Wednesday, August 30, 2017

8.29.2017, Fort Worth

It is a measure of my shittiness as a local scene supporter that until last night, I'd never seen Big Mike Richardson play electric live. Not through years of gigs with Big Mike's Box of Rock at the Moon and later, at Lola's; not through his various tribute nights at those venues and the Keys Lounge to Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica (even though friends of mine played in some of his bands).

I'd first heard Big Mike's name from Bill Pohl and Kurt Rongey while interviewing them for an Underground Railroad story back around '03. Mike played bass for the Railroad in between Matt Hembree's tenures, and Matt had described that job as "music lessons." Bill and Kurt spoke of a fella who, back when he was still in the grocery biz, would go back home to Denison for a weekend and throw together a tribute band on the fly with guys he knew there. Hembree played with Mike in his Fort Worth-based Doors (the Odors) and Police (Protect and Swerve) bands.

Big Mike has also become, along with his friend and occasional collaborator James Hinkle, something approximating a local-scene John Mayall: an older cat who schools the younger musos in the musical canon. In Hinkle's case it's blues, in Mike's case it's classic rock, including all the deep cuts. (Mike once showed me the index to his digital music collection, which is both comprehensive and painstakingly cataloged. He has also been very generous in sharing records/CDs with me.) Mike knows all the parts to thousands of songs on guitar, bass, and keys, and can sing beautifully. (I've seen vid of him sitting on his couch with his cat, playing the "Overture" from Tommy on acoustic guitar note-for-note, something Townshend couldn't even do in 1969!) The Quaker City Night Hawks cats (including his roommate, drummer Matt Mabe) and keyboardist Justin Pate (Pablo and the Hemphill 7, ex-Bindle) are among those who've fallen into his orbit.

I'd intended to catch his Zeppelin show at Lola's last weekend, when he'd promised to perform Houses of the Holy (my favorite Zep LP!) and III in their entahrty, but life intervened. (Former Lola's bartender Eric Benge told me that Friday night, there had been 350 people out to see Big Mike's Zep show. "After one o'clock," he said, "There was still a line of people wanting to pay to hear the last 20 minutes!" Big Mike brings 'em out.) So when it was announced that Mike would be reprising the show in Lola's Trailer Park to raise money and collect donated items for the folks affected by Tropical Storm Harvey down south of here -- an early show on a Tuesday night -- it seemed like a candygram from the gods.

As infrequently as I go out, it's always a treat to run into folks I haven't seen in awhile, and last night, those included the man who brought me here and his bride, as well as former Moon impresario Chris Maunder, and martial artist/former Wreck Room security chief Rod Dove's son Kashif, who once upon a time helped my wife lay the paving stones by our driveway. Next time I see Kashif, I need to remember to tell him they're still there!

Big Mike loves the orchestrated sound of classic '60s and '70s rock records, with their multiple layers of parts that the original bands often found problematic to recreate onstage. He gets around this by having enough players onstage to handle things like doubled leads or stacked electric and acoustic rhythm guitars. On this particular night, besides the aforementioned Messrs. Mabe and Pate, he was joined onstage by guitarists Chris Holt and Kris Luther, and bassist Kirk Young (filling in for the unavailable Sam Damask). Holt is a monster lead player, playing some of my favorite Jimmy Page solos the way they should be, on a Telecaster, and also adding pedal steel and a second keyboard when they were required. Every hit from Mabe's kit was like the thunder of the gods, and Mike can sing notes that Robert Plant probably can't even hit anymore.

As I've said before, Houses (which I had a white label promo of when it was new) is my favorite Zep LP even in spite of the two "goof" songs (the James Brown one, which is still a motherfucker to play, and the reggae one, which I now think of as a PH7 song after hearing them play it for years). "The Song Remains the Same" (my fave toon of the album), "Over the Hills and Far Away," and "The Ocean" are masterpieces of Page rifferama, "The Rain Song" (a lot of people's favorite Zep song, evidently, and lyrically apropos after Harvey) is probably their greatest acoustic moment, and "No Quarter" a spookily atmospheric death march. Mike and Co. did 'em up fine, and also played a couple from Physical Graffiti, which I'd spun that afternoon ("Custard Pies" with Mabe's dad on voxxx and Gary Grammer on harp, "In the Light" which I'd forgotten about for years but is becoming a new favorite), and "Your Time Is Gonna Come" from I with Dead Vinyl's Hayden Miller -- who has the sass and swagger of the cocky young Plant -- up front.

Then I had to leave to go to CVS. Life. But I've finally seen Big Mike doing what he does best, and I'm sure glad I did.

ADDENDUM: How could I forget Frank Cervantez's favorite, "Dancing Days?" (Easily, I guess. I was counting songs, too.) I never realized how Stones-like that song is. Possibly seeing Big Mike playing his open G-tuned Les Paul was the cue I needed.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Allen Ravenstine and Albert Dennis' "Terminal Drive"

This release -- a scant 20 minutes of music, available on CD, download, or one-sided red vinyl LP -- is a crown jewel in Smog Veil Records' Cleveland-centric "Platters du Cuyahoga" series. Terminal Drive is a truly legendary (it took years to track down a complete copy) 1975 electro-acoustic composition that earned Allen Ravenstine a place in Pere Ubu's original lineup, and provided a title to the disc of pre-Ubu rarities on the band's Datapanik In the Year Zero box set, on which an excerpt from the piece appeared.

Together with the Robert Bensick Band's French Pictures in London (recorded in 1975, released in 2016) and the loosely constituted improv outfit Hy Maya's The Mysticism of Sound and Cosmic Language (recorded in 1972-73 and due for release later this year), Terminal Drive is a product of the artist colony that briefly flourished in the Plaza, an inner city Cleveland apartment building, co-owned by Ravenstine, where the seeds of Ubu's experimentalism germinated.

In Nick Blakey's meticulously detailed liner notes (based on extensive interviews with Clevo scene participants, and always a highlight of "Platters du Cuyahoga" releases), musician Cynthia Black recalls the milieu thus: "Being there was one night after another of children growing up together...but every one of them was talented, driven, pissed off, angry, drunk, stoned, and trying to get laid, all the time in a city that smelled like Hell because they were still making steel in it." This music comes from a time when Cleveland was notorious for its river catching fire, and a small underground coterie of musical outcasts nurtured their visions and played infrequent gigs there, documenting their efforts on tapes that languished unreleased for decades -- pariahs in their time, now hailed as prophets of punk and post-punk style.

Many experimental musicians strive to approach music with a "beginner's mind," but Ravenstine truly possessed such when he recorded Terminal Drive (Dennis' string bass parts were added later). Unschooled as a musician but interested in sound, he started out making field recordings and was introduced to synthesizers by Bensick -- a multi-instrumentalist who was circuit-bending guitar pedals into oscillators -- and wound up providing tapes of his own electronic music (realized on an ElectroComp EML 200 synth) to the dance department at Cleveland State University. While Terminal Drive -- at different times spectral, kosmische, and menacing -- might inspire comparisons to the works of electronic pioneers like Stockhausen, Cage, or Boulez, Ravenstine denies their influence. Credit instead the industrial brutality of the factory and the rust-belt anomie of dying cities.

After playing on five albums with Pere Ubu, Ravenstine spent the rest of the '80s performing with Red Krayola and David Thomas' Wooden Birds. (His short story "Music Lessons," anthologized in The Da Capo Book of Rock and Roll Writing, provides a harrowing account of his Ubu tenure.) Recently retired after 25 years as an airline pilot, Ravenstine released a solo album, The Pharaoh's Bee, on Ubu's Hearpen label in 2015. But Terminal Drive remains his signal achievement and earns its trailblazing reputation.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Fat Dukes of Fuck's "A Compendium of Desperation, Morality and Dick Jokes"

As Rome burns, I get a record in the mail.

Heavy and funny don't have to be mutually exclusive. Anyone besides me remember Cretin 66, who released the high-larious Demolition Safari on Steel Cage back in 2001? Yeah, I didn't think so. More to the point, think of Turbonegro making the best hard rock record of the '90s with Apocalypse Dudes, on which they dressed up their synthesis of AC/DC-BOC-Dictators in Alice Cooper-cum-Village People drag so out-there that none of their inspirations would have dared imagine (let alone attempt) it.

Which brings us to The Fat Dukes of Fuck, a Vegas-based outfit who have a new elpee (their second full-length) produced by the Deaf Nephews (that being the handle used by the team of Melvins drummer Dale Crover and guitarist-engineer Toshi Kasai). On A Compendium of Desperation, Morality and Dick Jokes, the Fat Dukes' willingness to act the fool can be seen as a sign of supreme self-confidence.

In purely musical terms, these boys are mighty; just take a listen to the scintillating point-to-point fret math of "Whiskey and Bath Water," the pummeling thrash of "Full Metal Jack Off," or the piledriver rifferama that propels "Where Assholes Come To Die" to get a sense of their power. Then, around the third or fourth spin, the lyrics kick in, and they're a hoot. (Having them relatively high in the mix for this kind of thing helps.)

Turn the record over, and "The Monotonous Adventures of a Hopeaholic" details the difficulties of getting laid while driving a mini-van, to music of pseudo-operatic grandeur worthy of Jim Steinman. Oxford comma fans like your humble chronicler o' events get the answer to their question, "What's a morality joke?" on "Promise Keepers," a shot across the bow of fundamentalist extremists that recalls Frank Zappa's on Broadway the Hard Way. These Fat Dukes earn their stripes in the conceptual, comedic, and pure rock power stakes, and the Deaf Nephews make 'em sound real fine on sweet, sweet vinyl (gold translucent, even).

Monday, August 07, 2017

Things we like: Tyshawn Sorey, Dennis Gonzalez, Free, Nazz

1) If you read publications like The New Yorker or the NYT, you don't need my perpetually-swinging-after-the-pitch ass to tell you about Tyshawn Sorey. In the Times article linked to above, no less a personage than Roscoe Mitchell, whose recent album the 37-year-old composer/multi-instrumentalist is all over, acknowledged Sorey as "the next generation of us." Growing up in Newark, Sorey built his own drumkits and played in R&B bands, taught himself piano in his church's basement, and studied trombone at school before beginning academic studies under Mitchell's Chicago contemporaries George Lewis and Anthony Braxton, the latter of whose Wesleyan professorship he's about to assume, then honed his craft under leaders like Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, and Lawrench "Butch" Morris (the latter famed for his conduction of improvising ensembles).

Sorey's multi-instrumental fluency gives him a deep understanding of the nuances of sound production, and he always gets the most out of the tonal and textural palette of whatever ensemble he happens to be writing for. On his latest album, Verisimilitude, he leads his regular trio (pianist Corey Smythe, who also manipulates electronics, and bassist Chris Tordini) into territory staked out by Morton Feldman and Karlheinz Stockhausen as though it's his own neighborhood (a "jazz piano trio" date this is not). The album is available via Sorey's Bandcamp site, as is its predecessor, last year's The Inner Spectrum of Variables, which teams his trio with a string trio. You'll need to go elsewhere to seek out his debut as a leader, the sprawling that/not, and the intriguing guitar-led trio Koan. Sorey's currently at work on Koan II with a different ensemble.

2) Speaking of Bandcamp, the estimable Dallas-based trumpeter-composer Dennis Gonzalez has been making some out-of-print gems from his extensive catalog available digitally there. Most recent to go online is Catechism, a 1988 date cut in London with heavy friends including longtime Soft Machine saxophonist Elton Dean, pianist Keith Tippett (who played on King Crimson's Lizard and whom Robert Fripp courted to co-lead that band), and drummer Louis Moholo from the legendary South African band the Blue Notes. The music has some of the flavor of South African township jazz, and boasts some of Gonzalez's very finest multi-horn writing.

3) Also in my CD player lately: Free's Tons of Sobs, the '68 debut by the band of teenage British blues-rockers led by future Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers, acclaimed by his peers as the premier British rock singer of his generation (possibly, to these feedback-scorched ears, because he eschewed the histrionics of pretty much all his contemporaries -- not just the proto-metal shriekers, but basically all of 'em save Rod Stewart, whom it turns out was aiming at Entertainment a la Sam Cooke all along). The album is a possible response to Jeff Beck's Truth (speaking of Rod the Mod); Led Zep I was another. Where Page, Plant, et al. made everything bigger and flashier, Free's approach was to make everything simpler, earthier, and more basic. Guitarist Paul Kossoff's wobbly vibrato came from classical training, not Albert King; a very different outcome than where King Fripp's similar studies led. Half-Guyanese bassist Andy Fraser's sound had a Caribbean lope that drank from the same well as Robbie Shakespeare and "Family Man" Barrett, although he'd apprenticed with John Mayall. They'd continue refining their approach, removing every gram of excess from their sound, and score a career-defining hit out of it with "All Right Now" -- written in five minutes in a dressing room -- before perfecting it with 1971's Highway, but Free never sounded more satisfying than where they started.

4) Finally, a wallow in Todd Rundgren's first three solo albums led inexorably back to the Nazz, the band with which he emerged from Philadelphia back in '68. Chris Plavidal's kids correctly identified the primary influences on the Nazz's self-titled debut LP as Cream (Todd had the solo EC perfected on Wheels of Fire's "Those Were the Days" down pat, and drummer Thom Mooney's footroll-happy solo on "She's Going Down" could give Ginger's "Toad" a run for its money) and the Beatles (those vocal harmonies, although the chords Todd was writing had more jazz and uptown R&B in 'em than the Fabs', which generally stayed closer to their Everly Brothers/Motown inspirations). Recent listens to old faves like Talmy-era Who, the first two U.S. Yardbirds LPs, and my beloved Blues Project Projections surprised me -- some of the music sounded almost quaint -- but the Nazz albums, which I'd always thought were uneven (suffering from the second side blahs), held up surprisingly well.

"Open My Eyes" -- which opens Nazz and was supposed to be the A-side of their first single before a DJ turned it over, played "Hello It's Me," et voila -- is a song that has it all: great crunchy mutated "I Can't Explain" intro, great fuzzed-out riff, great chorus, great Electric Flag-sounding instrumental break, and most of all, a great bridge (which the Move, who knew a good song when they heard one, had the decency to repeat, eschewing the instrumental break, when they covered it and the Nazz's other greatest song, "Under the Ice," live on their '69 U.S. tour). On songs like "When I Get My Plane" from the first LP and "Meridian Leeward" from Nazz Nazz, there's even a hint of the 'orrible 'oo back in that lovely moment between Monterey and Tommy when they looked as good as they sounded and produced the magic and wonderful Sell Out.

It's easy to play "spot the influences" with Nazz -- the descending chords on "Under the Ice" are the same as on Traffic's "Paper Sun;" "Rain Rider" on Nazz Nazz borrows from Cream's "White Room;" the blues tracks on side two of Nazz Nazz don't really work, although "Kiddie Boy" would when Todd produced James Cotton -- and by the second LP (originally envisioned as a double album called Fungo Bat), you can hear Todd's Laura Nyro fixation emerging. This would mean trouble: lead singer Stewkey Antoni didn't dig those songs, or the fact that Todd wanted to sing 'em, and Todd was soon out of the band, along with bassist Carson Van Osten. The Nazz played the '69 Texas International Pop Festival with replacements, and the label released the unused Fungo Bat songs with Stewkey's overdubbed vox as Nazz III (including some gooduns: the opening "Some People," the very Laura-ish "Only One Winner," the more rockin' "Magic Me" and "How Can You Call That Beautiful"), but by then, Nazz were done. So there.