The cities that spawned musical legacies.WORDS BY J.J. GILMARTIN
A musical snapshot of the lyrics and voices that define American cities
Wherever you travel, chances are somebody has sung about the place. Lyrics provide a window into a city's personality. Tunes become anthems that bring crowds to their feet at the ballgame and into swaying group hugs at the bar. The artists themselves become heroes so enmeshed in the local lore that it's hard to picture the city without them.
Following is a musical snapshot of 10 different cities. If you want to get to know these destinations a little better, load the bands and songs onto your iPod, listen and learn.
"Welcome to Atlanta where the players play", raps Jermaine Dupri, perhaps the biggest player on the scene. The producer-turned-frontman (and now a president at Virgin Records) rhymes his way through a tour of the city's hottest night spots and the good life he lives. Dupri's some-time collaborator and fellow Atlantan Usher also salutes his hometown when he kicks off the monster 2004 hit "Yeah!" with "Peace up, A-Town down!"
Big Boi and Andre 3000, better known as Outkast, were born and raised in Atlanta. Their "Hey Ya" and "The Way You Move" were both number-one hits in 2004. The duo makes frequent references to the Capital of the New South in songs like "ATLiens", "Decatur Psalm" and "Rosa Parks", keeping their roots planted locally even as their music takes them around the world.
More traditional music has a country twinge. The singer in Little Feat's "Oh Atlanta" stares at the planes in Kentucky and wishes one were taking him back where the locals "make you awful glad you come". Alison Krauss also longs to get there in her own "Oh Atlanta": "I hear you calling/I'm coming back to you one fine day."
Venues: Club 112 (404-261-0155) Hip-hop/rap The Tabernacle (404-659-9022) Rock, blues
In San Fran, love is the word. Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco in 1962, declaring, "The morning fog may chill the air, I don't care/My love waits there." Journey succumbed to the city's pull with "Lights" in 1978, claiming, "I'm lonely too/I want to get back to my city by the bay." Chris Isaak hotfooted into town to find a former lover in "San Francisco Days, San Francisco Nights" ("I'm headed for that Golden Gate/And hoping I won't be too late/To find the one that I still love"). Also, the city's classic bands are the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, both towering figures from the Summer of Love in 1967.
For a break from all the affection, a visitor could do worse than fire up some Green Day or watch the sunset over the Pacific and whistle along with Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of a Bay".
Venues: The Fillmore Auditorium (415-346-6000) Rock Slim's (415-255-0333) Rock, Cajun, alternative
Beastie BoysNEW YORK
Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" is the quintessential city song. "If I can make it there/I'll make it anywhere" still instills pride in Big Apple residents decades after it first hit the charts. And Long Island native Billy Joel made a career with songs about the New York spirit.
But perhaps the song that best captures the city's knack for inspiring undying dreams is Steve Earle's "NYC", the story of a man whose own hopes of big city success ended quickly ("I held out about a week/Went back to Tennessee"). Years later he picks up a hitchhiker headed for the city because he "likes the way it sounds" and the narrator confesses, "I knew I was just jealous if I didn't wish him well/Slipped the kid a twenty/said 'Billy give em hell.'"
Then there's To the 5 Boroughs, the recent album by native sons the Beastie Boys, and its "An Open Letter to NYC", one of many recent songs that speaks to life after 9/11: "We're still livin' and lovin' life we've been given."
Venues: Joe's Pub (212-539-8770) Eclectic Knitting Factory (212-219-3132) Alternative
Something around Minneapolis spawns ground-breaking musicians. First there was Bob Dylan, a Minnesota native who broke onto the scene in New York but never lost his Midwestern attitude. Then there is the often renamed but never imitated Prince. His "Uptown" hints at the source of the city's musical ingenuity: "Now where I come from/ We don't let society/Tell us how it's supposed to be."
The Replacements are local heroes who may not have enjoyed the popular success of Prince or Dylan but have captured praise from more than a few critics. "Skyway" tells a tale unique to the Twin Cities. It's the story of a guy who falls for a woman he sees commuting through downtown's glass tubes in winter: "You take the skyway, high above the busy little one-way." The singer sits outside in his hat and gloves, braving the city's famous cold and anonymously pining for a girl.
Venues: First Avenue (612-332-1775) Eclectic
Fine Line Music Café (612-338-8100) Country, rock, blues
It's a cover version performed by a quasi-fictional band and the lyrics border on nonsense. Still, "Sweet Home Chicago" by the Blues Brothers is one of the Windy City's essential tunes. No wonder, as the blues run deep in Chicago. Buddy Guy is the current master of the sound, following in the footsteps of his mentor Muddy Waters. Sammy Cahn wrote the other local anthem, "My Kind of Town", and Frank Sinatra made it famous, timelessly crooning, "Chicago is/One town that won't let you down."
Chicago is the birthplace of house music, now spun by DJs to packed dancefloors worldwide. And, expect to hear music from the '90s post-grunge era. Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill and Veruca Salt have all paid tribute to their Second City home, while Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville loaned a new nickname to the whole city.
The biggest name in Chicago music today is Kanye West, a hip-hop producer, songwriter and rapper nominated for a stunning 10 Grammy Awards in 2005. When he asks, "You know what the Midwest is?" on "Jesus Walks", he answers his own question: "Young & Restless." It's what keeps the music fresh and why as long as there are cities there will be people singing about them.
Venues: Buddy Guy's Legends (312-427-0333) Blues Smart Bar (773-549-0203) DJ house/techno
Few songs define a city's mythology like "Viva Las Vegas". Elvis Presley sang it first, followed by ZZ Top, Bruce Springsteen and The Dead Kennedys. "Bright lights city gonna set my soul on fire."
Gram Parsons fell victim to the myth of Vegas in "Ooh Las Vegas" ("Every time I hit your crystal city you know/You're gonna make a wreck outta me") and Faith Hill succumbs with "Let's Go to Vegas" ("Let's go to Vegas/Bet on love and let it ride"). Native sons Slaughter are clearly singing the virtues of Sin City living in their "Up All Night".
But the truth is that Las Vegas is a lot tamer than songs about it admit. The scene is filled with big-name stars like Celine Dion and Elton John and tribute bands. Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack might not recognize the tamer Vegas, but they'd probably have a standing gig.
Venues: House of Blues, Mandalay Bay (702-632-7600) Rock, blues The Joint (702-226-4650) Rock, R&B
NEW ORLEANS ORLEAN
New Orleans' audio orientation begins with "Sophisticated Cissy" by The Meters—a sly, strutting instrumental that captures the city's laidback atmosphere. The band's leader is Art Neville, one of a seemingly endless string of Nevilles found in the Big Easy, including brothers Aaron, Cyril and Charles, sister Charmaine and nephew Ivan. The only local family that rivals the Nevilles' talent and size is the Marsalis clan, with Branford, Wynton, Ellis and Jason all prominent on the scene.
For a more rocking time, there's Cowboy Mouth, whose live shows are part self-help group and part honky-tonk bar fight. And, Preservation Hall Jazz Band still plays traditional Dixieland Jazz, including the essential "When the Saints Go Marching In".
Behind it all looms Professor Longhair, aka "'Fess", whose "Tipitina" defined New Orleans piano and, with it, the city's sound. The city's soul, which constantly flirts with temptation, comes out in the traditional song "The House of the Rising Sun".
Venues: Tipitina's Uptown (504-895-8477) Rock, blues, funk Maple Leaf Bar (504-866-9359) Jazz, Cajun, blues
They rarely sing about the city and three of the five band members were born elsewhere, but Aerosmith dominates Boston music. After 30 years together, they are the best selling, most recognizable, most enduring band to come out of New England's capital. Only the J. Geils Band, The Cars and Boston (with one of history's most successful debut albums) even come close, and they don't even come that close.
But college towns like Boston always have lesser-known musical heroes. After visiting Boston, a visitor could easily start to think that The Pixies, Juliana Hatfield, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Evan Dando's Lemonheads are all global stars.
The current darlings of Boston music are Dropkick Murphys, a hardcore punk band with a bagpipe. In 2004, they revived a century-old song about the Red Sox, "Tessie". It became the unofficial rallying cry that carried the team to victory in the World Series. "Boston, you are the only, only, only/Don't blame us if we ever doubt you."
Venues: Paradise Rock Club (617-562-8800) Rock Harper's Ferry (617-254-9743) Rock, eclectic
Three words define Memphis music: "Sun", "Elvis" and "Beale". Sun Studios is where rock 'n' roll began. Carl Perkins recorded "Blue Suede Shoes" there, Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line", and Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shaking Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire". It's also where a teenage Elvis Presley recorded "That's All Right", the song that began the rock revolution. After that, of course, Elvis grew into one of the world's most enduring idols, and Graceland the town's biggest attraction.
On Beale Street in 1909, W.C. Handy wrote "The Memphis Blues", widely considered to be the first blues song. In the century since, the street has been the heart of the blues. Albert King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Memphis Minnie McCoy, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King have all played there.
Paul Simon goes to Graceland for reasons he cannot explain, John Hiatt travels from California to steal a Cadillac with Tennessee Plates, and Marc Cohn's finds his feet 10 feet off of Beale when he's "Walking in Memphis".
Venues: B.B. King's Blues Club (901-524-5464) Blues Rum Boogie Café (901-528-0150) Rock, R&B, blues
Charlie Parker Statue
There is one song that the folks from Kansas City call their own, Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City". The singer is going to get up at dawn and travel by plane or train or foot, because "they got a crazy way of loving there, and I'm gonna get me some."
Charlie "Bird" Parker arrived in Kansas City much more innocently. The saxophone genius moved there with his parents at seven and learned his craft playing the city's jazz clubs in the '30s and '40s. Count Basie also cut his chops in KC. One of their great contemporaries, Jay "Hootie" McShann, still lives in town, making sure Kansas City jazz is alive and well.
On the rock 'n' roll side, there are two names to know. Kansas, technically from Topeka but loved locally, cemented their place in music history with "Dust in the Wind". Sheryl Crow, whose parents performed in swing bands, was born across the state in Kennett, Missouri. Although she's a superstar now, hints of the Great Plains still blow through her lyrics.
Venues: Grand Emporium (816-561-2560) Blues, rock, swing The Blue Room (816-474-2929) Jazz