Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Now Playing: John Martyn - Rock Goes To College October 20, 1978 - It's One World, Like It Or Not

Flickering on the flat screen in the ‘rock room’ today is a wonderful audio visual document featuring John Martyn playing on the BBC series Rock Goes to College. Played and broadcast from Reading University on October 20, 1978, the performance features a 40 minute solo show by Martyn in support of his 1977 LP One World. The entire performance was been released officially in 2006 on the DVD John Martyn at the BBC.

The college crowd is raucous and it is a testament to Martyn’s power, ‘grace and danger’ that he brings the assembled crowd to complete silence during a number of his songs. Only the man and his guitar is spotlighted in this performance.The broadcast opens with an already in progress, ‘May You Never’ (a song also covered by Eric Clapton for his Slowhand album). The song is one of Martyn’s most beloved and well known tracks and here it is given a percussive and swinging acoustic groove by Martyn’s snappy strumming patterns. Following a round of applause for the familiar number and the MC’s introduction, Martyn gathers his electric Gibson SG guitar.

In a spectacular contrast Martyn chooses to play ‘One World’ next, the title track from his most recent LP release. Contextually and lyrically, a simple request, ‘One World’  is a gentle reminder that regardless of personal beliefs we are all together on this spinning blue ball like it or not. While the studio recording is an atmospheric bird-eye view of the earth, here in live performance everything is played and morphed by Martyn and his electric guitar and his series of pedals.

Martyn begins the song with a streaking stratospheric drone. What makes it even more powerful is the accompanying video which allows us to witness the sonic wizardry. Martyn slurs our the delicately airy melody which hangs motionless like white linens during a still evening. Martyn sets the tempo with an unseen astral metronome. Each note is an eternity, each sonic swell a mysterious wave swirling toward shore. Eyes closed Martyn sings each line carefully, each drawn out vocal a universe unto itself. Midway through the song a soaring distortion creates a more aggressive bed for Martyn to scat, ‘One World’ over the top of. Martyn clenches his eyes before slashing a dark ray of feedback from his guitar, he tugs at the neck of his SG stretching the note. This leads to a towering series of licks that grow before dissipating into molecule. The song swings like a transparent pendulum surrounded by sonic doves and life giving water. I can assure you that this performance is unique unto itself, like a UFO or unknown sea creature, a beautiful mystery.

The song draws puzzled but honest applause from the crowd who must realize they have witnessed something special. A slightly jittery Martyn introduces the next song followed by a big sleeve swipe across his nose. Martyn’s acoustic comes back out for ‘One Day without You’ a track from Martyn’s 1976 LP Sunday’s Child. What a stunning rendition of this underrated track from Martyn’s catalog. Aggressive thumbed percussion keeps Martyn’s unique love song pumping like a love sick heart. Martyn’s lyrics elicit the sadness Martyn feels when his partner is not around and how everything is slightly less resplendent when she is gone. His vocals are long and smooth and stretch over the percussive strings as verbal taffy, virginal and sticky sweet.
Martyn lets out an unintelligible yelp following the priceless reading of ‘One Day Without You’, before introducing ‘Dealer’, which John dedicates to ‘most of his friends’. Martyn quickly pounds the remainder of his beer, tunes up his acoustic and illustrates the wonders of his Echoplex working in conjunction with his acoustic. Creating his own rhythm track by thumping out a riff on his hollow body, Martyn joins by laying another melodic coat of paint over the base. Martyn loses himself in the song, rocking to the created rhythm by adding glittering licks that reverberate in time with the original tape delay. The meter of his verses in conjunction with the rolling groove illustrate the eagerness of the songs protagonist. The song brings the listener to hypnosis with only Martyn’s gritty vocals breaking the spell.

Following a quick tune up and thank you to the crowd, Martyn introduces the next song as, ‘roses in the teeth time’, and says that ‘this is the closest we will get to true romance all night’.  Another song from One World follows with ‘Certain Surprise’ which quietly sneaks up on the listener through jazzy changes and fragile singing by Martyn. Beautifully delicate in its construction, the street corner busker melody is earnest and gentle and echoes in the distance as lovers touch hands across a candlelit table.

Martyn stays on acoustic but again institutes the Echoplex for “Big Muff” which he humorously introduces as another ‘love song’. Also from the One World album, ‘Big Muff’ was a collaboration with famed dub producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry when Martyn visited Jamaica with Chris Blackwell from Island Records. The song is a wonderful blend of humor, musical magic and Jamaican weed. In this rendition Martyn sets the tempo with plucks on his bass strings similarly to ‘Dealer’. He then dresses the song with a funky central lick and croons with a free flowing rock and roll slur. 

The performance concludes with a rare ‘In Search of Anna’ to which Martyn again reaches for his Gibson SG. ‘Anna’ had its musical roots in the One World soundscape ‘Small Hours’ which used natural sounds and manipulated guitar to create a starry beg of sound. ‘In Search of Anna’ was released as a single in 1978 only in Australia for the soundtrack to the film, In Search of Anna. The song was co-written with Michael Norton who set lyrics to Martyn’s music. In this footage Martyn develops the song proper by pumping on his wah-wah and playing well timed harmonics on his guitar. Martyn sums up the feeling of this song by placing his hand over his eyes simulating that he is watching something in the distance. A storm of distortion disassembles the placid soundscape which reveal Martyn singing the verses.
The credits begin to roll as Martyn sings a combination of the lyrics over the silvery topography of song. Martyn is at the directive of the muse as he free forms the lyrics and improvises the song constantly looking for Anna along the horizon. Unfortunately, like the opening song, the closing song is truncated before reaching its conclusion. What a way to conclude the performance with an mostly unheard song, disseminated like a quilt of night sky draped over a full house of college students.
Typical for John Martyn, this 1978 performance includes wonderful songwriting, experimental improvisation and soulful performing. There is a hearty knotted thread of melody for the audience to hang onto and a large dose of inprov to keep Martyn interested. In the ‘rock room’s’ humble opinion this performance can be considered a high water mark for John Martyn. While Martyn had much more music to be be heard, there is something special about this concert, prior to the health and addiction issues Martyn would still face.

For John Martyn fans in the know his performance on October 20, 1978 is not to be missed and captures the artist at work during one of his many peaks as a musician. For those just learning about John Martyn (unbelievably there are many) this performance is a glimpse into his substantial catalog and a taste of the multiple flavors of his music ranging from, folk, rock, jazz and experimental songs that express the multiple aspects of Martyn’s personality and in turn our own.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Put the Boot In: Bob Dylan and his Band – Monterey May 27, 1995 –‘Leaves of Yesteryear’

Pulled from the ‘rock room’ compact disc archive today comes a much celebrated and excellent Bob Dylan performance from his spring 1995 tour. A swing on the ‘Never Ending Tour’ much celebrated by fans, today the ‘rock room’ takes the soundboard line recording from the May 27, 1995 for a spin around the musical block. Hailing from Monterey, California this 13th performance of the tour features a well-balanced and crispy recording and a fiery Dylan. My recording hails from the silver CD bootleg Laguna Beach and is one of the most respected ‘unofficial’ recordings available from the era.

The concert was held outdoors and Dylan was the headlining act with other bands such as the ‘Black Crowes’ and George Clinton. The backing group for this portion of the ‘Never Ending Tour’ features Bucky Baxter on pedal steel and slide guitar, John Jackson (guitar), Tony Garnier (bass) and Winston Watson on drums. While Jackson and Baxter do much of the heavy lifting for the solo’s Dylan also plays quite a bit of his own unique brand of lead guitar during this era. The recording is popular with Dylan fanatics for both sound quality and performance. The band is a guitar heavy, rock and roll steamroller.

The crowd on this particular evening was treated to a well-played show that featured a number of first times for the tour as well as many top notch renditions. Following the MC’s introduction, beginning the evening is a bombastic vamp on ‘Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)’ that lets the assembled crowd know that the band has already primed the pump. Dylan begins the show with a sinister pout, the vocals power increased by the slippery descending lick central to this arrangement. The song gains momentum as the flood gates open and by the final verse Dylan is feeling it with syncopated melodic shouts. A couple of solid Jackson solos ignite the fuse and by the songs conclusion the band is a full torrent.

Bob shouts a quick ‘Thank You’ and with just a brief pause, the weighty slow roll of ‘It Takes A lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” leaves the station. Dressed in fuzzy slide and succinct rhythm guitar, this is a patient and stellar rendition.  Dramatic Bucky Baxter steel enforces Dylan’s elastic and soulful dictation. Dylan is in fantastic voice and each movement of the song has a purpose and the well-known changes become more substantial with the throttled down tempo.

With hardly a pause an aggressive ‘All Along the Watchtower’ scans the evening’s landscape. As is typical Dylan stays with Hendrix’s arrangement but with a dash of funkiness added by Watson’s gunshot snare drum. The joker, thief and price weave their three guitars into a frenzy during the mid-song jam with Dylan underneath soloing without restraint. The group brings the dynamics way down before a series of scrubs by Jackson separated by a verse bring the song to a substantial peak. By this time the group was very familiar with each other’s moves, this freedom allowed Dylan the ability to just jam without bogging down the song. The ‘rock room’ recommends reading Dylan’s Chronicles I for a deft description of Dylan’s approach to the guitar during this era and how he received an awakening during his 1987 rehearsals with the Grateful Dead. ‘Watchtower’ gets a huge round of applause.

After a rolling and raucous concert opening Dylan brings things to a simmer with a rendition of the ‘Never Ending Tour’ concert standard, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’. Here the classic is played as a slow march, with Dylan’s investment in the vocals a highlight. Dylan pulls lyrical taffy, stretching and tugging the melody line as the steel moans from a distant country hill top. The sparkling ding of a bell punctuates each verse prior to a swaying solo spot for all three string wielders where the central refrain is dispersed in a variety of ways.

Another popular choice for Dylan during this era comes next with ‘Silvio’. A song co-written with the Grateful Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter. ‘Silvio’ screams with bombastic riffs and an extended jam. Dylan rings out each word as he searches to find out what only dead men know. Dylan always has a huge ‘rocker’ in the early portions of this shows and this version of ‘Silvio’ fits the bill. An additional three guitar maelstrom comprises the central segment of the song. Dylan’s guitar work here is quite good in the ‘rock’ sense. Following ‘Silvio’ Dylan introduces Jackson’s own impressive guitar work with a slight joking aside.
Two major highlights follows as Dylan and the group have properly stretched their legs and again dig into Dylan’s mid 60’s catalog. ‘Tombstone Blues’ is played as a grinding and vamped on 12 bar blues, where the intro reminds of ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ from Dylan’s yet to be released 2001 LP Love and Theft. As opposed to the track’s usual high speed rap, Dylan’s approach includes crooning with a blues man’s swagger. Here Dylan focuses less on rhythmic invention and more on swing and raw authenticity. Distorted guitars and twangy licks frame Dylan’s sneaky lines. Wooly steel lines by Baxter shred the first break and give Bob a gentle nudge into the next verse where he plants his heels into the fresh dirt. Another stunning guitar break follows, this time by Jackson where Bob lets him shovel another load of dirt. The guitarists get another chance to shine as a third round of pyrotechnics occur after the concluding verse. Rough ready and rolling, the perfect set up to the acoustic set.
The second of the two highlights mentioned above comes next with the anticipated acoustic set. With the stellar display already put on for the Monterey crowd via the incendiary electric set, Dylan fittingly follows it with ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.  While not as surreal as the 1966 tour versions or as fiery as the 1975 renditions, this reading is a delicate country lullaby. With a laser focus on the words and melody, Dylan pulls from his most famous song a Hank Williams ballad. Acoustic, with harmonica and slide guitar the psychedelic poetry is sung over pastoral landscape of smoke rings and tambourine tapping jesters.
Dylan sings tenderly, gentle and inquisitively, sharing a lyrical secret. Patient, like a back porch ballad, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, bass and harp collaborate sewing a delicate framework to cradle Dylan’s words. Following the final verse, Baxter’s slide and Dylan’s harp enter into an outro duet. Dylan blows his harmonica soft as baby’s breath, gently exploring repetitive notes like he has never witnessed them previously. Completely invested, Dylan uses his setup before taking a breathy swell for the final trip around the melody before coming full circle to complete one of the finest ‘Mr Tambourine Man’s’ of the 1990’s.

‘Masters of War’ continues the acoustic set, the second of a triad of some of Dylan’s most emotive cuts. With a rhythm like the doomsday clock, Dylan’s acoustic pushes the hands of the song forward, the distant sound of a foot soldier’s cadence reflected in the sound. Dylan takes three differing harp breaks that lay dividing lines in the dirt. The second solo races forward with Baxter’s succinct mandolin strikes setting the tempo, before Dylan lays down a third more aggressive solo after the dark concluding verse.

The final song of the acoustic set is a wonderful waltz time reading of ‘To Ramona’. Again, mandolin, Dylan’s acoustic and bass are the spotlighted instruments. Dylan, as has been the standard for the show sings endearingly to Ramona, each line lovingly crafted but with a slight twist at the end that makes you wonder. A melody that never grows tired, and a singer who is inside of the song. Stunning.

Dylan then introduces the band following the acoustic set in preparation for the concert’s home stretch.  Another small Dylan joke can be heard during these intros. Ushering in the rest of the electric set is an unassuming track from Dylan’s 1986 LP Empire Burlesque. ‘Seeing the Real You at Last’ while not a concert standard seems to always make an appearance at some point during a Dylan tour. The cut starts out thumping out a slippery riff and reveals itself as Dylan enters into the verses. This is a guitar leaden version with Chuck Berry licks flying around the stage and Dylan gruffly singing the slightly accusatory and differing from the studio record lyrics.

In the ‘rock room’s’ humble opinion the previous jam was just a minor setup for the regal version of ‘Every Grain of Sand’ that follows. ‘Every Grain of Sand’ is always a welcome addition to any Dylan set and a special occurrence when it does. The perfect blend of faith and secular love, the song is easily one of Dylan’s finest compositions. The band begins buy contemplating the songs changes instrumentally, setting the table for Dylan’s entrance. Jackson quotes the descending central lick from the studio album Shot of Love in between the verses, while Baxter’s pedal steel lends a mystical air to the proceedings. While there is no harp solo, Dylan does pluck the guitar around the edges of song's melody throughout. The verses are complete and by the end the song, the entire band has reached a central place of thoughtless ecstasy.

A standard crowd pleasing, but nonetheless high octane, ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’, comes next and closes the concert proper. A big shifty version, the tune skates across freeway bridges and heads down the interstate. A series of heavy riffing and Dylan’s tangled verses bring the assembled crowd to their feet after a series of climaxes. While well played, I am still feeling the emotional repercussions of the previous cuts, but it is nice to just rock!
What could Dylan possibly pull out as an encore after the set crowning ‘Every Grain of Sand’ and closing ‘Memphis Blues’? A wonderfully long, stirring version of ‘Knockin on Heavens Door’ that’s what. Admittedly, the ‘rock room’ isn’t a fan of ALL the versions of this Dylan classic, as it sometimes can become a dirge. This version is a poignant conclusion to a special performance and pairs perfectly and thematically with the sets conclusion. What begins as a small tip tapping becomes a full blown cop knock by the end as the band lays into the show’s conclusion. The first verse is drumless with only Dylan’s voice and before long the song reaches skyward, increasing its momentum and bursting into a wonderful show ending conclusion. Dylan takes one guitar solo before letting Baxter and Jackson take the final solo spot to a big riveting end.

It is a substantially tall order to sift through Bob Dylan’s ‘Never Ending Tour’ and reveal its numerous hidden jewels. There is an overwhelming collection of songs, line ups, venues, shows and extenuating factors that make up Dylan’s massive touring career. In the case of May 27, 1995, this is one show whose head bobs above the waterline and lets us witness its beautiful creation. Dylan would still have a number of musical peaks in the upcoming years, and is still reaching nightly summits as of this writing. The ‘rock room’ always finds it nice to dig into Dylan’s back pages not only to trace his career and development but to find the magic.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Rock Room on the Road: Graham Nash – Live at Ithaca State Theater March 7, 2020 ‘I Can See My Life Before Me’

On Saturday March 7, 2020 Graham Nash stopped into the historic State Theater in Ithaca, NY for his Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories 2020 tour. Joined by longtime musical companion Shane Fontayne on guitar and vocals and former ‘CSN’ organist/vocalist Todd Caldwell, Nash put together an airy and diverse trio to play a cross-section of his music hailing from the ‘Hollies’, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, ‘CSNY’ and his solo career. Just a ‘rock room’ observation, I feel Nash emanated a vibe of seriousness throughout the evening, and maybe even a hint of sadness. I will not pretend to act that this is fact, but in my mind his stature only increased the poignancy of the performance.

The 1,600 seat State Theater was about ¾ capacity when the performance started promptly at 8:00 PM. I sat third row stage left and had a wonderful cross stage view of the proceedings. Regardless of current world events, the show must go on and Nash gave myself and the assembled crowd a couple hours to not think about the chaos surrounding us. Nash was in amazing voice on this evening. I have seen Nash over 30 times in multiple configurations since the early 1990’s and honestly I can say that he has never sounded better. My expectations were greatly surpassed but I was not surprised. The concert was comprised of two sets, infusing a multifarious collection of favorites, deep cuts and surprises.

Nash begin the evening on his beautiful Martin acoustic with his composition ‘Wasted on the Way’, a ‘Crosby Stills and Nash single’ from 1982 and a top ten hit for the band. Lyrically fitting for the start of the evening as the song disseminates the realization that Nash and his musical friends have/had wasted so much time on petty jealousies and meaningless fodder as opposed to concentrating on the things that really matter.

Following comes the first ‘deep’ cut of the evening, ‘King Midas in Reverse’, a 1967 single by the ‘Hollies’ which didn’t do much, yet for Nash’s fans is a well-loved cut. I was especially excited as Nash had been playing ‘Bus Stop’ in the slot currently but changed it up on this evening. Lucky us! Nash soared on the choruses with his duo of musicians providing buttery harmonies. The band created a pale paisley of sound with Caldwell laying lush brush strokes of color under the drumless sway. Fontayne was and is a stellar musician throughout the night, adding perfectly placed dabs of melody and sonic displacement under Nash’s rhythmic strums.
Before I could take a breath, ‘I Used to Be a King’ from Nash’s 1971 LP Songs For Beginners came next. Here Fontayne resurrected Jerry Garcia’s silvery pedal steel from the studio recording with illuminating riffing the crystallized in the still State Theater air. Nash with eyes closed reached for the top rungs of the chorus and hit them with light fingertips. The crowd, even those unfamiliar with the song sat in amazed silence.
Graham had no qualms about stating his mind throughout the evening, even dropping a few ‘F bombs’ to get his point across. Prior to another Songs from Beginners track ‘Chicago’ Graham told the story of how he was inspired to write the song in addition to mentioning that no one should be ‘fucking’ surprised that he will be discussing the current political climate throughout the performance. Nash said that if you have ever been to a CSNY show you should know what to expect. Nash then sat at the center stage piano and pounded the black and white keys into the stomping intro to ‘Chicago (We Can Change the World)’. Graham dug into this cut with a fierce determination, even adding our current President’s name to some of the lyrics, illustrating the song’s 50 year relevance. Members of the audience rose to their feet at the songs conclusion realizing the songs importance even in current times.

After the thrilling opening to set one, Nash thumbed through his back catalog to play a deeper cut from his impressive discography. Nash preceded ‘Carried Away’, from the 1977 CSN LP with a tale regarding his lust for an island woman who was already on her way to somewhere else with her ‘old man’. Still at piano, Nash played an introspective version of the cut that pimpled my skin and watered my eyes. The melody initiated images, while Nash’s voice brought out emotions in me that didn’t exist prior to the song. A performer at his finest.

‘Sleep Song’, ‘4 + 20’, ‘Military Madness’ come next in the set. ‘4+20’ was a surprise seeing Graham play a song that one of his music water brothers composed. Similarly to the evening thus far Nash stamped the song with his own floating tenor and made the cut a highlight of his own. ‘Military Madness’ received the torch from ‘Chicago’ and was played with a gruff ambition while again name checking a certain person in power. The crowd loved it and the song was spotlighted by Fontayne’s sonic expressions.

In my mind I hoped that the penultimate performance of the set, the Crosby/ Nash song ‘Wind on the Water’ from their LP of the same name was added as an olive branch to David Crosby. I know this was not the case, but nonetheless I let the song for the world's whales wash over me, an ocean tide of prismatic melody, buoyed by Nash’s piano and decorated with ocean calls and salty foam by the apt duo of Fontayne and Caldwell. I must not neglect to mention Fontayne and Caldwell’s wonderful additions vocally to songs that are not easy to sing harmonies on. I not once caught myself hoping for other voices, each cut was rendered with vocal care and ability.
Closing set one, was not a deep cut, but was a surprise. The trio finished with the Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’. For sure not the song I was expecting this trio to cover, but similarly to the rest of the evening they did a masterful job. Nash’s voice a hand in glove fit for the song, the groups contrary sparse arrangement fitting, and the song's peaks reached with a swirling dervish of sound between guitar and organ. A standing ovation initiated and a 20 minute break before set two.

Nash and his friends returned to the darkened stage after a brief break opening the final set with perhaps his most well-known song, ‘Marrakesh Express’. This opening ‘CSN’ song got some ladies dancing in the isles and got attendees going immediately. Nash stayed on guitar and followed the 1-2 punch with perhaps his most famous solo cut, ‘Immigration Man’. This song also chilling for its contextual relevance even 50 years after its genesis. The trio definitely raised the temperature in the venue and I could feel that set two was going to be filled with the ‘heavy hitters’.

Graham returned to the piano and strapped on his harmonica for a barren and truthful, ‘Simple Man’. He introduced the song stating that he wrote the song for Joni and premiered the tune at the Fillmore East in 1970 with Joni Mitchell sitting in the audience. A picture perfect rendition and a version that I feel lucky to have witnessed. As an aside, I met Graham in 1997 and requested ‘Simple Man’ prior to a Syracuse, NY show which he kindly played for me that evening. Memories.

Similarly to the first set, Nash injected a duo of deep cuts as he returned to his acoustic at center stage.  The first, ‘Right between the Eyes’ made its only appearance on the ‘CSNY’ live LP Four Way Street. Nash was quoted as saying to Rolling Stone, “I was seduced by a beautiful woman down in Long Island. She was married. The song is a confession to a friend”. At the State Theatre, Nash added that the song was written for John Sebastian, so some contextual dots were connected. Using the same musical configuration, the band also dug out ‘Taken At All’ from the 1976 Crosby/Nash album. Another stand out performance Nash swayed, and grimaced as he finger picked his way through the changes. Fontayne brought a smile to Nash’s face with many of his deft string swells. Three part harmonies were as tight as family and Nash seemed pleased with what transpired on stage.

The only disappointment that I felt during the whole show came after the trio played ‘Golden Days’ from Nash’s most recent album This Path Tonight. Nash’s current writing has been so strong I would have liked to see this LP explored more thoroughly, but it’s a minor gripe. Regardless, this was a stunning performance, with Nash standing without instrument at the mic, and additional towering harmonies supported by the delicate music box melody.

The harmonies remained a focus as the three musicians gathered around one microphone for the final verses of Nash’s ‘Wounded Bird’, again from his 1971 LP Songs for Beginners. Nash strummed his Martin, his head tilted back, singing each verse better than the previous. As the song concluded Nash mouthed ‘Thank you’ and smiled aware of the amazing version just played.

Following this absolutely dizzying array of songs and stories covering Nash’s fifty plus years of performing, Nash and friends prepared to knock the rest of the set out of the theater. Beginning with another Stephen Stills cover, Nash began to strum the undulating riff of ‘Love the One You With’. Kicking off the home stretch with a huge singalong love fest, Nash received assistance from Caldwell’s slippery B3 and got the theater to shake their buns and scream out the choruses.

Then in rapid fire succession, out come the ‘big guns’, “Just a Song before I Go’, ‘Cathedral’ and the expected and hoped for ‘Our House’. Peaking musically and aesthetically, the crowd grooves, Nash and company bang out the hits and there are smiles abound. Even ‘Our House’ took on a deep poignancy when combined with all of the emotions Nash stirred up over the course of the evening. The crown responded expectantly and excitedly as Nash took his bow for a close to set two.

Returning to the stage for an encore, Nash dug into his childhood for a surprising reading of Buddy Holly’s ‘Everyday’. Again, joined by Fontayne and Caldwell at the microphone in three part, a tender and harmonious cover of ‘Everyday’ seemed to sum up the entire evening. Love, friendship, rock and roll, politics, loss, hope…….it all seemed to coalesce into a song that obviously had a huge bearing on what Graham Nash decided to do with his life. Then, just when you think the show was over, the ringing introductory D chord of ‘Teach Your Children’ concluded the evening with words we should and could all take to heart. The crowd smiled with Nash, while singing a song he has performed thousands of times prior, while still taking on a powerful relevance for all involved.

The best music is ageless and one thing of many that I took away from Graham Nash’s performance at State Theater Ithaca, is that his compositions are timeless. It may seem obvious, but when a listener is able to relate on such a profound level to an artist who has lived such a different life it can elevate both performer and attendee. Nash has always been quietly making amazing music just out of the shadow of his three former band mates. His songs have provided foundational melodies that everyone remembers even if they don’t know how. His gifts were and continue to be an essential element in every artistic endeavor he has undertaken Thank you for the songs Graham Nash.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Grateful Dead - Dave's Picks Volume One -May 25, 1977- Trembled and Exploded

Playing in the ‘rock room’ today is the first in the series of live archival Grateful Dead concerts released under the moniker of Dave’s Picks. Named after David Lemieux, the keeper of the Grateful Dead’s musical vault, this collection concentrates on high quality shows representing peak Dead and is the follow up to the popular and original 36-volume Dick’s Picks live concert collection; brainchild of original keeper of the vault Dick Latvala. In between these aforementioned collections came the short-lived Road Trips series which offered varied concert highlights of underrepresented periods in the group’s long history.

Fans never really latched on to the piecemeal Road Trips, which for the most part offered musical selections as opposed to full concert recordings. Dave’s Picks subscribesto the vision of original and famed Grateful Dead archivist Dick Latvala, who initiated the idea of releasing the most transcendent Grateful Dead performances to the public — regardless of some minor sonic anomalies that may have previously prevented their release to the general public. These collections were originally available to order through the mail and currently can be accessed through the Grateful Dead’s official website.

The subject of today’s ‘rock room’ rant, Volume 1 of the Dave’s Picks series was given an auspicious introduction, starting at the end of one of the Grateful Dead’s most popular tours hailing from May of 1977. That legendary month, containing some of the band’s finest musical moments, has now been mined for a box set, an official release and three Dick’s Picks. The premiere edition of Dave’s Picks pulls from this spring 1977 tour a performance that in some ways equals or surpasses any of the previously released and aforementioned shows.

Dave’s Picks, Volume One brings us back to May 25, 1977 in Richmond Virginia at the ornate musical venue, the Mosque. Two shows would remain until the conclusion of the storied Spring ’77 tour and this concert finds the Grateful Dead playing at a consistently levitated level. The group is listening intently to one another, playing variable and extended set lists — and developing the songs that would become important jam vehicles and cornerstones of their catalog for years to come.

The concert’s first set is a typical of 1977’s extended performances, which is to say it is brimming with power and grace. The Grateful Dead, by this time in their history, had learned to harness their explosiveness. No longer playing the extended five-hour concerts of the past, they could now sustain a steady level of intensity for an entire evening. Witness how every song of the first set is a perfectly sculpted piece worthy of individual inspection.

Opening with the pairing of 'Mississippi Half Step' and 'Jack Straw,' it’s obvious that the Grateful Dead mean business from the get go. The pairing together two usual openers into one package, “Mississippi” and “Jack Straw,” show an aggressive eagerness by the band. By this point in the tour, the songs have been cracked open enough to reveal a multitude of sunny musical horizons — and the same holds true here with substantial versions being disseminated.
A favorite major highlight of this opening set of music includes a usually poignant 'Peggy-o,' which in 1977-78 reached a place of refinement and dignity that the group would find hard to surpass in future years. The same applies for a well-jammed 'Cassidy,' and a charged version of “Lazy Lightning/Supplication” that masquerade as a set closer,  but in typical 1977 fashion is followed by more music represented by devastating versions of 'Brown Eyed Women' and 'Promised Land.'
The real wizardry occurs in second set, when the band opens with the 14th version of the 'Scarlet/Fire' pairing of the tour, and arguably the best. While there is a reasonable argument for a number of previous versions containing the same alchemy as this particular one, notably the obvious choice among Deadheads of May 8, 1977, this particular rendition from the 25th contains a forward-moving assertiveness that forsakes dreaminess and drift for a swirling current of percolating sonic foam. Phil Lesh and the drummers are particularly spunky, grumbling under Jerry Garcia’s phased string explorations that eventually result in an orchestrated and seamless transition into 'Fire on the Mountain.' The Grateful Dead is as 'on' as they have been for the tour and they know it.

Garcia freaks out on his fret board for 'Fire,' playing hot potato with multiple melodic constructions, while the drummer’s willfully enthusiastic exclamations are the impetus for much of the excitable jamming. The hallmark of this performance for me is the melodic sensibility and original creativity by all of the players, in addition to the aggressive and musical drumming for this show. Obviously these elements combine equating to a top performance in a respected era by the entire group.
Following a compact 'Estimated Prophet,' a notable extended take on a stretched out 'He’s Gone' appears and then morphs into a stout blues groove. The swamp-stepping jam that follows illustrates the contagious tendency for exploration exhibited by the Dead on this evening. The band slowly crest a hill and then fade into an imposing double drum breakdown that explodes in a series of percussive bombs. Out of the remnants of these war drums comes in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion the finest 'Other One' of the tour.

Garcia is again, conjuring a wealth of melodic ideas, blowing his psychedelic horn and constructing the song into a series of dramatic swells that elicit a cosmic response from the entire group. Following the first verse the drummers keep the jam bobbing for life, never letting it disappear under the surface of the musical swells. This following musical excursion features some of the finest group jamming you can uncover in the month of May 77. Organic and tangible musical creation is on display as the group weaves there way through a plethora of musical expressions.

 Unique here, is that the version of the 'Other One' is split, straddling a typically cinematic 1977 version of “Wharf Rat.” The Grateful Dead plays this one like its the final one, and in the context of the show feels just exactly perfect. After completing regal and proud reading of 'Wharf Rat,' the group returns to sing verse two of 'Other One' completing the version, but not finishing the tale. A perfectly placed 'Wheel' rolls in from the road, bringing with it a cool breeze after the preceding half hour of heavy musical exploration.
Seizing the moment to take it home and satisfied with the evening’s discoveries, the Dead blast through the Chuck Berry songbook with a heavy and extended double time 'Around and Around,' just like they used to build ’em. Following this is a rip snortin’ encore of 'Johnny B Goode.' played with a duck walkin’ fervor that closes the evening definitively.

When the Grateful Dead play at their best, it feels trite to try to express the madness in words. Dave’s Picks, Volume One comes from what many feel to be the band’s finest era, so its addition to the canon is not a surprise. What may be a surprise is how such musical quality and continued improvisational searching could be accessed on a nightly basis. This recording contains one of these evenings, filled with numerous unique and delightful passages now forever immortalized. Unfortunately limited to 12,000 copies, this release is now in the hands of flippers and gougers — but its contents can still be found for those willing to search.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Take One: John Lennon - 1975 single #9 Dream - 'There's Magic In the Air'

Revolving in the ‘rock room’ on this beautiful morning is John Lennon’s ethereal 1975 release, ‘#9 Dream’. ‘#9 Dream’ was the second single to be released from the 1974 LP Walls and Bridges following ‘Whatever Gets You Through the Night’. Released in January 1975 as Apple R 6003 in the US and the UK and b/w 'What You Got', the cut fittingly peaked at number 9 on the US charts and 23 in the UK respectively. The song was also nestled on side one of the record as an important album track. Lennon and Beatle fans are aware that the number 9 always played an important role in Lennon’s life, ranging from dates, including his and son Sean’s birthday’s, addresses, musical coincidences and song titles.’The song ' #9 Dream’ is an obvious recipient and confirmation of Lennon’s awareness and belief in numerology. The song continued the thread of thematic numeric elements that traced Lennon's entire life. 

In early 1974, during Lennon’s famed ‘Lost Weekend’, Lennon had taken on producing Harry Nilsson’s 1974 LP Pussycats. During this time, Lennon was also as per usual demoing his own material for his next album. Demoed during this time were a number of fragments including ‘So Long’ which was the melodic genesis for what would later become ‘#9 Dream’. According to May Pang (whom Lennon was with during this time while separated from Yoko Ono) the early takes of ‘#9 Dream’ were also composed under the working title of ‘Walls and Bridges’ as well.  May Pang has said that Lennon loved ‘#9 Dream’ and it was one of his favorite songs of the time. Later in a 1980 BBC interview Lennon changed his tune saying, “That’s what I call craftsmanship writing, meaning, you know, I just churned that out. I’m not putting it down, it just is what it is, but I sat down and wrote it, you know, with no real inspiration, based on a dream I had.” Lennon was often conflicted, like the aforementioned statement with his music, and the ‘rock room’ feels he was even more so in the case of ‘#9 Dream’ as it had been composed while he was estranged from Yoko Ono. In hindsight Lennon may have not wanted to express any sort of public affection for the song. 

While in the midst of the crazed Los Angeles Nilsson sessions Lennon had been developing a string arrangement for Nilsson’s cover of the Jimmy Cliff song, ‘Many Rivers to Cross’. Cross pollination and subconscious composing collaborated in the mind of Lennon where the Cliff song string arrangement mutated into what would become the ‘#9 Dream’ framework. According to Pang and later confirmed by Lennon in his 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon woke from sleep with the ‘#9 Dream’ melody spinning around in his REM addled mind. Along with the treasure trove of music Lennon also appeared from the land of slumber with the gobbledygook lyric, ‘Ah, bowakawa pousse’ pousse’’. While the phrase meant nothing literally Lennon loved the sound of the words and ironically of the nine syllables comprising the dream letters. The whimsical saying would become  the central axis in which the song spins. When taken at face value, the other lyrics of the song are a reflection on the insane life that Lennon had lived up to that point. One that we can only imagine and speculate on.  Lennon himself wonders, ‘was it just a dream?’ and states that it, ‘seemed so real to me’.
Following his creative dream Lennon collaborated the segments of sleep and inspiration and took the song to the studio for consideration for Walls and Bridges. The musicians contributing to the track are Lennon’s usual cronies, featuring, Jim Keltner on drums, Jessie Ed Davis on liquid slide guitar, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, Lennon and Eddie Matteau on acoustic guitars, Bobby Keys on saxophone, Ken Ascher on clavinet, Arthur Jenkins on percussion and the ‘44th Street Fairies’ on backing vocals spotlighting May Pang, Lori Burton and Joey Dambra. Lennon referred to this line up as the ‘Plastic Ono Nuclear Band’.

Perhaps influenced by his studio time with Nilsson, Lennon coats the heavy production of the song in a thick dressing of clouds and stardust. Swelling strings, and sugar coated vocals illicit a comfortable  relax between the sheets. The vocals, like many of Lennon’s dating back to the Beatles are slathered in tape delay and echo, in addition to being double tracked. The result is a quixotic and otherworldly voice singing from a great unknown. The cut encapsulates the sleeping, waking, dreaming states due to Lennon’s deft arranging and the soft aesthetic of the instrumentation.

As the song begins Jessie Ed Davis’s plump and icy opening slide guitar reveals to the listener a great open expanse of sky. Word is that Lennon asked Jessie Ed to sound like Harrison and his famed slide work, if that is the case he was pretty successful! The song ascends through its changes, its arrangement breathes with its head already in the clouds. As Lennon’s vocals enter, ‘So long ago….’ I can feel the clavinet shift the music psychedelically under the chiming acoustic strums. Lennon’s words sound omnipotent

After the opening verse, Lennon sings the lines gifted to him by sleep, ‘Ah bowakawa, pousse’ pousse’’ with a chorus of sky people. Funnily enough and in typical Lennon fashion the last words of the lyric were originally sung like ‘pussy, pussy’. After an A and R man from Capitol heard this, Lori Burton the wife of engineer Roy Cicala told Lennon that he should change it to something ‘French’ sounding, (hence the ‘pousse'’ statement)so it would actually get played on the radio! Remember that Lennon was always placing hidden messages in songs back to the Beate days, put that’s a whole other rant! Following the ‘Ah, bowakawa’ interlude the song defies gravity just for a moment to hang weightless among a shimmering snow globe of  twinkling sound. The timely caesura increases the listeners wonder for just a moment before suddenly being dropped quickly through the atmosphere and back into the verse.

Lennon uses his full vocal range from conversational to a chill inducing falsetto which begins in the middle eight. May Pang sensually whispers Lennon’s name when John sings, the ‘Someone calls out my name’ lines only adding to the disorienting array of sound. Following the second verses, Pang again returns to whisper John’s name following the ‘music touching my soul’ lyric. Here it almost sounds like she is whispering ‘George’. Officially it’s John’s name backwards, but many myself included like to think it’s a tip of the cap to his former Beatle partner partly because of the very Harrison sounding guitar work by Jessie Ed Davis.

Again the music falls away to almost silence but instead of returning to the verse there is a repeat of the ‘Ah bowakawa’ refrain. Chanted like a melodic mantra, Jessie Ed delicately weaves in well-timed notes as the music descends to earth, before suddenly ascending for another round while fading into the dark blues of the horizon.

Listening to John Lennon’s compositions through critical speakers is often a tall task. What hasn’t been said about Lennon’s songwriting abilities? Anything Lennon ever wrote is going to be compared to his Beatles work, and his solo work is often held against his fellow Beatles and their own solo careers. That being said, what never changes is his ability to turn a phrase or invent a unique melody. These are gifts that Lennon always used and never lost. Even in 1974 prior to his self-imposed 5 year exile from rock and roll where he referred to his work of this period to that of a ‘semi sick craftsman’ he could be counted on to produce musical magic. Regardless if Lennon thought his work was that of inspiration or that of a real job, what was created was unique and truly Lennon’s own. ‘#9 Dream’ is a track that contains a plethora of Lennon’s compositional approaches; inspiration, belief, recycling, and subconscious mining. The resulting song is one of the best solo cuts he ever created.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Now Playing: The Kinks - The Forgotten Sides - 'It's Really Good to See You Rocking Out'

Positively the most underrated of the major 1960s British rock bands, the Kinks catalog continues to reveal inspiring melodies, revolutionary lyrics and clandestine musical magic.
Unfortunately, the Kinks’ deep wealth of compositional genius was often missed even when served on the veritable silver platter of a single release. They remained respected by their contemporaries but often obscured by the ignorance of critical analysis. Here are five such overlooked U.S./UK Kinks singles, all of which should be recognized as “klassics” in the Kinks songbook …

“SLEEPWALKER,” (1977): Only Ray Davies could take such creepy stalker content and package it into a bounding syncopated musical bundle. It’s a shame that this song, the title track off of 1977’s Sleepwalker is not recognized as a classic — excepting ardent followers of the Kinks. The song barely slipped into the U.S. Top 50, before quickly before disappearing into the shadows. The crisp drum introduction, anything but sleepy, is quickly blanketed by orchestrated Kink guitars and perfectly popping and contrasting Ray Davies vocals.

“WONDERBOY,” (1968): Soaked with the aesthetic of the Kinks’ contemporaneous Village Green Preservation Society, “Wonderboy” was apparently lauded by John Lennon — but yet still missed by the listening public at large. The song spins like a psychedelic music-hall show tune, containing airy “la-la” backing vocals, jack-in-the-box piano and harpsichord coloring. Davies’ wry vocal approach underlies the positive lyrical directive and breezy overlapping melodies. Definitely a song of its time, the tune retains its attractiveness and influence even after 40-plus years.

[WISH I COULD FLY LIKE] SUPERMAN,” (1979): This disco-based single soars in on splashy drums, thick skyscraper bass and the addictive mantra of Dave Davies’ rhythmic and muted guitar trills. An attempt to stay relevant in the messy musical climate of the late 1970s, the Kinks were successful — using a then-contemporary approach that combined distorted guitars with a pulsing mirror-ball groove. Davies’ lyrical content in the song is, as always, a unique glimpse into the psyche of a man wishing to be. The song tugged the public’s cape briefly, but made only a brief appearance in the U.S. charts — only to be found on the dusty shelves of record collections and cut out bins.

“MONEY TALKS,” (1974): Gritty, fuzzy and inflated with fat horns, “Money Talks” is a swinging, bubbly tonic, especially for listeners starved for straight rock with no chaser. Tucked away on Preservation Act 2, one of the Kinks most criticized albums of the 1970s, “Money Talks” cashed out early with barely a search of the pockets by the public. Still, irresistible Davies bothers harmonies are intermingled with female backing vocalists in a bombastic and assertive diatribe about the evils and troubles associated with cash.

“BETTER THINGS,” (1981): A song that once again enjoyed only moderate success on both sides of the Atlantic, this remains an anthem of endless possibility and hopefulness. Much later, “Better Things” gain belated recognition when unearthed by Ray Davies and Bruce Springsteen for the 2012 tribute album to Davies, See My Friends. The original version begins with a percussive piano, then expands into a motion-picture soundtrack of positivity and glory — a trait sorely missing from current rock compositions. Davies’ vocals quake and shake, the hopefulness of the song stained with the emotion of loss that often accompanies the best wishes for a long time friend.
The above tracks are just a small example of the depth and strength of the Kinks Katalog. While not always lighting up the charts the quality of even their most clandestine kuts never wavered. I hope you enjoy a few of the tracks that bobbed just below the surface of the mainstream but are nonetheless some of their finest moments committed to tape.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Now Playing: The Worst Songs of the Grateful Dead - "If You Ask Me Like I Know You Wont"

Today’s edition of Talk from the Rock Room, may cause a bit of a stir. Over the course of 30 years, 13 studio albums, and countless live releases and compilations, the Grateful Dead curated an impressive and deep collection of original compositions composed by Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter and other band members. Along the way, they also nurtured and developed one of the most rabid fan bases in all of rock; one brimming with intrepid travelers, musical jesters and Dead statisticians.

Like any band with that kind of longevity and success, there have been some musical blunders along the way. Whether it is an error in creative judgment or a miss in the quality control department, these revealing moments of weakness by the band can make their fans appreciate them even more in their fallibility. With such a depth of quality tunes and improvisational magic at their disposal, we will allow the band these few instances of missing their musical mark. This list is no way definitive, only a starting point to explore the strangest and perhaps weakest corners of the Grateful Dead’s catalog….

“FRANCE,”(SHAKEDOWN STREET, 1978): This number is someone’s favorite song somewhere, but the banal lyrics and at-the-time contemporary disco production (talking to you Lowell George!) give the track a sterile MOR feel that the Dead constantly tried to avoid. Bob Weir gets to fulfill his slick rock-star fantasies, but it’s hard to believe this is the same band that created Live/Dead. Co-writer Mickey Hart’s enthusiastic steel drums and the groovy instrumental fadeout are not enough to save this one from the circular file.

“KEEP YOUR DAY JOB,”(concert performances, 1982-86): A Hunter/Garcia song that was eventually removed from the band’s set lists at the request and angst of their fans, “Day Job” would allow the band to flex their rock and roll muscles if played well, but not much more. Deadheads took the not-so-cloak-and-dagger advice of the song to heart and considered it an unneeded buzz kill when performed live in concert. The combination of a precarious melody previously mined on “US Blues” and below average lyrics made this song disappear after only 50 performances.

“TIL THE MORNING COMES,” (AMERICAN BEAUTY, 1970): Nebulous and uncharacteristically juvenile rhyming couplets are one of the issues with the one weak track from American Beauty. What sounds like a stale Crosby Stills and Nash reject must not have set well with the band as they performed it only a few times in concert, probably based on the difficulty in replicating the three-part harmonies. Taken in the context of the classic songs making up American Beauty, the song feels out of place because of its cardboard cutout construction that no other track on the album has. It’s not that this song is totally horrible, but more of a reflection of the powerful and classic songs that surround it.

“SAMBA IN THE RAIN”(concert performances, 1994-95): While it took years for Brent Mydland’s compositions to make second-set status with the Grateful Dead, Vince Welnick’s numbers were often featured in the band’s last two years of existence. “Samba in the Rain,” however, was often too soaked and bloated to fly, as it seemed the melody was not strong enough to inspire — not to mention that it seemed some band members never bothered to properly learn the song. Welnick’s festive on-mic asides and childish exclamations were often uncomfortable and unneeded, contributing to the sinking feeling of the track.

“WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE,”(IN THE DARK, 1987): When compared to other Hunter/Garcia creations from the same era, this track is a weak facsimile of past glories that most if not all contained stronger melodic ideas. The song had a short shelf life as it was retired from the stage after 1989, having more success as LP filler. The bland repetition of the melody and unconvincing studio reading add up to making this number just another song.

While it seems strange to call this list definitive, what it truly does express is how strong the Grateful Dead’s repertoire was while developed over 30 years. Astonishingly enough, the collected songs of that era are still paying dividends as countless numbers of former members and a humorous amount cover bands still dip deeply into the well of Garcia/Hunter, Weir/Barlow and other band member writes and co-writes. Their catalog speaks for itself and we will forgive or even enjoy a few of the missteps along the way.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Michael Bloomfield – Live at the Old Waldorf - 'Guitar King'

Pulled off the CD shelves in the ‘rock room’ today is a curated 1998 CD release of Michael Bloomfield and Friends titled Live at the Old Waldorf. The collection is pulled from varying performances by Bloomfield and his various associates held in the San Francisco (except for the first track) area throughout the 1970’s. By the mid 1970’s Mike Bloomfield had returned to his penchant for playing clubs, jukes, and small theaters close to wherever his transient bones decided to call home. A true bluesman, all Bloomfield needed was his guitar and the clothes on his back. He had touched international fame and was known as one of the best guitarist’s in the world, but his only love was playing the blues. Michael would rather play for a small crowd of appreciative blues fans than an arena full of ticket buyers. Dating back to his decline of joining Bob Dylan’s band in 1965, Bloomfield wanted things on his terms. He was a purist and stayed true to his beliefs and the blues. Playing venues close to home became Michael’s M.O. toward the last years of his life, but these venues also highlight his most loose and honest playing. While drugs would also initiate Michael's defection from fame so would his personality traits and his life long battle with insomnia. When Bloomers was on, there was no one better. While the ‘rock room’ feels the aforementioned collection is wonderful, it is a shame it has not or could not have been expanded on.

The CD begins with the one track that is an outlier, a blues medley hailing from a ‘Record Plant’ session in Sausalito, CA on November 10, 1974. The medley is comprised of ‘Sweet Little Angel” and “Jelly Jelly”. Backed with his usual cohorts, Barry Goldberg and Mark Naftalin on organ and piano respectively, Bloomfield’s band here also assembles Roger Troy on bass and vocals, George Rains on drums and Mark Adams on blues harp. Bloomfield opens the track sword drawn for a beautiful opening duel with Naftalin. Troy asks for ‘one more’ round the changes prior to the vocals to which Bloomfield answers with a searing series of lyrics. Jelly Roll Troy, feels it and is kneeling in front of his ‘Sweet Little Angel” waiting for her to spread her wings. The first break features Adams harp blowing a soft beg to which Bloomfield tastefully trills. Mike then peels off layer upon layer of licks, hitting up on a classic climb up the next reminiscent of the central riff of, ‘The Same Thing” that pushes the band to take off. Once Troy quotes ‘Jelly, Jelly’ the band corners into a substantial Chicago swing. Off mic hollers of excitement are heard and Bloomfield soars up the neck gloriously. The band congeals into a hard blues orchestra moving collaboratively in one big sound.

‘Feel So Bad’, a stellar Lightning Hopkins cover begins on a watery ascending slide lick and a pulsing yet gentle funking groove. Here the four piece line up is Bloomfield, Naftalin, Troy and Bob Jones on drums and vocal duties. A delectable vamp is entered as this selection from March 14, 1977 plays out. The rest of the selections to follow ‘Feel So Bad’ all hail from the Old Waldorf. Bloomfield plays an endless waterfall of shimmering slide work under Jones vocals that reaches the first break where he locks in. Mike takes multiple rounds of dizzying slide work here underpinned by Naftalin’s thumping keys. The ‘rock room’ has an affinity for this cut and asserts it’s one of the best of the collection.
A sinister reading of the Nick Gravenites (who also sings) original ‘Bad Luck Baby’ hailing from May of 77 follows and brings a sludgy foreboding to the proceedings. Bloomfield keeps the slide on his digit and draws in dark black inky lines. Under the vocals and on top of the chugging rhythm section Michael squiggles and squawks a stunning mid song solo spot. This is Bloomfield unchained from the porch and going after it. Naftalin plays some honky keys as a bed, but its Bloomfield’s steely strings that lend the evil to Gravenites hearty vocals.

A blues standard, Elmore James ‘The Sky Is Cryin’ continues the heat of Bloomfield’s slide playing while he pays tribute the slide master. Coming from the same performance as ‘Bad Luck Baby’ Bloomfield is on and here his playing over the intro drips down windows in big delicious drops as the musical storm gathers. After who I believe to be Bob Jones singing the first verse, Bloomfield loses the slide and fingers some absolutely burning counter riffs to the verse melody. The sky then opens up in a torrent as Michael briskly unleashes a watery vibrato filled solo that in my mind only cements the fact that this guy had to be from another planet.

‘Dancin Fool’ follows, a contagious 12 bar shuffle composed by Nick Gravenites. The cut is another welcome opportunity to swing with Michael on slippery slide. This cut comes from February of 1977 and heats up quickly as the ass shaking wiggles away the blues. Honky tonk black and whites press hips with Bloomers resplendent soloing. Gravenites free forms some burly vocals, but once again just as Bloomfield turns on the gas the track fades to black.

Another ‘rock room’ highlight comes next while helping to take the sting out of the previous songs early fade. “Buried Alive in the Blues’, another Gravenites composition, is also known as a track Janis Joplin had planned for her final LP Pearl, but unfortunately passed away before she could lay down her vocals. The song was left on the album as an instrumental tribute to Joplin. Here in late 1976 it is given a gruff and funky reading with Bloomers slide work again being a focal point. Like a hand reaching through the mud piled on a fresh grave, Bloomfield breaks through the gritty melody with frisky counter licks during the verses, before singing a beautifully sliver solo that shines warm rays of sun across the musical soil. As the heads toward its conclusion Bloomfield contributes a series horny counter melodies to Gravenites scatting.

The famed ‘Further on up the Road’ gets a substantial reading next. Played by a multitude of players ranging from jukes to arenas, this blues shuffle is always a welcome appearance in live set lists. Michael forgoes his slide here for some straight up fingering. Stringy and stellar, Bloomfield illustrates through the blues changes his encyclopedic knowledge, quoting Chuck Berry, Albert King blended with his own distinctive fingerprint. Brisk and brief, this three minute rendition flames like a sparkler then concludes.
The next to last track on the album hails from December 19, 1976 being a straight up, no chaser blues. ‘Your Friends’ writing credit is given to Deadric Malone (music publisher Don Robey), but this is debatable as back in the day writing credits were sketchy, often given to  producers, DJ’s, or management. Regardless, this straight up beer light and pool table blues is played by the four piece of Bloomfield, Naftalin, Troy, and Roger Jones. Alley dark and street lady loose, ‘Your Friend’s becomes a clinic, with rattling keys and switchblade string bending by Bloomers.

A Nick Gravenites original concludes the album with ‘Bye Bye’. Coming from the same run of shows as the stellar ‘Feel So Bad’ in 1977. Built upon a rolling and tumbling tom-tom groove, and a jive rhythm ‘Bye Bye’ again spotlights a stunning Bloomfield slide clinic, a plethora of sterling blues work is drizzled over the syncopated rhythm.  The faucet is on full for Bloomers but for some reason the track fades before its natural conclusion. Ugh, I guess in this case we take the good with the bad.

The 1998 compact disc release of Michael Bloomfield Live at the Old Waldorf is both stunning and frustrating. What makes it amazing is the aural documentation of Bloomfield in a time where he had purposely taken a lower profile. On the flip side of that coin is the editing decisions and quick fades are disappointing. Seeing that the release is now over 20 years old it does not appear that we could get a complete release from one of the shows or alternatively a deluxe edition. But, what is available is fine, Bloomfield is focused and crisp and his ‘friends’ are fully invested in the jams. Thankfully, up through current times Bloomfield’s playing is still respected, influential and looked to for an example of how to play real prime guitar blues. Toward the conclusion of his life Michael became what he always wanted be, a straight up ‘blues man’, and we are the lucky recipients of his success in meeting his goal.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Take One: Eddie Cochran – The 1958 Single “C’mon Everybody” – ‘You Can’t Sit Still’

Currently jamming in the ‘rock room’ is a highly influential early ‘rock and roll’ classic. Nobody encapsulated the angst and attitude of the ‘rockers’ in the late 1950’s more than rockabilly and guitar legend Eddie Cochran. The perfectly dressed guitar wielding ladies’ man was also adept at guitar, bass, drums, and piano and was one of the first musicians to dabble in multitrack recording. What is even more amazing is that Cochran accomplished his popularity all before the age of 21. This guy was a rocker before it was fashionable; he wore makeup, composed music, lived fast and died young. His songs have become the head cornerstones of rock, and his wide ranging influence touching the “Beatles, “Kinks”, “Who”, “White Stripes”, “Springsteen”, “Van Halen”  and a host of other musicians too numerous to name.  The famed cuts, “Twenty Flight Rock”, “Somethin Else” and the subject of this rock rant, “C’mon Everybody” still retain the power and grace from the day they were birthed. As an addendum, not that it matters, but for those who dig this sort of thing, Rolling Stone listed “C’mon Everybody” as #403 on the list of their top 500 rock and roll songs.

Filling the huge void left behind in rock music by Elvis Presley joining the military, in more ways than one Cochran may have been a bit more Elvis than the king was. “C’mon Everybody” originally appeared as the ‘B’ side to “Don’t Ever Let Me Go” on Liberty single F51166 released in October 1958. The song was composed by Cochran and Jerry Capehart who also co-write “Summertime Blues” with Eddie. Between March 1957 and August 1959 Cochran had seven Top 100 records; one of his biggest smashes being the aforementioned "Summertime Blues", which peaked at #8 {for 1 week} on September 29th, 1958. “C’mon Everybody” upon its release peaked in the UK at #6 and in the US at #35. Posthumously the song became a towering influence on the next generation of UK and US musicians who were coming of age during ‘rock’s’ formative years. Groups of note who covered the song include ‘Humble Pie’, Sex Pistols and Led Zeppelin. Cochran was also a major influence on the musical approach of ‘The Who’ in both style and groove.

‘C’mon Everybody’ plays like a tightly wound pack of explosives, a silvery spaceship trailing across the conservative musical night sky of the late 1950’s. Lasting just under two minutes, there is a lot of excitement in a small package. The song opens with a jittery popcorn crack of bass and a closely following thumping tic toc drum groove supported by tambourine. Cochran’s lush acoustic brush strokes enter and lather colored chord changes over the sensual rhythm.
The collaboration of instruments is delicious, with Cochran’s cavernous vocals rhythmically dueling with the crisp snare strikes and syncopated bass strikes. Lyrically the song is an invitation to adolescents of the era to let loose and party. A perfect example of why ‘rock and roll’ was such a threat to the adults of the period, as well as why rock/rockabilly was such an integral part of the artistic revolution and expression of teen angst that would peak by the mid to late 1960’s.

The track doesn’t contain a wild guitar solo, nor does it need to. Just raw emotion, an ass shaking groove and an invitation to everybody to get it on while they can. It is sometimes difficult to understand the importance of song, books, or paintings in the context of history, especially through the thick mists and faded memories of time. The ‘rock room’ sometimes contemplates what were the reactions of art created during times of change and upheaval? What did these hypothetical artistic creations change or affect, if anything? Regardless, in the case of “C’mon Everybody”, similarly to Berry, Perkins, Cash and Presley the music being created was simply a way to avoid the often difficult life their families had lived as well as a way into their own creative minds. The music instituted change both internally and externally and offered escape for both the creator and recipients.

Back to the song at hand, the beat starts and stops like a pimped out caddy in heavy traffic. Cochran’s vocals elicits other singers of the time but contains his own unique rasp and earnest sentiment. The verses focus on Eddie’s vocals with his guitar strings palm muted and the substantial harp like guitar strums returning with each “C’mon Everybody” statement. The song runs through the changes breathlessly, leaving only cigarette smoke behind. Following the final verse Cochran sums up the fun being had in the tune with:

Well we'll really have a party but we gotta put a guard outside
If the folks come home I'm afraid they're gonna have my hide
They'll be no more movies for a week or two
No more runnin' round with the usual crew
Who cares, c'mon everybody!”

Unfortunately only a year and a half after the release of “C’mon Everybody” Cochran would die in a tragic car accident in the UK. Not unlike his contemporaries, Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, Cochran’s talent would be grounded before reaching proper cruising altitude. 
What cannot be denied nor understated is he influence of “C’mon Everybody” on rock music then or now. It may be stating the obvious, but the song sounds as fresh and vital as it did in 1958 and its sonic’s have the same effect on the body and mind, at least in the ‘rock room’! The live version I have included here from Hadley’s Town Hall Party 1959, is absolutely insane. While the single version is amazing, and the focus of this rant, the live version quivers with a kinetic energy. Cochran plays his signature Gretsch G 6120 electric hollow body, there is a jingle jangle piano with a heavy left hand not audible on the studio recording, and the rhythm section has filled up with high octane. Cochran shimmies and shakes, while throwing his shoulder into each verse. Gone in a blink of an eye, just like Cochran this black and white live cut will leave historians of rock wondering what could have been.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Rock Room on the Road: Richard Thompson- 'The Night We Steal Away' - Solo Acoustic January 25, 2020 Harrisburg, PA

On January 25, 2020, the ‘rock room’ was lucky enough to attend an intimate solo acoustic performance by the one and only Richard Thompson at Whitaker Center for the Arts in Harrisburg, PA.  Thompson has been moving around the Northeast for a series of winter shows and my anticipation was high for what was sure to be a varied and virtuosic concert. The Whitaker Center contains inside of its walls the quaint Sunoco Center which holds 700 patrons while no seat is more than 60 feet from the performer.

I sat 7 rows back and dead center as Thompson entered the stage lights promptly at 8:00 PM. Seated right in the sweet spot where performer and attendee meet. At some points in my amazed consciousness I met glances with Thompson only intensifying the effect of the music. The succinct and percussive introduction of ‘I Misunderstood’ initiated the proceedings. The song originates from Thompson’s 1991 LP Rumor and Sigh and was a proper opening to stretch out his vocal chords and energize cold fingers. Different from its layered studio counterpart, here light shines through the empty spaces leaving nowhere to hide for song or performer. Thompson stands stoically center stage, dressed in black and grey denim with guitar and glass of water and trademark beret planted on top of his head. The sound of the concert is enveloping, like glacier water, a special type of pristine, Thompson’s guitar notes shimmer through the collective silence of the theater taking on a tangible form. Thompson mentioned that he was surprised at the crowd attending the show seeing that it was Saturday night. He revealed that he thought folks could find something much more ‘positive’ to do than listen to his dark compositions in  his typical self-deprecating fashion.

The first ‘movement’ of the concert spotlighted a cross section of Thompson’s career with every rendition a stunning highlight. The perfection of Thompson’s playing in addition to his unparalleled songwriting left the collected crowd in stunned silence for the duration of the two hour set. A spectrally delicate ‘A Ghost of You Walks’ followed the opener, prepping for the first stunner of the evening. ‘Valerie’ from 1985’s Daring Adventures came next and left the room breathless. During the mid-song spotlight Thompson slurred strings, chicken picked and bent strings like they had been heated. Thompson played showman for a moment hitting on a pleasing lick that brought a smile across his face and caused his shoe leathers to stomp on the stage. During the songs peak and the marked scream that leads back to the verse, the crowd put their hands up for the big roller coaster dip prior to landing in major applause. Thompson remarked at the songs conclusion, ‘That was easy, the hard stuff comes later’.

Thompson always likes to throw for lack of a better term, a novelty, or slyly humorous compositions in the midst of his collected dark sarcasm and shaded honesty. The song, ‘Crocodile Tears’ fits that droll bill as a wry folk song comparing a jilted lover to that of a reptile. The crowd loved it and chuckled along to each line as Thompson flashed a grin from the corner of his mouth for some of the best lyrics.

In total and extreme contrast, one of Thompson’s most beloved songs and in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion one of the finest songs in the annals of music followed with ‘Beeswing’. A classically stunning melody and heart tugging narrative, ‘Beeswing’ when birthed sat unassumingly on Thompson’s 1994 Mirror Blue. Since it has grown into a concert standard, and this evening it was given a crystalline reading, one only to be handled by white gloved hands. Thompson, eyes tightly closed,  sang a tale he has told numerous times previous, yet here as important as any ever. Perfection, and as the song concluded Thompson stayed in trance until the last remnants of stringed sound reached the apex of the theater. 
Before I could recover emotionally from what I had just witnessed, Thompson hit me again with another stratospheric melody and classic from the deep reaches of his catalog, ‘Walking on a Wire’ from Richard and Linda Thompson’s final LP, 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights. This evening the ballad was given a more aggressive edge, the taught tight rope becoming a silvery knife blade to which Thompson used large strums and gruff vocals to keep his balance. The concert was climbing into the clouds toward a musical summit that it would not return from until the final song.

‘Walking the Long Miles Home’ followed and returned the concert attendees and myself to firmer ground. Richard introduced the song by saying he wished he had composed it as a youth to help him with the miles he had to traverse to school as a child. Supported by a delectable and danceable jaunt of finger picking, the song provided a brief respite from the ‘heavier’ aspects of Thompson’s performance.

Following a discussion/introduction about Thompson’s former band mate and friend Sandy Denny, Thompson poured himself into a timeless tribute to both Denny and his Fairport Convention band mates, with a towering version of ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’. In contrast to Denny’s original vocals, Thompson sings with a deep amber, dotted with precious lacy filigrees of acoustic guitar. Rare is the concert I attend where there is complete silence by the assembled crowd. This evening there was nary a labored breath or squirm in the seat. Again, before I could soak in what I witnessed, Thompson throttled into what could be his most famous number, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’.The crowd yelled its approval as Thompson Travis picked out the songs well known opening. Speeding through the narrative, cruising around hairpin musical corners and enunciating each syllable, Thompson played a quintessential version (which probably happens every night!). When Red Molly finally received the keys to her lovers Vincent the crowd responded with a standing ovation (which would happen on more than a few occasions over the evening).

With its reference to dancing on a Saturday night, we were next treated to a somewhat rare reading of ‘The Night They Tore the Hippodrome Down’. The tale of an older man who is stunned by the changes to the things that have dotted and effected his life is the perfect bring down following ‘Vincent’. Here, Thompson shows off his ‘jazz’ chops during the verses and then changes to waltz time when the protagonist remembers his lost love.

Hot on the ‘Hippodrome’s’ heels follows the high speed ‘Cooksferry Queen’ which opened RT’s Mock Tudor LP. Normally a burning electric number, in Harrisburg Thompson blew on collected woody embers until a blazing hot to the touch acoustic version brought the house down. Dynamic strumming patterns brought the tune from soft folk to big brash triplet strums. Richard growled, howled, and stomped his way through this ‘rock room’ favorite! Closing what I referred to as the ‘first movement’ of the show (prior to RT’s partner joining the proceedings) was the song, ‘If I Could Live My Life Again’. Now admittedly I am embarrassed to say I am not familiar with this song. Please feel free to drop the knowledge on me if have info about this tune. It was introspective and typically wonderful and could be a new song? Hmmm.

It was at this time Richard invited his partner and a wonderful singer in her own right, Zara Phillips to join him on a series of songs from Thompson’s more current releases. But before diving into the recent catalog the duo played a stunning version of the Richard and Linda Thompson classic, ‘Jet Plane In A Rocking Chair’ from 1975’s Pour Down Like Silver. This was a cut that the ‘rock room’ had hoped for and I was not disappointed. Zara and Richard’s vocals nestled closely together and their enjoyment was palpable. They soared the friendly melodic skies of the chorus and settled down easy for the verses. A personal concert highlight for me, because I love the song so much.
Like the entire set list, Thompson was deftly and successfully maneuvering his way through 50 years of songwriting. He had used a beloved deep cut to set the stage for this next collection of his current work while also letting Zara lend her welcome voice to the proceedings. ‘Dry My Tears and Move On’ was a welcome appearance and a second song from 1999’s Mock Tudor. Played with a gentle back porch sway and delicate resignation, Zara joined on the repeated title lyric lending the track an early rock and roll doo-wop feel. The main body of the concert then concluded properly with the trifecta of ‘The Storm Won’t Come’, The Rattle Within’, and ‘My Enemy’ all hailing from Thompson’s most current album, 2018’s 13 Rivers.

It’s a testament to Thompson’s longevity and talent that these following three songs were in my opinion as strong as the compositions covering the 50 years previous. While 'The Storm Won't Come' was better in my opinion than the studio reading, ‘The Rattle Within’ was particularly menacing with a deep musical warning and daring self-analysis. Containing an undulating primal thump the song chugged aggressively under Thompson’s percussive vocal lines.

The crowd reacted rapturously as ‘My Enemy’ concluded and Thompson quickly waved to the darkened venue before heading off stage. The expected encore followed the anticipatory silence as Thompson returned solo and coaxed out the introductory notes to ‘Persuasion’. What a deft choice for an excited crowd I thought. Master of the stage. The song was composed by Thompson and Tim Finn and was used as an instrumental in the film Street Walker. Later, Richard recorded a version with his son Teddy who appeared on vocals. Tonight, Richard stands alone and plays a chill inducing and flawless version.

Keeping the vibe mellow and the emotion serious Thompson then sings the introduction to ‘Dimming of the Day’. Covered by a plethora of artists including David Gilmour and Bonnie Raitt, ‘Dimming’ is one of those special songs that defies description’ its music box picking and sensual verses expressing the deep internal longing we feel for those we love. In typical fashion Thompson, disseminates human emotion in ways not yet figured by ‘normal’ artists. Seated at the show, the melody drew tears from my eyes and unfurled the strings of my heart. Stunning.

Following the introspective portion of the encore Thompson returned to the stage with Zara to send us on our way appropriately for a Saturday evening. The somewhat expected ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ comes first with the crowd mouthing the words of the Richard and Linda classic and clapping to RT’s syncopated and celebratory riffing. Then for a proper surprise, Thompson then gifts the crowd with a yet to be unreleased song (hopefully from an upcoming LP) called ‘When the Saints Rise out of Their Graves’. The high tempo track was a unique but typical Thompson commentary on our current times (both politically and personally) with the lyrics flying buy in teletype fashion. Both Zara and Richard moved around the stage joyously as the song reached a rolling conclusion.

And…..just like that it was over. Two hours of the most soul inspiring, intellectually stimulating and musically stunning concert experiences I have ever had in over 300 concerts. I cannot believe it took me so long to experience the live magic that is Richard Thompson. The performance left me wanting more and I cannot wait to go again. A purer and more honest evening of diverse musical alchemy  will be hard to find. In addition, its a pleasure to witness a spectacular fifty year career that seems to just be hitting yet another peak, don’t miss it.

Richard Thompson Acoustic Classics

RT Live In Studio 13 Rivers Songs