Friday, November 15, 2019

Archive Review: Strapping Young Lad’s SYL (2003)

Strapping Young Lad’s SYL
To make this comparison really come alive, you’re gonna need one o’ those industrial strength blenders, the kind they have in some food factory or maybe a slaughterhouse. Stick your head inside the giant metal bowl and feel the razor-sharp metal blades against your ears. Then reach over and hit the button for ‘puree’...that’s what listening to SYL is like. After a half-hour or so of joyfully experiencing Devin Townsend’s demonic growl and tortured six-string work, yer brain is guaranteed to turn to mush.

There’s heavy metal and then again, there’s HEAVY FUCKING METAL, and Strapping Young Lad definitely falls into the ‘HFM’ category. Townsend, former sideman for Steve Vai and a talented solo artist in his own right, mimics the sound of your brain being shredded like no other axeman plying his or her trade today (save for maybe Zakk Wylde). Townsend’s solo work tends to downplay his gonzo energy a degree or two on the old manic-meter in favor of prog-rock experimentation. When fronting his mates in Strapping Young Lad, Townsend throws caution (and the listener’s eardrums) to the wind to deliberately blast dangerous plaque from your speakers as loudly as possible.

Strapping Young Lad’s SYL

SYL proves that there is more to Strapping Young Lad than Townsend’s considerable ability to crack yer cranium open with his guitar. Guitarist Jed Simon of Front Line Assembly adds a dimension of industrial insanity to the sound while drummer Gene Hoglan of Dark Angel pounds the skins with the force of an underground nuclear test explosion. Along with bassist Byron Stroud, Hoglan creates an intense rhythmic undercurrent over which Townsend and Simon throw down their clashing guitars. It’s kinda hard to follow the lyrics buried in Townsend’s vocals, so they provide a cheat sheet in the CD booklet. Inane poetic whimsy such as “dripping... gigbutt... dirt pride... my pride... dripping... bunksock” sounds a lot better when it comes roaring out of your speakers like so much unburned jet fuel from the ass end of a F-16.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The songs on SYL were inspired by the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and the album does express a fair degree of intelligent rage and frustration over man’s inhumanity to man (and woman), the above lyrics notwithstanding. Then again, nobody listens to HEAVY FUCKING METAL for the Dylanesque lyrical inspiration of the band’s muse. You slap something like SYL on yer box, crank the sucker up as far past ten as the amp will go, and then spend the next thirty or forty minutes bouncing off the walls until you either shit or go blind. To this end, SYL stands up admirably, temporarily robbing you of your vision and your hearing. With the apocalyptic tango of SYL, Strapping Young Lad delivers the first classic death metal disc of the century. (Century Media, 2003)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2003

Buy the CD from Strapping Young Lad’s SYL

Archive Review: Icons of Filth’s Nostradamnedus (2003)

Icons of Filth's Nostradamnedus
The first wave of British punk, circa 1977, spawned a number of bands that possessed a social consciousness and expressed their concerns through song. The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Damned, even modish new wavers like the Jam all stirred up their fair share of controversy with lyrics commenting on social ills or championing left-leaning causes.

Nothing could prepare the Queen’s subjects for what was to follow, however. Extremist punks like Crass, Conflict, Discharge, Flux of Pink Indians, the Subhumans, and Icons of Filth took their cue from American hardcore bands, mixing anarchist philosophy with powerful thrash-and-burn instrumentation to create some of the most invigorating punk rock ever heard.

Whereas some of these bands – Crass readily comes to mind – were naïve idealists, forming communes and spinning off side bands, others such as Conflict or Discharge were more nihilistic in nature. With Maggie Thatcher in office in the U.K. and Ronnie Ray-gun sleeping in the White House, anarchist punks were forced to form their own record labels to get their music out since no corporate label wanted to touch them.

Conflict formed Mortarhate and, aside from the band’s own albums, they also released a number of singles and an album by fellow travelers Icons of Filth (all of which were reissued on CD by Go Kart in 2000). Throughout the years, Icons of Filth has grown in statue rather than sinking into obscurity, becoming one of a handful of artistic touchstones for underground punks wanting to bring politics into their music. With the recent revival of bands like Discharge and old mates Conflict, it was only natural for Icons of Filth to reform and stroll into the recording studio.

Icons of Filth’s Nostradamnedus

Nostradamnedus is the result of the band’s efforts, the first album from Icons of Filth in nearly twenty years and, let me tell you kiddies, this shit’ll grab you by the ears and knock your head into the wall. The band members seemingly haven’t lost a step through the years, still quite capable of creating balls-to-the-wall sounds that’ll shred yer greedy lil’ eardrums and make yer nose bleed. The usual lyrical preoccupations are found on Nostradamnedus: anarcho-leftist rhetoric about animal rights, vegetarianism, and racism and so forth, but Stig, Daffy and the boys have updated their perspective to appeal to a new millennium zeitgeist. While songs like “Riddled With Guilt” or “Treadmill” hit your brain like sticking a fork in an electric socket, others, like “Henry Ford,” tickle yer cerebellum with not-so-subtle thoughts of Luddite sabotage.

Once you get past the bad joke hidden in the album’s title, Nostradamnedus stands as an instant classic of hardcore punk, if only for the title track and “Airwaves.” Pointing directly at the fools who take every world event and match it to one of Nostradamus’ many prophecies, the band cleverly wraps up the past and future in a package with a neat little bow. After all, if the future has already been foretold, why bother to try and change it? Nostradamnedus, indeed! As for “Airwaves,” it was probably written by Icons of Filth a couple of years ago but, as we stand on the brink of war in early 2003, it couldn’t be any more relevant.

Set to a migraine level six-string drone and explosive rhythms, Stig sings “if you form an opinion that’s not in dominion/then you’re an oddball and should be kept quiet.” Kind of like how Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and these other rightwing radio gasbags keep beating the fucking war drums, ridiculing anybody who’s not ready to prostrate themselves before the wisdom of massa Bush and his Konservative Klan. “Airwaves” doesn't stop there, however, as Icons of Filth verbally slamdunk the entire corporate media monopoly and its restriction on diversity of thought – Stig spits out “when they tell you of free speech, they’re liars.”

Mindless television programs, radio playlist homogenization, empty consumerist dreams, “antenna head and already dead.” Fittingly enough, the band saves its worse barbs for punk rock itself, “rock ‘n’ roll has lost its soul and now everything's diluted/bands with fans, big money plans/your pockets empty, looted.” Kind of like how you feel when you buy that ultra-groovy new CD at the mall and get home to find out that it only has one decent song and when you stop to think about it, that song kind of sucks, too…

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Now, more than ever, we need Icons of Filth, one of the few bands with the balls to be bold in a meek musical landscape. The Rev sez “check it out!” (Go Kart Records, released November 26, 2002)

Buy the CD from Icons of Filth's Nostradamnedus

Friday, November 8, 2019

Archive Review: Motörhead's Inferno (2004)

Motörhead's Inferno
Motörhead has been this “legendary heavy metal band” for so long that even many critics have overlooked the metal icon’s overall importance in the grand scheme of things. Frontman Lemmy Kilminster’s roots are in typical ’60s-era British R&B, but it’s when he joined prog-rockers Hawkwind that things began to get interesting. As bassist for the space-rock outfit during the early ’70s, Lemmy perfected both his bottom-heavy instrumental style and his songwriting skills.

When kicked out of Hawkwind for a myriad of offenses, Lemmy formed Motörhead as an outlet for his aggressive hard rock vision, equal parts British biker culture, pre-punk punk rock attitude, and heavy metal thunder. Over the course of dozens of albums, Lemmy and Motörhead's ever-evolving line-up managed to affect punk, heavy metal, and thrash unlike any other artistic influence.

Motörhead's Inferno

For almost thirty years, Motörhead’s musical blueprint has been consistent and consistently powerful: Lemmy’s gruff vocals spitting out lyrics above a massive slab of feedback-driven guitar riffs and thunderous drumbeats. Inferno, the band’s latest, doesn’t stray far from the formula. The blistering “Terminal Show” kicks off the disc, a futuristic tale of woe set to a speed metal soundtrack that careens out of control approx. 30 seconds into the song, guest axeman Steve Vai’s razor sharp leads standing in counterpoint to Phillip Campbell’s percussive riffs.

Motörhead's Inferno
From here, the pace never diminishes, drummer Mikkey Dee’s merciless rhythms driving the songs forward while Lemmy’s bass bludgeons the listener and Campbell’s six-string work punches with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The only surprise on Inferno, perhaps, is the acoustic “Whorehouse Blues,” an overt reference to the influence of traditional blues (and British blues-rock) on Motörhead’s metallic sturm-und-drang.

Inferno is both timeless and out-of-time, Lemmy serving up uncompromising rock ‘n’ roll field-tested by better than a quarter-century of hard roadwork. In Campbell and Dee, Kilminster has the band he’s always wanted, the iron fist inside the tattered leather glove. Like most Motörhead albums, Inferno is dominated by themes of sex, death, power, and the near-mystical aesthetic of rock ‘n’ roll. The songs roar like a wolf at the door and scream louder than Dante’s nightmares, Motörhead an anachronistic thorn in the side of the music business, the rude guest that refuses to leave the modern rock party.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

You won't hear Inferno on the radio, but its importance will be felt five or ten years from now when the kid who discovers Motörhead through this album forms the next Metallica or Nirvana. In the end, Lemmy won’t be remembered so much for the remarkable simplicity and strength of his music but for the young musicians who continue to be influenced by the uncompromising honesty and anarchistic spirit that is Motörhead. (Steamhammer Records, 2004)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2004

Buy the CD from Motörhead's Inferno

Archive Review: Various Artists - Yes New York (2003)

Various Artists - Yes New York
If early ’90s Seattle was the new Athens, then early ’00s New York City must be the new Seattle, if you catch my drift. Sure, there are “garage rock” bands (or whatever you want to call ’em) scattered all across the fruited plain (and in old Londontown as well), but all that is hip and happening tends to somehow, eventually, inevitably find its way to the “Big Apple.” Yes New York documents the current crop of NYC bands, freezing the scene in a perfect moment in time not unlike the handful of late ’70s albums that captured the Ramones/Television/Patti Smith scene that made Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s the places to hang out in 1977.

Yes New York

The producers of Yes New York are a savvy bunch, throwing in some heavy-hitting major leaguers like the Strokes, Ted Leo, and Interpol alongside a minor league crop of future superstars like Radio 4, the Walkmen, and the Natural History. Round it out with some players-in-training like Longwave, Le Tigre, and Unitard and you have a batting line-up that will hit for power and percentage.

The once-banned “New York City Cops” is the hook to entice you to spend your coin on Yes New York; the rare live (and previously unreleased) Strokes cut copped from an April 2002 performance in Iceland. Most of the rest of Yes New York is culled from the artist’s current albums, although a few worthy gems – such as the anarchic “Tired” by LCD Soundsystem, or the new wave throwback cut from the Witnesses – are unreleased or barely released.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

So is Yes New York worth your time and money to track down? If you're interested in what is going on musically on the fringes of pop culture, then the answer would be an emphatic “Yes, New York!” As a microcosm of the current American music zeitgeist, NYC’s current scene offers all of the diversity, influences and varied sounds that any rocker would want to hear. If you're looking for a fresh take on some old sounds, check out the bands on Yes New York for a taste of what’s being done these days on the indie music scene (before it’s co-opted and corrupted by the majors!)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2003

Buy the CD from Yes New York

Friday, November 1, 2019

New Music Monthly: November & December 2019 releases

It's the end of the road for 2019, and record labels are emptying the vaults to try and grab their share of your Christmas cash. There's a wealth of vinyl reissues and pricey multi-disc box sets coming our way from artists like The Police, Queens of the Stone Age, Rick Wakeman, and Little Steven, among many others. If you've got the cash, there's plenty of great tunes to be had over the next six months! 

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

Los Straitjackets's- ¡Viva! Los Straitjackets

The Bar-Kays - Gotta Groove [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Booker T. & the M.G.'s - Melting Pot [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Cold War Kids - New Age Norms 1   BUY!
Delaney & Bonnie - Home [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Jeff Lynne's ELO - From Out of Nowhere   BUY!
Los Straitjackets - The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets [CD & vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Los Straitjackets - ¡Viva! Los Straitjackets [CD & vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Nirvana - MTV Unplugged In NY [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
David Porter - Victim of the Joke? [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Simple Minds - 40: The Best of 1979-2019 [3-CD set]   BUY!
Johnnie Taylor - Who’s Making Love [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Uncle Walt's Band - An American In Texas   BUY!
Vetiver - Up On High   BUY!

Fats Domino's I've Been Around

Fats Domino - I've Been Around [12-CD box set]   BUY!
The Police - Ghost in the Machine [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
The Police - Reggatta de Blanc [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
The Police - Synchronicity [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
The Police - Zenyatta Mondatta [vinyl reissue]   BUY!

Send I A Lion

The Band - The Band [50th anniversary edition]   BUY!
Julianna Hatfield - Julianna Hatfield Sings the Police   BUY!
The Pineapple Thief - Hold Our Fire [live]   BUY!
Various Artists - Send I A Lion [compilation w/the Mighty Diamonds, Gladiators, Wailing Souls & others]   BUY!

Harry Nilsson's Losst and Founnd

Leonard Cohen - Thanks For the Dance   BUY!
Junkyard - Old Habits Die Hard [unreleased 1992 LP]   BUY!
Harry Nilsson - Losst and Founnd   BUY!
Queens of the Stone Age - Rated R [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Queens of the Stone Age - Songs For the Deaf [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
The Who - Who   BUY!

Land of 1000 Dances: The Rampart Records Complete Singles Collection

Various Artists - Land of 1000 Dances: The Rampart Records Complete Singles Collection   BUY!

Rick Wakeman - Box Of Boots: Official Bootleg Series [10-CD box set]

Gentle Giant's Unburied Treasure

Gentle Giant - Unburied Treasure [Limited edition 30-CD box set]   BUY!
John Hiatt - Only The Song Survives [15-disc vinyl box set]   BUY!
Lee "Scratch" Perry - Heavy Rain   BUY!
Little Steven Van Zandt - RockNRoll Rebel – The Early Work [11-disc CD/vinyl box set]

Queens of the Stone Age's Era Vulgaris

Queens of the Stone Age - Era Vulgaris [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Queens of the Stone Age - Lullabies To Paralyze [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Frank Zappa - The Hot Rats Sessions [deluxe 6-CD box set]   BUY!

Frank Zappa's The Hot Rats Sessions

Album of the Month: I dunno, it's really hard to choose from all the great archival material the labels are spitting out here in Q4, but if I had to choose, I'd go with Frank Zappa's The Hot Rats Sessions, a deluxe six-disc box set that provides the rabid Frank fanatic with everything they could want from the storied collection. Zappa's sophomore solo effort, from 1969, Hot Rats was the first album anywhere to be recorded on 16-track tape, and the Maestro used the expanded technology to his advantage. The set is said to include every song recorded during the sessions, as well as a "Zappa Land" board game. The Hot Rats Sessions includes 65 tracks, all but six of them previously unreleased.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Archive Review: John Mayall's Bluesbreakers - Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton (1966/2001)

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton
It’s hard to believe by listening to the sort of watered-down pap that Eric Clapton has cranked out the past few years, but at one time the big “King of all Guitar Gods” played with great style, passion and ingenuity. Look no further than Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton to find documentation of the artist’s early six-string prowess.

Clapton first made a splash on the collective rock consciousness while handling the heavy axework for the Yardbirds. Although not the first posse of British dandies to get their hands dirty playing the blues, the Yardbirds were one of those who did it best, and Clapton’s early contributions went a long way towards establishing that band’s reputation. Clapton left the Yardbirds in 1965, beginning a lengthy artistic journey that would inevitably lead him to becoming the corporate shill that he is today.

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton

First stop on the evolutionary express for the youthful Clapton was with John Mayall & Bluesbreakers, one of England’s best-known traditional blues outfits. Luring Clapton away from the Yardbirds was a major coup for bandleader Mayall. Getting the guitar wizard into the studio to record Mayall’s third album resulted in what may well be the best British blues romp to find its way onto tape. Clapton is allowed to stretch out on a set of blues and R&B standards such as Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” the Otis Rush hit “All Your Love” and the blues classic “Parchman Farm.”

Choice Mayall originals compliment the covers on Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, especially the Mayall/Clapton co-written “Double Crossing Time,” which features an incredible Clapton solo that sounds like it descended straight from Maxwell Street in Chicago. Clapton even makes his debut as a vocalist, offering a fine rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind.” Throughout Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, the guitar star’s axework is first rate, his playing fluid and innovative. Backed by a solid rhythm section that included future Fleetwood Mac namesake John McVie on bass and drummer Hughie Flint (who would go on to play on several Clapton solo elpees), Clapton had the necessary support to let his imagination fly.

Mayall was a strict bandleader, demanding a lot from his players but here he lets Clapton become the superstar he had the potential to be. Clapton would leave Mayall’s outfit after Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton to form Cream and achieve international stardom. Mayall would run through a thousand and one band members during the next 35 years, discovering such talents as Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac) and Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones) along the way. Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton would reach the British top ten and became one of the biggest albums of 1966 in the U.K.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The album remains a cult favorite in the United States while Clapton is better known for his subsequent work with Cream and Derek and the Dominoes. While rock ‘n’ roll fanboys continue to genuflect at the mention of the Yardbirds name, worshipping the trio of guitar gods that legendary band would produce (Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page), John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers are unfairly consigned to a lesser place in history. A spin or two of Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton shows what the fuss was all about in the first place, placing the album among the greatest blues-rock efforts that the genre has produced. (Polydor Records, released 1966, reissued June 5, 2001)

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

Buy the CD from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’ Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton

Archive Review: Killing Joke's Pandemonium (1994)

Killing Joke's Pandemonium
Arguably one of the most influential bands of the past twenty years, Londons Killing Joke is nonetheless the most obscure bunch of musical geniuses that you’ve never heard of. Chances are you’ve heard the work of the children these gray-beards stylistically fathered, however, with bands like Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, Rage Against the Machine, and Ministry all owing Killing Joke a debt of creative gratitude.

Their ground-breaking hybrid of socio-political rage, technological overkill, industrial nihilism, and white noise was delivered via a handful of classic early eighties albums that would shape much of what would be created in the genres of punk, heavy metal and industrial music throughout the ensuing decade.  

With Pandemonium, the band strips down to its original founding trio, buffing up its musical muscles and delivering an hour of unrelenting noise, fury and thought. Killing Joke have always been an ideological bunch of cynics, eschewing the depressing, suicidal aura surrounding much of Britain’s rock scene in favor of a realistic and hopeful vision of the world they find collapsing around them. Against a musical backdrop so heavy that it’ll send even the most jaded headbanger into a fit of manic glee, Killing Joke approaches the coming millennia with an almost metaphysical view, even sojourning to Egypt to record portions of Pandemonium in the King Chamber of the Great Pyramid.

The band’s collective experience of the past few years pays off with an expanded sense of creativity and lyricism, Pandemonium adding disparate strains of Middle Eastern and Asian culture to its blend of white light/white heat. The resulting effort lives up to the band’s heady legacy, even while it builds upon a bright new future for Killing Joke. (Zoo Entertainment, released 1994)

Review originally published by R.A.D! zine

Friday, October 18, 2019

Archive Review: Mississippi Fred McDowell's The Best of Mississippi Fred McDowell (2001)

Mississippi Fred McDowell's The Best of Mississippi Fred McDowell
Like most rock fans, I came to know the legendary Mississippi Fred McDowell through the Rolling Stones’ version of his “You Gotta Move” and covers of songs by McDowell acolyte Bonnie Raitt. Once you discover the real thing, though, you’ll never go back.

Born in rural Tennessee in the early part of the twentieth century, McDowell started playing slide guitar at the tender age of fourteen. His parents died while he was young, and McDowell played for tips in the streets of Memphis while still a teen. He eventually tired of rambling and settled down to a life of farming in Como, Mississippi. It was here that folk music archivist Alan Lomax found McDowell some thirty years later, first recording this enormous talent in 1959.

Mississippi Fred McDowell’s The Best of Mississippi Fred McDowell

McDowell’s “discovery” threw the folk and blues community on their collective ears as Lomax had found an authentic Delta bluesman that had never been captured on tape before. McDowell’s ambitions never led him to seek out the traveling “record men” who haunted the Mississippi cotton fields and backwoods, so no recorded legacy from the 1920s and ‘30s existed for modern listeners to familiarize themselves with McDowell’s considerable talents. Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz was one of those people amazed by McDowell’s music and the young producer promptly sought out the humble McDowell in Mississippi. Arhoolie recorded and released two excellent volumes of McDowell’s homespun country blues during the mid-‘60s, which subsequently made the artist a popular draw on the festival circuit throughout the decade until his death from cancer in 1972.

Arhoolie’s The Best of Mississippi Fred McDowell revisits material originally released by the label on four previous titles, and recorded between 1964 and 1969 in a number of different locations. Much like Arhoolie’s recent Lightning Hopkins compilation, this CD is a wonderful overview of the artist’s too-brief career. McDowell’s songs drew upon a Delta tradition that was heavily flavored by the work of contemporaries like Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, and Charlie Patton. McDowell brought a distinctive flair to his slidework, an impressive individualism that sets his playing apart from that of other Delta bluesmen. His voice was extremely expressive, showing a remarkable range and emotion.

The Best of Mississippi Fred McDowell offers up a stylistic cross-section of material, from the country blues of standards like “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” to timeless McDowell originals like “Levee Camp Blues” and “You Gotta Move.” There are gospel tunes here too, McDowell’s performances echoing those of Blind Willie Johnson on traditional songs like “I Wish I Was In Heaven Sittin’ Down” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning.” The album closed with a previously unreleased 1965 live performance from the Berkeley Folk Festival.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Mississippi Fred McDowell was a powerful and charismatic performer, an artist that came into his own late in life but had spent a lifetime working hard and playing music long before his discovery. McDowell’s was a unique talent and vision, The Best of Mississippi Fred McDowell a wonderful introduction for the uninitiated and a welcome addition to the library for those of us still earning a degree in the blues. (Arhoolie Records)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ webzine

Buy the CD from Mississippi Fred McDowell’s The Best of Mississippi Fred McDowell

Archive Review: Peter Townshend's The Definitive Collection (2007)

Peter Townshend's The Definitive Collection
As the guiding force behind rock legends the Who, guitarist/songwriter Peter Townshend’s induction to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame was all but guaranteed. One of the original, first wave “British Invasion” bands that assaulted the colonies in the aftermath of the Beatles, the Who were blessed with a wealth of talent. All four members of the Who would have stood out in nearly any other band and, indeed, three of these four musicians would eventually succeed in their own solo endeavors.

Frontman Roger Daltry was a strutting, larger-than-life figure with a big voice and rock star charisma. Bassist John Entwistle played rock ‘n’ roll with an improvisational jazz sensibility, and was a better songwriter than most of his contemporaries. Drummer Keith Moon was an anarchic wildman, bashing and crashing the skins with reckless abandon. Then there was Townshend…an immensely gifted songwriter, a powerful guitarist and a whirling dervish onstage, leaping and spinning and seemingly flying on the wings of the music; he was also intellectual, introspective and often spiritually troubled.

Pete Townshend’s The Definitive Collection

Townshend was a prolific songwriter, one of the greatest in the history of the rock genre. His creative accomplishments with the Who are second only, perhaps, to those of John Lennon of the Beatles. What a lot of people seem to forget, however, is that Townshend also enjoyed a significant solo career, receiving overwhelming critical acclaim and some degree of commercial success. Townshend recorded demos of just about every song he ever wrote for the Who, and discarded more songs than the band ever recorded. A lot of this material has shown up in various “odds-n-sods” collections through the years, and Townshend’s own demo versions of songs have made his Scoop albums a series much sought-after by collectors.

The Definitive Collection is a brand-new collection of Peter Townshend solo material. Now I’m a little wary of record label hype, and calling any compilation album “definitive” is, perhaps, stretching the definition of the word. In the case of Peter Townshend’s The Definitive Collection, however, I’m going to set my reservations aside and instead revel in the music. Featuring material culled from Townshend’s 35-year “solo” career, The Definitive Collection does a worthy job of presenting the many faces of this rock legend.

Townshend’s first solo effort, Who Came First, was a low-key affair released in 1972 as an outlet for the songwriter’s growing catalog of material. Collecting songs unsuitable for the Who as well as more personal, spiritually-oriented material, the album offered an insightful glimpse into the depth of Townshend’s songwriting talents. “Sheraton Gibson,” an underrated cut from Who Came First, is a wonderful, lively song about life on the road and the accompanying loneliness, Townshend’s vocals darting in and out of the mix, complimented by his fluid, mesmerizing guitarwork.

From Rough Mix, Townshend’s acclaimed 1977 collaboration with ex-Faces’ bassist Ronnie Lane, “Street In the City” is a melodic, observational song that relies on Townshend’s winsome vocals to rise above the rich string-orchestral arrangement. Also from Rough Mix, “My Baby Gives It Away” is a twangy rocker with a loping groove and rapid-fire lyrics. Rough Mix is the jewel of Townshend’s solo career, a rambling collection of roots rock, British folk and country overtones and well worth checking out on its own.

Who Came First

The Definitive Collection also includes three songs from Empty Glass, Townshend’s 1980 solo breakthrough and his best-selling album to date. The album was written as Townshend struggled with the death of Who drummer Keith Moon. The personal nature of the lyrics and their combination of pop melodies and gutter-punk rockers took Empty Glass to the number five position on the charts. The album’s radio-ready singles were easy choices, but “A Little Is Enough,” an engaging love song with new wavy synth overtones and a driving beat is a fine addition to the collection, sounding amusing retro albeit featuring, perhaps, some uncharacteristically inane lyrics. He redeems himself with “Let My Love Open The Door,” the hit single combining the most attractive elements of ‘80s synth-pop with old-fashioned vocal harmonies and a killer hook. Befitting its title, “Rough Boys” shows a little more muscle, with a forceful Townshend vocal performance, imaginative keyboards and some tasty six-string riffing.

Townshend followed Empty Glass with the obtusely-named All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes in 1982. Overall Townshend’s most maddening album, both loved and hated by his fans, its arty, pretentious songs have withstood the test of time. The album’s “Slit Skirts” is a dynamic song, with interesting lyrics, an infectious chorus, and various musical twists and turns with signature changes and intriguing instrumental interludes. “The Sea Refuses No River” could just as easily have been one of Townshend’s compositions for the Who, a grand, majestic song that showcases some of Townshend’s most subtle vocals and his skills as an arranger. The song is, perhaps, one of the most overlooked of the artist’s canon.

By the mid-80s Townshend seemed to be going in a thousand directions at once, and seemingly lost sight of his creative strengths. “Face The Face,” from 1985’s White City: A Novel, is an intriguing choice for this collection, an almost experimental piece that starts off small, with an atmospheric intro, dissonant piano and clanging sounds building to a steady rhythm, kind of like a train coming down the track, straight at your stalled-out car. Townshend’s multi-layered vocals are one part electronic wizardry and one part Gospel fervor. “A Friend Is A Friend,” from The Iron Man: A Musical, is a slight slip of a song – perhaps that misbegotten album’s best, but a pale choice nonetheless. The two tracks included from 1993’s Psychoderelict fare somewhat better; a concept album ridden with spoken word interludes and weak material, “English Boy” is nevertheless a knock-down rocker with one of Townshend’s best vocal performances in a decade and some truly unusual musical undercurrents.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The Definitive Collection is a fairly decent overview of the ups and downs of Peter Townshend’s solo career, replacing the decade-old The Best of collection with a better song selection. I personally would have liked to have seen one of the Who’s classic tunes from Townshend’s Deep End Live! album included here. Also, all of the best stuff from this compilation – and then some – was included two years ago on the double-disc Gold collection, part of the industry’s efforts to cannibalize itself through countless variations on the same compilations.

However, if you remain among the uninitiated that just wants a taste of Townshend, The Definitive Collection is the way to go; go for the Gold if you want a deeper drink of the artist’s talents. If you like what you hear, grab copies of Empty Glass and Rough Mix to get a full measure of Townshend’s greatest work. (Hip-O Records, released January 23, 2007)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality blog

Buy the CD from Peter Townshend’s The Definitive Collection

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Free Music: Lee Scratch Perry's Here Come The Warm Dreads (2019)

Sometimes the press release says it all:

“Here Come The Warm Dreads” is a meeting of legendary musical innovators as dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry collaborates with polymath Brian Eno. “Here Come The Warm Dreads” is a radical dub re-work overseen by Adrian Sherwood, re-configuring the track “Makumba Rock” from this year’s Rainford album for the forthcoming dub companion LP Heavy Rain. which is being released December 6th by On-U Sounds.

Enjoy! (Buy the album from

Friday, October 11, 2019

Archive Review: Meshuggah's obZen (2012)

Meshuggah's obZen
Displaying less of an egghead Einstein approach to their metallic onslaught, this time out finds Sweden’s Meshuggah – they of the mighty signature changes and predisposition towards formulaic improvisation – providing a welcome bludgeoning dominance to their normally scalpel-precise barnstorming. ObZen, thus, provides the best of all worlds for fans of the bombastic. Meshuggah slices-and-dices single notes unlike any metal outfit before or since, but with ObZen they add the soul-crushing dimension of hardcore HEAVINESS to their considerable arsenal.

A creepy, scraping riff and teetering cymbals kick off “Combustion,” as appropriately-named a song as you’ll experience this year, a blast-a-minute mindfuck of guttural vocals, blistering drumbeats and fretwork that will flay the skin from your bones before you know it. “Electric Red” ramps up the amps with powerful tribal rhythms, plodding discordant riffs and Jens Kidman’s gutted-pig vox. Treading dangerously close to doom-turf, the song’s down-tuned axes and stomping Killing Joke drumbeats are simply to die for…

Meshuggah’s ObZen

If these first two songs set the stage for what will follow on ObZen, nothing could prepare the listener for the unrelenting barrage of noise-as-pain and pain-as-aural-pleasure that is to follow. Although Meshuggah’s technical mastery has long been established, the machine-precision and robotic chaos of ObZen is truly staggering. Drummer/songwriter Tomas Haake ventures away from the computer for many of these songs, proving acidic live skins that beat the hell out of any other metal posse plying their trade in these dark streets today.

Haake’s work on “Bleed” is outright scary, his bass drum bludgeoning the listener with ferocity that even Fenriz can’t muster, his machinegun rhythms complimented by the sting of Fredrik Thordendal’s flippant guitar solos, while Mårten Hagstrom’s rhythm guitarwork provides some of the strongest steel-beam construction that you’ll find in contemporary metal. The song is simply exhausting on so many levels, but satisfying in a way that non-metal fans could never understand. The title track offers more of the same, monster riffs and syncopated rhythms forever melded with tortured vocals and an innate sense of musical outrage.

The textbook poly-noodle of “Pineal Gland Optics” starts with a snaky recurring riff and modal synth signature before descending into Kidman’s own personal hell, his powerful vocals drowning amidst the rapidly-shifting quicksand of the song’s ultimate confusion. The six-string work here blisters-and-peels any surface close enough to be impacted by the scraping riffage and bonfire rhythms, and the vox are guaran-damn-teed to give you nightmares for a week. “Dancers to a Discordant System” offers more of the big-bore chalkboard formula of previous Meshuggah albums, providing fans of the band’s more scientific sound with some tasty integrated circuits to bite down on … though there’s nothing here to alienate lunkhead purists, either, Kidman’s death-throes vocals and Thordendal’s switchblade solos fulfilling the perceived math-to-metal quotient.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Altogether, Meshuggah’s sixth studio effort is a fine kettle of chaos, indeed, ObZen offering up plenty of everything that today’s young headbanger could ever desire. Although the album further showcases the band’s awestruck instrumental virtuosity and ability to change directions on a dime within a single song, there are also enough bone-crunching rhythms, surgical airstrike guitars, and city-destroying Godzilla bass lines to leave any listener a drooling mass of quivering cretinism…and what more could you ask for from any metal album? (Nuclear Blast Records, released May 15, 2012)

Review originally published by Dancing On the Edge blog

Buy the CD from Meshuggah’s ObZen

Archive Review: Lightnin' Hopkins' The Best of Lightning Hopkins (2001)

Lightnin' Hopkins' The Best of Lightning Hopkins
The legendary Lightnin’ Hopkins is a giant among Texas bluesmen, an important link between the early traditional blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson and highly-amped, rock-influenced guitar-slingers like Charlie Sexton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Like many of his Chicago counterparts, Hopkins was often cast by labels in an R&B light, recording material with a full band and an eye on the black music charts. Where I feel Hopkins is at his best, however, is when he and his guitar are unaccompanied, Lightnin’ kicking out some dirty country blues.

Hopkins was a prolific recording artist, much like John Lee Hooker, spitting out sides for whatever record company was paying any particular week. Blues artists got paid when they recorded or performed live; royalties were seldom paid by the labels on the 78s that they spun out during the 1940s and ‘50s. During a career that spanned seven decades, Lightnin’ recorded for dozens of labels, including Gold Star, Aladdin, Jewel, and Modern. Pinning down any best of collection on Hopkins is like hunting down a snipe – you’re better off not trying in the first place. The best that you can hope for is to isolate several distinctive eras in the artist’s career and dig up recordings that represent his best efforts in that time and place. Once you’ve done that, you can simply buy Arhoolie’s The Best of Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Lightnin’ Hopkins’ The Best of Lightning Hopkins

There are several reasons to choose this set over the dozen or so other ‘best of’ collections that you’ll find on your local dealer’s shelf. Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz was a fan of Hopkins, and it was after seeing Lightnin’ perform live in 1959 that Strachwitz decided to form his own record label. Strachwitz recorded Lightnin’ several times during his career, and many of those recordings – especially the Texas Blues album – are considered bona fide blues classics. Many of the best of those tracks, recorded during the 1960s, are included on this disc. Finally, Arhoolie got their hands on the 78s that Hopkins recorded for the Houston-based Gold Star label from 1947-1950 and several of those sides, including a couple of unreleased songs, are included on The Best of Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Ultimately, however, the music is why you should check out this Arhoolie compilation. Hopkins had a distinctive vocal style and a quick-witted ability to reinvent his songs and lyrics as whim and wisdom dictated. His electrifying guitar style is without peer; you can hear echoes of Lightnin’s riffing in the work of Stevie Ray, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Doyle Bramhall II and other blues-based rockers. This collection includes a fine cross-section of Lightnin’s career, from the magnificent country blues of songs like “Grosebeck Blues” and “Tim Moore’s Farm,” which sound like vintage 78s, to R&B flavored tunes like “Come On Baby.” Along the way, Lightnin’ steps up to the keyboard and invents zydeco (“Zolo Go”) and refines the 1960s-era protest song (“Please Settle In Vietnam”). Hopkins’ friendly vocals and blistering six-string wizardry are the stuff of legend, and the sound quality on The Best of Lightnin’ Hopkins – many of the songs appearing here on CD for the first time – benefits from top-notch production and lots of TLC.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

For those unfamiliar with Lightnin’ Hopkins, this ‘best of’ compilation serves as a fine introduction to an important and influential artist. After you’ve whetted your appetite on this Arhoolie collection, might I suggest you pick up a copy of Texas Blues and the two-CD compilation The Complete Aladdin Recordings for a better overview of this magnificent blues legend’s career. You’ll be glad that you did... (Arhoolie Records, 2001)

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

Friday, October 4, 2019

DVD Review: Man's At the Roundhouse 1976 (2008)

Man's At the Roundhouse 1976
First things first – ya gotta remember that this is a DVD of a 32-year-old concert film. If you’re expecting a lovely, multi-camera digital tape with pristine 5.1 surround sound, well, you’re living in the wrong era, Charlie Brown. What you do get from At the Roundhouse 1976 is an engaging vintage performance by one of rock music’s most overlooked prog-oriented bands, Man.

At the Roundhouse 1976 features, perhaps, Man’s best line-up as far as pure talent and chemistry is concerned. The performance captured on tape includes vocalist/guitarist Mickey Jones, guitarist/vocalist Deke Leonard, keyboardist Phil Ryan, bassist John McKenzie, and extraordinary drummer Terry Williams. Man was formed by Jones and Leonard in 1969 in Swansea, Wales and was originally considered somewhat of a pub-rock band. Influenced by the San Francisco sound of bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Man also incorporated elements of blues, psychedelic and prog-rock into their unique sound.

Man’s At the Roundhouse 1976 DVD

Over the course of the band’s history, Deke Leonard would depart and return a number of times, recording brilliant solo albums before coming back to the comfort of the band atmosphere. Guitarist and keyboardist Clive John was an original member of Man, leaving during the mid-‘70s to pursue a solo career that resulted in a single highly-collectible album before disappearing from the scene. Williams, who came on board for the band’s self-titled third album, would later play with both Rockpile and Dire Straits.

At the Roundhouse 1976 was originally designed to be the band’s swansong, a final shot at glory captured for the ages on celluloid. After 1,500+ performances and 13 albums over the course of eight years, the band had decided to call it a day. Man returned to the site of their greatest triumph, London’s Roundhouse, where they had experienced their breakthrough performance for the Greasy Truckers Party benefit show and resulting LP. The band decided to say “farewell” to their fans with three nights at the Roundhouse, which were filmed for this DVD.

At the Roundhouse 1976 kicks off with the bluesy “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” a rock-and-soul song with a distinctive rhythmic groove, Jone’s pleading vocals, and tasty twin guitars that mimic Quicksilver Messenger Service (just one of the band’s numerous influences). QMS had often performed this song in their early ‘70s concerts, and QMS guitarist John Cippolina had appeared with Man during the band’s 1975 tour, Man and Cippolina jamming together on the tune. Man kept the song in their set list, and here it’s captured for posterity in all of its funky glory!

“C’Mon” follows, beginning as a raucous call-and-response styled rocker with an odd, spacey interlude in the middle. Jones sings some nonsensical lyrics that are wedded to the strange tones that coaxes from his guitar. As the song stretches out, the band wanders into uncharted territory, each instrumentalist adding their own color to the overall musical tapestry. Leonard provides a few scorching leads, Williams’ powerful drums support the song’s unlikely structure, and Ryan’s keys lend an otherworldly hue to the song. The result is a breathtaking, unconventional jam.

Let the Good Times Roll

“Let the Good Times Roll” is a jazzy blues romp. Leonard’s vocals aren’t particularly suited to the song, but they’re supported by Jones’ soulful backing vox. McKenzie sets a steady bass groove and Leonard’s stinging six-string accomplishes the expression that his voice couldn’t. “7171-551” is a swaggering, riff-driven up-tempo rocker that showcases Jones’ wild guitar leads and Leonard’s more deliberate, scorched-earth style. Both axemen rock hard throughout the song, infusing the rhythm with a thunderstorm of lightning fretwork and squalls of sound.

Leonard’s edgy, rough-hewn vocals are better-suited to “Born With A Future,” a less-than-subtle raver that provides short, sharp shocks of guitar pyrotechnics. There’s an unexpected slow passage where Jones lends his vocals above washes of keyboards, before he and Leonard dive into some fine harmonies. Leonard provides the song with some first class axe-mangling, riffing madly with reckless abandon as Jones throws his single-note leads into the deep, chaotic instrumentation.

The longtime audience favorite “Bananas” is provided an OTT performance; a balls-out rocker that fades into near silence before swelling with Ryan’s effervescent keyboard romps and Williams’ steady, potent drumbeats and fills. Jones adds a finely-crafted solo with hints of rich tone and McKenzie’s bass work is funky without overpowering the song’s unique vibe. Leonard’s vocals are crazed here, swapping back-and-forth with Jones more grounded voice, and the song ends the show as a last-man-standing instrumental free-for-all.

At the Roundhouse 1976 provides the viewer with a true concert atmosphere, sans smoke and crowd noise. The band’s performance is shot mostly in close-ups, more than likely by a lone pair of cameras. The DVD’s sound is quite good and consistent throughout, much better than I would have though given the age of the concert. Lighting is as good as one could hope for: spotlights sometime flare up into mini-sunspots of white light, but mostly the visuals are clear and well-lit. In-between songs, especially near the beginning, there are brief interviews and commentary by the band and its fans, and backstage footage shows the various band members loose and ready to roll. Forget about the tracklist on the rear of the DVD box, ‘cause it’s just plain wrong – the way that I outlined the performances above is how they play out on your TV screen.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

By 1976, virtually all of Man’s progressive elements had largely disappeared from the band’s music, replaced by a hard rock edge that benefited from their explosive twin guitars and the powerful drumming of Terry Williams. Man would break-up after these Roundhouse performances, and a final live album culled from the shows would be released in ‘77 as All’s Well That Ends Well.

Jones would reunite with Leonard as Man a few years later, however, and over the past 25+ years former Man band members like Williams, Ryan and original bassist Martin Ace would rotate in and out of the roster for performances and recordings (many live). Man continues to perform in Europe to this day, and released the band’s most recent album, Diamonds and Coal, in 2007. (Voiceprint U.K.)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality blog, 2008

Buy the DVD from Man’s At the Roundhouse 1976

Archive Review: Muddy Waters' One More Mile (1994)

Muddy Waters' One More Mile
Muddy Waters is one of the most respected bluesmen in history, and perhaps the most revered (and thus, imitated) artist in the genre. Waters, it can be argued, defined the Chicago blues style, while his raucous slide-guitar technique was destined to influence a legion of white rock guitarists. It was long thought that the well had run dry, however, and that every side of note that Waters had recorded had been issued and analyzed, captured on one of his many albums. Thus the pleasant surprise that is One More Mile, a two CD set and the first in the proposed ‘Chess Collectibles’ series that will also see the release of rare material from Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and Little Walter, among others.

One More Mile presents material covering a time span from 1948 through 1966, offering a sort of musical chronology of Waters’ career and development. Many of the 41 cuts here are alternate takes and acoustic or unreleased versions of Waters’ signature songs, although there are several obscure B-sides included as well. Alongside versions of such blues classics as “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” are such wonderful finds as “You Gonna Need My Help” and “My Dog Can’t Bark.” Regardless of the many changes in band members, Waters’ own Delta-influenced style and forceful musical personality always shined through the material.

One of Waters’ greatest strengths was his ability to recognize other artists’ talents, and to successfully blend them with his own. As One More Mile shows, not only did Waters know a great song when he heard one – he recorded material written by a number of songwriters, including Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, and Jimmy Reed alongside his own considerable creations, but he also had an ear for other players. Through the years, he played with many great bluesmen, such as Dixon, James Cotton, Otis Spann, Little Walter, and Ernest Crawford, among many others. The resulting collaborations created a legend, one well served by the work found on One More Mile. (Chess Records, released March 15, 1994)

Buy the CD from Muddy WatersOne More Mile

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

New Music Monthly: October 2019 releases

Lotsa great music this month, with new tunes from friends old and new like Wilco, the Wildhearts, Joseph Arthur, the Muffs, Swans, and others. Not enough? How 'bout a new album from prog-rock supergroup Flying Colors (with Steve Morse, Neil Morse, and Mike Portnoy)? The first new LP in decades from glam-rockers Angel? A new set from Mississippi bluesman Jimmy "Duck" Holmes (produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys)? Maybe archive releases and reissues from Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, Neil Young, and Big Star will scratch that itch. No? There's just no pleasing you people...

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

North Mississippi Allstars' Up and Rolling

Angel - Risen   BUY!
Flying Colors - Third Degree [prog supergroup w/Steve Morse, Neal Morse & Mike Portnoy]   BUY!
North Mississippi Allstars - Up and Rolling   BUY!
that dog. - Old LP   BUY!
Wilco - Ode To Joy   BUY!
The Wildhearts - Diagnosis EP   BUY!

Vinnie Moore's Soul Shifter

808 State - Transmission Suite   BUY!
Joseph Arthur - Come Back World   BUY!
Babymetal - Metal Galaxy   BUY!
Kim Gordon - No Home Record   BUY!
Lacuna Coil - Black Anima   BUY!
Vinnie Moore - Soul Shifter   BUY!

Jimmy Duck Holmes' Cypress Grove

Alter Bridge - Walk the Sky   BUY!
Fastball - The Help Machine   BUY!
Rob Halford - Celestial   BUY!
Jimmy "Duck" Holmes - Cypress Grove [produced by Dan Auerbach]   BUY!
Jim James - The Order of Nature   BUY!
Jethro Tull - Stormwatch [40th anniversary box]   BUY!
Mark Lanegan Band - Somebody's Knocking   BUY!
Refused - War Music   BUY!

Jan Akkerman's Close Beauty

Jan Akkerman - Close Beauty   BUY!
Big Star - In Space [CD & vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Longwave - If We Ever Live Forever   BUY!
The Muffs - No Holiday   BUY!
Grace Potter - Daylight   BUY!
Sunn O))) - Pyroclasts   BUY!
Swans - Leaving Meaning   BUY!
Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Colorado   BUY!
Frank Zappa - Halloween 73   BUY!

Big Star's In Space

Album of the Month: Big Star's In Space, a reissue of the band's 2005 "reunion" album on both CD and vinyl. Big Star founder Alex Chilton had put together a new version of the band a decade previous, built around original drummer Jody Stephens and the talented duo of Jonathan Auer and Ken Stringfellow from the Posies. In Space was the only studio LP released by this line-up and would prove to be Chilton's last album released before his death in 2010. Although it's often criticized as no better than a Chilton solo album, one has to ask "what's wrong with that?"

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Country Music History: The First Star of the Grand Ole Opry

The Metro magazine, art by James Threalkill
During the past decade, many of the stars of country music have become household names on par with rock musicians or movie stars. To many fans, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville represents the history of country music. Superstars like Garth Brooks, George Strait, and Vince Gill are well-known members of the Opry, while hardcore fans would recognize artists like Skeeter Davis or Porter Wagoner, names from country’s past, as long-time members of this hallowed institution. Few country fans or historians remember, however, the first star of the Opry.

Who was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry? If asked, most people would think for a minute, then mistakenly name such country greats as Jimmie Rogers, Uncle Dave Macon, or maybe even Roy Acuff. Contrary to popular belief, however, the Opry’s first performer and, arguably, its first star, was none other than DeFord Bailey, an African-American performer born and raised in Tennessee.

Originally known as the WSM Barn Dance, the Grand Ole Opry was given its name by popular radio announcer George D. Hay in 1927. Nashville’s WSM radio had just become part of the fledgling NBC Radio Network and, in response to a network broadcast of conductor Walter Damrosch’s “Musical Appreciation Hour,” Hay quipped, “friends, the program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Doctor Damrosch told us that it was generally agreed that there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out, for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the ‘earthy’.”

DeFord Bailey: The First Star of the Grand Ole Opry

DeFord Bailey
Hay then introduced one of the Barn Dance’s most frequent and popular performers, a man he dubbed the “Harmonica Wizard,” DeFord Bailey, who performed his classic train song, “Pan American Blues.” After Bailey’s typically spirited performance, Hay mouthed the phrase that would become music history: “For the past hour we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry’.” The legendary Opry and Bailey, its first star, were born.

Bailey’s road to the Opry was a difficult one. Born in 1900 in rural Smith County, Tennessee, about 40 miles east of Nashville, Bailey was the grandson of a freed slave who had fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. DeFord’s mother died when he was only a year old; his father’s sister, Barbara Lou, and her husband, effectively became his foster parents, caring for him throughout the rest of his childhood.

As a boy, DeFord grew up among a musical family, a passion he passed on to his own children and grandchildren, who are also musicians. His son, DeFord the Second, a multi-instrumentalist himself says, “it ran through the family.” DeFord learned the traditional tunes of what he would later call “black hillbilly music” from his grandfather, aunt and other family members. He learned to play the mouth harp while a child and it remained his favorite instrument. DeFord was a multi-talented musician, however, able to play a banjo, guitar, mandolin, and even a bit of violin. During DeFord’s teens, the Bailey family would often perform together at church gatherings and barn dances.

DeFord had toyed with the idea of actually making a living performing the music he loved so much; in 1925 he received his first big break. Radio had come to Nashville in the form of station WDAD, owned by a radio supply storeowner named L.N. Smith. The store – called “Dad’s” – was managed by Fred “Pop” Exum, a radio enthusiast and a fan of DeFord’s who quickly asked Bailey to perform on the air. Though the station was small by any standards, broadcasting at a mere 150 watts, its signal reached out hundreds of miles through the night air, drawing fan mail from such far-flung locales as Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New York.

Nashville’s WSM radio, owned by regional economic powerhouse National Life and Accident Insurance, went on the air a month later. It was here that Hay, lured to the station from WLS in Chicago, began the Saturday night show of authentic folk and country music that would become the “Barn Dance.” The line-up of musicians would often include many WDAD regulars, who would play at both stations on Saturday nights.

WSM Barn Dance

DeFord Bailey
One of these regulars, Dr. Humphrey Bate, a respected country doctor and well-known musician, talked DeFord into joining him up on the hill at WSM one night. Arriving while the show was already in progress, Bate told Hay that he wanted DeFord to play on the air. It was only with Bate’s insistence that Hay begrudgingly agreed to allow DeFord to play a couple of tunes. After Bailey’s performance, though, Hay was elated at the young man’s talents and added him as a regular to the show. DeFord appeared as a weekly regular, bringing in large quantities of fan mail, as well as telegrams and phone calls with special song requests.

As an Opry performer, DeFord helped to carry the show during its early years, offering an excellent balance to other performers such as Uncle Dave Macon and the McGee Brothers. Bailey’s popularity led the enthusiastic Hay to believe him ready for the stardom proffered a recording artist and chose him as one of the three Opry acts to be recorded by Columbia Records in an Atlanta session in early 1927.

These sessions proved to be ill advised and unproductive, leading Hay to cancel the deal and instead contract with the Brunswick label to record Bailey in New York. The two New York sessions would yield eight songs, including the classic “Pan American Blues.” The songs were released in 1927 as part of Brunswick’s Songs From Dixie series – the only recordings by a black performer among the series. They were also issued by Vocalion, Brunswick’s sister label, and several were also reissued in 1930, again by Brunswick.

Though evidence exists to support the contention that the records were commercial hits, DeFord saw little in the way of royalties (an occurrence not uncommon with black performers to this day). As David C. Morton relates in his excellent biography of Bailey, DeFord Bailey: A Black Star In Early Country Music, DeFord was supposed to receive $400 cash for the recordings, as well as 2% royalties on each record sold. George Hay took 25% of the cash payment for arranging the sessions, paying out the remaining $300 in weekly increments of $10 (which also supplanted the $7 he was paid weekly for his Opry performances). Bailey also received three royalty checks totaling $128 for the songs, less than half, by any estimates, than he should have been paid.

A year later, Hay had set up the first recording session to ever take place in what would later become the “Music City,” luring the Victor label (later RCA) to town to record his Opry performers. DeFord took part in this historic session, cutting eight new songs in four and a half-hours. Three of these songs would later be released by Victor, the last, “John Henry,” was released in 1932. Reissues of the material were released as late as 1936.

Although DeFord saw little gain from these recordings – his entire catalogue of commercial releases weighing in at just eleven songs – their influence on a generation of harp players can still be felt today. No other harmonica player during those early days of recording and radio was captured so well onto vinyl; Bailey’s success led to a rash of field recordings of other Black harmonica soloists and paved the way for popular artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson. After the disappointing pay-off of recording (DeFord received a lump sum of $200 for the Victor sides), Bailey never really tried to record again after 1928.

Unhappy with the money he was receiving from WSM, and with George Hay, Bailey was lured to Knoxville by W.C. “Pay Cash” Taylor to appear on WNOX radio (for $20 a night, nearly three times what Hay was paying him!). Bailey’s debut performance was a smash success, running two hours past the scheduled ending time and prompting dozens of long distance calls to the station from satisfied listeners. His regular appearances drew fan mail from several states to the small station. DeFord soon began to itch for something else, though, even considering a trip to California to try his luck there. Convinced by Taylor and Hay into returning to Nashville, Bailey, after insisting on the same money he was making in Knoxville, rejoined the Opry in 1929.

Roy Acuff & Bill Monroe

David Morton's DeFord Bailey: A Black Star In Early Country MusicDuring the 1930s, Bailey toured constantly with several bands, playing tent shows, county fairs, and theaters across the country, always returning to the Opry stage for Saturday night’s performance. Being a black man in a white man’s world presented many problems as segregation forced DeFord to find other places to eat and sleep than his fellow performers. The old shibboleth of money also raised its head again, as the five dollars a day DeFord received for performing barely paid his travel expenses and was often significantly less than that which his fellow (white) performers were paid. Often times Bailey was cheated in the amount paid him, or offered whiskey as payment (which Bailey, a teetotaler, politely refused). His was the star that attracted crowds out to the shows during the depression as people paid fifty cents apiece to see DeFord and the other Opry performers in person.

By the late ‘30s, DeFord had befriended a young fiddler from East Tennessee by the name of Roy Acuff. Acuff came to the Opry in 1938 as an unknown; realizing the popularity of the harp player, he asked DeFord to tour with his band. DeFord did so, helping publicize Acuff’s “Smoky Mountain Boys” with his drawing power over the next couple of years, directly lending a hand to Acuff’s future stardom. Bill Monroe, the King of Bluegrass music, also utilized Bailey’s talents and drawing power on tour to publicize his band.

The spring of 1941 saw Bailey start his sixteenth year with the Grand Ole Opry and its radio broadcast. Even though his airtime had been cut back, he still appeared as frequently as any other artist, including thirty weeks during 1939, and remained one of the show’s most popular performers. Within a couple of months, though, in May of 1941, Bailey was fired by the Opry, a mystery often covered up or neglected by country music historians. Although authors through the years have come up with many theories or facts, claiming racial reasons or, as the official party line stated, the fact that DeFord wouldn’t learn any new songs, the truth behind his dismissal probably lies somewhere in betwixt the two.

According to George Hay, the Opry’s founder and guiding light through the early years, as written in his account of the Opry, “like some members of his race and other races, DeFord was lazy. He knew about a dozen numbers, which he put on the air and recorded for a major company, but he refused to learn any more, even though his reward was great…” Bailey biographer David C. Morton believes that Bailey was merely caught up in an industry-wide boycott of songs administered by the ASCAP licensing agency. Prohibited for legal reasons from performing many of his best-known songs on the air, DeFord lost his value to the Opry. After leaving the Opry, Bailey opened a shoe shine stand in downtown Nashville that he worked until his death in 1982.

Actually, DeFord knew dozens of traditional songs that he had grown up playing and had written many more. Of his refusal to learn any new songs, his son DeFord the Second says, “that part I know is wrong. The songs that I know today that he taught to me, he learned to play different after I had grown up.” According to most accounts, DeFord had the soul of a jazz artist, often improvising on the spot, with each performance being slightly different and equally special.

Country Music Hall of Fame

The Legendary DeFord Bailey CD
Bailey’s role as the Opry’s first performer and an important factor in the show’s future success, as well as his role as country music’s first African-American star, has been sadly overlooked by the Nashville establishment. To this day Bailey remains an obscurity, a footnote in the history that he helped create. Even at the Opry, his status has been forgotten, as observes DeFord the Second, “all these stars have gold and bronze framed pictures on the wall, Dad’s picture is nowhere to be seen.” In 2001, the Academy of Country Music got a lot of press out of the nomination of Charlie Pride as the first African-American member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Bailey remains the only founding member of the Grand Ole Opry refused this great honor.

Although racism has certainly played a part in denying this musical pioneer his place in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and thus a permanent place in musical history, many industry insiders dismiss Bailey as an insignificant artist. The simple fact however, is that black or white, people loved DeFord Bailey. He was a musician of considerable talent, depth and charisma, drawing large audiences with his live performances and creating a legion of dedicated fans with nearly two decades of radio appearances – people who cared not of color, but came to hear the music that DeFord Bailey loved playing so well.

[Note: The story of DeFord Bailey was brought to me by my late musician friend Aashid Himons, who was a friend of the Bailey family and an outspoken advocate for the artist’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Nothing happened for better than a decade after our article on DeFord was first published in 1993 by Nashville’s The Metro magazine. Reprinted by my friends at Big O magazine in Singapore the early 2000s, however, the article caught the eye of country music fans in Australia, who reportedly deluged the institution with letters asking why Bailey wasn’t a member, often accompanied by copies of this article. Curiously, Bailey was subsequently inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.]

Buy the book from David C. Morton's DeFord Bailey: A Black Star In Early Country Music

Friday, September 27, 2019

Archive Review: The Wildhearts' The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed (2004)

The Wildhearts' The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed
Long before the Darkness were credited with reviving the spirit, if not exactly the substance of “glam rock,” British bands like the London Quireboys, Dogs D’Amour, and the Wildhearts kept that glittering flame alive. Drawing on influences such as the Rolling Stones, the Faces, and Marc Bolan’s T-Rex, the riff-happy Wildhearts and their brethren created some of the most energetic and lively rock music of the ’90s. Unfortunately, outside of the U.K. only a few hardcore American Anglophiles knew squat about these bands, none of which made a dent on the Seattle-dominated mid-’90s rock scene. After enjoying almost a decade as the monarchy’s favorite bad boys of debauchery, the Wildhearts called it a day...

After a handful of years pursuing the brass ring with other bands, Wildhearts’ mastermind and frontman “Ginger” decided to reconvene the original band line-up in 2001. Ginger reunited with guitarist Chris Jagdhar and drummer Andrew “Stidi” Stidolph, recording the tentative Riff After Motherfucking Riff EP for release in Japan. The experiment must have paid off as the band released its official “comeback” CD – The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed – in England in 2003. After years of being ignored by American audiences, the disc was released stateside earlier this year. A successful U.S. tour opening for the Darkness increased the band’s profile among American rockers, and the subsequent release of the newly-minted, full-length Riff After Riff on Gearhead has the Wildhearts primed for a potential breakthrough.

The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed is a transitional album. The band works hard to find a balance between its Glam-rock roots – a mix of Slade-styled bombast and Sweet-flavored riff-rock – and the harder-edged influences of the Stones, pub-rockers like Dr. Feelgood, and various “new wave of British metal” bands. The pop/rock side of the band wins out here, broadcast-friendly tunes like “Vanilla Radio” and “So Into You” seemingly written specifically to appeal to radio audiences. “There's Only One Hell” offers some stellar guitar interplay and a killer hook, Ginger’s vocals sounding like Nick Lowe while the band sounds like Cheap Trick, or maybe Rockpile. The engaging “Top of the World” opens with Jagdhar’s razor-sharp six-string work before tumbling into a joyous blend of vocal harmonies and driving rhythms.

There are few bands that can mix hard rock and pop melodies as successfully as the Wildhearts. Even so, many of the songs on The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed, enjoyable as they may be, are missing a certain “joi de vivre” that made previous Wildhearts’ albums a crucial part of every rocker’s music library. As such, The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed serves as a bookend with the recently released Riff After Riff – which itself showcases the harder-rocking, metal-edged side of the band’s personality. The Wildhearts are clearly working towards a future album that will include both sides of the musical dichotomy that made the band so attractive a decade ago. In the meantime, check out The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed and get a taste of the rock ‘n’ roll cheap thrills that you've been missing. (Sanctuary Records, 2004)

Buy the CD from The WildheartsThe Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2004