Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bootsy Collins - "Minds Under Construction"

New album Tha Funk Capital of the World drops 4.26.2011.

Tenor gladness

When I got out of the Air Force and moved back to Fort Worth in 1992, I treated myself to Sonny Rollins live at Caravan of Dreams. I went by myself, since my wife at the time didn't like jazz, and realized that I couldn't really afford to be there when I glanced at the menu and eavesdropped on the conversations of the people around me, many of whom apparently went there every weekend, regardless of who was playing. Still, Rollins did his habitual walk-on from the kitchen and played amazingly. The band in this clip from Robert Mugge's 1987 documentary Saxophone Colossus (some music from which was released as G-Man, Robert Christgau's favorite record of the '80s) is largely the band I saw: trombonist Clifton Anderson, pianist Mark Soskin, and Sonny's bassist for 50 years, Bob Cranshaw.

Sonny's version of "There's No Business Like Show Business," from his very first album as leader, 1955's Worktime, feels _complete_ the way only a few other recordings in jazz do. (For proof, see clip below.) He went on to front the Clifford Brown-Max Roach unit to good effect on Sonny Rollins Plus 4 and introduce John Coltrane to the mass-ass jazz audience on Tenor Madness. Then he started making masterpieces, starting with 1956's Saxophone Colossus.

Probably my favorites are the records he made with pianoless trios in 1957, the year of my genesis. Way Out West was recorded in L.A. with a West Coast rhythm section and a Western-oriented selection of tunes. Sonny's version of "I'm An Old Cowhand" from that album inspired John Sinclair's hilarious "Cow," which the poet/ex-MC5 manager recorded on his Full Circle album with Wayne Kramer on guitar.

Even better were the 1957 trio recordings from the Village Vanguard in New York, which featured a then-little-known drummer from Pontiac, Michigan, named Elvin Jones. Coltrane must have been listening. These sessions, now collected on a double Blue Note CD, A Night At the Village Vanguard, are like a deep well of musical invention you could drink from for days. At the end of the '50s, as Coltrane was emerging, Sonny went away for a couple of years to practice on the Brooklyn Bridge. He returned in 1962 with a quartet that featured guitarist Jim Hall and recorded The Bridge, maybe his most accessible album.

Then in 1963, he formed another quartet with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins from Ornette Coleman's "classic" quartet, which alienated a lot of people at the time, when free jazz was still generally considered "weird," but only seems iconic now (making it difficult to understand why Our Man In Jazz, the album they cut together, isn't more widely available Stateside).

When Coltrane died in 1967, Sonny went into retirement for another five years. Since he came back in '72, his records haven't had the same luster as they had back in the '50s, although his live performances can be transcendent, which makes me glad I got to see him the time I did.

I was primed to hear Sonny back then from listening to Joe Henderson, another tenorman who'd just made his big comeback on Verve with beautifully executed tribute albums to Billy Strayhorn and Miles Davis that I was somehow able to buy at the Air Force base exchange (along with Charlie Haden's great Haunted Heart on the same label). Henderson originally emerged in the early '60s, playing in every context Blue Note Records had to offer, including Andrew Hill's Point of Departure and Larry Young's Unity as well as Horace Silver's hit "Song For My Father" and Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder."

In 2004, when I was on the road with Dave Karnes in Nathan Brown's band, Dave pulled my coat to his own two favorite Henderson recordings: Four and Inner Urge. The former is a live recording from 1968 that Verve didn't get around to releasing until 1994, on which Joe was backed by Miles Davis' old rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb (the way Wes Montgomery was on Smokin' At the Half Note) and alternated "inside" and "outside" choruses on his solos. The latter was a classic Blue Note from '66, on which he was backed by McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones from Coltrane's "classic" quartet, along with -- wait for it -- Bob Cranshaw on bass. Full circle. Now, where'd I put that Booker Ervin CD?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Deniz Tek - "Shellback" live on French TV

Here's one from the man who carried the Stooges virus to Orstralia while attending medical school there in the early '70s, best known for his proto-punk pioneering with Radio Birdman, whose naval aviation radio call sign was co-opted by the Top Gun filmmakers, and whose forward-looking '90s albums Le Bonne Route and Equinox remain faves at my house. (He's at work on a new album now.) The clip comes from the '99 European tour when he operated on his drummer's abscessed leg in the van with a penknife. True story.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

HIO update

Here's T. Horn's extremely lo-fi camcorder recording of what we played Sunday night at 1919 Hemphill, perhaps partly inspahrd by listening to the Sun Ra that someone was playing downstairs before we hit. We played last, and our performance was witnessed by Justin Roberts from Giddy-Up Nailbiter, who booked the gig, and the door cat, whose name I didn't catch. Almost like the last days of PFFFFT!, except we aren't throwing in the towel. Yet.

Add Apollo 18 from Seoul to the list of great bands I've heard play phenomenal sets to the door guy, the sound guy, the other band(s), and three civilians, although in their case there was a big Korean family (probably friends/relatives of one of the band guys) present. They did a great job of transferring their arena rock spectacle to the smaller confines of 1919, in spite of the guitarist's Orange amp shitting out (and thanks to the guitarist from Spacebeach for lending his Marshall top to the cause). Apollo 18 cats have a strong mastery of dynamics, particularly on a Morricone-like instrumental, and a funky one where the guitarist sat down to play because it was "tricky" (according to the bassplayer). "Thank you, kamsahamnida."

This Saturday, we're heading up to Denton to eat whateverthehell there is to eat within proximity of the square that isn't J&J's Pizza or the cafe where my sweetie 'n' I ate once, scour Recycled for old Black Saint CDs, and record with Michael Briggs for the Violitionist Sessions.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Me-Thinks/Dangits/E.T.A./Pinkish Black Pics @

My sweetie posted some of her pics from the Me-Thinks' record release extravaganza at Lola's Saturday night on her photo blog. Click on 'em to make 'em big and leave her a comment why doncha?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Buddy Guy on Video

Besides the late Robin Sylar, Buddy Guy is my favorite blues guitarist of all ti-i-ime. I first heard him on Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man Blues album, and when I was in college, I found his I Was Walking Through the Woods (a compilation of his Chess singles; he cut for a bunch of labels over the years) in the bargain bin at Just A Song in Albany. I've never seen him live. When he used to play at Caravan of Dreams (a venue I really liked the _idea_ of, but couldn't really afford to go to), I always said I'd catch him when he played for free in Sundance Square, but never got around to doing so for some reason.

I haven't really been thrilled by the records he released since his post-1990 rediscovery, but there's a bunch of prime Buddy on Youtube, some of which is DVD-available. When he was young, he looked like a bassplayer I used to play with back on Long Island, and he definitely gave you your money's worth in showmanship and crazy-fingered solo action, inspahrd by James Brown as much as he was by Guitar Slim.

Buddy stole the show in the Festival Express documentary, which followed a bunch of musos (including Fort Worthian Jim Colegrove, back when he played bass for Ian and Sylvia's Great Speckled Bird) as they toured Canada on a train back in 1970. I like the way Buddy's band (including Phil Guy on second guitar) look more like Funkadelic than what you'd expect a blues band to look like (although not as bad-ass as the hoodlum-looking bunch I saw Freddie King with in Albany in '78). And dig the way Buddy gets down off the festival stage, accompanied by a roadie with an extra-long guitar cord, to work the crowd.

We just watched Supershow, which I believe was originally made for Brit TV and showcased Buddy in several contexts, including this fiery workout with Buddy Miles on drums, Jack Bruce on bass, and saxophonists Roland Kirk, Dick Heckstall-Smith, and Chris Mercer.

Even better is this clip from the 1972 documentary Chicago Blues, which captures Buddy and Junior Wells in a Chicago club, as well as Muddy Waters, J.B. Hutto, and others. (I'm currently stalking it on Amazon.)

Of similar vintage and intensity, but neither embeddable nor, as far as I can tell, DVD-or-VHS-available, is this clip of Buddy and Junior performing at Theresa's in Chicago, from a French documentary. (Be forewarned: audio volume on the clip is low, so you've gotta turn your computer's volume up.) If anybody knows different, lemme know.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mike Watt's "Hyphenated-Man"

On his third "punk opera," bassist-songwriter-singer-prodigous memoirist-road rat supreme Mike Watt sounds like a man who's spent 25 years chasing his own past and has finally caught up with it.

For five years in the Minutemen with d. boon and George Hurley, Watt constantly pushed back the boundaries of what "punk rock" could be. Their recorded masterpiece, 1984's Double Nickels On the Dime, was like a Trout Mask Replica for the Reagan years, substituting obsessions with history, politics, and funk rhythms for Captain Beefheart's ecology, Delta blues, and free jazz. Their swan song, the following year's 3-Way Tie (For Last), remains relevant today with its ruminations on war and imperialism. Watt's childhood friend d. boon was killed in a road accident at the end of 1985, but he remains a palpable presence in Watt's music to this day. (The songs on Hyphenated-Man were written on one of d.'s guitars.)

To these feedback-scorched ears, fIREHOSE -- the band Watt and Hurley formed after d.'s death with Minutemen fan Ed Crawford -- always sounded like a worthy but lesser echo of the former band's glories. As a solo artist, Watt's resolutely followed his own muse. He's the most literate of punk-rockers; his inspirations have included Joyce (whose Ulysses is echoed in the stream-of-consciousness flow of Watt's logorrheic tour diaries, published in real time on his website), Dante (whose Divine Comedy served as a structural model for Watt's second "opera," The Secondman's Middle Stand, which thematically dealt with a near-fatal illness he suffered in Y2K), and Richard McKenna (whose novel The Sand Pebbles provided context that helped Watt relate his father's naval career to his own experiences touring with the Minutemen in his first "opera," 1997's Contemplating the Engine Room).

Musically, Watt's solo albums have been equally all-over-the-map. His 1995 debut Ball-Hog Or Tugboat? boasted appearances by a veritable "who's who" of alt-rock figures, but was most notable for an epic blowout on Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" with J. Mascis and Bernie Worrell, and for the mass-ass audience's first encounter with innovative guitarist Nels Cline. Cline was heavily featured in the trio that performed on Engine Room, probably Watt's best and certainly his most cohesive post-Minutemen record until the current one. The organ-based trio on The Secondman's Middle Stand was less effective, lacking a distinctive solo voice (as much as the Minutemen made of "[cutting] down the guitar solos," d. boon sure played a lot of 'em) and suffering from a surfeit of midrange sounds.

Current guitarist Tom Watson's less solo-oriented than Cline; the written parts he's asked to play here recall d.'s style, but also give him room to show that he's his own guy, particularly in his full, warm tone. Drummer Raul Morales plays the whole kit like George Hurley, always ready to go wherever the music needs him to, an imaginative and sympathetic accompanist. Of course, how much you go for this music will depend a lot on how you respond to Watt. A virtuosic bassist, he's a gruff, limited singer -- but no more limited than, say, Dylan, Reed, or Young -- who sounds for all the world like a benevolent Bluto, whether he's raging full-on or contemplating the world around him with bemused wonder.

Watt writes that this latest piece -- 30 vignettes inspired by his state of mind at middle age, with no narrative intent -- was inspired by the Minutemen's work, which he revisited after many years during the 2005 filming of the rockumentary We Jam Econo; bizarre creatures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings; and a characteristically idiosyncratic Watt interpretation of The Wizard of Oz.

The songs, only a couple of which last a hair over two minutes, are stripped right down to the bone, yet sound surprisingly developed for having little time to get their point across. Musically, they're as dynamically varied as the songs on Double Nickels were. Lyrically, a few are self-explanatory ("Belly-Stabbed-Man," "Hollowed-Out-Man," "Man-Shitting-Man"), a few cryptic ("Cherry-Headed-Lover-Man," "Boot-Wearing-Fish-Man"), a few informed by a Joycean love of the pure sound of language ("Finger-Pointing-Man," "Own-Horn-Blowing-Man," "Shield-Shouldered-Man").

In addition to all the other things I've said, Watt's also the most introspective of rockers, and what's on his mind here is nothing less than all the mental and psychological gyrations men go through to "be" men. In investigating and dissecting them, he displays both a rare degree of self-awareness and humility, and a lot less preciousness than, say, Pete Townshend might have displayed in tackling similar subject matter. In fact, never has navel-gazing sounded this bold and bracing. Here's hoping Watt, his bass, his van, and his men stay at it another 30 years.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My scrawl in the FW Weekly

This apparently got cut from the print version, but a show preview I penned of the Nervebreakers/Fort Worth Cats show this Saturday at the Aardvark is here. I, of course, will be acting the fool with the Asian Media Crew for the Me-Thinks' vinyl release party at Lola's that night, with a bill that also includes The Dangits, Elvis Took Acid, and Pinkish Black. So take your pick.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Me-Thinks' "Wazwulf"/"Greasy Lightning"

The Me-Thinks have long prided themselves on being underachievers; where most bands give 100% onstage, they generally shoot for 75%. So how else to follow up 2007's Make Mine a Double E.P. but with a seven-inch vinyl slab containing two, count 'em, _two_ new songs? Of course, Ray Liberio, Sir Marlin Von Bungy, and the other fellas have always wanted to hear themselves on vinyl, and with that lovely format (and digital downloads) having supplanted CDs since they last weighed in on disc, it just seems to make sense. Especially when they've taken the time and care to press on beer-colored vinyl, with custom labels and a snazzy picture sleeve courtesy of Ray's "art crimes" outfit, Pussyhouse Propaganda.

Since their last outing, the Me-Thinks have parted ways with founding drummer/songwriting secret weapon Will Risinger, and added two new members to the lineup. (I know, we're talking four years ago, but still...) Trucker Jon Simpson, who also kicks the traps with One Fingered Fist when they're active, is the finest skinsman ever to emerge from Weatherford, Texas, while Michael Bandy (ex-Dragworms, ex-Barrel Delux, guest soloist on the double E.P.'s "Bong MacGyver") adds a second guitar to the mix that fills out the sound nicely. (All those one-guitar bands overdub in the studio, so why not just have two?)

This time, they cut at the Echo Lab out in Argyle, with the estimable Matt Barnhart at the controls and ex-Wreck Room/current Lola's wizard o' sound Andre Edmonson, who's mixed more Me-Thinks shows than anybody, pitching in on the final mix. "Wazwulf" bursts out of the gate firing on all cylinders a la Motorhead, with leather-lunged Ray roaring out lyrics about what happens to Ratsamy Pathammavong every time the moon is full over Haltom City, and a closing guitar break straight off of Master of Reality. "Greasy Lighting" opens with a blast of heaviosity and string-scraping, then takes its time before getting down to biz, its pummeling riffage topped with typically self-deprecating lyrics ("Too fat to be famous / Too wasted to know / Too high to realize / We're too old / We're too loud...").

In sum, a solid souvenir of the Me-Thinks' sweaty stage trip, which you can experience in person this Saturday at Lola's, where they're topping a bill that also includes Pinkish Black, Elvis Took Acid, and the Dangits. All that's missing is the smoke machine. And beer.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dennis Gonzalez/Ingebrigt Haker Flaten's "The Hymn Project"

I first met trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez in 1978, when he was younger than his youngest son is now and had just started to self-release recordings of his ensembles on his own daagnim label. I encountered him again in 2002, when he played the Wreck Room in Fort Worth with Yells At Eels, the band which his sons Aaron and Stefan -- who'd grown up in an environment that nurtured creativity, and cut their musical teeth playing grindcore and crust-punk -- coaxed him out of musical retirement to form with them in 1999.

In the intervening years, Dennis had established himself as a world-class jazz artist, performing with a veritable "who's who" of creative musicians in his travels throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas, and releasing over 30 albums on a variety of European and American labels. Today, he continues to criss-cross the globe, equally at home in concert halls and DIY punk spaces. His jazz broadcasts on the local NPR affiliate were an, um, oasis of sanity on the airwaves, before they replaced him with a football player. (It might seem petty to be grousing about public broadcasting now that the Republican Congress here is about to eviscerate it, but it was still a dumb move back then.) He's also a gifted poet and visual artist, and he's taught in Dallas public schools for 35 years now. The term "Renaissance man" definitely applies.

At age 24, Dennis seemed more mature than his years; there was a "centeredness" about him that seemed to flow from some spiritual source. Even in its most turbulent moments, his music has that same quality of inner stillness -- one which I've recently written of sensing in the performances of Van Morrison and Patti Smith. (Don Cherry had it, too, and Charlie Haden has it.) That quality permeates his latest daagnim release, a collaboration with Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, with whom he shares the experience of having played music in church. While you won't find the tunes on The Hymn Project in anybody's hymnal, they embody the spirit, if not the letter, of songs from sacred spaces.

Dennis' "Hymn to the Incoherent" opens the proceedings with balaphon and gently-attacked percussion instruments, summoning the muse the way the Art Ensemble of Chicago used to. Stefan Gonzalez has blended his aggressive punk roots with the direct influence of master percussionists like Alvin Fielder, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Louis Moholo-Moholo, and Famoudou Don Moye to develop a highly personal style that's both assertive and expressive. Haker Flaten has a dark, spare sound reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman. Throughout, he and the other string players -- Aaron Gonzalez on bass and Henna Chou on cello -- share space effectively, contrasting low and high registers or arco and pizzicato attacks. And Dennis is always lyrical, whether playing arcing long tones or furious flurries of notes.

Haker Flaten's "Jeg Rade Vil Alle I Undommens Dager" begins with Dennis playing a bluesy theme, shadowed by a contrapuntal line from Chou. Then the composer joins in with a modal vamp, over which trumpet and cello alternately restate the theme in unison and intertwine solo statements, giving way to a free section, which Stefan underpins with responsive accompaniment. This segues seamlessly into Dennis' "Doxology," which follows a circuitous path to its elegiac theme. Next, Haker Flaten's "Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg" opens with chiming bass harmonics before its stately theme emerges, played in unison by trumpet and arco bass while pizzicato bass and drums churn and roil below. Dennis' appropriately-named "Sweet Hour of Prayer" sets the stage for the closing "Herido," propelled by a rumbling bass ostinato over which Dennis sings (in Spanish) the words of St. John of the Cross.

All in all, like Trane's A Love Supreme and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, a fervent prayer for troubled times. Cop via Amulets.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Johnny Winter

I can't think about Johnny Winter without thinking about my friend Michael, who between the time I was 16 and the time I was 21 went from being my idol to my best friend to my nemesis.

He was three years older than me and the best guitar player in our neighborhood. I learned more about playing the guitar from him than from anybody else. He was also a heroin addict. By the time we parted ways, I'd come to dread hearing the phone ring because I'd always fear that it was him and that he'd want something: a ride, some money, basically my time and attention. With surprising self-awareness, he once told me that one reason for his self-destructive substance abuse patterns was that "I just like having people worried about my welfare." I didn't learn that he was dead, from an overdose at age 28, until a couple of years after the fact, and when I did, I was surprised to feel absolutely no emotion at all. Only when I started playing again, after a seven-year layoff, was I surprised to discover how much I still sounded like myself, and how much of that "self" I'd gotten from him. In that regard, I suppose he's still with me every time I pick up a guitar.

Michael loved him some Johnny Winter. Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, too, but Johnny was his main man. He modeled himself after Johnny, with hair down to his ass and a reverse Gibson Firebird, although he was a snub-nosed Irish kid and not a Texan albino. I dug Beck and Hendrix, too, along with Pete Townshend, whom I soon learned that Michael disdained because of his inferior abilities. When we first met -- we had art and gym class together my sophomore year, which gave us ample opportunity to bullshit about music -- I'd just seen Mott the Hoople at the Uris Theater, and come away with the impression that their show, while entertaining, was also largely artifice. On the other hand, Michael's current band, Clyde, seemed a lot more real and musicianly when I saw them play a concert in the high school auditorium. He was, at the time, the best guitarist I'd ever seen up close, and appeared to mean every note that he played. I was impressed by this.

Johnny Winter, on the other hand, seemed like a mindless riff machine at first, compared to Beck, Hendrix, and other guys I dug like Mike Bloomfield: possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of blues styles and licks, and able to peal them off with a relentless abandon that was kind of overwhelming, sans any kind of subtlety or restraint. He sang like a cat having its tail stepped on, closer to Steven Tyler than Muddy Waters. Unleashed and pharmaceutically fueled (as he was on Johnny Winter And Live), he could be quite imposing, like an unbridled Id with guitar. In all ways, he predicted Stevie Ray Vaughan, down to employing the rhythm section of Tommy Shannon and Uncle John Turner, who'd go on to play alongside SRV and my fave Texas white bluesguy Robin Sylar in Krackerjack; later, Tommy would go the full distance with Stevie, after some harrowing times of his own.

My favorite thing about Johnny was the way he played slide in open tunings. On extended workouts like Dylan's "Highway 61" and his own "Mean Town Blues," he rocked out with a ferocity that was at once primal and folkloric, like an Appalachian banjo breakdown on trucker speed. When I got to college and played in my first good band, Johnny's "Rock and Roll" from Still Alive and Well allowed me to play with a freedom I wasn't yet able to muster on straight guitar. "All Tore Down" from that same album remains a jam-room warmup fave of mine. And every band I was in between 1973 and 1976 or so must have played "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo" and Johnny's version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

The one time I saw Johnny, in Albany, spring of '75, my bassplayer at the time, who was on the university's concert committee, stole me a bottle of whiskey from Johnny's dressing room, as a result of which I can remember everything the opening act, a bunch of upstate losers called Darlin', played (mainly Wishbone Ash covers that the college sheep audience mistook for 'riginals) and nothing the headliner played, after I pushed my way to the front, shouting "YEAAAHHH!!!," the moment he hit the stage. Later, I was told that I kicked a girl in the face who was trying to remove my boot after I'd passed out in somebody's dorm room. I'm not proud of it, I'm just saying.

As much as I've disparaged Johnny in the above scrawl, I have to say that Second Winter, his three-sided sophomore release for Columbia (who picked him up after Texan scribe Chet Flippo hyped him in a Rolling Stone piece) remains one of the best guitar records of the '60s, if not all ti-i-ime, like a more aggressive Electric Ladyland. It covers bases from electrified Delta blues to hard rock, with detours through jump blues and rock 'n' roll. At the end of the day, Johnny was a highly individuated player who put his own stamp on all the styles he absorbed. In later days, after a few years of misguided commercial attempts, he'd go back to the deep blues, producing Muddy Waters' return-to-form comeback Hard Again. He's still pounding the boards as he pushes 70. Go back and listen to him in his prime, and be amazed by a sound like a force of nature.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Van Morrison - "Cyprus Avenue," 1970

I saw this on TV when I was 13 and it hit me harder than Iggy, even, because this guy looked like he was just _out there_. Absolutely riveting performance. Watch it fast before Youtube takes it down.

ADDENDUM: Watching Iggy explode out of himself was exhilarating, but Van appeared to be seething inside himself, which was scarier. I saw him in Austin in '79 and was more affected than I expected to be; he seemed to be tapped into some deep well of spirituality, like Patti Smith when I saw her in Dallas circa Y2K. My Van of choice has always been Astral Weeks (and Them Again), but friend ig calls Veedon Flece "undeniable," so I guess I'm going to have to try and hear that.

FURTHER ADDENDUM: Nervebreaker/Big Gun Mike Haskins pulled my coat to this, which just moved to the top of my wish list.

Welcome to Fillmore East

Bill Graham; Elvin Bishop; Albert King; Van Morrison; Tom Slevin; David Acomba
2003, 1970
English Visual Material Visual Material : Videorecording : DVD video DVD video 1 videodisc : sd., col. ; 4 3/4 in.
...[S.l.] : Silvertone Films,

A concert filmed in New York City at the Fillmore East on September 23, 1970.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mo' Bill Frisell

Ugly guitar, beautiful tune.

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna see a movie about the history of the wah-wah pedal?

Cry Baby: The Pedal That Rocks The World from Joey Tosi on Vimeo.

Not sure, but I think Eddie Kramer might be wrong about having heard Jimi use one in London in '66. While he may have had one then, I'm pretty sure his first use of it on record was "Little Miss Lover" on Axis: Bold As Love; I don't believe there's any on Are You Experienced? -- could be wrong. For me, the big wah-wah records were Jeff Beck's Truth, the first Led Zep album (although Page used one liberally with the Yardbirds, nobody ever bought the records they released with him until later), and the first Stooges album.

I got my first one from the guys in the soul band I played with in high school: a Uniwah by Univox, which was made by a company called Merson on Long Island. You couldn't lock it in position like a Crybaby/Vox, so I used to roll up a handkerchief and stick it under the foot pedal to get a fat midrange boost. Can't remember what I wound up doing with that pedal.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I don't usually listen to Stooges music to vibe up for Stoogeaphilia shows. Depending on the mood I'm in, I might listen to anything from Louis Armstrong to Yo Yo Ma. (Hembree had Beethoven on before our last prac.) I don't eat the same food every day, either. But the day before our show at the Doublewide in Dallas last Saturday, a package arrived that I'd been waiting for since January: my copy of Popped, the "fan club package" assembled by Easy Action Records and Natalie "Stoogeling" Schlossman, who was the actual president of the Stooges fan club (yes, there was one) back in the day. U.S. Customs finally finished X-raying it or whatever they were doing, and the package appeared in the magic mailbox like a candygram from the gods just in time for me to audition the audio portion before Hembree came to pick me up for the trip to Big D.

What we have here, to paraphrase the captain in Cool Hand Luke, is the only extant live recordings of the Stooge lineup that made Funhouse. (The Ungano's show that Rhino Handmade released was the subsequent lineup, after original bassist Dave Alexander was fired and roadies Billy Cheatham and Zeke Zettner joined the band.) The recording quality is rough, from audience cassettes and restored TV audio, but the band's feral greatness shines through.

Fully half of the songs come from a Chicago show from July 1970, with two more from an undated but better-recorded New York performance. Also included are a "1970" (one of four, count 'em, four versions included) from the Goose Lake Pop Festival, where Dave Alexander forgot all the songs, precipitating his firing, and the audio portion of the televised Cincinnati Pop Festival appearance where Iggy famously walked on audience hands and smeared himself with peanut butter. Sure, the latter two are both Youtube-available, but it's nice to have 'em on shiny silver disc in cleaned-up fidelity, with Easy Action's usual sumptuous packaging. (The CD is available on its lonesome as A Thousand Lights, or will be when Easy Action honcho Carlton gets around to making more of 'em.)

Throughout their original seven-year run, the Stooges were in a constant state of flux; they _never_ played "old shit," so by the time you held a new record in your hands, chances were better than good that they'd be playing something Entahrly Other if you went to see 'em live. One can only wonder what it was like to be in those audiences, hearing those songs without the benefit of recorded versions to refer to. Or rather, one _could_ only wonder, until now. In addition to the CD, Popped also includes replicas of all six issues of the fan club newsletter of the same name that Natalie pubbed between '69 and '71.

Think of her newsletters as an early manifestation of fanzine culcha, substituting the perspective of a worldy-wise and highly opinionated 19-year-old _girl_ who actually knew the band for the sci-fi geek/lit major approach of early rock fanboys/scribes like Paul Williams, Greg Shaw, Jon Landau and Greil Marcus. While her literary model might have been 16 Magazine (and she was clearly an avid consumer of print media, making note in her scrawl of every mention of the band in the national, "hip," and even local press), there's a freshness, unalloyed enthusiasm, and dare I say, innocence to her voice that makes it unique in the Stooges rockwrite canon.

Also included are replicas of candid Polaroids she shot of the band, both on and off stage. They look like children. It's sobering to think that Ron Asheton and Dave Alexander are both gone now, but in these images, they're forever young, caught at the moment when they were really hitting their stride as a band, as short-lived as it might have been. (Popped also includes a copy of the interview I did last year with Jimmy Recca, who played bass in the '71 Stooges, when Billy and Zeke quit and James Williamson joined.)

Anyway, at the appointed hour, Hembree showed up and we loaded my shit into the back of his truck. I'd never set foot in the Doublewide before Saturday night, although I'm pretty sure all of my bandmates had played there at some point with different bands. The place has a good feel, and we had a decent draw in spite of the N35 Conferette and Dio de los Toadies taking place the same night. I missed Darstar's set yakking in the bar, but Bipolar Express sounded really full and tight, much better than when we played with them at the Moon; credit the sound dude, who's also the "Ivy" guitarist in the Gorehounds, a Cramps tribute band I just got wind of. The Bipolar boys play with an energy that always puts me in mind of the Flamin' Groovies circa "Heading for the Texas Border," and I always dig hearing their version of Bob Seger's anti-Vietnam anthem "2+2=?" -- speaking of Detroit guys.

Comparisons being odious, I will say that after the celestial mindfuck that was our Sunshine Bar soiree last month, the Doublewide gig was a little bit of a letdown. Not to cast aspersions on the house or the crowd; both were fine, and very kind. And not to say that we phoned it in, but there's something about playing down on the floor amid and amongst your audience that you don't get playing on an elevated stage. (Of course, the tradeoff is probably a decent sound mix, but whatthell.) Last time, I woke up the next day feeling like I'd been thrown down the stairs, and I couldn't hear properly for two days -- hallmarks of a great Stoogeshow. This time, I felt fine, if a little discombobulated from the time change (it was spring-ahead day, so the moment we stopped playing, it went from 1:59a to 3:00a). Maybe it was the long morning run I'd had and the substantial dinner I ate before leaving home. And while I never thought I'd hear myself say this, the fact that Dallas bars are all non-smoking now meant that I didn't feel like I'd been punched in the chest for two days after the show -- a plus in my book.

We planned 17 songs and wound up having to cut a few at the end, but we did manage to break the seal on the Dicks' "Rich Daddy," with Richard starting it off because I couldn't for the life of me remember how it went, even after practicing it on Thursday. We'll do it again at Lola's on 4.9, and maybe the Dolls' "Jet Boy," too, if Ray can remember all the words.

Bill Frisell

I was surprised a couple of years ago to see that guitarist-composer Bill Frisell was performing at the Bass Hall in downtown Fort Worth, just like Jethro Tull. It seemed an odd venue, Frisell being a familiar of avant-gardist John Zorn, who'd probably scare the bejeezus out of the descendents of the Fort Worth Symphony subscribers that walked out on Ornette's Skies of America when it was performed here in 1983. But he's also a very different kettle of fish than Zorn, or Ornette.

While I've never considered myself a Frisell fan per se, dude is all over my record/CD/MP3 collection: playing with gospel-blues fervor all over "Bordertown" on Julius Hemphill's big band album; backing singer Petra Haden on a 2005 collaborative album; "covering" Painted From Memory, Elvis Costello's teaming with Burt Bacharach, on 1999's The Sweetest Punch; rounding out a trio with heavy punk-funk hitters Ronald Shannon Jackson and Melvin Gibbs on Power Tools' 1987 Strange Meeting.

Frisell recorded for ECM back in the '80s, and seemed at first to be influenced by equal measures of John Abercrombie's ethereality, his early patron Pat Metheny's pastoralism, and John Scofield's abstracted blues grit. What he clearly wasn't: a tech-head shredding recycled bebop/fusion licks. Since then, he's emerged as his own guy, a composer and interpreter with a very inclusive take on the "Great American Songbook;" his 1993 masterpiece Have A Little Faith includes works by Copland and Ives alongside songs by Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Madonna, and John Hiatt.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


This one's a blast from the past.

I hadn't heard Slade's music in 38 years when I was surfing Amazon and stumbled on CD reissues of Slade Alive! and Play It Loud (the latter included on a single disc with their debut Beginnings, originally released under the moniker Ambrose Slade). How misguided, I wondered, had I actually been when I owned these records at age 15?

I first got wind of Slade via Greg Shaw's "Juke Box Jury" column in Creem back in '71. It was around the time the Who, whose youth cult-fueled early success Slade sought to replicate, were releasing the detritus of their aborted Lifehouse project on singles ("Let's See Action" through "The Relay") prior to unleashing Quadrophenia, and the Move, whose vocal harmonies the upstart foursome audibly mimicked, were cranking out their own last run of great singles ("California Man" through "Do Ya") prior to morphing into ELO and Wizzard. For their part, Slade were just beginning their run of hits titled with the most atrocious misspellings until Prince and hip-hop happened ("Look Wot You Dun," "Take Me Bak 'Ome," etc.). A kid I went to school with, who'd just spent a year in the UK with his parents, pulled my coat to both Slade and Monty Python, to my eternal gratitude.

I'd seen an ad for Play It Loud in Rolling Stone a year earlier, when ex-Hendrix manager Chas Chandler was still dressing them in skinhead gear before someone made him aware that real skinheads didn't like rock 'n' roll; they liked ska, blue beat, and beating the shit out of Pakistani immigrants. So the Doc Martens and braces went away, replaced by platform heels and what was surely some of the most bizarre attire ever worn by a rock band -- if Brit audiences rejected MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith's superhero costume, how to account for their embrace of Slade guitarist Dave Hill's silver spacesuit, especially when its wearer looked for all the world like a chipmunk with a pudding-bowl haircut? The mind boggles.

His bandmates were no less extreme in appearance. Leather-lunged frontman Noddy Holder (later a TV personality and MBE; go fig) looked like a full-size version of the diminutive actor David Rappoport (Randall in Time Bandits) sporting massive muttonchops, with a fondness for hats and garish plaids. Once his hair grew back, hard-hitting drummer Don Powell looked like Alice Cooper, and I don't think he was trying to. Jim Lea, the bassplayer, was the "good" musician in the band. Like John Entwistle, he had some classical tuition and youth orchestra experience under his belt, and his violin occasionally decorated Slade recordings the way Entwistle's French horn and trumpet did the Who's.

Slade Alive! was the first record of theirs I got. After Live At Leeds and Humble Pie's Performance (not to mention Hendrix at Monterey and Stones Ya-Ya's), I was extra super double geeked on live albums, and thisun seemed to fit the mold. Originally I had these guys pegged as something like sloppy-but-lovable Midlands populists Mott the Hoople, whose lengthy and shambolic live "Keep A Knockin'" on Wildlife was echoed by the second side of Slade Alive! I didn't know enough about Brit culcha back then to understand the whole football hooliganism thing that Slade (and later, Gary Glitter) played to. Today, the high Chuck Berry quotient of side two insures that those three songs won't be a regular spin at mi casa, but I still dig side one fine, particularly the opening Ten Years After cover "Hear Me Calling" and Noddy's bombastic take on John Sebastian's Lovin' Spoonful hit "Darling Be Home Soon."

This points up a key problem with early Slade: at the point in time captured on Slade Alive! -- which includes only two originals out of seven songs, one of which ("Know Who You Are") appeared in different forms on all of their first three albums -- these guys were just figuring out how to write songs. I mean, they covered "Born To Be Wild" _twice_! Their debut as Ambrose Slade, Beginnings (inexplicably retitled Ballzy for Stateside release; it wasn't, really), included not one but two Steppenwolf covers, along with songs by Idle Race, the Mothers of Invention, the Moody Blues, Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, and the Amboy Dukes. "All over the map" covers it pretty nicely. So does "grasping at straws."

By the time they cut Play It Loud, things were coming along in the songwriting department, with Lea and Powell the most frequent writers. The results incorporated elements of hard rock, country blues, and English music hall via the Beatles and Kinks. "Dapple Rose" and "Pouk Hill" were sappy ballads, the former with lyrics about an old horse; "One Way Hotel" a clever blues-based oddity with a major-minor change in the bridge; and "I Remember," "Dirty Joker," and "Sweet Box" rockers of varying quality, showing them casting about for a direction. I used to listen to this record a lot when I was stealing my dad's liquor and playing records -- particularly this one and the Velvet Underground's Loaded -- on his stereo at extremely low volume, late at night.

I shared my affinity for Slade with one other kid that used to come in the record store where I worked, whom I knew only as "Slade kid." He used words like "coalescence" in talking about their music. I think his parents were teachers or something. In spite of our common bond, it never crossed my mind to try socializing with him away from my work. Even then, I realized that liking the same music is not, by itself, a good basis for a friendship.

When I finally saw Slade, um, alive, opening for J. Geils and Peter Frampton at the Academy of Music in NYC, everything about them seemed designed to piss off the surly Noo Yawk crowd, from the ear-piercing shrillness of Noddy's voice to the shafts of light shooting, laser-like, off his Telecaster's mirrored scratchplate. When they cranked up the goddamn siren for the finale of "Born To Be Wild," you could feel the crowd's hostility swell. They were THE LOUDEST FUCKING BAND I'VE EVER HEARD, bar none -- louder even than Boris when I stood 15 feet in front of Michio Kurihara's chained Twins at Rubber Gloves in Denton a couple of years ago. And that's really saying something.

In time, Noddy Holder and Jim Lea found their feet as songwriters and became an unstoppable hit machine, placing 17 consecutive singles in the Brit Top 20 and topping the charts there no fewer than six times. Their Christmas song "Merry Xmas Everybody" still gets revived annually and charts again every holiday season. Glam duly died its death, but as fortune would have it, Slade got tapped to take Ozzy Osbourne's place headlining the 1980 Reading festival, and they were back on top again for a minute. They kept at it, too. Holder and Lea bailed in '92, but as far as I know, Hill and Powell are still pounding the boards in the UK and Europe, cheerfully spreading tinnitus wherever they go.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Michael Bloomfield

It might seem hard to believe now, but before cute English guys that could really play made themselves known on this side of the Atlantic (exception: Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds), _the_ hotshit guitar slinger was a nappy-headed Jewish kid from just off Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Mike Bloomfield got his first guitar as a bar mitzvah gift and pestered his family's servants to take him to clubs where black musicians were performing. By 1965, he was fustest with the mostest, playing lead guitar in the original lineup of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which introduced folkies and teenage rockarollas alike to real amplified urban blues.

In the wake of "East/West," Bloomfield's raga-based extended improvisation that gave the Butterfield band's second album its title, came battalions of noodling hipis, but the band was also a seminal influence on the Stooges. It's true: When Iggy was still Jim Osterberg, budding blues drummer, he made a pilgrimage to Chicago to sit at Butterfield drummer Sam Lay's feet and play a few gigs before realizing that his true vocation lay Elsewhere. And just ask Raw Power guitarist James Williamson about the impact Bloomfield had on _his_ development. On Wild Love, one of Bomp's latter-day collections of barrel scrapings, you can hear Straight James jamming on Butter's version of Little Walter's "Mellow Down Easy" from the first PBBB album.

In a larger cultural context, Bloomfield was also behind the Telecaster when Bob Dylan cut "Like A Rolling Stone," a song many would say defines its era, and when Dylan "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, burning his bridge to folk purism. Like his fellow Dylan sideman Al Kooper, Bloomfield went on to form a horn band (the Electric Flag with Buddy Miles) from which he was subsequently ejected (Kooper's was Blood Sweat & Tears). The two then collaborated on an album of jams, Super Session, that remains the best seller in either man's catalog in spite of having been recorded on the fly in the manner of a jazz "blowing session" (albeit with more lucre changing hands). Bloomfield, a chronic insomniac, bailed from the sessions after one day of recording, leaving Kooper to complete the album with Stephen Stills, and also failed to show for the second night of a two-night stand Columbia booked at the Fillmore West in San Francisco to record The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper; Steve Miller and Carlos Santana filled in, and Santana got one track on the album. (The little jazz samba Bloomfield essayed at the end of the Electric Flag's "Another Country" clearly foreshadowed Santana's entire career.)

Besides being somewhat unreliable, Bloomfield was also an erratic performer. After the Electric Flag, his recorded output is extremely hit and miss. In an interview on Bloomfield's website, his brother Allen talks about Michael's complex relationship with their father (who got rich selling the patents to some restaurant equipment), and how it made him ambivalent about audience expectations: "[It] became harder and harder for him to deal with people's expectations. He would really take it to heart if they were critical, and after a while he just shunned the spotlight. Oh, he had an ego, and loved to be the center of attention, but once people expected him be a certain way or to perform at a certain level – that was a real problem for him."

The first time I held the first Butterfield album in my hands, I was perplexed. Leaning against the wall of a botanica, these guys -- three white (Butterfield, Bloomfield, and Elvin Bishop), two black (Lay and Jerome Arnold) -- _didn't even have long hair_. Instead, they looked like greasers, mafiosi, _hitters_. Except for Lay, who wore a white T-shirt, jeans, and _silver shoes_, they wore dark suits with open-collared shirts. The music they played had a harder edge, too, than that of the Brit bands like the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds whose imitations of American blues I'd been listening to. Bloomfield nailed it, too, in a Rolling Stone interview I read not long after: "The Rolling Stones are a really good band, but, like, I consider them like a boys' band because they don't play men's music. They don't play professional music for men, they play music for young people, and even with their most intelligent material as a stimulant, they play music for the young." Or maybe it was just that Butterfield had a rhythm section worthy of the name. (You can read the second part of that interview here.)

Early on, there was a nervous energy to Bloomfield's playing, an impatience to get it all out that had the spirit, even if it didn't follow the letter, of contemporary Buddy Guy. Looking at the photo on the back of the first Butterfield album, you could see that he didn't even pop the cover off the bridge pickup on his Tele, and he had a thin, trebly sound, without vibrato. By the time East/West was recorded in 1966, he'd switched to a Les Paul for a warmer tone and he'd learned to "worry" those bent notes with a rapid, hummingbird-like vibrato. As time went on, he settled down and his sound got rounder, rather than going for the biting edge a lot of blues-rock performers went for. Here's his solo from a 1968 recording (released in 2003) where he duets with Johnny Winter, sounding like a precursor of the 1971 Allman Brothers until Johnny lets loose at the end:

Another good example of Bloomfield's mature style is this except from a 15-minute slow blues he recorded at the Fillmore West in 1969 with his pal, ex-Electric Flag frontman Nick Gravenites:

In the '70s, Bloomfield's recorded output was either folkloric, academic (he was a master of all kinds of blues guitar, acoustic as well as electric; If You Love These Blues, Play 'Em As You Please, which now sounds like an epitaph, was originally released by Guitar Player magazine), or commercial in some misguided way (an Electric Flag reunion; a collaboration with Dr. John and John Hammond, Jr.; the KGB Band, whose album included a cover of the Beach Boys' "Sail On Sailor"). A lot of the impact he had on me personally came from interviews he did -- the Rolling Stone one referred to above, and others he did with Guitar Player in 1975 (big chunks of which David Henderson "borrowed" for his 1979 Hendrix bio) and 1979. He always spoke about music and other musos with great knowledge and enthusiasm that I found inspiring. It was a sad day when he checked out from a heroin overdose on February 15, 1981.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Wayne Kramer on Epitaph

This is the story of an experiment that failed.

In 1995, Epitaph Records/Bad Religion honcho Brett Gurewitz signed ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and tried to market him to the punk-rock loving teenage boys of America. It was a hard sell: Hot Topic shoppers don't generally buy records by middle aged whiteguys who look like ex-convicts (which Wayne, in fact, was; two-year bid in Lexington for his "deals of cocaine," as the Clash would have it), but Kramer and Epitaph gave it hell for four albums in as many years.

Following his release from prison in 1979, Kramer had briefly co-led the band Gang War with Johnny Thunders (an experience recalled in the song "Snatched Defeat" on his 1997 "automythological" record for Epitaph, Citizen Wayne) and played on the first Was (Not Was) record before spending several years working nonmusical jobs in Florida. While he was away, his old band's legend gained the luster of "godfathers of punk." Their albums were even reissued on CD after years of unavailability. But unlike Iggy Pop once he realized (ca. 2002) that the part of his oeuvre that people cared about most (besides watching him run around shirtless going apeshit onstage) was the three albums he'd made with the Stooges, Wayne couldn't just pick up the phone and tell the old guys "We're getting the band back together" for a nice victory lap. Two key components of the Five were gone forever, beloved lead singer Rob Tyner and enigmatic guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith having left the planet in 1991 and 1994, respectively. Instead, Kramer reinvented himself as something a lot more singular and self-consciously artistic than a mere punk precursor revisiting past glories.

Wayne's first Epitaph album, The Hard Stuff, hit like the atom bomb back in '95. I remember finding it in the record store where I was moonlighting, having just gotten reacquainted with the Five's power and passion via the French Thunder Express bootleg. I'd always dug Wayne's guitar playing, and the way certain solos of his utilized the Yardbirds-era Jeff Beck gambit of playing crazy descending scales all on one string. He and Fred Smith had internalized a lot of Chuck Berry, too -- the thing that made them seem like better musicians than the Stooges at first, but which maybe worked against them in the long run, making them sound more tradition-bound than their "little brother band." By the time he came back, though, Wayne's chops had expanded exponentially. He could arpeggiate his way from nut to bridge without ever invoking the shade of all those neck-tapping Italo-Americans, he'd added Sharrockian skronk to his trick bag, and he commanded a seismic vibrato as wide as a California earthquake.

The real news on The Hard Stuff, though, was his songwriting. Half the songs on the album were co-written with Mick Farren, the Brit journo/sci-fi scribe/social historian who'd brought the MC5 to the UK for the first time in 1970 to play the chaotic Phun City festival, and collaborated with Kramer on the musical The Last Days of Dutch Schultz while both men were living in New York in the late '80s. Kramer had a lot on his mind and was finding a voice in which to express it -- mature and streetwise, suffused with equal parts gallows humor and surprising compassion.

Of the Farren collaborations, the clear-eyed deglamorization of addiction "Junkie Romance" and the breakneck "Bad Seed" were the strongest. On his own, Kramer penned the Tyner tribute "Edge of the Switchblade" and two spoken word pieces, "Incident On Stock Island" (the auditory equivalent of a Jim Jarmusch cinematic vignette) and "So Long, Hank" (a Bukowski homage that appeared as an untitled hidden track at the end of the CD) that showed the influence of both Farren and poet/ex-MC5 manager/mentor John Sinclair. (Kramer contributed incendiary guitar work to spoken word albums by Farren and Sinclair during his Epitaph years.)

Kramer's sophomore Epitaph effort, 1996's Dangerous Madness, was a step forward. Farren co-wrote eight of the 11 songs, and several of them share the apocalyptic urban nightmare tone of much of his work, with three notable exceptions. While Wayne denied that the album was a bid for mainstream success when I interviewed him for the I-94 Bar in 1999, three of the songs have the same kind of Springsteen/Mellencamp "heartland" vibe as Scott Morgan's Rock Action album and form a triptych that's as unified as the first side of the Five's Kick Out the Jams, the first three songs on the Stooges' Funhouse, or the first four on Iggy's New Values. "Back To Detroit" was Wayne's alone and if it's not autobiographical, it sure feels _lived_. "Wild America" trumps Iggy's song of the same name with a Motown chord progression and hummable guitar hook. And "Something Broken In the Promised Land" reveals former White Panther Kramer as the midwestern populist he probably was all along, a role he'd return to when he performed the song on the capital steps in Madison earlier this year. Then as now, however, the mass-ass audience remained oblivious.

The high-water mark of Kramer's Epitaph period was 1997's Citizen Wayne, an ambitious work whose distinguishing features carried the seeds of its commercial failure. The production, by Wayne's former employer David Was, borrowed from hip-hop and electronica in a way that Punk-O-Rama-listening teenagers and other Rawk purists were uninclined to accept, and the songs, which chronicled Wayne's backstory from revolutionary MC5 daze to prison to his current sobriety, had more than a little hubris in them, even if their author backed it up with musical punch. Many of them are big fun: the tongue-in-radical-chic remembrance "Revolution in Apt. 29;" "Down On the Ground," which recounts the MC5's performance in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention to a riff borrowed from Rob Tyner's High Time highlight "Future Now;" and the aforementioned "Snatched Defeat." The most affecting moments here are the sole Farren collaboration "Dope For Democracy," a scathing indictment of the Iran-Contra affair and similar government hijinks, and "Count Time," which includes a litany of musos who've spent time in the "greybar hotel."

After the marketplace rejected Citizen Wayne, there was nothing left to do but release a live album, LLMF, that captured Wayne at a peak of performance, reworking his material in real time like a jazzman while reprising the past three album's high spots. Then he and Epitaph parted ways. He tried his hand at running his own label (Muscletone), which released another solo album, Adult World, and a collaboration with ex-Damned guitarist Brian James (Mad for the Racket), along with the obligatory bonus-track-laden reissues of all four Epitaphs. Eventually, he was able to reinvent himself yet again, as a soundtrack composer-cum-activist, giving the lie once again to Fitzgerald's dictum about second acts in American lives.

In a just world which we all know doesn't exist, maybe a new generation of rock connoisseurs will rediscover Wayne's Epitaph records in 20 years or so. As it is, they form a worthwhile, if not altogether satisfactory, coda to the MC5 story, one which deserved more attention than it received while it was happening.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Julius Hemphill

In the fullness of time, it seems like the big mistake that the collective jazz fans and crits of the world made, post-1970s, was waiting for the Next Big Improvisational Approach a la Armstrong-Parker-Miles-Trane to emerge, when in fact the great strides that were made during that era were in the fields of composition and the use of the ensemble by musos like Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and Fort Worth expat Julius Hemphill.

Born in 1938, Hemphill landed in St. Louis in 1968 after Army service and there co-founded the Black Artists Group with like-minded spirits including Oliver Lake, Hamiett Bluiett, and Baikida Carroll. The BAG migrated en masse to NYC in the mid-70s, much like Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (which included Braxton and Mitchell), and Hemphill formed his most renowned group, the World Saxophone Quartet, there in 1976 with Lake, Bluiett, and Californian David Murray.

He created the Mbari label to release his own recordings, including the influential Dogon A.D. (later reissued on Arista Freedom) and the overdubbed solo Blue Boye (later reissued on disciple Tim Berne's Screwgun label). Ejected from the WSQ in 1990, he had the last laugh, forming an all-saxophone sextet (having already recorded a big band album for Elektra Musician in 1988). Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer beat him down; he lost a leg and was unable to perform near the end of his life, although he kept composing till he checked out on April 2, 1995.

His greatest musical gift was for blending the sounds of woodwinds. His horn voicings have the cry of the blues and the elegance of Ellington's or Mingus'. Besides Berne, his followers include Marty Ehrlich, who took over leadership of the Sextet when Hemphill was incapacitated, and Saturday Night Live bandmember/Night Music host David Sanborn (so it's no coincidence that the Julius Hemphill Big Band version of "Countryside," with the leader on soprano, sounds like the SNL band). Ehrlich covered three Hemphill compositions (including "Dogon A.D.") on 2009's Things Have Got To Change for Clean Feed and got me thinking about Julius. Allen Lowe, who had Hemphill on a couple of his early albums, pulled my coat to the Sextet's Fat Man and the Hard Blues, currently my favorite way to hear Hemphill.

Here's an '89 performance of "The Hard Blues" with a Boston-based big band:

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Hickoids' "Kicking It With the Twits"

Scratch an American rockaroller above a certain age and you're bound to find an (at least closet) Anglophile. If the '63-'66 Brit Invaders didn't exactly re-introduce the kids of America to their R&B heritage, they at least reminded 'em of it, and had long hair to boot. Then, as the '60s gave way to the '70s, they pulled glam and punk (we could debate for hours who originated punk, but for argument's sake, let's just say that it was a parallel development, with some distinctly English variants) out of their hats, to our great benefit. Bless them.

Now San Antonio's Hickoids -- Mission City cowpunks who've been treading the boards since the late '80s, familiars of Stash Dauber faves Tex Edwards and the Me-Thinks, fronted by Saustex Media honcho Jeff Smith -- have released a new album (on lovely vinyl as well as CD and digital download) that repays the debt with eight covers of rockin' toons that boast Brit origins.

The songs appear in roughly chronological order. The Who's "Pictures of Lily" -- a corker of a song about jerking off to pics of Lillie Langtry; _you_ tell me why this wasn't a Stateside hit back in '66 -- benefits from the addition of some Mickey Raphaelesque harmonica and twangy guitar, as well as J. Smith's idiosyncratic phrasing; was he having trouble reading the lyrics? _You_ decide! The Rolling Stones' '67 smash "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In the Shadow" is recast here as an organ-driven romp, as though Augie Meyers had been unleashed in the studio.

The Hickoids' take on the Move's "Brontosaurus" relies on layers of wah-wah guitars in the same way the 1970 original did on its uber-heavy bass line for its auditory impact. Not enough 'Meercuns today remember Slade -- the loudest band I ever heard in my life, opening for J. Geils at NYC's Academy of Music (the Noo Yawk audience _hated_ 'em) -- but the Hickoids' cover of "Gudbuy T' Jane" makes up in rawkin' Texas energy for what it loses in football hooliganism from the 1972 'riginal.

"Bennie and the Jets," a highlight of Elton John's big-sunglasses-and-platforms heyday, pits keening pedal steel against grungy guitar growl to good effect. Mott the Hoople was the band my no-'count high school cohort and I used to play air guitar to even after some of us actually learned to play, and their 1973 album Mott was their heart-on-sleeve loser apotheosis. Smith & Co. bravely chose "Whizz Kid," one of that album's more maudlin numbers, to drag through the River Walk mud, and they do it up fine.

I have fewer associations to go with "Needles In the Camel's Eye," a highlight of Brian Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets, but the Hickoids pound away at it in suitably minimalist fashion, then close the proceedings with the Damned's "Neat Neat Neat," a song I've been playing with the little Stoogeband for the past couple of years. The Damned were fustest with the mostest, English punk-wise; they released their LP before any of their first-wave cohort (February 1977), and they didn't seem to take themselves as seriously as most of 'em did -- a plus in my book.

The Hickoids are the same way: they rawk hard, with a Texas twang and a lope in everything they do, tongues firmly planted in cheeks. Heap big fun, this is.

Lewis Reed - "Merry Go Round"

Berfday boy Lewis Allen Rabinowitz ca. 1962, from his Pickwick Records staff writer daze. Sounds kinda like Dion of "...and the Belmonts"/"Abraham, Martin, and John"/"Dirty Boulevard" fame.

Wayne Kramer - "Children Are People Too"

While his '95 album The Hard Stuff pulled me back into the maelstrom of Dee-troit ramalama as surely as berfday boy Lou Reed's '89 New York pulled me back into rock in general, I kinda lost the Wayne Kramer thread after his 2002 album Adult World. Imagine my surprise seeing the recent vid of him on the capital steps in Wisconsin, singing "This Land Is Your Land" alongside his spiritual heir, poli sci Ph.D. and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. Turns out that besides embarking on a career as a soundtrack composer, Wayne's also been raising his voice as an advocate for alcohol and narcotics addicts, prison inmates, and at-risk kids -- all folks with whom he can empathize from experience. Bless him.

I'd forgotten about this track, a setting of Dorothy Law Nolte's poem "Children Learn What They Live" by, um, Wayne's ex-Gang War bandmate Johnny Thunders, which Wayne recorded for a 1996 Thunders tribute album, I Only Wrote This Song For You. What with new grandchildren in my life and all the political games being played with public education this season, I found it particularly affecting when I stumbled on it online this morning. Maybe you will, too.