Friday, June 24, 2022

Archive Review: Gregg Allman’s Low Country Blues (2011)

Gregg Allman’s Low Country Blues
Gregg Allman’s seventh solo album and his first to be released in almost 14 years, Low Country Blues resulted from a chance meeting between Allman and musician/producer T-Bone Burnett. The two men shared memories of favorite records, mutual friends, and even WLAC-AM, the groundbreaking Nashville radio station that blasted out blues and R&B records to a large audience across the Southeast and Southwestern U.S. during the 1950s and ‘60s with its 50,000-watt clear channel signal. Allman and Burnett also talked about working together on an album of blues and R&B covers.

Gregg Allman’s Low Country Blues

Allman entered a Los Angeles studio in January 2010 with Burnett, guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, bassist Dennis Crouch, and drummer Jay Bellerose to record the songs that would become Low Country Blues. The album was originally scheduled for mid-2010 release, but when Allman, suffering from chronic Hepatitis C, received the chance for a liver transplant he underwent the successful surgery. He spent months rehabbing both physically and artistically, getting his body and voice back in shape to tour in support of Low Country Blues, the album another triumph in a lengthy career with several such landmark moments.

The songs chosen by Allman and Burnett to record cover a wide range of blues and R&B styles, most of them obscurities but a few of them inspired re-imaginings of well-known and regarded blues standards. Low Country Blues opens up with a wonderful example of country blues in Sleepy John Estes’ “Floating Bridge.” While Allman puts his high-lonesome wail and Southern twang to good use on Estes’ gospel-tinged lyrics, a trio of guitars vibrates wildly behind him, assisted on the low end by Crouch’s booming acoustic bass. Whether it’s Doyle Bramhall II, Hadley Hawkensmith, or Burnett himself wielding the six-string, their electrifying and often discordant fretwork provide a perfect counterpoint to Allman’s soulful vocals.

After romping through the spirited R&B rave-up that is “Little By Little,” Allman and crew go back down the Delta with an inspired reading of Skip James’ signature song “Devil Got My Woman.” Allman plays this one perfectly with a trembling, sorrowful vocal performance while Colin Linden adds some nice flourishes with his Dobro and Dr. John adds a little New Orleans styled piano. Again, Bramhall’s guitar provides a bit of discordance that enhances the song’s emotions rather than detracting from the overall dark vibe.

Muddy Waters’ are big shoes to fill, and his “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is a Chicago blues classic, but Allman does it up right. With gently bleating horns in the background, wide slashes of colorful guitar, and Crouch’s industrial-strength bass line, Allman roars and moans the words as well as anybody (short of ol’ Muddy himself, of course). Emotionally-charged and sounding like a million dollars, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” may be the creative high point of Low Country Blues.

Checking On My Baby

Allman and his bandmate Warren Haynes penned the only original on the album, “Just Another Rider” a raw R&B scorcher with a slow, funky groove constructed by bassist Crouch and drummer Bellerose. Several guitarists embellish the rhythm track, but it’s Allman’s smoky, growling vocals that put the pair’s imaginative lyrics over the top. B.B. King’s “Please Accept My Love” is a 1950s-styled throwback with jazzy undertones, a subtle horn section, Dr. John’s rolling piano playing, and flashes of guitar. While Allman’s vocals are nowhere near as silky as King’s, he does a fine job in capturing the emotion of the lyrics.

Amos Wilburn’s bittersweet “Tears, Tears, Tears” puts Dr. John’s mournful piano notes right behind Allman’s crying vocals. As the horn section blows its lonely heart out, Allman croons out his woeful tale of heartbreak. Low Country Blues goes back to Chicago with covers of a couple of the city’s blues giants, Magic Sam and Otis Rush. The hypnotic recurring guitar riff of Magic Sam’s “My Love Is Your Love” is perfectly reproduced by Bramhall, while Allman’s Hammond B-3 chimes away low in the mix beneath the singer’s tortured vocals. A full backing vocal choir adds to the song’s big band feel while Crouch and Bellerose keep a buoyant rhythm track sizzling like a hot engine on a summer day.

Otis Rush’s “Checking On My Baby” is a slow-burning, tear-jerking blues number, Allman’s bruised vocals accompanied by hot licks from Bramhall and/or Burnett’s guitar, with notes from Allman’s B-3 and Dr. John’s piano flowing like a river of tears beneath the vocals. It’s a pretty strong moment, and easily one of the best versions of the song you’ll ever hear. Low Country Blues closes with a blustery arrangement of the traditional “Rolling Stone,” Allman and Burnett reducing the song to its trance-blues roots with a hypnotic percussion line, deep bass, sparks of guitar and mandolin, and Allman’s stark vocals. It’s a simply enchanting moment that perfectly captures the blues heart in the middle of the song.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

While Allman’s day job at the fore of the Allman Brothers Band often has him calling on his blues, R&B, and soul influences in creating music that is firmly in the blues-rock form, with Low Country Blues he abandons any such preconceived notions to deliver an almost pure blues album.

With producer Burnett – the “go-to guy” these days for artists attempting to capture the magic of ages past – Allman and a top-notch band have spun pure magic with Low Country Blues, creating music that sounds contemporary while drawing strongly from the past. Make no mistake, this is one of the best blues albums you’ll hear in this or any other year. By returning to his roots so masterfully, Gregg Allman has, perhaps, found a blueprint for his future. (Rounder Records, released November 3th, 2010)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Gregg Allman’s Low Country Blues

Book Review: Gregg Allman’s My Cross To Bear (2012)

Gregg Allman’s My Cross To Bear
Depending on your perspective, either the Allman Brothers Band’s Gregg Allman is the consummate classic rock vocalist, or he’s a Southern rock icon, or maybe you look at him as a blues-rock singer of no little talent. Or maybe Allman is all three…no matter how you view him, Allman’s musical contributions simply cannot be overstated. A soulful vocalist with a deep, rough but warm voice; a pretty decent songwriter with a blue collar lyrical slant; and a skilled musician capable of laying down tasty notes with both guitar and keyboards, Allman is often all things to all listeners.

Gregg Allman’s My Cross To Bear

Allman has experienced a lot of life in his 65 years, and in early 2012 he decided to share a few of his many stories with the publication of his autobiography, My Cross to Bear (written with the help of music journalist Alan Light). Perhaps it was the onset of serious health problems that inspired Allman to immortalize aspects of his life on the printed page, or maybe it was just the once-in-a-lifetime chance to air his side of the story. Either way, in the wake of a life-threatening bout with Hepatitis C which necessitated a liver transplant, Allman decided to document his storied career with this free-flowing bio.  
Born in 1947 in Nashville, Tennessee but raised in Florida, Gregory Lenoir Allman was the younger of two children raised by a single mother after the tragic murder of his father when he was a child. His older brother, of course, was blues-rock guitar legend Duane Allman, and while the two brothers often fussed and feuded as only siblings can, Allman credits his big brother for a lot of his career success, Duane’s coaxing, threatening, cajoling, and support frequently browbeating the younger Allman into staying the course in their shared pursuit of fame and fortune. Duane was the true believer, and if Gregg strayed a bit off course after his brother’s untimely death, his indomitable spirit continues to inspire the younger Allman to this day. With My Cross to Bear, Allman spends around the first 25% of the book remembering his (and his brother’s) tumultuous childhood with great affection.  

The Allman Brothers Years

This 25% of the book is an appropriate percentage to spend on Gregg’s formative years, as the two brothers were virtually inseparable until Duane’s death in 1971, and the guitar wizard – originally taught, interestingly, the rudiments of the instrument by Gregg – was involved in all of the younger brother’s first bands. Allman runs through these “character building” years with some brevity but no little insight, outlining the travails, poverty, and struggle for musical integrity he and Duane suffered through with bands like the Allman Joys and Hour Glass during the mid-to-late-1960s. Interestingly enough, the older Allman’s obvious six-string skills went unrecognized during this period, as the label Hour Glass had signed with groomed Gregg as the band’s resident rock star. Allman obviously disliked his short time in Hollywood, but it would obviously bring experience he couldn’t have duplicated if he’d stayed in Florida.   

While Gregg struggled in California, Duane relocated to Muscle Shoals, Alabama where he found fame as an in-demand session guitarist and would lay down the foundation of what would become the Allman Brothers Band. When the call came from his big brother, Gregg was ready to flee from the West Coast, and Allman goes into detail on the forming of the band’s unique sound, the band’s early efforts to be recognized, and their “never say die” musical aesthetic that led directly to their acclaimed “jam band” pioneering which placed an emphasis on instrumental virtuosity and on-stage dynamics. Allman spends better than half the book on the band, and rightfully so since that’s what the fans wanted and expected, and he pulls no punches in detailing his and the band’s internecine squabbles, their unique songwriting technique, their years in Macon, Georgia, the loss of Duane and bassist Berry Oakley, and other highs-and-lows of better than four decades spent in the trenches.

Cher & the Low Country Blues

Gregg Allman, 2012
Although Allman could have used My Cross to Bear to whitewash the more, shall we say, unseemly nadirs of his life and career, to his credit he seems to come clean on most (if not all) of the most criticized episodes from his past. From Allman’s frequent marriages (six and counting, as the singer recently became engaged) to his excessive drug and alcohol abuse (the book opens with a sordid tale of his boozy 1995 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) and the federal drug charges that led to his second-guessed courtroom testimony against the band’s tour manager (and Allman’s personal friend) Scooter Herring, Allman lays it all out, warts and all. Particularly touching is the chapter on his oft-criticized, short-lived marriage to singer Cher (considered by many to be the ABB’s own “Yoko”). One gets the sense that if Allman hadn’t been so strung out on heroin at the time, that the pairing may have been more than mere tabloid fodder, Cher seeming to be the “one that got away.”

My Cross to Bear spends plenty of time on Allman’s solo career as well, beginning with the band dynamic that led to the creation of Laid Back, his 1973 solo debut, and subsequent efforts such as the hit 1986 album I’m No Angel, or his decidedly hardcore blues album Low Country Blues, which was his first new studio work in 14 years. Allman lays rest to his long-simmering feud with ABB guitarist Dickey Betts and his subsequent ejection from the band, and welcomes the contributions of relative newcomers Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, who he credits for both reviving the band’s creative edge as well as lending to its incredible longevity.       

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Gregg Allman’s My Cross to Bear is a fascinating read, full of inside perspective and often-humorous (or just as often, pruriently informative) stories that cover the singer and songwriter’s lengthy and storied career. Allman’s tale is written in his own colloquial voice, lending a folksy Southern feel to the story, and the artist is refreshingly and tellingly self-effacing. He gives credit where credit is due, and pays tribute to influences and friends like songwriter John Loudermilk and guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Most of all, Allman recognizes that he’s lived a truly charmed life. My Cross to Bear is essential reading for any Allman Brothers Band or blues-rock fan. (William Morrow, 400-page hardback, published May 1, 2012)

Buy the book from Amazon: Gregg Allman’s My Cross To Bear

Friday, June 17, 2022

Archive Review: Jimi Hendrix’s People, Hell and Angels (2013)

Jimi Hendrix’s People, Hell and Angels
And the hits just keep on coming! As I write this, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix’s People, Hell and Angels CD is number one in sales on and the digital version sits comfortably at number two on iTunes…decades after the artist’s too-brief commercial heyday.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, People, Hell and Angels is a twelve-song collection of previously-unreleased Hendrix studio tracks, most of them from the pivotal year of 1969 when the Jimi Hendrix Experience broke up and the guitarist was wanting to explore new musical directions with fresh collaborators. Although most of these songs have been released in different forms, on both live and studio LPs, you’ve never heard ‘em quite like this, this high-flying dozen revealing new dimensions to Jimi’s talents as a musician, songwriter, and producer.  

Jimi Hendrix’s People, Hell and Angels

The album-opening “Earth Blues” differs from the previous version released posthumously in 1971; the guitarist leading the power trio of bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles (i.e. the “Band of Gypsies”) through their paces on a muscular, sparse hard rock construct. Built on Hendrix’s soulful vocals and laser-precise guitar licks, the rhythm section lays down the slightest of funk grooves to propel the song forwards. It’s not a great song, but it ain’t half-bad either, Hendrix’s fretwork displaying a fluid and natural feel, the lyric-heavy broth indicative of where the guitarist’s creative head was at this distinctive period in time.

Of much greater interest, personally, is the previously-undiscovered “Somewhere,” originally recorded in 1968 for Electric Ladyland. The take here was nearly lost to the ages, and features Stephen Stills laying down an awkward but intriguing bass line against Miles’ syncopated drumwork as Hendrix’s guitar soars unpredictably above the fray. “Somewhere” was previously heard on the widely-criticized Alan Douglas production Crash Landing, and Mitch Mitchell had overdubbed his percussion atop Miles’, but this version captures the song as originally envisioned, and while not a smash, it’s a healthy rocker nonetheless.

Hear My Train A Comin’

People, Hell and Angels mixes more than a little blues into the rockin’ funk that Jimi was delving into in 1969, beginning with a scorching take on “Hear My Train A Comin’,” derived from the first recording session with Cox and Miles. Influenced by innovative fretburners like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Albert King, this one is a real barn-burner. Jimi takes the blues into territory that only Stevie Ray Vaughan would later explore, his high-flying axe screaming tortured sounds and distorted blues licks above a beefy rhythm track. This unreleased take slows down the tempo, revs up the amperage, and blows out the speakers like nobody else before or since.

Ditto for “Bleeding Heart,” an inspired Elmore James cover culled from that same first session with Cox and Miles. Hendrix had evidently been messing with the arrangement for this personal favorite of his for some time, unhappy with previous attempts at capturing on tape what he felt in his heart, and this take, while maybe not nirvana to Jimi, certainly hits the modern listener’s sweet spot. Mid-paced with a solid groove, Hendrix rides Cox’s hearty bass line with reckless aplomb, embroidering James’ original sound with quickly-evolving guitar solos that seemingly change every few bars and provide enough fresh ideas to fuel an entire generation of future guitarists.


Hendrix brought in his old friend, saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood, for the rockin’ R&B rave-up “Let Me Move You,” the pair backed by an unfamiliar band that included keyboardist John Winfield on this 1969 session outtake. It doesn’t really matter who’s backing Youngblood and Hendrix, however, the pair jetting into the stratosphere on a wildfire performance fueled by Winfield’s rapid keyboard riffs, Hendrix’s scattershot notes, and Youngblood’s raucous vocals and screaming sax. In the aftermath of the Woodstock Festival in August 1969, Hendrix took his then-current band, the informally-titled Gypsy Sun & Rainbows, into the studio to try and capture a keeper on his new tune “Izabella.”

The version of “Izabella” on the posthumous War Heroes sounds little like this one, which evinces a deeper rhythmic groove courtesy of bassist Cox and Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and percussion courtesy Jerry Velez and Juma Sultan. Hendrix brings in a second guitarist, too, his old friend Larry Lee to add rhythm while Hendrix delivers his usual unbelievable solos above a dense, richer sound. Recorded the same night and, says the extensive liner notes provided People, Hell and Angels by Hendrix aficionado John McDermott, in-between takes of “Izabella,” the instrumental “Easy Blues” is a find. Longer and more fully-realized than the version found on 1981’s chop-shop creation Nine To the Universe, this take is allowed to flow more naturally, developing the interplay between Hendrix and Lee and the rhythm section, resulting in an electric and energetic performance.

Crash Landing

When producer Alan Douglas somehow grabbed the rights to the Hendrix tape library in 1974, he released a number of posthumous albums – Crash Landing, Midnight Lighting, and Nine To the Universe – that are now widely reviled by the hardcore faithful. Part of this had to do with Douglas’ misguided efforts to spotlight Jimi’s talent by stripping everything from the master tapes except for his guitar and vocals, and filling in with anonymous session musicians. This move proved to be stupid plus ten, because part of Jimi’s genius was the inspiration and energy he took from his musical collaborators, which is nowhere more apparent than on “Crash Landing.” Recorded in early 1969 with Cox and drummer Rocky Isaac of the Cherry People, Hendrix was trying to create something funkier, jazzier, and yet bluesier than previous with complex rhythmic patterns and imaginative guitar solos.

Although the band struggles to keep up, as shown by this previously-unreleased take, the musical ideas and experiments undertaken by the guitarist are simply breathtaking. Another example of this artistic vision can be found on “Mojo Man,” a song from brothers Albert and Arthur Allen, old friends of Jimi’s. Originally recorded by the brothers at the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1969, Hendrix asked them about the song in 1970 (when he had them singing back-up on “Dolly Dagger” and “Freedom” from Cry of Love). Working with a tape provided by Albert Allen, Hendrix pumps up the song with his finest funk licks ever, riding high in the mix alongside Allen’s soul-drenched vocals, an unnamed horn section blasting away, and New Orleans pianist James Booker’s nuanced accompaniment. The result is a lively, engaging slab o’ early 1970s R&B.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

There’s much more, of course, to explore on People, Hell and Angels, and even the album-closing, unfinished jam “Villanova Junction Blues,” from that productive first session with Cox and Miles, provides hints and signs of the musical directions that Hendrix wanted to explore: bluesier, funkier, jazzier, but with the power and potential of hard rock. It’s hard to tell where Hendrix’s restless muse may have taken him during the decade of the 1970s when rock ‘n’ roll exploded into a myriad of styles (glam, metal, punk, progressive), but it’s a safe to say that the guitarist would have been at the forefront of whatever was fresh and exciting in popular music.

People, Hell and Angels is a superb collection, not merely another retread of the live performances we’ve heard from Jimi time and time again. This is the sort of stuff upon which Hendrix built his immense legacy, proving – better than 40 years after his death – that the praise is well-deserved. (Experience Hendrix/Legacy Recordings, released March 5th, 2013)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Jimi Hendrix’s People, Hell and Angels

Monday, June 13, 2022

CD Review: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ Live In Cleveland ‘77 (2022)

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ Live In Cleveland ‘77
Asbury Park, New Jersey is the type of “small town” that John Mellencamp sung about, with a 2020 census population of slightly less than 17,000 souls. A onetime beachfront tourist destination located on the Atlantic Ocean, it could boast of a boardwalk teeming with shops, and an indoor amusement park with a famous carousel. By the 1980s, however, financial woes, widespread poverty, and 1970’s race riots led to Asbury Park searching for an answer to its dilapidated storefronts and weak economy, a struggle for revival that continues to this day.  

The infamous Stone Pony music venue opened in 1974 and Asbury Park soon became home to a thriving regional music scene that included artists like Bill Chinnock and his Downtown Tangiers Band, the Lord Gunner Group, Ken Viola, Kog Nito and the Geeks, Steel Mill, Maelstrom, and Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom, among many others. Three individual talents – Bruce Springsteen, “Little Steven” Van Zandt, and “Southside” Johnny Lyon – would transcend the Asbury Park music scene to become bona fide, worldwide rock stars. Of these three, Lyon probably gets short-changed in the fame and fortune department, and has been unfairly accused of riding the coattails of his two better-known rock ‘n’ roll brethren.

I Don’t Want To Go Home, the 1976 debut album by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, was produced by Van Zandt and included three of his original songs, along with two written by Springsteen, including “The Fever,” which became an early signature song for Southside Johnny. The band’s second album, 1977’s This Time It’s For Real, was again produced by Van Zandt and featured eight out of ten songs written by the man known then as “Miami Steve”, or co-written with his pal Bruce. The stone cold truth is that all of these guys had played together for years in many of the various aforementioned Jersey shore bands, and their fates (and careers) were intertwined since the late 1960s.

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ Live In Cleveland ‘77

Touring in support of This Time It’s For Real, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes made their way to Cleveland and the city’s Agora Ballroom, a sort of “home away from home” for expat denizens of Asbury Park’s music scene. Southside Johnny and crew would hold the Agora stage for one night in May 1977, a performance that was broadcast live on Cleveland’s popular WMMS-FM radio station. The concert was lost for decades until its recent re-discovery and long-overdue release on CD by Cleveland International Records. It’s a gift for longtime Southside Johnny fans like myself, because there’s not much on this old planet of sound that’s more fun than an Asbury Jukes show.

In between their debut album and sophomore effort, a live promotional album was released to radio stations across the country, but Live At the Bottom Line never really captured the Asbury Jukes in full swing and although it received a fair amount of airplay, its exclusive distribution meant that new SSJ&AJ fans couldn’t buy it. A full-fledged Asbury Jukes live LP wouldn’t be released until 1981’s Reach Up and Touch the Sky, which makes me wonder what might have happened if this Cleveland performance could have been released in, say, late 1977 or ’78. Lyon is fronting a firecracker of a band here, including guitarists Van Zandt and Billy Rush, keyboardist Kevin Kavanaugh, and the “La Bamba” horn section. The set list pulls from both of the band’s albums, as well as a couple of surprise cover tunes, encompassing the full scope of the Jukes’ blues-infused, rockin’ R&B sound.

This Time It’s For Real

Southside Johnny's This Time It’s For Real,
After a brief DJ introduction, the party kicks off with “This Time It’s For Real,” a brassy R&B raver featuring Lyon’s soulful vocals, blasting horns, Van Zandt’s vocal harmonies, and a throwback chorus that would have seemed more at home in 1957 than ’77. The band does legendary soul man Solomon Burke’s “Got To Get You Off My Mind” justice with a smoky, smooth performance that incorporates a bit of jazz in its rhythm and blues grooves. “Without Love” is a cool Ivory Joe Hunter tune that is afforded a blisteringly-emotional vocal performance that is literally steeped in romantic yearning with muted horns, gorgeous piano-play, and slow-rolling rhythms.

Although the next song is listed on the CD as “She Got Me Where She Wants Me,” it’s actually another track from This Time It’s For Real, Van Zandt’s masterpiece “Love On the Wrong Side of Town.” Opening with a tinkle of piano keys and marching rhythms before the horns chime in the romantic anguish pours out of Lyon’s vocals, it’s one of the most devastating songs of romantic betrayal in the Asbury Jukes tool kit. Junior Walker’s “Little By Little” provides a spotlight for the La Bamba Horns to shine with a previously-unreleased performance while the Springsteen/Van Zandt joint “When You Dance” is a brilliant pastiche of late 1950s-era R&B and early ‘60s garage-rock. Kenny “Popeye” Pentifallo’s tribal drumbeats open with the chant of “La Bamba, La Bamba” before the entire band cranks up for a horn-blasted, unbridled Bacchanalian rave-up.

Say Goodbye To Hollywood

Ronnie Spector's Say Goodbye To Hollywood
The legendary, lovely, and talented Ms. Ronnie Spector joins the band for a performance of Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye To Hollywood,” a song she’d previously recorded with Springsteen and the E Street Band for single release. Spector’s epic, larger-than-life voice is perfectly suited to the song’s lyrical and musical grandeur and the Jukes back her up with horns blazing. Springsteen’s “The Fever” is provided a similarly steamy performance – more muted, perhaps, but featuring some of Lyon’s most nuanced vocals on what is essentially an old-school R&B torch song. “I Don’t Want To Go Home” is the song that introduced many of us to Southside Johnny, a song that combines the romantic loss of a ballad with the aching urgency to drink away one’s sorrows to a loud bar-band. The mournful horn-play is paired with subtle keyboards while the guitars underline Lyon’s heartbroken vox on what is an electrifying R&B romp.

Live In Cleveland ’77 closes out with three strong performances, beginning with “Broke Down Piece of Man,” written by Memphis soul legend Steve Cropper. Van Zandt’s guitar leads the charge, buzzing horns add some brightness, and the vocal harmonies reinforce the song’s strong rock ‘n’ blues roots. An inspired cover of Sam Cooke’s “Having A Party” appeared on the Bottom Line LP and should have been released as a single as it’s a faithful reading with plenty of energy, Lyon’s jaunty vocals punctuated by joyous horns. A previously-unrecorded cover of the Sam & Dave Stax Records hit “You Don’t Know Like I Know” is based on bassist Allan Berger and drummer Kenny Pentifallo’s strong rhythmic foundation, with Lyon’s hearty vocals soaring on the sound of Kevin Kavanaugh’s Booker T-styled keyboards and Memphis-styled horn blowing, ending the album on a distinctively up-tempo note.     

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

For Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, their May 1977 performance in Cleveland was just one of thousands of nights on the road. The Jukes’ third Van Zandt-produced album, 1978’s Hearts of Stone, would earn widespread critical acclaim but was only modestly successful and Epic Records dropped the band, who would subsequently sign with Mercury. “Little Steven” went on to become an integral part of Springsteen’s world-beating E Street Band during the 1980s while Southside Johnny has led various band line-ups across four decades and nearly two-dozen albums to date.

Over the years, Lyon has taken his sound into deeper blues and R&B territory, which admittedly has hamstrung his commercial potential, but he’s stayed true to his original vision and influences, sometimes finding a little modest success (as with 1991’s Better Days) but more often than not he’s been preaching to a loyal choir of fans with albums like 2010’s Pills and Ammo or 2015’s Soultime! For one night in 1977, however, anything was possible, the Juke’s future was still on the horizon, and Southside Johnny sang his heart out. Thanks to Live In Cleveland ’77, we get to hear the show like we were there. (Cleveland International Records, released March 22, 2022)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ Live In Cleveland ‘77

Friday, June 10, 2022

Archive Review: Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Live At Berkeley (2012)

Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Live At Berkeley
It’s no secret among the cognoscenti that blues-rock guitar great Jimi Hendrix was an inconsistent onstage performer. When he was hot, he burned as bright as a supernova, but when he was not, he could be dull and lackluster. It was part of the blessing and the curse of Hendrix’s talents, that he often seemed to view live shows as an inconvenience thrust upon him by his manager when instead the guitarist would rather be sequestered in the studio experimenting with sound.

In an effort to scour the tape vaults of anything remotely of commercial value, Experience Hendrix – the corporation formed by the late guitarist’s relatives to preserve Jimi’s legacy and exploit the hell out of his musical catalog – has for years released live recordings for a rabid fan base to devour. Live At Berkeley, featuring a Jimi Hendrix Experience comprised of Hendrix, long-time friend and bassist Billy Cox, and drummer Mitch Mitchell, captures the band’s second set at the Berkeley Community Theatre from Saturday night, May 30, 1970. The album documents a solid eleven-song performance with good, although not great sound (well, it was recorded over 40 years ago), definitely showcasing Hendrix at his best onstage.   

Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Live At Berkeley

The performance found on Live At Berkeley has long been a fan favorite, and as both sets were originally filmed and recorded that Saturday night, both have been frequently bootlegged on LP and CD in the four decades since. For fans that live their lives above ground, however, with no previous (bootlegged) exposure to this particular band performance, the Berkeley shows are a revelation. The second set documented by Live At Berkeley cranks up slowly, like the first glowing embers of an out-of-control wildfire. “Pass It On,” which fuses Hendrix’s “Straight Ahead” with improvised lyrics and lots of flamethrower solos, is loose and funky, with Cox and Mitchell delivering a ramshackle rhythm behind Jimi’s chaotic leads.

By the time the band hits three songs in and “Lover Man,” this rock ‘n’ roll locomotive is beginning to fire on all cylinders. Hendrix’s hurried vocals are propelled forward by Cox’s wickedly twisted and fast-paced bass line, Mitchell’s explosive percussion allowing the guitarist to embroider the song with what sound like experimental, stream-of-consciousness styled solos that further Hendrix’s redefining of electric guitar. “Stone Free” is a rampaging rocker with Hendrix’s half-buried vocals overshadowed by his wiry fretwork, Cox’s throbbing bass, and Mitchell’s crashing cymbals. By the time that Jimi cuts loose with his solo two and a half minutes in, he’s clearly entered the stratosphere and running on pure adrenalin and imagination.

Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)

Of course, Hendrix doesn’t ignore the fan favorites on Live At Berkeley, trotting out both the reliable “Hey Joe” and the legendary “Foxey Lady” for an enthusiastic audience. The former is provided its usual malevolence with Hendrix’s darkly-elegant guitar lines and mournful vocals while the latter is pumped-up larger than life with and extended and amplified performance of the familiar intro as Hendrix’s axe howls and squeals with feedback. The arrangement of “Foxey Lady” lends itself to improvisation, and Cox coaxes a heavy bass sound as the foundation beneath Jimi’s screaming guitarplay. Another of the band’s early hits, “Purple Haze,” is provided a similar treatment, scorched-earth guitar layered above the driving drumbeats and sledge-hammer bass. Hendrix stretches out the song’s well-worn riff with short, but sharp solos and heaps of echo and buzz.

It wouldn’t be Jimi Hendrix if he didn’t trot out a couple of songs from the bluesier side of his milieu, and in Berkeley that night he delivered a powerful reading of his “I Don’t Live Today.” Mitchell’s fluid, tribal rhythms intro the song with a short drum solo before Hendrix kicks in with an electrifying barrage of guitar licks. Call it “blues on steroids” if you will, but the song is one of the finest, albeit misunderstood of the Hendrix catalog, his blustery solos channeling more emotion and empathy in a few seconds than a lot of guitarists can muster across an entire album. This album’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” represents one of the guitarist’s blockbuster performances, ten-minutes-plus of fiery blues and rock fused into an incredible display of talent and audacity with otherworldly lyrics and an incredible Mitch Mitchell drum clinic that keeps up with the guitarist nearly step for step.        

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

You’d be hard-pressed to find a live Hendrix performance with more electricity than that documented by Live At Berkeley. The refashioned Jimi Hendrix Experience begins the second set with a slow rolling boil and builds to a livewire crescendo, closing out the performance with a lengthy jam that (figuratively) blows the roof off the Berkeley Community Theatre. However – and this is a big “if” here, folks – considering that this performance was released a mere nine years ago when Experience Hendrix had its deal with MCA Records, is buying it again a real necessity?

There are no additional tracks on this new reissue, only a mild upgrade in sound and, well, honestly, if you have this CD already, there’s no reason to upgrade. Spend your money on the DVD/Blu-ray release of Live At Berkeley with the new footage instead. On the other hand, if you’re a Hendrix newbie and haven’t heard this stuff before, run to your local music retailer and grab up a copy of both the Live At Berkeley CD and the DVD. Now, if we could only get a CD release of the Experience’s first Berkeley set, the hardcore faithful would shut up and be happy! (Legacy Recordings, released July 10, 2012)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Live At Berkeley

Archive Review: Gary 'U.S.' Bonds' Back In 20 (2004)

Gary U.S. Bonds’ Back In 20
When the annals of ‘60s soul are finally written, the name of Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds is sure to be included. Although not as famous as Otis or Aretha or even Solomon Burke, Bonds’ immense influence on rock ‘n’ roll was sealed with the 1961 hit single “Quarter To Three,” a rollicking musical party that inflamed the imaginations of numerous future rockers, including Bruce Springsteen. 

Twenty years after his commercial peak, Bonds was “rediscovered” in 1981 by Springsteen and Little Steven (Van Zandt), the trio creating a pair of excellent rock-n-soul recordings. After an overlooked 1984 album that suffered due to the lack of an Asbury Park connection, Bonds quietly hit the oldies circuit…

Gary U.S. Bonds’ Back In 20

Two decades later, Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds has returned with a fine collection of red-hot R&B and scorching blues tunes titled, well, Back In 20. If the slashing opening guitarwork on “Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks” sounds familiar, it’s because guest Bruce Springsteen has used variations on the riff before, if not always as effectively. When Bonds comes in with his semi-biographical tale, the song explodes into a raucous blend of soulful vocals, madcap instrumentation and jump-n-jive spirit. Much of Back In 20 hits a similar groove, Bonds jumping between original rave-ups like “Murder In the First Degree” and classic soul covers like “Fannie Mae” or the Otis Redding ballad “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember.”

Guests on Back In 20 include Springsteen and Southside Johnny, Phoebe Snow and former Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts. The guests don’t overshadow Bonds’ fine soul band, however. Led by guitarist Mark Leimbach, who co-wrote several of the original songs, the band builds a solid foundation for Bonds’ powerful vocals. With a unique vocal inflection and a raw quality that has more in common with Chuck Berry than with the church-nurtured, silk crooning of Sam Cooke or Jackie Wilson, it’s easy to see why a handful of early-60s Bonds hits proved so influential with young rockers. Gary U.S. Bonds may not roll out any new tricks with Back In 20, but why should he when the old tricks still sound so good? (MC Records, released 2004)

Review originally published by Community Free Press (Springfield MO)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Gary U.S. Bonds’ Back In 20

Friday, June 3, 2022

Archive Review: Bill Nelson’s Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London (2012)

Bill Nelson’s Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London
One of the best things to come about in the wake of the Internet isn’t the availability of free music, it’s the increased availability of music, period…and for a hardcore rock ‘n’ roll geek like the Reverend, jus’ trying to get his collector’s groove on, it’s been a godsend! Back in the dark ol’ pre-net daze, pinheads like yours truly had to thumb through well-worn back issue copies of music zines like Trouser Press, Creem, and Bomp! to finger hard-to-find albums from such far-flung locales as Canada and England to lust after.

If you were lucky, as I was for a short while, you lived near a collectors-oriented record establishment like Dearborn Music that stocked a healthy bunch of import singles and elpees; or maybe you had a monthly record show in town where you could put down your hard-earned coin on that limited edition 10” Clash EP or Italian Kate Bush 45 with the alternative studio version of “Wuthering Heights.” Otherwise, the demented rockist had to depend on wee mail order companies that advertised in the back pages of the aforementioned publications to carry that one shining stack ‘o wax that you coveted. You would send a postal money order off to the advertiser and ask for a copy of THAT record for your slow-growing but oh-so-cool record collection, waiting patiently by the mail box for an official government employee to deliver your fab new tunes…

Bill Nelson’s Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London

The Internet has rendered much of that dance moot, providing the hunter/gatherer/hoarder with abundant opportunities to find just about any recording ever made. It’s also made the acquisition of formerly difficult import albums as easy as clicking a mouse on the right website. Case in point – Bill Nelson’s Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London is a lush, deluxe set with two CDs and a DVD documenting an intimate, invitation-only March 2011 concert by Nelson and his band the Gentlemen Rocketeers. Nelson is a British artist, caught on film and tape in London, the album released by a Canadian record label, and available through the magic of the Internet for we rabid fans in the U.S. and elsewhere. For a diehard, lifelong rock ‘n’ roll fanatic, could life get any better?

Bill Nelson is a singular talent who has forged an amazing, albeit unique career that has spanned four decades now. He is best-known, perhaps, as the singer, songwriter, and guitarist for mid-1970s U.K. glam-metal band Be-Bop Deluxe. Formed at the height of England’s glam-rock craze, Be-Bop Deluxe was more like Mott the Hoople in that they transcended glam to deliver five studio (and a live) albums of guitar-driven, proto-metal pop-rock tunes that served as a showcase for Nelson’s intricate guitar textures. After the demise of Be-Bop Deluxe, Nelson dawdled for a while with the experimental band Red Noise, eschewed the guitar entirely in favor of electronics for his frequently-misunderstood Orchestra Arcana, and quietly pieced together an impressive and prolific solo career that, while resulting in few commercial “hits” has nonetheless resulted in over 40 recordings that have earned the multi-instrumentalist a loyal following.

For the long-time Bill Nelson fan, Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London is a necessary addition to the ol’ collection. The fourteen-track setlist on CD one spans nearly the entirety of Nelson’s lengthy career, including solo songs, a little Red Noise, and a handful of Be-Bop Deluxe favorites, all recorded with a full band that includes flautist/saxophonist Theo Travis (Gong). The second CD is a good bit shorter, presenting a four-song solo acoustic “warm up” set that Nelson performed for the assembled crowd, including songs dedicated to his brother Ian (“A Dream For Ian”) who played with Nelson in Red Noise, and one for his friend Stuart Adamson (“For Stuart”) of Scottish rockers Big Country.

Do You Dream In Colour

Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London starts with “October Man,” from what was probably the closest that Nelson ever came to a hit album, 1982’s The Love That Whirls. An engaging slice of new wave romanticism, the song reminds of Simple Minds or similar 1980s-era fare, with Goth-tinged vocals, mournful horn solos, doodling keyboards and synths, and shards of angular guitars. The song has surprisingly dated fairly well, unburdened by the period clich├ęs that hang like an albatross around the neck of a lot of the decade’s early musical experiments. It doesn’t take Nelson long to jump into the Be-Bop material, though, beginning with “Night Creatures,” a somber mid-tempo dirge from the band’s 1974 debut Axe Victim. Sounding more than a little like David Bowie in both his vocal phrasing and in the songwriting, the song’s lush, swirling instrumentation serves to embrace and frame the lyrics nicely.

Switching gears, Nelson launches into the fluid 1992 solo track “God Man Slain,” which oddly evokes late-period Bowie, but with a deceptive energy and zeal driving Nelson’s hypnotic fretwork and Travis’ random, soulful blasts of sax. By the time that Nelson returns from his solo trip to vintage Be-Bop fare, the audience is fully engaged, and the guitarist straps on his faithful Gibson ES-345, the same instrument he used on stage and to record with Be-Bop. “Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape,” also from the band’s debut, is a sumptuous musical showcase that displays not only Nelson’s immense six-string skills, but those of the Gentlemen Rocketeers as well, the band erecting a magnificent instrumental backdrop against which Nelson embroiders his complex, elegant patterns. Travis’s nuanced flute solo colors the instrumental passages and remind of jazz legend Herbie Mann.

The short-lived Red Noise period is represented by a pair of fine tunes, “Furniture Music” and “Do You Dream In Colour,” both of which fall on the edgier side of late 1970s era new wave. The former is a martial, up-tempo construct with forceful, riffish instrumentation, and machinegun vocals – kind of like Gary Numan with less synths, bigger drum sounds, and tangled strands of wiry guitar. The latter opens with an oscillating synth buzz before devolving into an almost popish syncopated rhythm that reminds of Talking Heads, Nelson’s oddball vocals surrounded by electronic dots and dashes. Some of my personal Be-Bop favorites come from the band’s 1975 sophomore album Futurama, with which Nelson took a decidedly left-hand turn towards progressive-rock territory.

Maid In Heaven

Evidently dissatisfied with the outcome of Axe Victim, Nelson fired everybody and got new musicians for Futurama, changing the band’s sound immensely. While critics at the time questioned the prog-rock tendencies of Futurama, the album’s best songs evince a sort of prototype pop-metal songwriting and performance that would influence the coming “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” bands. The larger-than-life “Maid In Heaven” offers up some of Nelson’s most inspired guitarplay, the song’s memorable riff and infectious melody matched by sing-a-long lyrics and the guitarist’s great tone and energy.

By contrast, “Sister Seagull” is a hauntingly beautiful performance with cascading instrumentation, judicious use of a melodic riff, and Nelson’s high-flying solos. Performed beautifully here, the song’s emotional lyrics are made all the more poignant by the powerful musical accompaniment, including the crying seagull guitar licks at the end. As satisfying as the full-band performances may be, the four-song instrumental set provided by Nelson on the second disc is just as impressive. The shimmering guitarplay featured on “Beyond These Clouds the Sweetest Dream” is stunning in its scope and execution, while “Golden Dream of Circus Horses” is just as powerful.

The guitarist is accompanied on this one by Theo Travis, whose ethereal flute and saxophone flourishes meld perfectly with Nelson’s exotic fretwork in providing a solid example of the artist’s flirtation with a jazz-rock fusion sound. Nelson is accompanied on the two aforementioned tribute songs by a pre-recorded, almost orchestral soundtrack on synthesizer or a synclavier, but his live-wire guitar playing on both is simply sublime, the guitarist delivering pure emotion through his fingertips. The DVD part of the set includes a multi-camera shoot of both the full band and solo performances, and the sound on all of the discs is near-perfect, benefiting from the small studio venue and Nelson’s firm hand in overseeing the final mix.     

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Listening to Bill Nelson is a lot like trying to tell a stranger about rock ‘n’ roll...the man’s lifetime of music-making is far too intricate, varied, and uniquely personal to nail down firmly for more than a brief moment. Words fail in trying to describe the instrumental virtuosity and diverse artistic vision displayed by Nelson throughout 40 years and as many recordings. The man makes music that is at once both frequently challenging and enormously entertaining, and Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London offers not only a career-spanning musical introduction to a one-of-a-kind artist, but also a rare visual document of Nelson’s talents. For fans, this one is a no-brainer, while the curious newbie will certainly fall head-over-heels after checking out Nelson’s Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London. (Convexe Entertainment, released May 24th, 2012)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2012