Talk From The Rock Room: April 2020

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Paul Simon -1972 Self Titled Record -'Here's My Song'

Spinning today in the 'rock room' is a introspective singer songwriter classic. Released in January of 1972, Paul Simon’s self-titled solo album initiated his later extended travels into and through world music, while becoming an introductory document into his prolific 1970's output. Paul Simon contains its share of new explorations, but is also filled with deeper, acoustic ruminations that recall his recently dissolved partnership with Art Garfunkel. As such, it plays as a statement of independence, but also as well as a self reassessment of Simon’s own musical standing.

Simon’s 1965 release Paul Simon Songbook is his original and initial solo venture, recorded prior to the Simon and Garfunkel partnership. But it was this 1972 project that signaled Simon’s first true departure into a solo career. A conglomerate of unique island rhythms, spacious instrumentation, and Simon’s tasteful self analysis, Paul Simon is one of the first and finest singer/songwriter albums of the 1970s.

The record opens on the jittery reggae influenced grove of the well known cut, 'Mother and Child Reunion' recorded at Dynamic Studios in Jamaica using Jimmy Cliff’s backing group. The kinetic track is known as one of the first to feature a mainstream rock artist using elements of reggae in a song. Female backing vocalists support Simon’s clean and glassy lyrical lines, and his absolutely addictive melody. The track would go on to be one of Simon’s most recognized and earned him deserved attention for his incorporation of what would later be known as world-music elements. As addictive as caffeine and as sweet as sugar, the LP opens on a stellar note.

'Duncan', the second track of the album, contains one of Simon’s finest and most fascinating character analyses, telling the tale of a fisherman’s son journey of discovery. The tune spotlights Simon on acoustic guitar with Los Incas, the South American musical group who’d earlier collaborated on Simon and Garfunkel’s 'El Condor Pasa', contributing flutes and percussion. The song follows Duncan’s coming of age and learning of life from a new found female companion who teaches him the ways of faith and love. The diversity of the salty seashore instrumentation of drums and flutes once again illustrates how this early album was a breeding ground for Simon’s accelerating and diverse musical references.

'Everything Put Together Falls Apart' follows, and is a sparse commentary on the worrisome and painful situation created by a partner’s substance abuse. A mirror reflection in content of Neil Young’s 'Needle and the Damage Done', and composed around the same era, 'Everything' balances the same tightrope. A serious and firm warning is stated, contrasted by the rocking-chair acoustic lines that run parallel with Simon’s frank and undulating tunefulness. 

Continuing in the same thematic vein, the camera of inspection is turned back onto the narrator with 'Run That Body Down', a gently swinging piece of self analysis. The realities of age, physical condition and lifestyle are inspected, initiated by lyrical warnings from the wife and doctor, all set against an introspective musical backing. Simon’s pensive but self-encouraging vocal lines make the song, with the musical bed lending a plush pillow for Simon to rest his worn-out head.

The first side of the album concludes with the exceptional 'Armistice Day', another stunning composition to be discovered in Simon’s collection of string-bending folk blues. Here gently alternating picking patterns shadow Simon’s tempered verses. Accompanied by percussionist Airto Moreira, the song dynamically enters a quasi-patriotic funk jam at its peak, as Simon travels to speak to his congressman.
Flipping the wax, the second side of the record begins with one of Simon’s biggest hits and most popular songs: 'Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard' which also lends its central striding acoustic riff and central groaning bass to the influence of reggae. The Grateful Dead's own 'Scarlet Begonia's would draw its influence from the Simon track. It’s the second powerful opener of the record. The tribal thumping groove was completely unique to hear on FM and influenced a number of musicians’ forays into international music. All of the elements that comprise a perfect rock song are on display here.

'Peace like a River' flows as a straight-forward blues, becomes a starry twilight verse, and continues a falsetto dressed, blurry-eyed ballad, born of sleepless New York City nights. Simon’s instantly recognizable finger picking delivers a flurry of buzzing low note strikes and elastic bends.

'Papa Hobo' continues with the intimate theme of the second side of the record, with an instrumentation featuring Simon’s simple acoustic, a carnival harmonium and creaky bass harmonica. The song is a Rockwell portrait, its imagery as vivid and timeless as a hand painted capture.

Fittingly, 'Papa Hobo' is then followed by the instrumental 'Hobo’s Blues' , a brief ditty composed by the duo of Simon and famed violinist Stephane Grappelli and recorded in France. The quick interlude is a perfect jazzy match for the organic series of song created on side two.

Possibly referencing Simon’s relationship with the 'big bright green pleasure machine', in addition to his own companions, 'Paranoia Blues' is a bucket-kicking hand clapping stomp. Gritty horn interjections and silvery slide draw out the color as Simon sings and rattles percussion. The song nervously knocks and slides to the point of quaking like a quivering wagon wheel about to fall off its axle. Similarly to the narrator's own jittery existence, the song makes the listener wonder, 'Is paranoia just a heightened state of awareness'?

Concluding the record is the sly and beautifully sung 'Congratulations', the title a sarcastic commentary on a deteriorating relationship. The lyrical content goes deeper, with Simon asking for peace while explaining the seriousness of the emotion of love. Plush blue keyboards work in conjunction with the understated backing by the three piece band, adding up to a gentle R&B sway that makes for a fitting end.

By it's conclusion, it’s clear that Simon has curated the map for the next phase of his life and career with the recording of this record. The music contained in the LP grooves blends familiar contexts with a new direction, combining Simon’s creative past while still keeping a hand in the contemporary world. Simon follows his already successful muse, but allows for outer influences and interpretations to guide the direction of his compositions. The result of his artistic attitude is a record as warm as its principal pictured on the jacket cover, snug in a parka, with a slight knowing smile crossing his lips.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Richard Manuel - Live at the Getaway Club-October 12, 1985 - 'Life Is Brief'

Originally Published In 2012.

During a semi recent family vacation to Orlando, Florida it did not occur to me that I would drive right by the town of Winter Park. Winter Park, Florida has the dubious distinction of being the location of Richard Manuel's suicide in 1986 after The Band performed a concert there. Somewhat haunted by this prospect I decided to listen to a recording made on October 12, 1985 at the "Getaway Club" in Saugerties, NY, less than a year before Richard would take his own life. This recording is personally one of my favorite performances that I have in my collection. I think its a combination of the intimacy of the recording, emotion in the performance, and delicacy of Richard's voice. Richard had worked his way up the "rock" ladder performing in clubs as a lad, then eventually arena's and stadiums with Dylan and The Band, and then back to clubs and bars. It was hard on him to feel like he was irrelevant by the mid 1980's, but he always preformed admirably and to the best of his ability. I feel if Richard could have made it through the 80's he would have been back in the center of things, with the revival of music festivals, rambles, and benefits. But, alas it was not to be.

 I am not going to get into the "why's" of Richard's death in this blog entry. Anyone who has been touched by a suicide in their own lives know that it is often unexplainable and emotionally taxing. To any reader who wants to look deeper into this horrible event, I recommend reading Levon Helm's biography "This Wheel's On Fire" I want to use this space to reflect on the recording I was inspired to revisit, and enjoy the music that Richard left behind. Containing what I, and many believe to be the greatest voice in rock history, Richard was in a constant battle with his internal demons and unfortunately, he eventually lost. Along the way he created a unique and timeless songbook, and breathtaking vocal performances right up until the end of his brief life. To quote Eric Clapton regarding Richard Manuel I believe says it all," For me he [Richard] was the true light of the Band. The other guys were fantastic talents, of course, but there was something of the holy madman about Richard. He was raw. When he sang in that high falsetto the hair on my neck would stand on end. Not many people can do that."

 The recording I am reviewing was recorded at a pivotal point in Richard's life. Relegated to playing dives, and mid sized concert halls since the breakup of the original Band, Richard's confidence had been shaken and his dependency and depression weighed heavy. At the point that the Getaway Club recording was made Richard was organizing his originals and reaching out to old friends with the hopes of releasing a debut solo album. The performances at the Getaway were great because they were close to home, and a fantastic way for Richard to "try out" some new tunes, and play the old favorites to a friendly crowd.

 Like I previously stated, I was urged to break out this CD because of the heavy vibe I experienced while traveling in Florida. There are some collections of music that I have to be in a unique place to listen to. As I'm sure you the dear reader understand, there is "sacred" music that must be felt, the kind that you cannot play in the background or casually. To me LP's like "Plastic Ono Band", Van Morrison's, "Veedon Fleece" and Gene Clark's "No Other" are albums that have way too much emotional content to not have my full undevised attention. The same goes for this Richard Manuel performance, which requires a devoted and focused listener who will let its music crawl inside of there ears and marinate inside of  their soul.
The official release is a crispy line recording direct from the soundboard where Richard sounds if he is singing at you from across the room. This recording was released by the Estate of Richard Manuel and was only available as an imported CD. It now has been reissued in the states and can be easily found if you so choose to search. The recording begins with Richard solo at electric piano honky tonkin the Bobby Charles song "Grow To Old". Richard's voice is immediately stunning. Even at this later stage in his career when booze and cigarettes had done some damage to his smooth syrupy throat, Richard's lyrical expression was unparalleled. After the opener Richard quips,"Thanks, Glad I came", in classic sweet self depreciating fashion.

"Grow To Old" is followed by one of Richard's signature performances of "Georgia On My Mind". Often referred to as the "White Ray Charles" Richard over his many performances of this song almost succeeded in making it his own. This version is no different with the indescribable "catch" in Richard's voice eliciting such emotive qualities. I recommend the available version from Saturday Night Live 1976 where Richard will make your hair stand up on end. He of course felt he "oversang" it, but we can be the judges of that statement.

 The next song on "Whispering Pines" in an untitled instrumental composed by Richard. With a rolling piano melody reminiscent of a New Orleans styled band original, the track immediately catches the listeners attention with something unique. One critique of Richard toward the end of his life was that he was no longer composing original compositions. Well, this track and the upcoming second original featured on the CD prove that melodies were still writing themselves in Richard's head, and he was slowly gaining the confidence to let people hear them in a public setting. Without a co writer like Robbie Robertson to edit and add lyrics to Richard's song's he basically stopped writing. This ends up being one of the saddest stories in rock history, the loss of new material by Richard Manuel, and the eventual loss of Richard physically from this earth. When I listen to this track again, I can hear it on an uncompleted album of new tracks that never happened, featuring all of Richard's friends, Jim Weider, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Rick Danko, and it urges me to be reflective on what could have been for Richard.

     Guitar virtuoso and Woodstock native Jim Weider then joins Richard for "Across The Great Divide" adding his bee sting Telecaster licks to a exclusive and personal performance. Then follows another classic cover that Richard sang so well so many times that it eventually became his song. "You Don't Know Me" contains a quiver, shiver and shake. I can feel my spirit levitate as Richard sings the middle eight, and his voice reaches falsetto range and shimmers with soul and effort. A truly inspiring and emotional version of a well played song. Throughout the performance I can hear Rick Danko off microphone encouraging Richard and eventually joining in on the festivities. One of the great things about "The Band" was their brotherhood, and you can hear the love in Rick's voice as he encourages the crowd saying, "Let's have a big hand for Richard Manuel".

A quick and note perfect, "King Harvest" is followed by a duo version of "I Shall Be Released" to close the first set. Rick and Richard perform a delicate and world weary version of the Bob Dylan and Band classic. A song used to close many rock gala concerts including but not limited to "The Last Waltz", this version is like two old friends embracing in a quiet candlelit room. Richard and Rick's voices and instruments meld together in the cool Woodstock night for the lucky few to witness the performance. I feel the warm fireside glow and cool snow blowing in from under the front door. I sure wish I was there. But I can try to make it there through this blog and review.

 The second set is started with the expected but always welcome, "The Shape I'm In". The set is again started with Richard solo on piano, and the soundboard recording picks up the celebratory vibe of the venue. The one thing about this rare recording is you can hear all of the vibrations come through the recording. I can hear the apprehension, the confidence, the embarrassment and the camaraderie shining through every song. For those you love "The Band" this is the special gift that this recording shares. The next featured original on the recording harkens back to the Hawks era of Richards life. While the song is a newly composed instrumental, it would not feel out of place on either of The Band's first two records. The track is positively screaming for a lyrical melody line, it also exudes that feel of other early Richard compositions. In my opinion it fits right in with tracks like 'Jawbone", and "Just Another Whistle Stop" as originally and uniquely Richard.

One of the most exclusive songs on this CD which Richard refers to as a "novelty", is the execution of the Cole Porter song, "Miss Otis Regrets". Similarly to Jerry Garcia, some musicians are just wonderful interpreters of other peoples songs. There is something in their voice and in their soul that enables them to express and disseminate any song in their own unique way. Richard is one of these "story tellers" and the aforementioned song is one of the most fantastic examples of this. This is no novelty song in the hands of Richard Manuel. Stunning.

     "Gang Rock" is upcoming as Richard calls everyone up on stage to jam on the J.J. Cale tune, "Crazy Mama". Rick, Jim Weider, and Sredni Vollmer all join in to help jam on a groovin blues stomp. The most extended jamming of the evening takes place on this song, and it is obvious everyone is having a good ol' time sharing riffs. This exciting display of" straight rock no chaser",by the aptly named "bandettes" comes in stark contrast to the following two numbers. Introduced by Rick as "one of his favorite songs" he asks Richard to sing "She Knows" for the crowd, which Richard does after saying "No". Richard puts the venue into stunned silence with his performance on "She Knows" and the following Ray Charles track. "Hard Times". All I can offer the reader is these two songs take the performance into the stratosphere. While its nice to hear the versions of "The Band" songs, it is Richard's interpretations of these two tracks which touch me so deeply its hard to express. The ironic lyric in "Hard Times", "I know that one of these days, there will be no more sorrow when I pass away", cuts deep as Richard pushes, pulls and stretches for the notes only he can hit. His falsetto flourishes, even slightly dulled with age have an edge that no other rock singer can even compare too. These two tracks need to be put under glass, or sent to the moon, or encased in a time capsule, because they are too important to become a memory turning "dusty, old, and grey". I am so glad someone thought to immortalize them on this compact disc.

 To bring the show to the proper close, Richard calls his friends back up on stage for a "rollin and tumblin" version of "Chest Fever". Even without the ever important Garth Hudson on the track this version swings with a reckless abandon and brings the show to a fitting conclusion. Every musician on stage shines, and while no one takes a "lead", the sum is greater than the parts and they all collaborate to support Richard  and preform a beautiful ending to the show. The recording fades back in to the Getaway Club screaming and stomping their approval. Richard in classic fashion exclaims, "this calls for something extreme". The loudest voice in the crowd is again Rick Danko, egging Richard on and calling out song requests!

 One of these songs requests is for Richard's most beloved song and the title of the CD, Whispering Pines". Richard explains he may not be able to hit the notes or remember the words, but is still encouraged by the loving hometown crowd. He decides to give it a try and starts the recognizable intro piano figure. There are some flat notes, an intermittently cracking voice, and some fluffed lyrics, but if this performance does not move something in you, you must be made of stone. This performance of "Whispering Pines" stirs so many emotions inside of me that I can only listen to it in the correct setting. The melody, the words, the performance,the foreshadowing, all combine to make this a musical moment without equal. If you are a fan of Richard and/or the Band please do yourself a favor and search out this significant moment, you will not be disappointed. It will actually lift you up spiritually, if I can be so bold to assert. Richard considers the show over at this point and says his "thanks you's" to wonderful applause. But the crowd will not let him go and he decides to play one more rarity with Rick joining him. Similar to the performance of "Whispering Pines" I can tell you these are unrehearsed and unplanned songs not on the set list. But that is actually why they are so charming, because they are "off the cuff" and unplanned. "Tears Of Rage" is like Richard expresses at the end of the song, "brief", but still a fun performance that has its moments of transcendence. In no way will it compete with the "Big Pink" studio version, but because of the aforementioned undercurrents it is a special version nonetheless.

      With that comes the conclusion of a memorable and exceptional performance by Richard Manuel and his friends. There are two additional bonus tracks on the CD that Richard performed "after hours" which are repeats from earlier in the show. These are slightly different than the other versions and are nice additions to the concert. This intimate performance is special to me because Richard is someone who I respect and love deeply, but will never be able to know, or see perform. It's through releases like the aforementioned that let me feel a part of I time I was unable to be a part of. Richard's music and voice lets me get in touch with emotions I may not otherwise be willing to seek out because of their negative connotations or embarrassing overtones. Listening to Richard makes me feel lucky, sad, realistic, and spiritually moved. I only wish Richard was aware of how deeply his music moved people and how important he was in their lives. If he had an inkling of how powerful he was, he may not have made the wrong decision in his moment of weakness. Richard has now become "God's Own Singer" and our singer eternally.

Miss Otis Regrets

Whispering Pines

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.