Sunday, July 24, 2016

CD Review: Junior Kimbrough's You Better Run (2003)

Junior Kimbrough's You Better Run
Mississippi – this is where the blues began. Get off Interstate 40 from Nashville to Memphis just short of the Bluff City and go directly south. You'll hit Highway 6 West, which will take you across the North Mississippi Hill Country, where Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough lived and toiled and made music. When you hit Highway 61, sneak in behind the casinos in Tunica and make your way to the old highway. This is the road used by hundreds of African-American sharecroppers, many the sons and daughters of slaves, to make their way out of the frying pan of the Delta and into the fire of big cities like St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit in search of a better life. Go south on 61 'til you hit Clarksdale and stop at the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. You're in the heartland of the blues, baby, and if the faces of the people you've seen as you drove through this fabled land hasn't brought you an understanding of the blues, then nothing ever will...

Junior Kimbrough was one of the last of the authentic Hill Country bluesmen, as gifted an artist as the state ever shared with the world, and when he died in 1998 at the age of 67, a large piece of blues tradition went with him. Even though he didn't record his first album until 1992, Kimbrough's influence on contemporary blues and rock music is immense and unstated. "Discovered" by critic and blues aficionado Robert Palmer, Kimbrough was featured in Palmer's excellent book and film, Deep Blues. Palmer was responsible for getting Junior's unique sound on tape, producing the bluesman's first two albums for Fat Possum, the tracks recorded mostly at the juke joint that Kimbrough operated in Chulahoma, Mississippi.

You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough serves as a primer for the uninitiated listener. Collecting material from Kimbrough's first four albums along with odd live tracks and rarities, You Better Run offers an overview of Kimbrough's career and cements his place in the blues hierarchy. Kimbrough's music is deceptively simple, usually beginning with a repetitive riff upon which Junior embroiders his free-flowing lyrics. The Soul Blues Boys – bassist Gary Burnside (son of Junior's contemporary R.L. Burnside) and drummer Kenny Malone (one of Junior's many sons) – react to Kimbrough's improvisations without missing a beat, providing a hard-driving musical tapestry behind Junior's hypnotic performances. Several tracks here include guitarist Kenny Brown, the aggressive axeman adding a further dimension to the material by providing an instrumental counterpoint to Kimbrough's droning six-string.

There are songs on You Better Run that will be studied by blues scholars for generations to come. The tension-filled "All Night Long," the haunting "Sad Days Lonely Nights," and the rambling title track all showcase Kimbrough's skills as a performer, the singer evoking passion, lust, dread and elation with nothing but his voice and guitar (no special effects necessary). "Done Got Old" is the chilling lament of a man facing his own mortality, Kimbrough's voice a plaintive wail above the sparse instrumentation. "Old Black Mattie" is a traditionally styled juke-joint blues, starting hard and rising to a powerful crescendo while "Most Things Haven't Worked Out" is a lengthy and insightful observation on life. Most, if not all of the songs here were captured in one take – Palmer observed that Junior never was one to do a song over again – lending a raw, immediate feel to the material, just like you'd hear it at Junior's juke-joint.

As Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis states in his excellent liner notes to You Better Run, Kimbrough's blues were "a language that he made up," an entirely original distillation of one-hundred years of Mississippi music, rural culture and poverty. Kimbrough is often compared to his friend, contemporary and sometimes rival R.L. Burnside, but Junior's music has less to do with the Hill Country fife and drum tradition followed by Burnside and more to do with the ghosts of Mississippi bluesmen who came before. Although there are a few artists who evoke the Kimbrough style – Richard Johnston, who fronted the Soul Blues Boys after Junior's death, comes to mind – nobody will ever be able to replace Junior Kimbrough. If you have any interest in the genre at all, You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough is required listening in the Blues 101 course load.

Buy the CD from Junior Kimbrough's You Better Run

Originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2003

Real Gone Gets Funky with The Meters!

The Meters' A Message From The Meters
Our friends at Real Gone Music have released their September 2016 release schedule and let me tell you, brothers and sisters, they’re getting into the funk in a big way! First on the slate is a two-disc compilation covering the Crescent City’s favorite sons, the Meters. Scheduled for release on September 2, 2016 A Message From The Meters – The Complete Josie, Reprise & Warner Brothers Singles 1968-1977 is a forty-track monster that includes the A and B sides of every single released by the legendary band on the aforementioned record labels, providing the listener with a motherlode of great music! The set was re-mastered by Mike Milchner at SonicVision, the studio wizard working from the original master tapes for all but five of the singles…no mean feat considering the age of many of these tracks. Music historian Bill Dahl provides in-depth liner notes for the set that include quotes from Neville, Nocentelli, and Porter.

The Meters formed in 1965 with keyboardist and singer Art Neville up front, guitarist Leo Nocentelli shredding the strings, bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste holding down the bottom end. Art’s younger brother Cyril (currently of the Royal Southern Brotherhood) joined the band in 1970. The Meters were musician, songwriter, and producer Allen Toussaint’s house band for his Sansu Records label, backing performers like Lee Dorsey and Dr. John, among many others, on a bunch of hits. The band released its self-titled, Toussaint-produced debut album in 1969, scoring a Top 30 single out of the box with the infectiously funky “Cissy Strut.” Mixing elements of rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and jazz with deep grooves and fluid rhythms, the Meters defined the sound of New Orleans funk.

An impressive slate of critically-acclaimed albums followed – 1970’s Look-Ka Py Py and Struttin’, 1972’s Cabbage Alley, 1974’s Rejuvenation, and what many consider the Meters’ best, 1975’s Fire On The Bayou. Real Gone’s A Message From The Meters includes classic tracks like the aforementioned “Cissy Strut,” “Sophisticated Cissy,” “Hey Pocky A-Way,” “Look-Ka Py Py,” and more, offered in their original versions. The Josie label singles are represented by the original mono singles mixes, most of which have never made their way onto CD (in fact, the first disc of A Message From The Meters is entirely in mono, with the Reprise/Warner Brothers label singles on disc two in stereo). Art and Cyril Neville left the band in 1977 after the release of the New Directions album to form the Neville Brothers, and the Meters officially broke up in 1980. They would later reunite in 1989, renaming themselves the Funky Meters, but the original band left behind eight albums, a slew of fine single releases, and an enormous musical legacy.

Buy the CD from The Meters' A Message From The Meters

Real Gone Gets In the Groove with The Isley Brothers

The Isleys Brothers’ Groove with You…Live!
The roots of the Isley Brothers date back to the mid-1950s when teen brothers Vernon, O’Kelly Jr., Rudolph, and Ronald Isley were performing as a gospel quartet. A couple of years after Vernon’s tragic accidental death, the remaining trio moved to New York City and began to pursue a more secular sound, blending R&B and doo-wop with early rock ‘n’ roll. They scored their first hit in 1959 with the classic “Shout,” which peaked at a modest #47 on the charts before eventually going on to sell more than a million platters. Jumping from label to label, the trio enjoyed modest success with a handful of singles before scoring again with their first Top 20 hit, 1962’s “Twist and Shout.” Jimi Hendrix played with the Isleys for a while, contributing guitar to the 1964 single “Testify,” released by the brothers’ own T-Neck Records.

The Isley Brothers struggled throughout the 1960s, mixing Top 40 hits like “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)” for Motown with a number of near chart misses. The brothers resurrected their T-Neck label for the release of 1969’s “It’s Your Thing,” which included younger brother Ernie on bass. Mixing a little funk into their soulful sound, the song became a smash hit, topping the R&B chart and rising to #2 on the ‘Hot 100’ singles chart while earning the band a Grammy™ Award. The album by the same name rose to #22 on the pop chart, launching the Isley Brothers into the stratosphere. The singing trio added musical talent to the band with younger brothers Ernie (guitar) and Marvin Isley (bass) and brother-in-law Chris Jasper (keyboards). Throughout the ‘70s the band scored hit after hit with classic albums like 1973’s 3+3, 1974’s Live It Up, 1975’s The Heat Is On, 1976’s Harvest For The World, and 1977’s Go For Your Guns, among others.

With a string of chart successes behind them, the Isley Brothers decided in 1980 to record a live album. Rather than record a live performance with a mobile truck, however, the Isleys decamped to Bearsville Sound Studio in Woodstock, New York, recording the album live in the studio. The resulting effort – Groove with You…Live! – was enhanced with an overdubbed audience and introductions by MC “Gorgeous” George Odell to create a live album with pristine studio sound. However Columbia Records, which was distributing the band’s T-Neck Records releases, passed on the album preferring to wait for another studio disc, and the Isley’s Groove with You…Live! was shelved until 2015, when it was dusted off, remixed (removing the faux crowd noise), and included as part of an Isley Brothers retrospective box set.

The Isleys’ Groove with You…Live! was later released as a limited edition two-disc vinyl set with the audience noise re-inserted into the mix for Record Store Day 2015. On September 2, 2016 the album will finally see proper release on CD when Real Gone Music reissues Groove with You…Live! Offering up classic Isley Brothers hits like “Summer Breeze,” “That Lady,” “Fight The Power,” and “Take Me To The Next Phase” among its dozen tracks, the album was re-mastered by Mark Wilder and Chris Le Monde and features new liner notes by The Second Disc’s Joe Marchese which feature quotes from Ernie Isley and Chris Jasper. Call it the “long lost live” Isley Brothers album, Groove with You…Live! is an invaluable document by a legendary group and will appeal to any fan of vintage funk, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll.

Buy the CD from The Isley Brothers' Groove with You...Live!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

CD Review: Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band's Radio Chicago 1976 (2016)

Bob Seger's Radio Chicago 1976
At 1976’s opening bell, Detroit’s favorite son – Bob Seger – was just another blue-collar rocker who’d been treading the boards for better than a decade in search of the fabled brass ring of success. By the year’s end, he’d be a shooting star on his way to legend status, and all because of one little ol’ album that, if it hadn’t have sold the copies it did, might have consigned Seger to history’s teetering stack o’ cult rock obscurities.

Released in the spring of ’76, ‘Live’ Bullet captured Seger and his road-tested band’s electrifying stage show in front of a frenzied hometown crowd at Detroit’s Cobo Hall on wax. The double-LP set earned the singer his first Top 40 album, ‘Live’ Bullet eventually certified as five-times Platinum™. Seger ended the year with a studio album, Night Moves providing a fine bookend to an explosive year, the album cementing his success with a Top Ten showing, three hit singles (including the title track’s #4 chart showing), and over six million copies sold.

Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Radio Chicago 1976

Even as stardom loomed over the horizon, Seger’s popularity was entirely regional, his hard-charging rock ‘n’ roll style – peppered with soul and blues and former Third Power guitarist Drew Abbott’s underrated, impressive fretwork – was perfectly suited to his fans’ Rust Belt mentality. Even while he was beginning to break through to mainstream audiences, the dichotomy of his appeal was obvious to band and critical observers alike. In June 1976, Seger played to a sold-out crowd of nearly 80,000 fans at the Pontiac Superdome outside of Detroit; the next night, Seger and the Silver Bullet Band performed for a few hundred fans at the B’Ginnings club in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois.

The show was originally broadcast live on WXRT-FM radio in Chicago, and has recently been released for the first time on compact disc as Radio Chicago 1976 for long-suffering Seger fans. Although released underground as a vinyl bootleg incorrectly titled as Live In Montreal 1978, this proper CD release features a superb live recording of the band kicking out the jams with a performance as vital and exciting as the previous night’s party at the Silverdome. Offering up twelve songs (“Lookin’ Back” and “Mary Lou,” split by a DJ announcement, are two separate performances), the set list reaches back to Seger’s early career, Radio Chicago 1976 showcasing a band about to burn down the world with talent and ambition.

Radio Chicago 1976 opens, seemingly with the concert already underway, the band cranking out a raw-boned performance of “Bo Diddley/Who Do You Love?” from Seger’s excellent 1972 Smokin’ O.P.’s album. With Drew Abbott’s stinging guitar licks and Robyn Robins’ fleet-fingered keyboard runs leading the way, the band establishes a raucous foundation for the remainder of the show. Chris Campbell’s funky bass solo, embellished by Robins’ keys, keeps the party rolling for nearly eight minutes. Seger’s originals “Travelin’ Man” and “Beautiful Loser” hail from his fan favorite 1975 LP Beautiful Loser, which flirted with Top 40 status upon its release. The former song is a rollicking, mid-tempo “rocker’s life on the road” style song that features Abbott’s wiry guitar and some fine percussion from drummer Charlie Martin while the latter is a rockin’ ballad fueled by Robins’ chiming keyboards, with Seger’s earnest vocals augmented by Abbott’s sly, nuanced guitarplay.

Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man

The blazing “Katmandu” is, hands down, one of Seger’s most all-time popular tunes, delivered here as a rapid-paced, soul-flavored rocker that features the singer’s vocal gymnastics, Abbott’s Chuck Berry-styled git-pickin’, and Alto Reed’s raging saxophone dancing atop a pile-driving rhythmic groove. The R&B standard “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” offers up some of Abbott’s tastiest Southern-fried fretwork with Seger acquitting himself nicely as a soul shouter while “Lookin’ Back,” released only as a single, revisits the late ‘60s incarnation of the Bob Seger System, the gospel-tinged performance featuring reverent vocal harmonies and Robins’ inspired keyboard riffs. A cover of the Ronnie Hawkins’ ‘50s-era jam “Mary Lou” would become a favorite track from Night Moves; performed here, the song is provided a wired, imaginative arrangement that pivots on Abbott’s distorted rattletrap guitar and a swinging, ramshackle rhythmic backdrop.

“Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” was actually Seger’s first Top 20 charting single (#17) in 1968, the song breaking out nationally but doing little to improve the singer’s fortunes (the subsequent album only made it as high as #68 on the charts); during the ensuing years, it has become a bona fide classic rock treasure. With Seger’s voice accompanied by a heavy keyboard riff and a dense, fluid rhythm, the band’s backing harmonies fit hand in glove with Seger’s livewire vox and Abbott’s buzzsaw guitar. A cover of Chuck Berry’s classic “Let It Rock” is a revved-up, redlined, runaway locomotive of a performance. Seger’s machine-gun reading of the master’s lyrics is bolstered by the band’s well-oiled, turbo-charged instrumentation, led by Robins’ tortured keyboards, Abbott’s gritty guitar, and Reed’s soaring saxophone. The extended jam given the song provides an excuse for Seger to get the audience involved in the performance.

Seger’s “Rosalie” is an underrated gem in the singer/songwriter’s back catalog that was originally recorded for Seger’s Back In ’72 album (which has never been reissued on CD…c’mon Bob, what are you waiting for?!). A tribute to Windsor, Ontario’s CKLW-AM music director Rosalie Trombley, an early Seger supporter, the song would later be nicely covered by U.K. rockers Thin Lizzy. This night in the Chicago suburbs, “Rosalie” is provided a raucous performance with gang vocals, rattling fretwork, high-flying keyboards, and explosive percussion. Just for the hell of it, the band covers Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” Seger introducing the song with a lengthy spiel that unrolls above Abbott’s John Lee Hooker-inspired booger-rock guitar licks. While Seger doesn’t possess the high register of Zep’s Robert Plant, his more soulful vocals are assisted by Abbott’s amazing guitar playing while the band rocks the house with reckless abandon. Radio Chicago 1976 closes with the wicked rocker “Lucifer,” from Seger’s 1970s album Mongrel. Featuring one of Seger’s best leather-lunged vocal performances, the band evinces a complex, slightly-funky groove with Abbott’s roaring fretwork at the forefront.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Radio Chicago 1976 is an unexpected, early Christmas present for Bob Seger fans. Hailing from the period that the hardcore faithful consider the Motor City legend’s best era (1972 through 1979), this performance captures Seger and the talented Silver Bullet Band near the peak of their abilities, stalking the stage each night like the hungry predators they were. Better yet, the twelve tracks on Radio Chicago 1976 only duplicate seven songs from ‘Live’ Bullet, with “Rosalie” and “Lucifer” both live rarities and the Zep cover never repeated on tape to my knowledge. Sound quality here is very good, with only slight echo and distortion, the CD faithfully replicating the sound of the band’s incredible performance. Got it? Get it! Grade: A+ (All Access/MVD Audio, released July 8, 2016)

Related content: Bob Seger's Smokin' O.P.'s CD review

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Rare Gunhill LPs with John Lawton reissued!

GunHill's Nightheat
The talented John Lawton is one of those journeymen rockers who leave excellence in their wake as they jump from one project to another over the decades. The British-born singer first came to prominence as frontman for the German hard rock outfit Lucifer’s Friend, touring and recording with the legendary band from 1969 through ’76, appearing on five albums before leaving to join Uriah Heep.

Replacing the irreplaceable David Byron on the microphone, Lawton recorded three solid albums with Heep – 1977’s Firefly and Innocent Victim and 1978’s Fallen Angel – before leaving to rejoin Lucifer’s Friend for another lengthy run. Lawton was also part of Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover’s 1975 project “Butterfly Ball,” performing live at the Royal Albert Hall alongside Purple’s Ian Gillan, David Coverdale, and Glenn Hughes.

Often overlooked, however, is Lawton’s early ‘90s-era band GunHill. With Lawton on vocals, Brian Bennet on guitar, bassist Neil Kavanagh, and drummer Chris Jones, GunHill released two studio albums of prog-flavored hard rock similar to Rainbow or King’s X – 1995’s fan club exclusive One Over The Eight cassette and 1997’s Nightheat – both of which have been out of print for ten years or more, and are incredibly hard to find.

Answering the prayers of John Lawton fans worldwide, both albums have been reissued as a two-disc set with bonus tracks, representing a comprehensive collection of GunHill studio recordings (a live album was released in 1999). Provided a fresh digital re-mastering, the reissue was overseen by Lawton personally and has his approval.

In a press release for the reissues, Lawton says “these two CDs are part of my musical history when I played together with some fine musicians, some quite young and some a bit more experienced. It was an opportunity to cover some tracks that I look back on as really great songs and a few original tracks that have stood the test of time.”

Buy the CD from GunHill's One Over The Eight/Nightheat

John Lawton's GunHill circa 1997
John Lawton's GunHill circa 1997

Thursday, July 14, 2016

CD Review: Das Damen's Triskaidekaphobe (1988)

Das Damen's Triskaidekaphobe
Lost among an ‘80s-era SST label catalog that included Black Flag, Husker Du, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, and Sonic Youth, among other notables, New York rockers Das Damen continue to be tragically overlooked by the indie, punk-metal, and alt-rock crowd. Even St. Vitus receives more love these days for their ground-breaking stoner rock albums from back in the day...Das Damen has been reduced to a mere musical footnote on an otherwise legendary record label.

Formed in 1984 by guitarists Jim Walters and Alex Totino, bassist Phil Von Trapp, and drummer Lyle Hyser, Das Damen was originally signed by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to his Ecstatic Peace label. The band released a self-titled EP in 1986 that was later reissued by SST, releasing its full-length SST debut, Jupiter Eye, a year later. The album featured improvisational acid-rock jams not dissimilar to the Bevis Frond with a touch of Sonic Youth-inspired guitar squonk thrown in for good measure. Although the band toured heavily in support of the album, the disc’s poor production and Das Damen’s free-wheeling sound – which was easily a decade ahead of its time – did little to attract an audience.

Triskaidekaphobe was the band’s second album for SST, a solid collection of guitar-driven rockers that incorporated elements of ‘60s psychedelica, ‘70s hard rock and proto-metal and ’80s punk. Named after the technical term for the “fear of the number 13,” Triskaidekaphobe, released in 1988, is in many minds the high point of the Das Damen’s career. First of all, the band received a few more dollars to throw at production this time around, so the sound is better than the muddy mix provided Jupiter Eye.

Constant touring had sharpened the band’s sound to a blistering, surgically-precise aural onslaught. The guitars of Walters and Totino dominate the songs, providing cascading riffs and squalls of feedback. The rhythm section is equally impressive; aside from their explosive drumbeats and heavy bass lines, Von Trapp and Hyser create some interesting textures and patterns behind the guitarist’s flying notes. To top it off, the MC5’s Wayne Kramer stops by to contribute what the liner notes call “riff rock,” showing the young pups how an old dog plays the game. In many ways, the music of Das Damen carries a vibe similar to the MC5. Both bands delivered loud, dense, guitar-driven riff-rock; substitute Das Damen’s metallic tendencies for the MC5’s blues-and-jazz influences and you can see the comparison.

The songs themselves were much sharper on Triskaidekaphobe than previously, the acid-drenched instrumental jams shorter and delivered with laser-like focus. “Reverse Into Tomorrow” kicks off like an R.E.M. tune and shares a similar melodic construction, with washes of guitar and a consistent rhythmic barrage building a wall-of-sound behind Walters’ hidden vocals. Sounding like an imploding high-rise before settling into a martial beat not unlike Killing Joke, Walters and Totino’s guitars provide a storm of spiraling leads amidst a rhythmic fury on “firejoke.”

The chaotic “Ruby Woodpecker” is soaked in gasoline and lit up with syncopated, dissonant fretwork while the raucous instrumental “Seven” benefits from its improvisational nature and undeniably tight band chemistry. As good as the instrumental performances are, if there is one drawback to Triskaidekaphobe, it would be Walters’ vocals. Often lost in the mix, the vox are passable, if not particularly strong. The band would have benefited from finding a ballsy frontman a la Plant to shout above Walters and Totino’s amazing six-string work.

Das Damen wasn’t particular influential, and the band’s audience was small, if loyal. Where Das Damen is remembered, it is for their notorious bit of social protest, better known as The Marshmallow Conspiracy EP. Released a few months after Triskaidekaphobe and including two songs from the album, the EP also featured a non-LP track called “Sky Yen” and the controversial “Song For Michael Jackson To $ell.” Michael Jackson had just purchased the rights to the Beatles’ song catalog for around $100 million, so Das Damen recorded its own warped version of “Magical Mystery Tour,” complete with Beatles samples, calling it “Song For Michael Jackson To $ell” and giving themselves credit. The gloved one’s lawyers got involved, the record was recalled, and the band was promptly given the boot by SST.

Although they would break up a couple of years later, thus missing out on the alt-rock explosion of the early ‘90s where they might have found their audience, Das Damen is fondly remembered by those of us who bought their records and saw this talented band perform live. It is somehow fitting that we remember Triskaidekaphobe on Friday the 13th, because if not for bad luck, Das Damen might not have had any luck at all! (SST Records)

Originally published by Trademark of Quality blog

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

CD Review: Supersonic Blues Machine's West of Flushing, South of Frisco (2016)

Supersonic Blues Machine's West of Flushing, South of Frisco
You can tell a lot about a band by who their friends are – and in the case of Supersonic Blues Machine, they come roaring into the room with a monster pedigree. An axe-rattling blues-rock gang consisting of singer and guitarist Lance Lopez, bassist Fabrizio Grossi, and drummer Kenny Aronooff, the band brought along heavy friends like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, Walter Trout, and Eric Gales, among other talented fretburners, as guests on their explosive debut.

Not that the Supersonic guys are any slouches themselves: Texas bluesman Lopez has been kicking the can as a solo artist for over a decade and half a dozen albums; Grossi has toured and recorded with talents like Slash, George Clinton, and Steve Lukather; and Aronoff has kept time behind everybody from John Mellencamp and Bob Dylan to Leslie West and Walter Trout. In other words, the Supersonic Blues Machine is a group of veteran musicians who know their stuff, and still get a thrill out of getting together with friends and jamming.

As such, the band's debut album West of Flushing, South of Frisco, offers the sound of joyous, unbridled music-making that falls a bit heavier on the rock side of the blues-rock equation. Unlike a lot of these kinds of affairs, Grossi wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, and he produced the album with a steady hand, providing West of Flushing, South of Frisco with a dynamic sound that accents the band’s bad-ass instrumental prowess. The album-opening “Miracle Man” starts out with a bit of exotic acoustic guitar, soulful vocals, and blasts of harp before blowing up into a chaotic, bluesy maelstrom.

“Running Whiskey,” with Gibbons, is a hot rod rocket launched by the ZZ Top frontman’s delightfully growled vocals, locomotive rhythms, and scorched earth fretwork, while “Can’t Take It No More” is a near-perfect duet with Lopez and Trout swapping vox and git licks. An inspired cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Ain’t No Love (In The Heart of The City)” is given an expansive reading that showcase’s Lopez’s immense guitar skills. If you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned guitar stars mentioned above, you’re going to find a lot to like this debut by Supersonic Blues Machine. Grade: B+ (Provogue Records, released February 26, 2016)

Buy the CD from Supersonic Blues Machine’s West of Flushing, South of Frisco

CD Review: Fairport Convention's Live In Finland 1971 (2016)

Fairport Convention's Live In Finland 1971
For those unfamiliar with this legendary band, Fairport Convention was one of the first wave of British folk-rock outfits that masterfully welded British folk tradition to an electric rock n’ roll framework. The early sound of the band, upon its formation in 1967, was built around the delightful guitars of Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol. Over the first four or five years of the band, and with classic albums like Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief, Fairport Convention also featured talented vocalists like Sandy Denny and Iain Matthews.

That’s not the version of Fairport Convention that you’ll hear on Live In Finland 1971, but that’s not to say that’s necessarily a bad thing. Denny was long gone by the time of this August ’71 show, Thompson had just gone out the door, and Matthews had already launched his solo career (with help from his former bandmates) with 1969’s Matthews Southern Comfort album.

Touring in support of their overlooked and underappreciated Angel Delight album, this version of Fairport Convention – now comprised of bassist Dave Pegg, drummer Dave Mattacks, and fiery fiddle player Dave Swarbrick along with founding guitarist Nicol – raised a bit of a ruckus with a rowdy set that featured a couple of songs from Angel Delight (the traditional “Bridge Over the River Ash” and the original “The Journeyman’s Grace,” penned by Swarbrick and Thompson”) but otherwise relied heavily on traditional British folk tunes.

While the first couple of songs (the aforementioned Angel Delight tracks) are a wee bit wonky with the fiddleplay for my taste, there’s a fine instrumental balance on “Matty Grove” (from Liege & Leaf) and the lively “Sir B. McKenzie’s Daughter’s Lament” is a spry, foot-shuffling medley and jig and reels guaranteed to get the blood flowing. The sound on Live In Finland 1971 is excellent, especially given the era in which it was recorded, and the performance showcases the solid talents of this latter-day Fairport Convention line-up. Grade: B (Real Gone Music, released June 3, 2016)

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

CD Review: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s Got A Mind To Give Up Living - Live 1966 (2016)

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s Got A Mind To Give Up Living
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band were musical trailblazers not because they were fusing blues music and rock ‘n’ roll unlike any band before them – John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds, among others, had already been doing so on the other side of the pond, even if they were relatively unknown to American audiences. No, Butterfield’s group was influential because they were the first interracial band to emerge from the 1960s, and they played Chicago blues with a rock ‘n’ roll edge that retained the emotional soul of the former and the unbridled energy of the latter.

The band was formed in Chicago in 1963 by homegrown blues fan Paul Butterfield and transplanted Oklahoman Elvin Bishop, both of who were ostensibly attending the University of Chicago at the time but, in reality, spent more time in the city’s notorious blues clubs than in classes. The offer of a regular performing gig prompted Butterfield to lure bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay from Muddy Waters’ band, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was formed. The band caught the eye of Elektra Records producer Paul Rothchild and, adding the phenomenal guitarist Michael Bloomfield to the line-up, they secured a record deal with the label and thus a legend was born.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s Got A Mind To Give Up Living

After several misfires in the studio, the band released its self-titled debut album in late 1965; keyboardist Mark Naftalin was brought on board during the album’s recording sessions to expand the band’s sound. With Butterfield on the microphone and blowing a mighty blues harp (influenced by the likes of Junior Wells and Little Walter), Bloomfield adding his innovative lead guitar, Bishop providing solid rhythm guitar, and a seasoned rhythm section holding down the bottom end, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band quickly made a name for themselves as an electrifying and imaginative live outfit. Although the band’s debut album only rose to #123 on the Billboard album chart, it has since become a blues-rock touchstone and is widely considered one of the truly pioneering albums of the blues.

The band toured across the country in the wake of their debut album, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65 (even playing behind Bob Dylan); opening for the Jefferson Airplane in San Francisco; and hitting the east coast with a May 1966 performance at the Unicorn Coffee House in Boston, Massachusetts. By this time, Sam Lay had fallen ill and was replaced by jazz drummer Billy Davenport, himself an alumnus of Muddy Waters’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s bands. One of the Butterfield band’s rafter-shaking performances at the Unicorn Coffee House was recorded, the performance recently rediscovered and released on CD by the good folks at Real Gone Music as Got A Mind To Give Up Living – Live 1966. Previously unreleased – I can’t even find mention of this particular show in any of my bootleg LP references – this dynamite 13-track live set earns its legit release status.

Born In Chicago

Capturing the band at the peak of its performance skills, Got A Mind To Give Up Living offers up a mix of songs from the band’s debut and their upcoming musical tour de force, East-West, which was recorded and released later in 1966. Providing an hour-plus of low-fidelity, high-energy jams, the albums kicks off with a rattletrap instrumental vamp to introduce the band, jumping directly into an inspired take on Elmore James’ “Look Over Yonders Wall” that features Butterfield’s vibrant harp, Bloomfield’s stinging guitar licks, and the rhythm section’s rollicking instrumental backdrop. The band’s signature song, the Nick Gravenites-penned “Born In Chicago,” offers up a rowdy good time; Butterfield’s rapid-fire reading of the lyrics matched by a similarly fast-paced but multi-textured rhythm track, which itself is neatly embroidered by the frontman’s fluid harp playing.

“Love Her With A Feeling” is a vintage 1930s-era Tampa Red blues song famously covered by guitarist Freddie King; never recorded to album by Butterfield and crew, it’s delivered this night as a slow-burn Chicago blues dirge, Bloomfield’s amazing fretwork leaping out of the arrangement as Butterfield’s emotional vocals are underlined by his mournful harp and the band’s steady, traditional Chicago blues beat. Later recorded for East-West, “Get Out Of My Life, Woman” was written by New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint, and the band evinces a funky Crescent City groove atop which Butterfield lays down his vocals and Naftalin adds his lively, melodic keyboard flourishes. With a similar vibe, the band’s cover of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ R&B gem “One More Heartache” is an up-tempo lil’ rocker that benefits from Davenport’s jazzy percussion and Butterfield’s upbeat vocals and brilliant accompanying harp.

The instrumental “Work Song,” also from the band’s then-forthcoming album, is a romping, stomping extended jam courtesy of jazz trumpeter Nat Adderley (brother of saxman Cannonball), the song allowing each of the band members to step into the spotlight for a little solo time. The performance never loses cohesion or energy, though (and the listener never loses interest, even after 12+ minutes). The title track here is one of the darker numbers from East-West, a real blues tear-jerker that features some of Butterfield’s most emotional and nuanced harp-play as well as Bloomfield’s frenetic guitar solos. The Muddy Waters’ blues standard “Got My Mojo Working” closes out the album, Arnold and Davenport laying down a fine shuffling groove that allows Butterfield’s harp and Bloomfield’s guitar to run free.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Let’s address the elephant in the room first, shall we? The sound on Got A Mind To Give Up Living is, to put it mildly, “less than perfect.” I have no doubt that engineer Mike Milchner did the best he had with the tapes he was provided, but as the old adage goes, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Recording technology in 1966 was still in the cave-painting era, and whatever rig was used to capture this otherwise blistering performance was probably somewhat Neanderthal in nature. Bloomfield’s usually nuanced vocals are often washed out or redlined, too hot for the tape. There’s an overall echoed sound that club spelunkers will readily recognize, and more than a little fuzz growing on the cave walls, if you catch my meaning...

That being said, Got A Mind To Give Up Living documents a prime performance by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and there just ain’t that many of those around, Bunkie! Milchner seems to have brightened up the instruments so that, for instance, Butterfield’s wired harp playing and Bloomfield’s electrifying fretwork stand tall in the mix, while Davenport’s steady pounding of the skins provides an anchor for many of the performances. Arnold’s fluid bassplay is almost altogether lost in the din and distortion, and Bishop’s skilled rhythmic work is mostly indiscernible.

Longtime fans of Butterfield and Bloomfield will certainly appreciate the performance, but newcomers should probably start with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and East-West albums before venturing into these waters. There’s no arguing, though, that at their prime the Butterfield gang was simply explosive on stage, and Got A Mind To Give Up Living captures the full megatonnage of the band’s performance. Grade: B+ (Real Gone Music, released June 3, 2016)

Buy the CD from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s Got A Mind To Give Up Living - Live 1966