Friday, June 25, 2021

Classic Rock Review: David Bowie's Pinups (1973)
In 1973, British teens were deeply in the grip of “glam-rock,” with David Bowie and Marc Bolan of T.Rex sitting atop of a cultural phenomenon that included hitmakers like Slade, Sweet, Cockney Rebel, Mott the Hoople, and Roxy Music as well as a legion of lesser-known bands. Glam even paddled its way onto U.S. shores in the forms of Lou Reed, Suzi Quatro, and the New York Dolls. Bowie himself was riding high with three U.K. Top Ten albums (Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane), the latter two of which also struck gold stateside.

David Bowie’s Pinups

While Bowie was working on a vaguely-defined concept album based on George Orwell’s post-war dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (elements of which he’d weave into 1974’s Diamond Dogs), Bowie enlisted guitarist Mick Ronson and bassist Trevor Bolder from his former backing band the Spiders From Mars, along with Bluesbreakers drummer Aynsley Dunbar, to record a label-pacifying “stopgap” collection of cover tunes. With a track list comprised of mid-to-late ‘60s British records that Bowie loved as a younger man, Pinups was designed with an eye towards wooing teenaged American fans unfamiliar with the original versions of the songs.

Critics unfairly assailed Pinups, many writing that Bowie’s renditions of songs by the Pretty Things, Them, the Yardbirds, the Who, and others weren’t as good as the originals. Blah, blah, blah…these reviews missed the point, really, as Bowie performed these personal faves not with mindless mimicry of the originals but rather in his own unique fashion, reinterpreting them as he saw fit. He retained enough of the original flavor and melodic hooks to reel in listeners, but delivered them with passion and energy that created an irresistible playlist that appealed to fans like catnip. For many of us Bowie fans at the time, this was the first we heard some of these songs, prompting many to go out and look up the originals. It’s safe to say that the Pretty Things won over more than a few new fans stateside after hearing Bowie singing “Don’t Bring Me Down” or “Rosalyn.”

Like usual, Bowie was ahead of the trends, recording an album of cover songs as a lark at the peak of his 1970s-era commercial success. Truthfully, though, Pinups is a good album by any standard of rock ‘n’ roll. The aforementioned PT’s song “Rosalyn” takes the band’s basic blues-infused garage-rock blueprint, spins the tempo up to punk-rock levels of energy, and lets Ronson cut loose with his dynamic, razor-sharp riffing. The song quickly jumps into a tearful reading of Them’s “Here Comes the Night” which captures all the blue-eyed soul and heartbreak of Van Morrison’s original, while the Yardbirds’ cover of Billy Boy Arnold 1955 song “I Wish You Would” is all but shorn of its Chicago blues roots in favor of a piercing Ronson guitar riff and an uncompromising and fiercely reckless arrangement.


Classic rock legend David Bowie

The Mojos – which counted Aynsley Dunbar among their early members – are one of the more obscure choices here, and the band’s “Everything’s Alright” builds upon the song’s British Invasion roots with a glammed-up arrangement heavy on Bowie’s vocal gymnastics and Dunbar’s tribal rhythms. The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” veers delightfully onto Roxy Music turf with a slowed-down, almost languid performance punctured by cacophonic blasts of saxophone. Bowie raids the Peter Townshend songbook again for “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” the singer playing it straight down the line with a close-to-the-sleeve vocal performance wrapped around Dunbar’s Keith Moon-styled drum pyrotechnics.   
The mournful “Sorrow,” which had been a U.K. chart hit for both the McCoys in 1965 and the Merseys in ’66, was the break-out song from Pinups, and while it rose to #3 on the U.K. charts (#1 in Australia!), it found only a few diehard fans in the U.S. Bowie’s rendition is superior to either of the previous versions, offering the perfect balance of lovelorn melancholy and creative risks (in Bowie’s gorgeous multi-tracked vocals). By contrast, the Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind” displays Bowie’s chameleonlike ability to take on different musical styles with ease, the singer delivering a spry and energetic pop-styled vocal riding atop Ronson’s scorching guitar licks. The Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things” was another fetching tune that prompted young fans to seek out the original, Bowie balancing art and tradition with a reckless and joyful vocal performance. 

In spite of the critical barbs levied on it at the time, Pinups has weathered the decades since its release. Placed in the context of Bowie’s lengthy career – which spanned six decades and better than two dozen studio albums – Pinups is seen as a bona fide artistic triumph. With Pinups, Bowie stamped “paid” on his glam-rock persona, allowing the artist to extend himself musically wherever he chose to go. What the critics don’t know, the fanboys understand, and Pinups carried on Bowie’s commercial winning streak, topping the U.K. albums chart, hitting Top 30 in the U.S. and setting the stage for the enormous success of the following year’s Diamond Dogs. (RCA Records, 1973)

Buy the CD from Amazon: David Bowie’s Pinups

Friday, June 18, 2021

Archive Review: Jonny Lang's Fight For My Soul (2013)

Jonny Lang's Fight For My Soul
Fight For My Soul is the first studio album from guitarist Jonny Lang in nearly seven years, his first release of any sort since 2010’s Live At the Ryman set. Although Lang may have been a blues prodigy, releasing his solo album Lie To Me at the young age of 15, he’s run across more than a few obstacles since, some of them self-created, others placed in his way by an industry that often dulls talent before killing it outright. 

Lang’s post-major label career has seen him veer off into unexpected musical directions, struggle publically with his faith, and try to reconcile his spiritual and musical sides. Fight For My Soul goes a long way towards providing a light to follow for the troubled troubadour, but much like the recent Tedeschi Trucks Band album, there is little blues music to be found in these grooves beyond the guitarist’s previous deep-rooted influences.

That’s not to say that Fight For My Soul is a bad album, it’s just not particularly “bluesy” by any definition of the word that I know. The album-opening “Blew Up (The House)” is kind of a modernized Southern rock tune with a faint hint of blues, Lang’s soulful vocals, and a little schlocky 1980s-styled big rock production with funky harmony backing vocals. “Breakin’ In” shares a similar ‘80s pop-rock sensibility in its arrangement and delivery while “We Are the Same” masks its hip-hop and R&B flavors with the sickly moan of a string section. The title track evinces a certain amount of emotion punctuated by some psychedelic git licks but, for the most part, Lang’s enormous six-string skills are downplayed across the entire album in favor of his (admittedly) soulful vocals and overwrought lyrical style.

Fight For My Soul is overproduced by miles, and I’m guessing that a lot of time and money went into crafting these performances. It’s slick, calculated and, judging from the sales numbers, a lot of you are enjoying it more than I have. I’d have graded Fight For My Soul higher if Lang would have displayed more of his blues side, but this old school pop-influenced soul just don’t cut it in today’s ragged blues world. Grade: C+ (Concord Records, released September 17, 2013)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Jonny Lang’s Fight For My Soul

Archive Review: Leslie West's Still Climbing (2013)

Leslie West's Still Climbing
Given that guitarist Leslie West’s 2011 Unusual Suspects album featured such all-star fretburners as Joe Bonamassa and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, among others, many of us held out hope that long-suffering rock ‘n’ roll fanatics would latch onto the album as the out-of-control wildfire that it was and provide West with a bit of commercial juice. Sadly, a life-threatening illness and emergency surgery prevented the guitarist from touring in support of the album and it subsequently disappeared off the radar. 

Undeterred by misfortune, the big man with a larger than life personality has come roaring back with Still Climbing, the album’s title both a sly reference to the 1970 debut from West’s legendary blues-rock power trio Mountain as well as a statement of defiance in the face of his own mortality. West’s 15th solo album, Still Climbing offers up eleven brand spankin’ new performances, a mix of original tunes and inspired covers that explore themes of life, survival, and triumph over adversity.

Not as heavy on the guest stars as Unusual Suspects, West shoots for quality over with talents like Jonny Lang and Johnny Winter dropping by the studio. In many ways, Still Climbing is heavier than anything that West has done since Mountain, both in his monster fretwork but also in the album’s crashing rhythms and smothering, tuff-as-nails production. Winter brings his delightfully greasy slide-guitar licks to West’s original “Busted, Disgusted or Dead,” a wry, autobiographical tale with a razor-totin’ blues edge and gruff, Howlin’ Wolf styled vocals. 

A reverent cover of Percy Sledge’s R&B classic “When A Man Loves A Woman” is a wonderful duet between West and Lang while Dee Snider of Twisted Sister provides surprisingly effective vox on a hard-rockin’ cover of Traffic’s “Feeling Good,” West’s meaty guitar licks flying high in the mix. Originals like “Tales of Woe” display a different facet of West’s talents, his emotional vocals and elegant fretwork bulldozing the song to rarified heights. An engaging and entertaining hybrid of guitar-driven hard rock and blues, Leslie West’s Still Climbing proves that you can’t keep a good man down! Grade: B+ (Provogue Records, released October 29, 2013)

Buy the CD from Leslie West’s Still Climbing

Friday, June 11, 2021

Archive Review: Sid Selvidge's The Cold of the Morning (1976/2014)

Sid Selvidge's The Cold of the Morning
Funny story, kids...Memphis music legend Sid Selvidge was just another roots-rockin' country-blues folkie back in the early-to-mid-1970s. He ran around with the right crowd, performing as part of Jim Dickinson's Mudboy and the Neutrons band, hanging out with Big Star's Alex Chilton, and learning the ins-and-outs of the blues from the great Furry Lewis. An ill-timed and under-promoted 1969 solo debut album for a Stax Records subsidiary came and went without a whisper, while an ill-fated major label debut recorded for Elektra Records was shelved and never saw the light of day.

So, needless to say, Selvidge was, shall we say…apprehensive…when a Memphis businessman approached him to record an album for his newly-minted independent R&B label. Not wanting to be marginalized as he was at Stax, Selvidge asked for, and was granted, his own Peabody Records imprint and quickly went into the studio with his buddy Dickinson to produce the 1976 album that was to become The Cold of the Morning. Only, well…after the sessions were completed, the businessman got cold feet and backed out of the deal.

Copies of The Cold of the Morning had already been pressed, however, so Selvidge drove down to the Plastic Products plant in Mississippi and loaded the vehicle with LPs. He sold them himself out of the trunk of his car, sold them at shows and, with the help of the local Select-O-Hits distributors, got them into record stores regionally, the album eventually selling well enough to chart in the lower regions of the industry trade paper Cashbox. The Cold of the Morning received rave reviews all around and led to a series of NYC shows but in the end, without the financial resources to push it further, the album faded away and went out-of-print.    

Sid Selvidge's The Cold of the Morning

Omnivore Recordings has rescued this long-lost slice of Americana from obscurity with the first reissue of The Cold of the Morning in over 20 years. The label has rounded the original dozen LP tracks and supplemented them with a half-dozen outtakes for the CD release, while the cool blue vinyl Omnivore reissue offers up the first twelve and provides a download card for the rest of the bonus tracks. So, what does the album sound like? Well, The Cold of the Morning perfectly captured the artist's eclectic musical tastes, Selvidge and Dickinson piecing together a carefully-crafted song cycle of original songs, a couple of country-blues standards, a little folk material, and even a bona-fide George M. Cohan Broadway classic.

The Cold of the Morning starts off slow with a deliberate cover of Fred Neil's "I've Got A Secret (Didn't We Shake Sugaree)," the singer hewing closer to Elizabeth Cotten's version of the song than to Neil's original. It's a fine showcase for Selvidge's incredible voice and elegant fretwork, the song imbued with a bluesy, soulful undercurrent with just a hint of Memphis twang. Selvidge's original "Frank's Tune" is firmly in the folk vein, the based-on-a-true-story lyrics matched by his warbling vocals and spry finger-picking. Selvidge delves into Alan Lomax's field recordings for the traditional "Boll Weevil," a slippery, ever-evolving classic blues tune that had been recorded, in one form or another, by artists like Charley Patton and Ma Rainey, although Leadbelly's is probably the best-known version. Selvidge does the song proud, his a cappella vocals a mix of Patton and Leadbelly with finely-controlled emotion and clearly-defined highs and lows.   

Mudboy and the Neutrons

Selvidge, who performs much of The Cold of the Morning by himself or with Dickinson, is accompanied by the full Mudboy and the Neutrons band for the original "Wished I Had A Dime." With guitarist Lee Baker laying down a boozy groove, Jimmy Crosthwait banging on the washboard, and Jim Lancaster on tuba (while Dickinson adds some honky-tonkin' piano), the song is an old-school jug band-styled romp with lively vocals and a casual ambiance, Baker's wiry, bluesy git licks a fine counterpoint to Dickinson's rhythmic piano play. The Neutrons also back Selvidge on the jazzy "I Get The Blues When It Rains," a curious mix of Selvidge's jazzy, half-yodeled vocals (a nod to country legend Jimmie Rodgers) and Dickinson's blues-tinged piano licks.

Selvidge pays tribute to his mentor Lewis by covering his classic "Judge Boushé," his vocals closely mimicking Furry's Deep South patois as his nimble-fingered fretwork infuses the performance with electricity. A cover of Patrick Sky's "Many A Mile" is a lovely moment, Selvidge mixing up folk and blues with passion and energy to deliver a powerful performance. The same goes for Selvidge's loving cover of Lewis' "East St. Louis Blues," one of the long-lost bonus tracks on The Cold of the Morning. The singer's voice rides gently above the melodic guitar line, the performance a blend of Lewis' country-styled blues and Blind Willie McTell's Piedmont style.

Another bonus track, "Ain't Nobody's Business," is a blues standard, a ripping, up-tempo romp with New Orleans flavor best-known for Bessie Smith's 1923 recording, but since recorded by everybody from Mississippi John Hurt and Freddie King to Eric Clapton and Taj Mahal. Selvidge acquits himself nicely, capturing the spirit of the song like lightning in a bottle, his feverish delivery displaying a joyful élan in the performance.     

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Although The Cold of the Morning failed to make Sid Selvidge a fortune, or even a household name for that matter, it stands as a perfect representation of the artist's eclectic musical tastes and enormous talents. A heretofore lost gem of American music, the album would be Selvidge's proudest moment as an artist, and while he'd record a handful of future albums, he'd never do better than he did with The Cold of the Morning.

Selvidge would carry on with the Peabody label, releasing fellow Memphis music legend Alex Chilton's solo debut among other albums. Selvidge recorded a 1993 album for Elektra Records, and released his final work, I Should Be Blue, in 2010. A longtime champion of Memphis music, Selvidge co-founded the syndicated radio program Beale Street Caravan, his home for 20 years. The singer sadly passed away in May 2013 at 69 years old. A gifted singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Sid Selvidge remains one of the unsung heroes of Southern music, and while The Cold of the Morning isn't strictly a blues album, it's an entertaining and erudite collection of uniquely American music and well worth spending your time with... (Omnivore Recordings, released March 11, 2014)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Sid Selvidge's The Cold of the Morning

Friday, June 4, 2021

Short Rounds: The Black Keys, The Bummers, Michael Nesmith, Greg Stackhouse Prevost, Quinn Sullivan & The Vejtables (June 2021)

The Black Keys' Delta Kream
New album (and 45) releases in 200 words or less…

The Black Keys Delta Kream (Nonesuch Records, CD)
The Black Keys’ much-vaunted “return to the blues” is really a musical sojourn through the Mississippi Hill Country with a collection that would feel right at home on Fat Possum Records, their former label. One of the punk-blues innovators of the early ‘00s, the Black Keys pairing of singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney dabbled in soul, pop, and mainstream rock with a modicum of success over the past decade. With Delta Kream, however, they enlist the six-string talents of Hill Country stalwart Kenny Brown and jump headfirst into the songbooks of Mississippi blues legends R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Their hypnotizing reading of John Lee Hooker’s classic “Crawling Kingsnake” is patterned after Kimbrough’s recording rather than Hooker’s 1949 hit, and much of Delta Kream delivers a similarly-mesmerizing mind-trip with reverent but unique takes on songs like Burnside’s eerie “Going Down South” or Kimbrough’s powerful “Sad Days, Lonely Nights.” Auerbach’s vocals have never sounded better, and his guitar interplay with Brown is electrifying. Carney’s percussion is spot-on as well, providing nuanced timekeeping throughout and explosive locomotion when needed. Delta Kream isn’t the sound of rock stars “slumming” but that of bluesmen reviving their mojo. Grade: A   BUY!

The Bummers I Can't Imagine
The Bummers – “I Can’t Imagine” b/w “L.S.D. (Long Silent Dream)” (Mojo-Bone Rekkids, 7” vinyl)
If not for the good folks at Mojo-Bone Rekkids, Royal Oak, Michigan rockers the Bummers may have been lost to the ignoble grave of rock ‘n’ roll obscurity – as the label’s Birdman writes in the liner notes to this groovy 7” single, “a few grungy acetates recorded for $35…and one grainy photograph were all that remained of their visionary genius.” Boy howdy! The single’s A-side, “I Can’t Imagine,” is a dreamy, mesmerizing slab o’ late ‘60s psychedelic rock with cool vox, shimmering keyboards, and the occasional stab of guitar, the song a tale of love and betrayal, the musicianship years ahead of its time. B-side “L.S.D. (Long Silent Dream)” is a similar ballad, but with shoe-gazing harmonies, an engaging melody, and a lush instrumental backdrop against which singer/songwriter Ray Bane spits out his lyrics. Although re-mastered by the notable Alec Palao, the sound is fair-to-middlin’ (Palao can’t work magic every time), but the band’s youthful energy and enthusiasm simply jump out of the grooves and demand your attention. Mojo-Bone 45s ain’t cheap ($14 plus shipping for this pancake), but if you’re a collector of 1960s-era psych and garage-rock, you’re gonna want to get in touch with the Birdman by email: mbrekkids (at) Grade: B+    

Michael Nesmith's Different Drum
Michael NesmithDifferent Drum: The Lost RCA Victor Recordings (Real Gone Music, CD)

Michael Nesmith’s post-Monkees solo career has undergone reconsideration of late, various pundits nodding their heads in unison, agreeing on Nez’s status as a “serious musician.” Some of us grokked this 50 years ago, with the release of 1970’s brilliant Magnetic South, which was soon followed by two more trailblazing country-rock LPs displaying the engaging singer’s talent and charisma. Different Drum follows recent reissues of Nesmith’s trio of albums with the talented First National Band and is cut from similar cloth, i.e. finely-crafted country-rock performed with plenty of twang and soulfulness. The first 14 cuts here are alternative takes and studio outtakes that do a fine job in displaying the band’s immense talents and the dirty work of fine-tuning a song, and the contrasts are often stunning – Nesmith’s take on the title track is as different from Linda Ronstadt’s hit version as night is from day, and “Bye, Bye, Bye” is a rollicking cowpunk anthem. “Six Days On the Road” belches smoke and fire while rolling down the asphalt while an alternative “Some of Shelley’s Blues” is as wistful and charming as the original. Different Drum tacks on seven instrumental tracks that, while entertaining, lack the magic of the vocal performances. Grade: B+   BUY!    

Greg Stackhouse Prevost's Songs For These Times
Greg“Stackhouse” PrevostSongs For These Times (Mean Disposition Records, Spain, CD)

With Songs For These Times, the third solo album from bluesman Greg “Stackhouse” Prevost, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist has crafted an impressive collection of material that not only defies previously-held expectations but also explores the possibilities of roots ‘n’ blues music. Working with guitarist Andrew Patrick of the Rochester NY band Dangerbyrd, Prevost makes old rock ‘n’ blues tunes sound contemporary while his handful of original songs sound positively antiquated. The guitarist’s “Free As the Wind” is a powerful acoustic-blues number with subtle, mournful harmonica while the folk-blues dirge “Distant Thunder Calls” reminds of Son House crossed with Johnny Winter (and features some mighty fine guitar pickin’). “Acid Rain Falling” is probably my favorite here, the folkish blues-rock tune offering elegant guitarplay and an overall intoxicating, exotic vibe. Covers of songs by bluesmen like Rev. Gary Davis and Big Bill Broonzy are appropriately reverent, but it’s when Prevost colors outside of the lines – like his haunting reading of Hoyt Axton’s “Snowblind Friend” or Piedmont-styled take on Donovan’s “Colours” – that Prevost’s talents and unique vision of the blues really shine. If you love the blues, you owe it to yourself to discover Greg “Stackhouse” Prevost and Songs For These Times! Grade: A    BUY! 

Quinn Sullivan's Wide Awake
Quinn SullivanWide Awake (Provogue Records, CD)

Blues guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan is taking the Bonamassa road to riches – work with a legendary mentor (for Sullivan, it was Buddy Guy); make your bones by playing high-profile gigs (Quinn was the youngest musician to play the Montreux Jazz Festival); and work to find your voice over a number of records. Wide Awake is the 22-year-old’s fourth LP, and while he’s a skilled musician and better-than-your-average-Joe songwriter, he’s clearly still forging a unique sound to hang his hat on (to be fair, it took Joey Bones until Sloe Gin, his fifth LP). When letting his instrument do the talking, Sullivan is a stunning six-string talent who plays with great imagination and energy; he’s also miles ahead of where Bonamassa was at this age as a singer, Sullivan imbuing his material with great soul and emotion. The songwriting – mostly co-written by Sullivan with producer Oliver Leiber – is the weakest link here, largely treacly R&B-infused pop with the slightest of bluesy undertones. The album’s production is so maddeningly slick and glossy that I’ll never question Kevin Shirley’s choices again. There’s nothing on Wide Awake that’s horrible, it’s just that with a talent of Sullivan’s caliber, it could have been SO much better… Grade: B-   BUY!   

The Vejtables' Hide Yourself
The Vejtables – “Hide Yourself” b/w “Good Things Are Happening” (Mojo-Bone Rekkids, 7” vinyl)

Another small record with a big hole from the good folks at Mojo-Bone, the Vejtables are, perhaps, one of the label’s better-known bands, and although the cover art here is mind-numbingly bad, the four-panel insert with Birdman’s liners, rare photos, and cool cartoon drawing of the band make up for it. Musically, the Bay Area rockers were on the cutting edge of psychedelic rock, these two 1966 tracks show a band whose talents could hang with big boys like Blue Cheer, the Other Half, or Jefferson Airplane. “Hide Yourself,” the single’s erstwhile A-side, is the next best thing to dosing yourself and bouncing off the walls for a few hours, the song’s ringing instrumentation, Bob Bailey’s half-buried vox, and Frank Smith’s scalpel-sharp leads defining “psychedelic” while Richard Fortunato’s 12-string brings an exotic feel to the recording. “Good Things Are Happening” is a similar banger, a bluesy, harmonica-drenched rave-up around the corner from “Tobacco Road” with snotty vocals, sleazy fretwork, and a locomotive rhythm that would have been right at home on a Nuggets or Pebbles compilation LP. Equally adjacent to both psych-rock or garage-rock, the Vejtables were on the cusp of something big. Extra credit for the cool mono sound! Email the Birdman for info: mbrekkids (at) Grade: A

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Previously on That Devil

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

Short Rounds, December 2020: Dave Alvin, Blue Öyster Cult, Shemekia Copeland, Coyote Motel, The Fleshtones, Little Richard, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, Midnight Oil, The Pretty Things, Walter Trout, and Brown Acid: The Eleventh Trip

Short Rounds, October 2020: Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite, The Hangfires, Kursaal Flyers, Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets, Toots & the Maytals, and Crawling Up A Hill

Classic Rock Review: Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys' The Street Giveth...and the Street Taketh Away (1969)

Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys' The Street Giveth...
Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys were a bunch of roots-rockers from New York City, playing what I’d call “hippie music,” i.e. an inspired blend of rock, country, blues, and folk music not dissimilar to what fellow travelers like Moby Grape, Poco, and even Buffalo Springfield were doing at the time. Formed in 1967 by bassist Roy Michaels and keyboardist Bob Smith, Michaels had been a member of the Au Go Go Singers with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay before they formed Buffalo Springfield. The pair added guitarists Charlie Chin and Larry Packer and drummer Michael Equine and set out to conquer the world of rock ‘n’ roll.

Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys quickly garnered a fan following through regular appearances at Café Wha? which, in turn, led to them becoming the house band at the infamous Electric Circus club in the East Village. A series of free concerts at Tompkins Square Park established Cat Mother as part of a thriving Greenwich Village music scene that included bands like the Lovin’ Spoonful, Blues Project, and the Youngbloods. They came to the attention of manager Michael Jeffrey, who was Jimi Hendrix’s mercurial overseer, and he got them a deal with the newly-formed Polydor Records label, opening slots for Hendrix, and a high-profile gig at the 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, playing alongside folks like Chuck Berry and the Doors.

Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys’ The Street Giveth...

The association with Jeffrey and Hendrix led to the guitarist co-producing Cat Mother’s debut album, The Street Giveth…and the Street Taketh Away. How much of the album’s impact is due to Jimi and how much to the band is lost to time but, considering the loose-knit, ramshackle countryish rock sound that Cat Mother achieved, I’d have to say that the production leans in their direction. The Street Giveth… opens with the too-clever-by-half “Good Old Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a medley of sorts that included heaps of honky-tonk piano, spirited vocals, and stinging guitar. A tribute to the music of the band’s youth, it incorporates scraps of “Sweet Little Sixteen” (Chuck Berry), “Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard), “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (Jerry Lee Lewis), “Blue Suede Shoes” (Carl Perkins), and “Party Doll” (Buddy Knox), all strung together with original lyrics and musical passages.

“Good Old Rock ‘n’ Roll” was a surprise hit, rising to #21 on the pop chart and dragging the album along for the ride to #55 on the charts. It didn’t hurt that much of the rest of The Street Giveth…, while not in a similar vein, was nevertheless a strong collection of songs, musically and lyrically. “Favors” is built on a bluesy underlying riff straight out of the Doors’ playbook, but incorporates hard-rocking instrumentation, scorching fretwork, and gorgeous harmony vocals amidst the din. The folkish “Charlie’s Waltz” is a delightful story-song with sonorous vocals and a lush soundtrack that offers swirling crescendos of instrumentation while “How I Spent My Summer” is more in the style of Country Joe & the Fish, a country-tinted rocker with complex instrumentation, mesmerizing keyboards, and strong harmony vocals.

With a band as eclectic as Cat Mother, no single song can be considered a “departure” from their sound, but “Probably Won’t” comes close to qualifying, the song’s strident lyrics and piano-drums-bass rhythmic track setting it apart from much of the album’s good-time sounds. The following “Can You Dance To It?” evinces a funky, strutting rhythm with Southern-fried git-pickin’ that could pass for Steve Cropper or Elvin Bishop. By contrast, “Bad News” captures a big-band sound not unlike Blood, Sweat & Tear’s first album, a bluesy undercurrent and jazzy flourished balanced by rustic rock ‘n’ roll similar to the Band. The album-closing, nine-minute instrumental jam “Track In A” would become a longtime fan favorite, the song a jazzy romp with plenty of cowbell, multi-layered keyboards, exotic rhythms, and elegant fretwork that rolls along to a satisfying finish.

Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys

Vital, Energetic, Creative & Entertaining

In a year that boasted of debut albums from heavyweight talents like Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the MC5, Free, the James Gang, Joe Cocker, Poco, Alice Cooper, Blind Faith, Yes, Humble Pie, the Stooges, Santana, and King Crimson (among others…yeah, 1969 was a GREAT year for rock music!), Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys still had a lot to brag about. The Street Giveth…and the Street Taketh Away delivered on the band’s promise, masterfully combining disparate music styles into a cohesive sound that was as complex as any albums by their contemporaries. Fifty-plus years on from its release, The Street Giveth… still sounds vital, energetic, creative, and entertaining, a relic from an earlier era where musicians could (sometimes) get their groove on without market interference.  

To get out from under Jeffrey’s management and away from an increasingly stressful life in NYC, Cat Mother moved out to the west coast – first to San Francisco and later to a communal household in Mendocino – and dropped the “All Night Newsboys” from the band’s name. They would record three more albums for Polydor – 1970’s Albion Doo-Wah, 1972’s Cat Mother, and 1973’s Last Chance Dance – pursuing a more country-rock sound. Most of the band members continued to play music after Cat Mother’s mid-‘70s break-up, with Michaels landing in Austin, Texas by way of Thailand; Smith remaining in Mendocino and playing with various local outfits; and Packer joining Sha Na Na and playing with folks like Lou Reed and Hall and Oates. For a few years in the early ‘70s, however, Cat Mother was one of the most innovative and entertaining bands to cram country and rock music into a single loose-fitting straitjacket. (Polydor Records, 1969)