Friday, September 25, 2020

Archive Review: Don "Sugar Cane" Harris' Sugar Cane's Got the Blues (2008)

Don "Sugar Cane" Harris' Sugar Cane's Got the Blues
Classically-trained violinist Don “Sugar Cane” Harris was one of the most interesting characters in rock music. Harris formed the mid-50s rock duo Don and Dewey with his childhood friend Dewey Terry, playing guitar on a number of period R&B recordings for Art Rupe’s Specialty Records. Although none of the band’s singles became hits, songs like “Farmer John” and “Justine,” written by Harris and Terry, were hits for other artists and subsequently became garage-rock standards.

Switching over exclusively to violin, Harris became an in-demand sideman during the ‘60s, performing alongside R&B, blues and rock heavyweights like Johnny Otis (who gave Harris his “Sugar Cane” nickname), John Mayall, John Lee Hooker, and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, appearing on the Hot Rats and Weasels Ripped My Flesh albums. During the ‘70s, the talented violin-mangler recorded a number of albums of brilliant jazz-rock fusion, mixing jazzy instrumentals with soulful R&B, blues and progressive rock.

Don “Sugar Cane” Harris’ Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues

The albums that Harris recorded for the long-defunct BASF label were particularly influential and ground-breaking works, efforts like 1973’s Keyzop and 1974’s Cup Full of Dreams sadly long out-of-print. In between solo albums, Harris formed the critically- acclaimed rock band Pure Food and Drug Act with some friends from Mayall’s band. PDFA recorded a single album, Choice Cuts, in 1972 with guitarist Harvey Mandel. Originally released in 1973 by BASF, the scorching, white-hot Harris live set Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues was recently reissued by European label Promising Music. All I can say is that it’s about time, ‘cause this is one roller-coaster ride of an album, leaving blood on the bricks in its wake. The high point of Harris’ acclaimed but sometimes erratic career, Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues captures a 1971 performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival.

Harris was backed for this performance by a skilled rhythm section that included Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt, his high-flying violin complimented by talentedNorwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal and a previous Harris collaborator, German axeman Volker Kriegel. The band line-up for the festival was rounded out by keyboardist/electronic wizard Wolfgang Dauner. This deluxe Promising Music reissue has been provided 24-bit/88.2kHz digital remastering, a gatefold cardboard digipak that approximates the artwork of the 1973 vinyl release, and a booklet with the original liner notes along with new notes from avant-garde musician Eugene Chadbourne. The CD itself is black, looking like a record album, and is slipped into a paper sleeve. Too freakin’ cool…

The album derived from the live performance is divided into four lengthy songs, ranging in time from ten-anna-half, to as long as fifteen minutes plus. Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues kicks off with the energetic “Liz Pineapple Wonderful,” the song cautiously introducing the assembled band's enormous chops before lurching headfirst into the chasm. Above a crashing wave of jazzy instrumentation, Harris spits out a few soulful vocals before launching into a madman’s dance with his electric…and electrifying…violin. Notes fly off the strings like sparks from a burning battery as the band improvises a funky and sometimes cacophonic soundtrack behind Harris. The song circles back around to Harris’ vocals before fading out with a screech of catgut and semi-psychedelic guitar.

Song For My Father

The album’s title track kicks off with a virtuoso violin mugging courtesy of Harris, his instrument sounding at once both melancholy and hopeful as the band fills in behind him with scattershot solar flares of drum, cymbals, and oddly disjointed piano. The song’s dark vibe devolves into a mere whisper of silence before swelling upwards with crescendos of fluttering violin and shattered piano as brushes hit the cymbals with zeal. The last half of the song drops the atmospheric angst and rocks into an improvised jazz-fusion romp before sliding into a bittersweet...almost pastoral...chording similar to its first notes, ending on a strangled high note with Harris’ plaintive vocals moaning “Sugar Cane’s got the blues.”

“Song For My Father" opens with chiming percussion and Wyatt’s fanciful drum-play, the violin kicking in above a Latin-tinged minor-key soundtrack. As Harris scrapes the strings with fierce imagination and focus, the band brings a sense of muted whimsy to the performance. The song is one of the best showcases of Harris’ talents, the string-bender burning up the bow with the speed of a Formula One racecar, the song's many twists and turns providing an exhilarating thrill-ride. The guitar here is sublime, the bass lines fluid, and the rhythmic drumwork at once both bombastic and subdued. The song reminds me of an extended Santana jam at times, and of one of Zappa’s lengthy ‘70s-era jazz-based compositions at other times.

Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues closes with the twelve-and-a-half-minute-plus “Where’s My Sunshine,” which places the spotlight on the talents of the entire band. Above a jagged musical undercurrent, Harris introduces the song by saying, “this song is about a girl, called her Sunshine…and every word of it is true!” before pleading “where’s my Sunshine?” A lonesome, fractured piano blast comes in beneath Harris’ R&B styled vocals, joined by the artist’s screaming violin and a throbbing bass line. Nimble-fingered fretwork punctures the soundtrack, leading back around to Harris’ rhetorical question, the song walking off in a flurry of stiletto-like violin jabs and a rapid storm of lightning piano and thundering percussion.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Harris would go on to be a contributing member of the experimental rock band Tupelo Chain Sex during the early ‘80s, recording a couple of albums with them. However, his substance abuse problems allowed him to record only sporadically during the ensuing years, and his personal demons made Harris an unreliable live performer; he later reunited with Terry during the late ‘90s as a revived Don and Dewey. Sadly, Harris died in 1999 from heart disease at the still-young age of 61. This truly gifted musician left behind a significant, if too often overlooked, body of work, the pinnacle of which was Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues. (Promising Music, released February 1, 2008)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2008

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Monday, September 21, 2020

Planet of Sound book now available!

Rev. Gordon's Planet of Sound
The Reverend's latest effort, Planet of Sound, is now available from Planet of Sound is a collection of essays, retrospectives, artist interviews and album reviews penned by award-winning rock critic and music historian Rev. Keith A. Gordon. Originally published by the Rock and Roll Globe website, the Reverend covers a wide range of rock and blues music with these essays.

From well-known artists like Steve Miller, Walter Trout, Frank Zappa, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and the Blues Brothers to lesser-known talents like avant-garde guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, singer/songwriter Buzzy Linhart, British oddball Screamin’ Lord Sutch, and cult rockers the Flamin’ Groovies, the Reverend explores the history of these artists and places their legacies into proper context.  

Within these pages are 33 aggressively looong essays, etc on rock and blues music – popular and otherwise – that you can read for free online but, in keeping with my obsessive quest to publish nearly every word I’ve ever written in some misguided and utterly futile attempt at immortality, I’m trying to sell you in printed and eBook form. I can only hope that you have as much fun reading this stuff as I did in writing it. Rock on!

Get an autographed copy from the Reverend for $12.99!

Buy the print version from Planet of Sound

Friday, September 18, 2020

Archive Review: Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield's Super Session & Fillmore East The Lost Concert Tapes (2008)

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield's Super Session
Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield are two of the most underrated and influential talents in the canon of blues-rock. Both were phenomenal musicians (Bloomfield died in 1981, Kooper now only plays sporadically), insightful and knowledgeable with a true love of music. Both men’s credentials are impeccable. Kooper was, perhaps, the most valuable session player in the ‘60s rock universe, adding his considerable talents to records by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. A founding member of two seminal ‘60s bands – Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears – Kooper also discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, producing their first three albums.

Bloomfield was an equally decorated veteran of the rock ‘n’ roll army. A familiar presence on the early ’60s Chicago club scene, Bloomfield made his bones as a guitarslinger with the Butterfield Blues Band. He toured with Dylan, formed Electric Flag with Nick Gravenites and subsequently played sessions with Kooper, Muddy Waters, James Cotton and folks of that caliber. Between the two, they have played on/produced/written some of the most memorable music in rock music. So why aren’t more people familiar with these two? Blame it on the short-term memory, perhaps, of pop culture or blame it on an industry that no longer nurtures talents of extraordinary vision like Kooper and Bloomfield.

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield’s Super Session

Two recordings document the pair’s legacy. At the time of its 1968 release, rock fans had never heard anything like Super Session. Kooper was a staff producer at Columbia Records at the time, dreaming up a project to produce. Kooper thought of his old Dylan session cohort Bloomfield and, with a crack rhythm section in tow, retreated to a Los Angeles recording studio to “jam.” Half of Super Session offers day one of the sessions, Bloomfield’s guitar ringing clear as a bell on the Chicago blues-styled instrumental romp “Albert’s Shuffle,” the nine-minute ‘90s-jam band precursor “His Holy Modal Majesty” and the mournful blues jam “Really.”

Bloomfield was AWOL come day two of the session, his health problems and insomnia aggravated by a growing heroin addiction. Bloomfield simply picked up his guitar and went home, forcing producer Kooper to recruit Steve Stills, fresh from a stint with Buffalo Springfield, to fill in for the missing guitarist. The Stills-dominated tracks travel in a more psychedelic direction than Bloomfield’s blues-rock virtuosity. A faithful cover of Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” leads into a dynamic eleven-minute reading of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” Kooper’s vocals and keyboard work on the song are spot-on, Stills’ wah-wah driven six-string providing the fire while the rhythm section of bassist Harvey Brooks and drummer Eddie Hoh provide the pulse.

Super Session spent several weeks in the top twenty upon its release and helped spawn the first generation of “jam” bands (including the Grateful Dead), opening the door to greater instrumental improvisation. This remastered reissue of Super Session includes four bonus tracks, including original takes of “Albert’s Shuffle” and “Season of the Witch” sans horns (which were added to the final mix later) and two interesting outtakes. The success of Super Session led to a sort of sequel in The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, the live album a document of three nights at the Fillmore West in San Francisco featuring mostly new material.

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield’s Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield's Fillmore East

The previously unreleased Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68 is the second of two releases that further highlight the often-overlooked talents of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. Recorded two-and-a-half months after the “live adventures” disc, these tapes were all but discarded after the performance due to engineering problems and musical incompatibilities between some of the players. Rediscovered by Kooper a couple of years ago, the performance has been carefully resurrected, masterfully remixed and skillfully remastered for the digital age. A real treat for Bloomfield fans, any young musician with an interest in the blues should check out this set and hear the playing of a true blues aficionado.

Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68 is a veritable showcase for Bloomfield’s enormous talents, the guitarist dazzling the audience with his fiery fretwork. Bloomfield pulled every trick he had out of the bag for covers of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “One Way Out” and “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” and his original “(Please) Tell Me Partner.” He wasn’t afraid to share the stage, bringing out Texas guitarist Johnny Winter for a scorching take on B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault,” the red-hot performance subsequently earning Winter a recording contract. Throughout Fillmore East, Bloomfield’s six-string work is fluid and graceful, Kooper’s keyboard work is subtle and if the rhythm section often seems at odds with itself, it does little to distract from the prominent guitar pyrotechnics offered by Bloomfield.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

It could be argued that Mike Bloomfield never played better than he did circa 1968, the Super Session album and accompanying live performances spotlighting his talent at its peak. Bloomfield wrote the blueprint for the white blues guitarist, informing the work of those who would follow, from Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Kenny Wayne Shepherd and David Jacobs-Strain. (Legacy Recordings, released 2008)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2008

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Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield Super Session
Al Kooper & Michael Bloomfield’s Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68

Archive Review: The Detroit Cobras' Tied & True (2007)

The Detroit Cobras' Tied & True
The band line-up of the Detroit Cobras changes more often than a politician’s poll numbers, but the band’s trademark sound seldom budges an inch. Built around a solid core of sultry singer Rachel Nagy and guitarslinger Mary Ramirez, the Detroit Cobras continue to crank out soul-drenched rave-ups and garage rock gems with Tied & True, the band’s dynamic fourth album. With the addition of Memphis guitar-for-hire and boy genius Greg Cartwright of Reigning Sound, and slammin’ bassist Carol Schumacher of the Gore Gore Girls, Tied & True offers the most enjoyable Cobras listening experience yet.

The Detroit Cobras’ Tied & True

Any old rock band can grab a hit song off the charts of yesteryear and jazz it up for the modern record buyer, usually slaughtering it in the process. The Detroit Cobras, on the other hand, take an old song and handle it like a nebbish collector at a record convention. They treat each one in the spirit of the original, with love and reverence, and they never cease to amaze with their spot-on choices of rare and obscure cuts. Garnet Mimms’ “As Long As I Have You” is provided a cool rocking arrangement, with Ramirez’s and Cartwright’s guitars intertwined behind Nagel’s best upbeat Martha Reeves vocals. “Nothing But A Heartache” is all swooning girl-group goodness, an aged U.K. hit for the Flirtations, a mid-60s Northern Soul band, that the Detroit Cobras play straight with delicious harmonies and soaring vocals.

“Puppet On A String” has a sort of syncopated beat and features a hypnotic guitar lead with great tone and vocals to match while “The Hurt’s All Gone” offers up a fine vocal performance, lush arrangement and authentic feel. A vintage ‘60s R&B classic by the Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas, “The Hurt’s All Gone” is about as smooth and soulful as you can get and keep your feet on the terra firma. The Detroit Cobras continue their Louisiana road trip with the wonderful “Try Love,” a Dori Grayson original from Shreveport’s Murco Records. In Nagy and crew’s hands, the lovely romantic tune is supported by gentle shimmering guitar, tasteful background vocals and deliberate rhythms.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Overall, Tied & True is the Detroit Cobras’ best album since their first, the band adding subtlety and tact to their performances where once they depended on balls and bluster. There’s room for plenty for rocking when you’re on stage, but the low-key and relatively subdued treatments provided the songs on Tied & True greatly enhances the material, rather than detracting from the original magic. It’s tempting to call the Detroit Cobras America’s best cover band, but it takes a considerable amount of creativity to grab a song and make it entirely your own. A lot of bands have tried and failed, while the Detroit Cobras keep on rocking, relentlessly… (Bloodshot Records, released April 24, 2007)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2007

Friday, September 11, 2020

Archive Review: Ken Hensley's Elements (2006)

Ken Hensley's Elements
Back when I was a wee lad, attending Franklin H.S. in lovely suburban Nashville, my friends and I were simply *ga-ga* over Uriah Heep. We all thought that they were the bee’s knees, the hot-cha-cha, the Nazz…well, you get the point. With Heep’s landmark 1972 album Demons & Wizards as our starting point, we championed the band’s excesses while reveling in their Goth-inspired, fantasy-influenced proto prog-metal trademark sound. Our love affair lasted throughout high school as albums like The Magician’s Birthday (also ’72); Sweet Freedom (1973, with the great AOR track “Stealin’” leading the way) and Wonderworld (1974) dominated our turntables.

Aside from the operatic voice of frontman David Byron, the other dominant element in Heep’s mid-70s sound was provided by guitarist, keyboardist, and songwriter Ken Hensley. Byron and guitarist Mick Box originally formed the band, called Spice, changing the name to Uriah Heep when Hensley joined. Hensley came over from a British band called the Gods which, at one time, included future Rolling Stones’ guitarist Mick Taylor and future ELP member Greg Lake. Hensley’s influence can’t be found on Heep’s debut album; however, with Salisbury (1970) and Look At Yourself (1971), Hensley took over the reins as the band’s primary songwriter. Writing both punchy metal-edged cuts like the title song as well as prog-oriented tracks like the symphonic “July Morning,” Hensley provided the band a distinct identity and a future direction.

Shaping the Uriah Heep Sound

With the addition of bassist Gary Thain and drummer Lee Kerslake – a former bandmate of Hensley’s from the Gods – on Demons & Wizards, the band found the players and chemistry that would take them over the top. Kerslake proved to be a talented songwriter in his own right, penning three of the eight songs on the band’s breakthrough album, and serving as a valuable counterpoint to Hensley’s efforts. Whereas Hensley’s work tended to lean more in a poetic prog-metal direction, Kerslake’s songs tended to be darker, more Goth-oriented exercises. The work of both writers coexisted well on the album. Gary Thain would also spread his wings as a songwriter for the band, contributing two tracks on The Magician’s Birthday. Hensley would still carry the brunt of the creative load, however, writing five songs for the album, including the incredible tracks “Sunrise” and “Rain.” By the time of Sweet Freedom and Wonderworld, the Hensley/Thain songwriting axis was well in place, the two experimenting with a more radio-friendly, harder-edged sound on songs like “Stealin’,” “Seven Stars” and “Something Or Nothing.”

Ken Hensley's Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf
In a case of “did he jump or was he pushed,” Thain would leave the band in 1974, after the release of Wonderworld. Suffering from a serious drug problem, Thain tragically died a year later. Kerslake would subsequently pick up the pen once again for 1975’s Return To Fantasy, writing six of the album’s nine songs. I mention the Hensley/Thain/Kerslake songwriting tandem as a way to underscore the dynamic that was created by having three solid writers in one band. Although not privy to any “backstage” maneuvering by any of the songwriters, it’s clear that having a trio of such talents drove the band to new heights. It’s also telling that when Hensley recorded his first solo album, Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf, he recruited Thain and Kerslake to play on the sessions. I feel that the competition between the three was a healthy one, pushing each to achieve great things.

Hensley’s solo debut was released in 1973, Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf benefiting from Heep’s commercial success at the time. According to interviews with Hensley, the prolific songwriter would offer a slew of songs to the band and they would subsequently record some and discard others, mostly due to the 40-odd-minute time constraints imposed by the vinyl LP format. Thus songs like “Proud Words” would never be recorded by the band while “Rain” is afforded slightly different interpretations on both The Magician’s Birthday and Hensley’s solo album. Hensley has said that the solo album wasn’t an effort to try and launch a solo career, as such, but rather as a forum for sharing all the songs that he had written with his fans.

Ken Hensley's Eager To Please

Ken Hensley's Eager To Please
Hensley would record his second solo album, Eager To Please, in 1975 while trying to figure out exactly where Heep was going, commercially and creatively. Thain was gone, replaced by journeyman bassist John Wetton, a detour on his way towards forming Asia. Byron would leave after 1976’s High and Mighty album to pursue solo fame, replaced by former Lucifer’s Friend frontman John Lawton. Lawton would subsequently record three albums with the band, leaving after 1979’s Fallen Angel to be replaced by the generally reviled John Sloman. Kerslake would also leave at this time, working on Ozzy Osbourne’s first solo album before rejoining Heep in time for 1982’s Abominog. Along with founder Mick Box, Kerslake has been with Heep ever since, until he had to retire from the band in late 2006 due to health problems.

The tensions surrounding Lawton’s departure from Heep, and the conflicts created by the band’s internal struggles spelled the end for Hensley. The talented songwriter and musician would leave the band after 1980’s ill-conceived Conquest album to pursue a full-time solo career. Hensley would release his third solo effort, Free Spirit, the following year. Representing somewhat of a departure from both his previous solo work and his legacy with Heep, Free Spirit includes synth-pop songs and new wave flourishes that were decidedly un-metal like in their execution. Hensley himself seems to have expressed reservations about the album’s material, and it stands alone as an anomaly in the artist’s catalog.

The party was pretty well over by the time that I got to see Uriah Heep live, in May 1978, probably touring in support of their twin 1977 releases, Firefly and Innocent Victim. In a rare show of largesse, Rush had asked the band to open for them on their 1978 tour, paying back Heep for dragging Rush along on one of their previous tours. I had just scored my first ever backstage passes through Thom King’s Take One Magazine to interview Rush and figured out that the passes could also be used to get backstage and meet my idols, Uriah Heep. Although Hensley was reserved but friendly, Mick Box and Lee Kerslake were both chatty and accommodating. Box got the entire band to pose for pictures holding a copy of Take One and he invited my friend Wayne and myself backstage after Rush’s set to talk some more. We ended up drinking champagne and talking about music and motorcycles until early in the morning with Box and Kerslake.

Ken Hensley & Visible Faith

Ken Hensley
Ken Hensley’s influence on a generation of musicians is often understated. From his 1981 solo album, Hensley would go on to hang out for a while with southern rock band Blackfoot, performing on two of the band’s albums and touring with them for several years. Although it seemed as if Hensley had retired from music by mid-decade, a number of bands called upon his talents to contribute to their songs in the studio. Well into the late ‘90s, when Hensley became “born again” and rebooted his career with 1999’s A Glimpse of Glory, recorded with the band Visible Faith, Hensley lent his unique keyboard signature to recordings by Cinderella, Metalium, Ayreon and W.A.S.P.

Elements, released late last year in the U.K. by Castle Music, attempts to place Hensley’s contributions to rock music in context. The two-CD set features a handful of tracks by Hensley’s early bands the Gods and Toe Fat, with the Gods’ “Looking Glass” standing out as a strong cut from one of the ‘60s lesser-known outfits. There are fifteen Heep songs on Elements, ranging from “The Park” and fan-favorite “Lady In Black” from Salisbury, to “Falling In Love” from Fallen Angel. These aren’t necessarily Heep’s best-known songs, or even the hits, but from “Look At Yourself” and “The Wizard” to “Sunrise” and “The Easy Road,” they represent some of Heep’s best work.

Disc two of Elements jumps right into Hensley’s solo career, offering up six songs from Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf and five songs from Eager To Please, including the album’s lone single, “In the Morning.” The anthology also includes three songs from Free Spirit, including a standout track in “The System.” A lone Blackfoot track, “Send Me An Angel” is included here, as is “The Return” from A Glimpse of Glory. A rare recording of “I Close My Eyes,” originally from Running Blind, features the first reunion of Hensley and former Heep frontman John Lawton since ’79. Elements closes with a fine recording of the previously-unreleased “Romance,” part of the 2005 album Cold Autumn Morning where Hensley re-recorded some of his classic songs.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Elements is a fine representation of Hensley’s career, presenting his work in a strong light and successfully balancing his band and solo efforts accordingly. The anthology serves as an excellent bookend to Hensley’s 1994’s rarities collection, From Time To Time, and is a great place for the neophyte to experience Hensley’s musical talents. The time is ripe for a critical rediscovery of Ken Hensley. A new Hensley album, titled Blood On the Highway, is scheduled for release in 2007, and features vocal contributions from prog and melodic rock heavyweights like Glenn Hughes, Jorn Lande and John Lawton. To the delight of his fans, Hensley’s biographical book When Too Many Dreams Come True will also be reissued in 2007. Some 40 years after his first recordings, Ken Hensley is still going strong. (Castle Music, released 2006)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2006 


Archive Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan's Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985 (2001)

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985

When Stevie Ray Vaughan took the stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 17, 1983, few watching could have expected the subsequent events his performance that night would inspire. The relatively unknown Stevie Ray and his seasoned band delivered a red-hot set of Texas blues to an indifferent and hostile audience. Sitting in the crowd that night, however, was a thoroughly impressed David Bowie, who provided an artistic “coming out” for Vaughan by later using the six-string wizard on his highly-successful Let’s Dance album. Jackson Browne, who also witnessed Vaughan’s incendiary Montreux performance, provided free studio time for SRV and Double Trouble to record their debut album, the ground breaking Texas Flood.

With a pair of critically acclaimed, best-selling albums providing his credentials, Vaughan recreated the blues-rock genre and kick-started a blues revival that continues today. Two years after his Montreux debut, Stevie Ray returned to the festival stage as a conquering hero. This time, the young guitarist delivered another smoking set to a far more receptive crowd than previously. Both historic performances are paired on Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985, a scorching two-disc set that showcases Vaughan’s considerable live chops and further cements his legacy as one of the greatest guitarists ever.

Listening to these two live performances – one as a brash, youthful guitarslinger and the other as a maturing, confident artist – one can hear strains of Vaughan’s artistic lineage, masters such as Albert King, Jimi Hendrix and Lightning Hopkins. You’ll also hear signature songs such as “Pride and Joy” and “Texas Flood,” refined from show to show, performed alongside such gems as “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” and a cover of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.” Much of the material on Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985 is previously unreleased, the set complimented by extensive liner notes and rare photos. Vaughan’s accidental death in 1990, while on the verge of even greater success, robbed the music world of an incredibly gifted guitarist. If you’re unfamiliar with the brilliant blues-rock of this legend, these inspired Montreux sessions serve as an excellent introduction to Stevie’s world. (Legacy Recordings, released 2001)

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


Friday, September 4, 2020

CD Review: Little Richard's The Rill Thing (1970) & King of Rock and Roll (1971)

The Legendary Little Richard

In the early 1950s, “Little Richard” Penniman was just another struggling Southern rhythm & blues singer. A handful of singles released by both RCA Victor and Peacock Records between 1951 and 1954 failed to chart, leaving the dynamic performer back in Macon, Georgia working as a dishwasher. He’d form a new band, the Upsetters, touring the Southern chitlin’ circuit for months before fellow R&B performer Lloyd Price recommended that he send a demo tape to Art Rupe’s Specialty Records. The label liked what it heard and Rupe paired him with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, sending Richard to New Orleans to record at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios, thereby changing the course of rock ‘n’ roll history.

Initial sessions at J&M Studios yielded little in the way of marketable recordings. When Blackwell and Richard went to the Dew Drop Inn to relax one night, Richard commandeered the piano and launched into a song he called “Tutti Frutti.” Sensing a hit, Blackwell hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to rework Richard’s risqué lyrics into something more “radio friendly,” and they managed to record Little Richard’s first hit single in a mere three takes. Released in November 1955, “Tutti Frutti” peaked at #2 on Billboard magazine’s R&B chart and #21 on the pop charts, eventually selling better than a million copies. Richard’s next single, “Long Tall Sally,” was released in March 1956 and surpassed its predecessor, topping the R&B chart and peaking at #13 pop, while also hitting Top Ten in Great Britain on its way to another million flapjacks sold.

During the mid-to-late ‘50s, Little Richard and producer Blackwell recorded a string of Top Ten R&B hits, songs like “Rip It Up,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Lucille,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” By the end of the decade, though, Richard had grown dissatisfied with his fame and turned to the ministry, releasing a trio of gospel-oriented LPs in 1960 and ’61. When the British Invasion struck, and bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were confessing their love for Little Richard, the singer turned back to secular music with an under-performing string of singles and albums like Little Richard Is Back (1964) and The Explosive Little Richard (1967), which did little to improve the singer’s commercial fortunes.     

Little Richard’s The Rill Thing

Litle RIchard's The Rill Thing

Flash forward a few years and Little Richard was working on his comeback. Booked by his then-manager Larry Williams, a R&B singer from New Orleans, to perform rock festivals like the Atlantic City Pop Festival and the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, Richard would steal the show from stars like Janis Joplin and John Lennon. Subsequent TV appearances cemented his renewed celebrity status, while Richard’s still-explosive live performances earned the singer a three-album deal with Reprise Records that resulted in 1970’s The Rill Thing, 1971’s King of Rock and Roll, and 1972’s The Second Coming, three somewhat underrated albeit uneven recordings that served to complicate rather than cement Little Richard’s legacy at the time.   

Little Richard journeyed to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and the legendary FAME Studios to record his comeback disc, 1970’s The Rill Thing (Grade: B). Produced by Richard, the album featured the minor hit single “Freedom Blues.” Co-credited to longtime friend and musical influence Esquerita, the song found Richard in R&B shouter mode, his vocals riding high in the mix above blasts of sax, Travis Wammack’s fatback guitar, and Roger Hawkins’ steady drumbeats. The song’s socially-conscious lyrics attracted an audience, the single hitting #28 on the R&B chart and inching up to #47 on the pop chart. The album’s second single, the energetic “Greenwood, Mississippi,” performed less well, the rocking tune failing to break on the R&B chart and only rising to a meager #85 on the pop chart.

‘Tis a shame, too, ‘cause Richard’s performance on “Greenwood, Mississippi” is like lightning in a bottle, the singer delivering inspired, soulful vocals around which he layers Wammack’s red-hot, psych-tinged guitar licks, and a solid, almost funky rhythmic track. In 1972 or ’73, they might have garnered FM radio airplay as part of the “Southern rock” revival but, in 1970 with AM radio still relying on bouncy pop songs, programmers largely ignored the adventurous and exciting track. Memphis guitarist Larry Lee’s “Two-Time Loser” rides a similar musical vein, Richard’s bluesy delivery nicely complimented by some fine chicken-picking and an up-tempo R&B groove. Paying homage to the New Orleans club that helped launch his career, Richard’s “Dew Drop Inn” is a reckless, old-school rocker with plenty of whoops and hollers and raging piano-play and honking saxophones.

“Somebody Saw You” is another Southern rock precursor, the band’s strolling rhythms matched by a bit of country twang and Richard’s unvarnished R&B vox. The album’s title track is a real poser, however – when you have one of the greatest, most recognizable vocalists in rock ‘n’ roll and R&B history, why do you want to hide him in a ten-minute instrumental track? That’s what “The Rill Thing” is, ten minutes of Little Richard not singing, nearly a quarter of the album’s running time spent jamming to a funky groove…fine, maybe, for Booker T. & the M.G.’s but not for Little Richard’s first album in three years. It’s not a bad song, just a bad choice – cut the performance in half and stick in another song the quality of “Freedom Blues.”

Luckily, the album finishes with the playful, New Orleans-styled romp “Lovesick Blues” and a high-octane cover of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” which both showcase Richard’s powerful vocals and underrated keyboard-bashing. Only Jerry Lee Lewis, perhaps, could do as much damage to a piano as Mr. Penniman. This Omnivore reissue includes bonus tracks in the form of the single edit version of the Beatles’ songs as well as promotional radio spots as only Little Richard could deliver them, along with the non-album single “Shake A Hand (If You Can),” a very cool, gospel-tinged slow-rolling R&B jam with a great vocal performance, a swinging rhythm, and funky sax-play. 

Little Richard’s King of Rock and Roll 


Little Richard's King of Rock and RollAfter the modest success of The Rill Thing, Little Richard returned to L.A. to record the album’s follow-up, the audaciously-titled 1971 release King of Rock and Roll (Grade: B-). Working with his old friend, H.B. Barnham, as producer and, well…who else? Reprise Records oddly didn’t keep any records for the sessions, so there’s no clue to the guitarist or others that played on the album, just Little Richard’s vocals and electric piano. The album cover features Don Peterson’s regal cover photo of Richard sitting on the throne in all his resplendent glory with beams of light shooting out of his head as he reigns at the top of the world. It’s a fitting image for an album comprised largely of contemporary rock and soul covers by artists as diverse as John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival), the Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, among others.

King of Rock and Roll kicks off with the bold, throwback title song, a swaggering R&R honker with a farcical introduction replete with horns and excited shouting before Richard cranks up the amp and belts out his roller-coaster vocals, name-checking peers like Ike & Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, and Aretha Franklin to a soundtrack that evokes his best-known hits of the ‘50s. Little Richard wears his best P.T. Barnum ringmaster clothes throughout the album, introducing songs with the self-mythologizing and braggadocio that would become the singer’s stock-in-trade throughout the ensuing years. The Hoyt Axton-penned Three Dog Night hit “Joy To the World” is provided nearly two minutes of introduction before launching into a perfectly on-point performance that adds gospel-styled harmonies to Richard’s soulful vocals.

A cover of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” suffers not from a lack of commitment on the part of the legendary vocalist as much from a lackluster arrangement that robs the song of its bite and sidelines Richard’s performance behind mediocre instrumentation and shallow production. We may not know who was playing on the record, but they sure weren’t the Swampers. Richard’s original “In the Name” fares better, offering a more nuanced and soulful vocal performance on a fine lyrical Penniman story-song. Richard’s take on the antique folk-blues standard “Midnight Special” is all over the place, the singer choogling like a rattletrap freight train one moment and pouring it all out with joyful abandon the next.

The lone single released from King of Rock and Roll was “Green Power;” ostensibly penned by Barnham, the song’s chill funk soundtrack and a powerful Little Richard vocal performance that offers both bluster and nuance should have made the song a hit. It seems that, much as with his previous Southern rock exercises from The Rill Thing, Richard was a couple of years ahead of the trends with the engaging “Green Power,” the song failing to make the charts at all. Richard displayed a deft hand with the Hank Williams’ chestnut “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” imbuing his performance with a yearning, emotional edge while his cover of Hank’s “Setting the Woods On Fire” is reimagines the song as a rompin’, stompin’ R&B rave-up with a vocal performance that’s hotter than July, accompanied by roaring saxes and backing harmony vocals.

The Omnivore reissue of King of Rock and Roll offers six additional bonus tracks, including Richard’s original “Still Miss Laza Jane,” which takes flight from what is essentially an a cappella opening to become a rowdy juke-joint rocker. Three instrumental performances – the sizzling “Mississippi,” with its loping keyboards and guitar licks; an instrumental version of “Setting the Woods On Fire,” which does exactly that with a no-holds-barred performance; and the best of them all, the raucous “Open Up the Red Sea,” which showcases Richard’s fierce piano-pounding – all could have replaced the dowdier cover tunes here and made King of Rock and Roll a much better album. It fell short of its predecessor as it was, yielding no hit singles and peaking at a lousy #193 on the Billboard pop chart.

Critical Response

Little Richard In Person

Critical response for Little Richard’s first two Reprise recordings proved to be a mixed bag. In his review for Rolling Stone magazine, critic Joel Selvin effusively wrote that “as incredible as it may seem, Little Richard is as great as he says he is. His new album, the first in three years, is packed with the sort of stuff that all good rock is made of,” Selvin concluding that The Rill Thing was “the most significant chapter in the living legend of the greatest rock and roll singer ever.” By contrast, Rolling Stone critic Vince Aletti would subsequently pan King of Rock and Roll, writing that “the new album is the vocal equivalent of running through the studio audience and just as disappointing for its lack of real audacity behind the pretense of outrageousness. Much of the album seems designed around the Talk Show Personality rather than the Singer, giving it the sticky veneer of a jive extravaganza.”

These Omnivore Recordings reissues feature nice CD booklets with extensive and informative liner notes by blues and R&B historian Bill Dahl, who places these albums in proper context in regards to Little Richard’s overall legacy. Both albums have been out-of-print for over a decade, and were reissued only sporadically before that, so it’s nice to see them available again. The singer’s third and final Reprise album, The Second Coming, would reunite Little Richard with producer “Bumps” Blackwell and familiar faces like drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen but when it, too, failed to chart, it looked like Richard’s ‘comeback’ had stalled.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Although Little Richard’s career would rise and fall throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, his status as a rock ‘n’ roll innovator and originator was set in stone with his 1986 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. With his death earlier this year at the age of 87, only the seemingly immortal Jerry Lee Lewis remains from that groundbreaking group of early rock ‘n’ rollers that would launch a musical revolution and influence generations of musicians to follow. There’s unlikely to be another performer like Little Richard to come our way again... (Omnivore Recordings, released September 18th, 2020)

Buy the CDs from
Little Richard's The Rill Thing
Little Richard's King of Rock and Roll

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

New Music Monthly: September 2020 releases

September is upon us and the new music is flying high in spite of the pandemic and the lack of live shows across the country. The next best thing to rockin' your local venue is getting your kicks with new music, so pick yer poison, kiddies! There's blues and roots music from the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, Grant-Lee Phillips, Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters, and the adept pairing of legends Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite. There's classic prog-rock from King Crimson and Flying Colors; high-octane rawk from Bob Mould and the duo of James Williamson and Deniz Tek; and groovy reissues from Little Richard, Johnny Thunders, and the Rolling Stones. Who could ask for anything more? 

Release dates are probably gonna 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! If you're boycotting Amazon and don't have an indie record store close by, may we suggest shopping with our friends at Grimey's Music in Nashville? They have a great selection of vinyl available by mail order, offer quick service, and if you don't see what you want on their website, check out their Discogs shop!

New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers' Volume 1

King Crimson - The Elements 2020 Tour Box   BUY!
New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers - Volume 1 [w/Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus & friends!]   BUY!
Grant-Lee Phillips - Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff   BUY!
Throwing Muses - Sun Racket   BUY!

Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters' Beyond the Blue Door

Blitzen Trapper - Holy Smokes Future Jokes   BUY!
Doves - The Universal Want   BUY!
Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters - Beyond the Blue Door   BUY!
The Flaming Lips - American Head   BUY!
Gasoline Lollipops - All the Misery Money Can Buy   BUY!
Marilyn Manson - We Are Chaos   BUY!
Mastodon - Medium Rarities   BUY!
Johnny Thunders - Que Sera Sera: Resurrected [3-CD box set]   BUY!

James Williamson & Deniz Tek's Two To One

Ace of Cups - Sing Your Dream   BUY!
Flyer Colors - Third Stage: Live In London [prog-rock supergroup w/Steve Morse, Mike Portnoy & Neal Morse]   BUY!
Gazpacho - Fireworker   BUY!
Little Richard - King of Rock and Roll   BUY!
Little Richard - The Rill Thing   BUY!
Napalm Death - Throes of Joy In the Jaws of Defeatism   BUY!
Sugar Ray & the Bluetones w/Little Charlie - Too Far From the Bar   BUY!
James Williamson & Deniz Tek - Two To One   BUY!

Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite's 100 Years of Blues

Ayreon - Transitus   BUY!
Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite - 100 Years of Blues   BUY!
Bruce Cockburn - True North (A 50th Anniversary Box Set) [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Deftones - Ohms   BUY!
Thurston Moore - By the Fire   BUY!
Bob Mould - Blue Hearts   BUY!
The Pretty Things - Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood   BUY!
The Rolling Stones - Steels of Wheel Live [unreleased 1989 concert]   BUY!
Surfer Blood - Carefree Theatre   BUY!


The Pretty Things' Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood

Album of the Month: Man, there's a lot of great music to choose from this month but I'm going to have to go with the Pretty Things' Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood LP. The final recording by legendary PTs' frontman Phil May, this collection of acoustic performances is basically May and PTs' guitarist Dick Taylor, literally finished up days after Mays death in May 2020. This promises to be a fitting swansong to a great, unheralded band. Check out the latest issue of Ugly Things music zine for more info on May's enormous musical legacy.