Archive for the ‘ Blues ’ Category

Soundtrack to American Dreamer

During the post-production of Dennis Hopper’s surreal and unjustly-forgotten South American anti-imperialist western, The Last Movie (which would prove disastrous for his career upon release, yet go on to become a cult classic and one of Hopper’s own proudest achievements), the actor and director was the subject of a sort of loose, biographical documentary, filmed around his Taos, New Mexico home as he wandered the desert, got wasted, and philosophized about life (see tag line: “I’d rather die fighting than die getting fat”). American Dreamer would share in the fate of The Last Movie and quickly disappear into obscurity, but among the film’s remains lays a beautiful acoustic soundtrack, featuring original compositions courtesy of Hopper’s personal acquaintances, such as John Buck Wilkin and Chris Sikelianos, as well as better-known performers such as Gene Clark and gonzo-mime-band The Hello People.

The album itself is relatively short, as are the individual tracks of which it is composed. Gene Clark’s contributions may be the crown jewels of this collection, though they only consist of two pieces, each less than two minutes in length. His “Outlaw Song” is particularly powerful, a stark anthem of personal revolution against the “rational lines that all men draw.” The following number, a hushed performance of the country blues standard “Easy Rider” by Chris Sikelianos, is majestic American folk music in the best Jack Elliott tradition. You can hear Hopper and others laughing and interacting with Sikelianos in the background, giving this one that grace of intimacy that is so hard to find in recorded music.

John Buck Wilkin was a friend of Kris Kristofferson’s who was introduced to Hopper just prior to the filming of The Last Movie, in which he would appear and perform. He scores three songs here, which are basically hit-and-miss. “Screaming Metaphysical Blues” recounts the Last Movie expedition, and while it has some topical charm, it suffers from a case of weak songwriting. The driving “Look at Me, Mama” is much better, accompanied by some righteous picking and boasting a solid chorus. The record closes with a reading of Fred Neil’s “The Other Side of This Life” by The Abbey Road Singers, which is not some long-haired religious choir as one might expect from the name, but rather a heavy acoustic rock-and-roll ensemble, with a singer who vaguely reminds me of John Kay, of Steppenwolf fame.

Like the film which birthed it, the soundtrack to American Dreamer has never been re-released on any modern format, but the record is definitely worth tracking down if you’re into Gene Clark or even just eccentric American folk music. If you’re lucky the vinyl also includes a pretty wild fold-out poster of Dennis Hopper toting a rifle and a joint that’s almost worth the price of the album itself. Like they say, peace and love, right?

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“American Dreamer”

:) Original | 1971 | Mediarts | search ebay ]

Hill, Barbata & Ethridge “L.A. Getaway”

Anybody familiar with L.A. canyon-rock circa 1970 should be familiar with the name Chris Ethridge. Having more or less made his debut as the R&B-minded bass player with the Flying Burrito Brothers, the man soon went on to become one of Americana’s most in-demand session players, serving with everyone from Phil Ochs to Ry Cooder to Judy Collins. There’s a good chance that you can find him on more than one of your favorite records. A less recognized part of Ethridge’s career, however, is his time served as a member of Hill, Barbata & Ethridge, a tight congregation of musicians who had until the band’s formation only really been seen working the sidelines of the nascent country rock movement. John Barbata probably had the highest profile of any of them, having spent several years manning the kit for sardonic folk rockers The Turtles, while singer Joel Scott Hill had only cut a couple of solo sides for small independent labels out of the west coast.

So it was really only with L.A. Getaway that these three really got a chance to shine on their own. Hill, perhaps the largest unknown quantity here, turns up positively mind-blowing on cuts like “Old Man Trouble,” where he takes Otis Redding’s classic heart breaker and wrenches out one of the most satisfying blue-eyed soul performances I’ve ever heard. Ethridge, whose bass work has always lain somewhere between Stax and McCartney, finally gets a chance to work out his R&B tendencies, having heretofore been confined mostly to country and folk-rock music. I should also mention the cast of supporting players here, if only to emphasize the weight these cats held in the world of Los Angeles rock and roll. Hammering the piano and Hammond organ are none other than the holy quadrumvirate of Leon Russell, Spooner Oldham, Booker T. Jones, and Mac Rebennack. Clarence White throws down some trademark guitar solos.

If there is any part of this record which disappoints, it is in the fact that the band here relies so much on other people’s material. Though songs like Dr. John’s swampy “Craney Crow” and Allen Toussaint’s woozy closer “So Long” are given strong and inspired readings, the most memorable moments come with Ethridge’s numbers, such as the barnstorming “It’s Your Love,” which could have been a radio staple had fortune only dealt more cards in their favor. His laconic vocal drawl on the twangy title track, a wry kiss-off to the smoggy city, makes one wish he had gotten a chance to record more of his own material in this way. Otherwise, the band’s treatment of rock and roll standards like Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight To the Blind” are fun, but not remarkable.

It’s a shame that L.A. Getaway didn’t get the chance to develop further than this one album. All three musicians would go on to other high-profile ventures, though I would argue that their sum was greater than their parts. John Barbata would serve time in many different bands through the seventies, from Jefferson Airplane to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, while Hill joined up with Canned Heat for a couple of years. Eventually, him and Ethridge were reunited in a latter-day incarnation of the Flying Burrito Brothers, though the recordings they made under that name, including 1975’s Flying Again, are a solid disappointment, especially in regards to Hill’s vocal performances.

L.A. Getaway did in fact see a compact disc reissue in 2004, courtesy of Water Records, but it has since fallen back out of print. At this point it’s probably easier to track down an original vinyl copy, though if the word gets around one hopes that this long-neglected classic will soon be made available again.

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“It’s Your Love”

:) Original | 1971 | Atco | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2004 | Water | get it here ]

Michael Bloomfield “Analine”

By 1977 Michael Bloomfield was well past his glory days as a stellar sessioneer on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and as one half of the Butterfield Blues Band’s fearsome two-pronged guitar attack with Elvin Bishop. Disillusioned by the guitar-star pressure resulting from the Fillmore supersessions with Al Kooper and his brief tenure as figurehead of the crazily over-hyped Electric Flag, and succumbing to increasing depression and substance abuse, he’d drawn in his horns and largely retired to his San Fran home, emerging occasionally to record low-key albums with friends including John Hammond Jr, Barry Goldberg and Dr John, or to play low-profile gigs with pickup bands in the Bay area. After a prolonged spell of not playing at all due to the effects of heroin, psychological disturbances and arthritis, Bloomfield re-emerged in ’77 to cut a series of four albums over three years for John Fahey’s Takoma label, in which he returned largely to the pure Chicago blues of his formative years, now leavened with soul, gospel and jazz influences.

The first Takoma album, Analine, finds Bloomfield stretching out in leisurely fashion alone in the studio, playing all the instruments himself on a selection of self-penned tunes and covers in enough styles to delight any Ry Cooder aficionado, and airing a tenor voice with a slightly cracked heroin edge and a wicked and very necessary sense of humour on the opening “Peepin’ An’ A-Moanin’ Blues” and on “Big ‘C’ Blues” whose decidedly non-PC lyrics deal with sexual perversions and cancer respectively, and on a wonderful ragtime rendition of the ancient murder ballad “Frankie And Johnny”. Most of the guitars are acoustic and sublimely played, with nods to Django Reinhardt on the swinging twelve-bar “Mr Johnson And Mr Dunn” (on which Bloomfield’s jazzy rhythm comping is a delight), to Stefan Grossman on the effortless Scott Joplin-syle “Effinonna Rag”, and to Cooder on the beautiful Tejano “Hilo Waltz”, forefronting Dobro and tiple. Bloomfield also offers an effective bluesy piano, an instrument with which he’s not usually associated, on the sombre gospel instrumental “At The Cross” and on a maudlin but stylish reading of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”. The only disappointments are that he lets rip only once in his legendary electric blues style, on “Big ‘C’ Blues”, and that his expeditions on electric slide guitar tend to be a bit weedy and undisciplined, as on “At The Cross” and on the concluding, soulful, title track. The latter is the only cut to feature other musicians, including old supersession colleague Nick Gravenites on vocal, and is a pointer to the following albums which would be recorded in a band milieu.

Hopelessly out of sync with the prevailing musical industry trends, the four Takoma outings predictably sank without trace saleswise. After a couple more desultory albums and a one-off reunion on stage with Dylan at SF’s Warfield Theater in November 1980 at which he contributed to a stirring revisitation of “Like A Rolling Stone”, Bloomfield was found dead from a massive heroin OD in his car two months later, his body allegedly having been removed from a party and driven to a different location in a gruesome echo of Gram Parsons’s demise. Sic transit gloria mundi, or in Mike Bloomfield’s case perhaps the finest white blues guitarist ever. Analine can be found with the subsequent Michael Bloomfield on the first of Ace’s 2007 twofer reissues of the four Takoma albums.

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“Effinonna Rag”

:) Original | 1977 | Takoma | search ]
:D Reissue | 2007 | Ace | 2fer | buy ]

The Rising Sons “The Rising Sons”

The Rising Sons seem to have done things backwards. Built around Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, and Jesse Lee Kincaid (whose ‘She Sang Hymns Out of Tune’ would later find its way onto records by Nilsson, Hearts and Flowers, and the Dillards), the band would certainly have been deemed a supergroup had it gotten its act together a couple of years down the line. As it stands, the band first made a name for itself on the hip side of the Los Angeles folk scene before eventually finding its way into the studio with producer Terry Melcher, fresh from his success with the Byrds. Though these recording sessions would ultimately lead to the demise of the band, they yielded a strong, if scatterbrained, collection of blues-oriented folk-rock – excellent music that would unfortunately remain unreleased for over thirty years.

Though a compact disc of the band’s recordings was compiled in the late nineties, it was put together as a historical or archival release, and as such, was a little messy in its presentation (a handful of the cuts featured new, overdubbed vocals by Taj Mahal). Fortunately, however, Sundazed Records has recently taken matters into their own hands and pulled off a beautiful restoration job, putting together twelve of the leanest cuts from that mid-sixties session and releasing what they think the first Rising Sons record would have been like, had it actually seen daylight. Even the artwork on this release has been carefully and lovingly designed to look like a vintage record jacket.

The album opens with “Statesboro Blues,” the Blind Willie McTell standard, and a barreling take on the Monkees tune “Take A Giant Step.” Both songs would later be re-cut by Taj Mahal in arguably superior arrangements, but the sides here have a brash recklessness to them that’s both engaging and refreshing. Cooder’s slide guitar and Kincaid’s twelve-string are all over the place, buzzing around the songs and really propelling above your usual late-sixties fare. When the band sets aside the fuzz tones and brings out the acoustic instruments on “The 2:10 Train,” it’s extraordinary to hear how beautiful the Sons can sound when they put their minds to it. Linda Albertano and Tom Campbell’s folk ballad positively dances here, and is as laid back as the earlier cuts are furious, gesturing towards the road Taj would soon take with Jesse Ed Davis and beyond.

If you dig the later work of any of the members involved, or are simply looking for a righteous slice of Los Angeles folk rock, the Rising Sons album delivers. The band manages to deliver an eclectic range of Americana with the perfect blend of rock and roll attitude and musical traditionalism. If it all sounds a little wild and messy, it comes with the territory – this stuff is the real deal. Dig.

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“Take A Giant Step”

:) Vinyl Reissue | 2001 | Sundazed | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Jesse Fuller “San Francisco Bay Blues”

Born in Jonesboro, Georgia in 1896, Jesse Fuller spent most of his childhood growing up in the countryside outside Atlanta under what you could call less than ideal circumstances in a foster home. Fuller spent the next sixty years working a handful of odd jobs, working on the fields and in the farms, on the railroads and in the factories, and out in the street. His resume even included a stint in the circus and an appearance as an extra in the film The Thief of Bagdad. In the years just before World War II, Fuller found himself living in Oakland, CA and working for the railroad. As work became increasingly difficult to find after the end of the war Fuller began to consider, already well into his 50’s, the possibility of a career in music. This should have been an obvious choice for Fuller, as he had already developed a wide ranging repertoire of songs on the guitar as a boy. After failing to put together a dependable band, Fuller decided he’d simply have to become a one-man band.

San Francisco Bay Blues, Fuller’s first album, was released by the label Good Time Jazz in 1963 and features Fuller performing mostly originals, singing and playing guitar while accompanying himself on a variety of instruments, including harmonica, kazoo, high-hat, and the fotdella–a musical instrument of Fuller’s own creation that is essentially an upright bass with six strings that are plucked by a row of foot pedals. Every track is all Fuller and completely live with no overdubs of any kind.

The record kicks off with the title track, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” a completely classic song in every way. One of the quirkiest blues songs ever laid to wax, this tune has a good-time jug band vibe that leaves the listener feelin’ good and waiting for more. Side 2 kicks off with Fuller showcasing his bluesy bottleneck guitar style on “John Henry”, his own re-telling of the classic railroad tale of man vs. machine. “Stealin’ Back To My Old Time Used To Be” is an upbeat rag that features Fuller accompanying himself on acoustic 12 string guitar and harmonica, channeling a country blues sound straight from the Piedmont Georgia pines and backwoods farms of his youth. Fuller wraps it all up with “Brownskin Girl (I’ve Got My Eye On You),” a rollicking country-blues pop tune that sounds, like much of the album, too big to have been performed by just one man.

Fuller’s debut is notable not only for the top-notch singing and songwriting, as well as Fuller’s unique one-man band approach that he had perfected to a tee, but for being such a vivid portrait of, essentially, an old time street performer. Good Time Jazz Records had the foresight to capture Fuller in his prime, playing the songs the way he had intended, instead of forcing him to record with a band backing him, as was becoming more and more common with many of the blues records of the era that were streaming out of studios like Chess in Chicago. Good Time Jazz made the equally smart decision to send Fuller to a quality recording studio, and San Francisco Bay Blues greatly benefits from a wonderful quality of sound, where every instrument can be heard with a surprising clarity– putting the album, in terms of listenability, heads and shoulders above piles of excellent but muddy sounding blues records. The Grateful Dead, Dylan, Clapton, and others have covered his songs and the influence of Fuller and his bold one-man band sound can be heard in groups like Jim Kweskin and his motley crue of jug fanatics and the legions of kazoo blowing washboard wailers that had began popping up around America in the years just before and following the release of this lp. With a sound equally rooted in the Georgia country blues of Blind Willie McTell, the ragtime rompers of Gary Davis, and the old-timey jug sound of groups like The Memphis Jug Band, Fuller’s San Francisco Bay Blues serves as a bridge between the acoustic blues of the late 20s/early 30s and the acoustic blues and jug sounds of the mid-century urban folk music revival that brought hordes of bohemian beatniks into coffee shops from coast to coast–San Francisco Bay Blues brought the blues into a new era and onto the West Coast.

Simply put, San Francisco Bay Blues serves up a heapin’ helpin’ of upbeat, feel-good blues tunes, reminding you that, dark as the days may get, as long as you’re alive you’ve got a reason to dance. Better get ready!

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“San Francisco Bay Blues”

:D CD Reissue | 1991 | OBC | buy here ]
:) Original | 1963 | Good Time Jazz | search ebay ]

The Graham Bond Organization “The Sound of 65”

It’s a matter of record that the British Blues Boom of the sixties – as discrete from British Rhythm‘n’Blues, a similar but different beast – was originally created not by former rock’n’roll or Beat musicians but principally by ex-jazz players searching for a new “authentic” music. Its earliest practitioners came to the blues via skiffle, the ersatz rural American folk movement of the mid-fifties; subsequent ones via the brief vogue for revivalist traditional jazz at the turn of the sixties. Furthermore, the Blues Boom began not, as popularly thought, with erstwhile jazzman John Mayall’s landmark 1966 album Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, but with the formation of Alexis Korner’s influential, ever-mutating Blues Incorporated in 1961. Bluesbreakers may be the defining record of the British Blues Boom, the one that induced a whole regiment of Beat guitarists to emulate Muddy, Wolf and BB, but by the time it hit the decks the ground had already been prepared by other former jazzers, notably Korner and his acolyte, the larger-than-life, manic-depressive Hammond organist Graham Bond.

Bond had started out as a bebop alto saxophonist in Charlie Parker vein, but at the turn of the sixties he switched to organ and, along with other high-profile jazz instrumentalists, began to concentrate on the twelve-bar form. Enlisting fellow Korner alumni Jack Bruce on upright and Fender basses, Ginger Baker on drums and (after rapidly firing early guitarist John McLaughlin) Dick Heckstall-Smith on tenor sax, Bond christened his outfit the Graham Bond ORGANisation, leaving no doubt where the engine room lay. The band immediately became a live tour-de-force on the London club circuit but, as with so many other artists who are ahead of their time, failed to find commercial success in terms of record sales; its albums weren’t even released in North America, where the whole concept of “British Blues” was initially treated as a joke. The ORGANisation lasted for two studio albums before disbanding shortly after Bruce and Baker, finding the bipolar Bond too difficult a taskmaster, departed for new challenges.

Compared with the straight-ahead purist electric blues of Bluesbreakers, the earlier Sound Of 65 shows a band attempting engagingly to pervert the blues in every conceivable direction. It combines the expected traditional blues covers (“Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Got My Mojo Working”) and instrumental R’n’B workouts (“Wade In The Water”, “Train Time”), reworked in distinctive, individual fashion, with lyrically naïve but musically adventurous Bond originals which move confidently in the direction of what would later be called “jazz-rock”. All the tracks are carried along by the sheer, rough-edged energy of Bond’s vocals and the irrepressible swing of the band’s ensemble playing, plus a remarkable cheap-studio production with plenty of reverb that gives the impression of a live recording. In fact the album was the ORGANisation’s well-honed live set with each number pared down to three minutes or less, the solos from Bond’s growling B-3 and Heckstall-Smith’s squalling tenor short and ferocious rather than extended and building. High spots include the flavouring of “Wade In The Water” with more than a soupçon of Bach’s Toccata, the spoof field holler of “Early In The Morning”, Bruce’s rumbling upright bass figures on “Mojo”, Bond’s and Heckstall-Smith’s wailing snake-charmer licks on “Spanish Blues”, and the eerie “Baby Make Love To Me” which is carried on just harmonised saxes, bass and drums and boasts lead vocal and braggadocio harmonica from Bruce. Only the mandatory (and thankfully truncated) Baker drum solo on “Oh Baby” and the maudlin closer “Tammy” (intended as a “commercial” single) conspire to lower the overall appeal.

The second and final ORGANisation album There’s A Bond Between Us offered a slightly wider musical range played with a bit less verve, and Bond’s pioneering use of the Mellotron (before the Beatles, Stones and Moody Blues discovered it) presaged his move towards progressive music. After an erratic subsequent career and involvement with hard drugs and Satanism he was mysteriously found dead under a stationary London Underground train in 1974: a sad end to one of rock’s most colourful characters. The BGO twofer combining both studio albums is a bargain; for a flavour of the band’s live sound, try Solid Bond, the posthumous Rhino release featuring the short-lived final line-up of Bond, Heckstall-Smith and Jon Hiseman.

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“Baby Make Love to Me”

:D CD Reissue | 2008 | Repertoire | buy here ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1965 | Columbia | search ebay ]