come on the radio.

And you can still hear it. The beauty. The energy. The truth. The humor. The love.

It’s all there in the songs. That never goes away, even after the singer has long since left the building.

Here we go with OK GO, Lucius, Cracker and that good ‘ole Grateful Dead

Now that daylight saving time is behind us, and the holiday season is nearing, lots of great new and repurposed music is getting released. We like to dig beneath the surface here at “tailgates and substitutes” to find those gems that may otherwise go undiscovered.


Here are a few items worthy of spending two or three minutes checking out:

OK GO: The band known as much, or maybe even more, for their videos than their songs is back with another catchy ditty and truly incredible video. It’s all legit! Check out the “making of” documentary that follows the video:




Lucius: Any reader of “tailgates and substitutes” knows that we’re big Wilco and Jeff Tweedy fans. For Tweedy’s recent solo effort, which we love, he enlisted the help of the female duo that lead the band known as Lucius to lend a hand with backing vocals. Here is the latest song, and freaky video, from Lucius, without any help from Tweedy.


Cracker: The 1990s alt-rock combo known as Cracker (remember “Low” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”)  is back with countrified double album on Dec. 9. Check out the first song here:

Grateful Dead: And, in closing, what better way to spend an hour and a half than listening to a compilation of the Grateful Dead tuning their instruments in 1977?



Listening Party

“This is some psychedelic crazy ass ’60s stuff.”

“Wow. The snare drum sounds like it’s bouncing around the room.”

“I had a girlfriend once who was into Dave Matthews. It didn’t last.”

“Oh, The Band. I’m so humiliated.”

“It’s a beautiful song. Just listen to the words.”


music turntable vinyl record player 1680x1050 wallpaper_www.wallpaperhi.com_78

Listening to music is often a solitary thing, especially in these days of the iPod and other similar devices. We put in the ear buds, turn on the car radio, or listen at home when no one is around. It’s great to have that personal connection, but that’s not what it should be all the time. There’s a reason why concerts are so much fun. Music is meant to be shared, and heard, with other people. It reveals itself to you in different ways when you hear songs in the company of friends or strangers or both.

On a recent Friday night, a group of suburban 40-something dads got together for an inaugural listening party. Each of us was asked to bring music that inspires us, and everyone got a chance to spin two songs at a time. Vinyl was encouraged, but not mandatory. We had everything from CDs to mp3s played off an iPhone, with the obligatory 180-gram colored vinyl thrown in, along with some esoteric weirdness with performers like a guy named Squirrel on congas.

Over the span of a few hours, in a group of just eight guys, the music played ran the gauntlet from the jazz of Nina Simone to punk rock of the New York Dolls, with some Broadway musicals, Bob Mould, Gordon Lightfoot and White Lion thrown in for good measure.




We even learned a thing or two. For instance, who knew that Deodato’s version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was the inspiration for Phish’s version of the tune best known as the theme music for “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Don’t believe it? Compare them!



Some in our group got turned on to one of our favorites here at “tailgates and substitutes”: Sturgill Simpson, a country singer who takes the best of the old and mixes it with the new to create his own sound. Listening to him led to a discussion over why most modern country sucks, a topic nearly all of us should be able to agree with.


From there we branched out into people like Arthur Brown, the “psychedelic crazy ass ’60s stuff” quoted above, as well as Allen Toussaint , Jack White, Bruce Springsteen, and Ry Cooder. Of course, no listening party among men of a certain age would be complete without Wilco and Bob Dylan.


At times we were silent — like when listening to Dylan’s live 1966 version of “Visions of Johanna.” Other songs, like one played from “Rent,” brought back powerful emotions for members of the group with personal connections to the musical and that time in New York.

Say what you want about vinyl snobs, but the records we played just had a depth and feel that the digital downloads and CDs did not. Just imagine wading into an aural sea, surrounded by a mossy, thick sound. You can’t get that with the tininess of digital.

As the night wore on, the observations became more definitive — “Little Feat is the greatest band in music history!” — just as the volume got louder.


The next listening party can’t come fast enough. Anyone out there done something similar, or have suggestions for what should be played?


Lost on the River of Sukierae with Tweedy, Neil Young and a Prophet

There’s lots of new music news out there, so let’s not waste any time and dive Beneath the Waves!

Jeff Tweedy: The man behind Wilco has been all over the airwaves to promote his solo release “Sukierae.” The rec0rd, in a word, is amazing. Here are some places to check out some of the tunes, interviews, and other buzz that’s surrounding this deal.

First, if you only do one thing today, watch this video done for the song “Low Key.” Keep an eye out for cameos by other musicians and entertainers, and be sure to watch all the way to the end for the surprise twist:


If that whets your appetite for more, check out this amazing professionally filmed Tweedy concert from last week in New York:

Still want more? Here is Tweedy on Colbert:

And here is Tweedy doing an NPR tiny desk concert:

And here is Tweedy getting interviewed on NPR:

If that still isn’t enough Tweedy for you, go out and buy “Sukierae” so you can enjoy it whenever you like.


Neil Young: The venerable rocker is out with a new pro-environment song, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” It’s available in three versions for free on his website now. There’s the acoustic solo, live with Crazy Horse and the orchestral version. You can listen to all three versions here:


Chuck Prophet: Take a little Ray Davies, mix in some Tom Petty and John Hiatt, shake it up, and out comes Chuck Prophet. Sort of. The guy is wholly original and he has a new record out. Check out his first single/video here:—wish-me-luck.html


Lost on the River: A week after Bob Dylan releases his Complete Basement Tapes in November, some friends including Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Elvis Costello of Elvis Costello and others of his who were given access to unfinished lyrics from that period in 1967 are putting out “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.” Three songs have been released so far, and I’ve got to say, they’re not doing much for me. Will this be a success like the Wilco-Billy Bragg “Mermaid Avenue” collaboration, that worked from discarded Woody Guthrie lyrics, or a miss, a la Dylan’s “Self Portrait,” which also hails from that era? We shall see.


Here is a link to the videos from Lost on the River that are out now:


Prince: As if this wasn’t all enough, Prince has two new records coming out tomorrow:



Music lover and college buddy John Chernesky, of Los Angeles, takes the helm of “tailgates and substitutes” for this the latest guest post. His love of music extends from Mozart to Mastodon, and pretty much everything in between. Not afraid to share his own opinions on music, John has amazing respect for those people who actually put themselves on the line and create it.


Harmony.  “The use of simultaneous pitches or chords.”  Ok.  Easier said than done, but when it’s done right…man it can take music to another level.  But when you think of amazing singers, it’s actually kind of rare to think of those that harmonize well with others (either a bandmate or a guest vocalist).   That’s either because most singer are vane creatures who don’t want to share the limelight, or because it’s really hard to do.  Or both.

Creating a list of the “best of anything” in music is always tricky.  First, it’s just my stupid opinion, but I guess that’s the beauty of art.  There is no right or wrong.  But I’m a sucker for “best of” lists because it usually inspires a healthy discussion and hopefully a disagreement or two.  And on that note, my top three harmonizing bands….

3) Fleet Foxes is one of my favorite bands.  Great songs, melodies, stories, musicianship and they sound great live.  Here’s one of their best songs – Mykonos – with the harmonies really kicking in just after the 2 minute mark:


2) Have you ever heard of the band Milk Carton Kids?  If you said yes, you’re probably in the minority.  But this band truly raises the bar to a new harmonic level.  For many of their tunes, this duo sings the entire song in harmony, rather than the typical formula of a lead singer being joined during the chorus.  I encourage you to check out their entire show from Austin City Limits to see that this band is the real deal – no Auto Tune required with them.  Here’s one of their best songs, and pay particular attention to the reaction from Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons) near the end.  He’s physically blown away by their performance:


1) To round out my top three, I had to go with Simon & Garfunkel.  Hard to not have them on any list that celebrates harmony let alone at the #1 position.  Rather than selecting a track from one of their produced albums, I have to go with a track from their 1981 concert in Central Park.  It’s how I grew up listening to them and it’s often hard for me to listen to their studio work in comparison.  This concert was/is and will always be one of the best concerts in the history of modern music.  Not bad for a free gig in front of a few hundred thousand people.


While I chose The Boxer (because it’s one of their most famous songs), my personal favorite is actually Homeward Bound.  Enjoy.


This is obviously a short list and I’ve purposely excluded the Grateful Dead just to raise the blood pressure of our blog host, but please chime in with your own top three.  Or feel free to disagree with mine.  Except of course for Simon & Garfunkel.

Why the Record Still Matters

Today’s guest post on “tailgates and substitutes” is none other than Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, via The Guardian newspaper.

I’ve been wanting to write a post with my own thoughts about why records still matter, and I still may, but Tweedy did it so eloquently in this piece, I thought it was worth pasting in its entirety. Enjoy, and remember, Tweedy’s solo record comes out Tuesday. It’s been getting rave reviews.


Whenever the so-called experts say the album is dying as a format, I think: “Since when have we listened to so-called experts?” Are video games killing chess as well?

I’ve just made a double album, Sukierae, which has two distinct discs. I understand in this day and age there might not be many people who will listen to it that way, but it doesn’t matter – because I want to listen that way. I’m not a curmudgeon, a luddite or anti-modern technology doomsayer. I just want to listen to the album and have a feeling that one part ,has ended, and now I can take a little breather before I listen to the second part. Or I can listen to the second part another time. It’s a double record on vinyl, so there are three breaks like that. I wanted it to have different identities artistically and the album format allows me to do that.

An album is a journey. It has several changes of mood and gear. It invites you into its environment and tells a story. I enjoy albums, and I assume that if I enjoy them there must be others who feel the same.

I don’t remember ever not having albums. My youngest brother is 10 years older than me, and my sister is 15 years older, with another brother in between them. When I was a kid, they had moved out already, so I inherited their Monkees, Herman’s Hermits and Bob Dylan albums long before I remember ever buying any. They completely changed my life and set me on a path that was unavoidable, in the sense that I was given little choice.

If I go back and think about the albums and records that were in my house, a lot of them still shape what I do. My father had a record of old steam locomotive sounds and I still think about that all the time: the idea that you can sit and listen to anything and have a stimulating experience, just sitting and being bombarded by sound.

‘If you’ve got a 12-inch album with a picture of somebody’s head on it, it’s the same size as your head. You can sit it up and talk to it. Not that I’ve ever done that’

I could make an equally forceful argument for the Beatles’ White Album. For me, as a child, that was the ideal situation: this collective of people who were not being held in the confines of a genre – a word I didn’t know at the time. It was really obvious that there was something much broader than the Monkees there (at that point I didn’t have those records where the Monkees were trying to be the later Beatles).

We weren’t a rich family, so I had a lot of compilations and less successful records by people, the ones you could get more cheaply. Between the Buttons by the Rolling Stones wasn’t the biggest record and it’s unpredictable – a hodgepodge – but it’s a great record that still inspires me. And as I’ve grown older I really appreciate those records that sound like they have a singular mission.

For example, the first album by Suicide came at me fully formed. You’d think: “How did somebody do that?” Even now, 30 or 40 years down the road, it sounds like a completely steadfast, undying commitment to an aesthetic. You can’t leave the room while that record plays, and you come out of it scarred for life. If you listen to Frankie Teardrop even once, you’re not going to be as happy as you were.

I still listen to whole albums and play them over and over. When I think about records that really hit me as a kid, I realise that’s why it’s hard for me to stay focused on one thing; that’s why Wilco have made so many wildly different records. I’ve never been able to adhere to one sonic mission statement, although I love albums that do. Wire’s Pink Flag is like that, the first Ramones record or the Stooges’ Fun House. If you’re in the mood to be in those worlds, they are incredible to listen to from beginning to end.

The decline of the album began with the advent of the CD. The maximum amount of music on a vinyl album is 50 minutes over two sides. The CD format is much longer. I don’t think there are many pieces of music – my own records included – that can sustain interest over 40 minutes without a break, and leaping around from idea to idea for that amount of time gets exhausting.

CD artwork also reduced the album’s impact. If you’ve got a 12-inch album with a picture of somebody’s head on it, it’s the same size as your head. You can sit it up and talk to it. Not that I’ve ever done that; really, I’ve really never done that! But the White Album artwork is incredible. Having a white square in your room looks like there’s some piece of your world missing, that’s only really being filled by this music.

‘The album format matters, because it matters to me and I don’t think I’m particularly unique or special. If it means a lot to me, then it must matter to someone else as well’

dylan great white wonder


Working toward Sukierae I must have written or recorded around 90 songs. I was pretty sold on the idea of two really good-sounding vinyl sides, but no matter how we tried to sequence the songs, we kept getting halfway into another record. Then, in the last couple of weeks of recording, I had this burst and recorded five new songs, which all started to feel like part of a whole other record. So, we sequenced it as disc one and disc two. The album gets simpler and softer and bolder at the same time. The idea is that as it winds down it gets clearer.

The record has several marked gear shifts, allowed by the double album format. Nobody Dies Anymore is a childish daydream about things being here for ever, partly inspired by something my son said after 9/11: “If everybody didn’t die then bad people would live forever and eventually there would be a lot of bad people all existing at once.” Low Key is autobiographical: “I don’t jump for joy. If I get excited, nobody knows.” I think about that all the time when I’m onstage. That if an audience seems a little bit lacklustre it’s because it’s full of people more like me, rather than people going fucking bananas because I would never do that. If I could be transported to some of the greatest concerts of all time I would still sit there scratching my chin, even though inside I would be ecstatic.

These are key tracks but deliberately placed to be heard in the middle of the album. Listening to it all at once is a leap of faith, but I know that the idea of listening to a work all the way through and being taken along for the whole ride is becoming antiquated for a lot of people.

Nowadays, people download tracks. When I was a kid we’d make tapes, samplers for your friends. Most often it was a way into the whole record, a gateway drug. But both my sons still listen to records. They have turntables in their rooms and really good record collections. They’re weirdos, not typical, but they do have friends that share those interests.

So does the album format matter? In one sense, I don’t know if it does. The crucial thing is that people keep making art. I just think the world’s a better place when people make stuff not to make a million dollars or to make them famous, but just to be creative. On the other hand, the album format matters, because it matters to me and I don’t think I’m particularly unique or special. If it means a lot to me, then it must matter to someone else as well, and if that’s the vocabulary or language we have to speak to each other, that’s to be honoured and that’s beautiful. There’s no reason to question it.