Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Things we like: Nels Cline, David Breskin, Allen Lowe

I'll admit I was a little worried when, prior to the release of Nels Cline's new album Lovers, all of the fun, idiosyncratic writing disappeared from his website, which had become a promo piece for the album. I'd heard that Lovers was a tribute to mood music, and couldn't help flashing back to around '76, when I heard Larry Coryell refer to producer Creed Taylor in an interview as "the man who destroyed Wes Montgomery." Nels has been my favorite axe-slinger since 2009's overdubbed solo Coward, and the thought of his sound smothered in cloying strings in the manner of Wes' Taylor-made outings for A&M and CTI was almost too much to bear.

But I needn't have worried, as Nels' album was produced by David Breskin, whom I'd met at Ronald Shannon Jackson's memorial service here in Fort Worth and came away with the impression that he was a decent man. With Rafi Zabor, Breskin co-authored the Musician piece that clued me in to Shannon back in '81 (although I'd been digging him since Ornette's Dancing In Your Head in '76). Breskin went on to produce the albums Mandance and Barbecue Dog for Shannon, as well as the 1987 Power Tools album that teamed Shannon and bassist Melvin Gibbs with guitarist Bill Frisell. Breskin's worked with Nels since 2010's Initiate. He also produced the recently released Duopoly for the estimable pianist Kris Davis.

The tunes on Lovers include covers of Sonic Youth, Annette Peacock, Gabor Szabo, and Jimmy Guiffre as well as Broadway standards and a previously unrecorded piece from Henry Mancini's score to Breakfast At Tiffany's. Michael Leonhart's orchestrations fit seamlessly into Nels' conception, which has always possessed a dark, ruminative lyricism that marks him as a musical descendant of Jim Hall (to whom "Secret Love" here is dedicated) in the same way as Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie are. My favorite moments here come on the second disc: the soupcon of gypsy swing on "Why Was I Born?" and the closing original theme, "The Bond," which was also a highlight of Nels' duet album with Julian Lage, Room, and the live set I saw the duo perform last year.

Nels' other, face-melting side is in ample evidence on the prolific altoist-composer Allen Lowe's Hell With an Ocean View: Down and Out DownEast, in harness with the equally adept axe-slinger Ray Suhy, whose expressive palette ranges from bebop to metal but is always intense; the titanic pianist Matthew Shipp; and a newcomer to watch, Larry Feldman on amplified violin and mandolin. The album's an engaging romp, sort of a '50s-style blowing session with more modern material. The charts, all by Lowe, include a couple that sound like Monk refracted through the prism of Andrew Hill, some blues with lots of room for all the soloists to make forceful statements at length, and a Hendrix portrait that sounds more like a Miles ca. Jack Johnson portrait (with Suhy flowing molten rock in the manner of John McLaughlin when he was still playing the flattop with the DeArmond, while Nels gets all warm and Cosey). The leader also does some of his fieriest blowing I've heard. There's an irascible rasp to his tone that echoes his persona.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Back in the Basement with Bob


Say what you want about Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for literature: There isn't another scribe besides Shakespeare whom people of A Certain Age have quoted more (knowingly or unknowingly).

While I'm not going to say that my buddy John Bargas conjured Bob's Nobel, we had lunch a couple of days before the announcement and he gave me a copy of Invisible Republic, in which Greil Marcus imagines a country based on Bob's '67 "basement tapes" and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. I'd never read it before, because I bailed on Marcus after Lipstick Traces, which I found unreadable. But it sent me back to Robbie Robertson's revisionist-history version of The Basement Tapes, which Columbia released back in '75, and which I now own on vinyl. And without Greil's pointing it out, I'd never have recognized "Clothes Line Saga" for a goof on Bobbie Gentry. I'm slow like that.

The Robertson Basement Tapes remains not only my favorite Dylan music, but my favorite Band music after the "brown album." But it's not The Thing Itself, it's an edition compiled by a shameless self-mythologizer that made me remember watching The Last Waltz and thinking, "Wow, isn't Robbie full of himself?" Robbie and engineer Rob Fraboni remixed the original stereo tapes in mono, adding reverb and overdubs, and included eight performances recorded after the fact by the Band without Dylan. Beyond that, it's puzzling that something could have been marketed under that title that didn't include "I Shall Be Released" and "Quinn the Eskimo."

Still, it was the most commonly available way for a non-Dylan fanatic (they had all the bootlegs) to hear this music until Columbia released the full whack on five CDs a couple of years ago as The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (with a 2CD "highlights reel," The Basement Tapes Raw, for cheap bastards like your humble chronicler o' events, or folks who feel like they've been brainwashed after listening to multiple takes of the same song back-to-back). Even the "complete" release, however, doesn't include "Even If It's A Pig (Parts I and II)," two mic-testing jams that sound so hallucinatory in Marcus' description that I had to go back and look them up in the index a few days after my first reading of Invisible Republic to make sure I hadn't imagined or dreamt them. Perhaps in another ten years, Sony will release yet another upgrade that includes them. Completism is endless, and Dylan's appeal doesn't look to be fading any time soon.


OK, so I broke down and bought The Basement Tapes Raw. To these feedback-scorched ears, they actually sound better -- clearer -- than the '75 release. Then again, I often like "demo albums" better than fully produced ones. All I generally want to hear is what went down in the studio, not what someone thought it would be clever to add after the fact. Without the 'verb, it's easier to hear the lyrics, and none of the overdubs are missed. Plus, you get to hear things, like Bob cracking himself up in the middle of "Please Mrs. Henry," that Robbie excised. To say nothing of all the "new" songs -- 22 of 'em! There are instances where I prefer Robertson's revisionism to The Thing Itself: the Band's version of "Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos" beats Dylan's on vocal harmonies; the second take of "Too Much of Nothing" on Raw lacks the crazy modulations of the first take, which Robbie used; and the trombone-driven "Don't Ya Tell Henry" that Bob sings here isn't a patch on the Levon-sung one from '75. But those are few, and I've still got the records, for when I want to hear 'em.

I almost projectile vomited when I started to read the liner note essay, which commenced by declaring that the basement tapes are important because they represent "the roots of alt-country" and "the end of psychedelic music." To the first point, I've been reading this kind of hype -- which suggests that something old is relevant only in relation to something newer -- since I stumbled on the Yardbirds in 1970 ("no Yardbirds, no psychedelia/metal," to which a subsequent generation of PR flacks would add "punk"). In my dotage, I think singular art and artists matter because of their intrinsic qualities, not the fact that someone (invariably not as good) copied them. In the last decade, there's been a glut of bands that have borrowed the superficial trappings of the Band ca. the "brown album." Hats, facial hair, and funny looking instruments abound. But there was no template or model for the basement tapes; that's what made them great. And as far as psychedelia being dead, tell it to Tame Impala and Dungen. Psych will survive as long as metal, in its own world, oblivious to the passing of innumerable Next Big Things. May it always be so.

The Hawks were a rock 'n' roll band with enough blues in them to have nearly been Sonny Boy Williamson's backing band (they knew him in West Helena, before he died in '65). They'd been living in each other's pockets since the early '60s, and had a strong identity before they started backing Bob. That gave the music they made with him -- on the road and in the basement -- a different feel, more cohesive and organic than the somewhat shrill, strident sound the session cats made on his great run of records in '65-'66. (You could almost put it down to the difference between the metallic scream of the bridge pickup on a Fender Telecaster, which Mike Bloomfield favored, and the throatier tone of the neck pickup, which Robbie preferred.) While the legend of their touring days focuses on their volume -- possibly because many of the reporters were folkies who weren't used to loud electric guitars -- in Woodstock, they made human scale music. At low volume, in small rooms, they found they had different things to say than they had when they were roaring back at volatile arena crowds. And on the "raw" tapes, you can hear the sound of the basement at Big Pink as surely as you can hear the sound of the rooms where the great Sun and Chess records were made.

Another factor in the "thin, wild mercury sound" of Bringing It All Back Home through Blonde On Blonde was Dylan's drug use, which, Bargas points out, gets glossed over in Martin Scorsese's otherwise excellent documentary No Direction Home. Myself, I'd bet it was the price the director agreed to in exchange for his subject's candor on other subjects in his on-screen interviews. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but I wouldn't be surprised if the '66 motorcycle accident was something Albert Grossman concocted for the media after Dylan got home from the UK, looked at his itinerary for the rest of the year, and elected to step back from the abyss of drugs and overwork before he destroyed himself. The Beatles, of course, took a similar step around the same time.

Back in Woodstock, Dylan returned to the well of folk tradition he'd abandoned in '65. (Marcus points out that he'd do the same thing again in the early '90s with the albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. Dylan also devotes a sizable chunk of Chronicles to his love of folk music.) Bob used that body of American song to ground and center his music. He also schooled the Hawks in that tradition, which they'd come up disdaining as the province of "the Yorkville people." (Did he bring them Ian and Sylvia songs to record thinking these Canadians would find the material more relatable?) Once they'd internalized those lessons and learned to draw from them as he did, they were able to forge a career as the Band without him.

The gate of influence swung both ways, because that's the way symbiosis works. Canadian archivist-producer Jan Haust, who worked on the 2014 reissue of the basement tapes, writes of the Hawks/Band's estimable multi-instrumentalist/electronics whiz/recordist Garth Hudson recalling that gospel 45s were a staple of the musos' listening during the time of the recordings, and that feel definitely permeates much of the music -- "Apple Suckling Tree," "Sign On the Cross," and most transcendentally, "I Shall Be Released."

Beyond that, I remain convinced that playing with Richard Manuel -- whom Ronnie Hawkins once said was more talented than Van Cliburn -- caused Bob to rethink his approach to singing. The Hawks' haunted piano player is the hidden influence on post-basement Bob in the same way as Muhammad Ali was the hidden influence on '65 Bob. Just listen to the newly-discovered take of "One Too Many Mornings," on which Richard sings the first verse before Bob takes over the lead, or "Tears of Rage," which Bob sings here, but Richard would sing on Music From Big Pink. Or the three-part harmony at the end of "All You Have To Do Is Dream," which Bob, Richard, and Rick Danko repeat five times, just for the sheer ecstatic rush of it. Even when these voices strain, every note is felt and meant.

In rediscovering and recombining folk elements, Dylan discovered the mutability of both the tradition and his own songs. Never a purist, Bob drew from rockabilly and soul music as freely as he did from sea chanteys, country, and blues. His vision of American song was expansive enough to include Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker, and Frank Sinatra as well as Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, and the Carter Family. Not only that, but he could mix and match influences at will -- and the Hawks had the variegated chops to follow him. Thus, the basement tapes include a version of "Folsom Prison Blues" that owes as much to Jimmy Reed as it does its author (a familiar of Bob's). You can also hear Bob realizing that not only the historical canon but his own catalog can be reimagined, when he revisits "Blowin' in the Wind" as a blues jam shuffle, with Robbie soloing with wilder abandon than is his custom. In the wake of this discovery came years of fans (myself included) at Dylan concerts wondering "What song is he playing now?"

While Dylan and the Hawks were making this music in Woodstock, the Civil Rights movement was giving way to cities aflame with riots, and the Vietnam war was escalating as the flowers of the Summer of Love faded. Once, the music Dylan and the Band went on to make when they emerged from the basement -- John Wesley Harding, Music From Big Pink, and The Band -- allowed an alienated generation, in small ways, to reconnect with America. But can that genetic memory resonate for people far enough removed from those events to be able to wish they'd been young in the '60s without thinking about the draft? The basement tapes exist outside of time, in a world where it is simultaneously 1967, 1890, 1930, 1956, and right now.

To be continued...?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade's' "Sunday Morning Revival"

In the early '70s, the James Gang -- a Cleveland-based power trio fronted by guitarist-singer Joe Walsh -- were, with Mountain, the state of the art in American hard rock. But back when we were trying to cop licks off of Yer Album and Rides Again, we terrible tyros who teethed on Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, and Jimi Hendrix would never have guessed that James Gang was actually bearded, bespectacled drummer Jim Fox's band. Or that they'd made their initial impact as a Yardbirds-obsessed five-piece, built around the fiery guitar stylings of Glenn Schwartz, a slightly older (born in the same year as John Lennon) Army vet who'd absorbed the innovations of Clapton, Beck, and Hendrix while stationed in Europe. James Gang musos were also regulars on the fertile jamming scene that existed in Cleveland's bohemian enclave, University Circle. As a result of this interchange, Schwartz briefly occupied the lead guitar chair in Clevo's answer to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band -- the Mr. Stress Blues Band -- while still playing with James Gang.

In the spring of 1967, Fox was approached by a patron to record a blues album. One Sunday morning in May, following a long night of gigging (shades of A Session with the Remains), Schwartz and Fox entered a studio in downtown Cleveland along with James Gang bassist Tom Kriss, his guitarist brother Rich Kriss, singer-harpman Bill "Mr. Stress" Miller and his band's pianist Mike Sands to record a selection of tunes that remained tantalizingly unreleased for years. Estimable indie Smog Veil found the tapes and is releasing them as the latest entry in their CLE-focused "Platters du Cuyahoga" series (which also includes a worthy Mr. Stress document,  Live at the Brick Cottage 1972-1973). Painstakingly researched, in-depth liner notes from Boston-based muso-scribe Nick Blakey tell the story. (Somebody -- Ugly Things? Case Western Reserve University Press? -- puh-leeze give this guy a contract to write a book about the Cleveland underground!)

The sound here is young hotshots using blues forms as their vehicle to mature from Brit Invasion copyism to a nascent midwest rock aesthetic. Miller and Sands are the real bluesmen here, but the Fox-Kriss rhythm section explodes with a crackling energy no pocket can contain. The James Gang recruited Schwartz because they wanted an axe-slinger who could sustain a note like Jeff Beck, and his scorching tone here relies on stinging treble and throaty distortion. Under this treatment, "Baby Please Don't Go" throbs with the same rhythmic insistence that the Nashville Teens gave "Tobacco Road," while the version of "Dust My Broom" shows the influence of the Yardbirds' Beck-era Elmore James homage, "Nazz Are Blue."

A scant six months after the session, Schwartz decamped for the West Coast, leaving his former student Walsh to fill the slot he'd vacated in James Gang. He recorded three albums with Pacific Gas & Electric (of "Are You Ready" fame) before returning to Ohio and languishing for a decade in a religious cult (although he never stopped playing). Since '79, he's gigged with his brother, bassist Gene, in the Schwartz Brothers Band. In February of this year, Schwartz and Walsh cut a record in Nashville with Black Key Dan Auerbach's side band, the Arcs, then appeared with the band at this year's Coachella festival. The release of Sunday Morning Revival closes the circle, allowing non-Ohioans to finally experience what '60s Cleveland scene vets have known for years. Further "Platters du Cuyahoga" releases by Pere Ubu founding member Allen Ravenstine and electronic improv experimentalists Hy Maya are scheduled to follow.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Things we like: Cameron Smith, Goodwin

1) Wow. With WAR PARTY, Cameron Smith has always combined sharp songwriting with attention to rock fundamentals (chord progressions, racka-racka) in a way that recalls sons of '65 Dylan like Lou Reed and Richard Hell. This new side, an ode to our city's nightlife, released under the rubric "Sur Duda," takes things even further down the path of hypnotic monotony (imagine if the VU, not the Hawks, were Bob's backing band in '66). Me like real much.

2) I can never thank the cats in Goodwin enough for making me love rock music again, at a time when I was getting pretty burnt out from writing for the local alt-weekly rag. (If I had a dollar for every dude that came up to me at my grocery store gig and said "Hey man you wrote about my band" of which I had absolutely no memory...then one day, my wife and I would have a very nice dinner.)

The first time I encountered Goodwin, at the Wreck Room (after being introduced to frontman Tony Diaz by Pablo and the Hemphill 7 leader Joe Vano at the old Black Dog Tavern), my exact words to my then-editor Anthony Mariani were, "Who are these fucking guys with numbers on their shirts?" Forty minutes later, they were my favorite band. The confluence of energy and aggression with melody and poignancy in Daniel Gomez's songs was enhanced by the barrel-chested Diaz's heart-on-sleeve delivery. Gomez's guitar -- oddly jazz-voiced, but spare and harmonic-rich, as though Leslie West had developed lyricism -- and Matt Hembree's melodic-yet-propulsive bass fleshed out the songs. Damien Stewart, a former drumline man from NOLA, joined late (in the manner of Ringo, Charlie Watts, and Keith Moon -- not hyperbole) and made them great.

Listening in the car this week (alternating with Revolver), I was thrilled to discover that there are still lots of moments on their 2004 debut CD (it's Amazon available, folks!) that move me to tears. The four cymbal hits before the bridge in "Airport," or the descending bass line under the chorus in "March," or the high ringing guitar note after the line "When I look at you" in "This Time," to name just a few out of many more, all operate on me like Proust's madeleine. What a joy to find that it still hits the same way, a decade and change later.

I promised myself I wasn't going to embed any more Youtube vids in this blog, but you need to see and hear this.