Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Billy Preston had quite a career. Whether playing sideman or ostentatious front man, he always turned in performances that were the equivalent of 1000 watts. His life had its share of charms and hardships, though music would always carry him through. Content to let his talent do the talking, here is the late musician in a series of clips that provide an excellent overview of his versatility.
A pre-teen musical dynamo teams with Nat King Cole in 1957.
With Ray Charles in 60's TV appearance, displaying some fancy footwork.
Jan 30 1969, up on the roof and disturbing the peace at 3 Saville Row with some buddies from Liverpool. He was the only musician to get a name check on a Beatles record (The "Get Back" single)
"That's the Way God Planned it" from The Concert for Bangladesh, August, 1971.
1972 "Simple Song" recorded live in the studio.
1973 Midnight Special-"Will it Go Round in Circles"
"Outta Space" 1975 tour with the Stones in LA.
"Nothing from Nothing" with the Stones in Paris 1976. Keith does a nice solo.
B3 magic with Clapton at the Crossroads fest, not long before the end.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
WHEELS OF FIRE
Eric, Jack and Ginger, aided and abetted by Felix Pappalardi, went all out and unleashed this sprawling double set in the summer of 1968. The first record was comprised of nine new studio cuts while the second showcased the mighty skills of the trio, captured live at Winterland in San Francisco earlier that year.
"Wheels of Fire" is the band's apotheosis, the culmination of two years of touring and recording that finally saw them realize a balance between lengthy live improvisation and crafting their own material in a studio environment. Their previous two albums had been done fairly quickly, with a minimal amount of takes, live off the floor without a lot of overdubbing. Easing into the sessions for this record, with Pappalardi as producer and de facto fourth member, arrangements expanded to allow for additional instruments. For the most part, the songs were first rate. "White Room" crackles with pent up intensity from the brooding intro to the whip crack snare shot that unleashes the verses. Clapton's memorable solo through the fade is the icing on the cake.
Blues structures still figure prominently both in their own compositions ("Politician") and the covers ("Sitting on Top of the World", "Born Under a Bad Sign"). For me, one of the highlights is "Deserted Cities of the Heart" which really stands out in terms of dynamics and the use of atmospheric strings. "As You Said" is another construction along these lines. Had Bruce and Baker not hated each other, this may have been an interesting direction to pursue had they made another proper full length album.
Baker's eccentric "Pressed Rat and Warthog" is bizarre, but worth at least one spin.
Virtuosity makes for great listening on side three with the classic rendition of "Crossroads" (one of EC's signature solos) and a mind bending sixteen minutes of "Spoonful". It is here that you have a testament to how tuned in to each other they were as they seem to all be playing solos simultaneously, yet never stray from the main motif and remain tight. Freeform jazz meets the blues. Those that caught them in their prime say that the live recordings didn't do them justice.
Bigger isn't always better, as some listeners might find nearly 20 minutes of Ginger Baker soloing a bit excessive, but overall this was an incredibly successful release, being the first rock double album to go platinum. In the UK, the economy minded buyer was presented with "In the Studio" and "Live at the Fillmore", sold separately. Still, it holds up as an excellent document of three phenomenal players at their peak.
Cream called it a day and gave their farewell concert just months later.
THERE'S A RIOT GOIN' ON
Many volumes could be published on the influence that Sylvester Stewart has had on popular music. The instances where performers have sampled, stolen or rewritten songs from his impressive catalogue are staggering. Genesis cleverly turned "Hot Fun in the Summertime" into "Misunderstanding" and the list of Hip Hop artists that have used Sly as their guide track is quite long.
"There's A Riot Goin' On" is the fifth and best album by the group. Well, it's advertised as a band effort, but Stewart did the majority of the work here all on his own, with the natural enemy of every drummer (the rhythm box ) serving as percussionist on many of the bed tracks. Members of the "Family" do supply instrumental and vocal contributions, along with notable players like Billy Preston.
Funk as a genre didn't simply materialize, nor did it originate with this recording, though Stewart did a lot to shape what it would become. Funkadelic and other acts would take their cues from brilliant grooves like "Luv 'n' Haight" and "(You Caught Me) Smilin". Heavy drug use reportedly played a large part in the production of this disc, though to paraphrase the late, great Bill Hicks, a lot of great music wouldn't have been made without it.
Compare this with previous releases and you'll immediately spot the lack of upbeat themes, supplanted in favor of more serious subject matter. Great and turbulent social change was tearing up the American cultural fabric. Musicians with a conscience were no longer content to remain silent about what they were witnessing at street level. Listen to "Africa Talks to You The Asphault Jungle" and especially "Runnin' Away" as examples.
"Look at you, foolin' you"
"Family Affair" would be the most recognizable tune of the set, even to causal listeners, as it was a put out as a single and had great commercial success. Lots of people covered it, too. (Iggy Pop did a memorable version)
I never tire of listening to this as it really does have a distinct feel coupled with rock solid material. The tapes must have been cleaned up in the transfer to digital as the original vinyl version sounds a lot muddier than the CD. Larry Graham's unmistakable bass playing is essential (and groundbreaking as he was the first to employ the "slap" technique) to the overall sound and everything comes together in the tastiest way possible. Genius is an understatement when it comes to rating Stewart and the excellent players he assembled. This clip leaves no doubt.
Friday, March 27, 2009
STATION TO STATION
Trains clatter for over a minute, then guitar feedback takes over followed by bass, drums and piano. "The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lover's eyes" is the first, seemingly unfathomable lyric. Building from here, the title track unfolds into one of Bowie's best and most ambitious songs. Running just over ten minutes, it gains joyous momentum and fades on a high note.
Now, if only every artist's cocaine fueled delusions resulted in music like this...
Seriously fine record from a guy who, by his own admission, was in fairly sorry shape at the time. His habit of adopting and shedding characters to theatrically project the music that he was releasing was soon to be abandoned. The "Thin White Duke" persona seemed to be the epitome of style and detachment, though its hard to argue with an end product like this. Even if he had thrown on a chicken costume, it would not have detracted from strong material like "Golden Years" and "TVC 15". "Wild Is the Wind" was the lone cover song and he makes it his own.
Bowie had turned an abrupt corner with "Young Americans", leaving the glitter, mullet and alien Ziggy era behind in favor of Philly Soul stylings and a more conservative look. "Station to Station" raises the artistic game quite a bit higher, with experimental textures shaking hands with hard hitting funk. Lyrically, there seems to be a lot going on, though not much that could be readily understood by anyone other than the author himself.
Overall, he took a giant creative leap ahead of his time here and I'll crawl out on a limb (though not by myself) in naming it as the best record he ever made. The next four discs would cement his reputation as a major artist (with a capital A), though they would see his commercial fortunes wane somewhat.
Now, especially for the Bowie-obsessed, here is some great rehearsal footage, shot in Vancouver on the 1976 tour.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Stan Rogers' untimely passing would give "Northwest Passage" the sad distinction of being the last recording released by the artist during his lifetime. He was working on an ambitious concept that involved writing entire albums around the theme of specific regions in Canada. His first two sets dealt with the concerns of the Atlantic Provinces. "Northwest Passage" was devoted to life in the western prairies and the north. I rank it as his finest collection of songs.
Rogers was a wordsmith, possessed of a rich baritone voice and the soul of a poet who crafted intelligent music that continues to inspire anyone lucky enough to be introduced to it. The title track, once hailed as the alternate Canadian national anthem, details the futility of the quest that early explorers undertook to find a route across Canada to the Pacific ocean. Rendered a cappella, here's an excerpt of the chorus.
Unfortunately, there is not enough video catching him in performance to be found online.
This music has been in my life well over thirty years, thanks to my mom, though I didn't really appreciate it until she took me to see him in concert in the early 80's. When I eventually learned to play, the true depths of his talent really became evident.
One of the most depressing stories I have ever heard involving Stan came from a good friend of mine (and fellow fan). My buddy and a small group were driving through the desert toward Vegas, with various types of music providing the soundtrack. It was his turn to pick a CD, so he threw in "Northwest Passage". No fewer than three songs elapsed before a whiny, sing-song voice was raised in protest from the back seat.
"Could we, like, turn off this stupid country music?!?"
To keep the peace, he shook his head in disgust and switched to something else. Ignorance, it's not just for breakfast anymore.
Far from writing "stupid country music", Rogers turned in work that had diverse roots in folk and traditional forms. "The Field Behind the Plow" is one of the most eloquent and heart wrenching tributes to the men and women who toil quietly to help provide the food on our tables that we too often take for granted. Equally beautiful is the metaphor employed in lyrics of "Free in the Harbour" which compares the extensive whale hunting in times past to ongoing oil exploration and how these creatures are no longer pursued in favor of extracting an entirely different type of "oil from the sea". It is one of his greatest compositions, which says a lot as he had many that defied gravity.
Regardless of the subject matter, he infused the characters that populated his writing with a wonderful accessibility. You knew them or at least had a sense that you did. Skipping an afternoon of work to escape a few hours of drudgery, the protagonist in "Working Joe" steals some time to relax. Managing to balance light hearted fun with a touch of pathos, the tune also swings. "The Idiot" takes up an all too familiar tale of young men leaving their hometowns in the east to work in the oil patches of the west. Being a maritimer, I know this all too well as my parents were lured there in the mid 70's by the offer of high paying teaching jobs that didn't exist in our own area. Stan wrote for everyone and he captured the west as masterfully as he did in his earlier paeans to the east coast.
I would highly recommend this and all of his discography to anyone with a love for smart, well played, heartfelt music. He was real, living and breathing his craft.
Brilliant, outspoken, opinionated and on the cusp of greater notoriety, Rogers left the world in a fire aboard Air Canada flight 797 on June 2, 1983. He was just 33 years old. Such promise, of new music to be made, stories yet to be told, all disappeared with him in an instant. My mom, who remained stoic and level headed regardless of circumstances, wept openly that day. She wasn't alone.
Though not part of this set, here he is performing "The Mary Ellen Carter", one of his signature songs.
Genius session musician Uriel Jones passed away yesterday. One of the legendary, 13 man crew known as the "Funk Brothers", he played drums on a slew of classic recordings by Motown artists. It's his work that you hear on "The Tracks of My Tears", "I Can't Get Next to You" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", to name a few. Great feel and precision playing marked everything he did and raised the quality of the material that he worked on. Along with Benny Benjamin and Richard Allen, he was the atomic clock behind the Detroit based hit making machine. I'll have to watch "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" again tonight.
Friday, March 20, 2009
DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN
What do you do when you've made a huge record, the covers of TIME and Newsweek and managed not to collapse under the weight of that pesky "New Dylan" boulder, dropped upon your shoulders by every music writer that could grasp a pen?
You get sued by your ex-manager, don't make a record for three years and tour like mad.
Bruce Springsteen, this is your life!
"Darkness on the Edge of Town" is great for many reasons. Namely, it is the product of sessions recorded live off the floor. I can't stress this enough: Don't overdub yourself to death, unless YOU are the one playing all of the instruments. If you have a good band, why leave the poor bastards to sit around and play cards when they could be doing their thing all together and making your album sound fantastic? Bruce understood this concept quite well. Despite the excellence of the "Born to Run" LP (and it is a classic) he was not overjoyed with the final mix and would have re-recorded the whole thing with everyone playing live, if he'd had his way.
With "Darkness", he did. That's why I rate it as the best thing he ever committed to tape. ("Nebraska" comes in second)
One thing that has always bothered me in reading overviews of Springsteen's work is that his skills as a guitarist are rarely mentioned or downplayed in favor of his talent as a songwriter. Here's a fine example of why he should get a hell of a lot more credit than he does as a lead player.
"Prove it All Night" also happened to be one of two single releases from this disc. "Badlands" was the follow up.
Fine songs, though neither were monster hits. This was intended, however, as the focus was to create something that would outlive its time and not bend to crass commercial interests. So the proceedings are fairly low key, thoughtful and the mood evoked is sombre and edgy. Thematically, the songs hang together extremely well and it is easy to get drawn into the pictures he's painting. Social concerns begin to show up in the lyrics. "Factory" says more in two minutes about the despair of those trapped in the blue collar confines of industrial labor than any documentary could hope to convey.
"Racing in the Street" is the heartbeat that gives blood to all of the other tracks here.
Without a doubt, the focus of his writing is razor sharp, somehow managing to touch on universal subjects with ease. I come back to this one every once and a while and it always delivers. He had (and still has) an incredibly gifted and sympathetic group of players behind him in the E Street Band, who were very much a part of the atmosphere created. You can see the interior of that '69 Chevy and almost taste the bitter early morning air on the way to a job you despise because these guys have expertly set the mood.
That's if you've taken the time to really listen.
The third in a streak of mind bending albums released by Wonder in the seventies, "Innervisions" is an incredibly complex work of art. His inner control freak shines brightly, too, as he writes, produces and plays nearly every note you hear on this disc. All at the tender age of 23.
"Living in the City" sits as the epic centerpiece of the set, telling a tale of a young man who leaves the South, arrives in New York to look for work and is framed for drug possession. Lines like "To find a job is like a haystack needle, cause where he lives, they don't use colored people." show the artist making blunt social commentary on the experiences of African American men and women, living in what is purported to be a free and just society that merely metes out unequal treatment.
Wonder explores many interesting themes that are as varied as the music. Reincarnation with an eye toward reaching the highest plane of existence fuels "Higher Ground", which also has an uplifting groove to match.
Cautionary words about drugs inform "Too High" and "Don't You Worry "Bout a Thing", which has a Latin flavor that wouldn't seem out of place on a Santana record. "He's Mistra Know it All" is notable for taking shots at then President Nixon. Everything comes off as incredibly effortless, but when you really listen, the work that went into these songs is evident in the meticulous playing and the quality of the finished product.
Regardless of labels, this is the work of a genius musician hitting his stride and pound for pound is one of the best records that he ever made. Few reach this high and so consistently hit the mark.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Paul Simonon putting his Fender P Bass to death on the iconic cover and the paranoia of the title track are more than worth the price of admission to the Clash's third set.
Double albums are tricky as you really have to vary the pace to maintain interest throughout. No such issues arise with "London Calling". The Clash take rock, pop, punk, reggae and ska, mix it up and blast it back with lyrics that touch on many themes. Lots of energy and real human beings playing the shit out of their instruments results in an urgency that reaches out of the speakers and demands to be heard.
Current popular music has many deficiencies. Most notably: 1) It's BORING 2) Most of it sounds fake. 3) Zero energy
This stuff is almost thirty years old and sounds as if it was released last week. The main reason? It didn't take them three years to record! In a matter of weeks, they hit these songs hard with a minimum amount of takes and retained an excitement that is sorely lacking in today's homogenized product.
Fine music it is. Four cover songs show up (one per album side) alongside the strongest material that Strummer and Jones had contributed to date. "The Guns of Brixton" is the lone track written by bassist Simonon. Elvis didn't write anything here, but he showed up in spirit.
I put this on and usually just let it go, as it's that good. Gets better with every spin, in fact.
Out of everything, "The Right Profile" wins the prize for most bizarre lyrical subject matter. Documenting the car crash of actor Montgomery Clift that damaged his face and forced him to suspend work on "Raintree County", the title comes from the actual direction to shoot his right profile as much as possible when he returned to finish the film. Hearing Strummer howl this one is a close encounter with extremely black humor.
Despite a few interesting detours into other musical forms, rock is at the heart of the most potent cuts.
Shot early in 1980, this live TV performance (Fridays) highlights the dichotomous leanings of Strummer (London Calling) and Jones (Train in Vain).
No longer primarily identified as a "punk" band by this time, genre experiments and a move toward "rock" pushed them toward greater commercial success.
The attitude remained the same.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Here are a couple of records that are sure to make March 17th more entertaining and your surroundings a bit blurrier. "Irish Heartbeat" teamed Van Morrison with the Chieftains, Celtic master musicians who have been playing traditional music since before your mother was born. "Irish Drinking Songs" performed in style by Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, could be the ultimate soundtrack to green beer and wild revelry.
Feel free to seek out and enjoy these discs anytime. They hold a proud place in my vinyl collection.
What could be more fitting than a tribute to the beverage that gets things started? May you all have the luck of the Irish.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
The gentlemen pictured above are David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney who played in a power trio called "Death" in the early to mid 70's. Up to this morning, I had not heard of them. One of the great pleasures in my life is discovering music that did not find an audience in its time. I will now try to hunt down their stuff, as they were apparently ahead of the curve with their material. Please feel free to have a look at the article.
Friday, March 13, 2009
WHEN I DIE
"Motherlode" had a top 20 hit with this song in the summer of 1969. Most listeners would immediately peg the group as Philly soul (I'm a sucker for a lot of the stuff that Gamble and Huff did) or perhaps even a Motown act.
Surprise. They were Canadian.
Lodged in my brain from early childhood AM radio brainwashing, "When I Die" is one of my favorites for the harmony parts alone. Written by band members William Smith and Steve Kennedy, it stands as a classic, smooth soul/pop confection. Carol Kaye plays bass on the track. Her session work is extensive ("Pet Sounds" being one of many highlights). Terry Brown (who produced Rush and countless others) was behind the board along with Doug Riley.
Beautiful song, albeit slightly sad.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
How four guys from California came to be associated with "swamp rock" is kind of funny when you think about it. Then you hear John Fogerty's distinctive vocal cords wrapped around the dirt-under-the-fingernails riff that frames "Born on the Bayou" and it all makes sense.
"Bayou Country" was the first of THREE albums that CCR would release in 1969 and it is a fantastic slab of rock and roll. Just to remind the kids of what was going on prior to the sixties revolution in sound, the group tears through a cover of "Good Golly Miss Molly" for good measure. There was never any aural hint that these guys would be taking listeners on trips involving flashing lights and multi colored imagery. Fogerty remained a consistent producer of straight ahead, melodic, yet hard hitting music.
"Proud Mary" is the monster hit in that vein here.
Timeless in their construction, these songs have had a long life beyond the period in which they were originally popular. In the early 90's, I was in a clothing store at a local mall and overheard two young girls chatting about this "great new band" that they had just discovered. One of them went on to say that, "every song they have is, like, great and I think they're called CCR or whatever."
I nearly suffered internal injuries from laughter. Though that instance more than makes the point.
So forget about the legal battles, family estrangement, quitting, disowning, death and a host of other extremely sad events that cast a shadow over the band's legacy. Bigger than all of this is an amazing body of work that they left behind in only five years as an active recording unit.
Pretty staggering when you go through a laundry list of their hits.
They were a top class live band, too.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
THE LOW SPARK OF HIGH HEELED BOYS
Nothing in particular to say about this one, except that it's a very fine album. Dave Mason had exited the group (again), leaving Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi as the main composers. Laid back jazz rock is what you'll find here, with the title track winning honors as the stand out from the pack. Winwood's Blind Faith accomplice Ric Grech plays bass and scores a co-write ("Rock & Roll Stew").
Excellent disc to throw on as a soundtrack for getting things done. I'm listening to it as I write and lift 12 ounce weights. Multi tasking at its finest.
Yes, these guys were underrated geniuses. See for yourself.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Prodigiously talented writer, bandleader, producer and performer Curtis Mayfield had not yet left the Impressions for a solo career when he made this record. Percussion-heavy workouts with prominent horn and string arrangements would set the tone for his work throughout the seventies. That effortless butterfly falsetto floats majestically over even the hard hitting tracks.
There is a hypnotic quality involved with the longer cuts like "Move on Up" and "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go" and a deep, relentless groove. I would rate "The Makings of You" among the very best he ever committed to tape, with a lush background that enhances this beautiful song.
Getting a social message across also became a priority for this thoughtful musician. The layered, hard-edged funk was a perfect vehicle to voice concerns that were not commonly heard in popular music of this time. All of that would soon change, with Mayfield in the vanguard of a new movement.
Along with the subsequent Super Fly soundtrack, "Curtis" blended soul and funk in a completely different manner that was experimental, yet still very accessible. He was a great talent and a huge influence to many in all genres of music.
"We the People Who Are Darker than Blue", live in 1973.
Sunday, March 08, 2009
Remaining stellar long after many of their contemporaries flamed out, Pearl Jam added this exceptional set to their spotless discography in 2000 and set off on a tour that launched 1000 live albums. Force of nature Matt Cameron propels the group in dynamic fashion, securing his position with ease and solving the exploding drummer issues that plagued the band heretofore.
Avoiding arbitrary expiry dates at every turn, there is a fine mix of power and a lighter touch at work. Vedder channels Pete Townshend in the ukulele driven "Soon Forget" with fine results. "Breakerfall" incorporates Who-like passages from two sources and you'll spot them if you're a fan.
Hard hitting one word titles fly at you with stop-start riffs and great changes. These guys put thought and melody into their writing, staying away from trendiness and giving the material a lengthy shelf life.
While "Binaural" is laid back in places, there is an underlying tension and an edge that keeps you interested. "Rival" and "Light Years" are my picks, though it's tough to play favorites with so many good songs competing for your attention. Listen with both ears to a band that has yet to make a bad record.
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
HERE'S PETE BARBUTTI
Genius musician and "alternative" comedian Pete Barbutti logged quite a bit of time on the small screen (frequently appearing on "The Tonight Show"), though he has long been out of the mainstream spotlight. His expressions were priceless. My mom used to tune in to his short lived show, "Pete's Place", as she was/is a great fan of jazz. That's where I first saw him do his stuff. Gotta love Canadian TV.
His material was definitely geared toward musicians. The following clip is one of his classic routines, though it cuts out the first bit that sets up the gag. Either way, it takes talent for someone who plays proficiently to purposely play poorly.
The correspondence course that I'm taking (Alliterative Writing in an Economic Downturn) is finally paying dividends!
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
Sunday, March 01, 2009
NORTHERN LIGHTS-SOUTHERN CROSS
"Boards on the window, mail by the door,
Why would anybody leave so quickly for
Ophelia, where have you gone?"
Few groups have had such a radical influence on their peers as The Band. The one-two punch of "Music from Big Pink" and "The Band" sent the psychedelic taste makers reeling, leaving them face down on the canvas in the late 60's. Eric Clapton listened to "Big Pink" incessantly and wanted to join them. After hanging out with them late in '68, George Harrison's playing during the "Get Back" sessions echoed what Robbie Robertson was doing, who, in turn, was inspired by Curtis Mayfield. (Listen to how the opening guitar figure in "Don't Let Me Down" resembles that of "The Weight") Triumphant in their espousal of roots music, their gifted playing and song writing made it all seem effortless.
In the dying months of 1975, The Band gently pushed this quiet beauty out on the stormy seas of a consumer culture that had changed quite dramatically. "Northern Lights- Southern Cross" was their first album of all new original compositions since the release of "Cahoots" in 1971, and was considered as a "comeback" of sorts.
They really hadn't gone away.
"Acadian Driftwood" is the strongest track, with Manuel, Helm and Danko all taking lead parts in this epic tale that loosely describes the plight of Acadians displaced by the French and English conflicts that arose in the 1800's. Robertson also adds two instant classics with "Ophelia" and "It Makes No Difference." Rick Danko's performance of the latter lifts the song with an aching soulfulness that few singers achieve, regardless of experience or technique.
Garth Hudson's brilliance fills the spaces with tasteful keys and horns, employing synth textures that give the sound a contemporary feel. He was one of the early pioneers in exploring this technology, sometimes designing models to his own specifications. Genius is an underestimation of his capabilities.
Richard Manuel and Levon Helm turned in their usual spot-on vocal and instrumental contributions, with the shuffling rhythms of the dance floor showing up in a couple of places. There are no serious concessions to the robotic disco beat that was creeping into the popular music scene at that time, though "Jupiter Hollow" and "Ring Your Bell" are pretty "four on the floor" for these guys.
Song writing chores rested solely on Robertson's shoulders. He had arguably authored the bulk of their output with help from the others, though the tight knit unit of old was coming apart. Interpersonal issues and substance abuse ("Forbidden Fruit" doesn't even come close to the real story) were taking a toll on certain members, though they managed to regroup in Malibu to deliver this last truly great effort.
Within a year, the original five members would take their final bows together with "The Last Waltz" .