Friday, November 27, 2015

Band 9: The Last Waltz

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that The Last Waltz is one of the better rockumentaries in the genre. Much of the credit belongs to Martin Scorsese’s direction, which alternates staged interviews and performances with “you are there” footage from The Band’s star-studded farewell concert. The editing is particularly masterful; rather than presenting the concert as it was, many of the performances are shuffled. The film even opens with “Don’t Do It”, which was actually the night’s final encore.

Such suspensions of time are sometimes necessary to elevate a film that’s not designed to be a fly-on-the-wall cinema verité portrait. And when you add Robbie Robertson, with his fancy new haircut, telling his new best friend about “eight years of concerts, stadiums and arenas”, a simple glance at their actual activity between 1968 and 1976 will have the scholar wondering how empty itineraries in 1972 and all but one date in 1975 made their job so grueling.

All our nitpicking aside, the film is still fun to watch, and the music is terrific. The album, originally a three-record set, is paced well, with Band classics alternating with vocal spots by their very special guests, augmented by a horn section. Their old boss Ronnie Hawkins comes out for “Who Do You Love”, and Neil Young manages to overcome the ball of coke he snorted before his still sleepy rendition of “Helpless”. Joni Mitchell’s voice appears from backstage during that number, and then she comes out for an excellent performance of “Coyote”.

Robbie had recently produced an album for Neil Diamond, and despite Levon Helm’s protestations, was given a spot singing “Dry Your Eyes”. It’s a fine song, but nothing compared to Rick Danko’s excellent job on “It Makes No Difference”, not to mention Garth Hudson’s beautiful sax solo. Dr. John closes side two with “Such A Night”, a good setup for the blues sequence on side three. Paul Butterfield blows harp on their arrangement of “Mystery Train”, Muddy Waters burns the place down with “Mannish Boy”, and Eric Clapton duels with Robbie on “Further On Up The Road”.

Poor Richard Manuel doesn’t get a chance to sing until “The Shape I’m In” on side four, followed by their friend Bobby Charles coming out for “Down South In New Orleans”. Van Morrison emerges from his mid-decade hiatus to sing “Tura-Lura-Lura” with Richard, before completely demolishing the place on “Caravan”. Bob Dylan was an expected guest, but shocks with his nearly shoulder-length hair stuffed under a hat. All but one of his songs from the show appeared on the original album; 1966 is visited via “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and “I Don’t Believe You”, and a tender “Forever Young” manages to turn into a reprise of the first track. Then everybody crowds the stage for a mass chorus on “I Shall Be Released”, Richard somewhere back there on his piano.

Side six presents “The Last Waltz Suite”, a loose set of songs recorded on a soundstage, and some inserted in the film. In addition to “The Weight” performed with some of the Staples Singers and “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris, Robbie gets a solo vocal on “Out Of The Blue”, while Richard barks “The Well” and duets “The Last Waltz Refrain” with Robbie. “The Last Waltz Theme”, which appears at the top of side one, closes the set with an orchestra. While not stellar, they’re easily better than most of Islands.

Several songs in the album aren’t in the film, and vice versa. Even the four-CD box set, which adds much more from the concert and rehearsals, doesn’t include the complete show as performed. But of all their live releases, The Last Waltz is the best, and not just for their own songs. In the end it’s the music that makes it a nice finale for whatever was actually over; Levon would insist that the whole deal was Robbie’s ego trip, and the other guys would play together, in dives even smaller than the ones where they started out, up until and beyond Richard’s suicide in 1986, and continuing in various combinations until Rick died in 1999.

The Band The Last Waltz (1978)—4
2002 box set: same as 1978, plus 24 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Rick Danko: Rick Danko

Cast adrift by Robbie’s decision to publicly end The Band, bassist and co-lead vocalist Rick Danko immediately got back to work. His eponymous solo album even beat an anticipated farewell extravaganza to the racks. Unfortunately, Rick Danko didn’t make a big enough splash, and remains hard to find today.

Each of the Band appears here and there, as do Ron Wood, Eric Clapton, Doug Sahm and whoever else was wandering through Malibu that year. Horn arrangements abound, as do guitarists subconsciously emulating Robbie. There’s no clunker here, even with the contemporary arrangements that get in the way of “Brainwash” and “Tired Of Waiting”. “Java Blues” is a fairly vehement defense of coffee, the reference to Bolivia notwithstanding. “What A Town” burbles with New Orleans funk and while “Sweet Romance” and “Once Upon A Time” come close, “Sip The Wine” is easily the highlight, particularly for anyone who enjoys the teaser included in a certain film.

Those aren’t quite “classics” along the lines of “Ophelia” or “It Makes No Difference”, but Rick Danko is certainly on par with the better parts of those later albums, and a worthy chapter in the canon of The Band—especially since it would be several years before any of them did anything, much less anything worth hearing. In a just world, it’ll get reissued, and give Rick his due.

Rick Danko Rick Danko (1977)—3

Friday, November 20, 2015

Neil Young 51: Bluenote Café

The ‘80s are usually dismissed as Neil Young’s lost years, in which he spent much of his musical time chasing trends or avoiding them, while still immersed in technology. Most of the resulting albums were underwhelming, with otherwise decent songs at the mercy of questionable production.

The Bluenotes phase confused people, and not only because he chose a band name that was both affiliated with somebody else, and not exactly a somebody known for guitar-based blues with slick horns. Neil changed the band’s name to Ten Men Workin’, after the first song on This Note’s For You, and while the rhythm section would return a few times in the future, the album remains unique in the catalog.

But as he’s proven before, it’s all one song, and hindsight has been very kind to some of his less successful experiments. In a rare case of revisionism, the band now called Bluenote Café is celebrated with its own installment in his Archives Performance Series, and a double disc to boot. Where the album was a challenge, Bluenote Café presents two and a half hours of music in two sets, giving plenty of room for the band to stretch, and the songs to breathe.

The music comes from three stages of the Bluenotes era—a couple of shows when Crazy Horse was augmented with a horn section, a club tour with the established band on the album’s release, and then a shed tour later in the summer. In addition to most of This Note’s For You, several songs make their first album appearance, and a few other rarities help round out the picture. “Welcome To The Big Room” is something of a theme song, in a band that had several. “Don't Take Your Love Away From Me” translates well from the Shocking Pinks, “Hello Lonely Woman” is given a jolt of energy compared the pre-fame demo, and “Soul Of A Woman” is otherwise similar to the one on A Treasure but for the horns. A true highlight of the first set is “Bad News Comes To Town”, a terrific soul burner that uses the extra players as part of the dressing.

“I’m Goin’” was buried on the B-side of “Ten Men Workin’”; though this is a later recording, it’s still a one-chord song with the same horn parts, but plenty of guitar. “Ordinary People” sounds much better in this context, with Ben (or Poncho) yelling along instead of Neil’s overdubbed asides. “Crime In The City” (not to be confused with “Life In the City”) adds a little more edge than the one that made it to Freedom, with different but not all of the verses from the song’s original epic length. Here’s it’s followed by “Crime Of The Heart”, a fairly simple idea with more complicated chords than Neil usually plays. “Doghouse” is pretty stupid, but that didn’t stop Pegi from covering it a few years ago. “Fool For Your Love” is tighter than the Road Rock version, yet still sterile.

In the encore section, exactly two songs come from previous albums: “On The Way Home”, with the horns playing the arrangement from the Buffalo Springfield recording, and “Tonight’s The Night”, stretched to 20 minutes but still managing to be the best performance of the song above the rest.

People who chronicle this stuff will tell you that there is more music from this era to be heard, and maybe the Archives box dedicated to the ‘80s will have more. For now, Bluenote Café helps to prove that Neil’s best work of the decade was on stage. Just as with A Treasure, it helps whet the appetite for further installments.

Neil Young and Bluenote Café Bluenote Café (2015)—

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Les McCann & Eddie Harris: Swiss Movement

Jazz is usually far outside the purview of this blog, mostly because we can’t begin to pretend to be anything of an expert. We know what we like, and try to ignore what we don’t. Plus, there’s an awful lot of it, and navigating the billions of existing albums, reissues, repackagings and such can be daunting for anyone on a limited budget or overwhelmed by the near-century’s worth of recordings waiting to be discovered. It won’t be easy to find needles in that particular haystack, and besides, if you start with Kind Of Blue, as we did, where the hell do you go from there?

Like all music, jazz is a mathematical code, whether strictly mapped out in chords or as a launch pad for more avant-garde explorations. Jazz musicians are defined by their work ethic, constantly playing and constantly evolving. While some people in that genre have boldly pursued stardom, most of those who have eked out a career playing music have done it for the love of the art. They are compelled to play, and a gig is a gig, whether it’s a small club, recording session or chance jam session. These people flat out work, and do it as long as their fingers and/or lips can function.

When pianist Les McCann and sax player Eddie Harris brought their respective combos to the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969, somebody suggested these two leaders play a set together, and they did, with little preparation. Their set was preserved on tape, and became the Swiss Movement album. (There’s another constant in the jazz world: clever titles.) So many summits hope to catch lightning in a bottle, and we should be thankful that this one exists. This is toe-tapping music, not at all esoteric, and very accessible to new ears. Piano, trumpet, sax, upright bass and drums interlock in front a crowd truly into it.

That’s enough to make for an enjoyable listen, but what’s made Swiss Movement such a grower is the first track, and the only one with a vocal. It starts with an insistent piano bass part, and the band kicks in right away, following McCann through some impressionistic chords. He finds a root to follow, moves up a half step at a time while Harris trills along, and eventually lands on F for the vamp that drives the rest of the song. Then he begins to sing.
Written and performed in the shadow of the Vietnam War, civil unrest and revolving presidents, “Compared To What” could be considered a protest song, even in its original R&B take by Roberta Flack. Once Les McCann got hold of it, Roberta had to find another song to make famous.

His voice grabs the words, shakes them around and spits them out, and with the push of a glorious snare hit, ends each verse with the same frustration: “Tryin’ to make it real—compared to what?” Solos fill the spaces between the verses, split and shared by Harris and Benny Bailey on trumpet, underscoring the attitude, particularly one outburst that has gotten DJs kicked off college radio stations for playing it.

Enjoyment of music is a personal thing, but it can also be communal. Most music lovers we know get a huge kick out of turning somebody else on to something new to the ears, which is almost as exciting as discovering a common bond in a beloved recording. That’s probably the best way to learn about jazz—listen to what other people love, and that will help you find your own note. This mind vividly remembers hearing “Compared To What” for the first time, and finding others just as thrilled by it is always exhilarating. Just as music should be.

Les McCann & Eddie Harris Swiss Movement (1969)—4

Friday, November 13, 2015

David Bowie 37: Five Years

Every couple of years it seemed somebody would come up with another reason to remaster some element of the David Bowie catalog, sometimes as part of an anniversary, or sometimes just because. This time, it appears the people in charge wanted to streamline things somewhat, and thus began the third major overhaul of what we’ll call the RCA catalog.

Five Years is a handy title for a set that covers the initial trajectory of Bowie stardom, starting from the Space Oddity album through Pin Ups, which bade farewell to the Spiders From Mars. Six albums are presented in their original sleeves and sequences, complete with replica labels and inner sleeves, with all but Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane getting modern sonic overhauls. A nice book includes new notes and reproductions of contemporary reviews and ads, and somebody felt it necessary to include the Ziggy Stardust album a second time, in its 2003 mix by original co-producer Ken Scott, which most fans apparently hated. (The alternate cover art nicely credits Rick Wakeman and Dana Gillespie for their contributions to “It Ain’t Easy” for the first time.)

Because they were both official albums, Live Santa Monica ‘72 and the Ziggy concert soundtrack fill in the picture further. While similar in setlist, they show the difference nine months made; the earlier show leaned more on Hunky Dory since Aladdin Sane was still in progress, while by the time he got to the Hammersmith Odeon, he’d become a sensation. (Personally, the earlier show is a little more intimate, and less flashy, but just as powerful when the band is playing full speed.)

Because the albums didn’t tell the whole story, two extra discs dubbed Re:Call 1 helped to mop up many of the period’s standalone singles, B-sides, and single edits. They’re in chronological order, making it easy to track the progress from “Space Oddity” through such alternates as “The Prettiest Star” with Marc Bolan, the Arnold Corns versions of two Ziggy songs, and both versions of “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “Holy Holy”. Nothing recorded before 1969 is included, and a handful of songs from the same period that had been bonus tracks on the Ryko CDs and/or other anniversary reissues are MIA, to more gnashing of teeth.

What helps, of course, is that these albums were so good to begin with. This era is one that most Bowie fans agree brought out some incredible music, and that fact becomes even more astonishing when it’s all heard together. Unless one has everything already, it’s a great place to start.

David Bowie Five Years 1969-1973 (2015)—4

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cat Stevens 4: Teaser And The Firecat

Keeping it simple as ever, Cat Stevens’ finest album is an exercise in less-is-more. Teaser And The Firecat is even better than its predecessor, with ten singable, strummable songs and a minimum of decoration. In fact, with so many of these songs being so well known, a review of our usual depth seems moot, but we’ll try.

“The Wind” sets the tone, two verses for two guitars, and just like that it’s over. “Rubylove” floats in, almost as simple, with trilling bouzoukis and even a verse in Greek. “If I Laugh” is a little sensitive, but wins for the intricate picking on the bridge. One wonders if there were three earlier attempts before he got to “Changes IV”, and if they were as noisy, but few songs are as gentle or, again, as simple as “How Can I Tell You”.

Something of a calypso feel permeates both “Tuesday’s Dead” and “Bitterblue”, but for variety, they’re separated by an actual hymn. He didn’t write “Morning Has Broken”, nor did he play the piano that punctuates it, but it’s easily one of his most recognizable songs. The same can be said for the litany of optimism that is “Moonshadow”. “Peace Train” would cause a lot of misery for 10,000 Maniacs in the late ‘80s, but for now it’s just a simple plea and nice metaphor with a hint of strings. And make sure you’re listening to the album version, which has a subdued coda featuring a faded strum.

Others may prefer Tea For The Tillerman over Teaser And The Firecat, but since they’re short, you can get ‘em both. They easily fit on a 90-minute Maxell tape with room to spare, or can even be burned to the same CD-R. (Of course, the eventual Deluxe Edition presented an alternate, shuffled version of the album, comprising five demos and five live recordings from as early as 1971 and as late as 2007. Four of those demos were included on the bonus disc of the 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, along with three previously unreleased demos, an extended mix of “Peace Train”, new re-recordings of “The Wind” and “Bitterblue”, a 1975 rehearsal of “Morning Has Broken”, two BBC recordings, and the “I Want To Live In A Wigwam” B-side. The Super Deluxe Edition added even more BBC recordings, a 1971 concert, and a Blu-ray.)

Cat Stevens Teaser And The Firecat (1971)—4
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1971, plus 10 extra tracks
2021 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1971, plus 13 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 37 tracks plus Blu-ray)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Van Morrison 29: How Long… and Tell Me Something

As demonstrated on his most recent live album, and the two doubles before it, Van Morrison seemed happiest when in the midst of a rhythm and blues show band and revue. Every now and then he calls his music jazz, which is how the Verve label marketed his next two albums. Such was one of the perks of being signed to a major corporate entity with several specialty labels; another perk would be the ability to release two novelty projects to help fulfill said contract.

How Long Has This Been Going On was recorded live without an audience at Ronnie Scott’s club in London, and features mostly covers from the pre-rock era. Aside from Georgie Fame, who gets spine billing, Annie Ross shows up to sing along on “Centerpiece”, which she helped make famous once upon a time. Just to show his own ties to the music. A different arrangement of “I Will Be There” opens the set and there’s a repeat of “All Saints Day” from a few years past, but the big draw is “Heathrow Shuffle”, performed many times in the ‘70s but unreleased until here. A seven-minute rendition of “Moondance” reels in those whose knowledge of jazz is limited to that song.

Appearing halfway through the album is “Your Mind Is On Vacation”, written by Mose Allison, which was a clue to the album that appeared not too long afterwards. Tell Me Something is in some ways more satisfying, as it consists of 13 songs written by the man Pete Townshend called a “jazz sage”, and who sings two of them here. Van is only one of the billed performers, which means the balance of the tracks are sung by either Georgie Fame or Ben Sidran, best known to hippies as an early member of the Steve Miller Band, and to a few Gen Xers as the host of a VH-1 show. Those guys have certainly picked up their vocal styles from Mose, while Van only sounds like Van. Taken all together, it’s a good introduction to Mose Allison; hits collections on the Prestige and Atlantic labels are highly recommended.

Van Morrison with Georgie Fame & Friends How Long Has This Been Going On (1995)—3
Van Morrison, Georgie Fame, Mose Allison, Ben Sidran
Tell Me Something: The Songs Of Mose Allison (1996)—3

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Keith Richards 4: Crosseyed Heart

Decades after the mid-‘80s derailment and subsequent realigning of the Stones, both Mick and Keith have kept their solo output minimal. But on the four studio albums plus the handful of new songs stuck onto anniversary compilations, Keith’s lead vocals have generally been the standouts, and the songs that have endured. Being allowed a regular outlet likely tempered his need to record on his own, but perhaps the Stones’ reliance on older material played live to cash in on whatever anniversary they were celebrating inspired him to call Steve Jordan and reunite the X-Pensive Winos.

However, while a Keith vocal is generally a welcome respite from Mick, Crosseyed Heart doesn’t prove that all Keith, all the time is the answer. Cut down to maybe ten songs, the album would be much stronger.

The title track is an engaging snippet of acoustic blues, right down to its charming conclusion. “Heartstopper” and “Trouble” pile in like you hoped they would. “Robbed Blind” is something of a country weeper, complete with pedal steel and Keith himself on piano. (We checked the credits, thinking it just had to be somebody else.) “Nothing On Me” could be a single in another era, though the lead guitar going throughout should have been pulled back a bit. He goes all out reggae on a cover of “Love Overdue”, giving up a lyrical influence for “All About You” in the process. Late saxman Bobby Keys is featured on “Blues In The Morning”, a great blast of Chuck Berry via Chicago, while “Illusion” gets a surprise lift from Norah Jones. Towards the end of the album, “Substantial Damage” bubbles with funk and “Lover’s Plea” melds reggae and soul.

That leaves “Amnesia”, “Suspicious” and “Something For Nothing”—good, but not up to the level of their brothers. Likewise, “Just A Gift” is one slow song too many. While he avoids the cliché of closing with “Goodnight Irene”, this albeit pleasant rendition doesn’t add much to the song’s history.

Again, most of Crosseyed Heart is enjoyable, and if it scares Mick into rocking out again, then maybe we haven’t heard the last of the Stones. And since there’s no better place to mention it, even a casual listen to what passes for country music these days reveals a debt to Keith’s riffs. Whether it’s a guy with a twang or a blonde with a yodel, today’s country sounds like either a Stones ripoff or pancakes and sausage.

Keith Richards Crosseyed Heart (2015)—3