Archive for May, 2012

Book Review: Dick Wagner – Not Only Women Bleed

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

I’m decidedly old-school about any number of things. I prefer vinyl records to CDs (and CDs to mp3 files), and real books to e-books. But when I learned that famed and legendary guitarist/composer Dick Wagner had penned a book about his life in music, and that Not Only Women Bleed would be available only in digital format, I scoured my local Craigslist for a used Kindle.

I found one, and took Wagner’s e-book along on a recent road trip from my home in Western North Carolina to metropolitan New York City and back. (My adult kids did their share of driving, giving me plenty of time to read on long stretches of highway.)

The book’s title refers, of course, to Wagner’s most famous co-write, Alice Cooper‘s blockbuster hit “Only Women Bleed.” Now, beyond that, Wagner’s choice of title has precious little to do with the book’s content. Definitely not a traditional autobiography, Not Only Women Bleed is, instead, a collection of brief vignettes – something like 180 of them – arranged in a loosely chronological order. And by “loosely,” I pretty much mean, “Not.” These chapterlets – some only a mere page or two in length – have the feel of sitting-at-the-bar anecdotes, of the “Did I ever tell you the one about…” variety. Which isn’t to say they’re not fascinating. Many of the stories are quite entertaining, and most are valuable thanks to being told by the guy who lived ‘em. But a few do suffer from the author’s occasionally score-settling point of view.

Readers looking for sex, drugs and rock’n'roll won’t come away empty-handed. Admirably, Wagner has put his self-described addictions behind him, but one can often imagine him sporting a sly grin as he recounts lurid tales with this or that groupie. Fair enough. Not Only Women Bleed is unalloyed in Wagner’s recounting the ups and downs of his personal life, and if he has any temptation to blame others for any poor decisions he might have made in his sixty-plus years, he keeps it firmly in check.

Those interested in the nuts and bolts of song composition, recording techniques, live performance etc. might be disappointed a bit with Not Only Women Bleed; it’s more of a personal non-chronological chronology. There are chapters on Wagner’s early bands (most notably The Frost), but when one sees that there’s a one-page chapter titled “Alice Cooper,” it’s clear Wagner’s not going in-depth. He touches on his time with Lou Reed – the period in which Wagner and Steve Hunter created one of the greatest and most thrilling instrumental pieces of rock, the transcendent guitar-duel intro to the live version of “Sweet Jane” that appears on Rock’n'Roll Animal – but readers never get much of a sense of what it was like for Wagner to work and tour with Reed.

It’s important to state once again that I enjoyed the book, enjoyed the stories, and for the most part enjoyed Wagner’s style of telling those stories. But the book’s fragmentary nature, and the gaps that a journalist would have sought to fill and/or connect – left me wanting much more. In the end, the self-published Not Only Women Bleed may cause some readers to say to themselves, “Wow. That was cool. He really should get with an author and write a book about all this stuff.” With those caveats, I still recommend Not Only Women Bleed to anyone interested in Wagner’s work, life, and/or storytelling.

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Book Review: Ticket Masters

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Every now and then, I’ll find myself engaged in a conversation with someone who laments the fact that “they don’t make movies like they used to.” In the old days, the argument goes, they had good guys and bad guys, and you usually knew who was which. Sure, there might be a plot twist where a supposedly white-hat character is revealed to be a villain, or a redemptive moment in which a villain makes a turn toward the good. Many modern films, the argument continues, have few or no redeemable characters. Antiheroes, maybe.

One could argue that in many ways that shift represents a truer depiction of life, at least within some contexts. I’m reminded of this as I work my way through the book Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped. This staggeringly well-researched tome by Dean Budnick and Josh Baron sets out to cover the entire history of concert ticketing, and while it’s an engrossing story, it’s not a pretty one.

Those readers who attended concerts in the 70s will recognize many of the names and outfits in Ticket Masters‘ early pages: Alex Cooley, Jerry Weintraub, S.E.A.T.S, Bill Graham, Cellar Door Productions. Early on, a number of entrepreneurial types got into the ticketing game, and some of them even did so with relatively lofty goals. Some (not many) of these men and women truly wanted to level the playing field, as it were, for fans attempting to secure seats at shows. But in nearly every case, those idealistic young people eventually went over to the dark side, or were co-opted into the system. As Ticket Masters chronicles in astounding detail, the history of ticketing is one of mergers, acquisitions, lawsuits, betrayal, maneuvering, regret, recrimination and…higher and higher ticket prices. The book could just as well have been titled Welcome to the Machine.

Ticket Masters elucidates a point that may seem counter-intuitive: the ticketing business is unique in that competition has the effect of raising – not lowering – prices. And the entire concept of who-is-the-customer figures into the mix as well: it’s not merely a cases of shareholders vs. consumers (though that dynamic does exist, and as you might guess, the shareholders come out on top). No, it’s more often than not down to the idea that concert venues and ticketing companies view each other as the customer. And neither has anything like artistic goals; it’s all about the dollar, about maximizing revenues. The ticketing industry story is one of unfettered Gordon Gekko-styled corporate greed; as such it’s not altogether shocking that one Mitt Romney even plays a minor (yet key) role in the story.

Which isn’t to say that the performing acts mentioned in Ticket Masters come out looking good. With precious few exceptions, they do not. While Jimmy Buffett and Rod Stewart are singled out for their especially greedy practices, the list of artists willing to (in this reader’s opinion) screw over the fans for a few more bucks is dismayingly long and familiar. Said list probably contains several of your favorite acts. (It certainly does mine.) The only artists (or artist’s organizations/management) who earn anything approaching a white hat are the String Cheese Incident and – no surprise here – The Grateful Dead. Even Pearl Jam‘s highly publicized battle against Ticketmaster is described in a way that calls into question the band’s motives for their fight.

If you’re at all familiar with two books of investigative journalism from the modern era – the Pulitzer Prize-winning America: What Happened? and Eric Schlosser‘s Fast Food Nation – then you know what good, solid journalism can do to tell a tale worth telling. In Ticket Masters, Budnick and Baron have crafted a work every bit the equal of those books. True, it does wander into the weeds on several occasions — explaining the intricacies of software development, sketching out the relationship between brokers (where I’m from we called ‘em scalpers) and “primary ticketers” – but these detailed explanations are essential to a full understanding of the story as a whole.

The authors do an admirable job or researching both (or multiple) sides of each issue, and their agenda – if any – is clearly only to get the story right. There’s no self-aggrandizing “In our extensive research, we discovered…” or any such thing; the authors tell the story, based on literally hundreds of interviews, but they themselves remain absent from the story itself.

Ticket Masters is a dense volume; perhaps not poolside reading. But it’s a page-turner in the tradition of the best fiction, and it pulls back the filthy rug of the industry to reveal the bug infestation under it. You won’t like what you learn reading Ticket Masters, but you’ll be a better-informed consumer for knowing. You’ll still pay too much for most concerts, but at least you will have a clearer idea why it is so. Ticket Masters is recommended in the highest terms for anyone who wants to know how and why things really work in the ticketing industry.

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The Real Gone Interview, Part 2: Gordon Anderson

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Continued from Part One

Sometimes, even when everything else lines up in a reissue’s favor, potential costs (licensing, etc.) put the project out of reach. “That does occur,” admits Real Gone Music’s Gordon Anderson, “but less than it used to. Because the labels are adjusting their expectations to the conditions of the marketplace.” But he adds that “if a licensor is going to be demanding a lot for an album reissue, and you know that its commercial appeal is limited, sometime you have to just walk away.” Anderson goes on to explain that existence of a foreign reissue of a title can also doom its domestic release: “The world has gotten a lot smaller. If [a reissue title] is out anywhere in the world – even Japan – it’s probably not worth doing.” He points out that there isn’t enough demand worldwide to support the success of duplicate reissues.

At Collectors Choice, Anderson forged a successful and fruitful working relationship with ABKCO, the organization formerly headed by the late Allen Klein. While ABKCO administers a lot of extremely high-profile reissues (much of the Rolling Stones‘ catalog, for example), CCM partnered with them to reissue material from their Cameo-Parkway vaults. Titles from Terry Knight and the Pack, Chubby Checker and others all came out on CCM shortly before the label ceased operation (Thanks to Anderson’s relationship with the ABKCO people, many of those titles are coming out once again, this time on Real Gone). “They really wanted to get that stuff out,” Anderson says, “and we were happy to help them do it.” The first two (long-sought) albums from ? And the Mysterians finally came out – on vinyl, no less — on Real Gone in late 2011.

Gordon Anderson dismisses the notion that some releases are taken on knowing they’ll lose money, only to be offset by more blue-chip titles. “That’s not the attitude I take,” he insists. “I don’t do anything I know isn’t going to sell. There are certainly titles I know are going to sell better than others.” He mentions that compilations tend to sell better than straight album reissues, but “the flip side of that is that compilations are more expensive to put out, and more time-consuming to do.”

Anderson’s reputation in the industry means that he doesn’t have to – hat in hand, so to speak – explain to the labels who he is each time. “I put out something like 1500 releases at Collectors Choice, so they know who I am.” He chuckles and adds, “For better or worse.” And the plan is similar at Real Gone. “All one has to do is to look at our rather prolific release schedule to see that our business plan calls for building up our catalog pretty quickly.” He explains that once the catalog size reaches a certain critical mass, those catalog sales will provide a solid foundation to keep the business on an even footing. Pointing to the success of fellow reissue labels Ace and Cherry Red, Anderson admits that “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.”

In recent weeks, RGM has released a twofer of Tubes albums; a Little Willie John compilation; a Mark Lindsay solo singles collection; and a staggering long and eclectic list of other titles. Anderson is diplomatically cagey about revealing Real Gone’s release schedule in advance of any official announcements, but at press time, RGM had announced upcoming reissue/compilation titles including ones from The Germs, Mick Fleetwood’s Zoo, Jerry Reed, The Dūrocs, The Electric Prunes, Timi Yuro, Rita Pavone, and The Tokens. New titles are announced every month; the latest Real Gone Music news is posted at their website, http://www.realgonemusic.com/.

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The Real Gone Interview, Part 1: Gordon Anderson

Monday, May 28th, 2012

For many years, Collectors Choice Music was the go-to source for music fans wanting CD reissues of music from the past. Be it something straightforward, music that enjoyed mega-success on original release – like, say, the 3CD set of Paul Revere and the Raiders single a- and b-sides – or something esoteric and obscure (a Clint Eastwood collection of cowboy songs), as the leading mail-order reissue catalog, CCM provided low-cost reissues with solid quality, careful remastering, and little fuss.

While the marketing arm of CCM remains in operation, the Collectors Choice Music label ceased operations in 2010. Fortunately for hardcore music nerds (this writer proudly included), seventeen-year CCM head Gordon Anderson formed a new label in partnership with fellow music industry veteran Gabby Castellana. Launched in 2011, Real Gone Music picks up the mantle right where CCM left off.

Anderson chuckles heartily when I observe that the sort of albums that Real Gone puts out are a wildly eclectic lot, just a list of things some collector-nerds at the label would like to see. “You kinda nailed it,” he admits. During his time at CCM, Anderson got “a lot of customer requests, which I preserved through the years. A lot of [those titles] ended up on Collectors Choice.” Once he left CCM and started Real Gone, he “spent about a month going through the old customer requests, analyzing if [a potential reissue] made sense.”

“There is,” Anderson asserts, “a populist element to Real Gone that is much like Collectors Choice. The difference being that, in the old days, CCM was serving two masters: trying to find stuff in the catalog that the audience wanted to buy, and going retail. Now, of course, for Real Gone, the retail aspect is more important.” Anderson believes that his nearly two decades of experience in the realm of what he calls “collector fandom” gives him the skills needed to make good choices for RGM releases. His connections with what he self-effacingly calls his fellow “collector nerds” help steer him in the right direction as well: “I get pitched by independent producers from all walks of musical expertise and knowledge, and the label reflects that, too.” He responds to those pitches by challenging the producer to make the case for their suggestion. “Sometimes they make the bar, sometimes they don’t.”

As is only fitting, Anderson’s own musical interests do figure into the mix as well. “My own expertise is very broad, but not always very deep,” he quips. “But there are certain artists that I just know are going to work [for reissues].” He cites a New Christy Minstrels compilation (A Retrospective: 1962-1970, due out June 26 on RGM). “I just know from prior experience that that’s going to do okay.”

He admits that some release projects lean more in a labor-of-love direction. “There are some that I entertain, that I do knowing the commercial potential is limited, but I feel there’s something there worth hearing.” Anderson mentions the self-titled singer/songwriter album by former Music Machine leader T.S. Bonniwell, and a rock interpretation of Handel‘s Messiah. “I didn’t have any illusions about that one,” he laughs dryly. “It’s very much a niche, extreme cult item.”

The costs associated with securing masters and rights, coupled with the availability of the material itself, affect the likelihood of a title seeing reissue on Real Gone Music. A combination of experience, gut and market research are all brought to bear on the decision process, too. “I don’t think I’m betraying any deep secret when I say that you’ve got to go online and see what things are selling for,” Anderson says. If vinyl copies of a long out-of-print album are changing hands for hundreds of dollars, that’s clearly a mark in favor of CD reissue. “That doesn’t always guarantee success – nor does it always predict failure – but in general, it’s a good indication. You know: supply and demand.”

 continued

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Album Review: The Thelonious Monk Quartet – Misterioso

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Serious rock fans know the tale of Big Star. The Memphis group – led initially by Chris Bell and Alex Chilton – released two (or three, depending on whether one considers Third/Sister Lovers part of the canon) albums in the 1970s, and all three were greeted by commercial indifference (and some bad luck). Years later, the brilliance and wide-ranging influence of Big Star’s work is beyond argument. But that realization came too late to do much good for the band.

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Alex Chilton is on a par musically with jazz pianist Thelonious Monk (I’m also not suggesting the reverse is true; apples, oranges and all that). But from what I’ve read – I’m no jazz expert – Monk didn’t get his due for most of his career, and his unique genius only began to get proper recognition long after he had done his best work.

In some ways, it’s easy to understand why: on first listen, and to the uninitiated (hearing his music for the first time, without the benefit of historical context we modern listeners take for granted) Monk’s peculiar style could seem offhand, slapdash, casual, sloppy. In truth, it’s nothing of the sort; it’s rhythmically challenging, to be sure, and his playing often seems untethered to convention (or to what the rest of the band is doing). But like any brilliant soloist, he went where the muse took him. Today his most well-known numbers (“’Round Midnight,” to name the most famous) are long-standing classics, standards of jazz.

In 1958 Monk’s quartet did a lengthy engagement at one of New York City’s stellar jazz venues, The Five Spot Cafe. And – and under the direction of producer Orrin Keepnews — Riverside, his record label of the time, recorded a couple of the shows. One of these was released as Misterioso. With typically clear and balanced you-are-there production, Keepnews captured the band for Misterioso running through a half dozen tracks, ranging from blues improvs (“Blues Five Spot,” presumably named after it was performed) to a solo piano number (a brief run-through of “Just a Gigolo” with an arrangement that won’t be especially familiar to fans of Louis Prima (or David Lee Roth, if you must).

Though credited to The Thelonious Monk Quartet, this night it’s mostly Johnny Griffin‘s show. Several times during the proceedings, but most notably on “Nutty,” the saxophonist drops well-known licks from popular show tunes into the middle of his high-flying solos (“The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” from Oklahoma! is the most readily recognizable of these, but there are several). At Griffin’s enthusiastic command (“I got it! I got it!”) the band drops out to allow him a long unaccompanied sax solo on “Let’s Cool One.” One can almost hear the audience’s collective jaw dropping open, and their rapturous applause begins even before the band rejoins Griffin.

The rhythm section of Ahmed Abdul-Malik (bass) and drummer Roy Haynes generally offers solid, understated support, but each of them takes his turn to shine in a solo spotlight within the structure of a long number (Haynes’ finest solo moment is during “In Walked Bud”). The established jazz approach – start off with the basic musical theme, expand and synthesize it, serve up some solos, bring it all back home – is adhered to on these numbers. Four of the six cuts on the original album run in excess of eight minutes, giving the arrangements plenty of breathing room. It’s something of a Monk trademark to land on two close notes (say, a Bb and a B) when the listener might expect but one, and that style is in full flower here. Again, what could have sounded like a mistake to a hapless tourist wandering into the Five Spot on a July night in 1958 sounds note-perfect to modern ears.

The title track is built upon a deceptively simple rocking (as in, back-and-forth, not rock’n'roll) melodic line, but that figure is merely the launching pad for a swaying bluesy number that – yet again – lets each member of the quartet blow. But as ever on Misterioso, Griffin gets the tastiest solos.

Concord’s Original Jazz Classics reissue series added nearly a half hour’s worth of music to the original release, and it’s that expanded edition which has been reissued again in 2012. The omission of the three cuts (“Evidence,” “’Round Midnight” and a medley of “Bye-Ya” and “Epistrophy” was clearly due only to the limitations of the LP format; these tracks are equal in ever way – sonically, performance-wise – to the original six numbers. Griffin playfully riffs on “Skip to My Lou” during “’Round Midnight.” On the medley, it’s Art Blakey sitting in on the drum kit.

The Concord reissue reproduces the original record’s moody, mysterious(!) and vaguely unsettling Giorgio de Chirico painting The Seer, and adds a contemporary liner essay from Neil Tesser alongside Keepnews’ original liner notes.

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Album Review: Alarm Clock Conspiracy

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

A few years back, a good friend of mine phoned me up and invited me to come out with him to see his friend’s new band. Rarely one to pass up an opportunity for music and beer, I immediately accepted. The band was playing what I understood to be their fist gig – at a popular watering hole in the little town of Black Mountain NC – but all the players were veterans of other bands. My friend’s friend – the lead guitarist – was Ian Reardon, well known in the region for his previous band, the prog-leaning outfit MarsupiaL (sic). But this new act’s name – to me at least – suggested music of a very different sort.

With a name like Alarm Clock Conspiracy, I imagined a cross between (of course) The Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, two popular food-groups (like The Banana Splits and Bread) from the era when one could get away with naming a band in that fashion. But unlike those psychedelic (or pop-sike, if you prefer) bands, this Alarm Clock Conspiracy wasn’t purveying that sort of material at all.

With guitar textures that often call to mind Russian Circles, Alarm Clock Conspiracy crafts songs that straddle the space between progressive rock and powerpop, with a bit of southern flavor carefully blended into the mix. Instrumentally, “Gone” sounds a bit like early-to-mid-period Rush, but with the guys from Pure Prairie League on vocal harmonies. Some tricky lead guitar brings up the rear as the song roars to a stops-on-a-dime close.

Shimmering acoustic guitar forms the basis of the moody “Tomorrow’s Past,” a minor-key tune that calls to mind Nirvana at their most melodic (think: MTV Unplugged). Steel guitar and mandolin put the focus on the Clock’s Appalachian roots. The laid-back vibe of “What You’re Waiting For” put the emphasis on the group’s vocal harmonies, but there’s plenty of expressive bass lines and lovely, subtle guitar work. And “Walking Up a Hill” redolent of Workingman’s Dead-era Grateful Dead with (much, much) better singers.

All of which makes the musical left-turn of “When You Wake Up” all that much more of a shock. With its Music Explosion-on-ska approach, it points how just how much the guys in the band have absorbed and synthesized their influences. In lesser hands, the song would come off as a novelty; here it works, and well. The band’s melodic southern side – Outlaws style – comes to the fore again on the mid-tempo rocker “Shadow of the Man.”

Splashes of Crazy Horse-style crunch are deftly applied in “Listen,” but in between those barre-chording sections, it’s a bouncy pop tune with breezy, close harmonies. And then it explodes with a searing guitar solo. All in all, it’s a number with enough good musical ideas for three songs. “Walking Alone” is the closest Alarm Clock Conspiracy gets to straight-ahead traditional country, yet it’s among the strongest and most appealing songs on this (rock band’s) album.

The rock returns for “Hello You Young Shadows,” and some spooky, sound-effects-laden sections move it back toward the more complicated and demanding style of Reardon’s old band MarsupiaL. With its backward guitar solos and thunderous drumming, it’s the one place on their self-titled long player where Alarm Clock Conspiracy sounds like their name suggests.

“Talking” is a brief punkabilly romp with a dizzying lead guitar solo and a prog-meets Vegas ending. The jangling “Something’s About to Break” mines the softer side of 70s FM radio rock for its inspiration; its soaring, echo-laden guitar solo evokes the best of that era in a modern way.

Alarm Clock Conspiracy will see official release on June 8, the night of a Release Party and show at Asheville’s Highland Brewing Company. The CD will be available at cdbaby.com and through the band’s own site at www.alarmclockconspiracy.com.

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Album Review: Wally – Montpellier

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

With a sound that falls somewhere between Dire Straits and Pink Floyd, the goofily-named Wally creates a musical ambience that is rooted in classic rock styles, yet vaguely contemporary-feeling. On their latest, Montpellier, they go lots of places, and it’s an engaging ride.

“Sailor” opens with keyboard textures straight out of Meddle – complete with “seagull” guitar work, but then quickly shifts gears into a piano-based melody that owes more to Supertramp or Harry Nilsson. There are a lot of appealing qualities to Wally’ music, but their not-so-secret weapons are steel and pedal steel guitar. Not since David Gilmour, Steve Howe and Glenn Ross Campbell (The Misunderstood) has steel guitar been used so effectively in this sort of music. Soaring, dive-bombing guitar runs are joined by female-chorus vocals (more shades of Pink Floyd, but with less of a space-rock bent) as the lengthy-but-never-boring “Sailor” unwinds.

As the liner notes explain, Wally had been working on what would have been their third album for Atlantic around 1975, when something happened. The notes don’t make it clear what that something was exactly, but it’s safe to assume that either the band broke up, Atlantic dropped them, or both. In any event, the songs on Montpellier thus have a pleasantly timeless quality that is firmly built on a foundation of that album-rock era.

Wally is a big band with a big sound: Montpellier credits seven musicians (plus a guest guitarist on one track, and those three female auxiliary vocalists). But the song arrangements – “Thrill is Gone” being one of many good examples – aren’t fussy and overwrought; the band crafts a sound that is halfway between meat’n'potatoes rock and more subtle and finessed styles.

“Surfing” edges closer to a progressive approach, and is reminiscent in places of Roy Harper or Jethro Tull, albeit with a subtle reggae flavor. Like most of the songs on Montpellier, it’s a longish number, running in excess (but not excessively so!) of seven minutes. Pete Sage‘s violin – the other sharp weapon in Wally’s arsenal – is central to the appeal of the track, adding color to the song’s spoken/sung lyrical approach.

The initially understated “In the Night” sounds a bit like Sting‘s 90s work, but a delightfully long instrumental break with loads of stratospheric guitar lines give it more texture before returning to earth. The country-flavored “She Said” is based on a familiar melodic approach, but as with all the other songs on the set, the effective use of pedal steel and other slightly outside-the-box sounds help take it somewhere more interesting. A ghostly, melancholy violin solo opens “Giving,” continuing the Americana vibe (Wally’s a British group, by the way), but again employs a well-worn but effective arrangement approach: halfway through, the song opens up, goes instrumental and really takes off. The band is adept at conveying emotion wordlessly, and “Giving” is an exemplar of their skill at doing so.

Interested listeners will come to Montpellier for the guitars and fiddle. They’ll stay for Wally’s well-written, -arranged and -played songs.

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Album Review: Albert King – I’ll Play the Blues For You

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

By 1972, legendary blues guitarist and vocalist Albert King had little if anything left to prove. Pushing fifty, the man was a giant both in reputation and physical stature. His recording career began rather late in life: his first album The Big Blues came out in 1962. So he was a mere ten years into his catalog when he released I’ll Play the Blues for You on Stax. It was his fifth long player for the Memphis label, not including the collaborative billing of Jammed Together with guitarists and labelmates Pops Staples and Steve Cropper.

I’ll Play the Blues for You successfully combines King’s blues stylings with the Stax sound. Backing is provided by either The Bar-Kays (surviving members of Otis Redding‘s band) or The Movement, Isaac Hayes‘ ace outfit. And the Memphis Horns provide stellar support, sounding as if they just walked over from having cut their parts on Boz Scaggs‘ self-titled effort. (That record was cut three years earlier, but the horn vibe is eerily similar in the best possible way to their thrilling work on Scaggs’ cover of Fenton Robinson‘s “Loan Me a Dime.”)

The album’s title track meanders its way through a Chicago-meets-Memphis arrangement, with a lengthy and entertaining spoken interlude from the man himself. And King strikes just the right note when – right before he takes his solo – he leans into the mic and mumbles, “’Scuse me.” The track “Little Brother (Make a Way)” successfully blends the streetwise vibe of Isaac Hayes’ funkier work with King’s own blues sensibility. The Memphis Horns’ tasteful work – often behind the guitar solos – always adds, never intrudes. And King can be counted on to take two, sometimes three, solos in a given song.

Since it’s 1972, there’s definitely a funky vibe to the songs on I’ll Play the Blues for You. Plenty of wah-wah guitar is splashed all over the songs, but it’s never overwrought. At under three minutes, “High Cost of Loving” is among the album’s shortest tracks, but even its standard blues changes are rendered thrilling thanks to the singing, playing and arrangement. The track could easily have gone twice as long without overstaying its welcome; tasty and subtle electric piano gives it some lovely texture.

Even though its crowd applause sounds more than a bit suspect, a cover of Marvin Gaye‘s “I’ll Be Doggone” is a number that rivals Parliament/Funkadelic in its funked-up quotient. And King gives clues to Led Zeppelin, who were wondering around the same time where exactly the confounded bridge was. It’s right, here, guys.

“Answer to the Laundromat Blues” is a song in the popular response-song mini-genre, but in the case, the original is King’s own 1966 hit, his first for Stax. Throughout the number, King raps (and by “rap” I mean what Isaac Hayes did in his own raps: talk, not declaim poetry.) Of course King being King, there’s a blistering guitar solo, too.

With such a lengthy title, “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge (‘Cause You Might Wanna Come Back Across)” needs five-plus minutes just to get the words to the title out. But it’s really just another tasty blues workout that provides King the opportunity to pull another solo out of his trusty left-handed Gibson Flying V. Tinkling electric piano and gurgling Hammond B-3 add color to the typically sure-footed and tight rhythm section backing. And as always, the Memphis Horns punctuate the proceedings at all the right moments.

From the same sessions that produced the other tracks on I’ll Play the Blues for You, “Angel of Mercy” wasn’t on the original Stax LP, but it had been appended to earlier reissues. Not so for the four bonus tracks on the 2012 Stax/Concord reissue. An alternate (and longer!) version of the title track features the sax from the Memphis Horns stepping out front for a tasty solo, typically great (and different) guitar solos from King, and no spoken section. The alternate “Don’t Burn the Bridge” is even harder-edged than the official version. “I Need a Love” is Albert King at his most Isaac Hayes-like. And a brief fiery instrumental titled “Albert’s Stomp” shows that King sometimes had more ideas than he knew what to do with.

Typically crystal-clear remastering and informative, authoritative contemporary liner notes (here from the always-engaging pen of Bill Dahl) are, as always, hallmarks of Concord reissues.

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Album Review: Branden Daniel and the Chics – Keep Em Flying

Monday, May 21st, 2012

When I first heard King Khan and the Shrines, I likened them to some sort of Second Coming or salvation of soulful garage rock. Or something like that. Their album The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shines was packed to the limit with high-energy music that drew upon the best elements in everything from Ray Charles to Sun Ra, from the Ramones to the Memphis Horns. The psychedelic soul of Khan and his backing band was great both on record and – especially — onstage. I was fortunate to see the band three separate occasions, and I interviewed Khan a couple of times.

There were clouds on the horizon almost from the beginning, however: The Supreme Genius was released in summer 2008, and it was a compilation of the best of the group’s previous work. So it wasn’t truly a “new” album. And as exciting as Khan’s shows were when I witness them in summer ’08 (in Washington DC) and March ’09 (at Asheville NC’s Orange Peel), by the third time I saw the band, there was a vague vibe of phoning-it-in. Khan looked a bit tired, the band ran through the same set they had a year earlier, and there was no new music. Today it’s four years later, and there still hasn’t been a followup album. I keep reminding myself that hope springs eternal, but my hopes have clearly dimmed.

While we wait for Khan and his merry band to get their acts back together, to where can we turn for the sort of gritty-yet-tuneful music of that style? I’m pleased to report that the answer may be found in Seattle. Keep Em Flying from Branden Daniel and the Chics serves up menace, mayhem and merriment across its ten tracks.

From the fret-buzzing, wigged-out hypnotic riff that kicks off“All Things Chic,” it’s clear that this is music in the tradition of Iggy and the Stooges. The tightly wound arrangement balances taut playing and reckless abandon in a way few bands have been able to match. When the band slows things down as they do on “Missionary,” there’s still a greasy, lubricious feel to the music that suggests danger – the good kind – is right around the corner.

The production vibe on “Hey, Howie” (and on all ten tracks, for that matter) strikes just the right ambience: a very analog-sounding aesthetic full of plate reverb, minimal overdubs and a very live-in-the-studio feel all give Keep Em Flying a very authentic and sincere character. Some classical strings do crop up on “Feel Real,” but their use is closer to what you’d hear on Big Star‘s Third/Sister Lovers than on a Moody Blues record. There’s even a vaguely Las Vegas feel to the spooky, low-key song; one almost expects a brassy horn section to kick in halfway through, and for the band to show up in tux, tails and Alice Cooper makeup. (None of that happens.)

Imagine Aerosmith without all the arena-rock cliché trappings, and with a punk sensibility, and you’ll end up with something not unlike “Only the Heavy.” And on “Mor Yay” Daniel and band channel both the New York Dolls and high-octane r&b rock legends The Sonics. And on “So Alone” the group manages to take some of master thieves Led Zeppelin‘s blooze stylings and filter them through their own singular musical point of view.

Daniel’s soulful yelps and the band’s unison backing vocals on “Burns” set the stage for a nice’n'noisy guitar solo. And the song’s refrain – “It burns / but it’s a good burn” — is as apt a summary of the music on Keep Em Flying as anything this writer might come up with. A band to watch, even when and if King Khan returns with new material. The King is hereby put on notice: the throne is in jeopardy.

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Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, There and Then

Friday, May 18th, 2012

After a three-decade hiatus, the original lineup of the dB’s will release a new album in June 2012. Watch this blog for an interview with Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, coming soon. Meanwhile, from my archives, here’s a feature I did when those two released their delightful hERE aND nOW album. — bk


To music fans of a certain age, Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey are virtually household names. As members of the now-legendary dB’s, the two offered up a clever, accessible modern take on power pop across several albums. Their rewards, as is often the case in such matters: critical acclaim, lackluster sales. Friends since childhood, Holsapple and Stamey played music together often during the ensuing years.

Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey. Photo (c) Daniel Coston. Each stayed busy before, during and after the dBs era: in the late 70s Stamey played with Memphis enfant terrible Alex Chilton, then formed Sneakers with Holsapple and Mitch Easter. After the dB’s went on seeming permanent hiatus, Stamey released a couple of solo albums, then retreated from the spotlight to concentrate on producing at his Chapel Hill studio.

After the dB’s, Holsapple began a career as an in-demand utility man for several groups: he played and toured with REM and Hootie and the Blowfish. He also joined another on-again-off-again outfit, New Orleans-based Continental Drifters with then-future (now-former) wife Susan Cowsill. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Holsapple moved to Durham.

Amidst all of these projects, Peter and Chris found time to record and release 1990′s Mavericks. The acoustic-based (yet electric and sometimes rocking) album enjoyed popularity on college radio, but the subsequent demise of the RNA label rendered the disc difficult to locate (it was finally reissued in 2008). A hallmark of Mavericks was the near-seamless blending of voices in two-part harmony, not unlike their heroes the Everly Brothers.

Nineteen years later the duo have reunited for a followup to Mavericks. Released in June 2009, hERE aND nOW builds on the strongest elements of the 1990 album: chiming guitars, clever wordplay and close harmonies. But why such a long wait?

“Eighteen years is a long time; there’s a whole generation of listeners that has come and gone since then,” observes Holsapple. “We’ve never been, sort of, ‘of our time’ anyway. We’ve been making records for years.” And, he laughs that in some ways the new music is “the same stuff we’ve been making since ’72, really. We wait for the cycles to come around.” Stamey adds, “It would have been done a little sooner; we began it right before Katrina. When Peter had to relocate from New Orleans, that really put things on hold for a bit. We really enjoyed playing together, making and touring behind the Mavericks record, but we just didn’t get back to it until now.”

The Everly Brothers influence again comes through clearly on hERE and nOW. “I’m a big fan of the Warner Brothers years,” notes Holsapple. “The [1966] record Two Yanks in England that they did with the Hollies is a really stellar piece of work. And Chris is a big fan of the Cadence Records ['Wake Up Little Susie', etc.] era. So once again our strengths meld; we do a little arm wrestling and come out with what we come out with.” Peter observes that “for two guys who aren’t siblings, we really mesh very well. I’m really big on two-part harmonies.” He half-jokes that such an approach makes him “an enemy of today’s hot Nashville country sound, with the automatic third part layered in electronically, or by well-paid session singers. But I’d infinitely rather hear a duet. Two-part harmony leaves something to the imagination.”

The two write separately but collaborate on polishing the songs and developing arrangements. Their approaches to songwriting are a study in contrasts. Stamey waves off the idea of trying to embrace universal themes in his writing. “That kind of careful calculation doesn’t really participate in that (often very brief) creative period. In the fifteen or thirty minutes when you’re writing a song, I don’t think you’re thinking in that way.” Yet Holsapple admits, “There’s a lot of autobiographical stuff that I try to cloak and make as semi-universal as I can. The great desire for any songwriter, I guess, is to make a song that anybody can listen to. Not just pointy-headed intellectuals in the northeast. And that’s all I’m ever trying to do.” Stamey agrees that “We think what we do together as a duo is very approachable; you don’t have to subscribe to an esoteric indie-rock point of view that only admits Jesus Lizard and Arto Lindsay — both of which I love — in order to enjoy it.”

“And If I can make someone laugh once in awhile, I will,” admits Holsapple.

The song “Early in the Morning” includes this line: “Read to me the obituaries / but if we’re not in there then we’ll see…” Holsapple explains: “I read the obituaries while I’m making coffee. Because I’ll certainly make a smaller pot if I’m in there.” He continues, “I love words. I love the New York Times crossword puzzle; it helps keep my brain sharp. And considering all the things I’ve done to my brain over the years, any sharpening that I can manage is a help.”

In fact, Holsapple is well-known for his clever turns of lyrical phrase. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t intentional. I enjoy wordplay; I have that terrible gift of being able to see anagrams where other people see a block of letters. I’ve always liked great writing: prose, poetry and lyrics. But I’ve never been a big fan of lyric sheets: around the time of Led Zeppelin‘s Houses of the Holy, we were finally able to see what Robert Plant was singing. And it sent a shudder down my spine! Because sometimes wordplay works, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the chance you take. But I’d rather take the chance, have a little fun with it, and make it sound presentable and interesting for the listener.”

The lyrics of “Early in the Morning” trade in lump-in-the-throat imagery: “I’m your cheap date / But I remember when I wasn’t.” Holsapple allows that “that song is pretty autobiographical. I used to be the party boy who’d stay out all night long. But I’ve really grown to appreciate my more tempered domesticity.” Then, almost as if on cue, Peter excuses himself briefly to take a call from his daughter.

Returning, Holsapple says that “we just try to make the music that’s the most satisfying to make, and to be able to listen to later. There are some records that you can listen to three times and then you’ve kind of figured out everything that’s gonna happen. On our records, I think you can still listen to some of the stuff from the early days and have little surprises pop out at you.” With so many projects running concurrently, it was still easy to select songs for this project. As Chris explains, “I guess we let the songs talk to us and tell us where they fit.” hERE and nOW features a guest spot from another musician closely associated with New Orleans. Holsapple: “Branford Marsalis lives in Durham. Though I think he moved here at a different time, and under different circumstances. I met Branford through my association with Hootie and the Blowfish. He showed up at some of the golf tournaments we played. He got up and jammed with the band. He knew who I was, funnily enough. I said to him, ‘I’ve got this song about New Orleans, and I’d love for you to play a sax solo on it.’ He said, ‘Let’s work it out.’ So we did. He came over to Chris’s studio and played on that, and played on ‘Early in the Morning.’ It was a big thrill for me.

Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey. Photo (c) Daniel Coston. The new album rescues an old song from undeserved obscurity. Peter provides background on Family‘s 1972 song “My Friend the Sun”: “I bet somewhere in your record collection there are albums where you know one side of the record intimately…and the other side, not really. Such is the case with Bandstand. I knew ‘Burlesque’ and ‘Broken Nose’ and all that stuff really well. Loved it. But I never really flipped it over very much. But I put it on one day, and there was ‘My Friend the Sun.’ And it was like, ‘what a beautiful song.’ So I recorded a version of it in New Orleans when I lived down there; I had some friends work on that. And then the master tapes got destroyed in Katrina. And then I started thinking, ‘well, maybe this would be a good song for me and Chris to do.’” Holsapple insists it’s not all that obscure after all: “Apparently if you go on YouTube, you’ll find that it’s a very popular drunken British singalong.” Stamey, too, is a long-time Family fan: “I actually went to see them in Brighton or Bournemouth around 1972, I think.”

The limited tour features an acoustic/electric Stamey/Holsapple duo plus a rhythm section. The set list spans songs from both of the duo’s albums, dB’s tunes, and the odd cover. No stranger to Asheville, Stamey teases that “at the Grey Eagle — which is a really great room — it’s an easier place to do some requests. In fact, we encourage people to leave requests on the dB’s message board.”

Despite having played with so many big names, Holsapple insists he has drawn much inspiration from another type of gig altogether. “I did kids’ shows for a long time in New Orleans. They take no prisoners! That’s a hard audience; you’ve got to be direct; you’ve got to work to get them into it. You’ve got to get them to sing along. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.” Stamey adds that “We both grew up starting to make music in the late 60s. And the whole idea of ‘winning the lottery’ with music wasn’t really part of it. It was an honorable tradition. We wanted to learn how music worked. Nowadays there’s an idea that if you get just the right Myspace position, and do a video, you can make a ton of money. But the reality of it is: most musicians and most writers don’t become wildly successful. The reason to do it is that you’re drawn to it, because you love it.” Coming back to the kids-as-audience idea, Peter observes, “You can have as highfalutin’ lyrics as you want to have, but I don’t know too many kids that wanna sing along with Leonard Cohen. Believe me: I love Leonard Cohen, but he’s not the guy I’d book for my kid’s birthday party. I’d be more inclined to do that. I’d take that gig.

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