Talk From The Rock Room: October 2021

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Michael Bloomfield - The Gospel Truth

'The Gospel Truth' is a two compact disc compilation recently released by Sunset Boulevard Records. The collection reveals a diverse conglomerate of LP cuts, rarities, as well as an entire unreleased live performance from the 'Guitar King', Michael Bloomfield. It was in the 1960's that Michael Bloomfield cultivated his legend. He began working his trade in the blues clubs of Chicago and continued by disseminating his substantial stringed influence across records by Bob Dylan, the 'Paul Butterfield Blues Band', Janis Joplin and his own 'Electric Flag'.

By the 1970's Bloomfield had retreated from the legend. He found solace from his demons of insomnia and varying addictions by recording at home and playing in small clubs. Bloomfield took a deep dive  into his endless well of influence while retreating back to his roots. He recorded guitar lesson LP's, he also released a series of small label solo records in the 1970's. Along the way he compiled an impressive band of pals including former 'Butterfield' bandmate Mark Naftalin, Bay area bassist John Kahn and saxophonist Ron Stallings all whom appear on this collection.

Disc one of this set, subtitled, 'Best of Acoustic and Electric Sessions' reveals a strata of American music ranging from early 20th century rags, waltz's and traditional blues from electric Chicago to acoustic Delta. Bloomfield was skillfully adept at any and all genres. As sonically illustrated on this collection, Bloomfield also played jazz, funk, Dixieland, pop and straight rock and roll to amazing effect. These two discs will appeal to new converts to the Bloomfield legend as well as to long time admirers of his guitar work. Most if not all of these solo records have been out of print for a number of years. Sonically upgraded, speed corrected and lovingly curated, this collection; while not a complete discography offers a number of essential highlights.

On the set, many tracks originate from Bloomfield's 1977 LP Analine and glisten with homespun virtuosity. The others are pulled from the grooves of his recordings for 'Tacoma Records', Michael Bloomfield, Between the Hard Place and the Ground, and Crusin' for a Brusin'.  Bloomfield's ascendant slide excursions on the various instrumentals contained within are otherworldly. The moody, cinematic cover of  Duke Ellington's 'Mood Indigo' and the ethereal slide guitar drenched instrumental 'At the Cross' are of note. His famed three fingered leads on blues cuts are stunning. He fingerpicks, flatpicks and plays piano. Bloomfield sometimes played all of the instruments on his recordings including the title track of this collection. The song which in the 'rock room's opinion encapsulates this personal approach to the creation of music with stunning results. While not lacking in abilities as a songwriter, in the era covered by this set, Bloomfield often found himself exploring traditional and gospel songbooks in more fascinating ways.

Also included on the diverse opening cd are heavy horn driven funk grooves delicately explored by Bloomfield and his bandmates. 'Papa-Mama-Rompah-Stompah' is particularly frisky, highlighting splays of silly stringed Bloomfield licks. A souped up version of the weary 'Junkers Blues' hails from his underrated final 1980 recording, Crusin' For a Brusin' and stomps around the room in a good way.

Additional exceptional performances include the slow burn of the smoky electric blues cover 'Guitar King' and the lacy contrast of Bloomfield's dreamy reading of the early 20th century 'Hi-Lo Waltz'. Bloomfield's instrumental prowess and ability to play anything that has strings is on full display. Not to mention his obvious and multifarious layers of deep musical knowledge. Elevating this opening track list to stunning heights is the rare inclusion of a 1963 recording with Bloomfield playing guitar sideman to blues pianist Eurreal "Little Brother" Montgomery for an intimate two man set at a small Chicago venue, the 'Fickle Pickle'. An additional and unique audio glimpse of Bloomfield as a blossoming youngster in his most comfortable element, a blues club.

A stellar audio bonus in the form of the second disc is a 'Michael Bloomfield and Friends' show from the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino on February 19, 1971. This long time circulating soundboard recording sounds even better to these ears in its official capacity. The concert was a triple bill featuring Bloomfield and his band, Fleetwood Mac, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Bloomfield's friends for this show included the aforementioned John Kahn on bass and Mark Naftalin on keyboards. Also joining Bloomfield is Ron 'Rev' Stallings on saxophone and vocals, John Wilmeth on trumpet and Skip Prokop on drums. The band is groovy loose and Bloomer's is in particularly fine fettle.

Bloomfield while not a vocalist by trade would let loose once in a while on his solo records as well as in concert. He does the same on this set while sharing vocal duties with Stallings. One thing that cannot be denied is while Michael was not a 'singer' by trade, his absolute investment and awareness of the blues idiom is masterful.

Highlights are plentiful in the live set that runs slightly less that an hour. Bloomfield is content to act as band director. But when they time is right he steps up from the back line of amps for run after run of snaky and classic Bloomfield riffing. The 'Friends' set includes a unique and cool attempt at the Beatles cut 'You Wont See Me' and a chooglin' 'Booker T' like rendition of 'Statesboro Blues'. All of which contain crisp, clothes line hung clean riffing by Bloomfield.

The majority of the live set moves in similarly celebratory fashion with churning R and B numbers. But it' s the red light and blues numbers where Bloomfield disseminates his most substantial string bending of the evening. 'Poor Kelly', a song Bloomfield heard done by Big Maceo and Tampa Red is played as patient as a tortoise. Bloomer's opening licks are perfection. A few of the clearest cleanest blues expressions to be pulled from his endless well of influence. No flash here, all organic substance and a respectful and thought out expression of sound. This is the quivering tone that made Bloomfield his name. Michael also decides to take the lead vocals on this blues with an impressive call and response between himself his guitar and Naftalin.

The closing 'Drifting Blues' surpasses ten minutes and is another sneaky display of Bloomfield live and in the moment. 'Drifting Blues' is one of a few foundational blues standards, and in typical fashion Bloomfield investigates each and every way his strings can tell the tale. Following a boozy horn spot by Wilmeth and Stallings and a Naftalin keyboard solo, Bloomers slides in with a brisk yet measured solo. It's intensity soon increasing in grit and melody while promptly guiding the band to an explosive peak.

The new two cd release from Sunset Boulevard Records deftly collects moments from Michael Bloomfield's 'lost' 1970's solo excursions. The provided scope of the collection illustrates Bloomfield's work from the era both in the studio and on stage. The set offers a well rounded view of his gifts as a guitar player and interpreter of multiple genres of music. Bloomfield's personal story is a familiar tale of a musician, 'too soon gone', but his musical legacy is still tangible and ably compiled on this set.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Raspberries- Self Titled Debut 1972 - 'It Feels So Right'

Dropping it's juicy fruits on the ‘rock room’ turntable today is a fine 1972 full length record by ‘Raspberries’. The band’s self-titled LP is a creative and melodic slab of what has since lovingly come to be referred to as ‘Power Pop’. ‘Raspberries’ are an American grown rock band hailing from Cleveland, Ohio. The group came together on the vine in 1970 from the remains of two previous Cleveland acts, The Choir and ‘Cyrus Erie’ and had a successful five year run of albums and performances before disbanding in 1975.

The band’s first and classic line up was made up of members, Eric Carmen on vocals/piano/guitar/bass, Jim Bonfanti/drummer, Dave Smalley on guitar and bass, and Wally Bryson/guitar. On the band’s debut cover the group looks well dressed, crisp and put together like a pre-Badfinger, ‘Ivey’s. This ‘conservative’ look in addition to some well styled ‘poofter’ hair doo’s brought them some media ridicule. Regardless of any media sought after aesthetic, the band’s debut was stuffed with stellar tunes. Carmen had commented the band’s clothing choices, (which also included on stage tuxedos) ‘complemented the style of our music’. Additionally, said music contained within the album's grooves features lush strings, piano melody and yearning vocal lines. Expansive string-scapes and luxuriant movements dress the ballads appropriately. As sticky sweet as the music, the special treat when purchased new, the LP came with an  'scratch and sniff' sticker so the buyer got a big wiff of fresh Raspberries.

Similarly to a lot of stellar music that gets passed over at super sonic speeds by the music industry, 'Raspberries' didn't do something right and they have since fallen into record collecting 'hipsterdom' which admittedly at least gets them heard. Throw in the fact that like a close contemporary with a similar story, Peter Cetera, Eric Carmen had the 'unfortunate fortune' to stumble into some huge hits in his later career which further 'soured' the Raspberries' legacy. Why? Soft rock leanings, clothing? Silly stuff in the 'rock room's' humble opinion. Carmen reflected back on the band during an interview in the 2000's, 'What we had tried to do had been successful on one level and a complete bust on another level. The rock critics got it and the sixteen year old girls got it but FM radio was just not about to play a band that sounded like they were making singles, so it was kind of like beating your head against you head at a certain point, it was time to move on and try something else'.

Everything that the 'Raspberries' did on their debut was against the grain. Heavy on the ballads, thick with the syrupy melodies and weighted down with crisp production and well written songs. At the time, in 1972 the elements that created great music were often looked upon as passe. Already the music was becoming secondary to the image.

But I digress. The label applied to the band, ‘power pop’ was first coined by Pete Townshend in 1967 when asked what style of music the ‘Who’ played by a journalist. Since that time the term has become a catch all for rock bands that play heavy and loud but retain unique melodic elements. ‘The Who’ were an obvious influence on ‘Raspberries’ as co-founder and lead Raspberry, Eric Carmen told a reported in 2007, ‘It (Power Pop label) did stick to these groups that came out in the 70’s that played kind of melodic songs with crunchy guitars and some wild drumming. It just kind of stuck to us like glue, and that was ok with us because the ‘Who’ were among our highest role models’.

Placing the tag ’power pop’ on the band gathered them in the realm of bands including but not limited to, ‘Badfinger’, ‘The Jam’, ‘Big Star’ and others. The group’s April 1972 self-titled debut is an immediate flashback to the not so distant past. Harmonies, nectarous melodies and major 7th’ chords are the norm as Eric Carmen and bandmates layer on the songs that may give you a rock and roll sweet tooth!

As soon as the stylus touches down the kinetic opening guitar lick of ‘Go All the Way’ quakes from the speakers. My mind always flashes to the ‘Small Faces’ as the gruff riffing begins and Carmen’s opening vocal salvo, ‘My My Yeah, brings to mind  Steve Marriott’s well timed howls. This opening cut reached the Top 5 in the US, selling well over a million copies and is probably the band's biggest hit. Though classically trained on piano, Carmen plays guitar and sings on the group’s debut single. The songwriting efforts are collaborative as well as pretty even on the record, though later in the band’s career Carmen would come to dominate.

'Go All the Way' undulates from an edgy opening to sleek and breezy through the verses. Everything you (or the rock room') can ask for in a rock song is packaged up nicely here. Crunchy guitar, blended harmonies and an addictive central melody line. There is a rocking middle eight with foggy echoes of the Mercybeat spotlighting call and response vocal lines. The song is a well spring of the incredibly creative band and refurbished aspects of  all of the group's levels of influence. Like previously mentioned the song was a smash, regardless of it's lyrical sexual innuendo.

'Come Around and See Me' is a opalescent cha-cha composed by guitarist Willy Bryson and is brimming with addictive licks and a number of tasty sprigs of melody. An acoustic churns out the sandy rhythm with ringing punctuations from island drums. Midway through the verse the band hits a double time groove taking the song to a higher level. Bryson and Carmen harmonize throughout culminating in a big break down during the fade out joined with percussive explanations and holler's of joy. A wonderful band bang opening to the record.

'I Saw the Light' follows and is a Bryson/Carmen co-write. Listening to the record, I am sure you will say to yourself, 'Another knock out melody?' Because that is exactly what follows. While the lyrical content is simple and straight forward it's the chorus that feels it was pulled from the grooves of the 'Beatles' Revolver. Music box piano and stratified vocals highlight a sweet song of thankfulness. Cover your eyes as the shine is resplendent on this track.

'Rock and Roll Mama' may be a step below the preceding cuts but still retains a tart melodic sweetness while lending a straight forward chunk rocker on side one. Composed by guitarist Dave Smalley the song features some gritty riffing and jangling piano throughout. A horny jam focused on that particular woman who does it all and has a good time doing it. Wally Bryson takes the song to the horizon with a plethora of riffing that speeds toward the fade out.

Side one closes gently with a song that foreshadows Eric Carmen's future mid 1970's love anthems. 'Waiting', is a piano ballad sung with Carmen's best clean sheet vocals that sway between poles of a quivering and emotive falsetto. Moving sympathetic strings shift beneath the songs basic structure increasing Carmen's pleading. It's easy to understand why mulleted and jean jacketed rockers would feel uncomfortable with some 'Raspberries' cuts like 'Waiting'. But for those of us who are suckers for love songs packaged in melody with find a comfortable place to curl up.

Flipping the record over, the second side begins similarly to the conclusion of side one with an impassioned piano balled composed by Carmen and Bryson. 'Don't Want to Say Goodbye' was actually the first single from the LP and is an addictive melody wrapped around a straight forward lyric imploring to the subject that the narrator is going to 'Try a little harder'. A complex arrangement, lofty chorus dressed with winging strings and seamless harmonies are the song's hallmarks. A groovy tempo shifting mid song breakdown which appears throughout, all equates to one of the groups finest tracks.

Lending some additional diversity to the LP, Wally Bryson contributes another unique track with the portly dance hall vibe of 'With You In My Life'. A drizzling of saloon piano and the honking tuba bass make up the unique instrumental inclusions. Per usual for this album, a highlight is the backing vocals and sugary harmonies. 

Dave Smalley seems to be the one with his eye on the target as far as 'rockers' go on the debut. His second side cut 'Get It Moving' is also his second contribution to the LP. A prickly descending and opening lick drops into a twelve bar slammer where the lyrics of 'Get It Movin' just might be a plea to the 'Rock and Roll Woman' on side one. Dual guitars express the anxiousness felt by the narrator waiting for his female visitor. While not earthshattering, like all great LP's the song adds to the whole and makes the gentle Carmen refection's that more more intense. 

Following 'Get It Moving' the album closes with Eric Carmen's extended composition, 'I Can Remember', a pop ballad in multiple movements. Beginning with Carmen on piano and the gentle lilt of strings, at three and a half minutes the piano morphs into guitar strings and the song dynamically segues into a celebratory chorus with drums and bass joining. A lip puckering variation on the previous theme, a syncopated groove develops with Carmen lending chilling falsetto vocalizations. 

Jim Bontfani is an absolute star on his kit when at six minutes Carmen yelps, 'I Can Remember' initiating a change that lands into a weighty reassessment of the chorus melody. This time Carmen's sweet vocals as well as the backing voices of the band mesh with bombastic drums and delicately phased guitar. Bontfani tears around the skins, singing in time with the now heavy recitation of the melody proper. The song's multifarious movements and dynamic seguing between movements end up making the closing song into a epic. Wow.

Raspberries 1972 debut is an odd duck. The album is bursting with melodic magic and well constructed songs, yet it still sinks to the bottom of the bowl covered by more sought after fruits. Even the 'AllMusic' review refers to Carmen's love of balladry,  as 'treacle'. How about just mentioning how great the music is whether a ballad, rocker or saloon swinger? 

The band would last five years (70-75) and with each release gain in maturity but also in the realization that the music industry is fickle and moves on quickly. Carmen's increased creativity would cause fissures in the group. In order to operate successfully the 'Raspberries' needed to keep a delicate balance. The band's debut continues to influence melodic rockers (Brendan Benson, Autumn Defense) right on through current times and often sits undisturbed in three for five bins at your local record shop. Stop by and see if one is available for you to sample.