The Artwoods “Art Gallery”
In contrast to the commercially-successful but artistically-bankrupt pop sensations of the UK’s 1960s beat era there was a small hardcore of bands in the UK who couldn’t get arrested record-sales-wise but whom other musicians would cross continents to catch playing live. Frequenting the trendy London club scene and playing funky tunes that oozed git-up-and-dance, they usually centred round a deft practitioner of the Hammond organ, and comprised the said keyboard god plus fellow musicians who refused to compromise their musical integrity and their blues and jazz influences. Alongside the likes of Graham Bond’s Organization, Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames and the Peddlers could be found the Artwoods, who despite their undeniable talent would have a brief career and only some of whom would find wider success in later combinations.
Vocalist and leader Arthur “Art” Wood was the elder brother of Ronnie, then guitarist with the Birds (sic) and later star sideman to Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and the Glimmer Twins. Having served his on-stage apprenticeship with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, Art set about putting together his own band in 1963, finally settling with Derek Griffiths (gtr), Malcolm Pool (bs), Jon Lord (org) and Keef Hartley (drs). (A couple of familiar names there, then, but not till a few years later.) Eschewing the straight R’n’B of the Yardbirds, the Stones and the Animals, the Artwoods stuck out for the jazz-inflected soul mix that would soon be in vogue on the Soho club circuit, covering material by Jimmy Smith, Lieber & Stoller, Eddie Floyd, Allen Toussaint, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and Solomon Burke. For four years they rocked the live club circuit until the trend towards psychedelia began to edge them out; unlike many of their contemporaries they declined to make that shift, electing instead to split in ’67.
The Artwoods did make records; over their four years they issued six singles plus – despite its cheesy title and homespun cover design – this splendid studio album. Predictably, none of these sold worth a damn: perhaps because the band’s oeuvre consisted almost completely of covers, albeit superb ones; perhaps because the recorded product lacked the visceral excitement of their live performances. The singles are indeed a little humdrum, given their attempts to polish their raw sound for commercial purposes, but the album is a gem of ensemble musicianship with flashes of individual brilliance. Recorded in a tiny basement studio in London’s Denmark Street under the tutelage of master Decca producer Mike Vernon, it clearly features the live set and gets as close as one could ask to the live vibe, only limited by the need to trim the tracks down to radio-friendly length. There’s a lot of variety available; the standout tracks include Burke’s “Down In The Valley” done in impeccable Stax style, Floyd’s “Things Get Better” as a superb garage soul opus with Merseybeat harmonies and raw-nerve fuzz guitar, and a scintillating cover of the Jimmy Smith instrumental “Walk On The Wild Side” in the middle of which the band lapse into a pure swing jazz groove and Lord produces an orgasmic solo that presages what he’d do with Deep Purple. Apart from a pedestrian reading of “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” there’s not a dull moment amongst the twelve original tracks. Art’s rough-as-a-badger’s-arse vocal is a guilty pleasure and Messrs Lord and Hartley shine throughout.
The subsequent careers of Lord and Hartley are well documented, but Art himself enjoyed far less success. He briefly formed a new outfit in ’69 with the musicians who would become the Faces; perhaps predictably for an outfit called Quiet Melon, it sank without trace. Art moved into a new career in graphic design with his other brother Ted and Malcolm Pool, singing only occasionally thereafter as a hobby musician till his premature death from cancer in 2006. His recorded legacy is available on the current 2009 CD from Repertoire which also includes no fewer than fourteen bonus tracks taken from the singles and the mega-rare Europe-only instrumental EP Jazz In Jeans.