Talk From The Rock Room: December 2019

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Hot Tuna - 1971 LP First Pull Up, Then Pull Down - 'We Used To Melt'

Sitting on the turntable platter today in the ‘rock room’ is Hot Tuna’s June 1971 LP, First Pull Up, Then Pull Down, the duo’s follow up record to the previous year’s acoustic based debut. Recorded live in April of 1971 the album continues a theme of Jorma Kaukonen’s and Jack Casady exploration of traditional and blues tunes sprinkled in with a curated selection of Jorma originals. The central differentiating factor of the first and second records is that, First Pull Up, Then Pull Down is fully electrified. The famed self-titled debut spotlighted Jorma, Jack and blues harmonica specialist Will Scarlett playing live in an acoustic setting in contrast to the bombastic performances Jorma and Jack had just left behind in the Jeffferson Airplane. The follow up record added drummer Sammy Piazza and blues fiddler and Bay area favorite Papa John Creach on electric violin to the school of musical fish. The first two albums could easily be referred to as Hot Tuna Acoustic and Hot Tuna Electric.

Hot Tuna’s manifold musical influences developed from both Jorma and Jack’s early coffee house folk days and their psychedelically induced playing with the Airplane. Hot Tuna was and has always been the culmination of their friendship and the expression of their numerous musical tastes. This LP and the aforementioned self titled debut set the brick foundation for all of their future musical exploits.

First Pull Up, Then Pull Down opens with ‘John’s Other’, a Papa John instrumental composition, and a horny jam session. Immediately I think of the ‘Dirty Mac’s jam from the ‘Rolling Stone’s Rock and Roll Circus with violinist Irvy Gitlis (as they are both a 12 bar). The band members each take the opportunity to solo over a bed of hot rock. First Papa takes a slick series of violin quotes, then followed by Jorma who puts a buzz saw to wood with a delightfully fuzzy guitar solo. Scarlett blasts some blues harp before again being taken over by Papa John. A straight ahead extended rock and roll opener, this track straddles the boundary between Hot Tuna of the sea and Jefferson Airplane of the sky.

The following cut is a cover of Reverend Gary Davis’s “Candyman” a major influence of Kaukonen and of music in general. While an acoustic version would appear as a bonus cut on the Hot Tuna debut reissue, here the song is given a country funkified rendition. A whiney harp by Will Scarlett takes center stage blowing over the front porch rocking chair creaking of the rhythm section. The deft concoction of harp and violin are the sugary covering over the rich rustic center. Jorma’s wonderfully reedy vocals lend a sepia tone to the proceedings.  Midway through the song Jack Casady takes the classic blues and dismantles the structure into a well-timed, chord riddled and looping bass solo. The music swells and lands perfectly into the central melody.

A Jorma Kaukonen original comes next with, “Been So Long”.  A chunky palm muted introductory guitar scrub signals the band to fall into place. Jack drops a stone into the water letting the ripples reverberate. To the ‘rock room’s’ ears, there may have been a rerecording on the vocals as they sound almost studio quality (in addition to an extra guitar lick). A cut that has lasted for the duration of ‘Hot Tuna’s career this song contains all of the hallmarks of Kaukonen's best songs. Dynamic guitar and a euphoric middle eight highlight this early Hot Tuna standard.

‘Want You To Know’ continues in the same vein, bathed in a bitter drink, thick smoke and dimmed lights. Jorma begins the tune with some delicate Delta blues finger picking before a steady snare hit and earnest fiddle swells coagulate the beat. Invisible dusty feet stomp collectively as the curtain is pulled back to reveal Papa John scribbling historical lines over the twisted frame of traditional music.

The second side of the record begins with another Reverend Gary Davis composition and an in concert favorite of Hot Tuna fans, 'Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning'. Sadly, lyrically the song remains as relevant as it was when it was born. This song was also given an acoustic reading on the first Hot Tuna record and here it is given a 100 watt jolt. Jorma plucks out the song’s introductory heartbeat before the band flares around him into a honky tonk groove. Jorma’s vocals sound slightly menacing as his picking mirrors the melody. Extended to past eight minutes, the band peruses each nook and cranny of the musical framework. Jorma and Papa John work in conjunction tugging on each end of the verse until snapping back into a collaborative groove. Casady hits the root appropriately but dances around the edges while tastefully joining in disseminating a taste of the lead melody. Midway through the song Piazza’s tempo doubles and at five minutes in Kaukonen stomps the fuzz box with Casady slamming his thick four strings. Papa John, Scarlett, and Jorma wrap around a central pole, streaming flash paper melodies that rise, fall and dissipate in musical community. The group reaches an appropriate peak before falling into the final verse and conclusion.
A blues classic and main stay of the Tuna repertoire ‘Never Happen No More’ comes next. Written by Blind Blake in 1927, the ‘rag’ tells the tale of a down on his luck depression era man, the perfect fit for Jorma and Jack. Papa John is the leader of the band, laying down a mournful yet slippery consonance to Kaukonen’s rag time picking. Similar to the groups cover of ‘Want You to Know’ the band pulls the most important elements of the song and hold them up to the light for inspection.
The album closes with an extended reading of ‘Come Back Baby’, a song Jorma had been using as a spotlight piece in Airplane performances. (the Woodstock version is particularly fine) The original version was written by Walter Davis in 1940, but a number of cover versions took place in the 1960’s including well known versions by Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. The closing version for First Pull Up, Then Pull Down sets a swampy groove with Casady answering Kaukonen’s guitar with rotund thumps pounded into the empty spaces. Again, Papa John adorns the rhythm with a martellato bow attack. Once in a while Papa John elicits a colorful dropping from above in a dizzying array of descending sound. While taken at a more patient reading than some Jefferson Airplane versions, the blues form is explored by all the instrumentalists conjuring up a dirt stomping version. At around 6 minutes Jorma pours some spicy wah-wah into the stew giving a kick to everyone involved.

‘Hot Tuna’s 1971 album First Pull Up, Then Pull Down is a proper ‘Volume II’ to their debut acoustic album. The record illustrates the other side of the band’s mirror to listeners allowing them a view of their influences and abilities. Perhaps not the 'best' Hot Tuna recording, but one well worthy of your listening time. Throughout the later 1970’s the band would walk the razors edge balancing their musical personality between rock and psych ‘metal’, but always keeping the acoustic blues and electric ragtime sensibilities firmly in their grasp. The relationship between Jorma and Jack endures of 50 years on, and while the musicians and friends they work with under the banner of ‘Hot Tuna’ revolve with every trip around the sun, the principals remain.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Now Playing: Fotheringay – Beat Club 1970 – “My Shadow Follows Me”

Now playing in the ‘rock room’ is a vibrant and rare 17 min color clip of ‘Fotheringay’ filmed in October 1970 for the German Radio Bremen television show Beat Club. ‘Fotheringay’ for those unaware was the band Sandy Denny put together with husband Trevor Lucas following Sandy’s departure from ‘Fairport Convention at the end of 1969. Live footage is at a premium for Sandy and thankfully this performance finds Denny at an amazing peak as both a writer and a performer. The rhythm section of Pat Donaldson and session drummer extraordinaire Gerry Conway are as tight and in the groove as the watch pocket on a vintage pair of Levi’s. Comprising the rest of the group is as previously stated Sandy’s future husband Trevor Lucas on acoustic guitar and astronomical Telecaster player Jerry Donahue. While when originally broadcast on November 28, 1970 one track (‘Nothing Was Delivered’)was shown, now, (as of 2015 when the box set Nothing More: The Collected Works was released) we are able to enjoy the entire performance.

‘Fotheringay’ was the result of the close knit nepotism of the late 1960’s and 1970’s British folk community. Following Denny’s decision to leave ‘Fairport Convention’ to play with her boyfriend, the result was one fine studio album, a few wonderful performances, some unfinished tracks and this excellent television broadcast.
The available color pro shot footage begins with the circular patina piano of ‘Nothing More’. The song according to Denny biographer Clinton Heylin was composed about legendary guitarist and oft-band mate of Denny, Sir Richard Thompson. Long lush acoustic strums and Donahue silver threads of melody drape themselves of Denny’s piano like discarded undergarments. Donahue’s swelling resonance of the lacy verses is of particular note. Denny, speaks to the protagonist delicately, probing their emotions, wishing to see the ‘pearls’ that he hold so close that no one will ever know. Her winter maple throat is unwavering and drips rich drops of sweetness throughout her deadly serious inquisition.

Musically the song dramatically fractals into moonlight through stained glass. Denny’s voice is haunting, yet steady through the developing musical storm that gains turbulence as the song cuts through emotive waters of melody. By the third verse the song floats inches above the ground, Donahue weaves around the internal euphony before taking off into an icy clean recitation of Denny’s words. Denny’s face is framed by fire, she glances over the top of the piano as the drums drop away leaving the final verse to be sung over a sparse sparkling musical sky.
The next track to follow finds Sandy standing in her flowing gown with microphone as the band organically plays the sneaky introduction to ‘Gypsy Davy’. A traditional song (arranged by Denny) that was never officially recorded by ‘Fotheringay’, here it is played with a subtle power and a rooted ethnic aesthetic. Denny sways unintentionally seductively with eyes closed as she sings the first verse the music visibly taking her away. The documented Anglo American narrative is of a noblewoman who desert her high standing in life to run away with the poor gypsy she loves. In ‘Fotheringay’s’ capable hands the song becomes a towering knotted tree, standing timelessly and straddling the musical border between rustic and contemporary. Donahue’s guitar stings the central melody with deft filigree’s of gold leaf as the able rhythm section cooks over an open fire with a particular groove that defies description.

The dramatic epic ‘John the Gun’ follows next along with Denny’s return to the piano. Recorded during sessions for the unreleased second ‘Fotheringay’ record and later rerecorded for Denny’s The North Star Grassman and the Ravens solo debut the song is in the ‘rock room’s’ opinion on of Denny’s finest. Beginning with a lick that sounds like a high speed rocker, the song proper then gets its hammer cocked and drops into the verse with a metallic down stroke from Jerry Donahue.  Denny dramatically sings the narrative with a serious yet plaintive attack. Conway punctuates each line with large splashes of cymbal work. The substantial chorus is vocally collaborative with all hands on deck leading to Donahue’s slippery silver solo spot. He takes two rounds with deft string bends twisted like molten metal. 

The story of “John the Gun” is a tale of life and death, the song is eerie, and feels like the cold steel of a weapon. The track is a unique Denny original which elicits traditional song. “John the Gun” plays the games of war which takes young lives because he himself was the loser of said games. Denny, melodically and lyrically winds these ideals tightly around Fotheringay’s instrumental loom until rich golden twine is produced. On stage, Sandy is lost in her muse, staring into the creative distance, enveloped in song.
The criminally short performance concludes with a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Nothing Was Delivered’. Sung by Lucas, here the song becomes a lush mossy slab of ‘Celtic funk’. Conway’s drums and weighty double kick drums hits advance the song’s natural groove. Donahue stretches some rubber banded twang from his Tele, with well-timed string bends that pop with a rustic attitude. Lucas’s straightforward vocalization fits the song hand and glove. With the conditions that Dylan originally composed the song in Upstate New York in 1967, the ‘rock room’ asserts that of the many covers of this tune, ‘Fotheringay’ puts their spade in the dirt and reveals the heart of Dylan’s intent. Regardless of ‘Peter, Paul. And Mary’s ascent of the charts with the composition in 1967, this one is tough to beat.

While unfortunately short lived, Fotheringay was a well-timed expression for Sandy Denny, and a band of soft comfort for her fragile psyche to develop her songs. While this brief creative endeavor neither moved the earth nor traveled across the seas, the songs remain. The band for the time was of one mind, longing to express their shared love of folk and traditional music by swirling it into a uniquely original tincture. While the group would fracture, the individual members bonds would remain and they would mix and match over the short years left for Denny. This special footage of ‘Fotheringay’ at the Beat Club 1970 should be treasured and enjoyed by those who witness it.  It’s a lucky star that it exists with the minuscule amount of celluloid tape available.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Fred Neil – Hootenanny Live At the Bitter End – “Drop the Atom Bomb the Day My Ship Comes In”

Revolving in the ‘rock room’ today is an obscure mono folk record from the FM label released in 1964. The LP titled, Hootenanny – Live At the Bitter End spotlights a number of artists from the heady days of the Greenwich folk scene which included familiar artists like, Bob Dylan, John Sebastian and the focus of today’s ‘rock room’ rant, Fred Neil. Famously known as the composer of the song “Everybody’s Talkin”, Neil towered above the majority of artists that passed through The Bitter End as is illustrated on the record. As famed critic Richie Unterberger stated in his review of the LP: " “All of the other performers sing sincere, twee coffeehouse folk that illustrates (if only in retrospect) just how necessary it was for gutsier artists like Neil to come along and blow them out of the water”.

Neil performs three songs (hailing from 1963) on the record in his far out folk blues fashion. Leading on strident 12 string acoustic guitar, Neil with unknown backing musicians (on bass and harp respectively) ties everything together like tightly knotted rope. No disrespect to fellow artists featured on the record, Bob Carey, Len Chandler and Jo Mapes, but when the record is played in its entirety it is obvious to the ‘rock room’ who is the timeless talent. Prior to Neil appearing on the Hootenanny record he had released a number of rare singles (1957-1960) while quickly falling out of the ‘Brill Building’ school of songwriting. Following Hootenanny, Neil would record the influential, Tear Down the Walls record with fellow folkie Vince Martin and later following with four of his own solo recordings.

The first of three Neil songs on the record is “Linin Track” recorded by Huddie Ledbetter. Neil sits in the lead engine car initiating the groove. Neil states, “I heard that all Bitter End people have rhythm” as his wiry 12 string scrubs rock into a unique folk blues groove. “Linin Track” rises like locomotive steam as it races down the track. Neil is accompanied by as previously stated an unknown bass player who thumps out a mantra on the standup. Neil starts off the song with his ethnic box car chording. The strident and seductive percussion less rhythm expands and contracts as Neil bellows over the top of the rocky churn. His hearty voice elongating the verses and deep diving into the lower register. Midway through the song and through the musical smoke Neil shouts, “Here We Go” as he initiates another round of fibrous riffing. “Linin Track” languidly veers off course and segues seamlessly into “Grizzly Bear”; a 1962 single for Jake Scott which was co-written by Neil.
Neil begins to shout out the lyrics and then the dynamic call and response chorus to “Grizzly Bear” while requesting that Village singer/songwriter Major Wiley come on stage and assist with the lyrical echoes. Rolling down the mountain and through the briars and brambles Neil gets the “Bitter End” and Major to collaboratively get down. Neil brings the chunky groove lower and lower until concluding the “Linin Track’ bookend with a reprise. The crowd responds loudly and the vibe is bright.

The next track on the LP, “Sky Is Falling” is a Fred Neil original that never made it on one of his official LP’s.  Here again, Neil is joined by an unknown bass player who lends a warm walking bass line to the track. Neil precipitates a ticklish acoustic prelude before beginning the lyrics with his irresistible golden tenor. Neil croons his unique brand of blues, contemplating the falling sky and the eventual world “fall out”. Loose and intimate the song levitates between earth and sky, delicately balanced on Neil’s internal syncopation. Neil really huffs and puffs on the golden horn for the last verse as his voice hits spots where the listener can ‘feel’ it.

Neil introduces the final song on the album as, “another work song I learned from Bobby Dylan”. A humorous aside as Dylan actually backed Neil at the “Bitter End” in 1961 and they often traveled in many of the same Greenwich songwriting circles. “That’s the Bag I’m In” follows and is a Neil original that would later be recorded on 1966’s self-titled album Fred Neil.

A ‘rock room’ favorite and a Fred Neil classic, “That’s the Bag I’m In” begins on a circular fingerpicked lick and lists a litany of “shit happens” moments to our narrator. He immediately burns his fingers on the coffee pot and misses his connection amongst other unfortunate daily events. Eventually, “same thing gonna happen again, cause that’s the bag I’m in”.  The version here is a bit faster than the eventual studio recording with a kenetic strumming pattern. Another unknown musician joins Neil, this time on harmonica. I will throw it out there that I believe this spectral player to be John Sebastian (who often played in the Village and with Neil). Neil states to the player, “Get the bag” as both he and Neil accelerate the tempo and enter into a guitar/harp run through the changes. Connecting the dots and dressed with off mic asides, Neil sings the opening verse again to conclude the song with some gritty gusto on the exiting words.
In the ‘rock room’s meaningless opinion, Fred Neil is one of the finest songwriters to be birthed from the early 1960’s coffeehouse folk “hootenannies”. While some of these talented artists became bigger than they could ever imagine, some like Neil have not even been given the benefit of hindsight. Obviously his compositions such as “Everybody’s Talkin” and “Dolphins” have endured and influenced over the years, yet the man is still underrepresented. David Crosby, Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley, John Sebastian and Joni Mitchell are only a few of the famed and talented songwriters whom were assisted or inspired by Neil. Full scale musical acceptance would allude Neil for his entire life but he would contribute to the world in other ways. Neil would slowly retreat from music and head for the deep. His work with ocean and dolphin preservation would become his calling and he would leave an indelible mark on it just as he had as a songwriter.