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.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Things we like: Braxton/Stockhausen, Mary Halvorson

1) My recent immersion in Braxtonia has led inexorably back to his classical inspiration, Karlheinz Stockhausen. It's not just that there seem to be direct analogs for so many Stockhausen compositions in Brax's oeuvre: Composition No. 95 (For Two Pianos) = Mantra, Composition No. 82 (For Four Orchestras) = Gruppen, the Trillium opera cycle = the Licht opera cycle, etc. Or the fact that both men have highly idiosyncratic ways of thinking about music and the world. As daunting as it can be to read descriptions of their methodologies, their music offers rewards even to listeners who don't "understand" it. I've got a lot of listening to do before I'm ready (if ever) to write about Stockhausen. For now, I'll just say that Momente, with its varied tonal palette (soprano soloist with chorus that FZ enthusiasts will relate to 200 Motels, brass ensemble, and electric organs that seem to predict both Pink Floyd and electric Miles), is the most fully realized of his works I've heard to date.

2) I've been wanting to hear more of the guitarist Mary Halvorson after being impressed by her on a few other people's recs (her former Wesleyan prof Anthony Braxton, the drummers Ches Smith and Tom Rainey) and a track on Elliott Sharpe's first I Never Metaguitar comp. (She's currently on tour in Europe with Marc Ribot's TSOP homage, the Young Philadelphians.)

The best interview with her I've read includes this quote: "I do think a lot about clarity, and I like the idea of being in control of the instrument. So if I place a totally smeared, flabby-sounding line, I want that to be on purpose, not because I couldn’t execute something. It’s not like I have one hundred percent control, but I try to make those decisions purposeful." You can really hear that on her solo album Meltframe, released last year on Firehouse 12 (her label since 2008's Dragon's Head). The material -- which she road tested, opening for Melvins frontman King Buzzo on his solo tour, before recording -- is all composed by other people; I need to hear some of her own stuff, too. But the live-solo-guitar format provides the best opportunity to hear her approach I've encountered yet.

Halvorson's take on Oliver Nelson's "Cascades" combines precise articulation with nasty (ProCo Rat) distorted sound in the same way as classic Fripp or McLaughlin. On Ornette's "Sadness" (a fave of mine from his Town Hall Concert LP), what sounds at first like the guitar being detuned is actually a slide employed "over the top" on the bottom two strings; later in the piece, you can hear it rattling on the frets. Atypically for a "jazz" guitarist, Halvorson isn't shy about using pedals. On ballads like Duke Ellington's "Solitude" or Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino," she bathes her sound in shimmering tremolo, and she uses her Line 6 delay to create off-kilter pitch-shifter effects. Her base tone, though, comes from the combination of her big archtop Guild Artist Award's natural resonance, a warm amp tone, and an aggressive right hand attack. I only wish she'd included her version of Monk's "Ruby My Dear," perhaps my favorite jazz tune of all ti-i-ime, which she's apparently played solo live.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Things we like: Michael Herr, Laurence Gonzales, Shawn James

Since the writer Michael Herr (1940-2016) passed a few days ago, I've re-read his 1977 Vietnam memoir Dispatches -- maybe the best book to come out of that cataclysm, with an episodic narrative style that sucks you in like a fever dream -- and realized how many phrases of his Namspeak ("Tits on a bull," "I've been scaled and now I'm smooth") have made their way into my vocabulary without my realizing it. Only Dylan has been more subliminally influential on my spiel. Because of Herr's involvement in films (Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket), his voice has seeped into our collective unconscious in the same way. His greatness as a writer was in realizing that "war stories" are just stories about people, and in bearing true witness for the ordinary soldiers he met during his time in country.

The novel I'm re-reading now -- Laurence Gonzales' Jambeaux, a fictitious rockaroll saga pubbed a couple of years later, in 1979 -- is unimaginable without that voice (sincerest form of flattery). Its main characters, the musos Page and Link, are Nam vets who speak the same language as Herr's grunts, but find themselves in the rockaroll wars on the Gulf Coast in the mid-'70s. It's redolent of a time when The Music Biz was still a thing, and as such, it's kind of a period piece now, but it actually does a good job of detailing why the Big Buck/Big Record/Big Show model was unsustainable. Gonzales' characters are all archetypes, but he's good on process, whether it's playing a show, flying a plane, making a record, or taking a fix, and it's that gift for description that makes Jambeaux feel authentic.

Shawn James' voice reminds me of the way I imagine Page's might: it stings like the bite of tobacco smoke in your eyes, or straight whiskey on your palate. James hails from Fayetteville, Arkansas, and fronts a band called the Shapeshifters whom I haven't heard, but on his solo album On the Shoulders of Giants, recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis, he reimagines Delta blues -- the kind Son House, Bukka White, and Charlie Patton played -- as a kind of minimalist doom metal. James sings as though from the bottoms of his feet, roaring his masculinity like an illegitimate son of House (whose ghost is most present here on the closing acapella "Preacher Foretold"), or at least a second cousin of Paul Rodgers, creating an atmosphere replete with the heavy funk of sex, swamp water, and Spanish moss hanging from ancient trees. Somehow, with just voice, resophonic guitar, kick drum and tambourine, he manages to achieve something seldom heard: a genuinely heavy acoustic music. Sure, he's a one-man band, but unlike most of his contemporaries who work in that format, he doesn't play it even partly for laughs. Rather, the sound carries the same sense of dread and menace as the original Delta blues: music to chase down demons by.