Saturday, October 22, 2016

Back in the Basement with Bob


Say what you want about Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for literature: There isn't another scribe besides Shakespeare whom people of A Certain Age have quoted more (knowingly or unknowingly).

While I'm not going to say that my buddy John Bargas conjured Bob's Nobel, we had lunch a couple of days before the announcement and he gave me a copy of Invisible Republic, in which Greil Marcus imagines a country based on Bob's '67 "basement tapes" and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. I'd never read it before, because I bailed on Marcus after Lipstick Traces, which I found unreadable. But it sent me back to Robbie Robertson's revisionist-history version of The Basement Tapes, which Columbia released back in '75, and which I now own on vinyl. And without Greil's pointing it out, I'd never have recognized "Clothes Line Saga" for a goof on Bobbie Gentry. I'm slow like that.

The Robertson Basement Tapes remains not only my favorite Dylan music, but my favorite Band music after the "brown album." But it's not The Thing Itself, it's an edition compiled by a shameless self-mythologizer that made me remember watching The Last Waltz and thinking, "Wow, isn't Robbie full of himself?" Robbie and engineer Rob Fraboni remixed the original stereo tapes in mono, adding reverb and overdubs, and included eight performances recorded after the fact by the Band without Dylan. Beyond that, it's puzzling that something could have been marketed under that title that didn't include "I Shall Be Released" and "Quinn the Eskimo."

Still, it was the most commonly available way for a non-Dylan fanatic (they had all the bootlegs) to hear this music until Columbia released the full whack on five CDs a couple of years ago as The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (with a 2CD "highlights reel," The Basement Tapes Raw, for cheap bastards like your humble chronicler o' events, or folks who feel like they've been brainwashed after listening to multiple takes of the same song back-to-back). Even the "complete" release, however, doesn't include "Even If It's A Pig (Parts I and II)," two mic-testing jams that sound so hallucinatory in Marcus' description that I had to go back and look them up in the index a few days after my first reading of Invisible Republic to make sure I hadn't imagined or dreamt them. Perhaps in another ten years, Sony will release yet another upgrade that includes them. Completism is endless, and Dylan's appeal doesn't look to be fading any time soon.


OK, so I broke down and bought The Basement Tapes Raw. To these feedback-scorched ears, they actually sound better -- clearer -- than the '75 release. Then again, I often like "demo albums" better than fully produced ones. All I generally want to hear is what went down in the studio, not what someone thought it would be clever to add after the fact. Without the 'verb, it's easier to hear the lyrics, and none of the overdubs are missed. Plus, you get to hear things, like Bob cracking himself up in the middle of "Please Mrs. Henry," that Robbie excised. To say nothing of all the "new" songs -- 22 of 'em! There are instances where I prefer Robertson's revisionism to The Thing Itself: the Band's version of "Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos" beats Dylan's on vocal harmonies; the second take of "Too Much of Nothing" on Raw lacks the crazy modulations of the first take, which Robbie used; and the trombone-driven "Don't Ya Tell Henry" that Bob sings here isn't a patch on the Levon-sung one from '75. But those are few, and I've still got the records, for when I want to hear 'em.

I almost projectile vomited when I started to read the liner note essay, which commenced by declaring that the basement tapes are important because they represent "the roots of alt-country" and "the end of psychedelic music." To the first point, I've been reading this kind of hype -- which suggests that something old is relevant only in relation to something newer -- since I stumbled on the Yardbirds in 1970 ("no Yardbirds, no psychedelia/metal," to which a subsequent generation of PR flacks would add "punk"). In my dotage, I think singular art and artists matter because of their intrinsic qualities, not the fact that someone (invariably not as good) copied them. In the last decade, there's been a glut of bands that have borrowed the superficial trappings of the Band ca. the "brown album." Hats, facial hair, and funny looking instruments abound. But there was no template or model for the basement tapes; that's what made them great. And as far as psychedelia being dead, tell it to Tame Impala and Dungen. Psych will survive as long as metal, in its own world, oblivious to the passing of innumerable Next Big Things. May it always be so.

The Hawks were a rock 'n' roll band with enough blues in them to have nearly been Sonny Boy Williamson's backing band (they knew him in West Helena, before he died in '65). They'd been living in each other's pockets since the early '60s, and had a strong identity before they started backing Bob. That gave the music they made with him -- on the road and in the basement -- a different feel, more cohesive and organic than the somewhat shrill, strident sound the session cats made on his great run of records in '65-'66. (You could almost put it down to the difference between the metallic scream of the bridge pickup on a Fender Telecaster, which Mike Bloomfield favored, and the throatier tone of the neck pickup, which Robbie preferred.) While the legend of their touring days focuses on their volume -- possibly because many of the reporters were folkies who weren't used to loud electric guitars -- in Woodstock, they made human scale music. At low volume, in small rooms, they found they had different things to say than they had when they were roaring back at volatile arena crowds. And on the "raw" tapes, you can hear the sound of the basement at Big Pink as surely as you can hear the sound of the rooms where the great Sun and Chess records were made.

Another factor in the "thin, wild mercury sound" of Bringing It All Back Home through Blonde On Blonde was Dylan's drug use, which, Bargas points out, gets glossed over in Martin Scorsese's otherwise excellent documentary No Direction Home. Myself, I'd bet it was the price the director agreed to in exchange for his subject's candor on other subjects in his on-screen interviews. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but I wouldn't be surprised if the '66 motorcycle accident was something Albert Grossman concocted for the media after Dylan got home from the UK, looked at his itinerary for the rest of the year, and elected to step back from the abyss of drugs and overwork before he destroyed himself. The Beatles, of course, took a similar step around the same time.

Back in Woodstock, Dylan returned to the well of folk tradition he'd abandoned in '65. (Marcus points out that he'd do the same thing again in the early '90s with the albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. Dylan also devotes a sizable chunk of Chronicles to his love of folk music.) Bob used that body of American song to ground and center his music. He also schooled the Hawks in that tradition, which they'd come up disdaining as the province of "the Yorkville people." (Did he bring them Ian and Sylvia songs to record thinking these Canadians would find the material more relatable?) Once they'd internalized those lessons and learned to draw from them as he did, they were able to forge a career as the Band without him.

The gate of influence swung both ways, because that's the way symbiosis works. Canadian archivist-producer Jan Haust, who worked on the 2014 reissue of the basement tapes, writes of the Hawks/Band's estimable multi-instrumentalist/electronics whiz/recordist Garth Hudson recalling that gospel 45s were a staple of the musos' listening during the time of the recordings, and that feel definitely permeates much of the music -- "Apple Suckling Tree," "Sign On the Cross," and most transcendentally, "I Shall Be Released."

Beyond that, I remain convinced that playing with Richard Manuel -- whom Ronnie Hawkins once said was more talented than Van Cliburn -- caused Bob to rethink his approach to singing. The Hawks' haunted piano player is the hidden influence on post-basement Bob in the same way as Muhammad Ali was the hidden influence on '65 Bob. Just listen to the newly-discovered take of "One Too Many Mornings," on which Richard sings the first verse before Bob takes over the lead, or "Tears of Rage," which Bob sings here, but Richard would sing on Music From Big Pink. Or the three-part harmony at the end of "All You Have To Do Is Dream," which Bob, Richard, and Rick Danko repeat five times, just for the sheer ecstatic rush of it. Even when these voices strain, every note is felt and meant.

In rediscovering and recombining folk elements, Dylan discovered the mutability of both the tradition and his own songs. Never a purist, Bob drew from rockabilly and soul music as freely as he did from sea chanteys, country, and blues. His vision of American song was expansive enough to include Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker, and Frank Sinatra as well as Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, and the Carter Family. Not only that, but he could mix and match influences at will -- and the Hawks had the variegated chops to follow him. Thus, the basement tapes include a version of "Folsom Prison Blues" that owes as much to Jimmy Reed as it does its author (a familiar of Bob's). You can also hear Bob realizing that not only the historical canon but his own catalog can be reimagined, when he revisits "Blowin' in the Wind" as a blues jam shuffle, with Robbie soloing with wilder abandon than is his custom. In the wake of this discovery came years of fans (myself included) at Dylan concerts wondering "What song is he playing now?"

While Dylan and the Hawks were making this music in Woodstock, the Civil Rights movement was giving way to cities aflame with riots, and the Vietnam war was escalating as the flowers of the Summer of Love faded. Once, the music Dylan and the Band went on to make when they emerged from the basement -- John Wesley Harding, Music From Big Pink, and The Band -- allowed an alienated generation, in small ways, to reconnect with America. But can that genetic memory resonate for people far enough removed from those events to be able to wish they'd been young in the '60s without thinking about the draft? The basement tapes exist outside of time, in a world where it is simultaneously 1967, 1890, 1930, 1956, and right now.

To be continued...?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade's' "Sunday Morning Revival"

In the early '70s, the James Gang -- a Cleveland-based power trio fronted by guitarist-singer Joe Walsh -- were, with Mountain, the state of the art in American hard rock. But back when we were trying to cop licks off of Yer Album and Rides Again, we terrible tyros who teethed on Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, and Jimi Hendrix would never have guessed that James Gang was actually bearded, bespectacled drummer Jim Fox's band. Or that they'd made their initial impact as a Yardbirds-obsessed five-piece, built around the fiery guitar stylings of Glenn Schwartz, a slightly older (born in the same year as John Lennon) Army vet who'd absorbed the innovations of Clapton, Beck, and Hendrix while stationed in Europe. James Gang musos were also regulars on the fertile jamming scene that existed in Cleveland's bohemian enclave, University Circle. As a result of this interchange, Schwartz briefly occupied the lead guitar chair in Clevo's answer to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band -- the Mr. Stress Blues Band -- while still playing with James Gang.

In the spring of 1967, Fox was approached by a patron to record a blues album. One Sunday morning in May, following a long night of gigging (shades of A Session with the Remains), Schwartz and Fox entered a studio in downtown Cleveland along with James Gang bassist Tom Kriss, his guitarist brother Rich Kriss, singer-harpman Bill "Mr. Stress" Miller and his band's pianist Mike Sands to record a selection of tunes that remained tantalizingly unreleased for years. Estimable indie Smog Veil found the tapes and is releasing them as the latest entry in their CLE-focused "Platters du Cuyahoga" series (which also includes a worthy Mr. Stress document,  Live at the Brick Cottage 1972-1973). Painstakingly researched, in-depth liner notes from Boston-based muso-scribe Nick Blakey tell the story. (Somebody -- Ugly Things? Case Western Reserve University Press? -- puh-leeze give this guy a contract to write a book about the Cleveland underground!)

The sound here is young hotshots using blues forms as their vehicle to mature from Brit Invasion copyism to a nascent midwest rock aesthetic. Miller and Sands are the real bluesmen here, but the Fox-Kriss rhythm section explodes with a crackling energy no pocket can contain. The James Gang recruited Schwartz because they wanted an axe-slinger who could sustain a note like Jeff Beck, and his scorching tone here relies on stinging treble and throaty distortion. Under this treatment, "Baby Please Don't Go" throbs with the same rhythmic insistence that the Nashville Teens gave "Tobacco Road," while the version of "Dust My Broom" shows the influence of the Yardbirds' Beck-era Elmore James homage, "Nazz Are Blue."

A scant six months after the session, Schwartz decamped for the West Coast, leaving his former student Walsh to fill the slot he'd vacated in James Gang. He recorded three albums with Pacific Gas & Electric (of "Are You Ready" fame) before returning to Ohio and languishing for a decade in a religious cult (although he never stopped playing). Since '79, he's gigged with his brother, bassist Gene, in the Schwartz Brothers Band. In February of this year, Schwartz and Walsh cut a record in Nashville with Black Key Dan Auerbach's side band, the Arcs, then appeared with the band at this year's Coachella festival. The release of Sunday Morning Revival closes the circle, allowing non-Ohioans to finally experience what '60s Cleveland scene vets have known for years. Further "Platters du Cuyahoga" releases by Pere Ubu founding member Allen Ravenstine and electronic improv experimentalists Hy Maya are scheduled to follow.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Things we like: Cameron Smith, Goodwin

1) Wow. With WAR PARTY, Cameron Smith has always combined sharp songwriting with attention to rock fundamentals (chord progressions, racka-racka) in a way that recalls sons of '65 Dylan like Lou Reed and Richard Hell. This new side, an ode to our city's nightlife, released under the rubric "Sur Duda," takes things even further down the path of hypnotic monotony (imagine if the VU, not the Hawks, were Bob's backing band in '66). Me like real much.

2) I can never thank the cats in Goodwin enough for making me love rock music again, at a time when I was getting pretty burnt out from writing for the local alt-weekly rag. (If I had a dollar for every dude that came up to me at my grocery store gig and said "Hey man you wrote about my band" of which I had absolutely no memory...then one day, my wife and I would have a very nice dinner.)

The first time I encountered Goodwin, at the Wreck Room (after being introduced to frontman Tony Diaz by Pablo and the Hemphill 7 leader Joe Vano at the old Black Dog Tavern), my exact words to my then-editor Anthony Mariani were, "Who are these fucking guys with numbers on their shirts?" Forty minutes later, they were my favorite band. The confluence of energy and aggression with melody and poignancy in Daniel Gomez's songs was enhanced by the barrel-chested Diaz's heart-on-sleeve delivery. Gomez's guitar -- oddly jazz-voiced, but spare and harmonic-rich, as though Leslie West had developed lyricism -- and Matt Hembree's melodic-yet-propulsive bass fleshed out the songs. Damien Stewart, a former drumline man from NOLA, joined late (in the manner of Ringo, Charlie Watts, and Keith Moon -- not hyperbole) and made them great.

Listening in the car this week (alternating with Revolver), I was thrilled to discover that there are still lots of moments on their 2004 debut CD (it's Amazon available, folks!) that move me to tears. The four cymbal hits before the bridge in "Airport," or the descending bass line under the chorus in "March," or the high ringing guitar note after the line "When I look at you" in "This Time," to name just a few out of many more, all operate on me like Proust's madeleine. What a joy to find that it still hits the same way, a decade and change later.

I promised myself I wasn't going to embed any more Youtube vids in this blog, but you need to see and hear this.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Me-Thinks' "Mr. Dude" b/w "Rock Deaf"

We've been playing these shitty songs
Way too loud, way too long...
If you're into deafness,
We'll put you on the guest list.

The mighty Me-Thinks -- for whom I have shilled merchandise, and will again -- have always been more than they appeared.

While Ray Liberio -- with whom I've played recreationally in a "proto-punk repertory band" since 2006, and will again -- is the consummate frontman, personable to a fault, and a multi-instrumental triple-threat who also kicks the traps with Vorvon and FTW, it's hardly his show alone. Much of the Me-Thinks' concept -- their droll, self-deprecating humor (including the fake interview transcript they supplied me with after my first encounter with them, way back in 2002), stage presentation (a smoke machine! capes!), as well as their somewhat skewed marketing -- originates with guitarist/smoke machine operator/Cheap Trick fan Marlin Von Bungy. (I finally realized why Marlin doesn't use a wah-wah pedal: You can't, while standing on one leg.) And back in the early days, their secret songwriting weapon was drummer Will "Boyo" Risinger (now in exile in Arkansas), who penned lyrics and provided Brian Wilson-esque "spiritual guidance" for this new 7-incher.

The secret ingredient in the current Me-Thinks lineup, however, is Johnny Trashpockets, ex-E.T.A., who joined two years ago after his predecessor on second guitar, Mike Bandy (ex-Dragworms and Ray's original guitar teacher), departed due to health issues. (Mike's recently been back on the boards with Groom Lake Racers.) It was a move that just made sense, since Trashpockets -- a somewhat menacing rockaroll Predator onstage, as smart and funny as the rest of the cats offstage -- was a longtime friend and fan, and was already playing with Me-Thinks drummer Trucker Jon Simpson in One Fingered Fist. Stoked by his energy and enthusiasm, Fort Worth's self-styled "shittiest band" have stepped up the pace of their live activity, and produced what Boyo insists (and I concur) is their finest recorded artifact yet.

At least some of the credit here goes to Jorts Richardson (Son of Stan), who insisted on keeping the Me-Thinks away from the booth during mixing, as a result of which Ray's barrel-chested, leather-lunged vocals -- a signature strength -- are up high in the mix for the first time evah. Instrumentally, their sound has never been so well captured: hard-edged and streamlined, with a relentless forward motion worthy of Motorhead, Radio Birdman, or Machine Head-era Deep Purple.

"Mr. Dude" is a tale of high school hi-jinks that winds its way through several sections and takes its title from the nom de plume of Calvin Abucejo, Ray's fellow "art criminal" in Pussyhouse Propaganda, creators of the picture sleeve artwork (a Kiss Destroyer homage on one side, 3D wonderment on the flip) for this manhole cover-like slab of turquoise vinyl. "Rock Deaf" -- the source of the inspirational couplets up top -- is an anthem to excess in the manner of The Make Mine a Double E.P.'s "Party Boy." While that 2007 release remains the "classic" Me-Thinks, this latest document distills their essence better than any other recording.

But don't take my word for it. The release show (with the Hickoids and Duell) is skedded for Saturday, September 10th, at Lola's. You know what to do.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Josh Alan's "Sixty, Goddammit"

I feel like Josh Alan Friedman is my slightly older, way cooler brother from another mother. Both Lawn Guyland expats living in Tejas (he from more cosmopolitan Nassau County, me from bumfuck backwater Suffolk County), both got our rockaroll baptisms in Noo Yawk (he at the Fillmore East, me via radio and rekkids), both muso-scribes (it's always humbling to encounter folks who do what you do better than you do). His "autobiographical novel" Black Cracker captures very well the time and place we grew up in, when he was the only white kid in Long Island's last segregated school, and I remember an Italo-American kid, when we were on the verge of getting bused out of the neighborhood, telling me that "The niggizz is gonna stab you through the seats on the bus." His Tell the Truth Until They Bleed contains some of the very best music writing of which I am personally aware, including an epic interview with Tin Pan Alley songwriting genius Jerry Leiber and profiles of Tommy Shannon and the late Keith Ferguson that'll make you weep, if you've any heart at all.

So the arrival in my mailbox this week of a package with Josh's name in the return address was quite welcome. Sixty, Goddammit is his first album of "atomic acoustic blues-funk-rock" in 15 years, and it's a corker. (For my two cents, the best of its four predecessors is 1997's Blacks 'n' Jews, out of print on CD but digitally available from the usual places since 2009.) Mostly recorded at home with surprisingly pristine clarity and juiced in post-production by ace Austin engineer David Rosenblad, Sixty, Goddammit is chock full of flashy flatpicking, sardonic wiseguy vocalismo, lyrical wit, and only the finest blues and R&B root sources, run through the aforementioned Fillmore East filter. Which means that as acoustic bluesmen go, Josh Alan's a rocker. Think Steve Stills back when he was good; Josh's live-wire act has the same kind of built-in tension.

The tunes include several I've enjoyed at Josh's live performances for years -- in particular, "Down Home Girl," the slow, sultry Leiber and Stoller chestnut first waxed by Alvin "Shine" Robinson, and more famously on The Rolling Stones, Now!; and "Cat's Squirrel," which Dr. Isaiah Ross wouldn't have recognized once Eric Clapton (and Mick Abrahams!) got their hands on it, and which Josh manhandles in the same way he used to do Mr. Beck's Yardbirds-era showpiece, "Jeff's Boogie." (That is to say, with a degree of humor as well as flash.) Josh also essays an arrangement of Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" (the 'riginal of which my ex-wife probably still doesn't believe I want played at my funeral), and Doc Watson's "Deep River Blues," which shows just how closely related were bluegrass and Piedmont-style blues.

Josh's originals here -- "This Radio Don't Play Nothin' But the Blues," "I'm Blacker Than You," and "Street Fight" -- show a continuing interest in blues, race, and the seamy side of city life (which their author knows very well from the days he spent covering Times Square for Screw magazine in the years before it got Giulianified, Disneyfied, and North Dallas outdoor mall-ified). He also tackles cover material associated with Ray Charles ("What'd I Say"), Albert King and Cream ("Born Under A Bad Sign"), ZZ Top ("Tush"), and even Elvis Himself ("Mystery Train"). Next time I'm of a mind to hear white boy acoustic blues, instead of reaching for Sun Elvis or Dion on World Cafe, I might just throw Sixty, Goddammit on the box instead. So there.

Half Cleveland Live at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Once again, through the marvels of the intarweb, I was able to vicariously attend a gig by Akron, OH-based geezer hipsters Half Cleveland, in real time, this time via the Facebook page of Dolli Quattrocchi Gold, tech savvy bride of HC tunesmith-singer-guitarist-keyboardist Harvey Gold (who points out that her maiden name means "four eyes" in Italian). The occasion was an event curated by Devo founder/visual artist Mark Mothersbaugh, featuring Half Cleveland and their Rubber City homeskis the Numbers Band and Bizarros, at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. (Never been there, but I once ate lunch with a cat who was, at the time, one of the top people in that organization, at a Thai place where the server helpfully provided me with chopsticks while bringing the two Jewish guys at the table silverware. Fun fact: Thais don't use chopsticks. Was I being profiled?)

As is their wont, the boys in Half Cleveland -- the current vehicle for Harvey and his former Tin Huey bandmate Chris Butler -- opened their historically-minded set with a cover: in this case, Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge" (which I once played in a band in Colorado in the winter of '79-'80; what were we thinking?), complete with Devonian headgear (Harvey gets extra points for knocking his own off at the end of the song) and a guest appearance from Booji Boy (or his twin). They continued with a couple of as-yet-unrecorded numbers, and had Numbers Band saxophonist Jack Kidney join them on Harvey's "Your Side of the Room." (My note says "Roxy meets Diddley." You get the idea.) Chris took the mic for his newie ("Thief") as well as "This Isn't Just A Car" from his '97 outing I Feel A Bit Normal Today.

Biz was gotten down to with a Tin Huey mini-set that revealed the Hueys as the prog band hiding in the new wave bin, and included "Squirm You Worm" (which Harvey dedicated to Muhammad Ali) and their epochal cover of Robert Wyatt's cover of the Monkees' "I'm A Believer" (whew!). Half Cleveland next tipped their collective fedora to Chris' post-Huey successful (for a minute) pop band, the Waitresses. A long-service Rock Hall employee, Meredith Rutledge-Borger, stood in for the late Patty Donahue, singing "No Guilt (It Wasn't the End of the World)" and "I Know What Boys Like." She did 'em up fine, too. For Half Cleveland's final encore, Chris took the oppo to chide the Rock Hall (why is it that hearing this appellation always makes me think of Gang of Four?) for not having yet inducted the quirky Brit pop-rockers XTC, by way of introducing HC's cover of XTC's "Towers of London."

As one with limited opportunity to get out and see bands, this live streaming stuff is the best thing to happen to my eyes since VHS. Hopefully Dolli will continue to beam Half Cleveland into my living room until such time as they have another recorded artifact available.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat's "Live at the Kessler"

I'm an expat Noo Yawk Yankee, but I've loved Texas blues-rock ever since I was a snotnose trying to cop Johnny Winter licks back on Lawn Guyland in the early '70s. Back then, all the black people I knew hated blues, and all the white people I knew thought it was Led Zeppelin. Imagine my surprise and delight when I moved to Dallas in '78 and everyone I met -- old or young, black, white, or brown -- loved Jimmy Reed and Bobby "Blue" Bland. Then I moved to Fort Worth, where the New Bluebird Nite Club was as close to Utopia as I'll experience in this life: local folks from the Lake Como neighborhood, soul-patch-and-shades-sporting white blues freaks, hipis, punks, TCU frat/sorority kids and their parents (who might have gone to the Skyline Ballroom to see Jimmy, Bobby, and Howlin' Wolf).

The Fabulous Thunderbirds played stripped-down blues and R&B without the hipi bullshit, and T-Birds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan's little brother Stevie was as aggressive and fiery as a young white amalgam of Albert King and Hendrix when I heard him in a 6th Street dive down in Austin, fall of '79. Then there was the legion of hot axe-slingers who played their way out of the Cellar clubs in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston, and into the stadiums: Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, John Nitzinger, Bugs Henderson.

Jim Suhler's a muso in that grand tradition, active since the '80s, fronting his own band Monkey Beat since the early '90s, concurrently touring as Delaware Destroyer George Thorogood's guitar foil since '99. That's around the time he gave me one of my favorite live music experiences of all ti-i-ime, when I took my oldest, guitar-slinging daughter (then in her goth phase) to the Dallas guitar show, where she wanted to see Radish and Kenny Wayne Sheppard. She got her ears opened up when we stuck around to hear a Suhler set that opened with a cover of "Are You Experienced?" on wah-wah dobro and continued with the pacing of a revue. Kirby Kelley played slide, Mike Morgan and Alan Haynes took turns going toe-to-toe with Suhler, their improvisational flights taking off into Butterfield/Allman Brothers territory at times. "Now that's the way you do it," I told her.

I had the same reaction on my first hearing of this new shiny silver disc, recorded a block from where I used to live in Oak Cliff at my pick for the best listening room in the Metromess since the demise of Fort Worth's late, lamented Caravan of Dreams. With able support from a solid rhythm section (Christopher Alexander on bass and Beau Chadwell on drums) and the versatile Shawn Phares on keys and accordion, Suhler leads Monkey Beat through an all-original set that includes blues-drenched rock ("Panther Burn") and down-and-dirty boogie ("Tijuana Bible"), flavored with a soupcon of Louisiana spice ("Deja Blue") and a pinch of self-deprecating humor ("Doing the Best I Can," which includes the repeated refrain, "I can't play like B.B. King / When I try, I break a string").

Suhler's an appealing singer with a roadworthy rocker's voice, and his slash-and-burn slide guitar is a signature strength. On the tough, taut shuffle "Scattergun," he manages to conjure the spirits of both Johnny Winter and Duane Allman, while the closing tour de force "Restless Soul" includes a snippet of Rory Gallagher's trademark "Bullfrog Blues." Some surprises: On "Across the Brazos," Monkey Beat skirts Little Feat territory, while on "Sunday Drunk," Suhler cuts loose with a soaring, swooping modal breakdown, buoyed by Phares' rockin' piano. This is the kind of music that's best heard where you can feel your clothes being moved around by the air from drum heads and speaker cones, but Eric Scortia's mobile recording puts you right in the middle of the action. Dig it!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Jeff Beck's "Loud Hailer"

Realizing that all such statements are inherently wrong, I still think Jeff Beck is the greatest electric guitarist in the world. He's been my favorite ever since I first heard The Yardbirds' Greatest Hits when I was 13 and had my synapses scorched by the insane one-string "raga" solo on "Shapes of Things" and the even more demented choke-strummed climax of "I'm A Man." His Truth album made an even bigger impression (heavier), and he was part (along with Hendrix and Johnny Winter) of the trinity of axe-slingers I worshiped as a terrible tyro trying to figure out how to light up them strings.

I bought three of his LPs when they were brand new: the "orange" Jeff Beck Group album, which initially puzzled me with its Motown homages and melodic instrumentals but in the fullness, wound up being my favorite (and an important signpost); Beck Bogert & Appice, which teamed him with the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, reducing him to the level of a Long Island bar band muso; and Blow By Blow, which made my teenage guitar mentor and me think we needed to learn how to play good. We were wrong, of course, but Sir George Martin, creative listener that he was, correctly discerned that Beck's forte was as a melodist, rather than a heavy riff-rocker or chops-mongering fusioneer, and in so doing, gave him the basis for a career.

Once he got past the ignominy of being upstaged by lead singers and having his original heavy blooze shtick stolen by his pal Jimmy Page's more famous band, Jeff reinvented himself as a true virtuoso. Now he's a man, wa-a-ay past 21, and he's had 50 years to continually hone his technique until today, he's like a Zen master: every note is lovingly played with bare fingers and tweaked with impeccably controlled harmonics, hand vibrato, whammy bar, distortion, and feedback. As I've often said, Hendrix changed the world, but Beck lived long enough to fulfill his potential. For guitarists especially, this makes his live DVDs even more essential than his rekkids, so we can re-run them endlessly while trying to figure out exactly How He Does That. But he's got a new album, and it's both good and different than what you might have been expecting.

On his last album, 2010's Emotion and Commotion, Beck applied his mojo to material that included an aria from Italian opera as well as "Over the Rainbow," but fully half of the tracks featured cameos by female singers, most notably Joss Stone, who'd guested on his live-at-Ronnie-Scott's DVD, and Imelda May, whose band backed Beck on his Les Paul tribute project. Beck had previously featured female musos prominently in his band, including ex-Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten and bassists Tal Wilkenfeld and Rhonda Smith. And pragmatically, after he backed Kelly Clarkson on American Idol, it couldn't have escaped his attention that more people like female vocalists than guitar instrumentals.

So on his new one, Loud Hailer, the sound is built around singer Rosie Bones and rhythm guitarist Carmen Vandenberg's songs, with Beck's flashy fretwork serving as the clarion call to pull people's coats to Bones' political lyrics. It's a smart move for a moment when both the US and UK are in political turmoil. While Beck's endlessly inventive guitar growls like a junkyard dog, shrieks like a banshee, and buzzes like a high-tech hornet, Bones sings the blues for this age of rampant inequality, seething anger, and daily violence. The result is a showcase for Beck's chops that people who aren't already fans might actually want to listen to. (A friend told me that the "classic rock" station in Dallas was playing the first single, "Live in the Dark," every hour one day. How weird is that?) It ain't Truth, but thank Ceiling Cat, it's not trying to be.

A few highlights: Bones' anti-1% screed, "Thugs Club," with backing that shifts from boogie blues to bolero; the gentle, Axis: Bold As Love-like "Scared for the Children;" "Right Now," a late-capitalist anthem ("All we need is something new") featuring the rudest noises Beck's made since "You Shook Me" way back on Truth (and that's saying a hell of a lot); the agile funk of "Oil" (a paean to evabody's favorite addiction); and the hopeful valedictory "Shrine" (for my money, Bones' finest moment here). With Loud Hailer, Beck's succeeded in integrating his distinctive sound into a contemporary setting that sounds fresh, not forced or faked. While old fans might crab (and they will), to these feedback-scorched ears, it's an approach preferable to putting it in park or trying to rehash past glories.