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The Sound of Joe Henry

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8:28 p.m. Jan. 31

A good record producer is like a good editor. He or she maintains originality of the voice. The producer becomes an advocate for the artist’s material. The producer has vision.
Joe Henry fits this bill.
A few years ago Henry told me how he investigated Sam Cooke’s “Night Beat” as a template for his “I Believe In My Soul” compilation with soul singers Ann Peebles, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Mavis Staples and Billy Preston (who played on 1963's "Night Beat"). Henry did not set out to imitate Cooke’s intimate, stripped down affair, but he wanted to study the prominent vocals..........

.....Henry heard how the band responded to the words and phrasing. That dicated the arrangements. Henry's willingness to take chances is what makes his sound come alive. He generally gives his band songs in their most skeletal form so the material grows in a process of mutual discovery.
Henry’s non-judgemental sense of adventure found him a new audience in 2007 with music inspired by the soundtrack of the hit 2007 film “Knocked Up.” The collaboration with Loudon Wainwright III can be heard in the offshoot “Strange Weirdos,” released last summer.
“(Film director) Judd Apatow gave us that rare combination of specific direction and an incredible amount of freedom,” Henry told me last week. “You don’t usually wind up with both those things, sometimes you don’t wind up with either of those things in a film. It was very gratifying and a great opportunity to work with Loudon. I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager.”
On Henry’s latest CD “Civilians” he grouped all 12 original songs together to create a unified body just as if he were making a film. This could be icongruous in an era of downloading and sharing single tunes. “I still imagine how a record works as a complete piece,” Henry explained. “If I was a filmmaker, I would still make a complete movie even if someone was going to rent the DVD and go right to ‘scene selection.’ It still helps me control the arc of the overall piece. It doesn’t change at all if some people won’t honor that when they listen to a record. You cook a meal with an idea how the whole thing works even if someone is only picking up the salad.”
Pseudo Beach Boy Van Dyke Parks and instrumentalist Bill Frisell guest on “Civilians.” Parks also played accordion and piano on “Strange Weirdos.” “I was at Van Dyke’s 64th birthday party three days before the ('Civilians') sessions began,” Henry said. “Bill had flown into town early to attend the same party. It was a great group of people. Eric Idle was there. At one point Van Dyke walked up with a mint julep or whatever in his hand and said, ‘I hear Bill is going to be at your house recording.’ I said ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘How would I get myself invited into that madness?’ And I said, ‘You just did’.” I just thought at whatever point he materialized, we would know what to do.”
While working at Warner Brothers Parks produced the first records of Ry Cooder and Randy Newman. Parks arranged the strings on Henry’s second record (“Murder of Crows”) in 1989. “We barely met at the time,” Henry said. “The producer (drummer Anton Fier) I had at the time completely ailenated Van Dyke and didn’t use the score he wrote. I was horrified by the way he was treated. He is one in a million and I feel myself incredibly lucky to be associated with him.”
After Henry gets off the road touring to support “Civilians” he will embark on working on a contemporary New Orleans jazz record with Allen Toussaint. “It will be a record unlike anything he’s done before,” Henry said. “There will be some progresive interesting players who will take some old material in a new light. I’m real excited.” Oh yeah, good editors get real excited too.

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1 Comment

Really looking forward to Joe's show at Old Town Saturday night. The concert he played at the Steppenwolf right before "Tiny Voices" came out was excellent. Not sure if Mavis Staples is on the road presently, but my hope is she shows up to join him for a song or two.

Thanks for writing about the musicians and music that not enough people know about!


Thanks Chris,
Joe really knows how to articulate his muse...
I'm fairly sure Mavis will be at Folk Alliance in Memphis later this month...Dave

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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