Archive for the ‘blues’ Category

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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Clearing the Backlog: Ten Micro-reviews

Friday, December 6th, 2013

As the end of 2013 closes in, I look at my inbox and see a massive stack of CDs. Best as I try, I don’t always follow a first-in/first-out policy with regard to covering releases I find worthy. And while my occasional capsule reviews do help reduce the pile of CD on my desk, today I realize that more drastic measure are necessary. Each of the following albums deserves more space than I’m about to give, but waiting until I have time and space would likely mean that some never get covered at all. So instead, I give you some exceedingly brief (50-word) reviews, with the additional comment applicable to all: these are worth hearing. All feature new music for 2013.

Pete Anderson – Birds Above Guitarland
Loping electrified blues with feeling. Tasty electric guitar licks (hints of c&w among the blooze) with soulful, greasy backing by a crack team, compete with horn section and Wurlitzer electric piano (almost always a good thing). Anderson can sing, too. Delaney and Bonnie‘s daughter Bekka Bramlett guests on one track.

Nathan Angelo – Out of the Blue
Neo-soul, Motown revival…whatever you care to label it, the funky sounds of Angelo’s debut are fetching indeed. Album opener “Get Back” (not the Beatles classic) is perhaps little more than a rewrite of The Jackson 5ive‘s “I Want You Back,” but it’s still fun. For fans of Mayer Hawthorne.

Chris Biesterfeldt – Urban Mandolin
I’m all in favor of outside-the-box musical approaches. And I believe this one certainly qualifies: a jazz trio led by a mandolin player. He charges his way through reinventions from among the best – Charlie Parker bebop, the soul-jazz of Jimmy Smith, the fusion of Chick Corea, even Frank Zappa.

The Bottle Kids – Such a Thrill
This isn’t a “they,” it’s “him.” Eric Blakely is the latest in a long line of powerpop do-it-all auteurs, and he knows his way around a Beatlesque hook. Harmonies meet guitar crunch and the result is as good as the genre gets. He sounds like a “them.”

Hickoids – Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit
The title has nothing to do with Harry Chapin (the king of maudlin), thank goodness. Instead, this is a comedy-leaning meat’n'potatoes rock album. Jeff Smith roars while the band spits out licks behind him. The production is on the homespun side, but that fits the loose vibe of the music.

The Nomads – Solna (Loaded Deluxe Edition)
Who would have ever predicted that in the 21st century, uncompromising punk rock would be made by middle aged guys? Guys from Sweden, no less, the land of ABBA. Anyone who digs no-bullshit rock (see: Smithereens, Sex Pistols) will get a charge out of this. It’s also available on vinyl.

Third of Never – Downrising
Arena-sized riff rockage with soaring harmonies and fret buzz, but without all the trappings of strutting rock-star poseurs. Kurt Reil (The Grip Weeds) does this outfit as a side project. Kindred spirits Dennis Diken (Smithereens) and John “Rabbit” Bundrick (The ‘Oo) guest, but it’s great at its core anyway.

Pat Todd & the Rankoutsiders – 14th & Nowhere
Familiar chord progressions delivered in a spirited, barroom-brawl country-rock style. Fifteen songs, zero bullshit. Sample/representative song title: “Small Town Rock Ain’t Dead.” Guitars, guitars and more guitars (and hardly any keyboards). Earle Mankey pops up on banjo(!) Infectious and fun, this will delight fans of Jason & the Scorchers.

Vegas With Randolph – Rings Around the Sun
In reviewing their last album (Above the Blue) I made comparisons to Fountains of Wayne; this time out VWR have asserted a bit more of their own identity. It’s still catchy, intelligent and slightly adventurous powerpop, with a slightly harder edge. Maybe the Seattle recording studio helped conjure that vibe.

Steve Weinstein – Last Free Man
Reading the press kit I learned that Weinstein is both a philosopher and physicist, and that the album includes protests against our modern surveillance society. None of which I found especially appetizing propositions, so I was surprised to find a tuneful, friendly album in an earnest, heartland Tom Petty mode.

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Album Review: Various — Pete Townshend’s Jukebox

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

UK-based Chrome Dreams has released a number of these Jukebox titles over the last few years, including titles exploring the influences upon Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and even The Grateful Dead. And while some of these artists have endeavored to do something similar themselves (McCartney’s 1999 Run Devil Run comes to mind), the concept is a sturdy and often illuminating one.

At its simplest, Pete Townshend’s Jukebox is a 28-song single CD survey of the songs that informed the musical sensibility of The Who‘s primary composer and lyricist. Townshend himself – a rather chatty interview subject in his day – made explicit mention of many of the artists and songs now brought together on this set. And in fact The Who covered several of these tunes: Sonny Boy Williamson‘s “Eyesight to the Blind” was the sole cover on Tommy (1969). And even back in the earlier 60s when The Who played Murray the K‘s NYC showcases, Townshend championed Mose Allison as an influence (his “Blues” is included here).

Some of the selections are pretty obvious, having influenced most all of Townshend’s contemporaries in one way or another. But listening to Link Wray‘s “Rumble” in this context, it’s clear that Townshend spent many hours letting the distorted jangle of Wray’s guitar seep into his psyche. And The Who always made their soul roots explicit, so having a James Brown tune (“I Don’t Mind”) here is little surprise.

The bluesmen included here would enjoy a belated and mightily-deserved renaissance/re-evaluation in Townshend’s 1960s Britain: Howlin’ Wolf (“Spoonful”) and John Lee Hooker (“Dimples”) are thus represented here as well. But while the jazz influences upon Townshend might be less obvious, works from Cannonball Adderley, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker fit smoothly into this collection.

Such a collection wouldn’t be complete – or even taken seriously – if it didn’t included some of Townshend’s rock’n'roll heroes; this set does, spotlighting Johnny Kidd & the Pirates (Shakin’ All Over” and “I Can Tell”) and Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues,” of course). But despite the inclusion of Otis Blackwell‘s “Daddy Rolling Stone” and Bo Diddley‘s “Road Runner,” Pete Townshend’s Jukebox isn’t merely a here’s-the-originals-of Who-covers set. The featuring of Ray Charles (the kinetic jump blues of “Mess Around”) and Booker T & the MGs helps remind listeners what was finding its way into Townshend’s ears while he was writing “Anyhow, Anyway, Anywhere” and “My Generation,” for example.

If there’s one shortcoming of this set, it’s the lack of any country-and-western tracks; Townshend cited Jim Reeves as an influence, and Chet Atkins-styled licks abound on early Who albums.

Derek Barker’s liner note essay draws upon quotes form the man himself to illustrate the connection each song has to Pete Townshend. And its context taken away, one can merely enjoy this CD as an eclectic collection of various (mostly but not exclusively American) music from the 1950s and 60s.

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Album Review: Humble Pie — Rockin’ the Fillmore: The Complete Recordings

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Ruminating on chronicles of excess, I recall that it was just about two years ago that Rhino Handmade released The Grateful Dead‘s Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings. Some 22 complete shows on 73(!) discs, you’d think it’d be more Dead than anyone cold ever want. Of course if you thought that, you’d be – like me – a decidedly non-Deadhead sort of person.

But there was a clear market for it, and to be fair, on that 1972 tour, the Dead hadn’t gone as off-the-rails as they’d later do: the songs are long, but they’re still songs. And the early 1970s were indeed the era where “rock excess” was a redundant phrase. Long solos, lots of solos (even on dreaded bass guitar and drums!) were the order of the day. Tunes that extended well past the 20-minute mark weren’t all that unusual, though the vinyl format generally precluded that sort of thing from being enshrined on albums. (Well, Allman Brothers and Mountain excepted).

Thing is, sometimes the material, the performance, the bands…they actually warranted, justified that sort of excess. Recall that this era is the time period during which Led Zeppelin extended “Moby Dick” to, er, leviathan lengths.

And live albums were the coin of the realm. Even before Frampton Comes Alive (more on that guitarist presently), the live album that heralded the beginning of the end of live album era, concert albums ranked among the best-loved releases of the day. Deep Purple’s Made in Japan, anyone? And howsabout Roadwork from Edgar Winter’s White Trash? Yessongs, Roxy and Elsewhere, The Concert for Bangla Desh…all are commonly found in any good rock album collection.

And in those collections – as in mine, to name one – you’ll quite often find Rockin’ the Fillmore, a live document compiled from a two-day, four-show run Humble Pie did at Bill Graham‘s celebrated NYC club in late May of 1971. Originally a double LP, Rockin’ the Fillmore captured an unvarnished, balls-out rock show by the British foursome, at the peak of their powers. That album featured seven cuts, two of which (“I Walk on Gilded Splinters” and a cover of Muddy Waters‘ “Rollin’ Stone”) each filled an album side.

All four Fillmore shows were recorded (by the Fedco remote recording facility, with Eddie Kramer working the console), and Rockin’ the Fillmore was compiled mostly from tapes of the two evening shows. But that left bits and pieces from those two shows – plus nearly all tape of the two matinees – unreleased. Until now, that is. With the blessing and cooperation of Humble Pie surviving members Frampton and Jerry Shirley, the archivists at Omnivore Recordings have released Rockin’ the Fillmore: The Complete Recordings. Spread across four CDs – one for each concert – Humble Pie’s entire Fillmore run is presented in all its glory.

Now, when the juggernaut LP Frampton Comes Alive stormed its way up the charts in 1976, there was muttering – and said muttering even found its way to the ears of this then-twelve-year-old – that the tracks were, shall we say, sweetened. It was all the rage in the mid 70s to fix mistakes, re-record parts that (so it was said) somehow “weren’t properly recorded” (yeah, right) and so on. Kiss Alive was another record on which post-production was taken to laughable extremes. But Rockin’ the Fillmore was different. Unsweetened, undiluted, it was and is exactly what you would have heard had you been one of the lucky people who saw those shows.

Of course; live sound systems being what they were in those days, what you’ll hear on Rockin’ the Fillmore: The Complete Recordings is actually a helluva lot better. As drummer Jerry Shirley said upon hearing the loudest and quietest parts on the masters, “You could hear a pin drop…you could almost feel the room shaking.”

Sure, it’s excessive. At an average duration of 27:00, four live versions of “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” means nearly two hours of it. But each version has its own organic uniqueness, and each is worth hearing. Marriott and Frampton engage in some lovely dual lead guitar work, while Shirley and bassist Greg Ridley hold down a rock solid (if intentionally plodding) bottom end. While the set list for these four shows was substantially consistent throughout, the band did change it up just a bit: “Stone Cold Fever” (on the original album) was performed only once, and “Rollin’ Stone” was only done at the evening shows.

Speaking of excess, the band members start soloing nearly right out of the gate. On all versions of “I’m Ready,” Steve Marriott engages in a good bit of vocal cord-shredding dialogue with Frampton’s guitar, in that 1970s way. But it’s exciting stuff, visceral and real. And while Frampton’s vocals on Ray Charles‘  “Hallelujah (I Love Her So)” come off a bit weedy in comparison to Marriott (they share lead vocal duties on the number, featured in all four shows), the relatively brief tune may well be the band’s finest moment: here Humble Pie manages somehow to be swinging and pile-driving at the same time.

The Omnivore box set features the four discs in mini LP-style sleeves, with cover art similar (yet not identical) to the original LP set. But the original gatefold sleeve included some 75 or so color photos of the band onstage, and two of the four vinyl disc labels sported groovy fisheye photos. Instead, the box set includes an informative essay and a handful of photos, some not included in the 1972 LP set. Including those photos would have made an excellent set just a notch better, but in the end, it’s all about the music.

So yes, four discs of live Humble Pie is a heaping helping of Humble Pie. But if any live album from the era deserves this treatment, Rockin’ the Fillmore clearly does. As Marriott said, it’s a gas.

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Shuggie Otis at The Orange Peel, Asheville NC 9 October 2013 (Part Two)

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Continued from Part One

Once the doors opened, we entered and secured our barstools, settling in to wait for the show. Minutes earlier, the Orange Peel’s Facebook event update status had informed us that the opening act had canceled last-minute, and as such Shuggie Otis would be taking the stage earlier than usual. At this point, only a handful of attendees had shown up, though by showtime the place was a hive of activity.

A few feet away from us, there was a surprising sight: Shuggie was sitting at the bar, nursing a beer and chatting with a few people. Now, the green rooms at the Orange Peel are well appointed, and most artists hang backstage pre-show. It’s a rarity to see a performer out in the venue-proper before the show begins. But here was Shuggie, smiling and conversing with various people.

When I had made my initial press inquiries, I was told that interviews with the man were few and far between. So with that in mind, I was hesitant to approach him. But other people seemed to have no compunction about doing so, and Shuggie was clearly engaging in conversation with them. So we wandered over and said hello. Shuggie shook our hands, thanked us for having helped him get into the venue, and graciously posed for a photo, still wearing his suit and hat, and sporting a big smile.

I was immediately stuck at his relaxed, casual demeanor. Based (unfairly, perhaps) on the hushed rumors I had heard, I half expected him to be a huddled recluse, wheeled out onstage to perform. Instead he was a cool and very approachable cat. There were no signs of him being anything other than a completely together performer, patiently waiting for his time to go onstage. After a few moments, we returned to our seats. Shuggie continued to chat with other people, posing occasionally for yet another photo, and mere minutes before showtime, he headed backstage.

When Shuggie Otis came out onto the Orange Peel’s stage, he was dressed in that same suit and hat. He had set aside his cane and donned a pair of large, dark sunglasses. He was wearing a vintage red Gibson SG with tremolo bar. The band vamped a bit while a robotic voice (a recorded intro) name-checked the onstage musicians, assigning them all pseudonyms. Otis introduced the first song – a variation on “Inspiration Information” and off they went, laying down a groove that was equal parts soul, funk and r&b. That song – punctuated by Otis introducing his band mates one by one – led into a straight reading of the actual “Inspiration Information,” one that melted away the years. Otis sounded exactly the same: those fluid grooves, that silky yet assertive guitar, that voice.

At the end of that song – and after grappling with an unruly Marshall half-stack and some pedals – Otis introduced each of the band members…again. This left us slightly perplexed: would he be doing this all evening, after every song?

His band was tight. Featuring his younger brother on drums, the band also included a keyboard player, bassist and a three-man horn section. Several of the musicians sang backup and took their turns at soling on their instruments, but it was always Otis who held center stage. Alternating between the SG and a black Les Paul, Shuggie delivered a set that drew from his three albums plus Wings of Love. The material from the latter was significantly better onstage than on the disc, perhaps owing to the full-band arrangement (in the studio, even as far back as the 70s, Otis has often favored primitive drum machines) and the organic feel of a live performance.

Blues numbers gave Otis ample opportunity to show off his sharp skills as a lead guitarist, and the sax, flute and keyboard solo spots gave him the chance to display his funky rhythm guitar chops. Between songs he’d sometime ramble a bit, occasionally laughing heartily at something the rest of us didn’t quite catch, but he was clearly having a good time. During the set, Shuggie endured some good-natured ribbing from his bandmates, and responded in kind. “What’d he say?! I should dock him. But he’s also my road manager. He handles the finances. So what’s a man to do?” Mid-set Shuggie teased the audience that he’d invite us all up onstage.

And to my great surprise, he eventually did just that. Near the end of the set, I wandered up close to the stage to get a few more photos. At that point, Shuggie’s road manager/horn player leapt to the front edge of the stage and began waving his arms, exhorting people to come on up onto the stage. Finding myself right there, I gamely went along. As it happened, of the dozen-plus people who made it up there, I was one of only two males. The rest were women who clearly came to dance. And dance they did, surrounding Shuggie as he knelt down, coaxing extended lead guitar lines from his SG. The crowd loved it, and welcomed him back for an rousing encore that included “Strawberry Letter #23.”

Otis’ site has a bit of information about his current studio project, due out sometime in 2014 and featuring some “special guests.” In the meantime, his current road show has wrapped up: last week’s Asheville date was followed by shows in Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans and Austin. If Asheville’s show was any indicator, the man is back in top form, and if there’s a tour in support of his as-yet-untitled album next year, I’ll be there, holding the front door open for him once again.

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Shuggie Otis at The Orange Peel, Asheville NC 9 October 2013 (Part One)

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

One evening early in September 2013, I was on the phone with a good friend. “Shuggie Otis is playing next month at The Orange Peel,” I announced. “What?! No…” Clearly I was mistaken, he thought. “He’s dead.”

No he’s not, I assured my friend. But that belief is a common, understandable mistake. Son of famed R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, Shuggie burst on the scene with Dad’s help in the late 1960s. When his debut LP, 1969′s Here Comes Shuggie Otis was released, the singer/guitarist was a mere fifteen years old. But one would never know that listening to the fully realized recording. Though he had help from musician friends including Wilton Felder, his first record displayed a firm command of a variety of styles, from soul to blues to r&b to a sort of ambitious, proto-progressive rock. He most definitely didn’t sound like some kid when he played those guitar leads.

While the album’s strongest and most forward-looking track was the opener “Oxford Gray” (a Shuggie original co-written with his father, bassist Felder and drummer Stix Hooper), the whole album showed promise. That promise was fulfilled in fits and starts. Freedom Flight didn’t come out until nearly two years later, but it was another solid collection that included the now-classic “Strawberry Letter #23,” a hit for The Brothers Johnson in 1977 (Shuggie’s original version remains the best). And three more years passed before Inspiration Information came out in 1974. Its title track was a minor hit, and this third album also garnered very positive reviews. But – more or less – that was the last anyone heard from Shuggie onstage or on record.

He didn’t exactly go away, but what he did do is murky. In (rare) interviews he points out that he never really stopped making music, playing guitar. And in fact that’s true: on the 2013 expanded reissue of Inspiration Information, the collection includes four more tracks from that album’s sessions and an entire second disc called Wings of Love. That disc brings together the best of what Otis had recorded between 1975 and 2000. And while overall it’s perhaps not quite as remarkable as his early work, its strongest cuts (including the song “Wings of Love”) hold up very well next to the best of his earlier work of nearly forty years ago.

But whenever Shuggie Otis’ name would be brought up, there would be talk of unspecified “problems,” reasons why he was no longer releasing new material or performing. “Erratic” and “unpredictable” are a few of the words I have heard used to describe him, though whether these opinions were the product of first-hand knowledge or rumor couldn’t be ascertained.

So when I discovered that Otis was mounting a tour and coming to Asheville NC’s Orange Peel, I simply knew I had to go. So Escape From New York film quote references aside (“I heard you was dead!”), I made plans to attend the show.

“Do you know how we get in?” That was the query aimed at us by the dapper, impeccably-dressed man who approached us just outside of the Orange Peel’s front door and box office. As is my standard practice, we had shown up early so we could get a seat for the show. The Orange Peel got its start in the 1960s as a roller skating rink (the wood floor remains to this day) and was a soul/funk club in the 70s. When it reopened in 2000, it held just under 1000 people, and a recent remodel/expansion increased its capacity to about 1400. But for most shows, a small scattering of four-top tables and barstools provided seating for no more than perhaps fifty people; the rest would stand. So for an evening of music (usually including an opening act), I preferred to have those barstools.

Hence our presence ahead of the doors (or even box office) opening for the evening. So at this moment, my sweetheart and I were the only people there. That’s when the stylishly dressed man approached us. In a subtly pinstriped suit with silk Ascot and matching cane (the latter seemingly more for sartorial effect than to provide balance), he walked up to the front door and turned to us, asking about how we might get in.

We recognized Shuggie Otis immediately. My sweetheart started banging on the glass door in hope of getting the attention of someone inside. “I’m playing here tonight,” Otis told us. I laughed and said something to him like, “Yeah, no kidding.” An Orange Peel staffer came to the door and opened it. Otis disappeared inside the venue.


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Album Review: Magic Sam and Shakey Jake — Live at Sylvio’s

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Maybe you don’t know who Magic Sam is. With a moniker like that, you might guess he’s a character from Willie Dixon‘s “Wang Dang Doodle.” But the blues guitarist born Samuel Gene Maghett had an album career that lasted a relatively brief twelve years, 1957 to his death in 1969. And his first album under his own name didn’t come near the end of that period, with 1967′s West Side Soul. And while he was awarded with some posthumous honors in the 1980s and ’90s, during his lifetime he enjoyed comparatively modest fame.

A live onstage tape of Magic Sam dating from sometime around 1966 (probably December, suggests Bill Dahl‘s helpful liner notes) has been released by Rock Beat Records under the title Magic Sam and Shakey Jake – Live at Sylvio’s. This date at the well-known Chicago blues club actually predated the release of Magic Sam’s first official LP. As seems so often the case, it was thanks to a European blues enthusiast – in this case, Belgian fan George Adins – that we have this set, recorded on a portable machine.

The lineup this night included Sam on electric guitar and vocals, plus Shakey Jake (Maghett’s uncle, born James Harris) on shared lead vocals and harmonica. Bassist Mack Thompson and Elmore James‘ drummer Odie Payne, Jr. rounded out the onstage lineup. The sound of the fourteen tracks (the disc also includes a short interview and two tracks from a 1969 European date) is a bit rough, but if you dig live blues, your ears will adjust soon enough.

Magic Sam and band tear through a catalog of blues standards, just about what one would expect from a blues band in a small West Side Chicago club. Lowell Fulson‘s “Reconsider Baby” gets a soulful, greasy reading. Sam tears it up on his guitar, playing lean, sinewy single notes on his guitar; he alternates between lightning fast runs and slower, bent-note licks. The backing band does what a blues band generally does: they lay down a solid backing, free of filigree.

The band swings on Junior Parker‘s “Just Like a Fish.” We can safely guess that the producers of this set edited out the between-song banter and tuning to present a tight release; as such, most of the tracks fade in at the beginning (and out at the end). All the blues tropes are here, but somehow it feels fresh; the performance never feels perfunctory. Sam and band aren’t exactly setting Sylvio’s on fire for the first few numbers on this winter 1966 night, but they are in fact turning in a heartfelt set of readings that hit the sweet spot between loose and rehearsed. Shakey Jake gets at least as much solo time as Sam (which may well explain why he gets co-billing on this set), but that’s all to the good; both are ace blues players.

The band finally settles into a fiery groove mid-set: “I Can’t Please You” is among the disc’s best numbers, with everyone firing on all cylinders; Sam’s lead vocal is especially impressive on this James Brown-ish soul/blues nugget.

Sam shouts encouragement to his bandmates throughout the otherwise instrumental “Baby Scratch My Back,” the closest this lot gets to pop on this disc; more than anything else, on this track they sound like Chicago blues fetishists Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. The band really cooks on Albert Collins‘ “Backstroke.” Perhaps it’s a function of the raw sound quality that makes the instrumental numbers among the most exciting on this disc.

By July 1967 Sam was in the studio working on his debut LP; the sole number performed on this night that ended upon that set was his original “All Your Love,” the original version of which was his first single back in ’57. The remaining studio cuts were mostly cover of blues standards, but not the ones he played this night at Sylvio’s. So Live at Sylvio’s is the only place to hear Magic Sam perform most of these tunes. Don’t worry about the fidelity (which isn’t really bad at all); instead, pour yourself a scotch, close your eyes and pretend you’re in a dark corner st Sylvio’s, enjoying a tasty set from Magic Sam and his band.

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