Talk From The Rock Room: January 2021

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album - 'The Stone Blues'

Recorded over two days in February of 1975 and released in April of the same year, The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album was the perfect combination. Levon Helm and songwriter Henry Glover had the excellent idea to have the legendary Mississippi Muddy Waters up to Helm’s barn studio in Woodstock, NY as their first client. In what would be Waters last LP for Chess, Helm, in addition to Water’s hot shit touring band collected some of the most amazing talent he could to back the blues legend. In addition to guitarist Bob Margolin and pianist ‘Pinetop Perkins’ from Waters own road band, Helm included Woodstock talent, Paul Butterfield and bandmate Garth Hudson. Former Hawks guitarist Fred Carter also stopped in along with famed horn player Howard Johnson. The cover of the record shows the large crew of contributors gathered on a cold gray day in the Catskills. Today in the ‘rock room’ we will drop the needle on this Grammy winning record and study its soulful grooves.

The LP opens with the Bobby Charles composition, ‘Why Are People Like That?' Charles had taken up residence in Woodstock, and his Louisiana sensibilities are tangible on the cut's swampy groove. Opening with audio of Muddy directing the proceedings, is a theme of the LP, and the song stutters along on Helm’s crispy snare hits. Butterfield enters with a billowing harmonica accompaniment and mid song solo. Per his usual practice,  Mr. Hudson lays down a shifty bed in which Muddy makes you contemplate the title, ‘Why are people like that?’ This song illustrates the completely natural meeting of Muddy's deep blues and the rustic back porch arranging of Helm and friends.

The swinging ‘Going Down to Main Street’ is a Waters original that jumps with a shifty twelve bar gate. Garth Hudson lends some hip, yea, hip accordion toots along the way. Both Hudson and Butterfield build a nest with the central bird call melody popping its head above the bundle of twigs. This is a funky juke ass swinger and displays another side of the American music on display. The song concludes with a Waters giggle that just makes the listener smile.

The first slow burn blues of the record, a Waters composition ‘Born with Nothing’, also features some razor edged chrome slide riffing by Waters, a definite highlight. Hudson splays a wash of indigo accordion across the cut. A 12 bar wood floor stomp, features a cutting spotlight solo for Muddy.

Closing the first side of the record is 'Caledonia', a jump blues written in 1945 by Louis Jordan. The song was also a onstage favorite of both Helm and Waters. Helm would perform the song both solo and with the ‘Band’ throughout his career. Muddy played it at ‘The Last Waltz’ though it was not featured on the original soundtrack LP. On the album, it bubbles over sterno with a joyous melody line squeezed out by Butterfield and Hudson on harp and accordion respectively. Muddy raps matter of fact fashion, his robust vocals as rich as Southern muck land. In the ‘rock room’s humble opinion, this track illustrates what IT is all about. Again, ‘Honeyboy’ Hudson lights it up with a stellar squeezebox solo.

Flipping over the record, Side two begins with ‘Funny Sounds’, a Waters original that raps its knuckles on the back door with the assistance of Helm’s perfection on drums. ‘Pinetop Perkins’, a master on the record, trills the black and white’s with a master’s hand including a subterranean solo spot. Featuring some of Waters best vocals on the record, the collective surrounds him with the purest blues committed to magnetic tape. Butterfield follows with a horny harp spot that squawks its way right to the bus station where Muddy waits for the final verse. It makes me sweat!

The low end, ‘Love, Deep as the Ocean’, follows with an ‘audio verite’ moment captured with Waters explaining to the band that, ‘I don’t write anything but stone blues,' which acts as the lead in to Helm’s spur clicking groove and the dizzying Perkins/Hudson dual keyboard attack. Water’s professes his bottomless love all the while slicing thin slabs of knife edge slide riffing. Butterfield, Perkins and Hudson all get fingerprints across Waters notes as Muddy brings things to a rolling boil. Big substantial ‘well, well's' and hearty verbal promises from Muddy initiate goosebumps and in the end, two of Waters finest blues of the 1970’s open up side two of this stone classic.

‘Let the Good Times Roll’ comes next and swings with a devil may care attitude. The song sways like a huge stage curtain rolling back. The horns get in on the action  with Howard Johnson blowing out some funky smoke. Butterfield toots out the central groove while Waters directs us to just 'get it on', it don't matter who you are, just let the good times roll. Both this and the following 'Kansas City' close the record with unadulterated rock and blues. Each amazing musician getting their own chance to let it roll.

The Leiber/Stoller classic ‘Kansas City’ closes proceedings properly with some high octane rocking and rolling. Helm snaps sticks with some crispy hi hat work, while Hudson puts down the accordion and lends some very 'Band' like Lowrey organ paint strokes. A rare, (for this record) guitar solo follows which to me sounds like the clean tone stylings of Fred Carter. The clandestine star of the show, Paul Butterfield is given another solo spot to which he ignites like flash paper. As the band gains temperature, Waters passes the bottle of cherry wine to Pinetop who takes his own set of verses with Muddy answering in kind. 

The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album encapsulates the multiple things that the rock room loves about music. The unpretentious attitudes, the musical respect, Woodstock, Levon Helm and arguably the finest blues man to walk the land. While the record differs from Waters extensive blues catalog as far as musical elements, it also never forgets it's roots. Helm's natural musicality and Waters legendary talent meet perfectly in the middle of the blues. Its rare that disparate musical collaborations are a success, but when you have pure intentions and unabashed love the results can be nothing short of musical magic.

The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Put the Boot In: Bob Dylan and the Hawks – Live In Hartford October 30, 1965 - 'No Need to be Nervous'

Following Dylan’s legendary electric set at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, Dylan set forth to find a permanent rock and roll backing band to disseminate his vision. The concerts that took place from the summer of 1965 through May of 1966 are some of the most legendary and destructive rock and roll concerts in music history. The combination of imagery and electricity accumulated into a new music, the ‘thin wild mercury sound’. In the ‘rock room’s humble opinion (and others) this developed conglomerate changed the direction of rock music and really has never been topped. Groups just weren’t doing things like this! In addition to the revolution in music was the combative audiences, antiquated equipment and bouncing around the globe on a diet of hotel food, drugs and groupies!

Today in the ‘rock room’ I am enjoying a distant, chopped up, wavy and aurally challenging field recording from October 30, 1965. These are the moments that the ‘rock room’ lives for. A tattered magnetic tape immortalizing a historic moment. That being said, this recording is not going to be for everybody. Put on your ‘bootleg ears’ and tune in. This particular evening can be looked at as the connective tissue strung between Newport and the Royal Albert Hall in May of 1966. This available recording from Hartford is one of only a handful that features the entire ‘Hawks’ line up as soon after this aforementioned performance Levon Helm would leave the group until mid 1967 when by that time they were the ‘Band’. If you are willing to search you can find a copy of this show, there is also a streaming version available via the usual channels (I have included a link here). It has also been 'officially' released to those who purchased the 'Cutting Edge' big blue box in 2015 where the 1965 tour was included as a bonus in mp3 format.

There are other recordings available for the ‘rock room’ to peruse from this era, but there are enough unique moments contained within this one to share it with my fellow ‘rockers’. The September Hollywood Bowl tape is a soundboard, and the two December shows recorded by Allen Ginsberg are stunning, though not featuring Levon in the group. While this show because of sonic anomalies falls down the list of ‘must have’s’ in the Dylan canon, it also spotlights historically essential music and a rare set of songs.

The concert and the tape begins with ‘She Belongs to Me’ and the ambiance of the Bushnell Auditorium is discernable on the recording. The crowd is attentive and the fidelity is reasonable as Dylan sings a sparkling opening track. A Mr. Jim La Clair posted his recollections of the Harford show online as he attended and had front row seats for the concert. He notes in his remembrance a ‘dynamic tension’ in the air as the concert took place as well as noting the piles of electric gear littering the stage. La Clair also notes that when Dylan took the stage for the opening acoustic set ‘he seemed to emit an aura that was otherworldly’, ‘standing in the light just a few feet from my seat he seemed so fragile, like a porcelain doll’. It is also remembered that while there were only a few cat calls during the previous evening’s performance in Vermont which La Clair attended as well; in Harford things were a bit more edgy.

Following unfortunately truncated recordings of ‘To Ramona’ and ‘Gates of Eden’ comes a full version of ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’. Typical to this era, the crowd is in rapt silence hanging by their fingertips on each of Dylan's words. While distant, Dylan's voice reverberates around the hall, weaving a fantastic version of this Bringing It All Back Home song. Of special note is the usually fabulous harp solo mid way through the song.

Only short snippets of 'Desolation Row' and 'Love Minus Zero/No Limit' are on the tape. A poignant harp starts 'Love Minus Zero'  which ends way to quickly and leaves me wanting more. The acoustic set then concludes with an upbeat and briskly strummed ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. This song would too become elongated and stretched like warmed candy by the time it reached Europe. Here it still retains its folk elements but tinged with it's stony imagery to which the performances would soon match. Dylan's harp spots are again an obvious highlight.

The electric set starts with a rare extended ‘Tombstone Blues’ a song that would soon be replaced by ‘Tell Me Mama’ when the tour touched Europe. Someone near the taper identifies the song as ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ in error. Their exchanges will be audible throughout the recording. Here, Robertson’s guitar is screaming and he locomotives behind the granite foundation of the Hawks rhythm section. Dylan’s vocals are clear and his is in full ‘Highway 61’ throat. 

Unfortunately both Manuel’s piano and Danko’s bass play hide and seek on the circulating tape. Regardless, the on stage energy is tangible. Dylan continually spits out verses like a sour lemon with extra emphasis on lines like, ‘Jack the Rippahh’! Prior to Robertson’s first solo, Garth Hudson firehoses an audible multicolored wash across the stage to which Robertson responds aggressively. I swear I can hear a girl near the recorder remark, ‘You didn’t tell me about this’. ‘This’, being the 180 decibel rock and roll machine on the stage I would assume! The group reaches a steamy and rolling boil by the cuts conclusion with applause of approval rolling in from the audience.

‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’ comes next, a song well entrenched in Dylan’s career at this point and a song that would remain in stage sets throughout the end of the 1966 tour. A groovy harp introduction starts things off with Danko thumping out his bass line soon after. Dylan sings here in a chilled ‘folky’ style for lack of a better term, as by 66 he would be howling out this track. The Hawks sparkle here even with the lack of fidelity, with Helm’s detailed touch lending a loose swing to the proceedings. Hudson, Manuel and Robertson each take a solo segment with Manuel’s piano bobbing out of the wash on the tape to great effect. Smokin!

Only a brief fragment of ‘Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ is available on the recording before cutting off. ‘Maggie’s Farm’ then follows in a rare mid 1960’s electric reading. The song starts off with Dylan and his lone jangly guitar before the band kicks their shovel into the soil and gets to working. The song is careening on the edge of high tempo electrified madness. The ‘Hawks’ swoop in for their prey shredding everything in their way. Dylan raps cool and collected as the group swirls the instrumentation into a silvery honky tonk groove. Right now at this moment, this is the best band on the planet. Hudson answers Dylan with alien melodies, Danko and Helm bounce rhythms and counter rhythms against the back wall of the arena.  Through Robertson’s piercing solo he and Manuel match gaudy R and B riffing excitedly; at this point I am so far into this recording I feel like moving matter in preparation for time travel. The band comes to a hard stop that cuts just prior to the tape. Wow.

An early standard of the Dylan and the Hawks sets but gone by the 66 World Tour is ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, originally off of Dylan’s Another Side of Bob Dylan record.  This is another one of those, ‘It used to go like that, now it goes like this’ moments. Beginning with a start and stop arrangement, Dylan and Hawks enter into an attentive but aggressive rendition to the crowd’s collaborative applause. The middle eight develops a direct rock stomp, dressed with Manuel’s staccato piano, prior to opening wide for the substantial chorus where the sky is revealed. On this particular track I am very happy with the balance of all the instruments and vocals; less volume on stage in this case assists with the value of the recording. Following the opening lyrics the ‘Hawks’ run through an beautiful instrumental verse and chorus before Dylan soars in with harmonica for another pass before returning to the ‘melt back into the night’ verse. A wonderful performance of this Dylan classic.

When the tape cuts back the crowd is yelling something about ‘rock’ and then scattered shouts of ‘folk music’ rain down. Dylan plays the opening chords to ‘Ballad of the Thin Man’ to a mixture of applause and jeers. A steady and sly ‘Thin Man’ thumps up tempo through verse one before the tape cuts and the rest is lost in the foggy ruins of time.

Some giggling and crowd ambiance is caught before another relative rarity follows with ‘Positively Fourth Street’. The song had been released as a US single the previous month on September 7th, 1965 so the crowd was familiar with the cut as there is substantial applause as it begins. I don’t know how to explain it but this track contains it all. The vibe, the sound, the groove and Dylan and the Hawks peaking combines to place me square on my butt in the middle of a venue from the past. Dylan’s singing is perfection, every inflection an additional layer to the songs sneering put downs. He bobs and weaves while pulling out the emotion of the lyrics like a blood draw. The Hawks are a crisp as fall in the mountains, Hudson plays a mirror of the signature lick while Robertson laces up some well-timed filigrees.

The tape and concert concludes with 'Like a Rolling Stone'. Those familiar with this period know that by the time Dylan hit Europe the live versions of this song had become bombastic. Here, Dylan and the band are playing well but have not yet haunted the performances with that extra smudge of voodoo. Unfortunately the recording also contains a number of drop out's and speed variations by this point in the tape.  

For students and 'rock geeks' of Dylan, the period immortalized by this recording is legendary in scope and myth. Dylan and the Hawks (later the Band) took on and developed a new and different combination of lyric and song. They performed the music to diverse and defiant audiences around the globe. Patience is key when enjoying when a field recording of this prominence, but the riches that reveal themselves with careful concentration are worth the wait.