Friday, April 29, 2022

Archive Review: Sandy Bull & the Rhythm Ace’s Live 1976 (2012)

Sandy Bull & the Rhythm Ace’s Live 1976
One of a legion of young soul rebels who emerged during the early 1960s with guitar in hand, Sandy Bull was in the same league as fellow travelers like John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and Britain’s Bert Jansch. Unlike those aforementioned contemporaries, however, who pulled the majority of their inspiration from blues and folk music, often with a smattering of jazz, Bull’s restless musical spirit would lead him to incorporate elements of classical, Indian, and droning Arabic raga style into his playing.

Also unlike his fellow string-benders, Bull largely eschewed the traditional three-to-four-minute pop song format in favor of extended instrumental jams that would allow him to stretch out like an improvisational jazzman and get to the heart of the performance, providing his breathtakingly intricate compositions with greater texture and tone. Bull would also pick up a bass guitar, banjo, and oud once in a while, his proficiency in these various instruments lending a dangerously-exotic vibe to his compositions.

Signing with the noted folk label Vanguard Records, Bull released a handful of albums circa 1963-72, the most acclaimed of these, his 1963 debut Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo, recorded with jazz percussionist Billy Higgins (who had played with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock, among others). Featuring the twenty-minute, side-long “Blend,” the album featured Bull’s myriad of influences and introduced him as a serious, talented musician. But by the time of the release of 1972’s Demolition Derby, Bull had sunk deeply into drug addiction, and he seemingly disappeared from music altogether until resurfacing in 1988 with the acclaimed Jukebox School of Music album.  

Sandy Bull & the Rhythm Ace’s Live 1976

The truth is, Sandy Bull hadn’t turned his back on music during the 1970s, and after going through rehab, he relocated to San Francisco and began performing again, including the May 1976 appearance opening for Leo Kottke at the Berkeley Community Center that is captured by Live 1976. Remastered from a long-lost tape made by friend and engineer Hillel Resner, Drag City’s vinyl-only release of Live 1976 shines a light on Bull’s enormous talents with a set of performances and soft-spoken intros that paint a fuller portrait of this unfairly obscure instrumentalist.

Accompanied by “The Rhythm Ace,” his electronic drum machine, and a four-track TASCAM recorder on which he would often place backing bass and drums to accompany his live lead instrument, Bull displayed the technological acumen of a prog-rock virtuoso while unfolding his largely acoustic-based, dream-like compositions. Live 1976 opens with “Oud,” a seven-minute-plus instrumental performed with the pear-shaped Middle Eastern stringed instrument that Bull had come to favor. The performance is simply magical, mesmerizing in its depth and tone as Bull explores several varying musical landscapes within the confines of the song.

A brief interlude follows where he jokingly introduces “the band” and demonstrates the abilities of “The Rhythm Ace,” a still-unfamiliar bit of technology in the mid-1970s. With “Love Is Forever,” Bull tries his hand at a more-traditional, albeit elongated pop song, his imperfect but aching vocals accompanied by elegant acoustic fretwork, the drum machine, and syncopated riffing on an electric oud. Inspired by the Drifters, Bull introduces “Driftin’“ as a “beach tune,” a pre-recorded bass line providing support beneath Bull’s spry, soulful guitarplay that weds an odd folk-rock sound to a lofty R&B framework, with a little weepy country steel twang laid in on top as an exciting counterpoint.

Alligator Wrestler

Bull’s humorous introduction to “Alligator Wrestler” explains the childhood interlude with the song’s protagonist and veers off course into a story from his rehab before tying it all together with a nice bit of metaphor. The song itself is an energetic, upbeat instrumental that evinces a swamp-rock vibe, adding a loping, funky rhythmic track with heavy bass and some of the oddest, Southern-styled chicken-pickin’ that you’ll ever hear. Running nearly nine-minutes, the performance is exhausting and awe-inspiring, and is the beating creative heart of Live 1976.

The album ends with “New York City,” the performance falling just shy of eight minutes and displaying a more urbane, sophisticated edge to Bull’s playing than previous tracks. The guitarist’s nimble licks are paired with a jazzy, syncopated rhythm resulting in an inspired piece that easily places Bull alongside such vaunted contemporaries as Larry Coryell and Al Di Meola as a skilled jazz-fusion stylist.

While continuing to perform, often outside of the public’s eye, throughout the 1980s, Bull would eventually land in the rural countryside near Nashville, building a home and studio and raising a family. He would return to the recording world with the aforementioned Jukebox School of Music, followed by 1991’s Vehicle, and 1996’s Steel Tears, both albums released on his own independent Timeless Recording Society label, all three treated with deference by critics.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Although passing away in 2001 at the too-young age of 60 from cancer, Sandy Bull left behind a body of work that, while not large by contemporary recording standards, nevertheless represents the best qualities of his playing – creative, efficient, meticulous, imaginative, and adventuresome. Live 1976 is a welcome addition to this catalog that serves to bolster Bull’s growing reputation, the album a warm and entertaining collection that reveals another dimension of this underrated instrumentalist’s enormous talents. (Drag City Records, released February 8, 2012)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine

Friday, April 22, 2022

Archive Review: Big Mama Thornton's With the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966 (2007)

Big Mama Thornton's With the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966
If she is remembered by any but the most dedicated blues historians, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton is best known for her 1953 hit single “Hound Dog.” The song spent seven weeks on top of Billboard magazine’s R&B charts and made Thornton a minor star on the SE/SW chitin’ circuit. Later appropriated by Elvis Presley, his 1956 recording of the song overshadowed Thornton’s considerable success and launched Presley’s career beyond the confines of Sun Records.

It’s high time that modern blues fans rediscovered the talented Thornton. Signed to Peacock Records in 1951, Thornton released a number of singles for the label throughout the decade. None hit as big as “Hound Dog,” however, and Thornton was eking out a meager living through sporadic performances well into the ‘60s. The singer with the giant voice hooked up with blues fan and Arhoolie label founder Chris Strachwitz for a handful of mid-‘60s album releases that helped redefine her career. Strachwitz had recorded an inspired Thornton performance in Europe with a band led by guitarist Buddy Guy, and he thought that lightning might strike twice. He arranged for Muddy Waters’ band to back Thornton on these April 1966 sessions; Thornton’s powerful vocals perfectly matched by the group of veteran performers.

Big Mama Thornton’s With the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966

After all these years, the release of Thornton’s With the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966 is a revelation. Thornton is in good form on songs like the soulful “I’m Feeling Alright” and the dirty blues of “Black Rat.” Waters’ band – which included Otis Spann on piano and James Cotton soaring on harmonica – embraced the material, their immense skills amplifying Thornton’s performances. Especially welcome is Waters himself on guitar, the blues giant’s often-overlooked six-string prowess on display in songs like “Everything Gonna Be Alright” and “Sometimes I Have A Heartache.” The gospel-tinged “Guide Me Home” foreshadows what might have been if Thornton had been able to record the album of spiritual tunes that she wanted to while “Big Mama’s Bumble Bee Blues” is a more secular example of traditional blues double-entendre lyrics.
The long overdue CD release of With the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966 also includes seven previously unreleased bonus tracks, including alternate takes of “Black Rat,” “Gimme A Penny” and “I’m Feeling Alright.” It is the new songs that really stand out, though. The lively instrumental “Big Mama’s Shuffle” showcases Thornton’s harmonica skills, an instrument she would use more and more on her work into the 1970s, the song becoming a literal battle between Thornton and the raging James Cotton. “Since I Fell For You” is an old-fashioned torch song, drenched in emotion and dripping with passion. The album-closing “Big Mama’s Blues” is a slow, smoky Chicago-styled blues, Spann providing rhythm on the ivories while Cotton plays off of Thornton’s vocals with an impressive performance. It was well worth the almost three-decade wait to hear these tracks.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Remastered for CD from the original three-track (!) recordings, Thornton’s With the Muddy Waters Blues Band – 1966 sounds damn good for its age, suffering little from the digital transfer and playing loud, raw and vibrant. Hopefully some blues fans will pick up the album simply because of the Muddy Waters connection, or maybe the recent Janis Joplin tributes and revivals, which include Joplin’s version of Thornton’s “Ball And Chain,” will cause some young listeners to seek out the original. Either way, they’ll be rewarded with the ample talents of one of the blues most underrated and unique vocalists, Big Mama Thornton. (Arhoolie Records, released January 29th, 2007)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2007

Friday, April 15, 2022

Archive Review: Howlin’ Wolf’s The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions (1971/2012)

The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions
In 1970, Chess Records producer Norm Dayron had the idea of pairing Chicago blues legend Howlin’ Wolf in a London studio with a bevy of his young British blues-rock acolytes to record an album of the Wolf’s old songs. After all, Dayron had found a modicum of chart success the previous year by hooking up the great Muddy Waters and his pianist Otis Spann with a group of young turks that included guitarist Michael Bloomfield and harp player Paul Butterfield, the resulting album, Fathers and Sons, slipping into the Billboard Top 200 albums chart at number 70 and receiving overall positive critical reviews.  

The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions

For The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, Dayron enlisted a band that included the Rolling Stones’ rhythm section of bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts, and guitarist Eric Clapton, who was still flush with fame and fortune from the success of his blues-rock power trio Cream. The producer flew Wolf, his longtime guitarist and musical foil Hubert Sumlin, and young harpslinger Jeffrey Carp to London to record with the British chaps for a week. The sessions weren’t without drama, however – by 1970, Wolf was a sick man, with heart and kidney problems that made the mercurial bluesman even grouchier. Wolf didn’t know what he was doing messing around with these damn fool kids, and some of his performances were tentative, at best.

However, as music journalist and blues historian Bill Dahl outlines in his excellent liner notes to the deluxe edition of The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, eventually everything began to gel in the studio and Wolf and the assembled band knocked out an acceptable, if not remarkable album of classic blues music. As a kid I was enchanted by both Howlin’ Wolf and The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, one of the first blues albums I’d heard at the time. I had no idea in 1971 or 1972, when I first picked up the album, that blues purists had dismissed it as a trivial work on the part of those involved; or that Clapton had virtually disowned the album (perhaps “Slowhand” should be so frank in reconsidering much of his mediocre 1980s work!).

Built For Comfort

For a fourteen-year-old budding blues fan, however, everything from the painted cover art to the B&W session photos inside, not to mention the music found on The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, all came as a revelation that would lead to a deeper study of the blues. Through the years, the initial harsh critical reception afforded the album would soften somewhat, and I’ve since spoken with many musicians that revere these performances. So, some 40 years after its recording, how does The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions stand up to the master’s body of work?

The album holds up better than might be expected, and maybe even moves up a notch or two towards minor classic status in my estimation. Sure, nothing here is going to match the Wolf’s powerful mid-1950s work for Chess Records, or even his earlier recordings for Sam Phillips in the Sun Studio in Memphis; then again, nothing ever could. Truth is, as the Wolf’s early-to-mid-1960s “albums” were really nothing more than collections of previous singles releases, he wasn’t really an album-oriented artist like Waters would become. Later attempts to appeal to young, album-oriented blues-rock fans with releases like 1969’s This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album or 1971’s Message To the Young would fail miserably commercially and critically. That leaves us with The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, a spirited collection of new performances of old songs, delivered with a fresh perspective on the blues while retaining their traditional appeal.   

Sittin’ On Top of the World

The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions leads off with the spry, slightly funky Wolf original “Rockin’ Daddy,” the performance fueled by Sumlin’s loping fretwork and Clapton’s Southern-fried licks. Wolf roars and bellows like the artist of yore, while Phil Upchurch’s (later overdubbed) bass line plays nicely off of Charlie Watt’s timekeeping. Willie Dixon’s classic “I Ain’t Superstitious” is afforded a lush, busy mix with Wolf’s rote vocals nearly lost amidst a wash of overdubbed horns. Clapton’s fretwork here is nuanced and imaginative, if buried in the din, while Ringo Starr’s drums (the musician credited as “Ritchie” on the original album) rise above the otherwise messy mix.

It’s with “Sittin’ On Top of the World” that the album really begins to cook, with Jeffrey Carp’s greasy harpwork sizzling beneath Wolf’s languid vocals; Lafayette Leake’s later overdubbed piano play tinkling in the background as Sumlin’s solid rhythm guitar serves as a foundation on top of which Clapton lets fly with an elegant, undeniably bluesy solo. The rollicking “Worried About My Baby” also makes good use of Carp’s harp, his blasts of harmonica reminding of Junior Wells as Wolf belts out the lyrics above Leake’s lively piano. Wolf’s classic cover of James Oden’s “What A Woman!” (a/k/a “Commit A Crime”) is the most traditional Chicago blues number on the album, the song’s distinctive hypnotic rhythm punctuated by Clapton’s short, shocking leads and a fine, blustery Wolf vocal turn.     

The Red Rooster

Another Dixon gem, “Built For Comfort,” was tailor-made for Wolf, and he walks his way through the lyrics with a familiar swagger as the horns flare brightly behind him and Ian Stewart’s intricate piano play is matched by Clapton’s intermittent solos. As Dahl recounts in the album’s liner notes, it was the recording of “The Red Rooster,” with Clapton asking Wolf to show him how to play the song, which would break up the tension of the sessions. While critics like Cub Koda have expressed their dislike of the studio dialog that serves as an intro to the song, it’s intriguing to hear at this late date, and by the time the full band roars into the actual song, everybody is rockin’ full-tilt, from Clapton’s fluid riffing to Wolf’s sly vocals to Leake’s trilling piano.

Although Dixon’s “Do the Do” sounds an awful lot like a Bo Diddley song with its familiar beat, it’s all Wolf, baby, the singer slipping into the fat groove with a fine vocal performance that is itself enveloped by Wyman and Watt’s gorgeous lockstep rhythms and Clapton’s rattletrap fretwork. “Highway 49” rocks hard, with a strong Wolf vocal bolstered by Clapton’s innovative leads, Sumlin’s bedrock rhythms, and Steve Winwood’s lofty piano-pounding, which was dubbed in later. The original album ended with a spirited take of “Wang Dang Doodle,” the song’s mesmerizing rhythms captured perfectly by the band, the slightly-echoed production adding to the song’s exotic vibe, Carp’s harmonica creeping in on the fringes as Stewart’s energetic piano notes dance in the background.  

Rockin’ Daddy

This 2012 “deluxe edition” of The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions includes three bonus tracks at the end of the first disc, performances originally released in 1974 as London Revisited. Of the trio, Wolf’s “Killing Floor” stands out, the song’s sparse arrangement and familiar rhythm complimented by a fair Wolf vocal performance, and some intricate interplay between Wolf and Clapton on guitar. This set also includes a second disc of alternate takes from the London sessions, some varying only slightly from the released version, some drastically so. For instance, an alternative “What A Woman!” includes Winwood’s overdubbed organ, which adds to the general cacophony but does little to enhance the performance.

By contrast, a sparse rehearsal take of “Worried About My Baby,” features Wolf on harmonica, Clapton’s subtle guitar fills, and Wyman’s throbbing bass, the performance displaying a different possibility for the song. The alternate “I Ain’t Superstitious” sounds even funkier than that used on the original album, bassist Klaus Voorman and drummer Ringo Starr doing a fine job on the rhythm while Carp adds some inspired harpwork, but Wolf’s vocals slight and unsatisfying. An extended version of “Do the Do” stretches the song into a bona fide blues jam with Clapton and Stewart in particular playing above the locomotive rhythm. Wolf’s original “Poor Boy” is provided different lyrics and instrumental mix, but Wolf’s vocals still shine brightly amidst the claustrophobic arrangement which is busy with Clapton’s wiry guitar and Carp’s emotional harpwork.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

A lot of blues have passed through these ears since I first heard The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions as a teen. While I’d like to think that my musical tastes have expanded and grown more sophisticated through the years, the comfort of the familiar relics of our early years grows larger in our minds. Even when viewed apart from the prism of sentimentality, this most-maligned of albums from the great Howlin’ Wolf’s career sounds better than its most vocal critics dare to admit.

In retrospect, The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions was a successful experiment that captured the great Howlin’ Wolf during the waning days of his strength and power, the elder bluesman still providing many of his performances with a brittle ferocity. Hubert Sumlin, the rock upon which Wolf’s legacy was built, provides the singer with a familiar face and shared history, while the British players – especially Clapton, who has seldom played better than he does here – infuse the performances with energy and zealous enthusiasm. In short, The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions stands up well to re-inspection, outliving decades of unfair criticism to achieve classic status on its own numerous merits. (Chess Records, released 1971, reissued August 31, 2012)

Buy the CD from Amazon: The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions

Archive Review: Kim Simmonds & Savoy Brown’ The Devil To Pay (2015)

Kim Simmonds & Savoy Brown’ The Devil To Pay
After a half-century spent “treading the boards,” Savoy Brown has become a British blues institution. Formed by guitarist Kim Simmonds in 1966 as part of the blues-rock boom that included Taste, Free, and Gary Moore’s Skid Row, Savoy Brown quickly found a lasting identity in Simmonds’ fluid guitar lines. Commercially-successful and critically-acclaimed 1970s-era albums like Looking In and Hellbound Train helped introduce many a teenage punter to the blues idiom.

Eternally led by Simmonds, Savoy Brown has kept the flame of guitar-driven blues-rock burning bright long after many of their contemporaries have gone home. While the band stumbled a bit during the 1990s, releasing a string of albums featuring more chaff than wheat, they’ve more than made up for it over the past decade with solid LPs like Voodoo Moon and Goin’ To the Delta. Savoy Brown’s The Devil To Pay is their 10th since 2000 and, like most of their efforts since the new millennium, it’s a mixed bag, musically. Fronting, essentially, the same road-tested band since 2009 – minus vocalist Joe Whiting – the trio of Simmonds, bassist Pat DeSalvo, and drummer Garnet Grimm is a dynamic blues-rock bar band capable of putting on a heck of a live show; on record, results may vary…

The Devil To Pay is a mish-mash of blues styles, from the jazz-flecked slow-burn of “Ain’t Got Nobody” and the Chicago-flavored vamp of “Bad Weather Brewing” to the twang ‘n’ bang title track or the blustery, heavy blues of “Evil Eye.” The band’s instrumental mastery allows them to pull off these varying hues easily, but the sticking point is Simmonds’ vocal skills...or lack thereof. On some songs – like the boogieing “Oh Rosa” or the Texas blues romp “I’ve Been Drinking” – Simmonds’ raging fretwork overshadows weak vocals, but on other performances, the strain is evident. Simmonds’ guitar playing is beyond reproach, remaining as inventive and electrifying as ever, but he needs a bona fide singer like Chris Youlden or Dave Walker that allows him to just play guitar. This shortcoming makes The Devil To Pay an entertaining blues-rock disc that could have been so much more. (Ruf Records, released August 12, 2015)

Review originally published by Blues Music magazine, 2015

Buy the CD from Amazon: Kim Simmonds & Savoy Brown’ The Devil To Pay

Friday, April 8, 2022

Archive Review: Ian Hunter Band featuring Mick Ronson - Live At Rockpalast (2012)

Ian Hunter Band featuring Mick Ronson - Live At Rockpalast
In the absence of legitimate contemporary rock ‘n’ roll heroes, a sort of “cult of personality” has grown up around a number of admittedly eccentric 1960s-and-‘70s-era musicians. From Nick Lowe and Robyn Hitchcock to Todd Rundgren and other aging rockers raised in the long shadows of the second World War, the digital era has been kinder to them than most, prompting a rediscovery of their early, acclaimed work by a younger audience, extending their careers long past the ostensible commercial “sell by” date. In many instances, it has enabled these artists to grow old with dignity and grace, allowing them to deliver some of the best music of their lives in the 21st century.

Of all of these fellow travelers, Ian Hunter is the oldest and, perhaps, the most iconoclastic. A late arrival to U.K. glam-rock cult faves Mott the Hoople, Hunter quickly took over the band’s creative reins and became its best-known member. (Don’t think so? Quick, name another Mott member other than Hunter or guitarist Mick Ralphs…) Hunter’s often-snarky, Dylan-inspired wordplay and the band’s guitar-heavy hard-rock sound would earn them a modicum of fame, if little fortune, and by the mid-1970s, realizing that the party was coming to a close, Hunter jumped the Mott ship for a solo career, taking former David Bowie/Lou Reed guitarist, and recent band addition Mick Ronson with him.

Although a direct line can be drawn from Mott the Hoople to the intelligent punk-rock of the Clash and the less-intellectual, but admittedly more commercially successful pseudo-metal of Def Leppard, it is Ian Hunter’s sporadic solo career that has influenced a generation of British, as well as a lesser number of American musicians. Beginning with his self-titled 1975 debut, which yielded the classic “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” through the end of the decade and a handful of albums culminating in 1979’s You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic, which entered “Just Another Night” and “Cleveland Rocks” to the rock ‘n’ roll lexicon, Hunter wrote a musical legacy that continues to resonate loudly even in recent works like 2007’s Shrunken Heads and 2009’s Man Overboard.

Ian Hunter Band featuring Mick Ronson Live At Rockpalast

In April 1980, reunited with his friend and longtime musical foil Ronson (management problems having kept the two madmen apart for several years), Hunter performed for the popular German TV show Rockpalast. Translating, roughly, as “Rock Palace,” the program has been broadcast since 1974, airing performances from, literally, hundreds of rock, blues, jazz, and other artists. Video clips from the TV show have been a staple of YouTube since the dawn of that website, but only within the last couple of years has Germany’s MIG Music made a number of full-length performances available on CD and DVD. Hunter’s 1980 Rockpalast performance, prominently featuring guitarist Ronson, stands as a true gem among an eclectic and varied catalog offered by MIG Music.

Fronting a band that included Ronson, bassist Martin Briley, a pair of keyboard players, and a drummer, Hunter rips through a baker’s dozen of songs from both his solo albums as well as his tenure with Mott the Hoople. Performing in front of an enthusiastic German audience at the large Grugahalle arena in Essen, Germany, the first half of Live At Rockpalast mimics the tracklist, if not the actual performances, found on Hunter’s 1980 live release Welcome To the Club. The album-opening instrumental “F.B.I.” is effectively a raucous band intro fueled by Ronson’s wiry fretwork and a driving rhythm that leads straightaway into “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” the hoary hard-rock chestnut stripped down here, provided a slight boogie-rock framework with Hunter’s wry vocals dancing atop a sparse arrangement that explodes into a full-blown rock ‘n’ roll cyclone.

The beautifully lovestruck “Angeline” (a/k/a “Sweet Angeline,” from Brain Capers) is the first of several Mott the Hoople treasures recreated here, the song’s simple, slightly-twangy construction reminiscent of Nick Lowe’s Brinsley Schwartz, Hunter’s passionate vocals rising above a cacophony of chiming guitars and cascading drumbeats. A pair of beloved tunes from that band’s breakthrough 1973 album Mott are provided similar reverence, the wistful “I Wish I Was Your Mother” benefiting from Ronson’s elegant guitarplay and Hunter’s haunting, weary vocals while the up-tempo “All the Way From Memphis” displays all the reckless abandon and joyful banter of the original.

Cleveland Rocks

Of Hunter’s modest solo hits, “Cleveland Rocks” may be better-known than “Just Another Night” due to its use as the theme of The Drew Carey Show for several years, performed there by the Presidents of the United States of America (remember “Lump”?). Hunter’s version kicks ass, hands down, the singer declaring the city one of the birthplaces of rock ‘n’ roll and then kicking out the jams with a high-octane performance that is over-the-top delicious in its unbridled energy. Hunter’s vocals ride a wave of distorted guitars and crashing rhythms, feedback creeping in at the edges as the singer delivers the lyrics with a punkish sneer and a sly grin. “Just Another Night” ain’t chopped liver, though…Hunter’s swaggering vocals sit comfortably within a blanket of sound, keyboards tinkling above a sweaty, grinding dancefloor rhythm.

Live At Rockpalast includes performances of several of Hunter’s lesser-known songs as well as an intriguing cover of the obscure mid-1960s Sonny Bono single “Laugh At Me.” A spry pop-rock tune with an undeniable melody, vocal harmonies, edgy guitarwork, and period-perfect alienated teen lyrics, Hunter and crew crank up the pathos and turn up the amps and deliver a riveting performance. “We Gotta Get Out Of Here” debuted on Welcome To the Club and, sadly, wouldn’t be reprised on any later studio albums. Here the song is a hard-rocking sledgehammer with an infectious chorus, scraps of honky-tonk piano, tense guitar, bashed cymbals, gang vocals, and an overall crescendo of chaotic instrumentation.

The set, somewhat appropriately, closes with the Mott hit “All the Young Dudes” and Ronson’s “Slaughter On 10th Avenue.” The former, handed to the band by the album’s producer David Bowie, is played embarrassingly straight. Ronson’s guitar mimics perfectly Mick Ralph’s original rakish note-picking, and Hunter’s vocals sound every bit as punkish in 1980 as they did in 1972. The upbeat “Dudes” leads right into Ronson’s languid instrumental; taken from the guitarist’s 1974 solo album by that name, the song starts out slow and jazzy and builds to an enormously satisfying finish.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson would more or less carry on their musical collaboration until Ronson’s untimely death in 1993, frequently touring throughout the early 1980s as the Hunter Ronson Band of which, sadly, only bootleg recordings seem to exist. When Hunter went on hiatus during the latter half of the 1980s, Ronson continued to record and produce, touring with Dylan and working with artists as diverse as Morrissey, Meatloaf, Roger McGuinn, and John Mellencamp, among others.

The two friends would reunite for Hunter’s 1990 album YUI Orta, and performed together one last time in 1992 during a tribute to Queen’s Freddie Mercury that would be documented on Ronson’s posthumous solo album Heaven and Hull. For a couple of nights in Germany in 1980, however, both artists were at the top of their game, and Live At Rockpalast captures the magic that was Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson together. (MIG Music, released August 8, 2012)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Ian Hunter Band featuring Mick Ronson - Live At Rockpalast

Review originally published by Blurt magazine

Friday, April 1, 2022

Archive Review: Don Nix’s Living By the Days (2013)

Don Nix’s Living By the Days
Singer, songwriter, musician, and producer Don Nix is one of the most overlooked heroes of the blues, if only for his support of the great Furry Lewis, which provided the elderly blues legend a second chapter to his lengthy career. Nix wrote one of the classic standards of the blues in “Goin’ Down,” the song recorded by artists like Freddie King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among many others; he was also a high school classmate of Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn in Memphis and a session player for the legendary Stax Records label. Nix is one of the integral figures in blues, soul, R&B, and Southern rock music and his meager catalog as a solo artist is dominated by a handful of obscure 1970s-era albums that have sadly been long out-of-print.

Nix’s Living By the Days, was the first of two releases by the artist on the respected Elektra Records label, which at the time was flush from cash from successful albums by the Doors and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, among others. This 1971 album was largely recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio with a little help from friends like guitarists Wayne Perkins and Jimmy Johnson, bassists “Duck” Dunn and David Hood, drummer Roger Hawkins, and keyboardists Barry Beckett and Chris Stainton, who was on loan from the Grease Band, best known for their association with Joe Cocker. Musically, Living By the Days is a homemade quilt carefully sewn together with bits and pieces of blues, blues-rock, gospel, and the sort of Memphis soul that Nix helped define during the late 1960s.

Don Nix’s Living By the Days

Opening with a haunting keyboard intro that fades into the sound of falling rain, Nix’s “The Shape I’m In” is a classic Southern tale about the search for redemption. The song’s protagonist is suffering a crisis of faith, lost, wondering where he’s going, a situation that Nix describes quite poetically with memorable imagery. His somber vocals are backed by the gospel-styled harmonies of Claudia Lennear, Kathi McDonald, Don Preston, and Joey Cooper, the soundtrack a sparse roots-rock ramble of guitar and rhythm. It’s an effective construct, and a perfect introduction to the artist’s unique blend of blues, rock, country, and gospel music.

By contrast, “Olena” is a more upbeat, up-tempo rocker that displays tinges of Memphis soul and gospel beneath its rollicking, keyboard-dominated soundtrack. Whether it’s Perkins or Jimmy Johnson that delivers the short, succinct, and spot-on guitar solo, it’s Barry Beckett’s rolling honky-tonk 88s that drive the song’s rhythms, backing harmonies chiming in behind Nix’s almost-lost vocals that drawl out a story of the rambling man and the woman that’s waiting for him at home. Blues great Furry Lewis adds a bit of narration before the gang jumps into a joyous cover of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” Nix’s twangy vocals are joined by the Mt. Zion Choir (Jeanie Greene, Marlin Green, and Wayne Perkins), there’s a bit of chicken-pickin’ going on, and the jangly percussion supports the upbeat, church revival spirit of the performance.

Going Back To Iuka

The album’s title track is a grand mid-tempo Southern rocker that’s heavy on lyricism and offers but a hint of blues underpinning. Amidst a swell of epic instrumentation, Nix’s heartworn, world-weary protagonist speaks of unrequited love, the object of his affections looking for more than he can offer – “rainbows that never appear” – and while she’s dreaming of hundreds of years, he’s merely “living by the days.” It’s a powerful song, a great performance, and while the 1970s-era literary aspirations are a bit dated, there’s a timelessness to the emotional lay of the lyrics. “Going Back To Iuka” rides a similar train but on a different track, its minimalist lyrics paired with a rockin’, ramshackle soundtrack, guitars rising above the fray of crashing drumbeats and chaotic instrumentation.

The spry “Mary Louise” is the square peg on Living By the Days, an odd little morality tale, the title character a young woman leaving home for the bright lights of L.A. The carefully-spun lyrics are told from a third-person perspective…a jealous boyfriend, a possible suitor...while musically a mesmerizing recurring riff is joined in the gumbo pot with heavy percussive brush work and flashes of twangy piano-play. The album ends with “My Train’s Done Come And Gone,” a bit of brilliant roots-rock reminiscent of the Band that features Nix’s wistful, almost melancholy vocals wrapped around a set of insightful lyrics, the accompanying music a perfect blend of Southern rock, blues, and gospel, the song perfectly capturing the overwhelming wanderlust of the era.     

The Reverend’s Botton Line

It’s hard to believe that Elektra thought that Living By the Days would launch Nix into the commercial stratosphere then occupied by Leon Russell and Delaney & Bonnie. Although it’s a fine album, a classic of sorts, Nix’s creative but eclectic musical hybrid lacked the marketing hook provided by Russell’s exposure from the Mad Dogs & Englishmen album and film or D&B’s friends like Duane Allman and Eric Clapton. Still, Living By the Days is a showcase for the artist’s Americana aspirations, the album one of those lost gems of an era when music – if not the industry itself – was truly colorblind in its influences and artistic expression. (Real Gone Music, releases April 2, 2013)