Talk From The Rock Room: 2016

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Jerry Garcia and Friends -Grateful Dead March 23, 1975 Kezar Stadium -'Things Our Eyes Have Seen'

Today the first of only four concert appearances by the Grateful Dead in 1975 is grooving in the ‘rock room’. For those versed in the history of the band, in October of 1974 the band played their ‘retirement’ shows at the Winterland arena, the concerts preceding a stated period of reorganization, renewal and a reexamination of the group and their music. The band would of course return by mid-1976 fully energized for an additional 20 years of music.  What can be found in the March 23, 1975 Kezar Stadium performance by ‘Jerry Garcia and Friends’ is experimentation, eagerness and a brand new aural assault by the Grateful Dead with additional help by keyboardists and cronies Merl Saunders and Ned Lagin respectively. 

This premier appearance of the retooled Dead was at the SNACK concert of 1975 which was a charity event put on in typical grand fashion by Bill Graham and spotlighting a number of Bay area bands, as well as a stunning appearance by Bob Dylan alongside Neil Young, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Ben Keith! The Dead’s appearance was billed under the aforementioned ‘Jerry Garcia and Friends’ moniker and was a definite surprise; more so for the FM broadcast listeners than the assembled throng which was by majority a typical ‘Dead’ audience. What is even more surprising is that the band played a 35+ minute set of brand new instrumental material highlighted by the swirling combo of three keyboardists and the usual suspects. David Crosby was also scheduled to appear with the musicians but had personal matters that prevented the collaboration. Donna Godchaux does not appear at this concert.

The Dead premiered material from their upcoming Blues for Allah album including the albums major title track composition, ‘Blues for Allah’ which here envelopes a stunning ‘Stronger than Dirt, Milking the Turkey’ debut appearance. Unlike these tunes future appearances in June at Winterland and in August at the Great American Music Hall, (Officially released as One from the Vault) here they emit a looser attitude and a formative creative excitement that lends a joyous and frayed aesthetic to the arrangements.
This concert appearance was released ‘officially’ as a bonus disc for anyone who pre-ordered the Beyond Description box set from the Grateful Dead website in 2004. That bonus disc now sells for hundreds of dollars online, but thankfully per usual the music is still available alternately as a crispy soundboard if you know where to look. The ‘rock room’ today is playing a circulating lossless soundboard version of the show while kicking back in a smoky and stunned tizzy.

The show begins with an introduction by Bill Graham who per usual introduces each member of the band and forgetting Ned Lagin in the process. Lesh and Garcia then begin to particulate their way into the meterless and martian drift of ‘Blues for Allah’. Completely unknown at the time to any of the assembled listeners the wordless melody swells with strange agitated vibrations. Saunders and Godchaux become a matched pair with Hammond and Fender Rhodes making perfect bedfellows, blurring the ancient edges of the song. Garcia’s guitar takes on elastic and highly charged tone matched with Lesh’s typically stout strings. After a fulfilling statement of the undulating desert licks exploring erotic and uncultivated lands the song leaves the theme behind and retreats to dusk. Garcia plays nuanced single note plucks that shimmer against the spectral winds created by the percussionists and keyboardists. 

A tangible strangeness now permeates the stage; it now becomes ‘free turf’ for the musicians. A circular space is developed; indiscernible objects levitate then disappear into darkness. Garcia’s notes are perched on the edge of gentle distortion. Keith soon joins helping to develop a loom of sounds with Garcia. Weir is a post driven into the earth helping to keep some sort of tether to the music. Lesh groans, the sands begin to whip, chaos ensues and the familiar tiger stirs into a maelstrom. Garcia trills into the upper reaches and the band collapses around his directive. Heavy.
Soon an ancient summit is reached, the music out of control but perfectly directed. Stretched to its maximum capabilities Lesh seizes the music from the post orgasmic drift thumping out the bass figure for ‘Stronger than Dirt’. In the ‘rock room’s opinion the following moments are some of the finest in the long career of the Grateful Dead. These are the moments that heads pine for.  Lesh sets the table as a deeply funky and organic jam develops. Weir is responsible for the dirty undercurrent, Garcia climbs the constructed ladders runs playing the perfect lines, expressive notes differentiated by touch, time and attentiveness. Lagin buzzes excitedly adding his static to the churning storm. There is some all time musical alchemy taking place here.

All band members place their hands on the musical touchstone, moving through unrehearsed pauses before landing into a well timed change, not as obvious or developed as the rendition on One from the Vault but in some ways more stunning. The rhythm devils  now appear continuing the momentum with a short but fresh drums segment.

Lesh soon signals the return to ‘Stronger than Dirt’ and Garcia picks up right where he left off pre drums. Hints of ‘Slipknot’ tighten around the musical flow before loosening the twine and unraveling into disparate Garcia exclamations of awesomeness. Garcia then changes to a thicker tone while Godchaux fights for the title of most amazing musician on the stage. Soon a confetti flash of guitar notes detonates while Lesh changes the plans. Saunders is invited to spread butter over the top of this musical madness that becomes highlighted by both Merl and the drummers.

‘Slipknot’ again bobs its head from the turbulent jamming acting as a guide before Garcia leaves it behind in a trail of smoke and charred remnants. Lesh leaves a surprise detonation behind and Garcia takes the hint scribbling a note reminiscent of a transition into one of many Garcia ballads. Once Garcia grasps a hold of the gritty ‘blues’ lick that leads to the second half of ‘Blues for Allah’, he completes the circle as the group transitions back into the song as one.

Weepy guitar licks introduce the first ‘vocals’ of the evening as group sung ‘doo, doo, doo’s’ descend in place of the reflected guitar line. This repeated melody gently closes the song and is followed by a ‘Thanks for coming’ from Phil Lesh. On the soundboard the crowd responds in kind properly going crazy for the 30+ minute clinic they just witnessed.

The first and only taste of recognizable Grateful Dead of the evening follows with a hot to the touch reading of ‘Johnny B Goode’, a proper period to the experimental musical sentence that preceded it. The drummers pop like illegal fireworks helping to flame a smoking version of a favorite Grateful Dead encore. Wow.

The Grateful Dead’s performance on March 23, 1975 ushered in a new era for compositional development and concert performances for the group. But what remained the same for this afternoon performance was the band’s willingness to experiment, improvise and confound all expectations. Only the good ol’ Grateful Dead would play a set of brand new unreleased instrumental music for a charity concert to be broadcast on FM radio. Perhaps overshadowed by Dylan and the Band’s (members of) appearance later in the show and a later official release of their own August performance of the same material, this unique piece of the Grateful Dead history is a contender for ‘best of’ status in my humble opinion. Famous for blowing the big events, on this day the Dead blew everybody’s mind whether familiar with their music or not.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Now Playing: The Band - 'Northern Lights' Casino Arena July 20, 1976

Flickering in the ‘rock room’ today is a fantastic A/V document of the ‘Band’ in their original configuration and on their final tour in the summer/fall of 1976. Taking place four months before the famed Last Waltz this pro shot black and white film offers a detailed look at the Band while spotlighting a solid performance by only the group with no additional horn section.  The filmed document is one of many to emanate from the expansive vaults of Bill Graham and is available for streaming by the executors of his musical estate ‘Wolfgang’s Vault’. There are multiple cameras shooting for this July 20, 1976 concert at Casino Arena in Ashbury Park, NewJersey. The resulting film (believed to be for a CCTV broadcast) is a softly muted and kindly aged, but more than acceptable filmed look at the group with a good sounding accompanying soundboard soundtrack.

Thankfully there are a number of recorded documents to hail from the Band’s final year in existence, such as the famed King Biscuit broadcast at the Carter Baron Amphitheater on July 17, 1976, the Lenox Inn show from August and the awesome performance from the Palladium on September 18 with the horns and Paul Butterfield. This Casino Arena show is the perfect visual addition to these aforementioned concerts and features the same sort of musical fire. While the Band were never about being improvisational beasts, their concerts featured crisply played and song oriented performances most effective in more intimate environments. Admittedly there were ups and downs on the tour,  some evident in this video, but those are the realities of rock on the road.

The front row seat in the time machine begins with the funky stomp of ‘Don’t Do It’ the typical but welcome opener for the Band during this era. There is a well balanced mix and the ‘non professional’ footage lends equal time to each principal of the group unlike The Last Waltz film. The cross stage shot that encompasses all 5 members of the group is stunning and offers a rare look at the group in action from this era.

‘The Shape I’m In’ keeps the early part of the show percolating but shines an unintentional spotlight on Richard Manuel’s roughed up vocal issues. The tour had brutalized Manuel’s throat and his recreational choices of the time didn’t help matters. Regardless, the opening one two punch is a classic capture.

Rick Danko’s vocal spotlight follows for a pastoral and dramatic ‘It Makes No Difference’, one of Robbie Robertson’s finest compositions. Each rendition of this song seems to top the previous and here Robertson coaxes charged staccato licks that respond to Garth Hudson’s sweetly swelling soprano saxophone statements.  The cross stage camera shot encompassing Danko, Robertson and Helm is worth the price of admission! Danko’s investment and ownership of the Northern Lights, Southern Cross number is never in doubt with this early concert highlight.

‘The Weight’ follows to great response from the crowd and is ushered in by Robertson’s high-strung  1958 Stratocaster acrobatics; A typically great rendition of the oft-played classic highlighted by  Ricky Danko’s  joyously flapping ‘duck arms’.
‘King Harvest’ comes next and the Danko/Helm rhythm section illustrates a bank vault tight togetherness. Manuel digs deep for his vocal attack and the group responds in kind. The group is beginning to heat up and the following series of songs illustrates that point.

The gentle dusk of ‘Twilight’ a highlight of many of the 1976 concerts comes next. According to Robbie Robertson’s biography Danko threw out some convincing words around in order to make sure he got the lead vocal duties for this deep cut Robertson composition.  Actually released as a single, the track later appeared on a ‘best of’ Band compilation and remains one of the most enduring and poignant Band cuts. In concert the song emits a gentle and smoky reggae lilt, earlier versions including Robertson’s piano demo capture deeper underlying emotions. The rendition here is a wonderful performance of one of Robertson’s finest compositions, with all band members contributing admirably.

Two new songs alternate with two introductory songs from Music from Big Pink making for a well played central core of the concert. ‘Ophelia’ starts things off with ‘hot to the touch’ guitar and a swirling calliope of keyboards creating a joyous undercurrent played by maestro Garth Hudson. Levon sings the shit out of it while appearing in all of his ‘Last Waltz’ glory and it just feels good. This track signals to me the moment when the show really begins to take off.

‘Tears of Rage’ comes next its poignancy is increased by Manuel’s struggle to hit his vocal reaches and the contemplative swing of the group. Robertson smirks embarrassingly as Manuel pushes through the first verse, is  by the second set of words Richard has found his path and sings an emotive version of the quintessential Band song. Like a classic car stated on a cold Catskill morning Manuel’s voice takes a while to warm up and while not as youthful as it once was still retains a moving timbre.

A brand new number for the time, ‘Forbidden Fruit’ comes next and is a not so indirect comment on the state of some of the principal members of the group. Constructed around Robertson’s guttural string bends and tremolo bar flexing the song moves like liquid and is one of the Band’s best late era compositions. The obvious strength of the Band is still tangible even in the ‘Twilight’ of their career, the unfortunate issues with addiction and in fighting suppressed by their pure on stage talent and abilities. Kudos to Hudson and Robertson who are both stunning in their coloring in the lines of the song and whom are unafraid to pluck the low hanging fruit from its musical branches. At this point in the video there are some issues with sound and the visuals, nothing too horrible.... but stick through it as it will soon improve.
Garth Hudson’s nightly ritual follows as he tosses out pages ripped from the encyclopedia of music history, casually spun in cosmic yarns from his keyboard arsenal. Any footage of ‘honey boy’ is more than welcome in the ‘rock room’. The man is beyond musical discussion, his multiple talents must me individually digested and contemplated to be fully understand and enjoyed.  The ‘sonic wizard’ of the Band spotlighted, ‘Chest Fever’ follows Hudson’s ‘Genetic Method’ in a high octane version and proceeds to give everyone in the venue flush faces.

 The downhill slope approached, ‘Stage Fright’, ‘Cripple Creek’, and ‘W.S. Walcott Medicine Show’ conclude the concert in a spectacular trinity. The footage makes me giddy, and for any fan of the Band it will do the same as its existence is a stunning development! Collaborative vocals and general good vibe permeates the proceedings. Danko is particularly spunky and a highlight of the camera frame. Levon’s sing and drum dance is inspired and culminates with the sonic acrobatics of ‘W.S. Wolcott’.The group leaves the stage to a wonderful ovation.

The encore follows and is a funky and hornless ‘Life Is a Carnival’, lending a powerful and fun conclusion to the show. Helm is animated and feeling it as he and Danko lock and key the distinctive drum/bass groove. Robertson is electric and directs the song with his guitar neck until it skids to a well earned conclusion. A couple of quick waves and a Levon Helm grin and the circulating video concludes. An hour and twenty minutes that flies by but is obviously well spent.

1976 was the final year of the Band’s existence, in a way brought on by increasingly erratic performances and a general struggle to regain the camaraderie of years past.  There were still moments of greatness and joy to be found in the creation of their music but the end was near. This Casino Arena show finds the group in the middle of the madness, but moving forward as a ‘band of brothers’. It is a welcome addition to the story of the group located in a period only documented by The Last Waltz film. This review is not a forum for a discussion of The Last Waltz, but what cannot be denied is that this ‘unofficial’ document is a more all encompassing view of the Band minus the guests. Dig in.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Take One: David Bowie - 1986 Single 'Absolute Beginners' - 'Eyes Completely Open'

Spinning today in the ‘rock room’ is a 7” jewel composed by David Bowie, recorded and released in March of 1986. ‘Absolute Beginners’ was the theme song to the Julien Temple directed film of the same name to which Bowie agreed to compose he title track. The song was a commercial success for Bowie reaching number 2 in the UK, but not doing as well in the US where the corresponding film was also released without notice. The version of the single playing in the ‘rock room’ today features the 5:35 edit version on the ‘A’ side and the (Dub Mix) instrumental edit on the B’ Side.  There exists a full 8:03 version with corresponding music video and percussion breakdown which is linked here for your enjoyment and I wil use as the basis of this rock rant.

The single was released in between Bowie’s 1984 LP Tonight and 1987’s Never Let Me Down. His criminally underrated 80’s output is thankfully represented by this celebratory and memorable track. The era in which this song was released was the period of big over the top saccharine and often forgettable rock ballads. Typical of Bowie, ‘Absolute Beginners’ was perfectly contemporary while also remaining completely original all the while tipping its aural chapeau to past times.

The production values of the 1980’s were not always kind to Bowie and his fellow sonic craftsman, yet with ‘Absolute Beginners’ as proof, Bowie could deftly draw out the best and most useful elements of any tools and aesthetics available to him while colliding them with his own creative ideals.

Oddly enough, ‘Absolute Beginners’ adheres the current values of its creation but also reflects back to the black and white memories of Temple’s 1950’s based film. The video depicts ‘Dick Tracy’, Bowie walking the classic darkened streets of post-war Britain. The melody of the song is shifty, questioning apprehensively while stating emphatically. The song elicits the freshness of a new love for old lovers.

While a youthful expressiveness is tangible throughout, Bowie traces the hopefulness in a lacy regret and touch of the grandiose when comparing the current love to the expressiveness of the arts.
The full version of the single opens with a stringy ethnic guitar groove supported by steady and sonically enhances drums.This sneaky introduction only appears once in the song yet sets an intriguing premise. Somewhat detached from the rest of the body of the track the lick ushers in the major framework of the song. The edited version does not have this critical prelude.

Tribal and sensual women dance in and out of frame as the intro dissipates and the central melody catches. Substantial and chorused, ‘Bop, bop badoo’ vocals explode and blur the line between the early choral groups Bowie admired and this modern re imagining by Bowie. 

This vocal spot will remain the touch stone for the song’s duration as the chorus continuously finds a soft landing in its groovy midst's. The vocal axis keeps the film noir theme in the frame while coloring with current brushes. The song races ahead in D major with shimmering acoustic guitars and ringing synthesized dressings. Bowie’s lyrics are sweetly crooned, pulling back against the churning backing track. His vocals are gentle and plaintive, yet with underling seriousness.  Carla Bruni joins and duets with Bowie on the second set of verses lending a deeper emotional sharing to the cinematic quality of the track, while becoming a discussion between both principal ‘beginners.’ Buoyant swells of special guest Rick Wakeman’s piano are drizzled over each Bowie verse line. A spindrift of the piano conjoined with tasteful and wistful synth strokes dress the respective verses in a misty anticipation.

The procrastinated glory of the chorus is finally reached after over two minutes where it opens and reveals Bowie adorned in some of his most stunning vocals, ‘If our love song, could fly over mountains, could laugh at the ocean, just like the films. There's no reason to feel all the hard times, to lay down the hard lines it's absolutely true’. The restraint of the constructed verses is released for the chorus, the anticipation removed while Bowie levitates. The meter of the lines, the depth of Bowie’s voice and the soaring instrumentation is stirring. The collaboration of melodic signposts equate to a stunning emotional experience.
The second set of verses follows and the return to the ‘Bop’ vocals comes with a horny saxophone punctuation. When the the second rendition of the chorus is revisited, the chorus melody continues on wordlessly from the chorus refrain as this time the saxophone appears in golden reflection and echoes the powerful melody with multiple variations on the theme. The song increases its elevation as each ring around the chord changes tightens until finally dropping out and allowing for a percussion breakdown and respite from the magically spun melody lines. As has been the case for the song, there is a restrained power that threatens to reveal itself to the listener but never quite does. Hence the strength of the song, just as you are prepared for release the swirling collusion of licks and lines pulls you back into the swell.
The rattling percussion breakdown spits us back into the ‘Bop bop badoo’ choral reminding us of where we came from. A complete immersion in this song is reflected here and by the content of the lyrics. The simplicity of a smile, the confidence to tell the rest to ‘go to hell and the resulting seed of doubts from the decisions made are blown away by the grandeur of the music. The collaboration of verse and sound keeps the emotional content fresh. The reason this track deserves a full attentiveness is that it remains a simple pop song but with deeper motives and underlying importance.

Bowie would continue to perform this song on his 1987, 2000 and 2002 tours. His excellent bass player Gail Ann Dorsey would join him for the joint vocals in what would result as memorable live versions on the 2002 tour. The available version performed in 2000 for the BBC, in the ‘rock room’sopinion is the definitive live version. Special note should be taken in regards to Bowie piano player Mike Garson who is stellar in his performance on the black and whites. 

While not full of secret meanings,  guitar fireworks or ‘experimental’ sonic and voice, Bowie’s 1986 single ‘Absolute Beginners’ holds unique place in the Bowie catalog due to its unabashed emotion, stunning vocals  and cinematic qualities. The track retains at its core an explainable alchemy, which in the end, could be said for any of the compositions in the expansive Bowie canon.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bobby Charles - 'Small Town Talk' 1972 Self Titled Album

Spinning in the ‘rock room’ today is the perfect album for the stunning decay of an early Fall day. New Orleans native Bobby Charles, long a proponent and disseminator of a genre of music lovingly referred to as swamp pop, recorded his debut solo LP, not in the Bayou State wetlands but at Bearsville studios in Woodstock, N.Y. Rick Danko and John Simon, famous for their entrenchment in the Band, co-produced the album with Charles.

Charles had actually moved to Woodstock in the early 1970s, long after his song ‘See You Later Alligator’ was a 1956 hit for Bill Haley and the Comets. He set up shop at Bearsville with the help of famed manager Albert Grossman. The result of this musical Louisiana boy woodshedding up north resulted in a collection of funky country grooves, muddy rutted melodies and rustic songwriting.
Sometimes referred to as the lost Band album because of their relationship with the record, this obscure 1972 classic is brimming with guest stars; local and from out of town, names big and small who contribute to produce unpretentious roots, rock and soul music. A glance at the laundry list of supporting musicians illustrates the wealth of musical power represented on the record.

Four out of the five members of the Band are credited on Bobby Charles, and I am of the opinion that there are some moments where the guitar work sounds suspiciously like the apparently missing Robbie Robertson. (He was, after all, pictured at the sessions.) Also included are Amos Garrett, Ben Keith, Bobby Neuwirth, Dr. John, David Sanborn, Geoff Muldaur, Ben Keith and John Till among others.

The home-cooked and intimate production values offered up from Danko and Simon then serve to stir the jambalaya pot. The only unfortunate factor remains a lack of definitive song credits for who played on what tracks, even all these years later. The credit note in the album reads: “All Musical Arrangements Homemade,” which is fitting due to the records collaborative and rustic elements.
Bobby Charles begins with the sideways strut of “Street People,” a slippery analysis of the separation between the people of economy and proponents of the road. A bopping country bump pushes the groove, underlined with shimmery back-porch slide guitars.
 The second track, ‘Long Face,’ sounds as if it fell off of the second side of a Band record. What is unmistakably Levon Helm’s woody thump on drums, Garth Hudson’s swirling fingers on organ and Rick Danko moving air on bass equates to a track that sounds as rich and practiced as its supporting instrumentalists. Rumor is that Dr. John helps out on guitar and that John Simon tinkles on piano respectively, though it could be Richard Manuel on keys, as well. The auditory elements of the track remind me of the time when the key production values in a studio were patience and warmth. The groove of the song is addictive, and its saloon sensibilities illicit a local flavor.

‘I Must Be In A Good Place Now’ continues the pastoral attitude of the record. Slow and easy, Charles’ encouraging and gentle vocals lounge on the airy instrumentation. The backing group plays as one on this fantastic track, with no single instrument discernible as they stitch themselves into a delicate, lacy supporting sound.

‘Save Me Jesus’ follows with a sweet audio verite' moment, with the listener ushered into a take in progress. The soft soulful swing reeks of the moist moss and hearty dark earth of Louisiana. The instrumental backing sounds like the core studio group of Amos Garrett on guitar, Jim Colegrove on bass and N.D. Smart on drums, with the band acting like a lonesome country tire swing pushed by a Bearsville breeze. Lyrically, the song is a hopeful wish for help from Jesus, as Charles has finally lost all hope in humanity. His deadpan delivery is an additional highlight to this deep cut.

‘He’s Got All the Whiskey’ trickles down the rain spout, with horns and acoustic guitars patiently coalescing together under Charles wordless moans. He sets the beat with hand claps before the drums drop in and the song becomes a display of down-and-dirty gut bucket soul. A collection of horns rise from the horizon, an illuminated mist composed of Garth Hudson, David Sanborn and John Simon interweaving and winding around one another in a stunning and breathy series of blasts. Charles accompanying vocal melody verbalizes a mantra of jealous statements all sung from a comfortable easy chair.

Side two begins with the Charles/Danko co-written ‘Small Town Talk,’ a track which Danko would also record on his later solo debut. This idiosyncratic song starts with a whistle and continues, supported by some spongy Dr. John keyboards and the rock solid swinging Levon Helm groove. Charles’ matter-of-fact vocals sit nicely inside the airy burlap arrangement.
A gentle country lilt follows, as ‘Let Yourself Go’ is highlighted by Ben Keith’s weeping pedal steel work, absolutely breathtaking. This particular song would slot into one of that era’s Poco or Flying Burrito Brothers albums nicely.

“Grow Too Old” is a big song with an immense sound and substantial step. I am going to take a chance and say that Richard Manuel plays piano, and possibly sings harmony on this song; due to the fact he would later feature it in his own solo concerts, and that it sounds quite like him at times. Regardless, the song slams around joyously on trebled guitar, rock and roll piano and hot horn playing, securing the vibe of the sessions in a perfect way. This performance is one of the finest on Bobby Charles and one of Charles greatest songs.
Keeping the foot stomping going, ‘I’m That Way’ again features the multiple talents of Ben Keith, this time on a slick Dobro. The song features a hillbilly groove and an apathetic attitude, recalling a rollicking back road run through the Catskill Mountains.

‘Tennessee Blues’ closes the Bobby Charles album with an epic and emotive ballad that defies genre classifications. What I believe to be Amos Garrett’s delicate gold-leaf guitar,  dresses the song in a geographical specific country soul. When Garth Hudson’s accordion appears during the verse, the song levitates through the trees and into the air, becoming a rare bird in flight. Charles’ floral melody line, childlike in its gentle delivery, eases through the leafy green chord changes. With the approaching instrumental segment the song turns sepia, its corners worn smooth into timelessness.

Fast forward more than four decades, and Bobby Charles’ self-titled 1972 release has gained what notoriety it has today through its association with the Band, and it’s various famous musical principals. What its legacy should be based on in addition to this fact is its timeless and beautiful songs. Already recognized for his songwriting prowess prior to this, Charles developed a period-piece gem containing music of multiple classifications built around truthful and original themes. He had no issue collecting an impressive arsenal of sympathetic musicians to express his composed ideas because of his own notoriety and earned respect with the artists themselves. Rock aficionados will appreciate the multiple representations of country rock, as well as the roots aspect of the record, all of it so beautifully brought into focus through honest musicianship and masterful songwriting.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark 1968 - 'Still Remembering What Is Me'

The focus of today's rock room rant is a collection of music born from casual jam sessions and good times amongst friends and legendary musicians. The October 1968 LP The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark, while labeled as a early proponent of the developing 'country rock' sound to emanate from the late 1960's, which it is; should also be identified by its special mixture of prime Gene Clark songwriting with a host of well known musicians steeped in bluegrass and country music. While 'rock' has always been a conglomerate of influences, in the mid 1960's it was under going a constant metamorphosis, melodically, lyrically and aesthetically. Rock and roll's best and most talented artists helped to develop a genre that would be in constant flux and subject to deep experimentation. These experiments in sound and vision not only distorted and redesigned rock and rolls fundamental elements but also initiated a rediscovery of the sturdy support beams of rhythm and blues music.

Bands like the Beatles, Byrds and Band took a glimpse into the rear view for inspiration when their own fresh well of ideas needed to be refreshed. While pundits discuss and dissect when 'country rock' really took hold, the roots of the genre can be traced to a number of important destinations. The Beatles 'I've Just Seen a Face' and The Byrds 'Time Between' are two songs that are often mentioned as early examples of 'Country Rock'. One important element to remember is that a number of the legendary 'rockers' to emanate from the creative stew of the 1960's rock scene had cut their teeth on early country and roots music music. John Sebastian, Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons, Levon Helm, Jerry Garcia and David Crosby to name only a few had deeps roots into the back woods of Americana prior to their rock and roll ascensions.

Gene Clark's 'Byrds' were the leader in this rediscovery and assimilation of country and bluegrass with rock. Aforementioned Byrds player Chris Hillman, who would play an integral part on the Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark album was an amazing and well known bluegrass musician and mandolin player prior to his picking up a rock and roll bass. McGuinn, Hillman and recent Byrds addition Gram Parsons would record the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album in 1967 which is basically a contemporary country album recorded by 'rock' musicians.

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark was recorded in late 1968 and pulled from the influences surrounding it while expressing from its rustic grooves a stony homegrown blend of Gene Clark's innovative songwriting, country, rock, bluegrass and back porch bleary eyed serenading.Typical of Gene Clark's career the work received critical acclaim from musicians and writers while mainstream acceptance avoided Doug Dillard and himself until posthumous re-discovery of their work. The album is summed up by its cover, two smiling pals sharing a motorcycle while passing 'something' between their fingers. So, the 'fantastic expedition' begins.

The album is a 'who's who of 'country rockers' with contributions from future 'Flying Burrito Brothers' and Eagles' member Bernie Leadon, Chris Hillman, Byron Berline, Donna Washburn, Pete Kleinow, David Jackson, Michael Clarke and of course cohort Doug Dillard. As previously mentioned, the joy that comes from the collaborations is the essential element in what makes the music so wonderful.
Only the opening track of the album has the true aroma of rock. The Clark penned 'Out on the Side' begins with a fluttering organ drone and thumping bayou drums. Clark's vocals enter velvety and rich the focus of the track as the fuzzy edged backing looks in from a steamy winter window. The big collaborative chorus features Leadon and Dillard joining Clark in a smoky singalong. The track continues with the only true reference to Clark's Byrds remnants, a silver picked electric guitar that drizzles the perfect dressing to the song. 'Out on the Side' sits slightly separate from the rest of the LP due to its more 'rock' instrumentation, but acts as the perfect opener, contemplative like The Band's 'Tears of Rage' opener on Music From Big Pink released only a few months prior. 

The woody personality of the album starts to reveal itself with the following Clark/Leadon song 'She Darked the Sun'. 'Sun' has a drumless swing that trickles in with a diffused sparkling banjo and soon becomes a swell of mandolin and Byron Berline fiddle that easily meld into a stunning simpatico. The lyrics express the classic country narrative of the abuses of an 'evil' woman. Clark's syrup smooth vibrato supports the high and lonesome harmonies of the chorus while Berline's mournful fiddle acts as the melodic cement.

'Don't Come Rollin' begins with a solitary train station harp the calls home another drumless groove that invites the listener a shit kicking invite to come cruise the hills, but with a stern musical warning. An addictive rolling rhythm encapsulates the 'seat of the pants' fresh back porch jamming that permeates the record. A bounding collaboration for Leadon, Clark and Dillard 'Don't Come Rollin' is a highlight of side one.

The famed slow saunter of 'Train Leaves Here This Morning' could quite possibly be Clark's finest vocals committed to tape in addition to being one of his most beloved songs. (Also later taken for a spin by Bernie Leadon who co-wrote it) This is a landmark recording. The gently undulating groove elicits the weary traveler with bag slung low walking toward the pin pricked night horizon. Clark's hearty throat draws out the emotion of the song like infection from a wound, with the narrator's indecisiveness tangible. The song takes it time to the station while the smoky ambiance and Clark's blatantly earnest vocals ascent the recording to the next level. The centerpiece of the record and a must hear track per the 'rock room'.

Flipping the record, side two begins on the galloping horseback of 'With Care from Someone'. Another co-write with Leadon, Clark and Dillard all contributing to the dramatic soundscape. The melody has the same emotional effect as a traditional folk ballad or salty sea chantey. Dillard's rolling clear water banjo is the driving current for the track, with Clark lending a moaning harp line to the pulsing theatrical melody. A wonderful mid-song instrumental break is highlighted by a sneaky and muted low profile Bernie Leadon guitar line. Choice opener to kick off side two. Highlight.

Next, 'Radio Song' follows playing like a sleepy highway meditation, white lines streaking by, churning miles and flipping radio dials. The woody bass sets the woozy rhythm for Clark's twilight statement of reflection and regret. Big 'Byrds' vocals adorn the chorus, but the unique aspect of the song is the antique music box keyboard blending with the soft acoustic trilling. Beautiful combination of words and music artfully creating a scene.
'Git On Brother' is the quintessential bluegrass cover. Played high speed like a party with collaborative vocals and chug a lug acoustic strumming. The group takes the Lester Flatt song around the bend while passing the burning ember of a joint below the line of sight. A well chosen song and tip of the hat to the influences contained on the recording.

'In the Plan' comes next and features fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitars and thumping bass interweaving on a creative loom of sound. Gene takes a sweet mid-song harp solo in this uptempo and driving track. Lyrically the song highlights Clark's penchant for deceivingly simple descriptions of human and life interactions but with slightly surreal twists. Here he asks the eternal question of existence in an unexpected musical package.

A personal favorite of the 'rock room' and the closing track of the LP, 'Something's Wrong' is stamped with the stellar perfection of an undeniable Gene Clark melody. The song opens with a crisp acoustically decorated descending introduction that is beautifully adorned with a slight sadness that is carried throughout the song. Similarly to the rest of the LP, there is a thread of longing for moments past as well as a fleeting regret contained in the lyrics. Clark's songwriting was always special for its delicate balance of hopefulness while still retaining a certain anxiety. 'Something's Wrong' encapsulates this ideal as Clark remembers images of being a boy with the acute ability to sense a prospective danger. Instrumentally, dolent violin pours itself over gently waltzing acoustic guitars. The combination results in a faded aural intoxication.

While Dillard and Clark would record one more album together with 1969's Through the Morning, Through the Night, the restlessly creative duo both besot with demons would continue to explore various creative outlets, just not together. The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark was the perfect album at the perfect time for these kindred musical spirits. The joyful collaboration was thankfully captured so that the two heady country honks and their best musical pals exploits could be immortalized forever.The duo's 1968 album has had a long reach due to its guests, influences and cross pollination of talents and abilities. Dillard's swaying bluegrass and Clark's folk rock sensibilities puzzle pieced into a generation of musicians searching for genre smashing ideas to combine with their own expanding horizons. The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark album is a vital frame when developing the musical development of rock and country in the 1960's and is a 'must hear' for fans of the era or of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, and Eagles.

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark