Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Scott Morgan, Steve Hunter

Finally got my copy of Easy Action's incredible Scott Morgan Three Chords and A Cloud of Dust box set and have to admit that it's kind of overwhelming hearing all of this stuff in one place -- although also validating after being a Morgan fan for over four decades now.

I was on tap to write liner notes for this, but circumstances (a family situation) intervened, so my buddy Geoff from Philly (who has an insider's insight, having once managed Scott and amassed an unmatched collection of live Morgan recordings) stepped up to do the honors (I do get one page in the liners for something I dashed off on the quick; my blogged review is here). Makes me want to go back and dig out the cassettes Scott gave me of the Jones Brothers, the first Hydromatics album, and the Rationals' "fan club album" when/shortly after I met him at SXSW '98 -- for sentimental reasons.

Easy Action honcho Carlton Sandercock being the gentleman that he is, he always gives you something extra -- in this case, an Extended Play EP with a selection of tracks from various stages of Scott's career. A bedroom acoustic recording dates from 1963; if that date's correct, it's pretty incredible, as his mature vocal style is already in place at that early date, and the song's quite deep and soulful for an Ann Arbor teen who hadn't yet sung in public. A live version of Little Milton's "Feel So Bad" by Guardian Angel -- the band Scott fronted between the Rationals and Sonic's Rendezvous Band -- is a taster for an upcoming Easy Action release for which I penned an essay; it smokes.

"Rhythm Communication" features his early '80s outfit with two drummers, SRV-esque guitarist Mike Katon, and second vocalist Kathy Deschaine. "Heaven" is a re-recording of an SRB tune by his '90s-Millennial Euro band the Hydromatics, previously only available on a rare 7-inch (a copy of which I got from Hydros guitarist Tony Slug, a fine Dutchman to know and be associated with). "Wang Dang Doodle" is live from a rare 1995 Scots Pirates appearance in New York City, while Al Green's "Full of Fire" comes from a live radio broadcast by Scott's contemporaneous hometown band, Powertrane. Better order fast, as there are only 100 copies of the EP, and all 21 dollars American for the box set go to help defray Scott's medical expenses.

Speaking of classic Detroit jams, back in the early '70s, Steve Hunter was responsible for two slabs of white-hot guitar damage that were most influential on my young psyche: the fiercely aggressive biker-rock version of Lou Reed's "Rock and Roll" on Mitch Ryder's Detroit LP -- still one of the great rock records of the '70s, for my two cents -- and the epic intro to "Sweet Jane" on Uncle Lou's Rock and Roll Animal, on which Steve and his guitar partner, ex-Frost bossman Dick Wagner, also invested "Heroin" with incongruous beauty and majesty.

Hunter and Wagner also did yeoman work for estimable producer Bob Ezrin (on his odyssey from Detroit to The Wall) with artists including Alice Cooper (in whose "original" lineup Hunter now subs for the late, lamented Glen Buxton), Aerosmith, and Peter Gabriel. Hunter made a solo album, Swept Away, for Atco in '77 (including a version of the Beach Boys' "Sail On Sailor," if memory serves), then dropped off my radar (although he remained active, recording three more albums and doing sessions including those for Bette Midler's The Rose).

Imagine my surprise, a couple of years back, to realize that the grinning fella in the wool beanie behind the SG in the Lou Reed Berlin DVD was none other than Hunter. For an album with such a downer rep, the performances director Julian Schnabel captured radiate the pure joy of music-making; if you could bottle drummer Tony "Thunder" Smith's performance on "Caroline Says I," you could put the makers of Prozac out of business -- never more so than when Steve and Lou trade licks on "Oh Jim," the New York street poet turned cranky old man coaxing the hot Motor City axe-slinger to go just a little bit further.

Now, through the generosity of fellow fan Kerry Kudla, I hold in my hands a copy of Hunter's new, Kickstarter-funded solo CD, The Manhattan Blues Project. Off the bat, what's most striking about the music here is the gentle, ruminative nature of the settings in which Hunter frames playing of quiet lapidary beauty. It's not a Big Rock Record; those expecting Son of Rock and Roll Animal might be disappointed; its pleasures are much more subtle, but equally rewarding, if approached in the correct spirit (try listening while alone in a quiet house). Hunter renders his notes with as much exquisite detail as Jeff Beck, minus the bombast.

Hunter played most of the instruments here himself, with vocal contributions from his wife Karen and mostly unobtrusive assistance from a handful of stellar guests that include bassist Tony Levin (who also played on the original version of Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill," reprised here). "The Brooklyn Shuffle" is sort of a Freddie King-meets-the-Allman Brothers type thing, with solos from guest axe-slingers Johnny Depp (that's right, ladies, he can burn on git-tar, too!) and Joe Perry (paying Steve back for the first half of "Train Kept A-Rollin'"). A soulful version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" radiates spiritual peace, while "Twilight in Harlem" inserts Joe Satriani and Marty Friedman's fretboard gymnastics in the middle of a performance otherwise marked by taste and restraint. Guitar geeks with a contemplative bent take note.


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