Thursday, November 14, 2019

Ian McLagan and the Bump Band - 2014 LP United States - "Send You A Love Letter"

Ian McLagan was always a busy man. In between his numerous live performances with a plethora of artists as well as his work in preserving the memory of his beloved band of brothers the Small Faces, he found the time to record albums of his own original music. Today in the "rock room" spins his 2014 album United States. In what would be his final LP before his untimely death in December of 2014, United States is packed tight with good music, crossing musical borders with McLagan’s current then collection of friends in the Bump Band.

McLagan is, of course, a legend; not only in the minds of Small Faces and Faces fans, but for the massive scroll of musicians who have brought him in to augment their own musical creations,including Recognizable names such as Jackson Browne, Warren Haynes, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Paul Weller, Buddy Guy and others to numerous to mention. With the Bump Band, McLagan offered a musical collection that dips into his deep, cool well of influences, experience and professionalism.

Developed on the road with the Bump Band, which was originally established in 1977, United States features Jud Newcomb on bass, Conrad Choucroun on drums, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Jon Notarthomas and McLagan on all things containing black and white keys. The project, which followed 2009’s soul searching and sometimes melancholy Never Say Never, exhibits a boozy swagger, cowboy attitude, and examines deep human relations.

Ian McLagan’s musical creations reveal in their details exactly how much melodic influence he was responsible for over the course of his 50-plus year career. He was the multifaceted R&B color in the Small Faces, and the gritty swagger behind many of the Faces’ legendary compositions — in addition to being a hired heavy left hand when the Stones needed it. The opening song on United States, “All I Wanna Do,” demonstrates this aforementioned swagger, featuring dank Fender Rhodes verses dropping into a ropy chorus breakdown, all of which is is later punctuated with Mac’s credible and breezy keyboard attack.
The following number, “Pure Gold,” is exactly that: The song contains a recognizable fruity delicacy that is the McLagan groove. The swirling organ driven melody is as cool as the icy sweat running down the side of a mixed drink, while it sounds like the Stones are playing in the background. McLagan’s vocals work in gravel contrast to the glittering music, though they coexist in perfect harmony. Vocals have never been McLagan’s greatest strength, of course, but over the years he has developed his own successful approach, gruff and emotive, similar to the styling of friend and former band mate Ronnie Wood.

The album continues with a truthful and vintage sound that exists without sounding dated, unfolding as an unpretentious display of an artist staying true to what he and his band do best, which is playing uncompromising rock ‘n’ roll and R&B.

“Don’t Say Nothing” begins dramatically on cathedral piano but, by the time the chorus enters, the song has become a smoldering slab of soul that climaxes excitedly. “I’m Your Baby Now,” with its streetlight groove, is a practiced concert favorite that sneaks around on slick slide guitar and barrelhouse piano rolls. “Mean Old World” brings to mind McLagan’s intimate duo shows with Notarthomas, unfolding as a personal piece of self examination with piano and guitar. Mac has always been able to pull a beautiful ballad from his fingers. The years have been kind to McLagan’s maturing abilities as a songwriter and interpreter, and his penchant for embracing sparse melodies are a gift passed down by partner and friend Ronnie Lane.

“Love Letter” is memorable, sealed with a tasty pop hook that supports the wistful lyrics and trademark Ian McLagan organ embellishments. The song’s melodic strength should have earned it deserved attention as far as circulation and airplay. The foreboding and funky “Who Says It Ain’t Love” is a total contrast to the airy “Love Letter,” featuring thick thumping drums and multiple layers of McLagan’s haunted musings. The track is a dark highlight of the resplendent collection, slithering in on a watery piano glissando that precedes the spectral blues-like changes. “Shlalala” follows, and despite its simplistic title, the song is a punchy pop number with a sing-along chorus, highlighted by another series of fiery soloing by both Notarthomas and McLagan.
United States concludes with two diverse and enticing songs, the first a jazzy attic portrait, the second comprised of colorful yearning. “How Blue” is a vaudevillian number that sounds like it could have been recorded in any era and with any band that McLagan has performed with in his career. Those familiar with his history know that a touch of vaudeville can always be found in Mac's tunes. "How Blue" retains a timeless energy and acts as a contrasting prelude to the beautiful closing song of the collection. “He’s Not for You” contains a south-of-the-border aesthetic, offering a precautionary warning message in the lyrics. Leigh Mahoney raises the stakes on violin, lending an air of class to the pub-crawling collection of musicians who swing on this number like a flawless brass pendulum in perfect time.

It’s comforting to revisit Ian McLagan and the Bump Band's final recorded output in the "rock room". In this age of plastic musical progress, songs where frills are kept to a minimum and honesty is the best policy are becoming harder to find. These wonderful musicians play songs for folks who like rock and roll and great songwriting. Ian McLagan is sorely missed and the Austin music scene as well as the world of rock and roll will always lack his unique music and personality. Hopefully Mac continues to jam in the next plane, where the beer will always be cold and the music is guaranteed to be heavenly.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Put The Boot In: The New Yardbirds become Led Zeppelin 2-14-69 Miami - 'A Valentines Day Massacre!'


Today's edition of "Put the Boot In" is looking at a pivotal and albeit amazing performance from Led Zeppelin's first American tour in early 1969. This performance is from Thee Image Club in North Miami beach Florida on Valentines Day 1969. The show comes from an audience recorded bootleg and released on the Tarantula label under the moniker "Yellow Zeppelin" After listening to this show I think a more apt title would be "A Saint Valentines Day Massacre", based on the way this early flight of Led Zeppelin bombards the unsuspecting crowd. The recording itself sounds great for an late 1960's recorded audience recording. The bass is slightly muffled at points and there is the obvious distortion issues based on the loudness of the band. But all in all, Jimmy is amped and Robert's vocals cut through the din. Bonzo's drums are gonna be audible no matter what! If you're looking for letter ratings this show gets a "B" for sound, but an "A" for performance. Just tune in, turn on, and crank up this recording and you will find it is a very enjoyable way to spend ninety minutes. In less that two years Zeppelin's popularity would know no bounds, and its recordings like this that show the band in its infancy, taking chances, and blowing minds.

The recording starts with John Bonham hammering out the tempo to the era specific opener, "Train Kept A Rollin". While the recording echoes slightly, once Jimmy's Yardbird's Telecaster slices through the electric air like an aerodynamic missile, any sound issues are forgiven. I can't comprehend what the crowd in attendance was thinking when this fire breathing beast walked on the stage. Led Zeppelin I had only been out since January, and while it was starting to move on the charts, the band was still relatively unknown. "Train" blasts down the tracks at a furious rate until it slams head on into the back of "I Can't Quit You Baby". Robert Plant absolutely howls the lyrics to this blues classic in such a way, that the thought crosses my mind that he may be the greatest vocalist ever! The show starts off that intensely! Jimmy Page's spry fingers scurry across the the fretboard like a spider searching for a dark corner. The detail and natural vibrato in this fingers is fascinating to hear even on this distant field recording. After the exhaustive opening Robert introduces the next song as being from their new LP that is 'currently doing pretty well, apparently". John Paul Jones plays the opening figure of "Dazed and Confused to light applause. "Dazed" is a song that underwent numerous changes over the course of its life, and was one of Zeppelin's main vehicles for improvisation.

These early first LP era versions are boiling over with energy and always contain a mystery or two. The Page bow sequence is very dark and very psychedelic, and has yet to fall into the "themes" that would become standard in later versions. Robert echoes Page's riffs with erotic groans and quotes some "Sugar Time" lyrics. When the band comes back together the rhythm section takes off from the starting gate like a shot. John Paul and Bonham so in the pocket that you couldn't get a drum machine to replicate their tightness. Jimmy surfs along the top with riff after riff, some familiar and some not so much, but all effective. Jimmy's guitar is so loud at this point in the recording I have to chuckle to myself. The music is vibrating with beautiful chaos at this point. The call and response between Robert and Jimmy is right on, its hard to believe the band has been together for less that six months, and are this good. During this era I have always thought there is something other worldly about the sound of Jimmy's 1959/60 Dragon Telecaster. There is an indescribable knife edge quality to Jimmy's attack that guitar players have been trying to replicate for years. This performance is full of consummate examples of that classic sound.

"Dazed and Confused" climaxes and concludes, but special notice must go to Jimmy's hallucinatory muted guitar lines after the return to the song, and before the final chord. Slippery and understated, Page's riffs are euphoric in their statement, a stand out moment of the song. The crowd reciprocates in generous applause as Zeppelin continues the show with "The Lemon Song/Killing Floor". This in my humble opinion is the best performance of the first half of the show thus far. The band rips into the double time segment of this song with such abandon that I play this part back three different times to gain a full appreciation. At this point all of the instrumentalist's are clear on the recording, and the band is cooking like a pasty tourist in the steamy Florida sunshine. Jimmy plays with a slightly clean tone that makes his riffs ring with a bell like quality. The true magic cast during this performance occurs when the band hits the "squeeze my lemon" breakdown. Page kicks his "crybaby" on and lays down a series of thick milky leads as Plant scats and quotes lyrics from the tune, "I Think You Need A Shot". Page's guitar continues to peel kaleidoscopic notes as the band picks up momentum. Suddenly we are back into the double time jam as the band rings all of the juice from this lemon, and crashes to a satisfying conclusion. Hats off to the entire band for a unique and special jam.

 Unfortunately after such a intense first half of the show the band enters into a slightly out of tune and ragged, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You". This can be forgiven based on the music that proceeded it, but the song pails in contrast to the proceeding jams. The track is much better suited to an acoustic reading, but still an A for effort.It's easy to understand why the song was eventually dropped from future set lists. The final track on my disc one is "How Many More Times" and it shakes the windows and rattles the walls with no other than John Henry Bonham leading the charge. At one point during the improv Bohnam and Page enter a call and response that is devastating in its accuracy and concentrated energy. Page goes into duets with every member of the band at some point who then bounce back every idea that he throws out. A perfectly played game of rock tennis. Eventually Page hits on a quintessential Zep riff and the band locks into a thunderous jam with all hands on deck. As soon as the band locks onto an idea, Page starts to lead them on another journey toward Mordor. Page gets so far out with his licks before the Bolero segment that John Paul lets go with a series of sliding bass lines that may induce dizziness. It's a shame that this version of "How Many More Times" cuts shortly after the concerts second "bow" interlude. I am of the opinion that this is one of the finest early Zeppelin shows I have heard, and if a soundboard ever surfaced it would yield amazing treasures. The second bow interlude is as euphoric and dark as the earlier "Dazed" breakdown, but quietly fades just as the band is ready to turn another corner. Damn! Oh well, I must be thankful for the bit that circulates and that we can all enjoy.

 The second disc starts with Page on stage solo for his spotlight, playing "White Summer/Black Mountainside". This version, like all of them contains unique improvisations within the basic structure of the song cycle. While nothing jumps out at me for being completely special, this is a well played version with Jimmy playing concisely. This Page spotlight acts as the "whisper to the thunder" that follows. I am barely prepared for the following "As Long as I Have You" that startles me out of my seat with a crashing guitar strike by Jimmy. Unbridled power is all that comes to mind as the band roughs up the crowd with this naked display of brute strength and musical ability. At this point in the band's career they were lacking original compositions, so songs like "As Long As I Have You" were their main improvisational vehicles until tunes like 'Whole Lotta Love" came into the rotation. There are a few versions of this song available on other Zep boots such as 4/24/69 and 4/27/69 which contain soundboard sound quality and arguably more mature performances. But this in no way dampens the astonishing intensity of this audience recording. Intensity may be too broad a term for this jam, as it is full of dynamics, light, shade, and careful instrumental placement. But it is played with such enthusiasm and strength that intensity seems an apt description.

 At around five minutes into the song things really heat up as Bonham and Page start to churn a delicious groove that just rumbles quietly until igniting into a "Mockingbird" jam. Jimmy has his "Wah Wah" emanating a slippery whine behind Robert's bellowing vocals. The jam suddenly drives into a heavy syncopated rock and roll swing with Page laying down his most impressive "Yardbird" riffs which are marinated in a spicy psychedelic sauce. Riff after riff is shot out like machine gun ordnance until they climax into a long sound wave of guitar feedback  that segues into a wordless Robert Plant scream recital. Led Zeppelin is now a tight and smoking R&B band strutting their stuff across the darkened stage. "As Long As I Have You" epitomizes the early Led Zeppelin ideal, and gives fans a glimpse into the band's influences, and a peek at the "nuts and bolts" of the group. This is Led Zeppelin broken into their primal elements. At one moment the band is a sharp toothed beast clawing its way toward your throat, at another a dancing gazelle gliding across the landscape.

 Taking a brief pause Robert Plant speaks to the breathless audience, "In spite of the high spirits we are going to do a blues". What follows is a clinic in "white boy blues" put on display by the band. "You Shook Me" was a staple of the band's early sets, and it never failed to ignite the band into a lumbering blues swing. Plant channels all of his blues idols and regurgitates their influence in a primitive and ancient scream. It's amazing how tied into each others performances Page and Plant are even at this early stage of the band's career. There are numerous versions of "You Shook Me" available in the Zeppelin bootleg world, but its versions like this that make me shutter. I have to say I believe that the other British blues/rock bands at the time (Cream, Stones, Fleetwood Mac) paled in comparison to the "Zep" interpretations of the blues during their early career.

The concert recording ends with what Zeppelin fans know as an early version of "Moby Dick", lovingly named "Pat's Delight" after John Bonham's wife. I am not aware if this is indeed the true end of the concert, but it does end the recording I have and my review. Book ended by an instrumental passage to set the stage, "Pat's Delight is thirteen minutes of recognizable and thundering John Bohnam drumming. Double and triple paradiddles scream by the audience at speeds unknown to modern drummers except maybe Buddy Rich. I love that during Bonham's spotlight people near the recording gear can be heard letting out hoots and hollers as they watch Bonham unleash on his kit with superhuman strength. A highlight of hundreds of Zeppelin concerts this segment is another chance to listen in awe to the natural wonder which is John Henry Bonham.

 This early field recording of of a young and hungry Led Zeppelin illustrates the four distinct, yet still developing personalities beginning the construction of their empire. The defiant Robert Plant, the magical Jimmy Page, the stoic John Paul Jones, and the animal John Bonham, learning to listen to one another and to develop a rapport that has been unequaled in rock and roll. The future after this concert will be filled with legendary and incredible performances by an older and more mature band. In contrast, these early concerts demonstrate a band learning on the fly, experimenting, and having fun traveling into the unknown. By developing medieval science's and myth, the band will create a mystical stew that will metamorphosis into something the four musician's could only fathom in their dreams. Sit down with this recording and witness Led Zeppelin in their infancy, hear musical giants change the landscape of rock, and be a part of a magical musical ritual that continues to this very day.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Take One: Richard Thompson – 1952 Vincent Black Lightning – “To Ride”

Accelerating from the speakers of the ‘rock room’ today is a song that was listed by Time magazine as one of its “All Time 100 Songs”. The song was birthed as a nondescript album track on Richard Thompson’s 1991 LP Rumor and Sigh and in the intervening years has become one of his most beloved cuts. The tune has since been covered by a plethora of artists and admirers including but not limited to Del McCoury, Jim Henry and Bob Dylan. If Bob Dylan covers one of your tunes, I think it's safe to say you have made it as a songwriter. For Thompson, the song is a concert staple up through this day requiring only himself and an acoustic guitar. 

Thompson’s songwriting has always been and continues to be full of vibrant imagery and magical accompaniment; in many ways this song could be viewed as a fitting culmination of all of his career successes. Thompson deftly conjures mystery from both pastoral and suburban landscapes, he pulls from both conscious and subconscious thoughts. It’s an unknown commodity to understand the connection between a song and its developed audience. While there is no doubting the diverse and inspired amount of music Richard Thompson has made throughout his career with ‘Fairport Convention’, Linda Thompson, and as a solo artist, the song ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ was a flash caught in a bottle and has become a Calvary cross for the career of Thompson.

Thematically the song encapsulates, myth, sexuality, attraction, and danger in a glistening chrome package of steel strings. Thompson prior to a performance of the song described it as, It's a simple boy meets girl story, complicated somewhat by the presence of a motorcycle". By using an “object of myth” like the unbelievably rare 1952 Vincent Black Thompson taps into every young man’s psyche of Thompson’s time, or actually of any time. Only a handful (31 total) of the unbelievably fast bikes were manufactured and one can assume the legendary machine made quite an impression on the young Thompson. As an aside, recently (2018) one of the motorbikes sold for $929,000 US dollars. A red headed girl, a bike, leather and a series of crimes performed to get said bike inject the song with a cinematic romance that permeates all of Thomson’s compositions but in this particular instance, bleed out in Technicolor.

The song begins with Thompson’s recognizable hybrid picking (also called Travis picking) resplendently sparkling like glass on a sunny highway. Thompson plucks out the central riff as one of two protagonist's ‘Red Molly’ sees James and his bike of the first time. It must be noted that in addition to the compositional majesty of this song, please watch Richard play it live HERE to understand and grasp the virtuosity on display to develop the central riff of the tune. For guitar players witnessing the fret reach of Thompson’s nimble fingers is awe inspiring enough.
James and Red Molly share an attraction that is consolidated with the Vincent. With minimal internal relationship details revealed lyrically, the music assists the narrative with Thompson’s dark deep oil vocal pouring out emotion at the end of each stanza. James promises via a ring to ‘Red Molly’ that his prized possession will be hers someday as the implication that she is the only love true enough to be gifted his Vincent.

Conversational in tone, dramatic in feel the song takes the listener around hair pin corners. It flies past in a blur with guitar and vocals wind swept in inspiration. Mid song Thompson separates the verses with a dramatic string stretching that diverges from the normal picking of the song. The lovers are quickly torn apart because of James checkered past (he had been robbing since age 17 to get his Vincent) when he takes a shotgun blast to the chest. Dramatically the music increases its intensity transparently as the narrative reaches its crux. You’ve heard the famous adage about speaking about music is like dancing about architecture, well in this case the ‘rock room’ will be quiet and let the song sing for itself.

In current performances the song has rounded off the rough edges found in early renditions. During one concert from 2002 referenced on the Richard Thompson discussion site RT List, it is stated that one lucky crowd got to hear additional lyrics not contained on the studio version of the song. Thompson referred to the ‘missing’ lyrics as the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the song. The lyrics were transcribed as follows:

Reported as following opening verse:
Says James this Black Lightning is a fine pedigree
On the Bonneville Salt Flats in the hands of Rollie Free
A factory model not rebored no tricks
The speed always steady on 146
They smashed through the land speed record that day
So I just had to have my own come one May
So you see it's a matter of some pride, that Vincent is the mark that I must

Reported as following the final verse:
Well Molly stole his body from the hospital bed
Said we'll give him a decent burial yet
They cremated him out in the dark cold rain
Then they stripped his fuel tank right off the frame
Then they poured in his ashes as the (unknown word) flowed
I buried him there with a view of the road
And even the hard men cried
And forever on his Vincent he rides

The ‘rock room’ has been unable to find a version of the song with the aforementioned lyrics performed. If you have one, please let me know! One additional aspect that makes Thompson’s live versions unique is the lyric where he sings three makes of motorcycles that, ‘don’t have a soul like a Vincent 52’. Thompson likes to plug in a number of different bikes that fail to reach the standard of the Vincent, famous makers such as, Ducati, Harley, and Triumph.
With such a bottomless musical well of pure English inspiration, to focus on one Richard Thompson track seems a fool’s folly. Regardless, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is only one tree poking its head above a lush green canopy of melodic treetops. Richard is a treasure for a myriad of reasons, his unique native voice, his guitar playing fingerprint unlike any other, and his ability to turn out an original tale. The aforementioned factors that make him wonderful, are also the reasons he has dodged ‘mainstream’ popularity, all the while remaining true to his muse.

Monday, October 28, 2019

John Sebastian -' Magical Connection' - Live at the Cafe Veritas 2013 Rochester, NY

Today in the ‘rock room’ I am thumbing through a stack of dog-eared ticket stubs while doing some musicial organization. While reflecting on some of the amazing concerts I have attended in my years I came across my review of a stunning John Sebastian concert I attended in a small cafĂ© in Rochester, NY in 2013. It is here that I have decided to share the text with you, my dear reader.

John Sebastian’s solo acoustic performance at the Cafe Veritas in Rochester on December 7th, 2013 was not only a musical cross-section of Sebastian’s hall of fame career, but an intimate investigation of the roots of the music that has influenced John Sebastian and a collective of generations. The softly lit room was accented by candles and featured as its centerpiece a slightly elevated wooden stage and large colorful peace symbol. The sold out crowd welcomed Sebastian who appeared, dressed in black with acoustic guitar and bright flashing smile. After gently chiding an audience member who was preparing to take pictures, Sebastian made it crystal clear he wanted the crowd’s undivided and complete attention. The evening would trace Sebastian’s humble beginnings as a Greenwich Village folk musician, gaze as his numerous gold records as a member of the Lovin Spoonful, and examine his deep love of jug band and blues music.

To start the show, Sebastian began to pick the indigo opening to Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘I’m Satisfied’. Sebastian’s voice still reveals glimpses of his younger throat that once contained honey, but now has a pinch of gravel and a blues man’s grit. Throughout the evening Sebastian would frame the songs with extended dialogues expressing the genesis of his songwriting, his Lovin' Spoonful  band mates, influences and family. 

The following chunky slice of finger picked blues called ‘Don’t Stop’ prefaced a trio of Lovin' Spoonful tracks who many in the crowd were highly anticipating.  Sebastian paused prior to these numbers and spoke nostalgically about his love for Motown and how it influenced his development as an artist. During this interesting discussion Sebastian started to strum the classic Motown hit ‘Heatwave’ slowly speeding the riff up, eventually morphing it into the introduction of the Spoonful’s own ‘Do You Believe In Magic? An amazing glimpse into the genesis of one of the 1960’s most enduring songs, and a prime example of the concert’s’ enjoyable ‘show and tell’ design.
‘You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice’, and a definitive version of ‘Younger Girl’ followed, musically warming up the crowd who watched in rapt amazement. Sebastian encouraged a singalong atmosphere, and smiled often, singing directly to the crowd like an old time Greenwich folkie. His perfect guitar strikes emitting golden notes, clear as a crisp winter night, expressed immaculately by the acoustics of the room. Sebastian switched between two hollow bodied acoustic/electric guitars throughout the evening, both instruments delivering clarity and tone, his voice, slightly weary from the years, but full of expressiveness and rich personality.

Following the excitement created by the mini Spoonful set, John quieted things down, first speaking of his children and wife lovingly, then performing a version of ‘Strings of Your Heart’ as fragile as a rare bird’s egg. Keeping with the theme, Sebastian then, in beautifully tender fashion delivered an instrumental lullaby he used to put his boys to sleep with. Intricate and weightless, Sebastian eyes were closed tight, lost in the music, picking the crystalline melody, culminating in an absolute high point of the evening.

Sebastian then leaned casually on his guitar and proceeded to tell a humorous anecdote about his going out of style at least ‘four or five times’ over his career, and that one of the times he went back in style was with the famous ‘Welcome Back’. A jubilant singalong followed with Sebastian crooning the popular theme song he wrote for the historic television comedy. Highly enjoyable, and truly a piece of ‘good time music’ as the Spoonful’s credo used to be, the crowd responded with tremendous applause.

Another solid track off of Sebastian and Grisman’s 2007 album Satisfied came next with ‘Passing Fantasy’, before moving into another developed dialog where Sebastian explained in greater detail his relationship with Mississippi John Hurt. Sebastian then displayed to the crowd a few finger picking techniques ‘borrowed’ from Hurt using the examples to slide seamlessly into a stomping version of ‘Lovin You’, the opening song from 1968’s Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful. Stunning. A favorite of the concert and an all-time favorite of the ‘rock room’. The show reached another grand peak and a pair of Lovin' Spoonful numbers followed quickly and definitively closed the 75 minute set. ‘Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?’ and ‘Daydream’, perhaps the most beloved song in the Spoonful catalog, closed the show to a complete standing ovation. Sebastian a true entertainer, playing to the crowd, interacting with them on musical and conversational levels left the stage to boisterous applause.

But luckily for us in attendance, Sebastian had one final surprise in store, reappearing with only a harmonica in hand to stand solo at the microphone. Sebastian, whose father was a famous classically trained harmonica player, instilled in him a love and respect for the instrument. Sebastian stated that in his home, ‘the harmonica was not a toy’, so for those of us in the crowd that were hoping for a bit of harp playing, we were in for a treat. As an aside, for those not aware the harp playing you hear on the ‘Doors’ famous radio cut ‘Roadhouse Blues’ is none other than John Sebastian.  Sebastian then plowed through an extended harp journey that wailed and wined with the historic breath of rock and roll and blues, displaying all the tricks of this virtuoso player. The performance could have concluded only one way, and Sebastian hit it perfectly with an awe inspiring display. A moment that I will remember forever.

John Sebastian created a musical atmosphere at the Cafe Veritas that encouraged attentiveness, revealed musical secrets, and encouraged audience interaction. The performance hearkened back to the early coffee house performances of the 1960’s in content as well as attentiveness by the performer. It’s refreshing to witness an artist so at ease with his legacy, and concentrated on delivering the goods to his audience even after all of these years. If you have the opportunity to catch the legend in his element do not hesitate, you will walk away satisfied.

Sebastian and Grisman - I'm Satisfied (Album)

Monday, October 14, 2019

Take One: David Bowie: Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) -Endless Faith

Spinning in the ‘rock room’ today with a touch Fall in the air is David Bowie’s first new musical (at the time) composition since 2013’s The Next Day. The adventurous single “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime), is a seven-minute jazz epic with the 17 piece Maria Schneider Orchestra. The song was originally featured as a new addition to the forthcoming Bowie Nothing Has Changed compilation. The song vocally elicits images of Tim Buckley’s atonal late-1960s albums more than anything from Bowie’s previous work. Instrumentally the song flows over rocks and flashes imagery across an aural silver screen through punctuated horn lines and orchestrated counter melodies.

Opening with water drenched swells and sensual horn blasts, “Sue” moves kinetically on erratic teletype percussion. In contrast, longing horns and an elastically crooned melody line react to each other like to repellant magnets. The track breathes with an internal pulse of a stand up bass. Bowie is in great throat, and enters into hand-to-hand combat with the swelling horn punctuation's. When his vocals dissipate, it’s all about the racing jazz kit and blowing newspaper brass.

The song’s rhythm continuously drops in and out of consciousness, disorientating the listener and detaching then from the song proper to dip them into unknown aural mysteries. The sounds fell like Bowie has stirred his eternal pot of influences into one cerebral and cinematic display. Miles ends up meeting Frank Sinatra, who then rings up Frank Zappa, as this multifarious compositional display unfolds.
A sinister theme develops in the lyrics. Is someone helping or hurting? Has the narrator given up and committed the ultimate crime? The claustrophobic orchestration drops away leaving cinematic swells and brisk snare work at the point in which the narrator finds Sue’s note. Bowie moans in spooky omnipotence Chaos ensues, the horns moan Bowie’s melody line before submerging into a dizzying array of rising bubbles. It is in this sparkling drift that the remainder of the song sinks to silence.
A promotion video for the track can be found here, a gritty urban film noir representation of the song.

The cut would later be re-recorded for Bowie’s final studio LP, 2016’s Blackstar featuring as an album track.On this version from the album, the loose jazz improv is been reigned in to a tight pocket where the central pulse is played by electric guitar. A number of substantial peaks roar with white noise swells and static following each Bowie verse. Spectral drones and moaning glacial keyboards wash Bowie’s haunting vocals in. Bowie reached differing levels of menace in both versions of the song, a testament to his continued creativity even in his later recordings.  Both of the versions reveal an aural personality aspect through their unique explorations.

Once again, David Bowie had given his fans a unique and inexpiable musical statement that holds onto no preconceived ideas or past glories. “Sue” was an amazing precursor to what the reclusive legend had percolating in his mind for his next and sadly final move. Obviously, Bowie’s work was still leaving all possible labels and descriptions behind and reaching for new compositional vistas.

Bowie - Sue Extended Version

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Put the Boot In: Paul McCartney and his Band - "Out There" - Albany July 5th 2014

Playing in the 'rock room' today is a concert that I attended, Sir Paul McCartney’s highly anticipated and greatly publicized return at the Times Union Center in Albany on Saturday July 5th 2014. After cancelling a string of dates due to a virus McCartney had contracted overseas in May, the Out There tour’s new departure place became Albany, NY. McCartney fans were saturated with excitement as Paul assembled a 40 song, three-hour set that left no musical stone unturned, reaching into his plentiful Beatles, Wings, and solo catalog for a satisfying and awe-inspiring evening of music. I have a physical release Japanese import version of this event which I am reviewing for this article and is pictured below.

The diverse all ages and excitable crowd greeted the dapper McCartney, who was dressed crisply in blue blazer, with a massive truck rally applause. ‘Macca’s impressive and road tested group of musicians of the last twelve years (at the time) immediately ascended the opening bars of the Beatles hit “Eight Days a Week”, barely audible over the massive response from the audience. While McCartney’s voice may contain some nicks and dings from fifty years of rock vocals, similarly to an antique, its patina only increases its value and emotional strength.

The first ‘movement’ of the concert contained McCartney on famed Hofner bass as well as multiple classic guitars and his band electrically charging through a series of rockers spanning his career. The fuzzy  and well placed“Save Us” from 2014’s New, as well as famed Beatles tracks, “All My Loving” and “Paperback Writer” and Wings favorites, “Let Me Roll It” and “Listen to What the Man Said”.

"Listen to What the Man Said" was a wonderful addition to the set and sated the musical appetite of the Wings fans in the crowd. Prior to "Let Me Roll It" Macca removed his jacket to great applause revealing a sharp undershirt.“Let Me Roll It’” featured a slightly extended and rocking “Foxy Lady” jam in which McCartney showed off his ample soloing abilities on his multicolored Les Paul. It's always  McCartney spoke early and often, telling tales familiar to tour veterans, but awe-inspiring to first timers. McCartney has the innate ability to make a large venue feel like it’s a living room through his interactions and personable explanations of his songs.

The crowd was given a brief respite at this point in the proceedings so McCartney move to the grand piano for a series of  his most substantial songs. The recent paean to his wife and Upstate native Nancy Shevell  “My Valentine” was a fitting cool down period, to be followed by a stomping version of the Wings rarity “1985” and then knocked out of the arena with the dynamic duo of “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “The Long and Winding Road”. McCartney cooed in a sweet falsetto, stroked the black and whites through every climax, and illustrated why he is the definitive performing rock artist in the world. Reflecting on the recording I feel lucky to have attended this musical spectacle, and looking at the circulating footage, so did everyone around me as they are statued in rapt amazement.

Paul McCartney concert experiences not only reveal  his catalog of amazing and enduring compositions, but also spotlight his prowess on multiple instruments and in variegated contexts. An acoustic set followed next with the band joining in on tasteful backing for most of it. But most importantly the set also found McCartney standing solo on an ascending platform for “Blackbird” and his always stirring tribute to John Lennon off of 1982s Tug of War, “Here Today”. Highlights were the perfectly fitting and purely ‘Macca’  composition“On My Way to Work”, which made its live debut during this segment to great effect as well as a china-doll-delicate reading of the Beatles, “And I Love Her”.

Returning to the full band format, McCartney’s psychedelically painted piano was placed at center stage for the two power tracks on 2014’s LP release New. A bounding version of the title song was played as well as a sturdy rendition of the regal “Queenie Eye”. Both songs illustrated how McCartney’s recent compositions nestle into the current of the set list next to his greatest songs, a testament to his longevity and unmistakable talents. And while 'new' songs may be hard to listen to in the context of a concert for some, for the 'rock room' the current cuts were confirmation of McCartney's continuing connection with the muse.

Following the musical stare down with “Queenie Eye”, the juicy central section of the concert revealed a series of Beatles tracks, many rare and all enthusiastically played by the band and beautifully received by the audience. Each song stacked on top of the next, raising the temperature and elevating the applause. Beatle tracks “Lady Madonna”, “All Together Now”, and the rarely performed “Lovely Rita” played in conjunction with every set of hardcore Beatle fanatic lips in the venue as they mouthed the words. "Lovely Rita" was especially gaudy and spotlighted some of McCartney's finest vocals of the evening.

The highlights continued with McCartney breaking out the arsenal of Wings most beloved songs intermingled with more Beatles! “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was incredible; McCartney’s rotund bass line pulled from the grooves of Sgt. Pepper in a legendary display, a reflection upon his instrumental innovations and ground breaking ideas. A tribute to George Harrison with a poignant version of “Something” began on solo Ukulele and concluded in a full band tribute. Stellar versions of “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, “Band on the Run” and “Back In the USSR” followed, peaking with the concluding “Live and Let Die” and “Hey Jude” finale. Explosions, lights, strobes, multimedia clips, banging instruments and sing-along smiles filled the concert’s concluding moments in disorienting joy.
Just when you thought the 72-year-old McCartney and powerhouse band couldn’t possibly give any more to Albany, NY, they come out with two encores and a wedding proposal on the stage. The first encore was the perfect blend and a nod to the heads in the audience hailing from the ’60s and right up to the present day converts. “Day Tripper” and “Get Back” thematically sandwiched a rare and roaching “Hi, Hi, Hi”, an incendiary concert favorite from ’70s Wings performances. All the windows were down and the band had the pedal to the floor for this first set of encore numbers.

The second encore found McCartney on golden acoustic for a performance of “Yesterday”, expected, yet still magical. Following this performance, a Rochester, NY couple was engaged on the stage, with McCartney inviting the couple up due to their enthusiastic and persistent waving of signs in the audience. Their plan worked and added up to a special and unique concert moment with the future groom singing a verse of “When I’m 64” with backing from the band. This dream moment for the couple was followed appropriately with a death-defying slide downhill into a threatening “Helter Skelter” by McCartney and band.

The final and unbelievable conclusion to the concert came with a flawless version of the triad of songs closing the Beatles 1969 LP Abbey Road, “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry That Weight”, and fittingly “The End”.  The conclusive moments found McCartney expressing with deep gratitude and warmth the parting lines of the concert, “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make”.

Paul McCartney’s performance at the Times Union Center was a memorable and, I would say even, historic experience. The wealth of quality music, the lack of unpretentious stage antics and the genuine feeling of enjoyment emanating from the stage made the show an evening worthy of long-term reflection. The anticipation of a rare Upstate New York appearance,  in addition to answering the questions surrounding McCartney’s ability to tour, layered the concert in pretense. McCartney, like always, delivered, silenced critics, and gave his admirers reason to celebrate. There are not nearly enough superlatives available to be applied to Sir Paul McCartney and his continuing artistic growth, unbelievable concert experiences, and musical achievements.

McCartney Albany 2014

Friday, September 27, 2019

Tools Of The Trade: Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson's 1965 Fender Telecaster - "I'll Bring Over My Fender and Play All Night For You"

Today in the ‘rock room’ we examine one of the most ‘famous’ guitars in the annals of rock and roll history. Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson’s 1965 Fender Telecaster traveled the globe, was cheered and jeered on the road while also being played on many of rock and roll’s most enduring recordings. While first played by Dylan, then Robertson, the guitar was also caressed by the hands of Eric Clapton and George Harrison throughout its rarefied existence. This guitar recently (2018) went to auction and sold for nearly a half a million dollars. The exorbitant sale price a reflection of the guitars historic importance. To quote Robertson, “This guitar has been on the front lines of so many phenomenal events”.
When Bob Dylan decided in the late summer of 1965 to take his electric music on the road following his legendary appearance at the Newport Folk Festival he started to put together a touring band. Once his decision rested on Canadian group “The Hawks”, guitarist Robbie Robertson took Dylan to pick out a stage guitar for him to play. Robertson was already playing a Telecaster in the Hawks, so it made sense that he recommend the same to Dylan. The duo decided on the 21 fret, black 1965 Fender Telecaster guitar, serial number L97811. The guitar’s body made of alder wood, its neck made of maple with black dot fret markers. The guitar’s date of manufacture is noted as June 3, 1965. The stock guitar had at the time both bridge and neck pickups, volume and tone control knobs as well as a three switch pickup selector.

Weighing just over 7 lbs, both Robertson and Dylan felt the guitar was perfect for touring and placing the guitar into Dylan’s hands gave Dylan and the Hawks a dual Telecaster attack for their upcoming performances. For Dylan’s purposes the guitar expressed a metallic scrubbing rhythm underneath the Hawks churning and swirling R and B grooves. Bob played the guitar for the entirety of his 1965-1966 World Tour concerts and studio sessions where it assisted in disseminating some of the most aggressive and creative rock and roll in creation. He used the guitar in Nashville for his recording of Blonde on Blonde, its attitude can be discerned when listening to the opening of “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” The live shows were confrontational and defiant, the Telecaster was an aural weapon of choice. The Telecaster’s journey had just begun.

Following the 1966 tour and Dylan’s motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966 both Dylan and the Hawks retreated from the road to work on music in the green hills of Woodstock, NY. In what would famously become the Basement Tapes, Robbie Robertson became the caretaker of the road tested Telecaster lending air and clarity to Dylan’s tramp through his folk past and his rock and roll present. In Robertson’s hands the guitar became the tool of the guitarist and colored both Dylan’s songs and the traditional readings in cutting and twangy recitations. Robertson coaxed soft swells and hard honky tonk riffs with his finger picked approach. It is the ‘rock room’s opinion that there was a degree of alchemy gained by the instrument during these times. The guitars diversity on the Basement recordings is stunning.
From the basement of Big Pink and into the near future, the Telecaster became Robertson’s gift. Transferred from Dylan’s hands to Robbie’s, the instrument’s voice would be heard on the Hawks (soon to be Band) debut, Music From Big Pink and would become Robertson’s instrument of choice through the next 6-7 important years before his touring instrument became a Stratocaster.
Robertson used the guitar for the Band’s debut concerts in April of 1969 (where it was still black), the group’s performance with Dylan at the Isle of Wight, right through the recording of the Band’s “Brown Album” and Stage Fright.

The guitar sung the licks for most if not all of the Band’s period pieces like, “Up On Cripple Creek”, “Stage Fright” and others. The Telecaster can be heard warbling through a Leslie speaker on “Tears of Rage”, or striking like a “viper in shock” on “Chest Fever”.  It can be heard slicing through the Band’s double keyboard set up on stage, and being strangled on rock and roll classics like, “Slipping and Sliding” or “Loving You Is Sweeter than Ever”. The guitar’s magic resonates, a combination of the players touch and the instrument’s internal fortitude.
By the time the Band played on the Festival Express tour in 1970 Robertson had stripped the guitar of its black finish back to bare wood. Many guitarists during this time did this to their instruments to get a more ‘natural’ feel out of their guitars. (Clapton, Harrison, Lennon). Robertson also started to ‘mod’ the guitar to his own specifications by adding a Gibson PAF humbucking pick up in the neck position. Robbie has said in interviews that he was always looking for a better guitar but he just “couldn’t beat it (the Tele)”. He also stated, “Each incarnation of my hot-rodding this instrument seemed to give it a new life, along with a different creative surge”.

Robertson continued to use the guitar in studio and on stage through 1971.The next major event for the Telecaster came on New Year’s Eve of 1971 when Dylan joined the Band onstage for their encore. Dylan showed up with a Gibson SG to join the group for a few numbers. Robertson remembers that Dylan had tuning issues with said Gibson so Robbie reunited Dylan with his old ‘warhorse’ guitar and just like the old days Dylan scrubbed his way through a New Year’s set with his close pals.

Over the next couple of years the guitar remained Robertson’s main instrument including but not limited to the Band’s appearance at Watkins Glen in 1973. Eventually the guitar took a back seat to Robertson’s on stage Stratocaster which he started to use when the Band returned to the stage with Dylan in 1974 for reasons unknown.  That does not mean the guitar did not travel with Robertson nor was part of his arsenal. When Eric Clapton decided to join the guys on stage in Buffalo in 1974, the Telecaster was the guitar he was handed off of the rack.
As the Band’s career began to wind down so did the appearance of the 1965 Telecaster. Robertson never let it go though, as it always remained an integral part of his collection and his inspiration. As late as 2000 Robbie fitted the guitar with a Bigsby B16 vibrato tailpiece, so his search for the sound continued up and into the new millennium. As previously mentioned it was only in 2018 when Robertson decided to part ways with the Telecaster with only one wish, “Whoever ends up with this guitar, you have to treat her with love”. The ‘rock room’ believes instruments need to be played and loved or they cease being instruments and become museum artifacts. The hope is that the 1965 Telecaster continues to provide aural gifts to whomever plucks it strings in the future.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Now Playing: Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni Mitchell - Busy Being Free - BBC 1970

Flickering on the ‘rock room’s’ flat screen today is a wonderful and intimate performance by Joni Mitchell on the BBC in 1970 called Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni Mitchell. It's slightly puzzling to say the least that this ‘holy grail’ recording has never seen an official release. Thankfully for Mitchell’s fans it has become 'available' online to stream and/or download for those into that sort of thing. In the ‘rock room’s” humble opinion this footage spotlights some of the most stunning and personal artistic musical expression in the pantheon of popular music.

Recorded on September 3, 1970 and later broadcast on October 9th this cozy performance in front of a respectful audience features many of Joni’s finest early works. Recorded in between Mitchell’s 1970 LP Ladies of the Canyon and 1971’s famed Blue, Mitchell is captured during her musical and artistic ascent. Mitchell plays seven tracks pulled from her first four recordings including a stunning rendition of “California” played on a zither from the yet to be released Blue. Here Joni is fresh faced, relaxed and in ravishing voice. The performance in total contrast to Joni’s appearance at the Isle of Wight festival the week prior. While Joni still played well, she was faced with issues from the colossal crowd, spaced our revolutionaries slithering around the stage, and a general disconnect from spectators much interested in their surroundings than Mitchell’s lacy and delicate musical brush strokes.

Mitchell’s televised set runs just over a half hour and is mesmerizing from the very first number. There were four additional songs Mitchell played that were not included in the show which I will note in the appropriate places during this review. In addition to the magical music Joni’s wonderfully organic and shy being and beauty permeates the screen. Every nuance and breath is counted, the silence as important and the melodies.

Beginning the In Concert film is Joni is on acoustic guitar, angelically stoic at a microphone stand. The opening song flowing from her is “Chelsea Morning”. The song predates Joni’s debut album and had already been recorded by Judy Collins and Fairport Convention, (then appeared on Joni’s 1969 Clouds) but here it is played by its composer, solo acoustic and as nature intended. Joni begins confidently, her voice a sunrise bird call, her verbal imagery as vibrant as her rich painted canvases. The strident strumming a slumbering feline stretching for the sunlighted windows of her Chelsea apartment. Joni finishes the song with an embarrassed giggle the result of appropriate applause.

Following “Chelsea Morning” but cut from the broadcast is the unreleased song, “Hunter (The Good Samaritan)” which was originally intended for Blue, but never made it onto an official release. A socially relevant song about a mysterious stranger never intended for public consumption.
Next comes another song cut unfortunately from broadcast (yet circulating) which Joni dedicates to any Scientologists in the crowd. “The Gallery” hails from Mitchell’s 1969 LP Clouds and expressed here in a riveting rendition. The song, which Mitchell also states is about a male artist who “connoisseur’s the ladies” is a noteworthy statement about a man who thinks he knows what the ladies like. Speculation is that the song is a reference to Joni’s relationship with Leonard Cohen.
Moving back into the official broadcast footage, Mitchell still on her acoustic guitar plays, “Cactus Tree” from her first album, 1968’s Song to a Seagull. The song’s narrator tells the tale of men and woman. Woman is courted in various ways and reciprocates in kind to those who want to share her presence, through her attempts and longing for being “free” conflict with the ideal of being wanted. The song’s abstract emotions are deeply more complex than my layman’s description, but its foundation has been explained.  Musically, Joni plays a gently prickling finger picked guitar line. The melody dynamically rocks between grounded and soaring, with Joni rising in glorious falsetto. The only descriptive fitting for this rendition is breathless.

An additional yet unreleased track is premiered next with “My Old Man” which would appear on the upcoming Blue LP. At this point in the proceedings Joni moves to piano. She introduces the song as still unfinished and needing a verse, but reveals that currently it is one of her favorite songs to sing. The subject of “My Old Man” is Joni’s current love interest Graham Nash who reciprocated compositionally at the time with his famous song, “Our House”. “My Old Man” shares that the love between Joni and Graham does not require proof or papers and exists just fine on its own accord. Mitchell plays a patient stained glass piano introduction and as she sings the introductory verse a shimmering smile settles across her lips. Stunning.

Before I can recover from this previous and amazing rendition Mitchell follows with “For Free”. The song sits on Mitchell’s 1970 album Ladies from the Canyon and spotlights one of Joni’s most endearing melodies. David Crosby was obviously a fan as he covered the song on the 1973 Byrds reunion album. Lyrically the cut deals with Mitchell’s rise to fame and procures an alternative glimpse of how artists are viewed and valued while providing a view of Joni’s conflicted views on her ascending popularity. A highlight of the performance and a highlight of singer/songwriter music in general. Superlatives fail to conjure enough expression for this astronomical song and reading.

The next two songs played were not in the original broadcast. The first, “Woodstock” finds Joni still seated at the piano bench where she plays her version of the song made famous by 1970 cover versions from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and British band Matthew’s Southern Comfort. Joni introduces the song with the now famous tale of how she could not make the Woodstock festival which inspired her to compose the song in her hotel room. Mitchell’s performance here is beautifully conflicted, featuring a misty night time piano line and hopeful lyricism. Similarly to the rest of the show, Joni is sweet smiles and singing with eyes closed ecstasy and finishes the song with an angelic wordless recitation of the melody.
Joni then leaves the piano and moves to her dulcimer for early renditions of additional unreleased versions of songs from her upcoming Blue LP. Joni explains to the assembled crowd about her dulcimer referring to it as her “stretched our fiddle”. The first song is “California” which Joni explains was written while she was adventuring in various places around the world and feeling homesick. Joyous, buoyant and warm, Mitchell’s anticipation and relief for home pour from her syncopated and metered verses. Shimmering falsetto and delicate strums decorate her movements both on stage and in the fictional world of song.

“All I Want” follows on dulcimer and is also unfinished but is played here with a playful looseness that is missing from the studio version. Joni’s rhythmically scrubs the song’s contagious strumming pattern which she drapes over her longing vocal lines. In this early state we are offered an early sample of her clandestine songwriting process.

Returning to acoustic guitar Mitchell concludes the evening with two of her most critically acclaimed songs. Joni tells the crowd, “I’m really in the mood to sing, unfortunately my pipes are kind of going now”.  “I’d stay here for another hour”. Starting with “Big Yellow Taxi”, Joni breezes through the songs changes while flashing a resplendent smile. With nary a pause Mitchell then segues into “Both Sides Now”, composed by Joni, made famous by Judy Collins and then appearing on Joni’s 1970 LP Clouds.  Additionally, Mitchell also recorded the song with orchestration for her 2000 album Both Sides Now illustrating her affinity for the song. Her voice softy rocks between fragile vibrato and conversational while her strums keep time like a transparent metronome.

As the performance concludes Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni Mitchell flashes across the screen as the assembled studio crowd shares their enthusiasm and the broadcast fades to black.  In hindsight this thankfully immortalized concert is quite possibly the finest Joni Mitchell document from her early and prolific era. The show finds Mitchell’s work caught between dazzling green canyons and indigo blue while illustrating Mitchell’s songwriting and artistic intentions blossoming on both instrument and easel. This BBC performance introduces the listener to both Mitchell’s well known numbers and a few rarer cuts stuck between the pages. No matter the song performed; her beauty, honesty and immense artistic aesthetic is captured on celluloid for the duration of time.

Joni Mitchell BBC 1970