Saturday, March 27, 2010

Funkadelic - Music for Your Mother: Funkadelic 45s (Westbound, 1992)


If you're searching for a first-rate overview of Funkadelic's Westbound recordings, look no further. Music for Your Mother easily supplants the long out of print Best of the Early Years LP as the definitive compilation of the band's extremely fertile 1969-1976 period. Although it does not feature the extended mind-blowing freakouts from their first three records (e.g. "Mommy, What's a Funkadelic?" on the first album, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow's title track, and "Wars of Armageddon" and the title track on Maggot Brain), one should remember that since this is a singles collection, such works fall outside the scope of this project. Don't worry, though, as there is still plenty of booty-shaking-yet-mind-expanding material to be found here.

WAY BACK YONDER FUNK (FUNKADELIC CIRCA 1968-1969) L TO R:
FULWOOD
, DAVIS, HAZEL, UNKNOWN, HASKINS, NELSON, THOMAS, & CLINTON

The remarkable transformation of the relatively straight-ahead vocal group the Parliaments to the lysergic soul brother outfit Funkadelic remains one of the most fascinatingly convoluted stories in music history. In essence, it was simply a way out of a restrictive contract that had been signed by singers George Clinton, Grady Thomas, Calvin Simon, Clarence "Fuzzy" Haskins, and Ray Davis. By giving the instrumentalists - guitarists Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross, bassist Billy "Bass" Nelson, percussionist Tiki Fulwood, and (eventually) keyboardist Bernie Worrell - lead billing as Funkadelic, this allowed the aggregation to make records for a different label on which the Parliaments could appear as "guest vocalists." You can read about the entire saga in the PDF of the superb booklet notes by Rob Bowman. His essay is so jam-packed with information that it necessitated using a rather microscopic font, so be prepared to zoom in at 150% with Adobe Reader when you check it out. After doing so and reading the accounts of various P-Funk alumni, you can decide whether George Clinton was an astute band leader with a nose for talent along the lines of Miles Davis or simply a control freak who took the credit for other peoples' efforts.

EDDIE HAZEL IN EXCELCIS

Although most of these tracks appear on the band's Westbound LPs, the single versions often reveal themselves to be at least slightly different, most often in their truncated playing time. However, exceptions abound, such as the mesmerizing instrumental (well, nearly instrumental) version of "Music for My Mother," which clocks in nearly a minute longer than the A-side vocal version. For sheer consciousness-bending power, disc one is the stronger of the two that comprise this set. The aforementioned "Music for My Mother" as well as "I'll Bet You," "I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody Got a Thing" (featuring what is arguably the most wicked wah-wah guitar playing ever recorded), the two-part "I Wanna Know If It's Good to You," "Funky Dollar Bill," and "Back in Our Minds" are all black psychedelic nuggets of the highest order. I can definitely vouch for their transportative powers. This CD also contains some interesting unreleased material (the more straight-ahead funk of "Can't Shake It Loose" and "As Good as I Can Feel"), the obscure B-sides "Fish, Chips and Sweat" and "Open Our Eyes" (a psychedelic gospel number that, played backwards, was utilized on Free Your Mind's "Eulogy and Light), the almost folky "Can You Get to That" (a beautiful revision of an earlier Parliaments 45), and an unsuccessful single ("I Miss My Baby") by P-Funk side project U.S. Music. The unimaginative "Qualify and Satisfy" (which sounds like a black funk band trying to do white boy blues) and "You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks" never did much for me.

ON TOUR IN THE UK (LIVERPOOL, 1971) L TO R (STANDING): HASKINS, ROSS,
WORRELL,
FULWOOD, THOMAS, CLINTON, SIMON, & DAVIS (SEATED): NELSON & HAZEL

Disc two offers a slightly spottier song selection, although a majority of the tracks are still outstanding. "Baby I Owe You Something Good" is another U.S. Music side and was later resurrected by Funkadelic for Let's Take It to the Stage. Not bad, but not really funk or psychedelic, either. "Hit It and Quit It," "Loose Booty," "A Joyful Process," "If You Don't Like the Effects, Don't Produce the Cause," and "Biological Speculation" represent the finest moments of the somewhat overblown double-LP, America Eats Its Young. The humorous B-side "A Whole Lot of B.S." was also apparently recorded during the sessions for that album. "Cosmic Slop" marks a discernible change in direction in which more emphasis was placed on appealing to people bumping and grinding on the dance floor instead of freaks staring off into infinity. However, that is certainly not to suggest that I don't like this tune. In fact, this tale of a ghetto mother who does what she has to do for the sake of her kids is one of my favorite songs in Funkadelic's treasure-laden discography. Standing on the Verge of Getting It On found the band returning to a more guitar-oriented sound as evinced by the single version of the title song, "Red Hot Mamma," and "Vital Juices," an instrumental continuation of the previous track on which guitar god Eddie Hazel lays down some incredibly impressive licks. Unfortunately, "Jimmy's Got a Little Bit of Bitch in Him" is funny only the first couple of times you listen to it. In your humble scribe's opinion, Let's Take It to the Stage is the band's weakest effort for Westbound, and "Better by the Pound" and "Stuffs and Things" don't do anything to change my mind. Be that as it may, I will readily admit that the title track of that album is excellent and prevents it from being a complete waste of time. By the time the group recorded their last LP for Westbound, Tales of Kidd Funkadelic, they were starting to sound indistinguishable from the more disco-oriented Parliament as demonstrated on "Undisco Kidd" and "How Do Yeaw View You," which emphasize synthesizers and new member Bootsy Collins' punchy bass lines at the expense of the guitar work that helped make their earlier material so compelling in the first place. But believe it or not, I actually kind of like both of these songs. Yeah, they're both disco, but they're really weird disco, so I can still derive some enjoyment from them.

Despite a few weak moments, this is still one of the best singles collections by any band ever assembled. Even after being in my collection for more than 16 years, the best tracks still sound as good as ever. Early-period Funkadelic remains the standard by which all other mind-expanding African American music is judged.

B-SIDE TO "HIT IT AND QUIT IT"
(COURTESY OF THE RECORD FIEND ARCHIVES)

Disc One

1. Music for My Mother
2. Music for My Mother (instrumental)
3. Can't Shake It Loose
4. As Good as I Can Feel
5. I'll Bet You
6. Qualify and Satisfy
7. Open Our Eyes
8. I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody Got a Thing
9. Fish, Chips and Sweat
10. I Wanna Know If It's Good to You
11. I Wanna Know If It's Good to You (instrumental)
12. You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks
13. Funky Dollar Bill
14. Can You Get to That
15. Back in Our Minds
16. I Miss My Baby

Disc Two

1. Baby I Owe You Something Good
2. Hit It and Quit It
3. A Whole Lot of B.S.
4. Loose Booty
5. A Joyful Process
6. Cosmic Slop
7. If You Don't Like the Effects, Don't Produce the Cause
8. Standing on the Verge of Getting It On
9. Jimmy's Got a Little Bit of Bitch in Him
10. Red Hot Mamma
11. Vital Juices
12. Better by the Pound
13. Stuffs and Things
14. Let's Take It to the Stage
15. Biological Speculation
16. Undisco Kidd
17. How Do Yeaw View You

Friday, March 26, 2010

Mohammed El-Bakkar and his Oriental Ensemble - Sultan of Bagdad: Music of the Middle East Vol. 2 (Audio Fidelity, 1958)


Here's another one by
Lebanese singer, oudist, and conductor Mohammed El-Bakkar, who recorded six LPs for the Audio Fidelity label before his premature death in 1959. Despite their thematic cover photography, these albums contain Middle Eastern music of a more orchestrated variety that is not truly region-specific. Thus, Sultan of Bagdad (sic) does not feature material that is uniquely Iraqi. Instead, the decision-makers at Audio Fidelity probably figured that such a title would be perfect for an LP with a cheesecake cover featuring scantily-clad harem girls, a typical marketing approach for records that targeted exotica enthusiasts of the day.

In terms of content, Sultan of Bagdad is rather similar to its predecessor, Port Said. The performances tend to emphasize El-Bakkar's fine tenor voice, his backing singers, and the percussionists over the other musicians. The lead instrument on most of these tracks is the violin, although there are exceptions to that rule, such as the excellent kanun solo to be found on "Why-Why Fatima," for example. Fans of the oud, however, may be disappointed to find that it plays more of a complementary role on these songs. That is to say, there are no scorching solos in the manner of Marko Melkon or John Berberian to be found here. Other tunes, including "Ya Habibi," "Ana Winta," and "Albak Ya Asmar" are notable for their inclusion of what seems to be a vibraphone or glockenspiel, which doesn't sound as out of place as you might think. My personal favorites are the atmospheric "Raksat El Sahara" and the ebullient "Zenat El Haflat."

As with other volumes of Music of the Middle East, the liner notes are essentially worthless as a source of information. Instead of providing details about the supporting musicians or recording sessions, the anonymous writer waxes just a bit too poetically about the exoticism of Baghdad and its inhabitants, which can now only come off as ridiculous and naive in light of the pointless invasion and seven-year occupation of Iraq undertaken by George W. Bush, the worst two-term president in the history of the United States.

Still, there is some good stuff to be found here for folks who dig Middle Eastern music.

EL-BAKKAR IN LESS OUTLANDISH ATTIRE

1. Ya Habibi (My Love)
2. Why-Why Fatima (Glorious Fatima)
3. Ana Winta (You and I)
4. Laysh Laysh (Why Oh Why)
5. Raksat El Sahara (Desert Dance)
6. Yalla-Yalla (Come With Me)
7. Sultan of Bagdad
8. A-La-Elwadee (Rendezvous In The Valley)
9. Zenat El Haflat (Girlish Laughter)
10. Albak Ya Asmar (Empty of Love)
11. Salamat Salamat (Send My Heart)
12. Ya Shara (Golden Hair)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Henry Thomas - "Ragtime Texas": Complete Recorded Works - 1927 to 1929 in Chronological Order (Herwin, 1974)


I would imagine that most of you who are prewar blues fanatics like I am already have have these recordings on Yazoo's Texas Worried Blues or Document's Complete Recorded Works. As good as those CDs are, this exquisitely-packaged two-LP set on the Herwin label (which had been revived by 78 collector Bernard Klatzko during the 1970s) remains the finest presentation of songster Henry Thomas' oeuvre. Blues historian Mack McCormack's exhaustive notes exceed even Stephen Calt's fine commentary written for Yazoo L 1080/1 in terms of scholarship. To wit, the album's booklet includes an authoritative biography on the musician, complete lyrics for all of the songs, and illustrations that even include a map of the route described in "Railroadin' Some." For some people, that may be the principal attraction here, and for good reason. These notes rank among the all-time best in the field of blues research and are as enjoyable to peruse as they are informative. They were a bit challenging to scan in full, and you'll probably need to zoom in on the pages of the accompanying PDF at 150% to be able read them easily, but the effort you put forth will be well worth it.


Listening to Henry Thomas is like taking a journey in a musical time machine. With a probable birth year of 1874, this makes him one of the earliest-born African American musicians to release 78s in the 1920s. It is fortunate that the songster recorded so prolifically for Vocalion during this time for it is by listening to these performances that we are able to have something of an idea of what rural black music sounded like before the turn of the last century. Assuming that Thomas developed much of his repertory during his teens and early 20s, it stands to reason that many of the tunes in his songbook dated from the 1880s and 1890s, if not earlier. Thus, with the singer-guitarist being approximately 53 years old during his first recording session in 1927, most of his material was already a representation of the folkways of a bygone era, when the steam locomotive was still opening up previously isolated corners of the North American continent. This last detail is extremely significant because, according to McCormick, Thomas was as notable a hobo as he was a musician and allegedly traveled on freight lines to the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, where he performed outside of these events as a street singer. Furthermore, "Ragtime Texas" was apparently the nickname by which he was known by other transients who rode the rails. McCormick explains,
It's a hobo moniker. It isn't so much a musical designation as it is an assumed title of the same order as "Chicago Red" and "T-Bone Slim" and other such celebrities. It's a name to be written on water towers and box cars. Moreover it's a moniker remembered in parts of Oklahoma and Louisiana and Texas, but known best along a 150-mile strip of East Texas. This is the area he came from and it's here that fragments of his story have turned up.

THE ONLY KNOWN PORTRAIT OF
HENRY "RAGTIME TEXAS" THOMAS


The music of Henry Thomas is breathtakingly beautiful in its utter simplicity. As someone who came of age circa 1890, he was part of that generation of African American musicians who were the first to forgo the banjo in favor of the guitar. Although not a virtuoso along the lines of Blind Blake or Robert Johnson, he knew how to tune the instrument properly (no small accomplishment at the time) and incorporated a few primitive blues songs (often featuring lines that did not rhyme and/or follow the later, standardized AAB verse structure) into his repertory. Additionally, the songster's recordings are in many instances noteworthy for featuring quills, pan pipes constructed from sugar cane that were mounted on a neck rack for easy access while he sang and played guitar. Although other similar musicians may have been capable of the same feat, Thomas remains virtually unique in this regard among race artists who were recorded during the 1920s and 1930s.


Thomas was a true songster in that his repertory was extremely varied and included only a few numbers that could accurately be classified as blues. Again, this was probably a reflection of the age in which he became proficient as a musician. However, his profession as a street singer also probably had a lot to do with the material that he regularly performed since the desires of his audience often dictated what he played. Musicians of his type were essentially the juke boxes of their day.


In order to gauge Thomas' adaptability as an entertainer, one need look no further than the variety of music contained within his discography. For example, he was adept at performing ballads such as "John Henry" and "Bob McKinney," with the latter containing numerous lines from "Take Me Back" and "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor," two popular tunes from the 1890s. Material of probable white origin like "Old Country Stomp," "Run Mollie Run," "The Little Red Caboose," and "Shanty Blues" (the only side to feature slide guitar) bears at least superficial similarity to pieces that were possibly vaudeville-derived including "Arkansas," "Honey, Won't You Allow Me One More Chance?" (interpreted by Bob Dylan on his first album), "Woodhouse Blues," and "Fishing Blues" (notably covered by both the Lovin' Spoonful and Taj Mahal). The remainder of his sides includes performances that can best be described as rags ("Red River Blues," "Don't Ease Me In," "Lovin' Babe," and "Don't Leave Me Here"), blues ("Cottonfield Blues," "Texas Easy Street," "Texas Worried Blues," and "Bull Doze Blues," the inspiration for Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country"), and spirituals ("Jonah in the Wilderness" and "When the Train Comes Along"). Since Thomas was the product of a time when white and black musical styles were still developing, it is not always easy to pigeonhole his performances into the categories that exist today. Indeed, some musicologists might place more emphasis on the instrumental characteristics of many of these recordings and classify them as square dance numbers based upon his guitar's accenting patterns. But any way you slice it, Henry Thomas is a giant in the history of American music and someone who must have led a truly remarkable existence. Although we know only mere fragments of his life story, this marvelous album and Mack McCormick's equally outstanding notes remain the best ever tribute to the man known as "Ragtime Texas."


1. John Henry
2. Cottonfield Blues
3. Arkansas
4. The Fox and the Hounds
5. Red River Blues
6. The Little Red Caboose
7. Bob McKinney
8. Honey, Won't You Allow Me One More Chance?
9. Run, Mollie, Run
10. Shanty Blues
11. Woodhouse Blues
12. Jonah in the Wilderness
13. When the Train Comes Along
14. Bull Doze Blues
15. Don't Ease Me In
16. Texas Easy Street
17. Texas Worried Blues
18. Fishing Blues
19. Old Country Stomp
20. Charmin' Besty
21. Lovin' Babe
22. Railroadin' Some
23. Don't Leave Me Here

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

High Times in Frisco (Big Sur bootleg, circa 1996)



Nowadays it's possible to find hundreds of vintage Avalon Ballroom or Fillmore Auditorium concert recordings by 1960s Haight-Ashbury bands available as bit torrent downloads or even posted on certain music blogs. Essentially, one can spend a few hours finding material that used to take eons to acquire. Fifteen or twenty years ago, however, it was rather slim pickins. Oh sure, if you were a fan of the Grateful Dead (the group most responsible for the godawful hippie mindlessness that continues to distort our understanding of what those times were really like), there was no shortage of bootleg live tapes floating around, even if most of them dated from the 1970s or later. One Deadhead that I knew during my college days had a few dozen cassettes of shows from the band's 1967-1969 period, but he always lamented how poor the sound quality was. Hell, I told him how happy I would be with a grand total of just a dozen concert recordings of my favorite San Francisco bands - Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Charlatans, et al. - regardless of their sonic fidelity. It bothered me that idiots who used music as a fashion accessory (and let's not forget how popular the Dead were during their final, corporate rock phase circa 1987-1995) had such a vast and mostly free archive at their disposal, while I had to shell out money for things like Jefferson Airplane bootleg CDs that tended to be only pretty good at best.

MOBY GRAPE

The difficulty that I had encountered in trying to find concert recordings of my favorite 1960s Bay-area bands led me to purchase such items via mail order, first through ads in Goldmine magazine and later on by way of catalogs from various established record dealers. I scored this particular item from Midnight Records in New York while I was living in Oxford, Mississippi sometime in late 1996 or early 1997. What had originally piqued my curiosity about High Times in Frisco was the fact that it included
the legendary much-read-about-but-at-the-time-never-before-heard 16-minute version of Moby Grape's "Dark Magic" recorded on December 31, 1966 at the Avalon Ballroom. Arguably the greatest of all psychedelic epics from the 1960s, this mind-expanding marathon puts the band's considerable instrumental and vocal chops on extended display. What other group could do both two-and-a-half minute singles and stretched out improvisational pieces so well? From the strange effects (presumably provided by Skip Spence) at its beginning to the closing guitar passage, there is not one wasted moment in this magnum opus. Although it does offer superior fidelity in the way of proper playback speed compared to its counterpart on the otherwise strongly recommended two-CD bootleg Dark Magic, Sundazed Records is on the verge of releasing an official album of live Grape material which includes what promises to be the best ever sounding version of this particular performance. Assuming that this welcome project meets my expectations, it will soon render this track obsolete. Oh well. I'd say that I got my money's worth over the last 13 or so years.

QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE

Additionally, there are several other items of interest to be found on High Times in Frisco. The opening material by Jefferson Airplane - their signature interpretation of Fred Neil's "The Other Side of This Life," the early folk rocker "It's Alright," and the ten-and-half minute "Jam" - is solid if not essential. The Quicksilver Messenger Service pieces, however, are a real treat. Their snarling cover of "Susie Q" allegedly features Fillmore impresario Bill Graham on cowbell, and an embryonic take on "Mona" makes for a fascinating comparison with the better-known later version that appears on Happy Trails. At the beginning of this last track, you can hear someone from the band (Gary Duncan?) exhorting the blissfully zonked crowd to get up and dance. That's right. In the early days of Haight-Ashbury, these events were dances and not the modern-day pack-'em-in and sit-'em-down concerts into which they evolved. Anyway, be sure to take note of John Cipollina's typically magnificent guitar on both performances. Other than "Section 43" on the Monterey Pop Festival soundtrack, the "Flying High" featured on this CD may be the best live Country Joe and the Fish track that I've heard. For whatever reason, this is the toughest and bluesiest that this band ever sounded. Another item of historical interest here is Bill Graham's speech before the song gets underway in which he asks the audience to sit down. Ever the businessman, he explains that the Fillmore can remain open as long as everybody remains seated and behaves like they are attending a concert and not a dance. It was probably just a matter of time before the promoter realized that if all of these events were concerts and not dances, regardless of when they took place, he could accommodate larger crowds and, of course, make more money. From what I know, I think that I would have liked Chet Helms and the Avalon Ballroom a whole lot better. But that's a rant for another day. High Times closes with an interesting early version of "Ball and Chain" by Big Brother and the Holding Company, a worthy cover of Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" by the Daily Flash (who were technically a Seattle band but gigged often enough in San Francisco to be more or less accepted as part of the scene), and a somewhat lackluster "Going to Mexico" by the Steve Miller Band.

You can probably find most, maybe even all, of these recordings on other comps of live vintage material by 1960s San Francisco bands elsewhere in cyberspace. If not, perhaps a track or two might help fill some holes in your collection.

THE DAILY FLASH

1.
The Other Side of This Life - Jefferson Airplane (Fillmore West; October 14, 1967)
2. It's Alright
- Jefferson Airplane (Fillmore West; October 14, 1967)
3. Jam
- Jefferson Airplane (Fillmore West; October 14, 1967)
4. Susie Q. - Quicksilver Messenger Service (Fillmore West; November 6, 1966)
5. Mona
- Quicksilver Messenger Service (Fillmore West; November 6, 1966)
6. Dark Magic - Moby Grape (Avalon Ballroom; December 31, 1966)
7. Flying High - Country Joe and the Fish (Fillmore West, 1967)
8. Ball and Chain - Big Brother and the Holding Company (Matrix, 1967)
9.
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry - The Daily Flash (Matrix, 1966)
10. Going to Mexico - Steve Miller Band (Matrix, January 1967)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Magic Sam & Shakey Jake - University of Chicago Folk Festival 1967


The only bad thing about these scintillating performances from the University of Chicago Folk Festival in January 1967 is that they total a mere 25 minutes or so. Originally broadcast on Steve Cushing's excellent Blues Before Sunrise program, which originates from Chicago suburb Glen Ellyn's WDCB 90.0 FM, this fragment of Magic Sam and James "Shakey Jake" Harris' sets at the aforementioned fete offers a tantalizing inkling of what it must have been like to be there. Overall, the sound quality is quite good. If anyone out there has a copy of the complete show(s), please get in touch with me.

Aside from the fact this is some damn good music, these recordings are historically interesting for two reasons. First, the Magic Sam material catches him just before he waxed his landmark debut LP, West Side Soul, for Delmark after ten years of working for smaller labels such as Chief and Cobra. (And I'm assuming that he's also the guitarist on the cuts that feature his harmonica-playing uncle Jake on vocals.) Sam's sound points to the future on these performances, as they occurred before that brief moment at the end of the 1960s when it looked like he was going to be the next big thing in blues just prior to his unfairly premature death. Second, it is interesting to hear such blatantly amplified music at a "Folk" festival. Keep in mind, however, that by the time of this event, the times they had-a changed. Although electric blues certainly was a less controversial notion to particular folkies than an electric Dylan had been, one could be forgiven for thinking that Sam and Jake had a lot more in common with rock 'n' roll groups than they did with someone like, say, Mississippi John Hurt or Brownie McGhee. However, it was 1967, and at this point in history, rock and other types of amplified music had captured the imagination of America's disaffected youth. Thus the inclusion of electric blues bands like Magic Sam's could be viewed as an acceptable compromise in that day and age. Sure, they were loud, but they were still playing what was considered an African-American form of folk music.

SHAKEY JAKE

With the able assistance of bassist Mack Thompson and drummer Odie Payne, Sam and Jake tear through outstanding versions of blues standards such as "Leaving In the Morning," "Hard Road to Travel," "Been Down So Long," "That's All Right," and "Baby Scratch My Back." Material from the singer-guitarist's forthcoming album, "I Feel So Good" (which outdoes Junior Parker's original) and "Sweet Home Chicago" (the only version of this overdone song that I can still listen to), bears all the hallmarks of a performer at the height of his powers. But before you know it, Jake's rendition of Willie Dixon's "Bloody Tears" fades out and brings things to a conclusion. Well, it's fun while it lasts, believe me.

**A big thanks to ARK for making these recordings available to me in the first place.

1. Leaving In the Morning - Shakey Jake
2. Hard Road to Travel
- Shakey Jake
3. Been Down So Long
- Magic Sam
4. I Feel So Good (I Wanna Boogie)
- Magic Sam
5. That's All Right
- Magic Sam
6. Sweet Home Chicago
- Magic Sam
7. Baby Scratch My Back - Shakey Jake
8. Bloody Tears - Shakey Jake

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Oxford American Southern Sampler 1998


I've been very pleasantly surprised by how popular these excellent compilations have been with readers. As an added bonus, they've served as the basis for correspondence with other music lovers around the world, two of whom have generously provided me with volumes that had been missing from my collection. Now it looks like it just might be possible to post the complete series of Oxford American Southern Samplers (or, as they are titled in more recent versions of the magazine's music issue, Southern Music CDs) thanks to the random kindness of various good people out there.

A quick speech from my soapbox before I proceed any further. As much as I love the Internet and blogging, let's face it: these technological advances have done much to hasten the demise of many forms of printed media. The Oxford American and several other fine periodicals are in danger of disappearing forever because people just aren't buying them like they used to. While it can be great to peruse things on one's computer, I'm old enough that I still prefer to do my serious reading with books and magazines. Their advantages are many, the most notable being the fact neither requires an on switch or power source. My point? The Oxford American needs your support. While I'm not necessarily suggesting that you purchase the pricey music editions from previous years that are featured on their website, you might want to consider buying other more affordable back issues or even getting yourself a subscription to this wonderful publication. In addition to the music on these CDs, there are usually several first-rate articles to be found in each printing of the OA.

Southern Sampler 1998 was graciously furnished by a gentleman I shall refer to as "An Anonymous Friend Down South." In his e-mail correspondence to me, he eloquently states,
What makes these Ox/Am collections significant is the perspective the magazine brings to each artist. The whole issue is dedicated to music and each artist has an article featuring just them and their story/history. Take Othar Turner and the first cut on 1998 for instance. It may seem odd to some folks as to what it is and in this issue you learn about his fife playing and his direct connection to traditional African/American musical roots going back centuries. And how that musical DNA can be found in today's blues, jazz, country and for that matter rock and roll. In the rural south, 'fife and drum' was once widespread and appreciated amongst rural poor, both black and white, where you would also find other low budget instruments such as the washboard, jug, and single wire washtub bass. Fiddle, guitar and banjos were not easy to come by. Age 91 at the time of this issue, Othar lived and performed 5 more years gaining deserved widespread fame before passing away in 2003 . Probably would have been the last living link to the fife tradition if he hadn't connected with the youth in his community through barbecues and picnics. There he handed it down to another generation. You can tell this recording was made at one of those events.
In regard to "Station Blues," I don't think that I could have come up with anything better than what AAFDS wrote, so I'll leave it at that. As for the rest of this CD, it is a wonderfully eclectic collection of tunes by a wide variety of Southern musicians, and in some cases, by artists who are not typically associated with this region of the United States. To wit, there is the ethereal gospel of the Staple Singers' "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" followed by the newer but no less authentic country rock sounds of Marty Stuart's "High On a Mountain Top." Cajun music from Louisiana is well represented by the Hackberry Ramblers' "I'll Be There" and the Magnolia Sisters' "
Je Voudrais Being Me Marier, Mais," while Southern chanteuses Bobbie Gentry and Nanci Griffith respectively chip in with the lovely "Ode to Billie Joe" and "Dress of Laces." The slinky New Orleans funk of Lee Dorsey's "Yes We Can Can" provides an interesting contrast to the orchestrated early 1950s pop sounds of "Glow Worm" by Johnny Mercer and "Blues In the Night" by Rosemary Clooney. "Your Lips" pretty much sums up the multi-faceted musical approach of Mississippi eccentric Olu Dara, and the Mavericks' "Dance the Night" is solid alt country and was a #4 hit in the UK in 1998 as well. The Conlon Nancarrow piece is the oddest track on this comp, but then what else would you expect from a composer who specialized in works written for the player piano? Dave Myers serves up some superb blues on "Stone Cold Fox," and if you're not familiar with Louis Jordan, "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby" is the best introduction to his oeuvre one could hope to have. Put simply, bluegrass just doesn't get more exquisite than the Stanley Brothers' "Little Maggie." Although the 1990s was not exactly my favorite decade for American rock, I have to admit that Vic Chesnutt's "Duty Free," Ben Folds Five's "Tom and Mary," and R.E.M.'s "Why Not Smile" all have their assorted merits.

1. Station Blues - Othar Turner
2. Will the Circle Be Unbroken - The Staple Singers

3. High On a Mountain Top - Marty Stuart

4. I'll Be There - The Hackberry Ramblers

5. Ode to Billie Joe - Bobbie Gentry

6. Yes We Can Can - Lee Dorsey

7. Glow Worm - Johnny Mercer

8. Blues In the Night - Rosemary Clooney

9. Duty Free - Vic Chesnutt

10. Your Lips - Olu Dara

11. Dance the Night - The Mavericks

12. Prelude - Conlon Nancarrow

13. Tom and Mary - Ben Folds Five

14. Stone Cold Fox - Dave Myers

15. Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby - Louis Jordan

16. Little Maggie - The Stanley Brothers

17. Dress of Laces - Nanci Griffith

18. Je Voudrais Being Me Marier, Mais - The Magnolia Sisters

19. Why Not Smile - R.E.M.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sunlight Rainbow--Heavenly Earth; Fruitarians, Vegitarians (sic) (Sunbow Rec. 1977)


Back when I bought this LP almost exactly 20 years after its creation, the snarky description sticker at the record store read: "Sky Saxon has completely lost it at this point, (his mind that is). This is not a good record by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly is entertaining!!" Well, I will counter this notion just as harshly, and go to bat for this record--it kinda kicks ass. First let's start w/the cover art, as it is a testament to low budget, b&w psychedelic minimalism--a la the Ya Ho Wha 13 private presses, which of course Sky was a member (though known to the Source Family as "Arlick"). This also isn't the Rainbow of the Ya Ho Wha clan, though he could certainly pass as a Yod devotee. I think this is the only record on their obvious co-label Sunbow Records. I should first state this is a live recording of a concert held Sept 9, 1977 at the Orpheum Theatre in Hollywood, and it's an excellent time capsule of what must have been post-psychedelic comedown LA. The album also can't really suffer from any over or under-production hijinks, though the guitar and drums get lost in the muck at certain times, and Saxon's vocals are a bit blown out (fine by me).


The show kicks off with the droning "
Spirit of America," which at first appears to be going nowhere, but then sorta nicely settles in the head with a minimal almost-krautrock vibe, plus with some scrappy axe choppin' from Rainbow. Sky does some fine ranting about saving the crowd from their "living hell" and even an inept drum solo (drummer credited only as "ED"...hmmm) doesn't ruin things. The album really takes the listeners to the gig with between-song crowd heckling kept intact, as one ornery audience member yells "Shave your beard!" Sky says "Not for 100,000 dollars," but eventually retorts "Only for a million dollars"--god, hair, and well, $, man. My fave cut on the disc is track 4, a weary, ragged version of "Can't Seem to Make you Mine," with gorgeous, gospel-style, rhodes-y organ provided by Brain Eye-Zen. The track is excellently rendered as a lament, a paean to loss and everything out of reach--perhaps to Sky's non-enduring fame? Rainbow's scuzzy Crazy Horse-style guitar only enhances the vibe. Another Seeds' classic is included, "Pushin Too Fast," uh...that's right, "Fast," as Sky moans, "We had to change the title." I've read that the Seeds record label owned the rights, which is pretty sad. Unsurprisingly, Sky Sunlight also liberally changes the lyrics to the tune, and sounds a bit uninspired, though some pissed-off shouts punctuate the performance. Side 2 kicks off with the snotty cave-teen anthem "Nobody Spoil My Fun," which features some crunchy-ass noisy guitar and metronomic drumming, which somehow makes it in sync with Cabaret Voltaire's version of "No Escape," which had to have been recorded around the same time. The next cut, "Wake Up" is simply sublime, some lovely pastoral garage rock, spiritually akin to the simplicity of the Velvet Underground's 1969 live material...the keys flow, the guitar is spikey yet melodic, but then Sunlight throws in some odd shout-outs to coconuts, veggies and dogs..? Ah well, I dig it. The LP closes with the 7 1/2 minute epic, "Star Jewels," which picks up where the spacier Seeds' "Future" material left off (a great album, despite what so-called rock purists say). Here Sky sounds like a cool old mystic incanting over the 3-chord dirges he was simply born to chant over. A buried Stooge-ian riff propels it all, and the whole thing spirals divinely into but a single chord freakout...whew!

1. Sunlight's Introduction
2. Spirit of America

3. God Rap

4. Can't Seem to Make You Mine

5. Paradise Power

6. Pushin' Too Fast

7. Nobody Spoil My Fun

8. Wake Up

9. Star Jewels

Saturday, March 6, 2010

78 Quarterly Volume 1 - No. 4 (1989)


Alright, prewar blues and jazz fanatics...for your reading pleasure, the fourth issue of the always compelling 78 Quarterly. Lots of good stuff in this edition. And then there's the matter of R. Crumb's stupendous cover artwork featuring 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson. Perhaps you've heard of him.

MAYO WILLIAMS

In addition to the always entertaining "Letters to the Editor" section and another awkward attempt at humor ("Photo Phile"), the 1989 issue of this publication includes several intriguing full-length features. Stephen Calt continues his history of the legendary Paramount record label with "The Anatomy of a 'Race' Label Part II." Highlights include details about producer Mayo Williams (who, the author points out, was "the first black to hold an executive position in a white recording company"), Paramount's shift to specializing in African American music, and commentary on their early roster which included Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Trixie Smith, Ma Rainey, and - most notably - Papa Charlie Jackson, the first self-accompanied male blues singer to be recorded. Editor Pete Whelan contributes an excellent interview with groundbreaking early jazz scholar Frederic Ramsey. Considering all of the attention that Robert Johnson has received during the last 20 years, one would be tempted to think that Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow's article on the most famous of prewar blues guitarists would simply duplicate already well-known information. Not so. Instead of the overly-reverential treatment that the musician has been given by other writers, there is more emphasis on biographical details from Johnson's contemporaries instead of meaningless conjecture on bunk like the location of the apocryphal crossroads where hopeless blues romantics believe he had sold his soul to the devil. Calt also includes a detailed etymology of the slang and metaphors utilized by the singer in his song's lyrics. Moreover, this issue of 78 Quarterly includes the debut appearance of Johnson's "suit and tie" photograph, which was a really big deal at the time.


"Remembering Big Joe" is Henry Renard's engaging reminiscence of the Jazz Record Center, Joe Clauberg's storied secondhand music establishment in New York City and an important meeting spot for many of the earliest 78 collectors. Believe it or not, prewar blues records were sold in Japan during the 1930s! Read the fascinating story in "Back in Nagasaki with Lucky" by Russ Shor. "Paramounts in the Belfry..." is Bob Hilbert's account of the discovery of numerous Paramount test pressings in a suburban Chicago-area house. This cache included previously unknown recordings by Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, and Ishmon Bracey, among others.


Tom Tsotsi continues his feature on Gennett, another important prewar label with an extensive race record catalog, and Steve LaVere supplies a short story on white pianist Glenn Hardman. Issue No. 4 concludes with listings of the rarest 78s (C through D), a postscript to the James McKune piece featured in No. 3, and a review of Calt and Wardlow's thought-provoking King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Chuck Willis - His Greatest Recordings (Atco, 1971)


In case you hadn't already noticed, one of the recurring themes here on Record Fiend is helping bring attention to musicians who have not received their just dues regardless of the genre in which they are classified. The subject of this post is Chuck Willis, one of the most unjustly ignored founding fathers of rock 'n' roll. Some of this may have to do with the fact that by today's standards his music fits more easily into the definition of 1950s R&B than that of other contemporary black artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. In contrast to those two musicians, who were as highly regarded for their instrumental abilities as they were for their hit records, the focus on Willis was primarily his singing and song-writing abilities.

THE TRANSITION FROM PREMATURELY BALDING R&B SHOUTER TO
TURBAN-WEARING HITMAKER

Although he had recorded for Columbia and OKeh since 1951 and had a few charting singles such as "Caldonia," "Feel So Bad," and "My Story," I always thought that the bulk of this material was a bit lackluster. The singer didn't really hit his stride until he moved over to Atlantic Records in 1956, where the combination of Ahmet Ertegun, Herb Abramson, and Jerry Wexler's imaginative arrangements as well the utilization of older source material helped provide him with a winning formula. His Greatest Recordings provides an excellent overview of this phase in his career.

WHAT'CHOO TALKIN' 'BOUT, WILLIS? I THOUGHT YOU
WERE KNOWN AS "THE KING OF THE STROLL"


Among the earliest sides on this collection, "Ease the Pain," with its steel guitar, bongos, and backing singers that would not have sounded out of place on an exotica record from the same era, typifies the approach that Atlantic took with recording Willis. The somber "It's Too Late" is the song that initially piqued my curiosity about the singer when, during my high school days, I became familiar with it through Derek and the Dominos' cover version on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The considerably more upbeat "Kansas City Woman" ("with a New York walk") rounds out his 1956 recordings featured here. The magnificent "C.C. Rider" and "Betty and Dupree" - both updated renditions of age-old blues standards dating from the 1920s, if not earlier - proved to be big R&B and pop hits in 1957, and for good reason. Featuring kitchen sink production that included vibraphone, a buoyant vocal section, and ace saxophonist Gene Barge, these two songs helped usher in a new dance craze, "the Stroll," and earned the musician the nickname "the King of the Stroll." Other sides from 1957 include the melancholy "That Train Is Gone," the steady-rolling "Love Me Cherry," and the gospel-like "My Crying Eyes" as well as the more dynamic numbers, "From the Bottom of My Heart" and "Thunder and Lightning." Chuck's two hits from 1958, "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes" and "What Am I Living For" unintentionally served as fitting epitaphs since he died later that year at the tender age of 30 as a result of complications from chronic ulcer problems.

Overall, this is a first-rate anthology, even if it is a bit too brief. Barry "Dr. Demento" Hansen's superb liner notes are well worth reading for more information.

1. Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes
2. Ease the Pain
3. C.C. Rider
4. What Am I Living For
5. That Train Is Gone
6. Love Me Cherry
7. Betty and Dupree
8. It's Too Late
9. From the Bottom of My Heart
10. Kansas City Woman
11. Thunder and Lightning
12. My Crying Eyes

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Johnny Darrell - The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp (United Artists, 1968)


By request.

The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp was criminally underrated country music singer Johnny Darrell's third LP the for United Artists label. Although not as consistently strong as his first two albums, As Long as the Winds Blow and Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town
, it still contains many fine moments that are representative of the late 1960s Nashville sound. Once again, Darrell relied upon material written by other songwriters and for the most part exercised good judgment in selecting songs that were appropriate for his singing style.

Released in 1968, most, if not all, of the tracks were recorded during the preceding year. Indeed, the excellent title song, written by Dallas Frazier, reached #22 on the country music charts in 1967. As with "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town,"
his previous significant hit single, "The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp," dealt with a controversial issue. In this particular case, the song's narrator relates the story of his single mother's prostitution activities that were necessary to provide for her numerous children. Despite its heavy subject matter, the performance has a pleasant quality to it as well as a memorable chorus. Predictably, someone else had a hit with it. This time, however, it was not another country singer, but instead black pop vocalist O.C. Smith. His version barely scraped the US Top 40 Pop and R&B charts, although it was a #2 UK Pop hit in 1968.


Regarding the other tracks, "My Elusive Dreams" was a minor country hit, reaching the #73 position. A bit too mawkish for my taste, it should not be surprising that the piece was co-authored by Billy Sherrill, one of the architects of the mushy Countrypolitan sound. All is quickly forgiven with Darrell's inspired version of Mel Tillis' "Goodbye Wheeling," although he veers back toward schmaltz territory in covering Roger Miller's "Absence." The singer regains his bearings on John D. Loudermilk's "Break My Mind" (especially notable for the excellent backing vocalists) and on another Dallas Frazier tune, "If My Heart Had Windows," a gentle but earthy performance that is greatly enhanced by the presence of steel guitar. "I'm a Travelin' Man" is every bit as good "The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp," with its echoey production bringing the impressive dobro and percussion work to the fore of the mix. "But That's Alright" compares favorably with Waylon Jenning's version of this Autry Inman composition, while "Laura (What's He Got That I Ain't Got)" and "The Chokin' Kind" are pleasant if not overwhelmingly compelling tracks. The sorrow-tinged "Hangin' On," with its lyrics describing the effects of being strung along by the singer's love interest, effectively concludes the album with the kind of song at which Darrell excelled.

1. The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp
2. My Elusive Dreams
3. Goodbye Wheeling
4. Absence
5. Break My Mind
6. If My Heart Had Windows
7. I'm a Travelin' Man
8. But That's Alright
9. Laura (What's He Got That I Ain't Got)
10. The Chokin' Kind
11. Hangin' On

Monday, March 1, 2010

Peter La Farge - As Long as the Grass Shall Grow & On the Warpath (Folkways, 1963 & 1965; Bear Family, 1992)


One of the few knocks against Bob Dylan is that he didn't really come from the hardscrabble background he sometimes alluded to during interviews early in his career. In reality, of course, he was the son of a solidly middle class Jewish family from Hibbing, Minnesota who even attended college for awhile before dropping out. Peter La Farge, on the other hand, seemingly had a much more genuinely Native American "folk" upbringing that was enhanced by supposedly growing up on an Indian reservation and working as a rodeo rider during his teenage years. His initial claims of ancestry from the practically-extinct Narragansett tribe and early years spent in New Mexico before being adopted by a white author of some renown were initially accepted without question. However, more recent research has revealed that the singer completely fabricated his Native American heritage and was, in fact, the biological son of Oliver La Farge, a noted writer, anthropologist, and champion of Native American rights who first came to prominence in the late 1920s. Although his son's sympathy for the indigenous inhabitants of the United States came by honestly enough, one cannot escape the fact that he - like so many other folk singers ranging from Woody Guthrie to the aforementioned Dylan - just could not help himself when it came to obfuscating his origins and embellishing, if not blatantly fictionalizing, his life story. The long-held belief that authentic folk music only comes from the working class and minority groups obviously encouraged the potential for such contrivances. Even Johnny Cash, who covered several of La Farge's songs during the mid-1960s, apparently went to his grave believing that the musician was an Indian "of Hopi heritage."

ON THE STREETS OF NEW YORK CITY IN THE EARLY 1960s
(WHO IS THE MAN MUGGING FOR THE CAMERA BEHIND HIM?)


The reality of La Farge's background has left a lot of people with mixed feelings for the folk singer. Without question, photographs of the man suggest that he easily could have passed for someone with Native American blood coursing through his veins. Then there is the matter of the compelling songs that he wrote and performed. Author Yuval Taylor writes,
What does all this say about authenticity? Does the fact that Peter La Farge was a fake Indian mean that his songs are fake too? In fact, his songs are extremely well-researched. La Farge was the first songwriter to not only lament the fate of the Indians but record their bitterness and their willingness to fight. Compared to all the other pop songs about Indians I’ve featured, these stand out as the least fake, to my ears.
So even if La Farge himself was not authentic, one could make the argument that the message in his music was. Prior to the mid-1960s, very few whites in the United States knew anything about Native American history and the injustices that many of the tribes had to endure during the preceding centuries. Although La Farge never achieved mass popularity, his material did eventually trickle down into the public conscious to a certain extent and helped pave the way for musicians and bands of actual Native American ancestry such as Jim Pepper, Jim "J.J. Light" Stallings, and Xit, who all released albums during the late 1960s-early 1970s period when the American Indian Movement became prominent.

LA FARGE DEMONSTRATING HIS RIDING SKILLS CIRCA 1950s

Further research has shown that La Farge's rodeo experiences and association with other early folk music figures such as Cisco Houston were true, thus giving him considerably more credibility than the average coffeehouse musician in early 1960s Greenwich Village. Record company executives must have sensed this, thus leading to his lone album for Columbia in 1962 and the five LPs he recorded for Folkways between 1962 and 1965. This excellent Bear Family two-fer contains his two best works for the latter label, As Long as the Grass Shall Grow and On the Warpath. The arrangements on these albums are sparse and feature La Farge's untrained vocals accompanied only by his guitar and, on Warpath, tribal hand drums by an uncredited percussionist. As Long as the Grass Shall Grow includes compelling material about heroes ("Tecumseh"), villains ("Custer"), and infamous events ("The Trail of Tears") in Indian history as well as songs that provide a Native American perspective to contemporary issues ("Take Back Your Atombomb" [sic], "Alaska," and the wry "Hey, Mr. President"). Tunes such as "Look Again to the Wind," "Vision of a Past Warrior," and "Coyote, My Little Brother" are ballads that lament the disappearance of various aspects of the indigenous American way of life, while the tongue-in-cheek "Damn Redskins" examines the cultural exchanges between oppressor and oppressed. The two spoken-word bits, "The Touriste" and "Last Words," give La Farge an opportunity to tell quick stories about a white man visiting a reservation and the death of rodeo rider who was a friend of the singer. Finally, the album's title track is also its best-known piece largely due to Johnny Cash's decision to cover it (in addition to "Custer") on the landmark Bitter Tears LP. As much as I love the Man in Black's version, La Farge's original take on this talking blues about the Seneca tribe is nothing short of a masterpiece. On the Warpath is an even better album and includes three more songs that Cash would feature on Bitter Tears, "Ballad of Ira Hayes," "Drums," and "White Girl." The first of these concerns the tragic story of the Pima Indian who was a World War II hero and died an alcoholic, while the latter two could almost be interpreted as autobiographical if not for the actual details of La Farge's early life. Even though "Ira Hayes" was a big hit for Cash (and provided its composer with a decent amount royalty money), my favorite piece in the Peter La Farge songbook is the haunting "Drums," a hypnotic piece that will echo in your mind for days. "Johnny Half-Breed," "Radioactive Eskimo," "Gather Round," "If I Could Not Be an Indian," and "I'm an Indian, I'm an Alien" provide biting commentary on the treatment of indigenous Americans in the singer's idiosyncratic style, sometimes with straightforward storytelling and other times with sardonic humor, explicit anger, or world-weary resignation. "The Crimson Parson" is this LP's equivalent to "Custer," a song of condemnation that tells the tale of the infamous Rev. Colonel John Chivington, the perpetrator of the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. Judging by their lyrics, Abraham Lincoln seems to have been the inspiration of "Move Over, Grab a Holt" and "Please Come Back, Abe," while "War Whoop" triumphantly describes an event in which a tribe successfully used the white man's law to help them maintain ownership of their land. La Farge's experiences as a rodeo rider probably contributed to "Stampede," another song that was admired by Johnny Cash and covered on his sprawling Sings the Ballads of the True West double album from 1965. Finally, the album closes with the moving "Father, Oh My Father," a tribute to the Native American father that the singer never had but you could be excused for believing that he did based upon on the abundance of misinformation that persists about this largely forgotten singer.

Peter La Farge died a premature death in 1965. The cause has been attributed to stroke, accidental drug overdose, or suicide, depending upon the source of information. Yet another talented musician who passed away too soon during the United States' most musically creative decade in the postwar 20th century.


On the Warpath (1965)
1. Ballad of Ira Hayes
2. Johnny Half-Breed
3. Radioactive Eskimo
4. The Crimson Parson
5. Move Over, Grab a Holt
6. Gather Round
7. If I Could Not Be an Indian
8. Drums
9. White Girl
10. I'm an Indian, I'm an Alien
11. Stampede
12. Please Come Back Abe
13. War Whoop
14. Father, Oh My Father

As Long as the Grass Shall Grow (1963)
15. Look Again to the Wind
16. As Long as the Grass Shall Grow
17. Damn Redskins
18. Tecumseh
19. Take Back Your Atombomb
20. Visions of a Past Warrior
21. Coyote, My Little Brother
22. Alaska
23. Custer
24. The Trail of Tears
25. Hey, Mr. President
26. The Touriste
27. Last Words