Friday, December 31, 2021

Short Rounds: Calidoscopio, Deep Purple, Tom Guerra, The Specials, The Wildhearts, Sami Yaffa & 'I'm A Freak Baby 3' (December 2021)

Calidoscopio's Get Ready!

New album releases in 200 words or less…

Calidoscopio – Get Ready! (Jargon Records)
Roaring out of the Flower City with sabers rattling and amps cranked up to eleven, at first blush Calidoscopio sounds like just another talented bunch of 1960s-styled garage-rock revivalists with six-string Sturm und Drang. Further spins of Get Ready! reveal hidden charms, however. The album is an international affair, members of Germany’s Golden Coats collaborating alongside Rochester NY’s Dave Anderson, with guest performances from Australia’s Joey Bedlam (Dollsquad) and garage-rock deity Sky Saxon (from beyond the grave). While the LP cover gives off serious Jack Kirby/psych-rock vibes, songs like the scintillating title track – with big beat drums, gang vocals, and twangy fretwork – evince a timeless, electric, rock ‘n’ roll sound. “The Lanky Gunman” mixes trembling ‘Spaghetti Western’-styled guitar strum with wall-of-sound instrumentation and an eerie story-song while a long-lost monologue from the Seeds’ frontman Saxon is integrated into “Green Forest,” a spacey, hippie-rock screed. “Demon Child” honors its shockabilly roots, benefiting from Bedlam’s breathless vox and Anderson’s jagged guitar licks while the punky “Koko the Gorilla” mixes Hasil Adkins with the Electric Prunes for a raucous good time. Calidoscopio’s Get Ready! provides a mind-bending trip back to the future with a timeless sound that is both familiar and yet innovative. Grade: A   BUY!

Deep Purple's Turning To Crime
Deep PurpleTurning To Crime (Ear Music)
British rock legends Deep Purple are in their sixth decade as a band and although they’ve never been adverse to recording the odd cover song (their 1968 hit “Hush” comes to mind), they’ve so far resisted the urge to record an album exclusively of covers…until now. Turning To Crime is a collection of twelve of the band’s favorites, ranging from bluesy 1950s-era R&B (Huey ‘Piano’ Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”) and ‘60s psych (Love’s “7 and 7 Is”) to blues-rock (Cream’s “White Room”) and beyond. Although the current band is quite adept at playing any sort of music, Gillian’s aging pipes betray his intent at times. Still, Turning To Crime is quite the live wire, the band pulling off the performances more often than not. Fleetwood Mac’s classic “Oh Well” is given an altogether new coat of (hard rockin’) paint, the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things” is provided a stout psychedelic-pop sheen and, surprisingly, Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” is an excitingly funky strut. Bob Seger’s “Lucifer” is a deep-cut that mixes guitar-driven hard rock and Memphis soul, but it’s the album-closing Southern rock-inspired medley (with tunes by Booker T, Don Nix, Gregg Allman, and Steve Winwood) that will turn heads. Grade: B+   BUY! 

Tom Guerra's Sudden Signs of Grace
Tom Guerra Sudden Signs of Grace (Casa del Soul Records)

Tom Guerra began his career nearly 40 years ago as a member of outfits like the Dirty Bones Band and the Mambo Sons. Guerra launched his solo career with 2014’s All of the Above and came to our attention with 2018’s acclaimed American Garden. Recorded during the pandemic, Guerra’s fourth solo effort, Sudden Signs of Grace, offers up everything that’s great about the artist – finely-crafted songs, hypnotic melodies, intelligent lyrics, and stellar guitarplay, all neatly packaged into three-minute, radio-friendly songs. Although Guerra dishes up a couple of nifty covers here – perfectly capturing the angst of Eddie Money’s “Gimme Some Water” with his fiery guitarplay while Harlan Howard’s country classic “The Streets of Baltimore” is provided a suitably melancholy, twang-drenched performance – it’s Guerra’s original material that really shines. “Lonely No More” is a gorgeous power-pop song with Duane Eddy-inspired guitar and winsome vocals; the jaunty “Lover’s Time” is a charming amalgam of the Byrds and Big Star; and the honky-tonk flavored “Down the Farm” rides on Guerra’s rapid-fire vocals, rollicking piano-play, and wiry fretwork. There’s not a duff track to be found on Sudden Signs of Grace, Guerra delivering an inspired collection of rock ‘n’ roll full of heart and soul. (See the video, below!) Grade: A   BUY!

The Specials' Protest Songs
The SpecialsProtest Songs 1924-2012 (Island Records)

God bless ‘em, the Specials still crank it out 40+ years after the band’s exhilarating debut. Breaking up in the mid-‘80s, several members reunited in 1993, and they’ve carried on ever since, releasing a handful of albums since reuniting, including 2019’s critically-acclaimed Encore. Crucially, the current line-up includes Specials’ founders Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Horace Panter. Protest Songs 1924-2012, is an exciting collection of themed cover songs inspired by the George Floyd protests of the summer of 2020. An eclectic collection it is, too, including classic material by the Staple Singers, bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, Bob Marley, the Dixie Jubilee Singers, and Frank Zappa, among others. The Specials are a long way from their days as ska revivalists, pursuing a soulful, R&B-drenched sound as evinced by their reading of Pop Staples’ powerful civil rights ode “Freedom Highway.” The Mothers of Invention’s “Trouble Every Day” is provided an appropriately menacing tone, complete with scorching guitars, while Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” is sung in Cohen’s droll style. The Wailers’ “Get Up, Stand Up” offers a powerful, albeit subdued performance that emphasizes Peter Tosh’s defiant lyrics. Totally unexpected, but pleasantly surprising, the Specials’ Protest Songs is one for the ages. Grade: A-   BUY!

The Wildhearts' 21st Century Love Songs
The Wildhearts – 21st Century Love Songs (Graphite Records U.K.)

Wildhearts founder Ginger got the gang back together in 2012 for a series of gigs that led to a live album, but the reformed band wouldn’t go into the studio until 2019’s acclaimed Renaissance Men. With the brand-spankin’-new 21st Century Love Songs, the band comes full-circle, delivering its 10th studio work. It’s a real banger, too, with plenty of the Wildhearts’ trademark melodic hard rock that often times teeters on the razor’s edge of heavy metal. For instance, the album-opening title track hits your ears like a sledge, combining an erudite Mott the Hoople-style of British rock ‘n’ roll with thrashy molten slag. Much of the rest of 21st Century Love Songs follows a similarly-skewed blueprint: “Institutional Submission” sounds, at times, like Killing Joke on steroids until the vocal harmonies and elegant fretwork chimes in while “Sleepaway” could pass for a harder-rocking Cheap Trick. Underneath the instrumental clamor you’ll unearth undeniable melodies, often accompanied by football hooligan harmonies running interference for Ginger’s sweeter tones. Ginger could have been a hella successful pop star if he’d chosen a less debauched path but, lucky for us, he’s walked a sleazier, obstacle-strewn road to rock ‘n’ roll nirvana for almost 30 years now. Grade: A   BUY!

I'm A Freak Baby 3
Various Artists – I’m A Freak Baby 3 (Grapefruit Records/Cherry Red U.K.)

The late ‘60s and early-to-mid-‘70s provided an abundance of interesting rock ‘n’ roll as bands discovered their muse and experimented musically. This is the third volume in the U.K. archivists Grapefruit Records’ “Freak” series, exploring the exciting new sounds of 1968-1973, and it’s every bit as entertaining as the first two sets. Featuring 53 songs spread across three discs, they follow a simple blueprint – offer a few scattered obscurities by well-known bands (Free, Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Mott the Hoople, Procol Harum) and mix in songs by lesser-known but period-essential groups (Hawkwind, Spooky Tooth, Stray, Trapeze, Nazareth, Tear Gas). It’s when the madmen at Grapefruit dig into the pits that it gets really interesting, though, and I’m A Freak Baby 3 also includes rare (collectible) 7-inchers from diverse artists like Quatermass, Mighty Hard, Curtis Knight Zeus, and Steam Hammer and then caps off the set with previously-unreleased music from folks like Stack Waddy, T2, Red Dirt, Wicked Lady, and the Yardbirds (!). Toss in toons by cult rockers like Leaf Hound, Killing Floor, Third World War, and Budgie and you have yourself a party, I’m A Freak Baby 3 providing a lot of bang for yer hard-earned buck! Grade: A   BUY!

Sami Yaffa's The Innermost Journey...
Sami Yaffa The Innermost Journey To Your Outermost Mind (Livewire Records)

After 40 years in the trenches, former Hanoi Rocks and New York Dolls bassist Sami Yaffa finally got around to recording a solo album and, as one might expect, it’s a flamethrower. Yaffa approaches rock ‘n’ roll with a fierce Johnny Thunders/Stiv Bators aesthetic and songs like the album-opening “Armageddon Together,” a devastating take on modern religion, reflect this crash ‘n’ burn style of hard rock. There’s more than meets the eye here, tho’ – Yaffa’s undeniable sense of rhythm adds melody to cod reggae tunes like the mesmerizing “Rotten Roots,” which crosses the Clash with Lee “Scratch” Perry or “You Gimme Fever,” which pairs a deep Sly/Robby groove with lusty lyrics and elegant fretwork to great effect. “Fortunate One” flat-out rocks (not dissimilar to Lords of the New Church), with Yaffa’s whiplash vox punctuated by Michael Monroe’s bleating saxophones while “Germinator” slaps yer eardrums like a nail-studded baseball bat, fueled by Monroe’s raging harmonica and guitarist Christian Martucci’s razor-blade licks. “Cancel the End of the World” sounds downright Pink Floydish, with lofty vocals and gorgeous, atmospheric instrumentation. Yaffa is no one trick pony, displaying the many facets of his enormous instrumental and songwriting talents with The Innermost Journey… Grade: A-   BUY!

Previously on That Devil Music.com:

Short Rounds, September 2021: Marshall Crenshaw, Crack The Sky, Donna Frost, Mark Harrison & the Happy Tramps, Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram, the Rubinoos, and Jon Savage’s 1972-1976

Short Rounds, June 2021: The Black Keys, the Bummers, Michael Nesmith, Greg “Stackhouse” Prevost, Quinn Sullivan, and the Vejtables

Short Rounds, April 2021: Peter Case, The Fortunate Few, David Olney & Anana Kaye, Sour Ops, Joe Strummer, and the Thieves

Friday, December 24, 2021

Archive Review: Gary Clark Jr.’s Live (2014)

Gary Clark Jr.’s Live
Texas blues guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. made quite a splash with his full-length 2012 major label debut Blak and Blu. The album’s mix of incendiary fretwork, soulful vocals, electric blues, and old-school R&B with a hip-hop edge turned many people’s heads, announcing that a major new talent was on the scene. Clark was “discovered” by Eric Clapton, who invited the young guitarist to the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, his subsequent history-making performance (captured on the DVD of the event) gaining Clark a major label contract and a certain degree of notoriety.

Still, as good as Blak and Blu might have been, many still had doubts – especially the blues cognoscenti, who were hoping for another Stevie Ray Vaughan clone (as if we didn’t already have enough of those ragdolls gigging around…) – while traditionalist shook their collective heads in mild disdain. Truth is, Clark was already a seasoned veteran by the time that Clapton enlisted the guitarist to bring a shot of vitality to the Crossroads event. Some 26 years old in 2010, Clark had been playing in and around Austin, Texas since he was a young teenager, and he already had three independently-released albums under his belt by the time he took the stage at Crossroads.  

Gary Clark Jr.’s Live


In spite of his experience, Clark’s Blak and Blu came as a revelation to many of us, and the album’s accessibility, along with the talent on display in the grooves, helped enlist a legion of new blues fans to the genre. Blak and Blu rose as high as number six on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, and dominated the blues chart for over a year from either the number one or number two position. Still, many critics put down the album’s overly-slick production qualities, with producer Rob Cavallo sanding down every rough edge to make the songs pop-radio friendly. Too, many questioned Clark’s dedication to the blues in the face of the album’s rock and hip-hop influences. Nobody stopped to think that the guitarist was simply having fun with his sonic palette and the possibilities his talents enable. No matter, ‘cause Clark’s two-disc Live set should put paid to any critic’s concerns.

The opening chords of Live should put to rest any doubts about Clark’s blues authenticity. Tackling the traditional “Catfish Blues,” credited to Muddy Waters by way of Robert Petway, the young guitarist imbues the performance with plenty of Delta mud, but embroiders the antique arrangement with bluesy, psychedelic-tinged guitar that owes as much to Jimi Hendrix as it does to any Mississippi string-bender. Clark proves his songwriting bona fides with the original “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” a stomping, snortin’ blues-rock dirge with huge dinosaur guitar riffs, distorted guitar, anguished vocals, and finely-crafted story-song lyrics that one could easily hear Howlin’ Wolf wailing away on while Hubert Sumlin tears up the guitar behind him.

Three O’ Clock Blues


Clark displays his flexibility as an artist and performer with the raucous “Travis County,” a rollicking, rockabilly-tinged, Chuck Berry-styled runaway train that lyrically features another tale of woe while the band choogles along at 90mph, drummer Johnny Radelat keeping time with the biggest of beats. The performance is enhanced by dueling solos, rhythm guitarist King Zapata bringing the twang while Clark adds the blistering heat. The highlight of the first disc, however, is Clark’s nuanced cover of B.B. King’s classic “Three O’ Clock Blues.” The young guitarist perfectly captures the master’s blend of jazzy licks and bluesy ambiance, his tortured vocals channeling plenty of emotion and heartbreak. It’s an inspired performance, and one that proves that the blues run deep in Clark’s soul.

The second disc of Live opens with the thunder and lightning of Clark’s “Ain’t Messin ‘Round,” the band playing an extended instrumental intro that’s heavy on the martial rhythms while Clark and Zapata throw around guitar licks like laser beams. Clark’s vocals are smooth, with just a hint of fracture around the edges, evoking memories of old R&B crooners like Otis Redding or Solomon Burke, but the soundtrack is pure Southern soul with a bit of rock ‘n’ roll. Clark further shows the depth of his blues knowledge with a spot-on cover of Albert Collins’ “If Trouble Was Money.” With a shimmering six-string intro that sounds like sun glinting off a sheet of ice, Clark lays down a vibe every bit as frosty as the Iceman once did. Clark plays it straight, mimicking Collins’ existential angst while still managing to bring a contemporary relevance to the song – after all, neither trouble nor money ever go out-of-date.  

Third Stone From The Sun


One of the high points of Blak and Blu was Clark’s mash-up of Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” with Memphis bluesman Little Johnny Taylor’s “If You Love Me Like You Say” (a song also covered by Collins, and Danny Gatton too, among others). The fusing of two apparently different styles (and eras) sound like it would be a ramshackle construction at best, but in Clark’s hands, he finds the energy at the heart of both and welds them together with his incredible fretwork. The fluid psych-drenched instrumentation of “Third Stone” evolves organically into a funky Bluff City backbeat, Clark’s delivery of Taylor’s tale of love-gone-bad perfectly framed between heartbreak and bravado, the argument further bolstered by Clark’s shape-shifting solos. By contrast, Clark’s “Please Come Home” is a lovely throwback to 1950s-era R&B, a doo wop inspired vocal showcase worthy of the Platters or the Drifters, but with red-hot guitar notes in place of the backing harmony vocals.

The title song of Blak and Blu is of a similar cloth as the “Third Stone/If You Love Me” hybrid, Clark drawing inspiration from jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron in the creation of a mesmerizing, altogether haunting performance that sparks and fades like a dying star. “Blak and Blu” is a strong song on the studio album, but on stage it takes on an otherworldly vibe, Clark’s wistful, almost melancholy vocals are punctuated by sharp shocks of guitar, the song depending entirely on the strength and charisma of the performer to pull it off. Much like the studio album, the song slowly unravels into “Bright Lights,” a blustery hard rocker that hits your ears like a 2x4 plank by comparison, the guitars getting louder and heavier, the vocals exploding out of your speakers with passion and force. This is a man that has a story to tell, and you’d best shut up and listen…and if you don’t, well, the song’s serpentine riffs and squealing feedback will make sure you pay attention. It’s a powerful performance, Clark and Zapata trading solos like battling kung fu masters, bassist Johnny Bradley and drummer Radelat providing a heavyweight rhythmic canvas behind the guitarists for them to paint on.    
 

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


Gary Clark Jr.’s Live offers 15 electrifying tracks, and there’s not a duff performance among any of ‘em! Stripped of the studio gloss provided Blak and Blu in order to appeal to the iPod generation, these songs sizzle and burn in a live setting like hot embers in a barely-constrained bonfire. Live allows Clark and his band to stretch the material out to its natural-born length, with plenty of room for Clark’s ballistic solos, and with audience feedback driving the band to dig that much deeper and bring their best to every song. This is the way that Gary Clark, Jr. was meant to be heard – live and unadorned with studio gimmicks or slick production tricks. It wouldn’t be a sin if Clark decided to record his next studio album in front of a live audience but, in the meantime, if you’ve wondered what the buzz around Clark is all about, Live will set you straight in no uncertain terms. (Warner Brothers Records, released September 23, 2014)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Gary Clark, Jr’s Live

Archive Review: Gary Clark, Jr.’s Blak and Blu (2012)

Gary Clark, Jr.’s Blak and Blu
Gary Clark, Jr. is the most exciting thing to happen to a stolid blues scene since, well, since fellow Texas gunslinger Stevie Ray Vaughan blew out of the Lone Star state like a whirlwind and upset the slumbering status quo back in the early 1980s. Plucked out of relative obscurity in 2010 by Eric Clapton who, perhaps, saw something of past glories in the young guitarist, Clark had his coming out party at that year’s Crossroads Guitar Festival.

After releasing a trio of independent albums on the Hotwire label, Clark’s association with the blues-rock legend led to a major label deal and the critically-acclaimed The Bright Lights EP, which has spent the better part of the last year hanging around the upper-reaches of the Billboard magazine blues chart alongside such heavyweights as Joe Bonamassa, Bonnie Raitt, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. So, is Clark the 21st century savior of the blues or just another pretender to a long-vacated (and largely imaginary) throne? He’s certainly no pretender, and while the book has yet to be written on his lasting influence on a blues scene that often refuses to budge easily, this much is certain – Blak and Blu is a stunning, ground-breaking work.

Gary Clark, Jr.’s Blak and Blu  


For Clark’s newfound fans – who have waited better than a year for his full-length debut album – it’s unlikely that they’ll be disappointed by the guitarist’s magnificent Blak and Blu. Not even The Bright Lights EP could have prepared listeners for the stunning depth of songs like “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round,” which seamlessly blends brassy old-school R&B with a Memphis soul groove and a rock ‘n’ roll heartbeat to one-up the Black Keys at their own game (including the tasteful Steve Cropper-styled guitar licks). Clark enjoys his Jimi Hendrix moment with the bold, bigger-than-life blues-rock dirge “When My Train Pulls In,” the song mixing a Delta blues spirit with an undeniable Stevie Ray Vaughan vibe, Clark’s tortured solo leading out of the song sending shivers down the spine of any true guitar fan.

Clark is no two-trick pony, however, venturing beyond blues and soul and onto avant-garde turf with the chilling title track, a tear-jerking tale of abuse that displays a jazzy edge in its sampling of the great Gil Scott-Heron, the song firmly rooted in the blues as it also picks and chooses from Albert King’s classic “As the Years Go Passing By.” The result sounds like early Prince and achieves more, via its eclectic instrumentation, than anything the Purple One has done in the past decade. On the flip-side, “Travis County” is a Bruce Springsteen-styled poop-punter with rockabilly leanings and an infectious backbeat. The doo-wop flavored “Please Come Home” comes fully-packed with strings and vocal harmonies, like an old Etta James joint from the late 1950s or early ‘60s, Clark showing off his singing chops with elegant Smokey Robinson-styled vocals, but his lively guitarplay evinces a later, more emotionally fraught time and place.

Third Stone From The Sun


The insightful lyrics of “The Life” are matched by a melodic amalgam of neo-soul, hip-hop, and funk while the heavy “Numb” is a snarling beast armed with molten riffs and tusk-gnashing rhythms. Clark’s mash-up of Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun” with Little Johnny Taylor’s “If You Love Me Like You Say” (best known from Albert Collins’ Frostbite LP) provides plenty of cheap thrills, jumping off with the crash and rattle of ringing guitars and sporadic drumbeats. The swirling psychedelic blues-rock instrumentation (sans vocals) quietly and quite suddenly evolves into “If You Love Me Like You Say,” Clark’s approach to the song adding a bit of sly Southern funk to Collins’ original reading of the song.

Clark changes directions one last time with the acoustic-blues stomp ‘n’ stammer “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” the song itself a sort of dichotomy, its contemporary lyrics gussying up an undeniably Delta-influenced soundtrack. Clark’s voice is altered electronically to mimic the echo found on those old 78rpm records, maybe even rising up a notch in pitch to sound more like an old Tommy Johnson side, but there’s no arguing with the result, the guitarist’s spry fretwork chiming like Son House, the song riding a razor’s edge between modern chic and authentic Mississippi throwback.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


Music lovers are going to rejoice over Clark’s debut even as blues purists are gonna hate, but the truth is that Blak and Blu marks the emergence of a major talent who is bringing his love of blues and soul to mainstream audiences. Regardless of whether or not we’ve heard it all before, we’ve never heard it quite like this – as Gary Clark, Jr. puts his own unique stamp on the familiar, he walks further down the path blazed by Clapton, Hendrix, Vaughan, and few others, venturing beyond their footsteps to mark a direction for others to follow in the future. Blues, welcome to the 21st century! (Warner Brothers Records, released October 22, 2012)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Gary Clark, Jr’s Blak and Blu

Friday, December 17, 2021

Archive Review: Gary Moore’s Blues For Jimi (2012)

Gary Moore’s Blues For Jimi

Irish-born blues-rock guitarist Gary Moore has never made any secret of the impact that his musical influences have had on his decision to pick up a guitar and subsequently forge a lengthy and acclaimed career from his talents. From British blues pioneer Peter Green’s work with John Mayall and Fleetwood Mac to Delta blues legend Robert Johnson’s groundbreaking art, Moore’s largish back catalog is littered with references and inferences to these important artists.

American blues-rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix is another musical giant who has had a powerful effect on Moore’s career, beginning with his late 1960s blues-rock trio Skid Row and throughout his prolific solo career. In October 2007, as the Hendrix estate was preparing to release Jimi’s Live At Monterey album, Moore performed a unique concert at the London Hippodrome. With his touring band at the time – bassist David Bronze and drummer Darrin Mooney – Moore cut loose with a lengthy set of classic Hendrix material. This London Hippodrome concert was filmed and released as Blues For Jimi on CD, DVD, and Blu-ray disc, the first posthumous release by Eagle Rock since Moore’s unexpected death in February 2011.

Gary Moore’s Blues For Jimi

The album starts out promising enough with “Purple Haze,” the song’s familiar screaming psychedelic-colored intro jumping things off. As Moore’s vocals slide into the first verse, however, one can easily hear the difference between Hendrix’s original warm, mellifluous voice and Moore’s gruffer, strained tones. Moore embellishes Jimi’s original soundtrack for the song with a few tasty flurries of notes, especially the finishing thunderstorm of sound and fury, redeeming the performance by strength of will.

“Manic Depression” begins in much the same way, with a chaotic instrumental opening that, by now, is encoded in the Hendrix fan’s DNA. Moore’s vocals are buried somewhat deep here in the mix, and he’s singing at a different register that’s closer to Jimi’s soulful wail. The fretwork is stellar, however, wrestling with Jimi note for note in some instances, taking off and soaring into the stratosphere in others. Moore’s vocal shortcomings are quite evident on the slower, ballad-styled songs like “The Wind Cries Mary,” the guitarist simply unable to achieve the nuance and emotional tenderness that provides a counterbalance to the song’s lofty guitar tones.

I Don’t Live Today

Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today” was one of the legend’s best blues-rock songs, and while Moore opens up the arrangement to allow for his own unique brand of six-string pyrotechnics, overall the performance is true to the spirit, if not the letter of the original blockbuster. Moore’s trippy, psych-drenched solo three-minutes or so in is matched by the furious backdrop of Dave Bronze’s powerful bass foundation and drummer Darrin Mooney’s explosive, unrelenting barrage of percussion.

Moore’s original instrumental intro into “Angel” is hauntingly beautiful, albeit too brief by a mile, leading into the song with his vocals softer and more effective here than previously. Moore manages to capture a modicum of the wistfulness displayed by the original, an emotional edge bolstered by his spot-on mimicry of Hendrix’s pitch-perfect guitar lines, save for a big closing which is stunning in its intricacy and elegance.

Billy Cox & Mitch Mitchell

Longtime Hendrix friend and bassist Billy Cox and original Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell join Moore and his band for a trio of their favorite Hendrix songs, beginning with the blustery blues-rock romp “Red House.” Moore lays down his strongest, bluesiest riff yet for the song’s opening, the performance itself a welcome slow grind of stinging guitar notes and solid, if unspectacular rhythms. Moore’s fretwork is simply incendiary, stretching the song out to an entertaining eleven-and-a-half minutes with quiet solos and raucous crescendos of sound alike accompanied by sparse backing instrumentation.

By contrast, Hendrix’s signature “Stone Free” frequently descends into sonic anarchy with swirls of bass and drums punctuated by razor-sharp guitar licks. Moore rejoins his regular band for the classic Jimi rocker “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” its familiar instrumental gymnastics re-created here with reckless abandon, Moore banging his plank and coaxing out sounds even Hendrix would find alien as the Bronze/Mooney rhythm section strikes your ears like a wrecking ball. It’s Moore’s red-hot fretwork that rolls you over, though, striking like a cobra and generating enough raw electric amperage to power a small Irish village for a month.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The best part of Blues For Jimi is when Moore stops singing and just plays his guitar, his vocal performance on this classic material frequently falling short of even second-tier Hendrix doppelgangers like Arthur Lee or Lenny Kravitz. While I have no doubt that Moore is doing the best with what he has to work with, his voice just isn’t up to the chore of covering this many classic, too-familiar musical treasures either on stage or on record.

Moore doubles-down on the guitar fireworks, however, delivering an inspiring instrumental performance in these grooves that allows the listener to (mostly) forget the vocal shortcomings and instead enjoy the heartfelt tribute that is Blues For Jimi. This is maybe not the swansong that Gary Moore would have wanted, but it’s a neat bookend to a career spent in sincere awe and admiration of those artists that influenced a young Irish lad to pick up the guitar in the first place. (Eagle Records, released September 25, 2012)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Gary Moore’s Blues For Jimi 

Friday, December 10, 2021

Archive Review: Freddie King’s The Complete King Federal Singles (2013)

Freddie King’s The Complete King Federal Singles

As blues historian and music journalist Bill Dahl points out in his exhaustive liner notes for the wonderful Freddie King set The Complete King Federal Singles, while the legendary guitarist is usually seen as a Texas blues firebrand, King actually spent better than a decade circa 1950 to 1963 living and playing in Chicago. Originally mentored by guitarists like Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Taylor, and Robert Jr. Lockwood, King became one of the innovators of the West Side sound along with other young six-string talents like Magic Sam and Otis Rush.

As Dahl also points out, it was the twin influences of Texas bluesmen like T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins and the blues he heard, and played, in Chicago that made Freddie King a unique figure on the modern blues scene. More than any of his peers, King enjoyed modest success on the pop charts, primarily through the better than two-dozen singles he released on the associated King and Federal Records labels between 1960 and 1967. Freddie’s melodic licks and unique finger-picked guitar style, as heard on these singles, would be a major influence on a generation of British blues-rockers like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.  

Freddie King’s The Complete King Federal Singles

Sadly, King’s back catalog is in serious disarray, with a handful of titles available from Friday Music, and many other albums simply out-of-print. Even odder, no collection has previously featured the aforementioned groundbreaking, influential singles King recorded for King and Federal until now. The Complete King Federal Singles collects all 54 of the guitarist’s original sides for the labels stretched across two CDs, providing listeners with a whopping 155 minutes of fiery guitar blues, red-hot R&B jams, and a few misfires. King’s first single for Federal – the label that James Brown made famous – was the slow-burning “You’ve Got To Love Her With A Feeling,” a remake of a classic Tampa Red side that showcases King’s underrated vocals and smoldering fretwork.

It was King’s second effort for Federal, the immortal instrumental “Hideaway,” that would forever become known as his signature song, however, King using scraps of melody and guitar “borrowed” from other artists like Hound Dog Taylor to create the energetic guitar-driven romp. Named for Mel’s Hideaway Lounge, one of the West Side venues that King frequently played at in Chicago, “Hideaway” became a Top 30 pop hit, hit #5 on the R&B charts, and would subsequently be covered by dozens of other artists, including John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Stevie Ray Vaughan. An energetic boogie with lively fretwork and a break that includes the rhythmic vamp from the “Peter Gunn Theme” (from a popular early 1960s TV show), “Hideaway” is a true American music classic.

San-Ho-Zay!

“Hideaway” would set the stage for much of what would follow during King’s lengthy tenure with the King/Federal label family…bluesy vocal R&B tunes and the occasional instrumental, all showcasing King’s flexible guitar stylings. The 1961 track “Lonesome Whistle Blues” offers up some tasty guitar licks, backing vocals that borderline on doo-wop, great piano play, and a sultry rhythm that drove the song to #8 on the R&B chart. The B-side to this one was “It’s Too Bad Things Are Going So Tough,” a tear-jerker blues tune with crying fretwork and mournful piano notes, the song a remarkable (and unheralded) example of the traditional Chicago blues style.

The 1961 instrumental “San-Ho-Zay!” would become another hit for King, who borrowed much of its structure from fellow Chicago blues guitarist Eddie C. Campbell. Bluesier and with more distortion than “Hideaway,” this instrumental foreshadowed the British blues-rock explosion that was a few years away in the future. Another of King’s overlooked instrumentals, “Sen-Sha-Shun,” was the B-side to the more traditional blues of “I’m Tore Down.” While the former offers up plenty o’ hot licks and smoky vocals, King backed on the upbeat houserocker by a blast of horns, the latter tune takes an entirely different tack, mixing bits of blues and rockabilly with an undeniable surf-guitar sound for an electrifying, invigorating performance.

Christmas Tears

During the 1960s, labels released new singles with a frequency unheard of today, and they often asked artists to record holiday-themed material for the market. King’s entry into the Christmas sales fray is the wonderfully morose “Christmas Tears.” Although the 1961 single was only a modest R&B chart success, it’s a fine holiday tune with King displaying a hot hand on the fretboard, a jazzy rhythmic backdrop playing against his loudly-sobbing vocals. The single’s B-side, the raucous “I Hear Jingle Bells,” is a delightful, over-the-top rocker that provides several licks that Clapton would later steal for the Yardbirds.

Although King would chart an amazing seven singles during 1961, his streak ended there and he would be pushed throughout the ensuing years towards more commercial R&B material and songs designed to exploit teen trends during the early ‘60s. “Do the President Twist” was one such attempt to cash-in on a popular dance craze, the lightweight 1962 effort overshadowing King’s stinging guitar licks with blaring horns and unremarkable vocals by Lula Reed, wife of producer Sonny Burgess. More interesting is the scorching “What About Love,” a R&B-tinged rocker that put King’s voice loud and proud in the mix and offering up a couple of short but sweet solos. That single’s instrumental B-side, “Texas Oil,” delivers a fluid groove, plenty of hornplay and, most importantly, King’s wiry guitarplay throughout.

The Bossa Nova Watusi Twist

As the calendar pages turned, the label continued to downplay King’s strengths with hackneyed attempts at gaining a hit song, as shown by the relatively-tame 1963 instrumental “The Bossa Nova Watusi Twist,” which attempted to capitalize on three dance trends at once, with only very modest success (#103 on the pop chart). It could be worse, however – the horrible double-sided monster that was “One Hundred Years” b/w “(I’d Love To) Make Love To You” would eschew King’s guitar altogether in an attempt to remake the Texas bluesman as a pop crooner, the B-side of the 1963 single displaying a pronounced island lilt while the A-side lacks any sort of melodic hook for King to hang his vocals on, and only sparse instrumentation (sans guitar) to attract listeners.

The aforementioned creative and commercial flops notwithstanding, King did record some fine blues material during the latter part of his years with King/Federal. Alongside such marginal fare as “Surf Monkey” and “King-A-Ling” you’ll find gems like the old-school blues of “(The Welfare) Turns Its Back On You,” the socially-conscious lyrical commentary offering up cutting guitar licks, honky-tonk piano, and mournful saxplay. The 1964 track “Someday, After Awhile (You’ll Be Sorry)” is a minor blues masterpiece crying out for rediscovery by a modern singer like John Nemeth, King’s tortured vocals matched tear for tear by his emotional fretwork. The jazzy “Now I’ve Got A Woman” would have been tailor-made for a singer like Ray Charles, the up-tempo R&B locomotive fueled by King’s lively solos, while a cover of Jimmy McCracklin’s “You’ve Got Me Licked” is an inspired mix of Chicago-style and West Coast blues with a smooth groove and piercing notes dancing atop the rhythmic instrumentation.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

King returned to Texas late during his years with the King Records machine, preparing for the next stage of his career. Blues music was evolving throughout the 1960s, moving away from the business model of releasing a half-dozen singles on an artist during the year and towards fully-realized, full-length albums. King would move onto Atlantic’s Cotillion label for a pair of late 1960s albums produced by saxophonist King Curtis before signing with Leon Russell’s Shelter Records label for a handful of early-to-mid-1970s album releases that would find a new audience and cement his legacy as one of the greatest blues guitarists.

King laid the foundation for his legacy with the 54 sides that he recorded for King and Federal, and while there are more than a few clunkers to be found among the tracks preserved by The Complete King Federal Singles, the gold far outweighs these forgettable moments. Highly recommended for any old-school blues fan, fan of blues guitar, or even the newcomer navigating their way through the history of the genre, Freddie King’s The Complete King Federal Singles is essential listening. (Real Gone Music, released February 26, 2013)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Freddie King’s The Complete King Federal Singles

Friday, December 3, 2021

Archive Review: Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Live At The Carousel Ballroom 1968 (2012)

Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Live At The Carousel Ballroom 1968

For the late, great Janis Joplin, it all began back in 1966 with psychedelic blues-rockers Big Brother & the Holding Company. Chet Helms, the band’s manager and an old friend from Texas, convinced Joplin to join Big Brother, a band that didn’t seem to really want the singer. Joplin and Big Brother got over their shotgun marriage, however, and the singer vaulted to stardom – or at least notoriety – on the strength of the band’s sophomore album Cheap Thrills. Joplin would leave the band after less than three years to strike out on her own, leaving behind two studio albums and the Live at Winterland ‘68 set as the only documents of her tenure with Big Brother.

Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 represents a previously unreleased performance by Big Brother & the Holding Company featuring Joplin, taken from the archives of legendary San Francisco scene soundman Owsley “Bear” Stanley. Stanley made his bones mixing live sound for the Grateful Dead in 1966, and he ran the sound system at the Carousel Ballroom, which would later become the legendary Fillmore West. Stanley often recorded the shows he worked as a way to improve the listening experience, recordings he called his “sonic journals.” Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 is the first of “Bear’s Sonic Journals” to be released commercially, and was mixed by Stanley, who also oversaw the album’s mastering before his death.

Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Live At The Carousel Ballroom 1968

Recorded a couple of months after the show documented by Live at Winterland ‘68, the tracklist for Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 includes all of the band’s well-known songs at the time – “Down On Me,” “Ball & Chain,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Summertime” – but it also includes some obscure material as well, like a rare live performance of “It’s A Deal” and “Call On Me,” from the band’s self-titled first album. An extended jam, titled “I’m Mad” (or “Mad Man Blues”) can’t be found anywhere in the band’s catalog, and the album also includes a live reading of “Coo Coo,” a 1967 track that was only released on a 45rpm single at the time.

The show opens with “Combination Of the Two,” a lesser-known but no less powerful song from Cheap Thrills, the performance starting slow and building to a feverish crescendo with buzzing guitars and throbbing bass lines, crashing percussion, and scraps of Joplin’s already-powerful voice. While not the best showcase for Janis – she barely sings here – the psychedelic cacophony provides a lasting snapshot of the trademark Big Brother sound. The slow-burning “I Need A Man To Love” features Janis in full-blown mode, singing and moaning, screaming and scatting atop the band’s fluid, bluesy groove. “Flower In the Sun” is one of the band’s underrated gems, featuring a fine Janis vocal performance that relies more on straight, torch-style vocals as well as plenty of James Gurley’s imaginative fretwork.

Piece of My Heart

Another treasure here is the driving psychedelic jam “Light Is Faster Than Sound.” Written by Big Brother bassist Peter Albin, this live performance takes on an improvisational jazz-styled vibe, with swirling guitars and waves of instrumentation spinning like a whirlpool around Joplin’s soulful vocals and the band’s backing harmonies, before descending into a tsunami of guitars and percussion. By contrast, the moody and atmospheric take provided “Summertime” starts out deceptively languid before Joplin’s voice and the nuanced backing guitars build the song up to an emotional peak. “It’s A Deal” is an unabashed garage-rockin’ good time with plenty o’ feedback and distortion riding high in the mix alongside Joplin’s wildfire vocals.

The familiar “Call On Me” is delivered as a straight-forward soul-blues number, mid-tempo with six-string flourishes and a bit of over-amped distortion, but otherwise a remarkable reading of the song. A second version of “Call On Me,” from the previous night, is slower and bluesier and just as moving. “Piece of My Heart” is every bit the over-the-top blues-rock rant offered by the studio version, Joplin’s soaring vocals matched by subtle instrumentation that amps up to match the singer’s swells of emotion. The obscure “Coo Coo” is a welcome find, a mostly-instrumental rocker with heavy bass and sizzling guitar galloping through the mix, with little but random shouts heard from Ms. Joplin, while the raucous “Down On Me” closely mimics the album version, albeit with more scattershot guitarplay behind Joplin’s forceful performance.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Remarkably, the sound on Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 is pretty good considering the primitive recording technology used at the time, even if the stereo separation is purposely a bit unusual. Stanley did a great job in capturing the ambiance, the energy, and the spirit of the performance, and of the era...the album sounds like you’re watching the performance live. Noted rock critic Jaan Uhelszki’s liner notes put the recording in context, Stanley Mouse’s cool cover art is period perfect, and a 28-page CD booklet includes plenty of rare photos.

Hopefully we’ll get to hear more from Bear’s private musical stash in the future, but in the meantime, Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 – featuring a red-hot performance by Big Brother and the Holding Company and their larger-than-life singer – is a “must have” not only for the Janis faithful, but also for fans of 1960s-era psychedelic blues-rock jams. (Legacy Records, released March 13, 2012)

Archive Review: Albert King’s I’ll Play The Blues For You (1972)

Albert King’s I’ll Play The Blues For You
By 1972, Stax Records had seen its glory days come and gone, but there were still a few fires burning brightly at the legendary Memphis soul label. Among the artists keeping the doors open in the early 1970s were soul giant Isaac Hayes, R&B greats the Staple Singers, and extraordinary blues guitarist Albert King. Working in the studio with members of the Bar-Kays, including producer/keyboardist Allen Jones, as well as members of the Movement, Hayes’ backing band, King recorded I’ll Play the Blues For You, a masterful collection of blues-infused contemporary soul that nearly hit #11 on the R&B chart and inched nearly half-way up the top 200 albums chart.   

Albert King’s I’ll Play The Blues For You

Back in 1972, “I’ll Play the Blues For You (Parts1 & 2)” was originally broken into two parts and released as the A and B sides of a 45rpm single. On album, the seven-minute performance is a smoldering, smooth-as-silk jam with plenty of King’s signature bent-string fretwork, an uncharacteristic but effective spoken-word interlude, and a slippery rhythmic groove that adds to the heat of the performance. Taken altogether, the song is like a hot, humid day in Memphis, its emotional underpinnings concealed just below the languid, steamy surface.

King recorded the Ann Peebles’ hit “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” not long after the R&B diva had a massive chart hit with the song, but in the guitarist’s hands it becomes something else entirely. While Jones’ production doesn’t eschew the mournful soul roots of the original, King’s emotion-drenched vocals, his elegant fretwork, and the addition of Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns take the performance into heady territory. By contrast, “High Cost of Living” relies more on King’s screaming guitar notes and the explosive hornplay of Jackson and Andrew Love. King’s vocals wring every bit of romantic angst out of the lyrics, but it’s his razor-sharp blues licks that drive the performance.

Answer To The Laundromat Blues

King’s effective cover of the early Curtis Mayfield gem “I’ll Be Doggone” is dominated by the Memphis Horns, the guitarist’s voice lost beneath the brass and Jones’ chiming keyboards. King gets a few punches in, though, his flamethrower solos riding loud in the mix above drummer Willie Hall’s supporting percussion. King offers a sly reference to James Brown at three minutes in, before launching into a high-flying solo. King’s original “Answer To the Laundromat Blues” reprises his 1966 hit “Laundromat Blues” with fiery blues licks, spoken-sung lyrics that would have been controversial by today’s standards, and funky horns propelled by jazzy drumbeats. “Don’t Burn Down The Bridge (‘Cause You Might Wanna Come Back Across)” should have been a massive R&B hit, with King’s edgy vocals and edgier fretwork, a funky rhythmic crosscurrent, and scraps of energetic brass.

This expanded reissue of I’ll Play the Blues For You includes four previously-unreleased tracks, including alternate versions of the title track (sans the spoken interlude and with different horn charts) and “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge,” which benefits from a leaner, meaner arrangement that places more emphasis on King’s incendiary six-string pyrotechnics than on the horns, with bassist James Alexander’s funky steel-chain bass line establishing the song’s rhythmic foundation. That “I Need A Love” remained unreleased until now is a mystery, the song a bluesy, up-tempo R&B romp with precise guitarplay, gritty vocals, and well-timed blasts of sax. The instrumental “Albert’s Stomp” is a short, sharp shock of lightning guitar licks leveled against a thunderous backdrop that revolves around second guitarist Michael Toles’ swirling, psych-drenched rhythms and Jones’ spirited keyboard riffs.     

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Albert King’s eight-year tenure with Stax Records brought him a modicum of stardom and several R&B chart hits, helping to extend his career well into the 1980s. With I’ll Play The Blues For You, King delivered a bona fide classic of 1970s-era blues and soul music, a collection of inspired performances that have withstood the test of time.

For fans wondering if they should upgrade to this new reissue of an otherwise comfortable album, I’d offer a quick ‘yes!’ Aside from the clear-sounding digital remastering and four bonus tracks – two of which are engaging, entertaining new songs – the disc also includes music journalist Bill Dahl’s insightful and informative new liner notes. While reissue CDs too often just slap a new coat of paint on an old album, this modernized version of I’ll Play the Blues For You tunes up the engine and adds a little nitrous for that extra punch. What more could a blues fan ask for? (Stax Records, reissued May 22, 2012)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Albert King’s I’ll Play The Blues For You

Also on That Devil Music: Albert King's Born Under A Bad Sign album review

Friday, November 26, 2021

Archive Review: Long John Baldry's Everything Stops For Tea (1972)

Long John Baldry's Everything Stops For Tea
Following up on the modest success of 1971’s It Ain’t Easy album, which spawned a chart-scraping minor AOR radio hit in “Don’t Try To Lay No Boogie Woogie On the King of Rock & Roll,” British blues-rock icon Long John Baldry went back to the same well for his 1972 album Everything Stops For Tea. While the previous year’s effort represented a return to the blues for Baldry, who had enjoyed a string of pop ballads in the U.K. during the late 1960s, Everything Stops For Tea reached further back into the singer’s history, incorporating elements of British folk and R&B alongside Baldry’s usual mix of blues and rock music.

Baldry again enlisted the help of long-time friends and former bandmates Rod Stewart and Elton John to produce the new album. The first time around, Stewart’s productions were featured on side one of the original vinyl LP release, while John’s work was featured on side two. With Everything Stops For Tea, however, John’s production shines clearly on the first side, while Stewart’s seemingly rushed efforts hold down side two. Whereas on the first album, the best performances spanned the entire disc, here the highlights mostly come from John’s side, which offers up an inspired mix of material. Like with the previous album, an all-star cast of musicians was used, John utilizing his road-tested touring band, including guitarist Davey Johnstone, while Stewart used friends and former bandmates like the underrated guitarist Sam Mitchell, and Jeff Beck Group drummer Mickey Waller.  

Long John Baldry’s Everything Stops For Tea

Opening with the folksy “Come Back Again,” Baldry’s twangy vocals sound uncannily like a cross between the Band’s Levon Helm and singer Leon Redbone. Johnstone’s guitar playing is superb here, capturing a Nashville country vibe without discarding Australian songwriter Ross Wilson’s original folk-blues roots. Baldry cranks it up for a raucous, R&B styled cover of Willie Dixon’s blues classic “Seventh Son.” Johnstone adds gospel-tinged piano and slinky guitar here while John Lennon cohort Klaus Voorman unwinds a deep, funky bass line for drummer Nigel Olssen to punctuate with his subtle percussion. Baldry is joined by John on backing vocals for the traditional folk standard “Wild Mountain Thyme,” the singer really nailing the song’s winsome lyrics with a fine vocal performance which is assisted by Johnstone’s spry mandolin picking.  

One of John’s most inspired song choices for the album can be found in the New Orleans classic “Iko Iko,” which Baldry delivers with reckless aplomb. The performance starts out low and slow, just Ray Cooper’s syncopated percussion and Baldry’s quiet vocals, before the volume and the temperature rises and the singer starts jumping ‘n’ jiving above a soundtrack that features Johnstone’s banjo and Olssen’s lively drumbeats. Altogether, they capture the sound and spirit of New Orleans R&B in a little recording studio in London. “Jubilee Cloud” is the last of the five John-produced tracks, the song a rollicking bit of blues-rock with folkish undertones driven by Ian Armit’s honky-tonk piano and a solid Voorman/Olssen rhythmic backbone. Baldry delivers a strong, Southern soul styled vocal performance while Cooper throws in a bit of chaotic percussion.  

You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover

The Stewart side opens with the comedic title track, itself introduced by an odd, entirely British spoken word bit before rolling into Baldry’s old-school crooning. It sounds a little strange to American ears, but I’m sure the U.K. audience adored it at the time. Not to be outdone by his colleague John, Stewart throws in his own Willie Dixon song, the boogie-woogie favorite “You Can’t Judge A Book (By the Cover),” originally a hit for the great Bo Diddley. Baldry does the song right, knocking out an energetic performance with improvised lyrical asides, backed by Armit’s manic piano-pounding and part-time Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Weston’s serpentine fretwork. The other highlight of side two is Baldry’s take on the traditional British folk tune “Mother Ain’t Dead,” which features a sublime performance by the singer on guitar, accompanied only by Stewart on banjo and backing vocals.

This CD reissue includes a number of bonus tracks, including two radio spots produced by Warner Brothers to originally advertise the album. More interesting is a live performance of Baldry’s original “Bring My Baby Back To Me” from the 1972 Mar-Y-Sol Festival in Puerto Rico. An unabashed electric blues song with a suspiciously hypnotic circular guitar riff (think Hill Country and R.L. Burnside), Baldry channels his best Howlin’ Wolf Delta blues growl above the scorching fretwork and swaggering drumbeats. A haunting cover of Neil Young’s melancholy “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (mistakenly credited to Leadbelly?) features singer Joyce Everson, as does the folk-blues rave-up “I’m Just A Rake & Ramblin’ Boy,” which features a beautiful duet between the two singers above Baldry’s nuanced acoustic guitar.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Less bluesy and spontaneous, perhaps, than It Ain’t Easy, the following year’s Everything Stops For Tea nevertheless has its moments. Baldry’s voice is in fine form, the backing musicians are definitely inspired, and Elton John’s production, in particular, is subtle yet confident. These two early 1970s albums, originally released by Warner Brothers Records, represent the cornerstone of Baldry’s immense musical legacy in England, and provided the singer with a modicum of commercial success and popularity in both the United States and Canada. Both albums are highly recommended for the curious who want a taste of this talented and admittedly eclectic artist. (Stony Plain Records, released April 24, 2012)

Also on That Devil Music: Long John Baldry's It Ain't Easy album review

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Long John Baldry’s Everything Stops For Tea

Archive Review: Long John Baldry’s It Ain’t Easy (1971)

Long John Baldry’s It Ain’t Easy
An influential veteran of the early 1960s British blues-rock scene, Long John Baldry performed with and/or inspired nearly every musician of note on the island. The popular singer and songwriter had been a large part of two essential and seminal bands of the era, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and Cyril Davies’ R&B All Stars, and had led Long John Baldry and His Hoochie Coochie Men with lead singer Rod Stewart, and Bluesology, which featured future pop star Elton John.

During the late 1960s, however, Baldry strayed from the blues and blues-rock music with which he’d made his reputation in favor of pop ballads that provided minor chart hits. By 1971, the singer’s career had stalled, and with the help of old friends Stewart and John, Baldry made a successful return to the blues with It Ain’t Easy. With one side of the original album produced by Rod Stewart and the other side produced by Elton John, It Ain’t Easy featured Baldry performing alongside some of the best and brightest musicians that England had to offer, including guitarist Ron Wood, Stewart’s bandmate in the Faces and a future Rolling Stones member; guitarist Caleb Quaye, from Elton John’s band; and Jeff Beck Group drummer Mickey Waller, among others.

Long John Baldry’s It Ain’t Easy

It Ain’t Easy starts off with an odd little spoken-word intro titled “Conditional Discharge.” Part reminiscence, part stream-of-consciousness rant, Baldry’s low-key voice is accompanied by Ian Armit’s spirited boogie-woogie piano-pounding. The piece serves as the perfect opening for the raucous “Don’t Try To Lay No Boogie Woogie On the King Of Rock & Roll.” With Ron Wood laying down a smoking guitar riff, Baldry’s howling, growling vocals strut and swagger atop the instrumentation, Waller’s powerful drumbeats driving the song alongside blasts from Alan Skidmore’s saxophone and Sam Mitchell’s guitar, Baldry’s vocals doubled-and-tripled by a female vocal chorus. It’s a heady way to launch the album, resulting in a minor AOR radio hit that pushed the album into the Billboard Top 100.

There’s more to It Ain’t Easy than the aforementioned house-rocker, though, Baldry performing a duet, of sorts, with fellow British blues singer Maggie Bell (Stone the Crows) on Leadbelly’s classic “Black Girl.” The performance is rife with slinky, Delta-inspired stringwork, Baldry playing a 12-string guitar alongside Mitchell’s weeping Dobro steel guitar and Ray Jackson’s spry mandolin. Baldry and Bell’s vocals are dirty, drawling, and often overwhelmed by the chaotic instrumentation – a delightful mess, really, contemporizing the antique song while paying proper reverence to its origins. The album’s title track is delivered in a similar Mississippi blues vein, with a bit of gospel fever thrown in for good measure, Baldry’s soulful, shouted vocals bolstered by Bell’s harmonies, accompanied by Mitchell’s Dobro and Wood’s hot git licks.

Rock Me When He’s Gone

Baldry’s cover of the folkish “Morning, Morning,” written by Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, may seem an obscure and unlikely choice, but Baldry’s wistful, mourning vocals and Woods’ 12-string plucking bring a bittersweet measure to the song, which mixes folk, rock, and blues to its maximum emotional impact. Blues legend Willie Dixon’s classic “I’m Ready” is spruced up and jacked up by this British blues-rock crew, the song’s original Chicago blues strut amplified by a rowdy instrumental arrangement built around Baldry’s gruff vocals and Mitchell’s Delta-dirty slide-guitarwork. Armitt throws in some Otis Spann-inspired juke-joint piano, and as they say in Merry Ole England, “Bob’s yer uncle!”  
    
Elton John’s “Rock me When He’s Gone” is a blues-tinged rocker with John’s typical pop overtones. Baldry does a good job with the vocals, backed by his female vocal choir, John’s lively piano and Caleb Quaye’s chiming organ. The original ten-track release of It Ain’t Easy closed out with the Rod Stewart/Ron Wood/Ronnie Lane tune “Flying,” a mid-tempo, folkish affair with slight vocals, minor guitarplay from Quaye, and John’s background piano. It was a rather weak way to end an otherwise strong album, but this reissue CD tacks on seven red-hot bonus tracks to pacify the punters. An acoustic version of the Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee gem “Blues (Cornbread, Meat And Molasses)” is Piedmont blues by way of London, with lively guitar and harmonica, with Baldry’s perfect drawl bringing the lyrics to life. Delta great Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vein” is delivered as a guitar-heavy dirge with a juke-joint heart, while Leroy Carr’s “Midnight Hour Blues” is a joyous celebration of the Delta spirit with lonesome harp and sparse but effective guitar picking laid beneath Baldry’s wailing vocals.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

While Baldry would go on to record several albums that were bluesier than It Ain’t Easy – including Remembering Leadbelly, his 2001 tribute to the legendary Huddie Ledbetter – a large part of this British blues-rock institution’s legacy is built upon this early album. Representing somewhat of a U.S. commercial breakthrough to go along with his longstanding popularity in the U.K., this is the album that introduced us to Long John Baldry and made many of us look at British blues in a different light. Best of all, It Ain’t Easy still rocks hard and sounds great even after 40+ years, and if you ain’t heard it, maybe it’s high time you did! (Stony Plain Records, reissued April 24, 2012)

Also on That Devil Music: Long John Baldry's Everything Stops For Tea review

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Long John Baldry’s It Ain’t Easy

Friday, November 19, 2021

Archive Review: Harrison Kennedy’s Shame the Devil (2012)

Harrison Kennedy’s Shame the Devil
Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumental talent Harrison Kennedy, a veteran of the 1960s and ‘70s Detroit soul scene – it was his voice on the 1970 Chairmen of the Board hit “Give Me Just A Little More Time” – launched his solo career in the mid-‘70s and hasn’t look backwards since, forging a unique sound from a mix of blues, rock, and soul music. Born and raised in Canada, Kennedy’s previous albums have earned the artist a handful of Juno Music Award nominations and other accolades, but he hasn’t yet managed to break through to the greater U.S. blues audience.

Harrison Kennedy’s Shame the Devil

Maybe it’s time for us American blues fans to wake up, shake the wax from our ears, and discover what our friends to the north have known for quite some time now – Harrison Kennedy is a hell of a talent. His sixth album, Shame the Devil, is a complex and imaginative collection of mostly original material. The album’s lone cover is a reverent re-working of the Ray Charles classic “You Don’t Know Me” that leans closer to Charles’ soulful take than country legend Eddy Arnold’s original, with only Keith Lindsay’s lonely keyboards backing Harrison’s emotionally-charged vocals.

As for Harrison’s originals, the man is a natural storyteller and truth-bringer, his lyrics somewhat of a cross between Curtis Mayfield and Otis Taylor, championing the working class, the downtrodden, and the unfortunate. The Delta blues-styled “Trouble” could pass for early Son House, Harrison’s mournful vocals accompanied by a bit of solitary guitar and his fluid, tearful harp play. The haunting social commentary of “That’s Just Stupid” is bolstered by Harrison’s eerie banjo picking and Lindsay’s jarring wah-wah organ effect, while the mesmerizing “Musta Bin the Devil” channels Robert Johnson with deep, sonorous vocals and a driving acoustic soundtrack. The powerful “Hard Time Blues” is more than a mere country-blues throwback to the 1930s, Harrison’s strong vocals and locomotive harpwork matched by socially-conscious, prescient lyrics.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Harrison Kennedy’s Shame the Devil offers an entertaining and thought-provoking mix of contemporary and traditional blues music, masterfully delivered by a skilled songwriter and truly gifted musician that has flown under the radar for too long. (Electro-Fi Records, released September 4th, 2011)

Review originally published by Blues Revue magazine, 2012

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Harrison Kennedy’s Shame the Devil

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Anarchy In The Music City! The Other Side of Nashville's Musical Pioneers

Since the early 1960s, Nashville has been known worldwide as the "Music City" for its robust country and gospel music industries. For over 40 years now, Nashville has also been home to a thriving hotbed of rock, blues, rap, and Americana music. "The Other Side of Nashville" has grown from a few makeshift bands playing original songs and scraping for gigs into an internationally-respected scene that has attracted creative immigrants from across the globe.


Anarchy In The Music City! is an oral history of the origins and evolution of Nashville's alternative music scene as told by the pioneers that made the music. Using artist interviews culled from the pages of Rev. Keith A. Gordon's critically-acclaimed book The Other Side of Nashville, this illustrated volume includes conversations with both well-known music-makers like Jason & the Scorchers, Webb Wilder, Tony Gerber, David Olney, and Chagall Guevara as well as regional cult rockers like Tommy Womack, the Dusters, Donna Frost, and Aashid Himons, among many others.  

The “Reverend of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Rev. Gordon has been writing about rock and blues music for 50 years. A former contributor to the All Music Guide books and website, and the former Blues Expert for About.com, Rev. Gordon has written or edited 25 previous music-related books and eBooks, including Blues Deluxe: The Joe Bonamassa Buying Guide, Planet of Sound, The Other Side of Nashville, and Scorched Earth: A Jason & the Scorchers Scrapbook

Buy an autographed copy for $14.99 directly from the Reverend:

 
Prefer to buy from Amazon.com? Here's a link to the print version of Anarchy In The Music City! (also available as a Kindle eBook

Friday, November 12, 2021

Archive Review: The High Dials’ War of the Wakening Phantoms (2005)

The High Dials' War of the Wakening Phantoms

War of the Wakening Phantoms is chapter two for the High Dials, in which the Montreal band expands upon its original ‘60s-based pop-psyche sound to incorporate later and more extensive musical influences. The new jacket of many colours suits the band well, exposing more of the player’s talents while offering up matured songwriting and vocal delivery. This is not to say that the High Dials have totally jettisoned the fab ‘60s flavor that originally made critic’s darlings of the band; instead they have simply put these influences into context in creating a grander and more inclusive sound that spans four decades of rock ‘n’ roll.

The High Dials’ War of the Wakening Phantoms

Acoustic guitar and synth washes kick off “The Holy Ground,” a swirling, gentle pastiche of bright psychedelic vibes and earnest new wave rhythms. It’s an engaging song, singer Trevor Anderson’s lofty vocals adding to the attraction. “Soul In Lust” grinds in a little harder-edged direction: the riffs are bigger and the rhythms more strident, representing a seismic shift in the High Dials’ sound that continues on throughout War of the Wakening Phantoms. From this point, it’s a roller-coaster ride through a sonic funhouse of musical styles and interpretations. The High Dials never come across as derivative, instead grabbing for scraps of melody and long-forgotten riffs, weaving them together into an entirely distinctive musical identity.

The results are quite invigorating, from the ethereal atmospherics of “Winter Ghosts” to the exotic use of a sitar – reminiscent of George Harrison – on “Our Time Is Coming Soon.” The beautiful “Master of the Clouds” features delicious vocal harmonies, some effects-laden, surf-guitar influenced fretwork and a multi-layered tapestry of sound and emotion. Anderson’s vocals are warm and friendly throughout War of the Wakening Phantoms while guitarist Robbie MacArthur’s string-bending is shimmering, creative and quite infectious with great tone and stylistic experimentation. The rest of the band fills out the sound admirably, bassist Rishi Dhir and drummer Robb Surridge providing subtle, supportive rhythms while various guest musicians pitch in with horns and strings.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

There are a lot of indie rock bands galloping across the pop culture horizon these days, all of them trying to capture your attention, some ink in all the right music zines and maybe an appearance on Conan or The O.C. Don’t fall for the hype. The High Dials are the real deal, an honest-to-god organic rock band working to hone their craft and make music because they like to rather than because they think they’ll get rich and famous. War of the Wakening Phantoms is a delight, an entertaining album totally devoid of pretension and filled with moments of unbridled, exuberant joy. (Rainbow Quartz International, released July 25th, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2005

Archive Review: Giles Reaves’ Nothing Is Lost (1988)

Giles Reaves’ Nothing Is Lost
It may surprise you, but Nashville is rapidly gaining a reputation as a hotbed of “space music,” that ethereal art form which includes a myriad of musical styles and genres, consisting mostly of instrumental pieces and including everything from experimental jazz and esoteric classical works to aggressive noise and electronic wizardry. Creative and innovative musicians such as Anthony Rian, Kirby Shelstad, and William Linton have put the Music City on the “New Age” music map. The best-known of all our local creators is Giles Reaves.

Reaves, known locally for his engineering skills while associated with the Castle Studio, released his first collection of space music a year ago, the brilliant and effervescent album Wunjo. Inspired by the clairvoyant Nordic runes and performed on keyboards and synthesizers with the aid of a computer, Wunjo was a highly-textured and forceful work, and it captured the attention and imagination of listeners all over the globe.

Giles Reaves’ Nothing Is Lost

As wonderful as his previous album was, Reaves’ latest, Nothing Is Lost, is a more realized work. Exploring a different reality than that on his first recording, Reaves’ new album is a masterful and introspective creation, a rare combination of artistic vision and technical proficiency. Blending traditional instrumentation with synthesizers and a computer, Reaves has created a fully-developed, cohesive collection of pieces.

Nothing Is Lost draws from a more diverse sphere of influences and inspiration than Wunjo. An Asian feel pervades side one, incorporating the rhythms and syncopations of the islands to create a textured veil of sound and sensory appeal not unlike the lesser-known works of Brian Eno or the magnificent, Malaysian-influenced dreamworks of Jon Hassell. The second side of Nothing Is Lost is equally enjoyable, more fragile and mystically-oriented than the first side.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Reaves deserves any success or accolade heaped upon him and I, for one, hope that he continues to follow this particular music in creating further works of this nature. Space music composers are often ridiculed and patronized by lesser talents in other fields as mere panderers of spiritual Muzak. But, at their best, they are our generation’s equivalent to the classical composers of centuries past. Nothing Is Lost is no mere New Age snooze Muzak, but an intelligent and demanding work of art. It deserves to be listened to, judged, and appreciated on these lofty terms of sophistication. It requires nothing less. (MCA Masters Series, released 1988)

Review originally published by The Metro, 1988

Friday, November 5, 2021

CD Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' American Babylon (1995/2021)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' American Babylon
I bought my first Iron City Houserockers’ album on a whim, after seeing a picture single of “Love’s So Tough” featuring the same soft-focus, high-contrast photo of  feminine beauty that was to be found on the front cover of the band’s debut album of the same name. A cursory glance at the credits (if not the band’s name) revealed their Pittsburgh roots, enough to sell it to this Greensburg, Pennsylvania-born Pirates fan. That purchase happened around 1979 or so, just as the first exhilarating wave of punk was fading away and rock music was threatening to become dreadfully bland once again.

A quick listen to the I.C. Houserockers put those fears to rest, the band kicking out a bluesy, street-smart style of rock ‘n’ roll with lyrics concerning themselves with the hopes and dreams and desires of the great unwashed working class, of which I was a proud member. I became a life-long fan of the band, and it was greatly disappointing that the I.C. Houserockers never found an audience beyond its cult of hardcore fans and appreciative critics. The band broke up before the great mid-‘80s indie rock boom, leaving in their wake a handful of albums and a lot of great songs. Luckily, the talent behind the band – singer, songwriter, and guitarist Joe Grushecky – would later embark on what is now a lengthy and critically-acclaimed solo career as an indie rocker.

Joe Grushecky’s American Babylon

Flash forward from 1979 to 1995 and the release of Grushecky’s landmark album, American Babylon. Produced by rock superstar Bruce Springsteen, who also co-wrote a song and played and sung on several others, it represented the first significant Springsteen creative collaboration since Southside Johnny’s early albums in the late ‘70s. Although Bruce’s name, at the time, didn’t carry the weight it once did in mainstream rock, it still provided thrilling possibilities. Along for the ride were the Houserockers, those seasoned veterans who had worked with Grushecky on the early solo discs – guitarist Bill Toms, drummer Joffo Simmons, and original I.C. Houserockers bassist Art Nardini.

From the opening lyrics of “Dark and Bloodied Ground” to the fateful closing riffs of “Only Lovers Left Alive,” American Babylon is a powerful collection of songs, brimming over with the sort of rock ‘n’ roll spirit that most artists never approach, much less capture in song. Much like Springsteen himself, Grushecky was raised on the music of the 1950s and ‘60s, the first generation literally weaned on rock ‘n’ roll and infatuated with the power of the music to change lives, the music’s ability to transcend class and race, and its promise of escape.

Like Springsteen, Grushecky is also teller of tales, a point illustrated by cuts like “Never Be Enough Time,” with its ill-fated lovers, or the broken family searching for hope on “Only Lovers Left Alive.” The passion and emotion expressed on “Labor of Love” comes only with age and experience, lifting the cut far above the level of the typical love song you’ll hear on the radio. Thirty years of American history are dissected by the clever verses of “What Did You Do In the War.” Phrased as a child’s questions to their father, the song crams Vietnam, 1960s-era rock and Woodstock, the moon walk, Iran-Contra, and much more into the child’s innocent queries. “No Strings Attached” is an anthemic rocker reminiscent of the old Iron City Houserockers’ finest moments.

In Homestead

Joe Grushecky photo by Pam Springsteen
It’s with his social commentary, however, that Grushecky’s skills as a wordsmith really shine. Witness “Homestead,” the logical sequel to “The Biddle Mine” from Grushecky’s 1989 “solo” debut, Rock and Real. The story of a steel mill worker, it evokes memories of Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” with a more midwestern, ‘rust belt’ point-of-view. Co-written with Springsteen, the song describes the horrors of the foundry – as close to hell, I’m told, as one can get on Earth – with a poet’s deft touch: “And the steel glowed in the white hot chambers/The furnace spit fire and smoke/And the sunlight came through the cracks in the roof/The dust was so thick you could choke.”

“Homestead” speaks with great eloquence of organized labor’s betrayal of the working man and expresses the importance of the mill town community to the workers (“It was more than a job, it was my family/I got married, settled down, bought a home/And in the bars down the street, in the late summer heat/You never had to feel alone”). In the end, it’s the loss of the job and the stubborn loyalty of the worker to a dying industry that remains: “I got work tearin’ those old mills down/Until there’s nothing left but the sweat and blood in the ground/At night we tuck our little babies in bed/We still pray to the red, white and blue in Homestead.”

If the story told by “Homestead” is strong in its simplicity, the sort of ode to the working man that Woody Guthrie championed, then it is American Babylon’s title cut that tears off the veil that covers what Guthrie’s cherished land has become. The song’s opening verse is based on a true event suffered by Grushecky: “A kid stole my car the other day/Broke in and drove it away/Took it for a joy ride and when he was done/Held up a liquor store with a great big gun/He said I didn’t do nothing wrong/It’s just the way we live around here.”

The song rolls into an anecdote of a junkie’s dilemma, her desire mixing with pragmatism before slamming into the chorus: “In American Babylon, puttin’ my protection on/Got everything I need – drugs, money, sex and greed/In American Babylon, puttin’ my blindfold on/I can’t tell right from wrong/In American Babylon.” Backed by a no-frills, guitar-driven soundtrack, “American Babylon” sums up the results of three decades of ill-conceived social policy in a few short lines. It’s a powerful statement of despair, one far-too-seldom expressed by rock music in any era.

American Babylon Revisited

The recently-released two-disc version of American Babylon expands the album with a trio of demo tracks tacked onto the first disc, while the second disc offers a raucous live set by Grushecky and the Houserockers, playing on their home turf at Nick’s Fat City, with Springsteen as a special guest. All three of the demo songs are winners, providing an invaluable blueprint to the construction of the final versions. “Never Be Enough Time” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” are both finely-crafted songs with smart, insightful lyrics that would stand out in any situation; I’m still not a huge fan of “Chain Smokin’,” which nevertheless gets the job done in a workmanlike fashion.

On the original album, “Chain Smokin’” serves an important purpose in bringing the listener down from the ledge after the lightning bolt that is “Dark and Bloody Ground.” The haunting “Only Lovers Left Alive” is enchanting in this subdued initial take, but the full album version provides a simply devastating ending to American Babylon, the song’s desolate lyrical theme writ large with its explosive instrumentation. Grushecky’s powerful vocals, wavering with emotion, are matched by his taut, evocative fretwork and the band’s muscular soundtrack. It’s one of Grushecky’s best songs in a catalog full of winners, and the original album version’s awe-inspiring instrumental ending provokes shivers with every listen.

I was lucky enough to see Grushecky and the Houserockers perform for the first time on the American Babylon tour and it was easily one of the top three rock ‘n’ roll shows that I’ve ever witnessed out of hundreds. Playing in Nashville at the smallish 3rd and Lindsley club, the band dominated the postage stamp-sized stage, spilling over into the audience. Joe jumped up on our table in front of the stage for a guitar solo and the audience of around 100 drunk-on-rock ‘n’ roll patrons went nuts. The live disc of American Babylon offers similar cheap thrills, Grushecky and his talented band commanding the stage at the Pittsburgh venue in October 1995. The twelve-song set features much of the American Babylon album, performed with all the electricity and energy Houserockers fans have come to expect.

The live versions of “Dark and Bloody Ground” and “Homestead” are particularly brutal, offering the full, complex instrumentation of the studio versions but pumped-up on steroids. Grushecky’s fiery fretwork leaves scorched earth in its wake on the former, while the latter is a deceptively damning slab of working class blues. Joe throws old-school I.C. Houserockers fans a bone with a swinging take on that band’s “Pumping Iron,” and Bruce joins in fun for high-octane performances of his roadhouse rocker “Light of Day” and the booger-rock jaunt “Down the Road Apiece,” which would sound perfectly at home in any Southern juke-joint. The live disc is more than enough reason to pick up the expanded reissue of American Babylon. I’ve heard bootleg recordings of Joe’s shows from the club, and they never sounded this good, producer Rick Witkowski (also a member of prog-rockers Crack the Sky) doing a magnificent job of capturing the band’s livewire set on tape.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Joe Grushecky has often been compared to Springsteen, because of his similar vocal style and sound, the commonality of their musical influences, and their shared lyrical concerns for the working class as related in story and song. It’s an unfair comparison, however, one that robs both artists of their dignity and creative integrity. The two rockers are similar enough to fit into the same critical pigeonhole, sympathetic enough to understand the other’s plight, but there the similarities end. Both are extremely talented artists, among the best that rock ‘n’ roll has ever produced.

Since the mid-‘90s release of American Babylon, Springsteen has become an elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll tradition, still creating engaging music but with nowhere near the commercial impact he had in the ‘80s, after the release of Born In the U.S.A. and the accompanying worldwide tours. By comparison, Joe Grushecky has been forced to stay true to his muse, working for every break he’s received, staying honest by default. It’s hard to sin when temptation is never offered. He’s a rocker through and through, his work influenced by weary experience formed by hundreds (thousands?) of nights slamming out tunes in bars and clubs.

Although he and Bruce have remained friends and creative collaborators, Joe’s perspective was never been further from that of Springsteen than was with American Babylon. A fierce statement of defiance that said that the artist was not “going quietly into that good night,” a quarter-century afterwards, Grushecky is still creating intelligent, insightful, and hard rocking music with albums like 2004’s True Companion, 2013’s Somewhere East of Eden, and 2018’s More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows, to name but three of many. It was with American Babylon, however, that Grushecky gave voice to society’s ills and purged his inner demons with a raucous rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. It’s a bona fide classic, and the rare “anniversary” reissue that lives up to its promise. Grade: A+ (Cleveland International Records, reissued October 29th, 2021)
      
Buy the CD on Amazon: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ American Babylon

Also on That Devil Music:
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows CD review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ True Companion CD review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ American Babylon Live CD review

On Rock & Roll Globe:
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