Archive for the ‘blues’ Category

Album Review: Eric Clapton – Unplugged (CD+DVD)

Friday, July 18th, 2014

Here’s a slightly unusual candidate for reissue: Eric Clapton‘s 1992 Unplugged album. To my knowledge, this massively commercially successful album has never gone out of print, which begs the question: why reissue it? To be fair, this 2014 reissue does include some bonus material. But first, let’s take a look at the original album.

Filmed – as was standard procedure for the cable series MTV Unplugged – in front of a small audience and featuring more-or-less acoustic readings of the artist’s work, Clapton’s Unplugged came pretty far into the whole “unplugged” story arc. The TV series had begin its life as a Jules Shear-hosted show with all manner of musical guests. Artists would render stripped-down, often more subtle versions of their (generally) well-known material. Beginning in late 1989, MTV Unplugged began airing, and by 1991 at least a couple of major stars had not only appeared, but had subsequently released live recordings documenting their performances: Paul McCartney‘s Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) and Mariah Carey‘s single cover of the Jackson 5‘s “I’ll Be there.” So by the time of Clapton’s Unplugged date, the idea was certainly neither new nor groundbreaking.

And by this point in Clapton’s career, his style had calmed considerably from the days of Derek and the DominosLayla and Other Assorted Love Songs (not to mention Cream), so the mellow approach was no significant stylistic departure for him.

Still, Clapton – joined by longtime musical associates including percussionist Ray Cooper, keyboardist Chuck Leavell and guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low – used the format to explore his love of the more acoustic-leaning “country blues” sounds that had long been a major influence on his playing. The result was a set heavy on covers (some might call them standards), with a few contemporary originals tossed into the mix. For his trouble, Clapton’s Unplugged LP scored him more than 10 million units sold, plus six Grammy awards.

The album’s most memorable cuts are a version of “Tears in Heaven,” the song about the tragic loss of Clapton’s son Conor, and a reinvention of “Layla” that bizarrely denudes the tune of its passion (and its classic extended instrumental coda), though it remains popular in many corners.

The new set expands the original album and offers three discs total. The first is an exact duplicate of the original 1992 CD, featuring fourteen songs form the television performance. The second disc features material recorded but not aired as part of the TV program, including three numbers (“Circus” and “Worried Life Blues” plus two takes of the unaired “My Father’s Eyes”) not broadcast, and four alternate takes/breakdowns of songs that did appear. A third disc (DVD) features the entire program as broadcast, plus an hour of previously unseen footage. None of the previously-unseen/unheard material is especially revelatory; they’re all very much of a piece. The booklet that accompanies the digipak is short on details; the opportunity to feature a contemporary essay on the performance has been passed up. And the cover art again features the grainy, “screen capture”-looking photo that graced the original release.

Verdict: good for Clapton fans who somehow don’t already have the lion’s share of this material on CD and DVD (or perhaps VHS); worthy of interest for most others, but not an essential purchase.

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In Memoriam: Johnny Winter, 1944-2014

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

According to his publicist, legendary guitarist John Dawson Winter III died on July 15 in his Zurich, Switzerland hotel room.

I count myself lucky to have interviewed Johnny Winter twice (please see the list of links at bottom of this essay), and to have seen him play onstage once. I know very little about albinism, but what little I have read suggests that those with the condition tend to have a shorter life expectancy than the general population. And the same is true of junkies; though Johnny was a great talent, nobody will deny that he was hooked on hard drugs for a major portion of his life. Those two facts taken together make it all the more remarkable that the Beaumont, TX-born guitarist made it past his 70th birthday.

In his last decade or so, Johnny really did turn things around. The stories I heard strongly suggested that he had been at the mercy of manipulative and exploitative management for many years. But my the time I first connected with him (2007) he had hooked up with Paul Nelson, who served as his manger and second guitarist. Nelson worked with Johnny to reassert control over parts of his catalog, and was clearly a very positive figure in Winter’s life and career.

The qualities that came through to me about the man were his forthrightness and his taciturn nature. Even though Nelson had warned me in advance (“Hit him hard,” he coached me in advance of my first interview with Johnny), I found myself unable to get much out of the guitarist. If there were any conceivable way to answer one of my questions with a single word – usually “yup” or “nope” – Johnny would find it.

I did manage to draw him out a bit in our first talk, enough to have him tell me about the time he had a date with one Janis Joplin; they went to see Candice Bergen‘s Myra Breckenridge in a movie house. But the cliché “He prefers to let the music do the talking” may as well have been written to describe Johnny Winter.

When we spoke again in 2011 about his involvement with the latest “comeback” album from Sly Stone, he made it clear that he – like everyone else associated with the project – had never met the enigmatic artist. Though he never came right out and said it, the clear implication was that Winter’s guitar playing on one of Stone’s tracks was just a job, nothing more.

That certainly wasn’t true of Johnny Winter’s rock and blues recordings released under his own name. Even when his health was poor and he was (reportedly) being exploited by those close to him, the music rarely suffered. His Alligator releases of the 1980s have worn well, and are happily free (for the most part) of the era’s production/arrangement clichés. And of course his output in the 1970s is virtually without peer. My favorite of all his recordings are a pair of tracks form his 1978 LP White, Hot and Blue: “Walking By Myself” and the Junior Wells standard “Messin’ with the Kid.” On both of these Johnny is joined by a second guitarist, freeing Winter to spit out blistering solos. And that –along with Winter’s growling vocals – is what draws people to Winter’s music.

I didn’t manage to meet Johnny in person when he played Asheville’s Orange Peel in 2007, but I did manage to snap a number of photos. As my own tribute to the man and his music, I’m sharing a few of these below. With the exception of the one in which he’s seated at the front of the stage (with the “Bar” neon sign clearly visible behind him), these are all previously unpublished shots form my private collection.

At the close of our first interview, I thanked Johnny for taking the time to speak with me, and made a point – as I often do – to thank him for his music. I thank him again and send positive thoughts to those – his band mates, business associates and his wife – that he leaves behind.

For more of my writings on Johnny Winter, feel free to explore these links:

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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews Part Three

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Here are three more shortish reviews, this time all new releases.

Randy Jackson – Empathy for the Walrus
As a rule, I’m rather wary of tribute albums. More often than not, they’re bereft of original ideas, and too reverent by half. And when they’re not, they seem likely to miss what was/is important about the subject of the tribute, and instead use the opportunity to press their own identity onto the songs of a (generally superior) composer.

Thing is, those truths (I call ‘em like I hear ‘em) mean that the exceptions end up being pretty special. And here, I am pleased to report, is one of those. Randy Jackson (not the jazz bassist/American Idol guy, and not Michael Jackson‘s little brother) was and remains leader of rock band Zebra (you may recall their 1983′s “Who’s Behind the Door,” an excellent AOR rock single of the era, no mean feat). And on his new solo album Empathy for the Walrus, Jackson takes a relatively unique approach and applies it to the peerless catalog of The Beatles.

Armed only with acoustic guitars (most of ‘em sound like 12-strings) and his voice, he runs through some of the best Beatles tunes from the later half of their career arc. Jackson allows himself virtually unlimited overdubs on these arrangements, but all he adds are more guitars and more vocals. And more, and more.

The results are nothing short of stunning. His deeply textured, percussive style on the guitars and his strong voice both lend themselves to this multi-layered technique. Here, Jackson favors John Lennon‘s compositions ever so slightly over those of Paul McCartney, but they both get the Jackson treatment. (so does George Harrison, on “Something.”) Drawing from the best cuts you’d find on Beatles 1967-1970 (the “blue” album) and throwing in a few from outside that era – “Norwegian Wood” and, wait for it, “Free As a Bird” – Jackson highlights both the strength of the songs (melody and lyrics) and his own strengths as player, singer and interpreter. Even the songs that were originally light on guitar (the Abbey Road suite in particular) come off well in Randy Jackson’s capable hands. Highly recommended, even to those who might be put off by the overall concept.

Hard Swimmin’ Fish – One Step Forward
When I hear or read the name Mitch Easter, thoughts of a certain kind of music fill my head. The Winston-Salem-based producer/musician was a key part of the success of R.E.M., The dB’s and his own band, Let’s Active. And that’s only naming three from a much longer list. And while all those bands had/have their own sonic personality, they do share a certain sensibility.

All of this makes Hard Swimmin’ Fish‘s One Step Forward a bit unexpected. This electric blues quartet from Frederick, Maryland plays a swinging style of blues that relies on the sonic textures found in hollowbody electric guitar, snare-centric drumming, solid doghouse bass playing, overdriven harp wailing and soulful vocals. And none of that has anything to do with producer Mitch Easter.

At least I didn’t think so until I heard One Step Forward. The brief band-penned liner notes explain that the band generally employs a DIY approach, but that this time ’round they wanted something different. I haven’t heard any of their earlier self-produced material, but one listen to the album makes it clear that Easter knew what to do: set up the mics, get the levels, and then get the hell out of the way. And if that’s not how it went down, it’s how it sounds. The production never calls attention to itself.

The band’s twelve tunes (mostly originals with a few standards mixed in) are successful at holding interest while remaining safely within the (occasionally restrictive) blues idiom. The album highlight is “Hear Your Mama Calling” with its extended blistering lead guitar solo, but all the tracks are good. They swing, they swagger, they deliver.

Supersuckers – Get the Hell
From the moment I heard the opening air-raid-siren that leads into the crashing title track, I knew I wanted to review Get the Hell. Imagine the best characteristics of 70s, 80s and even 90s heavy rock. Now subtract all the artifice and posing. Not left with much, you say? I beg to differ. The howling, growling delivery on this, the nineteenth(!) album from this quartet, proves once again that there’s plenty of life left in the hard rock idiom.

They call themselves the “Greatest Rock’n'Roll Band in the World,” and even if you might dispute that claim, there’s no denying that The Supersuckers play as if they’ve won the title and have to fight to keep it. Look elsewhere for subtlety; cast your ears in another direction for nuance. The thirteen tunes on Get the Hell rock, and they rock hard. Vocalist/bassist Eddie Spaghetti shouts his snarly, leering lyrics while the rest of the band pummels along in an unrelenting yet always tuneful manner.

The song titles tell the story: “Disaster Bastard,” “Bein’ Bad,” “Shut Your Face,” “Rock On.” If you fret that all today’s hard rock is retreads and posturing, get the hell over to a record store and get Get the Hell. It’ll cure what ails ya.

Still more “short cuts” to come.

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Album Review: Bobby Rush — Decisions

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

An authentic blues album is a rare thing in 2014. Maybe it’s a function of modern recording techniques; I don’t know the reason. But most attempts at capturing the blues in the context of a recording session end up feeling and sounding sterile and lifeless, rote and unimaginative.

The good news is that the current state of blues releases has the effect of shining a brighter light on those albums that truly do rise above. And that’s the case with Decisions, the new CD+DVD release from Bobby Rush. Ably backed by the seasoned party band Blinddog Smokin’ (Chicago Chuck Gullens on drums, bassist Roland Pritzker, Mo Beeks on keyboards, guitarist Robert “Chalo” Ortiz, and vocalist Carl Gustafson out front) plus assorted studio cats on additional guitars, saxophones and whatnot, Rush delivers his soulful vocals in a style that laid back enough to convey the I-got-this attitude without breaking a sweat.

Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack) shares lead vocal duties with Rush on one tune, the album opener “Another Murder in New Orleans.” And while the album packaging makes a bit too much of this single-track collaboration (“Featuring the Legendary Dr. John” is emblazoned on the cover artwork, and a great photo of the duo serves as the booklet’s cover), the tune will leave listeners wanting more from these two grizzled veterans of music.

In fact, the Gustafson-penned “Another Murder in New Orleans” fits smoothly into the sonic space of the album overall. Rush composed five of the album’s ten tracks, including the smoky title song. And he has a sympathetic foil in Gustafson, the writer (either solo or with others) of Decisions‘ other tracks. Gustafson included two numbers written to be autobiographical (sic) tunes, and their titles make clear their subjects: “Bobby Rush’s Bus” purports to tell the story of “nineteen years on the road” with Rush, and an announcer lets us know who’s taking each of the four solos. And the wry and comical “Dr. Rush” casts Bobby as a radio call-in advice resource.

In fact, nearly all of the tracks on Decisions aim for a slice-of Bobby’s-life vibe, and those slices are upbeat and grin-inducing. “Too Much Weekend” tells the story of the Monday-morning effects of a weekend of over-stimulation. Full of stabbing horn chart work, “Funky Old Man” implores the listener to do a new dance called the “Fred Sanford.”

Elsewhere, “Love of a Woman” mines well-worn lyrical territory familiar to any blues fan, and “If That’s the Way You Like It I Like It” is sung in the voice of a man who will seemingly put up with anything to keep his woman. And “Stand Back” folds in some Cuban salsa elements, answering the unasked question: What would Santana‘s “Smooth” sound like with Bobby Rush out front instead of that Matchbox 20 guy?

The included DVD features a video for “Another Murder in New Orleans” featuring Rush onstage with the band at One Eyed Jack’s, with Dr. John on piano and vocal. Some clever, highly stylized animation and handheld street-scenes camera work, adds interest, though the black-and-white narrative sections are perhaps a bit too literal. But overall, it’s an exceedingly well done clip. A brief interview of sorts with Dr. John is interesting, but the intercut footage of Rush sitting on a stool in the studio doing some solo blues with only his voice and harmonic is worth seeing.

Rush’s previous album — 2013′s Down in Louisiana – earned a Blues Music Award for “Soul Blues Album of the Year,” and since Decisions is every bit as good, it will be worth watching to see if this new album gets similar notices.

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Album Review: The Butterfield Blues Band — East-West

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Some people — musicians, listeners, you name it — get their nose out of joint when writers apply labels to music. How dare we, the thinking goes. The music shouldn’t be shoehorned into some reviewer’s preconceived notion of stylistic categories.

I’m guilty as charged of said pigeonholing, and I make no apologies. I see part of my responsibility (to anyone who reads my reviews) as being a sort of consumer guide. You, gentle reader, are too busy to sift through the endless stream of new music that is created daily. (Hell, so am I.) By providing a signpost or two, I can (if I’m successful) help you decide if a given release is worth your further investigation. The application of a label — folk-rock. prog-metal, Christian rap (okay, you won’t find me writing about the last of those) — is a quick and handy device, if not overused.

Way, way back in 1966, there weren’t as many labels. But by virtue of their stylistic complexity, some bands forced the creation of new labels. So while The Butterfield Blues Band’s name might have suggested one very straightforward thing to potential listeners, the music on East-West telegraphed something much more finely nuanced. The album title was the first clue.

There’s plenty of straight-ahead electric blues and blues-rock here, and the approach that the BBB used on East-West paved the way for countless bands who’d come later (The Allman Brothers Band comes to mind). “All these Blues” and “Get out Of My Life, Woman” are exemplars of an electrically-charged Chicago style of the blues. This was a mixed-race band, still a rarity in ‘66: Sly & the Family Stone and Love were two of the small handful of mixed bands of that era. And that quality probably added to the musical breadth that the band was able to display.

East-West would merely be an excellent album were it not for the inclusion of the title track, the last on the album (newly reissued on hybrid SACD in numbered editions). “East-West” is the reason the writers had to sharpen their pencils and try and come up with a new label. Raga-jazz-blues-rock? Who the hell knows? All that’s certain is that “East-West” is thirteen-plus of the most exciting minutes in 1960s music, full of guitar interplay that draws as much from modal and “Eastern” styles as it does from the blues. This album transcends, redefines the blues. East-West is an essential part of any comprehensive music collection. If you don’t already have it, pick this one up.

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Album Review: Dave Keller — Soul Changes

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Preconceptions can be a dangerous thing. When I read the advances of Dave Keller‘s Soul Changes, I made the assumption that Keller would be the latest vocalist in a Memphis-flavored retro bag. And while he is in fact that, he’s much more. Taking nothing away from the fine singers who don’t play an instrument onstage – Charles Bradley comes to mind – Keller offers a bit more on Soul Changes. Yes, he sings in a searing, soulful style, but he also rips it up on bluesy electric guitar.

With stellar backing on the first half of the album by the Hi Rhythm Section plus Stax veterans Bobby Manuel (guitar) and Lester Snell (keyboards), Keller turns in performances that compare favorably to Boz Scaggs‘ self-titled 1969 Muscle Shoals foray. And the second half of the disc (cut in Brooklyn) features backing by The Revelations, an NYC band who truly get the whole soul vibe. The songs on Soul Changes deal with the dissolution of Keller’s marriage (“17 Years,” for example) and he successfully channels pain and despair into a album that’s visceral and emotionally charged throughout. The album was nominated for a 2014 Blues Music Award. Recommended.

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Album Review: Magic Sam — Live at the Avant Garde

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Soulful blues guitarist Magic Sam (Sam Maghett) was only documented on album-length studio recordings twice in his short career. West Side Soul in 1967 and the following year’s Black Magic – both released on the venerable Delmark label – showed the electric guitarist to good effect. But quite a few live recordings (of varying fidelity) provide a more intimate sonic portrait of Magic Sam. One of those – this newly-released set – documents a date at Milwaukee’s Avant Garde in summer 1968.

Fro a field recording, the recording quality is superb. While it’s a bit thin and tinny in places, all of the instruments come through: Sam’s piercing guitar and thick lead lines, Big Mojo Elem‘s tight bass work, and Bob Richey‘s rock solid drumming are all well-placed in the house mix, and so that’s what was captured by Jim Charne‘s multiple-microphone setup.

The recording was planned and carefully executed; this was no “reel-to-reel hidden inside a bag” sort of recording. Though Charne was merely a high school senior when he captured this performance, he clearly knew how to operate the equipment. The resulting tapes are, as Charne writes in the set’s liner notes, a faithful document of the show: “When the band went on, the tape rolled. What we heard in the room is what we got on the machine.”

And what they got was Sam and his bandmates confidently running through sixteen tunes in just over an hour. Blues standards from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters are prominently featured, alongside several Magic Sam originals and modern blues numbers like Freddie King‘s immortal “San-Ho-Zay” (the set opener). Soulful lead vocals and plenty of tasty guitar solos abound. Even on the nearly-one-chord workout “Feelin’ Good,” Sam thrilled the assembled small crowd with his singing and guitar work while Big Mojo and Richey provided peerless support. The slower blues (such as Lowell Fulson‘s“It’s All Your Fault Baby” were just as exciting in their own way as the more uptempo blues numbers. A highlight of the set is a reading of Amos Blakemore‘s “Come On In This House,” in which Sam engages in call and response between his vocal and guitar licks; every lyric line is answered with some fleet-fingered guitar work; the rhythm section lays back and provides their most subtle backing on the set.

But there are many high points on Live at the Avant Garde, and those who enjoy blues guitar work will want to hear it all. The question that arises at the end of listening to this CD is: are there even more Magic Sam live treasures waiting to be released? While we wait for an answer – should one even be forthcoming – this set should provide many hours of pleasure.

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Leo “Bud” Welch: A Long Journey, Part Two

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Continued from Part One

And it is about that good music that I speak – briefly – with Mr. Leo “Bud” Welch. He has made the two-plus hour trip north to his manager’s office on Memphis’ north side specifically so that he can take my call. “I’m not Mr. Welch; I’m about thirty-one years his junior,” says Welch, using a line I strongly suspect he’s employed countless times in his 81 years. “Call me Leo, Bud…whatever.”

I ask him about the musicians accompanying him on Sabougla Voices. “That’s Jimbo Mathus backin’ me up” on some tracks, he says, though Welch plays guitar throughout the album. Mostly he’s on electric, but occasionally – as on “Mother Loves Her Children” and “A Long Journey” – it’s just Leo and drummer Andrew Bryant. Perhaps foolishly, I ask him what kind of guitar he plays on the album. “Mostly electric. But on the solo songs, I got a country guitar. You know: with a hole in the middle, and the sound comes out of that hole.”

Surprisingly – and perhaps counterintuitively for an album of this style – Sabougla Voices is not one of those old-fashioned, “everybody lays down their parts together at once” kinds of records. “I did my part of it first,” Welch explains, “And then they [producer Bruce Watson et. al.] put it together.” But the organic results delightfully belie that modern approach. And asked to explain his mixing of gospel and traditional blues, he says only, “That’s how I do it. That’s how I do my music. I don’t know what you call it; I call it praising His name.”

Leo Welch’s approach bears some similarities to the pioneering work of Sister Rosetta Tharpe; her synthesis of blues and gospel – not to mention her electric guitar work – was pioneering and forward-looking. Welch admits a fondness for Tharpe’s work, and the song he cites – a late 1940s cover of Mahalia Jackson‘s “Move On Up a Little Higher” – displays that hybrid gospel/blues sound.

Since Welch waited eighty-plus years to become an overnight sensation (He was the subject of a profile on NPR earlier this month), I ask if the songs on Sabougla Voices are tunes he’s carried with him for ages. Yes and no, he explains. “Some of them have been mine for two, three years. One of ‘em – ‘Praying Time’ – has been mine since Nineteen and Ninety-nine.” He sums up his overall approach by citing the track “His Holy Name.” “I keep on singing His holy name,” Bud Welch says, “so my singing won’t be in vain.”

Welch says he’s been performing since 1945, and he tells me he has “eleven gigs” lined up in Minnesota, followed by a tour of Europe and the UK. This week (January 23) he’ll perform in Memphis, and he has dates scheduled in Mississippi and in Nashville into February. Many more concert dates are in the planning stages.

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Leo “Bud” Welch: A Long Journey, Part One

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Every so often I’ll stumble across a story that is so note-perfect, so finely wrought, that my cynical side, the suspicious dimension of my nature is engaged. And since the arts are often home to some serious myth-making, when such stores concern musicians, I am doubly skeptical. But on the rarest of occasions, stories such as these are in fact true. The real deals do still exist: people with stories worthy of a Hollywood treatment are out there, waiting to be discovered.

So it is with Leo “Bud” Welch, and 81-year old gospel blues singer/guitarist from Bruce MS, an unincorporated town in Calhoun County. That county’s population has remained essentially the same size since 1890, though it did enjoy a brief boom in the 1940s. The nearest Interstate highway (I-55) is nearly 20 miles West, and the nearest city of significant size – Elvis‘ hometown of Tupelo – lies about 30 miles Northeast of the county.

Point is, Welch is from a region that’s near about as remote and rural as one can get in 21st century America. And here I’ll take a moment to quote verbatim from the press kit accompanies my copy of his new album, Sabougla Voices (more on which, presently)…

The phone rings at the Oxford, Miss.-based label Big Legal Mess. An intern tells the caller, “Oh, we don’t really do blues here anymore.” One of the company’s principals overhears this and grabs the phone. On the other end of the line is [Welch]. He’d heard about the label that brought you Junior Kimbrough’s First Recordings, Jack Oblivian, Reverend John Wilkins, Water Lairs and Bishop Manning and the Manning Family, and he wanted to know if there’d be interest in recording his debut album of downhome gospel and blues.

See? It really does read like the opening scene of a movie, right before we go to flashback.

And that flashback would run through Welch’s life, quickly hitting the high and relevant points in montage fashion: born in 1932; a young Leo learning guitar; a missed opportunity to audition for B.B. King; forming a gospel group called Leo Welch & the Rising Souls. And throughout the montage, viewers would hear the strains of Welch’s music.

The thing about his music is that it truly straddles the line between gospel and blues. On first listen, in fact, I heard it strictly as a blues collection: electric guitar and deeply soulful voice, backed by a no-nonsense lineup with little filigree (and fewer guitar solos). But as I listened more closely – the album richly rewards repeat listening – the gospel flavorings revealed themselves to the point at which they were so obvious, I wondered how I could have initially missed them.

First there’s the vocal choruses that back Welch up on many of the tunes. Not to traffic unnecessarily in cliché, but it requires no effort to imagine chorus-robed singers swaying and clapping in the background behind Welch and his sidemen. And then there’s the unmistakable lyrical focus of the songs. The titles tell the story: “Praise His Name,” “Take Care of Me Lord,” “Somebody Touched Me,” “His Holy Name.” You get the idea. But back to that bluesy first impression for a moment: the songs and arrangements are so strong, so heartfelt, that Sabougla Voices doesn’t require the listener to adhere to Welch’s set of religious views. It’s simply good music.


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Album Review: Blodwyn Pig — Pigthology

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

On their two well-regarded late 1960s albums, Blodwyn Pig forged a singular musical path, one some might say paved the way for such acts as Roy Wood’s Wizzard. This is epecially true on tracks like “Drive Me” from 1970′s Getting to This. Elsewhere they sounded not wholly dissimilar to Jethro Tull; this is unsurprising in light of the fact that founder Mick Abrahams played guitar in Tull’s early lineup.

While Blodyn Pig formed and re-formed over the years, the two albums cut before their initial 1970 split form the core of what the group is remembered for. Subsequent lineups included Peter Banks (later of Yes and even later of Flash), but the sonic centerpiece of the group was the jazz-leaning Jack Lancaster. He played saxophone, flute, violin and (occasionally) piano.

Fast forward to 2013. The original lineup – not some of ‘em, but instead all of ‘em — have reunited to release something called Pigthology. I approached this release with some trepidation, owing to the fact that its provenance is a bit murky. Yeah, all the guys are here on this album subtitled “An Anthology Featuring the Original Band.” In addition to Abrahams and Lancaster, original bassist Andy Pyle and drummer Ron Burg are on board. So far, so good, right?

Here’s where tings got troubling, where red flags popped up. The term “Anthology” connotes – but doesn’t strictly mean – a collection spanning an artist’s career. Most people think of Beatles Anthology, a collection of unreleased material from the old days, chronologically sequenced. But a look at the back cover of Pigthology shows that among Lancaster’s instrumental credits is this: “Yamaha WX7.” If you don’t know, I’m here to tell you that the WX7 is a modern MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) device. Simply put, it’s a synthesizer controller that one plays like a wind instrument. It was first sold in…1987. Math enthusiasts might note that this is some seventeen years after the release of Getting to This.

So Pigthology is an adventure in modern recording, then? Well, it’s simply too tough to tell. The liner notes – penned by Mick Farren, who has since passed away – notes that most of the recordings on the album are from the period during which the band “played alongside Led Zeppelin, The Who…” and so on. That places this recording in the late 60s or 70s. So which is it?

At its core, this question is one that ought to be simple enough to answer. But neither the packaging nor liner notes* clear up the mystery. What we’re left with is the music.

And of course that’s what it’s all about. Regardless of when the band cut these twelve tracks, they had it together. That curious British interpretation of the blues, imbued with a roadhouse boogie feel, forms the foundation of the songs. Lancaster’s jazz feel pulls things in that direction. The end result sounds – once again – like Roy Wood’s solo work, and his recordings with Wizzard and with the Super Active Wizzo Band. Beefy sax lines give the band a grittier sound than Jethro Tull ever had; this stuff rocks a lot harder than Ian Anderson‘s band ever did, and sports little in the way of medieval trappings (even when Lancaster’s blowing flute).

Yet Blodwyn Pig are pleasingly eclectic. On “Dear Jill,” acoustic slide guitar and fiddle create a folk-blues ambience that is extremely atmospheric. A few of the tracks don’t work: “Monkinit” sounds not at all like the product of an actual band; nearly everything about it – especially the stuttering drums – sounds like a band-in-a-box, laptop-sourced recording. Maybe not, but that ‘s what it feels like. Only Abrahams’ stinging guitar playing saves it from being completely bloodless.

But that’s the exception. Most of the material here – regardless of when and how it was created – is first-rate. A remake of “Drive Me” adds little to the 1970 original, but it’s still worth hearing; Abrahams is in fine voice, belting out the tunes in a Lonesome Dave Peverett style. An acoustic live reading of “The Change Song” shows off the group’s perhaps-unexpected quiet, reflective side. “Cosmogification” does The Average White Band one (or two) better, wedding the funk of that group’s style with the ambition of Colosseum. “Same Old Story” rocks like mad, and an instrumental country blues “Sly Bones” is a highlight.

“It’s Only Love” amps things up again, and would have sounded right at home on 1969′s Ahead Rings Out or the second LP. Save for an unnerving vocal effect (digital echo?) “Stormy Monday” wraps the album up on a delicious note.

Ignoring the slapdash packaging, the murky origins of the material, and the AWOL status of one track (a cover of “Hound Dog”), this is a worthwhile package.

Postscript: A quick check suggests this album was first released a decade ago; that fact – like most all other facts – is noted nowhere on this album’s packaging.

* Postscript #2: As it happens, source info is included on the back of the one-sheet sent to reviewers. I completely missed it when I first wrote this review. Most tracks date from 1969-70; a few are from the early  70s. The suspect ones (including the Thelonious Monk tribute “Monkinit”) are — not surprisingly — listed as “date unknown. Well, okay then. I think that’s linernote-ese for “recently.”

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