Saturday, March 28, 2015

Rita Coolidge-'Know Who Your Friends Are' 1971 Rita Coolidge LP



Today in the ‘rock room’ the sweet and soulful sounds of Rita Coolidge’s 1971 debut LP are emanating from the turntable and mingling with the scent of burning sage. This stunning self titled debut not only contains the smoky smooth vocal styling’s of Rita Coolidge, but the string and horn arrangements of Booker T. Jones and Jim Horn as well as being an absolute who’s-who of  rock royalty in making up Coolidge’s studio band.  Rita Coolidge’s voice came to prominence due to musical stints in Memphis and then with Joe Cocker’s band as well as with Delaney and Bonnie in the late 1960’s. By 1971 she was ready to release her own brand of music when signed by A and M, the rest being history.

The solid core of Coolidge’s backing group was comprised of Jim Keltner (Drums), the aforementioned Booker T. Jones (bass, organ), Spooner Oldham (piano, keys), Clarence White (Guitar) and Jerry McGee (Guitar). In addition to these core contributors the album also contains cameos by Stephen Stills, Ry Cooder, Chris Ethridge, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, Bobby Womack and Fuzzy Samuels. Over all of these amazing developed musical arrangements Coolidge spills out her gospel upbringing and hefty wail while developing one of the most amazing and disparate albums of the early 1970’s. Quality songwriting, the best players and soulful singing… what else could you want out of an album? While the LP received regards critically it did not do well in the marketplace, which is often the case with great records. Regardless, its gifts still exist in the grooves and probably still in the $3.00 record bin at your local record shop.

The album begins with the long distance gaze of ‘That Man is My Weakness’. A bluesy regret built around big backing vocals by the ‘Blackberries’ made up of Clydie King, Venetta Fields and Shirley Matthews. Coolidge enters the tune with a pronounced gospel lean, joining Leon Russell’s secular organ proliferation's. Clarence White masquerades at Steve Cropper while peaking in and out of space with well timed riffs.

The Marc Benno penned song; ‘Second Story Window’ follows the stirring opening of the LP and is notable for the recognizable crisp acoustic playing of one Stephen Stills. This song illustrates the ‘space’ that Coolidge felt her best singing was built around. The ethereal arrangement suits the song and Stills mountain top picking stitches together Coolidge’s robust throat and perfect breathing. A beautiful song.

Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ gets a R and B makeover next and features a knotted ‘Duck’ Dunn, Jim Keltner rhythm section supplemented by Booker T on black and whites. Van Morrison’s inherent soul aesthetic is drawn out of the ‘Crazy Love’ melody by Coolidge who is silhouetted in front the songs hot burning outlines. The band churns on alternating Stills and Bobby Womack guitars while the ‘Blackberries’ supplemented by Graham Nash shake it down with swinging gospel vocal support. An unfamiliar arrangement of a classic song accentuates the details and lends the listener a new found appreciation.

‘The Happy Song’ follows and keeps the lights low and the groove maple syrup thick. Coolidge bends down low with her best vocal of the first side of the record. The Otis Redding/Steve Cropper penned ‘Happy Song’ gets a heavy lidded workout with Coolidge oozing sexuality and groovability. Keltner enters into a relationship with the Burrito’s Chris Etheridge who now assists on practiced soul bass. Clarence White is again on guitar with the legendary Spooner Oldham flickering the keys. This is a heavy tune with an impressive cast of players who all add their individual personality to the track. The middle eight gets big and brassy while Coolidge’s vocals get transparent and provocative. This band is too good!
‘Seven Bridges Road’ closes the first side in epic fashion. A sparse opening through tress begins the song with Jerry McGee raindrop dobro and tickled Clarence White acoustic guitar. An inspiring swell rises with horns and the mystical resonance of an electric sitar. The song briefly reminds me of Jeff Beck’s version of ‘Morning Dew’ from the Truth LP in some respects. Here the atmospheric reading expands; the arrangement pushes and pulls against Keltner’s heartbeat drums increasing the gravity. Oldham’s organ makes the bed while the strings climb the steps into a glorious vocal Technicolor during the chorus. Brimming with dynamics, Coolidge arranges the simple song about a ‘girl and a road’ into a misty eyed glory of reminiscence and premonition.  There is a stunning call and response between Coolidge and the saxophone that raises the now soaring arrangement even higher toward its conclusion. The ‘Seven Bridges Road’ would later be covered by the Eagles in 1980, but this reading is doubtless the definitive. 

Side two opens with goose bumps and a bad attitude. ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ is the recipient of a creepy Bayou arrangement covered in cobwebs and followed by black cats. Booker T arranges his own number in a dual electric piano and organ attack with himself and Spooner Oldham. Ry Cooder stars on slide guitar illuminating the darkened street grove with metallic neck work.  Keltner dings the bell of his ride, rubbing the rabbit foot and initiating a relentlessly funky blues while White keeps one hand on the good book just in case. Gut bucket grooves to be found here.
The ass shaking stomp of ‘Aint It Pecular’ appears next and opens by stepping on spongy Booker T. Fender Rhodes work. Soon after, Clarence White channels James Burton with some TCB Band chicken picking. When the horns honk in the intersection, the song hits the freeway at full tilt. Similar to Coolidge’s beginnings with Joe Cocker’s Maddogs and Englishmen and Delaney and Bonnie, here she offers up a big band arrangement with a husky soul attack in her voice. 

Another Marc Benno penned song, ‘(I Always Called Them) Mountains’ mirrors ‘Second Story Window’ from side A in its gentle acoustic sense. This time Clarence White and Jerry McGee lace lines over Oldham’s acoustic piano foundation in a breezy optimism.  Coolidge’s voice appears from a thus far vocally deep and overcast side two, now radiating warm beams and hopefulness while expressing an organic diverseness. 
  
‘Mud Island’ follows leaving dirt on the floor and kickingthe stoop in a dirty boot stomp. All of the usual suspects appear on the song, as well as Ry Cooder returning on bottleneck. This track is an up-tempo door slammer with the church choir not too far away up over the hill. Lots of guitar and percussion keep the field hollers afloat and continue to jam on toward the end as the vocalist fades away. There is ace material to be mined here, an honest example of no frill rockin and reelin'.

The LP closes with Neil Young’s ‘I Believe in You’ one of Young’s most enduring and affecting melodies. Here Coolidge delicately traces the outlines of Young’s intentions increasing the power of the melody through her earnest warm vibrato. Booker T. assists on bass, with Oldham, White and McGee acting as back seat drivers. Whereas Young’s original reading is sparse and cracked like egg shell, this version is full and sturdy though retaining the same sentiment. Backing vocals and plush instrumentation help prove the point.

Not only is Rita Coolidge’s 1971 debut album filled with an all star cast of backing musicians, it also features stunning Rita Coolidge vocals and a diversity of genres mastered by both the singer and the players.  Soon after the release of this LP Rita’s career would be pushed into the spotlight. She would continue to master genres throughout the 1970’s and 80’s and continues today, creating classics in all of the top charts. On her debut album you can witness her humble beginnings, while supported by friends and lovers and creating a multifarious collection of timeless music.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Take One: Neil Young/Graham Nash and the Stray Gators- 'Bombs Made to Break Up' -War Song 1972

Revolving in the 'rock room' and the focus of this edition of 'Take One' is the relatively unknown 1972 single released by Neil Young and Graham Nash featuring backing by the Stray Gators. The 'War Song' was an attempt by Nash and Young to align themselves with George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign and its valient attempt to unseat Richard Nixon. Never ones to shy away from voicing their political opinions, Young and Nash recorded the song at Broken Arrow Ranch in Spring of 1972, with the usual stellar backing group of musicians assisting. The track also has the distinction of being the only song penned together by Nash and Young.

The 'Harvest' band made up of of Ben Keith (Pedal Steel), Kenny Buttrey (Drums), Tim Drummond (Bass) and Jack Nitzsche (Piano) lend the melodic detonation needed to begin the battle. For the longest time the track was only available on the original long out of print 1972 7' single. It was only in recent times that the song was included on the first volume of the erratically released Neil Young Archives Collection. While never a mainstream success the 'War Song' still caused a ruckus at the time and was in some cased banned on radio, illustrating Young and Nash's always uncompromising artist aesthetics.



From the very beginning the track sounds like a true collaboration that has been stitched up the middle. The song opens with a distinctly vibrant set of Nash changes that are suddenly stunted by the foreboding red flashing red warning light of Young’s constant one note buzz saw drone. Drummond and Buttrey join in on a determined forward footed stomp that kicks into the vocals.

Neil takes the lead vocal, his voice quivering alone, before being joined by Nash on the chorus and singing, There's a man, says he can, put an end to war' in glorious high cotton throats. A naive thought? Maybe, but an honest one stated earnestly through superior musicianship. Perhaps the collaboration with Nash on the track was based in Young’s insecurity at taking such a forward public stance alone. Nash would always come to the musical aide of any of his colleagues and for Young he was the perfect recruit for the mission. Both are very forward thinking politically.

Lyrically, the song is a mixed bag, this is an honest 'rock room' appraisal when contrasted to Young's other forays into unabashed 'protest music'. He often can come across didactic unintentionally, even if the melody has attractive qualities. Instrumentally the song is a great success with a riff similar to the one that would pirouette on a central axis in Young's 'Last Dance’ found on 1973's Time Fades Away. Ben Keith over the chorus is stellar, his deliquescent steel, thick and sweet as the  THC soaked honey slides Young used to procure on the nearest stove. Keith really is a highlight of this particular statement, usual practice for the legendary musician. Young then proceeds to blast some breathy and creaking harp blasts and for a moment this shady, Shakey single from the early 1970's sheds its political skin and soaks of the utopian sun of a hypothetical musical hope built of freedom and dreams.

The song returns to a recitation of the chorus and then a restatement of the first verse with Nash's high harmonies complementing Young's vocals flawlessly. Their voices have always worked well together as evidenced by Nash (and Crosby) being invited by Young to join the 1973 Time Fades Away tour when he tore up his vocal chords during the performances. The conclusion of the tune illustrates that even with the heavy commentary, the song is still just a jam and its only rock and roll. Neck slides and rough hewn guitar stomping slam the lid on the tune, working out an improvised riff that ends much too soon.
Neil Young and Graham Nash's 'War Song' single from 1972 is a perfect example of a lost track. The song appeared as a single, made a minimal of ripples and then dissipated into the pools of Young and Nash's substantial musical career outputs. Oddly enough, the single was backed on the flip with 'The Needle and the Damage Done' which would go on to become one of Young's most popular and recognizable tunes. While the 'War Song' may not be a mainstream classic, it remains an aggressive and fiery artistic statement on the political fervor of the 1970's as well as hailing from a peak period for all of the artists involved.



Friday, March 20, 2015

Tools of the Trade: 'Fix it Up Together' Jerry Garcia's 1957 Fender Stratocaster -'Alligator' The Nash Strat


For today’s Tools of the Trade feature the rock room will focus on one of Jerry Garcia’s most beloved guitars. Garcia, well known for his custom instruments and his penchant for changing guitars until satisfied, was always involved in a constant search for the sound. Garcia’s ‘Alligator’ was donned during what could be the Grateful Dead’s most revolutionary and improvisational era. While at first making only sporadic appearances, the guitar moved into full time rotation in the Fall of 1971 and stayed on the stage through August of 1973 when it was unseated by the newly custom made ‘Wolf’. What is famously known as the ‘Alligator’ or also the ‘Nash’ Strat, is Garcia’s 1957 Fender Stratocaster,  a present from Graham Nash reciprocating for all of the wonderful musical work Garcia had done for him as well as musical cohort David Crosby. See Jerry’s soaring pedal steel work on Nash’s ‘I Used to Be a King’ and his slick six stringing on Crosby’s ‘Cowboy Movie’ for two prime examples of Garcia's melodic additions.

The instrument was purchased by Nash while on tour in the States in 1970 at a second hand shop for around $250.00. Nash is on record as saying he was in Phoenix, AZ. The guitar was already the recipient of some modifications, as the 1957 swamp-ash body was fitted with a 1963 Fender maple neck. Garcia obviously loved the gift, because by the Fall of 1971 it had become his guitar of choice. Garcia picked and trilled through the sonic spectrum of the instrument for two massively expressive years, contributing all time psychedelic guitar to some of the Dead’s most beloved performances. The guitar was adept at speaking in sharp biting Fender through a Twin tone, eliciting an aural quicksilver. Alternately, the mountain air clean tone of the guitar could twang like a back porch banjo and allow Garcia’s personal touch to pop spring tight harmonics from the neck. The diversity of tone and dexterity of touch combo made the 'Alligator' an instrument to be feared. The guitar became and is the sound of Europe 1972’. For many discerning listeners, it is the quintessential sound of Garcia; but, like flavors of melting ice cream, everyone has their personal favorite.
 After Garcia took possession of the guitar it underwent a series of changes, both cosmetic and internal. Grateful Dead colleagues and personal sound masters at Alembic, the company responsible for many modifications to the Dead’s gear (Phil Lesh’s Mission Control Bass) referred to ‘Alligator’ as a ‘Frankenstein guitar' due to its numerous mods, scars and graffiti.The clandestine upgrades undertaken on the guitar are many and not all are officially documented. The major changes of note are new knobs, new brass hardware, including a new bridge and brass shield where the white pick guard had been cracked. It is also said in various places that the guitar was outfitted with a specialized Alembic StratoBlaster onboard preamp. The three guitar pickups are stock Fender with no major fiddling done to them. It is well known to Garcia aficionados that he often switched out his pickups to keep them fresh and incandescent. With the plethora of sounds available to Garcia at this point in the Dead’s career, it’s no wonder the concerts of 1972 often reached stratospheric levels. The sonic pallet finally had caught up with Garcia’s monumental and peaking abilities.
 
The guitar received its moniker and is famously identified by the hungry ‘Alligator’ sticker that appears between the middle and neck pickups. Eating utensils in each respective green hand the sneering red eyed reptile is ready to devour a musical feast. Other stickers would come and go, but to this day still a torn and frayed ‘Harley Davidson’ and ‘Policeman Helper’ badge remain.

The 'Alligator' guitar is still owned by the Garcia estate and still comes out to stretch its strings and play once in a while. The special instrument is now identified with an era when anything was possible for the Grateful Dead. They were playing with a ferocity and experimental sense of purpose that would arguably never be witnessed again. The 'Nash-Alligator Strat' was the fortunate instrument to propagate this formidable wave of inspiration.

Dark Star 7-18-1972

Grateful Dead 4-17-72 VIDEO 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ronnie Wood - 'Fine and True' 1974's I've Got My Own Record to Do



 

Currently spinning in the ‘rock room’ is one of those special rock records that is held near and dear to those in the know and becomes an amazing revelation to those who discover it.  In the ‘rock room’s humble opinion this record is one of the finest LP’s to come out of the 1970’s and possibly one of the greatest rock albums of all time. Those who frequent the ‘rock room’ know that I am prone to using the ‘greatest’ moniker frequently, but in the case of this album it completely deserves the highest praise. Ron Wood’s 1974 debut solo album, I’ve Got My Own Record to Do finds the famed guitarist on his way out of the ‘Faces’ and sliding into the ‘Rolling Stones’. In between, Wood recorded the aforementioned solo record with members from both bands and with a host of friends and fellow musicians at his home studio at ‘The Wick’ in South London. There is a high and lonesome, low and loose vibe to the record that comes across as clearly today as during the sessions that created it forty years ago.

Recorded over the course of numerous sessions from late 1973 and into summer 1974 the album is a unknown commodity to many. The recording, in fact, just celebrated its 40th anniversary with no reissue at all in the works in spite of the definite probability of a multitude of glorious outtakes available. The low key sessions resulted in a relaxed and often amazing collection of songs. With the sturdy rhythm section of Willie Weeks (bass) and Andy Newmark (drums) on the majority of the songs, a plethora of legends fill in the cracks including but not limited to Keith Richards, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, George Harrison and 'Faces' bandmates Ian McLagan, and Kenney Jones. Keith Richards actually showed up one evening and didn’t leave for four months, so he should be considered a member of the ‘house band’! The LP is brimming with potential classics and songs that would become the cornerstones of Woody’s own live shows throughout his career. One thing that is obvious from the enjoyment of this record is that it is the result of Woodypatiently collecting riffs, lyrics and melodies and waiting for the appropriate time to document and share them.

The album opens with thumping drums that pump like an old well signaling the Ronnie Wood composition, “I Can Feel the Fire’. The sweaty island groove is driven by the familiar Richards and Wood guitar weaving. The lyrics are sung by Mick Jagger and Wood trading verses and joining together on choruses. A careful listen reveals one David Bowie who also lends some well timed interjections. This song helped initiate Woody into the ‘Rolling Stones’ as it was the collaboration between Wood and Jagger on this song that also helped to birth the Stones classic, ‘It’s Only Rock and Roll’. Jagger got help with 'rock and roll' and Woody got help with 'Fire' and the Stones gained a future guitarist.

The second song on side 1 is a George Harrison composition, ‘Far East Man’ which also features Hari on slick slide guitar and dreamy backing vocals. Harrison would also record the song for his own 1974 Dark Horse album, but this version nonetheless contains the mojo. Mick Taylor takes the bass playing seat, locking in with Newmark on the funky high hat driven chorus groove. The ‘rock room’ lives for songs like this, tucked away on a dusty vinyl side waiting patiently for the needle to drop. Harrison’s aforementioned slide work dresses the song in musical silly string, coloring the structure with perfect exclamations. The song doesn't just exist sonically it lives organically.

Keeping the tempo jive and the lights down low, Woody’s ‘Mystifies Me’ is a high caliber soul ballad featuring Rod Stewart’s rhythm section of Micky Waller (drums) and Pete Sears (bass) as well as Stewart’s acoustic guitar playing mate Martin Quittenton. A dispersed and airy arrangement develops with Woody’s slowly dripping  and watery Curtis Mayfield central licks pooling around the songs base. Wood sings the shit out of this one, sounding like his future band mate Keith Richards at points. The chorus discovers Rod Stewart also singing in gritty harmony and taking the emotional content to an ascendant level.  In addition, Wood’s ‘Faces’ mate Ian McLagan loans a transparent sheet of mystical organ laid gently over the track for good measure. Beautiful. Classic.

‘Take a Look at the Guy’ follows in the same vein as ‘Can You Feel the Fire’, the song is high tempo, percussive and propellant with a multitude of rock riffing courtesy of Mick Taylor and Woody. The collaborative vocals again find Stewart tearing fabric and shattering glass with his diaphragm push on the chorus. The song climbs the rungs then fades out into an interesting groove that dissipates way too soon! I wonder if a deluxe edition of this set would reveal where this interesting eventuality would lead?! A smoking rocker.
‘Take a Look at the Guy’ segues quickly into the mushy Fender Rhodes introduction of the Jagger/Richards composition ‘Act Together’.  There is a substantial chorus of backing singers featured here that add to the grandeur and quality of the song. Richards and Wood again join together on their axes as well as sharing a microphone, chopping angular funky riffs, crooning earnestly and constructing the body of the song. Richards also overdubbed some piano allowing for ‘Ian McHooligan’ to fill the empty space with whistling musical organ glue, lending the song its large secular feel. The true definition of a Glimmer Twins, 'lost classic' thankfully donated to Woody's musical mission.

The quality first side of the LP concludes with a  hard and deep thrust cover of ‘Am I Groovin You’ first recorded by Freddie Scott in 1967. Here Richards and Wood slash the beat into ribbons, while alternating abrasive and chunky chording. McLagan lends the deep black groan of an ARP synth that injects the song with a guttural growl. This song is what one might refer to as a ‘panty peeler’. Wood has slowed down the original version of the song to the tempo of a clogged drain. The song marinates its respective groove in the perfume of the songs subject,  her hair mussed while Jagger, Richards and Wood beg the question, ‘Am I Groovin You?’

The flip side of the record begins auspiciously with the Wood composition, ‘Shirley’. The song is uniquely arranged with spiky guitar and some tubular sound wave keyboards. Once the track settles in with Mick Taylor’s bass, Woody plays some of his most intense licks on the record. During the mid section of the track Woody proceeds to throw a ball down the stairwell, bounding into some joyous reverberant riffing. His overdriven guitar touches the burned edges of distortion while also running concurrent with McLagan’s keyboard for well timed dual quotes that blend into a sugary sweet rendition of the songs melody line. This tune sets the theme for the entire second side which feels much more like an unbuttoned jam session and lends the listener an ear to the outside door of the sessions. The cigarette smoke, laughter and assorted powders are tangible through the aural spread. Witness to this effect are the swaying arm in arm group vocals that make up much of the second side's singing.
 
‘Cancel Everything’ comes next, another concealed classic from the pen of Ronnie Wood. Painted over in a florescent highlighter, Keith Richards backing vocals on this song are wonderful and easily initiate a shiver and a smile. Fantastic stuff. The track settles into a slot like an intentional gutter ball becoming a high tempo plea to just save some time for one another. This time Jean Rousell shakes the keys lending the song a twinkling beauty that contrasts the edgy guitars coming from Richards and Wood. 

‘Sure the One You Need’ is the second compositional donation by Jagger/Richards and offers another chance for the band to boogie and also for Keith Richards to take a lead vocal. McLagan bangs on the black and whites like a cop responding to a house party. Woody gives us some neck as the two guitar blend gives this a long lost ‘Stones’ feel….I wonder why?

The LP then reaches its conclusion with a duo of cover songs, the first, ‘If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody' is a song made popular by James Ray, who took it to the R and B charts in 1962. The song feels tailor made for Wood’s group the ‘Faces’, who could take a classic R and B cover and make it uniquely theirs. Both Stewart and McLagan play on this one along with the ‘Stones’ Mick Taylor and Keith Richards who also squeeze onto the instrumental couch. Rough hewn and heartfelt, this song best epitomizes the intent and vibe of the sessions.

The album then closes fittingly with a substantial six minute jam, the Willie Weeks composition ‘Crotch Music’. The song opens on the electronic pulse of a drum machine which is soon joined by skin covered drums. Weeks is clearly the focus with his nimble fingers plucking out a smooth lead bass line right off the bat.  What mobilizes the song is the scratchy rhythm licks scrubbed out by Richards and Wood that develop at a dizzying and accelerating groove. Toward the conclusion of the jam Wood comes in unannounced and spreads a buttery phased guitar line that jumps from my speakers. This is a tight hip thrusting jam with unique jangling changes, tight pants and interlacing guitars that cause the ear to thumb through the song for additional surprises. A fun finale and proper conclusion to an album where the joy ascends from the grooves with every listen.
While Ronnie Wood is currently and famously recognized as Keith Richards better half in the Rolling Stones, his career spans numerous solo LP’s, his work with the Faces, as well as his early work with Jeff Beck and numerous other artists. His innate musical talents have offered an original and recognizable aesthetic to any creative outlet he has been involved with. His 1974 debut solo LP, I’ve Got My Own Record to Do is the cumulative effect of what he had learned, observed and created from his earliest days in rock and roll. The album is the result of Woody reaching a creative peak, his ambition to be recognized on his own merits and the karmic payback from all of the musicians he befriended and worked with throughout his career. The album is SO deserving of a deluxe edition with plenty of outtakes and bonus tracks we can only hope it happens in the future. The ‘rock room’ wants to spearhead this movement! But in the meantime throw the original LP on the platter, it’s all we got, but it sure is quite enough.

I've Got My Own Record to Do (Entire)