Talk From The Rock Room: June 2016

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Van Morrison - 'It's Too Late to Stop Now...Volumes II, III, IV & DVD' Caledonia Soul Orchestra

In the midst of remastering Van Morrison’s substantial and legendary catalog a special bonus has been included for long time fans and current converts. As an addendum to one of the greatest live concert releases of all time, Morrison’s 1974 LP It’s Too Late to Stop Now has been updated and expanded. In addition to the remastered edition of the original album release, a new 3 CD/DVD set titled It’s Too Late to Stop Now,Volumes II, III, and IV and DVD has been compiled to offer an encompassing panoramic view of one of Van’s most legendary and well played tours. The ‘rock room’ will focus on the ‘new’ release segments as Morrison’s original album has soaked into the skin of listeners for over 40 years. Our real interest in the new unearthed gold!

The original It’s Too late to Stop Now album was culled from eight sets of music professionally recorded to 16 track and hailing from concerts at the Troubadour in Los Angeles on May 23, 1973, the Santa Monica Civic Center on June 29 and two evenings at the Rainbow in London, England on July 23 and 24, 1973. This new collection adds 45 new tracks with no overlap with the original release. While there are a few repeats of songs, Van fans will have no issue comparing and contrasting the subtle differences in the sonics and performances. Each respective volume of the set contains extra music from each of the aforementioned evenings of music, with the DVD featuring about an hour of revealing pro-shot color footage from the London residency. 

Backing Van during these concerts is the 11 piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra including an amazing 5 piece string and 2 piece horn section offering Van a dramatic and lush backdrop in which to howl his soul/jazz/rock conglomerate. Well versed in light and shade the ‘big’ band swells dynamically, while entering into call and response relations with Van’s combustible and made up on the spot melodies. Clusters of notes float freely through musical space, never forced, always with a purpose. Jeff Labes piano and long time Van comrade John Platania on guitar deserve special notice as they are often the impetuous for taking many of the compositions to the next level. Extended artistic excursions abound with no song in Van's catalog spared renewal at the hands of the Soul Orchestra. 'Into the Mystic' and 'Caravan' are only two of the songs extended and re-imagined by this legendary line up.
 Volume II which is disc one of the new release contains an hour of music from the Troubadour concert in Los Angeles. The ‘rock room’ loves this performance greatly. Van and the band are loose, the crowd is out of control and the recording retains an intimacy and warmth that differentiates it from the other sets in the collection. ‘Come Running’ and ‘These Dreams of You’ open the collection with crisp rock and roll grooves. The balance of the instruments is perfection and Morrison is cool evening as it settles into night.

‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ is a revelation; a song from 1968’s Astral Weeks and left off of the original live album here it swirls with fresh pastels and bounding rhythmic interplay. The strings slide a sweet counter melody under the piano, bass, drums pulse. The track becomes bigger than its original bones and develops into obvious highlight performance. The same can be said for ‘Sweet Thing’, another Astral Weeks song which appears twice on the collection, changed by the band into a churning water wheel, plunging into the depths and returning to the surface with a flourish.

The Troubadour performance also contains a special rendition of ‘Snow in San Anselmo’ freshly minted from the current Hard Nose the Highway album. A dramatic reading is expressed here with every minute detail explored by the band. David Hayes (bass) sits in the conductor’s seat while helping navigate the recent Morrison composition. The welcome release into double time mid song is stunning, even receiving an audible expression of excitement from Van following its bouncing around the walls. The whole package is on display, a multifaceted maelstrom of jazz rhythm and edgy horns. ‘Purple Heather’ and ‘Hard Nose the Highway’ are the other ‘current’ tracks that receive definitive and stirring renditions in the intimate confines of the Troubadour. These unique and inspired performances are nestled with the other set list pillars of the our such as ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ and ‘Cyprus Avenue’ both which appeared on the original 1974 release. This gig is a glass raised in the air good time, marked by Van’s audible investment in the tunes and the crowd sitting on the edge of their seat for the duration.

Volume III follows with a substantial amount of music from the Santa Monica Civic Center on June 29, 1973. This particular disc is notable for the smoky blue vibe and amazing set of cover tunes. The sound is again perfect and the group plays the room delicately. The disc begins with a syrupy ‘I’ve Been Working’ that pounds rock to dust and is about as funky as one can get.  ‘No Way’, ‘Since I Fell for You’, ‘Buora Sera’, ‘Aint Nothing You Can Do’ and ‘Sonny Boy Williamson’s, ‘Take Your Hand Out of My Pocket’ are the serious series of specially chosen covers that illustrate the diversity of the band and the depth of Van’s musical knowledge and love. Louis Prima's 'Buora Sera', featured twice on this set, should have been on the original album. Van alternates funky, ethnic and full throttle rock and roll into one package here that finds the horns intertwining in New Orleans glory. What a wonderfully joyous track made up for its 1974 album absence with two stellar renditions!

‘Moonshine Whiskey’ makes an appearance here and results in a chill inducing version that is no doubt album release worthy; but in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion the real magic can be witnessed in the reading of ‘I Paid the Price’ where Van puts on his acoustic guitar and offers up one of the most soulful renditions on the collection. Moaning horns punctuate the song and John Platania channels his inner Robbie Robertson allowing Van to dig in and really let it go during the songs outro. Another version of the song is also represented on the Rainbow disc, in a performance that retains its own individual goodies. Take your pick, you cant go wrong.

Almost acting as a culmination of the entire sonic experience, the final CD contains 78 minutes from July 23, 24, 1973 concerts at the Rainbow Theater in London. The DVD included with the package offers visuals of most of the ‘big’ songs performed over the two evenings.  The band is practiced, brisk, sensual and full of attitude. Morrison is measured and tempered in the London shows, probably aware of the recording gear in some aspect. In the accompanying video he appears that he is in no way feeling any pain and leads the group stoically.

What appears to be the opener from the second night, ‘Listen to the Lion’ leads off the London disc. Everything that has preceded in the collection has led up to these images of perfection.‘I Paid the Price’ makes another definitive appearance, in addition to two one timer’s for the collection, ‘Everyone’ and ‘Wild Children’. 'Wild Children' is a moment of note, as its organic sway and subtle interplay signals the upcoming Veedon Fleece album. Morrison really squeezes the juice from the Hard Nose the Highway tracks.These songs act as a celebration and a final stamp on the beautiful built relationship between Van and the Caledonia Soul Orchestra during their time together. 

'I Just Want to Make Love to You' makes is finest statement of the concerts with a blatant and horny expression. The strings a hazy shade of navy and the crowd singing back at the band sum up the experience of these shows.‘Domino’, ‘Caravan’ and ‘Cyprus Avenue’ find Van drawing attention to the group and just sitting back and enjoying the ride. The London concerts representation on this collection could act as a complete release on their own merits. The music is that good.
There is not a sour note to be had on this entire collection. Following this tour and by 1974 Van will have disposed of the big band and returned to the road with a four piece band featuring him on guitar, vocals and sax. This release is well overdue for documenting a peak in Morrison’s career when his music wore just one of the many guises it has taken on over his fifty plus year career. One of the best collections of music in rock history has thankfully been expanded to reveal a grand scope of newly rediscovered and ground breaking performances. It's like getting three new live albums!

The recordings find Morrison’s vocals perhaps at their most expressive, with every enunciation and fluxuation leading to elongated spillway breaths, or succinct percussive vocal additions. From gritty to glorious angel choir Van lets go with groans of ecstasy as the band carries him away. These moments are captured along with the times where Van seems in awe of their collaborative skills. These recordings are timeless, some of the greatest concert captures you will ever here, and now they exist in a nice big package, immortalized and ready for our enjoyment.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Take One: Cream 'When I Play My Guitar' 1966 'B' Side N.S.U.

Spinning today in the ‘rock room’ and the focus of this ‘Take One’ feature is the flip side of Cream’s 1966 US/UK single ‘I Feel Free’, the song ‘N.S.U’.  'N.S.U.' was also featured on the debut full length offering by the British power trio, Fresh Cream. The Jack Bruce penned number was the first song Bruce specifically penned for the band while preparing for one of their first rehearsals. The ‘I Feel Free’ b/w ‘N.S.U.’ single followed the band’s debut ‘Wrapping Paper’ which shined a spotlight on the group, but was not as representative of their developing aesthetic as the ‘I Feel Free’ single.‘NSU’ found on the flip, would go one to become a concert staple for the group, routinely surpassing 10 minutes in length and becoming a three pronged musical trident of psychedelic jamming and superior competitive musicianship. It's humble beginnings as an album track and 'B' side in no way represent the songs importance as a jamming vehicle and building block for the Cream sound.

In an available online interview with Jack Bruce, he demonstrates NSU on bass in addition to a number Cream classics, as well as explaining the origins of the title. There have been many statements on the specific meaning of the song including it referencing a European automobile. Here Bruce confirms and humorously states for all that ‘N.S.U.’ stands for ‘Non Specific Urethritis’, which is a commentary on a venereal disease that someone in the band was unlucky enough to catch during one of their rock and roll romps. Bruce states he cannot reveal who the song was referencing, but it may have been a certain guitar player. Lyrically the song is a flip book of Bruce's thoughts regarding rock and roll celebrity, while spiced with a dash of hallucinatory wonderment and confirmation. ‘Happiness is just something that cannot be bought’ and ‘I don’t want to go until I’ve found it all out’ are examples of the lyrical revelations which Bruce sings about. The 'in, out' lyric is one I'll leave to your own interpretation.

The original single/LP version of the song is introduced with Ginger Baker’s resonate tom-tom rolls to which Clapton locks in with a carnival picked guitar line. Bruce drops the anchor with a weighty bass under layer as the lyrics begin.  Each verse is separated by Clapton and Bruce’s descending and druggy ‘Ahhh’  vocal refrains to which Baker responds with waves of rolls across his kit. A short pause is revealed to which Bruce chops at his ropy ‘E’ string rhythmically before a snare crack returns us to the kaleidoscopic verses. The result is a cloudy blues romp trademarked with Cream's recognizable big vocals ( see White Room). Clapton solos briefly mid song with a quivering and distorted scribble across the song’s theme but the portal is quickly closed before the song returns the verses contained succinctly kept within its three minute package.
‘NSU’ is also represented by two provocative and destructive live versions featured on official releases. Versions from both March 9 and 10 1968 at Winterland arena in San Francisco have found their way into fans hands via the 1970 Live Cream Volume 1 album and on the Those Were the Days box set released in 1997. Where Clapton’s brief solo resides in the studio version, on stage it is split open like a fragrant piece of felled timber, the ax revealing multiple layers of historic improvisation.

Both live renditions immediately race toward the horizon on Bruce’s horny and hearty bass, The jam dynamically swells post verses through a series of blues snippets and Clapton conjured melodic magic that first crescendo, then sniff the floor wildly for other doorways to explore. The version from the 9th is worthy of its album release, but the version on the 10th has much to offer as well. The joy to be found in these particular live versions is to be discovered in the role reversals that take place between Clapton and Bruce. Clapton will mine a riff that he likes and repeat it, stitching designs with Baker’s drums while allowing Bruce to ‘solo’ dramatically. Bruce then responds in kind hammering out a guttural foundation with dangling notes that Eric then takes flight from. Clapton pulls from his well of influence, using blues based ideas that morph into exploratory statements. The musicians compete for space, but once they find a common ground they meld into one molten instrument that covers the surrounding landscape. In particular, the jam on the 9th becomes disorienting in its madness. The sturdy bones of Baker allow for the strings to have complete freedom and the result is a stunning piece of improv by three virtuoso musicians all peaking at the right moment.
Cream’s 1966 single ‘B’ side ‘N.S.U.’ is a not just a formative song in their catalog, it is a representation of the conglomerate of factors that make them a recognizable power force in rock history.  Their fearless group improvisation, heated egos and astronomical talents combined to make a series of unique musical statements over a very short span; and ‘N.S.U.’ helped to initiate this creative rush and historic process. The three principals would eventually be jettisoned into legendary careers of their own, but for three years in the mid 1960’s their collaborative relationship spawned sonic alchemy.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Monkees - 'Listen to the Band' 1969's The Monkees Present Album

In light of the recent resurgence and renewed interest in the Monkees' and because I dig em, today I am spinning what would be in reality their swan song record, The Monkees Present. Released in October 1969 the recording finds the band in some opinion somewhat outdated and passé at this point in their career. But when inspected in hindsight and context the record features for the time, contemporary as well as very interesting music. Peter Tork had left the group of his own accord in late 1968 while Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and David Jones decided to soldier on, with Nesmith soon leaving the group after the release of this aforementioned record. 

The original intention of The Monkees Present was to spotlight a side of the record for each individual member of group; but with Nesmith’s interest waning and the band’s supporters losing interest, the record ended up being released as a normal collection in its current and circulating form. The record as a whole is interesting for each member’s original compositions as well as its diverse array of genre and collective musicianship. One gets the feeling the Mike Nesmith was holding back his best work for his First National Band project which would be the culmination of Nesmith’s suppressed and simmering musical abilities and his debut solo project released ion the following year. Regardless, the Monkees Present paints a realistic and aurally interesting document of the Monkees, an often controversial and criticized group among rock fans, but with no doubt, a talented assembly of musical and artistic expressionists.

Dolenz ‘show-biz psychedelia elements, Jones heart break voice and stage presence and Nesmith’s revolutionary country rock song skills collaborate to express why the Monkees regardless of their genesis were greater than the sum of their parts. They all respectively knew exactly what they were good at and used these abilities to create a catalog of work worth of inspection. The grooves of this record are bumpy, but moments both good and bad are still worthy of taking note.

The needle drops on the first side of the record revealing a Micky Dolenz original ‘Little Girl’. A small three piece group of studio musicians support the dreamy jazz like structure. Dolenz rhythmic lyrical approach to songwriting pulses through a series of pleadings supported by airy guitar trilling. In my opinion the following song, Nesmith’s ‘Good Clean Fun’s would have been an even better opening number, but its honky-tonk aesthetic must not have meshed with certain record company criteria. “Little Girl’ does the job admirably and is the first of a series of great Dolenz tracks.

The follow up number on the first side is also the LP’s single, Nesmith’s ‘Good Clean Fun’. The unabashedly ‘country’ number, is a standout song. The tune did not make much of an impression on the record buying public, but does reveal the forward thinking Nesmith pushing the ‘country rock’ genre that he helped create and popularize. Unfortunately Nesmith was per usual, too ahead of the curve musically as well as trying to sell a genre that the Monkees fan base was not wholly a proponent of.  The track is catchy, hot and has its beginnings hailing from Nesmith’s groundbreaking 1968 Nashville recording sessions. (Which as a side note are in desperate need of a complete official release) Ticklish banjo and pedal steel abound and Nesmith drops musical clues as to what lies down the road. Track of note.

‘If I Knew’ completes the first triad of songs with each Monkee featured once and here Davy sooths his female admirers with a delicate acoustic based and piano love number. The track co-written by Jones by long time collaborator Bill Chadwick and is tailor made for Davy’s sensibility while emitting a certain timeless grooviness.

‘Bye Bye Baby Bye Bye’ is a wonderful song, shifty and syncopated Dolenz vocals bound with grace over a whining harmonica and an understated chicken picked arrangement. The backing band is made up by none other than ‘Wrecking Crew’ members Hal Blaine, James Burton and Joe Osbourne which confirms the tight and crisply played honey tonk. An excitable banjo enters into the mix as Dolenz’s vocals weave together raising the track to exceptional status. Competition for best song of side one and a solid rock rock by any group. Enjoy.
Nesmith original  ‘Never Tell a Woman Yes’ comes next and features the same backing band is the previous number and offered as a sepia toned saloon narrative earnestly told by ‘Nes’. This track is also a top shelf selection and may be a track that has escaped some Nesmith fans notice. The astounding clip clop’d drumming and clear pouring of piano underscore Nesmith’s additional joyful  wordless vocalizations and plaintive circular story telling.

In contrast musically, the choice for the David Jones track to follow came from an early collaboration with song-smiths Boyce and Hart. ‘Looking for the Good Tmes’ closes side one amidst fuzz guitar and a colorful strobe light delivery.  The song surpasses the arrangement by reveling in Jones all out vocal investment and the strength of a usually strong Boyce/Hart melody. An acceptable ending to a fulfilling side one.

Side two then opens oddly with the strangely placed ‘Lady’s Aid Society’. The song is sung with slight parody by Jones while the songs audio verite arrangement and silly street band chorus are questionable. Falsetto parade singing and sound effects try to make the bland song pop, but his one is useful only for its novelty and goofy ‘Brit’ attitude. Boyce and Hart deserved a better second representation on the record and quality control missed this one in my opinion.  I get what they are going for, it just doesn’t do it for me.The song does reflect the diverse musical display of the recording, if anything. 

‘Listen to the Band’  saves the day and picks things back up with one of Nesmith’s finest melodies from the era. The song has since become a statement for the Monkees’ as a group and has proven its longevity.   Streaking horns, slippery steel and a big sound are the hallmarks of a song that should have been huge. I don’t get it, this track, the era, the content and the melodic prowess, the song should have reached greater commercial acceptance. It had opportunity as a single but as an album track it certainly levitates the side it inhabits. Nesmith’s vocals are strong morning coffee, richly filling the soundscape.  For good measure there is a short trip out mid-song organ interlude and then a well timed fade, before reprising the chorus and then ending to recorded applause. 

David Jones makes up for his previous blunder on side two with the atmospheric ‘French Song’. The song slinks like a sexy soundtrack, a percussive heart surrounded by a flittering flute. Jones tells the tale of lovers, his usual M.O., but kept here in a satisfying package of ace musicianship and clean vocals.

Dolenz ‘Mommy and Daddy’ is a rare expression of social commentary by a group and that was often kept squeaky clean and with suppressed opinion. Oddly, when the group did begin to break that established mold they then crumbled. While an even more shocking alternate version is available, here Dolenz points fingers and asks pointed questions that at the time would cause flushed cheeks and turned heads. Dolenz is again found here contributing a quality track to the pot with a deeper aesthetic; and when the song breaks into a ‘big band’ beat at its conclusion; he sings like Grace Slick confidently and aggressively pointing fingers at a Jefferson Airplane gig. 

Nesmith turns to another songwriter for his final donation of the album, with the ‘country honk’ of ‘Oklahoma Backroom Dancer’. A funky Nesmith production is laid on the song that also features a rollicking piano interlude and sweet Nesmith rock and roll vocals. As previously stated, Nes may have been stashing tracks for a solo turn but there is no questioning the quality of the tracks he did contribute to this record. The production and instrumentation are of the expected quality and care.

Dolenz closes the strange sequencing for the second side and the recording with the plush jazz hands of ‘Pillow Time’. The song does what it does well and is notable for Dolenz’s diverse throat and by framing his comforting crooning. Micky certainly can sing the kids to sleep with the the lullabies! The track stretches then sweetly snoozes and lays the listener down concluding a slightly erratic side two. The song settles into a puffy comfortable groove, but does leaves me wanting at its conclusion for another track. Oh well.  

In spite of its questionable running order and soft spots the Monkees’ 1969 album The Monkees Present offers a useful and enjoyable listen. The album reveals the distinct personalities of its principals and their production values as well as clues into the band’s incredible success, eventual demise and established longevity.  Hindsight offers  the listener a nonjudgmental critique and historic reflection on this obscure collection of great music.