Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New post up at the Times, different blog

I was asked by my editor to reflect on alcohol and New Years' and what it all means to me, so I did just that, as did a couple other people, too.

Proof: Alcohol and American Life (New York Times Online)

Happy New Year to you all.


Addendum, several hours later.

The reaction to the blog post in the Times has been pretty universally sour. Most people read Proof for great drinking stories and happy boozing. This entry was not one of those. I can't remember my happy drunks, honestly, so it was not something I could write about. (I bet some of my readers can remember some of my drunken nights better than I can.) I was asked to consider thoughts on the holiday positive, negative, celebratory and fearful, and the piece I submitted was sent with those considerations in mind.

I would never want to discourage anyone who wants to drink and can drink successfully from having a good time, especially on New Years' Eve, a traditional night for such adventure.

All I was saying, if it really needs restating, was I can't drink anymore. I'm grateful for finding this out before it killed me, which it would have done, although I wish I'd realized it earlier. As for my part of the blog, I'm not trying to rain on anyone's parade, and I'll raise my glass to all the drinkers tonight at midnight and wish everyone a Happy New Year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

One day I bought these both at Roses in 1969

Roses was the department store at the Knollwood St. end of Thruway Shopping Center, my childhood hang. I paid probably $2.49 for each album.

They both killed me.

Antithetical style. Albert's long slow phrases. Johnny's hyperactivity. Albert's got his Flying V. Johnny is playing a Fender Mustang, I think. Albert's got Booker T and the MG's backing him up. Johnny has his longtime bassist and drummer, just as jacked as him.

I wanted to sound like both of them, fast like Johnny and soulful like Albert, but probably came nowhere close at twelve to either. What I heard them play, I liked and tried to emulate but never really sit down and learn note-for-note. I was of a mind that you couldn't do that with the blues, that it had to be emotion-driven immediacy. That attitude cost me a lot of shitty sounding solos in off-the-cuff situations. Still does, sometimes, but I'm a better planner after forty years.

Today, I'd say bank on the Albert and check out the Johnny to get if you like.

The Butterfield Blues Band - The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw

This album is the first Paul Butterfield record after Mike Bloomfield left to start the Electric Flag.

The mighty Elvin Bishop steps forward on lead guitar, there's a horn section that features a young David Sanborn and the whole affair is a slight step sideways from the experimental nature of East West's title tune. But it's great, and it's the album that got me interested in trying to write horn charts for my prepubescent blues band.

I can't actually read notes the way one should be able to. I have tried since Pigboy Crabshaw to use staff paper for something other than artwork, but I have a long-standing mental block that has yet to fall. Maybe, had I had piano lessons as a kid, I would find notation comprehensible, but I didn't and it isn't.

Never stopped me from trying, though. Simple straight blues tunes like "Drivin' Wheel" with their simple horn arrangements were my initial projects. Someone clued me in to the fact that writing charts for alto and tenor saxophones and trumpets required writing them out in keys other than the one that the song is in. So I struggled with Eb and Bb, trying to make sense of incidentals that popped up constantly. At least I was playing snare drum in my school orchestra by then (alongside Will Rigby), so I had a little better idea how to write the rhythm of the notes. But it was still no picnic, and heaven only knows what it must've sounded like, had it been played.

It never really mattered anyway as none of my little band class pals tried to read my charts. My blues band was two guitarists and a drummer. We couldn't recruit any of our make-learny trumpet- and sax-playing classmates for our weekend rehearsals, so any horn-driven tunes we tried to learn ended up probably sounding thin and small. It hardly was of consequence because we never played outside of our living rooms.

But we wanted to, believe me; we didn't see that as an impossibility at twelve, naively enough. It would take a couple more years, until 1970 when I stood next to Chris Stamey in the orchestra pit at R.J. Reynolds High School auditorium, looking up at the second incarnation of Rittenhouse Square (a band I would later join) that I made the connection between seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and what local bands could accomplish in town. When I did, it was all over; any dreams of being a NASCAR driver or minister evaporated.

I've digressed from the Butterfield album at hand, but it's another one that still sounds great years later. The Marvin Gaye song "One More Heartache" kicks the album into gear, another song that I had issues with about finding the downbeat until much later in life. "Tollin' Bells" is one of the darkest, saddest blues songs ever. The rhythm section of "Bugsy" Maugh and Phillip Wilson are the tightest the Butterfield band ever had.

Nowadays, you can get The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw at a somewhat reduced rate on iTunes, if that's how you get your music. I may be doing that myself today with my Christmas iTunes gift certificate, and if I do that, I know I'll be singing "my baby don't have to work, she don't have to rob and steal" for the rest of the day.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Super Session - Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, Steve Stills

This album has pretty much been the Big One I've returned to over the years. From the Mike Bloomfield lick that starts "Albert's Shuffle" to the mellow, jazzy and maybe slighly out-of-place "Harvey's Tune", Super Session is my favorite white-guys-playing-the-blues album of all time.

The story is that Bloomfield was in the process of departing from the Electric Flag, the horn band he founded, before they recorded their second album, and Al Kooper had been deemed less suitable as lead singer for the band he founded, Blood, Sweat and Tears, than as keyboardist and composer. They both played on Moby Grape's Grape Jam album and an idea formed. Kooper called Bloomfield, with whom he'd first played on the 1965 Bob Dylan sessions that yielded "Like a Rolling Stone" and Flag bassist Harvey Brooks, and in one nine-hour session (also featuring Barry Goldberg on piano and Eddie Hoh on drums) came the first side of Super Session. Bloomfield suffered from chronic insomnia among other woes, so he bolted after the first few songs were recorded and Kooper had to deputize Stephen Stills to finish the album. It went gold in 1970, due in no small part, I would assume, to Stills' ascent with his pals Graham and David.

Make no mistake, the Steve Stills songs are pretty great. All three are Al vocal numbers. Takes on Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry", (a similar Bob original arrangement on The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3 featured Mike and Al) and Donovan's "Season of the Witch" are strong and melodic. Stills uses a lot of wah-wah pedal on "Witch" and the liner notes by Michael Thomas refer to it 'not being a war toy in his hands', whatever that's supposed to mean. The extreme flanging of Willie Dixon's "You Don't Love Me" used to captivate me as a kid, but now it seems completely over the top and distracting, despite some fine soloing.

But it is Mike Bloomfield who is the star of this show. He distills B.B., Albert and Freddie King, adds a little John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar to make a singular voice and comes out in my mind as the finest player to surface in the blues world during the 1960's. He's as at home on traditional Chicago blues as he is on modal excursions or on a Curtis Mayfield tune like "Man's Temptation". His side only has one Kooper vocal, the Mayfield song, and the rest is pure musical aviation on Bloomfield's part. Phrasing, tone, exuberance, soul and sorrow he brings to his soloing, and never does it lose its interest. This was Mike's apex, I think, as an electric guitar player.

At the time, only Eric Clapton was perceived as Bloomfield's equal; there was a Cream/Paul Butterfield/Bloomfield jam at the Cafe AuGoGo in New York April of 1967 that I would like to have been an eleven-year-old fly on the wall for. It shows you how similar stories end differently, unfortunately.

There is now a reissue of Super Session that has some bonus tracks: "Albert's Shuffle" and "Season of the Witch" have the horns stripped off, and there are two other Bloomfield/Kooper blues jams that are pretty cool if understandably nonessential. Kooper said that he had Joe Scott arrange horns on a few of the songs because they seemed to need "some kind of help". When you put the mixes up against each other, I tend to see what he means, especially about nine minutes into the second "Season". But it is great to hear Mike on "Albert's Shuffle" unadorned (un-add-horned?) and though I wish there was even more added to the liner notes, I also know you can't be too greedy.

If you've never owned a copy of this record (I've had it on LP, eight-track, cassette and now compact disc), I recommend it highly. If you're a younger reader, check and see if the parents still have it, as I still bet the vinyl sounds best. It was and is a touchstone in my lifelong auditing of Music Appreciation 101; I can't assume that it will be that for everyone, but Super Session is still some very fine listening forty years after it came out, specifically for the innovative and tasteful guitar playing of Michael Bloomfield.


I got a couple more of these in me, then I'll get back to the world at large after the holidays.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bare Wires - John Mayall's Bluesbreakers

While we're on the subject of my early immersion in the blues, Bare Wires is the first album I bought with my own money.

I'm not sure where I heard about John Mayall. I don't think it was from listening to the Subterranean Circus on WCFL out of Chicago on my AM radio. It may have been something I read in Hit Parader magazine. Whatever prompted me to do it, I bought the album in 1968 when I was twelve and immediately loved it, especially "Killing Time" and a lot of the "Bare Wires Suite".

The guitar work of Mick Taylor was a lot of what drew me in. I hadn't gotten to hear his predecessors Peter Green or Eric Clapton in the Mayall band, so I had no comparisons I could draw. Mick just sounded so sweet, and his tone was gorgeous, very complementary to the original tunes Mayall wrote.

I was an inveterate listener and contest-entrant at WTOB, Winston-Salem's Good Guy radio station. Once, I won my choice of a free album there, so I trotted up to the studio at Thruway Shopping Center and went rifling through the box, past the fuzzy Odessa album by the Bee Gees and sundry other treasures. I took home Blues From Laurel Canyon, Mayall's last album with Taylor on lead guitar. By then the Bluesbreakers had lost drummer Jon Hiseman, bassist Tony Reeves and sax player Dick Heckstall-Smith to the nascent Colosseum, and the band was a rocking little four-piece. Taylor had more solos and sounded stellar.

It was thrilling for me to see Mick Taylor gravitate to the Rolling Stones for what I feel is their best recorded period. Even though his contribution to that band has been unfairly overlooked, it stands as some of the best playing in their sizeable canon of works.

Mayall's singing voice reminds me now somewhat of Grover from Sesame Street, but at the time, I didn't think of it, probably because Sesame Street was a year away from its debut.

And who could not love Dick Heckstall-Smith, if only for his quintessentially British name alone? What a huge link in the history of blues and jazz in England... (I still kick myself for missing an opportunity years later in London to see Dick perform jazz in a small pub, damn it. He died in 2004.)

Bare Wires hasn't held up as well as some of the albums that were contemporaneous, but it helped me find out more about the blues. At twelve, I needed all the help I could get.


On that note, I think about how people like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and even the Dave Clark Five were able to transmit the knowledge they had about American blues and r 'n' b back out via their repetoires, so that young whelks like me could then look for the source and find people like Howlin' Wolf, Don Covay, Larry Williams and Chris Kenner. That transmission was so important, and I hope that today's performers find young listeners who thirst to find the roots of the music they relate to.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Projections - The Blues Project

My late brother Curtis gave me this record in 1967 when I was eleven. Maybe he didn't like it very much, but he fobbed it off on his impressionable baby brother who absorbed it completely in his post-Beatle awareness of all things hip in music. He'd given me the head's up on the Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and had fed me a Left Banke album he thought I'd appreciate, which I did.

The Blues Project record, though, was different from the pop stuff. I didn't know from blues at that point, so this was my first foray (unless you count hearing Tom Rush sing "Who Do You Love" on AM radio about the same time).

First thing that drew me in was the spidery, shiny screech of Danny Kalb's lead guitar, especially on "I Can't Keep From Crying" which sounded as much like Blues Magoos as the blues to me. Al Kooper's ondioline was making an early appearance in that song too, as it would later on "Her Holy Modal Majesty" on Super Session, a weird proto-synthesizer that weedled itself into the middle of the pre-solo cacaphony.

"Wake Me, Shake Me" also captured me with its grooving rhythm section (Roy Blumenfeld and Andy Kulberg). "Two Trains Running". My first exposure to a Chuck Berry deeper cut with "You Can't Catch Me", a song I'd later cover with The H-Bombs and in solo shows.

I sought out the originals, of course, like any good neophyte blues afficionado would do. I bought Al Kooper solo records after he got the boot from Blood, Sweat and Tears. I bought Seatrain records because Kulberg was in the band, and there I learned about Peter Rowan and Richard Greene.

I make a big deal about how much Michael Bloomfield and the Electric Flag got me into the electric blues, but honestly, this was the first shot fired over the bow. The tracks I have from Projections still sound snaky and evil to this day, and I'd highly recommend getting ahold of this potent record (although you might want to grab the band's anthology which features all the tracks from Projections at a cost somewhat less than the inflated price of the actual disc itself).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Holiday gift giving suggestion

Know some kids who need nice shirts? Especially the little ones that you don't want to dress in faux football uniforms or princess dresses?

Be sure and check out Smart Wife's website Nice Shirt, Kid and order some of her sweet onesies and shirts. They make great presents. The children look like they have excellent taste in musical instruments. That's the fifteen-month-old, lunging toward the popular acoustic guitar long-sleeve onesie. Banjos, electric basses, Plush Amplifiers, they're all there.

(And it beats one more talking toy, doesn't it? I mean, if you step on a shirt in the kids' room in the middle of the dark night, it doesn't shout "TO INFINITY...AND BEYOND!" I was closing up the living room the other night and, so help me God, every one of the five-year-old's Madagascar 2 Happy Meals toys went off in a howling chorus of celebrity voices that just about sent me through the ceiling. I have a brother-in-law who has been known to dismantle the audio in toys he sends, for the sake of the parents. Bless his heart.)