Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wine, Whites and . . . Doobies!

The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan have more than Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Michael McDonald in common. They are both ubiquitous 1970s pop-rock bands that I've come to love despite my best intentions to steer clear of obvious pop-music fodder. Just like with The Dan, I had a moment years ago when hearing either "China Grove" or "Long Train Runnin'" for the 100th time that I had to stop in my tracks and remark to myself, 'damn, that's a great song.' Once that happens, it's hard to go back. I'm not trying to say I'm a super fan and unlike The Dan, I haven't seen the Doobies live, but I also wouldn't pass up the opportunity if it presented itself to me.

As far as "Weed, Whites & Wine" goes, The Doobies pick up where a lot of the Laurel Canyon/SoCal country-hippies left off. My office-mate and friend grew is quick to point out that The Doobies are probably the most famous band from the South Bay/San Jose area and you can hear the similarity to other country-rock outfits from these parts, namely Creedence Clearwarter Revival. The Bay Area scene was more indebted to R&B it would seem then the SoCal scene, which had a little more folk and pop influences, depending on the artist. Most of The Doobies' repertoire doesn't fit too well in the WWW bag, but when I stumbled upon their first album from 1971 I was pleasantly surprised to hear the humble country-ish beginnings of one of the 70s biggest rock bands. You'll note that the line-up on the album is merely four people, three of which continue on to later albums and the smaller size is reflected on the more subtle songs when compared to the larger line-ups and baroque arrangements of later years. Sure, they never would have made it big if they kept it like this, but the following tunes show that they were on to something interesting back in 1971 . . .

The Doobie Brothers - Nobody
The Doobie Brothers - Greenwood Creek
The Doobie Brothers - Feelin' Down Farther

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Brothers Everly

Ok, so everybody knows the Everly Brothers from their ubiquitous oldies hits like Cathy's Clown, etc, but for my money they were the original country-rockers. Don and Phil's parents were country stars from Kentucky so when these boys started their thing they were naturally tapping into some country roots. I've read here and there that the early hippy rockers like The Byrds, CS&N and Gram Parsons and the Burrito Bros. all worshipped the Everly Brothers' early rock n' roll hits, so its only natural that the Everly Brothers would fit right in when the country-rock scene blossomed in the late 60s. Well, they did and they didn't. I don't have it yet, but their 1968 "Roots" album is supposed to be a great example of their adapting to the new/old country-rock sound that they helped invent, but this album from 1972 definitely finds the brothers stretching out in a country-rock style not unlike some of their followers.

Left to right: Paul Rothschild (producer), Phil & Don Everly
Some of their admirers even joined in on this all-star cast, including John Sebastien of The Lovin' Spoonful, David Crosby, Delany & Bonnie, and Chris Hillman among many others. The album was recorded in Sebastian's Laural Canyon home. The brothers cover Sebastian on the title tune, which is nice, and cover Delaney & Bonnie on the opening cut, but the three tracks here (and my three favorites) are all Everly originals. The heavenly Green River is possibly one of my favorite country-rock tunes of all time and will certainly make the cut for the forthcoming Weed, Whites & Wine compilation.

The Everly Brothers - Green River
The Everly Brothers - I'm Tired of Singing My Song in Las Vegas
The Everly Brothers - Up In Mabel's Room

Friday, October 23, 2009

Astral Weakness

Once again the Bay Area's bizarro weather is messing with me. Last week it was feeling very fall-like and the last few days it's been really warm. So I started prepping this post back when it was rainy and windy with the leaves departing their branches and accumulating in piles and on the sidewalks. I figure it's gotta be Fall-like somewhere else, so I'm going ahead with this post.

I remember working at Olsson's Books & Music in Washington D.C. and reading some Mojo or Q magazine top 50 list of the BEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME and Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" was definitely in the top 10 if not top 5. I picked it up and quickly got carried away by the emotion and otherworldliness of the recording. It's a special album that transports the listener to a strange and instantly nostalgic place, like a great film. For me the album reminds me of my year after college, living in Washington DC in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood and walking up Irving Street on the way to work with the sidewalks damp with rain and about half of the leaves on the ground on the other half dangling on the verge of joining the others.

Van Morrison - Astral Weeks
The title track to this classic album really sets the tone for this sonic journey. It's not my absolute favorite, but hearing it prepares me for the 40 minute trip down Van's spooky, surreal and emotionally loaded memory lane.
Van Morrison - Cyprus Avenue
I could have gone with "Sweet Thing", which is probably my favorite tune from this album, but I figured everyone else felt the same, so I included this one.

Van Morrison - T.B. Sheets
The mystery of "Astral Weeks" is only heightened when you think that it came immediately after Van's first solo album, the one that produced the radio-friendly hit "Brown-Eyed Girl". Listening to the "Bang Masters" CD that came out decades later you can hear that these sessions produced an extremely wide range of recordings, such as the blues jam "T.B. Sheets". While its closer to the style and content as "Astral Weeks" it's singular in its own way with its funky groove and ad-lib lyrics from Van about visiting a girl friend who's sick with T.B. He feels he has to pay his respects, but being there with her depresses him and he can't leave soon enough. Scorsese used this song perfectly as the recurring theme song in his highly-underrated 90s drama "Bringing Out the Dead."
Van Morrison - Madame George (Demo)
If you know the "Astral Weeks" version of Madame George, you'll hear that this one is the perfect bridge between his Bang Sessions and the AW sessions. The lyrics are basically final, but the instrumentation is entirely different. It just goes to show what a unique recording AW is, as this version is more blues-based and more in line with everything else that Van had done with The Them or solo. This begs the question of why or who influenced Van to create the acoustic, string-heavy and nearly drumless sonic palette he used on "Astral Weeks"?

Van Morrison - Bulbs
After digesting and falling in love with AW I went looking for more of the same, but despite the greatness of his subsequent albums (mainly "Moondance") I came up empty handed . . . until my brother turned me on to the 1974 album "Veedon Fleece". Like "Astral Weeks", this album is a concept album with themes and lyrics being carried across multiple songs and no stand-out singles. I picked two of my favorites to share here.
Van Morrison - Fair Play

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Other Graham

Around the time I first started WW&W I was just getting into Crosby, Stills & Nash. It was a late start, but like the "dead", CSN always seemed a bit too hippy -dippy and those radio hits were sounding pretty worn-out. First, my friend Josh turned me on to the solo David Crosby record, which proceeded to blow my mind. Next, I started picking up the first and second and subsequent CSN(Y) albums. More recently it was pointed out that actually ALL of the solo albums from C, S & N were quite good and that I needed to fill out the collection. This is where we come to Graham Nash's "Songs for Beginners". It might take a listen or two to adapt to Graham's extremely personal and fragile universe, but it's a rewarding listen and the record that has taken the most spins on my turntable and ipod in the past three months. On a related note, I just downloaded Stephen Stills' first solo album and despite what everyone else seems to say, I found it kinda boring, barring the "Love the One You're With" single, which I could do without for hearing it so many times. My money is with Crosby & Nash's solo records!

Graham Nash - I Used To Be a King
I'm not sure the timing of this album in relation to Graham's personal life, but around this time he and Joni Mitchell were living together in "Our House" in Laurel Canyon, but that was not to last and the poetic two parted ways. I like to think that this is one of Graham's break-up songs to Joni. Assuming the timing is right there are other break-up songs to Joni on this album.

Graham Nash - Sleep Song
Just a beautiful tune.

Rita Coolidge - Better Days
After discovering Graham, I remembered I had heard this song before and it took me awhile to place where . . . that Rita Coolidge album I had where she also covers Bob Dylan & Neil Young. Listening to it again, it's not a better version that Graham's but it does flesh out the tune with a full band and more structure. It's just a great song and another Joni break-up song.

I'm slowly picking up some later Graham Nash albums as well as some Crosby-Nash albums. The possibilities do seem endless with these prolific hippies . . .

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Weed, Whites & Stones

Apologies for the long delay in posts, but I go married a couple weeks ago and naturally that took up a lot of my time. Today we're listening to a few Rolling Stones' cover tunes from a broad spectrum of talent. The first tune is classic WW&W material as it comes from the godfather of the genre: Gram Parsons. The stones were first and foremost a blues-based rock band, but thanks to Keith's friendship with Gram Parsons they began incorporating more and more "country" influences into their music. I can't find the original quote anywhere, but if the anonymous internets are to be believed, Keith Richards confirmed to Barney Hoskyns that to Gram this song was "a logical combination between their music and our music."

Our other two examples come from the English country-side and Brazil where some varied musicians picked up on the universality of some of the Jagger/Richards songwriting and refitted their songs in more cosmic-country tones, ala Ronnie Lane's cover of the Exile on Main Street classic "Sweet Virginia" and Caetano Veloso's live cover of "Let It Bleed."

The Flying Burrito Brothers - Wild Horses
The story goes that Keith sent Gram a master of "Wild Horses" a year before the 1971 release on the Stones album "Sticky Fingers." According to Jagger & Richards this song was their attempt to write something in a Gram Parsons style. I remember reading somewhere that Keith asked Gram to not release the Flying Burrito Brothers version until after the Stones released their album. Thankfully Gram and the boys included it on their second album "Burrito Deluxe" against Keith's request because by the time "Sticky Fingers" was released in 1971, the Flying Burrito Brothers were no longer in existence. There's no question that the Stones' version is a classic, but to me the FBB version matches it, if not tops it with Gram's wavering ad plaintive vocals and the killer piano solo.

Ronnie Lane & the band 'Slim Chance' - Sweet Virginia

As a certifiable Ronnie Lane obsessive I had to go and buy every single Ronnie Lane-related release out there and this one came pretty late in the game but was well worth the wait. This 2CD set has a whole bunch of live and live-in-studio performances from the key years of 1973-76 or so. Most of the tunes on here are Lane originals, but this cover song really fits right in the Ronnie Lane mold especially given the original's rustic feel and acoustic instrumentation. What's funny about this one is that it was recorded for radio so the swear-words ("Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes") was changed to silence in one chorus and "brown" in the last chorus.

Caetano Veloso - Let It Bleed
I have no idea where this recording is from, but this tune surfaced on a 1999 Japanese compilation of rare Caetano Veloso tracks. In the mid-seventies Veloso started to regularly do English-language cover tunes on his albums, mostly of Beatles songs, but this is a rare Brazilian cover of a Stones song. It kind of drifts into a march tempo at the end. I can't say I've listened to Veloso's covers album from a few years back, but I can say the man has a knack for putting his own voice and style on other people's tunes. The first cover tune of his I heard was Bob Dylan's "Jokerman" from an early 80s live album of Veloso's.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Vetiver: Things of the Past and Present

So far this blog has been solidly dedicated to older tunes from the 60s and 70s mostly, with the exception of Arthur Russell and some later John Martyn cuts. This is not because I'm some music purist that believese that only the old stuff is good (though I'm guilty of that 75% of the time), but because I spend most of my energy digging backwards rather than in the present. So usually when I find something new it's by accident, like what happened with Vetiver.

For the last two years I've been pretty solidly obsessed with Ronnie Lane of the (Small) Faces. One evening, hanging out with my friend Matt on a visit to NYC I was playing a mix that included Ronnie Lane's cover of D. Adam's "Roll On Babe." Matt said something like, "Vetiver's awesome," to which I gave him a confused look, explaining that we were listening to Ronnie Lane. He explained that Vetiver covered this song on one of their albums, to which I was skeptical and intrigued. He ripped me a copy and since then I have been slowly and irreversably falling in love with Vetiver. What I find interesting is that had it not been for their cover of a song I already loved I probably wouldn't have bothered to dig deeper, but their commitment to an obscure, yet wonderful song like "Roll On Babe" meant that we were kinda in on the same deliciously underappreciated secret.

I committed to purchase the album with that song, "Thing of the Past", on vinyl and absorbed the band's subdued and understated tone. At first it didn't really penetrate my armor of skepticism, but by the third or fourth listen I really began to appreciate the quirky selections - all the songs on that album are covers of relatively obscure folksy singer-songwriters, a style that is clearly the foremost influence on the band - and the sensitive treatment the band gives each piece of music, demonstrating a serious amount of respect for the source material. Come to think of it, that's one of the reasons I like them, because they seem to have a clear sense of where they sit and what they're trying to do, because they know what came before and what elements to cherry pick and what dated sounds or themes to leave on the rehearsal space floor.

More recently I picked up their newest one, "Tight Knit" and then there was no going back. This album is all originals (I think) and is their strongest release to date, though I still haven't gotten around to pick up their first one. The songs have a wider emotional range that extend from giddy "Everyday" to nostalgic "Rolling Sea" to ethereal "At the Forest's edge" as opposed to most of the previous albums that refused to budge too far from warm and melancholic nostalgia. Seeing as I got into the group because of a cover, I have included that one and another perfect surprise, finding out they also covered my favorite Lindsey Buckingham Fleetwood Mac song, "Save Me a Place." I rounded it out with an original, "Rolling Sea" from the newest album.

Now I just can't wait to check them out live. They're a local band I've been told, though they've been on tour since I discovered them, but I hear they're coming back in a couple months . . .

Vetiver - Roll On Babe

Vetiver - Save Me a Place

Vetiver - Rolling Sea

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sahm the Mahn

One of the best things about starting a blog like this where I showcase a particular style of music, however narrowly or broadly defined, is that friends and strangers want to suggest certain artists that they think fit the bill. Sometimes I might already be on the same page and I might be planning to get to these nominations, but in other cases, I get schooled in the best possible way. For instance Dave's contributions of Ramblin' Jack Elliot and John Martyn were eye-openers and jaw-droppers and I'm glad that WWW made that possible. (aside: that's crazy, I just remembered a dream I had last night where I was in a small bar and a very old, but living John Martyn was performing in his charismatic style)

Today's artist is an introduction from my good friend Brad who considers San Antonio a home away from home, namely for its enchiladas and Doug Sahm. Even before I started WWW he raved about Sahm and having not enough music-listening hours in the day, it went in one ear and out the other. Actually, I remember that my dad had his classic Atlantic record released as "Doug Sahm and Band" but listening to it a dozen years back in passing, it must not have been my style at the time. After a recent road trip with Brad I became convinced that I really did need Doug Sahm's music in my life and I went out and got the below "best of" comp.

For a compilation that covers only 7 years of a thirty-year career, this CD is mind-blowingly diverse in its approach to music, all anchored by Sahm's plaintive vocals and eclectic mix of instruments. Hailing from San Antonio, Sahm brings his native tejano style to his unique brand of pop music. This comp. focuses on his prime hippy/country-rock years, the first several when he was living out in the Bay Area and feeding off and feeding into the burgeoning music scene in San Francisco. Towards the end of this comp.'s timeline Sahm had transplanted himself into the now-legendary 1970s singer-songwriter scene based out of Austin, TX.

The three songs here are an interesting side-story to Sahm's career when he recorded a couple of fairly straight-ahead country tunes to be released under the name "Wayne Douglas" as his attempt to cross-over into the country scene. Recorded in Nashville and released on Mercury as a 45 "Be Real" and "I Don't Want to go Home" was Sahm's "Sweetheart of the Rodeo". Listening to these tunes and the other tracks on the CD and a record I recently scored ("Texas Tornado" on Atlantic) I can say that Sahm was more country than a whole flock of Byrds.

Wayne Douglas - I Wanna Be Your Mama Again (previously unreleased version)

Wayne Douglas - I Don't Want To Go Home

Wayne Douglas - Be Real

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rhinestone in the Rough: Don Cooper

I dug this LP out the other day when mining for some new WW&W fodder and I'm sure glad I did. A few years back I stumbled upon this record, "The Ballad of C.P. Jones" his third LP I believe, at a Salvation Army and having no idea who Don Cooper was I was about to bypass it . . . but a quick glance at the back informed me that this apparent singer-strummer-songwriter was being backed up by the cream-of-the-crop of NY session players, such as Bernard "Pretty" Purdie and Paul Griffin, among others. I snatched it up and when I got home I fell in love with the standout track "Rhinestone in the Rough" because of its unusual combination of folky elements with an R&B backbone. You can really hear Purdie doing his thing on this track.

I kinda left it there and until a few days ago I had nothing to say about the rest of the album. I'm still "digesting" the other 11 tracks, but I can already say this guy is/was great! I think allmusic has it spot on with Don - had he been on another label, such as Columbia or Elektra, he could have been at least semi-big like a left-of-cheesy Gordon Lightfoot or inheritor of the Fred Neil crown. Sadly, he lingered on Roulette for four albums and nobody's heard much from him since then. I'm now on a mission to track down the other three LPs. It's always a tricky balance to have a really heart-felt song without letting the delivery and production sabotage it with schmaltz and Cooper pulls this off better than most.

Don Cooper - Howlin' at the Moon
Don Cooper - Rhinestone in the Rough

Perfectly, a search for Don Cooper took me to the blog Vinyl Treasures which has the other three Don Cooper albums available for download. I'm still working my way through the one I have, but so far it is an excellent disc without any weak songs.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Me & My Jack of Diamonds

Sure, I have some Grateful Dead songs on my iTunes and you'd have to be a hippy-hater to not like their classic album "American Beauty" but there's a funny thing that happens when "The Dead" and music dorks intersect. Nobody ever really dabbles in "The Dead". It's as if you're a "Dead Head" or you can't stand the band. Until recently I was closer to the latter, but I think I'm beginning to feel the Darkstar tractor beam pulling me in . . .

I tend to approach musical behemoths in the same way. I resist dabbling until I can perceive a crack in their monumental veneer, an opening that allows me to understand and appreciate their work, and then I dive in and rarely surface until I've devoured a majority of their catalog. So you can see why I'm trepidatious. Well, that and I'm not sure that I'm comfortable with the "dead head" moniker.

not me, but the other guy looks like a bigger, fatter version of my uncle (seriously)

My "in" in this case is the John Phillips composition, "Me & My Uncle" otherwise known by the title "Jack of Diamonds." I'm a big John Phillips fan and picked up the compilation by the name "Jack of Diamonds" that pulled together a random assortment of rarities and odds n' ends from the 1970s. There are two versions of the tune "Jack of Diamonds" on the CD and strangely enough the "alternate" version is the more conventional of the two. I've selected the regular version, which has an extremely relaxed and dare I say druggy vibe - I mean, this is John Phillips we're talking about here.

John Phillips - Jack of Diamonds
The story goes that Phillips wrote the song during an all night drinking session accompanied by Judy Collins, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, among others, in 1963. At the time Phillips was a member of the folk group, The Journeymen, and Stills and Young had yet to make it to L.A. to form The Buffalo Springfield. Collins was the only one in the group of partiers with an active recording career and so unbeknownst to Phillips, Collins recorded the song for her Judy Collins Concert album. You can listen to the full song here (it might ask you to download the rhapsody widget thingy, but it doesn't take long and its well worth it). The most interesting thing about the song, is that Phillips woke up the next morning with absolutely no recollection of writing or playing the song and story has it that, "John used to joke that, little by little, with each royalty check, the memory of writing the song would come back to him." This version comes from the early 1970s after Collins, The Dead and a few others had already made it a classic. Phillips wanted to put his own stamp on it and switched around the lyrics a bit and re-titled it. To me it has a bit of that Steely Dan "Do It Again" slick rock shuffle.

We need to stop a second because who knew that there was more to know about Judy Collins?!? I have two previous associations with Collins: 1) my very un-hip step-grandmother liked her, and 2) I heard that she was Stephen Stills' cougar back in the 60s and that Suite Judy Blue Eyes was written about her. Next, we get to the other versions of the song, most notably when The Grateful Dead started working it into their live repertoire around 1966.

I guess if I'm going to ease my way into the dead, I might as well start with the song the Grateful Dead played more than any other, cover or original, all the way from 1966 to 1995! according to this very thorough website.

A relatively brief searcheroo on Soulseek unveiled about a half dozen live versions of the tune and I tried my best to select the ones that I thought really stood out and actually sounded different from each other. I swear it wasn't intentional, but the versions I selected came from the successive years of 1969, 1970 and 1971.

The Grateful Dead - Me & My Uncle (Live in Santa Rosa 6/28/69)
The Grateful Dead - Me & My Uncle (Live at Fillmore East 2/14/70)
The Grateful Dead - Me & My Uncle (Live at Fillmore East 4/29/71)

Monday, May 4, 2009

Of Canoes and Tall Buildings . . .

John Hartford is one of my alltime favorite artists and an early inspiration for creating a separate country-ish blog in "Weed, Whites & Wine." I chanced upon this songwriter and renowned instrumentalist through his most famous song, "Gentle On My Mind." Of the hundreds of versions out there, it was Elvis' version from his Elvis in Memphis sessions that initially won my heart. While some might roll their eyes at this pop-country staple, to me it was new and the lyrics were extremely vivid, simple and honest - all three things speak to Hartford's musical legacy. Hartford wrote and sang about what he loved: freedom, boats, the Mississippi river and love.

I'd been meaning to get around to doing a post about some Hartford tunes so when this Monday morning rolled around and I struggled to face another week, I thought of one of my favorite anti-corporate anthems and no, we're not talking about a Rage Against the Machine song. We're talking about Hartford's, "In Tall Buildings." This song hit me back when I had just moved to New York City and I was working at a great job on the Upper East Side. As I got ready for work one morning, I put on a record as I often did while getting dressed. As I wrestled with my neck-tie the words of the song sank in:

Someday, baby, when I am a man,
and other's have taught me
the best that they can
they'll sell me a suit
and cut off my hair
and send me to work in tall buildings

and it's goodbye to the sunshine
goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers
and goodbye to you
I'm off to the subway
I must not be late
going to work in tall buildings

now when I retire
and my life is my own
I made all the payments
it's time to go home
and wonder what happened
betwixt and between
when I went to work in tall buildings

and it's goodbye to the sunshine
goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers
and goodbye to you
I'm off to the subway
I mustn't be late
going to work in tall buildings

Damn! I nearly quit my job that same day. I kept the job and eventually upgraded to one that didn't require a suit, though I still find myself rushing to the subway. I think of this song often and how Hartford managed to have his cake and eat it too, leading a particularly unconventional life.

As the story goes, Hartford rode the post-Dylan wave with a run of solo albums on RCA in the late sixties that yielded his biggest hit and one of the most recorded songs in history, "Gentle on My Mind." Hartford was known to say that that song bought him his freedom. With this freedom he took some time off and got his license to be a riverboat pilot. This pretty much sums up Hartford from the biography on his website, "Summer days might find him piloting the Julia Belle Swain on her afternoon run, before entertaining the passengers at night. During festival season, his amazing instinct for single-handedly captivating an audience would often have him leaving the stage and leading a processional of joyful dancers through the grounds, like a fiddle-playing pied piper."

I've picked two songs to showcase today, the second being "In Tall Buildings" and the first being the title track from his mid-80s album, "Gum Tree Canoe". Above is a picture of John and his wife in their own gum tree canoe. I feel like the two songs combined present a picture of how I, for one, would want to rank my personal priorities in life and live them out in the spirit of John Hartford. RIP.

John Hartford - Gum Tree Canoe
My dad has always had a canoe and I grew up with these simple, yet elegant boats on every summer camping trip. In fact, we're in the midst of planning the next one for this summer and I can't stop thinking about taking the canoe out in the early morning before the rest of the campers are awake.

John Hartford - In Tall Buildings
Wouldn't it be nicer to say:
hello to the sunshine
hello to the dew
hello to the flowers
and hello to you . . .

Both of these songs as well as my favorite version of "Gentle On My Mind" are collected on an excellent compilation of Hartford's Flying Fish sides, called "Oh Me Oh My How The Time Does Fly."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Ballad of Tony Joe White

A quick post here to pass the time as it's been awhile since I lasted posted to WW&W. I was in Sacramento last weekend and picked up some great records, one of which was the last missing piece of my Tony Joe White collection, titled "Tony Joe" on Monument from 1970. This might just be my favorite album of his as he really stretches out in his swamp blues style and seems to be unconcerned with hitting the charts even though many of these songs are quite good.

I've been a fan of Tony's since I don't even know when and I can't really remember how I chanced upon him, but I soon acquired the great Warner Archives Best Of set which covers most of his late 60s and 70s output - his best years. I soon started tracking down his original albums and they're all pretty good, but few really stand out as solid listens all the way through, that is except for this one and his Warner Bros. debut, "Train I'm On."

I've also had my eye on Rhino Handmade's complete Monument Records set, but seeing as I have all the studio albums now, I'm not sure I want to shell out $80 for some out-takes and live cuts. I'm a fan, but not a super-fan. The thing about Tony Joe is that his style is so personal and direct that when it hits, it's like the best song you ever heard - think of his classics like "Polk Salad Annie", "Willie & Laura Mae Jones" or "Rainy Night in Georgia". Those songs were covered by just about everybody, because they were just THAT good. But, TJ also put out some embarrassing crap, too and in his personal style they just fall flat, really flat. He is kinda like a grittier Elvis (who covered Polk Salad Annie on some live sets) without the marketing machine to steer him towards success and make even his crappier songs sound at least passable.

That being said, I'm excited to share two of my favorite songs from this new acquisition (both songs are on the Best Of set) and they really show Tony Joe at the peak of his intimate and spellbinding storytelling style.

Tony Joe White - High Sheriff of Calhoun Parish
One of Tony Joe's great story songs. Looking at pictures of Tony as a young man, you could imagine him getting into some trouble with the ladies . . .

Tony Joe White - Stockholm Blues
This is my favorite non-hit that Tony Joe's done. I just love the opening bluesy lyric, "I got ants in my sugar bowl, boll weevils in my cornmeal . . ."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Arthur Russell in the Country

Arthur Russell's body of work continues to grow long after he left this world thanks to the good people at Audika Records. If known at all, Arthur's usually referred to in hushed tones by left-field disco enthusiasts for his David Mancuso Loft Party inspired jams such as "Go Bang" or "Is It All Over My Face" but his musical output was far broader than that excellent, but narrow slice of avant-pop. Arthur died of AIDS in 1992 and was creating music up until his final passing, but much of that output has yet to be heard by the public. Thanks to Audika records some of these recordings are being released and fans like me are eager to hear whatever comes out.

The latest release is "Love Is Overtaking Me" and collects recordings spanning his entire recording career from the early 1970s until 1991. What I like about this set of tunes is that they focus on more acoustic arrangements and the songs are shorter and more traditional in their pop song format with choruses and hooks, etc, but they are still distinctly different than most anything you'd ever hear on the Top 40 radio. Arthur's personality transcends any genre distinction and comes through in most everything he recorded.

These four songs are cherry-picked for their acoustic and country elements specifically for WW&W. They are also my favorites from this compilation, though there are many other great songs with more pop orientation and some synthesizers here and there. Listening to these tunes I can't help but compare Arthur's songwriting and vocal delivery to another fragile country boy who left us far too soon, Gram Parsons. The latter two songs also have a real country-soul feel with those horns much like some of Gram's cover tunes from the first Flying Burrito Brothers album.

Arthur Russell - Close My Eyes
Arthur Russell - Love Is Overtaking Me
Arthur Russell - I couldn't Say It To Your Face
Arthur Russell - Nobody Wants a Lonely Heart

If you are even vaguely moved by these songs or have heard of Arthur and wanna know more, I urge you to see the recent documentary, Wild Combination. It's a really touching tribute to this lost genius and an entertaining and compelling story. I particularly liked the parts with his heartland Iowa parents who still referred to him by his given name Charlie and who honestly admit they didn't care too much for his music while he was alive.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Other Gallagher (& Lyle)

The REAL Gallagher & Lyle are an unlikely pair of pop musicians and their success and fame didn't really manifest itself until more than a decade into their careers. I honestly don't know too much about them as my introduction to their work was through their participation in the first incarnation of Ronnie Lane's band "Slim Chance." Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle have gone back and forth from being a duo to joining larger bands to being a duo again and their incorporation into Ronnie's band was after their second stint as a duo.

The album featured here is from 1972 and is the one right before they joined "Slim Chance." If you know Ronnie Lane's work, you'll recognize some of his style, or vice versa, in Gallagher & Lyle's self-titled album from 1972. The music is based in a country-folk format with a strong British (or should I say Scottish) sensibility and like Ronnie, most of their best songs have a fragile and melancholy vibe.

These guys are best known as songwriters (for Art Garfunkel and Tina Turner, among others) so their vocal chops are not always the most steller, but I kinda like the way they strain for the high notes in Broken Wings. These are the kind of songs that sound better around a roaring fireplace than they would on stage at a proper venue.

Gallagher & Lyle - Comfort & Joy
Gallagher & Lyle - To David, Charlie & Ian
Gallagher & Lyle - Great Australian Dream
Gallagher & Lyle - Broken Wings

Friday, February 13, 2009

Talkin' Blues and Greens

My very good friend Josh has a dad who happens to live with his wife (and Josh's mother) in my very own hometown of Portland, Or. I met David and Diane just once at Josh's wedding in New York City and we deduced that their favorite delicatessen in Portland is the very same one that my dad worked in after graduating from Reed College back in the seventies.

Another crazy coincidence is that my fiance, Jamie, grew up in Grass Valley, CA whose sister-city, Nevada City is the home of the well known and loved independent radio station KVMR. David used to have a show on the very same radio station, so its not unthinkable that a young Jamie might have heard the tunes and voice of today's guest blogger.

Latelty, I've been benefiting from David's wealth of musical knowledge after Josh sent him the Michael Nesmith post on WW&W and since then we've occasionally exchanged musical tid-bits, Blossom Dearie for one. Josh suggested I pick David's mind about some tunes for WW&W and this one was the first (of maybe more?). Here's what David has to say about Ramblin' Jack Elliot's "912 Greens":

Ramblin' Jack Elliot - 912 Greens

I first heard Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s song 912 Greens on one of the early free-form FM radio stations like KSAN in San Francisco, and although I barely knew what a “talkin’ Blues” song was, I knew what I liked, and this was it. This, and similar Dylan songs, and around the same time, Tom Rush’s take on the Bukka White song Panama Limited and ... and... well, there was a lot of stuff of this ilk to choose from, once you started looking. The title 912 Greens is a play on the address of the place Jack says he stayed in in New Orleans, 912 Toulouse Street. He says the song was a blues song, so he was going to call it 912 Blues, but for some reason he liked 912 Greens better. Anyway. This song has one of the best lines ever written by a white folksinger for a Talkin’ Blues song: “There was this girl there, who had once been an ex-ballet dancer”, which sets up a circular logic of staggering dimension. In the recording, it sounds natural, just a charming verbal faux pas, but he uses the phrase verbatim to this day when he performs this song.

Tom Rush - The Panama Limited

Ramblin’ Jack was a self-made cowboy from New York City who changed his name and persona in the early 1950’s and left for the open, bohemian, Woody Guthrie Cisco Houston Allen Ginsburg Jack Kerouac Road, singing, busking, telling lies and performing (and recording) with virtually every singer-songwriter of note in the latter half of the 20th century. His discography is staggering in its breadth and depth, although he very seldom, at least so far as I can tell, recorded songs with women. I don’t know why that is, it just seems to be so. He seems to love women; he has been married several times.

Anyway, this song, 912 Greens, perhaps the only one he was ever credited to have written, formed a secret, hidden soundtrack to a secret hidden life for me that was never to be. If I were to participate in the online game Second Life, my avatar would live out the life I always imagined from this song, travelin’ and singin’ and drinkin’ and stonin’ and profligatin’ and cowboyin’ and tellin’ stories and little harmless lies to any and all who might listen. And droppin’ every final “g” in the bargain. Jack Elliott, a truly self-made cowboy, entertainer, raconteur, singer, and original American Man. God bless him.

A biographical Documentary was made in 2000 by a daughter: it is called: The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack. It’s worth viewing.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Discovering Buried Treasure: Steve Young

I was planning on posting these few songs from Steve Young's 1969 debut album and I was going to talk about how it's too bad this guy never recorded anything else, but lo and behold as soon as I started doing some research I realized that he's got lots of albums and is pretty well known. I'm not exactly certain how I managed to miss hearing anything else about him, but the good news is that I now have a new favorite artist to explore. So I don't know much more about him than this album, but its more than enough to whet my appetite for more. Here's Steve Young:

Steve Young featuring Gram Parsons - That's How Strong My Love Is
This is a cover of a classic Memphis soul song originally recorded by O.V. Wright and later by Otis Redding. Gram plays organ on this tune and it only seems to creep up towards the end of the song.

Steve Young - Rock Salt & Nails
What a tune! The lyrics are really something else . . . makes me think of another O.V. Wright song, "A Nickel and a Nail".

Steve Young featuring Gene Clark - My Sweet Love Ain't Around
Another cover, this time of Hank Williams Sr. and that's Gene Clark on the harmonica.