Monday, February 28, 2011

Traveling Through the Jungle (Testament, 1971; 1995)

We can only guess what the big bang sounded like when British and African musical cultures first collided on the North American continent sometime during the 17th century. The echoes, of course, can still be heard today in material derived from blues, gospel, and jazz, but it's their antecedents that may provide better clues. Therefore, it behooves the researcher to consider reels, coon songs, minstrel pieces, and other forms of pre-20th century black American music collectively referred to as proto-blues when making some kind of educated guess.


If I had to choose one existing example of what I think the earliest forms of African-American music most closely resembled, it would have to be the melodies produced by the fife and drum bands of Mississippi and Georgia. This instrumental combination had been used by armies of the Western world as a method of communicating instructions and information to troops since at least the 1700s, which roughly corresponds with the peak period of British colonization in North America. Consequently, it is tempting to think that slaves or free blacks in southern areas were introduced to fifes and drums during this period, resulting in an adaptation of African musical sensibilities to be played on European instruments. The only problem with this theory is that historical texts have stressed that planters typically forbade slaves from playing drums lest they utilized the rhythms as a means to organize escapes or uprisings. However, it is also possible that there were less severe masters who allowed their forced laborers to express themselves on instruments of the non-African variety. Regrettably, we will never know exactly how fife and drum bands first came into existence, but it is fortunate that this variety of genuine folk music still exists in some isolated pockets of the South.


Traveling Through the Jungle consists of 28 tracks recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1942 and by musicologist David Evans in 1969 and 1970. Although the recording technology became more advanced during the nearly 30 year interval, it is remarkable to hear how little the sound of fife and drum band music changed during this time. As Evans points out in the booklet notes, "This is social music in every sense" since it is usually performed at parties, dances, holiday events, and picnics. Of the earlier material, "Jesse James," "The Death March," and "The Sidewalks of New York" features fife player Sid Hemphill leading a four-piece band that also includes two snare drums and a bass drum. "Emmaline, Take Your Time," a solo performance, finds him switching over to 10-note quills. In similar fashion, "Come On, Boys, Let's Go to the Ball" showcases the talents of Alec Askew on a four-note version of that instrument as well as the drumming of a percussionist who is probably Will Head. "Old Hen Cackled, Laid a Double Egg,"" "Unknown Piece," "Shout, Lula with the Red Dress On," "Buck Dance," "I Love Jesus, Yes, I Do," "Wake Up, Sal, Day Done Come, Let Me Chow Your Rosin Some," "Old Lady Dinah Sitting by the Fire," "John Henry," "No Name Piece," "Sal You Churn the Butter," and "Look Out of the Way" all come from 1970 recordings made in the rural area surrounding Columbus, Georgia. These 11 tracks, consisting of old secular and religious numbers, are performed by various combinations of singer Ephram Carter, fife player J.W. Jones, kettle drummer James Jones, and bass drummer Floyd Bussey. Lyrics, if they exist at all, are usually an afterthought and in most cases exist only to supplement the intense polyrhythms. The remaining titles showcase some of the relatively better-known fife and drum band musicians from north central Mississippi who were recorded in 1969 and 1970. Napoleon Strickland's expert fife playing is heard to good effect on "My Babe," "Traveling Through the Jungle," "Granny, Will Your Dog Bite," "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Baseball Bat," and "Rollin' and Tumblin'," pieces on which he is accompanied by other musicians from Tate and Panola counties including Othar (aka Otha) Turner, R.L. Boyd, Jimmie Buford, Arthur Williams, and even Mississippi Fred McDowell keeping time on an improvised waste basket drum instead of playing his usual guitar on one track. Turner, whose family picnics-music festivals I attended while I lived in nearby Oxford, Mississippi from 1996 until 1998, was capable of singing as well as playing fife, kettle drum, and bass drum. He functions as the group leader on "Late at Midnight, Just a Little 'Fore Day," "Sitting on Top of the World #2," "Fife and Drum Piece," and "I'm So Worried." The delightfully primitive "Number Five" is an interesting performance by Compton Jones, a one-man fife and drum band who simultaneously whistles and supplies percussion with a washtub. The first version of "Sitting on Top of the World" is in a similar vein, although the booklet notes also list Othar Turner as an additional vocalist.


1. Old Hen Cackled, Laid a Double Egg - Ephram Carter, J.W. Jones, James Jones, & Floyd Bussey
2. Unknown Piece
- Ephram Carter, J.W. Jones, James Jones, & Floyd Bussey
3. Shout, Lula with the Red Dress On
- Ephram Carter, J.W. Jones, James Jones, & Floyd Bussey
4. Buck Dance - J.W. Jones & Ephram Carter
5. I Love Jesus, Yes, I Do
- Ephram Carter, J.W. Jones, James Jones, & Floyd Bussey
6. Wake Up, Sal, Day Done Come, Let Me Chow Your Rosin Some - J.W. Jones
7. Old Lady Dinah Sitting by the Fire
- Ephram Carter, J.W. Jones, James Jones, & Floyd Bussey
8. Jesse James - Sid Hemphill Band
9. Come On, Boys, Let's Go to the Ball - Alec Askew & (probably) Will Head
10. The Death March - Sid Hemphill Band
11. Emmaline, Take Your Time - Sid Hemphill
12. The Sidewalks of New York - Sid Hemphill Band
13. John Henry - L.W. Jones*
14. No Name Piece
- Ephram Carter, J.W. Jones, James Jones, & Floyd Bussey*
15. Sal You Churn the Butter
- Ephram Carter, J.W. Jones, James Jones, & Floyd Bussey*
16. Look Out of the Way
- Ephram Carter, J.W. Jones, James Jones, & Floyd Bussey*
17. My Babe - Napoleon Strickland, Othar Turner, & R.L. Boyd
18. Traveling Through the Jungle - Napoleon Strickland & Fred McDowell
19. Sitting on Top of the World - Compton Jones & Othar Turner
20. Late at Midnight, Just a Little 'Fore Day - Othar Turner, Arthur Williams, & R.L. Boyd
21. Granny Will Your Dog Bite - Napoleon Strickland, Othar Turner, & R.L. Boyd
22. Number Five - Compton Jones
23. When the Saints Go Marching In - Napoleon Strickland, Jimmie Buford, & R.L. Boyd
24. Sitting on Top of the World #2 - Othar Turner, R.L. Boyd, & Reid Jones*
25. Fife and Drum Piece
- Othar Turner, R.L. Boyd, & Reid Jones*
26. I'm So Worried
- Othar Turner, R.L. Boyd, & Reid Jones*
27. Baseball Bat - Napoleon Strickland*
28. Rollin' and Tumblin' - Napoleon Strickland, Arthur Williams, & Othar Turner*

* bonus track

Thursday, February 24, 2011

R. Crumb's Music Sampler (MQ Publications Ltd., 2005)

I'm not big on hero worship, and from what I understand, Robert Crumb is often uncomfortable with the adulation that he receives from overzealous fans. Be that as it may, I find him to be one of the most interesting as well as admirable people alive today, and not just because of his uncompromisingly magnificent artwork. As a result of his well-documented fondness for vintage Americana, Crumb is one of the most instrumental figures in helping to develop my passion for prewar blues, jazz, and country music.

For me, it all started sometime in high school when I received a set of his Heroes of the Blues trading cards from my aunt as a Christmas present. I don't think that I had even heard of the guy, let alone most of the musicians featured in this set, prior to receiving one of my most treasured holiday gifts. At this point in my development, my interest in the blues was pretty much limited to the electric Chicago variety, so the opportunity to learn about then-obscure figures like Frank Stokes, William Moore, and Barbecue Bob was quite a revelation. The combination of Stephen Calt's eloquent thumbnail biographies and Crumb's finely-detailed etchings certainly piqued my curiosity, to say the very least. I used these cards as a sort of checklist of 1920s and 1930s blues artists whose recordings I needed to acquire, and I don't think that I could have had a better introduction to the genre. It wasn't until I was in college and started to get into the music and history of the 1960s that I began to understand the cultural impact that Crumb has had not only on American society, but for that matter, world culture.


This CD comes with the strongly recommended R. Crumb Handbook, which was co-authored with Peter Poplanski. In combination with Terry Zwigoff's excellent documentary, this hardcover provides the most comprehensive biographical overview on Crumb currently available. As the sleeve indicates, this disc covers more than 30 years of recordings from his "long, half-assed musical career." At first, it might be tempting to dismiss these performances as novelties, especially when the 1979 version of The Rolling Stone Record Guide had this to say about one of his Cheap Suit Serenaders LPs from the 1970s,
Artist R. Crumb, well-known for inventing Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade and other such endearing comics figures, actually thinks he's a 1930s bandleader. He doesn't do badly with his little quartet here, doing nice ragtimes. Especially endearing is Robert Armstrong's performance on saw. This album gives the word "charming" new credence.
This superficial but not necessarily dismissive review probably came from a critic who knew next to nothing about prewar music. If the opposite were true, he would understand that such performances are not just "charming" but instead are examples of a passionate enthusiast committed to keeping this aspect of American culture alive. Had Crumb not devoted himself to visual art, he quite possibly could have had a successful career strictly as a revivalist musician capable of playing banjo, guitar, and piano. In similar fashion to the recently-reviewed John Miller, R. and his cohorts stay away from intense downhome blues and instead focus on more blithe material such as rags, hot jazz, hokum, Hawaiian hulas, and 1920s-1930s pop music. In many cases, old melodies are supplemented with goofy new lyrics more applicable to modern-day listeners, which simultaneously helps keep things jovial and prevents the performances from becoming academic musical exercises or instrumental wanking.


Fans of Crumb's best-known aggregation, the Cheap Suit Serenaders (check out their entertaining second and third albums here on one of my favorite places in the blogosphere), will be delighted to find that this disc includes an abundance of rare tracks from this unit, some of which are different versions of songs that appeared on their three LPs from the 1970s for the Blue Goose label. The Keep-on-Truckin' Orchestra, with multi-instrumentalist Al Dodge and saw player Robert Armstrong, are something of a proto-Serenaders as demonstrated by two performances from 1972, "River Blues" and "Wisconsin Wiggles," whereas the 1974 recordings
(with the addition of bass fiddler Richard Oxtot) - "Get a Load of This" (based loosely on Charley Jordan's "Keep It Clean"), "Cheap Suit Special," the riotous "My Girl's Pussy," and "Suits Crybaby Blues" - feature the genuine article. A newer version of the Suits (minus Oxtot but with the addition of guitarist-violinist Tony Marcus and multi-instrumentalist Keith Cary) is represented by this CD's most exquisite batch of songs - "Fine Artiste," "Hula Medley," "Wild Horse," "Three-in-One Two-Step," "Creole Belles," and "Georgia Camp Meeting" - which come from a 1998 Amsterdam radio broadcast. Crumb's respective 1999 and 1997 collaborations with Les Primitifs du Futur ("Cruelle Tendresse" and "Valse d'Amour") and the Fiddlin' Ian McCamy Quartette ("Mazurkas" and "Schottische") reflect the influence of his time living in Europe and a relatively more recent interest in Continental folk music. Wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb and daughter Sophie join in on the fun in a 2003 live performance from Hamburg, Germany that finds them returning to the traditional American music of "In the Pines," "St. James Infirmary," "Little Buttercup," and "Baby Face."

Sure, listening to these performances might not be a life-changing event. Nevertheless, it's still quite entertaining to hear the otherwise curmudgeonly Crumb obviously having fun playing songs that are so near and dear to his heart. For a great artist, he also makes a pretty damn good musician.

1. River Blues - R. Crumb and his Keep-on-Truckin' Orchestra
2. Wisconsin Wiggles
- R. Crumb and his Keep-on-Truckin' Orchestra
3. Get a Load of This - R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders
4. Cheap Suit Special
- R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders
5. My Girl's Pussy
- R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders
6. Suits' Crybaby Blues
- R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders
7. Fine Artiste
- R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders
8. Hula Medley
- R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders
9. Wild Horse
- R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders
10. Three-in-One Two-Step
- R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders
11. Creole Belles
- R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders
12. Georgia Camp Meeting
- R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders
13. Cruelle Tendresse - Les Primitifs du Futur
14. Valse d'Amour
- Les Primitifs du Futur
15. Mazurkas - Fiddlin' Ian McCamy Quartette
16. Schottische
- Fiddlin' Ian McCamy Quartette
17. In the Pines - The Crumb Family
18. St. James Infirmary
- The Crumb Family
19. Little Buttercup
- The Crumb Family
20. Baby Face
- The Crumb Family

Monday, February 21, 2011

Beau - Beau (Dandelion 1969; Cherry Red, 2007)

Some of my favorite musicians are those who are not easily pigeonholed as products of their time. Although the 1960s was the last decade that consistently produced new music to my liking, I'm also a fan of several artists from that era whose material sounds anything but representative of it. "Timeless" is a word that is often used to describe the work of such performers, and I think that adjective is extremely appropriate for the subject of today's review.


Although he had originally earned the sobriquet from a schoolteacher, "Beau" was also the stage name initially used by singer and 12-string guitarist Trevor Midgley, a native of Leeds, England who bears the distinction of having the first album and single released by BBC disc jockey John Peel's Dandelion label in 1969. After starting out the decade in a rock band, he went against the cultural grain by acquiring an acoustic 12-string guitar in 1964. Inspired by the recordings of Lead Belly, Midgley quit the group the following year and focused on becoming a solo performer. Apparently, no one told him that Beatlemania had helped bring an end to the folk revival as a popular movement. Toiling by day as the head of an insurance division of the British equivalent of a savings and loan association while developing a distinctive vocal and instrumental style in his spare time, Midgley eventually earned the attention of benefactor Peel after a failed audition for Elektra Records and a series of well-received broadcasts on BBC Radio Leeds. Despite positive reviews and featuring a #1 hit single
("1917 Revolution") in Lebanon of all places, Beau's eponymous debut failed to achieve significant commercial success. Creation, a followup LP recorded with rock band the Way We Live , met a similar fate. After adopting a new alias, "John Trevor," Midgley remained a Dandelion artist, but the label folded before his next album could be released. Nevertheless, he stayed active through the rest of the 1970s by continuing to record new material, performing at folk clubs, and hosting a program for BBC Radio Sheffield. Judging by his engrossing website, he has kept himself busy through the years with projects such as taking stock of his musical legacy and writing a well-nigh definitive book on Bob Dylan's bootleg albums.


isn't like many other records released in 1969, which possibly explains both its relatively meager sales and the reason why it continues to sound so fresh today more than 40 years after it was recorded. Even though it is classified as a folk album, Midgley's first LP features material that owes more to his own creativity than to tradition and the influences of contemporary musicians whom he admired like Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. The production on the tracks is sparse, featuring only his rich, warm voice accompanied by a Harmony 12-string guitar that, in his own words, "rang beautifully" and possessed a "rolling, fat sound." The opening cut, "Welcome", not only serves as a greeting to the record's listeners, but also functions as the instrument's invitation into Beau's world. It had recently been purchased to replace the aforementioned model obtained in 1964 that was stolen on the same day of his audition for Dandelion. The similarly titled "Welcome - Tag Piece" that concludes the LP brings things full circle. In between, there are a dozen exquisite performances, many of which with uniquely English lyrics and themes. "Imagination" seems to deal with the creative process, while the elegantly evocative "1917 Revolution" (that previously cited smash hit in Lebanon) comes off as something like a Mikhail Sholokhov novel set to music. "Soldier in the Willow" and "A Nation's Pride" both evidently comment on the futility of war, with "Fishing Song" and "The Painted Vase" providing fine examples of this bard's ability to turn ostensibly mundane subject matter into thought-provoking lyrics. "Pillar of Economy" addresses the complex long-term relationship between a town and a mill on the verge of going out of business. The remaining selections - "The Sun Dancer," " "Rain," "Morning Sun," "The Summer Has Gone," and "The Ways of Winter" - are all beautifully (no pun intended) wistful songs that touch upon the well-documented English obsession with weather to one degree or another.


Among the bonus tracks, the superb "Sleeping Town" (the B-side to "1917 Revolution") and "Time" (previously unreleased) come from the album sessions and fit in rather comfortably with the preceding material. The remaining selections were all recorded in 1975 primarily for an album that never saw the light of day. "Love Is," "The Wine Was Sweeter Then," and "Black Raven of the Morning" more or less pick up where Beau left off, while "Miss Alice Preece" and "Rats" exhibit Midgley playing the 12-string in a manner as close to that of his hero Lead Belly as he ever recorded. "The Roses of Eyam" is his best-known composition thanks to UK folk musician Roy Bailey's recorded cover version and its inclusion in many of his live performances. Regarding its subject matter, Midgley explains,

Eyam (rhymes with "dream") is the plague village of North Derbyshire. Its story dates from the mid-17th century when the bubonic plague took a hold there. In an heroic act of self-sacrifice, the villagers sealed-off the hamlet to make sure the disease couldn't spread to the surrounding areas. Ninety-per-cent of them died (over three hundred), and many of the graves are still there for all to see on a hillside above the town.
The meaning of "The Heaviest Stone" is a bit more opaque, but the performance itself has a similar dark and foreboding mood, helping to make Beau one of the all-time greatest albums to listen to late at night or during the thick of autumn.

1. Welcome
2. Imagination
3. 1917 Revolution
4. Soldier in the Willow
5. Fishing Song
6. The Painted Vase
7. Pillar of Economy
8. A Nation's Pride
9. The Sun Dancer
10. Rain
11. Morning Sun
12. The Summer Has Gone
13. The Ways of Winter
14. Welcome - Tag Piece
15. Sleeping Town*
16. Love*
17. Time Is*
18. Miss Alice Preece*
19. The Wine Was Sweeter Then*
20. Rats*
21. Black Raven of the Morning*
22. The Roses of Eyam*
23. The Heaviest Stone*

* bonus track

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Country Weather - Re-Upped in FLAC and Better-Quality MP3 Rip



By request.

Like the subject line sez...


Thursday, February 17, 2011

John Miller - First Degree Blues (Blue Goose, 1972; Air Mail Recordings, 2002)

By request and made possible by the generosity of Rambling Rolf.

Truth be told, I'm generally not a big fan of white guys who refer to themselves as "blues musicians." That's not to say, however, that it's impossible for the occasional Caucasian to play this kind of music. Indeed, they can sometimes perform it very well. Moreover, I'm also not trying to split semantics, but instead expressing the opinion that in order to be a true blues musician, one must be an organic part of the culture that produced this uniquely black form of artistic expression. Sure, there are feelings communicated in blues that transcend race - thus partially explaining its worldwide popularity - but it remains something that ultimately could have only resulted from the African-American experience. I don't recall the exact quote or even the musician who said it, but I totally agree with the belief that it's possible for a white musician to be a technically superior performer, but that same musician will never feel the blues as deeply as a black musician who grew up in the environment that produced the music in the first place. On the other hand, perceived authenticity is often overvalued at the expense of competence by many fans of the genre, which has led to several black musicians of questionable talent (most of the Fat Possum roster comes to mind, for example) receiving undeserved accolades from today's blues community. Therefore, I suppose the reason why my favorite blues artists are musicians like Charlie Patton and Muddy Waters is because they were both excellent singers and guitarists, while at the same time it is impossible to deny their cultural credentials and emotional connection to their craft.


I concur with the philosophy of guitarist nonpareil John Miller, who avoids sensationalizing the music and stresses the importance of technical skill. As he explains in the liner notes to
one of his first albums, First Degree Blues,
Blues attracts me as a means of musical expression, not as a way of life or death. To me it is the most satisfying form of guitar music there is. I have no particular desire to "live" the blues and doubt that suffering would enhance my abilities as a musician or singer. It is dismaying to me that the blues' merit as an art form is so often clouded over by romantic and musically illiterate criticism that judges each performance according to how "personal" it sounds. No matter how inspired a musician may feel, his sound is colored by basically impersonal factors. If his voice has a particular quality about it and if his guitar-playing ability has reached a certain level, his music will have an authentic blues flavor regardless of his racial origins, his thoughts at the time he is performing, or his past experiences.
His refreshing lack of pretense and impressive picking skills combine to make Miller one of the most compelling performers of his kind. The fact of the matter is, he's so proficient in other styles of music, especially bluegrass and jazz, that to classify him as a blues guitarist would be both musically and culturally inaccurate. Growing up in the Philadelphia area, Miller was initially inspired to take up the guitar by his instrument-playing elder siblings and rediscovered blues and hillbilly musicians during the early-to-mid-1960s folk revival. LPs on the Yazoo and Biograph labels furthered his interest in prewar blues, and by the time he was a college student, his considerable talents had brought him to the attention of Stephen Calt and Nick Perls as well as Rounder Records founders Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton. Miller recorded five albums during the 1970s, and although he started out as an interpreter of prewar blues, his focus turned almost entirely to jazz by the end of the decade. The 1980s found him avoiding the studio for the most part and giving up solo performances in favor of playing with small groups in addition to providing private lessons and teaching at guitar workshops. He resumed making albums on an occasional basis in the 1990s and the aughts as well as reintroducing prewar blues into his studio and live repertories. Miller has also done an acclaimed series of instructional DVDs that some of my guitar-playing friends swear by. In sum, he's a musician's musician who obviously plays for the sheer joy of it, a quality that clearly comes through in just about everything he does.


First Degree Blues
, his first of two records for Perls' Blue Goose label, was recorded during the summer after his junior year at Cornell University and released in 1972. It's the most straightforward blues LP in his discography with a track listing that includes several imaginative interpretations of vintage pieces in addition to some capable original compositions. He wisely steers clear of material by heavier Delta bluesmen like Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown - songs that many white blues interpreters attempt but rarely perform in a non-embarrassing manner. For the most part, Miller sticks to covering guitarists with a more delicate touch, such as East Coast stylists Luke Jordan ("Church Bell Blues") and Blind Blake ("Policy Blues," "Doing a Stretch," and "Rope Stretching Blues") as well as string virtuoso Bo Carter ("Sue Cow," "Who's Been Here," and a different "Policy Blues"). His instrumental approach and somewhat goofy - yet still appealing because he doesn't try to "sound black" - voice are perfectly suited to such songs. Elsewhere you can hear some fascinating syntheses of seemingly disparate blues artists such as Blind Teddy Darby and Mississippi John Hurt on "I Never Cried," Mance Lipscomb and Big Bill Broonzy on "Spanish Breakdown," Roosevelt Sykes and Skip James on "Mistake in Life," Leroy Carr and Buddy Boy Hawkins on "Shady Lane," and Lead Belly and Joe Calicott on "Titanic." The title track is an engaging duet with guitarist Russ Barenberg, whereas "Dirty Deeds" is derived from Robert Wilkins' "Dirty Deal Blues." The concluding track, "Chester County Blues," which Stephen Calt's notes describe as ingenious for "using the virtually unique open G minor guitar tuning," is pure John Miller and is a distinctive early recording that helped establish his own musical identity.


1. Church Bell Blues
2. I Never Cried
3. Policy Blues (Blind Blake)
4. First Degree Blues
5. Sue Cow
6. Doing a Stretch
7. Spanish Breakdown
8. Mistake in Life
9. Shady Lane
10. Dirty Deeds
11. Who's Been Here
12. Rope Stretching Blues
13. Titanic
14. Policy Blues (Bo Carter)
15. Chester County

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mohammed El-Bakkar and his Oriental Ensemble - Vol. 3 - Music of the African Arab (Audio Fidelity, 1958)

By request.

Out of all the LPs in my record collection, this one probably has the most provocative cover artwork, to say the very least. I'll let you decide as to what's going on in the scene above. I can't say that I personally find the image offensive, but I can also perfectly understand why someone who's not an American white guy like myself might see it as more than just kitsch and take issue with said illustration. Suffice it to say, this textbook example of political incorrectness remains striking for 1958, the year in which this album was issued. Its existence was probably rationalized by the same logic that made it OK to have pictures of naked tribeswomen gracing the pages of contemporary issues of National Geographic magazine. As long as the cover photo allegedly depicted an unsavory activity somewhere in northeast Africa and not in the good old USA, it was perfectly fine to dress up some black girl in a topless belly dance outfit while completely objectifying her at the same time. Try showing some white American titties in a similar fashion, however, and you'd probably go to jail and get your record label liquidated. Such were the marketing rules for exotica LPs from the 1950s and early 1960s.

Mohammed El-Bakkar is probably the most lightweight of the Middle Eastern artists whose recordings I collect. To my untrained ear, his music seems to lack a certain gravitas possessed by the works of many of his regional counterparts. In general, his performances are up-tempo and feature rather sing-songy lyrics in Arabic. Although he played oud, it was rarely featured as a solo instrument, with the focus instead typically being on his admittedly magnificent vocals. These factors combine to make El-Bakkar's albums sound somewhat watered-down, most likely for easier consumption in the USA of the 1950s. Well, let's not forget that Americans first became familiar with him as a result of his work on Broadway, which may explain the somewhat theatrical nature of his music. Nevertheless, El-Bakkar should be commended for opening a lot of Western ears to the music of the Middle East and paving the way for more interesting performers.


Since I'm not a musicologist, I can't tell you whether or not any of the tracks on
Music of the African Arab are legitimate examples of African Arab music. Since I hear the word "Africa" mentioned several times in the otherwise unintelligible lyrics, I'm guessing the songs are often about that particular continent, but I cannot vouch for their authenticity. This record's liner notes actually discuss the music in a somewhat scholarly fashion for a change instead of only expounding upon its purported exotic qualities. The tracks sound very similar to the material on El-Bakkar's previously posted albums, Port Said and Sultan of Badgad, which means if you liked those, you'll probably like this album as well. The range of instruments seems to have been somewhat broadened since I can hear snare drums and even sound effects on some songs. My favorites? "Sudani," "Ya Hwaydali," and "Ya Waboor."

1. Africa
2. Al Beeba
3. Ya Bakhita
4. Raksat Africa
5. Dallooni
6. Sudani
7. Ya Hwaydali
8. Sanbo, Sanbo
9. Dangy Dangy
10. Din Din
11. Ya Waboor
12. Ya Sabeya

Thursday, February 10, 2011

San Francisco Nights (Rhino, 1991)

Just as I sat down to write this review, I realized that the subject of today's piece has been in my collection for nearly 20 years. To put things in perspective, the 16 tracks on this CD were all recorded slightly more than 20 years before its 1991 release date. My point? I'm getting old, that's all. Just as the original Nuggets two-LP set was the inspiration for the like-titled box set, San Francisco Nights, the musical companion to Gene Sculatti and Davin Seay's San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip 1965-1968, can similarly be viewed as the antecedent for the lavishly-packaged Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970. While it's easy for the psychedelic connoisseur to turn his or her nose up at this considerably more modest collection, it still serves as a good introduction to those looking for an introduction to the mid-to-late-1960s Bay Area music scene that clocks in under an hour.


With the exception of one track, there is nothing that obscure on this compilation. One can also justifiably take issue with something titled San Francisco Nights that doesn't include anything by Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother & the Holding Company, or the Grateful Dead. Such omissions may have resulted from issues with licensing, but they also may have been done intentionally so that there could be more of an emphasis on relevant groups that had yet to be widely rediscovered in the early 1990s. What does make this CD truly noteworthy is the fact that all of its tracks are in mono, so aficionados of single-channel sound take note.


San Francisco Nights
does not limit itself to psychedelic music as the inclusion of both successful and unsuccessful pop acts demonstrates. Derided by some as mere Beatles copycats, the Beau Brummels were a good band in the wrong city. The superb "Laugh, Laugh" remains one of my favorite hit songs from 1965, with "Just a Little" being an ever-so-slightly inferior later effort. Similarly dismissed by the hippies, We Five were pretty good for what they were: a commercial folk rock outfit. I prefer Ian and Sylvia's original, but "You Were on My Mind" admittedly does have some rather appealing vocal harmonies. The Vejtables were essentially an edgier version of We Five as the slightly mind-expanding guitar of Jim Sawyers and the driving rhythms of drummer Jan Errico demonstrate on "I Still Love You." Errico would later join the Mojo Men, one of the least interesting San Francisco groups in my opinion, who are represented by a cluttered interpretation of Buffalo Springfield's "Sit Down, I Think I Love You." If I'm in the right mood, the Sopwith Camel's minor hit "Hello Hello" hits the spot, but at other times it can sound a little too cute for its own good. "Sing Me a Rainbow," with its soaring vocals and echoey production, is worthwhile early-period Sons of Champlin, but many of the contemporary and mostly previously-unreleased tracks on Big Beat's Fat City are just as good or better. Although its once-powerful message of brotherhood has been seriously compromised from its endless use by advertisers and the mainstream media, I still can't help but like the Youngbloods' "Get Together," even if the unit that recorded it were actually a bunch of carpetbaggers from New York. I've spoken with old hippies who still have a problem with these guys being considered a San Francisco band. Conversely, it's easy to forget that Sly and the Family Stone were a genuine Bay Area aggregation, even if the still-great-no-matter-how-many-times-I've-hear-it "Dance to the Music" was anything but representative of the sound associated with that region.


As for the more countercultural, oddball, and/or blatantly drug-influenced material, you can't go wrong with the Great Society's scuzzy guitar masterpiece "Someone to Love" for starters. Ready for this CD's real rarity? As far as I know, this is the only place where the Charlatans' "Codine" has ever received an authorized release. I'm pretty sure that this is a demo of "Codine Blues," their aborted first single. While this version lacks the atmospheric production of their unfairly-rejected debut recording, it remains an engaging performance and features somewhat different lyrics than its better-known counterpart. Surprisingly for a Berkeley band, Country Joe and the Fish get featured not once but twice, although one really can't argue with the inclusion of the genuinely psychedelic "Bass Strings" (from their second Rag Baby EP) and "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine," a showcase for Barry Melton's blistering guitar taken from their first LP, Electric Music for the Mind and Body. I never cared much for the Mystery Trend. "Johnny Was a Good Boy" is OK, I guess. Stick with group leader Ron Nagle's outstanding solo album Bad Rice instead. Quicksilver Messenger Service's inventive reworking of Hamilton Camp's menacing "Pride of Man" gets my vote for the best track on San Francisco Nights, and John Cipollina's elegant guitar solo still sends shivers up and down my spine every time that I hear it. I've never been a big fan of Blue Cheer, and their overly-sloppy, much-ado-about-nothing take on "Summertime Blues" typifies everything that I don't like about them.


1. Laugh, Laugh - The Beau Brummels
2. You Were on My Mind - We Five
3. Someone to Love - The Great Society
4. Just a Little - The Beau Brummels
5. I Still Love You - The Vejtables
6. Codine - The Charlatans
7. Bass Strings - Country Joe & the Fish
8. Hello Hello - The Sopwith Camel
9. Sit Down, I Think I Love You - The Mojo Men
10. Johnny Was a Good Boy - The Mystery Trend
11. Sing Me a Rainbow - The Sons of Champlin
12. Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine - Country Joe & the Fish
13. Get Together - The Youngbloods
14. Dance to the Music - Sly & the Family Stone
15. Pride of Man - Quicksilver Messenger Service
16. Summertime Blues - Blue Cheer

Note: According to the booklet notes, "Original 'mono' singles masters have been used for this compilation."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Muddy Waters - Folk Singer - Original Master Recording (Chess, 1964; Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, 1993)

Back when the compact disc was the standard medium of the music industry, a small but vocal minority brought attention to the fact most albums from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s that were reissued in this format featured lousy sound quality resulting from shoddy mastering techniques. Most people didn't care, but there were still sufficient numbers to justify the creation of a niche market for audiophile CDs. One of the first companies to exploit this audience was the now-defunct Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, who had already been making exquisite-sounding vinyl sourced from the original master tapes since 1977. The Ultradisc was probably their best-known digital product not only because of their extremely high fidelity, but also due to the fact that these CDs were manufactured from gold instead of the usual aluminum. The utilization of this more expensive metal was supposed to make these discs both sonically superior (due allegedly to the superior reflective quality of this element) and immune to the corrosion to which regular discs were occasionally susceptible. Subsequent research has shown that the excellent sound quality of these products resulted primarily from MFSL's use of master recordings as opposed to the material employed during the manufacturing process. Moreover, the doomsday scenario painted by CD-phobes during the 1980s and 1990s in which all the data contained in those little shiny things would be lost due to inevitable oxidization has largely not come to pass, at least not so far. Nevertheless, these gold discs have become collectors' items during the last few years because they do indeed sound better than their aluminum counterparts in addition to the fact that they were pressed in relatively limited quantities.


Muddy Waters' Folk Singer album was probably the most obvious selection from his extraordinarily deep discography to receive the Ultradisc treatment. As an all-acoustic recording, it suffered badly when an earlier digital reissue (the CD two-fer from 1990 on which it was paired with Sings Big Bill Broonzy) failed to do it sonic justice. This MFSL release almost completely rectifies matters and represents the height of 16-bit digital audio technology. Of course, it can't hold a candle to the vinyl version, but I'll let that slide. Since being released in 1993, however, it has been superseded by a 20-bit version with additional bonus tracks that was apparently issued in the late 1990s (which seems to be what's available on Amazon). And if that's still not good enough for you, there's also a DVD audio version that came out in 2004 as well as a recent 180-gram limited edition vinyl pressing from Classic Records that some say sounds even better than its MFSL equivalent. All of these reissues combine to make Folk Singer available in more formats than just about any other album by Muddy Waters that comes to mind.


Does it deserve to have been rereleased so many times? Absolutely. Even though the proto-unplugged manner in which Folk Singer was recorded in 1963 can be viewed as a contrived effort to cater to white folkies who dismissed anything played on electric instruments, the combined talents of Waters, guitarist Buddy Guy, bassist Willie Dixon, and drummer Clifton James ensured that it would be an album of the highest aesthetic quality. I wonder if this was the first time that Muddy had picked up an acoustic guitar since leaving the Mississippi Delta 20 years earlier, not that it would matter with it being played by one of the world's true musical giants. His slide work especially stands out, and if it along with his force-of-nature vocals don't give you goosebumps, then something is wrong with you. Despite his youth, Guy proves to be a most suitable accompanist for material that harkens to an era before his time, while the acoustic setting gives Dixon more of an opportunity than usual to show off his skills as a musician, which was sometimes obscured by his prodigious songwriting talents. James' delicate touch on drums is the album's instrumental icing on the cake. The performances are spellbinding, whether they are "folk" remakes of Muddy's classic sides from the late 1940s and early 1950s such as "My Home Is in the Delta" (aka "Where's My Woman Been"), "Long Distance" (Call), "You Gonna Need My Help" (aka "You're Gonna Need My Help I Said"), "Cold Weather Blues" (aka "Down South Blues"), "Country Boy," and (I) "Feel Like Going Home" or interpretations of Dixon's "My Captain," Sonny Boy Williamson No. 1's "Good Morning (Little) School Girl," or Johnnie Temple's "Big Leg Woman."
With the total running time of Folk Singer clocking in at barely more than a half-hour, the two bonus tracks are a welcome addition. I remember being a little disappointed when I first got this, because I was hoping that "You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had" and "The Same Thing" were acoustic versions of those songs that for whatever reason were not included on the original album. There was no such luck as they turned out to be that with which I was already familiar: recordings from 1964 that find the blues singer once again supported by an electric band that are nevertheless first-rate. Back in the early 1990s, this was the best that these two performances had ever sounded on CD. But my, how technology has changed since then.


1. My Home Is in the Delta
2. Long Distance
3. My Captain
4. Good Morning School Girl
5. You Gonna Need My Help
6. Cold Weather Blues
7. Big Leg Woman
8. Country Boy
9. Feel Like Going Home
10. You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had*
11. The Same Thing*

*bonus track

Monday, February 7, 2011

Waylon Jennings - Singer of Sad Songs (RCA, 1970)

I became a fan of Waylon Jennings even before I knew exactly who the guy was. As a kid in the late 1970s and early 1980s, The Dukes of Hazzard numbered highly among my favorite things to watch on television. At this stage, my musical tastes were just starting to develop, and I was beginning to learn what I liked and what I didn't. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago didn't exactly preordain me to be a fan of country music, but Waylon's irresistible theme for that show became one of my first favorite songs. No, I wasn't a little redneck, but damn, I really liked that tune, not to mention his appealingly downhome narration featured in each episode.


Although many critics point to Jennings' mid and late 1970s LPs as his crowning achievements, I've always been partial to his earlier work that was recorded before he started to have crossover success on the pop charts. Not that there's anything wrong with Are You Ready for the Country, Ol' Waylon, or I've Always Been Crazy, but his earlier albums have consistently been of greater interest to me. Yeah, I know that a lot of country music experts will tell you that Waylon didn't reach his full potential until he escaped the Nashville system and cast off the heavy-handed influence of producers like Chet Atkins, but I don't care. Even if his pre-Outlaw output is not held in as high esteem, these records will always receive regular rotation on my turntable.


Singer of Sad Songs can best be classified as a transitional effort, and a damn good one at that. Although it has some things in common with previously-released LPs, the presence of Lee Hazlewood, a producer with considerably more hip credentials, as well as the inclusion of contemporary rock and folk material represented a new approach to album-making for Waylon. Many of the purely country songs explore themes common for the genre but often reflect the changing times during which they were written. The Alex Zanetis-composed title track has come to be recognized as a middle-period Jennings classic and achieved the #12 spot on the country charts in 1970. "Sick and Tired," most closely associated with Fats Domino, receives an imaginative cover version treatment here and has rarely sounded better, while "
Time Between Bottles of Wine," "Must You Throw Dirt in My Face," and "Donna on My Mind" are a trio excellent straight-ahead country numbers. Not too many people interpret the works of folksinger Tom Rush, so you can imagine what a nice surprise it is to hear ol' Waylon's rendition of "No Regrets," the centerpiece of the former's magnum opus, The Circle Game. George Jones' "Ragged But Right" is perhaps a more obvious song to cover, but certainly no less magnificent. In the hands of Jennings, "Honky Tonk Women" becomes just one "Honky Tonk Woman," but he still does the Rolling Stones proud by recasting it in his own image and making it sound like a genuine country song. Hazlewood undoubtedly had a hand in including his own "She Comes Running" in the track listing, and I would imagine that the arrangements - especially the baroque keyboards - were his idea as well. Simply put, "If I Were a Carpenter" compares favorably with Johnny Cash's countrified take on Tim Hardin's best-known piece. I have yet to hear a version of Utah Phillips' "Rock Salt and Nails" that I didn't like, and this one, which includes Hazlewood in a vocal duet with Jennings, is no exception.


1. Singer of Sad Songs
2. Sick and Tired
3. Time Between Bottles of Wine
4. Must You Throw Dirt in My Face
5. No Regrets
6. Ragged But Right
7. Honky Tonk Woman
8. She Comes Running
9. If I Were a Carpenter
10. Donna on My Mind
11. Rock Salt and Nails

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Ian and Sylvia - Early Morning Rain (Vanguard, 1965)

By request.

A lot of Ian and Sylvia fans believe Early Morning Rain to be the Canadian duo's finest effort, and it's pretty hard to argue with that notion. Although their definitive cover version of the Gordon Lightfoot-penned title track is probably what initially drew most people to this LP, listeners soon found out, like myself, that the remaining 11 tracks persuasively exhibit the pair's expertise with other aspects of the 1960s folk music idiom. I'll always have a special place in my heart for this record, since it was the first proper Ian and Sylvia album that I owned after being introduced to their music through the two-disc Greatest Hits set during my college years. Indeed, these two items were an ideal staring point in my pursuit to acquire their complete discography.


Early Morning Rain
was Ian and Sylvia's fourth album and found them really hitting their stride. Not that their previous efforts were lacking in terms of quality, but what sets this LP apart is the aesthetic consistency it displays throughout the proceedings. Most importantly, it introduces a definite country & western element at which the couple's previous releases only hinted, even if the instrumentation featured on the tracks was much the same: Ian and Sylvia sharing the vocals and respectively playing guitar and autoharp along with backing from guitarist Monte Dunn and standup bassist Russ Savakus.


The aforementioned country & western influence immediately becomes apparent with the album's opening track, a superb unplugged interpretation of Johnny Cash's "Come in Stranger." For those of you who already know how great Ian and Sylvia's take on Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" is, any commentary by yours truly would just be preaching to the choir. As for the uninitiated, here's your chance to hear what all the fuss is about. My favorite performance on this LP, however, is their rousing version of the Scottish folk song "Nancy Whiskey," which memorably warns the listener about the dangers of overindulging in rye. "Awake Ye Drowsy Sleepers" and the a cappella "I'll Bid My Heart Be Still" further explore adaptations of vintage material from the British Isles, with an emphasis on Sylvia's powerful vocals. On the other hand, "Marborough Street Blues," whose lyrics recollect Ian's early years in Toronto, serves as Exhibit A for the argument that even white guys can occasionally come up with a convincing self-composed blues song. And speaking of convincing, "Darcy Farrow" sure sounds like an genuine 19th-century cowboy song, doesn't it? However, according to the liner notes, writing credits belong to friends of the singers, "one of whom had considerable experience as a student of an eminent folklorist where much effort was given to writing songs that would fool the teacher and pass as authentic." Sylvia contributes with two tunes of her own, the Bessie Smith and Ida Cox-inspired "Maude's Blues" and "Travelling Drummer," which makes reference to an old Canadian slang term for itinerant salesmen. In similar fashion to that latter piece, Ian's "Red Velvet" and "Song for Canada" find inspiration in matters specific to the duo's homeland. "For Lovin' Me" once again finds them covering Lightfoot in capable fashion and adding to this record's country & western flavor. That last point, however, may have more to do with the fact that the song has also been done by artists like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, which has accordingly influenced my perception of it.


1. Come in Stranger
2. Early Morning Rain
3. Nancy Whiskey
4. Awake Ye Drowsy Sleepers
5. Marlborough Street Blues
6. Darcy Farrow
7. Travelling Drummer
8. Maude's Blues
9. Red Velvet
10. I'll Bid My Heart Be Still
11. For Lovin' Me
12. Song for Canada

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Buffalo Springfield - California Daze (bootleg, circa 2002)

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming in Buffalo Springfield's discography is the fact that they never released a live album. The previously-reviewed Sell Out bootleg did much to redress that situation, with several of its tracks sourced from concert recordings of varying sonic quality. I acquired California Daze, another unauthorized CD with live material, in the same mail order purchase from about ten years ago that also netted me the aforementioned title, but over the years I found myself playing the subject of this writeup less often than its counterpart.


Much of that has to do with the lo-fi nature of most of the tracks on this under-the-counter release.
This is a real shame because some otherwise breathtaking in-concert material suffers from sounding as if it had been recorded in a shoebox. Moreover, the selections that do feature better audio quality come from television appearances where, at best, it seems as if the band's vocals might be live, but the instrumental accompaniment is prerecorded. As a result, I can really only recommend California Daze to Buffalo Springfield completists.


The first two cuts, an abbreviated version of "For What It's Worth" and "Mr. Soul," come from the ABC television variety show The Hollywood Palace and, in my opinion, are probably canned offerings. I'm not sure about the identity of the corny announcer who introduces the band, and the program's policy of using several different guest hosts doesn't make an educated guess any easier. "Rock & Roll Woman" also originates from an appearance on TV, although I have no idea about the identity of the show on which it was included. I'd be willing to bet that this is another performance that was not truly live. Although the tracks from Buffalo Springfield's show at Whittier High School (can you imagine these guys playing at your alma mater?) might not satisfy an audiophile's exacting standards, the listener can't deny that the band was in great form for this gig. Standout versions of songs from the band's first two albums - "Pay the Price," "
Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," and "Rock & Roll Woman" - are complemented by the excellent obscurities "Nobody's Fool" and "My Kind of Love." Sonically-speaking, the Long Beach show is pretty rough-going, but those with a great tolerance for distortion will be rewarded by making it through the blazing rendition of "Mr. Soul" and an amazing 24-minute jam on "Bluebird." "Good Time Boy" and "Uno Mundo" ain't bad, either. Sadly, "muffled" would have to be the most appropriate word to describe "On the Way Home" as it appears here, whereas "lip-synced" suffices on the "For What It's Worth" that was taped for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.


1. For What It's Worth (The Hollywood Palace television program; January 1967)
2. Mr. Soul
(The Hollywood Palace television program; January 1967)
3. Rock & Roll Woman (unknown US television program; November 6, 1967)
4. Pay the Price (Whittier High School; 1967)
5. Nobody's Fool
(Whittier High School; 1967)
6. Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing (Whittier High School; 1967)
7. Rock & Roll Woman (Whittier High School; 1967)
8. My Kind of Love (Whittier High School; 1967)
9. Good Time Boy (Long Beach; May 5, 1968)
10. Mr. Soul
(Long Beach; May 5, 1968)
11. Uno Mundo (Long Beach; May 5, 1968)
12. Bluebird (Long Beach; May 5, 1968)
13. On the Way Home (Fillmore West; December 1967)
14. For What It's Worth (
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour television program; February 17, 1967)