Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fossils: Bob Dylan's Self Portrait (1970)

Bob Dylan's Self Portrait
(click to embiggen)
Bob Dylan – Self Portrait

Perhaps the most misunderstood and maligned of Dylan’s early albums, and an inauspicious beginning to the decade of the 1970s (especially after the previous year’s acclaimed, country-flavored Nashville Skyline), Self Portrait isn’t quite the pail of lukewarm dishwater it’s often made out to be. Confusing, yes, even to the sort of prawn that spends their lives trying to suss out the Shakespeare of Rock’s every utterance. With Self Portrait, Dylan was literally providing us with a series of crudely-painted canvases, the singer often applying the broadest of strokes, but revealing glimpses of the face behind the mask with a mix of originals, outtakes, and cover songs that each displayed a facet of Dylan’s temperament at the time…sometimes joking, sometimes playful (like a cat toying with a mouse), never less than thought-provoking.  

Released as a two-album set with Dylan’s original artwork gracing the cover, the two-dozen numbers on Self Portrait run the gamut from influential covers (Boudleaux Bryant’s “Take Me As I Am” and “Take A Message To Mary”); contemporary cover songs (Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”); vintage folk tunes (“Days of ‘49”); and old material, including outtakes from The Basement Tapes LP (“The Mighty Quinn,” “Like A Rolling Stone”). Taken altogether, critics at the time considered it a rambling mess unworthy of an artist of Dylan’s stature. I prefer to think of it as a psychic “cleaning out of the closet” that would lead to the undisputedly brilliant New Morning album. Still, Self Portrait has its adherents, as shown by Sony’s decision to release an expanded “deluxe” reissue version of the album in late 2013. 

CD Review: James Burton, Albert Lee, Amos Garrett & David Wilcox's Guitar Heroes (2015)

James Burton, Albert Lee, Amos Garrett & David Wilcox's Guitar Heroes
Unless you’re the kind of geek that pores over album cover notes or (*shudder*) reads Rolling Stone magazine for fun, chances are that you’re not familiar with the men responsible for this recording. The musical pedigrees of the four talented guitarists featured on Guitar Heroes are unassailable, however, each making a major individual contribution to the big book of rock ‘n’ roll…some of these guys were riding up and down the backroads long before string-benders like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page ever hit the stage.

The oldest of our quartet, James Burton, is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee who played with Ricky Nelson throughout his teen idol years; he later led Elvis Presley’s band from 1969 until his death in 1977. Burton’s list of album credits is long enough to fill a phone book, but among those he’s played and recorded with are Gram Parsons, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. British multi-instrumentalist Albert Lee is no slouch himself, making his bones as part of the legendary Chris Farlowe’s Thunderbirds in the early 1960s before forming the underrated British rock outfit Head Hands & Feet, which released a number of fine albums in the early 1970s.

Burton, Lee, Garrett & Wilcox – Guitar Heroes

Lee was Burton’s replacement in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band and, aside from his own acclaimed solo work, he has performed and/or recorded with a virtual “who’s who” of 20th century musical giants, including Eric Clapton, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, Gene Clark of the Byrds, Roseanne Cash, and Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, among many others. So, we have representatives of the USA and Great Britain, how about Canada? Amos Garrett’s contributions are no less impressive than his peers – he toured behind popular Canadian duo Ian & Sylvia in the late 1960s before joining Paul Butterfield’s Better Days with his friend Geoff Muldaur, recording a pair of albums with the Chicago blues legend.

Garrett later played on Maria Maldaur’s hit 1970s-era albums – that’s his guitar you’ll hear on Maldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis” – and has enjoyed his own acclaimed solo career as well as playing alongside folks like Jerry Garcia, Elvin Bishop, Stevie Wonder, and Todd Rundgren. Fellow Canadian David Wilcox, at 65 years old, is the kid in this guitar-wielding gang. Although not as well-known as his older colleagues, Wilcox has forged a lengthy and successful solo career in his homeland and, like Garrett, is an alumnus of Ian & Sylvia’s beloved Great Speckled Bird band.

Masters of the Telecaster

Backed by Albert Lee’s regular touring band, including keyboardist and vocalist Jon Greathouse, bassist Will MacGregor, and drummer Jason Harrison Smith, these four “Masters of the Telecaster” came together for a special one-night performance at the Vancouver Island MusicFest in July 2013. Guitar Heroes captures that concert exactly as it happened, with no editing, overdubs, or studio gimmicks – just four old road warriors pickin’ together on an inspired set of blues, rockabilly, and rock ‘n’ roll tunes. If you’re the kind of music-lovin’ fool that likes to hear some fancy guitarplay, then Guitar Heroes is right up your alley…

Guitar Heroes opens with a rockabilly rave-up of Elvis’s cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s juke-joint jam “That All Right (Mama),” a song probably performed ad nauseum by Burton back in the ‘70s. With Garrett handling the vocals, each of the guitarists takes a solo turn, Lee’s sweeter tones balanced by Burton’s piercing twang, all four men obviously having a hell of a time with the performance. Dale Hawkins’ classic “Susie Q” puts keyboardist Greathouse on the microphone and, while not possessing the same sort of primal growl as Hawkins, he acquits himself nicely nonetheless. The guitar solos here skew more towards Creedence Clearwater’s swamp-rock vibe, but as Burton created the original recording’s familiar riff back in 1957 while playing with Hawkins, the performance here can’t help but be faithful to the original, can it?

Flip, Flop and Fly

Garrett gets the spotlight all to himself on the gorgeous instrumental “Sleep Walk,” his beautiful guitar tone shimmering like moonlight off a quiet lake as the band steps out of his way and delivers a perfectly subdued musical backdrop for his imaginative fretwork to shine. Wilcox has a turn on “You’re The One,” his fractured solo laid out across loping rhythms before he jumps in with a hearty vocal performance. The soundtrack is a sort of modified Chicago blues shuffle, and Greathouse’s flashes of honky-tonk piano offer a fine counterpoint to Burton’s twangy licks. The instrumental “Comin’ Home Baby” provides a chance for each guitarist to spank the plank, Wilcox’s disjointed style leading smoothly into Burton’s jazzy, almost Santana-styled notes. Lee and Garrett seem to combine to create a mesmerizing ambiance to the song, and the chemistry between all four players is simply incredible.

An inspired cover of Big Joe Turner’s classic “Flip, Flop and Fly” rocks like a runaway locomotive; with Wilcox at the microphone knocking out a rowdy vocal performance, the guitarists juke like there’s no tomorrow. Lee’s lively solo is matched for electricity by Garrett’s jazzier strum, but it’s Burton’s trebly chickin’ pickin’ that manages to properly channel Turner’s original energetic performance. Tony Joe White’s country-blues classic “Polk Salad Annie” finds new life as a rowdy instrumental; with Burton’s swampadelic fretwork leading the charge, Garrett’s livewire licks follow shortly thereafter as the band choogles along with reckless abandon. MacGregor is provided a spry, albeit too brief bass solo, and Greathouse’s keyboard-pounding provides balance to the song’s six-string overdrive. Lee’s own original “Country Boy” closes out Guitar Heroes, the guitarist’s shit kickin’ licks leading the race as the rhythm section strives to catch up on what is, perhaps, the best pure country song ever ignored by Nashville. 

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

What else really needs to be said? James Burton, Albert Lee, Amos Garrett, and David Wilcox have been responsible for, or contributed to some of the best, most timeless music made on two continents over the past 50+ years. They’re all four consummate professionals, infinitely skilled instrumentalists whose addition to any performance – whether on stage or in the studio – automatically improves anything they’re involved with.

They’re no mere six-string technicians, however, hoping to sand down the rough edges of their performance with studio effects. These guys are old-school geniuses with decades of experience and the raw ability able to spin imaginative guitarplay into gold no matter the genre, whether it be roots-rock, country, rockabilly, or blues. If you revel in the sheer joy of expressive, entertaining guitar playing, look no further than Guitar Heroes for your next fix. Grade: A (Stony Plain Records, released May 5, 2015)

Buy the CD from James Burton, Albert Lee, Amos Garrett & David Wilcox – Guitar Heroes

David Wilcox, James Burton, Amos Garrett & Albert Lee, photo by Holger Petersen

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Shuggie Otis Summer 2015 Tour

Shuggie Otis

Rhythm & Blues legend Shuggie Otis came out of retirement – or a really long hiatus, depending on how you look at it – a couple of years ago to perform his first live dates in years. The critically-acclaimed artist shook off the ring rust and managed to lay the smackdown on audiences with an exciting live show that included new takes on classic Otis songs like “Inspiration Information,” “Shuggie’s Boogie,” and “Strawberry Letter 23.” A brief 2014 tour led to Otis’s first concert album, Live In Williamsburg, which was released last year on CD, vinyl, and DVD.

Otis will hit the road again in July for a coast-to-coast barnstorming tour across North America. To give you an idea of the kind of show to expect, I wrote in my review of Live In Williamsburg for The Blues magazine (U.K.) that “Otis’s vocals and guitar playing show little or no rust here, displaying the same livewire electricity as his groundbreaking 1970s work, albeit tempered with experience and wisdom.” Shuggie possesses a unique musical voice and blues-based guitar style that incorporates elements of funk, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll unlike any artist before or since.

Shuggie Otis Live In Williamsburg
Shuggie Otis is the son of West Coast R&B legend Johnny and a true musical prodigy that learned not only from his father but also by performing and recording alongside legendary talents like Al Kooper, Etta James, Frank Zappa, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Otis recorded his first album at age sixteen and largely retired from the business by age 30 with a handful of classic recordings to his name. The 2013 reissue of Otis’s landmark 1974 album Inspiration Information (which included Wings of Love, a bonus disc of unreleased recordings) led to renewed interest in the skilled singer, songwriter, and guitarist and, subsequently, to last year’s tour. If you’ve never seen Otis perform – and chances are that you haven’t – you’re going to want to catch one of the below-listed shows. You can thank me later... 

Shuggie Otis Tour Dates

07/05 @ City Winery, Napa CA 
07/10 @ Continental Club, Houston TX
07/11 @ Continental Club, Austin TX
07/12 @ DADA Club, Dallas TX
07/15 @ Rev Room, Little Rock AR
07/16 @ City Winery, Nashville TN
07/17 @ City Winery, Chicago IL
07/19 @ Ottawa Bluesfest, Ottawa CAN
07/20 @ Lee's Palace, Toronto CAN 
07/22 @ The Sinclair, Boston MA
07/23 @ Iron Horse, North Hampton MA
07/24 @ Brooklyn Bowl, Brooklyn NY
07/25 @ B.B. King Blues Club, New York NY 
07/26 @ The Egg, Albany NY
07/30 @ Ardmore Music Hall, Lancaster PA
07/31 @ Howard Theater, Washington DC
08/01 @ Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh NC
08/03 @ Georgia Terminal West, Atlanta GA
08/06 @ Vinyl, Pensacola FL

Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear & Loathing Graphic Novel

Troy Little's Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas graphic novel

 “What were we doing out here...? What was the meaning of this trip? Did I actually have a big red convertible out there on the street? Was I just roaming around these Mint Hotel escalators in a drug frenzy of some kind, or had I really come out here to Las Vegas to work on a story?” — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

This may well be the perfect pairing of a classic work of literary art and, well, visual artwork – in October 2015, Top Shelf Productions will release a graphic adaptation of legendary writer Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a full-color graphic novel. Thompson’s gonzo tale of a memorable trip to the desert city is illustrated by Eisner-nominated artist Troy Little. The adaptation is said to be faithful to Thompson’s original work, and Little – winner of a Xeric award for his graphic novel Chiaroscuro and nominated for an Eisner award for his series Angora Napkin, “brings a new level of manic energy to Thompson’s rocket-fueled narrative” according to a press release for the book.

Originally published in 1972, the story of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a tale in and of itself. Working on a separate story for Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson traveled to Vegas with Mexican-American activist attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta to get away from L.A. and do research for the article. Thompson took advantage of a paid assignment by Sports Illustrated covering the Mint 400 motorcycle race in Vegas as a way to underwrite the trip. What was originally supposed to be a 250-word photograph caption ballooned into a 2,500-word story that the magazine quickly rejected.

Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Thompson’s fictionalized story of the Vegas trip subsequently appeared, with illustrations by artist Ralph Steadman, as a two-part series in Rolling Stone in late 1971. It was published in book form the next year by Random House as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream with additional illustrations by Steadman.

The based-on-a-true-story tale was written as a first-person account by Thompson’s alter-ego Raoul Duke, a journalist who is accompanied by his “300-pound Samoan attorney” Dr. Gonzo (i.e. Acosta) to Vegas. The two cover the motorcycle race, crash a narcotic’s officers’ convention while blasted on mind-altering drugs, and manage to rack up an obscene room service bill. The book would become Thompson’s best-known work, and was adapted to film in 1998 movie starring Johnny Depp. The 1980 film Where The Buffalo Roam, starring Bill Murray, was based on a number of Thompson stories, including Fear and Loathing

The graphic novel version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas runs 176 pages and will be published by Top Shelf as a 6”x9” hardback book with a cover price of $24.95. If you’re a Thompson fan, you’re going to want a copy of this one for your gonzo bookshelf!

Friday, May 22, 2015

CD Review: Jeff Beck's Performing This Week...Live At Ronnie Scott's

British blues-rock guitarist Jeff Beck first came to prominence as Eric Clapton’s replacement in the legendary British blues-rock band the Yardbirds. Better than five decades have passed since that time, and Beck has shown a maddening propensity for confounding the expectations of any observer. His impressive catalog of music ranges from blues-rock and proto-heavy metal to jazz-fusion, pop, and even reggae.

Performing This Week...Live At Ronnie Scott's documents the highlights of a week’s worth of performances from 2007 by Beck and his hand-picked band of bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, keyboardist Jason Rebello, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. The album was originally released in 2008 as a single-disc set featuring sixteen inspired performances; seven years later, Eagle Rock has graced us with an expanded version including a second disc with bonus tracks featuring guest stars like Clapton, and singers Joss Stone and Imogen Heap. The new disc also includes a seven-song live set by Beck with British R&B outfit the Big Town Playboys, with which the guitarist recorded the 1993 album Crazy Legs

Jeff Beck’s Performing This Week...

Beck used his five-night stand at Ronnie Scott’s club to revisit a wide range of musical memories. Performing This Week opens with Beck's classic rock chestnut, “Beck’s Bolero,” first recorded in 1966 with members of the Who and the guys that would eventually become Led Zeppelin, and was originally issued as the B-side of an early Jeff Beck single. The song is, structurally, a confused mess of martial rhythms and neo-classical riffs paired with Beck’s soaring, mournful guitar riff that speaks in its own otherworldly voice before the song breaks down into a blues-rock romp amidst a squall of instrumentation. By any theory, it shouldn’t work – but it does – and the song has thrilled audiences for decades now!

From this point, Performing This Week runs fast and loose through a set of songs that showcase Beck’s broad musical palette. The guitarist’s love of avant-garde jazz is on display with the band’s scorching cover of John McLaughlin’s “Eternity's Breath.” Beck’s fingers dance across the edge of a breathtaking song that reveals elements of blues, funk, rock, and jazz sitting in wait beneath a storm of percussion, Beck’s fretwork moving from silence to a scream and back in the blink of an eye. Beck’s reading of jazz drummer Billy Cobham’s classic “Stratus” is both subdued and elegant, the guitarist not attempting to merely mimic the underrated Tommy Bolin’s original 1973 fretwork, but rather build upon it in a re-imaging of the song’s aggressive mix of rock, jazz, and blues.

Beck’s Brush With The Blues

Stevie Wonder’s classic “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” is interpreted by Beck as a melancholy dirge, crying notes capturing the bittersweet feel of the original. Performed sans vocals, the arrangement relies heavily on instrumentation to create the atmosphere, and the weeping guitar and subtle, funky bass notes do not disappoint. The energetic “Blast From The East” begins with a wiry rhythmic framework on top of which Beck embroiders his golden six-string flourishes, the guitarist’s recurrent, mesmerizing riff-like lead punctuated by blasts of psychedelic color, explosive percussion, and a funky throbbing bass-line. An inspired mash-up of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” with the Beck/Tony Hymas original “Brush With The Blues” falls heavier on the blues side of the musical equation. Beck’s dark-hued arrangement of the songs amplify their mournful aspects, his guitar scattering crying notes across a subdued drumbeat and slight rhythm, Beck coaxing tears out of his instrument, duplicating the saddest blues lyrics you've ever heard.

Beck revisits a number of fan favorites with Performing This Week. The lively “Led Boots” is a flat-out rocker with razor-sharp blues-rock riffs and nimble percussion, while Beck’s “Scatterbrain” begins with a locomotive rockabilly riff before descending into literal madness, the musicians delving deep into instrumental anarchy before order is once again restored to close the song. Beck’s version of the Lennon/McCartney Beatles’ gem “A Day In The Life” has been a live staple of his for years, and here he imbues the song with such lovely grace and dignity that you can literally hear the well-worn lyrics sung through his instrument. The Tony Hymas/Simon Phillips jam “Space Boogie” from Beck’s 1980 album There and Back is a perfect example of the guitarist’s mid-to-late 1970s flirtation with eclectic jazz-fusion. Beck’s dynamic, manic fretboard runs duel with Jason Rebello’s lively piano-pounding, the song sounding altogether like an entertaining Return To Forever studio outtake. 

Live At Ronnie Scott’s Bonus Tracks

As mentioned above, Performing This Week has been expanded to a second disc with additional audio from the original recorded shows along with bonus tracks featuring the Big Town Playboys. To be honest, the vocal tracks don’t do much for me here…no, the Reverend isn’t one of those purists who believes that Rod Stewart is the only appropriate singer for Beck. But the normally soulful Joss Stone over-emotes like crazy on an otherwise inspired performance of the Curtis Mayfield classic “People Get Ready,” her over-the-top vox drawing ready comparisons to Stewart, who sang the song on Beck’s 1985 album Flash, scoring a minor hit. Imogen Heap does a fine job with the Muddy Waters’ gem “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” the band getting deep down in a dark groove behind Beck’s locomotive riffing and guitar squeals, her vocals as nasty as the backing instrumentation, providing the song with an eerie, swampy voodoo vibe.

Beck’s longtime friend and sometimes competitor Eric Clapton is featured on a pair of tunes, including Waters’ “Little Brown Bird.” Although the guitar interplay between the two legends is invigorating, Clapton’s lackluster vocals hit your ears more like a whisper than a howl. Better is his take on Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” the bones of which were appropriated years ago by the pair’s old Yardbirds mate Jimmy Page for Zeppelin. Above some massive riffs and a rocking rhythm track, Clapton attempts to hit something approximating Robert Plant’s vocals, displaying a spark of his old fire. Better still are the six performances featuring Beck and the Big Town Playboys, a fiery mix of blues, rockabilly, and reckless soul that benefits from Beck’s instinctive fretwork. No source or date is listed for these performances, but they sizzle like bacon fat, tracks like Gene Vincent’s “Race With The Devil” and Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” shaking, rattling, and rolling like a juke-joint Saturday night. A scorching cover of the standard “Train Kept A Rollin’” is hot enough to have Johnny Burnette rocking in his grave. 

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If you’ve been wondering for even a minute why Jeff Beck received the honor of induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Performing This Week should answer all of your questions. No single guitarist...not even a trailblazer like Jimi Hendrix...has done more to expand the vocabulary of the instrument than Jeff Beck. His technique is nearly flawless, his versatility simply awe-inspiring, and his encyclopedic knowledge of musical styles is beyond impressive.

With boundless imagination and no little sense of musical adventure, Performing This Week...Live At Ronnie Scott’s represents the wealth of excellence that has been the hallmark of Jeff Beck’s lengthy and creative musical career. The addition of a second disc chockfull of additional performances makes a good thing even better. The only question remaining is why did Eagle Rock wait so long to release these musical goodies on CD? Better late than never, I suppose, and if you didn’t grab up a copy of Performing This Week the first time round, here’s another chance to take the ride – this time with even more musical goodness. (Eagle Rock Records, released June 2, 2015)

Buy the CD from Jeff Beck's Performing This Week... Live At Ronnie Scott's

The Boomtown Rats – Live In Germany ‘78

The Boomtown Rats never really caught on stateside as they did in the U.K. Formed in Ireland in 1975 by singer Bob Geldof and guitarist Garry Roberts, the Rats were really more of a pub-rock outfit than anything else. Influenced by bands like Dr. Feelgood, the Rolling Stones, and the Who, the Rats delivering stripped-down, raw, unadorned rock ‘n’ roll that pre-dated the British punk scene with which they’re most firmly identified (although they’re also categorized as a “new wave” band…go figure!).

While the Rats’ best-selling U.S. album – 1979’s The Fine Art of Surfacing – peaked at #103 on the Billboard album chart due to the MTV exposure provided the single “I Don’t Like Mondays” (which, criminally, only hit #73 stateside), the Rats scored ten straight hit singles in the U.K., including two number ones, and their first four albums charted in the top twenty in their homeland.

Their lack of U.S. recognition aside, the Boomtown Rats were a damn fine rock band circa 1977-1981, with a brace of solid album releases to their credit. In addition to the aforementioned The Fine Art of Surfacing, the band’s self-titled 1977 debut and the following year’s A Tonic For The Troops (with the cool, Springsteenesque jam “Rat Trap”) displayed a punkish energy and traditional rock influences that sound as fresh and vital today as they did almost 40 years ago. As the band became more accomplished with subsequent albums, their sound would lose the rough edges and take on more artful flourishes. Eventually, the Rats would be overshadowed by the personality and public persona of their frontman, and they’d break up in the mid-1980s.

Damn, those early Boomtown Rats albums rocked hard though, the late 1970s a prolific and productive time for a band whose talents are too often overlooked in favor of contemporaries like the Clash or the Jam. Sadly, few live recordings of the band in its prime have been released. On June 8th, 2015 our friends at Gonzo Multimedia will release Live In Germany ’78, a two-disc DVD/CD set that features thirteen previously-unreleased, high-octane performances from the band’s storied 1978 world tour.

Surprisingly, Live In Germany ’78 is light on tunes from Tonic, the band’s album at the time, featuring only the U.K. hit single “She’s So Modern” from that disc. The bulk of this live set comes from the band’s fine debut LP, including their first hit single, “Looking After No. 1,” and its follow-up hit, “Mary of the 4th Form.” The Rats knock out eight of nine songs from their debut here, as well as a trio of very cool non-album B-sides like “Do The Rat” and “It’s All The Rage” which, to the best of my knowledge, have never appeared on a Boomtown Rats album previously.

The band at the time – Geldof, guitarists Roberts and Gerry Cott, bassist Pete Briquette, keyboardist Johnnie Fingers, and drummer Simon Crowe – were a dynamic outfit with a great chemistry, so this live set should rock the rafters and provide further evidence that the Boomtown Rats were one of the best bands to emerge from the heady and talented U.K. rock scene of the 1970s.        

The Boomtown Rats’ Live In Germany ’78 tracklist:

1. Close As You'll Ever Be
2. Never Bite the Hand That Feeds
3. Neon Heart
4. (It Feels) So Strange
5. Kicks
6. She's So Modern
7. Joey's On the Street Again
8. Don't Believe What You Read
9. (She's Gonna) Do You In
10. Do the Rat
11. It's All the Rage
12. Mary of the 4th Form
13. Looking After Number 1

CD Preview: Samantha Fish’s Wild Heart

Samantha Fish's Wild Heart
She’s one of the brightest and most talented young blues artists coming up in the scene today. On July 10th, 2015 the world will receive further evidence of her talents when Ruf Records releases Wild Heart, the third album from singer, songwriter, and guitarist Samantha Fish.

Produced by Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), Wild Heart features an ace backing band including Dickinson on various stringed instruments, drummer Brady Blade, and Memphis session singers Shonetelle Norman-Beatty and Risse Norman. Guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm and drummer Sharde Thomas also lend their talents in the studio. Fish recorded the album in several distinctive and unique studios, starting at Blade’s studio in Shreveport, Louisiana before moving on to Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch Studios in Hernando, Mississippi. Wild Heart was finished up in Memphis at Willie Mitchell’s famed Royal Studios and the legendary Ardent Studio.

To prepare for Wild Heart, Fish journeyed to Nashville to write with songwriter Jim McCormick, whose songs have been recorded by Trisha Yearwood and Keith Urban. The New Orleans native provided the experience and musical knowledge to allow Fish to fully express herself, and the pair wrote five of the twelve songs on the album, including blues-rock tune “Show Me,” the raucous tale of betrayal “Road Runner,” and the riffish title track. The trip from Louisiana to Mississippi and the Zebra Ranch Studios allowed the young guitarist to experience some flavor of the birthplace of the blues.

In Mississippi she cut a cover of Charley Patton’s “Jim Lee Blues, Part One,” with Hill Country guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm and drummer Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of Mississippi fife/drum legend Otha Turner. “This session had a whole other vibe to it,” Fish says in a press release for Wild Heart. “The studio is out in the country, no cell service, no distractions. You're just surrounded by nature and guitars.” Fish first met Malcolm when she attended the King Biscuit Blues Festival when she was 17 years old. “Working with Malcolm was a longtime coming as I'd known him since I was a teenager. Hearing hill country blues made me fall in love with blues music and he was one of the first artists who let me jam with him.”

Still in her mid-20s, Fish already has two critically-acclaimed albums under her belt – 2011’s Runaway and 2013’s Black Wind Howlin’ – both produced by bluesman Mike Zito. She was honored with a “Best New Artist Debut” Blues Music Award for Runaway, and she’s shared stages with legends like Buddy Guy and Tab Benoit. Wild Heart is further proof of her talent and dedication to the blues; you expect to hear a lot more from Samantha Fish as the years go by.

Buy the CD from Samantha Fish's Wild Heart

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Fossils: Blue Oyster Cult's Some Enchanted Evening (1978)

Blue Oyster Cult's Some Enchanted Evening
(click to embiggen)
Blue Oyster Cult – Some Enchanted Evening

The decade of the 1970s was the era of the live rock ‘n’ roll album, with just about any old band of road warriors slapping a hastily-recorded show on vinyl and laughing all the way to the bank after picking their fans’ wallets. The best-known of these concert trinkets was, perhaps, former Humble Pie guitarist Peter Frampton’s 1976 set Frampton Comes Alive! When the obscure fretburner’s budget-priced twofer hit the top of the charts, the race was on among major label A&R reps to break their pet band in a similar manner. Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy, Ted Nugent, and Led Zeppelin were among those to flog live sets in the wake of Frampton’s chart-busting breakthrough.

Blue Oyster Cult was ahead of the curve, though, the band releasing its first live set, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, in 1975 – only three albums into its short career. The band’s electrifying live chops obviously entertained the iron lung set, and fans put aside their bongs long enough to drive the LP to #22 on the charts, representing BOC’s best-selling flapjack to date. By the time of the release of Some Enchanted Evening in 1978, Blue Oyster Cult had racked up a pair of red-hot hitters in 1976’s Agents of Fortune (#29) and the following year’s Spectres (#43). The two albums vaulted BOC to the top of the arena-rock ranks, so the band was ripe for the release of another live set.

Some Enchanted Evening was a curiously unsatisfying curio, the album’s too-brief set list featuring the two latest band hits in “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and “Godzilla,” accompanied by odd covers of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” and the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.” No mind, though, ‘cause the band’s blockheaded fans (myself included) bought this thing by the truckload, driving it to #44 on the charts.

The label’s ad campaign for the album didn’t really help anything…featuring the album cover’s very cool depiction of the Reaper, the best concept the art department could come up with was “don’t fear the Blue Oyster Cult,” a play on the title of the band’s best-known ditty. Any half dozen of the band’s fans could have come up with something better, provided they were sober enough and not just sitting, staring at the album cover and saying “whoooaaa” after inhaling too much ganja. 

Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow – Live In Denver 1979

Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow - Denver 1979
There have been a few live Rainbow albums trickle out from the archives over the past few years, almost all of ‘em showcasing the ground-breaking, earth-shaking Ronnie James Dio era of the band when guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s influential outfit Rainbow trotted across the musical landscape like a proud T-Rex. After Ritchie and Ronnie James went their separate directions, however – Dio moving on to a superb solo career – Rainbow regrouped with one of the best line-ups of the band's lengthy run. Fronted by the leather-lunged Graham Bonnet and including bassist Roger Glover (Blackmore’s former Deep Purple bandmate), keyboardist Don Airey (from Coliseum II), and journeyman drummer Cozy Powell.

This is the group that would record the band’s breakthrough LP, 1979’s Down To Earth, which yielded a minor hit in its energetic cover of Russ Ballard’s “Since You Been Gone.” Bonnet was a different sort of beast than Dio, his vocals leaning more towards a lean hard rock sound whereas Dio favored a soaring, symphonic approach to the material. With the new band members finding an easy chemistry, this era of Rainbow delivered a hard-rockin’, proto-metal sound that was FM radio-friendly and arena ready. The tour in support of Down To Earth was legendary, pulling material from all four of the band’s albums as well as featuring a massive, awe-inspiring light show.

The Down To Earth era of Rainbow has been severely underrepresented by live material, however, an oversight partially remedied by Cleopatra Records and the May 26th, 2015 release of Denver 1979 on glorious colored vinyl. The full-length, double-disc set will be available in your choice of three different colors of wax – red, green, or blue – and packaged in an eye-popping holographic foil gatefold jacket. There are only seven songs, but they’re long ones, with plenty of room for the band to stretch out and jam, and Denver 1979 includes performances of several of the band’s most popular tunes, including “All Night Long” and “Since You Been Gone” from Down To Earth as well as “Man On The Silver Mountain” and “Long Live Rock N Roll.”

On August 21st, 2015 Cleopatra will revisit the Bonnet era of Rainbow with the release of Down To Earth Tour 1979, a deluxe three-CD box set that features full-length concert recordings from Denver, Long Island, and Chicago, taken from radio broadcasts and each packaged in an individual sleeve. Aside from a helluva lot of great music, the box also includes a bunch of goodies that will have the hardcore Rainbow fan salivating, including a 1” color button, an embroidered fabric patch, a Ritchie Blackmore signature guitar pick, and a combo bottle opener/keychain, all packaged in a red-velvet lined box. Mighty swanky swag, but it’s the music that’s going to sell this one, with longtime fans finally able to get a taste of Rainbow’s 1979 tour on disc.

(Fun facts: Rainbow opened for Blue Oyster Cult during the first leg of their 1979 U.S. tour, headlining the second half of the tour with opening acts like John Cougar (!), Gamma, Scorpions and, in the Detroit area, the mighty Cub Koda!)

Buy the vinyl from Rainbow's Denver 1979

Friday, May 15, 2015

Blues Legend B.B. King, R.I.P.

There will never be another like him…blues legend Riley “B.B.” King, one of the greatest American musicians and performers in any genre, passed away on Thursday, May 14th, 2015 after a brief illness. King was 89 years old.

Born in 1925 on a plantation near Itta Bena, King considered nearby Indianola his hometown, and that’s where The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a museum dedicated to the bluesman, is located. The son of sharecroppers, as a youth B.B. picked cotton and sang in the church. Depending on who’s telling the story, King either bought or was gifted his first guitar by his cousin Bukka White, a blues legend in his own right.

Beale Street Blues Boy

B.B. King's Singin' The Blues
In 1946, King moved to Memphis, but he returned to Mississippi for a couple of years, moving to West Memphis, Arkansas in 1948. The young musician performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM in West Memphis, developing an audience that he took with him when he began a program of his own on Memphis radio station WDIA. King was so popular that he became a station DJ under the name “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which was later shortened to “Blues Boy” before he just became “B.B.”

King recorded his first sides for Nashville’s Bullet Records in 1949 before signing with the Bahari Brothers’ RPM Records label in Los Angeles. King’s career began to flourish while with RPM, the guitarist scoring his first R&B chart hit in 1952 with “Three O’Clock Blues.” From there, King was off to the races, reeling off a string of hits throughout the 1950s including songs like “Woke Up This Morning,” “Sweet Little Angel,” “You Know I Love You,” “Every Day I Have The Blues,” and many others. King toured constantly, racking up in excess of 300 dates a year, a grueling schedule that he’d pursue for decades.

A Legacy of Quality

When the popularity of blues music began to wane with African-American audiences in the 1960s, King found newfound fame with young white rock fans, and he was the opening act for the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour. He signed with ABC-Paramount Records in 1962, which would later be bought out by MCA Records, which later became Geffen Records…King essentially recorded with the same company for better than 60 years. Although King had released a number of albums while with RPM/Modern Records during the early 1960s, some of which were compilations of singles, the guitarist hit his stride for ABC-Paramount later in the decade, establishing a legacy of quality that would characterize King’s career until the end.

B.B. King's Live In Cook County Jail
Beginning with 1965’s classic Live At The Regal and running well into the 1970s, King created a run of classic albums, many of them live recordings, that stand as some of the best blues albums, ever – 1969’s Live & Well and Completely Well; 1970’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds (which included Joe Walsh and Leon Russell); 1971’s Live In Cook County Jail and B.B. King In London (with Ringo Starr, Peter Green, and members of Humble Pie and Spooky Tooth); 1972's L.A. Midnight and Guess Who, and many others – King was nothing if not prolific. In 1974, King recorded the first of two albums with his former valet, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Together For The First Time…Live hitting #2 on the Billboard magazine R&B chart and #43 on the mainstream albums chart. A sequel of sorts was released two years later, Bobby Bland and B.B. King Together Again…Live performing nearly as well on the charts.

Late Career Triumphs

As the decade of the 1970s rolled to a close, King’s prolific recording output began to slow down. He released but five albums during the 1980s (compared with nine the previous decade), and six albums during the ‘90s, but recordings like Deuces Wild and Blues on The Bayou kept his popularity high, and he continued to tour better than nine months each year. King performed and recorded with a number of other artists though the years – U2, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Cyndi Lauper, and many others, and he also made guest appearances on a number of TV shows, including The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Sesame Street, Married…With Children, and Touched By An Angel. He also appeared in films like Blues Brothers 2000 and Spies Like Us.

B.B. King & Eric Clapton's Riding With The King
King reached the pinnacle of his career in 2000 with the release of Riding With The King. Recorded with friend and guitarist Eric Clapton, the album earned King one of his many Grammy™ Awards. Certified Double Platinum™ for over two million sold, the album was also his highest-charting, peaking at number three. King released his 42nd and final studio album, One Kind Favor, in 2008. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, it was considered a late career triumph, and it earned King both a Grammy™ and a Blues Music Award. He continued to tour heavily (100+ nights annually) until illness forced him off the road in late 2014.

B.B. King’s Accolades

The list of accolades and honors provided King is too lengthy to recount here. The guitarist was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2014. King won his first Grammy™ Award in 1970 for his classic song “The Thrill Is Gone,” and would go on to earn 15 more Grammys. He won so many W.C. Handy/Blues Music Awards through the years (15 in all from 39 nominations) that The Blues Foundation’s “Blues Entertainer of the Year” award was renamed the “B.B. King Entertainer of the Year” award. In 2012, King had the opportunity to perform at the White House for President Obama.
B.B. King's One Kind Favor
While King’s death was not totally unexpected – he’d been hospitalized for dehydration and fatigue in October, and had battled diabetes and high blood pressure for decades – it still comes as a great loss for the blues community. One thing that stands out as people share their memories of King on social media – is his warmth, kindness, and geniality – which are as legendary as his music. B.B. King inspired a legion of rock and blues musicians and he thrilled several generations of fans. King was the greatest ambassador for the blues that the music has ever enjoyed. King’s legacy is as large as any artist of the 20th century, and his influence will continue to be felt for years.   

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Omnivore Revisits Carla Olson & the Textones

The Textones circa 1984
The Textones circa 1984, photo by Gary Nichamin
The decade of the 1980s is littered with bands that worked in the Americana mines, artists inspired by the Byrds and the Burritos but bloodied by clashes with ignorant label execs and largely indifferent audiences beholden to punk-rock and nerf-metal. The roster of the fallen is a talented list of names, indeed – Jason & the Scorchers, Walk The West, the Cruzados, the Long Ryders, Green On Red, the Beat Farmers, Stealin’ Horses, Webb Wilder & the Beatnecks, et al – but perhaps none were slighted more egregiously than the wonderful Carla Olson and her band the Textones. History gives the band another chance on May 26th, 2015 when Omnivore Recordings revisits the Textones’ catalog with reissues of the band’s two lone studio albums, Midnight Mission and Cedar Creek.

Formed in 1978 when singer, songwriter, and guitarist Olson moved from her Austin, Texas hometown to Los Angeles, the Textones ran through a handful of line-ups (including one with future Go-Gos member Kathy Valentine) before landing on the perfect chemistry of Olson, guitarist George Callins, multi-instrumentalist Tom Junior Morgan, bassist Joe Read, and drummer Phil Seymour, former Dwight Twilley Band member. It’s this version of the Textones that signed with Danny Goldberg’s A&M Records-distributed Gold Mountain label to record their debut album, Midnight Mission.

The Textones' Midnight Mission

A brilliant collection of rock, blues, and twang with just enough pop undertones to appeal to the great unwashed masses, Midnight Mission was produced by former Electric Flag keyboardist Barry Goldberg, a veteran roots ‘n’ bluesman who had spent some time with the godfathers of the genre like Gram Parsons. The album featured contributions from former Byrds guitarist Gene Clark (with whom Olson would later record a wonderful album), Ry Cooder (Rising Sons), and the Eagles’ Don Henley.  

Midnight Mission is a collection of largely-original songs written by Olson or band member Callins, the lone exception being the unreleased Bob Dylan song “Clean Cut Kid,” which the Scribe offered to Olson after she appeared in Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You” music video. Dylan being an obvious musical touchstone, the song slides right in alongside the Textones’ originals, the album an entertaining and influential work of early Americana.

Midnight Mission would inch onto the Billboard magazine Top 200 Albums chart at #176, but songs like the title track, “Number One Is To Survive,” and “Standing In The Line” would receive airplay on both commercial and college radio and MTV. The Omnivore reissue of Midnight Mission features five additional bonus tracks, including three songs recorded for the soundtrack of the 1985 film Sylvester, as well as two previously unreleased live performances from Rock of the 80’s that were recorded at The Palace in Hollywood in 1984.

The Textones' Cedar Creek

The Textones' Cedar Creek
After a tumultuous three years that saw Seymour replaced by new drummer Rick Hemmert, the Textones signed with Enigma Records to record the band’s long-anticipated follow-up to Midnight Mission. The resulting album, 1987’s Cedar Creek, was produced by Michael Stone, who had worked previously with bands like America and Firefall. Musically, the album offered up more of the same sort of high-octane roots ‘n’ blues that fueled its predecessor, nine original songs including one written by Olson and Kathy Valentine.

Guest appearances by future Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductees Ian McLagan (The Faces) and Howie Epstein (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) rounded out the album’s roots-rock sound, and while the band’s musical growth was incremental, Olson’s passionate vocals and expressive songwriting raised the Textones above the glut of MTV-ready late-decade rock bands. Cedar Creek failed to chart, however, and the band would call it quits soon after its release. The Omnivore reissue of Cedar Creek includes bonus tracks in the form of eight live performances recorded live at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, California in November 1987.

In a press release for the new reissues, Olson says “we were ahead of our time or just didn’t get the breaks needed? An artist never knows. What I do know is that when the Textones played together, we created a musical fabric never far from our many influences and diverse backgrounds, and that the connection we felt between us was one of the joy of entertaining and the hopefulness of our music. We are glad the music is being made available again especially with the live set that we've added to Cedar Creek. We were one hell of a rock ’n’ roll band.”

Carla Olson is still making great music, going on to record albums with Gene Clark and Mick Taylor in the ‘90s, as well as creating a significant catalog of solo albums. She has also worked in production, working with artists like Paul Jones, Joe Louis Walker, Charlie Musselwhite, and many others. For a few years in the 1980s, however, the Textones were the cream of the L.A. crop, making great Americana music before it even had a name. Midnight Mission and Cedar Creek represent the band’s legacy, and kudos to Omnivore for these long overdue reissues.

Buy the CDs from
Midnight Mission
Cedar Creek   

Midnight Mission track listing:
1. Standing in the Line
2. Hands of the Working Man
3. No Love in You
4. Running
5. Number One Is to Survive
6. Midnight Mission
7. Upset Me
8. Luck Don’t Last Forever
9. Clean Cut Kid
10. See the Light
11. It’s Okay
12. Just a Matter of Time
13. Number One Is to Survive [alternate version]
14. Running [live]
15. No Love In You [live]

Cedar Creek track listing:
1. Not Afraid
2. Every Angel in Heaven
3. Another Soul Searcher
4. One Love
5. Austin 
6. Gotta Get Back Home
7. You Can Run
8. Cedar Creek
9. We Can Laugh About It
10. Gotta Get Back Home [live]
11. Not Afraid [live]
12. No Love in You [live]
13. You Can Run [live]
14. Austin [live]
15. Upset Me [live]
16. Every Angel in Heaven [live]
17. Standing in the Line [live]

Fossils: Bad Company's Straight Shooter (1975)

Bad Company's Straight Shooter
(click to embiggen)
Bad Company – Straight Shooter

British blues-rock outfit Bad Company already had a heady track record before the release of its 1974 self-titled debut album. Paul Rodgers, the voice of the band, put together Bad Company after the break-up of Free, his legendary 1960s-era outfit. Rodgers brought drummer Simon Kirke from that previous band along for the ride, joining guitarist Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople and bassist Boz Burrell from King Crimson to form Bad Company. The debut album’s first hit single, “Can’t Get Enough,” hit #5 on the chart, pushing the album itself to number one.

A year later, Bad Company released Straight Shooter, more of the same hard rock and boogie blues that characterized the band’s first LP – no surprise, really, as many of the songs had been written in ‘73 around the time of the debut (and may have been leftovers from those first sessions). The ad campaign for Straight Shooter showcases the band (and friends) gambling at a craps table (in keeping with the two dice theme on the album’s cover, the dice showing a “natural” eleven), portraying Bad Company taking risks and living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

Sadly, Straight Shooter displayed little of the risk the ad was clearly trying to picture, the band following the same formula as the debut, and one that they more or less chased throughout the remainder of the 1970s (or until Rodgers left the band). Straight Shooter was only slightly less successful than the debut, hitting #3 on the album chart on the strength of the hit single “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” which itself rose to #10, followed by “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad,” which was also a Top 40 hit single.

Still, the “sophomore slump” for Bad Company was quite obvious, and the band would experience diminishing commercial returns with their recordings as the years wore on, even if Rodgers' enormous voice and charisma, coupled with Mick Ralphs' slashing fretwork, would keep them headlining arenas for the rest of the decade. 

CD Preview: Sly & the Family Stone' Live at the Fillmore

Sly & the Family Stone’s Live At The Fillmore East October 4th & 5th, 1968
Let’s get straight to the chase here, buckos! On July 17th, 2015 Legacy Recordings will release Sly & the Family Stone’s Live At The Fillmore East October 4th & 5th, 1968, a four-disc set comprised of four different shows (two early and two late shows) from two nights in October 1968. The previously unreleased performances were recorded at promoter Bill Graham’s legendary NYC venue The Fillmore East in support of the band’s third album, Life.

There’s some significant overlap between the two nights and across all four discs, each of which contains an entire performance – you know that Sly was going to play the band’s big hit, “Dance To The Music” every night – and, indeed, it’s here four times, as are great songs like “M’Lady” and “Color Me True.” But there are also some other individual gems to be found among the 34 performances on the box set, and while I haven’t heard it yet, it’s a sure bet that there’s some subtle shading and differences in the performances from show to show.

In late ’68 Sly & the Family Stone were building a well-deserved reputation as a dynamic, high-energy live band, and Live At The Fillmore East will be a fine addition to the collection of any funky fan.

Buy the CD set from Sly & the Family Stone's Live At The Fillmore East October 4th & 5th, 1968

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Randy Chortkoff Interview (2009)

 I heard the sad news today that blues musician, producer, promoter, and label executive Randy Chortkoff had passed away from liver disease at 65 years old. Chortkoff had been a mover and shaker in the blues world for decades, first as musician playing with his friends, later as promoter putting on shows in Los Angeles with some of the most underrated artists in the blues.

Randy was the founder of the Delta Groove Music family of labels, and over the past nine years he released an amazing number of critically-acclaimed albums by artists as diverse as Elvin Bishop, Rod Piazza, Bob Corritore, Candye Kane, Mitch Kashmar, Sean Costello, Ana Popovic, Mike Zito, Tracy Nelson, and many more.

As a musician, Chortkoff was the driving force behind the Mannish Boys, an all-star blues supergroup that recorded a half-dozen live and studio albums between 2004 and 2014 that featured talents like singers Finis Tasby and Sugaray Rayford and guitarists Kirk Fletcher and Frank “Paris Slim” Goldwasser, as well as guest stars like Kid Ramos and Junior Watson.

I had the opportunity to interview Randy by phone during the summer of 2009, and although the conversation was frequently interrupted, he had some great stories to tell. To say that Chortkoff will be missed by the blues world is an understatement, and this previously-unpublished interview displays his unwavering passion for the blues…  


What got you interested in music in the first place?

I was interested music because in the junior high school that I went to and even prior, when I was in elementary school, I gravitated towards the soul music of the day. A lot of the kids would be listening to pop hits, so they’d be listening to whatever was popular – Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley – and I’d hear a James Brown song like “Please, Please, Please” and I just fell in love with it and wanted to go out and buy the 45 and play it over and over.

So I was always drawn to that and then later, when rock ‘n’ roll came into play and me and all my friends are listening to groups like the Rolling Stones…I wasn’t a huge fan of the Beatles…but listening to groups like the Yardbirds, early Fleetwood Mac, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, I always gravitated towards the blues-orientated music. So I was bitten by the soul, blues, and R&B bug early even though I was a big fan of rock ‘n’ roll.

When did you decide to start playing music?

The British Invasion really affected me – some of the Rolling Stones’ records and the Yardbirds’ records, and a lot of the music that was coming out of England – Eric Burdon and stuff like that, and harmonica was being played so I got myself a harmonica.

Was the harmonica your primary instrument? Did you ever decide to play guitar or some other instrument or did you stick with the harp?

I pretty much stuck with the harp…to be really honest with you, I just never had the patience to sit down and learn how to play guitar or learn an instrument. As a matter of fact, even with the harmonica, I’m not like a lot of these guys around, the Cary Bells of the world. I’ve never been able to sit down and actually listen to and retain, and have the patience to learn songs from notes. So a lot of times, my harmonica playing is not as good as these other guys, it’s just basically my own style with a little bit of influences from what I’ve been listening to over the years.

I know you worked with harp players like Billy Boy Arnold and Cary Bell. What, if anything, have you taken away from working with those guys?

Being a harmonica player and being a huge blues fan, I realized after I got much older that my father had a big influence on me. He was a carpet layer, but he and his friend Abe used to go to all the jazz clubs on Central Avenue in Los Angeles and they were big jazz fans. They’d see people like Joe Riggs and the Honeydrippers, they were big fans of Louis Trema and Keely Smith, but the silver of them all was Louis Armstrong.

Somehow they got to know Louis Armstrong on a personal basis, and my dad became friends with Louis. So whenever Louis would come to town, and I was about 6 or 7 years old at the time, they’d come to our house and he’d bring his wife and he’d bring a couple band members and they’d have a big spread of food and then they’d put me to bed early and they’d do their reefer smokin’ or whatever. Listening to that music, and just having the influence of Louis Armstrong being in my life, it’s really that kind of cool thing. 

How did you get into production?

I’ve always had a band…even as lousy a harmonica player as I was, and still am pretty much, I always had the desire to play. So I put a few people together, a friend of mine who played guitar, somebody played drums, this and that, and we started jamming together. I’d promote these shows, usually on my birthday, at different bars and venues in Los Angeles and I formed my own band and I was lucky enough to have…he was a bass player at the time, Alex Schultz, and I was lucky enough to have Debbie Davies in the band, and then Alex switched his guitar and turned out to be a fabulous guitar player. So we played all the little local clubs in Los Angeles and the name of the band was Dirt Cheap. But I’ve been more of a promoter than an actual player. 

How did you come to producing the Billy Boy Arnold album (1993’s Back Where I Belong)?

Actually, before I produced the Billy Boy Arnold album, I had a band and I had some really great people that played with me, people like Rick Holmstrom, people like Cal David and, as I said, Debbie Davies and Al Schultz. We all lived in the same neighborhood and one night somebody brought this black fellow to one of the clubs we were playing and introduced him and he said his name was King Ernest and that he worked at the Los Angeles County Jail. He wasn’t a cop, he wasn’t a sheriff, he was just a worker. But he said that he was a singer and loved to sing, he sings in church every weekend, and he even made a few 45s back in the ‘60s and he was a big time soul singer in the mid-1960s in Chicago. 

So he sat in that night with the band and from that moment on, we became inseparable. I managed him for four years and I booked dates for us, I was kind of the bandleader and he was the first artist that I brought into the studio, the Pacific Studios in Culver City. I recorded a twelve-song demo on King Ernest, went out and shopped it and sold it to Jerry Gordon at Evidence Records and he put it out. My first recording and the first person I managed and toured with, and brought to Europe was King Ernest, which was in 1991 or ’92.

I was putting on festivals once a year in Los Angeles along with other smaller shows that I was doing just for fun – never for profit, because there was never any profit involved. I started putting on shows on my birthday and that would be the excuse for me to get all my friends together…Rod Piazza, Mitch Kashmar, Al Schultz…all the guys and girls that I knew from the Los Angeles area and they would come and play really cheap because I hardly had any money at the time. I decided to call it “A Tribute to Little Walter Hall of Fame” show, and I made up these plaques with 45s that I would have very inexpensively made and sprayed in gold and put on the plaques, and every year for ten years, I’d have anybody that ever played with Little Walter, was influenced by Little Walter, had recorded with Little Walter, anybody that I liked that I brought to Los Angeles for the show I would do annually. 

The first show I did on a big scale like that, I was introduced to Dave Myers, the bass player out of Chicago. I asked him if he could find Billy Boy and Dave said, “yeah, I know where he’s living, he’s driving a bus,” and he put me in touch with Billy Boy. I told him about these Little Walter tributes I was doing and I invited him to come to Los Angeles to participate in one of my first Little Walter Tribute Hall of Fame shows. In the middle of the show, I would have a break and I would give out these Blues Hall of Fame awards – they really weren’t anything, and they cost me only $20 to make, but to people like Jimmy Rodgers, Luther Tucker, Cary Bell, Lester “Mad Dog” Davenport, Gordon Leary, Matt Simmons, Junior Wells, James Cotton, etc, it was really a huge honor for them. It was the first time they had ever actually received something that they could put on their wall at home and be proud of. 

After Billy Boy came out and did the Little Walter show, we did three of them together, and he was great man…not only did he do all of his hits, but he performed Little Walter tunes for probably 70% of the show. I brought Billy out for that show and then I put together a tour with King Ernest and Billy Boy Arnold; we did the Waterfront Blues Festival with about 30,000 people, we did festivals in Canada, and we played three or four high profile clubs in the northwest and a club in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. It was really a fun tour and as soon as I got back I said, “Billy Boy, why don’t we make a record,” and he said “sure.”

He went back home to Chicago and then he came out again and we rehearsed with my band in my living room, and that was the second CD I ever produced. I went into Pacific Studios again and with my band – which was basically King Ernest’s band – which we called the Tail Draggers at the time. I recorded the first Billy Boy Arnold album that he had done in about 10 to 15 years and when it was done, it was a masterpiece. Not only did it turn out just really good and spontaneous, I got some incredibly great players to back him up, and I sat there with the engineer as he mixed the record so the harmonica tones were big and fat. On one song I had Lester Butler from the Red Devils sit in and play harp, and I had (guitarist) Rick Holmstrom, Rob Rio on piano, just a bunch of great people. I talked to Bruce Iglauer and he put out Back Where I Belong on Alligator Records. 

What motivated you to start a blues label?

Frustration really…I’d been producing these CDs, I produced Billy Boy Arnold, I produced King Ernest, I produced a great CD on Finis Tasby called Jump Children! I couldn’t believe how well that one turned out, probably because I used some of the best blues players in Los Angeles, and I sold it to Evidence, and I really enjoyed producing.
Then I produced two more CDs…one on Kirk Fletcher, an incredible CD. It has Kim Wilson (Fabulous Thunderbirds), it has Jennifer Magnus, Finis Tasby, and a whole array of great musicians. I also produced a record on Frank Goldwasser, who they refer to as “Paris Slim,” and spent a lot of money on that one, it was a great album there, but when I went out to try and sell them, nobody was buying, everybody passed on them. So I thought, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Fortunately, I have a day job making motion pictures, independent motion pictures, and so I started the Delta Groove record label. I put out those two albums that nobody would buy...that was almost five years ago.

What did you want to do with the label once you got those two records out, where did you want to go from there?

I really didn’t have any plans on having a label; I just wanted an avenue to get these records out to the public so they could be heard and so I started searching for a distributor. So I really didn’t plan on it snowballing – I just planned on putting out those two records, having a distributor and getting them into record stores so people could hear them…

The Mannish Boys, 2014

Friday, May 1, 2015

Who Invented Heavy Metal?

Martin Popoff's Who Invented Heavy Metal? book
Writer Martin Popoff is a buddy of mine, a respected colleague in the dark art of rock criticism, and a rabid music fan who has forgotten more about heavy metal music than most of us will ever know. Popoff is the former editor of Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles magazine, and the author of almost four-dozen books on hard rock and heavy metal (including seminal texts on classic bands like Rainbow, Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, and UFO). He’s also worked as a consultant on the VH1 Classic documentary series Rock Icons and Metal Evolution.

Popoff’s latest tome is Who Invented Heavy Metal?, an erudite discussion of the roots of metal music that begins with rock ‘n’ roll’s origins in the 1950s and ends in 1971 after the release of influential and classic albums by Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Uriah Heep. A thought-provoking effort, the book was written to appeal to more than the obvious metalhead audience, and Who Invented Heavy Metal? promises to be an entertaining and informative read for any rock music fan.

In a press release for the book, Popoff says, “folks, this was a monster undertaking, comprising quotes from 126 different speakers (mostly the metal-makers themselves), many of them interviewed multiple times, blasted at you with much of my own contextualizing over 120,000 words of oral history, strict and detailed timeline, obsessive philosophizing, punctuated by more than 250 graphics. This book arose from years of debating this question with people, as well as talks I’ve given on the topic at university conferences. I’ve endeavored to include everything related to the story, the result being a massive arrangement of all the salient arguments, in a weighty tome that ends in 1971!”

Who Invented Heavy Metal? can be ordered directly from Popoff through his website, where you can also find information on his many other books. I’d personally recommend Martin’s three-part series on Thin Lizzy or any of his Ye Olde Metal books, but as Popoff is a knowledgeable and passionate writer, you can’t go wrong with any of his books (and I own a bunch of ‘em!).  

Lost & Found: Vinnie James

Vinnie James' All American Boy
While British and American archival labels delve back into the musty corners of the 1970s for obscure artists and records to reissue, we don’t have to look back any later than 1991. I’m referring to Mr. Vinnie James, a talented and criminally obscure folk-rock singer/songwriter who hails from “parts unknown”…one online account has him growing up in Harlem, another in Newark, New Jersey, the latter considering him a “Jersey Shore sound” artist in the vein of Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny Lyon.

Nevertheless, James ended up in Los Angeles during the late 1980s, playing with a band called Rumbletown, about which even less is known save for James’ position as singer and guitarist. James’ personal website is maddeningly sparse, with links to various social media accounts and not much more. It’s almost as if he emerged from the ether to release one incredible album, and then disappeared again into myth and obscurity.

James released All American Boy, his debut album, in 1991 on Cypress Records, which was distributed by RCA. Working with the cream of the crop of L.A. studio pros, including drummer Kenny Aronoff, guitarist Randy Jackson (Mr. American Idol), and keyboardist Al Kooper, James and noted producer Thom Panunzio (who has worked with Springsteen, John Lennon, and Patti Smith) crafted a fine eleven-song collection that, while it may sound a little slick for an artist of James’ folkish tendencies, still manages to capture his charisma, melodic sense, and erudite lyrics.

Vinnie James' Songs For The Long Journey
In spite of the major label clout afforded RCA-distributed product at the time, All American Boy just didn’t seem visible on the streets. As somebody who spent an unhealthy amount of time hanging around record stores back in the day, I can avow that you just didn’t see James’ album, even in the cut-out bins. High profile tours opening for artists like Sade, Tina Turner, and Bonnie Raitt didn’t seem to help move units, either, and may have been somewhat ill-conceived. Although James might have been a good fit opening for Raitt, he may have been better served touring with somebody like Tom Petty.

James’ soulful style of folk-rock is similar to that of another artist worthy of rediscovery, Mary Cutrufello, the sort of blue collar, lyrically-focused “heartland rock” that was the signature sound of Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and similar fellow travelers. Although James received sporadic critical acclaim from the few writers who actually listened to the album, and favorable comparisons to artists like Graham Parker and John Hiatt were made, All American Boy came and went without leaving much of a splash in its wake.

James still seems to be performing, and he’s released a couple of albums since his debut – 2007’s Songs For The Long Journey and 2011’s Storm – but he mostly seems content these days to write songs and perform in his adopted U.K. homeland. As you can hear for yourself via the videos below, Vinnie James is an artist of no little talent and vision, certainly worthy of rediscovery.

Fossils: AC/DC's Let There Be Rock (1977)

AC/DC's Let There Be Rock
(click to embiggen)
 AC/DC – Let There Be Rock

Save for a few gas-huffing, head-banging hard rock fans, America didn’t really discover Australia’s AC/DC until the band’s 1979 album Highway To Hell, the first of three red-hot, high-charting LPs produced by Robert “Mutt” Lange (including 1980’s blockbuster, ten-times-platinum pancake Back In Black). Let There Be Rock was the band’s fourth album, and the first to see international release (AC/DC’s first two Aussie efforts were released stateside in 1976 as High Voltage, whereas the band’s legitimate third album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1981, by which time AC/DC had become bona fide world-beaters).  

Let There Be Rock is also, perhaps, the best representation of the band’s original line-up, with leather-lunged singer Bon Scott and bassist Mark Evans alongside guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young and drummer Phil Rudd. Building on the boogie-blues blueprint that the band adheres to, roughly, to this very day, Let There Be Rock offers up all of the typical AC/DC lyrical tropes, from sexual abandon (“Whole Lotta Rosie”) and the joys of rock ‘n’ roll (“Let There Be Rock”) to the sort of mindless, greasy, guitar-driven pomp ‘n’ boogie that has become the band’s stock in trade (“Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be,” “Problem Child”). Although the album would only graze the bottom quarter of the Billboard magazine Top 200 chart upon release (hitting #152), it has since gone double-platinum for an amazing two million+ Frisbees sold.

The label’s ad for Let There Be Rock perfectly captured up the band’s public image – lewd, crude, and sexually obsessive – which was also the agenda of the punters and miscreants that made up the band’s target (i.e. teen and young adult) audience.

New That Devil features: Fossils, Lost & Found

Boston's Don't Look Back album ad
We're launching a couple of semi-regular new features here on That Devil and we'd love to get our readers' input! The first is called Fossils: Relics of the Classic Rock Era. The Reverend loves the advertising that was used to support new album releases back in the 1970s and '80s, and has decided to scan a few of them in from his collection of old issues of Creem, Crawdaddy, and Rolling Stone, add some commentary putting them in context, and posting them here for our readers.

The other new feature is called Lost & Found. There are a number of worthy rock 'n' roll artists that released incredible music through the years but, for some reason, they remain mired in obscurity. We'd like to revisit some of these musicians and bands, introduce you to their work, and see if we can't get them the attention they deserved in the first place. Your suggestions for future "Lost & Found" posts are welcome...just post them in the comments section and, of course, feel free to share these new features via social media!