Talk From The Rock Room

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Take One: Fairport Convention/Sandy Denny –'Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’ – ‘I Have No Fear of Time’

A song that contemplates the passing of time and was voted by UK listeners in 2007 as their favorite folk song is spinning endlessly on the ‘rock room’s turntable today. ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ is a song composed by Sandy Denny and recorded a number of times by a multifarious collection of musicians. Oddly enough the song’s subject is proven by the song longevity and agelessness. Denny was a great fan of traditional song and she ended up composing one that would nestle comfortably into the folk lexicon. Similarly to other ‘rock’ standards including but not limited to, ‘Without You’, Everybody’s Talkin’, ‘Let It Be’, Denny’s song sprouted new life and like her true love of folk standards started to be passed along from musician to musician.

‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ was composed in 1967 as per a demo recorded at Denny’s home and is available on a rare cassette only compilation called The Attic Tracks Volume 3. Unbelievably, Denny was 17 years old when she composed such a substantial pillar of songwriting. What I find unbelievable is the depth of character and deep understanding of life at this early age, in addition to being able to express it in melody and song. The melody and lyric contain a soaking sense of solitude and melancholy that seems difficult to grasp without a plethora of painful life experience.

Denny recorded an additional version shortly after her early 1967 demonstration recording joining with the band  ‘The Strawbs’ and having guitarist Dave Cousins accompany her on a lacy acoustic based reading. This particular recording has been released officially and his available on the recording Sandy Denny and the Straws-All Our Own Work which was a compilation of the aforementioned 1967 recordings released in 1973.

Denny’s song and her career received a well-deserved acknowledgement and  jolt when famed folkie Judy Collins received one of Denny’s demos of the track in 1968 and decided  to cover it as well as title the name of her record after the song. Collins version which also was released as a ‘B’ side to her single ‘Both Sides Now’, appeared officially well before Denny’s already recorded versions.

Perhaps the definitive version amongst a career of performances  is the first reading of this Denny song to appear on a pressing, ‘Fairport Convention’s third long player, 1969’s Unhalfbricking. The song here emanates a ‘hopeful sadness’ with Denny’s vocals perhaps eliciting a deeper emotion than the songs lyric. Denny’s acoustic and Richard Thompson’s open the tune, revealing a salty horizon where past and future collide in the present quiet contemplation of the author’s thoughts. Thompson’s guitar weaves cleanly through the songs melody, knotting each string perfectly with a tight musical bow hitch.  The arrangement retains its acoustic elements, but with ‘Fairport Convention’ gets as Neil Young would say, a bit of the ‘spook’, taking the song to a new level.

The song sways on its own internal momentum, just the delicate metronome of a high hat. Bass and the snare soon to follow setting the table for Denny’s shimmering and delectable vocals. The chorus soon revealing a beam of scattered sunlight breaking through the foggy verses. Denny’s voice the calm storyteller, perfection in the face of uncertainty. Richard Thompson’s wife and friend of Sandy said of Denny’s vocal acumen, ‘With Sandy, you just believed every word, every syllable, and every heartbeat. It was all relevant. That's a great gift.’

The hardest part for any band is to lay back and to be attentive. Here, the band lays so far back they tip in their rocker, with Thompson’s aforementioned guitar squiggling in shorthand across the chord changes. The main instrument and focus is Sandy. Dynamics and the act of listening are on full display. The blurry collection of lyrics brings to the ‘rock room’ an image of a solitary figure on a forgotten winter shore. The seasons morph in front of them, the weather shifts by the moment and the figure remains, stoic, hidden.

While the ‘rock room’s above focus is on the definitive “Fairport Convention’ studio recording, there is a number of live renditions both with and without ‘Fairport’ that are worthy of your time and attention. A quivering solo acoustic version from September 11, 1973 on the BBC is available officially (if you can find it). Just Sandy and her spectral twelve spring conjoined in sonic dance of perfection. I feel lucky to be able to listen to this magical performance, in a way it sums up Sandy perfectly.

While writing about this song the ‘rock room’ has learned there cannot be only one definitive version of this track! They are all definitive. The substantial strength of the song’s melody and its enduring quality is proven by the long list of stellar artists who covered the song. Along with Judy Collins, Nina Simone, Eva Cassidy, Lonnie Donnegan, Susanna Hoffs, and of course Richard Thompson who pays a moving tribute to his friend every time he performs it in concert.

My hope with this Take One feature is to once again place a firelight glow on a song that in all reality needs no promotion from my humble little ‘rock room’. But as Sandy stated, ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’, and with the passage of years Denny’s importance and influence on both the world of folk and rock cannot be understated. The timelessness of the song, its singer and its disseminators will endure.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Tools of the Trade: Duane Allman’s Les Paul Guitar's -Goldtop, Cherry, Dark Burst -'Wings to Fly'

One thing you can depend on in the Talk from the Rock Room ‘Tools of the Trade’ feature is that the instrument will be iconic and its voice instantly recognizable. This is the case with Duane Allman’s 1957 Les Paul Gold Top serial number #7 3312. The guitar that bellowed on the ‘Allman Brothers Band’s first two LP’s as well as on ‘Derek and the Domino’s classic Layla and Assorted Love Songs has a story that borders on fiction and an alchemy that balances on fantasy. Allman’s legacy was built using this guitar and his spirit continues to be disseminated by its use by various Allman Brothers family up through current times. Much has been said about this guitar and it is one of the most famed instruments in the annals of rock history. The ‘rock room’ won’t add much to the substantial legacy, but can collaborate information and celebrate Duane and his legendary 'tools of the trade’. One silly aside that that the 'rock room' is not proud of. When visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years back Allman's 'Gold top' was on display. The 'rock room' was so overtaken with emotion upon seeing this beautiful piece of 'rock history that I actually set off the alarm sensor for getting to close to the iconic instrument. But...... I digress.

Duane Allman purchased his Goldtop sometime in 1968/1969 probably from Gainesville instrument shop Lipham Music where the band purchased much of their gear. The guitar became his partner in crime both in the studio and on the stage during the band’s formative months. In Galadrielle Allman’s book about her father, Please Be With Me, there is a document/letter labeled May 16, 1969 where Duane mentions purchasing a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop guitar in addition to a Marshall amp and Heritage acoustic to fellow guitar player Ralph Barr. As previously mentioned this 1957 Les Paul had the ‘goldtop’ finish, no pick guards, and two PAF pickups. The guitar can be heard on Duane’s early work with Boz Skaggs, such as ‘Loan Me A Dime’, Allman’s work with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and both of the ‘Allman Brother Band’s first two seminal recordings. Statements from Bobby Whitlock, vocalist and pianist for ‘Derek and the Dominos’ support the fact that the Goldtop was Duane’s main weapon of choice during this era and during the recording sessions for Lalya.

This guitar assisted in developing Duane’s touch and his tone as a player and offered a stunning contrast with Dickey Betts Fender Stratocaster in the early Brothers days. Stunning footage of the Goldtop in action can be found on the circulating pro shot footage from the Love Valley festival in North Carolina 1970.  A straight Les Paul into a Marshall stack, this is the stuff, all touch, all tone, all soul.

Now, this is the point of the tale when the Goldtop and the Cherry burst cross paths and exchange numbers. In September of 1970 the Allman Brothers Band were playing a concert in their hometown of Dayton, Florida where the opening act for the evening was ‘Stone Balloon’. The guitarist of that group,  Rick Stein had on stage a beautiful 1959 cherry burst Les Paul that caught young ‘Skydog’s eyes. Allman approached the guitarist following the concert with a deal in mind.  Allman offered the ‘Stone Balloon’ guitarist his Goldtop, $200.00 cash and a 50W Marshall head in exchange for the 1959 Les Paul.  One exception to the trade is that Allman wanted to keep the PAF pickups from his Goldtop and install them in his new acquisition. Allman Brothers Band roadie, Kim Payne has confirmed that he changed out the pickups from one guitar to the other in a Daytona, Florida hotel room. It is documented that the older PAF pickups have a lower output therefore having greater clarity and presence. Presence is one thing Duane Allman’s style is not lacking. So, in the end the pickups were swapped and Duane had a new guitar while the famed Goldtop would move on to experience a series of adventures of its own.

After the trade, the Goldtop changed hands a number of times in the 1970’s and reportedly underwent 2 complete refurbs. By 1977 it fell into the hands of Gaineville guitarist Scott LaMar. LaMar bought the guitar for $475.00 dollars in 1977. Since that time LaMar has become steward of the instrument doing a proper restore with the assistance of Gibson and lending the guitar to the ‘Big House Museum’ in Macon, Georgia. The guitar has also been lent to the ‘Allman Brother Band’ for in concert appearances, being played by Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. The guitar sold at auction in 2019 for the price of 1.25 million dollars. The anonymous buyer still loans the instrument to the 'Big House Museum' for a few months out of the year.

Returning to the new Les Paul Allman received from the trade. By the time of the Allman Brothers Band’s performance at the Fillmore East on September 23, 1970 Allman was donning his new guitar with the Goldtop’s PAF’s and blazing new trails. There is some confusion with the pickups, since they have their covers on the new guitar, but did not on the Goldtop. Keeping covers on or off pickups tend to have a subtle effect on tone. The plain top cherry also has no pick guards which Allman did not like similarly to the Goldtop. The guitar features a mahogany neck and two piece maple top. This guitar would also be featured on the famed Live at Fillmore East album as well as the number of stunning live recordings and bootlegs that exist from Duane’s essential last year.

                                                             Photo: Amalie Rothchild

The subtle tonal discrepancies found between these two legendary guitars can be analyzed and compared by listening to the available studio recordings and live performances. Roughly, from the earliest Allman's concerts until 9/23/70 you get the Goldtop. From 9/23/70 until June of 1971 you get the 'cherry burst'. As previously stated, the Allman Brothers impeccable and historic live release At Fillmore East immortalizes this 'cherry' guitar for eternity. Finally from June 1971 through 'Skydog's final show (The Final Note released in October 2020) we get the melodic disseminator in Duane's short life which we will discuss below.

While the player is the one most responsible for the expression of sound through any given instrument, the instrument is the disseminator and the tool responsible for aural imagery and invisible sonic dreams to come vibrantly to life. Because Duane Allman’s musical career has to be measured in moments it’s easy to focus on his guitars and when and how they were used. The 1957 Gibson Goldtop assisted in developing Duane as a player and the 59 cherry burst was where he went once he started to develop a taste and technique. The following guitar, a 1959 Les Paul tobacco is when he he had a full vision of what he wanted aesthetically and musically in a guitar.

There is a third Les Paul in this story, one that was in the hands of Gregg Allman at the time of Duane's death. The 'dark burst' Les Paul is a 1959 standard tobacco burst and was purchased by Brother Duane in June of 1971. Road manager Twiggs Lyndon traded Gregg a 1939 Ford Opera Coupe for the instrument determined to keep it safe for Duane's daughter Galadrielle when she was old enough to understand the importance of the guitar. The 'dark burst' (which looks deep red around the edges) too has special 'Skydog' characteristics, in particular it's pick ups. Guitar tech Tommy Alderson worked on the instrument after years of non use. He stated in an interview with Guitar World magazine, 

“They (pickups) are set different than anything I’ve ever encountered,” he says, “dropped down a fair amount below the pickup ring. The pickup pole adjustments had the screws turned up so they would pick up the signal. Also unusual, the bridge pickup is a lot weaker than the neck pickup. I plugged it in and put it in the middle, and it was the ‘One Way Out’ sound. It was just crazy to hear.” He also stated that some work had been done on the headstock at some pint in the guitar's life.

This particular Les Paul also called 'Hot Lanta' can be heard on the live at the closing of the Fillmore East concert from June 27, 1971. This soundboard recording has been included on the deluxe edition of the band's Eat A Peach LP. It can also be sussed in definitive sound quality on the official release, Live from A and R Studios, New York, August 26, 1971 which the 'rock room' reviewed here. This guitar was the instrument that Duane would play right up until 'the Final Note' played on October 17, 1971 at 'Skydog's ' last show. Obviously due to Duane Allman's tragically short life he didn't get to keep searching for his perfect 'Tool of the Trade', but he was getting close. Duane's daughter has stated, "By the time my Father found those guitar's. particularly 'Hot Lanta' , he really achieved the ideal tone he was looking for". 'Hot Lanta' is also the guitar where roadie Twiggs Lyndon changed out the frets on the instrument following Duane's death and instead of disposing of them spelled out 'DUANE" on the back of the guitar.

A famed circulating field recording from September 16, 1971 at The Warehouse in New Orleans, LA features the original six in a late era peak. The tape is a perfect sonic document to hear Duane and his 'Hot Lanta' guitar streaking like blue heat in their natural environment. The 'rock room' often uses this special aural document to study the instruments habits. Silvery streams of stunning string displays pour off the existing tape. It's a gift to able to hear the vibe of  Allman and his final guitar during a  peak performance.

The aesthetic that Duane and Gregg Allman developed in the first three years of the 'Allman Brothers', was the template that the band used to 'hit the note' for the next almost 50 years. One of the defining elements of that sound and the curator of the group composition was Duane Allman, Through his fingers and his 'Tool of the Trade' 'Skydog' created a fingerprint that will remain an indelible mark on rock for as long as people continue to listen.

Three Gibson Les Paul's, three guitars with the spook, fire and as much personality as their respective owner. The guitars that allowed Duane Allman the means of expressing himself fully. It's obvious that Allman found a multitude of magic which he loved in a Gibson Les Paul. He spent most of days undertaking a series of tweaks and sonic experiments to insure he would eventually find sonic perfection.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Albert King - Born Under A Bad Sign 1967 LP - 'Play It Pretty'

A compilation album that influenced an entire generation of players and a record that is entrenched as a blues classic and one of the finest recordings ever made. Released in August of 1967, and spinning in the ‘rock room’ today is the stereo version of Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign. Recorded at Stax Studios from March 1966 through June 1967, Born Under a Bad Sign is a quaking electric blues vamp. While not an album that blew apart the charts (which is usually the case with great Blues records) but an album topping with soul and stellar guitar playing. Albert King’s style influenced a host of players ranging from Eric Clapton. Mike Bloomfield, Jerry Garcia, Hendrix and a plethora of others. Every song, every groove and every nuance of the guitar work was studied by these hopeful and talented guitarists. Obviously the LP has gained importance and media acceptance in hindsight which is the usual with great blues records. If you are in to that sort thing, Rolling Stone listed the record on their 'Top 500 Records of All Time" list.

King’s, ‘tool of the trade’ was a famed right handed Gibson Flying V guitar strung normally. The kicker in this, is that King is a left handed player! Thus King’s technique and approach caused him to pull strings from above as opposed to pushing them from below. This in turn allowed King for a unique way of phrasing notes with special inflections and bends. This record is not only influential, it freaking jams and highlights some of the most soulful blues playing you will ever have the pleasure to hear.

The LP opens with the instantly recognizable lick and shady strut of ‘Born under a Bad Sign’. The Memphis horns blast the central lick like a steamship as the ‘Booker T and the MG’s stick the eight ball corner pocket. King goes down smooth vocally as after each verse as he squeezes out a trebled response to each of his verses. Written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ is one of the most addictive licks and blues blueprints in the history of modern music.

‘Crosscut Saw’ follows with a dusty swamp groove that just makes ya jiggle right where you sit. We all know what King is talking about when he asks to, ‘drag my saw across your log’. Sensual, yet sinister the rhythm undulates like the rocking of a serrated blade through moist wood. One of the earliest of the  Delta Blues, the song made its first appearance outside of the jukes in 1941 when it was released by Tommy McClennan. King’s gritty riffing working against the tidal pull of Al Jackson Jr’s drums and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn’s substantial bass lines.

The Leiber/Stoller classic and a favorite cover tune of rockers of the era ‘Kansas City’ comes next and is played with a chunky swing. The cut opens with King's silvery and brisk quotation of the main lick. Second verse the 'Memphis Horns' kick in for a sweet contrast punctuating Albert's chilly vocals. Mmmm, this swings with some attitude. King and the horns then pair up to sing there way through an instrumental verse. 

'Oh, Pretty Woman' is the next track on side A and was composed by Memphis DJ,  A. C. Williams. Other musicians including Gary Moore and John Mayall both later covered the cut. In the 'rock room's' humble  opinion this one is a highlight of the record. A menacing stomp with a sturdy bass line and perfectly slotted horn lines moaning under the central melody. King, lends just enough guitar to increase the edge of his vocals during the chorus. He takes two navy solo's throughout the track, smooth enough to sooth and with just enough bite to scare ya.

'Down Don't Bother Me', is a straight forward blues and King original with on time call and response guitar and vocal and some rolling saloon piano setting the table. King's guitar rings through the verses and for the first break King takes a solo spot that would make E.C. blush. 

"The Hunter' concludes side A, a composition composed by the members of 'Booker T and the MG's'. "Led Zeppelin', well known thieves and borrowers from the land of juke joints quoted this song in the middle of 'How Many More Times' from Led Zeppelin I, a song that took it's influence from Howlin' Wolf's , 'How Many More Years'. Full circle indeed. 'The Hunter' opens on a steady piano vamp which morphs into a straight forward stomp after the airy entrance of the 'Memphis Horns'. King sings slyly behind the undulating blues gait, hoping to steady his love gun for the perfect shot. King then takes a stringy high on the neck solo spot with some off  hearty mic asides before closing the side with a final verse.

Flipping the LP, side two lights a smoke, pours a glass and leans way back in it's respective chair for an immersive collection of slinky blues. The side opens with 'I Almost Lost My Mind', a crooning contemplative blues with King in his best throat of the record. A flute appears toward the end of the opening verse along with the horns lending a windy emotion to the melody. The descending chord change is the recipient of King's contrasting solo spot which he bows and bends like soft silver. The solo contains a buoyancy the repels the weeping of the song's arrangement. King goes to see the gypsy for the song's final verse with further assistance from the perfectly placed flute. A beautiful song to set the darkened stage of the flip side.

'Personal Manager', the longest cut on the record opens with a stabbing clipped guitar, similarly to the opening of Dylan's 1997 track 'Love Sick'. This song was co-written by King and David Porter. The brilliant premise of being a chosen woman's 'Personal Manager' is laid out by King as a proposition. Just sign on the dotted line and never have to worry about anything again. Once the verses begin, tickled in by the woody trills of a piano, King explains to his baby the benefit of him becoming his lady's 'Personal Manager'. You know what? I believe every word. The mid song solo rings with attitude and sings with sustain. The tension rises and King takes the musical document to get notarized by the blues gods. This shit makes my eyes squint. Highlight.

The 'Velvet Bulldozer' takes on 'Laundromat Blues' next. The suspicious narrator hoping that that his baby doesn't get it too clean as she seems to have a load to wash everyday. The instrumentation stays consistent with side two with a boozy barroom backing and a silky reading. Knocking piano and tasty licks from King get things sudsy. Kings tone with just a touch of distortion slices through the perfumed open arrangement. The tension of the music increases with the anxious wonder of our narrator. King drops a coin into the slot with a start stop solo spot. The band cycles around King as he pulls on and off the strings with deep feeling.

The penultimate song on the record is 'As the Years Go Passing By' composed by Don Robey, though King was known to tell others that he wrote the song. One can understand why, with a dramatic spacious arrangement and a killer set of lyrics the song fit King like hand in glove. A simple sentiment and a detailed expression, King emanates the deepest blue on this track. Delicate and jazzy drums lay back while the piano and horns try to stop the time. An emotive solo spot appears as a lone saxophone quivers from center sound stage. Stunning.

The LP closes with fittingly 'The Very Thought of You', a pop standard hailing from 1934 and composed by Ray Noble. The son had been covered prior to Albert King's version by artists as diverse as Ricky Nelson and Little Willie John. The song illustrates both King's ability to take on the deepest most guttural blues as well as the most lilting melodic construction. The song acts as a healing finale after the previous musical journey through suspicion, loss and heartache. The standard's instrumentation sways with the hopefulness of the lyrics content. King voice is the obvious highlight and his ability to translate the song is its strength. Like King states during the instrumental break, 'Play it pretty', Play it pretty'. His final vocal line is testament to that statement as he caresses the final word gently to all of our ears and hearts.

Albert King's 1967 record Born Under a Bad Sign was critical in assisting bringing blues to a mainstream audience. It's influence on a number of up and coming rock guitarists cannot be understated. The dictionary of licks displayed by King on guitar designed the template for all rock and blues that would come after. The LP was ransacked for its sonic gold and jewels for a number of years by enterprising musicians and continues to be. The diversity of  the catalog of songs, the professionalism of the musician's and the colossal talent of Albert King collided to develop an album of important songs and an enduring presence.