Talk From The Rock Room: 2022

Sunday, December 4, 2022

A Rock Room Reconstruction - Michael Nesmith and Area Code 615 - The 1968 Nashville Sessions


Today in the “rock room” we undertake a reconstruction of a critical yet underrepresented player of the “Country Rock” era of the mid to late 1960’s. Michael Nesmith, singer, songwriter, renaissance man of the Monkees, attempted to bring the country music aesthetic of his upbringing into the pop world of his made for television rock and roll band. As early as the Monkees debut LP in 1966 Michael had contributed his own original music to the group, often facing consternation from the producers who were searching for “hits” written by  Brill Building composers who were kicking out songs like a sausage factory.

Toward the end of the Monkees astronomical popularity, Nez started to focus his energies on his own musical future. From May 31st through June 2nd 1968 country music pioneer, Michael Nesmith, laid down nine of his songs with pro Nashville musicians who played under the moniker “Area Code 615”.  These musicians were the best of the best and offered their abilities to a plethora of famed records and performances from the era including Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde.

Smack dab in the middle of a world wide musical maelstrom Nesmith’s extreme foresight and creativity was given the freedom to run with his muse. Following the completion of filming on the Monkees film Head, Nesmith teamed with producer Felton Jarvis (Elvis Presley) to record nine of his own compositions. The original intent was for a Monkees record in which each respective member would be represented on one side of the double record set. While the sessions took place for this Monkees next prospective LP, Nesmith used them to relieve a constipation of unique original music that had been building since his joining the Monkees.

Charlie McCoy, David Briggs, Wayne Moss, Bobby Thompson, Norbert Putnam, Felton Jarvis, Lloyd Green and Kenny Buttrey helped to make up this collaborative who was a veritable “who’s who” of country music session men. All the players would go on to have stellar careers in the field.

Nesmith had been disenchanted for a while in regards to the treatment of his compositions under the “Monkees” moniker, and had started to cultivate plans for his own music. While the Monkees had visited Nashville in late 1967 for sessions, Nesmith had a more finite vision for the May 1968 sessions. He would continue to mine his work during this era for songs for the next five or more years.

Nesmith had already recorded an instrumental album of his own compositions during a 1967 visit to Hollywood which resulted in the July 1968 album The Wichita Train Whistle Sings. Backed by the famed “Wrecking Crew” Nesmith spent $50,000 of his own money to create a proper first “solo” recording.

Inspired by his contemporaries the Beatles and Byrds, and Frank Zappa, Nesmith felt a need to express his artistic abilities outside of the confines of the “bubblegum” Monkees. Still underrepresented in music history for his cutting-edge dissemination of country rock, the lack of tragedy in Nesmith’s life must have made him uninteresting in the analysis of his contributions. Gene Clark, Gram Parsons and others, while deserving of their musical accolades are often thought of before Nesmith.

Nez had been writing country rock for years prior and now that mainstream rock artists were combining genres into new and exciting music, Nesmith felt the freedom to join the movement even though he was the one pulling the cart. Nez remembered, I could just feel this happening, that there was this thing. So, I headed off to Nashville to see if I couldn't get some of the Nashville country thing into the rock and roll or vice versa." The May/June Nashville sessions in RCA Records studio A would unknowingly become the influential lodestone for what would become the alternative country rock movement.

Most of the music recorded during Nesmith’s visit to Nashville would end up being piecemealed throughout several both solo Nesmith records and alternate Monkee releases. Some as Monkee singles, some as “First National Band” cuts and some as unreleased deep cuts.  The “rock room” has taken the liberty to collect the available recordings and collect them into a proper collection. The hope is that someday this effort is done on an official level and Michael Nesmith’s stellar and influential 1968 Nashville sessions are given a proper historical view.

It is the “rock room’s” humble opinion that if the Nashville sessions would have been released as a proper Nesmith solo LP in 1968 it would have been one of the greatest records of the country rock genre and rock albums of the era. Nesmith was authentic and came at the music from the inside. Collecting these tracks together lets us imagine the prospect of a 1968 Nesmith solo LP.

The “rock room” presents Michael Nesmith and Area Code 615 – Listen to the Band:

This Side:

Listen to the Band- Our opening track on side A was recorded on June 1, 1968 and ended up being the only Monkees A side single composed by Nesmith when released in 1969 (with later overdubs). The song was recorded in Nashville and features stratospheric pedal steel and a catchy series of chord changes that Nesmith revealed came from his song “Nine Times Blue” but played backwards. A powerful cut that Nez would recut with the First National Band in 1970. A rare Monkees live version was spotlighted on the 1969 television special 33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee. A tune of such majesty that it's title has become synonymous with its author.

Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)- One of Nez’s earliest compositions, the reading found on Missing Links Volume 3 hails from the first day of sessions on May 29, 1968 and is a superior rendition. An earlier solo demo circulates with a more up-tempo rhythm, while this version has slowed to increase its poignancy. Glittering Nesmith twelve string strums carry some of his finest vocals ever. Double tracked and harmonizing with himself, Mike’s mature grasp of the country form is stunning. In hindsight, Mike’s compositions from this era (also to be inspected on his Fall 1967 demos) are beyond his contemporaries, but unfortunately obscured by his pop culture backlisting by the hip musical experts of the time.

St. Matthew- One of Nesmith’s finest unreleased songs. First attempted during The Birds, Bees, and the Monkees sessions, Mike returned to the song on June 2, 1968. Nesmith reveled in an interview that the song was influenced by Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” and that he later understood that the track was a commentary on Dylan’s biblical representations of the Holy Ghost in his songs. The instrumentation is the perfect collaboration of rock, country, funk and feel. Over a strong arrangement of mush of chorused guitars, slick fiddles, and steady drums Nesmith’s hearty echoed wail comes down from the top of the hill, telling the tail of beautiful St. Matthew’s doings.

The Crippled Lion- The gentle clip clop of “The Crippled Lion” is an enduring Nesmith melody, sparse in its 1968 arrangement allowing the melody to focus on Nesmith’s reassuring timbre. Acoustic guitar, drums and steel delicately drift over Papa Nez’s reclining chair arrangement. The song would reappear on Nesmith’s debut solo record Magnetic South, but this particular reading (found on The Monkees Missing Links Volume Two) emits a confident magic that evades description.

That Side: 

Good Clean Fun- A song that would become the opening number of the Monkees 1969 trio LP The Monkees Present. Nesmith is his typically sardonic style turned the song into band management with the title of the song not mentioned once in the lyrics. This was after he was told by a publisher that single's needed to be "Good Clean Fun". A undistilled country number the song moves eagerly on squiggling fiddles and honky banjo.

Don’t Wait For Me- The work done on this song on May 29th, 1968 resulted in the track being officially included on the Monkees 1969 LP Instant Replay. The song, another Nez weeper, features his 12 string acoustic guitar and Lloyd Green’s mournful steel work. A highlight of Instant Replay and a definite departure from the overall sound of the record.

Some of Shelly’s Blues- A song originally released in 1968 by Linda Rondstadt and the Stone Poneys, Nez’s definitive Nashville recording from May 29th would remain unreleased until its appearance on 1990’s Missing Links Volume 2. Pleading double tracked vocals and emotional lyrical eavesdropping highlight the chilling recording. While Nez would re-record the song on 1973’s Just Your Standard Ranch Stash, there is something in the water on the Nashville 1968 recordings.

Hollywood- A song that would never see and official release by the Monkees, “Hollywood” is a shuffling country lament about leaving the glitz and glamor of the left coast behind for a more comfortable living situation. Nesmith’s swinging vocals nurture the fiddle heavy shit kicking arrangement. If this track would have been released as a single, the future Flying Burrito Brothers heads would have exploded. Nesmith would revisit the song on 1970's Magnetic South.

How Insensitive- We close our hypothetical Michael Nesmith solo record with his dramatic cover of a bossa nova standard by Antonia Carlos Jobim. Nez takes the Brazilian and makes it country with a low key rearrangement and an emotive vocal. Banjo, acoustic guitar and fiddle weave a lacy spell under Nez’s almost monotone rendition. A fitting closer, and a song that sums up our hypothetical collection from the 68' sessions.

Thankfully, Michael Nesmith was well aware of the cache of amazing music he had in his grasp in 1968. While mainstream recognition was plentiful, Nesmith’s personal musical satisfaction remained out of his grasp until he left the Monkees. Nesmith struggled with his early pop family connections for much of his life. The songs he recorded in Nashville in 1968 while alluding their confirmation as era specific examples of the country rock movement, have now been recognized due to Mike’s own career accomplishments receiving a reinspection.

When examined as a greater whole and as one-piece Nez’s prolific songwriting and musical acumen during the Nashville 1968 recordings is confirmed as revolutionary, important and endearing. All that matters is the songs, and they have thankfully been exhumed for enjoyment. For five days in May and June of 1968 Mike Nesmith’s crowning achievement in the country rock sweepstakes was recoded in a marathon of creativity. While never compiled as such, hopefully in the "rock room" we can just pretend.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Now Playing: Gene Clark - 'The Deep Cuts and Lost Tracks'

Gene Clark, a founding member of the Byrds and one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most intriguing troubadours, has often been suspended in the rock and roll gray area between obscurity and popularity.
Throughout a long musical career that concluded with his untimely death in 1991, Clark was at the forefront of musical innovators leading the way to the next big musical movement; whether it psychedelic, country rock, singer/songwriter, or his own brand of ‘Cosmic American Music.’ Gene was a reserved musical revolutionary. Unfortunately, the more tragic tales of other musicians of the era have distorted Clark’s deserving accolades. The path's that Clark blazed are often applied to others through posthumous campaigns.

Peering through the heavy haze of drugs and alcohol, picking through the failed album tracks and poor production choices, and inspecting the obscure and dusty melodies, a collection of forgotten yet stellar Gene Clark compositions comes into greater focus. Fans and scholars-in-the-know realize that Clark was and is a melodic innovator and by choosing any of the albums in his extended discography one can be witness to his deep and spiritual contributions to rock music.

Clark’s voice will always be remembered for its milky deep baritone, his lyrics for the revealing and detailed glimpse into his minor key reflection of life. If Clark only had one hit song during his solo career, or if some enterprising record executive had the foresight and insight to push his records instead of burying them, Clark’s musical landscape would be completely different. The deep cuts the ‘rock room is spinning today are powerful, beautiful and revolutionary in their own unique ways and deserve much more than a cursory mention on my internet list.

While most if not all of Clark’s solo work could be considered brimming with deep cuts, for this list I have distilled my choices to five songs from his discography of 11 solo records, two of them with ex-Byrd partners Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. Depending on your familiarity with the Clark discography, you may have contrary choices to my own, but that’s the beauty of lists. A collaborative review and constructive discussion of the dusty cobwebbed corners of Clark’s career can reveal long concealed jewels and shine a brighter light on the obvious gifts of his songwriting abilities …

‘ONE IN A HUNDRED’, (WHITE LIGHT, 1971; ROADMASTER, 1972): A song filled with so much promise and melodic strengths that it held a spot on two albums. First recorded in 1970, the song is actually Byrds reunion track, containing all of the hallmarks of a classic Byrds LP cut with contributions from all of the group’s original members. The jingle-jangle guitar is present and accounted for, in addition to thick and sugary sweet harmonies and Clark’s unique vocal melody lines, all of its elements as distinguishable as a finger print.
The Byrds’ version of the song languished in the vaults until the release of the Dutch LP Roadmaster in 1973. In the interim, Clark, aware of the optimistic songs superior strengths, released an alternate version of the track on 1971’s White Light. This stripped down acoustic version is highlighted by Jessie Ed Davis’ serpentine slide guitar and features an airy yet woody arrangement that showcases this song’s internal strengths.

‘STRENGTH OF STRINGS,’ (NO OTHER, 1974): The combination of his refusal to tour as well as the creation of an LP way ahead of its time unfortunately sunk the album No Other before it ever had a chance to leave the ground. Tucked away as the side-one closer on this now unjustly forgotten album, the mammoth “Strength of Strings” contains a beautifully sung wordless introduction, and a slowly ascending main structure that seems to gain momentum as the song rolls forward. Imposing and towering vocals stretch out toward a huge sinking orange sun outlining the cosmic range.
The track is an anomaly; there is no music from 1974 that quite sounds like this. Instruments wrap around one another like a DNA helix, voices take flight, and melodies elicit images of universes colliding and exploding. The song hails from an album that Clark considered his finest moment and that once again fell into the wrong marketplace at the wrong time. ‘Strength of Strings’ is a revolutionary chapter and a song that continues to impress through its historic musical relevancy, one of Clark’s finest moments.

‘POLLY,’ (THROUGH THE MORNING, THROUGH THE NIGHT, 1969): ‘Polly’ hails from one of two albums featuring Gene Clark and Doug Dillard from 1968 and 1969 respectively. Exploring the theme of freedom and flight later reflected in tracks such as ‘Silver Raven,’ ‘Polly’ sways like a weather-worn back porch swing in a smooth Southern breeze. The song moves in the manner of a secret passed between friends, soft and breathy, portraying a resonant sense of loss felt the narrator.
Sparkling acoustic arpeggios in addition to patint strokes across the strings elicit an intimate empty narrator’s room, a slow horse drawn rhythm supports the full community of group vocals that hang delicately in the air. While lyrically brief, Clark’s words, slow and languid expose deeper meaning with every listen. The resulting musical creation is a lacy waltz adding color to the black-and-white outline sketched by Clark’s honeyed vibrato.

‘LONELY SATURDAY,’ (TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY, 1977): After the disappointment felt by the relative commercial failure of 1974’s No Other, Clark returned with another record label and 1977’s release Two Sides to Every Story. Sticking to a theme that seemed to be developing, the record had little success, but the gift of hindsight shows this to be a well-made record containing the usual Clark classics that sit unnoticed like the a beggar on a cold city street. The LP has many choice moments, but the one that sticks with me because of its essential Clark elements is ‘Lonely Saturday.’

The song is a classic country tale of being left behind by a woman who has moved on, but what makes it worthy of inclusion on Clark’s Deep Cuts list is its definitive Clark vocal. You will be hard pressed to find any rock vocals more saturated with emotion. Weeping pedal steel, honky-tonk barroom piano, and the stale smell of a barren dance floor work in conjunction with Clark’s stomach-twisting vocals adding up to a song that will make any grown man cry at the bar.

‘GYPSY RIDER,’ (SO REBELLIOUS A LOVER, 1987): The So Rebellious a Lover LP was subject to positive reviews upon its release, a major change for Clark. It seems that, with the passage of time, some critics and musicians were actually catching up with Clark’s sensibilities. The fruitful collaboration with Carla Olson brought out a number of new Clark songs, the one featured here being one of his finest late-era compositions.
‘Gypsy Rider,’ originates from Clark’s comfort zone, a dusty cowboy ballad dealing with travel, escape and a vagabond searching for answers along the rutted highway of life. Built on Clark’s acoustic guitar and still hearty yet gently quaking vocals, the song balances on the rhythm of the stringed instruments and melody until a tender clip-clop percussion joins in mid-song. ‘Gypsy Rider’ illustrates that Clark’s penchant for melody still remained, despite its arrival toward the end of his tiring existence. Even tucked away on this now-rare album, Clark calls out from the grooves remaining relevant, singing for you.

The above list could go in a myriad of directions with the amount of rare quality material and hidden tracks to be found in Gene Clark’s discography. With a prolific artist such as Clark, material was always being created; he could never turn off the tap; and an abundance of material still awaits discovery. If only Gene could have hung on for a few more years and escaped the grasp of his demons, he would have collided with the current renewed interest and respect for his work.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Rock Room on the Road - Little Feat - Waiting for Columbus 45th Anniversary Tour - Point of Bluff Vineyards 9/25/22

Famed rock and roll grooves-men, Little Feat brought their  45th anniversary celebration of the renowned live album Waiting for Columbus to the picturesque Point of Bluff Vineyards in Hammondsport, NY. A heavy overcast day did not dampen the spirits of the band who played an incendiary set comprised of the entire 1978 Columbus LP.

Longevity is the hallmark of this highly influential band that has weathered several lineup changes and losses since the 1979 death of founding member Lowell George. Underrepresented by the mainstream, yet respected by their peers, Little Feat remains a celebrated group of musicians who continue to thrill on the live concert stage.

The current lineup of Little Feat features core members, keyboardist Bill Payne, Sam Clayton on percussion and Kenny Gradney on bass. They are supplemented by drummer Tony Leone who joined in 2019, guitarist Scott Sherrard in 2020 as well as longtime Feat guitarist Fred Tackett. The band wasted no time in cracking open familiar melodies and arrangements with exciting musical approaches. This current collaboration of Little Feat is not a nostalgic jukebox but an eager disseminator of fresh takes.

The band took the stage to a prerecorded reading of “Join the Band” and immediately jumped both feat into “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” The three-pronged rhythm section trident immediately propelling the pulse of the band with a churning groove.  The group sailed through the song’s off kilter changes with lead guitarist Scott Sherrard slicing and dicing with his amped Stratocaster slide guitar.

Following a pleading “All That You Dream” that revealed a ravenous jam itching to get out from it’s original skin, the group floored it down I-75 for a Bill Payne performance “Oh Atlanta”. Payne filled the tank with boogie-woogie fueling a high octane performance.

After a groovy Tony Leone sung “Old Folks Boogie,” Bill Payne dedicated “Time Loves a Hero” to past Little Feat legends, Lowell George, Richie Hayward, and Paul Barrare. He meant it, because “Time Loves a Hero” became a multifaceted exploration with each player listening intently to the others culminating in a inspirational peak. Once again the rhythm section of Gradney, Leone and Clayton percolated beneath the soloists providing a perfect shifting bed of percussive interplay.

“Day or Night” followed and unexpectedly became the biggest jam vehicle of the evening thus far with each respective member getting a chance to spotlight their chops and assert themselves melodically. The jamming was a series of relentless grooves and high musical acumen. This hearty version of "Day or Night" was only a lead in to the major crux of the show.

“Mercenary Territory” was played deliciously funky, yet suspicious with Payne’s organ undertow providing a sinister layer to the groove. Sherrard stepped comfortably into the substantial loafers of Lowell George with stellar vocals as well as piercing peaks on slide guitar.

A devastating double banger of “Spanish Moon” segued into “Skin It Back” kept the propellant rhythms moving while allowing Fred Tackett to take a dirty solo spot in “Spanish Moon.” Payne broke down the mid song arrangement with a piano, keyboard and synth wash disorienting the changes before Sherrard took the second solo spot down like a shot and with big riffs. His soloing initiated a seamless transition into “Skin It Back.” Kenny Gradney, thumped out a rotund and frisky lead bass line which would remain standard for the rest of the evening. A highlight performance.

A fifteen-minute medley of “Dixie Chicken” into “Tripe Face Boogie” hit every beat, change, start, stop and lick one could hope for and was relentless in it’s delicious and vicious instrumental improv. Fred Tackett even played some trumpet. Bill Payne illustrated why he is one of the finest pianists in the history of rock and roll history with a well spring of melodic fragments, accomplished playing and band direction. By the time the band hit “Tripe Face Boogie” the seated were forced to stand and the band was smiling in satisfaction. Sherrard and Tackett took the "Boogie" over the edge with frothing string bending and guitar weaving.

Following the exhaustive jamming, the band brought it down low for some slow stony swaying for the first time in the performance. “Willin” received great applause assisting in a poignant version with an extended opening instrumental. Bill Payne then introduced “Don’t Bogart That Joint” as a, “song from my old band” while eagle eyed Scott Sharrard spotted someone partaking in the crowd.

While the assembled cooled out, the band played the penultimate song of the set with a straight and neutral “Apolitical Blues” sandwiching Sam Clayton singing a welcome take on Muddy Waters “Long Distance Call.” The band again got to show out their skills, this time inside the twelve-bar framework. Little Feat then offered their own unique take on the blues, and closed the set with the appropriate sendoff of “Sailin' Shoes.”

After a hearty encouragement to return to the stage, Little Feat initiated their farewell with “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.” Members of the opening act Miko Marks joined the group on backing vocals as a big sing a long ensued. Played even faster than classic line up versions, the Feat rolled through the night and onto their next gig with a big truck version. Jamming until the last drop, “Let It Roll,”, the only deviation from the Waiting for Columbus LP closed the show with the proper message to take home.

Far from nostalgia and still jamming strong, Little Feat’s celebration of one of the greatest live albums in rock history is a worthy endeavor. Having experienced loss, the group has found something new and worthy of their legacy. Collectively they retain a strong sense of their history, and still a fearlessness to take new musical detours from long familiar roads.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Rock Room on the Road - Gov't Mule - Live at Beak and Skiff Apple Orchards - August 6, 2022


Fresh off of the European leg of their 2022 tour in support of their current album Heavy Load Blues, the ‘Gov’t Mule’ touring machine pulled into ‘Beak and Skiff Apple Orchards’, Lafayette, NY. Nestled on a green hillside just south of Syracuse in orchard country, the venue offered the perfect remedy for a steamy 90 degree central New York summer day. ‘Gov’t Mule’, the twenty plus year road tested quartet comprised of legendary guitarist, Grammy winner and founding member Warren Haynes, drummer Matt Abts, multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson; served up a boiling musical gruel comprised of a multitude of diverse musical spices and hearty chunks of electric blues to the hungry crowd.

At 7:15 Mule took the stage to Warren Haynes solo vocal introduction of Son House’s ‘Grinnin’ in Your Face’ that acted as a blue prelude to Matt Abts drum introduction to the catalog standard ‘Mule’. A classic double opener that long time fans understood meant the group had come to play. Haynes donned a slide for this opening salvo which was immediately cracked open and sizzled like an egg on black asphalt. Danny Louis's additions of spongy keyboards were a stellar contrast to Haynes' laser focused slide excursions.

‘Wake Up Dead’ from the aforementioned Heavy Load Blues, kept the tempo high and the jamming ripe as the bluesy stomp spotlighted Danny Louis’ slippery Hammond organ excursions. His Leslie speaker rotated at high revolutions behind his impressive keyboard array. With nary a pause, the group, with Louis now lending rhythm guitar pickpocketed the opening to Junior Parker’s ‘Snatch it Back and Hold It’. The crowd surged in to a funky head bobbing groove as Haynes peeled off a series of brassy licks. Carlsson, who was fully amped strapped the bottom end down as the group illustrated their mastery of the classic Chicago blues. Sandwiched between two halves of ‘Snatch It’ was a unique Mule flavored jam called ‘Hold It Back’, essentially a heavy improv in E that pulled away from the song proper before returning to the reprise for a groovy release.

Continuing what would be a deft blend of covers and originals in the set, ‘Beautifully Broken’ from Mule’s 2001 LP The Deep End Volume 1, slowed things down for the sun-drenched crowd but contained the most intense jamming thus far. Under violet light Haynes peeled off a plethora of virtuosic solos, each more intense than the previous culminating in the expeditious scrubbing of his strings that brought the band to a full climax and the crowd to collaborative applause.

For those who have followed ‘Gov’t Mule’ from the beginning the reading of ‘Rockin Horse’ from the band’s 1995 debut, when they were still a power trio was a welcome addition to the set. Haynes donned a Gibson SG for the performance while Abts pounded musical nails to wood through the verses. Crashing waves of sustained improv splayed waves of undulating sound over the crowd. Endless crescendos of guitar and keyboard were stretched to their respective limits. Matt Abts bass drum triplets replicated heart palpitations deep inside the cavern of my chest as the group took the songs internal makeup to its absolute limits.

It's moments like the aforementioned that separate Gov’t Mule from other bands of their ilk. This isn’t a run of the mill ‘jam band’. There is nothing cute about Gov't Mule’s playing. Mule finds the pulse of a song and explores every nook and cranny organically and with patience. Their musical summits are discovered through naturally occurring group exploration not contrived peaks. There is no ‘show’ just musicians disseminating their craft with no illusions or card tricks.

Leaving the smoldering heap of rubble that was the ‘Rockin Horse’ behinf, the band slipped into the fitting commentary of ‘Revolution Come, Revolution Go’. Toward the song’s conclusion Haynes’s let go with a blue drone of feedback that levitated above the churning rhythm section then traveled over the green hills, inched over the surrounding lakes and back to the crowd’s ears. Stunning.

The opening set concluded with the two-fer of ‘Aint No Love In the Heart of the City’ another deep blues from the current album offering and the closing reggae tinged  ‘Time to Confess’. ‘Confess’ surpassed ten minutes and balanced on Matt Abts and Carlsson’s unique bricklayers take on the ‘one drop’ groove. As dusk fell on the stage the jamming intensified before detonating in a wash of Danny Louis coloring and Haynes continuing discovery of melodic ideas.

Following a set break ‘Mule’ returned to the stage as the grounds cooled and a light rain spritzed the crowd. In contrast to the intensity of the first portion of the show, ‘Mule’, masters of moods opened the concluding set with music to match the vibe. A trio of classic ‘Gov’t Mule’ songs from their early catalog sated the longtime fans. ‘No Need to Suffer’ from 2000’s Life Before Insanity started things off and gave Jorgen Carlsson an opportunity to shine as he provided a melodic lead bass part originally played by dearly departed founding member Allen Woody.

Haynes and Carlsson initiated a razor dance of intertwining lines that increased in intensity each round through the chord changes. Louis shifted the arrangement over Abts solid rock rhythm adding a unique disorientation to the already psychedelically tinged attack. ‘Painted Silver Light’, one of Haynes most enduring melodies from 1995’s band debt followed in a crisp perfection and segued into ‘Thelonious Beck’ an instrumental jam vehicle from the group’s Dose record. Haynes started things off with a slide guitar introduction wrenching up the anticipation before unleashing the songs syncopated opening. Carlsson pulsed prolifically on bass as the band slammed through the song’s angular blues changes with Haynes once again offering a discography of rock and roll licks ranging from Chuck Berry to Jerry Garcia. Light touch, sustained feedback and a color wheel of tonal expressions only touch upon Haynes magic mastery of his instrument.

The concert had reached a misty summit and began the high speed down hill to musical satisfaction with an expansive cover reading of ‘Creedence Clearwater Revival’s’, ‘Effigy’. Haynes husky vocals stirred up in a pot of whisky and sawdust, were smoothed for the culturally and time appropriate cover. As the group began to leave the framework of the song a choogling country boogie began to coagulate. Notes of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Cumberland Blues’ passed by the window of the speeding musical train. The crowd danced out their approval as Haynes began to quote Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. A smile was discernable on Warren’s face as the crowd caught on to the melody and the band ignited. A highlight of the second set, band and crowd alike joined in celebratory glory.

The crowd was now pliable to the ‘Mule’s’ every want and they took it to the bank with a dubby sweet version of Al Green’s ‘I’m A Ram’ and a huge and thumping of Tom Wait’s ‘Goin Out West’ to close things out. ‘Goin Out West’ featured Warren playing with a multitude of quivering tones and edgy riffing before leaving the work to the crowd to chant the lyric, ‘Goin out West where they appreciate me’. Louis picked up his trombone and accompanied the crowd as he led the procession off of the stage to the rhythmic crowd accompaniment.

The only way to conclude such a special evening of music was with the obvious choice of ‘Soulshine’. Originally released on the ‘Allman Brothers Band’ 1994 album,  Back Where It All Begins, the song has become ‘Gov’t Mule’s’ and Warren Haynes emotional tincture and defining song. Like the best tunes, it stirs up a multitude of emotions and acts as a musical moment to remember, reflect and elicit hopefulness.

‘Gov’t Mule’ is still one of the best kept secrets in rock and roll even after almost three decades. The group encompasses all of the most unique elements of their influences and when on stage becomes something more substantial than their four pieces. Haynes is a masterful songwriter, interpreter and guitar player of the purest standard. One time a band in flux, ‘Gov’t Mule’ has melded themselves into a group of superior musicians that have acquired their second sight through hard work, constant touring and a continuous reach for the note.

Photos: Amiee Van Lew/Craig Wolfert

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Rock Room on the Road - Graham Nash - July 31, 2022 Point of the Bluff Vineyards

Graham Nash’s 2022 tour made a stop at the pastoral ‘Point of Bluff Vineyards’ in Hammondsport, NY on July 31st. While overlooking picturesque Keuka Lake and its lush green hills; Nash and his touring band of Shayne Fontane (guitars) and Todd Caldwell (Hammond Organ) played a two-set concert comprised of Nash’s impressive fifty plus career in popular music. One not so subtle takeaway from the show is just how many stellar songs and memorable melodies Nash has composed in his rock and roll hall of fame career. Songs from the ‘Hollies’, Crosby Stills Nash, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and his solo records made up the bulk of the set, with a few surprises thrown in for good measure. His catalog a venerable embarrassment of melodic riches. The lack of a drummer in the on-stage band allowed the arrangements to breathe and move on their own volition. Every nuance of song captured in photographic detail like Nash’s own photo editions.

When Nash and his group took to the stage the idyllic surroundings encouraged Nash to remark, ‘For the first time in my life I’ve got a better view than you’ to the assembled crowd. The concert began with ‘Wasted on the Way’, from CSN’s 1982 LP Daylight Again. Nash’s vocal as vibrant as when he recorded the song in the studio. His tone and clarity stunning, his investment in the music tangible.

The set took on a ‘storytellers’ vibe, which is apt as Nash is one of the finest songwriters in rock and roll history. Nash’s presong tales assisted in distilling the magic from his songs. His earnest reflections framing his compositions in a new understanding. Even the songs we have heard for year took on a new shine when placed in this alternate light.

Nash paid tribute to his long-time friend and bandmate in the ‘Hollies’, Allan Clarke with a flashback version of ‘Bus Stop’. He struck a match with ‘Marrakesh Express’ and then satisfied the hardcore with a spectacular reading of ‘Right Between the Eyes’. A song the bridges the gap between Nash’s Hollies’ career and his joining of ‘Crosby, Stills, and Nash.’

Graham Nash’s lead vocals for the weathered throat an 80-year-old rocker are stunning. There was no doubt at all over the course of the show of whether or not he could it the note. He hit it constantly. For the aforementioned ‘Right Between the Eyes’ and following ‘Lady of the Island’ Nash sang the songs naked and without any backing vocal support.

A highlight of the first set of music came when a visibly moved Nash dedicated the next piece of music to the military and civilian casualties that had taken place in Ukraine. Nash and his previous bandmates never shied from sharing their political feelings, and easing into his eighth decade would be no different for Graham. A poignant ‘Find the Cost of Freedom’ acted as a prelude to a welcome version of ‘Military Madness’ which gained a standing ovation. Nash would get many over the rest of the evening. It was not lost on any of the crowd that the music was still just as relevant as the day of its creation.

A reflective story about Nash, Crosby and Croz’s boat preceded a cathartic version of ‘Wind on the Water’ a song from the 1975 Crosby/Nash record of the same name. Nash posted up at piano for the aforementioned before grabbing his acoustic for the two song set closers. First, a daring three-piece attempt at ‘The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ which was pulled off splendidly. Both Todd Caldwell’s Hammond organ flourishes and Fontaine’s deft slide work made the Nash band able to play a stirring reading of a difficult cover. Following the big conclusion of ‘A Day In the Life’, one final ‘cover’ song closed the set with a crowd singalong version of  Stephen Stills 1970 classic, ‘Love the One You’re With’.

Kudos to both Shayne Fontaine and Todd Caldwell whose obvious familiarity with Nash’s catalog as well as their full investment in its creative dissemination helped to make the show. Fontaine and Caldwell allowed Nash to drive the songs with his acoustic playing and focus on his soaring still resonant vocals. An absolute master in harmony, Nash was fluid and moved his voice within the songs like he always has. In addition, to their own respective voices, with Fontaine on bottom and Caldwell on top they met the difficult task of replicating many legendary harmonies.  All of the original licks were hit and played with a unique twist. When required Caldwell’s organ also added a deep bass to the proceedings.


Following a short intermission, Nash returned to the piano with harp rack for a yearning ‘Simple Man’, from 1971’s Song for Beginners. Following the emotional gravity of the opening number, Nash then played a major highlight of the evening with Joni Mitchell’s, ‘A Case of You’. Played in a medium tempo, Nash took three harmonica breaks and sang eyes closed through what concluded as a rare and special performance by Nash and his group.

‘Sleep Song’ and its intimate changes following ‘A Case of You’ was a perfect matched pair. One could even think that Nash staged the songs this way due to their close relationship and shared feelings. Nash remained on acoustic for the only current original number, the beautiful Nash/Fontaine look back, ‘Golden Days’ from Nash’s 2016 album This Path Tonight.

Following the emotional pondering of the opening numbers, Nash and friends finish the performance with a hearty serving of Nash’s penned favorites and musical tributes to the past. A duo from 1970’s ‘Crosby, Stills Nash and Young’s Déjà vu brought the house down. First a tender rendition of the second Stephen Stills track of the night, ‘4 and 20’, then a stunning multifarious and vocally vibrant version of Neil Young’s ‘Country Girl’. Nash is fearless in the songs he plays and how he pays tribute to his musical past, present and still relevant future. The crowd roared their approval and offered another standing ovation.

Two ‘big’ CSN, CSNY songs finished the show proper. The first, ‘Just a Song Before I Ago’ was preceded by the Nash story about the genesis of the song coming after being challenged by his ‘dealer’ (for $500.00) to write a song before he had to catch a plane. Obviously, Nash won the bet and added the humorous aside, ‘Fuck him’. The expected but welcome ‘Our House’ concluded the show and offered a swaying, smiling and peaceful close to the evening. The crowd responded in kind and Nash was all smiles as he thanked the crowd endearingly and honestly. The biggest ovation of the night followed and Nash and his band returned to the stage for a double encore.

An optimistic three-part harmony performance of Buddy Holly’s ‘Everyday’ was the perfect closer. Nash explained that keyboardist Caldwell was from Holly’s hometown of Lubbock and then the obvious connection between Buddy Holly's nomenclature and Graham’s first band. CSNY's ‘Teach Your Children’ followed closely and brought the night to a positive conclusion expressing an eternal message of hope.

Hope is what Nash’s music has always given to his fans and admirers. Graham Nash's songs are his testament and he continues to curate them. He is a renaissance man and one that will never be filled creatively. He continues to write, paint, picture and sing; and we will continue to lucky recipients of the results.

Photos: Amiee Van Lew

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Rock Room on the Road - Tedeschi Trucks Band - 'Wheels of Soul' Tour July 1, 2022 Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center

On the evening of July 1, 2022 ‘Tedeschi Trucks Band’ rolled their Wheels of Soul caravan tour into the Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua, NY. A three-band collaborative of roots and rock music featured steamy opening sets by Gabe Dixon and special guests, rock legends ‘Los Lobos’. At 8:30 the twelve-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band took the stage and through their stellar musicianship and on stage comradery paid unconscious musical tributes to past travelling musical cavalcades such as ‘Delaney and Bonnie and Friends’, ‘Ronnie Lane’s Passing Show’ and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dog’s and Englishman’.

In addition to band leaders and husband and wife duo, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, the group is comprised of dual drummers, Tyler Greenwell and Issacs Eady, vocalist's, Mike Mattison, Mark Rivers and Alecia Chakour, a brassy three piece horn section made up of Kebbi Williams, Elizabeth Lea, Ephraim Owens, Brandon Boone on bass and Gabe Dixon on keyboards and vocals. In true review fashion each member and section of the group was provided a moment to bask in the glow of the music making. Whether through hearty horn exclamations, stellar stratified backing vocals, percolating drums or funky bass and keyboards, the Tedeschi Trucks Band is much more than just the band’s namesakes.

The band opened the evening with the slow modal drift of ‘Anyhow’ from 2016’s Let Me Get By. Susan Tedeschi in fine vocal fettle and it is she who takes the first guitar solo of the evening on her Les Paul. The song a fitting opener as the gentle melody leaves plenty of opportunity for the horn trio to do their thing. The Tedeschi Trucks Band are less jam band and more a ‘soul review’ that jams. When Trucks steps up to solo, like any guitarist of his stature the assembled crowd shifts to the edges of their respective seats to witness the fireworks. But the true alchemy in Trucks guitar work is to be found in the breaths between his melodic statements. His incredible dexterity is only surpassed by his restraint.

Initiated on May 31st, the ‘Tedeschi Trucks Band’ announced a thematic and expansive studio project titled,  I Am the Moon, which spotlights four separate albums with accompanying films released in successive months until culminating with the complete album release on September 9, 2022. On this evening at CMAC the crowd was treated to samples of this ambitious work and were not disappointed with the results.

One of the aforementioned new compositions from I Am the Moon and the opening track of the collection, ‘Here My Dear’ followed. Lush Hammond organ work and a melody that burrows into your consciousness through Trucks sleek recitation of the theme offered one of a number of early highlights.

A sticky sweet and pull apart serving of the band original ‘Signs, High Times’ got many of the crowd up and shakin’ it a bit. Gritty Fender Rhodes and tasteful Trucks soloing takes place mid song, but without his usual slide, resulting in a number of uniquely scribbled licks. Susan growled on the lead vocals kicking her heels in with dusty eyes closed wailing.

                                 Photo: Jeff Gerew

The blue light waltz of ‘Do I Look Worried’ elicits all of the band’s R and B aesthetic with a welcome Derek Trucks excursion on an overdriven slide guitar flex that concluded with some locomotive scrubbing. Kudos to the rhythm section for battening down the hatches with endlessly creative polyrhythms and shifting time signatures.

A duo of brand-new songs followed with the acoustic stomp of ‘So Long Savior’ which sounds like a lo-fi cut from the flip of ‘Delaney and Bonnie’s Motel Shot LP. ‘I Am the Moon’ comes next featuring shared vocals by Susan and Mike Mattison. The song was played spiritually and with a weightless sway, building to a cathartic and melodic deconstruction by Trucks for the swelling outro jam. The jam's beautiful tension can be heard in the details. Derek always leaves the listener wanting more. Never overplaying, he let’s the group go to church and acts if he is playing from the congregation, never from the pulpit.

‘Life Is Crazy’ comes next giving Mike Mattison a moment at center stage where he got the groove swinging with a honey dipped falsetto. ‘Part of Me’ the second song from 2013’s Made Up Mind quickly followed and is a groovy favorite while getting people up and dancing again. A powerful triad of tracks including Susan’s meaty ‘Just Won’t Burn’  which was sandwiched by huge cover readings of ‘Derek and the Dominos’, ‘Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad’ and Blind Joe Reynold’s 1929 blues ‘Outside Woman Blues’ via ‘Cream’s’ 1967 reimagining. ‘Tedeschi Trucks Band’ jumpy version of 'Outside Woman Blues' was enough to make a man stay at home and never give anyone a sideways glance. Thick rich SG notes are peeled up like crisp bills from Derek’s guitar, every lick a deft answer to Susan’s husky vocal inquiries.

A hand clapping and celebratory ‘Tedeschi Trucks Band’ standard, ‘Bound For Glory’ got the Canandaigua shed wanting to rid themselves of their secular beliefs. This song is commensurate with the special blend of  music that the ‘Tedeschi Trucks Band’ has now cornered the market on. A prelude of heavenly church organ and rippling Trucks slide work introduced the swing of the song proper. The result is simple unpretentious and good time rock and roll. I only call it rock and roll because the jambalaya of musical influence defies labels.

Following the substantial ‘Bound For Glory’, the group changed over to a five piece configuration featuring Derek, the drummers, Gabe Dixon and Boone on bass for ‘Pasaquan’, a new and extended number from I Am the Moon. Truck’s undeniable connection to the music of the ‘Allman Brothers Band’ sweats from the pores of this recent composition. For this expansive instrumental Trucks donned a cherry red hollow bodied Gibson 335. His tone a laser shot through the humid air. 'Pasaquan' is a song sure to morph into birds’ eyes views of innumerable sonic landscapes in future live performance. The music, moving through unidentifiable changes soon left the orbit of Marvin Sands. Like the best extending jamming it seemed the music could run free of the rails at any moment. Trucks unfurled musical flags of his family tree and the psychedelic swells of his southern lineage through his strings at a furious rate. His bandmates have studied at the same school as Trucks, as the music shifted at a high tempo though moved patiently enough to express its story through organic variations. Regardless of the changes, the thematic piece developed by the group weaved a tapestry of improv into the diverse set. A crushing dual drum break soon rolled into a rotund bass excursion that soon fell into an almost weightless Trucks that winded its way back into the song’s framework.

                                 Photo: Jeff Gerew

Following the breathless jam, the rest of the group then returned for the full band reading of Bobby Bland’s 1967 cut ‘That Did It’. A deep rhythm and blues cut that illustrates the groups depth of influence and wealth of respect for the forerunners of blues.  Susan, digs deep enough to strike Texas T inferring a soulful Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’ vocal. The dynamic horns coil like snakes before striking in chilling punctuations throughout the chorus only increasing the depth of Susan’s vocals. Highlight music.

Tedeschi Trucks Band then closed the evening with the perfect two fer. Beginning with the Tedeschi Trucks Band number ‘I Want More’ the band then segued to Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ levitating the crowd to a proper place to head back home. ‘I Want More’ spotlighted Susan and Derek playing a dual guitar line tying the room together before Derek stole the opportunity to unleash another extended solo. The drop into ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ is seamless and is highlighted by ‘Band-esque’ overlapping and shared vocal lines that illustrate the tightness of the musical collective.

2022’s Wheels of Soul tour finds the ‘Tedeschi Trucks Band’ reaching an ambitious and joyous new plateau in their on-stage development. The shows feature new songs, different approaches, tributes and appreciative audiences that still adhere to the notion that music can bring people together and make you feel real good.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Take One: Ronnie Hawkins – The Hawk- 1970 Single ‘Down In the Alley’

In tribute to the 'Hawk', today the 'rock room' is spinning a slab of jukebox vinyl from 1970. The king of rockabilly Ronnie Hawkins recorded two LP's for Coalition in the 1970's. Per his usual practice Hawkins brought together a hot shit collective of musicians for his musical exploits. In the case of the focus of today's Talk from the Rock Room Take One, Ronnie Hawkins is backed by the famed 'Swampers' of Muscle Shoals for his 1970 self titled album. Recorded Barry Beckett and Scott Cushine posted in the keyboard seats, Roger Hawkins on drums, Eddie Hinton, Jimmy Johnson on guitars, David Hood on bass, 'King Biscuit Boy' on harmonica and Duane Allman who is all over the record with slide and lead playing.

Released in February of 1970 as a single b/w 'Matchbox' and produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Towd the single was a double banger of the Hawk's' undistilled brand of rock and roll. With the album and single, 'Down in the Alley', Ronnie was taking advantage of his former students of ‘Hawks’ rock, 'The Band's' recent rise to prominence. A tight rootsy record decorated with many of the finest musicians around taking part. Shades of Elvis Presley's current work From Elvis in Memphis can be discerned on the record, Elvis even covered 'Down In the Alley' as a ‘bonus’ track for his 1966 Spinout soundtrack.

While the mono single release runs on 2:59, the stereo LP version runs a substantial 5:11 with much more music to get excited about. Originally released as a single by ‘The Clovers’ in 1957, 'Down in the Alley' and is credited to Jesse Stone and the Clovers. Jessie Stone is the man who wrote ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ amongst other early rock classics.

The Hawk's version of ‘Down In the Alley’ begins with a heavy-footed stomp down a dampened side street. Duane Allman’s instantly recognizable slide work skims by followed tightly by dizzying piano trilling by Berry Beckett. Hood and Hawkins are the keystone, bearing the load, vice grip tight.

The Hawk swings in singing with a sly 'come hither' attitude. He may be a bit older, but is feeling just as spunky. His lead vocal so tight it almost sounds double tracked and triple pressed. Following verse one the stomping groove veers into a sexy swing where everybody in the band lays way back. Upon the second glance between buildings Berry Beckett drizzles on an Otis Spann-esque splay of notes across the rhythm section.

Another round of jamming takes place following verse two. This time Canadian harp player ‘King Biscuit Boy’ blows long and hard before Duane takes is first swing through the neighborhood. Allman dirties things up a bit with just a taste of his Les Paul. The ‘Hawk’ returns and dispenses of the third verse and Duane reappears to up the ante. A rare occasion of competing and double tracked Duane Allman slide work weaves into a hearty lattice work of blue into the track's fade.

While the ‘Hawk’, had settled into a few years of popular rock obscurity in the mid to late 1960’s. With the release of his 1970 single, ‘Down in the Alley’ he illustrated that he was still able to soar with the best of them. Hawkins also retained his deft nose for sniffing out high quality material and top notch players.

‘Down in the Alley’ is right up the rock room's back street. The cut is a perfect rock and roll single. Drums, bass, guitar, jangling piano and killer vocals. John Lennon also agreed with this assessment. Lennon dug the track so much that he recorded a promotional radio spot for the single. The Lennon's had stayed on the Hawkins farm during their ‘peace movement travels’ in December 1969 and enjoyed tracks from the upcoming release with Ronnie. So let’s leave the lead in to Lennon:

‘This is John O Lennon here just muttering about Ronnie Hawkins, and how on our last trip to Canada, somehow it was arranged that we stay at his house. I had a great time, and of course I knew him from way back on record, ‘Forty Days’ and all that. I didn’t know anything about him but he turned out to be a great guy, and it just so happened, as it were, that he’d just made an album, but he didn’t want to play it, he was shy like most musicians or artists are shy, you know. I don’t like playing my record to people. I have to do it because you have that need. I hope this isn’t too long for a promo? Anyway, I was signing these twenty million lithographs, and this album was going on. And I was listening to most of it still signing, until this track ‘Down in The Alley’, and it really sort of buzzed me, you know. And it sounded like now and then, and I like that. So let’s hear it.’

Down In the Alley Album Version

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Put the Boot In: Grateful Dead - January 8, 1966 Fillmore Auditorium 'Electric Dixieland'

Spinning today in the 'rock room' is the earliest circulating live recording of the Grateful Dead. While the group played their first live show in May of 1965, here we find the first recorded documentation of a 'Primal Dead' show. Taking place at the 'Fillmore Auditorium' in San Francisco on January 8, 1966 we find the 'Dead' as the house band for an early acid test. The tapes of the groups earliest show’s sometimes feel like turning the key in a car that been put up in the barn for the winter. There is some grinding, some strange noises and maybe even a strange fluid leaking out from a crack somewhere. But once that engine warms up and everything starts to mesh at an optimal level you can start to discern an unique rock and blues band.

The quintessential quintet, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir and Ron 'Pig Pen' McKernan made up phase one of this Grateful Dead. In spite of the virtuosic talents of Garcia, Lesh and Kreutzmann, these guys were really amateurs on electric instruments. The band’s eventual second sight and learned ability to play off one another was born of learning how to play their instruments with each other. Hard months of practice during the winter of 1966 paid dividends in the available circulating recording we are playing today.

These guys worked hard at developing their craft. This is an under appreciated aspect of the ‘Warlocks/Grateful Dead journey. These moments of captured on stage musical clairvoyance were the result of hours of musical discussion and off stage practice. The available practice tapes recorded in January and February 1966 show a band willing to talk a out and a stern  Camaraderie in turn bred a stern accountability as can be heard on the recordings. Lesh has already asserted himself into a leadership role and aligned himself Garcia’s co-visionary at this early juncture. 

Youth, drugs, enthusiasm and an internal drive to develop a unique musical expression united the group in a common vision. Garcia came from a bluegrass background, Lesh classical (and had never touched a bass), Pigpen the blues and Bill and Bob, 'rockers' for lack of a better term. Vibrato was king and folks can liken the band's aesthetic during 1966  to a charged alien surf band.

As previously stated this first audio documentation that we have of the ‘Grateful Dead’ hails from January 8th, 1966 at the Fillmore Acid Test. Show lists and various documentation show that the band played sonically undocumented shows at the Matrix in the week leading up to this performance. This soundboard line recording throws us into the deep end right into a heady brew of Prankster chaos. This is the first available documentation of the live concert experience that would define the band’s next 30 plus careers together. Prior to the 'Dead' taping all of their shows, the Pranksters took it upon themselves to do so. Thanks Kesey!

Additional handfuls of concert and rehearsal tapes of tapes circulate of the Grateful Dead in 1966. That being said, many more live recordings than most any other bands of the era.  Many are dated poorly or not at all, many have cuts missing songs and missing reels. The sonics emanating from the January 8th Fillmore tape sound like florescent ectoplasm, an electronic wasteland peppered with calls for stage power and an annoyed ‘Pig’. “Stop babbling and fix the microphone” he shouts to Ken Babbs. The recording is littered with LSD inspired chaos. The alchemy of the 'Grateful Dead' and the acid tests is the organic looseness and lack of any sort of order. This freedom allowed the 'Dead' Looking through the multicolored mists of an acid dream we are dropped straight into a loping ‘King Bee’ on the recording. As we will find, a highlight of these early shows, Bill the drummer is extraordinary at galloping along with the white boy blues, but this band is about Garcia and Pig.


It's obvious by looking at the setlists of the available recordings ‘King Bee’ was a focus of the early Grateful Dead performances. Probably one of the first songs learned collaboratively the Slim Harpo number played to the band's strengths at this point in time.. These guys were the 'Pigpen Blues Band' at this early juncture. The song was a straight blues in which they could stretch their legs as well as developing a sympatico with one another. In the song's framework there was ample opportunity for exploring the song's changes, eliciting call and response moments as well as sharpening their blues chops. 'King Bee' skips on Bill the drummers nimble snare work. Already a stellar rock drummer, the tapes bear out that he was already on par with the much more practiced Garcia.

Lesh plays a loopy legato slide, playing much nearer to the root that usual. Pig lays down gritty harp, but once Garcia comes in for his first solo, flashing images of the future Grateful Dead flitter in the atmosphere. Pig screams soulfully in the background as Lesh and Garcia probe the 12 bar for clandestine doorways to new avenues of expression. Here the 'Dead' dig into a basic blues, but played with a unique renegade attitude. 

Amidst the charged atmospherics of the recording, the tape then cuts in with the band playing ‘Hog For you Baby’, a Leiber and Stoller hailing classic from Pig’s fathers record collection I’m sure. This reading contains all of the groovy hallmarks of later Dead covers such as 'Walkin' the Dog' and 'Big Boy Pete' This one sways like a go go girl's behind, with a delectable groove and ‘Pigpen’ with both hands on the wheel and in full control of the band. Garcia’s soloing is scattershot, excitable and glittery. In the solo break Garcia lays down a strip of candied dots across the percolating strobing grooves. Grateful Dead dance band at your service. Even at this early juncture the group is definitely practiced, abundantly eager, yet garage basic.

A highlight of the tape and a discernable distant gleam can be witnessed though what is one of the band’s first collaborative original songs and their first improvisational pieces, ‘Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)’. Obviously influenced by the song, 'Gypsy Eyes' off of 'Them's' 1965 debut The Angry Young Them, the jam is a clanging of rail joints and squats as the train rounds the bend. Based around an amphetamine 'Bo Diddley' groove, the 'Dead' peeled their arrangement from Van Morrison's blueprints.  

A studio recording of the song is available as it was attempted during the ‘Warlocks’ debut visit to the recording studio in 1965. Even in the confines of the sterile studio the song contained a certain amount of ‘it’. This introductory live concert version cuts in during an already bubbling jam heavy with attitude and wining Pig harp. The band is frothing with energy. Garcia enters with brash prickly scrubs as the band passes the ball around the room before meeting the middle and hitting on an agreed up lick.

Weir’s guitar is somewhat inaudible, but Lesh and Bill continue propelling the jam forward. The group is pulsing while some off mic yelling can be discerned, I’m sure we can’t even begin to imagine what is taking place around the stage among the hipsters, tripsters, and real cool chicks. The band disseminates some ‘Yardbird’ like adolescent ‘rave ups’ with plentiful Mississippi saxophone by ‘Pig’. There is no doubt that at this juncture, that ‘Pigpen’ was in full control of the band, but something outside of jug band and rock and blues realm is observing from the peripheral. 

The genealogy of  these early ‘Caution’ jams  is an important focus when listening to the initial concert excursions of ‘Grateful Dead’. As Pig drives the intensity higher Garcia responds encouraging the band into a whirling dervish of sound. Around three minutes Weir gets into it with some slashing excitable rhythms. Garcia soon let's loose with the recognizable 'Caution' siren that signals the music to drop and Pig  to let the assembled crowd know 'what they need'. Following Pig's lyrics an eager jam follows with Pig and Jerry trading twisted blues quotes while the audience cheers them on initiating an additional Pig diatribe.

Closing the available recording from January 8, is our first available rendition of Reverend Gary Davis’s ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’, a idol of many if not all of the folkies , soon come rockers around the San Francisco scene. This is not definitely not party music, but this is an early example of the ‘Grateful Dead’ taking delicate concert attendees to the precipices of Yin and Yang. On the available recording as Garcia hits the ascending opening lick into the song you can here Babbs close by the mic let out a laugh, obviously tickled deep by Garcia's sonic jab. The song jumps the tracks out of 'Caution' and surpasses nine minutes. 

Highlighted by Pig's horror show organ and Garcia's youthful and invested vocals, 'Death Don't' is just the dose of musical reality the band would become famous for administering. Screams of delight come from the crowd as the group rises and falls with Garcia's almost unbelievable screaming of the verses. Wobbly chorused notes pour from Garcia's vessel as Lesh and Kreutzmann bring the groove down low. The mood shifts to introspective for Garcia's second trip around the cemetery lot. Lesh shadows him, supports his patient riffing before landing at the appropriate place at the perfect time together.

The available tape ends with additional Prankster madness while they clear the house. Kesey, Weir and others make the exit of the 'test' a most interesting way of leaving. Weir asks Jerry if they should play 'On the Road Again' to get everyone on the road. The rest of the reel is quite discombobulating with mindless chaos, liquid verbalizations, hallucinations and concluding with a demonic reading of the 'Star Spangled Banner'. 

This recording reveals the early aural tentacles of the Grateful Dead reaching out and making critical connections. It acts as proof of the band’s first developmental steps in helping to understand their connections as artists and disseminators of some greater musical cosmic truth. Always reaching for an unknowable golden ring that when caught can lift both artist and receptor to storying heights. The band was beginning to understand what powers their talents and collaborative strengths provided them and how they could use them for the greater good.

By July, the formative foundations hailing from all of the five members shared performing experiences would begin to pay dividends in ways beyond their wildest dreams. Based on my analysis, within just weeks the band would take their stiff blues aesthetic and elasticize it to far reaching corners of multifarious genres and cosmic sonics not yet curated by a normal rock and roll band. This was only the beginning. 

Grateful Dead January 8, 1966

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Take One: Sonny Boy Williamson II - Don't Start Me Talkin' - 1955 Checker Record 284

Spinning in the 'rock room' today is an influential and important 7" cut during the heyday of early  electric blues. Aleck Miler, Alex Miller, aka Rice Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson II was a master harmonica player and songwriter in the blues idiom. This is the man who taught Howlin' Wolf how to play the harp as well as the man who carried 12 harps and a bottle of whisky in his briefcase.

Sonny Boy Williamson II's first single for Checker Records (a subsidiary of Chess Records) 'Don't Start Me Talkin', Checker 824 was released in September of 1955. Sometimes referred to as 'Don't Start Me To Talkin', the single was b/w 'All My Love In Vain' and was featured in the September 24, 1955 edition of 'Billboard', Williamson has a very funny side here, as he warns the gossips of the neighborhood of the dirt he is going to spread about them if they don't stop talking around his back. The aforementioned 'A' side would eventually climb to number three on the R and B charts. It would also be featured on Sonny Boy's 1959's full length LP Down and Out Blues, an album that would collect a number of his early singles.

The needle drops and the song begins sounding like we have caught the band already in progress. The well defined guitars develop a circular lick in conjunction Sonny Boy's harp line before falling into the start and top rhythm of the verse. The Chess band collected on this single features a venerable 'who's who' of the blues. The rhythm section is comprised of Willie Dixon (bass) and Fred Below (drums), Jimmy Rogers and Muddy Waters (guitars), Otis Spann (piano) and Sonny Boy on vocals and harmonica. Oh my lord!

Keith Richards refers to the 'ancient art of (guitar) weaving and it is on formative display on 'Don't Start Me Talkin' as Waters and Rogers tie the stringy two guitar attack into a tight knot. Mellow but rustically funky Spann comes alive in the turnarounds splaying his well known runs into a tinkling downpour soaking the chugging arrangement. The Chess sound in alive and moving with an honest urgency, the talent of the backing band obvious.

The song features a flashy cast of characters including Rosie, Fanny Mae, Jack, Jim and our good ol' reliable narrator. Sonny Boy slyly warns his fellow friends and enemies at the end of each verse, 'I'm gonna break up this signifying, cause somebody's got to go'. Williamson composed a complex small hood narrative of back stabbing, cheating and dire warnings lending the accelerate and then break groove of the arrangement a sharpened edge. The group as to be expected is tight but loose. The guitar and piano work is especially busy with detailed coloring running continuously through the darker reaches of the mix. A classic sound and performance.

In addition, a fine later era performance that can be found here is Sonny Boy II's December 1963 performance on UK television with a backing band made up of British cats. While the arrangement is straight, Sonny Boy lays down a one man clinic on harp for his British fans. The definitely don't make 7" like 'Don't Start Me Talkin' anymore says the 'rock room' curator while yelling at clouds. Featuring an almost unbelievable cast of musicians as well as a funky smooth reading by the one and only Sonny Boy II, the track is an essential and foundational block of electric blues.