Sunday, October 26, 2014

British Blues-Rock Legend Jack Bruce, R.I.P.

British blues-rock legend Jack Bruce

Fresh off our recap of Cream’s musical legacy comes news of Jack Bruce’s death. The British blues-rock legend died from liver disease on Saturday, October 25th, 2014; Bruce was 71 years old.

Bruce is best-known for the brief 2½ years he spent as Cream’s bassist, singer, and primary songwriter circa 1966 to ‘68. Although the band’s tenure was short, they released four incredibly influential studio albums during their meteoric rise and eventual break-up. Bruce, guitarist Eric Clapton, and drummer Ginger Baker fused rock music and the blues unlike any band before them, and their musical legacy and immense commercial success would chase all the members for the remainder of their individually lengthy careers.

Bruce's Early Years


Before his enlistment into Cream, Bruce had already spent almost a half-decade as a pro, first with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated (a veritable breeding ground for British blues-rock talent), and later as a member of the Graham Bond Quartet (with guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Ginger Baker alongside keyboardist Bond). Shortly after the quartet evolved into the Graham Bond Organisation with the departure of McLaughlin, Bruce’s tumultuous relationship with Baker would become downright combative, leading to Bruce’s departure from the band.

Bruce spent a short time in the mid-1960s with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, where he first met guitarist Clapton, before jumping ship to the Manfred Mann Band, where he gained his first taste of chart success with the hit single “Pretty Flamingo.” A one-off project with Clapton and singer Steve Winwood (pre-Traffic) under the band name Powerhouse resulted in a handful of tracks for a subsequent compilation album, but is notable mostly because it was an important precursor to the forming of Cream.

The Solo Years


Before Cream’s break-up in 1968 (the writing clearly on the wall), Bruce recorded an acoustic jazz album with guitarist McLaughlin and former bandmates Dick Heckstall-Smith and Jon Hiseman; titled Things We Like, it wouldn’t be released until 1970 as Bruce’s sophomore album. Bruce launched his solo career proper with the 1969 album Songs For A Tailor, an engaging mix of blues, rock, and jazz recorded with saxophonist Heckstall-Smith, drummer Hiseman, guitarist Chris Spedding, and other friends.

Jack Bruce's Songs For A Tailor
Songs For A Tailor would create the blueprint for the next four-plus decades of Bruce’s career as he would chase his restless muse across a musical landscape that explored the depths of hard rock, blues, jazz, fusion, British R&B, and rhythmic world music. Unlike many solo artists of his stature, after scoring a modest hit album (#6 on the U.K. charts, #55 U.S.), Bruce hooked up with the jazz-fusion band Lifetime with drummer Tony Williams and guitarist McLaughlin, appearing on the band’s second album.

This, too, would set a pattern for Bruce’s lengthy career – shortly after the 1971 release of his third solo album, Harmony Row, Bruce formed the Cream-influenced West, Bruce & Laing in 1972 with two former members of Mountain, guitarist Leslie West and drummer Corky Laing. The trio released two studio albums and one live set that still stand up well as guitar-heavy slabs of 1970s-era arena-rock, but by 1974 Bruce was on his own again, releasing his fourth solo album, Out Of The Storm, and subsequently lending his talents to recordings by Frank Zappa and Lou Reed.

Power Trios Redux


By the end of the 1970s, however, Bruce’s drug addiction had spiraled out of control, leaving him almost broke. Session work with artists like Gary Moore and Yes’s John Anderson firmed up his finances and lead to the formation of Jack Bruce & Friends with drummer Billy Cobham (who had been introduced to Bruce by old friend McLaughlin), former Humble Pie guitarist Clem Clempson, and keyboardist David Sancious (E Street Band) which released 1980's I've Always Wanted To Do That.

Bruce continued to make music throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, first as part of a trio with guitarist Robin Trower that would release two well-received albums (the first of which, B.L.T., went Top 40 in the U.S.), and as a solo artist, releasing a handful of recordings under his own a name. Bruce collaborated and performed with a number of musicians during the ensuing decades, including former Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, blues-rock guitar legend Rory Gallagher, and world music producer Kip Hanrahan. Yet another power trio by the name of BBM featured guitarist Moore, Bruce, and Baker, who managed to record a single 1993 album before old tensions between the former Cream bandmates flared up again.

Jack Bruce In The New Millennium


Bruce continued pursuing his musical curiosity into the new millennium, forming a band with Funkadelic’s keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell and former Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid which recorded the 2001 album Shadows In The Air. Bruce toured as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band with guitarist Peter Frampton, and in 2005 he joined his former Cream mates for a series of sold-out reunion shows. Bruce went back into the studio with Trower in 2008 for the well-received Seven Moons album and a subsequent tour, and later that year he became part of the Lifetime Tribute Band with Reid, keyboardist John Medeski, and drummer Cindy Blackman to play jazz-fusion in the Tony Williams’ vein. The same musicians would re-form as Spectrum Road, named for a Lifetime song, to tour and record a 2011 album.

In 2014, Bruce released the critically-acclaimed Silver Rails, his first solo album in a decade, recorded with old friends like Manzanera and Trower. Bruce had suffered from ill health for years, however, the legendary bassist first diagnosed with liver cancer in 2003 and receiving a transplant that was initially rejected by his body. Although he worked consistently since that point, the disease reoccurred and finally took the life of one of the most influential musicians in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

Bruce’s impact on bass players is immeasurable, and as an innovative and accomplished artist in his own right, Bruce leaves behind an enormous musical legacy that stands proud alongside the groundbreaking work he did with Cream early in his half-century career.

(Jack Bruce photo at top of post courtesy Christian Sahm, 2006)

 
 

CD Review: Elvin Bishop's Can't Even Do Wrong Right

Elvin Bishop's Can't Even Do Wrong Right
At this point in his lengthy career, roots ‘n’ blues legend Elvin Bishop is unlikely to bring about any sort of musical revolution. The guitarist has followed a pretty simple formula on albums like Red Dog Speaks and The Blues Rolls On, and over most of the past 20 or so years, really – a bit of good-natured humor, a little heartfelt emotion, a few inspired cover songs, and plenty of greasy git licks. It’s not a particularly innovative formula, but Bishop’s not out to set the woods on fire, he’s just trying to have a good time and play some entertaining music.

And entertaining it is…Bishop’s latest, Can’t Even Do Wrong Right, is the perfect showcase for the guitarist’s bawdy humor and his signature musical blend of twang ‘n’ bang. Marking his return to the Alligator Records label after an absence of better than a decade, Bishop teams up with some old pals – singer Mickey Thomas (he of “Fooled Around And Fell In Love” fame) and harp player Charlie Musselwhite – to crank out a set of songs that offer the perfect mix of talent, blues tradition, and humor.

The title track is a jocular tale of a sad sack named “Maurice” who always finds himself in hot water, the humorous lyrics matched by Bishop’s swinging vocals and engaging fretwork. A cover of the legendary Little Walter’s “Blues With A Feeling” substitutes Bishop’s raging guitarplay for Walter’s dancing harp, while Musselwhite brings his best game for “Old School,” a statement of defiance by a couple of aging bluesmen that offers up plenty of red-hot instrumentation and as funky a groove as you’ll ever hear.

Mickey Thomas takes the microphone for the original “Let Your Woman Have Her Way,” an effective ballad with torch vocals and Bishop’s subtle, elegant fretwork. Fat Domino’s “Bo Weevil” is a New Orleans-styled romp with crackling accordion and undeniable rhythm. Bishop is an underrated instrumentalist, his six-string skills often overshadowed by his playful charisma. As shown by Can’t Even Do Wrong Right, though, while the guitarist may joke around a bit, deep in the grooves where it counts, he’s all business…and Bishop seldom fails to bring energy and passion to his performances.

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Elvin Bishop's Can't Even Do Wrong Right

Friday, October 24, 2014

Eric Clapton & Cream Vinyl Box Set Coming!

Cream: 1966-1972
Here’s a fine present that any classic rock fan would salivate over finding underneath their tree come Christmas morning. On November 24, 2014 Universal Music will release Cream: 1966-1972, a seven-disc vinyl box set that includes all six of the legendary British blues-rock band’s four studio and two live albums pressed onto 180-gram heavyweight audiophile vinyl, with exact reproductions of each album’s original artwork, all of it gloriously packaged in a rigid slipcase box.

Formed in 1966 by guitarist Eric Clapton (fresh off stints with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers), bassist Jack Bruce (another Bluesbreakers alumni), and drummer Ginger Baker (via the Graham Bond Organization), Cream was one of the first “supergroups” on the British blues-rock scene. The erstwhile power trio revolutionized rock music by combining elements of blues, hard rock, and psychedelic rock, as well as elements of jazz in the creation of a unique and exciting new sound that, nearly fifty years later, still thrills listeners with its bold instrumentation and imaginative lyrics, frequently penned by poet Pete Brown.

Fresh Cream


Cream had a monster hit single right out of the box with the Jack Bruce/Pete Brown song “I Feel Free,” following it up with their 1967 debut album Fresh Cream a few months later. The album featured a number of original songs, covers of vintage blues gems like Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ & Tumblin’,” and Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” which drove the album to number six on the U.K. charts and into the U.S. Top 40.

By the end of the year, Cream would release the band’s landmark Disraeli Gears album, its striking psychedelic Martin Sharp cover art masking a phenomenal set of songs, the album racing up to number four on the U.S. album chart on the strength of the hit single “Sunshine of Your Love.” The album offered up other classic rock tunes in “Strange Brew” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” that further re-worked the blues idiom into a fresh, remarkable new sound.

Wheels of Fire


If Disraeli Gears was Cream’s creative apex, the band’s 1968 album Wheels of Fire would be their commercial peak. A whopping two-album set (a rarity at the time), Wheels of Fire sat at number one on the U.S. album chart for a month and hit number three on the U.K. chart, spawning hit singles in “White Room” (#6) and a live cover of Delta blues legend Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” (#28), which has since become Clapton’s signature song. One disc of Wheels of Fire was comprised of new studio recordings (including covers of Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign” and the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”) while the other disc offered four extended live tracks from the Fillmore West in San Francisco. The LP moved a lot of flapjacks, too, certified Gold almost immediately upon its release.

Cream circa 1967
By the time of the release of Wheels of Fire, tensions in the band (particularly between Bruce and Baker), as well as the exhausting touring done by the band over the previous two years, led to an inevitable break up. The band performed a farewell tour in late 1968, concluding at the Royal Albert Hall in London in November before calling it quits. Not willing to give up a cash cow, however, the label coaxed the band back into the studio to record a few tracks, which resulted in Cream’s final studio album, Goodbye, released in March 1969. A mix of live and studio tracks, Goodbye shot up to number one in the U.K. and number two on the U.S. chart on the back of the hit single “Badge,” the song co-written by Clapton and George Harrison, who played rhythm guitar on the session under the name L’Angelo Misterioso.
  

Cream’s Legacy


Two posthumous Cream albums were released after the band’s break up, the first in 1970 (Live Cream), which included performances from the Fillmore West and Winterland in San Francisco circa 1968, along with one lone studio recording (“Lawdy Mama”). The second, Live Cream Volume 2, was released in 1972 and included more Winterland ’68 performances along with three 1968 performances from the Oakland Coliseum. Both live albums would chart in the Top 30 on both the U.S. and the U.K. charts. Since then, a steady stream of anthologies and compilation albums would be released to capitalize on the band’s legacy, including a ten-track Best of Cream in 1969 (with its vegetable cover art - I totally had this LP!) and the double-album set Heavy Cream in 1973, as well as a 2003 collection of the band’s BBC radio performances.

Eric Clapton, of course, has gone on to a lengthy and storied solo career, as well as recording landmark albums with supergroups Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos. Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker have found less commercial success during the years, but are both still making fine music (Bruce’s critically-acclaimed 2014 album, Silver Rails, is brilliant). In 2006, Cream received a Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award, and the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. The band’s 2005 reunion shows in London and New York City sold out in less than an hour, attracting fans from across the globe.  

Cream: 1966-1972 brings the band’s immense musical legacy full-circle, once again capturing on vinyl the magic and the band chemistry that mesmerized listeners in the 1960s for a new audience to discover.

Buy the LP box set on Amazon.com: Cream: 1966 - 1972 (LP box set)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Supertramp’s Crime of the Century Deluxe 40th Anniversary Reissue

Supertramp's Crime of the Century
Ah, Supertramp…after an absence of probably 30 years, the British art-rock jokers have inched their way back onto my stereo with their lighthearted blend of melodic pop, overblown pomp, and progressive rock instrumentation. I’m not sure why they were AWOL all those years; they probably fell out of favor when the Reverend went through his death metal phase, or maybe it was the siren call of the punk-rock ‘90s, but Supertramp went begging until they were just recently rediscovered.

Unlike 1970s-era proggers like Yes or ELP, Supertramp was designed from the ground up to be a commercial vehicle, and their progressive/art-rock proclivities were more a feature of the talents of band members like singer, songwriter, and pianist Rick Davies; singer and guitarist Roger Hodgson; and multi-instrumentalist and horn player John Helliwell than a deliberate attempt at virtuosity. After a couple of solid early 1970s album releases and a like number of roster changes, Supertramp grabbed the ever elusive brass ring with the 1974 release of their third album, Crime of the Century.

By the time of Crime of the Century, Davies and Hodgson had developed a real chemistry as a songwriting team, and the assembled musicians backing the frontmen were talented contributors to the band’s unique sound. The album was the band’s first to chart Top 40 in the U.S. while peaking at number four in the UK, mostly on the strength of the singles “Bloody Well Right” and “Dreamer,” both of which would become favored FM radio tracks. On December 9th, 2014 Universal Music will release a 40th anniversary version of Crime of the Century as a deluxe two-disc set.

This anniversary edition of Crime of the Century will include the classic original album, re-mastered by Ray Staff at Air Studios, on the first disc and a previously unreleased 1975 concert from the Hammersmith Odeon in London on disc two. The live set was mixed from the original tapes by engineer Ken Scott, who recorded them in 1975, and feature the performance of Crime of the Century in its entirety as well as tracks from the band’s as-yet-unreleased fourth album, Crisis? What Crisis?

The reissue also includes a 24 page booklet with rare photos and a new essay penned by Mojo magazine Editor-In-Chief Phil Alexander which includes new interviews with band members Hodgson, Helliwell, bassist Dougie Thomson, drummer Bob Siebenberg, and the album’s producer, Ken Scott. Crime of the Century will also be reissued in digital format and as a three-album vinyl LP set.

After Crime of the Century, Supertramp would take a few more years to cement its arena-rock superstar status. The band’s 1975 album, Crisis? What Crisis?, while receiving critical acclaim in some quarters (Rolling Stone hated it, tho’), backslid on the charts when compared to its predecessor, although it did help promote the band in far-flung markets like Norway and New Zealand. Supertramp’s fifth album, Even in the Quietest Moments..., made up the lost ground, hitting Top 20 in both the U.S. and U.K.

It was the band’s Breakfast In America album, released in early 1979, that would propel them to the commercial heights. Scoring three Top 20 singles, including “The Logical Song” and “Take The Long Way Home,” Breakfast In America would earn Supertramp a pair of Grammy® Awards on its way to selling better than four million copies. The band would ride this wave until it crashed ashore almost a decade later, but for Supertramp, their claim to fame begun with Crime of the Century.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Third Man’s The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2

The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2
Nobody has ever accused Jack White of subtlety. The former White Stripe and Raconteur has built a successful career – both solo and with his various band side projects – based on his musical creativity and keen business sensibilities. When it comes to the literal “labor of love,” nobody embraces a project like White, which was proven by the ingenuity and experimentation that went into the special features found on the vinyl version of this year’s solo release, Lazaretto.

White’s Third Man Records label has been reissuing recordings by blues legends Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, and the Mississippi Sheiks from the Paramount Records catalog on vinyl for the past couple of years. In 2013, however, the label released a monster box set, The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 1, which featured six vinyl record albums, a pair of profusely-illustrated books, and thumb drives featuring some 800 re-mastered tracks from the enormous catalog of the legendary Wisconsin record label, all packaged in a beautiful, hand-crafted oak “cabinet of wonder” designed to look like an antique Victrola record player (and sporting a price tag nearing $500!).

It was an impressive labor of love and a critically-acclaimed, if commercially dubious collection, but that’s never stopped White in the past. So what does he do for an encore? How about The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2, a second enormous box set which covers the years 1928 to 1932, when Paramount was the undisputed king of “race records” (i.e. blues music). Like the first, this second box set was released in collaboration with Reverent Records, which released its own massive Charley Patton box set some years ago.

The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2This second volume also includes six 180gram vinyl LPs and a high-capacity USB drive that includes all the music (800 songs) and more than 90 vintage Paramount Records ads that originally appeared in the African-American newspaper The Chicago Defender. A pair of big books (250pp and 400pp) features artist biographies and visual representations of the Paramount advertising art.

For the packaging this time, the label went with a shiny aluminum and stainless steel case that reflects the evolution of not only Paramount’s sound at the time, but also the American industrial revolution. Stylistically, the box is meant to mimic not only the hollow-body National Resonator guitar that was popular among bluesmen at the time, but also the radical design and function of the RCA Victor Special Model K portable record player that became popular in the 1930s. 

Of the boxes design, in a press release Revenant’s Dean Blackwood says, “we didn’t want Volume 2 to be a strict bookend to Volume 1. That’s not an honest reflection of the design themes. The ’30s was the beginning of industrial design coming to the fore with its own brand of modernist design; rather than embracing exotica, our version was around this streamlined modern version of Art Deco. The machine was the source of America’s might and standing in the world, our capacity as an industrial power that connected the vast plains of our country and even other nations – that’s really where we found our sweet spot.”

The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2 includes some of the most essential and influential blues recordings in the history of the genre, including tracks from legends like Son House, Charley Patton, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks, King Solomon Hill, Willie Brown, and literally hundreds of others. Like its predecessor, the second volume is priced well north of $400, but it’s an incredible feat – historic music packaged in style and with no little love.

White and Third Man Records have taken some heat for these Paramount sets, with an alleged rights holder filing suit against the label for copyright infringement. It’s hard to believe that these 80 to 90 year old tracks aren’t in the public domain given their age, but there’s no doubt of their influence, and I commend White and Third Man for taking the risk to bring this music to the label’s young audience.