Talk From The Rock Room

Friday, September 18, 2020

Take One: Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation – ‘Stone Crazy’ - Stewart, Green, Bruce -'Crazy Blue'

In the midst of the swelling white boy British blues boom of the 1960’s there was a plethora of cross pollination between artists, bands and songs. The guitarist’s chairs were almost always spinning as now legendary guitarists bounded from group to group in addition to starting their own bands. Starting with  'Alexis Korner's, Blues Incorporated and moving into and through the 'Stones' and 'Yardbirds'’ in the early part of the 60's, a number of collaborative efforts followed suit. In the November of 1967 one of these short lived ‘supergroups’ came together, oh so briefly. Aynsley Dunbar, at this point drummer for 'John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, then the 'Jeff Beck Group' and later of Zappa's 'Mother's of Invention' pulled together his own side project using a few of the musical connections he had made along the way.

In a lineup that is almost too good to be believed, Dunbar enlisted Rod 'the Mod' Stewart who was later his band mate in the Jeff Beck Group to take over vocal duties. He also asked Peter Green recently defected from John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker to play lead guitar, and for Jack Bruce bassist for Graham Bond Organization the Bluesbreakers, and most currently at the time ‘Cream’ to assist. This aforementioned group was the blueprint for the first Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation and for this particular session the band was believed to be named ‘Crazy Blue’. Obviously all of the participants of the band were soo to be in preparation to springboard into bands of their own design.  Stewart eventually to Faces, Green to found Fleetwood Mac, Bruce already in Cream and Dunbar in a band that carried his name and later banging the kit Frank Zappa.

This loose conglomerate of a band joined for one legendary and historic session in November of 1967 which reportedly took place for the Blue Horizon’s label. Two songs and three attempts were taken at recording a single for the band. ‘Stone Crazy’ had two attempts and 'Fly Right Baby' with Jack Bruce playing piano had one and remains as of this writing unreleased. Who knows the actual reasons for the short term aspect of the band but one can assume that contractual obligations had something to do with it ending before it started. The subject of today's 'rock rant' is the only track that exists for our ears from the session, 'Stone Crazy'.

The song is a slow blues taken for leisurely drive on dark rain pocked cobblestone streets. Green’s candied tone is immediately recognizable as the track begins to reveals itself. Bruce grumbles a idiosyncratic bass line with a painter’s attention to detail. Dunbar holds it all together with a patient 12 bar on the hi hat and snare. Stewart soon comes in for the intro verse and the thougth crosses my mind that he could have been the best white blues singer ever, if he chose to follow that path.

Deftly weaving lyrics, with some that would later find a home on the Jeff Beck Group track, ‘Blues Deluxe’ Stewart makes ya feel it, playing with husky dynamics while extracting a deep feeling from the groove like a blood draw.  Peter Green answers Stewart's calls with silvery stringy bends. Green leaves just enough breathing room for each riff to marinate in your ears. It's a fact that these British musicians held the American blues musicians in such high regard that their recreations can be nothing but authentic. While this song's authorship cannot be determined, it is a straight blues with lyrical content hailing from an number of sources which was typical of the time.

First solo break Bruce and Green stream their respective licks from the musical maypole. Bruce thumps with a puffed out chest while descending in time, growling out the changes. In his typical fashion Green conjures a solo that amazes and medicates while emanating a deep understanding of the blues. Patient, sugary, sleek like liquid night. The song rocks gently with a secretive strength, the unique musical ability of each principal eliciting a power that does not require flash or musical posturing.

       Pic : Lars-Ewe Nilsson

Following the solo break Stewart returns with a sensual and gritty whisper. Regardless of your opinion of Stewart, it get's you feeling funny and funky. Stewart follows the aforementioned lyric with an aggressive demanding response, one begging to prove his love. Green tickles the fretboard with a scurrying yet perfectly slotted lick. The final lyric Stewart giggles during the break, a fitting end to what sounds and feels like a enjoyable exploration of the blues and a tentative musical relationship.

One track, five minutes, but a musical eternity contained within. Each member of this short lived conglomerate would go on to their own musical fame. Dunbar would go on to release a series of solo LP's, in addition to each respective member of this particular group. But for a couple of shared moments and one powerful track that has revealed itself to listeners they got it together for a legendary what if?


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Tools of the Trade: Ronnie Lane’s Zemaitis Bass Guitar – 'Still Hear the Echo'

When I think of the rock and roll legends, ‘Faces’, I think of a heavy rock and roll swagger and a musical celebration. Substantial images of Rod Stewart's flamboyant stage dress, Ronnie Wood’s poofter hair style, Kenney Jones powerful stick hits, Mac’s tickling of the blacks and whites, and the band’s on stage drunken revelry flash through my minds eye. Most importantly are the on stage mental pictures of the band’s ‘tools of the trade’, Woody’s guilded Zemaitis guitar and the subject of this rant, Ronnie Lane’s sleek black custom Zemaitis bass.

Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane, founding member of Small Faces and Faces as well as being one of rocks finest songwriters was one hell of a bass player. Lane was adept at both guitar and bass, but his rumbling bass tone in the mid 1960’s was a defining sound for Mod culture. Lane played with a pick and slapped his hollow bodied Gibson, coaxing rotund notes and smooth weaving bass lines for Small Faces. Lane used a number of guitars and basses throughout his musical career beginning with the aforementioned hollow body Gibson, Harmony, and moving into custom instruments and his eventual solid body Zemaitis bass by the time of Faces in 1969. Lane would also become associated with a Zemaitis resonator acoustic following his departure form Faces.

In the early 1950’s, luthier Tony Zemaitis, who started his career as a cabinetmaker began to repair and build acoustic guitars for his associates and friends. After a stint in the military Zemaitis started to become more ‘professional’ with the development of his instruments. By the 1960’s word was spreading amongst blues players around the UK eventually causing his 12 string acoustic guitars to be placed into the hands of players like Eric Clapton and Spencer Davis.

Continuing to improve his methods, Zemaitis began to develop electric guitars with a number of prototypes entering into the emerging rock and roll scene. Tony’s guitars were soon being given test runs by George Harrison, Marc Bolan and Jimi Hendrix. Creating what would soon be the defining element of his guitars, Zemaitis started to include the recognizable metal front which he deemed was to reduce the humming of electric guitars which it was successful at. His metal adorned guitars also began to include ornate engraved headstocks and plates which soon became their identifying element. Friend and customer Danny O’Brien was brought on by Zemaitis to decorate the headstocks and the front plates with beautiful custom designs. (to this day these are still being replicated, often by machines).

At some point in 1969 and during the formative stages of ‘Faces’ one of Zemaitis guitars made it to the ‘two Ronnie’s’ of the band, Ronnie Wood and Lane. When the 'Ronnie's first started coming to the Zemaitis show, Tony wasn't aware of who they were. What he did know is that they kept returning for his guitars! Both Ronnie’s have been pictured with and used a few different Zemaitis basses and guitars during their Faces time. Some 1970 footage, and a picture included here shows Lane playing his first Tony Zemaitis creation.

By 1971 Lane would be playing the bass that most defined him and the ‘Faces’ greatest years. Lane’s Les Paul shaped black electric solid body Zemaitis bass was what Tony Zemaitis referred to as a ‘one off’.  He told the current owner of the instrument Bob Daisley that he built the instrument specifically for Lane and that Ronnie brought along his own pickups for the bass. He revealed that Lane had a set of the straight pole vintage early 1050’s Fender bass pickups and installed those in the bass. Zemaitis also stated the Ronnie Lane requested that a plate be installed where the neck joint is located on the bass. When Zemaitis told Lane that the neck was not a ‘bolt on’ and that the instrument would not require the plate Ronnie insisted on installing one as Ronnie Wood had one as well. The ‘rock room’ is under of the assumption that the first Zemaitis bass Lane received is this one here, and then Lane returned to get the subject of this post, the ‘torty’ black Zemaitis made to his specifications. While Lane’s Harmony’s from his Small Faces days were 30” scale, the Zemaitis was 32”. For his custom pieces Tony Zemaitis would measure the musicians hand and then build the instrument accordingly.

The bass guitar's funky aesthetic just bellows 'rock and roll'; a sleek black chrome hot rod look, an ornate patterned aluminum head stock and a horny Les Paul shape, but a bit more menacing. Two steely rails enclose the pick up's. The 'rock room' is unable to confirm the type of wood used for the body of the bass. I will assume that the fret board is rosewood, but don't hold me too it. In addition to the look, the bass contain four tone control knobs, two for each respective pick up, as well as a volume control on the guitar's top horn. There is a silver double bridge and the instrument resided in its own custom made Zemaitis 'coffin shaped' case.

The bass guitar’s rotund tone fit key in lock with Lane’s heavy handed thumping approach to the bass. While Lane could lay down a melody on his four string with the best of them, his fat looping phrases and funky turnarounds were the focus of the sturdy foundation of the band.  Played through a classic Ampeg flip top B-15 cabinet the guitar takes on a thick lead tone when locked in with Kenney Jones big banging sticks. Lane's lead in to 'Three Button Hand Me Down' from the band's debut encapsulates Lane's approach, technique and his instrument. A rich warm buzz emanates from Lane's picked string wounds as his bass playing alternates between lead lines and a foundational rumbling.

As stated Lane, played his 'tort' bass for Faces peak touring years (71-72) before receiving and being pictured with an additional Zemaitis bass for his final year with the group. This instrument can be seen below. It is aesthetically similar to the subject of this rant, but with a more compact body and some snazzy angled pickups. This bass can be seen and heard in action here.

Some of the most exciting existing live 'Faces' footage comes from a BBC broadcast called 'Sounds for Saturday' broadcast in 1972. Plonk's rig is fully on display and cranked to the max. The band has reached a lofty summit of their live concert abilities. Enjoy Lane's thick melodicism on 'Maybe I'm Amazed' and his funky improv's on 'Too Much Woman'. Lane was a rocker's rocker who moved air and kept the rhythm down in the bottom. Such a unique man and player deserved a custom instrument to share his gift. Lane's 'tort' Faces touring bass fit the bill. Following his departure from Faces in mid-1973 to enjoy greater freedom for his songwriting and voice, Lane began to play more often a Zemaitis resonator guitar (built in 1971) which immediately became his main instrument for playing with Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance. Once his songwriting was allowed blossomed fully, Lane decided to strum and sing his creations rather than anchor them to the earth. We are lucky and thankful he had the ability to do both flawlessly.

Faces- First Step (Album)




Sunday, August 2, 2020

Put the Boot In: Stephen Stills and Graham Nash Live at Winterland 1969 – ‘The Will to Play’

In the heyday of the late 1960’s mind blowing concert line ups were the norm. On any night, especially in San Francisco, there was bound to be a stunning array of legendary musicians taking the stage. These tribal gatherings were usually put together by famed concert impresario Bill Graham. One Fall weekend on October 24th and 25th in 1969, psychedelic rock masters the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane shared a double bill at the WInterland ballroom. While this was not unusual for the two San Francisco contemporaries to be on the same bill, what makes the performance on October 25, 1969 especially unique is the duo that was invited to play an intermission set.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young had built a relationship with a number of San Francisco groups during this era, with many if not all of the fellow musicians contributing to and playing on the others studio recordings and even on the live stage. All of CSNY's principals had come from major bands of the time, the 'Byrds', 'Hollies and 'Buffalo Springfield respectively; with all the members firmly entrenched in rock's fraternity. The conglomerate of these musicians played under the moniker of the ‘Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra’ and collaborated on a number of records including but not limited to, Jefferson Starship's Blows Against the Empire, Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, and Nash’s Songs For Beginners. Stills had even composed a song, ‘Black Queen’ to play on stage with the Grateful Dead and had high hopes of producing them. He did end up joining the Dead on this evening during their set for a hearty and bluesy version of ‘Turn on Your Lovelight’.

This particular evening should have featured David Crosby as well, who was additionally a very close friend of the Dead and Airplane. Unfortunately he was enveloped in a deep mourning following the loss of his girlfriend Christine Hinton in a terrible automobile accident. Crosby would never be the same, and for the immediate interim he was in no condition to create music and perform. So, the band’s activities were put on the shelf while Croz recovered. Stills and Nash were the natural choice to take the stage while they waited for their musical futures to be determined. Following a series of concert cancellations following Hinton’s death, this recently discovered performance was a way for Stephen and Graham to keep active and try out some material.

Just the previous evening at nearby Wally Heider’s studio Stephen Stills and Graham Nash minus David were working on the upcoming CSNY LP eventually to be named ‘Déjà vu’. Jerry Garcia was invited to apply his considerable talents on the pedal steel to Nash’s track ‘Teach Your Children’ when Stills thought it needed a deeper ‘country’ aesthetic that he thought his playing could not provide. Obviously, his choice was right as Garcia poured out a rich cool stream of ‘Bakersfield’ melodicism to Nash’s classic.  (Garcia would go on to contribute each of Stephen, David, and Graham’s future solo LP’s) As an aside, Garcia would be given a beautiful 1957 Fender Stratocaster by Nash for his assistance on Nash’s songs, later known as ‘Alligator’ which the ‘rock room’ previously wrote about here.

Graham Nash speculates that it was Garcia who invited the pair to perform the next evening after their recording of ‘Teach Your Children’, regardless of who gave the invite, it happened. While sonically pleasing soundboard recordings of both the Dead and Airplane sets have circulated amongst traders for some time, the rumored set by Stills and Nash has not. Though bits and pieces of the tape had started to surface as of last year. Now, thanks to famed sound man and LSD chemist Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley and Grateful Dead collector and archivist Charlie Miller the Stills and Nash set circulates in wonderful soundboard quality.  

The waaaaaay casual performance begins with a Bill Graham introduction as the performers take their places on the stage. A number of on stage asides can be discerned as well as the tangible excitement and musical friendship between Stephen and Graham. As he takes the stage Nash asks for a drink for his parched throat, while making sure it’s a ‘straight’ drink. Nash returns to introduce the debut of ‘Teach Your Children’ but then defers. As Nash commences his on stage search off mic, Stephen begins to pour out some acoustic blues. The show begins in earnest with a funky syncopated version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’. Taking a number of licks from his country blues satchel, Stills begins to duet with his guitar singing in his honey sweet 1960’s Buffalo Springfield throat. Stills sings all three verses while dicing the song with a stinging solo. Nash lends a boisterous ‘Yeah!’ following Stephen’s spotlight moment.

Next, Nash joins Stephen for real and introduces ‘A little country tune we know’ before revealing the first performance of a fifty year nightly career song and probably his most famous composition, ‘Teach Your Children’. Here Stephen and Graham give it a confident reading, only missing the buttery Crosby harmonies, the song is still a stunner. Stephen and Graham sing joyously with a few lyrics yet to be pressed into stone.  An unassuming beginning for what would become a worldwide favorite after its official release on 1970’s CSNY LP Déjà vu.

A brief break follows before Stills introduces a new song composed by John Sebastian. Sebastian was a close friend of Crosby Stills and Nash and in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion one of the finest songwriters anyone has ever witnessed. ‘How Have You Been’ follows and I assert is the highlight of the performance. The song would be worked out in the studio by CSN in addition to this previously unknown performance; which makes me assume it was in the running for an album track at some point in time. The song would make a proper appearance on Sebastian’s 1970 solo album, John B. Sebastian. Stills sings the shit out of the track on this evening with Nash in close support harmonies that sound like the two are blood relatives. Back porch guitar, double exposed harmonies and a full investment in Sebastian lyrics allow the song to sigh with a delicate hopefulness.

After a short on stage discussion, Stills and Nash decide to play a ‘fast’ singalong with ‘Lonesome Valley’, with Nash inviting the crowd to join. 'Lonesome Valley’ is a Woody Guthrie song well known to a number of the attendees that evening and a song Stills was familiar with from his time with the Au Go Go Singers‘. Performed as a call and response stomp, Graham and Stephen state and reply the verses before harmonizing on the final lines. Nash soars to ‘Hollies’ heights with his famous songbird tenor, sometimes missing the mark, but making the performance so endearing.  A unique song and even more special reading that places the ‘rock room’ center stage while taking a big gulp of Kool Aid.

Some additional on stage discussions reveal that the duo is short on time, before Graham Nash announces, ‘We are going to leave, but just before we do I want to hear Stephen sing some blues’. Closing the duos set is an early ‘Black Queen’, played with smoke and leaving whiskey rings on the table. A song Stills composed for the Grateful Dead, the song would eventually become a show stopper for Stills and appearing on his first solo LP Stephen Stills with the disclaimer, ‘Courtesy of Jose Cuervo tequila’. Stills gets dirty with a jumpy version that spotlights his spooky picking. Midway through the song at around three minutes Stephen hits on a repetitive melody that morphs into lush backcountry strumming.  This is Stephen’s own variety of the blues, his voice as important as the licks, and working together like Aces in a hand. The jam elicits humid air and after an additional verse Stills again sings with his instrument. Howling like the town crier, Stills allows his stunning falsetto to caress the strings, entering into an extended and stony exploration of the song’s central licks. After a small vocal misfire, Stills shrugs it off and enters into a fitting conclusion with some additional big falsetto. The crowd explodes in kind and MC Bill Graham again introduces the duo before the tape cuts.

One of the eventualities that thrills the ‘rock room’ more than anything is when new or unknown music circulates. This recent discovery of this tape of Graham Nash and Stephen Stills live at Winterland allows not only a musical epiphany but an important historical glimpse as well. The recording captures the band or in this case the duo in an important and formative time. It allows us to place a cup on the door and listen for magic and clues that a ‘rock geek’ like myself lives for. The ability to listen to a fifty year old unofficial recording to mine for ‘rock gold’ is a welcome proposition. Thanks to taper and chemist Owsley Stanley for again capturing lightning in a bottle and placing it on magnetic tape. Thank you to Charlie Miller for recovering the reel and releasing it into the wild for all to enjoy.