Archive for June, 2012

Ellen McIlwaine “Honky Tonk Angel”

There’s a select coterie of artists whose voices are recognised as musical instruments in their own right, their unique vocal deliveries transcending lyrics and, without being pure, trained or operatic, tantalising the ear wordlessly like a breathy tenor sax or a sobbing Dobro. Ella Fitzgerald, Richie Havens, Tim Buckley, the late John Martyn all had this talent. Add to this rare gift an astonishing propensity for producing the deepest funk and the most soulful blues on an acoustic guitar, and you’ve got Ellen McIlwaine.

Born in 1945, Ellen grew up in Japan, the daughter of American missionaries, where she listened to AFN and learned to play New Orleans piano after Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. On the family’s return to Atlanta she switched to guitar, rapidly assimilating all the fiery Southern styles. For several years from 1966 she worked around NYC’s East Village, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Muddy, Wolf, Hardin and Hendrix. After a brief unproductive spell leading her own rock band, Fear Itself, she signed to Polydor in ’72 as a solo artist and produced her freshman album, Honky Tonk Angel.

The comparison with Richie Havens is more than appropriate here. As with the bulk of his early work, her primary mission on this album is to take familiar and unfamiliar songs by other artists and cover them in an idiosyncratic and totally individual vocal fashion, accompanied by a fluid and relentlessly rhymthic acoustic guitar. She’d develop her own songwriting on the follow-up and later albums, but here there are only two originals alongside the eight borrowed songs – but her choice is impeccable, taking in some of the finest writers of the late 60s and early 70s in a plethora of genres. She covers Isaac Hayes (“Toe Hold”), Jack Bruce (“Weird Of Hermiston”), Jimi Hendrix (“Up From The Skies”), Steve Winwood (“Can’t Find My Way Home”), Bobbie Gentry (“Ode To Billy Joe”) and Ghanaian jazz maestro Guy Warren’s “Pinebo (My Story)”, culminating with a momentous retread of the traditional “Wade In The Water”. Most of the tracks are marked by her jazzy, strident Guild guitar, chock-full of scratchy percussive flatpicking, earsplitting eleventh chords and occasional soaring slide, complementing her astonishingly confident, melismatic, androgynous vocal as she plays shamelessly with the lyrics, frequently wandering into pure scat or an ululating African dialect. By contrast the gentle “Pinebo” is a multi-tracked, stereo-separated acapella tour-de-force in Swahili, whilst her reading of the Winwood ditty is masterful and sensitive with immaculate fingerstyling. Half the album was recorded live at NYC’s Bitter End with McIlwaine’s voice and acoustic set off only by adventurous bass guitar and rattling Latin percussion, the remainder at The Record Plant with scarcely denser backing, but McIlwaine’s fretboard pyrotechnics and vocal gymnastics make the whole collection sizzle with excitement. The only sore thumb to stick out from this otherwise homogenous collection is the inexplicable inclusion of the old Kitty Wells country chestnut “(It Wasn’t God Who Made) Honky Tonk Angels”, done in a po-faced, almost caricatured Bakersfield style with full backing band including wailing pedal steel.

Ellen McIlwaine would go on to an uneven but uncompromising career, her commercial appeal blunted by her determination to make music her own way, but she continues to tour and to release albums at intervals. Honky Tonk Angel is out of print in any form as a unit but all of it can be found along with the follow-up We The People and one previously unreleased track on the excellent Chronicles compilation Up From The Skies – The Polydor Years.

mp3: Toe Hold [Live]
mp3: Can’t Find My Way Home

:) Original | 1972 | Polydor | search ebay ]
😉 MP3 album | download ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]

Pete Seeger “Clearwater II”

While this record is technically credited to various artists, I’m calling it a Pete record here (he likely wouldn’t accept the credit) for convenience and recognition of the fact that it wouldn’t exist without the Hudson River Valley’s hero and national treasure, Pete Seeger. If you haven’t read up on Pete’s body of work, seen the excellent documentary The Power of Song, tried to learn 5-string banjo, or ever listened to an American folk tune, there is little doubt that Seeger’s music or social efforts have still reached you in some way. On this rarely found followup to 1974’s Clearwater, Pete and friends, including folk names like Judy Collins and Tom Paxton, deliver an outstanding set of traditional folk, sea chanties, and progressive folk numbers devoted to the Hudson River.

Tom Winslow’s “It’s the Clearwater” kicks off this rather fine sequence of gems, a rousing and catchy anthem to the Clearwater Sloop that’s sailed the Hudson promoting environmental awareness since 1969. I had heard lot’s of Pete Seeger’s music recorded with the Weavers, solo cuts from scores of best-of albums, but I had yet to hear his “Golden River,” a gorgeous ode you could only imagine played on bank of the river, featuring lazily swift guitar patterns and a vocal as honest and pleasant as a voice could provide. This may be Pete at his finest, his banjo machine seeming to perform the melody by itself for “My Dirty Stream,” a plainly clear assessment of the Hudson’s polluted condition; the picking sounds almost accidentally natural. Several boisterous sea chanties lend a presence similar to Graceland, albeit a little more from under an Irish bar than African skies.  The tracks balance gently, never allowing one feel or another to steal the show.

A couple surprises turn up too, like side A closer “Jebah Brown” by the Womblers, a traditional sounding number hiding a dark, synth-padded almost-psych section, detailed with some nice electric picking and a good and out-there mix. Another gem is Frostwater’s “Haul Away,” a laid-back folkster groove educated with a slight taste of rock.

If you aren’t a serious folkie, you may not get down with every tune here, but Clearwater II stands as a sweet slice of American folk that while gravely honest, and to-the-point in message, feels like a celebration among friends. As local and homegrown as it gets, yet universal, and rich with life.

As stated on the back cover, “Proceeds from this album will be used by the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater to improve the ecology of the river.” If you manage to find this one out in the wild or enjoy the tracks posted here you can find out how to donate to the Clearwater cause at clearwater.org and you can find some of the tracks  from Clearwater and Clearwater II posted at their site as well.

mp3: Pete Seeger – Golden River
mp3: Frostwater – Haul Away

:) Original | 1977 | Sound House Records | search ebay ]

Doc Watson “Doc and the Boys”

There’s little doubt folk and bluegrass lost one of its legends in Doc Watson, a self-taught founder of flatpicking and popularizer of traditional American music for 60 some years. While you can’t miss on any Doc record, this one is my go-to favorite.

Though Doc and the Boys was Doc’s highest charting LP (41 on US Country), little mention is heard of the record today. A lot of the early pickers are subjugated to compilations, best-ofs, and box sets. Fortunately, this LP comes from a time when singles were eschewed for album length statements, and Doc and the Boys delivers a rock solid 35:00 straight from the prime of that funky, in-the-groove Nashville country of the mid-70s.

Starting from the studio recording side, we get a smoking kickoff in “Darlin’ Corey,” Jim Isbell’s zip-tight rhythm dispelling any doubt that a drum kit belong in a bluegrass tune. Merle trades lines with Doc’s harp on the deep-in-the-pocket “Cypress Grove Blues” and Doc proves his gifts with a song on Tom Paxton‘s very sweet “Can’t Help But Wonder (Where I’m Bound),” an easygoing “Girl I Love,” and a bouncy number called “Natural Born Gamblin’ Man.” Side one closes with the hottest rendition of “Little Maggie” I’ve yet to hear. He may be known for his picking, but Doc may have had one of the best rounded and perfectly suited vocal tones in the history of country music. Such a comforting, deep, and rooted voice.

Recorded live at the Hub Pub in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, side two doesn’t skip a beat in its sound. It took me a year to even realize the sides were split between live and studio! If anything, the live atmosphere only adds to the octane in the picking and harmonies. In any case, tunes like the a capella “Southbound Passenger Train” clearly had to be recorded live and we are treated to honest takes on gems like Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spikedriver Blues” and a fine original from piano player Bob Hill in “Southern Lady.” Cash may have done better with “Tennessee Stud” but it’s nice to hear Doc close with a happy take on a hit.

If you’re a fan of “honest, down-to-earth” and damn good country music, track this one down. We’ll miss you, Doc!

mp3: Cypress Grove Blues
mp3: Spikedriver Blues

😀 Reissue | 2003 | 2fer w/ Live & Pickin | buy here ]
:) Original | 1976 | United Artists | search ebay ]