Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Savoy Brown Boogie

In the summer of '73, when I still thought there was going to be a big hipi rockfest in upstate New York every four years for the rest of my life, I went to visit my best friend from junior high school, who'd moved upstate after seventh grade, and we wound up scoring a ridiculous amount of some drug and spending three days jamming at some kid's house instead of going to the Watkins Glen festival. This was when I discovered that it's easier to play guitar with light strings than with Black Diamond Heavies, and when I made the mistake of leaning down in front of a Vox Super Beatle I was plugged into and receiving a blast of feedback in my right ear that I'm still feeling the effects of. What did we play, you ask? Interminable versions of "Smoke On the Water" and "Savoy Brown Boogie."

"Savoy Brown Boogie," in case you don't know, was a track from the third U.S. Savoy Brown album -- they had another, earlier one in the U.K. -- 1969's A Step Further. It took up the entahr second side of the LP, running about 20 minutes long, and it was recorded live at a club gig in England, although the photo inside the gatefold sleeve showed a sea of hands from Detroit's Grande Ballroom, where they'd gone down a storm on a recent U.S. tour. The mammoth jam starts out with a variant on John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" before winding its way through interpolations of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin'," Little Richard's "Little Queenie," Hendrix's "Purple Haze," and "Hernando's Hideaway" from The Pajama Game before winding up back where it started. Lead singer Chris Youlden -- imagine a less histrionic Eric Burdon with, by his own account, "terminal acne," who compensated for an absence of "big hair" by sporting a top hat and cigar onstage (see the interview in Ugly Things #22) -- importunes the crowd to respond to the band's performance, and it sounds as if a high time is had by all. Indeed, you have to go all the way to Bill Kirchen's marathon "Hot Rod Lincoln" to find a live track that appears to have been so much fun to experience in the moment. They don't take themselves seriously, but it's not the kind of burlesque that Canned Heat's "Fried Hockey Boogie" was, either.

Savoy Brown was a lower division (no "names" or John Mayall alumni in its ranks) British blues band that sprung up around the time the original '63-'64 wave of Brit R&B despoilers, with their rough, raw, rowdy rave-ups and worship of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, was giving way (in response to "God" Clapton's vaunted virtuosity) to a more musicianly claque who worshipped at the church of the three Kings, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush, before some of 'em (I'm thinking of the Jeff Beck Group and Led Zep in particular) rode a love of Gibsons-through-Marshalls for its own sake into the abyss of heavy rock.

I say "lower division," but that's not to imply that they weren't estimable in their own right. The rhythm section of Tone Stevens and Roger Earle was fine, and second guitarist Lonesome Dave Peverett was enough of a leather-lunged screamer to do the business himself when Youlden failed to show up for a live gig that was recorded for second U.S. album Blue Matter. In the fullness of time, the three of them would quit Savoy Brown and go off to form Foghat with Rod Price and move to the United States, where I'd sell Rod and Dave records as a teenager on Long Island in the '70s and my sweetie, who'd seen Foghat at her first big rock concert at Chicago's Soldier Field, would encounter Roger Earle at a club in Iowa, still slogging around the sheds with a version of the band well into the '90s. And mustn't forget pianist Bob Hall, who frequently augmented Savoy Brown's lineup in those days and was the finest ivory-tickler in the British Isles after Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart.

More to the point, Savoy Brown founder and bandleader Kim Simmonds, who was still on the road himself as recently as five or six years ago, was a blistering guitarist, a little rough starting out but more assured with each successive album, and Youlden was the goods: a singer of wit and humor, whose vocal stylings gave you more testosterone than poor old John Mayall's falsetto whine, and a songwriter who did more than recycle his influences on songs like "She's Got A Ring In His Nose and A Ring On Her Hand;" the rockabilly-inflected "I've Made Up My Mind;" "Life's One-Act Play," which came as close as any white bluesicians ever have to copping Two Steps from the Blues-era Bobby Bland, complete with horns and strings, for Savoy Brown didn't fear such embellishments; and "I'm Tired," which featured a strange coda with Earle on congas.

Youlden's finest moments came on Raw Sienna, the album which followed A Step Further, with the Kenny Burrell/Grant Green jazz-influenced "A Hard Way To Go" and the first side's closing combo platter of "Needle and Spoon" and "A Little More Wine," the subject matter of which led me to believe for years, erroneously, that Youlden's subsequent departure from the band was substance related. He made a couple of solo albums, then went back to English obscurity all because he didn't want to "go heavy." He's still making music, too. Bless him.


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