Friday, March 27, 2020

Archive Review: Iggy Pop's Avenue B (1999)

Iggy Pop's Avenue B
One of the problems of being a cultural icon is that it becomes increasingly harder to fool the marks. So much has been said of the legend that is Iggy Pop – the violent stage antics with the Stooges, his self-destructive “Idiot” era, the Bowie years, movie stardom, MTV and his rebirth as a buffed-up, iron-humping metal master – it’s really difficult to separate fact from fiction, myth from missteps.

Sitting, as we are, on the edge of the 21st century, nobody in their right mind could have predicted – not even ten years ago – that Iggy would be poised to begin his fifth decade in rock ‘n’ roll. Stranger still is that with the release of Avenue B, Iggy has transformed himself into some sort of beat poet. Huh?

That’s right – Iggy fucking Pop, the godfather of punk and founding father of heavy metal, the guy that used to roll around bare-chested on a stage littered with broken glass and flagellate himself with the mike cord – has delivered an album that owes as much to Charlie Parker and Jack Kerouac as it does to “Louie Louie” and chaos theory. Surprisingly enough, though, Avenue B works. Iggy’s baritone vox have always had a smoky room quality to them, and some of his better songs over the years have been more spoken than sung.

Avenue B offers up a few no-frills rock riffs, but the main course here is a beat-infused jazzy ambience aided by the instrumental skills of Medeski, Martin and Wood. The old Iggy energy and attitude is still here, as is Pop’s penchant for highly personal and introspective lyrics. Produced by Iggy’s old Motor City pal Don Was, Avenue B presents the artist in an entirely new light, a flattering and intelligent guise for a legend not quite ready to rest on his significant laurels. (Virgin Records, released September 21, 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1999

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Archive Review: Iggy & the Stooges' Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell (1999)

Iggy & the Stooges' Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell
When Elektra Records dumped the Stooges way back in 1971, how could they have known that they had unleashed a literal Frankenstein’s monster of rock ‘n’ roll? Better than a quarter of a century has passed since Elektra released The Stooges and Fun House, and both albums remain happily in print, threatening another young rock generation with their uncompromising musical anarchy and seemingly boundless, chaotic energy. Throw in Columbia’s recent reissue of Raw Power, credited to Iggy & the Stooges and consisting of a reunited and expanded band, and you have three classic albums that, while not chalking up very impressive sales numbers upon their initial release, nonetheless remain among a handful of the most influential rock recordings ever made.

Credit in part is due to Iggy Pop, née Iggy Stooge. Perhaps the most enduring of rock’s legendary wildmen, Iggy’s cult of personality has propped up numerous artistic incarnations and is nearly thirty years old and still going strong. From metalheads to punk rockers, the amazing Iggy is the godfather of them all. This ever-growing fan base has led to an unbelievable number of album releases through the years – some legitimate and some not – that have seemingly shown Iggy, both solo and with the Stooges, in just about every light. There seems to be no end to Iggymania, though, as this release from England’s Snapper Music illustrates. Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell is another retelling of the Stooges’ legend, and not a half-bad one at that. 

The material collected for Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell is strictly from the archives, i.e. of interest primarily to collectors and not the casual fan of Iggy or the Stooges. Assorted studio outtakes, a few live tracks, and some demo tapes, some of this been released before on other albums, while other tracks have circulated in the tape trading and bootleg communities. Since this stuff was dug out of the vaults, apparently without much post-production added to the tracks, the sound quality varies wildly, from muddy studio tracks to bright, tinny radio broadcasts.

There are some good performances here, though, including a brilliant studio take of “Cock In My Pocket,” an over-the-edge version of “Open Up and Bleed,” and a wonderful rehearsal take of “Johanna.” A live radio broadcast of “Raw Power,” although of mediocre sound quality, nonetheless sounds great when you turn it up loud, while the bonus tracks, “Tight Pants” and “Scene of the Crime” are an eerie musical foreshadowing of the British punk that would follow, all muscle and bad attitude. Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell may not win points for beauty or aesthetic quality, but for raw, primal rock ‘n’ roll energy and cheap thrills, it works pretty well. (Snapper Music, 1998)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1999

Buy the CD from Iggy & the StoogesYour Pretty Face Is Going to Hell

Friday, March 20, 2020

Archive Review: Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele (2001)

Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele
The Wu-Tang Clan revolutionized rap music in a way that trailblazers like Public Enemy, Run-DMC, or NWA can’t match. Using the multiple MC approach of NWA as a blueprint, the Clan mixed gangsta-rap roots with kung-fu chop-sockey mythology and ‘90s-aware style, launching hip-hop into the commercial stratosphere in the process. If anything, Wu-Tang suffered from an overabundance of talent, a wealth that has resulted in Clan solo albums of varying success and substance.

Ghostface Killah’s 1996 debut Iron Man surprised many with its depth and passion and it quickly copped Platinum™ sales status. After working on a number of other album projects, Killah is back with his sophomore effort, Supreme Clientele and, if the rapper doesn’t stray far from the style of his debut here, the good news is that he’s not resting on his laurels, either.

A rock-solid collection of songs, Killah raps solo on a number of cuts, notably the soulful, 1970s-styled “One” and the “In the Rain,” which waxes old school with the addition of former Detroit Wheels guitarist Dennis Coffey, with backing vocals by the Dramatics. An homage to fallen comrades Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. “In the Rain” is a heady brew, indeed. Collaborations on Supreme Clientele include the energetic “Apollo Kids” with Wu-mate Raekwon and “Deck’s Beat” with 60 Second Assassin.

Method Man, Superb, Redman, GZA, and Cappadonna also make cameos here while Killah enlisted the talents of producers like Ju-Ju of the Beatnuts, Inspectah Deck, UMC’s Hassan, and Wu-wizard The RZA to bring his vision to fruition. The result is a hardcore mix of rhyme and rhythm, Supreme Clientele another notch in the Wu-Tang Clan’s collective belts. (Razor Sharp Records, released August 20, 2001)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2001

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Archive Review: Wu-Tang Clan's Wu-Tang Forever (1997)

Wu-Tang Clan's Wu-Tang Forever
The long-awaited Wu-Tang Clan sophomore effort is a mixed bag of viciously brilliant rhymes, searing hip-hop and insipid pop-culture philosophy. When they’re at the top of their game, Wu-Tang provide rap with a social conscious without peer; at their worst, the most successful collection of rap talent to ever be caught on disc is laughingly inept.

Wu-Tang Forever suffers from its length, with twenty-seven pieces stretched over two discs that could just as easily been distilled into one monster of an album. Instead, the listener is forced to accept the good (“As High As Wu-Tang Get,” “Triumph”) along with the bad (“Little Ghetto Boys,” “Second Coming”) as Wu-Tang Forever indeed seems to sometimes play on forever – and in my book, any group (rap or rock) that resorts to incorporating the insufferable “McArthur Park” in all of its sickening vapidness into a song deserves to meet an ignoble death.

Although still the premiere group working in rap today, the Wu-Tang Clan seems to have stitched this reunion effort together piece-by-piece rather than creating a seamless artistic tapestry like their mega-platinum debut. Also, although I have no problem with bands marketing themselves through clothing and other paraphernalia – “wu-wear” is offered both through the enclosed CD booklet and online through a dedicated web site – to include America Online software as part of Wu-Tang Forever’s “enhanced CD” is really a tad much, offering more of a high-tech come-on to monied middle class rap wanna-bes than to providing a meaningful artistic connection to the African-American portion of their audience. (Loud Records, released June 3, 1997)

Review previously unpublished

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Friday, March 13, 2020

Archive Review: Klaus Schulze's Mirage (2005 reissue)

Klaus Schulze's Mirage
Twenty-eight years ago, they didn’t really even have a name for this stuff. “Space Music” wouldn’t enter into the shared consciousness of the music world until the mid-to-late-‘80s and although it has since branched out into various sub-genres of the electronic music tree, it remains a decidedly cult phenomenon. Although musician/producer Brian Eno is often mistakenly considered the father of space music due to his tonal experimentation in “ambient” music, the truth is that electronic music pioneers like Kraftwerk, Cluster, Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream, and Faust cleared the path for Eno years before.

Of the many musicians whose work would further the evolution of electronic music, perhaps none were as adventuresome or tireless as Germany’s Klaus Schulze. Schulze recorded with both the seminal Tangerine Dream and the psych-rock collective Ash Ra Tempel before abandoning the band format in favor of a solo career in 1971. To say that his subsequent output was prolific would be understating the truth – Schulze released an amazing fourteen albums in the first ten years of his solo career. Even more incredible is that Schulze has released over 80 albums in the 30 years since he broke from his previous bands, each one a significant work of composition and style.

Klaus Schulze’s Mirage

Released in 1977, Mirage was Schulze’s eighth album and what many critics and fans consider his best. Schulze had mastered the possibilities provided by synthesizers and studio technology with a trio of early ‘70s albums – Cyborg, Picture Music, and Blackdance – and would go on to experiment more with tone and emotion on future releases. With Mirage, Schulze attempted to create a “winter landscape,” recreating the bleak white and gray tones of the season with the instruments at hand. The resulting album is sparse, eerie, meditative and a masterpiece of form and performance in every aspect.

The original 1977 release of Mirage, restricted by the vinyl LP format, featured two extended cuts, one on either side of the album. Each composition consists of several passages, which often change the direction of the piece. The first, “Velvet Voyage,” is a hypnotic 28-minute essay, subdued in nature and playing to the listener’s sub-conscious. It is minimalist and quite beautiful, if challenging. The second track, “Crystal Lake,” clocks in at slightly more than 29 minutes. Embellishing the basic underlying track with chimes, synth washes and other electronic wizardry, Schulze creates a breathtaking musical soundscape that is both ambitious and thought provoking.

The Inside Out Music reissue of Mirage includes deluxe packaging, liner notes, photos and an additional bonus track, “In Cosa Crede Chi Non Crede?” The 19-minute coda extends the sonic soundtrack of the first two tracks, its subdued electronic instrumentation causing one to strain to take it all in. With a myriad of colors and sounds, however, it is well worth the effort. A journey, of sorts, inspired by Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco, the song’s title translates, roughly, as “in what it believes who does not believe?” The composition is every bit as daunting as its title; Schulze composing music much the same way as Eco composes literature.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

For music fans inquisitive enough to want to discover more about electronic music, the work of Klaus Schulze is essential. Although I personally would not recommend Mirage as a starting point – Picture Music may be less challenging an introduction – I would heartily recommend it as your second or third dalliance with Schulze, if only to experience what can be done by a master painting with notes instead of colors. (Inside Out Music, reissued April 17, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ music zine

Also on That Devil Music: Klaus Schulze - Picture Music CD review

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Archive Review: Klaus Schulze’s Picture Music (2005 reissue)

Klaus Schulze’s Picture Music
One of the godfathers of contemporary “space music,” composer, musician, and visionary Klaus Schulze was experimenting with electronic tones, synthesized music, and ambient sounds while Eno was still playing the role of rock star. One of the leading lights of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s “krautrock” movement, Schulze was a member of the seminal German outfit Tangerine Dream, playing drums on the band’s influential debut album, Electronic Meditations. Schulze went on to form the psych-rock collective Ash Ra Tempel with Manuel Göttsching, recording a single album with that band before striking out on a successful solo career that is now in its fourth decade.

Klaus Schulze’s Picture Music

Recorded in 1973, but not released until 1975, Picture Music was actually the third album recorded by Schulze, although it would be the fourth solo album to be released. Some have said that this is Schulze’s first true “synthesizer” album and I would have to concur. While Schulze’s contemporary Walter/Wendy Carlos used Robert Moog’s pioneering technology to dabble in pop music and film scores, Schulze’s muse took him down an entirely different path. Schulze envisioned sounds as an expression of emotion and thought, using a battery of synthesizers – along with whatever studio wizardry was available in 1973 – to rewrite the rules of musical composition with Picture Music.

While others were content to remain earthbound and chase after traditional musical forms, Schulze had his eyes on the stars with Picture Music. Predicting Brian Eno’s ambitious experimentation in ambient music by a half-decade, and furthering the trailblazing work of his sophomore effort Cyborg, Schulze would tinker with tone, rhythm and the concept of spaciousness on Picture Music. The album opens with the almost twenty-four minute piece “Totem,” a subdued meditative piece that shows Schulze tentatively incorporating the abilities of the synthesizer into his work.

Fragments of rhythm and melody swirl in and out of the piece, lost beneath bubbling electronics and a fragile painting of distance. “Totem” acts as ‘ying’ to its companion song’s ‘yang,’ the twenty-three minute “Mental Door” a more aggressive, percussive piece. The composition starts out dark and quiet, before building to a crescendo of Baroque keyboard riffing, clashing cymbals and jazzy, often tribal drumming. It is a breathtaking piece, as invigorating and energetic as “Totem” is contemplative and introspective.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Due to Schulze’s importance in the field of electronic music, Picture Music has been reissued countless times, mostly by various European labels and often with different cover art and song indexing. This American reissue, by the exemplary prog-rock label Inside Out Music, offers deluxe packaging, rare photos, informative liner notes and best of all, a thirty-three minute, previously unreleased bonus track.

“C’est Pas La Meme Chose,” according to Schulze, is actually an extended, more involved reading of “Totem,” taking the original song’s meditative theme and extending it towards a new horizon. It is a fitting bookend to Picture Music, punctuating Schulze’s influence in the genre and providing a fitting coda to this important and often overlooked entry in the canon of electronic music. (Inside Out Music, reissued April 17, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ music zine

Also on That Devil Music: Klaus Schulze - Mirage CD review

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Friday, March 6, 2020

Short Rounds: The Bluefields, Dave Clark Five, Marshall Crenshaw, Gary Moore, Gwil Owen & Watermelon Slim (2020)

The Bluefields' Day In the SunNew album releases in 150 words or less…

The BluefieldsDay In the Sun (Underground Treehouse Records)
Veterans of Nashville’s country and rock scenes, the Bluefields include singer Joe Blanton (Royal Court of China), guitarists Warner Hodges (Jason & the Scorchers) and Dan Baird (Georgia Satellites), and drummer Brad Pemberton (Steve Earle). Day In the Sun is the band’s fourth album, their first in six years, and the Rev is here to tell you that it’s a real slobberknocker! The band achieves a solid, often funky groove on songs like “Bottom of the Barrel” and “Somewhere Down the Road” on top of which Hodges lays down his shimmering leads. Blanton is a soulful shouter with a hint of twang shaping his vocals as on “Born To Let You Down,” an unbridled rocker that hits your ears like a freight train teetering off the tracks. Offering a rib-ticklin’ meat ‘n’ taters buffet, Day In the Sun provides a musical feast for long-suffering fans of Southern rock ‘n’ roll. Grade: A   BUY!

Dave Clark Five's All the Hits
Dave Clark Five – All the Hits (BMG)
British rocker Dave Clark was years ahead of his time in business savvy, holding onto all of the DC5’s rights long before most bands realized that their record labels could (and would) do them wrong. This has resulted in a deficit of DC5 reissues, and although beat-to-hell copies of old Dave Clark Five LPs can be found easily enough, it’d be nice to reintroduce this stuff to a new century. Hopefully All the Hits is the first salvo in a full-fledged reappraisal of this important British Invasion band’s legacy as the only outfit to serious challenge the Beatles for chart supremacy. More popular stateside than at home, the DC5 scored hits like “Glad All Over,” “Bits and Pieces,” “Any Way You Want It,” and “Over and Over” between 1964 and 1967, all of which are among the 16 red-hot tracks included here. It’s time to rediscover the Dave Clark Five! Grade: B+   BUY!

Marshall Crenshaw's Miracle of Science
Marshall CrenshawMiracle of Science (Shiny-Tone Records)
The first in a series of reissues of Marshall Crenshaw’s 1990s-era Razor & Tie albums (on Crenshaw’s own Shiny-Tone Records label), Miracle of Science finds the rock icon expanding his signature power-pop sound in pursuit of a wider musical palette. Mostly recorded in Nashville with talents like Bill Lloyd, Brad Jones, and Pat Buchanan manning various instruments, Miracle of Science ranges from the shimmery, Smithereens-styled pop of “What Do You Dream Of?” and the honky-tonk flavored “Who Stole That Train” to Crenshaw’s trademark power-pop on “Starless Summer Sky.” A cover of Grant Hart’s “Twenty-Five Forty-One” is spot-on, the gorgeous soundtrack emphasizing the lyrics while oldie “The In Crowd” offers an imaginative blend of the song’s jazzy roots with bluesy overtones. I could do without the backwards “Seven Miles An Hour,” though. Criminally underrated when it was originally released, Miracle of Science will appeal to the discerning rock ‘n’ roll aficionado. Grade: A-   BUY! 

Gwil Owen's Flying Dream
Gwil OwenFlying Dream (Rambler Records)
Nashville’s Gwil Owen has been making great music in the Music City since the 1980s with bands like Fur Trade and the Thieves. For Flying Dream, he’s assisted by the cream-of-the-crop of local talent like guitarist Will Kimbrough, multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke, and singer Brydget Carrillo, whose heavenly backing vox balance Owen’s whip-smart lyricism. Gwil’s no slouch in the musical department, and his instrumental talents shine throughout Flying Dream. It’s Owen’s sense of melody, however, combined with his skill as a wordsmith and the ability to create in various musical styles that make the country, rock, and blues of songs like the twangy rocker “I Would Lie” (with greasy Kimbrough guitar); the jazzy, eclectic “Hamster Wheel” (written with the late David Olney); or the soul-infused “Moth Without A Flame” (think Memphis 1970) stand out even in a city rich with talent; Owen is one of the best Nashville has to offer. Grade: A   BUY!

Gary Moore's Live From London
Gary MooreLive From London (Provogue Records)
Guitar wunderkind Gary Moore left us too soon in 2011 at the too-young age of 58 years but, as proven by the 2009 show documented by Live From London, Moore was still performing at an impressively high level. Over a career that spanned five decades, Moore explored blues, jazz, hard rock, and heavy metal styles and all are represented to some extent on Live From London, but it’s Moore’s affinity for the blues which resonates the loudest. The guitarist imbues original material like the melancholy “Still Got the Blues” or the beautiful, flowing instrumental “Parisienne Walkway” with unbelievable amounts of emotion and energy. Choice covers like Otis Rush’s “All Your Love,” J.B. Lenoir’s “Mojo Boogie,” and a particularly heartfelt reading of Al Kooper’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” are all painted various shades of blue and, as showcases for Moore’s immense talents, perfectly display his peerless abilities. Grade: A-   BUY!

Watermelon Slim's Traveling Man
Watermelon SlimTraveling Man (Northern Blues Music)
For decades now, Watermelon Slim (a/k/a Bill Homans) has been one of the great, underrated talents of the blues. He’s not a soul crooner or a flash guitarist or a slick stylist, but Slim is a helluva songwriter and a fine slide-guitarist and his raw vocals are perfectly suited to his poetic, slice-of-life lyrics. The double-disc Traveling Man is Slim’s first live album, just the man and his guitar and the occasional blast of harmonica, and the solo setting does justice to lively and effective performances of gems like the Delta-inspired “Blue Freightliner,” the unique perspective of “Let It Be In Memphis,” and the haunting “Devil’s Cadillac.” Slim’s Okie patois imbues the songs with an undeniable authenticity while his erudite working-class blues strikes a chord with almost any listener. If you’re not familiar with the talents and charms of Watermelon Slim, Traveling Man is a great place start! Grade: A+   BUY!

Previously on That Devil
Short Rounds, February 2020: Beach Slang, The Bar-Kays, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Delaney & Bonnie, Mott the Hoople, Television Personalities
Short Rounds, January 2020: The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dana Gillespie, Manfred Mann, Mick Ronson, An A-Squared Compilation
Short Rounds, December 2019 (Holiday Gift Suggestions): Cindy Lee Berryhill, Black Pumas, Alice Cooper, Robyn Hitchcock & Andy Partridge, Handsome Dick Manitoba, The Muffs, Harry Nilsson, The Rosalyns, Bobby Rush 

Sunday, March 1, 2020

New Music Monthly: March 2020 releases

Spring is right around the corner and as the weather heats up, so too does the release schedule. The month of March promises a bounty of new and renewed music with vinyl reissues of a big chunk of the African Head Charge catalog, new tunes from the legendary Swamp Dogg, Stephen Malkmus, Sass Jordan, Pearl Jam, and Boomtown Rats. Americana fans can rejoice with new albums from talented folks like Carla Olsen, Jim Lauderdale, and Lilly Hiatt while blues lovers will dig new discs by Roomful of Blues and Watermelon Slim. There's something here for everybody, no matter your taste in music! 

Release dates are subject to change and nobody tells me when they do. If you’re interesting in buying an album, just hit the ‘Buy!’ link to get it from’s just that damn easy! Your purchase puts valuable ‘store credit’ in the Reverend’s pocket that he’ll use to buy more music to write about in a never-ending loop of rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy!

African Head Charge's Visions of A Psychedelic Africa

African Head Charge - Churchical Chant Of The Iyabinghi [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
African Head Charge - In Pursuit of Shashamane Land [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
African Head Charge - Songs of Praise [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
African Head Charge - Visions of A Psychedelic Africa [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
African Head Charge - Voodoo of the Godsent [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
African Head Charge - Drumming Is A Language [5-CD box set]   BUY!
Body Count - Carnivore   BUY!
Luke Haines & Peter Buck - Beat Poetry for the Survivalists   BUY!
Cornershop - England Is A Garden   BUY!
Jim Lauderdale - When Carolina Comes Home Again   BUY!
Stephen Malkmus - Traditional Techniques   BUY!
Rose Tattoo - Outlaws   BUY!
Swamp Dogg - Sorry You Couldn't Make It   BUY!
Will Sexton - Don’t Walk the Darkness   BUY!

Sass Jordan's Rebel Moon Blues

Peter Bjorn and John - Endless Dream   BUY!
Boomtown Rats - Citizens of Boomtown   BUY!
Circa Waves - Happy Sad   BUY!
The Districts - You Know I'm Not Going Anywhere   BUY!
Sass Jordan - Rebel Moon Blues   BUY!
Roomful of Blues - In A Roomful of Blues   BUY!

Carla Olson's Have Harmony, Will Travel 2

Brian & Roger Eno - Mixing Colours   BUY!
Game Theory - Across The Barrier Of Sound: PostScript   BUY!
Jon Hassell - Vernal Equinox [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Morrissey - I Am Not A Dog On A Chain   BUY!
Carla Olson - Have Harmony, Will Travel 2   BUY!
The Weeknd - After Hours   BUY!
Matt Wilson - When I Was A Writer   BUY!

Lilly Hiatt's Walking Proof

Duane & Gregg Allman - Duane & Gregg Allman   BUY!
Allman Joys - Early Allman [Duane & Gregg Allman]   BUY!
Rory Block - Prove It On Me   BUY!
Clem Snide - Forever Just Beyond   BUY!
Brian Fallon - Local Honey   BUY!
Hour Glass - Hour Glass   [Duane & Gregg Allman]   BUY!
Hour Glass - Power of Love [Duane & Gregg Allman]   BUY!
Lilly Hiatt - Walking Proof   BUY!
The No Ones - The Great Lost No Ones Album [w/Scott McCaughey & Peter Buck]   BUY!
Alan Parsons Project - Ammonia Avenue [deluxe box set reissue]   BUY!
Pearl Jam - Gigaton   BUY!
Kim Richey - A Long Way Back: The Songs of Glimmer   BUY!
Sufjan Stevens - Aporia   BUY!
Watermelon Slim - Traveling Man   BUY!

Watermelon Slim's Traveling Man

Album of the Month: Watermelon Slim's Traveling Man, the first live work from the blues lifer and a double-disc set at that! Underrated, understated, but just plain great Slim is a helluva storyteller, and a mighty fine picker on his National Steel guitar. Traveling Man offers up eighteen lively performances from 2016, just the man and his guitar and the occasional harmonica. The blues doesn't get any better than Watermelon Slim!

Friday, February 28, 2020

Archive Review: Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey's Going Back Home (2014)

Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey's Going Back Home
Wilko Johnson is dying…it’s a sad but true, and an inconvenience that has seemingly done little to slow down the legendry and influential British guitarist. Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in January 2013, Johnson was given, best case scenario, ten months to live. At six months past his expiry, he continues to rock every bit as hard as he has during his entire career. After a “farewell tour” which stretched throughout much of 2013, Johnson and his road-tested live band continue to light up stages across the United Kingdom.

Johnson made his bones as the guitarist of British pub-rock legends Dr. Feelgood, lending his talents and unique finger-picked guitar style to the band’s first four albums, from 1975’s Down By the Jetty to 1977’s Sneakin Suspicion, after which he left the band to launch a solo career that is now in its fifth decade. For those not in the know, pub-rock was a uniquely British institution that took its inspiration from 1950s-era proto-rock and rhythm and blues and 1960s bands like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. It was raw, it was rootsy, and it was highly influential on the late ‘70s punk and new wave scenes that would follow. It was typically performed in pubs rather than large concert venues, and bands like Dr. Feelgood, Brinsley Schwarz (with Nick Lowe), and Ducks Deluxe paved the way for more successful artists like Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and Joe Strummer and the Clash.

Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey’s Going Back Home

With a death sentence hanging over his head, Johnson knew that his date with the Reaper was coming, and he wanted to leave one last album for his long-time fans. He and Roger Daltrey of the Who had talked as early as 2010 about working together, about recording an album of the sort of old-school British R&B – like Johnny Kidd & the Pirates – that they both loved as teens. After the Who wrapped up its 2013 tour, Johnson got Daltrey into the studio for a week in November to record Going Back Home, using Johnson’s touring band for back-up.

Comprised of eleven songs, including a raucous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window,” Going Back Home features songs written or co-written by Johnson, drawn from across his solo career and his years with Dr. Feelgood, the material re-imagined in a raw, intimate, rockin’ British R&B style. Somebody convinced Universal Music to reactive the Chess Records imprint to release Going Back Home, and it was a good decision, as the album displays all the heart and soul of the 1950s and ‘60s era Chess records that influenced Daltrey and Johnson as young men.

Daltrey’s once-golden voice is nowhere near what it was during the Who’s mid-‘70s peak, but it’s perfectly suited to a bluesy reinterpretation of Johnson’s songs. Going Back Home kicks off with the title track, Daltrey’s growled, primal vocals reminiscent of the great Howlin’ Wolf as Mick Talbot’s tinkling piano keys add a distinctive honky-tonk vibe. Harp player Steve Weston knocks out riffs in the spirit of Little Walter while Johnson’s percussive fretwork establishes a rhythmic bottom end. Call it Chicago-styled blues with a British flavor, the arrangement dominated by piano and harmonica. By contrast, “Ice On the Motorway” is a lively romp with funky rhythms, engaging guitar licks, and an overall Southern soul vibe. Daltrey’s vocals are fierce and Johnson’s riffing is wiry and hypnotic, making for a livewire three minutes of music.

Some Kind of Hero

Wilko Johnson photo by Paul Crowther
Wilko Johnson photo by Paul Crowther
Johnson and Daltrey do a fine job in covering Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window,” the singer’s hearty vocals miles away from the Scribe’s nasal drawl, but curiously effective as they impart a deep emotion to the lyrics. Johnson leads the band through an energetic arrangement, drummer Dylan Howe adding some nice percussive fills while Weston’s harp dances spryly atop the instrumentation. Johnson’s guitar is relegated mostly to rhythmic support, but its presence is felt nonetheless. “Keep On Loving You” would have made a great Muddy Waters track, its energetic, slightly-funky feel reminiscent of the Master’s early ‘70s “electric blues” albums. Johnson’s guitar is given room to shine here, Wilko plucking imaginative notes out of the air and feeding them through his fingers as Daltrey’s anguished vocals ride low alongside a steady drumbeat and washes of keyboard.

Johnson’s “Some Kind of Hero” is a perfect example of mid-‘70s pub-rock, the song an amalgam of bluesy licks, rockin’ rhythms, and rootsy twang-bangin’ that moves like a reckless locomotive on a rhythmic bedrock of driving guitar, blasts of harp, rapid-fire drumbeats, and piano-pounding worthy of ol’ Otis Spann. “Keep It Out of Sight” is also reminiscent of the era, mixing up period soul and rock ‘n’ roll with Daltrey’s powerful vocals at the forefront, lush instrumentation behind, and Johnson’s razor-sharp fretwork throughout. Talbot’s Hammond organ plows through the mix like a mad bull, and the entire performance hits your ears like a long-forgotten dream, dredging up memories of half-remembered songs and music long past.

Going Back Home closes with two of Johnson’s best songs – “Everybody’s Carrying A Gun” and “All Through the City” – both performances showcasing the guitarist’s underrated lyrical skills. The former is a cautionary tale of fame that Daltrey knocks out of the park with his knowing vocals and Johnson spices up with rollicking, rockabilly-tinged guitar licks. Toss in Talbot’s honky-tonk ivories and a raucous rhythmic foundation created by Norman Watt-Roy’s throbbing bass line and you have an ear-tickling performance. The latter song is an insightful portrait of street life painted with vivid lyrics, an infectious melody, and some of Johnson’s rawest, most electrifying guitarwork. Daltrey’s vocals snarl and sneer like his best work with the Who, the song finishing the album with a definite edge.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey have delivered a minor masterpiece with Going Back Home, the two rock ‘n’ roll lifers tearing up the studio like they were both nineteen years old again. As swansongs go, Johnson couldn’t have done any better – his songs, his guitar playing, and his band leadership serving as a fitting last will and testament, creating a highly entertaining set of blues and rock music served up with energy and affection. Everybody here realizes the stakes, and their combined talents deliver a recording worthy of the Chess Records imprint.

Although not a traditional blues album by any measure, Going Back Home is Chicago and Delta blues as filtered through British rock sensibilities, and certainly Mississippi-bred bluesmen like Waters and the Wolf would recognize their influence on Daltrey and Johnson alike. Kudos to Roger Daltrey for the passion and skill he brings to these performances, and to Wilko Johnson, who continues to deliver for his fans under the most stressful of circumstances, displaying his talents with an energy and vitality of an artist half his age. (Chess Records, released March 25, 2014)

Editor’s note: Thankfully, Wilko beat the cancer that threatened to kill him and he continues to perform and record, releasing most recent album, Blow Your Mind, in 2018!

Review originally published by Blues

Buy the CD from Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey’s Going Back Home