Sunday, April 13, 2014

CD Review: Colin Cooper Project's From The Vaults

Until his death in 2008 from cancer, British singer and musician Colin Cooper had enjoyed a lengthy and rewarding career. Enamored of music from an early age, Cooper first taught himself harmonica before moving on to clarinet, saxophone, and guitar – multi-instrumental skills that would serve him well down the road. His first band of note was the early-1960s outfit Colin Cooper's Climax Jazz Band, but it was with the mid-60s mod band the Hipster Image, and its Alan Price-produced single "Can't Let Her Go" b/w "Make Her Mine," that Cooper got his first taste of fame.

The Climax Blues Band


In 1968, Cooper formed the Climax Chicago Blues Band with guitarists Pete Haycock and Derek Holt, the band riding the British blues wave to become one of the island's top live draws. They released their self-titled debut in 1969 to critical acclaim, following it up quickly with Plays On later that year, their sophomore effort edging into the Billboard Top 200 albums chart in the United States. Somewhere along the line they dropped the "Chicago" from their name (the American band of that name ridiculously claiming that fans would confuse the bands), and throughout the 1970s, the Climax Blues Band would release a slate of well-regarded albums that included 1972's Rich Man, the following year's FM Live, and 1974's Sense of Direction, which would deliver the band's first Top 40 charting U.S. disc.

As the band strayed from its British blues roots towards a more rock 'n' roll oriented musical direction, Cooper's deep vocals were at the forefront of albums like 1976's Gold Plated, which scored a number three hit with "Couldn't Get It Right," which propelled the album to number 27 on the Billboard Top 200 charts, destined to become the Climax Blues Band's best-selling collection. Throughout the remainder of the decade, the band would hover in the upper reaches of the album charts with works like 1978's Shine On and 1980's Flying The Flag. Although they'd never again match the success of Gold Plated, the band carried on throughout the 1980s and '90s, even after Haycock and Holt left to forge their own various solo successes, with Cooper remaining on the microphone.

Colin Cooper Project's From The Vaults


The blues remained Cooper's first love, and he would push the band back towards its blues roots throughout the late 1980s and well into the new millennium, releasing albums like 1994's Blues From The Attic and 2003's Big Blues (The Songs of Willie Dixon) to great response. During this same period, Cooper showed his loyalty to the blues by recording a number of blues and roots-rock covers in his home studio, songs that he'd crafted to perfection with impromptu performances on his steel Dobro guitar at local pubs. Although they were never performed with commercial release in mind, the best of these homespun demos have been collected under the Colin Cooper Project banner and recently released on CD as From The Vaults.

From The Vaults kicks off with Taj Mahal's "Cake Walk Into Town," the song provided a spry, up-tempo performance, Cooper's jaunty vocals approximating Mahal's original funky drawl, his lively guitar-picking providing a sparse, but engaging framework for the song. Cooper's deep voice is perfectly suited to the material, and late-period Climax Blues Band guitarist Lester Hunt adds some elegant electric guitar as a fine counterpoint to Cooper's acoustic, Piedmont blues-flavored Dobro. A reading of Robert Johnson's "Rambling On My Mind" is closer in spirit to Eric Clapton's laidback cover than to the blues legend's Delta-dirty original, an upbeat arrangement replete with finger-picked strings and a walking rhythm capturing the restless spirit of Johnson's lyrical intent nonetheless.

Visiting The Tony Joe White Songbook


Cooper tackles three separate Tony Joe White songs, beginning with "Sidewalk Hobo." The guitarist does an admirable job of capturing the swamp-blues malevolence that lies quietly at the root of White's unique brand of Americana. Cooper's warm vocals lack White's native twang, but he makes up for it with a sonorous baritone and clever fretwork which tells its own story with emotional strength and imagination. Cooper's guitar playing is magnificent here, a feat which parallels his work on White's "Boeuf River Road." Jazzier in nature than its predecessor, Cooper's breathless vocals remind of J.J. Cale, as does his slippery guitar playing, the two intertwining to create a simply mesmerizing vibe.

Cooper's final foray into the Tony Joe songbook, "The Family," is more roots-oriented, adding a Marshall Tucker Band feel to the song. It's probably the weakest of the three performances, Cooper's vocals more spoken than sung, but that's a minor quibble, indeed…the song provides a fine example of Cooper's acoustic guitarplay as he plays off Hunt's stunning electric fretwork. Cooper's knowledge of the Piedmont blues form is put on display with his cover of the Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry gem "Livin' With The Blues." Cooper's warm vocals are matched with an accomplished bit of Dobro-pickin' that would have done ol' Brownie proud, Cooper's lovely acoustic tones matched, seemingly, in the mix by Hunt's electric doppelganger.

Key To The Highway


His mastery of Piedmont blues established, Cooper acquits himself nicely on a reading of John Lee Hooker's "One Roomed Country Shack." Actually written by jump blues pianist Mercy Dee Walton and recorded by everybody from Buddy Guy to Al Kooper and Shuggie Otis for the Kooper Session album, here it's a slow-tempo blues dirge with Cooper's breathless guitar substituted for Walton's emotional piano playing. Cooper perfectly captures the original song's vibe, however – a smoky jazz feel combined with heartbreak vocals and a smothering ambiance.

Cooper lets his harmonica fly on Tampa Red's classic "It Hurts Me Too," layering in lonesome, wailing harp notes beneath the shuffling, optimistic guitar line. Tampa Red was an influential acoustic wizard, but Cooper holds his own with the song's intricate, upbeat rhythms and overall atmosphere. Again taking his cue from Mr. Clapton, Cooper's cover of Big Bill Broonzy's "Key To The Highway" is delivered closer to the original than to Clapton's Derek & the Dominos version, his chiming fretwork and a ramblin' delivery capturing Broonzy's reckless spirit like nobody since Muddy Waters. Willie Nelson's "I Didn't Sleep A Wink Last Night" might seem like an odd choice, but Cooper discovers the restless blues at the heart of the song, peppering the country legend's lyrics with minimal, jazz-flecked fretwork to deliver an euphoric, early-morning setting for the performance.

The Reverend's Bottom Line


From The Vaults closes out with Cooper's take on Chicago bluesman Eddie Boyd's 1953 classic "Twenty Four Hours," a perfect after-hours bookend to the preceding Willie Nelson tune. Establishing a tearful feel from the beginning, Cooper's mournful guitarplay supports and amplifies the song's tale of romance gone wrong. Whereas Cooper voice has always been his calling card, his guitar playing and natural feel for the material display the artist's affection for the blues and talents far beyond his reputation.

Colin Cooper had the misfortune, perhaps, of being a good guitarist in a band that featured two great, underrated instrumentalists in Haycock and Holt, but From The Vaults shows that he clearly could hold his own. Although Cooper's performances on From The Vaults were clearly recorded for his personal entertainment, it's good that they've been released for his longtime fans to enjoy. If you're a fan of the Climax Blues Band, especially the outfit's earlier, blues-tinged material, you'll find a lot to like in Cooper performances. If you're a blues fan with nothing but a passing knowledge of Cooper and the CCB, you should give From The Vaults a listen…the collection definitely frames Cooper's talents in a different light as well as displaying his love and deep knowledge of the blues overall.

(Click here to buy the Colin Cooper Project's From The Vaults from Amazon.com)

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Climax Blues Band - "Couldn't Get It Right"

     
Climax Blues Band - "Going To New York"


Thursday, March 6, 2014

That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014

On March 11, 2014 Excitable Pressworks will proudly release That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014, an anthology of writing about rock 'n' roll and the good folks that make the music.

That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 offers artist interviews, essays, articles, and album reviews that cross the entire spectrum of rock music, from classic rock and heavy metal to punk, prog-rock, and beyond. Inspired by Da Capo's annual Best Music Writing series (which was discontinued in 2011), That Devil Music is focused entirely on rock 'n' roll and includes articles on Big Star, Imagine Dragons, Greg Prevost, Clutch, Emitt Rhodes, the Replacements, Jimbo Mathus, and much more!   

That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 was edited by veteran music critic Rev. Keith A. Gordon and features the work of a diverse group of two-dozen talented writers including talents like Steve Morley, Tommy Hash, Fred Mills, Denise Sullivan, Jason Gross, and Lee Zimmerman, among others. The book reprints vital and exciting material from the previous year from publications like Blurt magazine, Paste magazine, Perfect Sound Forever, Metal Injection, and the That Devil Music.com website. That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 is a 252-page, 5.5" x 8.5" trade paperback that features incredible Tim Shawl front and back cover artwork.

That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 is available directly from Excitable Press for the price of $14.99 in the US or £9.99 in the UK - we'll even pay the postage - by using the helpful PayPal buttons below:  

U.S. Orders: $14.99


U.K. Orders: £9.99

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mick Farren's Final Album Released!

Sadly, British music journalist and infamous rocker Mick Farren passed away last July, collapsing on stage while performing with a new line-up of his legendary 1960s-era band the Deviants. An influential rock critic from an era where writing about music actually swayed opinions, Farren's work for noted U.K. weekly New Music Express and for the International Times earned him a reputation as an insightful critic and writer. It was Farren's tenure with the Deviants that cemented his rock 'n' roll legacy, however, the notorious cult band releasing three influential and ground-breaking albums between 1967 and 1969.

Before his death, Farren had all but finished his final album, working with Deviants bandmate Andy Colquhoun on The Woman In The Black Vinyl Dress, released by Gonzo Multimedia in the U.K. “The initial vocal tracks were laid down by Mick in February 2012 at Brighton Electric," says Colquhoun in a press release for the new album. "Jaki Miles-Windmill added backing vocals, and some percussion at this session. I took the vocal tracks to my studio, Cybermusik, and overdubbed guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and more backing vocals, and also put the poetry in a song structure.” Colquhoun put the album together over a six month period, mixing the album in August 2012. The Woman In The Black Vinyl Dress was released on October 28th, 2013.

Farren's legacy extends far beyond music. A prolific writer, he had penned nearly two-dozen books during his lifetime, including  several novels, books of poetry, a couple of autobiographical books, and four well-received books on Elvis Presley. For five years, from 2003 to 2008, Farren was a columnist for CityBeat in Los Angeles. From the 1970 release of Mona – The Carnivorous Circus, his solo debut, Farren has never strayed far from music. Through the years, he would record a number of albums, including the acclaimed Vampires Stole My Lunch Money, which included Chrissie Hynde (later of the Pretenders) as well as a handful of albums with a reunited line-up of the Deviants.

During his storied career, Farren also collaborated with artists as diverse as Wilko Johnson of Dr. Feelgood, Wayne Kramer (ex-MC5), Lemmy of Motorhead, and Hawkwind, among many others. His final collaboration with Colquhoun on The Woman In The Black Vinyl Dress represents the last entry in his artistic canon and a fitting swansong to an influential and free-thinking rock 'n' roll legend.

Get the album direct from Gonzo Multimedia...

Related content: British Rocker/Writer Mick Farren, R.I.P.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

CD Review: Flash (featuring Peter Banks) - In Public

FLASH
In Public

(AdequatEounds)

When guitarist Peter Banks was replaced by Steve Howe in the pre-fame Yes in 1971, he enlisted the help of keyboardist Tony Kaye (Yes's original keyboard wizard) to form Flash, the band also including vocalist Colin Carter, bassist Ray Bennett (from hard rock trio Gun), and drummer Mike Hough. It was this line-up that recorded the band's acclaimed, self-titled 1972 debut album. Kaye left shortly thereafter to form a similar prog-rock outfit in Badger,  and Flash soldiered on for two more albums – 1972's In The Can and the following year's Out Of Our Hands – before Banks departed to launch his solo career.

Although Flash toured steadily during the early 1970s in support of their trio of albums, documents of their electrifying live performances have been few and far between. Aside from a handful of bootleg recordings, the only mass-distributed live Flash disc has been 1997's Psychosync, an album of dodgy provenance itself. Long-suffering Flash fans can now take heart, the release of In Public satisfying the desire for a live Flash disc. Produced by former band associate George Mizer and Banks himself before his tragic death earlier this year, In Public documents a January 1973 show at The Cowtown Ballroom in Kansas City that captures the band in all of its glory, the classic Flash line-up (sans Kaye) instrumentally firing on all cylinders.

Flash Featuring Peter Banks


After a brief intro, "Small Beginnings" opens the set, the song itself the opener from the band's debut album. The Yes influence here is undeniable, not only because Banks had been gone from the band for such a short time before launching Flash, but also in the song's sense of melody, whiplash time signature changes, and familiar riffing. But "Small Beginnings" also proved somewhat of a signature song for the young band, paving prog-rock pastures in the creation of their own identity. The song includes some jazzy flourishes, especially in Banks' raging fretwork, and Hough's bombastic rhythm work leaves one breathless, the underrated pounder mixing the deft technical mastery of Bill Bruford with the improvisational fury of Buddy Rich.

A wildcat reading of "Black And White," from Flash's sophomore effort In The Can, opens with Hough's spry drumbeats atop which Banks layers on swirling, prog-psych guitar textures. A twelve-minute opus, the song is the perfect showcase for both the band's individual talents and immense chemistry. The odd man out may be vocalist Colin Carter, who is too frequently (and unfairly) compared to Jon Anderson of Yes when, in fact, he has his own distinctive style. "Black And White" is as much a display of Carter's impressive vocal gymnastics as it is for the guitar or percussion and, at nearly a quarter-hour of playing time, there's a lot of virtuoso sounds emanating from the grooves.

Children of the Universe


"Stop That Banging" is a shorter, albeit more cacophonic showcase for Hough's percussion cannon, the sort of extended drum solo that shot Iron Butterfly's "In A Gadda Da Vida" to the upper reaches of the charts. Although the drum solo was de rigueur during the early daze of the 1970s, such instrumental displays have long since passed their sell-by date and sound harsh and unnecessary without the accompanying smell of bongwater and a smoky haze. Luckily, In Public picks up quickly where "Black And White" left off, the second album's "There No More" a less-dated and dazzling showcase for Banks' phenomenal (and underrated, too) six-string skills as well as bassist Ray Bennett's extraordinary command of the fat strings. Although Bennett's contributions to these performances are often overshadowed by his partner in the rhythm section, listen closely and you'll hear some fine melodic chops as Bennett serves as a rhythmic foundation for Banks' guitarplay; Carter's vocals are nicely done here as well.

From the debut album, "Children of the Universe" is actually shortened somewhat from its original nine-minute running time (OK, so only by 17-seconds), the song still serving as the centerpiece of In Public and providing a breathtaking performance entirely on its own. With a curiously syncopated rhythm dominating the bottom end, Carter's vocals slip and slide across the soundtrack as Banks' guitar recedes a bit but never ceases to amaze. By contrast, the set-closing "Dreams Of Heaven" doubles its running time from the debut album, the band launching into a nearly twenty-five minute headtrip of swirling guitars, crashing cymbals, staccato drumbeats, throbbing bass lines and stop-on-a-dime musical lane changes. You'll hear scraps of other songs incorporated into what is, at heart, an improvised free-form jam, including a melody from the Byrds' "So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star." The song changes directions more often than a wind vane in a tornado, and subsequent listens reveal different musical patterns, shapes, and textures created by the instrumentation.

The Reverend's Bottom Line


Flash is one of those bands that you either "get" or you don't…the unwarranted "Yes lite" tag on the band was discarded years ago so that their three classic studio albums stand well on their own. Considering that many new listeners (old and young), in search of real musicians and exciting, adventurous music, are discovering the charms of Mr. Banks and crew, this is a welcome addition to the Flash canon. Additionally, the accompanying CD booklet includes memories of the band from former stage crew members, musicians like Steve Howe and Keith Emerson, and others. 

In the wake of Banks' death, former bandmates Carter and Bennett have struck out on their own with a new album titled Flash Featuring Ray Bennett & Colin Carter, the former bassist picking up the lead guitar duties and Carter providing vocals and rhythm guitar on an inspired set of classic and modern-styled progressive rock. Newcomers to Flash should start with the band's first couple of studio efforts before hitting the store for In Public, but long-time fans will enjoy this inspired live set as well as the new incarnation of the band.

(Click here to buy Flash's In Public from Amazon.com)   

CD Review: Claudia Lennear's Phew!

CLAUDIA LENNEAR
Phew!

(Real Gone Music)

Claudia Lennear's often-electrifying background vocals can be heard on a veritable "who's who" of 1970s rock 'n' toll. An original member of Leon Russell's Shelter People ensemble, Lennear toured with Joe Cocker's infamous Mad Dogs & Englishmen troupe, sang at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, and provided a spark to albums by artists as diverse as Al Kooper, blues legend Taj Mahal, Traffic's Dave Mason, blues guitarist Freddie King, Memphis legend Don Nix, and many others. Sadly, Lennear only had the chance to make one lone critically-acclaimed album solo album, 1973's Phew! Reissued on CD for the first time by the good folks at Real Gone Music, Claudia Lennear's Phew! is, essentially, two entirely different albums.

The first five songs on the album (side one) feature Memphis music legend Jim Dickinson and bassist Tommy McClure from his Dixie Flyers band backing the singer along with fretburner Ry Cooder. Although both sides of the album were ostensibly produced by Ian Samwell, Lennear was backed up on side two by New Orleans' favorite son Allen Toussaint and his cohorts, with Toussaint supplying the songs and musical arrangements. Two entirely different crews, held together by one common thread – Lennear's phenomenal voice. There's a lot of talent in these grooves, though, including Memphis/Muscle Shoals legend Spooner Oldham, drummer Jim Keltner, guitarist Charles Grimes (from Stephen Stills' Manassas), and others.

Claudia Lennear's Phew!


Phew! opens with Ron Davies' "It Ain't Easy" (also recorded by David Bowie for his Ziggy Stardust album). Needless to say Lennear's raspy, cat-in-heat vocals differ greatly from Bowie's, her voice soaring above a lively soundtrack that includes Dickinson's honky-tonk keys and underrated string-bender Grimes' nifty rhythm work. By contrast, a reading of Davies' "Sing With The Children" offers a smoldering, white-hot performance with Lennear bringing no little soul to the words as Dickinson's piano and Mike Utley's Hammond organ pound away alongside Cooder's electrifying fretwork.

The band cuts loose behind Lennear for her hard-rockin' original "Not At All," her voice rising and falling with the rhythm above a roof-raising soundtrack that includes Cooder's stinging guitar, a choogling rhythm created by bassist McClure and drummer John Craviotto, Grimes' backing guitar, and Dickinson's ever-present keys. A cover of blues great Furry Lewis's "Casey Jones" provides a nice contrast to end the side, Lennear's languid vocals pitch-perfect in their approximation of Lewis's laid-back voice, the band rambling and shambling nicely behind her. The entire first side is raw, immediate, and altogether Memphis soulful, even if recorded in L.A.

Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky


The vibe changes noticeably for side two (songs 6-10) of Phew!, beginning with Toussaint's classic "Goin' Down." Lennear strikes a funky pose, her gymnastic vox rollin' and tumbling above a spry soundtrack that includes a deep rhythmic groove, Harold Battiste's sax attack, Spooner Oldham's fleet-fingered piano and an overall loose-limbed take that shakes the album up nicely. While I can't say which of the session's three guitarists – the great Arthur Adams, the frequently overlooked Marlin Greene, or the Rick Littlefield – are filling out the edges, the energetic finger-pickin' is a delight. Toussaint's "From A Whisper To A Scream" is a moody, atmospheric semi-ballad that Lennear knocks out of the park with a sultry, sensual, hearty performance that dances nicely above the lush instrumentation, the song's soulful roots embellished by Don Monza's ethereal flute passage.

"Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky" is exactly that, authentic New Orleans funk a la the Meters or early Neville Brothers, Lennear's vocals playing nicely with the song's deep groove and foot-shuffling, booty-shakin' rhythms. The mid-to-low tempo "What'd I Do Wrong" displays a different side of Lennear's talent, the singer delivering an emotionally-powerful torch-song performance enhanced by the subtle use of horns and William Smith's background keyboards. Phew! originally closed with a reprise of "Goin' Down," this second reading turbo-charging the song into funk overdrive, Lennear's vocals nearly lost in the miasma of brassy horns, blazing fretwork, and cascading percussion. The CD reissue of Phew! tacks on a version of Lowell George's "Two Trains" that features another facet of Lennear's abilities, the singer bringing a gospel intensity that would inform George's later recording of the song.   
   

The Reverend's Bottom Line


Claudia Lennear's Phew! is a fine example of music from the crossroads of Memphis soul, Southern rock, and New Orleans funk, the singer mixing up these genres with casual aplomb, the performances driven by her explosive and expressive voice. Although the songs on the album's original first side often overshadowed Lennear's voice (no small feat), Toussaint found a way to truly blend the singer's talents with the band's contributions on the second side.

Sadly, Phew! was buried among a slew of other rock 'n' roll albums in the fertile year that was 1973, and Lennear would give up performing to become a school teacher. An obscurity long overdue for reissuing, Phew! is a timeless slice of 1970s rock 'n' soul worth rediscovering.

(Click here to buy Claudia Lennear's Phew! from Amazon.com)