Talk From The Rock Room

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album - 'The Stone Blues'

Recorded over two days in February of 1975 and released in April, The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album was the perfect combination. Levon Helm and songwriter Henry Glover had the excellent idea to have the legendary Mississippi Muddy Waters to Helm’s barn studio in Woodstock, NY as their first ‘client’. In what would be Waters last LP for Chess, Helm, in addition to Water’s hot shit touring band collected some of the most amazing and respectful talent he could to back the blues legend. In addition to guitarist Bob Margolin and pianist ‘Pinetop Perkins’ from Water’s road band, Helm included Woodstock talent, Paul Butterfield an honey boy Garth Hudson from Helm’s own group ‘The Band’. Former Hawk guitarist Fred Carter also stopped in along with famed horn player Howard Johnson. Today in the ‘rock room’ we will drop the needle on this Grammy winning record and study its grooves.

The LP opens with the Bobby Charles composition, ‘Why Are People Like That?’ famed songwriter of ‘See You Later Alligator’ fame. Charles had taken up residence in Woodstock, but his swamp Louisiana sensibilities are tangible on the swampy groove. Opening with an audio verite’ moment of Muddy directing the proceedings which is a theme of the LP, the song stutters along on Helm’s crispy snare hits. Butterfield enters with a billowing harmonica accompaniment and mid song solo. Per usual Mr. Hudson lays a shifty bed in which Muddy makes you contemplate exactly, ‘why are people like that?’ This cut especially illustrates the completely natural meeting of Muddy's deep blues and the rustic back porch arranging of Helm and friends.

The swinging ‘Going Down to Main Street’ is a Waters original that jumps with a shifty twelve bar gate. Garth Hudson lends some hip, yea, hip accordion toots along the way. Both Hudson and Butterfield build a nest with the central bird call melody popping its head above the bundle of twigs. This is a funky juke ass swinger and displays another side of the multiple roots of American music on display. The song concludes with a Waters giggle that just has to make the listener smile.

The first slow blues of the record, a Waters composition ‘Born with Nothing’, also features some razor edged chrome slide riffing by Waters, a definite highlight. Hudson splays a wash of indigo accordion across the cut. A 12 bar wood floor stomp, like previously stated, features a cutting spotlight solo for Muddy.

Closing the first side of the record is 'Caldonia', a jump blues written in 1945 by Louis Jordan. The song would become a favorite of both Helm and Waters. Helm would continue to perform the song both solo and with the ‘Band’ throughout his career. Muddy played it at ‘The Last Waltz’ though it was not featured on the original soundtrack LP. Here it cooks over sterno with a joyous melody line squeezed out by Butterfield and Hudson on harp and accordion respectively. Muddy raps matter of fact fashion, his robust vocals as rich as Southern muck land. In the ‘rock room’s humble opinion, this track illustrates what IT is all about. Again, ‘Honeyboy’ Hudson lights it up with a stellar squeezebox solo.

Flipping over the record, Side two begins with ‘Funny Sounds’, a Waters original that raps its knuckles on the back door with the assistance of Helm’s perfection on drums. ‘Pinetop Perkins’, a master on the record, trills the black and white’s with a master’s hand including a subterranean solo spot. Featuring some of Water’s best vocals on the record, the collective surrounds him with some of the purest blues on magnetic tape. Butterfield follows with a horny harp spot that squawks its way right to the bus station where Muddy waits for the final verse. It makes me sweat!

The low end, ‘Love, Deep as the Ocean’, follows with an ‘audio verite’ moment captured with Waters explaining to the band that, ‘I don’t write anything but stone blues’. This is the lead in to Helm’s clip clop groove and the dizzying Perkins/Hudson dual keyboard attack. Water’s professes his love while slicing knife edge slide riffing. Butterfield, Perkins and Hudson all get fingerprints across Waters notes as Muddy brings things to a rolling boil. Big ‘well’s and hearty promises initiate goosebumps and in the end, two of Waters finest blues of the 1970’s open up side two of this stone classic.

‘Let the Good Times Roll’ comes next and swings with a devil may care attitude. The song begins like a huge stage curtain rolling back. The horns get in on the action here with Howard Johnson blowing out some funky smoke. Butterfield toots out the central groove while Waters directs us to just 'get it on', it don't matter who you are, just let the good times roll. Both this and the following 'Kansas City' close the record with unadulterated rock and blues. Each amazing musician getting their own chance to let it roll.

The Leiber/Stoller classic ‘Kansas City’ closes proceedings properly with some high octane rocking and rolling. Helm snaps sticks with some crispy hi hat work, while Hudson puts down the accordion and lends some very 'Band' like Lowrey organ paint strokes. A rare, (for this record) guitar solo follows which to me sounds like the clean tone stylings of Fred Carter. The clandestine star of the show, Paul Butterfield is given another solo spot to which he ignites like flash paper. As the band gains temperature, Waters passes the bottle of cherry wine to Pinetop who takes his own set of verses with Muddy answering in kind. 'Kansas City' sums up the fun collaborative effort and musical spirit in which the record was created.

Personally, for the 'rock room', The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album encapsulates the multiple things that I love about music. The unpretentious attitudes, the musical respect, Woodstock, Levon Helm and arguably the finest blues man to walk the land. While the record differs somewhat from Water's extensive blues catalog as far as musical elements, it also never forgets it's roots. Like Muddy states on the record to his supporting musicians; that they may 'want to change the temperature' while arranging. On The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, the temperature is feverish! Its rare that disparate musical collaborations are a success, but when you have pure musicality and unabashed love for music the results can be nothing short of musical magic.

The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Put the Boot In: Bob Dylan and the Hawks – Live In Hartford October 30, 1965 - 'No Need to be Nervous'

Following Dylan’s legendary electric set at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, Dylan set forth to find a permanent rock and roll backing band to disseminate his vision. The concerts that took place from the summer of 1965 through May of 1966 are some of the most legendary and destructive rock and roll concerts in music history. The combination of imagery and electricity accumulated into a new music, the ‘thin wild mercury sound’. In the ‘rock room’s humble opinion (and others) this developed conglomerate changed the direction of rock music and really has never been topped. Groups just weren’t doing things like this! In addition to the revolution in music was the combative audiences, antiquated equipment and bouncing around the globe on a diet of hotel food, drugs and groupies!

Today in the ‘rock room’ I am enjoying a distant, chopped up, wavy and aurally challenging field recording from October 30, 1965. These are the moments that the ‘rock room’ lives for. A tattered magnetic tape immortalizing a historic moment. That being said, this recording is not going to be for everybody. Put on your ‘bootleg ears’ and tune in. This particular evening can be looked at as the connective tissue strung between Newport and the Royal Albert Hall in May of 1966. This available recording from Hartford is one of only a handful that features the entire ‘Hawks’ line up as soon after this aforementioned performance Levon Helm would leave the group until mid 1967 when by that time they were the ‘Band’. If you are willing to search you can find a copy of this show, there is also a streaming version available via the usual channels (I have included a link here). It has also been 'officially' released to those who purchased the 'Cutting Edge' big blue box in 2015 where the 1965 tour was included as a bonus in mp3 format.

There are other recordings available for the ‘rock room’ to peruse from this era, but there are enough unique moments contained within this one to share it with my fellow ‘rockers’. The September Hollywood Bowl tape is a soundboard, and the two December shows recorded by Allen Ginsberg are stunning, though not featuring Levon in the group. While this show because of sonic anomalies falls down the list of ‘must have’s’ in the Dylan canon, it also spotlights historically essential music and a rare set of songs.

The concert and the tape begins with ‘She Belongs to Me’ and the ambiance of the Bushnell Auditorium is discernable on the recording. The crowd is attentive and the fidelity is reasonable as Dylan sings a sparkling opening track. A Mr. Jim La Clair posted his recollections of the Harford show online as he attended and had front row seats for the concert. He notes in his remembrance a ‘dynamic tension’ in the air as the concert took place as well as noting the piles of electric gear littering the stage. La Clair also notes that when Dylan took the stage for the opening acoustic set ‘he seemed to emit an aura that was otherworldly’, ‘standing in the light just a few feet from my seat he seemed so fragile, like a porcelain doll’. It is also remembered that while there were only a few cat calls during the previous evening’s performance in Vermont which La Clair attended as well; in Harford things were a bit more edgy.

Following unfortunately truncated recordings of ‘To Ramona’ and ‘Gates of Eden’ comes a full version of ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’. Typical to this era, the crowd is in rapt silence hanging by their fingertips on each of Dylan's words. While distant, Dylan's voice reverberates around the hall, weaving a fantastic version of this Bringing It All Back Home song. Of special note is the usually fabulous harp solo mid way through the song.

Only short snippets of 'Desolation Row' and 'Love Minus Zero/No Limit' are on the tape. A poignant harp starts 'Love Minus Zero'  which ends way to quickly and leaves me wanting more. The acoustic set then concludes with an upbeat and briskly strummed ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. This song would too become elongated and stretched like warmed candy by the time it reached Europe. Here it still retains its folk elements but tinged with it's stony imagery to which the performances would soon match. Dylan's harp spots are again an obvious highlight.

The electric set starts with a rare extended ‘Tombstone Blues’ a song that would soon be replaced by ‘Tell Me Mama’ when the tour touched Europe. Someone near the taper identifies the song as ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ in error. Their exchanges will be audible throughout the recording. Here, Robertson’s guitar is screaming and he locomotives behind the granite foundation of the Hawks rhythm section. Dylan’s vocals are clear and his is in full ‘Highway 61’ throat. 

Unfortunately both Manuel’s piano and Danko’s bass play hide and seek on the circulating tape. Regardless, the on stage energy is tangible. Dylan continually spits out verses like a sour lemon with extra emphasis on lines like, ‘Jack the Rippahh’! Prior to Robertson’s first solo, Garth Hudson firehoses an audible multicolored wash across the stage to which Robertson responds aggressively. I swear I can hear a girl near the recorder remark, ‘You didn’t tell me about this’. ‘This’, being the 180 decibel rock and roll machine on the stage I would assume! The group reaches a steamy and rolling boil by the cuts conclusion with applause of approval rolling in from the audience.

‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’ comes next, a song well entrenched in Dylan’s career at this point and a song that would remain in stage sets throughout the end of the 1966 tour. A groovy harp introduction starts things off with Danko thumping out his bass line soon after. Dylan sings here in a chilled ‘folky’ style for lack of a better term, as by 66 he would be howling out this track. The Hawk’s sparkle here even with the lack of fidelity, with Helm’s detailed touch lending a loose swing to the proceedings. Hudson, Manuel and Robertson each take a solo segment with Manuel’s piano bobbing out of the wash on the tape to great effect. Smokin!

Only a brief fragment of ‘Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ is available on the recording before cutting off. ‘Maggie’s Farm’ then follows in a rare mid 1960’s electric reading. The song starts off with Dylan and his lone jangly guitar before the band kicks their shovel into the soil and gets to working. The song is careening on the edge of high tempo electrified madness. The ‘Hawks’ swoop in for their prey shredding everything in their way. Dylan raps cool and collected as the group swirls the instrumentation into a silvery honky tonk groove. Right now at this moment, this is the best band on the planet. Hudson answers Dylan with alien melodies, Danko and Helm bounce rhythms and counter rhythms against the back wall of the arena.  Through Robertson’s piercing solo he and Manuel match gaudy R and B riffing excitedly; at this point I am so far into this recording I feel like moving matter in preparation for time travel. The band comes to a hard stop that cuts just prior to the tape. Wow.

An early standard of the Dylan and the Hawks sets but gone by the 66 World Tour is ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, originally off of Dylan’s Another Side of Bob Dylan record.  This is another one of those, ‘It used to go like that, now it goes like this’ moments. Beginning with a start and stop arrangement, Dylan and Hawks enter into an attentive but aggressive rendition to the crowd’s collaborative applause. The middle eight develops a direct rock stomp, dressed with Manuel’s staccato piano, prior to opening wide for the substantial chorus where the sky is revealed. On this particular track I am very happy with the balance of all the instruments and vocals; less volume on stage in this case assists with the value of the recording. Following the opening lyrics the ‘Hawks’ run through an beautiful instrumental verse and chorus before Dylan soars in with harmonica for another pass before returning to the ‘melt back into the night’ verse. A wonderful performance of this Dylan classic.

When the tape cuts back the crowd is yelling something about ‘rock’ and then scattered shouts of ‘folk music’ rain down. Dylan plays the opening chords to ‘Ballad of the Thin Man’ to a mixture of applause and jeers. A steady and sly ‘Thin Man’ thumps up tempo through verse one before the tape cuts and the rest is lost in the foggy ruins of time.

Some giggling and crowd ambiance is caught before another relative rarity follows with ‘Positively Fourth Street’. The song had been released as a US single the previous month on September 7th, 1965 so the crowd was familiar with the cut as there is substantial applause as it begins. I don’t know how to explain it but this track contains it all. The vibe, the sound, the groove and Dylan and the Hawks peaking combines to place me square on my butt in the middle of a venue from the past. Dylan’s singing is perfection, every inflection an additional layer to the songs sneering put downs. He bobs and weaves while pulling out the emotion of the lyrics like a blood draw. The Hawks are a crisp as fall in the mountains, Hudson plays a mirror of the signature lick while Robertson laces up some well-timed filigrees.

The tape and concert concludes with 'Like a Rolling Stone'. Those familiar with this period know that by the time Dylan hit Europe the live versions of this song had become bombastic. Here, Dylan and the band are playing well but have not yet haunted the performances with that extra smudge of voodoo. Unfortunately the recording also contains a number of drop out's and speed variations by this point in the tape.  

For students and 'rock geeks' of Dylan, the period immortalized by this recording is legendary in scope and myth. Dylan and the Hawks (later the Band) took on and developed a new and different combination of lyric and song. They performed the music to diverse and defiant audiences around the globe. Patience is key when enjoying when a field recording of this prominence, but the riches that reveal themselves with careful concentration are worth the wait.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Put the Boot In: Grateful Dead – Winterland- December 30, 1977 – ‘Shotgun Ragtime Band’

One day removed from one of the most famed Grateful Dead performances in history, December 30, 1977 contains a mysterious grace all of its own. The Grateful Dead were known for legendary New Year’s runs throughout their history and the year 1977 was one of the best. As previously stated, the concert from December the 29th is legendary in ‘Deadhead’ circles not only of the return of ‘China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider’, but for the amazing musical conversations that took place on the stage that evening. That concert was a must have in original tapers circles and was later immortalized officially on Dick’s Picks Volume 10.  As a special bonus, Dick included a chunk of the next night, December 30th as filler. That particular evening is the focus of this Talk from the Rock Room review.

I am listening to the circulating Charlie Miller soundboard which can be streamed at the Grateful Dead archive here. I will refer to the official release of Dick’s Picks Volume 10 for the second set jam. The opening set is long and languid, opening with a typically substantial Fall 1977 version of ‘Mississippi Half Step Uptown Toodeloo’ and culminating with a hyper vegetating ‘Let It Grow’. Beginning with the September 3, 1977 reading, the Fall 77 ‘1/2 Step’s’ just get better and better through to the end of the year.  This one is no exception.

There are also crystalline versions of long slow Jerry classics like ‘Row Jimmy’ and ‘Peggy O’ to be enjoyed here. Typical to this era both of these songs are highlighted by nuanced Garcia vocals and attentive playing. One hesitates to say, ‘typical of the era’, but during the Fall of 1977 the Grateful Dead’s standard of playing was so strong even the most basic set list can stun even the most practiced and jaded listener.  Lesh is creative, Garcia positively sings through his strings and the two drummers play as one. Weir and Godchaux are peaking for one final golden era with the famed 1970’s line up.

Highlights of the first set include the aforementioned as well as a shit kicking ‘Dire Wolf’ with a lyrical Garcia solo and a very aggressive ‘Passenger’. The drummers are epically feisty on this Winterland evening. The jittery set closing “Let It Grow’ reaches full bloom only to be cut off by Weir just a bit early. The final closing jam, while not quite October 11, 1977 does have a flood of Garcia’s scrubbing bubbles. The set rises to reach a well-timed conclusion.

The jamming in the second set is wonderfully West coast, patient and beautifully played. The big musical segment is of enough note that as previously stated, it was included as bonus audio on the aforementioned Dick’s Picks Volume 10. The set begins with a sturdy ‘Samson’ and a cool down ‘Ship of Fools’ before the musical suite of the evening commences. A typically well played ‘Estimated Prophet’ begins the journey. By the winter 78 tour ‘Estimated’ will have really started to go some crazy places, and this version is the start of the song revealing new avenues of improv for the band. The outro jam here starts off plodding, then probing but by the last minute Garcia begins to discover a sweet dissonance. Both he, Weir and Lesh begin to feel something worth chasing for the final minute with unique heavy playing. Slurpy and sticky Garcia Mutron playing is the obvious highlight. Weir chunks out with off beat chording, Jerry misses steps on purpose running hot on Weir's tail. While not picture perfect, the segue into ‘Eyes’ is beautifully developed.  ‘Eyes of the World’ is a long narcotic version with some of the most delectable Garcia vocals of the era. A+

You can feel the mist of inspiration descend upon the stage as ‘Eyes’ begins to dissipate following the ‘fade out’ riffing. Lesh growls some gentle feedback blasts while signaling a syncopated groove which begins to develop around Garcia’s circular runs. The drummers click out an excitable groove using rims shots and cymbal clicks, meshing into an improvised teletype. A busy and floral jam now surfaces as Lesh and Garcia propel the major key groove forward. Weir plucks out an answer and he and Godchaux join the drummers in creating an engaging rhythm. Garcia reveals the axis and begins to weave his brassy tone with perfectly placed fretwork. Everyone circles the fire encouraging the flames.

The band has achieved lift off and the crowd has jumped on the back for the ride. At around the fourteen minute mark, Garcia and Godchaux are in perfect simpatico. Lesh is pulsing, pushing and pulling with Hart’s bass drum churning the groove. Around fifteen minutes, Kreutzmann starts to increase the heat with some snare drum snaps before Garcia gently pumps the breaks and lands the intro into ‘St. Stephen’. A fine piece of improv and one of the best jams of the Fall.

In the ‘rock room’s’ humble opinion, this is the best ‘Stephen’ of the year and one of the finest of the post retirement Dead era. Thunder drums and sprawling Garcia strumming are only part of the madness of the reading. A heavy stepping rendition, after disposing with the lyrics at close to six minutes the band cracks the egg with percussive piano and ringing Garcia notes. Per their usual practice the mid-section of the song rolls and boils with dynamic intensity. Weir signals the drummers to pick up the pace and the band gaining their footing, begin to crest the musical wave. The group is now delicately balanced on the precipice in their preparation to return to the main Stephen riff. The tension increases with each Garcia strum until Hart signals a full band return to the ‘Stephen’ theme. Success.

Photo By Bob Minkin

A small stumble during the return verse is forgiven as the band has just presented the New Year’s eve,  crowd with a gift that will last forever. The concluding ‘Stephen’ leads into a slam banging version of ‘Sugar Magnolia’. Garcia bends strings of the neck while the band constructs a joyous and buoyant version of the oft-played show closer. Like the rest of the music preceding it, this one is a good un. Rock star Bobby goads the band into an epic all night reading. The band obviously knew they knocked it out of the park as they give Winterland a double encore of ‘U.S. Blues’ followed by ‘Good Lovin’. The band is just not running on inertia from the December 29th blow out, but creating a brand new musical experience. On Winterland this particular evening, ‘something new was waiting to be born’ and the group answered the clarion call.

December 30, 1977 is another unique chapter in a huge volume of stellar playing maintained by the Grateful Dead in the late 1970’s. Enjoy the entire evening as you would study a text or watch a film. Dig right into the second set magic if you choose. Regardless of how you listen there is a vast soundscape of Grateful Dead to enjoy, just point at a calendar and spin. Just make sure you don't forget late 1977 when the Dead were once again reaching and surpassing a musical peak.