Archive for December, 2010

Musoscribe’s Best of 2010: New Releases

Friday, December 31st, 2010

While it’s true that a staggering amount of music crosses my desk each year, a large percentage of it tends to be reissues, archival releases and the like. Those are my area of specialty and interest. But I am a keen follower of new music as well. My tastes rarely coincide with anything like the Top 40, so I won’t be considering 2010 releases from Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber (assuming there were any; I neither know nor have any interest in knowing).

Maple Mars is unapologetically powerpop. Released on the genre-specific Kool Kat label, on Galaxyland this outfit creates intelligent yet hook-filled music that will appeal to anyone who thinks Jellyfish deserved to be huge. But they also draw upon the best of 60s and 70s pop traditions. And they do it all while rocking. What’s not to love?

Nick Curran used to fill the first guitar chair in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. But you won’t find more than brief hints of that band’s style on Reform School Girl. Imagine instead an unholy mix of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Misfits, Eddie Cochran and Motörhead. Not for the weak-willed, this is hard stuff. It’s what the Stray Cats should have sounded like. And the production is absolutely perfect. Nick: more, please.

Gold Motel are a pop group with a female lead vocalist. Their songs are memorable and hooky, and filled with subtle little hints of the best of 80s new wave. Initially released only as a download, Summer House got a physical release right near the end of the year. By the way: When the band posted a link to my review, they credited me as the well-known animator Bill Kopp. I’m not that guy.

I stumbled across The Orange Peels’ album 2020 late-late-late in 2009, and in fact listed it as a best of that year. But it was officially released in early 2010, and I still play it all the time. Catchy almost beyond description, 2020 draws sonic inspiration from some very interesting and unexpected places. The group members are involved in myriad other projects as well, and some of those have caught my attention too.

Spock’s Beard have breathed new life into progressive rock. They survived the loss of their leader/primary songwriter/front man and actually went on to get even better. Their tenth album – appropriately enough titled X – brings melody to the fore, while offering plenty of hairpin musical turns for prog fans. X is a compelling, exhilarating listen from start to finish, and it’s among the most frequently-played CDs in my office, car and Zune. It’s hands-down my favorite album released in 2010.

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I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.

Musoscribe’s Best of 2010: Live Shows

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

I was lucky enough to attend nearly two dozen concerts in 2010. Most of the shows were at small, intimate clubs; a couple were in large halls or arenas. I primarily went to local shows in Asheville NC, but occasionally traveled out of town, and for a couple, nearly halfway across the country.

With few exceptions, I enjoyed them all. But five shows from 2010 stood out as especially memorable.

The spring “Frequent Flyer Tour” performance by Henry Rollins at Asheville’s Orange Peel marked my third time seeing Rollins. He’s simply riveting: he stands alone onstage with no props, no notes, no nothing. He talks about whatever comes to mind, rarely pausing more than a second or two. What he talks about is in turns funny, sentimental, harrowing, thought-provoking, but never boring. The slogan for the tour sums up his worldview: “Knowledge without mileage equals bullshit.”

I can’t say enough good things about Mayer Hawthorne. Straight outta nowhere, this guy created a fully-formed stage persona and sonic approach that draws on the best of the past, while somehow remaining modern. I’ve rarely been to a show where people (a) were mostly unfamiliar with the material being performed and (b) absolutely loved it. This was definitely one of those times.

A sentimental favorite is (and always has been) Paul McCartney. During the Wings Over America tour, I was a young teenager. I called the ticket agent and all that remained were seats behind the stage. I figured I’d save the $7 and see Macca “next time.” Well, I did, but it was in the late 80s. I saw him again in 1993, but this 2010 show in Charlotte was especially great because I was able to share it with my son.

Vancouver BC’s Black Mountain are a band worth hearing. I’d seen them before, but attended their fall show at Asheville’s Grey Eagle in connection with a feature I wrote about them for the local altweekly.  They were predictably great, but the big surprise of the night for me was the act that went on before them: The Black Angels. Their brand of drone-psych was amazing, a bit like Velvet Underground with stronger melodies.

I never miss Swedish folkrockpsych (and increasingly jazz-influenced) quartet Dungen when they play Asheville, one of their favorite places. Their music continues to evolve, and leader Gustav Estjes is now — for me – one of a short list of artist whom I’ll follow anywhere musically.

Honorable mention goes to — of all things – the double-bill of Bill Haley’s Original Comets and Paul Revere and the Raiders in Branson MO. Nostalgia? Certainly. But great, authentic, heartfelt rock and roll as well.

I’ll wrap up this Best of 2010 series with a look at my five favorite new CD releases of the year.

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Musoscribe’s Best of 2010: Reissues

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Concord merits mention yet again, this time for being responsible for two of the best reissued CDs of 2010. They’re also the two (of these five) by artists you’ll likely recognize. Ray CharlesGenius + Soul = Jazz gets the deluxe treatment via superb sound, relevant bonus tracks galore and scholarly liner notes from Will Friedwald. If you’re one of those people who admires Charles’ work but finds some of it a bit too stylized, this is a perfect entry point that could change your mind.

That label also brought forth the latest in its ongoing Frank Sinatra reissue series: the mid-sixties Strangers in the Night. Released at the height of the rock era – but wholly uninfluenced by it — this album has nonetheless worn extremely well. A few bonus tracks and excellent liner notes from Ken Barnes make is even better.

The remaining three are seriously obscure titles from virtually unknown artists. Midwestern rock act Spur completed an album in the very early 70s, and it was released regionally. Then they faded from the scene. What they left behind was an amazing folk-rock-psych album influenced by the Byrds, Moby Grape and other greats, yet with its own identity. Now Of the Moments has been reissued on vinyl with an altered track listing; this is one amazing listen. Its release confused this writer to no end, as the review explains.

Poobah was a heavy, heavy heavy group of the early 70s. Their debut LP Let Me In went on to become a collectors’ holy grail of sorts. It’s now been reissued with a ton of bonus tracks (essentially doubling the album’s length), and there’s nary a weak one in the bunch. For fans of the Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep brand of rock, this is a definite don’t miss disc. The group is still at it in 2011.

Esquerita taught Little Richard how to play piano. Then Little Richard got famous thanks (in part) to Esquerita’s brand of technique and delivery. So then Esquerita decided to get in on the action himself. Weirder and wilder than his student, Esquerita produced some of the rawest, craziest music of the early rock era. His best sides are collected on Wildcat Shakeout. You have been warned.

Next we’ll look at my favorite concerts of 2010, and then we’ll wrap up with the Academy Award for Best Pic…er, no, the best new albums of 2010.

Musoscribe’s Best of 2010: Compilations

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Some amazing compilations albums came out in 2010. From my standpoint, five of these are especially noteworthy.

A highly-regarded DJ and champion of the Northern Soul movement, Scottish-born Keb Darge has curated a long line of compilations. These collections balance the cratedigger/archivist aesthetic with the goal of providing just plain great music. One of Darge’s 2010 comps was titled Legendary Rockin’ R&B, and that pretty much says it all.

Renowned guitarist Phil Manzanera has created a wide-ranging and impressive body of work with collaborators and groups (Eno, Roxy Music, Quiet Sun, 801, David Gilmour, Split Enz) and on his own. The package The Music – 1972-2008 is a worthy survey of his career to date, and it includes a DVD stuffed with fascinating goodies as well.

UK independent label Ember managed to release some great music in the 60s and early 70s, but few people heard it then. Fantastic Voyage has secured the rights to the Ember catalog, and is issuing all sorts of compilations, nearly all of which are highly recommended. For me, Looking Towards the Sky is hands-down the best, with its focus on psych, prog and folk-rock.

Concord has established itself as sort of an Elektra for the 21st century: the label takes a non-exploitive, artist-centered approach to its catalog and releases, and this is especially true with regard to back-catalog compilations. Its Definitive series surveys the work of jazz artists who recorded for Riverside, Prestige, Concord Jazz and other labels. All are worthwhile, but the Coltrane 2CD set is the best (albeit by a small margin) so far.

Otis Redding’s career was cut down in its prime by that tragic plane accident. But we have the music. And now we have even more than before. Live on the Sunset Strip brings together all extant tapes from the vocalist’s bravura residency at that Los Angeles hot spot. Large chunks of this material have been available before, but this collection brings it all together, Talk about definitive! It’s the best compilation release of 2010.

Next we’ll survey album reissues from 2010: some biggies, and some ultra-obscurities.

Musoscribe’s Best of 2010: DVDs

Monday, December 27th, 2010

2010 saw release (or re-release) of several noteworthy music-related DVDs. Perhaps the most significant of these is the new film Who Is Harry Nilsson? And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him? I just interviewed that film’s director and am working on a feature to be published soon. So for now that one’s not on this list.

What remains is quite worthwhile. The legendary T.A.M.I. Show – long a mainstay on the collectors’ circuit due to its rarity – has now gotten official release. It’s an important historical document, a groundbreaking technical achievement, and some great performances to boot. And the Beach Boys segment that was missing form bootleg copies has been restored. Must-see.

The shout-outs on the inner sleeve of Frank Zappa’s debut LP Freak Out offered great insight into the iconoclastic musician. The DVD The Freak Out List explores those name-checks and puts them into context with regard to Zappa’s career and worldview. It’s essential viewing for anyone who wants a better understanding of FZ.

Albert King was joined on a Canadian TV soundstage by young upstart Stevie Ray Vaughan. The results were released (audio only) not long after, but the complete show in both sound and video has never gotten official release until now. In Session is a delight.

Brian Wilson is rightly recognized as an important songwriter of the 20th century. The new 2DVD set Songwriter 1962-1969 takes a critical, historical and in-depth look at his work, and provides commentary from people who were there. Unofficial and unsanctioned, it’s nonetheless essential.

The King Crimson lineup that made 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King never made a follow-up. But what if they had? It would sound an awful lot like the 21st Century Schizoid Band, a modern-day aggregation that’s essentially that band less Fripp and Lake, plus some of the heavy-hitters from subsequent early lineups. Stunning sound and video.

Next we’ll look at “vault” recordings and compilations.

Musoscribe’s Best of 2010: Interviews

Friday, December 24th, 2010

In 2010 I conducted a long list of interviews, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed every single one of them. Some were in-person; some were phoners, and couple used Skype. In every case I believe I came away with a better understanding of what makes the artist tick. But a few interviews stood out as especially remarkable and rewarding.

Jason Falkner is one of those does-it-all-kinds of musicians. He lends his talents to the recorded work of many other artists, but when it comes to his own music, he tends to go solo. I had a wide-ranging conversation with Jason a few months ago, and found him surprisingly candid about, well, everything I asked him about.

The New Mastersounds are at the forefront of a soul-jazz revival. I’ve been following their career with keen interest for awhile, and jumped at the chance to sit down with them prior to a enthusiastically-received outdoor concert last summer.

Henry Rollins is perhaps best known as former vocalist for Black Flag, although some people know him as one of the scariest characters on the Sons of Anarchy TV series. I know him as a spoken-word artist, but he doesn’t engage in the often-pretentious medium of poetry. Instead, he walks out onto a stage and just talks about…stuff. To the uninitiated that might not sound compelling; in fact it’s quite riveting. I interviewed Rollins last spring.

On the Beatles’ final tour of the USA, they were joined by a Boston band called the Remains. Expected to make the big time, for a variety of reasons the Remains never gained major fame, but they left behind some great music and a great story. I interviewed Remains leader Barry Tashian for a major feature that ran in the British magazine Shindig! Now it’s online too.

Anybody who grew up in the 1960s remembers Paul Revere and the Raiders; they were on TV more than the Monkees. While the hitmaking group saw its lineup change over the years, the “classic” mid-60s lineup created some great music that has withstood the test of time. I conducted a long series of interviews with most of the surviving members of those years, and crafted a major feature which ran as a cover story in Shindig! It’s the highest-profile printed piece I’ve ever done.

I did plenty of other great interviews in 2010, including Graeme Edge (The Moody Blues), Felix Cavaliere (The Rascals), Steve Cropper (Booker T & the MGs), Tommy James (the Shondells), Gary Wright, Howard Jones, Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Richard Barone, Steve Hackett (Genesis) and others. All of those are here as well. 2011 promises to be equally memorable.

Next I’ll look at my favorite music-related DVDs of 2010.

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2010 Odds and Ends (Capsule Reviews)

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Even if one is (for example) a reviewer of measured fame and notoriety, one still ends up with a ton of unsolicited and semi-solicited audio material arriving via post. (The latter is sort of, “May I send you my CD?” “Yes, but I can’t promise a review.”) Because I stumble across so much excellent music, for the most part I limit my reviews to those things that interest me the most. A lot of dross comes my way, and plenty of CDs don’t get a full hearing. It’s the way of the world: Especially for an unknown-to-me artist, the first track must get my (positive) attention. If I like it, I’ll let the CD play on. If I’m less than knocked out, I hit “Skip” and try the first few seconds of a few others. The ones that don’t pass muster go in the Goodwill bin.

Fair enough; you likely wouldn’t want to hear what I had to say about those artists anyway: their names would be mostly unfamiliar to you, and I wouldn’t be recommending them. But sometimes some good music (and occasionally some very good music) just doesn’t make it into my review queue.

Plus, the New Year is fast approaching, so I want to get this huge stack of CDs on my desk down to a workable size. With that in mind, herewith are some capsule commentaries on music that has crossed my desk. All are recommended to some degree if my points resonate with you.

Various ArtistsThen: 1956 (Fantastic Voyage).
Another in FV’s ongoing series of year-in-review CDs, this one takes a look at the British chart-toppers from 1956. Note that in those days the UK charts were ruled with a (velvet-gloved) iron fist by Auntie Beeb, and ’56 was a long time before the days of pirate radio. So what you get on Then: 1956 consists equally of “adult pop” a la Dean Martin, Perry Como and Pat Boone and more sounds of import (see what I did there?) via Elvis, Bill Haley and Gene Vincent. And of course Lonnie Donegan‘s “Rock Island Line” is here. Thank goodness; without Lonnie we might not have had our lovable lads from Liverpool.

CloverseedsThe Opening (The Laser’s Edge).
Generally releases on TLE are progressive rock affairs, and that’s how this one is marketed as well. To my ears it’s closer to hard rock. Not that this is a bad thing, though. The sleeve art has a strong Lasse Hoile vibe, which again might make one think of prog, but Cloverseeds are bit more chunka-chunka than progsters might dig.

Information SuperhighwayThis is Not the Ending (self-released).
This quartet features Rob Clearfield, the nimble and versatile keyboardist from District 97. And like D97 this group features a female vocalist. But Information Superhighway doesn’t engage in the harder-edge, tricky arrangements of D97, and this album is a more subdued affair. Interesting choices of instrumentation make it well worth a listen.

Jesse BrewsterWrecking Ball at the Concert Hall (Crooked Prairie).
The record kicks off with the dusty, freewheeling “All Those Things I Said,’ and stakes out territory that will be welcomed warmly by fans of Jackson Browne, Tom Petty and some of those post-Eagles solo albums from Don Henley et. al. From there, things take a decidedly Americana/country turn, but this is miles above what passes for modern country.

Dave StephensTime Will Tell (self-released).
This is a singer/songwriter album of wide scope. Waltzing ballads, sweeping rocking epics, lovely string arrangements and crunching guitars all sit nicely aside each other. Dave Stephens is responsible for most of the instrumentation and vocals, but this well-produced album sounds not a bit like a homemade demo project.

MaefliesDinkytown Highway (self-released).
This is more mainstream country with a gently rocking edge, which is to say it’s mainstream country. Expert playing by a real band (as opposed to faceless sessioners) and a capable female lead vocalist (who’s undeniably a bit of eye candy) raises this above similar efforts. Fans of Fleetwood Mac, Shania Twain or even later-period Bob Seger will find plenty to like here.

Minnemann-ChicoineNormalizer 2 (self-released).
Crazed stickman Marco Minnemann recorded an hour-long drum solo and made the recording available to other musicians, allowing them to do as they would. Trey Gunn (formerly of King Crimson) applied his sonic icing in the form of Warr guitars and whatnot and created Modulator. (My interview with Trey Gunn will be out soon.) Other artists took their own cracks at the material with different results. Kerry Chicoine (of the prog outfit Mars Hollow, whose excellent album will be reviewed in depth soon) took a crack at it, and the results are challenging in the best sense of that word. At times it’s a bit like bossa-nova, then it’s stand-on-your-head musical acrobatics and guitars from another dimension. Engaging, fascinating and on the edge, it doesn’t always work. But that’s part of its appeal, and it’s successful far more often than not. (At press time prolific DIY artist R. Stevie Moore expressed interest in taking a whack at the Minnemann tapes as well. Hmm.)

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I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.

Musoscribe’s Best of 2010: Books

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

2010 has been an impressive year for music fans. Well, certainly for ones with tastes similar to mine. Over the next few days I’ll be taking a look back at some of the year’s highlights in seven categories: books about music; reissue CDs; music-related DVDs; new CD releases; notable interviews; concerts; and a catch-all category that covers compilations, archival releases and previously-unissued recordings from the vaults. As with any list of this kind, these are completely subjective and reflect my personal tastes and biases.

Best of 2010: Books

Five books deserve special mention this year. Two are wistful looks at the age of the record store. James GossVinyl Lives and Record Store Days by Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo explore the rise and fall (and survival?) of the neighborhood record store from different angles. Goss’ book centers on lengthy essays with store owners, and the beautifully-designed Calamar/Gallo book includes history, interviews and more.

Chicago-based music experts Jim DeRogatis and Gary Kot wade into the debate of the ages with their coffee-table-book-with-actual-content, The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones. Paul Myers takes a detailed and fascinating look at several elpees worth of tunes in A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio. It’s exhaustive and essential all at once, whether one is a Todd fan or (inexplicably) not. Finally, Daniel Durchholz and Gary Graff present Long May You Run: The Illustrated History. It surveys the irascible, inscrutable and iconoclastic career of Neil Young.

In my next blog post I’ll take a look at my favorite interviews of 2010.

The City Champs – Representing Their Hometown (part 2)

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

 Continued from Part One

BK: The last time I saw you, you were up the street at the Orange Peel, opening for the North Mississippi All-stars. While I’d imagine that touring with them was a good break for the band on many levels, I would think that their fan base might not line up 100% with your potential fan base. And, you know, I’ve seen lots of opening acts, and generally the audiences sort of go, “Meh.” But that night, you killed ‘em. People were really enthusiastic. Was that just here, or did you find that reaction a lot?

GS: I’ll be honest. Luther Dickinson is a good friend of ours; we’ve pretty much grown up together. We played guitar together as kids. I’ve know him for years, Al’s known him for years. Luther’s no dummy. He bought our record in a music store, and went home and played it. He got it on vinyl. And he was excited; he called me up and said, “This fuckin’ record is great! Do you guys want to tour?” We were a band that was strictly playing in and around Memphis. Mostly at one club, one night a week. So we hadn’t really put the nose to the grindstone as far as being able to tour. So we rallied and made it happen. But Luther knew from that record; he told me, “I think you guys are going to be great live.”

AG: A buzz started to happen right when the record came out. We got written up in Downbeat. One of the jazz writers for the New York Times, Ben Ratliff, saw us in a club in Brooklyn and wrote about us in the paper the next morning. So before we even toured, there were things happening. NPR was using our music for “bumps,” things like that. We felt like the tour would be a really good thing for us. Luther knew it would be good for the All-stars as well, because we could all play together.

Joe Restivo of The City Champs. Photo (c) Bill Kopp
JR: When we did the Northeast run with them, the responses were really strong. It was surprising.GS: The shows were completely sold out before we’d even hit the stage.

JR:I don’t know who our demographic is, per se. I did another interview, and they asked, “Who’s your demographic?” I don’t know. But we’ve had good luck. We played in a lot of different settings in Memphis. Bars, clubs, different ages of people. And people for the most part have been really receptive. It’s hard when you’re an instrumental group’; there’s not a lot of bells and whistles. It’s three guys playing; it is what it is. But on that tour, yeah, the Orange Peel response was pretty typical.

BK: One thing that surprised me when I last saw you play was when you did “Get Out of My Life, Woman.” I had no idea you did songs with vocals. You haven’t included any on your albums. And I also noted that you did hardly any of the songs off The Safecracker at that show.

The City Champs - The Set-up

JR: We probably did a bunch of songs that are on this record! But we change out set every night. And as far as vocals, we choose to be an instrumental group. Because we actually have an awesome singer — Al — in our band. Being singers in bands for twenty years, we decided that this would be our instrumental band. A lot of time at shows we have to twist his arm a little bit, but we’ve got a three- or four-song vocal repertoire.

BK: Here’s a broad-brush sort of question. In 2010 we have you guys. We have Soulive. We have Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Bettye LaVette. And others, besides. All of you have your own clear individual approach, but you’re all trading in a sort of American soul revival style. Now, I don’t think I’m too far of the mark suggesting that had you all come along ten years ago, you couldn’t have gotten a record deal, or a spot on a tour, or much of anything playing your music. So, finally, my question: why now? Why do you think that your music — good songs played in a style that saw its peak in popularity come and go decades ago — is getting appreciated in 2010?

GS: I’ve gotta give it up for film and television. A lot of directors nowadays are using older styles music; they’re aware of it. Certainly, friends of mine in other bands are now sort of sticking with it.

BK: But ten years ago, nobody was doing this. And if they were, nobody was hearing it.

JR: Soulive did come out in the 90s. And the whole Daptone scene got going in the late 90s. The Sugarman 3, those records came out in 1998. I hope, at least, that we’re careful about being viewed as a trendy, retro act. I think we’re playing around with aesthetics of groups that we all grew up listening to, but we’re trying to combine some things, some subgenres. Kind of like what a DJ does on a turntable, we do with three individuals and our musical thing. So it’s not like we’re thinking, “Let’s get on board this exciting trend!” We actually grew up listening to this stuff. We grew up loving the Meters, Lou Donaldson, Grant Green. We’d watch spaghetti westerns and listen to Ennio Morricone scores.

George Sluppick of The City Champs. Photo (c) Bill Kopp

GS: When you work in a style that you really love, and you get into it and really start studying it, your own playing starts to evolve.

BK: I don’t think of you guys as a retro act.

GS: I’m very, very glad to hear that. There’s always going to be references to other acts: “Wolfmother sounds like Led Zeppelin.” Yeah.

AG: I’m not trying to claim our legitimacy, but George used to play with Albert King when he was eighteen.

JR: We’ve all played with William Bell, Eddie Floyd…Al played with Rufus Thomas. We’ve had an opportunity, being from Memphis. When you’re next to it, it’s not so abstract. It’s there.

BK: It wasn’t like if you had said, “Hey, let’s be a Chicago blues band.”

JR: Right. That’s a good way of putting it.

AG: Our town has been through its lumps. It doesn’t always get a fair shake. So we try to represent.

The City Champs with Bill Kopp. Photo (c) Bill Kopp

GS: I have friends and relative who come to visit Memphis. People who haven’t even been there before. The first thing they want to see if Graceland. They want you to take ‘em to Beale Street, and they want to eat some barbecue. But there’s so much more! Some friends from New Orleans came recently, and they had never been to the Stax Museum. They had heard about it for years. I took ‘em to eat fried chicken at a famous joint, Gus’s, and then to Stax. We were there for three hours. And when they left, they had a completely different view of our city, where we come from. It was great for me to show them that. Because Memphis is Elvis, blues and barbecue. But it’s way, way more than that.

JR: The idea of this record…you know when your record is done, and you’re all excited. Well, an old friend of mine was visiting, and we were out barhopping one night. I had The Set-up in the CD player, but I didn’t tell her. She was wistfully looking out the window of the car, and she said, “This sounds like the soundtrack to our city.” And I thought that was awesome!

GS: You know what I like about this band? We have a chameleon aspect. The three of us, we’re The City Champs. And then we can bring in a horn section, and it goes to a whole ‘nother level. And we’ve got some singers that we work with. And it’s really great to play with those guys. We can go anywhere musically. When we were on tour with the All-stars, things got a little more edgy musically. Both bands would sort of encourage each other, push each other. We got to open the show, and then jam with them. And then we’d be off to the side of the stage watching them. We’d feed off of each other. So when we’d get to the next venue, we’d have all this energy from the night before. It’s a beautiful thing.

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The City Champs – Representing Their Hometown

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

In January 2010 I reviewed The Safecracker, the debut album from Memphis soul/jazz instrumental trio The City Champs. A month later I saw them onstage for a great show at Asheville NC’s Orange Peel. This fall the trio returned to town for a show, and I took the opportunity to sit down pre-show with guitarist Joe Restivo, organist Al Gamble and drummer George Sluppick. Over pizza and beer, we discussed the sophomore release The Set-up, their chosen genre, and their relationship with both the North Mississippi All-stars and the historic southern metropolis The City Champs proudly call home.

Bill Kopp: You come from Memphis, and you play a particular brand of instrumental soul music. With that backdrop, do you — even though you’re relatively early in your recording career as a band — feel any sort of responsibility, any sort of “hey, we’re a Memphis instrumental group; we’d better sound like this, or do that,” et cetera?

Al Gamble: I don’t feel like we have that responsibility, but I think it naturally comes out that way. And we certainly respect it. We love that music, and we love what we’re doing.

Joe Restivo: We definitely on this album — maybe more than on the first one — have a little bit of a nod in the direction of some Memphis music. First of all, the production style of our label and engineer Scott Bomar definitely comes out of the Memphis recording tradition. So that’s part of it. Sonically, it’s got that production vibe. But we do a song called “Crump St.” Without a doubt it’s got a nod to Booker T. There’s a long Memphis instrumental tradition between Booker T., Bill Black Combo, the Mar-keys…on and on. So, yeah. I don’t know if we feel responsible for it; like Al said, it’s just kind of part of who we are. And on “Crump St.,” it was like, “Gosh, we’d sure like to do ‘Time is Tight’ or something like that.’ But we’re a three-piece band, so it was like, ‘Let’s just write something like “Time is Tight.”‘ That’s kind of the way we do with everything. Instead of learning a Fela Kuti song, maybe we’ll do something with a Fela Kuti groove.

The City Champs. Photo (c) Bill Kopp
BK: Do your songs grow out of jam sessions, or does one of you bring in a sketch of a melody? I suspect the former, even though both on record and in concert — at least when I first saw you — you present tightly-structured songs, not jams.

JR: I bring in a lot of the ideas, and Al brings in songs. Generally, they’re pretty well-conceived [already]. We do all the arranging collectively; George has a really great knack for arrangement. He has a great ability to understand beats and different kinds of styles. So I might bring in a chord structure or a melody, and ask, “What would Al Jackson or Idris Muhammad do on this one?” And George might then suggest breaks, or shouts, or suggest repeating a certain part. We might try a song in several different grooves, different tempos, and then pick the one that feels right.

George Sluppick: We do the “Theme from Mad Men” on the new album. We give it a Latin boogaloo feel, though. We took the original recording home and took several hours learning the exact theme, and then we kind of unlearned it. We came up with a bunch of ideas; at one point we had a 3/4 break in there, kind of an Elvin Jones or Larry Young kind of thing. But when we settled on the Latin thing, it just clicked. Joe had the idea to bring in a really good friend of ours, Felix Hernandez, to play percussion. I had always wanted to play with him in a band setting. When we recorded that tune, it was magical.

JR: The new album is out on vinyl, too, by the way. That’s a big part of what the label does, vinyl is a big part of our approach.

BK: There’s a video online of the vinyl mastering at Ardent Studios in Memphis.

JR: We used the same machine this time. So it’s got the same quality as the first one. And sonically, The Set-up has a little more to it, since we used horns.

BK: You branched out instrumentally. The first album is just you three, nobody else.

Al Gamble of The City Champs. Photo (c) Bill Kopp
JR: the first record was kind of coming out of us playing a weekly gig with another band. All three of us were in another band called The Grip, which was a quartet. That band was kind of a pure boogaloo soul/jazz cover band; we didn’t write any material for it. George was working a lot with another group. Al and I decided to do a trio and call it by another name. So when George got freed up, we decided we should make a record. Scott had just put together his studio [Electraphonic Recording] so it was serendipitous. So when we made the first record, it was very much in the soul/jazz vein. We cut it in three days.

So, cut to a year later when we wanted to do another one. We had grown a little musically and compositionally. We wanted to add a couple more ingredients to the stew. Plus, we added some other element: Jack Ashford lives in the neighborhood, and he’s one of the greatest tambourine players in the world. He played on hundreds of Motown records; he was a Funk Brother. He was very gracious: he came down and cut five tracks with us, and then told Motown stories for hours.

We had talked about adding horns; I was a little skeptical. A good buddy of ours had done some arrangements, so we took those and whittled them down to something very minimal but yet cool. And that’s it. It’s still a trio record, but we added some things.

To be continued

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