Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Various Artists "The Amazing ZigZag Concert" (4.5*)

Looking back, at first glance it's easy to dismiss the early seventies as a musical wasteland, but looking a little more closely maybe the era wasn't quite the musical disaster area you might have thought.

Those years between the late sixties when there seemed to be a classic new single every few weeks and a landmark album every few months and the burst of energy that accompanied the punk/new wave explosion around 1977 did, after all, introduce me to many of the artists who've become part of Hughesy's subsequent musical landscape, including The Band (though Music From Big Pink fits in as one of those late sixties landmark albums), Little Feat, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Steely Dan (back when they were a quirky poppish band rather than the super-slick Gaucho era).

Much of my own musical ennui through those years resulted from changes as the old crowd I'd hung with moved out of town. Had I been able to find replacements things may well have presented a different aspect in hindsight's 20/20 vision.

It was a time when there was plenty to read, quite a bit to listen to, and the odd item to watch on TV, even in a remote outpost like Townsville. The problem was that people to talk about these matters were thin on the ground. With plenty of reading matter but a limited budget, a couple of friends with similar musical interests would have been rather handy.

The mainstream music press (the British weeklies, as well as the fortnightly Rolling Stone and monthlies like Let It Rock and Creem certainly threw up more than the odd new name to investigate, but when it comes to the monthly magazine the best of them was probably ZigZag. It wasn't always easy to find, and it was well after the magazine's first flourish when I finally tracked one down, and while I scoured the shelves in a number of newsagencies I suspect I missed the odd copy here and there along the way.

Those memories came flooding back as I worked my way through The Amazing ZigZag Concert, a five disk set featuring performances by Michael Nesmith, John Stewart, Help Yourself, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers and Starry Eyed and Laughing from The Roundhouse in London on 28 April 1974.

Started by Pete Frame in April 1969, ZigZag was a classy monthly featuring in-depth interviews, comprehensive articles, as well as the earliest of Frame's immaculately researched Family Trees which remain the best source of who did what when back in the day it's possible to find.

While there was plenty being written about rock music at the time, most of it tended to focus on the usual suspects, and given a lack of reading matter that coincided with his tastes Frame decided to provide his own. The magazine's name referred simultaneously to Captain Beefheart's Zig Zag Wanderer and a popular brand of cigarette papers.

It wasn't, however, the sort of magazine that was going to attract a wide readership, and the financial wolves were never far from the door until Charisma Records' Tony Stratton-Smith came to the rescue in early 1974, which was around the time that copies started appearing in Townsville newsagencies. Stratton-Smith also came through with the funds that allowed The Amazing ZigZag Concert to celebrate the magazine's fifth birthday to go ahead.

From the opening set by Starry Eyed and Laughing, the five disks in this package sent me back into a warm nostalgia that was surprisingly at odds with my actual recollections of the timeframe involved.

Starry Eyed and Laughing, widely dismissed as a wannabe-Byrds outfit and a band I hadn't heard until now open proceedings with a set that's totally obvious about influences, but delivered with an élan that makes me wish that classic Byrds line-up had lasted through the dramas that devoured the original line-up in the late sixties. Hardly earth-shattering, but pretty bloody wonderful...

Second up, the set by Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers didn't hit me as well as the studio Bongos Over Balham did, but, hey, this is live and Bongos is one of my most treasured musical pieces of nostalgia, Still, it's always good to hear from an old favourite, and this was a very classy, if short-lived outfit. I'll be looking for Kings of the Robot Rhythm and the I'll Be Home compilation.

Ex-Kingston Trio member John Stewart surprised a lot of people with Gold in the late seventies, but his set here is a reminder that the guy was a more than decent songwriter (viz. the versions here of Daydream Believer, Armstrong and July, You're A Woman, none of which I recall associating with Stewart as a writer). It's another set that underlines the quality of what was out there waiting to be noticed while some of us were looking for the next big thing, and there was another timely reminder of things I'd missed first time around in Help Yourself, another outfit firmly oriented towards the West Coast, with four extended jams making up the almost hour-long set.

But if you're looking for something rather wonderful, I'd point you to the closing set by ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith and pedal steel player Red Rhodes. While Nesmith was certainly no stranger to radio airplay, particularly with the rather whimsical Rio, most of his catalogue slipped by under the radar, and once the opening Joanne and Some of Shelley's Blues are out of the way we're into unfamiliar territory that'll need to be investigated further. Quality writing, warm vocals and Rhodes' pedal steel is simply stunning.

While what's on offer here is probably not much more than a footnote in the big scheme of things it's worth investigating if you've got the interest, the readies and you're quick enough on your feet to snaffle one of the remaining copies from the run of 2000 boxes from (£39 if you use PayPal, £2 credit card surcharge).

It has certainly laid out a few more avenues  to investigate.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gregg Allman "Low Country Blues" (4*)

Gregg Allman Low Country Blues (4.5* if you're a Gregg fan, 4* otherwise)
A glance at the track listing for Gregg Allman's first album of new material since 1997's Searchin' for Simplicity might have the average blues fan scratching his head with a What? This lot again? Floating BridgeDevil Got My WomanI Can't Be SatisfiedChecking On My Baby? Rolling Stone

Sure, the album's largely comprised of covers that may or may not have been done to death already (mileages will vary on that, of course) but there's a warmth to the performances that has me putting another large tick beside the name of producer T-Bone Burnett, who's done a wonderful job of matching Allman's world-weary drawl to classic material that fits him like a well-worn overcoat. 

Cut in L.A. studio with a classy assembly of musos (most notably Dr John/Mac Rebennack on keys, Doyle Bramhall II on guitar and Dennis Crouch on upright bass) there's a comfortable retro warmth to a set of performances that were recorded live in the studio and sound that way. Crouch, in particular, shines (as he did on the most recent Elvis Costello waxings, also Burnett-produced). Can’t beat that slap bass. Watch your back Danny Thompson...

Moogis, anyone? (Relocated, original post 16 January)

I'm waiting to hear where the dollar's floating before I make the final jump, but unless it's gone south in a big way some time later this week I'll be shelling out $US 225 for a Moogis subscription.

You're entitled to ask what the hell Moogis might be, and should you venture too fat off into Google Land you'll more than likely run across a fair degree of fulmination about financial outlay, so I'll save you the trouble.

Actually, it all starts with the Allman Brothers Band, no longer (if they ever were) household names down under, and more than likely a dimly remembered part of your musical past if you're around my vintage. Having shot to stateside prominence in the seventies before fracturing under acrimonious circumstances later that decade, the Allmans have been touring on a regular basis since the late eighties, and somewhere along the line ended up doing a run of shows at New York's Beacon Theatre each March.

While they were forced to move the venue last year, 2011 sees them back at the Beacon for a run of eight shows, which may extend to thirteen and may even spread beyond that. They were down for thirteen last year at the United Palace but the last five were cancelled, so 2011 may see eight, thirteen or something else entirely.

So, Allman Brothers Band, New York, March. You could possibly go to the concerts yourself, assuming you could find tickets, but the Beacon's a reasonably small venue, and tickets are highly sought after. 

Of course, unless you live in New York, you're up for transport costs, accommodation, meals , etc., which makes the $225 for Moogis excellent value as far as I'm concerned. You wouldn't get much change out of $225 for one night's concert-going.

Moogis is the brainchild of Allmans drummer Butch Trucks, who was spruiking this concert webcast idea a few years back, and actually got it off the ground in 2009, delivering a live video stream of the shows from that year's run, including two nights where Eric Clapton sat in with the band.

That's another point. The extended season is an ideal setting for various guests to turn up unannounced. They were thin on the ground last year, but 2009's run featured, among others:

Taj Mahal, Levon Helm, Johnny Winter, Los Lobos' Cesar Rojas and David Hidalgo, Buddy Guy, The Asbury Jukes Horns, Bruce Willis, Boz Scaggs, John Hammond, Susan Tedeschi, Sheryl Crow, Eric Clapton, Bruce Hornsby, Southside Johnny, Jimmy Smith, Bernard Purdie, Sonny Landreth, and Bob Weir and Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead.

As far as guests go, it's a wait and see thing, and you won't know who's there until they turn up in the spotlight.

I'd looked at Moogis for 2009, but suspected that the stream wouldn't play nicely with northern Australia's telecommunications infrastructure. As a result I watched the set-lists appear on the Allman mailing list, read the comments from the attendees and bought a couple of nights' shows through Munck Music.

A change of ISP at the end of 2009, however, produced much faster download speeds. When the early bird special offer came out at the beginning of 2010 I had a go at the Video Preview on the website and was pleasantly surprised to find that, yes, it worked pretty well, delivering a steady stream of video and CD-quality sound.

Paying up delivers access to archived shows, so I was belatedly able to watch the Clapton sit-ins while I waited for last year's run to roll around.

Now, this was a gamble since I'd been watching archived shows in non-peak time as far as the USA's concerned, so I was resigned to the fact that I mightn’t be able to get the live feed when it counted, but nothing ventured, nothing gained...

The first night, as it turned out, was a major disaster, and my initial reaction was an I thought so as the stream delivered staccato bursts of video and sound that weren't always in sync, but subsequent investigations revealed that the glitches were a global issue rather than the result of inadequacies in the local copper network, and the remaining nights in the run ran through close to glitch-free.

That meant that for much of a fortnight I sitting down around eleven-thirty in the morning to catch a show from the other side of the world live in my living room. Eleven-thirty to three in the afternoon might not be optimum timing for everybody, of course, but given the fact that they play Thursday/ Friday/ Saturday and Monday/Tuesday (New York time, so move each of those a day forward) that means this year's run will extend onto three weekends, and there's always the possibility of catching the archived footage if you have issues with minor inconveniences like work.

A $US225 outlay (up to 1 February, after that it's $250) should deliver the Beacon run, plus webcasts from the two nights of the Wanee Festival in Florida the following month plus access to all the archived shows from the last two years. Beacon alone $175/$200, Wanee alone $100/$125.

If interested, I strongly advise trying the preview video, and being prepared for disappointment, but at around the price of a decent bottle of wine per night, I think it's a risk worth taking.

And, in around nine hundred words talking about the current incarnation of the ABB, I’ve managed to avoid mentioning Derek Trucks, the no-longer an up-and-coming purveyor of guitar pyrotechnics we’re off to see in Sydney just before Easter.