Talk From The Rock Room: 2020

Thursday, October 1, 2020

David Bowie – ChangesNowBowie – ‘Strange, Mad Celebration’

On August 29th, 2020 the first of this year’s Record Store Day drops was made, including a few exciting David Bowie audio releases. The subject of today’s ‘Talk from the Rock Room’ rant is the CD/LP release ChangesNowBowie, which documents an acoustic based nine song performance on BBC 1 radio. This performance was recorded in 1996 during rehearsals for Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration concert. The BBC broadcast the intimate show on the date of Bowie’s birthday the next year on January 8, 1997. A standout in the bootleg collections of many Bowie aficionados for a number of years, it is nice to have a crisp compact recording of this stand out later era Bowie performance.

The aforementioned broadcast featured some wonderful discussion with Bowie, but for this Record Store Day release just the music is included. Joining Bowie for the unique set of songs was Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and vocals, Reeves Gabrels (from Bowie’s Tin Machine band) on guitars and Mark Plati on Keyboards and electronics. What transpired on the BBC stage was a personal, sympathetic reading of a diverse set list both accessible for the assembled crowd yet still distinctly ‘Bowie’. The ‘rock room’ is following this stellar performance like reading a novel. I assert that this set list was developed to tell a tale, though different from what was broadcast, a personal touch in the song choices can be felt in addition to a tight focus.

This era of Bowie was another of constant reinvention and experimentation. Only a month after this broadcast, Bowie would release Earthling another chapter is his constantly evolving discography. The subject of today’s talk from the rock room, the ChangesNowBowie broadcast sits in complete contrast to the ‘drums and bass’, ‘electronic’ influence felt on Earthling. The multifarious Bowie per his usual practice had his fingers in numerous sonic pies during this era. Bowie always referred to himself as a ‘synthesist’, allowing his external forces to direct his muse. His recordings and performances in 1996-1997 hold this claim as true as ever. This performance is  hot tea and a plush pillow to rest a weary head.

The BBC concert begins with ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, a stringy sparkling rendition with Bowie’s reassuring vocals typical of this era the focus. He sings as if he is letting us in on an astronomical secret. A fitting opener as the song deals with someone dealing with two sides of their character. Special note to Gail Ann Dorsey’s delicate harmony vocals and Reeves sitar like ascending notes during the central riff.

Another fine arrangement of an 1970's composition follows with ‘Aladdin Sane’ in a spacious just on the edge of acoustic construct. Again, with perfectly placed Gail Ann Dorsey vocals. Churning folk guitars allow for focus on the lyrics through the verses until Mark Plati enters for a discordant piano interlude. Dorsey and Bowie blend vocally like they are related and conclude the song with swirling and overlapping voices.

An edgy and syncopated version of the ‘Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ gets placed on the burner next. An in concert favorite over the years for Bowie, here it is played with the same gusto as previous 1970’s versions. The songs vamp is cut around the hard thump of the bass drum to which Bowie weaves around deftly. Reeves kicks on the distortion pedal following the verses and lets two molten solo spots develop, scorching the empty voids. Gold.

A rare take on ‘Shopping for Girls’, a song from Bowie’s side project ‘Tim Machine’s’ second LP Tin Machine II. Composed by Bowie and Gabrels, the track is an artist’s view about the awfulness of the child sex trade. Bowie struggled with making a ‘rock’ song about such a difficult subject but in his typical fashion he was ahead of the curve, and its addition to this unique show’s emotive set somehow makes complete sense. The song moves on a squiggly acoustic slide lick and Bowie’s matter of fact rhythmically ‘Dylanesque’ tempo. The song straddles the fence between creepy and sad and blunt reality. I suggest to you dear reader to follow along with the lyrics while having your listening session. Typically Bowie, this arrangement takes a difficult subject from a low key album and packages it so the collected BBC listeners become aware of its important existence.

An exquisite and majestic reading of ‘Lady Stardust’ is next in the set. Almost weightless in its construct, the song features the Bowie theme of ‘duality’ where the narrator is both man and woman or possibly both, or just another image distorted of oneself. One of the most beautiful songs from 1973’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, here its delectate structure is wrapped in patient and humble sonics. Bowie's vocals are perfection, with just a touch wavering lending legitimacy of his character study. For the first time in the show Bowie pushes his voice perfectly into the beyond.

 

The closing track from Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, ‘The Superman’ is given a detailed and rare live reading next. Bowie has stated that the song’s original central guitar lick was given to him by Jimmy Page when playing on one of Bowie’s early sessions. Like previously stated the song is placed perfectly in the construct of the set, with each track somehow contextually related, or this could just be in the mind of the 'rock room'. This version is wonderfully bounding with a slick elastic bass line and strong scrubbing acoustic guitars. After the beginning verses, a smooth organ line lays a thick coat of sound paint across the rhythm. Typically for the evening Bowie sings the shit out of this one.

‘Repetition’, a song tucked away on the flip side of Bowie’s 1979 LP Lodger follows in its new 1997 guise. If anything the song’s content is more powerful under the microscopic view of the acoustic based analysis. The song is clandestine peek through a cracked door at an abusive relationship. Slotting into the track list with a deeper important message to be discerned, the song lost a bit of its claustrophobic vibe from the studio version. But by the end the walls are closing in and the melody eats itself amongst a wash of acoustic guitar, slide work and thick mellotron brush strokes.

‘Andy Warhol’ is another rarely played track, last put on display during the 1995 Outside tour after a prior absence of twenty plus years. In stunning contrast to the bombastic Outside tour arrangement, here, Andy Warhol’ is a perfect choice as a close relative to acoustic based number from 1971's Hunk Dory . The song grooves like a campfire singalong with the thick brushstrokes of acoustic guitars. Again, Bowie's voice the centerpiece in sympatico with every musical movement.

‘Quicksand’, one of Bowie’s most enduring melodies in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion closes the BBC session. Lyrically it is also one of Bowie’s shady and philosophical musings. The song offers no hope to the listener and offers a glimpse inside a mind coming to terms with both reality and knowledge.  Following a prelude made of glistening gritty particles, Bowie’s voice enters, youth in his voice, a resignation slightly below the surface. The song is pulled like warm taffy, stretched between being swallowed into the earth and reaching its arms to the sky. While exploring themes also looked at in ‘The Superman’ this song retains a cloak and dagger hopefulness, though this theme is only felt through it's optimistic chord changes. Bowie's vocals are chilling. The middle eight contrasts the verses with layered harmonies, swelled keyboard strings and fleeting hopefulness. Thus ends this collection.

Bowie's long and extensive catalog continues to be cracked open for inspection following the specific directives left after his death. The 'rock room' knows the surface has only just been scratched as Bowie  left a wealth of music and performance behind.. Sure, this performance has been available through unofficial channels for a number of years; but it's nice to own it officially. The show contains Bowie happy, centered and loose for his big 50th. It should be lauded for its contents, in addition to its availability to a new era of Bowie fans and collectors.

ChangesNowBowie

Friday, September 18, 2020

Take One: Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation – ‘Stone Crazy’ - Stewart, Green, Bruce -'Crazy Blue'

In the midst of the swelling white boy British blues boom of the 1960’s there was a plethora of cross pollination between artists, bands and songs. The guitarist’s chairs were almost always spinning as now legendary pickers bounded from group to group in addition to starting their own bands. Starting with  'Alexis Korner's, Blues Incorporated and moving into and through the 'Stones' and 'Yardbirds'’ in the early part of the 60's, a number of collaborative efforts followed suit. In the November of 1967 one of these short lived ‘supergroups’ came together, oh so briefly. Aynsley Dunbar, at this point drummer for 'John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, then the 'Jeff Beck Group' and later of Zappa's 'Mother's of Invention' pulled together his own side project using a few of the musical connections he had made along the way.

In a lineup that is almost too good to be believed, Dunbar enlisted Rod 'the Mod' Stewart who was later his band mate in the Jeff Beck Group to take over vocal duties. He also asked Peter Green recently defected from John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker to play lead guitar, and for Jack Bruce bassist for Graham Bond Organization the Bluesbreakers, and most currently at the time ‘Cream’ to assist. This aforementioned group was the blueprint for the first Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation and for this particular session the band was believed to be named ‘Crazy Blue’. Obviously all of the participants of the band were soo to be in preparation to springboard into bands of their own design.  Stewart eventually to Faces, Green to found Fleetwood Mac, Bruce already in Cream and Dunbar in a band that carried his name and later banging the kit Frank Zappa.

This loose conglomerate of a band joined for one legendary and historic session in November of 1967 which reportedly took place for the Blue Horizon’s label. Two songs and three attempts were taken at recording a single for the band. ‘Stone Crazy’ had two attempts and 'Fly Right Baby' with Jack Bruce playing piano had one and remains as of this writing unreleased. Who knows the actual reasons for the short term aspect of the band but one can assume that contractual obligations had something to do with it ending before it started. The subject of today's 'rock rant' is the only track that exists for our ears from the session, 'Stone Crazy'.

The song is a slow blues taken for leisurely drive on dark rain pocked cobblestone streets. Green’s candied tone is immediately recognizable as the track begins to reveals itself. Bruce grumbles a idiosyncratic bass line with a painter’s attention to detail. Dunbar holds it all together with a patient 12 bar on the hi hat and snare. Stewart soon comes in for the intro verse and the thougth crosses my mind that he could have been the best white blues singer ever, if he chose to follow that path.

Deftly weaving lyrics, with some that would later find a home on the Jeff Beck Group track, ‘Blues Deluxe’ Stewart makes ya feel it, playing with husky dynamics while extracting a deep feeling from the groove like a blood draw.  Peter Green answers Stewart's calls with silvery stringy bends. Green leaves just enough breathing room for each riff to marinate in your ears. It's a fact that these British musicians held the American blues musicians in such high regard that their recreations can be nothing but authentic. While this song's authorship cannot be determined, it is a straight blues with lyrical content hailing from an number of sources which was typical of the time.

First solo break Bruce and Green stream their respective licks from the musical maypole. Bruce thumps with a puffed out chest while descending in time, growling out the changes. In his typical fashion Green conjures a solo that amazes and medicates while emanating a deep understanding of the blues. Patient, sugary, sleek like liquid night. The song rocks gently with a secretive strength, the unique musical ability of each principal eliciting a power that does not require flash or musical posturing.

       Pic : Lars-Ewe Nilsson

Following the solo break Stewart returns with a sensual and gritty whisper. Regardless of your opinion of Stewart, it get's you feeling funny and funky. Stewart follows the aforementioned lyric with an aggressive demanding response, one begging to prove his love. Green tickles the fretboard with a scurrying yet perfectly slotted lick. The final lyric Stewart giggles during the break, a fitting end to what sounds and feels like a enjoyable exploration of the blues and a tentative musical relationship.

One track, five minutes, but a musical eternity contained within. Each member of this short lived conglomerate would go on to their own musical fame. Dunbar would go on to release a series of solo LP's, in addition to each respective member of this particular group. But for a couple of shared moments and one powerful track that has revealed itself to listeners they got it together for a legendary what if?

STONE CRAZY - 1967 


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Tools of the Trade: Ronnie Lane’s Zemaitis Bass Guitar – 'Still Hear the Echo'

When I think of the rock and roll legends, ‘Faces’, I think of a heavy rock and roll swagger and a musical celebration. Substantial images of Rod Stewart's flamboyant stage dress, Ronnie Wood’s poofter hair style, Kenney Jones powerful stick hits, Mac’s tickling of the blacks and whites, and the band’s on stage drunken revelry flash through my minds eye. Most importantly are the on stage mental pictures of the band’s ‘tools of the trade’, Woody’s guilded Zemaitis guitar and the subject of this rant, Ronnie Lane’s sleek black custom Zemaitis bass.

Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane, founding member of Small Faces and Faces as well as being one of rocks finest songwriters was one hell of a bass player. Lane was adept at both guitar and bass, but his rumbling bass tone in the mid 1960’s was a defining sound for Mod culture. Lane played with a pick and slapped his hollow bodied Gibson, coaxing rotund notes and smooth weaving bass lines for Small Faces. Lane used a number of guitars and basses throughout his musical career beginning with the aforementioned hollow body Gibson, Harmony, and moving into custom instruments and his eventual solid body Zemaitis bass by the time of Faces in 1969. Lane would also become associated with a Zemaitis resonator acoustic following his departure form Faces.

In the early 1950’s, luthier Tony Zemaitis, who started his career as a cabinetmaker began to repair and build acoustic guitars for his associates and friends. After a stint in the military Zemaitis started to become more ‘professional’ with the development of his instruments. By the 1960’s word was spreading amongst blues players around the UK eventually causing his 12 string acoustic guitars to be placed into the hands of players like Eric Clapton and Spencer Davis.

Continuing to improve his methods, Zemaitis began to develop electric guitars with a number of prototypes entering into the emerging rock and roll scene. Tony’s guitars were soon being given test runs by George Harrison, Marc Bolan and Jimi Hendrix. Creating what would soon be the defining element of his guitars, Zemaitis started to include the recognizable metal front which he deemed was to reduce the humming of electric guitars which it was successful at. His metal adorned guitars also began to include ornate engraved headstocks and plates which soon became their identifying element. Friend and customer Danny O’Brien was brought on by Zemaitis to decorate the headstocks and the front plates with beautiful custom designs. (to this day these are still being replicated, often by machines).

At some point in 1969 and during the formative stages of ‘Faces’ one of Zemaitis guitars made it to the ‘two Ronnie’s’ of the band, Ronnie Wood and Lane. When the 'Ronnie's first started coming to the Zemaitis show, Tony wasn't aware of who they were. What he did know is that they kept returning for his guitars! Both Ronnie’s have been pictured with and used a few different Zemaitis basses and guitars during their Faces time. Some 1970 footage, and a picture included here shows Lane playing his first Tony Zemaitis creation.

By 1971 Lane would be playing the bass that most defined him and the ‘Faces’ greatest years. Lane’s Les Paul shaped black electric solid body Zemaitis bass was what Tony Zemaitis referred to as a ‘one off’.  He told the current owner of the instrument Bob Daisley that he built the instrument specifically for Lane and that Ronnie brought along his own pickups for the bass. He revealed that Lane had a set of the straight pole vintage early 1050’s Fender bass pickups and installed those in the bass. Zemaitis also stated the Ronnie Lane requested that a plate be installed where the neck joint is located on the bass. When Zemaitis told Lane that the neck was not a ‘bolt on’ and that the instrument would not require the plate Ronnie insisted on installing one as Ronnie Wood had one as well. The ‘rock room’ is under of the assumption that the first Zemaitis bass Lane received is this one here, and then Lane returned to get the subject of this post, the ‘torty’ black Zemaitis made to his specifications. While Lane’s Harmony’s from his Small Faces days were 30” scale, the Zemaitis was 32”. For his custom pieces Tony Zemaitis would measure the musicians hand and then build the instrument accordingly.

The bass guitar's funky aesthetic just bellows 'rock and roll'; a sleek black chrome hot rod look, an ornate patterned aluminum head stock and a horny Les Paul shape, but a bit more menacing. Two steely rails enclose the pick up's. The 'rock room' is unable to confirm the type of wood used for the body of the bass. I will assume that the fret board is rosewood, but don't hold me too it. In addition to the look, the bass contain four tone control knobs, two for each respective pick up, as well as a volume control on the guitar's top horn. There is a silver double bridge and the instrument resided in its own custom made Zemaitis 'coffin shaped' case.

The bass guitar’s rotund tone fit key in lock with Lane’s heavy handed thumping approach to the bass. While Lane could lay down a melody on his four string with the best of them, his fat looping phrases and funky turnarounds were the focus of the sturdy foundation of the band.  Played through a classic Ampeg flip top B-15 cabinet the guitar takes on a thick lead tone when locked in with Kenney Jones big banging sticks. Lane's lead in to 'Three Button Hand Me Down' from the band's debut encapsulates Lane's approach, technique and his instrument. A rich warm buzz emanates from Lane's picked string wounds as his bass playing alternates between lead lines and a foundational rumbling.

As stated Lane, played his 'tort' bass for Faces peak touring years (71-72) before receiving and being pictured with an additional Zemaitis bass for his final year with the group. This instrument can be seen below. It is aesthetically similar to the subject of this rant, but with a more compact body and some snazzy angled pickups. This bass can be seen and heard in action here.

Some of the most exciting existing live 'Faces' footage comes from a BBC broadcast called 'Sounds for Saturday' broadcast in 1972. Plonk's rig is fully on display and cranked to the max. The band has reached a lofty summit of their live concert abilities. Enjoy Lane's thick melodicism on 'Maybe I'm Amazed' and his funky improv's on 'Too Much Woman'. Lane was a rocker's rocker who moved air and kept the rhythm down in the bottom. Such a unique man and player deserved a custom instrument to share his gift. Lane's 'tort' Faces touring bass fit the bill. Following his departure from Faces in mid-1973 to enjoy greater freedom for his songwriting and voice, Lane began to play more often a Zemaitis resonator guitar (built in 1971) which immediately became his main instrument for playing with Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance. Once his songwriting was allowed blossomed fully, Lane decided to strum and sing his creations rather than anchor them to the earth. We are lucky and thankful he had the ability to do both flawlessly.


Faces- First Step (Album)

 

 

 


Sunday, August 2, 2020

Put the Boot In: Stephen Stills and Graham Nash Live at Winterland 1969 – ‘The Will to Play’

In the heyday of the late 1960’s mind blowing concert line ups were the norm. On any night, especially in San Francisco, there was bound to be a stunning array of legendary musicians taking the stage. These tribal gatherings were usually put together by famed concert impresario Bill Graham. One Fall weekend on October 24th and 25th in 1969, psychedelic rock masters the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane shared a double bill at the WInterland ballroom. While this was not unusual for the two San Francisco contemporaries to be on the same bill, what makes the performance on October 25, 1969 especially unique is the duo that was invited to play an intermission set.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young had built a relationship with a number of San Francisco groups during this era, with many if not all of the fellow musicians contributing to and playing on the others studio recordings and even on the live stage. All of CSNY's principals had come from major bands of the time, the 'Byrds', 'Hollies and 'Buffalo Springfield respectively; with all the members firmly entrenched in rock's fraternity. The conglomerate of these musicians played under the moniker of the ‘Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra’ and collaborated on a number of records including but not limited to, Jefferson Starship's Blows Against the Empire, Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, and Nash’s Songs For Beginners. Stills had even composed a song, ‘Black Queen’ to play on stage with the Grateful Dead and had high hopes of producing them. He did end up joining the Dead on this evening during their set for a hearty and bluesy version of ‘Turn on Your Lovelight’.

This particular evening should have featured David Crosby as well, who was additionally a very close friend of the Dead and Airplane. Unfortunately he was enveloped in a deep mourning following the loss of his girlfriend Christine Hinton in a terrible automobile accident. Crosby would never be the same, and for the immediate interim he was in no condition to create music and perform. So, the band’s activities were put on the shelf while Croz recovered. Stills and Nash were the natural choice to take the stage while they waited for their musical futures to be determined. Following a series of concert cancellations following Hinton’s death, this recently discovered performance was a way for Stephen and Graham to keep active and try out some material.

Just the previous evening at nearby Wally Heider’s studio Stephen Stills and Graham Nash minus David were working on the upcoming CSNY LP eventually to be named ‘Déjà vu’. Jerry Garcia was invited to apply his considerable talents on the pedal steel to Nash’s track ‘Teach Your Children’ when Stills thought it needed a deeper ‘country’ aesthetic that he thought his playing could not provide. Obviously, his choice was right as Garcia poured out a rich cool stream of ‘Bakersfield’ melodicism to Nash’s classic.  (Garcia would go on to contribute each of Stephen, David, and Graham’s future solo LP’s) As an aside, Garcia would be given a beautiful 1957 Fender Stratocaster by Nash for his assistance on Nash’s songs, later known as ‘Alligator’ which the ‘rock room’ previously wrote about here.

Graham Nash speculates that it was Garcia who invited the pair to perform the next evening after their recording of ‘Teach Your Children’, regardless of who gave the invite, it happened. While sonically pleasing soundboard recordings of both the Dead and Airplane sets have circulated amongst traders for some time, the rumored set by Stills and Nash has not. Though bits and pieces of the tape had started to surface as of last year. Now, thanks to famed sound man and LSD chemist Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley and Grateful Dead collector and archivist Charlie Miller the Stills and Nash set circulates in wonderful soundboard quality.  

The waaaaaay casual performance begins with a Bill Graham introduction as the performers take their places on the stage. A number of on stage asides can be discerned as well as the tangible excitement and musical friendship between Stephen and Graham. As he takes the stage Nash asks for a drink for his parched throat, while making sure it’s a ‘straight’ drink. Nash returns to introduce the debut of ‘Teach Your Children’ but then defers. As Nash commences his on stage search off mic, Stephen begins to pour out some acoustic blues. The show begins in earnest with a funky syncopated version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’. Taking a number of licks from his country blues satchel, Stills begins to duet with his guitar singing in his honey sweet 1960’s Buffalo Springfield throat. Stills sings all three verses while dicing the song with a stinging solo. Nash lends a boisterous ‘Yeah!’ following Stephen’s spotlight moment.

Next, Nash joins Stephen for real and introduces ‘A little country tune we know’ before revealing the first performance of a fifty year nightly career song and probably his most famous composition, ‘Teach Your Children’. Here Stephen and Graham give it a confident reading, only missing the buttery Crosby harmonies, the song is still a stunner. Stephen and Graham sing joyously with a few lyrics yet to be pressed into stone.  An unassuming beginning for what would become a worldwide favorite after its official release on 1970’s CSNY LP Déjà vu.

A brief break follows before Stills introduces a new song composed by John Sebastian. Sebastian was a close friend of Crosby Stills and Nash and in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion one of the finest songwriters anyone has ever witnessed. ‘How Have You Been’ follows and I assert is the highlight of the performance. The song would be worked out in the studio by CSN in addition to this previously unknown performance; which makes me assume it was in the running for an album track at some point in time. The song would make a proper appearance on Sebastian’s 1970 solo album, John B. Sebastian. Stills sings the shit out of the track on this evening with Nash in close support harmonies that sound like the two are blood relatives. Back porch guitar, double exposed harmonies and a full investment in Sebastian lyrics allow the song to sigh with a delicate hopefulness.

After a short on stage discussion, Stills and Nash decide to play a ‘fast’ singalong with ‘Lonesome Valley’, with Nash inviting the crowd to join. 'Lonesome Valley’ is a Woody Guthrie song well known to a number of the attendees that evening and a song Stills was familiar with from his time with the Au Go Go Singers‘. Performed as a call and response stomp, Graham and Stephen state and reply the verses before harmonizing on the final lines. Nash soars to ‘Hollies’ heights with his famous songbird tenor, sometimes missing the mark, but making the performance so endearing.  A unique song and even more special reading that places the ‘rock room’ center stage while taking a big gulp of Kool Aid.

Some additional on stage discussions reveal that the duo is short on time, before Graham Nash announces, ‘We are going to leave, but just before we do I want to hear Stephen sing some blues’. Closing the duos set is an early ‘Black Queen’, played with smoke and leaving whiskey rings on the table. A song Stills composed for the Grateful Dead, the song would eventually become a show stopper for Stills and appearing on his first solo LP Stephen Stills with the disclaimer, ‘Courtesy of Jose Cuervo tequila’. Stills gets dirty with a jumpy version that spotlights his spooky picking. Midway through the song at around three minutes Stephen hits on a repetitive melody that morphs into lush backcountry strumming.  This is Stephen’s own variety of the blues, his voice as important as the licks, and working together like Aces in a hand. The jam elicits humid air and after an additional verse Stills again sings with his instrument. Howling like the town crier, Stills allows his stunning falsetto to caress the strings, entering into an extended and stony exploration of the song’s central licks. After a small vocal misfire, Stills shrugs it off and enters into a fitting conclusion with some additional big falsetto. The crowd explodes in kind and MC Bill Graham again introduces the duo before the tape cuts.

One of the eventualities that thrills the ‘rock room’ more than anything is when new or unknown music circulates. This recent discovery of this tape of Graham Nash and Stephen Stills live at Winterland allows not only a musical epiphany but an important historical glimpse as well. The recording captures the band or in this case the duo in an important and formative time. It allows us to place a cup on the door and listen for magic and clues that a ‘rock geek’ like myself lives for. The ability to listen to a fifty year old unofficial recording to mine for ‘rock gold’ is a welcome proposition. Thanks to taper and chemist Owsley Stanley for again capturing lightning in a bottle and placing it on magnetic tape. Thank you to Charlie Miller for recovering the reel and releasing it into the wild for all to enjoy.

 


Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Richard Thompson - Bloody Noses EP - 'Some Old Campaign'

On July 3rd, 2020 famed guitarist and singer Richard Thompson quietly released a six track EP via the website Bandcamp. This collection was recorded during his and all of our recent quarantine during the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. Thompson, like countless other working musicians has been unable to perform live (his main source of income) and has cancelled all of his scheduled concerts as well as his 2020 guitar camp. The one positive result of (if there is one) of musicians such as Richard being off the road has been a welcome plethora of home recordings, live streams and stunning new works of musical art which has been developed during lockdown.

Thompson’s six song EP is titled Bloody Noses and the songs all dangle from the same threads of confusion, fear, hope and faith. No matter our profession or artistic drive, at the present we are all facing the same world issues in addition to our own private battles. Richard Thompson has always been adept at bringing the dark into the light and revealing to his listeners that no matter how black the evening, we may never witness the dawn, and that is ok.

Recorded at home with all instruments played by himself (guitar, mandolin, percussion) and additional vocals by his partner Zara Phillips this all acoustic EP features the usual intelligence, humor and virtuosic playing we have come to expect from RT. Currently the EP is available as a digital download (both MP3 and FLAC), but during one of his recent live streams RT did say we will see a physical release at some point.

The EP begins with the track ‘As Soon As You Hear the Bell’. Using boxing as a life metaphor, Thompson sings richly about accepting the fights and the injuries that may come, and making sure that when the bell rings there will be no giving up. A fitting melodic attitude for our current situations. The hopeful chorus is a cool compress onto the listener’s fresh bruises.  Thompson’s acoustic playing is a blend of Curtis Mayfield playing an English folk song groove. Every stringed nuance is magnified through RT’s lacy picking and fresh vocals.

‘She’s A Hard Girl to Know’ follows next on the EP, and in the ‘rock room’s opinion stands alone among the six tracks because of its gossamered picking and shimmering chord changes. The airy arrangement, like many of RT’s songs allow for the narrative to peek through the yellowed pages of melody. Thompson’s construction reflects the ‘unknowability’ of the song’s subject. This aforementioned thematic approach of the ‘wild woman’ that Thompson is often attracted to has also played out in classic Thompson tracks like ‘Beeswing’ and Cooksferry Queen’. Here, Thompson per his usual wont, takes a well-worn look at relationships through a brand new angle and using a specialized lens.

‘If I Could Live My Life Again’, is a track that Thompson was playing during his most recent acoustic tour of January and February of 2020. In addition, RT took to showcasing it during his recent lockdown live streams from home. This typically strong RT track plays out as a tender acoustic blues. Pensive and hopeful, Thompson fingerpicks a muted rock and roll rhythm that is accentuated by plucky chords and dizzying circular licks. To the ‘rock room’ this track brings to mind the contemplation of a lost chap walking wet cobblestone streets wondering why he/she went left when the path bared right. A song of  past regret carried by a melody that moves into the future.

Thompson’s talented partner Zara Phillips joins RT on harmony vocals for the next song titled, ‘The Fortress’. This substantial cut is chunky and deliciously catchy. ‘The Fortress’ is our protective shell, our shield, which unfortunately has been breached by disease, media, and disrespecting friends. Life has been interrupted by true realities, and how we react to this and protect our ‘Fortress’ is the true test. Thompson’s verses and melody immediately seep into my head. RT’s chopped strums work with the lo-fi thumping, allowing his descending vocals to wrap around my synapses. The expansive and soaring chorus diverts from the melody quickly and scrawls its message across the fortress entry way. Thompson and Phillip's co mingled vocals inspire hope and induce chills. A wonderful cut.

Track five of the digital EP is titled ‘Survivor’ and is in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion a welcome addition to the Richard Thompson vault of stunning compositions. The song sways with the breeze of a light country waltz and sings with a glass held high and a nod to another fellow survivor. Here the instrumentation is some beautifully prickly mandolin drizzled over the top of RT's acoustic strums. Similarly to all of RT’s most enduring songs, the narrative is the final puzzle piece fitting into one empty space of 1000 different emotions. Thompson is offering a cheers to everyone, those who have lost love, misplaced hope and those who have given up or lost everything but continue to move forward and live. Thank you Richard for these beautiful songs. 

The final song, ‘What’s up with You?’ moves with a pulse that RT compared to ‘Celtic Rockabilly’ during his recent online performance of the song. In addition to this musical clue, Thompson also notes a Buddy holly influence. The song swings with jolly attitude, with the title line being the axis in which the song spins. The narrator presses the song’s subject to reveal what exactly the crux of their issue could be. High speed strumming and pure rock riffing bring RT’s six song collection to a wonderful but short close.

Per my usual practice of leaving a link of the music I review, today, I ask if you are reading and are able please visit Richard Thompson’s band camp page:    https://richardthompson.bandcamp.com/album/bloody-noses-ep  and make a donation. You will not only receive an amazing collection of songs, but you will also assist in keeping Thompson’s head above water during his time off of the road. If you are a fan, getting this EP is a no brainer. If you are just getting to know RT, donate and discover.  As previously stated Thompson has said that as things return to a new kind of ‘normal’ his hope is that these songs will get a physical release (vinyl, CD). He also has noted that a second collection of songs are in the oven and will come out when fully baked in the next couple of months. In the meantime, let's ‘now be thankful’ for the songs RT has provided for all of us 'survivors'.


Monday, July 6, 2020

Put the Boot In: The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Fillmore East May 10, 1968 – 'Getting My Heart Back Together'

On May 10, 1968 the Jimi Hendrix Experience played two shows at New York City’s famed 2,600 seat Fillmore East. Hendrix was in town working diligently on his upcoming record yet to be named, Electric Ladyland. It worked out perfectly that while Jimi was recording in the city at the Record Plant, he could and would also play some local concerts.

Today in the ‘rock room’ spins a fantastic hi fidelity audience recording documenting the May 10th evening performance at Fillmore East. I am listening to a lossless file set taken from a silver pressed CD titled, The Jimi Hendrix Experience Fillmore East 2nd Show and pressed by “No Label”. This particular audience recording has been circulating for a number of years, under an array of different titles but has usually contained a number of aural issues.  The aforementioned version I am enjoying is the most complete thus far, has a minimum of cuts and is sonically stunning. The vibe of the venue is tangible on the recording and Hendrix’s guitar has its face against the glass. Redding’s bass is audible and Mitchell’s multifarious attack across his kit can be felt as well as heard. There is a sly psychedelic lilt to Hendrix’s playing, culminating in a crushing and closing version of ‘Purple Haze’. In addition to the amazing playing are a couple rare musical nuggets placed in the setlist that will excite any Hendrix Experience fan.

This particular era for the Experience found them enormously popular, prolifically creative and playing seditious concerts throughout the year that left audiences stunned while growing Hendrix’s legend. Jimi’s fame was ascending at a furious rate and he was revolutionizing guitar with every concert and recording produced. Which takes us back to May 10, 1968’s evening performance. Following the afternoon concert and evening concert’s opening act, ‘Sly and the Family Stone, Hendrix took the stage to a sold out room. The Joshua Light Show morphing the stage into a pulsating, liquescent musical mass.

The evening begins with ‘Lover Man’, an extended introduction features an exotic bit of riffing illustrating Hendrix is feeling frisky this spring evening in NYC. Jimi’s guitar tone is paunchy and the sound of Bill Graham’s room is crystalline. The Experience stomps through their opening number with deft precision. The first Hendrix solo takes off with Redding’s giant bass grumble setting the foundation. Jimi immediately struts his stuff with a vertiginous series of soaring and diving bends. Devastating stuff, and the crowd responds in kind.


Following ‘Lover Man’ Hendrix explains to the crowd that any odd sounds they may hear are caused by the amps, and they had not had a chance to get them overhauled. (Hendrix concerts always featured equipment on the verge of a breakdown) A searing reading of ‘Fire’ follows hot on the heels of ‘Lover Man’. Textbook perfect, the band has the arrangement in their crosshairs. Mitch Mitchell is punishing his kit filling each empty pause in the song with a crashing series of alien triplets.

Hendrix is obviously in a groovy mood as he and Noel Redding takes a chance to speak to the crowd following ‘Fire’. Hendrix quotes the opening riff of the Beach Boys ‘Surfing USA’, saying he ‘had a big flash’.  Foxy lady follows, possibly related to the ‘Surfin USA’ quote and begins with the buzzing of electricity and hissing of overdriven amplifiers. The band is frightening in their sound, Jimi barley stays tethered to the earth during the first solo spot. What begins as a smooth bluesy exploration quickly becomes a clinic of molten strings and elongated bends, Jimi’s lady in see through top and hot pants.

A pause between the songs, features someone from the crowd yelling to the stage, ‘Take off your hat!’ To which Jimi replies, I’ll Take off my hat if you take off your pants’. The centerpiece of the show then follows and is a deep and conversational reading of a 15 minute ‘Red House’. What makes this reading even more special is that Hendrix breaks out his black right handed 1956 Les Paul Custom for this rendition. There are pictures by famed rock photographer Elliott Landy available for perusal which immortalize this moment. Three different Gibson Les Paul’s were owned by Jimi Hendrix, but the 56’ may be the most beautiful. The following ‘Red House’ ranges from delicate to distorted and then decorated with silvery strands of feedback. Hendrix does a call and response throughout the verses with his six string vocals

‘Red House’ begins, with a delicate groove and smooth probing by Hendrix. His tone, a sweet velvet beam, or a musical insect exploring for the rich pollen payoff. While ‘Red House’ was nearly always a highlight of Hendrix shows, here it ascends to different and multiple levels. The journey over yonder is filled with detours and unique fragments maybe not always related buy nonetheless stunning. Hendrix’s guitar positively moans during the prelude. The sound improves on the recording unbelievably as the cymbals and bass are not as loud so Hendrix’s tone can be discerned reverberating off of the walls of the hall.

Hendrix lets out a couple ‘Yea’s’ early on and lays on the blues thick with perfectly placed notes and absurd bends. At approximately two minutes and twenty seconds Jimi switches pickups to a rounder more overdriven sound. The first verses take their time getting to Hendrix’s baby with patient vocals and a smoky groove. Each verse is responded too with a singing guitar melody, when Hendrix mentions that the ‘key wont unlock this door’, he manifests a deep magenta stream of reverberating decay. Maybe a minor display but one that makes Jimi the best ever. Hendrix, sets the stage for the first solo break with a ‘Look out’, then a deeply felt metallic bend.

By Elliott Landy

Hendrix lets loose with a plethora of rutted and gravel filled licks and with a nonverbal signal takes a spin around the drive with dirty trill to which Mitchell matches with a tempo increase. Let off his leash Jimi begins to move at a different time and space than Noel and Mitch diverging into his rock and roll tool belt with some inexplicably abrasive takes on recognizable licks. At seven minutes, Redding and Mitchell come to the forefront as a delicate shuffle coagulates. Hendrix taps his strings, a breeze pushing the jam forward. Mitchell takes a brief solo spot as Redding and Hendrix fade. The crowd appreciates his abilities and responds in kind. At around ten minutes Hendrix returns with a succulent watery tone from his wah-wah, the band drops out as Jimi constructs a hallucinatory narrative. Someone in the crowd whistles and before too long Hendrix pulls the rip cord. From a bit after twelve minutes forward Jimi scribbles out a letter to his girl and nails it to the front door of the ‘Red House’ with a blade. The letter is dizzying and aggressive and leaves nothing to chance. A return to the verses is a welcome relief from the jaw clenching Hendrix solo spot.

A substantial wall of soaring feedback follows and precedes a strutting and crowd pleasing ‘Hey Joe’. This is the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the peak of their fame in one of the most famous music venues in history, playing one of their most popular cuts. The song is ignited with high octane gas and burned to ash.

A quick ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ snippet, not long enough to qualify as a song is introduced as, ‘That was the Monkees, now we’d like to do something by the Monkees’ to the crowd’s great amusement. Hendrix replies, ‘we have to keep things balanced’. A small tune up and Jimi plucks out the elastic opening lick of ‘Hear my Train’. In late 1967 on the BBC the Experience played a formative version of what would come to be known as ‘Hear My Train a Comin’. Hendrix also referred to the song as ‘Lonesome Train’, or ‘Getting My Heart Back Together’; and like ‘Red House’ the song would become one of Hendrix’s show shopping astro blues numbers. The tasty musical gruel was comprised of a heaping spoonful of Delta blues, a dropper of Oswley’s finest and the electric sensibilities of Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. The imagery is classic blues with the main symbolism of the train referencing freedom, something always at the core of Hendrix’s songwriting. Here, on May 10th, 1968 is an early formative version of ‘Hear My Train’ comes smoking uncontrollably down the track.

It sounds to the ‘rock room’ that Jimi has returned to the Gibson he donned during ‘Red House’, but I cannot confirm that. His tone is thick and sweet as the richest New York maple. Mitchell stomps out ‘Train’s churning groove. Hendrix places well timed exclamations from his strings that elicit front porch blues gatherings from southern jukes. Jimi pauses to introduce the song as ‘Something we’ve never done before’, before singing the introductory verse.

Autobiographical but still firmly rooted in the blues, Hendrix testifies while harmonizing with his instrument. The first solo break immediately jumps the track and begins a runaway journey downhill. Hendrix snarls as he plays a variation on the central theme, fully overdriven and setting the table for the next series of courses he is ready to serve. Hendrix has a plump organic fuzz to his playing, Redding continues to grumble leaving a comfortable station for Hendrix to return from his journey.

The intensity increases, Jimi grabs a hold of a trilling riff on the lower part of the next causing the music to swirl. Mitchell throws his kit down the stairs and Jimi starts to use feedback to develop his next series of string narrative. His tone grows even gruffer and suddenly at round five minutes and twenty the train leaves the tracks and takes off streaking across the night sky, a human made comet, a UFO, musical disorientation and aural chaos ensues. Jimi rides the E string back to the verse licks, bringing the band dynamics down before letting off the gas for the third verse. Following the concluding vocals, Hendrix returns to his trademark vocal/guitar harmonization for the songs outro peak with a series of ‘Here My Train’ exclamations that bring the stunned crowd to their feet.

After a cut on the recording a nimble and somewhat rare cover of Bob Dylan’s 1965 single, ‘Please Crawl out Your Window’ follows. Hendrix was a huge admirer of Dylan, illustrated by his covers of ‘Drifters Escape, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘Watchtower’ and the aforementioned ‘Crawl out Your Window’. This live reading remains close to Dylan’s studio recording with Hendrix singing really well. What the ‘rock room’ finds wonderful is Hendrix’s portrayal of guitarist Robbie Robertson’s solo breaks which he plays perfectly. The lightning fast version is topped off with a succinct ‘shave and a haircut’ conclusion.

A considerable sonic prelude comes next, creeping across the stage like a psychoactive fog. Hendrix brings to life flashes of war, peace, truth and lies through his sound experimentation. Similar to previous preludes as ‘Are You Experienced’ and foreshadowing his Woodstock soundscape coming in 1969, this found sound preface is one of the major highlights of the show. Hendrix turns the Fillmore East into a deep space aquarium, bubbling space melodies appear before dissolving into blue atmospheres. Things detonate before soaring away unknowingly, suddenly the undulating introduction to ‘Purple Haze’ appears.

‘Purple Haze’ is suffocating, in a good way. Played with a studio standard, the Experience crowns their evening concert with stunning and ear splitting perfection. Before a breath can be taken by the collective crowd the band readies to enter into the set closing ‘Wild Thing’. The song is unfortunately cut, but what is available is consistent with the rest of the show….amazing. Hendrix introduces the song as a ‘delta blues’ after asking the crowd to singalong with the band. The volume is thunderous and the excitement and enthusiasm is tangible on the antiqued field recording. As previously stated ‘Wild Thing’ cuts quickly, but its reverberations echo through the spheres.

With the plethora of stellar Hendrix material available to hardcore fans, in addition to his own limited discography it is often difficult to pinpoint the ‘best’ concerts. In the case of Fillmore East 1968, we are lucky to have an audience recording with such amazing fidelity. In addition to the tapes sonic gifts, the capture found one of the most amazing artists our planet has ever witnessed in his prime. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Superlatives often fail to express what Hendrix and his band did for rock and roll music, so now we can just sit back, and let the music play tell us the tale.

Other Hendrix rants by Talk From the Rock Room:

https://www.talkfromtherockroom.com/2014/01/the-jimi-hendrix-experience-miami-pop.html

https://www.talkfromtherockroom.com/2015/04/put-boot-in-jimi-hendrix-experience.html?m=1

https://www.talkfromtherockroom.com/2013/03/jimi-hendrix-lord-theres-got-to-be-some.html

https://www.talkfromtherockroom.com/2014/01/now-playingthe-jimi-hendrix-experience.html?m=1




Thursday, June 25, 2020

Take One: Bob Dylan – ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ – ‘Weave a Memory’

With very little fanfare and minimal publicity in May of 2014 Bob Dylan issued a lovingly crafted cover of Frank Sinatra’s 1945 song “Full Moon and Empty Arms” via his official website. The single was accompanied by what ended up being the official album cover image. The picture, a moody black-and-white shot of Dylan in the style of a classic jazz recording also included the title Shadows of the Night.

It was confirmed that the song was mined from a new Dylan record, to be released later in 2014. What was unknown at the time of the single release was this would be the first in a trilogy of ‘songbook’ records to be released by Dylan also including the later titles, Fallen Angels, and Triplicate from 2016 and 2017 respectively. This covers project would certainly place Dylan in good company among his contemporaries, following similar excursions by the likes of Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart and Neil Young.

What makes the release of ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ so important in hindsight is that the song and eventual full length followed a road tested album style that has been Dylan’s modus operandi since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Dylan had not strayed much from the nimble, sepia-toned, 78-record blues sound that he had spent the last 20 years developing. But Dylan's approach was altered in a big way with his deep dive into the classic tin pan alley songbook. Arrangements lightened, becoming sparse and airy. Dylan's vocals softened, the gravel edges sanded down by swirling instruments. His breath and vocals became a focus and silences became golden.

The key to this aforementioned aesthetic is that now with the release of Dylan’s 2020 record of originals Rough and Rowdy Ways a clandestine glimpse into Dylan’s working methods and song construction can be glimpsed. Looked at as a whole, Dylan’s career has always been a series of musical detonations followed by a period of rest, reloading, and retooling. An example of this can be seen with Dylan’s 1992 and 1993 records, As Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. Following a blurry period of unfocused musical attempts, Dylan, per his wont, reached backward to move forward. Dylan recorded the aforementioned two LP’s featuring solo acoustic renditions of his influences and beloved traditional melodies from his formative days.

Dylan’s reassessment of his own directive after coming out of the 1980’s with the acoustic numbers initiated him to apply newly learned or revisited approaches to his own music. It inspired him to return to things once left behind, as this is the man who always lived by the creed, ‘Don’t Look Back’. Dylan has always been good at ‘repurposing’ and making the old new again. So while he peeks in the rear view, his is always looking forward into the sun with his foot on the gas. The result of this personal musical diversion being 1997’s Time Out of Mind, a record Dylan could not have attempted or made without Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. A record that collaborated elements, production values, melodies and memories that Dylan pulled from the restful stir pot of traditional song.

The release of ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ is the signpost that directed Dylan once again to unblazed approaches and faint herd paths of song. The resulting 5 LP’s (Triplicate is 3 LP’s) over the next three years, assisted Dylan in rediscovering his voice through others songs, inventing a new way to arrange his own music and most importantly looking at his own abilities from a distance enabling him to once again draw influence out like blood and inject his own ideas with those of rich history and timelessness. One cannot hear Dylan’s stunning new LP, Rough and Rowdy Ways without smelling the passing scent of Dylan’s ‘Sinatra’ records. The live sound of Dylan’s vocals, all the musicians in the same room and a stoic sense of melancholy and the impossible permeate both projects. The diversion into the classic songbook expanded Dylan's pallet and vocal musicality.

Back to the subject of the blog, the song, Dylan’s take builds on the Sinatra reading by exchanging a weeping pedal steel for the original strings, and laying down a world weary vocal that illustrates the depth of the Tin Pan Alley era Kaye/Mossman penned song. The results play out like whisked evening clouds, and the warm pulse of the stand up bass, a gentle initiator. Dylan is deeply invested in his vocals, crooning a transparent duet with a Sinatra’s ghost. Each nook and cranny of Dylan’s weather worn vocal distills the emotion of the song down to its essence. The obvious reason for these recordings was that Dylan was moved to sing; this song and others, his voice is invested in such a way it would eventually seep into his own studio work and live arrangements. The band’s musicianship is strong, cinematic and sympathetic to Dylan’s vocals. The silences as stunning as the instrumentation, Dylan’s rhythmic cadences as well oiled as the instruments.

Played back to back with the original for context and not comparison, Dylan obviously cannot compete with Frank’s moonbeam vocals. But taken for straight emotiveness and soul, Dylan and his band are able to show ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ its own reflection while also revealing underlying currents of emotion and melody reveled by Dylan’s approach. As previously stated, returning to these standards with a deep investment assisted Dylan in connecting with melodies of his past, but also made him reintroduce himself to his own songs. The result, just like in 1997, is a reconnecting and and stacking of bricks on top of his sturdy songwriters foundation. Dylan's approach should come as no surprise as he famously stated in 1965, ‘He not busy being born, is busy dying’.

For fans of Dylan's storied career, it should come as no surprise that  would reach back to earlier musical influences to encourage his own ‘Modern Times’. His recent studio releases have been a conglomerate of found items, ranging from hallmarks of literature to traditional song forms, pop culture icons, classical music and motion pictures. His career is littered with subterranean cover versions and live interpretations of dusty, forgotten melodies. Whether observed as part of a bigger picture or taken as a stand-alone item, “Full Moon and Empty Arms” is a tribute (perhaps an introduction) to the deep musical waters of song smiths and performers from the past, and a reintroduction of Dylan to his musical future.

 


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Michael Nesmith’s First National Band – Magnetic South –‘Different Rhymes and Tunes'

Following his departure from the world famous 'prefab four' Michael Nesmith had collected a back catalog of stunning original compositions. While fans of the ‘Monkees’ were aware of Nesmith’s affection for country music and a down home aesthetic, his ability to express said music through the TV pop group had run its course.  In early 1970 Nesmith collected musicians John London (bass), John Ware (drums) and famed steel played Red Rhodes for the First National Band, a collective in which Nesmith could find a proper vehicle for his muse. 

While the subject will require an entirely different discussion, Nesmith and the First National Band became either subconsciously or not, one of the first bands to be branded ‘country rock’. In addition to the 'Buffalo Springfield', ‘Flying Burrito Brothers’, ‘Poco’, ‘Byrds’ and others, the First National Band was part of the late 1960's tumbling tumbleweed of a ‘country rock’ movement, and in hindsight one of its most important proponents.

Nesmith was quite prolific following his departure from the ‘Monkees’ as three First National Band LP’s were released in just a year in 1970-1971, each sharing similar cover art and ideal. The albums were colored red, white, and blue respectively, each with a large central image. Today, the ‘rock room’ will focus on the introductory blue volume, Magnetic South. While Nesmith’s first ‘true’ solo record came out in 1968, The Witicha Train Whistle Sings, the record was a ‘big band’ recitation of already ‘Monkee’ recorded Nesmith originals.

Now with the fully formed First National Band, Nesmith was the ‘band leader’ and in charge of steering his own ship. As Nesmith stated in a 2018 interview, ‘Pop music was foreign to him’ when he was writing songs in the ‘Monkees’, he was interested in what was ‘playing on his home stereo’.  As an aside, Nesmith really was aware of what a ‘pop’ song could be as his composition ‘Different Drum’ climbed up the pop charts at the end of 1967 when the ‘Stone Ponies’ featuring a young  Linda Ronstadt covered the song and took the track to #12. Oddly enough the ‘Monkees’ producers had dismissed the song when shown by Nesmith at the end of 1965. The Monkee mangers had often told Nesmith his originals were too ‘twangy’ or country and wouldn’t appeal to the Monkees audiences. Hence the reason Nesmith felt it was now his time to put together a ‘real’ band, a band in the sense of an organic thing where each member has a role and contributes to the whole. He knew he could do it, he knew he had to do it. The ‘Monkees’ were a job, the First National Band would be art, with a ‘spiritual understanding of the music’.

As previously stated, Nesmith had been writing for a number of years with the 'Monkees' and had actually recorded but not released a sheaf of  tracks that would later appear on First National Band records. Songs on Magnetic South that had opportunities with the ‘Monkees’ include, ‘The Crippled Lion, ‘Hollywood’, and ‘Nine Times Blue’ which was performed in 1969 on the Johnny Cash Show with Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz prior to the band’s dissolving.

Because of Nesmith’s history as a ‘Monkee’ he was constantly haunted by his past as critics and fellow musicians could not decide whether or not to take his new direction seriously. The 'rock room'asserts that if they just listened to the quality tunes being created instead of labeling and putting into a sterile box the group could have gathered more contemporary respect. Regardless, Magnetic South is a wonderful snapshot of an artist finding his feet and directive while also being an important signpost on the dirty rutted roads of ‘country rock’.
The album begins with the strident acoustic guitar intro of ‘Calico Girlfriend’ and once Red Rhodes pedal steel slides into the melody line proper the listener knows that this is something ‘alien’ to the pop charts, perhaps originating from south of the border. The group collaborates into a Tex-Mex groove where Rhodes scribbles out a multifarious melody to which Nesmith sings in a matter of fact country curl. Under this vocal serape Rhodes pours out a watery descending counter melody. The drums and percussion kick in after the first verse and prior to the middle eight and drive the clandestine meeting with a mysterious lady toward the top of the tower.

Fading in from a dropping Western sunset comes the shadow of a solitary guitar strummer as the beginning of ‘Nine Times Blue’ appears. Nesmith with a healthy dose of echo croons against the thump on Ware’s bass drum. Nez then harmonizes with himself on the chorus in a magical fashion. One of Nez’s most loved songs, while criminally short is sugar sweet. The second verse begins and finds Ware hitting a double time drum groove while Nesmith reminisces about the things he has learned with the female subject of the song. A quick key change comes and Rhodes deftly creates a slick musical segue into ‘Little Red Rider’.

A warm bass pulse ushers in the deliciously funky ‘Little Red Rider’ which sways like a crimson dress blowing off of the back of the departing train in the song. Tumbling drums and percussion work in conjunction with the chugging acoustic and well timed horn blasts from Nesmith’s electric guitar. This track was attempted by Nesmith during his time in the ‘Monkees’ (can be found on the CD Missing Links), here it digs into the earth with a groovy spade revealing a funk well suited for ‘The Band’. A ‘rock room’ favorite.

‘The Crippled Lion’ comes next and could lyrically act as the title track for Nesmith’s musical moves following his time in the ‘Monkees’. Reflection and hope saturate the lyrics. ‘Now my world opens up in different rhymes and tunes, with highways making up the verse’. The instrumentation is majestic with Red Rhodes again soaring across the gently undulating backing by the band. Nesmith’s vocals are in the ‘rock room’s opinion the finest of the record. Additionally, here the basic instrumentation is augmented by some honky tonk piano played by Earl P. Ball. I firmly believe that this song is the centerpiece of the record, the First National Band at its best.

What was destined to be the biggest hit of the LP and of Nesmith’s First National Band days follows with ‘Joanne’. Again, a Nesmith original the track would hit 21 on the Billboard charts upon release. The song would continue to be most popular for Nez right up through current times. A drumless ballad, Nesmith and Rhodes duet with Nesmith’s glistening falsetto underpinned by Rhodes weeping runs. A beautifully timeless and pastoral portrait of a love that was never to be. The emotions between the narrator and Joanne only increased by the sparse landscape instrumentation.

Side one closes with a blink and you will miss it instrumental piece credited to Red Rhodes called the ‘First National Rag’. Similarly to the conclusion of a cartoon, Nez lets us know that, ‘we will be right back as soon as you turn the record over” as the band cooks up a slippery stew in the back room.

Following a flip, side two begins with the high tempo ‘Mama Nantucket’, with a wonderful example of Nesmith’s yodeling abilities! Containing some vague lyrical references, this song cooks up some heat off on the not so distant range.

‘The Keys to the Car’ begins with a solitary acoustic and a gentle clip clop of rhythm. Again, Nesmith’s falsetto is spotlighted with a tune that seems like a gentle song of caution. Nez lets the subject know symbolically even if she gets the ‘keys’ be wary of what is expected of you. At the risk of sounding redundant, the magic is found in the meshing of Rhodes and Nesmith, a testament to a relationship that would last decades.

‘Hollywood’ begins with the soft tip tapping of a high hat before a drum roll ushers in the bedazzled lyrics. Separating the verses are soft interludes of Nesmith falsetto whispers.  Thematically the song is Nesmith running from ‘Hollywood’ trapping to open pastures. It seems to the ‘rock room’ that the quiet preludes are Nez contemplating his next move and his run from the border is initiated with the thumping piano and skidding steel. The tail end of the song contains a well-placed keyboard/Rhodes interlude that is delicately sprinkled across the acoustic guitar running through the track. A spacey break is reached with keys and steel winding around the acoustic guitar illuminated by a light polluted sky.

The album concludes with two cover versions, the firsts of the collection. ‘The One Rose (That’s Left In My Heart) first recorded by Jimmie Rodgers is given an intimate and purist reading. Nesmith sounds perfectly laid back and vocally assured. The closing track of the LP is ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon’ a song that first appeared in 1930 in the film Monte Carlo. What is also the longest track on the album reaching almost 6 minutes is a proper and fitting conclusion.
The song begins with the anticipatory tic tock of a clock, while some tender piano runs dress the passage of time. A distant rooster crows as the clock dings its alarm bringing the listener into a room with lovingly caressed acoustic guitar. Nez whistles, the steel moans like a violin and a series of sound effects bring a feeling of leaving for the horizon and never looking back. At three minutes Nesmith sings the words as the drums enter through the same door. Dynamically, the song reaches for the sun as a shaded plant searches for light. The song reaches toward climax with swirling organ, theatrical vocals and increased tension by the instrumentalists before everything drops away. Left only with a steel disappearing into dusk and the drone of crickets the LP concludes.

The ‘First National Band’s debut album of their ‘trilogy’ set the table for an original musical feast. Their first record plays cinematically, the words and instruments working in perfect harmony to create a uniquely original album that is neither country nor rock and roll. Against the odds, Nesmith used his professional time spent in pop and his valuable moments spent composing to assimilate both into an organic and original band of his own device. While not the lurid rock tale of Gram Parsons or as famous and radio friendly as the ‘Eagles’, the ‘First National Band’ is perhaps the most unique ‘country rock’ story you have never heard of.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Take One: Neil Young and Crazy Horse – ‘Will to Love’ – Won’t Be Tamed

Referred to by Neil Young as ‘one of the best records I’ve ever made’, ‘Will to Love’ is not only one of the most unique compositions in Neil Young’s extensive canon, but arguably one with the most detail and depth. While the track is housed on Young’s 1977 LP American Stars and Bars the song, typically to Young compositions has an interesting story and development. Some folks, like Young biographer Jimmy McDonough state that the song was originally planned for Young’s unreleased album Chrome Dreams. Others, have theorized that the song was rehearsed during sessions for 1976’s Long May You Run.  Both of these assumptions make sense as the era between the two albums is blurred. The ‘rock room’ asserts that ‘Will to Love’ was rehearsed during the 1976 Long May You Run sessions because the song was also considered as a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recording. 

For those familiar with CSNY history, there were a series of aborted sessions during 1976 when Stephen Stills and Neil Young had David and Graham visit Criteria Studios where they were working on the Long May You Run Album. David and Graham added harmonies to a number of tracks which were unfortunately removed and or discarded when fighting and disagreements set in. One track which has been released unscathed for those interested is the absolutely amazing ‘Black Coral’ featuring CSNY and released on the Stephen Stills box set Carry On. The story goes that when Young met with CSN after recording ‘Will to Love’ at his home, David Crosby encouraged Young to keep the song as a solo cut.

Anyways, I digress, what ended up happening in the end was ‘Will to Love’ was released as a Neil Young solo track and placed, as previously stated on Young’s 1977 LP American Stars and Bars. There was also a promotional single released by Reprise Records in conjunction with the album b/w a live cut of 'Cortez the Killer'.The genesis of the seven plus minute ‘Will to Love’ began with Young recording the song demo style at home on a 2 track cassette recorder in front of a roaring fire who’s snaps and crackles can be heard on the resulting recording. Young has said that the home recording took him about a normal 8 hour work shift to record and mix. The resulting cassette (presumably after Young’s attempt with CSN) would be taken to Indigo Ranch in Malibu, California where the tape would be transferred to 24 track where Young would undertake a series of overdubs onto the song. Briggs and Young made a practice during this era (1975-1977) of recording at Indigo during full moons to great success. The ‘rock room’ can hear wah-wah guitar, piano, vibraphone, bass and various percussion instruments draped over Young’s first home recording.

 In an interview with Bill Flanagan in 1985 Young said the following:

‘Will to Love was written in one night, in one sitting, in front of the fireplace. I was all alone in my house and I was really high on a bunch of things… “I have never sung it except for that one time. That’s what I used for the record. A Sony cassette machine, which I transferred to 24 track and then played back through my Magnatone stereo reverb amp. I brought two tracks of the cassette up on a couple of faders with the stereo vibrato in it, then I mixed them in with the original cassette for the sound of the fish. I overdubbed all of the instruments and mixed it in the same night’.
‘Will to Love’ contextually uses the metaphor of a salmon fighting its way through turbulent waters in order to find a mate. This metaphor is stratified with comparisons and contrasts between our natural world, our primal urges and our need for companionship. The lyrical content expresses a craving for love while also displaying an awareness of the pitfalls of pursuing something that may not exist. The lyric, ‘It has often been my dream to live with one who wasn’t there’ frames the work, by both opening and closing the song. The line also illustrates the author’s constant struggle with his/her own ‘Will to Love’  and how that will can both alienate while at the same time bringing together.

The song begins with a sonic quiver and a ghostly vibrato. Young’s, melodic and double tracked ‘la, la, la, la’s’ initiate motion, as the listener has been plunged below the waterline. Bubbles and smooth rocks surround the subaqueous melody. The ‘rock room’ likens it to listening inside of a dream. Young’s fragile acoustic strumming is in the forefront. The song is pillowed like a homemade recording, the lo-fi aesthetic only increasing the reticent vibe. Young’s fireplace sparks aurally, while Young’s double tracked vocals shadow each other closely leaving aural footprints inside of footprints. There is a tangible atmospheric intimacy in the feel of the recording, almost as if Young has packed himself and his feelings away in an emotional buoy filled with cotton.
Early in the first part of the song one of Young’s vibraphone overdubs from Indigo is discernible as a woody thump. Then following the first ‘chorus’, some spinner bait percussion flashes just beneath the water’s surface in light clinks. While the flow of the song remains steady, the sonic additions emulate the journey’s pools and eddy’s as well as the success and failure of the narrator in reaching his ultimate goal.

Young was operating and recording in a lo-fi fashion in the mid 1970’s, long before it was a sought after aesthetic by artists. The original vibe of Young’s home recording is the foundation of ‘Will to Love’ to which the narrative rests. Young sings the song like a secret over the clear ethereal drift. The second first contrasts fire and water, an eternal primal burning versus the element needed to reach the narrators eventual satisfaction. Silvery clinks glisten in the undertow, Young’s fins visible above the waterline, with another dizzying overdub laid down by Young.

The third verse describes Young, the ‘singer on the stage’ as a jangling piano and off beat drums rattle from the shore line. The song whirlpools toward the conclusion of the verse with the lyric, ‘Sometimes I see what really isn’t there, like my true lover, and I care’. The mantra returns with the gentle chorus chant of ‘Got the will to love’ as both a confirmation and even a question.

‘La, la, la la, la, la, la, la’.

The thoughts of both narrator and salmon, natural world and subconscious combine in the next segment as Young explains that he is a ‘harpoon dodger, and can’t, won’t be tamed’. A spectral wah-wah joins the sonic picture with fluidic punctuation. It’s addition both timely and perfect, its resonance lending a stringy overlay to an already percolating composition.
The song eats its tail, it’s concluding verse a hallucinatory consummation of both the will of the human ‘relationship’ in the narrators consciousness as well as nature’s own will to complete its internal mission of companionship and finding a mate. Only Mr. Young could provide such a magical metaphor for longing. The song concludes with the verse: “If we meet along the way, please sway beside me, let us sway together. Our tails together and our fins and mind. We’ll leave this water and let our scales shine. In the sun above and the sky below, so all the water and Earth will know. It has often been my dream to live with one who wasn’t there”.

The song as of the writing of this blog has never been played live in concert by Young. On the Neil Young fan website ‘Thrashers Wheat’ and anonymous poster wrote the following in regards to Young never have played the song on a concert stage; “I held up a banner at a 1999 show in Houston asking him to play it. He only smiled. After the show at the meet and greet I got up the nerve an asked him why he never plays it and he simply said "that is fucking personal".

In a career, (similarly to friend and mentor Bob Dylan) stockpiled with unreleased tracks, full length LP’s, live concerts and an entire website devoted to cataloging his fifty plus year muse it’s a shaky order to focus on one Neil Young track. It’s overwhelming. Regardless, ‘Will to Love’ is worthy of inspection for its unique recording, deep thought lyricism and diverse construction. It’s just one of many Young sides tucked away on a bulging record shelf that would make an entire career for a lesser artist.