Sunday, May 19, 2019

Take One: Peter Tosh -'Coming In Hot' 1981-Musical Shot

Spinning today in the ‘reggae room’ are sweet smoky riddims of Peter Tosh’s 1981 classic cut, ‘Coming In Hot’. The song is the lead off track from Tosh’s excellent full length 1981 LP Wanted Dread and Alive, Tosh’s 5th solo record. The song was also released as a single in conjunction with the LP b/w ‘Reggae Mylitis’. Typically for many of Tosh’s songs, it did not make a huge dent in the popular charts but quickly became one of his on stage favorites as well as one of his career defining cuts. A track that deftly blends all of the ‘Mystic Man’s musical and composing abilities.

The magic contained within Peter Tosh was his innate ability to combine stunning and unique melody with often serious content and direct messages. This keen ability often kept Tosh out of the mainstream as much of his lyrical directive was hard to accept for your everyday normal music listener. His expression of love for Rastafarianism, Emperor Haile Selassie (Jah), herb and his Jamaican brethren didn’t always connect with an often closed minded public.  But for his followers and serious reggae fans though; Tosh’s storytelling and unabashed calling out of oppressors, downpressors and shady governments was to be honored. This endeared him to the forgotten and the poor of his own country of Jamaica as he spoke directly to them and without pretense.

In the case of ‘Coming in Hot’, Tosh cross pollinates an addictive musical theme with a double entendre lyric about his personal attitudes toward himself and his relationship with the muse of music. His deftly uses the metaphor of a gun to match with his musical inspiration as each description of the weapon’s makeup builds to Tosh ‘pul(ing) the trigger’. Weapons, both symbolically and in reality unfortunately hold a visible spot in Jamaica’s turbulent history. ‘Coming in Hot/Firing Some Shot/Coming in Hot/It’s A Musical Shot’, sings the opening stanza which sets the stage for Tosh to explore the narrative on top of the heavy one drop.
‘Comin in Hot’ begins with Sly Dunbar’s crisp kick drum initiating a syncopated opening punctuated by starter gun snare cracks. A brief pause and the song begins in earnest with the aforementioned chorus lines and a gnarly roots groove. Robbie Shakespeare’s bass is substantial and reverberates as a big oar navigating the songs choppy riddim. It sounds like Dunbar wants to play a straight rock beat but the groove is shifty and is dotted by rich wafts of percussion. Dunbar’s double bass responds in kind, pumping dark red blood into the song’s flesh.

Following the introductory chorus, the verses waft in like a long draw on a smoky spliff. Dunbar plays it thick and straight while Tosh’s mesmerizing sermon explains matter a factly what this musical heat wave effect has on his inspiration and his physicality. Subtle interjections of dancehall keyboards and sweet  well timed backing vocals by ‘The Tamlin’s are the noticeable craft work, but as previously stated, Sly and Robbie are the heavies blowing on the coals. Tosh's dark rich baritone exudes cool while lending the song a believable edge.

Following a steamy beach walk around the verses and chorus comes a mid-song key change. The moment is just long enough to twist your ear before quickly returning to the song proper. While just a fleeting musical moment, the change is the kind that the ‘rock room’ lives for and is sure to give you  an ‘irie’ feeling. The closing verses float back in on Tosh's rhythmic phrasing, before allowing the song to fade out into the run out grooves.

The ‘rock room’ is quite stumped for why this track did not make a bigger dent, but then again I understand that Tosh’s commerciality in no way reflects his amazing abilities. On his own island I am sure it blasted from the smoky doorways of Jamaica clubs additionally having a special place for music lovers on the island. Tosh was a prophet and music was his medium. Like all prophets, the message disseminated is not always what one wants to hear, or alternatively the message is too painful because of its truth. ‘Coming In Hot’ was Tosh’s statement of confidence, power and inspiration in himself and an amazing track with no finger pointing involved. Tosh is playing the true ‘Rastaman’ who’s purpose is to illicit ‘positive vibrations’.

‘Coming in Hot’s’ sustainable makeup and longevity is proven as over 35 years later Tosh’s grandson Dre Tosh re cut ‘Coming In Hot’ as a tribute to his grandfather, his country and to Rastafarianism in 2017. While listening to this updated version I am again reminded of the quiet power and majesty of Peter Tosh’s catalog and its enduring message. Whenever you hear reggae music and feel it’s one drop caress, and enjoy it’s happy vibes, remember like everything there is a Ying and a Yang to be considered. In the case of Peter Tosh the balance is ‘positivity’ as well as a fight for, ‘equal rights and justice’.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Put The Boot In: Yusuf / Cat Stevens - Boston 2014 - Remember the Days of the Old Schoolyard

Spinning in the ‘rock room’ today is a unidentified set of files captured during Yusuf Islam’s 2014 return to touring. Taped from the audience and supplemented with You Tube footage I am enjoying one of Yusuf’s East coast dates from the tour. I was lucky enough to attend the Boston show and can know reflect back on one of the finest performances I have had the pleasure of attending.

A frigid and blustery Boston night was braved by a sold out crowd, many who had waited 38 years for Cat Stevens’ (now known as Yusuf) return to the performing stage. In support of his 2014 studio LP Tell Em I’mGone, Yusuf is currently playing a limited number of engagements across the US. His second appearance of six dates in the states took place in Boston on Dec. 7, exceeding any and all expectations for the talented and sometimes controversial artist.

The intimate and ornate Wang Theatre was the setting for a two-set, 105 minute performance composed of Steven’s most beloved classics as well as samples of Yusuf’s contemporary dusty desert blues compositions. The tour moniker, Peace Train…Late Again was reflected in the stage set, which was constructed of a broken down train station that changed mood and vibe based on the song performed.

The concert illustrated the elder Yusuf as an artist willing to reveal and explore all aspects of the Cat Stevens catalog that made him famous, in addition to the expanding song list of current Yusuf compositions. The first hour-long set of the concert settled into mellow dual acoustic guitar groove opening with ‘The Wind’, the same number that opened Cat Steven’s last US tour in 1976. Similarly to 1976, long time Yusuf friend and musical colleague Alun Davies was included on acoustic guitar. In addition to Davies, Yusuf was joined by keyboardist Pete Adams, bassist Stefan Fuhr, Drummer Kwame Yeboah and additional guitarists Matt Sweeney who sat in on tracks from the new LP and Eric Appopoulay.

The first half of the concert drifted between familiarity and discovery with Cat Stevens classic tracks and deep cuts intermingled with Yusuf’s poignant new material. Regardless of the composition, the songs and stories are all developed from the same earth spring of inspiration, the musical and spiritual journey of Cat Stevens. Yusuf reclaimed his early hit ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’ for his own in a sing along performance featured early in the show. Highlights of the opening set included a rousing reading of Catch Bull at Four’s ‘Sitting’ that rivaled the original reading, a rare and floral ‘All Kinds of Roses’ off of 2009’s Roadsinger and an always relevant reading of ‘Where Do the Children Play’ that received rapturous applause and soulful accompaniment from the crowd.

Yusuf’s voice was a perfectly preserved specimen for the duration of the evening. It’s strength somewhat diminished by time, but its resonance and emotion deepening with every performance. A deft pairing of the old and the new displaying this current vocal approach found Cat Stevens first single ‘I Love My Dog’ given a jazzy reading before followed with 2014’s ‘Cat and the Dog Trap’, in my opinion the most beautiful song both lyrically and instrumentally on the new LP.
The opening set then closed with a collaborative ‘If You Want To Sing Out’ from the 1971 Harold and Maude soundtrack that left the crowd smiling and highly anticipating the second set.
The second set began shaded and the train station turned twilight and dim. The Peace Train was drawing near, the band was armed with electric instruments and break into a funky and strident cover of ‘Big Boss Man’ that enunciated the tastefulness and collaborative interest displayed by Yusuf’s touring band.

Yusuf then introduced ‘Eddie Vedder’s favorite song’ before playing an intimate and definitive version of ‘Trouble” off of 1970’s Mona Bone Jakon, an inspired choice. ‘Oh Very Young’ followed and received a standing ovation after a flawless rendition illustrating Yusuf’s acceptance of his Cat Stevens legacy as well as the joy it brings him by playing the music. The set now revealed the big songs, the songs that cemented Yusuf’s career then and now. ‘Moonshadow’ was played by the full band in a triumphant arrangement, Wild World, ‘Father and Son’ and the long-awaited ‘Peace Train’ were played with infectious joy and virtuosity. Intermingled with these well-known and sought after classics were the impressive tracks off of the new LP including a soaring reading of Edgar Winter’s ‘Dying to Live’ and the gritty ‘Editing Floor Blues’.

The second half of the performance gave everyone exactly what they had come to see, whether a child of the 60’s, an aging hippy, or a recent passenger on the ‘Peace Train’, there was a song or a message for everyone. Each of the Cat Stevens songs performed felt fresh, their arrangements rediscovered, their melodic nuances fully explored. A celebratory reunion of an artist with his long-lost musical children was taking place on the performing stage.

The hardcore Cat fans were sated throughout the set, first when Yusuf amazingly quoted multiple movements from the 1973 opus ‘The Foreigner Suite’ and then again with the encore choice of ‘Sad Lisa’ which brought the house down in its unique spot as a closing encore number. The set first concluded with the aforementioned Cat Stevens signature readings of ‘Peace Train’ and ‘Father and Son’, songs that defined an era as well as inspiring the beliefs and relationships that developed during the two songs popularity.

Then for the encore Yusuf and band returned with a welcome appearance of ‘Miles from Nowhere’ which made for a Tea for the Tillerman double encore when followed by the spooky beautiful piano based ‘Sad Lisa’. Again, Yusuf sang with precision and grace, offering a broad smile after a slight vocal hiccup during ‘Miles from Nowhere’. The small miscue illustrated a fantastic moment, revealing Yusuf’s new musical joy, and his sincere appreciation for his fans and followers who had waited so long to see him again or for the first time.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Put The Boot In: Cream - Live Barbecue 1967 - 'Those Were The Days'

Just prior to the Technicolor bloom of 1967’s ‘Summer of Love’; and 2 weeks before Monterey Pop was The Spalding Festival Barbecue 67. Featuring a line up comprised of ‘The Move’, ‘Pink Floyd’, ‘Ram Jam Band’ and the headliners, Cream and the ‘Jimi Hendrix Experience’, the festival was a forerunner to the more widely known gatherings of the era Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Isle of Wight etc. This concert, in the ‘rock room’s’ humble opinion is the signpost where the psych got heavy, and the two towering bands of the era changed the way rock and roll was played….. all in a barn for 1 British pound.

Held at Tulip Bulb auction hall in Linconshire, England with a capacity of 4,000, legend has the concert being oversold and acoustically horrendous. In what amounted to a huge hot shed, Barbecue 67’ was witness to one of the first musical movements of the legendary Summer. In recently circulating photos of the festival one can see piles of amps, wires and a closely packed audience enthralled with the performers. Tall tales exists of eager fans sneaking in side doors, rushing under the stage to their point of hands being able to stick through the floor, and an ornery headlining Hendrix who smashed his guitar and torched it as well as knocking over his stacks.  One thing that cannot be doubted and the focus of today’s ‘rock room’ rant is the Cream put on an amazing and stunning musical display. 

Spinning in the ‘rock room’ today is a 40 minute audience recorded document from the evening. While the vocals are distant and Jack Bruce’s bass plays hide and seek on the recording what does exists is a stellar aural document of a legendary and fertile period in rock and roll history. Headphones are recommended for an all encompassing experience and the ambiance of the room. The recording is surprisingly clear for the era this stereo recording.  Clapton in particular is playing with a competitive fire (sharing the bill with friend Hendrix) and reaching for amazing improvisational alchemy. For a venue with horrible acoustics the resulting recording is surprisingly good and able with the right environment to put you in the human crush of Barbecue 67.
Hailing from the band’s 1966 debut album Fresh Cream, Cream begins its set with ‘NSU’. As the band’s on stage prowess increased over time ‘NSU’ would crack like an egg spilling out rich psychedelic from its innards. Here for this performance, ‘NSU’ is taught and loud containing all its power in a few short minutes. To the ‘rock room’s ears Clapton is playing his ‘Fool’ Gibson SG as his tone is rotund and a goodexample of his 66-68 SG era. Baker is thrashing around his kit and as previously mentioned Bruce’s bass is there but not really. The crowd is enthusiastically clapping to Bakers churning groove through the verse before the chorus detonates in a spray of day glo. Clapton slams on his E string as the central solo begins soon becoming melted plastic as Clapton does his best Hendrix expression early in the gig. A quick return to the verse and the show is underway.

A succinct studio standard rendition of ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ follows months before its single release in November of 67. Fresh out of the oven, ‘Sunshine’ is played briskly over Baker’s native tom-tom thumping. There seem to be some issues with EC’s rig which mess with the groove a bit but are rectified by the solo segment. While the vocals remain distant Bruce sings gloriously and confidently. Clapton’s famed ‘woman tone’ coo’s its way out of the SG for variations on the ‘Sunshine’ theme through the midsection of the song. Clapton takes two melodically lachrymose turns through his solo. Similarly to ‘NSU’, ‘Sunshine’ is still an adolescent and the song has not yet grown into its outro jam.

The next three songs to follow each highlight a member of the band respectively. The first of the triad is ‘We’re Gone Wrong’ which is introduced as a slow quiet number (by EC?). The cascading rolls of Bakers drums carry the dynamic and tension filled song from Fresh Cream. Bruce’s vocals are stunningly dramatic and operatic rising and falling with Clapton’s timed vibrato strums. Each strum rises in intensity until the verse gets slashed open by now blindingly sharp chords. Bruce’s melody lines ooze a mysterious exoticism. The first small improvisational section of the evening occurs as the basic frame of the song is discarded and the tempo is increased. Clapton and Baker percolate as one as the song morphs into a somewhat directionless jam which may be caused by a lack of Jack Bruce’s bass. But even without stretching out fully, this reading epitomizes Cream’s performances of the time.
 Jack introduces the next song, ‘Steppin Out’ which acts as a spotlight moment for Clapton. Often a highlight of Cream performances, Clapton recorded three different versions of the 1959 Memphis Slim classic cut. Clapton played the song with the Powerhouse, Bluesbreakers and Cream and with each reading the song was extended and Clapton’s sonic pallet was increased. The version found here reaches around five minutes but has a substantial amount of virtuosity packed into it. The Hendrix influence is palpable with Clapton dispersing an array of bends, twists and slick neck slides. I can definitively say that having his friend as well as completion Jimi Hendrix watching from the wings helped to charge this particular version of ‘Steppin’ Out’.

Beginning with the song’s recognizable lick as the volume on the tape fluctuates, Baker and Bruce walk in a stomping lock step. Bruce’s work here is dizzying. Clapton looking sharp walks into the street and at around a minute in changes from a muted tone to a salient one and peels off a few acid drenched Chuck Berry licks.  At 1:45 into the song, Clapton grabs onto a bluesy turnaround and repeats it increasing in tempo which sets the fuse alight causing the trio to converge at an agreed upon musical intersection. At a bit past three minutes Clapton’s playing takes on a rough edged, ‘devil may care’ attitude, with an unrestrained wildness that takes the jamming to another place. Bruce’s upper neck work is audible and the band is shaping the song like molten metal! Baker bashes his kit to bits while driving the song to its syncopated conclusion. Wow. The crowd explodes in recognition and as a result of the furious performance starts to get rowdy.

While the crowd yells, Clapton introduces and counts off Bruce’s spotlight segment which features him on harmonica playing ‘Rollin and Tumblin’. Again the vocals are obscured but in no way detracts from the high energy performance. Clapton and Bruce enter into a series of duets of harp/guitar and vocal/guitar while Baker plays the train tracks.  The band inters into a mid song runaway segment where Bruce wails away into the blue midnight before returning to the song proper.
Finally, Ginger Baker gets his featured moment as Jack introduces his drum solo ‘Toad’. Clapton lends a hearty dose of Hendrix drenched feedback acting as a large iron gate which swings open to reveal the big bad ‘Toad’. Baker plays his usual series of triplet filled tom-tom hits and rumbling double bass. The crowd can be heard clapping in time and urging Baker to destroy his kit as the guttural thumps reverberate around the venue.

The band concludes the evening’s performance with an overjoyed version of ‘Im So Glad’ (a UK single), hailing from the Fresh Cream album. The song, originally composed by Skip James was redressed into a blues rock format by the band becoming a thrashing expression of ecstatic song. The central jam of the tune is  Clapton and Bruce’s most melodic playing of the evening. Bruce and Clapton’s interplay is only a small glimpse of what they would develop over the next year on stages around the word. The dynamics rise and fall with Clapton floating out quotes and melodic snippets, before scrubbing his fretboard to dust when returning to the verses. The power and volume crackles off of the recording and is stunning to the ears.

One can only imagine the aesthetic, the excitement and the artistic revolution in which Barbeque 67 was birthed. Thankfully, the available recording of Cream gives us a small peek into the depth of the era and the unbelievable music being created at the time. Hopefully other performances will rise to the surface to give us a full spectrum of the evening’s festivities, but regardless the ‘rock room’ is thankful for what we have. Its mind-blowing to think what the festival would be the beginnings of and even more so that the Hendrix experience would follow Cream on that May evening, but in the end…… those were the days. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Put the Boot In: "Blues Power"-Derek and the Dominos at the Marquee Club 8-11-1970

     Today in the "rock room" I am enjoying a unique and powerful live concert recording. On August 11, 1970, shortly before commencing with the recording of the seminal "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs" LP, Derek and the Domino's played their first and only concert at the 900 hundred seat Marquee Club in London, England. Only two months had passed since their debut performance, and this field recording captures the band in their infancy, exhibiting a fresh excitement and undertaking a chimerical performance.
 The recording I am listening to is a first generation tape off of a mono reel master. This is another "put you there" recording, with major thanks going to the enterprising taper who had the foresight to record the performance. There is a smoky ambiance to the warm recording with all instruments audible and especially clear during the quieter numbers.This is the best sounding recording of this date to surface. The capture features the usual crowd chatter, and clicks and clanks, but all in all the recording is a aural time machine that no discerning listener should have an issue with.

  After the MC's introduction of the band, the performance begins with a "cry babied" Clapton guitar intro that slithers into a swaying version of "Roll It Over". It's obvious what's on the band's mind, as the sexually charged song erotically tempts the ladies and assembled groupies in the audience. Bobby Whitlock's funky organ lays the foundation for the established dual vocals. When Clapton's first guitar break approaches it is prefaced by a scream, and then Clapton rips into his first solo of the night with an absolute fury. A series of accomplished trills with Clapton's signature 1970 sound reverberate throughout the club, and the energy level is palpable on the recording.

     "Roll It Over" segues into "Blues Power" seamlessly with the band jumping on board at the same time. The rhythm section of Clapton cronie Carl Radle, and session man extraordinaire Jim Gordon push the chunky groove like a truck with one flat tire. "Blues Power" bounds forward powered by Clapton's electric washboard rhythm and Whitlock's sly organ flourishes.  Clapton swings into his solo spotlight with a slightly over driven tone, and displays his delicious crisp Stratocaster alternate picking. Comets of speedy arpeggio licks are spread around the venue like cosmic dust as Clapton scurries up and down the neck of his guitar.

     Again, without pause, "Blues Power" slips into "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" like a clandestine hand going up an unsuspecting skirt. Clapton is definitely heated up now as he pours sweet Brandy licks full of unrequited love out of his guitar by the cup full. His solo stings with a B.B. King like intensity, but obviously played with Slowhand's unique style. Clapton approaches the return to the lyrics with some warm bluesy tremolo action.  I think this may be a first time played for this song, I can't say for sure. What I can can say, is that Clapton's love of the blues both vocally and instrumentally is already fully mature for this early era performance. His off mic shouts and falsetto reaches are emphatic, heartfelt and strictly "blues". The show pauses briefly after opening with three consecutive non stop songs.

     After a moment the band explodes into "Anyday", it sounds great, but this version is missing Duane Allman's signature slide licks that make the album version soar. Regardless, the "Layla" LP would not be released for another three months, and by the end of August the band would be laying down these songs for posterity, Duane not yet a twinkle in Eric's eye. I digress, back to the show, this version is highlighted by Whitlock and Clapton's perfect overlapping vocals, and a silky smooth organ breakdown, that peaks nicely. Radle's danceable bass line during the chorus is also a moment worth taking note of.

     After an extended pause the band lays into the rare Clapton solo track "Bad Boy". "Bad Boy" is a sludgy swamp stomp through dark paths, as the group really digs their claws into this one. Gordon and Radle lock into a tight "Booker T" groove, and Clapton features his most aggressive soling of the night. There are plenty of shimmering vibrato filled scrubs across the fretboard by Clapton, who endlessly plays lick after disorienting lick. The mid song breakdown illustrates some of Clapton's "Cream Era" psychedelic soloing in a new context. An obvious peak to the set, and also the set closer, as E.C. announces the band is going to take a few minutes and come back for a second set.

     The second half of the show keeps things stomping as "Bottle of Red Wine" roars as the opener. A concert favorite of the Domino's, for its straight rock and roll changes and celebratory nature, this version is no different and shows all band members having a good time and showcasing their chops. A dual vocal, drinking song, the band and crowd are again warmed up for the rest of the show.

     Introduced by Clapton, who states that the song is "dedicated to a friend Jimi", the Domino's then preform the Hendrix penned song "Little Wing". Eric sings the shit out of "Little Wing" and then intensely deconstructs the melody in multiple and beautiful ways. The starts and stops of the tune are expertly timed and punctuated by the band. Again, Whitlock's organ swirls, whirls, and colors everything under Clapton's guitar. It's obvious to me from this version that Clapton is already in love with the song.  Stunning.
     The band pauses for tuning, and then runs rough shot into "Tell the Truth". Like a deer caught in the crossfire the band positively sprints through this song breathlessly, leaping over anything in their path. There is no comparison to the studio version in regard of tempo. Clapton dons a slide for the jam that coalesces out of the Whitlock, Clapton "whooohoos", and does pretty well for it not being his tool of choice. "Tell the Truth", in my opinion, will benefit from its more patient arrangement in the future.

     Clapton then gives the keys to the car over to Bobby Whitlock who preforms his own "Country Life" which would eventually appear on his first solo album. Tasty as a home cooked meal, the group chugs their way through the carnival keyboard changes of the tune. Per usual, Whitlock's vocals are rich and powerful like a ship's horn blasting through the room. The second set has been break neck, and confidently played. The crowd must be stunned, because I know I am, sitting here over forty years later looking at the cover art bemused.

     Clapton brings the heat down slightly with a personal favorite of mine, "I Don't Know Why" a song penned by Steve Cropper and Bonnie Bramlett. The song is brimming with a gospel soul and contains potent vocalizations by Clapton and Whitlock.  Whitlock sings under and behind Clapton with impressive "Band" like vocal echoes pushing Eric into greater vocal gymnastics. The song embarks on its closing jam, rising higher and increasing in intensity, Clapton moving and shaking, rising, until suddenly the tape fades to silence. Ouch. I knew it was coming, but it still hurt, but I'm very thankful for the hour of music I got to enjoy.

     There is a plentiful amount of recorded documents (roughly 20 out of the 60 shows they performed) available of Derek and the Domino's for those who search. This show in particular is a wonderful picture of an early period in their development, and contains incendiary playing for a small assembled crowd. Besides some small but unexpected aural blips along the way, the (M1-AUD) version of this concert is well worth checking out. Derek and the Domino's were around for such a short period of time, but the quality of their recorded work is unparallelled. Their live concert history is just as impressive, with a years worth of shows ranging from nights like the aforementioned, to the glorious November Fillmore East shows which spotlight extended and mature versions of many of these same songs.

Roll It Over-Marquee Club


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Now Playing: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young - 'Black Coral' -The Deep Cuts

Throughout their various tumults , whether it be over creative or personal differences, drugs or missed musical opportunities: Crosby Stills Nash and Young have still managed to develop a discography of impressive songs, even if they’ve only erratically come together as one unit.

While this output has been inconsistent and somewhat limited at times, the discography of the four principal members, solo and together contains significant pieces of music that are vital elements to seeing the entire image developed from their collaborations. Regardless of their numerous battles, one must get past the insults, the erased tracks, the destroyed sessions and public arguing to examine the music ...the only thing that should really matter.

Today in the 'rock room', I will gaze beyond the silhouettes of massive hits bobbing on the surface of their respective careers, well known songs that have seeped into rock history like 'Ohio”'and 'Our House.' but also beyond the constraints of the three studio albums created over 45 years....because there is more music to be had. There remain songs that are only nestled on the flip sides of solo recordings that contain input from all four principal members. Diving even deeper into the blue depths of history, we can find unreleased takes of familiar songs, which due to stubbornness and miscommunication never became an official Crosby Stills Nash and Young release.

The songs compiled below, through often unfortunately and woefully overlooked, individually contain the unique alchemy that manifests itself only when the four musicians join together in a celebration of creation. That they’re not more celebrated within the core of the members’ respective catalogs remains somewhat shocking, but I encourage you to decide for yourself:

“BLACK CORAL,” (CARRY ON, 2013): Long-time fans will remember an earlier version of “Black Coral” that first appeared on the 1976 Stephen Stills/Neil Young project Long May You Run. The track later surfaced on this Stills-focused box set, featuring a unique CSNY arrangement. One of the stronger tracks off of the 1976 album, this new take features the streaking Crosby Stills and Nash vocal blend, completed by Young’s Stringman Synthesizer additions. Built around a percolating and percussive Stills piano core, the song is a claustrophobic drift through mystical seas. Stills’ approach shows a quintessential gritty throat vocally, while lyrically the song touches on environmental issues leaving the listener to contemplate the line: “Don’t take more than you need, because heaven just might be the sea.”

“THROUGH MY SAILS,” (ZUMA, 1975): The closing song on Young’s 1975 album with Crazy Horse, “Through My Sails” is a perfectly encapsulated Crosby Stills Nash and Young moment. The CSN vocal blend elevates the ocean sway of the track up and through the clouds, making it one of the quartet’s finest moments on tape. They are accompanied only by light percussion, acoustic guitar, leaving the vocals feeling naked, pure and real. It’s woody respite from the electric music from Crazy Horse that came before, and is representative of the relief nature provides after a bright, all night bender in the fast lane.

“SEE THE CHANGES,” (CSN, 1991): Originally in the running for the unreleased early-1970s Human Highway project, an updated take on “See the Changes” ultimately appeared on 1977’s CSN. This earlier version, however, was recorded in the studio by Crosby Stills Nash and Young in 1973, training a new spotlight on one of Stills’ most honest and true lyrical creations. In contrast to its more laid back officially released counterpart, the 1973 edition road trips on silvery rapt acoustics and slightly rough-hewn vocal blends. A hint of sadness prevails, however, since this version could have become a vital piece in an unrealized CSNY full-length.

“PUSHED IT OVER THE END,” (Italian import b-side, 1974): Considered by many to be the great lost CSNY track. A smoky umbrageous song with differing movements, the lyrics deal with Young’s deteriorating relationship with Carrie Snodgrass. Reaching past seven minutes, “Pushed It Over the End” opens like a junkie waltz, balanced precariously on Young’s razor sharp Les Paul stabs. The clandestine trap door then falls out from under the performers amidst a wash of feedback, exposing the classic Young melody residing at the center which CSN drape their lacy veil of harmonies. The extended soloing over the jerking groove mid track is essential listening. Set aside for a discussed and unrealized early-1970s Crosby Stills Nash and Young project, “Pushed It Over the End” made a few extended appearances during the 1974 concert tour. Unreleased in the states, “Pushed It Over the End” actually did appear on a pricy Italian-issued box set of Young albums. That version hails from August 27, 1974, and contains some vocal additional studio touch ups.

“SOMEDAY SOON,” (LOOKING FORWARD, 1999): Coming from the group’s last studio offering, 'Someday Soon' harkens back to the heady days of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, eliciting all of the elements that make the group so special. Penned by Graham Nash, the acoustic mid-tempo song highlights Nash’s innate ability to compose melodies for the ages. All four members appear and are invested in the song, revealing the band’s recognizable fingerprint of quality vocal arrangements, empathetic instrumentation and damn good songs. Stills and Nash’s harmonizing on the middle eight seems to sum it all up for me. It’s chill inducing and awe inspiring.

This truncated list is only a sampling of the prolific and unique musical creations developed by Crosby Stills Nash and Young. There are numerous songs that meet the criteria to be included in this list of rare tracks. I simply tried to distill it down to a reasonable number, representing all eras. As mentioned, there is an entire album tentatively titled Human Highway that contains CSNY songs that were never fully developed in the studio, though many of those songs stretched their legs in concert appearances. What this list does illustrate is that regardless of the temperament and condition of the principals, the music could slice through the thick pretense and always deliver the goods. Whether or not the musicians could notice the magic themselves at the time is irrelevant, because the sonic gifts have been captured for eternity for all to enjoy.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Tools of the Trade: Brian Jones Vox III Teardrop Guitar - 'As Tears Go By'

Vox first started to build guitars in 1961, and in 1962 in order to compete with American instrument makers Vox introduced their iconic Phantom guitar. Most if not all British aspiring and popular rock and roll musicians were using the Vox AC-30 amplifiers as a cheaper alternative to paying taxes and import fees on American made amps. Vox was started by Tom Jennings as a company that could compete with the American companies like Fender, Gibson and Rickenbacker. In 1963 the Jennings Company Vox debuted the Vox MK series of guitars often referred to as the Teardrop and Phantom respectively.

The MK III Teardrop because of its use during the ‘Stones’ early ascension to popularity soon became synonymous with Brian Jones. Similarly to Paul McCartney and his Hofner bass and John Lennon and his Rickenbacker 325, when one thought of Jones the guitar was almost an extension of his being.The guitar’s unusual body, unconventional build and use by Jones assisted in making Vox the chosen guitar for many British artists including the Hollies and David Bowie. As they say, ‘Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery’.
The obvious marketing move was to get these instruments into some of the famed British musician’s hands of the time for their use and for some free promotion. At the time (1963) the Rolling Stones were inching toward world domination and superstardom and were just beginning to reap the rewards of their musical genius and instrumental prowess. Their early appearances illustrate that the band had yet to upgrade their gear as a smattering of Harmony, Selmer and Hofner instruments graced their stages. The first level of their ascendant popularity consisted of appearances and promotions. Brian Jones, guitarist and multi-instrumenalist and at the time the cherub faced leader of the ‘Rolling Stones’ was the first lucky recipient of one of Vox’s premier prototypes.

During this era of the Stones formative years Jones can be witnessed playing a quivering slide part over the band’s plethora of blues covers on the MK III, or scrubbing out a chugging metallic brush stroke of rhythm.  In addition to his ‘Teardrop’ guitar Jennings Musical Enterprises also gave Brian a matching Vox MK III 12 string which was handmade by Mick Bennett as was Jones’ 6 string.
Jones prototype guitar was built in Vox’s Dartmouth, England factory and contains minor yet significant differences to the regular run of instruments. The instrument contained two single coil pickups, a three position selector switch for using one or both of the pickups respectively. Under the switch the guitar had both volume and tone control knobs. The guitar setup was based around and somewhat mirrored the popular Fender Telecaster alignment which was also a guitar that many of Brian Jones’ idols played and he also liked himself.

The headstock was arranged with ‘six on a side’ tuning pegs and the Vox logo. The saddle/bridge was also modeled after the American Stratocaster on Brian’s guitar edition with later mainstream editions including a Bigsby vibrato tail piece. The bridge on Brian’s prototype originated from an original 1950’s Strat where it was removed and then affixed to the body of the Vox. (see video) The backside of the instrument shows a ground wire leading from the back of the sustain block leading in lo-fi fashion to the guitars plastic hatch. Many musicians and curators have remarked upon seeing and playing the guitar that upon close inspection it is truly a ‘handmade’ guitar. Lots of personality and mojo contained within.

Also unique to the guitar was its ‘zero fret’ located at the top of the head stock to increase the guitars sustain by holding the strings the appropriate distance above the neck. Finally, as an added bonus the back of the guitar came with a circular snap on protective pad which was designed to protect the guitar from the scrapings of a musicians belt buckle.

The famed Vox was used often by Brian on stage in the bands formative days. It can be seen in action when the Stones debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show on October 25, 1964 as well as the group’s appearance on the Tami Show on where its stannic aesthetic can be witnessed chugging out the R and B stomp critical to the Stones early classics (through Fender amplification). The guitars clean white lines, elegant weeping shape and bristled tone matched perfectly with Jones unique look and personality. Jones used the guitar on stage in 1964 and 1965 and it quickly became a part of his image, the guitar was not used in the studio as often as it is said that its shape made it hard to record while sitting down. While the guitars studio use cannot be tracked perfectly, Jones did use the guitar on the Stones classic ‘It’s All Over Now” where it’s trademark ‘tinny’ tone is a result of the aforementioned single coil pickups.
As quickly as Jones had co-opted the Vox; as was his wont Jones would use a number of other guitars throughout his tenure with the Stones.  Explorers, Les Paul’s and Gretch would also help to create his instrumental arsenal. The Vox MK III’s own handcrafted history in addition to its owner’s own unique musical aura add up to one of rock history’s most recognizable and just plain cool guitars. 

The instrument was sold at Sotheby’s auction in 1984 for the blue light special price of $3,200 to the Hard Rock CafĂ©. It has since been displayed for a number of years and now can be located in the Hard Rock’s substantial London vault. It’s obvious the guitar is saturated with some heavy duty mojo.
As a final aside, there is a tall tale that Ronnie Wood picked up one of Brian’s Vox guitars (his 12 string?) to try on while the band was in preparation for the Stones 1989 Steel Wheels tour. The result being that he was quickly met with a sharp ‘Keep yer fuckin’ hands off of it’ by Keef.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Take One: Bob Dylan - 'Hero Blues' 1963-1974 'Find Somebody To Fight'

Bob Dylan’s ‘Hero Blues’ is a composition which surprisingly never found a home on a Bob Dylan official release. Even though the song was never destined for Dylan’s mainstream audience, it retains a mystical history and important slot in Dylan’s colossal discography. Originally recorded on December 6, 1962 for the LP The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the tune has taken on a number of permutations over its varied existence.

Dylan recorded studio versions on both piano and guitar with both featuring his trademark harmonica. The song, while immortalized in the studio also made a few limited live appearances with the early definitive version hailing from the famed Town Hall concert on April 12, 1963 recorded shortly after one of its studio run throughs. Today in the ‘rock room’ I am enjoying the version featured on the Bootleg Series Volume 9 Witmark demos (the guitar/harp rendition recorded in 1963) which has in turn led me through the aforementioned versions, including its return to the live stage for a limited time on the Bob Dylan and the Band 1974 tour after a ten year absence.

As previously mentioned, ‘Hero Blues’ and its compositional metamorphosis was never available on an official release for a number of years. It did leak out on some ‘bootlegs’ for the hardcore. But with the release of the Bootleg Series Volume 9, The Witmark Demos in 2010 and with the rare and hard to find European Copyright Collection in 2012, a studio glimpse has given fans insight into the song and its recording process. With both of the above releases taken into account three takes (1, 2 and 4) from the December sessions and the publishing demo from 1963 are available for enjoyment.  The piano version has not yet seen an official release but was run-through during the sessions for The Times They Are A Changin and followed the above guitar readings.

Content wise the song is based around a theme which Dylan had played within other compositions; that the narrator need to be a fighter in both war and domesticity so his woman has something to be proud of and to speak about. The lyrics contain an attitude that Dylan asserts through his narrator that the most important thing to his girl/love interest is that her man is a ‘hero’, hence the title.  
The subject believes that his ‘gal’ may have too much going on in her head and feels the need to live up to some invisible social standard which he too must strive for. ‘She reads too many books, she’s got nails inside her head, she won’t be satisfied until I end up dead’.  Association with celebrity or in this case more importantly with someone who is putting their life on the line and portrays honor is how the ‘girl’ in ‘Hero Blues’ relates to others. Looking through the lens of how others see us is the crux of the song, but with the Dylan twist of how others see us can be based on our accomplishments or more importantly our representations.
The three takes recorded in preparation for the Freewheelin’ album are all similar in scope with the exception of take 4 lacking the ‘books’ verses. Each respective verse is separated by a simple descending plucked guitar lick. Dylan varies his just slightly with each take with the final take having more ‘aggressive’ vocals.  It has been speculated that ‘Hero Blues’ was tabbed for the Freewheelin’ record but was bumped in favor of ‘One to Many Mornings’. Fingerprints of other Dylan compositions from the same era can be discerned in ‘Hero Blues’ cuts like ‘It Ain Me Babe’ dip from the same well of influence.

The version on piano and harp from 1963 has its own unique charm and is an all time favorite of the ‘rock room’.  Highlighted by Dylan’s rickety boogie-woogie piano, the song cooks and blows steam with Dylan’s well timed harp blasts. The tune begins with the aforementioned wining harp and Dylan setting the rolling groove with his eclectic piano playing. The lyrics have been updated with the second and third verses differing slightly. I love the character of the piano reading as the tempo wobbles, the harp squeals and Dylan bites.  

The publishing version from May 1963 stays close to the original studio arrangement and also features guitar and harmonica. This publishing performance closely follows the song’s live premier in April of 1963 at the famed Town Hall concert in NYC. That the song was worked out in a number of different ways illustrates that Dylan did have plans for the track whether on one of his LP’s, or for a contemporary artist to issue a cover version.

When Dylan premiered the song live on April 12, 1963 at the aforementioned Town Hall concert, he prefaced the tune with, ‘This is for all the, uh, boys that know girls that want 'em, uh, to go out and get themselves killed.’ What follows is stunning as Dylan plays a definitive version, with hearty breathy vocals and a youthful investment. The song unfolds patiently with Dylan’s harp blasts answering each verse. Stunning. A must hear, as is the entire Town Hall performance.  When Dylan concluded ‘Hero Blues’ that evening the composition was then inexplicably shelved; obscured for more than a decade under the weight of what was arguably Dylan’s most prolific composing era.
Much later, in typical Dylan fashion, he unearthed the song for his 1974 tour set list. The series of dates was Dylan’s return to the road for the first time since 1966. While ‘Hero Blues’ appearance only lasted for two shows, it was used to open both of the inaugural concerts in Chicago on January 3 and 4 1974 as a not so subtle commentary on how Dylan viewed his return to the performing stage and how it was perceived.

Art imitates life, and the duality of the lyrics of ‘Hero Blues’ when performed in 1963 and 1974 both relate to hero worship as both a soldier becoming a hero by giving his life in war and to a lesser extent being an artist/celebrity and being looked to as some sort of savior. In short, the song became relevant to Bob once again but in a more personal way. This man was viewed as some kind of musical savior and was pegged with being the 'voice' of a generation he hardly knew.  The song had been birthed as protest and grew into a commentary on its author.

Whereas in the early 60’s ‘Hero Blues’ fit right in with Dylan’s early topical numbers, in the 1970’s it became an explanation on ‘Dylan’ himself through the eyes of Zimmerman. The circulating recordings of ‘Hero Blues’ from the opening Chicago shows are fiery and eager. The symbolism attached to the song being the show opener is relevant. The Band is hot with Robertson taking a number of clenched guitar breaks lending to the drama of the performance. Danko and Helm walk in a honky tonk lock step with Danko’s plump fretless bass thumps urging along the groove. This Tour 74’ arrangement is reminiscent to the group’s ‘Hollis Brown’ musical approaches.  The 1974 version of the song is a slamming ‘country honk’, with accusatory vocals and fiery attitude.

Similarly to other ‘deep cuts’ in the Dylan catalog (ie: Blind Willie McTell, Abandoned Love) ‘Hero Blues’ made its appearance and then disappeared into the graveyard of Dylan compositions not destined to be featured on an official release. Since its final on stage performance in 1974 the song was never to be heard from again in front of a paying audience. The cut featured Dylan’s typically acerbic wit in addition to his unique portrayal of relationships, hero worship and idolization. For reasons never to be explained Dylan often left the songs his listeners felt to be major compositions left to languish in the vaults. Fortunately for us, there is documentation of these legendary tracks in addition to a critical reassessment of these hidden jewels via the ongoing Bootleg Series.

'Hero Blues' Live 1974

Studio Versions