Archive for the ‘psych’ Category

The Chocolate Watchband: Give the People What They Want (Part 2)

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Chocolate Watchband guitarist Tim Abbott believes that these new versions of the band’s old songs are an “opportunity for us to rewrite history, to make it right.” Because any way you slice it, Richard Polodor‘s “Expo 2000” which leads off the new disc, is a pretty ace psychedelic instrumental, well worth revisiting.

And there was another compelling reason for the re-formed Watchband to record these songs: “None of these songs were on iTunes,” Abbott points out. “They weren’t available to the fans. Universal [Music Group] had control of it.” The band initially released the tracks independently under the title Revolutions Reinvented, and – interestingly enough – right as those versions hit iTunes, Universal decided it was the right time, finally, to make the original versions available, too. “Pretty much par for record companies,” Abbott observes ruefully.

But ultimately, all of the songs featured on I’m Not Like Everybody Else have been staples of the modern-day band’s set list for quite some time. “We’ve been doing these tunes since 1999,” says Abbott. Back then, vocalist David Aguilar rang up Abbott, told him that there was renewed interest in the band, and suggested they get things going again. Their first gig was in San Diego. “The promoter basically paid us to put the band back together,” laughs Abbott. Fans came from all over – as far as Europe – to see the revived Watchband play live. The band were surprised at the positive reception they got. “I knew something was going on,” recalls Abbott, “but I didn’t realize to what extent. When we finished the show, a guy came up to us and said, ‘I want to bring you guys to New York to do a live show. And we want to record it.’ And then another guy said, ‘We want to take you to Rome.’” And all those things did indeed come to pass.

In the wake of that success, The Chocolate Watchband recorded an album of new material. But Abbott admits that “fans didn’t really embrace” it. He concedes that the band “weren’t thinking about our direction; we just made music.” And while the music may have been worthwhile – the band’s current website pointedly makes only the briefest mention of its existence – it didn’t sound at all like the Watchband of old. And that’s what fans want. As Allmusic‘s Bruce Eder wrote in his measured review of Get Away, “coming off of a 32-year layoff from music, do you try to sound like who you were, which is to say, as people remember you, or who you are?” Abbott contends that the material was good, and suggests that the band might revisit and re-record the songs in a style more akin to their signature sound.

That’s what they did – very successfully – for I’m Not Like Everybody Else. “We had an experience in New York,” Abbott says, “where we brought some of our updated-sounding stuff. And what we found was that our fan base just rejected it. We had done our show, and when we came back for an encore, we did new music. And that was the worst possible thing we could have done! We didn’t know, but it was very educational.” He laughs as he recalls something David Aguilar said to him one night, post-show, after running through a set of the Watchband’s best-loved – “genuine” or not – songs. “We should have done these songs back then. They’re good!”

The new album takes its title from a Watchband cover of the classic Kinks song. But the lesson that The Chocolate Watchband learned happens to be the title of a later Kinks album: Give the People What They Want. Abbott observes, “a lot of bands get to evolve. The Beatles: you watched them evolve. There was an evolution of the style, the sound. But we don’t have that privilege, because we basically dropped out, and then we came back. And so our fan base wants The Chocolate Watchband that they love. They don’t want it changed. They don’t want it updated; they don’t want me to shred on guitar. They want to hear it in that style; that’s why they like it.”

Original bassist Bill “Flo” Flores is featured on the album, but had to retire shortly thereafter for health reasons. Music journalist/author Alec Palao is the group’s official historian, and he advises the group as well. Some of his most well-regarded advice: “Make it sound correct: make it sound vintage.” So both live onstage and in studio recordings, that’s what The Chocolate Watchband does. Abbott smiles when he cites a Belgian reviewer’s concert writeup: “For just a moment, I felt as if I was 17 years old, at the Fillmore Auditorium watching one of my favorite bands in the world.”

One of the other heroes of the 60s garage/psych era is The Seeds. That group’s keyboard player, Daryl Hooper, has now joined the Watchband for live dates and recording. “We have another album in the can,” says Abbott, “and we’re probably going to finish it in the fall.” Hooper is on the disc, playing both keyboards and guitar.

Based on the band’s early recorded legacy, they’re often thought of as major Rolling Stones acolytes. Not so, says Abbott. “We were kind of a blues-influenced band,” he says, noting that the only song from their albums that ever found its way into their live sets in the 60s was “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” So oddly enough, today’s Chocolate Watchband doesn’t really sound like the vintage band at all. At least not like the vintage band when they played live. “We did a lot of Chicago bluesy kind of things,” Abbott says. Flores and he “were influenced by James Brown and soul. And Gary [Andrijasevich, drummer] had a jazz background. David was an artist. And Mark, who I replaced, was really into Jorma Kaukonen from The Jefferson Airplane.” Not to put too fine of a point on it, but as Abbott says, “the live Chocolate Watchband was nothing like the records.” He laughs and adds, “It is now.”

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The Chocolate Watchband: Give the People What They Want (Part 1)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Among aficionados of 1960s garage and psychedelic music, The Chocolate Watchband is dearly loved. Though the band’s history is – even by the standards of that era – a mightily convoluted one, the band (and its ersatz versions; more on that subject shortly) left behind some durable music that captures the 1960s zeitgeist.

In many ways, the story of San Jose, California-based The Chocolate Watchband is typical of its time. Richie Unterberger‘s chapter on the band in his 1998 book Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll is highly recommended; suffice to say that the story is too complicated to recount here. The short version is that while the band recorded a number of excellent sides, producer Ed Cobb (and engineer Richie Polodor) brought in studio musicians to cut additional tunes, ones that the “real” band had nothing to do with. Complicating matters for those who value so-called “authenticity,” some of those not-really-Watchband tracks are very good-to-excellent.

In 2015, many might look back with bemusement (not to mention ridicule) upon 60s bands with “silly” names: Electric Prunes, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Vanilla Fudge, Strawberry Alarm Clock…you get the idea. It should be noted that these weren’t comedy bands in any sense of the term; no, they were often as deadly serious as, say, Love and The Doors. And while the Watchband didn’t score any megahits along the lines of the Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints” (which featured a lead vocal by a guy who wasn’t even in the group, but that’s yet another story), they created some excellent music.

Oddly enough, The Watchband have some connections to The Grateful Dead. Prior to joining the Watchband, guitarist Tim Abbott played in a band that sometimes featured drummer Bill Kreutzmann “Our regular drummer was a ski bum, and he used to desert us all the time,” Abbott chuckles. “In college, I played with Mickey Hart in The Five of Harts, his band. And I knew Bob Weir; he used to come down to The Chocolate Watchband’s cabin in Los Gatos. One time, in 1967, he brought along what might have been the very first wireless guitar rig, a prototype. And Jerry Garcia helped me get one of my favorite guitars; he worked at a music store.”

Abbott recalls the circumstances of his most memorable Chocolate Watchband concert date of the 1960s. It also happens to have been his first one. “Mark [Loomis] had left the band, and there were a lot of bookings left. They called me in on a Wednesday afternoon: ‘Tim, we’ve got a gig Saturday.’ We rehearsed all the way from Wednesday all the way up to Friday night. Almost without sleeping. Saturday morning, we jumped into the manager’s Lincoln and then, off to Mt. Tamalpais [just north of San Francisco] for the Mount Tam Fantasy Fair.” That festival drew more than 36,000 people on June 10-11, 1967, and featured an eclectic lineup that included Dionne Warwick, The Doors, Tim Buckley, The Byrds, The Merry-Go-Round (with Emitt Rhodes) and many others. “I walked out onstage,” Abbott remembers, “and I thought, ‘this is cool.’”

But that wasn’t all. “When we finished our set, the manager for The Fifth Dimension walked over to me and said, ‘Our guitar player didn’t make it. The band really like the way you played. They want to know if you’d substitute.’ I said yes.” He went over and met the band, and was all set to play with them. “I asked, ‘Do you guys have any charts?’ They said yes and opened their book for me.” He pauses for emphasis. “Not a chord in sight! All written out, ‘golf clubs on fences.’ And I hadn’t sight-read in years. I mean, I could sight read, but not in front of that many people! I asked them, ‘Don’t you have anything with chords on it?’ They said, ‘No, this is what we have.’ Those were studio charts for seasoned studio guys.” Abbott had to bow out, but he still has fond memories of the festival.

Modern-day listeners may know The Chocolate Watchband best through their inclusion on the Nuggets compilations. The original 1972 double LP featured “Let’s Talk About Girls,” an aggressive, macho Rolling Stones-flavored rocker. But when Nuggets was expanded to four CDs in 1998, the band scored two more inclusions: “Sweet Young Thing” (not the Monkees‘ tune) and the immortal “Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love-in),” which had been featured in the 1967 teen exploitation film Riot on Sunset Strip.

In the group’s (again, convoluted) heyday, they released three LPs – 1967′s No Way Out, The Inner Mystique in 1968, and 1969′s One Step Beyond – all of which command extremely high prices on today’s collector’s market. And all three feature a mix of originals, covers, actual-group performances, and recordings made without the band’s knowledge or involvement. Their time apparently having passed, The Chocolate Watchband broke up in 1970.

Fast forward more than thirty years. With the renewal of interest in all things garage-psych – thanks in no small part to the aforementioned Nuggets reissue – four key members of the 60s era band reunited and began to play live dates. Various compilations and live discs followed, and eventually the group entered the studio to record a new album. Now available as I’m Not Like Everybody Else, that disc collects thirteen tracks from the band’s history, in newly-recorded (but faithful) versions.

“There were a couple of things that were on our minds,” explains Abbott. Acknowledging that some of the songs weren’t recorded by band members – much less played live at concert dates back then – he says, “There were a few times when the band got to do what it does, but not often. Not to the extent we wanted to. David [Aguilar, lead vocalist] was replaced by a studio guy, and then they took pieces of what we had done, and built new songs out of them.”

“The record companies back then were in complete control,” Abbott says. Understandably, the band wasn’t happy to learn their record label was passing off songs written and performed by others as the Chocolate Watchband. “The band hated ‘em. I remember using those records for target practice,” Abbott says with a chuckle. “And when those albums started going for two, three and four hundred dollars apiece, I started thinking, ‘Oh my god. What have we done?’”

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Album Mini-review: Wizzz! French Psychedelic 1966-1969 Volume 1

Monday, August 17th, 2015

File Next to: Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond, Roman Coppola’s CQ Soundtrack

France has long been notorious for its musical insularity. Listen to a bootleg of the Beatles‘ February 1964 show – the height of worldwide Beatlemania – and you can hear the group just fine; the Parisians merely clap. And they simply couldn’t accept the real Elvis Presley; they had to mint one of their own, Johnny Hallyday. France was seemingly resistant to outside musical influences, and that worked both ways: Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg were huge stars at home, but got relatively little traction internationally. But a newly-reissued collection shows that French musical artists did pay attention to what was happening elsewhere. Fuzztone guitars, combo organs and simple, trashy melodies are all the rage on this fourteen-track set. Is it derivative? Sure. But it’s always undeniably French, with a vaguely square café jazz vibe applied to songs worthy of (if not The Seeds, then) Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood.

An edited version of this review previously appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

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Album Mini-Review: Todd Rundgren/Emil Nikolaisen/Hans-Peter Lindstrøm – Runddans

Friday, August 14th, 2015


File next to: Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Tangerine Dream

This would be noteworthy if only for the fact that Todd Rundgren rarely collaborates with other artists (Utopia, Ringo’s All-Starrs and that one Residents album excepted). And Rundgren rarely visits musical territory he’s explored previously. But on Runddans, he does both. Those who prefer his pop-centric side (Something/Anything being the exemplar) might find Runddans a bit meandering. But listeners who enjoyed Initiation, Healing, and/or the quirky A Cappella will simply delight in this. Runddans is mostly instrumental, but when Rundgren does sing – wordless vocalizing on “Solus” and proper singing on the “Put Your Arms Around Me” suite – it’s deeply soulful and redolent of 1975′s “Born to Synthesize.” One can draw a straight line from A Wizard/A True Star to the delightful yet dizzying cut-and-paste psychedelic arrangements found here. And Todd’s guitar work on this lush, warm disc will conjure memories of pyramid-themed stagecraft and ankh-shaped instruments. A triumph.

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Album Mini-review: Rose Windows — Rose Windows

Friday, August 14th, 2015


File next to: Black Mountain, Black Angels

Talk about promise only partially fulfilled. When Rose Windows released Sun Dogs, their 2013, major-label debut, they displayed great potential. With a strong tribal-psych groove reminiscent of Black Mountain, the young Pacific Northwest group seemed posed for great things. So the news in Spring 2015 that they were disbanding was met with great disappointment. But all is not lost; they leave behind this new self-titled disc, a parting-shot album that delivers on what Sun Dogs only suggested. Melodic yet full of heavy/light contrast that suggests (but rarely sounds like) progressive rock, Rose Windows sidesteps the “sophomore slump” curse. Hypnotic rhythms and stomping guitars are juxtaposed against folky (yes!) flute/synth lines. And they top it all off with the expressive, yelping vocals of Rabia Shaheen Qazi. Now if they had only stuck around for a third album, who knows what fascinating musical journeys they might have revealed.

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Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling Him Back (Part 4)

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: A lot of highly-regarded musicians have named you as an inspiration. David Byrne was instrumental in the first [2001] CD reissue of Inspiration Information. Lenny Kravitz has said great things about your music. And I hear your influence in some of Prince‘s music. Those are just two examples. What do you think about the fact that your body of work – the music you’ve made – has been influential on other artists?

Shuggie Otis: I’m flattered. It’s beyond me what has happened with my music. It’s amazing that my music has touched stars and other artists. It’s even been used in TV commercials. “Strawberry Letter #23,” for example. It’s been sampled so many times, too. The idea has been used in a lot of things, too: they change the notes around, but you still get the idea. And I’m just amazed that I had anything to do with something so big. Because that song is way, way, way bigger than I’ll ever be. When you have a hit song, it’s always gonna be bigger than the person who wrote it. No matter how big the star is, if somebody’s going to be humming that tune during the day, they’re not even thinking about the star.

I wrote the song, and I take credit for that, but I don’t take full credit. Because I feel that I’m channeling music. Apparently, I’m a medium; I realize this more as I get older. I feel like music is something that’s coming through me, and sometimes it’s really quite interesting as it’s happening.

When that happens to you as a writer, you’re usually by yourself. And you’re communicating with someone, because – with the respect that you’re writing words, you’re saying them out loud. And so at times you’re talking to what seems to be another individual. One or more. You can’t see them, but there’s usually that one spirit that you’re communicating with.

I don’t know what the name of all that is. But music has got to be the biggest healing force in the universe; one of my musicians was telling me that Jimi Hendrix used to say that. I said, “Yeah, I remember that album that Albert Ayler put out, Music is the Healing Force of the Universe [1970].” I’ve always liked that title. And I realized, yes it is! Not only is it a healing force, it is the biggest healing force. And I think a lot of people agree with me.

I love music so much. And to be a part of it, now, it’s something like a new high to me. First of all, you’ve got to get a little success to feel that way. You have to have been, I say, blessed with a chance to feel that feeling where you’re not jealous. Because jealousy has to go away – all away – in order to be able to write and play music well. You can’t think about anything but the music. So lately I’ve been playing more music than I ever had before. And it seems to be – it doesn’t seem to be, it is – very therapeutic for me.

And I hope that I can bring that onstage, and be therapeutic for someone who needs it. I don’t feel that I’m going to be some big healer, I just want to go there and have a good time like everybody else. I don’t want to be all serious about Shuggie Otis or his music; I just want to be a part of the crowd.

I always wanted to be separate from the crowd, before. That was a problem. I didn’t know how to relax around people. Now it seems to be much easier. I mean, I did; there is still this big misconception of me. When you’re out for so long, there’s this idea, “Oh, Shuggie? He’s shy. He’s doesn’t like people. He’s afraid. He’s paranoid.” Some of those things were true. But now, for some reason – and like I say, I don’t know why – I’ve chosen to stay alive for another day. I hope!

I’m elated these days, and I don’t feel the need to ever stop being that way. As long as I stay in touch with the music, I don’t think I’m exaggerating at all: music is a natural high. It gets people to laughing and dancing and all kinds of stuff. And they get their minds off of everything that’s bothering them. And if there’s nothing bothering them, then they just keep having a good time.

Life can be worrisome sometimes; I understand that. And I’m trying to relate to people in a much different way. I know that I can, now. Whatever conception I had of myself before, it’s different now. The things that used to bother me, it seems like I’ve gotten over those things. The main thing is to stay alive so I can play music. And music keeps me alive. Music is what I do.

I used to think, “Oh I should have done this or that before.” But it’s a mistake to think about the past. You’ve got to just keep going.

BK: Talking to you now, it really seems that now is your time…

SO: I feel the same way. It’s my time, whatever happens. It’s my time to share the music, if nothing else.

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Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling Him Back (Part 3)

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Shuggie Otis: But the songs kept calling me back. A song would be really good, and I’d think about it, and realize that I have to face whatever it is that’s bothering me about this song. It might be something personal. It’s not not necessarily that the song has anything to do with real life, but what the song is saying. I guess when the album comes out, you’ll know more about what I’m talking about. I’m happy with the songs now.

I was playing the guitar for hours last night, coming up with new ideas; all kinds of stuff. At one point I went and listened to some of the stuff I’m working on. All of the ones that I didn’t want to be on the album are going to be on there after all! I came back around and realized, “These songs sound like my fans would like them.”

But it’s not just my fans I’m thinking about. The songs have to please me first. And that’s what the problem was before: “I don’t want to use that song; it bothers me personally.” I had to detach myself and say, “Wait a minute; forget that. Is the song any good? Do you think somebody else might like it? Forget what it’s saying, because not everybody cares that much about what [lyrics] you’re writing!” If the music’s good, you have to ask yourself, “Will this work? Do you want to put this out?” And I thought it was kind of funny how many times I’d keep shelving these songs. But now, okay, they’re coming out.

Bill Kopp: Where does your music come from? Do you sit down and say, “Okay, time to write a song,” or does it happen some other way?

SO: I can’t do that too well. I can, but I don’t ever accept what comes that way. Because I know it won’t come out they way I’d like. I mean, it has to come to me. Believe it: I’ve come up with ideas that I thought were great – just recently – and then a few weeks go by, and then, “No, that’s one’s going away forever. And that one, too. And that one.” But some of them call you back. And once they come to me, then I’ll stay with them for hours. And days. Weeks, however long it takes.

And I’m trying to step on it now, because I don’t want to hold up the record company and just take my time. That’s not the [goal] at all. What I’m trying to do is work with a quick pace. When I’m in the studio, I pretty much go at it without taking a break. And I’m very, very happy to get into a studio again. Because I had been working out of my home studio. And that’s great, but to get back into a real studio is something extra special for me. That’s something I haven’t done in, I don’t know how many years.

It’s a very special time for me. And I’m just praying that everything goes right. We’re all really excited. I have a band of great musicians, really great guys. We’re happy to be playing together, and to be getting such a great reaction. And I’m not going to let anything get in the way of this. If I can help it, we’re going to just keep on playing. Keep on playing, and don’t think too much about the business. Because focusing more on the business surely does hurt the music.

Before, I had that wrong mindset; I was thinking about, “Oh, how the record companies are treating me bad!” And I couldn’t get past that anger. Now, I think to myself, “It was a natural reaction; you’re a human being.” Because for years I felt for the most part that I wasn’t wanted in the business. And perhaps that was the truth. But you can take something like that and stretch it into a big, crazy notion. It shouldn’t have to run your whole life, but it can affect a person.

So my case was kind of different in that I couldn’t get a record deal even though I was so well-known. Still, it didn’t affect my life in a really bad way; I still had a good time. My life was okay; it wasn’t all as dreary as it might sound. I felt like I had been in the business since I was a kid, with my father, his band rehearsals, and that kind of thing. I was right there with show business even as a little child. So I did feel at the time that they didn’t want me, that my time would come back around. And it did come back around. I look back now, and I think, “Wow. I must have a lot of patience!” I’m very fortunate. And blessed. So I’m just going to try to give back now.

And hopefully there’s no ego trips any more. I’m not saying that I’m all the way there, that I’m perfect. Every day can be a challenge. Maybe every day is a challenge. For me, I see something happening that’s so good. So I don’t let those things bother me.

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Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling him Back (Part 2)

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: You sent demo tapes to many labels, but nothing happened for years, until the reissue of Inspiration Information with the added Wings of Love material. That you finally got the notice you deserve seems to be more than luck. Why do you think you’re getting noticed now after being ignored for so many years? What’s special about now?

Shuggie Otis: I don’t know. I can’t really answer what’s special about it, but life continues to be special to me. I don’t know how to describe it, but I’m very inspired to play music right now. Just like I was in my late teens and early twenties. I’m 61 now. There’s something special about having that kind of enthusiasm, I think. For me, it’s a very good time now. And it hasn’t always been that smooth. Things are much brighter now.

BK: If I had to pick one word to describe the album Inspiration Information to someone who had never heard it, I’d pick the word “quiet.” The album seems like the opposite of the idea of shouting to get someone’s attention. The music seems, sometimes, to almost whisper to get people to be quiet and listen.

SO: Yes, it was quiet; I agree. But it wasn’t an approach that I took purposely for that effect. It was just the way I felt. I wanted the music not to be so loud, trying to get [the listener's] attention, trying to how express how good [I am]. I wasn’t thinking about being “out front” at that time. I feel more comfortable with that idea now. It’s kind of odd, but that’s the way it is. I’m more out front now with the guitar, so the [new] music – onstage these days – is almost the opposite of Inspiration Information.

Now I’m working on a bunch of things, including an album for Cleopatra Records. It’s coming along. I don’t know how to describe the music, but I’m very excited about it. It should be coming out later this year, for sure.

BK: One of the great things about your music is that one can’t really pin it down and call it psychedelic soul, or funk, or rock, or blues.

SO: Yeah. I like so many different kinds of music; I don’t feel like I need to stop at one style and stay there. I’m pretty free with that idea. I’ve never had to adjust or conform; I’ve had that freedom since I was a kid with the record labels. Whatever happens musically, happens. Music gets to be a problem when you try to express it in words. But I hope that you like mine. It’ll be a different concept; I can say that much.

BK: Since you are proficient on so many instruments, when you write songs, do you have specific things in mind with regard to what, say, what the drums should do, what the keyboards should sound like and play, and so on?

SO: I usually have an idea of what the [parts] will do that will go along with the song. On Inspiration Information I played all the instruments, and I continue to record that way. But I am going to incorporate my band into the new recordings, too. Because the band has a special sound to it, and I want to get back into playing with live musicians.

I had been doing sessions alone for so many years; it feels so good now to play with a band these days. And I’ve got a band where I can feature myself on guitar in a different way; there’s more guitar featured now than before. And I’m very happy about that.

BK: You’re playing live onstage more now than you have at any other time in your career. What do you like most about performing, and is there anything about it you don’t enjoy?

SO: I like performing. There isn’t anything I don’t like about performing! I know that probably seems funny to people that know I’ve been away from the limelight for so long. And that wasn’t always my choosing.

I had a different mindset. My frame of mine wasn’t centered so much about…I had a sort of ego trip. Because I couldn’t get a record deal, I was thinking more about record deals, vast money, and being treated like a star. And that’s negative, when you think about it. When it comes to music, you shouldn’t have those kinds of problems going on in your head. But I did.

And now I don’t. I don’t think about music as far as making money anymore. When I write a song, it’s just stuff from the heart. Way more than it ever was before, it’s important for the song to mean something to me.

For instance, I’ve written some songs recently that I thought were good songs after I recorded them. But then I would say, “Okay, I’m not using it no more. I don’t even want to hear it.” In fact I would put almost a whole album down. I’ve done that maybe three times with the album I’m working on now.

I’m sharing something funny with you here. I wanted to know if putting the songs out would affect me in a bad way after people started listening to them. It’s a paranoia, and it’s really unnecessary. I would think, “Well, with this song here, it might sound…they might think…”

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Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling Him Back (Part 1)

Monday, August 10th, 2015

“I look back now,” says Shuggie Otis, “and I think, ‘Wow. I must have a lot of patience!’” The multi-instrumentalist is reflecting on the curious arc of his career so far: his fame began in earnest when he was a young teen, continued into his early twenties, and ended abruptly after the relative commercial failure of his 1974 LP Inspiration Information (now regarded as a classic) when he was dropped by his record label. Otis largely disappeared from public sight after that, and didn’t resurface for almost forty years. These days, he’s working on a new studio album – Live in Williamsburg was released last year – and engaging in an ambitious touring schedule.

Otis was born in Los Angeles, the son of famed bandleader and r&b legend Johnny Otis. The senior Otis (born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes) is commonly referred to as the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.” Of Greek heritage, Johnny lived among – and lived as – an African American. He co-wrote “Hound Dog” and was an influential part of the American music scene, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.

Son Johnny Alexander Veliotes, Jr. (his mother nicknamed him Shuggie, and the sobriquet stuck) and his brother Nicholas both picked up their father’s musical interest and prowess. A natural talent, Shuggie had taught himself guitar, and was gigging with his father’s band by the age of 12. By 1969 he was featured on an album of his father’s called Cold Shot, and another disc, the X-rated Snatch and the Poontangs. A live album, 1970′s Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey! also featured Shuggie’s impressive guitar work. “Working with Dad was mostly a good time; it was fun,” says Shuggie. “He was a strict kind of a bandleader, but he was also a fun guy. Everybody liked him. Even if some kind of argument popped up, [the other person] would always come back to him.”

Around that time the now-fifteen year old was “discovered” by Al Kooper and showcased on Kooper Session: Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis; B.B. King called Shuggie his “favorite new guitarist” and Shuggie played bass guitar on Frank Zappa‘s Hot Rats cut “Peaches en Regalia.” Shuggie’s first true solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, was released in 1970. While the superb “psychedelic soul” album featured many of the elder Otis’ bandmates (Wilton Felder, Stix Hooper, Al McKibbon), it was also notable for Shuggie’s multi-instrumental prowess on guitar, piano, harpsichord and celesta.

Freedom Flight followed in 1971, with Shuggie taking a greater role in the album’s development. Playing even more instruments and composing most of the songs, Shuggie penned the classic “Strawberry Letter #23,” which would reach #1 on the 1977 soul charts in a cover version by The Brothers Johnson.

But it would be three more years before Shuggie delivered Freedom Flight‘s followup to his record label. The simmering Inspiration Information was very different from Shuggie’s earlier work. Now just 21, Otis had recorded the album almost completely on his own (save for session players on strings and horns). The muted, intimate-sounding Inspiration Information featured extensive use of the Rhythm King, an early electronic drum machine, in place of “real” percussion. Well ahead of its time – and not, thought the execs at Epic Records, delivered on time – the album was poorly promoted, and was a commercial disappointment. The label summarily dropped Otis, and the 21 year old was now without a record deal. To the public at large, it was as if Shuggie Otis had vanished.

Rumors swirled around the seeming disappearance of such a bright talent. Was he hard to work with? Was he dealing with any manner of personal issues? Nobody seemed to know for sure, and while some began to forget about him, those who appreciated his work kept hoping that he’d return one day. Shuggie recalls that period. “People [had] said, ‘Everybody loves him. He’s gonna be a big star!’ And the next thing I knew, nobody wanted to have anything to do with me. That was kind of strange…not strange; it was disillusioning. It was a disappointment.”

Meanwhile, his songs were sampled by OutKast, Beyoncé, J Dilla, Digable Planets, Kanye West and others. But none of those people, it seemed, were in a position to offer Shuggie that elusive record deal.

Shuggie Otis continued to record and perform, all as he searched without success for a new recording contract. A 2013 Sony Music collection of the best of his material from the post-Inspiration Information era was compiled and released as Wings of Love, packaged with a reissue of the ’74 album.

That reissue sparked renewed interest in Otis’ music, and to promote the 2013 reissue/compilation, Shuggie Otis put together a band and toured, playing for audiences he hadn’t faced in years. A contract with Cleopatra Records followed, and the 2014 Live in Willamsburg disc documented the high-energy stage show, a set list that contained old favorites and newer material.

At the start of the current leg of what’s billed as The Never Ending World Tour, I spoke with Shuggie Otis about the past, the present, and the future. Over the next three days, I’ll present that conversation.

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Hundred-word Reviews for July 2015, Part 2

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Five releases from five acts from five different countries (Poland, The United States, Germany, Belgium and Sweden) are the focus of today’s brief reviews.

Lunatic Soul – Walking on a Flashlight Beam

Bassist/vocalist Mariusz Duda seems to be taking a cue from the astoundingly busy Steven Wilson; he’s involved in several musical projects all at once, and each is both unique and very worthwhile. His primary band, Riverside, has been slightly less active of late (new album coming later this year), but as Lunatic Soul, Duda has released four albums. Walking on a Flashlight Beam continues the project’s avoidance of electric guitars, and Duda sings and plays everything except drums. The music is ambient-leaning melodic progressive rock; it’s deeply textured and contemplative music that holds up well to active listening. DVD included.

Hildegard – Hildegard
I’ve occasionally wondered why hardly anybody has come up with music that spans the divide between accessible, electronic-leaning vocal pop and more adventurous progressive-minded rock; it seems as if that could – if it’s done right – be a winning combination. To my delight, I’ve found that such a thing does exist. And it comes from an unlikely place: New Orleans. Hildegard is guitarist Cliff Hines and vocalist Sasha Masakowski, and on their self-titled debut, the seamlessly blend a dizzyingly wide variety of musical styles. The subtle, quieter moments are a slow burn; the many rocking parts do indeed rock.

Camouflage – Greyscale

It’s my firm belief that the musical styles of the 1980s aren’t all used up; while the MTV era gave us untold amounts of by-the-numbers synth-pop and -rock (and then moved on to other things), there’s a lot that can be done with the musical tools and aesthetics of that period. The cool synthesizers of that period represented the gradual displacement of analog by digital machines. On Greyscale (their eighth studio release), Camouflage continues their winning approach of sturdy, moody music. The German group’s sound suggests a less bloodless Human League, or a less melancholy Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark.

Brainticket – Past Present & Future

Originally a (sort of) krautrock band of the early 1970s, Brainticket released two of the odder entries in the genre, 1971′s Cottonwoodhill (reissued in 2013) and 1972′s Psychonaut. The prime mover of the group was keyboardist Joel Vandroogenbroeck. Now it’s more than forty years later, and while everyone else involved with the 70s lineup is long gone, Belgium-born Vandroogenbroeck has enlisted members of non-German krautrockers Hedersleben to craft a new album. Past Present & Future features hypnotic works a la Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd; it’s dreamier and less insistent than the early stuff, and thus more accessible. Quite enjoyable and recommended.

Last Days of April – Sea of Clouds

It’s a peculiarly American perspective to think of ourselves as the center of the pop-culture universe. But the truth – of course! – is that there’s some great pop coming from places that don’t have English as their primary language. As I’ve just now discovered, Sweden’s Last Days of April is one of these acts. They’ve been around for two decades, and their sound is one that should please American ears. Singing in non-accented English and featuring simply lovely use of pedal steel guitar, they trade in an engaging, hooky, country-flavored timeless pop. A serious contender for best of 2015.

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