Off The Beaten Track: Music Reviews & Musings by Mary Leary
ALL THE BLUES THAT’RE FIT TO PRINT + ONE OF THE YEAR’S BEST ROCK RELEASES
Dead Confederate – Sugar (Old Flame) ( & at The Belly Up on September 1)
Savoy Brown – Shake Down (Deram & Decca/vinyl; Polygram & Dorset/CD)
This Is The Blues – Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4 (Eagle Rock)
Far as I’m concerned, Dead Confederate might as well be a bevy of magicians. Like any artists who’ve ever emerged as from a puff of smoke, prompting a “Wow;” a dropped jaw; they’ve plunged a needle into an essential pulse. But their biggest trick is re-engaging my interest in topics seemingly so self-absorbed and irrelevant; so drained of life, nothing fresh or new could be gleaned from their remains. In other words, this sophomore effort frequently finds DC with its shorts in a wad over l’amour.
Maybe it’s fair to add that I’m not sure how many other rockers fill recreational reading with articles about how in the world Obama is going to yield any results, or the Democrats are going to maintain any grip on power, given the byzantine network of corruption, polarization, and general ennui in which the president landed. Other people may not be as interested as I in literature on metaphysical/scientific junctures. And other people may not as bored with 200,000,000,000 minstrels offering their spin around ad infinitum experiences d’amour.
It can be argued that popular music is often geared toward entertainment — escape and/or fantasy. God knows, I’m not immune to vehicles offering release, comfort, and/or laughs (although I can be a bit tough to please: Captain Beefheart, and John Cage tend to make me crow with amusement). But there’s something amazing about less sophisticated work that manages to merge telling insights or feelings with coral dredged from the changing currents of spontaneous creation. Blasting the Pixies’ Trompe Le Monde and Weezer’s Pinkerton in my car helped dig the path away from a troubled relationship. I was relating to the emotions as much as to any messages, but the essential element was this: Whatever I was hearing wasn’t afraid to parade naked in the street. And that goes to why I’m jazzed about Sugar. Most of the songs seem to be about the “war” of falling in love, getting dumped, and the even more interesting (Freud might prick up his ears) war that Hardy Morris relates via “In The Dark”: “Way down/In the darkness/I’m the one who has been clawing/In the life of a monster in the dark/Buried deep and scared of you/ Burdened by his mighty tooth and jagged claw”.
Not the stuff of most love/sex/eros songs, is it? But I could relate. And then there’s “Quiet Kid:” “I was the quiet kid/Never could get enough/Of oxygen/Choking on boredom’s gun/Had daydreams/Dark as a swollen cut/Would’ve killed you/But the time ran up.”
I wouldn’t be prattling on like a music geek (well, maybe) if the sounds on this sophomore effort didn’t arrive like (mostly very loud) guests for whom dinner’s always warm in the oven. To wit: “In The Dark:” Restlessly circling B-52s—er, guitars, and a chunky rhythmic gumbo flow into a vocal refrain channeling Kurt Cobain’s irresistible angst and Kim Gordon’s strut ‘n’ cheek. Phew. Like I’m already Googling the tour schedule before the track’s halfway spent… before the second song reveals itself as the one Exile fans have been awaiting, lo these many years, in “Run from the Gun.” Yeah, the bridge bears some resemblance to less remarkable alt-country-whatever, but whenever the raggedy Jagger/Richards harmonies kick in, the jury’s also in with the f—kin’ verdict, and it’s “Do you need a ride to those moonlit assignations with shape-shifting muses?”
This is less mesmerizing than the recording, but at this point I imagine you want something – I would.
The shape-shifting muses come into play when I can’t tell if the narrator of “Run” is a soldier, a kid who’s been dumped, a songwriter with a great imagination, or some of all of the above.
The air’s already so electric that when “Father Figure” meanders some, momentarily sounding as vague and orchestral as a bunch of inferior contemporary c…p before hitting its sweet spot, there’s no worrying. Then “Quiet Kid” slams into the kind of thrash ‘n’ grunge pile-up occupying the wet dreams of Dinosaur, Jr., Gumball, and Sonic Youth fans (interestingly, all these band have involved Georgia-born musician/producer Don Fleming). In fact, the track finds DC diving straight into the kind of gorgeous chaos with which SY blazed a trail.
So damned good… that it doesn’t matter if the refrain on “In The Dark” sounds a lot like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – hey, we all have our reference/starting points. Sugar is still a couple of light years beyond earlier, more Nirvana/SY-imitative sqwacks, which still rawked like crazee:
DC throws in a couple of breath-catching interludes before jumping back into the volcano, which re-erupts on “Mob Scene” and creates a new paint-by-percussion template via “Semi-Thought.” The title track doesn’t just charge into the deepest of SY-bloodied frays; it manages to conjure some of John Lennon’s piercing anguish. Man, will Southerners never get over that war? Well, I’ve lived there… it’s complicated.
As a very young person, I got the blues. By the time I was nine, my parents had accepted my obsession with Rock and other “youth-oriented” music. When I was 11, my Navy officer dad arrived home from a tour including a British Isles leave with some curious booty: a Blues Magoos record and Savoy Brown’s Shake Down. I was ignorant of any controversy or guilt shadowing white Blues interpreters. I didn’t realize it might be unusual for a preadolescent girl to be blasting Kim Simmond’s piercing electric tones. But I was familiar enough with being new in school, and being torn from friends just as the ice cream truck was arriving, to recognize loneliness and despair. I was struck by SB’s sinewy grind through “I Ain’t Superstitious,” the deeply atmospheric “Black Night,” and the urgency of “Shake ‘Em on Down.”
Since SB’s first line-up featured a black vocalist (Bryce Portius) and drummer (Leo Manning), planted in front of the other members on the Shake Down cover, it seemed like just about the coolest thing in the world. Although we were back in Virginia, my family had for about eight years lived in Charleston, South Carolina, where integration was even less… integrated. I’d witnessed a lot of poverty and degradation and been surprised by white friends who hated African Americans. I didn’t tell them I’d learned to dance (maybe a cliché; but true) with African American kids down the street and befriended the lone black girl in my fifth grade classroom. I didn’t know Savoy Brown was among the first integrated ensembles to grace London clubs. But I was moved by what I heard and saw.
There’s no story around getting the original Fleetwood Mac; I can’t exactly remember. I know I heard Santana’s version of “Black Magic Woman” before the original gave me chills. I floated in the ether with Mystery to Me (by Mac’s third or fourth grouping), and can’t imagine experiencing “Hypnotized” or “Emerald Eyes” any other way. By my late 20s I had at least five Mac records. As much as through anything you can swallow or smoke, I swear my vision was enlarged via Then Play On and various tracks, including “The Green Manalishi with the Two Prong Crown” (released as a single; later included on many collections), “Albatross,” and several by Danny Kirwan, including “Dragonfly.” The only John Mayall disc, A Hard Road, in my collection is there for Green’s pre-Mac originals, “The Supernatural” and “The Same Way.” And FM brought a rare combination of warmth and immediacy to the standards (this one’s by Alberta Perkins, Dave Clark, and Otis Rush) that helped it finds its way:
I’m aware of no musician (usually Brits, who embraced seminal Blues earlier, and more, than any other group) purported to feel more guilt and conflict over using the work of the original blues artists than Peter Green, a dilemma that seems an obvious motivator behind his quests for transcendence and purification. Still, slavish devotion to the form, along with a need to somehow prove themselves, colored many British players, eventually sparking rifts between the latter and those who started using their own material, taking liberties with originals, and generally, as bands were told to do at the Star Club in Hamburg, “mak(ing) show.” Green, and Free’s Paul Kossoff, were uncommonly troubled by making it big with, and/or twisting, the form. Kossoff’s addictive tendencies were fueled, destroying him by the age of 25. Green quit Mac and kinda lost it; that’s a whole ‘nother story, but it’s generally agreed he shambled away from a once-in-an-eon symbiosis with the Mick Fleetwood/John McVie rhythm monster and the incandescent sensibilities of co-guitarist/vocalist/writer Danny Kirwan. And, yes, he did eventually return to music, although very little has approached his work with FM.
I’ve chatted about FM before, and probably will again: this is basically in the way of explaining that “Can’t touch that” is my reflex reaction to the idea of anyone going near the band’s incendiary work. Yet recreation of Green’s music is a frequent focal point for the sprawling, four-album comp., This Is The Blues (some of which was previously offered on Rattlesnake Guitar: The Music of Peter Green). John Lee Hooker also provides fodder, with tracks recorded for From Clarksdale to To Heaven: Remembering John Lee Hooker. This Is The Blues is jammed with big, primarily British blues sparklers, including a lot of ‘60s-era Mac colleagues and contemporaries. Only the cream of the sparklers, with a few offerings that are simply interesting, will be noted here. (Note to reader: please take into account my tendency to nod out to slow blues unless it’s done with a certain intensity and/or verve.)
Volume One’s mostly devoted to careful Chicago-style shuffles, and ballads. Jeff Beck throws some six-string railroad percussion behind Earl Green’s earthy vocals on “Hobo Blues.” Guitarists Vince Converse and Innes Sibun harness some of Mac’s original “Rattlesnake Shake” menace, although the arrangement’s much more casual than Mac’s sizzling original; and I’m not crazy ‘bout the vocal. Savoy Brown’s Kim Simmonds plays some juicy bottleneck gee-tr on his own “Going Down to Mobile.” Gary Moore and Jack Bruce take a tingling stroll through John Lee Hooker’s “I’m in the Mood.” Groundhogs alum. Tony McPhee does some movin’ and shakin’ with the acoustic country blues of Sleepy John Estes’s “Drop Down Mama.” Mick Jagger’s harp helps draw a “Sweet Virginia”-ish glow around “Racketeer Blues.”
Volume Two can’t help but get my antennae wiggling by starting with the late Rory Gallagher, whose vocals, mandolin, and electric guitar on Green’s “Leaving Town Blues” are so arresting (as always) – why, it’s an entirely different animal – in a very good way.
Jack Bruce maintains the buzz with the jump blues of “Send For Me.” Volume Two also includes John Lee Hooker breaking into his own “Red House.” Bob Tench combines an alluring vocal and sweet guitar for the melodic “Watcha Gonna Do.” Kim Simmonds is typically on-the-nose for a cool-toned roll through Green’s “Stop Messin’ Round.” Green’s relaxing “Albatross” isn’t harmed by Tench’s able single-note stretching and Paul Jones’s harp.
Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Nine below Zero” gets a bracing dollop of harder stuff from two of Gallagher’s running mates. Tony McPhee adds vim to the late Dick Heckstall-Smith’s sax vigor on Hooker’s “I’m Leaving.”
Peter Green and Nigel Watson open Volume Three with a measured take on Hooker’s “Crawlin’ King Snake.” (Lonesome) Dave Peverett’s vocals steer an energetic, rather overwrought reading of Green’s “If You Be My Baby.” I’d rather imagine the Clint Eastwood Western that would be well served by Vince Converse’s intense narration of Hooker’s “Bad like Jesse James.” A lengthy “Little Red Rooster” (Willie Dixon) gives Kim Simmonds lots of room to stretch. Along with Humble Pie alum. Clem Clempson’s strident chording on “I’ve Got News for You, it brings back the howls that would greet such dramatics at Dan Lynch, a NYC blues dive I used to frequent. Rory Gallagher’s roars and restless slide pyrotechnics more than justify this remake of Green’s “Showbiz Blues.” Mick Abraham’s sprightly read of Green’s “The Same Way” also earns an honest paycheck. Guitarist Clas Yngstrom’s beautiful reach and resonance lay effective homage at the feet of Green’s “The Supernatural.”
There’s plenty to dig on Volume Four, starting with Mick Taylor and Max Middleton’s perfect balance of vim and restraint on Hooker’s sunny “This Is Hip.” The Pretty Things have a romp with “Judgment Day.” Snowy White’s guitar/vocal tones help Green’s “Looking for Somebody” reach a sublime peak. Vocals and axe-mastery from Troy Turner and Ray Gomez lend sexy swagger to Green’s “Lazy Poker Blues.” Original Yardbirds guitarist Top Topham joins ‘birds drummer/vocalist Jim McCarty for a nice reading of Green’s “Drifting.” I want to pour some gravy over Mark Doyle’s crystalline guitar work on Green’s “A Fool No More,” which is already seasoned by Kim Lembo’s vocals. Georgie Fame recreates the jazzy coloring that appeared in some of the most elegant ’60 Brit. blues with Mose Allison’s “If You Live.” Miller Anderson’s solo guitar and vocal bring coffeehouse intensity to “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Although we’ve been focusing on standouts, anyone who’s into this stuff is likely to wonder how Green’s “Manalishi” and “Oh Well” fare here. (Crazy) Arthur Brown imbues “Manalishi” with the vocal excesses I usually associate with substandard metal bands, and the arrangement is miles from the original’s breathtaking dynamics. “Oh Well” fares rather better. Although it doesn’t quite echo the stunning percussion (by Mick Fleetwood) that helped propel Mac’s version into halcyon status, Billy Sheehan, Roy Z., Greg Bissonette and Tommy Mandel (on the organ, which you can barely hear, thank God) do the piece some justice when they can contain their excitement at being in such august territory.
Anyone who knows Green-with-Mac’s “Man of the World” may be startled by Ian Anderson’s father flowery arrangement, which comes across like a memorial offering by an aging banker. At first I was appalled by Anderson’s detached delivery of “I just wish I’d never been born,” a line Green yanked up from the depths of despair. The way that moves to the seemingly effortless, inevitable embrace of the bridge – well, it’s something to hear, and as fitting as any testament to Green’s near-psychic grasp of a sort of ethereal grail. The appropriately youthful tagline – “And how I wish I was in love” – seals its humble affect. Partly due to Green’s songwriting (no, I don’t want to hear Nick Winters doing it, thanks), Anderson’s ballsy treatment—which, after all, may have seemed the only choice; he didn’t want to come off like Nick Winters) ends up being one of my TITB favorites.
Till we meet again, my little ducks ‘n’ dish-scrubbers.