Monday, April 11, 2011

The Blues Project's "Projections"

It's recently come to my attention that now that vinyl is popular again, it's also getting more expensive. This runs counter to one of the underlying themes of my life as a crate-digger: I've always been a cheapskate. Started working in record stores, in part, to get 'em cheap/free. Before that, I loved bargain bins -- the racks where the overstocks with cut/punched corners were shoved. I got some of my very favorite records of all time that way: The Who Sell Out, The Rationals, the Yardbirds' For Your Love (a pressing like a manhole cover that must have been at least 240 grams) amd Over Under Sideways Down (a mono copy that was so warped I couldn't play the second side, but which still contained the crazy Jeff Beck ride on "Hot House of Omagarashid" that wasn't on the stereo version), and this one, the second (and best) album by New York's "Jewish Beatles," a band that could only have existed during the '60s.

The Blues Project coalesced in Greenwich Village around 1965, bringing together a folkie session guy who sang blues in a nondescript voice (Danny Kalb); another folkie who sang like Gordon Lightfoot and blew some mean blues harp (Steve Katz); a multi-instrumentalist who doubled on bass and flute (Andy Kulberg); a jazz drummer (Roy Blumenfeld); and a singer called Tommy Flanders, who left quickly. They were augmented by a rockarollin' opportunist, Al Kooper, who'd played guitar in the Royal Teens of "Short Shorts" fame, then insinuated himself into the recording session that produced Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," hoping to play lead before Mike Bloomfield showed up. Then he discreetly slid over to the organ bench and made history. He joined the Project, in part, to work on his organ chops. He also sang soul in a high, reedy voice; back in the '60s, they figured anybody could do anything, and they were almost right.

They took their name from an Elektra Records sampler to which Kalb had contributed a couple of tracks, and they got signed to Verve, the jazz label that was starting to test the waters of rock with the Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Undergound, and Tim Hardin. Basically, they were a folk-rock band that dabbled in R&B and jazz -- like a lot of the early San Francisco bands, but with better musicianship. Their first album, Live At the Cafe Au Go Go, was undistinguished in comparison to the grittier Paul Butterfield Blues Band or the contemporary Brit bands that were attempting the same thing in a more exciting manner (cf. Five Live Yardbirds or the live tracks that occasionally popped up on early Rolling Stones albums). Projections, however, was Something Entahrly Other, produced by Tom Wilson, who'd worked with Cecil Taylor back in the '50s and invented folk-rock by overdubbing electric instruments on Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence." Wilson gave full rein to the Blues Project's eclecticism, resulting in an album that's all over the map in a good way.

Side one opens with "I Can't Keep From Crying," a song Kooper had recorded in a piano-based Ray Charles/Horace Silver gospel-blues groove for the Elektra sampler What's Shakin', which here was extended and mutated into an organ-and-guitar-led rave-up, with Kalb zipping up and down the neck in a frenzy and Kooper laying down swirling, Coltrane-inspired sheets of sound on the Clavioline, an instrument also played by Sun Ra (who once perversely recorded an album with the Blues Project, of music inspired by the Batman TV show).



"Steve's Song," sung by Katz (as the title implies) was a staple on New York FM radio for years, and it's definitely a period piece, its baroque intro and delicate filigree backing conjuring images of Lorenzo St. Dubois clinking his finger cymbals. I'll confess to still really liking this song. (This version, from a 1967 TV show, features John-John McDuffy, Kooper's replacement, on organ.)

The Project's cover of Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" really doesn't work; Kooper's just too shrill, although he does some nice piano-tinkling in the manner of Berry's pianist Johnny Jones on this track. The version on The Rolling Stones, Now! wipes the floor with this one, however. The album's first tour de force is a cover of Muddy Waters' "Two Trains Running," sung by Kalb. On guitar, he has a thin, nervous sound that's still more akin to the real Chicago cats like Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, and Luther Tucker than the overly-rich Les Paul-through-Marshall tone that everyone was adopting back then in the wake of Eric Clapton's record with John Mayall. The band does a nice job of maintaining tension behind the soloists.

Side two opens with "Wake Me, Shake Me," a gospel-soul feature for Kooper that runs aground on his thin, wimpy vocalismo. Don't take my word for it; listen to Kooper sing the song at the Monterey Pop Festival, accompanied by Elvin Bishop, Harvey Brooks, and Billy Davenport. I'm sure Otis Redding wasn't exactly quaking in his boots if he heard this. The high point on the Blues Project's version is Kooper's Young Rascals-ish organ.

"Cheryl's Going Home" was absolutely archetypal folkie-rock, composed by Bob Lind of "Elusive Butterfly" fame. Probably Projections' best-known track is "Flute Thing," sampled by the Beastie Boys on Ill Communication's "Flute Loop." It's Kulberg's Kooper-penned feature, and the flautist expanded his bit into a head-spinning psych odyssey after he bought an Echoplex.

The album winds up with a cover of Jimmy Reed's "Caress Me Baby" that features quality blues ivory-tickling by Kooper, and "Fly Away," probably Kooper's best _song_ here, replete with archetypal '60s jazz-pop moves from the rhythm section and Katz playing the kind of harp that John Sebastian used to play on everybody's folk-rock records. While I was a little too young to experience records like this one, Butterfield's East-West, and the Animals' Animalization when they were new, I stumbled on them maybe five years later and they were a big part of my musical growing up, and so they hold an inordinately exalted place in my memory today. Reissued by Sundazed, Projections is also generally available for the moment.

Post-Projections, the Blues Project splintered and reformed innumerable times. Kooper and Katz went on to Blood Sweat & Tears, where Kooper suffered the ignominy of being fired from a band he started. He went on to record Super Session with Bloomfield -- really the first record where rock musos came across like jazz cats -- and discover Lynyrd Skynyrd. He wrote a funny autobiography called Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards that's worth reading. Kulberg and Blumenfeld formed Seatrain; Kulberg died of lymphoma in 2002. Danny Kalb was strung out for awhile but is still performing around New York.


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