Friday, July 19, 2024

Hot Wax: Bad Brains’ I Against I (1986/2024)

Bad Brains’ I Against I
Innovative, eccentric, unpredictable, fickle, high-energy, reticent, talented, pioneering, troubled, unrelenting…all of these words (and many more) can be used to describe Bad Brains. Much as Nashville’s Afrikan Dreamland was reinventing and reinvigorating reggae music in the 1980s by adding a dash of blues, so too was Bad Brains leavening punk rock with reggae grooves. The Washington D.C. hardcore heroes seem to have wanted to be anything but a hardcore punk band even as they pushed beyond the traditional barriers of rock, reggae, punk, and funk music like no other band in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Formed in 1976 as Mind Power, a jazz-rock fusion outfit not dissimilar to Return to Forever, it wasn’t long until the fresh and exciting sound of punk rock infected the band and they radically changed their sound towards a guitar-driven hardcore style. Original Mind Power singer Sid McCray – ostensibly responsible for introducing the band to punk in the first place – left shortly thereafter and guitarist H.R. (née Paul Hudson) took over the microphone. The rest of the band was comprised of guitarist Dr. Know (née Gary Miller), bassist Darryl Jenifer, and drummer Earl Hudson (Paul’s brother). Around this same time (i.e. 1977 or so), the band experienced the legendary Bob Marley in concert, igniting a shared interest in reggae music and the Rastafari movement.

Hardcore Punk & Reggae

With punk and reggae as their magnetic poles, Bad Brains pursued a performance style that blitzed the audience with unrelenting energy and total creative abandon. H.R. was an incendiary frontman, Dr. Know a skilled guitarist nevertheless capable of grinding it out in the trenches, and the Brains’ rhythm section could swing or slam as the occasion merited. They quickly built up a loyal fan base in the D.C. area and were inevitably blacklisted by local clubs due to their chaotic and unpredictable performances. Bad Brains moved northward to New York City in 1980, where they became the blowtorch that ignited the city’s emerging and soon-to-be-notorious hardcore punk scene.

By 1982, Bad Brains were CBGB regulars, performing several nights a week at the infamous Bowery club. Their self-titled debut album was really just a document of the band’s ever-evolving live show, released exclusively on cassette by the specialty label Reachout International Records (ROIR). Featuring liner notes by New York Rocker writer Ira Kaplan (later a founding member of indie rockers Yo La Tengo), the tape’s fold-out insert also included lyrics – the ultimate in fan service. They were subsequently signed to the indie PVC Records label for their sophomore effort, 1983’s Rock For Light. Produced by Ric Ocasek of the Cars and reprising five songs from the debut, the pop-meister smoothed down some of the band’s raw edges but ultimately delivered an enduring and high-octane record.

Creative tensions within the band caused Bad Brains to break up after the release of Rock For Light, the first of many such implosions over the course of the band’s career. The original line-up reunited in 1986, signing with the legendary SST Records label, which by that point could boast of a catalog that represented a veritable “who’s who” of influential underground rockers like Black Flag, the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, and Hüsker Dü, among others. All of which brings us around to I Against I, the Bad Brains’ “breakthrough” and arguably their best-known and beloved recording. Recently-reissued as the eighth title in the band’s restoration of its back catalog with help from the good folks at ORG Music, the audio has been remastered by Dave Gardner and the vinyl produced by Furnace Record Pressing. A landmark effort, I Against I is worthy of rediscovery as a groundbreaking album that influenced generations of musicians to follow.

Bad Brains photo by Steven Hanner courtesy Org Music
Bad Brains photo by Steven Hanner, courtesy Org Music

Bad Brains’ I Against I

I Against I eschews the Brains’ reggae obsessions entirely, the opening track (appropriately titled “Intro”) a plodding doom-metal instrumental with delusions of grandeur and a powerful performance with start-stop guitar shred and ringing instrumentation guaranteed to give the listener tinnitus. The title track bullies its way off the disc, through your speakers, corkscrewing itself into your ears. A 90mph moshpit punker with metallic edging, “I Against I” was a hurricane-strength revelation to the possibilities of expanding hardcore into thrash- and speed-metal. Throw Ronnie James behind the microphone and “House of Suffering” could easily pass for a late-period Black Sabbath track, the perfect breeding of machinegun hardcore riddims and whiplash six-string heavy metal bombast.

The band expands its musical blueprint by a lick or two for “Re-Ignition,” in which you can clearly hear the future of Ice T’s Body Count and any half-dozen vintage ‘90s Lollapalooza bands in the song’s staggered rhythms, swaggering vocal delivery, and muscular git riffs. “Secret 77” is a clever outlier, punky but with tinges of “new wave” pop fused to a funk-metal groove that forged a blade for Fishbone to later hone into a deadly weapon. The rampaging “Let Me Help” performs a fancy head-fake with its pseudo-Zeppelin intro exploding into a punkish storm while “She’s Calling You” provides a bright spotlight for Dr. Know’s fluid fretwork, even though it may be the only wan song on the LP.

“Sacred Love” is a dinosaur-stomper that leaves heavy footprints with its discordant instrumentation; even cooler is the weird effect they got by recording H.R.’s vocals via jailhouse phone when the singer was locked up for a pot bust. Sounding like an early ‘80s Alice Cooper session outtake, “Hired Gun” allows Dr. Know to show off his six-string dexterity, the otherwise panoramic punk-metal construct embroidered with jazzy licks and avant-garde abandon. I Against I closes with the furious and feverish “Return To Heaven,” which offers one of H.R.’s most nuanced vocal takes soaring above a daunting instrumental soundtrack that blazes like 1970s-era stadium rock but offers – often hidden deep in the mix – sly and innovative musical ideas that other bands would exploit for years. I Against I was produced near perfectly by Ron St. Germain, who would earn a certain amount of street cred by working with the Brains that he’d later apply to records by Sonic Youth, 311, and Living Colour, among others.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Despite their relative obscurity, Bad Brains’ influence extends far beyond its meager commercial profile. They were nominated for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2016 (though, unsurprisingly, they weren’t inducted) and their music has inspired bands as diverse as the Beastie Boys, Fishbone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Sublime, Nirvana, Green Day, and Faith No More (whose original frontman, Chuck Mosley, was the Brains’ vocalist for a short while), among many others. Although Brains’ band members have experienced various health issues over the last few years, they continue to perform and turn heads to this day.

Working with ORG Music, Bad Brains has taken back control of their considerable and acclaimed catalog of music, and they’ve been busy reissuing every album on both CD and vinyl for discovery by a new generation of restless youth. Check out the band’s catalog at  

Bad Brains

Hot Wax: Skip James’ Today! (1966/2024)

Skip James' Today!
Born in 1902 in Bentonia, Mississippi – on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta region – Nehemiah “Skip” James was a contemporary of bluesmen like Charley Patton, Son House, and Mississippi John Hurt, and a major influence on a young Robert Johnson, although he’s seldom spoken of with the same reverence afforded those legends. But James’ spine-chilling falsetto vocals and his unusual open D-minor guitar tuning created a sound unlike any other bluesman treading the boards of the Southern U.S. in the early 1920s, creating what is now arguably known as the “Bentonia School” style of blues.

James is said to have become enamored of the blues as a child after seeing local musician Henry Stuckey perform (sadly, no recordings of Stuckey have ever surfaced). His mother bought him a guitar for $2.50 and he picked up some technique from Stuckey and a little more from the brothers Charlie and Jesse Sims. John Hurt was also a major influence on the young musician as he worked to develop his own unique style. James was a natural musician, and he also took piano lessons – his only formal musical training – quitting after two sessions at $1.50 each, feeling that the fee was too much for the family budget.

Skip James’ Paramount Recordings

As a teenager, James worked in sawmills and on local levee and road construction crews, and he began travelling in the 1920s, picking up jobs as a laborer where he could, supplementing his income via less-reputable vocations as gambling and bootlegging. Returning to Bentonia in 1929, he became a street singer, and opened a school for aspiring blues musicians, offering guitar and piano lessons. In 1931, James auditioned for record store owner and Paramount Records talent scout H.C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi. James’ performance earned him a two-year contract with the label.

James travelled to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount, cutting at least 18 sides for the label (James is said to have remembered recording 26 songs in two days), including such now-classic blues standards as “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” “Devil Got My Woman,” “22-20 Blues” (the inspiration for Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues”), and “I’m So Glad.” Paramount released nine 78RPM records by James, which sold poorly due to the effects of the Great Depression. Today, James is considered one of the most significant pre-war blues artists and those 78s are scarcer than hen’s teeth, with only 15 records known to have survived.

Skip James Rediscovered

That was it for Skip James for better than three decades, the artist sinking into obscurity, seldom performing, and with no recordings known of from this period. James became the choir director for his father’s church, subsequently becoming an ordained Baptist minister. On a quest to rediscover the blues idols of their record collections, guitarists John Fahey, Bill Barth (The Insect Trust), and Henry Vestine (Canned Heat) tracked James down in 1964 to a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi. Finding that his skills were intact, they convinced the reticent bluesman to return to his craft. Along with the parallel “rediscovery” of James’ contemporary Son House, the two men helped fuel the folk-blues revival of the 1960s.

James performed at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1964, his first moment onstage in over 30 years. Coaxed into the studio, James subsequently recorded albums for Fahey’s Takoma Records label, musicologist Richard K. Spottswood’s Melodeon Records, and for the legendary folk label, Vanguard Records. It was James’ two Vanguard albums, 1966’s Today! and 1968’s Devil Got My Woman, that provided many modern blues fans with their first hearing of the idiosyncratic bluesman. Along with his 1931 recordings for Paramount – reissued in the 1970s and ‘80s by labels like Spokane Records, Yazoo, and Biograph – these Vanguard releases represent James’ blues legacy.    

Skip James’ Today!

Recently-reissued with re-mastered sound and an all-around sonic upgrade, James’ Today! is the place to start for curious newcomers to what is one of the most original artists of the Delta blues era. Unlike its many cover versions, James’ contemporary reading of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” (one of his earlier, Paramount sides) is slowed-down, deliberate, and absolutely menacing, the singer’s chilling vocals riding uneasily above filigree, finger-picked acoustic guitar. The newer “Washington D.C. Hospital Center Blues,” inspired no doubt by James’ health issues at the time, is just as bracing as his earlier material, with high-lonesome vocals and gentle, yet intricate guitar picking. “Drunken Spree” is one of the jauntier revisitations of James’ early songs, the 1966 recording capturing his complex finger-picking and lower-register vocals.

By contrast, “Cherry Ball Blues” puts James’ falsetto vocals front and center, his haltering performance accompanied by delicate guitar licks. James’ cover of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell’s 1928 single “How Long” (a/k/a “How Long Blues”) showcases James’ not-inconsiderable piano skills with a jazzy mid-tempo arrangement that is both winsome and engaging, including a brief barrelhouse-styled solo. James’ piano-pounding on “All Night Long” hints at a New Orleans influence while “Cypress Grove” provides undeniable proof of the guitarist’s immense six-string skills. James’ “I’m So Glad” is an inspired spiritual whose origins likely pre-date the blues. The artist’s best-known song – due to an upbeat cover on Eric Clapton and Cream’s 1966 debut album, Fresh Cream – James’ short, sharp reading of the song is provided one of his most uplifting and spry vocal deliveries, accompanied by a simply mesmerizing and rapid-paced guitar strum.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Skip James’ Today! offers the best of both worlds – James’ early Paramount sides re-recorded by the artist and preserved with modern 1960s recording technology – as well as a scattering of new songs performed in James’ unyielding, undeniable personal style. James’ performances are sung with intensity and passion, attracting mid-‘60s folk-blues audiences like catnip. James followed up Today! with Devil Got My Woman, a similar collection of both old school and new material that would be James’ last recording before his death in 1969 from cancer.

Still, James’ legacy has only grown larger since his passing, with numerous repackaged albums released with often alarming frequency. Those prolific last five years of James’ life resulted in dozens of recordings and outtakes that have been sliced ‘n’ diced over the years to create numerous new titles (buyer beware!), while his various live performances from the 1960s have been similarly pillaged for profit. Today! stands as one of the crown jewels of James’ relatively sparse catalog of originals, serving as a stepping stone to the artist’s earlier recordings. Today! – along with Devil Got My Woman and Yazoo’s The Complete 1931 Session – are the basis for James’ reputation, and are essential additions to the collection of any avid blues fan.

Buy the album from Amazon: Skip James’ Today! 

Friday, July 12, 2024

CD Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory (2024)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory
“Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day;
rage, rage against the dying of the light.” – Dylan Thomas, 1947

If rock ‘n’ roll has the equivalent of Dylan Thomas’s famed protagonist, it would be Joe Grushecky. The Pittsburgh rocker has been fighting the good fight since the mid-‘70s, first with the Iron City Houserockers, and later as Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers. Joe released four critically-acclaimed albums between 1979 and 1983 with his former band and, since ’89, has released four “solo” and eleven band albums with one version or another of the Houserockers. Even more impressively, he’s accomplished all of this largely outside of the major label infrastructure.

Still, Joe has lived, loved, and sang long enough to realize that, as he so insightfully observed with the title track of his 2018 album, there are “More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows” on his horizon. Joe’s seen his son Johnny grow up and become a valued member of the Houserockers, but lest one think that Mr. Grushecky is ready to pass the torch to a younger generation, here is a brand-new album, Can’t Outrun A Memory, to belie that thought. At an age where his contemporaries have long given up the dream or – even worse – spend their days playing golf or tending to their wine cellar, Grushecky has delivered an album that’s every bit as fierce, ambitious, and defiant as anything he’s ever recorded over the past 45 years.

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory

Can’t Outrun A Memory opens with its poignant title track, a mid-tempo rocker with resigned vocals, big beat rhythms, and resonating guitarplay. “I’ve been thinking that it’s been too long since I listened to that old sad song. When I hear that soulful melody, it stirs something deep inside of me,” Joe sings, partly reminiscing, partly wrestling with ghosts of his past that we all possess. None of us can outrun the memory of past loves, past losses, and the risks we didn’t take (and some of those we did). With Grushecky’s gorgeous throwback guitar lines anchoring the song, embroidered by  Danny Gochnour’s intricate fretwork, Joe succinctly states, “time keeps marching on, blink an eye and it’s all gone,” drawing on his own experiences and losses to fuel the song’s wistful lyrics.

By contrast, “Just Drive” is more laid-back, with Johnny Grushecky’s elegant acoustic guitar strum opening and with lovely echoed intertwined electric guitars swirling around the mix above cautious, almost hesitant instrumentation. For those of us without a yacht to chill out on, driving around town, or out in the country, in our car is a form of meditation that provides solace from the barbed-wire existence of everyday life. It reminds me a lot of John Hiatt’s “Drive South,” but with more “Rust Belt” soul to its overall sound, the song dominated by Joe’s yearning vocals. Joe says of the song, “this one is for all of us who ever thought about getting away from it all and jumping into the car to drive off into to the sunset.”

An up-tempo, anthemic rocker with elements of the British Invasion seeping in at the edges, “This Is Who We Are” is the sort of populist message that Grushecky excels at, rock ‘n’ roll as balm for the soul. Singing above a massive drumbeat (courtesy of the ever-reliable Joffo Simmons), with Jeff Garrison’s fluid bass lines providing a rhythmic foundation, Joe shares his vision of the American dream: “I want a home on a quiet street, I just want to be left in peace. When I kiss my kids goodnight, I pray everything’s gonna be all right.” Grushecky’s vocals race out of the speakers like a high-speed chase, lyrically referencing both Dylan and his own past (“I had a good time but got out alive”), roaring out a message of American unity that seems to have been lost in our current quarrel over the soul of the country while guitars duel in the background. “My wife suggested this title to me,” says Joe. “It’s about where we are right now. I’m living on a quiet street, going to work every day, and hoping that we turn ourselves around for a better life for our children.”

Joe Grushecky photo by Danny Clinch, courtesy Omnivore Recordings
Joe Grushecky photo by Danny Clinch, courtesy Omnivore Recordings

Here In ‘68

Grushecky has long been lauded as a brilliant lyricist, yet it’s amazing and inspiring that he can still dig into his memory and experience to pull out a plum as perfectly-formed as “Here In ’68.” A look back at one of the most tumultuous years in American history, Joe name checks Viet Nam, the Kennedy and King assassinations, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and much, much more in a vivid lyrical history of the year that is punctuated by the poetic refrain “I can smell the smoke from a distance, feel the fire burning in my bones, hold out for hope peace love and desire, question everything that I’ve ever known, trying hard to keep the faith.” It’s a powerful song, Gochnour’s effervescent electric guitar providing a strong counterpoint to Johnny G’s subtle acoustic patterns, while Simmons and Garrison provide a strong, supportive rhythmic backdrop.   

Grushecky seldom covers other artist’s songs on his albums so, when he does, it’s an important moment worth paying attention to. Much as he did with “Old Man’s Bar” and “Junior’s Bar” on the I.C. Houserockers’ sophomore album, here Joe pairs the classic Animals’ track “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” with his own “Living In Coal Country” as matching blue-collar ballads. Eric Burdon delivered a powerful version of the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil song for the Animals in 1965, and while Grushecky and the Houserockers basically follow that Top 20 hit’s original blueprint, they roughen up the edges and amplify the overall vibe with louder instrumentation and a high-octane arrangement. Garrison’s full-throated bass licks, for instance, build upon Chas Chandler’s original instrumentation, taking the song further onto blues turf.  

It’s the perfect lead-in to “Living In Coal Country,” a tuff-as-nails rocker with Joe’s mournful harmonica and raging vocals, which are accompanied by scorched earth guitars and jackhammer rhythms that drive home the lyrical message. With devastating imagery, Joe snarls “while the company blows up another mountain top, the brown dust mixes with the falling rain. When you do a deal with the devil, you lose all rights to complain.” It’s a protest song, and a wickedly surgical one at that, the singer’s anger at the region’s poverty, addiction, and economic desolation cutting like a scalpel to your conscious. “Both sides of my family were coal miners,” says Joe. “I grew up in coal country. When we went to visit relatives, we drove from one ‘coal patch’ town populated by company houses to another. I know these people and I wanted to tell their story.”

Until I See You Again

“Until I See You Again” is, in my humble opinion, the best song on Can’t Outrun A Memory, a heartfelt ode to that channels a great deal of emotion without ever becoming the least bit maudlin. Remembering those souls we’ve lost – and we all have a similar list of long-gone friends and family who have affected our lives in untold ways – Joe joyfully declares with the chorus “let’s raise our glasses and drink a toast, to all the ones that we love most. To our brothers and sisters and our best friends, I’ll keep you in my heart until I see you again.” The song’s buoyant rhythms and precise-yet-rockin’ instrumentation supports Joe’s electrifying vocals. “This one is about my old friends and how we had so much fun back in the day,” says Joe. “I miss them every day. I wanted to salute all our friends and family both here and gone.”

Can’t Outrun A Memory closes with “Let’s Cross the Bridge,” a nuanced take on life and mortality. Singing above a running river of instrumentation with ringing guitars and backing harmonies, Joe admits that “you can rage on forever, you can rage until you die, or go searching for an answer, and ask yourself the reason why.” With an almost Gospel fervor, Joe invites us all to step out of the darkness and into the light, to throw off the chains of the past. With reverent keyboard fills amping up the emotion, Joe and the musicians raise their voices in a joyous chorus that promises a better life is within our grasp.

It’s not the first time that Grushecky has visited this territory – he covered the 1930s-era Gospel song “Ain’t No Grave” on More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows – but it’s an inspired (and unexpected) spiritual moment nonetheless. The CD includes a brace of bonus tracks, including a bluesy, horn-driven take on “Sleeping Dog,” and powerful, inspired acoustic takes of “Living In Coal Country” (with mournful harmonica) and “Here In ‘68” that would make Woody Guthrie smile. The studio outtake “Leave Well Enough Alone” is a sizzling slab o’ energetic James Brown-styled funk with a hard luck tale that would be more than good enough for any other artist’s album, but sounds out of place compared to the rest of the material on Can’t Outrun A Memory.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If Grushecky’s last album concerned itself with mortality and legacy, Can’t Outrun A Memory deals with how we get to the end of the road…do we seize each day with unbridled energy, or do we allow entropy to creep into the short time we have on this spinning orb. Memories provide a signpost to the future and, for many, music allows us to approach the dying of the light with no regrets. Meeting Joe for the first time at a 1995 show in Nashville, I asked him why a middle-aged man would give up his job to hit the road with his band. Grushecky simply smiled and said, “it’s rock ‘n’ roll, man, it’s rock ‘n’ roll…” Nearly three decades since that meeting, Joe and the gang – Thomas’s “wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight” – are still burning bright. If Can’t Outrun A Memory is any indication, Joe’s gonna keep on rockin’ until they turn out the lights… (Omnivore Recordings, released July 12th, 2024)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory

Also on That Devil Music:
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ True Companion review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ American Babylon review
Joe Grushecky’s It’s In My Song review

Archive Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Down the Road Apiece Live (2000)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Down the Road Apiece Live
A few years ago – 1995 to be exact – I saw a rock ‘n’ roll show that, if not number one on my all-time list, stands in the top three out of over 200 shows I’ve attended. No, it wasn’t the Stones or the Who or one of rock’s legends that I saw. Those guys couldn’t hold a candle to the spectacle that I witnessed that night. Sitting in a dark, smoky club in Nashville I watched Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers demolish the joint. Six guys crammed on a stage the size of a postage stamp; they spilled out onto the floor and, in the case of lead singer/guitarist Grushecky, on top of the tables. I’d waited fifteen years to see one of rock’s most underrated talents perform live, and Joe and his crew did not disappoint.

At the beginning of the show there were exactly three people in the audience who were familiar with the band (my wife and myself and one of Joe’s former producers). After two sets stretched out over almost three hours, it’s a safe bet that nobody leaving the club that night would ever forget Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers. I’ve thought about that night a lot since then, played it over again in my head, smiling, and marveling that a middle-aged man (only slightly older than myself) could still bring such energy and passion to a live performance. After the show I asked Joe what prompted a man to keep on toiling away in a field that had always shown him such indifference. “It’s rock ‘n’ roll” was his reply and it’s all he had to say…

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Down the Road Apiece Live

If there was a lick of justice in this wicked world – and we all know that there is none – Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers would be revered as elder statesmen of rock rather than as one of the genre’s more obscure cult bands. The Houserockers would be facing the twilight of their musical careers with their walls covered in platinum records and mucho money in the bank. If this sounds like a fan talking, well, I am and have been since I bought that 7” picture disc of the Iron City Houserockers first single “Love’s So Tough” some twenty years ago. The critic in me, however, recognizes that Joe Grushecky truly is one of rock music’s greatest treasures and that in spite of the commercial and corporate indifference that he’s faced during the past two decades, Grushecky still manages to kick out a new album every two or three years.

I can’t help but thinking that this career insecurity has taken its toll, but you wouldn’t be able to tell it from Grushecky’s music. Each album shows a little harder musical edge, the songs featuring more insightful lyrics. Over the course of four I.C. Houserockers albums and five “solo” releases, Grushecky has matured as an artist and performer in a manner that greater career comfort probably wouldn’t have nurtured. At an age when most men are counting their pension funds and looking forward to playing golf three days a week, Joe Grushecky is still following his rock ‘n’ roll dream with a fervor and reckless abandon that young cubs less than half his age can’t muster. All of which is my way of bringing you, gentle reader, to the subject at hand: Down the Road Apiece Live.

For a band that has earned their audience one set of ears at a time by delivering uncompromising live performances night after night, it’s somewhat strange that they haven’t released a live album before now. A few Houserockers performances have found their way into tape trading circles (I have one tape spirited out of WMMS-FM in Cleveland that is phenomenal), circulated among rabid fans. There are also a couple of Springsteen bootleg discs – Paradise By the Sea and Nick’s Fat City – that are really Houserockers performances that the Boss happened to wander onstage during. Down the Road Apiece Live is the band’s first official live set and it sounds, to these ears, as representative of a Houserockers onstage performance as you’re going to capture on disc.

Blood On the Bricks

Assembled by Grushecky and the band, Down the Road Apiece Live is as much a career retrospective as it is a performance disc. Of the baker’s dozen songs that are on the disc, some are from the Iron City Houserockers days, a few are from Grushecky’s early solo career and the rest from his later studio efforts, American Babylon and Coming Home. The album is designed as a straight-ahead rocker, with no fluff and no slow moments – just high octane, turbo-charged street level rock ‘n’ roll. Grushecky has always been known as a populist songwriter in the Springsteen vein, but I honestly think that he brings a working class perspective to his material that Springsteen hasn’t been able to for years. Several of Grushecky’s anthemic “call to arms” are here, including the haunting “Dark and Bloody Ground” and the angry “How Long.”

Other Grushecky originals are inhabited by the kind of literary characters that only a few songwriters can create, such as the memorable Frankie in “Dance With Me” or the star-crossed lovers of “Blood On the Bricks.” Springsteen even drops in for a few songs here, including one of the best Elvis songs ever written, “Talking With the King.” Behind all of these songs stands a band as polished and as rowdy as any rock ‘n’ roll has ever produced. Although many refer to Grushecky’s post Iron City albums as “solo” efforts, they’re really band creations that rely as much on the foundation of original I.C. Houserocker Art Nardini’s bass and drummer Joffo Simmons drums as they do on Grushecky’s taut guitar playing and trademark vocals.

These guys have been playing with Grushecky for more years than the lifespan of many better-known bands’ entire careers and it shows. A Houserockers show is an exercise in musical chemistry and a sincere love of rock ‘n’ roll – after all, these guys ain’t getting rich here, folks! When Billy Toms steps out front on guitar, Joe Pelesky screws up his face and makes a run down the keyboards, Bernie Herr adds some fine percussion touches to a song or Joe G. himself climbs atop your table to kick out the jams, the joy and release that they feel is infectious. It’s what rock ‘n’ roll should be about and for Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, it always will be…

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The bottom line on Down the Road Apiece Live: buy it! Forget that trendy new punk rock record or moody, dark-hued album by this week’s “rock rebels.” Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers bring more energy, attitude and sincerity to their music than any of those chart-topping poseurs, kicking out each night’s sets with the same blood, sweat and tears that they did twenty years ago. One of rock’s true original indie bands, Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers don’t get the respect that they deserve but deserve every ounce of respect that they’ve earned. If I had to pick one record to explain to future generations what rock & roll was about, this would be it. That’s all there is to say… (Schoolhouse Records, released 2000)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Friday, July 5, 2024

Archive Review: Cream's The Very Best of Cream (1995)

Cream's The Very Best of Cream
In their time – which was almost thirty years ago – Cream was every bit as big commercially as Nirvana, Pearl Jam or Green Day are today. The band that introduced the term “supergroup” to the lexicon of rock ‘n’ roll, the trio of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker managed to live up to everyone’s lofty expectations and then some during their brief tenure. Their long-standing influence upon rock music is often overlooked these days, however, overshadowed by legends like Led Zeppelin or the Doors. The band’s seminal fusion of blues, jazz, and rock was to form the bedrock upon which many bands were to build their sound in the decades to follow, while one of the architects of Cream, guitarist Clapton, currently lives a revisionist daydream as an elder statesman of rock while most of his brightest moments lie in the past.

The Very Best of Cream is the first Cream “greatest hits” album to be released on CD that pulls together material from across the stylistic spectrum that the band musically explored. A collection of twenty songs, it includes the expected – ground-breaking covers of blues gems like Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” as well as metal-tinged rockers like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” – as well as the unexpected, songs like the surprisingly popish “Wrapping Paper” or the psychedelic “Dance the Night Away.” Other Cream standards, such as “Badge,” with its incredible Clapton solo, “Strange Brew,” or the blues-tinged “Tales of Brave Ulysses” sound remarkably undated even with all the years that have passed. The Very Best of Cream draws heavily from the band’s three original studio recordings and the hits they yielded, filling out the edges with the handful of remaining singles that the band had released.

Given the benefit of hindsight, rock critics such as yours truly can make all sorts of claims about bands. Suffice it to say that Cream were...and still are...important. I can’t think of many recent hard rock and heavy metal bands that don’t some sort of musical debt to the trio. Clapton’s work with the band earned him a place in the pantheon of rock, regardless of what was to follow, and it was with Cream that he took his budding stardom to the heights of the music world. The Very Best of Cream is an excellent look at a band that, given their short time in the musical landscape – a little over two years – burned brightly, nonetheless. (Polydor Chronicles, released 1995)      

Review originally published by R.A.D! (Review and Discussion of Rock ‘n’ Roll) zine

Archive Review: Eric Clapton's The Cream of Clapton (1995)

Eric Clapton's The Cream of Clapton
These days, Eric Clapton is considered one of rock’s elder statesmen, a blues-oriented artist working in a narrow musical vein. Many of his current fans have only fleeting memories of his early career, and those that do are saddened by what he has become: a commercial shill getting by on reputation and mediocrity ... even if he is selling more records than ever.

At one time, however, Clapton made great music. By the time that he formed Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker and released their 1966 debut, Fresh Cream, he was already considered rock’s premiere guitarist. Stints with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers had earned him a reputation as a superstar axeman; by the time that Cream’s second album, Disraeli Gears, spawned the hit “Sunshine of Your Love,” the trio sat alone atop the rock world.

Post-Cream projects such as the Blind Faith collaboration and his 1970 solo debut carried Clapton’s reputation until the release, later in 1970, of the landmark Derek and the Dominos’ album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Spurred on by a superstar band that included Duane Allman, Clapton reached his artistic and musical peak with the creation of classic songs like “Layla” and “Bell Bottom Blues” from that album. Solo albums would follow throughout the 1970s, artistically sporadic affairs that yielded a handful of hit singles in songs like “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Cocaine,” and “Wonderful Tonight.” By the time that the ‘80s dawned, Clapton had lost his artistic edge to heroin addiction, becoming a painful musical anachronism until his rediscovery in the current decade.

If all you know of Eric Clapton is beer commercials and his recent CD releases, allow me to suggest The Cream of Clapton. Kicking off with his seminal work with Cream in the mid-‘60s and carrying through late 1970s/early ‘80s solo discs like Backless and Another Ticket, this nineteen song collection showcases “Slowhand” Clapton at his very best. All of the aforementioned cuts are included here, as is Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord” and solo cuts like “Blues Power,” “Let It Rain,” and his haunting rendition of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” It’s not a perfect collection of Clapton – I could have easily filled up a second disc with favorites – but it’s a wonderful sampler of a great talent at his artistic peak. If you want more, you’ll have to wait for the upcoming A&M/Polydor release of a “best of Cream” collection. Along with The Cream of Clapton, the two discs will stand as a monument to one of the icons of rock ‘n roll. (A&M Chronicles/Polydor Records, released 1995)      

Review originally published by R.A.D! (Review and Discussion of Rock ‘n’ Roll) zine