Sunday, June 19, 2011

R.I.P. Clarence Clemons

It's ironic that news of the passing of 69-year-old E Street Band saxophoist Clarence Clemons arrived in the midst of rumours of a new Bruce Springsteen album and speculation as to whether it would feature the E Street Band or show new material in a different setting.

On the strength of The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils and Dust and The Seeger Sessions it's possible to imagine Springsteen without the E Street Band, but I find it impossible to imagine the E Street Band without Clarence Clemons.

While Clemons had worked in other settings with, among others, Ringo Starr, Jackson Browne, Aretha Franklin and Lady Gaga, it's hard to imagine any of that happening if it hadn't been for a legendary encounter on the Jersey Shore that may or may not have happened quite the way the participants tell it, but if it didn't go down that way it should have.

Actually, the way it should have been factor goes well back before thatr. A much younger Clarence allegedly wanted an electric train set for Christmas but his fish merchant father bought him an alto sax and arranged lessons.

Forced to practice in the back room of the fish shop while his peers were playing baseball, Clarence wasn't a happy camper but switched to baritone for a stint in his high school's jazz band before his uncle gave him a record by R&B tenor player King Curtis. which didn't quite seal his fate, but was a vital factor in the way things turned out.

A music and football scholarship took Clemons to college in Maryland and a sociology major landed him a job in Newark, New Jersey counselling disturbed youths. In the bars and clubs along the Jersey Shore he worked with bands like Norman Seldin and the Joyful Noyze before the dark and stormy night that took him from the Wonder Bar to a place called The Student Prince, where he sat in with a scrawny kid called Bruce Springsteen on Spirit in the Night. Whether the door actually blew off the club that night doesn't matter. If it didn't, it should have.

Anyone familiar the gatefold sleeves of the first two Springsteen albums, densely packed with lyrics in fine print can't help noticing the trimming down that occurred on Born to Run and subsequent albums, but after two less than spectacularly successful albums, number three was, to all intents and purposes, crunch time.

And when you look at the front cover of Born to Run, what do you see? A grinning Springsteen leaning against someone. Turn to the back and you'll spot that the someone is a largish Afro-American wearing a black hat and playing a sax.

The word about Springsteen had been out for a while, largely based on his strengths as a live performer rather than the records, good though they might have been. There were a myriad of new Dylans out there, but there weren't too many that sparked off huge ex-college footballers homking on a tenor sax, were there?

Anyone who's seen the video footage that turned up on the box sets that celebrated the 30th anniversaries of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town will be all too aware of Clemons' importance as the man mountain visual counterpoint to the energetic front man. As Springsteen hopped and bopped Clarence anchored the visuals on stage right the same way Garry Tallent's bass anchored the music.

The Springsteen phenomenon was built on the strength of the live performances between Born to Run and Darkness, fuelled by the recording standoff as Springsteen sorted out his issues with former manager Mike Appel. No new record? Well, play the songs anyway. Need to get the word out? Well there are these FM stations that'll broadcast the sold out shows from medium sized venues like San Francisco's Winterland. Bootleggers, roll those tapes!

It'd be easy to run on from there, telling much the same story as the flood of newspaper and magazine obituaries, the disappointment when Springsteen put E Street on ice in 1989, the collaborations and side projects, the 1999 reunion tour and subsequent albums, how much he contributed to, say, Spirit in the Night, Rosalita, Born to Run and Jungleland, all of which went on to become staples in the E Street live set as Springsteen developed into the stature that allowed him to sell out multiple nights in stadium sized venues…

But if you're not familiar with the man, his stature and his contribution to post-seventies rock, I'd point you right here and rest my case.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia on 11 January 1942, Clemons suffered a massive stroke at his Florida home on June 12 and despite hospitalization and subsequent brain surgery, departed this life on 18 June 2011.

Rest in peace, Big Man.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tedeschi Trucks Band Enmore Theatre Sydney 21 April 2011

I guess there are plenty of couples facing down the old problem of dual careers and a growing family, and there are all sorts of workarounds to tackle the issue, but when the dual careers involve reasonably high profile musicians with existing and more or less separate careers the logical solution is to find a way to merge them.

That mightn't have been the actual starting point that led to the formation of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, but I suspect that it was there lurking under the surface as things sorted themselves out. After all it's not as if Derek Trucks doesn't have one eye on the future.

Other people would probably have used the money differently, but Derek put his earnings from two years on the road with Eric Clapton's touring band into the construction of Swamp Raga Studios in the back yard of his Jacksonville home, and while 2009's Already Free was recorded there, one album every couple of years probably doesn't rate as a reasonable return on investment unless you see it as part of a substantial learning curve an artist can afford to indulge himself in.

Trucks is on record as saying that he's learning the tricks of the studio as he goes along, so while the need to combine separate careers mightn't have been the starting point, it may well have been a case of discovering that, Hey, this works pretty well as a couple of tracks were being laid down.

From the initial decision to combine the talents of two artists who are significant attractions in their own rights, of course, the problem is one of differentiating the new lineup from the previous configurations of two separate bands. For a while there it seemed like things were working from a try it and see combination of the old Derek Trucks Band and the former Susan Tedeschi Band, but eventually things had to settle down.

A look at the new look Tedeschi Trucks Band reveals two survivors from the former DTB (keys/flute wiz Kofi Burbridge and vocalist Mike Mattison) and one member of the STB (drummer Tyler Greenwell) along with a couple of not exactly surprising enlistments.

The chief of those is bassist Oteil Burbridge, who, apart from providing a strongly grooved anchor provides a visual counterpoint to the invariably undemonstrative Derek Trucks.

With the lineup sorted it becomes a matter of repertoire, and here again the obvious approach would be to take a bit from here, a bit from there and glue the disparate elements together with some newer material, the sort of thing you could work up as you go along.

That's not, however, the way things have gone here. While there are a couple of covers, notably the old Leon Russell/Joe Cocker Space Captain, which I've personally found almost invariably underwhelming and Sing A Simple Song (which worked a treat for Sly & The Family Stone, roared along nicely for Jeff St John and roared along wonderfully here) most of the rest of the set was new, presumably purpose created material, the best of which was the Mike Mattison penned Midnight In Harlem.

The release of Revelator, the first Tedeschi Trucks Band studio album would clarify a few minor matters like song titles through the rest of the set, but from the opening Bound For Glory, everything thundered through just fine, with repeated solos from Mr Trucks producing roars of approval from a crowd who were, presumably, there with a reasonable expectation of what they were likely to get.

And if they weren't there for Derek and Susan, they'd have had high expectations of the opening set from Robert Randolph & The Family Band, who would, more than likely, have stolen the show from any act short of potential superstar status.

If you'd gone straight from Live at the Wetlands to last year's We Walk This Road you might well have suspected that those long passages of high intensity sacred steel virtuously had been relegated to the background, but that approach to things probably has limited appeal as a commercial recorded proposition anyway.

If you want that lengthy high intensity instrumental thing, of course, once you've got Wetlands you possibly don't need too much more, and if you do there are plenty of live recordings over there at, so there's a definite need to do something different with the studio recordings, which have turned out doing a pretty good job of slotting Randolph into the evolving tradition of Afro-American music.

 In the live setting the opening We Walk This Road, complete with growled Blind Willie Johnson lead in (I'm not a big fan of that sort of thing normally, but in this setting it really works) led off towards the desired direction, maybe not for as long as you'd have preferred but the intensity was there.

The March and Ted's Jam both got airings as the Family Band went through their paces at a thunderous roar.

Which brings me to the one major disappointment of the night, and it affected both bands.

Now when you go to a Robert Randolph or Derek Trucks show, you're almost invariably there for extended high volume guitar workouts, but you do like to hear a bit of light and shade, and you do like to be able to discern what's going on vocally.

Maybe it was the venue, possibly it was my seat in the upper tier, but whatever it was the vocals were more than a tad on the muddy side, which wasn't such a problem during the numbers but definitely became an issue when spoken patter between songs came into play.

But, in the long run, it's about the music rather than the patter, and while the vocals could have been clearer the instrumental work through both sets was quite sublime. It's a high volume, high intensity sublimity, particularly when Derek cuts loose with those swathes of sheeting squalling slide soundaramas that are his trademark, but each and every solo brought roars of approval from a crowd obviously enjoying what they were actually there for.

As for the rest of the band, Susan Tedeschi makes a fine visual focus at the front, that semi-demure school librarian appearance contrasting nicely with a vocal intensity that would have satisfied most Janis Joplin fans.

But where, in Joplin's case, there was a tendency to screech when she headed for the heights, Susan's voice is smoothly melismatic as she heads for the upper register, and, as stated, the intensity when she really gets into it, as she did on That Did It (at least I think it was That Did It, based on a single hearing during the Allman Brothers' Beacon Theatre run last month) contrasts nicely with the librarian next door appearance.

Oteil Burbridge pinned things down nicely on the bass, contributed a vocal on Manic Depression and delivered a visual counterpoint on stage left, while brother Kofi's keyboard contributions, largely delivered from the darkness on the edge of stage left, contributed light and shade, filling in any holes in the sonic spectrum.

Throw in some interesting percussive interplay between drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson and the vocal harmonies from Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers and you’ve got a combo with plenty of sonic variables to play around with. It’s early days yet, but I’m sure there’s a lot to be revealed as things knit together in an outfit that’s stunningly good already and is only going to get better.

Suggestions that Robert Randolph would be joining the band come encore time failed to materialise, though that may have been due to an unannounced or unexpected visit from Warren Haynes, also in the country for Bluesfest, who came out to contribute to an energetic reading of the old Delaney & Bonnie Comin' Home.

With Revelator out in early June, I’m looking forward to further revelations...

Tedeschi Trucks Band "Revelator" (5*)

Tedeschi Trucks Band "Revelator" (5*)

I'm well and truly past the stage where I expect to have my mind blown by someone's latest release, so if my reaction to this very classy debut by a great band seems somewhat restrained don't let that fool you.

As is the case with Robert Randolph, there's a slight issue when a guitar-slinger noted for extended high intensity soloing hits the studio, and those looking for the trademark Trucks shredding exercise may well be disappointed here. The solos are there, of course, but they're carefully melded into a mix that shares the spotlight around. Understandable when you've got a vocalist of the calibre of Susan Tedeschi, and it's not as if the rest of the outfit lack class.

The result is, in many ways, rather similar to a really good bottle of red wine, and organic red wine at that. The album definitely feels like something that's been very carefully put together with attention to light and shade so there's always something interesting going on.

Kicking off with Come See About Me (no, not the Holland Dozier Holland hit for The Supremes) the dozen collaboratively-written tracks (thirteen if you opt for the iTunes version) deliver a succession of grooves that will form a pretty good platform for expansion in the live setting.

Highlights? Well, start with Midnight in Harlem and Bound For Glory, the horns at the start of Until You Remember reminded me of Allen Toussaint's horn arrangements for The Band's Rock of Ages, and the hidden track tucked in after Shelter's pretty tasty, but the best summary of the album comes in the video take on Learn How To Love, with the band in action in Swamp Raga Studios. A collective effort that's been carefully assembled by a highly talented outfit who look to be having plenty of fun doing it.
Needless to say I'll be looking forward to the next one.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

J. Geils Band The J. Geils Band (4*)

J. Geils Band The J. Geils Band (4*)
Although I'm a long-time lover of 1972's Live: Full House, it took quite a while for Hughesy to catch up on the rest of the J. Geils Band's back catalogue, at least as far as the CD versions are concerned, and possibly if I hadn't seen this self-titled first album in Kobe's Tower Records I mightn't have started.
$16.99 for eleven tracks that clock in at a tad over 33 minutes might seem pretty steep if you're looking at iTunes, but if it ever turns up with an el cheapo sticker in a CD store you could do a lot worse than this initial collection of tasty trimmed down old style R&B. Sure, it doesn't burn with the same intensity of Live: Full House, which repeats more than half of this material in a concert setting, but nothing is likely to match that album's eight track punch. Hughesy's suggestion for would-be R&B fans? Start here, proceed through The Morning After ($16.90) and end on Live: Full House, marvelling at the difference the concert setting makes.
Assuming you can locate copies with the el cheapo sticker, of course.