Posts Tagged ‘rock beat’

Best of 2013: Reissues/Archival Releases

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

It’s that time, again: the time of year when I coast to the New Year’s finish line and post a string of best-of lists. It’s not simply a place-holding exercise; I really do recommend these albums etc. and sincerely believe they deserve a look (or a second look). So forthwith…

2013 has seen a number of noteworthy reissue/compilation releases, but for me these are the Top Five. Click on the titles for a full review.

Pete Ham – Keyhole Street: Demos 1966-1967
The prodigiously talented Badfinger leader was also, as it turns out, prolific. One pauses to wonder what more great music he might have given the world had he successfully battled his demons. It’s some consolation that Badfinger chronicler Dan Matovina worked tirelessly to bring this two-disc set of early home demos to light. Get it while you can (if you even still can).

Various – The South Side of Soul Street: The Minaret Soul Singles 1967-1976
Just when you thought all the old R&B labels (Stax, Hi, etc.) had been fully mined for their reissue value, along comes this set. Yes, many of the artists are lesser-known than their major-label counterparts, but the quality of the music belies its relative obscurity. The people at Omnivore clearly love music, and their efforts in bringing out sets like these prove it again and again.

Duane Allman – Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective
The guitarist’s recording career was tragically short, but man, was he busy. Allman’s work at the helm of The Allman Brothers Band showed but one side of his talents. This lavish set displays all sides, and does so in a staggeringly impressive physical package. (There’s a cheaper/slimmed-down version available as well).

Various – Los Nuggetz: ’60s Garage & Psych from Latin America
Rock Beat has picked up the baton that Rhino initiated with its multi-disc Nuggets sets, heading south of the border and unearthing all manner of goodies. Even hardcore garage fanatics are likely to find surprises here: the music’s quite impressive, running the gamut from garage to popsike to way-out, mostly done with a guileless, on-the-cheap aesthetic that keeps it real.

Woody Guthrie – American Radical Patriot
The music of one of America’s most important musical and cultural figures deserves a set like this, perhaps the classiest, most comprehensive collection of its kind ever assembled. True, most people who purchase it won’t have a way to play the 78rpm record, but the accessible content is wonderful enough for that not to matter much.

Honorable mentions:
Concord’s jazz reissues, Real Gone Music’s soul-jazz reissues on its Dusty Groove imprint, Jazzhaus‘ ongoing trip through German TV and radio archives, and Purple Pyramid’s reissue of classic space-rock albums from Nektar.

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

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Faye Richmonde — For Men Only

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

Though neither of my dear, sweet parents could ever carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, there was plenty of music in the Kopp household as I was growing up. By the mid- to late 1960s – the time at which I developed an interest in such things – Mom and Dad had amassed a tidy little collection of perhaps two hundred LPs. As I began to investigate them, I was (as mentioned elsewhere) most intrigued by the one with the cover photo of four half-lit faces (Meet the Beatles). But another record caught my eye as I got a tiny bit older.

For Men Only sported a scandalous looking record sleeve. On its hot pink cover was a “mature” woman wearing nothing but a strategically placed violin. The sleeve listed some of the song titles, and even an my prepubescent years I could tell there was, er, something going on here. Song titles like “You Ought to See Her Box” and “It Was Hard When I Kissed Her Goodbye” left little to the imagination. The sleeve implied that the naked cover sleeve lady was one Faye Richmonde, but the dark blue halftone picture on the back suggested that the actual Miss Richmonde (the singer) was in fact a much lovelier and younger African American woman.

The record was on the Davis Records label, and both the liner notes and songs were credited to a Joe Davis. In those liners, Davis suggested that You Might Also Enjoy another of Faye’s albums (also helpfully available from Mr. Davis for the mere sum of $3.98) called A Little Spice. Dad had that record, too; it sported a much naughtier (albeit black-and-white) photo and better song titles (“If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sitting On It,” “She’s Nine Months Gone From Home,” “Keep Your Nose Out of Mama’s Business,” and so on).

I ended up with both of those records in my own collection, more for the kitsch factor of the cover and song titles than anything else. But when I discovered that Rock Beat Records had reissued For Men Only, I decided it would be a good excuse to write about it. So when I visited my parents last weekend (Dad’s in his mid 80s but as sharp as ever) I asked them about these albums. At first they both feigned total ignorance. Nope, don’t remember any such thing, they insisted.

Cleverly, I had brought the CD reissue along with me. And though Dad’s legally blind, when I set the jewel case down in front of him, he furtively glanced at it and quietly mumbled, “Oh, yeah. That.” Mom picked it up and read the song titles to herself, chuckling all the while. Unfortunately, neither of them really had much else to say about the whole thing.

I did a quick search online to see what information (if any) circulates about these oddball releases. I learned that Davis was charged with distribution or manufacture of pornography in New York (home to Joe Davis Record Manufacturer, on 49th street in NYC) in 1958 or so. (It appears the charges were dropped, dismissed or otherwise ruled against.) Used copies are readily available on eBay, but be prepared to shell out upwards of $35.

The Rock Beat reissue marks the first time For Men Only has gotten a legal/legitimate reissue on CD. The reissue has no liner notes and tells you far less about the whole thing than I’ve done in this short piece. But the audio transfer is very good, which is impressive considering that the vinyl slabs Davis pressed in the 50s are not exactly 180-gram quality.

You may notice I haven’t spent any time discussing the music. Well, while it’s not bad, it’s by far the least interesting component of this whole subject. Richmonde has a nice enough jazzy cabaret/lounge style voice, and the pianist (Davis himself?) plays along in a saloon style. There’s no additional accompaniment. The songs were likely recorded in a single take, a single session. They’re good for a laugh, and remain a bit bawdy even some 55 years later. A friend who sometimes takes part in burlesque-type dance revues thinks that some of the songs on For Men Only and A Little Spice might be good accompaniment to an upcoming performance. Yep, I could see that.

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Album Review: Various Artists — Los Nuggetz: ’60s Garage & Psych from Latin America

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

During the first four or five years of this new century, there existed online a thriving collector/trading community, dedicated to sharing and disseminating obscure, forgotten and occasionally never-known-about-in-the-first place music from the 1960s. Operating right on the edge of copyright law (well, on the wrong side of it, if truth be told), these collectors shared music you simply couldn’t find anywhere else.

If you’ve heard of Nuggets, you know what I’m talking about, sorta. But go a few degrees farther on the obscuro-meter, past Pebbles, past Back From the Grave. Now…keep going. Now you’re getting close. One example was an eleven-CD set that circulated among hardcore psych/garage fans and serious aficionados. That set was winnowed down to four CDs, proper licensing was done, and the results were released as the infinitely more commercial (but only in a relative sense) Rhino set Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond, 1964-1969. It was really, really good, and remains an essential purchase for anyone whose tastes in 60s music extends far beyond The Beatles and Rolling Stones.

A couple of tracks on that 2001 set featured bands from Spanish-speaking countries. Previously unknown (in the USA, at least) bands like Os Mutantes (Brazil), We All Together (Peru) and Los Shakers (Uruguay) were featured, and their music was extremely appealing.

So perhaps that set’s success was part of what gave inspiration to an especially intrepid collector in Switzerland who went by the online pseudonym Sylvain. He put together what was initially a 6CD series called Psychodelicias, focusing on pop, beat, pop-sike, garage and psych of the late 60s (and sometimes early 70s) from those Latin American countries plus Spain and Portugal. The sets were designed with lovely artwork, and (according to the closest thing we have to official word on this unofficial, unlicensed set) only about 35 copies of each volume were produced.

As luck would have it (and this explains how I come to know all this) I have all six volumes, each hand-numbered by Sylvain himself (my copy of Volume One is #11 of 35). Moreover, I was involved in the “vining” of this set (with Sylvain’s consent and cooperation) to members of a Stateside collector/fanatic group, and the set was extremely well-received. These days the whole trading/collector scene has pretty much faded, owing to Bittorent sites and – one surmises with a tinge of sadness – the drying-up of the well of undiscovered material.

But wait! Those with an interest in all this – and you know you’re out there – who would prefer a legitimate release, one with detailed discographical and historical information, plus higher fidelity (as opposed to the nth-generation dubs of needle drops we pioneering collector/traders had to settle for)…well, you’re in luck. Rock Beat has put together an amazing set called Los Nuggetz: ’60s Garage & Psych from Latin America. Lovingly assembled from the best sources available, and packaged in a stunning hardcover book, Los Nuggetz is the real deal. 101 tracks across four discs (all music save a few must-hear nutty period-piece radio commercials and station identifications) explore this heretofore all-but-undocumented genre.

Now, before you go having any chauvinistic, Anglophone thoughts, let me point out something out for you. Yes, a goodly chunk of Los Nuggetz is given over to Spanish-language versions (and semi-versions) of the English-language pop hits of the day. And you might get a chuckle or two out of hearing “Bule Bule” by Los Shain’s, and comparing it to a certain similarly-named song by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Or Los Salvajes‘ “Todo Negro,” a reading of a certain sitar-laden Rolling Stones tune. Or even “Yo Crei (Reach Out I’ll Be There)” by Los 4 Crickets. And you might look down your nose at these sometimes (technically speaking) inferior versions.

But it’s worth remembering that covering the hits of the day was a common approach for American acts of the era, as well. To wit, consider many of the tracks on Sundazed’s 2131 South Michigan Avenue. Yep, lots of Yardbirds, Kinks, Stones and Beatles covers there. That’s what the local markets wanted, and even more so in Spanish-speaking countries. So their local heroes (or neighbors!) would march into the local studio and lay down a cover or six, inevitably imbuing the tunes with some local or regional flavor. Sometimes they’d pen wholly new lyrics to fit the songs’ meter, and sometimes they’d attempt a sort of pidgin English. The results as collected on Los Nuggetz are quite enjoyable in their own right.

And there are plenty of original songs on the set too. Los Nuggetz is a little light on the psych side, possibly owing to the fact that many of the home countries of the featured acts were ruled by relatively authoritarian regimes not given to the excesses of songs about mind-altering drugs (much less the drugs themselves). But it certainly rocks and pops with the best of ‘em.

But the overall quality (and surprising variation) among these tunes makes Los Nuggetz essential listening. The set’s packaging is on a par with Rhino’s Where the Action Is! and Love is the Song We Sing collections, and while Randal Wood‘s liner notes have the odd typo or two, the research itself is impressively solid and thoughtful. In fact, there’s really little or nothing that could have been done to better feature the music in this set. Los Nuggetz is even more well put together than Rock Beat’s last related compilation, Surf Age Nuggets. And that’s a high standard indeed. Even those lucky few who have that underground Psychodelicias set (now up to some ten volumes) won’t have more than a few of the tracks on Los Nuggetz. Get this.

Note: The cover artwork was changed a bit between distribution of the image above and actual production. But — other than what’s noted in the accompanying book –  the songs remain the same.

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Album Review: Pulp and Pop Culture Box Vol. 1

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

You know what’s cool? When the compiler of a collection of music makes no outsized claims of cultural import about the music. Sometimes it’s art, for sure, but sometime, it’s just…fun. That’s certainly the case with Rock Beat’s new Pulp & Pop Culture Box Vol. 1. One hundred-plus tracks filling four CDs, it’s jam packed with weirdness, novelty and the aforementioned fun.

The package is nearly divided into four thematically-defined discs: Rock & Roll Invasion features 1950s and 60s sci-fi- and space-themed rockers, very few of which will be familiar even to genre aficionados. The 1963 hit single “Martian Hop” by The Ran-Dells is probably the most well-known cut on the disc; the others feature such non-luminaries as Lonnie Miley, The Rebelaires with Sammy Smith and Dick Robinson and His Makebelievers. (Yeah, me neither.) An assortment of movie trailers is scattered among the between-song spaces; the most notable of these is a suitably over-the-top spot for the classic Plan 9 From Outer Space.

The Voodoo Dolls disc features 25 tracks, all but five of which sport “Voodoo” or a variant thereof in the title. Some more nutty film trailers for radio broadcast – such as one for Voodoo Woman – round out the set. Best song title: “It’s Your Voodoo Working” by Charles Sheffield. Taken as a whole, the Voodoo Dolls set is a better collection of music than the first disc, featuring as it does a wider stylistic selection full of r&b and more.

The Teenage Rebels disc can be thought of as a sort of no-stars answer to Rhino’s Loud, Fast & Out of Control: The Wild Sounds of the ’50s box set. The narrator of the must-hear one-minute “Sex Education” instruction record assures us that it’s “not intended to be followed word-for-word.” Thank goodness for that. The sly compilers make sure to follow that cut with John & Jackie‘s “Little Girl” from 1958, which is positively (and delightfully) smutty. Its inclusion makes the whole damn set worth owning, though there are plenty of other delights within.

And the fourth disc, titled 1960′s Wild Guitar Instrumentals is just that: two dozen trashy instro-rockers full of twang, reverb and pluck. A highlight of this set is Alfredo Mendieta‘s 1959 single “Chicken Run,” a thinly disguised rewrite of Link Wray‘s “Run Chicken Run.” Originality aside, it’s a helluva lot of fun. And not only are the listings of band names a hoot – Angie and the Citations, Jack and The Ripper, The Abootay’s (sic) – but the cover art featuring a King Kong cousin terrorizing a city (London? Rome?) with a giant Stratocaster simply must be seen.

Each LP-sleeve style inner slipcase provides perfunctory track info – title, artist, release year, label and matrix number — but in keeping with the set’s hey-it’s-just-pulp aesthetic, no weighty liner notes are included. Instead a brief one-sheet more or less instructs the listen to just go listen and have fun.

Some call it trash, some engage in oxymoron-coining and call it trash culture. I call it a delight and recommend it to anyone with a sense of humor and a taste for the, well, trashy.

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Capsule Reviews: January 2013, Part 5

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Here’s yet another installment in my occasional series of capsule reviews; today it’s Latin psych, comedy, rock’n'roll and country, and pop. I had a huge stack of CDs deserving of review, but time doesn’t allow for full-length reviews of everything, and these were beginning to gather dust. They deserve better. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.

Alfonso Lovo – La Gigantona
Count on the Numero Group for fascinating, outside-the-box releases of previously-ignored music. Their Buttons powerop compilation, their reissues of rare material by soul/r&b artist Lou Ragland, and The Boddie Recording Company, and funksters Father’s Children all brought obscurities out of undeserved shadows. And those are just a few. One of the latest is La Gigantona. Originally slated for release in the mid 1970s, this album by Nicaraguan Alfonso Lovo was a victim of that country’s political unrest. Will it sound to untrained ears like Santana? Sure, it will. The presence of percussionist José “Chepito” Areas will only reinforce that sonic connection. But there’s a psychedelic weirdness here – treated vocals, out-there guitar – that moves well beyond Santana’s bag of tricks. Rescued from the sole surviving acetate of the finished album sessions, La Gigantona is a funky, Latin psych-flavored disc that may conjure “what ifs” in your mind.

Joan Rivers – Presents Mr. Phyllis & Other Funny Stories
It’s the rare comedy record – The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart, for example — that sounds as fresh today as in 1962. Joan Rivers started her stand-up career (these days, when she’s known more as a “personality,” we forget she ever had one) back in the mid 60s, and her debut LP has been reissued by the eclectic sorts at Rock Beat. While a lot of her humor here is built around the subject of her hairdreser (the Mr Phyllis of the title) her approach is surprisingly non-homophobic. Remember, this was 1965. The material is delivered in a well-timed, manic style, and Rivers deftly riffs off the audience’s reaction to her jokes. The absurdity of the gags – bits about wig farms and such – is pretty goofy, but there’s a sly and subtle wit to her material that might pass you by on the first listen.

Jerry Lee Lewis – The Killer Live! 1964-1970
Fleshtones biographer Joe Bonomo authored a rhapsodic book-length mash note to one of music’s all-time great albums, Jerry Lee Lewis‘ landmark 1964 LP Live! At the Star Club. Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found is required reading, irrespective of how you feel about Lewis. Recently Hip-O Select collected that album with two other live Lewis documents: The Greatest Live Show on Earth (1964) and Live at the International Las Vegas (1970). While the second ’64 LP certainly suffers in comparison to the German concert, it has its moments, and a bunch of outtakes rise to a similar standard. By the time of the Vegas gig, Lewis had figured out where the money was (hint: country and western), but even it is worthwhile. Sixty live tracks is a Whole Lotta Lewis, but at least a full third of it (and possibly half) is some of the wildest stuff you’ll ever hear.

Dion – The Complete Laurie Singles
Real Gone Music continues a tradition its founders began at their old label (Collectors’ Choice Music) of putting together career-spanning singles collection of pop artists. For completists, these can’t be beat: nearly always sourced from the master tapes, there’s excellent mastering, transfer and fidelity to be found. And since we’re talking about singles, any number of non-LP sides appear, sometimes making their first appearance in digital format. Dion DiMucci – known in those teen idol days simply by his first name – enjoyed some well-deserved hits through his time on Laurie (a period that nearly extended to both ends of the 1960s), but nearly all of the hits came in the pre-Beatles era. Of course “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” are here, but too are some interesting late-period pieces including a bizarre reinvention of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Purple Haze” (#63 pop) that sounds more like Arthur Lee‘s Love.

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Album Review: Dickie Goodman – Long Live the King

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013


File this one under Guilty Pleasures. Back in the early 70s when I was a kid, the novelty records that Dickie Goodman put together were a cultural touchstone. A trash-culture one, perhaps, but significant nonetheless, especially in the life of a ten-year old pop culture omnivore such as young Billy.

Goodman was certainly ahead of his time on many levels: his ideas about reprocessing the work of others aren’t really, when you get right down to it, all that far removed from the art of Andy Warhol, or the work of any number of rap/hip-hop acts. Of course Goodman was never aiming for High Art; far from it. These admittedly goofy pieces combine silly “interview” questions with snippets of then-popular songs. And the popularity of Goodman’s little vignettes was pretty long-lasting: his first hit was “The Flying Saucer,” way back in 1956, and like any effective trash culture act, he milked that one as long and as far as he could. But the hits continued well into the 1970s, with “Mr. Jaws” in ’74.

Sadly, my personal favorite, “Energy Crisis ’74” isn’t among the 27 cuts included on Long Live the King. Its format deviated little from what came before (the hits) and after (the somewhat tired, flogging-a-dead-horse non-hits, which fill the second half of this disc), but it was fun, and appealing enough that this then-ten-year-old spent nearly a dollar of his hard-earned allowance on the 45rpm single. (I still have it.)

Goodman’s son Jon pens an informative (if perhaps a bit more reverent than one might like) set of liner notes for this highly unusual Rock Beat release. His “Election 2012” – included here – attempts to revive Dad’s old format, and while all of the elements seem to be in place, it’s just not quite the same. Of course I’m not ten anymore, either. Still, Long Live the King will bring smiles (at least briefly) to the lips of those of a certain age who subsisted on AM radio in their formative years.

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Album Review: Various Artists – Surf Age Nuggets

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Across many traditions, December is the height of the gift-giving season. I’m here to tell you that for the music lover in your life – at least one who appreciates off-the-beaten-path music of days gone by – the perfect gift is now available. It’s called Surf Age Nuggets: Trash & Twang Instrumentals 1959-1966, and title tells you nearly everything you need to know. More than hundred instro-rockers are collected on four CDs, and unless you’re the hardest of hardcore surf-rock aficionados, you won’t know more than a very small handful of these tracks.

Seemingly the choice of what to include on Surf Age Nuggets gave equal weight to two factors: performance/arrangement (though not sonic) quality and relative obscurity. How else to explain that these tracks – most of which were from 45rpm singles and never appeared on any long-player of any sort – are so incredibly obscure. Think of Surf Age Nuggets as the Pebbles of surf-rock. All manner of goofily clichéd band names are here: The Tradewinds, The Sting Rays, The Newport Nomads, The Elite UFO – and the relatively lo-fi production aesthetic (no Phil Spector vibe here) is generally a bit harsh on the ears.

But as a document of stuff-you’ve-never-heard, Surf Age Nuggets is a real gem. While modern-day exponents of the genre (most notably Los Straitjackets, and, briefly The Sadies) do an admirable and invaluable job of keeping the style alive, these kids (and they were most often just that: kids:) twang their Fenders without a trace of irony. Riff-rockers awash in reverb are the order of the day across some five hours of instro-rock on Surf Age Nuggets. If you like this kind of thing, you’ll love this. If you don’t like surf-rock, you’ll have a headache fifteen minutes into the first CD.

If the music were all there was on Surf Age Nuggets, it would be enough. But no: the packaging is amazing. While Rhino pretty well set the standard for lovely compilation packages with its Love is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970 and Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets: 1965-1968, they have since surrendered to what they see as the handwriting on the wall, largely abandoning the lavish packaging format. But Rock Beat has picked up the baton with Surf Age Nuggets. The heavy hardcover book format houses the discs in a user-friendly manner, and the splashy pages inside are a treasure, filled with vintage photography, ads of the era, and liner notes that make the most out of what undoubtedly was generally very spotty historical/discographical information about this delightfully motley collection of no-hit wonders.

Come to think of it, go buy this set for yourself, and tell your friends to get their own.

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Album Review: The Moving Sidewalks – The Complete Collection

Monday, December 10th, 2012

When The Moving Sidewalks are mentioned at all, it’s general in the context of them being a forerunner of ZZ Top (guitarist Billy Gibbons fronted The Moving Sidewalks). But the Texas quartet deserves more than a footnote in some ZZ Top essay; the group’s music is of a piece with other sixties Texas bands of note (Bubble Puppy, 13th Floor Elevators and – I would even argue – Green Fuz.

The Moving Sidewalks folded in many of the familiar trippy/hippie influences of the day: swirling sitars, a bit of studio effects here and there. But at their core they were a hard-charging rock’n'roll band. Though they only released one record (1967′s Flash), and though by the time that LP hit the streets, the group had already folded (or begun its metamorphosis into the very different ZZ Top), their music remains noteworthy.

The group’s bluesy, riffy garage-punk style was showcased on Flash as well as on a clutch of non-LP singles and unreleased alternate takes. The latter – along with five previously-unreleased tracks by The Coachmen (an embryonic version of The Moving Sidewalks) form a second disc in a new package from Rock Beat titled The Complete Collection.

The biggest difference between The Moving Sidewalks and ZZ Top is the former’s reliance on keyboards. There are plenty of gospel-flavored Hammond textures in the group’s slim catalog. “You Don’t Know the Life” is a downtempo number not miles removed from Boz Scaggs‘ cover of Fenton Robinson‘s “Loan Me a Dime.” But that number is contrasted with “Pluto – Sept 31st,” a tracks that mines a vibe very similar to Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s “Fire,” a clear influence. “No Good to Cry” sounds a good bit like early Procol Harum; Gibbons’ guitar tone and finger style is reminiscent of Robin Trower’s approach. This may be pure coincidence; Procol Harum recorded their debut LP in June ’67, so it’s unlikely – though not inconceivable — that Gibbons and his bandmates heard the British band’s music.

The Hendrix influence pops up again on “Eclipse,” a snaky number that bears traces of Axis: Bold as Love‘s “EXP.” The tune gets weirder and further out the more it unfolds; it’s exceedingly unlikely this cut was ever part of the band’s live repertoire. “Reclipse” is even stranger, and in places suggests Frank Zappa‘s Lumpy Gravy.

The Moving Sidewalks seem to have been a relatively democratic outfit: though Gibbons had a hand in the composition of six of Flash‘s ten tracks, keyboardist Tom Moore wrote two of the songs, and an extended blues is credited to all four members. (Producer Steve Ames gets partial credit on nearly half of the cuts as well).

As it turns out, Hendrix himself does crop up in the Moving Sidewalks’ relatively brief story; the Texans opened for the Experience on some gigs, and – according to the delightfully detailed liner note essay by Bill Bentley – the two groups got on quite well.

The tracks on the bonus disc often sound like the work of a wholly different band, even when they’re not. Whiny combo organ is the highlight of the non-LP single “99th Floor,” a legendary garage nugget/classic. Some tasty guitar dialogue enlivens this treasure, which sounds much more like Roky Erickson‘s 13th Floor Elevators than anything on Flash. (Two demo versions of the song from 1966 by The Coachmen are included as well; they’re interesting, but pale in comparison to the released version.) The other non-LP tracks sport a harder, punkier edge as well; those tracks would sound right at home on a Pebbles compilation. Three takes of The Beatles‘ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” pretty much reinvent the tune as a heavy rocker; think of what Vanilla Fudge might’ve done with the song, remove all the pretentious trappings they’d apply, and what you’re left with is something like The Moving Sidewalks’ version.

In addition to putting together a sonically brilliant package – no small feat for relatively obscure music from more than 45 years ago – Rock Beat has applied great attention to detail to the box set. A pair of LP sleeve replicas hold the discs, and a fifty-plus page, CD-sized booklet is chock-full of photos, memorabilia and the essential essay. (Be sure to check out the photos of Sidewalks bassist Don Summers for proof that he invented Robert Smith‘s hairdo.) The whole thing comes in a sturdy pink box. With the release of Moving Sidewalks: The Complete Collection and the various-artists Surf Age Nuggets: Trash & Twang Instrumentals 1959-1966 (reviewed separately), Rock Beat is staking a claim as the rightful successor to Rhino when it comes to thoughtful box sets.

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CD Review: The Blasters – Live 1986

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Over the years, rootsy rock has had its moments on the cultural landscape. Every so often, it seems – typically when rock or pop music veers more than usual toward vapidity and lack of substance – some musicians take a look backward for inspiration, coming up with something exciting and compelling in the process.

Of course, that’s not at all true: there are always artists mining the past for influences; it’s simply that on occasion the marketplace (or the powers-that-be) decide – if briefly — to take notice.

The Stray Cats were as good as any an example of this dynamic at work. The trio took a retro approach – both visually and sonically — and subtly updated it for modern audiences. They were rewarded with a string of hits, and they rode the crest of popularity until the wave smoothed back out.

The Blasters were less stylized, but drank from a similar well of inspiration. Their brand of rock was fueled by the harder-edged end of their historical antecedents, and instead of applying a rockabilly sheen, the Blasters leaned in the direction of country and western sounds. But they did so in a way that delivered a wallop. Paving the way for future bands trading loosely in that style, the Blasters influenced acts like The Long Ryders, BoDeans, and (later) Old 97s, to name just three of many.

In possession of a less-than-accurate picture ID, I tiptoed into Atlanta’s Agora Ballroom in the very early 1980s to witness a Blasters show.  I found them raw, powerful and aggressive: they delivered a countrified sound with all of the punch of punk groups. In those days the group wasn’t especially well-known in our part of the country; I vaguely recall that they might have even been someone else’s opening act. But they delivered.

A few years later – admittedly, after I had lost track of the band — the group released its fourth album, 1985’s Hard Line. As is the case with many groups at a certain point in their career, that record represented something of a rethinking of the group’s approach. Though their previous efforts had expanded the sonic core to include additional instrumentation, Hard Line was more akin to a Blasters version of The BeatlesGet Back project: stripped-down rock and roll. Though it charted respectably (peaking at #86 on Billboard’s charts), it would be the final release from the band’s original era.

Co-founders and brothers Phil and Dave Alvin played some of their final shows together under the Blasters banner on St. Valentine’s Day 1986 in San Juan Capistrano CA. Tapes were rolling, and now – more than a quarter-century later – one of that night’s performances has been released on Rockbeat. Though unimaginatively titled, Live 1986 documents the onstage power of The Blasters.

Sounding very much like a monitor mix, Live 1986 presents Phil Alvin’s growling vocals way out front in the mix. The sound is clean and clear, but lacks the live ambience one usually finds on good live albums. Production-wise the album sounds very much of its era. Perversely, a bit of feedback now and then adds to the recording’s authenticity. In total, Live 1986 sounds a lot like the sort of 1980s mixing board tapes that have long circulated among rock fiends.

The set list on this night leans more toward Dave Alvin’s original compositions (Dave wrote ‘em, and Phil sang ‘em, y’see), but listeners unfamiliar with the Blasters catalog will have a hard time spotting which songs are Blasters originals (often sounding themselves like rethought versions of classic old songs) and which are actually well-chosen nuggets from rock’s early days. The most well-known song on the set list is a fine reading of “Mystery Train.”

Packaging on the disc is minimal: a bit of Photoshopped stock images, a press kit photo of the ‘85/’86 lineup for a cover, and a seemingly hastily-written liner note. The same level of quality control applied to the tapes (produced for this release by the Alvin brothers and liner note-writer James Austin) was not applied to the packaging: the spine credits the album to The Blaster (sic). Skip the liner notes, ignore the typos and enjoy the music.

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DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION:
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.