Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ian and Sylvia - Northern Journey (Vanguard, 1964)

Believe or not, I get more requests from blog visitors for albums by this duo than just about any other musicians. Most of these petitioners seem to be Canadians, which makes sense considering that Ian and Sylvia are probably the greatest folk singers that the country ever produced. For many who grew up there during the 1960s, this prolific husband-wife team provided a lot of fond musical memories. As someone who can definitely appreciate the importance of the soundtracks to our formative years, I'm more than happy to oblige any request that helps one take a stroll down memory lane.

For those who have a preference for loner acid folk records, I&S probably won't be your cup of tea. Their kind of folk music is immaculately crafted and precise. However, I take issue with those who dismiss this pair's recordings as blatantly commercial. One needs only to look at the incredibly diverse performances - including centuries-old ballads, blues, cowboy songs, gospel tunes, smart cover versions of material by contemporary writers, and even their own compositions - that appear on their albums to see that they were indeed artists of the highest caliber whose knowledge of and commitment to music was anything but superficial. Detractors will claim that Ian and Sylvia's interpretations of blues, hillbilly, and folk songs are just too clean and pretty. Nonsense, I say. I appreciate the fact that they were comfortable being a couple of white Canadians who did not pretentiously attempt to sound like something they were not.

While the preceding album, Four Strong Winds, includes Ian's best-known composition with its title track, Northern Journey features Sylvia's equally significant "You Were on My Mind." The influence of this song should not be underestimated. In addition to it being an excellent performance that represents everything great about this duo, Sylvia's prominent autoharp playing probably did as much to popularize the instrument during the folk revival as Mike Seeger's utilization of it on recordings by the New Lost City Ramblers. Not to mention the fact that folk rock group We Five, an important band in the embryonic San Francisco music scene, had a substantial hit with their cover version in 1965. This album doesn't let up after the leadoff track, either - especially with the instrumental contributions of John Herald on guitar, Monte Dunn on guitar and mandolin, and Russ Savakus and Eric Weissberg on bass. Arguably Ian and Sylvia's most Canadian album, Northern Journey contains an abundance of material from the mother country, both traditional tunes and works associated with other folk singers such as Omar Blondahl's "Moonshine Can" and Marie Hare's "Green Valley" in addition to the authorless "Nova Scotia Farewell" and "Brave Wolfe," with the latter detailing the death of General James Wolfe during the siege of Quebec in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). Elsewhere, Ian employs historical events and figures as the inspiration for "Four Rode By" (whose subject matter concerns the notorious "Wild McLeans" of British Columbia) and his own personal history as the basis for the lyrics of the countryish "Some Day Soon." "The Jealous Lover," "The Ghost Lover," and "Captain Woodstock's Courtship" are all old Anglo-American ballads, with the second and third titles being variants of pieces that had been collected by scholar Francis James Child during the 1800s. According to the liner notes, Irish singer Tommy Makem was the source for the sprightly "Little Beggarman," and the aforementioned Mike Seeger passed on "Texas Rangers" (performed here in a solemn a cappella style) to Ian and Sylvia, which had previously been recorded by Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock and the Cartwright Brothers during the prewar era. Finally, the album concludes with an effectively rousing take on the gospel standard "Swing Down, Chariot," which may or may not sound overly pasteurized, depending on your taste in folk music.


1. You Were on My Mind
2. Moonshine Can
3. The Jealous Lover
4. Four Rode By
5. Brave Wolfe
6. Nova Scotia Farewell
7. Some Day Soon
8. Little Beggarman
9. Texas Rangers
10. The Ghost Lover
11. Captain Woodstock's Courtship
12. Green Valley
13. Swing Down, Chariot

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Selim Sesler, Jim Stoynoff, & Lamajamal - Martyrs' - Chicago, Illinois - Monday, September 27, 2010


The 12th Annual World Music Festival Chicago wraps up tomorrow. As usual, there were just too many interesting-looking shows for me to attend during its 10-day run at multiple venues throughout the city, but that's a nice problem to have. My friend Mike, who I first met at one of the John Berberian events at the Old Town School of Folk Music back in April, got in touch with me last week and strongly encouraged me to meet him and check out the musicians who were scheduled to perform at Martyrs' on Monday, September 27. One of them, Macedonian-American clarinetist Jim Stoynoff, is a friend of Mike's and someone who he was sure that I would like, both personally and musically. Of course, he was right. Stoynoff is an amazingly talented clarinet player who can handle Balkan, Turkish, klezmer, and other material with equal skill, and it was a joy to experience his music in a live setting. His set was followed by a performance from another woodwind virtuoso, the Turkish Roma clarinetist Selim Sesler, who is rightly regarded by cognoscenti as a legend in his own time. I've been fortunate enough to attend a lot of great concerts this year, but I don't think that I had goosebumps at any of them as consistently as I did on Monday evening. Both artists were expertly backed by the sublime Middle Eastern-Turkish-Balkan fusion group Lamajamal, whose members' collective proficiency on all manner of exotic instruments was extremely impressive. Sesler was also accompanied during his set by several musicians who I believe also came from Turkey. In short, you missed a hell of show if you weren't there.







Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tim Buckley - Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 (Bizarre/Straight-Rhino, 1990)

I remember scoring this item at Record Swap's old campus town location on Green Street in Champaign right at the beginning of my senior year at the University of Illinois, which must have been in late August or early September of 1994. My previous academic year had been spent overseas at the University of York in England, and it was there that I had become a fan of the late great Tim Buckley. The British and Europeans often have better taste in American music than most Americans, and even though at that age I considered myself quite knowledgeable about artists from the 1960s, I hadn't even heard of this singer-guitarist until I lived abroad. One day at York Uni, my friend Guy from Doncaster offhandedly inquired if I was familiar with Buckley's work during an occasion when we had broken out the Rizlas to roll up a place to unwind, so to speak. At the time, I wasn't, and neither was he. Nevertheless, I respected my friend's taste and figured that this must be a musician worth checking out if his curiosity had been piqued. Sometime afterward, I came across a CD copy of the magnificent Happy/Sad on sale at the local HMV in the city centre. It was arguably the best 10 quid that I spent during that year, and I've been a huge Tim Buckley fan ever since.

At the time of purchase, Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 had already been out for a few years, and most of the musician's fans were still buzzing over the more recently-released Live at the Troubadour 1969. However, in addition to Happy/Sad, the only other Buckley album I owned at the time was Goodbye and Hello, so familiarity with the songs was one of the biggest motivating factors in choosing this live album over the other (which focuses more on material from the at-the-time-unheard Lorca and Blue Afternoon.) The fact that Dream Letter was a used two-CD affair at a lower price probably influenced my decision-making process as well. In the end, it was a sound investment (no pun intended, really) as these discs were in constant rotation in my CD changer (remember those things?) throughout that school year. Several of the songs ended up on mix tapes for various female interests I had back then, but none of these tracks seemed to have the romantic impact for which I had hoped. Oh well. Blame the girls, not the music.


Recorded at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on July 10, 1968 during Buckley's second (?) tour of the UK, Dream Letter captures the performance in its glorious entirety. If there is only a single concert from the 1960s that I could attended by going back in time, this just might be the one. In addition to backing from the redoubtable duo of lead guitarist Lee Underwood and vibraphonist David Friedman, Buckley is supported by bassist extraordinaire Danny Thompson (of Pentangle in addition to many other musical endeavors), who sounds as if he had been playing with the other musicians for years. As Underwood points out in the booklet notes, the key ingredient to the potency of these performances results from the singer's insistence on improvisation and commitment to playing new material. The acoustic renditions of tracks that had originally appeared as folk rock numbers on Goodbye and Hello - "Phantasmagoria in Two," "Morning Glory," "Pleasant Street" (a superb critique of American suburbia that is nicely paired with an interpretation of "You Keep Me Hanging On"), "Hallucinations," and "Once I Was" - are simply exquisite. However, one can sense that Buckley had already moved on from these compositions what with the inclusion of several songs that would ultimately appear on Happy/Sad, which was in the can but not yet released at the time of this concert. "Buzzin' Fly," "Dream Letter" (the first half of a medley that also includes "Happy Time," which was later rerecorded for Blue Afternoon), and "Love from Room 109" sound comparable to their counterparts on Happy/Sad, but "Strange Feelin'" proves to be the most interesting due to the notable differences between it and the final studio product. An outstanding cover of "Dolphins" acknowledges the influence of Fred Neil, while the trio of the next three tracks convincingly demonstrates Buckley's ability to extemporize with the best of them. The uplifting "I've Been Out Walking" is balanced by the somber tone of "The Earth Is Broken." If you listen hard enough, you might be able to hear the roots of the epic "Gypsy Woman" in the melody of "Who Do You Love" (not the Bo Diddley song), which also quotes the lyrics of "Green Rocky Road" and "Run, Shaker Life" before its unanticipated conclusion. Buckley's reaction - "Uh, OK." - to the audience's premature applause is priceless. Another composition unique to this album is "Carnival Song," which, in spite of having the same title, is different than the "Carnival Song" on Goodbye and Hello. Both "Hi Lily, Hi Lo" (a cover of the somewhat overly precious Kaper-Deutsch tune from the 1953 movie Lili) and "Troubadour" (which in many ways can be considered Buckely's signature piece) were items that the singer had previously recorded in the studio but remained unissued at the time. Yet one more imaginative medley, "Wayfaring Stranger/You Got Me Runnin'," provides the listener with another opportunity to experience transcendent live versions of material that unfortunately never made it onto any of his studio LPs. In my opinion, that old folk warhorse never sounded better.

**As an added bonus, I've included a scan of "..And God Bless Tim Buckley Too," an article by Jerry Hopkins that originally appeared in the December 1968 issue of the long-defunct Eye magazine. It's a brief but interesting read in which the singer is described as an "almost-star" and an Elektra Records executive is actually quoted as saying, "People like Timmie (sic) should be supported without any conscious concern of making a return on the investment." Can you imagine a corporate suit from the music industry making such a statement in today's world? Didn't think so.

Disc 1

1. Introduction
2. Buzzin' Fly
3. Phantasmagoria in Two
4. Morning Glory
5. Dolphins
6. I've Been Out Walking
7. The Earth Is Broken
8. Who Do You Love
9. Pleasant Street/You Keep Me Hanging On

Disc 2

1. Love from Room 109/Strange Feelin'
2. Carnival Song/Hi Lily, Hi Lo
3. Hallucinations
4. Troubadour
5. Dream Letter/Happy Time
6. Wayfaring Stranger/You Got Me Runnin'
7. Once I Was

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tony Joe White - The Train I'm On (Warner Brothers, 1972; Sepia Tone, 2002)

While Tony Joe White's Monument recordings remain his most consistently excellent group of albums, he stands out among musicians from the 1960s who dealt with the changes of the 1970s on his own terms in a mostly successful manner. Well, until that self-titled abomination for 20th Century-Fox, that is. Be that as it may, we can forgive the Swamp Fox for that lapse in judgment because most of his records from the Me Decade are very good, especially the trio of LPs he did for Warner Brothers.

The Train I'm On is White's sophomore effort for that label and considerably more subdued than its predecessor, Tony Joe White. Some people might be disappointed by the almost complete lack of whomper stomper blasts and punchy horn charts on this album, especially considering the fact that it was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio with production by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd. But for those who enjoy the musician's more downhome acoustic material, this album is enthusiastically recommended. Andria Lisle's insightful booklet notes for the CD reissue state, "The Train I'm On addresses 'being at home and being a stranger.' These twelve songs explore the concept from all sides." I suppose there is a certain restless quality in several of these performances, and such a feeling predominates in many of the song's the lyrics that also feature White's distinctive cast of Southern characters. A friend of mine who has to be one of the singer's biggest fans once told me that this isn't the Tony Joe record you put on the turntable during a party, but instead is the one you play after it's over when the sun is just starting to come up.


The tender "I've Got a Thing About You Baby" might incorrectly lead you to believe that this affair is primarily going to be an exercise in swamp sensitivity. It's not, although the opening cut will definitely make a welcome addition to a playlist or old school mix tape for that special lady in your life. "The Family" is a poignant slice of life about a hard-luck Southern family like only Tony Joe can sing 'em, although writing credits go to John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins on this one. White's world-weary vocals contrast somewhat with the upbeat arrangements of the 1950s-rock-styled "If I Ever Saw a Good Thing," and those with a hankering for his bayou country-themed pieces should enjoy the atmospheric "Beouf River Road," in which the narrator graphically describes the loss of his farm to a flood. The yearning title track - with its lonely harmonica, whining pedal steel, and uplifting string section - finds the musician comfortably occupying sophisticated country territory, as does the similarly-arranged performance "The Migrant." The appealingly ridiculous "Even Trolls Love Rock and Roll" is the only number on which White really gets down. You can hear the whomper stomper, and this piece comes close to being outright funk, even if it still has a bit of an ominous vibe to it. There's that aforementioned restless quality apparent on the exquisite acoustically-picked "As the Crow Flies," whereas "Take Time to Love" simply veers too close to the dreaded "singer-songwriter sound" for this writer's ears. As restrained as it may be, the whomper stomper makes a welcome return on the engaging "300 Pounds of Hongry," an amusing tribute to a plus-sized woman that settles into a real nice goove. On the other side of the coin, "Sidewalk Hobo" may very well be the bleakest thing that Tony Joe ever recorded. Although not normally his bag, this is an extremely affecting performance. The joyous-sounding vocal arrangements that grace "The Gospel Singer" belie the fact that this is not a song of redemption. Rather, it's one of comeuppance, in which the main character gets what he deserves for religious hypocrisy.

1. I've Got a Thing About You Baby
2. The Family
3. If I Ever Saw a Good Thing
4. Beouf River Road
5. The Train I'm On
6. Even Trolls Love Rock and Roll
7. As the Crow Flies
8. Take Time to Love
9. 300 Pounds of Hongry
10. The Migrant
11. Sidewalk Hobo
12. The Gospel Singer

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Goose Creek Symphony - Est. 1970 (Capitol 1970; 2000)

Even though many country rock and rural rock bands from the late 1960s and early 1970s are finally receiving the recognition that they rightfully deserve, there are still some that unfortunately continue to be ignored in discussions about those two sub-genres. While an inordinate amount of attention is heaped upon groups both worthy (e.g. the Flying Burrito Brothers) and unworthy (e.g. the Eagles) of the accolades that they receive, among the neglected there remain several aggregations cut from a similar cloth that are ripe for rediscovery. Chief among these is Goose Creek Symphony.


The main creative force in the group is singer-guitarist Charlie Gearheart, who was born and raised, logically enough, in the Goose Creek Hollow region of Kentucky, an isolated area of Floyd County in the eastern part of the state. After his family moved to Arizona while he was a teenager, he began to combine his influences of country, jazz, pop, and rock music into a workable formula. Sometime in the late 1950s, he adopted a stage name and formed his first group, Richie Hart and the Heart Beats. They had a hit with "The Great Duane," which led to an appearance on American Bandstand in 1959. After being a mainstay of the Phoenix club scene for a number of years, Gearheart was drafted into the Army in 1963. Upon his discharge circa 1965-1966, he reentered civilian life, returned to Arizona, and found the entertainment world drastically altered due to changes ushered in by Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Gearheart enthusiastically embraced the experimental spirit of the mid-1960s, and, after becoming friends with like-minded guitarist Paul Spradlin and guitarist-keyboardist Bob Henke, began work in 1968 on what would become Goose Creek Symphony's debut album, Est. 1970 (aka Goose Creek Symphony or Established 1970). With the assistance of studio musicians, the LP was completed in 1969. After Capitol Records signed the group, the album was released the following year, with Gearheart, Spradlin, and Henke respectively billed as "Ritchie Hart," "Paul Howard," and "Willard" on the record sleeve. Charlie recruited other musicians as a backing band to support the trio while on tour, some of whom became permanent members of Goose Creek Symphony and appeared on later efforts. While the band's other LPs are all worthwhile, Est. 1970 remains their crowning achievement.


Put simply, there are few finer examples of mind-expanding Americana than this record. Bookended by the old-time gospel piece "I'll Fly Away," Est. 1970 consists mostly of Gearheart compositions that collectively have all the makings of a concept album, or at the very least a thematic one. Downhome instrumentation (dobro, fiddle, steel guitar, Jew's harp, etc.) and Southern-tinged harmony vocals predominate throughout the affair, although many of the performances are also compellingly supplemented with probing guitar improvisations, sound effects, phasing, and backward playbacks, although never to the point of excess. The twangy "Charlie's Tune" and epic-length "Talk About Goose Creek and Other Important Places" sound inspired by Gearheart's rural upbringing if not downright autobiographical. "A Satisfied Mind" is an excellent version of the oft-covered Joe "Red" Hayes-Jack Rhodes song, while the freaky "Confusion" deserves a place on the list of the all-time greatest psychedelic country rock tunes. Mike McFadden (apparently one of the studio musicians who participated in the recording sessions for this album and an occasional songwriter on subsequent releases) contributes with the relatively straight-ahead country number "No News Is Good News." "Beautiful Bertha" is a hard-rocking character sketch, and "Raid on Bush Creek in '39" briefly relates a deadly shooting incident that may or may not be based on actual events. The majestic story-song "Big Time Saturday Night" beats the Band at their own game. The enchantingly mellow closing track "Symphony Music" segues into the reprise of "I'll Fly Away" and properly brings this intriguing album full circle.


1. I'll Fly Away
2. Charlie's Tune
3. A Satisfied Mind
4. Confusion
5. No News Is Good News
6. Talk About Goose Creek and Other Important Places
7. Beautiful Bertha
8. Raid on Bush Creek in '39
9. Big Time Saturday Night
10. Symphony Music

Peter Stampfel - The Hideout - Chicago, Illinois - Saturday, September 18, 2010


Yeah, that photo above pretty much says it all, but I'll add some words of my own anyway.

It's been awhile since I had back-to-back weekends of great concerts. First, the Strawbs on Friday, September 10, and last Saturday, multi-instrumentalist Peter Stampfel from the Holy Modal Rounders, who performed at Chicago's best dive bar for live music, the Hideout. 2010 will go down as a memorable year for me in terms of being fortunate enough to see several of my favorite musicians in person.


Things started extremely auspiciously when, on our way inside, my friend Steve and I came upon Stampfel, his wife, his daughter Zoe, and the promoter getting...ahem...ready for the show in a secluded part of the Hideout's parking lot. We were invited to take part in the activity in which they were engaged whereupon I seized the opportunity to talk with Peter for a bit about his blues and folk music influences. We discussed the merits of Charlie Patton, Skip James, and Frank Hutchison before being reminded by his entourage that he had a performance to do. I always take great pleasure in making connections with artists who are themselves fans of some of the same obscure musicians that I enjoy.


The show was absolutely brilliant, and the passion with which Stampfel performed was amazingly palpable. Sure, there was the occasional mistake, and he played guitar, banjo, and violin with equal parts genius and incompetence. But there was no denying that the set was both thoroughly inspired and inspirational. Daughter Zoe contributed on hand drum and backing vocals as well as keeping things grounded when her father was in danger of drifting off into the musical stratosphere. I can't remember every number that they did, but I do recall hearing Rounders classics such as "Euphoria" and "Bad Boy" in addition to newer material like "White Man's World" and "Dook of the Beatniks." They even did a cover version of the Curtis Mayfield-penned "Mama Didn't Lie" (a hit for Jan Bradley in 1963) for good measure.

I went to this show not knowing quite what to expect and came away with an even greater appreciation and respect for Peter Stampfel and his music. If he comes to your town to do a concert, don't miss the opportunity to see him.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Omar Khorshid - Tribute to Oum Koulsoum (Voix de l'Orient, mid 1970s; 1989)

Back in my days as a property manager on the South Side of Chicago, I regularly sought temporary refuge in the relative peace and quiet of the Hyde Park neighborhood during my lunch break. One of my favorite places to have my midday meal was a Middle Eastern restaurant that serves some of the best chicken shawarma in the city. The proprietors often had Arabic music playing in the background more for themselves than the customers. Although it was sometimes crappy modern-day pop songs, there were also numerous occasions when I would hear some absolutely mesmerizing instrumental music coming out of the speakers of their little CD player. The lead instrument on these recordings sounded like an electric guitar but played in manner in which I had never heard before. My curiosity piqued, I asked about this music one day while paying the bill at the front counter. The owner handed me the CD's jewel case, and I was now officially introduced to the "magic guitar" of Omar Khorshid.


World music (a la Sublime Frequencies) junkies are no doubt familiar with one of the world's most regrettably neglected guitar gods. But for those of you who aren't, I'll provide you with a thumbnail version of his life story. Born in Cairo, Egypt in 1945, he was a child prodigy on piano, but switched over to guitar by the time he was a teenager and had been exposed to rock 'n' from the US and UK. After making a name for himself in the beat group Le Petit Chats in the mid 1960s, he received the honor of playing with not one but two legendary figures of 20th century Arabic music, orchestra leader Abdel Halim Hafez and singer Oum Koulsoum (aka Kalthoum), both fellow Egyptians. Khorshid spent the mid 1970s in Beirut, where he recorded an extremely impressive group of albums for various Lebanese labels. These LPs ushered in a revolutionary new style of Middle Eastern music, and the guitarist made his instrument sound as if it been expressly made for such material. In addition to these recordings, Khorshid also composed the scores of several Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian films as well as appearing as an actor in many others during the 1970s and early 1980s in roles ranging from bit part to billed star. After performing at an event in Washington DC held to celebrate the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979, the musician was unfortunately blacklisted in several Arab countries who were opposed to the agreement at the time. Although Khorshid eventually cleared his name, there were still radicals who harbored resentment toward his open-minded ways. After a series of death threats and unsuccessful attempts on his life, he died in a mysterious high-speed car crash in 1981 at the age of 36, robbing the Arab world of one of its greatest superstars. I strongly encourage you to check out this excellent website devoted to Omar Khorshid. Although its creator doesn't have the strongest grasp on the English language, you can tell that it's a true labor of love and features his complete life story, a discography, filmography, lots of great photos, and other items worth checking out.


As its title suggests, Tribute to Oum Koulsoum features instrumental versions of songs (mostly composed by Mohammed Abdel Wahab) made famous by the Egyptian chanteuse. If anything can equal the power of that lady's voice, it's Khorshid's guitar. From concert photos that I've seen, Khorshid appears to have been typically backed by a group that included an accordionist and two percussionists on hand drums. That seems to be the case on this album and on most of his other recordings from his 1973-1977 peak period as well. The accordion sounds like it has been run through some kind of effects box. Although it occasionally has a dated 1970s cheesy synthesizer sound, for the most part it provides the perfect foundation for Khorshid to go off on his amazing solo flights, while the drummers provide some fantastic polyrhythms. Words really can't do these stately performances justice. They simply have that je ne sais quoi
unique to Middle Eastern music whether the particular composition is joyous, mournful, or somewhere in between.

Additional Omar Khorshid recordings reviewed here.


1. Alf Layla
2. Hazihi Laylati
3. Fakarouni
4. Oua Marat Al Ayam
5. Amar Hayati
6. Men Ajel Ayneyk
7. Anta Oumri

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Let's Belly Dance with Gus Vali (Peters International, 1973)

For those of you who dug the compelling music on the somewhat ridiculously titled Belly Dance Navel Academy, I present you with another LP by Greek-American flautist-clarinetist-bandleader Gus Vali. Let's Belly Dance is the follow-up album on the no-frills Peters International label and pretty much picks up where its predecessor left off. As with other belly dance records from the 1970s, the mood here is a little funkier than similar releases from the 1950s and 1960s what with the more up-to-date instrumentation. Whatever might be lost in regard to authenticity is more than made up for in terms of groove.


According to the liner notes, Gus Vali's parents were ethnic Greeks from western Turkey, no doubt accounting for his fluency in modes of musical expression from that part of the world. The list of personnel on this recording is quite impressive and includes several veterans from New York City's Middle Eastern nightclub scene of the preceding decades. Many, in fact, were onetime associates of John Berberian. Egyptian-born kanunist Mohammed El Akkad performed with the oudist early in his career, but never recorded with him. Clarinetist extraordinaire Souren Baronian (a mainstay on John's earlier albums) sets aside his woodwind instrument on this session in favor of the finger cymbals, while the redoubtable duo of bassist Chet Amsterdam and drummer Bill LaVorgna, who both played on the extraordinary
Middle Eastern Rock, serve as the rhythm section. George Mgrdichian, who many consider to be at least Berberian's equal, plays the oud on Let's Belly Dance, and the violinist listed as "Haskel Obadia" is most likely Iraqi native Hakki Obadia, who also released a number of albums under his own name. Rounding things out are Ali Hafid on dumbeg and Joseph Castellon on, as the liners put it, "utility percussion." Sorta like a utility infielder on a baseball team, perhaps?


Like Belly Dance Navel Academy, this LP consists entirely of instrumentals, and most of the tracks seem to be Arabic in origin, judging by their titles. The propulsive opening cut "Fasulya" gets straight to the heart of the matter and showcases Mgrdichian's complete mastery of the oud, as does "
Ya Jamalik," "Ya Raitni Ma Hawitez," and "Ya Reim Wadi Thaqif." Obadia's swooping violin solos are the difficult-to-choose highlights of "Samia," "El Gazalle," and "Al Jazayer." Pieces both mellow - "Pharonic Dance" and "Whyek" - as well as dynamic - "Tokat" and "Andolou" - give Vali the opportunity to display his substantial chops on flute and clarinet. Throughout these aforementioned performances, Amsterdam's slinky bass lines prove to be nothing short of jaw-dropping, and one could persuasively argue that he is the most impressive instrumentalist on these proceedings. "Caravan #9" and "Caravan #5" are brief rhythmic exercises that signifiy the conclusion of each side of the album in its original vinyl format. The track that inspires the greatest amount of curiosity on my part is "The Wounded Animal," which I believe is another rendition of a like-titled performance that also appeared on the outstanding Rosko-John Berberian spoken word-Middle Eastern music collaboration Music and Gibran.

In short, further proof that albums with alluring photos of the female form can sometimes contain excellent music.


1. Fasulya
2. Samia
3. Pharonic Dance
4. Tokat
5. Ya Jamalik
6. The Speechless Animal
7. Caravan #9
8. Andolou
9. El Gazalle
10. Ya Raitni Ma Hawitez
11. Whyek
12. Al Jazayer
13. Ya Reim Wadi Thaqif
14. Caravan #5

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Ray Mirijanian Oud and Clarinet Volume 1, No. 1 (Mirta, circa 1967)

While New York City and Massachusetts boast the largest Armenian populations on the East Coast, Philadelphia possesses a significant-sized community as well. In addition to the being the hometown of oud master George Mgrdichian, the City of Brotherly Love also produced the less-celebrated but equally talented Ray Mirijanian. Unfortunately, his recorded legacy is sadly neglected, and I don't think that any of his fine albums from the 1960s have ever been reissued on CD or MP3. Middle Eastern music enthusiasts not already familiar with Mirijanian's works should find much to enjoy in his discography and will wonder why he has not received greater recognition.


Even more amazing than Mirijanian's impressive skill on both clarinet and oud, as you could probably guess by the title of this LP, is the fact that he did not start playing the former instrument until the age of 23 and the latter a few years after that. He led something of a musical double life in the sense that he was the clarinetist for outfits such as the Yerevan Band and the Gomidas Band while also performing as an oudist with a group that regularly gigged at Philly's now-defunct Middle East Restaurant (whose belly dancers are featured with the Ray on the LP cover), an establishment owned by the Tayoun family. Jim Tayoun, in fact, had a hand in producing this album and wrote the liner notes. The Ray Mirijanian Oud and Clarinet Volume 1, No. 1 was the first in a series of records released on the Mirta label, whose name seems to come from the first few letters of the musician's and producer's last names. If Jim Tayoun is the same person as former city councilman Jimmy Tayoun mentioned in this article from the Philadelphia Business Journal, he apparently was a pretty unsavory character as he spent three years in prison for racketeering and other charges during the early 1990s. Let's hope that he didn't screw his artist out of any royalties. In contrast, I can't find any biographical information about Mirijanian at all, but if I remember correctly, I believe that John Berberian told me he had passed on several years ago. I would love to hear from any of Ray's friend and/or relatives who could provide me with biographical details since his life story needs to be properly documented.

Despite its unimaginative title, this is one of the greatest Middle Eastern-belly dance albums of all time. Seriously, every track on here is positively outstanding if such music is to your liking. What really makes this LP stand out is the tremendous amount of variety that exists among the tracks. In addition to supplying excellent examples of Armenian, Turkish, Greek, Persian, Israeli, and Arabic music, the selections feature interesting and innovative instrumentation. Mirijanian's oud and clarinet playing are impressive throughout the record, but also notable are Edmond Joseph's prominent accordion (giving several of the tracks a klezmer flavor at times), Robert Marashlian's kanun artistry, and Ernest "Skippy" Krepelka's understated guitar work. Seven of the 13 performances are instrumental, with cuts like "Chifte Telli" and "Hava Nagila" being titles with which some readers might be familiar. "Halay" is especially intense but regrettably marred by an abrupt and premature fadeout, which is just about the only critical thing I can say about any of the tracks. Mirijanian, Marashlian, and Joseph variously provide the vocals on the remainder, among which the beautifully melancholy (as one would expect from its title) "Mee Melancholis" is arguably the standout. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the group harmonies on the Armenian standard "Kale Kale" are downright joyous, not to mention the excellent kanun and oud solos. Anyway, words can only say so much. Give this one a spin, and judge for yourself.

1. Hasapiko (Greek)
2. Jameela (Arabic)
3. Bandar (Persian)
4. Chifte Telli (Turkish-Greek)
5. Manee Rayida (Arabic)
6. Halay (Armenian)
7. Hava Nagila (Israeli)
8. Mee Melancholis (Greek)
9. Kale Kale (Armenian)
10. Karsilamas (Greek-Turkish)
11. Bint El Shalabiyeh (Arabic)
12. Efem (Turkish)
13. Kalmatianos (Greek)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mama Let Me Lay It on You 1926-1936 (Yazoo, 1974; 1991)

I think that I picked this one up sometime during my college years or shortly thereafter back when it was possible to find a surprisingly large selection of Yazoo Records titles in the music departments of otherwise lame chain electronics stores. Yours truly was probably just about the only customer who ever bought these CDs at such places, so it was comforting to know that, in instances where I had insufficient funds in my wallet to make a purchase, a particular item would probably still be there waiting for me when I came back a week or even sometimes a month later. Unlike other Yazoo albums, Mama Let Me Lay It on You does not have a track listing on the tray card. Instead, it just features a picture - probably taken by Dorthea Lange or another photographer for the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s - of black folks getting down at a juke joint with a caption at the bottom that reads, "featuring BLIND BOY FULLER, JOSH WHITE, WILLIAM WALKER, BLIND BLAKE and others." At the time, I had a marked preference for Mississippi and Memphis bluesmen, so I wasn't especially convinced that I had to make this item a part of my collection, especially when I didn't even know what songs were on it. Anyway, it took awhile before I finally started getting to the bottom of my Yazoo wish list and eventually decided to buy this CD due to my completist tendencies.


The musicians mentioned on the aforementioned tray card led me to believe that Mama Let Me Lay It on You would focus on blues from the East Coast. After peeling off the shrink wrap and giving the booklet notes a cursory glance, I determined that for the most part I was correct. In their accompanying essay, Stephen Calt and John Miller make two important points. First, they describe the songs of the relatively refined Eastern Seaboard and Piedmont sub-genres as "generally smoother, more melodic, and less dissonant than Mississippi or St. Louis blues." Second, they point out that, despite the region's large black population, the East Coast produced only three prewar blues singers - Barbecue Bob, Blind Blake, and Tampa Red - who waxed hit records. Well, if push comes to shove, I'll still take blues from the Deep South over anything else. But as this CD abundantly makes clear, the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida also had much to offer.

"Black and Tan," most likely a slang term for oral sex, features Fulton "Blind Boy Fuller" Allen performing a number that - instrumentally speaking, of course - displays a strong Rev. Gary Davis influence, while a very young Josh White (pictured in a really nice suit on the album cover) lays down an impressive solo rendition of "Good Gal." This future darling of the folk revival probably played guitar on pianist Charlie Spand's original performance, which had been recorded a few years earlier. Although Blind Boy Fuller recorded a better-known version of "Mama Let Lay It on You" (with the "laying," of course, having sexual connotations), for some reason Yazoo decided to include Cincinnati blues guitarist Walter Coleman's interpretation, which had been recorded a couple of months earlier, in its place. The earliest recording of this song seems to have been Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy's "Can I Do It for You?" from 1930. By the time Eric von Schmidt passed it on to Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, it had become better known as "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down." "Whiskey and Gin Blues" is a trio performance including singer-harmonicist Robert Cooksey, guitarist Alfred Martin, and Bobby Leecan on banjo-mandolin. Despite its AAB verse structure, the arrangements on this song sound more string band or ragtime than blues. What little information that exists on these musicians suggests that they may have operated out of New York City or Philadelphia during the 1920s. Pretty much nothing is known about the Smith & Harper duo who recorded the lowdown "Insurance Policy Blues" and "Poor Girl." The former features an appealing harmonica and bottleneck guitar combination, and the latter finds them singing in a duet style reminiscent of some of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee's later works. "Every Day in the Week Blues" is essentially a medicine show version of the "Crow Jane"/"Sliding Delta" idiom. Blind Simmie Dooley was an elder statesman of the South Carolina blues scene, with a young Pink Anderson, his student, serving as his duet partner on this recording. Willie Walker, a contemporary of Dooley and another founding father of South Carolina blues, unfortunately recorded a mere three titles. This alternate take of "South Carolina Rag" is just ever so slightly less perfect than its issued counterpart, but with the able assistance of accompanist Sam Brooks, it remains a guitar duet tour de force. What would an East Coast blues compilation be without Blind Blake? The celebrated virtuoso displays his blues side on "Chump Man Blues," while on "Sweet Jivin' Mama" - according to the notes, "among his most esoteric works" - the listener can hear a rare example of him making mistakes. Blake's guitar provides typically expert backing to female blues singers Irene "Chocolate Brown" Scruggs and Leola B. Wilson respectively on "Itching Heel" and "Wilson Dam." Spark Plug Smith and Charlie Manson number among the blues musicians about whom we have no real biographical information. Calt and Miller seem to speculate that Smith could have been white, and indeed "Vampire Women" does possess an almost hillbilly sound. However, an advertisement photo clearly shows that he was a black singer-guitarist, although his origins remain unknown. Charlie Manson is another bluesman whose East Coast connections remain speculative at best. He may or may not have recorded guitar duets with St. Louis-based Charley Jordan as "The Two Charlies." Regardless of that possibility, most sources I've consulted confirm Jordan's presence on the unissued "Nineteen Women Blues," which the notes correctly point out bears similarities to the material by Sylvester Weaver.


1. Black and Tan - Blind Boy Fuller
2. Good Gal - Josh White
3. Mama Let Me Lay It on You - Walter Coleman
4. Whiskey and Gin Blues - Bobby Leecan & Robert Cooksey
5. Insurance Policy Blues - Smith & Harper
6. Every Day in the Week Blues - Pink Anderson & Simmie Dooley
7. Poor Girl - Smith & Harper
8. South Carolina Rag (unissued take) - Willie Walker
9. Chump Man Blues - Blind Blake
10. Itching Heel - Irene Scruggs
11. Vampire Women - Spark Plug Smith
12. Wilson Dam - Leola B. Wilson
13. Nineteen Women Blues (previously unissued) - Charlie Manson
14. Sweet Jivin' Mama - Blind Blake

Monday, September 13, 2010

Charley Jordan - It Ain't Clean (Agram, 1979)

Agram was a reissue label established in the 1970s by Dutch 78 collector and blues historian Guido van Rijn, whose scholarship, among other things, includes a trilogy of presidentially-themed blues books: Roosevelt's Blues, Kennedy's Blues, and The Truman and Eisenhower Blues - all well worth reading. While not as legendary as, say, Yazoo Records or Origin Jazz Library, there are some interesting items to be found in this company's discography. One should remember that 30 to 40 years ago, blues enthusiasts did not have Document's Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order CDs at their disposal like we do today, so albums such as the one presented here - which includes a number of sides that were previously unavailable at the time - were met with great excitement when they were first released.

Although not necessarily one of my all-time favorite blues guitarists, Charley Jordan was a skilled musician who was a major figure in the blues scene of St. Louis during the 1930s. It is believed that he was born in Arkansas around 1890 and hoboed throughout the South and Midwest during the 1920s prior to a temporary stay in Memphis around the middle of the decade. It was in St. Louis that he became established as a bootlegger during Prohibition. A job-related dispute led to Jordan being shot, resulting in an injury that deprived him of the use of his legs. With the eventual relegalization of alcohol in 1933 and the challenges of his newfound disability, he switched his focus to music and was one of the more prolific blues artists of the 1930s. Additionally, he worked as a talent scout for record labels and, in conjunction with Big Joe Williams, operated what has been described variously as a rehearsal hall or club in a downtown St. Louis apartment building that visiting bluesmen used when preparing material for recording sessions. Little wonder then that Jordan was not only a well-known figure among musicians who lived in the Mound City - including Peetie Wheatstraw, Henry Townsend, Roosevelt Sykes, and others - but also by many other urban blues artists who recorded during the 1930s. Consequently, several of the sides that Jordan waxed for Vocalion and Decca between 1930 and 1937 featured him with the accompaniment of a piano player or a second guitarist. As this LP's liner notes point out, his songs often dealt with typical blues themes such as alcohol and gambling (something with which he was undoubtedly familiar from his bootlegging days) as well as, more notably, the suffering caused by the Great Depression. Most impressively, Jordan's lyrics were frequently unique, and his minimal use of floating verses makes him exceptional among the blues musicians of his time.


The first two selections are unfortunately marred by that "frying bacon" surface noise that sometimes plagues prewar recordings but still serve as an interesting starting point for this collection. "Dollar Bill Blues" bears musical similarities to "Crow Jane" and contains lyrics akin to Blind Lemon Jefferson's "One Dime Blues," while "Running Mad Blues" features Jordan's distinctive bouncy guitar work that would come to characterize many of his later releases. The next nine tracks are duets with Peetie Wheatstraw on piano. The subject matter of "Lost Ship Blues," "My Lovin' Good Blues," "Cheating Blues," "Workingman's Blues," and "Sugar Farm Blues" concerns interpersonal relationships, whereas "Hungry Blues" and "Tough Times Blues" contain lyrics commenting on the economic difficulties of the early 1930s. "Santa Claus Blues," as its title suggests, is a Christmas-themed performance, and "Honeysucker Blues" is a nice little piece of double entendre. An ensemble featuring piano, clarinet, saxophone, and violin backs Jordan on the jazz-like "Rolling Moon Blues." The notes also list an unknown musician on traps, but I'll be damned if I can hear him. Such a percussionist also supposedly appears on "
It Ain't Clean" (another remake of the guitarist's best-selling 78, "Keep It Clean"), but once more, my ears fail to detect his presence. The accompanying piano, however, is definitely audible and is again probably played by Peetie Wheatstraw. The final three tracks find Jordan teamed with the mysterious blues guitarist Charlie Manson and were recorded for ARC in 1936 under the moniker of "The Two Charlies," although they were not released at the time. Why this was the case remains unknown since they formed an instrumentally potent duo, as the performances readily make clear. Manson is the singer on "Bad Feeling Blues" and "Low Moan Blues," while Jordan resumes his vocal responsibilities on "Hard Time Papa."


1. Dollar Bill Blues
2. Running Mad Blues
3. Lost Ship Blues
4. Hungry Blues
5. My Lovin' Good Blues
6. Tough Times Blues
7. Cheating Blues
8. Workingman's Blues
9. Santa Claus Blues
10. Honey Sucker Blues
11. Sugar Farm Blues
12. Rolling Moon Blues
13. It Ain't Clean (That Thing Ain't Clean)
14. Bad Feeling Blues
15. Low Moan Blues
16. Hard Time Papa

Acoustic Strawbs - The Abbey Pub - Chicago, Illinois - Friday, September 10, 2010


Believe it or not, I am actually a fan of certain prog bands from the early 1970s. One of my favorite groups from this genre is the Strawbs, probably due in large part to their folk and folk rock influences. Not to mention the fact that they have harmony vocals to die for. They always pass through Chicagoland when on tour, and I've been fortunate to catch their act (specifically as the Acoustic Strawbs) three times over the last few years. It has always been a thoroughly entertaining experience, and guitarists Dave Cousins and Dave Lambert along with multi-instrumentalist Chas Cronk do a nice job of mixing songs from classic albums like From the Witchwood, Grave New World, and Hero and Heroine with their tasteful new material.

Anyway, I got the chance to see their show at the Abbey Pub on the city's northwest side last Friday night and predictably had an excellent time. I'm not the best photographer, but here are some pictures for the curious.