Wednesday, March 28, 2018

About "Astral Weeks"

1) It's the record I used to give to women I liked. I said I'd bought my last copy, since meeting my wife in '03, but then my buddy Dan told me he had a vinyl copy (which I've never owned, having become aware of it after reading St. Lester's famous paean when Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung appeared in '87, at the dawn of the CD era) in his store. Never say never again, James Bond.

2) I'd read St. Lester's take on Astral Weeks when it originally appeared in Greil Marcus' desert island disc compendium Stranded back in '79, but at that time, I still blamed Van Morrison for the legion of gravel-voiced white R&B dudes (in which category I sometimes unfairly lumped such disparate artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, and Phil Lynott, among others) that sprang up in the wake of his Moondance mega-success. And that was before "Brown Eyed Girl" topped my list of "songs I never want to hear another bar band play for the rest of my life," surpassing even "Mustang Sally." It seems I wasn't alone. His ex-wife/former muse apparently can't stand to hear his music even today, and his one-time label boss, who once bought him out of a crooked management contract by dropping $20,000 in cash in an abandoned warehouse, remembers him as "a hateful little guy."

3) I'd been touched by Astral Weeks long before that, but didn't realize it. The same year ('70) I beheld Iggy 'n' Alice at the Cincinnati Pop Festival on NBC, I also caught a show on PBS, taped at the Fillmore East, that featured Van topping a bill which also included Albert King in his prime (singing, playing, and embodying "Blues Power") and the Clarence White-era Byrds (doing "Eight Miles High" with an interminable bass solo a la Untitled). Near the end of a riveting performance of "Cyprus Avenue," he started riffing on the line "You were standing there / in all your revelation," pacing back and forth, staring intently at his feet, repeating each phrase over and over until I thought he'd lost his mind -- but I couldn't look away. It was more intense, and more cathartic, than Ig's peanut butter smearage or Alice's pie in the face. I'd had no religious upbringing and wasn't yet tuned into the spiritual realm in any sense, but I could tell this cat was into something deep. When I finally heard the album, I was disappointed to discover that the bit that had so seared my synapses wasn't in the recorded version, although I heard echoes from the same place in the ecstatic repetitions of "Never never," "You breathe in you breathe out," and "You turn around" in "Beside You," or "Goodbye," "Dry your eye," and "The loves to love" in "Madame George."

4) I'm a sucker for stories about local music scenes, dating back to the time when I was freshly out of the service and moonlighting at the record store I'd originally come to Fort Worth to open. It was my good fortune then to stumble on the MC5's Thunder Express CD and the first editions of From the Velvets to the Voidoids and Please Kill Me around the same time, which got me re-obsessed with the Detroit ramalama I'd loved as a teen (before the slightly older cats whose opinions I respected browbeat me out of it -- stupid, stupid boy). I wound up writing 10,000 word articles about obscuro Detroit bands for fanzines and webzines before I got shitcanned from my soul-destroying corporate gig and had to try and make a living writing about local music for my city's giveaway alt-weekly arts rag. In my dotage, I've become quite interested in the '60s-'70s Cleveland/Akron/Kent scenes, which has made me a devoted follower of Nick Blakey's copiously detailed and well-researched liner notes for indie label Smog Veil's ongoing archival "Platters du Cuyahoga" series, not to mention a reader of tomes such as Deanna R. Adams' encyclopedic Rock 'n' Roll and the Cleveland Connection and Calvin C. Rydbom's slimmer and more narrowly focused The Akron Sound: The Heyday of the Midwest's Punk Capital. So I was intrigued to read a New Yorker piece about Ryan H. Walsh's Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 -- basically a time capsule from author Walsh's hometown, Boston, during the time Morrison was living there and germinating his singular masterpiece. (Also the source of the ex-wife/label boss insights above.)

5) Am I the only one who misheard "I've got a home on high" as "I've got a hormone high?" Or connected "Madame George" in my mind with "Sister Ray?" The most disturbing anecdote in Walsh's book (well -- except for the one about the New Jersey muso who played with Van in Boston and was subsequently murdered) comes from Morrison's Boston drummer, who recalls the singer repeatedly frightening away young female fans by whispering in their ears, which seems to support St. Lester's contention that pedophilia was a recurring theme in Van's lyrics (going back to Them's "Little Girl" and "Hey Girl," not to mention "Cyprus Avenue"'s "So young and bold / 14, yeah I know"). Of course, you could say the same thing about Sonny Boy Williamson (in fact, I once played with a singer who had to change the words of "Good Morning Little School Girl" to "Good Morning Pretty Lady" before he would sing it). Are creepiness and great art mutually exclusive? Discuss among yourselves.

6) I knew a little of the lore of Astral Weeks, some of which Walsh debunks. Contrary to the John Cale story to which St. Lester referred, Van didn't record his parts separately from the backing musicians, although Walsh's account -- based on interviews with participants and eyewitnesses -- indicates that the singer spent most of the sessions in an isolation booth and didn't interact with the musos. And the music didn't spring fully formed out of its author's head; the album's all-acoustic approach (which was a departure from his work with the Belfast R&B outfit Them, as well as his solo debut Blowin' Your Mind) took shape in a series of August 1968 trio gigs in a Boston cellar nightclub called the Catacombs. One of the most intriguing threads in Walsh's narrative concerns a recording from one of those nights made by Morrison's friend, late night DJ and future J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf, and Walsh's quest to find and hear Wolf's tape, and share it with Van's Boston musicians.

7) A big chunk of Walsh's book is devoted to the Fort Hill Community, aka the Mel Lyman Family, a still-extant cult founded by the charismatic and manipulative former harmonica player for the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (whom they say died in 1978), which gained notoriety as the subject of a 1971 Rolling Stone piece by David Dalton. There's also material on the Lyman Family's underground newspaper, Avatar; the TV experiments of Shakespearean scholar and "accidental" broadcaster David Silver; the "Bosstown Sound," a failed attempt by MGM Records to make the city on the Charles the next Liverpool or San Francisco; the Velvet Underground's long association with the Boston Tea Party, ubiquitous mover 'n' shaker Ray Riepen's answer to the West Coast's psychedelic ballrooms; the film industry in Boston ca. '68 (including box-office blockbusters The Thomas Crown Affair and The Boston Strangler as well as muckraking documentary Titicut Follies and Michelangelo Antonioni's youth culture cash-in Zabriskie Point, whose star was a Lyman Family member); Boston's historic involvement in spiritualism and the occult, and its role as the cradle of US psychedelic culture; the birth of underground radio at WBCN; and the James Brown concert that kept Boston from rioting in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination. It's a lot of ground to cover, and there's no real unity that emerges, but it's all well reported and gives a strong sense of the cultural ferment of the era -- an atmosphere that's hard to relate to the timeless, healing balm of Astral Weeks.

8) I saw Van Morrison in 1979 at Austin's Armadillo World Headquarters, when he was touring the album Into the Music. He had as strong of a spiritual presence as any performer I've ever witnessed except for Patti Smith. At no time, though, did he approach the intense catharsis of that 1970 Fillmore East "Cyprus Avenue."

9) Like no other record I know of, the music on Astral Weeks sounds all of a piece, as if it were flowing from some deep well: the stream-of-conscious poetry (here is Eliot's "perfect order of speech of incantation" incarnate), the extemporized backing by world-class jazz musicians in between jingle gigs, the overdubbed solos (the harpsichord and in particular, that violin!) and string arrangements (which Morrison has disavowed at times over the years). I could listen over and over again (and did, for an afternoon, while writing this). In some ways, the hero of the piece is producer Lewis Merenstein, a true believer in Morrison's talent who was perplexed by the singer's ambivalence about the album they worked on together, and died shortly after being interviewed by Walsh.

10) And of course, come to find out there's a reissue from 2015 with bonus tracks, including longer versions of "Ballerina" and "Slim Slow Slider." I don't want to hear it. What can you add that would improve on perfection? (And for what it's worth, when Walsh plays one of the extended versions to one of the participants, the musician says very definitely, "That's not what happened." Messing with the past is funny business. So much for completism.) From the opening song's "To be born again" to its closing one's "I know you're dying / And I know you know it, too," Astral Weeks manages to encompass all the wonder and mystery of life -- with the option, Walsh points out, of reincarnation every time you turn the record over. And I do, I do, I do.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Ornette Coleman's "The Atlantic Years"

To be a jazz fan is to be a fan of eras more than specific records. This is particularly true for artists who were active prior to the advent of LPs, but also after.

F'rinstance, when I was slinging platters at Panther City Vinyl awhile back, a customer came in seeking Billie Holiday. The question then becomes which Billie: young and exuberant (her early, John Hammond-produced Columbias, made for the jukebox market with small groups comprising the cream of the era's jazz soloists), in her hitmaking prime (the arranged, orchestrated sides she cut with Milt Gabler for Commodore and Decca), or mature and diminished (the small group dates she cut for Norman Granz at Verve, when her instrument was showing the ravages of hard living)? "Most damaged," the customer said, which made the choice simple, since I'd spied a copy of Lady In Satin, Billie's Columbia swan song, made with an orchestra when her voice was but a husk, but she could still get by on her phrasing alone.

A discriminating friend refers to pre-Bitches Brew Miles Davis as "suit Miles" -- a far cry from the acolytes of the highly individuated trumpeter-bandleader's earlier work who dismissed his '70s oeuvre when it was new.

Listening to Ornette Coleman's Atlantic albums -- to be reissued May 11 in a 10 LP box by Rhino -- it's instructive to remember how controversial the Fort Worth native's music was when he first emerged on the national scene at the end of the '50s. (A 2006 tome about his quartet's debut New York City engagement bears the title The Battle of the Five Spot.) Coleman's "classic" quartet -- himself on alto saxophone, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins -- superficially sounded like bebop, the style -- highlighted by velocity and harmonic complexity -- that had dominated jazz since the end of World War II. But Coleman's compositions eschewed the Tin Pan Alley chord changes that had provided the basis for jazz improvisation since Armstrong, adopting a freer approach to melodic invention -- even freer than Miles (Kind of Blue) and John Coltrane (Giant Steps), who were using modes and scales, rather than chords, as the basis for their explorations around the same time. His horn and his tunes had the cry of the blues he'd come up playing in Texas, and a vocalized quality that came as close as any music has to the sound of human lamentation, while sometimes sounding as simple as children's nursery rhymes. As much as these sides sound like heartbeat today, back in '59, they had the capacity to drive supporters/detractors to levels of vituperation and spleen worthy of today's social media flame wars.

Coleman went on to compose for classical ensembles (most notably his symphony Skies of America, recorded for Columbia in 1972 and performed by the Fort Worth Symphony in 1983, during the week when Mayor Bob Bolen presented Ornette the key to the city) and perform with an electric band, Prime Time (whose 1976 debut recording for A&M Horizon, Dancing In Your Head, upset at least as many people as the original quartet's Five Spot stand had). He recorded extensively, for labels including ESP-Disk, Blue Note, Flying Dutchman, Artists House, Antilles, Caravan of Dreams (sentimental favorite at my house), and Verve. But the Atlantics hold a special place in his canon, not just because of their historic and groundbreaking nature, but because of the fidelity with which the New York engineers Atlantic employed were able to capture the sound of the acoustic group. (To hear what I mean, side-by-side these with the recordings similarly configured Coleman units waxed for Impulse and Columbia.)

The Rhino box includes the six original LPs that were released between 1959 and 1961, three LPs of session outtakes that appeared between 1970 and 1975 (one of those only in Japan), and a tenth disc, The Ornette Coleman Legacy, containing six additional outtakes that first saw the light of day in 1993 on Rhino's Beauty Is A Rare Thing CD box, here making their first appearance on vinyl.

Originally released in 1959, The Shape of Jazz To Come introduces signature Coleman compositions "Lonely Woman" (in which a dirge-like theme unfolds over a hyperactive rhythm section, a trademark of Ornette's) and "Peace," while Change of the Century boasts more assured playing from the quartet on numbers like "Ramblin'" (which includes a Charlie Haden bass solo from which punk-era Brit Ian Dury stole the melody he used in "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll"), "Free," and "Una Muy Bonita" (which shows that Ornette was listening to the mariachi music he heard growing up in Fort Worth). Released in 1960, This Is Our Music is the first recording of Ed Blackwell -- whose playing shows the influence of his home city, New Orleans -- in place of Billy Higgins on drums. (Following a narcotics bust, Higgins -- unable to play New York clubs -- became a house drummer for Blue Note Records, performing on epoch-defining sides like Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder.") On the track "Beauty Is A Rare Thing," the quartet improvises freely without a regular pulse, looking forward to the Art Ensemble of Chicago's sonic experiments. A version of the Gershwin brothers' "Embraceable You" applies Coleman's methods to Tin Pan Alley material.

Besides providing a name for a genre (although Ornette didn't dig the label), Free Jazz was unprecedented when it appeared in 1961 -- a collective improvisation by a "double quartet" (the gigging unit of Coleman, Cherry, Haden, and Blackwell, augmented by Higgins, heroic multi-reedman Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and bassist Scott LaFaro) that took up both sides of an LP. (When Dolphy was in Charles Mingus' band, the titanic bassist-composer had challenged him and trumpeter Ted Curson to play like Ornette and Cherry after hearing the Coleman quartet at the Five Spot. It's no surprise, then, that the track "Folk Forms No. 1" from the 1960 LP Mingus Presents Mingus sounds a lot like "Ramblin'.") The ensemble plays dissonant fanfares before and between each musician's solo turn (with commentary from the ensemble). Much of it sounds rather tame, particularly rhythmically, in comparison to later works in similar vein by Coltrane (Ascension) or Peter Brotzmann (Machine Gun), but Free Jazz was the template. As mentioned earlier, the recording quality is notably superior to the '71 sides Coleman cut with a septet for Columbia (released on 1972's Science Fiction and 1982's Broken Shadows).

LaFaro, best known for his work with pianist Bill Evans, replaced Haden (struggling with narcotics addiction) for the 1961 release Ornette! (which came replete with cryptic initialized titles derived from Sigmund Freud's works). He's a busier player than the dark, brooding Haden, and his momentum pushes Coleman and Cherry, whose interaction by now was approaching telepathy. For Ornette On Tenor, released in 1962, Coleman returns to the larger horn he hadn't played since his Texas rhythm and blues days, and Jimmy Garrison supersedes LaFaro (killed in a car accident) on bass. John Coltrane was listening, and stole Garrison to serve as the last element in his own "classic" quartet. Following this album, Coleman disbanded his quartet and formed a trio with another Fort Worth expatriate, drummer Charles Moffett, and bassist David Izenzon. Cherry and Higgins joined Sonny Rollins' band. They'd also made a record for Atlantic, including some Coleman tunes, with Coltrane. Ornette's influence was spreading. The original quartet members would reunite for the aforementioned Columbia sessions in '71.

Meanwhile, Atlantic released two compilations of Coleman outtakes in '70 and '71. The Art of the Improvisers offers a nice cross-section of work by the '59-'61 bands, with LaFaro and Garrison on one track each. Twins features "First Take," a more succinct 17-minute run-through of "Free Jazz,"  and session outtakes from The Shape of Jazz To Come, This Is Our Music, and Ornette! The 1975 Japanese-only release To Whom Who Keeps A Record is essentially an alternate This Is Our Music, with all but one '59 track originating from those sessions. The Ornette Coleman Legacy is a further testament to the level of creativity at which Coleman and Co. were operating during those 1960 sessions: five of the tracks were cut on a single day in July, with another from the Ornette! sessions to fill out the LP.

The accompanying booklet gives you liner notes by Ben Ratliff -- the New York Times' last great jazz critic! -- and photos by Lee Friedlander to engage you verbally and visually while the records spin. Taken altogether, The Atlantic Years is an impressive edifice and a nice cornerstone for a jazz record collection.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Things we like: St. Vincent

1) Recently seen in the comments to a Prince video on Youtube: "Prince was such a great guitarist, he could have had a great career in rock, if he hadn't wasted himself on pop." Sigh.

2) Is Annie Clark the new Bowie/Prince or what? Her music is that ambitious, her persona that big.

3) I'll admit that I first became interested in her music because the 1967 Harmony Bobkat she played on Strange Mercy reminded me of my old Harmony Silvertone 1478 Silhouette (the "one that got away" in my Blogger profile pic, since reished with better pickups and a Bigsby). It made my heart glad to know that she was playing vintage, rather than a custom job. And that someone who actually knew how to play could light up the strings on such an axe so brilliantly. (She now has a signature Ernie Ball Music Man guitar.)

4) A muso friend whose opinion I respect recently purchased the entire St. Vincent catalog. "It's amazing," he said. "This music even has harmonic movement. Is there anybody else out there like this? (Don't respond if you don't know what 'harmonic movement' is.)" We recently followed suit. He'd listened to her albums chronologically, but we're not those people, so we slipped in her second, Actor, and had our synapses zapped with gorgeous indie psychedelia replete with beguiling melodies and, yes, honest-to-goodness chord changes, swimming against the tide of this age of drone 'n' groove. "Will wonders never cease?" we marveled.

5) As Iggy said, "Break it down": St. Vincent is a pop figure, one whose presentation is based on an ever-more stylized persona. Yet, she's also her own boss -- she calls her own shots, writes her own tunes, is less akin to your stereotypical autotuned diva with multiple writers and producers than she is to brainy art-rockers like Bowie, Eno, and David Byrne, with whom she collaborated on 2012's Love This Giant. I think it's possible that the social media teapot tempest over Mr. Byrne's failure to include any women on his subsequent collabs project could be down to Annie scaring the bejeezus out of him. My wife thinks working with Annie "humanized" him a bit, and I suspect it might have given her songwriting a kick in the ass. (The sonic palette she employs on my favorite album of hers, the self-titled one from 2014, is basically the same as the one from Strange Mercy, but with more immediately arresting songs. Although you can't mess with "Cruel." And "Cheerleader.")

6) Her work process while composing can be hermetic, and in her current live show, she's the only performer who appears onstage.

7) I need a few more spins -- maybe in the car, my "deep listening space" these days -- to get friendly with her newie, MASSEDUCTION. There's nothing I've heard so far that jumps out and grabs me, but it's nice to have a performer whose work can require focus and attention to get next to. (Which reminds me, we're overdue for a "deep" listen to Laurie Anderson's newie with the Kronos Quartet.)

8) Is the title character of MASSEDUCTION's "Happy Birthday Johnny" the same as the previous album's "Prince Johnny?" Their circumstances sound quite different, but someone who could see himself in Jim Carroll, take a fix and set his room on fire might also be capable of extorting a piece of the Berlin Wall -- to snort. One wonders.

9) Listening to her albums from 2007's Marry Me up to St. Vincent in sequence, you can hear an artist steadily gaining assurance and control. The backing on the debut seems cluttered and obtrusive compared to the self-titled record, even when the latter-day musos are playing flashier stuff. (Bobby Sparks' Minimoog is particularly crucial.) The glossy electronic sheen of St. Vincent's instrumental backing -- bass-heavy, in the modern way, everything mixed louder than everything else -- sets the human frailty of her voice in striking relief. So when she tops a Bo Diddley beat with synth squiggles before intoning "BringmeyourlovesallyourlovesIwannalovethemtooyaknow," you figure she means it.

10) Some of the St. Vincent tracks that initially elicited Prince comparisons ("Birth in Reverse" and "Digital Witness" in particular) now seem as redolent of Kraftwerk, and Giorgio Moroder. "Icy funk" might seem like an oxymoron, but don't tell those damned clever Euros.

11) "I Prefer Your Love" (" Jesus") sounded like the ultimate answer song to "Belle" at first. Then I read it's about her mother, which explains "All the good in me is because of you." What parent wouldn't appreciate hearing that?

12) Right now, the song of hers that resonates the most with me is "Severed Crossed Fingers," with its lyrics about trying to find hope where there's none -- a worthwhile undertaking these days. I have no idea what she's literally singing about, but it doesn't matter. The personal can be universal. How fortunate are we.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

3.9.2018, Fort Worth

My wife and I hadn't been out to a show together in over five years, but last night, we trekked over to the Tin Panther -- the former home of tiny-but-storied J&J's Blues Bar (where she once saw John Lee Hooker, and where my friend, the late Hosea Robinson, once got to blow harp behind Hubert Sumlin) -- to see Andy Pickett and Big Heaven (the latter of whom wound up not performing, due to Amanda Hand's illness, for which the always-entertaining Jesse Gage compensated by playing a solo set, with four-piece jam band Chillamundo in between). Tin Panther manager Tyler Stevens learned the ropes slinging drinks at Lola's and booking bands for the Cowtown Bowling Palace (where the li'l Stooge band once played one of our most satisfactory gigs). We wish her many years of success there!

Andy's another Fairmount phenom (like Leon Bridges and Cameron Smith -- 60 percent of whose band War Party also plays in Andy's band) who's been making waves locally for about as long as my wife and I have been off the set, although I heard and dug his 2015 digital debut It Happens Every Night for its dryly humorous observations of the passing scene. As a soulful, piano-playing singer-songwriter, he manages to skirt the obvious comparisons, with a voice that covers a spectrum from phlegmy growl to angelic falsetto, and a self-deprecating wit that, on this night, extended to introducing the members of his ten-piece band by name and astrological sign at the beginning of the set.

The Tin Panther stage is not large, so the band wound up deploying with the riddim section (War Party's Peter Marsh on drums, Christopher Gomez on bass, Cam Smith and my old Wreck Room ally Brock Miller on guitars, and Ray Osborn on synth) occupying the stage, the four horns (War Party's Ricky Williford on trumpet, Ben Marrow and amazing youngster Reid Murphy -- about whom, more in a minute -- on tenor saxes, and first album co-producer/Telegraph Canyon-ite Chuck Brown on trombone), with Andy himself seated facing the band with his back to the audience. I didn't sense any Miles-ian contempt in the gesture, but figure Andy's just a self-effacing cat who also wanted to be able to direct the band, whose sound was impressively on-point and uncluttered (although they could have used some more vocal mics, no knock against sound tech Khalif Dove, son of another old Wreck Room ally).

The set was heavy on tunes from Andy's self-titled newie on Dreamy Life, which was cut in Austin with White Denim's James Petralli and Steve Terebicki, and drops (digitally and on sweet, sweet vinyl) on April 1st -- no fooling. So far, my favorites from thatun are "Paid," which voices a universally understandable sentiment, and for which an intriguing video exists, and the self-explanatory "I Love My Piano," on which the aforementioned Reid Murphy took a blazing, King Curtis-on-steroids-via-late-Coltrane solo that broke the place up. A kid to watch. Reid got another solo turn when the crowd demanded, and Andy granted an encore of his signature tune, "It Happens Every Night," which had folks singing along. Hopefully a lot more of us will get to see this engaging unit, which has upcoming gigs at SXSW, the Fortress Festival, and Friday on the Green.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Jimi Hendrix's "Both Sides of the Sky"

I've often said Hendrix was the water I grew up swimming in, even though he checked out in the year when I first heard his music. And while it didn't take me long to lose the thread of posthumous releases -- both the quickie cash-ins that followed his death and the completist trawls released under the Experience Hendrix imprint (I'll admit to having greatly enjoyed the Rykodisc Winterland and BBC sets when they were new) -- all of the albums he released during his three-year (!) recording career still stand up, as do the two (The Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge) that were compiled from the material he was working on at the time of his death. Even his inheritors remain uber-influential: No Jimi, no P-Funk, no '70s Miles, no SRV.

As I said in re: the Who last week, technology changes the way we consume entertainment, and in Jimi's case, that means I don't need a plethora of live albums when I can view DVDs of Monterey to see him triumphantly exploding out of the gate, Woodstock to see just how far he could take his music, and Isle of Wight (when I can stomach it) to see him at the end of his tether. Both Sides of the Sky is the third in a "trilogy" of albums containing what Experience Hendrix claims are the last of Jimi's unreleased studio recordings (although I'd swear they previously said the cupboard was bare after Valleys of Neptune and People, Hell and Angels, but I suppose I could be mistaken), and even if you're not an obsessive who wants to hear every note he ever recorded, there are reasons why you might want to hear this.

The obvious one is that Hendrix was a master of the guitar and the recording studio, one who was operating at an incredibly high level of creativity as he struggled to move his music forward after the masterwork of Electric Ladyland, while maintaining a grueling tour schedule and building Electric Lady Studios, jamming or working on material practically every waking moment. Five decades later, even his ideas that weren't fully developed make for rewarding listening, and provide insight into his processes.

The tracks here are a mixed bag: full band takes of songs, jams, and studio experiments. In the first category, "Mannish Boy" shows the newly formed Band of Gypsys applying Jimi's unique riddimic sense to the incantatory Muddy Waters/Bo Diddley blues, while on "Lover Man," they essay an oft-played (but never definitively waxed) tune based on the version of "Rock Me Baby" he played at Monterey. "Hear My Train A-Comin'," most famous in its filmed acoustic 12-string and electric '70 Berkeley Community Theater versions (the full audio version of which was a highlight of Rainbow Bridge), here gets a fervent treatment from the disintegrating '69 Experience, cut just a couple of weeks before the aforementioned BoG "Mannish Boy." There are also worthy BoG studio takes of "Stepping Stone" and "Power of Soul" (you can even hear everything he's singing!) which recall the worthwhile authorized bootleg The Baggy's Rehearsal Sessions.

Among the jams, Guitar Slim's "Things I Used To Do" is dominated by Johnny Winter's slide; I first read about this track in an interview with Johnny in the September '75 Hendrix issue of Guitar Player that was my bible for a couple of months, when my last college roommate was schooling me in musical structure before we both dropped out. On "Georgia Blues," Jimi backs his chitlin circuit compadre, singer-saxman Lonnie Youngblood (anybody remember Two Great Experiences Together?) to the hilt on a slow 12-bar. Stephen Stills, whom it's instructive to remember was once an in-demand jammer (cf. his "Season of the Witch" on Super Session and his appearances in the DVD-available Supershow from British TV), is on organ for a Stills original ("$20 Fine") and a pre-CN&Y take on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" that Stills sings while Jimi plays bass (as he did on Robert Wyatt's "Slow Walkin' Talk").

The studio experiments include "Jungle," an early guitar-and-drums attempt to work out the "Villanova Junction" theme that wound up closing Jimi's Woodstock set; "Sweet Angel," a Ladyland-period run through the beautiful chord sequence that ultimately emerged as "Angel" on The Cry of Love; "Send My Love To Linda," a never-finished song-in-progress pieced together from three different takes; and "Cherokee Mist," a fascinating '68 snippet of bluesy electric sitar and feedback that includes some ideas that showed up on the third side of Ladyland.

This is no place for a Hendrix novice to start; uninitiates are directed to the three Experience albums, Band of GypsysThe Cry of Love, and Rainbow Bridge. (Not to mention the three aforementioned full-festival-show DVDs.) But if you already care about Jimi, and need another taste, Both Sides of the Sky will do for you. His leavings still beat loads of bands' diamonds.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

The Who's "Live at the Fillmore East 1968"

The Who were the first band I loved, and as a result, I've always been more critical of them than other bands, because I expect more: the buzz from that initial moment of discovery. I was puzzled by Tommy when I got it for Christmas the year it came out. It seemed sterile, compared to the band I'd read Lillian Roxon's description of in some Scholastic rag at school. Sell Out was magical and wondrous when I found it in a cutout bin the following spring, conjuring ever after a fictive English summer that existed only in my imagination. But why did Magic Bus, released a year later, have two of the same songs? 

Leeds nailed me to the wall when it arrived, and Sings My Generation proved pleasingly rough and raw. But what the hell was Happy Jack all about? (I couldn't see It's Hard coming.) I didn't dig Who's Next at first (all those synths) even before classic rock radio played it to death, and a lot of their Forest Hills show I witnessed that summer went right over my head (my first rock concert, the one part of which I will never forget is the expression on my father's face -- for he'd taken my sister and me, figuring they must be legit if he read about them in the New York Times -- the first time a joint came around).

Meaty Beaty filled in some of the holes in their mythic discography, which I spent the next couple of years investigating via imports (that great run of singles between Who's Next and Quadrophenia!) and bootlegs. (This was back when you used to have to hunt for stuff.) Quadrophenia kind of saved my life -- sounds melodramatic, but aren't 16-year-olds melodramatic anyway? I dug the rarities on Odds and Sods (some of which I already owned on boots), but by the time By Numbers dropped, I'd lost the thread (my teenage guitar mentor was a Johnny Winter freak, and who wants to listen to a 30-year-old crying about getting old?), although in my dotage, the bridge to "Slip Kid" and the ukelele song "Blue, Red, and Grey" are two of my favorites.

I tried hard to like Who Are You the summer I moved to Texas, but it seemed ponderous and overblown. The Kids Are Alright pulled me back in for a minute -- saw the flick in the theater three times, while playing in a band with some old allies who were also fans -- but the less said about the Warner Bros. albums, the better. I saw 'em again in Dallas in '80 and they looked haggard; I almost walked out before the end, but then I heard them start playing "Naked Eye" and ran back in. I watched the "Unix ponytail and too many people on stage" '89 tour on TV, and figured they were done, but then a friend offered me a ticket to see them in Y2K and I got re-impressed. Freed from the responsibility of writing new masterpieces, Townshend seemed to be digging the stage again, and with Ringo's kid on drums and Rabbit on keys, they were a five-piece rock band who brought a lot of new light and shade to the old faves. The new lyrics Townshend sang to "The Kids Are Alright" brought tears to my eyes, when I was but a callow lad of 43.

Digital technology has changed the way we consume entertainment. After the innumerable upgrades Live At Leeds has undergone over the years, it's ironic that these days, when I want to experience vintage live Who, it isn't a record or a CD I reach for. Instead, it's the Isle of Wight DVD, so I can see the goofy faces Moon makes while playing, Entwistle's ridiculous skeleton suit, Daltrey finally having a role to inhabit besides school bully, and Townshend looking simultaneously Ichabod Crane-awkward and coiled spring-dangerous.

That may change, however, with the imminent (on 4.20.2018, heh) release of Live at the Fillmore East 1968, the first official airing of the oft-bootlegged April 6, 1968 show which manager Kit Lambert had recorded as a possible live album to buy his charges more time to finish Tommy. Instead, the band opted to release the retrospective-but-incomplete Direct Hits in the UK and the patchy (and fraudulently titled) Magic Bus: The Who On Tour in the States, which inexplicably recycled tracks from the previous two LPs at a time when most of their early singles were yet to appear on American album. Fans would have to wait another two years, till Leeds, to hear what Nik Cohn correctly called "the full force of the Who" on vinyl (and another year after that for a decent singles comp).

Fifty years on, Pete 'n' Rog were running out of time to claim copyright on this material, hence its belated release -- same reason Jimmy Page just put out the Yardbirds' '68 Anderson Theatre show (which he'd taken legal action to have pulled when Epic first released it in '71) and final studio sessions (previously released, with Page's approval, by UK indie New Millennium back in Y2K). Universal's Fillmore East 1968 promises cleaned-up audio by longtime Who sound tech Bobby Pridden, as well as some previously unheard music. There's a version of Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody" (from a set that also includes two other Cochran songs, "Summertime Blues" and "My Way"), as well as the '66 single "I'm A Boy," and complete takes -- 12 and 11 minutes, respectively -- of Sell Out highlight "Relax" and the "mini-opera" "A Quick One." Most intriguingly, the third LP is taken up with a 33-minute "My Generation."

Looking at Discogs, I see that "I'm A Boy" and the complete "A Quick One," at least, had previously been bootleg-available. But they weren't on the yellow vinyl (!) Trademark of Quality boot I bought in '73, stoking my fandom while waiting for Quadrophenia to appear, or the longer CD-R version I bought a few years ago (and which I've been listening to in the car the last couple of days). On those, the long jam on "Relax" fades out after eight minutes or so, and "A Quick One" starts abruptly with "Ivor the Engine Driver." The bootleg "Generation" I've heard peters out (you see what I did there?) after about nine minutes; one wonders what they do for another 20+ (instrument smashing is promised); we'll see.

The '68 tour, to these feedback-scorched ears, was the moment when the Who started to really find their legs onstage. Compare the '67 Monterey Pop version of "A Quick One," the one on Fillmore East 1968, and the one filmed for The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus to observe the progression. Watching Monterey, one can't help but feel underwhelmed by the sonics, if not by the ruffled 'n' spangled visuals (which inspired the MC5, among others, to adopt more flamboyant stage costuming). But the sound of Townshend's Fender, in particular, through the rented Sunn amps is thin and anemic. (Hendrix had his Marshalls shipped over for Monterey, resulting in an iconic performance.)

On the Fillmore East 1968 versions of "Relax" and "Shakin' All Over," you can hear the Who beginning to stretch out and reinvent their material. The former, in particular, sounds like the bridge between the Pop Art autodestructive frenzy of the instrumental break in "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and Townshend's acoustic extemporizations in the Tommy "Overture." Entwistle and Moon are already their classic selves, churning up a thunderous roar you feel in your solar plexus. Sure, when Townshend kicks on the fuzzbox, his tone still isn't quite there. But later in the tour, he'd get his hands on a Gibson SG and with its ringing chords and stinging leads, the last piece of the Leeds sound fell into place.

The "Fortune Teller"/"Tattoo" sequence, familiar to Leeds listeners since the '95 expanded CD, is better here, in spite of the occasional blown vocal harmony. The Fillmore East was where the Who broke in the Benny Spellman R&B novelty, and they played it with more energy there than at Leeds. "Tattoo" is one of the magical and wondrous story-songs Townshend specialized in before Lambert goaded him into setting his sights higher, and "Little Billy," a cautionary tale about cigarette smoking written at the behest of the American Cancer Society (around the same time Townshend unwisely recorded a radio ad for the U.S. Air Force), is part of the same tribe.

Those, then, are the highlights. The rest is a good Who set list you can hear lots of other places. The $64,000 question with the $40 answer is, "Would you recommend this set to a novice Who fan over Live At Leeds?" Well...maybe. (Remember, I'm not a big Tommy fan.)

I'm not going to lie: I'll be happy to have this set, but this could be the last hurrah for my Who fandom -- I don't know. Do I really need to hear more extended jamming from these guys? (I have had at least one friendship which developed solely on the basis of our shared ability to sing all the parts from Leeds, including the mistakes.) And ponder the absurdity of listening to a 50 year old recording of geezers now in their 70s and about to start playing Vegas, singing "Hope I die before I get old." But then I remember the Velvet Underground Complete Matrix Tapes, about which I was skeptical at first, before it supplanted 1969 Live as my go-to VU selection. Technology changes, but we keep on trying (and trying) to recapture the buzz from that initial moment of discovery.

ADDENDUM 4.27.2018: "A Quick One" here is different than the truncated take I previously owned on boots. Here, PT blows the first line of the "Ivor the Engine Driver" sequence. I back-to-backed 'em and PT also does some more adlib (singing descending lines) on the bootlegs, besides the "For the very act of creation" fillip referred to in the liner notes. My guess is that faithful Mr. Pridden used the most complete/intact takes he could find. Not as disappointing as the "deluxe" Generation CD that omitted crucial overdubs (who adds guitar at mastering?!?!?), or the Sell Out CD with Leeds bass and drums (forgetting that it was supposed to sound tinny like a transistor radio -- part of the concept!). But...different.

It's a hoot hearing PT yelling "HARRRRRRD ROCK!" before they go into a couple of Eddie Cochran numbers. "Shakin' All Over" is also different from the one on boots I've heard. When PT goes into the Spencer Davis "I'm A Man" riff, it's all block chords, where on the version I know, it dissolves into arpeggios.

A closer reading of the liner notes reveals that the mixed tape which circulated among bootleggers in the '70s contained the first half (up to "Relax") of the April 6 show, and the second half ("A Quick One" onward) of the April 5 show. Apparently this release is the April 6 show entahr (minus two opening songs that were unusable). Whew! Reading is fundamental.

The 30-minute "Generation" has a lot of PT extemporizing on guitar, working out some Tommy ideas and screwing around with feedback. If you can't abide "Underture," you probably don't need this. Also kind of a drag that the gatefold is dedicated to a nice Linda McCartney shot of the fellas offstage, where I'd have preferred to see more pics of them in their ruffled 'n' spangled finery. Still, for us die-hard fans, the overall performance is a nice bridge between Monterey and Leeds.