Sunday, May 29, 2011

Leon's Creation - This Is the Beginning (Studio 10, 1969)


Some other music blogs have already helped give wider exposure to this superlative late 1960s San Francisco soul-funk album. Previous reviewers have correctly noted the similarities between Leon's Creation and fellow multi-racial, mixed-gender Bay Area outfit Sly and the Family Stone, but I think that anything the two groups had in common was more likely due to parallel development instead of outright mimicry. There doesn't seem to be a lot of information out there about this band, despite their releasing two other LPs as well as leader Leon Patillo's subsequent stint as Santana's vocalist in the mid 1970s and present gig as a contemporary Christian musician.


The participating musicians on what is apparently Leon's Creation's first record include Patillo on keyboards, Neal (last name unknown) on guitar, Billy Gerst on trumpet, Dennis (last name unknown) on saxophone, Carol Stallings on violin, Jimmy Calhoun on bass, and Joe (last name unknown) on drums. The group's resemblance to the aforementioned Sly and the Family Stone becomes immediately apparent at the beginning of the first track, although Stallings's violin work adds a distinctive element to the ensemble's sound throughout and the lyrics of all eight songs generally avoid the forceful sloganeering that often characterizes Sylvester Stewart's best-known compositions. Given Patillo's religious beliefs, I now can't help but wonder if some of these tunes might have a deeper spiritual meaning. And what's with the crucifix standing in for the letter "t" in the word "Creation" on the album cover? Well, even if any of these performances are Christian-themed, the message is never delivered in a heavy-handed fashion.


I won't hesitate to describe This Is the Beginning as a small masterpiece, even if the sound of Leon's Creation comes off as somewhat derivative at times. Every song is a winner, and I truly mean that. Jimmy Calhoun's nimble bass playing is the best of many highlights on the title track, while Carol Stallings's undeniably soulful vocals perfectly complement the laid-back grooves featured in "Until You Were Gone." The six-and-a-half-minute "Mirage" furnishes ample opportunities for everyone to show off their chops, with the mysterious guitarist Neal arguably providing the most exquisite contributions. The swaggering "Back Roads" and the equally vivacious "Confusion" might be this LP's most Sly-like performances but are so flawlessly executed that they deserve praise in their own right. "If I Had the Power" could possibly be a religious song but still has arrangements that are easy to get down to if you prefer dancing over spiritual reflection. The drummer lays down unerring rhythms all through This Is the Beginning, but it's on "Love" and "Sightless" (OK, this one has some pretty Sly-like moves as well) that his percussive talents shine most brightly.


1. This Is the Beginning
2. Until You Were Gone
3. Mirage
4. Back Roads
5. Confusion
6. If I Had the Power
7. Love
8. Sightless

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Oxford American Southern Sampler 1999


A big THANK YOU to Whit and Martha for helping to make this post possible.

I'm getting close to running out of things to say in general about the CDs that accompany the Oxford American's annual music issues. Regular readers of the magazine and fans of Southern musicians know how good these comps usually are. Even in cases where relatively well-known songs are included in the mix, these performances often regain their freshness when placed in the new context that these collections present. Best of all, the CDs always feature a few cuts by obscure artists with which the most eclectic record collectors might not be familiar. Plenty of like-minded folks have told me about how they got into particular singers and bands because they first became exposed to them through listening to these Southern Samplers. I, too, have often been the beneficiary of such musical introductions. That's precisely what good compilations are supposed to do.

BEAU JOCQUE

In typical fashion, the 1999 CD includes a wide variety of Southern musical styles. Blues and its many facets are superbly represented by Lead Belly's a cappella equal rights manifesto "Nobody Better Than Us," Bobby "Blue" Bland's unparalleled "Turn on Your Love Light" (which confirms that no cover version even comes close to touching the original), and Geeshie (aka Geechie) Wiley's foreboding "Last Kind Words Blues." I might as well include the Red Tops' "Swanee River Rock" as well as Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm's "Matchbox" (aka "I'm Gonna Forget About You Baby") as long as I'm talking about blues, but nitpickers might argue that such tracks are better classified as early rock 'n' roll or 1950s R&B. While I'm admittedly hard on most white blues interpreters, Lou Ann Barton does a fine job on the potent "Shake Your Hips." It's funny how time can change everything. Most Mississippians probably didn't take too kindly to Bob Dylan's "Oxford Town" when it first appeared on Freewheelin' in 1963. And yet here it appeared on a CD included with an issue of "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing" some 36 years later. I won't deny that Alex Chilton possesses legitimate Southern roots by virtue of his Memphis heritage, but he tries just a little too hard to sound soulful on "Make a Little Love." You're better off sticking with an example of genuine soul such as fellow Memphisonian Isaac Hayes's oft-sampled "Do Your Own Thing." That's not to suggest that white people can never be successful with the genre, as English chanteuse Dusty Springfield proves on "Breakfast in Bed" (which also goes to show that there is a lot more to Dusty in Memphis than just "Son of a Preacher Man"). One can make the same argument with "
Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" by psychedelic honky tonkers the Flying Burrito Brothers. Is this country, soul, or both? However one might classify this take on the Chips Moman-Dan Penn tune, it certainly compares favorably with Aretha Franklin's better-known version. One can't discuss soul without considering its forebear, gospel, which is perfectly exemplified by Dorothy Love Coatses's outstanding "Ninety-Nine and a Half." This is not the same song as Wilson Pickett's like-titled but decidedly secular hit record from 1966, but some writers have identified it as a possible inspiration. Those with a liking for straight-ahead country will probably enjoy Billy Joe Shaver's guitar-heavy "Georgian on a Fast Train," although I can't similarly endorse June Carter Cash's interpretation of "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore." The Man in Black's better half was clearly near the end of her rope when this song was recorded, and it's painful to listen to her almost-shot vocals in spite of the sympathetic instrumentation. Although I have a preference for the vintage stuff, the more recent Francophone music from Louisiana presented here - Beau Jocque's "Don't Tell Your Mama, Don't Tell Your Papa" and D.L. Menard's "The Back Door" - comes off fairly well. The Appalachia-meets-classical-music piece "Chief Sitting in the Rain" by Mark O'Connor, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer is pleasant enough but probably best enjoyed by those especially partial to artists endorsed by PBS and NPR. Despite being from completely different parts of the country, Townes Van Zandt (Texas) and John Prine (suburban Chicago) occupy a similar space somewhere between folk and country. "Ain't Leavin' Your Love" and "Sins of Memphisto" don't necessarily underwhelm me, but I like both singers' earlier material a whole lot better. How 'bout some jazz? Dixieland simply doesn't get much better than Jelly Roll Morton's "Doctor Jazz." Nina Simone really deserves her own category since she's not a musician who is easy to pigeonhole, but I guess I'll have to stick the jazz label on her to keep things simple. The bluesy "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl" deserves its reputation as one of her classic performances and just might be my favorite track on this CD. I can't say that I have same enthusiasm for the tracks by newer artists who may have been viewed as up-and-comers in 1999. "Locomotive" by Terry Binion is alright in a Lilith Fair female singer-songwriter sort of way, but I find Jason Morphew's "Badass with a Heart of Gold" with it's lame electronic arrangements to be downright annoying. Laurel and Hardy chip in with "Shine on Harvest Moon," which was featured in their movie The Flying Dueces from 1939. Since I don't own the issue of the Oxford American that corresponds with this sampler, I'm not sure why this song was included, but I suppose it has some novelty value. At any rate, I like it much more than Jerry Lee Lewis's schmaltzy interpretation of "Somewhere over the Rainbow," best described as "The Killer" doing filler.

THE FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT:
CHRIS ETHRIDGE, CHRIS HILLMAN, SNEAKY PETE
KLEINOW, MICHAEL CLARKE, & GRAM PARSONS

1. Nobody Better Than Us - Lead Belly
2. Oxford Town - Bob Dylan
3. Make a Little Love - Alex Chilton
4. Don't Tell Your Mama, Don't Tell Your Papa - Beau Jocque
5. Shake Your Hips - Lou Ann Barton
6. Georgia on a Fast Train - Billy Joe Shaver
7. Do Right Woman, Do Right Man - The Flying Burrito Brothers
8. Breakfast in Bed - Dusty Springfield
9. Turn on Your Love Light - Bobby "Blue" Bland
10. Chief Sitting in the Rain - Mark O'Connor, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer
11. Last Kind Words Blues - Geeshie Wiley
12. Ain't Leavin' Your Love - Townes Van Zandt
13. Swanee River Rock - Red Tops
14. Matchbox - Ike Turner
15. Doctor Jazz - Jelly Roll Morton
16. The Back Door - D.L. Menard
17. Sins of Memphisto - John Prine
18. Ninety-Nine and a Half - Dorothy Love Coates
19. Locomotive - Terry Binion
20. I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl - Nina Simone
21. Do Your Own Thing - Isaac Hayes
22. The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore - June Carter Cash
23. Badass with a Heart of Gold - Jason Morphew
24. Shine on Harvest Moon - Laurel and Hardy
25. Somewhere over the Rainbow - Jerry Lee Lewis

BOBBY "BLUE" BLAND WORKING UP A SWEAT

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Son House - The Real Delta Blues - 14 Songs from the Man Who Taught Robert Johnson (Blue Goose, 1974)


Another fantastic share from the esteemed Rambling Rolf. Thank you, my friend.

Of all the tortured souls in the pantheon of blues musicians, none seemed more tormented than Eddie "Son" House (1902?-1988). Was his well-documented wavering between the bottle and the Bible the cause of his inner demons or merely symptomatic of a more significant psychological issue? Whatever the particulars, it is tempting to think that such spiritual struggles helped create such a gripping body of artistic work, one that includes some of the most emotionally resonant-sounding blues performances ever committed to wax. House became a significantly more prominent figure in the genre's history than his relatively small prewar recording output would initially suggest, with much of that having to do with his prominent incorporation of gospel elements into his playing style and his subsequent rediscovery in 1964.

SON HOUSE IN CONCERT

In spite of the exposure he received during the blues revival in the 1960s, there remain many surprising and underacknowledged aspects to his career. The happy face that House often displayed in photographs belied the fact that he was a barely-functional alcoholic who probably would not have been able to adhere to a touring and recording schedule if not for the patient shepherding of his protective manager Dick Waterman. Fondness of drink coupled with years of musical inactivity rendered the guitarist incapable of performing when first rediscovered. In fact, future member of Canned Heat Al Wilson was integral in reacquainting House with his erstwhile instrument. According to Waterman's recollections as related in Francis Davis's The History of the Blues,
We brought Son to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to get him ready for the Newport Folk Festival (and introduced him to) Al Wilson, who played open-tuning bottleneck and could play all the styles. And he sat down with Son, knee to knee, guitar to guitar, and said, "Okay, this is the figure that in 1930, you called 'My Black Mama,'" and played it for him. And Son said, "Yeah, yeah, that's me, that's me. I played that." And then Al said, "Now about a dozen years later, when Mr. Lomax came around, you changed the name to 'My Black Woman,' and you did it this way." He showed him. And Son would say, "Yeah, yeah. I got my recollection now, I got my recollection now." And he would start to play, and the two of them played together. Then, Al reminded him of how he changed tunings, and played his own "Pony Blues" for him.

There would not have been a rediscovery of Son House in the 1960s without Al Wilson. Really. Al Wilson taught Son House how to play Son House.
In my estimation, however, the most noteworthy misconception involving House concerns the supporting information he allegedly supplied in regard to the naive belief that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi Delta crossroads. As discussed in Edward Komara's editor commentary from Chasin' That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues by Gayle Dean Wardlow, it is probable that House's so-called claim of Johnson's pact with Satan all stemmed from a misunderstanding:
Pete Welding's article "Hellhound on his Trail" provided the initial building block to the myth. Son House, as quoted by Welding, "suggested in all seriousness that Johnson, in his months away from home, had 'sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning to play like that.'" It is likely that House was envious of Johnson's musical skills, rather than awed or horrified at the prospect of any supernatural means of attaining them.

On this matter I spoke with Dick Waterman. He remembered discussing Robert Johnson with the aged bluesman a few times while traveling between concerts. House told Waterman of seeing Johnson returning to Robinsonville after an absence of "a couple of years." Whenever the legend of Johnson and the devil was mentioned, House would dismiss it with a shrug of his shoulders or a wave of his hand. Waterman believes what House said to Welding is strongly dependent on the line of questioning.
SON HOUSE LOOKING LIKE A HARD-BOILED, FEDORA-WEARING,
BLUES GUITAR-PLAYING FILM NOIR PRIVATE DETECTIVE

Nevertheless, Son House's musical identity continues to be strongly tied to his onetime pupil as indicated by the complete title of this album, which consists of recordings made by Yazoo and Blue Goose Records founder Nick Perls at his private studio and in folk clubs during the 1960s. Although The Real Delta Blues features reinterpretations of material that House originally played at his 1930 session for Paramount and 1941-1942 sessions for the Library of Congress as well as versions of songs that would also appear on other post-rediscovery releases, it deserves greater recognition for the intimate quality apparent on each of its 14 tracks. Perls's ear for detail helped him capture performances that may have been beyond the grasp of engineers at studios for larger and better-funded labels. Blues seldom sounds more heart-wrenching than it does on
"Milkcow's Calf Blues," "Rochester Blues" (a relatively new composition), "Lake Cormorant Blues" (a rehashing of themes first heard on House's Library of Congress recordings), "Mississippi County Farm Blues," "Pony Blues," and "Trouble Blues." House's legendary stentorian voice sounds just as convincing on the spirituals "I Shall Not Be Moved," "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time," "This Little Light of Mine," and "Lord Have Mercy When I Come to Die," while his earthy slide guitar playing is the focus on the instrumental and near-instrumental pieces "Hobo," "A Down the Staff," "The D.T. Moan," and "Soon in the Morning."

*There seems to be a jump groove on track 2 from the original vinyl rip and possibly on track 8 as well. Of course, these apparent glitches could also just as easily be examples of House flubbing the vocals. Since I don't have the actual LP in my possession, I can't be sure one way or another. Considering the scarcity of this record, I hope that such imperfections don't interfere with your ability to enjoy these performances too much.

**Check out another great Son House rarity here.

GRINNIN' IN YOUR FACE: DESPITE HIS GENIAL APPEARANCE IN THIS
PHOTO, SKIP JAMES (SEATED) DISPARAGED SON HOUSE IN TYPICAL
CURMUDGEONLY FASHION AS "SHAKY" AND "A POOR SONGSTER"

1. Milkcow's Calf Blues
2. I Shall Not Be Moved
3. Rochester Blues
4. Hobo
5. Lake Cormorant Blues
6. Motherless Children Have a Hard Time
7. Mississippi County Farm Blues
8. Pony Blues
9. Trouble Blues
10. This Little Light of Mine
11. A Down the Staff
12. The D.T. Moan
13. Lord Have Mercy When I Come to Die
14. Soon in the Morning

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Jug & Washboard Bands - Vol. 2 (Story of Blues, 1992)


As indicated by its title, this CD compiles a number of late 1920s recordings by various jug and washboard bands, although a cursory glance at the track listing will show that the featured aggregations occupy the genre's second echelon in terms of prominence. The Memphis Jug Band and violinist Clifford Hayes's groups from Louisville remain the standard by which all other similar outfits are judged, but this collection still features several lesser-known musicians who deserve further consideration. Indeed, many of these sides demonstrate how the jug and washboard band format could be readily adapted to blues-related styles such as hokum, gospel, and jazz.


Collectors of vintage African-American music might recognize the name of the Tub Jug Washboard Band from their work with Ma Rainey. On these four sides, kazooist-washboardist Herman Brown, banjoist Martell Pettiford, and jazzhorn player-juggist Carl Reid perform as a trio. The vocal exchanges that characterize "Washboard Rag" emphasize the humorous nature of this particular song, while the double entendre "right key, wrong keyhole" lyrics of "Lady Quit Her Husband Onexpectinly" (sic) suggest that it is an earlier variation of a song included on the Angel Heart soundtrack. The instrumentals "Tub-Jug Rag" and "San" provide the musicians with ample opportunities to exhibit their chops. Waxed in Memphis, Rev. E.S. "Shy" Moore's "Christ, The Teacher" and "The Solemn Warning" represent the sanctified jug band sound, a style that was relatively common in the Deep South. The preacher follows the same formula on each side: sermonizing for about two minutes, and then letting the musicians and singers in his congregation go full-tilt for the final third of the record. While "Christ" concludes with a rendition of "Take a Stand," I'm not sure about the identity of the gospel tune at the end of "Warning." Does anyone out there recognize it? Other than vocalist J.C. Johnson, the names of the other musicians who comprised Feathers and Frogs remains unknown. I've seen various blues researchers categorize "How You Get that Way" and "Sweet Black Dog" as hokum, and that classification works for me. Despite not being as celebrated as the city's Clifford Hayes-helmed units, guitarist Emmet "Phil" Phillips's Louisville Jug Band proved to be no less talented. Instrumentals "Soldier Boy Blues," "That's a Lovely Thing for You," "Walkin' Cane Stomp," "Hard Hustlin' Blues," "Smackin' the Sax," and "That's Your Last" in addition to the nearly wordless "Tiger Rag" qualify as jazz more than anything else, while "Sing, You Sinners" can best be described as a novelty song. George "Hooks" Tilford's saxophone gives these sides an air of sophistication, with Tub Jug alumnus Carl Reid's jug or jazzhorn providing an earthy counterpoint. What makes these sides most distinctive, however, is the presence of Charles "Cane" Adams, who earned his sobriquet by playing a flute that had apparently been fashioned from a walking stick.

A PHOTO OF TWO MUSICIANS NOT FEATURED ON THIS CD USED FOR
ILLUSTRATIVE PURPOSES ONLY (ANYONE KNOW WHO THESE GUYS ARE?)

1. Washboard Rag - Tub Jug Washboard Band
2. Lady Quit Her Husband Onexpectinly
- Tub Jug Washboard Band
3. Tub-Jug Rag
- Tub Jug Washboard Band
4. San
- Tub Jug Washboard Band
5. Christ, The Teacher - Rev. E.S. "Shy" Moore
6. The Solemn Warning - Rev. E.S. "Shy" Moore
7. How You Get that Way - Feathers and Frogs
8. Sweet Black Dog - Feathers and Frogs
9. Soldier Boy Blues - Phillips' Louisville Jug Band
10. That's a Lovely Thing for You
- Phillips' Louisville Jug Band
11. Sing, You Sinners
- Phillips' Louisville Jug Band
12. Tiger Rag
- Phillips' Louisville Jug Band
13. Walkin' Cane Stomp
- Phillips' Louisville Jug Band
14. Hard Hustlin' Blues
- Phillips' Louisville Jug Band
15. Smackin' the Sax
- Phillips' Louisville Jug Band
16. That's Your Last
- Phillips' Louisville Jug Band

Monday, May 16, 2011

I Can Eagle Rock - Jook Joint Blues from Alabama and Louisiana - Library of Congress Recordings 1940-1941 (Travelin' Man, 1978; 1996)


A companion album to Red River Blues 1934-1943 and Mississippi Blues 1940-1942, I Can Eagle Rock - Jook Joint Blues from Alabama and Louisiana presents the listener with another selection of choice cuts from field recordings made for the Library of Congress. Assembled by Travelin' Man, one of the more underrated labels that specializes in reissuing vintage blues, this CD maintains the compilers' regional approach by focusing on artists from Louisiana and, to a lesser degree, Alabama. Most of the featured musicians had not made commercial recordings prior to these sessions, thus increasing the likelihood that much of this material will be unfamiliar even to some of the most knowledgeable fans of prewar blues.

JOHN LOMAX

With the exception of one track, these songs were recorded by trailblazing folklorist and musicologist John Lomax during his final field trip for the Library of Congress's Archive of American Folk Song in 1940. There was a greater emphasis on recording blues during this expedition, most likely at the behest of his son Alan, who possessed far more enthusiasm for this style of African-American music than his father. Alabamian guitarist Tom Bell, whose day job consisted of milking cows on a dairy farm, provides the CD's title in his first performance, "
I Can Eagle Rock, I Can Ball the Jack," a piece that gives him the opportunity to expound upon his dancing prowess. The similarly rhythmic "Cross E Shimmy Dance Tune" sounds like another juke-friendly number, while the more lowdown "New York City Blues," "I'm Worried Now and I Won't Be Worried Long," "Corrina," "C-Natural Blues," and "Storm in Arkansas" conclusively display his ability to handle introspective material with equal conviction. "Red Cross Blues" (aka "Red Cross Store Blues," originally inspired by the discrimination faced by rural Southern blacks at Red Cross stations during disaster relief efforts in the 1910s and 1920s) by the Washboard Trio (Mobile Washboard Band) represents a completely different style of music from Alabama, as the name of the group responsible for this selection implies. This is the one track on I Can Eagle Rock that was not collected by Lomax, with credit instead going to ethnographic researcher Robert Sonkin, who recorded it during his chronicling of musical folkways in the Gee's Bend area. "Red Cross (Store) Blues" is, of course, something of a genre standard specific to the Yellowhammer State, while some members of the unit that waxed this particular version would record again after World War II as the Mobile Strugglers.

OSCAR "THE LONE WOLF" WOODS

Among the musicians from Louisiana, lap-style slide guitarist Oscar Woods had made commercial recordings as recently as 1938 before Lomax found him playing at a sparsely-attended restaurant in Shreveport during the field trip. "Don't Sell It" revisits his similarly-titled sides cut for Decca in 1936 and Vocalion in 1937, whereas "Boll Weevil Blues" finds him interpreting Ma Rainey's "Boll Weevil Blues." "
Look Here Baby, I Got One Thing to Say" seems to be a variation on the "Hey Lawdy Mama" idiom, and according to John H. Cowley's booklet notes, both takes of "Sometimes I Get to Thinkin'" are the only "conventional blues" that "The Lone Wolf" provided for the Library of Congress. Apparently, Lomax also discovered guitarist Joe Harris and mandolinist Kid West at the same establishment performing with Woods, although he decided to record them separately as a duo. With probable birth dates prior to 1900, they were musicians from the proto-blues generation, the type of performers with which the folklorist had more experience. As such, the guitar-mandolin duets of Harris's "East Texas Blues" and "Baton Rouge Rag" and West's "Kid West Blues" and "A-Natural Blues" have an even more antiquated songster feel to them in contrast to the CD's other tracks. For my money, the best moments on I Can Eagle Rock belong to Noah Moore, cousin of the immortal Lead Belly. Anyone with a passing interest in American roots music should be at least somewhat familiar with the connection between Lomax and the erstwhile Huddie Ledbetter. A desire to bring matters full circle possibly brought the folklorist to Lead Belly's hometown of Mooringsport, where he sought to record the songster's influential musician relatives. Although Ledbetter's ailing uncle Bob was unable to provide much in the way of contributions to the Archive, his suggestion to check out the playing of his grandson Noah yielded some extremely impressive results. Lomax's preference for what he considered folk music caused him to compare the guitarist unfavorably with Lead Belly, though anyone with a fondness for Southern prewar blues will likely much to appreciate in "Settin' Here Thinkin'," "Jerry's Saloon Blues," and a fine interpretation of the Memphis-specific "Mr. Crump Don't Like It." Of even greater interest, however, are the nine-minute "Oil City Blues" and the nearly twelve-minute "Lowdown Worry Blues," which in their extended formats are probably as close as we'll get to knowing what blues in prewar juke joints sounded like. Unfortunately, Moore died in service to his country during World War II, leaving behind a brief but hardly insignificant recorded legacy.

THE CD BOOKLET'S COVER PHOTO IN FULL

1. I Can Eagle Rock, I Can Ball the Jack - Tom Bell
2. Look Here Baby, I Got One Thing to Say - Oscar Woods
3. East Texas Blues - Joe Harris
4. Oil City Blues - Noah Moore
5. Kid West Blues - Kid West
6. Sometimes I Get to Thinkin' (take 1) - Oscar Woods
7. Cross E Shimmy Dance Tune - Tom Bell
8. Settin' Here Thinkin' - Noah Moore
9. Don't Sell It - Oscar Woods
10. New York City Blues - Tom Bell
11. A-Natural Blues - Kid West
12. Lowdown Worry Blues - Noah Moore
13. I'm Worried Now and I Won't Be Worried Long - Tom Bell
14. Sometimes I Get to Thinkin' (take 2) - Oscar Woods
15. Corrina - Tom Bell
16. Jerry's Saloon Blues - Noah Moore
17. Red Cross Blues - Washboard Trio (Mobile Washboard Band)
18. C-Natural Blues - Tom Bell
19. Boll Weevil Blues - Oscar Woods
20. Mr. Crump Don't Like It - Noah Moore
21. Baton Rouge Rag - Joe Harris
22. Storm in Arkansas - Tom Bell

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Alexander "Skip" Spence - Oar (Columbia, 1969; original vinyl rip)


Any fan of 1960s psychedelic rock worth his or her weight in vinyl should be familiar with this album and possess a copy of it in one form or another. I'm well aware that Alexander "Skip" Spence's masterpiece Oar has already received quite a bit of exposure in the blogosphere, but this post might be of interest to those curious to hear what a rip of an original copy of this record sounds like. Widely acknowledged by critics as one of the greatest solo albums in the history of rock 'n' roll, it has deservedly been reissued several times since its original 1969 release date, including a British CBS vinyl version in 1988, a Sony Special Products edition CD with bonus tracks in 1991, Sundazed's CD offering with even more additional material in 1999, and, last but not least, the same label's LP reproduction in 2000. While these variants all have their respective virtues, a 1969 pressing of the original album mix remains the definitive Oar listening experience. Although not easy to detect, there are subtle differences in sound from one version to another, the sort of thing that might only become apparent if one has listened to this record hundreds of times like I have. In my opinion, Spence and Columbia nailed it the first time around, and the sound of the original can't really be improved upon. Even so, I'm not sure if these digital facsimiles will do it justice.


Oar is much more than just a footnote in the Moby Grape story as it has finally earned the recognition that it deserves more than 40 years after its initial release. As is often the case with visionary musicians, Spence was a few too many decades ahead of his time, even for the countercultural record buyers of the late 1960s. If one looks at Skip's life in the same fashion as an LSD trip, it was all good vibes up until the peak as represented by the Grape's debut LP released during the summer of 1967. From there, however, it was all downhill, with the infamous fire axe incident in New York representing a bad comedown as well as the beginning of the artist's decent into madness. Recorded in late 1968 immediately after Spence had been released from his enforced stay at Bellvue Hospital, Oar's 12 songs attempt to articulate the revelations witnessed by someone who got burned from flying too close to the sun. Since this particular prophet was rapidly losing his connections to the material world during the recording sessions in Nashville, the messages in the lyrics are often obscured by a psychedelic haze. Although the songs do not lend themselves to easy interpretation, one can still revere Oar as Spence's final significant statement before slipping into permanent darkness.

SKIP SPENCE IN COLUMBIA'S NASHVILLE STUDIO, DECEMBER 1968

The songs one by one:

"Little Hands" - In a world more just, this anthemic performance could have been a huge hit in 1969. Despite everything Spence had been through and undeterred by the approaching end of the hippie dream, "Little Hands" still retains the optimism displayed in his most inspirational Moby Grape compositions such as "Omaha." The lyrics deal with children and the hope that they will make the world a better place in the wake of the changes brought about by the counterculture. Seemingly simple couplets including "little hands caring, little hands sharing" and "little hands clasping, truth they are grasping" speak volumes.

"Cripple Creek" - I'm not sure if the disabled character featured in this song is supposed to be a metaphor for someone or something else, but it's a spellbinding performance nonetheless. Skip lays down some gorgeous multi-tracked acoustic guitar on this number, giving it a legitimate underground Nashville flavor. This is Outlaw country music before the term had been coined.

"Diana" - Although it's probably my least-favorite track on Oar, "Diana" still has a lot going for it. Songs about unrequited love or failed relationships don't sound much more sincere than this, so much so that Spence's anguish is well-nigh tangible. It just might be too emotionally painful for some people to sit through.

"Margaret-Tiger Rug" - Spence was one of the few musicians capable of pulling off this little drum-and-bass (no, not the mid-1990s genre of electronic dance music) ditty about...well, I'm still not sure even after listening to this song for more than 15 years. We will never know if the skeletal arrangements on this performance were intentional or if this was simply as far as Skip could go with it before his allotted time in the studio ended. The bonus tracks on the CD reissues of Oar consist of songs that have the same kind of instrumental backing and seem to have been works in progress. In spite of its similar unfinished feel, "Margaret-Tiger Rug" made it onto the original album, while the others did not.



"Weighted Down (The Prison Song)" - More proto-Outlaw country with a title that is a bit of a play on words. Based on the subtitle and certain lyrics, I think that this selection must have been at least partially inspired by Spence's stay in Bellvue, although I also might be taking things too literally. Quite simply, one of the most haunting and soul-baring performances ever recorded.

"War in Peace" - This is such a mind-blowing piece (no pun intended) of heavy 1960s psych that one could be forgiven for refusing to believe that only one musician played everything on it. Skip never got to play much lead guitar with the Grape, but here he handles the instrument in absolutely brilliant fashion. The same goes for his unique approach to percussion, a style that he learned on the job during his brief stint as Jefferson Airplane's first drummer. And all those weird sound effects? I think that I had read somewhere it was just Spence whistling or blowing into the studio microphone and slowing down the playback speed during the mixing process. Most impressive, however, is the fact that such a multi-layered performance was recorded on a two-track machine, primitive equipment even by 1960s standards.

"Broken Heart" - Yet another exercise in early Outlaw country sounds, "Broken Heart" is both despairing and amusing. Taking the title into consideration, one should not be surprised by the song's first characteristic, while its second becomes apparent after listening to lyrics that describe various characters such as "an Olympic super-swimmer whose belly doesn't flop" and "a honey-dripping hipster whose be cannot be bopped." I suspect that Greil Marcus must have especially had this tune in mind when stating, "
Much of Oar sounds like the sort of haphazard folk music that might have been made around campfires after the California gold rush burned itself out - sad, clumsy tunes that seem to laugh at themselves as Spence takes the listener on a tour through his six or seven voices" in his review for the album from the May 19, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone magazine.

"All Come to Meet Her" - I get really tired of reading all the fawning critics who yammer on and on about how the Band is so great for their alleged ability to capture the essence of rural America in the songs from their overrated but still worthwhile first two LPs. Clocking in at a mere two minutes, "All Come to Meet Her" handily beats the erstwhile Hawks at their own game. As a Canadian, Skip Spence had a much better grasp of Americana than fellow countrymen Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel, resulting in performances that sound far more distinct and genuine than anything they ever did.


"Books of Moses" - I can't think of any white guys other than Spence who could have written and performed an ostensible gospel number that is so dark and scary. "Books of Moses" reflects a view of God that is more in keeping with the wrathful Jehovah of the Old Testament than the New Testament's kind and loving Jesus. The hammer-and-chisel and thunderstorm sound effects provide the icing on the cake. I dare you to listen to this one with the lights off.

"Dixie Peach Promenade" - Completing the quartet of proto-Outlaw country tracks, "Promenade" at first sounds joyous, but upon further examination reveals itself to be manic. Its upbeat rhythm and deftly picked acoustic guitars stand in stark contrast to confessional lyrics in which at one point Spence bellows, "I took every bit of stuff from A to Z, now you hear me!" In his world, however, the music perfectly complements the words.

"Lawrence of Euphoria" - An ode to Skip's alter ego? As on "Margaret-Tiger Rug," Spence was one of the few musicians with the ability to make something like this work. Had it appeared as a cover version, the song would not have sounded out of place on either of the solo albums by his Transatlantic counterpart, Syd Barrett.

"Grey / Afro" - This epic closing track clocks in at nine-and-a-half minute and represents music of a variety that had never been recorded before and has never been recorded since. It would be interesting to know specifically what material influenced Spence during the conceptualization of this piece. Consisting of otherworldly drumming and near-inscrutable chanted vocals, "Grey / Afro" sounds like an aural representation of the darkest part of Spence's mind. Enter at your own risk.

A FINE EXAMPLE OF A RECORD LABEL EXPLOITING MENTAL
ILLNESS TO HELP PUSH ALBUM SALES (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

1. Little Hands
2. Cripple Creek
3. Diana
4. Margaret-Tiger Rug
5. Weighted Down (The Prison Song)
6. War in Peace
7. Broken Heart
8. All Come to Meet Her
9. Books of Moses
10. Dixie Peach Promenade
11. Lawrence of Euphoria
12. Grey / Afro

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Jimmy Driftwood - Voice of the People (Omni, 2006)


There are few if any musicians who better personify Americana than James Corbett Morris, more commonly known as Jimmy (or Jimmie) Driftwood (1907-1998). He was one of those artists who could comfortably straddle the divide between two genres - which in his case was folk and country - and utilize the best aspects of each to help create an extremely impressive and influential body of work. Indeed, Driftwood's historically-oriented songbook should be considered a national treasure since it documents elements of Southern folkways that would otherwise be lost to us. He was a link between 19th- and 20th-century America with strong connections to his home in the Ozark Mountains region of northern Arkansas which gave him irrefutable genuine folk musician credentials. This background coupled with an obvious passion for events of the past contributed significantly to his ability to compose some of the greatest songs about United States history ever written.

ONE OF THE FEW PEOPLE WHO COULD GET AWAY
WITH WEARING A FRINGE LEATHER JACKET

Driftwood came from a musical family, and it was his grandfather who provided him with his signature homemade guitar constructed from materials including a weathered fence rail, a headboard from an old bed, and a well-worn ox yoke. Although much of the 1920s and 1930s found Jimmy hitchhiking through the Southwest and living in Arizona, he eventually returned to his home in Timbo to work as a teacher. Prior to his first recordings in the late 1950s, "The Hillbilly Alan Lomax" had already written and collected hundreds of songs, several of which were used to enliven history lessons for his students. Driftwood's own attempts to get into the music industry did not meet with success, but he eventually came to the attention of Porter Wagoner and Don Warden, who were looking to sign new musicians to their publishing company. Between 1957 and 1961, he recorded several albums for RCA which never sold in large numbers but had a big impact on other country artists as demonstrated by Johnny Horton's massive hit cover version of "The Battle of New Orleans" and the similar success that Eddy Arnold had with "Tennessee Stud." Driftwood continued to make albums through the 1960s after switching labels to Monument Records, although he also became involved with other matters and causes important to him such as founding the Rackensack Folklore Society, organizing the Arkansas Folk Festival, setting up the Ozark Folk Center, and becoming involved in environmental issues. All of this combined to make him one of the most enlightened and progressive hillbillies who ever lived.

JIMMY DRIFTWOOD WITH HIS HIS UNIQUE GUITAR

This CD of mid-1960s Monument recordings pairs Driftwood's Voice of the People and Down in the Arkansas albums while throwing in some choice cuts from The Best of Jimmy Driftwood (featuring remakes of titles originally recorded for RCA) for good measure. The instrumentation throughout is on the folkier end of the country music spectrum with acoustic guitars and bass predominating along with the occasional accompaniment of banjo, snare drum, and musical bow (played in the same manner as a Jew's harp). Songs such as the race-relations-themed "
What Is the Color of the Soul of a Man?", "The Voice of the People," and "Battle Hymn of Peace" reveal the folk singer's idealistic side. "The Lonesome Ape" provides a humorous take on evolution, whereas "Standing on the Left Hand Side of God" and "My Church" supply thoughtful commentary on religious matters. Driftwood outdoes himself on the slices of Ozark life presented in "Mixed-Up Life" (a hilarious piece on incest), "Straighten Out My Laig" (which concerns itself with the phantom pain experienced by people who have lost limbs), "Down in the Arkansas," "Beautiful White River Valley," "Bows and Arrows: Arrows and Bows," "That's the Way They Do in Arkansas," and "In a Mountain Village." "I Remember Her Still" and "Courtin' Song" are ostensibly romantic numbers performed in a uniquely north Arkansan manner. Those with an appreciation for the kind of history-and-folklore-inspired country numbers with which Johnny Cash would also become identified will find much to enjoy in "(My Mammy's Miss America) My Daddy's Uncle Sam," "Equality," "Timbercutter's Song," "Ozark Bill," "On the Banks of the Buffalo," "In the Ouchita Mountains," "The Horsetrader's Song," "The Battle of New Orleans," "Long Chain," "Tennessee Stud," and "Wilderness Road," even if the last four tracks are not the marginally better-known original versions. Finally, Driftwood displays his sense of cornpone humor to good effect on "My Get Up and Go Just Got Up and Went" and the traditionally-based "Unfortunate Man," meditations respectively on the otherwise serious topics of aging and prenuptial agreements.

LYING DOWN ON THE JOB AGAIN

Voice of the People
(1963)
1.
What Is the Color of the Soul of a Man?
2. The Voice of the People
3. The Lonesome Ape
4. Standing on the Left Hand Side of God
5. Battle Hymn of Peace
6. My Church
7. Mixed-Up Family
8. I Remember Her Still
9. Straighten Out My Laig
10. (My Mammy's Miss America) My Daddy's Uncle Sam
11. Equality
12. My Get Up and Go Just Got Up and Went

Down in the Arkansas (1964)
13. Down in the Arkansas
14. Timbercutter's Song
15. Courtin' Song
16. Ozark Bill
17. On the Banks of the Buffalo
18. Beautiful White River Valley
19. In the Ouchita Mountains
20. The Horsetrader's Song
21. Bows and Arrows: Arrows and Bows
22. That's the Way They Do in Arkansas
23. In a Mountain Village

Selected tracks from The Best of Jimmy Driftwood (1966)
24. The Battle of New Orleans
25. Unfortunate Man
26. Long Chain
27. Tennessee Stud
28. Wilderness Road

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Wilbur de Paris and his New New Orleans Jazz - Marchin' and Swingin' (Atlantic, 1956)


A practically forgotten jazz musician, Wilbur de Paris (1900-1973) bears distinction as one of the last significant bandleaders to play trombone and for being a prominent figure in the Dixieland Revival of the 1940s and 1950s. Not content to be a mere preservationist, he incorporated different prewar styles of the music into his group's repertory, giving his performances a vitality that was absent in the work of many of his contemporaries. Such an approach earned him a large following among white jazz fans in New York City and Europe, where he remained a popular club attraction for the latter part of his career.

WILBUR DE PARIS BLOWS TRUMPET WHILE SIDNEY
DE PARIS PLAYS CORNET, CIRCA JULY 1947

Born in Crawfordsville, Indiana to a father who was a musician and traveling show entertainer, Wilbur started out playing alto saxophone in the elder de Paris's band as early as 1907 before switching to trombone sometime shortly before or after his first exposure to jazz in the 1910s. By the end of the 1920s, he was a veteran of the music scenes in Philadelphia and, more importantly, New Orleans, where he evidently had the opportunity to perform with legends such as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. During the early 1930s, he disbanded his first group, Wilbur de Paris and his Cottonpickers, and relocated to New York City, during which time he played and recorded with big names such as Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, and Duke Ellington. The late 1940s found him organizing another outfit, Wilbur de Paris and his New New Orleans Jazz, with his cornetist brother Sidney as well as alumni from Jelly Roll Morton's bands such as clarinetist Omer Simeon and drummer Freddie Moore. In terms of this aggregation's sound, Marshall W. Stearns states in his liner notes,
The de Paris band plays New Orleans style-plus. They haven't stood still. Because they have added the swinging rhythm and harmonies of the thirties. And they have expanded the limited repertory of Dixieland and New Orleans bands past the bursting point. They play light classics, spirituals, marches, blues, ragtime, hymns, popular hits, jazz standards, originals of their own composing, and resurrected gems from the distant past. You name it and they'll play it. This band is a pocket edition of jazz history.

The appropriately-titled Marchin' and Swingin' mostly features material that had originally been recorded in 1952 and released the following year on two Atlantic ten-inch LPs as by Wilbur de Paris and his Rampart Street Ramblers. As the 1950s progressed and the 12-inch format became popular, nine of the ten tracks ("Sensation Rag" was replaced with "Battle Hymn of the Republic") were compiled on this album from 1956. De Paris's own compositions, "Martinique" and "Marchin' and Swingin'," perfectly condense the various styles that influenced him, while the works of Jelly Roll Morton have rarely been interpreted as compellingly as they are on "Shreveport Stomp" and "The Pearls." "Tres Moutarde" and "Under the Double Eagle" are engaging performances in their own right, and the group's rousing take on "When the Saints Go Marching In" admirably demonstrates that it's possible to breathe new life into this old new Orleans warhorse with the right musicians. "Hindustan" and a version of Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C Sharp Minor" offer unexpected listening pleasures, with the aforementioned "Battle Hymn" benefiting greatly from the Dixieland treatment.

COVERS OF THE ORIGINAL TEN-INCH LPs ON WHICH
MOST OF THESE TRACKS FIRST APPEARED IN 1953

1. Martinique
2. Tres Moutarde
3. Under the Double Eagle
4. Shreveport Stomp
5. When the Saints Go Marching In
6. The Pearls
7. Hindustan
8. Prelude in C Sharp Minor
9. Battle Hymn of the Republic
10. Marchin' and Swingin'

AT THE AQUARIUM CLUB IN NEW YORK CITY, CIRCA LATE 1940s