It’s a fairly well-known piece of musical lore (at least around Madison, where I live) that Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs first met at the University of Wisconsin during the early 1960s, where they played in a band called the Ardells. A less-storied member of the Ardells was the piano player, Ben Sidran. At the start of his professional career, his demo tape was produced by Glyn Johns, best known for producing the Rolling Stones, and featured Charlie Watts and Peter Frampton as sidemen. Sidran was briefly a member of the Steve Miller Band with Scaggs, and during that time wrote “Space Cowboy,” which provided sufficient royalties for him to continue his education. Sidran eventually received a doctorate in American studies; his dissertion, Black Talk: How the Music of Black America Created a Radical Alternative to the Values of Western Literary Tradition, is considered an important early work on the influence of jazz and R&B on Western culture. But in 1971, about the time his dissertation was published, he and his wife decided they were tired of the L.A. life. So Sidran made the radical decision to move back to Madison, which he’s maintained as his home base ever since. Not that it’s harmed his career at all–he’s continued to record his own albums, write books, host TV shows and jazz talk radio shows for NPR and XM, and collaborate with artists like Miller, Van Morrison, Mose Allison, Diana Ross, and Rickie Lee Jones. Thirty-five years after his return to town, he’s Madison’s most famous musician, and whoever’s in second place isn’t anywhere close.
In addition to his regular residency playing the Hammond B3 at a local club, Sidran plays bigger shows a couple of times a year. The venue books the date, and Sidran puts the show together. For last Friday night’s show, he invited Scaggs back to town. Also on the bill was Uruguayan singer/songwriter Jorge Drexler, a part-time Madison resident, who won the Oscar for best song in 2005 for “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” from The Motorcycle Diaries. (The song was produced by Sidran’s son, Leo, a child prodigy who wrote songs and played on Steve Miller’s 1991 album Wide River when he was 15, and who will probably end up far more famous than his old man before he’s done.)
The show was half concert and half talk show, as Sidran, Scaggs, and Drexler took breaks between tunes to discuss the process, the pitfalls, and the rewards of songwriting. It’s the kind of thing, as Sidran noted from the stage, that would work only in a town like Madison–and it did, although the one thing that was clear from the between-song discussions is that no matter how articulate you are, it’s hard to explain songwriting to non-songwriters without getting highly metaphysical. Nobody cared, though–especially not me. I’ve been a Boz fan since Silk Degrees, and over the last few years, I’ve bought nearly everything I can find with his name on it. Given that he seems to play mostly either around his San Francisco home or in Japan, this night represented a rare moment for me and my fellow Bozheads.
The band performed Boz’s early hit “Runnin’ Blue,” which, if they’d jammed on it for the rest of the night, would have been OK with me. Boz also sang “Desire,” from his 2001 album Dig, juxtaposed with a Drexler song, also called “Desire.” The two songs shared some other interesting similarities besides their titles–despite being written half-a-world apart by two people who had never met until Thursday, they’re in about the same key and at about the same tempo. The showstoppers, however, were Drexler’s performance of “Al Otro Lado Del Rio,” a full-band version of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and the encore, Sidran’s “Listen to That Fool Talk,” featuring the immortal line, “Groove’s gonna get you through times of no money better’n money’s gonna get you through times of no groove.”
The band (which featured Leo Sidran on drums and longtime Steve Miller Band member Billy Peterson on bass) also performed the unplugged arrangement of Boz’s “Lowdown.” Now, “Lowdown” is one of my Top 10 Favorite Singles of All Time, but the unplugged version, recently released on Fade Into Light, replaces the original’s R&B vibe with smooth-jazz slickness. On this blog we define “smooth jazz” as the music you listen to if you want people to think you like jazz when you really don’t. So I was torn for a moment, but then I said to myself, hey, it’s Boz, and he’s right down there on that stage, so get over it. (You can navigate to a bit of the unplugged “Lowdown” from Fade Into Light by clicking here.)
Unique musical events like this one represent another reason why so many of us love Madison and can scarcely imagine living anywhere else. Big shout out to The Mrs. for the tickets, which were my birthday present, and a better one I haven’t received in a very long time.