Friday, October 22, 2021

Archive Review: Michael Burks’ Iron Man (2008)

Michael Burks’ Iron Man
He was a nominee for "Best New Artist" in The Blues Foundation’s 2000 W.C. Handy Awards but the truth is, Michael Burks already had a lifetime of blues under his belt when considered for that award. A relative newcomer to the form, Burks recorded his self-produced, critically-acclaimed debut in 1997, and released Make It Rain, his Alligator Records debut, in 2001.

Michael Burks’ Iron Man

Burks was born into the blues, his father playing alongside Sonny Boy Williamson, and his grandfather was a Delta-style bluesman from Arkansas. Burks began playing guitar while still in the single-digits, age wise, and began performing shortly thereafter. He grew up in his father's blues club, and although he's worked a day job most of his life, Burks has always found time to pull out his guitar and set it on fire on any available stage. In fact, Burks has earned the nickname "Iron Man" for his dynamic, electrifying, marathon live performances.  

As such, one has to approach Burks' anticipated third Alligator Records release, Iron Man, as if you're watching the axeman performing live on stage…I suspect that Burks approaches the recording process with much the same passion and commitment that he brings to his stagework. Iron Man certainly jumps the gun right from the starting line, rising with the blisteringly heavy "Love Disease," Burks' rabid wolverine of a guitar ripping and tearing off bloody riffs and surgical solos with maddening fury. It's a sure sign that Iron Man is no run-o-the-mill blues workout, but rather a menacing, towering, white-hot rollercoaster of houserockin' blues…old-school, ice-cold Albert Collins style.

The pace slows only slightly with "Strange Feeling," to a deliberate dino-stomp of self-assured rhythms and Burks' throaty, soulful vocals. If anything, the man's solos here are even more reckless and rocking than on the album-opener, Burks opening up a can o' kick-ass and proceeding to flog the listener's ears with shredded guitar strings and his magnificent guitar tone. A more refined, dignified affair, "Empty Promises" brings Iron Man onto a more traditional blues turf, Burks' stormy lyrics matched with a moody, atmospheric, and cloudy soundtrack. The keyboards are mixed to the forefront here, playing well off of Burks' tasteful, nuanced fretwork.

Ripping Through The Blues

The vintage Chicago blues-styled "No More Crying" is provided a romp-n-stomp arrangement, Burks getting reckless as he mixes tightrope solos with drummer Chuck Louden's sturdy beats and cymbal-bashing, and bassist Don Garret's steady heartbeat. The Southern rock-flavored "Don't Waste My Time" offers some nice Gospel-styled keyboard flourishes behind Burks' emotional vocals, the resulting performance taking on a reverent, spiritual air. Wayne Sharp's keyboard work here is inspired, drawing from a number of sainted Dixie-rock traditions, and adding a dignified edge to Burks' restrained guitar-play.  

"Quiet Little Town" is anything but, Burks and gang shedding the rarified modesty of the previous song to crank out a chainsaw roadhouse rocker, with buzzing guitar riffs, honky-tonk piano-bashing, and rock-em-sock-em rhythms that drive the song right off the stage, through the door, and out into the street to catch its breath. "Hard Come, Easy Go" is a soulful blues-rocker with mournful vocals and Burks' taut fretwork while "Ice Pick Through My Heart" is a classic example of "woman done me wrong" blues music, complete with tearjerker fretwork and dusky, foreboding keyboards.

A spot-on cover of Free's "Fire And Water," with plenty o' Kossoff-inspired guitar pyrotechnics and Burks' deep, throaty vocals, is certain to grab the blues-rock fan by the ears and shake loose some spare change. The album-ending "Changed Man" is another raucous roadhouse number, stinging six-string slicing through the thick instrumentation, a steady rocking beat tipping the stage from one end to the other. After the song hits its chaotic crescendo, it ramps down the rpm and exits stage right. It's a surefire way to keep Burks' face-pasting fretwork ringing in your ears for days after hearing it blast out of your speakers.  

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Iron Man is undoubtedly an album directed at those listeners that love them some guitar-driven electric-blues. To this end, almost every song here features some variation of Burks' roughneck guitar-slinging. What Iron Man also does, however, is showcase Burks' growing talents as a singer and songwriter, the artist penning several near-classic tunes here that I could easily see being swiped, er…covered by some blues-rock band sometime in the future.

More to the point, though, Burks' six-string skills continue to evolve and expand, the talented fretburner just as capable of bringing a subtle, elegant flourish to a song as he is in tearing off a lightning-quick solo. Iron Man is a blues guitar fan's kind of album – red hot and ready to rock! (Alligator Records, released February 20th, 2008)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Michael Burks’ Iron Man

Friday, October 15, 2021

Archive Review: Johnny Winter’s Live Bootleg Series, Vol. 2 (2008)

Johnny Winter’s Live Bootleg Series, Vol. 2
When blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter first hit the scene back during the late 1960s, audiences had no idea of what to make of the albino whirlwind from Texas. Rising out of the Beaumont, Texas bar scene, a 1968 Rolling Stone magazine article propelled the young bluesman to national prominence. Winter subsequently signed with New York club owner Steve Paul's for management and grabbed a label deal with Columbia Records. Winter's self-titled label debut was released by Columbia in 1969.
 
Winter released a number of critically-acclaimed blues-rock and roots-rock albums throughout the 1970s, including Second Winter and Still Alive and Well with Rick Derringer. In the early 1980s, Winter began his slow turn towards the blues, leaving Columbia Records after more than a decade and signing with noted blues label Alligator Records. Working with Alligator, Winter created a number of albums such as Third Degree and Guitar Slinger that have since become considered classics of hard blues.

Winter has always been his best in a live atmosphere, and the fretburner has released a number of dynamic live sets on vinyl and CD throughout his career. Live Bootleg Series, Vol. 2 is the second collection of live material culled from Winter's private collection. Recorded with a power trio that included bassist Jon Paris, who toured with Winter circa 1978 to '89, and drummer Bobby T, Live Bootleg Series, Vol. 2 offers up a red-hot and scorching set list of Winter's favorite blues songs.

Johnny Winter’s Live Bootleg Series, Vol. 2

Live Bootleg Series, Vol. 2 features Winter's take on songs by legends like B.B. King, Mose Allison, Jimi Hendrix, and Robert Johnson as well as an a song by obscure bluesman Willie Brown, and a lone Winter original. Winter's performances here are reckless, rockin', and a heck of a lot of fun. Winter's own "Black Cat Bone," for instance, is a Chicago-style rave-up with dancing fretwork and a steady shuffling beat, complimented by Paris' solid harp playing. Paris and Bobby T add a wide, loping groove to Allison's "Parchman Farm," Johnny laying his excited leads atop the rhythm.

The classic B.B. King song "Rock Me Baby" features Winter's bluesy Texas drawl belting out the lyrics, supported by some frenetic riffing and booming drumbeats. It's the obscure Willie Brown cover, "Mississippi Blues," that acts as the centerpiece of Live Bootleg Series, Vol. 2, however. With Paris blastin' away at the harp, Winter uses every inch of the 15-minute performance to paint a complex portrait of the blues, combining his passionate vocals with a variety of single-note leads, incredible slidework, and tough riffs. Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" is guitar-driven romp across the Delta, while Hendrix's "Red House" is the perfect showcase for Winter's explosive guitar technique. 

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Although Live Bootleg Series, Vol. 2 only features six songs, all of 'em are real barn-burners, and only one clocks in at less than seven-minutes-plus, leaving plenty of time for Winter's extended slide-guitar jams. The album lives up to its "bootleg" status with less-than-pristine sound quality … OK, so most songs sound like they're being played in a tin can … and the album itself offers little or no information on the performances included, such as date or venue. Minor notes, to be sure, 'cause the music is what matters. Fans of guitar blues and blues-rock certainly won't be disappointed … just turn up the volume and let Johnny Winter rock the house! (Friday Music, released January 12, 2008)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Johnny Winter’s Live Bootleg Series, Vol. 2

Friday, October 8, 2021

Archive Review: The Immortal Lee County Killers’ These Bones Will Rise To Love You Again (2005)

The Immortal Lee County Killers’ These Bones Will Rise To Love You Again
Just a mere two years after the White Stripes won massive critical acclaim for their attempts to reinvent the blues-rock idiom with a bastard hybrid of shambling electric blues and garage rock fervor, the Immortal Lee County Killers came roaring out of Alabama with The Essential Fucked Up Blues. Taking the blueprint so carefully constructed by Jack White, the ILCK’s Chetley Weise scribbled some notes on a brown paper bag and then proceeded to toss the White Stripes’ formula into a meat grinder of distorted guitar riffs and primal, explosive percussion. Punker, bluesier and far more powerful than the Stripes’ media-approved soundtrack, the Immortal Lee County Killers kicked out the jams with Son House spirit and Black Flag attitude.

A few years have passed by now, Jack and Meg became a tabloid sideshow, and the bloom has fallen off the rose of punk-blues or garage-blues or whatever the hell you want to call it. R.L. Burnside is dead and many of those bands that once pursued rock ‘n’ roll stardom with a washed-out, carbon-copy blues-rock sound have now become ‘80s new wave revival bands. Shudder. The Immortal Lee County Killers, however, are seemingly, well…immortal…the band carrying on with a new line-up and a more mature sound on album number three. Don’t fear, erstwhile ILCK fans, because even though Cheetah and his crew have expanded their sound beyond the delightful musical trainwrecks of The Essential Fucked Up Blues and Love Is A Charm doesn’t mean that the band has lost its way. They still hit your ears like the less-desirable business end of a shotgun blast.

The Immortal Lee County Killers’ These Bones Will Rise To Love You Again

If anything, These Bones Will Rise To Love You Again is even meaner and scarier than the ILCK’s previous two albums, the band incorporating more elements of Southern soul and ‘60s psychedelica into the creative palette of their lo-fi aesthetic. “Turn On the Panther,” for instance, includes tough-as-nails sonic distortion courtesy of Weise’s over-amped guitar, Toko the Drifter’s percussive drumming filling in with lightning-and-thunder intensity. Jon Spencer’s “Revolution Summer” is the same sort of blues-influenced, three-chord hard rock that won the MC5 everlasting notoriety, the ILCK covering the song with a chaotic clashing of vocals and instrumentation. “Boom Boom” is the sound of the music industry imploding, a cacophonic death rattle writ larger-than-life with unrelenting percussion, manic vocals and some of the squonkiest guitar that you’ll hear outside of East Village jazz clubs.

“The Damned Don’t Cry” evokes the late, great R.L. Burnside, the song’s martial rhythms and almost-chanted lyrics creating an air of menace, its roots in the Mississippi Hill Country and its sound straight out of Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint. Even slower, more deliberate numbers like “Lights Down Low” evince a certain swamp water consistency, the song a cross between a funeral dirge and a tent revival while “No More My Lord” is a spiritual plea for relief in a Blind Willie Johnson vein. The addition of keyboardist Jeff Goodwin was definitely a good move, providing the band with another talented songwriter and complimenting the material with an instrumental style that sounds like Deep Purple’s Ian Gilliam, Jerry Lee Lewis and Booker T jamming together at the Stax studios in Memphis.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

For all of his bluster, drummer Toko the Drifter is capable of both tornado-force blasts and subtle, jazzy flourishes while Chet Weise is a six-string madman throwing razor-sharp riffs like ninja death stars and pounding out earth-scorching leads like bolts from the meaty paw of Zeus. Weise’s understated lyrical style is short on nonsense and long on imagery, the underrated wordsmith throwing together minimalist blues-haiku that says what it needs to and then gets the hell outta the way of the general instrumental din. These Bones Will Rise To Love You Again is both a fine garage blues workout and an encouraging third album, displaying the Immortal Lee County Killers’ evolution from a loud, badass duo with lots of heart into a loud, baddass trio with lots of heart and soul. These Bones Will Rise To Love You Again will kick you in the ass and leave you asking for another boot….and folks, it just doesn’t get any better than that! (Tee Pee Records, released 2005)

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

Friday, October 1, 2021

On The Shelf: Blues Images 2022 Calendar w/CD!

Blues Images 2022 calendar
The Reverend has certainly sung the praises of John Tefteller’s annual Blues Images calendar before (like in 2019 and 2020!). The annual datebook has adorned my office wall for well over a decade running, and I welcome with my usual glee the autumnal arrival of that 12”x12” box with the next year’s calendar. Well, gentle reader, I’m here to tell you that the 2022 calendar is now available and it’s a winner all around!

For those of you who haven’t gotten hip to this annual gift from Mr. Tefteller, the Blues Images calendar features vintage advertising artwork from the long-gone Paramount Records blues label, materials that noted record collector and dealer Tefteller literally rescued from a dumpster over 20 years ago. Each year’s calendar preserves an immensely-valuable visual history of the early years of the blues; I donate my slightly-used copies at the end of each year to the Bill Schurk Sound Archives at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Whereas last year’s calendar featured more photographic advertising art than the traditional pen-and-ink drawings of the past, the 2022 features an interesting balance of hand-drawn ads with little photographic inserts.

As I wrote about last year’s calendar, printing technology had improved over the years, allowing for more photographic representation, and 2022 features advertising promoting Paramount releases of plastic fantastic sides like Henry Thomas’s “John Henry,” Memphis blues legend Furry Lewis’s “Jellyroll,”  Memphis Minnie’s “You Can’t Give It Away,” and Bessie Smith’s “Homeless Blues” along with ads for 78-rpm flapjacks by folks both well-known and obscure like Blind Willie Johnson, Kansas City Jim Jackson, and Blind Blake, among others. Each calendar page is annotated with historical and biographical information about the featured artist, and each month also includes the birth and death dates of classic blues artists.

Blues Images 2022 calendar
The Blues Images 2022 calendar cost slightly more than some cheap wall-hanger you’d buy from the mall or local bookstore, but for the hardcore blues fan, Tefteller packs a lot of value for the $26.95 (plus shipping) it will cost you. Each Blues Images calendar includes a full-length CD that features rare, impossible-to-find, and often one-of-a-kind tracks, many of them sourced from Tefteller’s extensive personal collection. The performances, which include the songs from the original advertising in the calendar as well as related releases, have been remastered from the original 78rpm records using the ‘American Epic’ digital process that makes the sound on these antique shellac marvels really pop out of your speakers.

Much like last year, Tefteller has expanded the scope of the calendar’s accompanying CD to include old-school blues tracks dating from the late 1920s through the mid-‘30s and featuring songs from the aforementioned legends along with Ma Rainey’s “Little Low Mama Blues,” Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting read of “John the Revelator,” Victoria Spivey’s “The Alligator Pond Went Dry,” Washboard Walter’s “Wuffin’ Blues,” and Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Hot Papa Blues No. 2” as well as tracks by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Black Byrd, and the Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham. A real treat this year is Tefteller’s amazing find of nine songs by folk-blues legend Lead Belly, recorded live during a 1949 radio broadcast by WNYC in New York City.

The Blues Images 2022 calendar kicks off with a spry 1934 recording by Mr. Ledbetter, but the 1949 radio performances are a revelation. Lead Belly delivers some of his usual blend of acoustic folk, blues, and gospel music in tunes like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Good Morning Blues,” and “The Boll Weevil” but it’s some of the less-well-worn songs that sound the sweetest here. Lead Belly’s wavering vocals and innate charisma shine brightly on performances like the traditional prison work song “Take This Hammer,” the obscure blues tune “Ain’t Gonna Let You Worry My Life No More,” or the mesmerizing chain-gang call-and-response of “Stewball” (itself derived from a British folk song). Ledbetter is allowed time for introductions and explanations between songs, making for a phenomenal set by a bona fide American music legend.    

The annual Blues Images calendar and CD is a “must have” addition to the collection of any serious old-school blues fan. Blues Images sells other cool blues-related stuff, too, like posters, t-shirts, CDs from previous years, and past years’ calendars. You can find it all on the Blues Images website. Tell John that “the Rev sent ya!”

Archive Review: Blue Öyster Cult’s Imaginos (1988)

Blue Öyster Cult’s Imaginos
One of the most commercially successful and critically-acclaimed rock bands in American history, Blue Öyster Cult created the perfect fusion of ‘60s pop and ‘70s proto-metal that would have a profound influence on the evolution of both hard rock and heavy metal in the decades to follow. Intellectual, but reveling in their counter-culture roots, lyrically the band mixed elements of mythology, the occult and contemporary literature with science fiction and horror film trash culture in the creation of a new musical paradigm that celebrated high-and-lowbrow culture equally.  

The earliest roots of the band lie in the relationship between two students at Stony Brook College on Long Island. As far back as 1967, Sandy Pearlman and future rock critic Richard Meltzer had plans to conquer the rock ‘n’ roll world. With Pearlman managing the band and both he and Meltzer writing lyrics, they put together a group that included the core of the future BÖC – guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, keyboardist Allen Lanier, and drummer Albert Bouchard – known as Soft White Underbelly.

Agents of Fortune

Signed to Elektra Records, Soft White Underbelly recorded an unreleased album and subsequently changed the band’s name to Oaxaca before settling on being called the Stalk-Forrest Group. A second album recorded for the label was also buried in the vaults, although a single was later released under the Stalk-Forrest Group name. Dropped by the label and shuffling personnel, they changed their name once again to Blue Öyster Cult and signed with Columbia Records, which is where the BÖC story really begins.

The band’s self-titled album was released in 1972 and scraped the bottom of the charts. This must have been good enough to partially satisfy the label, as they were attempting to promote BÖC as their very own homegrown version of Black Sabbath. The debut album’s fortunes were helped by the media-savvy promotional efforts of Pearlman and Meltzer, as well as the creation of the band’s ubiquitous hook-and-cross logo, an important precursor to the imaginative logo designs of heavy metal bands in the decade to follow.

Tyranny & Mutation followed in 1973, and Secret Treaties in 1974, each album experienced higher sales numbers. The powerful live double-album, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, was released in ‘75, but it would be the following year’s effort, Agents of Fortune, that would prove to be the band’s commercial breakthrough. Yielding a Top 40 single in “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” the album would be the first in a string of Gold™ and Platinum™-selling discs that culminated five years later with 1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin.

The band stumbled badly, however, both commercially and creatively, into the new decade. Original members had left the band, or been asked to leave, and weak studio albums like 1983’s The Revolution At Night and 1986’s Club Ninja alienated long-time fans. With only Dharma and Eric Bloom left from the band’s original line-up, BÖC continued to tour. Released in 1988, the band’s 14th album, Imaginos, would also be its last at the time.

Blue Öyster Cult’s Imaginos

Back at the dawn of the ‘80s, however, Imaginos was originally planned by former BÖC drummer Albert Bouchard to be a solo work, a concept album based on a song cycle created by Sandy Pearlman back during the late 1960s. Almost six years in the making, Imaginos includes instrumental contributions from several of Bouchard’s NYC friends, including bassist Kenny Aaronson and guitarists Joe Satriani, Aldo Nova, and Robbie Krieger of the Doors.

When Bouchard was nearing the finish line with Imaginos, he found out that the record label wasn’t exactly enamored of his efforts. They would only agree to release the album under the Blue Öyster Cult name, so the master tapes were sent to Pearlman and the band overdubbed vocals and instrumentation. Thus the incorrect appearance that BÖC had reformed with its original line-up, including Albert Bouchard…but it was all on paper, folks. Met with confusion by fans and critics alike, and under-promoted to death by the label, Imaginos was deemed an overall failure. BÖC was subsequently dropped from Columbia after an almost 20-year association with the label.

Long out-of-print, and the subject of no little discussion by Blue Öyster Cult fans through the years, thanks to the good folks at American Beat we have a reissued/remastered version of Imaginos to judge on its own merits. Musically, the album-opening “I Am the One You Warned Me Of” spanks-and-cranks with typical period metal overtones, with heavy riffing, clean ringing guitars and Bloom vocals that sound eerily like Secret Treaties-era BÖC. Slower-paced than the band’s early ‘70s brain-bashers, the song is no less menacing. “Les Invisibles” is more contradictory, featuring some delectable, deliberate skull-bashing fretwork and rhythms…but the constant refrain of “seven, seven, seven” is more irritating than an itchy straitjacket, and as unnecessary to the grand design of life as ticks and garden slugs.

“In the Presence of Another World” is a vintage BÖC face-burner, opening with elegant six-string plundering before kicking into some sort of sci-fi soundscape with soaring vocal harmonies and crunchy riffage courtesy of Mr. Dharma. “Del Rio’s Song” offers up some fine lead vocals but little in the way of substance; lacking distinctive instrumentation (or else it’s buried too deep in the mix), it’s a pleasant diversion and nothing more. “The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle At Weisseria” is as epic and long-winded as the song’s title. Sounding like an outtake from a Ronnie James Dio album, the song showcases Joe Satriani’s scorching six-string leads. The song kind of grows on you, as blustery as it is, and it’s an excellent example of early prog-metal overkill.

Blue Oyster Cult circa 1977

BÖC’s Astronomy

“Astronomy” should be familiar to any BÖC fan; originally included on Secret Treaties, the song sits perfectly at the intersection of the band’s science-fiction fantasies and fantastic metal proclivities. “Magna of Illusion” has delusions of grandeur, but it also includes some nifty Robbie Krieger guitar noodling, so I’ll begrudgingly swallow the song’s hackneyed lyrical aspirations. “Blue Öyster Cult,” the song, bites down hard; a re-working of the original tune “Subhuman” from Secret Treaties, which was derived from “Blue Öyster Cult” to begin with (calling M.C. Escher), this is one limp biscuit nonetheless.

I’ll call the title track a draw – although it could have sorely benefited from some big-lunged Eric Bloom vocal expertise, it kicks in with some tasty licks and keyboard riffs that rescue it from oblivion. Bloom is absent without leave from much of Imaginos, leaving the bulk of the vocal weightlifting to the capable Buck Dharma. When any of the guest vocalists kick in on a song, it’s either cringeworthy, or as slight as to be as easily forgotten as last week’s hangover.

As stated before, Imaginos is a conceptual song-cycle, something about a big-haired meanie that travels through time to stomp on our hopes and dreams, or some other late ‘60s lysergic-fueled narrative. Much like early Voivod albums, you have no idea what the hell they’re talking about – you just sit back and try to enjoy the ride. By the Reverend’s count, you have five bona fide BÖC gems on Imaginos, three whiffballs, and one plea of “nolo contendre.” That’s close enough for rock ‘n’ roll in my book, and certainly a better batting average than many of today’s pud-pounding corporate rockers.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

So, just where does Imaginos fall in the BÖC canon? With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, I’d say that it’s certainly better than either of the band’s two previous ‘80s-era albums, and it’s perhaps the band’s most overtly metallicized effort, ever. In spite of all the cooks here adding their own ingredients to the gumbo, some of that tasty BÖC flavor rises to the top regardless. While Imaginos won’t prompt any fans to pawn their copies of Agents of Fortune or Fires of Unknown Origin (or the classic first three BÖC ear-mashers, either), you won’t embarrass yourself by owning a copy, either. (Columbia Records, released July 1988)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog…