Monday, July 30, 2012

Vivian Stanshall "Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead" (4*, but approach with caution)

So, what does an artist do when the record company only presses  5,000 copies your debut solo album, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead, then promptly deletes it?

Bear in mind, before you answer that question, the company in question was Warner Brothers, an outfit whose Stateside roster included such hip but relatively low-selling names as Ry Cooder, Randy Newman and Little Feat, all of whom went on to move a relatively substantial number of units but never managed sales figures that matched their critical acclaim.

A sensitive artistic type might perhaps slink off to lick his wounds in some dingy garret, but Vivian Stanshall was hardly the shrinking artistic violet, was he? No, if you're the man behind the more extreme dadaist tendencies of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (not that any of the other key players in the Bonzos was exactly straight) you destroy their boardroom and place a bag of bluebottle maggots behind the label president's office radiator. Cop that, young Harry!

On the other hand, even a cursory listen to Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead would, however, prompt the average listener to agree that, yes, I can understand the reservations. Those other names on the Warner Brothers roster had something approaching commercial potential, but on Men, Mr Stanshall, freed from the relative restraining collaborative influence of Neil Innes, his main collaborator in the Bonzo era, headed off to investigate the outer reaches of his considerable imagination.

Exposure to other expressions of the same outré adventurism would have the listener knowing what to expect, but, with the exception of the original Rawlinson's End on the Bonzos contractual obligation Let's Make Up and Be Friendly most of those expressions came after Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead.

While Innes was there through sessions at The Manor, Trident and Apple Studios, as were Traffic (at this point Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Ric Grech, Gaspar Lawal and Rebop Kwaku Baah) and in the absence of co-writers (apart from the opening Afoju Ti Ole Riran (Dead Eyes), co-written with Gaspar Lawal) everything was written and arranged by Stanshall and, not to put too fine a point on it, it shows. Where you could count on Innes to deliver a veneer of commerciality or pop sensibility, what's on offer here veers off towards territory where the buses don't run without quite getting there and while it's not as confronting as it might have been it's hardly Top 40 potential either.

What is there, however, is the Stanshall verbal imagination, expressed in words that don't quite fit in the standard rock'n'roll lexicon and contain frequent references to the Stanshall virile member.

From the opening Afoju Ti Ole Riran (Dead Eyes) which you can’t help reading as a burst of invective against his record company in particular, the music industry in general or Western Society as a whole (or, indeed, all three) through to the concluding Strange Tongues (they’ve tacked both sides of the Lakonga / Baba Tunde single onto the end as bonus tracks, but Strange Tongues is the actual conclusion of the actual album) you’re in the recorded presence of one of the great English eccentrics, a man whose mind roamed paths that exist somewhere on the other side of linguistic inventiveness.

Swingin’ jowls, a puke-box & an ulcer here, the Avant-Gardener pruning his beard over there, one’s left wishing someone had the foresight to declare the man an International Treasure and do something to ensure his survival.

Much of it was, of course, fuelled by drink, and there’s probably no way he was going to live through to a ripe old age, but take Men, follow it with a visit to Sir Henry at Rawlinson End and an excursion to the high veld and Ndidi’s Kraal and place a tick beside the observation that Teddy Boys Don’t Knit and you can’t help wishing someone had been around to ensure more of Stanshall’s imaginings were preserved for posterity.

Oh, and if you're inclined to head over to iTunes and investigate further, click on the one with the copyright notice that reads Estate of Vivian Stanshall 2012...

Chris Ligon "Look At The Birdy" (4*)

Here’s one that takes off the wall into a whole new dimension, folks, and reminds me there are whole slabs of contemporary music that I’ve been aware of for years but still need to investigate.

I was pointed towards this album by a post on Sal Nunziato’s Burning Wood blog. Sal was talking about seeing the latest lineup of NRBQ, an outfit I remember reading about forty-something years ago when they’d abbreviated the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet to the four initials.

But you can’t, as I’ve frequently remarked, catch up on everything, and while I managed to lay my hands on their 1996 live (Tokyo) I’ve managed to negotiate my way through four decades aware of an outfit that has built up a considerable reputation as a live act and an extensive discography (twenty-plus titles at iTunes) and were the unofficial house band in seasons 10, 11 & 12 of The Simpsons without doing too much in the way of further investigation.

Guitarist Scott Ligon is one of the more recent additions to the ever-changing NRBQ line up, and this compilation of songs by his brother Chris was put together by long-term NRBQer Terry Adams, presumably selected from the eight other albums on his website. At fifteen dollars a throw plus shipping that back catalogue might attract some attention from those who have plenty of storage space on the CD shelves and happen to be flush with funds, but for the rest of us Look At The Birdy will have to do.

At least for the time being.

I’m not in the business of appropriating content wholesale from other sites, but in this case I’m inclined to quote Mr Nunziato’s assessment of Birdy as one of the most bizarre little records I have ever heard, causing Sal to sit mouth agape, in a frozen stupor for 33 minutes straight. I didn’t quite go that far, and I’m not sure I agree that Baby Books Bossa and Dr. Peanut (ahem) make the Bonzo Dog Band sound like The Archies, though the comment almost guaranteed I’d be making further investigations.

I’m a huge Bonzos fan, and sighting a comment like that was bound to pique my interest, compris?

But I have to agree that the album’s opener, Buglight, suggests Mr Ligon is operating right out there where the buses don’t run, or, if they do, the service is on the very occasional side of intermittent. How else do you categorise a track that describes the girlfriend’s erotic sensations, stimulated by the electrical zapping of insects? (When my girl sees a bug pop and drop dead / She likes to hop in bed and hug tight). Really?

Florida, following straight after that, is straight ahead pop with a twist, a jaunty little paean to the American Sunshine State complete with a chugga chugga woo woo woo woo chorus, and there’s an exercise in nostalgia on Oh What A Day, complete with cheesy synthesised trumpet and lustful yearnings very firmly in Say what? territory.

The instrumental Baby Books Bossa reminded me of the Holy Modal Rounders rather than the Bonzos headed towards Archies territory, and A Thousand Pumpkins purports to be a contemporary ballad about an attempted assassination of Abraham Lincoln that ends up taking out large quantities of vegetables. The highly experimental (there isn’t really any other tag you can apply to this warped exercise in something indeterminate) I Don't Date churns on, all fractured riff and minimal lyrical content apart from repetitions of the track title, while Look At The Birdy appears to be about a bloke taking baby photos in a shopping mall though one suspects there’s a subtext in operation.

Almond Grove is, in its own way in this environment, a fairly straightforward expression of a love that’s fated to never be, and in Dr. Peanut a girl’s slightly tipsy old chiropractor turns up on her doorstep wanting to take her out to a Japanese restaurant where they got ka-roke-ee...

There’s no way of knowing whether the same dude turns up in Bottom Buck, seeking a girl determined (bet your bottom buck) to find her. One hopes he’s not holding his breath. In Frankenstein Just Got Up a couple who moves into an apartment that the landlord promised would be quiet, only to find out their upstairs neighbour is Frankenstein and he’s forever stomping around (I wish he'd bend his knees), a situation where the only solution involves an axe.

There’s an instrumental interlude (Danny O'Day) before Randy In The Morning plugs a breakfast DJ (or maybe something entirely different, it’s that kind of album) and Girl Of Virginia comes across as relatively straightforward (again, appearances may be deceptive) and The La La Song is exactly that, with forty-nine seconds of jaunty La las. Poetry Slam has emerging poets performing under the threat of a hammer blow to the head, Halfwit has  an almost ear-wormy chorus (it’s not alone in that category) as does Fun, which brings things to a close in territory that’s not a million lyrical miles from Randy Newman’s Old Kentucky Home.

With eighteen tracks clocking in at a tad over thirty-three minutes you might question whether the $16.99 is justified, but if you’re intrigued by people who march to the beat of a different drum it’s about the right dosage.

Bowenites reading this review might be grateful Hughesy’s not polluting the airwaves these days, since Buglight, Florida, the ear-wormy Bottom Buck and Frankenstein Just Got Up would’ve seen fairly regular airplay on the old High Class Music.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Randy Newman "12 Songs" (4.5*)

By the time Randy Newman's second album came out in 1970 he’d already spent close to a decade as a staff writer for a Los Angeles music publisher and had scored enough minor hits to acquire a reputation. After Alan Price’s Simon Smith and Manfred Mann’s So Long Dad a review noting the presence of a Randy Newman song was close to a trademark of quality as far as I was concerned.

When it came to recording his own material, on the other hand, things hadn’t quite matched expectations. While he’d had plenty of experience cutting demos in the studio the heavily orchestrated Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks produced Randy Newman (Creates Something New Under the Sun) delivered semi-baroque arrangements around a vocal style that was, well, idiosyncratic. It was obviously something the Warner Brothers marketing division were aware of (Once you get used to it, his voice is really something was the headline in one advertisement) and with the hindsight that comes with forty-plus years I’m inclined to put some of that down to the influence of Van Dyke Parks, who’s more than slightly idiosyncratic in the vocal and arranging department himself.

Still, the material was strong once you got past the eccentricities. I mean, how can you not like an album that contains Love Story (You and Me), So Long Dad, I Think It's Going to Rain Today and Davy the Fat Boy? You might wish he’d done them a little differently, but there was no doubting the quality of the writing.

That’s not to suggest it was a complete flop. Paul McCartney, for one, was apparently a big fan, and the album gained its share of kudos from peers and critics. The problem was that it didn’t attract a whole lot of airplay and sales were minimal.

Rather than surrounding Newman with seventy-five musicians for 12 Songs, Lenny Waronker went for the small combo approach, basing things around Newman’s piano and guitar work from Clarence White and Ry Cooder. Add some bass drums and percussion and the result is a lot more direct in the instrumental department. A lack of ornate orchestration tends to pare back the vocal mannerisms as well, and through Have You Seen My Baby? and Let's Burn Down the Cornfield things are fairly straightforward.

Baby is, to all intents and purposes, New Orleans-style R&B, and while a critic might question the lack of piano on Cornfield I’d point straight towards that slide guitar work from Mr Cooder and ask why you’d be looking to let something else get in the way. Mama Told Me Not to Come was covered by Three Dog Night, and comes across here as a wry observation on the L.A. Rock world’s party scene as seen through the eyes of an innocent abroad. Would you like whiskey with your water? indeed.

That innocent abroad may well have ended up on the end of the line in the understated Suzanne, where there’s a creepy caller who found your name in a telephone booth. Reviews at the time had the voice as a rapist, and if he isn’t there’s still no way his intentions are what we used to term honourable.

Given the sequencing, you can’t help thinking he may be the same dude who turns up in Lover's Prayer, just under two minutes of protagonist looking for nothing more involved than a quick complication-free relationship that may or may not involve commitment. He’s certainly not looking for discussion of anything controversial (I was entertaining a little girl up in the rooms, Lord/With California wine and French perfume/She started to talk to me 'bout the war, Lord/Said, 'I don't wanna talk about the war’).

You could make a fair case for the same dude (or his cousin brother) turning up on Lucinda. Summer evening on the beach and here’s a girl lyin' on the beach / In her graduation gown ... wrapped up in a blanket and the narrator, being a man of the world, could tell, she knew her way around. So what does he do? Lies down beside her, of course, and we’re probably best leaving what happens next to the imagination.

And with the approach of the big white truck and the beach cleaning man he clears off, leaving Lucinda ... buried / 'Neath the California sand. He mightn’t be the same dude, of course, but there’s a certain consistency and the three songs are delivered deadpan with maybe a hint of raised eyebrow.

So, a run of songs that could well be cut from the same piece of cloth, and guess what? He follows that with a one-two combo.

Underneath the Harlem Moon, the only non-Newman composition on the album dates back to the twenties and delivers a string of racial stereotyping that sets the stage for later efforts like Sail Away and Rednecks, but here acts as a lead in to the similarly cliche-rich Yellow Man, later described as a pinhead’s view of China (they say they were there / before we were here. Really? Who’d have thunk?).

When it comes to cliche-based satire, Newman’s not being selective in his ethnic targets. Old Kentucky Home merrily skewers the redneck narrator with a cheerful singalong chorus and a couple of lines I’ve been known to purloin for my own purposes (she didn’t grow up, she grew out, for example). I first encountered this one on Ry Cooder, but Newman’s take on it has a bit more of the old raised eyebrow to it.

The last three tracks wind things up in a low key manner. Newman drawls his way through
Rosemary, which comes across as a gentleman caller offering an evening out without a great deal of hope that his desires will be fulfilled, and he may still be around offering his services If You Need Oil while Uncle Bob's Midnight Blues wraps things up without doing anything remarkable. Maybe he needed something like I Think It’s Going To Rain Today to fill that spot, but he’d already used that last time around, hadn’t he?

Coming back to this one after a lengthy interval it’s easy to overlook 12 Songs’ considerable charms. Randy Newman had the orchestrations, the quirky vocals and a handful of genuinely great songs, while the next studio album, Sail Away, had strong material, brought back the strings and had Newman in top form vocally.

In comparison, 12 Songs, on first impressions, may come across as more subdued, but give it a bit of time to sink in and you may well end up rating it as some of his best work. The players deliver just the right amount of light and shade, nothing is wasted, the songs are focussed and Newman goes very close to nailing the vocals. Not, perhaps, as striking as its predecessor or the albums that followed, but definitely a harbinger of quality to come.

But then, after Simon Smith, So Long Dad, Love Story, Davy the Fat Boy and I Think It’s Going to Rain Today some of us already knew he was a class act, didn’t we?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Frankie Miller "Frankie Miller… That’s Who!" (4*)

At $25.99 for 87 tracks that’d be spread over four CDs if you bought a hard copy Frankie Miller… That’s Who! comes across as pretty reasonable value if you’re familiar with the gravel voiced Scot’s work and need to acquire a fair chunk of his back catalogue for a reasonable price.

For the majority of the population, however, it’ll probably be a case of Frankie Who? unless you’ve got something more than vague memories of Darlin’ or one of the other singles that garnered a little airplay for the bowler-hatted one back in the late seventies.

If you’re unfamiliar with the man and his work something in the way of a back story might be appropriate, particularly because the four disks under review represent a fair chunk of his recorded output.

Born in Glasgow in 1949, Miller’s musical tastes were shaped by his mother, a Ray Charles fan, and two older sisters who were into Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Mum and Dad chipped in for a guitar, and by the time he was nine Miller was writing songs (I Can't Change It, written when he was twelve, was recorded by Ray Charles).

By the time he’d hit his teens he was singing professionally, and relocated to London in 1971 to work with ex-Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower, Glasgow bandmate, bass player and vocalist James Dewar and ex-Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker in an outfit called Jude that attracted a fair degree of attention without producing anything in the way of a recording before breaking up in the first quarter of 1972.

That attention they’d attracted, however, was enough to secure a record deal with Chrysalis Records, and Miller cut his first album Once in a Blue Moon under the supervision of producer Dave Robinson (later head honcho of Stiff Records)  with backing from pub rock outfit Brinsley Schwarz (who, of course, included Nick Lowe as well as Brinsley Schwarz and Bob Andrews, who ended up backing Graham Parker in The Rumour, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Once in a Blue Moon didn’t do so well, but did enough to have Miller jetting to New Orleans to cut his second album with Allen Toussaint, who allegedly tagged Miller as the most soulful singer he's ever heard, in 1974. High Life was allegedly remixed and released by the record label without Miller or Toussaint’s consent, which accounts for the apparent duplication of some tracks on this set, which includes original mix, available on official release for the first time.

The Toussaint collaboration was, however, a one-off and for his third album Miller was off to San Francisco to work with Elliot Mazer, whose production credits include Neil Young’s Harvest. Miller mightn’t have been chalking up big sales but influential people were sitting up and taking notice. The Rock took its name from Alcatraz, visible from the studio window, and marked the debut of The Frankie Miller Band, which included guitarist Henry McCullough (ex-Eire Apparent, Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, Spooky Tooth and Paul McCartney's Wings), bassist Chrissie Stewart, drummer Stu Perry and Mick “Wynder K. Frog” Weaver on keyboards.

From there it was back to London to work with Chris Thomas on 1977‘s Full House, which produced a minor chart single in Be Good To Yourself and a cover of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy. A lengthy US tour followed, and April 1978 saw Miller recording with a new band and Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas at the Record Plant in New York. The result was Double Trouble, cut with drummer BJ Wilson (Procol Harum), Chrissie Stewart on bass, Ray Russell on guitar, Chris Mercer and Martin Drover on horns and Paul Carrack on keys.

Carrack stayed on board for album #6, Falling in Love, which delivered a UK Top Ten single in the form of Darlin', but as far as chart action was concerned that was, more or less, it, at least as far as material labelled as Frankie Miller was concerned. When I'm Away From You (the follow-up to Darlin’) might have failed to repeat the success but scored in the US Country charts for The Bellamy Brothers a few years down the track.

By this stage Miller was based in Nashville, where the final Chrysalis album Easy Money was recorded with a team of crack Music City session players and signalled a move into writing that yielded successful covers by, among others, The Bellamy Brothers, Johnny Cash, Kim Carnes, Joe Cocker, Etta James, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, The Osmonds, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart,   Bonnie Tyler,  Joe Walsh and The Eagles.

After Easy Money, a switch from Chrysalis to Capitol Records saw an eighth album (Standing on the Edge) recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, with legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm section and Dancing in the Rain recorded in New York with several collaborations with Jeff Barry, after a plan to re-record the Crystals’ Da Doo Ron Ron fell through.

Miller continued writing and recording through the eighties, with soundtrack credits on a number of movies and television series and was in the process of putting a new touring band together in New York with Joe Walsh (The Eagles), pianist Nicky Hopkins and drummer Ian Wallace when he suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and spent five months in a coma, followed by a lengthy spell of rehabilitation which explains the relative silence from a formerly prolific writer and performer.

So that’s the Frankie Who? question answered. What about the seven albums (eight counting the original mix of High Life)?

Forty years on, Once In A Blue Moon rocks along nicely, Brinsley Schwarz bubbling away in the background and Miller in fine voice from the opening You Don't Need To Laugh through to the wry, slinky reading of I'm Ready that concludes proceedings, with plenty of interest in between. A particularly tasty rendition of Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues is probably the pick of ‘em, but there’s not a dud in sight.

The two versions of High Life have different running orders, and Chrysalis appears to have played around with some of the titles but both takes on Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues), Trouble, With You In Mind, Just A Song and With You in Mind demonstrate an impressive match of soulful Scot and New Orleans funk and, again, there’s not a dud in sight. Actually, running through the two versions gives you a chance to hear some impressive material twice.

The recording venue changed to San Francisco for the Elliot Mazer-produced The Rock, with a title track musing on Miller’s likelihood of ending up somewhere like Alcatraz if he didn’t have something like his music to channel his energies into. Other highlights include A Fool In Love, Ain’t Got No Money and my personal favourite Drunken Nights in the City (not that I know anything about such matters).

The content up to this point fills two CDs in the hard copy version and the third kicks off with the 1976 single Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever b/w (that’s backed with for you young ‘uns who weren’t around for two-sided vinyl 45s) I'm Old Enough.

1977’s Full House kicks off in fine style with the magnificent Be Good To Yourself, follows it with a romp through The Doodle Song, which isn’t about what you might think, and then delivers a great reading of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy. The themes from those three tracks continue through Love Letters, Take Good Care of Yourself and (I'll Never) Live in Vain with a sidetrack Down the Honky Tonk when medication is required to ease the heartache.

Things start to fall away slightly as Double Trouble veers off towards the rock end of the spectrum, with heavier riffs. No decline in the vocals, but the material isn’t (IMHO, mileages may vary) as strong as the earlier efforts. Flashier presentation but less substance, though the album finishes on a strong note with a rousing Goodnight Sweetheart.

Falling In Love starts more strongly with When I'm Away From You, contains Darlin' (probably his best known track) but there’s a fairly ordinary reading of Bob Marley’s  Is This Love before Falling In Love With You rolls along to square up the ledger. Much of the intervening material, and the run through from Falling to the end of the album is solid, mainstream-friendly rock that doesn’t have a whole lot to distinguish it from its late seventies peers apart from the Miller tonsils.

That’s largely true of 1980s Easy Money, though the final album in the set does have its share of highlights including Why Don't You Spend The Night, Heartbreak Radio and No Chance, alongside a vigorous reading of the old Jo Jo Zep classic So Young, So Young. A slightly over the top take on Randy Newman’s Sail Away (from a 1977 EP) winds things up.

As far as the consumer goes, while the collection isn’t consistent there’s a definite economic argument in favour of $25.99 rather than a couple of $16.90’s (High Life and Once in a Blue Moon are highly recommended, and you really should take a look at Full House). The audio has been remixed for the collection, which is another argument for bulk buying and you’ll end up with close to the whole box and dice from the pub rock that kicked his career off through the harder-edged rock in the middle to the AOR friendly relatively slick stuff at the end.

And we are, after all, talking about the bloke Rod Stewart described as The only white guy that’s ever brought a tear to my eye.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Levon Helm "Ramble at the Ryman" (4.5*)

Recorded by a travelling version of the late Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble, rather than the regular sessions that have been running at Levon’s studio at Woodstock in upstate New York since 2004 Ramble at the Ryman (that’s Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ol’ Opry) might look to be rather heavy on past glories (six tracks out of fifteen from The Band’s catalogue) but with a crack outfit including multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and Helm's daughter, vocalist and mandolinist Amy alongside a number of guests (Little Sammy Davis, Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, Sheryl Crow and John Hiatt) the result is a highly listenable collection of rock, blues, country, and folk that rocks along very nicely indeed.

The Band material here, starting with the opening Ophelia  and stretching through Chuck Berry’s Back To Memphis (covered regularly as part of The Band’s live set), Evangeline, Rag Mama Rag, The Shape I’m In, Chest Fever and The Weight are significantly reworked the way you’d have to when you can’t call on Garth Hudson’s keyboards, with the emphasis on the shambling horns and guest vocals from Sheryl Crow (Evangeline), Larry Campbell (Chest Fever) and John Hiatt (The Weight).

The guest vocals are, in large part, a function of the throat cancer that damaged Levon’s vocal cords and while the predictions that he mighty never sing again didn’t materialise, it took a while before his voice was up to singing, so for much of the early Ramble era he was content to leave the vocal department to others.

Issues regarding vocal resilience come to the fore in Dirt Farmer’s Anna Lee, where his own voice might not be strong enough to carry the song by itself on his own, but choral support from the ensemble’s female members gets it over the line.

Little Sammy Davis takes centre stage for the old R&B hit Fannie Mae, which dates, I suspect, back to the Ronnie Hawkins days, and Slim Harpo’s Baby Scratch My Back, while Sheryl Crow is front and centre for the Carter Family’s No Depression In Heaven and Buddy Miller gets to do his own Wide River to Cross.  The traditional Deep Elem Blues is handed to Larry Campbell, while Teresa Williams does the full country bit on Time Out For The Blues and Levon’s back for A Train Robbery.

That vocal chopping and changing could, under other circumstances, come across as an all-star celebrity occasion, but the ensemble, with egos deposited in the cloak room, comes across as a group of talented friends who coincidentally happen to be rather fine musicians getting together to have a bit of fun, sing and play and enjoy each other’s company.

It’s the kind of vibe that you can only create by extensive playing together (as noted the Woodstock Rambles date back to 2004) and the core group creates an environment where the guests slot in seamlessly. Helm’s work behind the drum kit drives things along, the instrumental line up are equally at home in the mountains and down among the bayous, the horns are a delight and while the half-dozen Band numbers form an unavoidable core (you wouldn’t really expect Levon to ignore them, would you?) they’re reinterpreted rather than reproduced.

Ramble at the Ryman may not be the same as hearing Levon Helm play for a few dozen guests at in Woodstock, but now he’s gone you’re not going to get that opportunity anyway. One of the greats, recorded in what’s arguably the right setting.

Robin Williamson "Love Will Remain" (3.5* for the non-ISB Masses)

Back in the salad days of the late sixties I could usually find someone out of my circle of friends and acquaintances willing to admit that, yes, there was a certain something about whatever musical effort I was raving over at the time. There was, however, one notable exception.

I was, as far as I could tell, the only one out of my pre-University circle of acquaintances who’d managed to acquire a taste for the Incredible String Band. Reactions whenever Wee Tam or The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter hit the turntable were almost invariably negative, often emphatically so, and I seem to recall the almost invariable cause was the eccentric vocal stylings of Robin Williamson.

On that basis, while the rating above suggests an unimpressed listener in the Little House of Concrete, as a long term ISB fan my personal rating would be half a notch higher for anyone reading these pages inclined towards musical adventurism.

Recorded with minimal instrumental accompaniment, while time has taken the edge off Williamson’s voice it’s the characterful vocals that form the centrepiece of the album, whether it’s the autobiographical musical reminiscence of I Always Followed Music or Love Will Remain: Song for Bina, the spoken word recollections of A Road Wound Winding or the reworkings of Pink Floyd (Chapter 24), The Band (Whispering Pines) or, in what you might think is an unlikely alignment, George Jones (Stoned On Your Love All the Time).

An acquired taste, perhaps, but a taste worth exploring if you’re inclined towards adventurous inventiveness from someone who’s not using anything beyond a basic palette.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Various Artists "Sound System Scratch" and "Return of Sound System Scratch" (3.5* for the general public, 4* for reggae fans, 5* if you’re heavily into dub)

Well over thirty years after the time frame in which these sides were recorded, and given the non-proliferation of roots reggae outside diehard fan circles Down Under, the average Australian listener is going to feel a little, um, lost when faced with these two collections of dub plates from the legendary Black Ark studios and the hands of producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry a.k.a. The Upsetter.

After all, if you’re not familiar with the originals, how, you might ask, are you going to handle the dubs?

Well, boys and girls, before we answer that question maybe we’d better fill in a little background, like, first, who on earth is this Scratch the Upsetter dude and what in the name of creation are these things called dub plates?

Well, taking the second one first.

A dub plate, in its original context, was an acetate disc used as part of the recording process (a ‘test pressing’, if you like) before the studio moved on to a final master and subsequent commercial release of the recording in question.

As such, they were used all over the world, and you’ll find the odd collectible here and there containing an unreleased version of an album or single that has subsequently been retracked or remastered. Here’s a well-known one from Neil Young.

In Jamaica, on the other hand, in a dance hall scene dominated by disk jockeys and sound systems rather than live musicians, the dub plate takes itself off into an entirely different universe.

For a start, different sound systems were aligned to rival studios, and while they might play something from a rival studio there was a predictable tendency to stick to the sponsor’s product, particularly when it comes down to a sound clash, where rival sound systems compete to out do each other. Sure, it’s fine to play the hits, and to have your selection of tracks that are guaranteed to pack the dance floor, but when it comes down to a competition, you want an exclusive, compris?

Now, one way of getting your exclusive is to take a well known song, or more particularly a well known rhythm (or, in Jamaican patois riddim) and drop some of the vocal or instrumental passages out to give the DJ something to rap or toast over.

In that sense, if you get hold of a nice little track, that’s a little on the nudge, nudge side like Breakfast in Bed, as done by Dusty Springfield or, in Jamaica, Lorna Bennett and with a little effort transform it into something like this.

That, coincidentally, was my introduction to the wonders of dub back around 1974...

Alternatively, with a little bit of studio wizardry you can transform the same piece of music into a number of one-off items where the ‘official’ lyrics are tweaked to name check the particular sound system, remark on the operator’s extreme good taste and cast aspersions on the operators of rival systems.

So, in that sense, it all comes down to the producer, who may or may not be the studio owner. If you’ve got some dude wearing both hats (as Lee Perry was with the Black Ark Studios) you’ve effectively got unlimited studio time to play around and churn out inventive and innovative rearrangements of well known tracks and the result has been described (admittedly on the record label’s website) as some of the greatest, most complex and seriously mystical music ever to come out of Jamaica.

Now, as you might expect, there’s a wealth of material along these lines out there, and any common or garden fan’s probably only going to scratch the surface. Personally, I’ve always had a weakness for the dub melodica stylings of Augustus Pablo and tend to steer clear of the rapping toasters, so Hughesy’s collection includes the likes of King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown and a few other odds and ends without going too heavily overboard.


Given the fact that Scratch and the Black Ark recording studio are widely held to have headed off in inventive and innovative directions that no-one else has, even now, thought to consider (and again, we’re quoting that website, but you’ll find plenty of opinion along the same lines) these exclusive mixes never heard outside of sound system dances will probably have a sufficiently high coolness factor to attract the devoted aficionado if, like me, you don’t mind a bit of this sort of thing thrown into your musical mix these two collections are close to essential listening.

If I was a more devoted fan I’d probably have been better off going for a hard copy rather than the $16.99 iTunes digital downloads since that version would deliver a treasure trove of rare photographs and informative sleeve notes by well-known reggaeologist Jeremy Collingwood.

So, in case you’re interested, and being fully aware no one’s likely to recognise anything listed below, what’s on these two collections?

Sound System Scratch:
Lee Perry: Dub Plate Pressure
Augustus Pablo & The Upsetters: Lama Lava Mix One
The Upsetters: Groove Dubber
The Upsetters: Groove Rider
The Upsetters: Jucky Skank
The Upsetters: Chim Cherie (the first use of a drum machine in Jamaican music)
Lee Perry & The Upsetters: The Rightful Organiser
Lee Perry & The Upsetters: Stagger
Lee Perry & The Upsetters: Big Neck Cut
The Upsetters: Zeal Of The Lord
The Upsetters: Dub of The Lord
The Upsetters: Returning Wax
Winston Wright & The Upsetters: Bushdub Corntrash
Clive Hylton & The Upsetters: From Dub Four
Junior Murvin & The Upsetters: Roots Train Number Two
Lee Perry & The Upsetters: Locks In The Dublight
The Upsetters: Moonlight Version
Carlton Jackon & The Upsetters: Dub History
The Upsetters: Groovy Dub
Keith Rowe & The Upsetters: Living Dub

Return Of Sound System Scratch:
Aleas Jube: Righteous Land (previously unreleased)
The Upsetters: Righteous Rocking (dub version of the preceding track)
Junior Murvin & The Upsetters: Get Ready (Bongo mix) (reworking the Impressions' People Get Ready)
The Upsetters: Natural Dub (reworking Bob Marley’s Natural Mystic)
Candy Mackenzie & The Upsetters: Long Enough
The Upsetters: Kiss Me Mix
The Upsetters: Strong Drink (Melodica version)
The Unforgettables: Time
The Upsetters: Longer Dub
Leo Graham & The Upsetters: Revelation Time
George Faith & The Upsetters: I’ve Got The Dub
The Upsetters: Deep and Deadly
The Upsetters & Lee "Scratch" Perry: Jah Jah Ah Natty Dread
The Upsetters: Mr Dubz
The Upsetters & Lee "Scratch" Perry: Enter The Upsetter (actually Enter the Dragon, but you catch the drift)
Jimmy Riley & The Upsetters: Darkness In The City
Jack Lord & The Upsetters: Economic Crisis
The Silvertones: Rejoice Jah Jah Children

Stephen Cummings "Happiest Man Alive" (4*)

Having spotted The Sports Fair Game EP when it appeared as NME's Record Of The Week in 1977 I've been watching Stephen Cummings' career over the intervening thirty-five years with considerable interest. While The Sports attained a reasonably high profile, after the band broke up in 1981 Cummings went, more or less into stealth mode, releasing albums at regular intervals and maintaining an increasingly lower profile.

Sure, he had a habit of turning up on Channel Nine's Sunday program when there was a new album out, and there was, at one point, a social media presence that provided interesting reading as Cummings mused on various matters but that went belly up a while back (though he was back blogging at earlier this year), and I only learned of his most recent album (Reverse Psychology) in a passing reference.

Situations like that produce a visit to iTunes, and while you're there you tend to have a look at what else is there with a view to filling in any gaps in the collection, which is how I ended up catching Happiest Man Alive which had slipped by undetected or forgotten in 2008.

As his fourteenth collection of new material since 1984's Senso, Happiest Man Alive sees Cummings in what I'm inclined to refer to as cottage industry mode, cutting the tracks more or less on the fly over two days with long-term associates Bill McDonald and Billy Miller (The Ferrets) with a third day devoted to mixing the ten tracks.

There’s the usual Cummings acoustic philosophy on Love Is Space And Time, This Song Can Save You and What A Joy It Is To Dance And Sing (with the latter doing a bit of Brazilian samba) and Oh To Be Loved, a bit of a cynical snarl about the decline in political and economic integrity on Sick Comedian (What’s that? A television for a head) and You Know It All By Heart (But you don’t have a heart), the requisite literary references (Raymond Chandler and Edward Hopper, The Ballad Of Henry Miller) and by Straight To Your Arms and Don't You Ever Listen To Me? long term listeners will be in totally familiar territory. Lowlights and Trick Mirrors sounds like a reasonably upbeat way to wind things up until you take a listen to the words and come to the conclusion that it’s Cummings operating in his regular territory.

Acoustic guitar throughout, handclaps rather than drums (what was that line about everything sounding better with ‘em?) delivers a natural feel, as if you’ve got the outfit in the living room, and there’s a warmth to the performance that underlines Cummings’ standing as one of the better songsmiths out there.

Live performance, from what I can ascertain from third party sources, might be hit and miss, but whack him in a studio with a sheaf of material and a couple of players who know the way he works and in a day or two you’ve got  an intuitive observation of the world he meanders through.

Cummings is inclined towards regular announcements that his current recording will be the last (he followed this with Reverse Psychology, so I’m not suggesting he did so with this one four years back) and while that’s eventually going to come true, as long as he’s recording I’ll be queueing up to buy the results.

Provided, of course, I find out the latest one’s out there.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Trombone Shorty "For True" (4*)

There’s a school of thought suggesting the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina is going to be followed by an equally destructive reworking of New Orleans’ musical traditions, and you’d probably have every reason to believe that, yes, with the forced removal and relocation of so many previously tight-knit communities things aren’t going to be the same in the future.

Here, on the other hand, we’ve got a reminder that while you might take the kid out of New orleans you won’t necessarily be able to get the New Orleans out of the kid. At the ripe old age of twenty-six Troy Andrews (a.k.a. Trombone Shorty) is coming off two decades of involvement with New Orleans jazz and funk. When the influences are in that deep you don’t get them out unless you’re willing to consider major surgery.

Sure, there are the rap and hip-hop elements, but you’re likely to get them lurking in anything musical that’s coming out of America these days. There’s a rap in the middle of the latest Springsteen, and at that point I rest my case.

The real point is, however, that when outside influences things get to the Crescent City they tend to be reworked through a New Orleans sensibility. I’ve been listening to Heavy Sugar, and while you could look at it and label it as reasonably generic fifties and early sixties rock’n’roll and R&B there’s a stylistic thread running through the hundred and fifty tracks that, basically, says N’Awlins.

These things tend to run in families, or at least they do in New Orleans. Andrews is the younger brother of trumpeter and bandleader James Andrews and the grandson of singer and songwriter Jessie Hill (the man who played drums for Professor Longhair and Huey "Piano" Smith, wrote Ooh Poo Pah Doo, moved to California to work with Harold Battiste and Mac Rebennack and wrote songs recorded by Ike and Tina Turner, Sonny and Cher, and Willie Nelson).

Hill’s grandson grew up in Tremé, started playing trombone at age six, attended the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, picked up a gig in Lenny Kravitz's horn section in 2005 and put his current pop/funk/hip-hop outfit Orleans Avenue (Pete Murano, guitar, Mike Ballard, bass, Dan Oestreicher and Tim McFatter, saxes, Joey Peebles, drums, and Dwayne "Big D" Williams, percussion) together in 2009.

2010’s Backatown hit Billboard's Contemporary Jazz Chart at #1 and held that spot for nine weeks. With that under his belt, tours across the Americas, Europe and Japan and Brazil (opening spots for Jeff Beck’s U.K.tour and Dave Matthews Band in the U.S.A.) and recording sessions with Galactic, Eric Clapton, Lenny Kravitz and Dr. John have started to build up an impressive musical CV.

He’s managed to acquire an impressive array of friends in the process, and For True, produced by Ben Ellman from Galactic (he also filled the role for Backatown) along with Orleans Avenue, there are guest appearances from the Rebirth Brass Band, Jeff Beck, Warren Haynes, Stanton Moore, Kid Rock, Ellman, Ivan and Cyril Neville, Ledisi and Lenny Kravitz to add extra dimensions to the Trombone Shorty Supafunkrock.

The result is a blend of traditional New Orleans jazz, funk and soul, intertwined with hard-rock power chords and hip-hop beats, fourteen tracks written or co-written by Andrews, who plays trombone (predictable), trumpet (he’s equally impressive there), organ, drums, piano, keys, synth bass and percussion. He’s no slouch as a singer either, and while he’s not quite up there with the very best of them when he’s that good instrumentally he doesn’t have to be.

All the same, compared to Backatown you get the feeling Shorty’s out to carve himself a niche in the mainstream. Tightly focussed, aimed straight for the dance floor or a standing only concert venue (this stuff ain’t gonna work as well with a sedentary audience) in the same way the recent Robert Randolph, For True is the basis you could build a killer live set around and then move copies at the merch booth as the punters are on the way out.

From the opening notes of Buckjump with added funk from the horn section from Rebirth Brass Band we’re firmly in contemporary territory, with rap interjections from some dude called Fifth Ward Weebie, a combination that’d probably having Hughesy turning off if it wasn’t so obviously New Orleans. Bounce is the local take on rap and from the evidence here and on Galactic’s Ya-Ka-May, it hits close enough to the New Orleans past to maintain a rap-negative old bloke’s interest, largely thanks to those street-parade  horns and a rubbery bass line that’s almost guaranteed to get the old booty a-shakin’.

Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers Band, Gov't Mule, a bloke who turn up all over the jam band scene in the USA) adds his trademark slide to Encore, which is the second track rather than the finale, co-written with Lamont Dozier (the Motown legend, no less),  grounded in a B-3 groove with Haynes over the top and intermittent brass punctuation.

Electric guitar, in fact, gets a fair run through the early part of the album, with Pete Murano channeling his inner Dick Dale on For True over a hip-hop beat and spitting trumpet from Andrews, while Jeff Beck comes to the party for Do to Me, chipping in with an obviously Jeff Beck or someone with very similar musical DNA solo to go with the Orleans Avenue bounce on a horn-heavy sing-along.

In Crescent City parlance, a lagniappe is a small bonus given to a customer (an extra doughnut when you buy a dozen, that sort of thing) and Lagniappe, Pt. 1, at a tad over a minute probably fits into that definition rather well. House party mode and the dance floor groove continue through The Craziest Thing, which, again, bounces along in house party mode, complete with big beefy blasts of booty-shaking brass.

Dumaine St. and Mrs. Orleans work the same territory, though I could have done without the Kid Rock rap on the latter, there’s a New Orleans superstar presence on Nervis as Cyril and Ivan Neville do their thing through a groove that hearkens back to the seventies.

Roses fits, more or less, into the same slot as Backatown’s Show Me Something Beautiful, and is, more or less Beautiful Mark 2, but the instrumental  Big 12 (a tribute to big brother James) with layers of horns piled on top of each other is straight back into solid groove territory, as is the Balkan tango Unc. A guest vocal from Ledisi on Then There Was You  brings the main proceedings to a close before another Lagniappe winds things up completely.

While there are bits and pieces here that will more than likely give a died in the wool traditionalist a fit of the screaming abdabs, For True captures the vibe of a high voltage rave in some New Orleans club, blending tradition and innovation, rock and funk, hip hop and Mardi Gras. More mainstream (or aimed at a wider audience) than Backatown it’s still a vibrantly eclectic of a continuing tradition. When’s the next one due?

Hans Theessink and Terry Evans "Visions" (4*)

There’s always room in a discerning collection for low-key playing by performers who know what they’re doing, and with around forty years playing the blues across Europe and America with around twenty albums under his belt Dutch-born Vienna-based guitarist Hans Theessink certainly knows his stuff. Throw in Terry Evans, one half of the vocal duo who provided much of the background vocal action for the R&B content on Ry Cooder’s albums from Chicken Skin Music on and you’ve got a combination that won’t be earth-shattering but certainly comes across as a mighty fine blend.

Two voices, two guitars, two days in a studio in Los Angeles in December 2007 with two guest spots from Richard Thompson (Mother Earth and Let The Four Winds Blow) and a bit of harp from Hans, and the result is a warm conversation between musical peers where egos have been left at home. Add a smidgen of percussion and the result is a a relaxed, predominately acoustic blend of classics (Mother Earth, You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover, Let the Four Winds Blow, Dark End of the Street, Trouble in Mind and Glory of Love) slightly more obscure covers (Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You, Talk to Your Daughter) and original material.

There’s nothing earth-shatteringly original on offer here, just a good honest blend of soul, blues, gospel, and roots music, crisply recordings that sound like they’re right there low-key in your living room or out on the neighbour’s back porch with a couple of beers close at hand. File under laid back and casual, Classy.

"A Parcel of Steeleye Span: Their First Five Chrysalis Albums 1972-1975" (3.5*)

Well, here’s the third strand of Hughesy’s rediscovery of English folk-rock I was interested in way back in the dim distant past. As with many of these things, we’re in hit and miss territory here, and Steeleye’s fourth album (Below the Salt, the first of the Chrysalis connection) was the first of their material I knowingly ran across.

Of the three, Fairport Convention was, predictably the starting point, and the Shirley & Dolly Collins (as reviewed here) was something that had impinged on the consciousness without being listened to at the time.

The figure that runs through all three, of course, is Ashley Hutchings, originally the bass player with Fairport and subsequently married to Shirley Collins and, in between, founder of Steeleye Span.

To Hutchings, who’d played a major role in putting the Liege and Lief Fairport material together, things came down to a matter of traditional versus original material, and with Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick contributing original material in the lead up to Full House, Hutchings went off looking for an environment where he could pursue an all traditional agenda. There may, as Fairport cofounder Simon Nicol suggested in an interview on the band’s website, have been some ongoing issues from the road accident that preceded Liege and Lief, but a glance at the track listings for the first three albums recorded by his new project suggests an almost totally traditional agenda.

That environment came in the form of Steeleye Span, with an initial lineup of Hutchings, London folk club duo Tim Hart and Maddy Prior and husband and wife Terry and Gay Woods. That lineup didn’t last, and after recording Hark! The Village Wait in 1970 split without performing live, largely due to tensions between the two couples. Terry and Gay left, veteran folkie Martin Carthy and fiddler Peter Knight came on board and off they went on the concert circuit, recording Please to See the King and Ten Man Mop, or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again along the way.

A change of management saw a push towards a more commercial sound, and that, in a nutshell, was the signal for Hutchings and Carthy to depart for more purist pastures (Hutchings in league with Shirley Collins) and their replacements (guitarist Bob Johnson and bass player Rick Kemp) brought more mainstream rock and blues influences to a band in the process of changing record companies as well.

Which brings us to Below the Salt, the first of ten albums recorded for Chrysalis, and the template for much of what followed. While the material was entirely traditional, the arrangements were steadily drifting towards the rock end of the spectrum with nudge nudge tales of milkmaids and gentle swains disappearing in search of lost cattle, a couple of lively jigs and reels and the odd familiar title (in this case John Barleycorn) among songs about sailors, foresters, shepherds and close encounters of the sorcerous jiggy jiggy kind (King Henry).

Maddy Prior took the majority of the vocal leads, Tim Hart made an impressive foil in the vocal department, Knight’s fiddle and Johnson’s guitar worked neatly in not-quite traditional but close enough to satisfy everyone but the most diehard purists tandem and the result was a template that worked well enough. Below the Salt sold better than the previous efforts (at least that’s my recollection) and delivered an unlikely seasonal hit in the form of Gaudete around Christmas 1973. That a cappella rendition of a medieval Finnish tune sung in Latin wasn’t quite the same as the album track, and only climbed as far as #14 in the UK Singles Chart, but was enough to indicate the presence of a degree of commercial viability.

If you’re not inclined to fork out the $25.99 for the five album package, the alternative for those who want a bit of this in their collection without going the whole hog lies in the fifth Steeleye Span album, Parcel of Rogues. If you need an indication of its place in the Steeleye Span catalogue, Hughesy would point you towards the Parcel of bit reappearing in the title of the current collection, and again in Another Parcel of Steeleye Span (Chrysalis albums #6-#10).

It’s more or less the same template as used on Below the Salt with the sound rocked up a notch right from the first notes of One Misty Moisty Morning. Bright, sharp and played with prog rock precision, Alison Gross worked the recurring witchcraft theme, and while Tim Hart’s lament for three brothers in The Bold Poachers slows things down a notch the nudge nudge bit rears its head again in The Ups and Downs, with a visit to the apple grove to tie up the girl’s garter. Fol de rol diddle ol-dey indeed.

The jigs and reels quotient is filled by Robbery With Violins, there’s a bit of the rural wizardry in The Wee Wee Man and the Industrial Revolution rears its ugly head in The Weaver and the Factory Maid before the album’s one-two highlight in the Jacobite era  Rogues In A Nation (that’s where the Parcel bit comes from) and Cam Ye O'er Frae France. Hares on the Mountain winds things up rather charmingly, and, as previously stated, if you’re not up for the $25.99 for the six albums but want some Steeleye in the playlist, the album will set you back $16.90 on iTunes.

Parcel of Rogues might have been the musical high point as fat as Hughesy’s concerned, but the commercial success path was headed firmly upwards, with Steeleye holding down a regular opening gig for Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson got to sit in the producer’s chair for Now We Are Six) and a recording formula that worked pretty well. They’d also recruited a regular drummer (Nigel Pegrum, ex-Gnidrolog, Small Faces and Uriah Heep) and with a six piece outfit recording album #6, Now We Are Six was always going to be an appropriate title.

Unfortunately, for me, this was where the wheels started to fall off. While the sound was a continuation of elements that had gone before, and there were a couple of tracks that matched the preceding albums (Thomas the Rhymer for starters), nursery rhymes sung by The St. Eeleye School Choir, and To Know Him Is to Love Him, complete with David Bowie on saxophone were definitely tracks I could have happily done without after an initial listen just to see what they were like.

Oh, and Bowie’s sax work definitely indicates his day job was absolutely safe.

The downwards trend continued with Commoners Crown, which worked well enough apart from the presence of Peter Sellers on electric ukelele and Goon Show voices for New York Girls and the Mike Batt (The Wombles) production All Around My Hat.  As happens so often, however, mileages vary when it comes to Hughesy’s ratings and commercial success.

While the album sailed as high as #7 in the British album charts and the title track, released as a single, hit #5, repeated listens in the course of putting this together suggests that Steeleye Span material that hits the Top 1500 Most Played in my iTunes will be from the earlier, more interesting, stage of the band’s evolution.

The problem, as far as I can see, is that while there’s plenty of traditional material out there, and only so many folk fans who’ll buy multiple renditions of the same material by different singers. Sure, you could have Maddy Prior working the same seam of traditional material as Sandy Denny and, say, Anne Briggs or Shirley Collins and have a small coterie of devotees dutifully buying everything but once you head towards the mass market and someone else has done that one it’s increasingly a case of hands off unless you can throw something different (like Peter Sellars on electric ukulele) into the mix.

On top of that, when you’re increasingly headed towards a rock audience, you’re going to rework the on stage repertoire accordingly, which may account for the presence of To Know Him Is To Love Him, though an examination of a few set lists from American shows reveals a distinct lack of the old Teddy Bears single.

Still, for the price and the quantity of material here I’m glad I wandered down this particular road of reminiscence, and it’s interesting to compare and contrast what’s on offer here with contemporary efforts from Fairport Convention and Shirley Collins...

Disc 1:
Below the Salt 
Spotted Cow
Rosebud In June
Jigs (Medley)
Sheepcrook And Black Dog
Royal Forester
King Henry
John Barleycorn
Saucy Sailor
Gaudete (Single Version)
The Holly And The Ivy 

Parcel of Rogues 
One Misty Moisty Morning
Alison Gross
The Bold Poachers
The Ups and Downs
Robbery With Violins

Disc 2:
The Wee Wee Man
The Weaver And The Factory Maid
Rogues In A Nation
Cam Ye O'er Frae France
Hares On The Mountain
Bonny Moorhen 

Now We Are Six 
Seven Hundred Elves
Drink Down The Moon
Now We Are Six
Thomas The Rhymer
The Mooncoin Jig
Two Magicians
Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
To Know Him Is To Love Him
The Wife Of Ushers Well (Live At The Rainbow)

Disc 3:
Commoners Crown 
Little Sir Hugh
Bach Goes To Limerick
Long Lankin
Dogs And Ferrets
Galtee Farmer
Demon Lover
Elf Call
Weary Cutters
New York Girls

All Around My Hat
Black Jack Davy
Hard Times Of Old England
Cadgwith Anthem
Sum Waves
The Wife Of Ushers Well
Gamble Gold (Robin Hood)
All Around My Hat
Dance With Me
Batchelors Hall

Friday, July 13, 2012

Terry Evans "Anthology" (3.5*)

Given the state the music industry finds itself in, news that artists are increasingly taking matters into their own hands should come as no surprise. At least, that’s what appears to be the case with this offering from Terry Evans which appears to be re-recordings of songs from a string of albums over the years.

Evans has been around since the sixties, predictably starting in gospel and going on to work the clubs and juke joints of the AmericanSouth before moving to the West Coast where he took to writing songs and became one of the foremost session singers in Los Angeles, a status that brought him into contact with Ry Cooder. He has also worked with John Fogarty, Joan Armatrading, John Lee Hooker, Boz Scaggs, Maria Muldaur and Pops Staples but it’s his duo with Bobby King and work in the studio and on the road with Ry Cooder that brought him to my notice.

Two albums with King and eight on his own looks like an impressive discography, but unless you’re a much bigger name you’re probably never going to make a living out of CD sales alone, and in a situation where you’re touring with a band merchandise sales are going to be a vital source of income.

That, as far as I can gather, provided the motivation for the re-recording, and the fact that it’s on his own label means that once he’s recouped the costs involved with getting the album out the rest is profit.

As a result you’ve presumably got the core of his current at the time live set, more or less the way you’d get ‘em in a club setting. Let Me Go Back to the Country kicks things off in a lively manner, Natcha Bone Lover is what you’d expect it to be and Honey Boy delivers a semi-Bo Diddley beat in a neighbouring postcode. Nothing surprising just honest blues played by an outfit who know what they’re doing.

There’s some tasty guitar work (again nothing flash, but solid fare) on Let Love Begin, and Credit Card Blues shuffles along pleasantly without saying anything you haven’t heard around the time when the monthly statement arrives. There’s a more gospel-based approach on Come to the River and after the regulation blues and gospel content to date Shakespeare Didn't Quote That delivers a slightly different perspective on familiar themes, but it’s back to regulation territory for What About Me, I Fancy You and I Wanna Be Close to You God.

Good vocalist, solid band with a bit of lead guitar flash without going over the top and nothing a blues fan hasn’t heard plenty of times before, but if you’ve got the readies definitely worth a listen. The current shuffle by album routine has delivered Anthology to within reach of my shuffle-friendly Top 3000 and it’ll be interesting to see how far things have progressed in twelve months or so...

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Joe Bonamassa "Driving Towards the Daylight" (3*)

I guess, in the end, it comes down to how you like your blues-rock. After ten studio albums (this is his eleventh), four live albums and three live DVDs there’s obviously a market for what Joe Bonamassa’s peddling out there, and it’s a market that was strong enough to vault this album as high as #2 on the U.K. Albums chart. That doesn’t mean as much as it did once upon a time, but still counts as a significant achievement indicating a fair degree of consumer recognition.

That U.K. chart action may also have something to do with the fact that Bonamassa cites the British and Irish re-interpreters rather than the Afro-American originators as his primary influences, so we’re talking Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff, Peter Green and Rory Gallagher rather than Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and T-Bone Walker (though he does acknowledge B.B. King).

But while he boasts a fairly impressive curriculum vitae, including appearances with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Joe Cocker, Paul Rodgers, Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood, Warren Haynes, Eric Clapton, Derek Trucks, and Jack Bruce, Driving Towards the Daylight (which arrived on the doorstep as a freebie associated with a Rhythms magazine subscription) won’t be prompting too much credit card action on Hughesy’s part.

Heavy on covers rather than originals (an eight-three scoreline rather than the seven-four cited in some quarters since Somewhere Trouble Don't Go is a Buddy Miller rather than a Bonamassa composition) we’ve got some pretty standard blues-rock, tidy enough with plenty of punch in the production. Kevin  Shirley has worked with the Black Crowes, and Aerosmith, so no surprises there and he’s done seven albums in six years with Bonamassa so he knows his stuff and his artist.

Of the originals Dislocated Boy is a fairly standard rifferama that thunders along but doesn’t really go anywhere, the title track delivers a fairly standard weary road warrior power ballad and Heavenly Soul is rather light on for both ingredients in the two word title.

Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passway gets a solid going over with a riff that verges on the sledgehammer side of things. The best part of Who's Been Talking? is the Howlin’ Wolf instruction to one of the participants in The London Sessions that precedes Bonamassa’s take on it.

Willie Dixon’s I Got All You Need is a fair collection of strutting blues cliches that’s more or less surplus to requirements. It would’ve worked better with someone like Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters doing the bragging, Bonamassa comes across as earnestly entreating rather than issuing a statement of carnal intent.

Bernie Marsden’s A Place in My Heart gets a respectful a power ballad treatment along the Gary Moore lines, Bill Withers’ Lonely Town Lonely Street is transformed into fairly standard blues-metal sludge, Tom Waits’ New Coat of Paint delivers a touch of light and shade and Buddy Miller’s Somewhere Trouble Don't Go doesn’t really succeed in going anywhere apart from delivering a bit of electric guitar sleight of hand and Jimmy Barnes’ Too Much Ain't Enough Love has a Barnes vocal, and with that observation made I rest my case.

Overall, Driving Towards the Daylight is a workman-like effort that will undoubtedly go down well with the appropriate demographic but I’ve heard a swag of this kind of material over the years and to me there isn’t enough to differentiate what’s on offer here from the rest of a fairly well saturated market.

Bob Dylan "In Concert (Brandeis University 1963)" (3.5*)

While the official version of the story behind this seven song set has a seven-inch reel to reel tape found in the archives of critic and Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph Gleason, this sounds remarkably similar to things I heard back in the beginnings of the bootleg era. A bit crisper, given the probability that it was a first generation copy taped straight off the mixing desk but definitely familiar.

Once it had been unearthed, the contents initially appeared through as a bonus disk for customers who bought The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 or The Original Mono Recordings and subsequent demand saw a wider release, with the hard copy version coming with liner notes by Dylan scholar Michael Gray, author of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia and the three-volume Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan.

Not that you're going to get such fripperies with the digital download, you understand.

As far as the actual contents are concerned, we're looking at two sets from a Brandeis  University folk music festival on 10 May 1963, featuring Bob Dylan, one of the new and most exciting blues performers; Jean Redpath, foremost singer of Scottish ballads, Don Stover and the Lilly Brothers from West Virginia and Boston's Hillbilly Ranch; Jesse Fuller ... and the silver leaf Gospel Singers.

Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance (Incomplete), Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues, Ballad of Hollis Brown and Masters of War seem to have come immediately before an intermission, and while there's no way of knowing if Talkin' World War III Blues, Bob Dylan's Dream and Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues followed the resumption what’s obvious a matter of days before the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is that Dylan was already a skilful performer firing on all cylinders. Given the MC's remarks at the end it's even possible Dylan was, in effect, the headliner.

Not, perhaps, an essential purchase but it’s a timely reminder of how good the early acoustic Dylan was, and a pointer indicating a need to grab Live at the Gaslight 1962 and Live at Carnegie Hall 1963.

Hindu Love Gods "Hindu Love Gods" (3.5*, 4 if you're a Warren Zevon fan)

OK, there's probably nothing here that you haven't heard before. Whether you want to hear them again as done by Warren Zevon and three-quarters of R.E.M. in an impromptu setting from the tail end of sessions for Warren Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene is another situation where mileages may vary.

I’d enjoyed the take on Prince’s Raspberry Beret that appeared on the Warren Zevon box and hadn’t been inspired to head out to check whether Hindu Love Gods was still available. Given the album’s reputation I suspected it had long since been deleted, but I was recently reminded of its existence and headed over to check whether it was on iTunes. After all, you never know...

First, the back story.

An R.E.M. spinoff called the Hindu Love Gods played three one off gigs in Athens, Georgia in February and June 1984, with the instrumental component of R.E.M. (Bill Berry on drums, Peter Buck on guitar) and bassist Mike Mills joined by Bryan Cook (vocals and piano), R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe (vocals and drums) and Zevon on vocals.

There was no Zevon or Stipe involvement for the first gig (on Valentine’s Day, with a setlist reading Bangkok, With A Girl Like You, I'm Through With You, Walk, Don't Run, Personality Crisis, Narrator, California Sun, Pipeline, Needles And Pins, Government Center, Hippy Hippy Shake, (I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone, Permanent Vacation, Jump, Color Me Impressed).

There was a second show a fortnight later, with Zevon and Stipe on board (Up On The Cross, Boom Boom Mancini, Trouble Waiting To Happen, Werewolves Of London, Gonna Have A Good Time Tonight [Bryan Cook vocal], Little America and Second Guessing [ both Stipe vocals], Gloria, Rebel Rebel, Wild Thing). One notes the presence of Boom Boom Mancini and Trouble Waiting To Happen, both of which appeared in Sentimental Hygiene three years later.

A third gig in June was back to the Cook/Berry/Buck/Mills configuration and was followed by a studio session (Berry/Buck/Cook/Mills/Zevon) that produced a single Gonna Have A Good Time Tonight (the old Easybeats number)/Narrator.

Given the fact that the whole R.E.M./Hindu Love Gods bit gets only passing references in the Warren Zevon biography (I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon) there’s no way you can be sure of anything beyond what’s outlined above (and those set-lists suggest some form of magnetic memory) but this period seems to have produced a set of demo tapes (p. 191 of the bio) and you’d assume there was a fair bit of general jamming along the way.

Zevon didn’t have a recording contract at the time, attempts to hawk the demos around the majors failed to produce one and it wasn’t until 1987 that Virgin came on board and Zevon was back in collaboration with R.E.M. for the sessions that produced both this album and Sentimental Hygiene, which was released at the end of August that year.

Zevon was apparently still drinking at this stage, and an all-night studio session which seems to have involved studio time that had been budgeted for but was surplus to Sentimental Hygiene requirements produced the ten covers, released by Giant Records three years later as Hindu Love Gods.

Again, there’s no way to be sure of the actual ins and outs of the process, but there’s a lively step to their cover of Robert Johnson’s Walkin’ Blues, Zevon barks out the lyrics in an impassioned manner and the migratory theme continues as Travellin' Riverside Blues (another Robert Johnson track) gets a thorough going over in bar band mode. It’s something that would work reasonably well in a bar.

There was enough personality in Raspberry Beret to have it enter the charts as a single, but with Crosscut Saw and Junko Partner we’re thoroughly back in basic barroom blues band mode, though there aren’t too many basic barroom blues bands fronted by the likes of Warren Zevon.

Mannish Boy, Willie Dixon’s Wang Dang Doodle and a cover of the Georgia Satellites’ Battleship Chains rock along nicely, and an off the wall selection in the form of Johnny Horton’s I'm a One-Woman Man is delivered with a suitably feral yelp. A fairly straightforward reading of Woody Guthrie’s Vigilante Man winds things up, and while you’ve heard most of these tracks done better in other settings there’s enough of a vibe here to make this collection work in an appropriate environment.

For maximum effect, that environment should involve maximum volume and readily available drink in substantial quantities and a couple of fellow Zevon aficionados. If that’s not possible, there’s probably room for a couple of loose, spirited readings of this material in the average rock listener’s playlist, though whether your average rock listener’s going to shell out $16.99 for the whole thing is probably problematic.

If you’re a Zevon fan, on the other hand, and one who enjoys Warren in rowdy, unhinged boozer mode (if you enjoyed Stand in the Fire’s rowdy rampage, for example) it’s probably a no-brainer. It’ll take a while before some of these will end up on the fringes of Hughesy’s Top 1500 Most Played, but Raspberry Beret will almost certainly end up there.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes "Men Without Women Live" (3.5*)

Mention the name Steven Van Zandt in Australia and, if you get a response at all, he’ll probably be identified as Miami Steve from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, or (probably more likely) the actor who played Silvio Dante in The Sopranos. Mention the name in my presence, however, and you’ll probably get a reference to his contribution to the early albums by Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and his identity as Little Steven, head honcho of an outfit called The Disciples of Soul in the 1980s.

Slotted firmly into Hughesy’s all-time favourite albums is 1982's Men Without Women by Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, and my enthusiasm for that album was such that when I noticed this live performance from The Stone Pony in Asbury Park dating back to July 2011 it was a fairly obvious no-brainer.

Six horns up here tonight exclaims Mr Lyon at one point, and that’s the key ingredient in a close to note for note reproduction of Mr Van Zandt’s earlier work. One imagines there wasn’t a need for too much rehearsal for the show that ran through the album’s track list from the opening Lyin’ In A Bed of Fire to I’ve Been Waiting, not least because many of the participants were on the original album anyway.

A bit rough around the edges, perhaps, but these dudes have playing stuff along these lines live for the best part of forty years, and what you lose in crisply rehearsed, brushed and buffed studio perfection is compensated for by an exuberant live vibe.

Two copies might be superfluous in most collections, but in these parts an old favourite with This Time It’s For Real, Broke Down Piece of Man and It’s Been A Long Time tacked on the end will be getting its share of airings. 3.5*  for the general public equates to Interesting but non-essential, but if you’re into horn-driven R&B you’d probably mark it up by at least half a notch.

Need convincing? Rock over to the iTunes Store and take a listen to Forever. Hell, rock over to itTunes and have a sample of all of it...

But start with Forever...

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Valparaiso Men's Chorus "The Straits of St Claude"

Alerted to the existence of this bunch of alcohol-fuelled degenerates (the centre of their social universe is apparently Saturn Bar on New Orleans St. Claude Avenue, hence the Straits of St. Claude) while trying to dig up some hard information about leader Alex McMurray, the concept of a bunch of New Orleans musos playing the likes of Bound for South Australia piqued my curiosity, and this collection of fifteen sea shanties is rapidly working its way up the play count on Hughesy’s iTunes.

Now, you might look at this and give the whole concept a quick Why bother? but there’s a simple answer to that question.

There have been any number of variations on the get a bunch of inebriates to roar into singalong mode with lyrics that’ll attract an Explicit tag in the iTunes Store, but there aren’t too many that have an instrumental backing that’s straight out of the New Orleans second line. Alex McMurray’s Tin Men provide the nucleus of the backing, with washboard. sousaphone, penny whistle and accordion prominent, along with the mandatory trombone in the instrumentation and close to twenty voices in the chorus.

X-rated sea shanties meets a New Orleans marching band. What’s not to like?

Kamerunga "Worlds Kaleid" (4*)

Word that Cairns-based six-piece Kamerunga had completed a second album arrived as I was pondering the interaction of traditional material and non-traditional arrangements on the back of repeated listens to the Albion Country Band with Shirley Collins (No Roses), Shirley and Dolly Collins (The Harvest Years) at the traditional end of the spectrum and Steeleye Span (A Parcel of Steeleye Span) at the reinterpretation end of the scale.

I’d enjoyed The Push, and will almost certainly be lining up for whatever comes next, but (and it’s a rather big but) I find myself wishing they weren’t taking the liberties on display here with material I’ve known and been quite fond of in my own quiet way for a good thirty-plus years.

There’s a clear delineation between the old traditional folk club singalong you might find on Ryebuck Shearer, Lazy Harry’s or Lime Juice Tub and the versions on offer here that puts me in the same position as a long-term Dylan fan dealing with the old boy’s refusal to deliver any of his material in a format the audience can sing along with.

Now, there are at least two possible mindsets operating here.

The first is a variation on the old we’ve played this stuff a thousand times in the traditional format and we’re bored, so it’s time to do a spot of rearranging routine, which is fair enough in its own way, but it does deliver the prospect of despatching the baby with the bathwater.

Alternatively, it might be a case of the audience probably aren’t over-familiar with some of these so we can, in effect, do what we like with ‘em, which is also fair enough when you’ve got the instrumental chops and imagination on offer here (check the sudden change in tempo around four and a half minutes into Lazy Harry’s, for example) but it doesn’t always come off (and in support of that proposition I’d nominate the Shearer-less Ryebuck).

And there’s also producer/drummer Nigel Pegrum’s take on the matter, as reported in an article in the May 2012 edition of Rhythms: “Australian people maybe had to sing them at school ... ‘this is all rubbish we had to sing with Mrs Smith at the piano’, sort of thing”.

Which is also a valid point, but one that can be countered with a what if you’re used to joining in the chorus with a beer in your hand? That’s my point with Ryebuck and Lazy Harry’s, and while it doesn’t apply to the very impressive original material and the takes on less familiar folk songs, Ryebuck, in particular comes across to me as hessian underpants and will be getting the old shuffle past this one treatment as soon as this review appears on the LHoC Music blog. And Lazy Harry’s not far off the same treatment.

So, with the gripes out of the way, what’ve we got this time around?

Well, it’s a nautical theme to start with. Queensland Whalers / Sligo Creek heads back to the days when Tangalooma was a whaling station rather than a tourist resort on Moreton Island, some Latin influence in the Sligo Creek play-out and trumpet from The Cat Empire’s Harry James Angus. They haven’t taken too many liberties with Lime Juice Tub, and Fannie Bay has a condemned man’s plea not to let his girlfriend know his fate delivered over a chunky reggae beat rather than the lament you’d expect.

After an oud intro from Joseph Tawadros Burke's Lament delivers a cautionary tale based on Robert O’Hara Burke’s last letter. The percussion driven The Cameleers / Soldanza works a treat, and, as indicated previously I’ve got some issues with Lazy Harry's and Ryebuck, though your mileage may vary.

The album winds up with the quite lovely Seisia invoking the settlement at the tip of Cape York that’s becoming known as the "Gateway to the Torres Strait" and the starting point for tours to various Torres Strait Islands. As a commercial (though I’m not sure that’s the way it was intended) it works rather well.

With a line up of Peter Ella (acoustic and electric guitars, tenor guitar, keyboards, mandolin, violin and backing vocals), Andree Baudet (saxophones, keyboards, cello and backing vocals), David Martin (violin, mandolin, lead vocals), Will Kepa (bass, percussion, ukulele and backing vocals), Nigel Pegrum (drums and percussion and Tony Hillier (rhythm guitar, kazoo and backing vocals) and guest appearances from the aforementioned Harry James Angus and Joseph Tawadros, as well as Jeff Lang and The Bushwackers’ lagerphone player Dobe Newton, the cleverly named Worlds Kaleid delivers an impressive infusion of musical elements from around the globe into traditional Australian folk, delivered by an impressive instrumental lineup.

And regardless of any reservations expressed above I’ll be heading out to grab the third album when it comes out (note absence of any doubts whether this is likely or desirable)...